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Chapter XXXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 7


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Advancing by Verneville, the 9th Corps came into action between eleven and twelve with the troops of Ladmirault. The German sharp-shooters swarmed in the wood of La Cusse, and attempted to carry the farm of La Folie, which lay somewhere between the plain and the crest of the plateau. But Ladmirault's guns, numerous and well served, searched the woods, inflicted terrible loss on the German gunners, and partly silenced their artillery; while from the enclosures round La Folie a withering fire of Chassepots repressed every attempt to advance. No progress of any consequence was made here by the Germans during the whole day.

The First Army, fighting under the King's eye, were not likely to be backward in the performance of their portion of the programme for the day. As soon as he heard the sound of the artillery of the 9th Corps, General von Göben (8th Corps) commenced (about noon) a vigorous attack on the French left. The French skirmishers were gradually driven out of the woods of Vaux and Genivaux, or, rather, out of the greater part of them, and compelled to fall back on their main position; but when the Germans endeavoured to press up the hill-side, a devastating fire of mitrailleuses and Chassepots from the top of the plateau decimated their ranks, and the broken formations of many a regiment of foot, and many a squadron of horse, fell back into the hollow and sought the cover of the sheltering woods. Then General Steinmetz massed the batteries of several corps on the Gravelotte plateau, both north and south of the village, and opened a storm of fire on the French position. After a time the superiority of the German fire was established, and the French guns were either silenced or only replied at intervals. It was in respect of artillery, as we shall see, that Bazaine alleged his great inferiority of force to the enemy to consist. The inn of St. Hubert, after being long subjected to a tremendous shelling, became untenable to its French defenders; they evacuated it, and about three o'clock it was occupied, in spite of a murderous fire, by Weltzien's division of the 8th Corps. A secure lodgment was here effected, and, under cover of the inn and adjacent buildings, Gneisenau's brigade of Barnekow's division advanced boldly along the road soon after three, but, after struggling gallantly for some time, were completely repulsed by four o'clock. A great combined attack of cavalry and artillery was ordered by Steinmetz between four and five. The batteries of the 8th Corps, and three reserve batteries of the 7th Corps, supported by a large body of horse, were pushed across the defile. But they fared no better than their predecessors. The 4th Light Battery, trotting up the hill to the right of St. Hubert, " suffered so severely that, after firing ten rounds, it was put hors de combat, and obliged to retire down the hill." The attack failed, and both cavalry and artillery fell back by degrees on their original positions.

General Steinmetz had by this time nearly exhausted the reserves of the First Army, and he sent an officer about five o'clock to the 2nd Corps, the van of which was at Rezonville, two miles west of Gravelotte, requesting it to advance. This could not be done without an order from the King himself, and Steinmetz, upon hearing this, sent Colonel the Count von Wartensleben to the King to obtain from His Majesty the desired order. It was given, and the 2nd Corps prepared to advance and attack the blood-stained hill. But as it was advancing, about seven o'clock, the French made a retour offensif upon their enemies, advancing in force from the Point du Jour down the hill, and endeavouring to re-take St. Hubert, in which, however, they were unsuccessful. But this sudden advance produced an extraordinary commotion. In the valley below St. Hubert there were thousands of soldiers belonging to different regiments mingled together, who had lost their officers, and when the French advanced, a panic arose among those men, and they fled precipitately along the road towards Gravelotte; the road was blocked by the fugitives; the alarm propagated itself rearwards with great rapidity, and seized upon the camp followers at Gravelotte, and a general stampede occurred along the road towards Rezonville. Undisturbed by the hubbub, the 2nd Corps pressed forward, and now General Steinmetz resolved to make a last grand effort to storm the hill. It was about half-past seven. The 8th Corps was ordered to advance on the left, the 7th on the right, of the 2nd Corps, which held its way along the high road. But this attack was as fruitless as any that had preceded it. The Germans were received by a devastating fire, and " the difficulty of leading the men on unknown ground was increased by the approach of night; troops coming up in rear, deceived by the darkness, fired into those that were fighting in front; and the overwhelming fire of the enemy put a stop to the advance of these also." Sullenly the Germans retired upon Gravelotte, and darkness found the French still immovably planted on the position which they had so bravely defended against overwhelming odds.

On the right they had not fared so well. In the afternoon, the 12th Corps moved upon Ste. Marie-aux-Chęnes, and drove out the French detachment that held it. From the high ground about St. Privat, Canrobert for a long time kept the assailants as effectually at bay as was the case at any other part of the line. But Prince Frederic Charles, availing himself of his great superiority in numbers, kept extending his line to the left until it overlapped Canrobert's right, and the 12th Corps gained possession of Roncourt, a village about a mile and a half due north of St. Privat. After several unsuccessful attempts, in which a great many men fell, a combined attack by the Prussian Guards and the 12th Corps, simultaneously directed on St. Privat from three sides, the north, the west, and the south, forced the brave defenders, soon after seven, to relinquish their hold. The right of Canrobert's corps was then thrown back, but still faced the enemy, and darkness soon terminated the contest. The result was that the French had held their ground everywhere except on the extreme right, but that all the roads leading to Verdun had been taken from them. Bazaine's words are, that " the reports he received during the day till 7 p.m. were not such as to cause anxiety, but that a last effort of the enemy on St. Privat, and a turning movement on the French right, made the position untenable." On the following day, Bazaine withdrew his whole army from the plateau, and brought them down to within the shelter of the guns of Metz. In the battle of Gravelotte the Germans had eight army corps engaged, besides several divisions of cavalry, making a total of from 200,000 to 220,000 men, with 620 guns. On the French side, about 100,000 men took part in the defence of the lines, with 450 guns, including mitrailleuses. The immense loss sustained by the Germans justified Marshal Bazaine's calculations; it exceeded 20,000 men killed and wounded, while the French loss only amounted to between 12,000 and 13,000. Why this enormous sacrifice of human life was incurred, when the retreat of the French army to the westward might equally well have been cut off without it, remains a mystery to this day. It is said that a strong feeling of indignation arose in Germany against General Steinmetz, for the recklessness with which he had squandered so many lives, and all in vain; and this feeling is thought to have led to his removal from the command of the First Army a month later. However this may be, the Army of the Rhine was now driven under the guns of Metz, and only the half-trained levies at Chalons remained to bar the march of the invader upon the brilliant capital of France.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 7

M. Ollivier
M. Ollivier >>>>
Coblenz from Ehrenbreitstein
Coblenz from Ehrenbreitstein >>>>
Mitrailleuse
Mitrailleuse >>>>
Attack upon Weissenburg
Attack upon Weissenburg >>>>
General von Göben
General von Göben >>>>

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