The Battles of Mars–la–Tour and Gravelotte/St Privat.

C’est le general soldat qui a gagné la bataille de Solferino.”

A clash between French and Prussian cuirassiers at Mars – la – Tours.
Painting by Aimé Morot.

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Since I have already dealt with the political build up to the war between France and Prussia/Germany in 1870 in my article, ‘The Battle of Spicheren’, to be found on this site, I will not bore the reader by regurgitating the same information herewith. It is however necessary to spend some time examining the way in which both sides entered the conflict and what steps were (or were not) taken militarily by both belligerents prior to the conflict and during the first crucial encounters that set the tone for the entire campaign.

The French Army.

The Prussian victory over Austria at the battle of Königgrätz (3rd July 1866) had come as a complete shock to Emperor Napoleon III and the French nation as a whole. Now there was no longer any manoeuvring room for Napoleon’s pipe dreams of armed mediation on the Rhine. Indeed, after resting on the laurels of the Crimea War (1853-56) and the Italian War (1859), it was found that, with the exception of the natural fighting spirit that resided in the French soldier, all else was sadly lacking. As Lieutenant – Colonel Baron Stoffel, French Military Attaché in Berlin, had been reporting back with astute accuracy:

August 1868. “During divine service it is upon the King and the army the minister calls down, before all others, the blessing of the Most High. The great bodies of the State are only named afterwards….What a contrast with the position filled by the army in France, where it is but a mass of men, the outcasts of fortune, who lose every day more and more discipline and military spirit.”

August 1869. “The principal points that I seek to make are clear:

“(1) War is inevitable, and at the mercy of an accident.

“(2) Prussia has no intention of attacking France; she does not seek war, and will do all she can to avoid it.

“ (3) But Prussia is far –sighted enough to see that the war she does not wish will assuredly break out, and she is, therefore, doing all she can to avoid being surprised when the fatal accident occurs.

“(4) France, by her carelessness and levity, and above all by her ignorance of state affairs, has not the same foresight as Prussia.

… France has laughed at everything; the most venerable things are no longer respected; virtue, family ties, love of country, honour, religion, are all offered as fit subjects of ridicule to a frivolous and sceptical generation…. Are not these things palpable signs of real decay?[1]Stoffel. Lieut – Colonel, French Military Attaché in Prussia 1866 – 1870. Military Reports (English edit., 1872) pages 93 and 142. Quoted in, Fuller. Major – General J.F.C., The Decisive … Continue reading

Because of rapid mobilization and exceptional staff work, coupled with her adoption of a breech loading rifle, Prussia was able, with some element of luck, to defeat Austria within seven weeks in 1866. France, now realising that she was no longer in a position to demand anything in regard to compensation from her now powerful neighbour across the Rhine, began to take steps to increase the strength of her small professional army. This task fell to Marshal Adolphe Neil who became Minister of War in 1867. Niel’s proposed plan was to raise the numbers of the French army from its present 288,000 to one million. Over the next year and a half various proposals were put forward until a final working plan was accepted by the Corps Législaift which, despite grumblings about expense, gave 800,000 men in the front –line and a trained National Guard of 400,000 in reserve when mobilisation was complete. As McElwee states:

…Honestly implemented, this would have more than met Napoleon’s requirements. By 1875 France would have had a regular army of 800,000 on mobilisation, consisting of men who had served five years with the colours and four on permanent leave. This part of the programme, which would entail no increase of the annual contingent, was running with complete success when war came – five years too soon – in 1870. [2]McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, page 43.

When Niel died in 1869 his successor, General of Division Edmond Leboeuf (made Marshal of the Empire in 1870), announced to the Corps Législatif that, “So ready are we that if the war lasts two years, not a gaiter button would be found wanting.” This was indeed true, but the problem was that what was lacking was a logistic back – up system that could deliver the army’s requirements on time and at the correct destination. Much of Niel’s reforms were allowed to lapse, with the liberal ministry deciding that, “…disarmament was the most promising form of defence and reduced the army estimates by 13,000,000 francs, conforming to what the cynics called, le Système D, the belief that, ‘on se débrouillera toujours’ – we shall always muddle through.’….” [3]Glover. Michael, Warfare from Waterloo to Mons, page 135.

With apathy among the people towards the Empire setting in it was felt that it would be unwise to change the old method of mobilisation. Regiments were generally posted to garrisons far from their recruiting zones for fear of any political problems occurring in the vicinity of their depot area, thus a double journey had to be made on mobilisation from their garrison back to their depots to take in any reserves and draw war material, and then from the depots to the Concentration Area, all of which caused severe problems on the already overstretched French railway network.

That the French army Intendance lacked organisation, and was at best a hastily improvised affair, is made glaringly obvious by a telegram sent by General Michel, who was the commander of a cavalry brigade (later of the division) attached to First Corps, Army of Alsace (later Army of Châlons) stating, ‘ Have arrived at Belfort. Can’t find my brigade. Can’t find the General of Division. What shall I do? Don’t know where my regiments are.’ And again, on the 27th July, Leboeuf, now Chief – of –Staff to Napoleon, sent a message to General Félix Douay, commander of the 7th Corps inquiring, ‘How far have you progressed with your formations?’ ‘Where are your divisions?’ No one had informed Leboeuf that Douay was still in Paris performing his duties as an Imperial aide–de–camp. When that general arrived at Belfort the next day he replied to Leboeuf in a slightly irritated tone:

For the most part troops have neither tent’s, cooking – pot’s nor flannel belts; no medical or veterinary canteens, medicines, nor forges, or pickets for horses. I am without hospital staff, ouvriers, and train. The magazines of Belfort are empty.[4]Quoted in, Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – la – Tour, 16th August 1870, page 53.

Although a work of fiction, The Debacle, by Emil Zola, gives the reader a wonderful impression of the chaos that rained within the French army during the war of 1870. Zola interviewed many veterans of the campaign as well undertaking meticulous research, and since the book was published in 1892, the events he describes had to be carefully explained as there were still politicians and soldiers alive who could question his accuracy.

Despite the chaotic state of mobilisation there were one or two bright glimmers in an otherwise dark and foreboding sky.

Although the shock of Austria’s defeat had rocked Napoleon and his military advisers back on their heels they nevertheless saw clearly that there were lessons to be learnt. The most obvious one was to arm their soldiers with a weapon superior to the Prussian Needle Gun.

In 1857 Antoine Alphonse Chassepot, working at the artillery factory at St Thomas d’Aquain, began experimental work on a breech loading rifle. The breech was sealed with a rubber ring, solving the problem of escaping gases, which was very prevalent in the Needle Gun, and an improved bolt action mechanism gave a greater rate of fire. Also a reduction in the calibre of the bullet allowed the rifle to be sighted to 1,400 meters, eight hundred meters greater than its Prussian counterpart. The reduction in bullet calibre also lightened the weight of the cartridges and made it possible for the infantryman to carry more, this in spite of the complaints of some general officers that a higher rate of fire would cause ammunition to be used too quickly, thus exhausting their supplies. However, only fifteen months after Königgrätz, the French War Ministry put Chassepot’s rifle into mass production, and by 1870 the army had one million of them, either with the troops or in reserve.[5]McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, page 140.

The Chassepot (top) and the Needle- Gun.

The second innovation to the France’s military arsenal was never used effectively during the war, and thus possibly the most important military technological advancement of its time was never exploited to its full potential.

The mitrialleuse, or volley gun, was first invented by Belgian Captain Fafschamps in 1851, ten years before the Gatling gun, and another Belgium manufacturer, Joseph Montigny developed an improved version in 1863. This hand cranked 37 barrelled mitrialleuse was looked at by the French who then decided that they could build a similar weapon themselves. In 1866 manufacture began, in great secrecy, under the direction of Verchéres de Reffye, of a 13 – mm five tiered 25 barrelled gun, encased in a bronze cover. Its rate of fire was 130 rounds per minute with a range of 1,200 meters. It weighed approximately 800 kilograms and required a six horse team to transport it. The original idea was to use the gun to replace case shot, but if it had been properly handled as an infantry support weapon in the front line its fire, together with the devastating fire of the Chassepot would have negated the effect of the superior Prussian artillery batteries by forcing them far enough back to allow the inferior French muzzle loading cannon to move close enough forward to give their infantry overwhelming support. Instead it was used like a normal artillery piece, kept well behind the lines in grouped batteries. As well as these tactical errors, the development of the gun had been kept so secret that it was not issued to the army until only days before the outbreak of hostilities and consequently few knew how to use it, men having to be trained in its handling while on campaign. One of the only French high ranking offices to appreciate the guns potential was old Marshal Franҫois Certain Canrobert who later bemoaned the fact that it had been used so ineffectively. He was fully convinced that if he had been given a dozen or so to tuck – in along the front line at St Privat, he would have not only totally destroyed the Prussian Guard but would also have been able to thin out his front line so as to have sufficient troops to contain the Saxon flanking attack. [6]McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, page 146.

The Mitrailleuse, showing a cut away section of its firing mechanism.

The French high command, although their courage under fire can never be questioned, had not had any real experience dealing with the problems involved in a major European conflict. True, generals such as Canrobert, MacMahon, Bourbaki, Bazaine, Leboeuf and Ladmirault had all seen a great deal of action, but much of this was in “small wars” in North Africa, and even the Empires excursion into the Crimea and Italy (and the debacle in Mexico) really bore no comparison with what would be entailed in coming up against a first rate military power such as Prussia had now become. The Emperor himself was in no fit state to lead an army, a fact he would soon realize. His lethargy and illness cast a sad shadow over the army and the French nation as a whole.

The Prussian Army.

In all probability General Helmuth von Moltke’s most priceless contribution to warfare was his tireless work on the concentration and speed of the mobilisation of Prussian forces as a war – winning factor. The errors that occurred during the campaign of 1866, although not entirely ironed out were, nevertheless, reduced dramatically. The winter of 1868/69 was a time of great activity, with Moltke and the Prussian General Staff working out plans for an offensive war against France. These plans now included the incorporation of the North German Confederation, which boosted the Prussian army to twelve regional corps commands – eight Prussian, one from Schleswig – Holstein, one from Hanover, one combined from Electoral Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt, and one from Saxony; the Grand Duchy of Hesse supplied one division to the eleventh corps. [7]Bucholz. Arden, Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning, page 47. The South German States of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria, despite any hopes on the part of Napoleon that they would join him once war was declared, threw in their lot with Prussia, increasing its strength even further. Within eighteen days of mobilisation Moltke had over 381,000 men in three armies concentrated in a huge arc along the French frontier.

This mass of men, horses and material were able to concentrate rapidly due to three main factors. First was Germany’s position in central Europe, one that had always been a serious concern militarily, being surrounded on all sides by potential enemies, but now was turned into an asset because her railways, operating on excellent interior lines, would enable her to move large armies from front to front more rapidly than any of her neighbours. The second factor was the meticulous calculations and study that Moltke had given to railways and the formation of a Railway Section as part of the General Staff. The third factor, and possibly the one of most importance, was the Prussian military minds influence on almost all of the nation’s affairs, thus the military option always prevailed over the commercial and civilian. [8]McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, page 118.

While the French had no peacetime organisations for their army in regard to brigades, divisions and corps, these being only formed upon mobilisation, the Prussians had a system of territorial decentralisation that allowed for their respective Corps Staffs to deal with mobilisation while their General Staff worked on the concentration and the Aufmarsch.

With their aptitude for Teutonic precision the Prussian corps was organised on standard lines, two divisions of two brigades each, with two infantry regiments of three battalions to each brigade. All formations were regionally based and were permanently established in peace and in war. Thus, in the I Corps there would be 1st and 2nd Divisions, and within each of these the brigades would be similarly numbered, and so on throughout the army. Each corps was self contained when on campaign with its own supply train, engineer and medical sections. A cavalry regiment and a Jäger battalion, plus six or more batteries of artillery made up its complement. [9]Ibid, page 65.

Another factor that gave the Prussian army a distinct edge over its opponent was their Great General Staff. When he took over as Chief – of – Staff in 1857, Moltke found a ready – made body of dedicated professionals within Clausewitz’s Kriegsakademie who were constantly working on the problems involved in the event of war. What Moltke did was to groom and personally train a selected dozen of these professional soldiers each year in staff rides and Kriegspiel. These officers would then be allocated to the staffs of higher formations where they would disseminate Moltke’s ideas so that a common doctrine was obtained throughout the army. It did not always run smoothly, but it was far superior to the bungled efforts of the French high command.

The one great mistake Moltke made in 1870 was in clinging to the Dreyse needle gun as the main armament of his infantry. He knew full well in November 1867, only fifteen months after the battle of Königgrätz, the potential of France’s new weapon when French General de Failly, who had just won a victory over Garibaldinian irregulars at Mentana in Italy, sent a rather tactless telegram which contained the statement: ‘Les fusils Chassepot ont fait mervelle.’

The defects of the needle gun had been highlighted in 1866 when it was badly outranged by the Austrian Lorenz rifled musket and was treated with some contempt by many Prussian soldiers who had received bad facial burns caused by hot powder and paper escaping from the poor sealing of the breech. Its main attributes were that it was (had been) faster to load and that it could be fired from the prone position. Moltke paid too much attention to equipping his artillery with the Krupp breech loading cannon, especially after the experience of seeing how close the Austrian batteries had come to wreaking his plans at Königgrätz, rather than bother to up – grade the Prussian rifle. This oversight would be bought home to him and the Prussian army time and again on the killing fields of France. Moltke never admitted he had made a mistake by not equipping the Prussian infantry with a weapon, if not superior, then at least equal to the Chassepot. In his selected writings[10]Moltke on the Art of War, Edited by Daniel J.Hughes, Moltke deals with almost every aspect of conflict and how it was either dealt with at the time of a campaign or how it should be dealt with in the event of future wars; no mention is made of his error in not making sure his troops had entered a conflict with a weapon compatible to their opponents or with infantry tactics that took the enemy fire power into consideration.

