Keren (1941) Part I

‘Am concerned at check developing at Keren. Abyssinia might be left, but had hopes Eritrea would be cleaned up’ – read the telegram to Cairo of a worried Winston Churchill on 20 February 1941. The mountainous escarpment of Keren formed a natural fortress barrier shielding the coastal province of Eritrea from the interior of Africa. Italy had annexed Eritrea in 1890 and from there Mussolini’s armies had overrun Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in 1935-6. Now, five years later, they had made Keren the bastion of II Duce’s East African Empire against British invasion from the Sudan. Keren was to be a soldier’s battle in the grimmest imaginable conditions and terrain and here as nowhere else in the Second World War Italian soldiers of all types were to belie the belief that they were a pushover in battle.

As early as August 1939, General Sir Archibald Wavell, British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, concluded that there were four things he must do in the event of Italy going to war alongside Germany. These were to secure the Suez Canal base by acting boldly in the Western Desert; get control of the Eastern Mediterranean; clear the Red Sea; then develop operations in south-east Europe. After Mussolini’s entry into the Second World War in June 1940 Wavell wrestled to achieve these objectives. What he had not foreseen was that he would be required to do all four simultaneously with inadequate resources. Yet in spite of some nasty shocks he managed the first of these tasks and was wholly, startlingly, successful in the third. It is of this campaign, the clearing of East Africa and the Red Sea, that Keren formed a part.

Wavell’s strategic dilemma is admirably depicted and the one bright spot on an otherwise dark canvas is suitably illuminated by his cable to Winston Churchill in the last week of March 1941, after Keren had been captured. It was in reply to a message from the Prime Minister expressing alarm at Rommel’s advance to El Agheila, and it helps to set the battle in its proper context:

I have to admit taking considerable risks in Cyrenaica after capture of Benghazi in order to provide maximum support for Greece . . . Result is I am weak in Cyrenaica at present and no reinforcements of armoured troops, which are chief requirement, are at present available . . . Have just come back from Keren. Capture was very fine achievement by Indian divisions. Platt will push on towards Asmara as quickly as he can and I have authorised Cunningham to continue towards Addis Ababa from Harrar, which surrendered yesterday.

Wavell had four campaigns on his hands — Cyrenaica, Greece, Eritrea and Ethiopia. It was essential to get the East African battles over and done with. Ethiopia had to be dealt with quickly in order to send the much-needed troops back to the Western Desert where the dangers were so much greater – point which Rommel was shortly to rub home. But before this could be done, before troops and stores could be sent via the Red Sea port of Massawa to Egypt and so on to Libya and Greece, the Asmara-Addis Ababa road had to be captured. And in the way stood the fortress of Keren.

On 19 January 1941, Lieutenant-General William Platt advanced from the Sudan into Eritrea, while a few days later Lieutenant- General Sir Alan Cunningham set out on his march from Kenya with African and South African troops. Platt quickly reached Keren but the battle for it, the most severe of the whole East African campaign, lasted nearly two months. After its capture Platt soon took Asmara and Massawa, thus opening the vital route to the north. Cunningham’s successes were equally astonishing in speed and distance. By 25 February he had taken Mogadishu together with a huge petrol dump, and a month later, having advanced 1,000 miles, reached Harrar. By 5 April he had captured Addis Ababa and then the two forces, Platt from the north, Cunningham from the south, converged on Amba Alagi.

It was here that the Duke of Aosta, Italian Viceroy of Ethiopia, had concentrated what was left of his armies. By 16 May all was over. The extent and totality of the victory were summed up by Wavell in his despatch: The conquest of Italian East Africa had been accomplished in four months … in this period a force of 220,000 men had been practically destroyed with the whole of its equipment, and an area of nearly a million square miles had been occupied. It was that rare thing – a complete victory, a battle of annihilation since none of the enemy escaped. The fighting was unlike any other in the war. Great mountain barriers had been stormed. In Ethiopia the operations, among which Orde Wingate’s Gideon force ranks high, had been largely guerrilla, and had succeeded in tying down large numbers of Italian troops which were thus unable to concentrate against the advancing British columns. Yet these columns had been small and this was their strength, since supply problems, although formidable, had been surmountable. Mobility had been everything, while for the Italians the very size of the huge Empire they tried to protect had paralyzed them. How did the situation appear to the Italian Viceroy?

Despite the Italians’ early and relatively insignificant successes of July 1940 when they captured frontier posts in Kenya and Sudan and invaded British Somaliland, Aosta’s strategy was essentially defensive. By the beginning of December 1940 he was already expecting British offensives from the Sudan against Eritrea, particularly from Kassala towards Keren, and from Kenya against Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia. Because of fuel and vehicle shortages it was difficult to ensure that his centrally held reserves would be sufficiently agile to reinforce a threatened area rapidly. He therefore decided to send some of these reserves forward, especially in the north towards Eritrea where he rightly thought that the first blow would fall.

In Eritrea itself he ordered the local commanders to organize areas of resistance which were to be firmly held while mobile reserves, mainly colonial brigades, would be prepared to operate between these areas and attack an advancing enemy’s flanks. Eritrea contained three colonial divisions and three colonial brigades plus garrison troops. These native troops, Askaris , would be peculiarly susceptible to reverses and their loyalty would be unlikely to survive serious setbacks. In the north, where Generale di Corpo d’Armante Luigi Frusci commanded, the Viceroy foresaw grave difficulties in countering the British mechanized forces which would advance across flat country near the Sudan-Eritrea frontier, and on 11 January 1941 he therefore sought Mussolini’s agreement to the evacuation of Kassala, Tessenei and Gallabat-Metemma. II Duce agreed. On the other hand, Aosta decreed that there would be no withdrawal from Agordat and Barentu, both south-west of Keren, and that Keren itself would be strengthened by a regiment of the elite Savoia Grenadier Division. In this way they would help `to close the gap absolutely.’ Such was the situation shortly before Platt began his advance. He had two very famous Indian Divisions under his command – the 4th (which Wavell had sent from Libya in January thereby taking the sort of risk he pointed out in his telegram to Churchill) and the 5th stationed in the Sudan since September 1940. These divisions were made up largely of Indian troops, ideally suited to the mountain warfare which they were about to wage, but there were British battalions and other units too. Platt had also formed the 1,000-strong Gazelle Force partly from units in 5th Indian Division, notably the renowned Indian cavalry regiment, Skinner’s Horse, and from the Sudan Defence Force. The group included machine-gun, artillery and supporting units and was commanded by the dashing Colonel Frank W. Messervy. While Platt was still on the defensive, Gazelle Force had been used to harass and ambush Italian troops in and near Kassala. So successful were they that the Italians withdrew from Kassala by mid-January.

General Platt’s task was clear. He must advance from Kassala into Eritrea and take Massawa, a distance as the crow flies of about 230 miles. There were only two ways of getting there and both routes led through Agordat to Keren. The northern route, a poor and narrow dry-weather road, was via Sabderat and Keru; the southern one was a better road but less direct and went through Tessenei and Barentu to Agordat. A well-surfaced road ran from Agordat to Keren and then on to Asmara and Massawa. The whole country was in one sense ideal for war. Except for the few towns, roads, railways and bridges, there was, as in the desert, little made by man to be destroyed. Yet curiously enough the place was alive with game. For the soldiers themselves it was less hospitable – mountainous, arid and rough. `The plains and valleys’, wrote Lieutenant-General Sir Geoffrey Evans, `were a mixture of jungle or open spaces dotted with outcrops of rock, stunted trees, palms near water and scrub, the mountains, strewn with boulders of immense size, spear grass and thorn bushes, were extremely arduous to climb in the heat, particularly when the troops were loaded with a full pack, ammunition and often an extra supply of water since there was none on the slopes.’

Fifth Indian Division was to advance to Agordat by Tessenei and Barentu, while 4th Indian Division with two of its brigades made for the same objective via Keru. The third brigade of 4th Indian Division was to move to Keren from Port Sudan. The whole advance began with Gazelle Force in the lead on the northern route. There was a certain amount of excitement before they reached Agordat. On 21 January, as a divisional history has recorded,

while Messervy was engrossed with the situation at Keru, a nearby patch of scrub erupted. With shrill yells a squadron of Eritrean horsemen, 60 in number raced on the gun positions in front of Gazelle Force Headquarters. Kicking their shaggy ponies to a furious gallop, the cavalrymen rose in their stirrups to hurl small percussion grenades ahead of them. With great gallantry they surged on, but the gunners brought their pieces into action in time to blow back the horsemen from the muzzles of the guns.

There could have been few such bizarre actions during six years of war. The intrepid horsemen, led in by an Italian officer on a white horse, left 25 dead and 16 wounded on the field of battle.

More serious business confronted Gazelle Force. The battle for the heights to the south of Keru Gorge required the combined efforts of 4th Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, Skinner’s Horse and 2nd Cameron Highlanders against firm Italian resistance. Even then it was more the danger of being outflanked and cut off from the south by 10th Brigade of 5th Indian Division than direct frontal pressure which caused the Italians to abandon their positions. By 25 January 4th Indian Division had closed up on Agordat, had cut the Barentu road and faced their first real obstacle. Meanwhile 5th Indian Division was ordered to take Barentu. Italian resistance there was stubborn, and just as 10th Brigade’s advance had helped 4th Indian Division to capture the Keru Gorge heights, so 4th Indian Division’s subsequent success at Agordat allowed the 5th to overrun the Italians at Barentu on 2 February.

