Posted in History at 12:00 pm on 22 September 2014
Birlinn, 2001, 384 p.
I picked this up in a remainder bookshop and was intrigued by the blurb describing it as “one of the most decisive but least well-known battles in history.” I knew of course of the wider war it was a part of, the Franco-Prussian War (the author says that is a misnomer, since after the Austro-Prussian War the South German States were treaty-bound to take Prussia’s side in the event of war so it was really a Franco-German war) but not too much of its detail.
The immediate background of the war is well laid out; the German resentment at continually being pushed around by the French over the previous centuries; Bismarck’s determination to inveigle France into war as a means to unite the German states under Prussian leadership; his manipulation of an impasse over the succession to the Spanish throne (the war is therefore also the Second Spanish War of Succession) and of the wording of the Ems telegram to make it appear as an insult; but the war was totally unnecessary. The well entrenched regime of Napoleon III declared it due to public opinion in Paris, in effect in a hissy fit.
While their soldiers performed admirably the French armies were poorly handled. The commander, Marshal Bazaine – the first Frenchman to achieve that lofty rank after starting his career as a Fusilier (in British terms a private) was in doubt about their prospects from the start, “Nous marchons à un désastre.” (“We are walking into a disaster.”) Sadly General Ducrot’s belter of a remark on the situation the French later found themselves in at Sedan “Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdé,” (“We are in a chamber pot, and we’re going to be shat on,”) is not recounted here.
While personally brave and having a distinguished record in the Crimea and elsewhere Bazaine was temperamentally unsuited to the highest command. He did not feel comfortable being in control of other high ranking officers who were his social superiors. His indecision and caution, his lack of appreciation of the possibility of a crushing victory were fatal. With the exception of First Army’s General Steinmetz, who nearly threw victory away, the Germans were much better served.
According to the author the decisive day of the war was not at Sedan but at Mars la Tour (or Vionville.) The French Army of the Rhine was trying to escape to Verdun from Metz as a result of the defeat of the Army of Chalons in earlier engagements. A small portion of the German army attacked it in the belief it was only a rearguard. Eventually realising his position General Alvensleben, in charge of III Corps, bluffed the French by continual attacks crucially backed up by artillery. His last gamble, known as Von Bredow’s Death Ride, was the last time a cavalry charge had an influence on the outcome of a battle. (The writing on the wall for that military arm was amply demonstrated elsewhere in the conflict, however.) Had the French Generals realised the weakness of the German force and the chance of catching the rest of the German army in flank they could have won a crushing victory. As it was it is the authors contention that all that followed, another two French defeats, the retreat to Metz, the investment there, the Army of Chalons marching to the relief of the Army of the Rhine for political rather than military reasons, its encirclement at Sedan, the fall of Napoleon III’s dynasty, the Commune, the Siege of Paris, the unification of Germany, the ceding of Alsace and Lorraine, sowed the seeds of the First and Second World Wars and that this could have been prevented by a different outcome at Mars la Tour.
Like the US Civil War less than a decade earlier, this was an industrialised war. (The heavy casualties in both these conflicts ought to have signalled to anyone concerned the devastation that modern weapons inflicted.)
The book is lavishly provided with maps and photographs of the battleground locations but the text leaves something to be desired. The phrases, “It will be remembered that,” “The reader will recall,” “As we shall see,” “As we have seen,” “And this is why,” occur frequently and annoyingly. In addition the book goes on to recount the Battles of Gravelotte and St Privat of two days later but rather undermines its own main argument by saying that here too better French leadership could have ensured the Germans were beaten.