Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 21, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The investment of Paris has now lasted exactly one month. During this time two points relating to it have been practically settled in accordance with our predictions. The first is that Paris cannot hope to be relieved, in useful time, by any French army from without. The Army of the Loire is utterly deficient in cavalry and field artillery, while its infantry, with very trifling exceptions, consists of either young or demoralized old troops, badly officered and entirely wanting that cohesion which alone could render them fit to meet in the open old soldiers flushed with constant success such as von der Tann leads against them. Even were the Army of the Loire raised to 100,000 or 120,000 men, which it may be before Paris falls, it would not be able to raise the investment. By their great superiority in cavalry and field artillery, both of which can be spared to a great extent before Paris as soon as the siege train with its gunners has arrived, and by the superiority of their infantry, soldier for soldier, the Germans are enabled to meet such a force with one of inferior numbers without fear of the results. Besides, the troops now scouring the country east and north of Paris to distances of fifty and sixty miles could, in such a case, be sent temporarily to reinforce von der Tann, as well as a division or two from the investing army. As to the Army of Lyons, whatever of that possesses any tangible existence will find plenty of work with General Werder’s Fourteenth North German Corps, now in Epinal and Vesoul, and the Fifteenth Corps following in his rear or on his right flank. The Army of the North, with Bourbaki for commander, has as yet to be formed. From all we hear, the Mobiles about Normandy and Picardy are extremely deficient in officers and drill; and the sedentary National Guards, if not most of the Mobiles too, will be required to garrison the twenty-five or more fortresses encumbering the country between Mézierès and Havre. Thus efficient relief from this quarter is not very likely, and Paris will have to rely upon itself.

The second point settled is that the garrison of Paris is unfit to act on the offensive on a large scale. It consists of the same elements as the troops outside Paris, and it is equally deficient in cavalry and field artillery. The three sorties of the 19th and 30th of September and of the 13th of October have fully proved their inability to make any serious impression upon the investing forces. As these latter said, “They never were able to break through even our first line.” Although General Trochu states in public that his disinclination to attack the enemy in the field is caused by the deficiency in field artillery, and that he will not go out again until that is supplied he cannot help knowing that no field artillery in the world could prevent his first sortie en masse from ending in an utter rout. And by the time his field artillery can be ready, if that be more than a mere pretext, the fire of the German batteries against the forts and the closing in of their lines of investment, will have rendered its use in the open impossible.

Trochu and his staff appear to be perfectly aware of this. All their measures point to a mere passive defence, without any more great sorties than may be necessary to satisfy the clamour of an undisciplined garrison. The ramparts of the forts cannot long withstand the projectiles of the heavy German guns, of which more anon. It may be, as the staff in Berlin hopes, that two or three days will suffice to demolish the guns on the ramparts of the southern forts, to breach, from a distance and by indirect fire, the masonry revetment of their escarps in one or two places, and then to storm them while the fire of the batteries from the commanding heights prevents any efficient succour from the works to the rear. There is nothing in the construction of the forts nor in the configuration of the ground to prevent this. In all the forts round Paris, the escarp — that is, the inner side of the ditch, or the outer face of the rampart — is covered with masonry to the height of the horizon merely, which is generally considered insufficient to secure the work from escalade. This deviation from the general rule was justified on the supposition that Paris would always be actively defended by an army. In the present case it will even be an advantage inasmuch as this low masonry will be difficult to hit by indirect fire from batteries from which it cannot be seen. The breaching from a distance will thus be rendered more tiresome, unless the heights on which these batteries are constructed will admit of a really plunging fire; and this cannot be judged of except on the ground.

Under any circumstances, the resistance of these southern forts, commanded as they are by heights within the most effective range of heavy rifled artillery, need not be expected to be a long one. But immediately behind them, between the forts and the enceinte, the activity of the garrison has been chiefly displayed. Numerous earthworks have been everywhere constructed; and though, as a matter of course, we are kept in ignorance of all details, we may be sure that they will have been planned and executed with all that care, foresight, and science which have placed for more than two centuries the French engineering staff in the foremost rank. Here, then, evidently is the fighting ground chosen by the defence; a ground where ravines and hill-slopes, factories and villages, mostly built of stone, facilitate the work of the engineer and favour the resistance of young and but half-disciplined troops. Here, we expect, the Germans will find the toughest work cut out for them. We are, indeed, informed by The Daily News, from Berlin, that they will be satisfied with the conquest of some of the forts, and leave hunger to do the rest. But we presume that this choice will not be left to them, unless, indeed, they blow up the forts and retire again to their present mere investing positions; and if they do that the French can gradually by counter approaches recover the lost ground. We presume therefore that the Germans intend to keep whatever forts they may take, as efficient bombarding positions to frighten the inhabitants by occasional shells, or to use them for as complete a bombardment as they can carry out with the means at their command. And in that case they cannot decline the combat offered to them by the defence on the ground chosen and prepared for the purpose, for the forts will be under the close and effective fire of the new works. Here we shall perhaps witness the last struggle in this war offering any scientific interest; may be, the most interesting of all to military science. Here the defence will be enabled to act on the offensive again, though upon a smaller scale, and, thus restoring to a certain extent the balance of the contending forces, may prolong resistance until famine compels surrender. For we must keep in mind that of the stores of food provided for Paris one month’s stock has already been consumed, and nobody outside the town knows whether it is provisioned for more than another month.

There appears to be great confusion of ideas among “special correspondents” as to the German siege guns; and there may well be, considering that the nomenclature of the various calibres among German artillerists is founded upon principles at least as absurd and contradictory as those adopted in England. It may be worthwhile to clear this matter up a little now that these big guns may begin to speak any day. Of old-fashioned siege guns there were in use before Strasbourg, and have now been forwarded to Paris, twenty-five-pounder and fifty-pounder mortars — called so from the weight of a marble ball fitting their bore. Their calibres are about 8 ½ to 8 ¾ inches respectively, and the real weight of the spherical shells they throw is, for the first 64lb., and for the second 125lb. Then there was a rifled mortar, calibre 21 centimetres, or 8 ¼ inches, throwing an elongated shell of 20 inches in length and rather above 200lb. weight. These mortars have a tremendous effect, not only because the rifling gives their shells greater accuracy, but chiefly because the elongated percussion shell, always falling upon its heavy point, where the percussion fuze protrudes, secures the explosion of the charge at the very moment of penetration, thus combining in one and the same moment the effects of impact with that of explosion. Of rifled shell guns there were 12lb. and 24lb. guns, so called from the weight of the spherical solid iron ball they used to fire before being rifled. Their respective calibres are about four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half inches, and the weights of their shells 33lb. and 64lb. Besides these, there have been sent to Paris some of the heavy rifled guns intended for ironclad ships and for coast defence against such ships. The exact details of their construction have never been published, but their calibres are of about 7, 8 and 9 inches, and the corresponding shells of the weights of about 120, 200, and 300lb. respectively. The heaviest guns used either in or before Sebastopol were the English naval 68-pounder, the 8- and 10-inch shell guns, and the French 8 ¾ and 12-inch shell guns, the heaviest projectile of which, the 12-inch spherical shell, weighed about 180lb. Thus the siege of Paris will as much surpass Sebastopol as Sebastopol surpassed all former sieges by the weight and mass of the projectiles used. The German siege park, we may add, will contain the number of guns we guessed it would — namely, about four hundred.