July 14, 1790 It’s Bastille Day

Today the French nation celebrates its own independence. A day to remember the storming of the Bastille and the Fête de la Fédération held a year later, to the day.


In medieval France, the constituent parts of French society comprised the “Three Estates”:  the Clergy, the Nobility and the Commons.

In the late 18th century, all France was in a state of economic chaos. The Nobility refused the tax demands of King Louis XVI. The Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” in June 1789, demanding an audience with the King for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was either hysterical or duplicitous, because the King and his family were still mourning the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent.  It was customary at that time to hold political matters, until the King came out of mourning.

Tennis Court Oath
Tennis Court Oath

Be that as it may, the entire National Assembly, all 577 members, converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn vow, “The Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

The oath itself was a revolutionary act, asserting that political authority came from the people through their representatives, and not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared themselves supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as the left and reformist factions moved from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French right.

Built in 1309, the fortress and medieval prison of the Bastille had long been a focal point of the insurrection, representing royal authority in the center of the city. Donatien Alphonse François, better known as the Marquis de Sade, was one of the few remaining prisoners in the Bastille by this time. He was transferred to an insane asylum after attempting to incite a crowd outside his window, yelling: “They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them.”

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Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” when French revolutionaries converged on the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789. The fortress was guarded by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, the son of the previous governor and a man literally born, in the Bastille.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain holding the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting.  The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

The mob who stormed the Bastille to free the prisoners found only seven: four counterfeiters, two mentally ill and a man sent by his own family for acts of perversion now, lost to history.

Fun fact: Little remains of the Bastille, only a few stones on the Boulevard Henri IV, in Paris. Back in 1790, the Marquis de Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille “across the pond” to his close personal friend, George Washington. Today that key may be found at the home of the first American President – Mount Vernon.

A year later many considered to the Revolution, to be over. All France it seemed gathered on July 14, 1790 to celebrate, the Fête de la Fédération. A new Republic was born. The Marquis de Lafayette led the President of the National Assemblies and all the deputies in an oath of fealty to a constitution, as yet unwritten:

We swear to be forever faithful to the Nation, to the Law and to the King, to uphold with all our might the Constitution as decided by the National Assembly and accepted by the King, and to remain united with all French people by the indissoluble bonds of brotherhood.

Oath of Loyalty to a Constitution, never meant to be. July 14, 1790

“Citizen King” Louis XVI proclaimed his own loyalty to the would-be liberal constitutional monarchy. Queen Marie Antoinette then rose and presented the 5-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France Louis XVII saying “This is my son, who, like me, joins in the same sentiments.”

It was a bright and shining future, never meant to be.

The successful insurrection at Paris had infected all of France as a “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over, in three years. Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine, in 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine during a period of national self-immolation known as the “Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre.

Among the slain was Queen Marie Antoinette who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The woman’s last words on accidentally stepping on her executioner’s toes were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.

Exécution_de_Marie_Antoinette_le_16_octobre_1793
Execution of Marie Antoinette

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial, before the hysteria died down.  Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of this whole sorry story may be that of the son of Louis and Antoinette. He was Louis-Charles, the pre-adolescent Duke of Normandy. The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison at the age of 8. He would die in that cell two years later, miserable, sick, tormented and alone.  It all seems so pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within two decades.

June 10, 1944 Village of the Damned

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It was D+4 following the invasion of Normandy, when the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS passed through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” carried orders to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance fighters in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off nearby Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly oblivious to their own confusion between two different villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population was there plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds where machine guns were already set up.

SS soldiers aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before Nazis lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church and gunned down 247 women and 205 children, as they fled for their lives.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some bushes where she managed to hide, until the next morning.

Oradour-sur-Glane-Hardware

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in just a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby. The child had been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the old village remain as it stood,  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malign influence of collectivist thinking.

Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but it didn’t matter.  Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre were themselves dead within the next few days, killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

And on.  And on.  And on.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 2

The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War” narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: 

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

Sir Laurence Olivier

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

March 16, 1914 The Cailloux Affair

Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen, of the apocalypse.


