METZ, a town, first-class fortress and episcopal see of Germany, in the imperial province of Alsace-Lorraine, capital of (German) Lorraine, on the Moselle, 99 m. N.W. of Strassburg by rail, and at the radiation of lines to Luxemburg, Coblenz and Novéant, on the French frontier (101 m. W.). Pop. (1905), 60,396. The general appearance of the town is quaint and irregular, but there are several handsome modern streets. The Moselle, which is here joined by the Seille, flows through it in several arms, and is crossed by fourteen bridges. In the south-west corner of the town is the esplanade, with an equestrian statue of the emperor William I., and monuments to Prince Frederick Charles and Marshal Ney, commanding a fine view of the “pays messin,” a fertile plain lying to the south. Of the ten city gates the most interesting are the Porte d’Allemagne, or Deutsche Tor, on the east, a castellated structure erected in 1445 and still bearing traces of the siege by Charles V.; the Porte Serpenoise, or Römer Tor, on the south, and the Porte Française, or Französische Tor, on the West. Among its ecclesiastical edifices (nine Roman Catholic and four Protestant churches) the most noteworthy is the Roman Catholic cathedral, with huge pointed Windows, slender columns and numerous flying buttresses, which, begun in the 13th century and consecrated in 1546, belongs to the period of the decadence of the Gothic style. The Gothic churches of St Vincent and St Eucharius, and the handsome Protestant garrison church, completed in 1881, also deserve mention. Among secular buildings the most important are the town-hall, the palace of justice, the theatre, the governor’s house, and the various buildings for military purposes. The public library contains 40,000 volumes, including an extensive collection of works relating to the history of Lorraine. In the same building is the museum, which contains a picture gallery, a numismatic cabinet, and a collection of specimens of natural history. Metz also possesses several learned societies, charitable institutions and schools, and a military academy. The cemetery of Chambière contains the graves of 7200 French soldiers who died here in 1870. The chief industries are tanning and the manufacture of weapons, shoes, cloth, hats and artificial flowers. There is a trade in wine, beer, wood and minerals.
As a fortress, Metz has always been of the highest importance, and throughout history down to 1870 it had never succumbed to an enemy, thus earning for itself the name of La pucelle. It now ranks with Strassburg as one of the two great bulwarks of the west frontier of Germany. The original town walls were replaced by ramparts in 1550, and the citadel was built a few years later. By 1674 the works had been reconstructed by Vauban. Under Napoleon III. the fortress was strengthened by a circle of detached forts, which, after 1870, were modified and completed by the Germans, who treated the fortress as the principal pivot of offensive operations against France. The plans in Fortification and Siegecraft (fig. 43) show Metz as it was about 1900; in the years following a new outer chain of defences was constructed, which extends as far as Thionville on the north side and has its centre in front of Metz on the Gravelotte battleground. The old enceinte (which includes Cormontaingne’s forts—Moselle and Bellevroix) is doomed to demolition, and has in part been already removed. The garrison, chiefly composed of the XVI. Army Corps, numbers about 25,000. (See Germany: Army.)
History.—Metz, the Roman Divodurum, was the chief town of the Mediomatrici, and was also called by the Romans Mediomatrica, a name from which the present form has been derived by contraction. Caesar describes it as one of the oldest and most important towns in Gaul. The Romans, recognizing its strategical importance, fortified it, and supplied it with water by an imposing aqueduct, the remains of which still exist. Under the Roman emperors Metz was connected by military roads with Toul, Langres, Lyons, Strassburg, Verdun, Reims and Trier. Christianity was introduced in the 3rd century of our era. In the middle of the 5th century the town was plundered by the Huns under Attila; subsequently it came into possession of the Franks, and was made the capital of Austrasia. On the partition of the Carolingian realms in 843 Metz fell to the share of the emperor Lothair I. as the capital of Lorraine. Its bishops, whose creation reaches back to the 4th century, now began to be very powerful. Metz acquired the privileges of a free imperial town in the 13th century, and soon attained great commercial prosperity. Having adopted the reformed doctrines in 1552 and 1553, it fell into the hands of the French through treachery, and was heroically and successfully defended against Charles V. by Francis duke of Guise. It now sank to the level of a French provincial town, and its population dwindled from 60,000 to about 22,000. At the peace of Westphalia in 1648 Metz, with Toul and Verdun, was formally ceded to France, in whose possession it remained for upwards of two centuries. The battles of August 1870, and the investment and capture of the army of Metz which followed, are described below. By the peace of Frankfort on the 10th of May 1871 Metz was again united to the German Empire.
See Westphal, Geschichte der Stadt Metz (1875–1877); Georg Lang, Metz und seine Umgebungen (1883), the Statistisch-topographisches Handbuch für Lothringen; Albers, Geschichte der Stadt Metz (Metz, 1902); G. A. Prost, Études sur l’histoire de Metz (1897); and Tauber, Die Schlachtfelder von Metz (Berlin, 1902). (See also Franco-German War: Bibliography.)
