New Glory & Defeat Episode: The Frozen Battlefields of France - Battle of Beaugency 1870

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the French and Germans fight and die over frozen ground, and the French government flees west.

Last week, the Germans defeated French attacks at Loigny-Poupry, and German troops occupied Orléans again. This week, fighting continues in the west and north, as hunger gnaws at the capital.

At the start of the second week of December 1870, the German siege of Paris remains unbroken. After the French defeat at Loigny, the French high command decides to divide the Armee de la Loire in two: one part under General Alfred Chanzy, and one under General Charles Bourbaki. French morale is at an all-time low after their recent failures, and they expect the Germans will try to march on Tours – one of the seats of the Government of National Defense – so their objective now is to simply hold on.

The Germans are badly outnumbered but push westwards on December 8 while reinforcements are sent up. At first the French are able to hold the line, but Bourbaki’s disorganized and hesitant forces are not able to support Chanzy. Chanzy’s army is barely holding together, so he orders a retreat towards Le Mans on December 10. The Germans lose 3400 men; the French perhaps 10,000, including 5,000 prisoners. Although the French have abandoned the Loire position, Chanzy’s determination does impress Interior Minister Gambetta.

The general also tried to keep up the morale of his long-suffering men after the retreat:

"The [recent] battles were as glorious for you as they were deadly for the enemy, whose prisoners admit to serious losses […] Strategic considerations have led you to occupy your current positions. Des considérations stratégiques vous ont ramenés sur les positions que vous occupez actuellement." (Chanzy 189)

But Chanzy’s grandiose words were cold comfort to French troops, as journalist Francisque Sarcey observes near Paris:

"C'était pitié de les voir. It was pitiful to see them. They wrapped their heads in scarves, folded and refolded their blankets around their bodies, covered their legs in any clothing they could find. And off they went, sordid, hideous, no longer appearing as soldiers, to do their duty." (Sarcey 240)

At this point, the Germans are also completely exhausted. Bavarian Florian Kühnhauser fights non-stop for what he calls his “ten worst days.” His uniform is in tatters and he is short of food, and he is disturbed by what he witnesses:

"Thousands of wounded were abandoned to bleed to death on the cold battlefield. Who could help them - we could no longer help ourselves - and we had reached the point where we envied the fallen their fate. For the wounded no amount of begging or pleading helped. Completely abandoned without any care, most of them gasped out their spirit in the cold winter night. O, war is terrible, merciless! O, ist der Krieg schrecklich, unbarmherzig!“ " (Kühnhauser, 162).

Kühnhauser’s mood sinks even further when he marches over a day-old battlefield:

"The sight of this field of corpses was not as gruesome as others, for nature herself was ashamed of the atrocities of mankind and spread a dusting of snow over this terrible battlefield. (...) Almost ghost-like, thousands of human corpses and horse carcasses lay under this light blanket of snow (...)." (Kühnhauser, 163f.)

Kühnhauser’s unit is so depleted it is declared incapable of further operations and sent to Orleans to rest – but he is still plagued by nightmares.

On the northern front, the French are also unsuccessful in this week. The Germans take Rouen on December 4 and the port of Dieppe on the 9th – these victories net the Germans supplies meant for Paris, including 150,000 hundredweight of coffee. The one minor French victory comes at the town of Ham, where French troops surprise the small German garrison at night and force them to surrender. Fresh German units try to recapture the town but are forced to retreat.

While fighting rages on the Loire and in the north, hunger intensifies in besieged Paris.

With every passing day, Parisians increasingly feel the consequences of the German blockade. Food and fuel are scarce, the city is in the grip of the winter cold, and the mood is also dampened by the failures to lift the siege November 30 and December 2.

Journalist Francisque Sarcey mocks wealthier Parisians who are reduced to eating whatever they can get:

"What was amusing is that it was the upper-class bourgeoisie that ate cats, dogs, and rats with the bravado of dilettantes. […] They ate, with the tips of their teeth, half complaining, half joking, and not without some hesitation of the fork." (Sarcey 173)

Writer Edmond de Goncourt is depressed, and his spirits aren’t raised on December 6 when he discovers buffalo, antelope and kangaroo meat on restaurant menus, as the Paris zoo animals are now being slaughtered. The same day, he also reports on what his fellow Parisians are talking about:

"We're not just talking about things that can be eaten, that could be eaten, that can be found to eat. [...] 'I've seen dog chops [someone said]; they're really tasty; they look just like mutton chops!’ […] Famine is on the horizon. La famine est à l’horizon." (Goncourt, 151-152)

Despite his depression and hatred of the republican government, Goncourt still believes that somehow, France will be saved in spite of the republic.

Goncourt and Sarcey, however, have it easier than most. In the slums outside Boulevard de Clichy, an English contemporary observes women and children sitting half-starved on doorsteps in freezing temperatures: "They said that because they had neither wood nor coal, it was warmer outside than inside." (Horne, 177)

Paris is starving, and the miserable German troops have defeated the miserable French troops on the Loire again – which puts them too close for comfort to the French government at Tours.

The German victory at Beaugency places their forces closer to the French government at Tours, so this week French authorities decide to move to Bordeaux. Interior Minster Gambetta, a man known for his toughness and conviction but also his stubbornness and tendency to deny reality, is the only minister to remain. He plans to continue to organize military resistance.

Just as the rest of the government is leaving, Gambetta receives an unusual guest on December 6. Wilhelm Dinesen is a Danish officer and veteran of the German-Danish War of 1864. He’s also an adventurer who hates everything German, and places himself at the disposal of the 3rd Republic after a dangerous journey to Tours. Gambetta commissions him as a staff officer with the rank of captain and he joins a French unit in Bourges despite barely speaking any French.

Dinesen gets caught up in the flight of government officials but manages to reach Bourges by train after several detours and a disturbing discussion. On the journey, Dinesen meets a French general whose views are too much even for the anti-German Dane:

"All [German] men must be killed [...] because they are Germans, all children because they will become Germans, and all women because they can give birth to Germans." (Arand, 520)

This week, the Germans defeat the French at Beaugency, Paris zoo animals are being eaten, and the French government delegation in Tours escapes to Bordeaux. Soldiers on both sides and French civilians are hungry, cold, and want the interminable suffering to end. But fanatical French republican leaders are not willing to give up, and German leaders continue to apply maximum pressure for the weeks to come.

1870 Glory & Defeat

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