Battle of Spicheren

Battle of Spicheren
Part of the Franco-Prussian War

French and German positions at 6 PM on 6 August 1870
Date6 August 1870
LocationSpicheren, France
49°09′N 6°01′E / 49.150°N 6.017°E / 49.150; 6.017Coordinates: 49°09′N 6°01′E / 49.150°N 6.017°E / 49.150; 6.017
Result Prussian victory
Kingdom of Prussia Prussia France France
Commanders and leaders
Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz Charles Auguste Frossard
37,000[1] 29,000[1]
Casualties and losses
850 killed
3,650 wounded[1]
4,100 killed and wounded[1]

The Battle of Spicheren, also known as the Battle of Forbach, was a battle during the Franco-Prussian War. The German victory compelled the French to withdraw to the defenses of Metz. The Battle of Spicheren, on 5 August, was the second of three critical French defeats. Moltke had originally planned to keep Bazaine's army on the Saar river until he could attack it with the 2nd Army in front and the 1st Army on its left flank, while the 3rd Army closed towards the rear. The aging General von Steinmetz made an overzealous, unplanned move, leading the 1st Army south from his position on the Moselle. He moved straight toward the town of Spicheren, cutting off Prince Frederick Charles from his forward cavalry units in the process.


Moltke was pressing on with the concentration of the Prussian armies. His forces now formed two wings. On the right, the Second Army under Frederick Charles containing the III, IV, IX, X, XII Corps, and the Prussian Guard, was advancing from the Rhine River towards Saarbrücken, while the First Army under General Steinmetz with the I, VII and VIII Corps were moving into line with the Second Army from the direction of the lower Moselle river towards Saarlouis, in all both armies numbered some 185,000 men.

On the French side, planning after the disaster at Wissembourg had become essential. General Le Bœuf, flushed with anger, was intent upon going on the offensive over the Saar and countering their loss. However, planning for the next encounter was more based upon the reality of unfolding events rather than emotion or pride, as Intendant General Charles Joseph François Wolff told him and his staff that supply beyond the Saar would be impossible. Therefore, the armies of France would take up a defensive position that would protect against every possible attack point, but also left the armies unable to support each other.[2]


Map of Prussian and German offensive, 5–6 August 1870

The battle was not intended by Moltke, who wished to keep Bazaine's army on the Saar river until he could attack it with the II army in front and the I army on its left flank, while the third army was closing towards its rear. The aging General Karl von Steinmetz made an overzealous, unplanned move, and proved that he did not have the slightest notion regarding Moltke's plans. Leading the I army south from his position on the Moselle, he moved straight toward the town of Spicheren, cutting off Prince Frederick Charles from his forward cavalry units in the process. The First Army advance guard (14th Division, VII Corps) under General Georg von Kameke, advancing on west from Saarbrücken on the morning of 6 August, found the bridges still intact, and seeing the opportunity that this offered, pushed on to occupy the high ground just beyond the town. The French 2nd Corps under Frossard, who had withdrawn his 2nd Corps back about one mile to the Spicheren plateau, had abandoned these heights in order to take up what he considered to be a position magnifique, fortified between Spicheren and Forbach. Frossard distributed his corps as follows: holding the right and centre was the division of General Laveaucoupet, deployed along the heights, with two companies entrenched on the Rotherberg. On the left General Charles Nicolas Vergé’s division occupied Stiring and the Forbach valley. General Bataille’s division was held back in reserve around Spicheren; in all, counting the corps cavalry and artillery, some 27,000 men with 90 guns.


While the French army under General MacMahon engaged the German 3rd Army at the Battle of Wörth, the German 1st Army under Steinmetz finished their advance west from Saarbrücken. Early on the 6th,[3] a patrol from the German 2nd Army under Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia spotted decoy fires close and Frossard's army farther off on a distant plateau south of the town of Spicheren, and took this as a sign of Frossard's retreat. Ignoring Moltke's plan again, both German armies attacked Frossard's French 2nd Corps, fortified between Spicheren and Forbach[4]

Assault on Rotherberg

Kameke thought he would be engaging the rear guard of Frossard’s Corps, which he believed was in retreat. He ordered a full attack, committing the 74th and the 39th Regiments of the 27th Brigade under Gen. Bruno von François into the walls of hills running between Spicheren and Forbach.[3]

The French were unaware of German numerical superiority at the beginning of the battle as the German 2nd Army did not attack all at once. Treating the oncoming attacks as merely skirmishes, Frossard did not request additional support from other units. By the time he realized what kind of a force he was opposing, it was too late. Seriously flawed communications between Frossard and those in reserve under Bazaine slowed down so much that by the time the reserves received orders to move out to Spicheren, German soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Armies had charged up the heights.

