The War of the Grand Alliance

Battle of Beachy Head.

King Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York, succeeded him in 1685. The Royal Navy remained an efficient force during the reign of King James II (1685-88). King James was a Catholic and an ally of King Louis XIV of France. England was divided into two political factions. These factions were known as Whigs or liberals and Tories or conservatives. The Tory or conservative faction was loyal to James. The Whigs or liberal faction preferred the Protestant Prince William of Orange. Prince William was Charles I’s grandson and married to King James II’s daughter, Mary. In the Revolution of 1688 William and Mary were invited to become joint sovereigns. William landed at Torbay on 5 November 1688. James fled to France. The Royal Navy had been prevented by the weather from intercepting William’s mainly Dutch fleet. Many naval officers preferred William and Mary and the Navy accepted the change of regime.

King Louis XIV of France was already at war with the Emperor Leopold I, Sweden and Spain (their alliance was known as the League of Augsburg). These countries opposed his aggressive actions on the mainland of Europe. Prince William, as sovereign of the Netherlands, was an active opponent of King Louis XIV. King Louis supported the deposed King James by sending an expedition to Ireland in 1689. An indecisive naval action took place between an English fleet and a French fleet off Bantry Bay on 1 May 1689. This led to an actual declaration of war by Louis XIV. The alliance against King Louis became known as the Grand Alliance. The French navy had been strengthened by the efforts of King Louis’ minister, Colbert. It could send more powerful warships to sea than the combined Dutch and English fleets.

In 1690 there was a threat of a French invasion to restore King James. The French fleet under the Comte de Tourville actually outnumbered the combined Dutch and English fleet when they met off Beachy Head on 30 June 1690. The combined Dutch and English fleet under Lord Torrington was upwind and approached from the north-east. The Dutch formed the van squadron of 22 ships. They opened fire at 9 am having turned parallel to the French van. Torrington reported:

About eight I ordered the signal for battle, to prevent the Dutch steering to the southward, as I did; for by the eighth Article of the Fighting Instructions when that signal is made, the headmost ships of our fleet are to steer away with the headmost ships of the enemy.

The centre of the French line sagged to leeward. Torrington allowed his own centre squadron to edge away to larboard. The Dutch in the van and the English rear squadron were both outnumbered and in danger of being “doubled”. By 1 pm the French were doubling on the Dutch. Several ships in the English rear squadron were heavily damaged and had to be towed out of the line of battle. At 3 pm the wind fell. By 5 pm the allies anchored. The French drifted away to leeward. The next day they followed up the retreating allies cautiously, allowing the damaged allied ships to get away.

Torrington had to face a court-martial. He was acquitted, claiming that his action had prevented an invasion. Admiral Edward Russell was appointed commander-in-chief of the allied fleet. In 1691 the French fleet sailed against merchant shipping in the western approaches to the English Channel. Both the Dutch and the English built up their fleets. In 1692 King Louis XIV supported another invasion force to restore the exiled King James II. This was assembling on the Cotentin peninsula where it awaited escort by the French fleet under de Tourville. The allied fleet heavily outnumbered the French squadron in the Channel. Another French squadron sailed from Toulon but was scattered by a storm. After Russell’s captains had assured him of their loyalty to King William III and Queen Mary, the allied fleet sailed from St Helen’s on 18 May 1692.

The Battle of La Hogue 19-23 June 1692

Richard Allyn was aboard HMS Centurion, 50 as a chaplain. HMS Centurion was in Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s division of Sir Ralph Delavall’s Blue (rear) squadron. Allyn:

Thursday, May 19, 1692. At three this Morning our Scouts made the Signal for discovering the Enemy; so the Admiral presently made the Signal to draw into a Line of Battle, which we soon did, and made clear Ships. It being foggy, we in the Fleet did not see them until seven, when we made them to be about Fifty Sail bearing down upon us in a Line with a small Gale about the West-south-west. About eleven we began to engage. The French Admiral came within point blank of our Admiral, who with his Squadron lay by to receive him. Mr. Russel as soon as he saw Tourville bring to, gave him three Cheers, which was answered by a Volley of Small Shot from Tourville, and was soon returned with a Broad-Side from our Admiral. The Vice-Admiral of the French White engaged Sir Ra. Delavall. In a trice we were so buried in Fire and Smoke, and had such hot Service our selves, that we could not see or mind what others did. Between four and five, word was brought to the Captain on the Quarter-Deck that there was above Seven foot Water in the Hold, and that notwithstanding both Pumps were kept going, yet the Water increased ; and besides this, that the Powder Room was full of Water, and the Powder Barrels all swimming about, which was occasioned by a great Shot that came into the Carpenter’s Store-room. The Captain sent word of this misfortune to Sir Ra. Delavail our Flag, who ordered him to hasten out of the Line and careen the Ship, and stop the Leaks, which we did. Some of our Pow- der-Barrels were so tight that the Powder in them was not at all damnifyed, so that out of Eighty Barrels we saved about Forty. Between six and seven, having made a bad shift to stop our Shot-holes, we set sail to recover into our station. About five the Wind came up about the South-east, and then the French tack’d and made away from us as fast as they could. But Sir Cloudesly Shovel and part of his Division being got to the Westward of them with some of the Blue, took them up and engaged them until nine when they left off and drove to and fro on the tide, there being little or no wind. We lost in the Engagement seven Men, and had Eighteen wounded; most of them having their Legs shattered, or shot off above knee. Trie Cook, James Duell, was one of the first that fell. Soon after half of poor Webber’s Face was shot away; notwithstanding which he lived two days, and almost all the time kept singing. A Shot came through my Cabin, which killed one Kern, a Plymouth Man. A Gun on the Quarter Deck split, which killed two, and wounded three, one of which was Mr. Raymond, whose leg was much shattered, and is since cut off. Our Long-boat was sunk at our stern. Most of the damage we received was from the Vice-Admiral of the White, who, finding the Sovereign’s side too warm, tack’d astern and revenged himself upon us. At ten a great Ship blew up, which we suppose to be one of the French. We had it very foggy all night, so that, we lost sight of the Enemy.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell described:

Thursday being the 19th of May at Daylight, the Wind at South-west by West, a fine gale, and hazy weather, we saw our Scouts to Windward making the signal of the Enemy’s approaching, and at broad day saw the French Fleet to the Westward of us standing towards us. We soon got into a Line of Battle, and were soon prepared and lay by to receive them. We had so little Wind that it was about eleven o’ clock before we joined Battle, which was begun in the Center of the Fleet. For Tourville in the Royal Sun (a glorious Ship of 106 Guns) stood directly for our Admiral Mr. Russel, then on board the Britannia, a Ship little inferior to the French General either in Glory or Strength. Here the Fight begun; and I will do the French that Justice, that is, their Admiral and all his Squadron, as to declare that I never saw any come so near before they began to fight in my life. I will leave the two chief Admirals with their whole Squadrons, it may be, in as hot Engagement as ever was fought, and take a little notice of what the other part of our Enemy’s Fleet did.

First the Dutch who led our Van, being about Twenty- five Line of Battle Ships were attack’d by Amphreville, who commanded the French White and Blue Divisions which consisted of about Fifteen Ships, whereof five or six were Three-deck Ships, and none had under Sixty Guns. Amphreville seeing himself overmatched in number, fought the Dutch at that distance, that very little Damage was done on either side.

The French Blue that was commanded by Gabarel, finding they could not stretch our Blue, joined close with Tourville’s Squadron, and had their Station and share in the Battle, all but seven of them with our Rear Admiral of the Red.

In this Posture, Affairs stood about two Hours, by which time the Britannia had so beaten the French Sun, that I saw when he could not make use of his Main-top-sail, it being shot away, he let down his Main-sail, and tack’d from the Britannia. This tacking, with the Wind shifting from the South-west by West, to the West-north-west, brought the French Admiral a farther distance from the Britannia, than could be recovered the whole day; and from the French Admiral’s first Tacking I reckon they began to run; he ever after taking every little advantage to get farther from the Britannia.

Now our Blue happened to be to Leeward of our Line of Battle when we begun; and about seven or eight of the French Blue which reached astern of the Rear-Admiral of the Red’s Division had no Ships to fight with, unless they would bear to Leeward of their Line, therefore had nothing to do. When the Wind shifted to the West-north-west, as before I took notice of (it was then about one o’Clock) with this Shift of Wind the Rear-Admiral of the Red kept his Luff; and with six of his Division and his Fireships weathered Tourville and all his Squadron, and broke the French Line, dividing trie French Blue from the White. But our Blue with this Wind kept their Luff and weathered the French; upon which the French Vice-Admiral of the Blue, and other five or fix Ships that were near him, and had never fired a Gun all day set their Sails and run. Our Rear Admiral of the Blue and his Division fell upon the Admiral of the French Blue and his Division, but pretended not to hinder their joining the French Admiral, but exchanged some Shot, and suffered them to bear athwart the Rear- Admiral of the Red, and join Tourville’s Division.

By this time it was four in the Afternoon, when the Wind duller’d away, and a small air came Easterly, when Tourville and his Division with the French Ships near him anchor’d, the Tide setting strong up North-east. The Rear-Admiral of the Red with that part of his Division that was with him, also anchored in half shot a-head of him, all but the Sandwich, who drove through the French as they lay at Anchor, and Captain Hastings in that Pass was kill’d.

The Rear Admiral of the Red found that Tourville mightily galled some of his Ships as they lay at Anchor, and there- fore ordered one of his Fireships to drive athwart Tourville’s Halse. The Tide running very strong, the Fireship’s Captain did his Duty, but Tourville escaped burning by cutting his Cable, and towing from the Fireship.

Tourville soon anchored again. All this day hath been accompanied with Fogs, so that sometimes we have been obliged to leave off Fighting, though in less than point- blank one of the other. Here we lay at an Anchor till about eight at Night, at which time our Blue drove amongst the Rear-Admiral of the Red’s Division; and they together drove through the French Fleet; so ended the day.

This Evening in driving through the French, three of our Fireships were burnt, and a great French Ship of three Decks, but whether by accident or by our Fireships I know not.

The Allies kept up their pursuit of the outnumbered French. On 20 May, Allyn:

May 20. At four this morning, for every Ship to make the best of his way after them. We could not see any of them until about nine, when it cleared up and we discovered them standing to the Westward with all the sail they could crowd, the Wind Easterly. At this time Dunnose bore North seven Leagues off. We made the best of our way after them, and at twelve Cape Barfleur bore South and by West distant about six leagues; and the Enemy was about three leagues to the Southward of us. The Wind in the Afternoon came about to the South-West, and we kept plying after them until six, when the Ebb being done, both Fleets came to all Anchor. Cape de Hague bore from us W. S. W five leagues off; and the Enemy was about four miles to windward. At twelve we weighed as they did, and plyed after them all the Ebb; viz. until

May 21. Six this morning; when the Enemy anchored between Ornay and Cape de Hague in the Race; and we about a League to Leeward of them, the Wind still South- west. At about sixteen of the Enemy’s Ships drove to lee- ward of our Fleet, between us, and their own Shore; which our Admiral seeing, made the Signal for the Fleet to cut and chase; which we did, leaving the Admiral of the Dutch, and Admiral of our Blue with several Dutch and English Frigates at Anchor to take care of about fifteen sail of the French at Anchor in the Race, and about thirteen without it. The General, Vice-Admiral of the Blue, and Rear of the Red, gave chase to Ten or Twelve sail to the Eastward: our Flag with his Division chased three of the French into Cheirburg, or Sheerbrook. About three in the afternoon we anchored off of Cheirburg, having the Town open, and the three Ships close under the Town. Sir Ralph ordered a Fire- ship to go in and destroy one of them, which was ashore, and had cut away his Masts; but they shot away her Boat, and so she returned without execution. Sir Ralph finding his own Ship too big to venture in within Gun-Shot, hoist- ed his Flag on board the Saint Alban’s, and went in and battered at the Ships a little, and came out and anchored again.

On Saturday Morning the 21st, we plainly saw the French at Anchor in the Race of Alderney, and we had a fine fresh gale at South-west; but when the Flood came strong, the French, that is, fifteen of them, their Anchors would not hold, which obliged them to cut and stand to the Eastward along their shore. Our Admiral did the same with part of the Fleet, that is, the Dutch and the Admiral of the Blue rid fast to keep their Chace after the rest of the French that did not drive. Those Ships which cut, followed the French so close, that the Royal Sun their Admiral, and two other great Ships run on shoar at Sherbrook, alias Cheirburg, where they were the next day burnt by Sir Ralph Delavall’s directions. The twelve other kept along shoar, and a little out of the Ebb-tide, fo that they out-sailed all our Fleet but Sir Cloudesly Shovel and two or three more.

Sir Cloudesly kept close to them, that is, some-times within shot, but never fired, that he might not hinder his way. At Night their ships were got near the Shore not far from La Hogue, where they anchored. Sir Cloudesly anchored in sight of them, and watched them with his Boats, and rid fast all night. The next day being Sunday the 22d, the Admiral and the Fleet came near them, the French haled near the Shore, and pretended to defend their Ships. Our Ships and Boats were appointed for attacking them, and the Admiral appointed Sir Cloudesly Shovel to command the Attack, and so we rid quiet that night.

