BLOODY THURSDAY: The Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat 1870

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    “It is difficult to think of a great passage of arms in which one critical day of battle was so strangely – and so soon – underscored by another” – David Ascoli, author of A Day of Battle

    On the evening of Tuesday, August 16th 1870, the battlefield of Mars-la-Tour looked much like countless other battlefields of history. The devastation spread from the Yron River valley in the west almost to Gravelotte on the eastern end of the field. Physical destruction and human sorrow was prevalent and overwhelming throughout the length and breadth of this deadly ground. After the exceptionally brutal “day of battle”, about 33,000 casualties had been inflicted on the two armies – roughly equally split – and both forces were spent. Superficially, the battle was a draw when scoring by a measure of raw casualties or relative field position of the combatants. But in actuality, this was an astounding Prussian victory and a near-miraculous outcome considering the odds against them at the start of the day. The Prussian 2nd Army of Prince Frederick Charles had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and Marshal Bazaine’s French Army of the Rhine had no one to blame but themselves.

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    German period map showing troops positions of all three battles around Metz – August 14th (Borny-Colombey), August 16th (Mars-la-Tour) and August 18th (Gravelotte-St.Privat)

    During the night of the 16th– 17th, both army commanders assessed the situation and came up with totally opposite conclusions. Bazaine, of course, worried only about his “lifeline” to Metz and quickly discarded any thoughts about the possibility of continuing on to Verdun by another route. He reasoned that he would risk being caught in the open in road-march columns plus he was warned that his artillery units required at least 24 hours to restock their empty ammunition caissons. Therefore, he opted for a short retreat back to the Amanvillers Line, an elevated stretch of terrain just a mile west of the Metz fortifications. This line afforded perfect fields of fire from dominating sloped heights starting from the sturdy village of St. Privat and extending over eight miles south to the Moselle River. The center was protected by forests and walled farms and the deep Mance Ravine secured the southern flank.  Cynically abandoning his wounded for the Prussians to take care of, Bazaine ordered his units to march back eastward and take up these new defensive positions.

    At Any Cost: Metz 1870 provides two distinct Campaign scenarios, with which players can explore various options regarding the approach march to the Battle of Mars-la-Tour, as well as with the intervening day between the two great battles. Players may decide to stand their ground, retire to a different position, etc. The French player will indeed have the option to try and continue to Verdun and attempt the escape of the Army of the Rhine or fight the Prussians elsewhere on the map. The players will be able to set the tone for the campaign and attempt different strategies than their historical counterparts chose.

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    General Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz

    Across the battlefield’s wreckage, the Prussian forces sat in place totally exhausted. They spent the night of the 16th resting the torn up IIIrd and Xth Corps. August 17th dawned with the Prussian high command replenishing the battle-worn units and calling forward the remainder of the 2nd Army as it advanced up from the Moselle River crossing points at Pont-a-Mousson and elsewhere. The 1st Army, under the command of the certified “loose cannon” General Karl von Steinmetz, was also crossing the Moselle. However, Moltke could not afford a repeat of Steinmetz’ previous near-disastrous headstrong independent actions (at the Battles of Spicheren and Borny-Colombey) which almost cost him the campaign. He thus decided to strip Steinmetz of “de facto” command of all his units, except for VIIth Corps. This unit would form the pivot of the entire Prussian army as it turned back northeastward to find the now-retiring French. Forward elements of the VIIth proceeded to cross the Moselle at the town of Ars, near the southern end of the newly proposed French defensive line. Steinmetz would be kept on a short leash – but one that he would quickly chew through. 

    General Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz was the textbook definition of a “loose cannon”. He was insubordinate and vindictive, most of the time being recklessly aggressive – as at Spicheren and Gravelotte-St. Privat – but also occasionally aloof and spiteful – as at Borny-Colombey. In At Any Cost, the French have a special Command Event Track on which they can place Event chits to increase their chances of forcing one stack of Steinmetz’ units to attack against any hex the French player sees fit to order.

    The French had a significant head start on the Prussians, but quickly squandered that advantage. Confusion reigned in the ranks as units marched at a leisurely pace or became entangled with one another or were delayed by fleeing civilians or stopped to loot. Most French corps covered a mere three or four miles the entire day! Instead of being well-entrenched and fully rested, most units straggled into their new positions late on the 17th.

    The Campaign scenario allows for “Overnight” turns, during which players will have movement and combat penalties but also during which they may conduct special rallying, resting and re-arming. In addition, they may also build and upgrade earthworks to allow the placement of Hasty Works and, more importantly, Entrenchments. The French player has an additional caveat, however, to reflect Bazaine’s particular obsession regarding his communications with Metz. He may not remove “Ammunition Problem” markers and has a lower chance to rebuild his units if he does not establish a clear line of Major Road hexes back to Metz during these Overnight turns. 

