Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, February 2, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

If we are to believe the latest telegram from Berne — and there is now no room to discredit it — our anticipations regarding the fate of Bourbaki’s army have been realized. The Swiss Federal Council is reported to have received the official news that this army, about 80,000 strong, had passed upon Swiss territory, where, of course, it would have to lay down its arms. The exact points at which this took place have not been stated, but it must have been somewhere south of Blâmont and not more south than Pontarlier. The various detachments would pass the frontier at different points, the greatest mass of the troops probably at Les Brenets, where the road from Besançon to Neuchâtel enters Swiss territory.

Thus another French army has passed away, through — to use the mildest phrase — the irresolution of its chief. Bourbaki may be a dashing officer at the head of a division; but the nerve required to brace oneself up to a bold resolution in a decisive moment is quite a different thing from the nerve which enables a man to command a division with éclat under fire; and like many men of undoubted and brilliant personal courage, Bourbaki seems deficient in the moral courage necessary to come to a decisive resolution. On the evening of the 17th at latest, when his inability to pierce Werder’s lines became fully evident to himself, his mind ought to have been made up at once as to his line of conduct. He must have known that Prussian reinforcements were approaching his line of retreat from the north-west; that his position with a victorious enemy in his front, and a long line of retreat, close to a neutral frontier, in his rear, was extremely dangerous; that the object of his expedition had irretrievably failed; and that his most pressing, nay, his only duty, under the circumstances, was to save his army. In other words, that he must retire as hastily as the state of his army would allow. But this resolution to retire, to confess by deeds that he had failed in his expedition, appears to have been too much for him. He dallied about the scene of his last battles, unable to advance, unwilling to retire, and thus gave Manteuffel the time to cut off his retreat. Had he marched off at once, and only done fifteen miles a day, he could have reached Besançon on the 20th, and the neighbourhood of Dôle on the 21st, just about the time when the first Prussians made their appearance there. These Prussians could not be very strong; and even Bourbaki’s advanced guard must have been sufficient if not to drive them off entirely, still to confine them to the right or western bank of the Doubs, which would have been quite sufficient to secure Bourbaki’s line of retreat, especially with an adversary of the force of Manteuffel, who will act correctly enough so long as the execution of Moltke’s orders meets with no resistance, but who sinks below the level of mediocrity as soon as that resistance calls into play his own mental powers.

It is one of the most curious points in the document agreed to between Bismarck and Jules Favre, that the four departments where Bourbaki and Garibaldi are acting are not included in the general armistice, but that the Prussians virtually reserve to themselves the power of continuing to fight there as long as they please. It is an unprecedented stipulation, which shows more than any other that the conqueror, in the true Prussian fashion, exacted to the full every concession his momentary superiority enabled him to impose. The armistice is to extend to the West, where Frederick Charles finds that he had better not advance beyond Le Mans; to the North, where Goeben is arrested by the fortresses; but not to the south-east, where Manteuffel’s advance promised a second Sedan. Jules Favre, in consenting to this clause, virtually consented to the surrender of Bourbaki, either to the Prussians or to the Swiss; the only difference in his favour being that he shifted the responsibility of the act from his shoulders to those of Bourbaki.

Altogether, the capitulation of Paris is an unprecedented document. When Napoleon surrendered at Sedan he declined entering on negotiations beyond those for the surrender of himself and army; he, as a prisoner, being disabled from binding the Government and France. When M. Jules Favre surrenders Paris and its army he enters upon stipulations binding the rest of France, though exactly in the same position as Napoleon at Sedan. Nay, worse. Napoleon, almost up to the day of his capitulation, had been in free communication with the rest of France; M. Jules Favre, for five or six weeks, has enjoyed but rare and fragmentary opportunities of learning what was going on outside Paris. His information as to the military situation outside the forts could be supplied to him by Bismarck only; and upon this one-sided statement, furnished by the enemy, he ventured to act.

M. Jules Favre had a choice between two evils. He could do as he has done, secure a three weeks’ armistice on the enemy’s terms, and bind the real Government of France, that of Bordeaux to it . Or he could refuse to act for the rest of France, offer to treat for Paris alone, and in case of difficulties raised by the besiegers, do as the commandant of PhaIsbourg did — throw open the gates and invite the conquerors to enter. The latter course would have been more in the interest of his dignity and of his political future.

As to the Bordeaux Government, it will have to adhere to the armistice and to the election of a National Assembly. It has no means to compel the generals to repudiate the armistice, it will hesitate to create divisions among the people. The surrender of Bourbaki to the Swiss adds another crushing blow to the many the French have lately received; and, as we stated in anticipation of the event we believe that this blow, following immediately upon the surrender of Paris, will so much depress the spirits of the nation that peace will be made. As to the material resources of France, they are so far from being exhausted that the struggle might be continued for months. There is one striking fact which shows how immense are the difficulties in the way of a complete conquest of France. Prince Frederick Charles, after seven days’ fighting, had driven back Chanzy’s army, in a state of utter dissolution. With the exception of a few brigades, there were positively no troops left to oppose him. The country in his front was rich and comparatively unexhausted. Yet he stops his march at Le Mans, pursuing beyond with his advanced guard only, and not beyond short distances. Our readers will recollect that we were prepared for no other result'; for it may be said, with a certain amount of truth that in conquering a large country, while the extent to be occupied increases arithmetically, the difficulties of occupation increase geometrically.

Still we think that the repeated disasters of the January campaign must have shaken the morale of the nation to such an extent that the proposed National Assembly will not only meet, but also probably make peace; and thus, along with the war, these Notes upon it will come to a close.