Saturday, September 2, 2006

V-J Day, Sedantag

Good morning ! Hope everybody has a great holiday weekend. Posting is apt to be light to non-existant this weekend, although I will have an opportunity to put in some work on a couple of still half-baked projects.
For the historically-minded, today is V-J Day, "Victory over Japan" day: the anniversary of Japan's formal surrender in Tokyo Bay, on board battleship USS Missouri. If you are fortunate enough to visit Hawaii, you may tour Missouri, unfortunately out of commission (the battleships were highly useful) and now preserved as a memorial.
V-J Day is relatively well-known, but I'm going to be unconventional, and note the anniversary of another surrender. Today is Sedantag ("Sedan Day"), one of the great patriotic holidays of the German Second Reich, commerating the surrender of Emperor Napoléon III and 90,000 surrounded French troops to the Royal Prussian armies at Sedan, France. His army surrounded and defeated on the 1st, the Emperor had no alternative but to put up the white flag.
The French request for a cease-fire was surely one of the more dramatic scenes of the 19th Century, that proceeded in the full view of much of both armies. One witness was US General Philip Sheridan, of Civil War fame (burner of the Shenandoah Valley) -- guest of King Wilhelm of Prussia, and traveling with the Prussian armies as a military observer.
In any case, at sunset on the 1st, after a long day in which the French had tried to fight their way out of the Prussian encirclement: the Prussians noticed white flags flying from the city fortifications. The firing slowly died away, and, eventually, out from the town rode the designated parlementaire under a white flag: a full general and officer of the Imperial suite, bearing to Prussian headquarters on the heights of Frénois what Michael Howard called "...not the least of the title-deeds of the Second German Reich." The Emperor's letter to King Wilhelm read:

Monsieur Mon Frere,

As I am unable to find death at the head of my troops, it remains only to place my sword into the hands of your Majesty. I am your Majesty's good brother.


The French troops piled arms and formally surrendered the next morning, 2nd September 1870. I cannot imagine what it would emotionally cost a man, bearing that name, and that sort of responsibility, to write that note. The Emperor had indeed tried hard to die on the 1st of September, when it became apparent that all was lost. Napoléon III, in many ways a more sympathetic man than his far greater uncle, was condemned to live three years more.
The Germans made the anniversary a holiday, commerating their great victory annually until the fall of the Kaiserreich. The memory of Sedan, humiliating for France, was perhaps dangerous for Germany: the Germans became convinced that Sedan could always be repeated, with disastrous results in 1914. Still, for France, Sedan is a place of singularly ill-omen: it was the site of yet another French military disaster in 1940.

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