Battle of Wissembourg (1870)
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|Battle of Wissembourg|
|Part of the Franco-Prussian War|
Map of the Battle of Wissembourg
|Commanders and leaders|
| Jakob von Hartmann
Hugo von Kirchbach
| Abel Douay †
|Casualties and losses|
|~3,563 dead||~1,300 dead or wounded
The Battle of Wissembourg or Battle of Weissenburg, the first of the Franco-Prussian War, was joined when three German army corps surprised the small French garrison at Wissembourg on August 4, 1870. The defenders, greatly outnumbered, fought stubbornly before being overwhelmed; nevertheless, the fall of Wissembourg allowed the Prussian army to move into France and compelled Marshal Mac-Mahon to give battle, and suffer defeat, at the Battle of Wörth August 6.
In June, 1870 Napoleon III had moved the French army into Lorraine and occupied Saarbrücken. Napoleon wished to win a significant battle on German soil and ordered Marshal Patrice Mac-Mahon to bring up the French I and V Corps. Mac-Mahon's objective was to reach Wissembourg where he already had one division stationed under General Abel Douay. Once there he would concentrate his forces for a strike into Germany. The German III Army under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm and his able Chief of Staff, General von Blumenthal, was already moving towards Wissembourg. Neither side was fully aware of the other's movements.
At the outbreak of war, General Ducrot, commanding the 6th French Division at Strasbourg, issued orders to withdraw the elements of his forces stationed at Wissembourg and Lauterbourg. The sub-prefect of Wissembourg protested this decision, not sharing Ducrot's doubts on the wisdom of diluting the 6th division along the German frontier. General Douay's 2nd French Division set off for Haguenau July 22, making it necessary to reoccupy Wissembourg to secure Douay's line of supply, a portion of his materiel being stored in the small frontier town.
In August, Marshal Mac-Mahon concentrated his effectives at Haguenau with the object of warding off any attempt on the strategic Strasbourg—Haguenau—Bitche—Metz rail lines, and established the following positions: Ducrot's 1st Division broke camp August 4 and established itself at Lembach in order to secure contact with General Failly's V Corps; Douay's 2nd Division reoccupied Wissembourg, Weiler[disambiguation needed], and the nearby countryside, namely the soft hills by the Col du Pigeonnier. The 1st Cavalry Brigade would patrol the frontier east of Wissembourg up to Schleithal.
Ducrot's familiarity with the terrain earned him the responsibility of overseeing the deployment of the various units in the area, including Douay's 1st Division. Accordingly, he instructed Douay to rearrange his with an emphasis on securing the heights commanding the valley of the Lauter: the main emplacements were set up on the Geisberg plateau to the east and the Vogelsberg plateau on the western side, leaving a single battalion in the town of Wissembourg proper. Finally, Douay was to relieve the 96th infantry regiment in the village of Climbach. At this point Ducrot received gravely flawed intelligence: "on the basis of reconnaissance performed by the colonel commanding the 96th regiment, he did not believe the enemy present in enough strength to attempt any serious enterprise in the immediate future."
The forces of the Crown Prince reached Wissembourg before Mac-Mahon could, thanks to the organisational genius of his Chief of Staff, Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal. At 8:00 on August 6 the II Bavarian Corps arrived and began to shell the town. Douay posted a garrison in the town and positioned his reserves on a hill outside the town. The Germans attacked and within a couple of hours entered the town. German reinforcements were brought up to outflank the French reserves. The Bavarians attacked the west side of town while the Prussian XI Corps and artillery assaulted the east. French reinforcements from Mac-Mahon began to arrive on the field. With the arrival of the French V Corps the Bavarian Corps retired behind the protection of their artillery. The French attacked and were so heavily repulsed that they ceased to be of effective use for the rest of the battle. The Prussian V Corps which had been making slow progress on the east side of town finally made an attack on the center of the French lines and carried the position. A last-ditch counterattack allowed the French to retreat intact and the German forces took the town. Killed during the retreat of his corps, General Abel Douay was the first French high-ranking casualty of the war.
The battle had been a victory for the Germans and allowed them to invade France. Shortly after the battle the German III Army was on the move towards Wörth where they ran into the main body of Mac-Mahon's army.
- Note: Wissembourg is from the French spelling and Weissenburg from the German: Weißenburg
- Hooper, The Campaign of Sedan, p. 84. Hooper notes, "especially considering they were surprised and greatly outnumbered, that the French sustained their old renown as fighting men and that the first defeat, although severe, reflected no discredit on the soldiers of the 1st Corps."
- « suite aux reconnaissances effectuées par le colonel commandant le 96e régiment d’infanterie, il ne pense pas que l’ennemi soit en force dans les environs pour entreprendre quelques chose de sérieux dans l’immédiat »
- Battlefield pictures
- Compton's Home Library: Battles of the World CD-ROM