August 16, 1870
For internal reasons, the leaders of both France and Prussia needed war
Napoleon III it was to rally the nation around him and fight off
internal dissent. For Prussia it was to spur the unification of
Germany, and when war came, Prussia was joined by a number of other
German states. The spark for war was a dispute over who would be
the next Spanish monarch - a position no longer as important as it once
was. After of early French defeats on the border, a French force
under Marshal MacMahon retreated towards Chalons after the battle of
Worth, putting them out of the picture for the
coming campaign. The French Army of
the Rhine under Marshal Bazaine planned to fall back
to Verdun through Metz. Moving through Metz was slow,
however, as a river
crossing was required followed by a march over a single road to
Gravelotte. The French army showed itself to be much slower than
the Germans in this war, and in a time when weapons lethality was
making dispersal necessary, the French tended toward concentrate.
The French had a significant advantage with their Chassepot
rifle, far superior to the Prussian needle gun. A rearguard
action at Columbey east of Metz also
put the French army in some confusion and delayed their
withdrawal. In the midst of it all, Napoleon III left his army
and headed west, fortunately for him taking a safer more northerly route,
and warned Bazaine to keep the army safe.
The Prussian Helmuth von Moltke provided the kind of aggressive
leadership and decisive decision-making that the French army lacked..
While the French were hesitating, the Prussians were not standing
The Second Army under Frederick Charles crossed the Moselle south
of Metz at
various locations as far south as Pont-a-Mousson where the support
troops crossed - then marched north ordered by Moltke to cut off
the French retreat. So when the French army marched
Verdun, they encountered Prussian cavalry.
The map should help you understand the battlefield better. Metz
is off the map to the east. Verdun is off the map to the west.
The numbers correspond to the numbers on the panoramas.
1) Prussian Cavalry Opens the Battle
The Prussian cavalry of the 5th Cavalry Division under Rheinbaben was
near Tronville. The French detected them on August 15th
near Mars-la-Tour, but the French sent no patrols to the south.
An efficient French reconnaissance might have found that there
were Germans to their south, poised to cut off their retreat - but also
outnumbered, badly dispersed, and vulnerable to being either blocked at
the defile of Gorze - or attacked and defeated in detail. In
addition to this failing, Bazaine gained no sense of urgency for
his withdrawal. Just after 9am on
August 16th, the Prussian cavalry approaching from Tronville attacked
the French cavalry division under Forton at the intersection on the
right of the panorama and at Vionville. The French cavalry
was routed. Although the Germans did not press a
pursuit, the road to Verdun and was now in the hands of Prussian
French army, 125,000 men strong with 340 artillery and mitrailleuses,
was beyond, with 50,000 of them near Rezonville not visible from here
and many of the rest north of the Bois de Tronville. The French
were in danger of being cut off, but they held a significant
numerical advantage. The battle that followed would decide
the fate of Europe.
2) Prussian Approach
Thirty thousand more Prussian troops with 90 guns, Alvensleben's III
Corps, were slowly arriving from Pont-a-Mousson - through
a defile at Gorze, left unprotected by the French despite being just
three miles away. Voights-Rhetz's X Corps was also on the way.
The 9th and 10th Brigades took heavy losses from French Chassepot fire
as they advanced, and although a French counterattack might have pushed
the Prussians back to the Gorze defile, the French command system did
not allow for the initiative to be taken. The Prussians deployed
their artillery. The Prussian artillery, 105 guns described by a
French commander as a skirmish
line of artillery, was by 11am in an arc ranging from the Bois
de Tronville near Vionville to the Bois de Vionville near Gorze.
This line allowed the Prussians time to bring up Voights-Rhetz's X
Corps which arrived in the afternoon. Having suffered under
Austrian artillery in 1866, the Prussians had significantly improved
their artillery arm, which now outmatched the French.