The battle for Agordat resolved itself into a struggle for Mount Cochen, described by those who saw it as `a steep and involved ridge system which sprang to a height of 1,500 ft, its rugged barrier extending into the east until it ended above a defile four miles long through which the road to Keren passed. The Agordat and Mount Cochen position was held by the Italian 4th Colonial Division, which was then attacked by two brigades, the 5th and 11th, of 4th Indian Division. The gallant actions of Indian and British infantry were greatly assisted by four T (Infantry) tanks whose job it was to knock out the Italian armor. Lightweight Bren-gun carriers were used to lure the Italian tanks out of their hides. The bait was taken with a vengeance. Eighteen Italian tanks burst from cover and raced to destroy the flimsy intruders. Then the T” tanks barged into the open, their guns playing on their Italian adversaries at point-blank range. Six medium and five light tanks went up in flames. The survivors scuttled frantically into cover.

On the crests of Mount Cochen itself the final action had been dramatic and bloody. The Italian commander then had dispatched a company of Eritrean infantry to contain Indian troops advancing on the peak itself so that he could withdraw his main body to new positions. But the Eritreans encountered a covering force of some 40 Rajputana Rifles and Pathan Sappers and Miners who Tell on the Eritreans like furies, plying the steel and leaving a wake of dead and wounded behind them. The survivors scattered in frantic flight. Over 100 bodies were counted along the slopes after. No further resistance was met as 11th Brigade advanced along the heights and made good the eastern end of the Cochen ridge system overlooking the Keren road.’ It seemed at this moment as if the road to Keren itself was open. The cost had not been high. Fewer than 150 casualties had been suffered by Major-General Sir Noel M. Beresford-Peirse’s two brigades while the Italian 4th Colonial Division had disintegrated, losing over a thousand prisoners.


Keren (1941) Part II

The view from an RAF bomber as the mountainous terrain outside the town of Keren is attacked.

Yet the road to Keren was not open. Demolition of the Ponte Mussolini, a great bridge 12 miles east of Agordat on the Via Imperiali autostrada, plus heavy mining of the deviation, bought the Italian rearguards precious time. The retreating enemy were able to pass through the Dongolaas Gorge, 40 miles farther east, and then to prepare another far more formidable demolition. On 2 February the vanguard of 4th Indian Division, advancing along the Ascidera valley, were within two miles of the Gorge’s entrance:

From the canyon came dull booms, clouds of smoke and dust curled upwards in the still, hot air. The last Italian rearguards had passed through, and on a stretch of several hundred yards demolition squads were blowing away the retaining walls which pinned the road to the cliffsides. Two tanks crossed the valley to reconnoitre and reported the ravine to be blocked by barricades of huge boulders covered by anti-tank and machine guns. The eastern gateway of the Eritrean fortress was bolted and barred.

The Keren position, to those who first saw it, looked almost impregnable. Fifty-three days were to elapse before the fortress itself was passed by British troops. Either side of the Dongolaas Gorge 11 great peaks rose steeply to a height of more than 2,000 ft above the valley. To the west were Sanchil, Cameron’s Ridge, Brig’s Peak, Saddle, Hog’s Back, Flat Top and Samanna; to the east Fort Dologorodoc, Falestoh, Zeban, Acqua Col and Zelale (the Sphinx), overlooking what was ironically named `Happy Valley’. Sanchil and Brig’s Peak afforded observation of Keren itself and were therefore particularly important. On this naturally powerful position the Italians deployed the best part of 30,000 men, some 40 infantry battalions, supported by 144 guns. Most of the troops were colonial, but the regular Italian battalions included some of their finest fighters – Savoia Grenadiers, Alpini and Bersaglieri.

The two Indian divisions – and because of transport shortages it was impossible to maintain both divisions complete in battle simultaneously – were faced with the disagreeable prospect of a frontal assault. There was simply no other way to open the road through the Dongolaas Gorge and thus achieve the objective of reaching Asmara and then Massawa. The battle can be divided into three phases. The first phase from 3 to 7 February was conducted by Brigadier Reginald A. Savory with his 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. He attempted to capture Brig’s Peak and Sanchil. His troops reached both summits, but lost them again to Savoia Grenadier counter-attacks, while hanging on to Cameron’s Ridge, won by the Scottish regiment of that name. The great difficulty facing the British and Indian infantry was that to reach their objectives at all demanded intensive physical effort. Artillery bombardment could normally reach only the forward slopes and had to be lifted before a final assault. On reaching their objective the exhausted infantry, already depleted in numbers by casualties and by having to use as much as a quarter of each battalion as supply porters, were terribly vulnerable to immediate counter-attack by the protected defenders who were supported by accurate mortar fire.

In the next phase Maj-Gen. Beresford-Peirse used both 5th and 11th Brigades, this time attacking farther east against the Acqua Col where desertions by colonial Italian troops were encouraging, with a view to outflanking the more formidable defenses to the west and pushing straight down the track to Keren. In spite of great efforts by the 4/6 Rajputana Rifles who gained the objective, a counter-attack pushed them off again. Severe fighting by isolated units was the pattern of the battle as this account shows:

The leading Rajputana Rifle company had reached the haunches of high ground which rose on both sides of the entrance to the gap when heavy mortar and machine-gun fire opened. The company commander fell wounded, but Subedar Richpal Ram sprang to the front and headed the rush which carried the leading platoons over the crest. … In the next four hours five counter-attacks were smashed by the bombs, bullets and bayonets of this dauntless handful. An hour before dawn, their last cartridges expended, the gallant Subedar with nine survivors fought back through an enemy block in the rear and rejoined the main body of the battalion, which had dug in under the shelter of a low crest afterwards known as Rajputana Ridge.

Beresford-Peirse abandoned his plan. Next he decided to renew the attack on 10 February in both areas. It was a further story of great gallantry and prizes won only to be lost again. Eleventh Brigade was to capture Brig’s Peak and 5th Brigade Acqua Col. Brig’s Peak was taken twice, as were Saddle and Hog’s Back. None were held. Acqua Col was almost reached – Subedar Richpal Ram of the Rajputana Rifles won a posthumous Victoria Cross in the battle – but his battalion suffered 123 casualties. Such losses could not be sustained. Platt and Beresford-Peirse, while still acknowledging that their main effort must be made at Keren, began to cast about for means of diverting some of the enemy to deal with threats elsewhere.

Thus 7th Indian Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Harold Briggs made its way south from Karora and was supported by the Free French Brigade d*Orient made up of the 14th Foreign Legion Battalion (containing Italians who fought against their own countrymen) and 3rd Battalion of the Chad Regiment. Brigg’s force fought a successful engagement against the enemy on 23 February at Cub Cub which was only 45 miles north-east of Keren and began to distract Italian reserves from the Keren front.

Meanwhile, preparations for the next main assault, the third and final phase, went on. They were enormously assisted by British aircraft. Heavy air attacks were made on Italian airfields between mid-February and mid-March and so successful were they that the Italian air force was virtually inactive. By 22 March the Regia Aeronautica could only muster 37 serviceable aircraft in the whole of East Africa. Additionally the Italian defenses themselves received repeated attention. By the beginning of March Platt had completed his planning even to the point of briefing his commanders on a sand-model. Fourth Indian Division was to attack to the west of the Dongolaas Gorge taking all the peaks from Sanchil to Samanna, while Major-General Lewis M. Heath’s 5th Indian Division, fresh from a mountain warfare refresher course at Tessenei farther east, would capture Fort Dologorodoc and exploit to Falestoh and Zeban. Yet it was still 19 battalions against 42 defending and the attackers were slogging uphill in a temperature of 100°F. Meanwhile Briggs’ force, now only about 15 miles distant from Keren to the north-east, would advance.

On 15 March, with maximum air support from some 50 bombers and an artillery bombardment by 96 guns, 4th Indian Division attacked. The 2/5 Mahratta Regiment seized and held Flat Top while 1/6 Rajputana Rifles took Hog’s Back for the loss of half their number. But by 1600, after eight hours fighting and climbing, the Cameron’s three rifle companies were down to 30 fit men in front of Brig’s Peak, having lost 288 men in the effort to capture it. During the night these meager gains were just retained against three Italian counter-attacks. The following night 10th Brigade was thrown in against the two untaken peaks. Its two battalions were so savagely mauled that they were withdrawn to `Happy Valley’. By the time the attack was called off on the evening of 17 March the division had sustained 1,100 casualties in three days.

On the other flank 5th Indian Division had better luck, taking Fort Dologorodoc on the first night, principally because, unlike the other Italian defenses, it was not overlooked by a high ridge behind. Its capture proved to be a turning point, for the fort dominated the town and plateau of Keren behind the mountains, thus providing a superb artillery observation post for the British guns. Nevertheless, exploitation of the success to Falestoh and Zeban ended as so often before with the troops pinned down on the forward slopes; this time they even had to be air-supplied before being withdrawn at night.

The two-division offensive had one other positive result – it enabled engineers to examine the original Italian roadblock in the Dongolaas Gorge. They found that the boulders and craters extended back 100 yards, but estimated that a 48-hour clearance would enable tracked vehicles to get through. Furthermore on the west side of the block the railway line to Keren ran under Cameron’s Ridge through a barricaded tunnel. Once cleared this offered a covered way approach for armor to get through the Gorge and advance to Keren. No wonder General Heath declared, on receiving this information, that `Keren is ours!’ His division’s second effort was fixed for 25 March, giving a week for preparations and the resting of units.

