PUNTA DELGADA, 1582

Disembarkation of the Spanish tercios in the Terceiras islands (26 july 1583) (detail). Fresco by Niccolò Granello, Sala de las Batallas, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, Spain.

THE STRUGGLE FOR THE AZORES, 1582-3 The map on the right highlights the strategic importance of the Azores as a stopping-over point and provisioning base for returning Spanish treasure fleets and Portuguese spice carracks. In hostile hands, the Azores would not only have deprived the Spanish and Portuguese of a vital place of refuge, but would have been perfect bases for corsairs. The routes of outbound Spanish and Portuguese vessels were further south to take advantage of prevailing winds and current patterns.

Although it might easily have been otherwise, the Ottoman-Habsburg struggle for Mediterranean dominance now trailed off into stalemate. Uluj Ali Pasha’s capture of Tunis and La Goletta in 1574, although operationally brilliant, yielded modest strategic dividends. For its part, Spain commanded inadequate resources for major offensive action, but, in the absence of a significant threat, adopted an aggressive posture. Alvaro de Bazan’s galleys ravaged the North African coast with impunity in 1576, showing that war could still cost the Turks. But as the threat diminished in the Mediterranean, Spain’s difficulties in the Netherlands grew apace. At the same time, the Ottomans nervously eyed their eastern frontier, where 1577 began a thirteen-year war with the Safavids. That same year, Sultan Murad III concluded an armistice with Philip of Spain that would be periodically renewed until the negotiation of a definitive peace in 1587.

But Spain was not the only Catholic nation with crusading impulses and Mediterranean ambitions, and in 1578 the young Portuguese king, Sebastian, led an army into Morocco to overthrow the sharif, an Ottoman surrogate, and install his own client. The Moroccans were as well supplied with gunpowder weapons as the Portuguese and as skilled in their use, and won a crushing victory on 4 August at Alcazarquivir. Sebastian died in the battle, and his entire army, including the cream of the Portuguese nobility, was killed or captured. The Portuguese throne fell by default to Cardinal Henry, ageing and in ill health, the last legitimate descendant of the Avis line. These developments were noted with alacrity by Philip of Spain, who had a solid claim to the throne through his mother, a Portuguese princess. Henry died in February 1580, having spent much of Portugal’s treasure to ransom (idalgas, members of the nobility captured at Alcazarquivir. Philip had used the intervening years to good advantage, discreetly negotiating his terms of succession with Henry, arriving at an arrangement that preserved Portugal’s empire and governmental institutions and secured the acquiescence of the nobility and wealthy merchants.

There was, however, considerable anti-Spanish sentiment among the ordinary Portuguese, and Sebastian’s illegitimate cousin, Dom Antonio, a wealthy friar, proclaimed himself king with considerable popular support. Philip responded by invading Portugal and dispatching envoys to Portugal’s imperial possessions to press his case. The invasion had two arms: an army driving on Lisbon from the east through Estremadura, and a smaller force working its way along the southern coast with naval support. Philip again displayed his skill at selecting subordinates, assigning the main force to the Duke of Alba, ageing but still widely respected; the southern army to the Duke of Medina Sidonia; and naval command to Bazan, getting on in years but thoroughly competent. It was Philip’s finest hour as commander-in-chief. Henry’s expenditure for ransoms had left little for defence; the Spanish moved swiftly and, in Alba’s case, with remarkable restraint. The Spanish forces united and, after a short, stiff fight – Alba’s last battle, and perhaps his best – Lisbon surrendered on 18 July 1580. Dom Antonio fled north and on 23 October left the country aboard an English ship.

Philip’s lieutenants had left Portuguese governance intact, and internal resistance evaporated. The Indies and Brazil accepted Spanish rule, the latter with some enthusiasm in the light of French designs on its trade. Of the Portuguese empire, only the Azores, excepting the island of Sao Miguel, held for Dom Antonio, a matter that quickly aroused interest in London and, of greater import, Paris. That interest was heightened when a small Spanish expedition that had been sent in 1581 to reclaim the islands was repulsed. This was a serious matter, for the Azores were vital to the operation of convoys from both the East and West Indies; the Flota de Tierra Firme, Flota de Nueva Espana and Carriera das Indias, the treasure and spice convoys, used them for watering and provisioning on their way home and as a rendezvous point for their escorts. They were a perfect base from which to prey on Habsburg commerce.

Sensing opportunity, Catherine de Medici, dowager queen of France, resolved to support Dom Antonio’s claim and, in the spring of 1582, dispatched an expeditionary force under Philip Strozzi of some 60 ships, half of them large, carrying 6-7,000 soldiers, the largest French maritime expedition until the age of Louis XIV: Sailing with the implicit blessing of Queen Elizabeth, it included several English ships. Alive to the danger, Philip dispatched a fleet under Bazan. Consisting of 2 large Portuguese warships, 19 armed merchantmen and 10 transports carrying 4,500 soldiers, it met Strozzi’s force on 24 July 1582. After an indecisive encounter, the two fleets met two days later, some 18 miles south of Sao Miguel, in a fierce engagement named after the island’s capital, Punta Delgada. The French initially had the advantage of the wind and attacked the Spanish rear with superior forces, but Bazan doubled with his van, precipitating a melee. Although the French enjoyed advantages in terms of weatherliness and, initially, in order, the Spanish prevailed by sheer hard fighting. The galleon San Mateo, the focal point of the battle, was assailed by no less than seven French ships, including Strozzi’s Capitana (flagship), in an action that ultimately drew in Bazan’s Capitana. While the major warships on both sides were amply provided with cannon, it was a battle of boarding and counterboarding that was decided by small arms, edged weapons and valour. The French lost ten ships, including Strozzi’s flagship, which was boarded and captured. Strozzi himself took a Spanish arquebus ball and died a captive aboard Bazan’s Capitana.

Punta Delgada was the first major naval engagement fought far from any continental landmass and would be the last until the battle of Midway in 1942. Although modern historians have largely ignored Punta Delgada, the English sea dog Sir William Monson was quite right to cite its importance. Although French adventurers and Dom Antonio’s partisans still held the Azores, save for Sao Miguel, Punta Delgada was decisive. Bazan returned the next year with a massive armada: 5 galleons, 2 galleasses and 12 galleys, together with 79 sailing ships, 30 large and the rest small, carrying some 15,372 soldiers. Uniting his fleet at Sao Miguel on 19 July 1582 – the galleys sailed independently, arriving eleven days ahead of the rest – Bazan directed his force at Terceira, the largest of the Azores in French hands. After a careful reconnaissance, he selected the least heavily defended of three feasible beaches and mounted a model amphibious invasion, the galleys providing fire support for infantry carried ashore in small craft. Bazan’s account of the action has a strikingly modern tone:

… receiving many cannonades … the [flag] galley began to batter and dismount the enemy artillery and the rest of the galleys [did likewise] … and the landing boats ran aground and placed the soldiers at the sides of the forts, and along the trenches, although with much difficulty and working under the pressure of the furious artillery, arquebus, and musket fire of the enemy. And the soldiers mounting [the trenches] in several places came under heavy arquebus and musket fire, but finally won the forts and trenches.

With Spanish infantry ashore in superior numbers resistance on Terceira collapsed, the other islands following suit. Dom Antonio got off with his skin and little else. The Azores held for Spain, and the Indies convoys continued unhindered. Flushed with victory, Bazan advised his imperial master that England could be invaded by sea. Thus stimulated, Philip asked his commander in Flanders, Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, about the feasibility of such a project. Parma was unenthusiastic, preferring a surprise attack across the Channel to Bazan’s proposal to invade from Iberia; Parma did not, however, rule it out.

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Vichy Air Force in Indochina

In May 1940 Groupe Aérien Autonome 41 had a total strength of around thirteen aircraft. By September of the same year the group was believed to be considerably weaker, but throughout the whole of Indochina there were around thirty Potez 25s available.

Groupe Aérien Autonome 42 had around sixteen aircraft available in May 1940. Figures for September 1940 seem to suggest that this had dropped to fewer than ten serviceable aircraft.

Groupe Aérien Mixte 595 had seven Potez 25s available to them in May 1940 and around sixteen by the September.

Groupe Aérien Mixte 596 had just six Potez 25s in May, but thirteen were available to them in the September, including seven Morane 406s. In fact, the Moranes, strictly speaking, were not available in September 1940, as Esc2/696 was only created in the October. In addition, there were twelve aircraft available to Esc1/CBS in May 1940.

