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Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1647/France Before the War

From Blackwood's Magazine.


Paris, October 20, 1875.

It will not perhaps be altogether useless to give an outline of the situation of the French army at the moment when the late war broke out; for, though important changes have been introduced since into the system which then prevailed, old habits still continue to exist in sufficient force to lead a good many onlookers to imagine that some at least of the same results might be produced again by the same causes. As regards the year 1870, very detailed evidence of both causes and results has been supplied to the world; and though that evidence has been brought forward in a fashion which most Englishmen cannot help deploring, it has, at all events, the merit—for the object which is in view here—of unfolding a complete story of what happened.

No foreign spectator has forgotten that, directly the war was over, the French exhibited a fierce desire to localize the blame of their defeat — to remove it from the people at large, and to allot it specifically to certain persons. There was a hot longing in the air to destroy somebody — a resistless need to select victims as a sacrifice to the national pride; so that, when public punishment had been brought down on a few chosen heads, all the rest of the population might soothingly comfort itself with the conviction that it was proved to be innocent of all participation, direct or indirect, in the faults which had brought about the wreck. The idea which was suggested in certain English newspapers, that the causes of disaster might perhaps be, not exclusively individual, but, to some extent at least, national as well — that they might be, in fact, a result of weaknesses and infirmities proper to the generation as a whole — was contemptuously rejected as preposterous. It was declared to be impossible that so utter a discomfiture could be in any way attributable to reasons common to the entire land; it was asserted, with all the confidence of rage, that it resulted solely from the personal incapacity and folly of a few guilty individuals, and a shout arose that those individuals must be discovered and convicted. A variety of measures were adopted in consequence of this clamour: the Bazaine trial and the two parliamentary inquiries into the contracts made during the war, and into the proceedings of the government of the 4th of September, were instituted mainly in order to satisfy it; the nation astonished and afflicted Europe by the savage delight which it seemed to take in dragging into daylight all the secrets of its disgrace; and, to make the confession thoroughly complete, nearly all the more important actors in the war wrote books, describing fully their own merits and each other's sins. By these strange means the whole inner history of the preparations for war was laid bare. It was a sad sight for the friends of France; they have mournfully remembered it: but in France itself it really seems to have become almost forgotten; it appears to have half vanished from popular memory and to have left no manifest trace behind it, except, indeed, some unslaked hatreds which are silently biding their time. In one sense, therefore, the tale has become prematurely old; but as, to foreign eyes, the value of its teaching is in no degree diminished by the indifference with which, according to appearances, the mass of the French have now grown to regard it; as, indeed, to our view, that teaching looks, in some respects, to be almost as much needed by them at this present time as it was before the war, — it may be worth while to group it together a few of the facts which it presents. The revelations made are, however, so extensive, the questions which they raise are so complicated and so varied, that it would be impossible to consider all their aspects here: the insufficiency of military preparation is the only one at which we propose to look; and though the details of it are scattered through a hundred volumes, it will not be difficult to pick out the more important of them.

But in order to obtain a general view. of the material conditions under which France commenced the campaign, it is essential to look back a little and to see what had been passing during the years which preceded 1870. The other wars of the Second Empire had brought to light so many faults of organization and such incredible disorder of management, that it was scarcely possible to suppose that the government had not attempted to remove some at least of the defects which had been revealed. It was not reasonable to imagine that a system could have been left entirely unchanged which — to refer to one single class of examples only — had allowed 73,000 men to die in the Crimea of disease and privations, while only 20,000 were killed or died of their wounds; which, though of course on a much smaller scale, had reproduced in Lombardy nearly the same proportions of mortality; and which, according to Dr. Champouillon's report, had left badly wounded men so utterly without food during the Solferino campaign that many of them crawled from their beds into the roads in order to beg for bread. And yet it turned out that these "imperfections," as they were gracefully called, had produced no effects at all; that routine had kept things as they were; that no reforms whatever had been enforced or even proposed. The various army services remained exactly in their old condition; the teachings of the Russian, Italian, and Mexican wars were forgotten in victory; the French had conquered; a system which had provided triumph was taken to be, if not faultless, at all events quite good enough, notwithstanding its "imperfections:" and so everything went on unaltered. Indeed, so convinced was France of the ample sufficiency of her military arrangements, that in 1865 the Corps Législatif called for a reduction of the army, and the government did not dare to refuse it, for it was just beginning to struggle out of the fatal expedition to Mexico, which had cost £14,000,000 of confessed outlay, and nobody knew how much more of unavowed expenses. Considerable diminutions were effected: 2 regiments of heavy cavalry, 32 squadrons of other regiments, and 221 companies of infantry were suppressed; 1,268 officers were put on half-pay. But the very next year the Sadowa campaign occurred; France woke up victory ceased suddenly to seem a certainty; a universal feeling jumped into existence that the army was not strong enough, and that immediate measures must be taken to increase it. It was not generally imagined that the entire military organization of the country needed to be changed—that unsatisfactory conviction was, at that time, limited to a few wise men; but everybody became convinced that the number of soldiers must be instantly doubled. Yet notwithstanding the unanimity of this feeling, a strange delay occurred; the emperor and his advisers could not agree between themselves as to the plan to be adopted; they disputed over it so long that it was not until nearly eighteen months after Sadowa that Maréchal Niel, at that moment minister of war, was ready to bring forward his bill for enlarging the army; and that bill, which was waited for so long, was limited to the creation of the Garde Mobile. And then, as if it wished to proclaim to Europe that, in the eyes of France, number was everything in war and organization nothing, the Chamber refused to allow the minister to drill this new Mobile for so exorbitant a period as eight days at a time as he proposed; it reduced the periods of instruction to twelve hours, thinking, apparently, that as every Frenchman was born a soldier, that length of teaching was quite sufficient for him. And the minister bowed down his head before this childish folly, and told the Chamber that, though it really was a pity to so restrict the education of men who knew absolutely nothing, he would do what he could all the same: "it is for this reason," he added, "that I see with less regret the suppression of the eight days of drill, and I add that, without them, we will, do the best we possibly can." In this prodigious fashion was established the new force which was to render France a match for Germany! From that time forth the Garde Mobile was counted as representing some 500,000 available soldiers.

