Isn’t it true that we weren’t cowards at Sedan?Last words of Napoleon III on his death bed (1872)
Sedan is a city in the northeast of France just across the border from Bouillon, Belgium. Several times over the years I have looked curiously at the name on the map wondering if it was worth the diversion during my past trips to Bouillon.
Sedan became a city that gave off the faintest of signals from the nether regions of my subconscience every time I would see it’s name. Somewhere in all the history books, travel guides, and documentaries that have fed my eyes and ears with information, the name Sedan managed to sneak into the unreachable places of the mind. It was like recognizing someone but not recognizing them. The inevitable conclusion was that it must have some historical significance or my brain wouldn’t be behaving that way.
Last November, I decided to finally respond to those faint signals and take the plunge. A plunge, unfortunately, into one of the not-so-bright moments in French history.
Sedan is dominated by what is supposedly the largest fortified castle in all of Europe. It was built by the la Marck family in the early 1400’s. The same la Marck family that also came into ownership of the Bouillon castle just sixteen kilometers away. With such an impressive fortification, one would expect to be regaled with great stories of the defense of the French frontier. But Sedan makes it’s big entrance in the halls of world history in a much less impressive way.
On July 19, 1870, Emperor Louis Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew, declared war on Prussia for having the audacity of trying to put a Prussian on the throne of Spain and expanding Prussian influence on the European continent. Despite Prussia withdrawing their candidate, the French empire invaded anyway. At that time, Germany was still made up of separate states, with Prussia being the most dominant. Any threat of German unification or expansion was a torment to the French. Napoleon III and the French army crossed the German border on August 2 at Saarbrucken and the French rout was on…
…except what really happened was a downright German butt-kicking. The French lost one battle after another and had no answer for German artillery. By September 1, Napoleon III had been pushed back 200km to Sedan where he found himself surrounded. After riding around on his horse out in the open hoping to be martyred by a bullet or artillery shrapnel, he was forced into a humiliating surrender on the morning of September 2, exactly one month from entering Germany.
What made it even more humiliating was that back in Paris, the government renounced Napoleon III and the empire and declared itself a Republic. Meanwhile Napoleon III was detained for a night in the Hotel de la Poste in Bouillon, Belgium, a one-night stand still proudly advertised, before being shipped off to Germany. While this changed the political direction of France, it had no impact on the tides of the war. Eventually Paris was surrounded and sieged. On January 28, 1871, with Paris starving and under constant shelling, France finally surrendered.
It didn’t get any better in World Wars I and II, as the Germans completed a trifecta of victories at Sedan.
As I set out on a hike from the castle to the surrounding countryside, I couldn’t help but picture Sedan as this shy, lonely kid sitting by themselves in the schoolyard, just trying to remain inconspicuous from the local bully. Even a French tourism website seems apologetic about Sedan.
It is true that there are less attractions in the region around Sedan than in certain parts of France, but you will appreciate a visit to the nearby town of Charleville-Mezieres, to see one of the most attractive town squares in France.www.francethisway.com
Less attractions, perhaps. No brewery, not to my knowledge. But historically intriguing nonetheless. This hike introduced me to a part of European history that I had missed. A history that was still fresh and ominous in this 1908 book:
The last occasion on which any part of Belgium, so long the ‘Cockpit of Europe,’ had a glimpse of war was in the autumn of 1870. The battle of Sedan had been fought within a few miles from the southern slopes of the Ardennes, and during September 3, thousands of wounded men and prisoners from the beaten army were crowded in Boullion…
Even now the shadow of a possible war overhangs this part of Europe…Belgium by G.W.T. Omond (1908)
|Starting Point||Sedan Castle|
|Eating Place||Only in Sedan|
It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey
The main target of the hike is the Point de vue de la Marfee, a strategic highpoint overlooking Sedan which was captured all three times by the Germans in 1870, 1914, and 1940. The hike to that point was a scenic, but often muddy ascent in November.
Finally the viewpoint.
At the Point de vue de la Marfee is a sign directing ones attention towards the Meuse River valley and Wallonia in Belgium. Here we cross paths once again with the legend which I have now encountered on so many occasions during my explorations. The Fours Sons of Aymon.
The sign, faded by weather and age, reads:
Here wander the shadows of Reynaud the knight, of Bayard the horse, of Maugis the enchanter, of fairies and <illegible>.Information sign at Point de vue de la Marfee
Adjacent to the viewpoint is a German military cemetery containing almost 27,000 soldiers from World War I and II.
The name of the cemetery and neighboring town contain the name Maugis who was the enchanter in The Four Sons of Aymon legend who created the magic horse Bayard. I am really awestruck with how influential this legend has been to the Meuse River valley from Liege, Belgium to Sedan, France and beyond.
Passing thru the small village, you can almost feel the vibes of a place happy to have peace and quiet.
After a 10 mile hike, it was time for some beer. I didn’t find any breweries in the city center but the coolest place to enjoy a beer seemed to be the Du Roy de la Biere. Here you can sample the Cuvee du Roy house beer.
After the beer and the onset of the inevitable beer buzz, it is a good time to visit the castle and the Cafe La Marck.
By the time me and my beer buzz stood in awe at the Sedan castle interior, my brain was racing circles around the history of this region. I am neither intending to side with either the French or the Germans in this post but to appreciate the discovery of a part of history that was practically in my backyard that I was completely unaware of until I reached the Point de vue de la Marfee. Then to find yet another thread of the Four Sons of Aymon legend was icing on the cake. When I returned home, I immersed myself in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and realized that I missed a copious amount of interesting sites related to it, including the location of the world’s first battle photograph. Yes, it was at the Battle of Sedan in 1870. It would be suboptimal not to book a room at the Golden Lion Bed & Breakfast in Bouillon and stuff myself full of their amazing breakfasts right before a couple more adventures into a battle which brought down the latest incarnation of the French Empire, re-established the French Republic, and at the same time helped create what Napoleon III was trying to prevent from happening in the first place… the German Empire. Unfortunately for Belgium, the worst was yet to come.
La 08 Tripel
Brewery: La Petite Brasserie Ardennaise
Location: Ardwen, France