Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 19, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
Undoubtedly, if General Moltke be old, his plans have all the energy of youth. Not satisfied with having once already pushed his compact army between one wing of the French and the rest of their troops, he now repeats the same manoeuvre over again, and apparently with equal success. Had he continued his straight march on to the Marne, and merely harassed the right flank and rear of the French during their parallel march towards the same goal, he would, in the opinion of most military critics, have done quite enough. But it was hardly to be expected that he would have used the legs of his soldiers with such terrible vigour as he now appears to have done. What we took for mere attacks of detached corps upon the exposed flanks and rear of that long marching column which moved from Metz towards Verdun appears now to have been the reconnaissances preceding an attack in force upon it. Three or four German army corps had marched in a semicircle round on the southern side of Metz; their advanced troops reached the French line of march on Tuesday morning, and at once fell upon it. The French army began its retreat from Metz on Sunday; the engagements between Pange and Fort Bellecroix on the evening of that day may have retarded that movement, still it was continued on Monday and had not been completed on Tuesday. It took place at least by two different columns, following the two roads which separate, five miles west of Metz, at Gravelotte; the northernmost of these roads passes Doncourt and Etain, the southernmost Vionville, Mars-la-Tour, and Fresnes, and both unite again at Verdun. It was near Mars-la-Tour that the German attack took place; the fight lasted all day, and ended, according to the German account, in the defeat of the French, who lost two eagles, seven cannon, and 2,000 prisoners, and were driven back to Metz. On the other hand, Bazaine too claims the victory. He says his troops repelled the Germans, and passed the night on the position won. But there are two very ominous statements in his telegram of Wednesday evening. There he says he fought all day on Tuesday between Doncourt and Vionville; that is to say, he fought with his front extending from Doncourt to Vionville, facing west, the Germans barring the way to Verdun on both roads. Whatever success he claims, he does not pretend to say that he cleared the roads to Verdun, or only one of them. Had he done so, his evident duty would have been to continue his retreat during the night as fast as he could, as the enemy would almost certainly be reinforced in the morning. But he stops and passes the night “on the position won,” whatever that may mean. Not satisfied with that, he stays there till four o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, and even then announces, not his intention of moving, but of delaying his further movements for a few hours longer, in order to largely increase his ammunition. Thus we may be certain that the night to Thursday was also passed at the same spot; and as the only place whence he could increase his ammunition was Metz, we shall be fully entitled to conclude that the “positions conquered” were positions to the rear, that the retreat to Verdun was and remained cut off, and that by this time Marshal Bazaine will have either gone back to Metz, or attempted to escape by a route farther north.
If this view be correct — and we do not see how the evidence before us can be made to justify any other — a portion of the French army is again cut off from the rest. We do not know what troops may have passed towards Verdun on Monday, and on Tuesday morning before the Germans came up. But the portion driven back to Metz is evidently considerable, and whatever its importance may be, by so much will be reduced the great army which it was attempted to concentrate at Châlons. There is, indeed, a loophole left by which Bazaine might try to escape. A railway runs, close to the Belgian frontier, from Thionville to Longuyon, Montmédy, and Mézierès, where it meets a cross line to Reims and Châlons; but any troops using this border line, or merely marching towards it, might be driven by a pursuing enemy up to the frontier, and compelled either to surrender or to cross it and be disarmed by the Belgians. Moreover, it is not likely that there will be rolling stock enough on this out-of-the-way line to take up a considerable body of troops; and, lastly, we have reports from Verdun that Prussians, who must have passed the Moselle between Metz and Thionville, were on Wednesday at Briey, on the direct road from Metz towards the available portion of that railway. Should Bazaine attempt to save his beaten troops in that direction he would, in the best of cases, have the whole of them reduced to utter dissolution. A long retreat, with the enemy on the direct line of communication of the beaten troops, is a most disastrous proceeding. Witness MacMahon’s troops, some driblets of which have continued to arrive by train at Châlons. On the 12th some 5,000 dropped in; in what state let the Siècle tell. They consisted of men of all arms and regiments mixed up, without arms, without cartridges, without knapsacks; the cavalry had no horses, the gunners no guns; a motley, disorganized, demoralized crew whom it would take weeks to form into battalions, squadrons, and batteries again. It is enough that correspondents decline to describe the state of the troops of the line at Châlons for fear to divulge matters which might be useful to the enemy.
That grand army which was destined to concentrate at Châlons may never meet there. After Canrobert’s troops had been drawn, partly to Paris and partly to Metz, there remained but the eighteen battalions of Mobiles there; not worth mentioning in a war like this. Since then some marine infantry from Paris has been sent to Châlons; Douay’s two remaining divisions, if there is any common sense left in Bazaine’s dispositions, will have arrived by this time; perhaps a few fourth battalions, certainly not many. The newly formed regiments of gendarmes and douaniers may, some of them, arrive in the course of a few days. A few small bodies of francs-tireurs may also come in; but, leaving all raw levies out of account, the chief portion of that grand army which can be concentrated there before the Germans arrive would, under all circumstances, consist of the troops retiring from Metz. And what these now may be, after Tuesday’s fights, we shall have to learn.
The nomination of General Trochu to the command of the army destined to defend Paris, so closely following upon his appointment to the command of the 12th Corps “forming at Paris,” proves that it is not intended to send the mass of the troops now in Paris to the front. Paris must be kept down. And yet, who will be able to keep it down when the truth about last Tuesday’s battle becomes known there?