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On the morning of August 18, 1870, Helmuth von Moltke—best known to history as a consummate staff officer rather than a battle captain—committed the Prussian army to a maneuver so daring it might well have daunted Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville. Moltke, as Prussian chief of staff, launched fewer than 200,000 men against a French army of 110,000 that occupied some of the best defensive positions in eastern France: the high ground west of the fortress of Metz, between the villages of Gravelotte and Saint-Privat. His force fell far short of the numerical superiority considered sufficient for attacking field defenses.

As if the odds were not risky enough, Moltke also reached this first major battlefield of the weeks-old Franco-Prussian War by marching his entire army across the rear of the French. Had the similar Lee-Jackson flank march gone amiss, the Confederates had the option of falling back to Richmond. But the Prussians in France were attacking toward Germany—if they lost the battle they would be trapped. Even a local defeat would have cut their supply lines, likely triggering a catastrophe.

The Battle of Gravelotte/Saint-Privat was not a Prussian “crowning mercy,” as Oliver Cromwell described one of his battles. By day’s end, the French had inflicted more than 20,000 casualties on their attackers, eviscerating some of the best regiments in the Prussian army. They took some 13,000 casualties on their side, then abandoned the field and fell back to Metz, one of Europe’s strongest fortresses. The Prussians, counting their losses and re-forming their ranks, might well have quoted Shakespeare’s Henry V at Agincourt, “I know not if the day be ours or no.”

But in a single day of fighting, France’s main army, including most of its best troops, had been cut off from its country. After August 18, France was constrained to fight on Moltke’s terms in an improvised war against a master of preparation. The short, bloody fight at Gravelotte/Saint-Privat was the first battle of the first modern European war, fought as it was with advanced weapons and obsolete tactics. It was no more than half a victory for Prussia, but it was the event on which a whole war turned, a soldiers’ battle that opened the way to the downfall of an empire and the reconfiguration of a continent.

The Franco-Prussian War was a come-as-you-are collision, a war that had been expected by neither army when hostilities opened on July 19. Moltke saw the war’s true objective not as French territory but the French army. Decisively defeating it was the best way to convince other powers, Austria in particular, to let half-drawn swords return to the scabbards. And the surest way to engage the French army was to advance on Paris. The city—the very heart of France and of the Second Empire—could not be sacrificed without a fight to the finish. So Moltke resolved to attack as soon as possible.

Once war had been declared, Moltke used the German railway network to concentrate his main force in the Rhineland-Palatinate, swing south of the French fortress complex at Metz, then advance northwest toward the Moselle River to force a major battle with the French army. Although what Carl von Clausewitz calls “fog” and “friction” hindered the Prussians at every turn, they were aided by France’s own highly disorganized mobilization, and with their south German allies from Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria, they were able to win a series of victories on the frontier and to push steadily into France.

On August 16, 1870, the Prussian 1st and 2nd Armies swung around the left flank of the French army of the Rhine. The French Army had been making its way past Metz and through Verdun toward Paris when two Prussian corps got ahead of the French and cut the Metz-Verdun road, at the cost of some 16,000 casualties in what became known as the Battle of Vionville-Mars. Prussian artillery, with cast-steel long-range rifled cannons deployed en masse, silenced the French guns and accounted for many of the 15,000 French casualties. But the superior French rifles, the breech-loading chassepots with better accuracy and longer range than the older Prussian needle guns, time and again halted the Prussian infantry. At day’s end in most sectors, the French were holding their ground in front of fields carpeted with Prussian bodies. There seemed to be no reason why the French army should not on the next day move to vanquish the Prussians.

French commander Marshal François Achille Bazaine, however, took a less sanguine view of the day’s outcome. Around 10 that night, he told his staff he intended to retire the next morning eastward to Metz—a decision that seemed so illogical, contemporaries ascribed it to treason. It may be that Bazaine was simply unwilling to risk an attack. Defense seemed a safer option.

