Armies of Valmy I

The French Revolutionary Wars are customarily defined as the struggles between France on the one hand and the First and Second Coalitions on the other, between 1792 and 1802. The First Coalition initially pitted Austria and Prussia, with the partial engagement of the Holy Roman Empire, against France in 1792, but by the spring of 1793, it had embraced Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Piedmont-Sardinia, Naples, and Portugal. The coalition had fallen apart by October 1797 after one ally after another was either overrun by the French, or made a separate peace to secure the best possible terms, leaving only the British to fight on alone. Yet there was no respite for the continent, for in the summer of 1798 the war was reignited, the very geographic scale reflected in the membership of the Second Coalition, embroiling the Ottoman Empire and Russia alongside Britain, Austria, Portugal, and Naples. After its early victories, this alliance also broke apart. So exhausted were both sides that even France and Britain made peace in 1802 at Amiens, a treaty marking the end of the French Revolutionary Wars.

In the opening campaign in 1792, the calculations of the Austrians, that the French armies were a rabble, seemed to be borne out: the poorly trained volunteers broke and ran at the first encounter with the disciplined fire-power of the Austrians. As Prussia joined the war on 21 May, well might King Frederick William II’s aide-de-camp, Johann von Bischoffwerder, have reassured some officers that ‘the comedy will not last long. The army of lawyers will soon be crushed and we shall be back home by the autumn.’ The Austro-Prussian armies began their slow but relentless advance into France in the summer, provoking the first major political crisis in the French Revolution linked to the war. The sans-culottes, the popular militants of Paris, rose up and, supported by National Guard units (the citizens’ militia created in 1789), overthrew Louis XVI on 10 August 1792, a republic was proclaimed on 22 September 1792, and the King was guillotined on 21 January 1793. ‘They threaten you with Kings!’ thundered the great revolutionary orator Georges-Jacques Danton. ‘You have thrown down the gauntlet to them, and this gauntlet is a king’s head.’ Yet the reality was that, for all the incandescent rhetoric on both sides, the more traditional impulses driving the war were revealed after the first French victory at Valmy on 20 September 1792.

The French army made its stand against the Prussians astride the road to Paris, a hundred miles from the capital. Fought on muddy ground, sometimes knee-deep in places, Valmy was primarily a lethal artillery duel, in which some 20,000 cannonballs were fired. The ragged French volunteers just held their nerve, a resistance that persuaded the Prussians, ravaged by dysentery, to retreat. In the despondent gloom later that evening, the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave some Prussian officers cold comfort by telling them that ‘From this place, and from this day forth, begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.’ At first, Goethe’s predictions seemed to come true: a second French victory, over the Austrians at Jemappes on 6 November, left Belgium open to French invasion. Intoxicated by this sudden reversal of fortune, the National Convention, the new republican assembly in Paris, issued the Edict of Fraternity on 19 November. This declared the Convention’s intent to export the French Revolution, promising ‘fraternity and help’ to ‘all peoples who wish to recover their liberty’, meaning the overthrow of the existing order.

Yet, as French armies surged across the Low Countries, poured into the Rhineland, and, in the south, swept into Savoy (a duchy ruled by Piedmont-Sardinia which, with unfortunate timing, declared war on France the day after Valmy), the revolutionaries quickly set their principles aside. The occupied countries were too tempting a source of supplies and money for the French armies to leave simply to their own destinies. On 15 December, the Convention abolished the old regime in these territories, but in return the population were told to pay for the military costs of their liberation. The exploitation of conquests to fuel the French war effort was thus established at the very start, but such a ruthless policy could neither continue forever, nor resolve the problem of the people’s political future. The revolutionaries soon articulated their objective: a defensible frontier, particularly in the north. It was Danton again who found the rhetorical flourish in January 1793: ‘The limits of France are marked out by nature, we will reach them in the four corners of the horizon: the Rhine, the Ocean and the Alps.’ On the suggestion of Dutch radical exiles in Paris, those territories overrun beyond these ‘natural frontiers’ would be converted into ‘sister republics’, exploitable satellite states allied to France.

French Forces

In an effort to rebuild the armed forces, the Revolutionary government began to establish a new army. A call for recruits went out in the summer of 1791. The resulting 100,000 men were known as the Volunteers of 1791, and would prove to be some of the best recruits the revolutionary armies received; many had prior military service in the army or the National Guard. But even with these volunteers, the army was far short of the numbers required for national defence. Indeed, it was not yet near its pre-Revolutionary levels by the beginning of 1792. That spring, with the threat of war looming on the horizon, a levy for additional troops yielded 200,000 men, the Volunteers of 1792. These men did not have the military experience of their compatriots from the previous year, but they were soon supported by the addition of some 20,000 !ederes, politically reliable men who were to represent the National Guards from the various departments (administrative regions) of France.

Even this considerable influx of men did not meet the military needs of the Republic, which would soon be fighting in no fewer than six separate theatres of operation. This included the need for troops to fight counter-revolutionaries within the borders of France itself. In February 1793 came an additional levy, calling for an additional 300,000 men but yielding only half that number. This call was followed by the famous levee en masse legislation of August 1793, which established universal conscription and mobilized all of the resources of the Republic for the war effort.

All of these factors made it extremely difficult to develop an effective method of fighting for the armies of the new Republic. In particular, there was a dearth of experienced officers at certain levels. Junior ranks such as lieutenant and captain, however, were easily filled with experienced noncommissioned officers; indeed, some 60 per cent of captains had prior service and 55 per cent had been corporals. Some of these men would eventually reach the highest ranks. For example, 14 Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844) and Andre Massena (1758-1817) had both held the rank of sergeant-major in the royal army. Such men provided a valuable cadre for training recruits in the basics of military drill but were less likely to have expertise at manoeuvring larger bodies on the battlefield. That duty fell to officers of field grade and higher, but there were few in the army of the Republic since many had fled as a result of the Revolution.

Another problem was the influx of such a large number of recruits, initially volunteers and later conscripts. Many of these men had little or no prior experience and yet had to be trained and made battle ready in a short time. It has been suggested, however, that the raw numbers do not tell the whole story, especially for the volunteers who arrived between 1791 and early 1793. Many of the Volunteers of 1791 did, in fact, have some experience, and even the later volunteers had the advantage of being sent to the army in entire battalions. Many of these units therefore had the time to train or even do garrison duty before being asked to take part in major combat operations, sometimes as long as a year. This was clearly considered more than long enough – Napoleon would later say that infantry should be able to manoeuvre well and be able to withstand enemy fire after only three months of training. Training began as soon as the men were mustered into the army and continued while the new recruits were marching to their depots and again when the unit moved to join an army in the field. Such training clearly made the men competent at a certain level or drill, such as the ‘school of the soldier, basically, the manual of arms and the basics of marching’ and the ‘school of the peloton (platoon)’, which dealt with close order drill in ranks and files, and the manoeuvres and firing scheme of an individual platoon.

