Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71

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Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 9, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Saturday, the 6th of August, was the critical day for the first phase of the campaign. The first despatches from the German side, by their extreme modesty, rather hid than exposed the importance of the results gained on that day. It is only through the later and fuller accounts, and by some rather awkward admissions in the French reports, that we are enabled to judge of the total change in the military situation accomplished on Saturday.

While MacMahon was defeated on the eastern slope of the Vosges, Frossard’s three divisions, and at least one regiment of Bazaine’s corps, the 69th, in all forty-two battalions, were driven from the heights south of Saarbrücken and on beyond Forbach, by Kameke’s division of the 7th (Westphalian), and the two divisions of Barnekow and Stülpnagel, of the 8th (Rhenish) Corps, in all thirty-seven battalions. As the German battalions are stronger, the numbers engaged appear to have been pretty equal, but the French had the advantage of position. There were to the left of Frossard the seven infantry divisions of Bazaine and Ladmirault, and to his rear the two divisions of the Guards. With the exception of one regiment, as above stated, not a man of all these came up to support the unlucky Frossard. He had to fall back after a smart defeat, and is now in full retreat upon Metz; and so are Bazaine, Ladmirault, and the Guards. The Germans are in pursuit and were on Sunday in St. Avold, with all Lorraine open to them as far as Metz.

MacMahon, De Failly, and Canrobert, in the meantime, are retreating, not upon Bitche, as was at first stated, but upon Nancy; and MacMahon’s headquarters were on Sunday at Saverne. These three corps, therefore, are not only defeated, but also driven back in a direction divergent from the line of retreat of the rest of the army. The strategical advantage aimed at in the attack of the Crown Prince, and explained by us yesterday, appears thus to have been attained, at least partially. While the Emperor retires due west, MacMahon goes much more towards the south, and will scarcely have reached Lunéville at the time the other four corps will be massed under the shelter of Metz. But from Sarreguemines to Lunéville is only a few miles farther than from Saverne to Lunéville. And it is not to be expected that, while Steinmetz follows up the Emperor and the Crown Prince tries to hold fast MacMahon in the defiles of the Vosges, Prince Frederick Charles, who was on Sunday at Blieskastel, with his advanced guard somewhere near Sarreguemines, should look on quietly. The whole of Northern Lorraine is a splendid cavalry country, and Lunéville in time of peace was always the head-quarters of a large portion of the French cavalry quartered in that neighbourhood. With the great superiority, both as to quantity and quality, in cavalry on the side of the Germans, it is difficult to suppose that they will not at once launch large masses of that arm towards Lunéville, intending to intercept the communications between MacMahon and the Emperor, destroy the railway bridges on the Strasbourg-Nancy line, and, if possible, the bridges of the Meurthe. It is even possible that they may succeed in interposing a body of infantry between the two separated bodies of the French army, compel MacMahon to retreat still farther south, and to take a still more circuitous route to restore his connection with the rest of the army. That something of that sort has already been done seems clear from the Emperor’s admission that on Saturday his communications with MacMahon were interrupted; and the fear of more serious consequences is ominously expressed in the report of a removal of the French head-quarters to Châlons being contemplated.

Four of the eight corps of the French army have thus been more or less completely defeated, and always in detail, while of one of them, the Seventh (Félix Douay), the whereabouts is quite unknown. The strategy which rendered possible such blunders is worthy of the Austrians in their most helpless times. It is not Napoleon, it is Beaulieu, Mack, Gyulay, and the like of them, we are reminded of. Imagine Frossard having to fight at Forbach all day, while to his left, and not more than ten miles or so from the line of the Saar, seven divisions were looking on! This would be unaccountable, unless we suppose that there were facing them German forces sufficient to prevent them from either supporting Frossard or assisting him by an independent attack. And this, the only possible exculpation, is admissible only if, as we have always said, the decisive attack of the Germans was intended to be made by their extreme right. The hasty retreat upon Metz again confirms this view; it looks uncommonly like a timely attempt to withdraw from a position where the communications with Metz were already threatened. What German troops there may have been facing, and perhaps outflanking, Ladmirault and Bazaine, we do not know; but we must not forget that of Steinmetz’s seven or more divisions only three have been engaged.

In the meantime another North German corps has turned up — the Sixth or Upper Silesian. It passed through Cologne last Thursday, and will now be either with Steinmetz or Frederick Charles, whom The Times persists in placing on the extreme right, at Trèves, in the same number which contains the telegram that he has moved from Homburg to Blieskastel. The superiority of the Germans, both as to numbers, morale, and strategical position, must now be such that, for a time, they may with impunity do almost anything they like. If the Emperor intends to keep his four army corps in the entrenched camp at Metz — and he has but the choice between that and an uninterrupted retreat upon Paris — that need not stop the advance of the Germans any more than the attempt of Benedek, in 1866, to reassemble his army under shelter of Olmutz arrested the Prussian advance upon Vienna. Benedek!

What a comparison for the conqueror of Magenta and Solferino! And yet it is more to the point than any other. Like Benedek, the Emperor had his troops massed in a position from which he could move in any direction, and that a full fortnight before the enemy was concentrated. Like Benedek, Louis Napoleon managed to have corps after corps beaten in detail by superior numbers or superior generalship. But here, we are afraid, the likeness ceases. Benedek had, after a week of daily defeats, strength enough left him for the supreme effort of Sadowa. To all appearances Napoleon has his troops separated, almost hopelessly, after two days’ engagements, and cannot even afford to try a general action.

There will now, we suppose, be an end to the intended expedition of troops to the Baltic, if that was ever more than a feint. Every battalion will be wanted on the eastern frontier. Out of the 376 battalions of the French army, 300 were in the six corps of the line and one of Guards which we know stood between Metz and Strasbourg. The seventh corps of the line (Douay) might have been sent either to the Baltic or to join the main army, which accounts for forty more. The rest, thirty-six battalions, can hardly have been sufficient for Algeria and various other duties in the interior. What resources has the Emperor to draw upon for reinforcements? The 100 fourth battalions now in formation and the Garde Mobile. But both of these consist, the first mostly, the second altogether, of raw recruits. By what time the fourth battalions may be ready to march we do not know; they will have to march whether ready or not. What the Garde Mobile is at present we saw last week in the camp of Châlons. Both are good material for soldiers, no doubt, but not soldiers yet; not yet troops to withstand the shock of men who are becoming used to the taking of mitrailleurs. On the other hand, in about ten days, the Germans will have 190,000 to 200,000 of the fourth battalions, &c., to draw upon the flower of their army, besides at least an equal number of landwehr, all fit for duty in the field.