Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, December 23, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
The last week’s fighting has proved how correctly we judged the relative positions of the combatants when we said that the armies arrived from Metz on the Loire and in Normandy had then already expended the greater part of their capability for occupying fresh territory. The extent of ground occupied by the German forces has scarcely received any addition since. The Grand Duke of Mecklenburg, with von der Tann’s Bavarians (who, in spite of their disorganization and want of shoes, cannot be spared at the front), with the 10th Corps and 17th and 22nd divisions, has followed up Chanzy’s slowly retreating and constantly fighting troops from Beaugency to Blois, from Blois to Vendôme, and Epuisay and beyond. Chanzy defended every position offered by the rivulets falling from the north into the Loire; and when the 9th Corps (or at least its Hessian division) turned his right at Blois. arriving from the left bank of the river, he retreated upon Vendôme, and took up a position on the line of the Loire. This he field on the 14th and 15th against the attacks of the enemy, but abandoned it on the evening of the latter day, and retreated slowly, and still showing a bold front, towards Le Mans. On the 17th he had another rear-guard affair with von der Tann at Epuisay; where the roads from Vendôme and Morée to Saint-Calais unite, and then withdrew, apparently without being followed up much farther.
The whole of this retreat appears to have been conducted with great discretion. After it was once settled that the old Army of the Loire was to be split up into two bodies, one of which, under Bourbaki, was to act south of Orléans, and the other, under Chanzy, to whom also the troops near Le Mans were given, to defend Western France north of the Loire — after this arrangement was once made, it could not be Chanzy’s object to provoke decisive actions. On the contrary, his plan necessarily was to dispute every inch of ground as long as he safely could without being entangled into such; to inflict thereby as heavy losses as he could upon the enemy, and break in his own young troops to order and steadiness under fire. He would naturally lose more men than the enemy in this retreat, especially in stragglers; but these would be the worst men of his battalions, which he could well do without. He would keep up the morale of his troops, while he maintained on the part of the enemy that respect which the Army of the Loire had already conquered for the Republican troops. And he would soon arrive at a point where the pursuers, weakened by losses in battle, by sickness, and by detachments left behind on their line of supply, must give up the pursuit or risk defeat in their turn. That point, in all probability, would be Le Mans; here were the two camps of instruction at Yvre-l'Eveque and at Conlie, with troops in various states of organization and armament, and of unknown numbers; but there must have certainly been more organized battalions there than Chanzy would require to repel any attack Mecklenburg could make on him. This appears to have been felt by the Prussian commander, or rather his chief of the staff, General Stosch, who actually directs the movements of Mecklenburg’s army. For after having learned that the 10th North German Corps, on the 18th, pursued Chanzy beyond Epuisay, we hear now that General Voigts-Rhetz (who commands this same 10th Corps) on the 21st has defeated a body of French near Monnaie, and driven them beyond Notre Dame d'Oé. Now, Monnaie is about five-and-thirty miles south of Epuisay, on the road from Vendôme to Tours, and Notre Dame d'Oé is a few miles nearer Tours. So that after following up Chanzy’s principal forces towards and close to Le Mans, Mecklenburg’s troops appear now to be directed — at least in part — towards Tours, which they probably will have reached ere now, but which it is not likely that they will be able to occupy, permanently.
Prussian critics blamed the eccentric retreat of the Army of the Loire after the battles before Orléans, and pretended that such a faulty step could only have been forced on the French by the vigorous action of Prince Frederick Charles, by which he “broke their centre.” That the mismanagement of D'Aurelle, at the very moment when he received the shock of the enemy, had a good deal to do with this eccentric retreat, and even with the subsequent division of the army into two distinct commands, we may readily believe. But there was another motive for it. France, above all things, wants time to organize forces, and space — that is to say, as much territory as possible — from which to collect the means of organization in men and Matériel. Not being as yet in a position to court decisive battles, she must attempt to save as much territory as possible from the occupation of the enemy. And as the invasion has now reached that line where the forces of the attack and those of the defence are nearly balanced, there is no necessity to concentrate the troops of the defence as for a decisive action. On the contrary, they may without great risk be divided into several large masses, so as to cover as much territory as possible, and so as to oppose to the enemy, in whatever direction he may advance, a force large enough to prevent permanent occupation. And as there are still some 60,000, or perhaps 100,000, men near Le Mans (in a very backward state of equipment, drill, and discipline, it is true, but yet improving daily), and as the means to equip, arm, and supply them have been organized and are being brought together in western France — it would be a great blunder to abandon these merely because strategic theory demands that under ordinary circumstances a defeated army should withdraw in one body; which could in this case have been done only by going south and leaving the west unprotected. On the contrary, the camps near Le Mans contain in themselves the stuff to render the new Army of the West, in course of time, stronger than even the old Army of the Loire was, while the whole south is organizing reinforcements for Bourbaki’s command. Thus, what at the first glance appears as a mistake, was in reality a very proper and necessary measure, which does not in any way preclude the possibility of having the whole of the French forces, at some later time, in a position to co-operate for decisive action.
The importance of Tours is in the fact that it forms the most westerly railway junction between the north-west and the south of France. If Tours be permanently held by the Prussians, Chanzy has no longer any railway communication with either the Government at Bordeaux or Bourbaki at Bourges. But with their present forces, the Prussians have no chance of holding it. They would be weaker there than von der Tann was at Orléans early in November. And a temporary loss of Tours, though inconvenient, may be borne.
There is not much news from the other German columns. Prince Frederick Charles, with the Third Corps, and perhaps half of the Ninth, has completely disappeared from sight, which does not prove much for his powers to advance. Manteuffel is reduced to play the part of a huge flying column for requisitions; his force of permanent occupation does not appear to go beyond Rouen. Werder is surrounded by petty warfare on all sides, and while he can hold out at Dijon by sheer activity only, now finds out that he has to blockade Langres too if he wants his rear secured. Where he is to find the troops for this work we do not learn; he himself has none to spare, and the landwehr about Belfort and in Alsace have fully as much on their hands as they can manage. Thus everywhere the forces appear to be nearly balanced. It is now a race of reinforcements, but a race in which the chances are immensely more favourable to France than they were three months ago. If we could say with safety that Paris will hold out till the end of February, we might almost believe that France would win the race.