Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Crisis of the War

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 20, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The Emperor has left the army, but his evil genius has remained with it — that evil genius which hurried on, in hot impatience, the declaration of war and — that accomplished — was henceforth unable to make up its mind to anything. The army was to be ready to march by the 20th of July at latest. The 20th of July came and nothing had been done. On the 29th Napoleon III took the supreme command at Metz, there was still time for an almost unresisted advance up to the Rhine: yet the army did not stir. Hesitation even appears to have gone so far that the Emperor could not determine whether to attack at all, or to take up a position for defence. The heads of the German columns were already converging from all directions towards the Palatinate, and every day they might be expected to attack. Yet the French remained in their positions on the frontier-positions designed for an attack which was never made, and altogether unfit for the defence which was so soon to be their only choice. The hesitation which lasted from the 29th of July to the 5th of August has been characteristic of the whole campaign. The French army, being placed close to the frontier, was without advanced guards at the proper distances in front of the main body, and there were but two ways in which this defect could have been remedied. The advanced guards might have been pushed forward into the enemy’s territory; or they might have been left in their actual positions on the border, and the main bodies drawn nearer together a day’s march to the rear. But the first plan would have brought on collisions with the enemy under circumstances beyond the control of the Emperor; while the second would have involved the political impossibility of a retreat before the first battle. Thus, hesitation continued, and nothing at all was done; as if the enemy would be caught by the infection, and equally refrain from moving. But the enemy did move. The very day before the whole of his troops had arrived at the front, on the 4th of August, it was resolved to take advantage of the faulty disposition of the French. The battle of Wissembourg drew the whole of MacMahon’s and Failly’s corps still more away from the centre of the French position; and on the 6th, the Germans being now fully ready, their Third Army defeated MacMahon’s six divisions at Woerth, and drove him, along with De Failly’s remaining two divisions, by Saverne towards Lunéville, while the advanced bodies of their First and Second armies beat Frossard’s and part of Bazaine’s troops at Spicheren, and drove the whole centre and left of the French back upon Metz. Thus, all Lorraine lay between the two retreating French armies, and into this wide gap poured the German cavalry and, behind it, the infantry, in order to make the most of the advantage gained. The Crown Prince has been blamed for not having followed up MacMahon’s beaten army to and beyond Saverne. But after Woerth the pursuit was carried out in the most correct manner. As soon as the beaten troops were driven. so far south that they could regain the rest of the French army only by a circuitous route, the pursuers, marching straight on towards Nancy, kept continually between the two; and that this mode of pursuit (the same as Napoleon’s after Jena is at least as telling as a direct march in the rear of the fugitives is now shown by the results. Whatever there is still in existence of these eight divisions is either cut off from the main body or has joined it in a state of total disorganization.

Thus much for the consequences of the hesitation which marked the beginning of the campaign. It might surely have been expected that the same mistake would not again have been committed. The Emperor had resigned his command into the hands of Marshal Bazaine, and Marshal Bazaine might certainly have known that, whether he did or did not, the enemy would not allow the grass to grow under his feet.