Three Potez 631C were purchased by China (those with C designation). The aircraft were impounded in Hai Phong. It is believed that two of the aircraft were used for reconnaissance missions until around 1943. The third aircraft was used for spare parts. It is probable that of the two used aircraft one was used by the squadron commander of GAA41 and the other by the squadron commander of GAA42. The Morane 406s that were part of 596 were originally due to be sold to the Chinese, but they were also impounded.

The Aéronautique Navale’s EscHS6, based at Cat-Laï, had Loire 130s, Gourdou-Leseurre 832s and Potez 452s, amounting to eight aircraft in total. The Loire 130s were seaplanes and predominantly used for night missions and fitted with anti-submarine bombs. By June 1941, it is believed that there were nineteen Morane 406s left in Indochina. Seven of the Morane 406s were with Escadrille 2/595, an additional six flying with Escadrille 2/596. It is believed that the remainder were in the repair pool and being used for spare parts.

The Franco–Thai War (1940–1941)

The Armée de l’Air had, theoretically, around a hundred aircraft available for this conflict. The front-line aircraft amounted to some sixty aircraft of a variety of types including:

  • thirty Potez 25 TOEs
  • four Farman 221s
  • six Potez 542s
  • nine Morane-Saulnier M.S.406
  • eight Loire 130 flying boats

The Royal Thai Air Force could muster around 140 aircraft, comprising:

  • twenty-four Mitsubishi Ki-30 light bombers
  • nine Mitsubishi Ki-21 medium bombers
  • twenty-five Hawk 75Ns pursuit planes
  • six Martin B-10 medium bombers
  • seventy O2U Corsair light bombers

During the war with Thailand, the French launched just over 190 day missions and just over fifty night missions. The conflict ended on 28 January 1941. It had led to a number of key servicing problems for the aircraft. There were still nineteen French Moranes, of which only fourteen were serviceable. In addition, the French still had three serviceable Farman 221s, three out of four Potez 542s, only thirty-four of their fifty-four Potez 25s, nine of their twelve Loire 130s and none of their three Potez 631s available.

At the end of the hostilities, the German Armistice Commission allowed the transfer of aircraft reinforcements to Indochina. The Commission authorized the following aircraft to be transferred from Martinique:

  • twenty-three Hawk H-75s
  • forty-four Curtiss SBC-4s

However, the Japanese resisted this transfer and the plans to move the aircraft from Martinique were cancelled. As a result, Escadrille 2/596

was disbanded due to lack of spare parts for its aircraft and what remained of the unit, including both the pilots and the aircraft, were transferred to Escadrille 2/595. This disbandment and transfer took place in the middle of 1941.

Vichy Air Force in Indochina – January 1942

Throughout 1942 there had been a major reorganization in Indochina. Operating out of Tong in Tonkin were both units of the newly created Northern Indochina Air Command, consisting of Groupement Mixte 1 and 2. The first unit had Farman 221s and Potez 542s and the second had Potez 25s and Morane 406s. The second grouping, Central Indochina Air Command, consisted of an observation unit based at Bach Mai in Tonkin and equipped with Potez 25s. Groupe Aérien Mixte 4, based at Dong Hoy in Annam and at Vatchay in Cambodia, had Potez 25s and Loire 130s. Unfortunately, we do not know the strength of these units at this time. More reliable figures are available for November 1942, when the total strength of Northern Indochina Air Command amounted to eighteen aircraft. Central Indochina Air Command could muster twenty-nine aircraft.

By the end of 1942, the Vichy Air Force in Indochina had been reduced to the following:

  • three Farman 221s
  • two Potez 542s
  • eighteen Potez 25TOEs
  • seven Loire 130s

NELSON AND THE BRITISH NAVY FRUSTRATE NAPOLEON’S STRATEGY IN EGYPT

Aboukir Bay: The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798, Nicholas Pocock, 1808, National Maritime Museum

French Campaign in Egypt

British victory over the French at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

A week after the French occupied Cairo, Lord Nelson and his British naval task force appeared off the coast of Alexandria. French warships were anchored in shallow water just northeast of the city in Aboukir Bay in a line parallel to the shore. French Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers believed he had positioned his ships close enough to the shore to prevent British warships from getting between the French line and the shore. Thus, the arrayed French warships, in combination, had nearly 500 guns facing the sea, as their commanders believed that would be the only direction from which an attack could be mounted. Brueys’s fleet included 13 ships-of-the-line and 4 frigates; however, half of the Frenchmen serving aboard the vessels were under 18 years of age and most had never seen combat.

Boldness in war often initiates its own dynamic, creating opportunities that would not have been available without first seizing the initiative and “wrong-footing” the opponent in a dash of energy, speed, and decisive force. Such attributes had been part of the French army for centuries; they certainly were part of what made Napoleon one of the greatest military commanders in recorded history. However, the British navy had developed on sea what the French had perfected on land. Conducting military operations on the European continent offered interior lines from which to operate, and the French excelled in maneuver. However, the advantages offered in Europe were not available for a global French expeditionary force where SLOCs factored into operations. By the end of the eighteenth century, the British fleet sailed the world’s oceans without peer.

On August 1, 1798, following a month in which French military power destroyed the Mamluk army in Egypt and sent the Ottoman viceroy in headlong retreat into Syria, the British naval task force consisting of 13 ships-of-the-line finally located the French fleet supporting Napoleon’s land campaign. The British naval commanders were not aware of the configuration of the seabed between the French line of ships and the shore, but, they took a calculated risk and maneuvered half the British ships between the French and the shore. Once in position, Nelson’s ships were able to open fire from two directions. Admiral Brueys’s 118-gun flagship, the L’Oriente, took volley after volley, setting fires that eventually reached her powder magazine, which then created a massive explosion. Two French ships-of-the-line and two frigates were able to cut their cables and fight their way out to sea. By the time the battle was over, a day later, one French ship was at the bottom of the bay, three still floating but generally unrecognizable, and nine French warships captured.

The English were then in a position not only to patrol the coasts of North Africa and Egypt but also, having coordinated their efforts with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, to traverse the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean. It was said that “Napoleon did indeed have Egypt,” but cut off from the sea, “Egypt actually had Napoleon.” On September 11, 1798, Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire declared war on France and formed an alliance with Britain, Austria, Russia, and Naples. Shortly thereafter, on October 21, the people of Cairo began rioting against the French.

Having received information that an Ottoman army was forming in Syria with the objective of attacking his forces in Egypt, Napoleon decided to strike first, and on February 6, 1799, commenced operations in Palestine as he proceeded north to Syria. With a force of 13,000 troops, Napoleon fought and overran enemy forces at El Arish (February 8-19), Gaza (February 24-25), and Jaffa (March 3-7), as he moved north toward the Syrian border. By mid-March, Napoleon laid siege to Acre and from March 17 to May 21 launched 7 assaults against the seaport fortress and dealt with 11 offensive operations from the city’s besieged forces followed by the French temporarily halting the siege and withdrawing at the approach of a large army coming out of Syria. Napoleon then turned and attacked the approaching Ottoman-Syrian army at the Battle of Mount Tabor where he defeated and dispersed the force. He then resumed the siege of Acre. Following the arrival of intelligence that a combined British-Ottoman fleet was planning on transporting a large Ottoman army for insertion into Egypt, Napoleon halted siege operations at Acre and returned to Egypt. In July 1799, the British-Ottoman fleet transported an 18,000-man Ottoman army and landed at Aboukir Bay. Napoleon promptly engaged this force in an attack mounted on July 25, killing or driving into the sea nearly 11,000 Turkish troops and taking 6,000 prisoners, including the commander of the force, Mustafa Pasha.

