This week on Glory and Defeat: a French Marshal is ready to march on Paris – with the Germans. https://youtu.be/BkQlEwtSG_o
Hi, I'm Jesse Alexander and welcome to Glory and Defeat, the story of the Franco-Prussian War. Last week, there was bloody fighting around Paris as the French tried to break out, and the Prussian General Staff argued about whether to bombard the city. The French have not given up trying to free their capital, even though catastrophe strikes again this week.
By the last week of October 1870, the fortress city of Metz has been under siege by the Germans for more than two months. The only major French breakout attempt at Noisseville at the end of August failed. And since the defeat at Sedan, the 250,000 French troops and civilians trapped in Metz have no hope of relief. Food is in extremely short supply – French troops manage to capture a few cows from surrounding towns, but the main supplies of horse meat and salt or nearly gone.
Despite the dire situation, Marshal Bazaine has not surrendered – in fact, he is still loyal to former Emperor Napoleon III. He doesn’t want to sacrifice his army for a Republic he dislikes, and he even negotiates with the Prussians to restore the French monarchy. Two weeks ago, he sends General Napoléon Boyer – with German permission – to Versailles with an offer. If Bazaine and his Armee du Rhin can leave Metz, they could fight alongside the Prussians to destroy the Third Republic. Once the Germans and Bazaine had won, Bazaine would then create a new army from French prisoners of war released from the German lands, and restore Emperor Napoleon to his throne.
Bismarck hears them out, but Bazaine and former Empress Eugenie refuse to agree to the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine . By this week, it’s clear that surrender is the only option in the face of hunger, disease, lack of medical care, and political inaction. The French try to negotiate better terms for two days, but the Germans do not budge and on October 27, Bazaine surrenders Metz and the Armee du Rhin unconditionally. The Marshal tries to save face with a proclamation to his men:
"Defeated by famine, we are forced to submit to the laws of war by becoming prisoners. At various times in our military history, brave troops […] have suffered the same fate, which in no way diminishes military honor when, like us, one has performed one's duty so gloriously to the utmost human limit. Everything that could be done in good faith to prevent this end has been tried and has failed [...] I part from everyone with a broken heart. c’est le cœur brisé que je me sépare de tous.” " (Steenackers 186f.)
German officer Hans von Kretschman takes a harsher view of the situation:
"The French surpassed what could be expected even from the bravest troops. However: had there only been a more intelligent leader in charge, the French would have broken out. Instead they fired their cannons every day without achieving anything; they led their womenfolk up on the walls to show them a bit of the war, and nothing more. " (Braun 188 )
The French soldiers were ordered to hand over their weapons intact, an emotional act for men like Clovis Hardy: "Handing over everything without destroying it first was a complete humiliation. [...] We refused. Whenever we could, we soaked the powder in water before delivering it to the arsenal so it could never be used against Frenchmen. [...] I destroyed the butt of my Chassepot out of anger and despair under the eyes of an indulge nt sergeant. Others did likewise. I even urinated in the powder kegs I had broken open." (Hardy 248f.)
140,000 irreplaceable professional French troops are interned, but the Germans allow the French officers to keep their swords. Bazaine is even allowed to choose where he will be held, so he joins his Emperor at Kassel. After the war, Bazaine will be convicted of treason and exiled to Spain – but already this week many Frenchmen including Clovis Hardy, consider him a traitor:
"When he left, no, in truth, when he fled, the Germans had to protect the wagon of the coward, this Bazaine, from the stone-throwing of the people of Metz. He left us to our fate, to the humiliation of losing." (Hardy 250)
The sufferings of Hardy and others do not end with the surrender. Many die of illness or weakness on their way first to collection camps and then to the German states. Since many are still wearing their summer uniforms, the journey in open railway wagons also causes deaths from exposure.
Back in Metz, French medical personnel like Ida de Crombrugghe and her fellow nurses are able to enter the city to provide care for the sick and wounded. Those who can be moved leave on October 29 and 30 in the pouring rain, and Major Hans von Kretschman shares his impressions with his wife:
"You have no idea what the French must have suffered. Masses of dead horses along the road; soldiers living in ‘earth’ huts made of excrement. The animals had eaten the leaves off all the trees and all the vines. A horse stands with its legs drawn together […] then it collapses and dies of hunger." (Braun 190)
The surrender of Metz means the end of the belief in a miraculous French breakout and the loss of the last imperial army. At the same time, it frees two German armies and siege guns for operations elsewhere – including Paris, where the fighting continues this week with the Battle of Le Bourget.
The fighting around the siege ring that surrounds Paris flares up again on October 28 at Le Bourget. That night several battalions of Mobile Guards and Franc-tireurs attacked the small Prussian garrison in the village. One of the Franc-tireurs units, the Franc-tireur de la Presse, is made up of newspapermen and led by popular author Gustave Aimard. The French manage to drive the Prussian Guards Grenadier Regiment out of Le Bourget by dawn. But this minor success is pointless, since the village has no strategic importance and the attack was ordered General de Bellemare without his superior.
The French victory also provokes a German response. They bombard the village at noon, and the 2nd Kaiser Franz Guard Grenadier Regiment launches a counterattack in the evening. The 3000 French defenders shoot down the Prussians as they struggle across the muddy ground, and the French hold on to Le Bourget – for now. This is the first success of French arms in the fighting around Paris, but the Prussians are not done.
On the 29th, Prussian guns shell Le Bourget again, and on the 30th nine Guards battalions storm the village in the wet, cold, and mud. The Prussian soldiers throw themselves into the mud to avoid French rifle fire and regain their strength to continue through the muck. After eleven hours of fierce fighting and heavy losses, the Prussians retake Le Bourget and capture 1300 French prisoners.
Frenchman Louis Jezierski is highly critical of the action: "There were three paths to take: two good ones and one bad one; naturally we chose the latter. Instead of abandoning Le Bourget or [...] making it defensible with artillery and massed infantry, we decided on an unfortunate middle course and tried it with a little infantry and even less artillery. Thus came what had to come, and once again we had only the satisfaction of having effected a 'skilful retreat'. Only in retreats are we great." (Fontane 413)
At German headquarters, the success barely registered, as Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm notes in his diary on October 31: "I am not yet able to see the whole picture, but it seems to me possessing the village was not so important that it had to be retaken with such great sacrifices [...], especially as Le Bourget lies within our outposts and has only ever been occupied by half a company." (Meisner, S. 191.)
This week has been another disaster for the French. They lose their last proper army at Metz, and they lose what was supposed to be their first victory at Le Bourget. But surrenders and defeats are not the only problem for the Third Republic’s Government of National Defense. Many Frenchmen in Paris and the cities of the south can no longer stand the strain and are ready to rise against the government – the Commune is awakening…