Gateway to the Classics: The Boy's Book of Battles by Eric Wood
The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood

Vionville Mars-La-Tour

A Battle Of Death Rides

This battle, one of the most sanguinary of all those that were fought during the Franco-Prussian war, took place on August 16th, 1870. The French, defeated all along the line, had fallen back on Metz, whither the Prussians were hastening. Field-Marshal Count von Moltke was pulling the Prussian war-strings, and, clear-sighted strategist that he was, saw that the French at Metz were intending to leave that fortress and make for Verdun, where Marshal MacMahon, commanding the 8th Army Corps, had been compelled to retire, and there, with united forces, give battle to the victorious Prussians.

Moltke determined to frustrate this plan.

In order to do as he wished, Moltke had to make a wide detour in order to cross the river Moselle, and so take up a position between Metz and Paris in the hope of being able to drive the retreating Frenchmen back on Metz.

In the early hours of the 16th Napoleon III. had left Metz under escort of two cavalry brigades, leaving Marshal Bazaine in command of the army at Metz, with orders to hurry the departure of the troops. It was one thing for Napoleon to issue orders, another for Bazaine to carry them out, for the road to Verdun was blocked with baggage, and while the left wing of the army was ready, the right was not. Wherefore, Bazaine postponed departure until the afternoon.

But the afternoon was too late. Already Prince Frederick Charles, the Red Prince of Königgrätz fame, had sent forward his 3rd Army Corps, the Brandenburgers, across the Moselle. At ten o'clock in the morning the right wing, consisting of the 3rd Army Corps, under Stülpnagel, had reached Gorze Glen, which led on to the Verdun road, and General von Alvensleben, who was at their head, was filled with delight to see in front of him a large French force. It told him that the retreat from Metz had not been completed, and that he was in good time to make it impossible. The left wing; comprising the 5th Corps, under General Buddenbrock, was advancing on Tronville for the same purpose—that of intercepting the retreating French.

Meanwhile, advancing from Mars-la-Tour towards Vionville, the Rheinbaden horse batteries had surprised the French dragoons, who, engaged in cooking, and by no means expecting the advent of the Prussians, were totally unprepared. The result was that the shell-fire of the Prussian batteries sent the dragoons off pell—mell, leaving their infantry to meet the intruders into the culinary preparations. The French foot, taking in the situation, quickly formed themselves into battle array, and standing steady beneath the fire from the German guns, prepared to receive some cavalry which were now swooping down upon them. So fiercely did the French fight, that what seemed likely to be a complete and immediate victory for the Prussians turned out to be a temporary repulse, for the cavalry were compelled, after a short, sharp tussle, to retire behind some copses which were conveniently at hand.

Fortunately for them, the Brandenburgers appeared on the scene, and, although convinced that they were about to come face to face with the whole French army, flinched not, rather resolving to do their very utmost to hold Bazaine in check until reinforcements, which they expected would shortly arrive, should come to their aid.

At Gorze, some eight miles south-west of Metz, the French had taken up a strong position on the wooded hills, and it was here that the fight between the infantry began. "The Prussians," says the Daily News correspondent, "pushed into the woods, gradually, by dint of numbers and sheer hard fighting, driving the French skirmishers from them. . . . The French position here was a most formidable one, and the wonder is not that it took the Prussians seven hours to take it, but that they ever got it at all." From Gorze the woods extend to within two miles of Gravelotte, behind which and at Rezonville the French lay. The Prussian position was backed by some thick woods.

"The plain on which the battle was fought extends from the woods to the Verdun road, about one mile and a half, and is about three miles in length. On the French right the ground rises gently, and this was the key of the position, as the artillery, which would maintain itself there, swept the whole field. . . . From the woods to Rezonville, on the Verdun road, there is no cover, except one cottage midway on the Gorze road. This cottage was held by a half battery of French mitrailleuses, which did frightful execution in the Prussian ranks as they advanced from the wood."

Fighting for every inch, the Prussians advanced into the plain. Fifteen thousand men were sent out against the fortified heights on the French right, which had been hastily strengthened by an earthwork. With pitiless, raking fire, the battery opened upon the advancing Prussians, who, in the very teeth of death, attempted to carry the all-important position. Time and time again they essayed the task, and each attempt was frustrated. Men fell by the score, shattered and broken. Baffled, repulsed, the Prussians still held on, and after an awful three hours they drove the French form their position. Up the hill the Prussian batteries raced, gunners using whips and spurs frantically; and at last the Krupp guns were in position, and the French were galloping away to a hill on the right. Five hundred yards only separated the two positions, and for a long time an artillery duel ensued.

