By the time this treaty with Venice was concluded, Louis XII, King of France (1498–1515), was rid of one of his most determined opponents. Julius II died during the night of 20 February 1513. The new pope was Giovanni de’ Medici, who took the title Leo X. Much younger than Julius, he was not so belligerent and was far more subtle and changeable in diplomacy. Those who dealt with him would find him hard to read, except they soon discovered his fixed purpose to elevate the Medici into a princely dynasty: domination over Florence was not enough. Inevitably, his elevation to the papal throne strengthened his family’s position in Florence, and Leo would effectively dictate Florentine foreign policy.
As he prepared to try to recover Milan, Louis could not be sure what the new pope would do, nor count on the Florentines as allies. He might have hoped to have neutralized at least one opponent in Italy, making a truce with Ferdinand in April for a year. But the truce covered the border war between France and Spain, not Italy, so Ferdinand could still oppose the French there. Nevertheless, Cardona had already been ordered to return to Naples with the army, leaving the infantry behind in the pay of others, if possible.
Cardona had not left before the French invaded Milan. Under the command of La Trémoille and Giangiacomo Trivulzio, the French troops – 1,200-1,400 lances, 600 light horse and 11,500 infantry – crossed the Alps and mustered in Piedmont in mid-May, with 2,500 Italian troops. In late May Massimiliano was reported to have 1,200 Spanish and Neapolitan men-at-arms, 1,000 light horse, 800 Spanish infantry, 3,000 Lombard infantry and 7,000 Swiss. But Cardona, having sent troops to help Massimiliano defend the north-west of the duchy, quickly withdrew them, thus facilitating the rapid French advance. He kept his men at Piacenza, which he had taken over with Parma for Massimiliano after the death of Julius. In order to secure the pope’s support against the French, Massimiliano agreed to give them up to Leo, but no papal troops were sent to help him. The duke was left with the Swiss and what Lombards rallied to his defence. On the other side, d’Alviano was under orders from Venice to join up with the French only if the Spanish joined up with the Swiss. The Venetians were confi dent that, lacking men-at-arms, the Swiss alone should not pose much of a problem for the French, and the campaign would soon be over.
By early June, the French had overrun much of the west of the duchy. In Genoa, with the aid of a French fleet, the Adorno and Fieschi deposed Doge Giano Campofregoso and Antoniotto Adorno became governor there for Louis. In the east, the Venetian army under Bartolomeo d’Alviano took Cremona; Lodi and the Ghiaradadda rose against Massimiliano. The city of Milan, where a French garrison still held the fortress, was in confusion, waiting to see the outcome of the campaign. Only the areas around Como and Novara, where the Swiss were concentrated, still held for Massimiliano, who was at Novara.
Throughout the winter, Louis had been trying to come to an accord with the Swiss. The seriousness of his intent was signalled by his sending La Trémoille and Trivulzio to Lucerne to conduct the negotiations, and his ordering the surrender of the fortresses of Locarno and Lugano to the Swiss. Happy to have the fortresses, but not to have the French back in Milan, in response to the invasion the Swiss rapidly organized and despatched several thousand reinforcements. These headed for Novara; news of their approach made La Trémoille decide on 5 June to raise the siege of the city that had just begun. A column of 7,000-8,000 Swiss skirted the French positions and entered Novara that day, to join the 4,000 already there with Massimiliano.
By nightfall, the French had travelled only a few miles, and the units made camp where they halted, dispersed as they were for the march. Consequently, they were ill-prepared for the attack launched by the Swiss before dawn. The Swiss had little artillery and only a few light horse with them, and the terrain, divided by ditches bordered by bushes, could have favoured the defenders had they had time to take position behind them. But the Swiss kept their disciplined battle order under fi re from the French artillery and overcame the infantry. The stiffest resistance they encountered was from about 6,000 landsknechts, who took the heaviest casualties when they were left to fight alone after the French and Italian infantry were routed. The French men-at-arms made little effort to defend them; the ground was not suited to the deployment of heavy cavalry. Nearly all the French horse escaped unscathed, abandoning their pavilions and the baggage train to the Swiss. Their artillery was captured too, and the elated Swiss dragged it back to Novara, with their own wounded men.
The battle of Ariotta (Novara) marked the zenith of the military reputation of the Swiss during the Italian Wars. Around 10,000 men, the majority of whom had reached Novara only hours before after several days’ march (and without waiting for 3,000 further reinforcements who were hard on their heels), with virtually no supporting cavalry and very little artillery, had routed a numerically superior French army, including a contingent of landsknechts almost as large as the main battle square of around 7,000 men the Swiss had formed, over terrain ill-adapted to manoeuvring such a large formation in good order. It was a tribute to the training and discipline, as well as the bravery and physical hardiness, of the Swiss infantry. The element of surprise had of course helped them, together with the fact the French army had been so widely spread out and had not prepared a defensive position, but this did not detract from the achievement of the Swiss or the humiliation of the French.
After the rout of the French army, the Spanish finally joined the Swiss to drive them out of Italy. Cardona sent 400 lances under Prospero Colonna to support Massimiliano. He also sent Ferrante Francesco d’Avalos, marchese di Pescara, with 3,000 infantry and 200 light horse to Genoa to assist the Fregoso faction in deposing Antoniotto Adorno on 17 June and replacing him with Ottaviano Campofregoso as doge. This displeased the Swiss, who had already made advantageous terms with Adorno. The Swiss took Asti, advanced in Piedmont and pillaged much of Monferrato.
It was evident that Louis could not send another expedition to Italy that year. In France, he was facing an invasion in the north by Henry VIII of England and Maximilian; Henry took Thérouanne and Tournai, and in August inflicted another humiliating defeat on the French at Guinegatte. That month the Swiss invaded Burgundy, laying siege to Dijon. La Trémoille made a treaty with them promising large payments and renouncing the king’s claim to Milan. The Swiss withdrew, but Louis would not ratify the treaty.
More than ever, the Swiss dominated the duchy of Milan. Massimiliano acknowledged the debt he owed for the blood they had shed to secure his rule, and agreed extra payments and compensation to those who had fought for him, totalling 400,000 Rhenish florins. But he did not have the money to satisfy them, nor could he afford to pay them to attack the Venetians, as Cardinal Schinner suggested.
Swiss and Landsknechts – Rivalry and Blood-Feud
Swiss ﬁghters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good ﬁghters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.
A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.
The ﬁght was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery ﬁre alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even ﬁght each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery ﬁre, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.
In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:
• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.
• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.
• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.
The Madagascar Expedition of 1895 was the most disastrous colonial campaign of the Third Republic. Orchestrated by a number of interests, which included a clutch of deputies from the island of La Réunion intent upon annexation and Catholics who had never pardoned the Hova monarchy its 1868 conversion to Protestantism, the expedition got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. This need not have been the case, for two months before October 1894, when the French took advantage of a rebellion against Hova rule over the island to present the Malagasy prime minister with a proposal to establish a French protectorate, an interministerial commission had been hard at work planning a military expedition in anticipation of a Hova refusal. So, when in November 1894 it was made official that Madagascar would be forced to accept a French protectorate at the point of a bayonet, military preparations were already well advanced.
Alas, this did not guarantee their efficiency. The source of the problems, the critics believed, stemmed from the decision to confide the expedition to the army rather than to the marines, which won the Madagascar contract simply because they had underbid the navy for the honor of attacking the “Red Isle” by thirty million francs.1 Although army units had been present during the conquest of Tonkin, and the Legion continued to serve there, army officers had had little experience in colonial campaigning since Mexico. The French foreign minister at the time of the decision to invade Madagascar, Gabriel Honotaux, later excused the mistakes of the war ministry, whose “organization is not made for that, which does not have the necessary contacts with the colonial world so that from one day to the next it can recruit from all over the globe the means which it needs.” Due to lack of experience, the army desperately underestimated the requirements of the Madagascar expedition, which helped to explain their low bid.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to argue that the experience of other colonial campaigns was totally ignored by the committee that met in August 1894 to draw up a plan of campaign. Nor was their plan necessarily a bad one. In one month, representatives of the ministries of war, the navy, the colonies and the foreign office manufactured an invasion blueprint that, they believed, would require twelve thousand men to overcome a semi-organized Hova army of forty thousand. The objective of the operation was Antananarivo (Tananarive), the capital of the Hova people who dominated the northern half of the island, situated in Madagascar’s mountainous interior. Majunga on Madagascar’s west coast was chosen as the port of entry. Not only did it offer a large harbor, but also it stood at the mouth of the Betsiboka River, which, when combined with its tributary the Ikopa, provided a navigable route about 160 miles deep into the Hova heartland. Estimates put the number of porters and mule drivers required to support them for the remaining distance to Tananarive at eighteen thousand to twenty thousand. However, it was reckoned that this number could be reduced to five thousand by using the voiture Lefèbre—two-wheeled metal wagons invented in 1886, which came in kits and weighed about five hundred pounds when assembled. A final, and ultimately extremely controversial, decision taken by the committee was to depend essentially upon white troops, many of them from metropolitan units, to furnish two-thirds of the combatants, thereby reversing the proportions of white and native troops used in Dahomey. Worse, many of these white troops would come out of metropolitan units, which were neither experienced nor acclimatized to campaign conditions outside of Europe.
Knowledgeable marine officers criticized this plan almost immediately. Leaving aside for the moment the heavy dependence upon white troops, something that flew straight in the teeth of conventional colonial military wisdom, their objections were essentially two: The first was that Majunga was simply too far from Tananarive, and possibly on the wrong side of the island. The use of other ports on the east coast of Madagascar as a staging area, in particular the commercial port of Vatomandry through which most of the supplies including weapons arrived for Tananarive, would have cut the distance the invaders marched by two-thirds. A combination of Vatomandry and, say, Tamatave or Andevoranto might also have allowed the French to use separate columns to converge from different directions upon their objectives. The second objection was that the invasion force, which, excluding reinforcements sent later, eventually numbered almost fifteen thousand fighting men and seven thousand porters, was simply too large and too heavy. While the Hova army appeared formidable on paper, there were probably no more than ten thousand of them able to bear arms. A light force of five thousand fresh colonial troops, shorn of the impediments of heavy artillery and wagons included by the committee, and backed by eight thousand mules and porters, could make quick work of the Hovas.
As will be seen, many of these criticisms were proved correct by events. However, the committee invasion plan was not foreordained to near disaster. Many of the problems were not so much with the plan as with the plan’s execution. After all, Madagascar was a far larger country than Dahomey and its government was far more sophisticated than that of Behanzin, although the veneer of civilization reflected in the quasi-European aspect of its capital and the Christianity of its Hova inhabitants was a very thin one. Its army, even if not up to European standards, possessed some modern weapons and counted foreign mercenaries, particularly English officers, in its command. Furthermore, the mountainous interior offered many opportunities for even a half-trained force to make heroic stands in high passes and narrow defiles. It was perhaps acceptable for headstrong colonial officers to count upon a large degree of incompetence in their enemy when making campaign plans. But this was a more dangerous assumption to make from the vantage point of Paris, even if the Hovas proved feckless and incompetent beyond the wildest imaginations even of marine officers. The greatest mistake of the committee, however, was not in their choice of Majunga or in the numbers they dispatched to Madagascar. Rather, it lay with their failure to factor the problems of execution, what German military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz called “friction,” into their calculations.
From the sea, the Madagascan landfall at Majunga appeared inviting in April 1895, especially after days spent on transports that now smelled strongly of manure and human negligence, and where even the food had taken on the flavor of soot and coal dust. A spit of sand that separated the Indian Ocean from the Bay of Majunga, about five miles wide at its entrance, led from the water to the European quarter, a tiny grid of streets bearing names far grander than the modest architecture of the wooden houses shaded by large mango trees that bordered them appeared to merit. Behind this small concession to order, a modern chaos of native huts spread to the foot of a beautifully wooded hill, whose low summit was crowned by a small fort, crumbled and blackened by the naval bombardment it had suffered on January 15, 1895.
When Captain Emile Reibell invoked officer’s privilege to flee his stinking ship ahead of the general disembarkation, he quickly discovered two of the reasons why Madagascar would prove to be a tough nut to crack. His first night on shore, spent in a deck chair that he unfolded on the beach, was a torment of swarming insects.
The fact that some of these insects were the cause of “fevers,” and therefore constituted enemies far more lethal than most colonial opponents (especially the Hovas) was at that very moment in the process of being discovered. Nevertheless, even the dullest commander abroad had known for years that low swampy terrain was unhealthy and should be crossed as rapidly as possible.
The reason why the expedition’s commanding general, Charles Duchesne, had not moved quickly into the relatively healthy highlands became Reibell’s second discovery—all was confusion at Majunga. Engineers building a wharf into the ocean soon struck a coral reef that made the approach of large ships impossible, so that the process of unloading became lengthy and tedious. Worse, the Bay of Majunga, which stretched fifty miles to the mouth of the Betsiboka River and which appeared to be a haven of safety to mapbound Parisians, proved to have a swell that would swamp the rivercraft that had been unloaded in pieces and assembled on the Majunga beach. Therefore, the river support system upon which the French had counted to take them deep into the island was scratched from the beginning. Duchesne’s next option to move his expedition forward was to turn to porters. However, this proved impossible, essentially because the planners had skimped on this requirement to save money. Frantic efforts to recruit porters from as far away as Indochina collected only 1,400 men, mostly Somalis from the African mainland. Virtually the only successful recruitment of porters was carried out in Algeria by Major Francois Lamy, a tirailleur officer, who produced 3,500 volunteers, mainly highland Kabyles, by March. When news of the expedition’s logistical difficulties became known, and especially the failure of Indochina to deliver on its promise of 2,000 porters, a further recruiting drive in Algeria netted 2,000 men, mostly the flotsam of Algerian cities and therefore less handy than the Kabyles. These, together with a few Sakalave tribesmen recruited locally, produced 7,715 “auxiliaries” to support an invading army of 658 officers and 14,773 troops.
