Forty kilometres east of Metz along the main road lies the town of Saint-Avold, from which several routes lead towards the German frontier. Arriving at Saint-Avold on 29 July, the emperor met the commander of 2 Corps, a general he knew well. Charles Frossard had been tutor to the Prince Imperial, and as a military engineer was thoroughly familiar with the uplands of Lorraine. Before the war he had drawn up plans for the French to block a German advance from the north-east by taking up a defensive line along the formidable heights above the Saar valley. His 28,000 troops were now encamped around Forbach, on the road that leads northeast from Saint-Avold to the frontier, beyond which it continues to the German town of Saarbrücken on the left bank of the Saar. Frossard convinced the emperor that it would be useful to take Saarbrücken and, as the army was not yet ready for a major offensive, Napoleon agreed. Such a move would be a sop to impatient French public opinion and to expectations within the ranks of the army itself, and would signal to Austria and Italy, whom Napoleon still hoped to bring into an alliance, that France was in earnest.
Napoleon gave his orders the next day, 30 July, leaving the operational details to his generals. At a council of war they concluded that it would be unsafe to venture beyond the Saar, and drew up elaborate plans for Frossard’s advance to be supported by demonstrations by divisions of neighbouring corps: Failly’s 5th on his right and Bazaine’s 3rd on his left.
Saarbrücken, then a town of 8,000 people, was overlooked by a chain of low hills to its south, one of which was crowned by the drill-ground of the garrison and a pleasure-garden. The French assaulted these hills in mid-morning of a warm 2 August, and soon discovered that they had taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The position was held only by a battalion of infantry and three cavalry squadrons, who after a sharp fire-fight followed their orders to withdraw if attacked by a superior force. The whole affair was over by midday, witnessed from a distance by Napoleon and the Prince Imperial, whose exploit in picking up a spent bullet was made much of by the jubilant Paris press. Casualties were about ninety men apiece. From the hills they had captured, the French fired their mitrailleuses after the hastily retreating Germans and lobbed shells towards the railway station, which damaged houses in the suburbs, much to the indignation of the German press.
The French made little attempt to occupy the town, and had no thought of exploiting their momentary advantage by funnelling troops across the Saar to engage the heads of the nearest German columns before they could concentrate. Neither did they destroy the telegraph, nor the rail or road bridges across the Saar from which the town took its name. By 5 August, feeling isolated and exposed as reports arrived of the advance of the German First and Second Armies, Frossard asked for and received the emperor’s permission to withdraw to a ridge further south, just inside the French frontier. During a night of pouring rain he marched his men to their new positions, where a storm of an altogether different kind was about to break over them.
German cavalry entered Saarbrücken on the morning of 6 August. Probing southwards, it did not take them long to find the new French position on the wooded heights which took their name from the nearby village of Spicheren, but they concluded that this must be a rearguard left to cover a French retreat. A battle this day was no part of Moltke’s grand strategy, which envisaged a crossing of the Saar on a wide front on 9 August prior to pinning down the French army while German forces turned its flanks. Nor was the infantry of First Army supposed to be anywhere near Saarbrücken, where the roads had been allocated to Second Army. So eager was the elderly General Steinmetz, commanding First Army, to win the glory of attacking the enemy first that he had wilfully disobeyed Moltke’s directives, funnelling his men south of their assigned roads and enraging the commander of Second Army, Prince Friedrich Karl. Thus the nearest infantry unit was 14th Division of First Army, commanded by General von Kameke, who promptly passed through the town and deployed beyond it to drive the French away.
Kameke’s decision might have proved suicidally rash had the French counterattacked promptly and in force, but they remained on the defensive. Even so, the Germans began to suffer heavy losses as they made piecemeal frontal assaults on the central bastion of the French right, a steep red sandstone bluff called the Rotherberg, atop which the French defenders had hastily dug trenches. Under murderous Chassepot fire from the men of Laveaucoupet’s division, the surviving Germans were glad to hug the dead ground around the foot of the Rotherberg. Nor could their comrades-in-arms make much headway against the French left, where Vergé’s division held a gap in the ridge in front of the industrial village of Stiring, home to the foundry that formed part of the empire of the prominent ironmaster Wendel. For hours the Germans struggled to capture a succession of isolated buildings along the poplar-lined road that ran from Saarbrücken to Stiring, including the customs house and the Golden Bream inn. By early afternoon a full-scale battle was under way, with the French having the advantage of numbers and position.
