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Chapter XVII

  • Searching for quarters
  • -- hunting up provisions -- a slender breakfast -- going over the battle -- field -- the German artillery -- group of wounded -- dining with the King -- on the March -- the Bavarians -- kirschwasser -- urging on the troops.

While I was absent, as related in the preceding chapter, it had been decided that the King's quarters should be established for the night in the village of Rezonville; and as it would be very difficult, at such a late hour, to billet the whole party regularly, Count Bismarck and I went off to look for shelter for ourselves. Remembering that I had seen, when seeking to water my horse, a partly burned barn with some freshlooking hay in it, I suggested that we lodge there. He too thought it would answer our purpose, but on reaching it we found the unburned part of the barn filled with wounded, and this necessitating a further search we continued on through the village in quest of some house not yet converted into a hospital. Such, however, seemed impossible to come upon, so at last the Count fixed on one whose upper floor, we learned, was unoccupied, though the lower one was covered with wounded.

Mounting a creaky ladder — there was no stairway — to the upper story, we found a good-sized room with three large beds, one of which the Chancellor assigned to the Duke of Mecklenburg and aide, and another to Count Bismarck-Bohlen and me, reserving the remaining one for himself. Each bed, as is common in Germany and northern France, was provided with a feather tick, but the night being warm, these spreads were thrown off, and discovering that they would make a comfortable shakedown on the floor, I slept there leaving Bismarck-Bohlen unembarrassed by companionship-at least of a human kind.

At daylight I awoke, and seeing that Count Bismarck was already dressed and about to go down the ladder, I felt obliged to follow his [500] example, so I too turned out, and shortly descended to the ground-floor, the only delays of the toilet being those incident to dressing, for there were no conveniences for morning ablutions. Just outside the door I met the Count, who, proudly exhibiting a couple of eggs he had bought from the woman of the house, invited me to breakfast with him, provided we could beg some coffee from the king's escort. Putting the eggs under my charge, with many injunctions as to their safe-keeping, he went off to forage for the coffee, and presently returned, having been moderately successful. One egg apiece was hardly enough, however, to appease the craving of two strong men ravenous from long fasting. Indeed, it seemed only to whet the appetite, and we both set out on an eager expedition for more food. Before going far I had the good luck to meet a sutler's wagon, and though its stock was about all sold, there were still left four large bologna sausages, which I promptly purchasedpaying a round sum for them too-and hastening back found the Count already returned, though without bringing anything at all to eat; but he had secured a couple of bottles of brandy, and with a little of this-it was excellent, too-and the sausages, the slim ration of eggs and coffee was amply reinforced.

Breakfast over, the Chancellor invited me to accompany him in a ride to the battle-field, and I gladly accepted, as I very much desired to pass over the ground in front of Gravelotte, particularly so to see whether the Krupp guns had really done the execution that was claimed for them by the German artillery officers. Going directly through the village of Gravelotte, following the causeway over which the German cavalry had passed to make its courageous but futile charge, we soon reached the ground where the fighting had been the most severe. Here the field was literally covered with evidences of the terrible strife, the dead and wounded strewn thick on every side.

In the sunken road the carnage had been awful; men and horses having been slaughtered there by hundreds, helpless before the murderous fire delivered from behind a high stone wall impracticable to mounted troops. The sight was sickening to an extreme, and we were not slow to direct our course elsewhere, going up the glacis toward the French line, the open ground over which we crossed being covered with thousands of helmets, that had been thrown off by the Germans during the fight and were still dotting the field, though details of soldiers from the organizations which had been engaged here were about to begin to gather up their abandoned headgear.

When we got inside the French works, I was astonished to observe how little harm had been done the defenses by the German artillery, [501] for although I had not that serene faith in the effectiveness of their guns held by German artillerists generally, yet I thought their terrific cannonade must have left marked results. All I could perceive, however, was a disabled gun, a broken mitrailleuse, and two badly damaged caissons. Everything else, except a little ammunition in the trenches, had been carried away, and it was plain to see, from the good shape in which the French left wing had retired to Metz, that its retreat had been predetermined by the disasters to the right wing.

By this hour the German cavalry having been thrown out to the front well over toward Metz, we, following it to get a look at the city, rode to a neighboring summit, supposing it would be a safe point of observation; but we shortly realized the contrary, for scarcely had we reached the crest when some of the French pickets, lying concealed about six hundred yards off, opened fire, making it so very hot for us that, hugging the necks of our horses, we incontinently fled. Observing what had taken place, a troop of German cavalry charged the French outpost and drove it far enough away to make safe our return, and we resumed possession of the point, but only to discover that the country to the east was so broken and hilly that no satisfactory view of Metz could be had.

