This week on Glory and Defeat: two German armies besiege the French in fortress Metz, and another makes a hard right turn: https://youtu.be/-Qq5Yyn_UIY
Last week, the Germans defeated the French at the battles of Vionville-Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte-St. Privat. Now, half of the French Army is encircled and the fortified city of Metz is under siege.
Two clear defeats in the Metz Trilogy have put the French in a catastrophic position. Marshal Bazaine’s army is surrounded, and rejoining with Marshal Mac-Mahon’s forces seems impossible. As of August 20, 170,000 combat-ready French troops are cut off in the Metz pocket, along with 18,000 wounded and sick, 700 German prisoners, 60,000 residents, and 20,000 refugees – more than a quarter of a million people who will have to be fed for an unknown period of time. The threat of starvation is real.
But Bazaine is not ready to quit. Metz is a formidable defensive position: the city has lots of fortified 17th century buildings, it’s surrounded by earthworks and trenches, and there are five new forts outside the city walls, even though they are only partly completed.
Despite the Marshal’s resolve, the effects of the siege begin to make themselves felt in the coming weeks . Diseases like typhus and cholera start to spread, and hundreds of wounded die because of the lack of medical care. Medicine and bandages are in short supply, but, most importantly, so is food.
French soldier Clovis Hardy of the 63e Regiment d’Infanterie describes the situation: "[We now had enough arms but] as far as food supplies were concerned, the situation was not the same . Rumors were going around that there were only 14 days' worth of grain, flour and sugar left. Coffee was only available for three weeks, meat for six days, not enough bacon and hardly any liquor. Horses had to make do with only a small amount of oats, enough for 14 days." (Hardy 171)
The situation of the French inside the Metz pocket is serious, but the Germans besieging the city are facing difficulties of their own. They requisition what they can from surrounding villages but the 200,000 besieging troops need more than they can take from the French peasants. German soldier Albert Böhme of the Infanterie Regiment 92 has been camped outside of Metz for 5 days when he writes to his wife Frederike:
"[There’s] little bread and little meat, [and] bad water [...] everywhere here, sutlers have nothing left to sell, [they’re] partly sold out in France . If you happen to get anything, you have to pay more than you can [afford]. (wen man was kriegen sollte, mus man mehr bezahlen wie man könnte ." (Schikorsky, 45)
Sutlers, by the way, are civilian merchants who follow the armies and sell the soldiers food and other goods.
German supply difficulties are partly related to the rail system. They can run trains into France right up to Remilly and Courcelles to unload supplies east of Metz, which horse-drawn vehicles then move up to the front line . This system allows food, weapons, horses, livestock for slaughter, ammunition, gifts from home, and fresh reinforcements to reach the German units.
West of Metz, across the river Moselle, German logistics have a much tougher challenge. Prussian Pioneers build a 37km rail link , including wooden viaducts, to get trains over to the western bank. But the line is laid in a rush over fields and meadows, and it’s not properly shored up with ballast. That means the heavy rains over the past few weeks have turned the earth soft, so the trains are reduced to a snail’s pace. Once they reach Pont-à-Mousson, everything moves by horse cart.
The siege of Metz puts enormous pressure on German logistics, and German supply officers requisition from French civilians to achieve their objectives. German high command has issued orders that anything taken from civilians must be done legally and be paid for, but the reality of war is often different. German violations cause resentment amongst the French, and the Prussians gain a reputation as barbaric plunderers. From now on, French newspaper cartoons will often use the image of an unkempt and dirty German soldier stealing grandfather clocks.
Bazaine and his exhausted army are now trapped in Metz by a larger and stronger German force. The last hope for the surrounded French army is Marshal Mac-Mahon.
From August 20, about 200,000 German troops from the 1st and 2nd Armies are tied up besieging Metz. Their objective is to avoid costly attacks by bombarding or starving the city into surrender.
