Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, January 7, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
Although there has been a fair amount of fighting since we last surveyed the relative positions of the combatants in the provinces, there has been very little change, thus proving the correctness of our view that the forces of both were nearly balanced for the time being.
Chanzy’s Army of the West has maintained itself in front of Le Mans; the army of Mecklenburg opposes it on a line stretching from Blois by Vendôme to Verneuil. There has been a good deal of desultory fighting about Vendôme, but nothing has been changed in the relative position of the armies. In the meantime Chanzy has drawn towards himself all the drilled and armed men from the camp of Conlie, which has been broken up; he is reported to have entrenched a strong position around Le Mans, as a stronghold to fall back upon, and is now again expected to assume the offensive. As M. Gambetta left Bordeaux on the 5th for Le Mans this may be quite correct. Of the actual strength and organisation of Chanzy’s forces we have no knowledge whatever beyond the fact that he had, previous to his retreat upon Le Mans, three army corps. Nor are we much better informed as to the forces immediately opposed to him; the troops of Mecklenburg and those of Prince Frederick Charles’s original army have been so much intermixed that the original ordre de bataille is no longer in force. We shall have to treat both as one army, which they indeed are, since Frederick Charles has the command of the whole; the only distinction is, that Mecklenburg commands those troops which à cheval of the Loir, face west, while the Prince has under his immediate orders those which, along the Loire from Blois to Gien, face south and watch Bourbaki. The whole of both these bodies counts ten divisions of infantry and three of cavalry, but considerable detachments have been left on the line of march from Commercy, by Troyes, to the Loire; these are only gradually coming up, as they are being relieved by the new arrivals of landwehr.
On the 11th of December Prince Frederick Charles had arrived at Briare, with intent to advance upon Nevers, in order to turn Bourbaki ‘s right and to cut off his direct communication with the troops opposed to Werder. But we have only recently learned that on receiving the news of the resolute and unexpected resistance which Mecklenburg encountered on the part of Chanzy, he gave up his plan at once and turned back with the mass of his troops in the direction of Tours; which, as we know, his troops came in sight of but never entered. Thus we now learn that Chanzy’s clever and gallant retreat was the cause not only of his own safety, but of Bourbaki’s too. This latter general must still be in the neighbourhood of Bourges and Nevers. If, as has been presumed, he had marched off eastwards against Werder or against the Prussian line of communications, we should have heard of him ere now. Most probably he is reorganizing and reinforcing his army, and if Chanzy should advance we are sure to hear of him too.
North of the Seine Manteuffel, with the 1st Corps, holds Rouen and neighbourhood, while he has sent the 8th Corps into Picardy. This latter corps has had a hard time of it. General Faidherbe does not allow his Northern Army much rest. The three northernmost departments of France, from the Somme to the Belgian frontier, hold about twenty fortresses of various sizes, which, though wholly useless nowadays against a large invasion from Belgium, yet form a most welcome and almost unattackable basis of operations in this case. When Vauban planned this triple belt of fortresses, nearly two hundred years ago, he surely never thought that they would serve as a great entrenched camp, a sort of multiplied quadrilateral, to a French army against an enemy advancing from the heart of France. But so it is, and, small as this piece of territory is, it is for the nonce impregnable, and an important piece of ground too, on account of its manufacturing resources and its dense population. Driven back into this safe retreat by the battle of Villers-Bretonneux (27th of November), Faidherbe reorganized and strengthened his army; towards the end of December he again advanced upon Amiens, and delivered on the 23rd an undecided battle to Manteuffel on the Hallue. In this battle he had four divisions (35,000 men as he counts them) against the two divisions of the 8th Prussian Corps (24,000 men by, Prussian accounts). That with such a proportion of forces, and against as renowned a general as von Goeben, he should have held his own, is a sign that his Mobiles and Mobilise’s are improving. In consequence of the frost and of shortcomings of his commissariat and train, as he says, but probably also because he did not trust in the steadiness of his men for a second day’s hard