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Chapter XL, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


The War in the North of France - Manteuffel marches on Amiens - Battle of the Hallue - Surrender of Peronne - Battle of St. Quentin - British Ships sunk in the Seine - Battle of Le Mans - The Bombardment of Paris - Sortie in force - Trochu resigns - The Capitulation and Armistice - Retrospect of the Siege - The Germans occupy the Paris Forts - The War in the East - Battle of Nuits - Bourbaki marches to the relief of Belfort - Fighting on the Lisaine - The French defeated and driven into Switzerland - Meeting of the National Assembly - Surrender of Belfort - Fall of Gambetta - Negotiations for Peace - The Preliminaries are signed - Cession of Alsace and Lorraine - Indemnity of Five Milliards - 1The English Government declines to intervene - The impossibility of intervention traced to the character of Mr. Gladstone - Extraordinary language used by the Government in its communications about the War - A part of the German Army enters Paris - Preliminaries of Peace ratified by the National Assembly: which votes the Deposition of Louis Napoleon and his Dynasty - Creation of the New German Empire.
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The opening of the new year found the besieged population of Paris enduring with exemplary patience the manifold hardships and gathering perils by which they were beset. An additional source of danger and distress was about to be unclosed, in the bombardment of the forts and city; but this also, as we shall see, they sustained with the greatest fortitude and resignation. From the beginning of the year the bread distributed by the Government consisted of a detestable compound of flour mixed with all kinds of foreign ingredients.

On the 3rd January, some Franc-tireurs brought some newspapers through the investing lines, which gave no cheering account of the state of affairs in the provinces. On that very day a battle was fought at Bapaume, the issue of which ought to have contributed to amend the state of things, but through some strange mismanagement it produced no good effect. We will take this opportunity to give a brief sketch of the military operations in the northern district since the fall of Metz. When that event happened, the First and the Second German Armies, which had been united before Metz while the siege lasted, were again separated. The bulk of the Second Army marched with Prince Frederick Charles upon the Loire; the First Army, placed now under the command of General Manteuffel, was detached towards Amiens and Rouen, in order to disperse or press back any new French armies which might threaten to attain to such a consistence as to interfere with the secure prosecution of the siege of Paris. After leaving the 7th Corps on the Moselle, one division of it to form the garrison of Metz, the other to form the siege of Thionville, and detaching three brigades of the 1st Corps to besiege Mezieres and La Fere, Manteuffel had still the whole of the 8th Corps, one brigade of the 1st Corps, and a division of cavalry, under his immediate command, when he received intelligence that a considerable French force had been concentrated in front of Amiens. This force, commanded by General Farre, has been variously estimated; a German military writer, Major von Blumé, supposes it to have numbered about 30,000 men; Colonel Rüstow estimates it at 35,000; English writers with Prussian sympathies, such as the author of the history of the war edited by Captain Hozier, have swelled it to 50,000 men. Perhaps Colonel Rüstow's estimate may be taken as most approximating to the truth. In that case (since the admirable system of reserves established in Prussia enabled all gaps in the ranks of divisions serving in the field to be regularly filled up for a long time after the declaration of war), Manteuffel's army, which must have numbered 36,000 men, and was particularly strong in cavalry and artillery, must have been superior to that opposed to it in numbers as well as discipline.

General Farre disposed his troops about a mile and a half to the south of Amiens, on a line extending from Tillers Bretonneux on the left, by Boves, to Dury on the right. The Prussians attacked on the morning of the 27th November. On their left they were in overpowering strength, and quickly pushed back the French right for a considerable distance; on the right, however, towards Tillers Bretonneux, they could make no progress, and even, on the appearance of a column advancing towards their right flank from Corbie, gave ground considerably. But in the evening the cavalry division came into action on this wing and enabled the infantry again to advance. As the final result of the engagement, the French were defeated at all points and fell back to and behind Amiens. That important manufacturing city was immediately occupied by General Manteuffel. A far richer prize fell into his hands a few days later. The army defeated before Amiens retired towards Arras and Lille, and Rouen thus found itself open to attack while the military preparations for its defence were still very incomplete. General von Goeben, at the head of the 8th Corps, encountering only trifling opposition, occupied Rouen on the 6th December, and immediately made a heavy requisition on the city for stores and clothing.

