HoFiE Podcast


Hi there, welcome to this week’s edition of the History of France in English, Episode 21, the second special episode on the history of French Cuisine.

I’m hungry, let’s dive right in.


Bread came to France with the Pax Romana after Caesar subdued the Gauls around 50 BCE.

And it has been a key part of the French diet ever since. In fact, France and Italy judge the state of the art of a region’s cuisine by the quality of its bread, while the English, it is said, judge by the quality of the beef.

Bread was developed in the west by the Greeks, who, more than three decades before Christ was born, had established more than 300 bakeries in Rome alone. And those bakeries were creating more than 70 varieties of bread. That’s not to say they invented bread. They just took it to the next level.

But bread really achieved rock star status during the French Revolution.  A lot of things were allowed to slide, as they do during periods of strife. As the revolution wore through France, grain trade and production was one of those things. The price of a loaf of bread went into the stratosphere and, well, no one had a plane yet – Berliot was still almost 100 years away. So it was either out of reach or absolutely unavailable as a result of the famine.

This caused the peasant bread riots.

A politician and bureaucrat in the king’s employ by the name of Foulon, talked his way into a hanging when the peasants were starving. An arch conservative, he was against the branch of royalty that favoured a constitutional monarchy. He also had a reputation for getting rich off the backs of the poor and didn’t have much sympathy for them as they grew hungrier and hungrier.

There is a quote attributed to him that was supposedly made during an earlier famine. He said, “If those rascals have no bread, then let them eat hay“.

Anyway, he riled the farmers and country folk up so much that when, the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789, he was caught fleeing Paris, and despite the intervention of the national hero, Lafayette, was dragged to a lamp pole and hung. Apparently the rope was not up to the job – it broke four times before the crowd resorted to the old fashioned, tried and true Gallic method and cut off his head. But not before giving him a helping of hay.

You can imagine the jokes, right?

“Why is Foulon so quiet? Oh, hay, your mouth is full.”

Eventually the king, Louis the Sixteenth and his wife, Marie Antoinette (she, who when told the peasants had no bread, suggested they eat cake, well, at least apocryphally) were um, with little bunny ear quotes, “escorted” to Paris. They met a similar fate to Foulon’s. It wasn’t the only reason behind the revolution, but it was a big one.

By the way, Louis the sixteenth’s diet was always considered to be a ‘healthy’ one. Even after his death sentence, his dinner included six pork chops, a whole chicken, several eggs and three glasses of wine.  At that time fresh tiny green peas  were the rage as well as foie gras perfumed with cognac and truffles. For the rich, at least.

As for everyone else…

Don’t mess with the French and their bread supply. The government learned its lesson and since the bread riots, bread has been made affordable for even the poorest family in France.

Bread has a special place in French cuisine, illustrated in the ownership each region takes in the creation of bread.


There are some types of bread that you’ll find throughout France:

· Baguettes – the long loaves, the most popular kind of French bread. Also the most common. When you think of French bread, this is most likely what will first pop into your head.

· Brioche – light and airy rolls. Sometimes shaped as a cylinder with a round top, or as a ring. When stale, can be sliced and toasted.

· Croissants – the famous pastry. Light, flaky, and buttery, shaped into sort of a crescent shape. Often baked with something else, such as cheese or chocolate, and served for breakfast or eaten as a snack.

· Croutes – fried or toasted pieces of bread served with dishes as a garnish or to add texture

· Croutons – small fried cubes of bread similar to croutes

· Chapons – the heel of a loaf of bread, used in the same way as croutes


This region of France is particularly rural and its specialty bread is pain d’epices – spice bread covered in honey, sometimes baked in fanciful shapes. It is also of note because it dates back from the days when Burgundy had a thriving spice trade. During the 1500’s, spice bread bakers formed an organization to protect the quality of their beloved craft.


Alsace has a German influence because of its nearness to the German border. It boasts a wide variety of bread, and is sometimes called the “bread capital” of France. Breads from this region are most often made of whole-wheat, rye, or barley. It is also famous for its sweet breads, served with dried fruit and nuts. But there’s also:

· Kougelhopf – a fluffy bread baked in an earthenware mold

· Birnewecke – rich bread made up of pears, raisins, and nuts simmered with Kirsch (a clear fruit brandy) and then baked in a mold.

· Easter crown – a cylinder stuffed with raisins and almond paste and covered with glace icing.

· Christstollen – bread made of eggs covered with candied fruits and almonds served at Christmastime.


Because of the rocky terrain, wheat does not grow well in Brittany. Often something else will be substituted, such as buckwheat. This region’s breads include:

· Le Floron – made of a combination of wheat, rye, and buckwheat flour, and marked with a “hermine”, which is the Breton version of the fleur-de-lis

· L’essentiel – a bread made of cotton, linen, and sunflower seeds. Makes a nice pair of slacks as well.

· Gochtiale – also called a demi brioche. Lighter than a regular brioche, the gochtiale has less eggs and butter and more sugar.


The Mediterranean region of Languedoc is most famous for its onions, but also boasts many wonderful seafood dishes. Grain is scarce in this area and until recently, the only bread was Poor Man’s Bread which is not really a type of bread. But I felt it deserved recognition since it was used as a substitute for quite a while.

Poor Man’s Bread is also known as Caillettes – balls of sausage wrapped in fat and then baked. They can also be sprinkled with chestnuts.


This area of France is particularly plentiful in its variety of ingredients. However, Lyon is most famous for its excellent wine. It is said that “three rivers flow through Lyon: the Rhone, the Saone, and the Beaujolais”. But it does have Galette Vieux Perouges – lemon sugar bread. This resembles a pizza, but with light granulated sugar on top – tastes good with berries. Very popular in Lyon.


The cooking in Normandy is often very fatty and extremely generous. It is said that the Normans “live on the income from their income”. This area is also famous for its excellent cider. However, in Normandy and Brittany bread is commonly eaten with butter, which is extremely unusual in France. In most other places, bread is served plain. Normandy is known for Brioche au Neufchatel – a brioche with cheese. It is said the word “brioche” actually comes from the use of Brie cheese in the original recipe.


A lovely area, Provence is famous for its sweets. In fact, it’s very common to have “Les Treize Desserts” (the 13 desserts) at Christmastime. Provencal sweets are especially sweet, and are a real treat for your sweet tooth. Their specialty bread is  Fouace – also called “gibassie”. It’s made with eggs and large amounts of yeast, and is baked in a large flat oval shape resembling a leaf. It’s soft and can be broken into pieces for easy eating.


In France today,  even children are taught to respect the importance of bread and its role in filling the stomachs of a nation. Until recently, it was against the law to throw out unused bread.

French bread contains no fat, so it becomes stale very quickly. This is why people visit the local “Boulangerie” (hot bread shop) at least once a day. Bread is eaten at all three meals, and forms the most important part of breakfast.

Bread is so important in French culture that it is at the centre of story plots and winds up as the star in movies.

In the 1938 film, La Femme du Boulanger, a baker’s girl runs off with a shepherd. The baker can’t function and the village he supplies with bread has to rally to convince the woman to return, which she does.

The lack of bread drives the community.

But bread is not the only thing associated with French cuisine. France’s food is famous for far more than an exquisitely crunchy crust and light chewy dough. Although, with some cheese and a pear, that would be enough…

The evolution of bread is typical of the evolution of French cuisine. It builds on the foundation of the cookery that goes on in the country every day. For example, in the remote convents and other religious institutions, different styles and methods are refined in an atmosphere of contemplation that allows a focus maybe unachievable in the regular world, and so food and drink reach new levels of deliciousness. For example, many types of cheese, many liquors (Liqueur verte, chartreuse, champagne etc.) were created by monks.

There are a number of factors, like the causes of the revolution, which we will cover in a special non-chronological episode when we hit number 30, that really helped put French culture and French cuisine on the lips of the world.

France naturally attracted intellectuals in the 1700s because it was a place of culture and learning. So who did it attract? Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, assorted ex-pat Brits, Germans, Russians etc. All of these people would travel home and because of their reputations as being, for the most part, men of the world, they became movers and shakers. They would influence people they came into contact with and when they spread the word, the word was something in French. Because it was cool.

Jefferson had a French fling while in France. He also fell in love with French food and wine. In 1777 he returned to America after a trip to France and brought with him a selection of French wines, menus and chefs. It was a French chef who cooked at the early White House.

Perhaps the most important recipe Jefferson brought from France was the one for ice cream, written in his own hand. It can still be seen in the White House archives.

France’s involvement with the American revolution eventually helped kindle the revolution at home. And that caused a food revolution – not including the bread riots.

Prior to the revolution, a guy called Boulanger opened a business in Paris. It was 1765 and Boulanger started off selling soup. In an age of guilds, this meant he could sell soup and nothing else. But then he added lamb served with sauce to his menu. Zut alors!

The French philosopher Diderot ate there. His review: the food was good, but expensive. That might have explained why Boulanger’s establishment didn’t stay open long. The caterer’s guild was angry about the lamb served with sauce. That was their gig. They took Boulanger to court but lost.

And with that, the dam broke. Soon there were 100 restaurants in Paris.

But it was smashed completely with the Revolution. Suddenly, all these high end chefs who’d worked for the rich and royals were out of work. So they started opening restaurants. By the time Napoleon was in charge of France, there were somewhere between 500 and 600 restaurants in Paris.

Other chefs left France and some went to other places in Europe and Britain and to America.
The Revolution saw the end of most guilds and state monopolies, and the quality and variety of food at the market exploded. Good times.


The Revolution also meant that you could eat eggs whenever you chose. Until 1784, it had been forbidden to eat eggs in France during Lent. Eggs laid by chickens during this time were either allowed to hatch, or if Easter weren’t too far away, preserved by being dipped in wax or fat. The French Revolution did away with this stricture.

Now Napoleon wasn’t known to be a great food lover. He ate, because you know, he was hungry. But it was more like filling the gas tank.

He did understand the importance of food. He was the one who said an army marches on its stomach. He was a master organizer and one of the reason for his successes was his mastery of logistics or supply.

In 1800 Napoleon called for an innovative way to preserve food, offering a prize of 12,000 francs to the person who came up with a solution for conserving his soldiers’ rations.

The winner was Nicolas Appert. The former chef and brewer discovered heat can be used to sterilize food in sealed containers, preserving it. He would place food in a closed jar and boil the jar in water for several hours. After receiving his prize money, he put the cash toward the world’s first cannery and helped make our modern food industry what it is today.

The first thing to be canned were the little peas mentioned earlier that were all the rage and this proved to be quite a morale booster for the troops. They were getting the same little fancy peas the fancy pants were eating in Paris.

Speaking of fancy, we turn now to Marie Antoine Careme, who was abandoned by his parents during the French Revolution. He grew up in the streets and soon worked as a kitchen boy in a low end chop house in Paris.

By the time he left his first job and opened his own place, Careme was creating fancy objet d’art for the table. He always wanted to be an architect and he put that desire to work creating all kinds of structures out of edible things, including bridges, ruins, temples, churches. You name it, he created it.

One of his customers was a diplomat, whose name you would recognize if you are a student of the Napoleonic era: Charles Maurice Talleyrand de Perigord or Talleyrand as he was better known. Napoleon had Talleyrand purchase a mansion for use in diplomatic meetings and Talleyrand decided to test Careme for the job of providing the meals for these meetings as well as for Talleyrand himself, as  Talleyrand moved into the palatial facility.

By this time Careme’s talents encompassed main courses as he expanded his knowledge beyond the clever confections. Talleyrand’s challenge for the chef was to provide a year’s worth of menus using produce that was in season and not having any repeats. Cooking using only produce in season is an essential in French cuisine even today.

Careme passed the test and was hired.

While with Talleyrand, he developed a new style of cooking using fresh vegetables and herbs. He modified the traditional complex sauces and simplified them. Because Talleyrand was so deeply set in the influential classes of Europe and survived after Napoleon, his impact and that of Careme was long lasting. Careme was on the tongue of all the high falutin’ people of the western world. Literally. He had created a new system of cooking, using sauces as the fond or foundation of the dish.

And he is still top of mind for the chefs of Europe. Not only was his style of cooking copied, but his numerous books on cooking were devoured by those who loved food. We see even his fashion sense today – the chef’s uniform, which sets a chef apart even today – the jacket, apron and chef’s toque – was Careme’s creation.

He grouped sauces according to the so called mother sauces. He created recipes for hundreds of sauces based on a few mother sauces. A follower of his, Pierre Auguste Escoffier, winnowed the list down to five main sauces, including popular ones for today:

  • Sauce Béchamel, milk-based sauce, thickened with a white roux.
  • Sauce Espagnole, a fortified brown veal stock sauce.
  • Sauce Velouté, white stock-based sauce, thickened with a roux or a liaison, a mixture of egg yolks and cream.
  • Sauce Hollandaise, an emulsion of egg yolk, butter and lemon or vinegar.
  • Sauce Tomate, tomato-based


While Napoleon was alive, his empire and sense of grandiosity brought the Bonne Table back. Odd because Bonaparte didn’t think of food as much more than fuel. Brillat Savarin said he ‘ate quickly and badly.’

Even so, the dish he with which he celebrated the victory at Marengo, Veal Marengo, is around to this day, with its Provençal mix of veal, tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, onions, olive oil and white wine, with a hint of orange juice and salt and pepper. Yum…

When Napoleon was sent off to St. Helene, Careme moved to England and became the chef for the Prince Regent, who became King George the Fourth. He returned to the continent as the chef for Tsar Alexander but didn’t stay and returned to Paris where he cooked for the banker James Rothschild.

He died at the age of 48 and is buried at the Montmartre Cemetery.

Much as he had done with Careme’s sauces, Escoffier also codified and simplified the grand cuisine of the past into a more compact, logical form that lent itself to the political and social realities of the 19th century. This laid the basis for modern fine dining and commercial cooking.

Escoffier divided the kitchen into five stations, each responsible for different components of a dinner. The garde manger, for example, prepared cold dishes; the saucier made soups and sauces; the entremetier prepared starches and vegetables; the rotisseur did the roasts and grilled and fried dishes; the patissier prepared the pastries and desserts. This system meant that instead of one person preparing a dish on one’s own, now multiple cooks would prepare the different components for the dish. This, along with the publication of Le Guide Culinaire in 1903, cemented France’s place in cuisine. Culinary schools teach it, four-star restaurants use it, and we all speak it every time we open a menu.

So while they might not have invented cooking, the French were the first and best at creating systems and rules for cooking, writing them down, and passing them on. And that’s why professionals and amateurs alike sauté instead of “cook quickly in oil”, julienne instead of “cut into thin strips”, and purée instead of “blend into liquid”.

The French influence is still seen today around the world. Not surprisingly, France’s former colonies adopted many French cooking techniques, which is why the Vietnamese bake baguettes and make consommé. More importantly, the French refined and described the fundamental techniques and principles of cookery for the Western world. Chefs from countries as different as Algeria, Japan and the United States can all work effectively together, because they share a common grounding in classical French cuisine.

And it’s even in the lab!

Molecular gastronomy is a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate, explain and make practical use of the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur while cooking, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena in general. Molecular gastronomy is a modern style of cooking, which is practiced by both scientists and food professionals in many professional kitchens and labs and takes advantage of many technical innovations from the scientific disciplines.

The term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1992 by late Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti and the French INRA chemist Herve This. Some chefs associated with the term choose to reject its use, preferring other terms such as culinary physics and experimental cuisine.

“If every country has a culinary tradition, in France as nowhere else, that tradition has become a national symbol of prestige, the incarnation of French civilization,” says Priscilla P. Clark. Also known as Priscilla P. Ferguson, she is an author and professor specializing in exploring the impact and development of French culture. She has worked at a number of American universities, including Harvard and the University of Illinois and has written books on French culture, including one on French cuisine, called Accounting for Taste.

I hope we’ve helped add some historical and linguistic flavor to your next soirée, and wish you a hearty bon appétit.

Remember this is a listener supported podcast. If you have done so already, please go to iTunes and leave us a comment and rank us there or go to Historylab.ca and click on the hofie podcast button and leave us a comment there. We’ll be having another draw at the end of May and your names will be entered to win a tee shirt or a lab coat!

Next week, the cocktail party slapdown is back. And we return to the chronogical story of the History of France in English, so we hope you join us then. Thanks for listening! Merci!



Hi there – welcome to the History of France in English podcast, episode 20!

Yes, it’s a special episode and for that reason, we’re taking things off in a different direction to celebrate. As you may remember, we kicked off this podcast with two episodes on the history of wine in France. I’m pairing that with the history of French cuisine for two episodes – 20 and 21. These episodes will not have the cocktail party slapdown. That will return in episode 22.

But first, I’m happy to have some shout outs, thanks to the genius of Zack Twalmey who clued me in to the mysteries of iTunes. Thanks to Zack, I want to say hi and thanks to our American friends, benketengu, Mr. PK and the lovely and talented and very kind Rosamarie56, who said the History of France in English podcast combined historylab with a garage band. Awesome! I also want to say hi and thanks to our latest British friend, Mr. Pinebender, who said “interesting, very amusing and couldn’t come from anywhere other than Canada. Future episodes are to be anticipated with relish by sceptical but genuine Francophiles.”

I am in such a happy mood over these – even the critical comments from folks like Aldrich Co of the Philipines and Mr. PK, that I want to thank you all and I’m offering t-shirts for all of you. Just send me an email to tom@historylab.ca with your size and address. I’ll try find sizes that fit you!

Right, on with the show.

Food. We all need it. Many countries take pride in their own particular way of preparing it, but is there another country in the world that has made it into the art form achieved in France? I don’t think so, although my wife’s chocolate cake is pretty damn close!

“The destiny of nations depends on the manner with which they feed themselves.  The people have the cuisine which they deserve.” Brillat Savarin – lawyer, epicure and gastronome (1755-1826).

French cooking did not suddenly spring upon the planet overnight like some gastronomical ninja ready to slay your hunger.

No, it evolved.

Gauls, which this podcast has discussed at length and will continue to after these special editions, had their own special diet that was commented on by historians like Livy and Plutarch and Strabo.

Some of the foundation of French taste was laid back then as Gauls hunted and ate wild boar. Eventually they would domesticate these precursor porkers which became pigs, which would play such an important role in French cookery. Pork fat, as the man said, rules.

They harvested wild mushrooms and even snails way back then – oh yeah, you don’t just develop a taste for snails right away – even if you have access to gallons of buttery garlic sauce. Frogs and other critters from the area also found their way into the pot.

They also hunted and eventually domesticated poultry, geese, sheep and goats.

Near oak trees, which were sacred to the Gauls (remember, Celts and Gauls were the same people) they found truffles and cooked them in ash.

In the History of English podcast and in the History of Britain podcast, it’s pointed out that while the English have a word for the animal that comes from one part of their past, so cattle, cows, etc. and pigs, swine, and so on, the meat from those animals has another name, so beef, for cattle and pork or ham for swine. Generally speaking the food word (as opposed to the word for the animal) has a French origin.


Pork was long a favourite of the Gauls and later the French. Pork lends itself to curing in many tasty ways, especially bacon.

Bacon. Bacon, bacon, bacon, bacon.

Are you with me?

Oh yeah, you know you are and with good reason. There is no proof the Gauls invented bacon, but I think we all feel that it is true in our souls, am I right?

Of course I am.

The Gauls were expert at curing, according to Strabo, and their meats, especially their pork and oysters, were exported to Rome before Caesar arrived.

In fact, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico tells us so.

The stability the Roman presence gave the area that was becoming France wasn’t all bad or all good.

One of the advantages was the trade that came with it. That included the increased availability of bread and wine from Rome and other parts of the empire and it included the export of Gallic charcuterie and other forms of cured meats.

And as we learned way back in the first podcasts, wine.

The Franks and other so-called barbarians who continued the seemingly endless ebb and flow of humanity through Europe and into Gaul didn’t bring much in the way of food ideas. But they took away much – they were good at taking away stuff.

Charlemagne, who arrived on the scene in 768 CE and lived to 814 CE, had a major impact on French food. He found brie cheese in St. Germain and loved it. Who doesn’t? So he encouraged greater production. Like you need to encourage a Frenchman to make more cheese. Is there a country with more cheese produced in more varieties than France? Let me know.