For his part, Moltke intended either to force the French to fight or drive them into Luxembourg, internment and disgrace. His orders for August 17 had Prince Frederick Charles moving the five corps of his 2nd Army northeast on a sweeping flank march, pivoting on General Karl von Steinmetz’s 1st Army. Today’s armchair strategist, following the moves of both armies, may be pardoned for seeing one side offer a catastrophe in slow motion while the other side refuses the gambit. Marching some 200,000 men across Bazaine’s front was akin to stretching out one’s throat for the knife, a prospect even the most lethargic foe might find difficult to ignore; the French might be retreating, but their columns could readily be turned around to attack. But they did not. It is a measure of the confidence the Prussian army had in its chief of staff that no one suggested if Moltke’s latest moves reflected genius, then what was the definition of incompetence?

Moltke’s outward confidence never wavered throughout the following day, although his may have been the valor of ignorance: He had no real intelligence on where the French were or where they were going and was forced to rely on visible dust clouds rather than cavalry scout reports; his cavalry spent most of that day recovering from its prior exertions on the battlefield. And the French cavalry was no more effective: Had Bazaine’s troopers reported the Prussian 2nd Army’s high-risk movement across his rear, the marshal might have been tempted to try a lightning slash across the Prussian jugular. Instead, Bazaine spent the day deploying in the strongest tactical position of the campaign. It ran along a stretch of high ground about a mile outside Metz, from the village of Saint-Privat in the north through Amanvillers and Gravelotte in the center, then down to the wooded terrain covering the Mance Ravine, which bent the left into a fishhook. Most of the ground on the right and center was bare and gently sloped, offering perfect fields of fire for the chassepot, while the steep ravine was all but impassable in the face of opposition.

Bazaine’s 2nd Corps held the Mance sector. The 3rd and 4th Corps deployed along the ridge in the center, establishing ranges and fields of fire. The right of the French line fell to the 6th Corps. Bazaine had proposed to guard against envelopment by having that corps deploy in echelon to the northeast, and corps commander Marshal François Certain Canrobert established his main position southwest of Saint-Privat.

Bazaine anticipated that the main Prussian effort would come against his left and center, so he deployed his principal reserve, the Imperial Guard, to support that sector. If things went as Bazaine expected, Moltke’s corps would advance into a killing ground almost ideal for French weapons and tactics. His orders, though, did not include plans for a general counterattack should the Prussians be defeated. Should the day go against him, Bazaine could fall back into the fortress at Metz and wait for the emperor to bring the strength of France to his relief.

The Prussians began August 18 by assuming the role of “obliging enemy.” Moltke initially planned to launch his 2nd Army in a five-corps “sickle cut” against the French right. Its pivot would be the IX Corps, then the guard, with the Saxons of the XII Corps on the far left, and with the III and X Corps following in support. The 1st Army’s VII and VIII Corps would advance on the Mance Ravine. Moltke meant to deliver a hammer blow that would reduce Bazaine’s army to fragments.

But the events of August 18 did not go according to plan. Virtually every standard account of this battle lays the blame for what happened on Moltke’s subordinates. When the 2nd Army encountered the French positions on the Amanvillers ridge at around 10 a.m., Frederick Charles, archetype of a “good ordinary general,” evidently mistook them for the flank of an army in retreat and responded by swinging his army eastward instead of continuing north as ordered by Moltke. That decision seemed validated, however, when Moltke confirmed Frederick Charles’ move and ordered the Saxons and the guard to advance directly east against the presumed exposed French flank at Amanvillers. The chief of staff, in other words, agreed the French were massed farther south than he had originally believed and that the position observed by Frederick Charles was their actual right flank.

