Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71

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Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

Saragossa — Paris

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 22, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

To form an appropriate idea of such a colossal operation as the siege and defence of Paris, we shall do well to look out, in military history, for some previous siege on a large scale to serve, at least in some degree, as an example of what we may expect to witness. Sebastopol would be a case in point if the defence of Paris took place under normal conditions; that is to say, if there were an army in the field to come to the relief of Paris or to reinforce its garrison, such as was the case with Sebastopol. But Paris defends itself under quite abnormal conditions: it has neither a garrison fit for an active defence, for fighting in the open, nor any reasonable hope of relief from without. Thus the greatest siege on record, that of Sebastopol, inferior only to the one we are about to see opened, offers no correct image of what will be done before Paris; and it will be at later stages of the siege only, and principally by contrast, that the events of the Crimean war will come in for comparison.

Nor will the sieges of the American war 81 offer better examples. They occurred during a period of the struggle when not only the Southern army, but also, following in its wake, the troops of the North, had lost the character of raw levies and had come under the description of regular troops. In all these sieges the defence was extremely active. At Vicksburg as well as at Richmond there were long preliminary struggles for the mastery of the ground on which alone the siege batteries could be erected; and, with the exception of Grant’s last siege of Richmond, there were always attempts at relief too. But here, in Paris, we have a garrison of new levies feebly supported by scattered new levies outside the town, and attacked by a regular army with all the appliances of modern warfare. To find a case in point, we shall have to go back to the last war in which an armed people had to fight against a regular army, and actually did fight on a large scale — the Peninsular war. And here we find a celebrated example, which we shall see is in point in more than one respect: Saragossa.

Saragossa had but one-third of the diameter and one-ninth of the surface of Paris; but its fortifications, though erected in a hurry and without detached forts, would resemble those of Paris in their general defensive strength. The town was occupied by 25,000 Spanish soldiers, refugees from the defeat of Tudela, among them not more than 10,000 real soldiers of the line, the rest young levies; there were besides armed peasants and inhabitants, raising the garrison to 40,000 men. There were 160 guns in the town. Outside, a force of some 30,000 men had been raised in the neighbouring provinces to come to its succour. On the other hand, the French Marshal Suchet had no more than 26,000 men wherewith to invest the fortress on both sides of the river Ebro, and, besides, 9,000 men covering the siege at Calatayud. Thus, the numerical proportion of the forces was about the same as that of the armies now respectively in and before Paris: the besieged nearly twice as numerous as the besiegers. Yet the Saragossans could no more afford to go out and meet the besiegers in the open than the Parisians can now. Nor could the Spaniards outside at any time seriously interfere with the siege.

The investment of the town was completed on the 19th of December 1808; the first parallel could be opened as early as the 29th, only 350 yards from the main rampart. On the 2nd of January, 1809, the second parallel is opened 100 yards from the works; on the 11th the breaches are practicable and the whole of the attacked front is taken by assault. But here, where the resistance of an ordinary fortress garrisoned by regular troops would have ceased, the strength of a popular defence only commenced. The portion of the rampart which the French had stormed had been cut off from the rest of the town by new defences. Earthworks, defended by artillery, had been thrown up across all the streets leading to it, and were repeated at appropriate distances to the rear. The houses, built in the massive style of hot Southern Europe, with immensely thick walls, were loopholed and held in force by infantry. The bombardment by the French was incessant; but, as they were badly provided with heavy mortars, its effects were not decisive against the town. Still it was

continued for forty-one days without intermission. To reduce the town, to take house after house, the French had to use the slowest process of all, that of mining. At last, after one-third of the buildings of the town had been destroyed, and the rest rendered uninhabitable, Saragossa surrendered on the 20th of February. Out of 100,000 human beings present in the town at the beginning of the siege 54,000 had perished.

This defence is classical of its kind, and well merits the celebrity it has gained. But, after all, the town resisted only sixty-three days, all told. The investment took ten days; the siege of the fortress fourteen; the siege of the inner defences and the struggle for the houses thirty-nine. The sacrifices were out of all proportion to the length of the defence and the positive result obtained. Had Saragossa been defended by 20,000 good enterprising soldiers, Suchet, with his force, could not have carried on the siege in the face of their sallies, and the place might have remained in the hands of the Spaniards until after the Austrian war of 1809.

Now we certainly do not expect Paris to prove a second Saragossa. The houses in Paris, strong though they be, cannot bear any comparison as to massiveness with those of the Spanish city; nor have we any authority for supposing that the population will display the fanaticism of the Spaniards of 1809, or that one half of the inhabitants will patiently submit to be killed by fighting and disease. Still that phase of the struggle which came off in Saragossa after the storming of the rampart, in the streets, houses, and convents of the town, might to a certain extent repeat itself in the fortified villages and earthworks between the forts of Paris and the enceinte. There, as we said yesterday — in our twenty-fourth batch of Notes on the War. — appears to us to lie the centre of gravity of the defence. There the young Mobiles may meet their opponents, even in offensive movements, upon something like equal terms, and compel them to proceed in a more systematical way than the staff in Berlin seemed to imagine when, a short time ago, it expected to reduce the town in twelve or fourteen days from the opening of the siege batteries. There, too, the defence may cut out so much work for the mortars and shell-guns of the attack that even a partial bombardment of the town, at least upon a large scale, may be for the time being out of the question. The villages outside the enceinte will under all circumstances have to be sacrificed wherever they may happen to lie between the German front of attack and the French front of defence; and if therefore by sacrificing them the town can be spared so much the better for the defence.

How long this defence of the ground outside the enceinte can be made to last we cannot even guess at. It will depend upon the strength of the works themselves, upon the spirit with which the defence is conducted, upon the mode of attack. If the resistance become serious, the Germans will rely upon the fire of their artillery chiefly, in order to spare their troops. Anyhow, with the enormous artillery fire they will be able to concentrate upon any given point, it is not likely that it will take them more than a fortnight or three weeks before they arrive at the enceinte. To break and carry that will be the work of a few days. Even then there will be no absolute necessity to give up resistance; but it will be better to defer considering these eventualities until there shall be a greater probability of their actually occurring. Until then, too, we may be allowed to say nothing about the merits and demerits of M. Rochefort’s barricades. Upon the whole, we are of opinion that if the new works between the forts and the enceinte offer a really serious resistance, the attack will confine itself as much as possible — how far depends in a great measure upon the energy of the defence — to artillery fire, vertical and horizontal, and to the starving out of Paris.