Battles around Metz, in the Franco-German War, 1870
1. Colombey-Borny (August 14).—The French army under Marshal Bazaine was in and about Metz. The German I. and II. armies, on the march from the Saar, were heading for the Moselle between Metz and Pont-à-Mousson, and on the morning of the 14th of August the German I. Army (I., VII. and VIII. Corps, under General v. Steinmetz) lay on and east of the French, with outposts well to the front, watching the French camps east of Metz, which were little more than 1 m. to the front. Steinmetz had received from headquarters overnight instructions that on the 14th of August the I. Army would maintain the positions occupied during the 13th, and merely passed on these orders to his corps commanders. In Metz, meanwhile, Bazaine had decided to retreat, and during the morning orders to that effect reached his corps commanders, who commenced preparations for their execution. The 2nd Corps (Frossard) and 6th (Canrobert) began to retire about midday, the 3rd (Lebœuf), 4th (Ladmirault) and Imperial Guard (Bourbaki) were to follow. These preparations being observed, the German outposts got under arms. General von der Goltz, in command of the VII. Corps (7 battalions, 4 squadrons, 2 batteries) hearing from a passing officer that the I. Corps on his right was preparing to attack, and noting personally signs of retreat in the enemy’s lines, determined at 3 p.m. to advance his whole command to the ridge between Colombey and Borny (which was still occupied by French outposts), in order to clear up the situation. The ridge was captured with little resistance, but the sound of the firing at once set all the neighbouring troops in motion, and fortunately so, for the French had immediately retaliated on von der Goltz’s audacious attack. Between 4 and 6 p.m. there was continuous heavy fighting on the front from Borny to Méy, as both sides brought fresh troops into the field. The convex slopes falling from the Prussian position towards Metz gave plenty of cover to the French, and the setting sun shone full in the faces of the Prussian artillerymen. Thus the Prussian infantry encountered unusually obstinate resistance and the troops engaged rapidly slipped from all superior control. The above front was held by the French 3rd Corps. Shortly before 6.30 the 4th Corps (Ladmirault) suddenly began to deploy on the high ground to the north-west beyond Méy, thus threatening the right flank of the Prussian I. Corps (General v. Manteuffel). To meet this danger Manteuffel was compelled to direct his corps artillery and reserves, which were now rapidly coming up, away from the hard-pressed centre towards the oncoming infantry masses of Ladmirault. These, with the sun now almost at their backs, were shooting better than usual, and Manteuffel was compelled to call on the VIII. Corps for assistance, which its commander, under positive orders from Steinmetz, refused to give. Meanwhile Steinmetz had been sending peremptory orders to the battlefield to stop the battle, but neither of the corps commanders was able to enforce them. Fortunately for the Prussians, Bazaine had issued similar orders to his subordinates, who, having their men better in hand, were able to obey; and as night began to close in the French broke off the action and retired under the guns of the Metz forts, convinced that at last they had “broken the spell” of German success.
Finding that, in spite of his orders, the firing at the front continued increasing in intensity, Steinmetz at length rode to the front himself. Meeting Manteuffel near the Brasserie of Noisseville, he overwhelmed him with reproaches, and at the crisis of this scene the bands struck up “Heil dir im Siegeskranz”! In this action the Germans brought 30,500 rifles and 150 guns on to the battlefield only out of more than 100,000 with 300 guns which could have been engaged before darkness. Bazaine actually deployed 50,700 rifles and 206 guns to oppose them. He might, however, had he been so minded, have struck with his whole army—nearly three times this force, and, judging from the course events actually took, we can have little doubt as to the result of such a blow. The losses on either side were in killed and wounded—French about 3600, Germans about 4800.
The chain of causation in this action is particularly worthy of attention: A young reserve officer, seeing some troops of the I. Corps standing to arms, reported to von der Goltz that the corps was standing to arms and about to attack. Von der Goltz thereupon decided to go forward and discover what was actually going on, and this action unchained the whole battle power of all the troops within call. When, on the following morning, Steinmetz reported von der Goltz and the commander of the I. Corps for disobedience, the king thanked Manteuffel warmly for the part he had played, and then turned to the young brigadier who had disobeyed orders and congratulated him on having twice distinguished himself in the first fortnight of the war.
2. The Battle of Vionville—Mars-la-Tour (August 16).—On the following day (15th) the II. German Army approached the Moselle above and below Pont-à-Mousson, with a view to overtaking and heading off Bazaine in his presumed retreat to the Meuse (see Franco-German War). So far, however, from being ahead of the Germans on the road to Verdun, the French were actually, late in the afternoon of the 15th of August, bivouacked on the plateau of Rezonville, and there their outposts were placed, not where they could see the surrounding country, but at the regulation distances of 600 to 1000 paces from the bivouacs. Friendly inhabitants kept Bazaine well informed as to the magnitude of the danger threatening him from the south, and a special telegram from Paris, the true origin of which has never been traced, led him to believe that the I. German Army was crossing the Moselle near Thionville and about to descend on him from the north. This telegram might have exercised the most prejudicial influence on the course of the battle had not Ladmirault (4th Corps), nearer to the seat of the imaginary danger, taken upon himself to disregard the warning transmitted to him by headquarters. At daybreak on the 16th, no Prussians being reported in sight by the outposts, the troops began nonchalantly to prepare for the resumption of the march.
On the Prussian side, von Alvensleben’s Corps (III.) shortly after daybreak was moving north-westward from the Moselle in two columns, on the right the 5th division, via Gorze and Flavigny on Vionville, on the left the 6th division with corps artillery by Arnaville on Mars-la-Tour, von Alvensleben himself riding a little in advance between the two. The 6th cavalry division was ordered to precede the right column and scout towards Rezonville. No one was aware of the dangerous proximity of the French army.
