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Chapter XXXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 5

Pages: 1 2 3 4 <5> 6 7

On the 5th August, the Crown Prince, still holding the 1st Bavarian Corps in reserve, moved the main body of his army, marching in four columns as before, from the Lauter towards the Sauer. The 2nd Bavarian Corps advanced to the bank of the stream near Langensulz- bach; the 5th Corps, under Kirchbach, approached to the neighbourhood of Wörth. Head-quarters were at Sulz, a village lying some seven miles off, in the direction of the Rhine. The 11th Corps, and that commanded by Werder, had received orders to march on certain villages lying to the eastward of Wörth. At the head-quarters of the Crown Prince no thought was entertained of fighting a battle on the next day, during which the Prince intended to have remained quietly at Sulz. But early on the morning of the 6th August, Kirchbach's outposts, advancing towards the Sauer, exchanged shots with the French pickets posted on the opposite hills. The firing gradually increased; yet it would probably have died away again, had not the commander of the German outposts, being under the impression that the lively French fire was merely meant to cover a retreat, sent a battalion across the river to ascertain the truth. The battalion crossed the stream, and when it had arrived near Elsasshausen encountered a solid resistance, and could make no farther progress. Then Kirchbach brought up some of his batteries and opened fire; and French batteries speedily opened in reply.

This was about 8 a.m. General Schachtmayer, commanding a division of the 11th Corps, was marching upon the village where he had been directed to encamp for the night, when he heard the sound of the firing from the direction of Wörth. Its increasing intensity convinced him that a serious action was in progress; wherefore he turned to his right, and led his division to Gunstett, forming up in rear of the village. By nine o'clock firing was going on across the Sauer along the whole line. General Bose, the commander of the 11th Corps, finding that one of his divisions had moved off to the right, ordered the other, the 22nd, to march in the same direction; it did so, and formed up to the left of the 21st about noon. Werder, the general in command of the corps formed of the Wurtemberg and Baden divisions - the line of whose march lay still farther to the eastward - when he found that the 11th Corps was gone from his right, detached a brigade of infantry and another of cavalry to the scene of action. These continual reinforcements, coming up hour after hour and mingling in the fight, encouraged the Germans to persevere in spite of tremendous losses, and proportionately depressed the spirits of the French.

Soon after twelve, the Crown Prince, finding that the troops already on the field were hotly engaged, and that the French showed no signs of an intention to retreat, determined to bring his whole force into action, in order to deal a crushing blow to an enemy whose greatly inferior numbers could not expect from any quarter to be adequately reinforced. He accordingly sent orders to General Werder to dispatch the rest of his Wurtembergers and Badeners to the field of battle; directed Von der Tann, with the 1st Bavarian Corps, to come up to Preuschdorf, in rear of the 5th Corps; and ordered the last-named troops, as well as the 2nd Bavarian Corps on their right, to continue the fight.

Before he received these orders, Kirchbach had already formed the resolution of attacking Wörth. By ten o'clock he had fourteen batteries (eighty-four guns) playing upon the little town. A long cannonade ensued, to which the French, who were deficient in artillery, could not make an adequate reply. Then Kirchbach ordered the advanced guard to storm Wörth, which was done about 12.30, and the victorious troops advanced up the hills on the left bank of the Sauer. Soon, however, they were brought to a stand by a biting fire from the French position, and made no progress for a long time. A great artillery duel went on for hours on the centre and right of the line. About 11 A.M., the French right had made a forward movement across the Sauer, and drove the Germans out of Gunstett, but were unable to hold it long. Fresh troops continually coming up, General Bose moved his corps across the Sauer in support of Kirchbach; the Wurtembergers also joined in this advance, and turning towards the north, after crossing the river, Prussians and Wurtembergers steadily pressed forward, and took from the French the village of Elsasshausen about two o'clock; but the resistance was stubborn, and the loss proportionately heavy. It was while the Germans were advancing by Elsasshausen that Michel's brigade, composed of two regiments of cuirassiers, made its celebrated, but useless charge. With wild fury these devoted horsemen charged into the advancing masses, but the rapid discharges of the needle-gun smote and crushed their ranks, and not more than 150 unwounded men remained after the battle in the whole brigade. A horrible incident occurred at this part of the battle. The Germans beheld a horse galloping down upon them, bearing a headless rider; for the horseman's head had just been taken off by a cannon-ball, but the trunk, from some unexplained cause, remained erect, and was carried forward into the fight. Fröschweiler, the village to the north of Elsasshausen, attacked both from the south and from the east, was taken at 3.30. But every step of their progress here was won by the Germans at the cost of many lives.

