Ars Bellica

Battles In Brief

Battle of Gravelotte

16-18 August 1870

The opponents

François Achille Bazaine ( Versailles, February 13, 1811 - Madrid , September 23, 1888 )

Marshal of France, in 1835 he fought in Spain against the Carlists, then in Algeria, in Crimea and in 1859 in Italy in the wake of Marshal MacMahon. He then went (1862) in Mexico, and at the advent to the imperial throne of Archduke Maximilian he began a double play, inspiring the young ruler for odious and inexperienced measures, who then instigated against him the same Mexicans. Recalled (1867) by Napoleon III during the War of 1870 was also the supreme commander of the French army, in Metz, where he was barricaded, Bazaine however, maintained a not clear attitude almost contradictory, contributing to the defeat of MacMahon at Sedan. Once processed, was sentenced to death, but MacMahon, president of the republic, commuted the sentence to 20 years in prison. Then Bazaine, in mysterious circumstances, taking refuge in Spain, where die 1888.

Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke ( Parchim, Mecklenburg -Schwerin , 1800 - Berlin 1891 )

Birth on a family of old nobility, he was the Danish army lieutenant (1819), then passed in the Prussian army (1822). He attended the War Academy in Berlin and performed deeply historical and political studies. In 1835 he was in Turkey, where he became an instructor and a military adviser of the Ottoman army, with which he partecipated at the campaign against the Kurds and against the Egyptians of Muhammad 'Ali. Returned home (1839), he made rapid career and in 1857 became chief of staff of the army, which Moltke transformed from a small body of 18 officers, with duties almost exclusively technical in actual command of the army. Since then his work was directed to renew the education of the officers and the organization of the army, for the rapid and effective mobilization in case of emergency. The Moltke strategic thinkings appeared in a critical study on the 1859 campaign in Italy and were first applied on a smaller scale against Denmark (1864), and on a large scale against Austria (1866).

The sensational victories in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 were the most favorable test of his mobilization plans and joined the German armies on the Rhine and its new tactical views, based on strategic, scattering and winding maneuvers. After the victory he received top honors, and remained at the head of the General Staff until 1888. He was the greatest strategist of his time, educated at the study of the Napoleonic campaigns and on the writings of Clausewitz, he was a typical exponent of the offensive strategy, according to which even the defensive problems could be solved. Moltke was able to master and take full advantage of streamlining the traditional military art and the development of the technique of Transport and Communications, and also of the increasing number of troops, the army had to operate in separate armed to focus then for the decisive battle (Königgrätz, Sedan) and was left to the individual commands a degree of autonomy within the framework of a strategic plan carefully drawn in simple lines. He wrote numerous works (Briefe über Zustände Begebenheiten in der Türkei und aus den Jahren 1835 bis 1839 1841 Der russisch-türkische Feldzug Europe ischen in der Türkei , 1828 , 1829, 1845 etc.) and the three major reports on the wars against the Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), France (1870-71).

The Franco-Prussian War

Beginned in July 1870, the Franco-Prussian war, has dominated for nearly half a century - in the political scene no less than in the military - the history of Europe. It is a great episode of the struggle between France and Prussia for political hegemony in Europe, the age-old struggle fought by all means and that had often armed one against the other peoples of the two countries. But this conflict will be remembered as an historic event that will complete the process of German unification under the influence of the Prussian state.

To pave the way for the war it was the political-diplomatic Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. He provoked France, relying on the candidature of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to the throne of Spain, which opposed to Napoleon III. This latter gave instructions to the French ambassador, Benedetti, to ask insurance to the sovereign of Prussia Wilhelm I, who received the ambassador, for confirm the withdrawal of the candidature of Prince Leopold, but took no commitments for the future. At this point Bismarck, manipulating the "Ems telegram" sent to him by the king, issued a communique stating that he had shown the door to Benedetti. Huge was the impact that this statement gave in France and Napoleon III, convinced of the superiority of the French soldiers, declared war on Prussia July 19, 1870. Sided with Prussia were Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg; so on August 1, 800,000 men, led by General Many were already mobilized, while France, deprived of the support of its allies and the inefficiency of logistics services, recruited only 300,000 men, under the orders of the marshals MacMahon and Bazaine.

To deal with all possible eventualities, Moltke, in the plans of the first operations written since the time of peace, decided to concentrate its forces in the Palatinate, between the Rhine and Moselle. From this position would threaten the right flank of the French if they had violated Belgium, if they had invaded their left flank, across the Rhine, in southern Germany, and finally from there would have bet against the lines of the Lauter and the Saar (Saarland) if the French had remained on the defensive way. It was the latter situation to became real.

Assuming, without real foundation, by the French command that the army would be ready to take the field before the Prussian one, Napoleon III had decided to take the offensive across the Rhine, and along the valley of the Main, to separate the states of southern Germany (considered to be adverse to Prussia). This project was inspired by the one probably combined with Austria and Italy during the negotiation, mentioned above, for a military alliance. It was in fact examined by the three states if had more convenience to collect in Bavaria, three armies, one for each state, each of the 100,000 men, and once joined, to get against Prussia. This first mass was eventually followed by the French army prepared at a later time. Alone, but not yet entirely lost the hope of the Italian and Austrian competition, the emperor thought perhaps to give course equally to this plan, hoping that a first success would induce Vienna and Florence to side along France. Moreover, an army corp under the command of Prince Jerome Napoleon, protected by the whole French fleet, would attempt a landing on the Prussian coast.

