France and the Ottoman Empire

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Bonaparte defeated the Mameluke forces at the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ (fifteen miles distant) on 21 July and entered the capital in triumph three days later.

Abdulhamid I, like his predecessor in an earlier conflict with the Russians, succumbed to apoplexy at the height of the war. His nephew Selim III acceded in April 1789, that momentous month when George Washington became the first President of the United States and deputies converged on Versailles for Louis XVI’s opening of the States General. Events in America mattered little to Selim; but what happened in France was of considerable interest. Even during his years of nominal confinement in the kafe, Selim had been in touch with Louis. A trusted friend, Ishak Bey, served as Selim’s personal emissary, travelling to Versailles in 1786 with a plea that France, as a long-term friend and ally of the Ottoman Empire, should provide aid in modernizing the army and support policies aimed at the containment of Russia. But the Comte de Vergennes, Louis’ foreign minister for the first thirteen years of his reign, had himself served as ambassador in Constantinople: he was sceptical over the prospects of reform in Turkey and strongly opposed to any enterprise which might lead to a Franco-Russian conflict. Louis’ reply to Selim was guarded and patronizing. ‘We have sent from our court to Constantinople officers of artillery to give to the Muslims demonstrations and examples of all aspects of the art of war’, Louis wrote in a letter dated 20 May 1787, ‘and we are maintaining them so long as their presence is judged necessary.’

Throughout the war with Russia French officers continued to give advice to cadets on the Golden Horn. Translations of military manuals were turned out by the excellent private press attached to the French embassy: aspiring Turkish gunnery specialists could therefore study the treatises from which the young Bonaparte profited at the academy in Brienne. Of course, none of these benefits were in themselves sufficient to change the military balance along the shores of the Black Sea. Whatever his sympathies and inclination, Selim was able to do little to reform or improve the Ottoman state during the first three years of his reign, when day-to-day reports of the war with Russia determined the behaviour of sultan and viziers alike. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1791 Selim ordered twenty-two dignitaries, both secular and religious, to draw up memoranda on the weaknesses of the empire and the way to overcome them. When, a few months later, the Jassy settlement gave the Ottoman Empire a respite from war, the Sultan resolved to press ahead with a policy of westernization. He hoped that the preoccupation of European statesmen with events in Paris would, at the very least, enable him to ensure that his army and navy should catch up the armed forces of the West in training and equipment.

These good intentions look tediously familiar, but Selim’s plans went further than any reforms contemplated by his predecessors. The twenty-two collected memoranda encouraged Selim to seek a ‘New Order’ (Nizam-i Cedid), thereby virtually imposing a revolution from above. Administrative changes included revised regulations to strengthen provincial governorships, the creation of more specialist secular schools to provide training in the ancillary subjects essential for military and naval command (including the French language), control of the grain trade, the institution of regular ambassadorial diplomacy with the major European Powers, and improvements in methods of ensuring that provincial taxes reached a new central treasury, which was given the right to impose taxes on coffee, spirits and tobacco. Earlier Sultans had given their somewhat erratic support to the building of modern ships of the line and the reform of new light and heavy artillery units; Selim III instituted a form of conscription for the navy in the Aegean coastal provinces, tightened discipline in the artillery and other specialist corps and, amid widespread consternation, announced the creation of new infantry corps, organized and trained on French lines and equipped with modern weapons. The Janissaries, suspicious as ever of innovation, had their arrears of back pay settled, and were promised more money for active service, and regular pay-days. But the new barracks for young Turkish recruits above the Bosphorus and at Üsküdar seemed a direct challenge to the entrenched status of the Janissaries. Sultan Selim’s other reforms were soon forgotten, and the term ‘New Order’ became applied solely to the regular infantry battalions which the Nizam-i Cedid brought into being.

Selim was well informed of events in revolutionary Paris.7 In June 1793 Citizen Marie Louis Henri Decorches—the Marquise de Saint-Croix in less egalitarian times—arrived in Constantinople as representative of the French Republic. On quatorze juillet two French ships rode at anchor off Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point), impartially flying the Ottoman crescent, the stars and stripes, and the tricolor; they fired a salute, while a ‘tree of liberty’ was solemnly planted beside the Bosphorus. Some eight weeks later the Sultan sent a detailed inventory to Paris, listing the type of technicians and instructors he wished to recruit from France for temporary service in his army and navy. Despite pressing concerns around France’s frontiers, the Committee of Public Safety gave careful attention to the Sultan’s requests: an Eastern Front on the lower Danube or an aggressive naval presence in the Black Sea would distract the rulers of Austria and Russia from the activities of republican armies along the Rhine or in northern Italy. And Selim’s advisers, for their part, were pleased to encourage the revolutionaries in Paris: ‘May God cause the upheaval in France to spread like syphilis to the enemies of the [Ottoman] Empire’, the head of the Sultan’s personal secretariat wrote early in 1792, when war between France and Austria seemed imminent.

But Selim was too shrewd to commit his empire irretrievably to an unholy alliance with Jacobins. When he decided to modernize his diplomatic system, accrediting resident ambassadors to other courts rather than sending envoys on special missions, he chose London rather than Paris as the first destination of an Ottoman representative. For this decision there were three sound reasons: the hostility shown by William Pitt, the Prime Minister, to Russian aggrandizement in the Black Sea, and especially to the fortification of Ochakov; the absence, as yet, of any apparent British desire to acquire Ottoman possessions; and a passing acquaintance with the ways of the British aristocracy gained from Sir Robert Ainslie, whose eighteen years as George III’s ambassador in Constantinople were drawing to a close. Soon afterwards Selim sent resident ambassadors to Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. Only then did he choose a permanent envoy for the French Republic.

It was more natural for Selim to establish links with Paris than with any other capital. Some of his officials were already familiar with the language, and the Sultan encouraged the teaching of French, although he does not seem to have spoken or read it himself. Among European writers, only in eighteenth-century France was a rational attempt made to anatomize systems of government and administration, providing blueprints for peoples whose institutions were shaped by other traditions. It is interesting that, when a French-language library was set up to serve Selim’s specialist military and naval academies, among the works shipped out from Marseilles was a complete set of the Grande Encylopédie. But far more general than these touches of rarefied learning were the commercial contacts, many of them long-established, especially in Syria and the Levant. More recently, French trade at the centre of the Empire had increased threefold in eighty years, with a sizeable community settling in Smyrna. The influences of one culture upon another were, of course, two-way. At the start of the century while fashionable society in Paris and Versailles amused itself with turquerie, Constantinople discovered French furniture, French ornamental gardens and French decorative design.

‘Frankish’ customs had cost Ahmed III his throne, and Selim must have realized it was rash for a Sultan-Caliph to turn so often towards Paris while every Janissary around him was turning towards Mecca. A persistent legend ascribes the intensity of Selim’s francophilia to his delight in the company of Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a young Creole who disappeared while sailing between Marseilles and Martinique. She is supposed to have been captured by Barbary pirates, sent from Algiers to Constantinople as a placatory gesture from the corsairs to Abdulhamid I, and then to have lived happily ever after as the ‘French Sultana’ and the mother of Selim’s cousin, Mahmud II—who was born at least three years before Aimée went missing. There is no authentic evidence that the unfortunate young woman reached Algiers, let alone Turkey. But even supposing she did become one of the Favourites in the imperial harem, how could she have enlightened the Sultan on the politics and pursuits of the French? She was too young to know much about them herself. Not every girl from Martinique became so worldly-wise in the ways of Paris as Aimée’s distant kinswoman, the future Empress Josephine. For Sultan Selim the fascination of France was never personal; it remained political and military. He was convinced that he would find there a key to unlock for his empire the science of modern war.

It seemed, briefly, in the autumn of 1795, that the lock might be opened for the Sultan by Brigadier-General Bonaparte. On 20 August Napoleon, whose career had made little progress over the past fifteen months, wrote to his brother Joseph: ‘If I ask for it, I shall be sent to Turkey by the Government, with a fine salary and a flattering ambassadorial title, to organize the artillery of the Grand Turk.’ Ten days later a note was left at the War Ministry: ‘General Buonaparte, who has won a certain reputation during his command of the artillery of armies in difficult circumstances, particularly at the siege of Toulon, offers to accompany a government mission to Turkey. He will take with him six or seven officers, each an expert in some particular branch of the art of war. If, in this new career, he can make the Turkish armies more formidable, and the fortresses of the Turkish empire more impregnable, he will consider he has rendered signal service to his country; and when he returns he will merit her gratitude.’ He appears to have been issued with a passport in mid-September; but before he could set out, the legendary ‘whiff of grape-shot’ against a mob marching down the rue Saint-Honoré on 5 October carried ‘Citizen Buonaparte’ into French history. He never saw Constantinople—‘the centre of world empire’, as he was once to call the city.

Napoleon’s non-mission to Turkey is a fascinating minor ‘might-have-been’. It is tempting to assume that his genius would, in some way, have arrested the military decline of the empire. But why should a relatively unknown Corsican of twenty-six achieve more than Baron de Tott before him or Major von Moltke forty years later? Opposed to all westernizers were four centuries of tradition and prejudice, intensified by the narrowly selfish interest of privileged office-holders. Only if Bonaparte had entered Constantinople as a conqueror and a convert to Islam might he have reshaped the Sultan’s empire, and for a few months in 1798–9 this eventuality seemed not impossible.

Ever since the mid-1760s a pressure group of Marseilles merchants had urged successive governments to seize Egypt and establish a colony there. Choiseul briefly favoured such a project but Vergennes, with his long experience of Ottoman rule, argued that French commercial interests would be better served by continuing the traditional policy of good relations with the Sultans. The earlier revolutionary regimes followed this line, but the Directory wavered. Repeated memoranda from Bonaparte, his great Italian campaign by now behind him, convinced the Directors of the advantages of sending an expedition to ‘the Orient’. In April 1798 it was agreed that Bonaparte would embark an army for Egypt, consolidate French control over the Levant to the discomfiture of the English and, while destroying the corrupt power of the Mamelukes in Cairo, impose good and beneficial government in the name of the Sultan, whose treasury would thereafter be able to rely on the arrival of the annual tribute. The basic directive for the expedition emphasized that respect must be shown towards the Muslim faith. In order that the Porte should be left in no doubt of the Directory’s good will, it was decided that Talleyrand—who became Foreign Minister for the first time in July 1797—should travel to the Golden Horn and explain to Sultan Selim the finer subtleties of French policy. This interesting encounter never took place. General Bonaparte, with some 38,000 men, duly sailed for Egypt in the third week of May; but Talleyrand did not set out for Constantinople. It was never his intention to do so.

For four or five months the Directory backed the Egyptian expedition. All at first seemed to go well. Bonaparte defeated the Mameluke forces at the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ (fifteen miles distant) on 21 July and entered the capital in triumph three days later. His civil administration became a model of good government, the wisest known in Egypt for many centuries. Despite the state of war, irrigation projects were begun, new mills and hospitals built, conditions in the markets improved, tax-collection made efficient. All the reforms which a benevolent Sultan might profitably have introduced in Constantinople were embodied in decrees signed by the conqueror of Cairo. Apart from an irreverent tendency to use minarets as king-size flagpoles, Napoleon made every effort to please the Muslim faithful, speaking to the ulema of his deep respect for Islamic teaching, hinting that he might himself accept conversion. In each town and village entered by the French, printed proclamations in Arabic were posted. They listed the blessings of liberation—of which, it was confidently hoped, those who could read would inform those who could not:

People of Egypt . . . I come to restore your rights, to punish the usurpers; I respect God, His Prophet and the Koran more than did the Mamelukes . . . We are the friends of all true Muslims. Have we not destroyed the Pope, who preached war against the Muslims? . . . Have we not through all the centuries been friends of the Imperial Sultan (may God fulfil his desires) and enemies of his enemies! . . . Let everyone thank God for the destruction of the Mamelukes. Let everyone cry ‘Glory to the Sultan! Glory to his ally, the army of France! A curse on all Mamelukes! Happiness to the People!’.

