The Battle of Wissembourg, 4 August 1870 Part II

There would be no retreat, fighting or otherwise, for the companies of Algerian tirailleurs and the 300 men of the French 74th Regiment still trapped inside Wissembourg. There the fighting sputtered from house to house, though most Prussian and Bavarian infantry simply strolled in through the Landau or Haguenau gates and looked around curiously. A thirsty Bavarian private recalled accosting the inhabitants of the town and demanding beer and cigars. While engaged on this errand, he bumped into a squad of Prussians with red French army trousers flapping from their bayonets. He remembered wondering how they had got there. The Prussians yelled “three cheers for the Bavarians” – “vivat hoch ihr Bayern!” – as they ran laughing past. General Blumenthal’s adjutant, a dour Mecklenburger, did not share those comradely sentiments; he rode in through the Haguenau gate – “furious, silent, cold” – searching for the Bavarian unit that had stolen his favorite horse that morning. A Bavarian officer sat and watched the young mayor of Wissembourg, the official who had caused the French garrison so many problems. Clearly not an Alsatian, he was a “thirty-six-year-old man with black hair and a Mediterranean face.” As bullets ricocheted around the Marktplatz, the mayor, still apparently determined to spare the town “material damage,” stood holding the French flag and demanding to speak with the Prussian commander-inchief. No one paid any attention to him.

Most of the German troops were riveted by their first sight of Africans; they peered curiously at the dead or captured Turcos “as if at zoo animals,” and hesitantly touched their “poodle hair.” Leopold von Winning, a Prussian lieutenant, described the “amazement” of his Silesians, who “stared disbelievingly at the Algerian tirailleurs, some of them blacks with woolly hair, others Arabs with bronze skin and sculpted features.” The Prussians and Bavarians crowded around the Turcos, making faces, barking gibberish and pantomiming madly, even offering cigars or their flasks in the hope of a word. The poor Wissembourgeois, offered protection by the French the night before, now felt the dead weight of war. Column after column of German troops entered the town demanding bread, meat, wine, wood, straw, forage, and rooms for the night. Bothmer’s divisional staff settled into Wissembourg’s only hotel and were pleased to find the dining room table already set for Douay’s officers.

On the Geisberg, Prussian troops combed through the abandoned French tents, and General Douay’s luxurious bivouac became the object of curious pilgrimages from both banks of the Lauter. Gebhard von Bismarck, an officer in the Prussian XI Corps, later described the scene:

“Next to [Douay’s] staff carriage was an elaborate, custom-made kitchen wagon, with special cages for live poultry and game birds . . . but the troops were most interested in two elegant carriages on the edge of the camp, the contents of which were scattered far and wide: suitcases, men’s pajamas and underwear, and women’s things too, undergarments, corsets, crinolines and peignoirs. Our Rheingauer laughed and laughed.”

Douay’s headquarters provided more than titillation. Captain Bismarck and the other Prussian officers were “astounded by the French maps.” They were of poor quality on an all but useless scale. Junior officers had none at all, a startling contrast with the Prussian army – though not the Bavarian – where even lieutenants were provided with the best large scale maps. “We went through the knapsack of a French officer and found only a copy of Monde Illustre’ with its “vue panoramique du theatre de la guerre ‘ ,” scale 104:32 centimeters. I still have it, surely one of the crudest means of orientation ever used by an army at war.” While the professionals interrogated French prisoners and scrutinized their maps, their conscripts drank in the sights and smells of war. Most were unnerved. Franz Hiller, a Bavarian private, never forgot the scene on the Geisberg after the battle. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere. Many of the corpses were decapitated, or missing arms or legs. Hiller observed that inexperienced men like himself invariably paused to peer inside the wagons full of mutilated corpses, then staggered back in shock. This was the real “baptism of fire,” rendered even more poignant for Hiller by a sad discovery: “I saw the corpse of a young Frenchman and thought `what will his parents and family think and say when they learn of his death?’ His pack lay ripped open at his side; there was a photograph of him. I took it, and have it to this day.”

Both the Prussians and the Bavarians studied French tactics at Wissembourg, carefully noting their strengths and weaknesses. Bavarian Captain Max Lutz concluded that the French tactics, supposedly created for the technically superb Chassepot, were actually ill-suited to the French rifle. Instead of exploiting the Chassepot’s range, accuracy, and rate of fire by lengthening their front, the French had massed their troops in narrow positions that were easily crushed by artillery fire, demoralized, and outflanked. The French thus put themselves at a double disadvantage: They could not take Prussian attacks between cross fires and could not themselves launch enveloping attacks. They were, as Lutz put it, always “zu massig aufgestellt” – “too compactly formed.”