The carnage was dreadful; horses fell kicking and struggling; men dropped, broken beyond all recongnition; guns and gun-carriages strewed the hills on both sides. At last the French moved off once more, this time to another hill farther off, the Prussians immediately taking up the position their adversaries had forsaken. And the conflict began again, shells shrieking overhead, or ploughing up the ground, killing men and horses in dozens.

Little vignettes of isolated incidents must now suffice.

Buddenbrock's division of the Brandenburgers advanced toward Mars-la-Tour, wheeled to the right, and, in the face of a rain of shot and shell, carried Flavigny and pushed on toward Vionville. Stülpnagel's division "fought its way to the front with desperate courage, but with varying fortune. One regiment in particular—the 52nd—lost heavily in recovering some ground which had been wrested from it by the French. Its first battalion lost every one of its officers; the colours were passed from hand to hand as the bearers were successively shot down by the bullets of the chassepots, and the commander of the brigade, General von Doring fell mortally wounded."

Flavigny taken, the Prussians pressed on past Vionville, poured in their heavy artillery fire on the right wing of the 2nd French Corps, turned it, and sent it post haste on Rezonville. To retrieve this disaster, the French Cuirassier Guards bravely turned and charged the Prussians as they advanced on the heels of the fleeing corps. It was a veritable death ride. Drawn up in a long line, a couple of companies of Prussian infantry stood and waited for the oncoming cavalry, which they allowed to get within two hundred and fifty yards and then opened fire all along the line. It was a terrible volley, and it crumpled the Cuirassiers up; waving plumes waved no more; flashing swords dropped from nerveless hands; and cheering men fell from their horses. The charge had failed.


"It was a veritable death ride."

The cavalry opened out to the left and right, but as they galloped away they found themselves faced by more infantry, whose withering volleys did still more damage to their already decimated ranks. Then, as they turned to retire, Prussian cavalry charged at them; and the work of death once more began.

For a while, the Prussians, unchecked, pursued the flying Frenchmen on towards Rezonville, but presently a battery opened out on them, and tore ugly gaps in their ranks. But they faced the battery as the French had faced the infantry; the cavalry charged down upon the guns and sabred the gunners, leaving only a few mounted officers alive. One of them is Bazaine himself. At him the Prussians go, and he is almost captured, when a company of French Hussars charge the attackers, rescue their general, and for a while hold the Prussians in check.

But at this moment another Prussian cavalry division dashes up, and in a flash the scene is one of flying hoofs, sabring and stabbing men, while at the same time a further body of Prussian cavalry charge the French infantry. Again there is a death ride, and again the cavalry is driven back, staggering beneath the murderous fire poured in upon them.

Despite the fact that the Prussians had so far managed not only to hold their own, but even to drive the French back some distance, the position of affairs was assuming an alarming aspect, for Alvensleben's force was far too small for him to win the day with; his task was to keep the French engaged until he could be reinforced by the 10th Corps. About two o'clock, after the setback following the pursuit of the French right wing, the battle resolved itself into a duel between the opposing artilleries, and the Prussian left was suffering very much as a result.

To put a stop to this, the 7th Magdeburg Cuirassiers and the 16th Uhlans were ordered to charge a great battery, behind which were masses of infantry. Unlike Balaclava, it was not a blunder; it was deliberate. Like Balaclava, it was glorious.

At the word the little squadron formed into line, and the next minute with a mighty ringing cheer they were tearing over the intervening ground, swept by the bullets and shot from the opposing French. On they went, with never a look back; but with ever thinning ranks. With a crash and a clatter they were upon the guns, rendering them useless for lack of men to work them. Then on again, this time at the infantry. Like a tornado they went through, sending the Frenchmen in all directions. Even then they had not done; there was another line of infantry in front of them; at these they went without hesitation. Through again. It was a ride to death, but a ride to glory, too. It demoralised the Frenchmen; the infantry scattered, the artillery of the second line even began to limber up preparatory to beating a retreat.

But their impetuous courage had carried the Prussians too far; they were without supporters, and they well within the enemy's lines. Exhausted and blown as they all were—all, that is, who had not fallen in the brilliant charge—they prepared to withstand the shock of an onset by a mass of French cavalry who were coming towards them. The thudding of hoofs, the clank of accoutrements, and then—crash! The foes had met! It was thrust and parry, parry and thrust; screaming horses and shouting men mingled together in the death-struggle, and the remnants of the brave Cuirassiers and Uhlans fought their overwhelming foes as though they were fresh to the battle.

