Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, September 2, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

On the 26th of August, when the whole of our contemporaries, with scarcely one exception, were far too busy descanting upon the immense importance of the Crown Prince’s “resolute” march upon Paris to have any time left for MacMahon, we ventured to point out that the really important movement of the day was that which the latter general was reported to be making for the relief of Metz. We said that in case of defeat “MacMahon’s troops may have to surrender in that little strip of French territory jutting out into Belgium between Mézierès and Charlemont-Givet.”

What we presumed then is now almost accomplished. MacMahon has with him the 1st (his own), 5th (formerly De Failly’s. now Wimpffen’s), 7th (Douay’s), and 12th (Lebrun’s) corps, with such troops as could be spared from Paris up to the 29th, including even those rebellious Mobiles of Saint Maur; and, besides, the cavalry of Canrobert’s corps, which was left at Châlons. The whole force will represent, perhaps, 150,000 men, barely one half of which are troops of the old army; the rest, fourth battalions and Mobiles, in about equal proportions. It is said to be well provided with artillery, but of this a great portion must consist of newly-formed batteries, and it is notoriously very weak in cavalry. Even if this army should be numerically stronger than we estimate it, this excess must consist of new levies, and will not add to its strength, which we can scarcely deem to be equivalent to a force of 100,000 good soldiers.

MacMahon left Reims for Rethel and the Meuse on the evening of the 22nd, but the 13th Corps was despatched from Paris on the 28th and 29th only; and as by that time the direct railway to Rethel, viâ Reims, was menaced by the enemy, these troops had to be sent round by the Northern of France Railway, by St. Quentin, Avesnes, and Hirson. They could not complete their journey before the 30th or 31st, and then fighting had already begun in earnest; so that the troops for which MacMahon had waited were not there after all when wanted. For, while he kept losing time between Rethel, Mézierès, and Stenay, the Germans came marching on from all sides. On the 27th a brigade of his advanced cavalry was defeated at Buzancy. On the 28th, Vouziers, an important crossing of roads in the Argonnes, was in German hands, and two of their squadrons charged and took Vrizy, a village occupied by infantry, who had to surrender — a feat, by-the-by, of which there is but one previous example — the taking of Dembe Wielkie by Polish cavalry, from Russian infantry and cavalry, in 1831. On the 29th no engagements are reported from any trustworthy source. But on the 30th (Tuesday) the Germans, having concentrated sufficient forces, fell upon MacMahon and defeated him. The German accounts speak of a battle near Beaumont, and of an engagement near Nouart (on the road from Stenay to Buzancy) but Belgian reports refer to fighting on the right bank of the Meuse, between Mouzon and Carignan. The two can be easily reconciled, and supposing the Belgian telegrams to be substantially correct, the German Fourth Army (4th, 12th, and Guards corps) appear to have had the 4th and 12th corps on the left bank of the Moselle, where they were joined by the First Bavarian Corps, the first instalment of the Third Army arriving from the South. They met MacMahon’s main forces at Beaumont, marching evidently in the direction of Mézierès to Stenay; they attacked them, a portion, probably the Bavarians, falling upon and overlapping their right flank, and pushing them away from their direct line of retreat towards the Meuse at Mouzon, where the difficulty and delay of the passage over the bridge would account for their great losses of prisoners, artillery, and stores. While this was going on, the advanced guard of the 12th German Corps, which appears to have been sent off in a different direction, met the 5th French Corps (Wimpffen’s) marching, to all appearances, by way of Le Chene Populeux, the valley of the Bar, and Buzancy, towards the flank of the Germans. The encounter took place at Nouart, about seven miles south of Beaumont, and was successful for the Germans; that is to say, they succeeded in stopping Wimpffen’s flank movement while the fighting was going on at Beaumont. A third portion of MacMahon’s forces, according to the Belgian reports, must have advanced on the right bank of the Meuse, where it is said to have encamped the previous night at Vaux, between Carignan and Mouzon; but this corps, too, was attacked by the Germans (probably the Guards) and completely defeated, with the loss, as is alleged, of four mitrailleurs.

The ensemble of these three engagements (always supposing the Belgian accounts to be substantially correct) would constitute that complete defeat of MacMahon which we have repeatedly predicted. The four corps opposed to him would now number about 100,000 men, but it is questionable whether they were all engaged. MacMahon’s troops, as we have said, would be equivalent to about that number of good soldiers. That their resistance was nothing like that of the old Army of the Rhine is implied in the remark of a German official telegram, that “out losses are moderate,” and the number of prisoners taken. It is too early yet to attempt to criticise MacMahon’s tactical arrangements for and during this battle, as we know scarcely anything about them. But his strategy cannot be too strongly condemned. He has thrown away every fair chance of escape. His position between Rethel and Mézierès rendered it possible for him to fight so as to have his retreat open to Laon and Soissons, and thereby the means of again reaching Paris or western France. Instead of this, lie fought as if his only line of retreat was to Mézierès, and as if Belgium belonged to him. He is said to be at Sedan, the victorious Germans will by this time have lined the left bank of the Meuse, not only before that fortress, but also before Mézierès, whence their left will, in another day or so, extend to the Belgian frontier near Rocroi, and then MacMahon will be shut up in that little strip of territory upon which we placed our finger six days ago.

Once there, he has but little choice left to him. He has four fortresses around him — Sedan, Mézierès, Rocroi, and Charlemont; but upon twelve square miles of territory, with an overpowering army in front, and a neutral country in the rear, he cannot play at quadrilaterals. He will be starved out or fought out; he will be compelled to surrender either to the Prussians or to the Belgians. But there is one other course open to him. We said just now he had acted as if Belgium belonged to him. What if he really thought so? What if the whole mystery at the bottom of this inexplicable strategy was a settled determination to use Belgian territory as if it belonged to France? From Charlemont there is a straight road through Belgium, by Philippeville, to French territory, near Maubeuge. This road is but one half of the distance from Mézierès to Maubeuge through French territory. What if MacMahon intended to use that road for escape, in case he was reduced to the last extremity? The Belgians, he may think, will not be in a condition to effectually resist an army as strong as his; and if the Germans, as is very likely, follow MacMahon into Belgian territory, in case the Belgians cannot stop him, why, then there arise new political complications which may better, but cannot render much worse, the present situation of France. Moreover, if MacMahon should succeed in driving but one Gerinan patrol upon Belgian ground, the breach of neutrality would be established, and form an excuse for his subsequent violation of Belgium. Such ideas may have passed through the head of this old Algerian; they are in keeping with African warfare, and, indeed, they are almost the only ones by which such strategy as he has shown can be excused. But even that chance may be cut off from him; if the Crown Prince acts with his usual quickness, he may possibly reach Monthermé and the junction of the rivers Semois and Meuse before MacMahon, and then MacMahon would be pent up between Semois and Sedan on about as much ground as his men require for a camp, and without any hope of a short cut through neutral ground.