Vaisseaux du premier rang

An oil painting by Thomas Whitcombe of the Battle of the Saintes, 12 April 1782, with Comte de Grasse’s flagship the 104-gun Ville de Paris in the foreground, in close action with Barfleur, 98 guns, flying the flag of Sir Samuel Hood. Although captured during the battle, the French flagship was wrecked before she could reach a British port, so it is unclear what reference Whitcombe used for the appearance of the Ville de Paris. She had originally been built as a 90-gun ship at Rochefort between August 1757 and May 1764, but during repairs at Brest in 1778-79, the waist was filled in to create a continuous third deck, with a new quarterdeck and forecastle constructed above and fourteen 12pdrs and 6pdrs added to her ordnance.

The First Rank Warships with 80 or more guns after 1715.

The first classification of the vessels of the French Navy into four Ranks (or (with a fifth Rank added) in July 1670. The 1st Rank Rangs) took effect in 1669, but was swiftly altered classification covered the most prestigious ships in the French Navy, embellished with ornate carvings and decoration. They were intended to be employed as as fleet flagships, as strong points in the fleet’s formation, and as symbols of Louis XIV’s magnificence displaying France’s maritime strength. Because of their large crews and requirements for stores they were also very expensive to operate and except during wartime were used sparingly.

The only `three-decker’ of over 60 guns built for the French before 1661 had been the Vendome of 1651. The somewhat smaller Saint Philippe which entered service in 1664, and subsequent ships built to the same concept, were officially classed by the French as three-deckers without a forecastle and with a rudimentary quarterdeck (really a poop); they carried no guns or gunports amidships on the third deck, and usually there was a physical break in the deck level (forming a `waist’), so that the portions of the third deck forward and aft of this interruption served in effect as forecastle and quarterdeck. In a few cases this unarmed portion of the third deck was physically present, complete with deck beams below it, so that the absence of guns and gunports (and sometimes the absence of any bulwarks along each side) left a complete structural level, thus improving the structural integrity of the ship; but in most cases there was a physical gap with the middle portion of this deck not constructed, so that the type was what the English defined as a two-decker.

Most of such `semi-three-deckers’ were eventually re-classed as 2nd Rank, but this applies solely to vessels built before 1689 – after 1689 only three-deckers built with a complete third tier of guns were classed as 1st Rank, until the appearance of 80-gun two-deckers of the 1st Rank in the 1740s.

The last 1st Rank three-decker of this broken-deck type was the Paris of 1669, while the last such 2nd Rank vessel was the Fier of 1682. It should be noted that the three-deckers with interrupted third tiers of guns retained the two levels of accommodations in the stern typical of three-deckers (the captain’s cabin and stateroom on top of the wardroom) while two-deckers had only a single level combining the captain’s cabin and the wardroom. Thus while the small three-deckers looked like two-deckers and are perhaps best understood as such, they had some structural features found only in three-deckers.

The first extra-large French three-decker with 100 guns or more (rated as a vaisseau du premier rang extraordinaire) was the Royal Louis, completed in 1669. Prior to 1689, these flagships, generally pierced with fifteen pairs of gunports on the lower deck (excluding the foremost pair or chase ports) were the only vessels fitted with the rare 36pdr bronze guns. Until 1690, these guns were in limited supply – iron 36pdrs did not appear until 1691 – and up to this date, vaisseaux du premier rang extraordinaire generally carried a mixture of sixteen 36pdrs and fourteen 24pdrs on the lower deck (all guns in these ships were of bronze). The vaisseaux du premier rang extraordinaires were also the only French three-deckers allowed by regulation to have a forecastle as well as a quarterdeck following the unhappy experience of the Monarque in 1669.

From 1690, these ships generally carried a uniform battery of 36pdrs (usually fourteen pairs) on the lower deck; initially there were two exceptions – the Soleil Royal (after her rebuilding in 1689) carried a mixture of 48pdrs and 36pdrs, while the new Royal Louis in 1692 received a complete battery of thirty 48pdrs. The huge 10ft bronze 48pdrs proved too cumbersome to handle, and the ships’ commanders (Tourville on the Soleil Royal and d’Estrées on the Royal Louis) soon arranged for these to be replaced by 36pdrs. The 48pdrs were also briefly carried in Monarque (1690) and Admirable (1692).

The flagships (navires amiraux) of the two fleets were always drawn from the premier rang extraordinaire. For the Mediterranean Fleet (Flotte du Levant), the flagship was always the most powerful ship based in Toulon: the Royal Louis of 1667, its namesake (and replacement) of 1692, until that ship was disarmed in 1716 and taken to pieces in 1727; from 1780 the new Majestueux became the navire amiral of this fleet, to be superseded by the Commerce de Marseille in 1788. For the Atlantic Fleet (Flotte du Ponant), the Soleil Royal served the same role from 1669, as did its namesake in 1692; the Foudroyant of 1724 then held the same responsibility, as did the new Soleil Royal in 1749, followed by the Royal Louis of 1759; the Bretagne of 1766 then fulfilled the role until the 1790s.

The smaller of the 1st Rank ships (those with fewer than 100 guns – in general 84 guns was the maximum) were pierced with thirteen pairs of gunports on the lower deck (again not counting the foremost pair or chase ports). Until 1689, those of 80 guns generally carried a mixture of twelve 24pdrs (bronze) and fourteen 18pdrs (iron) on this deck, and fourteen 18pdrs (bronze) and twelve 12pdrs (iron) on the deck above, with twenty-two 8pdrs (all bronze) on the upper deck, separated into those forward and aft of the unarmed waist, and with six 4pdrs (bronze) on the quarterdeck, the latter effectively being a poop deck; these ships as indicated above had no forecastle. The 84-gun variant had no gap on the upper deck, thus mounting twenty-six 8pdrs there (of which one pair were iron guns). After 1689, a standard armament of 36pdrs was adopted for these ships also, with new 1st Rank ships carrying a similar battery to the largest ships. By 1692, the foremost pair of ports (or chase ports) were no longer cut through on 1st Rank ships, in order to strengthen the head.

Altogether twelve three-decker 1st Ranks were begun during the 1660s. Colbert produced the first French system of rating with his Reglement of 4 July 1670, dividing the fleet into `Rangs’ (i. e. Ranks, analogous to the English system of Rates), the first of which comprised the three-deckers with more than 70 guns, while the second included the smaller three-deckers (as well as a few large two-deckers). By 1672, several of the smaller 1st Ranks (those with fewer than 80 guns) had been re-classified to the 2nd Rank. More important than actual numbers of guns, all 1st Ranks built after 1689 – see Section (C) – carried a principal (LD) battery of 36pdrs, while the main battery on the 2nd Ranks were generally 24pdrs (although some of this type carried a mix of 36pdrs and 24pdrs on their LD).

In 1680 or early 1681 an `establishment level’ of twelve 1st Rank ships was set, and retained well past the end of Louis XIV’s reign. This was the actual number of such ships on the List in January 1681 – five in the Brest Department, one at Rochefort (the never-completed Victorieux), and six at Toulon. This number was roughly adhered to until 1690, when the massive building program of twenty-five 1st Ranks made it irrelevant, but after 1712 the number shrank back and by 1717 most of the remainder had been taken to pieces without replacement.

By the close of the seventeenth century, all 1st Rank ships were three-deckers with three complete gun decks, and this continued well into the eighteenth century. At the same time forecastles were reintroduced in all 1st Rank ships. The relatively few three-deckers built after 1715. From 1740 onwards a new series of two-deckers armed with 80 guns was introduced; these fulfilled the role of capital ships (and usually the flagships) for the battlefleet.

Three-decked vessels acquired from 1 September 1715

Following the close of the war and the death of Louis XIV, the battlefleet was rapidly run down, with many of the remaining three-deckers being disposed of by 1715. Following the dismissal of Jérome de Pontchartrain as Secretary of State for the Navy on 1 October 1715, a Conseil de marine was set up by the Amiral de France (Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, Comte de Toulouse), directed by his two Vice-amiraux (Victor Marie, Maréchal and Duc d’Estrées and Alain Emmanuel, Comte de Coetlogon, for the Ponant and Levant Fleets respectively), which ran the Navy for the next three years.

Nevertheless, there nominally remained eleven 1st Rank ships at the end of 1715, survivors of the 1689-94 building spree. All of these were three-deckers, almost all with a principal battery of 36pdrs (the sole exception was the Monarque which from 1704 had only 24pdrs on its LD) and all had a second battery of 18pdrs. The Royal Louis, Triomphant, Vanqueur, Monarque and Intrépide were all noted as in need of rebuilding, while the Magnifique was already condemned (since March 1713) and the Orgueilleux and Admirable had been ordered (on 1 December 1715) to be broken up.

A year later the number was officially down to five – Royal Louis, Sceptre, and the soon-to-be-dismantled Magnifique, Orgueilleux and Admirable – and by the end of 1717 there were just four (the Sceptre had been condemned on 18 December, and would be ordered to be taken to pieces in January 1718). The Royal Louis (disarmed since 1716) lasted until condemned in 1723 and was broken up in 1727; no further threedeckers were attempted until 1723, and even then results were deplorable, no successful ship being achieved until the 1760s. After two short-term Secretaries in the five years from 1718, the appointment of Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Comte de Maurepas (and son of Jérome de Pontchartrain), began a term of office which lasted to his dismissal in 1749.

80-gun two-decked vessels (Vaisseaux de 80) acquired from 1740

All 80-gun ships prior to 1700 had been three-deckers, and none were built in the first four decades of the new century, but in 1740 the first of a series of two-decker 80s was begun. At the start of hostilities against Britain in 1744, this ship (Tonnant) was the only French warship with more than 74 guns, but more were begun from 1748 onwards. All had thirty 36pdr guns on the lower deck, and thirty-two guns (18pdrs or 24pdrs) on the upper deck, while eighteen guns (mostly 8pdrs) were fitted on the gaillards. Thirteen ships were built in the period to 1785 (one of which was rebuilt after a fire).

These ships were ambiguously classed in French official records, being usually defined as `premier rang’ but in 1766 the earlier Tonnant, Duc de Bourgogne, and Orient (all with 18pdrs on the UD) were classed as `second rang, premier ordre’ while the later Languedoc, Saint Esprit, and Couronne were `premier rang, second ordre’. We chose to class all of them here with the 1st Rank ships, as France built virtually no three-deckers for most of the eighteenth century, and in lieu of these deployed the 80-gun two-deckers as their principal capital ships. The original type with 18pdrs on the UD mustered a broadside of 900 livres, while the later substitution of 24pdrs on the UD raised this to 996 livres (or 1,075 English pounds), significantly greater than the standard French 74-gun ship’s 838 livres (904 pounds), which was in turn greater than the 818-pound broadside of the British three-decked Second Rates of 90 guns, and not incomparable with the 1,140-pound broadside of the largest British three-decked First Rates of 100 guns.