The Krupp breech loading cannon 1870. Sketch by Röchling


French War Plans.

On June 30th 1870, In a statement that would come back to haunt him for many years to come, the French liberal Prime Minister, Emile Ollivier, made the sweeping statement that, ‘…the peace of Europe seems better assured than at any previous period.’ On 19th July 1870 France declared war.

Because of the size of her army in comparison to Prussia/Germany, the French had decided, after scrapping other half thought out plans, that in order to give them a fighting chance, a quick offensive across the Rhine would cause the Prussian concentration to stall. In order to get this spoiling attack moving quickly French regiments would move directly to their appointed war stations with their reserve back – up units reporting to the depots and from their being sent to the front in 100 men units. These calculations were supposed to work so that by the fourteenth day of mobilisation the whole French army would be at full strength. The speculative offensive would take place on the ninth day of mobilisation with 150,000 men at Metz and another 100,000 at Strasbourg uniting and moving rapidly across the Rhine; while a further 50,000 troops were forming at Châlons. Thus, it was thought, this would force the South German Confederation to declare neutrality and Austria to join France, combining to march on Berlin. On the 28th July the Emperor took over supreme command with not a single French army corps in readiness to take the field; the stage was set for disaster.

Prussian Plans.

As already mentioned, the Prussian General Staff had already begun preparing plans for war against France back in 1868, and these plans had been upgraded and revised right up until the moment that war was finally declared. The whole essence of the plan was offensive with Paris being the general direction of the advance and the objective to destroy the French army wherever it was met. [11]Fuller. Major – General J.F.C., The Decisive Battles of the Western World. Vol. III, page 107. [11] Working on the assumption that, being superior in numbers and organisation to the French, the offensive would be commenced before their forces could be fully assembled, the concentration would be – viz:

  • I Army, General von Steinmetz, VII and VIII Corps; one cavalry division; 60,000 men, to assemble on the River Moselle at Wittlich.
  • II Army, Prince Frederick Charles, III, VI and X Corps, the Prussian Guard and two cavalry divisions; 131,000 men, to assemble at Neunkirchen and Homburg.
  • III Army, Crown Prince of Prussia Frederick William, V, XI Corps and Bavarian I and II Corps, together with a division each from Baden and Württemberg; 130,000 men, assembled around Karlsruhe in the Palatinate.
  • IX Corps, consisting of the 18th Prussian Division and the Hesse Division was united with the XII Royal Saxon Corps to form a reserve of 60,000 men, assembled around Mayence, to reinforce the II Army when required.

Opening Moves.

The sixty –three –year –old General Charles Frossard, former tutor to the prince imperial, was the first to formulate a plan for a French pre-emptive strike across the Rhine, having persuaded his lack – lustre emperor to take the initiative. Napoleon himself was well aware that, given the fact that the Prussian forces gathering on the other side of the frontier were vastly superior in numbers to his own, he nevertheless had to do something; therefore, after receiving information that a detached element (16th Division) of Steinmetz’s I Army was around Saarbrücken holding the Sarr River line, Napoleon ordered the advance. [12]Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 86.

As Moltke states in his Correspondence 1870 – 71:

The time had gone when they [the French] might have taken advantage of their over – hasty mobilization; the condition of the men had prohibited any action. France was waiting for news of a victory; something had to be done to appease public impatience, so, in order to do something, the enemy resolved (as is usual under such circumstances) on a hostile reconnaissance, and it may be added, with the usual results. [13]Moltke. Graf Helmuth von, The Franco- German War of 1870 – 71, Translation , New York 1892, page 10.

On the 2nd August three French divisions crossed the frontier and then engaged and drove back three Prussian infantry battalions who had been occupying the town of Saarbrücken. Thereafter the town itself was abandoned by the French who took up a position on the high ground to the south – west. Once more, after French headquarters had spent a couple of heady days debating further offensive operations, reality kicked – in and it was realised that, even allowing for its initial success, the French army was lacking in all the necessities to keep the offensive going. The rail system was becoming choked, with supplies piling up at stations while reservists were still being moved forward utilising rolling stock. Thus, after bringing the ad – hoc troop formations together in something like a reasonable offensive force, the Emperor, fearing an imminent invasion, divided his forces with Marshal Canrobert on the right and Marshal MacMahon on the left attempting to cover every possible approach by the Prussian Juggernaut. [14]Glover. Michael, Warfare from Waterloo to Mons, page 136 – 137.

This fragile screen was tested when, early on the morning of 4th August, the Prussian Third Army crossed into France on a wide front moving on Lauterburg and Weissenbourg. The French had only a single division and a cavalry brigade under General Abel Douay along the River Lauter at Wiessenburg to confront this advance. By 10:00 a.m., after a stubborn resistance, Douay ordered a retreat, being killed by a shell as he was checking the fire effect of a mitrailleuse battery. Ironically, although the French were falling back they were still causing many casualties on the Bavarian troops attacking, having occupied many of the rooftops and bedrooms in the town from which a constant sniping fire was maintained, it was the townsfolk of Wiessenbourg who eventually ended the battle when, not wishing to see their town damaged or destroyed, they ran up a white flag and opened the gates for the Bavarian troops to enter: ‘Here was an early instance of defeatism that would plague the French war effort from first to last.’ [15]Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 101 -102.

Crown Prince Frederick William now halted the forward movement of the III Army while his cavalry arrived and thereafter continued the advance. By the evening of the 5th August his troops were disposed as follows: right wing, II Bavarian Corps around Langensulzbach, with units pushed towards the main highway from Bitche and Haguenau; centre, V Corps facing Wörth; left wing, closing on Gunsett, XI Corps. The Bavarian I Corps was held in reserve behind the centre, while the Baden and Württemberg divisions were combined under General von Werder as a reserve behind the left wing. [16]Ascoli. Davcid, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 79.

After viewing the engagement at Wissembourg and its consequences from the heights of the Col de Pigeonnier, Marshal MacMahon realised that with the rout of Douay’s division his own position could be compromised, however,

‘…He could do nothing to help his luckless subordinate; indeed he could see, from the size of the black columns which were creeping by every road and track “like an oil stain” over the frontier, that his own position was in serious danger. But he remained impassive. By borrowing a division from the 7th Corps he reckoned that he could still stand in the strong Froeschwiller position, as he had always intended, and if another corps were put at his disposal, he wired Metz that night, he hoped to be able to even take the offensive. The Emperor replied by putting Failly’s 5th Corps under his command; and on the 5th August, while the divisions of the 1st Corps [MacMahon’s own] concentrated round Froeschwiller and Félix Douay [Abel Douay’s brother] packed off Conseil Dumesnil’s division from 7th Corps by train from Belfort, MacMahon summoned Failly to bring his corps south through the Vosges’. [17]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 105.

Marshal MacMahon.

Fröschwiller – Wörth.

On 6th August the battle of Fröschwiller – Wörth was fought when the commander of the advanced units of the German V Corps, considering that the activity along the high ground occupied by the French was a sign of their pulling out and retiring, decided to push on and test the enemy position, bringing on an engagement that neither Moltke nor the Crown Prince had anticipated or desired. Wading across the Sauer, the bridges in their area having been destroyed by the French, the skirmish line of the Prussian 20th Brigade (V Corps) were greeted by heavy chassepot and mitrarilleuse fire forcing them to retire back over the stream to the protection of their artillery line, by which time the sound of gunfire had caused the Bavarian II Corps commander, General Hartmann, to march to the sound of the guns. Without much tactical finesse Hartmann ordered a rash and uncoordinated attack on the strong French left wing which was driven back without much trouble by General Auguste Durcrot’s well entrenched infantry holding the tree covered slopes to the south, and thereafter the fighting died down on this flank.

The battlefield of Fröschwiller. French Red, German Blue.

Over on the French right flank at around 8.30 a.m., General Lartigue’s artillery began to fire on the advancing units of the Prussian XI Corps who were now also arriving to support their comrades in V Corps, the superior calibre of their breech loading Krupp guns soon forcing the French batteries to pull back. Seeing that both wings of MacMahon’s line were managing to hold, the commander of the Prussian V Corps, the impetuous General von Kirchbach, although he had been ordered not to enter into a full blown engagement, now threw restraint to the wind and instructed his own corps and the Bavarian’s to press the attack. [18]Ibid, page 111.

The battle developed all along the line and became one in which the superiority of the French rifle was pitted against the accuracy and range of the German artillery, and although MacMahon’s units continued to hold on grimly, the mounting pressure on Lartigue’s position began to cause him alarm:

‘…a black swam of Prussians emerged at the run from the Gunstett bridge with every appearance of disorder. From this ant – heap, as if by magic, company columns shook themselves out and rapidly and without hesitation took up perfect regular formation’[19] Bonnal, Froeschwiller, page 315. Quoted in, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 111.

By 1.00 p.m., the Germans had driven a wedge between Lartigue’s division and the division of General Conseil Dumesnil’s on his right, capturing the village of Morsbronn and Niederwald, threatening the whole French positions lateral line of communication and effectively turning their flank[20] Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – la – Tour 16th August 1870, page 81.. With his last infantry reserve put in Lartigue fully realised that unless he could gain time to re-establish a line from east to west along the Niederwald ridge he was in danger of being totally surrounded, and therefore called upon the only fresh force available to cover his fall back, the cavalry.

Even allowing for the rigours of a campaign griming their uniforms and dulling their normal parade ground splendour, the advance of a body of cavalry was still a stirring and magnificent sight. With a creaking of leather and the jangle of harness, 1,000 mounted cuirassiers and lancers swung into line and began to advance on Morsbronn. Unfortunately their rout took them over, ‘un terrain détestable’, the ground being covered in vines and ditches which caused the squadrons to lose their alignment. Still moving forward in a confused mass they were greeted at 300 meters range by such a storm of lead that, ‘un quart de la brigade tomba en route. Le reste s’engouffra dans les rues barricade du village où l’infanterie prussienne installée dans les masion le decimal en tyrant des fenêtres.’ Piles of men and horses covered the ground, the remainder managed to extricate themselves and get back to their own lines. [21]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 81.

With pressure becoming greater by the moment, at 3:00 p.m. the French had been forced back into a two kilometre quadrilateral which was being pounded continually by enemy artillery. Finding himself in a similar position to the one encountered by Lartigue, MacMahon also called upon the cavalry to check the enemy advance and allow time for a retreat. [22]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 115.

Once again, as if to drive home the fact that cavalry was no longer a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield when pitted against rapid rife fire, the 2,000 cuirassiers of General Bonnemain’s division were decimated as they attempted to get to grips with their foe. Reforming and charging again and again it is probable that not one trooper ever made contact with the enemy, the ground being obstructed by hop – fields and vine – yards, from the cover of which the Prussians, scattered in small groups, kept up a continued and devastating fire; Bonnemain’s gallant squadrons finally retired, leaving over a third of their number on the ground, ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.[23]Ascoti. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 82.

Heavy fighting at the battle of Fröeschwill – Worth.

Although proving the point that as a missile weapon cavalry were now as obsolete on the modern battlefield as elephants became to ancient armies, Bonnemain’s sacrifice did allow time for MacMahone to disengage the rest of his forces and begin a retreat. By 5:00 p.m. on his right wing the divisions of Pellé and Dumesnil, which had been cut off from the rest of the army when the Prussians drove a wedge into the French position, escaped south towards Haguenau. The left wing and central formations fell back towards Niederbronn and Reichshoffen were their retreat was covered by the 5th Corps. The French casualties had been significant with almost 6,000 officers and men killed or wounded and a further 9,200 taken prisoner, including 28 guns.

The Prussians made no attempt to carry out a pursuit, their cavalry being too far in the rear, and in any case the losses incurred were such that the Crown Prince considered his army to be in no fit condition to seek another engagement having sustained a total of 10,600 officers and men killed and wounded.


The fateful day of 6th August 1870 was a dark one in the annals of French military history, for while MacMahone was being pounded at Froeschwiller, the Prussian I Army under Steinmetz was engaged in a battle that, because of his reckless and insubordinate attitude, he should not have won and the French, if they had not squandered every opportunity that presented itself for victory, should not have lost.

Even with the best of planning warfare always throws up imponderable problems, especially at human level. Moltke’s concept concerning the dissemination of his ideas and orders for a common doctrine to be maintained throughout the army, but still allowing for the individuality of separate commanders, fell far short of what he intended as had been shown at Froeschwiller, and was to be tested again in more serious fashion.

General Carl Friedrich von Steinmetz.

General Charles von Steinmetz, commander of the Prussian I Army, would prove to be one of the most cantankerous and disobedient subordinate that Moltke had to cope with until his removal, albeit after he had squandered the lives of thousands of soldiers, in 1871. Born in1796 Steinmetz had seen action during the Napoleonic Wars and gradually rose through the ranks becoming a Major – General in 1854. He served with distinction during the Danish War of 1864 and commanded a corps during the Austro – Prussian War of 1866 where he was given the sobriquet “The Lion of Nachod” for his part in that battle. He made few friends owing not only to his poverty stricken background, but also due to his rather arrogant attitude and Spartan lifestyle. His willingness to sacrifice the lives of his soldiers to achieve his objectives coupled with gross insubordination could quite easily have ruined Moltke’s careful planning on more than one occasion.

Steinmetz’s first act of overzealousness and disobedience occurred when, on the 6th August Moltke, being disappointed that the French offensive had apparently now stalled as he would have liked them to have pushed on into the Saarland where they would have been totally surrounded, decided altered his plans and to trap them where they were. To this end he ordered I and II Armies to contain the enemy in front while the III Army under the Crown Prince came in around on their right taking them in rear. [24]Glover. Michael, Warfare from Waterloo to Mons, page 137.

During the early hours of 6th August Moltke was informed by Steinmetz that he was going over to the offensive, proposing to strike at St Avold and Saarbrücken. With his usual arrogance he failed to inform Frederick Charles of his intensions which, in turn, threw the whole of Moltke’s carefully worked out tables of march into confusion with two German armies advancing on the same objective.

