Sunday 29 June 2014

The Battle of Rezonville and Von Bredow's Death-Ride - 1870

Von Bredow's Death-Ride - arguably the last successful
 cavalry charge in European history.

Dear reader, here follows my third and last account from the visit made to the battlefields around Metz - this time looking at the Battle of Rezonville (a.k.a Mars-La-Tour or Vionville, depending on taste and allegiance). I do find it somewhat hard to constrain myself when writing about this my favorite period of political/military history, so please forgive the rather long post. I've spiced it up with pictures from my visit to the actual battlefield and of my Franco-Prussian miniatures collection. Hope you will enjoy.

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On the morning of 16th August 1870, the bulk of the French Army of the Rhine would fight an engagement initiated by the advance-guard of the German Second Army. Greatly outnumbered, the German Corps commander would find his defensive enemy unwilling to use the advantage of numbers, and the battle would be a close fought action most notably remembered for the self-sacrificial but skilfully preformed attack of Von Bredow’s cavalry on the artillery enforced French line, an attack known as Von Bredow’s Death-ride.

The battle have had many names, English sources often call it Mars-la-Tour, French refer to it as Rezonville, while I've seen German texts using Vionville. I'm not going to attempt a conclusion as to which is more correct.

The background: After the initial French defeats of Spichern and Woerth at the border, both Bazaine (Army of the Rhine) and MacMahon (1st & 5th Corps) withdrew their armies. MacMahon marched all the way to Châlons (300 km from the front), in order to reform and rebuild his shattered troops.

The battlefield as it look around noon on the 16th Aug.
Source: French magazine "Champs de Bataille

As German superiority of numbers was becoming all to clear to the French, Bazaine – who had anchored his army at Metz, further north-east - wanted to link up with MacMahon, and hopefully by combining their strength be able to push back the now rolling German advance into France.

Battlefield photo: Looking north from a position outside Vionville.
The French would be formed at the edge of the woods.

German tactical overlord, Moltke, however anticipated this move, and while the Prussian First Army would press forward on the French from a direction due east of Metz, he requested the Second Army under Prince Frederick Charles, to stop it’s advance across the Moselle River and swing north thus encircling Bazaine, and cutting off any attempt to link up by the French commanders.

The French line at the edge of the wood.
Figures a mix of Foundry and Perry miniatures.

On the 16th august, Bazaine had just begun his depart from Metz marching towards Châlons, and the main part of his army was concentrated around the villages of Gravelotte, Rezonville and Vionville on the country road leading westward out of Metz.

As the advance guard of the German Second Army approached the resting French, and the German Corps Commander Alvensleben only thought he was facing a minor French force from Bazaine’s rear-guard, the scene was set for one of the most notable engagements of the Franco-Prussian War.

Battlefield photo: The woods egde.
Here the forward French line would be deployed.

At 09.00 the first German artillery deployed and started pounding away on the coffee-sipping French encamped in Vionville. The fight was on, and the French battle line would be stretched out from a position north of Mars-la-Tour and across the gentle rolling fields to the village of Gravelotte ca. 6 kilometres further east. 

Initial German advance pushed the French out of Vionville and back to a position at Rezonville, where the Imperial Guard now formed the anchor on the French left flank, protecting the vital communications back to Metz.

The 7th Magdeburg Cuirassiers.
Figures all Foundry.

The Germans now realized the true size of the French force across the field. One German Corps was facing a complete French army. But the German commander Alvensleben did not deter, and skilfully arranged his limited troops making excellent use of the superior German artillery by deploying it in a masses battery amounting to 200+ guns between the Bois de St Arnould and Flavigny to the southeast of Vionville. In fact, this effective concentration of German firepower would successfully convince the French command that they were facing a large German force.

Battlefield photo: Map found next to memorial at the battlefield.
It shows the site of Von Bredow's charge (seen in a North to South angle)

In an attempt to counter the German advance, French Corps commander Frossard got permission to launch an attack comprising the Cuirassiers and Lancers of the Guard. The cavalry colonel charged with this unenviable task openly complained at the limited prospects of success, but was overruled, and thus formed his costly elite troops and dashed away in the direction of the German lines.

Battlefield photo: Looking down towards Bois de Tronville from the middle 
of the battlefield. It is from this direction Von Bredow would come sneaking up.

The effective rifle fire of the formed German infantry reduced the crème of the French Imperial cavalry to shambles in just a few moments. The fleeing remnants were pursued by German cavalry all the way back to the French line, where Bazaine and his entourage briefly got involved in the melee, before the Germans finally turned back. 

Von Bredow's Charge. Map drawn up by Austrian officer, and published in the manuals of the Austrian "Kriegsshule" (Militaryacademy).
The map is kindly supplied by fellow Contiental Wars Society member, Andrew Brentnall.

Just before noon Alvensleben had scouted the French position swelling and strengthening to his front. Especially the forming of a French artillery battery on the field northwest of Rezonville was menacing to any German hopes to press an attack. 
Orders thus passed to General Von Bredow asking him to take this position, using the fresh reserves of the 5th Cavalry Division.

The "zug" of cuirassiers dashing for the French canons.

Von Bredow took one glance at the French position to his front, and after airing initial protests and receiving the confirmation to go ahead, he stoically remarked: “Koste es, was es wolle” - “It will cost what it will”. He formed up the 7th “Magdeburg” Cuirassiers and the lance-armed 16th Uhlans, and swung out from behind the safety of Vionville.

Battlefield photo: This is the ground Von Bredow would see as he came up from the depression in the ground nearing the French line at the wood's edge.

