New Glory & Defeat Episode: The Battle of Belfort Gap

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the French attack in the east, the Germans attack in the west – and there’s a serious snowball fight.

Last week the French defeated the Germans in the East but cannot press their advantage. This week, a French legend is born, and a decisive battle comes in the west.

By the second week of January 1871, the French government is getting more and more desperate as every attempt to turn the tide in the war has failed. This week the newly-formed army of the East continues its move towards the besieged fortress of Belfort, which is under constant bombardment by the Baden 14th Corps. If General Bourbaki’s 150,000 men can defeat General von Werder’s 50,000 Germans, the siege might be lifted, and the French could then threaten German lines of communication with their armies outside Paris. The Germans are aware of the danger and rush a new Southern Army to the area, but the French get there first.
German troops are defending a mountain pass between the Vosges and Jura mountains known as the Burgundian Gate, which gives access to Alsace and Baden. They move siege artillery away from Belfort to the Gate, smash the ice on the Lisaine stream to prevent the French from crossing, and construct a labyrinth of defensive works.

A worried von Werder sends an urgent telegram to the German high command:

"I urgently ask if I must remain for long before Belfort, in the face of superior
forces which seek to surround me. I think I can protect Alsace, but not Belfort
as well unless I am to put at risk the existence of my corps. The obligation to
maintain the siege of Belfort deprives me of all freedom of movement." (Fontane, 669) Before he receives the reply, which was to stay put and fight, the French attack on January 15.

In -14 degrees Celsius weather, the Battle of Belfort, also known as the Battle of Héricourt or the Battle of the Lisaine, rages for three days while the garrison and civilians in the fortress listen anxiously to the cannon fire. The exhausted, demoralized, and freezing French force the Germans back but are unable to press their advantage. Thanks to intense rifle and artillery fire from entrenched positions, the Germans hold the line. The French lose about 8000 men, the Germans about 2000. King Wilhelm messages von Werder that his victory is "one of the greatest feats of arms of all times." (Barry)
French medic Daniel Seigneur notes the extremely low morale in the Armee de l’Est after the defeat:
"There is great agitation in a nameless disorder; many men were already thinking of deserting and acts of indiscipline are legion. Uniforms are sometimes abandoned in favor of pilfered civilian clothes; [and] weapons are thrown on the ground." (Seigneur, 100)
Bourbaki is forced to withdraw , the siege of Belfort continues, and the fortress will eventually hold out until after the armistice is signed. The post-war 3rd Republic then creates the Belfort Myth to glorify its defenders as symbols of national resistance, and to help stabilize the state after its defeat. Fortress commander Aristide Denfert-Rochereau is made into a war hero, partly because of his famous message to the German general who requested the city’s surrender in November 1870:
"Nous connaissons aussi l’étendue de nos devoirs envers la France et envers la République, et nous sommes décidés à les remplir. We know the extent of our duties to France and to the Republic, and we are decided to fulfil them." (Meny)
In 1880 sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi creates the Lion of Belfort, an 11m high stone memorial to commemorate the rare military success – Bartholdi is also the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty in New York.
The Germans have stopped the demoralized Army of the East, and this week German commanders also sense the chance to crush another demoralized French army in the west.

The French Armee de la Loire is still reeling from its defeats in recent weeks as it struggles to take up new defensive positions in front of Le Mans. General Chanzy wants to fight on and even orders a counterattack, but his army is in such a bad state that one Corps Commander is at a loss: "I really don’t know what I am going to do to make them march. If it is possible we’ll do it. Everyone says it can’t be done, but we’ll see." (Howard 400) Thousands of French troops are already deserting and the defensive works are far from complete – Chanzy even posts cavalry units behind the front lines to encourage his own men to stay at their posts.
German commanders know the time is ripe to crush the demoralized and disorganized French units once and for all, so they go over to the attack. From January 10 to 12, 75,000 Germans of the 2nd Army crash into the 150,000 inexperienced and badly equipped French troops of the Armee de la Loire at the Battle of Le Mans. Some of the Frenchmen are equipped with muzzle-loaders left over from the US Civil War. After three days of fighting in harsh winter conditions and in dense forests, the French army is put to flight. 10,000 men are killed or wounded, and tens of thousands more French troops desert. French military power in the west is broken and there is no hope of relieving Paris from the Loire.

German soldier Karl Zeitz of the 2nd Thuringian Infantry Regiment No. 32 later recalls a touching moment while searching for wounded. He finds three Frenchmen in the forest, takes them prisoner, and learns their story:

"As night fell, one of them was hit by enemy fire. […] They feared that their friend might die in their arms so they laid him in a hollow. […] Then the two good men crouched down to the left and right of the seriously wounded man, embraced him and tried to protect him with their body heat. - I could not find a more beautiful example of camaraderie and devotion than this." (Zeitz, 314)

Zeitz helps carry the wounded Frenchmen towards German lines, but he dies on the way and they bury him in the forest at midnight:
"Three soldiers, two French and one German, stood around the body of the man who had remained on the field of honor; […] their prayers accompanied their departed comrade [and] each placed a few branches on the fallen warrior [...]. I have hardly ever been so moved by a funeral as I was by this one." (Zeitz, 315)

Zeitz also reports on a strange incident during the battle. A German patrol sneaks up on two young and obviously inexperienced French soldiers:
"[...] they would make an easy kill. But the [veteran] German soldiers [do not want to take the lives of] a few young boys. […] Then one of the Germans puts his rifle aside, makes a huge snowball and throws it at the Frenchman's head. Astonished, the Frenchman turns around. […] then he accepts the strange fight with the happy blood of his nation. […] A snowball fight! [...] Laughing and joking loudly, Germans and Frenchmen throw snowballs at each other. The noise attracted attention and other men from both sides rushed to join in the strange fight." (Zeitz, 320f.)

The snowball fight at Le Mans seems to have been a draw, but French plans have failed on all fronts and civilians in Paris continue to suffer.

This week brings more tragedy in the besieged and starving French capital. Parisian actress Sarah Bernardt witnesses a tragedy of war this week. She sends a boy to fetch some medicine for some German wounded at her military hospital in the Odeon Theatre. The child has just left her when he is blown apart by a German shell, as Bernhardt recalls: "When we came near the child, his poor entrails were spilled out onto the ground. His whole chest, his poor red and doll-like face were stripped of their flesh. No more eyes, no more mouth, nothing. Nothing, but hair at the end of a bloody long rag, a metre from his head! […] The poor boy was a senseless victim - ce pauvre petit était un holocauste bien inutile." (Bernhardt, 237-238)
Meanwhile wealthy writer Edmond de Goncourt feels a rare pang of empathy for his poorer countrymen. In his diary entry on January 13, he wonders at their restraint in the face of injustice:
"One must give credit to the Parisian population, and admire it. The insolent displays of the food merchants awkwardly remind the starving population that the rich can still get poultry, game, and other delicacies; and yet the population does not smash the shop windows, and doesn’t lay a hand on the merchants or the merchandise – it’s astonishing." (Goncourt, 189) Goncourt doesn’t know it yet, but the population’s restraint will not last forever.

This week, the Germans smash the Armee de la Loire, and the Armee de l’Est fails to relieve Belfort. The war is grinding slowly to an end – but before it does, German painter Anton von Werner receives an urgent telegram from the Crown Prince. If the artist can get to Paris next week, he’ll have the chance to paint the birth of an empire.


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