Charlemagne also promoted the cultivation of orchards and vineyards in suitable areas. Under him the first cataloging of plants took place in Europe since ancient times. The records contained the regulations for the instruction of the children, improvement of agriculture, and design of gardens. English Benedictine monks who worked for Charlemagne in the imperial gardens recorded there were six to seven kinds of cereals, 17 to 18 kinds of fruit, and 38 varieties of vegetables.

Charlemagne’s favourite meals included roasts on the spit.

And as a side note, but an important one regarding dining, it was Charlemagne who permitted women to dine with men. Prior to this, women dined separately from men.

As we move into the Middle Ages, we see a bitter-sweet mixture of feasts and famine.

For example, we have Le viandier – a cookbook that came out before 1380. The original is in the French National Archives. It was written by the head of Charles the Fourth’s royal kitchen. Viande, of course, is the French word for meat although the cookbook had recipes for other dishes.

But an inability to conserve vegetables coupled with some climate challenges left the pantries bare too often in the Middle Ages. This led to meat shortages as well.

The French were resourceful. For example, the lack of meat led to the creation of pâtés – but this was a luxury for most anyone other than the rich and the royal.

The resourcefulness of the poor was demonstrated in their quest for food, finding edible roots and vegetables and herbs and getting their protein from things like snails – back to the Gauls and frogs – which were popular with the Romans and Greeks.

The Middle Ages was also the time of Crusades and the returning soldiers of God brought back treasure which often, instead of gold, was made up of rare spices.

The strongly flavoured spices from the Middle Ages had been used in vinegary sauces and overpowered food. They began to be replaced by French sauces based on fat and starch and capable of absorbing the taste and colour of the food they were to be served with. This was the introduction of nouvelle cuisine.

The nouvelle cuisine was also caused by the Ottoman takeover of the routes to the east, which meant spices were more expensive. The French adapted to this and toned back the amount they used, cutting some out completely. By the 1600s, the use of cumin, cardamom and anise were reduced, cinnamon changed from being used with meats to being used with sweets, and pepper, in particular black pepper, was used more often but in smaller amounts.

The French also upended dietetic rules followed in medieval times that stretched back to the Greek era ideas of health and well-being being influenced by nutrition. In France, food became linked to taste and not to medieval dietetic rules. So fruit, which used to be served at the start of the meal was instead reversed and put with the sweet stuff at the end.

The French considered those who continued to follow the old ways baroque. I guess the people from those other countries felt,if it wasn’t baroque, don’t fix it.

But if you had French guests, they’d complain the combination of fruit with meat or sweet with savory was hard to take.

The rule of the Sun King, Louis the 14th, started the modern phase of the French diet.

Now that’s not to say the Sun King was a culinary genius. He was more of a vacuum cleaner. He hoovered up food with no regard to taste or quality.

This was also the period in which the vintners of the Champagne and Burgundy regions engaged in their public relations war to build up their wine market and destroy their competition – something we looked at in the first two episodes about the history of wine in France. That battle didn’t stop until Champagne stopped flogging the merits of its red wine and stuck to lauding the benefits of its bubbly white.

Dom Perignon first marketed the fizzy stuff in the 17th century. And in other tasty developments, ice cream was also created around this time.

Cooking was not just utilitarian but was becoming an art.

The first master chefs rose to the challenge the new style of cooking demanded. In fact, the first martyr of the kitchen was from this era. Francois Vatel was a master chef in the service of Prince de Conde who committed suicide when he discovered while overseeing a feast that the fish course was going to be late.

The New World began making contributions of foods like the tomato, the potato, chocolate.

But for all its presence in today’s dishes, potatoes weren’t accepted at first and they weren’t seen on French tables regularly until the time of Louis the 15th.

In fact, cooking really began to step up to a new level under Louis the 15th. Even royalty was attracted to the challenges of the kitchen. Louis himself fancied being a barista. He would make his own coffee and take a lot of care in getting it just right. Coffee was new to the scene and it caused, um, a stir… Eventually Louis was so proficient he would make the coffee for his court banquets. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Louis liked to indulge. His weakness for his vices was well known and one of the things that led to the demise of France’s overseas colonies during the Seven Years War, despite excellent generals, a powerful army and a very good navy.

Under his reign, cooking became very trendy.  The nobles, the ladies, the king, the queen, everyone tried their hand. The queen and wife of Louis the 15th, Maria Leczynska, was the daughter of the Polish king. She imported polish dishes, rich in cream.

The way people ate also changed over time.

By the 1700s families in most large homes had dining rooms and dining room tables. The fork was also in use around this time – it’s a myth that Catherine de Medici brought the fork to France. She did raise the profile of French cooking and introduced some new ideas – but most of these things were already flowing back and forth between the Mediterranean countries of Italy, France, Morocco, Greece and Spain.

A painting by Le Nain done in the 1640s shows a French family sitting down to dinner with knives and forks on the table. In the early 1700s polite company ate with a fork, not including royalty… Louis the 15th ate with his fingers.

The rise of porcelain producers throughout Europe in the 1700s did away with the medieval custom of using bread as a plate. Porcelain became a part of the house art of many households.

And while French cooking was seen as the trendsetter, the English sniffed that for all their fancy sauces, the French didn’t know how to cook beef.

The English, in fact, judged a country’s cuisine on its beef. France and Italy judged the cuisine on the bread.

France had moved on to the steak, smaller slices of beef. The English were cooking huge joints. This allowed them to get the outside crunchy and dark and the inside would still be red and bloody.

The spit method the English used, described in Ben Rogers book Beef and Liberty, was lauded by any who had the opportunity to try the beef. The cook would set up the roast next to a hot fire and the meat would rotate on a spit which in a modest home would be turned by hand (the poor wouldn’t be eating meat), or a dog in a dog wheel – a contraption like a guinea pig wheel only bigger, hooked to a belt that turned the spit. In the case of a mansion or a big commercial kitchen, a propeller like device in the chimney would be turned by the hot air rising from the fire and that would power the spit. While turning the cook would baste the spit with the drippings caught in a pan below the meat and apply flour to create a coating to seal in the juices.

Yeah, sounds good.

A French writer noted that the wealthier English of the time cooked roasts of 20 or 30 pounds (9 to 13 kg) and up. It could be argued that this showed the French were actually more advanced, because they were starting to appreciate meat cuts, and thus the smaller pieces. In fact, as early as the 1600s, cookbooks in France no longer simply referred to beef, but called for specific cuts. The Italians, of course, mystified everyone by boiling meat and poultry, and then roasting it, well into the 1700s.

Other changes included the way people were served at the table. Earlier – in what was called French service – everything arrived at the table at once so the diners could pick and choose what they wanted. After the so-called food revolution, each guest was served independently – in Russian style, named after a French chef who created it for a Russian client.

By the mid 1700s in France, cooking was definitely seen as one of the fine arts. Previously, cookbooks had been catalogued with books on health and medicines. By the end of 1700s, the intrinsic goodness and quality of a dish was seen as something objective, rather than as subjective or relative to the person eating it.


Next episode we’ll look at how the French revolution changed food and eating in France, the advent of science in cooking, and Napoleon and what he takes away from it all.


Welcome to the History of France in English, Episode 19. I’m Tom.

This week we’re sort of cleaning up more loose ends before we take a break from the chronological story of the History of France and take a two-part look at the History of French Cuisine. I think you might be surprised about the impact it has on culture, trade, the military and life in general around the world.

Also, I wanted to let you know the winners of the tee-shirt and lab coat. The tee-shirt goes to Scoreuser. Scoreuser, please send me an email to tom@historylab.ca and let me know how I can get this no doubt cherished item off to you. Also the lab coat goes to Mr. Sapper, so if you can send me an email to the above address, that would be grand. Congrats to both of you.

Also, Jamie Redfern of The History Of: Hannibal podcast, gave us a shoutout last week, on his show – thanks, Jamie. If you aren’t already hooked on his Hannibal series, you really have to try it out. He’s right in the era we’re about to leave and he has loads of info about Hannibal, the Gauls and the Romans, and all delivered with that great English accent which is worth about 30 IQ points on its own.

And he can actually speak Latin.

Okay and on with this week’s show.

So if you think that all the Gallic action in the period is with Hannibal, you’d be wrong. The Gauls did a little ambushing of the Romans on their own and they did a mighty fine job of it.

That shouldn’t be a shock. After all, they’d taught Hannibal a thing or two coming through the Alps.

In Boii country, in northern Italy, there was a forest. The Romans didn’t like forests. Forests were wild and chaotic and Romans did not like them. Good things didn’t happen to Romans in forests.

And forests had a habit of hiding enemies of Rome.

Lucius Postumius Albinus literally lost his head after going into the woods and it wasn’t over a teddy bears’ picnic.

Polybius mistakenly calls him Aulus instead of Lucius, but heck, he could speak Latin, so he has me beat.

By 216 BCE, just after the battle of Cannae and the massive loss of men and arms by Rome there, Postumius had been elected a consul three times and was highly regarded.

First elected to consulship in 234 BCE, he fought the Ligurians in a series of battles. In 229 he was elected consul a second time.

This time he was fighting in Illyria against the pirate queen Teuta. Arrrgh.

You might remember Illyria as the place the Gauls invaded in the early 300s and where they successfully expanded and pillaged and met Alexander the Great only to go too far.

Then they escaped and one group settled in Turkey, not far from where the Greeks had been when they set out for the south coast of Gaul and founded Massilia. They were called the Galatians.

Also, another group of Gauls became mercenaries (what a shock) and fought with the king who had given Hannibal a home after the Punic Wars wound down and the Carthaginians lost to Rome.

Anyway, that was a bit of a sidetrack. Postumius had his second consulship extended to 229 so he could conclude a peace with the Illyrians. He returned to Rome and disappeared until the Second Punic War erupted. With Hannibal devouring Romans like a maniac, there was a demand for leaders. Postumius was made a Praetor and took command of two legions in 216 BCE. A praetor was a magistrate who could take control of an army if both consuls already had armies in the field and another had to be activated. The fact this was happening gives you an idea of just how busy things were. The war with the Carthaginians and now the uprising with the Gauls was pushing the limits of what the Romans could deal with and yet, somehow, they were, thanks to this system.

He wasn’t in Rome when elected consul for the coming year, but these were desperate times. Normally consuls were present in the capitol when elected to consul. He was given command of the northern Italy Roman province of Gallia Cisalpina and was taking his army of two reinforced legions, numbering about 20,000. He didn’t live long enough to actually serve what would have been his third consulship.

He went into the woods – while going through the Litana Silva, which is a forest in Gallia Cisalpina in the area of Placentia, he was ambushed.

Most of his soldiers were wiped out in the initial attack. Apparently, the body guard of the praetor and Postumius tried to retreat over a bridge but that route had been covered by the Boii and Postumius had his head chopped off. I know – big shock.

Livy picks it up from there:

The Boii stripped the body of its spoils and cut off the head, and bore them in triumph to the most sacred of their temples. According to their custom, they cleaned out the skull and covered the scalp with beaten gold; it was used as a vessel for libations and as a drinking cup for their priests and ministers of the temple.

And you can imagine the jokes:

How’s your drink, priest?

Oh, it’s good, I like a drink with a good head to it!

The Romans freaked when they heard another army was wiped out. Shops closed and people went into mourning But it was unofficial mourning and the senators couldn’t have the whole city in mopey pants. So they forced people to open the shops and go back to work.

But once again, the Gauls had upset the people of Rome.

And now it’s time for….



Cocktail Party Slapdown.

The Angevin-Flanders War took place in the 13th Century, pitting King Philip of France against the Holy Roman Empire and German, English and Flemish forces under the command of Otto the Fourth of Brunswick, also known as the Holy Roman Emperor.

Today’s battle – the battle of Bouvines – caused the war to end and so severely smashed the allied German, British, and Flemish forces, Otto was deposed.  And King John of England’s barons were so upset at his actions in relation to it, it wound up causing him to sign the Magna Carta.

Remember William the Conqueror? Well, once again, his trip over to England and conquering it and all, then having a family, led to problems of who was in charge where and this led to arguments about the French crown being in charge of the lands along the west and north coast of France, namely Angevin in the southwest, Brittany in the north west and Normandy along the north.

This war settled that, for a while.

Settled it as far as King John was concerned. He was no longer in charge of anything in France.

The battle of Bouvines took place July 27, 1214.

It sort of just happened.

The Holy Roman Empire forces were bearing down on the King of France and his army. King Philip was in the difficult position of moving his large army across a river. The infantry was already across but the knights and other heavy units were still on the, um, wrong side.

Okay, so imagine looking at a map. There is a line running north and south. That’s the Marcque River and that’s the river being crossed by the army of the King of France. The place where he is crossing is called Bouvines. He is crossing from the east side to the west side, and only has a portion of his troops across, which is the most dangerous time for a crossing and the prime time for an enemy to attack. Oh look, here comes an enemy.

The King is pretty clever as he’s been at war for a long time. In fact, he was in the crusades with King Richard the First, otherwise known as Richard the Lionhearted. They had a falling out during the crusades and later, when Richard returned to Europe, he disagreed with who ran what in France, with Philip. Richard the Lionhearted died while fighting King Philip’s forces over essentially the same thing his brother King John the First or John Lackland, was fighting over in this war: control over a large chunk of France.

He’d had a counsel of war with his men and it was ‘The Sow’ who offered the best advice and that was, have a solid rear guard protect you while you cross and cross quickly. If you can’t get across, set up a solid defence to meet the larger force.

That’s a sow’s with ears of silk! You know, for making purses out of…

As usual, treaties and other deals of government tied a bunch of other countries into the mix and so we have the Holy Roman Empire involved as well.

And here comes the Emperor with his army, moving north and west. First he crashes into the rear guard set up by Philip to protect his crossing troops. But Philip’s men are a significant force of knights and they do a pretty impressive job of fending off the forces of the empire.

And they get word to Philip to do something fast because they can’t hold off the superior forces forever.

Philip decides to stop crossing and get his infantry back across. He had had engineers widening the bridges to make things move faster for the crossing and now these same bridges were allowing the infantry to flow across much more quickly than when they were going west.

He arrays his forces into three units and is ready as the rear guard make their way back, just ahead of the Holy Roman Empire forces, which are arrayed for a chase, not a setup battle. Now Otto must move quickly to get his guys set up to meet in a set piece battle against crack French knights and assorted infantry.

Philip had left his right flank open for the rear guard to flow into position there and his ranks seemed to organize in a steady, rational way.

So here’s the set up:

The French army, or Royal Army of France, had 4,000 knights and 11,000 infantry and was set up on the field of battle in three sections:

A right wing of knights from Burgundy and Champagne was commanded by the Duke of Burgandy. The knights were mounted behind a line of men of arms or infantry and militia.

The centre was commanded by the King and his best knights including Girard Scophe who was called Girard the Sow. In front were infantry units from Isle de France and Normandy.

The left arm was formed of knights and foot soldiers and militia led by Robert of Dreux.

The reserve? That would be the rear guard of 150 sergeants at arms left to guard the bridge in Bouvines.

The army of the Allies under Otto had about 25,000 men, with the mix heavier on infantry and slightly fewer knights. They were also were divided into three groups to face the French force, but there were a lot more of the Allies.

Ferrand of Flanders was in command of the left with his Flemish knights with infantry in front from Flanders and Hainaut.

The centre was commanded by Otto and his best knights with Saxon soldiers, knights and infantry from Brabant and Germany. The German infantry including pikemen was in front, then Otto and his knights and behind them, Saxon infantry in reserve.

The right flank under the command of Renaud de Dammartin was made up of Brabant infantry and English knights under the command of Earl of Salisbury who had a big stake in this battle…

English archers were at the far right.

Okay, so the chess pieces are all set up – and it took Otto an hour or so to do so, which Philip was happy to provide as he was still rushing the last of his infantry across and into position.

The far French right advanced ahead of the rest of the right and got right into a melee battle with the Allied left. Otto’s centre infantry were the best in Europe and they advanced and decimated his militia infantry at the front. They fought right up to King Philip and pulled him from his horse, but the king’s banner was used as a signal and the knights came riding to the king’s defence.

Battle of Bouvines as portrayed by Frederic Theodore Lix, the 19th Century artist. It shows King Philip Augustus of France defending himself when the Holy Roman Empire infantry broke through.

Battle of Bouvines as portrayed by Frederic Theodore Lix, the 19th Century artist. It shows King Philip Augustus of France defending himself when the Holy Roman Empire infantry broke through.

Philip was remounted and back in the battle.

Once the pikemen were tired out taking out the militia, they were into the best of Europe’s knights.

The French knights destroyed the Allied infantry.

On the French left Dreux’s were pushed back at first by overwhelming odds. Facing Dammartin and Salisbury’s forces, they were almost turned and had their backs to the bridge.

But Dreux captured Salisbury and the English broke rank and fled.

Another French leader captured 12 enemy banners.

Dammartin put up a fierce fight but surrendered as his Allies all retreated.

Back on the right wing, the count of Flanders was captured as the French routed the Flemish cavalry.

The centre was still in heated battle with the King and Emperor involved in the melee. Otto was almost captured when his horse was killed and he wound up on the ground. His standard was captured and taken to Paris. Otto fled the field when one of his knights helped him onto a new horse. Otto didn’t stop until he was far, far away.

One of the Emperor’s commanders on the field managed to rally a small force of the pikemen who fended off attack after attack by the French until, when the rest of the battle had ended, the French could muster a large force of infantry to storm the wall of pikes. In all, three counts, 25 barons and more than 100 knights of the Imperial Allies were captured. In all, of the Imperial Forces, 9,000 men were captured and about 1,000 killed, compared with 1,000 French killed.

King Philip of France returned to the French capital with a long prisoner train marching behind him. Philip’s victory settled things down in his country and in England. France took another step to becoming a country in the more modern sense, although it had a long way to go. The power of the king would continue to grow until the revolution.

Militarily, this battle returned the role of the infantry to a more prominent place in the hierarchy of the battlefield, especially in light of the gallant stand of the Empire’s pikemen and the role of the French infantry in finally defeating them.

And that’s it for this week’s Cocktail Party Slapdown.



Severino Baradali’s giclee of the battle of Cannae.

Hi and welcome to History of France in English, Episode 18. I’m Tom.

This week we’ll be doing things a little differently.

The Battle of Cannae is a high point in the Gallic history. Gauls figure prominently in this battle and much of the success Hannibal enjoys in this epic fight between Rome and two of her greatest enemies comes down to Gallic bravery, anger and blood.

So we’re going to combine the chronological history component with the Cocktail Party Slapdown. The Slapdown will be about the battle itself and the chronological part will give us a background as to how and why the Gauls were so angry with the Romans and what weapons they brought to the party and how they used them.

Also, the draw for the shirt and the labcoat – at least the first draw – is taking place this week, on Sunday, April 14, so you still have time to get your comments in to iTunes or on the historylab.ca podcast page. If you don’t make the deadline, it’s okay, there will be another draw in May and all the names on the site, minus the two who were drawn, will be in for another round.

Superduper. The kids still say superduper, right? Okay then.

Why were the Gauls so angry?

Well, some would say they were born in a perpetual state of anger. Gauls were warlike and liked war. For many Gauls, their fallback job was to hire out as a mercenary. But that’s not to say they didn’t know how to farm by now, or to do metalwork – which they were awesome at – or have other skills.

But they did have their reasons to hate the Romans. As their population grew, they’d spilled into northern Italy.

At first, the Romans were fine with that – as long as the Gauls didn’t move south and sack the city again, everything was cool.

And some Gauls worked as mercenaries for the Romans.

But there had always been a simmering threat of violence between Romans and Gauls and, as we’ve seen, every now and then it would bubble over and get ugly.

Let’s look at what brought the Gauls to the boiling point at the Battle of Cannae.

This battle took place during the Second Punic War or, as many Romans called it, the War against Carthage and Gaul, in the summer of 216 BCE.

We’ve already looked at some earlier battles in that war – Ticinus and Trebia in 218 BCE and Lake Trasimene in 217 BCE.


You’ll remember Caius Flaminius from the battle at Lake Trasimene from the last podcast. Way back in 232 BCE, the Romans sent him north with an army to settle the Gaul problem once and for all… again. Flaminius promptly had a law passed that allowed him to hand out captured Gallic property to the poor of Rome.

