Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, January 19, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Ever since, after Sedan, Paris was first seriously menaced by hostile attack, we have insisted upon the great strength of a fortified capital like Paris; but we have never omitted to add that, for the full development of its defensive powers, it required a large regular army to defend it'; an army too powerful to be shut up in the works of the place, or to be prevented from manoeuvring in the open around the fortress, which would serve as its pivot and partly as its base of operations.

Under normal conditions, this army would almost always be at hand, as a matter of course. The French armies, defeated near the frontier, would fall back upon Paris as their last and chief stronghold; they would under ordinary circumstances arrive here in sufficient strength, and find sufficient reinforcements to be able to fulfil the task assigned to them. But this time the strategy of the Second Empire had caused the whole of the French armies to disappear from the field. One of them it had managed to get shut up, to all appearance hopelessly, in Metz; the other had just surrendered at Sedan. When the Prussians arrived before Paris, a few half-filled depôts, a number of provincial Mobiles (just levied), and the local National Guard (not half formed), were all the forces ready for its defence.

Even under these circumstances the intrinsic strength of the place proved so formidable to the invaders, the task of attacking lege artis this immense city and its outworks appeared so gigantic to them, that they abandoned it at once, and chose to reduce the place by famine. At that time Henri Rochefort and others were formed into a “Commission of Barricades,” charged with the construction of a third interior line of defence, which should prepare the ground for that line of fighting so peculiarly Parisian — the defence of barricades and the struggle from house to house. The press at the time made great fun of this commission; but the semi-official publications of the Prussian staff leave no doubt that it was above all the certainty of having to encounter a determined struggle at the barricades which caused them to decide in favour of reduction by famine. The Prussians knew very well that the forts, and after them the enceinte, if defended by artillery alone, must fall within a certain time; but then would come a stage of the struggle in which new levies and even civilians would be a match for veterans; in which house after house, street after street, would have to be conquered, and, considering the great number of the defenders, with the certainty of an immense loss of life. Whoever will refer to the papers on the subject in the Prussian Staats-Anzeiger will find this reason to be stated as the decisive one against a regular siege.

The investment began on September 19, exactly four months ago to-day. On the following day General Ducrot, who commanded the regular troops in Paris, made a sortie with three divisions in the direction of Clamart, and lost seven guns and 3,000 prisoners. This was followed by similar sorties on the 23rd and 30th of September, 13th and 21st of October, all of which resulted in considerable loss to the French without other advantages than, perhaps, accustoming the young troops to the enemy’s fire. On the 28th another sortie was made against Le Bourget with better success. the village was taken and held 1()1 two days; but on the 30th the second division of the Prussian guards — thirteen battalions, then less than 10,000 men — retook the village. The French had evidently made very poor use of the two days, during which they might have converted the massively built village into a fortress, and neglected to keep reserves at hand to support the defenders in time, otherwise such a moderate force could not have wrested the place from them.

After this effort there followed a month of quietness. Trochu evidently intended to improve the drill and discipline of his men before again risking great sorties, and very properly so. But, at the same time, he neglected to carry on that war of outposts, reconnaissances and patrols, of ambushes and surprises, which is now the regular occupation of the men on the French front round Paris — a kind of warfare than which none is more adapted to give young troops confidence in their officers and in themselves, and the habit of meeting the enemy with composure. Troops which have found out that in small bodies, in single sections, half companies, or companies, they can surprise, defeat, or take prisoner similar small bodies of the enemy will soon learn to meet him battalion against battalion. Besides, they will thus learn what outpost duty really is, which many of them appeared to be ignorant of as late as December.

On the 28th of November, at last, was inaugurated that series of sorties which culminated in the grand sortie of the 30th of November across the Marne, and the advance of the whole eastern front of Paris. On the 2nd of December the Germans retook Briey and part of Champigny, and on the following day the French recrossed the Marne. As an attempt to break through the entrenched lines of circumvallation which the besiegers had thrown up, the attack completely failed; it had been carried out without the necessary energy. But it left in the hands of the French a considerable portion of hitherto debatable ground in front of their lines. A strip of ground about two miles in width. from Drancy to the Marne, near Neuilly, came into their possession; a country completely commanded by the fire of the forts, covered with massively built villages easy of defence, and possessing a fresh commanding position in the plateau of Avron. Here, then, was a chance of permanently enlarging the circle of defence; from this ground, once well secured, a further advance might have been attempted, and either the line of the besiegers so much “bulged in” that a successful attack on their lines became possible, or that, by concentrating a strong force here, they were compelled to weaken their line at other points, and thus facilitate a French attack. Well, this ground remained in the hands of the French for a full month. The Germans were compelled to erect siege batteries against Avron, and yet two days’ fire from these batteries sufficed to drive the French from it; and, Avron once lost, the other positions were also abandoned. Fresh attacks had indeed been made on the whole north-east and east front on the 21st; Le Bourget was half-carried, Maison Blanche and Ville-Evrard were taken; but all this vantage-ground was lost again the same night. The troops were left on the ground outside the forts, where they bivouacked at a temperature varying from nine to twenty-one degrees below freezing point, and were at last withdrawn under shelter because they naturally could not stand the exposure. The whole of this episode is more characteristic than any other of the want of decision and energy — the mollesse, we might almost say the drowsiness — with which this defence of Paris is conducted.

