Chapter XXXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3
The ministerial announcement produced an indescribable ferment in the Legislative Body. The majority applauded vehemently every expression that had a warlike sound; but there were a few sober-minded and independent men on the Opposition benches who endeavoured to gain a hearing, - who demanded that the despatches on which the action of the Government was founded should be laid before the Chamber, - who declared that since the withdrawal of the Hohenzollern candidature they could see no sufficient cause for war. Among these objectors the most prominent was M. Thiers. His remonstrances were met by passionate cries and invectives. " Offend me, insult me," he cried; " I am ready to endure anything to spare the blood of my countrymen, which you are ready to shed so imprudently. You will not reflect for a moment; you will not demand the contents of the despatches, upon which your judgment ought to be founded." " Keep your advice, we do not require it," exclaimed the violent Imperialist, M. Jerome David. The sitting concluded with the vote of a credit of fifty millions of francs for extraordinary military expenses, as demanded by the Government, by a majority of 245 to 10 voices. On the next day, the Senate, with its President, M. Rouher, at their head, waited upon the Emperor with an address, conceived in the worst French taste, and marked by that appalling disregard of moral considerations which has led a noble country into such terrible misfortunes. "Your Majesty," he said, "draws the sword, and the country is with you, trembling with indignation at the excesses that an ambition over-excited by one day's good fortune was sure, sooner or later, to produce."
All through the nine days' interval which intervened between the announcement of the French Government on the 15th July and the speech made by the Duc de Gramont on the 6th, the British Government had laboured heartily and indefatigably for the preservation of peace. All was, however, in vain. The French Ministry (as is well explained by the sober chronicler of the Revue des Deux Mondes, writing on the 14th July) had, by the needless publicity and empressement which they had imported into the affair, raised such a tempest of passion and excitement, that soon neither they nor the French public were in a condition to listen to reason. On the other hand, Count Bismark, while remaining perfectly cool, was not disposed to take extraordinary pains to avert a struggle which he believed to be sooner or later inevitable, and which he was too well informed as to the comparative armaments of the two countries to view with serious apprehension.
The same spirit of rivalry and combativeness which impelled Count Bismark in 1866, against the traditions of his country and the declarations of his whole life, to employ revolutionary agencies against Austria because they furnished him with a convenient weapon, now induced him, in contempt of the usages of men of honour and the bienséances of diplomacy, to bring forth from some secret drawer in the Prussian Foreign Office a document which he rightly judged was calculated seriously to damage France and the Emperor in the judgment of the neutral states. On the 25th July, there appeared in the Times what purported to be a textual copy of a project for a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, between France and Prussia. The paper containing it was communicated to the Times from the Prussian Foreign Office, and was stated to be in the handwriting of M. Benedetti. The Emperor and the King agreed to the following bases: That France should recognise all the Prussian acquisitions of 1866, and should engage not to oppose the incorporation of the South German states, with the exception of Austria, in the North German Confederation; and that the King, on his part, would facilitate for France the acquisition of Luxemburg, by means of an indemnity to be paid to the King of Holland, and would also " lend, if need were, the support of his arms for the conquest of Belgium" ("prêter au besoin le concours de ses armes pour la conquête de la Belgique "). At the reading of this audacious proposal, a sentiment of stupefaction came upon the English mind, succeeded by a feeling of lively indignation. This, then, was what the entente cordiale had come to! this was the result of the extension of our commerce and friendly intercourse with France! that our ally had been negotiating with Prussia behind our backs to destroy the independence of a nation which he, along with us, had created not half a century ago, and equally with ourselves was bound in honour to defend. But as further correspondence developed accurately what had occurred, the case against France assumed a less unfavourable aspect. On the 29th July, the Duc de Gramont transmitted to London a letter from Benedetti, containing the following explanation of the circumstances. In the first place, he pointed out that, if the project was a villainy, there were evidently two parties to it; on the very face of the document it was manifest that Prussia was not more averse to entertain the question of the absorption of Belgium than was France. Secondly, whereas Count Bismark had stated that this was but one of many such schemes with which he was continually being pestered by the French Ambassador, Benedetti asserted that since 1866 he had had no communications with the Prussian Chancellor upon any matter of the kind; but that in that year, and particularly while the negotiations for the Treaty of Prague were going on, Bismark, fearful lest France should be provoked by the annexation of Hanover, Frankfort, &c., to Prussia, laid several proposals of this nature before him, and discussed them with apparent seriousness. On one such occasion, wishing to put the substance of the conversation in a tangible shape, Benedetti wrote, almost under the direction of Count Bismark, the rough draft now made public by the Prussian Government; Bismark took it from him, saying he would show it to the King; after that Benedetti saw and thought no more of it. But when the project was submitted to the Emperor, Benedetti added, he at once rejected it; and he believed that it was also rejected by the King of Prussia.