    The French Army of the Rhine deployed in their “position magnifique” as follows:

    • Canrobert’s VIth Corps on the north end of the line around the village of St. Privat;
    • Lidmirault’s IVth Corps next around Amanvillers;
    • Lebeouf’s IIIrd Corps on the plateau, as far south as the farm of St. Hubert;
    • Frossard’s IInd Corps (still beat up from the Mars-la-Tour battle) occupied the southern end of the line on the heights around Point du Jour. Despite the fact that his men were in bad shape, Frossard was a former engineer and this experience allowed him to help get his men deeply entrenched and well protected very quickly.
    • The remainder of the Army of the Rhine – the Imperial Guard (under Marshal Bourbaki), Army Reserve Artillery and almost all of the cavalry, was stationed behind the middle/left flank of the army, between the forts of St. Quentin and Plappeville. Units began entrenching as soon as they got into their portion of the line, except for VIth Corps, which had left all its entrenching tools behind at Chalons! As can be seen by these dispositions, Bazaine still insisted on “leaning” the army to the south (his left flank), once again with the ultimate goal of making sure the Prussians did not cut him off from Metz. As August 18th dawned, the French sat comfortably in their defensive trench line, with little thought of moving from it. 

    Moltke suspected that the French would still try to escape to Verdun, perhaps via a more northern route through Jarny. However, trailing dust clouds throughout the 17th revealed to the Prussian generals that the French were in fact retiring to the northeast. But the sheer exhaustion of all the Prussian cavalry units precluded any intense pursuit or reconnaissance. Thus, Moltke would have to make his campaign plans for August 18th on a hunch, without any detailed knowledge of exactly where the Army of the Rhine had gone. Assuming that the French were going to go northeast and then possibly swing back to the west in order to reach Verdun, Moltke ordered Frederick Charles’ 2nd Army to advance on the morning of the 18th as follows:

    • Northern Wing: Guard Corps and Saxon XIIth Corps. These units were ordered to be prepared to attack east or west, depending on where the enemy was found;
    • Center: IXth (composed mostly of Hessians), Xth and IIIrd Corps. The latter two formations were so decimated at Mars-la-Tour, they remained to the rear and were not expected to contribute much to the upcoming battle other than with their artillery batteries. IXth Corps was ordered to find the French army and attack it immediately;
    • South Wing: VIIth (under Steinmetz’ direct command) and VIIIth Corps. These units were ordered to scout out the Point du Jour position, upon which they quickly found the French IInd Corps deployed. Moltke incorrectly assumed that these enemy units were actually only a weak French rearguard.
    • Expected reinforcements: only the IInd Corps, which was far off to the south.
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    Approach marches of each Prussian corps towards the Amanvillers line on the morning of the 18th

    Early on the morning of the 18th, the Prussian phalanx began its northeasterly advance in earnest – 200,000 men on an eight-mile frontage. The units proceeded blindly forward, unknowingly crossing at an angle in front of the deployed French forces, offering their flank to the enemy as a defeated wolf offers its neck to its foe. Lebeouf’s sentries actually spotted the Prussian right flank around 9:00, but Bazaine vetoed any suggestion of conducting an opportunity attack against this inviting target.

    During the first few turns of the Gravelotte-St. Privat scenario, the Prussian player will be restricted as to how he can move his forces to reflect the lack of knowledge of the enemy’s exact location. All “wings” will be forced to advance in a northeasterly direction until such a point that they actually spot the French positions. This will prevent the Prussian player from conducting any moves and attacks to which he would not be entitled under the historical circumstances.

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    The Prussian VIIIth and IXth Corps attack during the first phase of the battle

    Again, marching forward with no reconnaissance, the Prussians did finally spot the white tents of the French infantry south of Amanvillers and assumed that this represented the flank of the enemy’s rearguard. With orders to immediately attack the French “where found”, the IXth Corps quickly assembled and advanced forward to threaten the supposedly “exposed” enemy flank. In fact, they were about to conduct a frontal assault against the well-defended center of the French army!  The Hessian artillery batteries trotted forward and deployed in the face of the French ridgeline and began firing. The answering Chassepot and artillery fire devastated the poor artillerists, who were now caught in the open. In the meantime, Prussian units to the north reported more French units in St. Privat and it was apparent at that point an error was made – but it was too late to recall the Hessians. They exchanged fire with the French as long as they could, but it was a mismatch. In fact, Grenier’s Division of IVth Corps actually advanced from their positions in the French line and attacked the gunners, capturing some cannon. This was one of the only cases during the entire battle in which the French counterattacked, despite numerous situations where such an attack could have disrupted the Prussians and may have even won the battle for the Army of the Rhine. Bazaine’s philosophy was one that permeated the French high command strategy overall – deploy into a “position magnifique” and let the Prussian waves slam themselves against the “rocky French shoreline.” Strict and unimaginative dogged adherence to this strategy would eventually help lose them the war and their Emperor.