About 9 a.m. the 5th cavalry division, reinforced by two horse artillery batteries (flank guard of the X. Corps from Thiancourt), and accompanied by von Caprivi (chief of staff, X. Corps, and afterwards chancellor of the German Empire), were trotting up the western slopes of the ridge which runs between Tronville and Vionville. Reaching its summit they suddenly found themselves in face of at least 40,000 French troops, which were not under arms, but busied with miscellaneous camp duties. The temptation proved too great for the artillery, who promptly fired into the midst of the cavalry camp (Forton’s division) which lay nearest to them. The momentary result was a wild panic, especially among the horses; but this panic gave the alarm to the infantry all along the road, and these (Frossard’s 2nd Corps) at once stood to arms and moved forward, deployed for attack—one division to the west, another division, from Rezonville, to the south. The latter almost at once encountered the heads of the 6th cavalry division, at that moment just clearing the defile leading up to the Rezonville plateau from Gorze. The Prussian cavalry promptly bore away to cover to the westward, and reported what they had seen to superior authority, but not to the advanced guard of the 5th infantry division, which, emerging in its turn from the defile, ran right against the deployed French infantry moving to meet them. So sudden was the collision that the Prussian advanced guard battery had to fire case to clear its own front.
|Emery Walker sc.
Meanwhile von Alvensleben himself, riding on the field track from Gorze towards Vionville, whence he could overlook the whole country to the north and west, had met von Rheinbaben (commanding the 5th cavalry division) and had seen the surprise of the French camps. The sound of the heavy firing coming from the eastward convinced him of what had been gradually dawning on him—that with barely 30,000 men he was in the presence of the whole French army, whose attitude at this moment sufficiently indicated their determination to fight.
In a few moments his decision was taken. Calling on the X. Corps, away to the south-westward, for support, he determined to screen his own weakness by a vigorous attack. By universal consent this is approved as the boldest resolution arrived at by an independent commander throughout the war. Orders were forthwith despatched to the 6th infantry division, at that moment between Puxieux and Tronville, to wheel in to their right and attack, and, their movement being still hidden from the enemy, these troops were formally drawn up for action and sent forward as a whole. The French meanwhile had occupied Vionville and Flavigny, and other troops were moving down the slopes from Rezonville to their support, but the united onset of this whole German division overbore all resistance, and the French began to retire eastward, suffering terribly from the shell fire of the Prussian batteries.
Marshal Bazaine had meanwhile arrived on the scene, and ordering forward fresh troops to relieve (not to reinforce) those already engaged, he rode forward with a horse artillery battery to watch the operations. The retreating French troops belonged to Frossard’s command, and as they were in considerable confusion Frossard called on du Preuil’s brigade of the imperial guard cavalry to charge. He gave no objective, and when the brigadier pointed out that the enemy was still beyond the striking radius of his horses, Frossard reiterated the order, which was obeyed to the letter.
The result was disastrous. The Prussians, having seen the cavalry whilst yet at a distance, ceased firing, formed their skirmishers into groups, and the closed supports standing in deployed lines, two deep, shattered the cavalry with volleys and file-firing, as with blown and exhausted horses they endeavoured to close with their adversaries. When in addition two hussar regiments struck them in flank they were driven back, in wild disorder upon Rezonville. In the dust and confusion of the charge a group of the hussars approached Bazaine and his horse artillery battery, and almost carried off the marshal.
Alvensleben, mistaking the withdrawal of the French for the beginning of a retreat, had meanwhile sent orders to the 6th cavalry division to charge in pursuit towards Rezonville; but before it could reach the field the French relieving troops had forced their way through the stragglers and showed such a bold front to the Prussian horsemen that an attack held no promise of success, more especially since they had lost their intervals in their advance and had no room for a proper deployment. To steady the young soldiers, the cavalry commander (Carl von Schmidt) halted his men, made them correct their intervals and dressing as in peace, though under a heavy fire from the French infantry, and then withdrew them behind the cover of the nearest hill at a walk.
|Emery Walker sc.
The threat of the charge had, however, induced caution on the French side, and for about two hours there was a lull in the fighting, which the Prussians utilized on their right in bringing up reinforcements through the Bois des Ognons. On their left, however, no fresh troops were as yet available, and on being informed, about 2.30 p.m., that French cavalry seemed to be about to charge the exhausted 6th division, Alvensleben ordered Bredow’s cavalry brigade to charge, and if necessary to sacrifice itself, to save the infantry. Bredow’s command (six squadrons of the 16th Ulans and 7th Cuirassiers) was at that moment drawn up under cover about half a mile west of Vionville, and from its position could see nothing of the events in progress on the battlefield. Nettled by the form in which the order was conveyed to him, Bredow drew his sword and ordered his trumpeter to sound the “trot,” the brigade moving off in line of squadron columns at close interval in the direction in which they happened at the moment to be facing. Near Vionville they took ground to their left, opening to full intervals as they did so, and then ascended the gentle incline which still hid them from their enemy.
Arrived at the summit, Bredow sounded “line to the front,” but at that moment a storm of French bullets swept down on them, and the men, no longer to be restrained, dashed forward, before the line could be completed, almost due east against long lines of infantry and artillery which they now saw for the first time about 1200 yards in front of them.
This distance was covered at the fullest extended speed of the horses, and reaching the infantry they swept over them “like hounds over a fence”—in the words of an eyewitness. So sudden had been their onset that very few were hit until the infantry had been passed; then the latter, recovering from the shock, turned and fired into the cavalry from behind, whilst a whole fresh division of French horsemen charged them in flank. After a desperate mêlée of some minutes, the rally was sounded, and the survivors of the charge, breaking their way a second time through the French infantry, eventually reached the shelter of their own lines, having lost rather more than half their numbers, but having saved the situation momentarily for their own army. Again there was a lull in the operations.
Meanwhile, unknown to Alvensleben, a fresh storm was brewing on his left rear.