While small, this proportion of porters was not substantially different from the numbers projected by the planning committee. Rather than carry goods themselves, however, as was the practice in the remote areas of Indochina and Dahomey, the role of these auxiliaries, especially those from Algeria, was to conduct the Lefèbvre wagons pulled by mules. For experienced colonial soldiers, the decision to include two thousand of these wagons in the provisions of the expedition had been a curious one. Of course, the original purpose had been to employ them at the end of the river network to support the final push toward Tananarive. Perhaps the ministry denizens in Paris had envisioned the Lefèbvre wagons lumbering like Conestogas across the clean Madagascan highlands. But now they had to be used in the tropical lowlands. However, here it was quite obvious that they could not advance without a road. So General Duchesne ordered his troops to build one.
The initial reaction of the Hova government to the French invasion appeared to be a sort of agitated apathy, a fact that the Englishman E. F. Knight put down to the fact that the French had bribed many of the court into a state of, if not outright treason, at least one of cautious procrastination. An army was mobilized, which included veterans of the war with the French ten years earlier and younger conscripts, and installed in a large camp outside of Tananarive. “They were a ragged lot, and discipline there appeared to be none,” Knight wrote.
When paraded before the PM or some other great man, they used to raise cheers and brandish their arms, while their officers waved their swords with ridiculous gestures and simulated the slaughter of the foe. These were practically the sole manoeuvres, for the drill their European officers had taught them was now neglected as foreign trickery unworthy of Hova warriors.
Apart from a royal guard armed with Remingtons, about half the army carried rusty Snyders. However, only ten to fifteen bullets had been issued per soldier on the pretext that as each bullet would “kill a man,” stocks were then more than adequate to deal with the French. The rest of Her Majesty’s Forces were armed with muskets and even bows and arrows. “Soldiering in Madagascar for a native was a calling devoid of allurement,” wrote the Englishman Bennet Burleigh, who covered the war from Tananarive for the Daily Telegraph. “There was no commissariat, no pay, no outfit except a rifle, a few rounds of ball cartridge, and a bit of calico.” Indeed, robberies carried out by unpaid, starving soldiers became a real nuisance in the capital.
As the French forces disembarked at Majunga from January to April and advanced inland, the morale of the Hova army, already fragile, eroded further. The Legion contribution to the expedition consisted of a bataillon de marche of eight hundred men drawn equally from the two Legion regiments, which were organized into a régiment d’Algérie with two battalions of Algerian tirailleurs. On May 2, 1895, Marovoay, a town at the mouth of the Betsiboka, was attacked by a French force. Despite strong fortifications, and the fact that they outnumbered the French, the Hovas fled after a bombardment by French gunboats, but apparently not before killing their commander, whom they accused of treason. When on June 9 a battalion of the Legion participated in the capture of Maevatanana, a town on the Ikopa River, from an enemy that bolted so quickly that the legionnaires were unable to cut off their flight, morale plummeted in Tananarive. One Hova soldier told E. F. Knight that at Maevatanana he had been frightened by the “invisible death…. ‘There was no smoke,’ he said. ‘There was scarcely any noise, and yet our men fell in hundreds. We believe that there was magic in it.’ ”
Yet this gloom turned to the brightest optimism when it was learned that Duchesne had stopped his advance to build a road. Knight reported that even the Hovas could not understand why the French did not advance beyond
sickly Maevatanana. We heard that their men were dying like rotten sheep, that their transport had completely broken down, and that they were altogether in terrible straits. We were at a loss to understand how any sane general could keep his force so long in the deadly lowlands instead of pushing on, without delay, at any cost, to the healthy highlands, which were but a few day’s march distant.
How, indeed! Each morning at six o’clock the soldiers took up their shovels, which they had christened “rifle model 1895,” and began leveling the hard red clay into a roadway three meters wide that ran along the right banks of the Betsiboka and Ikopa Rivers. At ten o’clock work was suspended during the heat of the day, and then resumed until five-thirty in the evening. Lieutenant Langlois found that his legionnaires, often working up to their waists in the swamps of the Betsiboka, quickly became depressed: “Nothing is more enervating, discouraging than these long days, these interminable evenings spent in the rot of the swamps,” he wrote in June, “in the middle of the slime, beneath a terrible sun, always surrounded by the same yellow, rocky countryside, always sent to sleep by the plaintive cries of stray dogs.” Furthermore, the logistical system had virtually broken down, so that legionnaires lived virtually by slaughtering stray cattle left behind by the inhabitants. Still, this was insufficient to sustain men engaged in heavy roadwork. Malnutrition, when combined with low morale, hastened death: “Many men are dying at Tsarasotra,” Langlois reported a month later. “All day our men make crosses, dig graves, and every evening it is always the same funereal and lugubrious alignment of white cadavers. Nevertheless, we have grown used to these macabre spectacles, and we live almost indifferently next to that which, two months ago, would have had us all crying.” “Our men are terribly fatigued,” Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Louis Lentonnet of the régiment d’Algérie recorded in his diary on June 11. “The fevers strike down more each day. If this goes on much longer, no one will be spared.” This was no exaggeration. Brigade aid stations and field hospitals allocated to the expedition, calculated on the basis of 1,500 casualties, proved to be desperately inadequate, in part because the budget director believed that medical services were an area in which he could make savings. They soon filled to overflowing with soldiers racked with malaria and dysentery. “Still the roadworks,” Lentonnet catalogued on June 15. “We can no longer count the victims. And for what? To drag behind us the Lefebvre wagons. Whomever decided to send them to Madagascar is a real murderer. The cemeteries are filling up. When are we going to march forward?”
But Duchesne persisted, and persisted. The obvious question to ask is, why did he not look at other options? For instance, from the beginning, when it became obvious that his river support system would not work, he might have shifted his force by transport to the east coast, where as early as December 1894 the French navy had established a base at Tamatave. A second option would have been to hold his troops at Majunga or even at the substantial French naval base of Diégo-Suarez at the northern tip of the island until the problems of river supply could be sorted out, which they were, at least in part, by July through a combination of requisition and improvisation. “How many lives would have been saved if this system had functioned from the 15th of April, as it was supposed to!” wrote Reibell. A third option would simply have been to organize a light force sooner, using the Algerian porters and their mules as logistical support.
Yet he selected none of these options. Perhaps he felt constrained to follow the ministry plan, or felt the river route too insecure or uncertain to supply his army. As a veteran of the Second Empire who had fought in the costly conquests of Tonkin and Formosa, Duchesne simply accepted lack of food and high losses to disease as a normal part of campaigning. Nor was he alone: Silbermann was as horrified as his colonel when, during the 1900 China expedition, a group of young marines came to complain about the lack of food. “We had no right to complain,” he believed, “for we were all volunteers and when you go on campaign, you don’t go to a banquet.” It may also have been the case that tenacity and willpower, considered essential military virtues, in Duchesne’s case, as well as that of his chief-of-staff, General de Torcy, suffocated imagination and flexibility of mind. Langlois described Duchesne as “a little taller than average. His body, a trifle stooped, testifies to the fatigues endured in Tonkin and Formosa. What is immediately striking is his profoundly energetic and tenacious expression. One immediately feels in the presence of an iron will.” In any case, Duchesne’s conduct of the Madagascar campaign did not hurt his career, for he became a member of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre, reserved for the most senior generals.
Unfortunately, Duchesne’s iron will proved more durable than the bodies of his soldiers. By August, the work camps along the Betsiboka and the Ikopa were fringed with forests of crosses and peopled with men emaciated by dysentery and malaria, who “no longer have the strength to go to the Latrine,” wrote Legion Lieutenant Langlois. “They are living putrescence, real moribunds.” Officers who once attempted to encourage faltering soldiers with a word or a drink from their canteen now did neither: “The heart grows hard, [and] in the end one passes by with indifference, head low, before the victims of fatality,” wrote Reibell. By the end of the month, Langlois complained that Legion companies, normally two hundred strong, had been reduced to “seventy or seventy-five men. Entire units have disappeared.” In fact, the Legion, although badly off, still had 450 of its original 800 men able to answer roll call on September 1.
Légionnaire, Madagascar, 1900 The soldier illustrated is serving with one of the companies which returned to Madagascar to put down prolonged rebellions at the turn of the century. In fact the only way in which he differs from those involved in the original invasion is in the gaiters; the short, laced black leather model was first issued in 1900, prior to which the trousers were simply gathered at the ankle and tied, or allowed to fall free over the ankle-boot. The humidity and heat of this region led to a general adoption of shirt-sleeve order in the field, although the steel blue-grey capote is carried on the pack, as are pots and pans, spare boots and bivouac poles. The Negrier pouch is still worn, together with the two leather belt pouches for Lebel ammunition. The white shirt and trousers of coarse linen or canvas are standard Legion fatigue issue.
Other units had fared far worse—the 200th Infantry Regiment, formed of conscripts, most of whom had been drawn by lot from twelve designated metropolitan infantry regiments, had virtually ceased to exist. Of 800 Chasseurs à Pied recruited in part among French Alpine troops, only 350 were able to hold a rifle, barely. Yanked from their worksite and thrown into an attack against Hova positions on June 30, a great many men simply fell exhausted on the ground. “Half of the unit had to be evacuated,” wrote Reibell, “and the rest is anemic, spent, can never, with the exception of a few men, press on.” Engineering units, used to build, or rather attempt to build, bridges over the swamps had been destroyed—when Duchesne saw ten soldiers led by three officers marching back from a bridge worksite, he is alleged to have shouted, “That’s a lot of officers for so few men!” That, however, was what remained of a company of engineers. Only 20 of the original 150-man contingent of Chasseurs d’Afrique were able to mount a horse. The 13th Marine Infantry Regiment, 2,400 strong when they disembarked at Majunga in March, was reduced to 1,500 men.
As the Dahomey campaign had shown, by far the most resistant troops were the native formations. The ragged but resistant régiment colonial formed of Hausas and Malagasies and volunteers from the island of La Reunion counted only 600 casualties, most of them Réunionais. The prize for resistance, however, went to the Algerian tirailleurs, who had lost only 450 of their original 1,600 men.28 Reibell reported that the general staff was singing the praises of the Algerians. It was a pity that they had not included more of them in their plans. And despite the praise lavished upon the Algerians, Lentonnet complained that the Legion was repeatedly favored over his Algerians in the distribution of supplies, which “produces a bad impression in our ranks.”
However, if the Algerian tirailleurs were winning the praises of the staff, the Algerians recruited to work as mule and wagon drivers soon found themselves bearing the brunt of the blame for the poor conditions on the march. This was in part a logical extension of their association with the Lefèbvre wagons, which the men had come to see as the symbol of their misery and the cause of so many deaths among their comrades. Langlois’s legionnaires nicknamed them “La Fièvre” (fever) wagons, and greeted their arrival in camp with “the most unanimous and energetic shouts and catcalls. We hate them, these miserable vehicles. . . . Some soldiers even spit on them, as if [the wagons] could understand and suffer from the abuse with which they are covered.”
They also began to hate those who looked after them, a tendency that was encouraged, according to Reibell, by some staff officers who cited deliberate sabotage by the Kabyle conductors for the expedition’s difficulties rather than their poor planning and organization. The Kabyles were accused of stealing supplies destined for the front and even of making the return trip of the evacuated soldiers piled in the bins of the Lefèbvre wagons so miserable that many died. No doubt some of these accusations were true. However, it was obvious that the logistical planning of the expedition had been so haphazard as to be almost criminally negligent. As demonstrated in Tonkin and Dahomey, porterage was a crucial element in the success of a campaign, as critical as the combative qualities of the troops. In Dahomey, Dodds had assembled 1,858 porters for a force of 1,366 men, and given strict orders that they “be treated without brutality,” be paid regularly and carry no more than thirty kilos. Each soldier was assigned a porter who carried his pack. And while these orders were not always followed to the letter, especially as the campaign became more difficult and more porters attempted flight, at least they sustained the Dahomey column well in the opening weeks, when it virtually destroyed the Dahoman army.
By contrast, in Madagascar the requirement for porters and drivers had been desperately underestimated, so that, even with the Lefebvre wagons, soldiers had to carry their own packs, which added to their fatigue. Furthermore, planners had placed the Algerian porters and drivers low on their priority list—even on the ship out from Algeria, Reibell discovered that desperately inadequate arrangements had been made to feed the Kabyles. Once on shore, they had been expected to work all day and then virtually fend for themselves. “The Kabyles, who have been worn out and abused, are at the end of their tether,” Reibell recorded in September. “The hospitals refuse to receive them on the pretext that there is no room. No one looks after them even though they have the worst job to do. They leave before first light and arrive at the staging hut after midnight, battered, lacking food, sores on their feet and legs.” “Among these poor, ragged, pitiful devils, I was amazed to see a child perhaps ten years old at the most,” Legion Lieutenant Langlois wrote in August. “Like his comrades, he bravely led his mule, stretching out his little legs to follow the animal.”
Even Duchesne began to realize that, despite the arrival of reinforcements, his force was wasting away to the point that soon it would be incapable of combat. According to his report to the French parliament, on August 4 he took the decision to create a light column to press forward to Tananarive. Nevertheless, this column could not be created, he believed, until the road had reached Andriba, which would serve as the staging area for the projected offensive. In early September, the road, such as it was, was declared complete, and the light column began to form at Mangasoarina on the plain of Andriba. Three hundred fifty tons of supplies were collected there, and reinforcements, including 150 legionnaires, joined the force: “The most impressive of all these relief detachments was that of the Legion,” Reibell, who had seen them disembark at Majunga in mid-August, wrote. When, on September 12, Langlois witnessed the review of the men, including a battalion of the Legion, whom Duchesne had selected for the light column, he was less impressed. There, surrounded by the naked red mountains of Madagascar, 1,500 men stood to attention,
so dejected, so depressed, so pale, that one would have believed them more dead than alive. Their clothes were in rags, their boots in pieces, their helmets, too large for their emaciated heads, fell to their shoulders, covering almost entirely their yellow faces where only eyes the color of fever seemed to exist. And they seemed so pathetic, so poor, so miserable, that unconsciously tears came to the eyes.
