Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Chances of the War

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, December 8, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The last defeat of the French Army of the Loire and the retreat of Ducrot behind the Marne — supposing that movement to be as decisive as was represented on Saturday — finally settle the fate of the first combined operation for the relief of Paris. It has completely miscarried, and people begin again to ask whether this new series of misfortunes does not prove the inability of the French for further successful resistance — whether it would not be better to give up the game at once, surrender Paris, and sign the cession of Alsace and Lorraine.

The fact is, people have lost all remembrance of a real war. The Crimean, the Italian, and the Austro-Prussian war were all of them mere conventional wars — wars of Governments which made peace as soon as their military machinery had broken down or become worn out. A real war, one in which the nation itself participates, we have not seen in the heart of Europe for a couple of generations. We have seen it in the Caucasus, in Algeria, where fighting lasted more than twenty years with scarcely any interruption; we should have seen it in Turkey if the Turks had been allowed, by their allies, to defend themselves in their own home — spun way. But the fact is, our conventionalities allow to barbarians only the right of actual self-defence; we expect that civilized States will fight according to etiquette, and that the real nation will not be guilty of such rudeness as to go on fighting after the official nation has had to give in.

The French are actually committing this piece of rudeness. To the disgust of the Prussians, who consider themselves the best judges in military etiquette, they have been positively fighting for three months after the official army of France was driven from the field; and they have even done what their official army never could do in tins campaign. They have obtained one important success and numerous small ones; and have taken guns, convoys, prisoners from their enemies. It is true they have just suffered a series of severe reverses; but these are as nothing when compared with the fate their late official army was in the habit of meeting with at the hands of the same opponents. It is true their first attempt to free Paris from the investing army, by an attack from within and from without at the same time, has signally failed; but is it a necessary sequel that there are no chances left for a second attempt?

The two French armies, that of Paris as well as that of the Loire, have both fought well, according to the testimony of the Germans themselves. They have certainly been beaten by inferior numbers, but that is what was to be expected from young and newly organized troops confronting veterans. Their tactical movements under fire, according to a correspondent in The Daily News, who knows what he writes about, were rapid and steady; if they lacked precision that was a fault which they had in common with many a victorious French army. There is no mistake about it: these armies have proved that they are armies, and will have to be treated with due respect by their opponents. They are no doubt composed of very different elements. There are battalions of the line, containing old soldiers in various proportions; there are Mobiles of all degrees of military efficiency, from battalions well officered, drilled, and equipped to battalions of raw recruits, still ignorant of the elements of the “manual and platoon;” there are francs-tireurs of all sorts, good, bad, and indifferent — probably most of them the latter. But there is, at all events, a nucleus of good fighting battalions, around which the others may be grouped; and a month of desultory fighting, with avoidance of crushing defeats, will make capital soldiers out of the whole of them. With better strategy, they might even now have been successful; and all the strategy required for the moment is to delay all decisive fighting, and that, we think, can be done.

But the troops concentrated at Le Mans and near the Loire are far from representing the whole armed force of France. There are at least 200,000 to 300,000 more men undergoing the process of organization at points farther away to the rear. Every day brings these nearer to the fighting standard. Every day must send, for a time at least, constantly increasing numbers of fresh soldiers to the front. And there are plenty more men behind them to take their places. Arms and ammunition are coming in every day in large quantities: with modern gun factories and cannon foundries, with telegraphs and steamers, and the command of the sea, there is no fear of their falling short. A month’s time will also make an immense difference in the efficiency of these men; and if two months were allowed them, they would represent armies which might well trouble Moltke’s repose.

Behind all these more or less regular forces there is the great landsturm, the mass of the people whom the Prussians have driven to that war of self-defence which, according to the father of King William, sanctions every means. When Fritz marched from Metz to Reims, from Reims to Sedan, and thence to Paris, there was not a word said about a rising of the people. The defeats of the Imperial armies were accepted with a kind of stupor; twenty years of Imperial régime had used the mass of the people to dull and passive dependence upon official leadership. There were here and there peasants who participated in actual fighting, as at Bazeilles, but they were the exception. But no sooner had the Prussians settled down round Paris, and placed the surrounding country under a crushing system of requisitions, carried out with no consideration whatever — no sooner had they begun to shoot francs-tireurs and burn villages which had given aid to the latter — and no sooner had they refused the French offers of peace and declared their intention to carry on a war of conquest, when all this changed. The guerilla war broke out all around them, thanks to their own severities, and they have now but to advance into a new department in order to raise the landsturm far and wide. Whoever reads in the German papers the reports of the advance of Mecklenburg’s and Frederick Charles’s armies will see at a glance what an extraordinary effect this impalpable, ever disappearing and reappearing, but ever impeding insurrection of the people has upon the movements of these armies. Even their numerous cavalry, to which the French have scarcely any to oppose, is neutralized to a great extent by this general active and passive hostility of the inhabitants.

