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Chapter XXXIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 4

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By the end of October came the disastrous news of the fall of Metz. Prince Frederick Charles was now free to march southward with 100,000 victorious troops, and to break up the nascent organisation of the Army of the Loire. Several weeks, however, must elapse before he could reach the Loire, and in that time the force which d'Aurelle's energy had rendered formidable might still be able to strike a blow. On the 25th October, the General concerted with the Minister of War, Gambetta, and his delegate, M. Freycinet, the plan of an advance of the 15th and 16th Corps on Orleans. This M. Freycinet was a mining engineer, whom Gambetta, fancying he saw in him an extraordinary genius for strategy and organisation, and heedless of his utter lack of military education and experience, and also of his innocence of what we should call in England " the feelings of a gentleman," had taken into the War Office and made his " alter ego." Crossing the Loire at Blois and other places, the 15th and 16th Corps, preceded by numerous bodies of Franctireurs, forming altogether an army of between 60,000 and 70,000 men, were ranged, at the end of October, on a line facing the north-east, and extending from the forest of Marchenoir to the Loire, near Beaugency. Yon der Tann, who commanded in Orleans, and whose force was considerably weaker in point of numbers, was alarmed at the movement, and prepared to march out and attack the enemy, intending, should he be unsuccessful, to evacuate Orleans. D'Aurelle continued to press forward, handling his troops warily and deliberately, as well knowing how disastrous, with such inexperienced soldiers, the consequences of any mistake might easily be. The two armies met on the 9th November, on the plain around the village of Coulmiers, ten miles west of Orleans. Chanzy was now m command of the 16th Corps, which ill health had compelled General Pourcet to relinquish. The 15th Corps on the right, advancing under the eye of the general-in-chief, carried successively the Bavarian positions at the villages of Baccon and La Renardière, which had been entrenched and fortified with great care. In the centre, Chanzy, with the 16th Corps, carried the village of Coulmiers. When night closed, the Germans were thoroughly beaten, and they took advantage of the darkness to make a forced march in retreat on Patay. But for the grave error of General Reyau, commanding the cavalry, Von der Tannas retreat on Paris might have been cut off, and his whole army would probably have been made prisoners. That officer, who covered the left of Chanzy's corps, had been ordered to advance towards the German right, and prepare to intercept their retreat should the day go favourably for the French. General Reyau, after engaging in a useless artillery combat with the German batteries at St. Sigismond, in which he lost many men, mistook the Franctireurs of Paris, a body of whom happened to be marching towards his left, for a German reinforcement menacing his flank, and under this impression led back his ten regiments of cavalry to the positions which they had occupied in the morning. Thus the chance of annihilating the retreating Germans was lost. Admiral Jauréguiberry, commanding the 1st division of the 16th Corps, sent the forty-five horsemen composing his personal escort in pursuit of the retreating column, which they overtook near Patay, and captured two guns, 130 prisoners, and quantities of baggage and ammunition! What then might not have been effected with a strong force of cavalry, if these few troopers could accomplish so much?

The loss on the French side in the battle of Coulmiers was about 1,500 men killed and wounded. The German official report returned their losses at less than 700 men - a gross under-statement in the opinion of General d'Aurelle. 2,500 unwounded prisoners were taken.

On the following day (November 10) General d'Aurelle entered Orleans, and was welcomed enthusiastically by the inhabitants. He fixed his head-quarters at Villeneuve d'Ingre, about three miles outside the city. He has been repeatedly censured for not leading his army, after the victory of Coulmiers, directly upon Paris, so as to raise the siege. Had Prince Frederick Charles been still detained at Metz, this is what d'Aurelle undoubtedly ought to have done. But the Prince, in his southward march, was already almost as near Paris as the Army of the Loire; his head-quarters on the 10th November were at Troyes. D'Aurelle with good reason shrank from the enterprise of attacking the Duke of Mecklenburg (whose army, swelled by the remains of Von der Tann's corps, amounted to about 50,000 men, and was posted near Chartres), with the certainty that Prince Frederick Charles, a man not likely to miss an opportunity, was, with 100,000 victorious Prussians, within striking distance of his right flank. D'Aurelle's plan, therefore, was this - to form a large entrenched camp in front of Orleans and fortify it with great care, mounting on the works a number of heavy marine guns of long range; behind these entrenchments to continue the organisation of the army and the instruction of the soldiers, in both of which respects there was still much improvement to be desired; and to receive here, with his forces united and well in hand, the attack which Prince Frederick Charles was marching to deliver. Had that attack been successfully resisted, had the Prussian legions been beaten back from before the walls of Orleans, then, General d'Aurelle thought, there might be a chance of marching safely and effectually to the relief of Paris.

