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The text below was taken from the Battalions official history, written by a former officer of the Bückeburger Jägers and published in 1898. I dont have a lot of time this weekend so I will only put a small part into today post. Translating the german original is not a lot of fun as its written in a vintage style and using grammar I am not accustomed to translate very often. 

Prussian Jäger – Jägerbataillon 7 (click to visit Part 1)

The Battalion in the Battle of Spicheren.

The Battle of Spicheren, also known as the Battle of Forbach, was a battle during the Franco-Prussian War. The German victory compelled the French to withdraw to the defenses of Metz. Moltke was pressing on with the concentration of the Prussian armies. His forces now formed two wings. On the right, the Second Army under Frederick Charles containing the III, IV, IX, X, XII Corps, and the Prussian Guard, was advancing from the Rhine River towards Saarbrücken, while the First Army under General Steinmetz with the I, VII and VIII Corps were moving into line with the Second Army from the direction of the lower Moselle River towards Saarlouis, in all both armies numbered some 185,000 men.

Battle of Spicheren

The battle was not intended by Moltke, who wished to keep Bazaine’s army on the Saar River until he could attack it with the II army in front and the I army on its left flank, while the third army was closing towards its rear. The aging General Karl von Steinmetz made an overzealous, unplanned move, and proved that he did not have the slightest notion regarding Moltke’s plans. Leading the I army south from his position on the Moselle. He moved straight toward the town of Spicheren, cutting off Prince Frederick Charles from his forward cavalry units in the process. The First Army advance guard (14th Division, VII Corps) under General Arnold Karl von Kameke, advancing on west from Saarbrücken on the morning of the 6th August, found the bridges still intact, and seeing the opportunity that this offered, pushed on to occupy the high ground just beyond the town. The French 2nd Corps under Frossard, who had withdrawn his 2nd Corps back about one mile to the Spicheren plateau, had abandoned these heights in order to take up what he considered to be a ‘position magnifique,’fortified between Spicheren and Forbach. Frossard distributed his corps as follows: holding the right and centre was the division of General Laveaucoupet, deployed along the heights, with two companies entrenched on the Rotherberg. On the left General Vergé’s division occupied Stiring and the Forbach valley. General Bataille’s division was held back in reserve around Spicheren; in all, counting the corps cavalry and artillery, some 27,000 men with 90 guns.

Kameke thought he would be engaging the rear guard of Frossard’s Corps, which he believed was in retreat. He ordered a full attack, committing his two brigades under Gen. Francois into the walls of hills running between Spicheren and Forbach.

Francois’s attack had stopped cold by one o’clock. He would sit and wait for reinforcements, wondering all the while just how many French were in front of him. Lucky for him, every French attempt at a counterattack was stopped by his artillery. Kameke’s 28th Brigade under von Woyna would arrive in late afternoon and bring the battle back to life again, but the Prussian attack would again be repulsed. The French would now counterattack. Gen. Laveaucoupet’s 40th Regiment pushed back Francois badly demoralized surviving troops while Gen. Charles Vergé’s 2nd Brigade attacked Woyna’s troops, pushing them back almost to Saarbrücken. If Frossard had pursued these counterattacks he might have won the battle.

By this time, General Constantin von Alvensleben, commander of the III Corps of the German II Army under Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia came to the aid of their compatriots leading units that had arrived on the scene. Alvensleben decided to attack Frossard’s left flank. With a combination of overlapping infantry and artillery attacks, the Prussians were able to roll the flank, thus gaining control of the Rotherberg Hill. By 9 o’clock, the French had given up the entire plateau outside Spicheren to the Prussians. Frossard had ordered a retreat towards Moselle where he planned to withdraw and move to the fortress of Verdun, but once again he was attacked by Steinmetz at the Battle of Borny-Colombey. On the way there they ran into Bazaine’s division coming to reinforce them.

France had lost another battle; the quality of its military commanders and their lack of initiative mainly to blame. The German casualties were relatively high due to lack of planning and the effectiveness of the French chassepot rifle.