Anton von Werner's Assault on the heights of Spicheren showing General François's last charge

François's attack had stopped cold by one o'clock. He would sit and wait for reinforcements, wondering all the while just how many French were in front of him. Lucky for him, every French attempt at a counter-attack was stopped by his artillery, as 3 Prussian batteries had been deployed with heavy losses under French fire on Galgenberg Hill, just 1 km away from Rotherberg Hill.[3] Kameke's 28th Brigade under Wilhelm von Woyna would arrive in the afternoon and bring the battle back to life again, but the Prussian attacks would again be repulsed.

The French would now counter-attack. General François, who was at the front encouraging the troops of the 74th Regiment which had reached the edge of Rotherberg Hill, drew his sword, ordered the hornist to sound the bugle call to attack and led the newly arrived 9th Company of the 39th Regiment in a charge in which he was killed, being struck by 5 bullets.[3] Gen. Laveaucoupet's 40th Regiment pushed back François badly demoralized surviving troops while Gen. Charles Vergé's 2nd Brigade attacked Woyna's troops, pushing them back.[5]

By this time, General Constantin von Alvensleben, commander of the III Corps of the German II Army under Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia came to the aid of their compatriots leading units that had arrived on the scene. He assumed overall command and immediately began assessing the situation. Drawn by the sound of battle, more and more Prussian troops kept appearing on the battlefield.[3] Alvensleben decided to attack Frossard's left flank.

After 5pm the tide of the battle turned again, as General Battaile's 2nd Division attacked with 15 battalions near Stiring and Spicheren, breaking Prussian lines and pushing the Prussians back almost to Saarbrücken.[3] If Frossard had pursued these counter-attacks he might have won the battle. But because the reserves had not arrived, Frossard erroneously believed that he was in grave danger of being outflanked as German soldiers under General Adolf von Glümer were spotted in Forbach. Glümer's 13th Division had cut the main road near Emmersweiler and was laying artillery fire on the railroads, forcing trains carrying French reinforcements to Forbach to turn back.[3] Frossard stopped his successful attack and around 7pm he wired to his superior that he would have to take his forces back to the heights to avoid being flanked.[3] With a combination of overlapping infantry and artillery attacks, the Prussians were able to roll the flank. Frossards troops started to orderly retreat from Rotherberg Hill and Stiring. However, the French rear guard put up a strong resistance and bloody house to house fighting occurred in Forbach and Stiring.[3]

Von Alvensleben's large infantry charge with more than 5000 men overran the French rear guard at dusk, thus gaining control of the Rotherberg Hill.[3] Instead of continuing to defend the heights, by the close of battle after dusk Frossard retreated in an orderly fashion to the south. By 9 o'clock, the French had given up the entire plateau outside Spicheren to the Prussians.

The German infantry was exhausted and needed to rest and re-group, so even though rested cavalry units where available, no immediate pursuit of the retreating French was ordered.[3]

The German casualties were relatively high due to the advance and the effectiveness of the chassepot rifle. They were quite startled in the morning when they had found out that their efforts were not in vain, Frossard had abandoned his position on the heights.[6]

Frossard had ordered a retreat towards Moselle where he planned to withdraw and move to the fortress of Verdun, but once again he was attacked by Steinmetz at the Battle of Borny-Colombey. On the way there they ran into Bazaine's division coming to reinforce them.



France had lost another battle; the quality of its military commanders and their lack of initiative mainly to blame. The German casualties were relatively high due to lack of planning and the effectiveness of the French chassepot rifle.


There are numerous memorials on the plateau of Rotherberg Hill and at the various military cemeteries in Spicheren, many of them German, and at the Forest Cemetery and the German-French-Garden in Saarbrücken, commemorating the fallen soldiers or officers of the individual formations, as well as a big memorial for the fallen French. Many of these memorials became a theme for postcards in the decades after the battle. There is a trail named after General François which passes the memorials on the Spicheren heights.

In the 21st century, groups from France and Germany regularly collaborate to re-enact the battle.[7]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Henderson, p. 715-9 provides a table of returns for numerous "great battles," excluding prisoners.
  2. Howard 1961, pp. 87–88.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Stefan R. Brand. "Die Schlacht am "Roten Berg" bei Spichern am 6. August 1870". Saarland-Lese (in German). Retrieved 9 November 2015.
  4. Howard 1961, pp. 89–90.
  5. Howard 1961, pp. 92–93.
  6. Howard 1961, pp. 98–99.
  7. "Traditionsvereine führen Schlacht auf dem Spicherer Berg auf". Saarbrücker Zeitung (in German). 4 August 2010. Retrieved 16 October 2012.


  • Howard, M. (1961). The Franco–Prussian War. London: Rupert Hart-Davis. ISBN 0-24663-587-8. 

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