March 16, 1914 A Crime of Passion

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case, the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious detail anyone could ask for.  French public and media alike were riveted by the Caillaux affair, disinterested and unheeding of the European crisis barreling down on them, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We hear a lot in election years, about “Left” and “Right”.  “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. U5dtXeDhuSgqBYsRegyPZecZPy5MGQf_1680x8400By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now, the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

200 years later, philosophical differences between the Left and Right of the period, would be recognizable to political observers today.

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Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left-wing politician, appointed Prime Minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux had paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to other people. By 1911, both were divorced.  That October, Henriette Raynouard became the second Mrs. Cailloux.

The political right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many felt war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage conferred by France’s 40 million, compared with 70 million Germans.

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Madame Cailloux

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time.

Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic.  Cailloux fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.  No one realized it at the time, but Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Henriette_Caillaux (1)The July Crisis of 1914 was a series of diplomatic maneuverings, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, while Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

There is a common but mistaken notion that Imperial Germany “started” World War I, but it isn’t so.  Kaiser Wilhelm was a famous “saber rattler”, but actually going to war with the other major European powers, was another matter.

It was Germany’s weaker ally Austria-Hungary which, having received vague assurances of German support, pursued a policy of unreasoning belligerence against  Serbia.

German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow was away on honeymoon, during key periods of the July crisis.  The Kaiser himself was out of touch, cruising the Norwegian fjords.  That cruise has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in history.

On being informed of the decision to mobilize, the Kaiser told his General Staff “Gentlemen, you will regret this.”

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SMY Hohenzollern II, which Emperor Wilhelm II used on annual extended Nordlandfahrt cruises to Norway. All told, he spent four years living on board.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.  Think of the OJ trial, only in this case, the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious detail anyone could ask for.  French public and media alike were riveted by the Caillaux affair, disinterested and unheeding of the European crisis barreling down on them, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The trial ended in acquittal on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to have been a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

542375879In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which it sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75-year-old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

An event which could have resulted in little more that a policing action in the Balkans, was about to explode into the “War to End All Wars”.  Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon said “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were alive in July 1914, would not live to see the other side.

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February 21, 1431 The Maid of Orléans

A National Heroine to the French, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1920.  The only figure in history, to be both condemned and canonized by the church.  It was small consolation for this child who was set up for a fall by her enemies, and abandoned to be incinerated alive, by her friends.

The Hundred Years’ War began as a succession dispute over the French throne, pitting an alliance of Burgundians and English on one side, against a coalition of Royalists led by the Armagnacs on the other.

At this time Europeans were not far removed from the latest outbreak of the Black Death, as the scorched earth tactics of the English army laid waste to the countryside and devastated the French economy.

Charles, Dauphin and heir apparent to the French throne was up against a wall, when a teenage peasant girl approached him in 1429.

For the 14-year-old boy-king, even listening to her was an act of desperation, borne of years of humiliating defeats at the hands of the English army. Yet this illiterate peasant girl had made some uncanny predictions concerning battlefield successes.  Now she claimed to have had visions from God and the Saints, commanding her to help him gain the throne. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc.

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Siege of Orléans

The siege of Orléans was six months old at this time, when the Dauphin decided it couldn’t hurt to let her take part. Jeanne dressed herself in borrowed armor and set out, arriving on the 29th of April, 1429.

History has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of Taylor Owen’s admonition, on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.” So it was in the days following Jeanne’s arrival at Orléans.

Though repeatedly excluded from war councils, Jeanne managed to insert herself anyway, putting the French back on the offensive and handing them one victory after another.

Nine days after her arrival, Orléans turned into an unexpected victory for the French, despite Jeanne’s being shot through the neck and left shoulder by an English longbow, while holding a ladder at the siege of Tourelles.

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After the Dauphin granted her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alençon, the French army enjoyed a string of successes, recovering Jargeau on June 12, Meung-sur-Loire on the 15th, and Beaugency two days later, leading to a humiliating English defeat at the battle at Patay on the 18th.

Several more Armagnac victories followed.  On July 17, 1429, Charles was consecrated King Charles VII of France, fifth King of the House of Valois, with Jeanne d’Arc holding her standard over his head.