We heard a lot this past election, 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. By this 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.

100 years later, differences between the French left and right of the period, would be recognizable to American political observers of today.

Joseph Caillaux
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 paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to someone else. They were both divorced by 1911 and that October, Henriette Raynouard became the second, Mrs Cailloux.

The right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many believed 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 between France’s 40 million and Germany’s 70 million.

Gaston Calmette
Gaston Calmette

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 only briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic, and 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.

Henriette_Caillaux
Henriette Cailloux

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would start 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, 1914, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The July Crisis was a series of diplomatic mis-steps, 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, even as Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

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”.

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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 details anyone could ask for. Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.

She was acquitted on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to be a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Imperial Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which military planners 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 dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were there in July 1914, wouldn’t be alive to see November 11, 1918.

March 12, 1790 A Momentary Lapse of Reason

In recent months we have learned from our “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.

The news this morning spoke of an “elite” private school in New York, and the 12-page memorandum sent home to Moms and Dads. Turns out the Grace Church School doesn’t like the terms, “Mom” and “Dad”. Kids aren’t allowed to use them anymore. Even at home.

Leaving a reasonable person to wonder, what exactly renders these people, “elite”? And why would such a thing warrant any response at all, save for a one-finger salute?

In recent months we have learned from such “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.

Scores of millions of women and men of all persuasions and all political stripes quietly shake their heads in hopes that this too, shall pass. And not for the first time. In 1688, no fewer than 19 counties in England and Wales mobilized to defend against armed and rampaging bands of non-existent Irishmen. In 1954, widespread observation of previously unnoticed pits and dings in windshields caused residents of Washington state to believe there was an epidemic of windshield pitting, attributed to everything from sand flea eggs, to nuclear testing.

History abounds with episodes of mass hysteria. The Dancing plague of 1518. The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and the granddaddy of them all la Grande Peur, the Great Fear sweeping across 1789 France culminating in the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and an estimated 3.1 million dead Frenchmen.

All that to return back to the status quo, in 1815.

Imagine you were there, from the beginning. August 1789. Your personal politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left but in all respects, “Moderate”. Now imagine your nation’s politics have shifted so radically in the space of two short years, you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. You are hounded, subject to persecution, even execution, at the hands of your own government. And your personal convictions haven’t changed.

In early modern France, society broke into “three estates”: the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men. The estates-general was a legislative body comprising three assemblies representing each of the three estates.

French society found itself at a crossroads in the late 18th century. Politically, the “commons” had become a caste of its own with a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates. Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition and with it, a diminution of the Monarchy and the Church.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution a decade earlier. (Did we really just blow another two Trillion on a “Covid relief” package, with 7% actually going to Covid relief?)

The straw to break the camel’s back came in the form of successive crop failures. Across Europe, peasants tilled the lands of the manor houses of minor Lords who themselves owed fealty, to the higher nobility. The system had been around since Roman times. In 1789 France, successive crop failures spawned rumors of an aristocratic plot to wipe out the working classes. Peasants rose up to take action, against the seigneurs.

The fiscal and agricultural crises of 1789 pushed the nation over the edge. The “tennis court oath” that May asserted the autonomy of the third estate, a direct affront to the hereditary rights of Kings. The beast was unleashed. The mob stormed the Bastille that July leading to bread riots in the streets and a march on the King’s residence, at Versailles.

In three short months, King Louis XVI was stripped of executive authority.

On this day in 1790, the national Assembly decreed the sale of church-owned lands by municipalities, an affront to church authority unimaginable, in earlier ages.

King Louis XVI of France

King Louis XVI fled with his family in June 1791 only to be captured, returned to Paris and placed under guard. Even then the first French constitution approved that September, reflected the voices of moderation. While sharply limiting monarchical power the King still kept his head, still GOT to be King while enjoying veto power and the authority to appoint ministers.