The platoon was the smallest tactical unit of the battalion, and each platoon usually drew its men from one of the nine administrative companies although this was not always the case. This was similar to the earlier practice of platoon fire, which had been adopted by most European armies by the 1720s. The French had retained the earlier fire by rank system, but had gradually adopted platoon firing as well.

It is less clear how effective such training was at the level of the ‘school of the battalion’, which dealt with manoeuvres of the entire battalion and even the regiment. The fragile nature of French armies during the Revolutionary Wars, particularly in the dark days of late 1792 and early 1793, is demonstrated by how often French armies were panicked and broken – with the exception of the Battle of Valmy, fought on 20 September 1792. This must be due, at least in part, to the lack of cohesion at the higher levels such as battalion, regiment and beyond, which is probably a reflection of insufficient training at those levels. It may also be due to the varied nature of the recruits, some with significant military experience and others with virtually none.

Organization of the New Armies

Given the bewildering variety of units and sources of manpower, it became necessary to impose, at least in theory, a uniform organizational structure for the armies of the Republic. By 1793, there were regiments of regulars from the royal army – the blancs, so called because of their white Bourbon uniforms – as well as battalions of volunteers, or federes, and conscripts, or bleus, who were clothed, at least in theory, in the blue coats of the National Guard.

According to an ordinance of August 1793, battalion organization was to remain similar to that of the royal army prior to the Revolution, namely eight companies of line infantry, fusiliers and one company of grenadiers numbering 777 men.

Under the Amalgame of 21 February 1793, new units called demi-brigades were created to replace the older regiments. Each demi-brigade was to be formed from one battalion of blancs and two of bleus. There would be other Amalgames and organizational realignments over the next few years, and the number of demi-brigades would fluctuate between 94 and 205, eventually settling in at 100. Unlike earlier formations that were identified either by territorial names (Flanders, for example) or by personal names (the King’s), all units were now given a number instead. The Amalgame also created 14 independent light infantry battalions; once again, the number varied, rising at one point to 35 and eventually being established at 30. The light infantry battalions were organized like their counterparts in the line, but their regular companies were known as chasseurs and their elite company as carabiniers.

Given the size of the French Army, it was also important for the armies of the Republic to have a higher level of organization. The French had been experimenting with larger combat organizations dating back to the 1740s and these reemerged during the Seven Years War. By the 1780s, the French Army created 17 permanent territorial divisions, each of which had a number of regiments permanently assigned to it. In time of war, these could serve as the basis for large combat organizations. In 1791, this system was replaced with 23 military divisions that oversaw recruiting as well.

Drawing upon this tradition, the Revolutionary armies routinely formed divisions, often made up of all arms. As early as 1792, French campaign regulations required that an army move in separate columns. When comprised of infantry, cavalry and artillery, this provided significant operational flexibility. A number of factors contributed to the development of this system. Firstly, the large number of troops required to fight on so many fronts meant that such an organizational structure provided a great degree of flexibility.

Moreover, concentrating the large number of troops gave the French a real advantage over their enemies, who were often spread out in an effort to defend key towns and fortresses. Such large numbers, however, also caused severe logistical problems for the French, especially since their logistic system could not support such troop concentrations for any length of time. The divisional system allowed the logistical burden to be spread out over a larger area, with troops concentrated only when battle was imminent.

Advertisements

Armies of Valmy II

Tactics of the Revolution

The tactical discussions and self-reflection of the royal army had a profound impact on the tactics used by the armies of the Republic. The generals of the Republic were still discussing the merits of l’ordre mince, thin linear formations, versus l’ordre profonde, deeper columnar formations. In addition, there were both practical and political concerns to consider. The pragmatic concern was that the soldiers of the Republic were not the long-serving regulars who had taken to the drill field at the camp at Vaussieux to experiment with the competing systems. The soldiers of the Republic were a mix of the remnants of that army and new recruits, many of whom had little or no prior service and whose training at the battalion level – so important to effective manoeuvre on the battlefield – was suspect.

On the political level, the revolutionary governments were great advocates of l’arme blanche, the use of cold steel to win victories. It was assumed that such weapons suited the highly motivated citoyens of the Republic. This sentiment was so strong that in the summer of 1792 the Minister of War, Joseph Servan de Gerby (1741-1808), advocated the organization of battalions of pikemen, and nearly half a million pikes were actually produced.

It seems clear that most of the Republic’s generals preferred the system of tactics proposed by Guibert and embodied in the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791, namely the three-rank line of l’ordre mince. But the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 was not an inflexible treatise. It allowed for the use of columns for a variety of tasks, including manoeuvring to position a battalion for a firefight as well as to assault positions such as fortifications and built-up areas such as towns or villages, which might need to be taken at the point of the bayonet. One famous example of a general who intended to follow Guibert’s doctrine and the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 is General Charles Fran~ois Dumouriez (1739-1823).

On 6 November 1792, at the Battle of ]emappes, Dumouriez’s 40,000 troops attacked 13,000 entrenched Austrians. The French advanced in open columns and began deploying into line as they approached the enemy positions. The French centre was roughly handled by the Austrians as its columns attempted to deploy into line under fire, but their left drove the Austrians from their positions. Such tactics may have been beyond the level of training that the French forces possessed at the time, although changing formation under the enemy’s guns is difficult for even well-trained troops, not to mention ill advised. But ]emappes also demonstrated other influences on the tactics of the Revolutionary forces. First is the extensive use of light troops operating in open order. On the French right, the terrain was ill suited to the use of heavy columns.

As a result, the French troops there advanced in skirmish order. This shows the willingness of French commanders to modify the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 to fit their capabilities, and the use of entire battalions and demi-brigades deployed in open order is a perfect example.

Light Troops

Most of the French treatises pre-dating the Revolution are relatively silent on the use of light troops, focusing instead on the line-versus-column question. Yet revolutionary armies made extensive use of this formation. This can be viewed as an example of tactical flexibility based on the capabilities of the available troops.

Actually, a screen of skirmishers meets the spirit of Guibert’s doctrine in that it is an imperfect linear formation – and one that might be employed by troops who are highly motivated, 18 rather than well trained. Jemappes also demonstrated the advantage to be gained by superior numbers. Dumouriez was able to concentrate more than three times the number of his enemy. In combination, these two elements allowed French forces to keep up near constant pressure on their enemies at the tactical level. Unlike the eighteenth-century model of grand tactics, in which individual units were not considered to matter, this system understood the significance of individual units, in differing formations, often fitting the terrain or circumstances, and fielded in sufficient numbers to provide critical mass at a decisive point on the battlefield.