The Battlefield:

Sarrbrücken stood on the left bank of the River Saar, with two stone bridges connecting it to the twin town of St Johann on the opposite side. It was a prosperous and thriving community of some 20,000 inhabitants, and one of the main railway centres for coal distribution. Virtually surrounded by hills, the road running from St Johann on the north, cuts through the great Kollerthaler Forest to Lebach and St Wendel. At the village of St Arnual, about 1,800 meters above Saarbrücken, the river changes direction from north to west, where it is joined by a stream flowing from the west. This stream passes through an open valley, which runs parallel to that of the Saar River, but is much more confined, and named the Valley of St Arnual, which allowed for some unobstructed manoeuvring, the harvest already being gathered.  Between Saarbrücken and the St Arnual Valley there rises an isolated ridge, which is divided into four separate crests. Further to the West stood the high ground upon which the drill-ground had been constructed for the garrison, while just above the Lower Bridge of the town rose the Reppertsberg. To the east stood the Winterberg, looking down on St. Arnual and the angle of the Saar River. In the space dividing the Winterberg and the Reppertsberg there rose a steep wooded knoll called the Nussberg. The Spicheren heights themselves dominated the surrounding countryside. To the east their slopes were covered by the thick timber of the Stiftswald and the Giferts Forests. To the west the slope dropped away into the Forbach- Stiring valley in which stood the imposing Stiring-Wendel ironworks, and through which ran the road to Metz. The entrance to this valley at the north was overlooked by a spur jutting out from the Spicheren heights, and known, from the reddish colour of the soil, as the Rotherberg. This particular feature overlooked the whole of the valley that lay between it and the recently evacuated heights around Sarrbrücken.The railway station stood at the north end of the town, just behind the centre of the Saarbrübrucken ridge, while the French Custom House and the Golden Bremm Inn lay just below the frowning Spicheren heights.

The French

Frossard distributed his corps as follows: holding the right and centre was the division of General Laveaucoupet, deployed along the heights, with two companies entrenched on the Rotherberg. On the left General Vergé’s division occupied Stiring and the Forbach valley. General Bataille’s division was held back in reserve around Spicheren; in all, counting the corps cavalry and artillery, some 27,000 men with 90 guns.  The map shows the positions of Frossard’s corps, and tells us much about his military attitude. By abandoning the high ground overlooking the Saar bridges (which he had not destroyed) he gave the enemy adequate room to establish a strong bridgehead, which in itself is a damming inditement on his military ability. He was, by training, first and foremost an engineer, and that he had imbibed the needs of modern warfare in which the spade complemented the rife, still does not excuse the fact that he totally failed to appreciate the full potential of his position being used not only for defensive purposes, but also for strong offensive action, which could have seriously jeopardised the whole Prussian plan of campaign. Not only this, but had he been adequately supported by other corps and divisions of the Army of Metz, most of whom were within no more than a few hours march of Spicheren, the well laid plans of Moltke could have been relegated to the rubbish heap.

f Frossard aired on the side of caution, Kameke threw restraint to the wind. After obtaining orders from his Corps commander, General von Zastrow to launch an attack on what he believed to be nothing more than a French rearguard, and without waiting for support, ordered his division forward. Not only had he failed to comprehend that, rather than a weak French rearguard, an entire army corps confronted him, but he also hit the part of the frontier where the French had massed more than one army corps. The four divisions of Bazaine’s 3rd Corps lay within fifteen miles of Spicheren.

French Mitrailleuse

Just before noon on the morning of 6th August, General von François, commanding the 27th Brigade of Kameke’s division was ordered to clear the French artillery from the Rotherberg, and obviously sharing his commander’s view that nothing lay before him other than a weak holding force, François’s cannon began to lay down fire in prelude to his infantry advancing. Just after 1 p.m. he pushed out two battalions of the 74thRegiment on either flank, while the remaining two battalions moved towards the Rotherburg. Upon emerging from the tree line onto the open ground in front of the Spicheren heights the Prussians were greeted by heavy artillery and chassepot fire, together with the harsh Tak-Tak-Tak-Tak of the Mitrailleuse machine-gun as it barked into action, none of this doing any real damage to their company columns owing to the erratic nature of the French artillery fuses, and the fact that the Mitrailleuse was used in batteries like the artillery, rather than being pushed forward and dug-in among the infantry. However his flank battalions were forced to halt their forward progress in the Stiring valley on their left by the massed fire from Laveaucoupet’s division, and in front of Stiring Wendel on their right by a blizzard of lead and iron delivered by Vergé’s division. At the same time, although they had managed to reach the base of the Rotherberg the Prussians could do little more than take shelter there from French fire, which proved difficult to deliver owing to the steepness of the cliff face.