Meanwhile, between 18 and 22 March, the Italians made seven desperate attempts to recapture Fort Dologorodoc during which they suffered many casualties. Among the dead was General Lorenzini, a bold inspiring leader, nicknamed by his men, the Lion of the Sahara. His 4th Italian Division of regular troops had been the mainstay of the defense.

By 20 March Italian units had lost a third of their strength. On 25 March the 9th and 10th Brigades of 5th Indian Division attacked on both sides of the Gorge and seized it, taking some 500 prisoners including many Bersaglieri and two batteries of artillery. The following afternoon Sappers and Miners had blasted a way through the road block. This meant that before long the 14 infantry tanks and 50 Bren carriers of Fletcher Force would get behind the main Italian positions. On the night of 26 March the Italians skillfully withdrew leaving only light covering forces. Next morning white flags fluttered from Sanchil and Brig’s Peak. Fourth Indian Division advanced and tanks entered Keren by 0800 on 27 March. Asmara, capital of Eritrea, fell on 1 April and Massawa, the Red Sea port, a week later.

The battle was best summed up by General Platt, talking to his officers on 14 March before the final phase started: `Do not let anybody think this is going to be a walk-over. It is not. It is going to be a bloody battle: a bloody battle against both enemy and ground. It will be won by the side which lasts longest. I know you will last longer than they do. And I promise you I will last longer than my opposite number.’ That Platt was right about the bloodiness of the action needs but statistics and the memory of those present to endorse. The British lost 536 killed and 3,229 wounded. Three thousand Italians, according to their commander, General Frusci, were killed.

Without the determination, devotion to duty and sheer bravery of the regimental soldiers, the battle could not have been won. The magnificent efforts of the logistic planners and producers were also vital, for no troops, however courageous, can win without food, fuel, ammunition and water. The Italians on Mount Sanchii had a piped water-supply – their assailants had to carry two-gallon petrol tins up the heights. Major-General G. Surtees, then a Brigadier in charge of administration for the campaign, did much to win what he called the `Q* (Quartermaster’s) war. He recorded that speed, simplicity, common-sense, improvisation and imagination were the watchwords. But, Surtees continued, none of these would have been any good without the men who carried out the plans – driving the vehicles, humping the stores and evacuating the wounded. `British, Indian and Sudanese’, Surtees wrote, `grumbling, cursing and laughing, swept by sand storms, soaked in tropical rain, they sweated it out in the heat, they froze in the heights. Unexciting, if not uninteresting, was much of their back area toil, often imposing endurance and struggle against shortage of sleep. At any heroics on devoted service to the fighting men, they would have scoffed and sworn. Yet the urge was there.’

So too was the will to win in the higher commanders. Wavell, despite all his lack of resources and mounting commitments, had had the foresight and boldness to commit the right troops to the right place at the right time. After Keren, 4th Indian Division hastened back to the Western Desert. Eritrea gone, the Duke of Aosta concentrated his dwindling strength in one more great fortress at Amba Alagi. There he was stalked and harried and, eventually, forced to surrender by the converging columns of Platt and Cunningham. Mopping up, interrupted by the rainy season, finished in November 1941. Of all the East African battles Keren was the bloodiest and longest. It had been besieged for nearly eight weeks and was held by nearly four divisions of Italian troops. It was a battle partly won by the skill and perseverance of the British, Indian and French troops and partly lost by the Italians in their reckless but valiant attempts to retake Fort Dologorodoc. The Italians could rightly be proud of their record at Keren, even though, as Brigadier Savory said, `No enemy but the Italians would ever have allowed us to take the place. It was practically impregnable and even with Italian defenders we suffered heavily and at times began to wonder if we ever would succeed.’ For the great 4th and 5th Divisions of the British dominion of India, the battle remains a shining star in their histories.

El Moungar

The Dangers to a marching column are illustrated by the French defeat at El Moungar, in Morocco, on 2nd September 1903. A convoy of 3,000 camels carrying supplies for the fortified post at Taghit was divided into three echelons, in an attempt to minimise the risk if they were attacked. Captain Vauchez led the second echelon of 600 camels escorted by his mounted company of the 2nd Legion Etrangere. It left El Morra at 2am and reached the convoy halt of El Moungar at 9.30. As the Legionnaires began breakfast they were attacked from a line of dunes by some 5,000 Berbers and Shaamba Arabs. The camels and mounted company’s mules stampeded, splitting the column into three isolated groups of men. Vauchez was mortally wounded; Lt Selchauhansen formed an improvised square. Rifle fire was picking off his soldiers, so he led them in a charge to clear the dunes, but fell with half of his twenty men. Badly wounded, he directed the fire as a sergeant rallied the square to beat off another attack. For eight hours the remnant of the company held out; at 5.30 the third echelon was sighted and the Moroccans withdrew with their booty. Commanded by QM-Sgt Tisserand, the surrounded force endured continual firing and attacks that came to hand-to-hand, and by the time Capt de Susbielle reached them late that afternoon only 30 men led by Corporal Dietz were unwounded. Of 113 legionnaires, 34 were killed and 47 wounded: both the officers died the following day.

A two-company fort like Taghit the medical officer had only a small sickroom, and quite inadequate supplies to treat a large influx of wounded. When the 49 casualties from El Moungar arrived there in the early hours of 4 September 1903, the resident Dr Boulin was himself suffering from an eye infection. He, Drs de Lignerolles and Mazellier from the relief columns, and the fort’s two company orderlies did what they could, soon helped by the famous missionary Father de Foucauld, who rode over from Beni Abbes. The Danish Lt. Selchauhansen died on the first day; most of the other wounded had to be laid out on piles of dried grass on the hard floors of various storerooms. Five more orderlies with medical supplies arrived from Ain Sefra soon afterwards, but, given the standard of care that was possible, it was still extraordinary that only one more of the ten most serious cases died of his wounds.

The Shaamba got away with the enormous booty of 90-plus loaded camels, 25 Lebel rifles and 5,000 cartridges. The subsequent enquiry placed the blame, justly enough, on Capt. Vauchez’s tactical failings; he was an officer with a history of underestimating the tribesmen. Quartermaster-Sergeant Tisserand was given a battlefield commission, Sgt. Charlier was admitted to the Legion of Honour, and eight other survivors were awarded the Military Medal.

This virtual wiping out of a 100-strong Legion unit caused uproar in Paris, and in October 1903, at the urging of Governor-General Jonnart, command of Ain Sefra Subdivision passed to the newly promoted BrigGen Lyautey.


In October 1707, Association, commanded by Captain Edmund Loades and with Admiral Shovell on board, was returning from the Mediterranean after the Toulon campaign. She was lost in 1707 by grounding on the Isles of Scilly in the greatest maritime disaster of the age.

This was a highly successful combined operation against Toulon with the total elimination of France’s Mediterranean fleet thanks to an Anglo-Dutch naval bombardment which was combined with a siege by Austrian and Piedmontese forces. The siege was stopped when it appeared clear that the city would not fall speedily and, instead, could resist until the arrival of overwhelming French forces. During the siege, the Anglo-Dutch fleet played a key role in supporting the siege, providing cannon, supplies and medical care. The Toulon campaign indicated both the growing importance of amphibious operations and the extent to which the key issue was not the seizure of territory, but the achievement of particular strategic goals in the shape of destroying the fleet.

In 1707 the Duke of Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession, proposed an assault from north and south. In the north he could depend on Belgian bases, but in the south Toulon had to be seized and made into a depot for an advance up the Rhone. There were delays before the Emperor could be coerced into any operation. Eugene advanced along the Provençal coast aided by Shovell’s fleet. The land operations against Toulon failed (July-Aug. 1707) but Shovell destroyed the naval base with the French fleet in it. The threat was enough to bring the French back from Germany and Spain, but the failure was an expensive strategic defeat.

Marlborough’s year of victory was followed by a year of disappointment. Louis XIV tried to open peace negotiations, but the triumphant Allies were having none of it, unless the French abandoned all dynastic claims to Spain. During 1706 the Imperialists had won a victory at Turin, which effectively cleared the French from much of Northern Italy. Plans were laid to build on this success in 1707 by staging an invasion of Provence, supported by an Anglo-Dutch fleet. Prince Eugene was sent to Italy to lead the offensive, and consequently Marlborough was starved of the German troops he needed to campaign effectively in Flanders. In the end Eugene advanced as far as Toulon, where a combination of disease and French reinforcements caused him to lift the siege and withdraw to Italy.

Toulon in 1707 was a well-fortified town with a modern earth wall with 7 bastions. They were well-armed with cannons from disarmed ships of Toulon squadron. There were two gates, one (St. Lazare) between Minims & St. Bernard bastions, & the other (New) between Royal & Arsenal bastions.  

