Old Soldier’s Story - Eyewitness to St. Privat, from The Times
On August 18, 1870, Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke unleashed nearly 200,000 troops against the French outposts of St. Privat le Montaigne and Gravelotte, near Metz. At St. Privat, less than 25,000 French troops held off nearly 100,000 Prussians all day and well into the night, amid great slaughter. Only the ineptitude of the French commander, Marshal Achille Bazaine, who ignored the opportunity to reinforce the defenders or to undertake a timely counterattack, turned what might have been a brilliant holding action into a disaster, as the Prussians, despite horrendous losses, sealed the French Army into Metz.
A few days after the battle The Times of London published an account of the fighting for St. Privat by an unnamed veteran Prussian infantry officer, who from internal evidence served with the Garde-Schutzen Bataillon.
Marching forward, we soon heard the thunder of guns and the harsh grating of the mitrailleuse . . . . We are suddenly in the thick of it . . . . Forward! Forward! Spreading out in their lines, we are running on while our breath lasts. We are exhausted even before we can see the enemy, so great is the distance, and so steadily ascending the long-stretching slope we have to go over. Stop! We are still at 1,000 paces from the French, and must take breath before we can proceed. Not a shot is fired. Now on again, a few hundred paces right into the potato field. Stop again; fire a few shots, and now at them at a run.|
At last we succeeded in getting near enough to see the heads of the French popping out of their ditches. As usual, they were in rifle-pits on the slopes and top of the hill. By this time very many of us had fallen, and we halted, on wholly unprotected ground, to exchange some rounds. Captain von Arnim was shot in the foot but remained sitting in our midst to direct the movements of the company. He soon got another ball in his breast, when he had to give it up. Finding we could not accomplish much, we got to our feet again and ran to within 500 paces of the enemy. Now, at least we had a fling at them. I measured the distance myself, took a dead man's rifle and popped away as fast and as well as I could. At this juncture, Major von Fabeck was shot, Captain von Hagen was shot, four men next to me were shot. We were in skirmishing order and beginning to melt away like wax. In front stood the French concealed in excavations up to their very eyes; behind us, for a distance of 800 paces, the ground was strewn with dead and wounded . . . . Captain von Berger, the adjutant of our Brigadier, came up at a gallop . . . ordering us to remain where we were if we wanted to escape being taken prisoners. So we just stood our ground until we saw troops coming to our support. Then we all advanced again and at 300 paces once more opened a murderous fire. All through this my men were very calm and self-possessed . . . though they could not but know that the greater part, and perhaps all, of them had got to die. . . . The fire was terrific, and Sadowa [July 3, 1866] in comparison to it mere child's play. By and by our cartridges got exhausted, and we had to empty the pouches of the dead and wounded. As many of the latter as had a spark of life left did all they could to assist us in this. But everything has an end and so had our ammunition. I had given orders that every man was to reserve two cartridges in case the French took the offensive, and with these two cartridges in our possession we confronted the enemy even after we had ceased to fire. After a little while, which seemed to us terribly long, our support came up. They were skirmishers of Queen Elizabeth's [Guard Grenadier] Regiment, and the moment they joined us I heard their captain give the command in, my rear, “Charge with the bayonet!” I was lying on the ground with a shot in my left arm and shoulder blade; but as I heard those glorious sounds I jumped up and halloaing my men fiercely repeated the words of command, “Charge with the bayonet!” But alas! There were only three men left to respond to my call . . . . I do not know whether the three survivors took part in the attack. As for myself; I could not do it, and sat down on the ground. The moment the Elizabeth Regiment charged the French jumped out of their ditches and ran away . . . . All the officers of [our] battalion are either dead or wounded. Of the 1,000 men with whom we went into the battle only 400 are left . . . .