‘We Are Heroes After All, Aren’t We?’*

Capture of a French regiment’s eagle by the cavalry of the Russian guard, by Bogdan Willewalde (1884)

Northern Flank: Austerlitz

2 December 1805

While Vandamme’s division dispersed the final remnants of IV Column from the plateau, Saint-Hilaire’s battle for control of the Pratzeberg still raged. At about 11.00am Langeron, still personally involved in the fighting, received word from adjutants despatched from IV Column, advising him with stark simplicity of the collapse of this force. Langeron ordered these messengers to pass on the shocking news to Buxhöwden, who remained inactive about a mile away on the hillock overlooking the Goldbach. Having been away from the rest of his command, fighting in Sokolnitz, for an hour and a half, and with no sign of help coming from Buxhöwden, Langeron realised he must find reinforcements himself. Leaving Kamenski to continue the fight, Langeron galloped off back to Sokolnitz.

At around the same time Weyrother, Kolowrat and Kutuzov approached the Pratzeberg, following the defeat of the other half of IV Column, doing their best to encourage the Austrian troops. Kutuzov, accompanied by a staff officer, Prince Dmitry Volkonsky, then reached Kamenski’s brigade just as it was in danger of being broken by a French attack, but Volkonsky rallied the Phanagoria Regiment by grasping their standard and leading them forward: order was again restored.

As Langeron headed off to find reinforcements, the Austrian battalions recovering from their attack on Thiébault’s line reformed within reach of Kamenski’s brigade. Their brigade commander, Jurczik, anchored his position on a small rise, where he concentrated some of his artillery. Major Mahler brought his battalion of IR49 Kerpen to the rise and drew the battalion of IR58 Beaulieu in to protect the flank. At the same time he moved two guns to a position from where they could enfilade the French line, which brought their fire to a halt for a while. Jurczik applauded his actions shouting, ‘Bravo! Major Mahler!’ Shortly afterwards Jurczik fell to the ground, fatally wounded by a French musket ball. He died two weeks later.

Once the Austrian battalions had recoiled from the French artillery, Thiébault joined his men with the rest of the division and together they attacked Kamenski’s brigade, driving them back and capturing a number of limbered Russian guns as well as retaking their own previously lost guns. Their impetus took them right to the summit of the Pratzeberg, and it was only with some difficulty that the officers managed to control the ardour of their men and halt the line. In fact, the infantry had now left their supporting artillery behind and with no word from Maréchal Soult or imperial headquarters, Saint-Hilaire felt his isolation keenly. Recognising the urgent need to drive the French off the plateau, and aware of their current exposed position, the Allies prepared to make:

‘a general and desperate attack at the point of the bayonet. The Austrian Brigade, with that under General Kamenski, charged the enemy; the Russians shouting, according to their usual custom; but the French received them with steadiness, and a well-supported fire, which made a dreadful carnage in the compact ranks of the Russians.’

But the Russians pressed on. Thiébault, close to the centre of the action, watched as the Russians:

‘charged on all sides, and while desperately disputing the ground, we were forced back. It was only by yielding before the more violent attacks that we maintained any alignment among our troops and saved our guns … Finally after an appalling melee, a melee of more than twenty minutes, we won a pause; by the sharpest fire and carried at the point of the bayonet.’

According to the notes kept by Thiébault, this ‘twenty minute bayonet battle’, claimed the lives of both Colonel Mazas, 14ème Ligne, and Thiébault’s ADC, Richebourg. Thiébault was fortunate to escape injury himself when his horse fell to a Russian shot. But as both sides recovered their breath, Général de division Saint-Hilaire rushed up to his brigade commanders, Thiébault and Morand, saying: ‘This is becoming intolerable, and I propose, gentlemen, that we take up a position to the rear which we can defend.’ Almost before he finished speaking, Colonel Pouzet of the 10ème Légère interrupted: ‘Withdraw us, my General … If we take a step back, we are lost. We have only one means of leaving here with honour, it is to put our heads down and attack all in front of us and, above all, not give our enemy time to count our numbers.’ Pouzet’s stirring words did the trick, and reinvigorated, the French clung tenaciously to the ground they held, repelling all Russian attacks.

While the Russians doggedly continued to attack, the Austrian battalions were being pressed back, despite the best efforts of Weyrother and Kolowrat. Having reformed close to a small rise, supported by their artillery, the battalions reformed and engaged the 36ème in a firefight, halting an enemy advance with volley fire. However, the French recovered and attacked again, driving IR58 Beaulieu back. Mahler attempted a counter-attack with his battalion of IR49 Kerpen and that of IR55 Reuss-Greitz but reported coming under ‘a very severe fire’ that caused many casualties. With his left flank now exposed to attack due to the repulse of IR58, his position was becoming extremely dangerous. However, he managed to keep his men together and prevented them from falling back for a while with the help of his adjutant, Fähnrich Jlljaschek. Moreover, by maintaining volley fire, he was able to remove his wounded safely to the rear.

But elsewhere, the Austrians were gradually being forced back. Mahler started the battle with only 312 men in his battalion and was now reduced to around eighty, through casualties and men lost as prisoners. There was little more his tiny force could achieve and as the battalion of IR55 on his flank began to retreat he ordered his men away down the eastern slopes of the plateau.

The odds were now stacked against Kamenski’s resolute brigade as more French troops approached the Pratzeberg. Released by Vandamme, the 43ème Ligne moved to rejoin Saint-Hilaire’s division and Boyé’s brigade of cavalry (5ème and 8ème Dragons) was also on its way to add their support. The weight of French numbers now began to tell on the Russian line. On his left, the threat of an attack on his open flank by the French dragoons forced Kamenski to wheel back the extreme left-hand battalion of the Ryazan Musketeers. Having soaked up all the preceding Russian attacks, Saint-Hilaire, judging that the time was right, ordered the French line forward, in what turned out to be the decisive charge. This time Kamenski’s men had little left to offer as the French poured forward over ‘ground strewn with the dead’, leaving no wounded Russians in their wake, capturing the Russian battalion artillery and retaking the highpoint of the Pratzeberg. Yet even in this moment of victory on the Pratzeberg the Russians inflicted another notable casualty: Saint-Hilaire was wounded and forced to retire to Puntowitz to have his wound dressed.

Having arrived back at Sokolnitz, Langeron sent for General Maior Olsufiev, who was fighting in the village and informed him of the need to send reinforcements to the plateau. The only troops immediately to hand were the two battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, held in reserve just outside Sokolnitz. With no time to lose, Langeron directed these to the plateau. He then attempted to extract his other battalions from the village but only succeeded in pulling back 8. Jäger and the Vyborg Musketeers. The remaining battalion of Kursk Musketeers and the Permsk Musketeer Regiment, now so completely entangled with III Column and its battle for the village, could not be withdrawn. But even as the two Kursk battalions began their march, unknown to them, they were marching to their destruction.

Kutuzov recognised that any further resistance by Kamenski’s brigade, after two hours fighting, would lead to their total destruction, so he ordered the retreat. Abandoning the plateau, they descended the south-eastern slopes to the valley of the Littawa, where they reformed. All along the valley other Allied units that had been driven off the plateau took up defensive positions or retreated to better ground. Before he left the plateau, Kutuzov despatched a hurried note to Buxhöwden, who still had not moved, ordering him to extract his three Columns from their bottleneck and retire. Soult’s two divisions were complete masters of the Pratzen Plateau, having swept away Allied IV Column along with Kamenski’s brigade of II Column by the sheer determination of their attacks. The time was probably around noon when, into this killing ground, marched the two lone battalions of the Kursk Musketeers, sent from Sokolnitz.

Believing the troops ahead of them to be Russian, they approached confidently but as they closed, Thiébault turned his exhausted men to face them and another firefight exploded. At the same time, Lavasseur’s brigade of Legrand’s division (IV Corps), which was occupying Kobelnitz, marched southwards presenting a possible flank threat to the Kursk battalions. To combat this move, the Podolsk Musketeers, part of III Column reserve, advanced to oppose them. Even without this intervention, the French troops on the Pratzeberg were in overwhelming numbers and soon began to surround the isolated Kursk battalions, who fought on for a while before collapsing amidst massive losses.

The victorious Thiébault, now mounted on his third horse – a small grey liberated from a captured Russian artillery limber – surveyed the destruction all around him. His own brigade had lost about a third of its strength, while another of his regimental commanders, Houdard de Lamotte of the 36ème Ligne, joined the growing list of wounded.

While this final struggle to clear the Allies from the Pratzen Plateau had reached its climax, elsewhere on the battlefield matters were also coming to a bloody conclusion.

Grand Duke Constantine, at the head of the Imperial Guard, had received no orders since a request arrived for him to send a battalion of infantry up onto the plateau. Since then his Guard Jäger had fallen back from Blasowitz, along with a supporting battalion of Semeyonovsk Guards. With only limited military experience, Constantine considered his options. To his right, masses of French infantry and cavalry were pressing aggressively towards Bagration, while to his left the Austrian cavalry, which had offered some protection on that flank, were withdrawing, having temporarily held back the advance of a massed infantry formation (Rivaud’s division of Bernadotte’s I Corps). Further to the left, up on the plateau, he could see that the French were driving back at least part of IV Column. Having surveyed the position, Constantine elected to pull back to his left rear (south-east), towards the Austrian cavalry and hopefully a junction with a reforming IV Column somewhere near Krzenowitz. At around 11.30am he turned his force, deploying the Guard Jäger as a flank guard.

In fact, he had not moved very far when he realised that the French troops previously held in check by the Austrian cavalry were now slowly advancing towards him. Up until now, Bernadotte had shown a marked reluctance to move forward since he crossed the stream at Jirschikowitz earlier that morning. Napoleon sent his aide, de Ségur, to ensure that Bernadotte carried out his orders, but the imperial messenger found the commander of I Corps agitated and anxious. Bernadotte indicated the Austrian cavalry to his front and bemoaned the fact that he had no cavalry of his own with which to oppose them, begging de Ségur to return to Napoleon and obtain some for him. De Ségur did as he requested but Napoleon had none to offer. However, now that the Austrian cavalry had withdrawn, Bernadotte cautiously advanced his corps, Rivaud edging slowing forward between the plateau and with Blasowitz to his left front, while Drouet led his division onto the lower slopes of the plateau in support of Vandamme.

Aware now of this forward movement, Constantine halted the Guard and faced them to confront this new threat. Behind him, the single bridge over the Rausnitz stream represented a very dangerous bottleneck. To gain time for his crossing, Constantine decided to strike a blow at the advancing French in an attempt to halt their advance. Forming the two Guard fusilier battalions from both the Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Regiments for the attack, he held back the battalion of Izmailovsk Guards in reserve and organised the cavalry in a supporting role. Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments took up positions protecting the left and right rear of the Russian Guard: 5. Nassau-Kürassiere to the left with 1. Kaiser and 7. Lotheringen-Küirassiere to the right. The four battalions leading the attack advanced with much confidence, roaring ‘Oorah! Oorah! Oorah!’ and when still 300 paces from the opposing French line, they broke into a run that their officers were unable to control. Although facing a withering barrage of musketry, the Russian guardsmen did not halt and smashed straight through the first line of massed skirmishers, pushing them back onto a formed second line of infantry, which they attacked with the bayonet. These too gave way, but although elated with their success, the Russian attack ground to a halt and when French artillery opened up on them they began to fall back in disorder. But the threatening presence of the Russian Guard cavalry prevented any attempt at pursuit and kept Rivaud’s division firmly anchored to the spot.

Up on the plateau, Maréchal Soult studied the ground, now that Vandamme had cleared Miloradovitch’s men from his front. He noticed the movement of a large body of troops from high ground near Blasowitz towards the Rausnitz stream, imagining them some of Lannes’ men moving to cut off the Allied retreat, but then, near Krzenowitz they turned and headed west. The movement puzzled him and he ordered Vandamme to send a battalion out to the left flank of the division to observe it. Selecting 1/4ème Ligne, Vandamme sent their commanding officer, Major Auguste Bigarré, at their head to investigate, detailing his own ADC, Vincent, to accompany him. The undulations of the plateau hid the lower ground from view and Bigarré had advanced about 1,200 yards when Vincent, who preceded him with a few scouts, came galloping back and warned him of the presence of a large body of enemy cavalry. Bigarré instructed the battalion to move to its left and then returned with Vincent to see the enemy formation for himself. As he approached the vantage point, five squadrons of Russian cavalry began to accelerate towards his battalion that now moved into view. Bigarré and Vincent galloped back to the battalion and hurried it into square to receive the inescapable charge.

The Russian Guard cavalry had kept a watchful eye on their infantry as it fell back from the French lines, which presented a formidable obstacle to a cavalry attack. But then, descending from the plateau, a lone infantry battalion appeared. As the cavalry moved towards this tempting target, the battalion scrambled into square formation. The cavalry halted at what Bigarré described as long musket range, and instead of charging, unmasked a battery of six guns, which opened canister fire on the square, creating havoc in the packed ranks. Observing this from the high ground, Vandamme ordered the two battalions of 24ème Légère forward to support the 1/4ème, but they were too late, for the cavalry was already on the move.

Considering that the artillery had done enough damage to the square, two of the five squadrons of Horse Guards charged. The leading squadron rode into a hail of musketry and veered away, but the second squadron reached the square before the men had time to reload and smashed their way in, hacking and slashing at the infantry, who defended themselves furiously. The squadron swept right through the square, turned and rode back though it again.

Two previous bearers of the 1/4ème’s eagle standard already lay dead on the ground: now, gripped desperately by the battalion’s sergeant major, a soldier of twelve years’ experience named Saint-Cyr, it was under attack again. Three horsemen surrounded him and hacked it from his grasp leaving him with five sabre wounds to the head and right hand. By now the 1/4ème had collapsed and those still standing were fleeing back towards the plateau leaving about 200 dead and wounded on the ground. The two squadrons of Horse Guards retired eastwards to reform. Even before the battalion disintegrated, the 24ème Légère arrived, advancing in line. The remaining three Horse Guard squadrons spurred forward, and despite receiving a close range volley, smashed through the thin infantry line and sent them reeling backwards too. In the confusion and panic that followed, a soldier of the 1/4ème picked up a fallen eagle standard of 24ème Légère believing it to belong to his battalion and carried it to safety. It was now perhaps around noon as Napoleon arrived on the Pratzen Plateau to oversee the next moves.

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

No sooner had he arrived than those accompanying him observed a great dark mass of men coming towards the plateau in some disorder. Maréchal Berthier commented, ‘what a splendid crowd of prisoners they are bringing back for you.’ But Napoleon was not so sure and ordered one of his aides, Général de brigade Jean Rapp, to investigate. Leading two squadrons of the Chasseurs à cheval of the Garde Impériale, supported by a squadron of the Grenadiers à cheval and a half squadron of the Mameluks, Rapp advanced down from the plateau towards the site of the Russian Guard cavalry attacks. As soon as he cleared the plateau he saw that:

The cavalry was in the midst of our squares and was cutting down our soldiers. A little to the rear we could see the masses of infantry and cavalry which formed the enemy reserve. The Russians broke contact and rushed against me, while four pieces of their horse artillery come up at the gallop and unlimbered. I advanced in good order, with brave Colonel Morland on my left, and [Chef d’Escadron] Dahlmann to my right. I told my men: “Over there you can see our brothers and friends being trodden underfoot. Avenge our comrades! Avenge our standards!”’

Rapp led his Guard cavalry straight towards the Russian Horse Guard squadrons that had just cut up 24ème Légère. The Russians, disordered by their attack on the infantry, turned away and galloped off after a brief struggle leaving the chasseurs à cheval to ride on into the ranks of the reforming Preobrazhensk and Semeyonovsk Guard battalions, as these infantrymen defended themselves with the bayonet. The French cavalry soon received support from the half squadron of Mameluks, who slashed their way into the ranks of the Preobrazhensk battalions, currently dispersed as skirmishers in the vineyards and already engaged with Rapp’s chasseurs. But now Rapp’s formations were disordered and Constantine took the opportunity to send in the leading three squadrons of the Russian Chevalier Garde to break their attack and free his beleaguered infantry. The charge met with success, causing Rapp to withdraw and reform while allowing the Russian battalions to draw back. But their respite was brief, as the rest of the French Garde Impériale cavalry now joined Rapp. The great cavalry battle – Imperial Guard against Imperial Guard – that followed is difficult to recount in much detail from the accounts that survive. Indeed one observer, Coignet, a soldier in the Grenadiers à Pied of Napoleon’s Guard, described how: ‘For a quarter of an hour there was a desperate struggle, and that quarter of an hour seemed to us an age. We could see nothing through the smoke and dust.’

