The Defence of Soulbrois

By 3pm on the 6th of August 1870 General Frossard was generally comfortable with the deployment of his forces, even if his corps was not fully concentrated. He could from his position await the advancing Prussians. Situated several hundred yards from the town the otherwise peaceful town of Soulbrois a ridge ran generally north to south. This ridge was lowest where it was crossed by the Soulbrois road, yet despite this the ridge clearly provided a strong defensive position. It was along this ridge Frossard deployed his troops.

Above, the French position viewed from the northeast and below from the north. The town of Soulbrois is visible on the left.

Both the 1st Division (General Verge) and 2nd Division (General Bataille) contained four regiments. Three were placed in-line and the fourth in reserve. Each division was further supported by a battalion of Chasseurs, an artillery battalion of 12 guns and a battery Mitrailleuse guns. Finally, three artillery battalions comprising a further 36 cannon drawn from the corps reserve were in support. Of these some were in-line and others in reserve. Frossard’s 3rd Division however was not on hand and this division, under the fiery General de Laveaucoupet, was not expected to arrive for another three hours.

As Frossard scanned the valley to his front it began to take on a dark blue haze – the Prussians had arrived. The Prussians, all from General von Goeben’s VIII Armeekorps, comprised two infantry divisions, a cavalry division and five artillery battalions. In all some 20,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry and 60 cannon. Below, a portion of the arriving Prussians.

By 3.30pm, the French southern portion of the line, held by the French 2nd Division was under fire from the Prussian Krupp guns at ranges of over 1600 yards. The most significant concentration was on the Prussian left where 36 guns had been deployed. In the Prussian centre two artillery battalions, deployed in supporting positions but not concentrated, began to bombard the French centre. In reply Frossard’s own guns, despite being heavily outnumbered began their own fire. Unfortunately as they were not concentrated and as a result were forced to spread their fire on several advanced Prussian infantry regiments.

Soon after 4pm reports came in that additional Prussians were advancing from the northwest. Here advanced elements of General von Manteuffel’s I Armeekorps we’re advancing rapidly. Leading the advance was the division under General von Pritzelwitz. This division also comprised four regiments, with each regiment again having a greater bayonet strength than the French regiments opposite. By 4.30pm the French we’re engaged along the line.

As Pritzelwitz’s guns began their bombardment in the north the guns the bombardment in the centre and south grew in intensity. Further, three regiments of the Prussian 15th Division (VIII Armeekorps) were ordered forward by General Weltzien against the exposed French 2nd Division flank in the south, the French right.

Above, the French right. The green markers denote a stationary regiment, the white when assigned to infantry that it prone.

With it clear that both flanks were exposed Frossard ordered his reserves to each flank. In the north the 4th Ligne moved to engage the with long range Chassepot fire the advancing Prussians while the 1st Chasseurs secured the small Bournan Farm in the extreme north. In the south the 8th Ligne formed at 90 degrees to the main line while the 2nd Chasseurs were thrown forward to engage the advancing Prussians by seizing a portion of a large wood. In addition the various regiments holding the main line, who had for two hours been formed up in ranks for the expected infantry attack, were ordered to take cover and into prone positions. It was hoped that this would in someway reduce the impact of the long range Prussian artillery fire. Finally, Frossard ordered both divisions to pull back their Mitrailleuse batteries. These weapons lacked the range to engage the Prussians who remained out of range to all except the French rifled artillery. Instead they would form Frossard’s final reserve.

The Prussians however were undeterred. Soon after 5pm no fewer than 5000 Prussians were committed to clearing the Bournan Farm, driving out the 1st Chasseurs. In the south the 7th Brandenburger and East Prussian Fusiliers extended their line in preparation for a subsequent attack against the refused flank of the French 2nd Division. In less than 30 minutes Frossard expect the attacks to begin. The French position was now comprised.

Above, the action around Bournan Farm, with 1st Chasseurs in the farm buildings and obscured.

Yet Frossard was upbeat, for just after 5.30pm his 3rd Division was sited to the south advancing rapidly, the fiery General de Laveaucoupet had arrived. Shaking out of road column the three regiments advanced on the exposed Prussian flank. Pausing 150 yards from the East Prussian Fusiliers and the 7th Brandenburgs the advancing French regiments delivered a series of devastating volleys. These were further supported by long range fire from 8th Ligne and 2nd Division’s Mitrailleuse battery. The French attack was devastating, soon both Prussian regiments fell back.

