Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The French Defeats

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, September 3, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

A large army, when driven into a corner, dies hard. It took first of all three battles to teach Bazaine’s troops that they were really shut up in Metz, and then thirty-six hours’ desperate fighting through day and night on Wednesday and Thursday last to convince them — if even then convinced — that there was no opening for escape through the toils in which the Prussians had caught them. Nor was the battle of Tuesday enough to compel MacMahon to give in. A fresh battle — apparently the greatest and most bloody of all the series — had to be fought on Thursday, and he himself wounded, before he was brought to a sense of his real position. The first account of the fighting near Beaumont and Carignanc appears to have been substantially correct, with this exception, that the line of retreat of the French corps engaged at Beaumont, which ran on the left bank of the Meuse to Sedan, was not cut off entirely. Some portion of these troops seem to have escaped on the left bank to Sedan — at least there was fighting again on that same bank on Thursday. Then there appears to be some doubt as to the date of the engagement of Nouart, which the staff in Berlin are disposed to think took place on Monday. This would certainly make the German telegrams agree better, and, if so, the turning movement which was ascribed to the French Fifth Corps would equally fall to the ground.

The result of the fighting on Tuesday was disastrous to the French corps engaged. Above twenty cannon, eleven mitrailleurs, and 7,000 prisoners are results almost equivalent to those of Woerth, but conquered much more easily, and with much smaller sacrifices. The French were driven back on both banks of the Meuse to the immediate neighbourhood of Sedan. On the left bank their position after the battle appears to have been defined to the west by the River Bar and the Canal des Ardennes, both of which run along the same valley, and enter the Meuse at Villers, between Sedan and Mézierès; on the east, by the ravine and brook running from Raucourt to the Meuse at Remilly. Having thus both flanks secured, their main body would occupy the intervening plateau, ready to meet an attack from any side. On the right bank, the river Chiers, which Joins the Meuse about four miles above Sedan, opposite Remilly, must have been crossed by the French after Tuesday’s battle. There are three parallel ravines, running north and south from the Belgian frontier, the first and second towards the Chiers, the third and largest immediately in front of Sedan, towards the Meuse. On the second of these, near its highest point, is the village of Cernay; on the third, above, where it is crossed by the road to Bouillon in Belgium, Givonne; and lower down, where the road to Stenay and Montmédy crosses the ravine, is Bazeilles. These three ravines in Thursday’s battle must have formed as many successive defensive positions for the French, who naturally would hold the last and strongest with the greatest tenacity. This part of the battle-field is something like that of Gravelotte; but, while there the ravines could be and actually were turned by the plateau whence they sprang, here the proximity of the Belgian frontier rendered an attempt at turning them very risky, and almost compelled a direct front attack.

While the French established themselves in this position, and drew towards them such troops as had not taken part in Tuesday’s battle (among others, probably, the 12th Corps, including the Mobiles from Paris), the Germans had a day’s time to concentrate their army; and when they attacked on Thursday they had on the spot the whole of the Fourth Army (Guards, 4th and 12th corps) and three corps (5th, 11th, and one Bavarian) of the Third; a force morally if not numerically superior to that of MacMahon. The fighting began at half-past seven in the morning, and at a quarter past four, when the King of Prussia telegraphed, it was still going on, the Germans gaining ground on all sides. According to the Belgian reports, the villages of Bazeilles, Remilly, Villers, and Cernay were in flames, and the chapel of Givonne was in the hands of the Germans. This would indicate that on the left bank of the Meuse the two villages which supported, in case of a retreat, the French wings had been either taken or rendered untenable; while on the right bank the first and second lines of defence had been conquered, and the third, between Bazeilles and Givonne, was at least on the point of being abandoned by the French. Under these circumstances there can be no doubt that nightfall would see the Germans victorious and the French driven back to Sedan. This, indeed, is confirmed by telegrams from Belgium announcing the fact that MacMahon was completely hemmed in, and that thousands of French troops were crossing the frontier and being disarmed.

Under these circumstances there. were only two alternatives open to MacMahon — capitulation or a dash across Belgian territory. The defeated army, shut up in and about Sedan — that is, in a district not larger, at best, than it would require for its encampment — could not possibly maintain itself; and even if it had been able to keep open its communication with Mézierès, which is about ten miles to the west, it would still be hemmed in in a very confined strip of territory, and unable to hold out. Thus MacMahon, unable to fray a road through his enemies, must either pass on Belgian territory or surrender. As it happened, MacMahon, disabled by his wounds, was spared the pain of a decision. It fell to General De Wimpffen to announce the surrender of the French army. This conclusion can hardly fail to have been hastened by the news, supposing news could reach them, of Bazaine’s decisive repulse in his efforts to get away from Metz. The Germans had foreseen his intention, and were prepared to meet him at all points. Not only Steinmetz but Prince Frederick Charles (as appears from the corps mentioned, 1st and 9th’), were on the watch, and careful entrenchments further strengthened the barrier encircling Metz.