Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 2, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
At last the plan of campaign of the Prussians begins to emerge from the dark. It will be recollected that, although immense transports of troops have taken place on the right bank of the Rhine, from the east towards the west and south-west, very little was heard of concentrations in the immediate vicinity of the menaced frontier. The fortresses received strong reinforcements from the nearest troops. At Saarbrücken, 500 men of the 40th Infantry and three squadrons of the 7th Lancers (both 8th Corps) skirmished with the enemy; Bavarian Chasseurs and Baden dragoons continued the line of outposts to the Rhine. But no large masses of troops appear to have been placed immediately in rear of this curtain formed by a few light troops. Artillery had never been mentioned in any of the skirmishes. Trèves was quite empty of troops. On the other hand, we heard of large masses on the Belgian frontier; of 30,000 cavalry about Cologne (where the whole country on the left bank of the Rhine, to near Aix-la-Chapelle, abounds in forage); of 70,000 men before Mayence. All this seemed strange; it looked like an almost culpable distribution of troops, contrasted with the close concentration of the French within a couple of hours’ march of the frontier. All at once, a few indications drop in from different quarters which seem to dispel the mystery.
The correspondent of the Temps, who had ventured as far as Trèves, witnessed on the 25th and 26th the passage of a large body of troops of all arms through that city towards the line of the Saar. The weak garrison of Saarbrücken was considerably reinforced about the same time, probably from Coblenz, the head-quarters of the 8th Corps. The troops passing through Trèves must have belonged to some other corps, coming from the north across the Eifel. Finally, from a private source we learn that the 7th Army Corps on the 27th was on its march from Aix-la-Chapelle, by Trèves, to the frontier.
Here, then, we have at least three army corps, or about 100,000 men, thrown on the line of the Saar. Two of these are the 7th and 8th, both forming part of the Army of the North under General Steinmetz (7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th corps). We may pretty safely assume that the whole of this army is by this time concentrated between Sarrebourg and Saarbrücken. If the 30,000 cavalry (more or less) were really in the neighbourhood of Cologne, they too must have marched across the Eifel and the Moselle towards the Saar. The whole of these dispositions would indicate that the main attack of the Germans will be made with their right wing, through the space between Metz and Saarlouis, towards the upper Nied valley. If the reserve cavalry has gone that way, this becomes a certainty.
This plan presupposes the concentration of the whole German army between the Vosges and the Moselle. The Army of the Centre (Prince Frederick Charles, with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 12th corps) would have to take up a position either adjoining the left flank of Steinmetz or behind him as a reserve. The Army of the South (the Crown Prince, with the 5th Corps, the Guards, and the South Germans) would form the left wing, somewhere about Zweibrücken. As to where all these troops are, and how they are to be transported to their positions, we know nothing. We only know that the 3rd Army Corps began passing through Cologne southwards by the railway on the left bank of the Rhine. But we may assume that the same hand which traced the dispositions by which from 100,000 to 150,000 men were rapidly concentrated on the Saar from distant and apparently divergent points, will also have traced similar converging lines of march for the rest of the army.
This is, indeed, a bold plan, and is likely to prove as effective as any that could be devised. It is intended for a battle in which the German left, from Zweibrücken to near Saarlouis, maintain a purely defensive fight; while their right, advancing from Saarlouis and west of it, supported by the full reserves, attack the enemy in force and cut his communications with Metz by a flank movement of the whole of the reserve cavalry. If this plan succeeds, and the first great battle is won by the Germans, the French army risks not only being cut off from its nearest base — Metz and the Moselle — but also being driven to a position where the Germans will be between it and Paris.
The Germans, having their communication with Coblenz and Cologne perfectly safe, can afford to risk a defeat in this position; such a defeat would not be nearly so disastrous in its consequences to them. Still it is a daring plan. It would be extremely difficult to get a defeated army, especially the right wing, safe across the defiles of the Moselle and its tributaries. Many prisoners and a great portion of the artillery would undoubtedly be lost, and the reforming of the army under shelter of the Rhine fortresses would take a long time. It would be folly to adopt such a plan unless General Moltke were perfectly certain to have such overwhelming strength at his command that victory was almost undoubted, and, moreover, unless he knew that the French were not in a position to fall upon his troops while still converging from all sides to the position selected for the first battle. Whether this is really the case we shall probably know very soon — perhaps to-morrow, even.
In the meantime it is well to remember that these strategic plans can never be relied upon for the full effect of what is expected from them. There always occurs a hitch here and a hitch there; corps do not arrive at the exact moment when they are wanted; the enemy makes unexpected moves, or has taken unexpected precautions; and finally, hard, stubborn fighting, or the good sense of a general, often extricates the defeated army from the worst consequences a defeat can have — the loss of communications with its base.