This rhetoric provoked a sour response from Constantinople. Not only did the Sultan decline to recognize the French army as his ally; in September he formally declared war on the French Republic. A month later a firman proclaimed the jihad, a Holy War against the ‘infidel savages’ who were holding Egypt.

The Directory was no longer interested in Egypt, however, for Nelson’s naval victory at the mouth of the Nile on 31 July had cut the links between Marseilles, Toulon and Alexandria. On 4 November Talleyrand informed Bonaparte that he might, if he wished, seek to march on India; or he could remain in Egypt, organizing the province as a French dependency, as in his transformation of northern Italy; or he could advance through Palestine, Syria and Anatolia and seek the capture of Constantinople. These grandiose instructions did not reach Napoleon’s headquarters until 25 March 1799; and by then, working out his own grand strategy, he had struck northwards and was besieging Acre. There it became clear that Bonaparte’s expedition was bringing an expedient cohesion to the Ottoman Empire. Selim was by no means displeased to see the Mameluke usurpers humbled, but he was not prepared to allow the French to seize a potentially rich province of his empire. The factious feudatories of Palestine and Syria collaborated with the Sultan’s nominal governor in Damascus to confront the invaders. Ahmed Djezzar ‘the Butcher’ was capable of raising an army of 100,000 men to check Bonaparte’s thrust northwards and, with the assistance of a British naval flotilla under Commodore Sidney Smith, resisted French assaults on Acre for seven weeks, until a convoy brought from Rhodes a contingent of Selim’s ‘New Order’ troops to reinforce the garrison.

With bubonic plague spreading among his troops, Bonaparte abandoned the siege of Acre. General Kléber defeated the sipahi cavalry at Mount Tabor on 16 April and, on this victorious note, the French retired from Syria to Egypt. With British and Russian naval backing, a convoy of sixty vessels brought 15,000 ‘New Order’ troops and Janissaries to the Egyptian coast in mid-July; they landed at Abu Qir (Aboukir) without waiting for the arrival of their horse transports, and threatened the French base at Alexandria; but they could not prevent the infiltration of their lines by the battle-hardened French infantry, and were scattered by Murat’s cavalry. French reports of their victory emphasized the folly of the Janissaries, who showed greater interest in securing ‘trophies’ by decapitating wounded prisoners than in regrouping to meet the enemy’s next assault.

Napoleon never again fought personally against Ottoman troops. By mid-October he was in France; a month later he became First Consul. As the Ottoman Empire had joined the Second Coalition, the war continued after Bonaparte left Egypt. In March 1801 an Ottoman army, with British military and naval backing, landed successfully near Alexandria and, in a seven-month campaign, forced the capitulation of the hard-pressed and deserted survivors of the Armée de l’Orient. A peace treaty was signed at Amiens in the following summer.

It had been a bitter war, especially so long as Napoleon still aspired to become ‘Emperor of the East’. His troops broke faith and committed atrocities at Jaffa; and, after two rebellions in Lower Egypt, he ordered the execution of Muslim hostages in Cairo. Selim III, for his part, had assumed a proper anti-French stance. He confiscated French property; he even worked with the Russians, allowing a fleet to pass through the Straits, while a Russo-Turkish military condominium replaced the pro-French regime set up in the Ionian Islands on the fall of the Venetian Republic. But at heart Selim remained a francophile, eager to turn to Paris for aid and advice at the earliest opportunity. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened in 1798–9, had Talleyrand gone on his projected mission to Constantinople and achieved such diplomatic success that the ‘Sultan and French army’ alliance of Bonaparte’s proclamation was a reality before the Armée de l’Orient set foot in Selim’s Egyptian lands.

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de Gaulle – the ‘most difficult of allies’

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The leader of the Fighting French, as they were now known, had cause for shock when 700 Allied ships landed 100,000 troops in Vichy-held North Africa on 8 November 1942, in Operation Torch, without informing him in advance. Roosevelt had vetoed a suggestion from Churchill that de Gaulle should be told of the American-led operation. This was partly because the Americans thought Gaullist participation would stiffen the resistance of Vichy commanders on the spot, but the exclusion stemmed mainly from the president’s distaste for the General who flew into a rage when told by an aide. ‘I hope the Vichy folk throw them into the sea,’ he cried. ‘One does not break into France.’ Still, as over Mers-el-Kébir, he calmed down to make a BBC broadcast in which he said the Allies did not have territorial designs on North Africa and called on Vichy troops there to ally with them.

The landing provoked Hitler’s order to move the German army to move into the unoccupied zone, further reducing Vichy to puppet status. Occupation costs were raised from 300 to 500 million francs a day. Seizure of assets ranging from farm machinery to works of art increased. The Germans sent troops towards Toulon to seize the French fleet anchored there. Laval instructed the port commanders not to resist. But an order drawn up by Darlan in 1940 for the ships to be scuttled if they came under threat was implemented and the vessels were blown up.

The big unresolved political issue was Washington’s choice of a French partner in North Africa. They went for General Henri Giraud, a handsome, straight-backed 63-year-old who had escaped from captivity in a German castle by sliding down a rope strengthened with wire which his wife sent him hidden in food tins. Travelling with false papers, he went to see Pétain in Vichy where the Americans established contact with him, and then made his way to Gibraltar where he accepted the American commission. But Giraud, nicknamed King Pin by his new patrons, lacked non-military skills, was contemptuous of politics and poor at administration and organisation. Dwight Eisenhower, the US commander, said he was somebody who ‘wants to be a big shot, a bright and shining light, and the acclaimed saviour of France’ but who turned out to be ‘a terrible blow to our expectations’.

As they encountered stiff resistance from troops loyal to the Marshal, the Americans turned to the more powerful if dubious figure of Admiral Darlan, who was susceptible to their approaches after being elbowed aside by Laval and was visiting Algiers to see his son, who was gravely ill with polio. The readiness of the Allies to collaborate with such a prominent member of the Vichy hierarchy caused dismay among the Resistance. De Gaulle protested to the White House, but got no reply. The British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, was critical, but Churchill went along in the name of Allied solidarity.

Eisenhower reached an agreement with Darlan to get Vichy forces to stop fighting after suffering 3,000 dead or wounded (about the same as Allied losses). The Admiral became high commissioner of a French ‘Imperial Federation’ and resumed the repressive methods he had pursued at Vichy, harassing Free French supporters and Jews in an atmosphere which Eisenhower characterised as rife with ‘petty intrigue with little, selfish, conceited worms that call themselves men’. The State Department warned Roosevelt of a storm of protest at the installation of a ‘semi-Fascist’ government in the first major territory liberated by US forces.

This episode was brought to an abrupt end when a young French royalist, Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle, shot the Admiral in the stomach in his office – he died two hours later. The assassin was swiftly tried and shot. There was no direct link between the killing and the Fighting French, but some of the dollars taken to Algiers by an emissary of de Gaulle were found on the assassin and the General mentioned Darlan’s disappearance favourably in a conversation with Eden; he called the death an execution.

Giraud was left in charge on the French side, but he and the Americans made a hash of things. Maurice Peyrouton, a former Vichy interior minister who had signed the death sentence for de Gaulle, was put in charge of civil administration. The food situation deteriorated and bad weather bogged down the advance east along the coast. De Gaulle judged that Giraud showed ‘extreme political clumsiness’.

The Fighting French leader did not have to wait long for his chance to insert himself into North African affairs and carve out a new operational base there. In mid-January 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill met in the Anfa suburb of Casablanca in Morocco to review the progress of the war, plan the invasion of Italy and bring the two French generals together. Emboldened by further success for Leclerc’s column in Libya and the extension of his movement’s authority to the East African territory of Djibouti and the islands of Madagascar and la Réunion, de Gaulle played hard to get until Churchill threatened that, if he did not fly to Casablanca, Britain would have to ‘review’ its attitude and ‘endeavour to get on as well as we can without you’.

There was trouble from the moment the Constable arrived. When he saw that the windows of his car were covered with mud, he assumed that his hosts wanted to conceal him from the local people, not knowing that this had been done for security reasons to Roosevelt as well. The intrusive presence of armed US guards on French soil grated. At lunch with Giraud, he refused to sit at the table until French soldiers replaced the American sentries.

Such was American distrust of de Gaulle that when he had his first meeting with Roosevelt, armed secret service men were posted behind the curtains. Speaking French, the president observed that none of the various French groups could claim sole legitimacy; de Gaulle, for instance, had never been elected. To that, the General responded that Joan of Arc had drawn her legitimacy from taking action and refusing to lose hope. FDR did not improve matters by comparing France to ‘a little child unable to look out and fend for itself’. De Gaulle told an aide that he had met ‘a great statesman. I think we understood one another well.’ But Roosevelt’s son, Elliott, noted that his father thought the Frenchman determined to establish a dictatorship in France and remarked that ‘there is no man in whom I have less confidence’ – he also spread a tale that de Gaulle had compared himself to Joan of Arc, Clemenceau and other great historical figures.

The Frenchman had another stormy session with Churchill. However, the prime minister showed his admiration as the Fighting French chief walked away down the path from his villa, telling his doctor: ‘His country has given up fighting, he himself is a refugee, and if we turn him down he’s finished. But look at him! Look at him! He might be Stalin, with 200 divisions behind his words. Perhaps the last survivor of a warrior race.’

Anxious to present a façade of understanding between the two generals to the press, Roosevelt talked de Gaulle into shaking hands with Giraud for photographers on the lawn outside his villa. But, in the following months, the Constable comprehensively outwitted his rival, setting up a new headquarters in Algiers and gaining control of the French struggle against Vichy and the Germans. When he left London for North Africa in May 1943, he had a meeting with Eden – Churchill was in Washington. The foreign secretary told him in a friendly tone that he was the most difficult of allies. ‘I don’t doubt that,’ de Gaulle replied with a smile. ‘France is a great power.’

Preparing for peace

With the post-war era in view, de Gaulle set about shifting the emphasis of his movement from an anti-Vichy, anti-German operation to the nucleus of a government after liberation by creating a national committee in Algiers. This was joined by leading Fighting French figures including René Pleven, with responsibility for economic and financial matters and colonial policy, André Diethelm, Mandel’s former chief of staff, and the early Gaullist Jacques Soustelle along with Henri Frenay, Emmanuel d’Astier and Pierre Mendès France, the Popular Front deputy finance minister who had escaped from detention under Vichy. Another former minister, the Radical Socialist Henri Queuille, chaired inter-ministerial commissions, using political skills learned under the old regime to smooth over differences.

Though still keeping his distance from the General, Jean Monnet rallied, and sought to get supplies from the Americans. De Gaulle also gained the support of a prominent military man, Jean-Marie de Lattre de Tassigny, who had been jailed for his opposition to the German occupation of the Vichy zone in 1942 but escaped by using a saw smuggled into his cell to cut the window bars and scale two walls. General Koenig, the victor of the battle at Bir-Hakeim, took command of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI) while military affairs in France were delegated to 29-year-old Jacques Delmas, who subsequently added his Resistance pseudonym of Chaban to his name. De Gaulle’s family came, too, the General and his wife continually worrying about the condition of their daughter, Anne.