Toulon fortifications (see above):

A – Mimins bastion

B – St. Bernard bastion

C – St. Ursule bastion

D – De la Fonderie (Foundry) bastion

E – Royal bastion

F – Arsenal bastion

G – Du Marais a Gauche

H – batteries at New Dock

I – batteries at Old Dock

J – Ponche-Rimade bastion

K – earth redoubt at Minims bastion

L – entrenched field camp

The War at Sea, 1701-1714

Opposing navies had resumed their familiar game on the high seas as soon as war broke out. The French resumed the guerre de course their Navy had practiced during the second half of the Nine Years’ War, prosecuting it to great effect. The privateers of Dunkirk alone brought in nearly 1,000 Allied or neutral prizes. The French effort was so effective Parliament passed the “Cruisers and Convoys Act” in 1708, specifically assigning additional warship escorts to convoy duty along the Western Approaches and off major British ports. This forced French cruisers and privateers to hunt in the West Indies, off the coast of Africa, and in other less well-defended waters. The Allies also practiced cruiser warfare and privateering against French convoys and individual merchantman. This forced the French to use some warships to escort Spanish convoys across the Atlantic and led to squadron-on-squadron fighting in the Caribbean in August 1702. Unlike the French, who cleaved to a strategy of guerre de course throughout the war, the Allies also sought to utilize their clear advantage in battlefleets to outflank the French operationally and strategically. The Allies suffered early failures at sea, however, notably their inability to take Cadiz through amphibious assault during August-September 1702. The troops were put ashore too far from the city, the officers were inept and lost control, and most of the expedition got drunk and began looting and desecrating Catholic churches (perhaps consciously recalling the tradition of Francis Drake). On the return journey, English escorts surprised the Spanish silver fleet and their French escorts at Vigo Bay (October 12/23, 1702). The Allies missed most of the silver, but captured or destroyed 12 rated French warships and 19 Spanish vessels. The outcome of the fight and the prospect of more amphibious assaults into Iberia helped persuade Portugal to switch to the Grand Alliance. The next year, England formally detached Portugal from its French alliance, signed the Methuen Treaties, and secured at Lisbon a base of operations for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

An Anglo-Dutch amphibious operation failed to take Barcelona in June 1704. On its return journey, it took Gibraltar instead. That led to the only fleet action of the war, off Velez-Malaga (August 13/24, 1704). Although the French won a tactical victory, operationally the battle blocked them from retaking Gibraltar, thereby inflicting a major wound. Afterward, the French Navy and privateers cleaved to an effective and lucrative guerre de course: in the last decade of the war, the French took over 4,500 Allied prizes on the high seas, and sank or burned hundreds more Allied or neutral ships. French squadrons, usually under War of the Spanish Succession private loan if not privateer command, also raided and extorted various overseas outposts from West Africa to the Caribbean (and later, against Rio de Janeiro in 1711). An English squadron attacked a Spanish treasure fleet in the West Indies in 1708, intercepting or sinking the equivalent of £15 million of bullion.

Meanwhile, the Allies moved troops by sea into the Mediterranean from the north, as dominance at sea enabled them to sustain armies fighting in Spain. In 1704 an Anglo-Dutch fleet escorted 8,000 Redcoats and 4,000 Dutch to Spain, where they joined 30,000 Portuguese fighting Philip V ostensibly for the Grand Alliance. An Anglo-Dutch fleet parked off Barcelona for two years after an amphibious operation finally captured that city on September 28/October 9, 1705. The French Mediterranean squadron and fortified city of Toulon was bombarded, burned, and besieged from July 28-August 22, 1707. The French sank or burned 15 of their ships-of-the-line at anchor rather than see them captured or burned by Allied bombardment. However, the blockade had the principal effect of provoking an even large French commitment in Iberia. By 1708 Parliament authorized, and the Royal Navy transported, 29,395 men to campaign in Spain. That did not prevent a decisive defeat of the British at Almanza in April 1707. Sardinia fell to Allied marines in August, providing a potential naval base in the western Mediterranean close to France. Minorca was taken shortly thereafter, along with its superb harbor at Mahon. Once the Allied naval blockade of Barcelona was lifted at British behest, the end came into sight for Archduke Charles in Spain. Among the last significant actions involving sea power was a failed British expedition to take Québec mounted in 1711. It was a poorly planned disaster.

SHOVELL, Sir Cloudesley or Clowdisley (1650-1707), seaman, cut out the corsairs at Tripoli (1676) and cruised against the Barbary pirates until 1686. He was Rear Admiral in the Irish Sea in 1690 and 2-in-C at Barfleur (1692), where he broke the French line. He was C-in-C in the Channel in 1686-7, became M. P. for Rochester from 1698 and was Comptroller of Victualling as well as C-in-C in the Channel from 1699 to 1704 when, with Rooke, he captured Gibraltar and fought the B. of Malaga. Next he co-operated with Peterborough at Barcelona (1705) and with the Austrians and Savoyards before Toulon (1707), where he destroyed the French Mediterranean Fleet. His brilliant career ended abruptly in a shipwreck on the Scillies when he reached the beach exhausted and a woman murdered him for his ring.

Guerre Folle (“Mad War”) (1488–1491)

During the minority of King Charles VIII (1470-98) of France, a dispute broke out among rival claimants to the regency. The young king’s sister Anne of France (1460- 1522) was opposed to the insurgent claims of Duke Louis (1462-1515) of Orléans, who had gained the support of Brittany’s duke Francis II (1435-88). Anne of France dis- patched troops, who defeated the forces of Louis and Fran- cis II at the Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488. A settlement, the Treaty of Sablé, was drawn up, stipulating the evacuation of all foreign troops from Brittany and obliging Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), Duke Francis’s heir, to secure royal permission before marrying.

After Francis died later in 1488, Anne-without the required permission-married Austria’s King Maximilian (1459-1519) by proxy, thereby menacing Charles with Austrian encirclement. Accordingly, Charles petitioned Anne of Brittany to renounce the marriage in favor of mar- riage to himself. The petition touched off a conflict in which King Ferdinand II (1452-1516) of Aragon and King Henry VII (1457-1509) of England backed the Austrian monarch. France sent a large force to Rennes, prompting Maximilian and his allies to back down and agree to the Treaty of Laval, whereby Anne of Brittany agreed to marry Charles in exchange for a pledge of Breton autonomy.


Anne of Beaujeu (also known as Anne of France) (c. 1461-1522) was duchess of Bourbon and a steady- ing influence in French royal affairs. Louis XI of France (r. 1461-1483) and his second wife, Charlotte of Savoy, had three children who lived to adulthood: Anne, Jeanne, and Charles. Anne was married young to Pierre de Beaujeu, son of the duke of Bourbon. When Louis died in 1483, Anne-not her mother- was named guardian of her brother, Charles VIII (r. 1483-1498). Louis had curtailed the power of the nobles, and they tried to recoup their losses upon Charles’ succession. The leader of the opposition was Louis of Orleans, husband of Anne’s sister Jeanne and heir presumptive to the throne. The Beaujeus decreased resistance to their guardianship of the king by sacrificing some of Louis XI’s more unpopular servants and reducing taxes. This allowed them to dominate the Estates General of 1484 and to defeat Orleans in the so-called Mad War of 1485. The Beaujeus increased French power in Brittany by marrying King Charles to Anne, the duke’s heiress, kept peace with the papacy, and permitted Henry of Richmond (Henry VII) to challenge Richard III for the throne of England.

When Charles VIII took control of the government in 1491, the Beaujeus, who had become duke and duchess of Bourbon, retired to Pierre’s estates, where “Madame la Grande” educated ladies of good birth. One factor in their withdrawal from government was disapproval of Charles’ desire to claim the throne of Naples by force. Nonetheless, Anne governed during her brother’s Italian campaign and later did the same for Louis XII (Orleans) during his wars. Anne left behind a book of lessons for her daughter Suzanne, balancing conventional values with sound political advice. Anne died in 1522, during the reign of Francis I, having outlived her siblings, husband, and daughter.

References and Further Reading Anne of France. Lessons for My Daughter, translated by Sharon L. Jansen. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: D. S. Brewer, 2004. Jansen, Sharon L. The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Pradel, Pierre. Anne de France, 1461-1522. Paris: Editions Publisud, 1986.

Battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier (1488)

The Tale of Sir Edward

Edward Woodville is not recorded as being at the coronation, but he was certainly not in royal disfavour. The following year, on 27 April 1488, he was invested with the highest chivalric honour in England – the Order of the Garter. Described by S.B. Chrimes as ‘the ultimate mark of honour favoured by Henry VII’, the Garter was an honour Edward’s father and his brother Anthony had also achieved. The queen and the king’s mother, along with other ladies including Countess Rivers, were among the company assembled at Windsor for the feast of St George. The ceremonies, which included a requiem mass at which Edward offered the helm and crest of a deceased knight, John, Lord Dudley, inspired a burst of poetry:

O knightly order, clothed in robes with garter:

The queen’s grace, thy mother in the same;

The nobles of thy realm, rich in array, after;

Lords, knights and ladies unto thy great fame.

Now shall all ambassates know thy noble name.

By they feast royal. Now joyous may thou be,

To see thy king so flowering in dignity!

Edward had other concerns than the new garter adorning his calf, however. Francis, Duke of Brittany, who had offered succour and support to Edward as well as the king during their exile, was threatened with a French invasion. As Henry VII owed his very crown to the aid of France, he was in a difficult position.

