Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, September 27, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The fortifications of Paris have shown their value already. To them alone it is owing that the Germans have not been in possession of the town for more than a week. In 1814 half a day’s fighting about the heights of Montmartre compelled the city to capitulate. In 1815, a range of earthworks, constructed from the beginning of the campaign, created some delay; but their resistance would have been very short had it not been for the absolute certainty on the part of the Allies that the city would be handed over to them without fighting. In this present war, whatever the Germans may have expected from diplomacy has not been allowed to interfere with their military action. And this same military action, short, sharp, and decisive up to the middle of September, became slow, hesitating, tatonnante from the day the German columns got within the sphere of operation of that immense fortified camp, Paris. And naturally so. The mere investment of such a vast place requires time and caution, even if you approach it with 200,000 or 250,000 men. A force so large as that will be hardly sufficient to invest it properly on all sides, though, as in this present case, the town contains no army fit to take the field and to fight pitched battles. That there is no such army in Paris the pitiable results of General Ducrot’s sally near Meudon have most decisively proved. Here the troops of the line behaved positively worse than the Garde Mobile; they, actually “bolted,” the renowned Zouaves leading the way. The thing is easily explained. The old soldiers — mostly men of MacMahon’s, De Failly’s, and FéIix Douay’s corps, who had fought at Woerth — were completely demoralized by two disastrous retreats and six weeks of constant ill-success; and it is but natural that such causes will tell most severely upon mercenaries, for the Zouaves, consisting mostly of substitutes, deserve no other name. And these were the men who were expected to steady the raw recruits with which the thinned battalions of the line had been filled up. After this affair there may be small raids, successful here and there, but there will scarcely be any more battles in the open.

Another point: The Germans say that Paris is commanded by their guns from the heights near Sceaux; but this assertion is to be taken with a considerable grain of salt. The nearest heights on which they can have placed any batteries above Fontenay-aux-Roses, about 1,500 metres from the fort of Vanves, are fully 8,000 metres, or 8,700 yards, from the centre of the town. The Germans have no heavier field artillery than the so-called rifled 6-pounder (weight of projectile about 15lb.), but even if they had rifled 12-pounders, with projectiles of 32lb., ready to hand, the extreme range of these guns, at the angles of elevation for which their limbers are constructed, would not exceed 4,500 or 5,000 metres. Thus this boast need not frighten the Parisians. Unless two more forts are taken, Paris need not fear a bombardment; and even then the shells would spread themselves so much over the enormous surface that the damage must be comparatively small and the moral effect almost nothing. Look at the enormous mass of artillery brought to bear upon Strasbourg: how much more will be required for reducing Paris, even if we keep in mind that the regular attack by parallels will naturally be confined to a small portion of the works! And until the Germans can bring together under the walls of Paris all this artillery, with ammunition and all other appliances, Paris is safe. From the moment the siege Matériel is ready, from that moment alone does the real danger begin.

We see now clearly what great Intrinsic strength there is in the fortifications of Paris. If to this passive strength, this mere power of resistance, were added the active strength, the power of attack of a real army, the value of the former would be immediately increased. While the investing force is unavoidably divided, by the rivers Seine and Marne, into at least three separate portions, which cannot communicate with each other except by bridges constructed to the rear of their fighting positions — that is to say, by roundabout roads and with loss of time only — the great mass of the army in Paris could attack with superior forces any one of these three portions at its choice, inflict losses upon it, destroy any works commenced, and retire under shelter of the forts before the besiegers’ supports had time to come up. In case this army in Paris were not too weak compared with the besiegers’ forces, it might render the complete investment of the place impossible, or break through it at any time. And how necessary it is to completely invest a besieged place so long as reinforcements from without are not completely out of the question has been shown in the case of Sebastopol, where the siege was protracted entirely by the constant arrival of Russian reinforcements in the northern half of the fortress, access to which could be cut off at the very last moment only. The more events will develop themselves before Paris, the more evident will become the perfect absurdity of the Imperialist generalship during this war, by which two armies were sacrificed and Paris left without its chief arm of defence, the power of retaliating attack for attack.

As to the provisioning such a large town, the difficulties appear to us even less than in the case of a smaller place. A capital like Paris is not only provided with a perfect commercial organization for provisioning itself at all times; it is at the same time the chief market and storehouse where the agricultural produce of an extensive district is collected and exchanged. An active Government could easily take measures to provide, by using these facilities, ample stores for the duration of an average siege. Whether this has been done we have no means of judging; but why it might not have been done, and rapidly too. we cannot see.

Anyhow, if the fighting goes on “to the bitter end,” as we now hear it will, resistance will probably not be very long from the day the trenches are opened. The masonry of the scarps is rather exposed, and the absence of demi-lunes before the curtains favours the advance of the besieger and the breaching of the walls. The confined space of the forts admits of a limited number of defenders only; their resistance to an assault, unless seconded by an advance of troops through the intervals of the forts, cannot be serious. But if the trenches can be carried up the glacis of the forts without being destroyed by such sallies of the army in Paris, this very fact proves that that army is too weak — in numbers, organization, or morale — to sally forth with a chance of success on the night of the assault.

A couple of forts once taken, it is to be hoped the town will desist from a hopeless struggle. If not, the operation of a siege will have to be repeated, a couple of breaches effected, and the town again summoned to surrender. And if that be again rejected, then may come the equally chanceless struggle on the barricades. Let us hope that such useless sacrifices will be spared.