General Charles Auguste Frossard.

When the French corps of General Frossard had taken possession of Saarbrücken during the heady advance of 2nd August the position he had taken up in the hills overlooking the town and parade – ground had been, what Frossard himself later wrote, ‘ma position était aventurée.’ Now he gave this ( what would prove to have been ideal) ground up and retired his II Corps one mile south – west to the heights near Spicheren, a ‘position magnifiques’ that he had personally, being trained as an engineer, reconnoitred before the war. That Frossard was not supported in his stand at Spicheren by the other elements of the Army of Metz, who were positioned in haphazard formations, more prepared for retreat than aggression, was another example of the complete ineptitude that plagued the French high command.

The positions of French and German forces at Spichern.

Frossard’s position was indeed formidable with steep sided hills and woods covering the approaches from the River Saar and the massive ironstone cliff, the Rotherberg (Red Hill), dominating the centre. On the right the slopes down to the river were covered by the forest of the Gifertwald, the terrain accessible only to infantry. On the left the ground fell steeply into the constricted valley where the road from Saarbrücken to Forbach ran, continuing from there to St Avold. Any attack from Saarbrücken would have to use this route and would then be confronted by the massive structures that constituted the great Stiring – Wendel ironworks, which stood like a fortress in the valley. The only flaw in this defensive line was that the whole position could be outflanked if the attacker masked the crossing at Saarbrücken and crossed the river at Völklingen, thereafter turning south down the Rossel valley and striking at Forbach from the rear. Frossard fully realised that holding the high ground alone was not going to be sufficient and in making arrangements for his 22,800 men he took this very much into consideration. First he placed Vergé’s division in the valley and garrisoning the village of Stiring – Wendel and the ironworks; Laveaucoupet’s division held the centre and right wing, with two companies dug – in on the Rotherberg; Bataille’s division was kept back in reserve near Oetingen, from where it could be used to blunt any attack coming against Forbach from the direction of Völklingen. The cavalry were placed well behind the infantry line but no outposts had been pushed forward to watch the river crossings. The spade now complemented the rifle, unfortunately allowing defence to become the dominant factor to the detriment of bold action. [25]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 90.

In true gung – oh style, more fitted to a twenty year old than to a septuagenarian, Steinmetz pressed on with his own attack plans, veering across the march route of Prince Friedrich Charles’s II Army and causing consternation in that armies forward units. When the VII Corps of Steinmetz’s I Army came within sight of the French position at Spicheren the commander of its 14th Division, yet another “I do it my way” field officer, General von Kameke, asked for permission to attack. His superior, General Zastrow, readily stated that Kameke could do as he saw fit thus, in so doing, displaying a total lack of any understanding of Moltke’s intentions and bringing on an engagement that should, with a more aggressive attitude on the part of the French, have thrown the whole of Moltke’s carefully planned arrangements dangerously out of gear.

By noon Kameke division was attacking in open order across the open fields in front of the Rotherberg, eventually managing to gain the foot of the cliff and thereafter assaulting the summit where a few companies of the 40th and 74th Regiments drove off the French defenders and established a precarious toehold, a hold which Frossard made no attempt to challenge, seemingly being content to just contain the enemy rather than drive them off[26]Elliot – Wright. Phillip, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870, page 42.. This strange state of affairs was to be repeated time and again during the course of the battles of Mars –la – Tour and Gravelotte/ St – Privat, showing a distinct shift in the French high commands thinking in regard to tactics. Even Napoleon I had embraced the protective principle which he defined as, ‘The whole art of war consists in a well reasoned and circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack.’ [27]Corresp. XIII, No. 10558.. Now the defence seems to have taken precedence.

Frossard was not alone in failing to exploit the haphazardous decisions and pig headed attitude of Steinmetz and his subordinates. In rear of Fossards corps, at no more than eighteen kilometres distance stood over 40,000 troops, these forces could, if they had been brought together with Frossard’s formations, not only have given Steinmetz a severe hammering, but would also have knocked most of the stuffing out of Moltke’s original well conceived plans. But as Howard say’s:

‘It was certainly not because the German attack achieved strategic surprise. Earlier that morning, before the Uhlan patrols appeared, Lebœuf had wired to both Bazaine and Frossard, warning them to expect an engagement. Frossard querulously endosed the message, “Then why not order Marshal Bazaine to concentrate his positions on mine and take over command of both?” But Bazaine, at St Arvold, was not only Frossard’s superior officer; he had also his own responsibilities as a corps commander, and he knew that Saarbrücken was not the only point at which the enemy might attack. Uhlan patrols had also been active on either side of the town, raiding the communications between Sarreguemines and Bitch and penetrating deeply into the St Arnual Forest. The main enemy attack might by – pass Frossard and come in on the left or right flank of the 3rd Corps itself. It is not surprising that Bazeine should have been cautious about committing his entire forces to Frossard’s support until he was sure that the attack from Saarbrücken was serious; and not until nearly 6:00 p.m. did any message from Frossard suggest that it was[28]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 92.. Castagny is not mentioned in many OOB’s of the campaign, his division being given as Nayral. ))

This may indeed be true but General Castagny, * showing a rare glimpse of former French independence of mind, hearing the rumble of battle, began to march in its direction, albeit briefly, but then halted after being informed by some peasant’s that the fighting had ended[29]Ibid, page 92. . Nevertheless, even allowing for Bazaine’s worries concerning the possible alternative approach of the Germans, he should not have hesitated in dispatching at least part of his force to back – up Frossard; and it does beg the question that if Castagny had been able to hear the sounds of an engagement, why not Bazaine? Finally, Moltke himself wrote, not as yet knowing that Stienmetz had bought on a battle that:

‘…As to intentions of enemy main body, as yet only conjecture.

His most correct measure would perhaps be a general offensive against Second Army, which, as the head of its columns are constantly advancing, has not yet been able to close up with all its corps. Yet the French would strike with superior forces and a vigorous resolve is little in accord with their conduct hitherto….’[30]Moltke, Military Correspondence 1870 -71. No 113..

It would appear that even Moltke seems to have expected the usual French Furia Francese?

Regardless of these counterfactual arguments, by 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon of the 6th August the German units, in distinct contrast to their French counterparts, were approaching the battlefield in ever increasing numbers and guns. Command of these converging units now passed into the hands of the highest ranking officer now present on the battlefield, General Constantin von Alvensleben, who’s own III Corps of the II Army were approaching from the north – east. With the French chassepot proving its worth in holding back the German infantry attacks, Alvensleben plastered Frossard’s positions with a deluge of artillery fire. Despite this pounding it was touch – and – go for the Germans all through the afternoon, and at close to 6:00 p.m. their right wing, about which Alvensleben had no knowledge, was teetering on the verge of collapse, while in the centre and on the left the troops were worn out and pinned down by heavy rifle fire. A counter – attack in strength by the French could have sent the whole lot tumbling back in the utmost disorder, pining them against the river. It never came[31]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 97. .

The gallant but purely defensive stance of Frossard’s corps enabled Alvensleben to put in fresh assaults which eventually began to tell, and by 7:00 p.m., with no sign of support arriving despite having sent urgent messages to Bazaine, and with his left flank in danger of being turned, Frossard was forced to retire, darkness covering his retreat. [32]See “Dossier Frossard” Paris, 29 November 1870, General Castagny, “Reponse à la brochure du General Frossard en ce qui concerne la Division de Castagny pendant la journée de Frossard.” … Continue reading

German losses amounted close to 5,000 killed and wounded; French casualties were lower at around 2,000, but a further 2,000 unwounded prisoners also fell into German hands. As the hungry and tired French troops trudged away from the battlefield a sense of despondency set in, with no shortage of derision being bought down on the heads of their leaders whose irresolution and ineptitude was considered as being the reason for their defeat.

The Fortress of Metz.

Although the twin defeats of the French at Fröschwiller – Worth and Spicheren had not been decisive enough in themselves to cause a military collapse, they would change the attitudes of both Napoleon and the French people. For the Napoleonic dynasty, which pinned all its hopes of survival on a military victory, its existence now became a crucial factor for the Empress Eugénie and her Regency Council, with the opposition, forgetting their role in supporting the war, now looking for reasons to bring down the whole Imperial edifice. As for the population, and in particular the perfidious nature of the Paris mob, the cry of ‘Ȧ Berlin,’ had now been replaced by murmurings of dissolution and discontent. At the meeting of the Government Assembly on the 9th August the elected representatives of France heard Jules Favre and Leon Gambetta, the two leading members of the opposition, declare that what the regime was accused of was not in making war but in making it, ‘ complacently and with culpable incompetence.’ Clearly Napoleon was held to be responsible for both the political and military crisis that was now looming. [33]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 92.

Émile Ollivier. Ollivier’s work, L’Émpire liberal, 18 Vols (1895 – 1918), deals with the liberal government’s part in the lead up to the war.

The result was that Ollivier and his cabinet were driven from office and General Count de Palikao took on the mantel of chief executive as well as that of Minister of War, once more showing that the left hand of the country did not know what the right hand was doing, General Leboeuf also still held the title of Minister of War[34]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 93. .

At French Imperial Headquarters in Metz on the 6th August, just as the guns began to thunder at Fröeschwiller and Spicheren, Napoleon and his staff were in the process of concocting yet another offensive plan. It was now decided that the army should be concentrated at Bitche, at which point its whole weight could be used to best effect. Even after receiving telegram messages from Bazaine at St Arvold, clearly stating that the enemy had been engaged, Napoleon still maintained that he would now be taking the offensive. With the army taking position at St Avold it would be able to strike the advancing Germans on terms of localised superiority. The plan was so feasible that even von Moltke himself considered it the most obvious and best thing the French could do but adding, “…such a vigorous decision is hardly in keeping with the attitude they have shown up till now.” Sure enough this well conceived plan was soon relegated to the rubbish bin when, on the morning of the 7th August, news began to arrive that the Germans had taken Forbach; that no news was forthcoming from Frossard, and that St Avold was now threatened. All this caused Napoleon to abandon any thoughts of an offensive and order an immediate withdrawal of the army to Châlons. As for the Emperor himself he: ‘…returned to his headquarters in a state of moral and physical collapse.”[35]D.T. I 61. Revue de Paris 154 (Sept – Oct. 1929) 505 – 7. Napoleon III, Œuvres Postumes, ed. Le Comte de la Chapelle. (Paris 1873) 43. Quoted in, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, … Continue reading

Over at German headquarters Moltke had his own problems to deal with. Steinmetz’s overzealousness and downright disobedience had caused total confusion among the units of the left wing of his I Army and the right wing of the II Army, a confusion that was not helped when, after issuing fresh instructions to First Army to clear the way for the Second Army to move south – west on the Saar from Neunkirchen and Zweibrücken, Steinmetz once more chose to ignore his new instructions. These new orders were, after securing the railway communications at Forbach, to advance on the road from Saarlouis to Metz as per his original instructions, keeping in close touch with the left wing of the French army. As David Ascoli puts it:

Steinmetz would have none of it. He was sulking; he did not accept Moltke’s authority; and when it was made clear to him that the role of I Army was to protect the right flank of the great advance, he, as it were, broke off diplomatic relations with Royal headquarters, and – to make his point – insolently withdrew his hunting – pack of two cavalry divisions, deploying one to no purpose watching the Luxembourg frontier, and the other to even less, cluttering up the roads behind his infantry. So it was that Ladmirault’s 4 Corps on the French left slipped away under dark drenching skies towards the protective guns of Metz.[36]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 94.

The French army became dispersed after it defeats in the two battles of the 6th August. MacMahon pulled back to Saarburg with five divisions (one of 7th Corps and four of his own 1st Corps). Another division had fallen back on Belfort where it was joined by the 3rd Division of the Corps formed at Lyons. General Failly’s 5th Corps had retired under the protection of the guns of Lutzelstein, later rejoining MacMahon at Saarburg. During the 7th August two divisions of 3rd Corps linked – up with Frossard’s crestfallen troops at Purtlingen, while two other divisions of 3rd Corps milled around St Avold. The Imperial Guard was to the rear of these units at Luben, with the 4th Corps spread around Helsdorf, Bolchen and Busendorf. It therefore now became imperative to gather these scattered elements together and this was why Châlons had seemed the best place to reorganise. Orders were issued on the 7th to all corps and groupings that could be contacted as follows: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Corps together with the Guard, to concentrate at Metz and then take route to Châlons; MacMahon and Failly going via Nancy; General Douay’s 7th Corps taking train to the same destination. However because of false information stating that the road to Nancy was already cut by enemy forces, MacMahon chose to turn south. These formations, plus those of Douay’s travelling by train, reached Châlons between 17th and 21st August, utterly exhausted and demoralised[37]Schlieffen. Alfred Count (Graf) von, Cannae, page 191 – 192. .

Napoleon had now decided that Metz was more suitable for the initial concentration of the army, cabling his wife, “…a withdrawal to Châlons has become too dangerous; I will be more useful here in Metz with 100,000 troops.” This statement was, of course, just what the Empress Eugénie wanted to hear, replying that Napoleons imperial duties lay in remaining with the army and not returning to Paris where his presents would be politically unacceptable and would be looked upon as a disgrace. Indeed it does seem as if the empress was quite willing to sacrifice her husband in an attempt to save the dynasty, thereby securing the throne and succession for the Prince Imperial[38]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 96. .

Tired and Worn, Napoleon III in 1870.

By 13th August almost 180,000 troops were gathered on the right bank of the Moselle close to the fortress of Metz. The food and fodder situation had improved greatly and ammunition was adequate, however the problem of distributing these items to formations that were constantly being reshuffled as plans changed remained a constant concern. These reworking of plans and the general uncertainty in regard to strategy were caused, in the first instance, by Napoleon remaining in command, this causing further problems when the military advisers surrounding him tendered advice in military terms that came into conflict with the political (dynastic) considerations bombarding the Emperor from Paris. In no fit state to balance one factor against the other Napoleon now chose to compromise. He would remain at Metz but hand over command of the Army of the Rhine to one of his senior officers; however this in turn was not without its own problems.