As the afternoon wore on, that balance began to tilt. However ill-tempered the bickering between the headquarters of First and Second Armies had been that morning about rights of way, the German instinct of solidarity took hold at the sound of gunfire. Every commander within earshot headed for the fighting. Messengers and the telegraph summoned others, who poured into Saarbrücken by road and rail, using the bridges that the French had so considerately left intact. Successive changes of command as more senior German generals reached the scene did not detract from the unfolding of a jumbled but determined offensive, with new units being fed into the line wherever they were most needed. By late afternoon the Germans had at least 35,000 men on the field, and their batteries posted on the drill-ground south of Saarbrücken and the adjacent hills were beating down the French artillery and forcing their infantry under cover as shell after shell burst among them. Even in the village of Spicheren, well behind the French right, German shells perforated the walls of the church and school, killing a few of the wounded who had been evacuated there earlier even as overburdened regimental surgeons worked on them.
Eventually German infantry penetrated the forested ravines right and left of the Rotherberg and secured a foothold despite desperate French counterattacks. The French lacked the strength to hold every part of their 5-kilometre line in sufficient force. Back at his headquarters in Forbach where the telegraph was, Frossard exercised little control. The commander of his reserve division, the aptly named General Bataille, took his men forward on his own initiative to plug gaps in the French line, enabling it to hold for the moment. All Frossard’s men were now committed to the fight, but German pressure continued unabated.
Now the French paid for their failure to concentrate their forces. The nearest supporting units, the divisions of Bazaine’s 3 Corps, were five or six hours’ march away. Bazaine, back at Saint-Avold, was apprehensive that the Germans might cross the Saar on a wide front, threatening his troops at any point, and it was not until 1.25 p.m. that Frossard advised him by telegraph that a battle was in progress. Bazaine was later accused of leaving Frossard to his fate out of jealousy for a rival, but he did order his dispersed division commanders to send support. After a meandering march, one got scarcely halfway to the battlefield by dark; another reached it far too late to be of any help; and a third, after taking up a ‘good position’ miles from the fighting, was misled by an acoustic quirk of the wooded hills into believing that the cannonade ahead had ceased, and had his men return to their camps. Years of inquiries and accusations about the responsibilities for the events of that sultry August afternoon lay ahead, but the one certainty was that, in glaring contrast to the German commanders, the French generals had failed to hurry support to the threatened point on time: support that would have restored French numerical superiority and enabled a counterattack.
Thus Frossard’s men, tired out by their lost night’s sleep and six hours of intense fighting, and running low on ammunition, were condemned to fight their battle alone. On the Spicheren ridge the Germans captured the French trenches and hauled some artillery onto the neighbouring hill, forcing the French to give ground. Officer casualties were high on both sides as the fighting swayed back and forth in the smoke-filled woods. Although the Germans could not be dislodged, Laveaucoupet’s men held them in check by a bayonet charge at about 7 p.m.
Meanwhile on the left in Stiring-Wendel fighting continued into the dusk among houses, factories, slag-heaps and loaded coal wagons in the railway-yard, as well as in the nearby forest. In a letter home a Breton soldier, Yves-Charles Quentel, described going into battle there:
When the bugle sounded I was nervous; my poor heart was thumping at the thought of danger. At that moment all the men were under arms, with cartridges issued, awaiting the signal to go. After half an hour of wondering what was happening the command was given to ‘fix bayonets’ … Then we advanced to drive out the enemy. We passed through a foundry where the roofs and sheet-iron rang with bullets then, advancing fifty metres, I was ordered behind a pile of masonry … A short distance from me a chasseur-à-pied had been shot in the legs, while another beside him was dead.
A few soldiers were sheltering behind him. A lieutenant under cover ten yards from me ordered us to advance on the Prussians. I ran forward with twenty of my companions. We dashed across the railway tracks, then took cover behind some enormous cast-iron cylinders. We were protected from bullets coming from straight ahead, but not from those coming in from an angle. At my feet was a captain of chasseurs with a bullet in his head, lying in a pool of blood. Behind him was a colonel who had taken a bullet in the temple that had passed right through his head. It was enough to make you be sick, but I had no time to think …
The merciless contest continued in the blazing village after nightfall.
Meanwhile, events beyond his left flank convinced Frossard of the need to retreat that night. Another German division had crossed the Saar downriver and was bearing down on his rear at Forbach, held at bay only by a thin cavalry cordon and 200 reservists who had just arrived by train and were rushed into the firing line. With the fresh divisions of 3 Corps not yet to hand, Frossard concluded that he should withdraw to a better position, and after dark French buglers sounded the retreat. Left in possession of the field, the Germans could claim a hard-fought victory at a cost of 4,871 men to the French 4,078. Next day they also took possession of the immense stores that Frossard had accumulated at Forbach in preparation for an advance into Germany that now would never take place.
Spicheren was but one half of the double blow dealt to France that fatal 6 August, for in Alsace, 60 kilometres away on the far side of the Vosges, MacMahon’s 1 Corps had also been defeated.