Napoleon’s Armies – Fall Back to France 1814

Napoleon’s retreat to the Rhine was on the whole a remarkably successful operation. On the one hand the Allies were still sufficiently daunted by the magic of the Emperor’s reputation to conduct their pursuit of his columns respectfully, while Schwarzenberg was not a general of sufficient caliber to trap the French before they could find sanctuary. For his part, Napoleon was retiring along his main set of communications towards Frankfurt and Mainz, absorbing the supplies and munitions of his depots on the way. On October 23 some 100,000 French troops (many of them in ragged condition, it is true, but by no means in a state of utter dissolution) reached Erfurt, and much new equipment was issued from its huge arsenals before the retreat was recommenced on the 24th. The discipline of some units began to break down, and large numbers began to maraud, but apart from nuisance-raids by bands of Cossacks, light cavalry and partisans, the retreat was not seriously interrupted. However, Blücher’s army was marching westward on a parallel route to the north, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians and Russians were pressing in upon the rear, several sharp rear-guard actions had taken place over the previous week, and so it behoved Napoleon to continue his retreat toward the Rhine.

As the days passed, there was an inevitable increase in the disorganization of the Grande Armée. An Allied observer noted that “the numbers of corpses and dead horses increased every day. Thousands of soldiers, sinking from hunger and fatigue, remained behind, unable to reach a hospital. The woods for several miles round were full of stragglers and worn out and sick soldiers. Guns and wagons were found everywhere.”40

Nevertheless, there was a spark of fire still left in the defeated army, as was convincingly demonstrated in the last days of October. A force of 43,000 Bavarians and Austrians under General Wrede, newly committed to the Allied cause, had rushed northward from the Danube into Franconia to block the French line of retreat. In due course this force reached Hanau, a few miles to the east of Frankfurt-on-Main, Napoleon’s next sanctuary. Through a complete misappreciation of the situation, Wrede came to the conclusion that the Emperor and the main body of his army were retiring along the more northerly road to Coblenz, and that his force would only be faced by a dispirited flank column of 20,000 men at the most. Confident of success after several days of snappy skirmishing, the Bavarian general placed his troops in hastily selected positions on the 30th, with the River Kinzig behind his center and his right wing in isolation to its south with only a single bridge linking it to the main body.

Initially Napoleon had only the 17,000 men of Macdonald’s infantry and Sébastiani’s cavalry available to deal with this obstruction, but the French were able to advance to close contact virtually unseen owing to the dense forests lying to the east of Wrede’s position. The Emperor soon decided to attack the Bavarian left with all available manpower. By midday, the woods facing the Bavarian center had been cleared by Victor and Macdonald, and General Drouot soon thereafter found a track through the trees towards Wrede’s left capable of taking cannon. Within three hours, Grenadiers of the Old Guard had cleared the approaches to the French target, and Drouot assembled 50 guns backed by Sébastiani and the Guard cavalry. A brisk cannonade soon silenced Wrede’s 28 cannon, and then the French horsemen swept forward against Wrede’s cavalry guarding his left. The Bavarians gave way before the onslaught. Attacked in flank by the wheeling French cavalry, Wrede’s center was forced to try and cut its way out to the left, skirting the banks of the Kinzig, and suffered a heavy toll of casualties in the process. His right wing became hopelessly involved trying to cross the single bridge, and proved incapable of influencing the issue of the main battle. Hundreds were drowned in the Kinzig before Wrede was able to rally the remnants of his forces on a line running from the Lamboi bridge to the township of Hanau. The next day the French occupied Hanau itself with scant difficulty.

Napoleon had no intention of wasting further time with Wrede; as the main road to Frankfurt was now reopened, the bulk of the French continued westward without delay, leaving a rear guard to prevent Wrede from attempting anything further. The battle and the skirmishes that preceded and followed it cost Wrede over 9,000 men. The French losses in action were considerably lower, but between October 28 and 31 probably as many as 10,000 stragglers fell into Allied hands.

Nevertheless, the main body of the French army reached Frankfurt on 2nd November. Here they were virtually safe, for their rear bases at Mainz and the mighty barrier of the Rhine lay less than 20 miles away. However, there is no possibility of minimizing the scale of the French disaster. Although Davout was still firmly positioned on the Lower Elbe, the French Campaign of 1813 had ended in complete failure. Perhaps 70,000 combatants and 40,000 stragglers reached the Rhine in safety, but almost 400,000 troops had been lost. It was true that no less than 100,000 of these still remained scattered in isolated garrisons and detachments from Danzig to Dresden, but there was no longer the least chance of their surviving or being saved, and one by one these outposts began to capitulate. St. Cyr and the Dresden garrison (two corps in strength), after conducting a gallant defense, were induced to surrender on terms on November II. General Schwarzenberg subsequently refused to ratify the agreement, but by then St. Cyr could do nothing but surrender unconditionally. The Allies later played the same disreputable trick against the garrisons of Danzig and Torgau. So the Campaign of 1813 came to its close, with Napoleon and a remnant of his army preparing to defend the natural frontiers of France, his Empire in Germany vanished forever.

What reasons underlay this new cataclysm? Here it is possible to summarize only the main factors involved. We have already noted how the quality of the French forces (both horse and foot) was markedly inferior in quality to the armies of earlier years, but this was not in itself decisive. Far more significant were the deficiencies of the French command system. These were partly due to Napoleon’s shortcomings, and partly to the weaknesses of his subordinates. In the period following the breakdown of the armistice, Napoleon was trying to coordinate the control of half a million men—a task which was simply beyond the powers of any one man with only the aid of the rudimentary communications systems of the day, as the experiences of 1812 should have taught him.

As a result—again as in 1812—the marshals inevitably found themselves bearing greater responsibilities than they were used to on distant sectors of the front. That they practically always muffed their opportunities was partly due to Napoleon’s failure to train up his subordinates for the exigencies of independent command, and partly to the rapidly dwindling enthusiasm of the marshalate. To compensate his underlings for their complete obedience and subservience the Emperor had showered them with riches, titles and estates; by 1813, the recipients were not wholly unnaturally becoming desirous of enjoying these benefits in a more peaceful setting. Many of the disappointments of 1813 can be explained in these terms.

The rank and file of the extemporized French armies achieved wonders on at least three occasions during the long campaign, but these successes to some extent contributed to Napoleon’s undoing for he came increasingly to rely on his “Marie-Louises” and decrepit veterans achieving the impossible time after time. Many of the Emperor’s strategic plans were as cunning as of old, but he lacked the means to implement them successfully—and he was very slow in appreciating this. His raw troops could not march and fight incessantly without adequate supplies, and his staff could not operate efficiently without adequate intelligence. Even the Emperor’s funds of energy, both physical and mental, were showing signs of exhaustion; his acceptance of the armistice after two victories is probably one sign of this. Napoleon, in fact, was relying on an unlikely combination of miracles and errors to achieve his total victory; miracles of performance and endurance on the part of his men—errors of judgment and coordination on the part of his foes. Neither lived up to his most optimistic expectations.

The Allies certainly made mistakes, and several times as we have seen these brought them to the brink of disaster. Their command system was extremely chaotic and poorly coordinated. Selfish national interests often replaced the common weal during their incessant councils; personal rivalries and jealousies dogged almost every move. Nevertheless, after the sharp lessons of Lützen and Bautzen in the first half of the campaign, they somehow hit upon the correct strategy for bringing Napoleon to account By employing their vast numbers of men and cannon against the secondary sectors of the French front and by avoiding as far as was possible a direct head-on clash with “the Ogre” himself, they disrupted plan after plan and severely shook the balance of French operations as a whole. There were times (as at Dresden) when they inadvisedly reverted to their old methods and suffered predictable defeat in consequence, but once they had driven Napoleon and his tiring lieutenants back on Leipzig and successfully linked up their four armies (those of Silesia, Bohemia, the North and Poland), the game was practically in their pockets. Napoleon fought with all his old tenacity, ferocity and skill, but in the end sheer numbers told in the Allied favor.

Napoleon, indeed, was guilty of several severe political and military miscalculations which between them underlay his failure. He tended to despise his opponents; this was justifiable in the case of Bernadotte, but he completely underestimated the degree of Blücher’s hatred for him or of the Tsar’s persistence. He never expected that his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria, would turn fully against him; he never appreciated how sick were the German States of the French yoke, or how unreal were his expectations of military support from those quarters. He left thousands of invaluable fighting men and several of his best generals south of the Pyrenees. But worst of all, he never realized that there was a new spirit abroad in Europe; he still believed he was dealing with the old feudal monarchies which in fact his earlier victories had largely swept away. France was no longer the only country to be imbued with a genuine national inspiration or equipped with a truly national army. France’s foes had at last learned valuable lessons from their earlier defeats, both political and military, and were now learning how to employ their new-found strength against a rapidly tiring opponent. In the words of General Fuller, for Napoleon the battle of Leipzig was “a second Trafalgar, this time on land; his initiative was gone.”

Less than three weeks after the cataclysm of Leipzig, the Emperor Napoleon was back at St. Cloud. With that astonishing resilience he customarily displayed in time of catastrophe, he at once immersed himself in planning the defense of French soil. For the second year running he had witnessed the destruction of half a million French troops and the rapid dwindling of his Empire’s frontiers, but still he appears to have believed that his situation and prospects were not beyond hope. Given a little time to create new armies, he was still confident of his ability to snatch a final victory from his converging and seemingly all-powerful opponents. “At present we are not ready for anything,” he confided to Marmont in mid-November, “but by the first fortnight in January we shall be in a position to achieve a great deal.”

To anybody but a supreme egotist, France’s military situation in the last months of 1813 must have appeared hopeless. Following their victory at Leipzig, more than 300,000 Allied troops would soon be poised along the Rhine, while the French could muster fewer than 80,000 exhausted and disease-ridden survivors to defend the 300-mile length of their eastern frontiers. Perhaps 100,000 French troops still remained in Germany and Poland, but without exception they were divided into widely separated and closely beleaguered detachments, incapable of taking any active part in France’s impending death struggle. In North Italy, Viceroy Eugàne was narrowly holding his own with 50,000 men along the Adige against the 75,000 Austrians of General Bellegarde, but he already was finding good reason for concern about the ambivalent attitude of Napoleon’s relation, the King of Naples. Amid the Pyrenees, the armies of Marshals Soult and Suchet (sharing 100,000 men between them) were steadily giving ground before the advance of Lord Wellington’s Anglo-Spanish forces (125,000 strong). Napoleon could derive little satisfaction from a study of the true situation on any of these fronts. He also faced the prospect of open dissent in both Holland and Belgium. The French people were also fast reaching exhaustion point after sustaining the ceaseless drain of its dwindling manpower, year after year, and the economic repercussions of two decades of warfare—gravely aggravated by the effects of the Royal Navy’s relentless blockade of France’s ports—were steadily mounting. The Marshalate was war-weary and increasingly mutinous; the dependable Berthier was seriously ill; and the military resources of the German satellites were no longer available to eke out the emaciated French war effort. All in all, Napoleon faced a chilling prospect.