Edward longed to help his old friend. As Vergil tells it:

    Edward Woodville, a stout and courageous man […], either to avoid the tedium of peace or moved by his love of the duke, earnestly beseeched King Henry that by his permission he might go to Britanny with some band of soldiers to aid his friends. And, lest the King of France could reproach Henry for this, he said he would go secretly with no supplies, which would give a show of unfeigned flight. The king, who hoped that a peace would be arranged by his ambassadors, was so far from indulging Edward’s ardor that he strictly forbade him to undertake any scheme of the kind, thinking it foreign to his dignity to offend Charles, to whom he hoped to ingratiate himself in a matter of little importance which he thought would do nothing to aid the Duke of Britanny. But Edward, when the king had forbidden him to do as he wished, decided to act without his knowledge, and quickly and secretly went to the Isle of Wight, of which he was lieutenant. And from there, having gathered a band of soldiers to the number of approximately four hundred, he crossed over to Britanny and joined with them against the French.

Edward crossed the seas with his 400 men in ships provided by the Breton ambassadors. Meanwhile, his preparations had inspired others to follow suit. Writing to his brother, John Paston III, William Paston III reported:

    [W]hereas it was said that the Lord Woodville and others should have gone over into Brittany to have aided the Duke of Brittany. I cannot tell you of nonesuch aid. But upon that saying there came many men to Southampton, where it was said that he should have taken shipping to have waited upon him over, and so when he was countermanded those that resorted there to have gone over with him tarried there still, in hope that they should have been licenced to go over, and when they saw no likelihood that they should have licence there was two hundred of them that got them into a Breton ship the which was come over with salt, and bade the master set them a land in Brittany. And they had not sailed past six leagues but they espied a Frenchman, and the Frenchman made over to them, and they feared as though they would not have meddled with them, and all the Englishmen went under the hatches so that they showed no more but those that came to Southampton with the ship, to cause the Frenchmen to be the more gladder to meddle with them. And so the Frenchmen boarded them, and then they were under the hatches came up and so took the Frenchmen and carried the men, ship, and all into Brittany.

Edward had sparked an international incident. Vergil tells us that the French suspected a trick on King Henry’s part and that the English ambassadors in France feared for their own safety, although ‘international law prevailed’. To mollify King Charles, Henry wrote a letter declaring that Edward had been expressly forbidden to make the trip to Brittany and that he had arrested the Earl of Arundel’s younger brother when he tried to follow Edward’s example. For good measure, Henry added, most of the men had gone without armour and were in any case low-lives who had taken asylum for their crimes and misdemeanours. It would soon be apparent, Henry concluded smugly, that Edward had been ‘badly counselled’ in making such a foolish attempt. King Charles, Vergil tells us, did not put much credence in the king’s letter, but put a good face on things. Meanwhile, Edward was enjoying the hospitality of Rennes, which welcomed him on 5 June by breaking open two barrels of claret and two barrels of white wine.

King Charles instructed his commander, General de la Trémoille, on 5 July to ‘make war as vigorously as you can’, an order which the general followed with enthusiasm. On 14 July, King Henry signed a peace treaty with France. The next day, Ferdinand and Isabella, whose ambassadors were discussing the possibility of a marital alliance with England, put in a good word for Edward, describing him as their faithful servant and asking Henry to forgive him.

By this time troops had streamed into Rennes, including contingents contributed by Emperor Maximilian and King Ferdinand. On 25 July, Duke Francis, after meeting with a council of war that included Edward, determined to go to the relief of Fougères and St Aubin, both under siege. Although it turned out to be too late to save the fortresses, which had surrendered, the Bretons determined, as reported by Molinet, ‘to engage the French […] as best they could’.

The Marshal de Rieux was in overall command of the Breton forces, Trémoille in charge of the French. To fool the French into believing that there were a large number of English troops, the Breton army dressed 1,700 Bretons in surcoats bearing the red cross of St George, like the men of Edward’s forces.

As reported by Hall:

    When both the armies were approaching to the other, the ordinance shot so terribly and with such a violence, that it sore damaged and encumbered both the parties. When the shot was finished, both the vanguards joined together with such a force that it was marvell[ous] to behold. The Englishmen shot so fast, that the Frenchmen in the forward, were fain to recule to the battle where their horsemen were. The rearward of the Frenchmen, seeing this first discomfiture began to flee, but the captains retired their men together again, & the horsemen set fiercely on the Bretons, and slew the most part of the footmen. When the forward of the Bretons perceived that their horsemen nor the Almaines carne not forward they provided for themselves & fled, some here, and some there, where they thought to have refuge or succour. So that in conclusion the Frenchmen obtained the victory, & slew all such as wore red crosses, supposing them all to be Englishmen. In this conflict were slain almost all the Englishmen, & six thousand Bretons, Amongst whom were found dead the lord Woodville […].

Molinet reports that Edward fell ‘near a wood called Selp’.

On 20 August, the Duke of Brittany signed a treaty with France in which he acknowledged himself as its vassal. Three weeks later, he died, leaving his 12-year-old daughter, Anne, as his heir. Anne would ultimately marry Charles VIII of France.

Legend has it that only one of the numbers who had left with Edward returned to the Isle of Wight: a page named Diccon Cheke. A ballad tells his story:

Fight on, fight on, my Island men

Still gallant Wideville cried.

Ah, how he fought till stricken sore

Our Captain fell to rise no more

Within these arms he died.

Of all that sturdy Island band

Who stern refused to flee,

Knights and squires thirty and ten,

Twenty score of stout yeomen,

There is returned but me.55

When the Knights of the Garter met again in 1489, they would hold a requiem mass and offer the swords, helms, and crests of two fallen knights, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (murdered during a tax revolt) and Edward Woodville. It was left for the same heralds who had recorded Edward’s presence at his one and only Garter feast to write his epitaph: ‘a noble and a courageous knight’.

Castle of Saint- Aubin- du- Cormier

Demolitions proved as significant as new construction under Louis XI. Lisieux, for example, saw its fortifications dismantled as a result of the Seigneur de Parthenay’s plotting against Louis XI during the Guerre Folle (1485-1487), though Charles VIII soon thereafter authorized their reconstruction, which began in 1492 and lasted until 1523. A number of Burgundian towns also witnessed systematic dismantlement of just enough of their enceintes to render them easily vulnerable to royal action. Charles VIII’s order in July 1488 to destroy the castle of Saint- Aubin- du- Cormier, located in the Breton marches, was doubly symbolic. First, it created a physical reminder of ducal independence following the recent Breton defeat by severing the castle keep in two, leaving only the side facing France intact. In the seventeenth century, the grounds even became part of a garden complex for the royal provincial governor who maintained it as an archaic attraction. But not all demolitions were punitive in nature.

French Wars of Religion 1562–98

Huguenot Gendarmes 1567

The Battle of Ivry was fought on 14 March 1590, during the French Wars of Religion. The battle was a decisive victory for Henry IV of France, leading Huguenot forces against the Catholic League forces led by the Duc de Mayenne. Henry’s forces were victorious and he went on to lay siege to Paris.

The unexpected death of Henry II in 1559 ushered in thirty-five years of royal weakness and internal strife. Henry’s immediate successor, the teenaged Francis II, reigned for barely a year; he was succeeded by Henry’s second son, the 10-year-old Charles IX. Henry’s widowed queen, the shrewd and capable Florentine princess Catherine de’ Medici, picked up the pieces and served as regent. She would continue to be a force at court long after Charles, an uninspiring and mentally suspect man, reached his majority Catherine eventually rallied the royal cause in the name of her sons – three would rule France – but in the meantime a few crucial years had been lost to dynastic flux and confusion. France descended towards a complicated, many-sided civil war.

The French crisis was in part purely political, as the most prominent and ambitious noble families of the realm jockeyed both with each other, and with the crown, for position and power. This competition would only intensify as it became clear that Catherine’s three sons, the last Valois kings of France, would remain without legitimate issue. The struggle in France was also, of course, about religion. Calvinism had found many converts, particularly in the south and west, and also within some of the greatest noble houses. Faith and family therefore determined the factions. The most powerful Catholic party was that of the Guise; their rival-allies included the Montmorency Several clans shared – and squabbled over – leadership of the French Protestants, or Huguenots. Among these men were Gaspard de Coligny and the Bourbon princes of Conde. The Valois remained staunchly Catholic, but Catherine de’ Medici was profoundly – and correctly – suspicious of the Guise. She also rightly concluded that her own family had the most to lose by civil war, and so Catherine was often, but not always, one of the foremost promoters of settlement and peace. In January of 1562 she promoted a royal edict that granted Huguenots the right to worship openly.

Toleration proved no solution to the French crisis, as a particularly provocative act of violence forced a civil war. On 1 March 1562 the armed entourage of the Duke of Guise massacred a Huguenot congregation discovered holding a service – now perfectly legal – in a barn outside the small town of Vassy. In response the Protestants of France rose in arms, and committed their own excesses: in late April, Lyons was pillaged with exceptional ferocity Indeed, atrocity and counter-atrocity would be the steady, brutal pattern of the wars to come. The first significant battle was at Dreux on 19 December: a Catholic force – they posed as ‘royal’ as well – under the elderly but redoubtable constable Montmorency met the Huguenots under the Prince of Conde. Losses were about equal, but the Catholics won the field. Curiously both commanders were captured, evidence of the day’s even fortune, and a foreshadowing of the stalemate to come. Two months after the battle an assassin shot the Duke of Guise – in revenge for Vass~ One month later still, in March 1563, Catherine de’ Medici helped engineer a truce, which settled nothing.

