The Battle of Wissembourg - 4th August 1870


French Algerian Turcos defend the northern gates from the Bavarian Division

The Battle of Wissembourg was the first major battle of the Franco-Prussian War, which occurred 150 years ago this year.


France had declared war on Prussia on the 19th July after feeling they were being hoodwinked by Chancellor Bismark of Prussia trying to install a Prussian ally to the throne of Spain after Queen Isabella had died without an obvious heir. For some time France had been watching Prussia with both caution and envy as it grow in power; absorbing some of the smaller German states and defeating both Denmark and Austria in swift overwhelming conflicts, so it didn't take much of an excuse to declare war to try and demonstrate French military might. Despite their impetuous declaration of hostilities the French were ill prepared for war. Prussia, as did the rest of Europe, expected France to make an immediate invasion across the Rhine as it's tactics in wars with Prussia had been for generations, but in reality they were both slow and disorganised in mobalising it's forces. Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder), Prussian Field Marshal, waited with his forces to repel an attack, which when it didn't materialise, made him incredulous that France should have declared war when they were not ready to fight. He therefore began what was supposed to the second stage of his mater plan; the Prussian invasion of France.


By the beginning of August both nation's armies were on the move; the French began to advance on the Prussian border and even displaced the small garrison from the border town of Saarbrucken which gave them a very false sense of victory. Marshal MacMahon, French commander of the I Corps then deployed his men along the frontier to stop a Prussian advance, but due to tenuous supply links and still an overall lack of manpower (mobilisation was still far from complete), he spread his men too thin on the ground. One such isolated force was that led by General Douay and the 2nd Division stationed at Wissembourg.


Douay was blissfully unaware that advancing on his Division (8,600 men) were three Corps strength units (over 60,000 men); the Bavarian II Corps and the Prussian V & XI Corps. The Prussian forces maneuvered around the town at a distance to keep the French in the dark as to what was about to happen, then at 9am on the 4th August the Bavarian II Corps appeared from the woods to the north of the town making Douay hastily deploy his men to face the threat. The first major battle of the war was about to begin.


Suggested set up for the Battle of Wissembourg as at 9am 4th August 1870

ORDERS Of BATTLE - using a scale of 1 to 40 figures to men


FRENCH ARMY

General Abel Douay - commander in chief - veteran, experienced, inspirational leader

3 x battalions Turco infantry (3 x 720 men)- 18 figures per battalion - veteran, experienced, aggressive, excellent fighters, A class troops armed with Chassepot (advanced breech loading rifle)

5 x Line Infantry battalions (3 x 720 men) - 18 figures per battalion, regular, well trained, experienced, steady, good fighters, armed with Chassepot (advanced breech loading rifle)

3 x Squadrons of Hussars (3 x 120 men) - 3 figures per squadron, regular, well trained, experienced, steady, good fighters armed with sword and carbine

3 x Squadrons of Chasseurs a Cheval (3 x 120 men) - 3 figures per squadron, regular, well trained, experienced, steady, good fighters armed with sword and carbine

1 x Battery of Mitrailleuse (6 machine guns & crew) - 1 model & crew, regular, well trained, experienced, steady, good fighters, early machine gun

2 x Batteries of 4lb cannon (12 cannon & crew) - 2 models & crew, regular, well trained, experienced, steady, good fighters, 4lb muzzle loading cannon


PRUSSIAN ARMY

9am Set Up

II Bavarian Corps

General Hartman - sub-commander - experienced, cautious, average ability

7 x Line Infantry battalions (7 x 960 men) - 24 figures per battalion - trained, nervous, unreliable fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifles)

2 x Jager Skirmisher battalions (2 x 960 men) - 24 figures per battalion - well trained, steady, average fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifle)

1 x Regiment of Chevau-legers (640 men) - 16 figures - light cavalry, trained, impetuous, armed with sword and carbine

1 x Battery of Krupp C64 4lb cannon (6 guns & crew) - 1 model & crew - regular, trained, steady, with 4lb rifled breech loading cannon

2 x Batteries of Krupp C61 6lb cannon (12 guns & crew) - 2 models & crew- regular, trained, steady with 6lb rifled breech loading cannon


Arriving from 10am (see map top right hand corner)


Prussian V Corps

General von Kirchbach - sub commander - experienced, well trained, steady

1st Column (17th Brigade)

2 x Line Infantry battalions (2 x 960 men) - 24 figures per battalion - well trained, steady, disciplined, average fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifle)

3 x Jager companies ( 3 x 240 men) - 6 figures per battalion - experienced, well trained, disciplined, good fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifle)

3 x Squadrons of Dragoons (3 x 160 men) - 4 figures per squadron - experienced, well trained, good fighters, disciplined armed with swords and carbines

1 x Battery of Krupp C64 4lb cannon (6 guns & crew) - 1 model & crew - regular, trained, disciplined, good fighters with 4lb rifled breech loading cannon

2nd Column (17th Brigade)

2 x Line Infantry battalions (2 x 960 men) - 24 figures per battalion - well trained, steady, disciplined, average fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifle)

1 x Jager company ( 1 x 240 men) - 6 figures per battalion - experienced, well trained, disciplined, good fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifle)

1 x Squadrons of Dragoons (1 x 160 men) - 4 figures per squadron - experienced, well trained, good fighters, disciplined armed with swords and carbines

1 x Battery of Krupp C64 4lb cannon (6 guns & crew) - 1 model & crew - regular, trained, disciplined, good fighters with 4lb rifled breech loading cannon


Arriving at 11am (see map mid right hand side)

Fredrich Wilhelm - commander in chief - excellent ability, inspirational leader, veteran