Still, however, the spirit burned; his will to success remained indomitable. The Emperor goaded the jaded ministries of Paris into a flurry of activity. New armies must immediately be created for the defense of la patrie. Every last resource of manpower must be tapped. Edicts were issued calling up no less than 936,000 youthful conscripts and aged reservists during the winter months of 1813-14. Policemen, forest rangers, customs officers were all summoned to the tricolor, together with 150,000 conscripts of the Class of 1815. Large parts of the National Guard were embodied for active service. Every government controlled newspaper made emotional appeals for Frenchmen to rally for the defense of their country as in 1792. Orders were sent to the armies in Italy and Spain, calling for sizeable drafts of experienced soldiers to lead the embryonic citizen armies. Decrees announced a vast expansion of the Young Guard. New taxes would be levied to finance the war effort.

Simultaneously, Napoleon launched a full-scale diplomatic offensive, planning to free his hands of peripheral problems. In the hope of rallying Italian support behind Eugène, the Pope was released from house arrest in France and restored to the throne of St. Peter. To clear the southwest frontiers of France and make the veterans of Soult and Suchet available for action on the Rhine, the French Government offered to restore Ferdinand to the throne of Spain in return for a permanent cessation of hostilities—and a preliminary agreement to this effect was actually initialed by French and Spanish plenipotentiaries on December 11 at Valençay.

Napoleon was well aware, however, that the fruition of these desperate policies could not take place overnight. There had to be a lull, a breathing space, most particularly on the Rhine front where France was weakest and her foes most imposingly strong. In optimistic moments, the Emperor spoke of his hope that the Allies would delay their attack on France’s eastern frontier until the spring of 1814. He based this assessment on three considerations. First, the Allied armies must necessarily be in an exhausted condition after their exertions throughout 1813. Second, it would take them time to incorporate the forces of their new German allies and place their communications in order. Third, Napoleon gambled greatly on internal dissensions within the Alliance disrupting any plans for a winter offensive. By the spring Napoleon was confident that France’s new armies would be, in position along the Rhine, and he even dreamed, of a great offensive by Murat and Eugàne sweeping from Italy over the Alps to threaten Vienna—a repetition of 1796-97.

To some extent Napoleon’s calculations concerning the possibility of a stay in the Allied offensive were soundly based. Powerful factions within the Allied high command were advocating just such a course of action. The Emperor of Austria had at this time no great desire to see the total eclipse of his son-in-law, for the downfall of the French Empire would indubitably favor the interests of the Houses of Hohenzollern and Romanov rather than those of the Hapsburgs. Providing Austria regained her Italian possessions, Francis was prepared to grant France her “natural frontiers”(namely the Rhine, Alps and Pyrenees) even at the cost of Belgium. For purely selfish reasons, Crown Prince Bernadotte of Sweden was also opposed to a full-scale invasion of France; he apparently harbored the hope that the French people might be induced to replace Napoleon with himself, if affairs were properly handled and excessive direct pressure avoided. The representatives of Great Britain were equally concerned with the balance of power in a post-war Europe, and tended to share Austria’s view that Napoleon might be left the “natural frontiers”—less Antwerp and the Scheldt—providing adequate guarantees of future good conduct could be extracted.

The advocates of immediate action placed their faith in the Tsar. Alexander was actually of two minds on the subject. Desperately though he wished to see Russian troops occupy Paris in revenge for Moscow, it occasionally struck him that the soldiers of Holy Russia were being called to make heroic efforts and sustain heavy losses for the benefit of the Germanic powers rather than of Russia herself. On balance, however, he favored action. As for Prussia, King Frederick William III was expected to follow the Tsar’s lead, although personally he wished to avoid any unnecessary prolongation of the war. Among the soldiers, opinion was equally divided. Prince Schwarzenberg—“by nature a statesman and diplomatist rather than a general”—tended to favor his master’s view, but the Prussian leaders, led most vociferously by Blücher, demanded the immediate and vigorous continuation of the campaign until the final overthrow of “the Corsican Ogre.”

In early November, their forces poised along the banks of the Rhine, the Allied leaders went into conclave at Frankfurt-on-Main to settle their policy. So serious were the divisions of expressed opinion that on the 16th it was decided to suspend operations for the immediate future while Napoleon was approached with a conditional offer of the “natural frontiers.” News of this development probably convinced Napoleon that he had won his pause, however much he might distrust the ultimate motives of the Allies. To make the most of his opportunity, he countered by calling for a general Congress, making no definite mention of the proposed terms. As a sop to the Tsar, the Emperor later appointed Caulaincourt as foreign minister and chief plenipotentiary. It is dubious whether either side was completely genuine in its offers and suggestions at this time. The Allies threw the validity of their pacific postures into question when Napoleon provisionally agreed to the “natural frontiers” suggestion, on November 30; his envoys were then informed that the Allies had withdrawn their original offer, and it was eventually communicated that talks could now only open on the basis of the “frontiers of 1792.” This was out of the question for Napoleon. “I think it is doubtful whether the Allies are in good faith,” he wrote to Caulaincourt in early January, “or that England wants peace; for myself, I certainly desire it, but it must be solid and honorable. France without its natural frontiers, without Ostend or Antwerp, would no longer be able to take its place among the States of Europe.”

Some time before these lines were penned, the uneasy truce along the eastern frontiers had been shattered. Napoleon’s hopes of a lull extending into March or April were abruptly ended on December 22 when General Wrede crossed the Rhine and laid siege to Hunigen. Even earlier, an Austrian division under General Bubna had begun to occupy undefended Switzerland. By the last days of the year it was clear that the Allied masses were on the move and that der Schlag had come.

The main reasons that decided the Allies to open a major winter campaign were distrust of Napoleon’s long-term intentions (probably justified) and a wish to exploit the current atmosphere of unrest in the Low Countries. Holland had already rebelled against French domination, and it was felt that Belgium needed only positive action by the Allies to follow suit.

The plan was complex. The Army of the North was to split into two. One corps under General Bülow, supported by a British expedition led by General Graham, was to occupy Holland, advance on Antwerp and in due course sweep through Belgium into northern France. The other half, commanded by Crown Prince Bernadotte, Winzingerode and Bennigsen, was to isolate Marshal Davout’s sizeable detachment around Hamburg, keep up pressure against the Danes and continue the siege of Magdeburg. Covered by these secondary operations Blücher’s 100,000 men of the Army of Silesia would advance on the central reaches of the Rhine, secure crossings over a wide front between Coblenz and Mannheim, and hold Napoleon’s attention. Simultaneously, Schwarzenberg (accompanied by a veritable galaxy of Allied monarchs) would march from Basel to Colmar, cross the Upper Rhine, and head for the Langres Plateau. Then the second stage of the campaign would commence. While Blücher continued to pin Napoleon frontally, the 200,000-strong Army of Bohemia would fall upon the French right, subsidiary columns fanning out to the south and southwest to make contact with the Austro-Italian forces advancing on Lyons and Wellington’s army advancing from the Pyrenees. By mid-February at the latest, close on 400,000 Allied troops might well be operating on French soil, the majority of them converging on the ultimate objective—Paris.

From Leipzig 1813 to Paris 1814

Russian, Austrian, and Prussian troops in Leipzig. Painting by Alexander Sauerweid

The Ill-fated Battle of Leipzig

From October 16 to 19, 1813, reduced to 180,000 men, the Grand Armeé occupied a defensive position at Leipzig, confronting 360,000 combatants of the Coalition.

Napoleon’s mode of operations was unusual. To give the Coalition the impression that he would fight without retreat in an ultimate battle without quarter, Napoleon had concentrated all his forces in the city. He based his dispositions along the river Eister, at whose bridge he planned a surprise disengagement.

Conforming to the frontal tactics that Napoleon had enticed them to follow, the Coalition partners focused all their forces concentrically around the city. Their alignment was as follows: in the south, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians; to the east, Bennigsen’s Russians; on the northeast, Bernadotte’s Swedes; and to the northwest, Blücher’s Prussians.

Whether through a mistake in tactics, poor coordination of effort, or simple presumption, no unit blocked the escape route toward Erfurt on the west bank of the Eister.

Without even waiting for the completion of the Coalition’s deployments, on the morning of October 16 Schwarzenberg attacked in force. Throughout the day, assaults and counter-assaults succeeded each other in hand-to-hand fighting. The Austrians were contained and even forced back.

The Coalition members learned their lesson from this. Thereafter, they decided to wait for all units to be assembled before renewing the attack. They spent the entire day of October 17 achieving this concentration.

Beginning at daybreak on October 18, the Coalition armies launched a general offensive. They failed to penetrate the position. In the afternoon, however, two brigades of Saxons and one brigade of Luxembourgers defected to the Coalition. Napoleon had to intervene in person with the Guard to reestablish the position, but not without difficulty. The fighting climaxed at night. The Coalition troops had not advanced a step, but the considerable casualties they suffered had calmed them sufficiently to allow the planned French disengagement under good conditions.

The retreat began at 2:00 a.m. on October 19, secretly, by the bridge over the Eister. The Coalition members did not perceive anything until daybreak. Then they quickly resumed their general attack. This resulted in the tragically premature destruction of the bridge, caused by the panic of the non-commissioned officer charged with destruction. Fifteen thousand French soldiers had not yet crossed, and found themselves thus trapped in the city. Many of them drowned while attempting to escape across the river. Without this incident, the Grand Armeé would have succeeded in withdrawing completely. It had suffered 15,000 killed and wounded and as many prisoners. The Coalition losses reached 50,000 killed or wounded.

Leaving aside the disappointment concerning the bridge, the Battle of Leipzig was thus a relative success for Napoleon. One hundred twenty thousand Frenchmen had escaped from the grip of an enemy three times as large and in the process had inflicted heavy losses. By ordinary military logic, no one should have escaped.

In the ensuing days, these harassed escapees would repulse 50,000 Austro-Bavarians at the Hanau pass before returning to their home country at the beginning of November.

Britain Torpedoes the Last Hope of Peace

What were the Coalition’s intentions? The sovereigns or their representatives gathered at Frankfurt to reach agreement on a common policy. Opinions were divided. Undoubtedly influenced by the Franco-Austrian family ties, Metternich proposed the least extreme position: the return of France to its 1792 borders, and the abdication of the emperor in favor of his son, i.e., without a Bourbon restoration. Russia and Prussia were equally in favor of an abdication without restoration, but demanded the 1789 borders instead. In Sweden’s name, Bernadotte proposed himself as a candidate to succeed Napoleon! Britain again showed itself to be the most intransigent, calling for the 1789 borders plus the restoration of the Bourbons it was sheltering and counted on making into puppet sovereigns.

