Battle of Gravelotte 

August 18, 1870

 Location

 

 

 

"Tod des Majors von Halden"

Painting by Carl Röchling .

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Map of the Battle of Gravelotte-St-Privat ,

from Battles of the 19th century 1897 by G.A. Henty

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The largest battle of the Franco Prussian War with roughly 200,000 combatants facing each other on both sides . Gravelotte-St-Privat was probably the hardest fought of all the battles of the Franco-Prussian War. The French held their position in the area of Gravelotte, the Germans turned their right flank at St. Privat, and they were eventually forced to abandon all their positions, and retire into Metz.

 

Attacked by superior Prussian forces from both the First and Second armies, Marshal Bazaine's French Army of the Rhine inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing Prussian's before finally being forced to retreat into the fortress city of Metz. Unable to break out and with no hope of relief Bazaine's army grimly held on to the end of the war. French failure at Gravelotte-St-Privat led directly to their final defeat at Sedan, the collapse of Napoleon III's regime and the proclamation of the German Empire.

 

The combined German armies under Field Marshal von Moltke with 188,332 men fought The French Army of the Rhine under Marshal Bazaine with about 113,000 men. The Germans lost around 20,000, most to the Chassepots and mitrailleuses and the French around 7,800 to Krupp guns. Bazaine was blocked from going to the fortress of Verdun and retreated to Metz, where he was besieged.

 

The Battle of Gravelotte, or Gravelotte-St. Privat, was the largest battle during the Franco-Prussian War. It was fought about six miles (10 km) west of Metz, Lorraine, France where on the previous day, having intercepted the French army's retreat to the west at the Battle of Mars-La-Tour, the Prussians were now closing in to complete the destruction of the French forces.

 

French soldiers advance at Gravelotte. The French inability to take advantage of the many Prussian mistakes cost them their best chance to halt the Prussian advance.

 

The combined German forces, under Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke, were the Prussian First and Second Armies of the North German Confederation numbering about 210 infantry battalions, 133 cavalry squadrons, and 732 heavy cannons totaling 188,332 officers and men. The French Army of the Rhine, commanded by Marshal François-Achille Bazaine, numbering about 183 infantry battalions, 104 cavalry squadrons, backed by 520 heavy cannons, totaling 112,800 officers and men, dug in along high ground with their southern left flank at the town of Rozerieulles, and their northern right flank at St. Privat.

 

The French use their mitrailleuse to great effect against the Prussians

 

On August 18, the battle began when at 08:00 Moltke ordered the First and Second Armies to advance against the French positions. By 12:00, General Manstein opened up the battle before the village of Amanvillers with artillery from the 25th Infantry Division. But the French had spent the night and early morning digging trenches and rifle pits while placing their artillery and their mitrailleuses in concealed positions. With them finally aware of the Prussian advance, the French opened up a massive return fire against the mass of advancing Germans. The battle at first appeared to favour the French with their superior Chassepot rifle. However, the Prussian artillery was superior with the all-steel Krupp breech-loading gun.

 

By 14:30, General Steinmetz, the commander of the First Army, unilaterally launched his VIII Corps across the Mance Ravine in which the Prussian infantry were soon pinned down by murderous rifle and mitrailleuse fire from the French positions. At 15:00, the massed guns of the VII and VIII Corps opened fire to support the attack. But by 16:00, with the attack in danger of stalling, Steinmetz ordered the VII Corps forward, followed by the 1st Cavalry Division.

 

By 16:50, with the Prussian southern attacks in danger of breaking up, the 3rd Prussian Guard Infantry Brigade of the Second Army opened an attack against the French positions at St-Privat which were commanded by General Canrobert. At 17:15, the 4th Prussian Guard Infantry Brigade joined the advance followed at 17:45 by the 1st Prussian Guard Infantry Brigade. All of the Prussian Guard attacks were pinned down by lethal French gunfire from the rifle pits and trenches. At 18:15 the 2nd Prussian Guard Infantry Brigade, the last of the 1st Guard Infantry Division, was committed to the attack on St. Privat while Steinmetz committed the last of the reserves of the First Army across the Mance Ravine. By 18:30, a considerable portion of the VII and VIII Corps disengaged from the fighting and withdrew towards the Prussian positions at Rezonville.

 

With the defeat of the First Army, Crown Prince Frederick Charles ordered a massed artillery attack against Canrobert's position at St. Privat to prevent the Guards attack from failing too. At 19:00 the 3rd Division of Fransecky's II Corps of the Second Army advanced across Ravine while the XII Corps cleared out the nearby town of Roncourt and with the survivors of the 1st Guard Infantry Division launched a fresh attack against the ruins of St. Privat. At 20:00, the arrival of the Prussian 4th Infantry Division of the II Corps and with the Prussian right flank on Mance Ravine, the line stabilised. By then, the Prussians of the 1st Guard Infantry Division and the XII and II Corps captured St. Privat forcing the decimated French forces to withdraw. With the Prussians exhausted from the fighting, the French were now able to mount a counter-attack. General Bourbaki, however, refused to commit the reserves of the French Old Guard to the battle because, by that time, he considered the overall situation a 'defeat'.

 

By 22:00, firing largely died down across the battlefield for the night. The next morning, the French Army of the Rhine, rather than resume the battle with an attack of its own against the battle-weary German armies, retreated to Metz where they were besieged and forced to surrender two months later.

 

The casualties were horrible, especially for the attacking Prussian forces. A grand total of 20,163 German troops were killed, wounded or missing in action during the August 18 battle. The French losses were 7,855 killed and wounded along with 4,420 prisoners of war (half of them were wounded) for a total of 12,275. While most of the Prussians fell under the French Chassepot rifles, most French fell under the Prussian Krupp shells. In a breakdown of the casualties, Frossard's II Corps of the Army of the Rhine suffered 621 casualties while inflicting 4,300 casualties on the Prussian First Army under Steinmetz before the Pointe du Jour. The Prussian Guard Infantry Divisions losses were even more staggering with 8,000 casualties out of 18,000 men. The Special Guard Jäger lost 19 officers, a surgeon and 431 men out of a total of 700. The 2nd Guard Infantry Brigade lost 39 officers and 1,076 men. The 3rd Guard Infantry Brigade lost 36 officers and 1,060 men. On the French side, the units holding St. Privat lost more than half their number in the village.

 

MacMahon, with his broken army, had escaped towards Strasbourg, and De Failly was proceeding to join him, but both were cut off from all communication with the main body. The left and centre of the French army were gathering in and around Metz ; this force, the principal hope of France, numbered 160,000 men, and 400 or 500 guns, a force quite unequal to that of the Prussians, who had 200,000 men on their way from the Saar, while the Crown Prince with his corps was rapidly advancing through the passes of the Yosges. The Emperor, who had drawn his chief corps to Metz, still lost three days in holding councils, reviewing troops, and planning the campaign ; he also at this time resigned the chief command to Marshal Bazaine.

 

 The German masses were meanwhile advancing on Metz, and had so arranged that a retreat on Chilonss would be impossible to the French. On the 14th August, the Emperor, however, crossed the Moselle, and reached Chilons ; but the principal part of the army remained encamped to the east of the fortress ; they were here attacked, and after a hotly contested fight of three or four hours, retreated into the town. The Germans had suffered greatly, but they had accom- plished their design of detaining the French army in its for- mer position, and were themselves being strengthened hourly by the arrival of fresh forces.

 

The Battle of Chateaudun, Oct 18, 1870.

1,000 Francs-tireurs and soldiers held of 5,000

Germans for nine hours.

Paul Montarlot 1871 .

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 Battle of Mars-La-Tour

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