In August 1870, the French Imperial Army suffered a series of defeats against the coalition German forces. Whilst the Lorraine army was trapped at Metz, another army reformed at the camp in Châlons to go to their aid. Accompanied by Emperor Napoleon III, this army crossed the Ardennes, with two German armies in pursuit. On 1st September, they found themselves cornered in the hollow at Sedan, and were forced into battle there. Their position allowed them no scope for manoeuvre, and they soon found themselves surrounded and under fire from 400 canons. They surrendered on the morning of 2nd September.
This event caused quite a stir.
The capture of the Emperor and his ensuing captivity caused the regime to fall and the republic to be proclaimed. Napolean III became known as “the man of Sedan”.
For France, the Sedan defeat was symbolic of disaster and weakened the heroic image of the harbour soldiers in Bazeilles and the hunters of Africa in Floing. In Germany, meanwhile, the battle of Sedan was celebrated as a founding victory of unification of the country. For the Ardennes, defeat at Sedan led to German occupation of the territory, an occupation that lasted well after the armistice has been signed in January 1871. The department remained occupied as a pledge until the war indemnity has been paid and was only liberated in July 1873.
The 14-18 war
In August 1914, the Ardennes was once again subjected to the shock of war. After the failure of various battles on the border, the retreating French army engaged in a series of battles that aimed to slow the advance of the German armies, particularly in the Sedan and Signy-L’Abbaye regions. The German invasion was accompanied by significant destruction and exaction in terms of the civilian population. At the beginning of September, the Battle of Marne resulted in the failure of the German plan. The Front stabilised and become a battle fought in the trenches. 13 departments, including the whole of the Ardennes department, were occupied for the total duration of the war.
The highest German authorities based themselves in the Ardennes until 1916, Emperor Wilhelm II in Charleville and the main HQ in Mézières.
Everything was in a state of war. Subjected to the allied blockade, Germany exploited all available resources in the occupied territory to further its war effort. The Ardennes did not escape this process. The area was entirely integrated into the trench system. Close to the Front line, these trenches were used as a rear-front by German troops and increasingly served as encampments, stores, hospitals…
In November 1918, whilst the armistice negotiations were underway, a final push was launched in the Vrigne-Meuse area, which is where the last soldiers of the war fell, including Augustin Trébuchon, killed on the 11th November just minutes before the ceasefire.
The 39-45 war
In May 1940, the Ardennes was at the heart of the French campaign. The German army carried out the main blow of its attack in the centre of the Front, which was considered as weak point in the allied structure, through the Ardennes. The Front line was penetrated along the line of the Meuse, at Sedan, Monthermé and Dinant. This breach enabled armoured German divisions to extend towards the west. They made rapid progress, causing a massive exodus of the civilian population.
A final attempt at recovery was attempted in June on the Somme and Aisne lines. General de Lattre de Tassigny organized the defense in the region of Rethel but could not prevent the breakthrough which had spread over the entire length of the front. German troops deployed to the south of the country.
The armistice was signed on 22nd June 1940.
The armistice clauses divided France into several different zones. Most of the Ardennes found itself in the forbidden zone, which initially prevented the return of its inhabitants.
Once again, the population of the Ardennes found itself obliged to participate in the German war effort. More than 100,000 hectares of land were confiscated from farmers and put to use for the benefit of the WOL.
As with other occupied populations, they were subject to the difficulties of daily life and the department did not remain untouched by resistance and collaboration movements for long. It also suffered the deportation of its Jewish population.
In 1944, whilst the Red Army advanced to the east, the Allies landed in Normandy and Provence. The march towards Berlin had commenced. France was progressively liberated, with the Ardennes liberated in August 1944. Germany surrendered on 8th May 1945 and Japan on 2nd September.
Three times over, the story of the Ardennes region has become entwined with that of History. The area’s legitimacy, or one could even say, need to ensure remembrance, led the departmental council to undertake the redevelopment of the Guerre et Paix en Ardennes Museum, to enable it to meet the challenges of an important museum in the 21st century.