Whatever might be the exact balance of truth between the conflicting statements, the painful impression was left on the minds of English statesmen, that neither France nor Prussia would have much scruple about destroying the independence of Belgium; and that, if that independence were worth preserving, from the point of view both of the honour and of the interests of Great Britain, new guarantees for its maintenance had become necessary. It is a pleasure to record the manly stand taken on this question by Lord Russell (whose abandonment of Denmark, in 1864, it was our painful duty to relate and characterise), when (August 2) the subject came up in the House of Lords. England's duty, he said, was clear. <£ It is not a question of three courses. There is but one course and one path - namely, the course of honour and the path of honour - that we ought to pursue. We are bound to defend Belgium. I am told that that may lead us into danger. Now, in the first place, I deny that any great danger would exist if this country manfully declared her intention to perform all her engagements, and not to shrink from their performance." After saying that all these intrigues arose from the doubt which prevailed on the continent, whether England would adhere to her treaty engagements, he proceeded: "lam persuaded that if it is once manfully declared that England means to stand by her treaties, to perform her engagements - that her honour and her interest would allow nothing else - such a declaration would check the greater part of these intrigues, and that neither France nor Prussia would wish to add a second enemy to the formidable foe which each, has to meet." Remembering what happened in 1864, when the display of just this kind of manliness on the part of the English Government was all that was needed to preserve Schleswig for Denmark, we may well exclaim, on reading these spirited words, "O si sic omnia! "
Being strongly urged forward by the expressions of opinion delivered both in and out of Parliament, Mr. Gladstone's Government acted on this critical occasion both promptly and skilfully. Earl Granville prepared the text of a treaty guaranteeing the independence of Belgium during the continuance of the war and twelve months afterwards, and proposed its acceptance, simultaneously, but separately, to the two belligerent Powers. The substantial proviso of the treaty was to this effect: " His Majesty [Emperor of the French, or King of Prussia] having declared that, in spite of the state of war existing between [France and North Germany], he is determined to respect the neutrality of Belgium as long as it shall be respected by [North Germany, or France], Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland declares, on her part, that if, during the continuance of hostilities, the [North German, or French] armies should violate that neutrality, she will be prepared to co-operate with [His Imperial Majesty, or His Prussian Majesty] with the view of defending, in such manner as shall be mutually agreed upon, by employing to that end her naval and military forces, and of maintaining, in conjunction with [His Imperial Majesty, or His Prussian Majesty], then and afterwards, the independence and neutrality of Belgium." The other contracting Power agreed to cooperate with Great Britain for the accomplishment of the same end. The treaty was to be in force during the continuance of the war between France and Germany, and for a term of twelve months after the ratification of any treaty of peace concluded between those Powers; after which time, the independence and neutrality of Belgium would continue, so far as the high contracting parties were respectively concerned, to be maintained, as heretofore, in accordance with the first article of the Quintuple Treaty of the 19th April, 1839.
