The Franco-Prussian War Primer

A history of the war for the Rhine frontier

The Metz Battles

The area around the fortress city of Metz saw three major battles, all revolving around Bazaine trying to retreat with his army and the Germans repeatedly succeeding in stalling and eventually containing him. The armies of Bazaine and MacMahon continued their retreats after the battles of Spicheren and Wörth, though their exact intentions and directions were unknown to the Germans.[1] The German armies continued their advance, trying to ascertain the location of their enemy and hoping to draw the French into another major battle.[2] Bazaine’s army was on the outskirts of Metz when Napoleon III ordered a retreat across the Moselle river. However, Bazaine delayed the retreat due to recent flooding and heavy traffic.[3]

On August 14th, the vanguard of the German First army encountered the rearguard of Bazaine’s army and, without receiving orders and believing the French were moving to attack, went on the attack himself.[4] This German force was the 26th Infantry Brigade, commanded by General Colmar von der Goltz. They attacked the French third Corps under the command of General Claude Decaen, which greatly outnumbered the small German force. Upon learning of the fighting, additional forces from both sides rushed to join the battle, and the Battle of Borny-Colombey began. It eventually involved over 65,000 Germans and over 80,000 French.[5] In this chaotic battle, both sides saw newly arrived regiments, brigades, and divisions rushed into the fray wherever their commanders felt they were needed.[6]

The German center advanced and captured effective positions for their artillery, which they used to aid them in the heavy back and forth fighting that occurred on the road to Bellecroix.[7] The German right-wing was initially successful but met with a fierce counter-attack by General Ladmirault that erased many of their gains. On their left, a German division holding out at Colombey almost from the start of the battle was finally reinforced by a brigade that took up positions to their west. A division from the Second army arrived soon after to aid the German left-wing in advancing towards Grigy and Peltre. Around this time, the German right was again on the offensive and soon took the village of Mey.[8] As night fell, the French forces retreated under cover of the fortresses of Metz, and the battle came to an end.[9] Dead, wounded, and captured for the Germans amounted to roughly 4,900 and 3,600 for the French.[10] Though the battle can hardly be called a victory for either side, the Germans did delay the French retreat across the Moselle, allowing additional German forces to arrive in the area.

After the battle of Borney-Colombey, the French army under Bazaine resumed their crossing of the Moselle on August 15th. However, Bazaine delayed the retreat until noon on the 16th to organize the supply trains and road traffic. Bazaine, by this point, convinced Emperor Napoleon III to escape with a small escort and regroup with MacMahon.[11] While Bazaine’s army was on the left bank of the Moselle and on the road to Verdun, the German Second Army was on the move, and many of their commanders expected the French to already be further west on their way to cross the Meuse.[12] Because of that expectation, only the third and tenth Corps were ordered north towards the road to Verdun, while the rest of the German army marched west towards the Meuse.

 Under General von Alvensleben, the German third Corps advanced to the stretch of road leading to Verdun between the villages of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte. They expected at most to encounter the rearguard of Bazaine’s army.[13] The vanguard of the Third Corps quickly entered combat with a French division near Flavigny. Fierce fighting on the left and right followed soon after.[14] Upon taking a height near Tronville, the German forces gained a better view of the situation. They wheeled to the right and, after further advances and heavy fighting, took Vionville and Flavigny soon after.[15] The newly reconstituted German line now stretched more than four miles, with Vionville on the left, Flavigny near the center, and a forest on the right.

The German advance soon resumed, and German forces engaged the right-wing of the French line near Rezonville, but the battle came to a standstill. Due to the fatigue from the hours of fighting, General von Alvensleben decided it was best to go on the defensive.[16] French Marshall Canrobert saw the opportunity to put his Sixth Corps on the offensive to retake Vionville from the Sixth division of the German center. Only a detachment of the 12th Cavalry Brigade, under General Adalbert von Bredow, was available to halt the French advance. This heroic yet suicidal charge of 800 cavalrymen became known as “von Bredow’s Death Ride,” and only half of the cavalrymen returned from the attack. Still, they successfully forced the French to call off the attack on Vionville.[17]

