Meaux Falls 1422 Part I

Detail of a miniature of the siege of Meaux and the death of the mayor of the town, at the beginning of chapter 77 of ‘John the Good’ book, with the signature of Richard duke of Gloucester, future Richard III, ‘Richard Gloucestre’.

Henry V marched out of Calais almost as soon as he landed, early in June 1421. His first step was to send a relief force to the beleaguered Exeter at Paris. He took his main army, even smaller in consequence, down to Montreuil, twenty-five miles south, to confer with the Duke of Burgundy. Here the king agreed to dispatch the bulk of his troops to Chartres to relieve the besieged Burgundians, while he himself went on to Paris with a handful of men. Duke Philip rode with him as far as Abbeville and en route they had a day’s boar-hunting by way of relaxation. One may be sure that it was suggested by the duke – nothing so frivolous would normally have occurred to Henry on campaign.

He entered Paris late in the evening on 4 July. He found the Duke of Exeter in control, more or less, though presumably very glad to see him. For not only had the capital been menaced by foes outside the walls but there had been considerable unrest within.

Much of the unrest had centred around l’Isle Adam. Chastellain (who almost certainly met the marshal) tells us that, after secret instructions from Henry before his departure from Paris the previous December, Exeter had him suddenly arrested and sent under strong guard to the Bastille – now the English headquarters. According to Chastellain, ‘when the rumour ran through the city that l’lsle Adam had been seized a large mob of common people took up hatchets and hammers [à hacques et à macques], planning to rescue him and remove him by force from English hands, but found themselves facing six score of English archers, all with bows strung, shooting at them . . . And so he was put in the Bastille and held in prison so long as the king his enemy lived who, had it not been for fear and favour of the Duke of Burgundy his master, would have had his head off.’

Henry’s appearance had a calming effect on the Parisians, since we hear of no more disturbances of this sort. He found time to visit his parents-in-law, Charles VI and Queen Isabeau, at the Hôtel de Saint-Pol and to hear Mass at Nôtre Dame. However, he left his French capital after spending only four days there.

The king then went to his old headquarters at Mantes. Here he conferred once more with the Duke of Burgundy before setting off to relieve Chartres. However, as he approached the city he was told that the dauphin had already abandoned the siege and was hastily retreating southwards into Touraine, on the unconvincing pretexts that he was running short of food, that the weather was bad, and that his men were deserting. The true reason was of course that he had heard of his supplanter’s return and was not going to risk a battle. King Henry thereupon marched on Dreux instead, some fifty miles west of Paris. This was the only substantial stronghold left to the dauphinists on this side of the capital, on the border between Normandy and the lie de France. It was invested on 18 July, the direction of the siege being entrusted to the Duke of Gloucester and the King of Scots. Despite a gallant defence by both its garrison and its townsmen, Dreux surrendered on 20 August, and at the news a whole string of lesser dauphinist strongpoints north and west of Chartres also opened their gates to the English.

The king then struck down towards the Loire, hoping to bring the enemy to battle but, says the First Life, ‘against him came no man, nor no enemy abode his coming’. He heard that the dauphin was assembling a big army near Beaugency on the north bank of the Loire. Accordingly, on about 8 September he stormed Beaugency (though its citadel held out), and then sent the Earl of Suffolk across the river with a small detachment to see if he could locate the enemy army or provoke it into action by inflicting as much damage as possible. However, the dauphin was not to be drawn. Henry then marched along the north bank of the Loire to Orleans nearby, burning its suburbs in which his men found much-needed provisions. He set up his camp outside but his army, by now probably numbering less than 3,000 men, was too small to besiege so large a city with any prospect of success. After resting his men for three days, he swung north-east towards Joigny.

What Jean Juvénal calls ‘a marvellous pestilence of stomach flux’ had broken out among the troops. Henry provided as many carts as he could for those who could not walk. Nevertheless, ‘Dead soldiers were found along the roads . . . and others [still alive] in the woods around Orleans by country folk who had gone there to hide and keep out of the way, and who killed many of them.’

In addition, so one gathers from the Croniques de Normandie, Henry had lost not only many men during his march from sickness but others who collapsed from hunger, besides having to abandon a great number of horses, carts and pack-mules through lack of fodder. He nonetheless kept on undaunted. One has to respect such a leader.

On 18 September he captured Nemours and on 22 September Villneuve-le-Roy on the River Yonne, which had been preventing supplies from Dijon reaching Paris. He also took another dauphinist stronghold, Rougemont, which he stormed with a speed that astounded its dazed defenders. Infuriated by the loss of a single English soldier durings its taking, he had it burnt and its entire garrison drowned in batches in the Yonne, including some who escaped but whom he caught later; sixty men in all. Jean Chartier observes of Henry that he was a very hard and cruel dispenser of justice. According to the king’s lights this was ‘justice’ – as defenders of a fortress taken by storm such men had no right to their lives in the military code of the period.

Describing the siege of Rougemont, Chastellain, who must have met many veterans who had fought against Henry or at his side, gives some idea of what it would have been like to face him. ‘The English king had them attacked most fiercely, assaulted lethally from every side, did not give them rest or respite, scarcely let them draw breath, harried them to death. If I do not describe the [castle’s] fortifications, which were the best possible, it is because they could not save them.’ Colonel Burne thinks the secret of Henry’s success as a soldier was ‘a double foundation of discipline and fervour’ – discipline unusual in field armies of the period, coupled with his ability to communicate a savage self-righteousness. (Something not seen in English troops until Cromwell’s New Model Army.) Burne also considers that his meticulous preparations before taking the field contributed a good deal; in advance of his last campaign, one in northern France which he did not live to fight, he arranged for the citizens of Amiens to provide food for his troops, even fixing the prices. Above all, he was undoubtedly a born leader of men, instilling in his men his own ferocious dynamism and dogged determination. It is unlikely that his heath was good, though we do not have precise details; more than one important meeting had to be postponed because he was unwell (such as the crucial encounter with Queen Isabeau in June 1419’. We know from Walsingham that the illness which killed him was of long standing. Yet he let nothing deter him. If a singularly gloomy man, as he showed at moments of triumph, he can at least never be accused of pessimism in battle. According to the Monk of St Denis he maintained extraordinary equanimity during both setbacks and triumphs. He used to tell troops who had been defeated, ‘You know, the fortunes of war tend to vary. If you want to make certain of winning, always keep your courage exactly the same regardless of what happens.’

The monk also tells us that Henry imposed the strictest discipline. As during the Agincourt campaign, he prohibited ‘the vile prostitutes’ under ferocious penalties from plying their trade in the English camp as they did in the French. On this topic the king remarked sententiously that ‘the pleasure of Venus all too often weakened and softened victorious Mars’. Admittedly, contrary to a popular misconception, venereal disease certainly existed during the fifteenth century. Yet the prohibition, together with restrictions on drinking when possible, may well have contributed to the high rate of desertion from his armies. (As Bacon observes, ‘I know not but martial men are given to love. I think it is but as they are given to wine, for perils commonly asked to be paid in pleasures.’) In a letter home one of Henry’s men longs to go ‘out of this unlusty soldier’s life into the life of England’.

Having cleared the Yonne valley the king marched north-west on as broad a front as his tiny army could manage, presumably to mop up any more pockets of resistance, besides inflicting as much devastation as possible. He divided it into three columns, the one to the east crossing the Seine at Pont-sur-Seine, the second to the west crossing at Nogent and the third continuing along the Yonne.

The men suffered considerable hardship. The three columns of weary English troops rejoined each other at Meaux, having successfully concealed that this was Henry’s real objective. Jean Juvénal tells us that its inhabitants had been so unwise as to send envoys to the king at Paris, complaining that he was waging total war on them and setting all the country round Meaux on fire. ‘To which he replied it was on purpose and that he would lay siege to them and take them, and as for the fires which they said he had started in the countryside, that was merely the custom of war, and war without fire was like sausages [andouilles] without mustard.’

The town of Meaux was the biggest dauphinist stronghold near the capital. On a bend of the Marne, it was divided by the river into two sections, the old town, and the market, which was protected on three sides by the river and on the fourth by a canal.

In addition, Meaux possessed unusually formidable defenders. Its captain was Guichard de Chissay, a brave and resourceful commander, who had excellent lieutenants in Louis de Gast and in the Bastard of Vaurus and his cousin Denis de Vaurus. The garrison was composed of a ferocious mixture of brigands and deserters, some of them English and even Irish, who knew they could expect no mercy if they fell into the king’s hands. The most desperate of them all was the Bastard of Vaurus, little better than a brigand chief, who had a well-deserved reputation for cruelty. Outside the town there was an elm-tree called the ‘Tree of Vaurus’ on which he hanged his victims, eighty of whose corpses were dangling from it in 1421; on one occasion he had had a pregnant girl tied there for the night – when she gave birth to a child, wolves came and ate both mother and infant.

By 6 October Henry had invested Meaux. Although he knew that the siege must be a long one, as usual he ignored the medieval convention of going into winter-quarters. Meaux was too valuable a prize. Not only would its capture remove a threat to Paris and please the Burgundians, but the many lesser dauphinist strongpoints which depended on it would be frightened into surrendering. He was undeterred by the small size of his army which by now numbered no more than 2,500 men. At least he had two fine captains with him, in the Duke of Exeter and the Earl of Warwick.

Remorselessly the king set about the reduction of Meaux. He divided his army into four, positioned east, west, north and south of the town. Warwick commanded the division to the south on the far side of the Marne, Henry building a pontoon bridge over the river. The king’s headquarters were about a mile from the town walls, at the abbey of St Faro. He had huts and dug-outs constructed to protect his troops against winter weather, and trenches to guard them against sorties by the garrison. Guns, siege engines, munitions and food were shipped upstream from Paris. He concentrated his artillery fire on carefully selected sections of the walls and gates.

For months the siege seemed to make no progress whatever. The abominable weather hampered the English severely. It rained steadily throughout December so that the Marne burst its banks, to sweep away the pontoon bridge and cut off Warwick against whom the garrison made sorties by boat. The river also flooded the besiegers’ huts and dug-outs, deprived their horses of forage and rendered the ground unfit for mining. Dysentery and other sicknesses afflicted the miserably cold and damp English. Food supplies broke down. There were many desertions and it has been estimated that by Christmas Henry’s army had dwindled by twenty per cent.

The king maintained discipline in his own imaginative way. When dauphinists ambushed and cut to pieces an English foraging party, one man escaped by running away. On being informed, Henry had a deep pit dug and ordered the deserter to be buried alive in it.

The writer known as ‘pseudo-Elmham’ preserves a rumour, possibly contemporary, that the king’s army never suffered so much harm during any of his sieges as in this one. Besides the epidemics and other hardships, the defenders fought unpleasantly well. Henry’s redoubtable uncle, Sir John Cornwall, had to be sent home in a state of shock, swearing that he would never again fight Christians, after his promising seventeen-year-old son had been killed by a cannonball taking his head clean off his shoulders. The king himself fell ill and a physician was summoned but he soon recovered. (We have no details of his malady.) Some captains advised him to abandon the siege. He was undoubtedly worried; in December he contemplated hiring German or Portuguese mercenaries. Yet nothing could shake his determination. By sheer strength of personality he prevented a collapse in morale, forcing his troops to hold on till the weather improved and the epidemics subsided. Inside Meaux they began to run short of food.

It was not only those engaged at Meaux, besiegers or besieged, who were suffering. The Bourgeois of Paris records:

The King of England spent Christmas and the Epiphany at the seige of Meaux; his men pillaged the entire Brie and, however hard they tried, no one was able to sow crops . . . most of those working the land ceased to do so, abandoned their wives and children and fled in despair, saying to each other, ‘What can we do? Let everything go to the Devil! It doesn’t matter what becomes of us. It serves one better to do evil rather than good, it’s better to act like Saracens instead of Christians, so let’s do all the harm we can. They can only catch and kill us! Because of misgovernment by traitors we’ve had to leave our wives and families and flee to the woods like hunted beasts.’