Another example of the flexibility of Republican forces can be seen in the tactics developed to deal with the uprisings in the west of France. In addition to fighting the standing armies of states such as Austria, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain, the Republic also had to deal with irregular forces raised by various counter-revolutionary factions in areas such as the Vendee and Brittany. The insurgents were initially poorly armed but became better armed as they defeated the first units sent against them – ill-trained units of National Guardsmen and hastily raised units of regulars. Later units were better trained and they were able to defeat the rebels, whether in open battle or in the attack or defence of towns or cities.

However, in what would foreshadow a number of actions against irregulars in places such as Spain and the Tyrol, the army struggled against the ambushes and small actions perpetrated by the insurgents. Despite the fact that the French Army had considerable experience of irregular warfare, gained in regions such as North America, there was no commensurate interest in the study of tactics of ‘the little war’.

Tactics and doctrine were developed in the course of the conflict. For example, General Louis Lazare Hoche (1768-97) wrote and promulgated his Instructions for those Troops Employed in Fighting the Chouans, the latter term used for the rebels in Brittany. These instructions emphasized the importance of unit cohesion, reconnaissance and force protection against the rebels, who often used numbers to overwhelm small, disorganized units of regular troops. On the tactical level, the instructions emphasized linear tactics to bring the maximum amount of firepower to bear against the rebels. Indeed, Hoche mandated not only that his troops fight in a line but that it be a two-rank line to make use of all of the battalions’ manpower in the combat. Skirmishers were also to be used, but in small numbers and always supported by formed troops, thereby ensuring that they were not lured too far from their lines and cut off.

Finally, the Revolutionary armies made extensive use of artillery, as advocated by Guibert and especially Chevalier du Tell. This was possible thanks to the work of Gribeauval, who had introduced lighter artillery pieces, and the fact that the artillery, of all the combat arms, had probably weathered the strains of the Revolution the best. It had, for example, retained a larger percentage of its officer corps than either the infantry or cavalry.

Artillery Innovations

The revolutionary forces built on earlier improvements and theories and made innovations of its own. One was the reintroduction of battalion guns. Two of these light 4-pounder cannon were attached to each infantry battalion. While these may have impeded the speed of the battalion, they did potentially add to the unit’s firepower. Equally importantly, they reduced the fragility and vulnerability of the battalion, both by boosting morale and by serving to deter pursuit in the even that the unit panicked. The second innovation was the introduction of horse artillery. While very expensive to maintain, both in terms of horseflesh and logistical requirements, the horse batteries provided significant offensive punch.

Initially it was thought that they might stiffen the cavalry, much as battalion guns did for the infantry, but soon these gunners considered themselves to be an elite unit. Their speed, mobility and elan allowed them to provide direct fire support and, in the words of General Foy (1775-1825), a horse artilleryman himself, ‘to get up close and shoot fast’.

The armies of the Revolution were thus able to draw on nearly a century of military self-reflection and intellectual developments. But, they could do so only in a loose fashion since many of the developments were intended for the old royal army. What made the armies of the Republic successful, at least in part, was their ability to be flexible and to modify these developments as the capabilities of their forces allowed.

Prussian Forces

By the time of the War of the First Coalition the Prussian Army was still by and large identical with the one of Frederick the Great. Recruitment was based on regimental districts and was confined to the lower classes and the peasantry. Additionally, “foreign” (non-Prussian, though usually German) mercenaries were needed to bring the Prussian Army to the astonishing peacetime strength of nearly 230,000 men (out of a population of 8.7 million). Officers were taken almost exclusively from the nobility and gentry (Junker) so that the army replicated and reinforced the social structure of rural Prussia, while the town-dweller stood aside. Far from being a national force that could rely on patriotic feelings for the motivation of its soldiers, the Prussian Army, like many others under the ancien régime, had to enforce discipline mainly by threat of brutal corporal punishment, and desertion was a constant problem. Service was for life; in reality that usually meant twenty years, unless invalided out.

In spite of suggestions primarily of junior officers to implement more progressive concepts, the unreformed army also relied heavily on linear tactics to exploit the massed musketry of its heavy infantry. Innovations like more flexible tactics, light infantry, permanent divisions or corps of mixed arms, and a general staff in the modern sense of the word were known and discussed, but by the 1790s not yet implemented or still in their infancy.

France was fortunate that her enemies were slow in reacting, the more so since her troops were split into a multiplicity of armies, each covering a fraction of one of her several frontiers. This gave her a complicated command structure, further confused by personal animosities and incompetent direction from the centre. It was not until 19 August that 55,000 Prussians, with 16,000 Austrians in distant support, crossed into France at Longwy. Their commander, Ferdinand of Brunswick, a hero of the Seven Years’ War, disapproved of his orders, which were to march on Paris, and advanced with a deliberation which bordered on lethargy. He announced that it was impracticable to advance beyond the Meuse and was only drawn further forward by the unsolicited surrender of the fortress of Verdun.

On 20 September, Ferdinand found himself opposed by a French force drawn up near Valmy. There were nearly 60,000 of them, partly regulars from the Armée du Rhin under Kellermann, partly volunteers from the Armée du Nord under Dumouriez. The regulars put up an impressive front and they were superbly supported by their gunners. When the Prussian army had suffered 184 casualties from artillery fire, Ferdinand declared the French position impregnable and set out to evacuate France. He was not pursued and took even longer in retreating to Longwy than he had spent in advancing from that place.

On paper the Prussian army had a strength of more than a quarter of a million men. Not all of these could be found in practice and after deducting some garrisons, the field force available amounted to 175,000, to which could be added 20,000 Saxons, that country having been overawed into concluding an alliance with her large northern neighbour. If ten years of ignominious neutrality had hurt the pride of her officer corps, it had not persuaded them to modernize their army to cope with the new conditions of war. As befitted the heir to the victorious traditions of Frederick the Great it was magnificently fitted to fight the wars of the mid-eighteenth century.

No other army kept its ranks so straight, manoeuvred in so precise (or so slow) a fashion and fired such impressive (or such inaccurate) volleys. Learning from its experience in the War of Bavarian Succession, it had equipped itself with so elaborate a supply train that it regarded a day’s march as being exceptionally satisfactory if 20 kilometres could be covered, a fifth less than any other major army. True to the eighteenth-century tradition it was largely composed of mercenaries  at least 80,000 of its men were not Prussian nationals. Its commanders too were men of the Seven Years’ War. The nominal head was Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, nephew to Frederick the Great, who had seen action at Valmy. His chief subordinates, Prince Frederick of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen and General von Ruchel. The King’s chief military adviser, von Mollendorf, was 70, while Frederick William himself, who presided at the Councils of War, was only 36 but had all the indecision of a dotard.