There were four candidates for the post of army commander, MacMahon, Bazaine, Leboeuf and Canrobert. MacMahon was too far distant to be considered and Leboeuf had ruled himself out of the running by his remarks concerning the readiness of the army for war. Canrobert, realising his limitations, did as he had done when offered the command of the French forces in the Crimea fifteen years previously and respectfully declined. But even if he had taken on the job it is doubtful if the radicals would have tolerated him in such a position after his role in helping Napoleon in the coup d’etat of 1851. The Emperors eyes now turned to Marshal Bazaine[39] Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 47. .

“Nous marchons à un désatre.” Marshal Achille Bazaine

Marshal Franҫois Achille Bazaine had risen to his position from the ranks and was regarded as one of France’s finest officers. He had served with distinction in the Crimea and Italy, and even the disastrous Mexican affair did not affect his standing as a first rate leader of men. The problem was that Bazaine had never held such a high post as the one now thrust upon him – Commander – in – Chief, and although he would prove to be totally inadequate for the job one must also not forget that the blame for all the woes of France considered due to his mishandling of events should also be shared by those who put him in command in the first place.

The Advance of the German Armies.

When Moltke received the news that the French had fallen back under the guns of Metz, on the 12th August, he immediately took steps to take the offensive which would now entail an advance on a wide front incorporating all three of his armies. The plan was to spread out his forces covering some eighty kilometres and taking in all crossings points on the Moselle River within their scope. On the right wing Steinmetz, still in sulking mode but now under strict control would moved I Army on the axis Sarrlouis – Metz, his forward units on either side of Boulay. In the centre Prince Frederick Charles II Army advanced toward the Moselle River crossings above Metz, while on the left Crown Prince Frederick William’s III Army, now out of contact with MacMahon, was probing forward towards Lunéville and Nancy. It is worth quoting Ascoli here in regard to some criticism levelled at Moltke concerning his apparent dilatory arrangements of the advance:

Moltke has been accused of making haste too slowly, but his critics ignore the iron will which kept one single purpose in view. Clausewitz had also taught him that the essence of war is battle; but Clausewitz had also preached the gospel of concentration of force. He had only to remember that failure to practise what Clausewitz preached had almost lost him the battle of Sadowa. He had only to see the vengeance visited on the French for ignoring the principle of safety in numbers. And when presently he relaxed his grip, first on the 16th and again on the 18th [August], he twice came close to hazarding the whole campaign.[40]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 101. .

On the 13th August Bazaine, apparently in charge but not in charge, was ordered by Napoleon to begin the retreat to Verdun, but demurred stating that “The enemy is approaching and will be observing us in such a way that a crossing to the left bank [of the Moselle] could be most unfavourable for us.” His preference was to offer battle at Borny, which was accepted by the Emperor, but only briefly, the debilitated monarch soon changing his mind when informed by the meddling empress that he could be outflanked to the north by the German armies of Steinmetz and Frederick Charles. Once again feeling obliged to conform to his wife’s military expertise, Napoleon again ordered Bazaine to commence the retreat: “You must therefore do everything you can to effect [the retreat] and if you feel in the meantime that you must undertake an offensive movement, you must make it in such a way that it does not impede the passage [to the left bank].”[41]Eugénie to Napoleon III. Paris 13 Aug. 1870. Napoleon to Bazaine. Borny 13 Aug. 1870. SHAT, Lb9, Metz, 13 -14 Aug. 1870. Quoted in, Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest … Continue reading

The Battle of Colombey – Nouilly.

Map showing the area south – east of Metz.

On the 13th August Moltke, under the impression that the French army had already crossed the river, received information that the enemy was still on the east bank of the Moselle. Immediately he gave orders for Steinmetz to halt his forward movement and attempt to hold the attention of the French, meanwhile the II and III armies hooked north to fall on the French flank and rear around Metz[42] Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 46..

Moltke was working on the assumption that the French could be planning to launch an offensive, not realising that the enemy was in such a state of hesitation and indecision, owing to lack the lustre attitude of its commanders and the poor quality of staff work, that their only real strategy was the strategy of retreat. Nevertheless it would still be foolish to allow Steinmetz to bear the brunt of a sudden attack while Frederick Charles’s II Army carried on with his crossing of the Moselle. Therefore Moltke, on the evening of the 13th, altered his plans in case such an eventuality occurred. The II Army would now halt its advance, sending two corps to support Steinmetz while I Army remain in position to await events. On the 14th August German cavalry patrols probing forward in the early hours of the morning noticed large clouds of dust kicked up by the movement of masses of wagons and columns of marching troops, all heading their way to the Moselle bridges[43]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 140 .

Upon receiving reports that the enemy was retreating, Major General von der Goltz, commanding the 26th Infantry Brigade (13th Division, VII Corps, I Army), had ridden forward to the high ground overlooking the Moselle valley from the east. Taking out his field glasses he scrutinised the French outpost positions along the Valliéres ravine covering their retirement and in the distance the snake like columns of retreating troops. ‘I knew,’ he wrote later, ‘that the sound of gunfire would bring strong support to the scene of battle,’ and once again, although showing initiative sadly lacking in his opponents make up, without bothering to consult his superior divisional commander for permission, Goltz ordered his brigade to attack[44]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 105. .

Goltz was in for a nasty surprise, for although Ladmirault and Frossards corps were well on their way and Leboeuf’s 3rd Corps was beginning to pull out, upon hearing the outposts open fire he ordered an immediate halt, his troops returning to greet the Germans with a hail of bullets. Soon the chassepot dominated the valley and with French artillery also arriving on the scene Goltz’s advance was brought to a standstill. Even the two divisions of General Manteuffel’s I Corps which had come up in support were also pinned down by French rifle and artillery fire, despite bold attempts to get to grips with their adversaries. By 5:00 p.m. Ladmirault, also hearing the sound of battle, was also returning his troops to their former positions back across the Moselle and it looked as if the time was now ripe for a counter – attack which would have in all probability totally destroyed the impetuous German attacking forces well before any help could arrive[45]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 142. .

Bazaine was, for the last time in his career, actually engaged on the battlefield, taking over command of Decaen’s division when that general was killed, and on these occasions he was in his element. He was slightly wounded in the shoulder by a shell fragment but still continued to give encouragement to his soldiers by his undoubted bravery and cool bearing under fire, but that was where his military talents ended. As far as any counter – attack was concerned Bazaine had no intention of committing any such rash undertaking, especially when recalling the Emperor’s emphasis on rapid retirement, thus another chance to do great damage to the enemy was lost.

The battle itself was indecisive but had delayed and disrupted the French retreat. French casualties numbered 3915 to the German 4620, proving that if nothing else, the battle of Colombey – Nouilly was no petty rearguard action. It was also to show how, even with victory within his grasp, Bazaine seemed to still consider that Napoleon was making the military decisions as commander of the army. When he visited the Emperor at Longeville to report on the day’s events the monarch had retied to bed and Bazaine gives the following account of their brief conversation:

The Emperor greeted me with his usual kindness. And when I explained my fears lest the Germans should cut in on my line of retreat, and referring to my wound asked to be relieved of my command, the Emperor, touching my bruised shoulder and broken epaulette, gracefully said: ‘It will be nothing, a matter of a few days, and you have broken the spell [Vous venez de briser le charme]. I await an answer at any moment from the Emperor of Austria and the King of Italy. Compromise nothing by too much precipitation and, above all things, no more reverses. I rely on you.’[46]Bazaine: Episodes de la guerre de 1870. Quoted in, Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 106 -107.

Thus the Emperor had made a military decision which Bazaine was only too happy to accept. Thereafter his actions can only be described as lacklustre verging on the indolent and the sluggish nature of the French formations around Metz came as a surprise to the Prussian King, William I, as he observed their tardy attempts at withdrawal from his observation point on the Noisseville plateau east of Borny on the 15th August. Now, apparently fogetting his former urgency in the matter of retirement, Bazaine wasted precious hours on the 15th travelling around Borny under a white flag, more concerned with the peasants robbing the dead and wounded on the battlefield than with the growing threat from the German forces closing in, indeed in itself a noble gesture, but not compatible with the task at hand. [47]Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 71, page 147.

15th August.

Bazaine’s orders for the continuation of the retreat to Verdun were not issued until 10:00 a.m. on the morning of the 15th August, at the same hour that German cavalry patrols were already wheeling around the Verdun road and were to show not only the Marshals tardy attitude in regard to making a swift and well conducted retirement but they also highlighted his inability to cope with the tasks involved in being army commander. The orders were:

  • Left flank, 2nd and 6th Corps to take the Verdun road to Mars – la – Tour and Rezonville.
  • Right Flank, 4th and 3rd Corps to march on Doncourt and Verneville.
  • Imperial Guard, in the rear of the above formations at Gravelotte.
  • One cavalry division to cover each flank of the retirement.
  • Laveaucoupet’s division (2nd Corps), to remain as garrison in Metz.

The above instructions were not only totally inadequate in detail but also lacked any knowledge or understanding of the logistic planning involved in moving an army of over 160,000 men, plus thousands of horses and wagons. These problems were multiplied by the fact that along with the withdrawal of the army thousands of Metz citizens, together with their own means of transportation, were also fleeing from the city before the arrival of the German invaders. The single road from Metz to Gravellotte therefore became chocked with military and civilian vehicles, all jostling and pushing in an attempt to get forward. Some ease to the crush was achieved when the road split at Gravelotte, with one road going via Doncourt and the other to Vionville, but this moving column of humanity’s progress still crawled along at a snail’s pace; at 6:00 p.m. on the evening of the 15th August the French 2nd Corps had only got as far as Rezonville, while the 6th Corps was still some distance from Doncourt. Despite all this and the fact that Bazaine had been informed that his cavalry had made contact with the enemy north of the Vionville road, the blinkered visioned French commander did nothing, ordering a halt for the night.[48]Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte St – Privat 1870, page 49. See also, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 145 – 146.

As usual Moltke made his plans to suite the circumstances, or at least that is what he set out to do. At 5: 00 p.m. on the 15th he issued orders. Steinmetz’s I Army would move his VII and VIII Corps to the right bank of the Moselle, leaving I Corp at Courcelles – sur – Nied to protect the railway. Frederick Charles II Army would make ‘… a vigorous offensive movement,’ on the road from Metz to Verdun, by way of Frasnes and Etain. ‘The commander of the II Army is entrusted with this operation which he will conduct according to his own judgement and the means at his disposal, that is to say all of the corps of his Army.’[49]Quoted in, Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 108. [49] The III Army was drawn up in the line of Nancy and Bayou. [50]Moltke, The Franco – German War of 1870 – 71, page 25.

As David Ascoli states regarding Frederick Charles’s reaction to these instructions:

‘It was a tidy order, very precise and very Prussian. It presupposed every kind of presupposition. It assumed several false assumptions. And it came very close to bringing about a disaster.’

The orders given to Frederick Charles may have been precise but they were also rather vague since Moltke, even with all his meticulous attention to detail, was nonetheless guessing the exact whereabouts of the French army as being somewhere between Metz and Verdun. For his part Frederick Charles was also as much in the dark as to the exact position of the enemy. Even though his cavalry patrols had run into Forton’s French cavalry around Vionville he was still not sure if these were an advance guard or a flank guard for their main army. Among the Prussian cavalry scouting patrols was one commanded by the 36 year old Rittmeister Count (Graf) Oskar von Blumenthal. These troops were making their way in an anti – clockwise direction to the north of Metz, gathering information from villagers and peasants as they progressed. At Ars they came across a very jittery schoolmaster who nervously told them that he had just left Metz and that in his estimation “fifty thousand French troops had left the city the previous evening taking the route Langeville, Moulins, Ste Ruffine and the Route Imperial through Gravelotte, Vionville and Mars – la – Tour.” [51]I am deeply indebted to Henry von Blumenthal for allowing me to quote from his family notes regarding incidents occurring during the campaign and battles of 1870 -71. The Blumenthal’s had ten … Continue reading Upon receiving this information Frederick Charles issued his own orders on the evening of the 15th August for a continuation of the pursuit to the west towards the Meuse River by all his forces rather than following his original instructions for operations towards the north, as per Moltke’s original orders.

Michael Howard states:

The mistake was natural enough. By Prussian standards the French army, making full use of all the available roads, should certainly have reached the Meuse [River] by the 16th, and Frederick Charles’s error in directing his army too far west and thus outshooting Bazaine was more than pardonable than it would have been had he directed it too far to the east and missed him altogether. [52]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 150.

As events turned out Frederick Charles’s unauthorised alteration to Moltke’s orders could have resulted in the whole Prussian/German war machine being either drastically knocked out of gear or even totally ruined. Even a prince of the royal blood should be expected to carry out the orders of his military superior.


The Battle of Vionville – Mars – la – Tour.

Please click this link to see the extensive collection of postcards remembering the battle.

Early on the morning of the 16th August Napoleon bade farewell to Bazaine and set off on the road to Verdun, from where he would take the train to Chalons. At this time the French army was stationed as follows: around Rezonville 2nd and 6th Corps were encamped. The Imperial Guard was stationed to the rear of Gravelotte. One cavalry division was covering Vionville and two more observing the roads towards the north and west. The 4th Corps under Ladmirault was still struggling to get out of Metz. At around 9:00 a.m. German artillery began dropping shells into the French horse lines and camp of General Forton’s cavalry division around Vionville, announcing the arrival of the advance guard of General von Alvensleben’s III Corps of Ferderick Charles’s II Army. Forton’s troopers quickly responded, driving the advance guard back on Alvensleben’s main body, which was now beginning to concentrate on the high ground south of Rezonville.

Map showing the area south – east of Metz.

