Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71

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Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


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

The time it will take the German armies to march to Paris and there open a new phase of the war gives us leisure to look back upon what has been going on behind the front of the troops in the field, before the fortresses.

Leaving out of the question Sedan, which was included as a corollary in the capitulation of MacMahon’s army, the Germans have taken four fortresses — La Petite Pierre and Vitry, without a blow; Lichtenberg and Marsal, after a short bombardment. They have merely blockaded Bitche; they are besieging Strasbourg; they have bombarded, so far without result, Phalsbourg, Toul, Montmédy; and they intend to begin in a few days the regular sieges of Toul and Metz.

With the exception of Metz, which is protected by detached forts far in advance of the town, all other fortresses which resisted have been subjected to bombardment. This proceeding has, at all times, formed a part of the operations of a regular siege; at first, it was principally intended to destroy the stores of provisions and ammunition of the besieged, but since it has become the custom to secure these in bomb-proof vaults, constructed for the purpose, the bombardment has more and more been used to set fire to and destroy as many buildings as possible inside the fortress. The destruction of the property and provisions of the inhabitants of the place became a means of pressure upon them, and, through them, upon the garrison and commander. In cases where the garrison was weak, ill-disciplined, and demoralized, and where the commander was without energy, a bombardment alone often effected the surrender of a fortress. This was the case especially in 1815 after Waterloo, when a whole series of fortresses, garrisoned chiefly by National Guards, surrendered to a short bombardment without awaiting a regular siege. Avesnes, Guise, Maubeuge, Landrecies, Marienbourg, Philippeville, &c., all fell after a few hours’, at best a few days’, shelling. It was no doubt the recollection of these successes, and the knowledge that most of the frontier places were garrisoned chiefly by Mobile and sedentary National Guards, which induced the Germans to try the same plan again. Moreover, the introduction of rifled artillery having made shells the almost exclusive projectiles even of field artillery, it is now comparatively easy to bombard a place and set fire to its buildings with the ordinary field guns of an army corps, without awaiting, as formerly, the arrival of mortars and heavy siege howitzers.

Although recognized in modern warfare, it is not to be forgotten that the bombardment of the private houses in a fortress is always a very harsh and cruel measure, which ought not to be had recourse to without at least a reasonable hope of compelling surrender, and without a certain degree of necessity. If places like Phalsbourg, Lichtenberg, and Toul are bombarded, this may be justified on the ground that they stop mountain passes and railways, the immediate possession of which is of the greatest importance to the invader, and might reasonably be expected to follow as the result of a few days’ shelling. If two of these places have so far held out, this redounds so much more to the credit of the garrison and the inhabitants. But as to the bombardment of Strasbourg, which preceded the regular siege, the case is quite different.

Strasbourg, a city of above 80,000 inhabitants, surrounded by fortifications in the antiquated manner of the sixteenth century, was strengthened by Vauban, who built a citadel outside the town, nearer the Rhine, and connected it with the ramparts of the town by the continuous lines of what was then called an entrenched camp. The citadel commanding the town, and being capable of independent defence after the town has capitulated, the simplest way to take both would be to attack the citadel at once, so as not to have to go through two successive sieges; but then, the works of the citadel are so much stronger, and its situation in the swampy lowlands near the Rhine renders the throwing up of trenches so much more difficult, that circumstances may, and generally will, advise a previous attack on the town, with the fall of which a further defence of the citadel alone would, in the eyes of a weak commander, lose much of its purpose; except in so far as it might secure better conditions of surrender. But, at all events, ‘I the town alone be taken, the citadel remains to be reduced, and an obstinate commander may continue to hold out, and keep the town and the besieger’s establishments in it under fire.

Under these circumstances what could be the use of a bombardment of the town? If all went well, the inhabitants might demoralize the greater part of the garrison, and compel the commander to abandon the town and throw himself, with the élite of his soldiers, 3,000 to 5,000 men, into the citadel, and there continue the defence and hold the town under his fire. And the character of General Uhrich (for that, and not Ulrich, is the name of the gallant old soldier) was known well enough to prevent anybody from supposing that he would allow himself to be intimidated into a surrender, both of town and citadel, by any amount of shells thrown into them. To bombard a place which has an independent citadel commanding it is in itself an absurdity and a useless cruelty. Certainly, stray shells or the slow shelling of a siege will always do damage in a besieged town; but that is nothing compared to the destruction and sacrifice of civilian life during a regular, systematic six days’ bombardment such as has been inflicted upon the unfortunate city.

The Germans say they must have the town soon, for political reasons. They intend to keep it at the peace. If that be so, the bombardment, the severity of which is unparalleled, was not only a crime, it was also a blunder. An excellent way, indeed, to obtain the sympathies of a town which is doomed to annexation, by setting it on fire and killing numbers of the inhabitants by exploding shells! And has the bombardment advanced the surrender by one single day? Not that we can see. If the Germans want to annex the town and break the French sympathies of the inhabitants, their plan would have been to take the town by as short a regular siege as possible, then besiege the citadel, and place the commander on the horns of the dilemma, either to neglect some of the means of defence at his disposal or to fire on the town.

As it is, the immense quantities of shell thrown into Strasbourg have not superseded the necessity for a regular siege. On the 29th of August the first parallel had to be opened on the north-western side of the fortress, near Schiltigheim, running at a distance of from 500 to 650 yards from the works. On the 3rd of September the second parallel (some correspondents call it by mistake the third) was opened at 330 yards; the useless bombardment has been stopped by order of the King of Prussia, and it may take till about the 17th or 20th before a practicable breach can be made in the ramparts. But all estimates in this case are hazardous. It is the first instance of a siege in which the percussion shells of modern rifled artillery are used against masonry. In their trials during the dismantling of Jülich the Prussians obtained extraordinary results; masonry was breached and blockhouses were demolished at great distances, and by indirect fire (that is, from batteries where the object fired at could not be seen); but this was merely a peace experiment and will have to be confirmed in actual war. Strasbourg will serve to give us a pretty good idea of the effect of the modern heavy rifled artillery in siege operations, and on this account its siege deserves to be watched with peculiar interest.