Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.
Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, January 28, 1871;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.
Twice only since Sedan have the operations of a French army caused serious uneasiness to General Moltke. The first instance occurred about the middle of November, when the Army of the Loire, after the defeat of von der Tann at Coulmiers, filed off to the left in order to approach Paris from the west, and advanced to Dreux. Then Moltke, with a resolution worthy of such a crisis, prepared for the immediate raising of the siege in case Mecklenburg, even with all the temporary reinforcements detached to his aid, should not be strong enough to stem the enemy’s advance. That advance was stemmed, and the siege could continue. The second time it was Bourbaki’s march towards the east which troubled the repose of the headquarters at Versailles. How serious this move was considered to be was shown by the steps taken at once to meet it. Werder’s troops — the 14th Corps and the reserve divisions of Tresckow and Schmeling — were at once reinforced by two more corps, of which one, the second, marched off from Paris as early as the 2nd of January. The language of the semi-official communications became guarded; on the 11th the Provinzial-Correspondenz calls attention to the fact that “in the east of France important and decisive battles are impending,” and that Bourbaki intends, after relieving Belfort, to break through the Prussian line of communication at Nancy. Non-official correspondents, though still guarded, speak more plainly; we will only quote one of them, Wickede, of the Cologne Gazette. Immediately after the engagement of Villersexel, by which Werder had secured his communications with and retreat upon Tresckow’s troops before Belfort, he says,
“Care has been taken that the French shall not relieve Belfort, and after the late successful engagements we may with probability hope that they will not succeed in advancing by Chaumont to Nancy or some other point of our railway line, which a short time ago there was some reason to fear they might do.”
And on the 16th of January, from Nancy, he writes that, after the arrival of Manteuffel with three divisions beyond Châtillon,
“the apprehension that a hostile corps ... might take possession of Nancy — an apprehension which we justly (mit Recht) might have felt a few days ago — has now quite disappeared.” (Immediately after this letter there is one from Baden beginning with the words: “There can be no doubt that the situation before Belfort looks very serious.”)
But Herr Wickede was doomed to further apprehensions, for on the following day he had to communicate that news had arrived of the occupation of Flavigny (eleven miles from Nancy) by French troops. Immediately the guards were reinforced, strong patrols were sent out, the whole of the twenty engines at the station got their steam up, officers, Government employés and other Germans packed their trunks, and got ready for immediate departure. The men at Flavigny were expected to be Garibaldi’s advanced guard; they turned out to be some twenty francs-tireurs from the Vosges, and soon disappeared again. But the Prussian garrison of Nancy was not completely tranquillized until the 19th, when the news of Bourbaki’s final repulse on the Lisaine came to hand, and then at last Wickede could again resume his former strain.
Ought not the French, after all these defeats, to arrive at the conviction that further resistance is hopeless? Such was the opinion of those most directly concerned about an operation which, after its failure, The Times classifies as simply absurd. There might have been a difference of opinion as to whether the operation was likely to have been undertaken with sufficient forces; or whether, in case of success, its consequences could be developed in time to save Paris before starvation compelled surrender; or whether or not this was the best direction for a move against the German communications. But to put down such a move, the most effective one known to strategy, as simply absurd was left to the Moltkes of The Times.
In the meantime Count Moltke has operated with his usual mastery. He was too late to reinforce Werder before the arrival of Bourbaki; he chose the next best thing, and concentrated his reinforcements at Châtillon, where Manteuffel had three divisions (3rd, 4th, and 13th) on or before the 15th, and where they were joined by the 60th regiment (of the 3rd Corps), left in the neighbourhood by Prince Frederick Charles. We may expect that, by this time, he will have been joined by the 14th division too. At all events, on his advance south, he had at least forty-one if not fifty-three, battalions with him. With these troops he marched upon the river Doubs, leaving to the south the town of Dijon, where he merely occupied Garibaldi by the attack on the 23rd, but evidently without any intention to delay his advance by seriously engaging him or carrying the town. On the contrary, he steadily pursued the main object — the cutting off of Bourbaki ‘s retreat. According to the latest telegrams that object was nearly attained. His troops were across the Doubs, at Quingey and Mouchard, at which latter place the railway from Dijon to Pontarlier and Switzerland crosses that from Besançon to Lyons. There still remains one good road by which Bourbaki might escape, but that road is, at Champagnole, not more than twenty-five miles from Mouchard, and may be occupied by this time. In that case there would only remain to Bourbaki the country road passing by the source of the Doubs, where he could scarcely get on with his artillery; and even that road may be cut off before he is out of harm’s way. And if he does not succeed in breaking through the opposing troops in a country very favourable to the defence, he has but the choice of withdrawing under the shelter of the forts of Besançon or of surrendering In the open — the choice between Metz and Sedan, unless he surrenders to the Swiss.
It is inconceivable that he should have tarried so long near Belfort, for the latest Prussian telegrams represent him still to be north-east of Besançon. If he could not defeat Werder before Manteuffel’s arrival, how much less could he expect to do so afterwards? Bourbaki’s duty evidently was to withdraw at once to a position of safety after his final repulse before Belfort. Why he has not done so is totally inexplicable. But if the worst should befall him, after his mysterious journey from Metz to Chiselhurst, after his refusal to salute the Republic at Lille, the late commander of the Imperial Guard is sure to have doubts raised as to his loyalty.