Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, January 21, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

This has been a most unfortunate week for the French arms. After Chanzy’s defeat came the repulse of Bourbaki before Belfort, and now comes the check which, according to Prussian accounts, Faidherbe has just suffered in front of St. Quentin.

There can be no mistake about Bourbaki’s failure. Ever since the affair at Villersexel on the 9th, he has displayed a slowness of movement which indicated either indecision on the part of the General or insufficient strength on the part of the troops. The attack upon the entrenched positions which Werder had prepared for the protection of the siege of Belfort beyond the Lisaine (or Isel on other maps) was not commenced before the 15th, and on the evening of the 17th Bourbaki gave it up in despair. There can be no doubt now that the expedition had been undertaken with insufficient forces. The 15th Corps had been left near Nevers; of the 19th we have not heard for a month; the troops brought up from Lyons reduce themselves to one army corps, the 24th. We now hear of considerable reinforcements being hurried up to Dijon, but, in the face of the strong reinforcements rapidly arriving on the other side, they will not enable Bourbaki at once to resume the offensive.

It may be questioned whether Bourbaki ought to have led his young troops to the assault of entrenched positions defended by breech-loaders; but we know little as yet of the tactical conditions under which the three days’ fight took place: he may have been unable to act otherwise.

That the Prussian headquarters did not look upon Bourbaki’s expedition with the same contemptuous shrug as most people did here in London is shown by the extreme eagerness with which they took steps to meet it. From these steps there can be no doubt that Bourbaki’s move was known in Versailles as soon as he began his eastward march, if not before. On the 2nd of January the 2nd Corps received orders to march from Paris in a south-easterly direction, towards the basin of the Upper Seine. About the same time Zastrow left the neighbourhood of Metz with the 13th division for Châtillon. Immediately after the reduction of Rocroi, on the 9th, the 14th division (the remaining one of Zastrow’s 7th Corps) was ordered from Charleville towards Paris, thence to follow the 2nd Corps; and on the 15th already we find its advance (a battalion of the 77th regiment) engaged near Langres. At the same time landwehr troops were hurried on towards southern Alsace from Germany, and Manteuffel evidently owes his new command to no other cause than this first serious movement against the weakest point of the whole German line. Had Bourbaki brought sufficient forces to overthrow Werder, he might have cast him back into the Rhine valley, placed the chain of the Vosges between Werder and his own troops, and marched with the greater part of his forces against these reinforcements, which he might have attacked in detail as they arrived from different directions. He might have penetrated as far as the Paris Strasbourg Railway, In which case it is very doubtful whether the investment of Paris could have been continued. His defeat proves nothing against the strategy of his movement: it proves merely that it was carried on with insufficient forces. The writer of these Notes is still of opinion that the shortest and safest plan to relieve Paris is an attack upon the Strasbourg-Paris Railway, the only through line of rail the Germans have, for we know now that the other line, viâ -Thionville and Mézierès, is still impracticable, and will remain so for some time vet, on account of the blowing-up of a tunnel in the Ardennes. This, by the way, is the second instance in this war in which the demolition of a tunnel stops a railway for months, while the destruction of bridges and viaducts has been in every case repaired in an incredibly short time.

As to Chanzy, he evidently made a very great mistake in accepting a pitched battle at all. He must have been aware of Bourbaki’s move for nearly a month; he must have known that this was the real move for the relief of Paris, and that in the meantime he might have the whole weight of Frederick Charles’s army brought to bear against himself. He was not compelled to accept battle; on the contrary, he might have drawn on his opponent farther than was safe for the latter, by a slow retreat under continuous rear-guard engagements, such as those by which he first established his reputation in December. He had plenty of time to get his stores sent off to places of safety, and he had the choice of retiring either upon Brittany with its fortified naval ports, or by Nantes to the south of the Loire. Moreover, Frederick Charles, with all his forces, could not have followed him very far. Such a military retreat would be more in keeping with our previous experience of Chanzy; and as he must have known that the new reinforcements he had received were not yet fit for a general action either by equipment, armament, or discipline, we cannot but come to the conclusion that the battle before Le Mans was fought not for military but for political reasons, and that the man responsible for it is not Chanzy but Gambetta. As to Chanzy’s retreat now, it is, of course, rendered far more difficult by the preceding defeat; but Chanzy excels in retreats, and, so far, the victors do not appear to have materially damaged the cohesion of his army. Otherwise they would have substantial proofs to show for their assertion that this army “shows signs of dissolution.” Whether the retreat of Chanzy’s army is really an eccentric one is not certain. At all events, from the fact that part of his troops retreated towards Alençon, and another part towards Laval, it does not necessarily follow that the first portion will be driven into the peninsula of the Cotentin towards Cherbourg, and the other into that of Brittany towards Brest. As the French fleet can steam from the one port to the other in a few hours, even this would be no severe disaster. In Brittany, the country, by its numerous thickset hedges — as thick as those in the Isle of Wight, only far more plentiful — is eminently adapted for defence, especially by raw troops, whose inferiority almost disappears there. Frederick Charles is not likely to entangle himself in a labyrinth where the armies of the first Republic fought for years against a mere peasant insurrection.

The conclusion we must come to upon the whole of the campaign of January is this — that the French lost it everywhere by trying to do too many different things at the same time. They can hope to win only by concentrating their masses upon one point, at the risk of being temporarily driven back on the other points, where, of course, they should avoid pitched battles. Unless they do this, and soon, Paris may be considered doomed. But if they act on this old-established principle they may still win — however black things may look for them to-day. The Germans now have received all the reinforcements they can expect for three months to come; while the French must have in their camps of instruction at least from two to three hundred thousand men, who during that time will be got ready to meet the enemy.