EH 101 Merlin






As early as the late 1970s the British Royal Navy began a search to replace its technologically aging Sea King ASW helicopters. In response GKN Westland initiated the WG 34 project. Simultaneously, the Italian Navy considered replacing its own Sea Kings. Consequently the two governments agreed to develop a new ASW helicopter jointly. The agreement led to the establishment of European Helicopter Industries (EHI) in June 1980 (Agusta-Westland on February 12, 2001) and a joint funding arrangement on January 25, 1984. Westland and Agusta spent almost eight years in an assiduous design program before the first EH 101 prototype took to the air on October 9, 1987.

The medium lift multirole helicopter, capable of carrying up to fifty-five survivors in the SAR variant, depended on three General Electric CT7-6 2,000-horsepower turbines, mounted atop the fuselage, to turn the advanced 61-foot, five-bladed main and four-bladed tailrotors, fabricated with a carbon-glass skin and a nomex-foam honeycomb core. The EH 101 cruised comfortably at 150 knots and exhibited a range of 460 nautical miles without the available auxiliary fuel tank; designers fitted the military variants with a hover inflight refueling (HIFR) system. The external hook safely lifted loads up to 12,000 pounds. Sponsons along the lower aluminum-lithium fuselage housed a retractable tricycle landing gear. EHI’s program called for nine preproduction aircraft, two utilized for civil certification.

The cockpit contained dual controls and the latest in advanced instrumentation. Six full-color MFDs linked to an advanced flight management system, including an Automatic Heading-Reference System, AHRS, weather radar, and integrated avionics suite provided necessary information and control for certification as a single-pilot IFR helicopter. Deicing equipment on engine inlets and rotor blades added an all-weather component to the helicopter’s capabilities.

The long development cycle resulted from the myriad of requirements stipulated by the two militaries. The RN required a multipurpose ASW model, the RAF an SAR/utility aircraft, while the Italian Navy demanded three variants, an ASW version, a surveillance radar picket aircraft, and a naval utility transport with both folding blades and tail section, along with a rear-loading cargo ramp. With folding blades and tail, the EH 101 could operate from small frigates and fit into the same underdeck hangars as the Sea King. In March 1996 the first of forty-four EH 101 Merlin HMA1s ordered by the Royal Navy took flight. On May 27, 1997, the first of these ASW helicopters arrived at an RN squadron. Shortly afterward, the RAF received the first of twenty HC3 utility helicopters. Canada ordered fifteen EH 101 Cormorant SAR helicopters to replace the Canadian Armed Forces’ fleet of Boeing CH-113s. Other international orders included the following: Denmark, fourteen search and rescue and troop transport variants; Portugal, twelve SAR and fishery protection aircraft; and Japan, fourteen for utility transport and mine countermeasures.

Shortly after the Cormorant went into service with the Canadian military in 2002 it performed its first rescues. On July 28 a crewman aboard the container ship Cynthia Melody received a serious head injury, and the ship’s captain called for immediate medical assistance. A Cormorant, piloted by Captain Jennifer Weissenborn, flew through “poor weather” to rendezvous with the ship about 115 miles north of Vancouver Island. Hovering over the deck, the crew lowered two search and rescue technicians onto the ship to stabilize the patient and then hoisted him aboard the helicopter by a Stokes litter. The Cormorant crew then delivered the injured man to a hospital in Comox, Nova Scotia. The second rescue occurred two days later, when a Cormorant landed in inhospitable terrain to rescue a father and his two sons after they were forced to put down their chartered plane on account of bad weather.

The commercial version of the EH 101 flew in 1997 and was offered in two variants, one with a rear-loading cargo ramp and the Heliliner version, with plush seating for thirty passengers. The cabin featured full standing room, a wide central aisle, overhead storage and a large baggage compartment, as well as a powerful cooling/heating system for passenger comfort. In the medical evacuation role the cabin held sixteen stretchers, along with medical equipment and attendants.





Fokker E.V/DVIII – War Winner?



Too little, too late? The `Flying Razor’ might well have made a difference if it had entered service earlier and in greater numbers.

Modern-day military combat aircraft often have a long service life. In some cases, 40 years or more. Examples are the Boeing B-52 and English Electric Canberra, where individual aircraft have been older than the crews that have flown them.

Back in 1914-18, the active in-service lifetime of WW1 combat aircraft could often be measured in months only, before obsolescence set in as military hierarchy, aircraft designers and manufacturers on both sides of the conflict strove to achieve or maintain superiority of combat performance over the aircraft of the enemy. Lives depended upon it!

On the German side, the latest in a succession of competitions for the supply of fighters, in early 1918, led to the selection of the Fokker D. VII, the best of a number of machines, all of which were required to use the 160/180 hp Mercedes engine.

The D. VII went into immediate production, but the German High Command were fully aware of how quickly the performance of a new aircraft could be eclipsed and immediately decided to float a further fighter design competition, the requirements of which were circularised among the manufacturers, including Albatros, Dornier, Kondor, LVG, Pfalz, Roland, Rumpler, Seimens-Schuckert and Fokker.

At the latter company, Designer Reinhold Platz had in hand a number of experimental parasol monoplane configuration designs, V26. V27 and V28.

When this new competition was run off, it was leading pilots from the Jagdstaffeln in the war zones who did the comparative testing and who were the arbiters of which design would be selected as the follow-on fighter. Their shortlist whittled down the choice to the Dornier D1, Seimens Schuckert and Fokker V26/V28. Finally, the Fokker design was selected, receiving the official designation E. V (`E’ for eindecker).

The production order required 400 machines, the first 20 being delivered in July 1918. Jagdstaffel 6 was the first unit to get their hands on the new fighter, receiving six in early August, but before the end of the month, three of their pilots had been killed due to wing failures.

Urgent official investigations blamed these failures on deformation under heavy in-flight wing loads, but further more practical examination revealed poor standard of construction, which included the use of unseasoned wood and perished glue. Immediate improvement in quality control and adherence to the designer’s original construction specifications quickly cured these ills.

Re-designated Fokker D. VIII, the aircraft re-entered service. Jagdstaffel 11 were the first to re-equip, followed by Jagdstafeln 1, 6, 10, 19, 23, 36 and the Marine-Feld-Jagdstaffeln 1, 2 and 3.

However, the D. VIII saw only three weeks of combat service before the November 11th armistice, during which the aircraft proved to be an effective fighting machine. More powerful variants using the 145 hp Uberursel UR III rotary engine and 200 hp Goebel Goe IIIa were planned and had these entered service, they could well have given the newly formed Royal Air Force’s squadrons equipped with S. E. 5as and Sopwith Snipes a hard time indeed.

As also occurred in 1945, there was a post WW1 round-up of German aircraft by the Allies, including some of the 85 examples of the Fokker D. VIII operational with German Air Service units. Some of these were shared among the Allies for evaluation including US Air Service.

But not before Anthony Fokker had spirited 20 examples away to his native Holland, from where he sold some to the Netherlands Air Service. Others were sold to Poland, to equip the 7th Aviation Squadron and used during 1919, in that country’s conflict with Ukraine.

In 1921 Lieutenant Leigh Wade of the US Air Service produced the following evaluation of the D. VIII after testing at McCook Field:-

`The aeroplane has a tendency to turn to the right in taxiing, takes off quickly, climbs very rapidly and is very manoeuvrable.

It is easy to fly and the controls are sensitive. It is tail heavy, but so light on the controls that it is not tiresome to fly. The visibility is good.

The machine’s guns are so placed that in the event of a crash, the pilot would undoubtedly be injured by being thrown against same.

The aeroplane lands very slowly with a slight tendency to drop the right wing and to turn to the right on the ground. The controls for the engine are very inconveniently located, in as much as the throttle for the gas is in the left side of the fuselage and the throttle for the air is on the left side of the control stick.’

Such then was the Fokker D. VIII, a fighter aircraft of great promise, that just ran out of time … rather like that other great German fighter, a generation later – the Messerschmitt Me262!

Vietnam 1950

French troops coming ashore on the coast of Annam, July 1950.

By 1949, French intelligence in Paris was increasingly concerned about how the war against communism in China was going. Despite being equipped with millions of dollars of American weapons, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists were rapidly losing. The city of Hsuchow (Xuzhou) on the North China Plain was in the news bulletins for all the wrong reasons. Chiang was defeated in Manchuria in 1948, with the loss of 30,000 soldiers and all of their equipment. By the end of the year, his remaining armies were completely cut off at Hsuchow.

Chiang was betrayed by General Liu Fei, his military assistant, who revealed the nationalists’ strategy to the enemy. On 10 January 1949, some 320,000 nationalist troops were forced to surrender south of Hsuchow. This meant that the communists could march down the Yangtze River, which runs through the very heart of southern China. Ten days later, with his government in chaos, Chiang resigned as president of the Chinese Republic. In April and May, the communists entered Nanking on the Yangtze, and then Shanghai. Once the nationalists were looking to flee to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), it was only a matter of time before Mao’s four-million-strong People’s Liberation Army reached the border with Indochina.

The French military were now taking the situation in Indochina very seriously. France’s most senior soldier, General Georges Revers, Chief of the General Staff, flew to Indochina in May 1949 to assess the situation in person. He and his fellow generals knew that Mao’s imminent victory would drastically transform the status quo in the region. During his briefings in Saigon and Hanoi, it soon became apparent that once Mao was up against the border backing the Viet Minh, the French military would be unable to hold the frontier.

Revers’s report recommended that Lao Kai on the Red River in northern Tonkin, which was particularly isolated, and the Cao Bang-Lang Son ridge on the border northeast of Hanoi, be abandoned, rather than needlessly sacrificing the scattered garrisons. The units could be better used in strengthening the Red River Delta defences. Lao Kai was sometimes referred to as ‘the gateway to China’. The delta, General Revers reasoned, would provide a base to conduct pacification operations, followed by a counter-offensive into the Viet Minh’s heartland in the Viet Bac.

Revers made an astute strategic assessment that was largely ignored by the politicians. He had accurately predicted Giap’s forthcoming campaign. Despite Revers’s recommendations, it was felt that the Cao Bang-Lang Son ridge could not be abandoned, because it sat astride Route Coloniale 4. All the time that it was occupied, it prevented Chinese aid from reaching Giap in Viet Bac. This ignored Revers’s assessment that the ridge could not be held in the face of a concerted attack.

Although the French had reinserted themselves into Indochina and its major cities, they never really took control of the surrounding countryside. In reality, their authority was confined to the main towns and the roads connecting them and the outlying forts. Even in their Tonkin heartland around Hanoi, guerrilla activity and intelligence gathering by Ho Chi Minh’s forces remained unchecked.

The key to the defence of Hanoi and the port of Haiphong was the Red River Delta. Both sides were well aware of this. It shaped their strategic thinking and was to dominate the war until Dien Bien Phu. Giap’s immediate task, as predicted, was to secure the very long frontier with China, which ran all the way from the junction with the Laotian border in the northwest, and to the Gulf of Tonkin in the northeast. This would ensure the free flow of Chinese instructors, weapons and ammunition. The campaigning season was limited, so he needed to act before the rains from May to October 1950 severely hampered mobility.