3) Prince Karl Monument
The Prussian infantry was further forward facing the French at
Rezonville. The Prussian 5th Cavalry Division was at
Tronville and Mars-la-Tour. The 6th Infantry Division
attacked and captured Vionville and Flavigny, pushing back the French
2nd Corps. The attack was an impressive achievement, and new
Prussian line ranged from the other side of Vionville through
Flavigny. The 5th Infantry Division extended the line to the Bois
de St. Arnould. Despite the length of the Prussian line, it was
thinly held - a bluff.
the distance, parallel to the Metz-Verdun Road, is a wood lot called
the Bois de Villers that will feature later in the battle.
4) French Southern Flank
At Rezonville, Bazaine was not seeing an opportunity to attack a
smaller Prussian force and was not seeking to fight his way through to
Mars-la-Tour to open up a line of retreat, he was instead
concerned with protecting his flank and his "escape" route back
into Metz. The Imperial Guard protected the road heading south
from Gravelotte. This road south of Rezonville was covered by a
portion of the French 2nd Corps.
5) Bois de Tronville
Around noon the French got their artillery in action - in line near an
old Roman road parallel to the Bois Pierrot. The French artillery
pounded the Prussians around Vionville, halting them. At the
same time, the French 3rd Corps was north of the Bois de Tronville,
threatening the Prussian left flank. It was then that the nearly
arrived 37th Infantry Brigade of the 19th Division entered the Bois de
Tronville. The Prussians would reach the northern end of the
woods. Committing troops there was instead of reinforcing the
dwindling line and instead of retaining a reserve. The Prussians
were in a difficult position, and the French were suffering too.
Frossard's corps had been pushed back and was now shaky.
Bazaine's troops were tightly packed around Rezonville with
little room to move or use their firepower.
6) Brandenburg Infantry Regiment Number 20 Monument
From atop a heap of rocks east of Vionville there is a good view of the
battlefield. The Prussian infantry extended from the Bois de
Tronville through the fields in the center of the panorama (facing
north and facing the Bois Pierrot) to the general vicinity of this
intersection, then bent back to Flavigny and beyond. The Prussian
artillery was arrayed on the heights on either end of this 360 degree
7) Sacrificial French Cavalry Attack
Bazaine would not commit Canrobert's 6th Corps, though, so
sent the 3rd Lancer Regiment forward to attack, but they were
immediately repulsed. Frossard was tempted to retreat, but
Bazaine sent forward another cavalry regiment in a sacrificial attack -
the cuirassier regiment of the Imperial Guard. Attacking in three
lines for over 1,000 yards, the French cavalry approached 52nd
Brandenburg Infantry Regiment in the fields east of Vionville and
Flavigny. The French got to within 100 yards before the
Prussians opened fire. A single volley stopped the Frenchmen
cold. Only 265 officers and men were left from 698.
Prussian cavalry counterattacked and nearly captured Bazaine.
Afterward, Bazaine made adjustments - moving men to face a feared
threat from the south. Seeking to capitalize on the movement, the
Prussians launched three cavalry regiments in an attack, but this
cavalry attack was also repulsed.
8) Bredow's Attack
It was now around 1:30. Despite the success of the Prussian
attack and bluff, things were looking difficult for Alvensleben's III
Corps. Losses and an extended line with no reserve meant that a
continued infantry attack was impossible. A major French attack,
should it occur, was likely to push the Prussians back and open the
road to Verdun. Alvensleben concluded that he had to
bluff, and his only option was a cavalry attack. Cavalry was all
that was left uncommitted, and the only brigade available was Bredow's
12th Brigade, reduced to two regiments because of detachments - in all
804 would make the attack. Alvensleben ordered Bredow to attack
the French line
north of the Metz-Verdun Road. Scouting the terrain, Bredow found
a concealed route to the French lines, and just before 2pm Bredow led
his men forward.