The Russian Guard cavalry drawn from the Horse Guards, Chevalier Garde and Guard Cossacks mustered about 1,800 men – the Guard Hussars appear not to have become directly involved in the fighting. Against them the French Garde mustered about 1,100 men, from the Chasseurs à cheval, Grenadiers à cheval and Mameluks. Although short on numbers, the well-disciplined French cavalry were able to withdraw from the fighting and fall back on their nearest infantry formations, reorganise and re-enter the fray in formed bodies. The Russians did not have this luxury, as their own Guard infantry battalions were caught up in the mêlée and unable to fire for fear of shooting their own horsemen. It became clear that the French were gaining the upper hand and Russian casualties mounted alarmingly, particularly in the Chevalier Garde. In particular, the fourth squadron of this elite formation was all but destroyed – only eighteen men reputedly making good their escape – and its wounded commander, Prince Repnin-Volkonsky, captured and presented to Napoleon.

Russian reports claim that the Chevalier Garde lost sixteen officers, 200 men and 300 horses killed and wounded. The Guards battalions extracted themselves from the maelstrom and fell back on the support of the Izmailovsk battalion, then all continued back towards Krzenowitz. The battered Russian cavalry also broke off the engagement and fell back too, their retreat protected by the Guard Hussars who hovered threateningly to the north, and the stand made by Hohenlohe’s three Austrian cavalry regiments. The belated appearance above Krzenowitz of the three battalions of Russian Guard Grenadiers, numbering almost 2,000 men, but suggesting to the French the arrival of a new strong Russian formation, limited any further significant advance in this direction.

While the great cavalry battle to their front delayed Rivaud’s movements further, Drouet had finally led his division up onto the plateau to the rear of Vandamme. The retreating battalion of 4ème Ligne, which had fled back onto the plateau and streamed past Napoleon without stopping, eventually rallied when they rejoined Vandamme’s division, and despite their recent traumas, took an active part in the latter stages of the battle, unaware they had lost an eagle.

With the Pratzen Plateau secured by the gradual arrival of Bernadotte’s corps, Napoleon turned his back on the northern flank. It was now clear that his grand plan to swing Lannes and Murat unopposed into the rear of the Austro-Russian army had failed, but it was also clear that the attacks by Saint-Hilaire and Vandamme had split the Allied army in two. Leaving Lannes and Murat to drive Bagration back, Napoleon issued new orders that he hoped would lead to the destruction of the left wing of the Allied army, which still remained locked in the Goldbach valley.

On the extreme right of the Allied line, General Maior Prince Bagration, like Constantine, received no fresh instructions from army headquarters. His original orders, which he viewed with little enthusiasm, required him to hold his position until, becoming aware of progress by the Allied left wing, he was to advance directly ahead and, initially, capture the Santon. Accordingly, he had pushed forward at about 10.00am but encountered extremely strong and determined opposition from Lannes’ V Corps and Murat’s cavalry. His attempt on the Santon had failed and now the French cavalry had pushed his own horsemen back after a series of ferocious mêlées. The French had secured the village of Blasowitz and the Russian Imperial Guard appeared to be moving further away, cutting his last tenuous link with the rest of the army. Bagration abandoned any offensive plans and looked to the preservation of his command.

With the Russian cavalry driven back behind their infantry to reform once more, Lannes ordered his two infantry divisions forward: Suchet on the left, Caffarelli on the right. In the face of this advancing wall of infantry, Bagration ordered all eighteen guns of his battalion artillery to open fire, along with twelve from a horse artillery battery. The brunt of this bombardment fell on the 34ème and 40ème Ligne of Suchet’s division and 30ème Ligne from Caffarelli’s, while also mortally wounding GB Valhubert, who commanded a brigade in Suchet’s second line.

With the French infantry brought to a halt by this concentrated firepower, Lannes drew all his available artillery together and focused on knocking out the Russian guns. The more powerful French artillery came out on top in this duel and after a deadly exchange, the Russian horse battery was forced to withdraw with mounting casualties, leaving just the Russian battalion guns to support the infantry against the increasing threat. Lannes pushed his infantry on once more but now Suchet’s division became the target for a series of desperate cavalry charges by Bagration’s reformed horsemen.

However, assailed by musketry, canister fire and then French cavalry countercharges, all they could manage was to slow this advance. Caffarelli’s division, operating south of the Brünn-Olmütz road, encountered less opposition and pushed ahead of Suchet’s men to threaten Bagration’s left flank, secured on the villages of Krug and Holubitz. In fact, the garrison of these villages was not strong, both defended by the men of 6. Jäger under General Maior Ulanius – who had already suffered considerably at Schöngrabern – with recovering cavalry formations to their rear. Sometime around noon, GB Demont’s brigade (17ème and 30ème Ligne) and part of Général de brigade Debilly’s brigade (61ème Ligne), advanced determinedly against the two villages.

Up until now the jäger had managed to repulse any French cavalry showing an interest in their position, but heavily outnumbered by Caffarelli’s infantry – and despite an initial stout resistance – French troops drove 6. Jäger out at the point of the bayonet. However, despite a lack of support, Ulanius did manage to extricate some of his men and reach safety.

With the villages of Krug and Holubitz now in French hands, Caffarelli redirected 17ème and 30ème Ligne against the left flank of Bagration’s threatened line. To oppose them the Russian commander sent his reserve infantry, the Arkhangelogord Musketeer Regiment, commanded by General Maior Nikolai Kamenski II. Although the French and Russian infantry were fairly evenly matched, the French were always able to bring up supporting cavalry and artillery to disrupt the Russian lines whenever their own infantry fell back to reform for a fresh assault. At times the Arkhangelogord Musketeers were under attack from all sides, and at one point faced a charge by d’Hautpoul’s 5ème Cuirassier, suffering horrendous casualties in the process. This regiment, which marched into battle with about 2,000 men, later showed losses of 1,625. Kamenski II had his horse shot from under him and only escaped capture when another officer gave up his own mount.

With Suchet’s division pressing him more and more from the front, Caffarelli making inroads on his left flank and Murat’s cavalry ready to exploit any opportunity, Bagration gave the order to retreat. Despite constant French cavalry attacks, the Russian infantry held together, supported by self-sacrificing charges by the exhausted Russian horsemen, and fell back steadily, abandoning the road to Austerlitz and reoccupying the high ground north of the Posoritz post house. However, this constant pressure eventually caused a split and the Russian cavalry of V Column, commanded by General-Adjutant Uvarov broke away. In his report Uvarov wrote:

‘we continued to fight with fervour, from which the losses on both sides were substantial. At the same time artillery and infantry of the enemy, moving on my flanks, opened such a fire that even with all the courage of the regiments which were under my command, we had to retreat across the river situated behind us.

Podpolkovnik Ermolov of the horse artillery recalled the confusion that then prevailed:

‘Our losses multiplied even more when the men crowded together at the very boggy stream, over which there were very few bridges, and it was not possible to cross it in any other way than via a bridge. Here our fleeing cavalry plunged in wading, and a lot of men and horses drowned, while I, abandoned by the regiments to which I was assigned, stopped my battery, attempting by the means of a short range action to stop the cavalry pursuing us. The first pieces of ordnance that I was able to release from the press of our own cavalry, making several shots, were captured, my men were cut down and I was captured as a prisoner. The division of General-Adjutant Uvarov, crowding at the bridge, had the time to look around and see that it was running away from a force small in number and that the majority of the forces were concentrated on the heights and were not coming down into the valley. Those who pursued us were then forced to retreat and exterminated, and my freedom was returned to me shortly, when I was already close to the French line.’

When Ermolov returned and crossed the Rausnitz stream he found Uvarov’s command still in great disarray at the foot of the hill held by the Russian Guard Grenadiers. With them now stood the tsar, prompting Ermolov to observe that ‘there were no confidants present, on his face there was a look of supreme grief, and his eyes were filled with tears.’

Bagration continued his withdrawal in the face of ceaseless French cavalry attacks and artillery bombardment, drawing back across the Brünn-Olmütz road onto high ground overlooking it between Welleschowitz and Rausnitz. The Pavlograd Hussars suffered at the hands of the French cavalry as they protected this final move, but their sacrifice gained enough time for Bagration to take up this new position. Lannes and Murat now advanced to occupy the position abandoned by Bagration north of the Posoritz post house and found themselves in possession of row upon row of Russian knapsacks. It was the habit of the Russian soldier to take off his knapsack before entering battle to allow more freedom of movement, leaving behind him all his meagre personal belongings. But if the French soldiers expected to find luxuries and warm clothing they were disappointed. Captaine Lejeune, Berthier’s ADC, reported that each bag contained only:

‘triptych reliquaries, each containing an image of St Christopher carrying the infant Saviour over the water, with an equal number of pieces of black bread containing a good deal more straw and bran than barley or wheat. Such was the sacred and simple baggage of the Russians!’

Bagration must have been wondering just how long he could continue to hold his force together against these constant French attacks when help arrived. Advancing down the road from Olmütz with all speed appeared an Austrian artillery officer, Major Frierenberger, at the head of a column of twelve guns. As he came level with Welleschowitz he turned off and positioned his guns on the high ground rising to the north of the road. The official Austrian account of the incident continues the story:

‘The army he faced was a victorious one. It had deployed at the Posoritz post house, and was now in full advance, firing with its powerful artillery against whatever Russian troops and batteries came into view. The Austrian battery now opened up in its turn against the main battery of the French and their leading troops. The Austrians shot with such extraordinary skill that they compelled the enemy to pull back their batteries in a matter of minutes. Some of the hostile pieces were silenced altogether, and the advance of the whole French left wing was held back.’

The battle on the northern flank now ground to a halt. Lannes and Murat had expected an almost unopposed advance but became embroiled in a lengthy and costly duel that had lasted almost three hours. In the face of the resolute defence now offered by these fresh Austrian guns, with their own ammunition supplies almost completely expended and their cavalry exhausted, the two corps forming the French left wing halted, and like Bernadotte’s I Corps, awaited developments elsewhere on the battlefield.

Granted this unexpected respite, the survivors of Bagration’s Army Advance Guard and to the south, IV and V Columns, and the Russian Guard, did what they could to instil some sense of order in their greatly depleted ranks. These latter formations nervously occupied the eastern bank of the Rausnitz stream, anticipating a renewed French assault at any moment, but it never came. Napoleon saw a greater prize elsewhere.

* Captured Russian cavalry officer to Lieutenant Octave Levasseur, of the French horse artillery, 2 December 1805.


18 June 1815 – What If Part I

To be killed at Waterloo would have been a good death.


The historian Jac Weller is said to have complained that the Ifs of Waterloo made him wince. I fear we must make him wince again. No doubt these Ifs are countless, but for our purposes here, we will choose five chances which contributed to Napoleon’s defeat and examine the consequences had chance taken another course. First, Napoleon’s chance meeting with Ney as he moved forward on the Charleroi road and his capricious and fatal appointment of Ney as field commander; second, even given this mistake, the interference by Ney in countermanding Napoleon’s order to d’Erlon to join him at Ligny when Ney himself was dithering at Quatre Bras; third, the thunderstorm on the night of 17/18 June which delayed Napoleon’s attack; fourth, the gates of Hougoumont, the closing of which Wellington somewhat arbitrarily claimed was the decisive element of the battle; and fifth, the Emperor’s imprecise orders to Grouchy, together with Grouchy’s own incomprehensible error of judgement, which led to his 33,000 men taking no part in the decisive encounter. We will look at what effect on the battle there might have been if any of these five occurrences had been different. Such speculation will lead us to two further questions: what if Napoleon had won? What if he had been killed?

Napoleon’s choice of subordinate commanders for his last campaign must strike us as capricious, to say the least. Of course, the field was somewhat limited. There were few of the old hands who supported the Emperor on his triumphant return from Elba. Marmont, St-Cyr, Victor and Macdonald stuck to their new Bourbon loyalties. Augereau and Berthier had gone to ground. Soult, on the other hand, despite his former allegiance to Louis XVIII, had rejoined the Emperor. So had Mortier and Suchet. Masséna, perhaps wisely, chose to be unwell. Murat, King of Naples – who would never have allowed the cavalry to be handled as Ney did – impetuous as ever, on hearing of his brother-in-law’s resumption of power, committed the egregious folly of turning on his Austrian friends and attacking them with Neapolitan soldiers, who of course ran away, leaving Murat to fly ignominiously to Toulon. Napoleon had created one more Marshal – Grouchy – who might have turned the scales at Waterloo had he acted as a Marshal of France should. The Emperor had one other worthy supporter, the iron, uncompromising Davout, who accepted the Ministry of War. If instead he had been with Napoleon in the field, either as Chief of Staff or as the Emperor’s immediate lieutenant, what a world of difference he might have made. The Ministry could have been left to Soult, for however devious Talleyrand and Fouché might have been, they would never have risked a coup against Napoleon while he was in command of the army. But all in all it must be conceded that the Emperor would not be fielding the first eleven for the battle to come.

Those who have suggested, as Andrew Roberts in his recent book has reminded us, along with that eminent Napoleonic expert, David Chandler, that Napoleon deliberately appointed a second eleven in order to enjoy the greater share of glory himself after a victorious campaign, are surely wide of the mark. Napoleon’s whole future, and that of France, was at stake. Not to have taken every step to promote success would have contradicted Napoleon’s entire creed. He may have been a gambler, but he was not in the habit of throwing away aces in the middle of a game. This is what makes it all the more extraordinary that he should have chosen Ney to be his field commander before the battle got under way. Ever since the battle of Borodino, when the fiery, red-headed Marshal had launched his tirade against his Commander-in-Chief for not being right up at the front and for refusing to release the Imperial Guard, Ney, despite his heroic rearguard action in the Russian campaign and unfailing courage at Leipzig, had been unbalanced, at times hysterical. Although temporarily in disgrace because of his promise to Louis XVIII to bring the usurper back to Paris in an iron cage, Ney was to be entrusted by Napoleon with absolutely crucial responsibility in the forthcoming battle, a responsibility which Ney was temperamentally and psychologically incapable of fulfilling. Not once, but twice, he made decisions, or was guilty of indecision, which robbed the Emperor of almost certain victory. And then his actual appointment had been such a chance, so thoughtlessly haphazard. On 12 June 1815, when Napoleon set out for the Northern Front, the army consisted of five corps, commanded by d’Erlon, Vandamme, Gérard, Reille and Lobau. The only Marshals with the army were Soult, Chief of Staff, Grouchy, commanding the Reserve Cavalry, and Mortier, who was taken ill and fell out at Beaumont. Ney, dressed in mufti, had accompanied the army, bitter and aggrieved at being left out; he acquired two of Mortier’s horses and hung about near Napoleon’s staff. By chance, while looking at a map outside a tavern by the Sambre, the Emperor happened to glance up, caught sight of Ney, and at once asked him to take command of two army corps and the regiments of cavalry, some 50,000 men in all, together with over seventy guns. ‘It was,’ observed A. G. Macdonnell, ‘a strange and casual appointment.’ Apart from anything else, why did Napoleon not choose to command in person? He had in the past overseen the operations of more than two corps in a series of successful encounters with the Austrians, Russians and Prussians. Had he wished to outshine all those in subordinate positions, what more certain way of doing so? But the whole idea of his not wishing to share the credit for success may be dismissed by remembering his former instant and generous recognition of his corps and divisional commanders. His praise for Augereau at Castiglioni, for Lannes at Arcola, Masséna at Rivoli, when Napoleon greeted him as l’enfant chéri de la victoire, is enough to give the lie to such calumny. When we add the Emperor’s acknowledgement of Davout’s saving the day at Auerstädt, of his creating Macdonald a Marshal on the field of Wagram, of his unstinting commendation of Ney’s rearguard action during the retreat from Moscow – Bravest of the Brave, Prince of the Moscowa – no more evidence is needed. But to have chosen Ney, who was suffering from what we would now call battle fatigue, and whose ability coolly to weigh the tactical odds, however unquestionable his courage, was sadly deficient, constituted the first of a series of blunders that Napoleon would never have made in his heyday.

Given that Ney was appointed, however, we now come face to face with perhaps the biggest If of all, for when Napoleon was engaging the Prussians at Ligny on 16 June, Ney, with a most unfortunate coalition of indecisive manoeuvring and petulant action, was undermining the Emperor’s strategy – with the gravest consequences. Had Ney carried out Napoleon’s orders promptly, that is, to seize Quatre Bras, he would have been in a position to threaten the Prussians’ right flank and so enable Napoleon to finish Blücher’s part in the affair. Because he had been slow and indecisive, Ney received orders from the Emperor to despatch d’Erlon’s Reserve Corps to complete the business at Ligny. Again, had this been done, Blücher’s army would have been so knocked about that it would not have been able to come to the aid of Wellington two days later. As it was, Ney, finding the fight for Quatre Bras becoming ever more severe because his own delay had allowed Wellington to bring up reinforcements, countermanded the Emperor’s order and brought d’Erlon back towards Quatre Bras. In the event, d’Erlon took no part in either battle, so that the great If here is this: had Ney allowed d’Erlon to help finish off the Prussians at Ligny, there would have been no need to detach Grouchy with his 33,000 men, who would then have been available for Napoleon in his confrontation with Wellington at Waterloo. We will look further at Grouchy later on, but there is a further aspect of Quatre Bras to consider first.