General Wei Guo-qing, leading a Chinese military advisory group some 280 strong, arrived in April 1950. Their role was to guide Ho Chi Minh on the best tactics and strategy to use against the French. It is not entirely clear just how much influence they had, but the size of the group suggests that it was quite considerable. Wei no doubt espoused Mao’s doctrine of ‘man-over-weapons’ to defeat superior French firepower. As manpower was never a problem, the Chinese Communists were advocates of the ‘human-wave’ tactic, whereby an enemy was simply swamped and overrun. In Indochina, this was to flounder in the face of the French air force’s guns, bombs and napalm.

Giap massed fourteen infantry and three artillery battalions with which to attack the French border forts. He struck first at Lao Kai, not far from the Chinese border, in February 1950. The small French garrison found themselves being bombarded by heavy mortars before being overrun. Then, northeast of Hanoi, he attacked the vulnerable Cao Bang-Lang Son ridge. Both these two towns, between which were French posts at Dong Khe and That Khe, sat astride two different roads from China. These in turn were linked by the road that ran south all the way to the French-held port of Tien Yen.

On 25 May 1950, the Viet Minh took the sandbagged outpost at Dong Khe, midway along the ridge, wiping out two companies of North African troops. This was a typical fort, built on a hilltop after the jungle had been cleared from the summit. Giap employed four battalions, supported by small artillery pieces and mortars to overcome the 800-strong garrison. It was the first time that the Viet Minh used the Chinese human-wave tactic. However, his men had to withdraw two days later, when a French parachute battalion arrived on the scene.

In July, General Chen Geng arrived from China at the request of Ho Chi Minh to help with Wei’s advisory group. This again indicates that Mao was exerting some considerable influence on the conduct of the war in Indochina. Chen also encouraged Ho and Giap to renew their efforts to take the border forts. At the end of the year, he was to depart for Korea, leaving Wei in charge.

Both sides waited for the summer rains to ease before fighting resumed. By this stage, General Marcel Carpentier, commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force, had about 10,000 troops protecting the scattered forts on the ridge. Giap singled out Dong Khe once again, encircling it with his artillery and mortars. The Viet Minh 174th Regiment built a full-scale replica not far away to facilitate lengthy and detailed training. Nothing was left to chance.

Two companies of legionnaires from the 3rd Foreign Legion Regiment, some 260 men, who were holding Dong Khe were shelled all day on 16 September 1950. They only had two artillery pieces, consisting of a 75mm gun and a 105mm howitzer with which to reply.

Then at dusk, six Viet Minh battalions swarmed forward under covering mortar fire. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting followed. They had killed or wounded 140 of the defenders and driven them out of three of their four sandbagged positions by the following night. The legionnaires put up a heroic defence, but were finally overwhelmed on 18 September. A relief column formed by the Legion’s elite 1st Parachute Battalion, who were dropped at nearby That Khe, were ambushed and driven off.

The garrison at Cao Bang at the northern end of the ridge was now cut off from its delta support. General Carpentier finally conceded that Route Coloniale 4 could not be held. On 3 October, it was decided to evacuate Cao Bang. The 1,500 retreating troops and accompanying civilian refugees, however, had first to get past Viet Minh-held Dong Khe to reach That Khe and Lang Son. What followed was a disaster. Despite the French air force flying 844 sorties in support, the French suffered very heavy losses. French pilots were hampered by low cloud and ground mist that helped conceal the Viet Minh’s movements.

On 9 October, the withdrawing garrison, plus a 3,500-strong relief force from That Khe, were both separately ambushed and scattered. The two four-battalion-strong French columns were soon surrounded by thirty Viet Minh battalions and overwhelmed. The two columns never managed to meet on the road, and when some of the survivors regrouped, they were attacked for a third time. All order vanished, and the French lost about 4,000 men in the surrounding jungle. A parachute battalion was annihilated while conducting rear-guard actions. Lang Son was abandoned by Carpentier. Likewise, the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the Legion’s 3rd Regiment were severely mauled.

By 17 October 1950, all the forts had fallen, resulting in 6,000 French casualties. Giap had secured a strategically important piece of border territory, as well as capturing enough French weapons for an entire division. These included 9,200 rifles, 900 machine guns, 125 mortars and 13 heavy guns, as well as 450 trucks. French morale was crushed, and a wave of alarm passed through the French military and civilian population in Indochina. When the news reached Paris, it was greeted with a mixture of despair and outrage. Heads had to roll. The government’s response was to sack both High Commissioner Léon Pignon and General Carpentier.

The French hold on northern Tonkin, Hanoi and the Red River Delta was now precarious. In France, the war was increasingly disliked, with the Cold War in Europe a national preoccupation. The wounded from Indochina were routed home through provincial airports lest they be greeted by hostile demonstrators in Paris. Conscripts could not go unless they specifically volunteered, but most were deterred from doing so by a lack of faith in the conflict and by understandably anxious parents. There was an atmosphere of tension, with supplies for Indochina being sabotaged on French trains and in ports. Even getting donated blood out to the troops was problematic. France’s communists were opposed to the war, and there were dark mutterings that they were behind the disruption.

The Viet Minh’s supply routes from China were now secure, meaning they were now in a position to confront the French with much greater strength than before. Heartened by his victory, Ho Chi Minh boasted that he would be in Hanoi within a matter of weeks. Giap was encouraged to go over to the ‘open-battle’ phase of their grand strategy. They planned to launch an all-out assault on the delta region, with a view to overwhelming the remaining French strongholds, which would isolate Hanoi and force the French out. What they had not bargained for, however, was the arrival of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny as joint High Commissioner and commander-in-chief in December 1950.

De Lattre, like de Gaulle, was a war hero and a keeper of the faith. Like de Gaulle, he was autocratic, but he loved his men. He had led the French First Army during the liberation of the Riviera and the long march into southern Germany. This force had included the veteran Algerian and Moroccan divisions. They were the saviours of Strasbourg and Colmar. De Lattre first arrived back on liberated French soil on 16 August 1944 with his 16-year-old son Bernard. De Gaulle had granted the boy special permission to join the army and his father. The diminutive general was photographed with his young son proudly towering over him. During his early career, de Lattre senior had fought at Verdun and during France’s wars in Morocco. He was exactly what Indochina’s demoralized garrison needed.

In truth, de Lattre was not the first choice for such a difficult mission. Other veteran generals had been approached. Juin, busy in Morocco, had declined, while Koenig said he would only go if the Indochina garrison was bolstered with conscripts. De Lattre was serving as NATO’s land forces commander, under General Dwight Eisenhower as Allied Supreme Commander, with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as Eisenhower’s deputy. It was not an easy relationship, especially as the other two always saw themselves as the dominant military partners.

General de Lattre was very much a French version of Montgomery, and putting them together was never a good idea. It was a titanic clash of egos. Their relationship was so tumultuous it was almost to the point of outright hatred. Their squabbles over the chain of command for the Western European Union were so corrosive that it eventually helped derail France’s commitment to NATO. De Lattre was serving as Inspector General of the French armed forces when Montgomery got him appointed commander WEU land forces. Once in post, he would not recognize Montgomery’s authority, which led to very public accusations of disloyalty.

Eventually, after a particularly unpleasant confrontation on 10 May 1950, a weeping de Lattre was reconciled with Montgomery. Before his departure for Indochina, de Lattre had tea with Montgomery, who was celebrating his sixty-third birthday. He was touched when the old field marshal cut an extra piece of cake for Bernard de Lattre, who was already serving in Indochina. Whatever their differences, they were brothers-in-arms and they understood each other.

The young Minister for Overseas Territories, François Mitterrand, warned the 62-yearold de Lattre that Indochina would be a poisoned chalice. He cautioned that it could wreck his health and his reputation. Certainly, at that stage in his life, de Lattre did not need this appointment. No doubt he was astute enough to realize that the fighting in Indochina would swing on the pendulum of the escalating Korean War and the meddling of China. Washington had made it clear that it would not tolerate the spread of communism down the Korean peninsula, whatever the cost. Many senior French officers saw Indochina as another front in the same war. The Soviet Union, China, and communism in general wherever they raised their heads, needed to be contained.

Nonetheless, de Lattre had two good reasons for going. Firstly, Lieutenant Bernard de Lattre was there and writing home with very frank assessments of what was happening on the ground. Bernard, like his father, was a soldier through and through. During the Second World War, he had been wounded, earning the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. Secondly, every year hundreds of young officers coming out of the Saint Cyr military academy were being killed in Indochina. On 23 October 1950, Bernard had written to his mother: ‘Tell Father we need him, without him it will go wrong.’ What father could refuse such an appeal from his son? De Lattre felt he could make a difference.

De Lattre did not go alone, for he summoned many of his wartime comrades. He needed men he could trust and rely on. From his 1944–45 staff, he took generals Allard and Salan, and colonels Beaufre and Cogny. They also rallied others, such as General de Linarès, who was already in-country. Great pomp and ceremony was made of de Lattre’s arrival in Saigon, where he pointedly ignored his disgraced predecessor, General Carpentier. Once in Hanoi, he reviewed the troops and then addressed his staff. He said it was for the young officers that he had accepted this challenging assignment.

There were no promises on the table. Paris offered no reinforcements, and de Lattre could provide no easy victories. What he could promise them was firm leadership. De Lattre knew from Bernard that among the many shortcomings of the French army in Indochina, there was a lack of firm and purposeful command. This bred poor morale and it was something that had to be addressed immediately – the removal of Carpentier was a start. As well as this, de Lattre knew that his immediate task was to hold the Viet Minh at bay while the Red River Delta defences were strengthened.

Salan was appointed deputy commander for northern Tonkin and de Linarès deputy commander of the delta area. The field command was divided into three divisions and the headquarters reorganized to improve civil/military liaison. While making his preparations, de Lattre lobbied for reinforcements but they would take time to reach him. Everything now hung in the balance.

France’s Expeditionary Force in Indochina

France had a long history of fighting colonial wars and saw Indochina as just another inconvenient colonial revolt that needed to be suppressed in the usual manner. This approach was a mistake, but once the Korean War broke out, it was perhaps understandable.

In Korea, the communists had very much gone straight for the conventional-warfare phase. The result was that the French assumed they could bludgeon the Viet Minh into submission through the use of superior strength and firepower. What they did not take into account was the strength of the Viet Minh’s ideology. In addition, they were fighting for their country – the French were not.

The spearhead for France reclaiming her colonies was the Foreign Legion. It had a proud and colourful history. During its formative years, the Legion had fought all around the world, including in Indochina. In 1883–84, legionnaires took part in the storming of the forts at Son Tay and Bac Ninh, both held by Chinese irregulars. When the fighting finally came to an end a decade later, the Legion’s battalions formed the Régiment de Marche d’Africa au Tonkin, who helped keep the peace largely undisturbed until 1941.

