Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 6, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

If we are to believe the reports sent by balloon from Paris, that city is defended by forces innumerable. There are between one and two hundred thousand Gardes Mobiles from the provinces; there are 250 battalions of Parisian National Guards, numbering 1,500, some say 1,800 or 1,900 men each — that is, at the most moderate computation, 375,000 men; there are at least 50,000 troops of the line, besides marine infantry, sailors, francs-tireurs, and so forth. And — so runs the latest information — if these be all disabled, there are still 500,000 citizens behind them fit to bear arms, ready in case of need to take their places.

Outside Paris there is a German army composed of six North German Army Corps (4th, 5th, 6th, 11th, 12th, and Guards), two Bavarian corps, and the Württemberg division; in all, eight corps and a half, numbering somewhere between 200,000 and 230,000 men — certainly not more. Yet this German army, although extended on a line of investment of at least eighty miles, notoriously keeps in check that innumerable force inside the town, cuts off its supplies, guards all roads and pathways leading outwards from Paris, and so far has victoriously repulsed all sallies made by the garrison. How is this possible?

First, there can be little doubt that the accounts given of the immense number of armed men in Paris are fanciful. If the 600,000 men under arms of whom we hear so much be reduced to 350,000 or 400,000, we shall be nearer the truth. Still it cannot be denied that there are far more armed men in Paris to defend it than outside to attack it.

Secondly, the quality of the defenders of Paris is of the most motley kind. Among the whole of them, we should consider none as really trustworthy troops but the marines and sailors who now man the outer forts. The line — the dregs of MacMahon’s army reinforced by reserve men, most of them raw recruits — have shown in the affair of the 19th of September, near Meudon, that they are demoralized. The Mobiles, good material in themselves, are but just now passing through recruit-drill; they are badly officered, and armed with three different kinds of rifle — the Chassepot, the converted Minié, and the unconverted Minié. No efforts, no amount of skirmishing with the enemy, can give them, in the short time allowed, that steadiness which alone will enable them to do that which is most required — to meet and defeat the enemy in the open field. It is the original fault of their organization, the want of trained teachers, officers and sergeants, which prevents them from becoming good soldiers. Still, they appear the best element in the defence of Paris; they are at least likely to submit to discipline. The sedentary National Guard is a very mixed body. The battalions from the faubourgs, consisting of working men, are willing and determined enough to fight; they will be obedient, and show a kind of instinctive discipline if led by men possessing personally and politically their confidence; towards all other leaders they will be rebellious. Moreover, they are undrilled and without trained officers; and unless there be actually a final struggle behind barricades, their best fighting qualities will not be put to the test. But the mass of the National Guards, those armed by Palikao, consist of the bourgeoisie, especially the small shopkeeping class, and these men object to fighting on principle. Their business under arms is to guard their shops and their houses; and if these are attacked by the shells of an enemy firing from a distance their martial enthusiasm will probably dwindle away. They are, moreover, a force organized less against a foreign than against a domestic enemy. All their traditions point that way, and nine out of every ten of them are convinced that such a domestic enemy is, at this very moment, lurking in the very heart of Paris, and only waiting his opportunity to fall upon them. They are mostly married men, unused to hardship and exposure, and indeed, they are grumbling already at the severity of the duty which makes them spend one night out of three in the open air on the ramparts of the city. Among such a body you may find companies and even battalions which, under peculiar circumstances, will behave gallantly; but, as a body, and especially for a regular and tiresome course of duty, they cannot be relied on.

With such a force inside Paris it is no wonder that the far less numerous and widely dispersed Germans outside feel tranquil as to any attacks from that quarter. Indeed, all engagements that have so far taken place show the Army of Paris (if we may call it so) to be incompetent to act in the field. The first great attack on the blockading troops, on the 19th, was characteristic enough. General Ducrot’s corps of some 30,000 or 40,000 men was arrested for an hour and a half by two Prussian regiments (the 7th and 47th), until two Bavarian regiments came to their assistance, and another Bavarian brigade fell upon the flank of the French; when the latter retreated in confusion, leaving in the hands of the enemy a redoubt armed with eight guns, and numerous prisoners. The number of the Germans engaged on this occasion could not exceed 15,000. Since then, the sorties of the French have been conducted quite differently. They have given up all intention of delivering pitched battles; they send out smaller parties to surprise outposts and other small detachments; and if a brigade, a division, or more advance beyond the line of the forts, they are satisfied with a mere demonstration. These fights aim less at the infliction of damage upon the enemy than at the breaking-in of the French levies to the practice of warfare. They will, no doubt, improve them gradually, but only a small proportion of the unwieldy mass of men in Paris can benefit by practice on such a small scale.

That General Trochu, after the fight of the 19th, was perfectly aware of the character of the force under his command his proclamation of the 30th of September clearly shows. He certainly lays the blame almost exclusively on the line, and rather pats the Mobiles on the back; but this merely proves that he considers these (and rightly so) as the best portion of the men under him. Both the proclamation and the change of tactics adopted since prove distinctly that he is under no delusion as to the unfitness of his men for operations in the open field. And he must, moreover, know that whatever other forces may remain to France under the name of Army of Lyons, Army of the Loire, and so forth, are of exactly the same composition as his own men; and that therefore he need not expect to have the blockade or siege of Paris raised by relieving army. It is therefore remarkable that we should receive report according to which Trochu had opposed, in a council of Ministers, the proposal to treat for peace. The report certainly comes from Berlin, not a good quarter for impartial information as to what is going on inside Paris. Be that as it may, we cannot believe that Trochu is hopeful of success. His views of army organization in 1867 were strongly in favour of fully four years’ service with the regiment and three years’ liability in the reserve, such as had been the rule under Louis Philippe; he even considered the time of service of the Prussians — two or three years — totally inadequate to form good soldiers. The irony of history now places him in a position where he carries on a war with completely raw — almost undrilled and undisciplined — men against these very same Prussians, whom he but yesterday qualified as but half-formed soldiers; and that after these Prussians have disposed in a month of the whole regular army of France.