By 2.30 p.m. François 27th Brigade was spread out over three miles and barely hanging on to the scanty ground it had thus far gained. Its losses were mounting and the troops much fatigued by their efforts. Kameke’s other brigade, the 28th was just crossing the Saar River with instructions to attack the French left rear, and to this end its commander, General von Woyna, had already sent the 53rd Regiment together with a half battalion of the 77th Regiment into the Saarbrücken Forest, while the rest of his brigade was still strung out in the rear.

Now should have been the moment for Frossard to launch a counterattack. With Kameke’s division spread so thinly over the ground, and his brigades separated from one another by the thickly wooded terrain, a strong blow delivered to the Prussian left flank would have forced them to retire, maybe it would even have caused them to route? Their gun line would have been overrun, and serious problems would have resulted in Prussian coordination once the French had regained the Saarbrücken Ridge.  The view of a recent French historian sums it up nicely:

What greater opportunity can be imagined? Frossard had only to throw himself on the Prussian formations and destroy them as they arrived one by one in the valley. But that did not happen. Frossard, an excellent engineer officer but a second-rate tactician, sat tight, and so succeeded in losing a battle which he should with minimum effort have won, while Bazaine, with 40,000 men close at hand, watched impassively the defeat of an army corps for no better reason than that its commander enjoyed a greater esteem than he in Imperial circles.

Therefore the Prussians, who should have been taught a resounding lesson for their hastily conceived offensive, although still under considerable pressure from the French, were given time to bolster their overstretched front as more troops, and in particular more guns, were drawn to the sound of the fighting. As well as the remaining division of Zastrow’s VII Corps, the 13th, Frederick Charles, seething at having Steinmetz’s First Army blocking the road that he was meant to use, now ordered a general advance on Sarrbrücken.

Not only had Kameke put all his available infantry and guns into the battle, he had also thrown in a squadron of Hussars to clear the French from the Rotherberg, a gesture which clearly shows his desperation. Just what these mounted troops were supposed to do when confronted by the steep sides of the cliff face which had caused their brothers in the infantry enough problems we will never know:At 3.30 p.m. Kameke, with every unit committed, but fully aware that help was on its way, launched a frontal attack against the Rotherberg using the Fusilier battalion of the 74th Regimentand three companies of the 39th, with General François leading. Opposed to them along the crest of the Rotherberg, and well dug-in, were the 10thChasseurs and to their rear in support, a battery of Mitrailleuses. With remarkable courage and tenacity, the Prussians managed to scale the cliff face, and despite taking heavy causalities, managed to gain the crest, where they held on grimly in the face of mounting French attacks. General François was killed along with many of his men, but sustained by their own guns down in the valley, which raked the French position with an accurate and concentrated fire; the Prussians could not be forced from the heights.

The Hussars were not long in discovering that their riding-school lessons did not include practice in crag-climbing, and they went back wiser than before…They saw before them a track which looked practicable, and they dashed on up, strewing the path with dead and living debris as they advanced. How near the summit one at least of them may have got I never knew till the next day, when I saw a dead hussar and a dead horse tumbled over into the ravine three-fourths of the way up. I saw them ride up. I never saw any of them ride back.’

As more and more Prussian batteries arrived on the field they inundated the French position. Every attempt to force Kameke’s small force from their precarious hold on the Rotherberg was smothered in shell fire, which also caused the French artillery to pull back out of range, their bronze muzzle loaders being no match for the Krupp breech-loading cannon.

