From 10 May until 11 June, the British and French air forces lost around 1,850 aircraft in combat, of which some 950 were French. Luftwaffe losses were around 1,100. These figures suggest a clear victory for the Luftwaffe, but even they give no idea of the scale of the defeat suffered by the Allied air forces. Such heavy losses, indeed even heavier losses, would have been perfectly acceptable if they had enabled the Allied armies to avoid such a total and catastrophic rout.
Most French problems stemmed from the way long-range bombing dominated French thinking at all levels, political and military. The threat the bomber posed to French cities was overestimated and what it might achieve on the battlefield underestimated. Paranoia over the long-range bomber had emerged long before the outbreak of the First World War. In 1914–1918, the needs of the front prevented this from dominating military thinking, but in peacetime, the theory and the fear were able to flourish. French politicians assumed bombing could bring swift and total defeat and ruin to their country.
The idea that bombers alone would decide future wars was a far more radical notion than the blitzkrieg that would eventually defeat France. The German strategy was just a restatement of the importance of mobility, with the internal combustion engine replacing the horse. Douhetism envisaged an entirely new form of warfare in which armies would be irrelevant. It is perhaps no coincidence that these theories took root most strongly in the democracies (France, Britain, and the United States) where public anxiety over aerial bombardment could find an effective political voice. In the totalitarian states (Germany, USSR, Italy, and Japan), where public opinion had less influence, more pragmatic military uses of air power prevailed.
The French are often accused of trying to fight the Second World War with the weapons and ideas of the First World War. This is true for some aspects of policy, but as far as the air war is concerned, in 1940, France needed the sort of Air Force it had in 1918. The Great War had underlined the value of aerial reconnaissance and the need for the strongest possible fighter force to enable the reconnaissance fleet to operate. The Air Division had demonstrated how effective air power could be as a flexible defensive and offensive weapon. In 1940, the French did not have enough fighters, they had no equivalent of the Air Division and were completely taken by surprise when the Luftwaffe turned their very similar VIII Air Corps on the French Army. Instead of building on the close air support tactics developed in the First World War, the French focused on developing a long-range deterrent bomber force. How fast, how far, and how many tons bombers could carry became the yardstick for measuring French air strength. Ironically, once the country was at war, it was the Ju 87, the slowest German bomber with the least range and lowest bomb load, that proved so decisive.
The French Army never believed the long-range bomber could be decisive; they had no doubts that wars would still be won or lost on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the zeal with which the Douhet-style conflict was promoted induced a scepticism within the Army about all forms of bombing, strategic and tactical. Battlefield bombing in direct support of ground forces proved to be far more effective than the generals imagined, and, more importantly, meant armies did not have to wait for artillery. The French found themselves facing a German Army that could advance far more rapidly than they believed possible. This was at least as significant as the actual damage bombing inflicted.
Yet developing a long-range bomber force was not a mistake. It might not decide the outcome of a war, but it did have huge influence in peacetime. Politicians needed the security a powerful bomber fleet provided. Bargaining positions were determined by how many bombers you had. Foreign policy was shaped by the bomber. The value of a powerful bomber fleet was amply demonstrated during the Rhineland and Sudetenland crises. Hitler got his way without firing a bullet. At the time, it did not occur to the Air Force or the politicians that the long-range bomber was not a decisive war winning weapon, that its value was political and psychological rather than military. Without fully understanding what was happening, it was difficult to see that a balance was required between what the politicians needed in peacetime and the military needed for fighting a war. Attempts to match the German bomber fleet led to far too much effort being devoted to strategic bombers at the expense of shorter-range tactical bombers. It was the latter that France would need when it came to war. They also happened to be much easier to build. The LeO 451 was not only the least effective and suffered the highest loss rate of any French bomber, but it also required far more resources to build.
The lack of trust between Army and Air Force was another major problem. Even in the tactical domain, the Army felt that in the First World War, the Air Force had tended to disregard Army needs and go its own way. The Air Force focus on independent strategic air warfare in the interwar years increased the mistrust. The more independent the Air Force became, the less the Army trusted it. The Army had good reason not to trust their sister service. Even in the May–June campaign, d’Astier tended to run air operations as he thought best, rather than as the Army wanted.
As far as the Army was concerned, centralised control meant Air Force control, and the only way the generals felt they could be sure of getting the air support they needed was to attach squadrons permanently to army units, even though this made it even more difficult to focus air effort where it was needed. Ironically, as the Army did not think tactical bombing was so important, control of the bomber force was centralised, and it could be switched to where it was required. Fighter squadrons, however, were attached to armies, which stretched available resources along the length of the front. Fears that French cities and industry would be wiped out by German bombing meant fighters also had to defend these targets. In the end, French fighter resources were stretched in two directions: along the front and deep into the French rear. Even if the French fighter force had matched the Luftwaffe in terms of quality in 1940, it would have still been at a disadvantage numerically because of the way it was dispersed.
The inability to secure local air superiority meant that the large fleet of reconnaissance planes the French had assembled, and into which so many resources had been poured, could not function. The French were quite right to emphasise the importance of reconnaissance, but a smaller reconnaissance fleet with a larger fighter force to protect it, would have enabled the French to gather more information.
On the technical side, the French fascination with large multi-seater, multi-purpose planes proved particularly unfortunate. France missed out completely on the Blenheim and Dornier Do 17 generation of bomber design and as a result, the French bomber force had nothing suitable to fly by day when war broke out. Even in the 1940 campaign, the products of the multiplace de combat era flew nearly as many sorties as the French bombers that were supposed to replace them. Perhaps more significantly, the low speeds expected of the turret laden bombers, meant required fighter speeds were too low, and although the BCR multi-purpose plane was abandoned in 1934, French fighter design never quite caught up with what was being achieved elsewhere.
France started rearming much later than Germany, but it was not fatally late. The mistake was the planes the French decided to build. The RAF and Luftwaffe fought the air battles of 1940 largely with planes conceived in the early thirties or upgrades of these designs. For France, this was the Amiot 340, M.S.406, Potez 63, and Mureaux 113 generation. France, however, decided these were not good enough and placed all their trust in the next generation. This was not necessary. The makeshift Potez 633 was a reasonable equivalent to bombers like the Dornier 17. The Mureaux 117 was no more obsolete than the Henschel Hs 126 the Luftwaffe used successfully. An upgraded M.S.406 could not have matched the Bf 109, but it might have been good enough. These were the only planes that France could have built in sufficient numbers in time for the 1940 campaign.
In peacetime, there was a case for waiting for the very latest designs, but once war broke out, continuing to rely on the 1936 generation became a fatal mistake. The Dewoitine D.520 and Bloch MB.174 were excellent planes that would have played an increasingly important role from mid-1940 onwards. The Martin 167 and Douglas DB-7 did go on to have very successful careers with the RAF. They were all capable of making some contribution in the spring of 1940, but it was too soon to be relying on them. New planes invariably have teething problems and aircrews need time to become familiar with them. In the end, the Dewoitine D.520 was no more successful than the Curtiss H75, because the H75 pilots had learned how to get the best out of their fighters. Fighter production plummeted when the M.S.406 was phased out. The Potez 633 was easy to build and could have been built in large numbers. In the end, France fell between two stools: it did not have enough combat planes of either the old or the new generation.
Even with the resources that were available in 1940, the French could have done better. No battle is lost before a shot is fired. On the ground, there were opportunities for the French to rescue the situation even after the breakthrough at Sedan. Once it was obvious how serious the situation was, there was plenty of urgency, but little flair or improvisation. During the 1918 crises, doctrine had been ditched and instinct took over. Fighters and reconnaissance planes, as well as bombers, were thrown into the ground-attack role, regardless of doctrine. In 1940, everything was done by the book. Tremendous risks were taken by committing large ungainly multi-seaters and floatplane bombers to daylight operations. Frantic efforts were made to make obsolete long-range bombers available for operations, but there was no thought about how smaller, more manoeuvrable fighters or reconnaissance planes might be used for ground-attack. A striking feature of the campaign was how obsolete biplanes like the Henschel Hs 123 and Fokker C.V could be used for ground-attack, provided they were not expected to attack targets far beyond the front line. The way French aircraft were used was determined by what they were designed to do rather than what they might be capable of doing. The French had far more useable planes than they imagined but the lure of the ultra-modern that had led them to reject the 1934 generation of combat planes also blinded the French to how even older equipment might make a contribution.
The strange contrast between frenzy and inaction was another striking feature of the French reaction to the crisis. Rear defence flights were formed and squadrons converted to new equipment in days, but elsewhere, trained foreign and French aircrews were left kicking their heels with nothing to fly. Army and Air Force commanders called for maximum effort, but at the height of the battle, some units remained unused and with those that did operate, sortie rates throughout the campaign were low by comparison with other Allied and enemy air forces. D’Astier placed too much emphasis on using his squadrons in a controlled, measured way, but in some ways, it was too measured. He insisted that available planes had to be used correctly, when the crisis facing the French demanded a more radical approach. The way any combat planes are used has to depend on the situation and how what is available can make a contribution rather than peacetime practice, doctrine and theories about how planes ought to be used.
Much is often made of various quotes which seem to prove that French Army generals did not understand the importance of air power. Although they underestimated the value of close air support, they never doubted the need for a powerful air force. The Army’s fierce fight to retain control of the Air Force is proof of that. Many of the quotes were provoked by frustration at the constant talk of bombers deciding wars on their own. The expressions ‘lutte aérienne’ or ‘bataille aérienne’, were standard ways of describing the Douhetian aerial struggle. Those who use these quotes tend to confuse these references to battles fought by opposing bomber fleets, with the battle for air superiority fought by rival fighter forces. It was the former the Army opposed, not the latter. On hearing the dreaded Douhetian ‘bataille aérienne’ mentioned yet again at a lecture in the summer of 1939, a frustrated Gamelin famously interrupted to point out that ‘There is no such thing as the “aerial battle”, there is only the battle on land.’ This did not mean he saw no need for fighters to secure the skies above the battlefield. He was just objecting to the idea that bombing cities wins wars. He was right. The Second World War was decided on the battlefield by all arms working together, not by air forces fighting their own independent bombing war.
The French Air Force failed in 1940, not so much because it was stuck in the past, but because it had been seduced by radical and unproven theories on the way air power would develop in the future. In the process, it forgot how it had used air power successfully in the First World War. France was not alone. For most of the interwar years even the German military did not believe bombers were a battlefield weapon. Initially, the fighter force had a low priority in the new Luftwaffe. Both Germany and France began revising their ideas about the same time. Crucially, the Germans had the experience in Spain and Poland to speed up the process. Even so, in 1940, the gap was not as wide as it might appear. As Liddell Hart put it, the German Army was successful not because ‘it was overwhelming in strength or thoroughly modern in form, but because it was a few vital degrees more advanced than its opponents’. With their superior tanks and growing appreciation of tactical air support, the French were arguably more than a just few degrees ahead of their British ally. In June 1940, French Army and Air Force commanders were a lot closer to understanding what was required to defeat the German Wehrmacht than their British counterparts. The loss of this expertise was as big a blow to the Allied cause as the lost manpower resources and industrial capacity. If France had managed to hang on, the war would have been won a lot sooner.
Despite an image that inextricably binds the Legion with North Africa, it was Indochina that provided both its most popular garrison and ultimately its calvary. After 1883, the Legion burst the narrow confines of its North African existence, which had contained it for over a decade, to join in the Scramble for Africa and the French expeditions in the Far East, an extension of tasks that required tripling Legion strength from a modest four battalions in the summer of 1883 to a dozen by the turn of the century.
The history of the French penetration of Indochina is fairly complex, but the ingredients were typical of French imperialism, including fear of British colonial rivalry, the desire to tap the reputedly rich markets of China’s Hunan province via Tonkin, pressure by the French Catholic Church to protect their missionaries and, above all, the presence of a handful of French officers ambitious to advance their country’s future there and not content to wait upon events. In the 1840s, the French had begun to cast about for a base in the Far East to offset that of the British at Hong Kong. Their chance came with the outbreak of the Second Opium War in 1857, during which a combined Anglo–French force occupied Canton and in 1860 Peking. As the Catholic Church was one of the pillars of Napoleon Ill’s Second Empire, the French seized the opportunity offered by the concentration of military force in the Far East to chastise the Annamese—the contemporary term for Vietnamese—for their persecution of Catholic missionaries. They bombarded Da Nang in 1858 and seized Saigon in 1859, which the Annamese signed over to them in 1862. In 1867 the French took the rest of Cochinchina, the southernmost province of Annam, and declared it a French colony.
The advance of the British into Burma kindled fears among some Frenchmen that perfidious Albion was about to open a southern route into Hunan. The exploration of the Mekong River by young French naval lieutenant Francis Gamier in 1866-67 proved that to be a dead end. However, in 1873, French trader and arms merchant Jean Dupuis proved the Red River to be navigable from Hunan to the Gulf of Tonkin. Furthermore, he had discovered that in Hunan salt fetched thirty times its Hanoi price. However, problems arose when the Annamese pointed out that the exportation of salt from their country was illegal. Not to be deterred, Dupuis mobilized his small army of Chinese thugs, captured the chief of police in Hanoi, seized a dozen river junks filled with salt and prepared to tow them up the Red River by steamboat. The Annamese attempted to negotiate an end to the crisis. But in June 1873 Dupuis’s patience cracked—he seized a portion of Hanoi, ran up the French colors and sent word to Admiral M. J. Dupré, the governor-general in Saigon, that either France back him or he would call on the English.