At first, Metternich’s option appeared to be successful. On November 9, he used the Count de Saint-Aignan, a prisoner of war, to send a verbal message to Napoleon. He made this proposal in the presence of the Russian and British representatives, who raised no objection. He also suggested that Caulaincourt should negotiate for the French side.

As soon as he learned of this peace overture of November 1813, Napoleon leaped at the opportunity. He immediately informed the Coalition that he would send Caulaincourt as negotiator at a peace conference and asked his opponents to fix the date and place.

Named minister of exterior relations in Maret’s place, Caulaincourt wrote to Metternich on December 1:

It is with a lively sense of satisfaction that I am charged and authorized by my master the Emperor to declare to your excellency that His Majesty agrees to the basis that Monsieur de Saint-Aignan has communicated. These involve great sacrifices on the part of France, but His Majesty will make them without regret.

Thus, to restore peace, the emperor of the French officially agreed to abandon his crown so that France would retain both its new regime and its natural frontiers, two conditions that could not be more reasonable and legitimate. The miracle of peace almost appeared possible. Regrettably, once again it was nothing but a mirage.

The cabinet in London disavowed its representative to Frankfurt. The cabal of French émigrés at the court of Saint Petersburg, filled with hatred, persuaded the tsar to reverse his position. The British point of view carried the day. At its insistence, the Coalition partners renounced further negotiations and once again chose war. Yet, they felt forced to justify their warmongering in the eyes of public opinion. They therefore had recourse to a foul imposture to make Napoleon shoulder the responsibility. On December 1, they had not yet received Napoleon’s official agreement to abdicate. To give the illusion of a negative response on his part, they backdated their December 4 declaration of war to December 1. Metternich’s Machiavellianism joined with the perfidy of the British cabinet to create a minor masterpiece of ignominy.

To compound their perversity, the official decision of the Coalition on December 4 was printed in 20,000 copies of a propaganda tract and distributed across France. It read in part:

The allied powers are not making war on France but rather on that preponderant influence that, to the detriment of both the Empire and of France, the Emperor Napoleon has too long exercised outside the limits of his empire. The sovereigns wish France to be great, strong, and happy. The powers confirm to the Empire a territorial extent that it had never known under its kings.

Knowingly confusing the effect with the cause, this insidious monument of disinformation attempted to separate the French from their emperor. The “preponderant influence” of which it accused him was due only to the fury with which the Coalition had attacked him as the incarnation of the new France. The people were not deceived by this mystification.

This fallacious concept of differentiating between a bad Napoleon and an estimable France would be revived later in the inept image of a genial Bonaparte and an odious Napoleon. Anyone who does not recognize the functional unity and continuity between Bonaparte and Napoleon has no understanding of his personality.

The attitude of the emperor of Austria antagonized even his daughter Maria-Louisa, who so informed him in an unambiguous letter:

You cannot know how painful is the thought that you could be involved in a war with the Emperor, your relation, when you both have such characters that you should be friends. May God soon grant us peace! The Emperor desires it, as do all of his people. Yet, one cannot make peace without negotiating, and up until now it appears that your side has not been willing to do so. I am sure that the English are responsible for this.

Once again, the Coalition members had erred in their presumption. They would quickly learn by painful experience the confidence that Napoleon still enjoyed from the people if not, unfortunately, from the supposed “elites.”

In that month of November 1813, France was dramatically isolated and withdrawn behind its natural frontiers. Yet Napoleon had just demonstrated that the French army remained potent. In the interior, the political structure began to loosen and even to betray the emperor, who was admittedly much weakened but still determined. He continued to benefit from the total fidelity of the vast majority of Frenchmen. This should have made the Coalition’s members reflect and incline them to moderation. An opportunity for peace existed. Once again, Great Britain stifled this opportunity at birth.

Shamelessly violating Swiss neutrality, the Coalition armies invaded France in the first days of 1814. On January 3, they entered Montbéliard. The following day, they were at Nancy. On the 15th, Schwarzenberg occupied Langres. Four days later, Dijon fell. Almost everywhere, the invaders indulged in atrocities. Patriotic peasants attempted to oppose them by organizing guerrilla operations despite limited means and no support from the notables. They did not hesitate to fight with their scythes and pitchforks. With organization and leadership, this movement had significant operational possibilities.

Once again, Napoleon was expected to choose between capitulating unconditionally, contrary to his oath as emperor, and war. And, once again, he would show himself worthy of his reputation as a great captain.

When Napoleon left Paris for his armies on January 25, 1814, the situation of France appeared desperate. The Coalition surrounded it on four sides with more than 400,000 combatants. To the south, Wellington’s British army prepared to cross the Pyrenees. To the north, Bernadotte, at the head of 150,000 Russo-Prussians, was on the frontier. He delegated his command to generals Bulow and Wintzingerode, not daring to fight in person the French army inside France itself. Was this a belated scruple, or fear of being executed by his fellow citizens? To the northeast, Blücher’s Army of Silesia with 80,000 Russo-Prussians had crossed the Meuse and was advancing toward the Marne. To the southeast, Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia occupied the plateau of Langres with 185,000 Austro-Prussians.

Napoleon could only muster 110,000 first-line soldiers supported by several courageous units of the National Guard. Moreover, many were very young, with some barely 16 years old. They had been burdened with the nickname “Marie-Louise” because their enrollment had been authorized under a decree signed by the empress, and would earn the admiration of the “greybeards” of the Guard, even through they did not have peach fuzz as yet. The tsar himself rendered homage to their bravery.

Yet Napoleon could not count on the 20,000 men of the opportunist Augereau in Lyon nor on Eugene’s Army of Italy, which had more effect staying where it was than moving to France. Once again, he had to compensate for a crushing numerical inferiority by a maelstrom of rapid marches and countermarches, by dazzling maneuvers and countermaneuvers, allowing no respite to the enemy and appearing where he was not expected.

By January 26, Napoleon had overwhelmed a Russian division of Blücher’s at Saint Didier. On February 1, a clash occurred at La Rothiere that proved costly because he lacked his usual numerical superiority. On February 10 at Champaubert he annihilated a complete Russian corps of Blücher’s; peasants pursued the fugitives.

Rushing to Montmirail, Napoleon defeated another Russian corps on February 11. Decidedly, the Russians were not celebrating. The next day, he chased a Prussian corps from Chateau-Thierry. Here again, numerous peasants participated in the fight, armed with old muskets or simple pitchforks.

On February 14, a new and shining victory occurred at Vauchamps. Overpowered by the “French furor” that had allowed him no rest for 15 days, Blücher suffered very heavy losses: 6,000 killed or wounded and 8,000 prisoners. After four defeats in five days, the Army of Silesia was practically out of action. Now it was the turn of the Army of Bohemia!

This army was advancing southward in the direction of Moret. Its northern flank guard was surprised at Mormant on February 17. The cost was 6,000 prisoners including several generals, 15 cannon, and 50 caissons. Again the Russians had failed. The next day, an Austrian corps suffered defeat at Montereau, losing 6,000 men including another general, 15 guns, and six colors. Troyes was liberated on February 24 amidst an indescribable popular celebration.

Crippled by this avalanche of reverses, the Coalition members fell back everywhere. Their will wavered, their cohesion began to fail. Had the moment for negotiations returned?

Napoleon remained open to that as always. On February 26, he received Prince Wenceslas de Lichtenstein, sent to request a suspension of hostilities. Napoleon agreed in principle but did not wish to repeat the trickery of Pleiswitz in the previous year. He sent General Flahaut to ask for details of Schwarzenberg and to confirm that he wished to open negotiations on the basis of the Frankfurt conditions. Operations would not cease before the start of negotiations. Matters unfortunately remained there.

Meanwhile, pseudo-peace talks occurred at Chatillon, conducted on the French side by Caulaincourt, who had received full powers to negotiate on the reasonable basis of Frankfurt. Usually optimistic, Caulaincourt quickly sang a different tune. He sent Napoleon the following informative bulletin:

What I know with certainty is that I am dealing here with men who are not at all sincere. To make concessions only encourages them to make more demands, without being able to foresee where they will stop and without obtaining any result.

This from the ardent partisan of negotiations, who finally understood!

Sensing that his Coalition partners were vacillating, the hyper-Francophone British minister Lord Robert Castlereagh hurried from London, pockets bulging with gold. A conference occurred at Chaumont, where on March 1 a treaty was signed that renewed and extended the alliance for 20 years. Austria, Russia, and Prussia each promised to furnish 150,000 men to the Coalition. They contracted to accept only the frontiers of 1789 and not those of 1792. As the price of their cooperation, the three powers shared a treasure of 150 million francs.

The stiffening of the Coalition despite its military defeats was undoubtedly due to the French traitors who continued to provide assurance and would soon manifest themselves.

The war thus inexorably resumed.

Contrasting with the prudence of Schwarzenberg, who hesitated to give up his secure positions on the plateau of Langres, the seething Blücher, who had lived only to avenge Jena, resumed the offensive toward Paris via the valley of the Aisne, with the support of the Army of the North.

Napoleon therefore conceived a strategic maneuver of great scope, consisting of defeating Blücher in the region of Soissons, rallying the garrisons of the north, pressing toward those of the east, and then attacking the area of the Army of Bohemia in liaison with an organized peasant guerrilla force. He also hoped that Augereau, reinforced by Eugene, could form the other branch of the pincers near Lyon.

Failures of execution by some demoralized generals and the disobedience of Augereau and of Eugene would compromise the execution of this plan. The capitulation of Paris by treaty would ruin it.

On March 3, the surrender of Soissons without resistance saved Blücher, who linked up with the Army of the North. After this reinforcement, the battles of Craonne on March 6 and Laon the next day were costly and indecisive.

In liberating Reims on March 13, Napoleon drove a wedge between the Army of Silesia and that of Bohemia. This latter force had renewed the offensive and threatened the southern wing of the French dispositions. Napoleon had to deviate from his path to reestablish the situation. Schwarzenberg withdrew precipitately to the Aube and reassembled all of his forces. He then attacked violently at Arcis-sur-Aube on March 20, where he was with difficulty contained.

Still following his progression into the enemy rear, Napoleon reached Saint-Didier on March 23 and gained a final victory over the Russians. This proved to be the farthest point of his offensive. The collapse of his own rear then destroyed his spirit.

Defense of Clichy during the battle of Paris. The artist depicts the defense of Paris on the 30th of March 1814. In the centre, Marshal Moncey gives his orders to goldsmith Claude Odiot, colonel of the national guard, for whom the painting was made.

A capital event had taken place. Talleyrand and the royalists had called upon the Coalition to seize Paris, guaranteeing its capitulation without resistance. It was true that, on January 1, the future Louis XVIII had sent his “subjects” an infamous proclamation: “Receive the allied generals as friends, open the gates of your cities to them, avoid the blows that a criminal and pointless resistance would cost you, and welcome their entry into France with cries of joy.”