On September 14, the light column left Andriba. In the van was the régiment d’Algérie, made up of two battalions of Algerian tirailleurs and a battalion of the Legion. A second group had at its nucleus the aptly named régiment mixte, which contained a battalion of the 13th Marine Infantry Regiment and some Malagasies and Senegalese. In the rear, the remnants of the 200th Infantry Regiment and some more Africans and marines guarded the convoy. In all, 4,013 soldiers led by 237 officers and followed by 1,515 mule drivers and 2,809 mules left for Tananarive. Some pessimists were already calling this march “the suicide of General Duchesne,” but Langlois’s legionnaires were already dreaming of the riches to be found in the capital. Nevertheless, it was apparent as the column made its way off the plateau of Andriba and up the narrow valley of the Mamokomita that the countryside of rocky, naked slopes rising to jagged summits would be difficult enough to march through, much less fight over if a determined enemy chose to defend it. Therefore, it was with great relief that the column, after a march of seven miles, arrived at the foot of Mount Tafofo at the end of the Mamokomita defile to find it undefended.
The view from the summit was glorious—three large mountain massifs separated by valleys whose floors, made green by marshes, cacti and mango trees, contrasted with the stark, boulder-strewn slopes. However, hardly a mile and a half away a Hova army was in the process of throwing up fortifications along a ridge line near the village of Tsmainondry, which blocked the column’s projected line of march up the Firingalava valley. At dawn on the following morning, Duchesne launched his troops into the attack. The task of the Legion was to carry out a frontal assault, wading through the marshes that covered the valley floor and attacking up the slopes, while other units flanked the positions. However, hardly were they through the marshes than the Hova artillery opened up. Fortunately, few of their shells exploded. The legionnaires began to fire on the offending batteries from over two thousand yards away, inaccurate from such a great distance, but enough to send the Hova troops dressed in their white lambas, a shawl-like garment, scattering like the flocks of aquatic birds that the legionnaires had raised while wading through the marsh. “One of the defenders, probably believing that his resistance had been sufficient, got up, looked around, and bolted off with no self respect,” wrote Langlois.
The entire trench, worried, became agitated. Two or three other men got up, looked about, and…, like their comrade, took French leave. That proved too much for the delicate morale of the intrepid warriors of Ranavalo. As one man, like those jack-in-the-boxes pushed out on their springs, they suddenly surged out of the back of the parapets and disappeared rapidly down the thousands of ravines which furrowed the terrain, throwing away their arms so as to run faster. We saluted this grotesque flight with the most energetic catcalls.
Yet the undignified retreat of the Hovas before Tsmainondry, while gratifying, simply allowed the French to march on to the next, and many believed the most formidable, obstacle of the campaign, the Ambohimenas mountains. The route of the column climbed the valley of the Firingalava river, wading through torrents that spilled down mountainsides so steep that only with difficulty could the mules be kept from tumbling into the water below. The fatigue of the men was obvious, and a wake of stragglers trailed behind the advancing French who, on the 17th, could see the great mass of the Ambohimenas, which lay across their path in the distance. Duchesne made camp to allow the remainder of the plodding column to catch up, and on the 18th ordered a night march to approach the Hova defense lines. The men ate their meager rations and then bent into a path that led straight up the mountainside. “The men . . . advanced with great difficulty,” according to Langlois. “We were obliged to use clubs to make these poor feverish men march. We struck them with a heavy heart, but absolutely convinced that our duty and their interest commanded it. All who remained behind are lost men.”
When dawn broke, the Hova fortifications were visible atop the high ridge to the front. The régiment d’Algérie was given the task, once again, of mounting a frontal assault, while the régiment mixte climbed the mountain to turn the Hova positions on the flanks. As the legionnaires approached, puffs of black powder smoke appeared from the heights, but the defenders were firing from a distance too great to cause any damage. The Hova artillery soon joined in, but it shot badly. Even though the legionnaires and tirailleurs were still over a mile away, the line of Hovas in their white lambas lower down the slopes rose up and began grappling their way toward the fortifications on the summit, sowing panic. Duchesne ordered his legionnaires and tirailleurs forward toward groups of men milling around some of the fortifications that had yet to be abandoned, when the appearance of the marines and Malagasy tirailleurs, recruited among Sakalave tribesmen, traditional enemies of the Hovas, on the ridge to their flank precipitated a complete panic. “Despite the fact that our troops were beginning to become accustomed to the speed with which the Hovas ordinarily break off the combat,” Duchesne reported, “they had the profound surprise to see them abandon completely their formidable positions and beat a retreat along the entire front.”
The French now stood on the threshold of the Hova heartland. From the naked heights of the Ambohimenas, they could look out over a spread of plateaus covered by a checkerboard of rice paddies and small villages surrounded by hedges of cactus. All that lay before them now was a few days of hard marching. According to E. F. Knight, the Malagasy commander-in-chief had told his prime minister that “I can do nothing. My men will not stand. They run away as soon as they perceive that two or three of their friends have been killed. Nothing will stop them.” An English officer trying to put some backbone into the Hova army told him that, in their panic to get away from the French attack on the Ambohimenas, fully 300 soldiers had tumbled over a precipice and been killed. Soldiers had bribed their officers to run away “so as to have an excuse for saving their own skins,” which had reduced the army, which had numbered around 7,000 on September 12, to 1,313 starving men by September 23. To be fair to the Hovas, on the Ambohimenas their soldiers probably had shot up what little ammunition they had been given while the French were still well out of range. The Hova government was calling up miserable peasants and even prisoners, who passed through the streets of Tananarive shackled by the neck, to carry out a last-ditch defense of the capital.
However, the ability of the French to take advantage of Hova confusion and demoralization was impaired by their own condition, which verged upon utter collapse—the light column was barely in a fit state to lurch forward, much less administer a knockout punch. Langlois believed that the mere effort to climb the Ambohimenas had cost the attackers a tenth of their strength. Patrols sent out returned only with corpses already stiff with death, victims of the night cold of the mountains, or exhausted by the intense heat of the day. Several had obviously committed suicide. Indeed, suicide had already manifested itself in the Legion—on September 3, Langlois’s company had marched out of camp past the body of one of their soldiers who had hanged himself from a mango tree. In the wee hours of the morning of September 21, a legionnaire shot himself through the head with a bullet that then pierced the colonel’s tent, narrowly missing him. On the following day, a second man in his company shot himself just before dawn: “Our excellent paymaster … is of the opinion that the men are intentionally killing themselves just to force him to write out the death certificates, a work which he claims to detest,” wrote Langlois. Lentonnet noted on July 27, even before the light column set out, that “Suicides are very rare in the regiment of Algerian tirailleurs. But they are more frequent in the Legion. In three days, there have been no less than six legionnaires who have killed themselves. Yesterday, one hanged himself, another blew his brains out.” On September 21 he again recorded that “suicides are more and more frequent in the Legion, which is becoming demoralized.”
Langlois agreed that morale was seriously low: “In the silent camp, the men seem discouraged and without energy,” he wrote. “It is the first time since the beginning of the campaign, that I have noticed such an utter demoralization.” Low morale, a great danger in any unit, was thought especially serious in the Legion. Legionnaires, because of their pasts, were believed to be psychologically fragile, apt to give themselves over to expressions of despair, of which suicide was one. It is possible, as some believed, that for many legionnaires enlistment had been an alternative to suicide. Raimond Premschwitz and Flutsch both admitted that they had considered it, and that the Legion, for them, had been an option of last resort. Frederic Martyn also recommended it for those who were contemplating suicide, because “it may possibly introduce you to a zest of life that you have never felt, and in any case you can commit suicide just as well in Algeria, you know, as you can in London.” But service as an antidote to suicide might not work in every case. Jacques Weygand, who commanded a Legion cavalry squadron in the 1930s, believed legionnaires particularly susceptible to “crises, whims and depression.” However, the theory, in any case, was that the active life of the Legion kept these under control. Suicide, like desertion, hit its peak in calm garrisons where “they must look themselves in the mirror, and it’s not happy.” For this reason, Legion officers were always careful to keep their men busy and occupied, to prevent unconstructive brooding over the past, “to distract their men, to tear them from the mortal prostration which grips the best ones.”
Therefore, two perceptions seem prevalent about suicide in the Legion. The first is that the Legion had a relatively high suicide rate, at least higher than that of other corps. The second is that suicide appeared to occur more frequently in garrison because legionnaires, predisposed to depression in conditions of enforced boredom and inactivity, rose to the occasion when confronted with the challenges of a campaign. Neither of these is possible to resolve with any certainty. French historian Bernard Savelli concluded in his thesis on the Legion in Tonkin before World War I that suicides in the Legion at that time averaged only three or four a year, and the rate was no higher than those of other corps, including the Algerians. But as has been seen, Indochina, at least after 1885, became a garrison of choice, with enough distractions to adjourn thoughts of suicide except among those most inclined toward self-destruction. No comparative statistics exist for Algeria, which was a far less attractive garrison. However, Savelli seemed to agree with the second perception, that suicides declined on campaign, citing as his evidence that only one legionnaire committed suicide during the grueling, and apparently hopeless, defense of Tuyen Quang. Likewise, the regimental diaries for Tonkin in 1885 and Dahomey in 1892 make no mention of suicides, nor do the memoirs mention any.
The Legion battalion in the light column counted six suicides, and it appears that eleven of the sixteen suicides that occurred in the Algerian regiment during the campaign were in the Legion. And while this is certainly not catastrophic, other suicides might have passed unnoticed among the thirty-three legionnaires listed as “missing” from the light column. There are perhaps three explanations of why Madagascar appears to have produced the exception to the general rule that suicides in the Legion declined on campaign. One, of course, is that the evidence is too fragmentary to draw a firm conclusion, that there were suicides in Tonkin in 1885 and during the Dahomey expedition of 1892 that were not recorded. However, the common sense explanation would suggest that suicides in those two campaigns were too rare to be considered worthy of mention.
A second reason why Madagascar may have produced so many suicides was simply that it was an extremely difficult campaign. Many men were obviously pushed to the brink of their physical and mental endurance, felt that they could not cope and preferred simply to do themselves in. A third reason was that, once they began, they became difficult to stop. Legion officers generally agreed that suicide, like desertion, was contagious. Once it had introduced itself into a unit, especially one whose morale was stretched as thin as that of the Legion in Madagascar, it could spread dangerously. “I know nothing which makes more of an impression than these suicides,” Langlois noted during the spate of suicides in the Legion. “A sort of derangement takes over the brain. You ask yourself with disquiet if this destructive fever is not going to seize you from one moment to another.”
Therefore, it was a great relief when the Legion marched out of camp on the 22nd because, Langlois hoped, “the march forward will perhaps chase away the black thoughts which have begun to affect us.” The route carried them beneath the rock cliffs of Angavo and into a broad valley where the red earthen village of Ambatohazano rose up like a red island amidst a green, segmented sea of rice fields. The column then climbed some chalk slopes to the plain of Ankazobe, which stretched, dusty and monotonous, to the horizon. “Our men must really have a stout spirit to make these long and tiring marches, pack on the back, without the slightest complaint,” Langlois concluded. Unfortunately, not all of them did. One legionnaire committed suicide during the night, while another shot himself in the leg, explaining to the doctor, “I can no longer march. Now you will have to carry me on a stretcher.” Unfortunately, he died of blood loss. A third simply died in his bedroll, his pipe still in his mouth. The cadavers were laid out in a shallow ravine. “We no longer bury,” Langlois noted.
As the legionnaires pushed further toward Tananarive, they entered a countryside that was almost European—villages with wide streets, pitched-roof houses, some of which had balconies and verandas, even high steepled churches. Duchesne feared that the many villages left in the rear and to the flanks might become redoubts of Malagasy resistance, and ordered his column to march in a tighter formation. But the evidence of Hova panic was all about. The hedge-lined lanes were strewn with the debris of a retreating, even a routed, army, including two cannon that had been pitched into a ravine. At least this allowed the French to advance almost without a fight, which was just as well because many of the legionnaires were on their last legs. Each morning the doctors judged a parade of unimaginable sores, bloody feces and general debilitation, a competition whose dubious winners climbed smiling onto one of the few mule-borne stretchers. On September 24, a small group of “tired legionnaires” was formed under a lieutenant. The ration of sixteen hardtack “biscuits” per soldier per day was reduced to eight, and then to four. “Those with a hearty appetite ate their day’s ration with their morning coffee,” noted Reibell. These biscuits sold for ten francs each in the light column, and sick legionnaires handed them over to those who would perform their fatigue duties for them.
The number of men simply unable to continue the march grew daily. Others fell by the wayside and never reappeared: “They were very probably massacred by the inhabitants,” the regimental diary recorded laconically. This was no fantasy—E. F. Knight saw a swarm of Hova men and women set upon an Algerian prisoner, probably a straggler, hack him to pieces and then parade his remains through the streets of Tananarive. “This was no isolated case,” Knight reported, “and it appears that two other wounded men were captured by the Hovas on the same day, and treated in like fashion.” Hova prisoners of the French seemed to have fared better—Langlois’s legionnaires impressed some of them to carry their packs. Knight was told by a Hova captured after a fight that the French simply disarmed them, gave them food, patted them on the back and told them “to be off to their homes.”
On the morning of September 26, the column climbed the slopes of Alakamisy mountain in staggering heat and looked out over the high tableland of central Madagascar to Tananarive about fifteen miles distant. “We are all crazy with joy,” Langlois wrote. “We laugh, we cry, we embrace each other without being able to stop ourselves from shouting: Tananarive! Tananarive!’ ” Admittedly, from a distance the city, bathed in sunlight, appeared as magical and welcome as the onion-domed silhouette of Moscow had been to Napoleon’s soldiers in 1812. Large walled buildings, which included the palaces of the queen and the prime minister, the royal observatory and the royal hospital, saddled a ridge 4,700 feet high, their towers and cupolas thrusting skyward as if in competition with the numerous church spires. The ruddy-colored houses interspersed with the deep green of the tropical foliage spilled down the mountainside toward a broad valley dappled with rice fields and herds of sheep.
