Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Emperor’s Apologia

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, November 5, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Like other great men in bad luck, Louis Napoleon appears aware that he owes the public an explanation of the causes which led him, much against his will, from Saarbrücken to Sedan; and consequently we have now been put in possession of what professes to be this explanation of his. As there is no evidence, either external or internal, to fix any suspicion of spuriousness upon the document, but rather to the contrary, we take it, for the present, to be genuine. Indeed, we are almost bound to do so, out of mere compliment; for if ever there was a document confirming, both generally and in detail, the view taken of the war by The Pall Mall Gazette, it is this Imperial self-justification.

Louis Napoleon informs us that he was perfectly aware of the great numerical superiority of the Germans; that he hoped to counteract it by a rapid invasion of Southern Germany in order to compel that country to remain neutral, and to secure, by a first success, the alliance of Austria and Italy. For this purpose 150,000 men were to be concentrated at Metz, 100,000 at Strasbourg, and 50,000 at Châlons. With the first two rapidly concentrated, the Rhine was to be passed near Karlsruhe, while the 50,000 men from Châlons advanced on Metz to oppose any hostile movement on the flank and rear of the advancing forces. But this plan evaporated as soon as the Emperor came to Metz. He found there only 100,000 men, at Strasbourg there were only 40,000, while Canrobert’s reserves were anywhere and everywhere except at Châlons, where they ought to have been. Then the troops were unprovided with the first necessaries for a campaign, knapsacks, tents, camp-kettles, and cooking-tins. Moreover, nothing was known of the enemy’s whereabouts. In fact, the bold, dashing offensive was from the very beginning turned into a very modest defensive.

There will be scarcely anything new in all this to the readers of The Pall Mall Gazette. Our “Notes on the War” sketched out the above plan of attack as the most rational the French could pursue, and traced the causes why it had to be abandoned. But there is one fact, which was the proximate cause of his first defeats, for which the Emperor does not account: why he left his several corps in the faulty position of attack close to the frontier, when the intention of attack had been long given up. As to his figures, we shall criticize them by-and-by.

The causes of the breakdown of the French military administration the Emperor finds in

“the defects of our military organization such as it has existed for the last fifty years.”

But surely this was not the first time that this organization was put upon its trial. It had answered well enough during the Crimean war. It produced brilliant results at the outset of the Italian war, when it was held up in England, not less than in Germany, as the very model of army organization. No doubt it was shown to have many shortcomings even then. But there is this difference between then and now: then it did work, and now it does not. And the Emperor does not profess to account for this difference, which was the very thing to be accounted for — but, at the same time, the most tender point of the Second Empire, which had clogged the wheels of this organization by all manner of corruption and jobbery.

When Metz was reached by the retreating army,

“its effective force was brought up to 140,000 by the arrival of Marshal Canrobert with two divisions and the reserve.”

This statement, compared with the numbers who have just laid down their arms at Metz, compels us to look a little more closely into the Imperial figures. The army of Strasbourg was to be composed of MacMahon’s, De Failly’s, and Douay’s corps, in all ten divisions, and should number 100,000 men; but it is now said not to have exceeded 40,000. Leaving Douay’s three divisions entirely out of the question, although one of them came to MacMahon’s assistance at or after Woerth, this would give less than 6,000 men per division (13 battalions), or barely 430 men per battalion, even if we do not count one single man for cavalry or artillery. Now, with all the credit we are inclined to give the Second Empire in the matter of jobbery and dilapidation, we cannot bring ourselves to believe that there should have been ninety battalions in the army the effective strength of which, twenty days after the calling out of the reserves and men on furlough, averaged 430 men instead of 900. As to the army of Metz it comprised, in the Guards and ten divisions of the line, 161 battalions; and if we take the 100,000 men given in the pamphlet as consisting of infantry only, without allowing anything for cavalry or artillery, that would still give not more than 620 men per battalion, which is undoubtedly below the reality. More wonderful still, after the retreat to Metz, this army was raised to 140,000 men by the arrival of two divisions of Canrobert and the reserves. The new additions thus consisted of 40,000 men. Now, as the “reserves” arriving at Metz after Spicheren could consist of cavalry and artillery only, the Guards having arrived there long before, they cannot be set down at more than 20,000 men, leaving another 20,000 for Canrobert’s two divisions, which, for twenty-five battalions, would give 800 men per battalion; that is to say, Canrobert’s battalions, which were the most unready of all, are made by this account to be far stronger than those which had been concentrated and got ready long before. But, if the army of Metz, before the battles of the 14th, 16th, and 18th of August, counted but 140,000 men, how comes it that after the losses of these three days — certainly not less than 50,000 men — after the losses of the later sorties, and the deaths from sickness, Bazaine could still hand over 173,000 prisoners to the Prussians? We have entered into these figures merely to show that they contradict each other and all the known facts of the campaign. They can be dismissed at once as totally incorrect.

Besides the army organization, there were other circumstances hampering the Imperial eagle’s flight towards victory. There was, firstly, “the bad weather;” then “the encumbrance of baggage;” and finally,

“the absolute ignorance in which we always remained concerning the position and the strength of the hostile armies.”