An eagle is ascendant in spirit, swift in flight, sudden in decision and ruthless in deed. It was Napoleon’s unique marshalling of these characteristics that made the eagle so aptly his symbol. His whirlwind tactics of rapid marching and vital concentration of force, which he employed in the Italian campaign of 1796/97, were what shook the European armies to their foundations. The astonishing way in which he redeployed the Grande Armée from the coastal areas near Boulogne to surround Mack’s army at Ulm was a classic example of deception and rapid concentration, leading to the triumph of Austerlitz. It was the speed and violence of his pursuit of the Prussian army after Jena and Auerstädt which utterly confounded what was left of Frederick the Great’s legacy. And when the Emperor learned that Sir John Moore was threatening his communications with France by chasing Soult with his English leopards in Old Castile, he at once abandoned his idea of advancing into Portugal and hurled his force of 80,000 men northwards to entrap Moore’s small army. Vitesse was always the watchword. Napoleon himself had once conceded that he might lose ground, but would never lose a minute. This great sense of urgency seems to have deserted him in the Waterloo affair. Not only did he lose countless minutes on 17 June, he threw away the best chance of winning the campaign. For a kind of lethargy seemed to overcome him. In spite of ordering Ney to take Quatre Bras that morning and, when surprised by Ney’s wavering reluctance to act decisively, sending him a second order, couched in uncompromising terms – ‘There is no time to lose. Attack with the greatest impetuosity everything in front of you’ – Napoleon did not ensure that his orders were obeyed. Indeed, as Andrew Roberts has emphasized, if instead of wasting his time waiting for information as to Wellington’s movements and hanging about near Ligny, Napoleon had joined Ney in a joint attack on Wellington, who had only some 50,000 troops at Quatre Bras, he would have won the campaign there and then. ‘This loss of the initiative,’ wrote Roberts,

was disastrous, and still worse was his decision at around 11 a.m. to split his forces by sending Marshal Grouchy off with 33,000 men and no fewer than ninety-six cannon to follow the Prussians in what at least initially turned out to be the wrong direction.

Concentration had been a cardinal principle of Napoleon’s conduct of war, yet here he was breaking his own rules.

Now let us look at another aspect of chance – the intervention of fate and fortune.

‘Can such things be,’ demanded Macbeth, ‘And overcome us like a summer’s cloud, Without our special wonder?’ It was the breaking of a summer’s cloud, we might say, that overcame Napoleon on that night of 17/18 June 1815. Listen to Victor Hugo on the point:

It had rained all night, the ground was saturated, the water had accumulated here and there in the hollows of the plain as if in tubs; at some points the gear of the artillery carriages was buried up to the axles, the circingles of the horses were dripping with liquid mud. If the wheat and rye trampled down by this cohort of transports on the march had not filled in the ruts and strewn a litter beneath the wheels, all movement, particularly in the valleys, in the direction of Papelotte would have been impossible.

The battle began late. Napoleon was in the habit of keeping all his artillery well in hand, like a pistol, aiming it now at one point, now at another, of the battle; and it had been his wish to wait until the horse batteries could move and gallop freely. In order to do that it was necessary that the sun should come out and dry the soil. But the sun did not make its appearance. It was no longer the rendezvous of Austerlitz. When the first cannon was fired, the English general, Colville, looked at his watch, and saw that it was twenty-five minutes to twelve.

Victor Hugo’s conclusion is that if it had not rained in the night of 17/18 June 1815, Europe’s fate would have been different. His reason? The battle of Waterloo could not be started until half past eleven and this gave Blücher time to come up. In support of this view we may note that Napoleon had set up his headquarters at Le Caillou and breakfasted there with his generals at eight o’clock on the morning of 18 June. Had the ground been completely dry, that is had there been no thunderstorm the previous night, his attack could have started at least four hours earlier than it did. We must note too that even when the French artillery did begin its bombardment at half past eleven, the ground was still wet, causing round shot to bury itself rather than ricocheting for many hundreds of yards with deadly effect. Moreover, shells were also robbed of their effectiveness by the sodden ground. But leaving this aside, it was time that would have been the crucial factor.

‘Ask me for anything but time,’ declared Napoleon. Had there been no thunderstorm, some precious hours would have been available to him. It was not until the climax of the battle, the evening of 18 June, that the Prussians intervened. This climax would have been reached well before that. Moreover there are subsidiary Ifs. An earlier start to the battle might have brought Grouchy on the scene; it might have revealed to Napoleon and Ney – and to Jérôme Bonaparte leading the attack on it – that the Château of Hougoumont had either to be taken, or screened and outflanked, if the principal assault on Wellington’s position was to be successfully made.

The role played by Hougoumont will always arouse admiration and invite controversy. Victor Hugo went so far as to say that its conquest was one of Napoleon’s dreams and that, had he seized it, it would have given him the world. Extravagant language, but perhaps not to be rejected out of hand. Hougoumont had two doors to its court, one to the château itself on the southern side, one belonging to the farm on the north. It was this latter door that was smashed open by a huge French officer who, followed by some of his jubilant men, rushed into the courtyard. They were instantly set upon by soldiers of the Coldstream Guards, who then succeeded in closing the doors and barring them with a vast wooden beam. Wellington was later to observe that his success at Waterloo had depended on closing these doors. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that a successful defence of Hougoumont was a crucial part of Wellington’s strategy. It was because he appreciated its significance and had seen the scale of the French attack on it that he reinforced the garrison with four companies of the Coldstream Guards, thereby doubling its complement of Foot Guardsmen. Their remarkable achievement may be judged when we consider that, as Victor Hugo put it, they held out for seven hours against the assaults of vastly superior numbers.

After the initial failure of Napoleon’s brother, Prince Jérôme, to take Hougoumont, neither he nor Napoleon himself took the decision to bypass this stubborn centre of resistance and get on with the main business of attacking Wellington’s main line. Jérôme, in short, allowed what was a diversionary, albeit important, objective to take his eye off the main tactical purpose which was to pierce Wellington’s centre. Instead of getting this principal attack under way, Jérôme poured more and more troops into the desperate struggle for Hougoumont. The divisions of Foy, Guilleminot and Bachelu hurled themselves against it; nearly all Reille’s corps took their turn and failed; Bauduin’s brigade was not strong enough to force Hougoumont from the north, while Soye’s brigade, although making the beginning of a breach in the south, could not exploit it. Jérôme had been making one of the classic errors of war – reinforcing failure – and on such a scale that he was robbing the French army of the strength to sweep Wellington aside before the Prussians came up to support him. Wellington, on the other hand, had reinforced success. Thus the contribution which Hougoumont’s defenders made to victory at Waterloo was incalculable.

What would have happened if the gates had not been closed? For the purposes of speculation, we must assume that the French would have taken Hougoumont, for if, even though the gates were not closed, the British had still defied the French attacks and held on to the château, and if Napoleon had also permitted the same continued attempts to persevere, there would have been no change of circumstance. So we must ask ourselves what Napoleon would have done after capturing Hougoumont, had this happened; and in answering the question let us assume further that this capture was effected early on, in other words before Jérôme had dissipated his main forces against it. Napoleon then has two possible courses of action: to persist in the frontal assault on Wellington’s centre, which in the event is what he did do, or try to outflank the Allied right and so roll up Wellington’s position. This would have been the sure touch of Napoleon at his tactical best, as in former days when he instantly saw that the key to taking Toulon was to capture the Le Caire peninsula and so bring artillery fire to bear direct on the Royal Navy’s ships; or when at Austerlitz he seized the fleeting opportunity to strike at and destroy the Austro-Russian centre, roll up their left wing and finish the thing off. In short, if the chance of closing the Hougoumont gates had not befallen, and the château had fallen early on into French hands, Napoleon’s attack would not have been delayed or impeded. He would have been presented with great freedom of tactical choice, and provided he had taken a proper grip of the battle there and then, he must surely have prevailed. We will see shortly what might have come about had Napoleon defeated Wellington, but for the time being we may concede that the latter’s comment about the closing of Hougoumont’s gates, while an over-simplification as to what brought about success, does at least deserve serious consideration. Yet even given Hougoumont’s retention in British hands, and the fact that Napoleon exerted himself far too late to rescue his army from the tactical blunders made by his subordinates, there was still one more chance, one more If which will always persist in the minds of those who ponder great battles.

Fireships at Basque Roads

The largest of the fireships sent in against the French fleet at Basque Roads was the Mediator, a ship with a chequered career. Built as an East Indiaman in 1781, she was purchased by the Navy in 1804 and employed as a frigate, but was soon converted to a storeship. At nearly 700 tons, she was very big for a fireship, but something particularly threatening may have been required in the circumstances. She is shown here just after ignition, with the crew escaping in the boat astern; but the proximity of the French fleet is artistic licence.

Map illustrating the position of the anchored French fleet shortly before the British attack on the night of 11 April.

After the battle of Trafalgar Napoleon did not give up on his navy, but tried to rebuild it gradually, which meant that many French ports contained well-found operational warships. Beyond the harbour, there was inevitably a British blockading squadron, but every so often small flotillas of French ships managed to break out and make a specific foray against British interests. One major breakout occurred in February 1809, but for the French it did not go as planned.

The Brest blockading squadron, under the command of Admiral Lord Gambier (1756–1833), was forced from its station for a few days by heavy weather. This was long enough to allow eight French ships of the line, under the command of Rear Admiral Jean Baptiste Philibert Willaumez (1763–1845), to slip out of the harbour of Brest at the break of dawn. His orders were to drive off the English squadron blockading Lorient, allowing the ships there to make their escape. They would then sail for the island of Oléron in the Bay of Biscay and pick up troops, supplies and any other ships at Rochefort before heading for the West Indies for a campaign of commerce-raiding. Once they had disappeared into the open seas of the Atlantic, they would pose a real problem for the British.

They got no further than the Pointe du Raz before the line of French ships was spotted by a British warship, and quickly all the squadrons of the Navy in the region were brought together. Visual contact was maintained with the French until the next day, and in the evening twilight they saw Willaumez and his ships sail into the Pertuis d’Antioche, the waters between the island of Oléron and the mainland, where they dropped anchor under the protection of the coastal batteries. The British referred to these shallow waters as the Basque Roads or the Aix Roads.

The British fleet anchored further offshore, in the narrows just off the city of La Rochelle, and the positions of both fleets reawakened old ideas of what a fireship could do in this situation. Admiral Gambier took all possible precautions against a surprise fireship attack, ordering his ships to buoy their anchors and thus be ready to slip their cables at a moment’s notice. Boats were kept in the water with poles, chains and grapnels to fend off approaching fireships. The apprehension of fire-ships was mutual. Gambier and his advisers vigorously discussed the best method of dealing with the enemy. One camp suggested a quick forceful Nelson-style assault, bearing down on the enemy with guns blazing. Against this, the navigation was known to be tricky, and the French ships were practically unreachable at the mouth of the Charente under the shelter of shore-batteries, so the losses in ships and men would be heavy. The other school of thought, which included Gambier himself, advocated a fireship attack, despite all the risks and imponderables this entailed. But one way or another, something had to be done to neutralise the threat posed by the French force.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, had already outlined his position on 11 March, pointing out that the situation looked promising for a fireship and recommending this method. Gambier, however, was one of those naval officers of the time who were really uneasy about fireships, red-hot shot and explosive devices with time-delay fuzes, looking on these unorthodox methods as somehow unfair, unmanly and worthy of assassins rather than Christians. His profoundly religious, rather pedantic character was summed up by his nickname ‘Dismal Jimmy’; ‘It is a horrible mode of warfare’, he wrote, ‘and the attempt very hazardous, if not desperate.’ He wanted reassurance from the Admiralty, but in London the authorities had no qualms whatsoever and had already prepared for the enterprise. Twelve fireships and five explosion-vessels had already been dispatched to the Basque Roads.

Gambier learned also that William Congreve, an artillerist and engineer, was on his way, bringing a special invention and an operating crew. His apparatus, which had already proved successful on land and at sea, made use of black-powder rockets to set enemy ships on fire from a distance. It weighed about nineteen kilograms and had a range of 270 metres. Unlike a mortar, it had no recoil, so it could be fired from small boats, but on the other hand it was not particularly accurate.

Then the British had a stroke of luck. On 19 March the frigate Impérieuse sailed into Plymouth. She had come from the Mediterranean and was under the command of Lord Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775–1860). Scarcely had Cochrane landed than he was summoned by telegraph to the Admiralty, where Lord Mulgrave asked the daredevil captain what he thought about the potential of a fireship attack at Basque Roads. The Admiralty knew that in Cochrane they had the right man – he was not only a brilliant and inventive warship commander, but also an unruly individualist, and as an independent member of Parliament he had been a vocal critic of Admiralty policy; better, therefore, to involve him in any controversial operation from the outset, so if things went awry he would be poorly placed to make trouble. Furthermore, as a frigate captain he had enjoyed a successful career as a raider up and down the French coast, so he was familiar with the region. His specialised knowledge and expertise would be essential.

Cochrane, unlike Mulgrave, did not favour a classic fireship attack. He thought it would almost certainly miscarry if the normal defensive measures were used to counter it, so he proposed that explosion-vessels be deployed as well. The Admiralty accepted the plan, and after some hesitation, Cochrane was persuaded to lead the attack, although he knew that this would lead to problems with some of the more senior officers under Gambier’s command. Many were jealous of his reputation and some felt that the appointment of a mere post captain was a poor reflection on the competence of the fleet. But time was of the essence, and each day that passed increased the chance of a French breakout, so Cochrane’s energy and enterprising spirit were invaluable. What the British did not know was that the French fleet had been divided by a power-struggle among the French senior officers, which was eventually resolved when Vice Admiral Zacharie Jacques Théodore Allemand prevailed over Rear Admiral Willaumez and took command of the fleet.

By 3 April Cochrane was with Gambier’s ships and was finally was able to get a good look at the tactical situation east of the island of Oléron. For the moment there was not much more to do, since the explosion-vessels and rockets had not yet arrived. He started by converting a few available transports; using the materials found on board the ships of the line, the shipwrights were able to outfit a dozen conventional fireships, and the relatively large Mediator (a purchased merchantman serving as a Fifth Rate) was selected to smash through the floating boom, behind which lay the French fleet. Three of the merchant ships were converted to explosion-vessels. Their sides were strengthened to increase the violence of the explosion, and in each hold were packed 1,500 powder-kegs in big casks, with bomb shells secured on the covers and 3,000 hand-grenades packed around them. The whole thing would function like a gigantic mortar. A fuze was laid from the explosive to the stern so that the crew would have about twelve minutes to make their escape. Meanwhile, volunteers were called for throughout the fleet to serve as captains and crews of these vessels.

For these crews there was not just the risk of premature explosion, but also the danger that if captured they would be brutally handled, if not shot out of hand. So they all had to have a prepared cover-story – for example, that they had fallen overboard or belonged to a merchant ship which had previously sunk.

On 10 April more fireships from England reached the Basque Roads, giving Cochrane a total of twenty. His force was now complete. Time was pressing, so the following evening, with a strong wind and high sea, the volunteer captains assembled aboard Lord Gambier’s flagship. Cochrane gave them their final instructions, explaining that he himself would lead the attack in the first explosion-vessel. To this end, the Impérieuse had already sailed in the direction of the boom, with two explosion-vessels in tow. Cochrane would attempt to break the boom with one of them, and if that did not work the second one would follow. Once the way was clear, the fireship captains were to take advantage immediately of the flood tide, this second wave attacking the French ships themselves. Three other frigates would take up predetermined positions in order to pick up the escaping fireship crews.

It was dark as pitch when Cochrane, with a lieutenant and a crew of four men in one of the explosion-vessels, reached the area where they believed the boom to be. They could not see the French ships, and could only guess how far they were from the boom. Cochrane ordered the men into the boat and waited for the moment when he would light his portfire and set the fuze alight. Then he would spring into the boat and the men would pull for their lives against wind, waves and tide to ensure that they were as distant as possible when the explosion occurred. There is something resembling an eyewitness account of this phase of the action; although, strictly, it is fiction, its representation of the explosion-vessel’s approach to the boom and the following detonation is supported by factual reports. The author was Captain Frederick Marryat (1792–1848), who was to call on his experience of service with the Royal Navy for a series of authentic stories of the maritime world, producing heroes who were forerunners of C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. At this time he was a midshipman aboard the Imperieuse and a volunteer in one of the explosion-vessels. In his first book, Frank Mildmay, or the Naval Officer, he describes the attack:

The night was very dark, and it blew a strong breeze directly in upon the Isle d’Aix, and the enemy’s fleet. Two of our frigates had been previously so placed as to serve as beacons to direct the course of the fire-ships. They each displayed a clear and brilliant light; the fire-ships were directed to pass between these; after which, their course up to the boom which guarded the anchorage was clear, and not easily to be mistaken.

Marryat, in the persona of his hero Midshipman Frank Mildmay, recalls exactly what it was like to serve aboard an explosion-ship. ‘They were filled with layers of shells and powder, heaped one upon another: the quantity on board of each vessel was enormous. We had a four-oared gig, a small, narrow thing (nicknamed by the sailors a ‘coffin’), to make our escape in.’