MacMahon, outnumbered and beaten, was now compelled to retreat. The gallant Marshal was himself nearly exhausted, having been fifteen hours in the saddle. Keeping his centre and left pretty well together, he fell back on Niederbronn, where he found a division of De Failly's corps, which, through some telegraphic mistake, had not arrived in time to take part in the battle. These fresh troops checked the German pursuit. The French right, demoralised by defeat, and losing almost all its organisation, fled in headlong flight towards Hagenau and Strasburg.

In this battle, which was fought by MacMahon with about 35,000 men against a German force more than twice as numerous, the German loss exceeded 8,000 men killed and wounded; that of the French was rather less. But 4,000 unwounded prisoners were taken, besides thirty-six guns, two eagles, and large spoils in the shape of baggage and treasure. The German officers appear to have ransacked the private baggage of the French officers; and so far as the result was damaging to their enemies, they made it known widely through the press. It was said that in one case a collection of ladies' dresses and other finery was met with; that the officers seemed to be well provided with maps of the route to Berlin, but had no plans of the Vosges mountains or any part of France; that evidences were found of a luxurious and effeminate style of living, &c., &c. It may have been so; but people are apt to forget that the French had no opportunity of ransacking the private baggage of German officers. What they would have found had such an opportunity been given, no one can tell; as therefore the circumstances are dissimilar, it seems only fair that we should suspend our judgment, and not give too ready credence to suggestions of ignorance and immorality, upon evidence which is attainable against one side, and unattainable against the other. The admirable clearness and accuracy of the maps of French territory, with which French military narratives of the war (e.g., those of Marshal Bazaine, General Vinoy, and General d'Aurelles de Paladine) are furnished, seem inconsistent with the notion of general ignorance and idleness on the part of the French officers, which the German stories about the captured baggage were intended to suggest. In nearly all those battles in the Franco-German War which were fought between troops of equal discipline and experience, the immense disparity of numbers is quite sufficient to account for the German successes, without the necessity of resorting to the theory of a moral and intellectual superiority in the victors, of the existence of which we have no sufficient proof.

On the day following the battle, MacMahon reached Saverne, on the Strasburg-Paris railway, and proceeded to dispatch his troops to Nancy and Chalons. His only course now was to reorganise his army at the camp of Chalons; while Bazaine, with his portion of the Army of the Rhine, detained the enemy round Metz. De Failly, prevented from marching towards Metz by the rapid advance of the First and Second German Armies into French, territory, in consequence of the success which we are about to describe, fell back from Bitche in a southerly direction, struck the Strasburg-Paris railway, and brought his corps to join MacMahon. Felix Douay soon after brought up to Chalons the remainder of the 7th Corps from Belfort. The Crown Prince, before crossing the Vosges in pursuit of MacMahon, detached General Werder with the Baden division to invest and besiege Strasburg. General Beyer, the divisional commander, summoned General Uhrich, the governor of the fortress, to surrender, but, of course, with no result. The town was then invested (August 10). and several regiments of Prussian Landwehr were presently added to the besieging force.