The Algerians drove the Hovas from the neighboring peaks at the cost of one killed and seven wounded. Duchesne ordered the column to bivouac for a well-needed rest before the final push to Tananarive, to permit the convoy to catch up and, finally, to allow the general to devise his plan of attack.65 When he marched out of camp on September 28, it was to make a large turning movement to the northwest of the capital, so as to avoid throwing his troops single file across the dikes of the rice fields and up the steep slope of the Tananarive mountain. The appearance of the French, the lights of whose camp were clearly visible from Tananarive, dispelled the rumors that they had been defeated. The Hova soldiers threw up earthworks while their officers argued about the defense of the capital, and many women scurried away toward the southeast, their belongings balanced precariously upon their heads.
Yet it appeared as if the defense of Tananarive would be purely pro forma. As the legionnaires marched around Tananarive on September 28, the villagers came out to offer them food and fruit. Langlois wondered what impression the unshaven legionnaires, virtually barefoot and their clothes in tatters, must have made on the well-fed Hovas.66 From the vantage point of the British vice-consulate, Knight observed “a ridiculous pretense of defense,” fully worthy of the Grand Old Duke of York:
Bodies of men were marched up hills and then marched down again. I saw 1,000 Betsileo spearmen rush up a height at the back of the hospital; having reached the summit they waved their spears and raised a great shout, and then they quietly came down again, soon to recommence the same performance on some other height… . As soon as reality approached, as soon as the defenders found themselves within range of the French shells, and even before that, they bolted to some other position, where they could make another demonstration of battle without incurring any personal risk. It was not war, and it was not magnificent.
This was not quite true, for a vigorous attack against the Legion in the rear guard left six legionnaires wounded.
On the morning of the 29th, the French could look out over the two ridges that still separated them from Tananarive, “like two monstrous waves, that the very white lines of the enemy army fringe like foam,” wrote Langlois, “and behind rises the imposing mass of Tananarive with its monumental palaces, its thousand little red houses, its tortuous streets where huddles a white, tumultuous and agitated crowd.” On the morning of September 30, the French crowned the ridge line barely three miles from Tananarive. The day opened with an artillery barrage. The Algerians and Malagasy troops descended into the valley and then up the opposite slope. Most of the Hova troops fled in panic, but some of the guard regiments put up a fairly stiff fight defending their mountain peaks. Now only a valley stood between Duchesne and the Hova capital. Duchesne sited his artillery facing Tananarive across the valley. The French guns began to bombard the town as the infantry prepared for an assault, one to be led by the Legion. The shells knocked off a corner of the queen’s palace, and the Hova spectators cleared the vantage points of the town. Just as the order for the assault was about to be given, a white flag appeared above the palace.
The French soldiers filed down from their heights, across the narrow valley and into the town. The Legion was ordered to remain with the guns. Indeed, Langlois was furious when his soldiers were refused entry into Tananarive: “One was probably afraid that this troop of brigands called the Legion would compromise the peaceful work so happily began,” he wrote bitterly. “Poor Legion, how badly they understand you.”70 His disappointment could have been only temporary, however, for the Legion was given a prominent role in the pacification of Tananarive, including mounting guard on the queen’s palace. “Many of them could scarcely crawl along, some lay down in the streets to die, and pitiable spectacles were often to be seen,” Knight wrote of the soldiers who marched into the capital. “I met, for example, a straggler tottering into the city, almost bent double, his knapsack on his back, his rifle on his shoulder, while from the top of his helmet down to his feet he was covered with a black mass of flies, clustering on him as if he were already a corpse.” Nor was their situation improved by the neglect of many basic hygienic rules, so that in the days after the capture, burial parties were a common sight in the garrison.
The obvious question to ask is, how important was the Legion’s contribution to the two major campaigns of the 1890s in Dahomey and Madagascar? Legion historians are fond of quoting General Duchesne’s remarks made to Legion officers at the end of the campaign, that “it is assuredly due to you, gentlemen, that we are here. If I ever have the honor to command another expedition, I will want to have at least one battalion of the Foreign Legion with me.” However, one must be cautious of such statements, made in the way of thanks, or as a morale-boosting exercise. It is obviously true that the Legion played an active, even a central role in the French penetration of Tonkin, Dahomey and Madagascar. Their strength, the argument goes, was that they were better disciplined than the native troops, and more resistant than the other white troops. On the face of it, this argument seems valid. Certainly, Legion appreciations of the lack of discipline of Tonkinese or black troops reflect a sense of racial superiority and regimental pride. However, even the most avid partisans of native troops conceded that they were often recruited in haste and poorly trained, and were not disciplined to European standards—for instance, the battalion of black troops sent to Madagascar were raw recruits armed and trained on board the transports sailing to Majunga.
The problem for the Legion, as for other white troops in the Madagascar campaign, was not their discipline, but their ability to endure the debilitating tropical climates. Contemporaries noted that sickness rates in the Legion were lower than for those in other white regiments, an assessment with which historians have concurred. “The legionnaires have especially drawn attention to themselves in our recent colonial campaigns, by their endurance,” General Joseph Galliéni announced soon after the Madagascar campaign. “Their solidity under fire is equal to that of French troops, and, as their physical resistance has proven superior, they have, in reality, played a more effective role than [French troops] in the principal actions of war which have taken place during these expeditions.” In Tonkin, Dahomey and Madagascar, the superior endurance of legionnaires, which was attributed to the fact that most of their men were over twenty-five years old and therefore less susceptible to disease than were the generally younger soldiers in the marines or metropolitan units, gave rise to the saying, “When a French soldier goes to the hospital, it’s to be repatriated, a tirailleur to be cured, and a legionnaire to die.”
But while concentrating on the superior endurance of the Legion to other white troops in these campaigns, historians have failed to ask two questions. First, could the losses to sickness and fatigue have been reduced? And, second, might the French have established better and less costly principles upon which to establish their colonial expeditions? For while the Legion suffered less than other white troops, they suffered nevertheless, seriously enough to jeopardize their military performance. This author has discovered no reliable statistics for the Dahomey campaign. However, both Silbermann and Martyn had the impression that sickness reduced Legion strength by about 25 percent. The memory of so many friends left behind in Dahomey caused Silbermann to break into tears as he stepped off the ship at Oran, an event an observant journalist put down to his joy at seeing Algeria again. Those who survived the campaign were often no better off—Martyn reported that five of the 219 legionnaires evacuated from Cotonou on Christmas Day 1892 died on the return trip to Algeria, and that 69 had to be carried off on stretchers at Oran. In the autumn of 1893, as the French prepared to track down Behanzin, it was reported that so many men were sick that “the Legion could with two companies organize at best one able to campaign.” And this occurred when General Dodds planned his campaign so as best to preserve the health of his troops.
The losses to sickness in Madagascar were quite simply catastrophic: Fully 4,614 soldiers died there, roughly a third of the original 15,000 men of the expedition, and a far higher proportion than that of the white troops, plus 1,143 Algerian mule drivers, who had been shamefully neglected. These high casualty rates were quite rightly blamed on the poor organization of the Madagascar campaign, especially to the decision to build the wagon road from Majunga. Yet more might have been done to lessen casualties. Knight believed that the French “neglected the most ordinary hygienic precautions” in their camps in Tananarive. He was also appalled by the “execrable” conditions in which sick men were repatriated on the ships sailing to France, where they were confined to suffocating holds. Indeed, Reibell recorded that fully 554 soldiers died on the return trip to France, and a further 348 in France: “I was astonished to find that with few exceptions, the officers seemed indifferent to the comfort of their men, and rarely visited the fetid den in which they lay,” wrote Knight.
While Dodds certainly prescribed very strict hygienic precautions for the Dahomey campaign, it is possible that French officers, including those in the Legion, were insufficiently rigorous in enforcing them. Officers cannot be blamed for malarial mosquitoes, which were responsible for 71 percent of the deaths in the expedition. But they might have taken more care to see that their men were supplied with quinine and that they took it. In March 1893, for instance, the doctor complained that the troops in Dahomey had not received quinine. In Madagascar, Reibell complained that quinine was in short supply because it had been loaded into the transports first and therefore could not be retrieved until the ships were entirely unloaded. Also, the debilitating cases of typhoid, which caused 12 percent of the deaths, and dysentery, which caused 8 percent, were largely the products of impure water and filthy utensils. Therefore, French officers, including those in the Legion, might have increased the efficiency of their forces by paying more attention to the health and well-being of their troops. But poor hygiene was a problem throughout the French army, and not simply in the colonies.
However, given the high casualty rates of white troops even under the best conditions, would it not have been wiser for the French to campaign exclusively with native troops? For, after all, whatever these soldiers lacked in fire discipline, they more than made up in physical resistance. “My turcos [tirailleurs] have resisted more energetically the fatigues and privations than has the Legion, whose true effectives are now far below those of my battalion,” Lentonnet recorded on September 1, 1895. And this even though, he claimed, the tirailleurs had borne a larger burden in combat and fatigue. The question is, how far was Lentonnet’s pride in his Algerians and his belief that they had been far more efficient than the legionnaires in Madagascar justified?
Statistics on losses in the campaign are often confusing, but the diary of the régiment d’Algérie conserved in the war archives at Vincennes appears to bear out Lentonnet’s claims: During the march of the “light column,” one battalion of legionnaires accounted for 104 casualties, all but 14 of them suicides, missing and hospitalized, compared to 34 casualties for the two battalions of Algerian tirailleurs, all but one a combat casualty. Therefore, the Legion, which made up one-third of the regiment, accounted for three-quarters of its casualties in the light column. In the overall comparison of deaths, however, the margin of Algerian superiority is not so obvious. Duchesne reported that the Algerian regiment counted 326 deaths in course of the campaign, the vast majority due to disease, although his final report listed 604 deaths. How many of these were legionnaires is not spelled out. Sergeant Georges d’Ossau of the Legion historical service wrote in 1957 that the Legion suffered 226 deaths in Madagascar, five of which were in combat. This makes a 23 percent death rate for the battalion plus reinforcements of 1,000 legionnaires, and, based upon the figure of 604 deaths in the régiment d’Algérie, means that the Legion, with roughly one-third of the regiment’s strength, suffered 37 percent of its deaths. This would seem to indicate that the Legion fared little worse than did the Algerians.
But these figures do not include sickness, nor legionnaires who died after evacuation. The Algerians also remained longer in Madagascar than did the Legion. The figures for the light column together with the memoir evidence suggest that Legion effectiveness was severely diminished in Madagascar. And the Legion was relatively well off compared to other white units, especially the 200th Infantry, which captured the prize with 1,039 deaths.
Therefore, one might draw several conclusions from a study of these colonial campaigns of the 1890s. The first is that Legion efficiency could have been improved if French officers had paid more attention to logistics and the sanitary conditions of their troops. While the legionnaires perhaps won top prize among white troops for stamina, in the opinion of Captain F. Hellot, “had the courage of the rebels [Hovas] been as great as their mobility,” then the expedition would have been seriously embarrassed.89 The second follows on from the first, that given the generally poor quality of the enemy opposition, these imperial expeditions could have been carried out far more effectively using a greater percentage, even the exclusive use, of native infantry. The Legion no doubt provided the most solid contingent in the Dahomey campaign. They, together with the marines, certainly held the line effectively at Dogba. However, there is no evidence that native troops would not have performed well enough to thwart that attack, or that the outcome of the campaign would have been any different without Legion participation. The conquest of the Western Sudan was carried out almost exclusively by black troops. The two units that contributed most to the success of the Madagascar campaign were the Algerian tirailleurs, who emerged as the backbone of the infantry there, and the artillery, whose bombardment of the queen’s palace at Tananarive provoked the Hova surrender.
Commanders of colonial expeditions continued to request the participation of the Legion because, when properly selected and led, they made excellent soldiers. But a second important reason for the inclusion of white troops in these expeditions, at least outside of Tonkin, was not that native soldiers were skittish and lacked solidity, as was often claimed, but that their French officers did not entirely trust their native troops. Therefore, the task of legionnaires and marines was to solidify discipline within these expeditions as well as to fight the enemy. Of course, it is fair to point out that this was not an exclusively French practice, but one initiated by the British as well following the Indian Mutiny of 1857. But it was a costly task. In the final analysis, then, one must modify not only the claims of Legion historians based upon Duchesne’s praise that the Legion’s contribution to the capture of Tananarive was crucial. The old cliché might also be amended in the light of the Madagascar campaign to read, “Metropolitan troops and legionnaires go to the hospital to die. Tirailleurs just do not go to hospital.”
(1615-90), Duke of SCHOMBERG (1689). His father was Court Marshal to James I’s son-in-law the Elector Palatine Frederick V and his mother Anne, daughter of the 5th Lord Dudley. He enjoyed the title of Baron Tetford in the Peerage of England. As a mercenary he served Bernard of Saxe-Weimar from 1634-7, Holland (1639-42), France (1650-60) and Portugal (1660-8). He was naturalised French in 1668. In 1673 he took command of the French in Catalonia He won a victory over Portuguese forces at the Battle of Viçosa (1658) and was made a marshal of France. In 1676 he commanded in the Low Countries. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) drove him to take service under the Great Elector of Prussia and he came to England with Prussian troops with William of Orange in 1688. He was naturalised British and took a small defensive command in Ulster. He was killed at the B. of the Boyne.
When William of Orange landed at Brixham, James ordered his army, together with the artillery train, to proceed towards Salisbury. Although there were minor skirmishes between the opposing forces, the artillery does not seem to have become engaged. The Prince of Orange had little difficulty in bringing his army into London, and upon his arrival there James, taking the better part of discretion, fled to France.
The abandonment of James, by several of his most trusted advisors and courtiers, breached contemporary notions of military and gentlemanly honour. When he met Churchill in 1690, the staunch Protestant and veteran professional soldier, Marshal Schomberg, remarked that “he [Churchill] was the first Lieutenant-General he had ever heard [of ] that had deserted from his colours”; meaning the first he had met who had quit service half-way through a campaign. But then, Schomberg had never fought purely for religion’s sake or for the continuation of his religion in his native land.