At the beginning of the war, the German forces, under the command of General Moltke, immediately ensued a series of victories (Woerth, Forbach-Spicheren ), so, in August 1870, the French army was divided into two main parts: the army of Patrice de Mac -Mahon, concentrated in Chalons-en-Champagne (from which he was transferred to the same Napoleon III) , and the army of the Rhine, led by Marshal of France François Achille Bazaine.

Bazaine had orders to move away from the fortress of Metz and rejoin at Chalons, through Verdun. This reunion was much more important, as the French had foiled just few days before an attempt of encirclement by the armies of Von Moltke and had been able to repel the Prussians. Bazaine acted, however, with a certain slowness. The two battles around Metz on 14 and 16 August (Borny and Vionville-mars-la-tour) had significantly worsened the strategic situation of the French troops of Lorraine, which - most importantly - suffered the backlash of moral for the for the surprise that had caught the government and the empress regent at the announcement of the first defeats on the boundary line. The crisis of command created on August 13 with the advice given by the government of Napoleon III to gave the supreme direction of the war to the popular idol, Bazaine, had been an indirect, but still clear confession of serious mistakes in the conduct of the campaign, in the worst time, ie while there were extremely delicate operations designed to withdraw the Lorraine Corps form the enemy contact to replenish further back - on the Meuse or on the Marne - the only armed with the veterans from Alsace and commanded by Marshal Mac-Mahon.

The battle of August 14 to the east of Metz (Borny or ColombeyNouilly) had delayed the passage of the Moselle, not a great move for the French, the battle of August 16 at the west of Metz (Vionville-Mars-la-Tour) had hindered the outflow of the French to Verdun, where - according to the agreements done in the morning of that same day between Napoleon III and Bazaine - the troops of Lorraine would have to go in as soon as possible. This second battle, tactically, remained uncertain, but it had clearly revealed a clear inferiority in French technique and spirit of the command. In fact, numerically superior, French corps - and that logically would have to strive for, as we have said , with the utmost energy to escape to the west - had left get from a few enemy units very bold, and ended up staying paralyzed. Not counterattacked on day 17, as they had expected, the Germans took advantage of the break to collect the Corps of the two armies available I and II on the west bank of the Moselle, until get to a number of fighters equal to 188.332, adding 732 guns. The Bazaine instead of take advantage of the break to go inland, deployed his forces (112.800 men and 520 guns) that were on the heights behind the battlefield of August 16, and therefore closest to Metz, with the left wing resting on the Moselle at Moulins and the right wing (Canrobert), first at Vernéville, then at few miles to the north between Saint-Privat and Roncourt. From these locations, the French line was held for Amanvillers, La Folie, Moscou, up to the Moselle. The reserve, formed by the Corp of the Guard, was placed between Lessy and Fort Saint-Quentin, namely - wrongly - behind the wing better supported, while the Canrobert, who had no chance to hold on firmly the field, will not have a consistent support of troops close enough to him.

The battle

From August 18 the Germans had decided to resume the offensive. They noticed that there was no sign of movement along the roadway Conflans-Verdun, but they were nevertheless in doubt if Bazaine at Metz had retired or was trying to earn the inside territory of France, passing to the north by the way of Briey: in the first case, they would attack from the front, after a conversion to the east, in the second case would attack the left flank of the French in motion, proceeding directly from the south to the north.

To be ready to deal with both cases, the heads of the advancing army corps formed an oblique line with the left moving forward. At 10:00 it was possible that the French were on the march, and soon after it was found that they were in fact still around Metz. So the advance of the German columns takes the final form of an attack towards the east, designed to "wrap" the French right. At first, it was believed, by the attackers, that the northern wing of the army of Bazaine could not pass Amanvillers, and this led to the consequence that the Corp of the Prussian Guard in charge of the wrapping, had, instead, to fight the front. So that, the task of encirclement had to be acquitted by the Saxon Corps, which had been deployed, at first, in reserve, and to whom it was ordered, for this purpose, to advance along the bank of the Orne towards Roncourt. To give time to this long movement accomplished without risk of counter-attacks, the Guard and the IX Corp, applying a criterion of healthy cooperation, renewed bloody attacks against the positions of Saint-Privat and Amanvillers.

The action of the Saxons produced - after a heroic defense of the Canrobert's Corp - the collapse of the French right and compromise in the middle. On the rest of the front, the 2nd and 3rd French corps had resisted all day to the attack of the VII and VIII Germans Corps, which were worn in vain and were not able to gain field, even when came to them the reinforcement of the second Corp. King William and Moltke, who had watched the battle from a hill near Gravelotte, in the evening, ignoring the success of the center and the left wing, had the impression of a failure. In the French camp, the commander in chief had been almost not acknowledged about the development of the fight. He had not considered the requests for reinforcements that came from the commanders of the right wing, nor had bothered to go in person to the battlefield. He had kept to the last the Imperial Guard idle, while a timely counterattack of these elite and fresh troops in the area of Sainte-Marie-aux-Chenes could possibly save the day, and still keep open the line of retreat to Briey.

The aftermath

With this victory, the Germans achieved their strategic goal: placing the main part of their forces between the army of Bazaine and Paris, while also limiting the freedom of movement of French troops of Lorraine, so as to make very difficult the join between the two French part of Bazaine and MacMahon. Because of interrupted communications, the French Emperor and MacMahon learned with delay of the critical situation of the army of Lorraine and the fearful judgments of its commander. The uncertainty in which remained the senior officers of the French empire in the meantime, will be one of the reasons for their disaster at Sedan as throughout the Franco-Prussian war.