Almondee was the Dutch Admiral. Allyn:

May 22. Most of our Ships under the Second Rate weighed at three this morning, and anchored within reach of the Enemy’s Guns, and exchanged several Shot. At ten Sir Ralph ordered in three Fireships; one on board her, that yesterday cut her Masts by the Board, which proved to be the Royal Sun. She fired a great number of Guns at the Fire-Ship but did no great damage to her. When the Fire- Ship was got so near her that there could be no thoughts of getting back again, they found that they could not come to lay the Royal Sun on Board because of the Boats which were by her side to keep them off, and her Masts which were thrust out for the same purpose. The Captain of the Fire- ship however set fire to his Ship, and left her floating with the Tide. The Fire-ship shot astern of the Sun, and no one expected that fire would do any service. But Providence ordered it so that the Wind and Flame overpower’d the Tide, and drove her back on the only part of the Royal Sun where she could be lain on board, viz. on her stern; and so she was burnt, having several hundreds of Men on board when she was set on fire; but Tourville went ashore yester- day in his Boat. She was a Ship of about 108 Guns, and by all relation as goodly a Ship as ever was seen. Another Fire- ship went aboard another Three-deck’d-ship, called the Conquerant, and burnt her without much opposition. When the Men in the third Ship had seen two of their Consorts thus burn, they got away as fast as they could from her, and left her to be fired by our Boats. The third Fire-ship which was sent in run aground, and was fired by her own Com- pany, that she might not be left for the Enemy. All day we had good weather and fine Westerly Gales. At one in the afternoon we weighed, and sailed from Cheirburg and joined Sir John Ashby and Admiral Almondee, and at eight at night anchored four leagues from Cape de Hague, which bore West-south-west.

May 23. Sir John Ashby and the Dutch Admiral having left off their Chace before we came up with them, we all together at six this morning weighed and stood to the East- ward. At ten or eleven we discovered our Fleet about two leagues to the Northward of La Hogue, and at two we anchored by them, they having chaced into La Hogue thirteen sail of the French. In the afternoon Vice-Admiral Rook, and about Ten sail of Third and Fourth Rates, by the Admiral’s orders weighed, and went in almost within shot of the Ships, but the Pilots would not carry them farther in by reason of the Shoal Water, besides several Banks which are on that Coast. TheVice-Admiral shifted his Flag in the Eagle, and besides the Ships that were with him, he had all the Barges and Pinnaces of the Fleet to attend him, well mann’d and arm’d. In the evening he sent in a Fire-ship and all the Boats to destroy the Six Ships that lay outmost. The Fire-ship ran ashore, but was got off the next day. As soon as the French saw our Boats with a Fire-ship coming near them, they all quitted their Ships, being afraid of being served as the poor Fellows were at Cheirburg the day before. Our Boat was the first that got aboard any of the Ships. Lieutenant Paul entered a Three-Deck Ship, and found no creature aboard, so he ordered the Boats Crew to cut Chips and lay them together in order to set her on Fire, which was soon done. My Lord Danby burnt his face as he was blowing Tow and Oakam, &c. to set another Ship on fire, some Gun-powder taking fire near him. The whole mob of Boats went from Ship to Ship untill they burnt the six, notwithstanding they were within less than Musket shot of the Town, a small Fort of about six or eight Guns. But as the Ships were burning, their Guns which were all loaden went off, and the Bullets flying all round, so disordered all the Men on the Shore, that they quitted their Posts.

May 24. This morning all the Boats and Fire-ships were again ordered in to destroy Seven Sail more, that were got at least a mile above the Town. The Fire-ships ran ashore, and not being able to get off were burnt by our own Men; but though the Fire-ships met with such bad success, yet our Boats met with better, and did execution even beyond expectation, for they not only burnt the seven Men of War, but also at least Twenty vessels supposed to be Transport Ships designed for England, and every thing they met with so far as they went. In the whole Action (both overnight and this morning) we lost not ten Men. They plainly saw King James’s Camp and Standard near La Hogue from their Boats. By Noon our Boats were all returned with French Colours flying as Trophies, which occasioned this mistake: in the evening the Admiral sent his Boat towards the Shore with a Flag of Truce, to know what they would have done with the Prisoners, and whether they would have them put ashore or not; but the People on the Shore thinking the White Flag was designed only to insult over them, as was done in the Morning, fired at the Boat, and would not let her come near the Land.

May 25. But one Captain Macdonnell was sent off with a Flag of Truce to excuse it. This Morning at eight we and the whole Fleet came to sail with small Gales between the East and South-east. At twelve Cape Barfleur bore North- west by West three or four leagues off. At two in the after- noon the Admiral of the Blue, a Vice and Rear-Admiral of the Dutch, with about thirty Sail anchored, being left by the General to destroy three or four more of the French, which we heard were ashore farther to the Eastward, whilst all the rest stood to the Northward.

May 26. Moderate Easterly Gales and thick Weather. At four this evening we all anchored at Saint Helen’s. May 29. Admiral of the Blue and all we left behind, came hither, having done nothing. June 4. We and all the Ships that had been much damaged in the Engagement, ran into Spithead to refit, and this day our Carpenters began to work.

After the Battle of La Hogue the French resorted to the guerre de corse, cruising against merchant shipping. The French won battles on land at Fleurus (1690), Steenkerke (1692) and Neerwinden (1693). The War of the Grand Alliance finally ended at the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. On the American continent the conflict was known as King William’s War.



The British invasion of Corsica in 1794 resulted in the creation of the British Martello Tower, a corruption of Cape Mortella on Corsica, where an armed tower held a garrison of French troops that put up a spirited resistance to the invasion.

As the first year of the war against France drew to a close, Britain and her allies confronted general uncertainty, with a stalemate on land and a lack of any result upon sea. The broad situation that the British parliament surveyed as it met at the end of January 1794 offered little of immediate prospect to build upon, with scant gain so far against the turbulent power that commanded France.

France’s rush against Holland and Belgium had been held. But strong doubts were arising concerning the staying power and involvement of Prussia, which remained preoccupied with Poland and territories it wanted there. Austrian mistrust of Prussia was deep and growing. The coalition and its military thrust appeared stalled. So it would remain, deep into 1794, accompanied by increasing anxiety about the rising strength, cohesion and success of the French army under the organizing vitality of Carnot.

The spirited new French army was everywhere demonstrating its recovery. Across the south the anti-Jacobin revolt had been fully suppressed. But for the British it was the failure at Toulon and the lack of any line ship action in the western approaches during 1793 that had provoked real dismay.

The overall strategy for the Continent visualized by Pitt was destruction of the Jacobin government. This was seen as the most likely means of terminating the war. The Austrians preferred it as the quickest solution and it was agreed that Paris should therefore be the target of a new campaign. But who would bear the fullest burden of the cost of it all, particularly the huge Austrian and Prussian armies?

The formula taking shape was the traditional one in which a Britain weak in land forces and chary of committing those she possessed to Continental warfare instead contributed to the costs of others or paid for mercenaries who fought on her behalf. But the picture that was forming even in late 1793 already hinted that the position against France might not hold even on that familiar basis. Weighing it up, Britain at the start of 1794 could, with perspicacity, recognize the other side of that situation, something equally familiar, which was that somewhere along she might find herself on her own. And that brought her back where her own certainties dwelled, what she felt sure of: the sea and her navy. But in January 1794 anxious questions touched that as well.

Earl Howe’s failure to bring the French grand fleet to battle sat badly upon the nation as a whole. The British public wanted battle from its navy. They wanted it in their home waters, where their real security lay. They wanted the assurance of it in a war the direction and balance of which no one yet could properly fathom. It was from the navy, so closely tied to British emotion and sentiment and conviction of destiny, that some positive assurance was required. Some affirmation of British naval mastery was needed to alleviate the ingrained fear of invasion.

Whatever the outcome on the Continent there had to be assurance that the navy retained its full capability of defending Britain’s shores, her primal defence, while maintaining its dominance upon the broad oceanic strategic picture, the source of Britain’s power and wealth.

The man committed to the latter was Secretary of State for War Dundas, a hard, ruthless, greedy Scot who later, as Lord Melville, head of the Admiralty, was to face a difficult trial in parliament on charges of corruption.

He effectively dominated colonial policy under Pitt. Unlike Pitt, he upheld slavery and the slave trade, attracting the implacable hostility of the Evangelical Abolitionists. It was symptomatic of Pitt’s broadly balanced position in the fractured society of late-eighteenth-century Britain that as Prime Minister he was equally comfortable in his working relationships with such different characters and viewpoints.

Dundas had already declared that in this war he never wanted to have to choose between colonial defence and that of the Continent. Here was the revived voice of Chatham, Pitt the Elder. For Henry Dundas, too, if forced to choose, his priority would ever be oceanic, attached to colonial possession and trade rather than Continental Europe. In early 1794 his colonial focus was anxiously fixed upon the West Indies.

After Britain’s loss of the American colonies and France’s loss of Canada, the West Indies had become the focal point of colonial interests. The West Indies stood as the immediate indispensable source of colonial wealth. Troops that would have made a big difference at Toulon were mustered for the West Indies instead. Departure of the Indies force was delayed until the end of November, after deployment to the French coast in the futile attempt to give assistance to the rebellion in La Vendée. Finally, on 27 November 1793, a powerful squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Sir John Jervis, bearing seven thousand troops under Lieutenant General Sir Charles Grey, sailed from St Helens for a winter crossing of the Atlantic.

The loss of Toulon signified something greater than the loss of the base itself. After sweeping away rebellion in the south, the French now had what they called the Army of Italy, a new threat to all the British allies along the coasts of the Ligurian Sea. Sardinia, Genoa, Leghorn (Livorno) and, though much more distantly, Naples and Sicily, all suddenly looked more vulnerable.

This was what Hood contemplated in January 1794, as his fleet lay anchored in its retreat at Hyères Bay, just a few miles from Toulon. Hood had lost the place that Marlborough in his war had considered being the key to Mediterranean and trans-Alpine military action. French success in the south of France and French pressure on the Austro-Sardinian forces around and beyond the Alps meant that Marlborough’s Mediterranean strategy had become as relevant to this war as it had been to his.

Unhappily for Hood the French fleet at Toulon and the extensive naval facilities there, the command base of French power on the western Mediterranean, would soon be restored.

Hood required a new base to cope with that. It had to be somewhere accessible to supplies, where storage depots could be maintained and ships repaired and refitted. And from where Austrian and Sardinian military operations could be supported. Hood looked at his maps and with Corsica lying large before him it was the obvious choice. It offered good harbours, easy provisioning and, best of all, plenty of timber for ship repair.

Corsica, formerly the possession of Genoa, had been ceded to France in 1768. It was the Genoese connection that had given Napoleon Buonaparte his Italian antecedents. The nationalist leader, Pasquale Paoli, was fighting the French and had already asked George III to take the island under British protection. In 1793 his partisans had established positions of strength across much of this wild, mountainous island, but the French commanded its principal strategic bases.

The objective for Hood would be the large bay of San Fiorenzo at the northern end of Corsica. Fiorenzo was the natural shelter for a fleet with defensive outposts at the fortresses of Bastia and Calvi. With these three points taken from the French, the British navy would cover the most vitally strategic stretch of coast in the entire Mediterranean, the Ligurian coast.

Fiorenzo lay a mere two hundred or so kilometres directly south of Genoa across the Ligurian Sea. Within easy reach stretched the entire coastline from Toulon to Elba. Apart from Toulon itself, this reach embraced such diverse points as Nice, Genoa, Spezia and Leghorn. A tight blockade of Toulon would be maintained with French trade and supply through Genoa and Leghorn to Corsica equally tightly controlled, if not curtailed.

To Captain Nelson, Hood promptly delegated the task of preparation for this critical offensive through which British command of the Mediterranean might become absolute. The zeal with which Nelson committed himself to his new task indicated his own conviction of that. From the last days of the old year into the first weeks of the new he had been blockading the Corsican coastline to lock in the French ships at their Corsican anchorages and to deny the French army its supplies. Two French frigates were destroyed at their anchorage. Garrison stores on land were destroyed by Agamemnon’s guns from the sea. Supply ships were captured. Nelson in short time made himself master of the coast around Bastia. Agamemnon’s sailors began to regard themselves as ‘invincible, almost invulnerable’, he wrote to his wife. ‘They really mind shot no more than peas.’

The first assault on Fiorenzo nevertheless failed. Hood suspected treachery from islanders who, though fighting the French, were ever hostile to any invaders of their shores. On 12 January Hood sent a delegation from the fleet to Corsica for new discussions with Paoli at his base. The party consisted of two army officers and Sir Gilbert Elliot, who was to represent Britain on the island. The group reported favourably and Hood immediately sailed for Fiorenzo from Hyères Bay.