Radical elements were inflamed, led by the likes of Maximilien de Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton. The King must be put on trial. Louis XVI was deposed in August 1792 and thrown in prison, followed by an orgy of violence against suspected “counter-revolutionaries”.

Once absolute monarch of France, “Citizen Louis Capet” was executed by guillotine in January 1793 in front of a crowd of 100,000. Bloodthirsty sans culottes rejoiced, wrote The London Times, while “honest citizens… could not suppress their heartfelt grief and mourned in private”. Queen Marie-Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine, nine months later. The son of the royal couple, Louis-Charles, was thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8. The boy was dead at ten. The physician who performed his autopsy expressed shock and dismay at the scars, covering his little body.

The Jacobins, the most radically leftist in a kaleidoscopic mélange of competing factions, were now in power. These people went so far as to abolish history itself, creating a new calendar with themselves at the beginning. Year one. Just like that proclaimed by Pol Pot in April, 1975.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

Historical caricature of the reign of terror

The revolution turned on itself and ate its own young in 1793-’94, a period described as the “reign of terror”. Victims by the tens of thousands walked their final steps to the guillotine, while equal numbers stood to face firing squads.

Robespierre, once the thought leader behind this whole mess, came to be seen as an enemy of the Revolution. Knowing all too well what would happen next Robespierre shot himself in the face, to prevent his own arrest. The suicide attempt succeeded only in destroying the man’s lower jaw, and several teeth. That visage, once the face of Revolution itself and now wrapped in blood soaked bandages, was separated from the rest of him the following day.

Fun fact: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had nothing to do with the contraption, that bears his name. He didn’t even approve of capital punishment. As a physician, the torture inflicted by breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, death by boiling and dismemberment was repugnant. To be hacked at by axe or sword was hardly any better. If capital punishment was to be carried out at all he believed, the quick, impersonal and painless death afforded by a decapitation machine might just be the first step toward abolishing the death penalty, altogether.

It was Tobias Schmidt who actually invented the thing. The association with the guillotine so embarrassed the doctor’s family they changed their name. One J.M.V. Guillotin, an unrelated physician practicing in Lyons, met his end on the guillotine, giving rise to the myth that the inventor was killed by his own machine. Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin died at home of natural causes, in 1814.

Robespierre was barely in the ground when a certain Corsican corporal was thrown in prison, a suspected supporter of Robespierre. Napoleon Buonaparte would earn a place with the regime in October 1796, 13 Vendémiaire according to the new calendar, by putting down a royalist revolt in the streets.

The Napoleonic era had begun, fifteen years of violence pitting no fewer than 7 international coalitions, against the French war machine. French historian Hippolyte Taine has claimed the Revolution and Napoleonic wars took the lives of 3.1 million Frenchmen, alone. Precise numbers are impossible to determine.

Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Following a year-long government lockdown and four years of the most divisive politics in American history – even Civil War soldiers from the north and south agreed about 80% of the time – we find ourselves in a period of national hysteria. The capital is surrounded by armed troops, and razor wire. Social media billionaires with funny haircuts and weird beards arrogate to themselves who gets to say what, and when. 1st Amendment be damned.

The wealthiest man on the planet shuts down whole social media channels while #2 rains down cash on racists, claiming to root the racists out of math.

Or maybe men really can give birth and math really is, racist. Who knows, maybe everything will turn out right, after all. Now that we’ve unsexed Mr. Potato Head.

February 17, 1915 American Volunteers in WW1

“When men who have no obligation to fight, who could not possibly be criticized if they did not fight, yet nevertheless decide, upon their own individual initiative, to risk their lives in defense of a cause that they hold to be dear, then we are in the presence of true heroism” – General Henri Gouraud

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic stumbles, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August, there was no turning back. There would be no “Phony War” this time, no “Sitzkreig”, as wags were wont to call the early days of World War 2. The coming storm crashed across the continent like a clap of thunder.

