Thursday, 8 May 2014

Wine and Warfare Part 6 : Death in Burgundy

By Rupert Millar

Garibaldi before Dijon
In the wake of the German invasions of France in 1914 and 1940 it is very easy to forget that for hundreds of years the traffic went decidedly the other way.

With Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812, Prussia rose again and declared a war of revenge and national liberation - crucially not just for Prussia but for all Germany and all of the German speaking peoples. Napoleon was pushed back through Germany in 1813 by the Russian/Prussian/Austrian alliance and decisively defeated at Leipzig the “Battle of the Nations” in October – the largest battle in Europe until the First World War 100 years later.

His position in Germany untenable, Napoleon fell back to France with the allies hot on his heels. One Prussian army under general Gebhard Blücher crossed the Rhine on New Year’s eve and into New Year’s day 1813/1814 through the vineyards of the Rheingau, and Mittel-Rhein. The cowing of France in 1814/1815 with Prussia resurgent as a European power was to prove important for the future of Europe.

Many years later, with Bismarck at the helm of Prussian foreign affairs the goal of German unification, a seed somewhat sowed in 1813, was near - a war with the hated enemy over the Rhine might be just the thing to more fully bind the German peoples together.

War came in 1870, largely at Bismarck’s instigation. The French army, badly-led, outgunned and living off the glories of Napoleon Bonaparte (and led by his nephew Napoleon III) were sent reeling in a number of bloody engagements throughout July and August. Fighting raged through the vineyards of Alsace and Lorraine and by September victory was at hand.

French troops defending Paris at Champigny-sur-Marne in 1870
The Prussian general, Helmuth von Moltke, moved quickly to encircle the French. Unable to escape they were destroyed by the German’s Krupp artillery. Napoleon III surrendered, abdicated and the Second Empire fell.

General histories of the war usually end around there but the war continued into the winter of 1870 and on into early 1871. The fighting largely moved westwards into the Loire with fierce battles around Orleans and Le Mans as well as in the north-east of France with efforts to relieve Paris which was under siege. Still less known are the battles around Burgundy.

The German advance into Burgundy was largely entrusted to the XIV Corps under General August von Werder and Prince William of Baden and most of the troops came from that state. The main thrust went first for Strasbourg, then Besançon and finally Dijon where there was a battle on 30 October. After the fall of Dijon, the Germans were primarily concerned with checking the movements of the great Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi; their aim was to prevent his union with the French general Camille Crémer who had formed another division around Beaune.

Baden troops advance on Nuits through the vineyards which are clearly visible
 in the foreground. The hills of the Côte d’Or can be seen in the distance.

Luckily for them the two commanders failed to co-ordinate properly and continued to act independently of each other. In late November the Germans ventured south and there were skirmishes in and around Vougeot and Nuits-Saint-Georges but the troops were recalled when Garibaldi attempted to re-take Dijon later in the month.

Crémer had taken up a strong position with nearly 13,000 men around Nuits-Saint-Georges, the main French infantry line being on the railway, which to this day constitutes the Paris-Lyon line, their right flank anchored on the Meuzin stream, while the artillery was positioned on the slopes behind.

The initial German advance from the east pushed in the French outposts at La Berchere and Boncourt. Then the Germans struck from the north pushing down from Gevrey and forcing the French to fall back on Vosne.

Above the vineyards of the Rheingau, with the lyrics of the newly
written Wacht am Rhein inscribed on its base, stands the Germania Denkmal, 

a monument to military victory and German unification
Nearly 1,000 Germans were killed in the vineyards before Nuits-Saint-Georges and some 2,000 Frenchmen in defence of the town but, advancing into the teeth of French fire and with their formations disrupted by the vines the Germans threw their enemy back from the railway line and stormed Nuits which they then held until 6pm despite French counter-attacks. The exhausted men then slept in the vineyards and market square of Nuits while the shattered French army retreated on Beaune and the Hospices was turned into a military hospital to deal with their wounded.

* Please note: this article first appeared on on 2nd January 2014 and is reproduced with the permission of the author. There has been some minor editing of the original by Alex Crawford.

The series so far...
Part One : The Romans
Part Two : Gin and 'Dutch Courage'
Part Three : The Legend of Pedro Ximénez
Part Four : The Gay Hussars and the Art of Sabrage

Part Five : Warre's War Heroics and How The Barossa Got Its Name

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