As the siege of Fiorenzo began sailors undertook the task of reducing one of the outlying fortifications, Forneilli, whose guns covered Fiorenzo. Forneilli was a formidably fortified redoubt that appeared to defy any form of assault. Its natural defence, height and steep access, was the common one of a place as ruggedly mountainous as Corsica. It was dominated, however, by a rock-like projection, several hundred feet above sea level, which the French had failed to fortify, in an apparent belief that it was inaccessible. The ascent to the top appeared close to perpendicular in places, seldom much wider than what allowed one person to stand. But up that path the sailors dragged the heavy guns brought ashore to form a battery, from which they poured shot upon Forneilli, forcing the French to retreat into Fiorenzo. Getting the guns to the top was an astonishing feat of strength, endurance and determination, a tough accomplishment of a kind not at that time associated with naval sailors. But the precedent had been set at Toulon, where a naval officer had led the invading force ashore and where artillery had similarly been hauled to the heights and manned there by sailors.

Nelson initiated on Corsica the sort of sailor landings and land operations that would become a frequent and indispensable form of naval assault throughout this war. On Corsica those provided the fuller action and excitement that Nelson had been craving. Toulon had denied him action, although many of his own sailors had been taken ashore to fight. Corsica at once promised something different, and delivered it. This sudden licence for what Nelson relished most, independent action, enlivened him. He wrote to his wife, ‘I have not been one hour at anchor for pleasure in eight months; but I can assure you I never was better in health.’

Hood’s dependence upon Nelson mounted steadily. Certainly he would have found no one else with the same zest for what was allocated to him. All of it resounds from Nelson’s correspondence at the time. Hood, he said, trusted his ‘zeal and activity’. On the business of contacting and conferring with Paoli, ‘This business going through my hands is a proof of Lord Hood’s confidence in me, and that I shall pledge myself for nothing but what will be acceptable to him.’

On 19 February the French abandoned Fiorenzo and retreated to Bastia. That same day Nelson had gone ashore with sixty troops and marched to within three miles of Bastia. He was surveying Bastia’s defences at the time of the Fiorenzo assault and delivered an exhaustive report on the fortifications, their vulnerabilities and on how the place might be taken. That task became the fire in his mind.

Hood’s faith in Nelson had reached the point where he took care to avoid placing a senior captain over him on these Corsican operations, the next phase of which, Bastia, was thus entirely entrusted to Nelson, who now had six frigates under his command.

Closing off Bastia was vital. From Bastia across to Leghorn offered the shortest direct passage between Corsica and the mainland. It was therefore the main supply point for the French. Bastia was a walled town of ten thousand inhabitants with a citadel at its centre. The main fortifications were along the sea front, with others in the hills above guarding the approaches from Fiorenzo. The high batteries would also intimidate any force that might manage to seize the town. But Nelson was all for rushing and taking the place at once. He had examined landing places near Bastia and believed that troops and cannon could be landed with great ease on level country south of the town. His reports went over almost daily from Agamemnon to Hood aboard Victory lying off Fiorenzo. He reported that the French were ceaselessly strengthening the defences of Bastia. Nevertheless, ‘Bastia, I am sure, in its present state, would soon fall,’ he wrote to Hood.

On 23 February Nelson decided on close reconnoitre and bombardment of Bastia from the sea. It was to be a studiedly slow-paced challenge to Bastia’s firepower from his frigates, led by Agamemnon. ‘I backed our main top-sail and passed slowly along the town.’ Twenty-seven identifiable guns and four mortars firing from the shore, the heights and the town itself commenced pouring shot and shells upon the small fleet of frigates. The cannonading between ships and shore lasted nearly two hours. Although every ship was struck not a man was killed or wounded aboard any of them.

During the action British troops appeared on the heights above Bastia. They were under Lieutenant General Sir David Dundas, who had commanded the military at Toulon. He was a close relative of Minister Henry Dundas, to whom he sent ‘whining’ letters that the ever-optimistic Dundas contemptuously rejected. The troops had come over on the twelve-mile land route from Fiorenzo. They made no move down to attack from the heights.

The appearance of the military raised impatient reflection with Nelson. In a letter to his wife detailing the events of that day he said, ‘If I had carried with me five hundred troops, to a certainty I should have stormed the Town, and I believe it might have been carried. Armies go so slow, that Seamen think they never mean to get forward; but I dare say they act on a surer principle, although we seldom fail. You cannot think how pleased Lord Hood has been with my attack…’ In a letter to his brother on the same event he gave the army less allowance: ‘Our troops are not yet got to work. I can’t think what they are after.’

What he himself was after, now even more determinedly so, was to do what he felt the army was failing to do. Hood, in remarkable concurrence with such precipitate possibility of conflict between the two services, was swiftly of the same mind. But when Dundas brought his troops back down to Fiorenzo, Hood sought to persuade him to return and attempt to take Bastia. Dundas refused. He believed that starvation by blockade would in due course bring submission, without the loss of life that would result from direct assault. And, he forcefully asserted, Hood indubitably would be of the same opinion were the whole responsibility of such an attack to rest upon his shoulders.

‘Nothing would be more gratifying to my feelings, than to have the whole responsibility upon me,’ Hood coldly corrected.

‘What the general could have seen to have made a retreat necessary, I cannot conceive,’ Nelson wrote in his journal. ‘I wish not to be thought arrogant, or presumptuously sure of my own judgment, but it is my firm opinion that the Agamemnon with only the frigates now here, lying against the town for a few hours with 500 troops ready to land…would to a certainty carry the place. I presumed to propose it to Lord Hood and his Lordship agreed with me.’


Twenty-one years after King Edward I’s accession, there arose a naval war between France and England. In 1286, Edward was the first who appointed a person to the office of Admiral of the English Seas, as we find William de Leybourne styled “Admiral de le Mer du dit Roy d’Angleterre,” at an ordinance made at Bruges concerning the conduct of the ships of England and Flanders in that year; and about the same time first mention is made of an admiral of France, named Florent de varenne, whose successor, Enguerrand, was “Admiral de la Flotte du Roi Philippe le Hardi,” yet never was the sea more infested by piracy than in 1293, the period referred to. The feeble execution of the laws had given licence to all kinds of men; and a general appetite for rapine, followed by revenge for it, seemed to infect the mariners and fighting merchant-traders of the time, and tempted them on the smallest provocation to seek redress by immediate and merciless retaliation on the aggressors.

It chanced that a Norman and an English vessel met near the coast of Bayonne (De Mezeray has it Guienne), and both having occasion for water, sent their boats ashore at the same time, and, as misfortune would have it, to the same spring, upon which there immediately ensued a quarrel for precedence. In the squabble a Norman drew his dagger and attempted to stab an English seaman, who grappling with him, hurled him to the ground. The Norman was said to have fallen on his own dagger; be that as it may, the man was slain, and from this petty scuffle between two obscure seamen about a cask of water, there grew a bloody war between two great nations, involving half of Europe in the quarrel. The mariners of the Norman ship laid their complaints before the King of France, who, without caring to inquire into the matter, bade them “take revenge, and trouble him no more about it.” Though more legal than usual in applying to the crown, they required but this hint to proceed to immediate outrage.

Meeting an English ship in the Channel, they boarded her, and hanging some of the crew, together with some dogs, from the yard-arms, in presence of their shipmates, bade them inform their countrymen that “vengeance was now taken for the blood of the Norman killed at Bayonne.”

This injury, accompanied by circumstances so insulting, was speedily resented by all the mariners of the Cinque Ports, who, without the empty formality of appealing to King Edward, retaliated by committing precisely the same barbarities on all French vessels without distinction; and the French in return preyed upon the ships of Edward’s subjects, Gascon as well as English: and soon armed piratical craft of all kinds swarmed in the Channel and Bay of Biscay in pursuit of each other, the sovereigns of both countries remaining perfectly indifferent the while. The English formed private associations with the Irish and Dutch seamen, the French with the Genoese and Flemings; and the animosities of these lawless spirits became more and more violent.

A fleet of 260 Norman vessels set sail to the south for wine, and in their passage seized all the English ships they met, and hanging or drowning the crews, made spoil of the cargoes, and arrived in triumph at St. Mahé, a port in Bretagne. Filled with fresh fury by this incident, the English ports fitted out a fleet of eighty sail, stronger and better manned, to take revenge. Depredations had now been carried to such a length, that at last the nations agreed on a certain day to decide the dispute with their whole naval strength, and a large empty ship was placed in the Channel midway between the coasts of England and France to mark the spot of the engagement.

On the 14th April, 1293, they met in close battle. Long and obstinate was the engagement, and no quarter was either asked for or given; in the end the French were totally routed, and the -greater part of their ships taken, sunk, or destroyed, and “the majority of their crews perished in the ocean.” It has been alleged that the loss of the French was 15,000 men. If so, it can only be accounted for by the circumstance that the returning Norman fleet was transporting a considerable body of troops from the south.

Matters were now looking serious; and French King Philip IV, enraged by a defeat so murderous and disgraceful, dispatched an envoy to London demanding reparation. He did more, for he cited Edward to appear in his Court of Parliament, as his liege man and vassal, being Duke of Guienne, and having done homage on his knees as such before Philip, at Paris, in 1274. The English king sent his brother; but Philip, dissatisfied with this equivocation, declared him contumacious, and seized his French possessions. On finding himself in something like the same absurd feudal snare he had prepared for the Scots, Edward was exasperated; the more so when he found France making preparations to invade England at a time when his hands were full with his northern neighbours: so, to anticipate any descents on the coast, besides three formidable fleets which were to protect it, he equipped a fourth consisting of above 330 ships, with a body of 7,000 men-at-arms and archers on board, under the command of the Earl of Lancaster, to recover his forfeited duchy of Guienne. He sailed to the mouth of the Garonne, took a town or two, and thence went to Bourdeaux and Bayonne, after the capture of which he died; but all this did not prevent a French fleet of 300 sail, under the command of Matthew de Montmorenci and John de Harcourt, assisted by Thomas de Tuberville, an English traitor, from landing at Dover, and reducing that town to ashes, ere the men of the country rose, and compelled the invaders fly to their ships with considerable loss.

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 8 by W. Laird Clowes

In 1294, large English fleets were assembled in the Narrow Seas, one in the North Sea, being under Sir John de Botetort, one in the Channel, being under Sir William de Leybourne, and one, in the Irish Sea, being under a knight named Ormond. [206] On June 26th, the barons of England were ordered to be at Portsmouth by September 1st, to accompany the king to Gascony; and in July Edward himself was at Portsmouth. Meanwhile, wood was hewn for the equipment of above two hundred ships to carry horses; the keepers of all the ports were directed to suffer no man, ship, boat or vessel to quit the kingdom; and John Baliol, King of Scots, who had done homage to Edward in 1292, was enjoined not to allow any ships or men to leave his country for abroad.

The army destined for Gascony consisted of twenty thousand foot soldiers, with five hundred men-at-arms. It sailed from Portmouth on August 1st, but, off the Cornish coast, was dispersed by bad weather and driven into Plymouth, whence it did not sail again until the beginning of October. Entering the Gironde, the fleet appeared about the 28th of the month in the Dordogne before Castilion, which place surrendered at once. Thence the expedition proceeded up the Garonne to St. Macaire, which submitted on the 31st. On the following day the ships anchored off Bourg. On November 8th they were off Blaye, whence they sailed to Bordeaux, where they remained for two days. Failing to reduce it, they again mounted the Garonne to Lieux, where the horses were landed after having been seventeen weeks and some days embarked.

The main expedition was followed by the Earls of Lancaster and Lincoln with reinforcements, probably conveyed in vessels which the Cinque Ports had been ordered to send to Portsmouth by September 8th; but this division did not sail until the spring of 1295. In the interval, in October, 1294, certain goods belonging to

French subjects were directed to be seized and sold and the proceeds paid into the Exchequer.

Sir Henry de Turberville has been mentioned as having played a gallant part in the defeat of the French at the Battle of the South Foreland in 1217. A relative of his took less honourable share in the naval history of the reign of Edward I. This knight, Sir Thomas de Turberville, had been made prisoner by Philip IV.; and, eager to advance himself, no matter at what cost, turned traitor. He suggested in 1295 that Philip should fit out a large fleet and crowd the vessels with troops; and that, in the meantime, he himself should go to England, report that he had made his escape, and endeavour to obtain from his sovereign a command at sea, or the custody of the ports, or both. He would then, on seeing the approach of the French, deliver up his trust, the agreed signal that his plot had been successful being his own banner hoisted above that of the king. Philip accepted the offer, promised Turberville large rewards, and kept two of the traitor’s sons as hostages.

Turberville reached England, but, though kindly received, failed to obtain the wished-for command. Philip, on his part, collected more than three hundred ships from Marseilles, Genoa and other places, and sent them to cruise off the English coasts, in waiting for the expected signal. Not seeing it the commanders grew impatient, and dispatched five of their best galleys to reconnoitre more closely. One of these landed at Hythe. To induce the intruders to advance inland, the king’s forces retired before them, and then, suddenly turning, fell upon them and killed them all to the number of two hundred and forty, afterwards taking and burning the galley. The other four galleys rejoined their main body, which was far too formidable to be attacked by such ships as were at the disposal of the English commanders on the spot. Turberville’s treachery was still unsuspected in England; but the assemblage of Philip’s large fleet could not but be known; and, with a view to resisting invasion, letters were dispatched on August 28th and 30th to the Bishop of London and other prelates and priors instructing them to take the necessary measures in case the enemy landed; and on September 28th the sheriffs were informed that danger was apprehended from the machinations of certain foreign ecclesiastics residing near the sea-board, and recommending their immediate removal inland.

