Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Fall of Metz

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 29, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The present war is a war of capitulations, each one of which seems to be destined to surpass its predecessors in magnitude. First came the 84,000 men laying down their arms at Sedan, an event the like of which, or even anything approaching to which, had not been witnessed in any previous war, not even in those of Austria. Now comes the surrender of 170,000 men, together with the fortress of Metz, surpassing Sedan as much as Sedan surpassed all previous capitulations. Is Metz, in its turn, to be surpassed by Paris? If the war be continued there can be little doubt it will.

The three radical blunders which brought Napoleon from the 2nd of August to the 2nd of September, from Saarbrücken to Sedan, and which virtually deprived France of the whole of her armies, were — first, the receiving of the enemy’s attack in a position which allowed the victorious Germans to push in between the scattered corps of the French army, and thus to divide it into two distinct bodies, neither of which could rejoin or even act in concert with the other; second, the delay of Bazaine’s army at Metz, by which it got hopelessly shut up there; and third, the march to the relief of Bazaine with forces and by a route which positively invited the enemy to take the whole of the relieving army prisoners. The effects of the first blunder were conspicuous throughout the campaign. Those of the third were brought to a close at Sedan; those of the second we have just witnessed at Metz. The whole of that “Army of the Rhine,” to which Napoleon promised an arduous campaign in a country full of fortresses, is now in, or on the road to, these very same fortresses as prisoners of war, and France is not only virtually, but positively, deprived of nearly all of her regular troops.

The loss of the men themselves, and of the Matériel surrendered along with Metz, which must be enormous, is a blow hard enough. But it is not the hardest. The worst for France is that, with these men and this mat6riel, she is deprived of that military organization of which she is more in need than of anything else. Of men there are plenty; even of drilled men between twenty-five and thirty-five there must be at least 300,000. Matériel can be replaced from stores and factories at home and by commerce from abroad. Under circumstances like these all good breech-loaders are useful, no matter on what model they are constructed, or whether the ammunition of the one will suit the other models. Anything serviceable being welcome, with a proper use of telegraphs and steamers, there might be more arms and cartridges now at the disposal of the Government than could be used. Even field artillery might have been supplied by this time. But what is most wanted is that solid organization which can make an army out of all these armed men. This organization is personified in the officers and non-commissioned officers of the regular army, and finally ceases to be available with their surrender. The number of officers withdrawn from the active service of France, by losses on the battle-field and by capitulations, cannot now be less than from ten to twelve thousand, that of non-commissioned officers being nearly three times as great. With such organizing forces all at once withdrawn from the national defence, it becomes extremely difficult to turn crowds of men into companies and battalions of soldiers. Whoever has seen popular levies on the drill-ground or under fire — be they Baden Freischaaren, Bull-Run Yankees, French Mobiles, or British Volunteers — will have perceived at once that the chief cause of the helplessness and unsteadiness of these troops lies in the fact of the officers not knowing their duty; and in this present case in France who is there to teach them their duty? The few old half-pay or invalided officers are not sufficiently numerous to do it; they cannot be everywhere; the teaching has to be not theoretical only, but practical too; not by word of mouth only, but by act and example. A few young officers or newly-promoted sergeants in a battalion will very soon settle down to their work by the constant observation of what the old officers do; but what is to be done when the officers are almost all new, and not even many old sergeants to be had to be commissioned? The same men who now prove themselves in almost every encounter unfit to act in masses in the open would have soon learned how to fight if it had been possible to embody them in Bazaine’s old battalions; nay, if they had merely had the chance of being commanded by Bazaine’s officers and sergeants. And in this final loss for this campaign of almost the last vestige of her military organization, France suffers most by the capitulation of Metz.

It will be time to form a decided opinion upon the conduct of the defence when we shall have heard what the defenders have to say for themselves. But if it be a fact that 170,000 men capable of bearing arms have surrendered, then the presumption is that the defence has not been up to the mark. At no time since the end of August has the investing army been double the strength of the invested. It must have varied between 200,000 and 230,000 men, spread out on a circle of at least twenty-seven miles’ periphery, in the first line only; which means to say that the circle occupied by the masses must at least have been thirty-six to forty miles in periphery. This circle was moreover cut in two by the river Moselle, impassable except by bridges at some distance to the rear of the first line. If an army of 170,000 men could not manage to be in superior strength at any one point of this circle, and break through it before sufficient reinforcements could be brought up, we must conclude either that the arrangements of the investing troops were beyond all praise, or that the attempts to get through them were never made as they ought to have been done. We shall probably learn that here, as throughout this war, political considerations have lamed military action.

Unless peace be now concluded, the consequences of this fresh disaster will soon be brought home to France. We suppose that the two landwehr divisions will be left to garrison Metz. The 2nd Corps is already on the road to Paris, which does not absolutely imply that it is intended to take part in the investment of the capital. But supposing that to be the case, there would remain six corps, or at least 130,000 to 140,000 men, whom Moltke can send where he likes. The communications of the army with Germany were kept up without much participation of Prince Frederick Charles’s troops; for this purpose he will have to detach few men, if any at all. The rest is disposable for the invasion of the west and south of France. There will be no necessity to keep the whole of them together. They will probably be divided into two or three bodies, forming, with von der Tann’s corps, together at least 150,000, and will be ordered to advance into the parts of France hitherto unoccupied by the Germans. One corps will almost certainly occupy the rich provinces of Normandy and Le Maine as far as the Loire, with Le Mans, where five railways meet, for a centre. Another will push forward in the direction of Bordeaux, after having cleared the line of the Loire from Tours to Nevers, and occupied or destroyed the arsenals and military factories of Bourges. This corps might march from Metz by Chaumont and Auxerre, where the country has not yet been eaten up by requisitions. A third corps might go straight to the south, to open communications with General Werder. The interior of France being almost entirely divested of fortresses deserving of the name, there will be no resistance except the evanescent one of the new levies, and the more passive but also more stubborn one of the populations. Whether, with such armies set free all at once, Moltke will attempt the siege of any more fortresses, or even the reduction of a fortified naval port such as Cherbourg, remains to be seen; he need reduce no more fortresses now, except PhaIsbourg and Belfort, which block main lines of railway, and, of course, Paris.