Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71

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Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, November 4, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

There can be no longer any reasonable doubt that the army which surrendered at Metz actually numbered 173,000 men, 140,000 of which were fit to bear arms, while rather more than 30,000 were sick and wounded. The Daily News gives us, in a telegram from Berlin, what professes to be full particulars of these troops: — 67 infantry regiments, 13 battalions of Chasseurs-à-Pied, 18 fourth and depôt battalions; 36 cavalry regiments — viz. 10 Cuirassiers, 1 Guides, 11 Dragoons, 2 Lancers, 3 Hussars, 6 Chasseurs-à-Cheval, and 3 Chasseurs d'Afrique, besides 6 depôt squadrons. We must suppose that this statement comes from the Prussian Staff in Berlin, and contains an abstract either of what they had made out from previous and indirect sources to be the composition of the French forces in Metz, or else of the French returns handed over to the captors on surrender. The latter appears most likely. We know there were within Metz, of infantry, the Guards (8 regiments=30 battalions, and 1 battalion Chasseurs), the Second Corps (Frossard, 3 divisions), the Third (Decaen, late Bazaine, 4 divisions), the Fourth (Ladmirault, 3 divisions), the Sixth (Canrobert, 3 divisions), and 1 division of the Fifth Corps (De Failly’s), in all 14 divisions of the line, each containing 1 battalion of Chasseurs and 4 regiments or 12 battalions of the line, excepting 2 divisions of Canrobert’s which had no Chasseurs. This would give 12 battalions of Chasseurs and 168 battalions of the line, or, with the Guards, a grand total of 13 battalions Chasseurs and 198 of infantry, and, with the 18 depôt battalions, in all 229 battalions, which is rather more than the 221 given as the total number in The Daily News. On the other hand, this list would give but 64 regiments of infantry, while our contemporary has 67. We must therefore conclude that the three missing regiments formed the garrison of Metz, and for that reason do not figure in the status of the “Army of the Rhine.” As to the discrepancy in the number of battalions, that is easily accounted for. The losses of many regiments during the battles in August, and the sorties of September and October, as well as by sickness, must have been such that the three battalions had to be formed into two, perhaps even one.

That such a force, as large as Napoleon’s army at Leipzig, should be compelled to surrender at all, is a fact unheard of in the history of warfare, and almost incredible even now after it has happened. But it becomes more inconceivable still if we compare the strength of this army with that of the captors. On the 18th of August Bazaine was thrown back, from the heights of Gravelotte, under the guns of the forts of Metz; in a few days after, the investment of the place was completed. But of the army which had fought at Gravelotte, 3 corps, or 75 battalions, were detached under the Crown Prince of Saxony on the 24th of August, at latest; for three days afterwards their cavalry defeated MacMahon’s Chasseurs-à-Cheval at Buzancy. There remained before Metz 7 corps, or 175 battalions, and 12 landwehr battalions, in all 187 battalions, to invest an army of at least 221 battalions! At that time Bazaine must have had at his disposal 160,000 combatants, if not more. The Prussians certainly had taken every step to send up fresh men from their reserve troops to make up for the losses of the late battles; but it will be impossible to suppose that their battalions were brought up again to the full complement of 1,000 men. Even supposing this to have been the case, with the exception of the landwehr, which forms battalions of five or six-hundred only, this will give the Prussians a force of not more than 182,000, or with cavalry and artillery about 240,000 men; that is to say, merely one-half more than the army shut up in Metz. And these 240,000 men were spread out on a front of twenty-seven miles in length, and there was an unfordable river to divide them into two distinct bodies. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to doubt that Bazaine, had he really attempted to break through the investing circle with the mass of his troops, could have done so — unless indeed we suppose that the French, after Gravelotte, were no longer the men they had been before; and for that there is no reason.

That Bazaine, after the proclamation of the Republic, should have refrained from breaking out of Metz through political motives appears to the writer of these Notes quite certain. It is equally certain that every day of delay decreased his chances of success for doing so; still the Prussians themselves appear to think now that, had they been in the same position, they could have performed the feat. But what remains inexplicable is the inaction, or at least the Indecision, of Bazaine during the last days of August and the first days of September. On the 31st of August he attempts an attack towards the north-east, and continues it throughout the night and the following morning; yet three Prussian divisions are sufficient to drive him back under the guns of the forts. The attempt must have been extremely feeble, considering the enormous strength with which he might have made it. A general who has sixteen divisions of splendid infantry under him, to be repelled by three divisions of the enemy! It is too bad.

As to the political motives which are said to have caused Bazaine’s inactivity after the revolution of the 4th of September, and the political intrigues in which he engaged, with the connivance of the enemy, during the latter part of the investment, they are thoroughly in keeping with the Second Empire, which, in one form or another, they were intended to restore. It shows to what an extent that Second Empire had lost every comprehension of French character if the general in command of the only regular army France then possessed could think of restoring the fallen dynasty with the help of the invader of his country.

Bazaine’s previous military career was none of the brightest. His Mexican campaign merely proved that he cared more for reward than for glory or the credit of his country. His nomination to the command-in-chief of the Army of the Rhine was due to accidental circumstances; he got it, not because he was the most eligible but the least ineligible of the possible candidates; and the deciding considerations were anything but strictly military. He will be immortalized as the man who committed the most disgraceful act in French military history — who prevented 160,000 Frenchmen from breaking through the investing army of, under the circumstances, positively inferior strength, and surrendered them as prisoners of war when there was nothing more to eat.