But, before this, a descent had actually been made. On August 1st the French fleet had appeared off Dover, and had suddenly landed about fifteen thousand men, who had seized the town and burnt great part of it. The people had fled, but recovering their courage, and being reinforced, had attacked the invaders so vigorously as to kill five thousand of them and to put the rest to flight. Some had escaped to the ships, others had taken refuge in the fields, where they had been afterwards found and massacred. Thirty seamen had maintained themselves in the cloisters of the abbey until night, when they had got away in two boats, only. however, to be followed in the morning by two large craft and sunk. In the whole affray but fourteen Englishmen had lost their lives.

The repulse at Dover and the non-appearance of Turberville’s signal disheartened the French, who returned to their ports and dispersed; yet Turberville’s treason was still undiscovered and might have gone unpunished but for the suspicions of a clerk, who delivered to Edward a letter which led to the conspiracy being laid bare, and to the culprit’s execution.

The retirement of the French opened the Channel to the operations of English cruisers. The ships of the Cinque Ports captured fifteen Spanish vessels full of merchandise, bound for Damme, and brought them into Sandwich; and some Yarmouth ships landed a force at Cherbourg, fired the town, robbed an abbey, and carried off an old priest.

Gergovia: Vercingetorix’s Victory

As the survivors from Avaricum neared Vercingetorix’s camp he took special precautions to conceal their flight and the fall of the town. He posted his own supporters as well as tribal leaders at some way from the camp to intercept the fugitives and secretly take them to their own tribes’ quarters.

The next day Vercingetorix gathered his men and delivered a speech that was designed to minimize the impact of the fall of the towns on the Gauls’ morale. He claimed that it had fallen due to superior Roman siege technology and trickery, not because of the bravery of the Romans. He disassociated himself from its fall by rightly claiming he had never been in favour of defending it but had yielded to the pleas of the Bituriges. He glossed over the prior defeats the Gauls had sustained at Cenabum and elsewhere, claiming that such reverses were a normal part of warfare. He promised to extend the alliance to those Gauls who had not yet joined. He then suggested that the best course at present was to fortify their camp.

The speech was well-received. The fall of Avaricum enhanced Vercingetorix’s standing and weakened his opponents. The Gauls were well aware that he had advised against the attempt to hold the town and he had now been vindicated. There was also strong support for extending the war to as much of Gaul as possible. Doing so would not only add to the rebels’ manpower but it would also create problems for the Romans who would find themselves overextended. The capture of Avaricum as well as the earlier victories at Vellaunodunum and Cenabum had brought Caesar no political benefit. They had only served to strengthen Vercingetorix’s position and further unify the rebels.

Vercingetorix took immediate steps to implement his proposals. He sent out representatives to the tribes that had so far kept aloof from the rebellion, enticing them with gifts and promises. He then set about making up the losses suffered at Avaricum by instituting quotas from the tribes and requiring them to come to his camp on a set day. These actions soon made up for his losses. His diplomatic offensive also produced results. Teotomatus, a son of Ollovico, the king of the Nitiobriges who had been given the title of friend by the Senate, joined him with a large cavalry force and with mercenaries hired in Aquitania.

For a few days Caesar remained at Avaricum. The captured town provided him with an abundant supply of grain and the army needed to rest and refit after the strains of the siege. The winter was now almost over, which would make campaigning easier, and he set out in pursuit of the enemy in the hope of bringing them to battle or starving them out by a blockade. Before he could set out the leaders of the Aedui arrived to ask for Caesar’s help. Once again, tribal politics created problems. The election to office of the vergobret, their supreme annual magistrate, was at issue. Two men were claiming that they had been legally elected while only one could hold office. One of them was Convictolitavis, a distinguished young man, while the other, Cotus, was an aristocrat with considerable connections and influence. Both men had strong support and the dispute threatened to tear the fabric of the state apart. The Aedui asked for Caesar’s help to resolve the matter. The delay the request imposed was unwelcome. If he agreed to it, it would postpone the campaign against Vercingetorix and give Vercingetorix further time to prepare. But Caesar could hardly ignore such a request from the Aedui, Rome’s oldest allies in the area. On occasion they had provided useful military support to him, but more importantly they had been a major source of supply. In addition, one side or the other might call in Vercingetorix as an ally. He had already seen some evidence of the tribe’s less-than enthusiastic collaboration. Their negligence in delivering grain during the siege of Avaricum hinted at disaffection among the tribal elite.

To avoid breaking tribal laws which specified that vergobret could not leave Aeduan territory, Caesar summoned the two men involved as well as the entire council to Decetia, modern Decize, at the confluence of the Loire and the Aron, within their territory. After hearing the facts of the case Caesar awarded the office to Convictolitavis. It was a decision that stored up trouble for the future.

After a conciliatory speech calling on the Aedui to set aside their disputes he ordered them to send all of their cavalry and 10,000 infantry to serve as guards for his grain supply. Clearly Vercingetorix’s strategy had had some effect. Caesar divided his army into two columns; four legions were assigned to Labienus to conduct operations against the Senones and the Parisii, while Caesar would take the remaining six legions along the valley of the Allier towards Gergovia, the capital of the Arverni.

Vercingetorix, learning of Caesar’s arrangements, moved up the western bank of the river while Caesar made his way along the eastern side. He kept pace with the Romans, breaking down the bridges over which they might cross, and he posted scouts to deny the Romans the opportunity of constructing their own. This manoeuvre put Caesar in a difficult position. The Allier would not be fordable until the autumn. To wait until then would mean the loss of an entire campaigning season. The only course open to him was to trick Vercingetorix. He encamped in a wood opposite one of the bridges that had been torn down. The next day he hid two of the legions in the woods while he sent on the remainder, who were formed up so as to conceal the absence of the legions he had kept behind. When he estimated that those legions were now in camp he ordered his two legions to rapidly construct a bridge. The task was made easier because the piles of the original bridge had been left standing. He took his two legions across, encamped and summoned the other legions to him. Vercingetorix, realizing what had happened, moved on by forced marches to avoid a fight.

The march to Gergovia consumed five days and on the last day a minor cavalry skirmish occurred. Caesar then examined the site, which posed formidable problems. It was situated on a mountain rising 1,200 feet (367m) above the plain about 3.5 miles (6km) south of Clermont Ferrand. The northern side of the mountain was broken by precipitous cliffs, which made an attack impossible. An attack on the eastern side was equally out of the question. It was rugged, steep and dotted with ravines. Looked at from the south the town was situated on an oblong plateau that formed the mountain’s summit, and the higher terraces were linked to an outlying height by a ridge on which the Gauls were encamped. Their tents were protected by a stone wall that ran for the entire length of the southern side of the mountain. There was no hope of taking Gergovia by storm. Even on the south side where the ascent was easiest the ground was steep and dangerous. The Gallic encampment on that side meant that such an attack could not succeed. The only possibility was to cut off the town’s food supply with a siege. But Caesar could not start the operation until his own grain supply was secure.

Vercingetorix had seized control of a height close to the town and had placed various tribal contingents at intervals along the ridge. He was in constant contact with the tribal chiefs and did as much as possible to involve them in the planning as a way to cement their loyalty and maintain his army’s cohesion. He constantly sent out his cavalry accompanied by archers to keep up his men’s morale.

Opposite the town there was a hill with precipitous sides, the modern Roche Blanche, which was strongly fortified. The Gauls had also installed a garrison on it but only of moderate strength. If Caesar could gain control of it he would greatly ease the difficulties of besieging Gergovia, as he could cut the enemy off from their main water supply, the River Auzon, and prevent their forces from foraging. Caesar launched a night attack by which he was able to dislodge the garrison and seize control of the hill. He built a second smaller camp there with two legions, and linked it by a double ditch 12 feet (3.6m) wide to his main camp.

Despite this success Caesar was threatened by developments among the Aedui that remain difficult to explain. Convictolitavis, whom Caesar had recently installed in the tribe’s chief magistracy, had begun a plot to end the Aedui’s allegiance to Rome. Caesar claims he was bribed, but it is difficult to accept that this was the only reason for his change of heart. The money may have been an incentive, but even for the Aedui who had benefitted from Caesar’s victories the Roman presence was a heavy burden. They had been under constant pressure to provide Caesar with supplies and troops, which must have created extensive unrest. The tribal elite had as much to fear from its Roman ally as the other Gallic states if the Romans established permanent control. The Roman alliance had been attractive when it could be used by the Aedui in their conflicts with their neighbours, but Caesar’s campaigns had ended that possibility. The success of the Gallic revolt would once again open up the options that Caesar’s campaigns had closed.

Convictolitavis seems to have been convinced of the success of that revolt and saw it as an opportunity to enhance his position. He began talks with younger members of the elite who had less to lose and more to expect from a radical change in the political and military situation. The most important faction among these young men was that of Litaviccus and his brothers. The conspirators came to an agreement and began to plan their strategy. They managed to have Litaviccus placed in charge of the 10,000 infantry that Caesar has requested to guard his supply lines to the Aedui. The Aeduan cavalry had already arrived at Caesar’s camp before the infantry had set out. When the infantry had advanced within 27 miles (43km) of Gergovia Litaviccus called an assembly of the troops. With tears streaming from his eyes he addressed them as follows:

Where are we going soldiers? Our entire cavalry force, all our nobility are dead. Eporedorix and Viridomarus without being allowed to offer a defence have been executed. Know this from these men here who escaped the slaughter. I am overwhelmed by grief at the butchery of brothers and all my relations and am unable to speak.

The men who came forward had been coached by Litaviccus and confirmed his version of events. The troops were convinced by the story and begged Litaviccus to tell them what to do. He pressed on them the urgent need to head for Gergovia and to join the Arverni in their struggle with the Romans to avenge the wrongs they had suffered. He then pointed to the Romans who had accompanied his force under his protection and urged the troops to take their revenge on them. Their goods were stolen and they were murdered. An act that he must have known would, as the massacre at Cenabum had done, irretrievably commit the Aedui to the rebel side. He then sent men back to Bibracte to rouse the Aedui to revolt with the same fabrications that had already proved so successful.

Meanwhile further trouble was brewing among the Aedui in Caesar’s camp. Two young men, Eporedorix and Viridomarus, were disputing the leadership of their cavalry contingent. This quarrel was only a continuation of an earlier disagreement they had had over the appointment of the vergobret. After hearing of Litaviccus’s plan Eporedorix had gone to Caesar during the night to inform him of it and to beg him to prevent the Aedui from defecting.

Caesar was clearly upset. Along with the Remi in Belgica the Aedui were his most important allies. His ability to carry on the siege of Gergovia depended on the Aedui provisioning him with grain and other supplies. If they rebelled his position there would become untenable. He immediately assembled a force of four legions and all of his cavalry and marched out of camp after issuing orders that Litaviccus’s brothers should be arrested, but they had already fled. He left his legate Gaius Fabius in charge of the siege with two legions but had had no time to reduce the size of the camp to make it easier for the smaller number of troops to defend it. The Romans advanced 23 miles (37km) and came in sight of the Aeduan column. Caesar sent his cavalry ahead to slow the column’s march but forbade his horsemen to kill any of the Aedui. He also commanded Eporedorix and Viridomarus to accompany them and show themselves to their fellow tribesmen. They rode up and called to them. When they were recognized the lies that Litaviccus had fed them were revealed. They immediately threw down their arms and begged for mercy. Finding himself exposed Litaviccus along with his clients fled to Gergovia. Caesar sent messengers to the Aedui to reassure them and to remind them that he could have put their infantry to death but had generously refrained doing so.

After resting his army for only three hours Caesar began his march back to Gergovia. As he advanced he was met by cavalry sent by Fabius to inform him that the camp was in danger. The small garrison that he had left behind was now under siege by a much larger force. The enemy had sufficient troops to fight in relays and the legions were on the point of exhaustion, since the size of the camp meant that no one could be spared in manning its defences. All of the camp’s gates but two had been blocked and a screen had been erected on the ramparts as a defence against the Gauls’ missiles. The threat to the camp spurred Caesar and his soldiers on. They reached the camp before sunrise.

Litaviccus’s men reached the Aedui before Caesar’s messengers. His accusations against the Romans were accepted as fact and they began to plunder the goods of the Roman citizens in Bibracte and then massacred or enslaved them. The ease with which his news was accepted points to how far the relationship with the Romans had deteriorated. Convictolitavis did all he could to support the uprising. Romans were expelled from Aeduan towns and then attacked and stripped of their baggage: among them was a military tribune, Marcus Aristeus, who was on his way to join his legion. However, once they had learned that their infantry was in Caesar’s power they immediately halted their attacks and approached Aristeus claiming that what had taken place was not done publically but had been carried out by private individuals without community sanction. To give substance to this claim they set up an inquiry into the stolen goods and confiscated the property of Litaviccus and his brothers. An embassy was dispatched to Caesar to try to clear the tribe of any wrongdoing. Regardless of their pleas for forgiveness, the Aedui seem to have taken these steps to rescue their men from Caesar; in fact, they seem to have already decided to throw in their lot with the rebels.

Caesar claims to have been aware of all this and to have decided on a withdrawal from Gergovia. It is difficult to assess the truth of his statement. The fact that he later did so after suffering one of his few reverses suggests that he may be exaggerating his foresight as a way of at least partially excusing his failure at Gergovia. He claims that a chance opportunity arose that offered the possibility of success and that led to a change of plans.