Of course, Dupré knew that Dupuis was only making empty threats. Besides, he had formal orders from Paris not to intervene in Tonkin. However, Dupré hoped that by ending the increasingly bloody confrontation in Hanoi he could persuade the Annamese government in Hue to recognize officially the aggrandizement of French control of Cochinchina in 1867, while heading off any competition by European rivals. Therefore, he sent none other than Francis Gamier with 180 men to Hanoi to extricate Dupuis from the difficulties of his own making. It proved to be a serious mistake. Once in Hanoi, Gamier and Dupuis discovered that they were two of a kind—Gamier began to issue proclamations declaring the Red River open to commerce and in November stormed the Hanoi citadel. Urged on by Christian missionaries, he proceeded to impose his rule in the Red River Delta. However, Gamier was killed in December leading what amounted to a single-handed bayonet charge against a force sent to recapture Hanoi. Dupré ended the crisis by signing a treaty with Hue in March 1874, which gained recognition for Cochinchina as well as established French concessions in Haiphong and Hanoi.
The 1874 treaty was fraught with complications. Annam was nominally a vassal state of China. The Chinese regarded Indochina, and especially the northern province of Tonkin, as vital to the security of their southern frontier. However, the French interpreted the treaty to mean that Chinese suzerainty was at an end. Continued frustration over the failure to open the Red River, and the insecurity of the small French garrisons at Haiphong and Hanoi, caused Saigon to dispatch fifty-five-year-old naval captain Henri Rivière to Tonkin with 233 French marines and Annamese auxiliaries to reinforce the French concessions there in March 1882. If the French had wanted history to repeat itself, then they could not have contrived a more congenial set of preconditions. Despite formal orders to the contrary, Rivière stormed the Hanoi citadel. A French fleet sailed to his rescue, but in May 1883 Rivière was killed when his force, ignoring the most elementary notions of security, was ambushed outside of Hanoi.
When news of the events in Hanoi reached Paris, the Chamber of Deputies voted five and one half million francs to support operations in Tonkin and earmarked reinforcements of three thousand men for the Far East, promising that “France will avenge her glorious children.” A French fleet sailed up the Perfume River and seized two forts that guarded access to Hue. They then forced the Annamese to accept a treaty of full protectorate. In December 1883, a French force, which included one battalion of the Legion, captured strategic Son Tay on the Red River. This caused the Chinese to reinforce Bac Ninh, correctly thought to be the next French target. However, after desultory resistance, the poorly disciplined Chinese abandoned Bac Ninh on March 12,1884. In May 1884, the Chinese agreed to withdraw from Tonkin.
The war appeared to be over. However, in June, when a French force was dispatched to occupy Lang Son, the last substantial town in Tonkin before the Chinese frontier, they were stopped thirty miles south of their objective by a Chinese garrison near the small town of Bac Le. What happened next depends upon the version one reads. One sympathetic to the Chinese claims that their commander explained that he realized that France and China were now at peace, however, he had received no orders to withdraw. He asked the French to wire to Beijing for instructions on his behalf. The French commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alphonse Dugenne, gave the Chinese one hour to clear off. When they did not, he attacked, but was repulsed with twenty-two dead and sixty wounded. Dugenne, and later official French propaganda, advanced the claim that they were treacherously ambushed at Bac Le. Whatever the case, this time France, under pro-colonialist prime minister Jules Ferry, intended to make a better job of it. The French prepared a full-scale invasion, one that included the Legion.
The problem for the French was how best to bring about a decisive victory over China. They decided to divide their forces, one group striking at Formosa while a second would reinforce Tonkin. It proved to be a costly and nearly disastrous decision. After bombarding Fuzhou on the Chinese mainland, and thereby eliciting a declaration of war upon France by China, the French under fiery Admiral Amédée Anatole Courbet landed a force on the northern coast of Formosa near Chi-lung in October 1884. It was hard to see what the French hoped to achieve by an invasion of Formosa. The island was far from Beijing. And while it is true that Courbet seized the coal fields of northern Formosa, the coal was low grade and its loss of little value to China. Apparently Paris felt that a campaign on the mainland of China was too risky and so settled for a peripheral operation more easily supported by the navy.
The Formosa action of 1884-85 is one of the little-known campaigns of the Legion, and with good reason—it got nowhere. The Chinese had anticipated the attack, and stiffened their garrison with twenty thousand soldiers, over three times the number the French would bring against them. The French got ashore with a ridiculously small force of 1,800 men and, after a hard struggle, seized the heights above Chi-lung. However, they were repulsed at Tan- shui twenty miles along the coast. The monsoon broke over this condition of stalemate, turning the French camp into a morass through which cholera raged. The Formosa invasion, meant to bring pressure on the Celestial Empire, soon had the French squirming in discomfort—their army was melting away from disease, and their front line was so porous and poorly manned that the Chinese would creep between the outposts at night to exhume and decapitate the bodies of dead French soldiers.
In January 1885, with the garrison at Chi-lung down to six hundred men, reinforcements were landed, one of whom was Lionel Hart. He discovered the town to be hardly more than a pile of cinders in an amphitheater of mountains whose heights were occupied by the enemy. The marines and joyeux welcomed the legionnaires, but “they are all very pale and very tired.” With these reinforcements, the French launched offensives in late January to disengage Chi-lung and, in March, pushed to the outskirts of Tan-shui. However, it was clear that Formosa was a dead-end theater, that the French had nothing to gain from persisting there but more casualties and a diversion of scarce resources. The real decision had to be sought in Tonkin.
The situation in Tonkin was far from reassuring. Although nine thousand French troops occupied it in the spring of 1884, a garrison that would eventually grow to forty thousand by the summer of 1885, they were on the strategic defensive. Quite apart from the Chinese buildup over the border in Kwangsi, troops that already had begun to infiltrate south, the French faced another, more persistent enemy in Tonkin—the Black Flags. The Black Flags took their name from the fact that each section, and each officer, carried a black flag. The result was that their lines were so festooned with standards that one legionnaire preparing to attack the fortress of Bac Ninh in March 1884 was moved to declare, “Look…. They’ve done their washing. It’s hanging out to dry.”
The French referred to them as pirates, which they certainly were— most were Chinese who drifted south because of poverty or after the failure in 1864 of the Taiping rebellion against the Chinese government. But they were more than that. Organized by an intelligent but illiterate Chinese named Liu Yung-fu, the Black Flags dominated the upper reaches of the Red River from their base at Lao Cai on the border with Yunnan. Despite their semi-brigand status, they enjoyed official relations with both the Vietnamese and Chinese governments—the Vietnamese recognized them because they controlled the primitive and predatory montagnards populations, who were not ethnic Vietnamese, to the northeast of the Red River Delta, while the Chinese saw them as an extra measure of Chinese control in Tonkin. L. Huguet, a marine officer, described the Black Flags as very well armed with Remingtons, Spencers, Martini-Henrys and Winchester repeaters.
Their uniform(!) is made up of a jacket and light trousers of blue wool. Their legs from the bottom of the knee to the ankle are protected by cloth bands of the same color. As for their headgear, it varies enormously. Most often it consists of a large hat with a wide brim, sometimes doubled inside with a piece of fabric like the rest.
The French spent most of the spring and summer of 1884 securing the Tonkinese delta and moving into the highlands as far as Tuyen Quang on the Clear River. The Chinese and the Black Flags had three primary strengths—they were very numerous; they were much better armed than were the French, whose 1874 model single-shot Gras rifles gave them a lower rate of fire; and they were expert at building defensive fortifications. So impressive were their fortifications that Western wisdom assumed that they must have had European help. After viewing one such fortress, which was made up of a series of palisades separated by open ground and trenches filled with bamboo spikes, Martyn was of the opinion that “a company of Royal Engineers could not have made a better job of it.” His fellow legionnaires believed that an Englishman by the name of “Sir Collins” had directed its construction. Furthermore, these fortifications were often surrounded by bush of such density that the attacking force might have to hack a path to it and then emerge one by one into open ground before deploying for an attack, a lengthy and extremely lethal process.
However, the French criticized the strategy of the Chinese and Black Flags as timorous and unimaginative. Huguet, who fought on the Red and Clear Rivers, found that the enemy “are past masters in the art of moving earth. That which makes their strength is also their weakness. Used to the shelter of deep trenches where they burrow like moles, they lack the daring to march and manoeuvre in open country.” Their insistence on fighting from prepared defensive positions meant that they rarely ambushed advancing French columns often strung out along narrow jungle paths: “In such places our small troop would have been infallibly destroyed if we had encountered a few audacious enemy,” Huguet believed. “Fortunately for us, the Black Flags did not know how to profit from the abundant advantages which the exuberant tropical vegetation offered them.” As for the Chinese regulars, he found them individually courageous, but their tactic of passive defense was “even less comprehensible given the fact that they benefited from superior numbers. In truth, if they had been more flexible, Tonkin would not belong to us.” Dick de Lonlay, who participated in the Lang Son expedition, was of the opinion that in the open field the Chinese lacked “unity of direction, cohesion.” Their fortifications, while well built, were usually badly sited. “Our troops are fighting against men who are sufficiently disciplined, battle-hardened, but who are almost always badly led,” he concluded.
A strategy of occupying defensive positions deep in the country and forcing the aggressive French to come to them might have worked well, especially given the desperate logistical problems that the French encountered in Tonkin. However, the Chinese seldom demonstrated the tactical skill required to capitalize on their superior firepower. Although they possessed artillery, they seldom used it. They were also miserable marksmen: “The Chinese . . . never put the rifle to the shoulder as Europeans do when about to fire,” wrote Le Poer.
Instead, they tuck the rifle-butt into the armpit and try to drop the bullet, as it were, on the attacking party. They cannot well do this until the attack comes within five hundred yards of the defence, nor can they do it when the enemy is within two hundred yards of their line … as we closed with the bayonet and were practically at point-blank range, the Black Flags wavered and fired at the sky rather than at us.
Everyone agreed that the Chinese tended to become a bit windy when the French got close enough to skewer them. However, their fortifications could break the momentum of an attack, so that both sides might fire at each other through holes in the bamboo palisade until the French could blast their way in using dynamite or their light artillery. Then the Chinese would flee, abandoning their fort. This was perhaps because they tended to place their best troops in the front line, and when these suffered heavy casualties (which they invariably did) or were broken, those in the second echelon tended to take to their heels. In any case, the French seldom had enough troops to surround these fortresses and cut off the retreat, so the Chinese, while badly mauled, simply retired to another defensive position, and the process began again.
The Tonkin campaign of 1884–85 was to become one of the most controversial of French imperial campaigns between the Commune and the outbreak of World War I. The fact that it came perilously close to complete disaster derailed the brilliant parliamentary career of Jules Ferry, while it generated a controversy over the retreat from Lang Son in the French army that still has yet to be resolved. The Ferry government’s aggressive colonialism, combined with the leadership of two of the French army’s most dynamic colonial officers, Generals Louis-Alexandre Briére de I’Isle and François de Négrier, and the relative ease with which a small number of French troops had attacked and overwhelmed strongly held defensive positions like that of Bac Ninh in March 1884, was to have potentially disastrous consequences for the campaign the French fought during the winter of 1884-85. Above all, it gave the French enormous confidence in themselves, and of no corps was this more true than of the Legion.
General de Négrier especially became something of a cult figure in the Legion after he led them against the 1881 Bou Amama rebellion in Algeria. A.-P. Maury described him as “severe especially with drunks and the undisciplined, but he was fair and he looked after us like a father. When we met, he questioned us with affability and interest.” Needless to say, Négrier’s popularity paid dividends on operations—when Maury’s company was dispatched to take a village, “we went and took it as he ordered, without hesitation or waiting. We were his Legion. He counted on us. We had to prove that we were worthy of his affection and of his esteem.” When in March 1885 Bôn-Mat’s legionnaires were ordered to invade China and attack a fortified Chinese position containing an estimated twelve thousand to fifteen thousand men with only three thousand, they saw nothing strange about it: “… We were so used to winning that everything seemed possible to us,” he wrote. “Because Maulen [Vietnamese for “Quick,” the nickname given to Négrier by his soldiers and the natives] led us, whose name alone was worth several battalions, and because it flattered our ego to go on an excursion on Chinese territory.”
The willingness of the French to attack also was linked with the savage nature of the conflict. “The Chinese have put a price on our heads,” even the Christian Lionel Hart recounted. “They dig up our dead, cut their heads off, and put them on the end of their lances or on their flagpoles, and show them to us while laughing from their fortifications. Sometimes one recognizes the face of a friend, and, turning away from this sickening spectacle, we swear vengeance. ” Le Poer, too, reported that the sight of comrades who had fallen out on the march, only to be killed and mutilated by the Black Flags, drove the legionnaires into such a frenzy of vengeance that in the next action they slaughtered all their Chinese prisoners. A.-P. Maury agreed that his legionnaires took no pity on the Chinese after they received a basket containing heads and a letter explaining, “Voilà! This is how all French will be treated.”
A final factor in the audacity and vigor of the French campaign was the officer corps. Officers in this period got mixed reviews from legionnaires. Martyn and Bôn-Mat appear to have enjoyed cordial relations with their officers. Maury, too, praised his lieutenant in Indochina, who failed to break him when he was discovered asleep on guard duty during the precipitous retreat from the Gates of China, but instead listed a lesser offense on his record. Others, however, found them severe and disdainful. Lionel Hart believed that “Our superiors admire us as soldiers, but despise us as individuals. They make us understand this often. For them, we are just rabble and cannon fodder. They do not know us personally.” Charles des Ecorres, who served in the 1870s but who did not go to Tonkin, believed that officers merely saw legionnaires as stepping-stones for their own ambitions:
The Legion has always been a formidable arm in the hands of an ambitious commander. They have nothing to fear, no criticism, no one is interested in these pariahs of all races who come to get holes in their hide for France. So, get on the road and watch out! One marches, one sweats his guts out. The plain is peopled with cadavers and the officer gets his promotion which he grandly merits.