In 225 BCE the Boii, one of the biggest tribes of Gauls in all of Europe and the biggest victim of Flaminius’ big land swap, had had enough. They saw their lands around what is Bologna today, being sliced up and served to property-hungry Roman farmers. The Insurbes, another big tribe of Gauls, also had land taken and sold to Romans around the present city of Milan. The Taurini in the Piedmont region were being treated likewise.

The Gauls went to war. They hired Gaesatae from the Alps as mercenaries, which makes you wonder how badass are the mercenaries to the mercenaries?

All told, the Gauls had an army of 70,000 warriors and south they headed.

They pillaged the rich Etrurian countryside but stopped short of sacking Rome as they’d done in 390 BCE.

Roman counsel Amelius Papas started marching north with an army of four legions. A second army hastily called back from Sardinia was also on the boot and marching to meet the Gauls as well.

At the time, the Gauls were facing the biggest collection of armies Rome had ever, um, collected… yeah.

The Gauls met the two forces at Telamon. Now the Gauls did get the head of one of the counsels, but they lost the battle. At the end of the fight, 40,000 Gauls were dead and 10,000 were taken prisoner.

By 224 BCE, Flaminius and Publius Furious – one of the coolest names ever, because in the phone book it would be Furious Publius – were back to ticking off Gauls including the Insurbes and adding the Cenomanni into the mix.

Another big battle, this time with about 40,000 Gauls, had Flaminius with his back to the river. But by arming his forward soldiers with the long lances usually used by the triarii in the back of the formation, the front line soldiers were able to hold off the Gauls from getting close enough with their swords to hack the Romans to pieces.

In 222, the Gauls asked for terms but the Romans wanted to grind them to dust while they were down. At the battle of Clastidium, the Gallic chief Britomarus was killed by a Roman counsel who stripped off his armour, and in another battle Milan, the Insurbes city, was captured by the Romans. The Gauls had their land taken and saw more Romans moving north to take over their farms and towns. This is when the Romans set up Placenti and Cremona as Roman settler towns.

All of this just added to the Gauls’ anger at the Romans, an anger that both Livy and Polybius thought warranted a mention.

And in his book, The Ghosts of Cannae, Robert O’Connell, says “This anger would prove to be a magnet for Hannibal, providing a ready source for allies, supplies, fresh bodies when his men spilled over the Alps, hungry and depleted.”

Hannibal started to figure in the battle between the Romans and Gauls in 218 BCE. As he began his march out of Spain and towards the Alps and Italy, the Gauls were rising up again in northern Italy, pushing the settlers out of Cremona and Placenti and chasing them into what is Modena today. The Romans sent a commission to negotiate and the Gauls took them prisoner. The Romans sent an army north and the Gauls ambushed it. Twice.

As Hannibal marched through southern Gaul, along the coast and crossing the Rhone, he faced down unfriendly Gauls until, just west of the Alps, he met Boii representatives who offered help getting over the Alps.

We covered that in episodes 14 and 15.

Now skip ahead a bit to June of 217 BCE and the battle of Lake Trasimene. The Boii are more than guides and have been joined by the Insurbes. Other Gauls are crouching in the crevices and rocks overlooking the road along the north shore of the lake. Their leader, Hannibal, is hidden in the fog further up the road and, even further up the road, as a ruse, are what appears to the Romans to be campfires. The Romans think that is where the Carthaginian army is, not sitting in the heights over their heads or stretched across the road up ahead hidden in the dense morning fog, or creeping slowly across the road behind them as they advance in to the valley.

Before they knew it, they were surrounded.

Hannibal had recreated here a scenario that he had seen played out as he brought his army through the mountains. Instead of a mountain pass with the mountain on one side and the steep drop from the road on the other, the Romans were hemmed in by a lake on one side and the ridge on the other, and instead of rogue Gauls blocking the pass ahead and behind, it was Hannibal who blocked the way with his troops.

When Hannibal gave the sound for attack, the Gauls and Iberians on the ridge and the cavalry in front and troops behind swarmed over the Romans who were in road march formation and not ready to repel an attack.

Polybius gives us a description of the scene: “Most of them were cut to pieces in marching order as they were quite unable to protect themselves. Those who were trapped between the lake and the road were killed in a more pitiable manner. For when they were forced into the lake in a mass, some lost their wits and tried to swim across the lake with their armour on and drowned, while others kept walking out until only their heads were above the water and when the cavalry rode in to finish them, they raised their hands begging for mercy but were cut down by the enemy or they asked their companions to do it for them.”

This was one of the sweetest victories for the Gauls because the hated Flaminius was in charge.

Flaminius wore a helmet capped with the scalp of a Gaul warrior. The Gauls knew him by sight and they stormed his position. Livy says the Insurbian chief Ducar or Ducarius, smashed his way on horseback into the counsel’s bodyguard. After killing Flaminius’ armour bearer he spotted Flaminius and ran him through with a lance and then cut his head off, as you’ll recall from the last podcast. The Gauls would clearly feel their decision to back Hannibal was vindicated.

So fierce was the fighting for the three hours the battle lasted that neither side noticed the serious earthquake that shook the peninsula while it was raging.

Roman survivors were few and those few were demoralized.

As O’Donnell says in his book, Ghosts of Cannae, it appeared Hannibal had taken the lesson he learned from the Gauls in the Alps of how to use the battle ground in an ambush and adapted it to his own situation.

“Had the Romans made this connection, it might have mortified them even more. Here was an adversary who not only learned from his mistakes but learned how to leverage them to his own advantage.”

And this was a lesson it would take years for the Romans to learn.

Back in Rome, the people were in a major state of panic. Gauls and Carthaginians were fighting together and apparently unstoppable. There was very little between Rome and Hannibal in the way of a defensive force. In fact, reinforcements sent to Flaminius had been intercepted and what was pretty much the last available cavalry had been destroyed.

Urban Praetor of Rome, Marcus Pomponius, broke the news to the people who’d been running about picking up bits and pieces from the odd survivor who’d stumbled in and from travelers. “We have been defeated in a great battle.”

And that wasn’t even the worst part. That was yet to come.

The Romans decided they needed to take drastic measures so they put all their political and military eggs in one basket and selected a dictator to run the show. Quintus Fabius Maximus was given the job of saving Rome.

Fabius was a clever military commander, but not to the taste of the more direct Roman palate.

Hannibal meanwhile had camped at Picenum, a town in the middle of one of the most productive and fertile areas in all of Italy. It was reported the wealth of food and drink in the area exceeded his army’s ability to take it away. So they did their best to consume it.

The mangy, exhausted horses were fed the best grain and sweetest grass and given baths in old wine. The soldiers ate and rested to their hearts’ content. Soon, the army was ready to fight again.

Hannibal headed out to meet Fabius, but Fabius kept the Carthaginian general at a safe distance and would stop to camp only on easily defended hills.

Hannibal would take the opportunity to send the Gauls and other troops out to burn and pillage the countryside, giving the Roman army a good view from their hilltops of what he could do.

But Fabius refused to engage the Carthaginians in battle. Instead, he’d shadow them and when foraging parties were dispatched, he’d attack them. He also encouraged the civilians to practice a scorched earth policy as Hannibal advanced, which was partially successful.

His plan was working in that Hannibal’s troops were getting worn down and were wearing out their welcome with their raiding parties, but the process wasn’t very dramatic or heroic in the Roman soldiers’ eyes.

Hannibal tried to provoke Fabius to attack by travelling about the land baiting him. But Fabius kept the dangerous mix of Gauls and others at arm’s length. This was at odds with the blood lusting Romans. The Fabian Strategy would go down in history as one of the great, effective ways to deal with a wily opponent, but in 216 BCE, Fabius was replaced with two counsels, Gaius Varro and Amelius Paullus.

The two consuls were fired up. The largest army ever raised by Rome was put on the field, numbering between 60,000 and 100,000 men. Hannibal was in the rich southern area, south east of Rome. The massive Roman force marched toward Puglia where Hannibal was waiting just outside the town called Cannae.

Now that we’ve looked at how the two armies got to Cannae, here’s the Cocktail Party Slapdown’s story on that battle – a battle that is still being studied at military schools and that is still referred to as the perfect victory.

Hannibal was facing an army on its home turf. It was far larger than his force. In some ways it was better equipped.

But Hannibal had been studying the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents and had decided some of the Roman weapons were superior to what some of his troops had. So while he was at Picenum, he had his African Heavy Infantry equipped with captured Roman gear, including the short dagger-sword the Roman Infantry used. It was a copy of the sword the Iberian infantry used. It could be swung to slash or more importantly, jab around the big Roman shield. Gallic swords were longer and more suited to swinging for slashing, but could not be used for stabbing. Many Gauls kept their gear.

Some armory experts feel the Gallic sword was a useful stabbing weapon as it did have a stabbing tip and would work with their longer shields, but the shorter Roman sword, modeled on the celt-iberian sword was a better stabbing weapon.

Let’s look at what the Gauls brought to battle:

Hannibal had about 48,000 men at Cannae and of those there were 8,000 Gallic infantry and 4,000 Gallic cavalry plus another 8,000 Gallic infantry guarding the camp and supplies. The Gauls represented the largest component of Hannibal’s multi-national force that included Iberians, celt-iberians, Libyans, Numidians, Carthaginians and others.

Gauls tended not to wear armour as they didn’t consider it manly, but they did invent chain mail, so it’s likely the rich cavalrymen would have been wearing chain and helmets. It’s reported the Gauls stripped down for this battle. Some say they were naked, others say the infantry were wearing pants and boots. They carried swords they’d designed and created themselves. Their large shields had a boss in the centre and a ridge running from the top to the bottom down the centre of the shield. They tended to be made of oak and covered in leather with the centre pieces thicker.

The cavalry were thought to be of two types, the nobles who would have had light armour including the helmet and the chain plus a small shield and one or two throwing spears and a sword. The light cavalry would have two javelins and possibly a sword and a shield.

Livy speaks of the imposing effect of the Gauls’ stature, for physically these Celtic warriors were greatly superior to their Italian antagonists, and of their general appearance. The Gauls were naked to the waist, the Spaniards clad in linen vests, of dazzling whiteness, edged with purple.

Polybius describes their swords in great detail. The Iberian sword is shorter, similar to the gladius (which, by the way, historically descended from it), while the Gallic sword is overly long, good only for slashing according to Polybius. The latter is, clearly, a drawback in the ancient era, where there were tight formations with little room to swing when fighting in close quarters. (A plus for a medieval warrior, though, because of the invention of chain mail.) Judging from their colorful dress descriptions (particularly, the Gallic “garb”), it is safe to assume they could be implemented as medium Infantry.

So how did the battle start?

The two Consuls had equal powers and neither could overrule the other, so who would take the decision? According to Roman tradition, supreme command of the army alternated between the two Consuls on a daily basis and it was on Varro’s watch that the massive Roman army lined up against Hannibal.

Varro initially deployed a conventional 3-line maniple formation but on closer inspection of the opposition changed plans, packing his troops close together. His reasoning was that Hannibal had set out his troops in a semi-circle with the apex of the curve nearest to the Roman lines. The centre of the curve was made up of the lighter Spanish and Gallic soldiers and it was the prospect of easily hacking through this soft underbelly that convinced Varro to mass his men in a more central position… Round one to Hannibal: Varro had taken the bait, hook, line and sinker!

What Varro hadn’t understood was the role of Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry and his battle-hardened Libyan soldiers – the very ones that had been equipped with the Roman armour and weapons, located at the wings of this semi-circle, further away from the Romans.

Battle commenced and, predictably, the Romans started well, easily pushing back the Spanish and Gallic troops in the centre. In the heat of the battle, however, Varro failed to realise that, whilst his men were pushing back the centre of the semi-circle, the wings, where the cavalry and the Libyan troops were, remained stationary. In effect, the semi-circle was being inverted and the Romans were soon surrounded on three sides. As reality dawned, Hannibal’s cavalry, who had made short work of their Roman counterparts, attacked from the rear… The slaughter began…

At least 50,000 Roman and allied soldiers died, while Hannibal lost only around 6,000 men. Paullus, who had opposed such a battle, remained in the fray, preferring to die rather than live with the shame of surviving such a disaster. Varro had no such honour and fled back to Rome.

Even for the crazy bloodshed of ancient warfare, this was a seemingly impossible loss for a day’s fighting, something not replicated until the First World War with modern machine guns, barbed wire, artillery and massed infantry charges.

The scholars argue about the side of the river they were on and where the sun was and it’s interesting to see how they determine these things.

It is likely that the Carthaginians were parallel to the river, with the river right behind their backs. The supporting evidence by T. A. Dodge on Hannibal is just one source; both Polybius and Livy have it plainly that the Romans faced in the general southward direction, while the Carthaginian army faced northward. Moreover, both state that the sun, when it had risen, was not in either army’s eyes. In June the sun rises in the northeast and in the area of the battlefield, the river, the Aufidus is directly northeast. So, accordingly the Romans would actually have faced southeast, and the Carthaginians northwest, so no sun problem. This also jibes with Appian and Plutarch comments that Hannibal had his back to the wind Vulturnus, a southeast wind that blows now, as it did then, during the month of June. It was a source of discomfort as it blew sand in the Romans’ eyes.

Remember the arms swap and Hannibal equipping the heavy African infantry with Roman gear? Well, Livy says “to look at them, one might have thought the Africans were Roman soldiers; their arms were largely Roman, having been part of spoils at Trasimene, and some, too, at the Trebbia.”

In another place, he says that in order to tell the Carthaginians from the Romans, one had to look carefully at the flags and other insignia. Polybius, in his analysis of legion versus phalanx, tells us that Hannibal “as soon as he had won his first battle, discarded the equipment with which he had started out, armed his troops with Roman weapons, and continued to use them till the end of the war.”

It is a general consensus among most historians that Hannibal armed at least some of his soldiers with Roman weapons. During the battle Hasdrubal and Carthalo’s cavalry bypassed the Roman rear to reappear on the opposite flank and strike the Allied cavalry from behind, while the Numidians were engaging them from the front.

All ancient authors agree that, instead of the usual deployment of the Roman legions in the center, with the Allies on the flanks, Varro decided to place all Roman legions on the right, and the Allied ones on the left. Similarly, with cavalry. The Allied cavalry, which always used to outnumber the Roman cavalry by two to one (due to a Roman recruitment law) was also on the left, while the hapless Roman cavalry was facing the Carthaginian onslaught on the right, leaning on the aforementioned river.

Anyway, that’s it for this week’s History of France in English/cocktail party slapdown combo. Hannibal’s war continues for years in Italy, but this sort of marks the highwater mark for the Gauls and Hannibal. Next week, the Gauls have another victory against Rome, shortly after the destruction of the Roman army at Cannae. It’s a doozy. We’ll look at that and then we’re going to get back into Gaul and see how things are going there.

Don’t forget this is a listener supported podcast, so please go to iTunes and leave your comments and rank us there or go to historylab.ca and click on the hofie podcast button and leave us a comment there.

Merci and we’ll see you next week.

Hi there and welcome to the History of France in English Episode 16. I’m Tom.

Once again, we have a chronological segment this week, following up on last week’s adventures with the Gauls as they teamed up with Hannibal’s Carthaginian army in northern Italy and handed the Romans a heaping helping of defeat at Ticinus. This week, even more Gauls are on hand to help Hannibal as he deals with a new Roman commander.

Following that up, we deal with those haters of France who seem to love saying there are no such things as French military victories. In order to clear up this nonsense, each week we offer a story about a French military victory, often at extremely long odds, against such foes as the Royal Navy, Nazi Germany’s leading generals like Rommel and Guderian and old timey clashes against the Romans, like when the Gauls sacked Rome.

Okay, so first off, back to the chronological history, picking up where we left off last week. If you’ll remember, the Gauls liked what they were of Hannibal. He’d already had some help from the Boii and Insurbes, and the victory on the plains next to the Ticinus River (?) brought about 2,000 Cennomanni cavalry from the Roman ranks as those east Italian Gauls defected in the night after the Ticinus battle. But not before the Cennomanni cut the heads off any Romans sleeping nearby them in the Roman camp.

Heads, don’t leave home without them.

So Hannibal met with the Cennomanni who offered to help. After this heads up, he thanked them and asked if they could go to the other Gauls and Ligurians in the area and get them to come on board, to which, the Gauls eagerly said, heck ya!

Scipio, the Roman leader who was injured badly at Ticinus, barely escaped with his life. He and his army headed for the hills and fortified themselves in the nearby heights. Scipio was joined there by Sempronius Longus and his army. The two of them tried to figure out what to do before things turned even worse.

Longus had been called over from Sicily to help face the threat of the Carthaginians. His troops had crossed from the island and marched up to the north in 40 days. He and his men were eager for battle. A little too eager.

The River Trebia, near which Hannibal had set up camp was so cold, it was nearly freezing over.

On the night of December 17, 218 BCE, Hannibal ordered his men to get a good night’s sleep and get up early, ready for battle. The next morning, he ordered hot breakie for all and told his men to oil their bodies to keep the heat in.

Hannibal sent his Numidian light cavalry over to the Roman camp to let them know it was time…

While the cavalry was heading over the river to whisper sweet nothings, Hannibal was forming up the rest of his forces for battle.

Hannibal’s brother Mago was sent with 2,000 heavy cavalry augmented with infantry to set up an ambush to the side of his main battle line, hidden from view. Meanwhile the Numidians broke into the Roman camp and flung javelins and some witty repartee their way. Sempronius, not one to take a slagging lying down, commanded his men to rise up, get dressed, get yer gear and get ready to lay a whupping on these dang Carthaginians. No breakie, no oiling, stop talking like that.

The Romans, without time to get properly organized, floundered into the freezing water of the Trebia. Across the river, Hannibal was waiting with his Gauls, Ligurians and Celtiberian infantry in the middle, with Libyian and Iberians on the flanks – all in all, about 20,000 men with his remaining 8000 calvary split to either side.

They were warm, well-fed and a lot more comfortable than those soaking wet Romans.

The Romans numbered about 16,000 legionaires backed by 20,000 allied troops and 2,000 equestrians placed on the flanks. As they came across the river, Carthaginian light infantry used slings and javelins to pick off the Romans as they swarmed across and then fell back.

Oh yeah, and did I mention the elephants? Hannibal still had a few and they were forming a greeting party on shore.

And it started to snow.


Soaking wet, hungry Roman troops facing war elephants and a well organized army look to the heavens for respite and the gods snow on them.

Well, it can’t get any worse, right?

Well, while the flanks of the Carthaginians were chewing up the Roman allies pretty well, the centre of the line was having a hell of a time against the real Roman centurions.

Mago and his cavalry charged into the rear of the Romans, wiping out the allies, but the core of Roman centurions were not giving up without a fight.

The Romans put a hurt on the Gauls and celto-iberians and Ligurians and broke through the centre, fleeing to Placentia and the fort inside.

Note: I found this a bit confusing. You say it couldn’t get any worse for the Romans but then you talk about how the centurions were doing better than the allies, and then how Hannibal had suffered a psychological loss.


Hannibal had won the field but it wasn’t cheap. He lost some of his valuable war elephants and that was a psychological blow.

The battle at the Trebia let the Romans know that any ideas that it would be easy to mop up the Carthaginian/Gallic revolt were not …..

Hannibal wasn’t anywhere near knocking Rome out, but still, Rome was in a state of shock. This fight with the Carthaginians should have been easier and taken less time.

But for the Romans, the hurt was just beginning…



And now it’s time for…

Cocktail Party Slapdown, when we offer you stories to counter the myth that French Military Victories don’t exist –  for use in those situations when some blowhard begins sneering some nonsense.

Many would agree the most dangerous, bloody fighting of WW II was the mutual destruction of the Eastern Front. The Soviets suffered more than 26 million dead for the war, about 7 million of which were military deaths. The United States, which had about the same size population, suffered about 418,000 military war dead including merchant marine and coast guard.

There was nothing like it in modern times and perhaps in all of history.

Begs the question – why would anyone volunteer for service here?

Hard to say and harder to find out – only two countries formed volunteer units to serve in the Eastern Front on the side of the Allies. One of them was the Free French.

The unit was a group of fighter pilots, sent by General Charles DeGaulle In 1943.

They were given the name Normandie-Niemen by Josef Stalin after their work to free the Nieman river district.