Hostilities resumed in September 1567 with a failed Huguenot attempt to kidnap the court and force Charles IX and his mother to sanction the Protestant party. The incident only drove the king into the arms of the Catholic grandees, and Charles went to ground in the sanctuary of ultra-Catholic Paris. The leaders of the Huguenots, Conde and the admiral Coligny, settled to a blockade of the capital. On 10 November 1567 the royal commander, again the constable Montmorency, issued from Paris to break the Protestant grip on the city. The battle, fought between Paris and the satellite town of St Denis, was another bloody tactical draw: Montmorency was mortally wounded and the Huguenots kept their ground, but their losses forced an end to the blockade of Paris. Truce prevented more campaigning, but war soon returned after another failed kidnapping – this time a Catholic attempt on Conde and Coligny in August of 1568. The next year the Huguenots were defeated at Jarnac (13 March 1569), where Conde was killed in cold blood soon after being captured. A second and more substantial Catholic success, at Moncountour (3 October 1569), failed to provide its victors with any conclusive political advantage. In its third round the war was still a stalemate, and the only logical policy was another try at peace.

Lasting reconciliation briefly seemed possible, in the form of a royal wedding between Catherine’s daughter Marguerite and a Protestant prince, Henry of Navarre. But the royal and Catholic parties chose a darker course: first the murder of Coligny, and then, a few days later on 24 August 1572 – St Bartholomew’s Day – the wholesale massacre of the Huguenot wedding guests gathered in Paris. Simultaneous local massacres echoed throughout the provinces. This premeditated horror failed to decapitate the Huguenot cause, the obvious political hope behind the killings. Instead it only plunged France back into civil war – but there was still no possible path to a military victory. For the Catholic faction to triumph, every Huguenot town in France would have to be reduced. The successful but arduous Catholic siege of La Rochelle, one of the greatest Protestant bases in the west, took from 11 February to 6 July 1573: that pace of conquest, one town per campaign year, simply put a royal and Catholic military victory out of reach. A Protestant victory was even more improbable – though secure in their strongholds, the Huguenots remained a minority in the country as a whole. But if neither side could win by military action, a third option – namely peace – had also proved impossible. The only remaining course was intermittent warfare until France reached the point of prostration; and this, tragically, was indeed the direction of the continuing civil wars following St Bartholomew’s.

The French wars also became increasingly three-sided. Henry III, Catherine de’ Medici’s third son to rule France, became king in 1574. He was personally notorious, and extremely unattractive to the most politically uncompromising Catholics. That faction eventually looked away from their Valois monarch and towards the Guise, who in 1576 organized the ultra-Catholics into a separate party, the Holy or Catholic League, who were pledged to accept no compromise with the Huguenots -least of all a Protestant king, which became a real dynastic possibility from the death of Henry Ill’s brother in 1584. Leadership of the third party in French politics, the Huguenots, passed to Henry of Navarre, who escaped from his near arrest at the royal court in 1576, and who from 1584 had the best dynastic claim to the throne of France should Henry III die. These three factions – Valois royalist, Holy League and Protestant Bourbon – would come to a final collision in the late 1580s, by which time the French Religious Wars were closely tied to those in the Low Countries.

First War

Like so many monarchs, King Francis II depended on his wife’s family to help him maintain power. His queen, Mary Stuart of Scotland, was connected on her mother’s side to the Guise family, powerful French Catholics.

In 1560, French Protestants hatched a scheme to kill as many Guises as they could and kidnap the king in order to force him to shed the remaining Guises. The Huguenots were so proud of their plan that they told everybody about it. When the coup was launched, the Guises were prepared. The conspirators were repelled and then hunted down, hanged, and dismembered, sometimes after a trial. The king and court watched fifty-two rebellious heads chopped off in the castle courtyard.

Never healthy, Francis died in December 1560 after only a year on the throne. His ten-year-old brother, the quiet, melancholy Charles IX, took the crown, but Catherine de Medici, his mother and King Henry’s previously subordinate wife, held the real power as regent. Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici, the cold and cunning ruler of Renaissance Florence to whom Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince; however, she failed to learn from the master. Over the decades of her dominance, she hatched a series of clumsy schemes and weak compromises that steadily made the situation worse. On the plus side, Catherine was a trendsetter who introduced Italian novelties like forks, snuff, broccoli, sidesaddles, handkerchiefs, and ladies’ drawers to the relatively frumpy nation of France.

In order to cultivate support among prominent Protestant families—the Bourbons especially—and to counteract the growing power of the Guise family, Catherine legalized Protestant worship, which annoyed the Catholic majority of France. She kept it on a tight leash, which annoyed the Protestant minority.

The wars began when another Francis, the duke of Guise, was passing through the town of Vassy and stopped at the local church to hear mass. Protestants were praying and singing at a nearby barn, which served as a church because the Crown forbade the Protestants from building real churches. A scuffle broke out between rival parishioners and drew in the duke’s entourage. The fight escalated, and finally the Catholics ended up burning the Protestant barn and killing as many worshippers as they could catch.

Pretty soon Frenchmen of both religions were fortifying their towns and rushing militia into the region. The sectarian armies fought several pitched battles, but eventually, the duke of Guise was assassinated, and the leader of the Huguenots (Louis de Bourbon, prince of Conde) was killed in battle, which left both sides floundering and ready to negotiate. Gaspard de Coligny, an admiral who had served alongside Conde, emerged as the new leader of the Protestants.

Second War (1567–68)

The rivalry between France and Spain had intensified in 1494 when the heir to the Spanish throne married the heir of the house of Burgundy, uniting Spain with all of the territories that had caused the French kings so much trouble during the Hundred Years War (Burgundy, Flanders, the Netherlands). This put Spanish armies all around the edges of France. Then Calvinists in the Netherlands revolted against Spanish rule in 1567, pushing Spain and France toward a common front against Protestantism.

With the Huguenots jumpy, Catherine de Medici picked the wrong time to travel to Bayonne and visit her daughter Elizabeth, who had recently married the wiidowed King Philip II of Spain. To the Huguenots, this family gathering looked like scheming. It sparked a rumor among the Huguenots that the large new Spanish army that was moving to put down the Dutch Revolt was actually coming to assist the French Catholics in eradicating them.

The Huguenots launched a preemptive attack, trying to steal the king away from the Guises and keep him among the Protestants, but word leaked out, and the court reached safety. Six thousand Huguenot soldiers camped outside Paris—too few men to bring it under siege, but at Saint-Denis they beat 18,000 men of the royal army that came to chase them away. Even so, as the royal forces swelled to 60,000, the Huguenots pulled back and negotiated a cease-fire.

Third War (1568–70)

Within a few months, royal forces tried to sneak up and surprise the Protestant leaders at home, but the Huguenots escaped north where they could connect with their Dutch and English supporters. The Guises made contact with Spain and set out to crush the Protestant strongholds across southern France. Although the Protestants took a beating in the ensuing war, the Crown couldn’t afford to keep at it. Peace broke out in 1570 and the Huguenots were allowed to fortify and garrison four towns as safe havens in case of renewed Catholic aggression.

Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day

Trying to patch things up, Catherine de Medici married her daughter Margaret to the highest-ranking nobleman among the Huguenots, Henry, head of the Bourbon house and king of the small kingdom of Navarre in the Pyrenees. Catherine de Medici also tried to bring Huguenots into the government, which of course infuriated the Catholics.

When everyone gathered in Paris for Margaret’s wedding, someone tried to assassinate the military leader of the Huguenots, Gaspard de Coligny. As Coligny walked down the street, a sniper shot him from a window. No one really knows who planned it, but history has traditionally blamed Catherine. The wound was not serious, and it did nothing more than make the Huguenots angry.

Even though King Charles and his council had nothing to do with the assassination attempt, Catherine explained to them that now the Huguenots would retaliate, making a preemptive strike the only possible survival strategy. On the eve of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, Guise and his men burst into Coligny’s house and murdered him in his sickbed, while other death squads went hunting. In all likelihood, Catherine wanted only to decapitate the Huguenot cause by killing the leaders, but Paris exploded in hatred of the Protestants. Mobs all over Paris chased down any Huguenots they could find, killing anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 of them by whatever means were handy. Adults were hanged, beaten, hacked, and stabbed; children were pitched out windows or into the river. Over the next few weeks, Protestants were massacred in other cities all over France, boosting the body count tenfold, into the neighborhood of 50,000.

The Bourbon leader and bridegroom, Henry of Navarre, survived only by converting to Catholicism on the spot. He was moved into the palace to be closely watched; his movements were restricted.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre horrified Europe. Even Ivan the Terrible in Russia denounced it. It changed the nature of the French Religious Wars from a gang fight to a war of extermination.

Fourth War

When war resumed, the king’s younger brother, Henry, led a Catholic army to break the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle. A fierce siege stretched for months, from 1572 into 1573. Sappers tried to undermine the fortifications and explode barrels of gunpowder, while artillery pounded the walls without effect. It started to look like the army outside the walls would run out of food and ammunition before those inside would. Then Prince Henry was elected king of Poland, which gave him an excuse to lift the siege without losing face.

Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Wars

King Charles had been haunted by guilt since authorizing the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and his health deteriorated. When he died in 1574 at the age of twenty-three, the throne went to his twenty-two-year-old brother, King Henry of Poland. Henry snuck out of Poland with the Polish national treasury hidden in his baggage train and escaped to Paris to accept his promotion.

The new King Henry III was Catherine de Medici’s favorite and most intelligent son. He was a devout, cross-dressing Catholic who sometimes showed up at official functions in drag. Henry had an entourage of handsome young men called his Darlings (Mignons). He collected little dogs and hid from thunderstorms in the cellar. Catherine unsuccessfully tried to tempt Henry into heterosexuality by offering him naked serving girls at special parties she arranged for his amusement, but that didn’t work.

More dangerous, however, was Henry’s intermittent tendency toward Catholic fanaticism when he sought atonement for his sexual eccentricities. At those times, Henry endangered his health with extreme fasting and mortification. Finally Catherine had the friend (and suspected Spanish agent) who encouraged her son in these rituals murdered in an alley.

In the manner of most leaders facing civil wars all across history, everything King Henry did seemed to backfire. When the king restored freedom of worship for the Huguenots, Henry of Navarre took advantage of this new climate of legal tolerance to flee the court and reconvert to Protestantism once he was safely out of reach. Meanwhile Henry of Guise, angered at the king’s weakness, formed an independent Catholic League with Spanish support.

King Henry III was running out of money, so the king summoned parliament in hopes of a tax hike. Parliament refused to raise taxes, but King Henry scraped up enough soldiers for a few small campaigns around the Loire River.

Too Many Henrys

Because the current king was so very gay, the next king would probably not be springing from his loins. The succession pointed to the youngest Valois brother, Francis, but in 1584 he died of fever while plotting against Protestants in the Netherlands. With no further males descended from King Henry II, the law backed up to find some other direct male line branching off from an earlier king. When royal genealogists followed the new branch forward to find the senior-most descendant, it turned out that the next in line for the throne of France was the king’s brother-in-law, Henry of Navarre, leader of the Huguenot Bourbon family.

Thus began the War of the Three Henrys, in which King Henry III and Henry of Guise tried to force Henry of Navarre to renounce his right of succession. Because the throne was at stake, the battles were especially bloody. Two thousand Catholics were killed at the Battle of Coutras, another 6,000 at the Battle of Ivry. The Huguenot losses were comparable, and neither side gained an advantage.

By now the endless wars had cut the population of France by 20 percent. In a report home, the Venetian ambassador described the state of France after a generation of fighting: “Everywhere one sees ruin, the livestock for the most part destroyed . . . stretches of good land uncultivated and many peasants forced to leave their homes and to become vagabonds. Everything has risen to exorbitant prices . . . people are no longer loyal and courteous, either because poverty had broken their spirit and brutalized them, or because the factions and bloodshed have made them vicious and ferocious.”

The Catholic League hated King Henry for not crushing the Huguenots. As far as the league was concerned, a moderate Catholic was no better than a Protestant. It agitated the Parisian citizenry, who piled up barricades and drove Henry III from the city. In rural exile, the king was forced into calling parliament for advice on the succession. When parliament suggested an heir who was obviously a puppet of the Guises, King Henry decided to work out his problems with Guise once and for all.

Two days before Christmas, King Henry III invited Henry of Guise to stop by for a chat, but when Guise stepped in the room, the doors were suddenly slammed and bolted shut behind him. Soldiers rushed up; Guise drew his sword and fought gamely, but the king’s soldiers still cut him down. His brother, a Catholic archbishop also visiting the king, was killed the next morning. They were cut apart and shoved into a roaring fireplace. The king then allied with the Bourbons against the Catholic League.

More War

Catherine de Medici died in 1589, and her last son followed shortly thereafter. In July of the same year, a Dominican friar angered by King Henry’s betrayal of Catholicism stabbed him in the stomach. After Henry III’s slow, lingering death from internal bleeding and infection, the Protestant Henry of Navarre became king of France. “I rule with my arse in the saddle and my gun in my fist,” he declared and rode out to take his capital back from the Catholic League.

The siege of Paris that began in May 1590 was brutal. For month after month, the 220,000 residents of the biggest city in Europe were locked inside with dwindling supplies. As time pressed on, dogs, cats, and rats disappeared from the streets. “Little children disguised as meat” showed up in the markets. Before it was over, 40,000 to 50,000 Parisians had starved to death. Navarre bombarded the city with cannon from the high ground, but in the end the city held and the siege was lifted in early September.

The Catholic League then called a parliament in Paris to pick a Catholic king to set up against Henry of Navarre, but when the Spaniards offered up their own princess, daughter of a Valois sister, many Frenchmen were appalled. It started to dawn on them that being French was probably more important than being Catholic. Maybe a Bourbon king was better than allowing France to become a Spanish satellite.

Suddenly, in 1593, Henry of Navarre, who had led the Protestant armies through many hard battles, announced that, well, if it really meant that much to them, he would go ahead and convert to Catholicism. He didn’t want to cause a fuss.

“Paris is worth a mass,” he is rumored to have explained.

This cleared the way for him to be a properly accepted and consecrated king, and before anyone could come up with any new objections, peace broke out. In 1598, King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, declaring toleration for all Christian faiths. His new Bourbon dynasty wanted to start with a blank slate: “The recollection of everything done by one party or the other . . . during all the preceding period of troubles, remain obliterated and forgotten, as if no such things had ever happened.” Or in the words of Monty Python’s King of Swamp Castle, “Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.”

Jacobites and French Invasion

The Battle of La Hogue, by Adriaen van Diest. This marked the end of the action, which had been a complete success for the allied fleet; 12 French ships of the line and a number of smaller ships had been destroyed, with minimal English casualties. The action also dashed any hope that James or Louis might have had to mount an invasion that year.

Although not numerically great, a band of Scottish officers served in the Irish conflict on the Jacobite side. One, Major General Thomas Buchan, with experience in French service, participated in the siege of Derry. Buchan and others travelled over with James from Saint-Germain, including Brigadier General Alexander Cannon, Brigadier General Robert Ramsay, and less senior officers such as William Erskine, earl of Buchan; Lewis Crichton, Viscount Frendraught; Sir William Wallace and Sir George Barclay. These were the officers James intended to use for his descent on Scotland. In the Scottish theatre, two factors delayed a counter-revolution: firstly, the outcome of the convention of estates was awaited, and secondly, the winter of 1688/9 was one of worst in living memory with snow falling in May. Any reliance on Highland forces in a rebellion would be subject to weather conditions. When in mid March 1689 the convention went against James, Claverhouse (now Viscount Dundee) left Edinburgh and, after touring Perthshire, Fife and Angus consulting on the best course of action, raised James’s royal standard on 13 April on the slopes of Dundee Law above Dundee. He then toured the Highlands to garner support. On his way from Edinburgh, the viscount consulted with the Duke of Gordon, who still held the Castle for James, and in the process caused a brief panic at the convention as some feared a bombardment from the Castle; none came. In one of a series of letters to encourage Scottish loyalists, Queen Mary wrote to Gordon two months later thanking him for his ‘courage keeping for your Master what he left in your care’, and to begin with, Gordon resolved to stay put but gave Dundee authority to raise the Gordons. Also, since William had arrived in England, some Highland chiefs, in particular Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, had been forming an association with clans adhering to James. He and the likes of the Macleans and Macdonald of Keppoch, one of the Lochaber chiefs, faced ruin from a successful Argyll restoration with the return of Archibald, the tenth earl. The traditional Campbell versus Macdonald feud would be relived yet again. It was natural, though, for Dundee to look for armed support from these clans. James had reports of how unfavourable things appeared after the withdrawal of loyalists from the convention and how an alternative Jacobite convention needed military protection. He issued commands from Dublin to Dundee and Balcarres, also a Jacobite sympathiser, and enclosed a proclamation in which, in typical Melfort speak, loyalists were to be welcomed with open arms and Williamites treated as heretics. However, James’s own phraseology is in the words of reassurance:

Assure yourselves, we will stand by you, and, if it shall please God to give success to our just cause, well let the ancient cavalier party know that they are the only true basis the monarchy can rest upon in Scotland; and we have found such effects of our mercy in times past, as will make us now raise our friends, upon the ruine of our enemys.

Unfortunately, James also promised to send 5,000 troops over from Ireland, a decision that required French ships and agreement which he did not have. Instead, on 10 July three French frigates sailed from Carrickfergus with probably fewer than six hundred men, mainly consisting of an Irish infantry regiment, Lords Buchan and Frendraught, along with more than seventy junior officers, all under the command of Cannon. Some of the supplies and men were captured as they took landfall in and around Mull. Dundee, for his part, was on the one hand in despair over James’s meagre reinforcements, yet also conscious that he needed to engage the enemy soon before his Highlanders dispersed. He, Argyll’s forces and those of Scotland’s new commander-in-chief and Dutch brigade veteran General Hugh Mackay, had led a merry dance checking each other’s movements but avoiding a full-scale battle. In fact, Mackay was as anxious as Dundee to join battle soon for fear that Highland Jacobite strength would increase over time.