Maréchal Niel did, however, make an effort to introduce a few small improvements into the active army; unfortunately the effort did not last — he died in 1869; and though after the appearance of General Trochu's celebrated book in 1867, a commission had been appointed to select a new system of infantry manœuvres fitted to the changes which had arisen in the art of war, that commission, of course, declared in substance that no modifications were required, and things were kept as they were before. The result was that in 1870 the French army was virtually in the same condition as in 1850; it had learnt absolutely nothing whatever; the one single novelty which had been introduced into it — the formation of the Garde Mobile — was an utter illusion; it was no more ready for a serious campaign than a sick schoolgirl is ready to go up the Matterhorn. Two illustrations of its general state of organization may usefully be given before we begin to describe what happened when the war broke out. They are taken almost at hazard, amongst fifty others of the same kind.

M. Blondeau, intendant-general, stated in his evidence before one of the parliamentary commissions, that the wagons of the trains were all kept parked at Vernon; that when he went there in 1868 he observed that there were about 8,000 vehicles in the enclosure; that they all had to be got out one by one through a single gateway; that, consequently, a very long time would be required for the purpose; and that he believed the officer in charge of the park had made a calculation showing that the operation would last for eight months. This means that the officer in question knew perfectly that the vehicles intrusted to him could not possibly be employed in the event of sudden war; but that, instead of informing his superiors of the fact, he contented himself with privately working out a sum which showed arithmetically the utter uselessness of the whole thing. If this officer had been asked why he did not inform the ministry of the impossibility of getting the carts horsed and taken away, he would most certainly have replied that ten or twenty times in the course of his career he had ventured to point out abuses to his chiefs; that some of those gentlemen had simply shrugged their shoulders with indifference; but that others, less gentle in their views of the proper attitude of a subordinate, had given him to understand that if he made complaints his promotion would be delayed. It should be added, however, that, thanks to M. Blondeau's visit, the condition of this park was altered before 1870.

The second example is so curious and complete that we will state it in the words of the report. M. de la Valette, another intendant, said that — "In 1867, at Strasburg, we were speculating on the possibility of a war; an idea of war was in the air, and it was natural that we should think about it on the frontier, for, even at that time, it was felt that the nationality of the district might depend upon the issue of a war. General Ducrot then commanded the division; and as he felt most deeply the apprehensions to which I allude, we frequently talked over the measures to be taken in order to provide Strasburg with supplies for either aggressive or defensive action. In 1868 I drew up a statement showing what was indispensable for an army of 30,000 men, indicating what we had in store at the time, pointing out the useless articles which might be removed in order to make room, and enumerating what was wanted to make up a complete assortment. I had given a copy of this statement to the inspector-general in 1868; I gave a second copy of it to the intendant-general in 1869.

"Our fears increased; we found that the inhabitants of the opposite bank of the Rhine were convinced that war was coming. I therefore examined my calculations over again; I increased them so that they might serve for a corps of 50,000 men, and I took them to General Ducrot, asking him what he thought about them. I told him that, on two separate occasions, I had communicated my views to the representatives of the ministry of war, that I had arrived at no result whatever, and I proposed to give him another copy, for him to send to the ministry through General de Failly, who at that time commanded at Nancy. I added that if the minister saw the same statement come before him through two different channels, he would perhaps imagine that there was something in it. Soon afterwards I went myself to Paris; I saw there M. Blondeau, chief of the intendance of the army, who spoke to me in a tone which proved how little he knew of the truth. He said, that if my impressions and those of General Ducrot were correct, it followed that the minister of war was the only person who was ignorant of the facts of the case; for if they really were as I supposed, the minister would certainly have spoken to him about them. That was conclusive; there was nothing more to be said. As I was leaving M. Blondeau, he observed that I did not seem to be satisfied. I answered that, even if General Ducrot and I exaggerated the dangers of the situation, it was painful for me to return to Strasburg without having obtained anything what ever."

Then appeared General Ducrot, who gave the commission the following information: — "I commanded the Strasburg division for five years. When I first arrived there I wished to know what was in store, for there were large magazines full of objects. I found 2,000 cannon, of which about 400 or 500 were fit for use. All the others were old bronze. There were stone cannon-balls of the time of Louis XIV., and an enormous quantity of flint-muskets. I wrote at once (in 1865) to the minister of war, calling his attention to the fact that all this was very much out of place in a frontier fortress, and asking that the useless objects should be transported into the interior of France, that they should be replaced by serviceable stores, and that the cannon should be put on carriages. I found that we had cooking-pots for 2000 men and water-flasks for 15,000, and so on with everything else. Many absolutely indispensable articles were altogether wanting. There were no halters or picket-ropes for horses; but there was black cloth enough to dress more than 100,000 men.

"I wrote to the minister that all this was inadmissible, and I insisted on the necessity of relieving us of our useless stock and of sending us what we needed. I talked about it all to M. de la Valette, who was then my intendant. He drew up a statement of what was wanted for a corps of 30,000 men, with a reserve of10,000, showing exactly what we had in excess and what we had not got at all. We verified this statement together, and I sent a copy of it to M. Blondeau. I remember particularly that we required 144 wagons, and that we had only 18; and I begged M. Blondeau to remedy this at once. He replied by a polite letter, saying that he recognized the justice of my observations, and that he would attend to them. Soon afterwards M. de la Valette informed me that he too had written, but with no result; and he asked me to communicate officially with General de Failly, who commanded the corps d'armée, saying that he (La Valette) would do the same to the ministry of war. This was done. I got a reply stating that before wagons could he sent to us it was necessary to see if we could provide shelter for them. There the matter remained until the war broke out. I had spent five years in asking uselessly for indispensable objects."

These two stories supply good illustrations of what was manifestly the general condition of the French army. The ministry was convinced that its management was excellent; it would listen to no complaints, it would follow no advice; it calmly continued its habits and traditions, the essential principle of which was to leave things as they were.

After this indication of the situation during the period which preceded the war, we will now give details of what occurred at the moment when the war began.

