Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Military Aspect of Affairs in France

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette., February 8, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

If the series of disasters to the French arms which mark the January campaign — the defeats of Faidherbe and Chanzy, the fall of Paris, the defeat and surrender to the Swiss of Bourbaki — if all these crushing events, concentrated in the short period of three weeks, may well be considered to have broken the spirit of resistance in France, it now seems not improbable that the Germans, by their extravagant demands, may rouse that spirit again. If the country is to be thoroughly ruined by peace as well as by war, why make peace at all? The propertied classes, the middle class of the towns and the larger landed proprietors, with part of the smaller peasantry, hitherto formed the peace party; they might have been reckoned upon to elect peace deputies for the National Assembly; but if such unheard-of demands are persisted in, the cry of war to the knife may rise from their ranks as well as from those of the workmen of the large towns. At any rate, it is well not to neglect whatever chance there may be that the war may be resumed after the 19th of February ... ; especially since the Germans themselves, if we may trust The Daily News of to-day, are not so satisfied with the prospect of affairs as to abstain from serious preparations for the resumption of hostilities. Let us, therefore, cast another glance at the military aspect of affairs.

The twenty-seven departments of France now occupied by the Prussians contain an area of 15,800,000 hectares, with a population (allowing for the fortresses still unsurrendered) of rather less than 12,500,000. The extent of all France comprises 54,240,000 hectares, and its population is 37,382,000. It thus appears that, in round numbers, thirty-eight and a half millions of hectares, with a population of 25,000,000, remain still unconquered, — fully two-thirds of the people, considerably more than two-thirds of the soil. Paris and Metz, the resistance of which so long retarded further hostile advance, have certainly fallen. The interior of the unconquered country contains no other entrenched camp — Lyons excepted — capable of playing the same part which these two fortresses have played. Rather less than 700,000 Frenchmen (not counting the National Guard of Paris) are prisoners of war or interned in Switzerland. But there are other circumstances which may make up for this deficiency, even if the three weeks’ armistice should not be used for the creation of new camps, surrounded by field works; for which there is ample time.

The great bulk of unconquered France lies south of the line Nantes-Besançon; it forms a compact block, covered on three sides by the sea or by neutral frontiers, with only its northern boundary line open to the enemy’s attack. Here is the strength of the national resistance; here are to be found the men and the material to carry on the war if it is resumed. To conquer and occupy this immense rectangle of 450 miles by 250 against a desperate resistance — regular and irregular — of the inhabitants, the present forces of the Prussians would not suffice. The surrender of Paris, leaving four corps for the garrison of that capital, will set free nine divisions; Bourbaki’s surrender sets free Manteuffel’s six line divisions; in all, fifteen divisions, or 150,000 to 170,000 additional soldiers for operations in the field, added to Goeben’s four and Frederick Charles’s eight divisions. But Goeben has plenty on his hands in the north, and Frederick Charles has shown by his halt at Tours and Le Mans that his offensive powers are exhausted to the full, so that for the conquest of the South there remain but the above fifteen divisions; and for some months to come no further reinforcements can arrive.

To these fifteen divisions the French will have to oppose in the beginning mostly new formations. There were about Nevers and Bourges the 15th and 25th Corps; there must have been in the same neighbourhood the 19th Corps, of which we have heard nothing since the beginning of December. Then there is the 24th Corps, escaped from Bourbaki’s shipwreck, and Garibaldi’s troops, recently reinforced to 50,000 men, but by what bodies and from what quarters we do not know. The whole comprises some thirteen or fourteen divisions, perhaps even sixteen, but quite insufficient as to quantity and quality to arrest the progress of the new armies which are sure to be sent against them if the armistice should expire without peace having been made. But the three weeks’ armistice will not only give these French divisions time to consolidate themselves; it will also permit the more or less raw levies now in the camps of instruction, and estimated by Gambetta at 250,000 men, to transform at least the best of their battalions into useful corps fit to meet the enemy; and thus, if the war should be renewed, the French may be in a position to ward off any serious invasion of the South, not perhaps at the boundary line of the Loire or much north of Lyons, but yet at points where the presence of the enemy will not efficiently impair their force of resistance.

As a matter of course, the armistice gives ample time to restore the equipment, the discipline, and the morale of Faidherbe’s and Chanzy’s armies, as well as of all the other troops in Cherbourg, Havre, & The question is whether the time will be so employed. While thus the strength of the French will be considerably increased, both as to numbers and quality, that of the Germans will scarcely receive any increment at all. So far, the armistice will be a boon to the French side.

But beside the compact block of southern France, there remain unconquered the two peninsulas of the Bretagne with Brest, and of the Cotentin with Cherbourg, and, moreover, the two northern departments with their fortresses. Havre, too, forms an unconquered, well-fortified spot on the coast. Every one of these four districts is provided with at least one well-fortified place of safety on the coast for a retreating army; so that the fleet, which at this moment has nothing, absolutely nothing, else to do, can keep up the communications between the South and all of them, transport troops from one place to another, as the case may require, and thereby all of a sudden enable a beaten army to resume the offensive with superior forces. Thus while these four western and northern districts are in a measure unassailable, they form so many weak points on the flanks of the Prussians. The line of actual danger for the French extends from Angers to Besansçon; for the Germans it extends, in addition to this, from Angers by Le Mans, Rouen, and Amiens to the Belgian frontier. Advantages on this latter line gained over the French can never become decisive if moderate common sense be used by them; but those gained over the Germans may, under certain conditions, become so.

Such is the strategical situation. By using the fleet to advantage the French might move their men in the West and North, so as to compel the Germans to keep largely superior forces in that neighbourhood, and to weaken the forces sent out for the conquest of the South, which it would be their chief object to prevent. By concentrating their armies more than they have hitherto done, and, on the other hand, by sending out more numerous small partisan bands, they might increase the effect to be obtained by the forces on hand. There appear to have been many more troops at Cherbourg and Havre than were necessary for the defence; and the well executed destruction of the bridge of Fontenoy, near Toul, in the centre of the country occupied by the conquerors, shows what may be done by bold partisans. For, if the war is to be resumed at all after the 19th of February, it must be in reality a war to the knife, a war like that of Spain against Napoleon; a war in which no amount of shootings and burnings will prove sufficient to break the spirit of resistance.