Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, January 14, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
The armies in the field have entered upon two operations which might easily bring on a crisis of the war. The first of these is Bourbaki’s march against Werder; the second, Prince Frederick Charles’s march against Chanzy.
The rumour of Bourbaki’s march eastward has been current for nearly a week, but there was nothing in it to distinguish it from the rest of the rumours which are now flying about so plentifully. That the movement might be good in itself was no reason to believe in its reality. However, there can be now no doubt that Bourbaki, with at least the 18th and 20th Corps, and the 24th, a new corps, has arrived in the East of France, and has turned Werder’s position at Vesoul by a movement viâ Besançon upon Lure, between Vesoul and Belfort. Near Lure, Werder attacked him at Villersexel on the 9th, and an engagement ensued, in which both parties claim the victory. It was evidently a rearguard-engagement, in which Werder apparently has made good his retreat. Whichever may have won in this first encounter, other and more general battles are sure to follow in a day or two, and to bring matters here to a crisis.
If this movement of Bourbaki be undertaken with sufficient forces — that is to say, with every man, horse, and gun that was not absolutely required elsewhere — and if it be carried out with the necessary vigour, it may prove the turning point of the war. We have before now pointed out the weakness of the long line of the German communications, and the possibility of Paris being relieved by an attack in force upon that line. This is now upon the cards, and it will depend on the playing of them whether it is really to come off.
Of the forces now invading France, nearly the whole of the troops of the line are engaged either in the siege of Paris or in the covering of that siege. Out of thirty-five divisions (Including the landwehr of the Guard, who have all the time been used as line troops), thirty-two are thus employed. Two are with Werder (three Baden and one Prussian brigade), and one, under Zastrow, has gone to join him. Besides these, Werder has at least two divisions of landwehr to carry on the siege of Belfort and to occupy the fortresses in Southern Alsace. Thus the whole length and breadth of country north-east of the line from Mézierès by Laon and Soissons to Paris, and thence by Auxerre and Châtillon to Hüningen, near Basel, with all its reduced fortresses, has to be held by the remainder of the landwehr, as far as it has been made disposable. And when we consider that there are also the prisoners of war in Germany to be watched and the fortresses at home to be garrisoned; that only nine Prussian army corps (those existing before 1866) had old soldiers enough to fill up the landwehr battalions, while the others will have to wait five years yet before they can do this — we may imagine that the forces remaining disposable for the occupation of this part of France cannot have been over-numerous. True, eighteen depôt battalions are now being sent to garrison the fortresses in Alsace and Lorraine, and the newly forming “garrison battalions” are to relieve the landwehr in the interior of Prussia. But the formation of these garrison battalions is reported in the German press to proceed but slowly, and thus the army of occupation will still for some time be comparatively weak and barely able to hold in check the population of the provinces it has to guard.
It is against this portion of the German army that Bourbaki is moving. He evidently attempted to interpose his troops between Vesoul and Belfort, whereby he would isolate Werder, whom he might beat singly, driving him in a north-westerly direction. But as Werder now probably is before Belfort and united with Tresckow, Bourbaki has to defeat both in order to raise the siege; to drive the besiegers back into the Rhine valley, after which he might advance on the eastern side of the Vosges towards Lunéville, where he would be on the main line of the German communications. The destruction of the railway tunnels near PhaIsbourg would block up the Strasbourg line for a considerable period; that of the Frouard Junction would stop the line from Saarbrücken and Metz; and it might even be possible to send a flying column towards Thionville to destroy the line near that place too, so as to break the last through line the Germans have. That column could always retire into Luxembourg or Belgium and lay down its arms; it would have amply repaid itself.