This tough force fought with distinction during the Second World War. Afterwards, there was no shortage of foreign volunteers trying to escape or forget their troubled pasts. The Legion was happy to turn a blind eye, even to criminals or those who had committed war crimes. During the Indochina war, the Legion’s strength would reach 30,000 men. Their training and administrative base at Sidi-bel-Abbès, sixty miles south of Oran in northwest Algeria, in May 1945 started the creation of a régiment de marche to be sent to re-occupy Indochina. Most of the Legion contingent in Indochina, numbering 20,000 men, were deployed in Tonkin during the second half of the war. Inevitably, they were to play a key role in the fighting at Dien Bien Phu.

Although the French sought to regain control of Saigon and southern Vietnam in the summer of 1945, it was not until the following March that the French Expeditionary Force was able to enter northern Vietnam. In the meantime, in October 1945, General Leclerc arrived in Saigon with elements of the French 2nd Armoured Division and the 3rd and 9th colonial infantry divisions. They were reinforced by the 2nd Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment (REI) that landed in February 1946, followed by the 13th Foreign Legion Demi Brigade in March and the 3rd Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment between April and June. A 3,000-strong naval brigade was also deployed to patrol Indochina’s numerous waterways.

Over the next few years, French parachute units, who were to become famous in Indochina, began to arrive, including the 1st, 2nd and 5th colonial commando parachute battalions (BCCP) and the 1st Chasseurs Parachute Regiment. By the end of 1948, French paras had made forty combat jumps, three of which involved over 1,000 paratroops. The 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion (BEP) arrived late that year and the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company was formed. By mid-1949, the French Union Forces in Vietnam totalled almost 150,000. Most of the fighting, though, was conducted by some 5,700 French paratroops. The most important arrivals that year were the 3rd and 6th BCCP, the 2nd BEP and the 5th REI.

France’s colonial forces were always seen as the poorer cousins of the metropolitan French army. In Indochina, this meant that the local commander-in-chief had no autonomy. He was answerable to his military superiors in Paris and his political masters in Paris and Hanoi. Even when the role of commander-in-chief and High Commissioner were combined in 1950 under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, political interference continued unabated.

In France, the politicians played to the gallery, with a war that was very unpopular with the electorate. This often led to extraordinarily foolhardy decisions. For example, in 1950, at the point that the Viet Minh were taking the Cao Bang ridge defences, the government cut the size of the forces in Indochina by 9,000 men. Also, to curry favour with the French public, conscripts could only serve in France, Algeria (considered part of France) and French-occupied Germany.

The result of this was that all French citizens sent to Indochina had to be volunteers. Inevitably, this greatly restricted the French contingent. French volunteers never accounted for more than half the total of the French Expeditionary Force – the average was about 52,000, or slightly over a third. What it meant was that the bulk of the ethnic French units bore the brunt of the fighting. They also made up most of the mobile reserve. As mobile infantry, French soldiers travelled in half-tracks, with the support of Americansupplied M4 Sherman and M24 Chaffee tanks, as well as armoured cars. Their normal infantry fire power of carbines, sub-machine guns, 60mm and 81mm mortars and .50in heavy machine guns was boosted by artillery. This included 75mm field guns, as well as 105mm and 155mm howitzers.

The paratroop units, which formed the cutting edge of most operations were largely self-contained, though relied on the air force for transport. Initially, transport aircraft were always in short supply. It was not until the early 1950s that American-supplied C-47 Dakotas (or Skytrains) and C-119 ‘Flying Boxcars’ were available to replace the last of the French-built Junkers Ju-52s called Toucans, a hangover from the Second World War. By 1954, the first American-supplied H-19B helicopters also became available.

The French air force’s main role, as well as supplying the ground forces, was to provide direct support, especially for troops in contact. Principal aircraft included American B-26 Marauder bombers and F8F Bearcat fighters, along with Canadian-built Beaver and French Morane 500 Cricket reconnaissance aircraft. The French navy provided coastal fire support and river patrols, along with Privateer maritime bombers and F4U Corsair fighters.

The paucity of French regulars meant deploying colonial troops from other parts of the French Union. Throughout the conflict, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Senegalese troops served in Indochina. Commanded by French officers, they were organized and equipped the same as French regulars. One exception to this rule was the Algerian units. Due to Algeria being considered part of metropolitan France, they were allowed native officers although Algerian losses were lumped in with the 15,000 North Africans killed in Indochina – indicating they were not truly considered ‘French’.

At the close of 1952, there were around 175,000 troops in Indochina, comprising 54,000 French, 30,000 North Africans, 18,000 Africans, 20,000 Legionnaires and 53,000 Indochinese. The French air force deployed 10,000 personnel and the navy 5,000. Local national forces were also quite sizeable. At Dien Bien Phu, nearly half the members of 2nd Battalion, 1st Parachute Light Infantry, were Vietnamese.

The French arrived in Indochina with a very wide variety of weapons because of the post-war French army’s reliance on America and Britain for arms. One of the most common was the U.S. M1 carbine. The selective-fire M2 and folding-stock M1A1 were also used by French paras. Rifles included the American M1 Garand, British SMLE, French MAS-36, and its folding-stock derivative, the MAS-36CR39 paratrooper carbine. In the early stages, the French fought with the American M1A1 Thompson and M3 ‘Grease-gun’ sub-machine guns as well as the British Sten. By the 1950s, the French-made MAT-49 had largely replaced these.

The standard squad-level light machine gun was the French FM24/29, which first saw combat in Morocco in 1926. French forces also employed the British Bren light machine gun. Legionnaires deployed to Indochina in 1946 with the Bren Mk III, though this again was eventually replaced with French-made weapons. Support weapons such as heavy machine guns, mortars and recoilless rifles tended to be of American manufacture. Ironically, the Viet Minh were armed by China with American weapons captured in Korea, which were usually newer models than the French had, who were reliant on Second World War surplus.

The French employed Second World War vintage tanks and armoured fighting vehicles. The standard tank of the French Expeditionary Force was the American M5A1 light tank, although it was superseded by the American M24 Chaffee from 1944 onwards under the U.S. Military Aid Program. It remained in service throughout the war. The Chaffees were dubbed ‘Bisons’ by the French troops, while the Viet Minh knew them as ‘Oxen’.

The French also employed the ubiquitous American M4 Sherman medium tank, M36B2 tank destroyer and M8 self-propelled howitzers. Motorized infantry was transported in M3 half-tracks. The M8 variant of the latter, mounting a 75mm gun, was also used in Indochina. The tank destroyers were initially deployed in case the Chinese committed armour to the fighting in Tonkin, but instead they ended up acting in a fire-support role.

To support amphibious operations in Indochina’s flooded paddy fields vast river deltas and swamps, the expeditionary force operated American M29C Weasel amphibian cargo carriers (known to the French as ‘Crabes’) and tracked landing vehicles known as the Alligator. Both were likewise veterans of the Second World War. The LVT(A)4, armed with a 75mm howitzer, packed a particular punch. The Crabes, although only armed with a machine gun, were eventually formed into effective amphibious fighting units by the Foreign Legion, who likewise used the LVTs.

At the start of the fighting, the tanks were parcelled out in penny packets to protect vulnerable convoys and static outposts. This made them difficult to maintain, thereby reducing their effectiveness. Only after General de Lattre de Tassigny took charge in 1951 were the armoured units reorganized with their own supporting infantry. This led to the creation of the sous-groupement blindé, comprising a squadron of tanks and two mechanized infantry companies, and a groupement mobile with up to three battalions of infantry, an artillery battery and up to a squadron of tanks.

France attempted to tap into the huge manpower of Indochina, but the French were wary of training a fifth column and local units were never fully trusted. It did not help that the Vietnamese and Cambodians were traditional enemies. The Vietnamese viewed the Chinese in much the same manner. General de Lattre, in 1951, instructed each French unit in Vietnam to form a locally recruited second battalion. He also opened an officer cadet school, followed by two more for reserve officers.

A small Vietnamese National Army was formed under French command, along with anti-guerrilla units raised particularly among the mountain tribes. By 1952, the Vietnamese National Army numbered 50,000 men, the Laotian army 15,000 and the Cambodian army another 10,000. Although the full potential of these Indochinese forces was never realized, some 27,000 Indochinese died fighting for the French.

French training efforts for local Vietnamese units were concentrated in the north. In late 1948, they established the Vietnamese National Military Academy in the city of Hue. This was designed to train infantry platoon leaders with a nine-month officers’ course. It moved to Dalat two years later because of better local weather. The latter was home to the armour school, but this moved to Thu Duc, along with the engineer school. By the end of 1951, there were 800 Vietnamese officers serving.

The French also set up the national non-commissioned officers’ academy in Quang Yen Province, Tonkin, in 1951. The following year, this was followed by a staff college in Hanoi. This was as a result of the French Expeditionary Force setting up a tactical instruction centre, designed to train mobile group, battalion and company commanders. Notably, intelligence and logistics schools were not established until the late 1950s. This was to prove to be a serious omission on the part of the French.

French forces in Indochina included a postscript from Korea. The French Bataillon de Corée (Korea Battalion), which was raised from volunteers from all branches of the French army, metropolitan, colonial and Foreign Legion to serve in Korea, arrived in Indochina in October 1953. This formed the cadre of the two-battalion-strong Régiment de Corée. This was practically destroyed in the central Highlands, around An Khe and Pleiku, while serving with the Groupe Mobile 100 in June–July 1954.

The French logistical supply chain, stretching all the way back to Algeria and France, proved to be the expeditionary force’s Achilles heel. In Paris, the war was not a priority. Many either did not support it or simply saw it as an overblown police operation. Shipping or flying ammunition and weapons to Indochina was lengthy and expensive, and was again unpopular for this reason.

Once in-country, the high command in Hanoi struggled to distribute supplies to the troops. In the immediate Red River Delta area around Hanoi, and indeed in the south, it was not such a problem, but getting supplies to the outlying garrisons and large operations was another matter.

The French were reliant on two methods of supporting their soldiers. The first was land-based, using the roads and rivers. Whilst this was relatively easy to do, both were always very vulnerable to ambush. Viet Minh attacks on supply barges on the Black River trying to reach the garrison at Hao Binh contributed to General Salan’s decision to abandon the town. French airlift capabilities were simply not sufficient. Initially, they had to rely on old Ju-52s, but even with the arrival of newer C-47s and C-119s, they could never muster more than 100 transport planes. They were required to run supply flights, move reinforcements and drop paratroops. By the time of Dien Bien Phu, they were stretched to the limit.

Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War Part I

Assassination of Louis I, Duke of Orléans in Paris in 1407

These were terrible times for the Armagnac princes. They were among the greatest noblemen in France and traditionally the closest to the Crown. Yet they had been cut off from the King and expelled from their domains. Their networks of clients and protégés in the administration had been destroyed. Their access to government funds had been terminated. Across northern France their supporters were being attacked and murdered. Some towns like Dijon took their cue from Paris and banished known Orléanists, confiscating their property. In Champagne mobs attacked the castles of prominent Armagnacs. The Count of Roucy, one of the greatest lords of the region, was besieged in his castle at Pontarcy on the Aisne by more than 1,500 irate peasants with the overt encouragement of the royal bailli of Laon. In the lands that remained to them the princes found themselves attacked as traitors as their erstwhile friends began to slip away in search of better fortune elsewhere.

