Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 17, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
If we are to believe the news from Berlin, the Prussian staff seem to anticipate that Paris will be conquered before Metz. But this opinion is evidently founded quite as much on political as on military reasoning. The troubles within Paris for which Count Bismarck has been waiting have not yet begun; but discord and civil war are expected to break out without fail as soon as the big. guns of the besiegers shall commence booming over the city. So far, the Parisians have, belied the opinion held of them in the German headquarters, and they may do so to the end. If so, the notion that Paris will be taken by the end of this month will almost certainly prove illusory, and Metz may have to surrender before Paris.
Metz, as a mere fortress, is infinitely stronger than Paris. The latter city is fortified on the supposition that the whole or at least the greater portion of the beaten French army will retire upon it and conduct the defence by constant attacks on the enemy, whose attempts to invest the place necessarily weaken him on every point of the long line he has to take up. The defensive strength of the works therefore is not very great, and very properly so. To provide for a case such as has now occurred by the blunders of Bonapartist strategy would have raised the cost of the fortifications to an immense sum; and the time by which the defence could thereby be prolonged would scarcely amount to a fortnight. Moreover, earthworks erected during or before the siege can be made to strengthen the works considerably. With Metz the case is very different. Metz was handed down to the present generation by Cormontaigne and other great engineers of the last century as a very strong fortress — strong in its defensive works. The Second Empire has added to these a circle of seven very large detached forts at distances of from two-and-a-half to three miles from the centre of the town, so as to secure it from bombardment even with rifled guns, and to transform the whole into a large entrenched camp second to Paris only. A siege of Metz, therefore, would be a very lengthy operation even if the town held but its normal war garrison. But a siege in the face of the 100,000 men who are now sheltered under its forts would be almost impossible. The sphere in which the French are still masters extends to fully two miles beyond the line of forts; to drive them back to the line of forts, so as to conquer the ground where the trenches would have to be dug, would necessitate a series of hand-to-hand fighting such as was only seen before Sebastopol; and supposing the garrison not to be demoralized by their constant fights or the besiegers not to be tired of such a sacrifice of life, the struggle might last many a month. The Germans have therefore never attempted a regular siege, but are trying to starve the place out. An army of 100,000 men, added to a population of nearly 60,000 and to the numbers of country people who have sought shelter behind the forts, must sooner or later exhaust the stock of provisions if the blockade be strictly enforced; and, even before this shall have taken place, the chances are that demoralization among the garrison will compel surrender. When once an army finds itself completely shut up, all attempts to break through the investing circle fruitless, all hope of relief from without cut off, even the best army will gradually lose its discipline and cohesion under sufferings, privations, labours, and dangers which do not appear to serve any other purpose but to uphold the honour of the flag.
For symptoms of this demoralization we have been watching for some time in vain. The stock of provisions inside the town has been much more considerable than was supposed, and thus the army of Metz has had a pretty good time of it. But the stores, if plentiful, must have been ill assorted; which is quite natural, as they were stray supplies for the army, accidentally left in the town and never intended for the purpose they have now to serve. The consequence is that the diet of the soldiers in the long run becomes not only different from what they are accustomed to, but positively abnormal, and produces sicknesses of various kinds and of daily increasing severity, the causes of this sickness operating stronger and stronger every day. This phase of the blockade appears to have now been reached. Among the articles of which Metz is short are bread, the chief ordinary food of the French peasantry, and salt. The latter is absolutely indispensable to maintain health; and, as bread is almost the only form in which the French partake of starch for fat-producing food, the same may in this case be said of the former. The necessity of feeding the men and inhabitants on meat principally has, it is said, produced dysentery and scurvy. Without trusting too much to reports from deserters, who generally say what they think will please their captors, we may still believe such to be the case, as it is just what must occur under the circumstances. That the chances of demoralization must thereby increase rapidly is a matter of course.
The very capable correspondent of The Daily News before Metz states, in his description of Bazaine’s sortie of the 7th of October, that after the French had established themselves in the villages to the north of Fort Saint-Eloy (north of Metz, in the valley of the Moselle) a mass of at least 30,000 of them was formed more to their right, close to the river, and advanced against the Germans. This column, or group of columns, was evidently intended to break through the circle of investment. This task required the utmost determination. They would have to march straight into a semicircle of troops and batteries concentrating their fire upon them; the severity of this fire would increase up to the point of actual contact with the enemy’s masses, when, if they succeeded in routing them, it would at once considerably diminish, while, if they had to retreat, they would have to undergo the same cross-fire a second time. This the men must have known; and, moreover, Bazaine would use for this supreme effort his very best troops. Yet we are told that they never even got within the rifle-fire of the German masses. Before they reached the critical point, the fire of the artillery and of the line of skirmishers had dissolved their cohesion: “the dense columns first staggered and then broke.”
This is the first time in this war that we hear such things of the men who could face cold steel and hot fire well enough at Vionville, Gravelotte, and the latter sorties. This inability even to attempt thoroughly the task which they were put to seems to show that the army of Metz is no longer what it was. It seems to indicate, not as yet demoralization, but discouragement and hopelessness — the feeling that it is no use trying. From that to positive demoralization there are not many steps, especially with French soldiers. And though it would be premature to predict from these indications the speedy fall of Metz, yet it will be surprising if we do not soon discover more symptoms announcing that the defence is on the wane.
The surrender of Metz would have a far less moral, but a far greater material influence upon the course of the war than the fall of Paris. If Paris be taken, France may give in, but she need not any more than now. For by far the greater portion of the troops now investing Paris would be required to hold the town and its environs, and it is more than doubtful whether men enough could be spared to advance as far as Bordeaux. But, if Metz capitulated, more than 200,000 Germans would be set at liberty, and such an army, in the present state of the French forces in the field, would be amply sufficient to go where it liked in the open country, and to do there what it liked. The progress of occupation, arrested by
the two great entrenched camps, would at once commence again, and any attempts at guerrilla warfare, which now might be very effective, would then soon be crushed.