Giraud’s defeat was assured when his rival became the sole chairman of the national committee. ‘I let myself be beaten without a fight,’ he admitted. ‘On the political level, I was unbelievably incompetent, clumsy and weak.’ The British delegate to North Africa, Harold Macmillan, judged that ‘never in the whole history of politics has any man frittered away so large a capital in so short a time.’

A Provisional Consultative Assembly was appointed, including fifty-two representatives of the Resistance, twenty of the old parliament and twelve of the general councils of the Empire. De Gaulle reshuffled the administration to take in six representatives of non-Communist political parties, five Resistance figures plus five officials and generals, including Monnet and General Catroux. Seventeen ‘general secretaries’ were to run the administration, regional commissioners and prefects below them.

Though de Gaulle refused to let the Communists choose which posts they should hold and banned Thorez from visiting North Africa, the increasingly radical tilt of this ‘virtual republic’ was evident. The charter drawn up by its National Committee stipulated ‘the eviction from management of France’s economy of the great economic and financial feudal forces’. After the Liberation, there was to be a minimum wage, full social security, nationalisation of big companies, worker participation in management, and enhanced rights for inhabitants of colonies. De Gaulle said he looked to ‘the end of an economic regime in which the great source of riches escape from the nation, where the main production and distribution activities are beyond its control and where the management of firms excludes the participation of workers’ organisations on which, however, they depend.’

An official statement in Algiers said civil servants who followed Vichy orders were guilty of ‘punishable servility’. An example was made of a former Vichy interior minister, Pierre Pucheu, who had gone to North Africa with what he thought was a safe conduct from Giraud, intending to enlist in the forces fighting the Axis. The Communists were after him for his alleged involvement in handing over hostages, mainly from their party, to the Germans for a mass execution in 1941. After a show trial, he was shot.

Across the Mediterranean, growing expectations of an Allied victory and the unpopularity of forced labour service in Germany bolstered the Resistance. According to a British estimate, the partisans now numbered 150,000, though only 35,000 were properly armed. Partisan groups stepped up their ‘immediate action’ with increased sabotage of railway lines and strongholds in the Massif Central, Limousin, Brittany, the Lot, the Ain and Savoie.

The Gestapo caught General Delestraint – he was imprisoned in camps in Germany and executed – and then arrested Moulin who died under torture; whether he was betrayed or caught by German detective work remains a matter of controversy. The Socialist Resistance leader, Pierre Brossolette, was also detained, and died jumping from a high window of the Gestapo building in Paris. One of Moulin’s close associates, Georges Bidault, a Christian Democrat journalist, held the movement together despite these reverses.

As the Wehrmacht retreated from Italy, the Allies took Corsica and the Germans prepared for a cross-Channel landing, the struggle in the Hexagon sharpened. A Resistance leader, Philippe Viannay, published an article saying there was ‘a clear duty to kill’ all Germans, French people who helped the occupation forces, and police who were involved in the arrest of patriots. Pétain’s mind was unravelling: visiting Lyons, he asked as he walked in front of a welcoming parade, ‘Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?’ He sent an emissary to Algiers to propose a rendezvous with de Gaulle at the Arc de Triomphe to transfer his authority. He also offered to put himself in British hands. He received no response to either message.

At the end of September 1944, an anti-Laval group at Vichy unveiled a plan under which a regency council would take over if the Marshal died or stepped down. A month later, Pétain tried unsuccessfully to get rid of the Auvergnat and, as a result, was put under tighter German supervision. Joseph Darnand, head of the Milice collaborationist paramilitary, was appointed secretary-general for order. Members of the Resistance were subject to summary courts or were simply shot out of hand. Special German units carried out mass shootings of hostages. An important Alpine base on the Plateau des Glières in Savoy was assaulted by collaborationist forces and German troops and planes; 150 maquisards were killed, some after being captured and tortured.

RESTORATION

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Louis XVIII Of France

Since both the republican and imperial models were discredited and unacceptable to the victorious Allies, a royal restoration was inevitable; the victor of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, warned that there would be no peace in Europe unless the Bourbons mounted the throne again. The Congress of Vienna, held to define European frontiers after two decades of war, reversed Napoleon’s conquests but was otherwise generous to France after Talleyrand inserted himself into the deliberations; in a sign of flexibility among recent adversaries, Britain and Austria allied with France to block a Prussian attempt to absorb Saxony.

However, the new monarch who called himself Louis XVIII in deference to his nephew who had died in prison two decades earlier, made a poor fist of it on his return from exile in Britain in May 1814. The corpulent 59-year-old king surrounded himself with appointees who had been out of government business for more than two decades. His principal minister, the Count of Blacas, was a minor noble who devoted himself to building up a fortune, arousing wide unpopularity and lacking authority. The army was alienated by the appointment of royalists for loyalty rather than ability, and the sacking of veterans who had borne the standard of Napoleonic glory. The monarch’s influence was undercut by his reactionary brother, the Count of Artois, and his circle of supporters set on revenge for the Revolution. Louis was unperturbed. As Paris amused itself with balls, he said he slept as well as in his youth.

This complacency was shattered on 26 February 1815, when Bonaparte escaped from Elba to stage an attempted comeback, reaching Paris on 20 March after getting a mixed but generally not unfriendly reception across the country. Louis fled as Napoleon raised a 125,000-strong army and attracted figures who had temporarily sided with the king. A referendum approved a constitution drawn up by the political theorist, Benjamin Constant, though the abstention rate was very high. Seeing a quick and decisive battlefield victory as the way to gain recognition from the Allies, Bonaparte launched his army across the north-eastern border to confront the British and Prussians. The resulting battle at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, was, as Wellington remarked, ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’, but defeat dethroned France as a great European power. The universe changed direction, Victor Hugo would judge. More to the point, France had had enough of its emperor. Even if he had not lost at Waterloo, Bonaparte’s days would have been numbered. His enemies were simply too strong, France too weakened and his political support too frayed.1

Escaping from the rout of his army, Napoleon regained Paris and put on as brave a face as he could. ‘All is not lost,’ he declared while taking a bath in the Élysée Palace. But the Chamber of Deputies obliged him to abdicate, and he threw himself on the mercy of the British, ending up in his second exile on the bleak South Atlantic outpost of St Helena.

The crowds cheered as Louis XVIII was driven in his carriage to the Tuileries Palace in the centre of Paris on 8 July 1815. A National Guard sergeant kissed the hand of the twice-restored monarch. Now referred to by his supporters as le Désiré (the Desired One), Louis made his Parisian palace, with its succession of halls and apartments stretching down what is now the rue de Rivoli to the Louvre, facing gardens laid out by the great designer Le Nôtre, the centre of festivities that summer. Balls were held at night outside – when the authorities tried to stop them to protect the lawns, the monarch called from the window ‘Dance on the grass!’ The surrounding buildings were illuminated at night. There were firework displays. Musicians strolled the streets and a charity kitchen fed the poor in the Saint-Antoine district. The Treaty of Paris signed with the victorious Allies assured Parisians that they would ‘continue to enjoy their rights and liberties’.

The restored monarch went to see plays at the Comédie-Française and, each morning, courtiers gathered to listen to his stories as he sat in a large armchair and gave them every opportunity to agree with his high appreciation of his wit. Rejecting Napoleon’s view that he should exercise despotic rule, he fancied himself as father of the people, refusing to be ‘king of two Frances’. A royal proclamation issued a week after Waterloo set out his intention ‘to call round our paternal throne the immense majority of Frenchmen whose fidelity, courage and devotedness have brought such pleasing consolation to our heart’.

With a charter setting out rights for the richer sections of society, Louis sought to win over bourgeois liberals and some Bonapartists, though democracy was still far off with an electorate limited to 75,000 men. A police report told him that barely 10 per cent of the French favoured a return of the ancien régime. As the writer Charles-Louis Lesur put it in 1817, however deplorable its excesses, the Revolution would ‘leave for ever great models as well as salutary lessons’.

Voting for the Chamber of Deputies was on a rolling basis with staggered five-yearly polls. A new upper house mixed old and new figures. Civil rights, religious toleration and press freedom were guaranteed. Conservatives were reassured that ‘abuses’ would be controlled by Article 14 of the Charter, which enabled the crown to decree ordinances for state security in times of danger. Most important for the middle class and richer peasants, the purchase of land taken from aristocrats and the church was left in their ownership.

Still, the king showed the limits of his tolerance by insisting on the white royal flag in place of the tricolour and dating his reign from the death of his nephew. Royal statues were restored. Streets and squares reverted to old names. Church building underlined the monarchy’s identification with Catholicism. The column erected by Napoleon to his glory in the Place Vendôme was torn down.

Louis insisted all power had to devolve from the throne, even if he chose to allow others to exercise it on his behalf. Citizens were to revert to being subjects. It was he who granted the constitution rather than accepting one drawn up by parliament. Ministers needed majority backing in the Chamber but, when they presented proposals to the throne, they said simply, ‘Here is our opinion’ to which the sovereign replied, ‘Here is my will’.

Property owners might be reassured but the outlook was distinctly unpromising for their fellow countrymen. The army, wounded and humiliated, was kept south of the Loire by the Allies. The demobilisation of hundreds of thousands of troops swelled the underclass. Ex-soldiers joined outlaw bands that roamed the countryside.

The restored king and his ministers were subject to the dictates of the Allies, represented in Paris by Wellington and Castlereagh for Britain, Metternich for Austria, the Tsar Alexander for Russia and the 72-year-old Prussian Marshal Blücher whose intervention had been decisive at Waterloo. They had at their command an occupation army of 150,000 men. The tents of the invaders stretched along the Champs-Élysées and frequently drunken British troops reeled through the streets mocking Louis as ‘an old bloated poltroon’ or referring to his liking for oysters by calling him ‘Louis des huîtres’.

Some foreign national treasures, which French armies had seized on their conquests, were reclaimed; a French observer recorded Wellington mounting a ladder to help take pictures down from walls. The Allied commander also annoyed farmers by importing his pack of hounds and hunting with them over fields without warning or compensation for the damage caused; eventually, when protests swelled, he gave the dogs to Louis XVIII.

The Prussians were the most set on revenge, looting at will. Occupying the Place du Carrousel at the end of the Louvre, they trained their cannons on the royal palace. Blücher proposed to blow up the Pont d’Iéna over the Seine commemorating Napoleon’s victory over Prussia in 1806, but Louis XVIII said he would go to the bridge to share its fate; hurrying to the scene, Talleyrand offered to change its name to the Pont de l’École Militaire, calculating that, once the invaders were gone, it could revert to Iéna. Most tellingly, Wellington posted a British soldier on the bridge, correctly guessing Blücher would not risk blowing him up.

The economy was in a sorry state, aggravated by financial indemnities to the Allies including meeting the cost of the occupation. Parts of eastern France had been ruined by fighting; in the historic centre of Laon, 280 of 350 homes had been destroyed. National output was below that of 1789; production in Marseilles was 25 per cent lower than at the outbreak of the Revolution. Farming was stagnant. The beetroot industry, encouraged by Napoleon to ensure home-grown supplies of sugar, went bust as imports from the West Indies resumed. There were few big factories; the most advanced city, Paris, was a web of small workshops and artisans doing piecework. Annual coal output was 800,000 tons compared to 17 million tons in Britain. Metallurgy remained stuck where it had been in 1789. British entrepreneurs used their techniques to set up a thriving lace industry round Calais, and an iron foundry and gas works outside Paris.

Barter was common in rural areas. For the better-off, income from land and interest from state securities took precedence over other forms of investment. Trade was at half the level of the mid-1780s. High duties raised the price of imports and manufactured goods were generally not competitive abroad. Falling exports hit port cities hard – the population of Bordeaux had dropped by a third since pre-Revolutionary days and grass grew on the quays. Industrial production in Marseilles was 25 per cent lower than at the outbreak of the Revolution, but the port still received several thousand cargo ships a year and its energetic Greek merchant community conducted commerce with the Levant in cotton, wool, horses, wheat and dried vegetables; one trader, who had a concession from the Pasha of Egypt, made a million francs in profit in 1817.