General Faidherbe, formerly the governor of the French colony of the Senegal, an officer of great talents and experience, reached Lille on the 4th December, and took over the command of the Army of the North. After re-organising the troops as well as he could, he advanced in the direction of Amiens, and took up a strong position on the left bank of the little river Hallue, somewhat to the north-east of the site of the late battle on the south side of the city. In the battle which ensued we are again left in doubt as to the exact numbers engaged on each side. Major von Blumé estimates the French at 50,000 men, but this is probably too high; Colonel Rüstow believes the numbers on each side to have been pretty nearly equal. The German force was about 36,000, as in the battle of Boves, but six fresh battalions were coming up from Rouen, and a cavalry brigade was on the march from Amiens. The consciousness of reinforcements coming has much to do with the tenacity with which soldiers fight. Manteuffel resolved to attack Faidherbe in his position on the Hallue. Falling upon him on the morning of the 23rd December, he drove in the French outposts, and, in the course of the day, carried all the villages along the Hallue, as far as the foot of the hills rising from its left bank. This was the main French position, and it was held firmly against all attacks. Manteuffel ordered his troops, since they could not dislodge the French, to secure their position in the villages which they had won. It was clearly a drawn battle. On the next day the armies remained facing each other; it was a question which would browbeat the other into retiring first. Unfortunately for France, Faidherbe, on account of defects in his commissariat, found himself compelled to retreat on the night of the 24th December, and fell back, first to Albert, and ultimately beyond Bapaume. The French loss in this battle was 1,049 killed and wounded, and so many as 1,200 missing - a fact which sadly testified to the loose hold which discipline had as yet established on these raw recruits. The German loss was 862 killed and wounded, and 93 missing.

On the 27th December, Manteuffel sent General von Goeben to lay siege to Peronne. This little fortress on the Somme, the name of which is familiar to the readers of " Quentin Durward," it was a main object of German strategy to reduce, because the whole line of the Somme would then be in their power, and the passage of the river by a hostile force, especially considering the season of the year, would be attended with great difficulty. Of course, for the same reasons, it was important for the French to raise the siege. General von Goeben posted a covering force of ten or twelve thousand men at Bapaume, while the siege, or rather bombardment, was being carried on with the greatest vigour. The covering force was attacked by General Faidherbe on the 3rd January, 1871, and driven, with heavy loss, into the town of Bapaume. The battle was over; already Von Goeben had given orders for a retreat during the night, and his baggage trains had begun to move off, when the welcome news reached him that the French had fallen back. With a little more firmness General Faidherbe would have forced the Germans to retire, and Peronne would have been saved. Defective commissariat arrangements were again alleged by him, in a letter written shortly afterwards, and also a reluctance to destroy the town of Bapaume. As for the first reason, he ought to have seen that his army was capable of marching forwards when he took the field; and as for the destruction of Bapaume, as Colonel Rüstow pertinently observes, if he ever expected to get to Paris, it was idle to be deterred by such considerations, for there were plenty of towns and villages between him and Paris which the Germans would not let him occupy without hard fighting and battering. Unrelieved, Peronne was obliged to surrender on the 10th January, after many of its inhabitants had been killed by the bombardment, its ancient and beautiful church irreparably damaged, and great part of the town laid in ruins. Not less barbarous was the treatment of Mezières, which was taken by bombardment about this time. One great evil of this system of making war, not against the garrison and the defences of a fortified town, but against the peaceable inhabitants, has not been generally noticed; it is that the hatred thus engendered tends to estrange nations from one another, and to make the periodical recurrence of wars a certainty. For so long as the war is carried on in the country of the belligerent to whom the towns belong, there is no possibility of retaliating: for one cannot bombard one's own towns: at the same time a fierce and revengeful desire that the day may come for "rewarding him as he hath served us " is nursed in the inmost hearts of the generation which has suffered from these barbarities. In the interests of civilisation and humanity, it is earnestly to be hoped - since it is idle to expect much from a congress - that should war unhappily break out again between France and Germany, and France be more fortunate than in 1870, she will be magnanimous enough, should her armies traverse German soil, to refrain from imitating the precedent set by her adversaries - that she will not inflict on the churches and houses of Marburg and Spire the same ruthless destruction which the Prussians visited on those of Peronne, Strasburg, Mezières, and many more.

On the 19th January, hearing that a strong French force was approaching, the Prussians occupying St. Quentin evacuated the town. Faidherbe then took possession of it, and concentrated its army outside the walls, on the west and south sides. Von Goeben, who was now in command of the First Army, Manteuffel having been sent to assist Werder to defeat Bourbaki, at the head of what was called the Army of the South, resolved to strike a decisive blow. Calling in his detachments from all parts, and skilfully combining their movements so as to result in a concentric attack on the French position, having also obtained the promise of Moltke to send him a reinforcement by rail from Paris, so as to arrive at what was likely to be the critical part of the battle, he advanced against Faidherbe at St. Quentin on the 19th January. Faidherbe had little more than the 22nd and 23rd Corps under his command, and these were so depleted by sickness, desertion, and losses in the field, that he afterwards declared that he had not more than 25,000 serviceable troops. If this were so, the Germans were in a great numerical preponderance, for they seem to have had the whole of the First Army present on the field, and also some 4,000 or 5,000 men of the 4th Corps, sent down from Paris. The result could not be doubtful; after a resistance bravely kept up by the 22nd, less tenaciously by the 23rd Corps, the French army was broken, and driven into and beyond St. Quentin. Ten thousand prisoners are said to have been made, and the French loss in killed and wounded was about 3,000; that on the side of the victors was nearly as heavy.