The Bourgeois laments that in Paris ‘God knows how much the poor suffered from cold and hunger!’ He tells how everywhere in the capital one heard people crying, ‘Alas! Alas! Most gentle living God, when are you going to put an end for us to this cruel misery, to this wretched existence, to this damnable war?’

Yet Henry’s heart is said to have been filled with great gladness and, according to Waurin, ‘throughout the kingdom [of England] there was perfect joy displayed, more than had been seen there for a long time.’ News had come of the birth of a son to Queen Catherine at Windsor in December. Now there was an heir in blood to the dual monarchy of England and France. No doubt in his pride as a father, and in his delusion that the hand of God was always benevolently evident in his destiny, it never occurred to him that the future Henry VI, bred from the diseased Valois stock, might be anything other than a great king. It would be another hundred years before a tale became current how he had foretold: ‘Henry born at Monmouth shall small time reign and get much, and Henry born at Windsor shall long reign and lose all, but as God wills so be it.’

Nevertheless the defenders of Meaux were holding their own, if only from desperation. One day early in 1422 some of them brought a donkey up onto the walls, beating it savagely until it brayed, and shouted down at the English that here was their king. They would live to regret it. Nothing could ever shake Henry’s determination, no display of confidence by the garrison, no amount of casualties or desertions, no bad weather, illness or shortage of food – not even the salt fish of the Lenten fast when it came. Although he lodged a mile from Meaux, either at the abbey of St Faro or at the castle of Ruthile, he was far too dedicated a soldier not to spend much of his time in the front line with his men in their waterlogged trenches and dug-outs, superintending the bombardment.


Meaux Falls 1422 Part II

He was employing more cannon than ever before – bombards, culverins and serpentines – more guns of all shapes and sizes arrived every day. Some may be seen at the Musée Militaire in the Invalides at Paris. He also had ribaudequins which were battle carts mounting several small cannon side by side, fired simultaneously and intended for close-quarters fighting. It was not easy to transport the bigger guns, some of which were enormous; most came by boat from Rouen and were then brought up by ox-carts to the siege-lines to be mounted in specially constructed wooden firing frames. The rough tubes which formed their barrels were rarely, if ever, straight, so that accuracy was impossible. Gunpowder was crudely mixed and unreliable. Considerable skill was needed to load; gunners filled the firing chambers three-fifths full of powder, leaving a fifth as an air pocket and a final fifth for the elm-wood tampon on which the gunstone rested, with a ratio of one part powder to nine parts stone. Barrels had to be swabbed out meticulously after each discharge. It was difficult to calculate trajectories with such weapons. Even so, at short range a barrage of gunstones could do terrible damage, battering down ramparts and smashing through house walls and roofs inside a city, as well as demoralizing a beleaguered garrison. When such bombardments continued ceaselessly by day and by night, regardless of expense, as they did during all Henry V’s sieges, the effect was horrific. The king’s passion for artillery had never flagged since his first use of it against the Welsh at Aberystwyth.

As the siege dragged on, the garrison began to feel that they would have more hope of surviving if the defence was conducted by an unusually experienced and skilful commander. They sent to a famous dauphinist captain, Guy de Nesle, Sieur d’Offrémont, who agreed to come and take over. Early on 9 March, accompanied by an escort of 100 men-at-arms, he made his way in the darkness with great daring through the sleeping English lines to a pre-arranged spot below the ramparts. Here the garrison let down ladders to a plank over the moat. The man in front of Guy on the ladder dropped a box of salt herrings he was carrying which fell onto Guy, knocking him off the ladder into the moat; he clutched at two lances held down to him but, no doubt in full plate armour, was too heavy to pull out. His frenzied splashing aroused the English sentries and he was taken prisoner.

Guy’s failure dismayed the garrison of Meaux so much that they withdrew from the town the same day to the market which they thought would be easier to defend. They broke down the connecting bridge over the canal and took the remaining food with them; it would last longer if there were no non-combatants to feed. Henry rode in immediately and before evening his guns were firing from the town into the market. He then used a portable drawbridge, mounted on a siege tower on wheels, to straddle the gap made by the defenders in the bridge joining the town to the market. Next he bombarded the fortified mill-towers so that the Earl of Worcester’s men-at-arms could charge over the drawbridge and storm the towers. The assault was successful, though Warwick’s cousin, the Earl of Worcester, lost his life when a stone was dropped on his head from the battlements. Now the English had a foothold on the market island, while the garrison was no longer able to grind its corn into flour.

All this time Henry’s attitude to paperwork remained as Napoleonic as ever. A stream of edicts, ordinances and letters, including answers to petitions from England, went out from his headquarters beside Meaux during the siege, possibly the most gruelling experience of his life. Even during the worst months he was constantly sending orders and instructions dealing with a truly immense range of affairs. The supply of munitions naturally ranked high among these. On 18 March 1422 he wrote to his officials: ‘We will and charge you that, in all the haste ye may, ye send unto our cofferer to Rouen all the gunstones that been at our towns of Caen and Harfleur, with all the saltpetre, coal and brimstone that is at Harfleur.’ An order for iron is in the same letter, an order which occurs frequently in his correspondence. A special official, the King’s Clerk of Ordnance, was attached to his headquarters, having responsibility for communications with the artillery depot at Caen and the royal arsenal at Rouen; the Norman administration had been given military duties by Henry, the civilian vicomtes being charged with supplying garrisons with cannon. The king insisted on efficiency – his letters always end with a variant of ‘faileth not in no wise’.

He was obsessed by the problem of supplies. Buying arrows was just one aspect. He purchased 150,000 arrows in England in 1418, a figure which had risen to nearly half a million by 1421; in addition the arsenal at Rouen seems to have manufactured them and in 1420 his commissioners were instructed to press-gang fletchers (arrow makers) to work there without pay. Then there was the question of finding enough remounts, which he appears to have contemplated solving with a huge royal stud. (In April 1421 a commission was issued to a John Longe to travel through England looking for ‘destriers, coursers and other horses suitable for the king’s stud’ and purchasing their use. Weapons, transport, food, finance, military discipline, law and order, diplomacy, affairs in England, all received his meticulous attention.

Meanwhile at Meaux, English cannon had been mounted on a small island in the Marne, protected by earthworks and shelters of heavy timber, from where they battered the adjoining market relentlessly at close range. Warwick contrived to erect a ‘sow’ (a mobile leather shelter on wheels) on the tiny strip of land between its walls and the water, using it to capture an outwork where he mounted a forward battery. Hungerford used wooden bridges to bring guns nearer the wall at another side. Landing on the island, sappers started a mine. At Easter, Henry allowed a truce, launching a general assault shortly afterwards. It was beaten back. But the defenders were beginning to despair. What finally broke their spirit was the sight of a floating siege tower, higher than the market’s walls, carried on two barges and designed for men to attack the rampart tops from the Marne side over a drawbridge. (It was never used, though the king, nothing if not a professional, had it tested after the place had fallen.) At the end of April the garrison in the market sent envoys to negotiate a surrender.

On 10 May Meaux surrendered after a resistance of seven months. It had only fallen because of Henry’s brilliant siegecraft and sheer technical expertise, as a siege it was a genuine masterpiece, as has often been claimed. After the city had finally surrendered he observed the conventions of medieval warfare in leaving its defenders their lives – though nothing else – save for twelve who were specifically excluded from mercy by the articles of surrender. The Bastard of Vaurus and his cousin had their right hands stricken off, were dragged on hurdles through what was left of the streets of Meaux, then beheaded and hanged from their own infamous tree; the bastard’s head was displayed on a lance stuck in the ground beside it, his body at the foot, and his banner thrown over it – the ultimate heraldic symbol of derision. A trumpeter called Orace, ‘one that blew and sounded an horn during the siege’, was taken to Paris for an agonizing public execution in punishment for some unrecorded insult to the king. Louis de Gast was also taken to Paris for execution. Their heads were stuck on lances and put on show at Les Halles.

Almost at once Henry sent 100 particularly valuable prisoners to the Louvre, roped in fours, for shipment to Normandy and thence to England to await ransoming. A few days later he sent another 150. According to the Bourgeois of Paris, probably a spectator, these were chained in twos by the legs, and ‘piled up like pigs’; they were given only a little black bread and water.18 We learn from Jean Juvénal that they were incarcerated in prisons all over Paris, including the Châtelet – a place of ill omen and terrible memory for Armagnacs. There was no organization for feeding such large numbers of prisoners and, according to Jean Juvénal, many died of starvation – some tearing flesh from their comrades’ bodies with their teeth before their own death. Presumably they were not worth much money. The Bishop of Meaux received somewhat better treatment before being taken away to await ransom in England, where he was to die. In all, as many as 800 of those who had surrendered were shipped over the Channel; it is likely that the majority never returned to France, ending their days in semi-slavery as indentured servants. In addition, ‘All the bourgeois and anyone else in the market was forced to hand over any valuable goods they possessed,’ says Jean Juvénal. ‘Those who disobeyed were treated very savagely, and everything contributed to King Henry’s profit. There was more than this. After the bourgeois had lost all they had, several of them were made to buy back their own houses. Through such confiscation the king extorted and amassed large sums of money.’ Bullion, jewels and every conceivable sort of valuable – including an entire legal library – was stored for the time being in special depots at Meaux, together with armour, weapons and other munitions, to await the pleasure of a monarch who had made plunder a fine art.

One prisoner who was very lucky indeed to escape with his life was Dom Philippe de Gamaches, Abbot of St Faro, the nearby monastery which had been Henry’s headquarters throughout the siege. Dom Philippe, a former monk of St Denis, together with three other monks from that abbey, had put on armour and taken up swords to fight the English. The chronicler monk of St Denis – who presumably knew them – tells us that the Bishop of Beauvais had given them all permission ‘to fight for the country’ [‘pugnareque pro patria’]. The bishop was none other than Jean Juvénal des Ursins. Fortunately for Philippe, his brother was dauphinist captain of Compiègne; he purchased the abbot’s life by handing the town over to the English – Henry had intended to drown him.

Baugé was avenged. Moreover a whole string of dauphinist fortresses surrendered in consequence, including Grépy-en-Valois and Offremont – the castle of the Guy de Nesle who had fallen into the moat at Meaux. Henry rode through the countryside receiving the surrender of each stronghold in person, mopping up any local resistance.

Then he celebrated by going to Paris to meet his queen. Monstrelet says that he and his brothers greeted Catherine ‘as though she had been an angel from heaven’. The son and heir who was the cause of so much congratulation had been left behind in England. The reunion took place at the great castle of Bois-de-Vincennes just outside Paris.

Today Vincennes may seem gloomy, a soulless barrack of a place. It has unhappy memories; the Due d’Enghien was shot in the moat in 1804 as was Mata Hari in 1917, it was General Gamelin’s headquarters in June 1940 after which foreign troops occupied it again for four years. Yet Henry’s fondness for Vincennes is understandable. Originally a hunting lodge, being in the woods it was ideally situated for the king’s favourite relaxation – if ever he had time. Catherine’s grandfather, the great King Charles V, had completed the donjon during the 1370s and it was here that Henry lived; his bedroom may still be seen. There were three mighty gatehouses and six tall towers, all linked by curtain walls, and providing enviable accommodation for his high ranking-officers. A hunting scene in the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry shows the fortress-palace in the background, much as it must have looked at this time, and one can see why the Monk of St Denis calls it ‘the most delectable of all the castles of the king of France’. Moreover Vincennes was only three miles from Paris – close enough to overawe the capital if need be, and sufficiently far away to avoid any danger from the mob or dauphinist plots.