The problem of arrogant, indifferent, even brutal officers was not a new one in the Legion—Le Poer complained that any officer who showed concern for his troops risked derision by his fellow officers. Nevertheless, logic would seem to dictate that an openly expressed disdain of officers for their troops, if widespread, must undermine efficiency: Captain G. Prokos, who studied Legion operations in Tonkin very closely, insisted that successful officers “led their men as friends, as true collaborators whom he must, above all, make interested in the success of the enterprise.” Otherwise they fell out on the march, and he was soon left with “a small core of disheartened men who only continued to follow from a spirit of discipline or pride.”
Obviously, as has been noted, all officers who led legionnaires did not fall into the unpopular category—even a rather sour Le Poer confessed that he became friends with his captain in Tonkin after the officer had shown great consideration for his dying friend Nicholas. Others may have been distant, even abrupt, but this leadership style was perhaps better accepted in an era when social distinctions and deference were assumed to be normal, especially among those of a working-class background, from which the majority of legionnaires were drawn.
It is also possible that legionnaires took such attitudes more or less in stride because the combative qualities of their superiors far outweighed their character defects. Even if officers w, e gruff, legionnaires, even fairly cynical ones, appeared to respond well to leaders who were tough, brave and above all competent. Le Poer discovered that legionnaires were left in no doubt about “… how little he cares for their comfort” and were angered by the tendency of the officers “to swear at the sick, to sneer at the wounded, to order the dead to be thrown any way into a trench, and to abuse the burial party because they did not cover the carcasses quickly enough.” What was more, this attitude of contempt actually discouraged some of the best men from seeking promotion—his aristocratic Russian friend Nicholas, for instance, turned down a battlefield promotion to corporal because “… the idea of one who had commanded a company accepting the control of a squad and receiving curses and abuse from the company officers when a soldier got into trouble was not to be entertained for a moment.” However, he had to concede that their physical courage was beyond reproach: “Our officers fought like devils,” he wrote. “Truth to tell, though we did not like them, we could not help admiring their courage in a fight.”
Nor was the question of whether or not to follow an officer, popular or unpopular, one up for discussion in the Legion: “The column goes to ground, flat on the earth, awaiting the order, the supreme order,” Carpeaux recorded.
All eyes are on the enemy, but all thoughts are on the captain! They counsel him, implore him, supplicate, order him depending on the force of their energy. Everyone feels death, there, very close. Everyone wants to avoid it, to flee it. But no one dares to run, preferring to be killed rather than be treated as a coward…. But the captain remains standing up and still undecided. This is a superb opportunity for him to get noticed, to be decorated. To turn back is to lose his cross [of the Legion of Honor].
Carpeaux’s observation also serves to underline the further point that personal pride played a large part in the Legion’s fighting prowess. And while this is true for all forces, in the Legion this personal pride was reinforced by the fact that, in addition, one wanted to disgrace neither his squad nor his nationality, much less besmirch the reputation of the Legion itself. Lastly, the effects of poor leadership, when it existed, might be minimized by the existence of a parallel hierarchy in many squads. This was a product both of the romantic reputation of the Legion as a haven for gentlemen down on their luck and of the anonymat, which allowed men to embellish, or invent, pasts of such distinction that they gained a social ascendancy in their squads. Le Poer insisted, no doubt with exaggeration, that ex-officers virtually abounded in the Legion, that the authorities realized this and were careful to assign no more than one per squad. “Every one of them was a second corporal, so to speak, and really, to take the case of the man I knew best, Nicholas was far more respected amongst us than our authorized superior, and the corporal was well aware of the fact as we,” he wrote. “Well, these were the leaders.” They might be a force for good or evil—indeed, Le Poer claimed that Nicholas contrived a massacre of Chinese prisoners to avenge one of their mutilated comrades that their superiors were powerless to stop. But when such men existed and were well disposed, they might, on occasion, provide an element of leadership and cohesiveness to counter the effects of indifferent officership.
In sum, these first relatively facile victories, together with the desire to avenge deaths and mutilations at the hands of a barbarous enemy and a spirited, ambitious officer corps willing, even eager, to take risks, caused the French commanders to underestimate their enemy, to fail to notice improvements in enemy forces, and ultimately to overreach themselves. The French were overconfident, and with good reason, as even Le Poer believed: “… In the first place, the generals and the other officers firmly believed that the Black Flags and their allies would never be able to stand up against either our rifle fire or our charge…. In the second place, we soldiers had learned to depend implicitly on our commanders. They had led us so well that we had as much confidence in their foresight and military skill as they had in our courage and steadfastness.” It was a characteristic that was to mark the fighting in Indochina even after 1885—Martyn, speaking of an unsuccessful attempt to seize a fortress despite repeated attacks (unsupported by artillery), put them down “. . . to the fact that the French officers persistently refused to recognize the military ability of these pirate commanders, and consistently under-estimated the fighting power of their men.”
Had the French been more attuned to the intricacies of Chinese politics, they might have noted in the early autumn of 1884 that the Chinese and Black Flags appeared prepared to take the strategic offensive. In October 1884, Liu Yung-fu’s Black Flag, reinforced by a contingent of Yunnanese troops, settled in around the town of Tuyen Quang, which lay on the Clear River in the highlands northwest of Hanoi. In mid-November, a column of seven hundred legionnaires and marines under Lieutenant Colonel Duchesne made their way up the Clear River supported by three gunboats. “From a tourist point of view, the valley of the Clear River is really magnificent,” Huguet found, high wooded mountains through which a river of limpid water sometimes rushed and foamed between granite cliffs, or meandered through broad valleys planted with fields of maize. However, from a military point of view the abrupt terrain and dense jungle afforded ample opportunities for ambush.
Six miles short of Tuyen Quang, the column fought its way through an enemy position after the Legion outflanked a Chinese line established along a fortified ridge. After a rest, the column set out again: “An absolute silence, strange, unusual settled down over this dismal landscape, and froze the hearts of the most courageous,” Huguet remembered. “In spite of ourselves, one felt impregnated with the horror which oozed from this funereal countryside . . .” Every eye was peeled for ambush. The trail disappeared into a narrow gorge, and became very muddy, and night was fast approaching. The bugler of the avant-garde blew the opening chords of the “Boudin,” the Legion march that was gaining in popularity in the corps since first being introduced during the Mexican campaign. In the distance, the call was answered. Even a marine like Huguet was relieved. Soon Vietnamese bearing torches arrived to light the way to Tuyen Quang. On November 23, the column departed without incident, leaving a garrison composed of two companies of legionnaires, a company of tirailleurs tonkinois (Tonkinese rifles), and other odds and ends including 32 artillerymen, a few engineers, a doctor and a Protestant pastor—a grand total of 619 men, 390 of whom were legionnaires, and thirteen officers under the command of Major Marc Edmond Dominé of the Bat d’Af. The curtain of Black Flags closed once again around Tuyen Quang.
The French had not been idle elsewhere, however. In October, they had driven the Chinese out of the country from Bac Ninh to Bac Le, and might have pushed north to Lang Son had not the demands of Tuyen Quang, the lack of reinforcements and the insistence of the war minister in Paris that operations be restricted to the delta not prevented it. However, the replacement of the war minister, which coincided with the arrival of reinforcements including two battalions of legionnaires in January 1885, allowed the French commander, General Brière de I’Isle, to launch his forces north to clear the “Mandarin Road,” hardly more than a track running from Hanoi through Lang Son to the “Gates of China,” once and for all. On February 3, 1885, the column composed in all of twelve battalions of around nine thousand men set out under a gray drizzle. As the column filed out of the delta and entered the rather desolate-looking mountains, Bon-Mat for one had a sense of foreboding:
“… One felt that the task would be difficult, that we marched toward the unknown, and, instinctively, we looked behind us to look once more upon this plain. . . . We only knew the delta, rich and populated, abounding with resources of all sorts, the Tonkin where one lives, where one plays. We were going to find the Tonkin where one suffers, where one dies.”
Barely two days into the mountains, the advancing column encountered strongly held Chinese positions—“each valley is barred by a trench; each peak is crowned by a fort; it’s an inextricable jumble of fortifications,” wrote Bôn-Mat. At first the French stormed them head on, but the cost was substantial. One Legion company lost one-third of its force and all of its officers in this first combat, so that the command of the company fell to the sergeant-major. After this experience, it was discovered that a simple flanking maneuver often sufficed to send the Chinese scurrying to cover their line of retreat. After three days of fighting, Bon-Mat’s legionnaires moved into the abandoned forts, ignoring the Chinese corpses lying about, collapsed onto the straw beds and barely had time to eat a biscuit before falling asleep. However, they were up early, for “if the Chinese abandoned their forts, they left their fleas .. ,”
On February 9, the march continued northward beneath a lowering sky. The Chinese offered only delaying actions, but the track became a quagmire, and the revictualing convoy often arrived late at night only after a difficult march by torchlight. At nine o’clock on the morning of February 12, the column came in sight of strong Chinese positions organized in depth along the heights at Bac Viay, the last stop before Lang Son. A strong artillery barrage drove the Chinese from their first lines, and the fortresses on the hilltops held long enough to permit the rest to escape. The road to Lang Son lay open, but at a cost of well over two hundred casualties, so many in fact that they could not all be evacuated. The French attempted to pursue, but without success: “The Chinese carries his rifle and cartridges,” read the battalion diary. “Our infantryman has the pack which weighs him down.” Only harassing fire greeted the French as they marched along the river road on February 13. The mountains fell away, the river made a sharp bend to the right, and suddenly Lang Son appeared barely a mile away.
In 1885, Lang Son was a square walled citadel about 425 yards on each face, enclosing some brick pagodas, a few huts, a mirador and much empty space. Most of the population occupied the village of Ki Lua, which stood about three-quarters of a mile north of Lang Son. The few flags flying from the ramparts disappeared as the French approached, and within minutes a tricolor spanked the air above the battlements. On the 23rd, the French marched out to drive the Chinese from Dong Dang, a small settlement that stood ten miles north of Lang Son at the head of a narrow valley that ran to the Gates of China. After a fairly typical combat during which the Chinese were driven from their forts perched on mountain peaks, they fled up the rough track that threaded between high cliffs to the Gates of China, leaving a wake of abandoned equipment.
In 1413 King Henry IV of England died and was followed on the throne by Henry V. The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) continued, with English kings claiming the throne of France and its territory and the French kings seeking to expel the English. In prosecuting the war, Henry V concluded an alliance with Duke John of Burgundy, who promised to remain neutral and be Henry V’s vassal in return for territorial gains at the expense of France. In April 1415 Henry V declared war on King Charles VI of France, assembled a force of 12,000 men at Southampton, and crossed the English Channel to land at the mouth of the Seine on August 10.
Beginning on August 13, Henry laid siege to the Channel port of Honfleur. Taking it on September 22, he expelled most of its French inhabitants, replacing them with Englishmen. Only the poorest Frenchmen were allowed to remain, and they had to take an oath of allegiance. The siege, disease, and garrison duties all depleted Henry V’s army, leaving only about 6,000 men.
For whatever reason Henry V then decided to march overland from Honfleur to Calais, moving without baggage or artillery. His army departed on October 6, covering as much as 18 miles a day in difficult conditions caused by heavy rains. The English found one ford after another blocked by French troops, so Henry V took the army eastward, up the Somme, to locate a crossing. High water and the French prevented this until he reached Athies (10 miles west of Péronne), where the English found an undefended crossing.
At Rouen the French raised a force of some 30,000 men under Charles d’Albert, constable of France. This force almost intercepted the English before they could get across the Somme. Henry V’s trail was not hard to find, marked as it was by burning French farmhouses. (Henry once remarked that war without fire was like “sausages without mustard.”)
D’Albert got in front of the English and set up a blocking position on the main road to Calais near the Chateau of Agincourt, where Henry’s troops met them on October 24. Henry’s force faced an army many times his own in size. His men were short of supplies, and enraged local inhabitants were killing English foragers and stragglers. Shaken by the prospects, Henry V ordered his prisoners released and offered to return Honfleur and pay for any damages he had inflicted in return for safe passage to Calais. The French, with a numerical advantage of up to five to one, were in no mood to make concessions. They demanded that Henry V renounce his claims in France to everything except Guyenne, which he refused to do.
The French nobles were eager to join battle and pressed d’Albert for an attack, but he resisted their demands that day. That night Henry V ordered absolute silence, which the French took as a sign of demoralization. Daybreak on October 25 found the English at one end of a defile slightly more than 1,000 yards wide and flanked by heavy woods. The road to Calais ran down its middle. Open fields on either side of the road had been recently plowed and were sodden from the heavy rains.
Drawing on English success in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, Henry V drew up his 800 to 1,000 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers in three major groups, or “battles.” The “battles,” in one line, consisted of men-at-arms and pikemen, while the archers were located between the three “battles” and on the flanks, where they enfiladed forward about 100 yards or so to the woods on either side.
About a mile away d’Albert also deployed in three groups, but because of French numbers and the narrowness of the defile these were one behind the other. The first rank consisted of dismounted men and some crossbow men, along with perhaps 500 horsemen on the flanks; the second was the same without the horsemen; and the third consisted almost entirely of horsemen. Each commander hoped to fight a defensive battle, Henry in particular so that he might employ his archers.
Finally, in late morning when the French had failed to move, Henry staged a cautious advance of about a half mile and then halted, his men taking up the same formation as before, with the leading archers on the flanks only about 300 yards from the first French ranks. The bowmen then pounded sharpened stakes into the ground facing toward the enemy, their tips at breast height of a horse.
Henry’s movement had the desired effect. D’Albert was no longer able to resist the demands of his fellow nobles to attack the English and ordered the advance. The mounted knights on either flank moved forward well ahead of the slow-moving and heavily armored men-at-arms. It was Crécy and Poitiers all over again, with the longbow decisive. A large number of horsemen, slowed by the soggy ground, were cut down by English arrows that caught them in enfilade. The remainder were halted at the English line.