Banking and finance were hindered by regulation and an unadventurous spirit. Only seven shares were quoted on the Paris stock exchange. When the banker, Jacques Laffitte, proposed to create a company to take deposits to fund credit, the Conseil d’État rejected the idea. Though the state debt was low, government credit was limited and capital remained scarce. The new regime was obliged to raise funds by a forced loan and pawning royal forests, but still faced a budget deficit of 300 million francs and its ability to pay the indemnity to the Allies was in doubt, meaning that the occupation would drag on.

The Catholic church had been the biggest loser of the Revolution in terms of property and influence; nearly all its 4–5 million hectares of land holdings had been confiscated and mainly sold off, compared to an estimated half of those of the nobility. The priesthood had been reduced by more than 20,000 during the anti-Christian crusade from 1789 to 1793 and had not recovered significantly. So it now lost no time in seeking to restore its ranks. Ordinations rose from 900 to 2,500 a year and the number of nuns doubled to 25,000.

Some felt that the church should ally itself with the cause of liberty and progress – the prominent priest and philosopher Hugues-Félicité de Lamennais preached theocratic democracy. But most clergy were loyal to the traditional fusion of church and royal state as the priesthood played a role similar to that of the army under Napoleon in terms of jobs and career advancement for young men without wealth to support them. The importance of the family was stressed. Divorce was banned in 1816; a right-wing deputy castigated it for creating ‘a veritable domestic democracy [which] allows the wife, the weaker sex, to rise up against marital authority.’

Despite its sufferings and exile during the Revolution, the nobility still possessed at least a fifth of all land – some aristocrats who fled abroad had used agents to secretly buy property requisitioned from their peers or from the church. On their estates, they tapped in to proroyalist sentiment among peasants and smallholders who had been alienated by taxation and conscription under the Jacobins and the Empire. In regions like the Gard, Ardèche, Aveyron and Lozère, as well as the Vendée, they drew on rural anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois, anti-Protestant sentiment, conjuring up rose-coloured memories of paternalistic ancien régime welfare to buttress their authority while cutting themselves off from progress.

In towns and villages alike, life was harsh for most people, 60 per cent of whom were illiterate. Bad water and lack of hygiene spread disease. Despite the efforts of the Jacobins to encourage national education, most people outside the Paris area communicated in the local patois; the port city of Toulon was known as ‘the northern colony’ because it was the only southern town where the national language was spoken by a majority of inhabitants. There were great empty, silent spaces. Stepping down from a coach at a staging post only thirteen miles from the provincial capital of Bourges in central France, Stendhal was struck by the sense of ‘complete isolation’ while, a little later, the German poet, Heinrich Heine, found Brittany ‘a wretched, desolate land where mankind is stupid and dirty’. The Landes in the south-west was known as ‘our Sahara’, a great deserted region where a travelling official recorded that ‘for several hours, I saw nothing but flat country varied by thickets of briar, and now and then, by a forest of pines on the horizon . . . the only inhabitants a few rare shepherds perched on their long stilts.’

Rural people faced the continuous threat of bad harvests and hunger. Much of the countryside, where 90 per cent of the population lived, was a backward patchwork of small farms, hamlets and country towns, isolated by poor communications, high hills and mountains, wide rivers, swamps and forests. Lack of transport and paved roads impeded the distribution of food and goods, and farmers held on to what they had for fear of famine. Meat was rare – a pig had to last a family for a year. Peasants depended on the local nobility or teachers and priests to mediate with the authorities on their behalf and lacked the concept of a world beyond their immediate surroundings. Some men escaped to become day labourers in towns or travelling pedlars, but women were confined to the most humdrum, restricted existences.

Poverty and backwardness was most marked south of a line from the border of Normandy and Brittany at St-Malo across to Grenoble in the Alps. North and east of this, people were generally taller, fitter and better educated. They also had better road communications. But even in this more evolved half of France, disparities were great and poverty widespread. Most inhabitants of big cities died without leaving any assets. Urban workers huddled in slums, prey to disease and exploitation or, in the capital, in filthy shanty towns for migrant workers outside the city walls.

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Episode of the French intervention in Spain 1823 by Hippolyte Lecomte.

Despite the misgivings of the king, the nationalist, legitimist right pushed France into its first post-1815 foreign foray in Spain, where civil war had broken out in 1822 after the Bourbon King Ferdinand VII sought to re-establish the absolute monarchy he had been forced to renounce by a constitution ten years earlier.

Austria, Prussia and Russia backed French intervention and Louis did an about-turn saying, ‘a hundred thousand French are ready to march invoking the god of St Louis to keep the throne of Spain for a descendant of Henri IV’. Angoulême commanded the army that advanced to Madrid in May 1824, took Seville and Cadiz, and freed Ferdinand to launch a ferocious counter-revolution. In November, Angoulême returned to a hero’s welcome, leaving behind an occupying force of 45,000 men that was not fully withdrawn until 1828. Though he likened the expedition to an episode from Don Quixote, Ultras celebrated not only victory but also the restoration of absolute monarchy in Spain. For them, France had paid its dues in the counter-revolutionary alliance directed by Metternich from Vienna.

LIBERATION FRANCE 1944

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D-Day plunged relations between de Gaulle and the Allies into a fresh crisis as the general was excluded from planning and informed about it only during a visit to Churchill on the eve of the landings. No French forces were to be involved in the first wave. At a stormy lunch, he was further irritated by a US plan to issue special bank notes in France and by the prime minister’s suggestion that he go to Washington to seek Roosevelt’s benediction. The president had never wanted to see him in the past, he shot back, so why should he now ‘lodge my candidacy for power in France with Roosevelt. The French government exists.’ Still the two men ended by toasting one another, Churchill raising his glass ‘to de Gaulle who never accepted defeat’ while his guest drank ‘to England, to victory, to Europe.’

But the White House decreed that the Supreme Commander, Eisenhower, was free to deal with any groups he chose in France rather than having to talk to a provisional government Washington did not recognise. A text to be read out on the radio and distributed in leaflets named the American as ultimate authority for the country and omitted any mention of Fighting France, the Resistance or de Gaulle. Shown this, the Frenchman exploded. His anger increased when he learned that he was expected to follow Eisenhower in a post-invasion broadcast, giving the impression of endorsing what had just been said. He refused to speak at all, and withdrew the cooperation of French liaison agents.

That provoked a harangue from Churchill to the cabinet about de Gaulle’s misdeeds while the General described the prime minister as a gangster. Summoning a representative of the French leader, Churchill accused him of ‘treason at the height of battle’. As usual, de Gaulle calmed down and agreed to speak on the BBC on the landings so long as this was some hours after Eisenhower. He would also supply liaison agents. Churchill was not appeased. From his bed late at night, he dictated an instruction that de Gaulle was to be flown to Algiers ‘in chains if necessary’. Eden had the memo burned.

Showing continuing bad temper, the prime minister did not ask de Gaulle to accompany him when he visited Normandy on 12 June. Nor did he attend a dinner the foreign secretary gave for de Gaulle. He also raised objections about de Gaulle’s intention to visit France, but the General went ahead, crossing the Channel on 14 June aboard the destroyer, La Combattante. Driving inland in a jeep, he stopped to talk to local people who ‘cried out with joy’, one of his companions recalled.

In Bayeux, the first town liberated, the mayor and municipal council put on a hero’s welcome. ‘At the sight of General de Gaulle, a kind of stupor took hold of the inhabitants who broke out into cheers or dissolved into tears,’ the Constable recorded in his memoirs. Everywhere, he was acclaimed, the public reaction contradicting Roosevelt’s insistence that he was not a representative figure, though FDR maintained his reservations when de Gaulle finally visited Washington the following month, describing the visitor to his wife as the ‘president of some French committee or other’ and an ‘egotist’. For his part, de Gaulle was convinced that America was ‘already trying to rule the world’ and, since Britain would always accede to the US, France had to count on itself, a belief he would nurture till the end of his life.

The brink of civil war

The Allied advance through Normandy took a heavy toll on French people caught up in the fighting or killed by bombing. The retreating Germans massacred hundreds of civilians, shooting eighty detained partisans in Caen prison on the day of the landings. There were also killings of civilians, rapes and pillage by the Allied forces, increasing the disproportion between civilian and military losses in France during the conflict.

The French second armoured division (la 2éme DB) under Leclerc crossed the Channel at the end of July to join the advance on Paris once the Allies had broken out of the Normandy pocket. In mid-August, Allied forces, including a division under de Lattre de Tassigny, landed on the Riviera. Resistance fighters proclaimed new ‘republics’; 140,000 partisans were estimated to have received weapons through Allied parachute drops on top of arms captured from the Germans and the Milice.

Seven thousand partisans mustered in the Morbihan département of Brittany. In the Resistance stronghold of the Limousin, the maverick Communist Georges Guingouin led 20,000 men to take over Limoges after the Germans capitulated. Other partisans set up a base in the rugged south-eastern uplands of the Dauphiné region, which brought together farmers and former soldiers, priests, Communists and Jews, mechanics, café owners and local officials in the Free Republic of the Vercors. But they were cut off and did not receive arms drops or bombing support to enable them to ward off a German attack that killed 600 maquisards and 200 local inhabitants.

There was lawlessness, vengeance killings and summary trials as France appeared to teeter on the brink of civil war. In Toulouse, Limoges and Montpellier, Jacques Baumel, a Resistance fighter and future Gaullist minister, witnessed ‘atrocities comparable to the killings in the Spanish Civil War’. The numbers of those slain in the process and earlier in the war are subject to different estimations. The total of Resistance fighters who died in action, were executed or perished after deportation has been estimated at between 12,000 and 20,000. The interior ministry provided a figure of 9,673 for all summary executions by the Resistance during the war, 4,439 of them during or after the Liberation. A later official committee put the number at 12,000. The revisionist historian Robert Aron arrived at 20,000 for 1944 and 30–40,000 for the war as a whole, a figure contested by other experts.

The Milice and the retreating occupation forces became ever more violent. The SS Panzer Reich tank division picked up men in the Corrèze provincial capital of Tulle and killed ninety-nine by hanging them from balconies. It then slaughtered 642 people in the Limousin village of Oradour-sur-Glane, 240 of them women and children burned in the church. At one town in the Loire Valley, the Germans shot dead 124 people, including 44 children; in another massacre, 305 were executed and 732 deported, 405 to their deaths. A Milice leader had eighty Jews rounded up and the men buried alive under bags of cement in a well.

Partisans disguised in blue paramilitary uniforms got into the building where the Vichy propaganda minister, Philippe Henriot, was sleeping and murdered him in his bed – big crowds filed past his coffin outside the Hôtel de Ville in Paris before the funeral at Notre-Dame. In retaliation, militiamen took Georges Mandel, who had been handed over to them by the Germans, into the forest of Fontainebleau and killed him. Others led the Popular Front education minister, Jean Zay, from prison, shot him, stripped the body, tore off his wedding ring and flung the corpse into a quarry.

Pétain, who was reported to have reacted to news of D-Day by singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, criticised the Milice for imposing ‘an atmosphere of police terror unknown in this country until now’, but he was now an impotent prisoner of the Germans who moved him to what amounted to house arrest in a château in the northern Auvergne. Laval sought an escape with a plan to revive the Third Republic; he got backing from eighty-seven mayors but failed to win the support of the pre-war premier Édouard Herriot who was brought to meet him from a lunatic asylum where he was being held.