On an inspection tour of the works at the smaller camp Caesar noticed a hill that had previously been fully occupied by the Gauls now appeared empty of defenders. He questioned Gallic deserters and his own scouts and learned that there was a crest along the ridge of high ground on the rear of the hill that gave access to the plateau on which Gergovia sat. To close off this approach Vercingetorix had withdrawn his men from the hill so that they could fortify the line of the ridge. The ridge was probably part of the heights of Risolles, north-west of la Roche Blanche, where Caesar’s smaller camp was located. Questions have been raised as to whether such an action by the Gauls makes any military sense and if Caesar has altered the details to help excuse his failure at Gergovia. It is however perfectly plausible that after the loss of La Roche-Blanche Vercingetorix had decided to create a fallback position from the hill along the ridge to prevent the Romans from reaching the plateau. Caesar, in claiming the hill was devoid of men, is probably exaggerating. Vercingetorix probably left a smaller than normal garrison while most of his men were engaged in fortifying the ridge.

Caesar now saw the possibility of drawing the Gauls off from their main camp below the town so that it could be attacked. He dispatched a number of cavalry to the hill around midnight, instructing them to create as much disruption as possible. The next morning at dawn he sent drovers mounted on their mules and pack-horses disguised as cavalry and interspersed with a small number of real cavalry to ride around the hill and create a diversion. Caesar then sent a legion towards the same high ground but it halted short of the hill and concealed itself in some woods nearby. All of these movements drew off the Gauls from their main camp to defend the height. In preparation for his real objective, the attack on this camp, Caesar began to move his legions to his smaller camp nearer the enemy camp in small detachments to conceal his intentions. He then instructed his legates, each in command of a legion, that it was especially important to keep their men under control. The ground was unfavourable and the speed of the advance was crucial. He reminded them that his plan was not for a full-scale battle but simply to seize an opportunity that had presented itself. He ordered the Aedui to make an ascent to his right to further draw off the defenders.

In a straight line the distance from the town wall to where the ascent began was just over a mile. Although there were paths that led up that were less precipitous, their turnings increased the distance to the walls. The Gallic camp, which was composed of a number of separate tribal encampments, lay halfway up the hill and was protected by a 6 foot stone wall that followed the contours of the mountain. Their tents filled the space between this fortification wall and the town walls. The area in front of the 6 foot wall was unoccupied.

At the signal for attack the Romans quickly reached the fortification wall, crossed it and captured three of the enemy encampments, including that of the Nitiobriges. Caesar claims that this was all he intended and now he ordered that the retreat signal should be sounded. Caesar was with his favourite Tenth Legion, which immediately halted. He says that the others, because of a wide gully, did not hear the call for retreat but were held in check by their officers, but apparently not very effectively. They continued their pursuit of the fleeing rebels. The town wall was reached, creating panic inside the town. Some of the soldiers of the Eighth Legion, led by their centurion Lucius Fabius, managed to scale the town wall. However, the Gauls employed in fortifying another part of the town heard the uproar. They sent their cavalry on ahead and followed with all of their infantry at full speed. The Romans were exhausted by their climb, fighting on disadvantageous ground and faced by a much larger enemy force. Caesar became anxious about the situation and sent to his legate Titus Sextius who was in charge of the smaller camp to bring up cohorts quickly and to station them at the bottom of the hill on the enemy’s right flank. If the Romans were forced back Sextius’s troops would deter the Gauls’ pursuit. Caesar then advanced closer to the fighting with the Tenth and awaited its outcome. Although Caesar does not say so he presumably kept the Tenth as a reserve.

The Roman position deteriorated further when the Aedui, who had been ordered to ascend the hill, appeared and were mistaken for enemy reinforcements. Meanwhile Lucius Fabius and his men were killed and thrown headlong from the walls, while another centurion of the same legion Marcus Petronius, who was attempting to force the town’s gates, saved his men at the expense of his own life by fighting back the enemy and giving his men time to escape. The Romans were overwhelmed and forced back down the hill. The Tenth, stationed on lower ground, served as a rally point while the cohorts of the Thirteenth that had been brought up from the smaller camp and stationed on higher ground moved down to the Tenth’s former position. Once they had reached level ground the legions reformed and faced the Gauls, who now turned and made their way back to their own fortifications. The toll had been heavy, with the loss of 700 soldiers and forty-six centurions.

The next day Caesar assembled his troops and reprimanded them for their The next day Caesar assembled his troops and reprimanded them for their lack of discipline, although he made admiring remarks about their courage after so many tribulations. He then urged them not to despair. The defeat was due not to the Gauls’ bravery but rather to their fighting at a disadvantage because of the uneven ground. Right after the assembly he led the legions out and deployed them for battle on level ground. Vercingetorix brought his own troops down but after a cavalry skirmish in which the Romans prevailed he led his men back to their fortifications. Caesar formed up once again the following day and again the Gauls refused battle. It is clear that Caesar did not expect the Gauls to fight. The manoeuvre was designed to restore his men’s confidence rather than to threaten the enemy.

The fact that this was the gravest defeat that Caesar personally suffered in Gaul is indisputable but there has been much controversy over what Caesar intended at Gergovia. It is clear that his string of successful sieges at Avaricum and elsewhere led him to underestimate the strength of the Gallic resistance. Gergovia was a tempting prize. If he had captured it along with Vercingetorix he would have been able to extinguish a tribal alliance that was by far the most dangerous threat to Roman control of Gaul. However given the natural strength of the site and the large number of Gallic troops he faced, his forces were inadequate. Once he realized that capturing it by storm was a near impossibility his only option was to starve it out but he simply did not have the manpower to do so. The attack on the Gauls’ camp is mystifying. Did he simply intend a demonstration? If he did it is difficult to discern the purpose of it. Was it simply a demonstration to the Aedui and other tribes whose loyalty was ebbing away? It is hard to see what that would accomplish as long as he failed to take the town. It seems likely that Caesar intended to take Gergovia by drawing off the Gauls but that they responded too quickly and the Romans were defeated. Caesar has attempted to disguise his failure by obscuring the purpose of the attack and blaming his losses on his men’s lack of discipline rather than on the failure of his gamble. In spite of Caesar’s attempt to restore Roman prestige by offering battle to the Gauls, the failure to take Gergovia dealt a severe blow to his prestige. His legates had suffered reverses but Caesar had remained undefeated. Gergovia shattered any illusions the Gauls might have held about his invincibility and opened the way for a mass defection of the Gallic tribes now that they thought the Romans could be defeated.

Battle at Plancenoit

Prussian assault on Plancenoit. At 4 pm, even as Ney was preparing his grand cavalry assault on Wellington’s position, the Prussian vanguard was massing under the cover of the Bois de Paris forest along Napoleon’s right (eastern) flank. Here the lead elements of Von Bülow‘s IV Korps: two infantry brigades, two batteries of guns, and a regiment of Silesian Hussars were poised to strike toward the village of Plancenoit. Behind them and still marching forward was the rest of the Corps, in total some 32,000 men.

Map of battle at Plancenoit

The Young Guard at Plancenoit.

General Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow’s troops drove the French out of Plancenoit. It was gutter fighting, close-quarters carnage with bayonets and musket butts in alleys and cottage gardens. Cannon blasted roundshot and canister down narrow streets fogged by powder smoke and puddled with blood. A few French troops hung on to some houses on the village’s western edge, but they were in danger of being surrounded by Prussian troops advancing in the fields either side of the village.

Napoleon could not afford to lose Plancenoit. It lay behind his line and would make a base from which Blücher’s troops could advance on the Brussels highway. If that highway was cut, then the French would have no road on which to retreat. They would be effectively surrounded, and so the Emperor sent his Young Guard to retake the village.

The Young Guard was part of the Imperial Guard, those elite troops so beloved of the Emperor. To join the Guard a soldier had to have taken part in three campaigns and be of proven character, a requirement less moral than disciplinary, and the successful applicants were rewarded with better equipment, higher pay and a distinctive uniform. Traditionally the Guard, which had its own infantry, cavalry and artillery and so formed an army within the army, was held back from battle so that it was available to make the killing stroke when it was needed. There was, naturally enough, some resentment within the wider French army of the privileges accorded to the Guard, but nevertheless most soldiers held the ambition of being chosen to join its ranks. Their nickname, ‘the Immortals’, was partly sarcastic, referring to the many battles when the Guard had not been called into action (the Guard called themselves grognards, grumblers, because they found it frustrating to be held in reserve when other men were fighting). But if there was resentment there was also admiration. The Guard was intensely loyal to Napoleon, they were proven to be brave men, they fought like tigers, and their boast was that they had never been defeated. No enemy would ever underestimate their fighting ability or their effectiveness.

The Young Guard were skirmishers, though they could fight in line or square like any other battalion, and there were just over 4,700 of them at Waterloo. When it became apparent that Lobau’s outnumbered men were being driven from Plancenoit the Emperor despatched all eight battalions of the Young Guard to retake the village. They were led by General Guillaume Philibert Duhesme, a thoroughly nasty character who was a child of the French Revolution. A labourer’s son, he had risen to high rank because he was competent, but he was also corrupt, venal, cruel and sadistic. He had trained as a lawyer, then become a soldier, and regarded Napoleon with some suspicion, believing, rightly, that the Emperor had betrayed many of the principles of the French Revolution, but Duhesme was too good a soldier to be ignored and Napoleon trusted him with the Young Guard. Duhesme was an expert on light infantry tactics, indeed his slim textbook Essai Historique de l’Infanterie Légère became the standard work on the subject for much of the nineteenth century.

Light infantry, trained to think and act independently, were perfectly suited to the counter-attack on Plancenoit. The Young Guard advanced and took musket fire from houses on the village edge, but Duhesme refused to let them answer that fire, instead leading them straight into the streets and alleys that would be cleared by their bayonets. It worked, and the Prussians were tumbled back out of the village and even pursued for some distance beyond. General Duhesme was badly wounded in the head during the vicious fighting and was to die two days later.

The Young Guard had done everything asked of it and upheld the traditions of the Imperial Guard, but von Bülow’s men were being reinforced minute by minute as more troops crossed the Lasne valley and made their way through the woods to the battlefield. The Prussians counter-attacked, driving the French out of the houses on the western side of the village and besieging the stone-walled churchyard. Colonel Johann von Hiller led one of two Prussian columns that:

succeeded in capturing a howitzer, two cannon, several ammunition wagons and two staff officers along with several hundred men. The open square around the churchyard was surrounded by houses from which the enemy could not be dislodged … a firefight developed at fifteen to thirty paces range which ultimately decimated the Prussian battalions.

The Young Guard was fighting desperately, but Blücher could feed still more men into the turmoil and slowly, inevitably, the Young Guard was forced back. The Prussians recaptured the church and its graveyard, then went house by house, garden by garden, fighting through alleys edged by burning houses, and the Young Guard, now hopelessly outnumbered, retreated grudgingly.

Napoleon had thirteen battalions of the Imperial Guard left in his reserve. He had arrayed them north and south to form a defensive line in case the Prussians broke through at Plancenoit, but to prevent that he now sent two battalions of the Old Guard to reinforce the hard-pressed French troops in the village. The two battalions went into the smoke and chaos with fixed bayonets, their arrival heartened the French survivors and the fight for Plancenoit swung again, this time in favour of the French. The newly arrived veterans of the Old Guard fought their way back to the high churchyard, captured it and garrisoned themselves inside its stone wall. Even they were hard-pressed and at one moment their General, Baron Pelet, seized the precious Eagle and shouted, ‘A moi, Chasseurs! Sauvons l’Aigle ou mourons autour d’elle!’ To me, Chasseurs! Save the Eagle or die around her! The Guard rallied. Pelet, later in the fight, discovered Guardsmen cutting the throats of Prussian prisoners and, disgusted, stopped the murders. For the moment, at least, Pelet had stiffened the French defence and Plancenoit belonged to the Emperor, and so the threat to Napoleon’s rear had been averted.

Yet von Bülow’s men were not the only Prussians arriving at the battlefield. Lieutenant-General Hans von Zieten’s 1st Corps had left Wavre early in the afternoon and taken a more northerly route than von Bülow’s men. They had been delayed because General Pirch’s 2nd Corps was following von Bülow’s southern route and von Zieten’s and Pirch’s Corps, each of several thousand men with guns and ammunition wagons, met at a crossroads and there was inevitable confusion as the two columns tried to cross each other’s line of march. Von Bülow and Pirch had been sent to attack Napoleon’s right wing at Plancenoit, while von Zieten’s men took the more northerly roads so that they could link up with Wellington’s men on the ridge.