The cavalry attack was defeated long before the first French men-at-arms, led in person by d’Albert, arrived. Their heavy body armor and the mud exhausted the French, but most reached the thin English line and, by sheer weight of numbers, drove it back. The English archers then fell on the closely packed French from the flanks, using swords, axes, and hatchets to cut them down. The unencumbered Englishmen had the advantage, as they could more easily move in the mud around their French opponents. Within minutes, almost all in the first French rank had been either killed or captured.
The second French rank then moved forward, but it lacked the confidence and cohesion of the first. Although losses were heavy, many of its number were able to retire to re-form for a new attack with the third “battle” of mounted knights. At this point Henry V learned that the French had attacked his baggage train, and he ordered the wholesale slaughter of the French prisoners, fearing that he would not be strong enough to meet attacks from both the front and the rear. The rear attack, however, turned out to be only a sally from the Chateau of Agincourt by a few men-at-arms and perhaps 600 French peasants. The English easily repulsed the final French attack, which was not pressed home. Henry V then led several hundred mounted men in a charge that dispersed what remained of the French army. The archers then ran forward, killing thousands of the Frenchmen lying on the field by stabbing them through gaps in their armor or bludgeoning them to death.
In less than four hours the English had defeated a force significantly larger than their own. At least 5,000 Frenchmen died in the battle, and another 1,500 were taken prisoner. Among those who perished were many prominent French nobles, including d’Albert. The Duke d’Orléans and Marshal Jean Bouciquan were among the captured. Henry V reported English losses as 13 men-at-arms and 100 footmen killed, but this figure is too low. English losses were probably 300 killed. Among the badly wounded was Henry V’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester.
Henry V then marched to Calais, taking the prisoners who would be ransomed. The army reached Calais on October 29. In mid-November Henry V returned to England.
The loss of so many prominent French nobles in the Battle of Agincourt greatly increased Duke John of Burgundy’s influence to the point of dictating French royal policy. Henry V returned to France in 1417 and went on to conquer Normandy by the end of 1419, with the exception of Mont St. Michel. In 1420 at Troyes he concluded peace with Charles VI, who agreed to the marriage of Henry to his daughter Catherine. The French king also disowned his son, the dauphin Charles, and acknowledged Henry as his heir. Over the next two years Henry consolidated his hold over northern France, but unfortunately for the English cause he died in 1422, leaving as heir to the thrones of England and France a son just nine months old.
References Hibbert, Christopher. Agincourt. New York: Dorset, 1978. Keegan, John. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo & the Somme. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years’ War: The English in France, 1337-1453. New York: Atheneum, 1978. Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years’ War: Trial by Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.
The initial Celtic inroads into northern Italy may have been peaceful but after 400 BC they turned violent. Calls for war and raids were proclaimed during banquets like the one described in the writings of Athenaeus.
“When several dine together, they sit in a circle; but the mightiest among them, distinguished above the others for skill in war or family connections, or wealth, sits in the middle like a chorus leader. Beside him is the host and next on either side the others according to their respective ranks. Men-at-arms, carrying oblong shields stand close behind them while their bodyguards seated in a circle directly opposite, share in the feast like their master.”
Probably present too at these Celtic councils, were their priests, the druids, whose creed even at this time was considered ancient and whose origin may have dated to proto-Celtic times.
The lands and cities north of Etruria, belonging to a mosaic of peoples, were steadily looted and annexed by waves of Gallic tribes. Circa 396 BC Melpum fell to the Insubres and five years later, the Boii sacked the Etruscan colony at Marzabotto. In 391 the Senonian chief Brennus led large bands of Gauls into Etruria proper and threatened the town of Clusium. With no help forthcoming from the other members of the politically divided Etruscan cities, Clusium appealed to Rome for help.
In response to Clusium’s pleas, the Roman Senate sent envoys, the sons of the influential patrician (aristocrat) Fabius Ambustus, to forewarn the invading Gauls. The envoys came in peace but tempers soon flared. The Gauls stated that they had no quarrels with the Romans but when asked as to what right they had to the lands of the Etruscans, the Gauls replied “that they carried their right in their weapons … and that everything belonged to the brave.” The Fabii, the sons of Fabius, saw that the proud Gauls had no intention of leaving the Clusians in peace. Eager to test the haughty barbarians’ mettle, the Fabii incited the Clusians to sally out against their besiegers. In the engagement one of the Fabii ran his spear through a Gallic chieftain. Whilst the Fabii despoiled his slain foe of his armor, Brennus saw him and swore upon the gods that, contrary to holy practice, an ambassador who allegedly came in peace had taken up arms with the enemy!
Flabbergasted by the actions of the Fabii, the Gauls retreated from Clusium in order to debate on the Roman intervention. Boiling with anger, some called for an instant advance on Rome but the cooler heads of the elders counseled that ambassadors should be sent first. The elders had their way and the Gallic envoys stated their case in front of the Roman Senate: war could be avoided if Rome surrendered the Fabii ambassadors.
The Senate appreciated the validity of the Gallic demands as did the Fatiales, the priestly guardians of peace. The father of the Fabii brothers, however, had more pull among the masses than either the Senate or the Fatiales. More popular than ever, the warmongering Fabii brothers were even elected as consular tribunes. The consular tribunes in essence shared the power of the former Roman King and the command of the army. To the Gauls this was a slap in the face. The envoys threatened war and returned to their people.
Soon messages from Clusium arrived at Rome: the Gauls had arisen in rage and with celerity stormed southward against Rome. In fear of the Gallic hordes, cities shut their gates while the rural folk took to flight. But for the most part, the Gauls spared the countryside of Rome’s neighbors. Their quarrel was with Rome. Everywhere they went, the Gauls shouted that they were going to Rome. Despite all this the Romans remained complacent. Although alarmed by the speed of the Gallic advance, the Roman commanders were sure that they could handle the barbarian rabble. An army was hastily raised by a levy. Less than eleven miles from Rome, the Romans intercepted the Gauls on 18 July 390 BC on the left bank of the Tiber near its confluence with the River Allia.
Whatever their preconceptions, the Romans were shocked at the sight of the Gallic army. Here was no orderly phalanx confronting them, but a well over 30,000-strong mob, of tall, big-boned men. The Gauls smeared their long curly hair with thick lime wash, and swept it back from their forehead like a flying horse’s mane. Their faces sported full mustaches which drooped down the sides of their chins. Torcs of gold, electrum, silver and bronze, akin to magical talismans, adorned their necks. Some warriors may have stripped completely naked, in accordance with religious and social customs. Others bared only their upper body or wore a tunic alongside their trousers, both of colorful checkered or striped patterns.
The bulk of the Gallic warriors fought as light infantry swordsmen. The early Gallic iron long-sword measured 25 to 30 inches overall. The double-edged blade ended in a pointed tip and judging by archaeological finds was of superb quality. On the other hand, the Greek historian Polybius described Celtic swords as “effective only on the first blow; thereafter they are blunt, and bend so that if the warrior has no time to wedge it against the ground and straighten it with his foot, the second blow is quite ineffective.” Other weapons were spears, at times over 2 yards long, javelins, battle-axes and slings.
For most warriors their sole protection was their shield. Those of the infantry were shaped as yard-long, oblong hexagons or truncated ovals. Cavalry shields were commonly rounded. Bronze, or rarely iron, helmets resembled jockey caps and were festooned with horns, crests of animal designs or the Celtic symbol of war, the wheel. Rarest of all was body armor, reserved for a few of the chiefs and noble warriors who boasted mail shirts or round breastplates and even the occasional piece of armor for their horses.
In pompous displays, nobles arrived at the battle site in chariots but chose to fight the actual battle on foot or mounted steeds to lead the cavalry. Howls and wild cries, accompanied by the blaring of horns and trumpets, resounded over the battlefield as the Gauls worked themselves into a battle frenzy.
Upwards of 15,000 Romans and allies from neighboring Latin cities faced the Gallic horde. The Roman units were concentrated into the “Legio”, a levy “gathered from the clans”, of 6,000 warriors blessed by Mars, the Roman god of war. Tactically the Legio relied on the shock value of a phalanx of hoplites (heavy infantry). The hoplites were ideally armored with helmet, breastplate, greaves and a round shield, the clipeus, affixed to the forearm. They were armed with a thrusting spear and a sword. The legionaries were drawn from Rome’s citizens. Hoplite tactics were widespread throughout Greece and Etruria and were introduced from Etruria into Rome during the mid-sixth century. In addition to the heavily armed hoplites, the legion also included light troops and was further supplemented by some 600 Roman cavalry.
Despite the superior numbers of the enemy, the Romans made no attempt to fortify their position. To prevent being outflanked by the Gauls, who had formed a broad front, the Romans greatly extended their wings. The extra men required for this were apparently taken from the Roman center, which was thus weakened. Even so there were insufficient men to make the Roman front equal to that of the Gauls. As a result the Gallic army not only extended beyond the wings of the Romans but, on the average, was twice as deep and even more so opposite the Roman center. To the right of the Romans there was a small hill and here the Romans stationed their reserves. They were the weakest troops in the Roman force, poorly armed and inexperienced.
Brennus, the Gallic chieftain, suspected that behind the scanty numbers of the enemy lurked some Roman ruse. He feared that the Roman reserves on the hillock would outflank his left wing and strike at his army from the rear while his men were engaged with the legion. As a result Brennus opened the battle by attacking the reserves with elite detachments, possibly cavalry, from his left wing.
The drone of trumpets blared across both sides. From the higher ground on the hillock, the Roman reserves managed to hold out for a while. But then the brute power of the barbarians proved too much. Some of the reserves were driven back into the hills while others were pushed onto the main Roman battle lines.
Upon the rest of the Roman army the shouts and clamor of battle on the hill had a disastrous affect. Not only was the Roman right wing and center thrown into confusion but panic spread from those nearest to the reserves, like a domino affect, all the way across the lines. At this moment the whole Gallic army charged. The ferocity and momentum of the barbarians completely shattered the Roman phalanx. The Gauls could scarcely believe their good fortune. “None [the Romans] were slain while actually fighting; they were cut down from behind whilst hindering one another’s flight in a confused, struggling mass,” wrote Livy.
The Roman left wing and possibly the entire center were swept into the Tiber. Along the banks of the river, there was a great slaughter. The Gallic longswords hewed down upon the Romans like butcher’s cleavers. Many legionaries tried to swim across the river, but the current sucked down those too wounded or unable to swim or those too hampered by the weight of their cuirasses. From along the banks, the Gauls peppered the swimmers with missiles. The Romans who reached the other side fled to entrench themselves at the deserted site of Veii. On the Roman right wing the situation was much better. Instead of fleeing toward the river, the majority of the legionaries retreated into the hills and then to Rome. In Rome they fled up to the Citadel on the Capitol Hill but were in such haste that they neglected to close the city gates.
The Gauls were astonished by their easy victory. They piled up the enemy weapons in great heaps as an offering to their gods and decapitated their fallen foes. Grizzly trophies dangled from bloodied hair, tied to Gallic spears, chariots and horse harnesses. The time of the battle was just after the summer solstice. At night, like some baleful eye, a nearly full moon shone upon the grim field of slaughter.
The next day the Gauls set off towards Rome. The sunset painted the horizon red as the Gauls tramped up to the city gates. Ahead of the main Gallic host the cavalry had carried out reconnaissance. To what must have been an astonished Brennus, the cavalry reported that they had encountered no enemy pickets, that the gates to the city were not shut and that no troops manned the walls. Suspicious of the virtually effortless way they had defeated the reputable might of Rome, the Gauls suspected a trap. Instead of marching right into the undefended city, they bivouacked between Rome and the nearby River Anio and sent further patrols to reconnoiter the walls.
Within the walls of Rome, the wailing and lamentations for the fallen at the River Allia were replaced by a silent terror of the enemy. Throughout the night, the yells and galloping of enemy cavalry could be heard outside the city walls. For those inside the city the tension was nearly unbearable. But due to Gallic indecision, no attack came during the night.
The citizens decided that the city itself was doomed. There was a lack of fighting men and the walls, which consisted of little more than an agger (earth rampart) and a ditch, were wholly inadequate. The only defendable spot was the Citadel on the steep Capitol Hill, where the Senate and the men of military age, along with their families, sought refuge. The priesthood fled from the city, taking with them the most sacred religious relics. As to the common folk, the plebs, many followed the priests’ example and streamed out of the city in unorganized mobs to seek safety in the countryside or within neighboring cities.
About three days after the battle at the River Allia, the Gauls entered the city unopposed. Although they had carried out nightly cavalry reconnaissance, they could not have been very thorough. The Gauls were surprised at the large number of people who, along with their possessions, had already slipped through their grasp. The Gauls stationed a squad of troops around the Capitol Hill, and then, like frenzied wolves, let loose their wrath on those that remained behind or on those who were still in the process of fleeing. For the next few maddening days and nights, the Romans on the Capitol watched helplessly as below them their cherished city was torched. From out of the roaring inferno, as from the fiends of hell, resounded the bellow of the barbarians and the pitiful cries of citizens put to the sword.
After nothing survived amidst the ashes and ruins, the Gauls stormed the Citadel. In stark contrast to the battle of Allia, the Romans now put up a stout defense. The Gauls came on with a battle-shout and locked their shields above their heads to protect themselves against missile fire. The Romans let the enemy advance about halfway up the hill to where the ground was steepest, and then charged. Because of the steep gradient the Romans proved unstoppable and completely scattered their foes.
