The Takedown of Tyre I



Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, was the holdout. It had a unique place as the largest and most important Phoenician port in the eastern Mediterranean, and as an important Persian naval base. Tyre had been a prominent city for centuries by the time that Alexander arrived. The Phoenician merchants from Tyre had been among the first people to send their trading ships throughout the Mediterranean. The city grew rich and powerful and was coveted by its neighbors. King Nebuchadnezzar II, known as “the Great,” who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, had unsuccessfully besieged the city for 13 years in the sixth century BC. Eventually, the Tyrians threw in their lot with the Persians.

To secure their metropolis, the Tyrians built a new city on an island a half mile offshore from the old city on the mainland. This new Tyre was now an impregnable fortress surrounded by two miles of stone walls that were reportedly as high as 150 feet. The island had two ship harbors, the northern one named for Sidon, the southern one named for Egypt. Through these harbors, Tyre could be supplied from the sea, regardless of who controlled the adjacent mainland.

Alexander had hoped to avoid the necessity of a siege entirely. He was optimistic when his army was met on the coast road by ambassadors from Tyre, who told him, according to Arrian, that the city “had decided to do whatever he might command.”

Alexander said he would like to enter their city and offer a sacrifice to Heracles—known to the Tyrians as Melqart—at the temple that had been erected to him in the southern part of their island citystate. He explained that he was descended from Heracles, as were all of the kings of Macedonia. Their response was not what he expected. The Tyrians, then ruled by King Azemilcus, told him he was welcome at another temple of Heracles located on the mainland, but he could not enter the island.

With this, the die was cast. Tyre must be taken. Thus began an epic siege that took place over the spring and summer of 332.

In a speech possibly transcribed by Aristobulus or Callisthenes, and passed down by Arrian, Alexander told his officers of his strategic view of the eastern Mediterranean, explaining why Tyre was so important:

“I see that an expedition to Egypt will not be safe for us, so long as the Persians retain the sovereignty of the sea; nor is it a safe course, both for other reasons, and especially looking at the state of matters in Greece, for us to pursue Darius, leaving in our rear the city of Tyre itself in doubtful allegiance. . . . I am apprehensive lest while we advance with our forces toward Babylon and in pursuit of Darius, the Persians should again conquer the maritime districts, and transfer the war into Greece with a larger army.”

The conventional wisdom held that Tyre could be assaulted only from the sea, and its huge, solid walls would protect it from that. Besieging Tyre presented a dilemma, given that the Tyrian fleet and the allied Persian fleet under Autophradates had naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean, while Alexander had deliberately undercut his own navy.

According to folklore, readily retold by Arrian as fact, the solution came to Alexander in a dream. He dreamed that Heracles took him by the right hand and led him up into the city, walking on dry land. Though the dream needed little in the way of interpretation, it was declared to be a good sign by Aristander, the seer who had once told Philip II that his son within the womb of Olympias would be as bold as a lion. Alexander had relied on his prognostications more than ever after he correctly predicted the victory at Granicus.

If Tyre was separated from dry land by a half mile of water, he would just take the dry land to the city. Alexander decided to solve the problem at hand by turning Tyre from an island into the tip of a peninsula by building a causeway to it from the mainland.

The portion of the channel closest to the shore was a gently sloping tidal plain. There was an abundance of rock and other construction material nearby, so getting started on this project would be relatively easy. Closer to the island fortress city, however, the channel was 18 feet deep, so it would be more challenging. A difficult task under any circumstances, building a causeway here beneath hostile walls was a serious problem for work crews with Tyrian archers raining projectiles down upon them.

However, morale inside the walls was shaky as well. The Tyrians too, had a dream. They dreamed that Apollo told them he was, as Plutarch paraphrases it, “going away to Alexander, since he was displeased at what was going on in the city.”

The project began with wooden pilings being driven into the mud with a roadway constructed on top. The work proceeded rapidly at first, but as the Macedonians got into the channel, the crews came under fire from Tyrian warships. To stave off this harassment, Alexander had two tall siege towers constructed at the end of the causeway from which his troops could return fire against the ships. Their elevated position meant that the men in the towers could see farther, and their projectiles had greater range, than they would from near sea level.

The Tyrians struck back using a transport barge as an incendiary device. They piled it high with wood scraps and other flammable material, including pitch and brimstone. To its masts they fitted long double yardarms, attaching caldrons containing additional flammable material. They towed the barge near the causeway towers using triremes, setting it on fire as it neared the towers at the end of the causeway. The yardarms were long enough to cantilever over the causeway and strike the towers, which were soon engulfed in flames.

Attempts by Alexander’s personnel to fight the fires were met by archers aboard the triremes. The Tyrians also landed troops on the causeway who burned catapults and other equipment before withdrawing. After a stroke of engineering brilliance in his causeway idea, Alexander had been halted rather ignominiously.

However, it was merely round one. Alexander promptly ordered the causeway to be widened and new towers to be built. Meanwhile, he decided to acquire additional warships of his own, having realized that defeating Tyre would require sea power after all.

The Takedown of Tyre II


Expanding his navy was actually easier for Alexander than might have been expected. Because most of his recent conquests and alliances had involved maritime powers, his new friends were willing to contribute to his fleet-building efforts. According to Arrian, Cyprus sent 120 warships to Alexander, while both Sidon and Rhodes contributed some triremes, and “about 80 Phoenician ships joined him.”

Both Gerostratus and Enylus, the kings respectively of Aradus and Byblos, “ascertaining that their cities were in the possession of Alexander, deserted Autophradates and the fleet under his command, and came to Alexander with their naval force.”

Alexander also personally joined the naval attack on Tyre, sailing with the fleet as it embarked from Sidon. His own position was at the right wing of the armada, farthest from the coast. His initial strategy had been to lure the Tyrians into a battle in the open sea.

The Tyrians had been looking forward to such a fight on the basis of Alexander’s perceived naval inferiority, but when they observed Alexander’s fleet most remained in port rather than accepting the challenge. Alexander’s flotilla managed to sink three vessels, but aside from that they were at a stalemate.

Alexander for once had the superior numbers in a naval battle, but he could not lure out his enemy. If a fight took place, it would have to be in the tight confines of one of the island’s two harbors. It was like Issus, only on water—and at Issus, it was Darius who was in too tight a space to make full use of his superior numbers.

Alexander decided to blockade Tyre and wait. He assigned the Cypriot triremes to block the northern Tyrian port and dispatched the Phoenician fleet to block the southern port.

He then turned back to his land strategy, ordering the rapid construction of catapults and siege engines, including battering rams and protected towers for the transfer of troops. These were placed on ships for the final assault against Tyre’s fortifications. The Tyrians countered by building towers of their own in order to be higher than the Greco- Macedonian besiegers. It became a battle of fiery projectiles launched from higher and higher elevations.

Eventually feeling the pressure of the naval blockade, the Tyrians made an attempt to break out of the northern port using a force of seven triremes, three quadriremes and three quinqueremes. The ships moved silently so as not to alert the Cypriot blockade ships, but it would not have been necessary. The Cypriots were asleep at the tiller. Indeed, each ship was manned by a mere skeleton crew, with most hands having been quartered ashore. Catching the Cypriot fleet off guard, the Tyrians managed to sink or damage a number of vessels.

Roused from his tent—all of this happened in the heat of the summer afternoon as the officers were resting—Alexander ordered all available ships in the port on the mainland side of the channel to put to sea to prevent any additional Tyrian ships from reaching open seas. Alexander boarded a ship himself, intending as usual to lead from the front.

Despite calls from Tyrian lookouts that Alexander’s ships were pulling out from their moorings, ships continued to leave the port. Alexander’s fleet rallied, ramming and sinking a number of vessels, and capturing others.


Assault on Tyre

Finally, Alexander developed a tactical plan that called for a complex amphibious landing under fire that would be considered ambitious even by a modern combat force. In the northern part of the island, where the causeway had been built, Tyre’s walls were the most formidable and best defended, so Alexander moved to execute an unanticipated flanking maneuver by hitting a less well defended point in the southern end.

The attack would entail breaching the wall above sea level from the sea using siege engines aboard ships, and then using a portable bridge to push troops through this breach. Indeed, attacking a vertical wall above sea level is always much more difficult than putting troops across a sea-level beach using landing craft. With Tyrian defenses pierced, Alexander’s fleet would attack the two Tyrian ports simultaneously.

When his first attempt to execute the plan was quickly repulsed, Alexander withdrew, postponing a renewed attempt until a patch of stormy weather had blown through. On the third day following, the seas were quieter and Alexander resumed the assault.

After seven months, the siege finally reached its climax on the last day of the month of Hekatombaion, the same month that Alexander celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday (July 20, 332 BC). Plutarch tells that after consulting some omens, Aristander had declared confidently “that the city would certainly be captured during that month.” Because it was the last day of the month, and Tyre had held out for 200 days already, Aristander’s words “produced laughter and jesting.”

Arrian says that Alexander “led the ships containing the military engines up to the city. In the first place he shook down a large piece of the wall; and when the breach appeared to be sufficiently wide, he ordered the vessels conveying the military engines to retire, and brought up two others, which carried the bridges, which he intended to throw upon the breach in the wall. The shield bearing guards occupied one of these vessels, which he had put under the command of Admetus; and the other was occupied by the regiment of Coenus, called the foot Companions.”

When the siege engines pulled back, Alexander sent in triremes with archers and catapults to get as close as possible, even if it meant running aground, to support the infantry assault.

Again leading from the front, Alexander himself headed the assault force that went ashore. Admetus’s contingent was the first over the wall, but he was killed in action, struck by a spear. Alexander then led the Companion infantry in securing a section of wall and several towers. With Greco-Macedonian troops taking and holding a rapidly expanding beachhead, the defensive advantages of the fortified city began to evaporate.