Following the victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the French Directoire and other French leaders knew that Napoleon Bonaparte was too valuable a military leader for them to allow him to perish in the Middle Eastern theater surrounded by an overwhelming assortment of enemies and with the French unable to support or resupply his forces by sea. After the failure of French forces to take Acre, coupled with the siege of the French garrison on Malta (which would eventually fall to the British on September 5, 1800), and with the British cooperating with the Ottoman Empire, the French government knew that French control in Egypt, even if sustainable in the short term, would not create the conditions that would allow France to use it for launching operations in South Asia or in operations regarding succession issues of a crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Without the ability to challenge British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea, with Britain’s intent on protecting access to India through Egypt, and without a commitment of treasure and manpower that far exceeded that which French leaders were prepared to make at the time in the Middle East, France could not successfully and politically consolidate military gains in Egypt, Palestine, or Syria. If Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign had proven anything (beyond his brilliance as an operational and tactical commander), it was that even with one of the most capable generals in history, commanding one of the finest armies in history, the political objective of leveraging tactical military supremacy in order to establish a liberal democracy within a culture fractured by years of autocratic rule was, at the time, strategically and operationally unsustainable.

Following operations at Aboukir Bay, arrangements were quietly made for Napoleon to return to France where he would be promoted first consul. On August 22, 1799, Napoleon unceremoniously, accompanied by a small contingent of aides and staff, left Egypt by sea. General Jean-Baptiste Kleber was named commander of the French forces that remained in Egypt. Kleber was tasked with an orderly evacuation of French forces, but preliminary negotiations with the British were unsuccessful, and Kleber was forced to plan for continued military operations to protect French forces in Egypt. The French under Kleber successfully battled the Anglo-Ottoman coalition until 1800 when Kleber was assassinated in Cairo by a Syrian, and command of French forces was transferred to General Abdullah Jacques Menou, a French convert to Islam. Following the transfer of command, an Anglo-Ottoman invasion force surrounded French forces at Alexandria and Cairo. French army forces at Cairo surrendered on June 18, 1801, and Menou personally surrendered the Alexandria garrison on September 3. By September end, all French forces had been withdrawn from Egypt.

Following the departure of French forces from Egypt, Lord Nelson, the British admiral who helped sink French plans for the Middle East, observed at the time:

I think their objective is to possess themselves of some port in Egypt and to fix themselves at the head of the Red Sea in order to get a formidable army into India; and in concert with Tipu Siab [Sultan of Mysore], to drive us if possible from India.

Hence, the French objectives of establishing a foothold in Egypt to facilitate a move against Constantinople, the British in India, or both, were never reached. The actual results included the utter destruction of 700 years of Mamluk control in Egypt and the establishment of a vivid awareness within ruling circles in the Middle East as to how far the region had fallen behind European military capabilities and Western technology. Less apparent, but certainly not lost on an observant few, was the remarkable energy being generated by a revolutionary people under the banner of liberty, fraternity, and equality.

The End at Verdun

Raymond Abescat took part in the offensive against Douaumont and was lucky to come out of it alive. Eighty years after, as one of the last of the Verdun veterans, he recorded his memories of 24 October 1916 and they were as vivid as if they had happened the day before. He recalled ‘a particularly disturbing moment’ quite unrelated to the military achievement of that day:

There were a few of us in some shell holes. About four in each crater. In one of these hollows there were only three men, whereas the one that I was in held five along with the sergeant. As it was a bit of a squeeze the sergeant said to me: ‘Look, get in with the other three!’ I was about to do so when a comrade volunteered and went there in my place. A moment went by. Suddenly, a German plane flew over us… ‘A bad sign, that!’ And in fact, a few minutes later a whole artillery discharge rained down on our heads and a shell landed right in the hole where I ought to have been. Of the four who were there three were killed and the fourth – the one who had taken my place – was buried under the earth. We got him out gravely wounded. Because of that I have always felt that survival depends on factors that are completely arbitrary.

He was in action again on 16 November:

On that occasion I got a piece of shrapnel in my ankle. It was between nine and ten in the morning and there was no question of moving a muscle because everything that did move was shot down! I had to wait till night-time to get myself as best I could to the first-aid post. My war ended there. The time that had elapsed between being wounded and getting medical care had brought on the beginning of gangrene. I almost had to have my leg amputated. When I got over it, I wasn’t sorry to have left that hell behind me without meeting a tragic end…

Abescat’s reference to the fighting of 16 November shows that the battle did not end with the reclaiming of Douaumont. Nivelle and Mangin were eager to inflict more defeats on the now discomfited Germans. Fort Vaux was added to the tally of success on 2 November, the Germans having abandoned it as being not worth defending; to the French this low-cost seizure helped to cancel out the easy taking of Douaumont that had rankled ever since February. But a more positive flourish was required before the fighting could be closed down. It came in mid-December with a three-day battle on a six-mile front, in which Mangin’s troops advanced two miles beyond Douaumont and took 115 guns, a mass of machine guns and mortars, and 11,000 prisoners. Though only a right-bank offensive it was seen as an unambiguous triumph, and was acknowledged as such by the German Crown Prince. He wrote in his memoirs:

At dawn on December 15th our artillery positions and all the ravines north of the line Louvemont-Hill 378-Bezonvaux redoubt were heavily bombarded with gas shells. The French infantry advanced shortly before 11 a.m., after two hours’ drum-fire on the whole front from Vacherauville to Vaux. On our side the co-operation between infantry and artillery again left much to be desired, and our barrage came down too late.

In the centre of our front in Chauffour and north of Douaumont part of the 10th Division and General von Versen’s 14th held their positions with great stubbornness till late in the evening. In the sectors to the right and left of them, however, the enemy broke through on a wide front. On our right wing Vacherauville, part of Poivre Hill, Louvemont and Hill 378, and on our left the whole Hardaumont and Bezonvaux redoubt ridge were lost. During the latter part of the day the enemy extended his large initial gains, and enveloped the positions still held by our troops in the centre from either flank and in rear. Fighting went on till late in the evening, but all our struggles were in vain… This second defeat before Verdun was marked by a disproportionately high total of prisoners lost, exceeding even those taken on October 24th. The enemy’s communiqué claimed 11,000 prisoners, mostly unwounded, from all five of our divisions engaged…

The spirit of our troops had declined to a marked degree… to a considerable extent their morale and power of resistance was unequal to the demands placed on them by their onerous task…

The mighty drive of the battles for Verdun in 1916 was now at an end! To the bold confident onslaught of the first February days had succeeded weeks and months of fierce, costly and slow advance; then the gradual diminution of our forces had led to the cessation of the offensive, and finally two regrettable setbacks had wrested back from us much of the blood-soaked ground we had so dearly won. Small wonder if this ill-starred end to our efforts wrung the hearts of the responsible commanders.

I knew now for the first time what it was to lose a battle. Doubt as to my own competence, self-commiseration, bitter feelings, unjust censures passed in quick succession through my mind and lay like a heavy burden on my soul, and I am not ashamed to confess that it was some time before I recovered my mental balance and my firm confidence in ultimate victory.

That confidence too, it is scarcely necessary to add, would also end in disillusion.

This final stage of the campaign, spectacularly conducted under new management, was bound to cause casualties in the structure of the French high command. Nivelle and Mangin were so much in the ascendant that they had to be rewarded. Pétain slipped back somewhat into the shadows, to return in a vital role some months later, but the more significant victim was Joffre. On 13 December, two days before the final attack began, he was appointed technical adviser to the government and deprived of direct powers of command. On the 15th Nivelle was summoned to G.Q.G. to take over the post of Commander-in-Chief. On the 26th Joffre effectively fell on his sword by resigning. Some honour was retrieved when he was made Marshal of France on the following day, but the die was cast and he began his journey into an obscurity from which he would never emerge. An embarrassing scene took place at Chantilly in which Joffre, appealing for loyalty among the staff who had worked under him since August 1914, found only one officer prepared to stay with him as he relinquished his command; the fact that he had ‘limogé’ numerous generals in his time did not make his own removal seem the less pathetic. He would still have duties to perform but they would be ceremonial only, such as heading a French military mission to the United States in 1917 or serving as figurehead president of the Supreme War Council in 1918.

Meanwhile Mangin celebrated the new regime with an Order of the Day that trumpeted greater glory to come: ‘We know the method and we have the Chief. Success is certain.’ Future events – though not this time at Verdun – would show that his claim was as empty as Nivelle’s ‘We have the formula’ assertion on the steps at Souilly all those months before. But for the moment Nivelle was the hero of the hour, and Verdun was his triumph. And if nothing else the long struggle was over.

What kind of a battle was it that had thus come to an end after 298 days? Where in its almost ten grim months had Verdun taken the concept of modern war?