Wisely deducing that any further attempts to take the Capitol would be fruitless and only result in more Gallic casualties and that in any event time was on their side, the Gauls surrounded the Capitol in a blockade. The problem was how to feed their own troops since the fire had burnt the grain supplies in the city and the surrounding fields had been stripped bare by fleeing citizens. The Gauls decided that half of their numbers would scour the countryside for provisions while the other half continued the siege.
At Rome, a period of relative calm set in. The Romans remained secure within their hilltop fortification while the besiegers continued their investment. Elsewhere there was more activity. At the city of Ardea the Roman general Marcus Furius Camillus, the renowned conqueror of Veii, rallied the citizens against Gallic raiding parties. Not far from Ardea, they surprised and slaughtered a large throng of Gauls. Meanwhile, the Roman troops still encamped at the ruins of Veii fought against various Etruscan bands. Sensing easy spoils, the Etruscans made forays into Roman territory. Volunteers from the rest of Latium steadily swelled the Roman army at Veii. All that was needed was a capable leader. It turned out to be Camillus. With the consent of the Roman Senate, notified by a secret messenger, Camillus was nominated Dictator by order of the people.
According to Roman tradition, the Gauls attempted to infiltrate the Capitol by stealth. At night, a small party scaled the hill near the Temple of Carmentis, a goddess of birth. The climb was precarious but the party gained the summit and completely eluded the Roman sentinels. The Gauls did not even wake the guard dogs. Fortunately for the Romans, the Gauls next passed by the temple of Juno, the goddess of marriage and the wife of Jupiter. Here were kept a flock of sacred geese which put up such a racket that the Roman guard was finally roused. Led by Marcus Manilus, a veteran soldier, the guards confronted the infiltrating Gauls. Manilus faced two of the enemy, one of which wielded an axe. Manilus’ sword flashed and sliced through the axe-man’s right wrist. Blood spurted from the stump as the severed hand and axe hurled through the air. Manilus instantly confronted the second Gaul and smashed his shield into his adversary’s face. The Gaul tumbled backward, right over the parapet and down the cliff. The rest of the Gauls who had gained the parapet were dealt with likewise while a volley of javelins and stones dislodged the Gauls who still clung to the rocks. For his bravery, the surname Capitolinus was bestowed upon Manilus. The result of the fiasco was that the Romans kept stricter watch. The Gauls too tightened their security around the hill, for they had come to realize that messages were passing between Veii and Rome.
Despite their valiant defense of the Capitol, the Roman condition was far from desirable. The blockade continued for seven months and reduced them to famine. The Gauls equally suffered from malnutrition, along with severe outbreaks of malaria. Their dead piled up in such great numbers that efforts were no longer made to bury them. The corpses were simply piled into heaps and burnt.
Hunger so gnawed at the defenders of the Capitol that they gave up any hope of being relieved by Camillus. All that was left was to sue for a peace. A conference between the consular tribune Q. Sulpicious Longus and Brennus ended with the Romans agreeing to pay 1000 lbs of gold for the peaceful withdrawal of the Gauls. When it was time to weigh the gold, the Gauls produced heavier, false counter-weights. The Romans complained but to no avail, for Brennus threw his own sword on the scales and haughtily proclaimed “Woe to the vanquished!”
What happened next is shrouded in legend. Livy wrote that Camillus and his army now appeared on the scene. He at once ordered the Gauls to leave the gold and to march away from the city. When they refused to do so, a chaotic battle erupted as Romans and Gauls fought each other within the streets and alleys of the ruined city. The end was that the famished and disease-stricken Gauls were easily routed and driven out of the city. At the eighth milestone on the road to Gabii, the Gauls rallied but were again defeated by Camillus’ pursuing force. Plutarch mirrors Livy’s tale, except that he maintains that the skirmish in the city resulted in few Gallic casualties and that the Gauls retreated in good order until their defeat on the road to Gabii. In contrast to Livy and Plutarch, Polybius makes no mention of Roman heroics and tells us that the Gauls raised the siege because their own lands were threatened by an invasion of the Veneti, a pre-Celtic people of north-eastern Italy. Diodorus gives us yet another account in which the Gauls left Rome of their own free will after receiving the gold. Later they were defeated on two separate occasions, by Camillus at the town of Veascium and by the Caeretans in Sabine territory.
Most modern historians consider Camillus’ defeat of the Gauls to be little more than a fanciful revision by classical historians who were loath to admit Rome’s defeat at the hands of mere barbarians. But there is probably a bit of truth in the classical accounts. Perhaps the Gauls accepted the ransom because of pestilence and malnutrition within their own ranks and because of rumors of the Veneti invasion and a possible large gathering of fresh Roman forces in the countryside. On their way home the Gauls no doubt spread into smaller bands to ease their living off the land. Romans and other tribes might well have ambushed many of these bands and recovered part of the ransom gold.
Whatever the truth of the Gallic departure, the Romans ever after called their defeat at the Allia the dies ater (“black day”). The sack of their city left a deep impression on the Romans. Clearly the army needed improvement and the city defenses strengthening, to prevent future disasters at the hands of the Gauls. The first of these problems was addressed by Camillus. He began a series of army reforms that were further enhanced during the late fourth century wars against the Samnites, the tough mountain tribes of the south-central Apennines. The easily disordered phalanx was abandoned in favor of the tight, independent unit of the maniple. The maniple averaged 60 to 120-men strong, placed at intervals in a line. The maniples were much more elastic, both in attack and defense, than the old phalanx. Each maniple could independently fall back or advance, as the situation required, without messing up the whole battle line.
Volleys of javelins were used to prepare the way for combat with the short sword. The round shield was replaced by the more familiar Samnite scutum, a large semi-cylindrical four-cornered shield. Alongside the new army, Rome’s agger was raised and backed by a 12-foot thick and 24-foot high solid stone wall, circling the whole city for a distance of over five miles. Greek contractors may have built the wall, the labor being done by the Roman army and by Veientine captives.
The defeat at the River Allia discredited Rome in the eyes of her neighbors. The loyalty of Rome’s Latin allies began to waver while erstwhile enemies, the Aequi, Volsci and Etruscans, reopened old wars. What was won in over a hundred years was lost in a single battle. Fortunately for the Romans, for a long time after the battle on the Allia, the Gauls only raided into peninsular Italy sporadically. Instead, the Gauls concentrated on consolidating their hold on the north Italian plain, which, until the end of the Republican period, became known as Gallia Cisalpina.
The air war over Indochina was a decidedly one-sided affair. The Viet Minh did not have the ability to operate an air force, especially one with modern jet fighters. Nor did Mao offer them one. This was just as well for the French, who relied on slower propeller-driven aircraft throughout the conflict. In Korea, Soviet and Chinese-piloted MiG-15 jets operated south of the Yalu, intercepting American B-29 bombers targeting North Korea’s defence industries. This led to fierce aerial battles, though the communists ultimately failed to gain control of the air. The North Koreans were supplied the MiG, but they and their allies’ jet fighters had little bearing on the ground war as they spent much of their time locked in dogfights.
In contrast, America was soon providing the French with Second World War-vintage naval dive-bombers to support their ground war in Indochina. However, France’s greatest failing was its complete lack of a strategic airlift capability and the weakness of its tactical airlift. The French never really generated the ability to support more than one operation at a time, which was to have catastrophic results at Dien Bien Phu.
Once China and the Soviet Union had recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the Viet Minh began to receive ever-growing quantities of Chinese and Soviet weapons.
Subsequently, French reliance on fortified ‘hedgehogs’ meant aircraft played a key role in the escalating war, providing vital ground support and supplies. The French air force committed around 300 aircraft to Vietnam, while the French navy rotated four carriers with their naval air squadrons in the South China Sea.
Prior to the Second World War, the French Armée de l’Air (air force) and Aéronnautique Naval or Aéronavale (naval air force) had maintained only token units in Indochina. Most of the aircraft there were obsolete, consisting of 1925-vintage biplanes. At the outbreak of the war in 1939, the French had about 100 aircraft, of which just 13 were modern fighters. These accounted for 20 Thai aircraft during the brief border war with Thailand, but they could do nothing to counter the powerful Japanese air force.
The French air force first returned to Saigon on 12 September 1945, when Americanbuilt Douglas C-47 Skytrains ferried in 150 French troops to serve alongside the British. Subsequently, C-47 and Toucan (Ju 52 variant) transports were used to drop rudimentary barrel bombs on Viet Minh positions. On their return to Indochina, until 1949, the French feared that America might impose an embargo on spares for U.S.-made combat aircraft and thus greatly limit their deployment options. This concern, however, evaporated once Mao had taken over in China.
Ironically, the Nazi war machine helped equip the French armed forces. The trimotor Toucan was a hangover from the Second World War. While under Nazi occupation, France had been forced to build the German Junkers Ju 52 medium bomber and transport aircraft. These were constructed at the Amiot factory at Colombes. Post-war designated the AAC.1 Toucan, it was kept in production with over 400 built for Air France and the French air force. The drawback with the Toucan, and indeed the Skytrain, was the limited number of men they could carry: eighteen and twenty-eight respectively. This meant that parachute and air-landing operations required very large numbers of transport aircraft. In the Second World War, the Axis and Allies conducted such operations, but they always resulted in considerable losses in aircraft.
Similarly, occupied France built the German Fieseler Fi 156 Storch (Stork) reconnaissance aircraft, made famous by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. It was also kept in postwar production as the Morane-Saulnier Criquet (Cricket). This proved ideal for Indochina because of its short take-off and landing capabilities, plus its low speed, which enabled it to use the roughest of air strips. The Criquet was deployed in Indochina by the French army, Armée de l’Air and Aéronavale for a wide variety of tasks.
The first fighter aircraft sent out were British-supplied Supermarine Spitfires, rather than the Armée de l’Air’s American-built Republic P-47Ds. While waiting for them, French pilots conducted hair-raising training flights in a dozen dilapidated and untrustworthy Japanese fighters. The Spitfires though, were not suitable for ground support due to their limited range and small bomb load. Nonetheless, they were flown from Saigon in Cochinchina, Nha Trang and Tourane (Da Nang) in Annam and Hanoi, and Lang Son in Tonkin until 1947. Likewise, the British-supplied, twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito proved ill-suited to the conditions, as the bonded-plywood structure had a habit of falling apart in the tropical heat. Confined to Saigon, they were eventually sent home.
To back up the Armée de l’Air the French navy sought to keep a carrier stationed off the coast of Vietnam, though these deployments really stretched its capabilities, operating so far from home. The escort carrier Dixmude (former HMS Biter) first arrived in the South China Sea in March 1947, with nine American-supplied Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive-bombers – the victors of the Battle of Midway in June 1942. These aircraft made their first carrier sorties on the 16th of that month, with additional raids against targets in Annam and Tonkin.
After problems with her launch catapult, Dixmude was forced to return to Toulon for repairs, thereafter making only one more combat deployment the following year. On the return journey, the vessel carried Toucans and Spitfires for the air force. The elderly carrier was then employed as an aircraft-transport vessel. Dixmude was photographed in 1950 on the Saigon River with a deck full of F6F-5 Hellcats.
The light carrier Arromanches (former HMS Colossus) arrived in November 1948, making a total of four combat deployments up to and including 1954. This carrier operated the American Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver dive-bomber. While it provided accurate and powerful support for the French ground forces, the Helldiver was vulnerable to ground fire. During these deployments, the aircraft usually operated from forward land bases rather than from the carrier.
The third carrier committed to the war was La Fayette (former USS Langley), which took over in April 1953, minus its aircraft, ready to take on those from the Arromanches. It only stayed on station for five weeks.
The fourth and final carrier, Bois Belleau (former USS Belleau Wood), only operated from 30 April to 15 September 1954. The navy also deployed amphibious aircraft, such as the PBY Catalina, to patrol Vietnam’s coastal waters and the Red River Delta. Additionally, they acted in air-support, transport and medical-evacuation roles. These were replaced by the four-engine PB4Y Privateer, which was the largest aircraft operated by the French.
Once Mao was in power and the Korean War had broken out, Washington saw France less as an unsavoury colonial power with dubious democratic credentials, and more as a staunch anti-communist ally. The Spitfires were soon followed with American-supplied Bell P-63 Kingcobras, called ‘Kings’ by their French aircrews. These helped cover the ill-fated withdrawal from Cao Bang in the summer of 1950, but again, could not carry a large enough bombload and could not operate from forward airfields.
What arrived next was much better and just what the French needed. To re-equip French fighter units, the Americans provided the F6F-5 Hellcat and the F8F-1 Bearcat. Both these were designed as carrier strike aircraft, so were capable of relatively short takeoff and landing. This meant that they were ideal for forward deployment in Indochina. The Hellcats were delivered by U.S. carrier in November 1950 with the ‘Beercats’ as the French called them, following in January 1951.
The Hellcat was only intended as an interim solution until all the fighter squadrons could be equipped with the Bearcat – this conversion though, was not completed until early 1953. In contrast, the Bearcat remained in service until the final French withdrawal in April 1956, and fought at Dien Bien Phu. It became the premier fighter-bomber in Indochina, being used almost solely for ground-attack missions. Some ‘Beercats’ though, were converted to a reconnaissance role by fitting specially modified U.S. drop tanks fitted with two cameras.
In the French armoury was napalm. This jellied-petroleum bomb, developed by the Americans in the early 1940s, and used against the Japanese during the Second World War, was then employed by UN forces in Korea. This terrible weapon, which bursts on contact with the ground into a wide carpet of flame, generates enormous heat and, once stuck to skin, cannot be removed. Used as an anti-personnel weapon, it was devastating. The Bearcat was capable of dropping 100gal. napalm tanks. It was first used by the French on 22 December 1950, against a Viet Minh troop concentration at Tien Yen.