At the Louvre, says The First English Life, echoing Monstrelet’s chronicle, ‘on the proper day of Pentecost the King of England and his queen sat together at their table in the open hall at dinner, marvellously glorious, and pompously crowned with rich and precious diadems; dukes also, prelates of the church and other great estates of England and of France, were sat every man in his degree in the same hall where the king and queen kept their estate. The feast was marvellously rich and abundant in sumptuous delicate meats and drinks.’ Unfortunately the splendid effect was somewhat tarnished by no food or drink being offered to the crowds of spectators, as had always been the custom in former days under the Valois monarchs.

The Brut of England records with relish, ‘But as for the King of France he held none other estate nor rule but was almost left alone.’ Charles VI stayed forlornly at the Hôtel de St-Pol, deserted by his nobles since, so Monstrelet informs us, ‘he was managed as the King of England pleased . . . which caused much sorrow in the hearts of all loyal Frenchmen.’ Chastellain comments indignantly that Henry, this ‘tyrant king’, despite promising to honour his father-in-law of France as long as he lived, had made ‘a figurehead [un ydole] of him, a cipher who could do nothing’. Chastellain too says that the spectacle brought tears into the eyes of the Parisians.

Henry spent two days in early June at the Hôtel de Nesle, where he watched a cycle of mystery plays about the martyrdom of his patron, St George. These were staged by Parisians who hoped to ingratiate themselves with the heir and regent of France, their future sovereign. Shortly afterwards he and Catherine, taking with them King Charles and Queen Isabeau, left the capital for Senlis.

A week later a Parisian armourer, who had once been an armourer to Charles VI, together with his wife and their neighbour, a baker, were caught plotting to let the dauphinists into Paris. A strong force of the enemy were standing by in readiness near Compiègne. The civil authority beheaded the armourer and the baker, and drowned the woman.

Algerian War (1954–1962)

SS 11 missiles on a Dassault Flamant – Algerie

In 1956, using helicopters in a ground-attack role in the Algerian War.

First Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment, Algeria 1960


The Algerian War (also known as the Algerian War of Independence and the Algerian Revolution) was fought between Algerian nationalists known as the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front, FLN) and the French military between November 1, 1954, and March 19, 1962. The war led to a considerable expenditure of blood and treasure, saw some 1 million Frenchmen serve in the French Army in Algeria, claimed more than a score of French ministries, and brought the end of the French Fourth Republic, replaced by the Fifth Republic. The war also did not bring peace in Algeria.

France had established its control over Algeria more than a century earlier. On June 14, 1830, a French expeditionary force of some 34,000 men commanded by Marshal Louis Auguste Victor, Count de Ghaisnes de Bourmont, landed near Algiers. The pretext for the invasion was the insult to French consul to Algiers Pierre Duval, who had been struck with a flyswatter by Dey Husain in 1827. The French also sought to remove a threat to their Mediterranean trade, but the real reason behind French king Charles X’s plan to take Algiers was to shore up his unpopular French government, headed by Prince Jules de Polignac, and enable it to win the 1830 national elections.

Algiers was duly taken on July 5, although Charles X’s political gambit failed, as France experienced a revolution on July 28–30. In this July Revolution of 1830, Charles X was forced to abdicate in favor of his cousin Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, who nonetheless decided to continue French military operations in Algeria.

French control was initially largely limited to the coastal areas and cities. A succession of French commanders proceeded to fight a variety of opponents and campaigns in widely differing terrain, from the Atlas Mountains to salt marshes and the bled (interior). Beginning in 1835, Abd al-Qadir, emir of Mascara in western Algeria, declared jihad (holy war) and fought the French. Following a number of battles, he was ultimately forced to surrender in December 1847 to French general Thomas Robert Bugeaud de la Piconnerie, who also proved to be an adroit colonial administrator.

By 1847, some 50,000 Europeans had settled in Algeria. French control over the Algerian interior was not accomplished until the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852–1870), however. European settlement increased following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and the German acquisition of Alsace and Lorraine. Many of the French who had lived in the two provinces chose to settle in Algeria rather than be under German rule.

While more Frenchmen immigrated to Algeria, the imbalance between them and the Muslim population ballooned. The Pax Franca brought finis to the tribal wars and disease that had kept the population relatively static. Another factor in the burgeoning Muslim population was the greatly improved medical care that dramatically decreased the infant mortality rate.

Unique among French colonies, Algeria became a political component of France, as the three French departments of Algiers, Constantine, and Oran all had limited representation in the French Chamber of Deputies. Nonetheless, the three Algerian departments were not like those of the Metropole, as only the European settlers, known as colons or pieds noirs, enjoyed full rights there. The colon and Muslim populations lived separate and unequal lives. The Europeans controlled the vast majority of the economic enterprises and wealth, while the Muslims tended to be agricultural laborers. Meanwhile, the French expanded Algeria’s frontiers deep into the Sahara.

While the colons sought to preserve their status, French officials vacillated between promoting colon interests and advancing reforms for the Muslims. Pro-Muslim reform efforts failed because of political pressure from the colons and their representatives in Paris. While French political theorists debated between assimilation and autonomy for Algeria’s Muslims, the Muslim majority were increasingly resentful of the privileged colon status.

World War I helped fuel Algerian Muslim nationalist sentiment, but the first Muslim political organizations appeared in the 1930s, the most important of these being Ahmed Messali Hadj’s Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties, MTLD). World War II brought opportunities for change. Following the Anglo-American landings in North Africa in November 1942, Muslim activists met with American envoy Robert Murphy and Free French general Henri Giraud concerning postwar freedoms but received no firm commitments. However, 60,000 Algerian Muslims who had fought for France were granted French citizenship.

It came as a great shock to the French when pent-up Muslim frustrations exploded on May 8, 1945, during the course of a victory parade approved by French authorities celebrating the end of World War II in Europe. A French plainclothes policeman shot to death a young marcher carrying an Algerian flag, and this touched off a bloody rampage, often referred to as the Sétif Massacre. Muslims attacked Europeans and their property, and violence quickly spread to outlying areas.

The French authorities then unleashed a violent crackdown that included Foreign Legionnaires and Senegalese troops, tanks, aircraft, and even naval gunfire from a cruiser in the Mediterranean. Settler militias and local vigilantes took a number of Muslim prisoners from jails and executed them. Major French military operations lasted two weeks, while smaller actions continued for a month. Some 4,500 Algerians were arrested; 99 people were sentenced to death, and another 64 given life imprisonment. Casualty figures remain in dispute. At least 100 Europeans died. The official French figure of Muslim dead was 1,165, but this is certainly too low, and figures as high as 10,000 have been cited.

In March 1946 the French government announced a general amnesty and released many of the Sétif detainees, including moderate Algerian nationalist leader Ferhat Abbas, although his Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty political party, formed in 1938, was dissolved. The fierce nature of the French repression of the uprising was based on a perception that any leniency would be interpreted as weakness and would only encourage further unrest.

The Sétif Uprising, which was not followed by any meaningful French reform, drove a wedge between the two communities in Algeria. Europeans now distrusted Muslims, and the Muslims never forgave the violence of the repression. French authorities did not understand the implications of this. A number of returning Muslim veterans of the war, including Ahmed Ben Bella, now joined the more militant MTLD. Ben Bella went on to form the Organization Speciale and soon departed for Egypt to enlist the support of its leaders.

Genuine political reform proved impossible, as granting full representation to Algeria would have entailed giving it a quarter of the seats in the National Assembly. The result was the compromise Algerian Statute, approved by the French National Assembly in September 1947. For the first time, Algeria was recognized as having administrative autonomy. The heart of the statute, however, was the creation of an Algerian Assembly consisting of two coequal 60-member assemblies. Although all Algerians were classified as French citizens, the first college included all non-Muslim French citizens and those Muslims French citizens who had been so defined by virtue of military service or education. The second college provided for all other Muslims. A total of 469,023 Europeans and 63,194 Muslims were eligible to vote in the first college, and 1,301,072 Muslims were eligible to vote in the second college. Thus, for all practical purposes, the first college represented the 1.5 million Euro-peans, and the second represented the 9.5 million Muslims.

The deputies, while elected separately, voted together. To prevent the Muslims from having a majority by securing only one vote in the first college, a two-thirds vote could be demanded by the governor-general or 30 members of the Assembly. Designed to give the Muslims some voice in their governance while ensuring European control, the Algerian Statute proved to be a poor compromise. Still, it might have worked were it not for the fact that the mandatory elections, commencing in April 1948, were rigged. As a result, the period from 1948 to the start of the rebellion in 1954 was marked by increasing bitterness and conflict between the two Algerian communities.

Proindependence Algerian Muslims were emboldened by the May 1954 Viet Minh victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu during the Indochina War (1946–1954), and when Algerian Muslim nationalist leaders met Democratic Republic of Vietnam president Ho Chi Minh at the Bandung Conference in April 1955, he assured them that the French could be defeated. Ben Bella and his compatriots, having established the FLN on October 10, 1954, began the Algerian War on the night of October 31–November 1.


Early on November 1, 1954, armed members of the FLN carried out a number of small attacks across Algeria. The French government, which was then dealing with independence movements in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, had not anticipated a similar development in Algeria. After all, Algeria had been French territory since 1830 (Tunisia had been acquired only in 1881 and Morocco in the period 1904–1911). Unlike Morocco and Tunisia, which were classed as protectorates, Algeria was held to be an integral part of France. Indeed, for some months the French people and press failed to recognize the significance of what was happening and chose to characterize the rebels as fellagha (outlaws).

There were valid reasons for the French to fight in order to retain Algeria. Unlike Indochina, it was in close proximity to France, just across the Mediterranean. The French had largely created modern Algeria, as the deys had only controlled a narrow coastal strip around Algiers itself. There were more than 1 million Europeans living there, and they would be unwilling to concede place to Arab nationalism. Finally, there was the French Army. Its professional soldiers had almost immediately been transferred from Indochina to Algeria. Believing strongly that they had been denied the resources necessary to win the Indochina War (1946–1954) and in the end had been sold out by their government, they were determined that this would not be the case in Algeria.

Ultimately France committed a force of 450,000 men to the war, and upwards of 1 million Frenchmen would serve there. Unlike the Indochina War, this included draftees. As the conflict intensified, French officials sought support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), arguing that keeping Algeria French would ensure that NATO’s southern flank would be safe from communism. As a part of France, Algeria was included in the original NATO Charter, but the French government position did not receive a sympathetic response in Washington or in other NATO capitals. Only too late did a succession of French governments attempt to carry out reform.

The FLN goal was to end French control of Algeria and drive out or eliminate the colon population. The FLN was organized in six military districts, or wilayas, along rigidly hierarchical lines. Wilaya 4, located near Algiers, was especially important, and the FLN was particularly active in Kabylia and the Aurés Mountains. The party tolerated no dissent. In form and style, it resembled Soviet bloc communist parties, although it claimed to offer a noncommunist and non-Western alternative ideology, articulated by Frantz Fanon. The FLN military arm was the Armée de Libération Nationale (Army of National Liberation, ALN).

Any hope of reconciliation between the two sides was destroyed by a major FLN military operation on August 20, 1954. On that date, its personnel, having infiltrated the port city of Philippeville, killed 71 colons and 52 pro-French Muslims (mostly local politicians), while the French police and military killed 134 ALN troops. On the same day, the ALN attacked and slaughtered European women and children living in the countryside surrounding Constantine while the men were at work. At El-Halia, a sulfur-mining community with some 120 Europeans living peacefully among 2,000 Algerian Muslims, 37 Europeans, including 10 children, were tortured and killed. Another 13 were badly wounded. Several hours later French paratroopers arrived, supported by military aircraft. The next morning they gathered about 150 Muslims together and executed them.

The French administration now allowed the settlers to arm themselves and form self-defense units, measures that the reformist governor-general Jacques Soustelle had earlier vetoed. European vigilante groups are reported to have subsequently carried out summary killings of Muslims. Soustelle reported a total of 1,273 Muslims killed in what he characterized as “severe” reprisals.