Unfortunately for the Tyrians, their royal palace was in the southern part of the city, and it was one of the first major objectives to fall to Alexander’s invading troops. King Azemilcus, his senior bureaucrats and a delegation of Carthaginian dignitaries, who had been trapped in Tyre when Alexander’s fleet sealed the ports, were there but escaped to take refuge in the temple to Heracles. Ironically, this was the same temple at which Alexander had originally asked to be allowed to worship.

At the same time, Alexander’s fleet forced its way into the two harbors. Phoenician ships entered the southern harbor, the Port of Egypt, and the Cypriot ships breached the entrance to Tyre’s northern harbor, the Port of Sidon. Here at the Port of Sidon, the larger of the two anchorages, troops were able to get ashore inside the harbor. The defenders fell back to defensive positions at the Agenoreum, a temple to the mythical King Agenor, but were quickly routed. Alexander now had beachheads on either end of Tyre and the Tyrian defenders in a pincer.

Within a matter of hours, after a bloody siege of seven months, troops from both landings linked up in the northern part of the city. All of the defenses that had been erected on the causeway side were for naught.

According to Diodorus, immediately after his victory Alexander ordered the causeway broadened to an average width of nearly 200 feet and made permanent, using material from the damaged city walls as fill.

The causeway is still there, although it if you visited it, you would not notice it. Over the past 2,300 years, wave action and drifting sand have caused it to grow into a broad isthmus about a quarter of a mile wide. The part of Tyre that was an island in 332 BC has been connected to the mainland ever since Alexander’s day.

Alexander gave no quarter to those he captured, killing them on the spot or eventually selling them into slavery. According to Arrian, the defenders suffered about 8,000 killed or executed and 30,000 made slaves, while the Greco-Macedonian force lost 400 killed in action during the entire siege. Curtius reports 6,000 Tyrian troops killed inside the city walls, and 2,000 executed in the aftermath. While these numbers were probably stretched in favor of Alexander, many later scholars, including Botsford and Robinson, repeat them. There is no way of knowing for sure.

In any case, Alexander walked into the Temple of Heracles around sundown that day to make his long-postponed sacrifice. It was the afternoon of the last day of Hekatombaion. Of all those who had laughed at Aristander for his outlandish prediction, none were laughing now.

Alexander spared King Azemilcus and gave amnesty to all those hiding in the temple when it was captured. The sight of his city’s resounding defeat, and of Alexander standing in the temple that he had once asked to visit peacefully, was probably punishment enough for the king.

After the Battle of Issus and the siege of Tyre, Persia was no longer a Mediterranean superpower. Having had the heart ripped out of his army, and the bases ripped away from his navy, Darius would be unable to challenge Alexander significantly again until his army was deep inside the interior of the Persian Empire.

Siege of Venice (August 1848–August 27, 1849)

Austrian fleet bombarding rebellious city of Venice during siege in 1849, by Giovanni Battista Borghesi

The siege of Venice, during August 1848–August 27, 1849, was part of the nineteenth-century movement to unify Italy known as the “Risorgimento” (resurgence). When the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Era began in 1792, Italy was little more than a geographical expression—a patchwork of 15 small states, each in rivalry with, if not openly hostile to, the others. Not since the days of the Roman Empire had the Italian peninsula been united politically.

The wars of the period 1792–1815 had profound impact. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, the French had conquered much of Italy, and Napoleon introduced a uniform system of laws and administration. He also reduced the number of states to three. Parts of northwestern and east central Italy were incorporated into France, and there was the Kingdom of Italy in the northeast and the Kingdom of Naples in the south. Yet the Congress of Vienna of 1814–1815, called to redraw the map of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, resurrected the old Italy of many different monarchal states.     

In northern Italy, the Austrian Empire dominated. Lombardy (with its capital of Milan) and Venetia (capital of Venice) passed under its rule as the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia. Venetia included the city of Venice, Istria, and Dalmatia. Although Vienna had held out the prospect of home rule, this soon disappeared when it was clear that the people of Lombardy and Venetia wanted independence. Although Austria rule was not harsh, it was exploitive. By 1848 a broad coalition of intellectuals, manufacturers, bankers, and agrarian leaders had come together demanding change.

Attempts in the early 1830s to shake off foreign rule had been crushed, but the dreams of a unitary state remained and in late 1847 unrest broke out throughout Italy, ushering in the revolutionary wave that swept much of Europe in 1848. Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany and King Charles Albert, ruler of the Kingdom of Sardinia (most often known at the time and since as Piedmont-Sardinia or Sardinia-Piedmont for its two component territories) were both forced to grant constitutions. In January 1848, the reactionary ruler of Sicily, King Ferdinand II, was also forced to grant a constitution.       

On March 18, revolt broke out in Milan. In the so-called Five Days of Milan, Austrian field marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz was forced to withdraw his troops from the city. They retreated to the stronghold at the foot of the Alps, known as the Quadrilateral, comprising the cities of Mantua, Verona, Peschiera, and Legnago.

With the unrest and seeming success of revolutionaries in various parts of Italy, on March 22, King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia declared war on Austria in what he believed would be a war of national liberation won by Italians alone. Indeed, he boasted “Italia fera da se” (Italy will do it by itself). Thousands of volunteers from other parts of Italy, including troops from the Papal States, joined the Army of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Also, on March 22, fortified by what had happened in Milan, revolutionaries in Venice seized control of the arsenal, the great naval yard and munitions depot, and proceeded to organize both a civic guard and then a provisional government. This embraced all Venetia save Verona, which was the key to the so-called Quadrilateral of fortresses and under firm Austrian control.

Austrian forces evacuated Venice on March 26, and Venice declared independence as the Republic of San Marco under the leadership of Daniele Manin. The Venetian Assembly then voted to join the rest of northern Italy and merge their new republic with Piedmont-Sardinia in a new Kingdom of Alta Italia (Upper Italy).

In mid-June, however, Radetzky assumed the offensive and defeated Charles Albert’s poorly trained and ineffectively led troops in the Battle of Custoza near Verona during June 24–25. Soon Radetzky reestablished Austrian control in Lombardy and in most of Venetia, save Venice. The Austrians then concluded an armistice with Sardinia-Piedmont in order to concentrate on the revolution that had broken out in Hungary.

Revolt also occurred in Rome and Pope Pius IX fled the city. In February 1849, a constituent assembly declared Rome a republic. The effects of this were great, especially in northern Italy, where Charles Albert, under considerable pressure from radicals in Piedmont, renounced the armistice and again took up arms against Austria. Radetzky then invaded Piedmont and defeated again Charles Albert’s army in the Battle of Novara (March 22–23). Charles Albert was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II. His victory allowed Radetzky to send part of his forces north to assist against the Hungarians. Then on July 3, French troops, having been sent to Italy by Emperor Napoleon III to assuage French Catholics, marched into Rome and ended its republic after a two-month siege.

Meanwhile, Venice kept the Republican cause alive in northern Italy. Although the city had come under Austrian blockade by land the previous August, the Republic of San Marco remained intact. Radetzky’s victory at Novara, however, changed all that. On March 26, 1849, soon after news was received of the battle, the Venice Assembly, which had been elected on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot, met at the Doge’s Palace. Manin presented an honest appraisal of the situation. There was hope that the situation in Hungary would inhibit the Austrians or that France or Britain might intervene, but these possibilities seemed remote. He then asked the Assembly members whether they wanted to continue to resist. They replied unanimously in the affirmative and passed a resolution calling on resistance “at all costs” and investing Manin with “unlimited powers.” This sentiment met strong public support from Venetians of all classes.

The area of the republic was now limited to the lagoon some 90 miles in circumference with its several hundred small islands and population of 200,000 people in all with the 125,000 in Venice itself and 50,000 at Chioggia at the other end of the lagoon. The lagoon contained some 60 forts manned by 18,000 men. The most important of these were Fort Brondolo at Chioggia guarding the southern approaches and Malghera on the mainland end of the railroad bridge to Venice.

On May 4, the Austrians had begun a bombardment of Malghera. In just a few hours, they fired some 7,000 shot and shell. Radetzky fully expected the inexperienced Venetians to surrender. That was not the case, and indeed by the end of the bombardment more Austrian than Venetian guns had been put out of action.

The next day, Radetzky called on the Republic of San Marco to surrender. He offered only a general pardon and permission for those wishing to emigrate. There were no concessions to the Venetians regarding their government, and the general feeling was that this would simply be a return to the status quo ante bellum. The Venetians were determined to continue resistance in the hope that eventually foreign intervention and diplomacy would work in their favor.

The siege of Fort Malghera then continued. After three weeks, the Austrians had expended some 60,000 shot and shell, killing 400 of its 2,400 defenders. Venetian sorties from the fortress had cut dikes and flooded the plain but the shelling continued, and, although working waist-deep in water, the Austrians built new artillery emplacements closer to the fort and on May 24 opened fire from these. On May 25 alone, they fired some 15,000 rounds. By now, the fortress walls were crumbling.

With the Austrians massing men for an infantry assault on May 27, Manin ordered Malghera abandoned on the night of May 26–27. Slow matches kept the Venetian guns firing over a three-hour span, masking the withdrawal across the exposed railroad 2.5-mile long bridge. The Venetians turned one of the five repair stations on the bridge into a fort with seven guns and two mortars and blew up the part of the bridge between it and the mainland.

This placed the Austrians in a difficult position, as their artillery normally had not the range to reach the city 2.5 miles distant. The real danger to the Venetians would be securing adequate food for the population. For a month the Austrians bombarded the station, now named Fort St. Antonio, and a battery on the small island of San Secondo. Damage inflicted by the Austrian guns in daytime was repaired by the defenders at night.