Marryat describes how the strong wind drove the ship against the boom, and how the frigates remained in the darkness. Into Mildmay’s head came a line from Dante: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!’ The ship crashed hard broadside into the boom, and the crew just managed to spring into their boat, while Mildmay seized his torch. Only later was he able to express the sentiments that came to him at that moment:

If ever I felt the sensation of fear, it was after I had lighted this port-fire, which was connected with the train. Until I was fairly in the boat, and out of the reach of the explosion – which was inevitable and might be instantaneous – the sensation was horrid. I was standing on a mine; any fault in the port-fire, which sometimes will happen; any trifling quantity of gunpowder lying in the interstices of the deck, would have exploded the whole in a moment. Only one minute and a half of port-fire was allowed. I had therefore no time to lose.

Finally, he lit the fuze and leaped into the boat, at which the men began to row as hard as they could to get as far away as possible … ‘we were not two hundred yards from her when she exploded’.

Some distance away, the crews of the English ships perched in the rigging and stared tensely into the night, wondering when they would see the flashes of the explosion-vessels among the French ships. Many of them thought it ‘a cruel substitute for a manly engagement’.

The French had been forewarned of a fireship attack and so had taken appropriate countermeasures. They imagined the boom to be unbreachable, constructed as it was out of hundreds of metres of stout spars, lashed together with chains and anchored to the sea-floor with large iron blocks. Behind this, they felt secure, but as an additional precaution their boats were gathered along the boom.

The attack succeeded more quickly than Cochrane had expected, the first explosion ripping apart the quiet of the night. Shells, grenades and wreckage from the ships flew in all directions, at the same time setting off the Congreve rockets, which disappeared into the distance with a fearsome hissing like glowing snakes. An observer on the British side wrote later: ‘Here was exhibited a grand display of fire-works at the expense of John Bull; no gala night at Ranelagh or Vauxhall could be compared to it.’ The boom was torn from its moorings, and the energy of 1,500 powder-kegs swept a violent wall of water before it. The boat with Cochrane’s fleeing crew had not got far before the wreckage of their former vessel and the rest of its explosive cargo came down around them. The ‘coffin’ bobbed like a cork on the waves and then was swamped, and they were rescued by the skin of their teeth. Ten minutes later the second vessel blew sky-high.

Now the second phase of the attack got under way. First Cochrane sailed his frigate through the breach in the boom, followed by about twenty unlighted silhouettes. But the fireship flotilla quickly fell into disorder, with only four of them coming within striking distance of the French warships (their principal target was the flagship of Admiral Allemand, the Océan). In panic cables were slipped, guns and ammunition were thrown overboard, and the ships drifted uncontrollably towards shoals, ran aground or collided with each other. But none of the fireships caused direct damage, with most burning out in the darkness, far from any target. It was the centuries-old problem of fire-ship captains losing their nerve, setting their vessels on fire too early and abandoning them. Also demonstrated was the huge psychological effect these weapons could have. The disorder in the French fleet arose because the men saw the fire-ships but could not be sure they were not more explosion-vessels, which would be more difficult to counter, and all discipline vanished. Later during his exile on St Helena, Napoleon, discussing this phenomenon with one of his English warders, concluded: ‘They ought not to have been alarmed by your brûlots, but fear deprived them of their senses, and they no longer knew how to act in their own defence.’

In the morning light of 12 April the extent of the disaster suffered by the French fleet became visible. The tide had turned at midnight, and as it ebbed eleven of the great ships of the line had been left high and dry, keeled over at perilous angles, with their guns unable to bear. As long as the tide was out, they remained an easy target for a second attack, so Cochrane signalled Gambier to inform him of this unrivalled and very promising opportunity. Gambier, however, hesitated to launch an all-out attack.

Naval historians still disagree about the reason: was it timidity, or did he just resent the attempt by a junior captain to browbeat his admiral? However, faced with the commander’s inaction, Cochrane decided on his own initiative to move on the enemy without delay, believing that a lot more destruction could be inflicted on the stranded ships. With the support of a small detachment from the main fleet, he did succeed in irreparably damaging one or two more before Gambier ordered him to break off the attack. Cochrane was furious, and eventually Gambier ordered him to return to England. Although this was not a case of total annihilation, the French had been forced to abandon their planned Caribbean expedition, and Napoleon later used the word ‘imbécile’ to describe the French admiral who had allowed his ships to get into this sad situation. However, things did not go well for the British admiral either.

At home, Cochrane was hailed as the hero and was made a Knight Commander of the Bath, an honour awarded only for outstanding achievement. This event marks the point at which honours and social accolades replaced the financial rewards and prospects of promotion that successful fireship captains of an earlier era had enjoyed. However, Gambier himself demanded credit, as commander-in-chief, for the success of the action, and this roused the enmity of Cochrane. As a Member of Parliament, Cochrane objected to a plan to offer a vote of thanks to the man who, in his view, had merely observed the battle from afar. Stung by the criticism, Gambier demanded a court-martial and, not surprisingly, he was found not guilty by his colleagues. For Cochrane, things went downhill from then onwards, in part because his outspoken attitude made him many enemies in the Navy and the government. The senior naval authorities deemed him ‘uncontrollable’, and his career stalled. Later Cochrane was implicated in a stock market fraud, and was stripped of his honours, lost his seat in Parliament, and was thrown out of the Service. He remained a popular hero in Britain, with many admirers and supporters, but decided that if his native country did not appreciate his talents sufficiently he would take them abroad.

Throughout the rest of his long adventurous life, Cochrane continued to develop unconventional weapons for use against ships or coastal installations. He went on trying to improve explosion-vessels, one of his innovations being the addition of small metal particles – like the terrorist’s nail-bomb – designed to maximise casualties. These were thought by his superiors to be ‘effective but inhumane’ and were not pursued. As the Duke of Wellington said in his inimitably succinct style, ‘Two can play at that game.’ Some of Cochrane’s schemes even presaged the use of poison gas in war; these were kept secret until 1908. For attacking coastal fortresses he dreamed up a new version of the well-known ‘smoke-ship’ of Sir Francis Drake, known as the ‘sulphur-vessel’ and inspired by a visit to sulphur mines in Sicily in 1811. On the upper deck of a small vessel he planned to spread a layer of charcoal and lumps of sulphur. The burning charcoal would cause the sulphur to melt, emitting smoke which would cause coughing by irritating the airways. He envisaged these vessels being deployed with favourable wind and tide, emitting ‘noxious effluvia’ as they drifted towards shore installations and causing their garrisons to take to their heels to escape the stink. He also came up with idea of the ‘temporary mortar’ – a small vessel in which the decks were stripped out, and a bed of clay laid in its bottom planking. This was covered with scrap metal and gunpowder, and finally with a layer of animal carcasses and rows of shells. By appropriate ballasting, the whole vessel was heeled to one side to ‘aim’ it at its target, and it would then explode like a gigantic mortar.

Cochrane would get the opportunity to put some of these notions in to practice during the Greek War of Independence.

WWI Armoured Cars: 3 of 3 Parts


Already in 1902, the company C. G. V. (Charron, Girardot & Voigt) presented the first known French armored vehicle, the CGV 1902 at the Motor Show of that year. Actually, it is the adaptation of an armored cylinder in the rear seats of an ordinary automobile. The armament consisted of a Hotchkiss 8mm ma- chine gun. The vehicle was evaluated in Chalons the following year, but that eventually ended.

With the participation of Commandant Guye, the company CGV submitted to the Ministere de la Guerre the CGV modele 1906, its first entiérement Blindée Automobile de Guerre. This vehicle was evaluated in the fall of that year. The main drawback of this vehicle was its unsatisfactory power to weight ratio but did employ some successful innovations such as the engine being located inside the vehicle as well as tires that could be used for up to 10 minutes after being pierced by a bullet or something similar. It seems that the French army used four Charron armored vehicles. Russia ordered twelve vehicles and then two more to replace two that were requisitioned by the German Government in the transit to Russia via Germany.

The French Army also acquired some Mitrailleuse Hotchkiss 18 HP automobiles (1903), Panhard-Genty 24 HP (1906), Clément-Bayard (1908), Panhard 24 HP (1911) all in small quantities.

In the first weeks of the war, several Automitrailleuses Improvisées and Voiturettes Automitailleuses were created on the ground using commercial vehicles of various brands such as Delahaye, Delaunay-Belleville, Mercedes, Panhard, Peugeot, Renault, Legrand, etc.


The first armored cars were hastily produced by Peugeot and modified in August 1914. They were based on a commercial vehicle, the Peugeot 4×2 153, built in series between 1913 and 1916. These early conversions used a machine gun, usually a Saint-Étienne Modéle 1907 centrally mounted on a pivot or on a tripod in the rear of the vehicle and was provided with a small shield. The first side plates were 5.5 mm and eventually applied to the entire vehicle.

In late August 1914, the Lieutenant-Lesieure Desbriere proposed to Général Gallieni, that in order to fight the Germans and their wheeled armored vehicles, they would have to convert some of the Peugeot 146 18 HP into 37mm Marine Auto Canons, giving them a small 37mm gun Modéle 1885. Things quickly got under way and the first modified vehicles fire tests were conducted on September 13 in Vincennes. Gallieni gave the order to start production of numerous vehicles armed this way. A few days later, Lesieure-Desbriere went to the Parisian factory in Saint Chamond to address the issue of the shields.

These vehicles were assigned to the Marines, organized in Groupes d’Autocanons de 37 mm de la Marine, with two sections of four vehicles, three armed with cannons and a fourth as a supply vehicle which was unarmed. Later, two Automitalleuses and a shuttle car were added to each section. Général Gallieni had decided to form 24 Groupes d’Autocanons de 37 mm, with a total of 192 Peugeot chassis although only 144 were armed. Général Joffre estimated on October 22nd that twelve groups would be enough, one for each Cavalry Division and two kept in reserve, so finally, production was reduced to 90 Auto canons de 37 mm and 31 supply cars.

As we have previously indicated, each section of the Groupes d’Autocanons of 37 mm de la Marine was assigned with two Automitailleuses. The first twelve sections were improvised vehicles equipped by five different factories. Those five factories were Renault, Peugeot, Delaunay-bel, Delhaye, and Panhard. From the seventh group on, they were standardized vehicles with Renault Automitrailleuse ED type of 18-20 HP. A hundred units were built in Lyon, whose deliveries began in late October 1914.

In December 1914, a specifically designed variant appeared. Conceived by Capitaine Renaud, this vehicle barely resembled earlier versions. It was now covered by armored plates. The radiator was protected by steel doors despite the extra weight of the shield. This was in part compensated by the use of double rear wheels. Although it was armed with a machine gun, Modéle Saint-Étienne 1907, the most common weapon was the 37mm gun, now mounted on a barbette mantlet. The replacement began in Vincennes at a rapid pace. They had numerous Peugeot type 146 chassis so that the preparation of the shield and mounting was performed in December 1914, without harming the setting up of the groups equipped with the initial model, whose late unit, the number 12 was completed on December 24. The last three groups organized were the 13éme, 14eme and 15eme Groupes d’Autocanons de 37 mm de la Marine crews completed their vehicles on January 13 1915. But, at that time, with a static front of trenches and fields of barbed wire, the task of `free hunting of German cars’ was finished so a few vehicles were used in patrols near the front, but their actions had little influence on the development of events.

On March 5, 1916 these units stopped relying on the Marina to be assigned to the 81éme Regiment d’Artillerie. Thus, the presence of armored vehicles in the Marine closes and opens another episode, although short and unfortunate, in that Auto canons and Automitailleuses were committed to the Artillery, who poorly used them. Finally, headquarters issued an instruction in which the Auto canons and Automitailleuses were to be assigned to the Cavalry with a new organization. Each group would have a Voiture de Laison blindée from an unspecified model for the group leader, and three sections each with two more Auto canons and an Automitailleuse plus a motorcycle and a car shuttle. Further armament was modified with the old 37mm modele 1885 cannon which was replaced by another of the same caliber, the Puteaux SA Semi-automatic which fired twice as fast. Ninety vehicles were requested on February 3, 1917 although it is possible some were intended for the new Ségur-Lorfeuvre. Sixty of these guns were installed with Auto canons Modele Peugeot 146, but also in some modified Renault ED Automitailleuses. Finally, Saint-Etienne 8mm Modele 1907 machine guns were replaced on vehicles that still kept them for other Hotchkiss Modele 1914 of the same caliber.

At the same time, the number of groups was adjusted due to the reduction of cavalry divisions. There were not more than seven in mid-1917 and six at end the year. In fact, 13 groups were held, two divisions and one reserve.

In 1918, they took part in the combat against the German offenses along the whole front. Afterwards, some of the armored cars from Peugeot and Renault were used in the warfare that followed this stage, although most of the fighting involved the Renault F. 17, which were more effective in difficult terrain than Peugeot with its narrow wheels. At the end of the conflict, at the time that the new White came to the units, the service unit count was 39 Renault and 28 Peugeot.


When the implementation of the new Peugeot Modele 146 chassis shields were about to start, an unexpected interruption came about which com- promised the development of the planned program. This interruption was the Automitailleuses Archer, a vehicle designed by a civil mining engineer, mobilized with the rank of Sergeant J. Archer, who was also a businessman who imported American Hupmobile cars, which he considered adequate to resist the incorporation of light armor. Archer obtained from the Ministere de la Guerre, in December 1914, the Constitution of the Groupes d’Autocanons de 37 mm de la Marine with the intended material and his own ideas were submitted for evaluation. When the evaluation was completed on December 19th, a report in which it was emphasized that the Archer was but an invention that was not likely to render any service was issued. However, a second model was presented in February 1915, having very satisfactory shooting results, so four vehicles were commissioned to provide the division of General Albert Gerard Leo d’ Amade, de l’Armée d’Orient, for the Dardanelles expedition. Two other copies requested on May 27, 1915, were assigned to Détachenet d’Armée de Lorraine.


In November 1914, Sergeant Pierre Gasnier of Aéroanautique Militaire, pro- posed to his superiors the project of an Automitrailleuse. The project was approved on November 26, 1914 and evaluated in February 1915. The vehicle was built on the chassis of a passenger car known as the Gobron 40 HP. It was shielded with steel plates from the factory of Saint-Chamond, 5 to 7 mm thicker. The model was proposed to equip Groupes d’Autocanons 37mm de la Marine, but on June 21 they responded to this proposal that there were already a sufficient number of such vehicles in service and there were no reason for substituting the Renault ED.

But the idea of a complete shield returned on September 10, 1915, the date in which the Brigadier Marc Fabry presented to the Sous-Secretary d `État de l’Artillerie et des Munitions his project: an automobile with an armored observation tower intended to equip a long vehicle with four wheels and two driving positions. The basic objectives proposed by Fabry were to pro- vide infantry officers in the field a large observatory, protected and with a high degree of mobility. Unknowingly, Fabry had invented the artillery observation vehicle. Finally, it was thought that to support infantry in the tower, a 37 or 45mm cannon or a machine gun or even both could be mounted. So, with the approval of Général Joffre, seduced by the capacity of the tower to shoot in every direction, on February 17, 1916, Delaunay- Belleville signed a contract for the mounting of twenty double direction frames and absolute Jeffery adhesion, with steel plates provided by Saint- Chamond and the Fabry tower.

In late September 1916, the prototype was sent to the Centre d’Instruction des Automitauilleuses at Versailles. There it was found that its excessive weight of 6150 kg to the lean frame made it inappropriate for any war service. The constructed units were dedicated exclusively to training.

While the factory of Delaunay-Belleville proceeded to make the prototype, Jeffery-Fabry, one of the giants of the French automotive industry, De Dion- Bouton and Puteaux, on November 15, 1915, announced to the Minister of War their project of a Blockhaus Automobile, designed by Commandant Guye. The vehicle was completed before the end of the year and presented on February 14 1916. This vehicle was armed with a 37mm cannon firing back and a Hotchkiss machine gun firing forward. In August, the cannon was replaced by another 75mm gun. But this vehicle had certain problems, most importantly, it was not equipped with two driving positions, which at the time was considered essential, which combined with their excessive weight, nearly seven tons, disqualified it for production.

Another attempt to achieve a complete armored Automitrailleuse took place with a contract on September 28, 1915 for an Automitrailleuse Segur & Lorfeuvre on a lighter chassis frame of a Panhard K14 truck, which was delivered to the Centre d’Instruction des Automitauilleuses on May 17, 1916.

It could be armed with a machine gun or 37mm gun and could reach 50 km/h with a 16HP engine. In July 1916, an order for 50 copies, later raised to 300 in January 1917 were manufactured, but the priority was for tanks and artillery tractors so the request to Segur & Lorfeuvre was reduced to ten units on February 5, and finally being canceled.

