Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 24, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
Although still without full details of the three terrible battles fought last week around Metz, we have learned enough about them to be able now to give an intelligible account of what actually occurred.
The battle of Sunday, the 14th of August, was commenced by the Germans, with the intention of delaying the retreat of the French towards Verdun. The remnant of Frossard’s corps was observed to cross the Moselle towards Longeville on Sunday afternoon; signs of moving were visible among the troops encamped cast of Metz. The First (East Prussian) and Seventh (Westphalian and Hanoverian) army corps were ordered to attack. They drove the French in until they themselves got within range of the forts; but the French, foreseeing such a movement, had massed large bodies in sheltered positions in the valley of the Moselle, and in a narrow clough, through which a brook runs east and west, joining the main river to the north of Metz. These masses suddenly fell upon the right flank of the Germans, already suffering from the fire of the forts, and are said to have driven them back in confusion; after which the French must have retired again, for it is certain that the Germans remained in possession of that part of the battle-field which is out of range of the forts, and that they retired to their former bivouacs after daybreak only. We know this both from private letters written by men engaged in the battle, and from a correspondent’s letter from Metz in Monday’s Manchester Guardian, who visited the battle-field on Monday morning, and found it in the occupation of the Prussians, by whom the French wounded, then still remaining there, were being attended to. Both parties, in a certain sense, may claim to have attained the object for which the contest was engaged: the French enticed the Germans into a trap and made them suffer severely; the Germans delayed the French retreat until Prince Frederick Charles could gain the line by which this retreat was to be effected. On the German side there were two corps, or four divisions, engaged; on the French side, Decaen’s and Ladmirault’s corps, and part of the Guards, or above seven divisions. The French in this battle were thus in a great numerical superiority. Their position is also said to have been greatly strengthened by rifle pits and trenches, from which they fired with more coolness than usual.
The retreat of the Army of the Rhine towards Verdun was not commenced in force before Tuesday, the 16th. At that time the heads of Prince Frederick Charles’s columns — the 3rd Army Corps (Brandenburgers) — were just reaching the neighbourhood of Mars-la-Tour. They attacked at once, and for six hours held the French army at bay. Reinforced later on by the 10th Army Corps (Hanoverians and Westphalians), and portions of the 8th (Rhinelanders) and 9th (Schleswig-Holsteiners and Mecklenburgers), they not only maintained their position, but drove back the enemy, took two eagles, seven cannon, and above 2,000 prisoners. The forces against them consisted of Decaen’s, Ladmirault’s, Frossard’s, and part at least of Canrobert’s corps (they had reached Metz from Châlons during the last days the railway viâ Frouard was still open), and the Guards, or, in all, from fourteen to fifteen divisions. The eight German divisions were thus again faced by superior numbers, even if, as is likely, not all Bazaine’s troops were engaged. It is well to keep this in mind, while the French accounts continue to explain all reverses by their being constantly outnumbered. That the French were effectively stop ped in their retrograde movement is clear from the fact that they themselves speak of rearguard engagements having taken place on the 17th near Gravelotte, more than five miles to the rear of their own position of the 16th. At the same time, the fact that only four German corps could be brought up on Tuesday shows that the success they obtained was incomplete. Captain Jeannerod, who came on the 17th from Briey to Conflans, found there two cavalry regiments of the French Guard much cut up and taking flight at the bare cry, “The Prussians are coming!” This proves that though the road by Etain, on the evening of the 16th, might not be actually in the possession of the Germans, they were so near as to render impossible any retreat by it without another battle. Bazaine, however, seems to have given up all thought of that, for he entrenched himself in a very strong position near Gravelotte, and there awaited the attack of the Germans, which took place on the 18th.
The plateau, over which runs the road from Mars-la-Tour by Gravelotte to Metz, is intersected by a series of deep ravines, formed by brooks running from north to south towards the Moselle. There is one of these ravines immediately in front (west) of Gravelotte; two others run, in parallel lines, to the rear of the first. Each of these forms a strong defensive position, which had been reinforced by earthworks, and by the barricading and loopholing of such farmyards and villages as occupied places of tactical importance. To receive in this strong entrenched position the enemy, to let them break their heads against it, to hurl them back finally by a mighty “retour offensif,” and thus clear the road to Verdun — this was evidently the only hope left to Bazaine. But the attack was made with such forces and with such energy that position after position was taken, and the Army of the Rhine driven back close under the guns of Metz. Against fourteen or fifteen French divisions twelve German divisions were actually engaged, and four more in reserve. The numbers engaged on both sides would be not far from equal; on the whole somewhat in favour of the Germans, four of their six corps having been nearly intact; but this slight numerical superiority would by no means make up for the strength of the French position.
French opinion still hesitates to accept the full reality of the position created for Bazaine and his army, a position the counterpart of that into which General Bonaparte drove Wurmser at Mantua, 1796, and Mack at Ulm, 1805. That the brilliant Army of the Rhine, the hope and strength of France, should after fourteen days’ campaigning be reduced to the choice either to attempt to force its passage through the enemy under disastrous circumstances, or to capitulate, is more than the French can bring themselves to believe. They look for all possible explanations. One theory is that Bazaine is, so to say, sacrificing himself in order to gain time for MacMahon and Paris. While Bazaine retains two of the three German armies before Metz, Paris can organize her defences, and MacMahon will have time to create a fresh army. Bazaine thus remains at Metz, not because he cannot help it, but because it is in the interest of France he should be there. But where, it may be asked, are the elements of MacMahon’s new army? His own corps, now numbering at most 15,000 men; De Failly’s remaining troops, disorganized and scattered by a long circuitous retreat — he is said to have arrived at Vitry-le-Francois with but 7,000 or 8,000 men; perhaps one division of Canrobert’s; the two divisions of FéIix Douay’s, the whereabouts of which nobody seems to know: about 40,000 men, including the marines of the intended Baltic expedition. These include every battalion and squadron which is left to France of its old army outside of Metz. To these would come the fourth battalions. They appear now to be arriving in Paris in pretty good numbers, but filled up to a great extent with recruits. The whole of these troops may r ach something like 130,000 to 150,000 men; but this new army is not to be compared in quality to the old Army of the Rhine. The old regiments in it cannot but have suffered greatly from demoralization. The new battalions have been formed in a hurry, contain many recruits, and cannot be as well officered as the old army. The proportion of cavalry and artillery must be very small indeed; the mass of the cavalry is in Metz, and the stores necessary for the equipment of new batteries, harness, &c., appear in some instances to exist on paper only. Jeannerod quotes an example in Sunday’s Temps. As to the Mobile Guard, after having been brought back from Châlons to Saint Maur, near Paris, it appears to have dispersed altogether, for want of provisions. And it is to gain time for forces like these that the whole of the best army which France possesses should be sacrificed. And sacrificed it is, if it is true that it is shut up in Metz. If Bazaine had got his army into its present position advisedly, he would have committed a blunder compared to which all previous blunders of the war would sink into nothing. In regard to Bazaine’s rumoured retreat from Metz and junction with MacMahon at Montmédy, the refutation of the story to which The Standard yesterday gave circulation has been sufficiently accomplished by the writer of the military review in the same journal this morning. Even if any detachments of Bazaine’s force have escaped to. the north after or in the course of the recent engagements round Mars-la-Tour, the bulk of his army is still locked up in Metz.