Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 11, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

In one of our preceding Notes we called attention to the fact that even now, after the fall of Strasbourg, nearly the whole of the immense German army in France is fully employed, although not one-sixth of the territory of the country is held by the invaders. The subject is so very significant that we feel justified in returning to it.

Metz, with Bazaine’s army enclosed within its line of forts, finds occupation for eight army corps (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, the division of Hessians, and General Kummer’s division of landwehr), in all sixteen divisions of infantry. Paris engages seventeen divisions of infantry (the Guards, 4th, 5th, 6th, 1 1th, 12th North German, 1st and 2nd Bavarian corps, and the Württemberg division). The newly-formed 13th and 14th corps, mostly landwehr, and some detachments from the corps already named, occupy the conquered country, and observe, blockade, or besiege the places which, within it, still belong to the French. The 15th Corps (the Baden division and at least one division of landwehr), set free by the capitulation of Strasbourg, is alone disposable for active operations. Fresh landwehr troops are to be joined to it, and then it is to undertake some operations, the character of which is still very indefinitely known, in a more southerly direction.

Now these forces comprise almost all the organized troops of which Germany disposes, with the very important exception of the fourth battalions of the line. Contrary to what was done in the Austrian war, when they were sent out against the enemy, these 114 battalions have this time been kept at home; in accordance with their original purpose, they serve as cadres for the drill and organization of the men intended to fill up the gaps which battles and disease may have caused in the ranks of their respective regiments. As soon as the thousand men forming the battalion are sufficiently broken in to do duty before the enemy, they are sent off to join the three field battalions of the regiment; this was done on a large scale after the severe fighting before Metz in the middle of September. But the officers and non-commissioned officers of the battalion remain at home, ready to receive and prepare for the field a fresh batch of 1,000 men, taken from the Ersatz Reserve or from the recruits called out in due. course. This measure was absolutely necessary in a war as bloody as the present one, and the end of which is not to be foreseen with certainty; but it deprives the Germans of the active services for the time being of 114 battalions, and a corresponding force of cavalry and artillery, representing in all fully 200,000 men. With the exception of these, the occupation of scarcely one-sixth of France and the reduction of the two large fortresses in this territory — Metz and Paris — keeps the whole of the German forces so fully employed that they have barely 60,000 men to spare for further operations beyond the territory already conquered. And this, while there is not anywhere a French army in the field to oppose serious resistance.

If ever there was needed a proof of the immense importance, in modern warfare, of large entrenched camps with a fortress for their nucleus, here that proof is furnished. The two entrenched camps in question have not at all been made use of to the best advantage, as we may show on some other occasion. Metz has for a garrison too many troops for its size and importance, and Paris has of real troops fit for the field scarcely any at all. Still, the first of these places at present holds at least 240,000, the second 250,000 enemies in check; and if France had only 200,000 real soldiers behind the Loire, the siege of Paris would be an impossibility. Unfortunately for France, these 200,000 men she does not possess; nor is there any probability of their ever being brought together, organized and disciplined in useful time. So that the reduction of the two great centres of defence is a mere question of weeks. The army in Metz has so far kept up its discipline and fighting qualities wonderfully well, but the constant repulses it has sustained must at length break down every hope of escape. French soldiers are capital defenders of fortresses, and can stand defeat during a siege far better than in the field; but if demoralization once begins among them, it spreads rapidly and irresistibly. As to Paris, we will not take M. Gambetta’s 400,000 National Guards, 100,000 Mobiles, and 60,000 troops of the line too literally, any more than the countless cannons and mitrailleurs that are being manufactured in Paris, or the great strength of the barricades. But there is no doubt that there are elements enough in Paris for a very respectable defence; though that defence, by being, from the character of the garrison, necessarily passive, will lack its strongest element — powerful attacks on the besiegers.

Anyhow, it must be evident that if there was a real national enthusiasm alive among the French, everything might still be gained. While the whole forces of the invader, all but 60,000 men and the cavalry which can raid but not subdue, are laid fast in the conquered territory, the remaining five-sixths of France might raise armed bands enough to harass the Germans on every point, to intercept their communications, destroy bridges and railways, provisions and ammunition in their rear, and compel them to detach from their two great armies such numbers of troops that Bazaine might find means to break out of Metz, and that the investment of Paris would become illusory. Already at present the movement of the armed bands is a source of great trouble, though not as yet of danger, to the Germans, and this will increase as the country round Paris becomes exhausted in food and other supplies, and as more distant districts have to be placed under requisition. The new German army now forming in Alsace will probably soon be called away from any expedition towards the South by the necessity of securing the German communications and of subjecting a greater tract of country round Paris. But what would be the fate of the Germans if the French people had been stirred up by the same national fanaticism as were the Spaniards in 1808 if every town and almost every village had been turned into a fortress, every peasant and citizen into a combatant? Even the 200,000 men of the fourth battalion would not suffice to hold down such a people. But such national fanaticism is not nowadays within the habits of civilized nations. It may be found among Mexicans and Turks; its sources have dried up in the moneymaking West of Europe, and the twenty years during which the incubus of the Second Empire has weighed upon France have anything but steeled the national character. Thus we see a great deal of talking and a minimum of work; a deal of show and an almost total neglect of organization; very little non-official resistance and a good deal of submission to the enemy; very few real soldiers and an immense number of francs-tireurs.