Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, December 17, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
The campaign on the Loire appears to have come to a momentary standstill, which allows us time to compare reports and dates, and to form the very confused and contradictory materials into as clear a narrative of actual events as can be expected under the circumstances.
The Army of the Loire began to exist as a distinct body on the 15th of November, when D'Aurelle de Paladines, hitherto commander of the 15th and 16th Corps, obtained command of the new organization formed under this name. What other troops entered into its composition at that date we cannot tell; in fact, this army received constant reinforcements, at least up to the end of November, when it consisted nominally of the following corps: 15th (Pallières), 16th (Chanzy), 17th (Sonis), 18th (Bourbaki), 19th (Barral, according to Prussian accounts), and 20th (Crouzat). Of these the 19th Corps never appeared either in the French or Prussian reports, and cannot therefore be supposed to have been engaged. Besides these, there were at Le Mans and the neighbouring camp of Conlie, the 21st Army Corps (Jaurès) arid the Army of Brittany, which, on the resignation of Kératry, was attached to Jaurès’ command. A 22nd Corps, we may add, is commanded by General Faidherbe in the North, with Lille for its base of operations. In the above we have omitted General Michel’s corps of cavalry attached to the Army of the Loire: this body of horse, though said to be very numerous, cannot rank, from its recent formation and crude material, otherwise than as volunteer or amateur cavalry.
The elements of which this army was composed were of the most varied kinds, from old troopers recalled to the ranks, to raw recruits and volunteers averse to all discipline; from solid battalions such as the Papal Zouaves to crowds which were battalions only in name. Some kind of discipline, however, had been established, but the whole still bore the stamp of the great hurry which had presided at its formation. “Had this army been allowed four weeks more for preparation, it would have been a formidable opponent,” said the German officers who had made its acquaintance on the field of battle. Deducting all those quite raw levies which were only in the way, we may set down the whole of D'Aurelle’s five fighting corps (omitting the 19th) at somewhere about 120,000 to 130,000 men fit to be called combatants. The troops at Le Mans may have furnished about 40,000 more.
Against these we find pitted the army of Prince Frederick Charles, including the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg’s command; their numbers we now know, through Capt. Hozier, to have been rather less than 90,000 all told. But these 90,000 were, by their experience of war, their organization, and the proved generalship of their leaders, quite competent to engage twice their number of such troops as were opposed to them. Thus, the chances were about even; and that they were so is immensely to the credit of the French people, who created this new army out of nothing in three months.
The campaign began, on the part of the French, with the attack on von der Tann at Coulmiers and the reconquest of Orléans, on November 9; the march of Mecklenburg to the aid of von der Tann; the manoeuvring of D'Aurelle in the direction of Dreux, which drew off Mecklenburg’s whole force in that direction, and made him enter upon a march towards Le Mans. This march was harassed by the French irregular troops in a degree hitherto unknown in the present war; the population showed a most determined resistance, francs-tireurs hovered round the flanks of the invaders; but the regular troops confined themselves to demonstrations, and could not be brought to bay. The letters of the German correspondents with Mecklenburg’s army, their rage and indignation at those wicked French who insist upon fighting in the way most convenient to themselves and most inconvenient to the enemy, are the best proof that this short campaign about Le
Mans was conducted exceedingly well by the defence. The French led Mecklenburg a perfect wild-goose chase after an invisible army up to about twenty-five miles from Le Mans: arrived thus far, he hesitated to go any farther, and turned south. The original plan had evidently been to deal a crushing blow at the Army of Le Mans, then to turn south upon Blois, and turn the left of the Army of the Loire; while Frederick Charles, just then coming up, attacked its front and rear. But this plan, and many others since, miscarried. D'Aurelle left Mecklenburg to his fate, marched against Frederick Charles, and attacked the 10th Prussian Corps on the 24th November at Ladon and Mézierès, and a large body of Prussians on the 28th at Beaune-la-Rolande. It is evident that here he handled his troops badly. He had but a small portion of them in readiness, though this was his first attempt to break through the Prussian army and force his way to Paris. All he did was to inspire the enemy with respect for his troops. He fell back into entrenched positions in front of Orléans, where he concentrated all his forces. These he disposed, from right to left, as follows: the 18th Corps on the extreme right; then the 20th and 15th, all of them east of the Paris-Orléans railway; west of it the 16th; and on the extreme left the 17th. Had these masses been brought together in time, there is scarcely any doubt that they might have crushed Frederick Charles’s army, then under 50,000 men. But by the time D'Aurelle was well established in his work, Mecklenburg had marched south again, and joined the right wing of his cousin, who now took the supreme command. Thus Mecklenburg’s 40,000 men had now come up to join in the attack against D'Aurelle, while the French army of Le Mans, satisfied with the glory of having “repulsed” its opponent, quietly remained in its quarters, sonic sixty miles away from the point where the campaign was decided.