As regards the numerical force of the army, which is naturally the first question to consider, no absolutely exact data are obtainable. The various official statements which have been published are not only incomplete, but disagree frequently with each other. It is, however, quite possible to group the figures according to the seeming probabilities of the case, and so arrive at an approximative result. The nominal peace footing was 400,000 men, and the reserve of the active army stood at 165,000; so that, on this showing, there ought to have been 565,000 men immediately disposable. But the very first thing we discover is, that the 400,000 men who were counted in the budget were not under the colours; and, though it is not possible to determine with precision the number who really were there, we shall find good reason for presuming that, on 15th July 1870, it could not have exceeded 300,000 altogether — the other 100,000 having evidently been sent away on leave, so as to economize their pay and rations. It is true that, at the plebiscite of the 8th of May, 330,000 soldiers had apparently voted in France and Algeria; but it will be seen directly that we cannot find that number in July. It is therefore probable that, directly after the plebiscite, 30,000 more men were sent home, in addition to the 70,000 who were already evidently absent in May. These figures do not pretend to be strictly exact; but as to the main fact that the effective force of the French army had been reduced to a very low ebb indeed in the summer of 1870, no doubt is possible; for General de Palikao, who was minister of war from 10th August to 4th September 1870, uses the following words in his book, "Un Ministère de Vingt-quatre Jours." In speaking of the plebiscite he says: "The result of this political act was to show Europe that the total number of men present in our army was only 250,000." This figure is, however, too low, and was used probably as expressing the number of fighting men, after deducting the non-combatants. Still, reduced as the army was in fact, the theoretical number of disposable men stood, as we have said, at 565,000. Let us see what this produced in reality on the outbreak of war.

In his evidence before the commission of the Chamber, Maréchal le Bœuf put in a written statement, from which it results that, on the 2d of August, the entire army of the Rhine, including the troops of McMahon, and even the corps of Canrobert, which was not then really formed, amounted to 244,000 men; and that figure is confirmed by General Frossard in his book on the operations of the corps which he commanded. But this included, necessarily, such of the men on leave, and such of the reservists, as had had time to reach their regiments since they were called out on the 14th of July, nineteen days before. It may be guessed, under all the circumstances, that the men of these two classes who had managed to join their corps by the 2d of August must have represented somewhere about 44,000; so that, if that estimate be correct, the number of men of the Rhine army who were with the colours before the war was about 200,000. If the number of leave-men and reservists exceeded 44,000, then the 200,000 must of course, be proportionately diminished, which would make the previous situation worse still; for it appears in the evidence that all the other troops in France, in Algeria, and at Civita Vecchia, irrespective of those incorporated in the army of the Rhine, did not, on or about the 20th of July, exceed 93,000, made up as follows: —

Eleven regiments of the line, 14,500 men.
Three battalions of African infantry, 2,500

Eight regiments of cavalry, 6,000

The part of Canrobert's corps which had remained at Chalons, 10,000

And the depots, which are put at about 60,000

So giving a general total of 93,000.

Consequently, we can only discover, altogether, about 293,000 men (which we have previously put roundly at 300,000) as having been under arms before the declaration of war, instead of the 400,000 voted in the budget.

To this original basis of 293,000 men we have now to add the 107,000 who (to make up 400,000) must evidently have been on leave, and also the 165,000 of the reserve. The former were of course soldiers, but the same cannot possibly be said of the latter. All the reservists, it is true, had been in the army, and had consequently received a military education; but since they had finished their term they had never been called out for exercise, and scarcely any of them had ever seen a chassepot, for that arm had been introduced into the service after the greater part of them had left it. Furthermore, most of them considered themselves to be virtually freed from any further obligations towards their country; and it was proved by thousands of lamentable examples, that it was not with any lively feeling of discipline or duty that they found themselves called upon to rejoin. It is worthwhile to quote one instance out of many, of the disorder which reigned amongst them. We will take it from an interesting book on the action of the railways during the war, which has been published by M. Jacqmin, manager of the Eastern Company. He says: "From the third or fourth day (after the declaration of war), our stations, like those of every line in France, were encumbered with soldiers of the reserve belonging to every regiment in the army; they were grouped by the district intendants under the orders of non-commissioned officers, but the latter had no authority over their detachments, and knew nothing of the men who composed them. The result was that men kept dropping off on the way, and that these isolated soldiers soon formed a floating mass which wandered about the roads and railway stations, living at the cost of any charitable persons they could find, but never reaching their corps. At the end of August the station at Reims had to be defended against an attempt at pillage made by a band of 4,000 or 5,000 of these men, who had given up all idea of joining their regiments." It is fair, however, to add that, in many cases, these men had to go enormous distances to join; several regiments were more than 400 miles from their depots, to which all the men had to go in the first instance; and General Vinoy quotes, in his book, as a specimen of the organization which prevailed, the famous story of the Zouaves who were sent to Algeria to get their uniforms and then brought back to France to fight. He says: "In the war of 1870, reserve men belonging to the regiments of Zouaves, but residing in the northern departments, had to cross the whole of France and to embark at Marseilles in order to get themselves armed and equipped at Coleah, Oran, or Philippeville, and then come back to their corps at the point whence they had started. They traveled 1,300 miles by railway, and crossed the Mediterranean twice." Another tale, of exactly the same kind, was related by M. Blondeau in his evidence. He said that by far the greater part of the reserves of infirmiers and of workmen required for the army belonged to sections of those services which had their depots in Algeria; that when the war broke out he entreated that these men might be sent direct to the army of the Rhine, where they were most urgently required; that he was told in reply that such an arrangement would be "too complicated," and that the men must go according to rule; and that, in fact, a very large number of them (nearly 3,000 apparently, though, as the statement is rather confused, that figure may be incorrect) were embarked at Toulon and sent to Africa because routine required it.

Between the want of discipline of the men and the disorder of the management, the incorporation of the reserves went on with extraordinary slowness; indeed, we have just supplied evidence enough of that slowness by showing that the number of those who had joined the army of the Rhine on the 2d August, nineteen days after they were called out, could not probably have exceeded 44,000. Now, according to a document emanating from the minister of war, 163,000 reservists were started off to their regiments between the 18th and 28th of July; and we must necessarily suppose that the 107,000 men whom we imagine to have been on leave were also on their way to join, so making 270,000 men in all who were travelling to their destinations during the second fortnight of July. If, therefore, we are right in our computation, that only 44,000 of them had reached the army of the Rhine on the 2d of August, it follows that the remaining 226,000 must have been at that date either at the depots of their regiments, or else on the roadsides all over France. Of course it is not possible to say how many of them had got to their depôts; but there is good reason for believing that the number who were wandering along the highways and round the railway-stations was enormous, for all the histories and reports are full of lamentations on the subject. The majority of these 226,000 men were utilized afterwards, that is evident; but there is no exaggeration in presuming that, during July and part of August, at least 100,000 of them were straying about the country living on public charity.

