On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.
Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.
For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.
One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.
Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.
Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any ret, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”
A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.
Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.
Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.
But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”
The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”
Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”
Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.
* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.
On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.
Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.
Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.
Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.
Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.
The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.
Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.
On this date* in 1378, Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, aides to King Charles II of Navarre, were beheaded at Les Halles.
Both men were casualties of their deviousmaster’s most recent betrayals, part of a career that had honed the double game to nearly sadistic precision.
Navarre spent the latter half of the 14th century fouling up alignments in the Hundred Years’ War by constantly switching his allegiances between England and France. Come the 1370s, he was supposed to be on team France — having paid homage to the French king in 1371 — but was still conniving with the English whose expeditions might one day apply enough pressure to force France to restore him some lost domains.
The last great plot of the man contemporaries knew as Charles the Bad really fell apart in the spring of 1378 when the French detained en route to Normandy Jacques de Rue and Pierre du Tertre, two emissaries of Charles’s “criminal entourage”. They carried coded messages** confirming that Navarre was not only back to scheming with the English, but that he was trying to orchestrate the assassination of the French king by means of poison — plots that Jacques confirmed under torture.
France retaliated by attacking its disloyal partner’s Norman holdings and by year’s end the whole region had been chopped up between the French and the English, never to return to Navarrese hands. His retainers were put to death and their corpses strung up on Montfaucon.
This was the humiliating end to the political life of Charles the Bad: reduced to a client king dominated by France (to his north) and Castile (to his south). It would soon find its parallel in the horror ending of his actual life on New Year’s Day 1387:
Charles the Bad, having fallen into such a state of decay that he could not make use of his limbs, consulted his physician, who ordered him to be wrapped up from head to foot, in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy, so that he might be inclosed in it to the very neck as in a sack. It was night when this remedy was administered. One of the female attendants of the palace, charged to sew up the cloth that contained the patient, having come to the neck, the fixed point where she was to finish her seam, made a knot according to custom; but as there was still remaining an end of thread, instead of cutting it as usual with scissors, she had recourse to the candle, which immediately set fire to the whole cloth. Being terrified, she ran away, and abandoned the king, who was thus burnt alive in his own palace.
* There are some cites for May 21 out there, but the sourcing on June appears stronger to me, and references to the men’s interrogations and trial run to June. The beheading is also referred to as having taken place on a Monday, which fits June 21 (but not May 21) in 1378.
** According to CryptoSchool this is one of the oldest known documents in the history of cryptology. Devised personally by Charles of Navarre, its gambit was to “move the names of princes, castles and cities to other names not their own.” (Chronique Normande)
Four French soldiers of the 96th Régiment d’Infanterie were shot 100 years ago today for resisting an order to return to their World War I trenches on the western front. Their names (per French Wikipedia’s tragically lengthy entry on World War I executions) were Émile Frédéric Lhermenier, Lucien Baleux, Félix Louis Milhau, and Paul Pierre Regoult. Baleux was only 19 years old.
We have an affecting memory of the demoralizing effect of this shooting upon their fellow soldiers in the 55th division courtesy of a remarkable epistolary war memoir. Titled Émile et Léa : Lettres d’un couple d’instituteurs bourguignons dans la tourmente de la Grande guerre (Emile and Lea: Letters of a Burgundy teacher-couple amid the turmoil of the Great War), the book was lovingly assembled in the early 200s by Emile and Lea’s grandson Michel Mauny, from a box marked “GUERRE” that turned out to be heavy with over 1200 letters exchanged by husband and wife during Emile’s years at the front. (See French review here)
Two days after the quadruple execution, Emile heartbreakingly wrote —
Four soldiers of the 96th having been sentenced to death, the companies of the 5th Battalion 246th [regiment] were responsibe for providing the four firing squads. Of my company, we had five soldiers, four corporals, and five sergeants. Fortunately I was not designated for this horrible work.