A History Changing Decision

General von Zieten’s men had been heavily engaged in the fighting at Ligny, where they had lost almost half their strength. Now, in the slanting sun of the evening, von Zieten led around five thousand men towards Wellington’s position. They would have heard the battle long before they saw it, though the pall of powder smoke, lit by the sheet-lightning of gun-flashes, would have been visible above the trees. The first contact came when the leading troops reached the château of Frichermont, a substantial building on the extreme left of Wellington’s position. It had been garrisoned by Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar’s Nassauer troops, the same men who had saved Quatre-Bras with their gallant defence two days before. Saxe-Weimar had been fighting all afternoon, staving off French attacks on Papelotte and La Haie; now suddenly he was attacked from the rear. One of his officers, Captain von Rettburg, recalled how his infantry was driven back ‘by numerous skirmishers followed by infantry columns’:

Skirmishers even attacked me from the hedges in my rear. When I drove them off I became aware that we were faced by Prussians! They in turn recognised their error which had lasted less than ten minutes but had caused several dead and wounded on both sides.

What von Rettburg does not say is that it was his bravery that ended the unfortunate clash of allies. He made his way through the musket fire to tell the Prussians their mistake. The Nassauers wore a dark green uniform, which could be mistaken for the dark blue of French coats, and their headgear was French in shape.

More chaos was to follow. General von Zieten’s men were needed desperately on the ridge. Wellington knew another French assault was likely, and if the Prussians reinforced his left wing he could bring troops from there to strengthen his centre. General von Zieten sent scouts ahead and one of them, a young officer, returned to say that all was lost. He had seen Wellington’s army in full retreat. Just like Marshal Ney he had mistaken the chaos behind Wellington’s line for defeat, thinking it was a panicked attempt to escape when in fact it was just wounded men being taken to the rear, ammunition wagons, servants and stray horses. Shells exploded among them and roundshot, skimming the ridge, threw up gouts of earth where they landed. It looked as if the French were cannonading the panicked mass, adding to the impression of a rout. The Prussian officer could probably see little that happened on the ridge itself, it was so fogged by powder smoke, but through that smoke he would have seen the red flash of French cannons firing and the smaller flicker of muskets, their sudden flames lighting the smoke and fading instantly. Every now and then there was a larger explosion as a shell found an artillery caisson, and the ‘cloud’ of French skirmishers was close to the ridge’s crest, and so were some of the cannon, and behind the skirmishers were prowling cavalry, dimly visible through the smoke. No wonder the young officer believed that the French had captured Wellington’s ridge and that the Duke’s forces were in full retreat. He galloped back to von Zieten and told him it was hopeless, that there was no point in joining Wellington because the Duke was defeated.

And at that same moment a staff officer arrived from Blücher with new orders. The newcomer, Captain von Scharnhorst, could not find von Zieten, so he galloped to the head of the column and gave them their orders directly: they were to turn round and march south to help Blücher with his stalled attack on Plancenoit. Wellington, it seemed, would not be reinforced; instead the Prussians would fight their separate battle south of Napoleon’s ridge.

General von Müffling, the liaison officer with Wellington, had been waiting for von Zieten’s arrival. He had expected it much earlier, but now, at last, von Zieten’s Corps was in sight at the extreme left wing of Wellington’s position. Then, to von Müffling’s astonishment, those troops turned and marched away. ‘By this retrograde movement,’ he wrote, ‘the battle might have been lost.’ So von Müffling put spurs to his horse and galloped after the retreating Prussians.

Meanwhile a furious argument was raging between Lieutenant-Colonel von Reiche, one of von Zieten’s staff officers, and Captain von Scharnhorst. Von Reiche wanted to obey the original orders and go to Wellington’s assistance, despite the report of the Duke’s defeat, but von Scharnhorst insisted that Blücher’s new orders must be obeyed. ‘I pointed out to him’, von Reiche said:

that everything had been arranged with von Müffling, that Wellington counted on our arrival close to him, but von Scharnhorst did not want to listen to anything. He declared that I would be held responsible if I disobeyed Blücher’s orders. Never had I found myself in such a predicament. On one hand our troops were endangered at Plancenoit, on the other Wellington was relying on our help. I was in despair. General von Ziethen was nowhere to be found.

The troops had paused while this argument raged, but then General Steinmetz, who commanded the advance guard of von Zieten’s column, came galloping up, angry at the delay, and brusquely told von Reiche that Blücher’s new orders would be obeyed. The column dutifully continued marching eastwards, looking for a smaller lane that led south towards Plancenoit, but just then von Zieten himself appeared and the argument started all over again. Von Zieten listened and then took a brave decision. He would ignore Blücher’s new orders and, believing von Müffling’s assurance that the Duke was not in full retreat, he ordered his troops onto the British–Dutch ridge. The Prussian 1st Corps would join Wellington after all.

The 1st Corps had its own guns, 6-pounder cannons and 7-pounder howitzers, and they were the first of von Zieten’s weapons to be unleashed on the French. They were presumably firing along the face of the ridge, probably aiming at the gun-flashes lighting the smoke around La Haie Sainte, and fairly soon after opening fire the Prussian guns found themselves being answered with counter-battery fire. Captain Mercer, of the Royal Horse Artillery, tells the story best:

We had scarcely fired many rounds at the enfilading battery, when a tall man in the black Brunswick uniform came galloping up to me from the rear, exclaiming ‘Ah! Mine Gott! Mine Gott! Vat is it you done, sare? Dat is your friends de Proosiens; ans you kills dem!’

The Prussian guns had been aiming at Mercer’s battery and caused casualties, and Mercer, despite the Duke’s orders that forbade counter-battery fire, had responded. That mistake too was eventually corrected. Such errors were probably unavoidable: there were too many unfamiliar uniforms in the allied armies and the smoke was casting a gloom over a battlefield lit by the glare of flames. It was past seven in the evening now and the fortunes of war had swung sharply against the Emperor, yet all was not lost.

Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was working its magic again. Ten battalions had been sufficient to stall the Prussian attack on Plancenoit, and eleven battalions remained in reserve. The French were pushing hard at Wellington’s line, they were close to the ridge top now, especially at the centre above La Haie Sainte. Ney had pleaded for more troops so he could launch a killer blow at Wellington’s centre and Napoleon had refused him, but now, with Prussian numbers increasing, it was time to throw the best troops of France, if not of all Europe, at the Duke’s wounded line.

French Infantry

Numerically the largest element of the army was the infantry, which (excluding the Guard) was divided into line and light regiments (infanterie de ligne and infanterie légère respectively). During the period of the French Revolutionary Wars the term ‘regiment’ had been thought redolent of aristocratic privilege, so the term ‘Demi-Brigade’ had been substituted; but after successive reorganizations the title ‘Regiment’ was restored on 24 September 1803. Originally there were ninety regiments, numbered from 1 to 111, some numbers, beginning with 31, being vacant. Each regiment consisted of a number of battalions, usually three or four, each capable of operating separately, although throughout the empire period it was usual for two or more battalions of the same regiment to take the field together, in the same brigade.

Originally each battalion consisted of nine companies, but from February 1808 a reorganization was instituted, by which each regiment was to comprise four service battalions (bataillons de guerre) and a depot battalion of four companies commanded by a senior captain, with a major in command of the depot itself. Each bataillon de guerre was composed of six companies, four of fusiliers (the ordinary line infantry, named from the fusil or musket) and two elite companies, one of grenadiers (theoretically the most stalwart veterans) and one of voltigeurs (lit. ‘vaulters’), light infantry trained in skirmish tactics. Each company had an establishment of three officers and 137 other ranks, and each battalion was led by a chef de bataillon, a rank that does not translate easily but which, as it represented a battalion commander, might equate with a British lieutenant colonel. The regimental staff comprised the chefs de bataillon, the regimental colonel, a major, administrative personnel, craftsmen, and the tête de colonne (lit. ‘head of column’, the band, Eagle-escort and the four sapeurs (pioneers) who formed part of each grenadier company, with a sapeur corporal per regiment). None of the line regiments had a territorial or other title.

During the recent campaigns, the strength of the infantry had been augmented by two methods: the creation of additional battalions – 5th, 6th and even 7th bataillons de guerre for existing regiments, and the creation of entirely new regiments. Some had been formed by changing the title of newly recruited ‘provisional’ regiments or similar, assembled for a particular campaign; this took the numbered sequence to 122 by 1808–9. Regiments 123–126 were formed in 1810 by the incorporation of the army of the Kingdom of Holland into the French army, and by 1814 the number had risen to 156 by the conversion of National Guard to line regiments.

A reorganization occurred upon the restoration of the monarchy. In May 1814 the number of line regiments was reduced again to ninety, each of three battalions of six companies each as before, but with a reduced strength of seventy-five men per company (three officers). The first thirty regiments retained their numbers, but succeeding regiments in the sequence were renumbered to fill the gaps in the original list, so that, for example, the old 32nd Regt, became the new 31st, the old 45th the 42nd, the old 111th the new 90th, and so on. In addition, the ten senior regiments were given royal titles, from 1st to 10th respectively: du Roi, de la Reine, Dauphin, Monsieur, d’Angoulême, Berri, Orléans, Condé, Bourbon and Colonel-Général.

Upon Napoleon’s return in 1815 the royal titles were discarded and the old regimental numbers reinstated, the latter to emphasize the regiment’s prior service under Napoleon, as an aid to preserving regimental esprit de corps. The infantry was very under-strength and as before Napoleon augmented their numbers by creating new battalions for existing regiments, utilizing their regimental depots, rather than forming new regiments. Initially most regiments could muster two combat battalions (albeit often under-strength) and a 3rd Battalion of recruits in training. Napoleon determined to use the latter as garrison troops while they completed their preparations, and when at a practicable strength (500 men) they were to join the other battalions in the field; regiments were ordered to form a 4th Battalion, a 5th of four companies as a depot, and a 6th in cadre. In time this would have produced a greatly augmented force of infantry, although in the Armée du Nord most regiments actually fielded only two battalions (twelve had three, the 3rd Line four, and three just one, plus the single ‘foreign’ battalion). (In the light infantry, the 2nd fielded four battalions, five had three, four had two and the 6th just one.) Average battalion strength was just less than 600.

The infantry uniform was of a style regulated in January 1812, although its issue had often been delayed until 1813 or 1814. It comprised a short-tailed jacket or habit-veste with lapels closed to the waist, in dark blue with red collar and cuffs (with usually blue flaps), white lapels piped red, white turnbacks and blue shoulder straps piped red. Grenadiers were distinguished by red epaulettes, and voltigeurs by a chamois (yellow or yellow-buff) collar and shoulder straps or epaulettes. The head-dress was a shako bearing a brass plate in the form of an eagle atop a semi-circular shape representing an Amazon’s shield, into which the regimental number was cut; some voltigeurs had the number within a horn device upon the shield. Fusilier companies within a battalion were distinguished by a padded cloth disc at the front of the shako, dark green, sky-blue, aurore (orange) and violet for the lst-4th companies respectively. Grenadiers’ shakos had red lace upper and lower bands and side chevrons, and a red pompom or plume; for voltigeurs these distinctions were yellow. Officers had long coat-tails and gold shako lace and epaulettes, but unlike those of most other armies did not wear sashes. Leg wear consisted of white breeches and black gaiters that extended to below the knee, but as with the Imperial Guard long trousers could be worn on campaign.

Upon the restoration of the monarchy the imperial tricolour cockade carried on the front of the shako was replaced by the white cockade of the Bourbons, and other imperial symbols were removed; there is some evidence, for example, that some shako plates had the eagle removed, leaving just the numbered shield. New shako plates and badges for fusiliers’ cartridge boxes, bearing royalist devices, were introduced in February 1815, but it is unlikely that many alterations could have taken effect before Napoleon’s return, when any royalist insignia would have been removed, and the tricolour cockade was restored.

Although there had been minor, unregulated distinctions in the uniforms of some regiments, the number on the shako plate was the most visible sign of regimental identity. The officer quoted before concerning the failings of the French army in the campaign included an appeal for some form of more obvious uniform distinction, such as different facing colours, which he believed was an important consideration when officers were trying to rally broken troops and needed to recognize their own men. He also advised that each battalion should have a colour as a rallying point; the prevailing system gave only one Eagle to each regiment, not each battalion, and he claimed that some regiments kept their Eagles in the regimental baggage vehicles so as not to risk their loss in action. Previously regiments had battalion marker flags or fanions for rallying purposes, but though some seem to have been used in 1815 not all regiments would have had them.

The standard infantry weapon was the 1777-pattern musket, modified in the years IX and XIII of the Revolutionary calendar; it had iron fittings, was 151.5cm long and weighed 4.375kg; voltigeurs might carry the shorter dragoon musket (141.7cm long) as being handier for skirmishing. The short sword or sabre-briquet had been carried by NCOs, musicians and elite companies, but although it was ordered to be withdrawn from voltigeurs in 1807 the practice continued. The presence of the sabre-briquet required a second shoulder belt, over the right shoulder; otherwise only a single belt was worn, over the left shoulder, supporting both the cartridge box and bayonet. All leatherwork was whitened.

There was a separate list of light infantry regiments (infanterie légère, with regimental titles often expressed as —me Légère). In theory these regiments were more adept at skirmish tactics than the ordinary infantry, though in practice the line regiments were also able to skirmish effectively. The light regiments, however, enjoyed a distinct esprit de corps and uniform features, even if their tactical role was in practice not so different.

Under the empire, the number of light infantry regiments had risen to 34 (numbered 1–37, three numbers being vacant), but at the restoration of the monarchy only the senior fifteen regiments were retained, keeping their original numbers, while the first seven regiments were granted ‘royal’ titles, du Roi, de la Reine, Dauphin, Monsieur, d’Angoulême, Berri and Colonel-Général for the 1st–7th respectively. Organization was like that of the line regiments, with the distinction that the ordinary companies were styled chasseurs, and the grenadier companies, carabiniers.