Snaking their way up onto the plateau through the Gorze ravine Alvensleben’s troops were now confronted, not by a rearguard as expected, but by the whole of Frossard’s 2nd Corps spread out from Vionville across the fields to Rezonville and on as far as the Juree stream. In rear of these formations and plainly visible was the swath of white tents of the French 6th Corps to the north of Rezonville, with the compact masses of the Imperial Guard standing around Gravelotte, a sight to weaken the resolve of many a general. Not so von Alvensleben; seemingly unperturbed he at once ordered General Stülpnagel’s 5th Brandenburger Infantry Division to attack.

General Constantin von Alvenslaben.

Advancing across the meadows on a broad front the company columns of Stülpnagel’s division, in which another member of the Blumenthal family, Georg, was deputy adjutant in Major General von Döring’s 9th Infantry Brigade, were mowed down by the massed rifle and artillery fire poured into them by Frossard’s 2nd Corps. Leaving a carpet of dead and twitching bodies on the ground, and mortally wounding von Döring. The Brandenburger’s fell back in some disorder and Alvensleben at last became aware that he had disturbed a hornet’s nest. The only thing for it was to smother the French position with artillery fire and by 11:00 a.m. he had assembled ninety cannon on the heights south of Vionville and Flavigny; the sheer volume of projectiles poured into the French lines cancelling out any thought of a French counter attack at this time. How intense this fire was is recorded by one of Frossard’s brigades who were lying in a reserve position in the grass well to the rear of the front line. This brigade alone lost sixty officers – thirty in each regiment – without coming into action, to say nothing of the devastation caused amongst the rank and file. Canrobert’s 6th Corps formations were also smothered in shells, one killing the military theorist and commander of the 10th Regiment, Colonel Charles Ardant du Picq. [53]Wawro.Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 -1871, page 154.

Meanwhile Alvensleben’s 6th infantry Division had been advancing towards Mars – la – Tour, which was already occupied by von Rheinbaben’s cavalry division, from there it had turned east towards Vionville, diving out the a regiment of French light infantry who were holding the village. Pushing on to Flavigny it was then halted and its artillery added to the German gun line which, by the evening would contain over 200 guns massed in an arc from Mars –la – Tour to the Bois de St- Arnould.

Even with the Krupp cannon dominating the battlefield, by 11:30 a.m.,von Alvenslaben’s situation began to look precarious to say the least. His one immediate support was General Voigts – Rhetz’s X Corps, marching to the sound of battle and approaching the field but still several hours distant. Now, despite the enemy artillery still causing consternation among his troops, should have been the time for a strong and forceful French army commander to have issued orders that would have given him a victory. Sadly Bazaine was not that man. Michael Howard sums up the dilemma and character of this brave but strange man:

To manoeuvre five corps, totalling 160,000 men, in an encounter – battle covering some thirty square miles, against an enemy of evident and indeterminate strength, would have tested the resources of a far abler general than Bazaine. As it was, Bazaine gave evidence once more only of his valiant physical courage and his incompetence as a general….He never for a moment thought of defeating the Germans. He made no attempt to clear the Verdun road. Instead, he was obsessed with the danger to his left flank – with a possible thrust which would cut him off from his base at Metz. With the fortress at his back he could not come to great harm; but to leave it and advance, even victoriously advance, was to abandon safety and place in hazard the army which, Bazaine must now have realised, he was quite unfitted to lead. [54]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 155.

At noon Canrobert had brought up his reserve artillery and placed it in battery along the line of the old Roman road running in front of Villers – aux – Bois, from where they now began bombarding Alvensleben’s left around Vionville; as these guns bucked into action Leboeuf ’s 3rd Corps came plodding towards the battlefield heading towards St Marcel while, although at the moment still at some distance from the battlefield but marching in the direction of Mars – la – Tour, came General Louis de Ladmirault’s 4th Corps. These formations, together with the Imperial Guard, gave Bazaine an overwhelming superiority in numbers, but still the French army commander thought of nothing other than standing on the defensive. Indeed, the orders coming from Bazaine’s headquarters in the Maison de Poste at Gravelotte to the Guard commander General Bourbaki stating, “Assure the retreat,” and “Detach a division to cover the Bois d’Ognons and the Ars ravine,” only confirmed how obsessed he was with clinging on to the fortress of Metz, seeing phantom German formations coming to turn his left flank, ‘… ignoring the right flank, where victory might have been cheaply won, he concentrated on banishing the faintest shadow of defeat from the left; piling up around Rezonville a huge concentration of troops…to repel the “ enemy masses” which he hourly expected to see emerging from the ravines to the south.’ [55]Ibid, page 155.

Photograph of the scaffold used by the artist Edouard Detaille, for his work on a huge panorama of the French forces around Rezonville (Mars-la-Tour battlefield).
Draft sketch for the panorama.

Frossard had not made things better when, having his flank pushed back by the rapid assault of the Germans, plus one of his division commanders killed, he sent an urgent appeal for help to Bazaine. Although there was infantry aplenty still uncommitted Frossard, for some strange reason, asked for cavalry to restore the situation, a request that Bazaine immediately complied with by sending a regiment of the Guard cuirassiers to bolster the lancer regiment Frossard already had to hand. When the colonel of the cuirassiers objected strongly to Bazaine about his orders, stating that it went against the usages of war to send cavalry to attack unbroken infantry, Bazaine replied, in what Michael Howard calls, ‘ that unfortunate French talent for the unsuitably dramatic,’ “It is vitally necessary to stop them: we must sacrifice a regiment!” [56]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 156. Bazaine’s statement is taken from, Guerre Metz II 294 – 6. The relevant Docs. Annexes however ( page 478) make no mention of this protest. Once again the cavalry was called upon to save the situation, and once again its sacrifice only served to hammer home the fact that their original role on the modern battlefield had passed. Advancing with a splendour that was deserving of a better fate, the two regiments soon lost their alignment over the rough ground and then were brought down in bullet riddled heaps by the steady fire of enemy infantry standing in front of Flavigny. Those that managed to escape milled around the battlefield until they were driven off by a counter attack by General von Redern’s cavalry brigade. [57]Ibid, page 156.

It was now passed mid – day and although being informed by Voigts – Rhetz’s chief of staff, Colonel Caprivi, that X Corps was on the way, von Alvensleben, his infantry reserve now all committed saw that, although the French had been temporarily held, it was only a matter of time before they put in an annihilating attack against his weak left flank. To shore up his line and slow down the enemy Alvensleben, like Frossard, now turned to the cavalry. “Von Bredow’s Death Ride” was one of the last great cavalry charges in history and the cost was commensurate, but like the old adage that if you buy enough tickets in a lottery you are bound to win something, it did work, at least in causing consternation in the French ranks.

Major General Friedrich Wilhem von Bredow.

Born in 1787 Bredow was seventy three years of age when he climbed onto the saddle of his charger to lead his brigade into battle and into history. His command consisted of three squadrons of the 7th Cuirassier Regiment and three squadrons of the 16th Uhlan (Lancer) Regiment, a total of 804 officers and men. Upon receiving the order to charge von Bredow did not demure but, like a well trained cavalry general should do, did take his time in preparing for the attack. He rode out to study the ground and thereafter detached a squadron of cuirassiers and a squadron of Uhlans from each regiment to cover his left flank towards the Tronville wood. After briefing his regimental commanders at 2:00 p.m. and then pronouncing “ Koste es, was wolle” ( It will cost what it will), he ordered the advance.

The road leading from Rezonville towards St Marcel. The road marks the limit of von Bredow charged. The French gun line ran roughly along the course of the road. Monuments to von Bredow’s regiments can be vaguely seen on the left outskirts of the wood on the right. Photograph by Jean Francois.

Bredow’s reconnaissance had not been in vain, he skilfully used a depression in the ground close to the Roman road to avoid too many casualties as his squadrons advanced. The fold in the terrain followed by the brigade becomes a shallow valley about eight hundred metres north of Vionville and is below the tree line of the woods along the Roman road. Here the leading elements of the brigade began to wheel to the right, at which point they began to come under a heavy concentration of fire. With the 7th Cuirassier regiment on the left, slightly echeloned ahead of the 16th Uhlans, the bugles sounded the charge.

Although having been spotted by the French through the smoke and turmoil of battle von Bredow’s squadrons nevertheless still burst upon Canrobert’s lines causing panic and confusion. Gun teams bolted as the German troopers cut down the artillery crews and pressed on to slash and stab at Lafont’s front line infantry who were drawn up just to the rear of their gun line and were never given time to deliver a volley before being scattered. Without stopping Bredow’s cavalry, their horses wide eyed and sweat flecked, hit the French second infantry line just over the brow of the Rezonville ridge, scattering them in their turn, but casualties and fatigue were beginning to tell in the now thinning ranks of German horsemen. Having covered around 3,000 meters the squadrons were themselves in a state of disarray, and while they were milling about Forton hit them with four regiments of reasonably fresh French cavalry. Assailed on all sides the remnants of Bredow’s brigade finally managed to cut their way back to their own lines, but the cost had been heavy, some 420 of the original 804 officers and troopers were casualties, ‘… the track of the so –called Todtenritt was marked with melancholy precision by the white tunics of the fallen Magdeburg Cuirassiers.’ [58] Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 170.

Postcard depicting the von Bredow Brigade monument near Rezonville. Collection Jean Francois.

Bredow’s charge had three profound effects, one in regard to the battle itself, the second upon Bazaine, and the third in regard to the role of the mounted arm in future wars. The first effect was that it caused confusion in the French 6th Corps gun line from which it never recovered; the second effect, from a psychological point of view, was that it added even more weight to Bazaine’s already over – defensively orientated mindset that he was about to be overwhelmed and cut off from his womb at Metz. The third, and most profound effect, was the wholly artificial assumption the success of the charge gave to the proponents of shock tactics – that cavalry could still be used in the old style, and successfully, on battlefields now clearly dominated by rapid artillery and rifle fire; this unwarranted notion would set the trend for mounted units until well after the outbreak of the First World War.*

Even allowing for the success of Bredow’s charge von Alvenslaben’s found his left flank now threatened by the arrival of Ladmirault’s 4th Corps who were driving back the German infantry occupying the Tronville copse, pushing them back over the Verdun road and advancing to take the village of Tronville by storm. Also, with the infantry being forced back, Rheinbaben’s 5th Cavalry Division, holding the far left also had to retire, this enabling the French cavalry division of General Du Barail to push on as far as Mars – la – Tour without any opposition. Alvensleben was out flanked. With his infantry poised to take Tronville, Ladmirault’s leading division under General Grenier, now conformed to the standard French attitude that prevailed throughout the campaign within the ranks of their high command, he demurred and decided to await support, a decision that Ladmirault fully agreed with. [59]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 157. [59] This indecisiveness shut the door in the face of any chance of a French victory. In the thirty minutes or so that it took Ladmirault’s second division to arrive the German formations around Tronville began to increase. At around 3:30 p.m. Voigts – Rhetz’s X Corps were beginning to arrive on the field, and keeping true to form, Ladmirault immediately pulled back his troops to the slopes of Bruville until the situation became clearer, ‘It was an act of surrender; and it was not the last.’ [60]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 180.

Voights – Rhetz himself had been on the field for some hours before his corps began to arrive and, seeing the urgency of the situation, he had sent orders for it to march to the sound of the guns with instructions of where and how to proceed. The first to arrive was the 20th Division under General Kraatz – Koschlau, these formations being instructed to bolster the thinning ranks of their comrades in the III Corps still hanging on to a small corner of the Tronville copse; the other division, the 19th, under General von Schwarzkoppen, moving up from St Hilaire, was ordered to fall on Ladmirault’s right flank. Without an advance – guard, Schwarzkoppen’s troops, moving in close company columns came in against the very centre of Ladmirault’s new formed line. Soon the Chassepot once again began to prove its worth, mowing down 2,000 of the 4,600 men in Wendell’s leading German brigade. Seeing a wavering in the enemy ranks, Grenier, showing a spark of the offensive, ordered a counter attack which drove the now depleted enemy back in disorder. Again victory beckoned, and once again the French failed to exploit the opportunity, caution overruling aggressive action.

With the French showing a distinct lack of élan, Voigts – Rhetz choose the opportunity to use the cavalry for another time gaining charge. The mounted missiles thrown at the enemy this time were three squadrons of the 1st Guard Dragoon Regiment and two squadrons of the 4th Cuirassier Regiment. Interestingly, the 1st Guard Dragoon Regiment had yet another member of the Blumenthal family within its ranks, one Lieutenant Werner, who was a personal friend of Rittmeister Prince Friedrich von Hohenzollen – Siegmaringen, the brother of King Carol of Roumania, another officer in the regiment. Here I let Henry von Blumenthal take up the action:

‘ …they set off at a walk down either side of the road to Bruville. Passing through the Prussian 5th Jàgers, they began to come under fire from the French 57th and 73rd Regiments and also from the French 13th Regiment which was able to fire at them from the safety of the other side of a ravine. They caught the foremost enemy troops and stopped their advance, but the suicidal attack cost the Guard Dragoons alone nine officers killed, four wounded and one captured…’ [61]The myth of Polish cavalry being used (in desperation) charging German Panzer units in 1939 is just that – a myth Polish mounted units were used to move quickly from place to place and then set up fire positions. Mechanised warfare was still not that far advanced during this stage of the war. [62]Taken from the Blumenthal family history supplied by Henry von Blumenthal.

In addition to the above casualties the charge cost over 200 men killed and wounded, but it once again did the trick. Ladmirault called back General Cissey’s division which had held its ground but who’s advance had been stalled and with that ‘the last hope of clearing the road to Verdun disappeared.’ [63]Howard. Michael,The Franco – Prussian War, page 159.

On the Prussian side of the field General Albert von Rheinbaben, sensing the enemies trepidation, decided to test their resolve before night closed in. At just after 6:00 p.m. he ordered his 5th Cavalry Division to advance northwest and come in against Ladmirault’s flank resting on the road from Mars – la – Tour. Here the French had the weak cavalry reserve division of General Du Barail covering the end of their line, and seeing Rheinbaben’s formations approaching they charged. After the initial shock of the collision soon other regiments from both sides joined in the massed mélée until, in clouds of whirling dust, some forty squadrons jabbed, slashed and thrust at each other in fog – like conditions where men and horses became so dust covered that it was hard to distinguish friend from foe. It was savage and it was brief, lasting no more than fifteen minutes, with neither sides able to claim a result, but the German squadrons did manage to hold the ground, the French later stating that they deliberately disengaged after a bugle call had sounded the rally. [64]Ascoti. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 202.

