Franco-Prussian War 1870-Analysis


The Battle of Bapaume (1871) took place from 2–3 January 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War in and around Biefvillers-lès-Bapaume and Bapaume. The Prussian advance was stopped by Genéral Louis Léon César Faidherbe at the head of the Armée du Nord.


The “Rifle Battalion 9 from Lauenburg” at Gravelotte.

Some three months before the bombardment of Paris began, Strasbourg capitulated after having endured weeks of indiscriminate shelling by German troops bent on coercing the beleaguered garrison into surrender. The city’s capitulation finally took place on the 28 September, but, long before then, a delegation from Switzerland had materialized, seeking to arrange the evacuation of non-combatants. Such humanitarian sentiments conflicted with those of the vociferous German public and press, however, as well as with military imperatives. Whereas the war of 1866 had not been coloured by ethnic animosities, bad blood was bound to play a role in a conflict between peoples and during which the distinctions separating combatants from non-combat- ants ineluctably became nebulous. Whilst, among the soldiers of the opposing armies, a sense of shared hardships and dangers frequently mollified any enmity, there were episodes of shocking brutality, including the massacre at Passavant of a Garde Nationale battalion that had sur- rendered. As is so often the case in war, however, the most implacable hatred was often evinced by those who were farthest from the fighting. Bismarck’s wife, for instance, wanted all the French ‘shot and stabbed to death, down to the little babies.’ Even the pious Moltke found himself sanctioning increasingly brutal reprisals against the francs-tireurs – to whom belligerent status was denied by the Germans and whose account- ability to the French authorities was at best limited – and those French civilians who were either found to be resisting his troops or were perceived to be doing so. Although his objections to the bombardment of Paris were mostly inspired by his military pragmatism, there were those at home and abroad who attacked the policy on moral grounds. ‘There hangs over this whole affair an intrigue contrived by women, archbishops and professors … ’, an exasperated Bismarck grumbled to his wife at the end of October.

Meanwhile the men freeze and fall ill, the war is dragging on, the neutrals waste time discussing it with us, while … France is arming herself with hundreds of thousands of guns from England and America … . All this so that certain people may be praised for saving ‘civilisation’.

Like Lincoln during the American Civil War, Bismarck was fearful that, if the fighting dragged on, foreign intervention of one kind or another would ensue. Certainly, Russia’s repudiation, on 29 October, of the Black Sea clauses of the Treaty of Paris did raise the prospect of an international conference that might seek to impose a settlement on Prussia and France, too. In any case, the former was fast falling victim to her own success as, in the eyes of the world, her victories over the fledgling republic transformed her from an avenger to an oppressor. At the beginning of December, Moltke wrote to Trochu advising him of the defeat of the ‘Army of the Loire’ and the fall of Orléans. Regardless of whether, as Bismarck suspected, this was a surreptitious peace overture, it persuaded the French high command that the relief of the capital was now becoming improbable. It coincided, moreover, with the gory failure of a bid by Paris’s defenders to break out. Thereafter, Trochu agreed to make one more attempt to do so, if only to demonstrate to the radical republicans that their vaunted tactic of a sortie en masse could not succeed against such disciplined, well-equipped adversaries. The Battle of Buzenval, as it is known, certainly made the point for him, ending as it did in another sanguinary check. Expecting this to spark off riots or even a rebellion, the government now relieved the hapless Trochu of command of the garrison and appointed General Joseph Vinoy in his stead. Sure enough, on 22 January 1871, shots were exchanged around the Hôtel de Ville as a few left-wing extremists, including some members of the Garde Nationale, were dispersed by troops loyal to the administration. But the mass rising that had been feared did not occur. With the food stocks all but exhausted and with no prospect of salvation, the whole of Paris’s population had to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that the end was nigh and that the government would have to sue for terms.

The signing of an initial armistice followed on 28 January. By this stage, the Republic’s armies had been as comprehensively defeated as had those of the Empire before them. Though overwhelmed on the strategic plane, at the tactical level the latter especially had fought with some distinction. Indeed, the successes enjoyed in this regard, the most notable being at Mars-la-Tour and Borny, proved cruelly deceptive. ‘It is fire effect, nowadays so powerful, which will determine the issue’, Moltke had predicted on the eve of the war. Yet, from the outset, actual events on the battlefield showed this to be too much of a simplification. Indeed, a pattern emerged at Froeschwiller that was to be repeated several times. Here, the French found themselves confronted by greatly superior numbers of enemy troops who attacked not so much in depth as on a broad front, enveloping their prey. Although the greater reach and rate of fire of Krupp’s ordnance offered significant tactical advantages, the Chassepot was appreciably superior to the Dreyse rifle in both these respects. In fact, the infantry units of the Confederation and its allies were often checked by their French counterparts, eventually advancing to occupy ground that the German artillery had effectively conquered through remote bombardment. French technological failures occasionally contributed to the outcome, too, as did the use of outdated doctrines. The percussion fuses of the German shells evidently proved more reliable than the timing mechanisms used by the French up to the Battle of Coulmiers (November, 1870); the latter devices, if they exploded at all, could only be set to certain ranges.

Whereas this effectively created safe havens for the enemy, at Froeschwiller, MacMahon allowed the German infantry to get too close to his own guns. Clinging to the French Army’s traditional practice, he kept much of his artillery in reserve, intending to commit it at the climactic moment. His timing and coup d’oeil failed him, however, and his gunners were driven back by a hail of rifle-fire. Attempts by both sides to use cavalry for shock-action were similarly flawed. For example, at Froeschwiller, the nine squadrons of General Michel’s cuirassier brigade were virtually wiped out executing charges that were as futile as they were courageous, while, at Sedan, General Margueritte’s squadrons met the same fate. Although the Prussian king himself was moved to remark on the bravery of the latter group of horsemen, it is improbable that they came within a sword’s length of a single enemy soldier, so intense was the fire directed against them. Even the success of Bredow’s charge at Vionville – which, perfectly timed and carefully screened, managed to catch Canrobert’s batteries on the hop, throwing them into chaos at a critical moment – was only gained at the cost of 50 per cent casualties among the attacking cavalry.