Ladmirault, commanding the French 4th Corps had seen, during the afternoon of the 15th, the terrible crowd and confusion prevailing in the defiles leading to Gravelotte, and resolved to disobey his orders and to move direct from his bivouacs by the road from Woippy to St Privat, disregarding altogether the alleged danger from the Prussians supposed to be advancing from Thionville. Thus, about noon on the 16th he reached the high ground between St Privat and Amanvillers, and still without instructions he determined to direct his corps on Bruville and Doncourt, whence he could judge from the drift of the smoke-clouds whether he could fall on the Prussian left.
Much time was lost owing to the heat of the day and the fatigue of the troops, but shortly after 3 p.m. he reached a position north of the Tronville copses whence his guns could fire into the left rear of the long line of Prussian guns (6th division and corps artillery) on the heights above Vionville and Flavigny. Their fire threw the latter into serious confusion and he had already decided to attack with his nearest division (de Cissey) in the direction of the steeple of Vionville, when his attention was caught by the outbreak of heavy firing in the copses below him, and the entry of fresh Prussian guns into action.
This diversion was brought about by the arrival of the corps artillery of the X. Corps and of the 40th brigade, which latter had been at once ordered into the Tronville copses to check portions of Tixier’s division of the French 3rd Corps, which under cover of these copses had gradually worked round the Prussian flank. Seeing then that the troops before him could hold their own, Ladmirault continued his preparations for his counterstroke, and Cissey’s division had begun to move into its prescribed alignment, facing towards Vionville, when the sudden apparition of a closed mass of Prussian troops detaching itself from the low dust-cloud of a slow-moving infantry column, and forming to the south of Mars-la-Tour, again arrested his attention. Unanimously he and his staff agreed that this fresh enemy could only be the advanced guard of a large Prussian force, possibly, it was suggested, of the crown prince’s army, from Alsace and Nancy, and a fresh delay arose while the situation was investigated. Actually this body consisted only of the 38th brigade (von Wedell), forming part of the X. Corps. It had no knowledge of the state of affairs on the battlefield, or in the direction of Bruville, though Prussian cavalry had been observing the approach of Ladmirault’s corps for some hours. It was now ordered to deploy and to co-operate with the 40th brigade in an attack on the Tronville copses. This meanwhile had been delivered, and had more or less failed.
The deployment completed, about 4 p.m. the 38th brigade began its advance on the north-west corner of the Tronville copses, this direction taking them diagonally across the front of Cissey’s division, still out of their sight but moving due south. Hardly had they stepped off when Cissey’s first line, catching sight of them, opened a devastating fire upon their left flank, and to meet this fresh danger the Prussians endeavoured to change front half-left whilst still on the move. Without pausing to fire, the men raced onward, but the French striking their outer wing rolled up the whole line in succession, the actual collision occurring in and near the Bruville ravine, a deep-cut natural trench which, starting from the Tronville copses, here intersects the plateau from west to east. Against the weight of French numbers, nearly three to one, the Prussians were unable to stand, and presently they broke and drifted backwards, completely routed. Then the 1st Guard Dragoons (since known as Queen Victoria’s regiment), after a brilliant manœuvre under heavy fire, to get into the best position for delivering a charge, rode down the whole French line of pursuers from left to right, and by their heroic self-sacrifice relieved the remnants of the infantry from further pursuit.
This was the scene which for the moment held the attention of Prince Frederick Charles when at length he reached the battlefield from Pont-à-Mousson. All along the rest of the line the Prussians were still holding their own, and on the extreme right fresh troops from the IX. Corps were streaming up through the woods against the French left wing. But on the left there was every sign of incipient disaster, and to avert this only the cavalry were at hand. Sending, therefore, hasty orders to the 5th and 6th cavalry divisions to concentrate to the west of Mars-la-Tour, the prince ordered them from there to sweep round on the right rear of the French army. The same idea had, however, occurred to Ladmirault, and he had called on the two nearest French cavalry divisions to put it into execution, and as the Prussians began to reach the plateau west of Mars-la-Tour and the Yron brook from the south, the French were deploying across it some two thousand yards to the north.
Then followed a duel—the one great cavalry duel of the war—between upwards of two thousand horsemen a side. But it was delivered by both sides in a series of regimental charges, and in result was singularly indecisive. For about half an hour great crowds of riders, hidden by dense clouds of dust, drifted aimlessly about the plain, till at length the charge of a single squadron of the Oldenburg Dragoons (who had joined in on their own initiative) delivered on the outer French flank, brought the whole mass into motion north-eastward, and, both sides sounding the rally, the engagement gradually ceased.
It was now about 7 p.m. and night was coming on. Seeing the dust-clouds drifting away northward, and noting the lethargy which seemed to have settled over the whole French line, Prince Frederick Charles decided to assert his own independent will to conquer by a final assault along his whole front. Guns, cavalry, infantry, everything that could still stand were to take part in it. Weary as they all were, his indomitable will put fresh life into the whole army. With drums beating and colours flying, every unit within call went forward for the final effort. It was almost dark when the Prussians approached the French position between Rezonville and the woods to the northward, and the troops soon lost direction in the smoke and became involved in the direst confusion; the firing again blazed out for a few moments, only to die away as utter exhaustion at length put an end to the Prussian advance. Then the wearied troops, for the most part, lay down and slept in the positions they had reached.
