Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71

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Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.


Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, December 2, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

The long-expected storm has broken out at last. After a prolonged period of marching and manoeuvring on both sides, varied by skirmishes and guerilla fighting only, the war has entered upon another of those critical periods in which blow follows blow. On the 27th of November the French Army of the North was defeated before Amiens; on the 28th a considerable portion of the Army of the Loire was beaten by Prince Frederick Charles at Beaune-la-Rolande; on the 29th Trochu made an unsuccessful sortie on the south side of Paris, and on the 30th he appears to have attacked with all his available forces the Saxons and Württembergers investing Paris on the north-east side.

These different actions are the result of combined operations, such as we repeatedly pointed out as offering the only chance of success to the French. If the Army of the North, with inferior numbers, could hold Manteuffel’s two corps in check so as to prevent him from reinforcing the Crown Prince of Saxony in his lines round the north side of Paris, then that army would have been well employed. But this was not the case. Its advance in the open country was soon stopped by inferior numbers of Prussians; for it appears all but certain, on a comparison of the various reports, that Manteuffel had only one of his corps engaged in the battle. The Army of the North would have been better employed either by sending its field troops down south to Le Mans by rail, or by constantly harassing Manteuffel’s outposts and detachments, but refusing battle except under the walls of one of the numerous fortresses in the North which form its base of operations. But in the present state of France, and with the young soldiers that form her armies, a General cannot always enter upon a retreat even if that be strategically necessary: such a course might demoralize his troops even more than a thorough defeat. In the present case, the Army of the North finds a safe retreat in its fortresses, where it can re-form, and where it would scarcely suit Moltke to send Manteuffel after it just now. But, at the same time, Manteuffel is now free to move in any other direction, and if, as is reported from Lille (though the report is denied’), he has again evacuated Amiens and turned in haste towards Paris, we cannot but confess that the Army of the North has failed in its mission.

On the west, the 21st French Corps at Le Mans, and the 22nd (late Kératry’s) in the camp of Conlie, have so far succeeded in drawing the troops of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg a long way from Paris without exposing themselves to any serious defeat. Our supposition that the advance of these German troops had been pushed almost too far seems confirmed by the unanimous French reports that they have again evacuated the positions lately taken up east and south-east of Le Mans, which have been reoccupied by the French. The latter, however, do not appear to have used their regular forces in a very energetic pursuit of the enemy, as we do not hear of any engagements of importance; and thus the Army of the West has not succeeded any more than that of the North in holding fast the troops opposed to it. Where it is, and what it is doing, we are not told; it may be that the sudden quarrel between Kératry and Gambetta had lamed its movements just at the most decisive moment. At all events, if it could neither beat Mecklenburg’s troops nor keep them engaged, it would have acted more wisely in sending such of its troops as are equipped and organized for a campaign by rail towards the Army of the Loire, so as to make the chief attack with concentrated forces.

This chief attack could only be made by the Army of the Loire, being the main body of all the French troops now in the field, and could only be directed against Prince Frederick Charles, his army being the most numerous of the three which cover the investment of Paris. The Army of the Loire is reported to consist of the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 19th French corps which had been in front of Orléans for some time and the 18th (now Bourbaki’s) and 20th in reserve behind the Loire. As the 18th and 20th were both engaged — wholly or in part — on the 28th, they must have passed the Loire before that day, and thus the whole of these six corps must have been available for an attack upon the Second German Army. A French corps, in this war, has always been composed of from three to four divisions of infantry. According to an ordre de bataille published by a Vienna military paper, the Kamerad, about a fortnight ago, the 15th Corps numbered five brigades in two divisions; the 16th, four brigades in two divisions; the 18th, ten brigades in three divisions. Even if we do not go by the report of the Journal de Bruxelles, which gives to the Army of the Loire the full complement of eighteen divisions of infantry (or three per corps), as a good many of these must still be in course of formation, there is no doubt that the attack on the 28th might have been made with twelve or fifteen divisions instead of five or six at most. It is characteristic of the troops composing the Army of the Loire that they were defeated by greatly inferior numbers, only three divisions (the two of the 10th Corps and the 5th) of infantry, or less than one-half of the Second Army, having been engaged against them. Anyhow their defeat must have been very severe; not only the German reports tend to show it, but also the fact that the Army of the Loire has not since attempted a fresh attack with more concentrated forces.

From these various transactions it results that the attempt to relieve Paris from without has for the present failed. It failed, firstly, because the inestimable chances of the week preceding the arrival of the First and Second German Armies were allowed to pass away; and, secondly, because the attacks, when they were made, were made without the necessary energy and concentration of forces. The young troops forming the new armies of France cannot, at first, expect success against the seasoned soldiers who oppose them, unless they are matched two against one; and it is therefore doubly faulty to lead them to battle without having taken care that every man, horse, and gun that can be had is actually sent on to the battle-field.

On the other hand, we do not expect that the defeats of Amiens and Beaune-la-Rolande will have any other great effect than that of frustrating the relief of Paris. The lines of retreat of the Armies of the West and of the Loire are perfectly safe, unless the grossest blunders are committed. By far the greater portion of these two armies has not taken part in the defeat. The extent to which the German troops opposing them can follow them up depends upon the energy of popular resistance and guerilla warfare — an element which the Prussians have a peculiar knack of arousing wherever they go. There is no fear now of Prince Frederick Charles marching as unopposed from Orléans to Bordeaux as the Crown Prince marched from Metz to Reims. With the broad extent of ground which must now be securely occupied before any further advance southward (other than by large flying columns) can be made, the seven divisions of Prince Frederick Charles will soon be spread out far and wide, and their invading force completely spent. What France requires is time, and, with the spirit of popular resistance once roused, she may yet get that time. The armaments carried on during the last three months must be everywhere approaching completion, and the additional number of fighting men which every fresh week renders disposable must be constantly increasing for some time.

As to the two sorties from Paris, the news received up to the moment of writing are too contradictory and too vague for any definite opinion to be formed. It appears, however, upon Trochu’s own showing, that the results obtained up to the evening of the 30th were not at all of a kind to justify the shouts of victory raised at Tours. The points, then, still held by the French south of the Marne are all protected by the fire of the Paris forts; and the only place which they at one time held outside the range of these forts — Mont Mesly — they had to abandon again. It is more than probable that fighting will have been renewed yesterday before Paris, and to-day, perhaps, near Orléans and Le Mans; at all events, a very few days must now decide this second crisis of the war which, in all probability, will settle the fate of Paris.