The Germans seized the opportunity of a major campaign to try out certain technical innovations. Von Knobelsdorf’s use of phosgene in his June offensive added another name to the burgeoning list of noxious gases; curiously, or perhaps not in view of the way the secretive Falkenhayn was running the campaign, the Kaiser only heard about it from the newspapers. Flamethrowers, initially tested in the region in 1915, were also employed on a major scale here for the first time. In July the flamethrower units were given the insignia of the death’s head; this would later become the insignia of the Waffen SS. Steel helmets were first used en masse at Verdun; the British equivalent came into use roughly at about the same time. Additionally German Sturmtruppen – ‘Stormtroopers’, trained to break through at speed leaving other units to ‘mop up’ behind them – had their first trial runs at Verdun: they would wreak much havoc in the great German attacks of 1918.

Artillery dominated the battle, and was by far the greatest killer. It was used on a massive scale. In White Heat, specifically devoted to ‘the new warfare 1914–18’, John Terraine wrote about Verdun: ‘The statistics of the artillery war… are staggering. For their initial attack the Germans brought up 2,500,000 shells, using for the purpose some 1,300 trains. By June the artillery on both sides had grown to about 2,000 guns, and it was calculated that in just over four months of battle 24 million shells had been pumped into this stretch of dedicated ground.’ But artillery on both sides was often massively inefficient and wasteful. Heavy guns were not always the super-weapons they were thought to be; some had to be re-bored after firing 50 to 100 rounds; moving them meant rendering them ineffective for many hours at a time. There were innumerable instances on both sides of casualties by ‘friendly fire’; thus the infantry could find themselves hating their own apparently careless or uncaring gunners more than the enemy. Communications were primitive and vulnerable; telephone wires were constantly being cut by shell fire; runners with vital messages often took hours to get through or never got through at all. Any assumption that one might have of cool Teutonic precision or brilliant Gallic inspiration and dash should be put to one side. This was for much of its time a monster of a battle in which gallantry had little meaning and glory was only in the eye of the distant beholder.

The cost in human terms was enormous. Estimates vary but one much quoted is that total French casualties, dead, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner, were around 377,000 while the Germans lost about 337,000, a very high proportion of these figures being fatalites.

The concept and conduct of the battle attracts few approving nods from military historians. Summing up the campaign Peter Simkins has written:

The French Army had come through major crises in February and June and had saved Verdun, but nobody had gained any strategic advantage from the bloodletting, certainly not the Germans. Falkenhayn’s fatal irresolution and failure to match the means to the end had merely resulted in the German Army being bled white along with the French. Neither side ever fully recovered from the hell of Verdun before the end of the war.

Adding together the casualty figures as given above, and noting some of the collateral consequences of the battle, Richard Holmes has commented:

700,000 and for 1916 alone: rather more than half the casualties suffered by Britain and her Empire in the Second World War. Nine villages, which had stood on those uplands for a thousand years, were destroyed and never rebuilt. Woods and fields were so polluted by metal, high explosive and bodies that they were beyond cultivation. Declared zones rouges, red zones, they were cloaked in conifers and left to the recuperative powers of nature.

A distinguished scholar of the German Army in the twentieth century, Michael Geyer, has written:

More than any other battle, Verdun showed the military impasse of World War I, the complete disjuncture between strategy, battle design and tactics, and the inability to use the modern means of war. But most of all, it showed, at horrendous costs, the impasse of professional strategies.

Alistair Horne has been honourably referred to, and frequently quoted, in these pages, so that it is perhaps superfluous to include him in this brief gathering of opinions. But there is one passage towards the end of his book which sums up so much so pertinently that it virtually demands its place, if offered here in slightly abbreviated form:

Who ‘won’ the Battle of Verdun? Few campaigns have had more written about them (not a little of it bombastic nonsense) and accounts vary widely. The volumes of the Reich Archives dealing with it are appropriately entitled ‘The Tragedy of Verdun’, while to a whole generation of French writers it represented the summit of ‘La Gloire’…

[I]t suffices to say that it was a desperate tragedy for both nations. Among the century’s great battles, Verdun has been bracketed with Stalingrad (no more tellingly so than by Hitler, as quoted in this book’s first chapter.) However, Antony Beevor, in his book Stalingrad, gives that battle the palm, stating: ‘In its way, the fighting in Stalingrad was even more terrifying than the impersonal slaughter at Verdun. The close-quarter combat in ruined buildings, bunkers, cellars and sewers was soon dubbed “Rattenkrieg” by German soldiers. It possessed a savage intimacy which appalled the generals, who felt that they were rapidly losing control over events.’ (One might add that, in common with the whole Russo–German war of 1941–45, Stalingrad was conducted with a racial-cum-ideological viciousness which would have appalled both sides at Verdun.) But if there was no ‘savage intimacy’, there was at Verdun a kind of terrifying loneliness. As the French historian Marc Ferro has written, ‘Each unit was on its own, often bombarded by its own guns, and told only to “hold on”… The only certainty was death – for one, or other, or all.’ It could be said that this was not so much a battle between victors and vanquished – such terms rapidly lost all meaning in so attritional an encounter – as between victims.

Robert Georges Nivelle (October 15, 1856 – March 22, 1924) was a French artillery officer who was briefly commander-in-chief of French forces during World War I.

Born in Tulle, France, to a French father and English mother, Nivelle graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1878 and served in Indochina, Algeria, and China as an artillery officer. He rose in rank from sub-lieutenant in 1878 to regimental colonel in December 1913, which he held at the start of the war in August 1914. A gifted artilleryman, the intense fire he was able to maintain played a key part in stopping German attacks during the Alsace Offensive early in the war, the First Battle of the Marne (September 5–10, 1914) – where he earned fame by moving his artillery regiment through an infantry regiment on the verge of breaking and opening fire on the Germans at point-blank range – and the First Battle of the Aisne (September 15–18, 1914). He received a promotion to Brigadier-General and command of a brigade in October 1914, then of a division early in 1915, then of a corps at the end of that year. A leading subordinate to Philippe Pétain at Verdun in 1916, he succeeded Pétain in command of the Second Army during the battle, and later in the year succeeded in recapturing Douaumont and other forts at Verdun.

Nivelle was an exponent of aggressive tactics, arguing that by using a creeping barrage he could end the war on the Western Front. His ideas were popular with the besieged Aristide Briand, the French Prime Minister and in December 13, 1916 Nivelle was promoted over the heads of the Army Group Commanders to replace Joseph Joffre as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. He devised a grand plan to win the war in 1917. This involved a British attack to draw in German reserves, followed by a massive general French attack aimed at the Arras–Soissons–Reims salient. However, Nivelle was willing to talk about his plan to anyone who asked, including journalists, while the Germans captured copies of the battle plan left in French trenches; consequently the element of surprise was lost. When launched in April 1917, the Aisne campaign (Nivelle Offensive) was a failure. He continued with the strategy until the French Army began to mutiny.

Nivelle was replaced in early May by Philippe Pétain, who restored the fighting capacity of the French forces. Nivelle was reassigned to North Africa in December 1917, where he spent the rest of his military career before retiring in 1921.

Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin, (1866–1925)

French Army general. Born on July 6, 1866, in Sarrebourg in the Moselle Department of Lorraine, Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin was expelled with his family following the German occupation as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. In 1885 Mangin joined the 77th Infantry Regiment and entered L’École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr the next year, graduating in 1888. Most of his early military career was spent in the French colonies. Known as an aggressive commander, Mangin was three times wounded in colonial service. His first assignment was in Senegal, and he led the advance guard of Colonel Jean Baptiste Marchand’s expedition across Africa to the Nile River at Fashoda in 1898. Admitted to the École de Guerre in 1899, Mangin was assigned to Tonkin in northern French Indochina before returning to Senegal during 1906–1908. Promoted to colonel in 1910, he carried out military operations in French West Africa

While in Africa, Mangin found time to write a book, La Force noire, which he published in 1912. In it he suggested that France could offset its population imbalance with Germany by utilizing troops from its African possessions. Such troops could be employed effectively in North Africa, freeing up French forces there. Mangin also believed that native soldiers, once they had completed their service, would form the nucleus of a new colonial elite who would be loyal to France. That same year the French Chamber of Deputies authorized the raising of several battalions of Senegalese troops. Under Mangin’s command, they carried out military operations in Morocco, seizing Marrakech in October 1912.