    While this critical fighting was going on, Bazaine was comfortably holed up far from the front in the fortress of Plappeville, actually spending his time handing out medals to individuals for their performances at the Battle of Mars-la-Tour! This while a prime opportunity for some aggressive generalship passed him by. Around 2:00, the Hessians of IXth Corps extricated themselves and stabilized that portion of the line.

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    View from the Prussian lines across the Mance Ravine up toward the heights. The walled farms of Moscou and St. Hubert are in the center left and the main road to Metz crosses below them. Photo by John Hamill.

    While this struggle in the middle was proceeding, General Steinmetz began loosening Moltke’s grip on him. He absconded with VIIIth Corps right from under HQ’s nose and at about 1:00 ordered them to advance forward to link with the Hessians right flank. He then ordered an attack on the Moscou and St. Hubert walled farms. At 2:00, he threw in more troops without a word of protest from Moltke or anyone else! By 2:30, Steinmetz had VIIth and VIIIth Corps, along with 150 guns, conducting a full frontal assault against St. Hubert and across the Mance Ravine at Point du Jour. The French fire against these advances produced a wall of death – the Prussians were mown down and stopped in their tracks. Some elements did seize St. Hubert after its garrison was blown away by the Prussian artillery, but the position was a salient death trap for any Prussians that did make it into the farm. With the Prussians reeling all along the southern front, no counterattacks – local or otherwise – were launched by Frossard or Lebeouf from their secure earthworks.

    The French unwillingness to venture forth and conduct any kind of large scale counterattack is reflected with the Position Magnifique Command Event Track. The French player is not totally prevented from counterattacking, but in order to issue any Attack Orders to his troops, he must commit Event chits to this track and make a successful die roll.  Thus if the player wants to be more aggressive than Bazaine was historically, he may opt to do so, but at a cost and with some pre-planning.

    French hesitation, the slackening of their artillery fire due to ammo shortages and the “success” at St. Hubert was enough for Steinmetz to declare that the French were routing and demanded that HQ provide more troops to his front so he could run down the “retiring” French army. At 4:00, he threw two brigades from VIIth Corps against the Point du Jour position and they were massacred in short order. The troops that weren’t killed were thrown back into the Mance Ravine, there to huddle with thousands of other Prussian troops who had had enough. Instead of calling off the assault, Steinmetz instead calculated that only one more push was needed to break the French line and – with an order that bordered on insanity – directed the fresh 1st Cavalry Division to charge the ridgeline. The troopers trotted across the ravine’s bridge and a few minutes after their introduction into the maelstrom, they were scythed down like wheat.

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    View from the French positions near Point-du-Jour down on the Mance Ravine. Photo by John Hamill.

    At 6:00 and after further assurances from Steinmetz that he was just on the verge of total victory, the very last fresh brigades on the Prussian right flank were tossed into the killing fields. As before, they were cut down in the thousands. It was the last straw – the entire Prussian right flank routed past the shocked King of Prussia and ran almost all the way back to Rezonville. But that still wasn’t enough – at about 7:00, the hard-marching IInd Corps finally arrived on the field and Steinmetz immediately grabbed them and threw them at the enemy as well. In a hail of French bullets and shells, over 1,300 Prussian casualties were inflicted in a few minutes. By 10:00, the entire right flank front was quiet and both Moltke and the King contemplated a Prussian retreat.

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    The Prussian right flank routs from the front while the Guard Corps and XIIth Corps attack St. Privat during the second phase of the battle.

    Unbeknownst to Moltke and the King, and while they were absorbing the ongoing catastrophe in front of them, six miles to the north a different drama was playing out. The northern wing of the army – the Guard Corps and Saxon XIIth Corps – was belatedly advancing to the northeast after a two-hour delay caused by their marching columns crossing paths near Mars-la-Tour (in a rare display of poor German planning). When the French were discovered around Amanvillers earlier in the day, the Prussian plan was to drive in the French right flank which they assumed would be “hanging in the air” north of the town. However, by 3:00 Canrobert’s corps was discovered deployed around St. Privat and the Prussians realized that the French flank was far to the north of where they had anticipated. At 3:30, the Guard drove out a French garrison at St. Marie-aux -Chenes after an unexpectedly tough fight and deployed about a mile west of St. Privat. The overall attack plan was revised so that the XIIth Corps would continue its march to the northeast and approach the French position from their right flank via Montois and Roncourt. This would delay the timing of the proposed attack by hours as the Saxons marched as quickly as they could around to the northeast.

