Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 6, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

On the 28th of July the Emperor reached Metz, and from the following morning he assumed the command of the Army of the Rhine. According to Napoleonic traditions, that date ought to have marked the beginning of active operations; but a week has passed, and we have not yet heard that the Army of the Rhine, as a body, has moved. On the 30th the small Prussian force at Saarbrücken was enabled to repel a French reconnaissance. On the 2nd of August the second division (General Bataille) of the 2nd Army Corps (General Frossard) took the heights south of Saarbrücken and shelled the enemy out of the town, but without attempting to pass the river and to storm the heights which on its northern bank command the town. Thus the line of the Saar had not been forced by this attack. Since then no further news of a French advance has been received, and so far the advantage gained by the affair of the 2nd is almost nil.

Now it can scarcely be doubted that when the Emperor left Paris for Metz his intention was to advance across the frontier at once. Had he done so he would have been able to disturb the enemy’s arrangements very materially. On the 29th and 30th of July the German armies were still very far from being concentrated. The South Germans were still converging by rail and march towards the bridges of the Rhine. The Prussian reserve cavalry was passing in endless files through Coblenz and Ehrenbreitstein, marching southwards. The 7th Corps was between Aix-la-Chapelle and Trèves, far away from all railways. The 10th Corps was leaving Hanover, and the Guards were leaving Berlin by rail. A resolute advance at that time could scarcely have failed to bring the French up to the outlying forts of Mayence, and to ensure them considerable advantages over the retiring columns of the Germans; perhaps even it might have enabled them to throw a bridge over the Rhine, and protect it by a bridgehead on the right bank. At all events, the war would have been carried into the enemy’s country, and the moral effect upon the French troops must have been excellent.

Why, then, has no such forward movement taken place? For this good reason, that, if the French soldiers were ready, their commissariat was not. We need not go by any of the rumours coming from the German side; we have the evidence of Captain Jeannerod, an old French officer, now correspondent of the Temps with the army. He distinctly states that the distribution of provisions for a campaign began on the 1st of August only; that the troops were short of field flasks, cooking tins, and other camping utensils; that the meat was putrid and the bread often musty. It will be said, we fear, that so far the army of the Second Empire has been beaten by the Second Empire itself. Under a régime which has to yield bounties to its supporters by all the old regular established means of jobbery, it cannot be expected that the system will stop at the intendance of the army. This war, according to M. Rouher’s confession, was prepared long ago; the laying in of stores, especially equipments, was evidently one of the least conspicuous parts of the preparation; and yet at this very point such irregularities occur as to cause nearly a week’s delay at the most critical period of the campaign.

Now, this week’s delay made all the difference to the Germans. It gave them time to bring their troops to the front and to mass them in the positions selected for them. Our readers are aware that we suppose the whole of the German forces to be by this time concentrated on the left bank of the Rhine, more or less facing the French army. All public and private reports received since Tuesday, when we supplied The Times with all the opinion it ever had on the subject, and which this morning it swears is its own, tend to confirm this view. The three armies of Steinmetz, Prince Frederick Charles, and the Crown Prince represent a grand total of thirteen army corps, or at least 430,000 to 450,000 men. The total forces opposed to them cannot much exceed, at a very liberal estimate, 330,000 to 350,000 drilled soldiers. If they are stronger, the excess must consist of undrilled and recently formed battalions. But the German forces are far from representing the total strength of Germany. Of field troops alone there are three army corps (the 1st, 6th, and 11th) not included in the above estimate. Where they may be we do not know. We know that they have left their garrisons, and we have traced regiments of the 11th Corps to the left bank of the Rhine and the Bavarian Palatinate. We also know for certain that there are now in Hanover, Bremen, and neighbourhood no troops but landwehr. This would lead to the conclusion that the greater part at least of these three corps had also been forwarded to the front, and in that case the numerical superiority of the Germans would be increased by from some forty to sixty thousand men. We should not he surprised if even a couple of landwehr divisions had been sent to take the field on the Saar; there are 210,000 men of the landwehr now quite ready, and 180,000 men in the fourth battalions, &c., of the line nearly ready, and some of these might be spared for the first decisive blow. Let no one suppose that these men exist, to any extent, on paper only. The mobilization of 1866 is there to prove that the thing has been done, and the present mobilization has again proved that there are more drilled men ready to march out than are wanted. The numbers look incredible; but even they do not exhaust the military strength of Germany.

