Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Prussian Victories

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 8, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The rapid action of the German Third Army throws more and more light upon Moltke’s plans. The concentration of this army in the Palatinate must have taken place by the bridges of Mannheim and Germersheim, and perhaps by intermediate military pontoon bridges. Before entering upon the roads across the Hardt from Landau and Neustadt westwards, the troops massed in the Rhine valley were available for an attack on the French right wing. Such an attack, with the superior forces in hand, and with Landau close to the rear, was perfectly safe, and might lead to great results. If it succeeded in drawing a considerable body of French troops away from their main body into the Rhine valley, in defeating it and driving it up the valley towards Strasbourg, these forces would be out of the way for the general battle, while the German Third Army would still be in a position to take part in it, being so much nearer to the main body of the French. At any rate, an attack upon the French right would mislead them if the chief German attack, as we still believe, in spite of the contrary opinion of a host of military and unmilitary quidnuncs, were intended to be made on the French left.

The sudden and successful attack upon Wissembourg shows that the Germans possessed information as to the positions of the French which encouraged such a manoeuvre. The French, in their haste for a revanche, ran headlong into the trap. Marshal MacMahon immediately concentrated his corps towards Wissembourg, and to complete this manoeuvre he is reported to have required two days. But the Crown Prince was not likely to give him that time. He followed up his advantage at once, and attacked him on Saturday near Woerth on the Sauer, about fifteen miles south-west of Wissembourg. MacMahon’s position is described by himself as a strong one. Nevertheless, by five o'clock in the afternoon he was driven out of it, and was supposed by the Crown Prince to be in full retreat upon Bitche. By this means he would have saved himself from being driven excentrically upon Strasbourg, and maintained his communications with the mass of the army. By later French telegrams, however, it appears that he has really retreated towards Nancy, and that his head-quarters are now at Saverne.

The two French corps sent to resist this German advance consisted of seven divisions of infantry, of whom we suppose at least five to have been engaged. It is possible that the whole of them may have come up successively during the fight, but were no more able to restore the balance than the successive Austrian brigades as they appeared on the battle-field of Magenta? At any rate, we may safely assume that from one-fifth to one-fourth of the total strength of the French was here defeated. The troops on the other side were probably the same whose advanced guard had won Wissembourg — the Second Bavarian, the Fifth and Eleventh North German corps. Of these, the fifth consists of two Posen, five Silesian and one Westphalian regiments, the Eleventh of one Pomeranian, four Hesse-Cassel and Nassau, and three Thuringian regiments, so that troops of the most varied parts of Germany were engaged.

What surprises us most in these passages of arms is the strategical and tactical part played by each army. It is the very reverse of what, from tradition, might have been expected. The Germans attack; the French defend themselves. The Germans act rapidly and in large masses, and they handle them with ease; the French own to having their troops, after a fortnight’s concentration, in such a dispersed state that they require two days to bring together two army corps. Consequently they are beaten in detail. They might be Austrians, to judge from the way they move their troops. How is this to be accounted for? Simply by the necessities of the Second Empire. The sting of Wissembourg was enough to arouse all Paris, and, no doubt, to disturb the equanimity of the army too. A revanche must be had: MacMahon is sent off at once with two corps to effect it; the movement is palpably false, but, no matter, it must be made, and it is made — with what effect we have seen. If Marshal MacMahon cannot be strengthened so as to face the Crown Prince again, the latter, by a march of some fifteen miles to the southward, may seize the rail from Strasbourg to Nancy and push on to Nancy, turning by this move any line the French could hope to hold in advance of Metz. It is the dread of this, no doubt, that leads the French to abandon the Sarre district. Or, leaving the pursuit of MacMahon to his advanced guard, he may file off to his right by the hills at once towards Pirmasens and Zweibrücken, to effect a formal junction with the left of Prince Frederick Charles, who has all the while been somewhere between Mayence and Saarbrücken, while the French persisted in sending him to Trèves. How the defeat of General Frossard’s corps at Forbach, followed, as it seems, by the advance of the Prussians to St. Avold yesterday, will affect his course we cannot determine.

If the Second Empire absolutely required a victory after Wissembourg, it now requires one, in a much higher degree, after Woerth and Forbach. If Wissembourg was enough to disarrange all previous plans with regard to the right wing, the battles of Saturday necessarily upset all arrangements made for the whole army. The French army has lost all initiative. Its movements are dictated less by military considerations than by political necessities. Here are 300,000 men almost within sight of the enemy. If their movements are to be ruled, not by what is done in the enemy’s camp, but by what happens or may happen in Paris, they are half beaten already. Nobody, of course, can foretell with certainty the result of the general battle which is now impending if not going on; but this much we may say, that another week of such strategy as Napoleon III has shown since Thursday is alone sufficient to destroy the best and largest army in the world.

The impression gained from the Prussian accounts of these battles will only be deepened by the telegrams from the Emperor Napoleon. At midnight on Saturday he sent off the bare facts: —

“Marshal MacMahon has lost a battle. General Frossard has been compelled to fall back.”

Three hours later came the news that his communications with Marshal MacMahon were interrupted a At six on Sunday morning the serious meaning of General Frossard’s defeat was virtually acknowledged by the confession that it was sustained as far west of Saarbrücken as Forbach, and the impossibility of immediately arresting the Prussian advance was further conceded in the announcement “the troops, which had found themselves divided, are concentrated on Metz.” The next telegram is hard to interpret.

“The retreat will be effected in good order"?

What retreat? Not Marshal MacMahon’s, for the communications with him were still interrupted. Not General Frossard’s, for the Emperor goes on to say, “There is no news from General Frossard.” And if at 8.25 A.M. the Emperor could only speak in the future tense of a retreat to be effected by troops of whose position he knew nothing, what value must be assigned to the telegram of eight hours’ earlier, in which he says, in the present tense, “the retreat is being effected in good order.” All these later messages prolong the note struck in the “Tout peut se rétablir,” of the first. The victories of the Prussians were too serious to allow of a resort to the tactics which the Emperor would naturally have adopted. He could not venture to conceal the truth in the prospect of being able to efface the effect of it by a contemporaneous account of a later battle with a different result. It was impossible to spare the pride of the French people by disguising from them that two of their armies had been worsted, and therefore the only resource left was to throw himself on the passionate desire to retrieve their losses which the news of similar disasters has before now generated in French hearts. Private telegrams no doubt sketched out for the Empress and the Ministers the line their public utterances were to take, or more probably the actual text of their respective proclamations was supplied to them from Metz. From both these we gather that whatever may be the temper of the French people, every one in authority, from the Emperor

downward, is deeply dispirited, than which of itself nothing could be more significant. Paris has been declared in a state of siege — an indisputable indication of what may follow upon another Prussian victory, and the Ministerial proclamation ends,

“Let us fight with vigour, and the country will be saved.”

Saved, Frenchmen may perhaps ask themselves, from what? From an invasion undertaken by the Prussians in order to avert a French invasion of Germany. If the Prussians had been defeated and a similar exhortation had come from Berlin, its meaning would have been clear, since every fresh victory of French arms would have meant a fresh annexation of German territory to France. But if the Prussian Government are well advised a French defeat will only mean that the attempt to prevent Prussia from pursuing her German policy undisturbed has failed, and we can hardly believe that the levy en masse, upon which the French Ministers are said to be deliberating, will be available for the renewal of an offensive war.