Thus closed the hardest fought battle of the Franco-German War. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. only 23,700 rifles, 8100 sabres and 126 guns had been brought into action by the Germans against 59,100 rifles, 6700 sabres, and 300 guns on the French side, and even at the close of the day the former had only deployed 47,100 rifles, 8300 sabres and 222 guns against 83,000 rifles, 8000 sabres and 432 guns including 24 mitrailleuses. The chief characteristic of the day’s fighting was the terrible effectiveness of the Prussian artillery, which was handled in masses and not, as on the French side, by batteries. The manœuvring power of the latter attracted the admiration of the Germans, but arriving singly on the field they were generally reduced to silence in a few minutes. Deprived of their support, not all the gallantry of the French infantry could avail anything. Again and again, particularly on their left wing, they chased the German infantry before them, but the moment the retreat of the latter downhill uncovered the pursuing French to the Prussian guns, a tornado of shells shattered their order and compelled them to retreat. Though the cavalry were freely engaged, the training of both was so far beneath the standard of the present day that the most that can be credited to them in respect of results is that they from time to time averted imminent disaster, but failed altogether to achieve such a decision as was well within their potential capacities.
3. Gravelotte—St Privat (August 18).—The position on to which the French army fell back from the field of Vionville is formed by a ridge some six miles long running from Rozerieulles almost due north to Roncourt, a little village overhanging the steep and wooded banks of the Orne, and connected with the general plateau between the Meuse and Moselle by a gentle saddle running from about Amanvillers nearly due west through the Bois de la Cusse towards Doncourt. North of this saddle the slopes show a slight concavity, but are passable by troops of all arms in close order. To the south the rivulet of the Mance soon forms a formidable obstacle as its bed cuts its way through the sandstone. Scrub and woods with dense undergrowth line both its banks, and, except by the great chaussée from Metz to Verdun, access to the French side becomes impossible to troops in ordered bodies.
It does not appear that the position had been systematically examined, or apportioned to the several corps in accordance with any predetermined plan. The army merely swung backwards, pivoting on its left wing, the corps preserving their relative order as it had been on the 16th, with the exception that the Imperial Guard was withdrawn to the spur on which Fort Plappeville stands, and the 6th Corps (Marshal Canrobert) crossed the line of march of the 3rd and 4th Corps in order to gain St Privat la Montagne. No lines of march were assigned to the several units, consequently the confusion became so great that though the distance to be traversed in no case exceeded six miles, only the right wing and centre reached their destinations as night was falling. Many of them had so little idea of the general situation that they actually placed outposts to the north and east, whilst the whole of the enemy’s army lay to the south and west. No attempt was made to entrench the position systematically, but on the left the 2nd and 3rd Corps made some disconnected shelter trenches and gun-pits, while the 4th Corps in the centre began to improve available cover about an hour before the battle began, and the 6th corps on the right, not yet having received any entrenching tools, could do no more than improvise a few loopholes in the walls of the villages of St Privat and Roncourt with such tools as the sappers could obtain from the inhabitants.
Fortunately for the French the Germans were too exhausted by the battle of the 16th to attempt to interfere with these movements. At daybreak on the morning of the 18th the royal headquarters (which now for the first time arrived at the front) still had no certain knowledge as to whether the French main army was in retreat—covered by the force which they could see on the high ground north of the Metz road—or whether they had taken up a position in order to fight.
Hence the orders issued overnight on the presumption that the main force of the French was retreating to the north and west were allowed to stand, and the whole II. Army (Prince Frederick Charles) moved off in échelon from left to right, the I. army under Steinmetz, consisting for the day of the I., II. and VII. Corps, being left in observation of the troops visible on their front and of the garrison of Metz itself. The I. Corps was kept back beyond the Moselle on the east side of Metz, the II. was not due to arrive at Rezonville before 4 p.m., hence the VII. only was immediately available if the enemy counter-attacked. But Steinmetz had not ordered, nor had von Zastrow, the corps commander, undertaken, any preparations to meet an emergency. About 10 a.m. the corps had reached the following positions: VIII. Corps, Rezonville; XI. near St Marcel; Guard approaching Doncourt; XII. towards Jarny; the III. and X., which had been so heavily engaged on the 16th, still in their bivouacs preparing to move. The cavalry of the Saxons had established the fact that the French had not retreated northward, but though scouts from the Guard had already seen the enemy on the heights of St Privat, this information had not yet reached headquarters, nor had it been transmitted to the IX. Corps, which it most closely concerned.
Shortly after 10 a.m. Moltke, still under the impression that the French right extended no farther than La Folie (2 m. north of the Metz road), determined to attack with the IX. and VIII. Corps whilst the Guard executed a turning movement Via Habonville against the French right. The IX. Corps was to engage, but not to push its attack home until the Guard could co-operate. The XII. Corps was left to its own devices, but fortunately the crown prince of Saxony, who commanded it, had ridden forward and, seeing the French in force towards Roncourt, had issued orders which in the event proved decisive.
In pursuance of his instructions von Manstein, commanding the IX. Corps, set his two divisions in motion towards La Folie and the Bois de la Cusse, and advanced to reconnoitre the French position. From the eastern edge of the above-named copses he suddenly descried the camp of a whole French Corps (the 4th), evidently ignorant of their danger, on the slopes trending westward from Amanvillers. Unmindful of the experience of the 16th, he decided to execute an artillery surprise on a grand scale, and sent orders to his corps artillery to come into action on the long spur overlooking the French camps from the westward. At noon, just as the French infantry were falling in for midday roll-call, sufficient guns were in position, and suddenly opened fire. But the effect was disappointing. The French infantry ran to their arms, piled along the front of their positions, and moved forward to attack, covering their advance by a hail of bullets. Simultaneously the French artillery also took up the challenge, and from the heights near St Privat the 6th Corps, whose presence had been unsuspected by the Prussians, joined in the fight.
In a few minutes the batteries on the extreme Prussian left were completely overwhelmed, and suddenly dense lines of French skirmishers emerged from a fold in the ground upon their flank and front, and the gunners were compelled to resort to case-shot, so imminent was their danger. But at this critical moment the leading companies of the Hessian infantry arrived, re-established the equilibrium (though not before four Prussian batteries had been temporarily overrun by the enemy), and a most obstinate fight ensued.