The burden of rallying his battered party and financing the continuance of the war fell on the eighteen-year-old Charles of Orléans, already struggling to pay the arrears of the previous year’s disastrous campaigns. He sold off or melted down most of what remained of his family’s silver plate. He taxed his domains in the Loire valley. He continued to hope for wider recognition of the justice of his cause next time. The mercers of Orléans were making banners bearing the motto ‘Justice!’, with which the young duke planned to confront the Duke of Burgundy in the spring. An order for 4,200 cavalry pennons suggests that an army of at least 10,000 men was planned, which was much the same as he and his allies had deployed in 1411. But when the leaders of the coalition came to assess their position at the beginning of 1412 it was apparent that it would not be enough to confront the great armies that the Duke of Burgundy was now able to recruit. In desperation the princes resolved upon another attempt to recruit an English army for their cause. To do this they would have to outbid the Burgundians, with their extensive resources and established connections in England.

It is unlikely that either of the warring parties in France understood the complex and volatile political situation in England. When the Earl of Arundel left England the Prince of Wales had been the dominant figure in government. He had consistently favoured an alliance with the Duke of Burgundy. But although Arundel’s expedition had contributed much to the triumph of Burgundian arms, it had achieved very little for England. The diplomats who had accompanied him to Arras had been unable to extract anything but money in return for his services. By the time that Arundel returned to England the ailing Henry IV had succeeded in wresting power back from the Prince and his friends. The circumstances are obscure, like all of the court intrigues of Henry IV’s declining years, for the chroniclers observed a prudent reticence on the subject. On 3 November 1411, while the Earl of Arundel was in Paris, Parliament opened at Westminster. As the day approached it became obvious that the King was too ill to preside in person at the opening. The Prince appears at this point to have confronted his father and suggested that it was time for him to abdicate. He told him, according to the only surviving account, that he was ‘no longer capable of acting for the honour and profit of the realm’. The King indignantly refused. During the sessions of the assembly the Prince and Henry Beaufort Bishop of Winchester called a meeting of the leading lay and ecclesiastical peers to consider the issue. One of them, they said, would have to summon up the courage to persuade the King to go. He was disfigured by ‘leprosy’ and therefore unfit to perform the public duties of his office.

In the course of November, however, Henry IV succeeded in reasserting his authority. He mustered enough strength to make occasional appearances in Parliament. In some of them he even showed his old assertive style. On 30 November he dismissed the Prince and the entire royal council. This was followed in the closing days of the Parliament by the replacement of all the principal officers of state. Sir Thomas Beaufort was replaced as Chancellor by Archbishop Arundel and the Treasurer by the household knight Sir John Pelham, both of them close to the old King and no friends of his eldest son. Henry of Monmouth could hardly be excluded from the public life of the realm. But much of his influence passed to his younger brother Thomas of Lancaster. These changes profoundly destabilised the English government. Thomas of Lancaster, then twenty-five years old, had for some years been the King’s favourite son. He was a soldier of reckless courage and furious energy, but a man of poor judgment and little appetite for business who was on bad terms with both the Prince and his Beaufort friends. Henry of Monmouth did not take well to being supplanted by him. As the heir to an ailing King and much the abler of the two brothers he naturally commanded the loyalty of the young and ambitious. These men were looking to the future. By comparison, apart from Thomas of Lancaster, the King’s new ministers were very much men of the previous generation who had been sidelined during the Prince’s two-year ministry and had no reason to look forward to his accession as King.

What lay behind this clash of wills is difficult to say, but the question how to exploit the current divisions in France must have been a large part of it. At the beginning of December 1411, immediately after the dismissal of the councillors, Henry IV declared his intention once again of taking an army under his personal command to France. The Convocation of Canterbury, which was meeting at the time in St Paul’s Cathedral, was told that the campaign was expected to last six months and to cost at least £100,000. This suggests that he expected to fight for his own account and not as a mercenary for either of the rival parties in France. In the event this proved to be unaffordable. The final instalment of the previous Parliamentary subsidy, voted in May 1410, was in the process of collection but was already fully committed to the defence of the Welsh and Scottish marches. The wool subsidy was largely committed to the defence of Calais. The Commons were reluctant to grant another subsidy so soon after the last one and eventually conceded only a modest tax on incomes from land which took a long time to assess and brought in less than £1,400. The Convocations of the clergy added a half-subsidy of their own, worth about £8,000, bringing the total of new funds to less than a tenth of the estimated cost of the proposed army. By the time that Parliament dispersed on 19 December it was already clear that the only way of intervening decisively in France was to sell the services of an English expeditionary force to one of the rival parties.

The Duke of Burgundy had already prepared his bid. With the Armagnac forces dispersed and on the defensive he anticipated a campaign of sieges. His need of English troops was more modest than the year before when he had had to be ready for a pitched battle. His main purpose was to ensure that the English did not fight for his enemies. Early in December 1411 he appointed the Bishop of Arras to lead an embassy to England. He was accredited not just to Henry IV but to Joan of Navarre, Henry of Monmouth and various other English notables. The bishop was authorised to repeat the offer of the hand of John’s daughter Anne for the Prince of Wales. But the Armagnac princes were prepared to offer more. Meeting at Bourges on 24 January 1412 the Dukes of Berry, Orléans and Bourbon and the Count of Alençon named their own ambassadors and drew up their instructions. They were authorised to negotiate with ‘Henry by the grace of God King of England and his illustrious sons’, a dignity that they had never previously been willing to accord them. Their appointed spokesman was a protégé of the Duke of Berry, the Augustinian preacher Jacques Legrand. He and his colleagues were told to appeal to Henry IV’s sense of justice. He was to recount the history of the last four years since the murder of Louis of Orléans and to explain how the Duke of Burgundy had seduced the credulous inhabitants of Paris, imposed his will on the King and the Dauphin and launched a vicious campaign of persecution against his enemies. Once they had done this they were to ask to speak to the English King in private and get down to the real purpose of their visit. The Armagnac princes wanted the support of an English army of 4,000 men for service against the Duke of Burgundy. In return they were prepared to enter into a military alliance with Henry against his enemies in Scotland, Wales and Ireland and in France itself and to negotiate a permanent peace ‘on terms which would satisfy him’. These terms, it was made clear, would include large territorial concessions in the south-west. It is clear that much was left to the discretion of the ambassadors. They were supplied with blank charters already executed by the four princes and sealed with their seals.

The moving spirit behind these proposals appears to have been John Count of Alençon, who was emerging as a power in the Armagnac camp second only to Bernard of Armagnac. The 27-year-old Count had been a protégé of Louis of Orléans in his lifetime and was one of the most consistent supporters of his house after his death. ‘Without him,’ wrote his contemporary biographer, ‘the good and holy cause of Orléans could not have been sustained.’ It was Alençon who made the arrangements for getting the ambassadors to England and receiving an English expeditionary force in France. Neither the Count of Armagnac nor Charles d’Albret were present at Bourges. But Albret added his authority later, and Armagnac sent his own representative, Jean de Loupiac, who had been party to the previous attempt to raise an English army for the Armagnac cause. The Duke of Brittany was also consulted but he was as equivocal as ever. He asked Jean de Loupiac to represent his interests and sent his own agent to England as well, but neither of them seems to have had authority to commit him to anything.

The Burgundian ambassadors arrived in London at the beginning of February 1412. They were joined there by the indispensable Jean de Kernezn, who knew his way around the English court better than anyone else in the Duke’s service. The Prince of Wales took the lead in the negotiations in spite of his fall from power. Since he had conducted the negotiations of the previous year and the main point of discussion was his possible marriage with a Burgundian princess, it could hardly have been otherwise. The Burgundian emissaries were put up at Coldharbour, the grand mansion at the water’s edge just upstream of London Bridge which had recently become the Prince’s London residence. A commission dominated by his friends was appointed to treat with them there. They included Hugh Mortimer the Prince’s Chamberlain and Thomas Langley Bishop of Durham, one of the few members of his ministry to survive the recent cull. Queen Joan actively seconded their efforts. After a month of negotiation the two sides appear to have reached agreement on the despatch of another expeditionary force to fight for John the Fearless. The first troops left England to join the Burgundian army in March. There was also an agreement in principle on the Prince’s marriage to Anne of Burgundy. Then on 10 April all of these arrangements were abruptly countermanded by the King. The English troops who had already left for France were peremptorily recalled. Henry IV expected to receive a better offer.

The Armagnac ambassadors had probably sent him an outline of their proposals in advance. But they themselves nearly came to grief before leaving France. They had decided to wait before embarking on their journey until the Burgundians had left. As they waited rumours of their mission began to leak out. Setting out from Alençon in mid-March they were stopped by the bailli of Caen with a posse of soldiers as they made their cumbrous way across the plain of Maine to take ship in Brittany. The envoys made off on the bailli’s approach and escaped. But Jacques Legrand was forced to abandon his baggage, which contained copies of his confidential instructions and some of the precious blank charters. The Duke of Burgundy immediately sent out ships to patrol the Channel in the hope of intercepting the ambassadors at sea. They finally had to be collected from Brittany by a fleet of armed ships sent from England. As a result of these mishaps they did not reach London until the beginning of May. They were assigned quarters in the Dominican house at Blackfriars, where the King’s council was in the habit of meeting. There the negotiations were conducted in great haste under the shadow of the rapidly developing situation across the Channel. The documents taken from Jacques Legrand’s baggage had already been laid before the French royal council at a packed and emotional meeting in the Hôtel Saint-Pol on 6 April. Reports of their contents quickly spread through the French capital where they provoked outrage and threats of violence against real or imagined Armagnac partisans. The Duke of Berry and the Count of Alençon were held responsible. A double campaign was announced, one wing to be deployed against Alençon in the west and the other against Berry beyond the Loire. The Count of Saint-Pol left Paris a few days after the council meeting with more than 3,000 men to invade the county of Alençon. Thousands more assembled in the plain south of Paris to march on Bourges under the command of John the Fearless himself. On 6 May 1412 Charles VI, accompanied by the Dauphin, the Duke of Burgundy and a crowd of captains, received the Oriflamme from the Abbot of Saint-Denis.

