Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.
O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.
Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.
For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.
Arguably the most important battle in the War of Austrian Succession, Fontenoy pitted French troops against an Anglo-Hanoverian and Dutch force in the fields of Belgium. I made wargame minatures in 15mm scale to replicate each regiment that was present at the battle so you can reenact sections of this engagement. Including generals, infantry, artillery, and cavalry, the set I created is as accurate a representation to the flags and uniforms as possible.
Here are all of the links to print off your figures:
Last week, I discussed the origins of the French presence in Southeast Asia and how their imperial attitude led them to wars with Chinese and Vietnamese troops throughout the 19th century. After the heavy losses, France was determined to hold onto their newly-captured land. With Chinese influence gone, the Vietnamese were on their own in achieving autonomy from their French rulers. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s recent miniseries on the Vietnam War explores the US in its longest war overseas, but the French presence is still very important to understand.
After the so-called “Pacification of Tonkin,” the French officially established the colony of Indochina on October 17th, 1887. The colony encompassed all of modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia which had already been a French protectorate. By 1893, the French were at war again with Indochina’s neighbours, Siam. Siam, modern day Thailand, had been provoked by the French who had demanded control of Laos. When Frenchmen were thrown out of Siam, the French sent troops into Laos. A Frenchman in charge of a Vietnamese expedition into Laos was killed, and the French became outraged, sending in more troops to the area. The French navy bombarded the Siamese fort at Paknam, opening a route straight to Bangkok. Siam gave Laos to France to avoid destruction and the war quickly finished.
The French managed to capture more regions of Siam in 1904, but were forced to return them in 1907 due to pressure from the British in nearby Burma. As years dragged on, more anti-French sentiment grew in the area, especially in Indochina itself. On February 10, 1930, members of the Vietnamese Workers Party and rebellious members of the tirailleurs indochinois attacked French officers at Yen Bai. Troops quickly repelled the rebels and ended the uprising, but the effects of Vietnamese freedom movements were being felt. The Second World War erupted in 1939 and dragged France into a major conflict in Europe against Germany, one which quickly turned into a nightmare for them.
With pressure on France at home, Indochina was vulnerable. The first attack came from Ho Chi Minh, a Communist born in Vietnam who had recently spent time in China and the USSR. Minh created the Viet Minh, a Vietnamese independence group hich would fight any foreigners that were in Vietnam. Secondly, Laos was attacked by Thailand (Siam had changed its name in 1939) in 1940. Thirdly, Japan began to sweep through Asia claiming more and more land for its empire. France’s government fell and the establishment of Vichy France occurred. France allowed for Japanese access to Tonkin so they could better access China, but threats from the US convinced the Japanese to move to Malaya and leave Indochina relatively alone.
Thailand’s army outnumbered and outgunned the French who had most of their troops back home to hold against Germany. Constant attacks by the Thai Air Force put the French under pressure to react. Laos fell with one massive Thai assault but a rally in Cambodia helped the French establish a counterattack. Though unsuccessful, the counterattack shocked the Thais and eventually the Japanese arrived to bail out the French. When France was later liberated, Japan decided to control all of Indochina until their surrender in 1945. Japan gave all their military supplies to the Viet Minh in hopes they would eventually remove the French from the region.
The First Indochina War began in 1946 at Haiphong when Viet Minh members clashed with French troops. The troops had landed as a part of the campaign to make Indochina part of France officially. The French navy opened fire on the port of Haiphong and many civilians were killed. The two sides declared a cease-fire but war again flared up in Hanoi as French troops captured the city and forced Ho Chi Minh to flee.
The Viet Minh’s General, Vo Nguyen Giap, was originally a history teacher but was appointed their commander. Avoiding a head-on attack on the French, Giap favoured guerilla tactics to outwit and outmanouvre French troops. The war continued this way for years as the French desperately tried to make some kind of breakthrough politically or militarily. In 1950, Ho Chi Minh’s government was recognized by China and the USSR and they pledged their support. The Korean War broke out the same year, pulling the US into the region as they quickly stated their anger with a new communist threat in the area. Dong Khe fell in September, prompting the French to send massive amounts of Foreign Legionnaires to the area. At Vinh Yen, the French got their wish as they massacred the attacking Viet Minh troops in a head on assault- precisely what Giap was trying to avoid. Mao Khe and Day River also ended in disaster for Giap as his troops suffered around 24,000 casualties in 1951.