But the urgency to find a replacement among the vehicles in service for the Groupes Automitailleuses Autocanons Cavalry, led Capitaine Castelbajac, director of the Centre d’Instruction des Automitauilleuses, to find a suit- able frame for a new Automitrailleuse and after ruling out many of the existing, he decided to use the light truck, 2 ton White TBC of American origin, of which the Army had a large number. Headquarters made available one of these vehicles to Lorfeuvre at the Centre d’Instruction des Automitauilleuses to conduct preliminary tests. On March 30, 1917 the transformation began. This transformation, along with an armored body, involved a rear driving position with a steering wheel and the installation of a tower, designed by Castelbajac, armed with a Puteaux SA 37mm cannon and an 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun. Despite the advantages of the vehicle, mass production started only in the spring of 1918, to begin manufacturing 130 units, given the impossibility of the Ministere de l’Armement to fix the number of vehicles required on 6 April, the Cavalry required 170 units. On June 29, new requests made a total of 230 required vehicles.

The First White TBC were delivered to 10eme Groupes Automitailleuses Auto canons de Cavalerie, on October 3, 1918. In practice, the vehicle Segur & Lorfeuvre had to wait almost two years to enter service, arriving just in time to participate in the occupation of the Rhineland.

End of the Crimean War 1855

Floating Batteries at the Capture of Kinburn.

Having driven Gorchakov’s army out of the south side of Sevastopol the allied commanders were at a loss about what should be done next. The battle had been expensive in soldiers’ lives, ammunition and resources; so much so that it was difficult to avoid a general feeling that they had justified their presence in the Crimea by taking the city whose capture had eluded them for a year. This was particularly true in the French camp where there were smiles and congratulations all round. Pélissier was given a marshal’s baton and, much to the irritation of the British, was appointed a mushir, or commander-in-chief, by the Sultan; Bruat was promoted to full admiral (but did not live long to enjoy the pleasure as he died at sea two months later) and Simpson was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. Even the much-reviled telegraph came into its own on 12 September when Pélissier received the thanks of a grateful emperor: ‘Honneur à vous! Honneur à votre brave armée! Faites à tous mes sincères félicitations.’ (‘All honour to you. Honour to your brave army. I send to you all my sincere congratulations.’)

At home in Paris there were sonorous celebrations allied to a sense of relief; a Te Deum was celebrated in Notre Dame, which had been decorated with the flags of the allied powers. Sevastopol had fallen and in many people’s minds the victory and the part played by Pélissier’s men symbolised a rebirth of French military might. For a few happy hours 1812 became just another dusty date in a long-forgotten history and it seemed possible that Sevastopol was but a springboard for even greater successes against the Russians. Two weeks after Sevastopol fell Rose sent a thoughtful despatch to Clarendon which captured the mood in the French camp:

After 1815 the spirit of the French Army was lowered by a succession of reverses. The successes in Algiers against Barbarians, without artillery, were not sufficient to restore them the prestige they once enjoyed.

But the share of successes which the French Army have had in conquering a Military European Power of the first order, in battles on the field, and in the Siege of a peculiarly strong and invested Fortress, a Siege without many parallels in History, have not only improved, very much, the experiences and military qualifications of the Officers and men of the French Army, but have raised their military feeling and confidence.

To capitalise on that effect Napoleon insisted that the war must continue and that Russia must be humbled before there could be any peace settlement. Not only would that process isolate Russia from Europe but it would also restore France as a major power and destroy for ever the settlement of 1815. It might even be possible to realise Napoleon’s dream of rebuilding the kingdom of Poland and placing his cousin on its throne.

There was much to recommend this way of thinking. France had been left exhausted by the Napoleonic wars and the nation itself had been humbled, its frontiers reduced to those of 1789. Napoleon III certainly believed that he had a mission to restore his country’s fortunes by continuing the war, but he was already swimming against a tide of growing disapproval with the war. While his fellow countrymen had been happy and relieved to celebrate the fall of Sevastopol it could not be denied that the victory had been won at a cost. The casualties seemed to be disproportionate to any diplomatic or strategic gain and the need to keep the forces supplied for another winter was a strain on an already overloaded exchequer. France simply did not have the resources to continue the war and was unable to match the expenditure lavished on it by her British allies. London’s well-filled purse was one very good reason why Napoleon was so desperate to keep the cross-Channel alliance in being.

He had little difficulty in persuading his allies to be assertive. Palmerston remained as bellicose as ever and, together with Clarendon, warned colleagues that the war was far from being over and might last another two or three years. Their message was clear and unwavering: Britain’s war aims would not be altered and there could be no negotiated peace until Russia had been defeated. To achieve that goal Palmerston still thought that it would be possible to construct a grand European alliance similar to the coalition which had defeated Napoleon forty years earlier. As he told Clarendon on 9 October, ‘Russia has not yet been beat enough to make peace possible at the present moment.’ Military pride was also at stake. Palmerston had refused permission for the church bells to be rung in celebration of the recent victory as it was all too evident that British troops had not distinguished themselves in the fighting.

The Turks were keen to see the allies continue the war in the Crimea as this would allow them to open operations in Asia Minor and to that end they insisted that Omar Pasha be allowed to withdraw his army from the Crimea. Russia, too, was adamant that the war was far from over. ‘Sevastopol is not Moscow, the Crimea is not Russia,’ said Alexander II in a proclamation to Gorchakov shortly after the fall of Sevastopol. ‘Two years after we set fire to Moscow, our troops marched in the streets of Paris. We are still the same Russians and God is still with us.’ In military terms the Russian commander had merely made a tactical retreat into a new position which would continue to pose problems to the allies. The tsar also guessed correctly that his enemies had no intention of marching into Russia and that unless Gorchakov were defeated stalemate had returned to the Crimean peninsula. Given that unassailable position, the allies’ only hope of inflicting a decisive defeat seemed to lie in the Baltic; Dundas’s destruction of Sveaborg having given rise to hopes that a similar campaign in the spring of 1856 could crush Kronstadt and leave St Petersburg open to attack by sea and land forces. It was an idea which would exercise the minds of allied planners throughout the winter.

None the less, the continuing public bellicosity could not disguise the fact that there was also a growing desire for peace, especially in France, where Count Walewski, Drouyn de Lhuys’s replacement as foreign secretary, was playing a somewhat different game. An illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte, he was considered by Cowley to be an intellectual lightweight who was too close to the emperor’s pro-Russian half-brother, the Duc de Morny, and therefore not to be trusted. To Clarendon he was a parvenu, ‘a low-minded strolling player’ whose ‘view of moral obligation’ was always ‘subservient to his interests or his vanity’. Palmerston shared that opinion and added the thought that if anything were to happen to the emperor there would be no shortage of French politicians of Walewski’s ilk who would be prepared to sue for peace with the Russians.

There were grounds for these fears. Although Cowley and Clarendon, the British statesmen most directly involved, never lost their suspicions about those who served the emperor – based largely on social snobbery, it must be admitted – they were right to pay close attention to the new French foreign secretary, Walewski. At a time when the allies were attempting to maintain a common front and continue the war he was in secret negotiation with the Russians through the Duc de Morny and a shadowy figure called Baron Hukeren, the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador in Paris, whom Cowley described as ‘among the numerous speculating and political intriguers that abound in the capital’. Initially, Napoleon seems not to have known that covert peace feelers were being made but by October he had given them tacit approval. These were conducted on two fronts: through his friendship with Prince Gorchakov, the duke made it known that France was ready for peace while a similar message was passed by Walewski to Nesselrode’s daughter who was married to the Saxon ambassador in Paris, Baron von Seebach. At the same time the Russian ambassador in Berlin, Baron Budberg, alerted the Prussian government that the tsar was ready to reopen negotiations. While, in themselves, these clandestine talks did not lead to the reopening of peace talks, they at least helped to pave the way.

Meanwhile, as had happened earlier in the year when the Vienna conference seemed to hold out the hope of a cessation of hostilities, the British and French governments urged their commanders in the Crimea to continue the campaign. Having told Simpson that from the Queen’s palace to humblest cottage British hearts were beating with pride at ‘this long looked-for success’, Panmure turned to sterner matters:

The consequences of this event upon the morale of the Russian Army must be very great, and I trust that in concert with Marshal Pélissier you have devised means to take advantage of them and to give the enemy no rest till his overthrow is completed.

In order to keep this object properly in view you must not suffer your mind to rest upon any expectation of peace; your duty as a General is to keep your Army in the best condition for offence and to turn your attention to all the means in your power for so doing.

There was considerable mortification that the victory had not been followed up with a further attack on the Russian position and Panmure told Simpson that there were to be no celebrations in the army until Russia had been finally defeated. A succession of despatches from London attempted to goad the British commander into action but without success. Simpson simply reiterated his and the French belief that it would be folly to attack the Russian positions and he remained unmoved by an unhelpful suggestion that he should think of ‘applying a hot poker’ to make Pélissier do something positive. The impasse was broken on 26 September when Panmure sent a peremptory telegram to the British commander demanding action:

The public are getting impatient to know what the Russians are about. The Government desire immediately to be informed whether either you or Pélissier have taken any steps whatever to ascertain this, and further they observe that nearly 3 weeks have elapsed in absolute idleness. This cannot go on and in justice to yourself and your army you must prevent it. Answer this on receipt.

From the evidence of the correspondence between the two men it is difficult to know what Panmure wanted to achieve from this telegraphic despatch. That he was anxious to hear Simpson play a more martial tune was beyond doubt, yet the commander’s own letters betray a worrying timorousness that was not to be cured by Panmure’s mixture of threats and cajoling. In one letter he would chide Simpson for playing second fiddle to the French and insist on action, ending the despatch with an order that the British soldiers were not to be given spirits before going on sentry duty; in another he would reflect on the pleasure of discussing the campaign at some future date over a bottle of claret. However, his latest despatch had one obvious effect: the man who had gone out to the Crimea with no other thought than to report on Raglan, finally admitted that high command was too great a burden to bear. Two days later Simpson telegraphed his resignation, explaining that he could not remain in command while facing sustained criticism, and his offer to stand down was quickly accepted.

As Codrington was the designated successor, it should have been an easy matter to confirm his promotion, but during the final assault on Sevastopol Codrington seemed to have lost his nerve – Newcastle was particularly withering in his criticism – and renewed thought was given to the command of the army in the Crimea. Once again the candidates’ claims were examined and during the hiatus, which lasted three weeks, Panmure was forced to address his orders simply to the British Headquarters in the Crimea. Despite doubts about his abilities Codrington was confirmed in command on 15 October but did not take over the office until a few weeks later: more than any other attribute, his ability to speak fluent French and his easy social skills seem to have counted in his favour. To soften the blow to the other commanders, on 10 December the army was divided into two corps, command of each going to Campbell and Eyre.

By then the British Army was in a much better position than in the previous year and relatively well equipped to face another winter. Each soldier had been given a new hard weather uniform consisting of two woollen jerseys, two pairs of woollen drawers, two pairs of woollen socks, two pairs of long stockings, one cholera belt, one comforter, a pair of gloves, a fur cap, greatcoat and waterproof cape. At Panmure’s insistence – he was a great stickler for detail – each man was also given, and ordered to use, a tin of Onion’s Drubbing, a new patented waterproof treatment for boots; and on 7 December four hundred field stoves specially designed by Alexis Soyer arrived at Balaklava. As an aid for observing the enemy in forward positions the army was supplied with a thousand trench telescopes of the kind which would be used in the First World War ‘for looking at objects without exposing the viewer’.

With better conditions, the supply problems having been largely solved, the army’s morale improved. Before winter settled in there were race meetings and hurriedly improvised shoots for the officers and theatricals for the men. Despite Panmure’s exhortations about keeping drunkenness at bay the independently owned canteens at Kadikoi did brisk business and, with the Russians content to keep their distance, the miseries of the last winter’s discomforts in the trenches were soon forgotten. By contrast it was now the turn of the French to suffer. Cholera followed by typhus ran through their camp and, added to a general air of disaffection, there were calls from the veterans of the fighting to be sent home. As the casualties from illness began to mount these demands were met: on 13 November Rose reported that the French Imperial Guards regiments were to be withdrawn and that eight line infantry regiments were to return to Algeria. Despite promises to the contrary, these were not to be replaced.

Before the armies went into winter quarters at the beginning of November, the British in good spirits, the French in as sorry as state as their allies had been in the previous season, there were two noteworthy attacks on the Russians. Having despatched part of their cavalry to Eupatoria, French units led by General D’Alonville attacked a larger Russian force on 20 October and succeeded in compelling it to withdraw with the loss of many casualties. However, D’Alonville chose not to follow up the success, other than to continue the harassment of Russian stragglers, because, according to Rose, the French chief of staff, General de Martimprey, had ordered his subordinate commanders to rein in any propensity for offensive activities:

I again perceived that he was opposed to any hostile operation against the enemy on a large scale. But whether he entertains this opinion because he thinks that the Enemy will leave the Crimea, without being forced to do [sic], or because he is of the conviction, which he lately expressed, that negotiations in the winter will bring about a peace, I know not.

The other operation was far more aggressive and it was destined to be the last blow struck by the allies during the war. It was also the most successful, a combined forces’ attack on the Fort Kinburn, a heavily defended Russian position which covered the confluence of the Rivers Bug and Dnieper. The brainchild of Lyons, it made full use of three newly developed French armoured steam batteries which, together with the allied gunboats and battleships, battered the fortress into submission. The French played a full role by committing 6000 men to the infantry force of 10,000, command of which was awarded to General Bazaine, as well as three battleships and a number of gunboats, although it remained unclear if Pélissier’s enthusiasm for the assault was governed more by a succession of orders from Paris or by his newly developed infatuation with Bazaine’s wife, Soledad. During Bazaine’s absence, Pélissier’s coach, captured from the Russians, was to be seen each day outside Soledad’s quarters. It was not the only romance thrown up by the war: Canrobert had fallen for the daughter of Colonel Strangways, the British gunner commander killed at Inkerman, but as with Pélissier’s fondness for Bazaine’s wife nothing came of the wartime dalliance.

The attack on Kinburn, though, was a complete success. On 16 October the infantry and marine forces made an unopposed landing on the Kinburn peninsula to cut off the fortress from reinforcements and to attack the garrison should it decide to retire. The following day, having advanced under cover of darkness, the allied fleet commenced a heavy bombardment, using tactics similar to those employed at Sveaborg a month earlier. Having been infiltrated into the bay in front of the fortress the gunboats and steam batteries were able to produce a sustained bombardment which quickly silenced the Russian guns. Then the allied battleships steamed into line to fire an equally heavy succession of broadsides which left the garrison with no option but to surrender. The way was open to strike inland but Bazaine called a halt to the operation once the forts and Kinburn and Ochakov (on the other side of the estuary) had surrendered. Following the destruction of Sveaborg, the successful outcome of the Kinburn operation demonstrated that the allies now had the naval capacity to attack and defeat Russia’s hitherto impregnable sea-fortresses.

As winter set in other activities included a reconnaissance of the Baider valley to ascertain whether or not an attack on the Russian positions at Simpheropol would yield results. Napoleon thought so but the French-led scouting party reported back that the Russians were entrenched on the high ground and that any attack would only result in unacceptable casualties. That fear lay at the heart of the allied command’s thinking. With the fall of Sevastopol, France had recovered her honour and, just as importantly, her right to sit at the high table when European matters were being discussed. Pélissier did not want to pursue the war against the Russians and by the middle of October he had come to the opinion that the allied army in the Crimea should be reduced by almost half to 70,000 and that it should take up defensive positions on the Chersonese peninsula.

His thinking chimed in with the mood at home where the war was now decidedly unpopular. On 22 October Cowley reported a conversation with the emperor in which Napoleon argued that the war had become an expensive anachronism and that the presence of the allied armies would not encourage Russia to negotiate. That could only be achieved by diplomatic means. As evidence, he produced a report from Pélissier in which the marshal claimed that there was nothing for the allies to conquer in southern Russia – ‘sterile plains which the Russians will abandon after some battles in which they will lose a few thousand men, a loss which causes them no decisive damage, whilst at every step the Allies with a great sacrifice of men and money and with nothing to gain will risk each day the destinies of Europe’.

Nivelle’s failure

Nivelle’s failure was no greater than that of others, indeed rather less. He took more ground than Joffre did in his offensives or than Haig did at Arras. But Nivelle had promised more. Instead, he had carried the exhausted French army beyond breaking point.

(A.J.P. Taylor)

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Nivelle Offensive was that, despite its failure, there were so few consequences for its instigator, Nivelle himself. Yes, his career as a commander was over, and for a man who was so ambitious and had such tremendous self-belief this must have been devastating, but, as was the case with so many failed First World War commanders, there would be no court-martial or further sanction.

There was, however, a Commission of Enquiry, which met in a series of sessions from August to October 1917. Its brief was to ‘study the conditions in which the offensive of 16–23 April took place in the valley of the Aisne and to determine the role of the general officers who exercised command’. It was an investigative commission only and had no power to impose any sanctions. It was headed by General Brugère and the other two members were Generals Foch and Gouraud. None of these officers had served under Nivelle during the offensive and were deemed suitable to carry out the inquiry due to their seniority. Nivelle did not attend all the sessions and submitted some of his testimony in a series of memoranda. Generals Micheler, Mazel and Mangin also attended to give evidence. Painlevé was deeply disappointed with the remit of the commission and later dismissed its report as mere ‘rose water’.