Like many of the armies that faced the French, the Prussian army was composed of men thrown into the service and held in check by the fear induced through the power of fierce discipline, symbolized by the frequent use of the lash. The French conscript army also used fierce discipline—but it was not based on coercion by terror. Most of the other recruits to the Prussian army were foreigners, as the home population was deemed more useful tilling the land, working and paying the taxes that would enable the princes to raise such armies. In 1742, Frederick the Great decided that as a general rule, two-thirds of infantry battalions should be composed of foreigners, the remaining third being Prussians. As a result, most battalions were filled with deserters from foreign armies, prisoners of war, criminals and vagabonds, recruited through cunning, violence and the lure of gold. Only savage discipline could hold this heterogeneous mass of soldiers together, without which they would promptly desert. Indeed, desertion was the main concern of military leaders: Frederick II began his General Principles on the Conduct of War, written between 1748 and 1756, with fourteen rules to avoid desertion; tactical and strategic considerations often had to be subordinated to the need to prevent it. As a result, troops were formed in tight lines, scouting patrols were rarely used, and chasing a defeated enemy army was extremely difficult. Marching, let alone attacking by night, or establishing camps close to forests had to be avoided. Soldiers were ordered to watch over their comrades for potential deserters, in times of peace as at war. Even civilians faced heavy penalties for failing to detain deserters and hand them in to the army.

Consider these troops in contrast to French conscripts: troops provided constantly by law, troops willing to fight, troops who could therefore be trusted in any kind of march or manoeuvre. The difference was immeasurable—it extended to the officer class too. As opposed to France’s new professionals, the Prussians were still largely led by men defined by class rather than capability. Some were foreigners but most were aristocrats drawn from the ranks of the Prussian Junkers. In his writings, Frederick II repeatedly stated that commoners should not receive a commission since their minds tend to be turned towards profit rather than honour. But even families of noble blood were often reluctant to send their sons to the army: although a military career could in time prove to be both glorious and profitable, the academic level of most military schools was hardly superior to primary education. As a result, the average Prussian officer was rarely well educated—a situation which impacted upon the level of Prussian command.

The inadequacies of the Prussian army had been exposed in the period 1792–95 when, as part of the first coalition, it encountered the then pre-Napoleonic French revolutionary army of mostly untrained volunteers and lost.

Battle of Valmy, (20 September 1792)

Painting of the Battle of Valmy by Horace Vernet from 1826. The white-uniformed infantry to the right are regulars while the blue-coated ranks to the left represent the citizen volunteers of 1791.

Important battle of the War of the First Coalition (1792- 1797), usually identified as one of the decisive battles in world history. In July 1792 an Allied Austrian and Prussian force assembled at Coblenz in the Rhineland with the aim of marching on Paris, rescuing King Louis XVI, and crushing the French Revolution. Charles William (Karl Wilhelm), Duke of Brunswick, had command. Although accounts vary, the invasion force probably numbered about 84,000 men: 42,000 Prussians, 29,000 Austrians, 5,000 Hessians, and 8,000 French émigrés. The invaders planned a movement in which the main force under Brunswick, accompanied by Prussian King Frederick William II, would be protected on its flanks by two Austrian corps, one each to the north and south. The attackers planned to move west between the two principal French defending armies: the Armée du Nord under General Charles François Dumouriez (from 16 August) and the Armée du Centre under General François Etienne Christophe Kellermann (after 27 August). Once the invaders had taken the poorly provisioned French border fortresses, they could move to Chalons, and from there they would have fertile and open territory to Paris.

The Allied invasion of France began in late July and moved at a leisurely pace. On 19 August the Allies crossed the French frontier. Longwy fell on 23 August and Verdun on 2 September. With the fall of the two fortresses, the way to Paris seemed open. Brunswick’s forces then moved into the thick woods, narrow defiles, and marshy lowlands of the Argonne, terrain that favored the defender. Torrential rains aided the French, playing havoc with Brunswick’s lines of communication, and dysentery felled many men.

The government in Paris ordered Dumouriez, who believed the best way to thwart the invasion would be to invade the Austrian Netherlands, to move south and block Brunswick. On 1 September, along with the bulk of his army, he moved from Sedan and took up position in the passes of the Argonne. Although Dumouriez’s men fought well and bought valuable time, Brunswick’s troops took a lightly defended pass at Croix-aux-Bois, turning the French. Dumouriez then withdrew to Sainte-Manehould and Valmy, where he could threaten Brunswick’s flank. Kellermann joined him at Valmy south of the river Bionne on 19 September. The village of Valmy lay between hills to its north, west, and south.

The French generals had planned to withdraw farther west, but the appearance of Brunswick’s army early on the tenth from the north had cut off that route. Brunswick was now closer to Paris than were Dumouriez and Kellermann, but he needed to remove the French threat to his supply lines, and he had only about 30,000-34,000 men to accomplish this. Dumouriez’s exhausted force of 18,000 men formed a second line east of Valmy. Kellermann commanded the first French line of some 36,000 men, drawn up along a ridge topped by a windmill just west of Valmy. Kellermann’s force consisted of an equal mix of trained prewar soldiers and untrained but enthusiastic volunteers. Among French officers on the field that day was young Louis-Philippe, later king of the French.

Early morning fog on 20 September soon dissipated, and once he had identified the French positions, Brunswick positioned his own men on high ground some 2,500 yards to the west and prepared to attack. Brunswick had fifty-four guns; Kellermann only thirty-six. Brunswick was confident of victory, for his troops were far better trained.

The “Battle” of Valmy of 20 September was more a cannonade than anything else. It opened that morning when King Frederick William ordered the Prussian guns to bombard the French positions prior to an infantry assault. The French artillery, well handled by men of the preRevolutionary army, replied. A distance of some 2,500 yards between the two sides and soft ground from recent heavy rains meant that the exchange of fire inflicted little damage on either side. Nonetheless, the Prussians had expected the green French troops to break and run at the first volley and were amazed when they stood their ground.

The Prussian infantry then began an advance as if on parade across the soggy ground. Perhaps Brunswick hoped the French would bolt, but when they failed to do so, he halted his troops after about 200 yards. One French battalion after another took up the cry of “Vive la nation!” About 2:00 P. M. a lucky hit from a Prussian shell exploded an ammunition wagon near the windmill, and the French guns momentarily fell silent; then the battle resumed. Brunswick ordered a second advance, but his men got no farther than about 650 yards from the French. Brunswick then ordered a halt, followed by a retirement. At 4:00 P. M. he summoned a council of war and announced, “We do not fight here.”

Losses on both sides were slight: The Prussians lost 164 men, the French about 300. Brunswick had not been enthusiastic about the offensive that culminated at Valmy. He had wanted only to secure positions east of the Argonne in preparation for a major campaign the following spring. The movement farther west had been at the insistence of the king, and Brunswick now used the rebuff as an excuse to halt the offensive. The dispirited Prussian forces lingered in the area for ten days, but on the night of 30 September-1 October they broke camp and withdrew, recrossing the French border on 23 October.

