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Battle of Worth

The Battle of Worth, also known as the Battle of Reichshoffen or as the Battle of Fröschweiler, occurred on 6 August 1870 in the opening stages of the Franco-Prussian War. Troops from Germany commanded by Crown Prince Frederick fought against the French under Marshal MacMahon near the village of Worth[?] in Alsace, on the Sauer[?], 6 miles north of Hagenau[?].

During 5 August 1870 the French concentrated in a selected position running nearly north and south along the Sauer Bach on the left front of the German III army which was moving South to seek them. The position is marked from right to left by Morsbronn, the Niederwald, the heights west of Worth and the woods northeast of Fröschweiler. East of the Sauer the German III army was moving south towards Hagenau, when their cavalry found the French position about noon. Thereafter the German vedettes[?] held the French under close observation, while the latter moved about within their lines and as far as the village of Worth as if in peace quarters, and this notwithstanding the defeat of a portion of the army at Weissenburg[?] on the previous day. The remnant of the force which had been engaged, with many of its wounded still in the ranks, marched in about noon with so soldierly a bearing that, so far from their depressing the morale of the rest, their appearance actually raised it.

About 5pm the French watered some horses at the Sauer, as in peace, without escort, though hostile scouts were in sight. A sudden swoop of German hussars drove the party back to camp. The alarm sounded, tents were struck and the troops fell in all along the line and remained under arms until the confusion died down, when orders were sent to fall out, but not to pitch the tents. The army therefore bivouacked, and but for this incident the battle of the next day would probably not have been fought. A sudden and violent storm broke over the bivouacs, and when it was over, the men, wet and restless, began to move about, light fires, etc. Many of them broke out of camp and went into Worth, which was unoccupied, though Prussians were only 300 yards from the sentries. These fired, and the officer commanding the Prussian outposts, hearing the confused murmur of voices, ordered up a battery, and as soon as there was light enough dropped a few shells into Worth. The stragglers rushed back, the French lines were again alarmed, and several batteries on the French side took up the challenge.

The Prussian guns, as strict orders had been given to avoid all engagement that day, soon withdrew and were about to return to camp, when renewed artillery fire was heard from the south, and presently also from the north. In the latter direction, the II Bavarian corps had bivouacked along the Mattstall-Langen-Sulzbach road with orders to continue the march if artillery were heard to the south. This order was contrary to the spirit of the III army orders, and moreover the V Prussian corps to the south was in ignorance of its having been given.

The outpost battery near Worth was heard, and the Bavarians at once moved forward. Soon the leading troops were on the crest of the ridge between the Sauer and the Sulzbach, and the divisional commander, anxious to prove his loyalty to his new allies - his enemies in 1866 - ordered his troops to attack, giving the spire of Froschweiler[?], which was visible over the woods, as the point of direction.

The French, however, were quite ready and a furious fusillade broke out, which was multiplied by the echoes of the forest-clad hills out of all proportion to the numbers engaged. The Prussian officers of the V corps near Dieffenbach[?], knowing nothing of the orders the Bavarians had received, were amazed; but at length when about 10.30am their comrades were seen retiring, in some cases in great disorder, the corps commander, General von Kirchbach[?], decided that an effort must at once be made to relieve the Bavarians. His chief of staff had already ordered up the divisional and corps artillery (84 guns in all), and he himself communicated his intention of attacking to the XI corps (General von Bose[?]) on his left and asked for all available assistance. A report was also despatched to the crown prince at Sulz, 5 miles away.

Meanwhile the XI corps had become involved in an engagement. The left of the V corps' outposts had overnight occupied Gunstett[?] and the bank of the Sauer, and the French shortly after daylight on 6 August 1870 sent down an unarmed party to fetch water. As this appeared through the mist, the Prussians naturally fired upon it, and the French General Lartigue[?] (to whose division the party belonged), puzzled to account for the firing, brought up some batteries in readiness to repel an attack. These fired a few rounds only, but remained in position as a precaution.