Some time was spent considering Nivelle’s overall principles, with Foch expanding on how Nivelle’s concepts were flawed and how continuing the Somme offensive might have been more fruitful, perhaps even resulting in victory in 1917. The testimonies of Nivelle’s subordinate commanders followed a pattern. Micheler, Mangin and Mazel all confessed to having had doubts about the plan and its operational security but they had ultimately felt obliged to follow orders. Mangin, now thoroughly disillusioned with his former chief, referred to Nivelle’s Napoleonic attitude, while Mazel was described as ‘cold and reserved’ throughout the proceedings. Pétain, who had initially not been invited to attend, also obtained a hearing, during which he trotted out his previous criticisms. It seems that he was making an effort to disassociate himself from all blame, although it can be argued that he should have been more forceful in his opposition in March and April.

The commission also sought out the report prepared in early 1917 by Nivelle’s former chief of operations, Colonel Renouard. This report had contained pessimistic predictions regarding the offensive’s likelihood of success and several staff officers had read it. Interestingly, the members of the commission found that the report had been removed from the files.

The commission’s final thirty-page report is an excellent source for historians as it unpacks the development of Nivelle’s plan throughout its span. The role of the subordinate generals is also outlined and some, such as Mangin, are given credit for their performance. General Duchêne could not be criticised, it was stated, as his army’s offensive had never truly got under way. Ultimate responsibility rested, the report concluded, with Nivelle.

Other aspects of the plan also drew severe criticism. The presiding generals concluded that the logistical measures necessary to maintain the artillery supply, and hence the barrage, had not been put in place. The medical services were singled out for particular criticism as they had inadequate personnel in place to evacuate wounded from the battlefield and then too few field hospitals and transport facilities.

Further points were also discussed that contributed to the offensive’s failure. These included:

•  inadequate artillery preparation;

•  poor performance by the tanks;

•  weather;

•  lack of operational security;

•  the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line; and

•  the availability of German reserves.

Mention was also made of the activities of ‘defeatist’ and pacifist elements within France. The report made positive mention of the ‘magnificent élan’ and performance of the troops. The message was clear: the cause of the defeat lay not with the troops themselves but with their senior commanders. It was perhaps the commission’s president, General Brugère, who best summed up the main problem in a letter to Poincaré, in which he stated that Nivelle ‘had not been up to’ the demands of senior command.

Paradoxically, the Germans also formed an investigative group to examine the French attack. It reached many of the same conclusions as the French inquiry. The Germans paid special attention to the deployment of the tank force, commenting, ‘We can only conclude that the main striking force of an offensive resides in tanks and it is a question of developing the other arms in such a way that they can keep up with them.’ The German general staff would pay much attention to tank actions during the First World War as they developed new operational doctrines during the interwar years. This process would ultimately produce the tactical methods of ‘Blitzkrieg’.

The issue of casualties was a major feature of the French inquiry. In the offensive’s early phases losses were being estimated at around 96,000 in total, killed, wounded or missing. It is now clear that these initial calculations were underestimated. During the worst phase of the army mutinies the losses were deliberately downplayed in the hope of minimising the public and political outcry. During wartime it was also difficult to get accurate casualty numbers due to various battlefield factors and the enormous pressures faced by administrative and medical staff. However, it would appear that there were some attempts to conceal the extent of the casualties. For example, casualties from the Russian brigades were not initially factored in, while lightly wounded who returned to their units were also not counted. Most modern accounts give the figure of 134,000 casualties, which includes 100,000 wounded, 30,000 killed and 4,000 missing or taken prisoner. A post-war study by the 1er Bureau of the GQG calculated the numbers to be much higher, and factored in losses for the whole of the operation from 16 April to 10 May and also included those who suffered light wounds. This gave significantly higher totals of 48,000 dead, 120,000 wounded and 4,500 taken prisoner or missing. The Canadian historian G.W.L. Nicholson calculated as many as 187,000 losses in total. Such casualty rates represented the worst losses since November 1914. The debate about the final casualty figures still continues. Due to the fact the GQG withheld the casualty figures at the time, the idea that the true total was much higher has endured. Some French sources claim 200,000–250,000 men killed.

Can the Nivelle Offensive be considered anything other than a failure? In the light of such casualty figures it is obvious, by any sensible criteria, that it was a costly failure. Yet at the time there were attempts to cast it in a more positive light. Estimates of the numbers of German casualties vary but some sources claim as many as 163,000 total casualties, including more than 28,000 taken prisoner. More than 180 German artillery pieces and over 400 machine guns (some sources say 1,000) had been captured, along with 149 Minenwerfer and much other equipment. Some territorial gains had been made and key terrain features captured, while the Sixth Army’s advance was one of the biggest French advances since the war had settled into trench warfare in 1914. The army was firmly rooted on the Chemin des Dames and these new positions would facilitate further actions in the summer of 1917. In the wider context of the French army’s experiences in the First World War, this could be cast in a positive light. The wasteful offensives of 1915 had, for example, achieved less for similarly high casualties.

The key issue that made Nivelle’s failure so disastrous in 1917 was the timing of it. The French army was on the brink of exhaustion at the beginning of the offensive and was then pushed beyond endurance to breaking point. And the suffering and sacrifice did not bring the promised victory. Such failures had been absorbed by the army and the French nation in 1914, 1915 and 1916, but by 1917 there was simply no room for further failure.

The aftermath of the events of 1917 also demonstrates that the ties binding the French government, army and people together in the war effort were in a critical state after this failure. In his classic study of military strategy, On War, Carl von Clausewitz developed the concept of the ‘trinity of war’: the synergetic relationship between government, people and army that is necessary if a nation is to successfully conduct a modern war.

This principle was developed by later strategic theorists during the twentieth century and it remains largely true today. Alexandr Svechin, writing in the 1920s in the context of First World War and the recent Russian revolution and civil war, summed up this principle simply by stating that ‘war may be waged only by the will of a united people’. It is glaringly apparent that, at the time of the Nivelle Offensive, this ‘trinity of war’ had broken down in France. The relationship between the government and the military commanders was dysfunctional. The politicians were trying to exert more control over the military but their efforts were often ill-considered and largely ineffectual. Also, there was a lack of consistency; Painlevé found his efforts thwarted by colleagues within government, including Premier Ribot, who believed in Nivelle and his plans.

Within the military, the subordinate commanders never united in a concerted effort to oust Nivelle, despite their misgivings about him and his plans. He had his critics, yet the tendency was for generals to air their grievances privately to the politicians and the press while failing to present a united front at crucial meetings in order to have Nivelle removed. A greater loyalty to their own profession and the principles of command did not allow senior generals to unite and demand Nivelle’s removal. Svechin later summed up the dysfunctional nature of the French political–military relationship during the run-up to the offensive:

Officially the operation was greatly approved and everyone glorified the successes that would be achieved but then wrote confidential letters to influential politicians asking them to keep the army from launching an operation that had absolutely no chance of success. However, they did not have the civic courage to repeat these doubts in front of Nivelle at a special meeting called by Minister Painlevé.

The mutinies that broke out in the wake of the failed offensive are ample proof that the rank and file of the French army had lost faith in their senior commanders. In this fractured relationship, command and control systems and military discipline broke down. The French public were also in a state of discontent with the politicians – all politicians, regardless of faction or party – and with how the war was being run. In the spring and early summer of 1917 this discontent erupted in strikes and protests that broke out across France. The French people sympathised with the poilus in the trenches and supported their mutinies as they had lost faith in the government and the military leaders. Ultimately, all the links within the crucial ‘trinity of war’ had broken down. By June 1917 France had ceased to function as a united nation at war.

In a wider context, the Briand government had also allowed itself to be drawn into a damaging political contest between British politicians, in particular Lloyd George, and senior British commanders. It could be argued that, like a contagion, the dysfunctional aspects of the French government and military also affected the political–military relationship of the British.

Alongside these wider ramifications, debate has continued as to why the offensive failed. The 1917 inquiry identified many of the key issues, which can be summed up as a combination of failings in leadership, choice of terrain, planning and preparation. Also, Nivelle had allowed himself to be drawn into what would now be referred to as ‘mirror-imaging’ – effectively, he expected the Germans to conform to his plans as to how the offensive would unfold. As A.J.P. Taylor put it, ‘the Germans did not conform to Nivelle’s requirements’.

Perhaps inevitably, Nivelle himself has remained the focus of criticism. Yet even if one accepts that he was ultimately responsible for the failure, further questions remain as we are faced with a general who was demonstrably intelligent but who nevertheless acted in a seemingly irresponsible manner. Using modern ‘Principles of War’ criteria to examine the offensive, it can be shown that, in some respects, Nivelle can be considered to have performed well. The concept of ‘Principles of War’ has been in circulation since classical times and by the First World War had been codified by many armies. While there are variations in criteria in different nations, the modern US scheme identifies nine main principles:

Principles of war


Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time


Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive and attainable objective


Seize, retain and exploit the initiative


Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared

Economy of force

Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts


Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power

Unity of command

For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander


Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage


Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding

It is possible to assess Nivelle’s plan using these criteria. With respect to ‘Mass’, Nivelle had assembled a very large force and in that respect he scores well. Also, it is clear that he thought that he was fulfilling other criteria such as ‘Objective’, ‘Initiative’, ‘Manoeuvre’ and ‘Economy of Force’. In reality, any objective analysis of these principles at the time should have made it clear to him that he was not planning comprehensively to fulfil these requirements. For example, his objective was the German reserve armies and their artillery, and while that may have seemed clear enough to Nivelle, he paid too little attention to the defences and forces that the French formations needed to fight through to reach this objective. Also, as the offensive stalled, new objectives in the shape of key terrain features began to dominate the battle in a classic example of ‘mission creep’. This in turn affected the ‘Economy of Force’ principle as French formations became bogged down in these secondary fights.

It is possible to disassemble Nivelle’s plan using other criteria to illustrate how operational realities contradicted elements of his plan. While he was confident that he was seizing the initiative and was convinced of the primacy of the offensive, he was not assessing the opposition or the battlespace correctly or objectively. His over-controlled approach to his staff and his intolerance of dissent exacerbated this lack of objectivity.

The principle of ‘Surprise’, in a First World War context, was simply not achievable for Nivelle due to the long preparatory barrage. In terms of ‘Security’, his plan was dangerously compromised owing to his own indiscretions and those of others, and also through the capture by the Germans of operational plans. Nivelle’s difficulties with his subordinate commanders should have indicated that he was far from achieving ‘Unity of Command’.

So, although Nivelle may not have assessed his situation using such precise criteria, it is still somewhat perplexing that he did not reflect on the viability of his plans at some point in an objective manner, especially given the increasing level of dissent among his army group commanders. It is difficult to explain. To an observer, it seems to be an example of what Norman Dixon, in his classic book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (London, 1975), referred to as ‘obsessional neurosis’. As Nivelle’s plans advanced, he increasingly identified with them and became intolerant of dissent. His profound confidence and self-belief meant that he could not assess his own plans objectively, and his efforts to convince politicians and generals only served to increase his belief in his own abilities. As the offensive neared, he became increasingly inclined to assess intelligence and reach conclusions that fitted his own plans, and these assessments ran counter to the actual implications of the information being presented. While Nivelle had never been inclined to factor in others’ opinions and assessments of his plan, by March 1917 it would seem that he had ceased to heed the opinions of his subordinate commanders. The one exception to this was, of course, Colonel d’Alançon, who was similarly obsessed with carrying out the plan. Equally, his close association with Mangin did not result in an objective assessment of the military situation. Mangin’s ‘can-do’ attitude and his indifference to casualties only facilitated the process. Nivelle’s mindset was neatly summed up by the historian Anthony Clayton:

The undoubted virtues he had shown before 1917 turned to touchy, rigid, and over-controlled behaviour when under the stress of Supreme Command, with consequent errors of judgement, rejection of unpalatable information, stereotyping of outgroups, an authoritarianism based on a wish for showy assertion and, when failure became evident, scape-goating.

Yet was Nivelle deserving of all the blame for this disaster? He was the architect of a military failure of vast proportions, but it could also be argued that the conduct of the politicians and also his subordinate commanders enabled his flawed military decision-making process. At a political level it is obvious that officials of both the Briand and Ribot governments had profound misgivings, yet they failed to remove Nivelle. This is particularly true in the case of Painlevé, who as Minister for War never believed in Nivelle’s plan and yet, despite the fact that he sought the opinion of dissenting generals such as Pétain and Micheler, could not follow-through on plans to remove him. Accounts of the succession of meetings called to discuss the plan would make for comical reading, had this political indecision and lack of willpower not resulted in such tragic circumstances. The manner in which the subordinate commanders voiced their dissent also ensured that the plan went ahead. While they shared their doubts privately with politicians, especially Painlevé, there was a distinct lack of willingness to push the point forcefully at the various key meetings. Even Pétain would not openly support the last-minute attempt to oust Nivelle in April. Norman Dixon refers to this as ‘a terrible crippling obedience’. Similar tendencies had been seen during the Boulanger and Dreyfus affairs: under pressure from politicians, the press or the public, senior commanders closed ranks. In this case, while senior commanders might have opposed Nivelle’s plans, their loyalties to the army and their brother generals meant that they did not push the point as strongly as they should have done.

Ultimately the committee of inquiry would treat Nivelle quite lightly, perhaps due to the politicians and senior commanders being aware of their shared responsibility. An unpacking of the whole affair in an inquiry would have been messy indeed and no one would have emerged unsullied. For Nivelle, the sanction was reasonably light. In December 1917 he was appointed as commander-in-chief in North Africa and this role removed him from the Western Front for the remainder of the war. In July 1919 he was not invited to the official victory parade in Paris but remained in Algeria, presiding over victory celebrations there. Yet after the war he gradually returned to favour. He remained in touch with David Lloyd George and, in a somewhat surreal aside, the pair later exchanged photographs. Despite the events of 1917 and their consequences, the two men still seemed to share a level of regard for each other. The Australian historian Elizabeth Greenhalgh also noticed a peculiar entry in the index to Lloyd George’s memoirs in which Nivelle is described as ‘unfortunate as Generalissimo’. This was an understatement indeed.

Nivelle was subsequently given two military commands within post-war France and in March 1920 was appointed as a member of the war committee (conseil superior de guerre). Due to his command of English, he was sent to America in 1920 as part of the French delegation to the tercentenary celebrations to commemorate the arrival of the Mayflower in America. During this tour he was well-received by the American public. In December 1920 Nivelle was awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur.

Despite the interest of French scholars in Nivelle, he remains an oddly opaque figure. Denis Rolland, the premier French historian of the First World War, subtitled his biography of Nivelle ‘L’inconnu de Chemin des Dames’ (‘The unknown of the Chemin des Dames’). This can be interpreted in various ways, yet it could be argued that Rolland has hit on one of the central paradoxes about Nivelle. At a certain level we know much about him – the formulation of his plan, his interactions with politicians and fellow-generals. Yet Nivelle ‘the man’ remains a total mystery. Behind the overconfident bluster, it is extremely hard to get a sense of the man or to hear his ‘voice’. Accounts by third parties are largely unsympathetic and, although much of his correspondence survives in various archives, he never wrote a volume of memoirs. We are left considering a figure who showed promise and considerable ability in 1916 but who went on to plan what was arguably France’s worst military disaster of the war. Surviving accounts of planning meetings suggest an over-confident general prone to bombastic outbursts and implausible promises. Yet he managed to convince a succession of political and military leaders of the soundness of his plans for a considerable period. It seems that Nivelle will remain a somewhat mysterious figure.

Nivelle died on 22 March 1924. In June 1931 his ashes were placed in the governor’s crypt in Les Invalides in Paris. This commemorative ceremony for Nivelle and fifteen other marshals, generals and admirals included both Catholic and Protestant religious services, a military parade and a 75-gun salute and concluded with an address by the then Minister of War, André Maginot. Considering the damage caused by the Nivelle Offensive to the French army and indeed to France itself, this rehabilitation of Nivelle was generous. However, he has yet to be commemorated with a statue in France and, given the painful associations with his period as commander-in-chief, it seems unlikely that this will change.

The figure perhaps best placed to shed real light on Nivelle, his close associate Colonel d’Alançon, died in September 1917. A bitterly disappointed man, d’Alançon had left the GQG along with Nivelle and returned home on sick leave. A few months later he was dead. Like Nivelle, he remains a largely silent figure. His impact on his brother staff officers was mixed. Perhaps Jean de Pierrefeu best summed up d’Alançon’s complex character:

Of all the actors in this war of position he was, in my eyes, the most original. He was a romantic figure, consumed with ambition, hardly to be measured by our ordinary standards. This silent man, for long modest and retiring, suddenly resolved to tempt Fortune with a spirit and a will worthy of the days when adventurers carved out kingdoms for themselves. By his strength of will, his inspired enthusiasm, his facility in dealing with great events, he always reminded me of a Napoleon devoid of genius.