This is indeed a frightful story, and it would be impossible to believe it if it were not told, directly or indirectly, by the numerous French witnesses on the subject. It is so sad and strange that it is worthwhile to resume it in one sentence, and to repeat once more, that at the moment when the war broke out, the French army consisted nominally of 400,000 men, of whom about 107,000 appear, according to the probabilities of the case, to have been absent on leave, the remaining 293,000 being present with the colours; that when these 107,000 men, and also the 163,000 men of the reserve, were ordered to join, only 44,000 of the two classes (which numbered together 270,000) had reached the army of the Rhine in nineteen days; and that, of the remaining 226,000, one-half may be presumed to have got to their depots or their regiments elsewhere than in the Rhine army, while the other half continued to wander about France without any apparent intention of joining voluntarily at all.

We get next to the Garde Mobile. When war was declared it existed on paper only. It is true that, in 1869, a little drilling of the Parisians belonging to it had taken place; but the experiment had given the worst possible results; the men had behaved disgracefully, and the attempt had been abandoned. A slight commencement of organization had also been sketched out in the eastern departments; but when Maréchal le Bœuf became minister of war in 1869, he had suspended the further preparation and instruction of the men, on the ground that he did not believe there was the slightest use in it. It may therefore be observed, before we pass on, that Maréchal le Bœuf appears to have intended to fight Germany with nothing but the 565,000 men of the regular army and its reserve. The nominal effective of the Garde Mobile stood originally at 500,000, as we have stated; in 1870 it was given officially at 420,000, but it does not appear that even 20,000 men thereof had been really utilized at the end of August. Such of its members as had been called up at that date were exclusively in the eastern fortresses; for it is not possible to count the Parisian battalions which conducted themselves at Chalons in such a fashion that they had to be recalled to Paris as being not only useless, but dangerous.

From all these figures it results that the whole nominal force of the French army, regular troops, reserves, and Mobiles included, amounted to about 985,000 men; and Maréchal le Bœuf has stated in his evidence that, out of this general total, 567,000 really serviceable men could be relied upon; but, if we allow for the sick and the non-combatant services, which would represent on this latter total 74,500 men, and also for the gendarmerie and the troops absolutely required in the interior and in Alberia, the number to be so deducted may be put altogether at 130,000. There would therefore remain only 437,000 men to bring into line, from which again we must deduct the number of the reservists who did not join. So that, whichever way we turn the question, it seems indisputable that the total forces of every kind which could be seriously employed against the enemy at the first commencement of the campaign could not have much exceeded 300,000 fighting men, only five-sixths of whom were on the frontier. It should be repeated that these figures cannot be absolutely relied upon, for some of them are hypothetical and the rest are extracted from a mass of contradictory official evidence; they seem, however, to present a reasonable appearance of truth.

The matériel was in an even worse state than the men. General Suzanne, who, in 1870, was director of matériel at the ministry of war, informed the parliamentary commission that, when the war broke out, France possessed 21,000 cannons, of which 10,000 were field-pieces. So she did; but, unfortunately, these numbers included, as Duke d'Audiffret Pasquier observed in his speech to the commission on 13th June 1873, "cannons of the time of Louis XIV., and the artillery of Gribeauval;" all the old smooth-bore guns were also counted in it as forming part of the disposable armament. Furthermore, though there really were 4,000 rifled field-guns, only 2,376 of them possessed carriages and limbers; the others were all lying on the ground. And even this reduced quantity could not be utilized, for the number of horses required for them was 51,548, with a corresponding supply of harness; so that, as only 31,904 horses were forthcoming, it was not possible to send more than 150 batteries (900 guns) to the army of the Rhine; and even this number included mitrailleuses, so cutting down the cannon, properly so called, to 850. As, however, we have shown that the army of the Rhine was limited to 244,00 men, it follows, after all, that, in consequence of its numerical weakness, the theoretical number of four guns to each 1,000 men was really reached. It should be added that there was harness for 47,000 horses; it was therefore found possible, by making limbers and buying horses, to turn out eighty more batteries by the latter half of August, just in time to send them to Sedan to he taken by the Prussians.

The story of the muskets is of the same nature. The official reports showed that there were 3,350,000 of them in hand on 1st July 1870, and it was argued that, with so vast a supply, an army of 900,000 men would fight for several months. But it turned out that only one million of those muskets were chassepots, that 1,750,000 of them were percussion-guns, and that the rest were modified Miniés (tabatières). As an example of the fashion in which these arsenal statements were made up, it may be mentioned that 57,000 of those very guns had been sold as old iron, for six shillings each, and were in process of delivery to the buyer; but they continued to be counted as available for service in the event of war! The result was that, after the first month, there were virtually no chassepots left, and that the contest had to be carried on with such inferior weapons of varied types as it was found possible to make or buy.

The stock of ammunition was so insufficient that only about 120 cartridges existed for each chassepot: in the very first battles of the campaign the supply was exhausted, and special manufactures had to be set up.

As for uniforms and kits, it was supposed that far more than enough were in store; but they ran short immediately, and contracts for every sort of article had to be made in all directions before the month of August was half over.

Of food it may be said that scarcely anything was ready. There were 38,500,000 of biscuit-rations for the army, but no stocks had been laid up in the fortresses; in Metz, for instance, according to the evidence, there was a quantity of corn and flour, and some bacon, but neither rice, coffee, salt, nor wine.

The telegrams sent by the various commanders reveal the state of the supplies at the very commencement. On 19th July, General de Failly telegraphed: "I have nothing — not even money; we require supplies of every kind." On the 24th the intendant of the 5th division telegraphed: "Metz, which supplies the 3d, 4th, and 5th corps, has no more biscuit or oats." The same day the intendant of the 3d corps says: "The 3d corps leaves Metz to-morrow: I have no infirmiers, no workmen, no ambulance-waggons, no field-ovens, no carts, and not one intendant in two divisions." On the 25th July, the sous-intendant at Mézières sent word: "There is neither biscuit nor salt-meat to-day at Mézières or Sedan." On the 28th, Maréchal le Bœuf telegraphed: "We cannot march for want of biscuit." On the 29th, General Ducrot telegraphed to Strasburg, from Reichshoffen, where he was with his division: "The question of food is becoming more and more grave; the intendance gives us absolutely nothing; everything is eaten up around us." And all this, let it be borne in mind, took place in France itself, with the bases of supplies close to the army, and before one battle had been fought.