The Germans moved the Vichy leaders to Belfort in eastern France where a phantom administration was set up under Fernand de Brinon, the former Vichy representative to the German High Command in Paris who had used his position to get a pass protecting his Jewish wife. Darnand and Déat were among the ministers. In the autumn of 1944, the Allied advance forced them to flee to a grandiose, gloomy castle on a rocky outcrop on the Danube in the small town of Sigmaringen together with some other leading collaborationists, including the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

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Freeing the capital

As the Vichy leadership moved in ignominious retreat, de Gaulle made a triumphant progress through Normandy and Brittany. Church bells rang and the streets were garlanded with flowers. But his relations with the Allies were still tense. There was yet another row with Britain over Syria and Lebanon, and an argument about who should be responsible for distributing arms to police in France. De Gaulle objected at not being consulted over the Allied destruction of ships at Toulon, Sète and Marseilles. Churchill visited Corsica without telling the French in advance.

In Paris, the Wehrmacht laid explosives in strategic points to destroy the city in keeping with Hitler’s order. Eisenhower wanted to avoid a big urban battle, which could delay his advance on Germany, but his hand was forced by a Resistance rising in the capital that began on 15 August, the day that a final convoy of more than 2,000 prisoners left for Buchenwald. Railway workers, led by the Communists, went on strike. Police and staff on the bus and underground transport systems followed. De Gaulle saw the danger of a ‘populist government which would encircle my head with laurels, ask me to take a position which it would designate for me and pull all the strings . . . until the day when the dictatorship of proletariat was established’.

On 18 August, a general strike was declared in the city. The unified Resistance command, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) headed by the Communist Henri Rol-Tanguy, told Parisians to mobilise. There were echoes of the popular risings of the nineteenth century as the City Hall, public buildings, railway stations, telephone exchanges and electricity stations were occupied. Barricades went up in the streets and trees were cut down to block boulevards. The Germans blew up a big flourmill, threatening bread supplies. De Gaulle insisted to Eisenhower that there could be ‘serious trouble’ unless the city was liberated as soon as possible with French troops under Leclerc leading the way.

On the evening of 24 August, French vanguard tanks crossed the Seine south-west of the capital, but the main column was still 5 miles from the main southern gateway into the city, the Porte d’Orléans. Growing increasingly frustrated, the overall field commander, General Omar Bradley, ordered the US 4th Division to join the attack, raising the prospect that French troops would not be alone in liberating the city. That was enough to spur on Leclerc. Cane in hand as he walked through the streets of a southern suburb, he took aside a captain, Raymond Dronne, who had been with him in Chad in 1940–1, and told him ‘Head immediately for Paris . . . Go fast. Arrive this evening.’

Dronne’s tanks crossed the Seine, rolling along the quays on the Right Bank to the Hôtel de Ville. Church bells rang in celebration. The German commander, von Choltitz, decided to surrender. In all, 1,500 resistance fighters died in the freeing of the capital. De Gaulle was driven to Paris where, after calling at the Police Prefecture, he walked through dense crowds to the Hôtel de Ville. There, he made one of his most evocative speeches to proclaim ‘Paris! Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris! But liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!’ Then he went to the window looking down at the crowd below and raised both his arms in a gesture that would become familiar, his height turning him into a monument.

As he staged a triumphal walk down the Champs-Élysées, the throng lining the wide avenue erupted in joy. The tanks of Leclerc’s division rolled down from the Arc de Triomphe, but snipers, mainly from the Milice, fired from the rooftops on the Place de la Concorde and along the rue de Rivoli when the General boarded an open car to drive to Notre-Dame, where he marched through the church, his shoulders thrown back while bullets ricocheted off the pillars behind which people sheltered, women cuddling children in their arms. When the service ended, the shooting continued, but the General took no notice as he walked out into the sunlight. The bullets may have been from over-excited partisans. In a letter to his wife, de Gaulle suggested that ‘certain elements’ – he meant Communists – had seized on the occasion to flex their muscles.

The Wehrmacht launched a bombardment that killed 50 people, injured 400 and turned the night red with the flames from burning houses. Electricity was cut off – in the war ministry, de Gaulle’s aide-decamp took the only oil lamp available. In the north and west of the country, 75,000 German soldiers held out; the last Nazi troops were not driven from French territory until early 1945, with the First French Army under de Lattre de Tassigny taking Strasbourg and joining the Allied advance across the Rhine. More than 2 million French people were prisoners of war or labourers in Germany.

The Pétain regime evaporated as if it had never been. But collaborators had to pay, with the exercise of summary popular justice reminiscent of the Revolution and the insurrections and repressions of the previous century. Women who had fraternised with Germans had their hair cropped and were paraded through the streets, daubed with tar, stripped to the waist and painted with swastikas; at least 20,000 were punished in this way. In Paris, some prostitutes who had entertained Germans were kicked to death. In half-a-dozen cities, there were riots to force tribunals to condemn collaborators to death, encouraged by the Communist Party, which claimed the impossibly high number of 75,000 members killed during the war. Elsewhere, mobs simply grabbed those regarded as guilty, torturing and executing some out of hand.

France had emerged from the war on the winning side, thanks largely to de Gaulle’s perspicuity and perseverance. But now it had to confront the problems of peace under an unelected leader whose mindset was at odds with the nation’s modern history and inclinations. The threat of civil war with the Communists using their muscle to try to usher in a new regime was evident. So was de Gaulle’s determination to thwart them in the name of the Republic as he pursued his vision of national unity which would transcend the country’s old divisions.

MADRAS AND DUPLEIX I

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The siege of Madras in 1746 for Joseph Francois Dupleix troops and ships of La Bourdonnais. The city surrendered in September 1746. Madras was returned to England in 1748 to restore peace.

That nameless Spanish coastguard who, in defence of his country’s trading rights in Cuba, sliced off the ear of Captain Robert Jenkins had much to answer for. In an age when even sea dogs wore ample wigs the Captain’s loss was of no cosmetic consequence; but the fact that Jenkins ever after cherished the severed organ, regarded it as a talisman, and chose to exhibit it in the House of Commons had far-reaching repercussions. Such was the clamour for retaliation against Spanish highhandedness in the Caribbean that the war, when at last declared by a reluctant ministry, is said to have been the most popular of the century. It was also one of the shortest, for within a few months the Hapsburg emperor had died, opening the issue of the imperial succession and plunging central Europe into conflagration. The War of Jenkins’s Ear became subsumed in that of the Austrian Succession and, with Britain already committed against Bourbon Spain, it was unthinkable that Bourbon France would be other than hostile.

The success of the European powers in engrossing the world’s trade had had the unfortunate side effect of multiplying and internationalizing their interminable squabbles. If an incident off the coast of Cuba could determine postures in a European war it followed that wherever else the European rivals found themselves in close proximity the same hostile postures would be likely to prevail. Nationalism, let alone religion or ideology, played no great part in these quarrels. Ostensibly they were dynastic or commercial but the issues, often confused in the first place, became hopelessly obscured in the process of export. Local grievances took their place and local conditions determined the scale and duration of any hostilities. The stakes could by mutual consent be kept to a minimum or they could escalate to such heights that in retrospect they dwarfed the often inconclusive results in Europe.

So it was in India. News that Britain and France were officially at war reached the Coromandel Coast in September 1744. By that time the question of the Austrian succession was as dead and buried as Jenkins and his ear. But that scarcely troubled the participants. Two years later Madras would be stormed and captured by the French; and for the next fifteen years the two nations, in the guise of their respective trading companies, would fight a life-and-death struggle for supremacy on The Coast and in the adjacent province of the Carnatic. To strengthen its position, each Company entered into alliances with the native powers, thereby extending both its influence and its territory. Honours would be more or less equally divided but in the end victory and dominion fell to the British; and thanks to the military arrangements necessitated by the war, the British would go on to realize an even greater dominion in Bengal. It is therefore with this war, the War of the (wholly irrelevant) Austrian Succession, that most histories of British India begin; there are even histories of the East India Company which have the same starting point.

The metamorphosis of the Company’s Madras establishment from city state to territorial capital, closely followed by the still more dramatic transformation of its Bengal establishment, undoubtedly represents the most important watershed in the Company’s history. Bengal at the time accounted for more than fifty per cent of the Company’s total trade and Madras for around fifteen per cent. When the call to arms drowned out the commodity wrangling in two such important markets, it was bound to affect the whole posture of the Company.

On the other hand, these stirring events had little bearing on the Arabian Sea trade, based on Bombay, and even less on the important China trade, based on Canton and now entering a period of rapid expansion. In outposts like Benkulen and St Helena the usual grim and inglorious struggle for survival continued regardless. And more significantly, even in Bengal and on The Coast the volume of trade remained high in spite of the political turmoil. The Coast’s trading returns would be back to normal within two years of the French occupation of Madras while those of Calcutta would recover from their own ‘black hole’ in 1756 even more rapidly. In chronicling the political and military adventures of the period it is rather easy to forget that the Company remained a commercial enterprise. ‘The combatants aimed at injuring one another’s trade, not making conquests’, writes Professor Dodwell, editor of the Cambridge History of India. Commercial priorities still governed the Company’s decision making and it was its financial viability which made expansion possible – though not necessarily desirable.

That said, any student of the Company’s fortunes who at last arrives at this watershed period will find little further use for a pocket calculator. With the Company in India fighting for its very existence, the monthly returns of ‘The Sea Customer’ and ‘The Export Warehousekeeper’ lose their charm while London’s always wordy complaints about the previous year’s taffetas seem as irrelevant as Mrs Gyfford’s last will and testament. More territory meant more revenue but not necessarily more trade; and for Company diehards that was one good reason for a certain ambivalence about the whole question of territorial expansion.

This shift away from the market place is amply endorsed by all that has been written about the period. Whereas for the first 150 years of the Company’s existence the published sources are few and specific, to be eagerly sought and gratefully scrutinized, now the student is suddenly confronted by such a mass of research, analysis, narrative, and polemic as to make his task seem superfluous if not impossible. Sandwiched between the ample volumes of political, military and administrative history stand the classic pontifications of Macaulay and Burke, important French and Indian chronicles, much London-based pamphleteering, and copious biographical writings from which the main protagonists emerge with rich and ready-made personalities. After so long diligently pursuing faceless factors engaged in obscure transactions up forgotten backwaters, it is all rather overwhelming – like emerging from a long night drive through country lanes on to a floodlit freeway. Only a nagging doubt that the freeway may not be heading in quite the desired direction dispels euphoria.

For the fact is that nearly all of this material celebrates the rise of British power in India, a process of consuming interest to several generations of English writers but one in which the Company’s prominence becomes increasingly deceptive. For this same process heralded and then hastened the eclipse of the Honourable Company as a private commercial enterprise. Its stock would be quoted for another 130 years but its trading rights would disappear in half that time; its governance would last for over a century but its independence would be gone in just four decades,

How ambivalent the Company was about military adventurism is well illustrated by its reponse to those first tidings of war with France in 1744. During the War of the Spanish Succession, the French and English companies in India had agreed to refrain from hostilities, and it was with the idea of a similar pact that Marquis Dupleix, now the Governor of Pondicherry, wrote to Nicholas Morse, his opposite number at Madras. Morse knew that Dupleix’s position was weak, that Pondicherry’s defences were little better than those of Madras and that there was no French fleet in the offing to boost them. He also knew that a squadron of the Royal Navy was already on its way to bolster his own position. Yet the idea of a pre-emptive strike against Pondicherry seems never to have entered his head. He could not accept Dupleix’s offer of a pact because, as he explained, he was not authorized to do so. He was thinking, of course, of the Royal squadron which was sure to take French prizes and over which he had no authority. But neither did he reject the pact. In Bengal the English at Calcutta and the French at their neighbouring base of Chandernagar would observe it; Morse merely prevaricated.