Then all of a sudden came the news of Trochu’s sortie of the 30th of November. A fresh effort had to be made to support him. On the 1st D'Aurelle commenced a general advance against the Prussians, but it was too late. While the Germans met him with all their forces, his 18th Corps — on the extreme right — appeared to have been sent astray, and never to have been engaged. Thus he fought with but four corps, that is to say, with numbers (of actual combatants) probably little superior to those of his opponents. He was beaten; he appears to have felt himself beaten even before he was so. Hence the irresolution he displayed when, after having on the evening of the 3rd of December ordered a retreat across the Loire, he countermanded it next morning and resolved to defend Orleans. The usual result followed: order, counter-order, disorder. The Prussian attack being concentrated on his left and centre, his two right corps, evidently in consequence of the contradictory orders they had received, lost their line of retreat upon Orléans, and had to cross the river, the 20th at Jargeau and the 18th still further east, at Sully. A small portion of the latter appears to have been driven still more eastward, as it was found by the 3rd Prussian Corps on the 7th of December at Nevoy, near (;ten, and thence pursued in the direction of Briare, always on the right bank of the river. Orléans fell into the hands of the Germans on the evening of the 4th, and the pursuit was at once organized. While the 3rd Corps was to skirt the upper course of the Loire on the right bank, the 10th was sent to Vierzon, and the Mecklenburg command on the right bank towards Blois. Before reaching that place, this latter force was met at Beaugency by at least a portion of the army of Le Mans, which now at last had joined Chanzy’s command, and offered a pertinacious and partly successful resistance. But this was soon broken, for the 9th Prussian Corps was marching, on the left bank of the river, towards Blois, where it would have cut off Chanzy’s retreat towards Tours. This turning movement had its effect. Chanzy retired out of harm’s way, and Blois fell into the hands of the invaders. The thaw and heavy rains about this time broke up the roads, and thus stopped further pursuit.
Prince Frederick Charles has telegraphed to headquarters that the Army of the Loire is totally dispersed in various directions, that its centre is broken, and that it has ceased to exist as an army. All this sounds well, but it is far from being correct. There can be no doubt, even from the German accounts, that the seventy-seven guns taken before Orleans were almost all naval guns abandoned in the entrenchments. There may be 10,000, and, including the wounded, 14,000 prisoners, most of them very much demoralized; but the state of the Bavarians who on the 5th of December thronged the road from Artenay to Chartres, utterly disorganized, without arms or knapsacks, was not so much better.
There is an utter absence of trophies gathered during the pursuit on and after the 5th; and if an army has broken up, its soldiery cannot fail to be brought in wholesale by an active and numerous cavalry such as we know the Prussians to possess. There is extreme inaccuracy here, to say the least of it. The thaw is no excuse; that set in about the 9th, and would leave four or five days of fine frozen roads and fields for active pursuit. It is not so much the thaw which stops the advance of the Prussians; it is the consciousness that the force of these 90,000 men, now reduced to about 60,000 by losses and garrisons left behind, is nearly spent. The point beyond which it is imprudent to follow up even a beaten enemy has very nearly been reached. There may be raids on a large scale further south, but there will be scarcely any further occupation of territory. The Army of the Loire, now divided into two armies under Bourbaki and Chanzy, will have plenty of time and room to re-form, and to draw towards it newly formed battalions. By its division it has ceased to exist as an army, but it is the first French army in this campaign which has done so not ingloriously. We shall probably hear of its two successors again.
In the meantime, Prussia shows signs of exhaustion. The men of the landwehr up to forty years and more — legally free from service after their thirty-second year — are called in. The drilled reserves of the country are exhausted. In January the recruits — about 90,000 from North Germany — will be sent out to France. This may give altogether the 150,000 men of whom we hear so much, but they are not yet there; and when they do come they will alter the character of the army materially. The wear and tear of the campaign has been terrible, and is becoming more so every (lay. ‘I lie melancholy tone of the letters from the army shows it, as well as the lists of losses. It is no longer the great battles which make up the bulk of these lists, it is the small encounters where one, two, five men are shot down. This constant erosion by the waves of popular warfare in the long run melts down or washes away the largest army in detail, and, what is the chief point, without any visible equivalent. While Paris holds out, every day improves the position of the French, and the impatience at Versailles about the surrender of Paris shows best that that city may yet become dangerous to the besiegers.