Chapter XXXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 4
The Emperor appears to have reckoned even to the last moment that dislike and jealousy of Prussia would move the South German Governments to separate their interests from hers in the great struggle that was impending, or at least to wait and see how events fell out before finally committing themselves. How - knowing as he did the existence of the secret treaties of 1866,f by which Bavaria, Wurtemberg, and Baden bound themselves to assist Prussia if attacked - he could seriously entertain such a hope, it is not easy to understand. The Governments of those states, on this occasion in full sympathy with their subjects, were animated by a hearty indignation at the unwarrantable attack made on Germany, and they speedily sent in their adhesions to Prussia. Their military contingents were assigned, under the supreme command of the King of Prussia, to the third of the great armies which were being formed for the protection of German interests.
The First Army, under the command of Lieutenant- General von Steinmetz, consisted of the 7th and 8th North German Corps and the 3rd Division of Cavalry. It occupied the right of the German forces, and numbered about 55,000 men.
The Second Army, with which were the King and the general head-quarters, was under the command of Prince Frederick Charles. It consisted, besides the Guard Corps, of the 3rd, 4th, 10th, and 12th North German Corps, together with three divisions of cavalry, and numbered about 143,000 men.
The Third Army, under the command of the Crown Prince of Prussia, formed the left wing of the German forces. It consisted of the 5th and 11th North German Corps, the 1st and 2nd Bavarian Corps, the Wurtemberg division of infantry, the Baden division of infantry, and two divisions of cavalry - one North German, the other Bavarian. The two Bavarian Corps were commanded by Generals von der Tann and Hartmann. The strength of the Third Army was about 140,000 men.
These armies furnished a grand total of 338,000 men, to which enormous force France, as we have seen, could for the moment only oppose 200,000. But the enumeration above given by no means exhausts the list of the trained battalions of Germany. There remained behind the Rhine, besides reserve and garrison troops, a mobilised mass of 170,000 men, including, among other seasoned troops and experienced officers, the 1st North German Corps, and its commander, Lieutenant-General von Manteuffel.
The Emperor's plan of campaign, as explained in a pamphlet which he drew up while at Wilhelmshöhe, was, to draw together 150,000 men from Metz, and 100,000 from Strasburg, and, with a force of 250,000 men, cross the Rhine at Maxan, between Rastadt and Spire, while his rear was covered by the advance of a reserve force of 50,000, under Marshal Canrobert, from Chalons to Metz. Marching towards Dresden, the Emperor hoped to meet and defeat the North German forces, and, being thus interposed between North and South Germany, to intimidate the South German Powers into an attitude of quiescence while he followed up his advantage against Prussia, and endeavoured to break up the newly-cemented and, as he fain would believe, the fragile ties which united Prussia to the countries annexed in the last war. If Germany had been unready - if Bismark had been no more far-seeing than Persigny, and Moltke no more vigilant than Leboeuf; lastly, if the Emperor could have disposed of a hundred thousand more men, the plan might have been promising - perhaps even feasible. But when the Emperor remembered the enormous strength of the Prussian armies in 1866, and reflected that the populations then annexed were instantly brought within the cords of the Prussian military system, it is wonderful (even supposing him to have been under a complete delusion as to the probable conduct of Bavaria and Wurtemberg) that he did not see that 250,000 men - on paper - was an utterly inadequate force wherewith to attempt so vast an enterprise as that which he meditated.
The 2nd Corps, under General Frossard, was at Forbach, close to the Prussian frontier, just within which, on the river Saar, was the flourishing little town of Saarbruck, held by a battalion of infantry and three squadrons of cavalry belonging to the 8th North German Corps (First Army). General Steinmetz had assumed the command of that army at Coblenz on the 28th July, and at the beginning of August had concentrated it in a position where it covered Treves, and guarded against any sudden inroad into the Rhine province on the side of Thionville. On the 2nd August, Frossard received orders to drive the Prussians out of Saarbruck. The action began at 10.30 a.m., and soon afterwards the Emperor, with the Prince Imperial, arrived on the ground from Metz. The Prussians, though greatly outnumbered, held their ground tenaciously, but were gradually pushed out of the villages to the south of Saarbrück, and finally compelled to evacuate the town, and retreat to the wooded heights which look down upon it from the north. In this action the mitrailleuse - that mysterious and formidable weapon, of whose destructive powers such high expectations had been formed - was for the first time employed in battle. It is a tube, having externally much the same appearance as an ordinary cannon, formed of a number of barrels firmly bolted together, and rifled. This instrument was expected to produce a much greater effect than case-shot fired from a field-piece, because the rifling of the barrels secured for it a much longer range. But it appears to suffer from one serious defect - that the radius of the dispersion of the bullets is too small; and in practice it certainly has disappointed the expectations formed of it. The action of Saarbrück was over by about two o'clock. The French did not attempt to occupy the town, nor to dislodge the enemy from the heights beyond. The loss of the Prussians was eight killed and seventy-one wounded; that of the French was about the same.