General Mangin remained remarkably tight-lipped about Nivelle after 1917, at least in public. Yet in many ways he fared better than his former commander. Despite his reputation as ‘the Butcher’ among French troops, Mangin returned to service in 1918 and took command of the Tenth Army. He later played a significant role in the Second Battle of the Marne (15 July–6 August 1918) and received a measure of political and public approval for his performance in the final campaigns of the First World War. His attitude remained grimly realistic. He could perhaps be given credit for summing up the battlefield experience of so many First World War generals when he stated: ‘Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.’ Following the war, Mangin’s Tenth Army occupied the Rhineland, where he created some controversy owing to his attempts to encourage the inhabitants to create a ‘Rhenish Republic’ separate from Germany. He also angered local mayors by pressuring them to establish official brothels for the use of his troops. Mangin died suddenly in Paris in March 1925, apparently the result of acute appendicitis combined with a stroke, although some alleged that he had been poisoned. He was buried in Les Invalides. When German troops entered Paris in 1940 Hitler ordered that his statue be destroyed. In 1957 it was replaced by a new statue.

It is worth considering for just a moment some of the potential outcomes of the events in the summer of 1917. While the practice of engaging in counterfactual history is often problematic, if not a complete waste of time, it is interesting to reflect on the possible further ramifications of Nivelle’s failure in 1917. This reverse pushed the army into a state of open mutiny and it ceased to function effectively. The collapse in military morale coincided with a period of public disillusionment and political turmoil. To suggest that France was in a state of near-collapse and as a result was close to dropping out of the war is not mere idle supposition. Indeed, Field Marshal Haig wrote of the possibility of France ‘falling out’ during the height of the crisis in 1917. The greatest fear of the Ribot government was that revolution would break out in France as it had done in Russia. This would in all probability have taken France out of the war and left Britain and Belgium to continue the fight alone in Europe while awaiting American support. In turn, the Americans would not have been in a position to provide meaningful support until 1918. Would such a strategic situation have forced the Allies into a negotiated peace with Germany and Austro-Hungary? Peace, yes, but on the terms of the Central Powers?

At the very least it can be seen that the French army’s collapse came at a crucial moment in the wider strategic context. By May 1917 Russia’s ability to assist in the war effort was looking increasingly doubtful. The October Revolution would move Russia towards a separate peace with Germany and Austro-Hungary. Despite British and French efforts to keep Russia in the war, this would become a reality with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. By 1917 Italy was also in a state of near-collapse, while Romania had already dropped out of the war. The year 1917 had opened with a spirit of Allied optimism, but by the summer and autumn it was becoming increasingly obvious that there would be no Allied victory yet. The Nivelle Offensive was one of a series of Allied setbacks that would continue until the end of the year, with the British army suffering its own martyrdom at Passchendaele. Rather than emerging victorious, for the Allies 1917 became a period of grimly hanging on until the Americans could arrive in force and until war industry could provide more tanks, aircraft and other military materiel.

For France, the losses incurred during the offensive were significant, and it could be argued that in the final analysis they were also unnecessary. It was, quite simply, an offensive that should not have gone ahead. In this, it was in keeping with several other ill-conceived Allied efforts during the war. It added yet another large contingent to France’s growing total of war casualties. By the end of the war France had suffered more than 1.3 million fatal casualties. More than 3.2 million soldiers had been wounded, with more than a million of them permanently disabled. More than 600,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner, some of who would return home and decrease the numbers of ‘missing’. Thousands had been classed as missing, many of whom were, of course, dead. This pushed the total of fatal casualties higher. It is unlikely that the true number of casualties will ever be accurately calculated as proper figures were not kept during the war. Also, many of the wounded died from their injuries after the parliamentary report on casualties was completed in the summer of 1919 and so were not included in the figures. Whichever figure one chooses, the scale of French losses is depressingly large. After the war a French officer calculated that a formation of troops equalling the number of French war dead would take eleven days and nights to march past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in parade formation.

This number of casualties obviously had a major impact on France in the years after the First World War. In demographic terms, it resulted in a collapse in both marriage and birth rates. In the years up to 1914 France had been concerned that German births would ensure that the French would be outstripped in manpower terms. This now became an absolute reality. In military terms, it translated into a defensive mindset and later fostered the development of the Maginot system of fortifications. In any future war France would need to rely for its defence on a series of fortifications, on a grander and more modernised scale than the Verdun forts. From the 1930s it was also envisaged that this system of fortifications would be backed up by a scheme for mobile defence using tanks. While the development and basic wisdom of the Maginot scheme are still much debated, the impulse that drove it had a certain clear logic. France expected another war and from the 1920s found itself increasingly isolated and devoid of immediate allies. It seemed that it would face a future German attack alone, at a time when its supplies of manpower were finite. The Maginot plan, and a programme for acquiring allies in Eastern Europe, seemed like sensible policies. The manpower issue also resulted in a fall in the size of the French labour force, with corresponding falls in industrial production. This was particularly true in respect of iron and steel production, which had knock-on effects for weapons production.

The whole defence issue would remain a contentious subject for inter-war French governments, played out in national debates and contests between the right-wing Bloc National and the leftist Cartel des Gauches. The Poincaré government of 1922–24 took a hard-line stance regarding German war reparations and sent more than 40,000 troops to occupy the Ruhr in the hope of forcing payment. This resulted in the Dawes Plan, which made provision for phased payments by Germany. In 1924 a moderate socialist government was elected but proved to be disorganised and riven by internal factions. Poincaré was returned to office in 1926 and pursued a radical economic policy before retiring from politics in 1929. The post-war years saw much political turmoil in France, and in the early 1930s the factions of the extreme left and right flourished due to the difficulties of the Depression. This coincided with hugely differing views between political parties and factions as to how to approach strategic and defence issues. The short life of the leftist Popular Front government of 1936 was dominated by economic and labour issues, while its policy with regard to the civil war then raging in Spain served to further illustrate the fractured nature of French politics and society. The Daladier government of 1938 instigated new armaments programmes and also tried to accelerate existing ones but France still struggled to keep pace with German military expansion.

The political and economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s ensured that a long-term, coherent strategic policy was impossible. It should also be remembered that these events took place in a country that had been ravaged by war. Millions of francs needed to be spent on reconstruction owing to the fact that so much French territory had been devastated between 1914 and 1918. The evidence of war was apparent to all in the shape of destroyed towns and villages, ruined farms, the shell-damaged landscape and the dangers of unexploded ordnance. This damage needed to be repaired, and agriculture and industry needed to be re-established. Many people were unwilling even to imagine that another war was possible. Getting over the ‘Grande Guerre’ and trying to repair France would occupy not only the next few years but the next few decades.

Alongside the physical damage wrought on France, the human damage was also obvious to all. A whole generation had suffered in the war, and France had become a country with hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. The war wounded, many of them showing evidence of terrible wounds, became a feature of French society. While most towns and villages soon had their own war memorials, they also had a grim reminder of the war in the shape of veterans who were limbless, sightless or otherwise maimed.

The war had created a scar across the French landscape and a wound deep within the psyche of the French people. The desperate years of 1914–1918 had been marked by grim defence against a series of German offensives. Equally costly had been the many futile offensives launched by French generals themselves. Indeed, the Russian strategist A.A. Svechin later singled out the French offensive strategy on the Western Front for particular criticism. During 1915 and 1916, Svechin argued, alternative strategies could have been pursued in Italy and the East, in what he referred to as the ‘Paris–Salonika–Vienna–Berlin logic of attrition’. Ultimately, the French allowed operational and tactical interests to supersede strategic imperatives. All the Allies were complicit in this to some degree but France, with the largest Allied army on the Western Front, had the most to lose by being drawn into this cycle of pointless and futile offensive actions.

Within the catalogue of failed French offensives, the Nivelle Offensive holds a special (but unenviable) place owing to its costliness and sheer futility. Quite apart from the dashed expectations of the French nation, the timing of the disaster caused huge concern. It seemed inconceivable, at this late point in the war, that senior generals could still plan and execute such disastrous attacks. Had no lessons been learned since 1914? One of the positive dividends of the failure of the Nivelle Offensive was the very clear signal sent to the army commanders by the government, the public and the soldiers themselves that this type of offensive had to stop. The crisis of 1917 signalled an end to a certain type of generalship. While there would be later failures and reverses, the strategy of limited offensives initiated by Pétain would become the norm for the French army for the remainder of the war. Nivelle’s offensive marked the end of a particular, brutal learning curve.

Since the end of the war in 1918 generations of French scholars have studied the ‘Grande Guerre’ and its impact on France. They include figures such as Pierre Renouvin, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, Jean-Jacques Becker, Denis Rolland, Guy Pedroncini, Nicholas Offenstadt and many others. Non-French scholars, such as Robert M. Doughty, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Ian Sumner and Anthony Clayton, have also made the French army during the war the focus of their particular attention. While the Nivelle Offensive is not explored in huge depth in every case, a common feature is that it is singled out as a particular example of poor generalship resulting in needless losses.

The legacy of the Nivelle Offensive for France has been long and difficult. In the run-up to the centenary of the offensive in 2017 it will be fascinating to see how these painful events will be commemorated. In recent years efforts have been made to focus on the plight of individual soldiers, and to commemorate those involved in the army mutinies. The centenary will no doubt expose all the difficulties associated with commemorating lives lost in a military failure. For France, the Nivelle Offensive remains the epitome of military futility – a doomed plan driven by an overly ambitious and flawed general.

France and England Clash in Canada

Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War

France and England (after 1707, Great Britain) fought four major wars in North America either alone or in conjunction with allies. The first was the war of the League of Augsburg (also known as King William’s War), which broke out in 1689 and ended with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. The next was the War of the Spanish Succession, waged between 1702 and 1713, followed by the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–48). The final conflict was the Seven Years’ War (known in the United States as the French and Indian War), which started in North America in 1754 and ended with the withdrawal of France from virtually all of the continent in 1763. For almost the entire time between the mid-1600s and 1763, a vicious war of raids, ambushes, no quarter and no prisoners, was fought along the border between New France and the English colonies. Throughout that time, a few companies of French regular soldiers, the New France militia, and the Compagnies franches de la Marine (as well as New France’s aboriginal allies) constituted the French fighting force in America.

What Britain would call the Seven Years’ War began deep in the North American interior in the late spring of 1754, when a small expedition of Virginia militia, led by George Washington, ventured west across the Allegheny Mountains. They were determined to expunge the French presence in the Ohio River Valley as a prelude to both settlement and land speculation. Beginning in the 1680s, French explorers had mapped out a great Y-shaped empire in the interior. In the northeast, Quebec stood as the major entrepôt and military guardian of French interests in America. In the far south, at the mouth of the Mississippi, Louisiana and the post of New Orleans, on Lake Pontchartrain, gave France internal access to the Gulf of Mexico. To the far northwest, Fort Rouge (later Winnipeg) put French traders on the doorstep to the fur-rich lands of Saskatchewan, bypassing the English posts on Hudson Bay. On the southeast coast of Cape Breton, the fortified seaport of Louisbourg, with its massive stone fort built after the Treaty of Utrecht ended the War of the Spanish Succession, stood guard over the sea approaches to Quebec. New Englanders saw Louisbourg as a mortal threat to their trade and their lives and chafed for opportunities to crush it. And at virtually all the junctions of the great river roads that linked this vast empire in the continental interior stood French forts. They were mostly crudely built and manned by but a handful of regulars or marines. Their major source of strength was not their walls or their soldiers, but the strong ties they had established over decades with the powerful Indian nations who ruled the land from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Plains.

George Washington intended to begin unravelling this network of furs, trade, and Indian alliances at a point he thought vulnerable, virtually at its centre. However, his expedition was a disaster, and the French quickly sent him and his irregulars packing, back across the mountains. Washington and other American colonists had had enough of French border raids, French rule over the interior water-ways, French sway over the Indians, and the French threat posed by Louisbourg. They were determined to launch a new foray, this time with considerable support from Britain. Colonial entreaties to London were answered when the British sent General Edward Braddock and a contingent of regular troops to try again to attack the French in the Ohio Valley in the summer of 1755. Braddock led an expedition to take Fort Duquesne, at the forks of the Ohio, but he was killed and his contingent routed. The French then responded to the reinforcement of British troops in North America with reinforcements of their own regular troops from overseas.

In May 1755, four battalions of French regulars arrived at Quebec and two at Louisbourg. These troops were the first formal regiments of the French army to arrive in Canada since the departure of the Carignan-Salières. Over the next three years (war between Britain and France on the European continent officially broke out in 1756) six more regiments arrived, along with Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Marquis de Montcalm, a professional soldier with long experience in European positional warfare, with its well-drilled infantry, formal approaches to the battlefield, and lines of soldiers engaging in mass volleys of fire. Montcalm and the regulars were sent not so much to bolster the marines and militia of New France, but to take over the war effort. As thousands of redcoats debarked along the Atlantic seaboard and hundreds of Royal Navy warships arrived in Atlantic waters, France was getting the unmistakable message that this fourth war for the continent could well be the last.

The twelve battalions of troupes de terre from the Régiments La Reine, Guyenne, Béarn, Languedoc, Bourgogne, Artois, Royal Roussillon, La Sarre, Berry, Cambis, and Volontaires-Étrangers were the equal of any similar contingent of European regular soldiers of that era. The rank and file were a collection of young adventurers, former serfs, and the dregs of French ports and cities, as well as a handful of the newly emerging middle class, who saw the army as a potential ladder of upward mobility. The officer corps were a mixed bag. Some were young men from noble families whose commissions were largely purchased and whose military skills were minimal. Others had received formal military training and their rank was based on ability and accomplishment. The troops included no cavalry contingent, some artillery, but mostly heavy infantry, armed with swords and muskets fitted with bayonets, who carried heavy packs of hardtack, beer, ammunition, and powder while in the line of march. They were subject to harsh discipline. They drilled, trained, marched, and manoeuvred with but a single objective—to stand shoulder to shoulder at distances as close as 50 metres to the enemy’s line and fire mass volleys of lead balls at the men opposite. The nature of the principal weaponry of the day—the long-barrelled musket, made even longer by the bayonet—dictated this tactic. This single-shot flintlock firearm could not be easily reloaded from a prone position, or fired accurately. Besides, accuracy was a moot point so close to the enemy. It wasn’t a case of hit or miss but rather of standing in place in the face of withering volleys, firing, reloading, and firing again, without breaking. In such a fashion a line of infantry could shoot thousands of rounds right at the enemy several times in a minute.

The British gained the initial strategic successes on the Atlantic seaboard. British troops captured Fort Beauséjour, in Acadia, in June 1755 and Louisbourg in July 1758. In the latter campaign they mustered 27,000 men, both regulars and colonial militia, and 157 ships to fight 7,500 French soldiers, sailors, and marines. With the fort surrounded and British artillery able to bombard the position virtually at will from surrounding heights, the outcome was inevitable: the French were chased from the Maritimes. But French forces more than held their own in the first years of fighting in the forests and among the lakes and rivers of the interior. In August 1757 they captured Fort Ontario at Oswego, New York, and secured control of Lake Ontario. A year later they besieged and captured Fort William Henry on Lake George, New York, giving them virtual domination over the route from the Hudson River Valley to the St. Lawrence. Although the militia and France’s Indian allies greatly aided in the campaign, the brunt of the fighting was done by the French regulars. As late as 1758 Montcalm was pleased with their successes and reported that their discipline was excellent.

But 1758 was also the nadir of French success in the war. Despite their short internal lines of communication, along the great rivers from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi to the Missouri, and the staunchness and fighting quality of their aboriginal allies, the French were in a precarious position. The Royal Navy ruled the Atlantic and the approaches to Louisiana, Louisbourg, and Quebec. The entire population of New France numbered barely sixty thousand, while the British colonies were already over a million. Even under the best of circumstances the French could never conquer the British in North America, whereas it was entirely feasible that the opposite might happen. Finally, Britain—strongly supported by its colonists—had had enough of the French sitting astride their potential routes of expansion into the west, terrorizing their frontiers, and threatening their trade on the east coast. The British poured tens of thousands of regular troops across the Atlantic, while the colonies raised tens of thousands more. By 1759 an estimated fifty thousand troops carried the British colours in the field, an extraordinary number for North America. No matter how well the French fought, no matter how good they were, superior numbers created a strategic advantage all its own.

In 1758 British forces captured and destroyed Fort Frontenac, near present-day Kingston. France’s aboriginal allies in the Ohio country decided to make a separate peace with the obviously superior British army, forcing the French to abandon Fort Duquesne. With the interior cleared and Louisbourg gone, the British launched three major attacks on the heartland of New France—the area between Montreal and Quebec—in 1759. One army captured Fort Niagara, another drove up the Lake Champlain–Richelieu River route toward the St. Lawrence, and the third besieged Quebec City. Although both the morale and the fighting ability of the French-Canadian militia and the marines remained high, the state of the French regiments had deteriorated markedly. There were constant arguments between Montcalm and the colony’s Canadian-born governor Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial, Marquis de Vaudreuil, who was nominally in charge of all military forces in the colony. Vaudreuil had little patience for or knowledge of the apparently stiff European style of warfare, and he and Montcalm rarely agreed on either strategic objectives or tactical preferences. Because of British control of the seas, few reinforcements reached the French regiments, and the constant fighting and movement through the hilly and often cold and rainy forests of eastern Canada and northern New York and New England wore them down. Discipline began to deteriorate; desertion increased; performance under fire declined.