Returning to metropolitan France, Mangin was promoted to général de brigade on August 8, 1913. At age 47, he was the youngest general in the French Army. On August 2, 1914, Mangin took command of the 8th Brigade. Entering Belgium, he fought in the earliest battles of World War I near Charleroi. On August 31 he received command of the 5th Infantry Division. Mangin took part in the Battle of the Marne (September 5–12) and in the First Battle of Artois (December 17, 1914–January 4, 1915). He was promoted to général de division in early 1915. Mangin greatly admired African troops and used them whenever possible in his attacks.

Mangin was one of France’s more skillful commanders. His hallmarks were careful coordination and attacks launched on time and in an aggressive fashion. Utterly fearless, Mangin often inspected his troops at the front and was wounded several times. He was equally reckless with the lives of his men, winning him the sobriquet “The Butcher.”

In the spring of 1916, Mangin was ordered to Verdun with his 5th Infantry Division of Général de Division Robert Nivelle’s III Corps. Mangin’s division succeeded in recapturing from the Germans Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux, and Mangin soon became Nivelle’s favorite commander. Appointed commander of the Sixth Army, Mangin led it in the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive in Champagne (April 16–May 9, 1917) but failed to capture his objective of the Chemin des Dames. Attempting to shift the blame for his own failure, Nivelle relieved Mangin in May.

Absolved of any fault by a board chaired by Général de Division Ferdinand Foch, Mangin in December 1917 commanded VI Corps, the reserve of the First Army, which was in March 1918 assigned to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force. On June 16, 1918, he received command of the Tenth Army during the Second Battle of the Marne (June 15–18) and led it with distinction in helping to halt the last attacks of the German Ludendorff Offensive (March 21–June 18).

Foch then selected Mangin to launch the first counterattack. Mangin’s forces then drove toward Laon, which he seized in October. As part of Army Group East, Mangin’s Tenth Army was preparing for a major offensive in Lorraine in early November, but the armistice of November 11, 1918, superseded. The Tenth Army entered Metz (November 19) and then reached the Rhine at Mainz (December 11) and occupied the Rhineland.

Following the war, Mangin commanded French occupation troops in Lorraine in the Metz area. In this capacity, he supported Rhineland autonomy movements in an effort to detach that area from the rest of Germany. Made a member of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre (War Council), his last assignment, which he retained until his death, was the inspectorate of French colonial troops. He also wrote his recollections, Comment finit la guerre (1920). In 1921 he carried out a diplomatic mission to South America. Mangin died in Paris on May 12, 1925.

Analysis of the Battle of Quatre Bras – Strategic Issues

d’Erlon – out of two battles!

Napoleon’s main criticism was that Ney had failed to concentrate his entire force and that if he had achieved this, Quatre Bras would have been taken and d’Erlon could have safely been sent to the emperor’s support. In his memoirs, Napoleon identifies Ney’s fundamental error:

In other times, this general would have occupied the position before Quatre Bras at 6am, would have defeated and taken the whole Belgian division; and would have turned the Prussian army by sending a detachment by the Namur road which would have fallen upon the rear of the line of battle, or, by moving quickly on the Genappes road, he would have surprised the Brunswick Division and the 5th English Division on the march . . . Always the first under fire, Ney forgot the troops who were not under his eye. The bravery which a general-in-chief ought to display is different from that which a divisional general must have, just as that of the latter ought not to be the same as that of a captain of grenadiers.

Here we see Napoleon explaining that Ney had ignored or not grasped the bigger picture; the changing strategic situation and his part in it. In his growing frustration he entirely failed to understand and keep in mind what in modern military parlance is called his superior commander’s intent; Napoleon’s need to destroy the Prussian army. He thus failed to realise that, once Wellington’s force was fixed in place around Quatre Bras, his part in achieving this was the despatch of d’Erlon’s corps onto the Prussian rear and that he should have adapted his own operations to this end. We can only speculate on the reasons for this, but eyewitness accounts suggest it was his complete distraction with, and absorption in, what was happening in front of him, that resulted in his rash decision to recall d’Erlon without considering the wider consequences.

Ney was transfixed by the need to seize Quatre Bras, rather than the essential need to send d’Erlon to support Napoleon. Having failed to achieve the former, he should have considered how to achieve the latter, which had become the priority. It is therefore rather surprising how little emphasis was put on the eastern flank by either side and where there was little serious fighting. Yet for Ney, the Namur road was the key route for his despatch of a force to support Napoleon against the Prussians, as laid down in Napoleon’s orders of the morning, just as it was the route down which the Prussians were expecting support from Wellington. Ney appears to have allocated fewer than four battalions to secure his eastern flank; far too small a force to clear the allied troops off it and keep it open for his own use. The fighting here was essentially an action between light infantry forces that was unlikely to be decisive for either side. Having failed to secure the route for d’Erlon, the next best thing would have been to send him down the road that he actually took on to the Prussian flank, but from which Ney recalled him.

Ney never appeared to claim any credit for stopping any of Wellington’s army reinforcing the Prussians at Ligny; nor does he appear to have been given any credit for it by Napoleon. All he got from the latter, as we shall see later, was criticism. For Ney, an aggressive commander who liked to be in the front line, it seemed like a defeat and many of his officers and men felt the same (although much of the following comment by them was written with the benefit of hindsight). Chef d’escadron Lemonnier-Delafosse, Foy’s chief-of-staff wrote:

What precious time lost!

At Quatre Bras on the 16th June, a battle was necessary, where, the day before, it would only have been an affair of the advance guard. On this day, in the morning, one could still have succeeded although it would have undoubtedly been more difficult: our troops were full of enthusiasm and could not have been stopped; containing their élan was an irreparable fault. Besides, the pressing orders of the emperor did not allow the marshal to remain in thought before the enemy; he wanted to make up for lost time and without making a proper reconnaissance of either the position or the strength of the English, he threw himself, head lowered, upon them . . . Thus, by an inconceivable feebleness, one had fought to no advantage from 2pm until 9pm.

Even more junior officers who fought there had similar views; Lieutenant Puvis of the 93rd Line penned similar criticism:

It had seemed to us that with the spirit which animated our army, it would have been possible, without too much resistance to fear, to have seized the enemy position. Why was this not done? . . . The old soldiers blamed the hesitation that Marshal Ney displayed before the position of Quatre Bras. Indeed, if he had taken the place the same day we would have gained a march on the enemy.

The view of those supportive of Napoleon, and consequently critical of Ney, is best summed up by Colonel Combes-Brassard, the sous chef-d’etat of the 6th Corps, who, writing much later and having no doubt read all the accounts, wrote in his own history of the campaign:

Marshal Ney was indecisive, irresolute in his attacks during the day of the battle of Ligny. This circumstance is strange in a man whose audacious determination in war was well known. His groping around before an enemy much weaker than himself was inexplicable in a general who was accustomed to saying that the only enemy he feared was the one he could not see.

General Foy, however, seems to give a more balanced, if still rather downbeat, summary of the day:

It was, at least with us, a poor start to the campaign. I do not know what passed elsewhere. Marshal Ney’s attack had been hasty and lacking sense; one does not proceed thus against the English. We were able to colour this affair as we liked, for we had taken two cannon and the enemy had taken none of ours; he had suffered a greater loss than us thanks to the superiority of our artillery; we had maintained, to the end of the day, more ground than we had held before we started our attack. But these arguments are grabbing at straws. We had lost the battle, since we had been stopped from achieving our mission of seizing Quatre Bras.

With the benefit of hindsight, his recall of d’Erlon was Ney’s greatest failure on this day and probably cost Napoleon the campaign. However, we have already stated that Ney failed to achieve either of his two missions. This is not strictly true. In Napoleon’s orders of the morning of the 16th, Ney’s task was merely to advance to the Quatre Bras crossroads and to deploy his troops around it. However, at about the same time as he received these original orders, which did not suggest he would have to fight for the crossroads, he received another order from Napoleon which gave him much clearer direction;

Concentrate the corps of Counts Reille and d’Erlon and that of Count Valmy, who is just marching to join you. With these forces you must engage and destroy all enemy forces that present themselves. Blücher was at Namur yesterday and it is unlikely that he has sent any troops towards Quatre Bras. Thus you will only have to deal with the forces coming from Brussels.