Hearing the firing, the XI corps' advanced guard, which had marched up behind in accordance with the general movement of the corps in changing front to the west, and had halted on reaching the Kreuzhecke Wood, promptly came up to Spachbach[?] and Gunstett. In this movement across country to Spachbach some bodies appear to have exposed themselves, for French artillery at Elsasshausen[?] suddenly opened fire, and the shrapnel bursting high, sent showers of bullets on to the house roofs of Spachbach, in which village a battalion had just halted. As the falling tiles made the position undesirable, the major in command ordered the march to be resumed, and as he gave the order, his horse ran away with him towards the Sauer. The leading company, seeing the battalion commander gallop, moved off at the double, and the others of course followed. Coming within sight of the enemy, they drew a heavy shellfire, and, still under the impression that they were intended to attack, deployed into line of columns and doubled down to the river, which they crossed. One or two companies in the neighbourhood had already begun to do so, and the stream being too wide for the mounted officers to jump, presently eight or ten companies were across the river and out of superior control. By this time the French outposts (some 1500 rifles), lining the edge of the Niederwald, were firing heavily. The line of smoke was naturally accepted by all as the objective, and the German companies with a wild rush reached the edge of the wood.

The same thing had happened at Gunstett. A most obstinate struggle ensued and both sides brought up reinforcements. The Prussians, with all their attention concentrated on the wood in their front, and having as yet no superior commanders, soon exhibited signs of confusion, and thereupon General Lartigue ordered a counterattack towards the heights of Gunstett, when all the Prussians between the Niederwald and the Sauer gave way. The French followed with a rush, and, fording the Sauer opposite Gunstett, for a moment placed the long line of German guns upon the heights in considerable danger. At this crisis a fresh battalion of the XI corps arrived by the road from Surburg[?] to Gunstett, and attacked the French on one flank whilst the guns swept the other. The momentum of the charge died cut, and the French drifted backwards after an effort which compelled the admiration of both sides.

In the centre the fight had been going badly for the V corps. As soon as the 84 guns between Dieffenbach and Spachbach opened fire the French disappeared from sight. There was no longer a target, and, perhaps to compel his adversary to show himself, von Kirchbach ordered four battalions to cross the river. These battalions, however, were widely separated, and coming under fire as soon as they appeared, they attacked in two groups, one from Worth towards Froschweiler, the other from near Spachbach towards the Calvary spur, east of Elsasshausen. Both were overpowered by infantry fire. A fraction of the southern party maintained itself all day in the elbow of the Hagenau chaussee, which formed a starting-point for subsequent attacks. But the rest were driven back in great confusion. Once more the dashing counter-attack of the French was thrown into confusion by the Prussian shell fire, and as the French fell back the Prussian infantry, now reinforced, followed them up (about 1pm.). The commander-in-chief of the German III army (the Crown Prince Frederick) now appeared on the field and ordered Kirchbach to stand fast until the pressure of the XI corps and of the Württemberg division could take effect against the French right wing. The majority of these troops had not yet reached the field. Von Bose, however, seeing the retreat of the roops of the V corps, had independently determined to renew the attack against the Niederwald with such of his forces as had arrived, and had ordered General von Schkopp's brigade, which was then approaching, to join the troops collecting to the east of Gunstett. Schkopp, however, seeing that his present line of advance led him direct on to the French right about Morsbronn[?] and kept him clear of the confusion to be seen around Gunstett, disregarded the order and continued to advance on Morsbronn. This deliberate acceptance of responsibility really decided the battle, for his brigade quietly deployed as a unit and compelled the French right wing to fall back.

To cover the French retreat Michel[?]'s brigade of cavalry was ordered to charge. The order was somewhat vague, and in his position under cover near Eberbach[?], General Michel had no knowledge of the actual situation. Thus it came about that, without reconnoitring or manceuvring for position, the French cavalry rode straight at the first objective which offered itself, and struck the victorious Prussians as they were crossing the hills between the Albrechtshaüserhof and Morsbronn. Hence the charge was costly and only partly successful. However, the Prussians were ridden over here and there, and their attention was sufficiently absorbed while the French infantry rallied for a fresh counterstroke. This was made about 1.20pm with the utmost gallantry, and the Prussians were driven off the hillsides between the Albrechtshaüserhof and Morsbronn which they had already won. But the counter-attack soon came under the fire of the great artillery mass above Gunstett, and, von Bose having at length concentrated the main body of the XI corps in the meadows between the Niederwald and the Sauer, the French had to withdraw. Their withdrawal involved the retreat of the troops who had fought all day in defence of the Niederwald.