The court of William of Orange was also a very cosmopolitan circle. Willem Friederich van Nassau-Zuylestein, William’s illegitimate uncle, was the son of William’s tutor, and a cavalry commander. He had learned English from his mother, Anne Killegrew. Perhaps the most distinguished military figure among those who accompanied the prince of Orange in the descent on England was Frederick Henry, vicomte de Schomberg (and later first duke of Schomberg in the English peerage). He too was half-English and was related to the Dudley family. His own family had lost their ancestral estates in the Palatinate, and Schomberg grew up in exile in the Netherlands. He began his military career in the Scottish Guards of the French Royal Army and served under Marshal Turenne. After reorganizing the Portuguese army, where he would have met a number of English officers, and upon his return to France, Schomberg was made a duke and a marshal of France by Louis XIV. He left France following the Revocation of the Edicts of Nantes, which abolished freedom of worship for French Protestants, and went to the Netherlands, where he reorganized the Huguenot regiments of the Dutch army. Although he was past the age of 70 when he accompanied the prince of Orange to England in 1688, Schomberg was probably the best general in Europe at the time.
The Duke of Schomberg now became the new Master-General of the Ordnance. James II organized his forces and in March 1689 landed at Kinsale in Ireland. In the same month Schomberg prepared twenty brass pieces of artillery to fight the deposed monarch on his new battlefield. The gunners, matrosses and pioneers of this new artillery train wore blue coats lined with orange, the Netherlands colours. Many more cannon and mortars were gathered together in Chester and sent to Ireland in August 1689. In June ,690 William landed near Belfast to lead his army, and early in the next month the famous Battle of the Boyne was fought. Here the deep river valley reduced the role of artillery considerably, and it is said that the artillery horses were needed for the urgent task of bringing up supplies for the army. It is interesting to note, however, that the contemporary artist Wyck showed many large cannon in his painting of this battle, and they also appeared in the numerous prints which were published afterwards. Two small Irish guns made troublesome attacks, and one shot hit King William on the shoulder. Schomberg was killed during the battle.
Schomberg in Ireland 1689-90
It was especially evident in the Williamite wars in Ireland how little confidence William II and III had in English and Scots commanders. Besides Godart van Reede, Baron Ginkel, and Meinhard Schomberg, the son of the duke of Schomberg (and later duke of Leinster and third duke of Schomberg), Hugh Mackay found himself serving under Henri de Massue de Ruvigny, second marquis de Ruvigny (and later earl of Galway), a French Huguenot; Heinrich Maastricht, count of Solms, a German in Dutch service; and Ernst von Tettau, a Dane. Tollemache and Mackay were the only generals from the British Isles. Two other British generals, Percy Kirke and James Douglas of Cavers, were withdrawn from Ireland and sent to Flanders because of disagreements with the other members of William’s corps of commanders. Douglas, of the Scots army, `was charged with mutinying because he spoke freely about the soldiers being abused for want of pay and other necessaries’.
According to Dalrymple, the various expeditionary forces that William sent to Ireland totalled 36,000 men. `Distrusting English soldiers to fight against one who had been lately king of England, he took care that more than half of his army should consist of foreigners.’ The foreign troops included 10,000 Danish soldiers, 7,000 from the Dutch and Brandenburg armies, and 2,000 Huguenots-the latter organized into a brigade of three regiments of foot and one of horse that was part of the English military establishment. The first group sent to Ireland consisted of some 15,000 troops who sailed from Hoylake, near Chester, during August and September 1689, and landed near Carrickfergus. Together with Williamite forces from Enniskillen and Kirke’s three regiments from Derry, the army could not have exceeded 20,000 men. William wanted to land this force near Dublin, but Schomberg advised going ashore in Belfast Lough. Before putting ashore, it was necessary to clear three French warships out of the lough in an engagement that lasted three hours. Upon landing, Schomberg laid siege to the Norman fortress of Carrickfergus, which was garrisoned by two Jacobite regiments under the command of MacCarty Moor, in order to secure the neighbourhood. The siege lasted seven days. Schomberg allowed the defenders to keep their sidearms, and provided them with a cavalry escort to protect them from the country-people; the latter were Scots-Irish, and they so abused the Catholic soldiers that they fled back to Schomberg for protection.
William of Orange had need to encourage his men, because the expeditionary force under the command of the duke of Schomberg that had landed the previous year at Carrickfergus fared poorly. After the successful siege of Carrickfergus Castle, the duke’s army of 15,000 moved south to Dundalk at the foot of the Newry Mountains, where they went into winter quarters in the autumn of 1689. Schomberg’s force was unable to campaign because they were logistically unprepared.
The fall of that town and of Newry opened the road to Dublin, which French officers advised James to burn and abandon in an escalation of Jacobite scorched-earth practices. Tyrconnel argued instead that James should stand and fight. James reluctantly agreed. The Jacobite army marched north, to where Schomberg had ineptly encamped over a bog near Dundalk. Over the next several months, the old German refused to fight, resisting any and all provocations made by James and Tyrconnel from their nearby lines. Instead, Schomberg stayed in the camp. Unfortunately, nearly 6,000 of his men died as a result before the end of November, not from skirmishes or battle-there was no significant field battle in Ireland during 1689-but from swamp-borne diseases, hunger, and cold. James had wisely withdrawn from the site in early October as his own troops began to grow ill. The Williamite dead were replaced over the winter months by fresh troops brought in from England, Denmark, and the United Provinces. Unhappy with Schomberg’s performance, William determined to lead his forces in Ireland personally, to quickly and decisively end the war of succession with James.
The Danish troops did not disembark until late September; the transports from Hoylake had not brought enough horses for the artillery, and the cavalry had not arrived; there were inadequate shoes and clothing; the magazines were not stocked with sufficient provisions; and few of the English soldiers, who were mostly untrained and ill-disciplined recruits, had ever fired a musket or had any knowledge of field hygiene. Moreover, their officers lacked the knowledge, experience and inclination to train their men. Lacking tents, Schonberg gave the order to build barracks (which were simply huts in the seventeenth century) out of wood and turf; the Dutch and French Huguenot soldiers knew what to do, but the English, being raw soldiers, neglected to obey the duke’s orders until it was too late. The original campsite proved to be wet and boggy, and part of the camp had to be moved to higher ground. The consequence was that more than half of Schomberg’s army died of disease that winter-mostly from dysentery.²3 After the army went into winter quarters at Dundalk, Schomberg put on his best display of paternal regard for his soldiers in order to restore their morale. As wagons bearing the sick and wounded left the camp,
Schomberg ordered his colonels and brigadiers to attend like corporals and sergeants upon the wagons, the ships and hospitals. He stood himself during many hours in the cold and rain, leaning upon a bridge along which the long line of carriages, filled with disabled soldiers passed in sight of the army, to thank them for their services, to lament their distresses, and to cherish their spirits, and to reprimand every officer who showed not the same attention with himself, shaking with age, but more with the strength of his affection. . . . Touched with the same generous sensibility of their general, the soldiers repented their clamours they had raised against him, and attentive only to his anguish, forgot their own.
Schomberg had his hands full during the winter of 1689-90. An Irish army commanded by James II’s natural son, James Fitzjames, duke of Berwick, put on vaunting displays within full view of Dundalk camp. Schomberg ignored them because, although the Irish had fired on his men, he observed that they were not very proficient in the use of their arms, and were not likely to attack across the dangerous bog that separated the two armies, while his forces were well protected behind entrenched positions. Schomberg also had other problems: he discovered 200 Catholic soldiers in the three Huguenot regiments who had to be disarmed and returned to England. Six of them were agents provocateurs who apparently had been planted to sow dissension. They were hanged. The army remained short of provisions, and had to forage, but because of proximity to rapparees, foraging had to be done by large, well armed parties. Bread had to be rationed, so Schomberg issued it only to the enlisted men because he thought that the officers could shift for themselves. King William’s order that the officers were to pay their men promptly was read out to the whole army; the officers were also ordered to see that their sick were attended, and they were also to keep a strict accounting of the number of sick and effective soldiers and where they were located, as well as an inventory of weapons. By June, new arrivals of troops had built the Williamite army at Dundalk up to 30,000.
Both the Jacobite and Williamite forces had their peculiar weaknesses when engaging in siege warfare. When the duke of Schomberg was able to resume campaigning in May 1690 following the disastrous winter spent at Dundalk camp, he set out for Charlemont Fort in co. Armagh, which had been constructed by the Elizabethan general Charles Blount, eighth Lord Mountjoy, to house a garrison. Charlemont was not a large fortress, but it did contain artillery and ammunition, and threatened an important supply route as long as the Jacobites possessed it. The governor of the garrison, Teague O’Reagan, was an experienced soldier who had fought in France, and his first reply to Schomberg’s summons to surrender was a burst of bravado. The braving words were only meant to preserve O’Reagan’s honour; he lacked the provisions to hold out because, besides a garrison of 400, he also had to feed 200 women and children. This was a weakness in resisting a siege, as O’Reagan admitted to Schomberg when he finally accepted the latter’s honourable terms of surrender, because `the soldiers would not stay in the garrison without their wives and mistresses’. As Schomberg later reported, when he surrendered, `Teague’s horse was very mad and himself very drunk’.
The failure to take Derry and Enniskillen had made it difficult for James II to hold on to Ulster, which he had planned to use as a bridgehead to Scotland. William of Orange was determined to take Dublin, and James equally determined to retain it. Because they did not control St George’s Channel, the French could see no point in holding on to Dublin, and wanted to burn it and withdraw behind the River Shannon, which constituted a more formidable physical barrier. Both James and William seemed intent upon meeting one another in a pitched battle. James moved north to Drogheda, and was able to select his position on Donore Hill on the south side of Boyne Water, two miles west of the town. His army did not have time to entrench, and he failed to take into account the fact that the River Boyne could be crossed at a number of points. James could bring only a little more than 23,000 men into the field against William’s 36,000, and through a failure of intelligence and strategy, he had only one-third of his army to withstand the better part of the Williamite force. On a very hot 1 July 1690, after an artillery bombardment, the Williamite foot forced the river and threatened to corner the Jacobites in a bend in the River Boyne. James had to withdraw his forces towards Dublin; the retreat was orderly enough at first, and neither side suffered losses that were not sustainable, but James-blaming his army for his defeat-lost heart, fled to France and never again appeared on a battlefield. Thomas Bellingham, who was an aide-de-camp to the prince of Orange, says that William led a pursuit of the Jacobites at the head of a contingent of Enniskillen horse. William had earlier been slightly wounded, and the brave old duke of Schomberg was killed while rallying his Huguenot regiments. Bellingham also paid tribute to the courage of the Jacobite horse of Tyrconnell’s Regiment, but George Story claimed that all of James’s Irish cavalry troopers had been issued a half-pint of brandy, and most were drunk when they charged `so desperately’.
Coinciding precisely with Clive’s triumphal progress in Bengal, and yet utterly devoid of either glory or consequence, the Burmese or ‘Negrais Affair’ is readily consigned to oblivion. As with other things Burmese, the facts are obscure and the locations unfamiliar. Quite reasonably one could dismiss the whole business as just another example of that disastrous British obsession with off-shore properties – Pulo Run, Pulo Condore, and now the island of Negrais. Alternatively – and this was the view taken by Alexander Dalrymple, a man of whom more will be heard – Negrais was the first uncertain step towards the re-establishment of the Company’s trade in south-east Asia. It should be bracketed not with Pulo Run but with Singapore, not with Pulo Condore but with Hong Kong.
From the Company’s settlements at Masulipatnam, Madras and Calcutta, English private traders had been calling at the ports of southern Burma ever since the mid-seventeenth century. Syriam, their usual destination, was the main outlet for the Mon kingdom of Pegu which also controlled the wide Irrawaddy delta. Here rubies and lac (a resinous red dye) were sometimes available although the main attraction was Burmese teak, the finest shipbuilding material in the East. For repairing Indiamen the timber was freighted to Bombay and Calcutta while the smaller vessels operated by country traders were usually repaired and indeed built in Syriam itself. By the 1730s the volume of this business had justified the appointment of an English ‘Resident’ who although not a Company servant handled both Company and private business. His few European companions included a representative of the French Compagnie des Indes whose ships’ timbers were also repaired with Burmese teak. But there seems to have been no great hostility between the two and when in 1743 Syriam was twice sacked as a result of renewed fighting between the Mons and the up-country Burmans, both men withdrew to their parent establishments at Madras and Pondicherry.
With southern Burma in turmoil and with the European trading companies locked into their own war over Jenkins’s ear and the Austrian Succession, no further attempts were made to reopen a Burmese establishment until 1750. In that year Mon representatives appeared in Pondicherry with a proposal which Dupleix, having just handed Chanda Sahib on to the throne of the Carnatic, was happy to consider. The Mons wanted military assistance against their Burman rivals. There was the possibility of opening another grand field for French ambition. More to the point, Dupleix welcomed the proposal as a means of securing a safe haven on the opposite side of the Bay of Bengal.
The absence of harbours on the Coromandel Coast has already been stressed. With the arrival of those squadrons under Barnett (then Peyton), La Bourdonnais, and Boscawen and with the consequent inauguration of the Bay of Bengal as a theatre for naval warfare, this deficiency became critical. Every monsoon the fleets must desert their station or risk the sort of losses suffered by La Bourdonnais after the capture of Madras. Similarly every time ships needed refitting they must leave the coastal settlements to the tender mercies of the enemy and make for Dutch Trinconomalee (Sri Lanka), Mauritius or Bombay.
Under the impression that they might have found a solution, Boscawen and Lawrence had just wrenched the port of Devikottai from the Raja of Tanjore. But Devikottai proved as useless for ships of deep draught as every other inlet on The Coast. Word, therefore, that Dupleix had sent a French envoy to Pegu to negotiate for a Burmese harbour threw Madras into consternation. President Saunders wrote immediately to London and, without waiting for an answer, prepared to forestall the competition by occupying the island of Negrais.