This trifling success was utilised by the Emperor in a manner truly amazing. It seems certain that his faculties must have become enfeebled by the chronic disease from which he suffered; otherwise he could not have been guilty of the folly and bad taste - to allege nothing more serious against it - which are conspicuous in the telegraphic despatch which he sent to the Empress to announce the " victory." The document ran thus "Louis has just received his baptism of fire. He showed admirable coolness, and was not at all affected. A division of General Frossard has captured the heights which overlook the left bank of the Saar, at Saarbrück. The Prussians made but a short resistance. "We were in the front line, and the bullets and cannon-balls fell at our feet. Louis has kept a bullet which fell quite close to him. Some of the soldiers shed tears on seeing him so calm."
On the very day on which the French made this unmeaning demonstration at Saarbrück, the concentration of the German armies was completed, and their heavy masses were ready to be moved down to and across the French frontier. To the Third Army was given the honour of striking the first blow - doubtless because in it were arrayed the contingents from the South German states, and Prussia desired that France and the world should be convinced without delay of the futility of all calculations which took German dissension for their basis. On the 3rd August, the Crown Prince sent orders from Spire to his corps commanders to advance upon the Lauter. This small stream forms the northern boundary of Alsace. On its banks, about ten miles from the place where it falls into the Rhine, stands the town of Weissenburg, the centre of the once famous lines constructed by Marshal Villars for the protection of the province in the time of the Spanish Succession War. At this point MacMahon had stationed his second division, commanded by General Abel Douay, in order to cover his communications with the 5th Corps, under De Failly, which was stationed round Bitche. Douay's force, which did not exceed 8,000 men, was disposed of, partly in garrisoning Weissenburg, partly in strongly occupying a hill in rear of the town, called the Geissberg. Being thus pushed forward to the very frontier, and exposed to a sudden attack from superior forces, this division ought to have been more than ordinarily vigilant; but so far was this from being the case, that the outpost duty appears to have been very imperfectly performed. The Third Army, formed in four columns, moved out from camp on the night of the 3rd August, and marched towards the Lauter. To the first column, which formed the right wing, and consisted of the 2nd Bavarian Corps under Hartmann, was entrusted the duty of attacking Weissenburg. The morning was rainy. At about eight o'clock, the leading Bavarian division, under General Bothmer, became engaged with the weak French garrison in Weissenburg. For several hours the fighting was not serious, for the Crown Prince was engaged in drawing over the Lauter, and towards the Geissberg, several brigades from the second and third columns of his army. When his arrangements were completed, about noon, Bothmer attacked the town from the north, and three Prussian battalions from the south, and took it after a short resistance. Soon afterwards, a heavy fire from the Prussian batteries having been for some time directed against the Geissberg, two Prussian brigades, or about 10,000 men, were led to the attack of the hill. The French were outnumbered, probably two to one, but they had a very strong position, and their field guns and Chassepots scattered destruction through the German lines as they slowly forced their way up the height. There was no flinching on either side; but the devoted courage of the Prussians in facing that rain of bullets from an enemy whom they could scarcely see, has seldom been equalled. At one o'clock, the assailants were in possession of the castle of Geissberg, near the top of the hill. The leading brigade attacked from the eastward; the other, edging round to the left, and scaling the southern face of the hill, threatened to cut off the French from their line of retreat. Douay had been killed early in the action, and the officer who succeeded to the command, judging that further resistance was unadvisable, ordered a retreat. The pursuit was feeble, and the French soon reached the shelter of the woods. They lost between 800 and 1,000 unwounded prisoners, captured for the most part in Weissenburg, and one gun. their loss in killed and wounded was about 500 men; that of the Germans was higher, and amounted to 800 men, including seventy-six officers. But the first decisive success was gained by the German arms - a fact which, in its moral influence on the men of the two armies, was of high importance.