Prince Frederick Charles now rode forward to a point north-east of Vernéville, whence the southern boundary of St Privat could be seen. But the northern side of the village and the country towards Roncourt was hidden from his view by the high poplars bordering the Metz-Briey road. Seeing the Hessians hard pressed, he now brought forward the 2nd division of the Guard to their assistance, sending in the 3rd brigade immediately, and holding the 4th brigade in reserve. The 1st division, warned by their own scouts that French troops were in Ste Marie, deployed to attack this village, and were assisted in their endeavour by a brigade of Saxons detached by the crown prince of Saxony, who from his position could see behind the poplar screen that limited the view of the commander-in-chief. Hence he was already aware that the French position extended to Roncourt at least, and had despatched a whole division down the valley of the Orne to outflank them. No news of this movement, however, appears to have reached Prince Frederick Charles.
The French troops in Ste Marie were only an outpost of the 6th corps, and seeing themselves outnumbered, they withdrew about 2.30, the Prussians rushing the village immediately afterwards. Considerable confusion arose from the convergence of these three brigades upon one village, and more than an hour passed before the troops could be disentangled and massed for further operations. The leaders of the two Guard brigades, still ignorant of the extent of the French position, rallied their men on the main bodies of their commands (which had not been engaged) and then lay down facing exactly as they had done when brought forward to the attack. Thus the 1st brigade lay, facing about east-south-east, south of the chaussée and some five hundred yards west of the village. The 2nd brigade lay south-west of the village about three hundred yards away from it and facing nearly north-east.
The Saxons were on the left rear of the 1st brigade, but took longer to recover themselves than the Guards. With the Hessians and the IX. Corps the action still dragged; the 3rd brigade of the Guards had become involved in the fight, and notwithstanding the arrival of the corps artillery of the III. Corps in the centre the situation was still critical. From the south also came the thunder of guns and no encouraging news from that quarter had as yet reached the prince's headquarters.
About 4.30 p.m. the prince therefore had to consider how long it would take to obtain a decision. To postpone it till the morrow seemed undesirable: to achieve it before nightfall was only possible at the cost of immediate effort.
He therefore decided to assault St Privat with all the Guards available, and called up the III., X. and Saxons to assist them.
The 4th brigade of the Guards now received their orders to attack Jérusalem (a hamlet a little south of St Privat), and the 1st division was ordered to assault St Privat itself.
Von Pape, commanding the latter division, pointed out that no artillery force adequate to prepare the way for him was as yet on the ground, and that the Saxons were still a long way to the rear. But his orders were imperative, and the 4th brigade was already moving off and had to be supported at any cost. Actually all available batteries had already been sent for and were trotting forward from every quarter towards the objective. He accordingly transmitted his orders, and the 2nd brigade was the first to attempt their execution. It had to wheel half-right in mass to bring it in the required direction, and then to advance till its rear was clear of the obstruction formed by the gardens of St Marie. By the time (5.30) it had sufficiently cleared this village it became apparent that the 4th brigade in its extension for attack would overlap the front assigned to the 2nd, hence a further (half-left) wheel, still in mass, had to be undertaken before room for deployment could be obtained. Almost as the commands were given, the French suddenly opened an overwhelming long-range fire and their bullets swept like hail through the crowded mass of the German troops. Nevertheless the wheel was effected, the fresh direction taken, the troops extended for attack, and then the whole brigade dashed towards the houses assigned them as their objective. Meanwhile the 1st brigade had moved round the north of the village and carried out its extension without serious hindrance. But emerging from the hollow running north from St Marie, they came under a heavy fire not only from St Privat but also from Roncourt, which latter village they now saw for the first time. Instinctively a portion of their line worked to the left to face this new menace, and the front thus became dangerously extended. They were, however, now abreast of the 2nd brigade, and the whole line raced forward to reach the effective range of their very inferior weapons, which were about equal at 200 yds. to the French rifle at 600. But the losses of the 2nd brigade, particularly in officers, had been too heavy, and the rush died out whilst still 500 yds. from the two villages.
It was now about 6 p.m. and a long pause ensued, while the 220 guns, which by degrees had unlimbered behind them, brought St Privat and Roncourt under fire. About 7 p.m. the Saxon turning-movement took effect; their infantry from the Orne valley attacked Roncourt from the north, and about 7.15 the village was carried.
Neither Prince Frederick Charles nor the troops in the fighting-line could see what had taken place; but the former seeing other Saxons moving towards Montois and the masses of the III. and X. Corps approaching, whilst the rain of shells into St Privat exceeded anything hitherto seen on any battlefield, decided to call on the whole of his force to attack. He was in the act of issuing his orders when a psychological wave swept through the fighting-line, and the men rose and rushed the village at the point of the bayonet. It was now about eight o'clock, and the light was rapidly failing.
The French artillery had already evaded the coming blow, and had changed position, “right back,” to cover the flank of the rest of the army, and the Prussian and Saxon artillery trotting forward conformed to this new front, their shells sweeping the ground for 2000 yds. to the south of Amanvillers. The confusion in and around St Privat, where troops from four several corps were all intermingled, became so extreme that no further infantry-advance could be attempted; so under cover of the fierce artillery duel the remnants of the unfortunate 6th corps drifted away towards Metz down the many ravines leading into the river valley. The “annihilation” of the Guard at St Privat has become historic. Yet, heavy as were the losses of the 1st Guard division they were not excessive compared to those previously endured. In round numbers one-third of their effective had fallen—most of them in the first great rush forward at 5.30 p.m.; but actually they had been more or less under fire since about 2 p.m., and many were hit by French shells plunging into the turmoil about St Privat from 8 to 10 p.m. But the legend cannot be justified when the facts are compared with the slaughter of the Seven Years’ War, of Napoleon’s battles, the Crimea, and the American Civil War, or with the horrible punishment of von Wedell's brigade (38th) only two days before.