fighting, he retreated almost unmolested behind the Scarpe. Von Goeben followed, left the greater part of the 16th division to keep the communications and to invest Péronne, and advanced with only the 15th division and Prince Albert the younger’s flying column (which at most was equivalent to a brigade) to Bapaume and beyond. Here, then, was a chance for Faidherbe’s four divisions. Without hesitating a moment, he advanced from his. sheltered position and attacked the Prussians. After a preliminary engagement on the 2nd of January, the main bodies fought in front of Bapaume on the following day. The clear reports of Faidherbe, the great numerical superiority of the French (eight brigades — or 33,000 men at least — against three Prussian brigades, or 16,000 to 18,000 men, to calculate the numbers according to the data given above for the two armies), the indefinite language of Manteuffel, leave no doubt that in this battle the French had the best of it. Besides, Manteuffel’s bragging is well known in Germany: everybody there recollects how as Governor of Sleswig, and being rather tall, he offered “to cover every seven feet of the country with his body.” His reports, even after censorship in Versailles, are certainly the least trustworthy of all Prussian accounts. On the other hand, Faidherbe did not follow up his success, but retired after the battle to a village some miles in rear of the battle-field, so that Peronne was not relieved and, as has already been pointed out in these columns, the fruits of the fighting were all for the Prussians. It is impossible to take Faidherbe’s excuses for his retreat as being meant seriously. But, whatever his reasons may have been, unless he can do more with his troops than beat three Prussian brigades and then retire, he will not relieve Paris.
In the meantime, Manteuffel has an important reinforcement at hand. The 14th division (Kameke) of the 7th Corps, after reducing Montmédy and Mézierès, is approaching his fighting-ground accompanied by its siege train. The fighting near Guise seems to mark a stage in this advance; Guise is on the direct road from Mézierès to Péronne, which naturally seems to be the next fortress set down for bombardment. After Péronne, probably Cambrai, if all be well with the Prussians.
In the south-east, Werder has been in full retreat since the 27th of December, when he evacuated Dijon. It took some time before the Germans mentioned a word about this, and then the Prussians were quite silent; it leaked out in a quiet corner of the KarIsruher Zeitung. On the 31st he evacuated Gray also, after an engagement, and is now covering the siege of Belfort at Vesoul. The Army of Lyons, under Crémer (said to be an emigrated Hanoverian officer) is following him up, while Garibaldi seems to be acting more westward against the Prussian chief line of communications. Werder, who is said to expect a reinforcement of 36,000 men, will be pretty safe at Vesoul, but the line of communications appears anything but secure. We now learn that General Zastrow, commander of the 7th Corps, has been sent thither, and is in communication with Werder. Unless he is appointed to quite a new command, he will have the 13th division with him, which has been relieved, in Metz, by landwehr, and he will also dispose of other forces for active operations. It must he one of his battalions which has been attacked, and is said to have been routed, near Saulieu, on the road from Auxerre to Chalon-sur-Saône. What the state of the communications is on the secondary lines of railway (always excepting the main line from Nancy to Paris, which is well guarded and so far safe) is shown by a letter from Chaumont (Haute-Marne) to the Cologne Gazette, complaining that now for the third time the francs-tireurs have broken up the railway between Chaumont and Troyes; the last time, on the 24th of December, they replaced the rails loosely, so that a train with 500 landwehr got off the rails and was stopped, upon which the francs-tireurs opened fire from a wood, but were beaten off. The correspondent considers this not only unfair but “infamous.” Just like the Austrian cuirassier in Hungary in 1849: “Are not these hussars infamous scoundrels? They see my cuirass, and yet they cut me across the face.”
The state of these communications is a matter of life and death to the army besieging Paris. A few days’ interruption would affect it for weeks. The Prussians know this, and are now concentrating all their landwelir in north-western France to hold in subjection a belt of country sufficiently broad to ensure safety to their railways. The fall of Mézierès opens them a second line of rails from the frontier by Thionville, Mézierès, and Reims; but this line dangerously offers its flank to the Army of the North. If Paris is to be relieved, it might perhaps be done easiest by breaking this line of communications.