The same disorder existed in the fortresses; not one of them was in a state of defence. We have already described the state of Strasburg; the Bazaine trial has shown the condition of Metz; the construction of the outlying forts there was scarcely commenced; at Belfort nothing was done until two or three months after the declaration of war: Toul, a most important strategic point, was not armed. In Paris the state of things was almost worse; the forts contained one guardian each; not a gun was in battery in them.

Whichever way we look through this long, saddening testimony, the story is the same. M. Wolf, intendant of McMahon's corps, says that there were no orders and no plans; that, though the railway company could carry nearly all that was required, it could not, for want of men, unload the waggons when they arrived at their destination, and that the unloading had to be done by the troops; that it often happened that a mile of waggons stood for a week full of objects which were most urgently required, because it was impossible to discharge them. Everybody declares that there were no ambulances, no hospitals, and no nurses; and that if it had not been for private charity and for the society for helping the wounded, the men would have been left to die where they dropped. But let it be remembered that, while all this was happening in Alsace, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of hospital attendants and army-workmen were at that very moment on their way to Africa, in obedience to routine. General Ducrot says that, before his division quitted Strasburg, he applied for permission to leave the shakos of the men in store there; that the ministry of war had not dared to consent to so bold a measure; and that, in consequence, as his men preferred to fight with their képis, they flung their shakos into the ditches to get rid of them, and that they "became the playthings of all the boys in Alsace," who picked them up on the roadsides. In many of the regiments the men had no spare needles for their chassepots; "no one knew how to fire a mitrailleuse, except one officer; a few shots, with powder, were fired from them before starting, so as to see how 'these machines' were to be employed." The cavalry was organized on five different bases between 15th July and 15th August; it often happened that regiments and even divisions of cavalry were annexed to divisions of infantry; the plans and projects varied every day, and sometimes several times each day, as is proved by the orders and counter-orders which were telegraphed to Paris as to the supplies of food to be sent by rail to the army.

Such is, in all truth and fairness, with no exaggeration, and with no selection of exceptionally bad facts, the story told by the witnesses. Such was the state of the French army at the commencement of the campaign — such was the practical effect produced by the "system" of military management which was then in force in France.

This was the condition of things down to the 10th of August. On that day the Ollivier government was turned out and the Palikao ministry came in. The first stage of the story ends there. On the 10th of August the Germans were streaming across the Saar and through the Vosges and were close to Metz, where the larger part of the army of the Rhine was waiting to be shut up; the rest of it had been defeated and had fallen back on Chalons. A new army was required, with new arms and new stores. Then the second series of preparations commenced. General de Palikao says in his book that he provided "a reconstituted army of 140,000 men, at Châlons; that he got together three other corps d'armée (including thirty-three new regiments), with their armament, their artillery, and their supplies; that he organized 100,000 Mobiles in the provinces, and brought them up to aid in the defence of Paris; that he placed Paris in a state of defence; that he armed the forts; and that he did all this between the 10th of August and the 4th September." If really he did all this, then the situation on the 10th of August could not have been so bad as it looked: but, in fact, he did nothing of the kind. The truth about his administration is as follows.

The 1st corps (McMahon), the 5th (De Failly), and the 7th (Donay), which had been organized at the beginning of the war, had retreated, after the battle of Woerth, towards Chalons, and all that the ministry of war had to do for them was to send them the men and supplies which they required. The 12th corps, which was added to them at Chalons, was mainly composed of infantry of marine, completely organized. Furthermore, several regiments belonging to the 6th corps at Metz had not been able to join it, and had been sent to Chalons. So far General de Palikao had only to direct — he had nothing to create; and even as regards the new 13th corps (Vinoy), he did not do much more, for that corps consisted of the garrison of Civita Vecchia, which had been recalled in all haste, and of new regiments made up out of the depots and reservists. All these troops existed; they had but to be grouped together. The 14th corps was nowhere, even on the 4th of September; it did not acquire a form until a later period. The 100,000 Mobiles called into Paris were neither armed nor equipped; it was during the month of September that their percussion-muskets were exchanged for breech-loaders, and that cloth uniforms were made to replace their cotton trousers and blouses. It is true that the fortifications of Paris were hurried into condition by General de Palikao; but there was so much to be done to them, that when the Prussians reached Paris on the 19th of September, the place might still have been taken by a coup de main.

In reality General de Palikao utilized the débris of the defeated armies, emptied the depots, collected the reservists, and got out the last muskets which had been overlooked in the magazines, and the cannon for which no horses had been forthcoming at the beginning. As for providing fresh arms, it is evident from his own book that he did not do so, for he states that he only bought 38,000 rifles while he was minister. Still, though he did a vast deal less than he claims to have done, he deserves praise for having shown energy and resolution in a desperate position, and for doing probably the best that could be done with the pre-existing materials at his disposal.

One only of the members of the ministry of the 10th of August dared to innovate, and to inaugurate the system of contempt for rules and routine which was to be so vigorously carried out by the government of the 4th of September. M. Clément Duvernois, minister of commerce, spent £8,000,000 in a fortnight in buying food for Paris. He did this, of course, with much disorder; but he did it, and by doing so, he rendered an enormous service to his country, for it was solely in consequence of his work that Paris was enabled to stand a siege of four and one-half months. And here it may be worth while to mention a curious fact which does not seem to have ever become generally known. All this tremendous effort to fill Paris with food, though carried out with the utmost publicity, was completed without one word of it reaching the ears of the Germans. Here is the proof thereof. The crown-prince of Prussia arrived at Versailles on the evening of the 20th September. The next morning, while walking in the picture-galleries of the palace, he met Mr. W. H. Russell; with Mr. Russell was an Englishman who had left Paris three days before, and it was from that Englishman that the crown-prince learnt for the first time, with much astonishment and some incredulity, that Paris had been supplied with food and would stand a siege. The prince immediately called General von Blumenthal, his chief of the staff, and told him this unexpected and disappointing news. The German army arrived round Paris with the conviction that the city could not resist, and that they would take it at once. The siege was a painful surprise to them. It was through the energy of M. Clément Duvernois, and through his contempt for rules, that they were kept outside till February. Unfortunately for M. Duvernois, he has since shown his contempt for rules in another manner; he is now undergoing two years' imprisonment for frauds committed in the management of a company of which he became a director after the war.