It is now time to return to the southern theatre of the battlefield, where an entirely independent engagement had been raging all the afternoon. Von Goeben with the VIII. Corps was standing massed about Rezonville when von Manstein's guns opposite Amanvillers suddenly made themselves heard. Wheeling his corps to face the French to the eastward he immediately sent forward his artillery and prepared to support his comrade. Von Zastrow with the VII. Corps followed his example. Both corps took as their primary objective the farms of St Hubert and Point du Jour, standing just above the defile made by the Verdun-Metz road where it climbs out of the Mance ravine towards the French position. About 3.30 p.m. St Hubert was carried by a confused mass of some 49 companies, and von Steinmetz, believing the main French position to have been pierced, ordered the 4th cavalry division to cross the ravine by the chaussée and pursue. Simultaneously von Zastrow, under the same impression, had ordered his corps artillery to advance by the same road, and von Goeben, thinking his troops in front required support, had sent forward an infantry brigade by the same line of road.
Presently all these columns converged upon the defile and a hopeless entanglement ensued. Three batteries succeeded in struggling through the mass, and, in coming into action, their left resting on St Hubert. But the remainder of the troops had to be withdrawn, and confusion breaking out in their rear, exposed to all the random bullets and shells of the French, a panic ensued, thousands of men breaking away and flying in wildest confusion through Gravelotte towards the west. Hardly had they melted away when the French made a most brilliant counter-attack from their main position between the farms of Leipzig and Moscow. This was stopped almost entirely by the Prussian artillery fire; but the news of its coming spread through the stragglers in the ravine south of the great road, and a wave of panic again swept through the mass, many thousands bolting right upon the front of their own batteries, thus masking their fire at the most critical moment, and something like a crisis in the battle arose. Fortunately the II. Corps was now rapidly approaching (about 6 p.m.), and the king, against Moltke’s advice, now ordered von Steinmetz (to whom the II. Corps had been allotted for the day) to attack again with all his forces. Meanwhile a third panic broke out which delayed the preliminary movements and it was now growing dark in the ravine. At length the II. Corps, together with all of the VII. that could be collected, moved down into the valley. Just as the leading German troops were approaching St Hubert the French again began to fire, their bullets plunging down among the fresh arrivals, who knowing nothing of what had taken place about St Hubert (where the remnant of their own infantry were still offering a desperate resistance) opened fire into the backs of their own men, and a fourth panic began which soon spread to the stragglers crowding the Mance ravine. Fortunately, by the superb gallantry of some of the company officers and men, the new arrivals were induced to recognize their mistake, and by degrees about 10 p.m. the whole of the II. Corps succeeded in reaching the plateau between St Hubert and Point du Jour, where the débris of the VII. and VIII. Corps had gathered. But in the darkness and confusion no forward movement against the French (only 400 yds. to their front) could be initiated, therefore the whole mass passed the night where they stood until daylight disclosed that the French had retreated.
Meanwhile the king, Moltke, and Bismarck, had ridden back behind Gravelotte where they passed two hours of intense anxiety. From the flash of the rifles, it was clear that the French main position was still intact, and as every body of troops within thirty-six hours' call had been engaged there seemed little prospect of renewing the struggle next morning. No news too had come in from Prince Frederick Charles. Ultimately about midnight the welcome tidings of the capture of St Privat arrived, and all anxiety was at an end.
4. The Investment of Metz (Aug. 19-Oct. 14).—During the night following the battle of Gravelotte the French army withdrew within the line of the forts round Metz. The 6th Corps only was severely shaken, the 4th (the best in the whole army), though it had fought hard twice within forty-eight hours, losing nearly 30% of its strength, was still well in hand, and the 3rd, 2nd and Imperial Guards were almost intact. A fresh issue of ammunition and food was all the men needed to make them a thoroughly efficient fighting force comprising some 100,000 troops capable, with a resolute leader and an efficient staff, of crossing over to the right bank of the Moselle, overrunning the I. German Corps, the only one in their direct path, and then fighting their way across the communications of the II. and III. German Armies until they regained touch with the French railways to the south-west about Troyes.
The mere fact of the effort being made would have given the battle of Gravelotte the moral effect of a victory, and the reaction in the German ranks from the feeling of over-confidence, which had mastered them after the early successes of Spicheren and Woerth, must have had most far-reaching consequences.
Bazaine, however, withdrew entirely under cover of the forts, and set about the reorganization of his troops in the most leisurely manner. The Metz forts, though neither sufficiently armed nor even completely finished in some cases, were nevertheless, with their deep ditches and self-protecting bastion trace, far too formidable for any field army to attempt without the aid of a siege train of some 200 guns, which for the moment were not available. Of this fact the Germans were well aware, and hence they decided from the first to reduce the place by hunger, calculating that with the extra 150,000 men thrown back upon the fortress, its food supplies could not last very long. On the morning of the 19th the German army was far too exhausted for further efforts. Except the I. Corps, which had been summoned overnight from its position about Courcelles towards the battlefield of Gravelotte and had almost reached the Moselle before this move could be counterordered, the remainder kept their places of the previous night, only following the French retreat with a screen of outposts. They were sufficiently occupied in collecting the wounded and clearing up the confusion resulting from an accumulation of trains and transport in the defiles of Gorze and about Novéaut. No eastward movement could have taken place that day. In the course of the afternoon of the 10th the royal headquarters, creating a new army under the crown prince of Saxony (Guard, IV. and XII. (Saxons) Corps) for field operations towards the Meuse, assigned the remainder of the II. Army, and the whole of the I., to Prince Frederick Charles as commander-in-chief of the army of investment. This brought the strength of his command up to eight corps, numbering some 220,000 men; an enormous mass to feed in a district swept bare of supplies by the operations of the preceding week, and with only one railway line, terminating at Courcelles, to depend upon.
