CHAPTER XII. PARIS IN 1870: JULY, AUGUST, AND SEPTEMBER.
The day after the attack on Saarbrueck compact masses of Germans were moving across the frontier into France, and the next day (August 4), a division of MacMahon's army corps was surprised at Wissembourg, while their commander was at Metz in conference with the emperor. The French troops were cut to pieces, and the fugitives spread themselves all over the country. The battle had been fought on ground covered with vineyards, and the movements of the French cavalry had been impeded by the vines. In this battle the French were without artillery, but they took eight cannon from the enemy. The Prussians, however, being speedily reinforced, recovered their advantage and gained a complete victory. Wissembourg, a small town in Alsace, was bombarded and set on fire. There seemed no officer among the defeated French to restore order. They had never anticipated such a rout, and were, especially the cavalry, utterly demoralized.
The French army was divided into seven army corps, the German into twelve. Each German army corps was greatly stronger in men, and incomparably better officered and equipped, than the French. The Germans began the war with nearly a million men; the French with little more than two hundred thousand on the frontier, though their army was five hundred thousand strong on the official records. The habit of the War Office had been to let rich men who were drawn for the conscription pay four hundred francs for a substitute, which substitute was seldom purchased, the money going into the pockets of dishonest officials.
The two hundred thousand French were stretched in a thin line from Belgium to the mountains of Dauphine. A German army corps could break this line at almost any point; and throughout the whole campaign the French suffered from the lack of reliable information as to the movements of the enemy.
On August 6, two days after the defeat at Wissembourg, the battle of Woerth, or Reichshofen, was fought between the German corps d'armee under the Prussian Crown Prince and the corps of MacMahon, which was completely defeated, and only enabled to leave the field of battle in retreat rather than rout, by brilliant charges of cavalry. The French lost six mitrailleuses, thirty guns, and four thousand unwounded prisoners. On the same day the German reserves retook Saarbrueck, and put to flight General Frossard's division. After these reverses Napoleon III. proposed to retreat on Paris and to cover the capital. This also was the counsel of MacMahon; but the empress-regent opposed it strongly, considering it a movement that must prove fatal to the dynasty. She even refused to receive back her son. And indeed it did not seem unlikely that the good people of Paris, who ten days before had cheered clamorously their beloved emperor, might have tom him in pieces, had he come back to them after such a succession of disasters.
On the 7th of August, the very day after the battle of Worth, while MacMahon was retreating before the victorious army of the Prussian Crown Prince, the Parisians were made victims of an extraordinary deception. A great battle was reported, in which the Crown Prince had been made prisoner, together with twenty-six thousand of his men.
All Paris turned into the streets to exult over this victory; everyone rushed in the direction of the Bourse, where details of the great victory were said to have been posted. In every street, from every house, people were summoned to hang out flags and banners. An excited crowd filled up the Bourse, many men clinging to the railings, all shouting, singing, and embracing each other. No one for a long time had any clear idea what the rejoicing was about, yet the crowd went on shouting and singing choruses, waving hats, and reiterating the "Marseillaise." The carriage of Madame Marie Sasse, the prima donna, who was on her way to a rehearsal at the Grand Opera House, was stopped, and she was requested to sing the "Marseillaise." She stood up on the seat of her carriage and complied at once. "There was profound silence," wrote a gentleman who was in the crowd, "when she gave the first notes of the 'Marseillaise;' but all Paris seemed to take up the chorus after each stanza. There was uproarious applause. The last verse was even more moving than when Faure had sung it, on account of the novelty of the surroundings and the spontaneous feeling of the people. There were real tears in the singer's eyes, and her voice trembled with genuine emotion as she came to the thrilling appeal to Liberte."
At the same moment Capoul also was singing the "Marseillaise" in another street, and in the Rue Richelieu the mob, having stopped a beer cart and borrowed some glasses from a restaurant, were drinking healths to the army and the emperor.
"All this time," says the American, who mingled in the crowd and shouted with the rest in his excitement, "it never occurred to me to doubt the accuracy of the news that had so stirred up Paris; for the newspapers on the preceding days had prepared us to expect something of the kind. All at once, upon the Boulevard, I was aware of a violent altercation going on between a respectable-looking man and a number of infuriated bystanders. He seemed to be insisting that the whole story of the victory was untrue, and that despatches had been received announcing heavy disasters. I saw that unlucky citizen hustled about, and finally collared and led off by a policeman, the people pursuing him with cries of 'Prussian!' But some time later in the day some persons in a cab drove down the Boulevards with a white banner, inscribed: THE AUTHOR OF THE FALSE NEWS IS ARRESTED! This, however, was not the case, for the news was never traced to any person."