This week on Glory and Defeat: the French take stock of their recent defeats, the Germans attack at Colombey-Nouilly, and Strasbourg is under siege: https://youtu.be/u2xvJEv_ZdI
Hi, I'm Jesse Alexander and welcome to Glory and Defeat, the story of the Franco-Prussian War. Last week, the Germans defeated the French in the battles of Wissembourg, Wörth, and Spicheren. Now the consequences of those first battles begin to be felt.
Let’s start with the military situation after last week’s fighting. The double German victory on August 6 had come at an incredibly heavy cost. Nearly 16,000 Germans and 20,000 French have been killed, wounded, or gone missing. German commanders recognize that the French are using the superior range of the Chassepot rifle, which forces the Germans to make risky attacks on fortified positions. But it’s also clear to the General Staff that German discipline and morale are strong enough to achieve tactical victories in spite of the high cost – which will lead to more suicidal attacks. Commanders on both sides have also noticed that the German artillery is dramatically outperforming the French.
The German high command, though, is worried about decision-making. Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army Helmuth von Moltke, for example, was quite upset when General von Steinmetz didn’t stick to the plan at Spicheren last week.
On the French side, the defeats of August 6 and the ongoing retreat of the French army is having a serious effect on the morale not only of the soldiers, but also of the civilian population. After just a few days of fighting, there is already a crisis: some soldiers desert, and the remainder are exhausted from fighting and marching. There’s also a change of government in Paris on the 9th, as liberal Prime Minister Ollivier is forced out and the Bonapartiste Comte de Palikao takes over.
The French plan to fight on and across the Rhine has failed, and it’s now obvious that the war will be fought in France. The Army of the Rhine is also split in two. In the north, four corps are nominally under Napoleon III but in practice are under General Bazaine. In the south, General MacMahon has parts of two corps plus a cavalry division. These two forces are now operating without any direct contact.
Mac-Mahon moves his forces southwest to Lunéville, which he reaches on the 9th. The Emperor and Bazaine move their army west towards the fortified city of Metz, and by August 11 are just east of it. VI Corps leaves Mac-Mahon to join up with Bazaine, and Mac-Mahon now begins to organize his remaining units plus a new corps of mobile guardsmen at Châlons-sur-Marne.
As the French retreat, the 3rd German Army shadows Mac Mahon to the north, and the 1st and 2nd German Armies both follow Bazaine towards Metz.
Friedrich Engels summarizes the disastrous situation of the French for his British readers in the Pall Mall Gazette on August 9:
"The superiority of the Germans in numbers, morale and strategic position must now be such that they can instantly do almost anything they want with impunity. [...] Napoleon, however, has to all appearances almost hopelessly fragmented his troops after two days of fighting and cannot allow himself to dare a main battle." (Engels, 1870, n.d.)
The French army now stands outside of Metz, and General Bazaine wants to continue the retreat to re-unite French forces. But Napoleon III wants to protect Paris and isn’t ready to abandon the east.
On August 13, the 1st German Army arrives east of Metz, but the 2nd Army still lags behind. Neither the Germans nor the French are quite sure where the others’ forces are. until a squadron of Prussian dragoons stumbles upon a French camp, to the surprise of both sides. At the same time, Bazaine is worried about crossing the Moselle river, but the Emperor changes his mind and orders a dangerous retreat even though the enemy is close. The French withdrawal across the Moselle is made all the more difficult because of the recent heavy rains, and the bridges put up by engineers are clogged with baggage trains.
While the main French force is trying to get away, the rearguard clashes with the advancing Germans on the 14th, in the Battle of Colombey-Nouilly. The French III Corps under General Claude Théodore Decaen is between the villages of Colombey and Borny. They hold a strong defensive position on high ground, anchored on a stream, trench system, and some buildings. Nearby is a division of IV Corps between Mey and Nouilly. Opposing them is the Prussian 26th Brigade under Major General Kuno von der Goltz. Even though he’s badly outnumbered, that afternoon von der Goltz decides to attack without waiting for orders. Neighboring forces from both sides are drawn into the fighting, with 83,500 French troops and 67,500 Germans involved.
Again, the Germans attack entrenched French defenders on the high ground. The Germans suffer heavy casualties in the back-and-forth fighting, but the French do not mount what might have been a decisive counterattack. General von Steinmetz orders some German regiments pull back to their positions that night after they suffer 5000 casualties and inflict 3400 on the French. There’s no clear-cut victory for either side at Colombey-Nouilly, the first battle of the Metz Trilogy: the French hold off the Germans and lose fewer men, but the Germans delay the urgent French retreat across the Moselle. What is clear is that the Germans still hold the overall operational advantage.
Marshal Bazaine does score a modest political victory though. He takes advantage of the intense situation while the battle is raging, and convinces Napoleon III to leave the area. The Emperor and his son flee towards Verdun and are nearly captured by Prussian cavalry patrols near Mars-la-Tour. Napoleon III is suffering badly from kidney stones, and the journey on horseback and hard 3rd class train benches is a painful one.
While the Germans are pushing the French back at Colombey-Nouilly, further south the Baden field division is sent to besiege the imposing fortress city of Strasbourg.
Strasbourg is considered one of the strongest fortresses and most well-defended cities in France, but it’s not standing in the way of further German operations to the north. German leadership instead decides to attack Strasbourg to prevent unrest in the area, and because of the city’s symbolic importance. The city became part of the Holy Roman Empire in the 10th century, before King Louis XIV incorporated it into France in 1681. Now the Germans want to reaffirm their claim to ownership.
The fortress is under command of city governor General Jean-Jacques Uhrich. On August 12, lead elements of the Baden Field Division supported by Württembergish fortress artillery reached the outskirts of Strasbourg. The German troops cut off rail and telegraph lines and the city is now isolated. Inside are 85,000 civilians and 15,000 French soldiers, of which 4500 are stragglers from the defeat at Woerth, and 3600 are inexperienced mobile national guardsmen. The French also have 1200 mostly obsolete guns, and – for the time being – adequate supplies.
At first the French did not expect an attack, so they’re not well prepared. They only start flooding the trenches and preparing southern forward defences after the arrival of the first German troops. The fortifications at Strasbourg are also outdated – unlike newer fortresses like Metz or Paris, Strasbourg doesn’t have detached outer forts to keep the attackers at a distance.
Prussian General August von Werder is in command of the Baden Division, and he hopes to force Strasbourg to surrender with a few cannon shots. But the city is also symbolically important in France and German emissaries looking to discuss surrender terms are turned away several times.
General Uhrich informs city residents of the military’s intention to resist:
"If Strasbourg is attacked, Strasbourg will defend itself to the last soldier, biscuit, [and] cartridge. Good people can be reassured: as for the others, they’ve only to leave. Les bons peuvent se rassurer: quant aux autres, ils n’ont qu’à s’éloigner." (Bodenhorst 39)
On August 15, the Germans begin to bombard the city with heavy artillery. Buildings catch fire, and frightened residents take shelter in the cellars. French artillery returns fire, and General Werder now realizes that capturing Strasbourg will take longer than expected.
This week, German and French forces clash in the first battle of the Metz Trilogy at Colombey-Nouilly, and the Germans besiege Strasbourg. Back in Berlin, some of the 8000 French prisoners taken last week arrive in boxcars, and nearly 100,000 curious Berliners turn out to see them.
At the front, the separation of the Army of the Rhine is a disaster for the French, since the Germans have already begun to attack its two parts separately. But Marshal Bazaine’s retreat across the Moselle will not earn his troops much rest, as next week will see the bloodiest battles of the war.
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