Not all the potential followers gathered. In vain, Dundee wrote a pleading letter to Lord Murray to raise the men of Atholl, although many joined anyway. Cameron of Lochiel was typical of many Highland Jacobites in that he meandered a convoluted path between rebellion and submission to the government, and one of his oldest friends was in fact Colonel John Hill, Williamite commander of Inverlochy, soon to be renamed Fort William, and the garrison was vital to the economy of Lochiel’s clansmen. Nevertheless, he joined with some of his clan at the Battle of Killiecrankie on 27 July 1689, at the pass of that name near Pitlochry in Perthshire, in which action the Highland charge of just over two thousand Jacobites overcame almost four thousand exhausted troops under Mackay. Dundee himself was killed and, of course, became one of the most celebrated heroes of Jacobitism. As for James’s ‘ancient cavaliers’, they were represented by James Seton, earl of Dunfermline, who with Cannon took the victors from the field and commanded instead of ‘Bonnie Dundee’. James enjoyed the victory, but his cause would have been better served if Dundee had survived, he being the most effective Scottish Jacobite commander, given the long illness that Dumbarton had suffered from since his arrival at Saint-Germain in early 1689, and which had seemingly prevented him from going to Ireland.

James made two further efforts to bring relief to Cannon’s troops who, in spite of capturing hundreds of Mackay’s men, were hard pressed after their victory. Cannon was no Dundee and was badly mauled on 21 August at Dunkeld by a newly formed Cameronian regiment, the commander falling like Dundee in his hour of victory. Effective leadership of such disparate forces was required. Buchan, who was initially James’s choice to command Cannon’s group but was kept back to help with the siege of Derry, was sent over from Ireland in January 1690 to fill the leadership vacuum, bringing with him a few officers. He was instructed to give the usual assurances from James that further relief would be forthcoming, this time 8,000 men under James’s son the duke of Berwick, then in Ireland with his father. Yet with so few accompanying Buchan, some clansmen began suggesting they submit to the government rather than continue. Many disaffected lowland lords might seek commissions and declare for James, although only if Berwick arrived with a large force. In April, out of necessity, Buchan, Dunfermline and Cannon began raiding in Inverness-shire seeking forage, but then at Cromdale in Strathspey on 1 May, Buchan was convincingly defeated by government forces under Sir Thomas Livingstone. While the senior officers made their escape, an effective Highland rising would never again be possible in the 1690s. Nonetheless, James made one more effort to relieve the clans in Lochaber who were holding out. He despatched Seaforth from Dublin in May, promoting him to marquis and to major general before he departed, but his performance resembled Argyll’s in 1685, moving from place to place, seeking support and achieving very little in the process. On meeting Buchan and hearing of the defeat at Cromdale, Seaforth became dispirited and began to look for means to surrender on terms, acting through his kinsman Tarbat. After reneging on negotiations, he was captured by Mackay and spent most of the next seven years in prison or close confinement. James’s last Highland commission was even less successful than those of Cannon and Buchan.

While the Seaforth debacle ended James’s Highland initiatives, this was not an end to Jacobite skirmishing and the general precariousness of the security situation. For the Williamite regime it had, however, become more a policing exercise than suppression of rebellion. Government oppressive measures under Mackay in 1690 now turned to discussion about indemnities in 1691. Tarbat and Colonel Hill had been suggesting since the previous summer that rebellious clans could be bought off. Now Breadalbane’s negotiations with Jacobite leaders for an armistice, leading to the Achallader agreement in June 1691, coupled with William’s agreement to issue a proclamation on 27 August such that pardons would be granted to those who took the oath of allegiance before 1 January 1692, offered an opportunity for the Highland clans to recover from two years of disturbance. As Breadalbane argued to Jacobite intriguers, this was an opportune truce whether or not a Jacobite invasion force was ever to appear. Most Jacobites, however, required James to grant permission to take an oath to William and Mary. Initially, in September James refused permission, but Breadalbane sent an envoy back to make it clear there was no other choice. Late in the day in December, his permission arrived. Some clan chiefs quickly sought competent officers who could tender the oath. It was in these circumstances that the infamous Glencoe Massacre occurred, where on 13 February 1692 government forces slaughtered forty or so Macdonalds of Glencoe, as their chief Alasdair MacIain had been too slow to take the oath. This was a shocking example of ‘murder under trust’ as the Macdonalds had acted as hosts for the soldiers the day before. It was a deliberate attempt by John Dalyrmple, master of Stair, now William’s joint Secretary of State, and other members of the Privy Council to make an example of a lawless clan. The subsequent political scandal was a significant recruiting sergeant for Jacobitism, but also for government opposition in the Scottish Parliament. For his part, James’s initial callous response to the indemnity would seem to have all the hallmarks of Melfort, yet at that time he was still in Rome and James’s secretary was the Englishmen Henry Browne, later Viscount Montagu. The king’s delayed second response seemed justified on the basis that the French were considering a fresh invasion plan in 1691, though this was little comfort to the Macdonalds of Glencoe. James no doubt regarded Highland clansmen somewhat like the Irish, a means to an end. In Scotland these were rarely the ‘ancient cavaliers’, the core adherents of monarchy.

Invasion plans came and went until 1697, but in 1692 a firm plan evolved. This was encouraged by the return of Melfort to Saint-Germain in late 1691, and the simultaneous arrival of the ‘Wild Geese’ from Ireland. Louis now had a total of about thirty thousand Irish soldiers and, whereas some of these were fighting in other theatres, the existence of such a force was an obvious signal that an invasion of England or Scotland was credible. In December and January James took time to travel to Brittany to review the troops and to discuss training methods with the officers, and felt a new sense of purpose. In the spring it was agreed by Louis that a force of 30,000 troops would be gathered as an invasion force including 13,000 Irish. Coupled with this, a number of Scottish officers landed at Le Havre in April, having been granted passes by the Edinburgh Privy Council either to remain or go into exile. Among these were Buchan and Cannon, and as soon as they appeared, James ordered them to join the Irish forces with other Scottish officers including Dunfermline and Barclay. All seemed ripe as in Scotland the Glencoe Massacre had badly weakened the government and in England secret communications had been undertaken through Jacobite agents with some of William’s most senior current or former ministers. Re-energised, James was very optimistic and prior to departing for the coast, he held a ceremony at the chapel at Saint-Germain where he awarded the Order of the Garter to Powis, Melfort, and his four-year-old son. He also composed his ‘Advice to his Son’ in case he lost his life in the coming adventure, a work produced in the tradition of princely and fatherly guidance. As it was, the enterprise was bungled for two reasons. Firstly, Melfort drafted an ill-judged declaration which was counterproductive at a time when Tories and Scots cavaliers were needed on side. Melfort’s text showed the more vindictive possibilities of a restoration under James’s Catholic party. Drawing attention to the corruption or hypocrisy of William’s government was fine, but it also stated that those who still opposed James after his invasion would ‘fall unpitied under the severity of our justice’, a tenor that discouraged potential supporters. James approved the text and encouraged its wide circulation in Scotland and England. This certainly confirms that Melfort plugged into James’s natural authoritarianism and aversion to disloyalty. He knew his master too well and was too often a medium, not an advisor. The second failing was blind trust in the latent loyalism of the English establishment which, James believed, just needed an opportunity to return to the fold. Initially the fleet under the French admiral Tourville was damaged by storms which delayed their departure for several weeks. They knew that the combined English and Dutch fleet was positioned off the coast and yet the French Mediterranean fleet was due to arrive imminently. Tourville asked for a delay but this Louis rejected on the basis of James’s assertions, backed up by Melfort, that half the English fleet would desert to his cause. James had been told months before that tentative contact had been made by agents with Admiral Edward Russell, who commanded the Anglo-Dutch fleet, and they were convinced that Russell would turn. Unfortunately, the difference between gripes and real grievance was not understood and Russell did his duty. The French fleet was destroyed at the Battle of La Hogue over five days (19–24 May) in what was one of the greatest military defeats to befall the French during the reign of Louis XIV. James watched from the shore and irritated his French hosts by commending the skill and bravery of the English seaman. King Louis, who at the time was besieging the fortress of Namur in the Spanish Netherlands, took the bad news calmly enough, while James made a fulsome apology, reflected on ‘la providence divine’, and entered into a deeper depression about his prospects. All now turned on a restoration in favour of his son, not himself. Back in London, with William in Flanders, James’s daughter Queen Mary took firm action, imprisoning suspected and real Jacobites, such as John Churchill, duke of Marlborough. Middleton and Atholl’s son Charles Murray, earl of Dunmore, two Scots then in London who had plotted a possible rising, were also apprehended. Some marvelled at how Englishmen would have reacted to a force composed of their greatest traditional enemies, the French and the Irish.

James’s Scottish end of the 1692 affair was characterised by vagueness and more blind faith. The plan was to send the Scottish officers, about a hundred in total including those who had only just returned from there, back to Scotland to lead a new rebellion. They were to land at the coastal fortresses of Dunnottar or Slains in the North East, and James wrote letters to various lords of Aberdeenshire expecting their willing support. Queensberry and Arran were also written to but they did not stir to further the cause, although the Scottish commander-in-chief Sir Thomas Livingstone and the Privy Council were on alert. Lists of loyal Highland supporters were drawn up. Melfort also penned a declaration for Scotland in April and in this, as in the English equivalent, a number were excluded from indemnity, such as Tweeddale, Melville and Sir John Dalyrmple. Glencoe was rounded upon as an event showing ‘what the usurper will do when he is free of restraint’ but disloyalty would be subject to the gravest penalties and those sentenced in 1688 would get no pardon.