    The Prussian player can send units off the north edge of the map in the Gravelotte-St. Privat and Campaign scenarios and bring them back on through predesignated map edge hexes.  This is a chancy affair and requires the investment of Command Event chits as well as some good die rolls. The maneuver does allow the Prussians a significant flank march but at the risk that these units may never make it back into the game!

    The Guard artillery batteries began pounding the French positions and the VIth Corps suffered terribly under the cannonade as they were not able to entrench and thus had little shelter. Canrobert realized he was in trouble as his 8,000 men stared down at 18,000 massed guardsmen and requested immediate reinforcements from Bazaine. The marshal, still concerned only for his left flank and connection to Metz, managed to send only four artillery batteries and some additional ammunition to the beleaguered VIth Corps.

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    View from the Prussian Guard Corps positions up toward the village of St. Privat. Photo by John Hamill.

    But then occurred one of those odd things that oft happens throughout military history – a seemingly inexplicable decision is made that twists fate and can only be explained by the ever-present fog-of-war. At 4:30, the Prussian Guard Corps gathered together and began advancing against the St. Privat heights. Why the Prussians launched a massed assault against a formidable enemy defensive position, well before the supporting flank attack appeared and the teeth of the ongoing artillery bombardment taking its full bite out of the French, is unknown. Some theorize that Frederick Charles was simply following his general orders of attacking the French “when and where found” and others surmise that Prince Augustus (commander of the Guard Corps) wished to preserve the honor of defeating the enemy for his guardsmen rather than to some “lowly” Saxons. Regardless of the real reasons, around 5:00 the first of three Prussian Guard brigades was launched up the steep, flat slopes leading to St. Privat.

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    The Prussian Guards assault the heights of St. Privat across the open slopes.

    It should be pointed out here that a French division of troops armed with the Chassepot rifle could theoretically issue 40,000 rounds per minute! This is the avalanche of lead that the Prussian guardsmen attempted to march through. The 4th Guards Brigade covered about 1,500 yards before they were massacred by the French defensive fire. All their field officers were lost and the units was pinned down on the slopes about 800 yards from the French lines.  The 1st Guards Brigade did little better, getting pinned down 700 yards from the French infantrymen with 2,000 casualties. The 2nd Guards Brigade was flattened 1,000 yards from the spires of St Privat. By 6:30, the Prussian Guard Corps suffered over 8,000 casualties and made no progress against VIth Corps. Canrobert realized the great opportunity presented to him and again begged Bazaine and Bourbaki for reinforcements – but none were sent. Any French counterattack to win the day was a stillborn dream.

    The Position Magnifique Track also serves to restrict March Orders as well as Attack Orders. This very easily simulates the general unwillingness of Bourbaki and Bazaine from moving any of the army’s reserves away from their position between the two Metz fortifications, as well as the general lack of mobility of the entire French army.

    The Prussians again settled back to ferociously bombarding the French lines to relieve the pressure on the trapped guardsmen along the exposed slopes. The situation had reached a critical stage for the Prussians and again they had to face the reality of a possible defeat. Then, at about 7:00, a clamor arose from the north and the Saxons of XIIth Corps finally fell upon the French right at Roncourt.  The French line began to collapse quickly and at 7:30 the guardsmen actually rose from the slopes and advanced forward once again.  By 8:00, Canrobert’s men were driven from St. Privat and a wholesale retreat was on. As the surviving elements of VIth Corps streamed back eastward, they encountered one lone French Imperial Guard division, belatedly sent by Bourbaki to assist the now-crumbling right flank. In a classic case of too little too late, rather than bolstering the morale of their fellow warriors, the French guardsmen instead joined the retreat. The Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat and the Metz campaign was over.

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    The victorious Prussians finally are able to sweep into the village of St. Privat and roll up the French line.

    The Prussian 1st and 2nd Army lost about 20,000 men at the Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat, compared to approximately 12,000 losses for the French. As a result of this French defeat – one in which any kind of resolve by the French high command could very well have converted the loss into a great victory – Bazaine had the Army of the Rhine interred in his beloved Metz fortress.