On the day after the affair at Saarbrück, the Emperor was exceedingly unwell, and the physicians would not allow him to quit his room. It was probably from a sense of great weakness that he came to the resolution of divesting himself of a portion of the responsibility of command, by appointing Marshal Bazaine to the command of the three corps (2nd, 3rd, and 4th) which formed the left wing of the Army of the Rhine, and Marshal MacMahon to that of the 1st, 5th, and 7th Corps, forming its right wing. This was carried out on the 5th, till which day Bazaine remained in ignorance of the Emperor's plan of campaign. The three corps which this order placed at the disposal of MacMahon - namely, his own at Strasburg and Hagenau, De Failly's at Bitche, and Felix Douay's at Belfort - would, if united, have formed an army of about 80,000 men. Had the Marshal sufficiently reflected on the danger of awaiting - with his own corps, slightly reinforced - the shock of the dense masses of German infantry that had poured across the frontier on the day of Weissenburg, he would have avoided any fresh encounter until he had effected the concentration of nearly the whole force under his command. Some extent of French territory must have been in that case abandoned; Wörth and the line of the Sauer, and perhaps Hagenau, might have fallen into the hands of the advancing Germans; but with his three corps posted round Saverne, or somewhere in its neighbourhood, MacMahon would still have held the line of the Vosges, and the Crown Prince would not have dared to cross the mountains, leaving so formidable a force in his rear. Such a concentration could certainly have been effected. A division of the 7th Corps from Belfort was brought into line at Wörth, and a division of the 5th Corps reached Niederbronn, a few miles from the field, on the day of the battle, and but for the blunder of a telegraphic operator, would have taken part in it. It is obvious that the main body of each corps could have moved on any given point where a concentration was ordered, as easily as a single division. The Crown Prince was disposed to advance cautiously; he intended that the head-quarters should remain at Sulz all day on the 6th, and the battle of that day was accidentally brought on by an affair of outposts. The issue of a battle fought near Saverne, a few days later, with numbers nearly equal, and with the French prestige and self-confidence still unshaken, would probably have been very different from that of the battle of Wörth.
But Fate - or, rather, Divine Providence, which sometimes visits the errors of nations, as of men, with exemplary chastisements - ordained it otherwise. Pursuant to MacMahon's intention of closing up to his left towards De Failly, the greater part of the 1st Corps was, on the 4th August, at Hagenau; but the Marshal himself was at Strasburg, where, on the afternoon of that day, he received the news of the disaster at Weissenburg. He immediately telegraphed to Felix Douay, requesting him to send troops to his assistance from Belfort. He then went by rail to Hagenau, examined the ground, and resolved on taking up a position along the line of the Sauerbach, near Wörth. Orders were sent to the officer in command of the remnants of Abel Douay's division, and also to the troops expected from Belfort, to concentrate on the position selected. A telegram was also sent to De Failly, requesting him to send a reinforcement from Bitche, by the railway via Niederbronn. In the course of the 5th, MacMahon drew up his army along the high ground to the west of the Sauer. In the first line were the three divisions of his own corps which had not yet been engaged; in the second line he placed the troops who had been beaten at Weissenburg, the division of the 7th Corps which had come up from Belfort, and two brigades of cavalry, one of which consisted of two fine regiments of cuirassiers. The nature of the country around Wörth much resembles that at Weissenburg - wooded and rather steep hills, numerous villages, small enclosures, and streams running through fertile fields along parallel valleys. The main strength of the French position lay about the villages of Fröschweiler, Elsasshausen, and Morsbronn. The town of Wörth lay opposite their left wing; the village of Gunstett, across the Sauer, fronted their right wing; Reichshofen and Niederbronn were in their rear. The small river Sauer, descending in a south-easterly course from the Vosges, and passing by Wörth and Gunstett, then turns due east, and makes its way across the plain to the Rhine.
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