Now let us examine the position of the Prussians. Of the seventeen divisions before Paris, they certainly cannot spare a single one while Trochu may repeat any day his sorties en masse. Manteuffel’s four divisions will have more work than they can execute in Normandy and Picardy for some time to come, and they may even be called away from them. Werder’s two divisions and a half cannot get on beyond Dijon, except on raids, and this will last until at least Belfort shall have been reduced. The long thin line of communication marked by the railway from Nancy to Paris cannot send a single man out of those told off to guard it. The 7th Corps has plenty to do with garrisoning the Lorraine fortresses and besieging Longwy and Montmédy. There remain for field operations against the bulk of central and southern France the eleven infantry divisions of Frederick Charles and Mecklenburg, certainly not more than 150,000 men, including cavalry.

The Prussians thus employ about six-and-twenty divisions in holding Alsace, Lorraine, and the two long lines of communication to Paris and Dijon, and in investing Paris, and still they hold directly perhaps not one-eighth, and indirectly certainly not more than one-fourth, of France. For the rest of the country they have fifteen divisions left, four of which are under Manteuffel. How far these will be able to go depends entirely upon the energy of the popular resistance they may find. But with all their communications going by way of Versailles — for the march of Frederick Charles has not opened to him a new line viâ Troyes — and in the midst of an insurgent country, these troops will have to spread out on a broad front, to leave detachments behind to secure the roads and keep down the people; and thus they will soon arrive at a point where their forces become so reduced as to be balanced by the French forces opposing them, and then the chances are again favourable to the French; or else these German armies will have to act as large flying columns, marching up and down the country without definitely occupying it; and in that case the French regulars can give way before them for a time, and will find plenty of opportunities to fall on their flanks and rear.

A few flying corps, such as Blücher sent in 1813 round the flanks of the French, would be very effective if employed to interrupt the line of communication of the Germans. That line is vulnerable almost the whole of its length from Paris to Nancy. A few corps, each consisting of one or two squadrons of cavalry and some sharpshooters, falling upon that line, destroying the rails, tunnels, and bridges, attacking trains, &c., would go far to recall the German cavalry from the front where it is most dangerous. But the regular “Hussar dash” does certainly not belong to the French.

All this is on the supposition that Paris continues to hold out. There is nothing to compel Paris to give in, so far, except starvation. But the news we had in yesterday’s Daily News from a correspondent inside that city would dispel many apprehensions if correct. There are still 25,000 horses besides those of the army in Paris, which at 500 kilos each would give 6¼ kilo, or 14lb. of meat for every inhabitant, or nearly a ¼lb. per day for two months. With that, bread and wine ad libitum, and a good quantity of salt meat and other eatables, Paris may well hold out until the beginning of February. And that would give to France two months, worth more to her, now, than two years in time of peace. With anything like intelligent and energetic direction, both central and local, France, by then, ought to be in a position to relieve Paris and to right herself.

And if Paris should fall? It will be time enough to consider this chance when it becomes more probable. Anyhow, France has managed to do without Paris for more than two months, and may fight on without her. Of course, the fall of Paris may demoralize the spirit of resistance, but so may, even now, the unlucky news of the last seven days. Neither the one nor the other need do so. If the French entrench a few good manoeuvring positions, such as Nevers, near the junction of the Loire and Allier — if they throw up advanced works round Lyons so as to make it as strong as Paris, the war may be carried on even after the fall of Paris; but it is not yet time to talk of that.

Thus we make bold to say that, if the spirit of resistance among the people does not flag, the position of the French, even after their recent defeats, is a very strong one. With the command of the sea to import arms, with plenty of men to make soldiers of, with three months — the first and worst three months — of the work of organization behind them, and with a fair chance of having one month more, if not two, of breathing-time allowed them — and that at a time when the Prussians show signs of exhaustion — with all that, to give in now would be rank treason. And who knows what accidents may happen, what further European complications may occur, in the meantime? Let them fight on, by all means.