Von Bredow advanced towards the French line, making careful use of the rolling landscape. He would lead his men through a little depression in the fields before the targeted gun position, and thus enabling his troops to get within 100-200 meters before the charge was sounded and his men exposed. 

Capt. H.M. Hozier describes two consecutive charges into infantry columns. 

Here is the charge as described by Captain H. M. Hozier, whom took part in this fearful ride:

“Our brave general, with his staff of four officers, three of which he lost, was nearly on a line with the cuirassiers. Before the French battery had discharged it’s third gun, we were masters of it. The honour of challenging the French commander I could not leave to another, and I rather think I found him. It was clear to me that in this death-ride the objective was not to bring home trophies, but to strike down everything between the wood and the road. At the battery all were put to the sword, and then we went in tearing course at an infantry column, which was ridden over and cut down. Its remnants, however, sent a good many shots after us. At this moment the dragoons were close on our heels. A second battery was attacked, and all who did not run were put to the sword. Then, as many as were left of us made for a second infantry column. Just before reaching it two squadrons of French cuirassiers wheeled from a woody hollow into the gaps of our little handful, and after the last infantry column had been ridden down we wheeled to the right and rushed back. 

The French gunners "put to the sword".

By this time we were pell-mell with the French horse. Before the battery I received two shots, which went through my helmet, without, however, touching me. The adjutant, hit by two bullets, fell from his horse; one trumpeter was shot down, the horse of the other wounded. I was just speaking with Captain Heister when he also fell. Lieutenant Campbell was for a while by my side until, in the attempt to tear away from the French cuirassiers the standard he had seizes with his left hand, he was fearfully maltreated. Someone helped him to cut his way out. I shall never forget my ordering the first trumpeter I found, nearly on the same spot where we set out on our ride of nearly a quarter of a German mile, to blow the regimental signal. The trumpet had been bored through by shots, and a sound came that pierced me to the quick. At my call three sections out of the eleven assembled. A gloomy bivouac followed, as little more than a fourth of the regiment had responded to the call!”
(Source: The Franco-Prussian War by Capt. H. M. Hozier, published 1875)

The units participating in Von Bredow's Death-ride
suffered around 70% losses.

Von Bredow’s Death Ride and the ensuing cavalry melee, fought while detaching from the French line, left no more than 25-30% survivors. However the military objective of the charge had been met with great success. With the French gun position reduced and Canrobert’s line left in disorder, the Germans had bought them selves precious time to regroup and bring up more reinforcements. 

Battlefield photo: Memorial situated at the position of the second French line.
Roughly from were the French cavalry would have counter-charged.
The position of the French guns marked in the background by the row of trees. 

The success of Von Bredow is not little matter. It can even be put in comparison to the parallel action of his French counterpart of the Imperial Guard cavalry whom tried but failed so miserably. The time for massed cavalry assault was definitely over, but Von Bredow’s clever use of the ground would leave this last testament to the gallant charge of horses.

Thank you very much for reading!


  1. First rate combination battlefield walk, history lesson, period paintings, and figure display! I also appreciate you noting sources for maps used.

    Very enjoyable and truly outstanding effort!

    1. Thanks Jonathan, happy to have such an appreciative audience :0) By the way, I have a few things I want to share with you on a PM basis, what is your e-mail?

  2. Superb! This is was treat to read.

    1. Thank you very much Monty, really glad you enjoyed it. Only hope the pictures took you through the long write-up ok.

  3. A first class post Sören: an informative and enjoyable read accompanied by some excellent photos and beautifully painted miniatures.

    1. Thanks for chewing your way through that write-up Jonas, hope to compensate you with an invitation for a Franco-Prussian wargame at the club sometime soon!

  4. As others have said, excellent and very interesting post!

    1. Cheers Mattias, happy you found it a good read! Will we see you in Solberga soon perhaps, would be cool to finally meet - perhaps over a well-arranged game?!

  5. That was a great account of one of the more colorful actions of the Franco Prussian War. Great pics too. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for stopping by for a read and for your kind words! Truly a remarkable battle, and I can say that it was really a goosebumps-experience to stand on that field, amongst all the memorials, and look across the ground where this charge took place.

  6. Great background information followed by lovely painted figures!


    1. Cheers Christopher! It was amazing to visit this place. I'm already thinking about going back to the area around Metz, maybe combining with Sedan, Verdun and a trip to neighboring Alsace for a peak at Woerth.

  7. Yet another great historical and informative read on what is a little known subject for me, great battlefield photos and nice paint work on those Cuirassiers too Soren.

    1. Those old Foundry cuirassiers still hold the monopoly in 28mm! Thanks for your kind words on the painting, and thanks for putting up with this extended write-up, I can promise you my fiancé is happy that I've finally found a media for venting this kind of thing. Perhaps she was getting tired of the continuous monologues on 19th French history (strange as she is) :0)

  8. Exellent blog post Sören !!!

    Stunning paint work !!!

    1. Thanks Micke, however I can promise you, that for our planned painting workshop it's all landsknechts! Enjoy your trip to Dalarna my friend!

  9. Hi.
    Interesting, like many says.
    Germany's military power began to rise as a result of these events.
    Another interesting area is the Danish - German wars.

    1. Thank you very much Maximex, and I quite agree with your point on the Second Schleswig War, it all started there at Dybbøl for many of the Prussians in the high command. Then Austria got it, then France - all in the course of 7 years. Busy man that Bismarck. Danish director Ole Bornedal actually just filmed an epic drama TV show on the events of 1864. Go to youtube and search for 1864, the trailer looks really promising, and the show have been sold to several EU markets airing for the first time this fall.