At the south-western extremity of Burmese territory and therefore the nearest point to Madras, Negrais had been recommended by one of the numerous Englishmen engaged in private trade between The Coast and Burma. Curiously neither he nor Saunders seems to have been aware that the Company actually had a claim on the place. Sixty years previously it was to Negrais that Captain Weltden had repaired after he and Samuel White had been attacked at Mergui. Weltden had allegedly hoisted the English flag on the island and had left an inscription, beaten in tin, recording his claim. It was a pity that this memorial was not rediscovered. The memory of the Mergui massacre might have alerted the Negrais settlers to the possibility of a repeat performance.
Negrais had been chosen by Saunders on the grounds that it had potential for ‘a capacious harbour for shipping being well secured against all sorts of winds’. What he did not realize, but what the thirty-odd pioneers quickly discovered, was that it was not secured against all sorts of tides. After a few weeks of being flooded out every time a high sea and a spring tide coincided, the disgruntled and fever-ridden settlers sailed away to the mainland and the comparative comfort of Syriam.
In the meantime the Court of Directors in London had received Saunders’s letter and approved his anxiety about a French naval base in the Bay. In 1752 they wrote endorsing the Negrais settlement and in 1753, on learning that Dupleix’s envoy was in high favour at Pegu, Saunders made a second attempt to establish a settlement. This time it was on a much larger scale. Four ships were to convey the new pioneers across the Bay and two covenanted servants, one from the St Helena Council, the other from Benkulen, were to take command. The appointments were made by the directors in London who no doubt recalled the disastrous jealousies aroused when such matters were left to Madras. But it is indicative of the unpopularity of the enterprise that the Benkulen man opted out, preferring even Sumatra’s pestilential climate to waterlogged Negrais. Shipwrights and labourers had to be impressed into service; the guard of thirty-odd Europeans and seventy peons mutinied soon after arrival.
To the problems of fever and flood was added that of famine. It was hoped that the settlers would soon be either self-sufficient or able to obtain rice from the mainland. But the Burmese refused any trade and, though the island abounded in game, it was also a paradise for tigers. The settlers lived off turtles; the tigers lived off settlers. Hunt, the man from St Helena, died of dysentery, the work of fortification ground to a standstill, and the Mon authorities steadfastly refused to countenance the new settlement.
Nevertheless the disconsolate settlers, now commanded by Henry Brooke, a writer from Madras, stayed put. By 1754 the Mon-Burman war was going badly for the Mons. Disappointed in their French allies, there seemed to be a real prospect of the Mons granting, in return for military aid, not only Negrais but also the adjacent mainland port of Bassein plus extensive privileges in Syriam. The British contingent in Syriam played along with their Mon hosts; but to Saunders in Madras and to Brooke at Negrais it was now evident that they were backing a loser. When Burman troops occupied Bassein and much of the intervening Delta, Brooke therefore switched allegiance. Missions were exchanged between Negrais and Alungpaya, the Burman sovereign, who was then encamped beside the mighty Shwe Dagôn pagoda at a place which he renamed Yangon (Rangoon). The Company moved its Syriam establishment to the new capital and by 1756 both Company and private ships were calling there for repairs.
While the storm clouds gathered in Bengal, Burma seemingly basked in sunshine. At last the British had backed a winner and, within a month of Siraj-ud-Daula’s capture off Fort William, Alungpaya had taken Syriam, the French had been expelled, their agent roasted alive, and the British were constructing a fort at Bassein which, with a fine sense of Highland symmetry, they called Fort Augustus. Amazingly for a sovereign who considered himself more than a match for the Moghul, Alungpaya had even committed his favourable sentiments to writing by opening a correspondence with George II, or rather ‘The King of England, Madras, Bengal, Fort St David and Devikottai’. In a letter which took the form of a tray of gold covered with Burmese characters there was barely room to do more than recite the titles of the writer. But the ‘King of Burma, Thailand and Cambodia’, ‘the Lord of the Mines of Rubies, Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron and Amber’, the Lord, too, of ‘the White Elephant, the Spotted Elephant and the Red Elephant’ not to mention ‘the Vital Golden Lance’, many golden palaces, sundry other kingdoms, etc, in short ‘the Descendant of the Nation of the Sun’ did positively transfer the desired site at Bassein and looked forward to ‘a constant union and amity with His Majesty of England, Madras, Bengal [etc] and his Royal Family and subjects’.
Perhaps if this letter had received the gracious response it undoubtedly deserved, lives could have been saved. It did indeed reach George II but no answer whatsoever did either he or the Company send; the last that is heard of the priceless missive is an unseemly wrangle about whether the tray had originally been encrusted with rubies and, if so, what had happened to them. By opening a correspondence with a mere earth-ling the lord of all those elephants had chanced his solar dignity. It was not something he did lightly. In the following year he put his seal to a treaty of friendship with the Company but thereafter, as the months slipped by without so much as an acknowledgement from the Hanoverian, he began to take an exceedingly dim view of British protestations of amity.
There were, though, other sources of friction. British ships putting into Rangoon for repairs and cargoes had fallen foul of Alungpaya’s officials and had even joined the Mons in several abortive attempts to storm the place. The Bassein/Negrais settlers were not held responsible for these outrages but, under the terms of the new treaty, Alungpaya did expect them to supply him with the guns and powder which had so often been promised. Yet, excepting the odd presentation cannon and a few barrels of powder, of arms – as of answer – came there none. Worse still, it appeared that the Company was now keen to wash its hands of both Alungpaya and his country. In Madras Saunders had been replaced by the more sceptical Pigot, in Negrais Brooke had been relieved by a man who succumbed to the climate almost immediately, and in London, with rumours rife of Siraj’s advance on Calcutta, the directors had espoused a retrenchment which included withdrawal from Negrais. News of Plassey failed to change the corporate mind. ‘Schemes of this kind,’ they wrote in 1758, ‘must be deferred till more tranquil times.’ It was, after all, year two of the Seven Years War.
But it was also year six of the Negrais establishment which, against all the odds, now boasted some substantial buildings, plentiful stocks of teak and a modest population. A partial evacuation was effected in April 1759 but there remained a small guard under Ensign Hope and a considerable civilian population. In view of frequent French visits to the Bay of Bengal it seemed prudent to maintain a presence. Later in the same year Captain Southby came ashore from the Victoria as Hope’s replacement. His arrival coincided with that of an East Indiaman in search of provisions plus three small Burmese vessels accompanying the local Governor. October was one of Negrais’s better months. While the Victoria unloaded and the Indiaman took on water, Hope and Southby entertained the Governor ashore with two days of feasting and compliments. Of Portuguese extraction, he seemed to appreciate the hospitality and to enjoy the company.
His hosts were thus totally off guard when at the farewell reception the Governor’s Burmese escort suddenly bolted all the doors and drew their daggers. Hope and Southby were cut to pieces immediately. Of the other European officers and guards only one escaped and only two were taken prisoner. The rest were butchered along with countless Indians. If the figure of sixty men and four women is correct for those taken off by the boats, the carnage must have been at least three times that of Plassey. The settlement was then looted and burnt to the ground. A week later Captain Alves of the Victoria, while remaining on station to warn off other British shipping, went ashore for a last look. The corpses were now rotting, the tigers gorged, the fires out. Alves, then on the threshold of a long and intriguing career as a private trader, was profoundly disturbed. It was ‘one of the most shocking sights I ever beheld’.
What, if anything, lay behind the Negrais Massacre is unknown. Alungpaya would deny all responsibility and, nine months later, Alves would travel unmolested right up to Mandalay to secure the release of the prisoners. One can only bracket the mindless carnage with all those other tropical affrays in which the degree of premeditation is as unfathomable as the degree of provocation.
Happily no such uncertainty surrounded British thinking. The object of Company policy over Negrais had been to prevent the French from gaining a naval base in Burma and so supremacy in the Bay of Bengal. In the event Alungpaya had done the job for them. His sack of Syriam in 1757, which had resulted in the extinction of the French interest, coincided almost exactly with Watson’s bombardment of Chandernagar. Taken together, these two reverses meant that henceforth the French could operate in Indian waters only at a severe disadvantage.
It also meant that for the British Negrais became superfluous. Significantly the first, partial evacuation of the settlement had been carried out from Calcutta and it was from there that Hope, Southby and Alves all hailed. The Burmese adventure had been Madras’s initiative and Madras could no longer support it. Alungpaya had been disappointed in his expectation of military assistance, and the Negrais settlers had been left to fend for themselves, because Madras had neither the men nor the matchlocks to spare. Indeed when in 1758 the orders for withdrawal arrived from London, Fort St George was itself under siege. The Seven Years War had at last been joined in India.
In this war, as in that of the Austrian Succession, military manoeuvres in India would be restricted to the Carnatic, although with a related campaign in Hyderabad. And as in the old war so in the new, the French opened proceedings by attacking Forts St David (Cuddalore) and St George (Madras) while the British closed them, three years later, with a grand assault on Pondicherry. This helpful resemblance, though, is superficial; for the important point is that in every instance the outcome was different. This time Fort St David was attacked first and taken, Fort St George held out, Pondicherry did not. The result was therefore decisive. French ambitions in India collapsed. It was the end of a chapter, not the beginning.
The outcome owed much to the availability of supplies, troops and above all funds from Calcutta. If Madras’s troops had saved Bengal in 1756-7, Bengal’s rupees saved Madras in 1758-60. It was not just a question of repaying a favour. Had the French made good their second bid for hegemony in the Carnatic, Bengal itself would have been threatened. Clive was well aware of this and in not returning to Madras after the recapture of Calcutta – as he had promised and as Madras desperately urged – he took a terrible risk. It paid off thanks to the heroics of the squadron under Admiral Pocock, Watson’s successor. Not for the first time, Clive’s reputation was saved by the Royal Navy.
More even than in the earlier war, seapower proved crucial. Three naval battles, each more decisive than the last, offset the French superiority in land forces and dictated the course of the struggle ashore. As in the Americas so in India; it was courtesy of the King’s navy that Britain emerged from the Seven Years War with a global empire. Any narrative, therefore, that presumes to disentangle the Company’s history from that of the British Navy, or indeed of British India, may be excused from treating the final phase of the Anglo-French struggle in any detail.
Briefly then, the French took the field first. In September 1757 the first reinforcements to reach India since the outbreak of war had been landed at Pondicherry. Because of the imminent monsoon, the fleet which brought them immediately scurried back to Mauritius. Without a fleet, the French held their offensive. In February Pocock’s fleet arrived on The Coast from Bengal and in April a second French fleet under the Comte d’Ache made its way up to Pondicherry. Pocock managed to intercept and just about came off best in a very untidy encounter. He failed, though, to disable the French vessels which duly landed a second regiment, a train of artillery, and the Comte de Lally as Commander-in-Chief and President of all the French settlements.
With d’Ache remaining on The Coast to distract Pocock, de Lally immediately took the offensive. His now formidable army crossed the dunes to Fort St David, quickly drove the garrison from straggling Cuddalore, and began the laborious ritual of constructing breaching batteries to pound the Fort. The British held out for less than a month. It was a great disappointment considering the supposed strength of the place and, true to form, the directors blamed their servants; ‘the whole siege was one scene of disorder, confusion, mismanagement, and total inattention to every branch’.
Such bluster carries little conviction. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and quickly deserted by most of their native troops, the Fort St David councillors had little chance. They had counted on Pocock coming to their rescue but adverse winds prevented his approach. With four batteries trained on their walls and with insufficient troops to mount a foray, they wisely capitulated. De Lally razed the place, then took Devikottai, and finally staged a triumphal march through Pondicherry. Apart from some insignificant garrisons at places like Trichy and Arcot, all that now hindered a continuation of his triumphal progress north to Hyderabad, de Bussy and Bengal was Fort St George.
De Lally favoured an immediate advance and had this been possible, Madras might well have fallen. But no siege could be effective with Pocock’s squadron still in the offing. De Lally therefore ordered d’Ache to engage it. D’Ache refused, probably because he preferred to cruise in search of the year’s fleet of Indiamen. This meant a four-month delay until the October monsoon would oblige Pocock to desert his station. De Lally passed the time with an attack on the still independent ‘Tanjoreens’, a traditional expedient for raising funds; Madras readied itself for action.
Thus far the British had not been wholly passive observers of French progress. Trichy had seen yet more manoeuvres as a French force invested the fort and was then drawn off by a largely sepoy army under Captain John Caillaud of the Company. Meanwhile Fort St George itself was being ringed with the whole Vaubanesque vocabulary of ravelins and lunettes, glacis and bastions. The vulnerable west front was said now to be ‘pretty well secured’ (Ives) with more angles and faces than the much-cut Pitt diamond. Partly overgrown and partly over-built, they are yet visible in today’s Fort St George, the most impressive relic of the Company (as opposed to the Raj) in India. But as well as an acute shortage of troops thanks to Clive’s absence in Bengal, Madras was hamstrung by an incompetent commander in the bumbling person of Colonel John Aldercron of the 39th. This was the regiment brought to Madras by Watson in 1756, the first Royal regiment to serve in India. Its artillery had been siphoned off to Bengal by Clive and for the next three years the efforts of the Madras Council ‘were directed to getting the use of Aldercron’s troops without Aldercron’ (Biddulph). They succeeded when in 1758, as the entire regiment was recalled to England, half its members signed up in the Company’s forces. At about the same time the first detachments of a new regiment, His Majesty’s 64th under the able Colonel Draper, landed at Madras. With Stringer Lawrence still at the head of the Company’s troops and Draper leading the royal troops, Madras awaited de Lally’s army of 6000 with a garrison of 4000, ten times that of 1746.
Meanwhile Pocock had at last cornered the reluctant d’Ache. Off Negapatnam – where else? – the British won a victory which, if not exactly resounding, confirmed d’Ache’s anxieties. Taking this engagement with the previous one, he had suffered 900 dead and wounded to Pocock’s 300 while his ships, though still afloat, stood badly in need of repairs. Nothing would now stop him, not even a Council of War, from withdrawing to Mauritius. He limped away in September. In so far as Pocock was also obliged to withdraw ahead of the monsoon, it did not materially affect the balance of power.