Recognition of their service, dedication and sacrifice took the form of a large number of medals and citations from both France and the Soviet Union.

At its peak, there were four squadrons in what its members called the Neu-Neu for Normandie-Nieman regiment. Active in the war between March 1943 and May of 1945, the unit was responsible for destroying 273 German aircraft at a cost of 87 of its own planes and 45 pilots, while earning awards and citations like the French Legion d’Honneur, the Soviet Order of the Red Banner and for the Battle of the Niemen River in 1944, Stalin awarded the unit with its name Normandie-Niemen.

When the French unit first burst on the Eastern Front with its first victory over a Folke Wulf 190, German field marshall William Kietling pronounced a death sentence on any French pilot captured fighting on the front.

This didn’t scare young pilots like Count Roland de la Poype.

He was among the first to volunteer for the regiment.

De la Poype was of an aristocratic French family and nineteen when the war broke out. He enrolled in pilot school and had his licence in a year, but that wasn’t fast enough in the age of the blitzkrieg. France surrendered to Hitler in June. Well, part of France did.

Like many young French and veteran soldiers, de la Poype escaped to England with Charles De Gaulle where the Free French armed forces were forming. The young pilot joined the Free French air force.

I couldn’t accept that France bowed down without a fight,” he said in an interview in 2010.

When, at de Gaulle’s suggestion, the pilots were offered a chance to volunteer on the Eastern front, he jumped at it.

We had a debt to the Russians who came to help us in 1914 to 1917. And I knew it. I knew it so well that going to Russia for me was almost a must. So, when I was asked at the headquarters of General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces if I would go to Russia with a squadron, I said ‘Of course, right away!‘” said de la Poype.

He was the youngest of 14 French pilots, in a land he had never seen before and where the people spoke a language he didn’t understand.

He charged ahead, excited by the challenge and the chance to pay his debt to the Russians for their help in the First World War and for his chance to get some payback on the Nazis.

If some of us were to die – we were pilots, we were warriors – we were made for it. We asked for a hard life and we got it,” he said.

His first combat plane was a flimsy but quick and agile Yak-1B, equipped with an often-faulty radio. He had it customized with the open mouth of a shark.

He became a master at banking maneuvers to throw off German Messerschmitts.

The young squadron was shaken when their commander was killed in July 43. They shook it off and were racking up the kills again. It came at  a cost. By November, they had 77 confirmed enemy kills and nine probable kills, but their own numbers were less than half with six pilots, including de la Poype, of the original 14 in the first squadron.

By 1944 the unit was a full air regiment with four squadrons. De la Poype was still flying and fighting.

On October 16, they opened their operation to liberate the Niemen River and in one day destroyed 29 German planes without a loss.

By the end of 1944, the regiment had 201 kills.

By the time the war ended on the front in May of 1945, Neu Neu had about 300 enemy kills including probables and had flown more than 5200 sorties and taken part in 869 dogfights.

This success was a team effort, said de la Poype.

It was also thanks to men like Valentin Ogurtsov, a guy de la Poype could barely communicate with, but with whom, he said, he trusted his life.

Ogurtsov, aircraft mechanic for the Normandie-Niemen fighter wing during the war, said he was in graduation class at school when he was drafted.

He was originally trained to work on American fighters the Soviets were to receive but when the French arrived, he was sent to them as part of their support team and had to relearn mechanics for the Soviet Yak fighters.

Ogurtsov had a great deal of admiration for the French.

“The French were very good pilots. They had a high kill rate against the Germans, despite a very short training period.”

“They called us (the mechanics) their guardian angels, because we would work around the clock to make sure their planes were ready for them whenever they were needed.”

De La Poype was one of the rocks of the squadron. He served through to 1947 with the regiment despite receiving injuries to his leg, and a ruptured ear drum. He was one of three other Neu-Neu pilots awarded Hero of the Soviet Union. By the end of the war, de la Poype had scored 7 solo and 9 team victories in aerial combat against the enemy.

In his civilian life, he was a successful businessman and inventor and retired in the 1980s to play golf on his own course. De la Poype died in 2010 and was the last of the foreign Hero of the Soviet Union recipients.

The Normandie Neumen unit fought in Vietnam with French Forces after the Second World War and is still active in the French airforce.


Hi there and welcome to the History of France in English podcast, episode 17. I’m Tom.

A shout out this week to someone who goes by the name Booner who commented on the Historylab.ca site after clicking on the podcast button. Thanks Booner. I also want to thank Terry Thibideau and Ann Baxter for their interest and kind words on the European History page on Facebook and I remind you this is a listener supported podcast. Please take the time to go to iTunes and leave a comment and rank us there or check out historylab.ca and click on the podcast button and leave us a comment there. If you want to contact me directly with a comment or concern or question or idea for an episode subject, you can reach me at tom@historylab.ca and I’ll get right back to you.

We have another interesting show this week. Our chronological history picks up with Hannibal and the Gauls and the second Punic war. Some Gauls in Northern Italy are getting a little tired of feeding Hannibal’s army, but he still has plenty of support from other Gallic tribes. And this week, our Cocktail Party Slapdown – featuring a French military victory suitable for shutting down the ill-informed who say those are rare or non-existent – is about Louis Joseph de Montcalm and his incredible victory over the British during the Seven Years War, Battle of Carillon.

Before we get to that or even go back to Hannibal, I want to let you know that episode 20 is quickly approaching and I have something special planned. The two most popular shows of History of France in English have been the first two, which were on the history of wine in France. To pair those up, Episodes 20 and 21 will be about the history of French cooking. It’s a very interesting topic and the impact was felt around the world, so I hope you’ll join us for those in a few weeks.

Last week, we left the Gauls hanging out with Hannibal after the battle of Trebia. This week, picking up with them in the following spring, June of 217 BCE, finds many Gauls still with Hannibal.

It had not been an easy winter and Hannibal’s army had had a tough time, despite wintering with locals in many cases (and that means Gauls). This is putting pressure on the locals who are feeding strangers and it’s costing them. Some Gauls are getting tired of this army that doesn’t know when it’s time to move on.

Everyone was ready to get on with the campaign so they could get home.

The  Romans looked like they were cracking and many thought if Hannibal could bring the hammer of his army to bear on just the right spot, the Roman empire would split wide open.

That would mean wealth for all.

Rome still had military resources though and she was bringing what she had to take on this dire threat. Hannibal knew he’d be facing new challenges.

New counsels had been chosen, and they’d inherited the bits and pieces of Roman legions that survived Hannibal’s hammering at Ticinus and Trebia.

Rome had gathered another four legions to add to these two armies and sent Gaius Flaminius north to take over Scipio’s force. Servilius Geminus was to take over Sempronius Longus’ army.

Flaminius was much like Sempronius in that he didn’t take to Hannibal’s goading very well. Once Hannibal knew that, he had the counsel’s button.

Logistics meant that Flaminius was in the war zone before Servilius could meet up with him. At first Flaminius played it cool.

Hannibal went about the countryside, setting fire to all and sundry, trying to draw Flaminius into battle while at the same time, showing the locals, who were pro-Roman, that Rome offered them nothing. Most of this was taking place, thankfully for the Gauls, in territory south of where they lived.

Flaminius would not leave the safety of his defensive position at Arretium. Cocktail Party Slapdown fans will remember the Gauls beat the Romans here in 284 BCE, so it can’t have been out of nostalgia that Flaminius was clinging to this site.

Hannibal put himself between Arretium and Rome, cutting Flaminius’s contact with the capitol.

Military buffs will be interested to know this is the first recorded turning movement in history. That’s when an attacker’s forces (i.e., Hannibal’s army) reaches the rear of a defender’s forces (i.e., Flaminius’ army), separating the defender from its principal defensive position, which it then is forced to abandon.

We don’t know exactly where the battle took place because the Lake Trasimene of today is not the Lake Trasimene of 217 BCE.

It’s located in Umbria and is really dependent on rainfall for much of its water as there are no major rivers flowing into it. It’s a depression in the ground that fills with water and before the population of the area put more demands on it, the lake was higher than it is today.

We do know the battle took place along the northern shore, where the hills closely bordered the lake. There are a couple of possibilities. It’s believed it was between Cortona and Tuoro. Near Cortona there is a place called Ossaia, meaning Ossuary or bone pit in Italian. Sanguineto is another, which means bloody place. Local legend says this name came about when after the battle, a stream by this name ran red with blood for days as a result of the carnage.

We also know that Hannibal did his usual close studying of the terrain and then established one of the most successful and largest ambushes of all time.

Jacob Abbott in his book Hannibal, says “Hannibal contrived to station a detachment of his troops in ambuscade at the foot of the mountains and others on the declivities above and then in some way or other to entice Flaminius and his army through this defile. Flaminius was, like Sempronius, self-confident, and vain. He despised Hannibal and thought his success hitherto had been owing to the inefficiency or indecision of his predecessors.”

One thing about Hannibal – what you saw, was not what you got.

When the Romans checked out the pass, they looked over a lake in early morning sun, partially hidden by fog and they saw Carthaginian fires burning on elevated ground a ways past the pass.

That’s because Hannibal had told his men to go to that height and set a series of campfires to fool the Romans. Mission accomplished.

But while the Romans were congratulating themselves for being so clever and considering their military options, the troops Hannibal had hidden in the declivities above the road and others at the foot of the mountains took possession of the pass and attacked the Romans in the rear while Hannibal attacked them head on. The Romans had no time to react or to get into formation.

Much of the forces on Hannibal’s side were Gauls with some Iberians and the Carthaginian cavalry but much of the heavy infantry and some of the light infantry were Gauls and Celts – or Gauls by another name.

The cavalry hit the western Roman force while the light infantry attacked from where they were stashed in the heights above the road and the heavy infantry smashed the Romans from the front.

The battle raged for four hours. Of the 30,000 that started, the Carthaginians suffered about 2,500 killed outright; about the same number later died from wounds. The Romans lost 15,000 who died in battle or drowned after being driven into the lake.

Flaminius was among the Roman dead.

Joseph-Noel Sylvestre, an artist born in 1847 painted Flaminius’s death in battle. The Roman counsel’s death is attributed by Livy to an Insurbes Gaul by the name of Ducar. Anyone want to guess how Flaminius was killed? Anyone? Bueller? Right, his head was cut off. Imagine how thrilled the missus was when Ducar brought that door knocker home!

Oh and the jokes. You can imagine, Ducar sitting around with some Gallic friends, you know, shrugging and stuff and there’s a thump at the door. One of his friends says, ‘I wonder who that is’ and Ducar smiles and says, ‘sounds like Flaminius’. That never gets old, right?

An advance patrol, cut off from the battle on purpose by Hannibal, managed to fight through the Carthaginians and flee through the woods.

About 10,000 of the 40,000 Romans made it back to Rome. The rest were captured or killed.

A reinforcement force was captured a few days later. The 4,000 men sent from Rome to bolster Flaminius’ ranks were wiped out as well.

Rome didn’t take this well. There was panic.

A dictator was elected to save the republic.

Fabius Maximus found a winning strategy that might have worked with time, but wasn’t given the time to make it work. Next week, we follow Hannibal as he drives the originator of the Fabian strategy to distraction… and we wind up at Cannae.

Now, it’s time for …



Alexander Ogden's portrayal of Montcalm (foreground in white, lower right) cheering his troops on at the Battle of Ticonderoga or Carillon, depending on which side of the border you are on.

Alexander Ogden’s portrayal of Montcalm cheering his troops on at the Battle of Ticonderoga or Carillon, depending on which side of the border you are on.

Cocktail Party Slapdown.

Louis de Montcalm was trained in the standard methods of European warfare. He was successful at it and he was sent to New France (or Canada) to defend the French holdings there during the Seven Years War. While in North America, Montcalm created a whole new way of fighting, a way that would be copied by the British Queen’s First American Regiment, Robert’s Rangers and American revolutionaries in the American Revolution.

In John Keegan and Anthony Wheatcraft’s Who’s Who in Military History, they have this to say about Montcalm during the Seven Year’s War: “Earlier commanders had looked upon the vast forests as hostile wastes, barriers to the proper exercise of war, refuge for Indians and social outcasts. Montcalm recognized they could guarantee to his operations the quality so often lacking in European war – total surprise.”

Montcalm racked up one victory after another despite never having very many men at his disposal. The British had far more troops in the theatre and control of the seas.

Still Montcalm would move quickly through the forests, show up with artillery where no one thought artillery could be installed and capture a fort. He did it again and again.

He relied on his small number of professional French troops who were augmented with First Nations warriors and locally born and raised French Canadian soldiers, who were used to travelling and fighting and surviving in the North American wilderness.

The British were clearly tired of having Montcalm foil them at every turn and sent huge reinforcements to North America.

The French had established a Fort at the end of Lake Champlain, where Fort Ticonderoga eventually stood. But it was undermanned and Montcalm found it to be in poor shape to deal with the 18,000 soldiers marching toward it.

British General James Abercrombie and Fitch… I mean General George Howe … were bringing battle to Montcalm in the form of 6,000 regular British soldiers and 12,000 militia, First Nations warriors and Rangers.

It was late June, 1758 and Montcalm had grown used to being the underdog. He was in charge of a force of 3,000 French regulars bolstered by Canadiens (French Canadian) troops and a handful of First Nations scouts.

The British commander was Abercrombie, an elderly man, in poor shape and with not much of a mind for military matters, but that didn’t stop him from commanding the largest force in North America up to that time.

Howe, on the other hand, was cut from the same cloth as Montcalm and had seen how to make the geography of North America work in favour of his troops. He found the most successful soldier on his side and followed him. That man was a Ranger called Robert Rogers and he commanded the famous Robert’s Rangers. This force would eventually morph into the Queen’s First American Regiment and then the Queen’s York Rangers, who eventually wound up in Toronto after the American Revolution. The Rangers had copied the French tactics in a very successful manner.

In addition to modifying their tactics, Howe modified the uniforms of the British troops before they headed into the woods that spring. Uniforms were cut shorter so the jackets wouldn’t catch on the branches, the lace was removed (lace, really?), the tricorner hats had the brims cut back and the silk stockings were replaced with more durable wool. He essentially dressed them like the French Canadian soldiers who were fighting with Montcalm.

As the British got closer, Montcalm decided trying to defend a large fort with a force too small was a recipe for disaster. The fort was also in the shadow of a height of land called Rattlesnake Mountain, making it possible for the British to fire down into the fort, which of course made the fort less fort-like.

So Montcalm chose better defensive ground and had the troops prepare it with abatis. That’s just trees that are felled to form a barricade with the sharpened branch ends pointing outwards – like an early form of barbed wire.

He deployed scouts between the new defensive works and the British to keep track of the British advance and sent word back to Montreal for reinforcements if possible.

Troops numbering about 400 who were destined for forts on the western frontier were directed to head south from Montreal to Montcalm’s position.

Montcalm did not have an accurate number for the size of the British force and at first thought he could hit them first. He began deploying for an attack but once he found exactly how big the force was, he decided a defensive battle from prepared positions would better suit his small force. He ordered redeployment within the abatis.

A Captain Trepezet and his force of 350 were left on their own when the British landed and First Nations scouts retreated to the defensive works. Trepezet and his men fought a heated battle, but only 50 (including Trepezet) survived the day to return to the French camp; the rest were killed or captured. Trepezet died of his wounds the next day. The main British casualty was General Howe, who died in battle.

This early victory whetted Abercrombie’s appetite for more, but it didn’t do much for the fighting spirit of his men, who were demoralized by the death of the popular and highly regarded general.

Think Gauls and Romans with Abercrombie as Scipio or Flaminius. They get an early victory and it makes them reckless.

Abercrombie sent scouts out to locate the French and was told their defensive works weren’t finished and could be taken with a frontal assault. Abercrombie didn’t wait for artillery to be brought up. He decided to attack the next day.

But Montcalm had ensured his preparations were not all visible and so when the scouts reported to Abercrombie, they inadvertently misled the commander. A frontal assault without artillery was not possible. Like Hannibal, what Montcalm let you see, wasn’t necessarily what accurately reflected the situation.

In addition, false information was conveyed to the scouts by planted locals. Abercrombie was told that about twice as many French were manning the defenses as were actually there and that thousands more were marching south. This only heightened Abercrombie’s desire for a quick attack.

The battle started July 8, with the light infantry of Robert’s Rangers and Gage’s light foot regiment leading the advance, sweeping the French scouts from the woods. The French fell back in good order toward the defensive works.

The French were organized into three brigades with a reserve force positioned in the fort. Montcalm took charge of the Royal Roussillon and Berry battalions in the middle with three battalions including the Bearn, Guyenne and la Reine or Queen’s regiment on Montcalm’s right and the La Sarre and Languedoc to the left, entrenched on a front of about 700 yards in a semi-circle, with the force looking out of the centre.

On the flanks were redoubts or strongpoints armed with cannon, and cannon from the fort could fire over the heads of the troops.

The French Canadians were given the low ground between the main French position and a sizeable river called La Chute.

The British plan was for the attack to start at 1 p.m. but the New York regiments started a half hour early.

Apparently a New York minute is shorter than a British minute…

Or at least moves faster.

This led to problems because in the age before radios and cell phones, commanders had to depend on their instincts and the information they had. One of the Brits thought what he was hearing was the sweet sound of French collapse, so he ordered his men forward. The British forces weren’t even completely deployed and now what was amounting to an informal charge was being started. And it wasn’t even the guy who was in charge of ordering the charge who ordered it.

The French word for slaughterhouse is abattoir. The word abatis comes from the same root and it lived up to it. The ground in front of the felled trees became a slaughterhouse.

It only took about 90 minutes for the first British wave to peter out. Montcalm, coat off, moved about his men, ordering them to reinforce weakened areas, encouraging some, congratulating others and ensuring supplies were being kept up as needed. Abercrombie, old and not really cut out for bush war had stationed himself away from the noise of battle in a millhouse and so when one attack failed, simply ordered another.

In his defence, later, he said he was going by what his scouts had told him, that the French could be taken by frontal assault. And so he just kept trying.

The British tried bringing artillery on barges on the La Chute River, thinking they would take the fork in the river that was away from the French Canadians and the guns of the Fort. But the current had other ideas and brought the cumbersome craft closer to the Canadiens and the French artillery, and it didn’t go well. Two barges were sunk and the British were forced to retreat again.

At 2 p.m. Abercrombie ordered in his reserves and by 2:30 that attack had failed as well. The commander tried to call the troops back, but some were close to breaking through the abatis and continued attacking.

British witnesses said their troops were mowed down like grass. A few British made it to the wall and were bayoneted. The firing continued until nightfall.

Abercrombie ordered everyone back to the landing. Dawn light found the remnants of the British force rowing back up to Lake George.

Montcalm never had the resources of the British commanders but managed to outwit them. And his troops outfought their troops despite a lack of support from France.

That lack of support would eventually lead to Montcalm’s downfall when he died defending Quebec later in the war. The British and the American provincials learned from Montcalm and both would demonstrate their newfound knowledge in the coming conflict of the American Revolution.


And for this week’s cocktail party slapdown, that’s a wrap. That’s it for this week’s History of France in English as well. If you enjoy this podcast, please head over to iTunes and leave us a comment and rank us or visit historylab.ca and click on the podcast button and leave us a comment there. If you have questions, comments or ideas, contact me at tom@historylab.ca. Merci.

We’ll be back next week, thanks for listening.




Hi there and welcome to the History of France in English podcast, episode 15. I want to thank The A History of: Hannibal and the Punic Wars Podcast ‘s Jamie Redfern, for the intro this week. I’m not sure, but I think his friend and co-conspirator, Hanni-belle is playing the guitar this week on Cocktail Party Slapdown. Thanks guys! If anyone wants to hear it, I return the favour on Jamie’s podcast this week.

This week, we march along with Hannibal and the Gauls as they arrive in Italy after a tortuous and dangerous journey through the Alps.

We also have a Cocktail Party Slapdown. This week, we hear of how Napoleon’s battle skills became evident at the Siege of Toulon fighting the British and other imperial powers as they take on the French Revolution.

Okay, meanwhile, back with Hannibal. Hannibal has seen the complex weirdness of the politics of the Gauls. While he has some Gauls with him, there were some against.

