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
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
On the map at right, the blue line approximates the
French line. The letters on the map correspond to the panoramas
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
but Frederick Charles ordered an attack by the Prussian Guards
regardless. Starting at around 4:45pm, 18,000 Prussian
began an attack. The Guards lost over 8,000
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
German corps left to
enter the battle, the Saxon XII Corps on the far left.
|Saxon Monument at St. Privat
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.
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