Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Military Situation in France

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, November 26, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Yesterday we called attention to the fact that since the surrender at Sedan the prospects of France had much improved, and that even the fall of Metz, and the setting free thereby of some 150,000 German soldiers, does not now look the crushing disaster it appeared to be at first. If we recur to the same subject to-day, it is in order to prove still more, by a few military details, the correctness of this view.

The positions of the German armies on the 24th of November, as far as they can be made out, were as follows: —

Investing Paris: The Third Army (2nd, 5th, 6th, and 2nd Bavarian corps, the 21st, the Württemberg, and Landwehr Guard divisions) and the Fourth Army (4th, 12th, and Guards corps); in all seventeen divisions.

Army of Observation, protecting this investment: To the north, the First Army (1st and 8th corps); to the west and south-west, Duke of Mecklenburg’s army (17th and 22nd divisions, and 1st Bavarian Corps); to the south, the Second Army (3rd, 9th, and 10th corps, and a division of landwehr, a detachment of which was so severely handled at Chatillon by Ricciotti Garibaldi) 104; in all fifteen divisions.

On special duty, in the south-east of France, the 14th Corps (Werder’s, consisting of two divisions and a half), and 15th Corps; in Metz and about Thionville, the 7th Corps; on the line of communication, at least a division and a half of landwehr; in all eight divisions at least.

Of these forty divisions of infantry, the first seventeen are at present fully engaged before Paris; the last eight show by their immobility that they have as much work cut out for them as they can manage. There remain disposable for the field the fifteen divisions composing the three armies of observation, and representing with cavalry and artillery a total force of some 200,000 combatants at most.

Now, before the 9th of November, there appeared to be no serious obstacle to prevent this mass of men from overrunning the greater part of central and even southern France. But since then things have changed considerably. And it is not so much the fact of von der Tann having been beaten and compelled to retreat, or that of D'Aurelle having shown his ability to handle his troops well, which has inspired us with a greater respect for the Army of the Loire than we confess we had up to that day; it is chiefly the energetic measures which Moltke took to meet its expected march on Paris which have made that army appear in quite a different light. Not only did he find it necessary to hold in readiness against it, even at the risk of raising de facto the investment of Paris, the greater portion of the blockading forces on the south side of the town, but he also changed at once the direction of march of the two armies arriving from Metz, so as to draw them closer to Paris, and to have the whole of the German forces concentrated around that city; and we now hear that, moreover, steps were taken to surround the siege park with defensive works. Whatever other people may think, Moltke evidently does not consider the Army of the Loire an armed rabble, but a real, serious, redoubtable army.

The previous uncertainty as to the character of that army resulted to a great extent from the reports of the English correspondents at Tours. There appears to be not one military man among them capable of distinguishing the characteristics by which an army differs from a mob of armed men. The reports varied from day to day regarding discipline, proficiency in drill, numbers, armament, equipment, artillery, transport — in short, regarding everything essential to form an opinion. We all know the immense difficulties under which the new army had to be formed: the want of officers, of arms, of horses, of all kinds of Matériel, and especially the want of time. The reports which came to hand, principally dwelt upon these difficulties; and thus, the Army of the Loire was generally underrated by people whose sympathies do not run away, with their judgment.

Now the same correspondents are unanimous in its praise. It is sale, to be better officered and better disciplined than the armies which succumbed at Sedan and ill Metz. This is no doubt the case to a certain extent. There is evidently a far better spirit pervading it than ever was to be found in the Bonapartist armies; a determination to do the best for the country, to co-operate, to obey orders on that account. Then this army has learned again one very important thing which Louis Napoleon’s army had quite forgotten — light infantry duty, the art of protecting flanks and rear from surprise, of feeling for the enemy, surprising his detachments, procuring information and prisoners. The Times’ correspondent with the Duke of Mecklenburg gives proofs of that. it is now the Prussians who cannot learn the whereabouts of their enemy. and have to grope in the dark; formerly it was quite the, reverse. An army which has learned that has learned a great deal. Still, we must not forget that the Army of the Loire as well as its sister Armies of the West and North has still to prove its mettle in a general engagement and against something like equal numbers. But, upon the whole, it promises well, and there are Circumstances which make it probable that even a great defeat will not affect it as seriously as such an event does most young armies.

The fact is that the brutalities and cruelties of the Prussians, instead of stamping out popular resistance, have redoubled its energies; so much so that the Prussians seem to have found out their mistake, and these burnings of villages and massacres of peasants are now scarcely ever heard of. But this treatment has had its effect, and every day the guerilla warfare takes larger dimensions. When we read in The Times the reports about Mecklenburg’s advance towards Le Mans, with no enemy in sight, no regular force offering resistance in the field, but cavalry and francs-tireurs hovering about the flanks, no news as to the whereabouts of the French troops, and the Prussian troops kept close together in pretty large bodies, we cannot help being reminded of the marches of Napoleon’s marshals in Spain, or of Bazaine’s troops in Mexico. And, that spirit of popular resistance once roused, even armies of 200,000 men do not go very far towards the occupation of a hostile country. They soon arrive at the point beyond which their detachments become weaker than what the defence can oppose to them; and it depends entirely upon the energy of popular resistance how soon that line shall be reached. Thus even a defeated army soon finds a safe place from the pursuit of an enemy if only the people of the country arise; and this may turn out to be the case now in France. And if the population in the districts occupied by the enemy should rise, or merely his lines of communication be repeatedly broken, the limit beyond which the invasion becomes powerless will be still more contracted. We should not wonder, for instance, if Mecklenburg’s advance, unless powerfully supported by Prince Frederick Charles, turned out to have been pushed too far even now.

For the present everything of course hinges upon Paris. If Paris hold out another month — and the reports on the state of provisions inside do not at all exclude that chance — France may possibly have an army in the field large enough, with the aid of popular resistance, to raise the investment by a successful attack upon the Prussian communications. The machinery for organizing armies appears to be working pretty well in France by this time. There are more men than are wanted; thanks to the resources of modern industry and the rapidity of modern communications, arms are forthcoming in unexpectedly large quantities; 400,000 rifles have arrived from America alone; artillery is manufactured in France with a rapidity hitherto quite unknown. Even officers are found, or trained, somehow. Altogether, the efforts which France has made since Sedan to reorganize her national defence are unexampled in history, and require but one element for almost certain success — time. If Paris holds out but one month more, that will go much towards it. And if Paris should not be provisioned for that length of time, Trochu may attempt to break through the investing lines with such of his troops as may be fit for the work; and it would be bold to say, now, that he cannot possibly succeed in it. If he should succeed, Paris would still absorb a garrison of at least three Prussian army corps to keep it quiet, so that Trochu might have set free more Frenchmen than the surrender of Paris would set free Germans. And, whatever the fortress of Paris can do if defended by Frenchmen, it is evident that it could never be successfully held by a Gerinan force against French besiegers. ‘There would be as many men required to keep the people down within as to man the ramparts to keep off the attack from without. Thus the fall of Paris may, but does not of necessity, imply the fall of France.

It is a bad time just now for speculating on the probability of this or that event in the war. We have an approximative knowledge of one fact only — the strength of the Prussian armies. Of another, the strength, numerical and intrinsic, of the French forces, we know but little. And, moreover, there are now moral factors at work which are beyond all calculation, and of which we can only say that they are all of them favourable to France and unfavourable to Germany. But this much appears certain, that the contending forces are more equally balanced just now than they ever have been since Sedan, and that a comparatively weak reinforcement of trained troops to the French might restore the balance altogether.