The Avron incident at last induced the Prussians to turn the investment into a real siege, and to make use of the siege artillery which, for unforeseen cases, had been provided. On the 30th of December the regular bombardment of the north-eastern and eastern forts commenced; on the 5th of January that of the southern forts. Both have been continued without interruption, and of late have been accompanied by a bombardment of the town itself, which is a wanton piece of cruelty. Nobody knows better than the staff at Versailles, and nobody has caused it oftener to be asserted in the press, that the bombardment of a town as extensive as Paris cannot hasten its surrender by one moment. The cannonade of the forts is being followed up by the opening of regular parallels, at least against Issy; we hear of the guns being moved into batteries nearer to the forts, and unless the defence acts on the offensive more unhesitatingly than hitherto, we may soon hear of actual damage being done to one or more forts.

Trochu, however. continues in his inactivity, masterly or otherwise. The few sorties made during the last few days appear to have been but too “platonic,” as Trochu’s accuser in the Siècle calls the whole of them. We are told the soldiers refused to follow their officers. If so, this proves nothing but that they have lost all confidence in the supreme direction. And, indeed, we cannot resist the conclusion that a change in the chief command in Paris has become a necessity. There is an indecision, a lethargy, a want of sustained energy in all the proceedings of this defence which cannot entirely be laid to the charge of the quality of the troops. That the positions, held for a month, during which there occurred only about ten days of severe frost, were not properly entrenched, cannot be blamed upon any one but Trochu, whose business it was to see to its being done. And that month, too, was the critical period of the siege; at its close the question was to be decided which party, besiegers or besieged, would gain ground. Inactivity and indecision, not of the troops but of the commander-in-chief, have turned the scale against the besieged.

And why is this inactivity and indecision continued even now? The forts are under the enemy’s fire, the besiegers’ batteries are being brought nearer and nearer; the French artillery, as is owned by Trochu himself, is inferior to that of the attack. Defended by artillery alone, the very day may be calculated when, under these circumstances, the ramparts — masonry and all — of the forts will give way. Inactivity and indecision cannot save them. Something must be done; and if Trochu cannot do it, he had better let some one else try.

Kinglake has preserved a transaction in which Trochu’s character appears in the same light as in this defence of Paris. When the advance to Varna had been resolved upon by both Lord Raglan and Saint-Arnaud, and the British Light Division had already been despatched, Colonel Trochu — “a cautious thinking man, well versed in strategic science,” of whom

“it was surmised that it was part of his mission to check anything like wildness in the movements of the French Marshal”

— Colonel Trochu called upon Lord Raglan, and entered upon negotiations, the upshot of which was that Saint-Arnaud declared he had resolved to send to

“Varna but one division, and to place the rest of his army in position, not in advance, but in the rear of the Balkan range,”

and invited Lord Raglan to follow his example. And that at a moment when the Turks were all but victorious on the Danube without foreign aid!

It may be said that the troops in Paris have lost heart, and are no longer fit for great sorties, that it is too late to sally forth against the Prussian siege works, that Trochu may save his troops for one great effort at the last moment, and so forth. But if the 500,000 armed men in Paris are to surrender to an enemy not half their number, placed moreover in a position most unfavourable for defence, they will surely not do so until their inferiority is brought home to all the world and to themselves. Surely they are not to sit down, eat up the last meal of their provisions, and then surrender! And if they have lost heart, is it because they acknowledge themselves hopelessly beaten, or because they have no longer any trust in Trochu? If it is too late to make sorties now, in another month they will be still more impracticable. And as to Trochu’s grand finale, the sooner it is made the better; at present the men are still tolerably fed and strong, and there is no telling what they will be in February.