At the London Blackfriars the ambassadors of the French princes believed their cause to be at the edge of the abyss. They were not inclined to haggle. They conceded everything almost at once. They agreed to the restoration of all the provinces of Aquitaine which had been ceded to Edward III and then reconquered by Charles V. The domains of the Duke of Berry in Poitou and the Duke of Orléans in Angoumois would be retained by them for life and would vest in the English Crown on their deaths. This was subject to a carve-out for the four strategic fortresses of Poitiers, Niort, Lusignan and Chateuneuf-sur-Charente which would be ceded to Henry IV at once. Twenty other major royal fortresses of Aquitaine were identified for immediate transfer to the English King’s representatives. Some 1,500 others belonging to the Armagnac princes and their followers would be held by them as vassals of the King of England. The thorny question of the feudal status of Aquitaine was left vague. The treaty merely provided that Henry and his heirs would hold the enlarged duchy ‘as freely as any of his forebears had held it’, which was itself a contentious issue. In theory, however, these remarkable proposals gave the English at a stroke most of what they had fought and argued for in vain for the past forty years. In return, all that was required of them was an army of 1,000 men-at-arms and 3,000 archers for three months. The entire cost was to be met from the coffers of the Armagnac princes from the time that the army reached the appointed meeting place in France. There was initially some doubt about where this meeting place would be. Until a late stage of the negotiations it was assumed that the English expeditionary force would sail for Bordeaux and join forces with the Armagnac princes on the Gascon march, in Poitou or the county of Angoulême. This plan was never realistic. The shipment of 4,000 men with their hangers-on, horses and equipment round the Breton cape would have required more ocean-going ships than England had available and cost more than Henry IV could afford. By the time the terms were finalised it had been overtaken by events. The Armagnac positions in Poitou and Angoulême had collapsed and attention had shifted to the defence of the princes’ domains in Berry and the Loire. So it was agreed that the English army would meet the princes at Blois, a town on the Loire belonging to Charles of Orléans with an important stone bridge.

Henry IV was highly satisfied with the terms. According to the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, when his councillors told him what was on offer he rose from his seat, clapped his hands in delight and said to Chancellor Arundel: ‘Now is the time to enjoy God’s bounty and by this simple negotiation to enter France and resume our rightful inheritance.’ The agreement is commonly known as the treaty of Bourges, which is the place given in the text. But its terms were in fact transcribed in England onto the forms which the four leading Armagnac princes had signed and sealed in blank at Bourges before their envoys left France. Bernard of Armagnac and Charles d’Albret had not executed the blanks and so their representatives made separate declarations on their behalf. The counterparts were formally exchanged in London on 18 May 1412. The Prince of Wales had had nothing to do with any of this and was palpably embarrassed. He addressed an apologetic letter to the Duke of Burgundy explaining what had happened. He would personally have preferred to proceed with the agreement reached with his ambassadors in February, he wrote. But the decision was not his and the Armagnacs had made offers which his father had found impossible to refuse.

By the time that the English had reached agreement with the Armagnac princes the campaign in France had already begun. From the outset the Armagnacs put up a much more vigorous defence than even they had expected. The first clashes occurred in the west. The Count of Alençon’s domains in Lower Normandy and Perche were the target of coordinated offensives from two directions. The Count of Saint-Pol marched across the region at the end of April 1412 and laid siege to the ancient but powerful fortress of Domfront. The Duke of Anjou, who had been promised the lands of the house of Alençon as his reward, joined him there. John of Alençon, his forces vastly outnumbered, retreated into Brittany while his lands were wasted by his enemies. Yet his followers fought back vigorously as they had the year before. Saint-Pol and his captains took three of the Count’s castles including his magnificent mansion at Bellême, but failed to dislodge the determined garrison of Domfront. They made no attempt on the principal walled towns. One of Saint-Pol’s lieutenants approached the walls of Argentan, then ‘looked at it from afar and withdrew’. The one notable success of their campaign was the defeat of Raoul de Gaucourt, one of Charles of Orléans’ most experienced captains, who had been sent with 800 men-at-arms to support the defence. Gaucourt’s force fell into a dawn ambush near Saint-Rémy-du-Val on 10 May 1412 and was almost entirely wiped out in an exceptionally brutal battle. The incident represented a loss of face for the Duke of Orléans and earned Saint-Pol a hero’s welcome when he returned to Paris a few days later. But he had actually achieved very little. As soon as he withdrew the Count of Alençon returned from Brittany with Arthur de Richemont and some 1,600 Breton men-at-arms. They installed themselves around the Count’s capital at Alençon, re-established the Count’s authority in the region and waited for the expeditionary force from England.

This brief campaign marked a fresh landmark in the embitterment of the French civil war as old friendships were broken beyond repair and families were irretrievably divided. Gilles de Bretagne had been present at the angry council meeting in Paris when Jacques Legrand’s captured papers had been read out at the moment when his elder brother Arthur de Richemont was recruiting troops to fight the Burgundians in Normandy. They exchanged ‘high words’ when Gilles visited his brother in the hope of detaching him from the Armagnac cause. At Saint-Rémy men fought against their fathers and brothers. Jeannet de Garencières, who had been Louis of Orléans’ godson, fought with the Armagnacs. When his father, who was on the other side, recognised him among the prisoners he had to be restrained from killing him.

The main objective of the Burgundians in the summer of 1412 was to deal with the Duke of Berry, who had shut himself behind the walls of Bourges. Believing that he was the animating spirit behind the Armagnac coalition, the royal council had resolved to accept nothing less than his unconditional surrender. Their army, which had mustered outside Melun, began its march south on 14 May 1412. It was accompanied by the King, the Dauphin, the Dukes of Burgundy and Anjou, the Provost of Paris Pierre des Essarts, and the official historiographer, Michel Pintoin of Saint-Denis. At its highest point the payroll strength was about 7,000 men-at-arms and 1,200 bowmen representing a total of at least 15,000 fighting men when the gros varlets and other low-grade combatants are included. Although the royal council had expressed great indignation about the Armagnac plans to hire mercenaries from England, their own troops included at least 300 English archers who had either stayed behind after the departure of the Earl of Arundel or enlisted later in defiance of Henry IV’s commands. There was also a corps of 500 Scots, four-fifths of them archers. Every attempt was made to maintain the pretence that this was the King’s army under the King’s command. Charles VI was barely fit enough to ride. But John the Fearless needed his symbolic presence and insisted on his taking his position at the head of the van. The army marched across the open plain of the Gâtinais into the county of Nevers and at the end of May crossed the Loire into Berry by the great stone bridge at La Charité-sur-Loire.

Paris was in a state of high excitement. The citizens believed that if the Burgundians were defeated the Armagnacs would exact a terrible revenge on them for the violence done to their supporters. They had the Oriflamme that had been unfurled at the battle of Roosebeke in 1382 brought into the city from Saint-Denis along with all the most holy of the abbey’s relics. On 31 May, after the news had arrived of the crossing of the Loire, the friars of the Franciscan and Dominican convents took the famous relic of the True Cross from the Sainte-Chapelle and processed through the capital followed by the entire corps of the Parlement walking two by two in their robes of office and an estimated 30,000 citizens in their bare feet. The University viewed current events with special anxiety. They had been uncompromising in their support of John the Fearless and had a great deal to lose. When a few days later they organised their own procession, the line of robed academics, students and schoolchildren with candles in their hands snaked through the city for eight miles from the convent of the Mathurins on the left bank to the abbey of Saint-Denis beyond the northern gates. These immense processions, at once political demonstrations, invocations of the Almighty and exercises in communal solidarity, were organised every day during the King’s absence with the army and would become a regular feature of Parisian life in the years of crisis to come.

Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War Part II

Household of John, Duke of Berry

The defence was directed from Bourges by the Duke of Berry. The Duke was no soldier but he was assisted by experienced captains including Charles d’Albret, John Duke of Bourbon and that bold fighter Raoul lord of Gaucourt. Bourges was filled with refugees of the Parisian proscriptions of the past year. For a man with Jean de Berry’s commitment to the dynasty, armed confrontation with what was ostensibly a royal army commanded by the King and the Dauphin in person was a terrible experience, perhaps the worst crisis in a long life devoted to the avoidance of discord and the pursuit of comfort and beauty. He took the only line that he could take, that he was not resisting the King but only the Duke of Burgundy. Even at this late stage he put out feelers in the hope of finding a way out which would not put him at the mercy of his terrible nephew. The chronicler of Saint-Denis, who was in the King’s entourage, believed that Charles and many of those around him would have welcomed these approaches had it not been for the unbending attitude of John the Fearless. But John, determined to stick to the policy of unconditional surrender, pressed on regardless. The army quickly overran the outlying garrisons which had been stationed on the eastern and southern approaches to Bourges. The first sustained confrontation occurred at Dun-le-Roi, the last garrisoned fortress before the city. Dun was defended by a garrison of 400 Gascon and Italian routiers under the command of one of the Duke of Bourbon’s bastard half-brothers. But it was an old fortress with high walls and vulnerable to artillery fire. The great bombard Griette, which had destroyed the gatehouse of Ham the year before, was hauled up. It took twenty men to move it, and the detonations could be heard four miles away ‘like reverberations from hell’. On the first day a direct hit demolished a large part of a tower. On the second it breached another tower in two places and brought down a considerable section of wall. The garrison was instructed by the Duke of Berry to submit and withdrew amid screams of abuse from the massed ranks of Burgundians outside. As John the Fearless marched on to Bourges a herald went ahead to call on the city to surrender. The Duke of Berry replied that he would willingly surrender to the King or the Dauphin but not to those whom they had about them. John the Fearless arrived before Bourges on 11 June 1412 to find the walls manned and banners flying from every tower.

Siege of Bourges

Bourges was a substantial walled city in the centre of the vast plain of Berry. Viewed from the south, the direction from which the Burgundian army approached, its skyline owed much to Jean de Berry’s forty-year tenure. There was the western gable of the cathedral with its great rose window and its clock, both commissioned by the Duke; the immense hall and palace dominating the upper town, still incomplete in 1412, today buried beneath the Préfecture of the Cher; the two-storey Sainte-Chapelle, even larger than its famous archetype in Paris, where the Duke intended to be buried, today gone like the palace. The city was defended by a complete circuit of walls dating from the end of the twelfth century, reinforced with a tall circular keep, five powerful gateways and more than forty towers. On the west side the walls stood over the River Yèvre and its tributary the Auron. Two fortified bridges crossed the rivers, giving access to an expanse of marshland and to the open country beyond. In June 1412 these ancient but still formidable defences were manned by about 1,500 men-at-arms and some 400 archers including sizeable contingents of Gascon and English mercenaries. The situation of Bourges made a complete blockade hard to achieve. The besieging army would have been divided by the bogs and watercourses of the Yèvre and the Auron, inviting defeat in detail by sorties from the town. In practice it could be taken only by assault from the plain on the east and south sides. It was there that the Duke of Burgundy set up his camp and sited his artillery. Shortly gaping holes began to appear in the walls and turrets. Huge balls of cut stone were hurled into the city, demolishing whole houses, smashing timber buildings like matchwood and creating wide fissures in stone structures. Over the following weeks the Duke of Berry had to move his headquarters seven times to escape the devastation. Morale among the terrified inhabitants was low. The professional soldiers bore up better but they were mainly interested in their pay, which was greatly in arrears. The Duke of Berry, whose revenues had been severely reduced by the loss of Languedoc and Poitou, had already been reduced to pawning the jewels of his palace chapel. As the siege continued he was obliged to raid the treasuries of the city’s churches, selling the precious stones from the reliquaries and melting down their silver mounts to be minted into coins for the garrison.

