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Gravelotte-St-Privat 1870: End of the Second Empire (Campaign) Paperback – January 28, 1993
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?Gravelotte-St.-Privat was one of the hardest fought battles of the Franco-Prussian War and the one that led to the French Army's final defeat at Sedan, the collapse of Napoleon III's regime, and the proclamation of the German Empire. This military history describes every aspect of the battle, including its commanders, soldiers, strategies and defeats and victories. The text includes a chronology, a list of further reading, maps and illustrations.?-Reference & Research Book News --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Oddly enough, Gravelotte-St Privat has always taken a back seat in history to the Battle of Sedan, fought 13 days later, despite the fact that Gravelotte was the biggest battle of the Franco-Prussian War, and ultimately had the greater strategic significance. Gravelotte represented both a missed opportunity by Marshal Bazaine to possibly inflict a tactical defeat on the German armies, and the last strategic opportunity for his Army of the Rhine to escape the cordon that was being drawn around it. By contrast, the Battle of Sedan represented the final gasp of an politically-conceived, but militarily suicidal, strategic movement forced on Marshal MacMahon and his Army of Chalons by the government in Paris. Once MacMahon reached Sedan, the issue of his Army's ultimate defeat and surrender were not in doubt. Yet the possibilities of Gravelotte, and the preceding Battle of Mars-la-Tour (aka Vionville) fought two days before, offer far more interest to the armchair general.
Elliot-Wright's treatment of the Battle of Mars-la-Tour is of necessity a cursory one, the text taking only portions of 4 pages (along with a map & some etchings of the battle). However, what Elliot-Wright does succeed in showing is the ultimate bankruptcy of Marshal Bazaine's leadership of the Army of the Rhine. After a series of slow and tentative steps back from the frontier, including keeping his army much too long in the vicinity of Metz, Bazaine belatedly began a slow march westward, towards Verdun, with his ultimate aim Chalons. Bazaine's lackadaisical attitude to the growing menace of German forces moving swiftly westward can only partially be explained by the incredibly shoddy reconnaissance of French cavalry which failed to give him much information; his seeming reluctance to leave the security of the Metz fortifications is very evident, and difficult to justify. Bazaine's "management" of Mars-la-Tour, such as it was, indicates absolutely no urgency in breaking out to the west, towards his base. With virtually his entire Army of the Rhine in the vicinity, he allowed the Germans complete tactical freedom, and therefore let a great opportunity to destroy German III Corps, and perhaps defeat in detail elements of IX and VIII Corps, pass. He also failed to clear the road to Verdun for his army's westward escape. Bazaine seemed more interested in protecting his line of retreat back to Metz, and accordingly placed his 2nd, 6th, and Guard Corps on his left-flank. Sadly, this same mind-set would be evident two days later in the much larger Battle of Gravelotte-St Privat.
As mentioned before, Elliot-Wright's text of the Gravelotte action is fairly comprehensive, and he gives several full-color maps to detail the positions of the various units, both standard and three-quarter views that really highlight the topography of the battlefield. The only problem with the maps themselves is that, instead of labeling each unit, he merely labels them with numbers or letters, which one has to look up in various keys off to the sides. I found this to be rather annoying, having to constantly refer to the key to see which unit was which.
To his credit, Bazaine did pick truly great defensive ground in the Gravelotte vicinity when he assembled his army along the heights from St Privat in the north, to it's southern anchor at Point du Jour near the Moselle River. This position gave his army excellent fields of fire for their deadly chassepot rifles, while the Germans had to struggle up slopes against entrenched positions, mostly without any cover themselves. It also largely negated the German's main trump card, their devastatingly effective Krupp steel breech-loading artillery. Massed German batteries from the lower-level heights across the Macine Ravine could do little against the entrenched French forces, and the Germans would find that trying to give close artillery support to their attacking infantry would be suicidal for the gunners. Bazaine's only weakness was his far right flank, held by the 6th Corps, and only lightly entrenched; and indeed this flank was anchored in air. Bazaine clearly telegraphed his intention of only fighting a defensive battle, until he could retreat into the Metz fortifications, by placing his army's reserve, the powerful Guards Corps, well back near Plappeville on his extreme left, in position to protect the main road back to Metz.
