Date: August 18, 1870
Location: Villages of Gravelotte and St. Privat in eastern France
Opponents: (* winner)
*Germans Prince Friedrich Karl; General Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz
French Marshal François Achille Bazaine; Marshal François Certain Canrobert
Approx. # Troops:
Importance: The French inflict heavier casualties on the Germans but withdraw to the fortress of Metz, missing a chance to break free.
The Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat was an important battle during the Franco- Prussian War (1870-1871). In 1866 Prussian minister-president Otto von Bismarck had engineered a war with Austria that ended with Prussia becoming the dominant power in northern Germany. Although Prussia dominated the new North German Confederation, Bismarck knew that he could not complete his plan of unifying Germany under Prussian leadership without first defeating France.
French emperor Napoleon III had been humiliated by the 1866 war. Promised compensation by Bismarck in return for French neutrality, Napoleon expected that the war would be of long duration and that France would then be able to impose a settlement. The war lasted only seven weeks, far too short for France to have any role in determining peace terms. When Napoleon pressed for compensation, Bismarck asked for it to be put in writing. When Napoleon complied, Bismarck reneged. Later he used the document to help secure defensive alliances with the southern German states of Baden, Bavaria, and Württemberg. Furious, French leaders were bent on revenge, yet the government did little to prepare the French Army for war.
In 1870 Bismarck attempted to present the French with a fait accompli by placing the German Catholic Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen on the throne of Spain. The French government learned of the secret plan, and Foreign Minister Duc Antoine de Gramont demanded, through French ambassador to Prussia Count Vincent Benedetti, that the candidacy be withdrawn. Prussian king Wilhelm I, at Ems and away from Bismarck in Berlin, agreed.
France thus achieved a mild diplomatic victory, but Gramont wanted more. He ordered Benedetti to secure a pledge for the future that no Prussian prince ever be a candidate for the throne of Spain. Wilhelm I politely but firmly rejected the request and communicated this information to Bismarck, who then edited the communication and released it to the press. This Ems Dispatch was so cleverly presented that it inflamed opinion in both countries and led to war. Most Europeans were not aware of Bismarck’s hand in events and blamed France.
French government ministers had whipped up public opinion to the point that it was next to impossible to back down. Premier Émile Olivier encouraged the national illusions by saying that he “accepted war with a light heart.” Among the French leadership, only Napoleon expressed doubts. Minister of War Edmond Leboeuf’s assertion that the army was ready “down to the last gaiter button” was entirely misplaced.
On July 15, 1870, the French Corps Législatif (the elected branch of parliament) nonetheless voted war credits, with only 10 deputies dissenting. Prussia mobilized immediately. From this point there was no wavering on either side, and on July 19 the French government declared war. Prussia’s treaties with the southern German states now came into force, so it was really a Franco-German war.
By the end of July, chief of the Prussian General Staff General Count Helmuth von Moltke had positioned three armies of some 380,000 in the Rhineland along the French frontier. From north to south, these were General Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz’s First Army of 60,000 men, Prince Friedrich Karl’s Second Army of 175,000 men, and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm’s Third Army of 145,000 men. Moltke held another 95,000 troops in reserve until he was certain that Austria would not intervene. King Wilhelm I had nominal command, but Moltke exercised actual command authority through the General Staff. The Prussians were fully prepared for the war, and their military intelligence and maps of France were both excellent. The French mobilization was not complete by the time the war began. The French Army deployed some 224,000 men in eight corps. The army had élan, but its recent military experience was in North Africa. The French breech-loading Chassepot rifle was superior to the basic Prussian rifle, the Dreyse Needle Gun. The French also had a new weapon in the mitrailleuse, which formed about a fifth of the French artillery. Developed in great secrecy, it was a 37-barrel machine gun that could fire about 150 shots a minute and had a range of some 2,000 yards. A lot depended on how the mitrailleuse was deployed, and the French chose to use it as artillery at long range, where it was inaccurate and could be destroyed by the new Prussian Krupp artillery. French mobilization procedures, logistical arrangements, and military intelligence were all abysmal. There was no general staff in the Prussian sense of the term, and senior military leadership was inept and unimaginative.
At the end of July, Napoleon ordered a general advance. The emperor was not well, but he accompanied the army in the field. On August 2 a skirmish at Saarbrücken, just across the border, saw the French advancing from the fortress of Metz to scatter the few Prussian troops defending there, although the French failed to occupy the city. Moltke then attacked to the south, driving French forces back toward Strasbourg. Attempting to halt this offensive, on August 6 Marshal Patrice MacMahon sacrificed his cavalry in gallant but costly charges near the town of Fröschwiller (Wörth). MacMahon was forced to evacuate Alsace, and the road to Paris was now open to the Prussians.
To the north a second Prussian thrust enjoyed success at Spieheren, and Napoleon ordered Metz abandoned. The emperor’s defeatism rapidly spread through the army. On August 12 Napoleon yielded field command to Marshal François Achille Bazaine to lead a reorganized Army of the Rhine. Napoleon departed for Chalons in order to raise a new army. Moltke sought to cut off the withdrawing French, but in the ensuing August 16 battles at Vionville, Merse-la-Tour, and Rezonville the French fought well. They lost 13,761 men to 15,780 for the Prussians, but Bazaine, having given up hope of breaking out, ordered the army to return to Metz.
On August 18 Moltke attacked Bazaine with his First Army and Second Army, hoping to destroy the French. The battle was fought between the villages of St. Privat la Montaigne and Gravolette, with the major point of combat the walled village of St. Privat. This battle differed from previous engagements in its size-more than 188,000 Germans with 732 guns fought 112,000 French with 520 guns-and in that both sides expected it.
At St. Privat, commander of the Second Army Friedrich Karl sent in the elite Prussian Guard against Marshal François Certain Canrobert’s VI Corps. The attackers lost 8,000 men, and Canrobert’s corps of 23,000 men held against some 100,000 Germans. Bazaine ignored Canrobert’s pleas for reinforcement. Not until a Saxon corps arrived to the north and threatened to cut off his force was Canrobert obliged to order a withdrawal back toward Metz.
Meanwhile, on the French right two German corps battled their way east of Gravolette, only to become trapped in a ravine. The German attempt to disengage resulted in a panicked withdrawal. The French counterattack was checked only by effective German artillery fire and Moltke’s personal intervention with reinforcements. Although the French withdrew, the next morning there was little sense of victory among the Germans. They had lost some 20,163 men; the French lost 12,273 men.
The tragedy of St. Privat-Gravolette for the French was that had Bazaine made a concerted effort there, he would most likely have achieved a victory and broken free. As it was, on August 19 the French were back at Metz, where the Germans promptly sealed them in. The separation of their two field armies proved a disaster for France.
References Howard, Michael. The Franco-Prussian War. New York: Routledge, 2001. Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870- 1871. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.