Prussian officers

By 4.30 p.m. the first Prussian infantry reinforcements started to make their appearance. The 40th Regiment (VIII Corps, First Army) came in between the Rotherberg and the Gifert wood. Here they forced the French Chasseurs from the crest and linked up with Kameke’s line. To consolidate their hold on the position, and with great skill and courage, four guns were hauled up a rough track on the eastern face of the Rotherberg, these were soon joined by a further four cannon, also dragged up the steep track manually. Once in position they concentrated their fire on the village of Spicheren, about 1000 meters further south across a spur of open ground. Three separate French attacks were driven back with great loss but the Prussians found that they had only scratched the surface of Frossard’s main position, which lay before them on the high ground around Spicheren and Forbach, and to come to grips with the main French line they would have to cross over ground covered by artillery on the Pfaffenberg, which remained outside the range of their own guns.

Frossard was well aware of the threat of a turning movement around his left flank. Vergé’s 1st Brigade (Valazé) had been holding its ground around the railway yards and factories of Stiring Wendel, but now became threatened on its left by the advance of the Prussian 13th Division moving down the Rossel valley in response to the sound of battle. Frossard had moved Vergé’s other brigade (Jolivet) from its position guarding his extreme left to bolster the defence of Stiring, while Bataille sent forward a regiment from his reserve division to Vergé’s assistance. Frossard also sent off an urgent message for help to General Metman, whose division had been ordered by Bazaine to take up a defensive (again!) position covering the road to St Avold, to move onto the ground vacated by Jolivet’s brigade -unfortunately for Frossard, Metman became as dilatory as Bazaine, and never got into action – thereafter the French launched a counterattack, which drove the Prussians back in some confusion, many retreating back to Saarbrücken. At 6.00 p.m. it appeared that the entire Prussian right wing was about to fall apart. On the Prussian right Woyna’s 28th Brigade had become disorientated as it moved through the Saarbrücken Forest in an attempt to turn the French left. The 53rd Regiment, accompanied by the general himself, had conformed to his orders and attacked the high ground known as the Coal-pit Ridge, but suddenly discovering that the French position extended much further than he had anticipated, Woyna called up the77th Regiment to bear more to the south-west. The two leading companies conformed, but the remainder of the First Battalion continued along the railway line where they became embroiled in the attack on Stiring Wendel. The other two battalions, just as they were about to wheel to the right, had received François 1.30 p.m. request for support, and had moved directly to the front, linking up with the 27th Brigade at around 3.00 p.m. The problem of control and command was so bad that Woyna was unaware, even at 4.30 p.m. that he had effectively been deprived of half of his brigade, and that what still remained was insufficient even to hold onto the ground he had gained, never mind being able to carry out any turning movement.

Constantin von Alvensleben

Fortunately for the Prussians, Constantin von Alvensleben had arrived earlier on the field with the forward elements of his III Corps (Second Army), and although he was outranked by both General Goeben and General Zastrow, his experience was such that his superiors were quite willing to leave operations in his capable hands. In the gathering darkness Frossard reluctantly decided to withdraw. Although his right wing had managed to blunt every attack thrown against it, the advance of General Glümer’s fresh Prussian division threatened his centre and left. To cover his retreat Frossard positioned 58 guns in one great battery around Spicheren, under the covering fire of which he managed to pull his corps back towards Sarreguemines. Having committed his troops piecemeal to the centre and left as they came up, Alvensleben realized that, although he had no firm information concerning the state of the Prussian right wing, if the French now counterattacked in strength he could be forced back against the river. Therefore he decided to make another attempt to force the French to relinquish their hold on the Spicheren heights. To this end he sent six battalions forward in a direct assault from the Stiring Valley, endeavouring to come in against Laveaucoupet’s flank. Even here the Prussians found themselves in trouble. The first wave of the attack crumpled as it came under massed artillery and chassepot fire, while the second wave, coming up through the Spicheren Forest was stalled by a well executed hit-and-run withdrawal to the crest by Laveaucoupet’s flank guard, the Prussians only gaining the summit well after night had fallen. Here the French made a last bid to push their enemy from the Rotherberg and the Giferts Forest, but the attack was so disjointed and ill conceived that it achieved nothing. Finally at 7.30 p.m. Laveaucoupet concentrated his division in a tighter formation above Spicheren.

The French losses are reported as 2,000 killed and wounded, with a further 2,000 men missing, the majority of which were taken prisoner. The Prussians suffered over 4,400 casualties, which, allowing for their superiority in artillery, still demonstrates the effectiveness of the French chassepot.

