The Franco-Prussian War Primer

A history of the war for the Rhine frontier

Battle of Spicheren

While the Battle of Wörth was fought, another major battle occurred in the north, the Battle of Spicheren.[1] This battle was fought between 37,000 men of the advancing German Second Army, under the command of Karl von Steinmetz, and 29,000 men of the French Second Corps, whose elements had withdrawn from Saarbrucken, led by Charles Frossard.[2] Before the battle, General Frossard had withdrawn his army to take an advantageous position on heights that he entrenched near the town of Spicheren, which proved to be a difficult obstacle for the Germans.[3] As the battle was opening, neither side understood the strength of their opponents.

The German vanguard, the 14th Infantry division commanded by General von Kameke, believed they were combatting a French rearguard.[4] General Frossard believed he was simply fighting German skirmishers. Because of that, the French forces did not request reinforcements from their nearby allies, and the Germans immediately went into action rather than waiting for more forces.[5] As it was, the entire 14th division had not yet even arrived on the field when the German attack began. As the Germans began the battle, with the 27th Brigade that was the only one yet on the field, they slowly made progress by attacking the flanks of the French positions, rather than the steep hill that was their central position. However, they soon faced strong French counter-attacks that soon made it clear the French force was stronger than they previously thought.

As new German brigades made it to Spicheren, they split their companies and regiments to reinforce different areas of the battlefield, which made command and control for the Germans a difficult task. Additionally, as more senior generals arrived on the battlefield the overall German commander changed three times.[6] As the battle wore on, von Kemeke’s 14th division was having a difficult time, it stretched over three and a half miles, and its left-wing was repulsed.[7] Its right-wing was also in stiff combat, and it was struggling to hold a small foothold on the hill at the French center, gained through the bravery of General von Francois and a Fusilier battalion.[8]

Fortunately for von Kemeke, the vanguards of new German divisions began to appear on the field and joined the battle.[9] The newly added strength allowed their forces to advance and threaten the French line of retreat on the German right-wing, but this led to a strong French counter-attack that erased the German gains on that flank. This French counter-attack was eventually stopped by German artillery, and newly arrived forces were again put into the fight on the German right-wing. They succeeded and again threatened the French line of retreat.[10] As the fighting continued and more German troops arrived on the battlefield, the French attempted a final attack on the German left-wing. Still, the attack stalled, and the German threat on the French left-wing became too great. General Frossard sounded the retreat soon after.[11] Again, German cavalry was unable to pursue the retreating French, though this time it was because of the difficult terrain. Dead, wounded, and captured in this battle amounted to roughly 4,800 for the Germans and 4,000 for the French.[12]

[1] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.19

[2] Hozier, Adams, The Franco-Prussian War, P.320

[3] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.20-21

[4] General Staff School, Franco-German War, P.13-14

[5] Hozier, Adams, The Franco-Prussian War, P.321

[6] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.20-22

[7] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.22

[8] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.111-112

[9] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier, P.265

[10] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.112

[11] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier, P.267

[12] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.24-25