Irritated by this caution Dupleix appealed to the Nawab of the Carnatic who duly reminded both Companies that they held their settlements of the Moghul Emperor on condition that ‘they behave themselves peacable and quietly’. In effect the Nawab forbade hostilities and in the correspondence that followed Morse was obliged to define his position. What happened at sea, claimed the Madras President, was of no legitimate concern to the Nawab but on land he could vouch for the English never being the first to take up arms; their trade was too important, their militia too ineffectual.

By now it was 1745 and the Royal squadron under Commodore Curtis Barnett had arrived in Eastern waters. Instead of making straight for the Coromandel coast, Barnett first cruised off Aceh where he pounced on French shipping richly laden with China goods as it emerged from the Malacca Straits. Four or five vessels belonging to the Compagnie des Indes were taken along with a like number of privately owned ships in which the French factors, and especially Dupleix, had a very considerable interest. As with the English of the period so with the French; it is impossible to tell which affront was the more provocative, a tear in the flag or a hole in the pocket. But when, as now, both national honour and personal wealth were at stake, a vigorous response could be expected. Dupleix wrote urgently to Mauritius, the Compagnie’s main base in the Indian Ocean, for naval support; he again complained to the Nawab of the Carnatic; he protested loudly to Madras; and he began assembling a small expeditionary force in Pondicherry.

News of the last caused consternation in the English settlements. Morse convened his Council in emergency session. It was agreed to hire ‘200 good peons’, or militiamen, from Madras’s immediate neighbours and to arm all the city’s resident Englishmen with matchlocks; they could take the guns home with them but if they heard a cannon shot during the night they were to ‘repair to The Parade before the Main Guard where they would receive the necessary orders from Mr Monson, their Commanding Officer’. Such was Madras’s idea of mobilization; never were sabres rattled so diffidently. Fort St David, only ten miles from Pondicherry, was the more obvious target but Morse refrained from sending it reinforcements on the doubtful grounds that that might be just what Dupleix wanted; with Madras deprived of part of its garrison the French might take advantage of a southerly wind and ‘surprise us’.

In the event it was all a false alarm. With the English squadron daily expected, Dupleix knew better than to do anything that might invite an attack on Pondicherry; his expedition was intended simply to reinforce a recently acquired factory at Karikal some fifty miles down The Coast. When at last Barnett did arrive at Fort St David, the Madras Council discharged the ‘200 good peons’ and turned its attention to the more agreeable task of provisioning the squadron; meanwhile the squadron concentrated on the even more lucrative task of prize-taking. Trade was not neglected. ‘Having at present the prospect of making a very considerable investment this year’, the Council’s only anxiety was that the usual supply of shipping and treasure from home should reach them safely. This it did in December and not only were there four Company ships but also two further men-of-war and some more recruits for the garrison.

Two months later, in February 1746, news came from Anjengo, that source of so much shipping intelligence, that a French fleet of six warships was now ready to sail from Mauritius. Madras again cast about for mercenaries; in this case ‘300 Extraordinary Peons’ were signed up. But with Barnett still cruising off The Coast there was no panic. At the end of April Barnett died and was succeeded by Edward Peyton, his second in command. Still there was no sign of the French fleet. Peyton then cruised south towards Sri Lanka; there were ‘no ships in Pondicherry road’ according to a report that was before the Madras Council on 11 June.

The Council was now meeting twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Monday the 16th there was further shipping news from Anjengo, this time about a homeward bound Indiaman; then there were some cash advances to Indian buyers to be approved, and an explanation to be sought from a ship’s captain lately arrived from Bengal and seven bags short on his manifest of saltpetre. Finally a letter was drafted to Fort St David approving of their design for ‘a new arched godown’ and promising to send some more field guns ‘as opportunity offers’. And so to dinner. No hint of panic, nothing frantic nor even faintly ominous. But at this point, a hundred years after Francis Day had first built his four-square fort on the Madras sands, the Fort St George records fall silent. It would be three years before the ‘Diary and Consultations’ book was resumed.

Doubtless there were other Council meetings during the few weeks that remained to the English in Madras but either they were too fraught to be minuted or, more likely, the records were destroyed by the French. From other sources, especially the deliberations of the junior Council at Fort St David, we know that within ten days Peyton’s squadron had fought an inconclusive action with the French fleet as it passed the Dutch settlement of Negapatnam. Peyton continued south to Sri Lanka for refitting and La Bourdonnais, the French commander, to Pondicherry. The latter’s fleet consisted of nine ships, according to the much alarmed factors at Fort St David; many of them were far bigger than the English ships; they off-loaded a vast quantity of treasure and, unreported by Fort St David, they carried some 1200 mainly European troops.

At the end of July the French fleet again put to sea. Again they encountered Peyton off Negapatnam, but this time the English turned tail before a shot was fired. Peyton then continued north, past Fort St David, past Madras, to Pulicat, a Dutch station. Unaware of this development, the English factors at Fort St David watched the French fleet return to Pondicherry.

By now, late August, it was common knowledge ‘that their design was against Madras’ and ‘that not only the Company’s expected Shipping but likewise their Settlement were in Eminent [sic] danger.’ It was Madras’s turn desperately to appeal to the Nawab and still more desperately to scan the horizon for a sign of Peyton’s fleet. From Fort St David letters were sent ‘by three several conveyances’ to Negapatnam (Dutch) and Tranquebar (Danish) to summon Peyton ‘wherever they heard he was [and] at any expense’. Native catamarans scoured the coastline even down to Sri Lanka; in response to a promised reward of 100 pagodas for the first sighting of the English fleet, some ventured out of sight of land and into over thirty fathoms. But it was all in vain. Peyton had decided that the fate of the Company’s settlements was no concern of his; where was the prize money in it? At the beginning of September he resumed his voyage north to Bengal, safety, and eventual obloquy. Madras stood alone and unprotected.

MADRAS AND DUPLEIX II

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Soldiers of the East India Company.

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Writing to Calcutta a year later, the directors in London would place the blame for what followed squarely on the shoulders of Morse and his Council. ‘We hope,’ they warned, ‘that all our Governors who have not the resolution to defend our settlements, as we think was the case at Madras, will resign to such who have.’ Ever since a threatened attack by Marathas in 1740 the defence of Madras – and of Calcutta – had figured prominently in the official correspondence. Right liberally had the directors contributed, sanctioning additional fortifications for Madras in 1741, ‘an encrease to 600 Europeans’ in the garrison in 1742, and the highly rated services of Major Charles Knipe (at the princely salary of £250 per annum) to command the troops and advise on further defences. In 1743 Knipe, an able officer of thirty years’ service in the regular army, surveyed the vital west front of Madras. ‘Tis no fortification at all’, he reported, ‘but rather an offensive than defensive wall to your garrison’; but for the support of the numerous Indian homes that had been built against it, ‘it could not stand’; ‘nor was it more than sufficient for a garden wall when first erected.’ The Major proposed a new wall and, in spite of the cost, again the directors assented. So how could the place possibly be described as unprotected?

The answer was simple. Most of these measures had never been realized. Knipe had died less than four months after his arrival and it was over a year before a replacement engineer, one Bombardier Smith, could be borrowed from Bombay. Smith’s new design for the west front was still on the drawing board when La Bourdonnais sallied forth from Pondicherry. Meanwhile command of the Madras garrison had devolved by seniority to Lieutenant Peter Eckman, described as ‘an ignorant superannuated Swede’ whose boast of ‘having carried arms above 56 years’ must have made him one of the oldest lieutenants ever. Perhaps if he had had those 600 European troops at his command, things would have been different. But in fact there seem never to have been more than 400 on the muster roll and they were not disposed to take much notice of their septuagenarian commander. Of the 400 a quarter were either in hospital, in prison, fictitious, ‘deserted’, or simply ‘men who ought to have been there’ (but, presumably were not). The rest are said to have been mainly topazes, ‘a black, degenerate, wretched race of the ancient Portuguese’, according to a contemporary, ‘as proud and bigoted as their ancestors, lazy, idle, and vicious withal, and for the most part as weak and feeble in body as base in mind.’

Others would disagree with this verdict on the topazes, among them young Robert Clive who had arrived in Madras two years previously as a writer (salary £5 per annum), the most junior and menial rank in the Company’s commercial hierarchy. He was now, in 1746, twenty-one years old, still homesick for his family and his beloved Manchester (‘the centre of all my wishes’), still a writer and not a little impatient of his prospects of wealth and promotion. The popular portrait suggests a broody and hot-tempered youth anxiously awaiting the call to arms and glory; but during the assault on Madras there is no record of posterity’s ‘heaven-born general’ so much as hefting a matchlock.

Not that there was much time for heroics. La Bourdonnais’s fleet complete with transports arrived off Madras on 4 September 1746. Some 2000 troops were landed to the south of the city and by the 6th they had worked their way round to the west where they set up batteries and began pounding that suspect western wall. The English replied with a sally by the ‘Extraordinary Peons’ who were repulsed (and then fled back to their villages) plus a rather ill-directed fire from the fort’s bastions. No further sallies were attempted. The garrison had been liberally primed with arrack and rum, alcohol being supposed to put fire in the men’s bellies. But in this case, it just put ideas in their heads. They insulted their officers, rampaged through the town, and made it quite dear that against such superior forces nothing would persuade them to venture outside the walls. No doubt the alcohol was also partly responsible for the erratic cannonade. But there was an additional problem. All the gun carriages collapsed under their cannon ‘upon the second or third firing’. The efforts of Mrs Morse and the Fort’s other ladies, who were valiantly sewing up cloth cartridges, were wasted.

Meanwhile the Black Town, though less affected by the French bombardment, was rapidly emptying. On the first day most of the civilian population decamped; next night 500 ‘Black soldiers’ slipped over the walls, closely followed by the White Town’s large contingent of domestics ‘insomuch that the gentlemen and ladies could not get servants to kill and dress their victuals or bring them water to drink’. Nor did the continual bombardment enable the gentlemen and ladies to get any sleep, for which after two days ‘they were ready to die’ according to one of them. Not surprisingly, the ancient Eckman was among the first to withdraw from circulation ‘unable to bear the fatigue’; Morse seems to have gone down with chronic melancholia; and Smith, the Bombay bombardier, actually died from exhaustion – or possibly, according to the records, from the discovery that he was ‘ill-used by his wife’.

Whether he is to be included in the casualty figure is not clear. By the third day of the bombardment, the English losses stood at six, two of them European. It was not exactly mass carnage but evidently quite unacceptable, for the English now attempted to buy off their opponents. This was standard procedure in Indian warfare; additionally an exchange of pagodas was seen as the only reasonable way for two commercial organizations to compose their differences; with the French Compagnie, unlike the English, invariably strapped for cash, it was thought likely to have particular appeal.

La Bourdonnais welcomed the approach. He too had no idea of the whereabouts of Peyton’s squadron and was worried lest his own fleet, with its guns now trained on Fort St George, should be surprised in Madras’s open roads. But he rejected the English offer. National honour, not to mention the fiery Dupleix, demanded that there must be a victory; Madras must actually surrender and the French must be seen as other than The Coast’s underdogs. A reasonable and honourable man, La Bourdonnais had no desire to destroy the place nor indeed to hold on to it. He just wanted the best possible deal for France – and for La Bourdonnais. Under the terms of the final surrender, agreed on 10 September, Madras was to be handed over and then speedily ransomed back by the English Company for 1.1 million pagodas plus another 100,000 for La Bourdonnais himself.