Britain went to war with a professional army of 750,000 men, small by European standards. 8 million men were conscripted or recruited over the next four years, nearly half coming from outside the UK. They came from all over the British empire and beyond. Over 300 Americans volunteered with the Royal Flying Corps in WW1 as did Jamaican William Robinson Clarke, the first black pilot to fly for Britain, but no power so enjoyed the support of foreign volunteers, as France.

Foreign mercenary soldiers have a long history with the French military. Philip VI led 15,000 Italian soldiers against Edward III, in 1346. Napoleon had 60,000 Swiss Guard under contract of the Schweizergarten, in Vienna. King Louis Philippe formed the French Foreign Legion on March 9, 1831.

“American volunteers in the French Foreign Legion cross the Place de L’Opera Paris on August 25, 1914, headed for Rouen” H/T americansatwarinforeignforces.com

The United States was still neutral in the beginning, over two years away from joining the fray. The influx of American volunteers, began almost immediately. They came to join the French Foreign Legion, to drive for the ambulance corps and, later, to fly.

Interestingly, the central powers made limited use of foreign conscripts or recruits. There was the occasional foreign colonial in German units, soldiers of Chinese or African descent. Several Americans volunteered to fly for the Imperial German Flying Corps. Though nominally allied with czarist Russia, longstanding animosities led some Fins to volunteer with the Imperial German army. Irish Republicans took opportunity to attempt an independent Irish Republic and Germany was happy to assist but it was der Löwe von Afrika (Lion of Africa) General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who famously led 11,000 to 12,000 African Askari troops in the only successful invasion into a part of the British empire of all of WW1.

With only a handful of generations come and gone between our time and that of the Great War, WW1 holds a prominent place in modern conceptions of “recent” history. Similarly, the WW1 generation held the Revolution in close regard, the events of the last century and one-half foundational to their own time. Americans were keenly aware in 1914 of the pivotal role played by France, in American independence. Kiffin and Paul Rockwell are but two examples of Americans who left comfortable lives to serve “over there” as a debt of gratitude, to the likes of the Count of Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette.

General John “Black Jack” Pershing famously quipped on arriving on French soil, “Lafayette, we are here”.

The French Foreign Legion operated two regiments at this time comprised of six battalions of 1,000 men each and headquartered in north Africa. The need for manpower was acute. Two-thirds were of German or Austrian background and therefore of suspect loyalty.

Thousands of Americans volunteered for WW1 service in the Legion, notables among their number including composer and songwriter Cole porter, Eugene Jacques Bullard, who would go on to become the first black American fighter pilot in history, William Wellman, director of the 1927 film Wings and winner of the Best Picture award at the first Academy Awards ceremony and poet Alan Seeger (left), author of “I have a rendezvous with death” and uncle of the folk artist and social activist, Pete Seeger.

William Moll served his five years with the Foreign Legion and returned home to Chicago. He became filthy rich and died, in 1937. Imagine the reading of that will. All those eager relatives and the man left every dime of it, to the French Foreign Legion.

Some Foreign Legion units experienced close to 100% casualties.

Alan Seeger met his rendezvous with death at the Somme, in 1916. Fellow Legion soldier Rif Baer described his last moments: “His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend.” Even then, lying mortally wounded in no man’s land Seeger cheered on his passing comrades as the life ebbed out of him.

Not legally “Americans” at this time but members of their own sovereign nations, no fewer than 4,000 Indians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, in 1914. Some 15,000 native Americans from many tribal affiliations enlisted with the American Expeditionary Force where members of the Choctaw, Cherokee and Cree nations learned to talk in code, early forerunners of the famous Navajo code talkers, of WW2.

The Battle of the Frontiers, a series of clashes between August 7 and September 6, 1914 brought no fewer than 2.7 million combatants together producing casualties on both sides, of some 664,000. The motor inventory of entire nations public and private, seemed inadequate to transport the cataract of wounded to places of medical care.

Members of expatriate American business community and embassy employees rushed in to assist in early association with the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, in Paris.

