Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 13, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The Prussian staff officers in Berlin seem to be getting impatient. Through the Times and Daily News correspondents in Berlin they inform us that the siege material has now been for some days ready before Paris, and that the siege will begin presently. We have our doubts about this readiness. Firstly, we know that several tunnels on the only available line of railway have been blown up by the retreating French near La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, and that they are not yet in working order; secondly, we also know that the Matériel for a regular and effective siege of such a vast place as Paris is so colossal that it will take a long time to get it together, even had the railway been always open; and thirdly, five or six days after this announcement from Berlin had been made, we have not yet heard of the opening of a first parallel. We must therefore conclude that by readiness to open the siege, or regular attack, we are to understand the readiness to open the irregular attack, the bombardment.

Still, a bombardment of Paris, with any chance of compelling a surrender, would require far more guns than a regular siege. In the latter you may confine your attack to one or two points of the line of defence; in the former, you must constantly scatter such a number of shells over the entire vast area of the town that more fires are made to break out everywhere than the population can extinguish, and that the very operation of extinguishing them becomes too dangerous to be attempted. Now we have seen that even Strasbourg, with 85,000 inhabitants, was perfectly able to hold out under a bombardment of almost unparalleled severity; that, with the exception of a few solitary and pretty well-defined districts, which had to be sacrificed, the fires could be well kept down. The cause of this is the comparatively great extent of the town. It is easy to shell a small place of five or ten thousand inhabitants into submission, unless there be plenty of bombproof shelter inside it; but a city of from 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants can stand a great deal of shelling, especially if built, as most French towns are, of freestone, or with thick brick walls. Paris, within the fortifications, measures twelve kilometres by ten; within the old barrieres, which comprise the closely-built part of the town, nine kilometres by seven; that is to say, this part of the town comprises an area of about fifty millions of square metres or nearly sixty millions of square yards. To throw on an average one shell per hour into every one thousand square yards of that surface would require 60,000 shells per hour, or a million and a half of shells for every twenty-four hours, which would presuppose the employment of at least 2,000 heavy guns for the purpose. Yet one shell per hour for a space nearly one hundred feet long by one hundred feet broad would be a weak bombardment. Of course the fire might be concentrated temporarily upon one or more quarters until these were thoroughly destroyed, and then transferred to the neighbouring quarters; but this proceeding, to be effective, would last almost as long as or longer than a regular siege, while it would be necessarily less certain to compel the surrender of the place.

Moreover, Paris, while the forts are not reduced, is in fact out of reach of effective bombardment. The nearest heights outside the town now in the hands of the besiegers, those near Châtillon, are fully 8,000 metres=8,700 yards, or five miles from the Palais de Justice, which pretty nearly represents the centre of the town. On the whole of the southern side, this distance will be about the same. On the north-east, the line of forts is as far as 10,000 metres, or about 11,000 yards, from the centre of the town, so that any bombarding batteries in that quarter would have to be placed 2,000 yards farther off, or from seven to eight miles from the Palace of Justice. On the north-west, the bends of the Seine and Fort Mont Valérien protect the town so well that bombarding batteries could be erected in closed redoubts or regular parallels only; that is to say, not before the regular siege had begun, to which we here suppose the bombardment to be a preliminary.

Now there is no doubt that the Prussian heavy rifled guns, of calibres of five, six, seven, eight, and nine inches, throwing shells from twenty-five to above three hundred pounds’ weight, might be made to cover a distance of five miles. In 1864 the rifled twenty-four pounders on Gammelmark bombarded Sonderburg at a distance of 5,700 paces = 4,750 yards, or nearly three miles, although these guns were old bronze ones, and could not stand more than a 4lb. or 5lb. charge of powder to a shell weighing 68lb. The elevation was necessarily considerable, and had to be obtained by a peculiar adaptation of the gun-carriages, which would have broken down if stronger charges had been used. The present Prussian cast-steel guns can stand charges far heavier in proportion to the weights of their shells; but, to obtain a range of five miles, the elevation must still be very considerable, and the gun-carriages would have to be altered accordingly; and, being put to uses they were not constructed for, would soon be smashed. Nothing knocks up a gun-carriage sooner than firing at elevations even as low as five and six degrees with full charges; but in this case, the elevation would average at least fifteen degrees, and the gun-carriages would be knocked to pieces as fast as the houses in Paris. Leaving, however, this difficulty out of consideration, the bombardment of Paris by batteries five miles distant from the centre of the town, could be at best but a partial affair. There would be enough of destruction to exasperate, but not enough to terrify. The shells, at such ranges, could not be directed with sufficient certainty to any particular part of the town. Hospitals, museums, libraries, though ever so conspicuous from the heights where the batteries might be, could hardly be spared even if directions were given to avoid particular districts. Military buildings, arsenals, magazines, storehouses, even if visible to the besieger, could not be singled out for destruction with any surety; so that the common excuse for a bombardment — that it aimed at the destruction of the means of defence of the besieged — would fail. All this is said on the supposition that the besiegers have the means at hand for a really serious bombardment — that is to say, some two thousand rifled guns and mortars of heavy calibre. But if, as we suppose is the case, the German siege-park is composed of some four or five hundred guns, this will not suffice to produce any such impression on the city as to make its surrender probable.

The bombardment of a fortress, though still considered as a step permitted by the laws of war, yet is a measure implying such an amount of suffering to non-combatants that history will blame any one nowadays attempting it without reasonable chance of thereby extorting the surrender of the place. We smile at the chauvinisme of a Victor Hugo, who considers Paris a holy city — very holy! — and every attempt to attack it a sacrilege. We look upon Paris as upon any other fortified town, which, if it chooses to defend itself, must run all the risks of fair attack, of open trenches, siege batteries, and stray shots hitting non-military buildings. But if the mere bombardment of Paris cannot force the city into surrender, and if, nevertheless, such a bombardment should take place, it will be a military blunder such as few people would lay to the charge of Moltke’s staff. It will be said that Paris was bombarded not for military but for political reasons.