Returning to Gravelotte, we next visited that part of the battle-field to the northeast of the village, and before long Count Bismarck discovered in a remote place about twenty men dreadfully wounded. These poor fellows had had no attention whatever, having been overlooked by the hospital corps, and their condition was most pitiful. Yet there was one very handsome man in the group — a captain of artillery-who, though shot through the right breast, was talkative and cheerful, and felt sure of getting well. Pointing, however, to a comrade lying near, also shot in the breast, he significantly shook his head; it was easy to see on this man's face the signs of fast approaching death.

An orderly was at once despatched for a surgeon, Bismarck and I doing what we could meanwhile to alleviate the intense sufferings of the maimed men, bringing them water and administering a little brandy, for the Count still had with him some of the morning's supply. When the surgeons came, we transferred the wounded to their care, and making our way to Rezonville, there took the Count's carriage to rejoin the King's headquarters, which in the mean time had been moved to Ponta-Mousson. Our route led through the village of Gorze, and here we found the streets so obstructed with wagons that I feared it would take us the rest of the day to get through, for the teamsters would not pay the slightest heed to the cries of our postilions. The Count was equal to the emergency, however, for, taking a pistol from behind his cushion, [502] and bidding me keep my seat, he jumped out and quickly began to clear the street effectively, ordering wagons to the right and left. Marching in front of the carriage and making way for us till we were well through the blockade, he then resumed his seat, remarking, “This is not a very dignified business for the Chancellor of the German Confederation, but it's the only way to get through.”

At Pont-a-Mousson I was rejoined by my aide, General Forsyth, and for the next two days our attention was almost wholly devoted to securing means of transportation. This was most difficult to obtain, but as I did not wish to impose on the kindness of the Chancellor longer, we persevered till, finally, with the help of Count Bismarck-Bohlen, we managed to get tolerably well equipped with a saddle-horse apiece, and a two-horse carriage. Here also, on the afternoon of August 21, I had the pleasure of dining with the King. The dinner was a simple one, consisting of soup, a joint, and two or three vegetables; the wines vin ordinaire and Burgundy. There were a good many persons of high rank present, none of whom spoke English, however, except Bismarck, who sat next the King and acted as interpreter when his Majesty conversed with me. Little was said of the events taking place around us, but the King made many inquiries concerning the war of the rebellion, particularly with reference to Grant's campaign at Vicksburg; suggested, perhaps, by the fact that there, and in the recent movements of the German army, had been applied many similar principles of military science.

The French army under Marshal Bazaine having retired into the fortifications of Metz, that stronghold was speedily invested by Prince Frederick Charles. Meantime the Third Army, under the Crown Prince of Prussia-which, after haying fought and won the battle of Worth, had been observing the army of Marshal MacMahon during and after the battle of Gravelotte--was moving toward Paris by way of Nancy, in conjunction with an army called the Fourth, which had been organized from the troops previously engaged around Metz, and on the 22d was directed toward Bar-le-Duc under the command of the Crown Prince of Saxony. In consequence of these operations the King decided to move to Commercy, which place we reached by carriage, traveling on a broad macadamized road lined on both sides with poplar-trees, and our course leading through a most beautiful country thickly dotted with prosperous-looking villages.

On reaching Commercy, Forsyth and I found that quarters had been already selected for us, and our names written on the door with chalk; the quartermaster charged with the billeting of the officers at headquarters having started out in advance to perform this duty and make all needful preparations for the King before he arrived, which [503] course was usually pursued thereafter, whenever the royal headquarters took up a new location.

Forsyth and I were lodged with the notary of the village, who over and over again referred to his good fortune in not having to entertain any of the Germans. He treated us most hospitably, and next morning, on departing, we offered compensation by tendering a sum — about what our bill would have been at a good hotel — to be used for the “benefit of the wounded or the Church.” Under this stipulation the notary accepted, and we followed that plan of paying for food and lodging afterward, whenever quartered in private houses.

The next day I set out in advance of the headquarters, and reached Bar-le-Duc about noon, passing on the way the Bavarian contingent of the Crown Prince's army. These Bavarians were trim-looking soldiers, dressed in neat uniforms of light blue; they looked healthy and strong, but seemed of shorter stature than the North Germans I had seen in the armies of Prince Frederick Charles and General von Steinmetz. When, later in the day, the King arrived, a guard for him was detailed from this Bavarian contingent; a stroke of policy no doubt, for the South Germans were so prejudiced against their brothers of the North that no opportunity to smooth them down was permitted to go unimproved.