After supervising the initial placement of his corps, Bazaine exercised little command and control throughout the entire battle, spending much of the day involved in the minutiae of headquarters. He was content to let his Corps fight on their own, in a strictly defensive stance. The thought of switching over at some point to the tactical offense doesn't seem to have ever entered his mind -- rather incredible, considering that his Army of the Rhine was facing it's base, and rapidly being enveloped from the south/southwest by two powerful German armies. His lack of presence on the battle line also meant he was simply not in any position to see the opportunities for switching to the tactical offensive when they presented themselves -- following disastrous piecemeal German attacks on his left and center; nor was he aware of the growing threat to his extreme right flank.
Unfortunately for the Germans, their commander, General Moltke, wasn't in position to give any command and control to the battle that developed, either. Despite a good offensive plan as issued, Moltke proved unable to influence the actual form of the battle as it unfolded. And despite his best efforts, Moltke couldn't restrain his compulsive and irascible First Army commander, Steinmetz from launching rash attacks. Thus the battle developed as a series of uncoordinated thrusts by German divisions and corps against the virtually unassailable French defensive works. Steinmetz had been detailed to simply hold the French left with demonstrations, while IX Corps hit the center. Then as they came up, Guard Corps and XII (Saxon) Corps would hit the French northern flank, which they assumed until well into the battle rested at Amanvilliers. Upon hearing the assault of IX Corps, Steinmetz impetuously ordered VIII Corps to attack (even though this corps had previously been removed from his command), then threw in his own VII Corps in support. Both were bloodily repulsed, and ceased to function as effective fighting units for the rest of the battle. Similarly IX Corps was slaughtered in it's attack from Verneville against the French center. Finally, the German Guards Corps was perhaps bloodied the worst of all, assaulting the French 4th Corps, well entrenched in the Amanvillers area. Though the Guards Corps finally succeed in taking St Privat, the cost was over 8,000 casualties. Thus by 6:30 pm the fighting power of four entire German corps -- IX, VII, VIII, and Guards -- had been squandered in the resulting slaughter that stretched from the Bois de Vaux up to Ste Marie aux Chenes throughout the afternoon.
With most of the German 1st and 2nd Armies that had come up to the battlefield by that point now laying dispersed and disorganized along the great arc, the Germans were ripe for counterattack. XII (Saxon) Corps was still marching to the north, and II and III Corps (the latter already mauled at Mars-la-Tour) were too far back for immediate support. Yet without any guidance, to say nothing of offensive spirit, by Bazaine, the opportunity to mount such a counter stroke, either southwest against the remnants of VII and VIII Corps huddled in the Mance Ravine (or streaming westward in retreat), or against the center where shattered IX Corps barely held on around Verneville, was lost. The possibilities of such an attack by the relatively unbloodied French 2nd and 3rd Corps, backed by the powerful Guard Corps, is one of the most interesting "what-if's" of the battle. That such an attack could have broken thru the wrecked German VII, VIII, and IX Corps if vigorously led is likely, even in the face of Steinmetz's massed artillery line. Upon breaking thru they could have then hit the forward elements of German II and III Corps which were strung out and marching obliquely towards the battlefield. Such an attack might well have completely forestalled the intended flank attack by XII Corps on Roncourt and St Privat. Whatever the possibilities, it represented the last best chance of the French defeating the German forces in detail and breaking out to the west. Interesting to consider what a truly good field commander such as Napoleon Bonaparte might have made of this. There is some evidence that Lebouf, Frossard, and some of their divisional commanders saw this opportunity and wondered why nothing was done by Bazaine. Sadly for the French, Bazaine proved once again inept at the level of army command, and only heard the siren song of the illusory security of Metz.