On March 25 at Fere-Champenoise, the Coalition inflicted a serious reverse on the troops assigned to defend Paris. Caught off balance, Napoleon was constrained to carry aid to the capital at top speed. Yet, he arrived too late. On March 30, near Juvisy, he learned that Marmont had signed a capitulation for the entire garrison of Paris, which was authorized to leave the capital. The inconsequential Joseph, who had been named lieutenant general of the empire for precisely the mission “not to abandon Paris without a fight,” had agreed with Marmont.

The Coalition forces made their entrance into Paris on March 31, 1814, to the applause of the wealthy quarters. The noblewomen exceeded decency so far as to mount on the croppers of the horses of Cossack officers. Talleyrand accommodated the tsar in his own hotel and became head of a provisional government to prepare the restoration.

Having withdrawn to Fontainebleau, Napoleon had not yet had his final say. He still controlled 70,000 soldiers who demonstrated a touching fidelity to him, crying “To Paris, to Paris!” He had already formed a concept of operations to reconquer the capital in coordination with an uprising of the Parisian population, and he had previously recovered from equally critical situations.

However, his marshals—tired, demoralized, opportunistic, and sedentary—failed him on April 4. At least they attempted to save the regime by negotiating an abdication in favor of his son, the king of Rome. The treason of Marmont, who deserted to the enemy with his corps on April 4, dealt the final blow to the Empire and restored the monarchy. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba.

The Battle of Wissembourg, 4 August 1870 Part I

In a telegram to Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm’s headquarters on 4 August, Moltke reiterated that he was seeking to “bring the operations of [the Second and Third] Armies into consonance.” Both armies must advance to join in “the direct combined movement” against Louis-Napoleon’s principal army. General Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal [chief of staff of the Prussian 3rd Army] and the crown prince complied, pushing their army steadily westward in the first days of August. Moltke landed his first blow in Alsace, where the Prussian Third Army rammed into Marshal Patrice MacMahon’s I Corps in two stages, a small “encounter battle” at Wissembourg on 4 August and an orchestrated clash at Froeschwiller two days later. Although MacMahon commanded a “strong corps” of 45,000 men – “strong” because it contained four divisions instead of the usual three – the marshal had strong responsibilities. Expected to hold the line of the Vosges, threaten the flank of any Prussian attack toward Strasbourg, maintain contact with Douay’s VII Corps in Belfort, yet never lose touch with the Army of the Rhine to his north, the marshal needed every man that he had, and then some.

To cover his vast sector of front, MacMahon placed his four divisions in a wide square, one division and headquarters at Haguenau, a second division at Froeschwiller, a third at Lembach, and a fourth at Wissembourg, a charming little village on the Lauter river, which was France’s border with the Bavarian Palatinate. By means of this rather ungainly placement of his divisions, MacMahon simultaneously defended the border with Germany, kept contact with Failly’s V Corps, and still had two divisions far enough south to threaten the flank of any Prussian push toward Strasbourg or Belfort. Still, ten to twenty miles of rough country separated each of the four French divisions, a dangerous separation partly necessitated by shortages of food and drink, which forced MacMahon to scrounge among the local population. If MacMahon took the initiative, he would have time to close the gaps and join the units in battle. But if MacMahon were attacked on any of the corners of his square, none of the French divisions would have time to “march to the sound of the guns.” They were too far apart, a fact brutally driven home to the 8,600 troops of MacMahon’s 2nd Division at Wissembourg on 4 August.

Marshal MacMahon’s 2nd Division, commanded by sixty-one-year-old General Abel Douay – Felix Douay ‘ ‘s brother and president of the military academy at St. Cyr before the war – had only arrived in Wissembourg late on 3 August. MacMahon hurriedly shoved Douay forward after receiving Leboeuf’s vague warning of “a serious affair.” Although the French had built Wissembourg into a formidable defensive line in the eighteenth century – a network of towers, moats, redoubts, and trenches along the right bank of the Lauter – Marshal Niel had abandoned the fortifications in 1867, removing their guns and maintenance budgets. Decay followed swiftly in the warm, moist shelter of the Vosges: A war correspondent at Wissembourg in 1870 found the walls crumbling, the moats filled with weeds and rubbish, the glacis already sprouting elms and poplars. Still, the place had considerable tactical importance if the Germans came this way. Wissembourg was an important road junction for Bavaria, Strasbourg, and Lower Alsace and, after looking it over, General Douay’s engineers recommended that Wissembourg be cleaned up and defended as a “pivot and strongpoint” for operations on the frontier, a recommendation that Douay passed back to I Corps headquarters. Ultimately, Douay’s great misfortune was to have landed at the last minute in the exact spot chosen by Moltke for the invasion of France. Seeking to pin the Army of the Rhine with his First and Second Armies while swinging Third Army into Napoleon III’s flank, Moltke wired Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm late on 3 August: “We intend to carry out a general offensive movement; the Third Army will cross the frontier tomorrow at Wissembourg.”

The Prussian Third Army’s seizure of Wissembourg on 4 August was as good an indictment of French intelligence and reconnaissance in the war as any. When General Douay inspected the town on 3 August, he had no inkling that 80,000 Prussian and Bavarian troops were closing rapidly from the northeast in response to the Prussian Crown Prince’s order of the day: “It is my intention to advance tomorrow as far as the River Lauter and cross it with the vanguard.” Indeed the Prussians had been masters of the Niederwald, the sprawling pine forest that ran along both banks of the Lauter and cloaked the Prussian approach, for weeks. French infantry officers could not recall a single French cavalry patrol entering it. What intelligence Douay received on 3 August came not from the French cavalry, but from Monsieur Hepp, Wissembourg’s subprefect, who warned that the Bavarians had already seized the Franco-German customs posts east of the Lauter and that large bodies of German troops were in the area. Still, Douay retired that evening without pushing his eight squadrons of cavalry across the Lauter to reconnoiter. Only on the morning of the 4th did Douay finally send a company of infantry across the river. No sooner had they touched the left bank than they were thrown back by Prussian cavalry. This was interpreted as nothing more serious than an “outpost skirmish” in the French camp. Reassured, General Douay ordered morning coffee at 8:00 a. m. and wired the results of his reconnaissance to MacMahon at Strasbourg. Relieved that there was still time to mass his corps on the frontier, MacMahon made plans to move his headquarters to Wissembourg the next day. Even as his telegraph operators tapped out this intention to Leboeuf at Metz, the first Prussian shells were exploding in Wissembourg and General Friedrich von Bothmer’s Bavarian 4th Division was splashing across the Lauter. In the Chateau Geisberg, Abel Douay’s, hilltop headquarters above Wissembourg, confusion was total.

Central forts of the “Wissembourg lines” in the eighteenth century, the twin towns of Wissembourg and Altenstadt still possessed redoubtable fortifications for an infantry fight: moats, loopholed stone walls and towers, and an elevated bastion just behind and to the right on the Geisberg. Douay had posted two of his eight battalions, six guns, and several mitrailleuses in the riverfront towns of Wissembourg and Altenstadt on the 3rd. He arrayed the rest of his infantry, his cavalry, and twelve cannons on the slopes above the twin towns. As the Bavarians swarmed over the Lauter, every French gun, deployed in a line from Geisberg on the right along to Wissembourg on the left, poured in a seamless curtain of fire. The French infantry, all veterans with Chassepots, adjusted their sights and commenced firing with devastating effect. Nikolaus Duetsch, a Bavarian lieutenant casually inspecting his platoon in Schweigen on the left bank of the Lauter, recalled his amazement when one of his infantrymen suddenly threw up his arms and cried, “Ich bin geschossen” – “I’m hit!” And he was. “The bullet came from the Wissembourg walls, more than 1,200 meters away.” Closer in, every French bullet struck home as the Bavarians, emerging from the morning fog in their plumed helmets, struggled through thickly planted vineyards and acacia plantations to reach the Lauter.

For the first time, the Bavarians heard the tac-tac-tac of the mitrailleuse. These rather primitive “revolver cannon” did not traverse their fire across the field like late nineteenth-century machineguns, rather they tended to fix on a single man and pump thirty balls into him, leaving nothing behind but two shoes and stumps. Needless to say, the gun had a terrifying impact out of all proportion to its quite meager accomplishments as a weapon. (“One thing is certain,” a Bavarian infantry officer wrote after the battle, “few are wounded by the mitrailleuse. If it hits you, you’re dead.”) Johannes Schulz, a Bavarian private hustling toward Altenstadt, later described the carnage in the Bavarian lines. The French artillery and rifle fire was so intense and accurate that every Bavarian attempt to form attack columns on the broken, marshy ground before Wissembourg was shot to pieces. Schulz’s own platoon leader was punched to the ground by a bullet in the chest; miraculously, he rose from the dead, saved by his rolled greatcoat, which had stopped the bullet. As the Bavarians wavered, Schulz recalled the blustery appearance of his regimental colonel, whose shouted orders showed just how deeply Prussian tactics had penetrated the Bavarian army in the years since 1866: “Regiment! Form attack columns! First and light platoons in the skirmish line! Swarms to left and right!” That first attempt to cross the Lauter and break into Wissembourg was brutally cut down by the Turcos of the 1st Algerian Tirailleur Regiment, who worked their Chassepots expertly from the ditch, the town walls, and the railway embankment, which formed an impenetrable rampart along the front and eastern edge of Wissembourg. Though ten times stronger than the defenders, the Bavarians wilted, the officers shouting “nieder!” – “get down!” – the wild-eyed men breaking formation and crawling away in search of cover, terrified by their first sight of African troops. Schulz remembered the conduct of his battalion drummer boy; shot cleanly through the arm, the boy screamed over and over, “Mein Gott! Mein Gott! Ich sterbe furs Vaterland! ” ” – “My God, my God! I’m dying for our Fatherland!”

It had rained in the night and the morning was hot and humid; fog rose from the fields. Most of the Bavarians and Prussians, hacking their way through man-high vines, recalled never even seeing the French; they merely heard them, and fired at their rifle flashes. Adam Dietz, a Jager ” armed with Bavaria’s new Werder rifle, every bit as good as the Chassepot, bitterly concluded that the Prussian tactic of Schnellfeuer – “rapid fire” – was impossible when the troops were lying prone: “Rapid fire is not so rapid when you’re lying flat because it takes so long to reload; you have somehow to reach into your cartridge pouch, find a cartridge with your fingers, eject, load, aim, and only then, fire.” Clearly the French – the Turcos and two battalions of the 74th Regiment – were having a better time of it, standing behind cover in Wissembourg and Altenstadt, loading, aiming, and firing as quickly as they could. Only the Prussian and Bavarian artillery limited the losses. Several German guns crossed the Lauter on makeshift bridges and joined the infantry assault, blasting rounds into the wooden gates at close range and giving an early glimpse of the bold tactics conceived after Koniggr ” atz. The rest, deployed on the ” left bank of the Lauter, shot Wissembourg into flames, dismounted the mitrailleuses, and pushed the French riflemen off the town walls. For this, they could thank the French artillery; firing an unreliable, time-fused projectile and standing too far back from the action, the French guns, after some initial success, caused little damage on the Prussian side. Still, with the outskirts and canals of Wissembourg choked with Bavarian dead, it was an inauspicious start to the war.

