Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 3, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

It is a surprising fact, even after the inconceivable blunders which have led to the practical annihilation of the French armies, that France should be virtually at the mercy of a conqueror who holds possession of barely one-eighth of her territory. The country actually occupied by the Germans is bounded by a line drawn from Strasbourg to Versailles, and another from Versailles to Sedan. Within this narrow strip the French still hold the fortresses of Paris, Metz, Montmédy, Verdun, Thionville, Bitche, and Phalsbourg. The observation, blockade, or siege of these fortresses employ nearly all the forces that have so far been sent into France. There may be plenty of cavalry left to scour the country round Paris as far as Orléans, Rouen, and Amiens, and even farther; but a serious occupation of any extensive district is not to be thought of at present. There is certainly a force of some 40,000 or 50,000 landwehr now in Alsace south of Strasbourg, and this army may be raised to double its strength by the greater portion of the besieging corps from Strasbourg. These troops are intended, it appears, for an excursion towards the southern portions of France: it is stated that they are to march upon Belfort, Besançon, and Lyons. Now, every one of these three fortresses is a large entrenched camp, with detached forts at a fair distance from the main rampart; and a siege, or even a serious blockade, of all these three places at once would take more than the forces of this army. We take it therefore for granted that this assertion is a mere blind, and that the new German army will take no more notice of these

fortresses than it can help; that it will march into and eat up the valley of the Saône, the richest part of Burgundy, and then advance towards the Loire, to open communications with the army round Paris, and to be employed according to circumstances. But even this strong body of troops, while it has no direct communications with the army before Paris, so as to enable it to dispense with direct and independent communications with the Rhine, even this strong body of troops is employed on a mere raid, and unable to hold in subjection an extensive territory. Thus its operations for a couple of weeks to come will not increase the actual hold the Germans have upon French soil, which remains limited to barely one-eighth of the whole extent of France; and yet France, though she will not own to it, is virtually conquered. How is this possible?

The main cause is the excessive centralization of all administration in France, and especially of military administration. Up to a very recent time France was divided, for military purposes, into twenty-three districts, each containing, as much as possible, the garrisons composing one division of infantry, along with cavalry and artillery. Between the commanders of these divisions and the Ministry of War there was no intermediate link. These divisions, moreover, were merely administrative, not military organizations. The regiments composing them were not expected to be brigaded in war; they were merely in time of peace under the disciplinary control of the same general. As soon as a war was imminent they might be sent to quite different army corps, divisions, or brigades. As to a divisional staff other than administrative, or personally attached to the general in command, such a thing did not exist. Under Louis Napoleon, these twenty-three divisions were united in six army corps, each under a marshal of France. But these army corps were no more permanent organizations for war than the divisions. They were organized for political, not for military ends. They had no regular staff. They were the very reverse of the Prussian army corps, each of which is permanently organized for war, with its quota of infantry, cavalry, artillery, and engineers, with its military, medical, judicial, and administrative staff ready for a campaign. In France the administrative portion of the army (Intendance and so forth) received their orders, not from the marshal or general in command, but from Paris direct. If under these circumstances Paris becomes paralyzed, if communication with it be cut off, there is no nucleus of organization left in the provinces; they are equally paralyzed, and even more so, inasmuch as the time-honoured dependency of the provinces on Paris and its initiative has by long habit become part and parcel of the national creed, to rebel against which is not merely a crime but a sacrilege.

Next to this chief cause, however, there is another, a secondary one but scarcely less important in this case; which is that, in consequence of the internal historical development of France, her centre is placed in dangerous proximity to her north-eastern frontier. This was the case to a far greater extent three hundred years ago. Paris then lay at one extremity of the country. To cover Paris by a greater extent of conquered territory towards the east and north-east was the aim of the almost uninterrupted series of wars against Germany and Spain while the latter possessed Belgium. From the time Henry II seized upon the three bishoprics of Metz, Toul, and Verdun (1552) to the Revolution, Artois, parts of Flanders and Hainaut, Lorraine, Alsace, and Montbéliard were thus conquered and annexed to France to serve as buffers to receive the first shock of invasion against Paris. We must admit that nearly all these provinces were predestined by race, language, and habits to become part and parcel of France, and that France has understood — principally by the revolution of 1789-98 — how to thoroughly assimilate the rest. But even now Paris is dangerously exposed. From Bayonne to Perpignan, from Antibes to Geneva, the land frontiers of the country are at a great distance from Paris. From Geneva by Bale to Lauterbourg in Alsace the distance remains the same; it forms an arc described from the centre, Paris, with one and the same radius of 250 miles. But at Lauterbourg the frontier leaves the arc, and forms a chord inside it, which at one point is but 120 miles from Paris. “Là où le Rhin nous quitte, le danger commence,” said Lavallée in his chauvinistic work on the frontiers of France. But if we continue the arc from Lauterbourg in a northerly direction, we shall find that it follows almost exactly the course of the Rhine to the sea. Here, then, we have the real cause of the French clamour for the whole of the left bank of that Rhine. It is after the acquisition of that boundary alone that Paris is covered, on its most exposed side, by equidistant frontiers, and with a river for the boundary line into the bargain. And if the military safety of Paris were the leading principle of European politics France would certainly be entitled to have it. Fortunately, that is not the case; and if France chooses to have Paris for a capital she must put up with the drawbacks attached to Paris as well as with the advantages, one of which drawbacks is that an occupation of a small portion of France, including Paris, will paralyze her national action. But if this be the case; if France acquire no right to the Rhine by the accident of having her capital in an exposed situation, Germany ought to remember that military considerations of a similar sort give her no better claim upon French territory.