In these views Gambetta himself, and his delegate, M. Freycinet, at first acquiesced. But days passed on, and the letters which pigeons or balloons brought from Paris told a sad story of diminishing supplies and increasing mortality. The Minister of War, ignorant of the real difficulties, the thousand practical obstacles, which beset military operations, became impatient at d'Aurelle's inaction. He had been organising several corps, on paper, and really bringing large numbers of men together; all these he wished to place under d'Aurelle's command, and impel him at their head upon Paris. Freycinet wrote to the General, on the 19th November, informing him that, including the 15th and 16th Corps, a force of 250,000 men either had been already or would be in a few days placed under his orders, and urging him to make a forward movement for the relief of Paris. A slightly contemptuous tone is perceptible in d'Aurelle's reply. " It is dangerous," he says, " to trust to the deceptive mirage of figures grouped on the paper, and to take them for a reality." To show the real value of Gambetta's military administration, it is worth while to test this total of 250,000 men officially stated on the 19th November to be at the disposal of the general commanding the Army of the Loire, by means of the materials which the works of d'Aurelle and Chanzy supply. Freycinet, in the despatch under consideration, estimates the 17th Corps at 40,000 men. Chanzy tells us that its commander, ten days later, returned the 17th Corps as numbering 25,000 men. Difference, 15,000 men. General Crouzat, at Gien, writes Freycinet, has 50,000 men in hand; they are placed under your orders. General Crouzat, replies d'Aurelle, has just written to me to say that he has 20,000 good troops under his command, besides a division of the 18th Corps, which belongs to Bourbaki's command at Nevers. This division Freycinet in his letter estimates at 15,000, so that he clearly reckoned Crouzat's own army at 35,000, whereas it was but 20,000. Difference, again, 15,000 men. The 18th Corps, when united, will consist of 45,000 men, says Freycinet; we place it under your orders. The troops composing the 18th Corps are in process of formation, answers d'Aurelle, and cannot be counted upon to march against the enemy in the same way as if they were fully constituted. Deducting one-third on this account, the 18th Corps would be equal to 30,000 men; difference, 15,000 men. For the same reason, the 20,000 men reckoned in by M. Freycinet under the title of the 21st Corps, being in a still more embryonic condition than the 18th Corps, ought not to be reckoned as equal to more than 10,000 good troops. The strength of the 15th and 16th Corps, estimated by Freycinet at 110,000 men, seems to have fallen short of that number by at least 10,000 men. These differences, if added together, make up a total exaggeration of 65,000 men. At the outside, the Army of the Loire could not be estimated at more than 185,000 men; and a large proportion of these were still so utterly ignorant of all military duties that a wise general would have preferred not to be burdened with them, when taking the field against homogeneous, hardy, and experienced troops.