The Arab League strongly supported the FLN, while Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a source of weapons and other assistance. The French government’s grant of independence to both Tunisia and Morocco in March 1956 further bolstered Algerian nationalism. When Israeli, British, and French forces invaded Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956, the United States condemned the move and forced their withdrawal. The Algerian insurgents were emboldened by the French defeat. The French now also found themselves contending with FLN supply bases in Tunisia that they could neither attack nor eliminate. Also in 1956, the government of socialist premier Guy Mollet transferred the bulk of the French Army to Algeria.

The major engagement of the war was the battle for control of the Casbah district of Algiers, a district of some 100,000 people in the Algerian capital city. With the guillotining in Algiers in June 1956 of several FLN members who had killed Europeans, FLN commander of the Algiers Autonomous Zone Saadi Yacef received instructions to kill any European between the ages of 18 and 54 but no women, children, or old people. During a three-day span in June, Yacef’s roaming squads shot down 49 Europeans. It was the first time in the war that such random acts of terrorism had occurred in Algiers and began a spiral of violence there.

Hard-line European supporters of Algérie Française (French Algeria) then decided to take matters into their own hands, and on the night of August 10, André Achiary, a former member of the French government’s counterintelligence service, planted a bomb in a building in the Casbah that had supposedly housed the FLN, but the ensuing blast destroyed much of the neighborhood and claimed 79 lives. No one was arrested for the blast, and the FLN was determined to avenge the deaths.

Yacef, who had created a carefully organized network of some 1,400 operatives as well as bomb factories and hiding places, received orders to undertake random bombings against Europeans, a first for the capital. On September 30, 1956, three female FLN members planted bombs in the Milk-Bar, a cafeteria, and a travel agency. The later bomb failed to go off owing to a faulty timer, but the other two blasts killed three people and wounded more than 50, including a number of children. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the Battle of Algiers (September 30, 1956–September 24, 1957).

Violence now took hold in Algiers. Both Muslim and European populations in the city were in a state of terror. Schools closed in October, and on December 28 Mayor Amédée Froger was assassinated.

On January 7, 1957, French governor-general Robert Lacoste called in General Raoul Salan, new French commander in Algeria, and Brigadier General Jacques Massu, commander of the elite 4,600-man 10th Colonial Parachute Division, recently arrived from Suez. Lacoste ordered them to restore order in the capital city, no matter the method.

In addition to his own men, Massu could call on other French military units, totaling perhaps 8,000 men. He also had the city’s 1,500-man police force. Massu divided the city into four grids, with one of his regiments assigned to each. Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard’s 3rd Colonial Parachute Regiment had responsibility for the Casbah itself.

The French set up a series of checkpoints. They also made use of identity cards and instituted aggressive patrolling and house-to-house searches. Massu was ably assisted by his chief of staff, Colonel Yves Godard, who soon made himself the expert on the Casbah. Lieutenant Colonel Roger Trinquier organized an intelligence-collection system that included paid Muslim informants and employed young French paratroopers disguised as workers to operate in the Casbah and identify FLN members. Trinquier organized a database on the Muslim civilian population. The French also employed harsh interrogation techniques of suspects, including the use of torture that included electric shock.

The army broke a called Muslim general strike at the end of January in only a few days. Yacef was able to carry out more bombings, but the French Army ultimately won the battle and took the FLN leadership prisoner, although Yacef was not captured until September 1957. Some 3,000 of 24,000 Muslims arrested during the Battle of Algiers were never seen again. The French side lost an estimated 300 dead and 900 wounded.

The Battle of Algiers had widespread negative impact for the French military effort in Algeria, however. Although the army embarked on an elaborate cover-up, its use of torture soon became public knowledge and created a firestorm that greatly increased opposition in metropolitan France to the war. It should be noted, however, that the French employed torture to force FLN operatives to talk, and some were murdered in the process. The FLN, on the other hand, routinely murdered captured French soldiers and civilian Europeans.

In an effort to cut off the FLN from outside support, the French also erected the Morice Line. Named for French minister of defense André Morice, it ran for some 200 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the north into the Sahara in the south. The line was centered on an 8-foot tall, 5,000-volt electric fence that ran its entire length. Supporting this was a 50-yard-wide “killing zone” on each side of the fence rigged with antipersonnel mines. The line was also covered by previously ranged 105mm howitzers. A patrolled track paralleled the fence on its Algerian side. The Morice Line was bolstered by electronic sensors that provided warning of any attempt to pierce the barrier. Searchlights operated at night.

Although manning the line required a large number of French soldiers, it did significantly reduce infiltration by the FLN from Tunisia. By April 1958, the French estimated that they had defeated 80 percent of FLN infiltration attempts. This contributed greatly to the isolation of those FLN units within Algeria reliant on support from Tunisia. The French subsequently constructed a less extensive barrier, known as the Pedron Line, along the Algerian border with Morocco.

Despite victory in Algiers, French forces were not able to end the Algerian rebellion or gain the confidence of the colons. Some colons grew fearful that the French government was about to negotiate with the FLN, and in the spring of 1958 there were a number of plots to change the colonial government. Colon and army veteran Pierre Lagaillarde organized hundreds of commandos and began a revolt on May 13, 1958. A number of senior army officers, determined that the French government not repeat what had happened in Indochina, lent support. Massu quickly formed the Committee of Public Safety, and Salan assumed its leadership.

The plotters would have preferred someone more frankly authoritarian, but Salan called for the return to power of General Charles de Gaulle. Although de Gaulle had been out of power for more than a decade, on May 19 he announced his willingness to assume authority.

Massu was prepared to bring back de Gaulle by force if necessary and plans were developed to dispatch paratroopers to metropolitan France from Algeria, but this option was not needed. On June 1, 1958, the French National Assembly invested de Gaulle with the premiership; technically he was the last premier of the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle ultimately established a new French political framework, the Fifth Republic, with greatly enhanced presidential powers.

De Gaulle visited Algeria five times between June and December 1958. At Oran on June 4, he said about France in Algeria that “she is here forever.” A month later, he proposed 15 billion francs for Algerian housing, education, and public works, and that October he suggested an even more sweeping proposal, known as the Constantine Plan. The funding for the massive projects, however, was never forthcoming. True reform was never realized and in any case was probably too late to impact the Muslim community.

Algeria’s new military commander, General Maurice Challe, arrived in Algeria on December 12, 1958, and launched a series of attacks on FLN positions in rural Kabylia in early 1959. The Harkis, Muslim troops loyal to France, guided special mobile French troops called Commandos de Chasse. An aggressive set of sorties deep in Kabylia made considerable headway, and Challe calculated that by the end of October his men had killed half of the FLN operatives there. A second phase of the offensive was to occur in 1960, but by then de Gaulle, who had gradually eliminated options, had decided that Algerian independence was inevitable.

In late August 1959, de Gaulle braced his generals for the decision and then addressed the nation on September 19, 1959, declaring his support for Algerian self-determination. Fearing for their future, some die-hard colons created the Front Nationale Français and fomented another revolt on January 24, 1960, in the so-called Barricades Week. Mayhem ensued when policemen tried to restore order, and a number of people were killed or wounded. General Challe and the colony’s governor, Paul Delouvrier, fled Algiers on January 28, but the next day de Gaulle, wearing his old army uniform, turned the tide via a televised address to the nation. On February 1 army units swore loyalty to the government, and the revolt quickly collapsed.

Early in 1961, increasingly desperate Ultras formed a terrorist group called the Secret Army Organization (OAS). It targeted colons whom they regarded as traitors and also carried out bombings in France and attempted to assassinate de Gaulle himself.

The Generals’ Putsch of April 20–26, 1961, was a serious threat to de Gaulle’s regime. General Challe wanted a revolt limited to Algeria, but Salan and his colleagues (Ground Forces chief of staff General André Zeller and recently retired inspector general of the air force Edmond Jouhaud) had prepared for a revolt in France as well. The generals had the support of many frontline officers in addition to almost two divisions of troops. The Foreign Legion arrested commander of French forces in Algeria General Fernand Gambiez, and paratroopers near Rambouillet prepared to march on Paris after obtaining armored support. The coup collapsed, however, as police units managed to convince the paratroopers to depart, and army units again swore loyalty to de Gaulle.

On June 10, 1961, de Gaulle held secret meetings with FLN representatives in Paris, and then on June 14 he made a televised appeal for the FLN’s so-called provisional government to negotiate an end to the war. Peace talks during June 25–29 failed to lead to resolution, but de Gaulle was set in his course. During his visit to Algeria in December, he was greeted by large pro-FLN Muslim rallies and anticolon riots. The United Nations recognized Algeria’s independence on December 20, and in a national referendum on January 8, 1962, the French public voted in favor of Algerian independence.

A massive exodus of colons was already under way. Nearly 1 million returned to their ancestral homelands (half of them went to France, while most of the rest went to Spain and Italy). Peace talks resumed in March at Évian, and both sides reached a settlement on May 18, 1962.


The formal handover of power occurred on July 4, 1962, when the FLN’s Provisional Committee took control of Algeria, and in September Ben Bella was elected Algeria’s first president. The Algerian War claimed some 18,000 French military deaths, 3,000 colon deaths, and about 300,000 Muslim deaths.

The Europeans were encouraged to leave (la valise ou le cercueil, meaning “the suitcase or the coffin”), and some 1.5 million did so. Perhaps half relocated in Metropolitan France, and most of the remainder went to Spain or Italy. Some 30,000 Europeans remained in Algeria. Ostensibly granted equal rights in the peace treaty, they instead faced official discrimination by the FLN government and the loss of much of their property. The FLN-led Algerian government, headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Ben Bella, promptly confiscated the colons’ abandoned property and established a decentralized socialist economy and a one-party state.

The Harkis, those Algerian Muslims who fought on the French side in the war, suffered terribly. Some 91,000 and their family members settled in France. At least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 150,000 Harkis and their family members, including young children, who remained in Algeria were subsequently butchered by either the FLN or lynch mobs.

Ben Bella’s attempt to consolidate his power, combined with popular discontent with the economy’s inefficiency, sparked a bloodless military coup by Defense Minister Houari Boumédienne in June 1965. In 1971, the government endeavored to stimulate economic growth by nationalizing the oil industry and investing the revenues in centrally orchestrated industrial development. Boumédienne’s military-dominated government took on an increasingly authoritarian cast over the years.

Algeria’s leaders sought to retain their autonomy, joining their country to the Non-Aligned Movement, and Boumédienne phased out French military bases. Although Algeria denounced perceived American imperialism and supported Cuba, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, Palestinian nationalists, and African anticolonial fighters, it maintained a strong trading relationship with the United States. At the same time, Algeria cultivated economic ties with the Soviet Union, which provided the nation with military equipment and training. When the Spanish relinquished control of Western Sahara in 1976, Morocco attempted to annex the region, leading to a 12-year low-level war with Algeria, which supported the guerrilla movement fighting for the region’s independence.

Diplomatic relations with the United States warmed after Algeria negotiated the release of American hostages in Iran in 1980 and Morocco fell out of U.S. favor by allying with Libya in 1984.

In 1976, a long-promised constitution that provided for elections was enacted, although Algeria remained a one-party state. When Boumédienne died in December 1978, power passed to Chadli Bendjedid, the army-backed candidate. Bendjedid retreated from Boumédienne’s increasingly ineffective economic policies, privatizing much of the economy and encouraging entrepreneurship. However, accumulated debt continued to retard economic expansion. Growing public protests from labor unions, students, and Islamic fundamentalists forced the government to end restrictions on political expression in 1988.

The Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) proved to be the most successful of the new political parties. After victories by the FIS in local elections in June 1990 and national elections in December 1991, Bendjedid resigned, and a new regime under Mohamed Boudiaf imposed martial law, banning the FIS in March 1992. In response, Islamist radicals began a guerrilla war that has persisted to the present, taking a toll of 150,000 or more lives. Although Algeria’s military government managed to gain the upper hand in the struggle after 1998, Islamic groups continue to wage war on the state, which maintains control through brutal repression and tainted elections.

