Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71

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Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, August 11, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

There is no doubt now that scarcely ever was there a war undertaken with such an utter disregard of the ordinary rules of prudence as the Napoleonic “military promenade” to Berlin. A war for the Rhine was Napoleon’s last and most telling card; but at the same time its failure implied the downfall of the Second Empire. This was well understood in Germany. The constant expectation of a French war was one of the chief considerations which made very many Germans acquiesce in the changes effected in 1866. If Germany had been dismembered in one sense, it had been strengthened in another; the military organization of North Germany gave a far greater guarantee of safety than that of the larger but sleepy old Confederation. This new military organization was calculated to place under arms, in organized battalions, squadrons, and batteries, in eleven days, 552,000 men of the line and 205,000 of the landwehr; and in a fortnight or three weeks more another 187,000 men of the reserve (Ersatztruppen) fully fit to take the field. There was no mystery about this. The whole plan, showing the distribution of this force in the various corps, the districts from which each battalion, &c., was to be raised, had often been published. Moreover, the mobilization of 1866 had shown that this was not an organization existing on paper only. Every man was duly registered; and it was well known that in the office of every district commander of the landwehr the orders for calling out each man were ready, and awaited but the filling up of the date. For the French Emperor, however, these enormous forces existed on paper only. The whole force he brought together to open the campaign with were, at the outside, 360,000 men of the Army of the Rhine, and 30,000 to 40,000 more for the Baltic expedition, say 400,000 men in all. With such a disproportion of numbers, and with the long time it takes to get the French new formations (fourth battalions) ready for the field, his only hope of success was a sudden attack, while the Germans were still in the midst of their mobilization. We have seen how this opportunity slipped away; how even the second chance, that of a push forward to the Rhine, was neglected; and we shall now point out another blunder.

The disposition of the French about the time of the declaration of war was excellent. It was evidently part and parcel of a long-considered plan of campaign. Three corps at Thionville, St. Avold, and Bitche in the first line, immediately on the frontier; two corps at Metz and Strasbourg, in a second line; two corps in reserve about Nancy, and an eighth corps at Belfort. With the aid of the railways, all these troops could be massed in a few days for an attack either across the Saar from Lorraine, or across the Rhine from Alsace striking either north or east as might be required. But this disposition was essentially one for attack. For defence it was absolutely faulty. The very first condition of a disposition of an army of defence is this: to have your advanced troops so far in front of your main body that you receive the news of the enemy’s attack in time to concentrate your troops before he arrives upon you. Suppose it takes you one day’s march to get your wings to close on your centre, then your advanced guard should be at least one day’s march in front of your centre. Now, here, the three corps of Ladmirault, Frossard, and De Failly, and afterwards a portion of MacMahon’s too, were close upon the frontier, and yet spread upon a line from Wissembourg to Sierck — at least ninety miles. To draw in the wings on the centre would have required fully two days’ march; and yet, even when the Germans were known to be within a few miles in front, no steps were taken either to shorten the length of front, or to push forward advanced guards to such a distance as would secure timely advice of an impending attack. Is it to be wondered at that the several corps were defeated by piecemeal?

Then came the blunder of posting one division of MacMahon’s east of the Vosges, at Wissembourg, in a position inviting an attack with superior forces. Douay’s defeat brought on MacMahon’s next blunder in trying to retrieve the fight east of the Vosges, thereby separating the right wing still more from the centre, and laying open his line of communications with it. While the right wing (MacMahon’s, and portions at least of Failly’s and Canrobert’s corps) was crushed at Woerth, the centre (Frossard, and two divisions of Bazaine, as it now appears) were severely beaten before Saarbrücken. The rest of the troops were too far away to come up to assistance. Ladmirault was still near Bouzonville, the rest of Bazaine’s men and the Guards were about Boulay, the mass of Canrobert’s troops turned up at Nancy, part of De Failly’s were lost sight of completely, and FéIix Douay, we now find, on the 1st of August was at Altkirch, in the extreme south of Alsace, nearly 120 miles from the battle-field of Woerth, and probably with but imperfect means of railway conveyance. The whole arrangement indicates nothing but hesitation, indecision, vacillation, and that in the most decisive moment of the campaign.

And what idea were the soldiers allowed to have of their opponents? It was all very well for the Emperor at the last moment to tell his men that they would have to face “one of the best armies of Europe;” but that went for nothing after the lessons of contempt for the Prussians which had been driven into them for years. We cannot show this better than by the evidence of Captain Jeannerod, of the Temps, whom we have quoted before, and who left the army but three years ago. He was taken prisoner by the Prussians at the “baptism of fire” affair, and spent two days among them, during which time he saw the greater portion of their Eighth Army Corps. He was astounded to find such a difference between his idea of them and the reality. This is his first impression on being brought to their camp: —

Once in the forest, there was a complete change. There were outposts under the trees, battalions massed along the roads; and let nobody try to deceive the public in a manner unworthy of our country and of our present circumstances: from the first step I had recognized the characters which announce an excellent army (une belle et bonne armée) as well as a nation powerfully organized for war. In what consisted these characteristics? In everything. The demeanour of the men, the subordination of their smallest movements to chiefs protected by a discipline far stronger than ours, the gaiety of some, the serious and determined look of others, the patriotism to which most of them gave vent, the thorough and constant zeal of the officers, and, above all, the moral worth — of which we may envy them — of the non-commissioned officers; that is what struck me at once, and what has never been from under my eyes from the two days I passed in the midst of that army and in that country where signboards placed from distance to distance, with the numbers of the local battalions of the landwehr, recall the effort of which it is capable in a moment of danger and of ambition.

On the German side it was quite different. The military qualities of the French were certainly not underrated. The concentration of German troops took place rapidly but cautiously. Every available man was brought to the front; and now, the First North German Army Corps having turned up at Saarbrücken in Prince Frederick Charles’s army, it is certain that every man, horse, and gun of the 550,000 troops of the line has been brought to the front, there to be joined by the South Germans. And the effect of such an enormous numerical superiority has been, so far, increased by superior generalship.