At four in the afternoon, the German third Corps finally received aid from the tenth corps, who had been marching towards Thiaucourt when they heard the fighting begin near Vionville. Units from the Eighth Corps and Ninth Corps also arrived to aid the right-wing. At six in the evening, a French attack on the German left flank saw the largest cavalry action of the Franco-Prussian War, with over 5,000 cavalrymen fighting in a desperate melee. The outnumbered German cavalrymen, aided by more horsemen joining mid-fight, managed to route the French cavalry force. After the cavalry action, the French right-wing ceased further offensive operations.[18] Fighting continued for several hours, with one of the final actions ordered by recently arrived Prince Friedrich Karl. At seven in the evening, he ordered the now exhausted third and tenth Corps to advance on Rezonville. The attack was unsuccessful, and the battle ended two hours later. The outnumbered German forces successfully halted the French retreat to Verdun, though at a high cost.[19] Dead, wounded, and captured for the Germans amounted to roughly 16,000 men lost, with 17,000 lost for the French.[20]

The Battle of Gravelotte-St.Privat was one of the few engagements of the war that was actually pre-planned by both sides and occurred on August 18th, with just a single day’s rest after the Battle of Mars-la-Tour.[21] Bazaine had withdrawn his forces a short distance to a much better defensible position and was eager to use that position to its fullest. Early in the morning of August 18th, the German commanders received their orders about the disposition of units for the advance on the French positions.[22] Shortly after, the German forces were formed up and on the move to Bazaine in the north.

The initial German contact with the French did not go as planned. The German ninth Corps believed they had taken the French right-wing by surprise and quickly opened fire, only to receive devastating return fire from previously unnoticed French formations. Other German formations quickly came to the rescue of the Ninth.[23] Soon after, on the left flank, the Germans had particular success in taking the town of Ste. Marie and prevented the French from recovering the position, with similar success at Champenois. However, mutual exhaustion led to a lull in the fighting on that part of the left flank.[24]

In preparation for an eventual infantry push, a large artillery bombardment began on the French left and center. While the artillery bombardment was happening, German infantry took more advanced French positions at St. Hubert and Jussy. General Steinmetz ordered a renewed attack on the French positions at four in the afternoon.[25] The Germans attempted an attack at six in the evening on Point du Jour, but it met with fierce resistance and a French counter-attack that slightly pushed the Germans back.[26]

At the same time, a fierce assault was beginning all along the French right flank. The fighting at Amanvillers and St. Privat was tough for both sides, and French forces pulled from Roncourt to reinforce those areas, which led to a bit of surprise for German forces when they took Roncourt shortly after with little resistance. Heavy artillery fire continued to rain on St. Privat, and infantry combat continued to close around it until it was finally surrounded. At eight in the evening, French forces in St. Privat either surrendered or escaped.[27] The battle was over, but the occasional skirmish continued throughout the night as French forces withdrew from their positions and made their way back to Metz. With this battle, the Germans forced the French back into the fortresses of Metz, though at great cost. Dead, wounded, and captured amounted to roughly 20,000 for the Germans and 12,000 for the French.[28]

[1] Moltke, Extracts, P.196

[2] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.26-27

[3] General Staff School, Franco-German War, P.17

[4] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.124

[5] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier, P.305-306

[6] General Staff School, Franco-German War, P.18

[7] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.126

[8] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.31-32

[9] General Staff School, Franco-German War, P.18

[10] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.32

[11] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.35

[12] von Hatzfeldt, Paul; Bashford, J. L., The Hatzfeldt Letters, London: John Murray, 1905, P.30

[13] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier, P.310-313

[14] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.35-36

[15] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier, P.314

[16] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.39

[17] Hozier, Adams, The Franco-Prussian War, P.369-371

[18] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.148-152

[19] Hozier, Adams, The Franco-Prussian War, P.371

[20] General Staff School, Franco-German War, P.22

[21] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier, P.327-331

[22] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.49-50

[23] Bell, Harry; Conger, A. Latham, St. Privat: German sources, Fort LeavenWörth, Kansas: Staff College Press, 1914, P.5

[24] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.54

[25] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.168-170

[26] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.56

[27] Harry, St. Privat, P.74-77

[28] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.62-63