Our comrades described the scene to us. It was mournful, poignant. All were stunned to have participated in the execution. Perhaps those unhappy four deserved it (I do not know), but we should find another way to enforce the law in the century we live in. One of them it seems had only 18 or 19 years. I think I, who used to live with children and young people, I would have gone crazy had I been forced to participate in this drama.
According to Michel Mauny’s commentary on the incident, a machine-gun captain in the regiment was so overwhelmed he became fixated on the nightmare of being executed himself, and eventually had to be relieved from his duties with dementia. “After twenty months on campaign, the commanders must be truly cruel to put four of our comrades to the post!”
In the first days of the week, there was a morning where four soldiers were shot … I did not hear the volley, but I knew from Bourgoeois and Geoffroy that we had taken the prisoners an hour early before the guns. One of them, a strong lad of nineteen, committed to the war, as strong as an ox, bellowing out “Kill me? Go ahead! It’s impossible!”
Bayon directed the execution; he had prepared four pole with ropes, for he guessed they would resist. It was quickly done, everyone in haste to finish; once all were bound the four platoons were lined up facing left, took aim, and there was not even a command for the first shot caused all the others. Afterwards Bayon imposed eight days’ punishment on a sergeant who was to represent the division and arrived four minutes late: “You made these men die twice, you!”
Such records as remain do not make clear why this quartet joined the 600-plus French troops shot for military offenses during the Great War, but three other soldiers from the same regiment accused of the same offense in the same incident did not have the honor of dying for France but suffered only demotion. Was it that four sufficed “pour encourager les autres” — that three would show a want of backbone, and five would be barbarity?
On this date in 1356, the French King John II — John the Good, to history — avenged himself on his cousin and rival, Charles the Bad.
This affair embroils us in the French dynastic turmoil that spawned the Hundred Years’ War: five months after the nastiness in this post, King John was an English prisoner following the catastrophic Battle of Poitiers. It’s a good job he got his revenge in when he had the chance.
The fight — in its largest sense — was all about the throne of France, the poisonous fruit of the dynasty-destroying Tour de Nesle affair of royal adultery decades before. That affair destroyed two princesses who could have become queens, and with it the potential of legitimate heirs for their husbands. With the family tree’s next generation barren, succession passed from brother to brother until the last brother died.
So now who’s big man in France?
Awkwardly, the last king’s nearest male relative also happened to be the king of France’s rival — his nephew, Edward III of England.
France barred Edward with a quickness, on the grounds that Edward was related via a female line. That put the patrimony in the hands of John the Good’s father, a previously un-royal cousin known as Philip the Fortunate. Less fortunately, this succession also conferred upon the new Valois line Edward’s rival claim and the associated interminable violent conflict.
Besides these two, there was yet another cousin who aspired to the French scepter: our guy Charles the Bad, King of the Pyrenees-hugging realm of Navarre. This guy’s mother had her legitimacy cast in doubt by the whole adultery thing years ago, and her woman bits had ruled her out of ruling France — but not Navarre. (No Salic Law in Navarre: a digression beyond this post.)
So Charles, her son and heir in Navarre, was at least as close to the Capetian dynasty as were his cousins — and maybe closer. He was also “one of the most complex characters of the 14th century,” in the judgment of Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century). “A small, slight youth with glistening eyes and a voluble flow of words, he was volatile, intelligent, charming, violent, cunning as a fox, ambitious as Lucifer, and more truly than Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’”
“His only constant was hate.”
And Charles sure hated King John. Was it the political rivalry? The daughter John had foisted on him as a bride? The territory John nicked from Navarre to confer on John’s favorite as Constable of France?* Yes.
Charles had subtlety in his bag of clubs, and brutal directness too. In 1354, he revenged at least one slight by having his brother murder the aforementioned Constable — also a favorite and childhood friend** of King John — in a tavern ambush.
(There’s an audio introduction to Charles the Bad complete with hammy re-enactment of the homicide in episode 110 of the History of England podcast. What follows below leads off episode 111.)