We now reach the third phase of the war preparations. On the 4th of September all real hope had disappeared; France was beaten; she had no army left; half her troops had been taken at Sedan, the other half were blocked up in Metz. Scarcely any old soldiers remained excepting a part of Vinoy's corps, which had been unable to reach Sedan and had come back to Paris; the arsenals were empty; the situation was desperate. But then, when it had become manifestly useless to go on fighting, a series of efforts was made which, though they came too late to win back victory, proved at all events that, even after routine had destroyed all chances of success, something could still be attempted by strong will and vigour.

Here, however, the subject changes its character. Thus far we have been describing results attained by the ministry of war, by the official military system under which France had been managed during the preceding twenty years. We now arrive at the moment when professional direction was replaced by civil direction, when the ministry of war disappeared as a motive power. But at the same date the preparations for defence became divided into two parts, so entirely distinct from each other, that we must cease to regard the work done as a whole, and must look separately at what was effected in Paris and what was effected in the provinces, We will take Paris first.

In Paris there were men enough, in all conscience, to create an immense army; there were, indeed, a vast deal too many of them, for the 100,000 Mobiles, added to the regular troops who had re-entered Paris, absorbed all the really serviceable arms and accoutrements that could at first be provided, and rendered it impossible, for that reason, to make any immediate use of the inhabitants. And here it may be observed that, if the law enrolling all men under thirty-five years of age had been practically enforced in Paris, the Mobiles could have been left in the country, and would have formed another army there. The number of soldiers available in Paris, at the commencement of the siege, appears to have been as follows:

Regular troops, 135,000
Gendarmes, 6,000
Mobiles, 116,000
Sailors, 11,000
Custom-house and Forest Guards, 6,000



The regular troops were composed (in addition to Vinoy's corps) of the elements of the unformed 14th corps, and of a large number of the conscripts of 1870, who had just been called out. There were, in addition to this large force, about 12,000 francs-tireurs, and 266 battalions of National Guards, whose exact number was never known, but who may be roughly estimated at about 300,000 men. It is generally believed that about 120,000 of the latter might really have been made into soldiers, but it was not till the end of November that the slightest attempt was made to utilize them. The total number of men of all kinds under arms in Paris was therefore about 586,000, and that vast mass allowed itself to be shut in, on the 19th September, by a German army which, at that date, did not include more than 120,000 fighting men, and which had to guard a circle of fifty miles!

The details of the armament which had been got into Paris were as follows. The cannon for the forts had been brought up at the beginning of August; 549 tons of powder were ready, but there were no loaded projectiles, and the cannon for the fortifications themselves were still in the country. On the 8th, Paris was declared in a state of siege; and in four days, by working very hard, 525 guns were got into their places on the ramparts. Ammunition was brought up in large quantities; the marine arsenals supplied 228 rifled cannon of very large size, with ammunition for 200 shots for each of them. On the 25th of August there were 1,700 tons of powder in Paris; the tobacco-works were turned into a cartridge-factory, and private contracts were made for projectiles of all sorts. On the 3d September, 703 cannon were in battery in the forts of Paris and St. Denis, and the forts were largely supplied with ammunition. As regards muskets, there are no exact returns; but it is known that 280,000, of different types, had been issued to the National Guard by the end of September; that 153,000 were delivered to the Germans after the siege by the regular troops and Mobiles; and that about 25,000 more were retained by the troops who were not disarmed: but the total thus indicated is certainly much inferior to the reality. Of field-guns there were a large quantity; the army had 93 batteries, the sailors 16, the Garde Mobile 15, and the National Guard 9. On this showing there were 798 field-guns, 602 of which were handed over to the Germans.

A considerable number of these field-guns were made in Paris during the siege, and a large quantity of muzzle-loading muskets were simultaneously converted into breech-loaders. One manufactory of sewing-machines transformed 50,000.

Finally, as regards food, the position was as follows: —

The "Bulletin de la Municipalité de Paris" of 16th September 1870 stated that the stock of flour which had been got in before the investment amounted to 45,700 tons; so that, as the consumption each day was about 700 tons, it was calculated that the place could hold out for sixty-four days. But, very luckily, this estimate was far under the reality. It turned out that Paris contained much more flour than was supposed, and that there was in reality enough for 131 days; so that, allowing for diminutions which were afterwards effected in the daily rate of eating by putting the population on reduced rations, it is evident that the real quantity of flour in hand at the origin must have been nearly 90,000 tons; and that quantity does not include either the supply for the troops or the provision laid in by private persons. Meat appears to have been furnished by 24,000 bullocks, 150,000 sheep, 6,000 pigs — all got in by M. Duvernois — and 60,000 horses. It should, however, be added, that none of these figures can be regarded as positively exact: they are probably tolerably near the truth; but as no official statistics have ever been published on the subject, they are only put forward here as estimates based on such information as it has been found possible to collect.

But all these preparations, after all, were as nothing compared with the astonishing efforts which were made in the provinces. In Paris the will to struggle usefully, if, indeed, it really did exist at all, was manifestly paralyzed by the incompetence of the military direction which continued to prevail there: but in the provinces the entire power was exclusively in the hands of civilians; and what they did, though useless and in wild disorder, was altogether amazing under the circumstances. Notwithstanding the exhaustion of the country, there still remained some scattered forces to collect. By the 16th September a hundred companies were formed out of the remnants of each of the regimental depots. The best of the Mobiles were collected into regiments and brigades. Three line regiments which had been left in Algeria were brought over. With these troops the 15th corps was created, which became afterwards the nucleus of the army of the Loire. All the Mobiles of the south and centre were called up. A separate group of 13,000 men was got together at Rouen under General Gudin, and another of 4,000 men at Evreux under General Delarue. At Chartres and Amiens other groups were formed; and an army of 20,000 men grew up at Le Mans. In the eastern departments Cambriels rallied 5,000 or 6,000 stragglers; and in addition to all this, the formation of a 16th corps was commenced at Tours.