The French built up small areas where they could lure Viet Minh troops into attacking them in hopes they could cause havoc akin to that in 1951. The “hedgehog” tactics did not help them much, as Giap captured French positions north of Hanoi. Operation Lorraine was executed in 1952 to recapture these positions but it proved ineffective. The hopes of the French were waning as Laos began to quickly fall into Viet Minh hands. French troops were moved to Dien Bien Phu and by 1954, Giap saw his opportunity to strike.
Dien Bien Phu is very mountainous and slopes down into a fertile valley. Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the base with his army and on March 13, the battle began with a bombardment of outpost “Beatrice.” The French commander, Christian de Castries, named the posts after various lovers. His 14,000 French soldiers were outnumbered by Giap’s 65,000 Vietnamese troops. “Beatrice” was captured and French attacks were repulsed. “Gabrielle” was taken the next day as did “Anne-Marie.” The French were pushed closer and closer together, relying on troop reinforcements and supplies from air. “Elaine” and “Dominique” were captured on March 30th after bloody assaults from both sides. A French attack at “Elaine” did not surmount to anything, nor did breakout attempts at “Huguette.” With the situation dire, the French chose to fight to the last instead of surrender, but many, including Castries, chose to flee to Laos. Over 11,000 French troops were captured.
The war finished with the 1954 Geneva Conference, separating Vietnam into the Communist North and Republican South. To learn more on Vietnam, feel free to watch Burns’ excellent series on PBS.
Ken Burns and and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” is a new 10 part miniseries on the conflicts between France, the US, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the Viet Minh, and the Viet Cong over a period of about twenty years. The French presence in their colony of Indochine, or Indochina, was regarded as the instigation for the Vietnam War in which the US was flung into a massive conflict across the Pacific. It is important to understand the background of Vietnam’s relationship with the Western Nations before looking at the US involvement.
The first Franco-Vietnamese relations were based on Catholicism in the 17th century as missionaries arrived to spread their religion across the world. The French East India Company set up trading posts in 1680 as their presence in the region grew stronger. The French were in India, Siam, and now Vietnam in the 17th century. Things soon turned sour as local Vietnamese people resisted the French missionaries. 200 years later, French ships arrived to rescue some captured missionaries and sunk Vietnamese vessels on their way.
Napoleon III ordered the end of persecution in Vietnam of French Catholics, and sent Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly and Spanish allies on a Punitive Expedition called the Cochinchina Campaign in 1858. They captured Tourane (Modern-day Da Nang) but were eventually besieged themselves. Franco-Spanish troops in Saigon were also under siege and French troops tied up in Italy and China could not help. Francois Page replaced de Grenouilly s commander of the French forces, and reinforcements arrived in 1860 from China. Tourane was given up in favour of keeping Saigon, so the city was reclaimed by Vietnamese troops. At Ky Hoa, the Vietnamese army of 35,000 were pushed back, allowing French and Spanish troops room in Saigon. The French repeatedly offered peace but each time it was refused. With the fall of Vinh Long, the Vietnamese were in no place to win and peace was organized in June 1862. The Treaty of Saigon gave three provinces to the French and three more were added in 1867.
French expeditions into Tonkin soon exploded as resistance from Vietnamese members of the Chinese Black Flag Army and in 1873, French officer Francis Garnier was killed. The Tonkin Campaign began in 1883 as Henri Riviere brought French troops into Hanoi in an attempt to capture the region. The Black Flag Army were victorious at Paper Bridge, and Riviere was killed. The Tonkin Expeditionary Corps was sent to reinforce the French troops already there and was led by General Alexandre-Eugene Bouet. A victory at Nam Dinh pushed Vietnamese forces to the edge and the French troops had an opportunity to achieve a quick victory. French forces captured the Hue River at the Battle of Thuan An and forced four more provinces to be under French ownership.
At Phu Hoai and Palan, the French were pushed back by the Black Flag Army and the French outpost at Hai Douong fell to Vietnamese troops. The French were in trouble and had wasted their opportunity to end the campaign swiftly. In December, the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps met the Black Flag Army at Son Tay and the battle raged from the 11th until the 17th as the French bombarded their enemies and repeatedly attacked a set of redoubts. After a disastrous counterattack by the Black Flag Army, French Foreign Legionnaires and fusiliers-marins stormed Son Tay and claimed victory for the French.
