August 16, 1870

For internal reasons, the leaders of both France and Prussia needed war - for 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 still.  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 west toward 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 cavalry.  The 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.

In 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 view.

7)  Sacrificial French Cavalry Attack

Bazaine would not commit Canrobert's 6th Corps, though, so Frossard 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 continue the 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 Tronville.

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 is telling.

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 defense.

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.  The panorama 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 76,000 German troops that eventually arrived on the field.  At one time during the battle, French superiority may have been as high as 5 to 1.  The 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.

More 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. Privat.  

Copyright 2012 by John Hamill

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