Although, even had he won at Valmy, Brunswick would probably not have immediately moved against Paris, the battle ended any Allied hopes of crushing the French Revolution in 1792. The government in Paris then authorized Dumouriez to carry out his plan to conquer the Austrian Netherlands, and on 6 November forces under his command defeated the Austrians at Jemappes.

The Battle of Valmy marked the recovery of the French Army from its disastrous state early in the Revolution. It was important not only as a military and political event but also as marking the end of the age of dynastic armies with no stake in, nor understanding of the political purpose of, wars being fought, and the arrival of the new age of patriotic “national” armies. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was present that day, understood this. When some Prussian officers asked him what he thought of the battle, he reportedly replied, “From this place, and from this day forth, commences a new era in the world’s history; and you can all say that you were present at its birth” (Creasy 1987, 179).

LINK

LINK

NA SAN, DECEMBER 1952

On a crisp, sunny winter’s day on a red earth hilltop in North Vietnam, a young Californian named Howard Simpson was reluctantly fishing around with borrowed chopsticks in a lunchtime bowl of pho soup, while trying to ignore the stench of torn-up corpses festooning the barbed wire a few yards away. Simpson, a stocky World War II veteran with a broad smile and thick glasses, was an information officer from the US Embassy in Saigon. Part of his job was to monitor the use that the French Expeditionary Corps was making of the generous flow of US aid provided through the Military Advisory Assistance Group installed in Vietnam two years previously. He had hitched a flight here from Hanoi on a C-47 full of ammunition, to gather facts and impressions after what was being presented as a particularly significant French victory over the Communist Viet Minh insurgents.

The French theory was that even in the roadless wilderness of this ‘High Region’ a strong air–ground base could be implanted and kept supplied by airlift alone – a concept for which the British ‘Chindit’ campaign in Burma in 1944 offered encouraging precedents. The Viet Minh had been born as elusive guerrilla bands; but for two years now, with Chinese help, they had been reinventing themselves as a conventional army, with 10,000-man divisions and light mobile artillery. Such forces are a great deal more unwieldy to move and supply than furtive packs of guerrillas, and the French Air Force could hope to track and harass their marches, robbing them of surprise. By using their American-supplied transport aircraft to create and sustain strong garrisons in the hills, complete with field artillery for defence and paratroop battalions for aggressive sorties, the French high command hoped if not to block, then at least to channel and hamper the cross-country movement of Giap’s large regular formations, and to lure him into attacking them where they were strongest. Howard Simpson would be told that what had happened here at Na San seemed to vindicate that hope.

The garrison which had defended Na San over the previous few nights was a microcosm of the French Expeditionary Corps and its local allies. As he was jeeped across the camp Simpson saw French Colonial and Foreign Legion paratroopers, Legion infantry, North African riflemen, lowland Vietnamese from the Red River delta, and Thais recruited in the hills round about. Virtually all the officers were mainland Frenchmen or ‘blackfeet’ from France’s North African colonies. On previous occasions Simpson had not received a particularly warm welcome from the French Army in the field. Here at Na San, however, most of the officers of the Troupes Aéroportées d’Indochine (TAPI) and the Légion Étrangère were happy to drink the ‘Amerloque’s’ whisky and let him look around; they had a story that deserved to be told.

Since mid-October 1952 the Viet Minh’s military commander-in-chief, General Vo Nguyen Giap, had been leading three divisions of his best troops, trained and equipped by Communist China, deep into these Thai Highlands – the jumbled, forested hills of north-west Tonkin that straddled the border with Laos to the south. Until recently these sparsely populated highlands had played little part in France’s six-year-old Indochina War; the cockpit of the fighting against General Giap’s regulars had been the Red River delta, 100 miles away to the east. But after a first probe in October 1951, this last autumn Giap had opened a new front here in the High Region.

The tribal peoples of the border country had no love for Ho Chi Minh’s Communist cause, and the French had never needed to guard these hills with more than a chain of tiny forts scattered along the ridges between the Red and Black rivers, mostly garrisoned by local recruits. There were no usable roads, and apart from jungle tracks the lines of communication to these remote posts had been maintained by air. Few had airstrips that would take anything larger than small bush aircraft, and any large-scale resupply or reinforcement had to be done by parachute. Since October 1952, these little garrisons had been swept aside by Giap’s advance; French paratroopers had made sacrificial jumps to buy time for their retreat, and now the remaining defended islands in this green ocean had been pushed west of the Black River. Their anchor had been planted here, at Na San, where a dirt airstrip had been skinned with pierced steel plates to allow its use by the Air Force’s C-47s, and an entrenched camp had been created in Giap’s path with frantic haste. It was held by a mixed garrison of a dozen battalions, designated ‘Operational Group Middle Black River’ – GOMRN for short.

The defences of Na San were a series of dug-in positions surrounded with barbed wire and minefields, most of them manned by single companies of a hundred or so French troops, and arranged to occupy a rough ring of hilltops about 3 miles across that surrounded the airstrip cupped in the valley below. Inside this outer rampart GOMRN’s commander – a dour, one-eyed paratroop colonel named Jean Gilles – had built a continuous inner ring of entrenched strongpoints around the airstrip, headquarters, medical aid post, stores depots, and artillery and heavy mortar positions. But not all the garrison had arrived, the defences had not been fully prepared, and most of the vital artillery was not yet in place when the first Viet Minh units reached the area in the third week of November. In keeping with their guerrilla tradition, they arrived unannounced.

Strongpoint PA8 in the northern face of the inner ring was held by only 110 men – 11th Company, III Battalion of the Foreign Legion’s 5th Infantry Regiment – but it was exceptionally well built. Its commander, Captain Letestu, had served in the Maginot Line as a young ranker, and understood exactly how to lay out a defensive position; under his guidance his légionnaires had worked with a will, and their generous allocation of machine guns were well sited in sandbag ‘blockhouses’ pushed out to sweep the approaches to the wire. All this fieldcraft and labour might have gone for nothing on the night of 23/24 November. With neither warning nor preparatory fire, a Viet Minh battalion infiltrated right up to the northern wire of PA8 under cover of some nervous movement by Thai troops, and at about 8pm they tried to rush it. The only other officer, Lieutenant Durand, was killed at once, and Letestu led a small counter-attack force into a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the two enemy platoons that had got into the trenches. The Viet Minh were finally killed or driven out at about 9.30pm, by which time 11th Company had already lost 15 men dead or disappeared and as many again seriously wounded.