Three very untoward circumstances indeed. But the bad weather was there for both parties, for in all his devout references to Providence King William has not once mentioned the fact that the sun shone on the German positions while rain fell on those of the French. Nor were the Germans unencumbered with baggage. As to the ignorance of the whereabouts of the enemy, there exists a letter of Napoleon’s to his brother Joseph, who complained in Spain of the same hardship, and which is anything but complimentary to generals making such complaints. It says that if generals are ignorant of the whereabouts of the enemy it is their own fault, and proves that they do not understand their business. One sometimes doubts, in reading these excuses for bad generalship, whether this pamphlet is really written for grown-up people.

The account given of the part played by Louis Napoleon himself will not please his friends very much. After the battles of Woerth and Spicheren he “resolved immediately to lead back the army to the camp of Châlons.” But this plan, though first approved by the Council of Ministers, two days afterwards was considered likely “to produce a deplorable effect on the public mind;” and, on the reception of a letter from M. E. Ollivier (!) to that effect, the Emperor abandoned it. He leads the army to the left bank of the Moselle, and then — “not foreseeing a general battle, and only looking for partial engagements” — leaves it for Châlons. Scarcely is he gone when the battles of the 16th and 18th of August take place, and shut up in Metz Bazaine and his army. In the meantime, the Empress and the Ministry, exceeding their powers, and behind the Emperor’s back, convoke the Chamber; and, with the meeting of that eminently powerful body, the Corps Législatif of Arcadians, the fate of the Empire was scaled. The Opposition — there were twenty-five of them, you know — became all-powerful, and “paralyzed the patriotism of the majority and the progress of the Government” — which Government, we all recollect, was not that of mealy-mouthed Ollivier but of rough Palikao.

“From this period Ministers appeared to be afraid to pronounce the name of the Emperor; and he, who had quitted the army, and had only relinquished the command in order to resume the reins of government, soon discovered that it would be impossible for him to play out the part which belonged to him.”

In fact, he was made to see that he was virtually deposed, that he had become impossible. Most people with some self-respect, under the circumstances, would have abdicated. But no; his irresolution, to use the mildest possible expression, continues, and he follows MacMahon’s army, a mere clog, powerless to do good, but not to prevent its being done. The Government in Paris insist upon MacMahon making a move to relieve Bazaine. MacMahon refuses, as this would be tantamount to running his army into the jaws of perdition; Palikao insists.

“As to the Emperor, he made no opposition. It could not enter into his views to oppose the advice of the Government and of the Empress Regent, who had shown so much intelligence and energy under the greatest difficulties.”

We admire the meekness of the man who for twenty years had maintained that submission to his own individual will was the only road to salvation for France, and who now, when “a plan of campaign is imposed from Paris, contrary to the most elementary principles of the art of war,” makes no opposition, because it could never enter into his views to oppose the advice of the Empress Regent, who had, &c. &c.!

The description of the state of the army with which this fatal march was undertaken is an exact confirmation in every particular of our estimate of it at the time. There is only one redeeming feature in it. De Failly’s corps, during its retreat by forced marches, had at least managed to lose, without a fight, “almost all its baggage;” but the corps does not appear to have appreciated this advantage.

The army had gone to Reims on the 21st of August. On the 23rd it advanced as far as the river Suippe, at Bétheniville, on the direct road to Verdun and Metz. But commissariat difficulties compelled MacMahon to return without delay to a line of railway; consequently, on the 24th, a movement to the left is made and Rethel is reached. Here the whole of the 25th is spent in distributing provisions to the troops. On the 26th, head-quarters go to Tourteron, twelve miles further eastward; on the 27th, to Le Chene Populeux, another six miles. Here MacMahon, finding out that eight German army corps were closing in around him, gave orders to retreat again towards the west; but during the night positive orders from Paris arrived that he was to march to Metz.

“Unquestionably, the Emperor could have countermanded this order, but he was resolved not to oppose the decision of the Regency.”

This virtuous resignation compelled MacMahon to obey; and so he reached Stonne, six miles further east, on the 28th. But “these orders and counter-orders occasioned delays in the movements.”

In the meantime

“the Prussian army had made forced marches, while we, encumbered with baggage [again!], had occupied six days with fatigued troops in marching twenty-five leagues.”

Then came the battles of the 30th, 31st, and 1st of September, and the catastrophe, which is narrated very fully, but without giving any new particulars. And then comes the moral to be drawn from it: —

“Certainly the struggle was disproportionate; but it would have been longer sustained, and less disastrous for our arms, if military operations had not been unceasingly subordinated to political considerations.”

It is the fate of the Second Empire and everything connected with it to fall without being pitied. The commiseration which is the least that falls to the lot of great misfortunes does not, somehow or other, appear to be extended to it. Even the “honneur au courage malheureux” which you cannot nowadays use in French without a certain irony, seems to be denied to it. We doubt whether, under the circumstances, Napoleon will derive much benefit from a document according to which his eminent strategical insight is in every case set at nought by absurd orders, dictated by political motives, from the Government at Paris, while his power to cancel these absurd orders is again set at nought by his unlimited respect for the Regency of the Empress. The best that can be said of this uncommonly lame pamphlet is, that it does acknowledge how necessarily things must go wrong in war “if military operations be unceasingly subordinated to political considerations.”