    “So it was that the Army of the Rhine, so bravely named and so grossly mismanaged, retired sullen and subdued into the snail-shell of Metz, there to be sent two months later into surrender and servitude.” – David Ascoli, author of A Day of Battle

    What followed in the next few weeks was a campaign that led directly to the downfall of Napoleon III’s Second French Empire, as an anemic attempt at relieving Bazaine in Metz was undertaken by Marshal MacMahon and his Army of Chalons. This was the infamous Sedan campaign, which ended ingloriously with the French defeat at that city and the surrender of Napoleon himself to Bismarck and the Second German Empire. Another year of desperate fighting would continue in the Franco-Prussian War as France became a Republic, Paris was placed under a severe siege and more bloody battles were fought between Prussian, Bavarian and French Republican armies. Nonetheless, it was the twin battles of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte-St. Privat that essentially set the stage for ultimate French defeat in the war.  By doing so, these key battles also indirectly helped lay the groundwork for another, even greater war – the First World War. 

    At Any Cost: Metz 1870 attempts to capture the dynamics of these two important battles and of the overall three day campaign. All the fighting units that took part in these titanic struggles are included in the game and the rules and game mechanics are designed to capture the spirit, tactics, strategy and look of the period. We hope that you’ve enjoyed this article – and our previous article on  the Battle at Mars-La-Tour – and will give At Any Cost: Metz 1870 a try on your gaming table. Thank you for reading and good gaming!

    – Hermann Luttmann

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    7 thoughts on “BLOODY THURSDAY: The Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat 1870

    1. I’ve had the fortune to visit the battlefield and surrounding area of Gravelotte-St. Privat on many occasions while I was stationed in Germany. While not an expert on the battle, there are a few advantages that visiting the battlefield offer in terms of perspective about the battle. First, the ill-named army of the Rhine, so named to project the confidence that France had in it’s invading force’s ability to march straight into the heart of Germany, instead found itself ironically, closer to the Rhine than its German adversaries were. So if you are looking at the battle maps above and wondering if they are up-side down or from a north to south perspective, no. The strategic debacle of the French leadership in the Franco-Prussian war quickly placed the German forces closer to Paris than the French forces. That is probably the first thing that you notice when you visit the battlefield, driving westward from Germany; you pass the French emplacements before you get to the German ones.
      Looking forward to this game’s release and hoping for expansions as well. Great article and the Inside GMT continues to provide a lot of insight into upcoming games. To highlight the direct connection between the articles and sales, I have already pre-ordered three of the games: Time of Crisis, Falling Sky and At Any Cost, Metz, each have received decent attention on the Inside GMT blogs.

      Rob M.

      • Thanks for the kind words, Rob! It is such a fascinating campaign that I was shocked that nobody had before thought of doing this as a wargame. So much drama and such tough fighting in battles that had a significant impact on history. I hope that the game successfully conveys those colorful factors for the gamer.
        All the best!
        Hermann

    2. Great article, and I am really looking forward to getting my copy of this game on release. A slight downer on the article is that both the two paintings used to illustrate the Guards at St Privat are miscaptioned. The first is actually the attack of IX Corps’ Lauenburg Jager Battalion some way further south. The second is Rochling’s famous painting, “The death of Major von Hadeln”. The gallant major died leading men of the 69th Regiment of 16th Brigade of VIII Corps forward against St Hubert farm overlooking the Mance Ravine. This painting is now in the new museum at Gravelotte, opened last year.

      • Thanks Andrew! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The mis-captioning of those paintings is totally my fault. My limited skills at downloading paintings properly and finding the right images online did me wrong there. In the case of the dramatic “fighting” paintings, I was just looking for pictures that conveyed the feeling and “look” of what I was trying to describe in the text. So what happened is that I spent so much time writing the piece and then suddenly started scrambling around for accompanying pics and maps to actually finish it up finally, that I grabbed what I thought looked right. Thanks for the clarification and sorry for the carelessness there.

        Good gaming!
        Hermann

        • Fair enough! But if you want some great paintings of the Guards at St Privat you might like to take a look at a German site called erstes-garderegiment.de

          It is an amazing tour through that regiments history. If on the left you click on regimentsgeschichte and 1858-71, and scroll down until you see a black and white sketch of the attack, and then click on that, all will be revealed. A stunning painting of the 1st Guards’ attack on St Privat based on a sketch by Kaiser Wilhelm, if my German serves me right. Well worth a look!

          Andrew

          • Thanks again, Andrew! I will check out that site. As I said, I know enough about the internet to get me into trouble. ; )
            All the best,
            Herm