Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 15, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Where is MacMahon? The German horse, in their raid up to the gates of Lunéville and Nancy, appear not to have met with him; otherwise we should have heard of encounters. On the other hand, if he had arrived in safety at Nancy, and thus restored his communications with the army at Metz, such a consoling fact would certainly have been announced at once from the French head-quarters. The only conclusion we can draw from this absolute silence regarding him is this, that he has thought it too dangerous to follow the direct road from Saverne to Lunéville and Nancy; and that, in order not to expose his right flank to the enemy, he has taken a more circuitous route, farther south, passing the Moselle at Bayon or even higher up. If this surmise be correct, there would be very little chance of his ever reaching Metz; and, in that case, it must have been a question for the Emperor or whoever commands at Metz, whether the army had not better at once retreat to Châlons-sur-Marne, the nearest point where a ]unction with MacMahon may be effected. We are therefore disposed to accept the report of a general retreat of the French line in that direction.

In the meantime, we hear of tremendous reinforcements for the French army. The new Minister of War assures the Chamber that in four days two army corps, 35,000 men each, are to be sent to the front. Where are they? We know that the eight corps of the Army of the Rhine, and the troops intended for the Baltic, with the garrison of Algeria, fully accounted for every battalion of the French army, including the marines. We know that 40,000 men, from Canrobert’s corps and from the Baltic expedition, are in Paris. We know from General Dejean’s speech in the Chamber that the fourth battalions, so far from being ready, required filling up, and that this was to be done by drafting into them men from the Garde Mobile. Where, then, are these 70,000 men to come from? especially if, as is but likely, General Montauban de Palikao will not part with the 40,000 men in Paris as long as he can help it. Yet, if there is any meaning in what he said, these two corps must mean the troops at Paris and Canrobert’s corps, which hitherto has always been counted as part of the Army of the Rhine; and in that case, the only real reinforcement being the garrison of Paris, the grand total in the field will be raised from twenty-five to twenty-eight divisions, seven at least of which have suffered severely.

Then we hear that General Trochu is named chief of the 12th Corps forming at Paris, and General Vendez (?) chief of the 13th Corps forming at Lyons. The army consisted hitherto of the Guards, and corps Nos. 1 to 7. Of Nos. 8, 9, 10, and 11 we have never heard; now we are suddenly treated to Nos. 12 and 13. We have seen that there are no troops existing out of which any of these corps could be formed; always excepting No. 12, if that means the garrison of Paris. It seems a poor trick to raise public confidence by creating on paper imaginary armies; yet there is no other interpretation than this to be put on the alleged establishment of five army corps, four of which have been hitherto non-existent.

No doubt attempts are being made to organize a fresh army; but what materials are there for it? There is, firstly, the gendarmerie, out of which a regiment of horse and one of foot can be formed; excellent troops, but they will not exceed 3,000 men, and will have to be brought together from all parts of France. So will the douaniers, who are expected to furnish the stuff for four-and-twenty battalions; we doubt whether they will complete half that number. Then come the old soldiers of the classes of 1858 to 1863, the unmarried men amongst whom have been called out again by special law. These may furnish a contingent of 200,000 men, and will form the most valuable addition to the army. With less than one half of these the fourth battalions may be filled up, and the rest formed into new battalions. But here begins the difficulty — where are the officers to come from? They will have to be taken from the fighting army, and although this may be effected by a considerable promotion of sergeants to sub-lieutenants, it must weaken the corps from which they are taken. The whole of these three classes will give, at most, an. increase of 220,000 to 230,000 men, and it will take under favourable circumstances at least fourteen to twenty days before even a portion of them can be ready to join the active army. But, unfortunately for them, circumstances are not favourable. It is now admitted that not merely the commissariat, but the whole of the French army administration was utterly ineffective, even to supply the army on the frontier. What, then, will be the state of forwardness of accoutrements and equipments for these reserves which nobody ever expected to be wanted in the field? It is very doubtful, indeed, whether, beyond the fourth battalions, any new formations will be ready before a couple of months. Then it is not to be forgotten that not one of these men ever handled a breech-loader, and that they are, all of them, totally ignorant of the new tactics inaugurated by that arm. And if the present French line, as is now admitted by themselves, fire hastily and at random, and squander their ammunition, what will these newly formed battalions do in the presence of an enemy whose steadiness and precision of fire appear to be very little affected by the din of battle?

There remain the Garde Mobile, the levy of all unmarried men up to thirty years, and the sedentary National Guard. As to the Garde Mobile, what little of it ever had any formal organization appears to have broken down as soon as it was sent to Châlons. Discipline. there was none, and the officers, most of them totally unacquainted with their duties, seem to have lost in authority every day; there were not even arms for the men, and now the whole thing appears to be in complete dissolution. General Dejean indirectly acknowledged this by the proposal to fill up the ranks of the fourth battalions from the Garde Mobile. And if this, the apparently organized portion of the levy en masse be utterly useless, what is to become of the rest of it? Even if there were officers, accoutrements, and arms for them, how long would it take to make them into soldiers? But there is nothing provided for the emergency. Every officer fit for his post is already employed; the French have not that almost inexhaustible reserve of officers furnished by the “one year’s volunteers,” about 7,000 of whom enter the German armies every year, and almost every one of whom leaves the service quite fit to undertake an officer’s duties. Accoutrements and arms appear to be equally absent; it is even said that the old flint-locks will have to be brought out of store. And under these circumstances, what are these 200,000 of men worth to France? It is all very well for the French to point to the Convention, to Carnot, with his frontier armies created out of nothing, and so forth. But while we are far from saying that France is irretrievably beaten, let us not forget that in the successes of the Convention the allied armies bore a significant part. At that time the armies which attacked France numbered on an average 40,000 men each; there were three or four of them, each acting out of reach of the other, the one on the Schelde, the other on the Moselle, the third in Alsace, &c. To each of these small armies the Convention opposed immense numbers of more or less raw levies which, by acting upon the flanks and rear of the enemy, then entirely dependent upon his magazines, compelled him upon the whole to keep pretty close to the frontier; and, having been formed into real soldiers by five years’ campaigning, finally succeeded in driving him across the Rhine. But is it for a moment to be supposed that similar tactics will avail against the present immense army of invasion, which, though formed in three distinct bodies, has always managed to keep together within supporting distance, or that this army will leave the French time to develop their now dormant resources? And to develop them to any extent is possible only in case the French are prepared to do what they never have done before, to abandon Paris and its garrison to their fate, and to continue the struggle with the line of the Loire for their base of operations. It may never come to that, but unless France is prepared to face it, she had better not talk about a levy en masse.