The besiegers were in no better case. Their difficulties began almost as soon as they arrived. The garrison had mounted cannon and large fixed catapults on the walls. They inflicted heavy casualties and forced the besiegers to withdraw their siege lines out of range. But by placing their lines further back they exposed themselves to murderous sorties from the gates across the open ground east of the city. The besiegers tried to construct pontoon bridges across the rivers in the hope of closing off access to the city by the west and north. But the soft ground made the engineers’ task impossible and the attempt had to be abandoned. Meanwhile the besiegers’ supply situation deteriorated. The weather was terrible for men working in the open. Torrential rain throughout the spring was followed by a long heatwave in late June and July. The streams and wells dried up. Water had to be fetched over great distances. Within days the army had eaten all the cattle to be found in the region and stripped the fields and trees bare for twenty miles around. The purveyors had to bring in supplies from the Nivernais and Burgundy via the bridge of La Charité in heavily defended convoys. Cash from the treasurers in Paris came by the same route. Even so the convoys were frequently attacked by sortie parties from the city or by the powerful Armagnac garrisons at Sancerre and Gien to the north. The supply situation eased somewhat after the capture of Sancerre at the end of June but food remained scarce and dear throughout the siege.

In addition to his logistical problems the Duke of Burgundy was encountering mounting political ones. Unlike the Burgundian army of 1411, which had been recruited entirely from his own domains and those of his allies, the army of 1412 had been brought together by the King’s officers. Its members had been found in every province of northern and western France. Not all of them were devoted to John’s cause. A number of captains were there only out of respect for the authority of the Crown. Many of them resented John the Fearless’s rejection of compromise, his use of the King as a cipher and his determination to drive the wretched monarch beyond his physical endurance. Their views were shared by a number of people in the royal household. The Armagnacs were well aware of these difficulties. They were kept informed by well-placed friends in the enemy camp. Shortly after the beginning of the siege one of the King’s private secretaries, Geoffroy de Villon, began to send messages into the city suggesting that a sortie might succeed in capturing the King and the Dauphin and bringing them into Bourges. A number of soldiers and body servants of the King were in on the plot. They spread rumours about the camp of a truce in order to lower the guard of the watch. Raoul de Gaucourt then led a sortie by more than a thousand men, about half the garrison. They left by the bridges on the open west side and made their way to the encampment of the vanguard where the King and the Dauphin were. There was a pitched battle at the edge of the encampment in which Gaucourt lost a quarter of his strength before being driven back to the city. The role of Geoffroy de Villon was discovered by interrogating prisoners captured in the raid. He and two squires involved were beheaded a few days later. But this example did not end the divisions in the royal army. Shortly afterwards some 200 men switched sides and fled for gates of the city where arrangements had been made to admit them.

All of the Duke of Burgundy’s problems came to a head in the second week of July 1412. Dysentery had begun to spread through the camp as the heat intensified. Shortly a serious epidemic took hold. In the space of a few weeks some 2,000 men died of disease. Youth and fitness were no defence. The victims included some of the army’s leading captains, among them the King of Navarre’s brother Pierre Count of Mortain and the Duke of Brittany’s young brother Gilles. The survivors sickened amid the stench of rotting corpses. Panic set in. Desertions added to the Burgundians’ losses. The King and the Duke of Burgundy were forced to withdraw from their encampment outside the city walls and to establish a new base several miles back where the air was thought to be healthier. In these conditions doubts about the wisdom of the Duke of Burgundy’s inflexible strategy resurfaced. Demands for a compromise were openly voiced among the noblemen about the King. To the fury of the Duke the Dauphin himself was won over to their view. He directed that the artillery should avoid hitting Jean de Berry’s palace. When John questioned this order he protested that the war had lasted too long. The defenders of Bourges were ‘his uncle, his cousins and his closest kin by whom he might one day be well served in his affairs’. It was the first recorded breach between the Dauphin and his father-in-law. John the Fearless had angry words with the Duke of Bar, whom he suspected of putting him up to it. The Duke of Bar, whose brother was fighting for the Armagnacs, was notoriously ambivalent about John’s cause. All of these problems were now complicated by the prospect of English military intervention.

English Intervention

Henry IV’s ministers had begun to prepare the expeditionary force at the beginning of May 1412, even before final agreement had been reached with the Armagnac ambassadors. The recruitment of companies and the requisitioning of ships were practised routines which generally took between two and three months. The original plan was to land the army in France early in July. However, the ink had hardly dried on the treaty before the preparations were engulfed by a fresh political crisis which delayed it by several weeks. The problem arose out of ill-feeling between the Prince of Wales and his father and brother. Henry IV had originally intended to take command himself, accompanied by the Prince with a separate force of his own. The Prince, however, made no secret of the fact that he regarded himself as bound in honour to the Duke of Burgundy. He had opposed the treaty with the Armagnacs and he remained in contact with the John the Fearless after it had been made. Partly for this reason and partly to save money, he had been given only a minor role with a retinue so small as to be insulting. After what was evidently a bruising negotiation the Prince’s retinue was eventually increased. However, all of these arrangements had to be revisited when it became clear that Henry IV was physically incapable of commanding an army. His health rapidly deteriorated during the summer. He could no longer either walk or ride. His council, profoundly suspicious of the Prince, was appalled by the prospect of his taking command in his father’s place. They advised the King to appoint Thomas of Lancaster instead. This provoked a damaging row. The Prince was furious at being supplanted by his younger brother and appears to have pressed for the cancellation of an expedition that he had never liked anyway. At the same time the government was having difficulty finding the money to pay the shipping costs and the troops’ advances. Henry’s ministers put it about that the Prince and his friends were actively obstructing their preparations. This may well have been true. The same reports reached the ear of Jean de Kernezn, who was now for practical purposes the Duke of Burgundy’s resident agent in England and had excellent sources of information in the households of the Prince and his stepmother Joan of Navarre. Jacques Legrand, who had stayed behind in London to represent the interests of the Armagnac princes, lobbied for the project with mounting desperation.

For some time the future of the expedition hung in the balance. Writing to the Duke of Burgundy on 31 May 1412, the Earl of Arundel thought that the outcome was still uncertain. But by 10 June the King had settled the issue. The council succeeded in borrowing part of the money from the City of London and raised the rest by a campaign of forced loans. The expedition was confirmed and Thomas of Lancaster was formally appointed to command it. He was also made Lieutenant in Guyenne and charged with the task of taking possession of the provinces which the Armagnacs had promised to restore once they had disposed of the Duke of Burgundy. To give him the status required for these important functions Thomas was raised to the peerage as Duke of Clarence. The King’s cousin the Duke of York and his half-brother Sir Thomas Beaufort (who now became Earl of Dorset) were nominated as the new Duke’s lieutenants. The Prince of Wales was excluded altogether. He took this very badly. He withdrew in high dudgeon to his estates in the Midlands to confer with his supporters and to discuss the wider implications. There were worrying signs of a broader assault on his position by his father’s councillors. An investigation was launched into his stewardship of the finances of Calais which concluded that he had retained large sums due to the garrison. There were even rumours that they were pressing the King to disinherit him, presumably in favour of Thomas. Whether there was any truth in these rumours is unclear but the Prince and his friends believed them and resolved upon a show of strength. On 17 June Henry of Monmouth issued an extraordinary public manifesto from Coventry in which he presented a highly tendentious account of recent events, denied the accusations that had been made against him and protested his support for the campaign in France. His father’s councillors were denounced as ‘sons of iniquity, disciples of dissension, supporters of schism, disseminators of ill-feeling and fomentors of discord’. At the end of June the Prince appeared in London accompanied by a great number of prominent friends and an intimidating personal retinue to demand the punishment of his detractors. He probably hoped to pressure his father into replacing his councillors. If so he was disappointed. The King fobbed him off with a promise to refer the matter to the next Parliament and in the end the issue was dropped.

Reports of these events reached France garbled and late. The Duke of Burgundy was of course aware of the Armagnac mission to London from Jacques Legrand’s intercepted papers. But the first that he knew about its outcome was in the middle of June when a copy of a letter from Henry IV to the Four Members of Flanders was brought to him at Bourges. The letter, written from Westminster shortly before the treaty was finalised, referred to the offers that the Armagnacs had made to him and informed the Four Members of his plans for military operations in conjunction with the Armagnac princes. Invoking the Anglo-Flemish truce Henry called on the Flemings to withhold all assistance from the Duke of Burgundy in his military enterprises in France. A few days later one of the Prince of Wales’s chaplains arrived in the Burgundian camp at Bourges bearing an apologetic letter from his master reporting what had happened and telling John that he was unable in the circumstances to take their current negotiations any further. The details were filled in by Jean de Kernezn. His report, addressed to Charles VI from England, must have reached the camp at Bourges in early July. ‘Make speed to complete your operations,’ he wrote, ‘for the English army is assembling and their fleet is ready to sail for France.’

The arrival of an English army outside Bourges would have transformed the military balance. The Duke of Anjou and the Count of Penthièvre, who were John the Fearless’s principal allies among the higher nobility, were on their way to reinforce him with about 2,500 men. Even so the combined forces of the English, the garrison of Bourges and the troops of Arthur de Richemont and Charles of Orléans would have outnumbered them. In a pitched battle the formidable corps of 3,000 longbowmen would probably have been decisive. The Duke of Burgundy was forced to abandon his policy of unconditional surrender and settle with the Duke of Berry before the English arrived. A short truce was agreed. The Dukes of Berry and Burgundy met in a carefully prepared enclosure in an atmosphere redolent of mutual distrust. The two sides were separated by a timber barrier. The Duke of Berry appeared in chain mail and helmet, sword and axe in hand. ‘I admit that I have done wrong,’ he is reported to have said to his nephew, his eyes full of tears, ‘but you have unquestionably done worse.’ As he left he added: ‘In your father’s time we never needed a barrier between us like this.’ ‘It is not my doing,’ John replied. The negotiations which followed extended over several days and divided both sides. Among the Armagnacs in the city there was the familiar division between those who were mainly concerned to recover their confiscated property and their lost status in government and those whose main purpose was to avenge the murder of Louis of Orléans. There were some who wanted to hang on until the English arrived. Others thought that reliance on these dangerous auxiliaries was shameful and preferred to do without their help. The Duke of Berry’s chancellor, who must have known the truth, denied point-blank that there was any agreement with the English. Some of the defenders, determined to wreck the negotiations, ignored the truce and led sorties into the Burgundian camp while the negotiations were in progress. As for the Burgundians there were many things to set them against each other. Some agreed with the Dauphin and the Duke of Bar that the war had lasted too long. Some wondered whether the capture of Bourges was still feasible. Some were fanatics who were determined to insist on unconditional surrender. Some had received grants of property confiscated from the Armagnacs which they were unwilling to surrender as part of any deal with them.