The French air force desperately wanted a twin-engine light bomber, but none was available. It especially needed such an aircraft once the Viet Minh’s air defences began to improve. The best available aircraft to fill this role was the American Douglas B-26 Invader, which was known as the A-26 until 1948. While the Bearcat and Hellcat were surplus to U.S. Navy requirements, the USAF was employing its B-26 as night bombers in Korea. Nonetheless, the first four aircraft were supplied to the French in early November 1950.
The B-26 was the most potent type of air power the French were able to bring to bear during the war, with the ability to carry 2,722kg of bombs, napalm or rockets, and armed with up to fourteen machine guns. Equipping a French bomb group, the B-26s were operated from Tourane. A further two bomb groups were later formed using this aircraft. Despite its growing strength and newfound confidence, the French air force was unable to provide the army with a decisive edge during the inconclusive Black River offensive in the winter of 1951–52. From then until the end of the war, America provided some eighty bombers, fighter-bombers and transport aircraft. Many of these, however, arrived too late to influence the outcome of the war.
Funds were not made available for the acquisition of limited numbers of helicopters from Britain until 1952. America also supplied some rotary-wing aircraft. The French army, air force and navy all deployed helicopters to support their operations. The Groupement des Formations d’Hélicoptères of the French army was created under Commandant Marceau Crespin. In honour of General de Lattre’s late son, who was killed in action, the French army’s main helipad at Tan Son Nhut air base outside Saigon was named Camp Bernard de Lattre. Army helicopter squadrons were also based at Bien Hoa to the north of Saigon. These were used almost entirely for medical evacuation rather than troop carrying. By the time of Dien Bien Phu, the French had just thirty-two helicopters, most of which were Sikorski S-55s, dubbed the H-19 by the French.
General Salan, relying on the strategy of les hérissons fortified ‘hedgehog’ bases and mobile commando operations, needed the commitment of massive airpower. By this stage, the air force had some 300 aircraft, including four groups of Bearcats and two of Invaders. This strength was to remain unchanged until after Dien Bien Phu, when the third bomb group was added.
After the withdrawal of the antiquated Toucans, there were three transport groups equipped with C-47s, providing logistical support for the ground troops. To supplement this insufficient fleet, the French made use of commercial- and American-supplied Fairchild C-119Cs, which were sent from Japan and Korea. Some aircraft were flown by American mercenaries, operating from Formosa. These civilian pilots could earn up to five times that of their counterparts in the Armée de l’Air. The French armed forces’ lack of a strategic airlift meant that to fly troops and equipment from France or the other colonies required the help of Air France. America also stepped in, transporting almost 1,000 military personnel from Paris to Saigon in April–May 1954.
By 1953, the key Armée de l’Air officers were General Charles Lauzin, commander of the French air force in Indochina, General Jean Dechaux, commander Tactical Air Group North (Tonkin), and Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot, commanding the air transport group. Army aviation came under Commandant Crespin, who was responsible for the limited helicopter units.
Part of the fascination of the battle of Hastings is that it was such a close-fought thing. For all that the Normans had mounted cavalry and a stronger force of archers, for all that forces which relied on heavy infantry alone were to go out of fashion, these two very different armies had fought almost the whole day and the outcome was not by any means certain. The hill had blunted the impact of the cavalry and had made it more difficult for archers to shoot with effect. The shield-wall manned by heavy infantry, well-armed and well disciplined, proved a match for the Norman cavalry as well as their infantry.
With hindsight we see the key moments. The repeated feigned flights had resulted in some deaths and gaps; the repeated cavalry attacks had gradually reduced the shield-wall. But now came the two killer punches. At some point, probably before Harold’s death, his two younger brothers who had fought alongside him, Leofwin and Gyrth, were killed. William of Poitiers simply makes a statement that many English leaders were killed: ‘their king was dead and his brothers with him’.
The death of the younger brothers is presented on the Tapestry at an early point in the battle, before William has shown his face: both killed by lances, Leofwin probably the figure wielding a battleaxe, Gyrth a spear. Recently, it has been suggested that they may have fallen in an English advance. There very probably was such an attempt to win the battle, but there is no evidence of who was involved in it, or even what happened, except that clearly in the last resort it failed. Again the elaboration by the Carmen does not carry conviction, with William killing Gyrth in hand-to-hand conflict while on foot.57 No one else noticed that either.
The first killer punch was the death of Harold. The fact that his brothers had also been killed meant that the English lacked a commander. Before we look at the method of Harold’s demise, let us briefly determine at what stage in the battle it occurred. All sources except one suggest or fit with a death towards the end of the battle, including our best source, Poitiers. The fly in the ointment is William of Jumièges, who states: ‘Harold himself was slain, pierced with mortal wounds during the first assault.’
There is no getting round the meaning of the words, but we cannot take this one comment against the weight of all the other evidence, though at least one later source does follow Jumièges. Suggestions have been made that the chronicler originally said something else, such as ‘in the first rank’, and there is a copyist’s error, or that he meant ‘the first attack in the final assault’ – all the usual excuses when evidence does not fit. We can only say that Jumièges seems to have got this wrong, but his is a brief account, which goes straight on to the final stages of the fight and says that it was the death which led to the flight at nightfall.
William’s last effort was an all-out one, involving every section of his force. We have seen that the Normans had both crossbowmen and archers with ordinary bows, and have argued elsewhere that the latter were in effect longbows. The events which now occurred help to support that argument, since the archery from some distance had the desired effect. William of Poitiers does not say much about this attack, just that ‘the Normans shot arrows, hit and pierced the enemy’. But the Tapestry at this point in the margin shows one archer after the other in a prolonged frieze aiming their weapons upwards: nineteen figures without a break, and then more a little further on.
I have also argued elsewhere against the idea that the arrows were shot high up into the air to come down again on the English heads, largely because it would have been ineffective, the arrows would have lost their force. This does not mean that they would not adjust their shooting to cope with the higher position of the enemy. Some of the English on the Tapestry catch the arrows in their shields, clearly shot with force since they become embedded. Harold was not the only one to suffer; a nameless Norman falls to the ground with an arrow in his head. For the first time the English line was seriously weakened, and some of the main front-line troops were killed, including Harold himself.
Some, generally more ‘popular’ works, still repeat the old chestnut that Harold was not killed by an arrow in the eye. This was an idea that stemmed from historians criticising the evidence. A number of late sources spoke of Harold being cut down with swords; the early works did not describe at all the manner of his death. Our conclusions depend largely on how we interpret two sources in particular.
The first to consider is the Carmen. Those who accept its account have no arrow in the eye. But it is surely an incredible account, which none of the early sources confirm in any way. By it, the duke sees Harold fighting bravely. He summons to himself a little gang of three, like the magnificent seven: Eustace of Boulogne, whose actions are cowardly in other sources; Hugh the heir of Ponthieu, who is otherwise unknown and who did not succeed to Ponthieu; and ‘Gilfardus’, who is usually identified as Walter Giffard, he of the white hair and bald head according to Wace, another identification which has caused some problems.
The four, including the Conqueror, attack Harold: the first (none are named in this section of the poem) cleaves through his shield with a sword, drawing blood; the second smites off his head; the third pierces his belly with a lance; the fourth hacks off his leg and carries it away. There was then a ‘rumour’ that Harold was dead. Presumably after all that he was.
William of Malmesbury, possibly following the Tapestry, does have an unnamed knight maiming Harold after he was killed by an arrow; the knight in question is disgraced by the Conqueror for this deed, but this does not support the Carmen version in which William himself was one of the four attackers. This incident in the poem really does seem more incredible than any of its other incredible stories. Can one believe that William himself took part in the killing of Harold and no one else apart from the poet recorded the fact? Davis is surely right that this is a later legendary elaboration. It seems unlikely that the Conqueror took any part at all in Harold’s killing. He could not even recognise him after the battle without help.
The second and the most important source here is the Bayeux Tapestry. The anti-arrow school argued that the figure dying with an arrow in the eye or head was not Harold. The following figure, under the words ‘interfectus est’ [was killed], is Harold, being hacked down by a rider with his sword. Again, this cannot be verified. But knowledge of the Tapestry’s way of pointing out its facts would suggest that the lettering of the name ‘Harold’ above and around the first figure was meant to show that this was the king. A number of people have argued that both figures are Harold and it is a sort of cartoon strip representation of him being first hit by an arrow and secondly being finished off by a cavalryman.
This view has been enhanced by the keen eye of a modern historian, David Bernstein. In a paper given to the Anglo-Norman Studies conference, he pointed out that if one looks carefully at the Tapestry, there are visible stitch marks by the head of the second figure; and the obvious interpretation is that they originally represented the shaft of an arrow in the eye of the second, falling figure too.
This seems to settle the issue. In the view of the Tapestry at least, Harold Godwinson was hit by an arrow in the head, whether either or both of the figures were meant to be the king. The likely view is that both are Harold. Some later chroniclers give such an account: they may have followed the Tapestry, but even if their facts were not independent, at least they believed the Tapestry meant both figures to be Harold and that he was hit by an arrow.
The archery had achieved the first major blow of the battle, and one that was fatal to English hopes as well as to their king. The loss of a commander in a medieval battle was very rarely followed by anything but defeat for the side which suffered the loss, and Hastings was no exception. If the English fought on it was from training and discipline, and because the best hope of survival was to slog out the final minutes of daylight and hope to retreat under cover of dark. They did not manage it.
Wace, for all our doubts, is a useful source for quotes, partly because his military knowledge was good even if his particular knowledge of Hastings was less so. He speaks of the lengthy battle, suggesting that the crisis came at about 3 p.m., after a long day when ‘the battle was up and down, this way and that’. William of Poitiers says that the remaining English were exhausted and at the end of their tether, which is not difficult to believe.
The Normans began to sense victory: ‘the longer they fought the stronger they seemed to be; and their onslaught was even fiercer now than it had been at the beginning’. The duke fought in their midst, sparing none who crossed his path. In other words, after the infantry attack the cavalry made a final charge, and this time it worked. The shield-wall, which had withstood such a battering all day, finally broke and once that had happened there was no hope.
The English forces broke and fled. The Tapestry’s final scene shows a miscellaneous band of Normans in pursuit, three wielding swords, one a spear and one carrying a bow ready to shoot. A small and rather forlorn group of Englishmen are the last figures to survive on the Tapestry, some on horses, some on foot. One may have an arrow in his head, since the context does not seem to fit with him raising a spear. In the lower margin by this point the bodies have been stripped of their armour and lie naked, some without heads, one with a severed arm. The only hope of survival for those who remained was to reach the cover of the woods to the rear. Some ran on foot, some were able to ride. According to Poitiers this was on ‘horses which they had seized’ rather than their own, though there is no reason why others were not able to reclaim the mounts they had left behind earlier in the day. Poitiers says they went by roads and by places where there were none. Many, of course, were wounded and escape was difficult or impossible. ‘Many died where they fell in the deep cover of the woods’, others dropped exhausted along the way. There was a Norman pursuit. Some were cut down from behind, some were trampled under the horses’ hoofs.
We shall again rely primarily on William of Poitiers for an account of the Malfosse incident. He does not give it a name or a clear location, though he describes the natural feature. In Poitiers, it clearly happens after the English had broken in flight. He has no tale of a hillock in the middle of the battlefield. According to him, there was a last ditch defence made by a considerable force of English. They had taken up a good defensive position which the Normans approached during the pursuit.
The reason this is called the Malfosse incident is that our old friend the Battle Abbey chronicler identified it as such. His modern editor queries what is meant, and suggests that it is possible that the name came later. Malfosse means ‘evil ditch’. It could have been named for a variety of reasons: a description of its nature, a burial ditch. Everyone has assumed it was the site of this last resistance, and that is possible – but not certain.
Orderic Vitalis has two versions of the incident. The first is an interpolation in William of Jumièges. He also places the incident during the pursuit. In this account, the event could have occurred anywhere as he speaks of a pursuit that continued into Sunday, and an incident that was on ‘the following night’ – though he probably means Saturday night. He wrote: ‘for high grass concealed an ancient rampart’ into which ‘abyss of destruction’ the Normans rode ‘crushing each other to death’. He says 15,000 died here, a figure we need not take seriously. Orderic’s second account, in Ecclesiastical History, is similar, though the feature becomes a ‘broken rampart and labyrinth of ditches’, and the victim Engenulf de Laigle is named. This revised account also makes it clear that he is speaking of Saturday night for the incident.
The Battle Abbey chronicler gives more space to the Malfosse incident than to the rest of the battle, which is very odd and seems to require some explanation. It does not add to our confidence in him. He seems to have picked up some vivid tale, perhaps from local gossip, and tied it in with an account of the battle which is brief and largely uninformative. He says:
… a final disaster was revealed to all. Lamentable, just where the fighting was going on, and stretching for a considerable distance, an immense ditch yawned. It may have been a natural cleft in the earth or perhaps it had been hollowed out by storms. But in this waste ground it was overgrown with brambles and thistles, and could hardly be seen in time; and it swallowed great numbers, especially of Normans in pursuit of the English.
He says that they galloped unawares into the chasm and were killed: ‘This deep pit has been named for the accident, and today it is called Malfosse.’ What we seem to have here is an original incident after the battle recorded by Poitiers, turned into something different in a rather confused manner by Orderic, and then a century after the event latched on to by the Battle Abbey chronicler for a local site, though he does not tell us where it is.
It seems ironic that the source which claims Battle Hill for the site of the battle is the one which also says the Malfosse was ‘just where the battle was going on’. The Malfosse has been identified on the ground with reasonable certainty, and is just to the rear of Caldbec Hill, exactly where one might expect a last ditch resistance after the army had been forced to leave its first line of defence on the hill. It is quite a way back from Battle Hill – though it could be a last ditch defence after flight from there.