Frederick Charles and Moltke, apparently as obsessed with flanks as two elderly rakes at the Folies Bergère, were determined to seize what looked like an opportunity, despite the absence of direct evidence. Both were depending on a mixture of intuition and coup d’oeil that probably had its roots in an earlier era of smaller armies and smaller battlefields. Frederick Charles then received a reality check from cavalry patrols reporting Saint-Privat as heavily fortified and swarming with Frenchmen. He promptly ordered the IX Corps to halt in place as the pivot for the guard and the Saxons as they advanced. But IX Corps commander Albrecht von Manstein had the bit in his teeth and instead sent nine batteries forward to establish a gun line and “shoot in” his riflemen before the French could know what hit them.

Around noon the Prussian guns opened, and the French 3rd Corps boiled out of its tent lines to give the Prussians a lesson in combined-arms tactics: Manstein’s artillery officers had made the mistake of deploying within chassepot range, and their crews suffered heavy losses. When the Prussian infantry went forward over billiard-table ground, the French Reffye mitrailleuse came into its own. Mounted on a wheeled gun carriage, the mitrailleuse looked like a cannon and functioned like a machine gun, with 25 rifle barrels built into a cylinder and fired in sequence by turning a crank—no mean force-multiplier for an infantry armed with single-shot weapons. Its range was no greater than that of a rifle, but French gunners understood that mitrailleuses were best used forward with the infantry. Prussian officers had vaguely heard of a French superweapon, but discounted the stories as rumor. Now dug-in mitrailleuses rapidly convinced Manstein’s infantry of the wisdom of keeping their heads down.

The commanding general of the Prussian 1st Army, Karl von Steinmetz, was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, a hero of the war of 1866 against Austria and in 1870—with his impetuosity and obtuseness—a thorn in Moltke’s side. Moltke intended to use the 1st Army only in support of Frederick Charles, and when Manstein’s guns opened, the chief of staff sent Steinmetz a direct order to engage only his artillery and nothing else until further notice.

Believing Steinmetz safely neutralized, Moltke moved forward to the village of Rezonville to see what was happening to his 2nd Army. He did not advance alone. With the outbreak of war, King William took the field in person with a large headquarters contingent, including many civilian officials. In contrast to most of his royal counterparts and all of their successors, William was no amateur of war: He had won his spurs as a junior officer against Napoleon, and before ascending to the throne he had established a peacetime reputation as a solid senior commander. A legitimate soldier-king, he usually forbore to interfere directly with his chief of staff. Moltke nevertheless saw himself as the king’s man, and one reason for his reluctance to exercise direct control of the armies committed to battle was his unwillingness even to seem to challenge the king’s authority. Most of the time the system worked.

That kind of sensitivity, however, was not Steinmetz’s problem. Beginning around noon he concentrated some 150 guns around Gravelotte. The Prussian breech-loaders far outranged the French cast-iron muzzleloaders and bronze smoothbores converted to rifles, and they were far more accurate. Thus farms with names like Moscou and Saint-Hubert crumbled into blazing ruins as Prussian batteries hammered French positions along the high ground on the far side of the ravine.

But not all of the defenders were burned or buried alive: French infantry in camouflaged positions scattered the Prussian skirmish lines and pinned down Prussian infantry columns with heavy losses. Steinmetz ordered his guns to close the range by advancing to the side of the Mance Ravine that was in Prussian hands. When that ground turned out to be well within chassepot range, he ordered the VIII Corps to cross the ravine and drive away the French riflemen. Three brigades advanced up the slope, only to stick fast in tangled woods and underbrush and get scourged by French fire. The focal point of their attack was the farm of Saint-Hubert, a forward position blocking the only decent road across the ravine. A dozen companies from a half-dozen regiments managed to work close enough to rush Saint-Hubert around 3 in the afternoon, prevailing against a French garrison that went under in a no-quarter fight to the finish that left the victors as exhausted as the few prisoners they took.