US Ambassador Myron Herrick and his wife Carolyn (“Kitty”) were instrumental in the early stages of the war as were wealthy donors such as the Vanderbilts, in early association with the American Hospital, founded four years earlier. As German armies crashed through Belgium and raced to capture Paris, the government fled for Bordeaux. Herrick stayed defiantly in Paris. “Paris belongs not only to France,” he said, “it belongs to the world!”

Three distinct ambulance corps would evolve over time involving no fewer than 3,500 American volunteers. Notable among ther number include the authors Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Dashiell Hammett who all but invented the hard-boiled crime novel.

Edward “Eddie” Mandell Stone lived in France when the war broke out and enlisted, with Foreign Legion, 2nd Regiment, Battalion C.

A member of a machine-gun section, Eddie (right) was mortally wounded on February 17, 1915 and taken to the Military Hospital at Romilly. He died of his wounds on February 27 becoming the first American combatant to die, in the ‘War to end all wars”.

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons. He wouldn’t live to see the article in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed. He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor. He died three days later, at the age of 29.

Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery (left) flew for both the Aéronautique Militaire and for the US Army Air Service and is sometimes listed as an Ace, in both. All but 1 of Lufbery’s 17 victories came as a French pilot. Raoul Lufbery was thrown from his aircraft and killed on May 19, 1918.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.   Germany expressed dismay over the very existence of such a unit, complaining that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Escadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core of 38 American volunteers in the beginning, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were two unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

William Thaw with unit mascot mascots, Whiskey and Soda. ca 1916

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

William Graves Sharp took office in December 1914 and served as Ambassador the remainder of the war, but never seemed to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, Myron Herrick. Ambassador Herrick returned to Paris in 1921 and remained, until 1929. Herrick greeted Richard Lindberg in 1927 and stood throughout the long funeral ceremonies, for Ferdinand Foch.

It is there the ambassador was believed to have contracted the illness, that would take his life. Now forgotten in his home country, Myron Herrick is well remembered in his adopted nation of France.

Today you can walk through the gardens of Paris’ Place des États-Unis, down the slope from Bartholdi’s sculpture where Lafayette forever shakes hands, with Washington. Up from the monument for American Volunteers in the Great War is the bust of Myron Herrick.

The once governor of Ohio and forgotten diplomat who refused to be moved when everyone around him, ran.

November 27, 1942. Vanquished, but Unbeaten

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 destroy it, by their own hands.

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-France

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of the country, 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.

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With 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 destroy it, by their own hands.

Scuttled, 1

In 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 reached 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 Kriegsschiff

Under 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.

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Finally, 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 her 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 that day. 78 years ago, today. The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable. How many lives may have been lost, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power. But for the obstinate bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten foe.

October 16, 1793 Let them eat Cake

At first the people liked their new Queen-to-be, but the Royal Court was another story. A shark tank of grasping ambition, this crowd had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match and called the Dauphine “The Austrian Woman”. She would come to be called far worse.

Political alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770. Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Queen Maria Theresa, the formidable Sovereign of Hungary and Bohemia, married their little girl to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France. Her name was Maria Antonia. She was twelve years old.

The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was carried out by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna with the groom near-800 miles away, in Paris. She was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, pre-teen wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

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There 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.  Ohhhhh, no. This was the bizarre spectacle of courtiers crowding into the bedchambers, peering down at the frightened couple to be sure the marriage was consummated.

Unsurprisingly, it was not. In time, that failure would do damage to both their reputations.

At first the people liked their new Dauphine, but the Royal Court was another story. A shark tank of grasping ambition, this crowd had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match and called the French Queen-to-be “The Austrian Woman”.  She would come to be called far worse.

The stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naïve of the vicious circles into which she was cast. 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 or their unsavory relations, with their father. She literally couldn’t win. The sisters bellyached about 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 she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

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Louis-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 supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

The French government was staggered by debt at this time, 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, the Queen Consort 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 had taken root 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. That October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. They attempted to flee the escalating violence the following June, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

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Unrest 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 years old.