Despite her loyalty to the King, court favorite Georges de La Trémoille convinced Charles that Jeanne was becoming too powerful.  The King’s support began to waver.  She was pulled from her horse during the siege of Compiègne in May, 1430, and her allies failed to come to her aid.  Left outside as town gates were closed, she was captured and taken to the castle of Bouvreuil.

Joan_of_arcSome 70 charges were made against her by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, including witchcraft, heresy, and perjury.

Representatives of the judge were dispatched to Jeanne’s home village of Domremy, to ascertain the prisoner’s virginity, character, habits and associations.

Nicolas Bailly, the man responsible for collecting testimony, reported that he “had found nothing concerning Joan that he would not have liked to find about his own sister”. This Bishop Cauchon character must have been some piece of work.  The report so angered the man, that he called Bailly “a traitor and a bad man” and refused to pay him for his work.

Jean Le Maistre, whose presence as Vice-Inquisitor for Rouen was required by canon law, objected to the proceedings and refused to appear, until the English threatened his life.

Interrogation of the prisoner began on February 21, 1431. The outcome was never in doubt. Transcripts were falsified and witnesses intimidated.  Even then, trial records reveal this illiterate peasant girl to be brighter than all her inquisitors, combined.

One example from her third interrogation, was the Question: “Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?”. The question was a trap.  Church doctrine stated that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace, yet a “no” answer would have been held against her.  “If I am not”, she said, “may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”

Joan_of_arc_interrogationAfter fifteen such interrogations her inquisitors still had nothing on her, save for the wearing of soldier’s garb, and her visions. Yet, the outcome of her “trial” was already determined.  She was found guilty of heresy, and sentenced to be burned at the stake.

On May 24, Jeanne was taken to a scaffold.  Threatened that she would be immediately burned alive if she didn’t disavow her visions and abjure the wearing of soldier’s clothing, Jeanne agreed to sign such an abjuration, but recanted four days later.

The death sentence was carried out on May 30, 1431, in the old marketplace at Rouen. She was 19.

When the fire burned down, the coals were raked back to expose her charred body.  No one would be able to claim she’d escaped alive. Her body was then burned twice more – there would be no collection of relics.  Her ashes were cast into a river.

Guillaume Manchon, one of the court scribes, later recalled of the maid’s incarceration: “[S]he was then dressed in male clothing, and was complaining that she could not give it up, fearing lest in the night her guards would inflict some act of [sexual] outrage upon her; and she had complained once or twice to the Bishop of Beauvais, the Vice-Inquisitor, and Master Nicholas Loiseleur that one of the aforesaid guards had tried to rape her.”

Jeanne’s executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later said that he “Greatly feared to be damned”.

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Blessed Sacrament-St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, New Orleans, Louisiana, LA

An inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Calixtus III re-examined the evidence, 25 years later. The court exonerated her of all charges, pronouncing her innocent on July 7, 1456, later declaring her to be a martyr.

A National Heroine to the French, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1920.  The only figure in history, to be both condemned and canonized by the church.  It was small consolation for this child who was set up for a fall by her enemies, and abandoned to be incinerated alive, by her friends.

 

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December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

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“The Blow on the Yser”, depicting the ‘Race to the Sea’. 6th in a series of postcards on the German invasion of France.

25 years earlier things had been different, at the outbreak of “The Great War”.  Had you been alive in August of 1914, you’d have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.

When governments make war on one another, it’s the Harry and the Fritz down the street, the every day Pierre and the Ivan, who must do the fighting.  And the bleeding.  And the dying.

France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre meets the Meuse.  27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.

The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.

In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

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Angels of Mons

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another.  It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives.  All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks.

That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing a Christmas carol.  “Silent night.  The Tommies were the first to respond, singing ‘The First Noel”.  Then both sides joined together, in a rendition of ‘O Come, all ye Faithful’.

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The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries.

Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

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Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of December 24-25, 1914, which lasted in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

christmas-truce-1914-400x186A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915.  They were warned off by the British opposite them.

christmas-military1-e1482512805772German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, that the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible.  Yet there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season.  Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

1914-christmas-eve-truceEven so, there is evidence of a small Christmas truce occurring in 1916, previously unknown to historians. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Man He Killed
BY THOMAS HARDY

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

ICYMI – Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

If you speak of France, most of us think of the five-sided country between Spain and Germany. That would be partly correct, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only 82.2% of the landmass and 95.9% of the population, of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.

That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, the French faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Theirs was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray in 1949.

First_Indochina_War_COLLAGEWhat historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”, or “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.

Na SanThe war went poorly for the French.  By 1952 they were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May of that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.

In November and December of the previous year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.

Dien_Bien_Phu, baseIn June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating a lightly defended point from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified base.

“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, with three parachute infantry battalions dropping into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as they continued to land supplies, troops, and engineering equipment into the isolated base.

Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

Vo felt that he had made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing his anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.

dien_bien_phu-resupplyThe French staff made their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. The communists didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway, or so they thought.

French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time that patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, Piroth circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Last moments
Last moments of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954, as depicted by North Vietnamese artist Huy Toan

“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall, it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.

The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in the north and south alike.

US support for the south increased as the French withdrew theirs.  By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem-supported village leaders.  President John F. Kennedy responded in 1961, sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam.

The next war in Indochina, had begun.

 

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November 27, 1942 Scuttled

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it, even if they had to sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzers had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

Vichy-FranceGermany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of France, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.  At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime.  Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

Scuttled, 2With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon.  Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it, even if they had to sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

Scuttled, 1In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening was relayed to French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon.  Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops, by any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches KriegsschiffUnder orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

27_toulonFinally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more.  German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet.  Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light.  Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from its superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp.  In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed.  39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks.  The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded on that day, 75 years ago, today.  The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable.  How many lives could have been lost can never be known, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power.  But for the bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten, foe.

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October 16, 1793 Let them eat Cake

Marie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold.  Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

Alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, and treaties were often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770 when Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife Maria Theresa, the formidable Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, married their daughter Maria Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France.

The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was performed by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna while the groom stayed in Paris. At 12 she was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

Marie_Antoinette_girlThere was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This wasn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space.  This was the bizarre spectacle of a room full of courtiers, peering down at the proceedings, to make sure the marriage was consummated.

It was not, and that failure did damage to both of their reputations.

The people liked their new Dauphine at first, but the Royal Court was another story. They had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match, and called Marie Antoinette “The Austrian Woman”.  She would be called far worse.

The stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naive of the shark tank into which she’d been thrown. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry, and Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out. The King’s daughters, on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry’s unsavory relations with their father. Antoinette couldn’t win. The sisters complained of feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting, she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter that she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Marie_Antoinette_by_Joseph_DucreuxLouis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side, though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described her supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

France had serious debt problems in the 1770s, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame. As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role, but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, Antoinette was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen took root in French mythology, as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Bastille

Food shortages magnified the unrest. In October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. In June they attempted to flee the escalating violence, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

marie-antoniette-french-historyUnrest turned to barbarity as Antoinette’s friend and supporter, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

Louis XVI was charged with undermining the First Republic in December 1792, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. He was 38.

Marie-Antoinette became prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and was frequently bleeding, possibly from uterine cancer.

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14, subjected to a sham trial whose outcome was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

marie-antoinette over the yearsMarie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold.  Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

“Let them eat cake” is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there’s no evidence that she ever said it. The phrase appears in the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Les Confessions”, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which Marie Antoinette was subjected, it’s easy to believe that this was more of the same.

September 1 (est.), 911 A Different Normandy Story

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal UK and northwestern Europe, ever since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

These “Norsemen” (“Normans”), attacked Paris early in 911. By July they were holding Rollothe nearby town of Chartres under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres on July 20.

Even in defeat, these people presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of loyalty to Charles.

Rollo the WalkerThe deal made sense for the King, because he had already bankrupted his treasury paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the channel, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

And so the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia. Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, The Walker was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Eptethe symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation himself. The chieftain motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as huge as himself, to kiss the king’s foot. The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.