At 7:00 p.m., with nightfall coming on, the battle began to sputter out and gradually die away on the western side of the field, but came to life again to the south of Rezonville. The self opinionated and unruly Steinmetz, still over on the other side Moselle, at 5:00 p.m., upon hearing the sound of battle, had been driving his VIII Corps hard to cross over the bridge at Corny and up through the Gorze ravine in a desperate effort to get in on the action, butting up against Bazaine’s massive accumulation of force deployed around Rezonville as they did so, which brought them to a halt. Despite this fighting still continued well into the night as Frederick Charles threw in more troops to try and capture Rezonville. The German units, now advancing in almost total darkness, illuminated only by burning buildings and the flashes from cannon and rifle fire, did manage to take the French on the Vionville road by surprise, and when two brigades of their cavalry came in to support the attack the French fell back in total confusion through the smoking streets of Rezonville. It was now however far too dark to exploit any breakthrough or for organising any counter attack, and the battle terminated all along the line. [65]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 161.

Losses had been heavy on both sides. The Prussian casualties numbering over 16,000 and the French a similar figure, but the Prussian losses could be replaced far swifter than the French. A French spy who had manage to infiltrate Moltke’s headquarters was surprised when he overheard Moltke and von Roon, the Prussian Minister of War, talking about losses during a battle, stated that they were not worried by the casualties, even amounting to 20,000 men, because they were receiving continuous reinforcements from Germany whereas France with its much smaller army and manpower could not afford such losses. [66]SHAT, Lb12, Metz, 10th Aug. 1870, Armée du Rhin, Etat Major Géneral, “Renseignments.” Quoted in, Warow. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, … Continue reading [65] Replacements may indeed have not been a problem for Moltke at this stage of the war, but with commanders such as the overzealous Steinmentz and the unpredictable Prince Frederick Charles, to say nothing of other general offices scattered among the Prussian armies who considered victory at any price worth – while, then the cost could have proven fatal; the slaughter that took place on the 18th August would drive this point home.


August 17th.

During the night of August 16th – 17th the French forces were distributed as follows: three divisions of the 4th Corps (Ladmirault) around Doncourt; two divisions of 2nd Corps (Frossard) and the 1st Division (Tixier) of 6th Corps (Canrobert) between St Marcel, Villers aux Bois, and the Roman Road, the remaining eight divisions and one half division as follows – two from 3rd Corps (Leboeuf) and the remaining two of 6th Corps, plus two and one half division of 2nd Corps and the two divisions Imperial Guard, between Rezonville, Gravellote, the northern edge of the Bois des Ognons and the high ground south of Rezonville.

On the German side, in close proximity, their out – posts ran from the Mance ravine obliquely through Bois des Ognons along the northern edge of the Bois de Vionville, half way between Rezonville on the one side, Flavigny – Vionville on the other towards the Bois de Tronville, which encompassed them on the north. To the rear of these the 25th Division was in the Bois des Ognons, the 16th Division on the Gortz – Rezonville road, the III Corps around Vionville and the X Corps around Tronville with units pushed out towards Mars – le – Tour. During the night the IX Corps moved to the high ground west of Gortz with the XII coming in via Thiaucourt and the Guard Corps moving via Beney – St. Benoit – Chambley to Mars –le – Tour. Directly to the rear of IX Corps the VII Corps was to follow across the Moselle River to Gravelotte and the VIII Corps moving through Gortz to the west towards Rezonville. [67]Details taken from Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s work, Cannae, page 219.

As can be seen from the above, although the Germans had manage to cut the Verdun road, Bazaine could still have administered a fatal blow to their II Army if he had gone over to the offensive during the afternoon of the 16th August, or indeed threw all he had at them at first light on the 17th. No such ideas ever entered the French commanders head, ‘He had convinced himself – if only because it suited him to do so – that the enemy now lay before him in great and growing strength, and that the non – existent threat to his left which had dominated his every action during the day was indeed the reality which it had never been, and still was not.’ [68]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16th August 1870, page 211.

When he finally managed to force his way back through the crowds of walking wounded, panic stricken teamsters and civilians now bolting back towards Metz, Bazaine received news that added still more weight to his growing defensive attitude, he was informed by General Soleille, the commander of the army’s artillery, that the expenditure of ammunition had been so great during the battle that it was necessary to restock from the reserves in Metz. This, together with the condition of the troops who had been engaged in the struggle and were now in a state of some confusion, convinced the Marshal that retreat seemed the better part of valour. Yet, at 4:00 p.m. on the 16th, he still had the whole of the uncommitted Imperial Guard, plus units from other formations who had seen hardly any fighting, at his disposal. This mass of decision was close to 40,000 strong and should have given France a great victory, but retreat was the only option ever considered.

By comparison, Moltke, when he arrived at Pont – à – Mousson during the afternoon of the 16th August and received informed that a battle was taking place, soon realised that the situation had changed and that Bazaine could now be intending to going to hunker – down around Metz. If this was indeed the case than the advance to the Meuse River became unimportant: being at bay it was now vital to drive the French north, away from Paris, therefore the longer Alvensleben held their attention the more chance of crushing them tomorrow, “when we can deploy against [them] X, III, IV, VIII, VII Corps and eventually XII.” Going into even more detail for the great encirclement of the French during the evening of the 16th in his orders for the following day by stating that they were to be pursued “ up to the Luxemburg frontier, and eventually on to the territory of that country”. [69]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 164.

Dawn on the 17th August saw the downcast French army once more pulling back to Metz. Bazaine’s reasoning behind this being that even if he could still march to Verdun by the as yet open roads to the north, he would have to abandon much of his baggage and supplies, plus having to risk being attacked on his exposed left flank. His progressively growing defensive attitude of mind told him that the safest course was to seek shelter under the guns of Metz and its forts. As if to cover any possible doubts concerning his passivity in not marching his army to Verdun immediately he wrote to the emperor stating, “ I will resume my march in two days if possible, and will not lose time, unless new battles thwart my arrangements.” [70]Warow. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 165. Just how he expected the gathering German masses to allow him forty – eight hours grace he does not explain. Bazaine’s new position for the redeployment of his army was along the eight kilometres of high ground in front of Metz running from the Moselle River in the south to the village of Roncourt in the north and incorporating the farms of St Hubert, Moscou, Leipsic, Montigny la Grange and La Folie, as well as the villages Rozérieulles, Amanvillers and St. Privat (see map).

On the French left (south), roughly one kilometre east from Gravelotte, the Verdun – Metz road passes through the steep Mance stream ravine, its thickly wooded sides making it a formidable obstacle to negotiate for the attacker. The road climbing out of the ravine towards the village of Rozérieulles passes close to the farms of Point du Jour and St.Hubert, both solidly built and strongly garrisoned. Here Frossard’s 2nd Corps held the line. Further along the ridge to the north Leboeuf’s 3rd Corps covered the ground, occupying the Leipzig farm on its left and then running towards Amanvillers on its right connecting with Ladmirault’s 4th Corps strongly dug – in around the village itself with its right flank stretching across the railway cutting where it joined the left of Canrobert’s 6th Corps who occupied the village of St.Privat and the ground further north, with troops thrown forward in the villages of Ste. Marie aux Chénes and Roncourt. The Imperial Guard stood in reserve behind the left flank between the forts of Plappville and St.Quentin. Bazaine headquarters were in Plappville. The 1st Cavalry Division was stationed to the rear of 4th Corps with the 3rd Cavalry Division to the south backing Frossard’s 2nd Corps. The natural strength of this position inexpugnable was, however, under – mined by the fact that the right wing was, in true military terms, “in the air.” Allowing for the casualties sustained during the battle of Mars – la – Tour together with the accumulated losses occurred in pervious engagements, the French army numbered 120,000 men together with 520 guns. [71]The figures for the French army given in two sources are 114,000 (Howard) and 160,000 (Warow). I have chosen the “middle ground” and gone for 120,000, which I feel is about right (?)

At 6:00 a.m. on the morning of the 17th, as the French were repositioning and digging in on their new line, Moltke and his staff joined King William and left Royal headquarters in Flavigny to join Frederick Charles for a close study the French position, becoming aware that, although their outposts still occupied Bruville and Rezonville, there was a great deal of movement, noise and signalling taking place which could either mean an attack or a retreat. [72]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars- La- Tour 16 August 1870, page 224.

Moltke knew that the French were now somewhere further east but was totally ignorant of their exact location. Reports sent in by cavalry patrols were confusing and contradictory, making it difficult to judge whether the French had decided to continue the retreat by the two remaining roads to Verdun through Briey and Étain, or if they intended to concentrate in front of Metz. As he wrote:

In making the dispositions for the impending battle of the 18th August, two possibilities were foreseen and had to be provided for. To meet both, the left wing was to be sent in a northerly direction through Doncourt towards the nearest of the routes still open for the retreat of the French. If the enemy was already retiring, he was to be at once attacked and detained while the right wing was hurrying up in support….In case the enemy should be remaining about Metz, the German left wing was to swing eastwards and outflank his farthest northern position, while the right was to hold his left closely engaged until this movement was accomplished. [73]Moltke’s Correspondence, 1870. Quoted in, Ascoti. David, A Day of Battle: Mars –La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 225.

Whatever the enemy’s intent Moltke was not going to allow Steinmetz to throw a spanner into the works by any premature movement; with some of his forces already across the Moselle Steinmetz could see the French positions around Point du Jour, overlooking the steep Mance ravine. Not wishing to be drawn into an engagement by his unpredictable subordinate, Moltke gave him strict instructions that his task was to be the pivot for the II Army to move around as it approached the field form the south in a wide wheel. Just to take the sting out of Steinmetz still further, Moltke took way one of his corps (VIII) and placed it at the personal disposal of the King. [74]Howard. Michael, The Franco Prussian War, page 165.

Thus, advancing on a broad front to conform with Moltke’s strategic encirclement plan Seinmetz would hold firm in the south while II Army pushed north- east from Mars – la – Tour and Rezonville. To the left XII Corps (Saxons) and The Guard Corps, passing through Doncourt, would then be in a position to sweep east enveloping the French right wing (which was erroneously thought to be in the region of Amanvillers). The IX Corps with X and III Corps in reserve would be used, after passing through Vionville, to hold the French attention or give support to the Guard and XII Corps as circumstances dictated. [75]Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 60. German forces numbered approximately 190,000 men with over 700 guns.

18th August. Gravelotte – St.Privat.

“Mais certainement! Les Prussiens ont voulu nous tâter et la journée est finie. Maintenant, je vais rentrer.” [76]Bazaine’s comment after hearing that the Imperial Guard commander, General Bourbaki, had pulled back his forces after attempting (too late) to reinforce Canrobert at St.Privat. Quoted in, Warow. … Continue reading

Dawn on the 18th August broke clear and bright, heralding in a day of heat and dust. The forward units of Steinmetz’s whittled down I Army had been skirmishing with the French brigade of General Lapasset, stationed south of Point du Jour, since first light and were therefore well aware of the enemy positions around that area, in regard to just how far their line extended northwards they were completely in the dark. In compliance to orders issued by Frederick Charles the II Army would march north in mass formation, directly across the front of Bazaine’s new position, directives within the march orders stating, “Whether it will be eventually necessary to make a wheeling movement to the right or the left cannot be decided at present…it is now only a question of a short march of a few miles.” [77]Quoted in,Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 169.

The scene was set for a major military disaster, which, however, was allowed to pass not only because of Bazaine’s incompetence, but also due to the prevailing attitude for the defensive that now seemed to have taken hold of the French high command in general. When, at 9:00 a.m., Leboeuf informed Bazaine that large clouds of dust were being kicked – up crossing his front, the army commander was unimpressed; that Leboeuf himself did not try to define just what was causing so great a disturbance crossing his lines shows a lack of military ability of the first magnitude. The massed columns of marching men offered a perfect target for attack, the effect of which would have gone down in history as one of the most resounding defeats ever administered to an army that prided itself on careful planning and cooperation at all levels. In warfare such opportunities are very rare.

At around 10:00 a.m. the French tent lines came into view on the eastern slopes, stretching towards Montigny –la –Grange, but how much further than that could not be discerned for the moment. For his part Prince Frederick Charles considered that this was as far as the enemy position stretched anyway, and that what he saw before him was only a rearguard, the main body of the French army having already taken the two open roads to Verdun. [78]Ibid, page 169. With this thought fixed in his mind, at 10:15 a.m. he gave instructions for his forces to swing eastwards, firmly under the impression that he had found the enemy right flank. This movement was well underway when Frederick Charles received news that the French position extended still further north, at least as far as St.Privat. Orders were quickly dispatched to each unit to halt their wheeling movement inwards, and await instructions pending confirmation of the exact extent of the enemy line. Unfortunately these orders arrived too late to halt General von Mansein’s IX Corps, that commanders over –zealous nature for the offensive now being juxtaposed with the over – defensive nature of the opposition. Without bothering to reconnoitre the French position, Manstein called – up the 54 guns of his corps artillery and formed them on the exposed rise of ground just south of the Bois de la Cusse where they bucked into action:

Everywhere, along the whole range, guns sent out flashes and belched forth dense volumes of smoke. A hail of shell and shrapnel, the latter traceable by the little white clouds, looking like balloons, which remained suspended in the air for some time after bursting, answered the was – like greeting from our side. The grating noise of the mitrailleuse was heard above the tumult, drowning the whole roar of battle. [79]Verdy du Vernois, With the Royal Headquarters, page 81. Quoted in, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 170.