But the odds were against them: they had done their duty, and all that was left of them turned in their tracks—making for their own line.

The order was given to the bugler to sound the rally:

"And he took up the trumpet, whose angry shrill Urged us on to the glorious battle, And he blew a blast—but all silent and still Was the trump, save a dull, hoarse rattle;

"Save a voiceless wail, save a cry of woe That burst forth in fitful throbbing A bullet had pierced its metal through, For the dead, the wounded was sobbing!"

They had charged into the French ranks; they now had to charge out, and they did it with the same courage, did it with the bullets whizzing past them, did it with the shot hurtling about them, did it with the cavalry hanging upon their heels. But they won through—a sorry remnant, though a glorious one.

While this brilliant, magnificent charge had been taking place the infantry had been able to rest awhile, and the Prussians had brought up their reserve artillery, and for a couple of hours the cannonade was terrific. This duel of the batteries effectually kept the French at bay, and so saved the Prussians from almost certain annihilation. They had been hard put to it on their left, and had been, indeed, compelled to draw off, although the right advanced somewhat and so kept the French from outflanking.

About three o'clock some of the 10th Corps arrived on the scene, and the battle, which seemed likely to go against the Prussians, assumed a different aspect, and with the arrival of the remainder of the 10th, events moved in quick succession.

With the 10th Corps came the Red Prince, whose presence was as a tonic to his men. He forced the pace, hurled his infantry at the French line, and spared no effort to drive back the foe, who stood stubborn as a wall, and met every attack with a withering fire. All along the line the battle raged, so extensive that it is here impossible to follow it. Yet everywhere both French and Prussians fought with relentless vigour and cool courage.

One incident must be told, because it was typical of the conflict. As General von Wedell's Brigade of the 10th Corps pressed on to the scene of battle it found itself opposed by the 4th French Brigade of Infantry at Tronville. Von Wedell had only five battalions; he sent two regiments on in advance, bringing the remainder of his men up to support them. The advance guard was well nigh annihilated; three hundred of them were captured, and the French immediately sallied forth to press on their advantage. In overwhelming numbers they poured down upon the German left, threatening to turn it—which would have been fatal. But the 1st Dragoon Guards were ready for them. Straight as an arrow, they dashed at the Frenchmen, who pursued the remnants of the two brave regiments they had almost annihilated. They broke the French ranks, rode through and through them, sabring in all directions, and turning the attackers back. The left was saved; but at a terrible cost—a hundred and thirty dragoons were killed, and many more were wounded.

Hardly had they fallen back on their own line than the French cavalry were seen to be mustering for a further attack on the Prussian left. There were five regiments to five—though the French were in greater numbers, and the Prussians were still yet unrecovered from their strenuous march during the day. On went the French at the gallop; the 13th Uhlans rode out to meet them. The French thundered down upon them, broke through the 13th with a shock that staggered them, and hurled themselves at the supporting second line, but ere they could reach their quarry, the 10th Prussian Hussars rushed upon them, met them steel to steel, and turned the Frenchmen back. Then the two opposing cavalry columns met in one gigantic tussle. Five thousand mounted men fought and cheered, stabbed and thrust, struck and were struck in return. The struggling mass was hidden by the dust thrown up by the plunging, trampling horses, and for a while none could tell how fared the battle.

Soon, however, the Prussians had forced their way through the French, who, fighting every inch of the way, fell back upon their right wing, which now assumed the defensive. Presently the French fell back about a quarter of a mile, where they remained in position until the end of the battle.

The end soon came now. Both armies were fagged out with the tremendous fighting beneath a broiling sun. With the coming of night, the fire gradually slackened on both sides—as a matter of fact, ammunition was giving out, and the battery horses were so tired and so few that the artillery was able to execute but little manœuvring.

But, tired though he knew his men were, weakened though he knew his army was by the terrible slaughter, the Red Prince determined to make a grand assault on the French, and endeavour to drive them back on Metz. The whole weary Prussian line advanced—fruitlessly and at great cost. The French refused to be moved, and poured in a heavy fire, which still further reduced the numbers of the Red Prince's army.

But although the Prussians failed to shift the French from this last position, they had won the battle, which had gone on incessantly for twelve hours. Bazaine had been unable to escape to Verdun; he was still before Metz, and that was what the Prussians had wanted.

Two days later the battle was renewed at Gravelotte, and there again the Prussians were successful—more successful than before, in fact, for Bazaine was forced to withdraw within the fortifications of Metz. Here he was besieged until October when he was forced by famine to capitulate.

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