Too weak politically at that moment to repay Charles in his own coin, John had to sullenly consent to a putative reconciliation … but he was only biding his time. Charles compounded the enmity by his scheming on-again, off-again negotiations with the English, hoping to leverage the war between those powers to his own advantage.
He was a constant thorn in King John’s side, and the latter had problem enough with the English invasions and the struggle he had to gin up tax revenue to oppose them. The apparent last straw: Charles buddied up to John’s son the Dauphin and tried to engineer a coup d’etat against John. John settled on a vengeful stroke to put both the King of Navarre and the crown prince in their places, a party-fouling scene to beggar Game of Thrones in Froissart’s description:
The king of France, on Tuesday the 5th of April, which was the Tuesday after midlent Sunday, set out early, completely armed, from Mainville, attended by about one hundred lances. There were with him his son the earl of Anjou, his brother the duke of Orleans, the lord John d’Artois, earl of Eu, the lord Charles his brother, cousins-german to the king, the earl of Tancarville, sir Arnold d’Andreghen, marshal of France, and many other barons and knights. They rode straight for the castle of Rouen, by a back way, without passing through the town, and on entering found, in the hall of the castle, Charles, duke of Normandy, Charles king of Navarre, John earl of Harcourt, the lords de Preaux, de Clerc, de Graville, and some others seated at dinner. The king immediately ordered them all, except the dauphin, to be arrested, as also sir William and sir Louis de Harcourt, brothers to the earl, the lord Fricquet de Friquart, the lord de Tournebeu, the lord Maubué de Mamesnars, two squires called Oliver Doublet and John de Vaubatu, and many others. He had them shut up in different rooms in the castle; and his reason for so doing was, that, since the reconciliation made on occasion of the death of the constable of France, the king of Navarre had conspired and done many things contrary to the honour of the king, and the good of his realm: the earl of Harcourt had also used many injurious expressions in the castle of Vaudreuil, when an assembly was holden there to grant a subsidy to the king of France against the said king, in order to prevent, as much as lay in his power, the subsidy from being agreed to. The king, after this, sat down to dinner, and afterwards, mounting his horse, rode, attended by all his company, to a field behind the castle, called the Field of Pardon.
The king then ordered the earl of Harcourt, the lord of Graville, the lord Maubué and Oliver Doublet to be brought thither in two carts: their heads were cut off,† and their bodies dragged to the gibbet at Rouen, where they were hung, and their heads placed upon the gibbet. In the course of that day and the morrow, the king set at liberty all the other prisoners, except three: Charles king of Navarre, who was conducted to prison in the Louvre at Paris, and afterwards to the Châtelet: some of the king’s council were appointed as a guard over him. Fricquet and Vaubatu were also confined in the Châtelet. Philip of Navarre, however, kept possession of several castles which the king his brother had in Normandy, and, when the king of France sent him orders to surrender them, refused to obey, but in conjunction with the lord Godfrey de Harcourt and other enemies of France, raised forces in the country of Coutantin, which they defended against the king’s troops.
On this date in 1560 the second Baron de Castelnau, Jean Boileau, was beheaded as a Huguenot traitor. His was one of the opening casualties of France’s devastating Wars of Religion.
We find Castelnau’s end before war began, when the Huguenot party — although it had been pressed sorely enough for martyr-making in the years of the Reformation — was perhaps not yet quite steeled for the measure of purposeful violence it would require to conquer state power. After the events in this post, the great Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny would remonstrate at a royal Council of Notables protesting the loyalty of the realm’s Protestant subjects. Two years later, he was commanding rebels in the field; a decade later, he would be murdered in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
“Rashly designed and feebly executed,”* the plan of these 1560 pre-rebellion Huguenots was to tilt France’s religious policy by muscling out the top Catholic.
Considering the new king’s youth and Guise’s prestige, here was the potential to lock in for decades to come a situation intolerable to France’s Protestants. (In actual fact, Francis did not live to see 1561 and the country soon fell into civil war … but the characters in this post did not have the benefit of hindsight.)