And there, but for the machinations of Dupleix and a change in the weather, matters might have ended. Ten days later the victors made their ceremonial entry. The Company’s flag was lowered; a Te Deum was sung in the Catholic church. There was no looting, the ransom terms were agreed, the city was to be evacuated by the French at the beginning of October. But as word of these arrangements reached Dupleix in Pondicherry he evinced a growing mistrust of La Bourdonnais and of the perfidious English – fed, no doubt, by anxiety over his own share in the proceeds of victory – plus an ominous disregard for the conventional status of European trading companies within the Moghul empire.

Insisting that only he and his Council had the authority to negotiate a ransom, he reprimanded La Bourdonnais and advised that anyway Madras could not be returned to the English since he had promised it to the Nawab in return for the latter’s neutrality. But either this was a fabrication or else the ploy had miscarried; for in fact the Nawab, after earnest entreaties from the English, was already assembling his troops for an attack on Pondicherry and another on the French in Madras. Far from neutralizing his Moghul overlord, Dupleix’s behaviour had provoked the first major trial of strength between European and Indian arms in the peninsula.

Meanwhile La Bourdonnais was proposing a compromise whereby the French should extend their occupation of Madras till January. Dupleix seems to have agreed and, less surprisingly, so did the English who had no choice in the matter and who rightly saw La Bourdonnais’s presence as their only guarantee of the ransom being effected. These hopes, though, were dashed by the south-east monsoon which broke with dramatic effect one Sunday night in early October. A cyclone swept on to the harbourless Coast scattering all before it including La Bourdonnais’s fleet which was still lying off Madras. Four ships disappeared completely, four more were dismasted. To the English factors at Fort St David, anxiously awaiting their turn as the French squadron’s next prey, it was a wondrous example of divine retribution; ‘it pleased God to disappoint their views by a gale of wind’. But for their less fortunate colleagues in Madras the gale of wind meant the end of French forbearance. Within a matter of days La Bourdonnais, the guarantor of the ransom arrangement, had gathered up the remnants of his fleet and departed the country.

He left Dupleix’s nominee in charge of Madras where the Compagnie’s men now addressed themelves to the serious business of mulcting the English metropolis for all it was worth. The ransom arrangements were disavowed; but realizing that an eventual peace in Europe would probably mean the restitution of Madras, the French factors took such measures as would combine instant pickings with an undermining of the city’s long-term prosperity. Thus the White Town was ransacked while the Black Town was partially demolished. Wholesale confiscations took place and the Indian merchants and middlemen on whom trade depended were ordered to remove to Pondicherry. Some obeyed; others paid handsomely for the privilege of exemption. Meanwhile the English were given the choice of taking an oath to the French king or being made prisoner. Many, like Robert Clive, simply contrived to escape; either way they were all dispossessed and dispersed.

La Bourdonnais’s other legacy to the Compagnie was the 1200 troops he had brought to India and who now, marooned there by the destruction of his fleet, were at Dupleix’s disposal. Disciplined, well-officered, and equipped with the latest in musketry and field artillery, these troops were soon put to the test. Four days after La Bourdonnais’s departure, the Nawab’s army approached Madras and, imitating the French a month before, took up positions to the west of the city. Like the English, the French made an early sally; 400 men with a couple of guns issued forth to confront an army said to have been 10,000 strong. It looked like a suicide gesture and contemptuously did the Nawab’s cavalry sweep down towards their prey. The French troopers drew aside to clear a field for the guns; the cavalry kept on coming. At unmissable range the first salvo halted the charge without dispersing the horsemen. Confident in the knowledge that no gun could be fired more than once every three minutes, the Nawab’s cavalry wheeled aside and reformed to move in for the kill. But long before this manoeuvre could be completed, more men and horses were piling up in front of them. The French boasted a fire rate of twenty rounds a minute and were certainly capable of half that; their infantry were no less adroit with their muskets. In effect every French gun had the firepower of thirty Indian guns and every French trooper could comfortably account for ten ill-armed Moghul mercenaries.

This victory was not enough to end the siege; but when a relieving force sent from Pondicherry arrived on the scene two days later, it was precisely the same story. Again the Nawab’s troops were routed by an infinitely smaller French contingent. Quite suddenly the French had set a new pattern for European participation in Indian affairs.

The superiority of European arms came as a revelation comparable with the first discovery of a sea route to the East. While in India ideas of drill, arms, and tactics had scarcely progressed since Akbar, in Europe they had undergone steady refinement and development in a host of campaigns. There was now no comparison. Warfare in India was still a sport; in Europe it had become a science. Officers read Vauban’s Mémoires and studied the Regulations of the Prussian Infantry. Discipline made esprit a corporate responsibility; drill imparted to tactics the irresistible precision of a well-oiled machine. What Robert Orme, the English Company’s military historian, and his eighteenth-century contemporaries now recognized as the myth of Moghul superiority in battle had been ruthlessly exposed. Outside the walls of Fort St George ‘the French at once broke through the charm of this timorous opinion by defeating a whole army with a single battalion’.

MADRAS AND DUPLEIX III

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With Madras secure in French possession Dupleix now turned his attention to Fort St David. This was no surprise to its English garrison who, with barely eight miles of scrub and dune between their walls and those of Pondicherry, were wont to consider themselves in a more or less permanent state of siege. Just as the presence of French shipping in Pondicherry roads meant that Fort St David was blockaded, so even innocent foraging could look like an offensive move. Amidst such continual alarms, however, there appear to have been three serious attempts to take the place – in December 1746, March 1747, and June 1748. On all but the last occasion the French found Cuddalore – in effect the Black Town of Fort St David – undefended. Poorly fortified and of considerable extent, it was beyond the means of the English to hold it. But the fort itself, a mile to the north, was a very different proposition. Unlike Madras, it stood on rising ground, was of a regular shape, and had a clear field of fire. For all the disadvantages of proximity to the French capital, it was here that the English had resolved to make their last stand on The Coast.

Already Fort St David had been designated their senior settlement in the peninsula and the hub of what remained of their commercial operations there. Those, like the young Robert Clive, who had made good their escape from Madras and headed for Fort St David, found it on an altogether more warlike footing. Ever since La Bourdonnais’s first arrival on the Coast, the Fort’s factors had been readying themselves for action by calling in all merchandise, stockpiling provisions and military stores, and recruiting a force of peons which now numbered some 2000. Meanwhile desperate appeals for help, treasure and reinforcements had been sent to London, Bengal, Bombay and even places like Tellicherry and Benkulen. It could only be a matter of time before relief was at hand.

Even so Fort St David’s survival seems to have owed as much to Providence, whom its factors invoked with great frequency, as to valour. The failure of the first French assault looks like the result of over-confidence following those resounding routs of the Nawab’s forces outside Madras. After a short but hungry night march from Pondicherry, the French troops bivouacked outside the fort and fell to ‘dressing their victuals’ with true Gallic devotion. The Nawab’s hordes had been shadowing their advance and chose this moment to launch a surprise attack. Caught off their guard the French panicked, at which point the English peons issued forth to join in the fray. Clive, who took part, claims that the French ‘lost a great many men by the random shot of the Moorish infantry and our peons’. But there was no rout and the French reached Pondicherry in good order.

Having bought off the Nawab with a large cash indemnity, Dupleix should have succeeded at his second attempt. This time the French force was twice as strong and was commanded by the able Monsieur Paradis, the victor of one of those engagements with the Nawab outside Madras. Additionally, the English within the fort were now at their lowest ebb. Twice Company vessels had come within sight of the fort only to put hastily back to sea, without so much as landing their letters, when they heard of the proximity of French shipping. Worse still, it was more than four months since the fall of Madras and there was still no word from Bengal of the men, munitions, treasure and stores which had been repeatedly requested. Nor was there any word of the wretched Peyton and his squadron. ‘We endeavour to bear up under the melancholy circumstances’, wrote the Fort St David factors but added, not without feeling, that they thought it ‘somewhat unkind in our countrymen and fellow servants to have abandoned us.’

Luckily such black sentiments were soon dispelled. On 2 March 1747, after a day-long exchange of artillery fire, the English were forced back behind the walls of the fort. The siege, it seemed, had at last begun in earnest. But the very next day the garrison awoke to a welcome sight for which, of course, only Divine Providence could be responsible. There, riding beyond the Coromandel surf, was the long awaited squadron. Relief must have turned to euphoria when it was learnt that its command had passed from Peyton to Thomas Griffin, a man of considerable resolve if little initiative.

With the tables turned the French quickly returned to Pondicherry lest Griffin should elect to besiege it. In fact Griffin was in no position to take the offensive. His squadron was undermanned and Bengal had been able to spare only 100 European troops. The most he could do was stay put and deter a further attack on Fort St David.

Thus for a year (1747-8) Griffin presided over an uneasy stalemate during which reinforcements trickled in to both Fort St David and Pondicherry. Besides the Bengal troops, the English received nearly 400 topazes, peons and Europeans from Bombay and Tellicherry; there were also a few more recruits from England. There the news of the loss of Madras had prompted the directors to make an impassioned appeal to the Government, as a result of which a new squadron crammed with troops had reportedly sailed from home at the beginning of 1748. But pending its appearance on The Coast the most significant addition to the Fort St David garrison was the arrival there, at about the same time, of Major Stringer Lawrence.

Lawrence’s appointment as commander of the Company’s forces was a belated response to the death of Major Knipe back in 1743. Like Knipe, he was a veteran of the regular army. He had fought at Fontenoy and Culloden and, though now into his portly and crabbed fifties, he combined military flair with a Churchillian bullishness that endeared him to his troops. While the stalemate lasted, Lawrence concentrated on transforming Fort St David’s motley collection of Europeans, topazes and peons into an effective fighting force. The Europeans and topazes became a single battalion, the peons (or now more commonly ‘sepoys’) were formed into regular companies, and an amply officered command structure was established. It included Robert Clive who, having shown himself to be ‘of a martial disposition’, had just been commissioned an ensign. Of necessity these new arrangements were perfunctory, but the authority of Lawrence and the charisma of Clive would ensure for them posterity’s reverence. According to the former’s biographer, ‘it was in such humble beginnings that the Anglo-Indian army had its origin’; according to the best of the latter’s many biographers this little force ‘was the germ of an army that won an empire for England’.

Winning an empire was not, however, the immediate priority. When Griffin and his squadron were at last lured away by a French fleet, Dupleix saw his chance. Again the French troops marched out of Pondicherry under cover of darkness. This time they skirted Fort St David and arrived before Cuddalore which Lawrence, with his augmented garrison, was now holding. Long and low, the walls of Cuddalore positively invited attack and French ladders were soon in position; with surprise on their side, French arms should have triumphed. But somehow word of the plan had already reached the English. Lawrence’s men were waiting and the French were thrown back with considerable losses.

Six weeks later Admiral Boscawen’s long expected fleet from home anchored off Fort St David. When united with Griffin’s squadron Boscawen’s fleet formed the largest concourse of European shipping ever seen in the East – thirty-nine vessels including thirteen ships of the line. Additionally he brought munitions, guns, treasure and 1200 troops. Raised by officers of the regular army and formed into twelve companies, these were the first Royal (as opposed to Company) troops to serve in India since that ill-fated garrison sent out by Charles I to occupy Bombay. They were also the first British (as opposed to English) troops, having been largely recruited in Scotland and Ireland. It was forty years since the Act of Union, but only after Culloden and the ‘45 had Scots begun to play their major role in the affairs of India and of the Company.