French wounded after Spicheren

On the same day (6th August), some 40 miles further to the east across the Vosges mountains the Prussian Third Army had defeated Marshal MacMahon at Froeschwiller, inflicting upon him the loss of almost twenty thousand men.

“On the 24th of July, at six in the morning, 19 officers, 2 doctors, 1 paymaster, 58 Oberjägers, 13 buglers, 860 Jägers, 23 soldiers of the baggage-train, 4 medical assistants and one gunsmith stood ready to march out into war. Behind them the reserve Battalion consisting of 2 officers, 17 Oberjägers, 3 buglers, 168 Jägers and 2 medical assistants. Leaving was not easy and every single soldier knew that he might never come back. The Battalion was attached to 13. Division commanded by Generalleutnant von Glümer. This division of VII. Armeekorps was part of First Army which was commanded by General von Steinmetz.”

BATTLE OF SPICHEREN – Forbach, 6th of August

“At dawn, on the 6th of August 13. Division advanced towards the river Saar, the battalion being part of the advance guard. At half past twelve it reached Völklingen, were it halted to prepare camp. Only a few hours afterwards an alarm was sounded. The enemy had taken the heights of Spicheren and was under attack by 14. Division. Our Division was ordered to advance towards Forbach attacking the enemies left wing and rear.
Three of the battalions companies advanced on Gross-Rossel. Here they stopped and pickets were sent out to the nearby hills as it seemed the fighting near Spicheren was already over. From their vantage point though, the pickets could clearly see that the fight was still raging, so the advance on Forbach was continued, the battalion moving forward in companies abreast on the right bank of the Rossel.

At about 10 minutes past six our Jägers crossed the border into France, but as soon as they had passed the forest of Leisch they were greeted by french bullets. The enemy had entrenched himself on the Kaninchenberg (Rabbit-Hill) and had taken us under lively and well aimed fire. Soon some elements of the 55th Regiment arrived and with their support the batallion managed to push the opposing forces off the hill. Soon the enemy was in full retreat. He was chased by some of our rifle platoons, but as soon as the men had reached the plain on the other side of the hill, they were attacked by enemy Dragoons. Even though our Jägers defensive fire emptied a few saddles, the dragoons managed to break into and through their open formations. The Jägers threw themselves to the ground to avoid the vicious blows of the enemies swords. The speed of their charge carried the enemy further forward where they were met by the reminder of the company which calmly awaited the attack. Their first volleys killed most of the enemy dragoons and horses. Only a few managed to reach the line. One who did was the brave french commander, the Comte de Cernayel. He fell with six bullet wounds to the chest, but only after he had put a revolver bullet through the head of Oberjäger Rietz and sabred the arm of Jäger Klein. The few french survivors fled towards Forbach.”

French Dragoons charging, 1870

“When darkness set in the battalion tried to enter the city, but was repulsed by such a heavy fire by rifles and Mitrailleuses that the attack was called off. In the night two rifle platoons were on picket duty close to the enemy lines when they heard the sounds of large bodies of troops moving from the direction of the village of Forbach. Second company tried to get into contact with the neighbouring troops of 14. Division and on the way had the opportunity to practice their shooting at straggling enemy soldiers. So far the battalion had one Oberjäger killed in action and one officer (Hauptmann von Kusserow) and six Jägers wounded.

On the morning of the 7th of August Forbach was taken after a small skirmish with french stragglers. Inside the village the battalion captured huge quantities of enemy supplies.
Everywhere on the roads the signs of a hasty enemy retreat could be witnessed. The victory at Spicheren was a huge success and gave a tremendous moral boost to our soldiers. Impregnable defensive positions had been overrun by prussian soldiers, spreading terror and fear in the ranks of the enemy. The enemy fell back towards Metz to reorganise his defences. ”

 

PART  3 (The Battle of Colombey) NEXT WEEK – Stay tuned

 

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Should you understand german, enjoy these great documentaries. In case you can’t  THIS  is a good place to start.

Die Schlacht von Sedan 1870 (Battle of Sedan)

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Otto von Bismarck – Kanzler und Dämon (Chancellor and Demon)

Part 1

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Part 4

Otto von Bismarck – Junker aus der Altmark 

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