Thus, at the end of the present week, the Emperor a finds himself face to face with a numerically superior force. And if he was willing but unable to move forward last week, he may be both unable and unwilling to advance now. That he is not unaware of the strength of his opponents is hinted at by the report from Paris that 250,000 Prussians are massed between Saarlouis and Neuenkirchen. What there is between Neuenkirchen and Kaiserslautern the Parisian telleth not. It is therefore possible that the inactivity of the French army up to Thursday has been partly caused by a change in the plan of campaign; that instead of attacking, the French intend to remain on the defensive, and to take advantage of the greatly increased strength which breech-loaders and rifled artillery give to an army awaiting an attack in an entrenched position. But if this be resolved upon, it will be a very disappointing commencement of the campaign for the French. To sacrifice half Lorraine and Alsace without a pitched battle — and we doubt that any good position for such a large army can be found nearer the frontier than about Metz — is a serious undertaking for the Emperor.

Against such a move of the French the Germans would develop the plan explained before. They would attempt to entangle their opponents into a great battle before Metz could be reached; they would push forward between Saarlouis and Metz. They would try in all cases to outflank the French entrenched position, and to interrupt its communications towards the rear.

An army of 300,000 men requires a great deal of feeding, and could not afford to have its lines of supply interrupted even for a few days. Thus it might be forced to come out and fight in the open, and then the advantage of position would be lost. Whatever may be done, we may be certain that something must be done soon. Three-quarters of a million of men cannot long remain concentrated on a space of fifty miles square. The impossibility of feeding such bodies of men will compel either one side or the other to move.

To conclude. We repeat that we start from the supposition that both French and Germans have brought up every available man to the front to take part in the first great battle. In that case, our opinion still is that the Germans will have a numerical superiority sufficient to ensure them the victory-barring great mistakes on their part. We are confirmed in this supposition by all reports, public and private. But it is manifest that all this does not amount to absolute certainty. We have to infer from indications which may be deceptive. We do not know what dispositions may be taken even while we are writing; and it is impossible to forecast what blunders or what strokes of genius may be displayed by the commanders on either side.

Our last observations to-day shall be upon the storming of the lines of Wissembourg in Alsace by the Germans. The troops engaged on their side belonged to the Prussian 5th and 11th, and Bavarian 2nd corps. We have thus direct confirmation not only of the 11th Corps but of all the main forces of the Crown Prince being in the Palatinate. The regiment mentioned in the report as “the King’s Grenadier Guards” is the 7th or 2nd West Prussian regiment of grenadiers, which, as well as the 58th regiment, belongs to the 5th Corps. The Prussian system is always to engage the whole of an army corps before troops from another corps are brought up. Now, here, troops from three corps, Prussians and Bavarians, are employed for a piece of work which one corps, at most, could have performed. This looks as if the presence of three corps menacing Alsace was to be impressed upon the French. Moreover, an attack up the valley of the Rhine would be stopped by Strasbourg, and a flank march through the Vosges would find the passes blocked by Bitche, Phalsbourg, Petite Pierre, little fortresses sufficient to stop the high roads. We expect that while three or four brigades of the three German corps attacked Wissembourg, the mass of these corps would be marching by Landau and Pirmasens to Zweibrücken, while, if the first were successful, a couple of MacMahon’s divisions would be marching in the opposite direction towards the Rhine. There they would be perfectly harmless, as any invasion of the Palatinate, in the plain, would be arrested by Landau and Germersheim.

This affair at Wissembourg was evidently conducted with such a superiority of numbers as made success almost certain. Its moral effect, as the first serious engagement of the war, must necessarily be great, especially as the storming of an entrenched position is always considered a difficult matter. That the Germans should have driven the French out of entrenched lines, at the point of the bayonet, in spite of rifled artillery, mitrailleurs, and Chassepots, will tell on both armies. It is undoubtedly the first instance where the bayonet has been successful against the breech-loader, and on this account the action will remain memorable.

For this very reason it will derange Napoleon’s plans. This is a piece of news which cannot be given to the French army even in a highly diluted form, unless accompanied by reports of success in other quarters. And it cannot be kept secret for more than twelve hours at most. We may expect, therefore, the Emperor will set his columns in motion to look out for this success, and it will be wonderful if we do not soon have some account of French victories. But at the same time, probably, the Germans will move, and we shall have the heads of the opposite columns coming into contact at more places than one. To-day, or at latest to-morrow, ought to bring on the first general engagement.