Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, January 26, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

We are again in a critical period of the war, which may turn out to be the critical period. From the moment we heard that bread had been rationed out in Paris by the Government, there could be no longer any doubt that the beginning of the end had come. How soon after that the offer of surrender would follow was a mere question of detail. We suppose, then, that it is intended to surrender to some 220,000 besiegers a besieged force of some 500,000 armed men on any terms the besiegers choose to impose. Whether it will be possible to carry this out without another struggle remains to be seen; at all events, any such struggle could not materially alter the state of things. Whether Paris holds out another fortnight, or whether a portion of these 500,000 armed men succeed in forcing a road across the lines of investment, will not much affect the ulterior course of the war.

We cannot but hold General Trochu mainly responsible for this result of the siege. He certainly was not the man to form an army out of the undoubtedly excellent material under his hands. He had nearly five months’ time to make soldiers out of his men; yet at the end they appear to fight no better than at the beginning of the siege. The final sortie from Valérien was carried out with far less dash than the previous one across the Marne; there appears a good deal of theatrical display in it — little of the rage of despair. It will not do to say that the troops were not fit to be sent out to storm breastworks manned by the German veterans. Why were they not? Five months are a sufficient time to make very respectable soldiers out of the men Trochu had at his command, and there are no circumstances better adapted for that purpose than those of the siege of a large entrenched camp. No doubt the men after the sorties of November and December had lost heart; but was it because they knew their inferiority with regard to their opponents, or because they had lost all faith in the pretended determination of Trochu to fight the matter out? All reports from Paris agree in ascribing the want of success to the absence of confidence of the soldiers in the supreme command. And rightly so. Trochu, we must not forget, is an Orleanist, and, as such, lives in bodily fear of La Villette, Belleville, and the other “revolutionary” quarters of Paris. He feared them more than the Prussians. This is not a mere supposition or deduction on our part. We know, from a source which admits of no doubt, of a letter sent out of Paris by a member of the Government in which it is stated that Trochu was on every side urged on to take the offensive energetically, but that he constantly refused, because such a course might hand over Paris to the “demagogues.”

The fall of Paris, then, appears now all but certain. It will be a hard blow to the French nation, immediately after St. Quentin, Le Mans, and Héricourt, and its moral effect under these circumstances will be very great. Moreover, there are events impending in the south-east which may render this blow morally crushing. Bourbaki appears to be tarrying in the neighbourhood of Belfort in a way which seems to imply that he does not at all comprehend his situation. The 24th Corps, under Bressolles, on the 24th was still at Blâmont, about twelve miles south of Montbéliard, and close to the Swiss frontier; and even supposing that this was Bourbaki’s rearguard, it is not to be expected that the other two corps he had with him would be far away. In the meantime, we find that Prussian detachments, as early as the 21st, had cut, at Dôle, the railway between Besançon and Dijon; that they have since occupied St. Vith, another station on the same line nearer to Besançon; and that they are thus confining Bourbaki’s retreat, towards Lyons, to the narrow strip between the Doubs and the Swiss frontier, a country of parallel longitudinal mountain chains and valleys where a comparatively small force may find plenty of positions in which it can stop the retreat of an army such as Bourbaki’s has shown itself to be. These detachments on the Doubs we take to be the 13th Division of Zastrow’s 7th Corps, or perhaps a portion of Fransecky’s 2nd Corps, which has turned up on the 23rd at Dijon. The 60th regiment, which with the 21st forms the 8th Brigade (or 4th brigade of the 2nd Corps), was repulsed before that town by Garibaldi, and lost its colours. As Garibaldi has but 15,000 men at the utmost, he will not be able to hold the town against the superior forces which are sure to have arrived before it in the meantime. He will be driven back, and the Prussian advance will be continued towards and beyond the Doubs. Unless Bourbaki has in the meantime used the legs of his men to good advantage, he may be driven, with all his army, into the fortress of Besançon to play Metz over again, or into a corner of the Jura abutting on Swiss territory, and compelled to lay down his arms either on this side or on the other of the frontier. And if he should escape with the greater portion of his troops, it is almost certain that large numbers of stragglers, much baggage, and perhaps artillery, will have to be sacrificed.

After the three days’ fighting at Héricourt, Bourbaki had no business to remain a day longer in his exposed position near the frontier, with Prussian reinforcements marching towards his communications. His attempts to relieve Belfort had failed; every chance of a further offensive movement in that direction had disappeared; his position became every day more dangerous, and nothing but rapid retreat could save him. By all appearances he has neglected that too, and if his imprudence should lead to a second Sedan, the blow to the French people might be morally overwhelming.

Morally, we say, for materially it need not be. Germany is certainly not so exhausted as Gambetta pretends, but Germany is at this very moment displaying a greater absolute and relative strength than she will again display for months to come. For some time the German forces must decline, while nothing prevents the French forces, even after the surrender of the Paris garrison and Bourbaki, should it come to that, from again increasing. The Prussians themselves appear to have given up all hopes of being able to conquer and occupy the whole of France; and as long as the compact block of territory in the South remains free, and as long as resistance, passive and occasionally active (like the blowing up of the Moselle bridge near Toul), is not given up in the North, we do not see how France can be compelled to give in unless she be tired of the war.