This week on Glory and Defeat: the Metz Trilogy continues with two more costly battles, and the future German Empire adds to its mythology. https://youtu.be/ATbtegeJNcE
Hi, I'm Jesse Alexander and welcome to Glory and Defeat, the story of the Franco-Prussian War. Last week, the French army remained split in two, German and French forces lashed in the accidental battle of Colombey-Nouilly, and the Germans besieged Strasbourg. Now the Metz Trilogy that started with Colombey-Nouilly continues.
After the fighting of August 14, the French complete their retreat to the left bank of the Moselle the next day. Bazaine has also convinced Napoleon III to join Mac-Mahon at Châlons, which frees up Bazaine to command without the Emperor’s constant and indecisive advice.
But getting the Emperor out of his hair doesn’t solve Bazaine’s problems. He tries to withdraw his forces along the road to Châlons-sur-Marne, but French troops are exhausted from the fighting and river crossing and need to rest. This delay gives the Germans a crucial extra day to catch the French, who are encamped on a ridge west of Metz. The German 2nd Army takes up a position along the Metz-Verdun road – if the Prussians can take the road, they’ll cut off the French line of retreat and trap them in Metz. There are about 90,000 German troops available for the attack, and 140,000 French to defend the road. On August 16 at 9:00 AM, the Battle of Vionville-Mars-la-Tour begins.
The German III Corps attacks towards the road between Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte, where Bazaine has his headquarters. There they smash into the French II Corps under General Frossard, which is blocking their path. The fighting takes place in a relatively small area of rolling fields and woods: combat is brutal and losses are extremely heavy on both sides.
At about 11:00AM, the Germans take Vionville and turn towards Rezonville, where they run into the French VI Corps under Marshal de Canrobert The fighting now centers on Tronville wood, and losses mount quickly. The 4th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment No. 24, for example, loses a third of its men and half of its officers in the forest. To buy time to bring up reinforcements, the Germans decide to send in the cuirassiers and Uhlans of the Bredow Cavalry Brigade. Commander Adalbert von Bredow knows this is a suicide mission, and only accepts to carry out the order after repeated and furious instructions from the General Staff. The cavalrymen draw lots to decide which squadrons will join the charge. The unlucky squadrons ride pell-mell into the forest, and two-thirds are lost. The doomed attack will be known as the Death Ride of the Bredow Brigade and later becomes a key part of the militaristic culture of remembrance in the Kaiserreich.
The battle drags on throughout the day, and ebbs back and forth in the afternoon. General Bourbaki’s French Guards threaten to surround the Prussians at Mars-la-Tour, but another Prussian cavalry charge saves the situation. Chancellor Bismarck’s two sons, Herbert and Wilhelm, are both part of this action. The decisive moment comes at 7:00PM, when the German VIII and IX Corps attack Rezonville and break the French defenses with a final cavalry attack at dusk.
After 12 hours of intense combat, the battle of Mars-la-Tour is over. German forces are now in possession of the vital road and have cut off the French line of retreat: Bazaine’s army is trapped. 33,000 French and Germans are dead or wounded, a very high total which worries Chancellor Bismarck, who shares his concerns with his wife Johanna:
"The 3rd Hussars and 16th Uhlans [...] lost 1/3 of their men and more than half of the officers in senseless and impossible cavalry attacks [...] the leadership of the 1st and 2nd Armies is clumsily abusing the death-defying bravery of our people. It’s all brawn and no brains, and yet we are victorious. (nur Faust, ohne Kopf, und doch siegen wir)." (Bismarck, 22)
For the French, Mars-la-Tour is another defeat, but one that will inspire pride in the months to come. A newspaper report from 1871 explains why:
"All the Prussian officers, after paying homage to the brilliant courage of our soldiers, are unanimous in declaring that our army 'fought with a rage of which nothing can give an idea' (notre armée s’est battu avec une rage dont rien ne peut donner une idée)". (Roux, 93).
After German victories at Colombey-Nouilly on the 14th and Vionville-Mars-la-Tour on the 16th, soldiers on both sides get only one day of rest before the final battle of the Metz Trilogy begins.
Block 2: Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat
The German army command expects the French to attack right away on the 17th to reach the Étain-Verdun road, but by noon it’s clear that the French are pulling back along the line from Gravelotte to the heights at St. Privat-la-Montagne. Bazaine decides not to attack because his men are exhausted and short on ammunition and food. The retreat is chaotic but German troops are equally spent and can’t really take advantage of the confusion. By the end of the 17th, the French have shifted to a strong defensive position along a road embankment and there they wait for the Germans to attack.
On the 18th, the Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat begins – one of the few battles in this war that is planned by both sides. The German 1st and 2nd Armies plus the Guards Corps field 170,000 men and 732 guns, while the French defenders of the Army of Lorraine have about 130,000 men and 520 guns. The Germans begin by attacking the French positions on the high ground, and this is a costly tactical mistake. The fighting rages in woods, on hills, and around farms – in particular around a farm known ominously as the Ferme de Moscou.
In the evening, German 1st Army Commander von Steinmetz decides to renew the attack in the north with the elite Prussian Guard. He and Guard Corps commander Prince August of Württemberg are supposed to wait until Saxon reinforcements arrive, but thanks to a communication error they start the assault an hour ahead of schedule without detailed plans. The Germans don’t have enough artillery support and need to cross open terrain to get at the village of St.-Privat-la-Montagne, which sits on a fortified hill. The French troops on the hill are protected by walls and bushes, and they use the longer range of their Chassepot rifles to rain fire on the exposed Prussians. They also bring into action the Mitrailleuse, a forerunner to the machine gun, with devastating effect - for the only time in the war. The Prussians suffer 5000 dead and wounded on the slopes beneath the village, and so many officers have fallen that some units are under the command of sergeants. These losses in such a short period of time are unprecedented in Prussian military history and make this assault the most controversial of the war for the Germans.
One Prussian Guards Sergeant describes the moments after he was hit: "[…] There I lay, one of the victims of this bloody day! My first feeling was indignation [at being hit], my second was that I expected to explode, because after the rumbling of the bullet I was convinced I had an artillery shell in my body. Then came the pain, and with it helplessness as I fell down. I watched as the battalion left my sight and saw myself lying alone on the ground, amidst the terrible howling and whistling of bullets constantly smashing into the earth all around me." (Fontane, 468)
For the first time in the war, it looks like the French are about to stop a major German attack. Bazaine even reports to the Emperor that victory is at hand. But just half an hour later, Saxon reinforcements join the Prussian Guards and the German artillery opens up again. That evening, St. Privat falls to the Germans after bloody house-to-house combat. They’ve now outflanked the French right wing, which makes the French position untenable. Bazaine orders a retreat east to the fortress at Metz.
August 18, 1870, more than 20,000 Germans are killed or wounded, along with nearly 12,000 Frenchmen. The Metz Trilogy has turned the fields around the city into a single, giant field of corpses, and both French and German newspapers publish long lists of obituaries. French troops are frustrated with repeated defeats and senseless sacrifice, as one officer makes clear in his report on morale:
"On nous mène à des boucheries inutiles! We are being led to needless butchery!" (Roux, 96)
A German officer expresses similar feelings to his wife about the mistakes of German commanders in the three Metz battles:
"Our beautiful, brave army! Four such victories and she is no more." (Braun, 77).
This week, the Germans win very costly victories at Vionville-Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte-St. Privat. The Metz Trilogy ends with more German victories, and now half of the French army is besieged in Metz. We’ll find out more about their fate next week.
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