Gravelotte - St. Privat

August 18, 1870

    The French Army of the Rhine under Marshal Bazaine was intercepted on August 16th at Mars-la-Tour as it withdrew from Metz toward Verdun.  Forgoing a continuation of the battle the next day or an attempt to escape by a more northerly route, Bazaine fell back toward Metz to refit his army for another fight.  He positioned his army of 112,000 men along a roughly eight mile line from behind Mance Ravine on his southern flank, then through Amanvillers in the center to St. Privat and Roncourt on the right flank.  The French entrenched in a naturally strong position and awaited an attack.  The Prussians and their German allies, all under Helmuth von Moltke, brought up an additional army, the First, and followed the French east and north to their new defensive line, eager to cut off any remaining escape route from Metz.  Moltke had 188,000 men available, and King Wilhelm was in attendance.

     On the map at right, the blue line approximates the French line.  The letters on the map correspond to the panoramas below.

A) Manstein's Artillery Line

    The Germans of  Manstein's IX Corps moved northeast hoping to flank the French line, which they expected to find near Amanvillers.  Instead at Amanvillers they struck the French center.  The Champenois farm, along with other farmhouses and forests, had been left unoccupied by the French in front of their lines, so the advancing Germans occupied Champenois themselves and used it as a strong point.  The panorama above was taken near a monument to Hessian artillery deployed near hear which suffered from French Chassepot fire.  Acting according to orders, Manstein had advanced with his artillery in front - but without a proper reconnaisance.  Starting around noon a line of 54 German guns suffered from French small arms fire from Ladmirault's 4th Corps to their front but also from Lebouef's 3rd Corps to the right and the French 6th Corps to the north at St. Privat and Ste. Marie aux Chenes.  Infantry support was an hour's march away, and Manstein was found himself in a tricky position as the left flank of the German army.  Although the situation was potentially a great opportunity for the French to counterattack and split the German army in two, Ladmirault remained in place passively awaiting the enemy.  Throughout the battle, Bazaine remained on the defensive while opportunites presented themselves.  After an hour of suffering, the German guns were ordered back.  All but two made it back - abandoned to the French.   

    Next we continue along the road by Champenois farm toward Amanvillers.

B) 3rd Guards Brigade

    After the withdrawal of Manstein's line of artillery, German infantry began to appear.  The Bois des Genivaux and the Bois de la Cusse were occupied.  Here there are monuments to the 3rd Guards Brigade which reinforced the IX Corps at around 2pm and fought the French 4th Corps in Amanvillers and the 3rd Corps south of here.  The French line centered on Amanvillers and extended through the Montigny farm to the south.  The French position here would hold until later in the battle.  To the south, the Germans were facing an even stronger French position.

C) View From Gravelotte

    As Manstein became engaged - and endangered by flanking fire to the south of him - Goeben's VIII Corps of Steinmetz's First Army moved forward into the Bois de Genivaux.  This was at around 2pm.  Moltke did not trust the judgment of Steinmetz, who had been disobediant at Spicheren a few days earlier, so Moltke placed his headquarters in the immediate rear of the First Army.  Further, he ordered Steinmetz not to bring on an engagement until the Second Army was attacking the French right flank.  But with the engagement at Amanvillers, Steinmetz believed that the French right was under attack and that now was the time for him to act.  

    Here, from behind the ossuary in Gravelotte you can see the view of right flank of Steinmetz's artillery - a total of 120 guns - overlooking Mance Ravine and the French left flank.  The German guns were in position by 1pm.  The French line ran along Mance Ravine in front of the Moscou and St Hubert farms then just in front of the road to Metz.  The French chassepots and mitraileuses were in range of the German guns where we are.  Steinmetz ordered his artillery forward to the edge of Mance Ravine, and to support them he ordered his infantry forward to clear the way.  This brought on what Moltke didn't want, a pre-mature general engagement - a German attack across Mance Ravine on St. Hubert Farm.

D) 360 Degree Views of Mance Ravine North of Causeway

    Four attacks were made by Steinmetz that day, all costly.  Here in Mance Ravine the Germans lost heavily.  The 15th Division attacked on either side of the causeway followed by the 31st Brigade of the 16th Divisionn.  Today there is a monument to the Rhein Jager Battalion Number 8 Monument, and several of the unit's officers are buried further down the slope at a white stone cross.  The French on the slope opposite were dug-in in tiers or terraces vertically.

E) Mance Ravine

    This is the ravine south of the causeway.  The 29th and 30th Brigades attacked in this sector, reaching some gravel pits below the French line.  By around 3pm, thirty German infantry companies were on the brow of the ravine but were stuck there.  Casualties had been high, but while French batteries were engaging the German infantry, Steinmetz moved his artillery forward to the edge of the ravine.   

F) St Hubert Farm

    St Hubert Farm was just beyond the Mance Ravine.  Surrounded by stone walls, the farm was a formidable strong point.  With the help of the German artillery brought to the edge of Mance Ravine, the farm was smashed and half of the 750 man garrison was put out of action.  The remainder fell back as the farm was then captured by Germans of the 28th and 67th Regiments at around 3:30pm.  By 4pm, the fighting here died down.  A mass grave exists just off the panorama to the left.  (See photo at right.)  Beyond the mass grave is the Metz to Verdun Road.  On the right of the panorama is Moscou Farm, defended by Lebeouf's III Corps.