Bar-le-Duc, which had then a population of about 15,000, is one of the prettiest towns I saw in France, its quaint and ancient buildings and beautiful boulevards charming the eye as well as exciting deep interest. The King and his immediate suite were quartered on one of the best boulevards in a large building — the Bank of France--the balcony of which offered a fine opportunity to observe a part of the army of the Crown Prince the next day on its march toward Vitry. This was the first time his Majesty had had a chance to see any of these troops — as hitherto he had accompanied either the army of Prince Frederick Charles, or that of General Steinmetz-and the cheers with which he was greeted by the Bavarians left no room for doubting their loyalty to the Confederation, notwithstanding ancient jealousies.

While the troops were passing, Count Bismarck had the kindness to point out to me the different organizations, giving scraps of their history, and also speaking concerning the qualifications of the different generals commanding them. When the review was over we went to the Count's house, and there, for the first time in my life, I tasted kirschwasser, a very strong liquor distilled from cherries. Not knowing anything about the stuff, I had to depend on Bismarck's recommendation, and he proclaiming it fine, I took quite a generous drink, which nearly strangled me and brought on a violent fit of coughing. The Chancellor said, however, that this was in no way due to the liquor, but to my own [504] inexperience, and I was bound to believe the distinguished statesman, for he proved his words by swallowing a goodly dose with an undisturbed and even beaming countenance, demonstrating his assertion so forcibly that I forthwith set out with Bismarck-Bohlen to lay in a supply for myself.

I spent the night in a handsome house, the property of an exceptionally kind and polite gentleman bearing the indisputably German name of Lager, but who was nevertheless French from head to foot, if intense hatred of the Prussians be a sign of Gallic nationality. At daybreak on the 26th word came for us to be ready to move by the Chalons road at 7 o'clock, but before we got off, the order was suspended till 2 in the afternoon. In the interval General von Moltke arrived and held a long conference with the King, and when we did pull out we traveled the remainder of the afternoon in company with a part of the Crown Prince's army, which after this conference inaugurated the series of movements from Bar-le-Duc northward, that finally compelled the surrender at Sedan. This sudden change of direction I did not at first understand, but soon learned that it was because of the movements of Marshal MacMahon, who, having united the French army beaten at Worth with three fresh corps at Chalons, was marching to relieve Metz in obedience to orders from the Minister of War at Paris.

As we passed along the column, we noticed that the Crown Prince's troops were doing their best, the officers urging the men to their utmost exertions, persuading weary laggards and driving up stragglers. As a general thing, however, they marched in good shape, notwithstanding the rapid gait and the trying heat, for at the outset of the campaign the Prince had divested them of all impedimenta except essentials, and they were therefore in excellent trim for a forced march.

The King traveled further than usual that day — to Clermont-so we did not get shelter till late, and even then not without some confusion, for the quartermaster having set out toward Chalons before the change of programme was ordered, was not at hand to provide for us. I had extreme good luck, though, in being quartered with a certain apothecary, who, having lived for a time in the United States, claimed it as a privilege even to lodge me, and certainly made me his debtor for the most generous hospitality. It was not so with some of the others, however; and Count Bismarck was particularly unfortunate, being billeted in a very small and uncomfortable house, where, visiting him to learn more fully what was going on, I found him, wrapped in a shabby old dressing-gown, hard at work. He was established in a very small room, whose only furnishings consisted of a table-at which he was writing-a couple of rough chairs, and the universal feather-bed, this time made [505] on the floor in one corner of the room. On my remarking upon the limited character of his quarters, the Count replied, with great goodhumor, that they were all right, and that he should get along well enough. Even the tramp of his clerks in the attic, and the clanking of his orderlies' sabres below, did not disturb him much; he said, in fact, that he would have no grievance at all were it not for a guard of Bavarian soldiers stationed about the house — for his safety, he presumed — the sentinels from which insisted on protecting and saluting the Chancellor of the North German Confederation in and out of season, a proceeding that led to embarrassment sometimes, as he was much troubled with a severe dysentery. Notwithstanding his trials, however, and in the midst of the correspondence on which he was so intently engaged, he graciously took time to explain that the sudden movement northward from Bar-le-Duc was, as I have previously recounted, the result of information that Marshal MacMahon was endeavoring to relieve Metz by marching along the Belgian frontier; “a blundering manoeuvre,” remarked the Chancellor, “which cannot be accounted for, unless it has been brought about by the political situation of the French.” [506]

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