The Austrians tried an attack on Fort Brondolo at Chioggia, but it proved even stronger than Malghera, and they soon gave up. They then tried sending balloons with bombs on fuses all sent aloft from a frigate in prevailing winds, but these proved a failure. Food shortages had brought a riot in June and by July the population was subsisting principally on bread. On July 10, bottles drifting in the lagoon brought news of the fall of Rome and the defeat of Hungarian forces by the Austrians and Russians.

On the night of July 29, with Austrian guns mounted at 45-degree angles and firing from makeshift carriages, hot shot and shells began falling on the western two-thirds of Venice itself. During the next three weeks, the Austrians fired some 25,000 shells. The Venetians could not respond as their homemade powder was too weak. Damage was slight in the shelling, but it did force a majority of the city population to relocate. Sanitary conditions now rapidly deteriorated and cholera broke out.

The only hope for the Venetians was breaking the Austrian naval blockade. Ironically, the Venetian navy, once the pride of the city, was now its weakest link. At the beginning of the revolt, most of the officers and sailors had been tricked by the Austrians into remaining at their posts at Pola and Trieste. Others at Venice were dispersed among the lagoon fortresses, and until the Battle of Navaro, building up the navy had not been a priority as the Piedmont-Sardinian fleet was blockading the Austrians at Trieste. But even after Novara, Manin was slow to recognize the threat. When the Piedmont-Sardinian ships were withdrawn from the Adriatic, the Austrians were able to attack Venice from the sea. Twice in August, Manin ordered what ships were available to engage the Austrians, but each time the admiral in command returned without having battled the far more powerful Austrians.

On August 24, 1849, with food and ammunition now both exhausted and having received authorization to do so, Manin negotiated the city’s capitulation to go into effect on August 27. The Austrians granted amnesty for all save Manin and 39 others who were nonetheless allowed to go into exile. Manin departed Venice with his family on August 28 in a French ship; his wife died of cholera within a few hours of sailing, and Manin died almost destitute in exile at Marseille, France, in 1857 having abandoned republicanism in favor of the unification of Italy under the Piedmont-Sardinia monarchy.

The Risorgimento continued, however. In 1859 Austrian stumbled into a war with France and Piedmont-Sardinia. Austria was then forced to cede Lombardy to Piedmont-Sardinia, which with other territories added in northern Italy became the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. An Italian alliance with Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War (1866), at last brought the kingdom Venetia. Rome followed in 1871.

Further Reading

Bassani, Ugo. Venezia nel 1849. Milan: Ceschini, 1938.

Beales, Derek Edward Dawson. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

Davis, John A., ed. Italy in the Nineteenth Century, 1796–1900. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Holt, Edgar. The Making of Italy 1815–1870. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Keates, Jonathan. The Siege of Venice. London: Pimlico, 2006.

Martin, George. The Red Shirt & the Cross of Savoy: The Story of Italy’s Risorgimento (1748–1871). New York: Dodd, Mead, 1979.

Pascolato, Alessandro. Manin e Venezia nel 1848–49. Milan: Alfieri & Lacroix, 1916.

1849: Austria Drops Balloon Bombs on Venice

Demosthenes of Athens IV

The route the Athenian fleet took to Sicily

Map of the siege showing walls and counter-walls

Disaster in Sicily

The last and most fateful chapter in Demosthenes’ career took place on the island of Sicily, and he himself was largely to blame for it. In 415, the Athenians sent a large fleet to Sicily and used it in the following summer to besiege Syracuse, the most powerful city on the island. This is not the place to discuss in detail the vagaries of what is known as the Sicilian Expedition, but it is necessary to describe the circumstances awaiting Demosthenes when he arrived at Syracuse with large reinforcements in 413.

Before Demosthenes’ arrival, the Athenians had won consecutive victories on land and sea against Syracuse, primarily under the leadership of their experienced general Nicias. They had occupied Plemmyrium at the entrance to the Great Harbor of Syracuse, built a wall that partially surrounded the city, and gained access to Epipolae (“Overtown”), a plateau overlooking Syracuse. To the Athenians’ disadvantage, however, the Syracusans had occupied Olympeium (a fort southwest of the Athenian camp in the harbor, north of River Anapos), recaptured a fort at Labdalum on the western Epipolae, and built a counter-wall that prevented the completion of the Athenian wall. In addition, the Spartan general Gylippus arrived to aid the Syracusans in the summer of 414 and won a first land victory against the Athenians. He then left to collect reinforcements and allies in Sicily. Twelve Peloponnesian ships also made it to Syracuse, representatives of a newly invigorated Spartan fleet.

At this juncture, Nicias sent a letter to Athens, drawing a gloomy picture of the Athenians’ situation and prospects. He asked to be relieved of his command for health reasons and offered two alternatives: recall the expedition or send large reinforcements to Syracuse. The Athenians chose the latter option. They appointed two commanders on the spot as Nicias’ colleagues and substitutes if he died, giving Demosthenes and the veteran general Eurymedon the command over the new armada. Eurymedon was one of the generals who opposed Demosthenes’ request to occupy Pylos, and in 424, he returned from campaigning in Sicily with nothing to show for it. Demosthenes also came back empty-handed from Boeotia in the same year. Yet, with the talented Alcibiades in exile, the general Lamachus dead (shortly before in Syracuse), and the ailing Nicias away, the inventory of accomplished Athenian commanders was fairly limited. On the positive side, both new generals could use their respective connections in Corcyra, western Greece, and Sicily to help with the campaign, while Demosthenes’ proven resourcefulness promised quick results.

Eurymedon left immediately for Sicily with money and a few ships, but Demosthenes waited until early spring of 413 before sailing with sixty-five ships, 1,200 Athenian hoplites, and an unknown number of allied troops. On the way to his first major stop in western Greece, he plundered Laconian land and participated in the fortification of a site on the Laconian coast across from the island of Cythera, intending to use it as a shelter for refugee helots and as a raiding base. It is unclear whether he initiated the project, but the similarity to his tactics at Pylos, noted by Thucydides, clearly suggests his endorsement. From thence Demosthenes sailed to Acarnanian and Ambraciot waters, collecting troops from allied cities on the islands and the mainland along the way, including his old friends in Acarnania and the Messenian Naupactus. It was there that he heard bad news from Eurymedon, who had returned from Sicily: the Syracusans had succeeded in capturing Plemmyrium on the mouth of the Great Harbor, where Athenian grain, goods, naval equipment, and personal belongings were stored. The loss also reduced the Athenians’ control over the land from which they could launch and protect ships or to which they could retreat from battle. Contributing to the Athenians’ distress and low morale were the Syracusans’ increased interceptions of provisions brought by sea to the Athenian camp.

The worsening situation in Syracuse did not cause Demosthenes or Eurymedon to hurry there: they were busy drafting hoplites and light-armed troops in western Greece and southern Italy. Because the reported numbers of the new recruits are incomplete—we know only of 700 hoplites and 750 light infantry from Italy—they tell us little about the success of their recruiting. Yet their delayed arrival at Syracuse proved a costly risk, because it gave the Syracusans time to gain additional local allies, receive reinforcements from Greece and Sicily, and win a modest first victory over the Athenian navy in the harbor. Among their reasons for engaging the Athenian navy was their wish to forestall the arrival of the second armada. Demosthenes often relied for victory on his ability to predict and shape the enemy’s response to his actions. This time, his and Eurymedon’s calculated delay actually helped the enemy.

When the new Athenian fleet sailed into Syracuse harbor, however, it inspired disappointment, fear, and confusion in the enemy, and restored optimism and confidence to the Athenian camp. In his biography of Nicias, Plutarch describes Demosthenes’ showy entrance into the harbor:

Just then Demosthenes appeared off the harbors in a magnificent show of strength which dismayed the enemy. He had brought seventy-three ships, with 5,000 hoplites on board, and at least 3,000 others armed with javelins, bows, and slings. With his array of weaponry, with the figureheads on his ships, and the number of men employed in calling the time for the rowers and playing the pipes, he presented a fine display, designed to strike fear into the enemy.

Plutarch’s focus on Demosthenes is apt, because by all accounts he now dominated the scene. Thucydides ascribes to Demosthenes, not only an assessment of the situation when he arrived, but also a criticism of Nicias’ management of the war so far, although it is unclear if Demosthenes made it to Nicias’ face.56 He is depicted as almost a mirror image of the more cumbersome and passive Nicias, displaying decisiveness, a knowing-best attitude, and the confidence of a man who had a quick solution for the protracted campaign. In brief terms, his plan called for an attack against the Syracusans’ (third) counter-wall, which he identified as their weak spot. This was to be executed before the psychological impact of the fleet’s arrival wore off. Demosthenes is also said to have predicted two opposite outcomes of his plan: the fall of Syracuse or the Athenians’ withdrawal. That Syracuse did not fall and that the Athenians would withdraw only later and under worse conditions had much to do with the way he chose to implement his idea.

Nevertheless, the new vigor Demosthenes brought to the campaign appeared to have an effect. The Athenians descended on Syracusan lands around the River Anapos, and the enemy’s lack of response was optimistically interpreted as a yielding of control over land and sea to the Athenians. The next engagement was more sobering, however. Demosthenes used siege engines and frontal attacks against the Syracusan counter-wall but was repelled by the defenders. Under the largely self-induced pressure of having to take instant action, and with his colleagues’ consent, Demosthenes turned to his favorite modus operandi, a surprise attack.