However, General d'Aurelle, who seems to have been blessed with a large share of patience, would have been none the worse for the melodramatic appeals of the young Gambetta, nor for the conceited lectures and absurd advice of the mining engineer, if they would only have let -him be in fact, as he was in name, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Loire. Unfortunately this was not the case. The Ministry of War took upon itself to address orders directly to the different corps commanders, without previous consultation with General d'Aurelle, and sometimes even without his knowledge. Thus, when a rumour reached Tours, of a westward march of the army of the Duke of Mecklenburg, Gambetta, in great alarm, sent orders to the commanders of the 20th Corps (Crouzat), and the first division of the 15th Corps (Paillères), to execute a diversion by marching to the attack of Pithiviers. Again, contrary to the wishes of d'Aurelle, he caused the 17th and the 21st Corps, forming the left of the army, to extend themselves so far to the left, in the direction of Chateaudun, as to be unable, when a sudden emergency arose, to bring timely support to the centre. The movement on Pithiviers, ordered by the Minister of War, against which d'Aurelle had vainly protested, terminated in disaster. After several minor actions - at Ladon, Maizières, and Juranville - Crouzat, on the 28th November, attacked General Voigts Rhetz, who with the 10th Corps (part of the army of Prince Frederick Charles) had occupied the town of Beaune la Rolande. The French attacked with great spirit, and were certainly at first in a great superiority of numbers. But the houses and garden walls had been carefully loopholed, and the street of the town barricaded, so that the defenders were able to hold the place against repeated assaults, until, late in the day, the approach of considerable German reinforcements from Pithiviers compelled the French to retire. In most histories of the war d'Aurelle is made responsible for the action of Beaune la Rolande, the ill-success of which cast the first cloud over the brighter scene which Coulmiers seemed to have opened for France. But, in fact, as we have seen, the advance towards Pithiviers was ordered by the Minister of War, and the superintendence of the French movements during the battle was in the hands of one of d'Aurelle's subordinate generals, lie himself being far distant from the field.

By this time the works for the defence of Orleans, which had been constructed under d'Aurelle's own eye, were in a state of great forwardness. Five batteries, sheltered by breastworks, and armed with heavy naval guns, besides six other batteries, armed with guns of a lesser calibre, commanded the main approaches from the north. Shelter trenches had also been constructed for infantry in advance of the batteries. A council of war was held on the 30th November, at St. Jean de la Ruelle, near Orleans, at which d'Aurelle, Chanzy, and Freycinet were present. Against the wishes and ideas of d'Aurelle, Freycinet communicated the formal order of Gambetta to advance with the whole army on Pithiviers, with a view to the relief of Paris. There was no choice but to obey. On the following day, Chanzy, with the 16th and 17th Corps, forming the left of the army, advanced by Patay against the army of the Duke of Mecklenburg, and drove it back a considerable distance. But Prince Frederick Charles, observing the fatal error into which the French had fallen, through the insensate meddling of Gambetta and Freycinet, of dispersing their troops too widely, executed on the 2nd December a masterly manœuvre, which in its results changed the whole aspect of the campaign. Concentrating the heavy masses of the German infantry on a narrow front, on either side of the great road which joins Artenay and Chevilly, he advanced, engaging Chanzy with his right, but directing the heaviest attack against the 15th Corps, which lay between him and Orleans. The strongest division of that corps (Paillères) had been sent away, as we have seen, some days before, towards Pithiviers, by Gambetta's orders, and had not yet rejoined the main body. Pressing steadily forward, the Germans overpowered the resistance of the two remaining divisions of the 15th Corps, and drove them back beyond Chevilly. Chanzy's troops in this day's battle held their ground on most points, but the division Barry, of the 16th Corps, gave way, and Chanzy lost his hold of the road to Chateaudun. On the 3rd, the fighting continued, the Germans slowly pressing onward, step by step. D'Aurelle, fearful of a block at Orleans, if the retreat of the whole French army should be directed thither, sent orders to Chanzy to retire on Beaugency. He was not prepared for the immense force which the enemy had developed in his front, and he seems to have abandoned the hope that his beaten troops, even behind the entrenchments which he had prepared, could make an effectual stand. On the 4th, the arrival of Paillères with his division at head-quarters inspired d'Aurelle with a momentary hope that the entrenchments might yet be held, and he telegraphed to Chanzy, directing him to march on Orleans. But it was now too late; the enemy held the Chateaudun road, and was interposed between Chanzy's army and Orleans. Moreover, the troops of Paillères' division, and of the 15th Corps generally, weary and dispirited, exhausted by want of sleep and proper food, could not be induced to man the entrenchments. They pressed on into Orleans, many even of the officers forgetting their duty, and repairing, without permission, to inns and private houses in the town. D'Aurelle entreated, expostulated, and threatened, but all in vain. Then he saw that Orleans must be evacuated, and made arrangements accordingly. The immense supplies which had been accumulated there were safely removed, and on the night of the 4th December the 15th Corps defiled over the Loire bridge, leaving about a thousand prisoners in the hands of the enemy. Thus was Orleans re-occupied by the Germans.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 4

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