Meanwhile heavy mortar fire was falling on the southern part of the position, heralding another attack. In the absence of French artillery, Captain Letestu got in radio contact with the Foreign Legion mortar company in the central area, and although no fire plans had yet been prepared Lieutenant Bart managed to bring down the fire of his ten weapons on the threatened sector and the gullies approaching it.4 A company of 3rd Colonial Parachute Battalion from the central reserve was sent to reinforce PA8, arriving at about 11pm just in time to help hold off a dangerous attack; but Letestu was furious to overhear their commander Captain Guilleminot reporting that he had arrived to ‘retake the strongpoint’, and obliged him to get back on the radio and put the record straight. The wounded were now being cared for by the battalion medical officer Lieutenant Thomas, who with Sergeant Chief Rinaldi had disobeyed orders and crawled half a mile from the central camp to slip through the enemy ranks and the barbed wire.

The last attack came at about 12.30am; it was repulsed like the others, and a useful part was played by a ‘PIM’ – a Viet Minh prisoner long kept by the company as a tame porter. On his own initiative he replaced the wounded crew of one of the company’s 60mm mortars and loaded and fired it by himself. The enemy finally fell back under cover of darkness, taking most of their casualties with them, but 64 corpses and five abandoned wounded were found around the strongpoint. Next morning Colonel Gilles – not a man much given to public praise – told Captain Letestu that he had saved Na San; he also ordered the officers of the other strongpoints to come and examine Letestu’s ‘magisterial’ example of field fortification.

The Victory of Ligny: A Vanished Triumph

Battle of Ligny by Theodore Yung

Once again, Napoleon succeeded in surprising and destabilizing his enemy. He moved his forces to the frontier without the knowledge of the enemy, and at dawn on June 15 he seized Charleroi.

Having no inkling of this, Wellington and Blücher were shocked. The former even panicked slightly. Instead of moving toward Blücher as agreed, he took steps to move closer to the embarkation ports, a truly British reflex. The deception had produced its fruits.

The Prussian commander was less affected by the appearance of the French due to a base treason. General Count Louis de Bourmont, commander of a French division and an ex-émigré who had been generously pardoned, deserted to the enemy and revealed the entire campaign plan to Blücher, who could not conceal his contempt for the deserter. Aided by this information, Blücher assembled all his forces around Ligny, where he decided to give battle.

Napoleon’s scheme of maneuver was as simple as usual: attack and fix Blücher at Ligny with Grouchy’s force; take him in reverse, moving Ney’s group from Quatre Bras; and exploit the results with the main reserve under the direct orders of the emperor. But things did not go according to plan on June 16.

At 8 a.m. on Friday, 16 June Napoleon was informed that the whole of the Prussian army seemed to have assembled at Sombreffe, so he left for the extreme right flank of his forces to check for himself, arriving at Fleurus at 11 a.m. Sure enough, the Prussians were there, so he ordered Marshal Ney, who he assumed would take the Quatre Bras crossroads with relative ease, to despatch a large body of his force to him to help rout the Prussians.

By the time Ney received Napoleon’s rather florid instructions — ‘The fate of France is in your hands. Thus do not hesitate even for a moment to carry out the manoeuvre’— he was no longer capable of carrying them out. For if Wellington had been relatively slow in concentrating his forces upon Quatre Bras, fearing that it might be a feint of Napoleon’s, Ney had been still more dilatory, and by the time he started to try to take the crossroads the British reserve had already begun arriving there after a thirty-mile march. Although the credit for saving Quatre Bras must go to the initiative of General Constant Rebecque, the Dutch chief of staff, who was early on the scene and recognised its strategic importance, the actual outcome of the battle of Quatre Bras itself was due to Wellington himself.

Wellington had set out from Brussels at 3 a.m., and by 11 a.m. he was conferring with Blücher at the Brye windmill overlooking the battlefield of Ligny. It is said that he trained his telescope on Napoleon, the first time he had ever set eyes on the man with whose name his fame was to be forever inextricably linked. They had both been born on islands, they had both attended French military academies and spoke French as their second language; they were the same age, born within three months of one another in 1769; they both excelled at topography and chose Hannibal as their ultimate hero, yet they had never hitherto faced one another across a field of battle. Nor were they destined to on 16 June, since Wellington only had time to give Blücher his considered opinion as to the Prussian displacements before being called off to command the defence of Quatre Bras.

The Duke politely criticised Blücher’s decision to present the whole Prussian army to Napoleon’s view — and artillery — in the old Continental manner, explaining his own preference of trying to conceal soldiers behind the reverse slopes of hills. ‘My men prefer to see the enemy,’ replied the proud, brave, but in this case also foolhardy Prussian. Wellington’s private estimation as he rode off was: ‘If they fight here, they will be damnably mauled.’ Sure enough, when Napoleon attacked, they were.

Marshal Ney, the veteran of seventy battles, might have won the splendid soubriquet ‘the bravest of the brave’in numerous engagements, but he was not an impressive commander when left in overall charge, and there were also fears that he had been suffering from a form of ‘combat fatigue’or ‘battle stress’ ever since the gruelling Russian campaign of 1812, when he had been left to command the French rearguard after Napoleon had fled back to Paris. He had certainly become highly unpredictable by 1815, and was quite possibly simply burnt out as a soldier. Napoleon once complained that Ney understood less than the youngest drummer boy in the French army, and certainly piled complaint on complaint upon his actions — and inactions — during the Waterloo campaign when he was exiled on St Helena.

Ney, who had fallen for Wellington’s tactic of concealing his troops in the Peninsular War, only attacked at Quatre Bras late and half-heartedly, even though Wellington was not on the battlefield in the early stages and had not hidden any troops. Nor had Ney yet received Napoleon’s urgent request that he send the bulk of his force to Ligny. Instead two battles — at Ligny and Quatre Bras — developed simultaneously only about seven miles from each other. Ney had too often in the Peninsula seen the ill-effect of attacking British infantry head on, and quite possibly feared that the crossroads of Quatre Bras hid another Wellingtonian deception, in the way that in 1810 the use of topography had won him the battle of Busaco against Marshal Masséna.

Believing that Ney could manage to take Quatre Bras with the troops already under his command, Napoleon sent a message to General Drouet d’Erlon, who was on his way to reinforce Ney from Gosselies with the 1st Corps, to march to the battlefield of Ligny instead, where fierce house-to-house combat had developed. By 5 p.m. Blücher’s force was hard-pressed, and he had to commit his reserves to the struggle, a dangerous moment for any commander when facing Napoleon. Had the French emperor been able to fling d’Erlon’s fresh troops into the battle, a rout would have been assured. But no such force was there, not least because d’Erlon had been counter-ordered by Ney to march to Quatre Bras instead. As it was, d’Erlon arrived on neither battlefield in time to affect the outcome of either engagement. The greatest living authority on the campaigns of Napoleon, Dr David Chandler, has stated that the importance of the non-appearance of d’Erlon’s corps at Ligny and Quatre Bras was crucial, since ‘in either … its intervention could have been decisive’.12

By the time nightfall had descended on the battlefield of Quatre Bras it was clear that there was a stalemate, with both sides in much the same position they had occupied before Ney had originally attacked. Over 9,000 lives had been lost — roughly equally on each side — to no significant strategic advantage to either.

