Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 31, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The Germans have again been too quick for MacMahon. The Fourth Army, under the Crown Prince Albert of Saxony, comprising at least two corps (the Prussian Guards and the 12th or Royal Saxon Corps), if not more, have pushed at once up to the Meuse, secured passages somewhere between Stenay and Verdun, and sent their cavalry across. The defiles of the Argonnes are in their power. At St. Ménehould last Thursday they took 800 Gardes Mobiles prisoners, and at Buzancy on Saturday they defeated a French cavalry brigade. On their road they pushed a strong reconnaissance against Verdun last Thursday, but, finding the place in condition to receive them, they did not persist in an attack by main force.

MacMahon, who in the meantime had left Reims on the 22nd and 23rd with an army, according to French reports, of 150,000 men, well equipped, well provided with artillery, ammunition, and provisions, had not, on the evening of the 25th, got farther than Rethel, about twenty-three miles beyond Reims. How long he continued there, and when he left it, we do not know for certain. But the cavalry engagement at Buzancy, which is on the road to Stenay, some twenty miles farther on, proves that even on Saturday his infantry had not yet arrived there. This slowness of movement contrasts vividly with the activity of the Germans. No doubt, to a great extent it is caused by the composition of his army, which contains either more or less demoralized troops, or new formations in which young recruits are predominating; some of them are even mere volunteer corps with numbers of non-professional officers. It is evident that this army can neither have the discipline nor the cohesion of the old “Army of the Rhine,” and that it will be almost impossible to move from 120,000 to 150,000 men of this sort both rapidly and with order. Then there are the trains. The great mass of the heavy trains of the Army of the Rhine did certainly escape from Metz on the 14th and 15th, but it may be imagined that they were not in the very best of conditions; it may be assumed that their supply of ammunition and the state of their horses are not all that is to be desired. And finally, we may take it for granted that the French Intendance has not mended since the beginning of the war, and that consequently the provisioning of a large army in an extremely poor country will be no easy matter. But even if we allow very liberally for all these obstacles, we shall still be compelled to see besides in MacMahon’s dilatoriness a distinct symptom of indecision. His nearest way to the relief of Bazaine, the direct road by Verdun once given up, was that by Stenay, and in that direction he struck. But before he got farther than Rethel he must have known that the Germans had seized upon the passages of the Meuse, and that the right flank of his columns on the road to Stenay was not safe. This rapidity of the German advance appears to have disconcerted his plans. We are told that on Friday he was still at Rethel, where he received fresh reinforcements from Paris, and that he intended to move to Mézierès next day. As we have had no authentic news of important engagements, this appears very probable. It would imply an almost complete abandonment of his plan to relieve Bazaine; for a movement through the narrow strip of French territory on the right bank of the Meuse, between Mézierès and Stenay, would have its great difficulties and dangers, cause fresh delay, and give his opponents ample time to envelop him from all sides. For there can be no doubt now that quite sufficient forces have been sent northwards for this purpose from the army of the Crown Prince. Whatever we hear of the whereabouts of the Third Army points to a northward movement by the three great routes most handy for the purpose — Epernay, Reims, Rethel; Châlons, Vouziers; and Bar-le-Duc, Varennes, Grandpré. The fact of the engagement at Saint Ménehould being telegraphed from Bar-le-duc renders it even possible that it was part of the Third Army which there defeated the Mobiles and occupied the town.

But what can be MacMahon’s intention if he really moves upon Mézierès? We doubt whether he has any very clear idea himself of what he intends doing. We now know that his march northwards was, to a certain extent at least, forced upon him by the insubordination of his men, who grumbled at the “retreat” from the camp of Châlons to Reims, and rather strongly demanded to be led against the enemy. The march to relieve Bazaine was then entered upon. By the end of the week MacMahon may have been pretty well convinced that his army had not the mobility necessary for a direct march upon Stenay, and that he had better take the, for the moment, safer road by Mézierès. This would certainly postpone and might render impracticable the intended relief of Bazaine; but had MacMahon ever any very decided faith in his ability to effect that? We doubt it. And then the move on Mézierès would, at all events, delay the enemy’s march upon Paris, give the Parisians more time to complete their defence, gain time for the organization of the armies of reserve behind the Loire and at Lyons; and in case of need might he not retire along the northern frontier upon the threefold belt of fortresses, and try whether there was not some “quadrilateral” among them? Some such more or less indefinite ideas may have induced MacMahon, who certainly does not seem to be anything of a strategist, to make a second false move after once having entangled himself in a first one; and thus we see the last army which France has, and probably will have, in the field during this war march deliberately to its ruin, from which only the grossest blunders of the enemy can save it; and that enemy has not made one mistake yet.

We say the last army which France probably will have in the field during this war. Bazaine has to be given up, unless MacMahon can relieve him, and that is more than doubtful. MacMahon’s army, in the best of cases, will get scattered among the fortresses on the northern frontier. where it will be harmless. The reserve armies that are now spoken about will be raw levies, mingled with a certain number of old soldiers, and unavoidably commanded by chiefly unprofessional officers; they will be armed with all sorts of arms; they will be totally unused to the breech-loaders. which is tantamount to saying that their ammunition will be spent before it is really wanted — in one word, they will be unfit for the field, fit for nothing but the defence of fortifications. While the Germans have not only brought their battalions and squadrons to their full complement again, but keep sending division after division of landwehr to France, the French fourth battalions are not complete yet. Only sixty-six of them have been formed into “régiments de marche” and sent either to Paris or to MacMahon; the remaining thirty-four were not ready to march out a few days ago. The army organization fails everywhere; and a noble and gallant nation finds all its efforts for self-defence unavailing, because it has for twenty years suffered its destinies to be guided by a set of adventurers who turned administration, government, army, navy — in fact, all France — into a source of pecuniary profit to themselves.