Burgundy and Armagnac: England’s Opportunity 1399-1413

Graham Turner’s Art – prints, cards and original paintings

Events across the Channel were also conspiring to prevent a lasting peace between France and England in the Hundred Years War. The growing rivalry among the Valois Princes of the Blood was to end by plunging their country into a French Wars of the Roses, and in consequence France would be unable to defend herself against invasion. It was to provide England with her greatest opportunity.

In 1392 Charles VI had gone mad while riding through a forest, slaying four of his entourage and even trying to kill his nephew. Later he would run howling like a wolf down the corridors of the royal palaces ; one of his phobias was to think himself made of glass and suspect anyone who came near of trying to shatter him. He recovered, but not for long, lucid spells alternating with increasingly lengthy bouts of madness-‘far out of the way, no medicine could help him,’ explains Froissart. (The cause may have been the recently diagnosed disease of porphyria, which was later to be responsible for George III’s insanity.)

When the King was crazy France was ruled by Burgundy, who annually diverted one-eighth to one-sixth of the royal revenues to his own treasury. When Charles was sane his brother Louis, Duke of Orleans, held power, no less of a bloodsucker than his uncle Philip. Louis hoped to use French resources to forward his ambitions in Italy, where he had a claim to Milan through his wife Valentina, the daughter and heiress of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (and a lady ‘of high mind, envious and covetous of the delights and state of this world’). He imposed savage new taxes and was also suspected of practising magic, becoming even more disliked than Burgundy. Frenchmen began to divide into two factions. Few can have realized that this was the birth of a dreadful civil war which would last for thirty years and put France at the mercy of the English. However, fighting did not break out for almost another two decades.

The French were stunned by the news of King Richard’s deposition. Henry IV hastily sent commissioners to confirm the truce and Charles VI’s government agreed, although the new English King owed a good deal of his home support to his repudiation of Richard’s policy of peace. Having bought time, Henry refused to send little Queen Isabel home. She was only restored to her family at the end of July 1400, without her jewels or her dowry; he explained that he was keeping them because King John’s ransom had not been paid in full.

In fact Henry was desperately short of money. During Richard II’s reign the average annual revenue from customs duties on exported wool had been £46,000, but by 1403 it had fallen to £26,000 ; later it rose but only to an average of £36,000. Calais cost the exchequer £17,000 a year and Henry could not pay its garrison ; eventually the troops mutinied and had to be bought off with loans from various rich merchants. Moreover the King was plagued by revolts by great magnates and by a full-scale national rising in Wales. Henry IV was therefore in no position to go campaigning in France, though everyone knew that he hoped to do so one day.

Louis of Orleans believed that the time was now ripe to conquer Guyenne. In 1402 the title of Duke of Guyenne was bestowed on Charles VI’s baby son, a gross provocation as Henry IV had already given it to the Prince of Wales. In 1404, with the approval of the French Council, Louis of Orleans began a systematic campaign against the duchy and took several castles. Henry thought of going to the aid of the Guyennois in person, but was only able to send Lord Berkeley with a small force. In 1405 the situation worsened, the Constable Charles d‘Albret overrunning the north-eastern borders, the Count of Clermont attacking over the Dordogne, and the Count of Armagnac advancing from south of the Garonne to menace Bordeaux. In 1406 the Mayor, Sir Thomas Swynborne, prepared the ducal capital for a siege after the enemy had reached Fronsac, Libourne and Saint-Emilion, almost on the outskirts of Bordeaux (and to the grave detriment of the vineyards). The Archbishop of Bordeaux wrote desperately to Henry ‘we are in peril of being lost’, and in a later letter reproached the King for abandoning them. Somehow the Bordelais beat off the attack, defeating the French in a river battle on the Gironde in December 1406. The other Guyennois cities were also loyal to the Lancastrians ; even when occupied by the French Bergerac appealed to the English for protection. When in 1407 Orleans failed to take Blaye (the last stronghold on the Gironde before Bordeaux), he and his troops, already disheartened by disease and unending rain, withdrew in despair. Guyenne was left in peace to make a full recovery.

The French offensive had not been confined to Guyenne. Privateers roamed the Channel and the Count of Saint-Pol raided the Isle of Wight in 1404, demanding tribute in the name of Richard II’s Queen though with scant success. An attack on Dartmouth was also unsuccessful while an attempt to take Calais failed disastrously. In July 1404 Charles VI concluded an alliance with Owain Glyndwr whom he recognized as Prince of Wales ; but a French expedition of 1,000 men-at-arms and 500crossbowmen was prevented from sailing by bad weather. The force which eventually landed at Milford Haven the following year was too small to be of much use to the Welsh; in any case Owain’s rising was already doomed. In 1407 dramatic developments in France precluded any further interference in the affairs of Wales, let alone of England.

In 1400 the French monarchy had once again appeared to be the strongest power in western Europe. It was France who mounted the Crusade of Nicopolis in 1396 to aid the Hungarians against the Turkish onslaught and, though the crusaders met with a terrible defeat, even to mount such an operation was a remarkable achievement. Furthermore France still possessed her own Pope at Avignon. She had tamed Brittany and absorbed Flanders and dominated the Low Countries. She had also acquired the overlordship of Genoa and was now engaged on an ambitious Italian policy which might well gain her Milan.

This appearance of strength was the hollowest of façades, and owed more to the splendour of the French court and of the French Princes than to reality. For the realm was divided into great apanages as, unlike England, French duchies and counties were territorial entities, sometimes whole provinces, which went with the title and constituted semi-independent palatinates. (The only remotely comparable parallel in England was the Duchy of Lancaster.) The greedy Valois magnates who held them were usually content to live in semi-regal splendour in their beautiful châteaux, even if the countryside around them was still ravaged by routiers. There were two exceptions, the Dukes of Burgundy and Orleans.

Sir John de la Pole, nephew of Richard II’s Lord Chancellor and father-in-law to the Lollard heretic Sir John Oldcastle, with his wife Joan, daughter of Lord Cobham. From a brass of 1380 in the parish church at Chrishall, Essex.

Philip the Bold of Burgundy had died in April 1404, to be succeeded by his son John the Fearless-so called from gallant behaviour during the Crusade of Nicopolis. He was a taciturn little man, hard, energetic and charmless and, to judge from a famous contemporary portrait, singularly ugly, with an excessively long nose, an undershot jaw and a crooked mouth. In character, in Perroy’s view, he was even more ambitious than his father and ‘harsh, cynical, crafty, imperious, gloomy and a killjoy’. No one could have been more different from his refined and graceful, if scandalous cousin of Orleans.

Both Dukes were equally determined to rule France. They were opposed to each other in almost every important matter of policy. While John of Burgundy supported the Pope of Rome to please his Flemish subjects, Louis of Orleans upheld the Pope at Avignon ; John opposed war with England because of the danger to Flemish trade, but Louis was hot against the English. Council meetings were wrecked by the Dukes’ loud arguments and recriminations, while their followers-who constituted two political parties—brawled in the streets. When the Orleanists adopted the badge of a wooden club to signify Louis’s intention of beating down opposition, John made his Burgundians sport a carpenter’s plane to show that he would cut the cudgel down to size. However on 20 November 1407 Duke John and Duke Louis took Communion together, in token of reconciliation. Only three days later, on a pitch-black Wednesday night and after visiting the Queen, Louis of Orleans was ambushed as he went down the rue Vieille-du-Temple ; his hand was chopped off (to stop it raising the Devil) and his brains were scattered in the road. The Duke of Burgundy wept at his cousin’s funeral-‘never was a more treacherous murder,’ he groaned—but two days later, realizing that the assassins were about to be discovered, he blurted out to an uncle, ‘I did it ; the Devil tempted me.’ He fled from Paris and rode hard for Flanders.

France, and especially Paris, divided into two armed camps-Burgundians and Armagnacs. The latter took their name from their leader, Bernard, Count of Armagnac, whose daughter had married Louis’s son, Charles of Orleans. The Burgundians drew their strength from the Parisian bourgeoisie and academics, while the Armagnacs were what might be called the party of the establishment and included the greater royal officials, a few of the richer bourgeoisie, most of the nobles outside John’s territories and the other Princes of the Blood. In 1408, having hired a theologian from the Sorbonne to justify his cousin’s assassination-on the grounds that he had been a tyrant-John returned to Paris and extracted a pardon from the King. He then set up as a champion of reform, promising to reduce the high taxes imposed by Louis, and secured the execution of the Chancellor of the royal finances. By 1411, after purging the administration and by well-placed gifts, especially to the important Guild of Butchers, Burgundy had won control of Paris. The Armagnacs assembled an army and with the Duke of Berry (Charles V’s last surviving brother) blockaded the capital.

John of Burgundy then had recourse to Henry IV, offering the hand of his daughter for the Prince of Wales, four towns in Flanders (including Sluys) and help in conquering Normandy, in return for troops. In October 1411, 800 English men-at-arms and 2,000 archers marched out from Calais under the Earl of Arundel. Henry had meant to lead them himself, but was prevented by chronic ill-health. The English expedition soon joined John and 3,000 Parisian militia at Meulan. The combined force stormed the Armagnac strongpoint at Saint-Cloud and broke the blockade. Arundel and his men then went home.

Led by old Berry, the Armagnacs now made their own bid for English aid. In May 1412, in return for the use of 1,000 men-at-arms and 3,000 archers for three months, they offered the eventual cession of all Aquitaine as it had been in 1369, with the immediate surrender of twenty fortresses on the Guyenne border. In August Henry’s second son, the Duke of Clarence, landed in the Cotentin and marched down towards Blois. Here, however, he received news that Burgundian troops had invaded Berry’s territory and forced the Armagnacs to surrender, and that all the French Princes including Burgundy were declining any sort of military assistance from England. Undeterred, Thomas of Clarence crossed the Loire and went through the wild and marshy Sologne and down the Indre valley. The English were only bought off by the Princes with a promise of 210,000 gold crowns (over £34,000), 75,000 of which were to be paid immediately, together with seven important hostages as surety for the balance. The English leaders also extracted individual payments. Clarence asked for 120,000 crowns and received 40,000 and a gold crucifix worth 15,000 (with a ruby as the wound in the side and three diamonds as the nails in the hands and feet). His cousin the Duke of York wanted 40,000 crowns and was given 5,000 together with a gold cross of Damascus work valued at 40,000. Sir John Cornwall, King Henry’s brother-in-law was paid in full 21,375 gold crowns. (It must have been this money which paid for Sir John’s new house at Ampthill in Bedfordshire ; it was built ‘of such spoils as it is said that he won in France’, recorded Leland.) Nothing could have been better calculated to excite the greed of the English aristocracy and put them in mind of those wonderful sums extorted from the French by their fathers and grandfathers. Clarence and his army then went on to winter in Bordeaux, burning and slaying en route in the good old style.

Meanwhile in northern France the Calais garrison had taken advantage of Clarence’s chevauchée to attack and capture Balinghem. It provided yet another fortress in the March of Calais to add to the ring of strongpoints which defended the precious English bastion.

Even John of Burgundy now became nervous about the possibility of a full-scale English invasion. He summoned the Estates to meet in Paris to grant new taxes to pay for defence. When the Estates began to criticize his government, John retaliated by unleashing his Paris butchers who, led by their leader Caboche, began a reign of terror which lasted for several weeks and was aimed as much against the rich as the Armagnacs. So murderous were their excesses that many bourgeois turned against Duke John and invited the Dauphin and Princes to come and save them. In August 1413, after a vain attempt to kidnap Charles VI, John the Fearless of Burgundy had to abandon Paris to the Armagnacs and Count Bernard’s ferocious Gascons, and went home to spend the next few years in his own semi-kingdom. Already he and the Armagnacs had ruined France. For on 20 March Henry IV had breathed his last in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey and there was a new King of England—Henry V.