This was the last regular battle of the war. Von Goeben advanced northwards and summoned Cambray to surrender, but the Governor refused. Nothing else of moment occurred in this part of the country, till the surrender of Paris brought about the cessation of hostilities.

An incident occurred on the Seine, towards the end of 1870, between Rouen and Havre, which caused some irritation in this country, until proper explanation and satisfaction had been made. The Prussians at Rouen, fearing that steam gunboats would be sent up the river to attack them, seized without ceremony six British colliers that were lying in the Seine off Duclair, and scuttled them, in order that they might form an obstruction in the stream. Much stress was laid on this trivial affair at the time, the tension on men's spirits on account of the continued misery of France being considerable, and the high-handed ways of Prussian officials not having been perhaps pleasant to put up with on the part of neutrals peaceably plying their avocations. But when Lord Granville wrote to Count Bismark, nothing could be more frank, explicit, or satisfactory than the Chancellor's reply. He authorised Count Bernstorff to say to Lord Granville that the Prussian Government sincerely regretted that its troops, in order to avert immediate danger, had been obliged to seize ships which belonged to British subjects; that their claim to indemnification was admitted, and that the owners should receive the value of their ships, according to equitable estimation, without being kept waiting for the decision of the legal question, who was finally to indemnify them.

No gleam of hope came from the west after the beginning of the year. Chanzy, as we have seen, reached Le Mans with the Second Army of the Loire on the 21st December, and being left in peace there for two or three weeks was able to do much towards the better organisation of his forces. A succession of small combats, between the line of the Sarthe and that of the Loire, took place between the 27th December and the 10th January, in some of which the French obtained the advantage; while others, particularly the later ones, marked a continual pressing back of the French outposts and small detachments by the army of Prince Frederick Charles, who had now made the necessary preparations to attack Chanzy, and drive him, if possible, still farther west. The decisive battle took place on the 11th January. Chanzy had drawn up his army in front of Le Mans, the 16th Corps (Jauréguiberry) on the right wing, with the division of the mobilised Breton levies, just brought up from the camp at Conlie, on their left, the 17th Corps (Colomb) occupying the centre, and the 21st Corps (Jaurès) the left. In numbers the French were probably much superior to the army which was about to attack them. But their morale was fearfully shaken by the continued ill success which had attended their arms; neither in themselves nor in their generals could they place confidence; and the terrible hardships of a winter campaign (the snow was lying thick on the ground on the day of the battle) were beyond what these young conscripts, uncheered by victory or glory, and caring nothing for the Republic, for the sake of which Gambetta would have cheerfully sacrificed all their lives, could be expected to sustain. The battle raged all day along the whole line, and at six o'clock in the evening the French still held their ground. At one time in the middle of the day the 17th Corps had lost the strong position of the plateau d'Anvours, the permanent occupation of which by the Germans involved the piercing of the French centre and the loss of the battle. General Goujard, the commander of the troops of Bretagne, then collected a body of about 2,000 men, chiefly Breton volunteers, and placing himself at their head, led them up the hill of Anvours, in the face of a murderous fire, and re-took the position. The admiral had maintained all his positions with his usual spirit and energy, nor had Jaurès been seriously shaken. But an hour or two after dark a strange incident occurred. Shrewdly counting, it would seem, on the nervousness and unsteadiness of young troops at night, Prince Frederick Charles ordered a strong force of all arms to attack, about 8 P.M., the division of mobilised Bretons who were holding the strong position of La Tuilerie. The Bretons, hearing rather than seeing the enemy coming upon them, when the first shots fell in their ranks, broke and fled (It has recently (1874) been alleged by Count Kératry that these Bretons had only received proper firearms on the very day before the battle, Gambetta having purposely not complied with the reiterated applications made for them, because he feared that if arms were placed in the hands of the Bretons, who were supposed to be Legitimists and religious, they would use them against the Republic.) A wild panic seized the entire division. Quickly the contagion ran through the rest of the army; by the morning it seemed hardly to have more cohesion than a rope of sand; thousands of prisoners fell into the hands of the Germans; and a retreat beyond the Sarthe became indispensable. Chanzy fell back to Laval on the Mayenne, fifty miles west of Le Mans, and began again his Sisyphean task.

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Pictures for Chapter XL, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

View in Orleans
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