In the end the Duke of Burgundy prevailed by sheer obduracy and force of personality. On 12 July his staff sent a document into the town containing a summary of the terms that he would accept. It was a short and partisan document which gave John everything that he wanted except for the public humiliation of the Duke of Berry. Both sides bound themselves to adhere to the ‘hollow peace’ of Chartres. The Armagnacs were to surrender Bourges and to open all their other garrisoned fortresses to the King’s officers. They were also to renounce ‘any treaty or alliance that they are said to have made with the English’ and any other alliance directed against the Duke of Burgundy. In return the Duke of Burgundy and his allies promised very little. They would to do their best, they said, to persuade Charles VI to restore the offices and property of which the Armagnacs had been despoiled. The defenders of Bourges were given until three o’clock on the following afternoon, 13 July, to accept. As the appointed hour approached Charles VI stood in front of the walls in full armour in the burning heat, the Oriflamme flying from a lance beside him and his entire army drawn up in lines across the plain at his back. Inside the city the Armagnac princes were still arguing about the terms. Finally they decided to reject them. But the Duke of Berry was as determined as John the Fearless. He sent a message to the King accepting them. It was the King’s last public appearance for three months. At some time in the next few hours, as the heralds passed through the camp announcing the cease-fire, the King relapsed into his old illness after his longest and most active period of lucidity for many years. Yet even in this period of relative coherence Charles had contributed little to the decision to fight the Duke of Berry and nothing to the decision to make peace with him. His only function now was to dignify the grubby decisions of other men. That at least he had done.

For the Duke of Burgundy it was a remarkable outcome considering the weakness of his position just a week earlier. On 16 July 1412 the Duke of Berry presented the keys of the city to the Dauphin. The formalities were completed in the hamlet of Argenvières on the banks of the Loire opposite La Charité, where the Duke of Burgundy had withdrawn with the King and the Dauphin to escape the foetid air around Bourges. Here, a week later on 22 July, the Armagnac leaders who had been present at the siege swore the customary oaths to observe the terms of peace. They were joined by emissaries from Charles of Orléans and his brothers, who undertook on their behalf to be bound by them as well. They then set about burying as best they could their embarrassing treaty with the English. A letter was issued in the King’s name annulling it and commanding the Armagnac princes to renounce it. The Dukes of Berry and Bourbon and Charles d’Albret then sealed letters to Henry IV and the Prince of Wales citing the King’s command and declaring that they considered themselves to be released.


The type of bow most people are familiar with is the “post Corinthian” bow. Previously, triremes had a ‘hollow’ bow. See Connolly’s reconstruction of this type, p.265 “Greece and Rome at War”, and the coin reverses on p.264 giving a good ‘before and after’ idea of the old and modified bows.

What Thucydides says can be translated thus: “They shortened the bows of their ships and strengthened them;they laid out stout ‘epotides’, and fixed stays from the ‘epotides’ to the ships sides both inside and out” (the ‘epotides’ lit: “ears” were the transverse beams across the hull supporting the ‘paraxereisia’ = outrigger that supported the upper bank of oars, sometimes in English called ‘catsheads’).

The Greek word for ‘fixed’ is the same derivative as the English term ‘hypotenuse’. The stays thus formed a “Y” support to each of the the “T” shapes formed by the ‘epotides’ running at 90 degrees to the ship’s sides. This strengthened ‘epotides’ meant that the opponent’s epotides and paraxereisia would be smashed in a near head-on collision, allowing the scraping off of the opponent’s oar-banks…….

Sparta Builds a Fleet

After the defeat of much of the Corinthian fleet by Phormio in 429, the Peloponnesians had essentially given up the idea of defeating the Athenians at sea, much in the same way as the latter avoided pitched battle with Spartan hoplites. In response, the Athenians were often given a free hand to patrol the empire. They would do so with near impunity for almost the next sixteen years; the Peloponnesians, in contrast, resembled more the smaller German navy of the two world wars, venturing out to terrorize merchants and neutrals only when the British fleet was elsewhere or asleep.

Then, suddenly, the unexpected Athenian catastrophe of 413 in Sicily—216 imperial triremes (perhaps at least 160 of them Athenian) and almost 45,000 men of the empire were lost or captured—gave new impetus to Sparta’s efforts to catch up and build a new Pan-Peloponnesian fleet fueled by Persian money. The vast armada of Athens had always been a fluke beyond what should have been the limited resources of any single city-state. Indeed, its creation in 482 was a result only of a rich strike in the silver mines of Laurium, and it was later sustained by the imperial tribute of hundreds of subject states. In contrast, without mines or tribute-paying subjects, Sparta’s old pipe dream at the beginning of the war of creating a vast armada of 500 ships could be realized only by an unholy alliance with the empire of Persia.

It was not just that Athens had lost two-thirds of its once magnificent imperial fleet or that the roughly 100 reserve triremes that remained in the Piraeus were in various states of unreadiness. Instead, the greater dilemma was that the human losses at Sicily, coupled with the thousands of dead from the plague, had wiped out an entire generation of experienced Athenian rowers, teachers, and students of the sea, all almost impossible to replace at once. In a similar example, after the defeat of Lepanto (1571), the Ottoman catastrophe was not just the loss of almost 30,000 seamen and 200 galleys—or the thousands more sailors who were unaccounted for. Rather, the destruction of thousands of trained bowmen, archers who made Turkish ships deadly but took years to train properly, ensured that even after the hasty reconstruction of their fleet by the next year, the Ottomans would rarely again venture into Italian-controlled waters.

A third to half of the thousands of imperial rowers who were lost at Sicily were probably Athenian citizens and resident aliens. The death or capture of the remaining 20,000 foreigners and allied seamen not only drained the empire of manpower but also created waves of resentment against Athens among bereaved subjects. Long gone was the memory of the festive spectacle of cheering and merriment, and expectations of easy loot and glory on the cheap, when the grand flotilla had sailed from the Piraeus in 415. Sailing with the Athenians could quite literally get you and your sons killed.

Something had also come over the Greeks after Sicily. Perhaps it was the length of the war; it was now almost twenty years since Sparta had invaded Athens, and both desperate sides were beginning to sense that the end could not be too far away. Or maybe the increasing savagery was attributable to the mounting losses and the barbarism unleashed at Scione, Torone, and Melos. In any case, in the Archidamian War one does not sense that Spartans and Athenians hated each other. But in the last phase of the conflict, there is a real feeling of growing fury on both sides, that trireme war in the eastern Aegean was perhaps more like the Japanese, rather than the European, theater of World War II, when most soldiers gave no quarter and harbored a deep visceral and racial dislike of their enemies.

If an islander were to row in the future, it might be wiser to enlist for higher pay in the new and larger Peloponnesian fleet, which was likely to patrol in greater numbers in the eastern Aegean, which was now increasingly empty of the old Athenian triremes. As the war heightened in the eastern Aegean and the limits of Greek manpower became clear after some two decades of steady combat losses, the final sea fights became as much a bidding war for mercenary oarsmen as a test of seamanship. In other words, the war would descend into a one-sided financial contest between the limitless gold of Persia and an impoverished Athens.

Athens started the war with 5,000 talents in reserve. But after Sicily it now had less than 500 in its treasury, scarcely enough to build 100 triremes and keep them at sea for even four months. The special emergency reserve of 1,000 talents to guarantee the safety of the Piraeus was suddenly not so sacrosanct. Thucydides concluded that besides the absence of men to make up the losses and the few triremes left in the ship sheds, there was also “no money in the treasury.” In addition, the two traditional sources of Athenian naval financing—silver from Laurium and tribute from the Aegean—were now imperiled by Spartan ravagers and ships. Most Greeks thought that after Sicily “the war was over.” Thus, should Sparta somehow find the capital to build a fleet and pay for its new crews, there was a good chance that by 413 its rowers would be no more inexperienced than most Athenian replacement oarsmen.

After a few years of valuable help to the Peloponnesian navy, the Persians decided to take a far more active role when the maverick Spartan admiral Lysander and the renegade teenaged Achaemenid prince Cyrus struck a partnership of convenience in 407, one that meant the Peloponnesians would have a nearly unlimited supply of capital to build ships and hire crews. With overwhelming numerical superiority, the Spartans could afford to keep challenging the Athenians at sea, backed up by the assurance that their losses would be made good as they wore down the Athenian fleet in a theater vital to the continuance of imported food and precious tribute.3 Even earlier, after the defeat at Cyzicus in spring 410, the Persian satrap Pharnabazus had encouraged the demoralized Spartans to remember that there was plenty of timber for ships in Persia, and lots of replacement arms, money, and clothing to reequip any sailors who survived the defeat.

In the immediate aftermath of the Athenian catastrophe at Sicily, when it came time to pony up for Peloponnesian triremes, the Boeotians, Corinthians, Locrians, Phocians, Megarians, and the states of the Argolid sent out no more than 75 ships. Along with the Spartans’ own paltry 25 triremes, that still made up a combined fleet of only about 100 ships. The Sicilian allies proved an equal disappointment. Despite having been saved by the timely arrival of a Peloponnesian fleet in the harbor at Syracuse, in recompense they added little more than 22 vessels to the Spartan cause—given their worries over a nearby aggressive Carthage. So there loomed the chance that in 412 the Peloponnesians might soon achieve numerical parity at sea, a situation in the short-term that meant Sparta could at least engage the green reconstituted Athenian fleet with an equal number of ships and crews no more inexperienced.

The inclusion of seasoned naval officers from Syracuse and Corinth who long had organized fleets might account for some sharing of nautical experience among the high command of the grand Peloponnesian fleet. At times, for example, there is special mention of skilled navigators like Ariston the Corinthian, who was “the best pilot of the Syracusan fleet.” He had devised a stratagem for feeding his seamen rapidly on shore and getting their triremes back in action as quickly as possible. The same innovator was most probably responsible for attaching shorter and lower rams to the Syracusan ships, to ensure that they struck below the waterline and with greater force.

Nevertheless, what has never been adequately explained is how a landlocked reactionary state like Sparta, one that not only had little experience with the sea but openly loathed the entire social cargo that accompanied naval power, in the space of less than a decade turned green crews and brand-new triremes into a formidable and seasoned opponent of the great fleet of Athens. The creation of an eastern Aegean Spartan flotilla, alongside the Roman armada during the Punic Wars and the Japanese imperial fleet at the beginning of the twentieth century, ranks as one of the great naval achievements in history.

Ancient observers remarked on the sheer audacity of Spartan naval power, usually through acknowledgment by Spartans themselves that they had no real idea of what they were doing. “Sending out men who had no experience with the sea” to replace “men who were just beginning to understand naval matters” summed up Spartan policy in the eastern Aegean—as if one Spartan hoplite on deck was as good as another. Contemplating Spartans out in the middle of the Aegean on rocking triremes, one might paraphrase Samuel Johnson and wonder not that it was done well, but that it was done at all.


Battle of Cynossema, 411 BCE. Athenian fleet in blue, Spartan navy in red.


Yet if the Aegean had been relatively quiet since 429, suddenly from 411 to 404 the Athenians met the Spartans and their allies in at least seven major engagements. Across time and space, rarely are rival fleets willing to engage each other repeatedly until one side is not merely defeated but annihilated. Such is the conservatism of admirals who so jealously protect their precious assets while on the high seas. Like the British systematic destruction of the Napoleonic armada or the American Seventh Fleet’s brutal death struggle with the Japanese, which finally ended with the utter annihilation of the most lethal carrier and battleship force of the pre–World War II world, both Athens and Sparta now no longer sought mere tactical advantage but were willing to risk their all to finish off the enemy.