In 1884, Chinese support of the Guangxi Army at Bac Ninh failed as 11,000 French troops crushed them under leadership of Charles-Theodore Millot. The sheer numbers of French troops was the most in the entire Tonkin campaign, managing to field two brigades including artillery. The force was made up of line infantry, Algerian tirailleurs, Foreign Legionnaires, marines, and Turcos. A Chinese ambush at Bac Le in 1884 sparked the Sino-French War over Tonkin. The French navy secured a massive victory at Fuzhou and allowed the French to create a blockade of Chinese ports. The French followed and crushed the Guangxi Army at the Battle of Kep and in retaliation to their high casualties, they massacred droves of Chinese wounded and prisoners to the dismay of the Western Powers. By 1885, the French were on the doorstep of Lang Son which was the main supply line for Chinese troops in Vietnam. After a series of engagements, the French managed to claim victory and the Guangxi were forced to retreat yet again. At Hoa Moc, the French were checked hard suffering some 300 casualties but opened the way to relieving a French outpost nearby. The Guangxi were thrown out of Tonkin the Battle of Dong Dang on Feburary 23rd. The French entered Southern China and were repulsed suffering heavy casualties yet again. The French finally were victorious at the Battle of Phu Lam Tao on March 25th 1885.
The French finally had Tonkin and Annam in June 1885 after years of bloody war. However, the locals still were against the French and constant attacks on supply routes along the Red River angered the French. Though Tonkin was French, it was still very much Vietnamese.
Part Two will discuss Indochina, French influences in the area, and how war broke out yet again in the Indochina War including the legendary of Dien Bien Phu.
Osprey Publishing’s recent release, Fontenoy 1745, retells the story of the War of Austrian Succession’s most famous battle. An Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian force commanded by the Duke of Cumberland came face to face with Marechal de Saxe’s French forces in the small Belgian town of Fontenoy, just outside Tournai. Written by Michael McNally and illustrated by Sean O’Brogain, this book opens up a near-forgotten war in Europe’s history.
Praise: Cumberland’s tactical errors are pointed out bluntly, and rightfully so. The book makes its statements of how the Anglo-Dutch forces were uninformed and very strong-willed to their plans. Saxe’s flexibility and use of multiple columns is depicted in a few maps and really shows what a complex network the French general made. There are also reconstructed uniforms in the book of many units of interest such as the Mousquetaires du Roi of the French army. On-site photographs are always great, but McNally manages to capture the correct weather too. His misty pictures clearly show how hard it was for the early-morning attacks troops made. Osprey Publishing always do a good introduction to a topic, and the War of Austrian Succession is covered briefly and provides a solution to any confusion one may have about what the British or the French fighting in Belgium has to do with the Austrian throne.
Criticism: The two battle maps in the book felt boxy too me. While 18th century warfare was very rigid in its structure, the maps feel odd and seem to exaggerate the number of troops on the field with huge blocks of infantry. The illustrations could also have been placed better in the book, as you find a picture of the French Irish Brigade about 10 pages after you hear about their attack.
The War of Austrian Succession is mostly overlooked, but it still remains a very important war. Maria Theresa kept her claims to the throne, and it eventually led to the Seven Years’ War. Saxe’s strategies influenced Napoleon Bonaparte later in the early 19th century. Seeing the British defeat as an opportunity, the Jacobite Rebellion sprang up in Scotland. While the Battle of Fontenoy was 3 years before the end of the war, it remains a turning point, and a remarkable French victory over the British, Hanoverians, and Dutch.
Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably history’s most famed general, is the topic of controversy; movies; and art. The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques Louis David is possibly the most recognizable of paintings about Napoleon. The painting was commissioned in 1804 after Napoleon was crowned as Emperor of France, and was completed two years later. The painting is massive- 20 ft. by 32 ft. It is currently housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Why was Napoleon even having a coronation? Well, Napoleon wanted to cement his claim to the French Empire. By crowning himself, he felt that he was completely safe from any other dangers from France. The coronation was very peculiar and contradictory. Though Napoleon claimed to be Emperor, he also was acting as a defender of the French Republic. Perhaps the most important event during the coronation came when Pope Pius VII was about to place the crown on Bonaparte’s head. Napoleon took the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself, taking control of the entire situation.
Jacques Louis David’s painting captures the scene just after, where Napoleon crowns his wife. Bonaparte stands in the centre, holding a crown in his hands. His wife, Josephine kneels before him and looks down toward his feet. Josephine Bonaparte was older than Napoleon and had two children from her late husband. The marriage caused much controversy among Napoleon’s family and the French population. Eventually she was divorced in 1810.
Napoleon’s brothers, Joseph and Jerome, stand at the far left of the painting. Joseph Bonaparte was crowned King of Spain by his brother and was famous for his battles against the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular Wars. Jerome was crowned King of Westphalia. The two brothers were not exiled like Napoleon, and they lived in relative peace until their deaths.
The painting still remains one of the most revered painted by a Frenchman. Though it doesn’t depict a famous battle or engagement, the painting immortalizes one of history’s greatest tacticians and generals.