The Boii and Insurbes and many tribes to the west sided with Hannibal in northern Italy, but in the Alps some tribes did not take kindly to an army suddenly showing up, unannounced. This manifested in a series of guerrilla attacks in the high mountain passes which were hard to defend against and cost Hannibal many men, horses, pack animals and even elephants.

Despite the early winter-like conditions of a fall crossing, Hannibal, with the help of Boii guides managed to make it through the Alps in October, facing the aforementioned unfriendly tribes, blizzards, dangerous, narrow mountain passes, rockslides, slippery paths and a lack of food and shelter. Other than that, it was a snap.

After all that, he had about 38,000 soldiers, 8,000 cavalry when he arrived at the plains of the Po river near today’s Turin in northern Italy.

This was Boii and Insurbe country and they were in revolt, if you’ll recall from last week. The Boii had attacked Placentia and Cremona and had sieged Mutina before Hannibal had even arrived.

Now with Hannibal on the ground, the Romans’ greatest fear of these foes teaming up might be realized.

Publius Scipio advanced with his army to try to establish who the big dog was, because he thought if he won early and big, the Boii and Insurbes might back down.

So in November of 218, Hannibal and his men faced Scipio along the banks of the Ticinius river, not far from the town of Vigevano.

Now Scipio had camped at the military base or castra of Placentia, the same place the Gauls had attacked when they first rebelled. It was back in Roman hands.

The Boii, even after guiding Hannibal through the Alps, were watching him warily. They were reticent to provide too much overt support until the Carthaginians proved themselves. They knew that with the Romans here in force a victory over the Carthaginians might lead the Romans to lay waste to the Boii in their own land once and for all.

Placentia, where Scipio had camped, was a military colony – the first to be planted in the conquered or sort of conquered Gallic territory. Much like the Israeli settlements contested by the Palestinians, these were contested by the Gauls.

Scipio had a large force with him. As a consul he could have commanded three legions, about 12,000 infantry and several thousand allies, possibly around 20,000 men. The regular cavalry of three legions amounts to 900. He also had about 2,000 Gallic cavalry from the Cennomani who fought in the battle but later defected. In addition were 1,000 allied cavalry, so a total of about 4,000 cavalry.

Scipio knew Hannibal was in the area, but wasn’t sure exactly where. (On the Po near where Lomello is today.)

Hannibal was sure Scipio was in the area, but wasn’t sure exactly where. (Placentia.)

The next day, the two leaders each sent out recon forces to search for the other side. Being only about five miles or 8 kilometres away from each other, they found each other fairly quickly. According to Polybius each side’s scouts spotted the dust raised by the other and so, you know it was pretty easy.

What did they bring on the recon trip? Looks like Hannibal brought all his cavalry. All that had survived that is – the trip over the mountains had really thinned his ranks. That means between 7,000 to 8,000 men and horses.

Scipio brought a detachment of 4,000 to 5,000 light infantry with javelins and 3,000 to 4,000 cavalry. This was a weaker force than Hannibal’s, but the last time Scipio had met Hannibal’s cavalry, just north of Massalia and east of the Rhone River, he’d handily beat a larger force of Nubian cavalry. He may have felt his weaker force was up to the job.

At times battle in those days took a while to form up. Commanders would check out the field and get their troops set up just so, and then advance. It started like that here, with Scipio getting his cavalry set up and then setting up his light infantry armed with javelins to chuck at the advancing enemy before scurrying behind the cavalry for cover. But Hannibal saw what was going on and before Scipio could get his troops lined up, he charged the Romans with his cavalry.

The light infantry of the Romans, and seriously, who brings light infantry on a recon mission – am I right? Anyway, the velights, as the light infantry was called, skipped the part where they chucked javelins and just scurried behind the cavalry. Hannibal’s cavalry was arrayed with the heavier horsemen in the centre and the lighter Nubian guys on the wings. The job of the heavies was to smash into the Romans and keep them busy while the Nubians swung wide and flanked the Romans and came up behind them.

And Hannibal’s plan succeeded. The Romans were swamped in Carthaginians, Gauls and Nubians. It was bad. So bad, the Roman commander, Scipio was seriously wounded and almost captured. We have two versions of how he escaped. One says his son, the boy who would become Scipio Africanus, led his bodyguard of 30 veteran cavalry through the surrounding Carthaginian forces, scooped up his father and the men guarding him and headed back for the Roman fort. The other version is a Ligurian slave loyal to Scipio led him out before he was captured.

Some historians say it is more likely Hannibal ambushed Scipio and that’s how he demolished his force so quickly. It could be, but that wouldn’t have helped Hannibal use battles to gain troops from the local Gauls. A sneaky attack wouldn’t impress anyone.

So it’s more likely it was a set up battle.

His success on the field was also a diplomatic success for Hannibal and a nightmare come true for Scipio. Right away, 13,000 Gauls went over to Hannibal’s side.

Scipio retreated to his camp and in the middle of the night fled in order to be far away before morning and a possible follow-up attack by the entire Carthaginian force.

Hannibal gave chase. Scipio retreated to the Roman base at Placentia. That night, 2000 Gauls who had fought with Scipio switched sides, killed the nearest Romans to them in the camp and, you know what those crazy Gauls did, right? Yup, took the heads to Hannibal.

Hannibal was so impressed, he made them his recruiters for the rest of the Gauls in northern Italy and sent them on their way.

Neither side fancied night battles and so as long as Scipio broke camp at night and vanished, Hannibal couldn’t get him. Soon, Scipio was ensconced in the nearby hills in a very defensible position that did not lend itself to cavalry attack.

We’ll leave off while we’re ahead, and pick up the story just before the two commanders meet on the next field of battle at Trebia.

Now, it’s time for … hit it Hanni-belle!



Cocktail Party Slapdown.


Napoleon Bonaparte probably burst onto the French scene during the Siege of Toulon. He had been around for a while, but at Toulon he really demonstrated his military genius. It would take some time for his full abilities to show, especially the civil ones, but at Toulon in the summer of 1793, he was given the opportunity to shine as his special talents were very much in demand.

A siege of a city is not a simple thing and Bonaparte and the revolutionary army had a number of special challenges facing them at Toulon, not the least of which was the British Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was on hand, as were the British, to support the Royalist side in the French Revolution. The British king didn’t want the simple people of France to give any ideas of revolution to any other people in any other country in Europe.

It was bad enough Britain had lost the 13 colonies not that long ago. Leadership of France would have to be restored to someone who God intended to rule, and that was the end of it.

Now it wasn’t as if the people of France had magic fairy dust they could sprinkle on anyone and poof, they’d be instilled with super powers. In fact, any rebellion or revolution is often faced with similar problems of a distinct lack of magic.

Often revolutions are a response to a situation. They don’t start as a holistic movement that encompasses everything, but the nature of revolutions means that often everything, including the babies, are thrown out with the bathwater of change.

So when the revolutionary army was looking for leaders to replace those who remained loyal to the Crown, they picked some good and some not so good people.

One of the reasons Bonaparte was to play such a key role and was to shine so brightly was because of the panoply of dim bulbs surrounding him.

One of these dim bulbs was a failed painter-turned-general by the name of Jean Francois Carteuz. I guess General Jean Francois Carteaux would be closer to the truth.

He had one success in his short career as General, and that was to defeat a much smaller force of Royalist rebels in Provence. With that success under his belt the leadership of France directed him to Marseille to prepare for the recapture of Toulon, where Royalist rebels had turned the important navy port over to the British and Italians. Gasp.

Carteaux was on it and immediately sought to subdue rebellion in a small town west of Toulon, which failed.

He was ordered by the French leadership to get his ducks in a row and march them on Toulon.

During his messing around in the previous mission, his artillery commander was badly wounded. Artillery officers are more engineers or scientists than just soldiers. They have to understand math and physics and angles and trajectories and kinetic energy dissipation and suchlike. Math is hard, as we and Barbie all know and party dresses are fun! Right? Bueller?

Carteaux decided to take on the artillery commander role himself and constructed a battery for the siege in a ditch. Completed, it took only a few shots before they realized it was out of range of their objective.

The revolutionary Committee of Public Safety was not pleased with Carteaux and neither were Augustin Robespierre, the younger brother of one of the leaders of the revolution, and Antoine Saliceti, who happened to be from Corsica (as was Napoleon).

So Bonaparte, a captain at the time, was put in charge of the artillery. He quickly evaluated the siege and decided the capture of two forts protecting Toulon would have to be achieved in order for the Revolutionary army to have success. Only by control of these points would the artillery be able to fire on the British-Neapolitan fleet and seal off the port from sea access, completing the siege.

Carteaux, with his vast knowledge of paints and colour couldn’t see the point Napoleon was making and decided what was really needed was to do things half-assed. So the attack failed due to lack of support of the commanding officer, but it did succeed in drawing to the attention of the British how important the two forts were. They promptly reinforced them.

After failing, Carteaux then granted Bonaparte permission to build some batteries to hammer away at the newly reinforced forts. Napoleon rounded up all the available artillery pieces from what appears to be southern France, which involved solving logistical puzzles that he seemed more than capable of, and got them into position.

By late October, Bonaparte sent a letter to the revolutionary leadership underlining his dissatisfaction with the quality of his superiors.

How did he put it? Oh yeah, ‘a bunch of fools.’

Because of Napoleon’s success and his pull with friends Robespierre and Saliceti, Carteaux was sacked and jailed for a time and replaced by General Jean Francois Dugommier.

But not right away. First an incompetent former doctor took over, but after failing in one attack, he resigned before he ruined anything else and Dugommier was installed.

Dugommier was a real general and he immediately saw the strength of Bonaparte’s plan and put it into action in December.

In the meantime, Bonaparte kept busy building a series of batteries to house his artillery and kept annoying the British and Neapolitans. So much so, the besieged army attacked one of the batteries and captured it. Napoleon and his new boss were among the men who recaptured the key position. In the process of recapturing the battery, they also captured the British commander in charge, General Charles O’ Hara.

By now Napoleon was a colonel. O’Hara would prove an important asset as he would help negotiate the fall of Toulon. On December 16, Napoleon took part in his battle plan for the capture of the defensive forts. He was wounded when a British sergeant stabbed him in the thigh with a bayonet.

On December 19, Napoleon and the Revolutionary army entered Toulon. The British and Neapolitans had fled, leaving the Royalists to face their fate, which for about 2000, was death.

December 22, Napoleon was made a General and he left town, bound for Nice and his new job as head of artillery for the Italian army.

I have no words to describe Bonaparte’s merit: much technical skill, an equal degree of intelligence, and too much gallantry …

—General Jacques François Dugommier, at the Siege of Toulon


And that’s it for this week’s cocktail party slapdown.

At the start of today’s podcast, we heard from the talented and very stylish Jamie Redfern. Jamie produces the fantastic A History Of podcast series and is doing Hannibal at the moment but has done Alexander the Great and that is still available on iTunes and here is the website: http://thehistoryofpodcast.blogspot.ca/ – I know it ends in ca, but don’t get excited, sadly Jamie is a Brit. An English Brit, but we still adore his podcasts. Jamie has teamed up to put out some talk episodes as well, with the lovely, intelligent and very funny Hannie ‘Hanni-belle’ Kirkam. They are definitely not fish out of a barrel on this topic. So check it out!





Hello and welcome to the 14th episode of the History of France in English.

This week we have the story of how French armour shocked the German blitzkrieg in 1940 under Charles DeGaulle in the Cocktail Party Slapdown and the tale of the Gauls siding up with Hannibal in Spain and northern Italy.

But first I want to remind you this is a listener supported podcast. Please show your support by going to iTunes and rating us and leaving a comment or going to historylab.ca and clicking on podcasts and ranking us there. You’ll be entered in a draw for a tee shirt or a labcoat.

Now on with the show.

As Hannibal was marching over the mountains, with the help of the Gallic tribe from northern Italy called the Boii, he was in many ways losing the war, despite having many victories ahead – some of the largest, most spectacular military victories of all time.

What may be history’s first Boii band had made its way to Hannibal’s camp on the western side of the Alps, offering their expert guidance in crossing the massive geographical obstruction in the fall of 218.

But behind Hannibal, in Iberia, Roman dilly-dallying over Saguntum was fading from Iberian memory and Gnaeus Scipio had established his headquarters at Cissa.

Just to recap – last week, we talked about how Hannibal had cleverly fought his way across the Rhone by sending a small detachment north along the river while he built boats and jetties to help with the crossing of the larger force. And how that smaller force came up behind the local Gauls and as Hannibal began to cross, the smaller force attacked the Gauls and they freaked and ran.

After that, Hannibal heard the Romans had landed at Massila, so he’d sent a small screen force to the south made up of light cavalry, and they ran into a similar recon force sent north by those very Romans. They clashed and the Carthaginian cavalry took heavy losses.

Anyway, the Romans found that Hannibal had split the scene, daddy-o, and the Scipio brothers, who headed the Roman army, split the forces. One group headed back by ship to Italy to defend the homefront, figuring Hannibal was going to do something crazy – which he did – and they’d try to head him off when he came out of the Alps.

And that was pretty smart, but the smarter thing, as it turned out, was sending the other force into Iberia, where the Second Punic War was won.

Because in Iberia, the other Scipio, Gnaeus, took back most of the towns Hannibal had spent all that time conquering in Spain.

Gnaeus beat Hannibal’s nephew, Hanno, by goading him into a battle before he could link up with Hasdrubal’s force and unify the Carthaginian forces in the area.

This took place at Cissa probably just as Hannibal was finishing his negotiations with the Gallic tribes on the so-called Island just west of the Alps, securing the first provisioning of his army since leaving Iberia.

Man, if only they’d had blackberry’s!

Hanno lost his army, so when Hasdrubal showed up, all he could do was kill some of Scipio’s support people in the rear area before getting out. Hasdrubal would valiantly march to Roman territory in Iberia and give battle at what was called Dertosa then and Tortossa today. He gave the Romans a good fight, but he lost the battle.

Hannibal could no longer expect support from Iberia. The loss of the naval battle at the Ebro River sealed his fate, as support from the sea was going to be nearly impossible. No more weapons. No more wine.

He was on his own.

He really needed the support of the locals then. And that’s why the Gauls were so important to Hannibal.

The Boii and Insubres of northern Italy, completely independently of Hannibal, had risen up against the Romans at essentially the same time as hostilities broke out between Hannibal and the Romans. Nice timing, Romans.

The Boii were a huge force in central Europe. Their people spilled north and east out of the Italian peninsula and as far east as Bohemia and as far north as southern Poland.

The Boii had rolled into Tuscany when it was run by the Etruscans and intermingled with the locals. They eventually dominated, possibly through bigger families, and became the locals.

Livy and Polybius, Latin and Greeks, both of whom have axes to grind with the Gauls, rarely have much good to say about them. They describe them as backward people with no art or culture who slept on hay like animals.

What the Boii left behind seems to cast this into the dust bin of bias and bigotry. The Boii had a complex understanding of metallurgy that put them far ahead of the Romans. Their skills in working iron and other metals made them the envy of the ancient world. On the other hand, they weren’t the most  organized people and their appetite for war made them many enemies, and so, they didn’t get very good PR.

At any rate, as the 200s BCE drew to a close, the Romans had had enough of them and started pushing the Boii off their land. To the Boii and Insubres this looked like an effort to exterminate them. When they heard Hannibal was coming, they sent a Boii band to meet with him.

Livy says this about that:

When, after the action had thus occurred, his own men returned to each general, Scipio could adopt no fixed plan of proceeding, except that he should form his measures from the plans and undertakings of the enemy: and Hannibal, uncertain whether he should pursue the march he had commenced into Italy, or fight with the Roman army which had first presented itself, the arrival of ambassadors from the Boii, and of a petty prince called Magalus, diverted from an immediate engagement; who, declaring that they would be the guides of his journey and the companions of his dangers, gave it as their opinion, that Italy ought to be attacked with the entire force of the war, his strength having been nowhere previously impaired.

It’s important to know that before Hannibal made it through the Alps, the Gauls had attacked Placentia and Cremona on their own. The Romans fled ahead of the Gauls to Mutina or Modena as it’s known today. The Gauls surrounded the city and set siege to it. In response, Manlius Vulsco, the praetor, marched two augmented legions, totaling 20,000 infantry and 1,600 cavalry. The Gauls bushwhacked them twice, costing the Romans 1,200 men. The Romans did lift the siege.

So as 218 drew to a close, Hannibal arrived after a torturous journey over the Alps. And he was ready to open a can of whoop-ass on Rome. The main ingredient in the can: Gauls. Angry, bitter Gauls.

For the view of this period from Hannibal’s and the Roman’s perspective, check out Jamie Redfern’s The History of Hannibal podcast, he’s right into the same period at this very instant. I’ll have a link to Jamie’s podcast at historylab.ca in the podcast pages or just go to iTunes and find it there.

Now it’s time for, guitar please!

Okay – Cocktail Party Slapdown.

The Slapdown this week requires a bit of an introduction to the main character.

Charles DeGaulle could be a bit arrogant. Let’s face it. But so could many military leaders. George S. Patton, anyone? Bueller?

For example, DeGaulle came to Canada purportedly to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the confederation of the country that helped liberate France in WWII. So how does he do it? He speaks to a small crowd of separatists and encourages them with shouts of “Vive Quebec Libre”. Uh, yeah, because Quebec was, um, trapped and held as slaves in Canada?

I just wanted to get that out in the open, but moving on…

DeGaulle was also a patriotic and very brave and idealistic man who spent much of the first half of the 20th century at war.

He fought in the First World War in the infantry, beginning the war as a captain and receiving his first wound in battle at Dinant in 1914. He was wounded again in 1915 at the Somme and yet a third time in 1915 and captured during the battle of Verdun. While in the POW camp, he attempted escape five times and worked to maintain morale among his fellow prisoners.

He then spent 22 months in Poland with 600 French officers assisting Marshal Josef Pilsudski battle the Bolsheviks. He helped train infantry and was involved in combat against Soviet forces. His actions earned him the highest military medal the Poles could give him. It was while in Poland that he saw the future of warfare and the importance of fire and movement.

Between the Polish engagement and the Second World War, he was back in France with the army. While training his troops, he wrote articles and books on warfare and how it would be fought in the future. His book on the use of tanks and rapid movement sold only a few hundred copies in France, but sold thousands in Germany and was read aloud to Adolf Hitler.

The books and articles supported the ‘radical’ new ideas of mechanized troops and the creation of specialized armoured divisions, capable of racing through the front line troops and destroying communications and supply deep in enemy territory. This at a time when British and French military thought was coalescing around static forts capable of withstanding heavy bombardment of modern guns as seen in the First World War and the use of tanks in support of infantry, but not massed. DeGaulle also advocated using a smaller professional army instead of conscripts.

One fan of DeGaulle’s was German armoured blitzkrieg proponent Heinz Guderian who translated DeGaulle’s work into German.

By May 1940, DeGaulle had been promoted to colonel.

At this time the Germans were racing through the low countries of the Netherlands and Belgium and into France. The massive fortifications the French built to keep the Germans out were simply bypassed. The British were swept north to the Channel, the French forces were split (this time not by a pair of Caesars… oh, that will be funny someday) but by an armoured fist cutting part of the French forces north with the British and pushing some south.

DeGaulle was given command of the newly created 4th Armoured Division. This Division fought steadily for 40 days. And not as a static defensive unit.

Sadly, there was no air cover to protect them from the Luftwaffe, but that didn’t prevent DeGaulle from some success.

As the Germans moved against Paris, DeGaulle directed his unit to engage the Germans, under command of Generals Wolf von Richthofen and Heinz Guderian, two leading proponents of German armoured blitzkrieg tactics. And, yes, that’s the same Guderian who was such a DeGaulle fan.

DeGaulle’s point of attack was the strategically important nexus of Montcornet. He was going to take his French 4th Armoured against the German 1st Panzer Division.

His unit was thrown together as an emergency formation on May 15. Only a few units were ready for the first engagement against one of the Germans’ strongest divisions.

The Germans had had years to train their troops for this attack and they’d been given the opportunity to attack weaker, less technologically advanced troops to sharpen their teeth on in Poland.

DeGaulle was so shorthanded, he had to use even his engineers as infantry.

Two days after the unit was formed, he led his it into the flank of the 10th and 1st Panzer divisions at Montcornet. Montcornet is just inside the border of France and Belgium on the French side.  It’s between Sedan in the south east and Mons to the northwest – both of which are along the same border.

