Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, December 3, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
The Second Army of Paris began its offensive movements on the 29th of November by a sortie from the southern front of the town, in the direction of L'Hay and Choisy-le-Roi. According to the Prussian accounts, it was the First Corps of Ducrot’s army, under Vinoy, which here attacked the Sixth Prussian Corps under Tümpling. This attack appears to have been a mere feint to alarm the Prussians, and to induce them to strengthen this side by which the besieged could, if successful, join the Army of the Loire on the shortest road. Otherwise, Vinoy would, no doubt, have been supported by other corps, and would have lost more than a couple of hundred in killed and wounded, and a hundred men in prisoners. The real attack was opened on the following morning. Ducrot this time advanced on the right bank of the Seine, near its junction with the Marne, while a second sortie on the left bank was directed against Tümpling, and false attacks west of Saint Denis against the 4th and Guard Corps. What troops were used for these false attacks we do not know; but an official French account says that the sortie against Tümpling was made by Admiral De La Ronciere Le Noury. This officer commands one of the seven divisions of the Third Army of Paris which remains under Trochu’s direct command; it is therefore likely that all the secondary attacks were entrusted to this army, so as to leave the whole of Ducrot’s right divisions available for the real attack on the Marne.
This attack again had to be made in two divergent directions. One portion of the troops necessarily was directed eastwards towards Chelles, along the right bank of the Marne, in order to keep off the 12th or Saxon Corps which invests the east side of Paris. This was another subordinate attack; we hear very little of its history except that the Saxons profess to have maintained their position, which they probably did. The main body of Ducrot’s troops, however, Renault’s Second Corps in front, passed the Marne on eight bridges, and attacked the three Württemberg brigades which held the space between the Marne and Seine. As has been already pointed out, the Marne, before joining the Seine, forms by its course an immense S, the upper or northern bend approaching Paris and the lower receding from it. Both these bends are commanded by the fire of the forts; but, while the upper or advancing one favours a sortie by its configuration, the lower or receding one is completely commanded by the ground on the left bank as well as by the forts, and the river moreover, both from the line it takes and from its many branches, is unfavourable to the construction of bridges under fire. The greater part of this bend appears to have remained, on that account, a kind of neutral ground, on each side of which the real fighting took place.
The troops intended for the western attack advanced under the protection of the fire of Fort Charenton and the redoubt of La Gravelle, in the direction of Mesly and Bonneuil. Between these two places there is a solitary hill, commanding the surrounding plain by fully a hundred feet, called Mont Mesly, and necessarily the first object of the French advance. The force told off for this purpose is put down in a telegram from General Obernitz, commanding the Württemberg division, as “a division;” but as it at first drove in the 2nd and 3rd Würtemberg brigades who opposed it and could not be repelled until reinforcements had come to hand, and as it is moreover evident that Ducrot, who had troops enough in hand, would not make such an important attack with two brigades only, we may safely assume that this is another of the too many cases where the word Abtheilung which means any subdivision of an army, is mistranslated by “division,” which means a particular subdivision consisting of two or at most three brigades. Anyhow, the French carried Mont Mesly and with it the villages at its foot, and if they could have held and entrenched it, they would have obtained a result worth the day’s fighting. But reinforcements arrived in the shape of Prussian troops from the Second Corps, namely the seventh brigade; the lost positions were reconquered and the French driven back under the shelter of Fort Charenton.
Further to their left the French attempted the second attack. Covered by the fire of the Redoute de la Faisanderie and of Fort Nogent, they passed the Marne at the upper bend of the S, and took the villages of Brie and Champigny, which mark its two open ends. The real position of the 1st Württemberg Brigade, which held this district, lay a little to the rear, on the edge of the high ground stretching from Villiers to Coeuilly. Whether the French ever took Villiers is doubtful; King William says yes, General Obernitz says no. Certain it is that they did not hold it, and that the advance beyond the immediate range of the forts was repelled.
The result of this day’s fighting of Ducrot’s army, “with its back to the Marne,” that is, south of it, is thus summed up in the French official despatch: —
“The army then crossed the Marne by eight bridges, and maintained the positions taken, after capturing two guns.”
That is to say, it retreated again to the right or northern bank of the river, where it “maintained” some positions or other, which were, of course, “taken” by it, but not from the enemy. Evidently, the men who manufacture bulletins for Gambetta are still the same who did that kind of work for Napoleon.
On the 1st of December the French gave another sign that they considered the sortie as defeated. Although the Moniteur announced that on that day the attack from the south was to be made under the command of General Vinoy, we hear from Versailles, December 1 (time of day not stated), that no movement had been made by the French on that day; on the contrary, they had asked for an armistice to allow them to attend to the killed and wounded on the battlefield between the positions of both armies. Had they considered themselves in a position to reconquer that battlefield, they would no doubt have renewed the struggle at once. There can be, then, no reasonable doubt that this first sortie of Trochu’s has been beaten off, and by considerably inferior numbers too. We may assume that he will soon renew his efforts. We know too little of the way in which this first attempt was managed to be able to judge whether he may then have a better chance; but if he be again driven back, the effect upon both the troops and the population of Paris must be very demoralizing.
In the meantime the Army of the Loire, as we expected, has been stirring again. The engagements near Loigny and Patay, reported from Tours, are evidently the same as referred to in a telegram from Munich, according to which von der Tann was successful west of Orleans. In this case, too, both parties claim the victory. We shall probably hear more from this quarter in a day or two; and as we are still in the dark about the relative positions of the combatants, it would be idle to prognosticate.