A famous caricature by Honoré Daumier showed a spiked helmet crushing the immense citadel of Sedan. It was the disaster of the French army trapped by a coalition of German states – including many Bavarian soldiers – on September 1, 1870, which would sound the death knell of the Second Empire three days later and allow the proclamation of the Third Republic. The strategic wanderings of Mac Mahon, the delays, the hesitations gave the final blow to a France already weakened by Bazaine's decision to lock itself in Metz.
Napoleon III, whose presence the enemy was unaware of in the town of Sedan, then came out of the woods, offered himself as a prisoner and went to sign an unconditional capitulation in the Château de Bellevue, very close to Sedan.
It is this immense Sedan citadel that the French have just elected in 2023 as their favorite monument in Stéphane Bern's show. A historically surprising choice as the location is associated with three major French defeats against Germany, in 1870, but also in 1914 and 1940.
After the capitulation of 1870, the surroundings of Sedan were even transformed into a huge improvised prison camp on the Iges peninsula for more than 80,000 mistreated French soldiers, several thousand of them losing their lives during the month from the fall of 1870 in this “misery camp.” An episode once widely reported by French newspapers but has now been forgotten.
Although France had dismantled the network of these unlucky walls, in August 1914, the capture of Sedan and its castle by the Germans sanctioned a catastrophic start to the war for the allies. This “Battle of the Bulge”, marked by the highest losses ever recorded by the French army in its history – more than 20,000 deaths per day in Belgium – will be the prelude to the German offensive towards the Marne.
The citadel, in German hands until 1918, became a place of detention for French soldiers, at the same time as a place of training at the rear for young German officers, notably a certain Heinz Guderian, who acquired thus a perfect knowledge of the terrain and surroundings, 25 years later, very useful for organizing the fateful days of May 1940 and the Wehrmacht's yellow plan.
The offensive launched towards Sedan on May 10, 1940 will be the symbol of the strategic impasse of the French who considered the Ardennes impassable by the armored vehicles of the Wehrmacht. No work of the Maginot Line defends France at this point and the high command is convinced that on May 10, the attack on Sedan, although shelled by a terrible aerial bombardment, is a decoy, that the bulk of the offensive German will be worn elsewhere.
A fatal error. What will go down in history as “the Sedan breakthrough” shatters the Allied system on May 14. The error can no longer be corrected. Belote, rebelote and ten de der for the “Boches”. André Dhôtel had consecrated the Ardennes as a literary myth in his masterpiece, the country where you never arrive. Sedan, and its military citadel, is the city where you never win. There is a Sedan fatality, a recurrence of failure. Sedan bears the triple mourning of France. It definitively becomes synonymous with hell, the road to invasion, the Achilles heel and the fatal disaster for the country.
However, it is this place, certainly impressive, majestic, immense, with its 35,000 square meters of rooms which overlook the Meuse, that French viewers remembered. Should we see this as a tribute to all these deaths, beyond the military results? A need, in European times, almost 80 years after the last conflict, to definitively turn the page on the war with the hereditary enemy, even if it means embracing this modern Alésia? A desire to distinguish a site which has taken the turn of historical tourism just a stone's throw from the magnificent Ardennes forest? Is this a symptom of this tourism that takes precedence over History itself?
The fact remains that the places have a past, traced within the citadel, and that this plebiscite almost amounts to choosing a Waterloo of stone or a Trafalgar of the forests.
If we wanted to go back in time, we could also notice that this citadel, located for a long time straddling French and Germanic lands, hence its strategic location, was at the end of the reign of Louis XIII the heart of sedition of the great ones of the kingdom against Paris. It was in this citadel that the trap hatched by the Count of Soissons and the Prince of Bouillon, brother of Marshal Turenne, lord of the principality of Sedan, was designed to lure the French to the neighboring Marfée plateau. They will manage to inflict on their compatriots a dramatic defeat for the royal power, which until then had never been defeated by the Spaniards, the enemy at the time.
Certainly, it was the revenge of Louis XIII, who a year later managed to storm the citadel of Sedan, which marked his coming into line and the definitive entry of the principality into the French fold. But we doubt that it was this episode which dictated the television choice of the French.