Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Story of the Negotiations

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 1, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The story we laid before our readers yesterday according to the version of M. Jules Favre we have no difficulty in accepting as correct; always excepting little errors, such as when Bismarck is said to intend the annexation of Metz, Château-Salins, and “Soissons.” M. Favre evidently is ignorant of the geographical whereabouts of Soissons. The Count said Sarrebourg, which town has long been singled out as falling within the new strategical border line, while Soissons is as much outside of it as Paris or Troyes. In his rendering of the terms of the conversation M. Favre may not be quite exact; but where he asserts facts contested by the officious Prussian press, neutral Europe will be generally disposed to go by his statement. Thus, If at Berlin what M. Favre says about the surrender of Mont Valérien being proposed at one time is disputed, there will be few to believe that M. Favre either invented this or totally misunderstood Count Bismarck’s meaning.

His own report shows but too clearly how little M. Favre understood the actual situation, or how confused and indistinct was his view of it. He came to treat about an armistice which was to lead to peace. His supposition that France still has the power of compelling her opponents to abandon all claim to territorial cession we readily excuse; but on what terms he expected to obtain a cessation of hostilities it is hard to say. The points finally insisted upon were the surrender of Strasbourg, Toul, and Verdun — their garrisons to become prisoners of war. Toul and Verdun appear to have been more or less conceded. But Strasbourg? The demand was taken by M. Favre simply as an insult and as nothing else.

“You forget that you are speaking to a Frenchman, M. le Comte. To thus sacrifice an heroic garrison whose behaviour has been admired universally, and more particularly by us, would be cowardice, and 1 promise not to say that you have offered us such a condition.”

In this reply we find little consideration of the facts of the case — nothing but an outburst of patriotic sentiment. Since this sentiment operated very powerfully in Paris, it was not, of course, to be set aside at such a moment; but it might have been as well to have pondered the facts of the case too. Strasbourg had been regularly besieged long enough to make its early fall a matter of positive certainty. A fortress regularly besieged can resist a given time; it may even prolong its defence for a few days by extraordinary efforts; but, unless there arrive an army to relieve it, it is mathematically certain that fall it must. Trochu and the engineering staff in Paris are perfectly aware of this; they know that there is no army anywhere to come to the relief of Strasbourg; and yet Trochu’s colleague in the Government, Jules Favre, appears to have put all this out of his reckoning. The only thing he saw in the demand to surrender Strasbourg was an insult to himself, to the garrison of Strasbourg, to the French nation. But the chief parties interested, General Uhrich and his garrison, had certainly done enough for their own honour. To spare them the last few days of a perfectly hopeless struggle, if thereby the feeble chances of salvation for France could be improved, would not have been an insult to them, but a well-merited reward. General Uhrich must necessarily have preferred to surrender to an order from the Government, and for an equivalent, rather than to the threat of an assault and for no return whatsoever.

In the meantime, Toul and Strasbourg have fallen, and Verdun, so long as Metz holds out, is of no earthly military use to the Germans, who thus have got, without conceding the armistice, almost everything Bismarck was bargaining for with Jules Favre. It would, then, appear that never was there an armistice offered on cheaper and more generous terms by the conqueror; never one more foolishly refused by the vanquished. Jules Favre’s intelligence certainly does not shine in the transaction, though his instincts were probably right enough; whereas Bismarck appears in the new character of the generous conqueror. The offer, as M. Favre understood it, was uncommonly cheap; and, had it been only what he thought, it was one to be accepted at once. But then the proposal was something more than he perceived it to be.

Between two armies in the field an armistice is a matter easily settled. A line of demarcation — perhaps a belt of neutral country between the two belligerents — is established, and the thing is arranged. But here there is only one army in the field; the other, as far as it still exists, is shut up in fortresses more or less invested. What is to become of all these places? What is to be their status during the armistice? Bismarck takes care not to say a word about all this. If the fortnight’s armistice be concluded, and nothing said therein relating to these towns, the status quo is maintained as a matter of course, except as regards actual hostilities against the garrisons and works. Thus Bitche, Metz, Phalsbourg, Paris, and we know not how many other fortified places, would remain invested and cut off from all supplies and communications; the people inside them would eat up their provisions just as if there was no armistice; and thus the armistice would do for the besiegers almost as much as continued fighting would have done. Nay, it might even occur that in the midst of the armistice one or more of these places would completely exhaust their stores, and might have to surrender to the blockaders there and then, in order to avoid absolute starvation. From this it appears that Count Bismarck, astute as ever, saw his way to making the armistice reduce the enemy’s fortresses. Of course, if the negotiations had continued far enough to lead to a draft agreement, the French staff would have found this out, and would necessarily have made such demands, relatively to the invested towns, that the whole thing probably would have fallen through. But it was M. Jules Favre’s business to probe Bismarck’s proposals to the bottom, and to draw out what the latter had an interest to hide. If he had inquired what was to be the status of the blockaded towns during the armistice, he would not have given Count Bismarck the opportunity of displaying before the world an apparent magnanimity, which was too deep for M. Favre though it was but skin deep. Instead of that, he fires up at the demand for Strasbourg, with its garrison as prisoners of war, in a way which makes it clear to all the world that even after the severe lessons of the last two months, the spokesman of the French Government was incapable of appreciating the actual facts of the situation because he was still sous la domination de la phrase.