Prussian XI Corps

General Bose - sub commander - experienced, well trained, steady

6 x Line Infantry battalions (6 x 960 men) - 24 figures per battalion - well trained, steady, disciplined, average fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifle)

1 x Jager battalion ( 1 x 960 men) - 24 figures per battalion - experienced, well trained, disciplined, good fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifle)

1 x Squadrons of Hussars (1 x 160 men) - 4 figures per squadron - light cavalry,experienced, well trained, good fighters, disciplined armed with swords and carbines

1 x Regiment of Hussars (1 x 640 men) - 16 figures per squadron - light cavalry,experienced, well trained, good fighters, disciplined armed with swords and carbines

1 x Battery of Krupp Horse Artillery C64 4lb cannon (6 guns & crew) - 1 model & crew - regular, trained, disciplined, good fighters with 4lb rifled breech loading cannon

2 x Batteries of Krupp C61 6lb cannon (12 guns & crew) - 2 models & crew- regular, trained, disciplined, with 6lb rifled breech loading cannon


Arriving at 11am (at top right hand corner of map)

Prussian V Corps

3rd Column (18th Brigade)

6 x Line Infantry battalions (6 x 960 men) - 24 figures per battalion - well trained, steady, disciplined, average fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifle)

1 x Regiment of Dragoons (1 x 640 men) - 16 figures per squadron - experienced, well trained, good fighters, disciplined armed with swords and carbines

1 x Batteries of Krupp C61 6lb cannon (6 guns & crew) - 1 model & crew- regular, trained, disciplined, with 6lb rifled breech loading cannon


Arriving at 12:30 pm (top of map from Bavarian starting point)

2 x Line Infantry battalions (2 x 960 men) - 24 figures per battalion - trained, nervous, unreliable fighters armed with Needle gun (primitive breech loading rifles)


NOTES FOR WARGAMING

We have described small arms as "primitive breech loading" and "advanced breech loading" this is to differentiate the French Chassepot rifle which had much longer range than the German Dreyse Needle gun and rules should be adjusted to reflect this.


THE BATTLE AS IT HAPPENED

The battle started soon after 9am when the Bavarians brought three batteries of artillery into action, firing on Wissembourg which started several fires. Bavarian infantry then began to cross the countryside towards the town but were halted by the garrison's accurate long range rifle fire. General Hartman committed more men to the attack which prompted General Pelle (commanding the forward Turcos in Wissembourg) to commit all his men to the defense and call up a battery of 4lb guns. Despite the appearance of the Bavarians, General Douay was slow to respond, believing it was only a small skirmishing force, although he did at least send a messenger to Marshal MacMahon to inform him of the encounter with the enemy.

Prussian artillery position outside Wissembourg

By 9:30 the Bavarians had reached the outer wall of the town and desperate fight took place around the Bitsche Gate (see top picture) between Bavarian Jagers and the Algerian Turco troops. A defensive ditch stalled the Jagers who suffered enormous casualties losing half their numbers to the exceptionally stiff defense put up by the Algerians.

At the same time, French artillery began to inflict damage on the Bavarian batteries who then stopped giving artillery support to their infantry, changing to an artillery dual with the French guns. With a reprieve from artillery fire, the Algerian Turcos mustered an energetic counter attack and pushed the Bavarian infantry away from the town back towards their starting point on;y for their pursuit to be in turn halted by the Bavarian cavalry and infantry reserves. Douay now began to see the situation as more dangerous than he first thought and deployed the rest of his men and guns. However, no sooner had he done so and Prussian forces began to appear to the north east of the town as the V Corps arrived on the field. As they closed on Wissembourg, Douay realised he was facing a much larger force and ordered the advance units of Turcos and guns to pull back to his position on high ground to the south of the town, which sounded far easier than it was as they came under intense artillery fire from the Bavarians to the north, while the Prussian V Corps guns unlimbered and fired from the flank onto both the retreating Algerians and their intended destination, who then decided to remain in Wissembourg for cover. Just as the Prussian XI Corps came into view directly east of the French position and Prussian shell struck a French ammunition caisson from the mitrailleuse battery, this was directly next to General Douay who was killed instantly as the ammunition exploded. General Pelle took over command and ordered a further withdrawal at the sight of the advancing XI Corps. The main French force began to fall back to the railway station where desperate fighting took place with savage bayonet charges while in the town the Turcos were finding themselves increasingly cut off from the rest of the army. They continued to put up stiff resistance and forced back several Bavarian assaults despite the now overwhelming numbers, eventually some managed to withdraw to the main position, but others along with the town garrison became surrounded. Having run out of ammunition and cut off the survivors in Wissembourg surrendered.

The French were now in panic, and continued south to try and escape the three pronged Prussian advance. They made a final defense before quitting the high ground, ragged lines of infantry attempted to stop the Prussian advance but the artillery fire delivered by the powerful Krupp guns blew the French defence to pieces apart from those defending a chateau on the hill.

This walled and fortified building proved hard for the Prussians to capture, but gradually they made progress; first capturing overlooking fields that allowed them a better firing position before eventually dragging three Krupp guns up the hill to blast the walls. In the final firefight the Prussian General Kirchbach was shot in the neck, though luckily he survived the wound. By 2pm the chateau was surrounded and its defenders out of ammunition, with no alternative they surrendered. It had been a gallant and costly last stand by a few, who by distracting the enemy for so long had allowed the rest of the French forces to escape the field who's withdrawal was covered by 300 fresh reservist troops who arrived in the last moments by train.


The first battle of the war had been won by Prussia, but some would say only by it's overwhelming numbers. The French, especially the colonial Turco troops had put up determined and heroic fighting and it is debated that had the French been reinforced they could have dealt a blow to Prussia instead.



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