Monday, 3 January 2011

Battle of Bapaume - 3rd January 1871

Today is the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Bapaume, which took place early in what was to prove the final month of the Franco-Prussian War. It was fought in the course of an attempt by General Faidherbe’s Army of the North to relieve the German siege of Péronne. Although the French outnumbered the Germans by 33,000 to 18,000, they failed to achieve a victory and both sides fell back from Bapaume. As Sir Michael Howard put it in his Franco-Prussian War “the French and Germans withdrew north and south like exhausted boxers at the end of an inconclusive round”. Péronne fell five days later.

There is a large painting of the battle in the Mairie at Bapaume, and two details are shown here.

The first shows Faidherbe surrounded by his staff, and contains many interesting details. Note the General’s fanion de commandement being carried by a spahi, and the bridle of his horse being held by an officer of chasseurs à pied, wearing non-regulation brown trousers.

The soldiers in the foreground are from the 24th infantry of the line, as is indicated by the numbers on their collars and kepis. They must belong to the newly raised 1st or 2nd bataillons de marche, formed at the 24th’s depot at Cambrai from young conscripts drawn from the class of 1870. The buglers have tricolour lace on their collars, and the bugle cords are in the same mix of colours.

The second detail from the painting shows gardes mobiles, readily recognisable in their blue kepis and trousers. One man appears to be passing to his officer a rifle taken from a dead German. By this stage in the war, the French army, and the gardes mobiles in particular, suffered severely from shortages of suitable weapons, so a German needle gun (even though inferior to a French chassepot) would have been a prize item.

The painting is by Charles Armand-Dumaresq, best known for his uniform plates of French Second Empire soldiers.

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