Yet over at Ligny a few miles to the east it was a very different picture. Even despite d’Erlon’s non-appearance, Napoleon had conclusively given Blücher the damnable mauling that Wellington had predicted. The Emperor had delayed launching an attack by his Imperial Guard — the crack regiments nicknamed ‘Les Invincibles — until 7.30 p.m., but when he had — preceded by a huge artillery bombardment — it had proved decisive. Crying ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ the Guard had charged the Prussian centre with bayonets, supported by brigades of cavalry. Although Blücher personally counterattacked with only two brigades of cavalry, the French could not be turned back.

Darkness turned the defeat into a rout. Sixteen thousand Prussians were killed or wounded at Ligny, and around 8,000 Rhinelanders deserted the colours that night and simply returned home. Nonetheless the decision was taken by Blücher’s chief of staff General August von Gneisenau — in Blücher’s absence, because the marshal could not be found — that the army should act in a completely counter-intuitive way. Instead of retreating eastwards towards Liège and Prussia, the Prussians would instead go north to Wavre, where they could stay in touch with the Anglo-Allied army. Gneisenau was an Anglophobe, but he had nevertheless made the crucial decision of the campaign, one that Wellington himself hardly exaggerated when he described it as ‘the decisive moment of the century’.

If Gneisenau had returned to Prussia, Wellington would probably have had to retreat north towards Antwerp and the Channel ports and probably re-embark the British army back to the United Kingdom, as had happened on so many other equally humiliating occasions over the past quarter-century. The Royal Navy were used to shipping defeated British forces back from a Napoleon dominated Continent, and this time would have been no different. Yet with the Prussians still in the field, and liaising closely, there was still the prospect that they could pull off the coup that Napoleon missed at Ligny, that of bringing a fresh force onto the battlefield at the psychologically vital moment.

The Prussian retreat northward necessitated Wellington making a similar manoeuvre, giving up the crossroads that had been so hard fought over only the previous day. He could not risk having the combined forces of Napoleon and Ney fall upon him, so Saturday, 17 June was spent retreating to a highly defensible position some miles to the north, on the slopes of Mont St Jean, which — despite the best efforts of generations of French historians — will always be generally known as the battlefield of Waterloo. Old Blücher has had a damned good licking and gone back to Wavre, eighteen miles,’ Wellington said. ‘As he has gone back, we must go too. I suppose in England they’ll say we have been licked. Well, I can’t help it.’It had happened enough in the past; whenever Wellington had made tactical retreats in the Peninsula there had never been a shortage of those he termed ‘croakers’, especially among the radical Whigs in the parliamentary opposition, keen to suggest that he had been defeated.

The French, too, were happy to argue that Wellington had been ‘licked’. Napoleon sent back a report of the battle of Ligny to be printed in the official government newspaper Le Moniteur which suggested that the united Prussian and Anglo-Allied armies had been defeated. The propaganda sheet duly obliged and there were celebrations in the French capital.

As for Drout d’Erlon, he wobbled all day between Ney and Napoleon without taking part in the fighting at Ligny or at Quatre Bras. After the incomplete victory of Ligny, everything had to be done over.

Line and column – ‘the great arguments’

French-Ordre-Mixte-640x371

A French Regiment or Brigade in Ordre Mixte with three battalions.

columns_at_Eylau

Infantry Tactics and Combat during the Napoleonic Wars.

A platoon of Imperial Guardsmen firing at will in a three-deep line. In the Reglement the first volley fired by each platoon was supposed to be simultaneous by each file, immediately followed by the next file, and so on, rolling along the platoon line. After that, everyone was supposed to fire at will at their own speed. This could vary widely, since the 1791 manual specified about 25 separate movements for loading and firing a single shot. This picture is based closely on the Reglement, with the platoon officer in his regulation place on the right flank; the men in the foreground stand straight upright with their feet correctly placed at right-angles, and the men of the second rank pass back their muskets to be reloaded by the third rank – an image perhaps more faithful to the regulations than to actual practice. Note also the man firing from the second rank over the left shoulder of his comrade – biting open a cartridge – in the front rank. Another perhaps idealized detail is the careful aim taken by individual soldiers, in an age when men got little target practice, and the battle-lines were blinded by powdersmoke.

#

However, the most heated tactical debates to be sparked by the Seven Years’ War were centred on how the ‘heavy’ infantry should fight, and these would tellingly become known as ‘les grandes querelles’. During the early part of the 18th century, the conventional wisdom had been that infantry should conduct both its approach march and then its combat action in lines three deep. This arrangement had the advantage of maximizing the continuous frontage that could be occupied on the battlefield, since, with a density of three men per 22 inches – each touching elbows with his neighbours – an army of 60,000 men could occupy a frontage of no less than 13km, or a little over 8 miles. Even allowing for a second or reserve line, the frontage would be 6.5km or almost 4.5 miles – which is still a major piece of real estate. A second, and possibly even more important advantage of the line formation was that, at least in theory, every soldier would be able to fire his musket or point his bayonet in a meaningful way.

In practice the third rank, and to some extent the second rank too, tended to find it somewhat difficult to fire or stab ‘through’ the front rank, and there were some reports of nasty injuries being inflicted on the latter. Nevertheless, it was normally deemed best to stick to three ranks rather than two (let alone one, although a few examples of both may be found in Napoleonic times), since the extra men in rear would provide moral support to the men in front, as well as physical file-fillers who could step forward to plug gaps in the event of heavy casualties. The ‘solidity’ of a three-deep line was deemed to be especially required when there was a serious threat from cavalry.

The line was thus the ‘classic’ or conventional formation for infantry, and it implied a battle based on firepower. Yet the disadvantage was that it was always difficult to keep a line in position unless a long time was spent in checking and re-checking its alignments. The task of maintaining every man in place over a 6-mile frontage was daunting indeed, and trebly so if they were all expected to move forwards, backwards or sideways in step with one another. Such a line was a formation that might potentially develop the highest firepower; but it was also a staff officer’s nightmare, and no one could ever claim that it offered high tactical mobility.

These advantages and disadvantages were dissected in great detail in the course of les grandes querelles, especially once an alternative approach – in the form of a ‘column’ attack – had been put forward by a number of writers such as Louis-Pierre de Puysegur, Jean-Charles de Folard, Franc;ois:Jean de Menil-Durand, and then Joly de Maizeroy. These writers suggested that the infantry should fight in columns, to exploit the supposed shock effect of a concentrated mass attack. Columns were much easier to manoeuvre than lines, particularly over broken ground; and there was also a Widespread belief that they were good for maintaining the morale of shaky troops, who would gain confidence by the close proximity of so many of their comrades.

