Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 26, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The two latest facts of the war are these — that the Crown Prince is pushing on beyond Châlons, and that MacMahon has moved his whole army from Reims, whither is not exactly known. MacMahon, according to French reports, finds the war getting on too slowly; in order to hasten its decision he is now said to be marching from Reims to the relief of Bazaine. This would indeed be hurrying on matters to an almost final crisis.

In our Wednesday’s publication we estimated MacMahon’s force at from 130,000 to 150,000 men on the assumption that all the troops from Paris had joined him. We were right in supposing that he had at Châlons the remnants of his own and of De Failly’s troops; also that Douay’s two divisions were at Châlons, whither we know now they went by a circuitous railway journey viâ Paris; also that the marines and other portions of the Baltic corps were there. But we now learn that there are still troops of the line in the forts round Paris; that a portion of MacMahon’s and Frossard’s men, especially cavalry, have gone back to Paris to be reorganized, and that MacMahon has only about 80,000 regular troops in camp. We may, therefore, reduce our estimate by fully 25,000 men, and set down 110,000 to 120,000 men as the maximum of MacMahon’s forces, one-third of which would consist of raw levies. And with this army he is said to have set out to relieve Bazaine at Metz.

Now, MacMahon’s next and more immediate opponent is the army of the Crown Prince. It occupied on the 24th with its outposts the former camp of Châlons, which fact is telegraphed to us from Bar-le-Duc. From this we may conclude that at that town were then the head-quarters. MacMahon’s nearest road to Metz is by Verdun. From Reims to Verdun by an almost straight country road there is fully seventy miles; by the high road, viâ St. Ménehould, it is above eighty miles. This latter road, moreover, leads through the camp of Châlons — that is to say, through the German lines. From Bar-le-Duc to Verdun the distance is less than forty miles.

Thus not only can the army of the Crown Prince fall upon the flank of MacMahon’s march if he use either of the above roads to Verdun, but it can get behind the Meuse and join the remaining two German armies between Verdun and Metz, long before MacMahon can debouch from Verdun on the right bank of the Meuse. And all this would remain unaltered, even if the Crown Prince had advanced as far as Vitry-le-François, or required an extra day to concentrate his troops from their extended front of march; so great is the difference of distance in his favour.

Under these circumstances it may be doubted whether MacMahon will use either of the roads indicated; whether he will not at once withdraw from the immediate sphere of action of the Crown Prince, and choose the road from Reims by Vouziers, Grandpré, and Varennes, to Verdun, or by Vouziers to Stenay, where he would pass the Meuse, and then march south-east upon Metz. But that would only be to secure a momentary advantage in order to make final defeat doubly certain. Both these routes are still more circuitous, and would allow still more time to the Crown Prince to unite his forces with those before Metz, and thus to oppose to both MacMahon and Bazaine a crushing superiority of numbers.

Thus, whichever way MacMahon chooses to get near Metz, he cannot shake off the Crown Prince, who, moreover, cannot be denied the choice of fighting him either singly or in conjunction with the other German armies. From this it is evident that MacMahon’s move to the relief of Bazaine would be a gross mistake, so long as he has not completely disposed of the Crown Prince. To get to Metz, his shortest, quickest, and safest road is right across the Third German Army. If he were to march straight upon it, attack it wherever he finds it, defeat it, and drive it for a few days in a south-easterly direction, so as to interpose his victorious army like a wedge between it and the other two German armies — in the same way as the Crown Prince has shown him how to do it — then, and not till then, would he have a chance to get to Metz and set Bazaine free. But if he felt himself strong enough to do this, we may be sure he would have done it at once. Thus, the withdrawal from Reims assumes a different aspect. It is not so much a move towards the relief of Bazaine from Steinmetz and Frederick Charles as a move for the relief of MacMahon from the Crown Prince. And from this point of view it is the worst that could be made. It abandons all direct communications with Paris to the mercy of the enemy. It draws off the last available forces of France away from the centre towards the periphery, and places them intentionally farther away from the centre than the enemy is already. Such a move might be excusable if undertaken with largely superior numbers; but here it is undertaken with hopelessly inferior numbers and in the face of the almost certainty of defeat. And what will that defeat bring? Wherever it occurs it will push the remnants of the beaten army away from Paris towards the northern frontier, where they may be driven upon neutral ground or forced to capitulate. MacMahon, if he really has undertaken the move in question, is deliberately placing his army in exactly the same position in which Napoleon’s flank march round the southern end of the Thuringian forest in 1806 placed the Prussian army at Jena. A numerically and morally weaker army is deliberately placed in a position where, after a defeat, its only line of retreat is through a narrow strip of territory leading towards neutral territory or the sea. Napoleon forced the Prussians to capitulate by reaching Stettin before them. MacMahon’s troops may have to surrender in that little strip of French territory jutting out into Belgium between Mézierès and Charlemont-Givet. In the very best of cases they may escape to the northern fortresses Lille, &c., where, at all events, they will be harmless. And then France will be at the mercy of the invader.

The whole plan seems so wild that it can only be explained as having arisen from political necessities. It looks more like a coup de désespoir than anything else. It looks as if anything must be done, anything risked, before Paris be allowed fully to understand the actual situation. It is the plan not of a strategist, but of an “Algérien,” used to fight irregulars; the plan not of a soldier, but of a political and military adventurer, such as have had it all their own way in France these last nineteen years. The language ascribed to MacMahon in justifying this resolve is quite in keeping with this. “What would they say” if he did not march to the aid of Bazaine? Yes, but “what would they say” if he got himself into a worse position than Bazaine has got himself into? It is the Second Empire all over. To keep up appearances, to hide defeat, is the thing most required. Napoleon staked all upon one card, and lost it; and now MacMahon is again going to play va banque, when the odds are ten to one against him. The sooner France is freed from these men the better for her. It is her only hope.