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

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14 and 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 out 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 years

On October 16, 1793, Marie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off. She was paraded through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. On mounting the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot.  The last words of the most hated woman in Paris, 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 “Les Confessions”, the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which the woman was subjected, it’s easy to believe this was just more of the same.

May 13, 1916 The Lafayette Escadrille

Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight the Axis Powers joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

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Norman Prince

Knowing his father would not approve, Norman Prince of Beverly Massachusetts concealed his flight training.  Using the name George Manor,  Norman earned his wings in 1911 in the Quincy, Massachusetts neighborhood of Squantum.

A fluent French speaker with a family estate in Pau, France, Norman sailed in January 1915, to join the French war effort.

The earliest vestiges of the American Hospital of Paris and what would become the American Ambulance Field Service can be found five years earlier, in 1906. Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight the Axis Powers joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

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Squadron Insignia pin

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons.

Prince would not live to see the article, in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed.  He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor.  He died three days later, at the age of 29.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

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Lt. Col. William Thaw II with lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda

Thaw pooled his money with three other pilots to purchase a male lion cub, the first of two such mascots kept by the Escadrille.  He bought the lion from a Brazilian dentist for 500 francs and bought a dog ticket, walking the lion onto the train on a leash.

Explanations that this was an “African dog” proved less than persuasive, and the pair was thrown off the train.  “Whiskey” would have to ride to his new home in a cage, stuck in cargo.

captain_georges_thenault_and_fram_1917 (1)A female lion, “Soda”, was purchased sometime later.  The lions were destined to spend their adult years in a Paris zoo but both remembered from whence they had come.  Both animals recognized William Thaw on a later visit to the zoo, rolling onto their backs in expectation of a good belly rub.

French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault owned a “splendid police dog” named Fram who was the best of friends with Whiskey, though he learned to keep to himself at dinner time.

Originally authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.  Nevertheless, Germany was dismayed at the existence of such a unit and complained that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Lafayette EscadrilleEscadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core group of 38 American volunteers, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were the unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

This early in aviation history, flying duty was hazardous to say the least.  Planes were flimsy and plagued with mechanical difficulties. Machine guns jammed and other parts failed when they were needed most.  There were countless wounds in addition to fatal injuries. At least one man actually asked to be sent back to the trenches, where he felt safer.

Kiffin Rockwell "In American Escadrille "movie" picture May 1916"
Kiffin Rockwell

The first major action of the Escadrille Américaine took place at the Battle of Verdun on May 13, 1916.

Kiffin Rockwell of Newport Tennessee became the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft on May 18, later losing his own life when he was shot down by the gunner in a German Albatross observation plane on September 23. French born American citizen Raoul Lufbery became the squadron’s first Ace with 5 confirmed kills, and went on to be the highest scoring flying ace in the unit with 17 confirmed victories. He was killed on May 19, 1918 when his Nieuport 28 flipped over while he attempted to clear a jam in his machine gun.

The unit sustained its first fatality on June 24, 1916 when Victor Chapman was attacked by German flying ace Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, north of Douaumont.  Chapman was carrying oranges at the time, intended for his buddy Clyde Balsley, who was in hospital recuperating from an earlier incident.

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Edmond Genet

Ossining, New York native Edmond Genet was a bit of a celebrity among American expats, as the second-great grandson of Edmond-Charles Genêt, of the Founding-era Citizen Genêt Affair.  Genet sailed for France at the end of January 1915, joining the French Foreign Legion, and finally the Lafayette Escadrille on January 22, 1917.

Genet had left while on leave from the US Navy, and was therefore classified as a deserter. The decision weighed heavily on him.  Edmond Genet was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17, eleven days after the American declaration of war, officially making him the first American fatality in the War to end all Wars.  The war department sent his family a letter after his death, stating that his service was considered in all respects, honorable.

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.  The unit flew for the French Air Service until the US’ entry into the war, when it passed into the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force.