By 3pm the Prussians were masters of the Niederwald and the ground south of it on which the French right wing had originally stood, but they were in indescribable confusion after the prolonged fighting in the dense undergrowth. Before order could be restored came another fierce counter-stroke. As the Prussians emerged from the north edge of the wood, the French reserves suddenly came out from behind the Elsasshausen heights, and striking due south drove the Prussians back. It was a grave crisis, but at this moment von Schkopp, who throughout all this had kept two of his battalions intact, came round the northwest corner of the Wald, and these fresh battalions again brought the French to a standstill. Meanwhile von Kirchbach, seeing the progress of the XI corps, had ordered the whole of his command forward to assault the French centre, and away to the right the two Bavarian corps moved against the French left, which still maintained its original position in the woods northeast of Fröschweiler.

MacMahon, however, was not beaten yet. Ordering Bonnemains[?]'s cavalry division to charge, by squadrons to gain time, he brought up his reserve artillery, and sent it forward to case-shot range to cover a final counter-stroke by his last intact battalions. But from his position near Fröschweiler he could not see into the hollow between Elsasshausen and the Niederwald. The order was too late, and the artillery unlimbered just as the counter attack on the Niederwald alluded to above gave way before von Schkopp’s reserve. The guns were submerged in a flood of fugitives and pursuers. Elsasshausen passed into the hands of the Germans. To rescue the guns the nearest French infantry attacked in a succession of groups, charging home the bayonet with the utmost determination. Before each attack the Prussians immediately in front gave way, but those on the flanks swung inwards and under this converging fire each French attempt died out, the Prussians following up their retreat. In this manner, step by step, in confusion which almost defies analysis, the Prussians conquered the whole of the ground to the south of the Fröschweiler-Worth road, but the French still held on in the village of Fröschweiler itself and in the woods to the north of the road, where throughout the day they had held the two Bavarian corps in check with little difficulty. To break down this last stronghold, the guns of the V and XI corps, which had now come forward to the captured ridge of Elsasshausen, took the village as their target; and the great crowd of infantry, now flushed with victory but in the direst confusion, encouraged by the example of two horse artillery batteries which galloped boldly forward to case-shot range, delivered one final rush which swept all resistance before it.

The battle was won and cavalry only were needed to reap its consequences, but the Prussian cavalry division had been left behind without orders and did not reach the battlefield until late at night. The divisional cavalry squadrons did their best, but each pursued on its own account, and the results in prisoners and guns fell far short of what the opportunity offered. Under cover of darkness the French escaped, and on the following day the cavalry division was quite unable to discover the direction of the retreat.

MacMahon received no support from the neighbouring French troops. The battle was won by over-powering weight of numbers. The Prussian general staff were able to direct upon the field no fewer than 75,000 infantry, 6000 cavalry, and 300 guns, of which 71,000 rifles, 4250 sabres and 234 guns came into action, against 32,000 rifles, 4850 sabres and 101 guns on the French side. The superiority of the French chassepot to the needle guns may reasonably be set against the superior number of rifles on the German side, for though the Germans were generally, thanks to their numbers, able to bring a converging fire upon the French, the latter made nearly double the number of hits for about the same weight of ammunition fired, but the French had nothing to oppose to the superior German artillery, and in almost every instance it was the terrible shellfire which broke up the French counterattack. All of these attacks were in the highest degree honourable to the French army, and many came nearer to imperilling the ultimate success of the Germans than is generally supposed.

One other point deserves special attention. As soon as the fighting became general, all order in the skirmisher lines disappeared on both sides, and invariably, except where the Prussian artillery fire intervened, it was the appearance of closed bodies of troops in rear of the fighting line which determined the retreat of their opponents. Even in the confused fighting in the Niederwald, the mere sound of the Prussian drums or the French bugles induced the adversary to give way even though drums and bugles frequently appealed to nonexistent troops.

The losses of the Germans were 9270 killed and wounded and 1370 missing, or 13%; those of the French were about 8000 killed and wounded, and perhaps 12,000 missing, and prisoners, representing a total loss of about 41%. Some French regiments retained a semblance of discipline after suffering enormous losses. The 2nd Turcos lost 93%, 13th hussars 87%, and thirteen regiments in all lost over 50% of their strength.

See the French and German official histories of the war; H. Bonnal, Froschwiller (1899); H. Kunz, Schlacht von WOrth (1891) and Kriegsgesch. Beispiele, Nos. 13-18; R. Tournès, De Gunstett au Niederwald and Le Calvaire ; and Commandant Grange, "Les Réalités du champ de bataille", Revue d’infanterie (1908—1910).

Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica



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