But it did mean that de Lally, unlike La Bourdonnais, had to reach Madras overland. It was not Lawrence’s intention to contest this advance but with seventy miles between the French capital and the English, it was obvious that their supply line would be vulnerable. Accordingly a small British force was left to hold Chingleput, a strategic fort twenty miles south of Madras. De Lally debated whether to take it but decided that he could afford neither the men nor the time. The monsoon was slowing his progress and, even without fighting, it was 12 December 1758 before he finally entered Madras’s Black Town.
The siege now began in earnest – but with a British offensive. Learning that the French troops had discovered Black Town’s main distillery, Draper deemed the moment ripe for action. Six hundred men with a couple of guns charged out of one of the fort’s gates and, having terrorized the township with a militarily pointless but psychologically useful manoeuvre, charged back through another. They lost both their guns and sustained heavy losses; but so did the French.
In the event this puzzling action proved to be the only serious engagement of the entire siege. De Lally’s batteries opened fire in January but the new defences stood up well to the heavy bombardment. Even when a breach was made, so properly contrived and so hotly defended were those ravelins and lunettes that no escalade was deemed possible. Siege warfare, like the art of fortification, depended heavily on convention. Each side knew what to expect of the other and, as the shot and shell whistled overhead, each was busy underground digging mines and counter-mines. Certain actions were, however, taboo. In the midst of hostilities de Lally had occasion to complain to Pigot, the Fort St George President, that someone had presumed to fire on his headquarters. It was, of course, a terrible mistake. Pigot had been under the impression that de Lally had based himself in the Capuchin church. Obviously he was wrong. ‘If you will do the honour to inform me at which pagoda [place of worship] you fix your headquarters, all due respect will be paid them.’ After all, ‘in war mutual civilities and mutual severities may be expected’.
De Lally, a stickler for the civilities if not the severities, had convinced himself that under the rules of engagement the British ought to have handed over Chingleput. In fact they had reinforced it. By February Caillaud (a Company officer in spite of his name) and the sepoys from Trichy had joined the Chingleput garrison and had advanced almost to San Thomé on the outskirts of Madras. A determined French assault failed to dislodge them; equally Caillaud was incapable of breaking through the French cordon. But once again the besiegers were beginning to feel like the besieged.
This impression was reinforced by news from further afield. Although Clive still declined to desert Bengal’s rich political and commercial pickings, he had at last dispatched a considerable force by sea to the Northern Circars. These were the coastal districts of Hyderabad north of Masulipatnam which had been ceded to de Bussy by the Nizam. The expedition, under Colonel Francis Forde, was intended as a diversionary tactic to prevent French troops being moved down to the Carnatic.
In the event Forde quickly exceeded these modest expectations. De Lally had obligingly recalled de Bussy to assist in operations against Madras. The ablest of French generals thus became a disenchanted and obstructive subordinate while his conquests were squandered by the less experienced Marquis de Conflans. In early December, as de Lally came in sight of Madras, a pitched battle was being fought near Rajahmundry in which the British and their local ally won a decisive victory. Three months later Forde would take Masulipatnam and sign a treaty with the Nizam for the expulsion of all French troops and the cession of the Northern Circars to the Company.
For the hard-pressed garrison of Fort St George still more cheering news arrived from Anjengo in late January. Pocock, who had been in Bombay, had met up with the fleet of Indiamen conveying the rest of Draper’s regiment from England and was now rounding Sri Lanka. Within a week the first vessel arrived off Madras with ammunition and treasure; and on the evening of 6 February six more ships were ‘descried in the north-east standing towards the road’. They anchored off the fort that night. Next day the garrison woke to the sight of de Lally’s entire army decamping towards the west.
‘Joy and curiosity carried out everyone to view and contemplate the works from which they had received so much molestation for…42 days,’ writes Orme. With that remorseless concern for detail that distinguishes his work, Orme claims that the fort had fired 26,554 rounds from its cannon and 7,502 shells from its mortars. 1,990 hand grenades had been heaved from the battlements, 200,000 cartridges fired from the muskets. His casualty count gives 934 as the dead and wounded amongst the British but ‘the loss of men sustained by the French army is no where acquired’. ‘Thus ended this siege, without doubt the most strenuous and regular that had ever been carried on in India.’ Orme, who had devoted seventy strenuous and regular pages to it, heaved a sigh of satisfaction. ‘We have detailed it, in the hopes that it may remain an example and incitement.’
Although the tide had turned, the British were slow to take advantage. Before moving against Pondicherry they needed more troops – the new arrivals barely offset those lost during the siege – and undisputed command of the sea. In September d’Ache and his fleet reappeared on The Coast. Pocock, for the third and last time, moved to attack. The result was much as before only more so. D’Ache limped into Pondicherry and two weeks later sailed back to Mauritius never to visit The Coast again. In the following month Eyre Coote, Clive’s second in command at Plassey, arrived with a new battalion from home.
With de Lally’s unpopularity and Pondicherry’s insolvency provoking open mutiny amongst the French troops, Coote moved rapidly to the kill. In January 1760 he routed the enemy at the battle of Wandiwash, half way to Pondicherry, and by May had reduced all the outlying French garrisons and had begun the blockade of Pondicherry. In desperation de Lally looked for allies among the native powers. His best hope, a formidable army under the adventurer Hyder Ali from Mysore, abandoned him in August. In the same month Coote also received reinforcements but of a more reliable nature. Among the new batch of recruits sent from home was ‘part of a Highland regiment supplied by the government’. Evidently excited by these first Highlanders ever to serve in India, Orme was moved to record the event in a sentence of such puzzling obscurity that only unedited quotation can do it justice.
These mighty aids [the Highlanders] witnessed in this quarter of the globe, as equal efforts, wheresoever necessary, in every other, the superior energy of that mind, who possessing equally the confidence of his sovereign and the nation, conducted the arduous and extensive war in which they were engaged against their great and only rival.
The Highlanders had little opportunity to exercise ‘the superior energy of mind’ because Pondicherry, unlike Madras, was to succumb more to starvation than bombardment. The blockade depended heavily on the British fleet which made only the briefest of monsoon excursions to Trinconomalee and was back off the city by December. There, like La Bourdonnais before Madras, it was overtaken by a cyclone; several ships were sunk, many more dismasted. De Lally hailed the event as his deliverance and, had d’Ache reappeared, the blockade must have collapsed. But d’Ache was still in Mauritius and, as Pocock’s scattered men-of-war returned to their station, French hopes evaporated. On 16 January 1761 the emaciated garrison finally surrendered. Not a cat, not a rat, not a crow had survived the ravenous attentions of the besieged. They marched out from a ghost town and the British engineers moved in to destroy its fortifications once and for all. Although peace in Europe would eventually restore both Pondicherry and Chandernagar to their rightful owners, they would never again constitute a threat to British supremacy.
Begun with a pre-emptive snip in Burma, the process of clearing France’s exuberant growth in Indian waters had continued with a lop in Bengal and a veritable felling programme in the Circars and the Carnatic. It ended with a cosmetic flourish when Mahé, the only French establishment on the Malabar Coast, was overwhelmed by an expedition from neighbouring Tellicherry.
But the British were not to have it all their own way. Britannia, in the words of the song written by Thomas Arne a few years earlier and now lustily sung by every Tilbury tar, ‘ruled the waves’ but only around India; elsewhere Britons were all too easily ‘made slaves’. In 1760 Benkulen and its satellite trading posts on Sumatra’s west coast were ‘shamelessly’ surrendered to a French flotilla; and in the same year the Company’s men were driven from their unhappy home at Gombroon in the Persian Gulf.
Even the trade with China was at risk to French warships lurking in the Straits of Malacca. Taken along with the withdrawal from Burma, the temporary loss of Benkulen highlighted the Company’s weakness east of India. Henceforth the protection of the immensely valuable China trade would become something of an obsession occasioning a significant reawakening of interest in almost every shoreline in south-east Asia. Many and often bizarre would be the solutions propounded. But few were quite as improbable and sensational as the first, a major offensive against the Philippines in 1762. It was launched, like so many of the later eastern initiatives, from Madras.
British naval squadron in the 1760s: Capture of Manila 6th October 1762 in the Seven Years War: picture by Dominic Serres
The Philippines still belonged to Spain, her consolation prize for losing out to Portugal in the spice race, and Spain had thus far stood neutral in the Seven Years War. But when, in 1761, after the breakdown of Anglo-French peace talks, the Bourbons renewed their Family Compact, Whitehall detected a hostile alliance and formally declared war on Madrid. Indeed, plans for an offensive had been hatched well ahead of the actual declaration and predictably they were directed at Madrid’s colonial empire. In a two-pronged attack Pocock, lately returned to England from his tussles with d’Ache, was to storm Havana while on the other side of the world Draper, who had left Madras immediately after the siege, was to lead an assault on Manila.
The Philippines expedition seems to have been the brainchild of Lord Anson, now First Lord of the Admiralty. Twenty years previously, in the War of Jenkins’s Ear, Anson had rounded Cape Horn, attacked Spanish possessions in Peru, and then crossing the Pacific had taken a Spanish galleon laden with Mexican silver off the coast of Luzon (the Philippines). One or two such galleons reached Manila every year giving the mother country an access to the trade of China, India, and the archipelago which, though small by comparison with the turnover of the English Company, was nevertheless immensely profitable. Anson’s idea was to close this Spanish trapdoor into ‘the eastern treasure house’ by occupying Manila.
To that extent the whole scheme was a product of Whitehall’s global strategy and not of the Company’s ambitions – a distinction that becomes increasingly relevant in the late eighteenth century. The first that the directors heard of it was when Anson divulged the plan to Sulivan, the Company’s chairman, in December 1761. The declaration of war came a week later and just seven weeks after that Draper and the British contingent sailed from Plymouth. If the idea was to take Manila by surprise, the effect was also to take the Company by surprise. The Philippines undoubtedly lay within the area covered by the Company’s trading monopoly and since the Company had come to rely on the British government for military assistance in India, the government argued that it had a right to reciprocal assistance for any national schemes within that monopoly area. Thus Draper was not only to find ships and troops from among the Royal forces in India but also to enlist Company troops, artillery and transports.
Time did not permit of an exploration of this novel argument but, by way of sugaring the pill, it was emphasized that Manila, once taken, would be handed over to the Company. The capture of Pondicherry, like the recapture of Calcutta, had occasioned an unseemly row between Royal and Company officers. It was important to reassure the Company on this score and, lest Manila should be handed back to Spain at the end of the war, there was also mention of a second base, ideally on the southern island of Mindanao, as an alternative settlement.
The directors, though, remained distinctly cool. As will appear, they had reason to believe that they already had an option on a settlement in the vicinity of the Philippines. But informed that their co-operation would be an ‘acceptable testimony of their due sense of the King’s most gracious attention to their interests’ during the struggle with de Lally, they could hardly refuse. They did voice serious doubts, particularly about depleting either their forces or their shipping in India; and they also made it clear that, whatever the commercial compensations Manila might or might not afford, they expected their assistance to be paid for.
General William Draper, British army commander at the Capture of Manila 6th October 1762 in the Seven Years War
These reservations were shared by President Pigot and Colonel Lawrence when Draper reached Madras in July 1762. Although such worries were genuine enough, a further concern that weighed heavily with the Madras Council was the likely effect of the expedition on Madras’s private trade with Manila. As with Burma so with the Philippines; English trade in a variety of guises had been reaching Manila ever since the middle of the seventeenth century. By Governor Pitt’s time one or two private vessels had been sailing for the Philippines every year with Indian piece goods and returning to Madras with Mexican silver. This invaluable source of silver must dry up if the Spanish were ousted from Manila. It was not obvious that the indigenous produce of the Philippines would ever sustain a like trade, nor that whatever security a British Manila might afford to the China trade would offset this loss.
Even now, as Draper frantically assembled his armada in Madras, most of the local councillors, his erstwhile comrades-in-arms from the days of the siege, were more concerned for a vessel that had just left for Manila. On board her was £70,000 worth of their private trade and, according to Draper, ‘they were afraid that the venture would suffer by the loss of Manila and took any method in their power to discourage the attempt’.
Faced with what he chose to construe as wilful sabotage, Draper was able to obtain from the Company only three small transports, 600 sepoys, and 300 European troops most of whom were deserters from the ranks of de Lally’s army. ‘Such banditti had never been seen since the time of Spartacus’, he observed. The Company did, however, provide him with a sufficient complement of civilians to form a Manila council and take over the administration and commerce of the place. They included Henry Brooke, lately of Negrais, presumably because of his experience of pioneering. Draper preferred to rely on the officers of his own (Royal) regiment, which seems now to have included some of those recently tamed Highlanders. They would be the backbone of the expedition and when he sailed from Madras at the end of July, he was still quietly optimistic. ‘Tho’ we cannot do all we wish,’ he wrote by way of valedictory, ‘we are determined to do all we can and try we will.’
Six months later he was back, en route to England, with news of a wholly satisfactory outcome. Word of the war having been slow to reach the extremities of the Hispanic world, the fleet had sailed into Manila Bay unopposed. Unopposed the British troops had been landed at Ermita, just a mile from the fort (and today the heart of Manila’s nightlife), and against only token resistance the first battery had been set up. A week later the first breach was successfully stormed. British and Indian losses had been ‘trifling’ – barely thirty fatalities – and under the terms of surrender the Spanish were to pay an indemnity of £1 million. In addition, one of the Acapulco galleons, a gigantic vessel of some 2000 tons, had been taken. And finally Manila had reluctantly been handed over to the Company. ‘In short’, announced the jubilant Draper, ‘it is a lucky business.’
Unfortunately the luck ran out with Draper’s early departure. The Company would hold Manila and claim sovereignty over the Philippines for only eighteen months. But that was long enough for some of the troops to mutiny, long enough for the Governor to fall out with his own council, with the military and the navy, and long enough for a Spanish-Filipino resistance so to harry the British that they scarcely dared venture outside the fort. It was with a sense of relief that in April 1764 the place was finally handed back to Spain in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Paris. All along the Company had been developing its own ideas about how best to support the China trade and re-establish its interests in the south-east Asian archipelago. They did not include the occupation of Manila and it was entirely appropriate that the man who eventually stepped in, when the Company’s governor had resigned in disgust, to hand back Manila was also the moving spirit behind these other initiatives. His name was Alexander Dalrymple.