Raoul Lufbery
Raoul Lufbery

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

March 3, 1817 Land of the Vine and Olive

Thus begins one of the more romanticized chapters in Alabama folklore.  The noble heroes of the Napoleonic wars, carving a new world of French language and culture from the wild frontier.

In the Treaty of Paris in 1783,  the British Crown formally recognized American Independence, ceding vast territories east of the Mississippi, effectively doubling the size of the fledgling United States and paving the way for westward expansion. north_america_1670Those first ten years of independence was a time of increasing unrest for the American’s French ally, of the late revolution.  The famous Storming of the Bastille of July 1789 led to the Women’s March and the abolition of the French monarchy the following year.  King Louis XVI was beheaded by guillotine in January 1793 followed ten months later by the execution of the Queen Consort of France, Marie Antoinette.

The orgy of violence known as “The Reign of Terror” killed nearly twice as many Frenchmen over the next two years, as that of Americans killed during the entire seven years of the Revolution.

A certain Corsican corporal emerged from this mess, with designs on La Louisiane.  Napoleon envisioned a vast north American empire stretching from the gulf of Mexico to the modern state of Montana and east to the Great Lakes, all of it centered on a vast trade in Caribbean sugar.napoleon_bonaparte_promoIt wasn’t meant to be. The slave insurrection of Toussaint Louverture in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) put a strain on French finances, to say nothing of the never-ending series of wars on the European landmass.  By 1803, Bonaparte needed to cash his chips and move away from the American table.

Robert R. Livingston, one of the committee of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, was minister to the French Republic.  President Thomas Jefferson instructed Livingstone to open the way for commerce on the western frontier, authorizing the diplomat to pay up to $2 million for the city of New Orleans and lands on the east bank of the Mississippi river.

French Foreign Minister Talleyrand surprised the American diplomat, asking how much the Americans would pay for the Entire Louisiana territory.  The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 added 828,000 square miles of new territory at a cost of fifteen million dollars.louisiana-purchaseNapoleon Bonaparte, crowned Emperor the following year, would fight (and win) more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

It was all for nothing.  The first fall of the Napoleonic dynasty brought about the restoration of the Bourbon monarchs in 1814, leading to the “100 days” and Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, at a place called Waterloo.

Philadelphia and New Orleans both, would soon become sanctuaries for French refugees of the Napoleonic wars, and the Haitian Revolution.

download - 2020-03-04T061100.354 Jean-Simon Chaudron founded the Abeille Américaine in 1815 (The American Bee), Philadelphia’s leading French language newspaper.  Himself a refugee of Santo Domingo (Saint-Domingue), Chaudron catered to French merchants, emigres and former military figures of the Napoleonic era and the Haitian revolution.

The idea of a French agricultural colony in the old southwest (now the central southeastern states) first came about in 1816 and Chaudron used his newspaper to promote the project.

The Colonial Society came about that November (later renamed the Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and Olive), with General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, at its head.

Congress soon took an interest in the project as did important politicians of the era including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

The project made sense.  Many viewed these French refugees as fellow republicans, oppressed by a monarchy.  What better way to consolidate hold on western territories while at the same time building a domestic wine-making industry.  Furthermore, the work would prevent these people from forming yet another hotbed, of Napoleonic military insurrection.

m-5392In January 1817, the Society for the Vine and Olive selected a site near the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers in west-central Alabama, on former Choctaw lands.  On March 3, 1817, Congress passed an act “disposing of a tract of land to embrace four townships, on favorable terms to the emigrants, to enable them successfully to introduce the cultivation of the vine and olive.”

The act granted 92,000 acres, specifying a 14-year grace period in which to dedicate a ‘reasonable’ portion of the land to cultivation at a deferred cost of $2.00 per acre.

Thus began one of the more romanticized chapters in Alabama folklore.  The noble heroes of the Napoleonic wars, carving a new world of French language and culture from the wild frontier.