Similarly, the premature attack by the Prussian Guard Korps at St Privat bears witness to the destructive effects of modern firepower; 8000 men were killed or wounded, mostly in the space of 20 minutes. A small indication of the extraordinary dedication of France’s better troops is also provided by the losses they endured. One regiment that entered the battle at Froeschwiller 2300-strong emerged with just three officers and 250 men. In the same engagement, the 3rd Zouaves lost 45 out of their 66 officers and 1775 out of 2200 rank and file. That they continued resisting to such extreme lengths suggests that their morale was all that had been claimed on the eve of hostilities. Certainly, the war was not lost for lack of courage. Indeed, the French infantry generally lived up to their reputation for resilience and aggressive spirit, not least at Borny, where their savage, dashing counter-attacks confirmed the Germans’ evaluations of their tactical prowess.

Other traditions of the French Army, however, contributed to its ultimate defeat. Besides the ubiquitous ‘Système D’, practices and equipment developed for the recent campaigns in Mexico and Africa proved ill- suited to large-scale operations undertaken on friendly soil in the heart of Europe. Whereas the Prussian uhlans and hussars roamed almost at will, the French light cavalry, reluctant to venture far without infantry support, proved inept at reconnaissance, screening and the penetration of enemy-held territory; it soon became more of an encumbrance than an asset. Similarly, instead of simply resting by the roadside, French columns insisted on coiling up at the end of each day’s march, with the result that units, groping through the darkness, would continue to trickle into the camps throughout the night. Many soldiers, moreover, slept, not in billets as the Germans usually did, but in flimsy tents intended for use in warmer, drier climes. Freezing temperatures and heavy rain often combined with hunger in undermining morale.

The sudden influx of reservists and raw recruits into units of the standing army also undermined the French forces’ cohesion, just as theorists like Du Picq had feared it might. This problem became particularly acute once the Republic began drafting roughly a million men into the army in the aftermath of Sedan. By the time of the armistice, the first of these, some 578 000 bachelors, had been mobilized. Yet, like the Americans in 1861, the French struggled to furnish such a mass of raw levies with sufficient training and equipment, let alone a leavening of seasoned troops. Technicians, such as engineers and gunners, and officers were in particularly short supply. That the Republic had to turn to Catholic, royalist generals like Vinoy, Claude d’Aurelle de Paladines and Auguste Ducrot, an authoritarian who loathed revolutionaries, to command its armies was not only somewhat ironic, but also exerted a malign influence over civil-military relations; too many radicals eyed these professionals with intense suspicion. Efforts to overcome the dearth of regimental officers also caused difficulties. Former soldiers had to be granted commissions, while units of the Garde Nationale Mobile were permitted to elect their leaders. However, as the latter scheme led to the dislodgement of presiding officers without due regard to the provisions of military law, it proved short-lived. Thereafter, the expedient of doubling the size of companies was resorted to, whereby the demand for officers was halved.

This did nothing to improve the discipline and tactical manoeuvrability of units that were deficient in both. Control, both military and political, over the francs-tireurs who fought, at least nominally, for France was also shaky. Largely foreign volunteers, many of them had their own political agendas. Garibaldi’s cause, for instance, was that of the universal republic envisaged by Mazzini, which made him and his Italian mercenaries as big a threat to French conservatives as they were to Moltke’s armies. As had happened in the Iberian Peninsula 60 years before, guerrilla warfare’s very nature exacerbated the social and political rifts that international conflict had highlighted.

Indeed, both the Germans and French found that for every possibility in modern warfare there was a corresponding problem. The shortages of trained specialists to support and lead them reduced the potential of the Republic’s massive armies, as did the lack of up-to-date armaments with which to equip them. There were insufficient Chassepots to go round, but few of the shoulder arms purchased abroad were as deadly. One consignment of rifled muskets imported from the USA that had been gathering rust in an arsenal since the Civil War was issued to the Breton Gardes Nationales, who, as fate would have it, were then entrusted with the defence of a key sector of the French position at Le Mans; untroubled by their ineffectual fire, it was here that the Germans broke through. The importation of armaments, often of differing designs and calibres, also complicated maintenance and ammunition requirements, while the encirclement of Paris deprived the provincial forces of the services of so much of France’s manufacturing industry.

On the other hand, the prosecution of that selfsame siege presented Moltke with huge practical difficulties, not the least of which was that of keeping the investing units adequately supplied with food and ammunition. Much of this had to be imported from Germany, but there were only two railway lines available, both of which were menaced by neighbouring strongholds that remained in enemy hands. Aggravated by the ravages of war, including the destruction of tunnels and other acts of sabotage, the shortcomings of France’s railway network impeded the Germans’ operations, just as they had hampered those of her own troops. Although they employed captured rolling stock and, much to the detriment of domestic services, brought in some 3500 railway workers and 280 locomotives from Germany, the invaders experienced real difficulties in constructing and preserving a continuous logistical loop, particularly once their armies penetrated deep into France and the bombardment of Paris began. If Gambetta ultimately lost the war through his failure to win the hearts and minds of the French people, there were moments when it seemed as though the Germans, for all their victories, might fall at the last hurdle for want of adequate supplies.




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