He aimed to surprise the enemy on the Epipolae plateau by launching an attack from the relatively unexpected direction of the western and more accessible Euryalus Hill. More significantly, he took with him (according to one account) 10,000 hoplites and a greater number of light infantry for a full-scale night battle. There was no known precedent for fielding such a large force in a night combat, even in such bright moonlight as shone that night. The opposition consisted of a fort and sentries on the Euryalus, three fortified camps on the Epipolae, an advance guard of 600 men, and men in the city who could join the fighting. At first, everything seemed to go the attackers’ way. Led by Demosthenes and his colleague Menander, the Athenians went up the Euryalus, destroyed those they encountered, and took the fort there. Demosthenes, running ahead as at Megara, scattered the 600 advance guards who tried to oppose him. By now the surprise was gone, but Demosthenes and his men hurried on in order to exploit their momentum and to prevent the enemy from organizing a more effective defense. When the Syracusans’ commander Gylippus and his men came out of their camps, they were beaten back. In the meantime, other Athenian troops were busy tearing down the Syracusan counter-wall, whose guards fled. Yet the Athenian wave of attack collapsed entirely when it came up against its first stubborn opposition: a Boeotian unit that stood its ground and put the attackers to flight.

Because Demosthenes relied on surprise and speed for victory, he had to sacrifice order and effective communication with, and control over, units that were not in his vicinity. Poor visibility hampered his ability to respond to setbacks, while speed undermined the cohesion of his ranks. These conditions allowed an unyielding unit of defenders to repel the charge and caused the fleeing Athenians to sow confusion and uncertainty among their fellow combatants. According to Thucydides’ graphic account, the impaired visibility prevented the attackers from telling friends from foes, while those who kept arriving at the scene did not know where to join the battle. The only means of identification was the watchword, which the din of battle obscured, and which the enemy soon found out and used to its advantage. There were even incidents of Athenians’ dying from “friendly fire” and in near-clashes among fellow soldiers. Additional problems stood out because Demosthenes should have known better. At Acarnania, Sphacteria, and even Megara, he had won largely by his successful coordination of attacks from different quarters. On the Epipolae, there seemed to be no coordinated effort, only a rush forward to meet the enemy. At Acarnania, Demosthenes had used the Dorian-speaking Messenians to mislead the Ambraciots into believing that his troops were their allies. On the Epipolae, it was his own troops who fell victim to such confusion. Thucydides says that what confounded and terrified the Athenians most was the singing of Dorian paeans, because there were Dorian Greeks fighting on both sides. Finally, at Acarnania and Pylos, Demosthenes had made good use of local intelligence and the terrain to defeat the enemy. At Syracuse, those advantages worked in the enemy’s favor. Soldiers who had just arrived with Demosthenes were unfamiliar with the ground, lost their way, and were killed by the Syracusans even if they made it down from the plateau safely. In addition, the Athenians’ panicked retreat clogged the only narrow path down the Epipolae, and many of them fled their pursuers only to throw themselves off the high cliffs to their death. According to the sources, the Athenians lost between 2,000 and 2,500 men on and around the Epipolae. No other land battle during the Peloponnesian War resulted in so many casualties.

Like the plan of attacking Boeotia from different directions, the failure at Syracuse was not inevitable, but it could have been anticipated. Demosthenes took a gamble on surprise and lost disastrously, committing many men and assuming optimistically that shock and speed would compensate for the well-known difficulties of a night attack. His plan made it very difficult to direct the offensive and even the retreat.

The defeat had a significant impact on everyone involved, including Demosthenes. His arrival had caused fear among the Syracusans, which he wished to exploit, but now their fear changed into optimism and self-confidence, and they even used the victory to mobilize aid in Sicily. The defeated Athenians, who suffered also from unhealthy conditions in camp, grew despondent, and their leadership became divided. Demosthenes’ authority as the new commander who would change the course of the campaign suffered a devastating blow. When he recommended a return home, he was successfully opposed by Nicias, who had regained the prime leadership. It appears that the other Athenian generals also deemed Demosthenes’ solution of cutting their losses too radical, especially coming from the man who was responsible for the losses. Demosthenes then suggested evacuating the army to friendly Catana or Thapsus in Sicily, in order to raid enemy territory from there, or to fight at sea. Although his idea gained Eurymedon’s approval, Nicias successfully shot it down. Later the Athenians changed their minds about evacuation to Catana, but a lunar eclipse was interpreted as portending disaster, and no one could overturn Nicias’ decision to stay at Syracuse for twenty-seven days, as seers had prescribed. Because of my focus on Demosthenes’ generalship, I shall not dwell on the motives Thucydides attributes to Nicias on this and other occasions. The historian ascribes Nicias’ errors of judgment to his fear of the supernatural and of punishment at home if he returned, as well as to his belief that the Athenians could still take Syracuse. Whether Demosthenes’ suggestions were sound or not, his clouded reputation from the failed attack on the Epipolae forced him to defer to Nicias.

Demosthenes appears only sporadically in Thucydides’ narrative of the ensuing events. He is not mentioned among the generals who participated in the next naval battle in the harbor, though he may have fought in it. This engagement cost the Athenians their general Eurymedon, about 2,000 men, and at least eighteen ships, though they did repel a Syracusan attack on the Athenian walls. Thucydides suggests that the Athenian defeat at sea changed the Syracusan definition of victory from driving the invaders away to preventing them from escaping to a friendly base, and that they accordingly blocked the entrance to the harbor with a boom. In response, the Athenians set their slender hopes on an all-out naval battle, which, if successful, would allow them to sail out of the harbor, and if a failure, would compel them to march by land to a friendly place. They also limited their control over land to a small, fortified space next to the ships, which was easier to defend and allowed them to free troops to man the ships. The man in charge was Nicias, according to Thucydides, who credits him with a pre-battle exhortatory speech and with individual appeals to the ship commanders. Plutarch even suggests that Nicias refused to yield to the Athenians’ demand to retreat by land and insisted on a naval battle.

But Demosthenes’ possible contribution to the Athenian plan, or at least his support of it, can be gleaned from the fact that he was one of the generals who commanded the huge Athenian fleet of about 110 ships, as well as from the tactics chosen. Victory hinged on the Athenians’ numerical superiority (about 110 ships to 76) and their ability to convert the fighting into something like a land battle. The plan called for the light infantry on deck to shoot arrows and javelins at the enemy while the marines used grappling irons to prevent the enemy ships from backing away, finally boarding them to kill those on deck. Thucydides specifically mentions Demosthenes’ Acarnanian recruits among the light-armed troops who fought at the harbor. Demosthenes had little experience in maritime warfare, if any, but the kind of naval battle sought by the Athenians was as close as possible to the land fighting he was familiar with. In addition, the Athenians’ use of land forces on ships copied the Syracusans’ tactics, and Demosthenes had shown in the past his ability to learn from the enemy.

To judge by Thucydides’ description of the battle, the generals played only a limited role in it. The Athenians succeeded in breaking the barrier at the harbor mouth, but once the Syracusans joined battle, the fighting consisted largely of individual conflicts, with the generals mainly watching lest ships back away unforced from the fray. The Syracusans won because they made the Athenians fight a traditional naval battle in which the Syracusan lighter vessels enjoyed an advantage, destroying about fifty ships and losing only about twenty-five. Fear now dominated the Athenian camp. The troops were so desperate to leave by land that very night that they were willing to give up collecting their dead. But Demosthenes approached Nicias with a different plan, which illustrated the essence of his generalship. The general, who recommended surprise attack as the preferred solution for most military problems, suggested that they board the remaining triremes straightway and attack the enemy unexpectedly. One may admire Demosthenes’ resourcefulness in the face of adversity and his unconventional thinking, but his idea was unworkable for two reasons. The Athenians had lost faith in their ability to win at sea—understandably, in light of their two recent, consecutive defeats in the harbor. Moreover, they had only sixty ships left and about 40,000 people in camp, which meant that even a victory would give them little chance of evacuating so many people by sea, rather than by marching on land.

In the end, the Athenians waited two days before starting their march away from the harbor and generally north toward Catana. They were despondent, hungry, and full of guilt for leaving the wounded and dead behind. Thucydides’ emotive description of their retreat and tragic end is unsurpassed. Reduced to factual terms, it tells us that the Athenians formed a hollow square, Nicias leading the van and Demosthenes bringing up the rear, with the rest of the marchers in the middle. Their pace was slow and grew increasingly slower, largely because of their short supplies and the Syracusan opposition. Intentionally or not, Thucydides’ narrative of the Athenians in retreat evokes memories of the Spartans on Sphacteria, who were similarly harassed by elusive light infantry. With distress growing, the leading generals approved what would be Demosthenes’ last attempt at outwitting the enemy. The Athenians lighted many fires, as if camping for the night, but left under cover of darkness, changing direction toward the southwest, away from their Syracusan pursuers and toward the sea and friendly locals. The tactic won them freedom from pursuit only till the middle of the next day. They became disoriented and very fearful, and a gap was created between the van under Nicias and the larger rear under Demosthenes. Thucydides notes that Nicias’ men marched together and in good order, while Demosthenes’ troops moved more slowly and in disarray. It was as if a circle closed in Demosthenes’ career: his last retreat resembled his first one in Aetolia where his troops fled in disorder and suffered losses. In fairness to Demosthenes, we should note that the Syracusans attacked his men with greater frequency than they did Nicias’ division. Demosthenes arrayed his troops for battle in an enclosure, but the Syracusans did not take the bait: it was easier and safer to bombard the enemy with missiles from a distance. At the end of that day, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and many injuries led Demosthenes to surrender with 6,000 of his troops on the condition that no one would be killed. Nicias capitulated two days later after losing many more men, a carnage that justified Demosthenes’ decision to spare his followers’ lives.

The sources are divided about Demosthenes’ fate. Thucydides, our most authoritative informant, says that the Spartan general Gylippus wished to bring both Demosthenes and Nicias to Sparta as living trophies, but the Syracusans “cut their throats.” Other sources mention a debate in the Syracusan assembly over their fate that ended with the same result. We are even told that Demosthenes tried unsuccessfully to kill himself when surrounded by the enemy, and that later, when he and Nicias learned in prison of their imminent execution, they took their own lives. Their bodies were then exposed to public display.