So the muscling-out plan was born: the Amboise conspiracy. Named for the castle where the attempt was unsuccessfully executed, this plot aimed to seize the Duke of Guise by main force and begin forcing a more satisfactory policy direction on the malleable sovereign.
This scheme became very widely known among Protestant nobles and even bourgeois, who variously signed on or demurred; no surprise, someone in the ever-widening circle of confidantes eventually leaked it to the court. Guise quietly made ready the castle at Amboise to repel the putsch, and when the attempt was made in mid-March it was not the Catholics but the attacking Huguenots who were surprised and routed. Over 1,000 men involved in the attempt were slaughtered in the ensuing days — by the rope, the sword, or the waters of the Loire. Its chief architect, La Renaudie, was killed in the skirmishes but his corpse was still posthumously mutilated.
Castelnau’s beheading is foregrounded
The Lord Castelnau’s detail for the conspiracy was to seize the nearby Chateau Noizay. He did so only to discover himself in a most embarrassing position when his comrades were crushed. The Guise-allied young Duke of Nemours persuaded Castelnau to surrender under safe conduct:
“Lay down your arms then,” said Nemours, “and if you wish to address the king as becomes a faithful subject, I promise you, upon my faith, to enable you to speak to the king and to bring you back in safety.”
Castelnau, in consequence, surrendered the castle of Noizai to the Duke of Nemours, who took an oath and signed it, that no harm should happen to him or his followers. They went together to Amboise, where the unfortunate baron found that the promise which had been made him was not binding, for the Duke of Nemours had exceeded his orders.
Castelnau’s bravery did not forsake him on the scaffold, where he died a martyr to his religion; the Duke of Nemours felt very indignant at the circumstance, as he had given his signature, which tormented him probably much more than it would have done if his word alone had been passed. (Source)
This traitorous conspiracy — and the ferocity of its destruction — helped to initiate the ensuing years‘ tit-for-tat confessional violence that plunged France headlong into the Wars of Religion (and got Guise himself assassinated in 1563). “A morbid desire to witness the shedding of blood seized upon society,” one historian wrote. “D’Aubigne the eminent historian of the French Reformation, was an eye-witness of such incidents, and though but ten years of age, swore like young Hannibal before his father, to devote his life to vengeance of such atrocities.”
One century ago today, a Polish Jew from east London named Aby Bevistein was shot for cowardice in Calais — four weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
Abraham Bevistein was among an estimated quarter-million Brits who bore arms as minors in World War I. Fired by patriotism, these boys dodged the military’s 18-year-old minimum by … telling their recruiters they were 18. No documentation necessary.
Bevistein, whose family had moved to London from Warsaw when he was a small child, was British through and through enough to surge into the army with the first wave of pie-eyed volunteers in September 1914. He had 16 years and four months, and if he was like many of his new comrades in arms he probably reckoned on being back home by 17 — a bonny hero of a speedy war.
Instead, he spent most of 1915 navigating the labyrinth of trenches in France, and all their attendant horrors. He was wounded in December of that year but soon passed fit for duty again. On February 12-13, 1916, shellshocked and deafened by German grenades, he again sought medical help but was directed back to the lines by a harried medical officer. Instead, Bevistein wandered away to the rear, and took temporary refuge at a French farm.*
“We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out,” he wrote to his mother by way of all-too-nonchalant explanation. “They’ve taken me to prison and I’m in a bit of trouble now.”
But Catherine was a foreigner and the royal authority rested uncertainly on her children’s wee heads. Tense as matters already stood between Catholics and Huguenots, the realm’s shaky sovereignty disinhibited both confessions when it came to ever more irksome provocations.
Seeking to steer past the looming civil war, Catherine promulgated a decree of limited toleration for Huguenots, who were now to be permitted to worship publicly outside of towns. This is called the Edict of Saint-German or the Edict of January — as in, January of 1562, two months before our massacre. It is not taught in politics classes as a triumph of governance.
Whether this right even had force of law at the moment of our story is unclear, inasmuch as Catholic parlements whose ratification was required dragged their feet when it came to reading the edict into the statutes. But some incident like this was looming no matter where things stood from a scriptorium proceduralist’s standpoint.