French Military 1850-80 Part I

Napoleon III Takes Power

That year revolutions ignited by economic distress swept Europe. Paris, that powder keg of revolutionary passions, erupted in February. King Louis-Philippe, despised for his cautious and inglorious foreign policy, abdicated and fled to England. The Second Republic was proclaimed by Paris radicals, but France became embroiled in internal troubles. Such was the need felt in the country for a man of order that the presidential election held on 10 December produced a result undreamt of by the revolutionaries of February when they introduced universal male suffrage: a Bonaparte was restored to power in France.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President of France by 5.5 million votes: far ahead of his nearest rival. Born in 1808, he was the nephew of the great Emperor, on whose knee he had been dandled as a child and whose legend he revered. After Waterloo Louis had lived in exile in Switzerland with his mother Hortense Beauharnais, and spoke French with a German accent. During disturbances in Italy in 1831 he had sided with the revolutionaries against the Austrian regime there. After both his elder brother and his cousin, ‘Napoleon II’, died in 1831–2, Louis assumed the role of Bonapartist pretender to the French throne. His pamphlets, notably Napoleonic Ideas (1839), promoted the myth Napoleon had woven around himself in exile on St Helena: of Napoleon the Liberal, Napoleon the friend of nationalities working for a united Europe, who had been thwarted by the reactionary monarchies. However, his first attempts to exploit his uncle’s legend against King Louis-Philippe ended in farce. An attempted military rising at Strasbourg in 1836 was a debacle and earned him a sentence of exile. A second attempt, a landing at Boulogne in 1840 with a boatload of volunteers and mercenaries who had joined him in London, was quickly overpowered by royal troops. This time Louis was imprisoned in the damp northern fortress of Ham. He escaped disguised as a workman in 1846 and fled to London where, supplied with money by his rich friends and English mistress, he was well placed to take advantage of events unfolding in 1848.

In the presidential campaign his supporters adeptly promoted the power of the Bonaparte name, using images that appealed to classes who had never before had the vote. Not for the last time, bourgeois professional politicians underestimated the powers of this unimpressive figure, whose tendency to stoutness, drooping eyelids, and hesitant, heavily accented delivery belied his political skills and determination. As Prince-President, he swore to defend the Republic and toured the country, promoting himself as the only man who could defend both liberty and order and reconcile internal divisions that lately had made France seem ungovernable. Continuing radical disturbances rallied conservatives to him as a man of order. Catholics approved of a new education law favouring religious schools, and of the despatch of an expeditionary force to protect the Pope from revolutionaries at Rome. Louis-Napoleon’s championship of universal male suffrage against the bourgeois politicians of the National Assembly who tried to restrict it made him appear a defender of democracy.

His appeal to many groups, combined with shrewd appointments of supporters to key posts, put him in a strong position to extend his presidency, which was due to end in 1852. The National Assembly, however, blocked his attempt to achieve this legally. Louis, with careful planning by his inner circle and the support of reliable generals and his police chief, staged a coup d’état on the night of 2 December 1851, the anniversary of his uncle’s victory at Austerlitz. The Assembly was locked out; its leading politicians were arrested and imprisoned.

‘Operation Rubicon’ did not go as smoothly as planned, however. On 3 December a Deputy of the National Assembly, Dr Baudin, was killed on a Paris barricade. Next day over a thousand protestors manned barricades in the city. Troops opened fire and killed dozens of them and bystanders too. In the provinces over 26,000 people were arrested, half of whom were deported, banished or imprisoned. Throughout the nineteen years of his rule, the ‘crime of 2 December’ blighted Louis-Napoleon’s attempts to win over a hard core of opponents to accept the legitimacy of his regime. Nevertheless, the great majority of French voters supported him when he sought popular endorsement of his coup. He had brought something new to European politics; a dictatorship resting on popular approval, but supported by strict censorship, police surveillance and electoral manipulation. Pressing his advantage, in November 1852 he sought approval for restoration of the Empire and got it by 8 million votes to 250,000, with 2 million abstentions. With effect from 2 December 1852 he declared himself Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, and shortly promulgated a constitution that preserved the forms but not the substance of parliamentary government.

To calm fears at home and abroad that the return of the Empire meant war, he declared at Bordeaux in October 1852 that ‘The Empire means peace’, and that his focus would be on internal improvements like building roads, railways, dockyards and canals. He was careful to cultivate his uncle’s old nemesis, Great Britain. Despite his peaceful professions, he cultivated the army, recreated an elite Imperial Guard, and frequently appeared in military uniform, in deliberate contrast to the black-coated dullness of Louis-Philippe’s court. Like all French governments since Waterloo, he nurtured hopes of burying the 1815 treaties. Unlike the Bourbon monarchs, but like the republicans of 1848, he sympathized with the cause of nationalities in Europe. He might be expected to act in their favour where opportunities arose.

A Franco-German Crisis, 1859

A shift in Great Power relations came sooner than anyone foresaw, as a result of the Crimean War of 1854–6, in which Britain and France combined to defeat Russia’s attack on the ailing Turkish Empire. The defeat her army suffered at allied hands at the long siege of Sebastopol exposed Russia’s weaknesses and discouraged her from active intervention in European politics for two decades while she undertook internal and military reforms.

The war had another important consequence for European and German politics: it isolated Austria. Like Prussia, Austria had wished to stay neutral, but Russian forces at the mouth of the Danube intruded on her vital interests. Her long resistance to joining the western camp won her no friends; yet her eventual signature of an ultimatum to Russia weighed heavily in Russia’s decision to accept peace terms. Russia regarded Austria’s action as rank ingratitude for the military help she had received in 1849, and an intolerable betrayal by a fellow conservative power. In future Austria could expect no Russian help if she needed it; indeed, Russian court circles desired to see her punished. Prussia, which had not intervened against Russia and had a common interest in keeping the Poles suppressed, was on the contrary seen as Russia’s only friend in Europe.

If Russia and Austria were losers, victorious France gained prestige. Napoleon III’s army had acquitted itself well, albeit at the cost of 95,615 French lives. It had made up the majority of allied land forces and had shown itself less incompetent than any other in the field; even if the latest communications technology, the electric telegraph, had proved a mixed blessing. One French commander-in-chief in the Crimea, Canrobert, had resigned in despair over orders wired direct from the Emperor in Paris. The 1856 peace conference was held in Paris, where Napoleon invited the delegates to banquet and waltz at the Tuileries Palace and savoured his moment as arbiter of Europe. His chances of founding a stable dynasty improved when the Empress Eugénie gave birth to a healthy male son, Louis, the Prince Imperial.

In 1858 Napoleon exploited his diplomatic and military advantages in the hope of ‘doing something for Italy’. Having long desired to help the Liberal and national cause there, he secretly agreed with the Kingdom of Piedmont to drive the Austrians out of the parts of Italy they had occupied since 1815. Napoleon was mixing idealism with opportunism, for he had the chance to achieve military success, weaken reactionary Austria while she was isolated, create client states in northern Italy, and regain Nice and Savoy as the price of his support. Yet, as conflict became imminent, his resolve faltered, even once he was sure of Russia’s neutrality. Napoleon was finally pulled over the brink only when, provoked by Piedmontese military preparations, Austria obligingly declared war in April 1859.

The Italian campaign showed how much warfare had changed since Waterloo. The French army was transported by railway and steamship, debouching over the Alps and to the port of Genoa in three weeks. At close hand there was much that was chaotic about French supply arrangements: Napoleon lamented privately to his War Minister that ‘What grieves me about the organization of the army is that we seem always to be … like children who have never made war … Please understand that I am not reproaching you personally; rather the general system whereby in France we are never ready for war.’ Yet to outside observers it seemed that the French army was again proving itself the best in the world. With no interference from the sluggish Austrians it completed its concentration, outmanoeuvred the enemy and marched across the north Italian plain, winning bloody battles at Magenta and Solferino in June. If little tactical brilliance was on display, French troops showed the superior élan and willingness to get to close quarters that made them so formidable. Their senior commanders, driven by the instinct that getting close to the enemy was the path to honours and promotion, included men who would command armies in 1870. The courtly aristocrat Maurice MacMahon, already distinguished for his successful assault on the formidable defences of Sebastopol in the Crimea, won his marshal’s baton and the title of Duke for his performance as a corps commander at Magenta.

Decorations, promotions, and victory parades in Milan and Paris were one side of French success in Italy, but another shocked European opinion. Solferino, a savage battle involving 300,000 men, produced 36,000 casualties by the time a thunderstorm of extraordinary violence put an end to fighting. With none of his uncle’s ruthless indifference to high casualties, Napoleon III was sickened by what he saw and smelled on the battlefield next day. In a famous pamphlet, the Swiss traveller Henry Dunant described the horrors of the battlefield. The army medical services were overwhelmed. Dunant’s lurid description rallied widespread support for the initiative of a group of Swiss philanthropists, who in 1863 founded the International Society for Aid to the Wounded, later known as the International Red Cross. The Society’s efforts gave birth to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which laid down an international code for the humane treatment of wounded enemies and prisoners of war, and conferred neutral status on medical personnel. Prussia was among the first and most enthusiastic states to sign the Convention. France signed too at the Emperor’s behest, despite the reservations of military men who had no wish to see hordes of civilian volunteers working in the battle zone.

This was for the future. In the wake of Solferino Napoleon decided to end the war. He and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria met and agreed peace terms at Villafranca on 11 July. It was not simply that Napoleon had little stomach for further battles. Typhus was spreading in his badly fed army, camped under the torrid Italian sun. He had conquered Lombardy for Piedmont, but if he wanted to force the Austrians out of Venetia he faced a long and difficult war for which there would be diminishing support in France. Revolutionary support for Italian unification in central Italy was getting out of hand, threatening the Papal territories around Rome and alarming French Catholics. Worryingly, too, Prussia was mobilizing her army.

In the German states, Napoleon’s war in Italy was execrated as naked aggression against Austria. Fear that Napoleon’s next goal would be the Rhine revived enthusiasm for and debate about German unity as nothing else could. Newspaper and pamphlet denunciation of French ambitions was as virulent as in the crisis of 1840, and much slower to subside. Yet popular sentiment did not produce cooperation between Prussia and Austria. As she had in the Crimean War, Prussia obstructed proposals for the German Confederation to mobilize forces to support Austria. Finally, in mid-June, Prussia mobilized six of her nine army corps, but as the price of her support sought command of Confederation forces on the Rhine front. The suggestion made sense while Austria was under attack in Italy, but her mistrust of Prussian ambitions in Germany was such that she refused to yield precedence on this point. For the Austrians too, Prussian mobilization provided an incentive to make peace rapidly.

Even without an ultimatum, Prussia’s show of strength was sufficient to cause Napoleon alarm for his eastern frontier. He feared that the Prussians could put 400,000 men on the Rhine in a fortnight. This expectation was slightly exaggerated. Helmuth von Moltke, the studious and methodical Prussian Chief of General Staff, worried that in the present state of the German railway network – much of which was still single-tracked – it would take at least six weeks to move a quarter of a million men to the frontier. At all events, Napoleon concluded that he was in no position to fight the Prussians while continuing his campaign against Austria. Peace was concluded. The Prussians demobilized from 25 July, and the French eventually withdrew all their forces from Italy save for a garrison to protect the Papal territory of Rome, which Catholic opinion at home demanded. As his price for accepting the transfer of the central Italian states to Piedmont, Napoleon received Nice and Savoy following plebiscites in all the affected areas. The recovery of these two territories on France’s south-eastern border was his first reversal of a loss France had suffered in 1815: a gain which boosted the popularity of his regime at home. The other powers, and particularly the German states, were greatly alarmed that it might not be his last. After his Italian adventure it was hardly surprising that Napoleon III was feared as the ruler most likely to disturb the peace of Europe.