Above, Laveaucoupet’s 3rd Division attacks.

As the action in the south was turning in favour of the French left Frossard’s position in the north was unraveling. With the 1st Chasseurs evicted from their defensive bastion of the stone walls of Bournan Farm French forces in the north were compromised. Soon after 6pm the Prussians, having secured the Bournan Farm, pushed forward and engaged the now isolated 4th Ligne.

Clearly outnumbered the 4th fell back forming a new line, and then when that was compromised a final line supported by 1st Division’s Mitrailleuse battery. Around 8pm two Prussian regiments were committed, their attack if successful, would have destroyed the French left flank. However, at a critical moment Prussian morale faltered under French Chassepot and Mitrailleuse fire.

Below, the French left with the French now stationary with both the 1st Division Mitrailleuse and 4th Ligne in the foreground. Limbered French artillery is behind having recently retired.

For some time in the centre Frossard was acutely aware of increasing casualties and had finally around 7pm removed the 3rd Ligne from its position astride the Soulbrois road where it crossed the ridge. Frossard hoped in doing so he would avoid unnecessary casualties from the unceasing Krupp gun fire while at the same time form another reserve should his left flank collapse. In doing so he weakened his centre and therefore risked an attack on his centre. Around 8pm, von Goeben ordered forward two further Prussian regiments, this time from Barnekow’s 16th Division. The 3rd and 7th Rhine Province Regiments advanced to some 300 yards and delivered repeated volleys from their Dreyse needle guns. Rather than further support this attack with additional infantry Goeben believed the attack could be adequately supported by long range artillery. This decision exposed the flank of the 3rd Rhine Province Regiment.

Frossard ordered an immediate counterattack. Soon after 8.30pm the 3rd Ligne attacked, closing with the bayonet in attacks more representative of 1859. This attack, supported by 12 rifled cannon rolled up the the 3rd Rhine Province Regiment and stabilised the French centre.

Above, the French counterattack of the 3rd Ligne. The white markers for artillery indicated they are unlimbered and forming while the white markers for infantry indicate a prone regiment.

However, it was on the Prussian left that the battle would be decided. Since driving back the Prussian left around 6pm Laveaucoupet had maintained the pressure and in the some three hours his regiments pressed the Prussian left with great determination. Twice the 9th Ligne was forced back by the Prussians but each time its officers reformed the regiment and advanced again to engage the Prussians. The three regiments of 3rd Division, supported the Chassepot and Mitrailleuse fire of 2nd Division were unrelenting.

Finally, around 8.30pm as the attack in the centre reached its own climax, the East Prussian Fusiliers broke and the morale of the Prussian 15th Division collapsed. With it Prussian resolve dissipated, Frossard had held, just.

The Battle of Soulbrois was of course a fictional affair, though aspects of it generally aligned to the nature of the initial disorganised battles of the frontier. The scenario while small proved an excellent challenge for both players. We use half scale so the massed infantry are based on 1 1/2 square stands and 1” equates to 200 yards, though the time scale remains standard, that is one turn equates to one hour of actual time. The game was played on a 3’ x 2’ table and lasted six turns. The total playing time was 2 1/4 hours. The miniatures are all 6mm scale and from the Heroics & Ros Franco-Prussian range. French are from my own collection while the Prussians are from Robin’s collection.

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4 thoughts on “The Defence of Soulbrois

  1. Thanks for an interesting report Keith. The FPW is a period that previously wasn’t on my radar. Have you seen the last chapter in The Annals of a Fortress by Voillet Le Duc? It covers the fictional siege of a French fortress town during the FPW.

    1. No I haven’t heard of that book Greg.

      Years ago I read Michael Howard’s “The Franco-Prussian War”. It really is a well written history. Often such books can be dry, though full of detail. Howard’s book was excellent in detail but also a fine read and extremely engaging.

  2. The book was written in the late 19th century by the guy who did the restoration of Carcassonne, so he has some credentials when it comes to fortress science. The breadth of the book focuses on a fictional settlement and goes from the Gallic Wars of Caesar right through to the FPW. Well worth searching out.

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