Scarcely had the new arrivals found their land legs than they were marching off to the siege of Pondicherry. The tables were turned and it was the British who now took the offensive. With 4000 Europeans (including marines and seamen provided by the fleet) plus 2000 sepoys, the British greatly outnumbered the French. With a force ten times the size of that which had surrendered Madras even Lawrence expected a quick victory. But Dupleix had long been preparing for this eventuality and had greatly improved Pondicherry’s defences. Boscawen in over-all command had no experience of siege warfare. And Lawrence was taken prisoner before the siege proper got under way. As a result, the English made a series of disastrous errors, squandered their forces, and inflicted negligible damage. After two months and over 1000 fatalities (mostly due to sickness) the siege was lifted. As with the Company’s first trial of strength with a European rival – that with the Dutch in the archipelago more than a hundred years before – the whole affair was as unnecessary as it was ignominious. For in Europe preliminary terms for the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle had already been agreed in the previous April. They contained a stipulation whereby the hostilities in India were supposed to have already ended.

The Peace of Aix also provided for the exchange of all prisoners (Lawrence had already been freed) and the restitution of Madras. Accordingly, in August 1749 the French garrison hauled down its flag and marched out by the sea gate while the Company’s troops marched in by one of the landward gates. They found the fabric of both town and fort ‘in extreamly bad condition’. But at least the Indian merchants and middlemen were relieved to see them back; from The Coast’s other trading settlements they flocked to the city, trade was resumed, and Black Town again began to expand. It was a sign of the times, and of priorities, that Robert Clive now relinquished his commission and resumed civilian employ as Fort St George’s Steward (in charge of purchasing provisions) and as an ambitious private trader. With Lawrence as Acting Governor the Fort’s Council resumed its ‘Diary and Consultations Book’ in November 1749.

The appearance of normality was, however, illusory; both Clive and Lawrence would soon be back in the field. Peace had neither reconciled the two rival Companies, nor dispersed the concentration of troops which each now commanded; nor had it removed the ambitious Dupleix. Indirect hostilities had already broken out before the restitution of Madras. They would continue for six years, their results would far outweigh anything that had been achieved during the previous five years of outright war, and they would be quickly followed by another period of full-blooded confrontation sanctioned by the Seven Years War in Europe. The Peace of Aix had merely concluded the first phase of the struggle.

It would probably be tedious and certainly, given the many published accounts, superfluous to chronicle the military details of this protracted struggle. Similar power games were in progress all over the subcontinent as the fragile confection which was once the mighty Moghul empire crumbled like a crushed papadom. Sometimes large sections would break off more or less intact as was the case with Bengal and Hyderabad. Nominally the Carnatic – the province immediately inland from the French and British settlements – was still subordinate to the Nizam of Hyderabad; but here, at the most friable extremity of the Empire, a combination of Balkanization and Byzantine intrigue had so compounded the confusion that, as the Nizam himself had remarked, every landed poligar (feudal chief) considered himself a Nawab and for every so-called Nawabship there were several claimants.

The Carnatic Wars, in which the French and British now became eager participants, mirrored this chaos. In fickle alliances the numerous contenders marched and counter-marched their forces across a rich and champaign land of large horizons and lofty palmyras. Single rocks of Cyclopean size suggested tactical advantage and provided a focus for manoeuvres. The few solitary boulder-strewn hills were invariably fortified – ready-made redoubts for a series of interminable sieges in which besiegers and besieged easily changed places. Like Flanders or Picardy, the Carnatic dictated a diffuse and wearisome species of warfare in which victory contained little promise of peace and defeat was rarely fatal.

Bound over by the European peace, and further constrained by their subordinate status within the old Moghul hierarchy, the French and English Companies could neither oppose one another directly nor make conquests in their own name. Instead they operated by proxy, adopting the causes of rival Nawabs. These dignitaries had a claim on the active support of their European feudatories and thus, in taking the field on their behalf, the French and British could claim to be discharging a legitimate obligation. It was, though, an obligation with strings. For such was now the reputation of European arms that a heavy price could be demanded in return. The territories and revenues which would accrue to the two Companies were acquired not by right of conquest and at the expense of their enemies but by right of cession and at the expense of their allies.

A pattern of sorts was quickly established. Although history usually credits Dupleix with taking the initiative, it was in fact the British who first evinced a taste for mischief. In early 1749, while the peace arrangements were still under negotiation, a force of 1400 British and Indian troops marched south out of Fort St David in support of an adventurer with a doubtful claim to the throne of neighbouring Tanjore (Thanjavur). It seems that Boscawen and Floyer, the Company’s new President, had hatched the scheme. The former anticipated restoring the reputation of British arms after the failure to take Pondicherry and the latter welcomed any ploy that would remove from the Company’s shoulders the burden of housing and feeding a temporarily redundant army.

There were, though, other considerations of a more traditional and commercial nature. As well as defraying the cost of the expedition, the ‘Tanjorine’ pretender had undertaken to reward the Company with the grant of Devikottai, a coastal fort fifteen miles south of Fort St David at the mouth of the Coleroon river. Ten years earlier the French had acquired the nearby port of Karikal. It was important for commercial reasons to establish an emporium on the rich Tanjore littoral where, besides the French, both the Dutch (at Negapatnam) and the Danes (at Tranquebar) were already established.

When the first Tanjore expedition failed and a second, commanded by Lawrence and twice as strong, sailed direct for Devikottai, it became clear that this acquisition was the real objective. The ‘Tanjorine’ in whose name the British were supposedly fighting was simply pensioned off as soon as the fort was taken. In return for a title to the place from the existing Raja of Tanjore, the British agreed to a cessation of hostilities. Mission accomplished. According to Robert Orme, whose usual informant, Clive, had played a conspicuous part in the attack, Devikottai was not only well situated to tap the local production of ‘linnen’ but also commanded the mouth of the Coleroon river which, with a bit of dredging, could become the only harbour on the entire Coast ‘capable of receiving a ship of over 300 tons burden’. In other words, Devikottai was just another of those obscure anchorages – like Divi, Chittagong, Pulo Condore – in which over-enthusiastic factors detected a second Bombay. Like them, it too failed to live up to expectations, but the whole affair serves to emphasize the continuity of Company thinking. A secure commerce, and not territorial expansion, was still the priority.

It remained so until Dupleix’s altogether more imaginative intrigues began to bear fruit. While the British were double-dealing in insignificant Tanjore, the French had found a worthier assignment for their footloose soldiery in promoting the claims to the Nawabship of the Carnatic of the energetic Chanda Sahib (‘the only leader capable’, in Orme’s quaint phrasing, ‘of exciting intestine commotions’) and those of Chanda Sahib’s ally, Muzaffar Jang, to the Nizamate of Hyderabad. Again French arms carried all before them and in July 1749 the confederates duly defeated and killed the incumbent Nawab. Chanda Sahib succeeded. By way of appreciation the French received various territories including Masulipatnam (the port of Hyderabad) and a cluster of villages in the vicinity of Pondicherry. The latter could be seen as a reasonable provision, like the Trivitore grant in the case of Madras, for the future defence and expansion of Pondicherry. But to the British it looked much more sinister. For as a result of the grant, nearby Fort St David was now ringed by French territory and effectually cut off from the inland weaving centres on which its trade depended.

Floyer and his Council responded by seizing San Thome, the erstwhile Portuguese settlement on the outskirts of Madras, and by having their acquisition confirmed by Mohammed Ali, the son of the Nawab slain by Chanda Sahib and his confederates. Among pretenders to the Nawabship legitimacy was scarcely a relevant consideration given that in both Hyderabad and Delhi the only sanctioning authority was now also up for grabs. But Mohammed Ali had as good a claim as anyone to the Carnatic throne and had shown himself a loyal friend during the late war with France. Henceforth he would be the British candidate. In late 1749 a first trickle of Company troops was put at his disposal. Like his rival, he acknowledged the help by awarding those same villages round Fort St David to the Company. Six months later he added the large district and fort of Poonamallee near Madras, ‘the key to all this country’ according to the optimistic Madras Council.

But still the British were merely responding to French pressures. It was not until the end of 1750, when the second part of Dupleix’s master plan fell into place, that it dawned on them that they were involved in more than a tussle for commercial advantage. First Mohammed Ali, the British candidate for the Nawabship, was roundly defeated; then, two months later in December 1750, the incumbent Nizam of mighty Hyderabad was murdered and Muzaffar Jang, the French contender, took his place. Both the Carnatic and Hyderabad were now ruled by French puppets. Dupleix was heaped with honours and presents, rewarded with further territory said to yield an annual revenue of over 350,000 rupees, and co-opted into the Moghul hierarchy as ‘Zafar Jang Bahadur’ and the new Nizam’s Viceroy for the Carnatic. And all this was only the tip of the iceberg. For with French arms apparently invincible and with the rulers of both the Carnatic and Hyderabad (whose territories stretched west almost to Bombay and north to Bengal) dependent on them, Dupleix was master of half the peninsula.

It would be hard to over-estimate the impact on the Company’s men of what the Madras Council called ‘this extraordinary revolution’. They now recognized that Dupleix had changed the rules of European involvement in India. For 150 years the Company had been endeavouring to appease the existing political hierarchy; in three years Dupleix had simply usurped it. The English must either follow suit or leave the table.

In the person of Thomas Saunders, who had just succeeded Floyer as President of Madras, they accepted the challenge. In the summer of 1751 all available troops were rushed to Trichy (Trichinopoly, Tiruchirappalli) where Mohammed Ali was making what looked like his last stand; and to relieve the pressure still further by diverting some of the besieging forces, Robert Clive was re-commissioned as a captain and authorized to march on Arcot. ‘It is conceived that this officer may be of some service’, opined the Fort St David Council. With 800 recruits and three guns Clive left Madras in September 1751 to launch a campaign that would redeem the Company’s supremacy; or, in the words of his biographer, that would ‘lay the first stone of the foundation of our Indian Empire’.

In the mightily confused struggle that followed, none of the European settlements was directly affected and only Company troops were involved. France and Britain were, after all, at peace. Instead of Madras and Pondicherry, it was Arcot, Chanda Sahib’s capital, and Trichy, Mohammed Ali’s headquarters, which bore the brunt of the fighting. There were no less than three sieges of Trichy plus countless skirmishes in its vicinity. In all these, as in the few really decisive engagements, European troops again demonstrated their superior firepower. But their numbers were always small. Although some of Boscawen’s Royal troops had taken service with the Company, and in spite of an erratic supply of recruits from Bengal, such was the mortality (more from the climate than the fighting) that the Company could rarely deploy over 1000 Europeans; at most engagements there were only a couple of hundred. The same was true of the French, many of whose best troops had marched with Muzaffar Jang to Hyderabad.

charles_de_bussy_de_castelnau

Charles Joseph Patissier de Bussy.

In this situation battles were won by opportunism, mobility, surprise, individual acts of bravery, and sheer good luck. A single officer with a taste for improvisation and a reputation for victory could tip the balance. In the Marquis de Bussy the French had just such a man but he was now regulating the affairs of Hyderabad. In Clive and Lawrence the British had two and they were on the spot.

After nine months of fighting their endeavours were rewarded with the surrender of the French at Srirangam and the murder of Chanda Sahib. Peace negotiations were opened but quickly broken off when Dupleix opportunely took delivery of 500 new recruits. The fighting flared up again. It dragged on throughout 1753 with neither party gaining a distinct advantage. More peace negotiations followed in January 1754 with Saunders offering an equal division of the spoils in the Carnatic; but Dupleix declined. By fighting on in the Carnatic, he was drawing the British fire and leaving de Bussy with a free hand in the greater affair of Hyderabad. Only when Dupleix was recalled to France in August 1754 was the way at last clear for a truce and a provisional treaty.