Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 13, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The public have been waiting all this week for that great battle before Metz which a French bulletin described as impending; and yet not one of our military critics has thought fit to explain that this impending battle was nothing but a tub thrown out to that unruly whale, the people of Paris, to play with. A battle before Metz! Why should the French desire it? They have collected under shelter of that fortress four corps; they are trying to draw towards it some of Canrobert’s four divisions; they may hope soon to learn that the remaining three corps, of MacMahon, De Failly, and Douay, have reached the Moselle at Nancy and found shelter behind it. Why should they court a pitched battle before all their army is united again, when the forts of Metz protect them from an attack? And why should the Germans break their heads in an unprepared assault against these forts? If the whole French army was united under the ramparts of Metz, then the French might be expected to sally forth east of the Moselle and offer battle in front of their stronghold, but not till then. But that has yet to be accomplished, and it is still doubtful whether it ever will be.

On Sunday lastc MacMahon was compelled to leave Saverne, which was occupied the same night by the Germans. He had with him the remnants of his own corps, of one division (Conseil-Dumesnil’s) of Douay’s corps, and, besides, one division of De Failly’s, which had covered his retreat. On the same evening the German First and Second armies were in advance of Forbach and nearly in St. Avold. Both these places are nearer to Nancy than Saverne: they are considerably nearer than Saverne to Pont-à-Mousson and Dieulouard, places on the Moselle between Nancy and Metz. Now, when the Germans must, as soon as possible, secure or construct a passage across that river, and that above Metz (for various pretty evident reasons); when they are nearer to the river than MacMahon, and thus by hurrying on may prevent his reunion with Bazaine; when they have troops enough and to spare — is it not almost evident that they will attempt something of the sort? Their cavalry, as we predicted it would, is already scouring the whole of Northern Lorraine, and must have ere now come into contact with MacMahon’s right; it had passed, on Wednesday, Gros-Tenquin, which is only about twenty-five miles from the direct road between Saverne and Nancy. They will, therefore, know perfectly where he is and operate accordingly, and we shall soon learn at what point between Nancy (or, rather, Frouard) and Metz they have struck the Moselle.

This is the reason why we have not heard of any fights since last Saturday’s. The soldiers’ legs are doing all the work just now; it is a race between MacMahon and Frederick Charles, which of them shall first get across the river. And if Frederick Charles should win this race, then we may expect the French to issue from Metz, not to offer battle in sight of its ramparts, but to defend the passage of the Moselle; which, indeed, may be done by an attack either on the right or the left bank. The two pontoon trains captured at Forbach may have to do duty very soon.

Of De Failly we hear nothing definite. It is, indeed, stated in a Metz bulletin that he has rejoined the army. But which? Bazaine’s or MacMahon’s? Evidently the latter, if there be any truth in the whole report; for between Bazaine and him were the heads of the German columns ever since he got lost. Douay’s remaining two divisions — he was still on the Swiss frontier, near Basel, on the 4th of August — must, by the German advance upon Strasbourg, be cut off from the rest of the army for the present; they can only rejoin it by Vesoul. Of Canrobert’s troops we find, all at once, at least one division (Martimprey’s) in Paris, facing, not the Germans, but the Republicans. The 25th, 26th, and 28th regiments, which belong to it, are mentioned as having been employed on Tuesday among the troops protecting the Corps Législatif. The rest should now be in Metz, raising the army there to fifteen divisions (infantry), three of which, however, are completely shattered by their defeat at Spicheren.

As to Spicheren, it is wrong to say that the French were in that engagement crushed by superior numbers. We have now a tolerably full report of Generals Steinmetz a and Alvensleben which shows pretty clearly what troops were engaged on the German side. The attack was made by the 14th division, supported by our old friends, the 40th regiment — in all fifteen battalions. They alone, of infantry, fought for six hours against the three divisions, or thirty-nine battalions, which Frossard brought up successively. When they were nearly crushed, but still held the heights of Spicheren, which they had stormed in the beginning of the fight, the 5th division of the 3rd or Brandenburg Corps came up, and at least three out of its four regiments took part in the fight — all in all, either twenty-four or twenty-seven battalions of Germans. They drove the French from their position, and it was only after the retreat had commenced that the head of the 13th division, which had turned the French right by the valley of the Rossel, reached the field of battle, fell upon Forbach, and turned an orderly retreat into a rout by cutting off the direct road to Metz. The Germans at the close of the fight had another division (the 6th) ready to engage, and, indeed, slightly engaged; but at the same time two French divisions, Montaudon’s and Castagny’s (both of Bazaine’s), had come up, and the 69th regiment, which forms part of the latter, had suffered severely. Thus, if at Wissembourg and Woerth the French were crushed by superior masses, they were beaten by inferior numbers at Spicheren. As to their common report that they were outnumbered, it is not to be forgotten that individual soldiers in a battle cannot possibly judge of numbers, and that it is the common assertion of all beaten armies. Besides, it should not be forgotten that the solid qualities of the German army are only now beginning to be recognized. We have it officially from the French head-quarters that the German fire is much superior in steadiness and precision to the French, and MacMahon insists that the French have no chance against the Germans in woods, because these latter know so much better how to take advantage of shelter. As to the cavalry, here is what Jeannerod says in Thursday’s Temps: —

“Their cavalry is much superior to ours, the privates are better mounted than many officers in our army, and they ride better. ... I have seen one of their Cuirassier regiments which was something splendid.... Their horses, moreover, are far less weighted than ours. The Cuirassiers I saw carried less weight on their big steeds than we do on our small Arabs and South of France horses.”

He also praises the great knowledge the officers have of the ground, not only in their own country, but also in France. But no wonder. Every lieutenant is provided with excellent copies of the French ordnance maps, while the French officers are supplied only with a ridiculous map (une carte dérisoire) of the seat of war. And so forth. It would have been good for the French army if only one such sincere reporter had been sent to Germany before the war.