Bazaine also showed a incredible lack of concern for his dangling, weakly held right flank, ignoring repeated requests by 6th Corps' commander, Marshal Canrobert, to deploy reinforcements. Thus the French Guard Corps, which could have blocked XII Corps attack, remained stationary around Plappeville. French 6th Corps, gradually giving ground, and with the help of Ladmirault's neighboring 4th Corps, successfully dented the German Guards Corps' attacks, inflicting the horrendous losses already noted. Yet the Saxon XII Corps was coming up on their extreme right, and ultimately the battle was decided in the Germans favor when 6th Corps was flanked. Only late in the day did Bazaine consent to sending reinforcements to Canrobert -- and that a mere division (Picard's) from the Guards -- but by then it was far too late, and this Guards division arrived only to get swallowed up in the rout of shattered 6th Corps. Bazaine was fortunate that Ladmirault was able to re-form his 4th Corps into a new line, and that, coupled with approaching nightfall, forestalled the possibility of any German pursuit. Bazaine was then able to extricate his army to Metz.
Gravelotte-St Privat once again conclusively exposed the unfitness for high command of Marshal Bazaine; but on the German side, Steinmetz proved to be more a menace to the Germans than the French, and even Moltke is hardly seen at his finest hour. In fact, the Germans were really only saved from possible disastrous consequences of their inept handling of the battle by Bazaine's own inability and timidity. Philipp Elliot-Wright rightly points out that Gravelotte was a major strategic victory for the Germans, in that it pushed Bazaine back into Metz, where he longed to be anyways. From then on the Army of the Rhine was bottled up, and aside from causing the Germans to use much forces in the investment of Metz, would play no more active part in the war. Even the pinning down of 200,000 German troops at Metz, which Bazaine touted, wasn't decisive, as the Germans were able to push two powerful field armies westward, and ended up trapping and defeating the Army of Chalons at Sedan.
However, it's much harder to grant the Germans the TACTICAL victory at Gravelotte. Aside from their success against the French far right very late in the day, the German assaults all along the battle front were hugely unsuccessful and disastrous. Attacking superb French defensive positions, and feeling the full effect of the deadly chassepot rifle, their losses in killed and wounded were truly staggering -- 20,160 in little over 8 hours of fighting. That's almost as many casualties as BOTH sides suffered in America's bloodiest single day of combat ever -- the Battle of Antietam of the Civil War, 8 years earlier. The French, on the other hand, lost only 7,855 killed and wounded, or alittle over one-third the German casualties (though the French did lose another estimated 4,000 prisoners, mostly in the evening as the French forces withdrew). I can find no other battle of the Franco-Prussian War in which either side sustained such heavy casualties as the Germans at Gravelotte (even during the fighting stage of the Battle of Sedan by the defeated French). And, in truth, the German break-through at 8pm on the far right flank of the French was not in itself decisive, coming too late for any effective follow-up, let alone destroying or seriously damaging the French Army of the Rhine.
Of course, once in Metz, Bazaine made only a few half-hearted attempts at a breakout, including two largely botched efforts in late August, before the German investment was complete. Once fully invested, any breakout attempt would face long odds, even if attempted by far better commanders than the French had. By late October Bazaine was running out of food in Metz, and had to capitulate to the Germans. Bazaine's dilatory and inept handling of the Army of the Rhine, from first to last, still has the power to amaze, even 140 years later. That any field commander could so court disaster by letting himself get outflanked and cut off from his base, then make so little effort to break out, is hard to fathom. Even though Bazaine squandered his best chance at such a breakout at Mars-la-Tour, and a decidedly lesser chance at Gravelotte, he still had a very potent army at his command, and could have maneuvered northwards, hoping to bring on a chance to defeat the German armies in detail. That he instead shut his army up at Metz, ceding to the Germans complete freedom of action, is unthinkable.
In a sad postscript to the war, Bazaine was later court-martialed on charges of treason for his mishandling of the campaign and the surrender of his army at Metz. The charges were patently false, and hugely unfair to the Marshal, but in a sense not wholly surprising. In a defeated France, which was in political turmoil and anxious to find scapegoats, Bazaine had made himself an easy target through his timid and inept handling of the campaign. It was difficult for most people to accept that any man who rose to the exulted rank of Marshal of France could POSSIBLY be as militarily inept as Bazaine proved to be, so they conjured up darker and more sinister reasons for his conduct. Bazaine was convicted and sentenced to death, but Marshal MacMahon, then serving as President of the Third Republic, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, from which he eventually escaped. Bazaine lived the rest of his years in genial poverty in Spain.