Light infantry uniforms were similar to those of the line, the habit-veste dark blue throughout (including the lapels), with pointed cuffs and red collars (chamois for voltigeurs); breeches were also dark blue. Carabiniers had red epaulettes, chasseurs and voltigeurs blue and chamois shoulder straps respectively, though some retained the epaulettes that they had worn prior to the introduction of the 1812 uniform. All ornaments were in white metal, including the shako plates which carried the regimental number within a hunting horn device upon the shield; officers’ epaulettes and lace were silver. Arms were similar to those of the line, though initially there was more extensive use of the sabre-briquet, other than the authorized use by carabiniers, NCOs and musicians, and there was probably greater use of the lighter Dragoon musket.

For manoeuvre, a French infantry battalion could be divided into ‘divisions’ (units of two companies), ‘platoons’ (a single company) and ‘sections’ (half companies). They normally fought in three ranks, though a two-rank line had been authorized for peace-time manoeuvres as early as the 1791 regulations, and in October 1813 Napoleon had himself recommended a two-rank line, stating that the third rank was largely useless for delivering fire and using the bayonet, and that as the enemy were used to opposing French infantry in three ranks, by forming two and thus extending the frontage they would imagine the French to be one-third stronger than they actually were. Marshal Marmont added that in a firefight, three ranks usually resolved themselves spontaneously into two ranks anyway. It is not certain, however, at what point the two- or three-rank line was actually used; though with the need to maintain a minimum frontage, the weaker the numbers, the more likely would be the use of a two-deep line.

Misconceptions might arise from references to French attacks being mounted in column, the standard formation for manoeuvre. It would be possible to imagine such a columnar attack resembling a column of march, with a narrow frontage and greater depth; but this was very different from the actual formation used offensively. The commonest formation adopted by a battalion was ‘a column of divisions’ (colonne par division or colonne d’attaque par division) in which the frontage would be one ‘division’, i.e. two companies side-by-side. With a six-company battalion, two further pairs of companies would follow, with manoeuvring distance between the three ‘waves’ or pair of companies. If each company comprised 120 men in three ranks, the frontage of such a column would be 80 men and the depth 9 men; even a column formed of six companies, one behind the other, would have a frontage of 40 men and a depth of 18.

One of the most characteristic features of French infantry attacks was that they were usually preceded by large numbers of skirmishers, who could harass the enemy line with sharpshooting while concealing the extent of the following troops from the enemy’s view. These skirmishers were usually the voltigeur company of each battalion, but additional companies, or even whole battalions, might be thrown out in ‘open order’ to precede an attack. Only the first two ranks of an attacking column could use their muskets effectively, whereas in a line every man could deliver simultaneously. The confrontation between line and column, however, was more subtle than merely a calculation of muskets, and it is likely that, where there was space available, in most cases the commanders of attacking columns intended to deploy into line before contact, thus maximizing their firepower while still linking it to the superior manoeuvrability and cohesion of the advance in column.


Conscription was a traumatic experience for any civilian, but nowhere was it more so than in Russia, where the 20 million serfs bore the brunt. Responsibility for choosing the recruits ultimately fell on the village elders, who, although serfs themselves, invariably selected people whom they regarded as troublemakers and misfits. Russian conscripts were fated to serve for twenty-five years without leave, which was effectively a life term: such was the waste of human life through disease and combat, that only 10 per cent survived that long. In a society where less than 5 per cent of the population was literate, a soldier did not write home. He rarely, if ever, saw his family again, since those who returned, forgotten, scarred, or maimed, were treated as outcasts. A Russian conscript was therefore dead to his family: his beard and hair were shaven off, since he was no longer considered a villager, and on the eve of the departure, his family would hold a wake. When the time came, the conscript would be accompanied to the village limits by his family and friends, singing funereal songs. They then turned their backs on the recruit, as if he were already dead. If a conscript left behind children with no one to look after them, they were sent to military orphanages, where they were trained to be NCOs: conditions here were so harsh that a third never lived to see adulthood.

Unsurprisingly, civilians made determined efforts to avoid conscription. The most obvious way was desertion. Some potential French recruits tried to evade service by simply failing to register for the draft, but for those actually conscripted the best chance of desertion was on the march to the military depots, since the local territory was familiar. Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson and regent in the kingdom of Italy, estimated that a third of the deserters absconded just after being recruited. The incidence of desertion across Europe varied for many reasons: it was easier to escape the army in areas which were mountainous, densely forested, or frontier regions. In the Russian Empire, the distances were so vast and a runaway conscript so obvious that desertion was a very risky undertaking, but when the Russians invaded Europe, their soldiers had more opportunity to escape. Desertion actually increased when a Russian unit received orders to return home, since conscripts knew that their chances of flight would recede once back on Russian soil.

Language was important, too: on Napoleon’s side, troops who did not speak French were more likely to desert than francophone soldiers. The rates of desertion also varied from year to year: in the French Empire, they fluctuated according to the regime’s capacity to repress it. In France, desertion rates were higher when the state was weaker, particularly in the later 1790s, when the Directory was lurching from one crisis to the other, and again when the Napoleonic regime was under the cosh from 1813 and when demands for troops fell heavily once again on the French themselves. In between, however, desertion rates plummeted to as little as 2 per cent in some areas. French deserters sometimes formed gangs to rob isolated farms and travellers: this may have been pure banditry, but it was sometimes harnessed by royalists and directed against government officials and supporters of the revolutionary order. Everywhere in Europe, deserters had a better chance of escape and survival where they were supported by their own community, hiding them from the police and keeping them fed and sheltered.

In France, local authorities protected their own by loosely interpreting the term ‘unfit for service’, although the Napoleonic regime soon grew wise to this and thrust responsibility for conscription onto ‘recruiting commissions’ of prefects and military officers. Marriage was another way out: in the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy, young men married women old enough to be their grandmothers, since under the French system a married man was classified as ‘the last to march’. More drastic measures included self-mutilation—men hacked off their index fingers so that they could not pull a trigger, or they had their teeth pulled out so that they could not bite off the seal of the cartridges needed to fire their muskets.

The surviving correspondence of French soldiers shows that those who would not, or could not, evade conscription went through a range of tortuous emotions: loneliness after being cut off from family and home, confusion as they adjusted to an alien way of life, boredom in the barracks or camp, and anxiety as they confronted the possibility of death. Comrades were therefore essential, for they shared the same hardships, offered sociability and company around the camp fire or cooking pot, and swapped stories, sang songs, and shared jokes: these are not idealizations of army life, but were the ways in which soldiers found mutual support as they confronted an uncertain and perilous future. Similarly, training not only prepared the conscripts for battle, but it also provided routine: recruits were kept busy with drill, firing practice, and sentry duty. Commanding officers well knew that one of the forces most corrosive to morale was boredom and listlessness. Through a multitude of such ways, both consciously and incidentally, all units in every army fostered an esprit de corps.

Discipline was considered essential not only to ensure combat effectiveness, but to give a soldier’s life order and direction after the shock of conscription. It could be brutal. Russian soldiers were subjected to regular beatings, since obedience was believed by most officers to be the key to success on the battlefield. Any soldier who ducked an oncoming cannonball would be whipped, for (it was argued) such attempts to dodge a shell only encouraged the enemy. A soldier deemed guilty of ‘cowardice’ could be shot immediately. One of the severest of Prussian punishments was ‘running the gauntlet’ (forcing a soldier to pass between two lines of whip-wielding soldiers). The French, who had abolished flogging as unworthy of the citizen-soldier in 1789, nonetheless retained a draconian disciplinary code in every other sense. Military justice was prompt, inflexible, and severe: the boulet involved confinement with a ball and chain, while the death penalty was passed by courts martial for a wide array of offences, from minor acts of pillage to cowardice in battle. In the British army, punishments ranged from short spells of imprisonment, flogging, ‘running the gauntlet’, ‘riding the wooden horse’ (sitting astride the sharp apex of a triangular box), and death by shooting or hanging.

Yet in every major belligerent, there were voices which urged that a change was needed in discipline, which should emphasize, first and foremost, appeals to a soldier’s honour, esprit de corps, patriotism, leadership, and mutual respect between officers and men. In the French army, two decades of revolution and war had ingrained these values anyway. As citizen-soldiers, French conscripts enjoyed a status other than as pariahs: under the Republic, they were fêted as défenseurs de la patrie, defenders of the fatherland. Napoleon honoured bravery and merit, regardless of rank, with the Légion d’Honneur. In one incident in 1814, a French captain struck one of his men with the flat of his sabre, but the furious cavalryman spun on the officer, showed him his Légion d’Honneur and shamed his superior into an apology. The two men shook hands and later shared their rations and a bottle of brandy.

Esprit de corps and discipline were ultimately geared to ensure the army’s cohesion and effectiveness when campaigning began. Yet there were some factors that even the best-trained armies struggled with. Long marches in extreme conditions could break down discipline. In its lightning strike against Austria in 1805, the Grande Armée marched 300 miles in thirteen days, but prior to that, most of the army (which had been poised to invade Britain) had to cross France by forced marches. The footsoldier (later captain) Jean-Roch Coignet described marching day and night with less than an hour of sleep, so that the exhausted men locked arms to prevent themselves from falling over. Coignet eventually succumbed to fatigue and tumbled into a ditch. The remarkable achievement was that the French were still able to land such a fast series of devastating blows at the end of it all. The effects were very different seven years later, during the long march into Russia, when the distances were so vast, the summer heat so stifling, and opportunities for foraging so sparse that men collapsed and deserted. The commander of the Bavarian contingent in Napoleon’s invading army reported that the agonies of the march brought about ‘such a widespread spirit of depression, discouragement, discontent, disobedience, and insubordination that one cannot forecast what will happen’. What happened was that troops deserted in droves: the entire army may have lost as much as a third of its strength by the time it had reached Vitebsk, scarcely halfway to Moscow.

Jauréguiberry (1896)

French battleship design had a style all of its own, backed up by intensive work and study on ship behaviour, though this was often of a theoretical rather than practical kind.

Deck plan: the Jauréguiberry carried eight gun turrets on a cramped deck space that included more than 30 guns of various sizes in total.

For around 10 years from the mid-1880s, no new battleships were built for the French Navy, due to the influence of the so-called jeune école (young school) of designers. In their view, the commerce-raiding cruiser was the vessel to concentrate on, rather than the line-of-battle ship, which they considered outmoded, too expensive, too slow and too vulnerable to torpedo attack. However, since the British, the Germans, the Russians and the Americans were continuing to build battleships, the French eventually resumed, and from 1895 a range of ships of distinctive and individual appearance appeared. Certain basic characteristics were common to all, including the lozenge arrangement of big guns set in single turrets, with the fore and aft ones placed very close to stem and stern, which was continued until 1903. All had massive ram bows, and heavy masts. Jauréguiberry had many up-to-date features when completed, including watertube boilers, but was in poor condition by 1914.

Battleships were controversial in the French Navy, with some strategists and naval architects arguing that they were unnecessary and even outmoded as ships of war. The Jauréguiberry class were the first French battleships to have guns mounted in turrets rather than in barbettes.

Named for a famous naval commander, Bernard Jauréguiberry, the ship was officially classified as a cuirassé d’escadres (fleet armoured ship). Laid down at La Seynesur-Mer on 23 April 1891, it was constructed to plans by the naval architect Amable Lagane, launched on 27 October 1893 and entered service on 30 January 1896. Although four other ships formed a class with it, their appearance was different in each case, and all they had in common was the main armament. Known as the ‘fleet of one-offs’, they were not a particularly successful set of ships, with another shared factor being their instability. Jauréguiberry was the most intensively used of the five.

Jauréguiberry was 7m (23ft) shorter than any of the other ships in the ‘class’, and the main guns were placed at extreme positions fore and aft. Its maximum beam was 23m (75ft 6in) but the bulging ‘tumblehome’ construction of the hull meant that the main deck was relatively narrow. Two massive sponsons just aft of the after funnel supported two 274mm (10.8in) guns. The ship was solidly armoured with Le Creusot nickel steel, applied in a waterline belt with an upper belt above. The armoured deck was placed at the upper level of the waterline belt.

The positioning of the big guns gave the ship a field of fire in all directions, with up to three able to fire a ‘broadside’. The firing arc of the 305mm (12in) guns was 250 degrees, and at maximum elevation of 15 degrees could send a 340kg (750lb) shell 12,000m (13,000yd), which was rather more than the maximum range anticipated for ship-to-ship fighting in the years before 1910. Secondary armament was installed with anti-torpedo defence in mind, and consisted of eight 138mm (5.4in) guns in twin turrets placed at the four corners of the superstructure.

Two vast columnar masts with fighting tops and lookout posts rose above. With both funnels forward of the centre-line, the ship had a long-tailed look. Although Lagane was a highly gifted ship designer, the ‘tumblehome’ form was somewhat discredited after the sinking of Russian battleships of the similarly-hulled Borodino class at Tsushima in 1905, and it was not perpetuated.