For the moment the chief care of the Prince was to guard against an attempt of the French army to break out to the westward. The I. Army Corps with Kummer’s Landwehr division (which arrived during the night of the 19th–20th of August) were to occupy a position to cover the rail head at Courcelles-Rémilly, and the remainder were disposed in the following order: The X. Corps was on the north, with a bridge head at Hauconcourt-sur-Moselle, the II., VIII. and VII. along the eastern slopes overlooking the Moselle valley, the latter having also a fortified bridge head at Ars-sur-Moselle, The III. and IX. were cantoned almost on the battlefield of the 18th, between Caulre Farm and Roncourt, ready to move off to the left and support the X. Corps in the event of an attempt on the part of the French to break out towards Thionville.
The positions were fortified with a light outpost line, behind which was drawn a main position on which every art of the engineer was expended. Ample arrangements were made for obtaining and circulating intelligence, and all lateral communications were improved and supplemented to the utmost. A light field-railway from Rémilly to Pont à Mousson (14 m.) was also put in hand, but progress on this was very slow. The water-supply of the town was promptly interrupted, but the river water was quite drinkable.
Meanwhile, the French in Metz had been diligently at work. There was no real deficiency of ammunition and stores in the fortress, and provisions for forty days were reported in hand. Bazaine was still in communication with the outside world, though return messages came in sparingly. On the afternoon of the 25th he decided to break out to the northward by the right bank of the river, and orders to this effect were duly issued. Many delays arose in their execution, and it was not till 2 p.m. on the 26th that the troops were formed up ready for action. But at the last moment the marshal wavered. Calling a council of war on the heights of Fort St Julien, he asked the opinion of his subordinates, who were unanimously against the proposed sortie, principally because the artillery “had only ammunition enough for a single battle!” Besides, the Germans had long since become aware of the movement in progress, and all chance of surprise was past. It was also raining very heavily. Accordingly the scheme was abandoned.
On the 29th of August Bazaine received a despatch, dated the 27th, from MacMahon, according to which his army should have been at Stenay on the Meuse and farther to the south by the 30th. The marshal accordingly determined to renew the attempt of the 26th, and orders—almost a repetition of those of the previous occasion—were issued.
At this moment (Aug. 31) the positions of von Manteuffel’s command (I. Corps and 3rd Landwehr division) were most dangerously extended, and a surprise at daybreak might have had far-reaching results. But the habit of excessive bugling and band-playing betrayed the French design even before daybreak. Not until 1.30 p.m. was the concentration completed, and Bazaine again assembled his commanding officers to give them their final instructions. This time he adhered to his decision, and about 4 p.m. the attack opened (battle of Servigny or Noisseville); but his opportunity had been allowed to slip, and though his first onset overwhelmed the German outposts, their main line held good, and masses of guns unlimbering over a front of some 4 m. rendered all further attempts to break the German cordon abortive. Firing only ceased as darkness fell, and next morning the fighting was again renewed. But the whole French army was disheartened. It was obvious that what they had failed to do by surprise was hopeless now that twenty-four hours had been given in which the Germans could make counter-preparations. Therefore about noon a general retirement under the guns of the forts took place, and the last serious hope of the French army had vanished. Some 120,000 men with 528 guns had been engaged against 60,000 Germans with 222 guns, and had been beaten off with a loss of 3500 men. The Germans had lost about 3000.
The investment now resumed its regular course. The Germans, secure in the strength of their position on the left bank of the Moselle, drew more troops over to the right, and added to their defences and communications. The idea was even mooted of damming up the river near Hauconcourt, and thus flooding out the whole of the civil population of Metz; but expert civil engineers, who were sent for from Germany, reported against the proposal.
As time wore on the conditions in Metz and the surrounding camps became deplorable. The hospitals and private houses had been crowded with wounded from the first, and now, owing to the persistent wet weather, smallpox and dysentery became epidemic. Towards the close of September rations had to be reduced, and the troops began slaughtering the cavalry horses for food. Probably to cheer the men by a semblance of activity, Marshal Bazaine attempted a sortie on a large scale on the 1st of October in the direction of Ladorchamps, and fighting continued into the 2nd, but without prospect of success, and the profound depression following on defeat sent up the sick list rapidly. One other sortie towards Noisseville followed on the 7th, the alleged reason for which was the hope of obtaining provisions in the neighbouring villages. But it was beaten off with the utmost ease by the investing troops, who were well fed and cared for; and as by this time even the gun-teams had followed the cavalry horses to the slaughter-house, the French army as an army—i.e. a combination of the three arms—had ceased to exist. On the recognition of this fact negotiations for the capitulation of Metz were begun on the 13th of October, and on the 14th the Army of the Rhine surrendered. Had it held out even forty-eight hours longer events before Paris and Orleans might have taken a different turn.
The investment of Metz had lasted 54 days, and the death-roll of the civil population had risen to 3587 against 1200 in the corresponding period of a normal year. The army itself had only lost from sickness 2600 men, or barely 2% of its full effective. (F. N. M.)
- Steinmetz was shortly afterwards relieved of his command and returned to Germany.