Luckily for thirty-nine-year-old Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, Prussian tactics never relied on frontal attacks. They groped always for the flanks and the line of retreat, and Wissembourg was no exception to this rule. Even as Bothmer’s division foundered in Wissembourg and Altenstadt, General Albrecht von Blumenthal, the Third Army chief of staff, was directing the Bavarian 3rd Division against the French left and swinging the Prussian V and XI Corps into Douay’s right flank and rear. From the rising ground behind the Lauter, Blumenthal and the crown prince could make out Douay’s tent line with the naked eye. It was clear that the French general had no more than a division with him, and that he was dangerously exposed, what soldiers called “in the air,” with no natural features protecting his flanks, no reserves, and no connection to the other divisions of I Corps.

Abel Douay did not live to recognize the utter hopelessness of his situation. Riding out to assess the fighting in Wissembourg, he was killed by a shellburst as he stopped to inspect a mitrailleuse battery at 11 a. m. By then the Prussian envelopment was nearly complete. The Prussian 9th Division, leading the V Corps into battle, had crossed the Lauter at St. Remy, taken Altenstadt, and stormed the railway embankment at Wissembourg, taking the embattled Algerians between two fires. Six more Bavarian battalions swarmed across the Lauter above Wissembourg, closing the ring. Though surrounded, the French held on, blazing away along the full circumference of their narrowing ring on the Lauter, while the French batteries above fired as quickly as they could into the swarms of Bavarians and Prussians on the riverbank. Ultimately it was the Wissembourgeois, not the French troops, who ran up the white flag. Faced with the certain destruction of their lovely town, the inhabitants emerged from their cellars and demanded that the 74th Regiment open the gates and let the Germans in. Here was an early instance of the defeatism that would plague the French war effort from first to last. Major Liaud, commander of the 74th’s 2nd battalion, bitterly recalled the interference of the townsfolk, who pleaded with his men to end their “useless defense” and refused even to provide directions through their winding streets and alleys. When Liaud sent men onto the roofs of the town to snipe at the Germans, he was scolded by the mayor, who reminded him that the French troops “were causing material damage” and needlessly prolonging the battle. The battle ended abruptly when a crowd of determined civilians advanced on the Haguenau gate, lowered the drawbridge, and waved the Bavarians inside.

If victory belonged to the Germans, it was not immediately apparent to the troops. Indeed the brave French stand in Wissembourg knocked the wind out of the Bavarians, and left them gasping for most of the afternoon, leaving the Prussians to complete the envelopment. Captain Celsus Girl, a Bavarian staff officer who rode back from the Lauter at the climax of the battle, was amazed to discover the roads east of the river clogged with Bavarian stragglers (Nachzugler) too frightened by the sounds of battle to advance. “There were clusters of men beneath every shade tree on the Landau Road . . .. Most were just scared, trembling with `cannon fever’ . . .. Nothing would move them; they answered my best efforts and those of the march police with passive resistance.” And this was the better of the two Bavarian corps; after inspecting General Ludwig von der Tann’s Bavarian I Corps before the battle, Blumenthal and the crown prince had judged it incapable of fighting and left it in reserve, far behind the Lauter. Though the Bavarians were a disappointment, raw German troop numbers carried the day. As the French guns and infantry on the Geisberg tried to disengage their embattled comrades below prior to a general retreat, they were themselves engulfed by onrushing battalions of the Prussian V and XI Corps, which worked around behind the Geisberg, pushed the French inside the chateau, and then stormed it.

Fighting raged for an hour, with French infantry, barricaded inside every room and on the roof, firing into the masses of Prussians assaulting the ground floor. Considering Prussia’s military reputation, a French officer was appalled by the crudity of the Prussian attack: Wave after wave of Prussian infantry broke against the walls of the chateau and its outbuildings. The largely Polish 7th Regiment was mangled, losing twenty-three officers and 329 men. On the slopes below the Geisberg, Prussian, and Bavarian troops from Wissembourg joined the attack, pushing uphill through the remnants of the French 74th Regiment. A Bavarian sergeant took the Chassepot from the hands of a French corpse on the hillside and was amazed to find the rifle sights set at 1,600 meters, an impossible shot with the Prussian needle rifle or the Bavarian Podewils. The battle for the chateau stalled until gunners of the Prussian 9th Division succeeded in wrestling three batteries onto an undefended height just 800 paces from the Geisberg. At that range they could not miss, and white flags shortly appeared on the roof. Among the casualties of this last bombardment was the Duc de Gramont’s brother, colonel of the French 47th Regiment, whose left arm was ripped off by a shell splinter. Two hundred Frenchmen surrendered as the rest of Douay’s division fled westward, abandoning fifteen guns, four mitrailleuses, all of the division’s ammunition, and 1,000 prisoners. Abel Douay, by now a rigid corpse on a table in the Chateau Geisberg, had never stood a chance. He had stood in a bad position against twenty-nine German battalions with just eight of his own. Marshal MacMahon did not learn of the disaster until 2:30 p. m., when he resolved to collect the survivors of Douay’s division and lead a “fighting retreat” through the Vosges passes to Lemberg and Meisenthal, where he would be better positioned to unite with the Army of the Rhine and Canrobert’s VI Corps. The collection point would be a little village on the eastern edge of the Vosges called Froeschwiller.

The Battle of Wissembourg, 4 August 1870 Part II

There would be no retreat, fighting or otherwise, for the companies of Algerian tirailleurs and the 300 men of the French 74th Regiment still trapped inside Wissembourg. There the fighting sputtered from house to house, though most Prussian and Bavarian infantry simply strolled in through the Landau or Haguenau gates and looked around curiously. A thirsty Bavarian private recalled accosting the inhabitants of the town and demanding beer and cigars. While engaged on this errand, he bumped into a squad of Prussians with red French army trousers flapping from their bayonets. He remembered wondering how they had got there. The Prussians yelled “three cheers for the Bavarians” – “vivat hoch ihr Bayern!” – as they ran laughing past. General Blumenthal’s adjutant, a dour Mecklenburger, did not share those comradely sentiments; he rode in through the Haguenau gate – “furious, silent, cold” – searching for the Bavarian unit that had stolen his favorite horse that morning. A Bavarian officer sat and watched the young mayor of Wissembourg, the official who had caused the French garrison so many problems. Clearly not an Alsatian, he was a “thirty-six-year-old man with black hair and a Mediterranean face.” As bullets ricocheted around the Marktplatz, the mayor, still apparently determined to spare the town “material damage,” stood holding the French flag and demanding to speak with the Prussian commander-inchief. No one paid any attention to him.

Most of the German troops were riveted by their first sight of Africans; they peered curiously at the dead or captured Turcos “as if at zoo animals,” and hesitantly touched their “poodle hair.” Leopold von Winning, a Prussian lieutenant, described the “amazement” of his Silesians, who “stared disbelievingly at the Algerian tirailleurs, some of them blacks with woolly hair, others Arabs with bronze skin and sculpted features.” The Prussians and Bavarians crowded around the Turcos, making faces, barking gibberish and pantomiming madly, even offering cigars or their flasks in the hope of a word. The poor Wissembourgeois, offered protection by the French the night before, now felt the dead weight of war. Column after column of German troops entered the town demanding bread, meat, wine, wood, straw, forage, and rooms for the night. Bothmer’s divisional staff settled into Wissembourg’s only hotel and were pleased to find the dining room table already set for Douay’s officers.

On the Geisberg, Prussian troops combed through the abandoned French tents, and General Douay’s luxurious bivouac became the object of curious pilgrimages from both banks of the Lauter. Gebhard von Bismarck, an officer in the Prussian XI Corps, later described the scene:

“Next to [Douay’s] staff carriage was an elaborate, custom-made kitchen wagon, with special cages for live poultry and game birds . . . but the troops were most interested in two elegant carriages on the edge of the camp, the contents of which were scattered far and wide: suitcases, men’s pajamas and underwear, and women’s things too, undergarments, corsets, crinolines and peignoirs. Our Rheingauer laughed and laughed.”

Douay’s headquarters provided more than titillation. Captain Bismarck and the other Prussian officers were “astounded by the French maps.” They were of poor quality on an all but useless scale. Junior officers had none at all, a startling contrast with the Prussian army – though not the Bavarian – where even lieutenants were provided with the best large scale maps. “We went through the knapsack of a French officer and found only a copy of Monde Illustre’ with its “vue panoramique du theatre de la guerre ‘ ,” scale 104:32 centimeters. I still have it, surely one of the crudest means of orientation ever used by an army at war.” While the professionals interrogated French prisoners and scrutinized their maps, their conscripts drank in the sights and smells of war. Most were unnerved. Franz Hiller, a Bavarian private, never forgot the scene on the Geisberg after the battle. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere. Many of the corpses were decapitated, or missing arms or legs. Hiller observed that inexperienced men like himself invariably paused to peer inside the wagons full of mutilated corpses, then staggered back in shock. This was the real “baptism of fire,” rendered even more poignant for Hiller by a sad discovery: “I saw the corpse of a young Frenchman and thought `what will his parents and family think and say when they learn of his death?’ His pack lay ripped open at his side; there was a photograph of him. I took it, and have it to this day.”

Both the Prussians and the Bavarians studied French tactics at Wissembourg, carefully noting their strengths and weaknesses. Bavarian Captain Max Lutz concluded that the French tactics, supposedly created for the technically superb Chassepot, were actually ill-suited to the French rifle. Instead of exploiting the Chassepot’s range, accuracy, and rate of fire by lengthening their front, the French had massed their troops in narrow positions that were easily crushed by artillery fire, demoralized, and outflanked. The French thus put themselves at a double disadvantage: They could not take Prussian attacks between cross fires and could not themselves launch enveloping attacks. They were, as Lutz put it, always “zu massig aufgestellt” – “too compactly formed.”

After Wissembourg, the Berlin Post waxed grandiose on the significance of the battle. “The German brotherhood in arms has received its baptism of blood, the firmest cement.” Wissembourg had blazed “the path of nationalism” for Prussia and the German states. The Prussian Volkszeitung took the same line, generously crediting the Bavarians: “the Bavarians have decisively defeated the enemies of Germany . . . the battlefield bears witness to their unwavering fidelity.” The truth, of course, was altogether different. Like poor Lieutenant Bronsart von Schellendorf, hunting furiously for his stolen Grauschimmel among the unruly Bavarians, the Prussians had turned an intensely critical gaze on their new south German ally before the smoke of the battle had even lifted. What they found was an undisciplined Bavarian army that had performed abysmally in 1866 (as an Austrian ally) and still seemed unprepared for the tests of modern warfare.

