Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

Bourbaki’s Disaster

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, February 18, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

By the correspondent of The Standard we are at last furnished with an eyewitness’s report of what took place in Bourbaki’s army during its disastrous January campaign. The correspondent was with General Crémer’s division, which formed the extreme left during the advance, and the rearguard during the retreat. His account, though naturally one-sided and full of inaccuracies in matters which did not occur under his eyes, is very valuable because it furnishes facts and dates hitherto unknown, and thus throws much light upon this phase of the war.

Bourbaki’s army, 133,000 men with 330 guns, was, it appears, scarcely deserving the name of an army. The linesmen, with passable officers, were inferior in physique to the Mobiles, but the latter had scarcely any officers acquainted even with the rudiments of their duties. The accounts received from Switzerland confirm this; if they give a worse account of the physique of the men, we must not forget the effect of a month’s campaigning under hunger and cold. The equipment as to clothing and shoes appears to have been by all accounts miserable. A commissariat or even a mere organization for carrying out with some order and regularity the levying of requisitions and the distribution of the food thus procured, appears to have been as good as totally absent.

Now of the four-and-a-half corps employed, three (the 15th, 18th, and 20th) had been handed over to Bourbaki as early as the 5th of December; and very soon after that date the plan to march eastwards must have been resolved upon. All his movements, up to the 5th of January, were mere marches for concentration, undisturbed by the enemy; they therefore were no obstacle in the way of improving the organization of this army — quite the contrary. Napoleon, in 1813, formed his raw levies into soldiers on the march to Germany. Thus Bourbaki had a full month to work in; and when after the time thus given him his troops arrived in presence of the enemy in the state described, he cannot possibly be considered free from blame. He does not appear to advantage as an organizer.

The original plan is said to have been to march upon Belfort in four columns — one on the eastern side of the Doubs through the Jura, to take or turn Montbéliard and the Prussian left; a second column along the valley of the river, for the front attack; a third column by a more westerly route, through Rougemont and Villersexel, against the enemy’s right; and Crémer’s division to arrive from Dijon by Lure beyond the Prussian right. But this was altered. The whole of the first three columns advanced on the one road through the valley, by which it is asserted that five days were lost, during which Werder was reinforced, and that the whole army being thrown upon one line of retreat, again lost time, and thus was cut off from Lyons and forced upon the Swiss frontier. Now, it is quite evident that throwing some 120,000 men — and men so loosely organized as these — in one column on one single line of march, would cause confusion and delay; but it is not so certain that this blunder was actually committed to the extent here implied. From all previous reports, Bourbaki’s troops arrived before Belfort in a broad front, extending from Villersexel to the Swiss boundary line, which implies the use of the various roads mentioned in the original plan. But whatever may have been the cause, the delay did occur, and was the chief cause of the loss of the battle at Héricourt. The engagement of Villersexel took place on the 9th. Villersexel is about twenty miles from the Prussian position at Héricourt, and it took Bourbaki five days — up to the evening of the 14th — to bring his troops up in front of that position so as to be able to attack it next morning! This we pointed out in a previous article as the first great mistake in the campaign. and we now see from the correspondent’s report that it was felt to be so by Crémer’s officers even before the battle of Héricourt began.

In that three days’ battle 130,000 Frenchmen fought against, 35,000 to 40,000 Germans, and could not force their entrenched position. With such a numerical superiority, the boldest flank movements were possible. Forty or fifty thousand men thrown resolutely upon the rear of the Germans while the rest occupied them in front could scarcely have failed to force them from their position. But instead of that merely the front, the entrenched front, of the position was attacked, and thus an immense and barren loss was caused. The flank attacks were carried out so weakly that a single German brigade (Keller’s) not only sufficed to repel that on the German right, but was enabled to hold Frahier and Chenebier so as in turn to outflank the French. Bourbaki’s young troops were thus put to the severest task which can be found for a soldier in battle, while their own superior numbers would have rendered it easier to carry the position by manoeuvring. But probably the last five days’ experience had proved to Bourbaki that it was useless to expect mobility from his army.

After the final repulse on the 17th of January followed the retreat to Besançon. That this retreat may have taken place mainly by the one road in the Doubs valley is probable; but we know that large bodies retreated by other roads nearer the Swiss frontier. Anyhow, on the afternoon of the 22nd the rearguard, under Crémer, arrived in Besançon. Thus the advanced guard must have arrived there as early as the 20th, and have been ready to march on the 21st against the Prussians, who on that day reached Dôle. But no. No notice is taken of them until after Crémer’s arrival, who all at once, changing his place from the rear to the vanguard, is sent out to meet them on the 23rd towards Saint Vit. On the following day Crémer is ordered back to Besançon; two days are wasted in indecision and inactivity, until, on the 26th, Bourbaki, after passing in review the 18th Corps, attempts suicide. Then a disorderly retreat commences in the direction of Pontarlier. But on that day the Germans at Mouchard and Salins were nearer the Swiss frontier than the fugitives, and their retreat was virtually cut off. It was no longer a race; the Germans could occupy leisurely the outlets of all the longitudinal valleys by which escape was still possible; while other troops pressed on the French rear. Then followed the engagements around Pontarlier, which brought this fact home to the defeated army; the result of which was the Convention of Les Verrieres and the surrender of the whole body to the Swiss.

The whole behaviour of Bourbaki, from the 15th to the 26th, seems to prove that he had lost all confidence in his men, and that consequently he also lost all confidence in himself. Why he suspended the march of his columns at Besançon until Crémers arrival, thus throwing away every chance of escape; why he recalled Crémer’s division, the best in the army, immediately after sending it out of Besançon to meet the Prussians, who blocked the direct road to Lyons; why after that he dallied another two days, which brings the time lost in Besançon to fully six days — it is impossible to explain unless by supposing that Bourbaki was eminently deficient in that resolution which is the very first quality of an independent commander. It is the old tale of the August campaign over again and it is curious that this singular hesitation should again show itself in a general inherited from the Empire, while none of the generals of the Republic — whatever else may have been their faults — have shown such indecision, or suffered such punishment for it.