After Wissembourg, the Berlin Post waxed grandiose on the significance of the battle. “The German brotherhood in arms has received its baptism of blood, the firmest cement.” Wissembourg had blazed “the path of nationalism” for Prussia and the German states. The Prussian Volkszeitung took the same line, generously crediting the Bavarians: “the Bavarians have decisively defeated the enemies of Germany . . . the battlefield bears witness to their unwavering fidelity.” The truth, of course, was altogether different. Like poor Lieutenant Bronsart von Schellendorf, hunting furiously for his stolen Grauschimmel among the unruly Bavarians, the Prussians had turned an intensely critical gaze on their new south German ally before the smoke of the battle had even lifted. What they found was an undisciplined Bavarian army that had performed abysmally in 1866 (as an Austrian ally) and still seemed unprepared for the tests of modern warfare.

Bavarian march discipline was scandalous, at least as bad as French. The south Germans left far more stragglers in their wake than the Prussians. Whereas Prussian units could march directly from their rail cars into battle, the Bavarians needed days to sort themselves out. Every march route traversed by the Bavarians in the early weeks was left littered with discarded equipment, much of which was missed in battle, another problem for the south Germans. “Our troops have no fire discipline,” a Bavarian officer confessed after the battle. “The men commence firing and transition immediately to Schnellfeuer, ignoring all orders and signals until the last cartridge is out the barrel.” Excitement or panic partly explained this, as did a trade-union mentality that did not prevail in the Prussian army: “[Bavarians] feel that they have done their duty simply by firing off all of their ammunition, at which point they look over their shoulders expecting to be relieved. Many [Bavarian] officers also subscribed to this delusion.” Bavarians rarely attacked with the bayonet and proved only too willing to carry wounded comrades to the rear in battle, leaving gaps in the firing line. After the war, Prussian analysts discovered that Bavarian infantry had needed to be resupplied with ammunition at least once in every clash with the French, a hazardous, time-consuming process that involved conveying crates of reserve cartridges into the front line and distributing them. The Prussians, who nearly always made do with the ammunition in their pouches, marveled that Bavarians averaged forty rounds per man per combat, no matter how trivial. In the Prussian army, such exuberance was frowned upon; Terraingewinn – conquered ground – was the sole criterion of success. For this, fire discipline was essential. In the ensuing weeks, the Prussian criterion would be hammered into the Bavarians.

Having picked Wissembourg clean, the Germans moved off in pursuit of MacMahon’s 2nd Division. Even Bavarian officers shied at the excesses of their men as they slogged through a cold, pelting rain. The passing French troops had churned the dirt roads to the west into quicksand. Many of the Prussians and Bavarians lost their shoes in the slime, and marched on in their socks, cold, wet, and miserable. The Bavarians looted every house or shop they passed, often ignoring their officers, who had to wade in with drawn revolvers to force them back on the road. The Prussian XI Corps – comprised mainly of Nassauer, Hessians, and Saxons annexed after 1866 – had its own crisis as scores of Schlappen and Maroden – “softies” and “marauders” – fell out and refused to go on. Ultimately, as in the Bavarian corps, they were all raked together and pushed down the roads to Froeschwiller, perhaps by the example of the largely Polish Prussian V Corps, which plowed stolidly through the rain, earning the grudging admiration of a Bavarian witness: “gute Marschierer.”

In Metz on 4 August, Louis-Napoleon roused himself and dispatched an enquiring telegram to General Frossard at Saarbrucken: ” “Avez-vous quelques nouvelles de l’ennemi?” – “Have you any news of the enemy?” Indeed he had. The Prussian First and Second Armies were on the move, so swiftly and in such strength that Frossard had already abandoned his post on the Saar and pulled back to Spicheren, an elevated village commanding the Saarbrucken- ” Forbach road and railway. By the end of the day, Napoleon III had frozen with fright. Ladmirault, still creeping forward on Frossard’s left, was urgently pulled back; Bazaine was ordered to remain at St. Avold, the Imperial Guard at Metz. Failly’s V Corps, Napoleon III’s only link with MacMahon, was forgotten in the hubbub at Metz. It remained at Saargemuines without orders, an oversight that would doom MacMahon two days later. By now, Marshal Leboeuf’s command was turning in circles. The emperor pestered him with messages and the empress, in Paris, thought nothing of waking the major general in the middle of the night with urgent telegrams that usually began “I did not want to wake the emperor and so I have cabled you directly . . . ” Leboeuf may well have wondered whose sleep was more important, but groggily rose and replied anyway.

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