Bavarian march discipline was scandalous, at least as bad as French. The south Germans left far more stragglers in their wake than the Prussians. Whereas Prussian units could march directly from their rail cars into battle, the Bavarians needed days to sort themselves out. Every march route traversed by the Bavarians in the early weeks was left littered with discarded equipment, much of which was missed in battle, another problem for the south Germans. “Our troops have no fire discipline,” a Bavarian officer confessed after the battle. “The men commence firing and transition immediately to Schnellfeuer, ignoring all orders and signals until the last cartridge is out the barrel.” Excitement or panic partly explained this, as did a trade-union mentality that did not prevail in the Prussian army: “[Bavarians] feel that they have done their duty simply by firing off all of their ammunition, at which point they look over their shoulders expecting to be relieved. Many [Bavarian] officers also subscribed to this delusion.” Bavarians rarely attacked with the bayonet and proved only too willing to carry wounded comrades to the rear in battle, leaving gaps in the firing line. After the war, Prussian analysts discovered that Bavarian infantry had needed to be resupplied with ammunition at least once in every clash with the French, a hazardous, time-consuming process that involved conveying crates of reserve cartridges into the front line and distributing them. The Prussians, who nearly always made do with the ammunition in their pouches, marveled that Bavarians averaged forty rounds per man per combat, no matter how trivial. In the Prussian army, such exuberance was frowned upon; Terraingewinn – conquered ground – was the sole criterion of success. For this, fire discipline was essential. In the ensuing weeks, the Prussian criterion would be hammered into the Bavarians.

Having picked Wissembourg clean, the Germans moved off in pursuit of MacMahon’s 2nd Division. Even Bavarian officers shied at the excesses of their men as they slogged through a cold, pelting rain. The passing French troops had churned the dirt roads to the west into quicksand. Many of the Prussians and Bavarians lost their shoes in the slime, and marched on in their socks, cold, wet, and miserable. The Bavarians looted every house or shop they passed, often ignoring their officers, who had to wade in with drawn revolvers to force them back on the road. The Prussian XI Corps – comprised mainly of Nassauer, Hessians, and Saxons annexed after 1866 – had its own crisis as scores of Schlappen and Maroden – “softies” and “marauders” – fell out and refused to go on. Ultimately, as in the Bavarian corps, they were all raked together and pushed down the roads to Froeschwiller, perhaps by the example of the largely Polish Prussian V Corps, which plowed stolidly through the rain, earning the grudging admiration of a Bavarian witness: “gute Marschierer.”

In Metz on 4 August, Louis-Napoleon roused himself and dispatched an enquiring telegram to General Frossard at Saarbrucken: ” “Avez-vous quelques nouvelles de l’ennemi?” – “Have you any news of the enemy?” Indeed he had. The Prussian First and Second Armies were on the move, so swiftly and in such strength that Frossard had already abandoned his post on the Saar and pulled back to Spicheren, an elevated village commanding the Saarbrucken- ” Forbach road and railway. By the end of the day, Napoleon III had frozen with fright. Ladmirault, still creeping forward on Frossard’s left, was urgently pulled back; Bazaine was ordered to remain at St. Avold, the Imperial Guard at Metz. Failly’s V Corps, Napoleon III’s only link with MacMahon, was forgotten in the hubbub at Metz. It remained at Saargemuines without orders, an oversight that would doom MacMahon two days later. By now, Marshal Leboeuf’s command was turning in circles. The emperor pestered him with messages and the empress, in Paris, thought nothing of waking the major general in the middle of the night with urgent telegrams that usually began “I did not want to wake the emperor and so I have cabled you directly . . . ” Leboeuf may well have wondered whose sleep was more important, but groggily rose and replied anyway.

French Naval Technology 1669-1716

The legendary Soleil Royal. Said to have been one of the most impressively decorated of all baroque ships, she led the French fleet at the Battle of Beachy Head before being destroyed by British and Dutch forces whilst undergoing repair in 1692.

The French Navy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differed in some significant ways from its contemporaries across the Channel or in the Netherlands, whose vessels and naval structures have been described in other volumes in this series. Perhaps the most crucial differences between French and other navies’ ships – certainly in the period before 1689 – were in the structural levels of the various ships of the line of battle (vaisseaux in French), and in the mixed calibres of cannon which armed these decks.

The Small Three-decked Ship of the Line

While there were certainly small ships with three continuous gun decks in the other major navies (in this article we use the term `gun deck’ to identify all the continuous cannon-bearing decks running from stem to stern, rather than simply the British practice of reserving the term for the lowest of these decks), mid-seventeenth century French practice was more widespread in building three-decked warships with as few as fifty guns. We exclude from our definition the fore and aft superstructures above the upper continuous deck – the forecastle (where such existed), quarterdeck and poop as usually described. Note the French did not employ the translations of the terms `lower deck’, `middle deck’ and `upper deck’; instead they referred to these deck levels as the `first deck,’ `second deck,’ and `third deck’ for three-deckers; as English-speaking readers would not be familiar with this practice, we have retained the more easily understood terms in this book. But we must caution the reader that the French definition of a three-decked ship differed markedly from that employed by the English.

On most three-deckers (prior to 1689), the upper gun deck was not armed with a continuous battery of cannon, but was divided in the waist of the ship. In some ships there was physically a continuous deck at this level (to cover and protect the men on the middle deck below), with continuous bulwarks along the sides (but no gunports), and supported below by transverse deck beams across the full width of the ship to provide structural strength; these ships carried no guns at this level when built, but in 1690 surviving ships of this grade received extra guns to give them a full UD battery.

In other ships, there was a physical gap at the waist, so that the central portion of the middle deck was open to the elements; on a number of ships, this gap was filled by a residual structure (a centreline gangway termed a `flying bridge’) linking the fore and aft sections of this deck. This structure could be (and frequently was) removed in operational practice, turning the type into what would by comprehended by the English as a two-decker. Nevertheless, the French Navy categorised all these ships officially as `three-deckers’, and described their non-continuous upper decks as the `third deck’. This led to some confusion between the navies, as in 1672 when, during a period of Anglo-French alliance and co-operation, a small French squadron visited Portsmouth, consisting of the 70-gun ships Superbe, Royal Thérese (exParis) and Magnanime.

The main exceptions (prior to 1689) among 1st Rank ships were the massive vaisseaux du premier rang extraordinaire – those few vessels of 100 guns of more, which carried three full tiers of guns, plus smaller guns on their forecastles, quarterdecks, and in some cases poops.

These small three-deckers were eliminated in stages. On 22 March 1671, a Regulation was laid down decreeing that ships with fewer than 70 guns should in future by built as two-deckers. In 1689 a fresh decree extended the Regulation to cover all new ships with fewer than 80 guns. Obviously, these regulations applied to new construction rather than to existing ships. In some cases, it was possible to convert an existing three-decker into a two-decker by the simple process of dismantling a `flying bridge’. On other vessels, a more comprehensive restructuring was required, and clearly on many vessels no changes were carried out and vessels remained three-deckers until the end of their lives. After 1689 all new three-deckers carried three full decks of guns, and none carried fewer than 80 guns.

Mixed Calibres on Gun Decks

The other significant difference, not always clear from certain writings, is that the lower – and on three-deckers the middle – decks on almost all pre-1689 French warships carried a mixture of calibres. The practice was clearly defined in the appropriate regulations, and there seem to have been few exceptions. Thus, a typical three-decker might have had a combination of 24pdr and 18pdr guns on its lower deck, and a combination of 12pdr and 8pdr guns on its middle deck, with 6pdrs on the upper deck (and sometimes 4pdrs on the poop, as a 4th tier). At some date before 1689, single calibres on each deck were adopted, and these became general after 1689 for new construction (and for refitting some older ships), although some older vessels were never re-armed.

Changes in Ship Rankings, 1669-1716

A major complication in determining which chapter should record details of individual ships is that the French Ranks were subject to frequent alteration, with ships being moved from one Rank to another and often back again. This was primarily true with the seventeenth century Ranks, but re-classing also took place during the eighteenth century. This was also a factor with the British Navy, but its more extensive employment by the French may make it difficult to locate a particular ship. In general, it is preferable to describe a ship under the Rank it held when it first entered French naval service, but the position of a ship can be judged differently in Rank as it more helpful to record the development of a particular ship type. There can be no absolute rule adopted in this matter.

Appearance and Design

Further constructional factors contributed to differences between most French-built ships (we shall ignore here French-operated ships built abroad or captured from other countries) and those of other navies. French ships were generally larger, but more lightly built; among smaller ships, this is because they were not expected to remain at sea for such protracted periods as the ships of the maritime powers. It meant also that they tended on average to be faster.

The decoration of French ships, particularly the stern of major ships, was both more prolific and more formalised than in other navies. Under Louis XIV in particular, the carving and painting adorning their structures was designed to be more magnificent and more impressive than that of their likely opponents. The figureheads and sterns were distinct in their iconography and in the skills of their artwork. Many of the artists and sculptors who created the seventeenth century opulence of Versailles and Fontainebleau were equally employed in creating masterpieces afloat. Louis XIV and Colbert established sculpture academies in the three main dockyards, whose graduate craftsmen brought to life the designs of Pierre Puget and others.

The ostentatious decoration, particularly the most ornate sculpture which graced the bow and stern of each ship during much of the seventeenth century, was subject to radical pruning as the century neared its end. The decorators and sculptors, all gifted and often celebrated artists, outdid each other and indeed themselves to satisfy the vanity of their monarch; but the actual ship commanders, viewing the encumbrance and the fire danger of the ornamental work when at sea – particularly in action – strongly opposed the scale of the decoration, and often took steps to reduce it. The celebrated Pierre Puget, for example, would have been horrified to know that much of his careful artistic work was apt to be quietly jettisoned by a captain as soon as it was out of sight of the dockyard. Obviously this could not happen to the fleet flagships, which were likely to be visited by Louis and his senior ministers; but such carvings clearly suffered in action – witness the description of the ruined state of the magnificent stern sculptures of the Soleil Royal when she was grounded in Cherbourg after the Battle of Barfleur (where she would be burnt in a fireship attack a few days later).


The principal weapon carried by all naval ships during this period was the smooth-bore cannon of varying sizes and weights mounted on a truck (wheeled) carriage. All French guns were classified according to the weight of the spherical solid shot that they could fire, but they could also be separated into those manufactured from bronze (fonte verte) and those cast from iron. During the seventeenth century, the limitations of foundry technology means that the heavier pieces could only be manufactured in bronze, although this situation changed significantly, when iron 24pdrs and 36pdrs (the abbreviation `pdr’ signifying `- pounder’ is used throughout this article) began to be introduced in 1688 and 1691 respectively. Nevertheless, bronze guns remained the preference, and by 1689 it was decreed that the guns in ships of the 1st Rank should all be of bronze.

