Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

Fortified Capitals


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, November 21, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.


If there is any military question which the experience of the present war may be said to have finally settled, it is that of the expediency of fortifying the capital of a great State. Ever since the day when the fortification of Paris was resolved upon, the controversy as to the usefulness or otherwise, and even as to the possibility of defending such a vast fortress, has been going on in the military literature of all countries. Nothing could settle it but practical experience — the actual siege of Paris, the only fortified capital in existence; and though the real siege of Paris has not yet begun, the fortifications of Paris have rendered such immense services to France already that the question is as good as decided in their favour.

The dangerous proximity of Paris to the north-eastern frontier of France — a frontier, moreover, entirely deprived of any defensible line either of river or mountains — led, first, to the conquest of the nearest border-lands; secondly. to the construction of a triple belt of fortresses running from the Rhine to the North Sea; and, thirdly, to that continuous hankering after the whole of the left bank of the Rhine, which has at last brought France to her present position. The conquests were cut down and defined by the Treaties of 1814 and 1815, the fortresses were proved to be all but useless, and completely incapable of arresting large armies, by the two invasions of the same years; finally, the shouts for the Rhine were, in 1840, checked for a time by a European coalition against France.) Then it was that France, as became a great nation, attempted to counterbalance the dangerous position of Paris by the only means in her power — by fortifying it.

In this present war France was covered, on her most vulnerable side, by the neutrality of Belgium. Still, one short month sufficed to drive all her organized forces from the field. One half had surrendered themselves prisoners; the other was hopelessly shut up in Metz, their surrender but a question of weeks. Under ordinary circumstances, the war would have been at an end. The Germans would have occupied Paris and as much of the rest of France as they desired, and after the capitulation of Metz, if not before, peace would have been concluded. France has nearly all her fortresses close to the frontier: this belt of fortified towns once broken through on a front sufficiently wide for liberty of movement, the remaining fortresses on the border or the coast might be neglected, and the whole of the central country occupied; after which, the border fortresses would be easily brought to surrender one after another. Even for guerilla warfare fortresses in the interior, as safe centres of retreat, are necessary in cultivated countries. In the Peninsular War, the popular resistance of the Spaniards was rendered possible mainly by the fortresses. The French, in 1809, drove Sir John Moore’s English troops out of Spain; they were victorious everywhere in the field, and yet never conquered the country. The comparatively small Anglo-Portuguese army, on its reappearance, could not have faced them had it not been for the innumerable Spanish armed bands which, easily beaten in open battle, infested the flanks and rear of every French column, and held fast by far the greater portion of the invading army. And these bands could not have held out for any length of time had it not been for the great number of fortresses in the country; fortresses, mostly small and antiquated, but still requiring a regular siege to reduce them, and therefore safe retreats for these bands when attacked in the open field. Such fortresses being absent in France, even a guerrilla war could never be very formidable there, unless there were some other circumstances to make up for their absence. And one such circumstance is the fortification of Paris.

On the 2nd of September the last French army in the field capitulated. And to-day, on the 21st of November, nearly eleven weeks afterwards, almost one-half of all the German troops in France is still held fast around Paris, while the greater portion of the remainder are hurried forward from Metz to protect the investment of Paris against a newly-formed Army of the Loire, an army which, whatever its value may be, could not have even come into existence had it not been for the fortifications of Paris. These fortifications have been invested for just two months, and the preparations for the opening of the regular siege are not yet complete; that is to say, the siege of a fortress of the size of Paris, even if defended by none but new levies and a determined population, can begin only when that of a common fortress would have been long brought to a successful close. The event has proved that a town holding two millions of inhabitants can be provisioned almost easier than a smaller fortress exercising less central attraction upon the produce of the surrounding country; for although the provisioning of Paris was taken seriously in hand after the 4th of September, or a fortnight only before the investment was complete, Paris is not yet starved into submission after nine weeks’ blockading. In fact, the armies of France resisted but for one month; Paris has, already now, resisted for two months and still holds fast the main body of the invaders. Surely this is more than ever a fortress did before, and repays in full the outlay upon the works. And we must not forget, what we have more than once pointed out already, that the defence of Paris this time is carried on under quite abnormal conditions, because it has to do without an active field army. What would that resistance be, how would it have delayed, if not altogether prevented, the investment, how many more men of the invading armies would it have fettered around Paris, if MacMahon’s army had gone to the capital instead of to Sedan?

But this is not all. Not only has the defence of Paris given to France two months of breathing time, which, under less disastrous circumstances, would have been invaluable and may even now turn out so, but it has also given her the benefit of whatever chances political changes may bring on during the siege. We may say as long as we like that Paris is a fortress like any other, yet the fact remains that the actual siege of a place like Paris will produce far more excitement all over the world than a hundred sieges of minor places. The laws of warfare may be what they may, our modern consciousness refuses to acquiesce in having Paris treated as Strasbourg was. The neutrals, under such circumstances, may pretty safely be counted on for trying mediation; political jealousies against the conqueror are almost certain to crop up before the place is completely reduced; in fact, an operation of the magnitude and duration of the siege of Paris is as likely to be decided in the Cabinet of some non-combatant Power, by alliances and counter-alliances, as in the trenches by dismounting and breaching batteries. Of this we are about to witness an example perhaps. It is just possible that the sudden irruption upon Europe of the Eastern question may do for Paris what the Army of the Loire cannot do — save it from surrender and free it from blockade. If, as is but too probable, Prussia should be unable to clear herself from complicity — of whatever degree — with Russia, and if Europe be determined not to tolerate the Russian breach of faith, then it is of the utmost importance that France should not be completely prostrated and Paris not be held by the Prussians. It is therefore absolutely necessary that Prussia should be compelled at once to declare herself categorically, and that if she attempt to prevaricate, steps should be taken at once to strengthen the hopes and the resistance of Paris. Thirty thousand British soldiers landed at Cherbourg or Brest would form an ingredient which, added to the Army of the Loire, would give it a degree of steadiness unknown to it heretofore. The British infantry, by its uncommon solidity, even by its corresponding fault, its clumsiness in light infantry movements, is peculiarly adapted thus to steady newly-formed levies; it performed that duty admirably in Spain, under Wellington; it did a similar duty in all Indian wars as regards the less trustworthy native troops. Under such circumstances the influence of such a British army corps would far exceed that due to its mere numbers, as, indeed, has always been the case when a British army corps was thus employed. A couple of Italian divisions thrown towards Lyons and the Sa˘ne Valley, as the advanced guard of an Italian army, would soon attract Prince Frederick Charles, there is Austria; there are the Scandinavian kingdoms to menace Prussia on other fronts and attract her troops; Paris itself, on receiving such news, would certainly undergo almost any degree of starvation rather than surrender — and bread there seems to be plenty — and thus the fortifications of the town might actually, even in its present distress, save the country by having enabled it to hold out until help arrived.