But all these agglomerations were of no real military value; most of the men who composed them were raw labourers, who were armed with percussion-muskets pending the arrival of breech-loaders from abroad. Indeed, if we are to judge by the evidence of General Lefort, who was, at the commencement, secretary-general of the ministry of war at Tours, no very clear idea seems to have existed at first as to the possibility of using any of these men. He said to the commission, "I ought to tell you that, when we began the organization of the 16th corps, I did not really expect that it would be called upon to take any part in military operations. Under that impression I observed to the minister of war (Crémieux), that, though this new army was perhaps not destined to really act, I regarded its formation as indispensable, for the sake of the considerable moral effect that it might have not only on the defenders of Paris, but also on the population of the south and centre, who would feel that there was a French army between them and the Germans."

On the 9th October, however, a different spirit was thrown into the work. On that day M. Gambetta arrived from Paris and put an end to the ridiculous follies of M. Crémieux and M. Glais Bizoin, who were disputing which of them should be minister of war. The new dictator knew no more about the matter than they did, but, at all events, he was young and fiercely energetic. His first act was to call to his aid a man whose acts have been judged with much diversity of opinion — M. de Freycinet — who became, in reality, minister of war at Tours. This gentleman was an engineer of the imperial corps of mines, and it was he who, under the title of "délégué à la guerre," managed all the details of military organization at Tours and Bordeaux. The second act of M. Gambetta was to suspend the laws relative to promotion, and to decree that extraordinary promotion might be granted either for supposed capacity or for services rendered, and that military grades could also be bestowed on persons who were not in the army.

At the same date the formation of an auxiliary army, to be composed of Mobiles, National Guards, and francs-tireurs, was decreed. This new army was assimilated in every respect to the regular army, so as to he capable of being amalgamated with it at any moment. Futhermore, all the departments within sixty miles of the enemy were declared to be in a state of war; a committee composed of officers and civil engineers was formed in each of them in order to fortify the department.

On the 3d of November, each department was called upon to provide, within two months, as many batteries as it contained 100,000 inhabitants. All francs-tireurs were ordered to become part of the army in the territory where they might happen to be; every man under forty years of age was called out; camps were formed for concentration and instruction; an intelligence department was established in the war-ministry; civil engineer and civil commissariat services were organized; horses were collected. During November and December seven new corps d'armée were formed, each of them composed of about 30,000 men. But of course these corps were virtually useless; it could not indeed be otherwise. To give one example of the fashion in which they were set going, it is worth while to quote a letter which was written by M. de Freycinet to Captain Jaurès of the navy, when the latter was named general of the 21st corps. This letter has never been published, but it well merits to be known for the sake of the strange picture which it presents. It said: —

"You are appointed general of brigade in the auxiliary army, and are intrusted with the command of the troops who were formerly under the orders of General Fierrêck, with whom you will immediately make arrangements. You will also make arrangements with Colonel Rousseau, who will become your chief of the staff. You will eliminate from the troops of whom I have just spoken all the men belonging to the 16th and 18th corps, and you will send them to their respective chiefs. With the remainder, and with the Mobiles that you may be able to get together, you will form a corps d'armée of forty or fifty thousand men, in three divisions, which will be called the 21st corps, and which you will command.

"You will form your artillery yourself, so as to have eighteen batteries, if you can. You will, also form your proper quantity of cavalry, unless, indeed, it be impossible to do so, in which case we will try to help you. For the organization of your corps in matériel we will give you the necessary powers for making requisitions in the departments of the Manche, Calvados, Orne, Sarthe, Mayenne, Eure et Loir, and Eure. Go on, then. Form your cadres yourself; if you want a few officers we will give them to you; but do your utmost to suffice for yourself, and to quickly get a veritable army into line, formed of all the débris around you, and of the new elements which you will create yourself."

These impossible orders were positively executed! General Jaurès took up his command on 20th November, got together stragglers in all directions, and formed a corps which, when compared with others of the army of the Loire, was singularly solid; for it was that corps which stopped the Duke of Mecklenburg for three days at Le Mans, and fought the last fight of the war at Sillé le Guillaume.

It is needless to pursue further the story of the efforts made in the west. Those efforts serve to show the difference between the tremendous energy of the amateur civilians, and the stolid incapacity of the professional authorities; but that fact, after all, only proves what we knew before—that strong will can attain results which are beyond the reach of indolence and routine. The old system resisted the German army for one month, the new one held out against it for five months — hopelessly, uselessly, madly, it is true — but it held out.

And now let us revert to the question which was implicitly raised at the commencement, and see if we can form a distinct opinion as to the distribution of responsibilities. It cannot be supposed that, even if the French army had been thoroughly well organized, it could have stood successfully before its tremendous foe, for mere numbers would have inevitably beaten it in the long run. But certainly, weak as it was numerically, we are justified, by the nature of the earlier battles of the war, in believing that it could have fought on for months, if only it had commenced the campaign in good order, with supplies and with capable commanders. Whose fault is it that neither order, nor supplies, nor generals were there, and that the entire army was hopelessly vanquished in four weeks, between Woerth and Sedan?

The French press has passionately discussed this question; but, unfortunately, it has almost invariably considered it from political points of view, so as to serve party interests, and not at all with the impartiality which is needed in order to solve so tangled a problem. The Republicans, the Orleanists, and the Legitimists of course declare that the omnipotence of Napoleon III. renders him alone responsible. The Bonapartists reply by counting up the hostile votes and speeches of the opposition deputies, and try to prove from them that the plans of military action put forward by the imperial government after 1866 were paralyzed by the Chamber. The eager reformers who have risen up in such abundance since the peace attribute the greater part of the blame to the prejudiced routine of the minister of war. The English press has added one more explanation by asserting that the temperament and dispositions of the whole French people had a not inconsiderable share in inducing the breakdown.

It would be a very difficult — perhaps even an impossible — task, to apportion the blame with critical exactness between these various elements; and here there is no space for the long developments which such an inquiry would necessitate: but, as foreigners, we have, at all events, an advantage over the French in the matter, because, having no personal interests and no political party to serve, we are able to recognize that blame is merited in each one of the four directions mentioned; and that, even if it be impracticable to allot it everywhere in precise degrees, the great fact is clear to us that it is deserved all round.

But, though we will not attempt to weigh out judgments so as to fit them accurately to the relative guiltiness of the accused, we may, in safety, indicate the general proportions of censure to which we are led by the evidence which has been given here. It seems impossible to deny that the great first culprit was the ministry of war, taken as a collective whole expressing the system and the principles on which the French army was administered. It was in the hands of that institution that all the working power was deposited, that all information was collected, that all initiative was concentrated; it was the supreme master of the army. We have seen that it did its work with negligence, incapacity, conceit, and disorder; it is on it that, without any possibility of reasonable doubt, the great condemnation of history will rest.