Whilst this direction is unequivocal, crucially it does not explain why the marshal should do this, beyond the original orders stating he should be ready for the emperor to join him and then march on Brussels. The unstated ‘why’ was that the occupation of Quatre Bras would prevent Wellington’s army from marching to Blücher’s aid and would allow Ney to send troops to Napoleon’s support. In the former point Ney was entirely successful, causing Wellington considerable casualties into the bargain, but he failed in the latter. These were certainly Napoleon’s aims, but he did not specify the former, only the latter in more general terms. Napoleon just expected Ney to obey his orders. We must not pretend that if Ney was clear he was to stop Wellington marching to the aid of the Prussians that he would have acted any differently, and as already stated, in this he was successful anyway. Whilst in modern battle procedure a subordinate would expect his mission statement to lay down what he had to achieve and why, we must make our judgement based on the processes and procedures of the day, and there can be little argument that Napoleon’s orders were not clear.

Looking at the battle from Wellington’s perspective, it was fought solely to give support to the Prussians, and in this he clearly failed. The result of the fighting was a repulse for the French, but for the allies it was a strategic failure. Wellington did not fight at Quatre Bras to deny Napoleon the support of part of Ney’s force; that Ney recalled d’Erlon from his march was that marshal’s disobedience of orders and his failure to fully understand the emperor’s scheme. Most British writers conclude that the battle was a victory for Wellington and make no mention of his failure to support the Prussians, although Chesney at least admits, ‘Truly, in holding his own, the great Englishman owed something that day to Fortune.’

Ney’s failure to concentrate his whole force, his poor decision-making and Wellington’s constant trickle of reinforcements had prevented the French defeating the allied army at Quatre Bras. But Ney’s job was to hold back the British and send support to Napoleon at Ligny. He succeeded in the former, but failed in the latter due to his rash and ill-considered decision to recall d’Erlon. But if it was not a French victory, neither was it an allied victory. Whilst Ney had failed to capture Quatre Bras and send a force to support Napoleon, so Wellington had singularly failed to carry out any manoeuvre that supported the Prussians as he intended and Blücher had requested. The French troops had fought well against increasing odds and had scored some notable successes, and the fact that history has marked the battle as a defeat has far more to do with Ney’s command than the courage or fighting ability of his soldiers. It seems that real efforts were made by the French chain-of-command to adapt their tactics to counter those used by the British in Spain, and although they achieved some tactical success, significantly, they were unable to challenge the significant psychological advantage that the British continued to hold over them.

Analysis of the Battle of Quatre Bras – Tactical Conduct

Kellermann’s attack

General Albert Pollio, an Italian historian who wrote an excellent and objective account of the campaign, whilst often critical of Ney’s performance, wrote:

I hasten to add that in my opinion, the battle of Quatre Bras represents for the French one of the best tactical actions that military history relates, as much to the direction as to the execution.

During seven hours of combat, Lord Wellington employed almost double the forces as those of the French and these forces were of excellent quality; and yet after seven hours, things were at the point where they had started.

It is difficult to find in history a tactical direction more skilful, more masterly, more determined, more energetic, than that exercised by Marshal Ney on 16th June 1815.

I firmly believe that no other general in the world could have achieved as much as this giant of battles that was Ney, and with such weak forces! The moral picture of this French general is dazzling!

It is also difficult to imagine a more perfect unity in the action of the three arms, which invigorated this small French force that was immortalised during this day . . .

The courage and resistance displayed by the French troops was truly extraordinary.

The performance of the French cavalry was also extraordinary, the cuirassiers as much as Piré’s division, but the latter even more so than the former . . . I am not aware of a more beautiful employment of cavalry, more tenacious, more intelligent than that of Marshal Ney and General Piré of these squadrons whose effect on this day, literally multiplied their number.

This analysis seems to fly in the face of most assessments of the way the French fought this battle, so perhaps it is worth basing our own analysis on this passage.

Whilst Pollio’s suggestion that Ney fought outnumbered for seven hours is misleading, it is certainly useful to examine the balance of forces as the battle progressed. The figures below show how both sides received reinforcements;

We can see that although Wellington was always outnumbered in cavalry, and also in guns until late in the afternoon, from 4pm he enjoyed an increasing superiority in infantry, and although it can be argued that some of his original force had become combat non-effective, the French had had to fight without any reinforcements from 3pm. It is somewhat surprising that from 5pm, when Wellington had an appreciable superiority in infantry, he did not become more aggressive in order to open the Namur road and endeavour to support the Prussians by putting the French under more pressure. Ney’s aggressive tactics no doubt had something to do with this and kept Wellington on the defensive until shortly before the end of the battle.

Whilst Ney stands accused of not attacking much earlier than he did, when he had an appreciable advantage in numbers, there is no doubt that, during the battle, Wellington received timely reinforcements at the two most critical moments. Without the arrival of Picton and the Brunswickers at about 3.30pm, Ney would undoubtedly have taken Quatre Bras, and two hours later Wellington was again saved by the arrival of Alten. Twice Ney had come within a whisker of winning the battle.

Pollio also praises the combined arms approach used by Ney. Whilst it is fair to say that each of the three arms fought well, and in the case of the cavalry and artillery outstandingly well, it is hard to agree that all three combined to best effect. The aim of combined arms tactics is that each compliments the other, making best use of their strengths whilst compensating for each others’ shortcomings, so that their combined effectiveness is greater than the sum of their individual parts. Thus the artillery prepares the attack by concentrating its fire on the point selected for the assault and causing heavy casualties; the cavalry advances to force the enemy infantry into square, in which formation they become more vulnerable to artillery fire and are at the mercy of an infantry assault; the enemy breaks and the cavalry pursue.

Allied accounts all describe the accuracy and overwhelming firepower of the French artillery and it has already been shown that for much of the battle the French had a much higher number of guns available than the allies. It is especially noticeable how effective their guns were in counter-battery fire. The use of the Bossu wood by the allies to hide their troops, the undulating ground and the tall crops, all made engaging infantry targets difficult. The French artillery therefore seemed to concentrate their fire on the most easily identifiable targets, their allied counterparts. Dutch and British accounts describe a number of guns dismounted, limbers and caissons destroyed and high casualties in both gun crew and horses, all of which seems to fly in face of the commonly accepted view that counter-battery fire was not especially effective.

The French artillery also showed an impressive desire to manoeuvre and they were quick to move guns forward as ground was secured by the infantry advance in order to engage the allied line at shorter range. They were helped by the rolling terrain, the low ridges which offered good fire positions and allowed them to shoot over the heads of their infantry. The power of the French artillery contributed to the repulse of Picton’s attack and ensured the allied counter-attack at the end of the battle remained slow and cautious. The fact that Quatre Bras was not a typical Wellingtonian position, with most of his force hidden in dead ground behind a ridge, exposed more of his force and allowed the French guns to manoeuvre closer to his main line.

Pollio rightly commends the handling and courage of the French cavalry and particularly Piré’s lancers and chasseurs. These showed an aggression and courage which quickly earned the respect and admiration of the allied infantry. Perhaps only at Albuera did the French cavalry so roughly handle British infantry. Piré commanded his division with great daring, exploiting every opportunity to charge and making repeated efforts to break the allied squares, coming close to succeeding on a number of occasions. Several batteries were overrun and battalions ridden down, although French casualties were high. It is true that there were only inferior numbers of allied cavalry to oppose them and these were inevitably overwhelmed, leaving the allied infantry with little dependable cavalry support and giving Piré’s troopers freedom to manoeuvre, but this should not detract from an admirable performance.

A study of what detail we know of the fighting also reveals a tactical innovation used by Piré that does not appear to have been seen on a previous battlefield. This was the way in which the chasseurs and lancers were used to complement each other. Although brigaded separately, almost all accounts reveal one regiment of chasseurs appearing to operate with one of lancers. Thus it seems that the chasseurs were used in front, to break the momentum of the opposing charge or disorder an infantry unit, and the lancers followed up to exploit the discomfited unit; a task well suited to lancers who were always most effective when the opposition had lost their close formation, as the Union Brigade were to find out at Waterloo. Tactical innovation will be seen again in the way the French fought during this battle.