The attack began at dawn.

A platoon of three Renault R35 tanks led the French. This platoon was given the job of defending a bridge against German attack.

At 7:30 that night, the Germans attacked with three armoured cars and motorcycles. Further attacks were repulsed during the night.

The Germans threw more units against the three French tanks. In this one action, the Germans suffered 31 KIAs, lost 30 men as POWs, had 18 trucks destroyed, and five motorcycles and a number of radio sets captured.

DeGaulle left the tank platoon behind and continued the attack past the bridge, on Montcornet. Seven tanks were lost to mines and antitank fire.

The French massed 80 tanks and a little infantry, about 650 men – not enough for the job but hey, what the heck. Usually you want odds of at least three to one for an attack, but this was more like one to one.

The area around the town was marsh and some of the tanks became stuck in the soft ground.

The French were facing tanks, armoured cars, motorcycles, the dreaded 88 which could fire a shell through the front of a tank from this era, out the back, and through another tank or two, a combat engineer battalion and Stuka dive bombers.

They advanced 25 kilometres, destroying German vehicles and guns. But the 88 destroyed at least four French tanks. Overall, 18 French tanks were taken out by enemy action. The lack of infantry support as the tanks moved into the area defended by combat engineers really took a toll as the engineers were trained tank killers with the weapons to do it.

The French lost 14 KIA, 6 wounded, and 9 missing in action. The Germans lost 100 KIA and about 125 POWs.

This encouraged the Allies and they decided to break through to Dunkirk to free up the British and French who were trapped against the Channel. This attack was almost due west of where Montcornet is located, about 250 kilometres.

It started off as a joint attack, but the British 1st armoured division was beaten up by the German defence pretty badly. In two hours the Brits lost 120 of 165 tanks thrown into the fight.

Initially De Gaulle wanted to cross the Somme and attack Abbeville from the North. Several reconnaissance patrols found all the bridges were either destroyed or controlled by the Germans. He considered crossing in other areas but his thrown together unit had no bridging elements in the division and any engineer elements that could have been used were too far away.

The French attack on Abbeville was launched as soon as possible; the units were engaged as soon as they arrived. The vehicles had already traveled a long way just before the attack,  but they arrived and deployed that night. There was no sleep for the men.

At first the objective was to cross the Somme River and to join the encircled armies of the North. But that objective changed to reduce the German pocket and to destroy the bridge in Abbeville. The French army launched about 13 attacks along the Somme River during this period, in Amiens, in Abbeville and other places.

DeGaulle’s 4th armoured division took the village of Huppy where the German unit defending it was completely destroyed. Two more German units fled in panic meaning the French had achieved a breakthrough of about 14 km. After the French attack, the German pocket was reduced to an area of only 600 metres deep and 2 kilometres long.

Abbeville was not taken however, but for the French to get this far, consider this: The Germans had been preparing for years for this fight. DeGaulle’s division had been thrown together and two days after its formation, it attacked Montcornet and was then swung round to attack here 10 days later. This was done with no recon of the area and some troops had lacked experience and training. Part of the battalions were composed of 30-35 year old reservists who nonetheless fought bravely. Some tank crews had only fired a few real shells before the engagement and had only learned to drive their tanks on the road, so as they moved off to fight, it was the first time moving cross country.
On the other hand some of the crews were very well trained and battle tested in Montcornet. A lack of radios in the French tanks also hampered exploitation of the German panic. The road to Abbeville was open for a short time and that could have changed things dramatically. It is interesting to note that at this point most German tanks had radios as men like Guderian recognized the importance of that level of communication.

In Abbeville the Germans sustained heavy losses including 4-6 8.8cm heavy AA guns, several of which were destroyed by Renault tanks. There is an example of a French heavy tank destroying such a German 88 at 1,500 meters with its 75mm hull gun. German troops fled in panic in front of the French tanks. Many surrendered and a lot of equipment was abandoned and captured.

There was a third attack, again a combination of a French unit with allied Scots, but it was less successful, in large part that by now the Germans had air support.

Still, the toll on the Germans by the French attack was heavy. In front of Abbeville the Germans lost 2,000-2,500 KIAs plus an unknown number of wounded in action and 400 POWs. Much of the equipment of the German 57th Infantry Division was lost to the French or destroyed, including  AT guns, AA guns, heavy machine guns.

As a fighting soldier, DeGaulle’s days were numbered. He would soon leave France to lead the Free French against the Germans.

DeGaulle was among the forces that liberated Paris in 1944. There were still German snipers in the city and he came under fire as he proceeded to a celebration at Notre Dame. According to the BBC report at the time, he didn’t duck or flinch.

Inside Notre Dame, snipers hiding in the church continued to fire at the crowd as it sang a hymn. Malcolm Muggeridge was a British intelligence agent during the Second World War and later a journalist. Here’s what he saw:

“The effect was fantastic. The huge congregation who had all been standing suddenly fell flat on their faces. … There was a single exception; one solitary figure, like a lonely giant. It was, of course, de Gaulle. Thenceforth, that was how I always saw him — towering and alone; the rest, prostrate.”



Cardinal Richelieu examines the sea wall blocking the Royal Navy from La Rochelle.

Cardinal Richelieu (in red, foreground) examines the sea wall blocking the Royal Navy (ships in background, right of Cardinal) from La Rochelle, (rear of Cardinal). For the story on the blockade of La Rochelle, see the Cocktail Party Slapdown segment of Episode 13, History of France in English.

Hello and welcome to Episode 13 of the History of France in English Podcast.

This week, the Gauls in Spain fight mainly on the plain but more often than not, they side with Hannibal as the Carthaginian heads for Rome through southern Gaul and northern Italy. Our Cocktail Party Slapdown examines the Siege of La Rochelle as the French crown forces battle a civil war against protestants backed by the British Crown.

Before we get to that, a reminder this is a listener supported podcast. Please take advantage of the contest draw that is taking place. Every person who sends in a comment through historylab.ca on the History of France in English or HoFiE podcast page will be in a draw to win a cool labcoat, cause it’s historylab.ca and every person who comments and ranks us on iTunes will be entered in the draw for the cool t-shirts for History of France in English podcast which will feature the podcast crest on the front and a list of cocktail party French victories with dates on the back, like a rock band or death metal band tour.

It’s 218 BCE. We’re in eastern Spain. We’re with the local Gauls, hanging out, waiting.

Who are they waiting for? Well, not Godot.

Apparently a Roman emissary is on his way. Apparently he has something very important to say and we won’t want to miss it.

Here he is now.

Oh, seems a scourge of civilization is making its way here.

We should do everything to oppose this scourge.

The plague on civilization has a first name. It isn’t O-S-C-A-R.

Hannibal Barca is coming.

And the Romans would like us to stop him.

Is it polite to laugh so heartily?

Here’s how Francois Guizot describes the meeting: The envoys halted among the Gallo-Iberian peoplets who lived at the foot of the eastern Pyrenees. There, in the midst of the warriors assembled in arms, they charged them  in the name of the great and powerful Roman people, not to suffer the Carthaginians to pass through their territory. Tumultuous laughter arose at a request that appeared so strange. “You wish us,” was the answer, “to draw down war upon ourselves to avert it from Italy, and to give our own fields over to devastation to save yours. We have to complaint of the Carthaginians or to be pleased with the Romans, or to take up arms for the Romans against the Carthaginians. We, on the other hand, hear that the Roman people drive out from their lands, in Italy, men of our nation, impose tribute on them, and make them undergo other indiginities.”

So the envoys of Rome quitted Gaul without allies.

Now it’s true the Romans were not the best of friends of the Gauls. The Gauls had sacked Rome and Gauls at this point were still on the top of the list of dangerous opponents to Roman prosperity. Hannibal had reason to dislike the Gauls as well. He saw his father, Hamilcar, die that the hands of Gauls during war in western Spain.

Perhaps because the Gauls at this point weren’t a centralized force, it was easier for Hannibal to look past this – after all, that was several tribes away and these Gauls would not be the last tribe of them he would face on his trip to Rome.

Not  all Gauls jumped on the Hannibal bandwagon.

Even as he crossed the Pyrenees, he met opposition, some from Gallic tribes that caused him heavy losses. But as he crossed southern Gaul and into northern Italy, he gathered more and more Gaul until eventually they were a large portion of his total force.

As he made his way across southern Gaul he faced his first major geographical barrier: the Rhone River.

Polybius states that Hannibal crossed the Rhône while the river was still in one stream at a distance of four days’ march from the sea.

There are a number of contestants for the place the crossing was made. Fourques, opposite Arles, is one, but he may have made a crossing north of the confluence of the Isère and the Rhône. Hannibal used coracles and boats locally commandeered; for the elephants he made jetties out into the river and floated the elephants from these on earth-covered rafts. Horses were embarked on large boats or made to swim. Jamie Redfern covers this from Hannibal’s point of view in his excellent History of series on Hannibal. Check the show notes for the address: http://thehistoryofpodcast.blogspot.ca/

Just to show they aren’t all bandwagon jumperoners, Gauls hostile to Hannibal opposed the crossing. Hannibal had anticipated the possibility and dispatched a force under Hanno to cross farther upstream and attack them in the rear.

Meanwhile, two Roman armies had been levied: one, commanded by the consul P. Cornelius Scipio, was intended to oppose Hannibal in Spain; and a second, under the consul T. Sempronius, was designed for the invasion of Africa. The departure of Scipio was delayed by a revolt of the Boian and Insubrian Gauls, against whom was sent the army which had been intended for the invasion of Spain, under the command of one of the praetors, Lucius Manlius to defend the Po against possible Gaulish uprisings. Scipio was therefore obliged to remain in Rome until a new army could be raised.

When the forces were ready, the Roman army commanded by Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio and his brother Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio sailed from Italy to to Massilia (Marseille). As Scipio moved northward along the right bank of the Rhône, he learned that Hannibal had already crossed the river and was marching northward on the left bank.

The main Roman army commanded by the other Consul, Titus Sempronius, was preparing in Sicily to invade Africa. Learning of Hannibal’s movements the Romans brought this army from Sicily by sea to the Po to join in the defense against Hannibal.

After crossing the Rhone, Hannibal avoided conflict with the Roman commander Publius Cornelius Scipio by turning northward up the Rhone River valley.

Realizing that Hannibal probably planned to cross the Alps, Scipio sent his brother with the troops on to Spain but returned himself to northern Italy to await Hannibal.

Hannibal, after crossing and receiving friendly Gallic leaders headed by the northern Italian Boii, whose knowledge of the Alpine passes must have been of the greatest value to Hannibal’s plans, the Carthaginians crossed the Durance River (or more probably an ancient branch of it that flowed into the Rhône near Avignon) and passed into an area called “the island,” the identification of which is the key to Hannibal’s subsequent movements on land. According to Polybius, it was a fertile, densely populated triangle bounded by hills, by the Rhône, and by a river that is probably either the Aygues or the Isère. On the “island” a civil war was being fought between two brothers (of what tribe it is not clear). Brancus, the elder, in return for Hannibal’s help, provided supplies for the Carthaginian army, which, after marching about 750 miles in four months from Carthago Nova, was in sore need of.





Guizot says, “After Ticinus and Trebia, Hannibal had no more zealous and devoted troops. At the Battle of Lake Trasimene, he lost 1500 men, nearly all Gauls; at the Canine, he lost 30,000 of them, forming two thirds of his army; and at the moment of action they cast away their tunics and checkered cloakes (similar to the plaids of the Gaels of Scottish Highlanders – see, fashion  – always trendsetters) and fought naked from the belt upwards, according to their custom when they meant to conquer or die. Of 5,500 men that the victory of Cannae cost Hannibal, 4,000 were Gauls.”



And now it’s time for….



Sweet, sweet guitar, is there anything you can’t fix. So far, not one complaint on that!

Okay, so La Rochelle is a strategic port on the west coast of France. I’ve been there – it’s a beautiful and picturesque, if somewhat weird to drive in place that still packs a big punch of historical charm. There have been four main sieges of La Rochelle over the years. The first on record is 1224, the second 1572-73, the third, also called the Grande Siege was 1627-28 and the last was during the Second World War from Sept 1944 to May of 1945.

Today we’re looking at the Grand Siege, the Siege of 1627-28.

La Rochelle is in Hugenot country, which means unlike most of France, the predominate religion here is Protestant. This is because a number of things but probably if we wanted to blame on person, we could put the finger on William the Conquerer. He, as you’ll recall, took over England in 1066 and in so doing, muddied up the water of who ran what.  We’re going to cover all that later, let’s just accept that in this corner of France, the people were of that slant. That doesn’t mean everyone was a Protestant. There were a lot of Catholics and some Jews and others. Many of the people got along with each other. Every now and then someone would have to stir things up.

In England, you had religious wars and in some cases religious and civil wars. In other places in Europe, the Protestant side of Christianity was growing in power and was causing a bit of an earthquake in the places of power.

In France, the crown was Catholic. England was Protestant and the English sided with the Protestant hugenots, sort of. It’s complicated as you’ll see. At first, the Hugenots didn’t want to fight the crown, but actions by the ever-helpful British sort of forced things along.

The French King Henry IV had recognized Protestants’ rights in the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Henry IV was a pretty cool king and often spoke positively on behalf of the Protestant cause but had converted to Catholicism in order to become king of France.

La Rochelle was a powerful city in the country. While only 30,000 people, it was still one of the largest cities in France. So when the majority protestants seemed to be getting edgy, the Crown got edgy along with it. It had a habit of being a haven for pirates and this made it popular with the English privateers.

Henry IV was assassinated in 1610 and Louis XIII was made King, but he was young and his mother Marie de Medici was made Queen regent. This set the stage for yet another religious war. Without a champion in the court, the Protestants rightly felt they would be further marginalized.

After years of simmering and outright war,  we find Louis XIII seeking to subdue the Hugenots. The Protestants were not blameless, as their leaders were constantly inciting them, but as I said, we’ll cover that later, I just wanted to set things up because this is a pretty, as I said, complicated situation.

There’s an illustration on the History of Europe facebook page. It’s also on Historylab.ca on the hofie podcast page. It features a man standing in the foreground in red with a cluster of men behind him in black. They are on some sort of wharf or jetty and the dominating thing in the painting are large pointed timbers jutting from the sea.

The man in the foreground is Cardinal Richelieu. He is the King’s right hand man, in fact, he is called the first prime minister in history, referred to as the King’s premier minister. He is a rare combination of holy man, warrior, administrator and politician and he’s pretty good at all these things… well, as far holy man, I guess that’s up to God to comment, but I couldn’t get him in time for the podcast.

Richelieu made the suppression of the Protestants the top priority of France.

This put pressure on the King of England to back the Protestants.

Meanwhile, some of the protestants – keep in mind there had been a state of agitation between the protestants and catholics for decades in Europe and France in particular – were growing tired of war and warlike situations.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when the King of England sent an expeditionary force to foment rebellion among the protestants and seize the Isle of Re which is not far from La Rochelle, the city populace wasn’t exactly thrilled to have war on their doorstep. The background noise of radical protestant militants was about to drag the country into another war that few wanted.

But that’s what they got.

Anthony Levi in his book Cardinal Richelieu and the Making of France, says this protestant revolt started in 1625 and ultimately leading to the siege of La Rochelle was “supported only by exceptionally militant Huguenots, can be seen as the opening of the final postlude to the religious wars which had brought Henry IV to the throne.”

Richelieu had advocated moderation, says Levi. His actions suggest this as he worked with protestant dutch and Swiss in order to achieve the goals of the crown.

June of 1627, The First Duke of Buckingham was sent by the charmer, Charles the First of Britain. I call Charles a charmer because, well, he wasn’t. He managed to tick his own people off so much he started a civil war.

Anyway, prior to that, he sent the Duke over with 80 ships and 6,000 men to take Ile de Re. The idea being, they would control the island, giving them a base to control access to La Rochelle and help support rebellion and you know, it would spread and everything would be great.

Except the people in La Rochelle didn’t want to jump into a war. They refused to declare war and closed the harbour to the Duke and his ilk.

And La Rochelle could really close its harbour. Two towers guard the entrance to the harbour and a heavy chain was slung between the towers which could be raised to block the harbour when needed.

Buckingham started by trying to take the Ile de Re city fort of Saint Martin, which was predominately protestant. For three months Buckingham tried and for three months the city fought off any attempts by the British. The Brits, out of money, food and will, stopped the attacks after one last try left them with so many casualties they had no choice but to head home.

In order to nip the Brits in the bud, the Crown forces of King Louis XIII established fortifications around La Rochelle, guarded by 7,000 men.

The city fired at the Crown troops September 10. Sort of establishing that there was – sigh – another war at hand.

The French had some of the best military engineers in the world at this point in history. French fortifications were cutting edge and copied by all the other European powers.

These engineers set to work blocking the Protestants in with 12 kilometres of trenches and walls, bolstered by 11 large forts and almost 20 smaller forts and the army guarding it was enlarged to 30,000.

That was along the mainland side.

They also built a wall on the sea side, walling in the city from the ocean and any communication with the Brits.

In fact, they built two walls. 4,000 men built the initial wall almost a mile long. The first wall didn’t last long as the wicked Atlantic storms bashed it to pieces but the second war was stronger.

So the French after years of European and civil war were stretched thin and had to get Dutch ships from Protestant Amsterdam to transport French troops.

This led to arguments between the owners and the renters because the renters wanted to pray on the ships and being catholic, it was sort of a thumb in the eye to the owners. At least that’s how the owners saw it.

Now if they’d wanted to smoke hash, that would be a completely different matter.

The Spanish were onside with the Catholic crown of France but that took the form of Spanish fleet that didn’t do much.

Things were very complicated, and far too much so for the Cocktail Party Slapdown to get into, but at one point, we have Protestant Dutch supplying, as we said, the Catholic French Crown with ships to put down a Protestant revolt in La Rochelle, while the same Catholic French Crown was supporting Protestants in the United Provinces against the Spanish. The Spanish, as mentioned, was supplying a fleet for French use to put down the Protestant revolt in La Rochelle, while the French were supporting Protestants in northern Italy fighting the Spanish. The Dutch Protestants were reluctant to fire on French Protestants in a naval battle until the French Protestants used fireboats on the Dutch and the English were supporting a French attack on Spanish forces at Genoa but would not attack the French Protestants and in fact after being beaten off Isle de Re, were forming another fleet to support the Protestants of La Rochelle. See, it’s crazy time.

The second British expedition of April 1628, didn’t even do as well as the first and returned to Portsmouth without engaging in a fight at all.

William Fielding the commander said that with “no commission to hazard the king’s ships in a fight, returned shamefully to England.”

In August 1628, Lindsey was sent off again, this time with 29 warships and 31 merchantmen. In September, they tried to relieve the city of La Rochelle, but after bombarding the crown forces and attempting to break past the sea wall, they were forced to withdraw. By the end of October, the Protestants had had enough of something they didn’t really want in the first place and asked for terms of surrender.

The siege had last for 14 months. The population of La Rochelle had been 30,000 people and by the time the siege was over, it was 22,000, thanks to the war and the disease and famine that went with it.

The crown allowed the city to retain its religious freedoms but it lost its mayor, military and territorial rights.

The crown never really trusted the Huguenots again. Louis XIV actively persecuted the Huguenots and many fled to Protestant countries or to the new world.

Anyone know the link between Dick VanDyck, Mary Tyler Moore and the Huguenots?

New Rochelle, which is where Dick and Mary played house in the 1960s sit com is a real city in the U.S. and was founded in the 1600s by Rochelais protestants fleeing the excesses of a King who was driven to distrust by militant extremists or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view of this particularly complicated time.

Cardinal Richelieu’s creating of a strong central government and the birth of modern France was, it could be argued, founded in the flames of this religious war.

If you look at the painting I was talking about earlier, you will see the British navy being held off of the sea wall by the big timber pickets as Richelieu and the catholic priest look on. In the background you can see the city towers of La Rochelle.


That’s it for this week’s Cocktail Party Slapdown.



Hey, welcome, this is the History of France in English, Episode 12.


As you know, this is a listener supported podcast. Please support us by going to iTunes and ranking us there and leave us a comment. Or, you can go to historylab.ca/hofiepodcasts and leave us a comment there or you can write me directly at tom@historylab.ca.