Mansein’s folly was not so much in his bold action but in his failure not to have awaited the arrival of his infantry who were still only approaching the outskirts of Vernéville and therefore unable to support the gun line. Pushed too far forward Mansein’s batteries became the perfect target for the chassepot and the well dug – in French artillery. After an hour of severe punishment, in which casualties mounted in men and horses, Manstein decided to pull back his batteries to a more sheltered position, leaving eight guns still in action to cover the withdrawal. Seeing the Germans retiring, the troops of General Grenier’s Division (4th Corps) dashed forward and captured two guns that had to be abandoned for lack of horses, manhandling them back across the fields to Amanvillers, ‘…but it was an empty gesture. Not only was the Bois de la Cusse left in German hands; so too were the strongpoints of Champenois, L’Envie and Chantrenne. Trophies are to be treasured; but battles are not to be counted in single batteries….As he had drawn back to Bruville on the afternoon of Mars – la – Tour, so now he [Ladmirault] took to his trenches and awaited his opponent’s next move.’ [80]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 237.

Like a boxer who jumps to his feet upon hearing the bell, the sound of the cannonade had a similar effect on Steinmetz. Champing at the bit all morning he now ordered General von Zastrow’s VII Corps and General von Goeben’s VIII Corps to prepare to attack, even though the latter formation had been taken away from him and was “supposedly” at the Prussian monarchs personal disposal; but such military niceties mattered little to Steinmetz. With Moltke and the Royal Headquarters still some miles distant away at Flavigny Steinmetz now considered himself commander on site. Between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00p.m., he had brought up more than 130 guns in battery on both sides of Gravelotte village, but despite Moltke’s specific instructions not to engage in a full scale attack, he nevertheless sent his divisions forward to seize the high ground around Point du Jour and the Moscou farmsteads.

The battlefield today. Looking from the Prussian lines towards the Moscou farm, right background. Photograph Jean Francois

Meanwhile Manstien, now realising that he had pushed against a solid battle line rather than a mere rearguard, soon began to consolidate his position by bringing the 18th Division up on his right to the northern edge of the Bois des Genivaux and a brigade into the Bois de la Cusse, neither of which had been occupied as breakwaters to their main line by the French. His battered batteries, together with III Corps artillery now being hurried forwards from Vernéville, formed a strong gun line that stabilised the situation for the moment, and when the 3rd Guard Brigade, together with a further three batteries, came forward from Habonville at around 2:00 p.m., the battle eventually died down in the centre. As stated by Ascoli, ‘Outranged by the chassepot from Amanvillers and from Leboeuf’s commanding positions at La Folie and Leipsic, Manstein’s men bravely took their punishment. But as the many memorials now show, they died in their tracks.’ [81]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 238.

If Manstein had now realised the error of his ways, Steinmetz remained intent on toasting the god of war to the last full measure with the lives of his troops. Possibly going a little senile, and imagining that the French position was starting to collapse, he now pushed his artillery line forward to support the VIII Corps, who’s only way of getting at the enemy was along a narrow road which descended and then rose steeply into and out of the Mance ravine. Their commander, General von Goeben, either without knowledge of Moltke’s instructions that his corps was now under the monarchs control, or just simply because, like Steinmetz, he just wanted to get into the action, sent in repeated assaults on the French line, which resulted in no more than carpeting the ground with corpses; every attack being repulsed. The only success gained was, at 3:00 p.m., the capture of St Hubert Farm, held by one battalion and lying below the crest of the ridge on which the French main line ran, and therefore out of sight from that position. Any further progress was brought up short and costly by fire from Point du Jour and Moscou farmsteads; ground to either side being far too steep and wooded for concerted manoeuvre. [82]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 171.

By 3:30 p.m., with the German attacks held all along their front, the time was ripe for Leboeuf and Frossard to counter – attack. It is doubtful if even Steinmetz’s massive concentration of guns could have prevented the total collapse of the German I Army, but true to form the French generals remained firmly on the defensive. For his part, Steinmetz, far from being humbled into a more passive frame of mind by the cost thus far, became even more excited, sending a message back to the king stating that he a taken the heights; thereafter he threw all restraint to the wind and ordered fresh assaults on what he considered to be the enemy’s now tenuous hold on a crumbling position. As if to add to Steinmetz’s already over confident mood, at 4:00 p.m., the French artillery batteries along his section of the front fell silent, not due to any preparation for a retreat, but simply to replenish their ammunition, seemingly proving the old boy correct in his assumption that all was now prepared for him to gain the victory. [83] Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 68. To add still more meat to the grinder, he also ordered up the cavalry in preparation for the breakthrough he was confident would be forthcoming.

The VII Corps was now sent in against Point du Jour, while a diversionary attack was carried out on the right by the 26th Brigade of the 13th Division against Ars, taking the villages of Vaux and Jussy from elements of Lapasset’s Brigade (attached to 2nd Corps from Failly’s 5th Corps) and pushing on towards St – Ruffine, before which the attack was stalled. Although this minor diversion was easily contained, it nevertheless help boost Bazaine’s constant fear of being cut off from Metz, the knock – on result being that the panic minded French commander became even more concerned with the imaginary threat to his line of communication than with crushing the enemy piecemeal. [84]Ibid, page 69.

Nothing daunted, General Zastrow’s VII Corps pressed forward. First their artillery, pushed well in advance, deployed around the smouldering rubble that had been St Hubert Farm, where three batteries were knocked out in rapid succession. Then, attempting to follow the supposed break through made by their infantry, the First Cavalry Division came up, with only one regiment (4th Uhlans) managing to reach St Hubert, where it was decimated by rifle and cannon fire, the rest of the division having been blocked by the chaos that reined in the Mance ravine:

Picture to yourself [ wrote an observer] a continuous wall of smoke, out of which the flames of Point du Jour and Moscou rose up to heaven, a hundred and forty –four guns in action in rear of the valley…while in front were masses of infantry, cavalry, and artillery crowding into the ravine, some of them pressing on in front, others falling back under pressure of the enemy’s fire and as the range got shorter, wounded and unwounded men, infantry in order and disorder streaming in opposite directions and jumbled together, the echo of shells as they burst in the wood or above the tree tops, the whistling of bullets from either side as they rushed overhead, and over the whole a column of dust which darkened the sun. [85]Honig. Fritz, Das Grosses Hauptquartier und die Oberkommandos am 17 und 18 August 1870. Quoted in, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 172.

Gravestones, both French and Prussian, around the site where the farm of St Hubert once stood.

To the north, Prince Frederick Charles, now well aware that the actual French right flank rested around St Privat, ordered Manstein to limit his offensive to a cannonade while at the same time halting the Guard Corps until the Saxon XII Corps came up. These troops began to arrive at around 3:00 p.m. deploying their artillery together with that of the Guard while a brigade of its infantry drove back the enemy detachments holding the outposts at Saint – Ail and Sainte – Marie – aux – Chênes. Thereafter the Guard artillery deployed south of the latter village while the Saxon batteries limbered up and moved to a position on the north side with the artillery of the X Corps coming forward to add its weight to the gun line. The Guard Corps, less 3rd Brigade (2nd Guard Division) detached to IX Corps, was deployed in line from Sainte – Marie – aux – Chênes southward through Saint – Ail to Habonville; X Corps stood in reserve about two kilometres behind. The Saxon XII Corps continued its flank march in a wide arc heading north – east from Jarny in the direction of Roncourt.

From his position near St Privat Canrobert had a splendid view of the German masses that had been gathering on his front since midday, sending a message to Bazaine just before 1:00 p.m. informing him of the threat to his position and asking for infantry support and more ammunition. Bazaine’s reply was that he had ordered General Bourbaki to be ready to march north with a division of the Guard in the event of an attack on 6th Corps position becoming serious. Still more concerned with his left flank than with the possible collapse of his right the French commander never even bothered to ride over to view the situation on Canrobert’s front for himself but instead wasted precious time in personally positioning four pieces of heavy siege artillery so that they could bring down fire into the Moselle valley. [86]Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 275.

With his artillery carpeting the French 6th Corps positions around St Privat, Prince Frederick Charles had wisely kept his infantry back while the Saxons moved into position to come down on the enemy’s exposed flank. However, for some strange reason, never quite explained, at around 5:00 p.m. the commander of the Guard Corps, the 57 year old Prince Augustus of Wùrttemberg, decided to order his troops to assault St Privat, well before the XII Corps was in position, Frederick Charles, apparently himself impatient with the delayed flanking manoeuvre, gave the attack his approval. Upon receiving the order to advance, General von Pape, commanding the 1st Guard Division, rode over to Wùrttemberg and questioned his decision, stating that from where he had his headquarters he could see that the Saxons had not yet completed their flanking march, and that, despite the pounding, St Privat was showing no sign of serious damage. With a wave of his hand the Prince repeated his instructions and ordered Pape to attack, ‘So the skirmishing lines of the Guard, with thick columns behind them, extended themselves over the bare fields below St Privat and began to make their way up the slope in face of the French fire.’[87]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 175.


As if to compound the blunder still further, no artillery preparation was given to the assault. Thus the 4th Guard Brigade (2nd Guard Division), moving from south of St – Ail and still wearing full equipment, came on in two ranks of half – battalions up the glacis like slope towards the Jerusalem farm south of St Privat. Under a hail of Chassepot fire the two regiments were mowed down in windrows, the shattered remnants being forced to hug the ground still over 700 meters from the French lines. Two batteries of artillery bought forward to give the brigade long expected support, were shot to pieces before they could come into action. Looking on impassively Prince Augustus now sent in the 1st Guard Brigade under General Kessel, while von Pape once again tried to argue the case for awaiting the Saxon flank attack, but to no avail, Wùrttemberg having none of it. Once again the brigade came forward from its position to the north of Sainte – Marie – aux – Chênes, forming itself into two half – battalion lines and then moving up the slope towards the solid stone walls of St Privat, from where the French brigade of General Tixier poured in a tremendous fire together with another delivered by elements General Lafont’s Division holding the Jerusalem farm. Once more, after taking massive casualties, the survivors lay on the ground among their dead and wounded comrades still over 700 meters from their objective. [88]Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870:End of the Second Empire, page 78 -79.

Not content with the slaughter thus far, at 6:15 p.m. Augustus sent forward the 2nd Guard Brigade, less one battalion, launching them directly head on in half – battalion lines stretching across the Briey road and up the bare slope towards St Privat where they were also reduced to bloody heaps by a storm of lead. By 6:30 p.m. over 8,000 officers and men of the Guard Corps, over a quarter of their number, had been either killed or wounded without any result, a true demonstration of the power of modern weapons when used on the defence. Only the German artillery, in particular those of the Guard under their experienced and talented commander, Prince Kraft zu Hohenlohe – Ingelfingen, succeeded in blunting any French counter – attacks that were attempted between Amanvillers and St Privat which, although not pushed to any great extent, could have, if turned into a major offensive, backed – up by the whole of the fresh infantry of the Imperial Guard, resulted in the complete destruction of Frederick Charles’s army. [89]See Howard for his comments on the use of the Guard artillery and the sacrifice of the Guard infantry, page 176.

Eight kilometres south of St Privat Bourbaki sat his horse in front of his precious Imperial Guard, a force that the Great Napoleon had created (although himself at times wary of using) and would have under such circumstances unleashed as a mass of decision. For Bazaine the decision was to hold fast on the defensive. Every opportunity that presented itself for the Guard’s intervention was squandered. It was never used on the left where Steinmetz’s I Army could have been decisively crushed, nor was it used in the centre against the exposed IX Corps of Manstein; if it had only been used on the defensive to bolster Canrobert’s exposed flank, it is hard to imagine the Saxon turning movement being successful. To be fair, Bazaine did order a brigade to support Frossard earlier in the day, but Bourbaki advised him that it was unwise to commit his elite unit in penny – packets or too soon, to which Bazaine replied: “You may either recall it or leave it there, as suits you best.” And that was the only message he sent the Guard commander for the rest of the day. [90]Ibid, page 177. However, at 6:15 p.m., Ladmirault sent two officers to inform Bourbaki that the 4th Corps had been counter – attacking to take some of the pressure off Canrobert, and although this had resulted in heavy casualties from enemy gunfire, Ladmirault was of the opinion that the Germans were on the point of collapse: now was the time to send in fresh troops and seal the victory. Riding a little way to his right the Guard commander raised his field glasses and homed – in on distant St Privat where he could see the boil of smoke rising around the village as well as what appeared to be large numbers of troops apparently drifting away from fighting. Bourbaki’s dichotomy was whether to send troops to Ladmirualt or Canrobert, but since the formers plea seemed more urgent, he therefore decided to lead one division of the Guard towards Amanvillers. [91]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 177.

The Prussian Guard advancing on the Jerusalem farm and St Privat, seen in the background on the right.
Looking towards the Jerusalem farm and St Privat (church spire at right in the distance) today. Photograph Jean Francois.


It was by now far too late to do much to alter the result of the battle. By 6:00 p.m. Frederick Charles had finally decided to use gunfire instead of lives to blast St Privat into a pulverised mass of masonry. The batteries of the Guard, together with those of X and XII Corps, some 208 guns massed in a wide arc, pounded St Privat for over forty minutes, the smoke and dust from the burning village billowing across the landscape. This punishment, coupled with the increasing pressure now being applied on the right flank by the steady advance of the Saxon VII Corps, whose leading elements had been attacking Roncourt since 5:00 p.m., began to tell and by 7:00 p.m. the five battalions of General Pechot’s brigade holding Roncourt were slowly forced out of the village, fighting a stubborn rearguard action which kept the road to Metz open and allowing the remainder of the 6th Corps to retire. By 7:30 p.m. the Guard and Saxons had burst into St Privat, where the fighting became desperate, many of the defenders holding out in the houses, church and cemetery. The farm of Jerusalem, on the outskirts of the village, was taken by the 2nd Guard Grenadier Regiment, while St Privat cemetery was stormed by the 4th Foot Guard Regiment, by 8:00 p.m. Canrobert’s 6th Corps was in full retreat to the south – east. [92]Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 81.