Pausanias, the Greek traveler of the Roman era, cites an Athenian inscription that commemorated the war dead, including those killed in Sicily, along with its interpretation by the Sicilian historian Philistus (c. 430–356):

The names of the generals are inscribed with the exception of Nicias, and among the private soldiers are included the Plataeans along with the Athenians. This is the reason why Nicias was passed over, and my account is identical with that of Philistus, who says that while Demosthenes made a truce for the others and excluded himself, attempting to commit suicide when taken prisoner, Nicias voluntarily submitted to the surrender. For this reason Nicias had not his name inscribed on the slab, being condemned as a voluntary prisoner and an unworthy soldier.

We don’t really know why Nicias’ name was not inscribed, but the contrast drawn between him and Demosthenes is surely unfair. Some scholars think that Thucydides is equally unfair in eulogizing Nicias as the man who, of all the Greeks of his age, least deserved his misfortune, saying nothing comparable about Demosthenes. Clearly, the last chapter of any commander’s career should not dominate the assessment of his entire generalship, but it is equally wrong to ignore it. Demosthenes was neither a hero nor a failure, but both, or one of these historical actors who do not easily fit a single category. He demonstrated original thinking and good planning skills in each of his campaigns. He was chiefly known for his victories at Pylos and Sphacteria and for establishing a permanent base in enemy territory. His success encouraged imitations as early as the year he captured Pylos (425), when the Athenians set up a post near Epidaurus to raid the adjacent territory. By 413, when the Spartans similarly occupied Decelea in Attica, and when Demosthenes himself fortified a site in Laconia opposite Cythera, such projects had become quite common. Demosthenes therefore deserves credit for coming up with a plan that was adopted by both his city and its enemy, although it is ironic that the Spartans made more effective use of it at Decelea than the Athenians did anywhere. In some of Demosthenes’ campaigns, he used military intelligence and light infantry very effectively, although Greek antecedents of such uses suggest that he was not their originator. He was a gambler who enjoyed good luck in some of his operations and suffered losses in others. He was a firm believer in surprise and deception as the best means of accomplishing his goals. His personality well suited these qualities: he was ambitious, aggressive, self-confident, daring, and a risk-taker, but also someone who tended to take failure as an endpoint instead of as a temporary setback. His impatience, however, was not as disastrous as his preference for a quick solution in the form of surprise attack, even when conditions disfavored it. With its share of successes and disappointments, Demosthenes’ career shows the benefits and pitfalls of having such a general in command.

The Siege of Badajoz: March-April 1812


Storming of Badajoz by Chris Collingwood.


The last siege of Badajoz conducted by Wellington’s army was typified by a failed main assault on the breech and a successful secondary assault on the castle. The Allies had failed to take Badajoz before, and the lack of an adequate British siege train, along with qualified engineer officers and engineer troops, would make infantry assaults the major instrument in the siege. The gallantry of the British infantry is legendary, and Wellington undoubtedly felt grief over the horrific losses. The skilled defence of Badajoz by General Phillipon and his garrison is contrasted with the amaterish way in which the British engineering arm conducted the siege. The heavy losses prompted the British to create the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners.

There were four sieges of Badajoz during the Peninsular War, all taking place in 1811-12. The initial siege was undertaken by the French and was a success; it was followed by two failed British attempts. The fourth and last of these operations was also undertaken by the British. This time they carried the day, but it was a very bloody episode and the superb performance of the British infantry was marred by their disgraceful conduct afterwards. They indulged in a three-day orgy of rapine, drunkenness and plunder against an allied and friendly population that had not opposed the British siege operations in any way.

Wellington’s sieges in Portugal and Spain are not noted for the skill and thoroughness with which they were conducted. Many of them were failures, and those that succeeded were usually marked by heavy casualties incurred by the besiegers because the cities had to be taken by storm. Badajoz was one of the keys to Spain; it had to be taken so that the Allied army could continue into the interior and eventually into southern France. It stood on the Guadiana River and water formed a natural obstacle on two sides. The city was strongly fortified and had formidable outworks called the Pardaleras and the Picurina. Across the Guadiana was San Cristobal and the fortified bridgehead for the bridge over the river. The works were garrisoned by about 5000 men ably commanded by General Armand Philippon (1761-1836), who proved a redoubtable adversary.

Siege works were then opened against the eastern side of the fortress on 15 March 1812 amidst terrible weather that made construction difficult at best. The troops that worked on the first siege parallel laboured in water up to their waists and were under heavy French fire from the outset. The French sortied from the fortress on 19 March but were repulsed, and work continued.

Batteries were built to fire on the fortress and on 24 March six batteries opened fire on the Picurina as well as on the San Roque lunette. Additionally, artillery bombarded the main walls, or curtain, of Badajoz between the bastions of Trinidad and San Pedro.

Stolid Defence

Major-General Thomas Picton’s (1758-1815) division assaulted the Picurina on the night of 25 March and took it after a desperate fight; Picton’s casualties were heavy. The next day the British siege guns opened fire on Badajoz once more, this time bombarding the curtain between the Trinidad and Santa Maria bastions. The city wall was formidable however, and it was not until 5 April that two breeches were opened that were believed to be passable by an assault force. Still, Wellington ordered that another breech to be opened before an assault could take place.

Wellington underestimated the lengths to which the defenders had gone to make an assault upon Badajoz if not impossible, then at least as expensive as possible for any attacker. Obstacles had been built in the ditch to render it unusable as a customary rallying place. Although the walls had been breeched, the defenders had erected more obstacles within them and had shored up the defences behind the breeches to stop any penetration of the fortress.

Wellington had planned a main attack by two columns, consisting of the Light Division and the 4th Division, which would go for the breeches. A supporting attack against the fortress’s castle across the Roillas, which was flooded and could only be crossed by a dyke that was 60cm (2ft) under water, was to be made by Picton’s 3rd Division. Other, smaller supporting attacks were to be made on the Pardaleras, the San Vicente bastion and the San Roque lunette.

The attacks jumped off at 8 p.m. on 6 April. The assaults on the breeches were expensive failures, the defenders not only causing the attacking columns horrendous casualties but also taunting the attackers throughout the fighting. The performance and sacrifice of the British officers and men was exemplary, but the defence was too professional and savage, and the breeches were choked with British killed and wounded.

Picton’s attack on the castle at first failed, and Picton himself was wounded. He rallied his men, however, and they gained a foothold on the lower walls. Scaling ladders were raised and the British poured over the parapet. Again, resistance was savage, but the British fought through adversity, taking the castle but with heavy casualties. The San Vicente bastion was also taken, and the heart went out of the defenders.

General Philippon and the garrison withdrew into San Cristobal, where they surrendered the next day. Badajoz thereby fell, and the British troops who had behaved so well in the mayhem of the breeches now went wild and sacked the city. The orgy continued until it finally burned itself out and order was restored. The same would happen when San Sebastian was taken the following year.



Godfrey of Bouillon leads the siege of a city from a 14th-century French manuscript. The crusaders are deploying a wheeled tower that could be rolled right up to the defensive walls-a similar structure was used during the siege of Nicaea.


The crusader knights clash with Muslim troops during the First Crusade’s second siege of Antioch from a French manuscript of ca. 1200. The regional struggle for religious dominance had affected the fortunes of Antioch for centuries. As far back as 638 the Syrian city which was where the new faith of Christianity was given its name was captured from the Byzantines by the Arabs. In 969 the Byzantines recaptured the city by treachery after a long blockade. In 1097 the Byzantine general on the crusade urged a similar blockade but the crusaders preferred to invest the city. However; they were unable to assault its strong fortifications and in the end it was betrayed to them by a discontented officer commanding three of its towers.


A mitred Adhémar de Monteil carrying one of the instances of the Holy Lance in one of the battles of the First Crusade.

The crusaders arrived at Antioch to find that an English fleet had already seized its port, St. Symeon. The Roman walls of Antioch were strong, and half their circuit of 10 miles (I6km) lay inaccessible in the mountains. The crusaders dared not attack because of the city’s size; similarly, they could not surround it and so chose to strangle it by blockade. This strategy took time and involved constant fighting with the garrison and its supporters in outlying forts such as Harim.

By Christmas 1097 hunger within crusader ranks had forced them to send a foraging expedition led by Bohemond of Otranto into Syria. On 31st January he fought a force under Duqaq of Damascus near al-Bara: a drawn affair, Duqaq retreated but the crusaders returned without food. With the army starving and its horses dying, the Byzantine General Tatikios returned to Constantinople to seek more aid. Ridwan of Aleppo, freed from the threat of Duqaq, his brother and rival, now chose to strike. But Bohemond managed to gather a small mounted force with which he ambushed Ridwan’s army, scattering it and seizing Harim. Relieved of Turkish pressure, the army could forage again.

On 4th March 1098 more English ships put into St. Symeon, and the crusaders used the equipment and skills of the new arrivals to build a fort outside Antioch’s vital Bridge Gate. Despite savage resistance they succeeded and soon had closed off all the main gates. Spring meant more food became available and the crusaders were further encouraged by news of Baldwin of Boulogne’s seizure of Edessa.

At this time the crusaders made an alliance, against the Seljuks, with the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. Antioch’s ruler, Yaghi-Siyan, appealed for help to Kerbogah of Mosul, who was subject to the Seljuk sultan at Baghdad. Kerbogah raised a huge army and from 4th to 25th May besieged Edessa, giving ample warning to the crusaders at Antioch. There, a tower-commander offered to betray the city to Bohemond, who demanded to be made ruler of the city. The other crusade leaders refused this as a breach of the oath to the emperor Alexius, but the threat from Kerbogah was a very pressing one and in the end they agreed, but only on the condition that control of the city be ceded to Alexius if he came to claim it.