In the panorama above you
can see that we are on higher ground. Different sources give
different routes. Some say that Bredow moved toward the Bois
de Pierrot through the shallow hollow between here and
Vionville, then pivoted right. A map on the battlefield itself
has Bredow moving through the lower ground between here and the Bois de
9) Bredow Punches Through French Line
This is view from the edge of the woods, the Bois de Pierrot or the
Bois de Villers. The road leads to the
rock heap that we visiting earlier along the Metz-Verdun Road.
Having moved through low ground near Vionville, Bredow
continued through the low ground show here as the prominent dip in
the road then deployed into line. French front line infantry were
on the higher ground on the left of the panorama about one third of the
way between where we are now and the place marked "French Rear".
A grand battery of French artillery were on high ground on the
other side of this hollow.
The German cavalry smashed through the French guns and the line of infantry and continued into the rear of the French position.
10) Bredow Repulsed
|Continuing parallel to the woods on the right of the
panorama, Bredow's cavalry approached the area where we are now
standing. French cavalry were in reserve in the area behind the
prominent monument in the panorama. These were the cavalrymen who
had been routed that morning near Vionville, and they were eager to
redeem themselves. By this time, Bredow's cavalry was winded and
in some confusion, so the four French cavalry regiments were able to
push the Germans back. The French did not pursue, however, which
Bredow's brigade lost something over half its men that day. It
was the last great cavalry attack in European history, and it has been
frequently criticized, but although it was costly, it served its
purpose well. It had gained time and it had kept the French from
attacking in this sector. Elsewhere, however, there was still a
grave danger to the Prussians.
1) French Capture Most of Bois de Tronville
The French 3rd Corps under Lebeouf and the 4th Corps under Ladmirault
were moving along a more northern parallel road then pivoted south
hoping to attack the Prussian left, something that Alvensleben had fear
all day. Bazaine, though, took no interest in directing this
important movement and remained in Rezonville - six miles from his
right flank. A French attack in the Bois de Tronville outnumbered
the Prussians by as much as 10 to 1 and by 3:30 had succeeded in taking
much of the forest. Only two German companies remained in the
woods, and these two companies were the only German troops north of the
Metz-Verdun Road. The French were on the verge of victory, and
Alvensleben was now looking to Tronville as a place to set up his
11) Wedell's Brigade
Further west, at around 3pm the two French corps began an advance south
on Mars-la-Tour, posing a grave danger to the outnumbered Prussians.
above is from the south side of a creek valley
looking toward the approaching French. Grenier, commander of the
division advancing toward us on the opposite side of the road now
hesitated and halted until the rest of 4th Corps was deployed.
That would take half an hour. It would be 4pm before the
advance could continue. In that time, though, the Prussian X
Corps under Voights-Rhetz began arriving. Fire from newly
arriving X Corps artillery was enough to convince the French to halt
the advance. Soon the Prussians retook the Bois de Tronville.
Voights-Rhetz ordered an attack on the French here, and for some reason
Wedell's 38th Brigade advanced unsupported into the ravine shown in the
panorama above and was slaughtered. Starting with a strength of
4,641, the brigade lost 2,614. Pursuing French troops were
attacked by Prussian cavalry. This convinced the French that
there were more enemy than there actually was, so the opportunity to
mount a vigorous counterattack was declined.
At around 6:30 a large cavalry battle occurred west of here, but the battle died down by nightfall.
|Roughly 140,000 French troops had failed to break through the
German troops that eventually arrived on the field. At one time
the battle, French superiority may have been as high as 5 to 1.
Germans lost 22% of those engaged, or over 15,000 total. The
French lost nearly 17,000 men - proportionally much less.
The battle is now commemorated with a neglected monument in the
town of Mars-la-Tour atop the bones of 1,500 dead.
importantly to the French than the casualties, the main
road to Verdun was cut, and Bazaine was unwilling to
continue the fight the next day to open up his line of retreat. Instead he fell
back toward Metz to make a stand - his army cut off from the rest of
France. The main French army was in danger of being destroyed and
France opened up to the German invader. On August 18th there would be another battle, Gravelotte-St.
Copyright 2012 by John Hamill