Jauréguiberry’s career was marked by a series of minor disasters. On 30 January 1896 trials began, but were held up by a burst boiler tube and damage to the firing mechanism of one of the 305mm (12in) guns and did not resume until January 1897; then in March of that year a torpedo’s air chamber exploded, fortunately with only minor damage, and it became the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet in May. In February 1904 it was transferred to Brest and the Northern Squadron, and was damaged after hitting a rock off Brest.

On a visit to Portsmouth in 1905 it collided with an English steamer and in the same year suffered damage to its propellers from a torpedo fired from the Sagaie. During repairs in 1906 the torpedo tubes were removed. In 1907 it was based at Toulon and placed in the reserve division of the Mediterranean Squadron until April 1908.

From then it remained in service alternately at Brest and Toulon, and in October 1913 became the flagship of the Training Division. In World War I, the oldest French battleship still on the active list, it went on service in the Mediterranean, initially as a troop carrier and escort, and from March to August 1915 was French flagship in the Gallipoli campaign, firing on shore fortresses (and receiving minor damage); then it was based at Port Said to defend the Suez Canal until decommissioned in 1917. Two of the 305mm (12in) guns were unshipped and left behind to provide canal defences. On 6 March 1919 Jauréguiberry returned to Toulon for disarming, and was struck from the list on 20 June 1920. It continued in use as an accommodation hulk for engineers at Toulon until 1932. In July 1934 it was sold for scrap.



Length 112.6m (377ft 4in), Beam 22.15m (72ft 6in), Draught 8.45m (27ft 9in) Displacement 10,919 tonnes (12,036 tons) full load


24 Lagrafel d’Allest watertube boilers, 2 vertical inverted triple expansion engines, giving 10,769kW (14,441hp), 2 screws


2 305mm (12in) guns in single turrets, 2 274mm (10.8in) guns in single turrets, 8 138.6mm (5.4in) guns in twin turrets, 8 100mm (3.9in) and 16 3-pounder guns, 4 457mm (18in) torpedo tubes


Waterline belt 400–160mm (15.7–6.3in), Upper belt 170–120mm (6.7–4.7in), Armoured deck 90mm (3.5in), Main turrets 370–280mm (15–11in), Conning tower 250mm (9.8in)


7260km (3920nm) at 10 knots


17.07 knots



French Pre[Post]-Dreadnoughts

Le polyglotte, unique et moche ….

The Naval Defense Act battleships were the nine Majestics of the Spencer program of 1893, the largest single class of battleships ever constructed to one design: Majestic, Magnificent, Prince George, Mars, Jupiter, Hannibal, Victorious, Caesar, and Illustrious. The gun-loading arrangements were such an improvement over any previous designs that these battleships could get off nearly two rounds per minute, as opposed to the best of the past-2.5 minutes per round. Like the Royal Sovereigns, the Majestics were the best-designed battleships of their time. All survived to engage in secondary active-duty service in World War I. They continued the Royal Sovereigns’ basic design principles of center-line heavy guns and a respectable freeboard, the main difference being that the latter class protected its main guns in lightly armored structures. (Two of the class had no protection for the main battery, just sheet steel structures to keep out spray and splinters.) These two classes of battleships reverted to Devastation principles (except for the lack of armored turrets), reestablishing a battleship design that would prevail until battleships ceased to be built.

The French resisted this design trend, favoring their exaggerated fierce face, piled-on appearance, with high freeboard, enormous unprotected superstructures, deep tumble-home to achieve end-on fire (still thinking of ramming), along with single guns poking out of tiny turrets and exaggerated ram bows (probably as much for buoyancy as for ramming, considering the extremely short French forecastles). More tangibly, these battleships were almost unarmored above the waterline, except for their turrets, barbettes, and a waterline belt. The tumble-home reduced stability, and the large superstructures presented vulnerable targets and raised the center of gravity of the warships. The reasons for such bizarre designs are unclear, although they undoubtedly had much to do with the ram. The French themselves finally realized that these steel fantasies were a dead end, as seen in later French battleship designs that gradually moved closer to Royal Navy models. However, the French were never able to build their warships as quickly or as cheaply as the British, although their material quality was high.

The Naval Law of 1891 was France’s last attempt to challenge British battleship domination and was foredoomed by France’s lesser industrial development; French battleships themselves seemed destined to overall design inferiority. They usually turned out to be above their design weight, as compared to Royal Navy capital ships, which held to the strict controls introduced by Sir William White. French battleship construction was also hampered by inefficient shipyards, as well as financial restraints that only became worse as the French army was expanded to counter Germany’s post-Bismarck belligerency. French naval policy vacillated between challenging the Royal Navy with an oceangoing fleet or with a guerre de course based on torpedo boats and cruisers; or withdrawing into coastal defense with its dwarf armorclads and, again, torpedo boats. Neither they nor the Russians ever completed a battleship construction program before fiscal and technological realities caught up to them. Finally, after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the French felt compelled to build up the army at the expense of the navy. (It didn’t help matters that there were 31 different ministers of marine in the three decades after 1870.) The French were equivalent to or ahead of the Royal Navy, however, in two important areas: heavy guns and their mountings, and watertube boilers.

France leisurely built its first pre-dreadnought battleship, Brennus, between 1889 and 1896. Brennus mounted a mere three 13.4-inch guns on 11,000 tons, but those guns were arranged in the modern center-line mode, and the warship had no ram bow. The following Jauréguiberry class (Jauréguiberry, Charles Martel, Carnot, Bouvet, and Masséna, laid down between 1890 and 1892) was something of a throwback to the excesses of earlier French ironclad design, with their low displacement, fierce face, exaggerated tumble-home on lofty, relatively unprotected hulls, cluttered, unprotected upperworks, and single guns in tiny turrets. Their main battery was a mixed bag of two 12-inch and two 10.8-inch guns, the latter sponsoned over the hull tumblehome, presumably to give ahead-fire, even though the naval powers were going over to line-ahead capital ship formations that emphasized broadside fire. Bouvet and Masséna, however, should be credited for pioneering the triple shaft-engine arrangement for battleships. Only with the Charlemagne class (Charlemagne, St. Louis, and Gaulois, laid down 1894-1896) did French battleship design seem to come to terms with the new long-range, line-ahead demands of big gun naval battle. Yet they still retained the tumble-home, confused and vulnerable upperworks, and turrets that seemed too small for their guns. The Charlemagnes took some four to five years to complete (and the Brennus seven), while the contemporaneous Majestics were completed in an average of two and a half years. Not until Republique and Patrie (laid down 1901-1902) were French battleships given sufficiently generous dimensions to achieve speed, armament, and protection roughly comparable to contemporary Royal Navy battleships. Their similar successors, Démocracy, Justice, Liberté, and Verité (laid down 1902-1903) were fine monuments to the lofty civic virtues they commemorated but were soon rendered obsolete by the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought.

In stark contrast to the rivalry in ship types and numbers that had previously characterized competition between France and Britain, the French decided not to immediately follow the lead set In the introduction of Dreadnought Over the course of 1907 and 1908, they defied the trend and laid down six pre dreadnought battleships of the Danton class designed around the old standard of four 12-inch (305-mm) guns. 18,000 ions, a speed of 18 knots li was not until 1910 that their first dreadnoughts were laid down. These were four ships of the Courbei class, mounting twelve 12-inch guns in tour superfiring turrets fore and aft and two wing turrets The three ships of the Bretagne Class followed in 1912 to an improved design of five twin 13.4-inch (340-mm) turrets mounted on the centre line These were to be the last French dreadnoughts completed before the outbreak of World War I This effort was not enough. however, to prevent France slipping from second largest navy, as measured in battleships, to fifth after the US, Russia and Germany.

Further battleships were planned to help restore the French fleet’s international standing, including five Normandie Class and four Lyon Class These interesting and unusual dreadnoughts reverted to a non-superfiring layout of the main armaments, with all turrets on the centre line. The 13.4-inch (340-mm) gun was retained but mounted in quadruple turrets, the first lime such an arrangement had been proposed. Difficulties expected in manufacturing fuel-efficient turbines resulted in a mixed turbine reciprocating machinery installation. All the Normandies were laid down and launched but were effectively abandoned after the outbreak of World War I. With the exception of one. Beam, which was convened into an aircraft carrier in 1923/27, they were scrapped during the early 1920s.

The loss of the Bouvet

In 1914, the British ships that were to engage the Dardanelles forts were fitted with Armstrong/EOC guns and also those made by Vickers Limited, a relative newcomer to British arms manufacturing that started in this business in 1887. The main armaments of the British capital ships were of three calibres: 10-inch (254mm) on the Swiftsure and Triumph; 15-inch (381mm) on the Queen Elizabeth; 12-inch (305mm) guns being fitted to the remainder of the warships. The main armament of the French pre-dreadnoughts Bouvet, Verite, Gaulois, Charlemagne and Suffren were also 12-inch (305mm) (see Appendix Six, British and French Battleships used in the Dardanelles campaign up to the 18 March 1915).

The accepted reason for the loss of the Bouvet is that she hit a mine in Erenkoi Bay, and this may well be true. Her rapid sinking in something less than two minutes with smoke pouring from amidships suggests that she sank due to an internal explosion, probably a magazine blowing up, but was this caused by striking a mine or by a shell penetrating the ship? The Bouvet was hit by at least eight shells, two of which may have been from a 355mm gun, and her main armament forward gun was put out of action. The four French ships of the Third Division had been as close as 10,000 yards (9,100m) from the Narrows, and many of the Turkish heavy shells fired that day were the armour-piercing New type, which had the range to reach to Erenkoi Bay. Shells from the 6-inch/45s at Rumeli Mesudiye Battery at Suandere Bay also hit the ship, causing serious damage.

The Bouvet’s dated design of a pronounced tumblehome hull, which had been common on wooden-walled warships for centuries but was still peculiar to French battleships built in the 1890s, may have offered an almost flat surface to a plunging shell. The ship was armed with two 305mm/40 guns, one forward and one aft, plus two 274mm/45 guns amidships set on either side of the tumblehome. Also, eight 138mm/45 guns were mounted on the tumblehome, four each side. The magazines were below each gun, which meant that the magazines for the tumblehome guns were close to the hull of the ship: was one of them detonated by an exploding contact mine? The Bouvet’s sides were armoured, ranging from 400mm thick amidships tapering to 200mm along the ship’s length, but this was only a metre or so above and below the waterline. If she did strike a submerged mine then her main armour belt would have offered no protection. Above the main armour was a 100mm belt carried up one deck to protect the ammunition hoists, together with another below this known as a splinter deck, but would these have been able to resist a 725kg armour-piercing shell from a Krupp 355mm L/35 falling at a steep angle at the end of its flight? However, there were parts of the deck devoid of armour: companion ways on the ship’s centreline midway between the 274mm turrets. If a shell had plunged into the ship via this access, then it could have readily reached the magazine decks before exploding.

The ship had watertight compartments along her length, and also longitudinal bulkheads, which would have made her likely to capsize with any significant water ingress on one side only. The resulting explosion of a magazine, whatever the cause, would have opened the hull, probably exposing more than one of the ship’s watertight compartments, causing her to fill with water and roll over, as she did. Other ships hit mines that day and did not sink quickly, slowly filling with water, enabling the crews to be evacuated or for the ship to be saved. In 1937, French naval historian Paul Chack described the moment of the explosion:

At that moment a violent jolt shook the hull armour. Lieutenant Quernel said ‘We have taken a heavy calibre shell.’ A spray of water throws up at the starboard 274mm turret. By the doorway thick yellow smoke makes people believe that the explosion is from a projectile inside the ship. ‘I rather believe that it is a mine,’ responds Captain Rageot de la Touche.

Captain Rageot de la Touche did not survive the sinking but five officers did, including Lieutenant Quernel, who described a huge gap in the deck caused by a shell that struck near to the rear turret. The ship was on fire below deck, but men remained at their stations in the awful conditions that asphyxiated many of them. The second in command, Commander Autric, believed that the ship had been torpedoed, and went to investigate. He did not survive.

Sir Julian Corbett wrote a significant description of the sinking:

The French flagship (Suffren) had just passed through the British line, and the Bouvet was about to do so, when a huge column of reddish black smoke shot up from under her. Whether it was from a shell or a mine could not be seen. It was followed almost immediately by another, higher and more dense, which seemed to tell a magazine had gone. As the smoke cleared she was seen to have taken on a heavy list, and then in two minutes she turned turtle and went down.

The acclaimed Turkish diver Tosun Sezen dived on the Bouvet in 1968, when working for the Ministry of Finance to remove metal from the wreck. The ship had taken four days to locate using photographs of the sinking to spot for landmarks and a magnetometer to detect the mass of steel. He reported that the ship is lying by the stern and at an angle with the starboard propeller shaft visible, so revealing that side of the hull where a massive rent is located amidships which has almost ripped the ship apart. He also dived on the wreck of the Irresistible, recovering more than 100 tons of bronze, and the hole caused by the mine that sank this ship is only about a metre in diameter.

It is beyond reasonable doubt that a devastating internal explosion sank the Bouvet, but we may never know if this was as a result of striking a mine, from a shell or shells penetrating her hull to cause a terrible fire that detonated a magazine, or from a cruel combination of both.