The identification of the site depends primarily on a series of medieval records, including several thirteenth-century charters which refer clearly to the same name as ‘Maufosse’. It is to be placed to the north of Caldbec Hill, behind Virgin’s Lane and very close to the pool (which might be Senlac). Here, 600 yards north of Caldbec Hill, is to be found the natural feature known as Oakwood Gill, which is the natural feature most close to the chronicle descriptions: with a gully which Chevallier calls ‘a deep ravine’, with steep banks, brambles and undergrowth, a stream, just on the edge of Duniford Wood.
The Conqueror was surprised to find this defended position, and wondered if these were reinforcements, which is possible. It may also have been a deliberate English plan to give some cover in the case of a retreat. At any rate, Poitiers says there were ‘battalions’ of men, making use of ‘a deep gully and a series of ditches’. Eustace of Boulogne with fifty knights was intending to return, in Orderic it is in flight, preferring not to attack this tough position. The Conqueror ordered him forward, but at that moment Eustace was hit between the shoulders, the blood spurted from nose and mouth. The Conqueror himself led an attack and the last resistance was crushed. William then returned to the battlefield. The day was his. One of the greatest battles in the history of England had come to its conclusion.
Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard
The French concentrated around the Rhine from early to mid-September. 210,000 troops of the Grande Armée prepared to cross into Germany and encircle the Austrians.
The small Bavarian town of Wertingen had rarely figured very prominently in German history. A sleepy place south of the Danube about twenty-five miles north-west of Augsburg, it had for most of its life remained a quiet backwater. In the War of the Spanish Succession two mighty armies had clashed with one another a few miles away on the other side of the Danube at Blenheim, but few ripples of that conflict had reached the local peasants and townsfolk. Equally, in August 1796 French troops from Moreau’s Army of the Rhine and Moselle had passed through the town en route for Augsburg, but there had been no fighting, and the town had also escaped seeing any action in the campaign of 1800. On 8 October 1805, however, Wertingen was suddenly pitchforked into the very heart of Europe’s affairs. Late the previous night it had without warning been occupied by about 5,000 men of the Austrian Army of the Danube under Baron Franz Auffenberg. Sent to the area to investigate rumours that enemy troops had crossed the Danube east of the Austrian base of Ulm, the troops were cooking their midday meal when suddenly news arrived that a large French force was approaching from the north-west. A pot-pourri of units that was a perfect representative of the polyglot Austrian army – Germans from the infantry regiments of Chasteler, Spork, and Kaunitz rubbed shoulders with Czechs from those of Stuart and Württemberg, Poles from that of Reuss-Greitz and Hungarians from that of Jellacic – the white-coated Habsburg troops rushed to form up, but it was too late. With over 8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, led by Marshals Murat and Lannes, the French fell upon the unfortunate Auffenberg without more ado. Fighting bravely, his men put up a fierce stand around Wertingen itself, but it was to no avail: by the end of the afternoon over 3,000 men had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner for the loss of perhaps 200 Frenchmen.
Unimportant though it was, this brief action set the scene for the next two years. In a series of outstanding campaigns, Napoleon was to overrun central Europe at the head of his grande armée, and inflict defeat after defeat on armies of the ancien régime that seemingly had no answer to his men, his methods and his genius. But the triumphs which for the rest of the Napoleonic age were to adorn the standards of so many French regiments were not just the result of superior tactics, organization or generalship. The French war-machine was anything but perfect in 1805, while Napoleon was quite capable of making serious errors. At the moment when Lannes and Murat collided with Auffenberg at Wertingen, for example, the emperor thought that the army of General Mack lay ahead of the grande armée to the south-east, rather than far to its right at Ulm. Equally, in 1805 much of the French cavalry was poorly mounted and cut a poor figure in the face of that of the Austrians and Russians. It is therefore important to remember that many other factors were crucial in the dramatic events of 1805-7. Thanks to Napoleon, the French state was far better able to sustain an offensive war than had ever been the case in the 1790s. But also important was the diplomatic context to Napoleon’s wars. From the very beginning the Third Coalition was a mismanaged and ill-coordinated venture, while resistance to the emperor was constantly undermined by the continuing belief of many European statesmen that the ‘great game’ of conventional eighteenth-century power politics was still in operation. As they were about to learn, nothing could be further from the truth.
A number of British statesmen had been unenthusiastic about seeking continental allies for fear that to do so would simply be to hand Napoleon fresh victories. Although a coalition was in the end vital to Great Britain, in the short term they were proven entirely right. For Napoleon, the end of the impasse on the Channel coast in all probability came as a great relief. Until the very last minute invasion appears to have been his intention: not only did he fly into a violent rage when news arrived that Villeneuve had made for Cádiz rather than the Channel (see below), but the troops were plucked from the midst of incessant amphibious exercises. ‘Twenty times’, wrote an artillery officer, Baron Hulot, ‘in the fifteen days that followed [the emperor’s] return [to Boulogne on 3 August 1805] I went down to . . . Calais or Dunkirk to . . . supervise the embarkation of the artillery.’ Yet there remained enormous obstacles that Napoleon cannot have been blind to even if he would not admit to them in public. Despite prodigious expenditure, the ports around which the grande armée was encamped were still insufficient to get all the troops to sea in a single tide, while the disaster of 20 July 1804 was anything but reassuring. In short, the French were simply not ready to make the attempt even if they could obtain the necessary naval superiority. And Napoleon knew it: as he observed to one of his aides-de-camp on 4 August, ‘This invasion is by no means a certainty.’ Yet nor could the ‘camp of Boulogne’ be maintained for very much longer. As the months dragged on, so the problem of boredom became ever more acute. As Raymond de Fezensac, a young ci-devant who had enlisted in the 59me Régiment d’Infanterie de Ligne as a gentleman volunteer in 1804 and went on to become an aide-de-camp to Marshal Ney, remembered of the soldiers, ‘Sleeping . . . singing songs, telling stories, getting into arguments over nothing, reading the few bad books that they managed to procure; this was their life.’ Nor, meanwhile, did the waiting suit Napoleon himself. Organizing the invasion was a project that had taken years and, dreams of winning control of the Channel notwithstanding, could well take many years more. How much longer could a fresh injection of martial glory be delayed?
The emergence of the Third Coalition came as manna from heaven, particularly as France was in the grip of a serious financial crisis brought on by heavy government borrowing and the slow manner in which the regime had been paying the numerous contractors engaged in the construction of the invasion flotillas. And, if any further pretext was required, on 23 August news arrived at Boulogne that there would be a further lengthy delay before the invasion flotilla could sail. Its only hope of success had been that the French and Spanish squadrons scattered around the coast of Europe from Toulon to Brest might somehow slip through the British blockade and either unite in the West Indies, thereby forcing the Royal Navy to leave the Channel unguarded, or else join together for a desperate struggle off the British coast itself. By 1805 it was the former plan that was in the ascendant and at the end of March the Toulon squadron had succeeded in dodging the British blockade, escaping through the Straits of Gibraltar and reaching the island of Martinique. No other ships succeeded in joining them there, however, and, with Nelson bearing down upon him, the French commander, Admiral Villeneuve, eventually decided to sail back to Europe in the hope of uniting with France’s other main battle squadrons, which were trapped in Brest and Rochefort. Encountering a British squadron off Finisterre, he was driven into port at El Ferrol. Here he might yet have accomplished much – there was a substantial Spanish squadron at Ferrol while the French ships at Rochefort had managed to get out of port in the confusion – but a mixture of disillusionment, misapprehension and muddle caused Villeneuve to flee for the safety of Cádiz, whither he was followed by the largest force the British could muster. Even more ominously, command of this force was given to the hero of Aboukir and Copenhagen, Horatio Nelson, a leader who radiated aggression and self-confidence, inspired absolute devotion amongst his subordinates, and united tactical genius with a savage hatred of the enemy.
All this left Napoleon both furious and disgusted. As Ségur recounts, even the relatively innocuous news that Villeneuve had taken shelter at El Ferrol provoked an explosion:
It was about four o’clock in the morning of August 13th that the news was brought to the emperor . . . Daru was summoned and on entering he gazed on his chief in utter astonishment. He told me afterwards that he looked perfectly wild, that his hat was thrust down to his eyes, and that his whole aspect was terrible. As soon as he saw Daru he rushed up and thus apostrophized him; ‘Do you know where that fool of a Villeneuve is now? He is at Ferrol. Do you know what that means? At Ferrol? You do not know? He has been beaten; he has gone to hide himself . . . That is the end of it: he will be blocked up there. What a navy! What an admiral! What useless sacrifices!’ And, becoming more and more excited, he walked up and down the room for about an hour giving vent to his justifiable anger in a torrent of bitter reproaches and sorrowful reflections.
That Napoleon was aggrieved that two years had been lost there was no doubt. But he was soon happily making the best of a bad job: ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if we must give that up, we will at any rate hear the Midnight Mass at Vienna.’ No sooner had he spent his rage at Villeneuve’s retreat to Ferrol, indeed, than he is supposed to have sat Daru down and dictated the plan of campaign that, exactly as he had predicted, saw him reach Vienna by Christmas. Before telling that story, we must first wrap up matters naval, however.
With the invasion attempt definitively abandoned, Napoleon might have done best to leave Villeneuve’s fleet in port. However, perturbed by Sir James Craig’s expedition to the Mediterranean, the emperor ordered him to make for Naples so as to put ashore the 4,000 troops who had been attached to his squadron and assist St Cyr in the task of overawing Ferdinand IV. Despite the fact that neither his own ships nor the Spanish squadron stationed in Cádiz were remotely fit for battle, the French admiral realized that compliance was the only hope of saving his career – Napoleon had in fact dispatched Admiral Rosily to replace him – and on 20 October he put to sea. Alongside him sailed fifteen Spanish men-of-war, commanded by Admiral Federico Gravina. The presence of these forces provides a useful opportunity to discuss the relationship that had developed between France and Spain since the latter’s forced re-entry into the conflict in November 1804. In brief, Franco-Spanish relations were extremely poor. Initially, the royal favourite and dominant figure in the regime, Manuel de Godoy, had affected enthusiasm for the war. In this, he may even have been genuine: once hostilities had become inevitable there was, after all, no barrier to dreams of retaking Gibraltar or seizing a slice of Portugal. But the fact is that Spain had little choice: Britain was clearly bent on making war on her, while Napoleon made it quite clear to the Spanish ambassador to Paris – none other than the same Admiral Gravina – that any other response than military action would incur great displeasure on his part.
On 9 January 1805, then, a convention had been signed whereby the Spaniards promised to arm naval squadrons at El Ferrol, Cádiz and Cartagena by the end of March. At first all went well enough: by a variety of means Napoleon encouraged Godoy to believe that Spain would indeed be permitted to move against Portugal and in response the favourite threw himself into the task of readying the Spanish navy for war. Much was achieved: six ships-of-the-line were able to join Villeneuve from Cádiz when he sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic in April after escaping from Toulon, while strenuous efforts, not least on the financial front, had by the same date got another twelve ready in the other two naval bases mentioned in the convention. Naturally enough, these efforts, which had been made in the face of considerable opposition in the ministry and the naval establishment, persuaded Godoy that he was entitled to some reward and, in particular, to make use of Spain’s forces to pursue military objectives of interest to Madrid. One obvious possibility was an attack on Gibraltar and another a descent on one or other of Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean. To Napoleon, however, such designs were of no account, and the unfortunate Godoy found that he was expected to commit all Spain’s forces to the invasion of Britain. Still worse, it appeared that what Spain had achieved thus far was not enough: Napoleon not only wanted more ships mobilized than the Spaniards had promised, but was in effect demanding the transfer of a number of additional vessels to the French navy.
In the event this particular spectre did not become a reality, but neither did Godoy’s dreams of territorial acquisitions. On the contrary, these were pointedly ignored: no fewer than three attempts to interest Napoleon in a march on Lisbon received no response whatsoever. Only when it became clear that the Portuguese, for all their neutrality, remained loyal to their traditional friendship with Britain did Napoleon take an interest in the subject and even then Godoy’s hopes were soon dashed. Given the emergence of the Third Coalition, Napoleon no longer had any troops to spare for Portugal and began to speak in terms of the Spaniards sending troops to Italy or even Germany. An angry Godoy therefore began to drag his feet in Madrid. He was deeply conscious of the faulty state of many of the ships, the tactical superiority of the British and Spain’s chronic shortage of trained manpower. In recent years this had been exacerbated by successive epidemics of yellow fever that had killed many thousands of people in the coastal communities of Andalucía – in Málaga alone, there were 6,343 deaths between 22 August and 1 October 1804. Told that new orders had arrived, laying down that the combined squadron should sail for Naples and add the many soldiers embarked on Villeneuve’s ships to St Cyr’s army, in Cádiz Gravina and his officers fiercely opposed leaving port. Only through accusations of cowardice coupled with news that Nelson had detached a part of his squadron to replenish its supplies were they got to sea at all, and when they did so the results were much as both they (and, in fairness, Villeneuve) feared. Though somewhat outnumbered by his opponents, Nelson closed in immediately and attacked the French and Spaniards off Cape Trafalgar. Sailing in two parallel lines, the British fleet cut the straggling Franco-Spanish array into several different fragments, and then battered it to pieces. Nelson, of course, was killed, but the combined fleet was broken beyond repair – of its thirty-three men-of-war, eighteen were lost and most of the rest crippled.