Also, at the end of the podcast, there will be an announcement you may find interesting.


This week, we are back in Italy as we are close to wrapping up the “Gauls out of Gaul” segment. We also have a Cocktail Party Slapdown (guitar) wow – love that – and it’s on the Battle of Gergovia, with Vercingetorix giving Caesar the biggest fright of his life as a soldier.


But first, come with me back to beautiful Italy.


It’s nearing the end of the Third Century BCE. Rome is recovering from its sacking at the hands of the Gauls, the Senones in particular, and has been busy with the Samnites.


The Samnite Wars raged in three waves or peaks between 363 BCE and 290 BCE. Mike Duncan has great episodes on iTunes in his History of Rome series.


We’re interested in the last Samnite War, the third one. Because this is where the Gauls get involved.


Francois Guizot in his popular History of France from Earliest Times, volume 1, says the Gauls played a role in a number of battles, but the main issue between the Gauls and the Romans in particular was resolved in 295 BCE during the Battle of Sentinum, which today is not far from Sassaferrato.


Until this time, the Gauls had been living fat and happy in their little chunk of heaven. Almost peacefully, you know, by Gallic measure.


I mean there were hardly any heads for decorating their horses or the front doors to their homes.


The place is missing that certain je ne sais quoi… tetes!


Rome wasn’t liked very much but the Gauls were feared.


This drove many in the boot of Italy to band together with the Romans.


The Etruscans and the Samnites also banded together and talked the Gauls into joining them. You can imagine the conversation: “Hey, Gauls, we’re going to get together and open a can of ass-whupping on the Romans, wanna come?” The Gauls: “Hmmm, I just got the house looking good” but in the background you hear his wife – “We need more heads!” And the guy goes, “Okay, I’m in.”


It’s just funnier with English accents.


So there’s the Latin League vs the Samnite-Etruscan-Gauls.


It’s the end of the second century and the Third War with the Samnites is in full swing. The Samnites had been taking a bit of a beating, but they had reinforcements at the Battle of Sentinum.


The Romans had gone into this battle with 40,000 men including 1,000 elite cavalry. The Gallic Senones and Boii had about 50,000 men and there was a combined Samnite, Etruscan, Umbrian force of 30,000.


But the Romans pulled a play out of the Gaul handbook. Remember how during an attack in Greece the Gauls – faced by a large force – sent a small raiding force to attack the homeland of one of the contingents they were facing? This weakened the main force by drawing off men who returned home to defend their wives and children from Gallic attack.


Similarly, the Romans sent raiding parties to draw off Etruscan and Umbrian units and it worked. The Gallic ally force that had been 80,000 men strong was cut down to 50,000.


For two days the two armies faced each other across the plains of Sentinum. The Romans finally attacked first with a cavalry charge that – after a small success – was swept aside by the Gauls and their chariots. Then the Gauls went into full bore advance mode. They had the gear to do it. Their chariots smashed into the Romans and almost broke them.


But Decius Mus charged the advancing Gauls. He was struck down and killed but his sacrifice rallied his men and they held against the Gauls. The other counsel, Fabius, faced the Samnites and routed them, allowing him to flank the Gaul line.


This caused the Gauls to freak and retreat.


Only 12,000 Samnites and Gauls escaped the slaughter in which 8,000 Romans and 25,000 Gauls and Samnites were killed. The remaining Gallic allies were captured and sold into slavery.


After a series of further defeats, the Samnites finally accepted Roman dominance in 290 BC. They would rise once more to join the campaigns of Pyrrhus on behalf of the Greeks of southern Italy, but with this defeat all the peoples of Italy were absorbed into the Roman commonwealth.


Once again, the Gauls with what fresh heads they had, headed, um, how could I resist, home.


They settled down in Northeastern Italy and all the Romans could think about were those crazy bastards living in the attic of their country.


About a decade later, in 283 B.C. the Gauls served as mercenaries in an Etruscan War, and at Arretium destroyed a Roman army with over 13,000 casualties.


I’ll go into greater detail about Arretium in a Cocktail Party Slapdown at a later date, but I’ll give you the broad strokes. It was fought in 283 BCE, with the army of Caecilius Metellus marching to relieve the town which was besieged by the Etruscans. Two Gallic tribes – the Boii and the Senones – banded together to take on the Roman army. They wiped out the Romans and set up the revenge battle of Lake Vadimon. That battle saw the Romans take out the Etruscans and the Gauls. Then the Romans went into the Gallic territory and wiped out the towns, killed any remaining men, took the women as slaves and sent packing whatever survivors were left.


We’re almost done with the Gauls out of Gaul, in fact, we should wrap up next week.


Now (guitar).


Never gets old… or does it? Let me know at tom@historylab.ca.




It’s time for cocktail party slapdown.


It’s September of 52 BCE. A man often described as one of the Great Military Minds of All Time is leading his army. No, not Napoleon. It’s not even the right date. What’s wrong with you?No, it’s Julius Kaisar or Caesar, depending on the pronunciation you prefer.The Gauls are still scaring the Romans and the Romans have decided to go to the source, which is Gaul. Caesar is starting what will become the conquest of Gaul, but it’s not easy.Avaricum – which is now called Bourges , in central France – had fallen to the Romans after a siege.Vercingetorix had wanted to burn the place down as part of his scorched earth policy but the inhabitants asked that it be left promising to defend it if it came under attack. 

Caesar took it, then destroyed it and killed all but 800 people in the place.




Anyway, Caesar now had food for his troops and they headed south-east for Vercingetorix and his army. Vercingetorix was keeping himself between the Romans and Rome. As he marched away from Caesar, he destroyed bridges and made it as difficult as possible for the legions to keep up.


The Gauls stopped at Gergovia. Vercingetorix thought the hill fort with its oppidum and good defensive ground was a good place to make a stand. It was a strong point and it threatened Caesar’s line of communication to Rome.


After a 5-day march, the Romans engaged the Gallic cavalry just outside Gergovia.


Caesar saw that Vercingetorix had taken an excellent position to hold but had left only a weak garrison on a neighbouring hill looking down on Gergovia. He had two legions seize the position that night. He deployed his remaining legions in a siege formation around the hill fort, digging double trenches to isolate the freshly captured hill from the Gallic forces.


Now Caesar had some Gauls on his side too – Gauls liked war and they admired strong warriors. And Caesar had a certain something-something about him.


The Aedui tribe had provided the Romans with an auxiliary unit and the Romans had Germanic cavalry with them as well. But the Aedui, seeing their brother Gauls seeming to stymie the Romans, wavered in their loyalty to Caesar.


Word was spread that Caesar had killed Aedui hostages. A force of Aedui was moving to link with the Gauls on Gergovia. Caesar marched to meet them with a show of force to persuade the Aedui to get back on the team, which they did.


But while Caesar was away dealing with that distraction, Vercingetorix attacked the legions left behind. Caesar had to turn his men around and march quickly back to the hill fort.


Vercingetorix’s attack had won him more ground, making a siege next to impossible for Caesar.


Caesar had to lure the Gauls out of position, so he dangled some bait in the form of a legion. It worked. The Gauls moved to attack the legion and the Roman military genius struck. He pushed the Gauls out of their camp and the high ground, and the Romans grabbed it.


But now Caesar had a new problem – the town of Gergovia was sitting there fat and ready to be plundered.


The soldiers couldn’t resist and even Caesar’s call to retreat was ignored.


The Gauls attacked to protect the town.  The Romans, not focused on defence, were surprised and lost about 750 men and 6000 wounded. The gauls lost a few hundred. Also, the resulting revolt of Aedui had caused a massacre of unsuspecting romans in the rear areas.


Caesar retreated out of reach of Vercingetorix, stung, humiliated and burning for payback.


He had again lost the loyalty of the Aedui, who were impressed by Vercingetorix and provided him with 15,000 cavalry. Other Gallic tribes united under Vercingetorix and he became the first king of Gaul. But, not for long.


Here’s some notes on the area, because the lay of the land is pretty fascinating. La Roche blanche in the Puy de dome region of France is where the battle took place. The plain is still called the gergovian plain and the place is named for the large outcrop of white calicite the rises abruptly here. This ridge and the plateau that sits on it is linked to the land below by a narrow neck, easily defended by a small number of troops. It’s about 1200 feet above the plain and two miles long and a third of a mile wide. The name of the region, puy de dome comes from the dormant volcano that is found in the area. The language spoken by some locals still, is a form of latin called Occitaen and is something that is heard from this area south to the Med and east to Northern Italy and west to the Atlantic. That’s quite the roman hangover.

Not far north is the place Caesar captured by siege. Called Bourges today, back in 52 BCE, it had a swamp on two sides, helping secure it from attack. It was considered unassailable but Caesar’s siegecraft won the day. His troops killed all of the 40,000 inhabitants except for 800.




And now for that announcement I was talking about earlier. You can win a t-shirt we are designing for the history of france in English or a labcoat we are designing for the historylab.ca website. The t-shirt will feature the history of france logo with a list of the cocktail party slapdowns on the the back, like a tour shirt for a rock band. The labcoat will have the historylab logo over the front chest pocket and on the back, the motto – History, there’s something you should know…


You can win the t-shirt by getting your name into the draw. To do that, go to iTunes and leave a comment and rank us. I’ll take the names of the people who do that and will draw a name from them. I’ll mention the name in the podcast shoutouts in the History of France in English episode 16 and we’ll have another draw on the 20th episode. To win the labcoat, go to historylab.ca and leave a comment on the podcast at historylab.ca/hofiepodcast in the comments section. I’ll draw from a list of the names of the commenters and announce that winner in the 16 episode and another for the 20th.


So get going.





That’s it for this week’s history of France in English.



Greetings and welcome to the History of France in English, Episode 11. I’m Tom.

As you know, this is a listener supported podcast. So, if you like History of France in English, please, rank us on iTunes and leave us a comment there or come to Historylab.ca, click on podcasts and check out the show notes and maps and photos and leave a comment there or check out our site at libsyn, that’s l-i-b-s-y-n.

Also, if you have questions or concerns, you can send them by email to tom@historylab.ca and I’ll get back to you right away.

This week, we have the follow-up to last week’s cocktail party slapdown naval battle of Minorca. This time it’s about the accompanying land battle and capture of the fortress by the French as they attack the British-held strategic port.

But first we’ll follow up with where we left the rambling Gallic people – outside of Gaul naturally. They’ve fought their way through Greece and into what is Turkey today and settled into the area of the Hellespont – – not far from where Phocea was. That’s where the Greeks who founded Marseilles came from – what a crazy mixed up world.

It’s in the centre of Turkey and one of the main cities of Galatia eventually became the capital of Turkey, Ankara.

As you’ll remember, the Gauls had rampaged through much of Greece and after some success, were driven out when weather and their own greed combined to stop them short. When they were chased out, only about a third managed to stumble across the Hellespont. This was around 279 BCE. Here they continued their warlike ways.

By about 270 BCE, the Gauls in this area consisted of three tribes – Tectosages, Trocmii and Tolistobogii.  These tribes had come from what would become southern France in the Provence or Norbonensis region and had travelled through cisalpine Gaul, into the Balkans, and then as we’ve seen, through Greece and into what would become central Turkey.  A huge circle of migration.

Back in 281 BCE, these tribes had followed Brennus number two when he invaded Greece with what was a growing band of Celtic warriors. Starting off as three groups of about 80,000, they doubled in size during the raids on the Greeks and Illyrians. But when they attempted to plunder the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the local priests claimed a thunderstorm was the manifestation of their gods’ support of their defence and they threw back the Gallic attack.

These tribes broke off from Brennus’ group  when the attack failed in 279 BCE and  made their way into the Hellespont a year or two later under two leaders – Leonnarius and Lutarius.


By now in the Hellespont, there were about 10,000 warriors travelling with their women and children, working for Nicomedes the First of Bithynia whose father had been a general under Alexander the Great.

A charmer, he took over the area after his father’s death and promptly had his two brothers put to death. He had a remaining brother, who apparently thought a step or two ahead and had established a kingdom of his own nearby. At the same time, a neighbouring kingdom was threatening to invade, causing Nic to look for help. The Celts and some others were dragooned and when the invasion didn’t add up to much, the extra muscle was put to work against that last brother.

The Gauls made quick work of Nic’s brother and Nic decided he’d better keep them busy, as idle Celt hands had a habit of getting up to no good.

Finally, the Celts settled down a bit and the territory of Galatia was born. They eventually, true to form, overran Bithynia and supported themselves with the typical Gaul cottage industry of plunder.

Strabo says Galatia was divided into cantons with a chief in charge and a judge working under him. Everyday crimes would be looked after by the judge but the capital crime of murder was tried by a jury of 300 at an oak grove about a day’s journey south of where Ankara is today.

The Gauls tended to live in their own communities, surrounded by serf-like locals who paid the Gauls protection money of a sort.

The Gauls continued to hire themselves out as mercenaries.

At some point Antiochus the first, attacked the Celts. He was half Persian and was trying to rebuild an empire. The war elephants Antiochus brought to battle surprised the Celts and they didn’t do well, but they managed to hang on, continuing their warring ways. Finally they partnered up with the wrong prince and were handed a series of defeats that weakened their numbers. By 232 BCE they were homebodies in Galatia.

But they didn’t hold grudges and by 189 BCE had tied their fate to a descendant of Antiochus the first, Antiochus the great. This was the same guy who was sheltering Hannibal in his court which put the Gauls squarely on Rome’s hit list. Gnaeus Manlius Vulso was sent with an army to dampen the Gauls’ enthusiasm for war. Galatia was under the thumb of Rome and in decline. They backed mother Rome during the Mithridatic Wars which swelled and abated in three waves between 88 and 63 BCE. This gave them their freedom and Galatia became a client state of Rome. It started with three chiefs but eventually winnowed down to one.

And that was Deiotarus, who was recognized by the Romans as the King of Galatia. Amyntas, who was in the Roman army, was made king on Deiotarus’ death and later, in 25 BCE, Galatia was glommed into the Empire by Octavian Augustus.

Because of their loyalty to Rome, they were granted certain rights and privileges and were allowed to practice their form of Romano-Celtic polytheism. St. Paul visited the area and letters to the Galatians are found in the bible.

Hundreds of years later, around 400 AD, St. Jerome wrote that the Galatians were still speaking their Gallic language- the same language as the Celts of Trier.

Slowly they were becoming assimilated though and slowly the shield of Rome was withdrawn.

There was a small flurry of activity with the Norman arrival for the Crusades. While William was conquering England and Roger de Hautville was doing his thing in Italy and Sicily, Roussel de Bailleul was trying to re-establish the Gallic franchise in Turkey.

That didn’t work out as well as Roger and William – both of whom we’ll talk about in future episodes.

As it is, that’s it for the eastern expansion of the Gauls.



Now it’s time for…





Who IS that? Wow, okay cocktail party slapdown time!

Following up on last week’s Battle of Minorca, a sea fight between Britain and France off the Mediterranean island of Minorca at the start of the seven years war. It’s 1756 and if you’ll recall, France has set up Britain to think there’s an invasion coming. Britain has been illegally capturing French ships before war was declared and imprisoning thousands of French sailors out of fear of that invasion.

Meanwhile, France has been preparing to take the strategic island of Minorca which has given the British a forward naval base in the western Med, not far from Toulon,  the main French naval base on the Med.

The French landed on Minorca in mid-April and were beavering away, forcing the British back – sadly into the best fort Britain owned anywhere in the world.

The French brought in siege guns and about two dozen regiments.

Now Minorca is a rocky island. Actually the islands Minorca belongs to are mountaintops poking above the Med.  They’re a continuation of the mountains that rise above the waves and march into Spain. So imagine rocky mountaintops – that’s what the Port of Mahon is built on and the peak of the mountain is where the forts are situated.

A French engineer established a mortar battery in front of Fort St. Philip. By May 2, the engineers – and 800 workers – slowly and painfully brought heavy  guns up to the same battery. Defensive positions were built around the batteries and held by 200 soldiers to keep the British from mounting a raid to take them out.

There was a second battery nearby that could fire on both the main fort and the entrance of the harbour.

May 4, the first battery, now consisting of five 24-pounder guns and five mortars opened fire on the Queen’s Bastion of the main fort.

Not far from the main fort is a smaller one called Philipette. Aww, sounds so cute.

A recon party found it was abandoned but the guns were spiked, rendering them useless. Also it was directly under the fire of Fort St. Philip, the main fort, so the French declined to occupy it.

May 7, the French cleared a suburb of Port Mahon near the fort of any British and took it over as their front. They were now less than 300 metres from the fort walls.

On May 9, the French battery at the Signal Tower opened fire. The same day, Duke du Richelieu  who was in charge of the French ground forces, ordered a diversionary attack on Fort Marlborough. This attack allowed the French to establish two batteries, one on each side of the newly occupied subdivision, and mortar batteries nearby.

On May 10 more French reinforcements arrived.

On May 11, the new French batteries were ready. Richelieu ordered an additional battery in front of Fort Marlborough.

In the evening of May 12, the new French batteries opened fire. From then on, Fort St. Philip was subjected night and day to a continuous bombardment.

On May 18, admiral de la Galissonière reported to Richelieu that a British relief fleet was in sight at Palma. He asked him for infantrymen to reinforce his ships. Richelieu sent him 13 companies of infantry. However, only three companies managed to join the fleet before its departure.

The British had been blind to the potential French action until it was too late. They had dispatched Admiral Byng with only a decrepit fleet to force a landing through a French squadron and land troops in support of the British garrison defending the island and  its forts, including the impressive Fort St. Philip. Byng arrived too late and was faced with  having to make his landing through a battle. He mishandled the battle and paid for it with a trial and a death sentence.

When the British fleet arrived, Richelieu said: “Gentlemen, there is a very interesting game being played out there. If Monsieur de La Galissoniere defeats the enemy, we may continue our siege in carpet slippers – but if he is beaten, we shall have to storm the place at once, at any cost.”

Why was so much resting on such a small piece of rock?

The 1799 British Naval Chronicle details the strengths of Port Mahon harbour: “The anxiety with which the public mind at present directed toward the Mediterranean made us wish to gratify our readers with a correct view of this commodious and excellent harbour, which is now, when most wanted, in our possession.” See show notes for the illustration of the harbour .

“Mahon harbour, allowed to be the finest in the Mediterranean is about 90 fathoms wide at its entrance but within very large and safe, stretching a league or more into the land.

“Mahon, which derives its name from Mago, the Carthaginian general who founded the town, stands on an eminence on the west side of the harbour, the ascent pretty steep. It is large, but the streets are winding, narrow and ill paved. There is a fine wharf at the foot of the hill on which Mahon stands, the western end of which is set apart for careening and repairing his Majesty’s ships. The depth of the water is such that ships of the largest size can come close to the quay.”

So it’s the best harbour, in the most strategic position on one of the most commercially important waterways in the world.




The British had just under 3,000 men on Minorca. The French would eventually build their forces up to 15,000, but started with about 12,000.

But when the French had landed initially, the Brits had fallen back to the main forts around the harbour of Port Mahon, particularly the giant Fort St. Philip – one of the greatest strongholds on the Med.

Richelieu was a seasoned veteran and he knew the strong defensive position  the British had meant he’d need to outnumber them five to one or even seven to one.

The Brits kept hoping for relief and reinforcements. They had a grizzled old commander, William Blakeney, in charge but virtually all the regimental colonels were away when the French attacked.

When Byng retreated after the sea battle, the Brits sent a more energetic and daring commander, Sir Edward Hawke. Even Hawke turned away when he saw the French fleet and the army around the fort.

On June 7, the new French batteries opened fire with over 100 guns and mortars, hammering the walls and creating gaping holes in the fort. The British performed repairs and stood to their guns as steadily as ever.

On June 9, the French fire reopened more hotly than before and battered two new breaches.

On June 11, Richelieu received 14 additional siege guns.

On June 14, a party of the British garrison made a sally, drove the French from several of their batteries and spiked the guns. But they pursued their success too far, were surrounded and captured almost to a man. Still Richelieu hesitated to storm the fort.

On June 21, a new battery equipped with 14 newly received siege guns opened fire.

On June 24, 12 additional siege guns arrived from Strasbourg.

On June 25 and 26, Richelieu tested the defense of the besieged fort with some parties of grenadiers.

