Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, January 6, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Christmas has ushered in the commencement of the real siege of Paris. Up to that time there had only been an investment of the giant fortress. Batteries had been constructed, it is true, for heavy siege guns; a siege park had been collected, but not a gun had been placed in position, not an embrasure cut, not a shot fired. All these preparations had been made on the southern and south-western front. On the other fronts there were breastworks thrown up as well, but these seem to have been intended for defensive purposes only, to check sorties, and to protect the infantry and field artillery of the besiegers. These entrenchments were naturally at a greater distance from the Paris forts than regular siege batteries would have to be; there was between them and the forts a larger belt of debatable ground on which sorties could take place. When Trochu’s great sortie of the 30th of November had been repelled, he still remained master of a certain portion of this debatable ground on the eastern side of Paris, especially of the isolated plateau of Avron, in front of Fort Rosny. This he began to fortify; at what exact date we do not know, but we find it mentioned on the 17th of December that both Mont Avron and the heights of Varennes (in the loop of the Marne) had been fortified and armed with heavy guns.

Barring a few advanced redoubts on the south front, near Vitry and Villejuif, which do not appear to be of much importance, we have here the first attempt, on a large scale, of the defenders to extend their positions by counter-approaches. And here we are naturally referred, for a comparison, to Sebastopol. More than four months after the opening of the trenches by the Allies, towards the end of February, 1855, when the besiegers had suffered terribly by the winter, Todleben began to construct advanced works at what were then considerable distances in front of his lines. On the 23rd of February he had constructed the redoubt Selenginsk, 1,100 yards from the main rampart; on the same day an assault of the Allies on the new work failed; on the 1st of March, another redoubt (Volynsk) was completed in a still more forward position, and 1,450 yards from the rampart. These two works were called by the Allies the “ouvrages blancs.” On the 12th of March, the Kamtschatka lunette, 800 yards from the ramparts, was completed, the “Mamelon vert,” of the Allies, and in front of all these works rifle-pits were dug out. An assault, on the 22nd of March, was beaten off, and the whole of the works, as well as another to the (proper) right of the Mamelon, the “Quarry,” was completed, and all these redoubts connected by a covered way. During the whole of April and May the Allies in vain attempted to recover the ground occupied by these works. They had to advance against them by regular siege approaches, and it was only on the 7th of June, when considerable reinforcements had arrived, that they were enabled to storm them. Thus, the fall of Sebastopol had been delayed fully three months by these advanced field works, attacked though they were by the most powerful naval guns of the period.

The defence of Mont Avron looks very paltry side by side with this story. On the 17th, when the French had had above fourteen days for the construction of their works, the batteries are completed. The besiegers in the meantime sent for siege artillery, chiefly old guns already used in the previous sieges. On the 22nd the batteries against Mont Avron are completed, but no action is taken until every danger of a sortie en masse of the French has passed away, and the encampments of the Army of Paris, round Drancy, are broken up on the 26th. Then on the 27th the German batteries open their fire, which is continued on the 28th and 29th. The fire of the French works is soon silenced, and the works abandoned on the 29th, because, as the official French report says, there were no casemates in them to shelter the garrison.

This is undoubtedly a poor defence and a still poorer excuse for it. The chief fault seems to rest with the construction of the works. From all descriptions we are led to conclude that there was not on the hill a single closed redoubt, but only batteries open to the rear, and even without efficient protection on the flanks. These batteries, moreover, appear to have been facing one way only, towards the south or south-east, while close by, to the north-east, lay the heights of Raincy and Montfermeil, the most eligible sites of all for batteries against Avron. The besiegers took advantage of these to surround Avron with a semicircle of batteries which soon silenced its fire and drove away its garrison. Then why was there no shelter for the garrison? The frost is but half an excuse, for the French had time enough; and what the Russians could do in a Crimean winter and on rocky soil must have been possible too this December before Paris. The artillery employed against Avron was certainly far more efficient than that of the Allies before Sebastopol; but it was the same as that used against the redoubts of Düppel, also field-works and they held out three weeks. It is surmised that the infantry garrison ran away and left the artillery uncovered. That may be so, but it would not excuse the engineers who constructed the works. The engineering staff inside Paris must be very badly organized if we are to judge it from this sample of its handiwork.