At Paris an absurd rumour, engendered on the Stock Exchange, was in every one's mouth on the 7th August, to the effect that MacMahon had gained a great victory. The revulsion was terrible when the truth gradually came out, that not only the right, but the centre of the French line had been broken, and that the German armies were marching upon Metz. This second disaster happened on the same day as the battle of Wörth. On the previous day, General Frossard, commanding the 2nd Corps, withdrew his troops from the valley of the Saar to the heights of Spicheren, where his right rested on a difficult wooded country; on his left was the little town of Forbach and the railway to Metz. General Kameke, commanding a division of the 7th Corps (First Army), pushed troops over the Saar at Saarbrück on the morning of the 6th, who came into action with the French batteries on the Rothe Berg (a hill jutting out from the Spicheren plateau) about 11.30 a.m. From that time the battle raged with varying success all through the day till night-fall. Yon Göben came up and took the command about three o'clock; about five the Prussians carried the greater part of the heights of Spicheren, though at a terrible cost of life. On the other hand, the French left, between six and seven, advanced along the railway from Stiring, and drove back the Germans nearly to the Saar. The bravery of the French m this battle was conspicuous; the losses which they inflicted on the Germans were far heavier than those which they themselves suffered; and there seems little reason to doubt that with more clear-sightedness and determination on the part of Frossard, and more energetic co-operation on the part of Bazaine (who was at St. Avoid with the 3rd Corps, about fifteen miles from Spicheren), or, perhaps, on the part of Bazaine's lieutenants, the Germans would have been repulsed with heavy loss. Frossard does not appear to have held the plateau with a sufficient force; and in a critical period of the action, when German reinforcements were coming up from all sides, he telegraphed to Bazaine, asking him to send him a regiment. It was not till towards six o'clock that he telegraphed to Bazaine to assist him with all the forces at his disposal; but it was then too late. On the other hand, one of Bazaine's divisions, under General Metman, arriving at Bening, not ten miles from the battle-field, about two o'clock remained there inactive all day, till actually summoned by a telegram from Frossard at 7.30 p.m. The conduct of German corps and divisional commanders both in this battle and in that of Wörth was very different. They did not wait to be sent for; but on hearing the sound of firing, or learning that fighting was going on in a given direction, they marched without a moment's delay to the spot to the assistance of their own side.

The superiority of numbers on the part of the Germans was but slight in this engagement,! till near sunset, when a fresh division of the 7th Corps, under General Glumer, came up, and drove the French out of Forbach, capturing immense quantities of stores at the railway station. But the French were sadly demoralised by their defeat. The German loss in killed and wounded was upwards of 4,800; that of the French just exceeded 4,000. Frossard retired upon Saargemund, and thence, with what was left of his corps, joined the army which Bazaine was collecting near Metz.

On that fatal Sunday (August 7) the full truth concerning Wörth and Forbach was known at Paris. A telegram from the Emperor was published, admitting that the army had suffered reverses, but feebly adding, " Tout peut se rétablir " (" All may yet be regained "). An indescribable ferment agitated all minds and hearts. The enemies of the Empire rejoiced in the disasters that had overtaken it, because they saw in them the pledge of its overthrow; yet the honour and safety of France were so fearfully compromised by what had occurred, that they shrank from the prospect of dislodging the present holders of power, and taking from their hands a responsibility so full of peril. The cry in the streets was for a levée en masse, and the word " déchéance " (" deposition ") was often heard. The Corps Legislative met on the 9th August. Jules Favre and the party of the Left urged the Emperor's recall from the army, and the appointment of a committee with full power for the conduct of the war. Ollivier, who showed little sense of the terrible gravity of the situation, spoke in defence of the Ministry, but his speech was received with vehement interruptions and loud denials, and the majority cared not now to screen him from the attacks of the Left. A middle course was taken. The Empress sent for the Count de Palikao (August 10), and requested him to form a Ministry. Palikao, the General Montauban of the Chinese War of 1860, had been ennobled for his achievements on that occasion, and had ever since been in high favour at the Imperial Court. He was in command of the military centre of Lyons when summoned to Paris by the Empress. He succeeded in forming a Ministry, in which Magne took charge of the Department of Finance; the Prince de la Tour d'Auvergne, of Foreign Affairs; and Palikao himself became the Minister of War. Vigorous measures were instantly taken to make timely preparation for the worst, in case the armies still in the field should not be able to prevent the Germans from marching upon Paris. A broad strip of beautiful woodland in the Bois de Boulogne, on the side where it approaches the enceinte, or encircling fortified wall of Paris, was given over to the axe, lest a victorious enemy should find cover within musket-shot of the ramparts. General Trochu, a brave and honest soldier, but a little too rigid and positive in his opinions, was appointed to the command of the forces of Paris; a new war loan of one thousand millions of francs was set on foot; the ranks of the National Guard and Mobiles were filled; and great efforts were made to bring into Paris as large a supply of provisions as possible from the surrounding country.

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