Next in culpability stands, incontestably, the emperor himself. No argument, no evidence, can set him free; on the contrary, in the eyes of all impartial persons who study the arguments and the evidence, whatever be their sympathy for the fallen or their respect for the dead, his share in the wretched tale is frightfully heavy. Without alluding to the collateral details of the question, to the councils of generals which, according to M. d'Audiffret Pasquier, he held during the spring of 1870, so as to get all ready; or to the pamphlet, evidently written or inspired by him, which was privately printed in Paris two months before the war, showing that the North-German army alone amounted to 895,000 men, and that France was no match for it,[1] and limiting his responsibility to mere questions of technical preparation and forethought, — it is manifest that a terrible load weighs upon him. He had voluntarily assumed a position of individual power, and consequently of individual responsibility; and his position before France and before history is scarcely less grave than that of his acting agent at the ministry of war, for he approved, maintained, and applied the system which brought about defeat and ruin.

The Chamber may be put third in the list. It was both incapable and ridiculous; its habitual subservience to the emperor on the one hand, and its sudden assumption of independence on the subject of military organization on the other, were as comical as they were lamentable. It understood nothing of the great questions which it presumed to touch; but, by the act of touching them, it assumed a share of the onus of failure.

And then comes the nation at large, impulsive but mistrustful, self-confident but credulous, abandoning everything to its rulers, but reserving boundless faith in itself, convinced that French soldiers could not fail to conquer, but grumbling at the cost of keeping them; and, with all this, adoring detail and routine — a repetition on a vast scale of the ministry of war itself.

It may be said, in general terms, that in the universal race to ruin, the nation encouraged the Chamber, that the Chamber encouraged the emperor, and that the emperor encouraged his minister. It was between them all, by their collective acts, that they arrived at the result. The blame of it must lie upon them all.

With few exceptions, the entire people, whatever may be said now to the contrary, entertained substantially the same views before the war; the immense majority was convinced that France was irresistible. The opposition deputies went farther than any one in that belief; for they persistently asserted in the Chamber that no regular army was required at all, and that, "with liberty and a National Guard," France would be a match for all possible enemies. The government profited so eagerly by every possible opportunity to assure the nation of its strength, that it is worth while to give a few examples of the sort of talking it indulged in. Maréchal Randon, then minister of war, said, in April 1867: "What! a nation like France, which, in a few weeks, can assemble 600,000 soldiers round its flags, which has 8,000 field-pieces in its arsenals, 1,800,000 muskets, and powder enough to make war for six years, — that nation is not always ready to sustain by arms its honour and its right? The army is not ready to commence a campaign when it counts in its ranks the veterans of Africa, of Sebastopol, of Solferino? — when it has to lead it these experienced generals and this crowd of young officers, prepared by the expeditions of Algeria and Mexico to exercise higher commands? What army is there in Europe which possesses such elements of experience and energy? Our infantry is not yet entirely armed with the needle-gun; but has the forward march of our voltigeurs ever been stopped, in our old wars, by the Tyrolese sharpshooters, armed with their rifled carbines, or by the English riflemen? Oh! then let us recall the military virtues of our fathers: they are worth more than needle-guns!"

And this was proclaimed by a marshal of France in the year after Sadowa!

On the 18th of January 1869, the emperor said to the Chambers: "Our improved armament; our arsenals and our magazines all full; our reserves well exercised; the Garde Mobile now forming; ... our fortresses in perfect condition, — give our power an indispensable development ... The military resources of France are henceforth suited to her destiny in the world."

On the 20th of March 1869, Maréchal Niel said, in a speech to the Corps Législatif: —

"The soldiers of the Garde Mobile are all inscribed in the control lists, and are organized in territorial circumscriptions, by companies and battalions. We are organizing the officers. If danger came, and a rapid result were necessary, we are in a position to attain it. We have an excellent army, well instructed, full of ardour, perfectly organized, and provided with everything. ... I do not know what is generally felt in France, but, for my part, I regard with much philosophy the questions of war or peace which are being discussed around us, and, if war were necessary, we are perfectly ready for it."

And on 12th April of the same year he said: —

"Whether it be peace or war is absolutely the same to the minister of war. He is always ready. I will not repeat what I have said several times already, but the army can be put on a war footing in a week. I have nothing but an order to give."

On the 16th August 1869, the Moniteur published the following note: —

"An army of 750,000 men disposable for war; nearly 600,000 men of the Garde Mobile; instruction everywhere pushed on to a degree hitherto unknown; 1,200,000 muskets manufactured in eighteen months; the fortresses ready; an immense matériel prepared for every eventuality, of every kind,—in such a situation France stands confident in her force. All these vast results have been attained in two years!"

Such was the language held by the emperor, by his war-ministers, and by his government. The nation believed every word of it, not so much because the government said it — that, perhaps, was rather a reason for doubting — but because those wordy boastings about military power were exactly what it liked and wanted; because they fitted in exactly with its temperament and its wishes; because, in fact, it would have been indignant if such speeches had not been made. It imperatively required declarations of this sort from its government, and its government was weak enough to give them.

Since 1870 a great wake-up has taken place; but still France longs for the same official assurances that she is great and powerful. There is no sign yet that the old spirit has been driven out, either amongst the people or at the ministry of war; on the contrary, there is too much reason to believe that it continues to exist in both directions, in little-weakened strength. The events of 1870 supply a starting-point from which progress can be measured; that progress has commenced; in some respects it is both real and serious, in others it is scarcely perceptible: but though it will be recognized, after the story which has been told here, that there is room for it all round, it will indeed be wonderful if the ministry of war does really shake off routine. Few people will venture to indulge the dream that such a result can ever be realized; for most of us are convinced that Dr. Chenu was right when he said, in his famous book on the mortality of the French army, that if an official of the ministry of war had been present at the creation, he would have cried out to the Creator, "Stop, stop! this will not do at all; you are disturbing chaos."

And we English, have we nothing to learn from this woeful story? Is it sure that none of its teachings apply to ourselves as well as to the French?

  1. An original copy of this pamphlet, found in the palace of the Tuileries, is in the hands of the writer of this article; it is entitled, "Une Mauvaise Economie," and was printed at the Imprimerie Impériale in May 1870.