The Prussian Guard break into the cemetery at St Privat.
The church gate at St Privat today. The church no longer exists

Meanwhile Bourbaki, advancing with a division of the Imperial Guard, had just passed through a thick wood which had obscured his view of the fighting. Emerging onto the plateau above Amanvillers at 6:45 p.m. his column was hit by a mass of fugitives pouring down the road from St Privat. Turning to his guide who was directing the march Bourbaki exclaimed in a theatrical bout of anger, “You promised me a victory, now you have got me involved in a rout. You had no right to do that! There was no need to make me leave my magnificent position for this!” Then, seething with anger, he turned the column around and began to march away from the battlefield. This act of childishness resulted, not only in further increasing the panic in the fugitives who, seeing the supposedly indomitable Guard quitting the battlefield, now redoubled their efforts to get away themselves, but also it gave no assistance to Ladmirault’s 4th Corps, whose own flank was now threatened by the collapse of Canrobert’s position; nothing remained for the former general to do but to withdraw his troops in as good order as possible, which luckily to a fair extent he was able to do, darkness covering his retreat, but with panic still setting in as news of the defeat passed form mouth to mouth. [93]Howard. Michael,The Franco – Prussian War, page 178.

If victory had been gained on the German left flank, disaster was close to being achieved by Steinmetz over on the right. Here, by 5:00 p.m. elements of seven regiments, some forty – three companies in all, were hugging the ground around the smoking debris of the St Hubert farm, a tremendous hail of chassepot fire causing any further advance impossible. All formations that endeavoured to come up in support were thrown into total confusion by the chaos that reined in the Mance ravine. At just before 7:00 p.m., with his own reserves almost exhausted, Steinmetz sent an urgent appeal to the King for permission to use Fransecky’s II Corps, only now arriving on the field, to exploit his imaginary breakthrough. The Prussian monarch, having already received news earlier from Steinmetz that the heights before him had been carried, granted the request with Moltke sitting his horse in complete silence. [94]Ibid, page 178.

Awaiting the next enemy attack with grim resolve, the French troops around Point du Jour greeted the German advance with such a crippling deluge of lead that their formations were quickly reduced to panic – stricken mobs, and in the gathering darkness units fired on one another adding to the now prevailing atmosphere of confusion and fear. Crowds of wide – eyed German troops dashed passed the King shouting “We are lost!” The Royal Staff and the monarch himself began laying on these unfortunates with the flat of their swords in an attempt to stem the rush to the rear, but to no avail, all discipline having gone. Now, if ever the cavalry would be of the utmost use, was the time for the French to unleash their mounted troops, which would have completed the ruin of Steinmetz’s I Army and isolated the II; no such orders were issued and the German repulse and subsequent panic that accompanied it was never exploited. Only one French officer, General Jolivet, commanding a brigade in Frossard’s Corps, wrote in his battle report: “I did not think I should pursue them, having been ordered to remain on the defensive.” As Howard states, ‘Such an army does not deserve victory.’ [95]Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 179.

In total darkness, at 9:30 p.m., the fighting along this part of the line came to an end, the King, Moltke and General Staff riding back to Rezonville in dejected silence, convinced that they had suffered a resounding defeat. Not until after midnight did news arrive that the II Army had gained a victory and the French were retiring back to Metz. As some kind of order was being restored within the I Army ranks word soon spread that what had been considered a battle lost had turned into a battle won, thousands of voices from parched throats picking up the anthem – “Nun danket alle Gott” – which echoed across the stricken field. [96]Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prusian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 184.

German losses amounted to 20,160; 5237 of these being killed, including a very large proportion of offices of all ranks, leading from the front. The French, being on the defensive, lost fewer, 12,275, with 4420 of these being listed as ‘missing,’ but actually taken prisoner. No great cavalry engagement took place during the battle and with the exception of Steinmetz’s wasteful and stupid sacrifice of the 4th Uhlan Regiment, the mounted arm saw no action on either side.

Moltke would never state in any of his writings concerning the campaign that he had abdicated too much responsibility into the hands of overzealous commanders, nevertheless, at the other great set – piece battle of the war at Sedan in September 1870, he kept his subordinates under a firm hand, using the superior German artillery to pound the French into submission.





This article began life as a short monograph intending to outline some of the events that occurred during the war between Prussia/Germany and the French Second Empire in 1870. The many enthusiastic and intelligent people with whom I came into contact during my visit to the battlefields herewith discussed caused me to review the article and increase it to its present length. It could have been even longer, it could certainly have been better, but nevertheless I hope it will prove helpful to those are just interested in European history, and in particular the rise of German military thought influencing future events.

My sincere thanks to Jean Francois who, although I only met him briefly when touring the battlefield of Mars – la – Tour, has been a great source of assistance, in particular his photographic coverage of the above mentioned battlefield, plus ones taken of the various farms and topographical features around the fields of Gravelotte – St Privat today, herewith used in this article. His collection of postcards depicting monuments and buildings around the sites, from the late nineteenth century through to the present day, are themselves an invaluable source of pictorial information for those considering visiting the battlefields – Merci Jean!

Once again my gratitude to Henry von Blumenthal for his invaluable assistance, in particular in regard to his families involvement in the events of 1866 and 1870 which would changed the whole course of European history. Coming from such a distinguished military family his knowledge and input on the various topics we have discussed on – line over the years has proved of the utmost value – thank you Henry!

Thanks also to Eric Necker, former manager of ‘The Museum of the war of 1870 and the Annexation,’ now in charge of the ‘Conservation departmentale des musées de Vendée.’ His help and assistance given during our visit to the former museum proved of great value in obtaining first hand source material relevant to the battles herewith described – Merci Eric!

My gratitude to Catrin Chapman who, although admitting a limited knowledge of military history, nevertheless has spent much time and effort in sorting out my composition and muddled prose – Cheers Cat!

Finally, but with profound thanks as usual, to Dr Bob, my fellow battlefield rambler, friend and photographer – Well done Bob!




Ascoli.David, A Day of Battle:Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, Harrap, London, 1987.

Blumenthal. Henry, Notes on the Blumenthal family’s military involvement at the battles of Mars la Tour and Gravelotte/St Privat.

Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the second Empire, Osprey Publishing, England, 1993.

Fuller. Major – General J.F.C., The Decisive Battles of the Western World, Vol. III, Eyre and Spottiswood, London, 1957.

Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, paperback edition, Routledge U.S.A., 2006.

McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1974.

Moltke.Helmuth von, The Franco – German War 1870- 71, reprint, American Military University, reading set 5. 1991.

Schlieffen. Alfred Graf von. Cannae, paperback edition, U.S. Army Command and General Staff Collage Press. 1991.

Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, paperback edition, Cambridge University Press, 2010.



Graham J.Morris. June 2017.


1 Stoffel. Lieut – Colonel, French Military Attaché in Prussia 1866 – 1870. Military Reports (English edit., 1872) pages 93 and 142. Quoted in, Fuller. Major – General J.F.C., The Decisive Battles of the Western World, Vol. III, page 100 – 101.
2 McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, page 43.
3 Glover. Michael, Warfare from Waterloo to Mons, page 135.
4 Quoted in, Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – la – Tour, 16th August 1870, page 53.
5 McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, page 140.
6 McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, page 146.
7 Bucholz. Arden, Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning, page 47.
8 McElwee. William, The Art of War Waterloo to Mons, page 118.
9 Ibid, page 65.
10 Moltke on the Art of War, Edited by Daniel J.Hughes
11 Fuller. Major – General J.F.C., The Decisive Battles of the Western World. Vol. III, page 107.
12 Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 86.
13 Moltke. Graf Helmuth von, The Franco- German War of 1870 – 71, Translation , New York 1892, page 10.
14 Glover. Michael, Warfare from Waterloo to Mons, page 136 – 137.
15 Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 101 -102.
16 Ascoli. Davcid, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 79.
17 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 105.
18 Ibid, page 111.
19 Bonnal, Froeschwiller, page 315. Quoted in, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 111.
20 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – la – Tour 16th August 1870, page 81.
21 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 81.
22 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 115.
23 Ascoti. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 82.
24 Glover. Michael, Warfare from Waterloo to Mons, page 137.
25 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 90.
26 Elliot – Wright. Phillip, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870, page 42.
27 Corresp. XIII, No. 10558.
28 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 92.
29 Ibid, page 92.
30 Moltke, Military Correspondence 1870 -71. No 113.
31 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 97.
32 See “Dossier Frossard” Paris, 29 November 1870, General Castagny, “Reponse à la brochure du General Frossard en ce qui concerne la Division de Castagny pendant la journée de Frossard.” SHAT, Lb6. Quoted in, Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 119.
33 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 92.
34 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 93.
35 D.T. I 61. Revue de Paris 154 (Sept – Oct. 1929) 505 – 7. Napoleon III, Œuvres Postumes, ed. Le Comte de la Chapelle. (Paris 1873) 43. Quoted in, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 125.
36 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 94.
37 Schlieffen. Alfred Count (Graf) von, Cannae, page 191 – 192.
38 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 96.
39 Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 47.
40 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 101.
41 Eugénie to Napoleon III. Paris 13 Aug. 1870. Napoleon to Bazaine. Borny 13 Aug. 1870. SHAT, Lb9, Metz, 13 -14 Aug. 1870. Quoted in, Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 146.
42 Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 46.
43 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 140
44 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 105.
45 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 142.
46 Bazaine: Episodes de la guerre de 1870. Quoted in, Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 106 -107.
47 Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 71, page 147.
48 Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte St – Privat 1870, page 49. See also, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 145 – 146.
49 Quoted in, Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 108.
50 Moltke, The Franco – German War of 1870 – 71, page 25.
51 I am deeply indebted to Henry von Blumenthal for allowing me to quote from his family notes regarding incidents occurring during the campaign and battles of 1870 -71. The Blumenthal’s had ten members of the family on the fields at Mars – la – Tour and Gravelotte/St Privat, including one of the most famous of Moltke’s field officers, Field Marshal Leonhardt Graf von Blumemthal, Chief – of – Staff III Army under Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia. I have been communicating with Henry over a period of many years and finally had the pleasure of his company during a visit to the battlefields of Mars – la – Tour and Gravelott- St Privat in 2016 – a very enjoyable day.
52 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 150.
53 Wawro.Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 -1871, page 154.
54 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 155.
55 Ibid, page 155.
56 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 156. Bazaine’s statement is taken from, Guerre Metz II 294 – 6. The relevant Docs. Annexes however ( page 478) make no mention of this protest.
57 Ibid, page 156.
58 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 170.
59 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 157.
60 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 180.
61 The myth of Polish cavalry being used (in desperation) charging German Panzer units in 1939 is just that – a myth
62 Taken from the Blumenthal family history supplied by Henry von Blumenthal.
63 Howard. Michael,The Franco – Prussian War, page 159.
64 Ascoti. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 202.
65 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 161.
66 SHAT, Lb12, Metz, 10th Aug. 1870, Armée du Rhin, Etat Major Géneral, “Renseignments.” Quoted in, Warow. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 160.
67 Details taken from Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s work, Cannae, page 219.
68 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16th August 1870, page 211.
69 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 164.
70 Warow. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 165.
71 The figures for the French army given in two sources are 114,000 (Howard) and 160,000 (Warow). I have chosen the “middle ground” and gone for 120,000, which I feel is about right (?)
72 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars- La- Tour 16 August 1870, page 224.
73 Moltke’s Correspondence, 1870. Quoted in, Ascoti. David, A Day of Battle: Mars –La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 225.
74 Howard. Michael, The Franco Prussian War, page 165.
75 Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 60.
76 Bazaine’s comment after hearing that the Imperial Guard commander, General Bourbaki, had pulled back his forces after attempting (too late) to reinforce Canrobert at St.Privat. Quoted in, Warow. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 -71, page 179.
77 Quoted in,Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 169.
78 Ibid, page 169.
79 Verdy du Vernois, With the Royal Headquarters, page 81. Quoted in, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 170.
80 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 237.
81 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 238.
82 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 171.
83 Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 68.
84 Ibid, page 69.
85 Honig. Fritz, Das Grosses Hauptquartier und die Oberkommandos am 17 und 18 August 1870. Quoted in, Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 172.
86 Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle: Mars – La – Tour 16 August 1870, page 275.
87 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 175.
88 Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870:End of the Second Empire, page 78 -79.
89 See Howard for his comments on the use of the Guard artillery and the sacrifice of the Guard infantry, page 176.
90 Ibid, page 177.
91 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 177.
92 Elliot – Wright. Philipp, Gravelotte – St – Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire, page 81.
93 Howard. Michael,The Franco – Prussian War, page 178.
94 Ibid, page 178.
95 Howard. Michael, The Franco – Prussian War, page 179.
96 Wawro. Geoffrey, The Franco – Prusian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870 – 1871, page 184.

2 thoughts on “The Battles of Mars–la–Tour and Gravelotte/St Privat.”

  1. Dear Elias,

    Thank you for your communication concerning the Empress Dragoon Regiment at the battle of Mar- la- Tour.

    I have no information regarding these troops being involved in a charge during the battle. I know that they had moved into the space vacated by the Guard Cuirassier regiment when it was sent in by Bazaine in a vain attempt to try and remedy the danger to the centre of his position, which proved a disaster; thereafter, the Prussians advanced cavalry in their turn causing Bazaine to draw his sword, and he was rescued by Chasseurs. Maybe the Empress Dragoons also moved to protect their commander in chief, but no firm data is available to confirm this.
    Let me know if you have any firm information on the Empress Dragoons actions yourself, meanwhile I will contact a few folk I know in France and find out if more details are forthcoming.

    Thank you once again for you query, and visiting the site,

    Best regards,
    Graham J.Morris (battlefieldanomalies,com)

  2. Hello, I have been researching the Empress Dragoons of the imperial guard under the second empire. I was wondering If you guys know any detailed info about combat they were involved in, such as their charge at Mars la tour and if they saw combat at solferino. I know they charged at Mars but I dont know when, why, or against which units.

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