Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 18, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
“The French army commenced to cross over to the left bank of the Moselle. This (Sunday) morning reconnoitring parties announced the presence of the Prussian vanguards. When one-half of the army had crossed, the Prussians attacked in great force, and, after a fight which lasted four hours, were repulsed with considerable losses.”
Such was the version of the Emperor’s despatch which Mr. Reuter furnished on Monday night. It contained, however, an important error, the Emperor having expressly stated that the reconnoitring parties did not announce the presence of the enemy, though he was near at hand and in force. Apart from this, however, nothing apparently could be more straightforward and businesslike than this bulletin. You have the whole thing distinctly before your eyes; the French, busily engaged in that risky operation, the crossing of a river; the wily Prussians, who always know how to take their opponents at a disadvantage, falling upon them as soon as one-half of them has got to the other side; then the gallant defence of the French, crowning its superhuman efforts, finally, by a dashing advance, which repels the enemy with considerable losses. It is quite graphic, and there is only one thing wanting — the name of the place where all this occurred.
From the bulletin we cannot but suppose that this passage of the river, and this attempt to interrupt it which was so victoriously defeated, took place in the open country. But how could this be, when the French had all the bridges inside Metz to cross by — bridges perfectly safe from any hostile interference? when there was, besides, plenty of room for more pontoon bridges to be constructed, in equally safe places, on the five or six miles of river which are covered by the forts round Metz? Surely the French staff do not mean us to imply that they wantonly disregarded all these advantages, led the army outside of Metz, constructed their bridges in the open, and passed the river within sight and reach of the enemy, merely to bring on that “battle before Metz” which had been promised us for a whole week?
And if the passage of the Moselle took place by bridges inside the works of Metz, how could the Prussians attack the French troops still on the right bank so long as these kept, as they might have done, inside the line of detached forts? The artillery of these forts would soon have made the place too hot for any attacking troops.
The whole thing seems impossible. The least the French staff could have done would have been to give the name of the locality, that we might have traced the different phases of this glorious battle on the map. But that name they will not give. Fortunately for us, the Prussians are not so mysterious; they say the fight a occurred near Pange, on the road to Metz. We look at the map, and the whole thing is clear. Pange is not on the Moselle, but eight miles away from it, on the Nied, about four miles outside the detached forts of Metz. If the French were crossing the Moselle, and had one-half of their troops over already, they had, in a military sense, no business whatever to keep strong forces at or near Pange. If they went there, it was for reasons not military.
Napoleon, once compelled to abandon Metz and the line of the Moselle, could not very well without a fight, and, if possible, a real or sham victory, enter upon a retreat which must be continued at least as far as Châlons. The opportunity was favourable. While one-half of his troops crossed, the other would debouch from between the forts east of Metz, push back the Prussian advanced troops, bring on as much of a general engagement as appeared convenient, draw on the enemy until within reach of the guns of the forts, and then, with a showy advance of the whole front, drive them back to a safe distance from the works. Such a plan could not entirely fail; it must lead to something which could be made to look like a victory; it would restore confidence in the army, perhaps even in Paris, and make the retreat to Châlons look less humiliating.
This view explains that apparently simple, but in reality absurd, bulletin from Metz. Every word of that bulletin is correct in a certain sense, while the whole context at the first glance is calculated to evoke a totally false impression. This view equally explains how both parties could claim the victory. The Prussians drove back the French till under the shelter of their forts, but having advanced too close to these forts had to retire in their turn. So much for the celebrated “battle before Metz,” which might as well not have been fought at all, for its influence upon the course of the campaign will be zero. It will be observed that the Count of Palikao, speaking in the Chamber, was much more cautious.
“There has not been,” he said, — what you would call a battle, but partial engagements, in which every man with military intelligence must see that the Prussians have received a check, and have been obliged to abandon the line of retreat of the French army.”
The Marshal’s last assurance seems to have been only momentarily true, for the retreating body of the French has certainly been severely harassed by the Prussians at Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte.
It was, indeed, high time that Napoleon and his army left Metz. While they were tarrying about the Moselle, the German cavalry passed the Meuse at Commercy and destroyed the railway thence to Bar-le-Duc; they also appeared at Vigneulles, threatening the flank of the columns retreating from Metz to Verdun. What these horsemen dare risk we see from the way in which a squadron of them entered Nancy, levied 50,000 francs, and compelled the townspeople to destroy the railway. Where are the French cavalry? where are the forty-three regiments attached to the eight army corps, and the twelve regiments of reserve cavalry which figure on the état of the Army of the Rhine?
The only obstacle in the way of the Germans now is the fortress of Toul, and this would not be of any importance whatever if it did not command the railway. The Germans are sure to want the railway, and therefore they no doubt will take the shortest means to reduce Toul, which, being an old-fashioned fortress without detached forts, is perfectly open to bombardment. We shall probably soon hear that it has surrendered after being bombarded by field guns for something like twelve hours, perhaps less.
If it be true, as French papers say, that MacMahon, having left his army, was in Nancy two days after the battle of Woerth, we may assume that his corps is totally disorganized, and that the infection has caught the troops of De Failly too. The Germans are now marching on to the Marne, almost on an equal front line with the two French armies, and having one of them on each flank. Bazaine’s line of march is from Metz by Verdun and St. Ménehould to Châlons; that of the Germans from Nancy, by Commercy and Bar-le-Duc, to Vitry; that of MacMahon’s troops (for even if the Marshal himself has joined the Emperor at Châlons, it must be without his army) somewhere to the south, but, no doubt, also directed towards Vitry. The reunion of the two French armies thus becomes more doubtful every day; and unless Douay’s troops have been ordered from Belfort by Vesoul and Chaumont to Vitry in time, they may have to rejoin the army by way of Troyes and Paris, for Vitry will now soon be impassable by train for French soldiers.