On the night of 2nd June an elite crusader force entered Antioch and the next day the city fell amid scenes of massacre. But the citadel on the walls held out. On 4th June Kerbogah laid siege to the heavily outnumbered crusaders in a city that was short of food. To make matters worse, his men could enter Antioch through the citadel and were only halted by desperate fighting. Stephen of Blois, who was absent when Antioch had fallen, fled when he saw the situation. He met Alexius at Philomelium on 20th June and told him that all was lost, whereupon the emperor returned to Constantinople.

In Antioch itself, sheer despair and pious zeal had rallied the crusaders. Fired with enthusiasm, they appointed Bohemond as commander and on 28th June marched out of the city to defeat Kerbogah, who had unwisely let his army become dispersed.

The way south to Jerusalem now lay open, but the crusaders needed to rest and may even have hoped that the Egyptian alliance would deliver Jerusalem without a fight. Taking seriously the condition of their promise to Bohemond, the leaders sent a delegation to Alexius and postponed their advance to Jerusalem until 1st November- ample time for Alexius to claim Antioch. In the meantime, Bohemond behaved as a ruler and there was tension between him and Raymond of Toulouse, the champion of the imperial alliance.

By September, news of Alexius’s “desertion” at Philomelium had hardened opinion against the Byzantines and at a council in early November the quarrel between Raymond and Bohemond paralyzed the army. Ultimately, Bohemond refused to go on to Jerusalem and when the other leaders had departed he ejected Raymond’s men from Antioch, thus breaking up the unity of the crusade.


In their desperation, besieged in Antioch by the enormous forces of Kerbogah, the basic religious motivation of the crusaders emerged to inspire them. On 10th June a poor pilgrim announced that St. Andrew had revealed to him that the Holy Lance, which had pierced the side of Christ, was buried in the ancient church of St. Peter at Antioch. The papal legate was skeptical, but the next day a respectable priest declared that Christ had confirmed to him in a vision that a token of victory would be revealed to the army.

Amid great religious fervor digging began in St Peter’s church and on 14th June a lancehead was indeed discovered. This coincided with a startling event-a meteorite fell into Kerbogah’s camp and he withdrew his forces from within the city. The clergy then fanned the fires of pious fervor with a series of celebrations. Thus incited, on 28th June the army marched out with the Holy Lance borne before them. Their victory owed much to Kerbogah’s unwise dispersal of his army, and to Bohemond’s tactical acumen. But without the inspiration of the lance and its “miracles” it seems unlikely that the starving army would have challenged Kerbogah. Little wonder that after the battle the relic enjoyed enormous prestige.

The Siege of Orleans

The Regent of France, John, Duke of Bedford, returned to France in March 1427, accompanied by a man from the Welsh Marches who was to become one of the most redoubtable soldiers of the War—Lord Talbot. They took with them a pitifully small new army, 300 men-at-arms and 900 archers, though they also brought a new artillery train. The English were lucky that during Bedford’s absence the Dauphinists had not taken advantage of the defection of the Duke of Brittany, a shifty intriguer. In 1426 Duke John of Brittany had signed a treaty with the Dauphin at Saumur while his brother with a mixed force of Bretons and Scots had seized the important English fortress of Pontorson and massacred its garrison. Furthermore, because of Gloucester’s meddling in Hainault, Anglo-Burgundian co-operation was almost non-existent. Bedford acted swiftly. In May Lord Warwick captured Pontorson, after which Duke John veered back to the English and in September 1427 formally reaffirmed his allegiance to the Treaty of Troyes. In June the Regent and his wife visited Duke Philip of Burgundy at Arras and began to restore good relations; Bedford stopped a new English expedition to Hainault and then arranged a truce between Gloucester and Burgundy. Humphrey abandoned Jacqueline of Hainault and her claims, obtaining a Papal Bull which declared their marriage invalid (his chief reason being that he now wanted to marry her lady-in-waiting Eleanor Cobham). By the end of 1427 Bedford had entirely restored the Triple Alliance.

A further 1,900 troops had arrived from England in the spring but before launching a major new offensive it had been necessary to capture a number of enemy strongholds. Among them was the town of Montargis, sixty miles south-east of Paris, which dominated the Yonne valley. It occupied an extremely strong position on a headland completely surrounded by the rivers Loing and Vernisson, while the approach was criss-crossed by canals which hindered the besiegers. It had a resolute garrison under the Sieur de La Faille who was well liked by the townsmen. Lord Warwick pitched his camp on the road from Paris, on both sides of the river, and possessed a good supply line. He had brought only 5,000 men but he had an adequate artillery train and on 15 July began a methodical bombardment of the town. Nevertheless, after six weeks he had made little progress. He could hardly have expected that the Dauphinists could produce a commander capable of taking him by surprise.

John, Bastard of Orleans (popularly known later as the ‘bon et brave Dunois’ from his county of that name) was the left-handed son of the Duke of Orleans who had been murdered in 1407. A penniless adventurer, the Bastard became a professional soldier and fought at Baugé and Verneuil. He was now twenty-four years old. In September 1427 he and another good soldier, La Hire, were sent to reinforce Montargis with 1,600 troops. The Bastard had obviously studied the battle at Cravant, and a messenger from him reached the town with a plan of concerted action. Suddenly the Bastard and his men appeared in full view of the English on the road south of the town. Warwick’s troops rushed to attack them, whereupon the townsmen opened the sluice-gates and the ensuing flood carried away the wooden bridge over the river, cutting the English forces in two and drowning many. At the same time the defenders sallied out to attack them from the rear. Warwick lost a thousand men, the rest fleeing in panic and abandoning their artillery.

On the same day as the débâcle at Montargis, Sir John Fastolf and a small force were defeated at Ambrières in Maine, and all Maine rose in revolt. The Regent, coldly determined, at once recommenced the siege of Montargis and began to put down the rising in Maine. He showed himself no less merciless than his brother: the town of La Gravelle did not honour its promise to surrender by a given date, so he beheaded the hostages which it had given as a surety. Lord Talbot was also beginning to show his quality. When La Hire seized Le Mans, Talbot retook it and rescued the garrison with only 300 men, going on to capture Laval which was one of the keys to Maine. By the spring of 1428 the situation had been restored and the way was now open for the long-hoped-for offensive.

But the English were still bedevilled by lack of money. Although taxed to the hilt the conquered territories could not provide enough, while in England Parliament had shown itself unco-operative despite Bedford’s pleas. In July 1427 he had sent Salisbury home to beg the Council for help, and eventually the Earl obtained £24,000, though he had to lend part of it from his own resources. He sailed from Sandwich in June 1428 with 450 men-at-arms, 2,250 archers, ten miners, over seventy masons, carpenters and bowmakers and a new artillery train. Meanwhile the Regent had been assembling troops and supplies. Salisbury marched into Paris in July. He and the Regent differed over the objectives of the forthcoming campaign—the former wished to capture Orleans, the key to the Loire and from whence he could strike over the river into the Dauphinist heartland ; Bedford, on the other hand, wanted Angers which would give the English complete control of Anjou and enable them to link up their northern territories with Guyenne. Moreover the Regent had scruples about attacking Orleans ; to do so was to breach a treaty, and as its feudal lord the Duke of Orleans was a prisoner in England, the assault would be against all the rules of chivalry. Salisbury prevailed, but Bedford seems to have kept his misgivings ; some years afterwards he wrote to his nephew Henry VI how the Plantagenet cause had prospered everywhere in France until the siege of Orleans, ‘takyn in hand God knoweth by what avys’.

The Earl began his offensive in mid-August, capturing more than forty towns and fortresses, ‘somme wonne be assault and somme otherwyse’ as he put it. They included the towns on the Loire nearest to Orleans—Beaugency and Meung downstream and Jargeau upstream. On 12 October he invested Orleans. On the northern bank of the Loire, the city must have presented a daunting spectacle. Its thirty-foot-high walls were so long that the English were unable to surround them with siege works and had to rely on patrols. Inside there were more defenders than the besiegers outside—2,400 troops and 3,000 militia, commanded by the same Sieur de Gaucourt who had been at Harfleur ; they had 71 guns mounted on the walls, some firing stone shot weighing nearly 200 lbs and far outnumbering the English artillery. Nor were the English troops, who had dwindled to 4,000, of the best quality; they had been looting and deserting ever since they landed and had sacked an especially holy shrine at Cléry. As for Burgundians, Salisbury had a mere 150, hired from the Duke. The Earl had no hope of blockading the city with so few men, and the defenders could obtain supplies and reinforcements without difficulty. Not in the least deterred, ‘mad-brain’d Salisbury’ decided to batter his way over the main bridge across the river, a structure 350 metres wide which stretched from the south bank to the centre of the city. It was defended on the bank by an earthwork and then by two massive towers over the first arch, known as the Tourelles. A bombardment followed by an assault was unsuccessful, but when the towers’ garrison realized that miners had tunnelled beneath the foundations they fled in panic, demolishing two arches of the bridge behind them.

Salisbury climbed up on to the third floor of the Tourelles to have a closer view of Orleans and decide where to attack next, ‘looking very attentively on all sides to see and devise in what way he might surround and subdue it’. An apocryphal story says that an English captain, Sir William Glasdale, said to the Earl: ‘My Lord, you see your city.’ Suddenly a schoolboy set off a small bombard on the walls whose gunners had left it during dinner. Salisbury heard the report and ducked. The gunstone came through the window, killing a gentleman next to him, and an iron bar flew off, hitting Salisbury’s visor and slicing away half his face. To the genuine sorrow of his men ‘who both feared and loved him’, after a week’s agony he died at Meung on 27 October, his last words being to beg his officers to continue the siege. Wavrin believed that had Salisbury lived another three months he would have taken Orleans. His death was a calamity for the English.