Colbert’s Navy inherited in 1661 a variety of cannon of at least seventeen different calibres, a confusing situation and one which greatly hampered maintenance and supply of ammunition. A start was made in 1661 by restricting the number of calibres to seven, although the changeover took time, and the last ‘non-standard’ calibre weapons did not disappear until about 1676.

It can be seen that the supply of cannon at this time was barely enough to arm more than a few ships. Colbert’s ambition to create within a few years a Navy of some 120 vessels (an aim which he achieved by 1671) required an equal effort in gun manufacture. Including the non-standard calibres the Navy’s inventory rose to a total of 5,090 guns in 1671. During the next quarter-century the inventory almost doubled, reaching its peak of 9,514 guns (including 631 interrompus, probably unfit for service) in 1696. The other main development during this period was the development of the ability to manufacture large calibre guns of iron (24pdrs in 1688 and 36pdrs in 1691), with the subsequent decline in the production of bronze guns and the near-disappearance in the inventory by 1696 of bronze guns smaller than 18pdrs. The following quantities of guns of the standard calibres were available in 1671 and 1696:

By the early 1690s the 36pdr had become the standard heavy weapon of the battlefleet. The Ordinance of 15 April 1689 specified a uniform armament of bronze 36pdrs on the LD of first rank ships of 1690, and increased production of these weapons was soon followed by the introduction of iron 36pdrs which gradually supplanted them.

Besides conventional cannon, two other items of ordnance deserve mention (other than small arms). The pierrier (anglicised to `perrier’ in British usage, although this was also called a `swivel’ by them; but the Ordnance Office generally called them `bases’ or `murderers’; the Spanish called them `pedreroes’, while the Dutch called them `kamerstukken’, or chamber guns) was – as its name implies – originally evolved to fire stone projectiles rather than metal ones. The term in English originally referred to weapons (of up to 24pdr calibre) firing stone shot. By the mid-seventeenth century the larger calibres had become obsolete, but the pierrier survived as a lightweight short-barrelled anti-personnel weapon, usually fitted into a metal stock (between the arms of which it could be elevated or depressed), in turn mounted on a swivelling base on an upright wooden post which was integral with a ship’s structure. By the 1660s they used shrapnel ammunition in removable chambers (usually 8 per gun), which were loaded in advance and could be removed and replaced in a few seconds, making quick-firing guns. The name pierrier was latterly employed by the French as a term by which to describe all their light swivel-mounted guns.

The other item of heavy ordnance was the sea mortar. This was adopted in the early 1680s as a shore bombardment weapon in vessels specially designed for the purpose. Clearly not applicable for ship-to-ship combat, the mortar-bearing vessel (usually constructed as a galiote) was the seventeenth/eighteenth century version of the twentieth century monitor. Whereas mortar vessels in the English Navy were built with mortars fitted along the centreline of the vessel, usually one ahead of and one aft of the mainmast, in French service the mortars were carried in pairs, mounted side by side before the vessel’s mainmast to fire forward over the bows. The weapons were fixed in place, and could not be trained to either side. Furthermore, there were initially cast with an integral base-plate from which they could not be moved, and fixed into the mortar vessel’s structure with a fixed elevation of 45 degrees. Consequently, they could not alter their elevation, and the sole means of changing their range was by varying the size of the powder charge used. Later in the eighteenth century mortars were fitted on mountings that could be trained and elevated.

The French Navy in the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697)

The action at La Hogue in May 1692 formed a crucial scene in the wider context of the Battle of Barfleur. This was a naval battle of the War of the League of Augsburg [Nine Years’ War], 1689-97, fought between an Anglo-Dutch and a French fleet. It was not finally brought to a conclusion until 24 May in the Bay of La Hogue, in the course of which the French flagship ‘Soleil Royal’ as well as the ‘Triomphant’ and the ‘Admirable’ were burned by the English. The centre of this dramatic scene is occupied by a group of six French ships burning. A seventh is shown burning on the shore. They have been attacked by the boats of the Anglo- Dutch fleet which are also attacking another group of ships further round the Bay of La Hogue, one to the left which is also burning. On the extreme left in the distance the Allied fleet can be seen at anchor. In the right background a third lot of shipping is burning near a town. An odd feature of the picture is that two of the ships in the nearest group wear white flags with a blue cross, a flag associated with 17th century French merchant ships. The painting is signed ‘Diest fe.’ Diest, Adriaen van Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection

Until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England installed William of Orange as King of England, the French Navy had few issues to plan for as the Dutch were only aggressive when France chose to start a war (mainly on land), while the English were allied with France for much of the time. The events of 1688 changed this, uniting the two maritime powers, and for the first time in decades threatening a challenge to the dominant French superpower. Forthwith the role of the French Navy altered from supporting the army in campaigns against the Dutch to safeguarding French commerce against the likely aggression of the combined Anglo-Dutch forces. A building race ensued, while at sea the Navy began its campaign by a successful operation to land and supply the army of King James in Ireland. This culminated in the inconclusive Battle of Bantry Bay in May 1689, an action which led to a formal declaration of war.

France rapidly consolidated its battlefleets, bring the Toulon-based Flotte du Levant around to the Atlantic coast and joining the existing Flotte du Ponant at Brest. By 1690 France was clearly on its way to equalling, if not overtaking, the combined strengths of the allied English and Dutch Navies in the Channel. William of Orange’s priority had been to land his ground forces at Carrickfergus in June 1690, leading to his success in defeating James at the Battle of the Boyne on 11 July. Meanwhile Louis ordered his Vice-Amiral du Ponant, Comte de Tourville, to enter the Channel with his 84 ships (and the 15 galleys under the Chevalier de Noailles).

His initial remit had been to attack the English at Plymouth, Torbay and Portland, and then to attack the enemy’s main base at Portsmouth before proceeding to the Straits of Dover. However, these instructions were later amended by Louis, instructing Tourville to seek out the enemy fleet and do battle wherever the opponents met. A major battle in the Channel (off Beachy Head – known to the French as Béveziers) on 10 July pitted 70 French vaisseaux (plus 5 frégates légeres and 18 fireships) against 34 English and 22 Dutch ships. The English lost only one ship (the 70-gun Anne) while the Dutch lost a total of 7 ships and 3 fireships. While most English ships were undamaged, the majority of the remaining 15 Dutch ships were severely damaged and required dockyard repairs before they could face the French again. The battle demonstrated the capabilities of the French fleet; its victory in that battle gave the French control of the waterway for almost two years.

Seignelay, Colbert’s son and successor, died in November 1690. His replacement, the Comte de Pontchartrain (Louis Phélypeaux), who was also the Controleur général des finances, began by continuing Colbert’s strategy, but lacked Seignelay’s prime interest in the Navy and long awareness of naval affairs. The French naval campaign of 1691 was dominated by the `Campagne du Large’; Pontchartrain’s instructions to Tourville, issued on 26 May 1691, instructed the latter to cruise for three months in the Western Approaches (the entrance to the Channel) and to try to capture the homebound merchant fleet en route from Smyrna (Izmir). The French fleet, comprising 73 ships (plus 21 fireships) sailed from Brest in June and returned in August from this `distant cruise’ without fighting a fleet action, but since 1690 the Allied strength had improved both in quantity (92 ships) and in quality. The French advantage was lost by 1691. In 1692, without waiting for the completion of the major battlefleet units under construction, Louis ordered the fleet’s commander, Comte de Tourville, to put to sea and challenge the Allies, even though the French at that time were numerically inferior to their opponents.

A realisation by Louis soon after of the tactical error came too late, as Tourville had followed his orders, and the countermanding message from Louis failed to arrive in time. The resulting contest off Barfleur resulted in a bruising defeat for the French, even if no ships were lost in the actual battle. The retreating French fleet was split up, with twenty ships making for the safety of Brest, while three heavily damaged ships, including Tourville’s flagship Soleil Royal, were stranded at Cherbourg, while another twelve sailed east and took refuge in the port of La Hougue. All fifteen were boarded and set on fire a few days later by the Allies.

The losses sustained to the battlefleet at Cherbourg and at La Hougue, while not in themselves catastrophic (French construction was able to fill the gaps with even more powerful 1st and 2nd Rank ships) had significant tactical and strategic consequences. The fact that the destruction at La Hougue had been carried out by ships’ boats rather than by fireships convinced the French that building new fireships was a waste of resources; those on order or projected were cancelled, and on the limited occasions France employed fireships thereafter, they were always converted purchases or prizes.

Notwithstanding the major efforts to achieve battlefleet superiority until 1692 (which ironically would have achieved success by 1694 if continued), Louis XIV was always more concerned with continental strategy than maritime dominance, and Pontchartrain’s views were closer to the King’s than Colbert’s and Seignelay’s commercial and naval strategy. During the financial crisis of 1693-94, Pontchartrain ceased ordering large battlefleet units, and in October 1693 wrote to the intendants at each major dockyard to tell them that no new battlefleet vessels were to be begun, although those already building could continue. The procurement strategy turned instead to vessels which – together with French privateers – could disrupt English and Dutch commerce. Indeed, as part of this strategy, a considerable number of battlefleet units were loaned out to partnerships put together for privateering on a strictly commercial basis. While causing concern in the allies’ mercantile interests, this was never enough to affect the outcome of the war.

Moreover, it was now realised that France’s strength in naval construction could be undone if their Ponant and Levant Fleets were kept separate. Initially, the allies maintained a posture of concentrating warships in the Channel, to ward off invasion attempts and control commerce, a strategy held since Elizabethan times; this left France, even with its (temporarily) reduced naval strength, in control of the Mediterranean. William III adopted a policy, against the urging of his Council and naval commanders, that would challenge France in Mediterranean waters and – more importantly – would deter any attempt to deploy the Levant Fleet northwards. He dispatched an Anglo-Dutch fleet (under Adm John Berkeley and Lt-Adm Philips van Almonde) into the Mediterranean in 1694, and ensured that it wintered there – in Cadiz Bay, where an English base was established to shelter and repair the fleet. As a consequence, the Levant Fleet was confined to port at Toulon, or at best able to operate in the Western Mediterranean only. And as a result, maintaining control of the Straits of Gibraltar became a permanent aim of the English.

Pontchartrain’s son, Jérome Phélypeaux, the new Comte de Pontchartrain, was awarded the survivance of his father’s office three years later. When Louis de Ponchartrain received the top-ranking position of chancelier de France (Minister of Justice), Jérome in September 1699 became Secretary of State for the Navy, but with only the mere addition of the portfolios of the Colonies, the Sea Fishing, the Maritime Trade and the Consulates: therefore, he was to become the politically weakest Secretary of State for the Navy of the reign.