Trafalgar’s significance is a matter of some dispute. In the short term it mattered little: Britain had already escaped the threat of invasion, and it did nothing to affect events in central Europe. Nor did it permanently establish the fact of British naval predominance, for the French shipyards were over the years able to make up Villeneuve’s losses and force the British to continue to commit immense resources to the naval struggle. All that can be said for certain is that, despite much bluster, Napoleon never again attempted to launch a frontal assault against Britain: henceforth victory would have to be attained by some form of economic warfare. In that sense, then, Trafalgar may be said to have changed the whole course of the war, for Napoleon was now set to embark on a course of action that carried with it at the very least the risk of pitching France against the whole of the rest of the Continent. And, for those with eyes to see, Trafalgar showed very clearly that there could be no partnership with Napoleon. Having been forced to enter the war against their will, the Spaniards found their strategic interests and their resources ruthlessly commandeered to serve France’s interests. A substantial portion of their remaining naval strength – the central pillar of their colonial empire – had in effect been thrown away on a futile plan to send a few thousand extra soldiers to overawe a state that was not just friendly to Spain but situated in a secondary theatre of operations. Already under great pressure, Godoy’s credit on the home front was squandered and with it a financial effort that had quite literally emptied Spain’s coffers: among other measures, a loan of million florins had had to be taken out in Holland to finance the fleet’s mobilization.
The Capitulation of Ulm by Charles Thévenin, where General Mack and 23,000 Austrian troops surrendered to Napoleon.
The strategic situation from 11 to 14 October. The French hurl themselves westwards to capture the Austrian army.
To talk of Trafalgar in this fashion is possibly to speak with the benefit of hindsight. But for Napoleon, the news was still irritating enough: hearing of the battle he supposedly ‘started up full of rage, exclaiming, “I cannot be everywhere!” ’. This is understandable enough, for Trafalgar constituted a considerable blow to his prestige. Yet marching through southern Germany, he was infinitely better off than he might have been. Let us here quote Pasquier:
What would have become of [Napoleon] if, having disembarked on the English coast with the élite of his forces, he had only kept control of the sea for a short time. What would have become of France had the great Austrian army commanded by the Archduke Charles marched across Bavaria and appeared on the banks of the Rhine? Given that there would not have been sufficient forces to put up an effective resistance, they would probably have got across and France would then have been invaded . . . In the face of that situation, the only answer would have been the one that he himself made to several people who dared to raise the possibility with him. ‘If the invasion had succeeded, such would have been the enthusiasm in France that the women and children of Strasbourg could have thrown back the Austrians by themselves.’ Is that answer not rather more clever than it is to the point?
As it was, the French experienced not tragedy but triumph. The allied plans had initially seemed threatening indeed. In the first place, the array of enemies facing France had grown yet again. The Franco-Neapolitan treaty of alliance, or strictly speaking, of neutrality, had originated in strategic considerations relating to the military situation in Italy: Masséna was badly outnumbered in the north, whilst St Cyr’s troops were scattered across the centre and south of the Italian peninsula in a number of small detachments and, in consequence, wide open to attack. Pulling them out in order to reinforce the French forces in Lombardy therefore made a great deal of sense, the only means of keeping Naples in line therefore being an agreement of some sort. No sooner had the resultant treaty of 9 October been signed than St Cyr got his men on the road. On this occasion, however, French policy failed. Freed from the threat of reprisals, the Neapolitans denounced their agreement with Paris, appealed for Anglo-Russian protection and mobilized their army. In the wake of this development a veritable war of encirclement threatened France. Linked by 53,000 troops in the Tyrol, 90,000 Austrians would invade northern Italy and 140,000 Bavaria, while 100,000 Russians marched to their aid. Joined by an Anglo-Russian army of 40,000 men which was being concentrated in the Mediterranean, the Neapolitans would threaten France’s southern flank, whilst 50,000 seaborne British, Russians and Swedes liberated Hanover and went on to assault Holland. Last but not least, 50,000 further Russians were to be dispatched to galvanize the Prussians into action and join with them in a victorious march across Germany. In short, over 500,000 men would join together in a concentric advance against a French force that, even counting the forces of Napoleon’s satellites, seemed unlikely to amount to much more than 350,000. Nor were operations neglected in the wider world, the end of August seeing a small British expedition taking ship to evict the Dutch from their strategically placed colony at the Cape of Good Hope.
Imposing as this array seemed, matters were by no means as one-sided as at first appeared. Sometimes described as the most proficient army the world has ever seen, the grande armée was not without its problems. For one thing, it was so short of horses that some of its cavalry had actually to fight as infantrymen. For another, it is certainly possible to question the received wisdom that its men had spent all their time at the ‘camp of Boulogne’ being drilled and trained without let-up. Some accounts do speak as if this was the case: ‘The troops assembled there’, wrote Emile de Saint-Hilaire, ‘were occupied and disciplined in the style of the Romans; every hour had its own job and the soldiers were forever swapping their muskets for their pickaxes.’ Much the same sort of thing, meanwhile, is recorded by Hulot: ‘Everywhere one saw nothing but parades, simulations of attack and defence, forced marches and changes of bivouac. This spectacle filled us all with the same impression: woe be to the foreigner who is set about by such an army!’ But other memories were less sanguine. To quote Fezensac, for example, ‘The regiment was rarely assembled to manoeuvre in line. There were one or two excursions – simple route marches that approximated to the sort of distance one might cover in the course of an easy day in the field – a few rounds of target practice conducted without any method, and that was about it: no training for our skirmishers, no bayonet practice . . . no attempt to construct the simplest work of fortification.’ Whether the army was ever quite the disciplined machine that it has been made out to be is therefore a moot point. Nor were its logistical capacities up to the task of supplying the troops, who not only suffered all the rigours of campaigning, but all too often went hungry. To quote Fezensac’s memories of the march into Germany:
This short campaign was a summary of all that was to follow. The excessive fatigue, the want of supplies, the rigours of the season, the disorders committed by marauders, nothing was wanting . . . The brigades and even the regiments were often dispersed and orders to get them to a certain place often arrived late as they had to pass through many different hands. The result was that my regiment often had to march day and night, and for the first time I saw men sleeping as they marched, which is something that I would never have believed possible. In this fashion, we would arrive at the position we were supposed to occupy but without having had anything to eat or drink. Marshal Berthier, the chief of staff, had written that in the war of invasion planned by the emperor, there would be no magazines with the result that generals would have to provide for their men from the countries through which they passed. However, the generals had neither the time nor the means . . . to feed so numerous an army. As the countryside found out in the most cruel fashion, what this amounted to was to authorize pillage, and yet for the whole length of that campaign we did not suffer any the less from hunger . . . The bad weather made our sufferings even worse. A cold rain fell, and sometimes wet snow in which we waded up to our knees, while such was the wind that we could never light a fire. The sixteenth of October in particular – the day when M. Phillippe de Ségur waited upon Mack with the first demand that he surrender – the weather was so awful that nobody stayed at their post. There were neither pickets nor sentries . . . [and] everyone sought such shelter as he could. At no other moment, except in the campaign in Russia, did I suffer so much or see the army in such disarray.
For all their problems, the French did possess many advantages. From Napoleon downwards, the men at the head of the army represented the very cream of revolutionary generalship. Officers and men alike were on the whole veterans of some years’ service; the army’s tactical system was more adaptable than that of its continental opponents; and Napoleon had greatly improved upon the organizational model that he had inherited from the Republic through the establishment of army corps and the concentration of part of the artillery and cavalry into special reserves of great fighting power. Able as a result to move very fast, operate on a broad front that facilitated attempts at envelopment, display an extraordinary level of flexibility and hit very hard on the actual battlefield, the army also enjoyed high morale. Spirits were lifted by the simple fact that the men were on the move at last: Hulot described feeling ‘sincere joy’; newly commissioned as an officer, Fezensac remembered, ‘I was delighted to make war’; while Jean-Baptiste Barrès wrote, ‘We left Paris quite content to go campaigning . . . War was the one thing I wanted.’
This spirit of confidence and enthusiasm was the fruit of much cos-setting. Ever since 1799 Napoleon had done all that he could to cultivate the army. Parades and reviews were a constant feature of public life; the new flags now carried by each regiment were inscribed with gold letters spelling out the personal relationship between the emperor and his soldiers; the extensive employment of generals as ambassadors was a clear statement of the intimate connection between Napoleon, French foreign policy and the military; and the vast majority of recipients of the Legion of Honour – the new decoration instituted by Napoleon for services to the state – proved to be members of the armed forces. Nor was the Legion of Honour the only reward open to the emperor’s followers. Few soldiers could aspire to rise so far – only twenty-six men ever received the title – but the glittering figures of Masséna, Murat, Ney, Lannes, Augereau and the other marshals of the empire served as living object lessons in what could be achieved by courage and devotion. Showered with estates, they became fabulously wealthy. As yet the greatest glory still lay in the future. But even so the result was a mood of real excitement. To quote Elzéar Blaze:
None but a soldier of that period can conceive what spell there was in the uniform. What lofty expectations inflamed all the young heads on which a plume of feathers waved for the first time! Every French soldier carries in his cartouche-box his truncheon of marshal of France; the only question is how to get it out.
Nor was it just a case of promotion. In his field garb of plain grey overcoat and unadorned black tricorn, the emperor looked the very epitome of the common soldier of the Revolution – his nickname, after all, was ‘the little corporal’ – and he was always displaying the affability, simplicity and familiarity of manner that invoked such love amongst the troops. To cite just one of the stories told of him at this time, a private soldier suddenly stepped out in front of Napoleon’s horse to present him with a petition. Badly startled, the mount shied, and Napoleon flew into a rage, striking the man with his whip. Almost immediately, though, he collected himself and made the soldier a sergeant on the spot.
Thus far we see only a force of the sort that the American scholar John Lynn referred to as ‘an army of honour’ – an army whose members sought to advance their own interests and were concerned only with their own status and prestige. Yet despite the eclipse of overtly Republican generals such as Moreau and Pichegru – who were either dead or in exile – and the cult of imperial glory in which the army was the centrepiece, many of the soldiers continued to persuade themselves that they were fighting, if not for the Republic, then at least for its ideals. In this they were encouraged by Napoleon. The very first bulletin of the campaign calls the army ‘only the advance guard of the people’. Inspired by such language, many soldiers could believe, along with Charles Parquin, that the army’s goals remained ‘the great ideals of the French Revolution – the ideals of liberty, of unity and of the future – which, as everyone knows, the emperor Napoleon personified’. As proof of the depth of feeling that underlay such comments one has only to point to the particular hatred with which many soldiers regarded the Catholic Church. Wherever popular resistance was encountered – in other words in Spain, Portugal, the Tyrol and southern Italy – it was the Church that got the blame, and the Church that paid the price. ‘It was the monks who did most to make war against us,’ wrote one soldier of the war in Spain. ‘We cornered fifty of them in a church and massacred them all with the points of our bayonets.’ Underlying all this was a sense of cultural superiority that deepened with every mile that the army moved east and south. As one hussar officer in Spain put it: ‘With regard to the knowledge and the progress of social habits, Spain was at least a century behind the other nations of the continent.’
To return to Parquin, we see here not just the conviction that the army was fighting for the Revolution, but also faith in the person of Napoleon himself. Confidence in its leader was one of the French army’s most potent weapons, and one that was, of course, sedulously cultivated by the French ruler, not least by the constant pretence that he made of sharing its privations. But if this was indeed pretence, Napoleon at least made a genuine point of moving amongst his troops: the scene that took place on the eve of Austerlitz is particularly famous:
His army was but half as strong as that of the enemy. His soldiers had hitherto always been victorious, but, with so small a force . . . it was of the utmost importance to him to know whether the confidence of the troops in their own superiority would . . . be sufficient to make up for their inferiority in numbers. It therefore occurred to him to go on foot, accompanied by Marshal Berthier only, throughout the camp and listen unnoticed to the chat of the soldiers round their fires. By eleven o’clock he had already traversed a great distance when he was recognized. The soldiers, surprised at finding him in the midst of them, and afraid that he might lose his way going back to his headquarters . . . hastened to break up the shelters they had made of branches and straw to use them as torches to light their emperor home. One bivouac after another took up the task, and in less than a quarter of an hour, torches lit up the camp, whilst passionate cries of ‘Vive l’empereur!’ resounded on every side.
Mixed in with the aura of greatness were little touches of humanity. At Ulm it was observed that the French ruler’s famous greatcoat got singed when he sat too close to the fire. Nor had Napoleon lost his common touch. Writing of the same battle, one soldier remembered, ‘We were eating jam made from quinces . . . The emperor laughed. “Ah!”, said he. “I see you are eating preserves; don’t get up. You must put new flints in your guns: tomorrow morning you will need them. Be ready!”’ Not many soldiers actually received the favour of a personal word of enquiry or encouragement from their commander, of course, but that is not the point: the stories of such encounters doubtless grew in the telling, while the troops believed that they were cared about. As one François Avril wrote, ‘We have observed with the greatest interest the tender care taken by His Majesty to improve the lot of [the] . . . warriors charged with the task of defending the integrity of French territory.’ Close proximity to the emperor, meanwhile, brought a genuine sense of well-being. Reviewed by Napoleon in the midst of some particularly inclement weather, a common soldier named André Dupont-Ferrier wrote, ‘I don’t think I have ever been as cold as I was that day, and I don’t know how the emperor could bear it . . . but it seemed that his very presence warmed us, and repeated shouts of “Vive l’empereur!” must have convinced him how much he is cherished.’ Just as important was the sense that Napoleon was looking to each and every soldier for his survival. ‘We saw the Emperor Napoleon pass . . . He was on horseback; the simplicity of his green uniform distinguished him amidst the richly clothed generals who surrounded him; he waved his hands to every individual officer as he passed, seeming to say, “I rely on you.” ’ The consequences were enormous. ‘The presence of the emperor,’ wrote one veteran of the Austerlitz campaign, ‘produced a powerful effect on the army. Everyone had the most implicit confidence in him; everyone knew, from experience, that his plans led to victory, and therefore . . . our moral force was redoubled.’ Well might Wellington remark, ‘His presence on the field made a difference of 40,000 men.’