The Earl of Suffolk took over the command. This great-grandson of Edward III’s moneylender was a very different man from Salisbury. Although a veteran of Harfleur who had seen many campaigns, he was an unimaginative and unenterprising soldier, averse to taking risks, and above all unlucky. He continued the siege, after a fashion ; a garrison was left in the Tourelles under Glasdale while Suffolk and the rest of the troops went into winter quarters in nearby towns. However, Lord Talbot and Lord Scales brought them back on 1 December, surrounding the city with a line of sixty stockaded earthworks, known as bastilles, linked by communication trenches. As a blockade it was hardly adequate, for there was a wide gap to the north-east. In any case the defenders inside the city had plenty of food, and were reinforced by the Bastard of Orleans, La Hire, Poton de Xaintrailles and 500 fresh troops. But the English hung on grimly during the winter. The courtesies of chivalry were scrupulously observed. On Christmas Day Suffolk sent some figs to the Bastard and received a fur coat in exchange while the city lent the besiegers an orchestra.

We know the names of Sir William Glasdale’s garrison in the Tourelles, and they sound astonishingly modern and ordinary—they would not have been out of place at Torres Vedras or Tobruk. Among them were Thomas Jolly, Bill Martin, Davy Johnson, Walter Parker, Matthew Thornton, George Ludlow, Patrick Hall, William Vaughan, Thomas Sand, Dick Hawke, John Langham, William Arnold, George Blackwell, and John Reid from Redesdale.

On 12 February 1429 Sir John Fastolf, who was taking a convoy of Lenten food—herrings and lentils—from Paris to the English at Orleans, learnt at Rouvray near Janville that he was about to be attacked by a Dauphinist force of 4,000 men under the Count of Clermont. Fastolf, who only had 500 English archers and 1,000 Parisian militia (probably crossbowmen) immediately halted and laagered his wagons, leaving two narrow entrances fortified by the pointed stakes of his archers. Clermont had some small cannon and began to use them on the laager with considerable effect. But then a Scots detachment under Sir John Stewart of Darnley insisted on attacking on foot, and the French men-at-arms joined them, though remaining on horseback. They were bloodily repulsed by arrow-fire, whereupon Fastolf mounted his archers (who almost certainly carried lances) and charged out to complete the enemy’s rout, killing about 500—mainly Scots. Fastolf lost only four men, apart from some wagoners who had tried to run away. It was heartening that the Parisians should have shown themselves so loyal. The Regent had a service of thanksgiving held in Paris and paid special honour to the militia men.

By the spring of 1429, the English were still no nearer capturing Orleans. In April Bedford begged the Council for more men and was sent only 100 men-at-arms. The Dauphinists then made a shrewd diplomatic move by ceding Orleans to the Duke of Burgundy, on the pretext that its lord the Duke of Orleans was a prisoner in England. Philip was eager to accept but Bedford, although concerned at putting the alliance with him at risk, refused to agree. Angrily Philip ordered Burgundian troops to leave the siege. By 15 April the Regent was again writing to the Council, deploring the low morale of his army, pleading for reinforcements and warning that without military or financial assistance he would be force to raise the siege.

The walls were still unbreached. Suffolk held on, without much hope. He had forgotten to put chain-booms across the Loire, so the enemy were able to use the river for moving troops and supplies. On 29 April barges laden with food sailed from Chézy only five miles upstream and, while the English were distracted by a mock assault on one of their earthworks, got through to the city. Next day, accompanied by a small escort, the leader of an army of relief rode into Orleans on a black charger, carrying a small battle-axe. She was Joan of Arc.

‘The Witch of Orleans’

The relief of the siege of Orleans by a French army under Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was the decisive event of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the French and the English. The course of the war had to that point constantly shifted. On October 25, 1415, King Henry V of England defeated the French in the Battle of Agincourt. Five years later French king Charles VI agreed to the Treaty of Troyes whereby his daughter Catherine was to marry Henry V. Charles VI also repudiated the dauphin, his son Charles, as illegitimate and acknowledged Henry as his heir. Henry V then campaigned successfully against French forces loyal to the dauphin until his untimely death in August 1422 reopened the matter of succession. The

English named Henry’s nine-month-old son as king of France and England. Charles VI died that October, and many French supported his son Charles, the former dauphin, as the rightful king. Charles, however, was weak, degenerate, vacillating, and utterly incapable of leadership.

In these circumstances the regent for the young Henry VI, the Duke of Bedford, allied England with the powerful Duchy of Burgundy and on July 21, 1423, defeated the French at Cravant, establishing English rule over all of France north of the Loire River. On August 17, 1524, Bedford annihilated a French force at Ver-neuil. In the autumn of 1428 English-Burgundian forces launched an offensive to secure the crossing of the Loire River at Orleans to campaign in Armagnac, the heart of Charles’s territory.

Orleans was a large city and one of the strongest fortresses in France. Three of its four sides were strongly walled and moated, and its southern side rested on the Loire. The city walls were well defended by numerous catapults and 71 large cannon, and stocks of food had been gathered. Jean Dunois, Comte de Longueville, commanded the city’s garrison of about 2,400 soldiers and 3,000 armed citizens.

English troops under the Earl of Salisbury arrived at Orleans on October 12, 1428. Because he had only about 5,000 men, Salisbury was not able to invest Orleans completely. Nonetheless, on October 24 the English seized the fortified bridge across the Loire, although Salisbury was mortally wounded in the attack. In December William Pole, Earl of Suffolk, took over command of siege operations. The English constructed a number of small forts to protect the bridge as well as their encampments.

Although the French in Orleans mounted several forays and were able to secure limited supplies, by early 1429 the situation in the city was desperate, with the defenders close to starvation. Orleans was now the symbol of French resistance and nationalism. Charles was considering flight abroad, but the situation was not as bleak as it appeared. French peasants were rising against the English, and only a leader was lacking.

That person appeared in the young illiterate peasant girl, Jeanne d’Arc. She informed Charles that she had been sent by God to raise the siege of Orleans and to lead him to Reims to be crowned king of France. Charles allowed Jeanne, dressed in full armor, to lead (as chef de guerre) a relief army of up to 4,000 men and a convoy of supplies to Orleans. The Duc d’Alengon had actual command.

Jeanne’s fame quickly spread far and wide, and her faith in her divine mission inspired the French. As the relief force approached Orleans, Jeanne sent a letter to Suffolk demanding surrender. Not surprisingly, he refused. Jeanne then demanded that the army circle around and approach the city from the north. The other leaders agreed; the French army was ferried to the north bank of the Loire and entered the city through a north gate on April 29.

Jeanne urged an attack on the English from the city, assuring the men of God’s protection. On May 1 Jeanne awoke to learn that a French attack against the English at Fort St. Loup had begun without her and was not going well. She rode out in full armor and rallied the attackers, who were then victorious. All the English defenders were killed, while the French lost only two dead. Jeanne then insisted that the soldiers confess their sins and ban all prostitutes from the army and promised the men that they would be victorious in five days. Another appeal to the English to surrender met with derisive shouts.

On May 5 Jeanne led an attack out of the south gate of the city. The French avoided the bridge over the Loire, which the English had captured at the beginning of the siege. The French crossed through shallow water to an island in the middle of the river and from there used a boat bridge to gain the south bank. The French captured the English fort at St. Jean le Blanc and then moved against a large fort at Les Augustins, close to the bridge. The battle was costly to both sides, but Jeanne led a charge that left the French in possession of the fort.

The next day, May 6, Jeanne’s troops assaulted Les Tournelles, the towers at the southern end of the bridge. Jeanne was hit by an arrow and carried from the field, but the wound was not major; by late afternoon she had rejoined the battle. On May 7 a French knight took Jeanne’s banner to lead an attack on the towers. She tried to stop him, but the mere sight of the banner caused the French soldiers to follow it. Jeanne then joined the battle.

Using scaling ladders, the French assaulted the walls, with Jeanne in the thick of the fight. The 400-500 English defenders attempted to flee on the bridge, but it was soon on fire and collapsed. On May 8 the remaining English forces abandoned the siege and departed.

In his official pronouncements Charles took full credit for the victory, but the French people attributed it to Jeanne and flocked to join her. In successive battles, most notably at Patay on June 19, the French routed the English from their Loire strongholds. In July the French took Reims from the Burgundians, and there, on July 16, Charles was anointed king, with Jeanne in attendance in full armor and with banner in hand. The moral effect of this coronation was vast. Given the circumstances, few could doubt that Charles VII was the legitimate ruler of France.

Jeanne called for an immediate advance on Paris. Charles, however, wanted only to return to the Loire. Jeanne’s attempt to capture Paris failed, and Charles signed a truce with the Duke of Burgundy. Charles ordered Jeanne to cease fighting and had her army disbanded. In May 1430 Jeanne was taken prisoner by the Burgundians. When Charles refused to ransom her, Duke Philip of Burgundy sold Jeanne to the English, who put her on trial at Rouen for heresy and sorcery and executed her in May 1431.

Although the Hundred Years’ War continued for another two decades, the relief of the siege of Orleans was the turning point in the long war. Jeanne’s death checked for a time the uprising of French nationality, but peace between France and Burgundy in 1435, Charles VII’s effective advisers (he became known as “Charles the Well-Served”), and military reforms in France that provided for a standing army and infantry militia finally brought the expulsion of the English. The Hundred Years’ War ended with the fall of Bordeaux to the French in 1453.


Gies, Frances. Jean of Arc: The Legend and the Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1981. 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.

Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Siege of Saigon (March 1860–February 1861)

Capture of Saigon by Charles Rigault de Genouilly on 17 February 1859, painted by Antoine Morel-Fatio.