Communications were a problem everywhere on the field of Gravelotte/Saint-Privat that day, but nowhere more than around the Mance Ravine. Information that did get through was so out of date that commanders tended to disregard it in favor of their own observations or intuition. Steinmetz, convinced by mid-afternoon that he had the French on the run, ordered the VII Corps into the ravine on the VIII Corps’ right. Prussian drums beat the charge shortly before 4 p.m.—and within minutes their leading skirmish lines were fleeing before some of the heaviest French fire of the day. They crashed into the rest of the corps, coming up in company columns that in turn melted away like sugar lumps in hot water.

As the afternoon wore on, the floor of the Mance Ravine became a tangled mass of dead and wounded men and horses, destroyed wagons, disabled guns. An oblivious Steinmetz next sent a full division of cavalry down the western slope, with orders to pursue the French to the gates of Metz. He also sent forward the VII Corps’ artillery. Only a single Prussian cavalry regiment and four batteries got across the causeway at the bottom of the ravine. Everything else bogged down in a gully that became a killing ground.

Had the French mounted anything like a counterattack, the German positions lay wide open to disaster. But Bazaine took no action. His extraordinary passivity attracted wide attention both during and after the battle and remains inexplicable today, except on the grounds that awareness of his own incompetence drove him into a comfort zone of inertia. Generals kept to their headquarters. Exhausted regimental officers were unwilling to risk advancing across ground where blood stood in pools and ran in streams and fragments of men made obscene noises.

By early evening, moreover, the French faced other concerns: The Prussian II Corps was among the second wave of formations transported to the theater of war. Since then, it had been marching hard to overtake the advance. Its men were tired, their canteens and stomachs empty, when they began reaching the field around 7 p.m. Steinmetz nevertheless asked not Moltke but King William for permission to use them in a last charge. William agreed, over Moltke’s eloquent silence and pointed turning of his back on his monarch.

When the II Corps began its advance down the western slope of the Mance ravine, it did so in columns. Its commander, like Steinmetz, believed the French could be finished off by one more blow, delivered by closed formations. But the French had re-formed their lines. The muzzle flashes of hundreds of chassepots reached for the Prussian columns. The leading files returned fire—and shot into the backs of their comrades still holding out around Saint-Hubert. Those sorely tried men about-faced and confronted what seemed a new enemy. For perhaps 30 minutes the Prussian forces tore each other to pieces. Around 8 p.m., enough proved enough. The men at Saint-Hubert broke, running through ranks that only then discovered the nature of their ostensible enemy.

As the advance stalled and II Corps’ bugles sounded the cease-fire, the Mance Ravine burst like a boil. Men, horses and wagons poured out of its western end, while officers sought vainly to stop the rout, beating panic-stricken soldiers with the flats of their swords. A by-now-exhausted William and his discomfited Chief of Staff Moltke had earlier exchanged harsh words on the behavior of the soldiers in the ravine. Now they worked to convince each other to resume the attack the next day.

Later that night, news from the north, where Prince Frederick Charles’ 2nd Army faced the French right at Saint-Privat, brought a measure of reassurance: Shortly after noon, Frederick Charles and his staff had finally agreed that Saint-Privat was the anchor of a French position that extended well to the north of where he and Moltke had believed it to be at 10:30 in the morning. Saint-Privat was also directly in the path of the guard’s advance. A frontal attack uphill against a reinforced strong point was not part of Frederick Charles’ tactical doctrine. As the guard reached the lower slopes of Saint-Privat around 2 p.m., it received new, blunt orders: wait for the Saxons of the XII Corps to come up on the left. It took another hour for the XII Corps to reach the first defended obstacle in its path. A dozen-battery gun line blasted the village of Saint-Marie-aux-Chênes into rubble before Saxons and guardsmen stormed and cleared it. In the process, the Germans took heavy losses from a diehard French garrison that held its ground to the last at some 20-to-1 odds, then fell back to the main position in a model holding action.

Their fingers thus well burned, neither corps commander—the guards’ Prince Augustus of Württemberg or the Saxons’ Crown Prince Albert—was eager to throw his men directly against Saint-Privat. Instead the Saxon infantry pushed north and east, looking for a way around, and their corps artillery deployed on the left of the guards. For the next three hours, some 200 German fieldpieces tore up the French position. Canrobert, commander of the 6th Corps, repeatedly called for support, but received only a few hundred rounds of artillery ammunition.