The rapid demolition of Mont Avron has sharpened the appetite of the besiegers for more successes of a similar sort. Their fire has been opened upon the eastern forts, especially Noisy, Rosny, and Nogent. After two days’ bombardment these forts were all but silenced. What more there is being done against them we do not hear. Neither is there any mention of the fire of the entrenchments which had been constructed in the intervals between these forts. But we may be certain that the besiegers are doing their best to push forward approaches, if only in a rough way, against these forts, and to secure a firm lodgment on Mont Avron. We should not wonder if they succeeded better in this than the French, in spite of the weather.

But what is the effect of all this upon the course of the siege? No doubt, if these three forts should fall into the hands of the Prussians, that would be an important success, and enable them to bring their batteries to within 3,000 or 4,000 yards of the enceinte. There is, however, no necessity that they should fall so soon. These forts all have bomb-proof casemates for their garrisons, and the besiegers, so far, have not got any rifled mortars, of which they altogether possess but a small stock. These mortars are the only sort of artillery which can destroy bomb-proof shelter in a very short time; the old mortars are too uncertain in their range to have a very rapid effect, and the 24-pounders (with 64lb. shell) cannot be sufficiently elevated to produce the effect of vertical fire. If the fire of these forts appears to be silenced, that signifies merely that the guns have been placed under shelter so as to keep them available for an assault. The Prussian batteries may demolish the parapets of the ramparts, but that will not constitute a breach. To breach the very well-covered masonry of the escarp, even by indirect fire, they will have to construct batteries within at least 1,000 yards from the forts, and that can be done by regular parallels and approaches only. The “abridged” process of besieging, of which the Prussians talk so much, consists in nothing but the silencing of the enemy’s fire from a greater distance, so that the approaches can be made with less danger and loss of time; this is followed up by a violent bombardment, and a breaching of the rampart by indirect fire. If all this does not compel surrender — and in the case of the Paris forts it is difficult to see how it could do so — nothing remains but to push up the approaches in the usual way to the glacis and risk an assault. The assault of Düppel was undertaken after the approaches had been pushed to about 250 yards from the ruined works, and at Strasbourg the saps had to be driven quite in the old-fashioned way up to the crest of the glacis and beyond.

With all this, we must recur again and again to the point so often urged in these columns, that the defence of Paris must be carried on actively, and not passively only. If ever there was a time for sorties, that time is now. It is not, at this moment, a question of breaking through the enemy’s lines; it is this — to accept a localized combat which the besieger forces upon the besieged. That the fire of the besieger can, under almost any circumstances, be made superior, on any given point, to that of the besieged, is an old and uncontested axiom; and unless the besieged make up for this his inherent deficiency by activity, boldness and energy in sorties, he gives up his best chance. Some say the troops inside Paris have lost heart; but there is no reason why they should. They may have lost confidence in their leader, but that is another thing altogether; and if Trochu persists in his inactivity, they may well do so.

We may as well advert in a word or two to the ingenious hypothesis of some people that Trochu intends to withdraw, with his troops, to the fortified peninsula of Mont Valerien, as to a citadel, after the fall of Paris. This profound surmise has been concocted by some of the super-clever hangers-on of the staff at Versailles, and is based chiefly on the fact that a good many carts go backwards and forwards between Paris and that peninsula. He must certainly be an uncommonly clever general who chooses to construct for himself a citadel on a low alluvial peninsula, surrounded on all sides by commanding heights, from which the camps of his troops can be surveyed. like a panorama, and consequently fired into at easy ranges. But as long as the Prussian staff has existed, it has been troubled with the presence of some men of superhuman sharpness. With them the enemy is always most likely to do the very unlikeliest thing of all. As the German saying goes, “they hear the grass growing.” Whoever has occupied himself with Prussian military literature must have stumbled over this sort of people, and the only wonder is that they should find anybody to believe them.