The 11-month siege of Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam during March 1860–February 1861 by Vietnamese against the French and Spanish occurred during the long French effort to secure control of Indochina.

The French established their first regular trading post in Vietnam in 1680. Christian missionaries were soon active there and Christianity spread. The Vietnamese emperors saw in this a direct threat to their rule, but their attempts to root out Christianity provided an excuse for French military intervention. After the French Revolution and Napoleon (1879–1815), France experienced a considerable religious resurgence and persecution of Vietnamese Catholics during the reign of Emperor Minh Mang (1820–1841) aroused a French popular outcry.

Of course, missionary fervor was not the only factor behind French intervention in Vietnam. The French sought to challenge the British for the vast China trade and hoped to be able to penetrate the Chinese interior by means of the Mekong River into Tibet and the Red River into Yunnan.

Alleged mistreatment of Catholic missionaries, however, was the excuse for French intervention. Already on April 15, 1847, an armed clash occurred between French warships and Vietnamese ships at Tourane (now Da Nang). Then, during Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–1870), Paris adopted a more militant policy toward furthering its interests in Asia with defense of the Catholic Church abroad one of the pillars of Napoleon III’s regime. In 1856 when the French protested the executions of Catholics in Vietnam and the Vietnamese court refused any explanations, a French warship bombarded Tourane.

In mid-July 1857, Napoleon III decided to undertake major military operations in Asia. Charles Admiral Rigault de Genouilly received command of French naval forces in Chinese waters, cooperating with the British against China in the Second Opium War (1856–1860). The success of operations in China in 1858 then freed the French squadron for employment in Indochina waters. Both Spain and France sought redress from Vietnam for the execution of missionaries, and Emperor Napoleon III hoped to secure a port there along the lines of Hong Kong.

It was no accident that the French chose to penetrate southern Vietnam first; it was the newest part of the country and its people were not as wedded to Vietnamese institutions. Indeed, the French conquest of Vietnam would prove more difficult the farther it moved north.

In January 1858, orders issued in Paris the previous November finally reached Rigault de Genouilly. Paris instructed him that while operations in Indochina were to be only an appendix and entirely subordinate to those in China, he was to halt religious persecution and assure toleration of Catholics there. Paris thought this could best be achieved by occupying Tourane, mistakenly considered the key to the entire kingdom. Future Indochina operations were to be entirely at Rigault de Genouilly’s discretion.

On August 31, 1858, Rigault de Genouilly’s squadron of 14 warships carrying 3,000 men (including 1,000 troops from the Spanish possession of the Philippines) anchored off Tourane. The admiral believed that decisive military action would bring fruitful negotiations with the Vietnamese, and on September 1 he landed his men. The invaders stormed Tourane’s forts after only perfunctory Vietnamese resistance, taking them and the port. This auction inaugurated the first phase of the French conquest of Indochina.

Within a few months, Vietnamese resistance, heat, disease, and a lack of supplies forced the French from Tourane. Leaving a small French garrison and several warships at Tourane, Rigault de Genouilly shifted his attention southward to the fishing village of Saigon. He selected it because of its proximity, its promise as a deepwater port, and the fact that it was next to Ta-ngon (today Cholon and part of Saigon), center of the southern rice trade, so vital to all Vietnam.

On February 2, Rigault de Genouilly proceeded southward with his ships. After stopping at Cam Ranh Bay to meet four supply ships, the French and Spanish arrived at Cape Saint-Jacques on February 10 and began bombarding the Vietnamese forts, soon silencing their return fire. A landing force of French and Spanish troops then went ashore and took possession of the forts.

The allied force then moved up the Saigon River, proceeding cautiously and reducing Vietnamese river forts as they proceeded. On February 15, they came upon two forts defending Saigon from the south that had been built earlier by French engineers in the service of Emperor Gia Long (r. 1804–1820). Early on February 16, the French ships opened fire on the forts, which returned fire. Infantry then went ashore, and within a few hours the forts had been taken. The next day, February 17, the French assaulted the Saigon Citadel and captured it, beating back a Vietnamese counterattack. With the fortress covering some 2.5 acres and too large to be held by the troops available, Rigault de Genouilly decided to blow it up, which was accomplished by 35 explosive charges on March 8.

Rigault de Genouilly then returned to Tourane after leaving behind a small force under naval commander Bernard Jauréguiberry. It included a company of French marine infantry, a company of Filipino infantry under Spanish command, and 400 sailors to man the artillery. Left behind as well were a corvette, two gunboats, and a transport. The defenders then repaired one of the southern forts taken earlier as their principal base.

In April 1859, Jauréguiberry led an attack on Vietnamese fortifications west of Saigon. Although successful, the allied cost of 14 dead and 31 wounded led Jauréguiberry to suspend further such efforts.

Saigon was now on its own. Confronted by the major manpower demands of the war involving France and the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont-Sardinia) against Austria (April–July 1859), Paris would not be sending out reinforcements. French government officials also criticized Rigault de Genouilly for his actions at Saigon, and he then asked to be relieved of his command; Admiral Théogène François Page replaced him in November 1859. Paris instructed Page not to seek territorial concessions but to sign a treaty that would guarantee religious liberties and French consuls in the major Vietnamese ports.

Before Page could carry out his instructions, he was ordered to China with his squadron as fighting had again broken out there. The French force ashore in southern Vietnam was too small to accomplish anything save to try to hold on to what it had already taken. The Vietnamese court hoped that European events would cause the French to depart. Meanwhile, both Da Nang and Saigon both came under siege. Although the small French force at Da Nang soon evacuated it by ship that at Saigon remained in place.

Some 12,000 Vietnamese now besieged at Saigon a small allied garrison under French Navy commander Ariès of some 800 men (600 marine infantry and 200 Spanish troops). In addition to Saigon, Ariès had also to defend Cholon.

By March 1860, the allied garrison was completely cut off from outside contact. They did have three corvettes, and they armed a number of smaller craft for river patrols. They also managed to recruit some Annamese and Chinese as auxiliaries, raising their total strength to some 1,000 men.

At Saigon, the allied force came under increasing pressure from the Vietnamese to the west of Saigon and Cholon, who steadily dug trenches closer to the defenders and mounted occasional costly attacks. Disease also took a toll on the defenders. The French, however, consolidated their control of Cholon by taking and fortifying four pagodas there. These roughly paralleled the Vietnamese lines to the west and formed the heart of the French defense.

With the French and British victorious in China in September 1860, the French were again free to concentrate their Asian resources in Indochina. In early 1861, Admiral Léonard-Victor-Joseph Charner received orders to relieve the Saigon garrison and complete the conquest of Cochinchina. In mid-February, Charner departed Chinese waters with a powerful fleet of some 70 ships, including two steam frigates, lifting 3,000 troops under General Élie de Vassoigne. These were joined off Saigon by a small Spanish force of some 270 men.

The Vietnamese had had a year to prepare for the French relief effort and Nguyen Tri Phuong, governor of Gia Dinh Military District that included Saigon, now had at his disposal some 20,000–30,000 men. Extending westward from Saigon and Cholon was the Ky Hoa plain of shallow ravines and gullies, which the French would have to cross to take the principal Vietnamese works in the village of Ky Hoa. The Vietnamese defenses were some seven miles in length, and extending outward from these was a maze of redoubts and outposts. What the Vietnamese lacked was modern weaponry. Their flintlock muskets, iron cannon, and a few war elephants were no match for modern French rifles and artillery.

The French attacked in force on February 25, 1861. Charner’s plan was risky as he knew nothing about his enemy’s defenses, but early that day he moved in force against what was known as the Redoubt at the southern end of the Vietnamese line, with the plan to proceed northward to prevent the Vietnamese from reinforcing and take their principal fortifications from the rear. Fighting was fierce, especially for the Mandarin Fort, but the allies were victorious. In the Battle of Ky Hoa, the French and Spaniards sustained 225 casualties, 12 of them dead; the Vietnamese suffered at least 300 dead as well as many prisoners. The siege was at an end, and France would remain in Vietnam.

Emperor Tu Duc (r. 1847–1883), deprived of rice from the French-controlled South and facing a rebellion in the North under the leadership of a remote Le dynasty descendant, was obliged in 1862 to sign a treaty with France that provided for a 20 million-franc indemnity, three treaty ports in Annam and Tonkin (central and northern Vietnam, respectively), and French possession of the eastern provinces of Cochinchina, including Saigon. Despite ongoing guerrilla opposition, France continued to expand its holdings in Indochina by fits and starts, often with little or no initiative on the part of Paris. By 1867 the French had conquered all of Cochinchina, but they had also learned that the Mekong was not navigable to the interior of China.

The Franco-German War of 1870–1871 put a temporary halt to French imperialism in Asia, but soon the process began anew, propelled by the French desire to recoup overseas the power and prestige they had lost in Europe. In the 1870s, the French turned their attention to northern Vietnam, where Tu Duc’s hold was weak, and by 1884 they had created French Indochina, comprising Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin, along with Laos and Cambodia. Cochinchina was the only outright colony, with Annam and Tonkin protectorates, along with the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia. In reality, all Indochina was subject to French rule, however.

1861 French Conquest of Saigon: Battle of the Ky Hoa Forts

Further Reading

Chapuis, Oscar. The Last Emperors of Vietnam: From Tu Duc to Bao Dai. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Osborne, Milton E. The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response (1859–1905). Bangkok: White Lotus, 1997.

Thomazi, Auguste. Histoire militaire de l’Indochine française des débuts à nos jours (Juillet 1930). 2nd ed. Hanoi: Imprimerie de l’Extreme Oriente, 1931.

Thomazi, Auguste. La Conquête de l’Indochine. Paris: Payot, 1934.

Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.