These are the objects which Bourbaki must have in view. With the neighbourhood of Paris exhausted, the interruption of the communications from Paris to Germany even for a few days would be a very serious matter for the 240,000 Germans before Paris, and the presence of 120,000 to 150,000 French soldiers in Lorraine might be a more effective means of raising the siege than even a victory of Chanzy over Frederick Charles, by which the latter would after all be driven back upon the besieging forces, to be backed up by them. True, the Germans have another line of railway communication by Thionville, Mézierès, and Reims, which Bourbaki might probably not be able to reach even with flying columns; but then there is the absolute certainty of a general rising of the people in the occupied districts as soon as Bourbaki would have succeeded in penetrating into Lorraine; and what the safety for traffic of that second line of railway would be under such circumstances we need not explain any further. Besides, Bourbaki’s success would, as a first consequence, compel Goeben to fall back, and thus the Army of the North might find a chance of cutting off this line between Soissons and Mézierès.
We consider this movement of Bourbaki as the most important and the most promising one which has been made by any French general in this war. But, we repeat, it must be carried out adequately. The best plans are worthless if they be executed feebly and irresolutely; and we shall probably not learn anything positive about Bourbaki’s forces or the way he handles them until his struggles with Werder have been decided.
But we are informed that in view of some such contingency, the Corps of Werder is to be enlarged into a great “fifth army,” under Manteuffel, who is to hand over his “first army” to Goeben, and to bring to Werder’s assistance the 2nd, 7th, and 14th Corps.
Now, of the 7th Corps, the 13th division has already been sent towards Vesoul, under Zastrow; the 14th division has only just taken Mézierès and Rocroi, and cannot, therefore, be expected at Vesoul so very soon; the 14th Corps is the very one which Werder has had all along (the Baden division and the 30th and 34th Prussian regiments, under Goltz); and, as to the 2nd Corps, which is before Paris, we expect that it will not start before that city shall have surrendered, because it cannot be well spared there. But even if it were sent off now it would only arrive after Werder’s decisive action with Bourbaki had taken place. As to other reinforcements for Werder from reserves which may be supposed to exist in Germany, we have to consider, firstly, that whatever landwehr can be made disposable has already been, or is being, forwarded now; and, secondly, that the depôt battalions, the only other reserve force in existence, have just been emptied of their drilled men, and are at this moment mere cadres. Thus, Bourbaki will at all events have to fight his first and most decisive actions before the intended reinforcements can have arrived; and, if victorious, he will be in the favourable position to deal with these reinforcements one after another as they arrive successively and from very different directions.
On the other hand, Prince Frederick Charles, in spite of his victorious march to Le Mans, may yet have made the first mistake committed by the Germans in this war, when he left Bourbaki entirely free, in order to concentrate all his forces against Chanzy. Now, Chanzy was no doubt his more immediate opponent, and for the moment the most dangerous one too. But Chanzy’s country is not the one where decisive successes can be had over the French. Chanzy has just suffered a severe defeat; that settles his attempts for the relief of Paris for the present. But it so far settles nothing else. Chanzy may withdraw if he likes either towards Brittany or towards the Calvados. In either case he finds at the extreme end of his retreat a great naval arsenal, Brest or Cherbourg, with detached forts to shelter him until the French fleet can transport his men south of the Loire or north of the Somme. In consequence, the West of France is a country where the French can carry on a war to amuse the enemy — a war of alternate advances and retreats — without ever being brought to bay against their will. We should not wonder if Chanzy had been urged on to fight by Gambetta, who was reported to have joined
him, and who would be sure to subordinate military to political considerations. After his reverse, and — the loss of Le Mans. Chanzy could do nothing better than draw off Frederick Charles as far away to the westward as possible, so that this portion of the Prussian forces may be quite out of harm’s way when Bourbaki’s campaign begins to develop itself.
Faidherbe, in the north, is evidently too weak to do anything decisive against Goeben. As it appears that Chanzy cannot defeat Frederick Charles and thereby relieve Paris, it would be better to send plenty of men to the north, to get rid of Goeben both at Amiens and Rouen, and to attempt with concentrated forces an advance upon the railway line from Mézierès to Paris; especially now, while Bourbaki is threatening the other German line of railway. The communications are the tenderest part of an army’s position; and if the northern line, which lies so much exposed to an attack from the north both at Soissons and Rethel, should once be seriously menaced while Bourbaki is at work on the southern edge of Lorraine, we might see all of a sudden a very pretty commotion in Versailles.