Battle of Mars-La-Tour or Rezonville


August 16, 1870


Map of the battle, from Battles of the 19th century 1897 by

G.A. Henty

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Two Prussian corps encountered the entire French Army of the Rhine under Bazaine, and successfully forced the Army of the Rhine to retreat into the fortresses of Metz. Generals Rhetz and von Alvensleben deceived Bazaine as to their real strength. Germany victory. Of note is the desperate charges of the German cavalry, and especially of Von Bredow's brigade, against the French infantry . This provided cover for the shattered German infantry to reform and was one of the last successful massed cavalry charges of modern warfare. "Von Bredow's Death Ride" resulted in large casualties for the Prussian forces but it managed to defeat a French force that outnumbered them four or five to one ( The French actually believed themselves significantly outnumbered ).The losses of the overall battle were roughly equal, with about 16,000 killed and wounded on each side. Mars-la-Tour led directly to the Battle of Gravelotte (just 2 days later) and then to the siege of Metz. A French victory at Mars-la-Tour would have changed the entire complexion of the Franco-Prussian War.


"Von Bredow's Death Ride" The bitter day long battle near Rezonville convinced

Bazaine to fall back on the left bank of the Moselle.

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With the Prussian army now steam rolling, 130,000 French soldiers were bottled up in the fortress of Metz following several defeats at the front. Their attempt to leave Metz in order to link up with French forces at Châlons was spotted by a Prussian cavalry patrol under Major Oskar von Blumenthal. Four days after their retreat, on the 16 August, the ever-present Prussian forces, a grossly outnumbered group of 30,000 men of III Corps (of the 2nd Army) under General Konstantin von Alvensleben, found the French Army near Vionville, east of Mars-la-Tour.


Bitter Cavalry action at Mars-La-Tour. On Aug 18, the Prussians attacked in force, the Prussian Guard lost over 8,000. Bazaine's right flank fell that night and Bazaine fell back on Metz.

Painting by Aimé Morot 1907.

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Despite odds of four to one, the III Corps launched a risky attack. The French were routed, and the III Corps captured Vionville, blocking any further escape attempts to the west. Once blocked from retreat, the French in the fortress of Metz had no choice but to engage in a fight that would see the last major cavalry engagement in Western Europe. The battle soon erupted, and III Corps was decimated by the incessant cavalry charges, losing over half its soldiers. Meanwhile, French suffered equivalent numerical losses of 16,000 soldiers, but still held on to overwhelming numerical superiority.

 La ligne de feu, épisode du 16 août 1870 à Rezonville  

Pierre-Georges Jeanniot, depicting the Battle of Mars-La-Tour .

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On August 16, the French had a chance to sweep away the key Prussian defence, and to escape. Two Prussian corps attacked the French advanced guard thinking that it was the rearguard of the retreat of the French Army of the Meuse. Despite this misjudgment the two Prussian corps held the entire French army for the whole day. Outnumbered 5 to 1, the extraordinary élan of the Prussians prevailed over gross indecision by the French.



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