By the spring of 1759, Montcalm’s hold was precarious. He could muster only some five battalions of regulars in defence of Quebec itself—2,900 troops—together with about 8,000 militia from Montreal, Trois-Rivières, and Quebec, 600 garrison troops, and a number of his aboriginal allies. But because of serious disagreements between Montcalm and Vaudreuil, the French neglected to build blocking positions downriver of Quebec to forestall the Royal Navy besieging the town or landing troops.

On June 26, 1759, a British fleet of 168 ships under Admiral Charles Saunders anchored off the south shore of the island of Orléans and began debarking 8,500 troops under the command of General James Wolfe. The French did not directly contest the landings; in fact, Vaudreuil, who as governor was in overall command of the garrison, withdrew his troops from the entire south shore of the river. The British set up artillery on the south shore of the narrows, directly opposite Quebec, and began to bombard the town and the citadel. They also established major encampments at Point Lévis and on the eastern bank of the Montmorency River. The French manned the citadel and entrenchments along the north shore of the river from the tidal flats off the mouth of the St. Charles River, east of Quebec, to the western bank of the Montmorency River. On July 31, Wolfe tried to cross the Montmorency in an effort to roll back the French left flank to the flats below the citadel, but the attack was beaten back with heavy losses.

As the summer waned, Montcalm and Wolfe weighed their prospects. Montcalm’s position was even more precarious than it had been when Wolfe and Saunders arrived, a result of the surrenders of Forts Niagara, Carillon, and Saint-Frédéric (at the northern end of Lake Champlain) at the end of July. Even so, he knew that if he could hold out until October, the British would have to withdraw their fleet before the onset of winter and the freezing over of the St. Lawrence. Wolfe was well aware that he did not have unlimited time to bring the siege to a successful conclusion, but he was unsure how to get at the French positions. Finally, he and his officers decided on an indirect approach—to put men and ships upriver of Quebec, cross the river at a point to be determined, and threaten to cut Montcalm’s supply lines to Montreal from the French rear. That could force the French to come out and fight.

On the night of September 12/13, 1759, British troops from ships anchored in the river rowed stealthily, with muffled oarlocks, from midstream to the small cove of Anse-au-Foulon, at the foot of a cliff about 3 kilometres above Quebec. A small guard at the top of the cliff was quickly overcome, and for the next several hours the British troops quickly scaled the cliffs, dragging cannon, stores, and munitions with them. They then assembled on the Plains of Abraham and moved north, toward the road that connected Quebec with the small settlement of Sainte-Foy and, beyond it, to Trois-Rivières and Montreal. Not long after daybreak, the French spotted Wolfe’s advancing lines, 4,800 strong. They were taken completely by surprise. Montcalm did not learn of the British deployment until mid-morning. When he did, he raced from his headquarters at Beauport, about halfway between Quebec and the Montmorency River, and ordered his troops to muster opposite the British. Some 4,500 regulars and militia answered the call and, to the roll of drums, began to deploy in front of the walls of Quebec, facing the British.

Montcalm was not greatly outnumbered by Wolfe, but his troops were a mixed bag. History has recorded that he had about five battalions of regulars but gives little detail about their composition at this stage of the war. The well-trained regiments that had arrived with Montcalm four years earlier still existed in name and still flew their regimental banners, but by now many of the soldiers in their ranks were former militiamen or marines. They had not been trained in the severe firing discipline of the regimental troops; instead they instinctively sought cover in the rolling terrain, the tall grass, or the bushes on the battlefield as soon as the shooting started. As the lines approached each other, shots rang out from the flanks as French snipers and skirmishers fired at the redcoats, who came steadily on. The French line fired several volleys at the British but the British did not return fire. Instead, they continued to advance, seemingly oblivious to the gaps in their ranks that opened every time one of them fell dead or wounded.

Some of the French riflemen—those not trained in European-style warfare—threw themselves to the ground to reload. This increased the confusion in the French ranks. Were these men dead or wounded? Was it time to dive to the earth or even to run back to the citadel? Gaps opened in the French line, rendering their firing discipline much less effective than it might have been. When the two lines were at the astonishingly close distance of 12 metres or so, the British stopped, then opened a withering fire at the French, cutting the troops down like mown wheat. After a few volleys, the kilted Highland regiments drew their large claymore swords and charged the French. The French line broke and, with few exceptions, ran in panic back to Quebec and even past it, to Vaudreuil’s encampment. Both Wolfe and Montcalm were mortally wounded in the encounter. Vaudreuil then led the surviving French troops around the British and on to winter in Montreal. British forces entered Quebec six days later.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, as it is called, did not end the war in Canada. Over the winter the French regrouped and reorganized in Montreal, then marched on Quebec in late April 1760. The French commander, François-Gaston de Lévis, Duc de Lévis, led a combined force of 5,000 men against British commander James Murray’s 3,900 men at the Plains of Abraham. This time the French won the encounter and the British retreated to Quebec, where they were put under siege. Within weeks, however, the ice broke on the St. Lawrence and the British fleet reached Quebec first. Lévis broke camp and retreated to Montreal. The British, now reinforced, followed him, and other British columns advanced on Montreal from Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain. On September 8, 1760, Vaudreuil surrendered New France to the British commander, General Jeffery Amherst. The surrender was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the Seven Years’ War on February 10, 1763. This ended the era of Canada’s French regiments, and the British regimental tradition in Canada was about to be born.


From the surrender of Lerida until 1710, there were not any more large- scale military actions on the Eastern Peninsular front, because the Bourbon army was not able to launch major campaigns against Catalonia, given its precarious situation on the other fronts that had to be defended. However, in 1710 Philip’s troops began a campaign, this time aimed at definitely conquering Barcelona. Unfortunately for the Bourbon interests, the Allies had rebuilt their army, thanks largely to the massive arrival of recruits and money from England. Therefore, when the Bourbon forces tried to advance into Catalan territory through the Urgell region, they failed to achieve fruitful results. Despite the long blockade of the town of Balaguer, the Bourbon army could not conquer it, and the Allies received constant reinforcements during the spring and summer of 1710. So the Bourbon commander, the Marquis of Villadarias, had to withdraw to the outskirts of Lerida to prevent his weary troops, who had also suffered several epidemics, from suffering greater hardships.

The Bourbon retreat Because of the alarm generated by the arrival of reinforcements at the Allied camp, what have initially been an organized retreat, finally turned into an exhausting march that decimated the Bourbon army.

Prelude Among the information provided in Lord Mahon’s work, written in the 19th century, an interesting document stands out written by General Stanhope on July 31st 1710, and addressed to the Earl of Sunderland. The letter explains with complete clarity the conditions under which the Battle of Almenar took place, and also the role played by the English troops. The first thing that is reflected in this letter is Stanhope’s aggressiveness, in broad contrast to the caution showed by both King Charles III and Guido von Starhemberg. In view of Stanhope’s urgent need to attack, the Allies adopted a compromise solution by posting some troops under the command of the English officer to act in the vanguard of the army (Lord Mahon, 1832, appendix cxi-cxv).

My lord,

Three days after the date of my last to your Lordship, which went by Mr. Craggs, our succours joined us about nine in the morning, upon which a council being called, it was strenuously urged by the English, Dutch, and Palatines, to march immediately to Lerida, in order to force the enemies to a battle, by cutting them off from that place: but the King and Mareschal strongly opposed, and showed themselves determined not to venture any thing. Their pretence for not doing it was, that the enemies’ army might get to Lerida, and cross the river before we could be up with them; which afterwards proved to be otherwise, since they did not get over the river, by twelve hours, so soon as was pretended they would. Our next thought was to cross the Segre at Balaguer, and push to get over the Noguera, to which purpose I was despatched with eight squadrons of dragoons, and 1000 grenadiers, with which I marched at midnight, and took post at Alfaraz [Alfarras], on the Aragon side of the Noguera, at six in the morning of the 27th.

The enemies had commanded ten squadrons of horse, 1000 grenadiers, and seven battalions of foot, to prevent our taking post: but notwithstanding that they had much less way to march, the negligence of their commanding officer, the Duke of Sarno, made them come late; for we did not discover them till nine in the morning: and when they did discover us, instead of attacking us, they possessed themselves of Almenara [Almenar], a village on the Noguera, about two miles below Alfaraz, where we were. About noon, our left wing of horse passed the river, which I formed on a plain about cannon shot from the river, between which plain and the river was a deep valley. By this time the enemies’ horse came up space and formed before me about eighteen squadrons, which I was going to attack, when the Mareschal came up and prevented, seeming still determined not to hazard any thing.

The troops on both sides were gradually accumulated in the vicinity of Almenar, deployed with their cavalries above the town, on the high plateau overlooking the entire area.

The battle

After repeatedly asking the King and Starhemberg for permission, Stanhope finally gave the order to attack at dusk, just when all the Allied army had crossed the Noguera river at Alfarras. It is worth noting this, unknown even to Stanhope, because this is why Starhemberg took so long to give him permission to attack. A defeat of the Allied cavalry when half the troops had not yet crossed the river would have been extremely dangerous for the Allied army.

I herefore marched to them with the left wing, which consisted of twenty-two squadrons, which were formed in two lines, and a corps de réserve of four squadrons; the ground we were drawn up in, not allowing us to make a greater front. So soon as we began to move, the squadrons of the enemies which had come down the rising I mentioned, retired to their line. When we got up that rise, with my first line consisting of but ten squadrons, we found the enemy drawn up in two lines, the first of twenty two squadrons and the second of twenty, with two battalions of foot betwixt their lines, and a brigade of foot on their right. I was therefore forced, so soon as I came in presence, to make a halt to get up some squadrons from the second line, the ground where the enemies were being so much wider than that which I had marched from; besides that getting up the hill had put our line in some disorder.

It is noteworthy how Stanhope guided the march of horse regiments because, despite the substantial number of troopers involved (about 4,000), he managed to stop and reform them, all in full view of the enemy, showing the great experience, calmness and courage of the Allied officers. Another important aspect was the sun’s position, which lit the battlefield from behind the Allies in such a way that the Bourbon horsemen did not realize of the magnitude of the Allied attack. This is not something that can be undervalued, as the dust raised by the four thousand trotting horses would have magnified the effect of the sunlight, while undermining the morale of the defenders, who could not see exactly what was falling on them. This is highlighted by an anonymous source, a horseman of Lord Raby’s regiment who was present at the battle (Falkner, 2005, p. 223):

About an hour before the sun set on the 16th day of July 1710, our squadrons had orders to advance, the left [of] our army being a great deal nearer to the enemy than our right, therefore our right wing was obliged to advance as fast as our horses could go. The sun then was not above a quarter of an hour high [per sobre de l’horitzo] when the left began to engage and the right was soon and behold how like lions our men fell upon them with sword in hand.

Despite the initial reservations of some Allied commanders, the attack was very successful. Although some points of resistance faced up to the attackers, the line of Bourbon cavalry was broken up by such a fierce attack led by the English commander.

The enemies were so good as to give us the time we wanted; we brought up six squadrons and put our line in good order, which consisted thus of sixteen in all: six English, four Dutch, and six Palatines. Mr. Carpenter and I were on the left; Mr. Frankenberg, the Palatine General, and Major- General Pepper, on the right. So soon as ever we were thus formed we attacked them; and, by the blessing of God, broke their two lines, which consisted of forty-two squadrons.

On the right were the Gardes du Corps and other choice regiments, which did not do ill, but their left made no resistance. I cannot sufficiently commend the behaviour of all the troops that were engaged, which never halted till we had driven their horse off the plain, beyond their infantry, which was in the valley; and if we had had two hours’ day light more, your Lordship may be assured that not one foot soldier of their army could have scaped. The night gave them an opportunity to retire to Lerida, which they did in such confusion, that they threw away their tents, lost good part of their baggage, and some of their cannon, and have continued ever since encamped within and about the glacis of Lerida. The Duke of Anjou and all his Generals were in the action.

Consequences of the victory

As a result of the fight and the chaotic withdrawal of the Bourbon army, an odd situation took place in which King Philip was escorted by Catalan troops. The event is explained in the Bourbon letter collected by Castellvi and it had no major consequences, but it does show how the Bourbon officers mistrusted even the Catalans in their ranks.

Despite the swift action, the battle was extremely hard, according to Stanhope. The fact that two Allied colonels died is quite relevant, because it demonstrates that high-ranking officers put themselves at risk in combat, especially horse regiment officers, and often had a higher percentage of casualties than other soldiers (Lord Mahon, 1832, appendices CXI-CXV).

I am sorry, now, my Lord, to tell you, that this action has cost her Majesty very dear, in the loss of two young men of quality, who would have made a great figure in this country, and done it great service,- my Lord Rochford and Count Nassau. Lord Rochford had joined us with his regiment from Italy but the day before; and he brought it in so good order, and set them so good an example, that, though they had to do with the best troops of the enemy, they beat them. I have often had occasion to mention Count Nassau to your Lordship: he was this day on the left of all, at the head of his own regiment, which was outflanked by several squadrons, and exposed to the fire of their infantry; notwithstanding which disadvantages he broke what was before him, and, after so vigorous an action, was unfortunately killed by a cannon from a battery of our own. Enclosed I send your Lordship the list of what other officers have been killed and wounded.

Out of the six squadrons of her Majesty’s troops which were engaged, viz. two of Harvey’s, two of Nassau’s, two of Rochford’s we have 200 men killed and wounded, and four out of five of them with swords. A Palatine regiment which was on our left, and a Dutch regiment which was in the centre, have likewise suffered considerably; the others had better fortune, having met with little opposition. The commanding officers of all nations signalised themselves; and it has been of no small use to me, who had been very little conversant with the treble service, to have the assistance of Mr. Carpenter, who was with me during this whole action, and did not a little contribute to the good success of it..

As for the Bourbon army, the defeat had reduced its cavalry, and especially its morale, which was decisive for the further development of the campaign. Moreover, the defeat at Almenar confirmed that without the help of Louis XIV and the French forces, Philip was unable to keep the Spanish territories under control, given the threat posed by the Allies.

Defeat at Brihuega

After the victory of Almenar, the Austriacist army continued to advance into Aragon, where some weeks later it had a decisive victory against the Bourbon army. Philip’s troops broke up and, as happened in 1706, the Allies were again able to choose their strategic goals and achieve them without hindrance from opponents.

Spurred on by English officers, and particularly by James Stanhope, the Austriacist troops advanced into Castile to dominate the centre of the Iberian Peninsula, and especially its capital. Philip had to flee Madrid for the second time and Charles was finally crowned King of Spain. However, in the long term this strategic decision was one of the Allies’ worst mistakes during the war, although it seemed quite an interesting option in the autumn of 1710.

On one hand, lack of connection with the Austriacist territories of Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia disrupted both communications and the logistics line for the Allies, which were very elongated and highly vulnerable to Bourbon dragoons raids. On the other hand, failure to close the passes connecting France and the Iberian Peninsula allowed Louis XIV to send a large contingent of troops to his grandson. These troops were under command of the Duke of Vendome, and to finally restore the situation, another French army under the command of the Duke of Noailles invaded the north of Catalonia to threaten the Austriacist territories. Since the bulk of the Allied army was in Castile, it was an optimal situation for the Bourbon’s interests, because there was no Allied force large enough to fight with. This offensive therefore further destabilized the precarious strategic situation of the Allies.

Noailles decided to besiege Girona at the end of 1710, with the intention of smoothing the way to Barcelona. The Allies were certainly surprised by the fact that the siege began in December, as it was unusual to conduct offensive actions in late winter. Given the serious strategic situation, the Austriacist commanders decided to retreat to Catalonia to pass the winter there. The English contingent took a different route from the rest of the army, and was surprised and surrounded by Bourbon forces in Brihuega, where they surrendered a few days later. In turn, Starhemberg, the supreme Allied commander, met the entire Bourbon army in Villaviciosa, when trying to help the English (not knowing that they had already surrendered). Both sides claimed victory in the muddled battle that took place on December 10th. However, the clash left Vendome’s army so damaged that Starhemberg was able to retreat to more optimal positions in the Segarra area.

The demarcations of the armies were not much changed during the following campaigns, because the 1710 campaign went on well into the following year and Vendome did not move until summer of 1711. The attempt to cross the Allied defensive line culminated in the Battle of Prats de Rei and the subsequent siege of Cardona, two Allied victories that left the Bourbon army badly damaged and withdrawing again to Lerida. But the English army was no longer present in Catalonia after the surrender of Brihuega, except for some small units. In the Iberian Peninsula there were no significant battles in 1712-1713, due to the opening of peace negotiations, as mentioned throughout the book.

In addition, the Imperial army was solidly defeated by Marshal Villars’ troops in Denain, and the war situation quickly deteriorated for the Austriacist side, as, for their part, the English and the Dutch were negotiating agreements with the Bourbons.

The Treaty of Utrecht ended the English intervention in Catalonia, and shortly afterwards the final chapter of the War of the Spanish Succession began: the Catalan campaign of 1713-1714.