Kellerman’s cuirassiers made a much briefer, but no less impressive, contribution to the battle than Piré’s light cavalry. Leaving them no time to reflect on what they were being asked to do, Kellerman led them in an all-out charge that smashed into the very centre of the allied line. The French cavalry rarely charged at more than a trot, but the circumstances were exceptional; just two regiments, counting less than 800 sabres, launched a virtually unsupported charge against nearly 30,000 men. The charge managed to destroy the 2/69th Regiment and capture one of their colours. Several other British infantry regiments were thrown into disorder, a battery was overrun and the cuirassiers came close to breaking right through the allied line, reaching Quatre Bras itself. Whilst the courage and determination of this fine cavalry must be applauded, and whilst Piré’s exhausted troopers charged again in its support, crucially it was not well seconded by the infantry and its final repulse and panicked flight should not overshadow its achievements. Indeed, given the lack of support, Kellerman described its flight in the following words, ‘The brigade, having suffered enormous casualties, and seeing itself without support, retired in the disorder inevitable in such circumstances.’

In his own study of cavalry in the Waterloo campaign, General Sir Evelyn Wood VC also lavishly praises the French cavalry for their battlefield performance at Quatre Bras. However, he is less complimentary about their failure to carry out their primary role as light cavalry: reconnaissance.3 Piré’s cavalry were one of Ney’s foremost elements on the morning of Quatre Bras and well placed to send out patrols in order to give Ney a full description of the strength and deployment of the small allied force there. Given the relatively narrow frontage that the Prince of Orange was covering and his lack of cavalry, Piré’s troops had plenty of time and opportunity to outflank the Netherlands force and gather sufficient information to allow Ney to have made some much better-informed decisions on when and how to act. Indeed, this single, apparently small point, could well have changed the result of the day.

A study of French infantry tactics at Quatre Bras seems to reveal a unique way of operating, which suggests there had been some tactical discussion prior to the battle on how to counter the British tactics that had so often bettered them in Spain. Ney, Reille and Foy (as well as d’Erlon) had all fought the British there and it would be surprising if such a discussion had not taken place. During the Peninsular War, Wellington had developed a tactical system designed to counter the French tactics that had been so successful against the other military powers of Europe: a thick line of skirmishers countered the French skirmish line and prevented the French from knowing the exact deployment of the main British line, which was hidden on the reverse slope of a ridge or some high ground. This would only reveal itself at the last moment, pour in one or more devastating volleys and then charge downhill with bayonets lowered against a surprised and staggered enemy.

As always the French infantry displayed much courage and élan, fighting hard right up to the end of the battle when they were considerably outnumbered. However, whilst the French artillery and cavalry quickly earned the respect of the allied soldiers, the ubiquitous French infantry columns always seem to be described as hovering in the background rather than pressing forward their attack.

The most successful and commented on tactic of the French infantry was the effectiveness of their skirmishers. All allied accounts describe the heavy casualties taken by officers and gun crews; as an example, in the British 44th Regiment, Colonel O’Malley, the commanding officer, was the only unwounded field officer in the battalion, and of twenty-five officers present, only the colonel and six others were untouched: by the end of the battle, four companies were commanded by sergeants. The tirailleurs fought in numbers that overwhelmed their allied counterparts, and as they never seemed to be able to achieve this in five years in Spain, it is hard not to conclude that a greater number were deployed as a deliberate effort to achieve this. This then left them free to cause attrition on the main allied line, aiming specifically at officers to weaken the cohesion and resolve of the enemy units. When these felt sufficiently weakened or threatened, they withdrew; the French tirailleurs would follow them up, giving them no respite, whilst the following columns would occupy the ground recently surrendered. The columns themselves appear to have done little fighting, but were merely used to occupy ground and reinforce the skirmisher screen as required. But most importantly, the columns were uncommitted and available to counter any sudden appearance of the main British force which had unfailingly caught them out in the Peninsula.

The key problem with these tactics is that a screen of skirmishers, no matter how strong, is never likely to be decisive. At Quatre Bras they were successful against the inexperienced troops of the Netherlands and Brunswick units, but not so against the British. In order to break an enemy’s will to resist it either needs to have suffered an unbearable level of casualties due to heavy volley fire, or its cohesion must be shattered by a failure to meet an opponent’s mass that threatens to overwhelm it. Skirmisher fire was annoying and might cause significant casualties amongst officers, but this was unlikely to break a unit’s cohesion, just as it lacked sufficient mass and momentum to enter or threaten a decisive hand-to-hand fight. Thus this type of advance might push the enemy back, but was unlikely to break him, and, particularly significant for the French on this day, the advance was likely to be a slow one. Ney needed a quick, decisive attack if he was going to seize Quatre Bras before Wellington had concentrated sufficient troops to deny it to him; this secure, but rather laboured approach was unlikely to achieve his aim.

In stark contrast to both the cavalry and artillery, and even their own skirmisher screen, the infantry columns seem to have been handled with caution. Whilst the French skirmishers outperformed their allied counterparts, the battle re-emphasised the superiority of the British infantry over their French equivalents. This was not just a tactical issue, the superiority of the line over the column, but also a moral one. The British had clearly not lost the moral ascendency that they had acquired in the Peninsula, and always seemed to have the confidence that they would win whatever the French threw at them. It may be that there were times when things were not looking good for the British troops, but whenever they were called upon to hold firm or move forward, whatever the odds, they always seemed to answer the call. The French infantry were noted for their élan and enthusiasm, and this is noted by many allied eyewitnesses, and yet when they launched what appeared to be their main attack, virtually the whole of Bachelu’s division was thrown back by three British battalions. Without wishing to denigrate the young and relatively inexperienced Dutch and Brunswick battalions, they were overwhelmed by the French, but despite their apparent élan, the French columns appear to have lacked the determination and resilience to really come to grips with the British infantry, and this lost them the battle.

Both allied and French eyewitnesses describe the French infantry using line in both the advance and in defence; this was virtually unheard of in Spain and perhaps reflects another effort to counter British fire superiority by those French commanders who fought them there. Without it being mentioned specifically, this may suggest the French use of ordre mixte, a formation favoured by Napoleon which was an attempt to exploit the firepower of the line and the momentum and mass of the column. An allied account of the battle describes some of Foy’s troops advancing ‘a battalion in line, supported by two columns’, suggesting this was the formation used.

But perhaps the most notable failure of the French infantry was their reluctance to advance in support of the cavalry. Both Piré’s and Kellerman’s troopers achieved considerable success in disordering a number of battalions and pinning others in square where they would have been vulnerable to an infantry assault. This was a failure of co-ordination. Piré’s main charge was an opportunistic one and Kellerman’s was hastily launched, but both Ney and the infantry divisional commanders failed to spot the opportunity and launch a determined infantry assault when the allies were most vulnerable. The failure of the infantry to support the attacks of the cavalry undermines Pollio’s praise for the combined arms aspects of the battle and is reminiscent of the great cavalry charges that were to come at Waterloo.

Ney’s direction of the battle is also interesting. Once again we see his legendary heroism and courage; prepared to expose himself to the hottest fire and always wanting to be in a position that gave him the best view of what was going on, urging his troops forward. But a truly effective commander needs more than courage. At the beginning of the day, Ney’s mission was to seize Quatre Bras, concentrate his entire wing around the crossroads and to defeat any allied troops that he encountered. By the afternoon, that mission had evolved; not least because Napoleon presumed that his first mission had been achieved. His new mission was that having seized Quatre Bras he was to send d’Erlon’s 1st Corps onto the Prussian right rear at Ligny. It appears that Ney failed to achieve either of his stated missions.

After delivering the emperor’s orders to Ney on the morning of the 16th, General Flahaut, the emperor’s ADC, remained at the battle for the rest of the day and was thus a witness to proceedings. In his account of the campaign, Thiers writes:

. . . Count Flahaut, who had left Ney during the night after having witnessed the events at Quatre Bras, arrived at General Headquarters at 6am [on the morning of the 17th]. Without wishing to insult Ney, whose heroism touched even those who did not approve of his manner of operations, he did not conceal from the emperor how the dispositions of the marshal had been mediocre at the combat at Quatre Bras; how above all he seemed struck by agitation in his thoughts, adding that he was clearly energetic in his devotion, but that this affected the clarity of his military judgement . . .

Although Thiers should not normally be considered as authoritative, this account was specifically endorsed by Flahaut in a letter to Thiers dated London, 27 August 1862. From this passage we must assume that Flahaut was trying to respectfully say that Ney was not thinking or planning clearly and his direction of the battle was poor. Flahaut himself wrote:

There was no cohesion to the affair. It was like attempting, as the saying goes, to ‘take the bull by the horns’. Our forces were thrown into battle piecemeal as they arrived upon the scene, and in spite of the bravery they displayed no result was obtained.