The distance from Forbach to Metz is not quite fifty miles. Most of the corps had less than thirty miles to march. Three days would have brought all of them safely under shelter at Metz; and on the fourth the retreat towards Verdun and Châlons might have been begun. For there could no longer be any doubt as to the necessity of that retreat. Marshal MacMahon’s eight divisions and General Douay’s remaining two divisions — more than one-third of the army — could not possibly rejoin Bazaine at any nearer point than Châlons. Bazaine had twelve divisions, including the Imperial Guard; so that even after he had been joined by three of Canrobert’s divisions, he cannot have had, with cavalry and artillery, above 180,000 men — a force quite insufficient to meet his opponents in the field. Unless, therefore, he intended to abandon the whole of France to the invaders, and to allow himself to be shut up in a place where famine would soon compel him to surrender or to fight on terms dictated by the enemy, it seems as though he could not have had a moment’s doubt about retreating from Metz at once. Yet he does not stir. On the 1 1th, the German cavalry is at Lunéville; still he gives no sign of moving. On the 12th they are across the Moselle, they make requisitions in Nancy, they tear up the railway between Metz and Frouard, they show themselves in Pont-à-Mousson. On the 13th their infantry occupy Pont-à-Mousson, and are thenceforth masters of both banks of the Moselle. At last, on Sunday, the 14th, Bazaine begins moving his men to the left bank of the river; the engagement at Pange is drawn on, by which the retreat is confessedly again retarded; and we may suppose that on Monday the actual retreat towards Châlons was commenced by sending off the heavy trains and artillery. But on that Monday the German cavalry were across the Meuse at Commercy, and within ten miles of the French line of retreat at Vigneulles. How many troops got away on Monday and early on Tuesday morning we cannot tell, but it appears certain that the main body was still behind when the German Third Corps and the reserve cavalry attacked the marching columns near Mars-la-Tour about nine in the morning on Tuesday, the 16th of August. The result is known: Bazaine’s retreat was effectually stopped; on the 17th, his own telegrams show that he had at the most only maintained the position it was his one desire to leave behind him.

On Wednesday, the 17th, the two armies seem to have taken breath, but on Thursday any hopes that Bazaine might still have entertained of making good his retreat were fatally stricken down. The Prussians attacked him on that morning, and after nine hours’ fighting On that evening or on the following day the Army of the Rhine must have re-entered the fortress it had left at the beginning of the week. Once cooped up there it will be easy for the Germans to cut off all supplies; the more so, as the country is already thoroughly drained of everything by the prolonged presence of the troops, and as the investing army is sure to require for its own use everything that can be got together. Thus, famine must soon compel Bazaine to move; but in what direction it is difficult to tell. A move to the west is sure to be resisted by overwhelming forces; one to the north is extremely dangerous; one to the south-east might perhaps partially succeed, but it would be wholly barren of immediate results. Even if he reached Belfort or Besançon with a disorganized army, he could not exercise any appreciable influence upon the fate of the campaign. This is the situation to which hesitation in the second phase of the campaign has brought the French army. No doubt it is accurately known to the Government in Paris. The recall of the Mobile Guard from Châlons to Paris proves it. From the moment Bazaine’s main forces are cut off, the position of Châlons, which was a mere place of rendezvous, and nothing else, has lost all importance. The nearest place of rendezvous now for all forces is Paris, and thither everything must now move. There is no force whatever which could oppose in the field the Third German Army, now probably moving upon the capital. Before long the French will find out, by a practical trial, whether or not the fortifications of Paris are worth their cost.

Though this crowning catastrophe has been impending for days, it is hardly possible as yet to realize that it has actually come to pass. No expectations went the length of this reality. A fortnight ago Englishmen were speculating on the possible consequences of the French army winning the first great battle. The danger to which their fears most pointed was that Napoleon III might make such an initial success the occasion of a hasty peace at the expense of Belgium. Upon this point they were speedily reassured. The battles of Woerth and Forbach showed that no theatrical-triumph was in store for the French arms. The demonstration that Germany had nothing to fear from France seemed to promise well for the speedy ending of the war. The time must soon come, it was thought, when the French would acknowledge that the attempt to control the consolidation of Germany under Prussia had failed, and that, consequently, they had nothing left to fight for, while the Germans would hardly care to go on waging a chequered and doubtful war, when the admission it was designed to extort had been already conceded. The first five days of this week have again changed the whole face of affairs. The military power of France has to all appearance been utterly overthrown, and for the time being there seems to be no limit to German ambition except the doubtful barrier of German moderation. We cannot attempt as yet to estimate the political results of this tremendous reverse. We can only look on in wonder at its magnitude and its suddenness, and in admiration at the manner in which it has been sustained by the French troops. That after four days of almost constant fighting under the most discouraging conditions possible they should on the fifth have resisted the attack of greatly superior numbers for nine hours reflects infinite credit upon their courage and resolution. Never in its most triumphant campaigns has the French army won more real glory than in its disastrous retreat from Metz.