The opponents of columns, such as Count Hippolyte de Guibert and the Chevalier Tronc;on du Coudray, were quick to reply that they were far more vulnerable to artillery fire. A cannonball could theoretically knock down only one file of three men in a line, whereas there would be many more men per file in a column; a deep column might well suffer a dozen men hit by each accurate round. This whole question of vulnerability to artillery was extensively debated, with the partisans of the column pointing out that lines were exceptionally vulnerable to enfilades and even, to some extent, to grape and canister. On the whole, however, the balance of opinion was that it was more dangerous to fight in columns than in lines when facing an opponent with powerful artillery.

Various different types of column were suggested, ranging from a dense formation of a whole Division of 6,400 men with a frontage of 80 files and a depth of 80 ranks, to what would come to be called the ‘column of attack’ or column by divisions, consisting of a battalion of 912 men with a frontage of about 76 files and a depth of 12 ranks. During the wars of 1792-1815 not only would all the theoretical types of column be seen on actual battlefields, but many new types would be invented or improvised. Some of the ‘monstrous’ columns would contain many more troops than the notional 6,400 of a Division, whereas some battalion columns of attack might turn out to contain as few as 200 men, on a frontage of less than 33 and a depth of just 6 ranks. It could be argued that the latter layout was only slightly deeper than a regulation line, and it was certainly a very far cry from the heavy sledgehammer formations imagined by De Puysegur and his followers.

Despite all these complexities and ambiguities, the key point at issue in les grandes querelles seemed to be a clear choice between the column (l’ordre profond) and the line (l’ordre mince). At first the debate was confined to pamphlets and memoranda; but in 1778 it was extended to a series of trials, with 30,000 real soldiers manoeuvring against each other at the camp of Vaussieux, near Bayeux in Normandy, commanded by the free-thinking Marshal the Duke of Broglie. The results of the trials were ambiguous and bitterly contested, but at least the believers in the line were forced to admit that columns could often have an important role, as a formation for troops waiting in reserve or advancing rapidly into the front line. Once arrived in or near the front line, however, there remained a great deal of scepticism that columns were best for a firefight: they made big targets, and could develop only a small proportion of their own firepower.

‘Fortress Tank’

France had fought World War I without a heavy tank. In July 1918, at the very end of that conflict, it began development of such a machine. Manufactured by FCM (Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée, Le Seyne, Toulon), the Char 2C was intended as a breakthrough tank or “Fortress Tank” (Char de forteresse), intended to lead the great Allied offensives that were planned for the spring of 1919. France planned to produce 300, but only 10 were ever built. This monster had a crew of 12, weighed some 152,100 pounds, and was powered by two Maybach or Daimler Benz 250-hp gasoline engines. It had a speed of 7.5 mph. The Char 2C had maximum 45mm armor and was armed with a turreted 75mm gun (later a 155mm) and four machine guns.

The Char 2C had a loaded weight of 69 tonnes, partly because of its armour – 45 mm at the front, 22 mm at the sides, but much of it just because of its huge size. The armour was among the thickest of World War I-era tanks, though by modern standards this would be considered thin. It is still easily the largest tank ever taken into production. With the tail fitted, the hull was over twelve metres long. Within its ample frame there was room for two fighting compartments. The first at the front, crowned by a three-man turret (the first in history) with a long 75 mm gun, and the second at the back, topped by a machine gun turret. Both turrets had stroboscopic cupolas. The three independent 8 mm machine gun positions at the front gave protection against infantry assault.

The Char 2C is the only super-heavy tank ever to attain operational status — a super-heavy tank is not simply a tank that is very heavy but one that is much heavier than regular tanks of its period. The next operational tank to weigh about the same would be the Tiger II heavy tank of World War II.

The fighting compartments were connected by the engine room. Each track was powered by its own 200 or 250 hp engine, via an electrical transmission. Top speed was 15 km/h. Seven fuel tanks, containing 1,260 litres, gave it a range of 150 kilometres.

To man the tank required a crew of twelve: driver, commander, gunner, loader, four machine gunners, mechanic, electrician, assistant-electrician/mechanic and a radio operator. Some sources report thirteen, probably due to pictures of the crews that included the company commander.

The ten tanks were part of several consecutive units, their organic strength at one time reduced to three. Their military value slowly decreased as more advanced tanks were developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 1930s they were largely obsolete, because their slow speed and high profile made them vulnerable to advances in anti-tank guns.

Nevertheless, during the French mobilisation of 1939, all ten were activated and put into their own unit, the 51st Bataillon de Chars de Combat. For propaganda, each tank had been named after one of the ancient regions of France, numbers 90-99 named Poitou; Provence; Picardie; Alsace; Bretagne; Touraine; Anjou; Normandie; Berry; Champagne respectively. In 1939, the Normandie was renamed Lorraine. As their main value was in propaganda, the giants were carefully kept from harm and did not participate in the September 1939 attack on the Siegfried Line. They were used for numerous morale-boosting movies, climbing and crushing old French forts instead. To the public, they obtained the reputation of invincible super tanks, the imagined dimensions of which far surpassing the real ones.

Of course, the French commanders knew perfectly well this reputation was undeserved. When the German Panzerdivisionen in the execution of Operation Fall Rot ripped apart the French lines after 10 June 1940, the decision was made to prevent the capture of the famous equipment. It was to be sent to the south by rail transport. On 15 June the rail was blocked by a burning fuel train, so it became inevitable to destroy the tanks by detonating charges. Later Goebbels and Goering claimed the tanks were hit by German dive bombers. This propaganda lie was to be repeated by many sources. One tank, the Champagne, was nevertheless captured more or less intact and brought to Berlin to be exhibited as a war trophy. In 1948 this tank disappeared, causing many to speculate it still survives at the Russian Tank museum in Kubinka.

In 1926, the later Champagne was modified into the Char 2C bis, an experimental type with a 155 mm howitzer in a cast turret. New engines were fitted and the machine gun positions deleted. In this configuration the tank weighed perhaps 74 tons. The change was only temporary though, as the vehicle was brought back into its previous condition the very same year; the new turret was used in the Tunisian Mareth Line.

Between 15 November and 15 December 1939 the Lorraine, as the company command tank, was experimentally up-armoured at the Société des Aciéries d’Homecourt to make it immune to standard German antitank guns. The front armour was enhanced to 90 mm, the side to 65 mm. In this configuration, weighing about 75 tons, the Lorraine had at that time the thickest armour of any operational tank, and is probably still the heaviest operational tank ever.

Char FCM 2C

LINK