G) Moscou Farm

    Moscou Farm was also set afire and abandoned, with the French troops there falling back to the main line.   Steinmetz had been ordered to only attack in his sector after the Second Army had successfully turned the French right flank, but seeing the French evacuation of St. Hubert and Moscou Farms, Steinmetz assumed that the French were retreating, so he confidently ordered continued attacks.  He even announced the capture of the French held heights.  The open ground and terraced defenses in this area made the slope a killing ground that would be nearly impossible to cross.  

    Next we will retrace our steps and cross the Metz-Verdun road.

H) South of Metz-Verdun Road

    The mass grave mentioned earlier is among the small trees on the far right of the panorama.  The French line was somewhere in the field in the center of the panorama, roughly parallel to the road.  The white crosses mark where attacking German troops are buried.  The German survivors returned to the relative safety of the Mance Ravine between here and Gravelotte.

I) Mance Ravine Causeway From German Side

    Steinmetz now ordered his cavalry division under Zastow to attack across the causeway to "pursue" the enemy.  Just one regiment, the 4th Uhlans, managed to cross along with four artillery batteries.  The cavalry regiment soon lost half its men and took cover in the ravine.

    Around sunset Steinmetz launched his reserve in another attack to "recapture" the heights - heights that had never been captured to begin with.  This time the attack was approved by the King himself.  Like the others, this attack was also repulsed.  The Germans under Steinmetz lost heavily in these four useless attacks, around 6,000 men from 43 infantry companies.  A distant and detached Bazaine did not counterattack, although admittedly by the end of the day events elsewhere on the field made this impossible.  

    So far all of the German attacks - on the French center and left - had failed to make significant progress.  Without success on the northern flank, the Germans would find themselves exhausted, with only lightly defended places to recross the Moselle, and with a French army between them and Germany.

J) St. Privat

     The Second Army under Frederick Charles had blundered toward Amanvillers thinking that it was the French center.  This induced Steinmetz to order his First Army to attack.  Meanwhile, Frederick Charles sent 30,000 Guard infantry, plus cavalry and 90 guns and the 20,000 man XII Corps sweeping north to not only protect the flank of Manstein's IX Corps, but also to move around the French right flank.  Two and a half French battalions (1,500 men) and an artillery battery defended Ste Marie-aux-Chenes in front of St Privat, but this force only held off the Germans for an hour, and its abandonment at 3:30pm allowed the Germans to turn the French position.  The French 6th Corps under Canrobert had made St Privat into a fortified position with a good, open field of fire.  But 6th Corps was without cavalry and mitrailleuses - and was also short on artillery.  His right flank was also vulnerable.  Canrobert informed Bazaine of the danger but got no reinforcements.

     By 4pm, German artillery was bombarding the French position north and south of St Privat.  The Saxons on the far left were not yet in position, but Frederick Charles ordered an attack by the Prussian Guards regardless.  Starting at around 4:45pm, 18,000 Prussian Guards began an attack.  The Guards    lost over 8,000 men in the course of an hour in their failed frontal attack on St. Privat.  It was one of the great attacks in military history - sometimes compared with Pickett's Charge and the French Imperial Guard at Waterloo.  As in other locations that day, the French did not capitalize on German failure by launching a counterattack.  With the failure of the Guards attack, German hopes sank, but there was one German corps left to enter the battle, the Saxon XII Corps on the far left.  

Saxon Monument at St. Privat

K) Roncourt

    Around 6:30 the Saxon XII Corps was ready to attack.  The Saxons approached Roncourt on the axis of the road in the panorama above from Montois-la-Montagne, and at around 7pm the Saxons captured the town from Pechot's brigade.  The Saxons then moved south into St. Privat, and the Prussian Guard renewed their attack.  The French in St. Privat were pinned to their front by the Prussian Guards, smashed by 200 guns, and now attacked on their flank.  With the German capture of St. Privat, the French army began to fall back toward Metz, then it began to fall apart.  The French lost over 12,000 men that day compared to 20,000 German losses, but losses do not explain the importance of the battle.

C) Gravelotte Military Cemetery

     Bazaine's army remained in Metz, besieged by a German army until they surrendered in the fall.  The German victories at Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte-St. Privat, a brilliant one followed by an ugly one, lead ultimately to Prussian victory in the war.  Napoleon III organized a new army to relieve Metz, but Moltke outmaneuvered him and forced him to surrender at Sedan.  The war continued into early 1871, resulting in German unification under Prussian leadership and the fall of the French Empire and birth of a republic.  German annexation of the ethnically German French territories - would help spark the First World War, which, in turn, would spark the Second.  Perhaps appropriately many of the monuments at Gravelotte-St. Privat and Mars-la-Tour show damage from the Second World War, specifically from Patton's 1944 battle of Metz.  


Copyright 2012 by John Hamill

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