French Military 1850-80 Part II

Napoleon III Watches the Rhine

In setting out to coerce Austria out of Germany, Bismarck knew that the diplomatic situation continued to favour Prussian ambitions. Neither Russia nor Britain was inclined to an active role in European politics. France, however, remained a key piece on his chessboard. Before making any final decision for war he had been at pains to ensure her neutrality. He had visited the Emperor at the storm-swept resort of Biarritz in south-west France in October 1865 to reassure him that no anti-French alliance had been made at Gastein; nor had Prussia guaranteed Austria’s possession of Venetia, in which the Emperor made clear his close interest. Napoleon listened politely to Bismarck’s suggestions that an enlarged Prussia would be no threat to France, significantly raising no objection. Although no definite commitments apparently were asked for or given on either side, the outcome encouraged Bismarck to reassure Wilhelm that France would not stand in Prussia’s way.

Napoleon seemed to be in an excellent position as the quarrel between Austria and Prussia deepened. Military experts thought Austria the stronger party, but a long war was likely from which France might reap rewards. If he favoured any side, Napoleon seemed to lean towards Prussia, which was a force for change and might prove a useful protégé and even ally in northern Germany. A weakened Austria would enable France to gain influence in the South German states. It would also allow Napoleon to fulfil his promises made in 1859 by liberating restless Venetia from Austrian rule, thereby perhaps restoring his tarnished prestige and influence in Italy. Napoleon encouraged the Italians to ally with Prussia, so facilitating the war.

Would the Emperor ask any reward for his neutrality other than Venetia for the Italians? Napoleon dropped hints to the Prussian ambassador, mentioning the frontiers of 1814 and the Bavarian Palatinate, but declined to specify what he might demand. ‘I cannot point to an item of compensation; I can only assure you of my benevolent neutrality: I shall come to an understanding with your king later,’ he intimated in March 1866. In May he hinted to the ambassador that the Austrians were making overtures to him and that: ‘The eyes of my country are turned towards the banks of the Rhine.’ He appeared to be playing a clever hand, keeping his options open to exploit the situation whatever the outcome of an Austro-Prussian War.

Although Napoleon’s diplomacy was secret, enough was known to inform a powerful public attack. Adolphe Thiers, leader of the French Government in the 1840 crisis, had been imprisoned and exiled briefly by Louis-Napoleon after the coup d’état of 1851. He had returned to politics in 1863, being elected to the Legislature. On 3 May 1866 he gave a superb performance in the Chamber, pushing the boundaries of criticism permitted by the imperial regime. He pointed to the dangers of encouraging Prussia’s aggressive designs and questioned the wisdom of France promoting a new German power and Italian unification. Thiers saw no advantage in revising the 1815 settlement of Germany. Stung by the attack and the stir it created, Napoleon declared at Auxerre three days later that he ‘detested’ the treaties of 1815.

The Emperor’s speech alarmed business circles and the public. Was he about to embark on some new foreign adventure? There was a run on the stock exchange. Ever attentive to public opinion, which strongly favoured peace and neutrality, Napoleon called for a European Congress to settle current disputes. To Bismarck’s relief, Austria would accept only on condition that no power should gain territory, effectively killing the proposal.

In the last days of peace, in June 1866, Napoleon nevertheless could be confident that his diplomacy would win Venetia for the Italians however the war turned out. In return for his pledge of neutrality, the Austrians undertook to surrender Venetia to him if they won. They also agreed verbally that, if they beat the Prussians, Napoleon could have Belgium, and the Rhineland would become a buffer state. Thus, as Prussian troops marched south, it seemed that Napoleon might gain handsomely from the war without shedding a drop of French blood. The Austrians, in desperation, had already offered him his price. Bismarck, meanwhile, was taking a double gamble, both on the military outcome of the war, and on the unspecified reward France might exact for neutrality.

French Army Reform

In the wake of Sadowa, on 30 August 1866, Napoleon signed a decree to re-arm his infantry with breech-loading rifles. The weapon adopted was the Chassepot, named after its inventor Alphonse Chassepot, who for a dozen years had been developing and improving it with encouragement from the Emperor and Marshal MacMahon but in the face of resistance from the War Ministry. Tests of the latest model showed it to be a fine weapon, with a range of 1,200 metres; twice that of the needle gun, to which it was superior in all respects. It could fire six or seven 11mm rounds per minute, and the ammunition was sufficiently light to enable the infantryman to carry ninety rounds with him. It could be fitted with a fearsome-looking sabre-bayonet. Production was put in hand in French arsenals and by contracts placed abroad, and by mid-1870 the army had over a million Chassepots. The weapon was tried out against tribesmen in Algeria, and most spectacularly against Garibaldi’s men at Mentana. ‘The Chassepot worked wonders,’ wired General de Failly to Paris, to the horror of Liberals everywhere, but the news seemed to give assurance that French infantry would be able to meet the Prussians on better than even terms.

Great hopes were placed too on a secret weapon, the mitrailleuse, a machine gun resembling a cannon with a barrel consisting of twenty-five rifled tubes. By inserting pre-loaded blocks, fired by a rotating hand crank, the ‘coffee grinder’ could fire 100 rounds per minute, albeit into a small area, and had an effective range of 1,500 metres. Napoleon had funded development himself up to its adoption in 1865, and five years later 215 were stored ready for use. Beyond a few trained teams, no one knew much about using the new weapon, and it had yet to be tried in battle; but taken together the new armaments would surely give great advantages to the tactical defence.

French weaponry might be a source of confidence, but when Napoleon opened the Legislature in February 1867 he urged that ‘A nation’s influence depends on the number of men it can put under arms.’ However, in pressing for a greatly enlarged army, the imperial government faced a dilemma. If it sounded alarmist about the threat from Prussia it would contradict its own claims to foreign policy success, and could raise tensions that might precipitate a war. Its political credit had sunk so low that its programme was vigorously opposed in the country on the basis of Napoleon’s past record rather than on any dispassionate assessment of the danger to France.

The French army in the 1860s required a seven-year term of service. Men reaching the age of 21 were subject to conscription, but a lottery system gave them a reasonable chance of escaping the obligation to serve. If a conscript drew a ‘good number’ in the lottery, he was free of any further obligation. Even if he drew a ‘bad number’ and was drafted into the ‘first contingent’ of the army, budgetary limitations meant he was unlikely to serve his full term. For the Legislature jealously guarded its right to fix annually the size of the contingent required and the military budget. If the conscript was drafted into the ‘second contingent’ he might have to do only a few weeks’ training in the reserve before being sent home, though he remained subject to recall in wartime. Or he might be in an exempt occupation, and even if he were not the system enacted in 1855 allowed those with money to buy themselves out of the army.

The funds raised from these payments went towards bounties that encouraged serving soldiers to re-enlist, and towards hiring replacements. In theory this provided a long-service force of seasoned professionals; in practice it reinforced a tendency for the army to be the home of ‘old soldiers’ in every sense of the term, supervised by ageing NCOs with some bad ingrained habits. The 15 per cent of soldiers who were hired replacements were viewed as a mercenary element that damaged morale and effectiveness. Promotion in the army was slow, initiative and study were frowned upon, and the stultifying routine of overcrowded barracks far from home, low pay, hard discipline and hard drinking scarcely encouraged educated and ambitious young men to enter the ranks if they could possibly avoid it. Budgetary restraints also kept the army below strength: 390,000 men in 1866, including non-combatants, compared to half a million at the time of the Crimean War.

Napoleon, long an advocate of universal military service, wanted to overhaul the system radically to increase the regular army to 800,000 men, and to form a new territorial army – the Garde Mobile – on the lines of the Prussian Landwehr, that France could call upon for home defence in wartime. As War Minister he replaced the ageing Randon, who was unconvinced of the case for change, with its ablest advocate, Marshal Niel, who tried to steer army reform through the Legislature during 1867.

The plan to extend military obligations met determined opposition from many quarters. Republicans saw it as a sinister plot to foment war by an untrustworthy authoritarian regime. Their faith in the efficacy of the levée en masse that had saved revolutionary France from invading Prussians and Austrians in 1792–3 remained deep-rooted. Jules Simon advocated the Swiss militia system on the premise that the breasts of patriots who kept a rifle over the hearth would, given a few weeks’ training, be a more than sufficient bulwark against the conscript hordes of foreign despots. The Peace League, which had been born from the Luxembourg crisis, pleaded that in the mid-nineteenth century Europe should be moving towards a brotherhood of nations, and that there should be no place in a prosperous and progressive society for anachronistic militarism. Many bourgeois, though enamoured with histories of France’s military glory, were aghast that they would no longer be able to buy their sons out of military service, and at the prospect of higher taxes. Peasants too resented the blood tax that would take them from the plough. On the right, conservative generals were comfortable with the existing system and indignant at the suggestion that a long-service professional army, toughened by combat in Algeria, Italy, Mexico and the Far East, could not see off double their numbers of enemy conscripts. They found their spokesman in Thiers, who extolled quality over quantity and ridiculed claims about the number of men Prussia could put in the field. This supreme confidence in French military excellence was widely shared, even by those convinced that a war with Prussia was on the horizon. Government supporters feared that universal conscription would be so unpopular that they would lose their seats at the next elections, and Rouher shared their assessment.

Although Niel’s law was finally enacted in February 1868, concessions had eroded the government’s original proposals. The Legislature’s right to decide the size of the annual intake, the lottery, the two-tier contingent system and the right to buy oneself out of the regular army were retained. Conscripted men in the first contingent would serve a total of nine years, including four in the reserve. Men in the second contingent would go straight into the reserve and serve five months. In theory, the obligation to serve five years in the new Garde Mobile would catch all those who escaped service in the first contingent: those who had drawn a ‘good number’ in the lottery, those who hired replacements, those in the second contingent who had completed their time in the reserve, and some who had been exempted from army service. The value of the Garde Mobile was vitiated, however, by the restrictions placed on its training by a Legislature mistrustful of the regime’s militarist designs. Instead of the twenty-five consecutive days of annual training sought by Niel, training was limited to a derisory fifteen days with no overnight stays in barracks.

In his 1869 message Napoleon assured the nation that the reform had been a great success. An official circular declared that the army was now so well prepared to meet all eventualities that France could be ‘confident in her strength’. These claims, and the figures published to support them, may have been intended to mislead the Germans, but they were a delusion. The Niel law resembled universal military obligation sufficiently to make the government deeply unpopular, but failed abjectly in its aim of doubling the number of trained men available for call-up in case of war. The Garde Mobile soon proved a farce. Attempts to muster it at Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse led to serious disorders. After Niel’s death in August 1869 his successor, Edmond Le Bœuf, did not repeat the experiment, and in July 1870 the Garde Mobile was formidable on paper only. Little provision had been made even to equip it. Partly Le Bœuf was governed by budgetary constraints, just as the government could obtain only a fraction of the funds requested for the programme of modernizing the eastern fortresses begun after Sadowa. But he also shared the scepticism of the upper echelons of the military, who had overweening confidence in the regular army and despised the very idea of a citizen militia. Indeed, they feared that arming and training one would put guns in the hands of revolutionaries who might overthrow the regime.

The unpopularity of conscription merged into a wider wave of discontent that seemed to herald the approaching end of the Second Empire. Relaxation of laws governing the press and public meetings in 1868 produced a proliferation of newspapers and a ‘revolution of contempt’ directed at the regime. Amid this rising tide of criticism and ridicule, the most stinging attacks appeared in La Lanterne, a pamphlet by the aristocratic vaudeville satirist Henri Rochefort. His mordant wit made it a runaway best-seller and a dozen editions were published before the government banned it. In November a young lawyer from Cahors, Léon Gambetta, made a slashing courtroom attack on the Empire while defending the revolutionary Charles Delescluze for organizing a subscription to erect a memorial to Baudin, the half-forgotten deputy who had been killed during the 1851 coup d’état. The charismatic, passionate and eloquent Gambetta emerged as foremost among a new generation of republicans impatient for change to whom the reputation of Napoleon III as the ‘man of order’ who had saved the country from anarchy after the 1848 revolution meant nothing.