No doubt based on Flahaut’s report, Napoleon had the following letter written to Ney the following morning:

The emperor is disappointed that you did not concentrate your divisions yesterday; they acted individually and so you suffered casualties.

If the corps of Counts d’Erlon and Reille had been together, not an Englishman of the corps that attacked you would have escaped. If the Count d’Erlon had executed the movement on Saint-Amand that the emperor had ordered, the Prussian army would have been totally destroyed and we would have made perhaps 30,000 prisoners.

The corps of Generals Gérard, Vandamme and the Imperial Guard were always concentrated; one exposes oneself to a reverse when detachments are made.

Richard II – Hundred Years War

Richard II was in many ways a tragic figure. As the younger son, he would not have been raised to be king, and, although his mother had considerable (and generally beneficial) influence on his early education and subsequent development, he had little contact with his father, who was frequently away on campaign, and his senior uncle, Gaunt, was unpopular in the country. This unpopularity was, of course, partly engendered through envy: the dukedom of Lancaster was immensely rich and in many aspects was independent of the central government. But Gaunt’s frequent quarrels with various bishops (usually over the question of sanctuary in churches), his obvious disdain for public opinion, and his lack of charisma (perhaps surprising given his genes) as a military commander did not help his reputation.

It was an unfortunate start to the reign that the truce negotiated in 1375 ran out only a few days after Richard’s accession. It was even more unfortunate that the French had used the brief peace to prepare for war, by embarking on a major ship-building programme based in Rouen, while the English, short of money, had been much less energetic. In the summer of 1377, French fleets, aided by the Castilian galleys of Enrique, raided the English Channel ports from Rye as far as Plymouth. They would land, loot what they could, set fire to anything that looked as if it might burn and set sail again. They landed on the Isle of Wight and extracted a ransom before departing; attacked Southampton, where they were bloodily repulsed by local forces under Sir John Arundel, a younger son of the third earl of Arundel; raided Poole; and tried (and failed) to effect a landing in Folkestone. On the continent, the French admiral Jean de Vienne blockaded Calais by sea while the duke of Burgundy laid siege on land. Fortunately for the Calais garrison, commanded by Sir Hugh Calveley, although some of the outer defences fell, bad weather and heavy rains made mining and the movement of siege engines impossible and the French withdrew, giving Sir Hugh an opportunity to sally out, attack Étaples further down the coast, and remove the large quantities of wine stored there. Meanwhile, in the Dordogne, the duke of Anjou was steadily reducing English-held towns. He captured the seneschal of Aquitaine, Sir Thomas Felton, father of the Sir William who had been killed in Spain, and threatened Bordeaux, only to have to turn back when he found pro-English forces in his rear. Brest was under siege, but was reinforced from England in January 1378, although English attempts to capture Saint-Malo and to initiate a campaign in Normandy failed.

Then, later in the year 1378, an opportunity to hit back at the French by proxy presented itself when Charles of Navarre re-entered the frame. Charles had once again fallen out with Charles V of France, for much the same reasons as Edward III had with French monarchs over Aquitaine: Charles of Navarre was a king in his own right, but also held Navarre as a vassal of the French king, and, when Charles of France declared Navarre forfeit, Charles of Navarre appealed to England. The council was very happy to support Charles of Navarre on the grounds that any enemy of France was a friend of England, and contracted to send 1,000 men for a period of four months, in exchange for the port of Cherbourg. This was agreed and the English duly occupied Cherbourg.

By the time the English army arrived in Navarre, however, delayed by bad weather and shortage of shipping, the situation had been resolved. Enrique of Castile had invaded Navarre on behalf of his French ally, but, when he heard that an English army had landed in Aquitaine and was on its way, he wisely withdrew. As the English troops, under Sir Thomas Trevet, who was at this time only in his late twenties but had fought for the Black Prince at Najera, were no longer required to defend Navarre, they embarked on a foray through Castile, reducing numerous Castilian towns, damaging Enrique’s reputation considerably and acquiring large quantities of booty before returning to England. Charles of Navarre, meanwhile, made his peace with the French, who retained the Navarrese lands in Normandy. While the tactical achievements of Trevet’s expedition were minor, the acquisition of Cherbourg was a major strategic gain: along with Brest, Bayonne, Bordeaux and Calais, England now had an outpost line of strongly fortified ports with which to counter French naval ambitions and which could serve as springboards for invasions of France.

Charles of France, having at least gained the Normandy possessions of Navarre, decided to try the same ploy in Brittany, and in 1379 declared that he was confiscating that duchy. This time he went too far and the Bretons, touchy about their independence and with no wish to be part of France, took up arms and demanded the return of Duke John from England. Having secured a promise of English military support, John returned to Brittany, where he was welcomed with acclamation at Saint-Malo. The English army to support him had been agreed at 2,000 men-at-arms supported by the same number of archers for four and a half months from 1 August, but, when the English council discovered that they could not afford to pay and transport so many, the size of the contingent was reduced to 650 of each arm.66 They were to be under the overall command of Sir John Arundel, the defender of Southampton, who had been part of the relieving force sent to Brest in 1377 and was in Cherbourg in 1378.

The troops duly mustered at Southampton, but the weather and problems in finding troop transports delayed their departure and Sir John is said to have billeted his immediate retinue in a convent, dismissing the mother superior’s protests that the presence of such a large number of young men might lead to ‘an unforgivable sin which would bring shame and disgrace to the nunnery’. The unforgivable sin duly occurred. Arundel did nothing to stop it (commanders of other units in the area managed to keep their men under control), and it extended to the soldiery looting the silver from a local church and generally behaving like their modern successors on a Saturday night in a garrison town. When ships were finally found, Arundel’s men took some of the nuns along with them, no doubt to sew on buttons during the journey, and divine retribution caught up with them when a violent storm raged in the Channel. Most of the ships carrying horses sank, either off the coast of Cornwall or off Ireland, and in an effort to lighten the troop-ships the men are said to have thrown most of the nuns overboard. When that had no effect, the ladies were followed by the accumulated plunder of Hampshire. Arundel’s own vessel ran aground off Ireland in December and he was drowned. Sir Hugh Calveley and most of the other captains survived.

While the French assault on what was left of English France had been halted, lack of coordination between the various expeditionary forces on land and at sea meant that much of the expenditure on men, ships and weapons was to no great purpose. When Edward III was alive, there was a strong king who made decisions, supported by an administration that could carry them out. Now rule was by committee, never a recipe for strong government, and, although decisions were made in the king’s name, they were too often a distillation of conflicting opinions resulting in weak compromise. Dissatisfaction with the way the war was being conducted and the tax burden imposed to pay for it eventually boiled over in 1381.

The catalyst was the decision in June 1380 to send another expedition to help the duke of Brittany. The king’s uncle, the twenty-six-year-old duke of Buckingham, would be in command with around 5,000 soldiers, probably 3,000 men-at-arms and 2,000 archers, all to be mounted. Given the difficulty of finding enough ships and the ever-present threat of storms in the Channel, the troops would be ferried by the most direct route from Dover and Sandwich to Calais, from where they would make a chevauchée to link up with Duke John at Rennes. On 24 June, the army marched from Calais, creating the usual swathe of destruction as it went across the Somme, to Rheims, south of Paris, and then to Rennes, but without meeting a single French army, Charles V having instructed his commanders that on no account were they to offer battle. Buckingham was now running short of money, and a request was sent back to England asking for sufficient funds to maintain the army throughout the winter and to continue campaigning in the spring. At home, the treasury was empty and, after much argument, it was decided by Parliament that the government’s demand for £150,000 – to cover the expenses of Buckingham’s army and the maintenance of the fortress ports (where the garrisons had not been paid for months), with possibly a little to be secreted for John of Gaunt’s ambitions in Spain and Portugal (he intended to pursue a claim to the throne of Castile by reason of being married to Pedro the Cruel’s daughter) – was too much. They would agree to find £100,000: two-thirds from the laity and one-third from the church. And then Charles V died, Duke John came to terms with his successor, and Buckingham’s army was left high and dry with no option but to go home. It was to be the last major English expedition of the fourteenth century.