They set up triple siege lines, artillery emplacements, fortifications, trenches, and ramparts. They lay telegraph lines and build bridges across the Moselle for resupply and for badly needed fresh conscripts and reservists to top up depleted units. Along the 10km ring surrounding the city there are also observation and alarm posts, who are to report any signs of a French breakout attempt. But the Germans cannot be everywhere, and quite a few Frenchmen are able to smuggle messages in and out of Metz. Those the Germans catch are condemned as spies and shot on the spot.
The German command now is able to withdraw 90,000 men for use elsewhere . These form the 4th Army, or Maasarmee, under the command of Crown Prince Albert of Saxony, and it marches off to the Argonne to join the 3rd Army’s advance. One of the 4th Army’s soldiers is 22-year-old Prussian Guard Lieutenant Paul von Hindenburg.
The 3rd German Army is moving through the Vosges mountains in pursuit of Mac Mahon’s army. On the way the Germans capture some smaller fortresses, but the farther east they get, the more the men suffer. Long columns of wet, exhausted, and hungry troops along with weapons, horses, carts, and cannons struggle ahead. Tensions and confrontations with the civilian population only add to the misery for both sides. There’s not enough food, it rains constantly, the nights are chilly, and many men get sick.
The German command knows by mid-August that Mac Mahon’s army is encamped at Châlons-sur-Marne. But on August 21, French forces leave the camp and begin to move – although at first it’s not clear to either side where they’re headed. Back on the 17th , a French war council struggled to decide whether MacMahon should defend Paris or fight in the east. Now that Metz is surrounded, Empress Eugénie and the war party fear that leaving Bazaine to his fate will bring revolution. So Minister for War Count Palikao tells MacMahon to relieve Metz, and once again confusion reigns in the French command.
Finally MacMahon begins to move north, but there are still debates about whether he should turn east to Metz or west to protect the capital. The German 3rd Army is only 90km away from his former camp when a cavalry patrol discovers it’s empty on August 24th .
Mac-Mahon though, does not see much chance for success. His army is a slow-moving, demoralized mix of exhausted troops and inexperienced replacements. Upon leaving Châlons, Mac Mahon seems resigned to his fate: "Well, then, let us have our backs broken." (Herre 291) Palikao and Eugénie are insistent, and send him a message in the name of the Emperor:
" Si vous abandonnez Bazaine, la révolution est dans Paris. If you abandon Bazaine, there will be revolution in Paris and you yourself will be attacked by the full force of the enemy. […] I consider it urgent that you quickly reach Bazaine." (Gouttman 284)
On August 25, the Germans decide on a maneuver that has gone down in German military history as the 'Great Right Turn'. Once the 3rd German Army reach Châlons, they execute a difficult mass maneuver and turn north on the 26. A quarter of a million men abruptly change direction to try head off Mac Mahon’s forces in case they turn east towards Metz. As the Germans pivot, MacMahon does turn east, from just north of Reims. If the Germans are going to catch up and stop him before he can relieve the Metz pocket, they’re going to have to hurry – and their route along the Argonne heights is a tough one.
Meanwhile, at Strasbourg, the Baden field division begins a four-day bombardment of the besieged city on the 23rd. Whole quarters go up in flames, civilians are killed, the Cathedral is damaged, and some of the library’s valuable historic manuscripts are destroyed. The Germans hope the shelling will shorten the siege, but the international press is quick to condemn it as a moral outrage.
This week the Germans besiege half the French Army in Metz, Marshal Mac-Mahon marches to relieve the city with a German army on his heels, and Strasbourg burns. Back on July 13, Minister Ignace Plichon made a prediction to the Emperor: " Sire, you and the King of Prussia are not on equal footing. The King can allow himself to lose several battles, but for you, Sire, defeat means revolution. (Pour vous, Sire, la défaite, c’est la révolution). " (Gouttman 204). Next week, the coming battles will indeed decide the future of the Second Empire.