In 1869 France seemed bound for revolution, and the government to have lost its grip. It was often a handicap to be identified as a government candidate in the elections that summer and the big cities voted heavily against the Empire. The elections were accompanied by riots in the cities, and by a wave of industrial unrest which saw striking miners shot down by troops. Although socialists and representatives of the extreme left did not do well in the elections, the results were an impressive showing for republicans. Opposition candidates polled 3.3 million votes against 4.4 million for government candidates. Gambetta was elected for the working-class Paris district of Belleville, standing on a radical platform that included a condemnation of standing armies as ‘a cause of financial ruin’ and ‘a source of hatred between peoples’. However, he opted to represent a Marseilles constituency where he had also been elected, and at a byelection for Belleville in November Rochefort, returned from exile in Belgium, was elected in his place.

Although Napoleon continued to command the political centre ground, he slowly made concessions in the face of mounting opposition. He granted the Chamber additional powers. Rouher resigned, though he remained a confidential adviser and became President of the Senate. In December the Liberal Émile Ollivier, a former republican, was invited to form a ministry. This appeared to Napoleon to be the best way of saving his regime, though it created tensions among its loyal supporters. Those, including the Empress, Baron Jerome David (another nephew of Napoleon I) and Rouher, who believed that the imperial government needed more authoritarianism, not less, would await their opportunity to sabotage what they saw as the dangerous experiment of the ‘Liberal Empire’.

Bloch 150-157

Bloch 152C-1 of GC 11/1, in operational service when the Germans invaded France on 10 May 1940. On that date only two GC (Groupes de Chasse) were combat-ready despite the fact that well over 300 had been completed except for small but vital items. Total production was 140 MB. 151 and 488 MB. 152. Not especially good performers, they were at least tough. One 152C-1 landed on 15 May 1940 after a fight against 12 Bf 109s; it had 360 bullet holes.

French single-seat fighter aircraft. Designed to a July 1934 French Air Ministry specification, the Bloch 150 was an attractive, all- metal low-wing monoplane fighter with a retractable landing gear. However, the original prototype was considerably overweight, and two first-flight attempts, on July 17 and August 8, 1936, both proved abortive. Both failures were followed by extensive structural redesign, and eventually, on September 29, 1937, with wings of increased area and a more efficient 940-hp Gnome-Rhone 14N engine, a successful first flight was made. Even so, the design was considered unsuitable for mass production necessitating yet further redesign (as the Bloch 151) in order to implement the initial contract for 25 aircraft.

The first Bloch 151 (920-hp Gnome-Rhone 14N 11 engine) was flown on August 18, 1938, and more than 200 should have been delivered to the Armee de I’ Air from the SNCA du Sud-Ouest factories by April I, 1939. In fact, only one had been delivered by that date, and only 85 by the outbreak of war. Production was limited to 140 aircraft, and their disappointing performance, combined with problems of control and engine over- heating, led to their relegation, after modification, to a training role. Armament comprised four 7.5-mm (0.295-in) MAC 1934 machine-guns in the wings, outboard of the propeller disc.

The prototype of an improved version, the Bloch 152, had been ordered in April 1938. This aircraft, first flown on December 15 that year, was powered by a 1030-hp Gnome- Rhone 14N 21 engine. Production aircraft, built from 1939 in parallel with the Bloch 151, were powered by either a 1080-hp 14N 25 or 1100-hp 14N 29. Armament consisted of either two 20-mm (0.79-in) Hispano HS-404 cannon and two 7. S-mm MAC 1934 machine-guns, or four MAC 1934s. In flight the MB 152 displayed good maneuverability, was a stable gun platform, and could out dive other fighters with ease.

By the outbreak of the Second World War the Armee de I ‘Air had only one squadron equipped with the Bloch 152, and even these were non-operational. By the beginning of 1940 the Armee de I’ Air had just over 100 in flyable condition and nearly twice as many, lacking propellers, were non-operational. When the Germans attacked on May 10, 1940, eight French pursuit groups were equipped with Bloch 151 or 152 fighters.

The eventual total of Bloch 152s delivered was 482, of which about two-thirds were still effective till the end of July 1940. Many of these were used by the Vichy French air force, and Germany supplied 20 to its ally, Rumania. At about the same time, nine Bloch 151s (of 25 ordered) were supplied by France to the Royal Hellenic Air Force.

Like so many French aircraft of the time, the Bloch monoplane fighter story began badly, got into its stride just in time for the capitulation and eventually produced outstanding aircraft which were unable to be used. The prototype 150 was not only ugly but actually failed to fly. the frightened test pilot giving up on 17 July 1936. It was only after redesign with more power and larger wing that the aircraft finally left the ground. Bloch had been absorbed into the new nationalised industry as part of SNCASO and five of the new group’s factories were put to work making 25. But the detail design was difficult to make, so the MB-151 was produced with the hope that 180 would be made each month from late 1938 Orders were also placed for the slightly more powerful MB-152. but by the start of World War II only 85 Blochs had been delivered and not one was fit for use; all lacked gunsights and most lacked propellers! Eventually, after overcoming desperate problems and shortages. 593 were delivered by the capitulation, equipping GC 1/1. 11/1. 1/8. 11/8. 11/9. 11/10. 111/10 and III/9 The Germans impressed 173 surviving Bloch 151 and 152 fighters, passing 20 to Romania. The MB-155 had a 1,180hp engine and was used by Vichy France. The ultimate model was the superb MB-157. with 1,580hp 14R-4 engine and 441 mph (710km/h) speed, never put into production. By this time the firm’s founder had changed his name to Dassault. Units while equipped with Blochs shot down 156 German planes and lost 59 pilots.

The auxiliary units, known as the Escadrilles Légeres de Défense (ELD), or Escadrilles de Chasse de Défense (ECD), had been mobilized on 11 May 1940, although some local defence units were already established. These auxiliary units were mainly reservist pilots. Some of them were test pilots attached to aircraft factories. At the Chateaudun base one of the pilots flying a Bloch 152 shot down a He111 on 12 May. More of these local defence flights were called up to protect aircraft plants. In the majority of cases the aircraft they were flying had come straight off the production line and others were there for repairs. Many of the pilots were not, in fact, French Air Force at all, but were employed by aircraft companies. The majority of the units could muster no more than six aircraft. Most of them flew Bloch fighters, others Morane 406s or Dewoitine 501s and 510s. A number of Dewoitine 500s were also being flown.

One peculiar aircraft that was also used was the Koolhoven FK-58A. It was Dutch built and there were fourteen of them parked at Romorantin. Four of them were sent to Lyons-Bron, where former Polish Air Force pilots were being trained to use French aircraft. The Ecole de l’Air based at Salon was ordered to create another Polish unit with seven of these aircraft on 16 May. It actually received nine of them. The school itself had its own local defence flight with Dewoitine 520s. At Bourges, the defence flight was equipped with Curtiss Hawks, where ten were in service. They managed to shoot down a number of German aircraft. Meanwhile, on the front line, small numbers of French aircraft threw themselves at the advancing German ground forces. Little by little, attrition was beginning to make its mark. Between the period 26 May to 3 June 1940 the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BAE) and large numbers of French troops was being undertaken at Dunkirk. The RAF provided much of the air cover for this operation, but Bloch 152s of GCII/8, operating out of Lympne, were also on hand. These aircraft had left France on the afternoon of 30 May and had been ordered to support the 1st French Army, which by this time had been surrounded. There was a delay in being able to deploy them, as the engine oil designed for Hurricanes did not meet the Bloch 152s requirements. Oil did not arrive until 31 May. Also at Lympne were some Potez 63s belonging to GRI/14 and a pair of Glenn Martin 167s of GBI/63.

The Belgian army had surrendered on 28 May and on 31 May one of the Potez aircraft, escorted by Hurricanes, undertook a reconnaissance mission. Another Potez took off in the afternoon of 1 June, protected by eight Bloch 152s and Hurricanes. The mission was to spot German artillery positions so that the French artillery could zero in on the target. The aircraft arrived just as the Germans were launching a bombing attack against Dunkirk. The Bloch fighters shot down a He111, but then they were nearly attacked themselves by Hurricanes and French anti-aircraft batteries. Once the Dunkirk withdrawal had come to an end GRI/14 and GCII/8 returned to France.

The heaviest fighting had been taking place around the Somme. The French had lost 112 aircraft up to 25 May.

For all of the problems that the French Air Force had been struggling with in the run up to hostilities, and the appallingly bad showing that the French ground forces had exhibited during the campaign, the French Air Force’s record was comparatively good. In all, although the figures can only ever be approximate, the French Air Force lost 1,200 aircraft to all causes. Despite this, the strength of the French Air Force at the end of operations on 25 June 1940 was actually greater than when war was declared in September 1939. In the period from 10 May to 12 June, French industry had delivered 1,131 new aircraft; some 668 of these were fighters. Many of the French aircraft losses during this period had been of older types of aircraft, but all of the replacements were obviously modern ones.

The exodus of French aircraft from the mainland was by no means complete. Large numbers of aircraft, many of which had literally just been delivered, fell into German hands. This included 453 Morane 406s, 170 Dewoitine 520s, 260 Bloch 152s and a host of other aircraft, including Curtiss Hawks and Glenn Martins.

After France surrendered unoccupied France had several units with Bloch 152s and Bloch 155s, each with a strength of twenty-four aircraft.

A third version, the Bloch 155, entered production following its first flight on December 3, 1939, but only nine had been delivered before the fall of France. This version, at first armed similarly to the Bloch 152, was powered by an 1100-hp Gnome- Rhone 14N 49 engine, increasing the maximum speed (despite a higher gross weight) to 520 km/h (323 mph). The Bloch 155 was the first production French fighter to incorporate both belt-fed cannon and an armoured-glass windscreen. About 15 were built altogether these being used later by the Vichy air force until seized by the Luftwaffe in 1942.

The Bloch 153 and 154 designations were applied to proposed versions of the Bloch 152, fitted, respectively, with American Twin Wasp and Cyclone engines. Of these, only the Bloch 153 was flown in prototype form. Similarly, the Gnome-Rhone-engined Bloch 156 remained only a project.

The final development of this series of fighters was the Bloch 157, virtually a complete redesign by Lucien Servanty. The prototype was still under construction when France was overrun, but its completion was approved by the German authorities, and the Bloch 157 eventually flew in March 1942, powered by a 1590-hp Gnome-Rhone 14R 4 engine but without its intended six-gun armament (two cannon and four machine-guns). Subsequent test flights confirmed early impressions that the Bloch 157 was superior in all respects to its predecessors, performance including a maximum speed of 710 km/h (441 mph). However, no further development was undertaken.


Origin: SNCASO.

Type: Single-seat fighter.

Engine: 1 .080hp Gnome-Rhone 14N-25 14-cylinder radial.

Dimensions Span 34ft 6in (105m); length 29ft 10in (9 1m): height 13ft 0in (3 95m).

Weights: Empty 4.453lb (2020kg); loaded 5.842lb (2650kg).

Performance: Maximum speed 323mph (520km/h): climb to 16.400ft (5000m) in 6 minutes; service ceiling 32.800ft (10.000m); range 373 miles (600km).

Armament: Two 20mm Hispano 404 cannon (60-round drum) and two 7 5mm MAC 1934 machine guns (500 rounds each): alternatively four MAC 1934

History: First flight (MB-150) October 1937; (MB-151) 18 August 1938: (MB-152) December 1938: (MB-155) 3 December 1939: (MB-157) March 1942.

Users: France (Armee de I’Air, Vichy AF). Greece. Romania.