Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Fighting in France

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

During the first six weeks of the war, while German victories followed each other rapidly, while the expanding force of the invaders was as yet but incompletely spent, and while there were still French armies in the field to oppose them, the contest, generally speaking, remained one of armies. The population of the invaded districts took but little part in the fighting. True, there were a dozen or so of Alsatian peasants court-martialed and shot for participating in battles or for maiming the wounded; but a tragedy like that of Bazeilles was quite the exception. This is proved by nothing better than by the immense impression it made, and by the eager controversy carried on in the press as to the degree in which the treatment of that village was justifiable or otherwise. If it were advisable to reopen that controversy, we could prove, from the testimony of unimpeachable eye-witnesses, that inhabitants of Bazeilles did fall upon the Bavarian wounded, ill-treated them, and threw them into the flames of houses fired by shells; and that in consequence of this, General von der Tann gave the stupid and barbarous order to destroy the whole place — stupid and barbarous chiefly because it meant setting fire to houses in which his own wounded were lying by the hundred. But anyhow, Bazeilles was destroyed in the heat of battle, and in a contest the most exasperating — that of house and street fighting, where reports must be acted upon and decisions taken at once, and where people have no time to sift evidence and to hear counsel on both sides.

During the last six weeks the character of the war has undergone a remarkable change. The regular armies of France have disappeared; the contest is carried on by levies whose very rawness renders them more or less irregular. Wherever they attempt to come out in masses in the open, they are easily defeated; wherever they fight under shelter of barricaded and loopholed villages and towns, they find they can offer a serious resistance. They are encouraged in this kind of fighting, in night surprises, and other coups of petty warfare, by proclamations and orders of the Government, who also command the people of the district in which they operate to support them in every way. This resistance would be easily put down if the enemy disposed of forces sufficient for the occupation of the whole country. But this he did not up to the surrender of Metz. The force of the invaders was spent before Amiens, Rouen, Le Mans, Blois, Tours, and Bourges could be reached on the one hand, and Besançon and Lyons on the other. And that this force became spent so soon is in no small degree owing to this greater condensation of the resisting medium. The eternal four Uhlans, cannot now ride into a village or a town far outside their own lines and command absolute submission to their orders without risk of being caught or killed. Requisition columns have to be accompanied by an imposing force, and single companies or squadrons have to guard themselves well from night surprises when quartered in a village, and from ambushes when on the march. There is a belt of disputed ground all around the German positions, and it is just there that popular resistance is most severely felt. And to put down this popular resistance the Germans are having recourse to a code of warfare as antiquated as it is barbarous. They are acting upon the rule that every town or village where one or more of the inhabitants take part in the defence, fire upon their troops, or generally assist the French, is to be burned down; that every man taken in arms who is not, according to their notion, a regular soldier, is to be shot at once; and that where there is reason to believe that any considerable portion of the population of a town have been guilty of some such offence, all able-bodied men are to be massacred at once. This system has now been ruthlessly carried out for nearly six weeks, and is still in full force. You cannot open a German newspaper without stumbling over half a dozen reports of such military executions, which there pass quite as a matter of course, as simple proceedings of military justice carried out with wholesome severity by “honest soldiers” against “cowardly assassins and brigands.” There is no disorder of any kind, no promiscuous plunder, no violation of women, no irregularity. Nothing of the kind. It is all done systematically and by order; the doomed village is surrounded, the inhabitants turned out, the provisions secured, and the houses set fire to, while the real or suspected culprits are brought before a court-martial, when a short shrift and half a dozen bullets await them with unerring certainty. In Ablis, a village of 900 inhabitants, on the road to Chartres, a squadron of the 16th (Sleswig-Holstein) Hussars were surprised at night by French irregulars, and lost one half of their men; to punish this piece of insolence, the whole brigade of cavalry marched to Ablis and burned down the whole place; and two different reports, both from actors in the drama, assert that all able-bodied men were taken out from the inhabitants and shot down, or hacked to pieces without exception. This is but one out of very many cases. A Bavarian officer in the neighbourhood of Orléans writes that his detachment had burned down five villages in twelve days'; and it is no exaggeration to say that wherever the German flying columns are passing in the centre of France, their road but too often remains traced by fire and by blood.

Now it will scarcely suffice in 1870 to say that this is legitimate warfare, and that the interference of civilians or of anybody not properly recognized as a soldier is tantamount to brigandage, and may be put down by fire and sword. All this might apply in the time of Louis XIV and Frederick II, when there were no other contests but those of armies. But from the American war of independence down to the American war of secession, in Europe as well as in America, the participation of the populations in war has become not the exception but the rule. Wherever a people allowed itself to be subdued merely because its armies had become incapable of resistance it has been held up to universal contempt as a nation of cowards; and wherever a people did energetically carry out this irregular resistance, the invaders very soon found it impossible to carry out the old-fashioned code of blood and fire. The English in America, the French under Napoleon in Spain, the Austrians, 1848, in Italy and Hungary, were very soon compelled to treat popular resistance as perfectly legitimate, from fear of reprisals on their own prisoners. Not even the Prussians in Baden, 1849, or the Pope after Mentana, had the courage to shoot down indiscriminately their prisoners of war, irregulars and “rebels” though they were. There exist only two modern examples of the ruthless application of this antiquated code of “stamping out:” the suppression of the Sepoy mutiny by the English in India, and the proceedings of Bazaine and his French in Mexico.

Of all armies in the world, the very last that ought to renew such practices is the Prussian. In 1806 Prussia collapsed merely because there was not anywhere in the country a trace of that spirit of national resistance. After 1807, the reorganizers of the administration and of the army did everything in their power to revive it. At that time Spain showed the glorious example how a nation can resist an invading army. The whole of the military leaders of Prussia pointed out this example to their countrymen as the one to be followed. Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Clausewitz were all of one mind in this respect; Gneisenau even went to Spain himself to fight against Napoleon. The whole of the new military system then inaugurated in Prussia was an attempt to organize popular resistance to the enemy, at least as far as this was possible in an absolute monarchy. Not only was every able-bodied man to pass through the army and to serve in the landwehr up to his fortieth year; the lads between seventeen and twenty and the men between forty and sixty were to form part of the landsturm or levee en masse, which was to rise in the rear and on the flanks of the enemy, harass his movements, intercept his supplies and couriers, use whatever arms it could find, employ indiscriminately whatever means were at hand to annoy the invader — “the more effective these means the better” — and, above all,

“to wear no uniform of any kind, so that the landsturmers might at any time resume their character of civilians and remain unknown to the enemy.”

The whole of this “Landsturm Ordnung,” as the law of 1813 regarding it is called, is drawn up — and its author is no other than Scharnhorst, the organizer of the Prussian army — in this spirit of uncompromising national resistance, to which all means are justifiable and the most effective are the best. But then all this was to be done by the Prussians against the French, and if the French act in the same way towards the Prussians that is quite a different thing. What was patriotism in the one case becomes brigandage and cowardly assassination in the other.

The fact is, the present Prussian Government are ashamed of that old, half-revolutionary Landsturm Ordnung, and try to make it forgotten by their proceedings in France. But every act of wanton cruelty they get committed in France will more and more call it to memory; and the justifications made for such an ignoble mode of warfare will but tend to prove that If the Prussian army has immensely improved since Jena, the Prussian Government are rapidly ripening that same state of things which rendered Jena possible.