At their combat range of 1,000 meters, Prussian rifled cannons were most effective when kept under central control, deployed at the earliest possible moment in the largest possible numbers, and left in position to maximize their accuracy. Instead of the outdated practice of seeking first to silence enemy artillery, Prussian gunners concentrated on the infantry, softening it up for a decisive attack. On August 18, they inflicted almost three-fourths of the French casualties.

Prince Augustus decided in late afternoon to send the guards forward. The guns had done what they were going to do; at least the French artillery was silent. The Saxons seemed to be making no progress against the French flank, and the day was waning. Frederick Charles agreed with Augustus’ decision to attack, and just before 5 p.m. one brigade mounted a diversionary attack to pin down the right division of the French 4th Corps. Its heads-down charge over open ground diverted the French for a few minutes—at a cost of 2,500 casualties in three-quarters of an hour, including so many officers that one battalion was commanded by a cadet. Then at 5 p.m. Augustus sent in the corps’ three remaining brigades, one after another.

The Prussians attacked in columns of half-battalions. They were carrying full packs and equipment, close to 100 pounds, and thus encumbered faced 3,000 yards of open slopes. The French infantry had to do no more than set their sights and open their cartridge pouches. By 6:30, the Prussian assault force of 18,000 had taken almost 8,000 casualties. Successive attacks collapsed at a common distance of around 1,000 yards from the French main position—approximately the chassepot’s effective killing range. It says much for the courage of the men, and for the initiative of the junior officers and NCOs who took command of the shattered companies, that the guardsmen continued to inch forward, working their way in some sectors to within 600 yards of Saint-Privat.

As at Gravelotte, to decide the day at Saint-Privat in France’s favor, all that seemed necessary was one substantial counterattack. Again, it never came. Bazaine, with the French Imperial Guard ready in reserve, remained inactive. Prussian batteries resumed a bombardment heavy enough to pin even the boldest French regiments in position. Nor were there any troops to spare against a Saxon attack that around 7 p.m. finally hammered its way through the 6th Corps’ flank position and took control of the road to Saint-Privat. As the Saxons entered Saint-Privat from the north around 7:30, the surviving guardsmen mounted a near-spontaneous rush against their French tormentors. Batteries from both corps advanced to what seemed pocket-pistol ranges, aiming at flashes as growing darkness made observation impossible. In an hour-long hand-to-hand brawl, the Germans finally cleared Saint-Privat.

Canrobert retreated southeast with what remained of his 6th Corps. The rest of the French positions unwound from right to left. First the 4th Corps, then the 3rd, the 2nd and finally the Imperial Guard drew off in turn, none of them pursued by the Prussians, who were by now lacking the organization and the energy to do more than thank God things had not gone worse.

Moltke was quick to comprehend the results of that dreadful day at Gravelotte/Saint-Privat: As the Prussians buried their dead and the French completed their withdrawal into Metz, he took the guard, the Saxons and another corps and, with royal headquarters in tow, set out to finish off the French troops still in the field. For his ill-considered actions, Steinmetz was sent into exile. Frederick Charles remained to besiege a French army so demoralized by its experience that it made no effort to escape, but instead surrendered on October 27.

Ahead lay other great events: the Battle of Sedan and the capture of Napoléon III; the siege of Paris and an extended struggle with a French Third Republic emerging from a discredited empire’s ruins; the proclamation of a new German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. But old-timers from both sides would ever define the Franco-Prussian War by the monumental clash at Gravelotte/Saint-Privat—a one-day precursor of the world war to come.

For further reading, Dennis Showalter recommends: The Franco-Prussian War, by Geoffrey Wawro.

This article was written by Dennis Showalter and originally published in the November 2007 issue of Military History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Military History magazine today!