At Vassy (or Wassy) our our date arrived the retinue of Francis, Duke of Guise. The Guises were a proverbial more-Catholic-than-the-Pope house, and Francis was not the sort of man to pass with equanimity the spectacle of Vassy’s Huguenots openly holding heretical services in a barn. His retainers tried to barge in. High words were exchanged. Scuffles gave way to brickbats and when something struck the duke’s own person a vengeful slaughter of the Calvinists ensued.
Warfare followed fast upon the publication of this atrocity. The chief Protestant lord, the Prince of Conde, openly mobilized for hostilities, seizing and fortifying Protestant towns — and the Catholic faction likewise. Inside of a year, Guise himself would be slain during a siege: one of the first wave of casualties amid 36 years of civil war.
Hofer (English Wikipedia entry | German) was the heir to his father’s Sandhof Inn in tiny St. Leonhard — a village today that’s just over the Italian border but was in Hofer’s time part of a Tyrol undivided by nation-state borders.
Hofer emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-Bavarian party in the Tyrol’s south, and joined an 1809 delegation to Vienna to secure Habsburg support for an internal rising.
The Tyrolean Rebellion broke out in March 1809 with direct coordination from Austria — which declared war on April 9, and attacked France on several fronts hoping to regain Tyrol and various other baubles of Germanic patrimony lately lost to Napoleon. Unfortunately for the irregulars in the south Tyrol, who under Hofer and others won several early skirmishes, the French once more handed Austria a decisive defeat at Wagram July 5-6 of that year, knocking Vienna out of the war almost as speedily as she had entered it.
The consequences of Wagram were far-reaching: still more choice provinces (Salzburg, West Galicia, Trieste, Croatia) stripped away from an empire stumbling into second-ratehood. Not yet numbered among them, one could readily discern the imminent fate of our party — as did the English editorialist who cried, “O, the brave and loyal, but, we fear, lost Tyrolese!”
By this time the self-described “Imperial Commandant”, Hofer’s successful engagements could not disguise an increasingly untenable position. The militiamen who had so brightly embarked on national liberation that spring withered up and blew away in the ill autumn wind. Hofer himself hid from his enemies in one of the panoramic mountain refuges that still decorate his homeland’s inviting hiking-grounds — but the price on his head could reach him even there, and a countryman betrayed his humble hut to the French. He was surprised there and removed to Mantua for a condemnation that was allegedly came ordered straight from Napoleon.
Hofer’s martyrdom has lodged firmly in Tyrolean lore. A plaque in the town of Menan marks the spot where he was kept overnight en route to his fate in Mantua. A folk song that emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, Zu Mantua in Banden, celebrates Hofer’s sacrifice and is now the official Tyrolean anthem. (“To Mantua in chains / Loyal Hofer was led / From Mantua to Death / The enemy had him sped …”)
Iveton is taken, is condemned to death, is refused pardon, is beheaded. This man said and proved that he did not seek anyone’s death, but we, we sought his and we got it without fail. It was intimidating, was not it? And as was said the other day an imbecile, it “showed the terrible face of France irritated.”
Wishing to commit his sabotage sans bloodshed, he timed the bomb to detonate when the plant would be empty … but under close surveillance, he was stopped in the act of setting it on the evening of November 14, 1956.
Iveton’s tenderness for his countrymen’s lives was not reciprocated by the military court which, acting with frightful emergency powers, death-sentenced him as a terrorist 10 days later. The man’s last mercy appeal was denied by the Minister of Justice, Francois Mitterrand* — who as President of France a quarter-century hence would abolish the the death penalty.
He went to the guillotine with two Muslims, Mohamed Lakhneche and Mohamed Ouenouri, kissing them in the shadow of the blade with the words, “The life of a man is of little account. What matters is Algeria, its future. Algeria will be free tomorrow: I am certain that the friendship between Frenchmen and Algerians will mend.”