The reality wasn’t quite so romantic.  Grape vines and olive saplings were ordered from Europe but many of the plants, died en route.  The grape varieties selected were a poor match for the hot and humid climate of the region, the olive trees, a dismal failure.  Congressional stipulations were relaxed over time and farmlands converted, to cotton.

m-5391General Charles Lallemand, who joined the French army in 1791, replaced Lefebvre-Desnouettes as President of the Colonial Society. A man better suited to the life of an adventurer than that of the plow, Lallemand was more interested in the wars of Latin American independence, than grapes and olives.  By the fall of 1817, Lallemand and 69 loyalists had concocted a plan to sell the land they hadn’t yet paid for, to raise funds for the invasion of Texas.

In the end, only 150 of 347 original grantees ever came to Alabama. Some died, many fled.  Most were unwilling to trade comfortable lives in Philadelphia and New Orleans, for the hardship of life on the frontier. By the planting season of 1818, there were only 69 settlers in the colony.

583b24b42a4c7_115727bLittle is left of the Vine and Olive Colony but the French Emperor lives on, in western Alabama.  Marengo County commemorates Napoleon’s June 14, 1800 victory over Austrian forces at the Battle of Marengo.  The county seat, also known as Marengo, was later renamed Linden.  Shortened from the Napoleonic victory over Bavarian forces led by Archduke John of Austria, at the 1800 battle of Hohenlinden.

 

Hat tip Rafe Blaufarb of Florida State University, for a great write-up of this subject. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org

 

 

October 5, 1789 The Women’s March

Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve, as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles away. 

We hear a lot this pre-election season, 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. By 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.

Imagine you are there, from the beginning. The year is 1789. Your politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your nation’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

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Cartoon of the period depicting the “3rd Estate” (Commoners) carrying the 1st (Clergy) and 2nd (Nobility) on his back

In medieval France, major constituent parts of French society broke into “Three Estates” being the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men.

French society of the late 18th century found itself at a crossroads of tectonic events, any one of which carried with it the potential for societal upheaval.

Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition, and a diminution of the Monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Politically, the “Commons” had evolved into a caste of its own, with its own goals and a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution of a decade earlier.  The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI.

The situation was precarious for the King that May, when Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General.   Having reached an impasse, the Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” that  June, demanding a personal audience with the King, for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was hysterical, duplicitous or both, as the King and the Royal Family were in formal mourning at this time, following the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent to the french throne.  Traditionally, political matters were held at such times, until the King came out of mourning.

It was yet another custom, about to be thrown out the window.

Finding the chamber locked and under guard, all 577 members of the National Assembly converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the “Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

image-placeholder-title.jpgThe oath itself was a revolutionary act.  Unlike the English Parliament, the Estates-General were little more than an advisory body, whose authority was not required for Royal taxation or legislative initiatives.  The oath taken that day asserted that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared itself supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as Leftist and reformist factions coalesced from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French Right.

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” in July, when French revolutionaries converged on that age-old and hated symbol of the monarchy:  the Bastille. The fortress was guarded at this time by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting. The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

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On this day in 1789, hundreds of French women ransacked the markets of Paris, angry over the scarcity and the high price, of bread.  Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles distant.

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The women’s march, hailed and encouraged by onlookers, making its way toward the Palace at Versailles

Arriving soaking wet from a driving rain, the angry mob converged on Versailles demanding political reforms and a constitutional monarchy.  The confrontation was ugly, violent.  Marie Antoinette herself narrowly escaped destruction, fleeing down a secret passage to the King’s chambers.

The King himself agreed to address the crowd,  from his balcony. “My friends,” he began, “I will go to Paris with my wife and my children.”  It was a fatal error.

The insurrection at Paris raced across all of France as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years.  Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in January, 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette herself, who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The Queen’s last words on mounting the scaffold were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.   She had accidentally stepped on her executioner’s toes.

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Execution of Louis XVI

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial before the hysteria died down. Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy.  The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8.  He would die there, miserable, sick and alone, at the age of 10.   

The whole exercise, seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.