The French strategic cavalry was composed of ten cavalry divisions. This strategic cavalry would be reinforced by infantry battalions and artillery. Each French corps had a light cavalry regiment assigned (six squadrons). There was no divisional cavalry. French reconnaissance patrols were to avoid combat. In reconnaissance and security the French relied on combined-arms teams to confuse the enemy concerning the location of the main body and force him to deploy. The French thereby separated reconnaissance, which was conducted far forward by the strategic cavalry, from security, which was the responsibility of the corps cavalry and at the infantry division, by local foot patrols.
In August 1914 the French cavalry failed to perform both the reconnaissance and security roles. The French cavalry divisions manoeuvred almost aimlessly. The French corps cavalry remained so close to the infantry that tactical security was non-existent. As a result, the French higher commanders were poorly informed concerning German operational movements and the French infantry was repeatedly surprised.
French Enemy Estimate
Observing the density of the German rail net behind Metz, the Deuxième Bureau, the French General staff intelligence section, concluded that the Germans would concentrate up to 11 corps behind the Metz-Diedenhofen fortress complex and in Luxembourg as a mass of manoeuvre and then shift those forces into Lorraine or Belgium. The French did not obtain any solid intelligence on the location of the German assembly areas during the German rail deployment, and therefore retained the pre-war assumption that the Germans would mass behind Metz. On 9 August the French thought that 17 German acive-army corps opposed them, while four corps opposed the Russians. Since the French had 21 active army corps, the French thought they had numerical superiority. They estimated that there were five or six German corps in Belgium, five to eight corps located at Metz-Diedenhofen-Luxembourg, with more on the way, one to three corps in Lorraine, a corps plus in Alsace. Five corps were unaccounted for.
In fact, the German armies were evenly deployed from Alsace to the north of Aachen. The German 4th and 5th Armies were behind Metz and in Luxembourg, but did not have the decisive role that the French ascribed to them. The French intelligence analysts had been trained according to the theories of Bonnal, who doctrinally employed a large mass of manoeuvre, and were mirror imaging – writing the German plan as a French officer would have written it.
The pre-war calculation of the Deuxième Bureau was that the Germans could attack as of the 13th day of mobilisation. Expecting to find the Germans in the northern Ardennes, Sordet’s Cavalry Corps of three divisions was sent into Belgium on 6 August and reached the area west of Liège on 8 August. On 9 August he found nothing at Marche. Neither he nor French aerial reconnaissance could find any German forces as far east as the Ourthe River because there were no German forces there, nor would there be any there until around 18 August. Sordet’s cavalry had moved ten days too soon. Nor did the Belgians provide much useful information. By 12 August Sordet had moved to Neufchâteau but still made no contact; he then pulled back to the west bank of the Meuse on 15 August and was attached to 5th Army. Sordet reported that it was impossible to supply the cavalry in the Ardennes and that air recon was unreliable in the dense woods. His cavalry corps had conducted an eight-day march without obtaining any information concerning the German forces. In order to find the German 3rd, 4th and 5th Armies, the French cavalry would have had to advance across the Belgian Ardennes to the border with Germany and Luxembourg; it was unable to do so. The German deployment was not completed until 17 August and the German 5th and 4th Armies did not begin their advance until 18 August. The French had great difficulty understanding why the Germans were not as far to the west as they expected them to be.
By 10 August, the French saw indications that the Germans were digging in on the Ourthe between Liège and Houffalize. The French intelligence summary on 13 August reported that in the Ardennes there were only two German corps (VIII AK at Luxembourg and XVIII at Aumetz – the latter was actually XVI AK) and two cavalry divisions. The French were beginning to get the impression that there were no German troops in the Ardennes. This was not an illogical conclusion. It is more than 100km from the sparse German railheads in the Eifel, in the German Ardennes, to the Franco-Belgian border. The Ardennes is thinly populated and heavily forested, with few and poor roads. Crossing it would pose significant problems in supply and traffic control. At the end of the approach march lay the Meuse River, a formidable obstacle. It would seem unlikely that the Germans would commit significant forces from the very start of the campaign into such an out-of-the-way and difficult theatre of war.
In the skirmishes between cavalry and foot patrols during the first week of the war, the French thought that their troops were generally victorious, returning with prisoners, horses and weapons. The chief of staff of VI CA said that ‘this filled them with great joy.’ French pre-war predictions of the natural superiority of the French soldier seemed to be justified.
Between 7 and 10 August the French VII CA had advanced towards Mühlhausen in the upper Alsace and been thrown back into France by the German XIV AK and XV AK. On 14 August the French 1st Army and 2nd Armies attacked into Lorraine. Joffre was fully aware that the German forces to the east of Metz could attack through the fortress to the south into Lorraine: he gave the 3rd Army the mission of attacking any such German sortie in the flank with two corps, while on 15 August he told the 3rd Army to be prepared to invest Metz from the west
By 15 August the French recognised the strength of the German forces in the general vicinity of Liège. Joffre told the commanders of the 4th and 5th Armies that the Germans were going to make their principal effort ‘to the north of Givet’ with a second group marching on Sedan and Montmédy. The 4th Army estimate of the situation on 16 August said that these forces represented the German mass of manoeuvre, and that aerial reconnaissance showed that there were no significant German forces at Arlon or Luxembourg in the southern Ardennes. Joffre based on his plan of attack on the idea that the Germans had left their centre weak in order to strengthen the force north of the Meuse. He therefore decided to break the German centre in the Ardennes. On 15 August GQG ordered 5th Army on the left flank to march north to an area west of Givet. 4th Army was to be prepared to attack towards Neufchâteau. On 16 August the 3rd Army was told to hand over the area between Verdun and Toul to a group of reserve divisions in order to be able attack north of Metz towards Longwy.
The inability of the French cavalry divisions to obtain an accurate picture of the advance of the German 4th and 5th Armies led to serious mistakes in French operational and tactical planning. Due in great part to IR88’s success at Longlier, the French 4th and 9th Cavalry Divisions were pushed out of the way of XVIII AK and were not able to determine what the Germans were doing, nor hinder their movements. The anonymous author of the FAR 25 regimental history said that the French cavalry simply would not fight. From the smallest patrol up to the level of cavalry corps, the French cavalry avoided combat and when it unexpectedly did meet German forces, such as at Longlier, the French cavalry withdrew.77 The German cavalry was able to screen the movements of its own forces, while on 21 and 22 August it provided accurate information concerning the French advance.
3 DIC, Morning, 22 August
The Colonial Corps order, issued at 1800 21 August, directed the corps to march to Neufchâteau on 22 August, with 3 DIC on the right, marching through Rossignol, and 5th Colonial Brigade on the left, marching over Suxy. Because the Corps would transit the Forest of Neufchâteau–Chiny, the Corps cavalry regiment, the 3rd Chasseurs d’Afrique, would follow the advance guard. 2 DIC was held back west of Montmédy as the army reserve. XII CA was on the corps left, marching on Recogne and Libramont, II CA on the right, marching on Leglise. The corps order said that the only enemy forces in the area were those of the German 3 KD and 8 KD, which had been defeated by the French cavalry on 17–18 August.
The 3 DIC order of movement was 1 RIC, 2 RIC, Division Artillery (2 RAC), 3 RIC. 7 RIC followed, guarding the corps artillery (3 RAC); the column was 15km long. The movement order for 2 RIC conveys the prevailing attitude in the division: ‘Today a 33km march. Arrive at Neufchâteau at 1100 and billet. No contact expected.’
The advance guard battalion (I/1 RIC) missed its movement time at 0630 because it was in contact with German cavalry patrols. Then the rest of the regiment, which was to lead the main body, missed its movement time because the staffs did not know where the units were located and orders consequently arrived late. At 0800 the Colonial Corps was informed that II CA on the right was three hours behind 3 DIC, exposing the 3 DIC right flank. This was not an auspicious beginning. Heavy fog hindered movement until it lifted at 0700, revealing a clear, sunny sky.
Meeting Engagement, 3 DIC
A reserve cavalry squadron (6/6th Dragoons) provided security immediately in front of the 3 DIC advance guard. The choice of this reserve squadron, when a regiment of professional cavalry was available (the Chasseurs d’Afrique), can only be explained by the fact that the division did not expect contact. As usual, French cavalry stayed close to the infantry for protection. The Dragoons were engaged about 600m south of Rossignol by dismounted German cavalry, which withdrew. The Dragoons advanced through Rossignol and then 500m into the forest of Neufchâteau where they were again engaged by cavalry. At 0740, 23 August the Dragoons were engaged for a third time 1,500m into the woods, this time by infantry, and stopped cold. The commander of 1 RIC was told that this could not be a large German force because Germans were 35km to the east of Neufchâteau, and that it was important to move quickly through the woods. He therefore committed the advanced guard battalion, II/1 RIC. The forest was deciduous, mixed with pines. The undergrowth was very thick, and only the occasional clearing offered visibility up to 50m. A wall of fire met II/1 RIC. Immediately there were heavy casualties; the commanders of the 5th, 6th and 8th companies were killed, the CO of the 7th Company wounded. A violent standing firefight developed at point-blank range. The fight became hand-to-hand at several points. The rest of 1 RIC was committed; all three 1 RIC battalion commanders were killed while standing on the road, as if on manoeuvre.
The remainder of 3 DIC was strung out on the road. 2 RIC was entering Rossignol; the divisional artillery, 2 RAC, was crossing the bridge at Breuvanne; 3 RIC was entering St. Vincent. Two battalions of 7 RIC had taken a wrong turn and were marching cross-country to regain the correct route. At the rear of the column was the corps artillery, 3 RAC.
At about 0930 it was difficult for the commander of 3 DIC, General Raffenel, to judge the seriousness of the fight; all that he could see were the wounded coming to the rear. Although all of 1 RIC was engaged in the woods, he still refused to believe that he was in contact with a major enemy force. His concern was to bring forward 3 RIC and clear the woods.
By 0800 the lead element of the 3 DIC divisional artillery, I/2 RAC, had advanced until it was at the southern entrance to Rossignol, followed by II/2 RAC, whose last vehicles were at the Breuvanne bridge and III/2 RAC, which was south of the bridge. The firefight in the woods ahead prevented 2 RAC from advancing. As would soon become clear, the ground was too soft to move the guns off the road.
At 1015 I/2 RIC was sent into the thick woods to the right of 1/1 RIC, but became completely disoriented and strayed to the right. II/2 RIC was committed on the left. It took heavy fire from an invisible enemy, probably II/IR 63 on its left flank, lost most of its officers, including the battalion commander, and by 1100 the battalion broke for the rear.
German doctrine emphasised that cavalry needed to be aggressive during the battle in developing opportunities to both participate in the battle as well as to operate against the enemy flank and rear. Doctrine also stated that cavalry was the arm best suited to conduct pursuit.
While the 3 KD and 6 KD had been very effective in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance roles before the battle, during the battle they accomplished nothing. The 3 KD commander decided that the terrain prevented the division from accomplishing anything and resigned himself to inactivity. 6 KD was used to guard the army left flank. Neither division conducted a pursuit, either on 22 or 23 August, although the Colonial Corps would seem to have offered a fine target for 3 KD and the right flank of the French VI CA an even better target for 6 KD.
It appears that the cavalry learned during the approach march that a mounted man presented a fine target and that even small groups of infantry were capable of blocking cavalry movement. By 22 August the senior cavalry commanders were thoroughly intimidated: they avoided serious contact and were unwilling to attempt to move large bodies of cavalry anywhere that they might be subject to small arms or artillery fire. Coupled with the unimaginative operations of the 5th Army headquarters, the timidity of the cavalry leaders cost the cavalry the opportunity to have made a major impact in the battle.
Lessons Not Learned
Upon mature reflection, Charbonneau said that the defeat of the Colonial Corps was due to three factors; the superiority of German training and doctrine not being one of them.
The first was the failure of French reconnaissance. On 20 August the French cavalry reported the Germans moving north of Neufchâteau–Bastogne. On 22 August the Colonial Corps cavalry, ostensibly due to fog and wooded terrain, did not detect the German advance. For these reasons, the Colonial Corps was surprised. Why German operational and tactical cavalry had detected the French advance was not explained. On a tactical level, the 3rd Colonial Division and 33 DI were not destroyed because they were advancing rashly, but because the Germans counter-reconnaissance had blinded the French patrols, and the Germans manoeuvred at a rate of speed that befuddled the French division commanders.
Second was the failure of the French theory of the advance guard, that is, the idea that the advance guard could significantly delay the enemy, giving the main body time to manoeuvre. This theory had nothing to do with Grandmaison, but was the essential element of Bonnal’s doctrine, which had been implemented in the French army in the late 1890s. Charbonneau said that the advance guard concept failed if the enemy attacked at once ‘appearing like a jack-in-the-box’, not only against the front but also against the flanks. Again, French defeat was not a result of superior German doctrine, but deficiencies in French tactics.
Third, Charbonneau said the offensive à outrance failed because it did not incorporate the concept of fire superiority. He did not acknowledge that fire superiority was the foundation of German offensive tactics. He did say that disregard of the effects of fire increased in the French army as the lessons of 1870 slipped further into the past. Indeed, to Charbonneau the offensive à outrance had been taught as French doctrine for most of the period before the First World War, thereby absolving Grandmaison of instituting a radical change in French tactics.
Charbonneau steadfastly maintained that pre-war French tactical doctrine and training recognised only the offensive and that his division was defeated because it attacked recklessly. But neither 3 RIC nor 7 RIC made any attempt to conduct an attack of any kind, much less a reckless offensive à outrance. 3 RIC was pinned down by German fire, which eventually destroyed the regiment. There was no attempt by 3 RIC to ignore the effects of enemy fire charge with the bayonet. As Charbonneau well knew, his own regiment, 7 RIC, was overrun while attempting to hold a defensive position.
Given the choice between drawing conclusions from what he had seen with his own eyes and parroting the party line, Charbonneau came down foursquare on the side of conventional wisdom. Charbonneau’s cognitive dissonance is symptomatic of the subsequent problems in the discussion of the Battle of the Frontiers.