To win, Sparta had to kill off, capture, or scatter a final cohort of at least another 50,000 or so Athenian and allied sailors and sink another 200 ships, which otherwise, over a decade, might replace the losses of Sicily. These last battles across the Aegean—they are often lumped together and called the Ionian War—were decided in the waters off western Asia Minor (Ionia) and in or near the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles). If Boeotia, home of nine major hoplite battlefields by the fourth century, was once dubbed by the Theban general Epaminondas “the dancing floor of war,” one could call the Hellespont and the adjoining Propontis (the Sea of Marmara) “the seas of death.” In those environs alone 50,000 men were probably killed, missing, or captured in just three battles at Cynossema, Cyzicus, and Aegospotami, all within a sixty-mile radius. In addition, between 412 and 404 thousands more Athenians, Persians, and Peloponnesians died in ambushes, seaborne attacks, and random killing up and down the Ionian seaboard.

With the establishment of a permanent garrison at Decelea, the new Peloponnesian fleet was confident that it now had muscle enough to block grain ships from arriving at Attica. Thus, this time under a year-round combined land and sea assault, the city, it was thought, would shortly go bankrupt if not starve: keep Attic farmers away from their land, destroy ships that imported food, deny access to grain-growing areas abroad, assure subjects that they can revolt in safety and withhold tribute, and all the while sink Athenian triremes. Decelea was the antithesis of Archidamus’ earlier failed strategy, which had offered no permanent presence and no ancillary naval strategy.

Not long after the defeat in the Great Harbor of Syracuse, an emboldened and reconstituted Spartan armada engaged what was left of the Athenian fleet in a series of inconclusive sea battles in the Aegean, at Spiraeum (412), Syme (411), Chios (411), and Eretria (411). Whereas losses at these rather obscure sea battles on both sides were minimal, the succession of collisions began to wear on a shaky Athens and had the practical effect of destroying another 30 or so Athenian triremes.

More importantly, perhaps 5,000 seamen were killed, scattered, or captured. Despite spending its final 1,000-talent critical reserve on rebuilding the fleet, strategically Athens could no longer control even the seas off its own coast. It was also on the verge of losing much of Ionia and, with it, a tribute-rich empire. After the defeat at Eretria in nearby Euboea—the Athenians lost 22 ships and most of the crews were killed in battle or captured—a panic descended upon the city that was greater than the near riot that had broken out after the news of the Sicilian disaster reached the Piraeus, two years earlier.

The final phases of the war next turned to the northern coast of the Hellespont. There, near the peninsula called the Thracian Chersonese, the Spartans now tightened the noose, hoping to cut off the sea-lanes between Propontis and Athens. In summer 411 at Cynossema, 76 Athenian ships, under the brilliant general Thrasybulus, beat back the larger Peloponnesian fleet of 86 triremes. Perhaps 32,000 seamen were involved. At least 36 ships were lost in fighting that spanned some eleven miles of the strait. The total casualties are unknown—though as many as 7,000 may have been killed, scattered, or wounded. The Athenians claimed victory on the basis that they had at least kept their last fleet intact. They had regained morale in their first major fight after the disaster in Sicily, defeated a fleet that included several hated Syracusan triremes last encountered in the disaster of the Great Harbor, and ensured that commerce with Athens remained open. As Thucydides rightly put it, “They stopped considering that their enemies were worth much in naval matters.”

Yet in such battles of attrition, the greater resources now were starting to tip toward the Peloponnesians. Their newfound pluck at sea would encourage more contributions from their allies and closely observant Persia. In contrast, to win the war on the seas the Athenians would have to inflict crushing losses on the Spartans while losing almost none of their now precious triremes. Thucydides, for example, said of the Athenian victory at Cynossema (fought not far from Gallipoli) that it came “at just the right time,” inasmuch as small losses to the Peloponnesians in the prior two years and the great catastrophe on Sicily had made them “afraid of the Peloponnesian fleet.”

To compound the Peloponnesian misery, not far away, at Abydos, a few weeks later the Spartans once again forced battle. There they were to lose another 30 ships, along with thousands of crewmen. Still, Alcibiades—in 411 he had returned to Athens in yet another incarnation, as chief Athenian admiral—summed up the Athenian dilemma best before the battle of Cyzicus. After explaining why his crews had “to fight at sea, fight on land, and fight against walled fortresses,” he finished with the admission of a bitter reality: “The reason is that there is no money among us, while the enemy has all they wish from the king of Persia.”

Sparta was not to be deterred by the loss at Abydos in its ambitious efforts to destroy what was left of the once grand Athenian fleet. In between battle and revolution, the Spartans offered Persian bonuses for oarsmen on the open market, rightly figuring that higher pay in the Peloponnesian navy would cause desertion from the Athenian fleet, which now depended on mercenary rowers.

About six months later, in March 410 and thirty-five miles distant from Cynossema, the Spartan fleet unabashedly forced battle again, near Cyzicus. In this third consecutive battle of the Ionian War, after Cynossema and Abydos, the Peloponnesians suffered yet another setback, despite their now accustomed numerical superiority. Inspired leadership by the veteran generals Thrasybulus and Alcibiades and remarkable seamanship by a new generation of Athenian oarsmen, who went to sea in a storm and performed flawlessly the difficult periplous, explain the remarkable victory. In fact, Cyzicus proved one of the greatest naval disasters for any Greek fleet during the entire war. Yet it was the beginning, not the end, of the bloodbath in the Aegean.

Another 60 ships, including 20 Syracusan triremes, were now lost, some of which their dejected crews burned after seeing the defeat of their allies. The casualties are not known, but they must have been high. Perhaps well over 10,000 seamen were captured, scattered, or killed, including the Spartan general Mindarus. The historian Xenophon, in one of the most famous passages in his Hellenic history, quotes a laconic letter sent back home to Sparta from the surviving vice admiral Hippocrates—intercepted by the victorious Athenians—that read: “The ships are gone. Mindarus is dead. The men are starving. We are at a loss what we should do.”

What to do? In less than a year, Sparta had suffered staggering losses. Somewhere between 130 and 160 triremes were gone—almost the entire contribution two years earlier of its Peloponnesian and Syracusan allies. How many were dead, wounded, or lost is not recorded. In theory, between 20,000 and 30,000 seamen were on those ships that went down; in reality, no doubt at least a few thousand probably escaped or were captured.

Suddenly the entire course of the war began to change. After Sicily, the Greeks had assumed that Athens was finished. Now they were not so sure. Athens’ food supply was still safe. Rebellion among the allies was less likely. Athenian naval prestige was once again unquestioned. And most importantly, generals like Thrasybulus, Theramenes, and Alcibiades had proved that they were far better tacticians than almost all the admirals that had accompanied the Spartans to the Aegean.

After Cyzicus, a dejected Sparta apparently remembered why it had not sought naval engagements against Athens some twenty years earlier. In frustration, Sparta quickly sent out peace feelers to Athens: “We want to have peace with you, men of Athens,” their ambassadors pleaded in offering a return to the prewar status quo. But the Athenian assembly, perhaps led by rabble-rousing demagogues like Cleophon, was now aroused, drunk on success and paranoid after the failed oligarchic coup of 411. For the first time in some three years, the Athenians had thoughts of reclaiming the entire Aegean. Maybe they really could destroy the Spartan fleet for good, and drive the Persians out of Greek affairs. Unsure how to follow up their spectacular successes, the Athenians unwisely played defense for nearly four years, between 410 and 407, while the Spartans rebuilt their forces and found themselves a true military genius in Lysander, albeit one who did not emerge in a major role until 407, near the end of the war.

Unfortunately for the Athenians, few of the city’s politicians saw the true complexion of this new Ionian War, and ignored the advice of the three brilliant generals, Alcibiades, Thrasybulus, and Theramenes, who had brought them such stunning victories. The truth was that the war had now changed dramatically and could no longer be seen in terms of the old simple Spartan land/Athenian sea dichotomy of decades past. The newfound Spartan ability to tap into the imperial treasuries of Persia, through the direct succor of its western satrapies, ensured the enemies of Athens an inexhaustible supply of mercenaries, new triremes, and money to hire crews who were experienced rowers, not rustic farmers from the Peloponnese.

To nullify the Spartan advantage in numbers and its determination to prompt battle repeatedly, Athens had to rely on superior seamanship and command in every major battle, without any margin of error. It could not fight on the defensive, since it was trying to maintain an empire, which involved more than just keeping out the Spartan fleet. And an unforeseen result of the Athenian victory at Cyzicus was a reexamination of the Spartan command, leading to the appointment of a new admiral, Lysander, who, even more so than Brasidas, would prove to be the unqualified military genius of the entire war on either side, the most ruthless, brilliant, and multidimensional battle leader Greece had produced since Themistocles. Most Spartan generals were fighters (with tough names like Thorax, “Breastplate,” and Leon, “Lion”), but rarely was one both heroic and full of strategic insight about how to defeat something as insidious as the Athenian empire. The presence of Lysander—a man cut from the same cloth as Brasidas and Gylippus (none of them were Spartan royalty and thus all were considered somewhat expendable)—along with a greater infusion of Persian capital was felt almost immediately as the Spartan maverick systematically hunted down grain ships, stormed Athenian strongholds, and enslaved captured peoples. In the next major battle, at Notium (spring 406)—the Spartans had used the three-year hiatus in naval confrontation to rebuild their fleet—Alcibiades temporarily left command to Antiochus, a minor captain, with strict orders to avoid an engagement in his absence.

Instead, the Athenians rashly fought Lysander off Ephesus, and right away lost 22 irreplaceable ships. By any measure this was small potatoes after the stunning string of victories at Cynossema, Abydos, and Cyzicus. On the other hand, every Athenian trireme was now precious. Despite the fact that when Alcibiades returned to Notium after the defeat of his subordinate the Athenians still had as many ships as Lysander, the loss caused outrage at a desperate Athens, raising the specter of Alcibiades’ past machinations and triangulations.

Once more Alcibiades was banished, and with that Athens lost its most capable and popular admiral. True, Athens had lost few ships, and its fleet of 108 remaining triremes was roughly the same size as the Peloponnesian armada. But Athens’ dilemma was not merely that it had to stop the Persian fleet but that it had an empire to protect in Ionia as well, a fact that in strategic terms meant that superiority, not parity, in ships was required.

A few months later at Mytilene, the Athenians under Conon lost another 30 ships to a Spartan fleet that once more had grown to somewhere between 140 and 170 ships. In response, the Athenians began a desperate search for even more manpower, putting old and young, slave and free, poor and wealthy on triremes in hopes of manning enough ships to thwart the Spartan juggernaut. By late spring of the same year, the death struggle continued as the fleets once more sailed to engage each other off the Ionian coast. In the previous five years, at the smaller battles of Spiraeum, Syme, Chios, Eretria, and Abydos and the three great fights at Cynossema, Cyzicus, and Notium, at least 84 Athenian triremes had been lost, along with perhaps as many as 16,000 seamen. Sparta, in turn, had suffered nearly double those casualties—160 ships sunk or captured and, with them, perhaps as many as 30,000 sailors.