This treaty was accepted and signed by Prussia immediately, and by France also, after a little hesitation. Its provisions slumbered indeed, but there is no reason to suppose that they were without effect. Had there been no such treaty, it is possible that, during the operations near the Belgian frontier which terminated in the capitulation of Sedan, the neutrality of the Belgian territory would have been forcibly violated by one or the other belligerent; 'the area over which the devastating effects of war were experienced would have been extended; and serious political complications, from which it would have been difficult for any one of the great Powers to hold aloof, must infallibly have supervened.
So much heat and haste had been apparent in the proceedings of the French Government since the first rise of the Hohenzollern incident, that it was generally expected that very few days would pass after the formal declaration of war (July 19) before the French Army of the North would be arrayed along the frontier of Rhenish Prussia, ready to take the field in overwhelming force. But day followed day, and nothing decisive was done. It appears that the arrangements for mobilisation - especially in what relates to transport - were found to be extremely defective. In truth, the military system of France was rotten and honey-combed with abuses; wherever a hard unexpected pressure was applied, it gave way. In the subordinate posts there were many excellent and honourable men, - it needs but to mention such names as MacMahon, Trochu, and Vinoy to establish the fact, - but the real power lay with the Emperor and his personal friends or favourites. He is said, after the first great disaster had occurred, to have had continually on his lips the words, "On m'a trempé" ("I have been deceived"), Doubtless he had been deceived; cooked reports had been submitted to him; money received for substitutes, instead of being so applied, had gone no one knew where, and the regiments were disgracefully attenuated in consequence; jobbery and corruption, extending into every department, made every service, on which the usefulness of soldiers depends, less efficient by many degrees than it ought to 'have been. Thus it happened that it was not till quite the end of the month that a respectable French force was collected at the frontier. Meantime, the Prussians - of the excellence of whose arrangements for mobilisation we have before had occasion to speak - silently mustered three powerful armies behind the Rhine, intending to fall with an irresistible onset, when the fitting moment should arrive, on the heedless and vain-glorious foe. The Emperor left Paris on the 28th July, accompanied by his son Louis, and assumed the chief command of the army at Metz on the following day.
At the beginning of August, the positions and strength of the French Army of the Rhine were as follows. It was distributed along two sides of a triangle, one of which - from Sierck, near Thionville, to the Rhine east of Weissenburg - measured about ninety miles; the other - from "Weissenburg to the Swiss frontier near Belfort - measured about a hundred miles. General Ladmirault, with the 4th Corps, held the extreme left wing, and was stationed at Thionville on the Moselle. The 3rd Corps, under Marshal Bazaine, was posted at Metz, whence it was moved forward before the 6th August to St. Avoid, near Forbach. General Frossard, with the 2nd Corps, was at St. Avoid, close to the Prussian frontier. On his right, round the fortress of Bitche, was quartered the 5th Corps, under the command of General de Failly. Marshal MacMahon, with the 1st Corps, was at Strasburg, but was making preparations for closing up immediately to his left. A long interval separated MacMahon from General Felix Douay, who, with the 7th Corps, was stationed at Belfort, and occupied the extreme right of the army. Two other corps were held for the present in reserve, ready to support any portion of the Army of the Rhine that might require it: these were the Imperial Guard, under General Bourbaki, which was at this time on its march from Paris to the seat of war; and the 6th Corps, under Marshal Canrobert, which was between the camp of Chalons and Nancy. There was also, besides the cavalry attached to the divisions of the different corps, a large reserve force of cavalry, consisting of three divisions in twelve regiments. The total war strength of the corps and divisions above enumerated should have been upwards of 260,000 men. But it is said # that most of the regiments marched out on their peace footing, and only commenced to complete their numbers when on the frontier, and also that large bodies were still on their way from garrisons in the south of France; it is probable therefore, that the French field army at the beginning of August was not more than 200,000 strong.
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