The time had gone by when they might have taken advantage of their over-hasty mobilization; the condition of the men had prohibited any action. France was waiting for news of a victory; something had to be done to appease public impatience, so, in order to do something, the enemy resolved (as is usual under such circumstances) on a hostile reconnoissance, and, it may be added, with the usual result.
On August 2d three entire Divisions were sent forward against three battalions, four squadrons, and one battery in Saarbruecken. The Emperor himself and the Prince Imperial watched the operations. The IIId Corps advanced on Voelklingen, the Vth on Saargemuend, the IId on Saarbruecken.
The Germans evacuated Saarbruecken after a gallant defence and repeated sorties, but the French did not cross the Saar. They may have convinced themselves that they had wasted their strength by hitting in the air, and had gained no information as to the resources and position of the enemy.
After this the French generals hesitated for a long while between contrary resolutions. Orders were given and recalled on the strength of mere rumors. The left wing was reinforced on account of a current story that 40,000 Prussians had marched through Treves, the Guards received contradictory orders, and, when a small German force showed itself at Loerrach in the Black Forest, it was at once decreed that the VIIth Corps must remain in Alsace. Thus the French forces were spread over the wide area between the Nied and the Upper Rhine, while the Germans were advancing in compact masses on the Saar.
This scattered state of the army finally induced the French leaders to divide their forces into two distinct armies. Marshal MacMahon took provisional command of the Ist, VIIth, and Vth Corps, the latter being withdrawn from Bitsch. The other Divisions were placed under Marshal Bazaine, with the exception of the Guards, the command of which the Emperor reserved to himself.
It had now become a pressing necessity to protect the left wing of the advancing Second German Army against the French forces in Alsace; the Third Army was therefore ordered to cross the frontier on August 4th, without waiting any longer for the batteries to come up. The First Army, forming the right wing, was already encamped near Wadern and Losheim, three or four days’ march nearer to the Saar than the Second Army in the centre. They were ordered to concentrate in the neighborhood of Tholey and there await further orders. In the first place this, the weakest of the two Divisions, was not to be exposed single-handed to an attack of the enemy’s main force; and, secondly, it was to be used for a flank-movement in case the Second Army should meet the enemy on emerging from the forests of the Palatinate.