On June 27, at 10:00 PM, Richelieu launched a general assault upon several quarters of the fortress simultaneously while also carrying out attacks on the smaller surrounding forts. The defense was stubborn and the successful explosion of a mine destroyed three companies of French grenadiers.

At length Fort Strugen was taken by assault.

Fort Argyle and the Queen’s redoubt were taken by scalade. The French ladders were too short, so the attacking French climbed onto each other’s shoulders and then used bayonets worked into the cracks of the masonry to pull themselves up.

Meanwhile the French took the Western and Caroline lunettes, the covert way and nailed up 12 guns. Richelieu was unable to take Kane’s lunette but managed to cut down the palisade and to destroy the gun carriages.

On June 28 at daybreak, the French were master of the Queen’s redoubt and of the forts Strugen and Argyle. They posted 400 men in Strugen and 200 men in Argyle. The French beat a parley and there was an immediate cessation of arms. Blakeney finally surrendered on honourable terms. The same day, Richelieu received six additional battalions from France along with 300 gunners.

On June 29 at noon, Richelieu entered Fort St. Philip where he found 240 pieces and 70 mortars fit for service along with 12,000 cannonballs and 15,000 bombs.

On July 7, the British garrison was embarked for Gibraltar.

The siege had lasted for 70 days and had cost the French at least 800 killed and 2 to 3,000 wounded. The losses of the British garrison amounted to less than 400 killed and wounded. However, Great Britain had lost its most important fortress in the Mediterranean. The island would remain under French control until the end of the war.

That’s it for this week.

Please, remember this is a listener supported podcast and drop by iTunes and rank us and leave a comment, or go to historylab.ca/podcast and check out the show notes and leave a comment there or go to the new history of france in English group and join it or go to history of france in English podcast on libsyn – that’s l-i-b-s-y-n or email me with your questions and suggestions at tom@historylab.ca. And while I’m at it, check out seemed like a good idea at the time on iTunes, our new podcast about things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

See you next week – and merciiiiiiii.



This is episode 10.

So last week, we had a little problem with posting the episode and that’s why there’s an episode 9A. We had a similar problem around Christmas and that’s why there’s a 3A.

The technician was quote, corrected, unquote, and won’t be a problem again.

In honour of that situation, if honour is even the right word, this week’s Cocktail Party Slapdown is about the Naval Battle of Minorca. A French Victory over the British Royal Navy, during the Seven Year’s War, it resulted in the first and only time a Royal Navy Admiral was found guilty of violating the articles of war and executed on the deck of his flagship.

But first, we have to check out those crazy Celts.

One arm of the Celtic octopus that was stretching out through Europe wandered along the Danube and into Illyria, which is across the Adriatic from Italy, in the western Balkans.

Well, Francis Guizot in his Popular History of France, says they didn’t really settle in Illyria. They continued wandering, warring, melding. As they flooded out of Gaul, they were followed by more Celts all in search of new land, riches and opportunities.

If you look at the map in the show notes, you’ll see the Celtic influenced peoples of Illyria were spread out.

 Map of the Illyrian tribes

Map of the Illyrian tribes


By 340 BCE, they were at the borders of Macedonia.

It seems to me there was something about this time in Macedonian history… oh yeah, Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great was actually in the hood, getting things under control, maybe from other Gauls, it’s hard to say. The Gauls had heard of the big boss and legged it over to his camp.

Alexander, always one to admire a fellow warrior, welcomed the Gauls into his camp and had them sit at his table.

Guizot says Alexander, through an interpreter, asked what the Gauls were most afraid of and he liked their answer.

“We fear nothing, unless it be the fall of heaven. But we set above everything the friendship of a man like you.”

“The Celts are proud,” said Alexander.

He promised his friendship.

Gauls fought with Alexander’s generals as mercenaries through Europe and Asia.

They were greedy, fierce and passionate, said Guizot.

“Antigonus, King of Macedonia, was to pay the band he had enrolled, a gold piece a head. They brought their wives and children with them and at the end of the campaign, they claimed pay for them as well.” After all, they told the king, they are all Gauls.

They accumulated wealth and power and eventually weren’t so keen to fight for others. By 281 BCE, they had before them, Thrace, Macedonia, Thesaly and Greece, all rich and complacent. The Gauls went in and started plundering their former bosses.

They’d take everything, people, animals, goods. Their prisoners would be divided, one group for sacrifice and the others would be tied to trees for target practice.

We meet the second Brennus here.

The name Brian comes from Brennus, which is also the title for a Gallic chief. So this is sort of ‘The life of Brian.’

This second Brennus, was part of an 85,000 person invasion. It’s hard to say if that was 85,000 warriors because, well, they often travelled with their women and children, as I’ve said.

Anyway, there were a lot of them and they split into three groups and invaded Macedonia and central Greece.

There is no indication this Brennus is related to the earlier one.

He was just one of three main leaders. Cerethrius and Bolgios moved against the Macdedonians and the Illyrians, which Brennus, attacked Paionians.

The Celts had early victories.

And by 279 they continued. Bolgios attacked the Macedonians and Illyrians and killed the Macedonian king, Ptomely, the Thunderbolt.

Bolgios was stopped by a Macedonian nobleman by the name of Sosthenes. Brennus brought his group into play and attacked Sosthenes and beat him. The Celts looted the countryside. The Gauls had now swelled to a force of 152,000 infantry and more than 60,000 cavalry which included 20,000 cavalrymen backed by two mounted servants each, according to a greek historian, Pausanias. If the cavalryman lost a horse, one of the servants would double up with the other and the cavalryman would ride on. If he needed weapons, they supplied them and if he died, they would take his place.

Thermopylae is legendary. The Greeks had held off an Asian invasion from this very spot.

Once again, the Greeks gathered, this time under an Athenian. The Greeks destroyed the bridges in the approach and prepared to meet Brennus and his men. But Brennus used his countrymen’s ability to swim and they crossed the blocking river downstream.

The Greeks who had been dispatched to stop Brennus from crossing fled back to the main force at Thermopylae. Brennus attacked the Greeks but were repelled. Brennus sent a diversion to attack Aetolia in the hopes it would draw off the Aetolians in the main Greek force. While the diversion worked, the Aetolians savaged the Gauls and only half of the 40,000 infantry and 800 calvary returned to Brennus.

Remember in the movie 300 where the Persians were shown a secret passage that led to the Spartan rear and was their undoing? Well, Brennus must have seen it too because he sent 40,000 men under cover of fog and they attacked the Greeks from behind forcing them to be withdrawn by the Greek navy.

Brennus attempted to sack Delphi but Justinus and Pausanias say their attack was dampened by a thunderstorm and stout resistance and it was followed up by frosty weather that further weakened the gauls. Apparently during the attack, Greek priests claimed their god had awakened to defend them – this was as the thunderstorm was raging.

The Gauls backed off and in the night, the Greeks attacked and Brennus was wounded during the attack and the Gauls retreated, carrying their leader back. He told his men to kill him and the wounded and to retreat.

Well, Brennus it seems, killed himself but the healthy killed the wounded and then tried to take care of themselves.

They tried. As they attempted to cross the river they’d forded earlier, they met more Greeks and were savaged. The survivors retreated to the Hellespont and created the kingdom of Galatia.


Wow, that was some scintillating guitar!

The Battle of Minorca took place in the European Theatre of the Seven Years War. That war, in the North American Theatre was also called the French and Indian War. We talked about it a couple of weeks ago in the context of the Battle of Grassy Meadows.

This was a sea battle fought as the French captured the island of the same name, in the Mediterranean south of Spain and France. The British held the strategic island and the French sought to unseat them.

So, after Britain declared war on the House of Bourbon, the island was a rally point for the Royal Navy.

The French had already landed a force on the island April 17, 1756. They quickly forced English units out of Ciudadela and Mahon but they’d retreated to the stout fortresses of Fort St. Phillip, a cluster of fortifications on top of steep hill.

The French brought their cannon up and the Fort defenders looked to the Royal Navy for relief.

As usual, the Royal Navy came.

May 10, 1756, the British Fleet, led by Admiral John Byng began attacking the French.

But Byng was doing exactly what the French had been planning months for and the English had taken the bait.

According to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book, ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660 – 1783, the French had been playing a long game ever since Washington shot the young envoy in the woods near what would become Pittsburgh.

Here’s a little background: after that battle of Grassy Meadows, the French began to strengthen their possessions around the world, as much as they could the Royal Navy was the largest in the world and if it set its eye on you, it was hard to elude it.

But it was finite and it was fallable.

The French saw it’s overseas holdings as valuable, but not as valuable as its power in Europe.

So France sent De Vaudreuil to Canada as the new governor along with 3,000 troops in a large convoy. The British had earlier sent Admiral Boscawen to patrol off the St. Lawrence mouth in anticipation of a spring reinforcement. There was no war declared at this point and France was well within its rights to reinforce it’s possessions.

A thick fog caused the French squadron to become separated and while most slipped through the blockade, Boscawen nabbed two ships and brought them back to Britain.

That was June 8, 1755. When the news reached France, she withdrew her ambassador from London, but no war declaration was made.

Sir Edward Hawke was sent with orders to cruise between Ushant and Cape Finisterre and seize French warships, you know, cruising off the coast of France… in peacetime.

By August, Hawke was told to take all French ships and he did – about 300 worth about 6 million dollars and 6000 sailors were imprisoned or enough for 10 French ships of the line.

In peacetime.

Why were the British so wigged out you might ask.

Well, because the French were masters at subterfuge, despite not even having a name for it.

For years, the French had been a threat to English shores in the form of an invasion.

And often this threat was completely in the minds of the English.

But the French did nothing to dissuade them.

Small units of ships would sail for the French colonies with supplies and meanwhile in the Brest dockyards, and along the English Channel, the French would show what looked like invasion muscle.

This freaked the English out so much, they were running everywhere it appeared the French were looking.

The Mediterranean was fairly neglected by the British Lion.

And the French as Mahan says, ‘while making loud demonstrations on the Channel, quietly equipped  at Toulon 12 ships of the line, which sailed April 10, 1756 under Admiral la Galissoniere, convoying 150 transports carrying 15,000 troops commanded by the Duke of Richelieu. A week later the army was safely landed in Minorca and Port Mahon invested, while the fleet established itself in blockade of the harbour.’

The British garrison wasn’t reinforced and numbered about 3000 with 35 officers on leave, including the governor and the colonels of all the regiments.

I believe it’s called being caught with your pants down.

Byng left with 10 ships of the line and six weeks later, with three more ships of the line and 4,000 troops, he attempted to reinforce the island fortress before it was taken.

And that is where we are.

Byng formed his ships in a line, as was the common method of engaging in naval battles at this time, but he was attacking at an angle, so instead of lining up parallel, his lead ship would be in range first and could be dealt with by the French. The Brtish would be approaching in a row allowing the French to attack a few at a time.

The French commander kept his fleet between the Royal Navy and the harbour. When the order to attack came, the British had to turn to face the French head on, allowing the French to fire three series of broadsides at the British virtually unopposed, seriously dismantling sails and masts.

The French ships were modern and even by the British regarded as the best. The British ships were worn out and old. Byng’s flagship, although through several rebuilds, was decades old. After having his fleet punished and damaged and little damage inflicted on the French, Byng ordered his fleet to return to Gibraltar.

By doing this, Byng essentially condemned the Brits on Minorca to French prison.

The French had gone into battle with 12 ships of the line and five frigates and the British with two more frigates. The French had no real damage done to their fleet while half the British fleet was damaged. The French losses were 38 killed to the British 84 and 138 wounded to the British 162.

Byng was recalled to England to face the music and to take the role of scapegoat.

The politicians and the heads of the admiralty had all failed to grasp what the French were up to and had failed to plan for the attack on Minorca, a strategic possession. Byng was found guilty of not following the articles of war and was sentenced to execution.

Most thought the King would grant a pardon and Byng would retire with a stain on his career, but alive.

But the pardon never came, even at the behest of Byng’s enemy and a leading author of the day, Voltaire.

Byng was shot by firing squad on the deck of the Monarch.

Voltaire wrote in Candide Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres – “In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”[3]

The defeat caused an earthquake in the admiralty of Britain and the death of Byng was as upsetting as encouraging




This is episode 9.

We have another jam-packed full of fun show and we’ll get to it, but first a note. This is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the History of France in English, then please, vote and comment on the show in iTunes or leave a note at historylab.ca In the podcast section or on libsyn.

That said, I’d like to thank Stephen Guerra, as he always seems to have something nice to say about the podcast- thanks Stephen! And I also want to thank Paul Green. Paul often listens as he walks with Brownie in a park in Japan. He clearly likes history as he added a note about the park’s past which including the area being used as prisoner of war camp stretching back to the Russo-Japanese War. Paul, you should listen to Zack Tamley’s podcast on that very war. The space has also been used as an American base during the occupation after the Second World War.

Thanks for your note Paul. And thanks for your offer of a ham! I do like ham and bacon!

Okay, so this week, we have the Gauls, the Senones to be exact, setting up to kick butt as they are on an expansionist phase. If you’ll recall, last week we saw how the Kimbrians had moved into the north of Gaul and bolstered and bumped the Gaulic population and everyone was a warrior it seemed. It was only a matter of time before the wars brimmed over the borders. So the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at the Gauls as they boil over their borders.

We also have a Cocktail Party Slapdown with a look at the Battle of Hastings, which took place in 1066 on an island just north of Gaul, between Norman French William and the newly minted king of England, Harold.

The Senones moved south during the migrations caused by the influx of Kimbrians, but it’s not known if this was by choice or by force. At any rate, they were led by a chief called Brennus – and there are at least two chiefs called Brennus, one comes later and we’ll talk about him next week when discuss the roaming Gauls, as well the Brennus we talk about this week.

This Brennus leads the Senone Gauls south, over the Alps where they drove out the Umbrians in northern Italy. The Umbrians were a tribe of Celts that had arrived earlier and settled in to what was the northern frontier of the Etruscans.

The Senones then moved down the east coast of Italy around 400 BCE and settled in what became known as ager Gallica, esstentially because of them. They founded Senna Gallica as their capital and settled in until, eventually, they needed more room. About a decade or so later. It gets fuzzy, mostly because the records get destroyed, but I’ll get to that shortly.

Now this part of Italy was heavily settled by the Greeks and the Celts or Gauls had an on again, off again relationship with the Greeks. This particular area was settled by Greeks of Sicily, Syracuse to be precise. Some think, the needs of the Senones and the needs of the leader of the Syracusian Greeks found a common ground in Rome. Well, okay slightly north.

Now the popular history says the Senones were only looking for land and the next step for expansion was to pop over to the Etruscan city of Clusium. The story goes the Senones head over and instead of asking their neighbor for a CUP of sugar, they ask for all the sugar. And the kitchen. And the house. And the Street the house was on. The city the street was in, you get the picture.

The story goes that the Clusium closed its gates and the Senones surrounded the city and set a siege.

The Clusium leaders sent off a messenger who managed to sneak out and get to Rome. Clusium and Rome were in a friendly mode at this point, which wasn’t always the case between Rome and her Etruscan neighbours.

Rome responded by send the fabulous Fabii brothers as negotiators to meet with the Senones.

The Senones In the parly with the Roman ambassadors, said “We ask only for land, of which we are in need; and Clusium has more than she can cultivate. Of the Romans we know very little but we believe them to be a brave people, since the Etruscans put themselves under their protection. Remain spectators of our quarrel; we will settle it before your eyes, that you may report at home how far other men the Gauls are in valor.”

The answer as the story goes, from the Ambassadors is they broke the ‘law of nations’ by killing one of Brennus’ lieutenants.

The Gauls broke the siege and left Clusium right then and there.

Now some historians believe the old link between the Syracusian boss, Dionysius the Elder, who was apparently a real not nice guy, and Brennus may have led to some major strategic thinking. The line of thought goes something like this: Dionyssius wanted to wrap up his domination of Sicily and didn’t want the Romans who were allied in a way with the Messinians, to get involved. So Brennus promised to keep the Romans busy. At any rate, the Gauls are reported to have marched south from Clusium and calling out as they went, they were making war on Rome and only Rome, so it’s cool, we’re not interested in looting your town and they would walk on by.

Eventually, they ran into the Roman army about 11 miles north of Rome at a small river called the Allia. It was there Rome was taken to school.

The Roman army of 12,000 under Qunintus Suplicus, had a string of victories behind it. The solid heavy infantry of the centre was flanked on either side with lighter, poorer troops with little or no armor. The 24,000 angry Gauls approached with a slight concave double line with the outside flanks hitting the Roman flanks first, driving off the protection of the Roman hard core’s sides and rear. The fleeing flanks ran for Rome and nearby Veii and apparently didn’t stop running even to shut the city gates but blew through town like bad news and came to a rest in the capitol hill – the original capitol hill. The gates there were closed.

Most everyone else in Rome followed the fleeing flankers and hid on the hill while the rest fled town. After the Gauls had smashed the core of the Roman army, which they slaughtered, they went on to Rome, says Plutach.

The Gauls set a siege on the Capitol Hill and ran rampant over the rest of the city. It was mid July when they got there and hot. The Gauls didn’t like the heat and didn’t like the city. And as with many situations when an army occupies a space for any length of time, disease set in.

But not before some heroics on the part of the Romans. At one point, a messenger climbs down an unguarded cliff face to call back a Roman leader who’d been exiled. Gauls notice this and try to climb back up to capture the capitol hill from the rear but according to legend, the geese of Juno warned of the invaders by honking the alarm, according to Polybius.

At length, with the Romans dying on one side of the wall and the Gauls dying on the other side and no real manly fighting taking place, both sides were looking for a way out.

The Romans offered to buy the Gauls off. The Gauls said sure. A thousand pounds of gold was to be weighed and handed over. As the gold was being weighed, the Romans noticed the pounds seemed a little heavy, at which point they complained. Brennus is reported to have scoffed at the Romans and threw his sword on the scales to increase the weight even more and said, Woe to the vanquished, according to Livy.

The fallout of all this was a major psychic meltdown for the Romans and a major blow to their street cred.

The Aequi, Volsci and Etruscans all started up hostilities with Rome while she was trying to rebuild.

The city put up the Servian wall, 12 feet thick and 24 feet high and five and a half miles long.

The Roman army seeing the effect of close quarters melee, added the short sword, the Gladius, to the soldier’s arsenal and completely restyled their deployments.

Rome also continued to evolve municipally and politically. The Gauls didn’t see the point in changing a good thing and for a while that makes sense. Next week we’ll take a look at more Gallic action outside of Gaul and how that works out.

Mike Duncan’s History of Rome Podcast, episode 10, is specifically about the sack of rome by Brennus and his friends, from the Roman point of view.

Now to Cocktail part slapdown.





The Battle of hastings as most of you know, took place in 1066.

It was one of the bloodiest battles ever to take place on British soil. It pitted William,Duke of Normandy, soon to be known as William the Conquerer, against Harold Godwine, Earl of Wessex. They were having a heated argument over who should be king of England. William had known the previous king, Edward the Confessor, when Ed was in Normandy, hiding out. William felt he had some claim to the throne, because Edward owed something to the Normans for their hospitality and there was a relationship that had been reestablished about year or two before Ed died, he was back in Normandy and swore an oath supporting William’s claim to the throne.

Godwine also felt he had a claim because he’d been Edward’s enforcer  and so he got in first was made king January 6, 1066, But William said, he, not so fast.

At the same time, the Vikings were making a reappearance. Now way back, William’s people were Vikings… but nah, he wouldn’t have had any communication with them prior to…


Remember I mentioned the Vikings?

King Harald Hardraada of Norway also decided he could be a pretty good king of England as well.

He attacked Harold at The Battle of Stamford Bridge near York. Harold was a pretty good soldier who’d actually done some fighting in Normandy and he beat the Vikings, but by being way up in York, he wasn’t down south with the Normandy invasion took place.

So 7,000 Norman French are on English soil, at Pevensey Castle in September.

This was when what soliders who could have hindered the landing were taking their crops off the field.

It takes about a month for Harold to march his men south. By October 13, Harold and his 6,000 men are camped 12 miles from Pevensey, near Hastings.

William and his men marched out the next day to meet them, make them toast and jam and a pot of tea.

Oh, sorry, that’s wrong.

Other than the part where William and his men march to meet them.


The Normans had once been Vikings, but they’d picked up a new trick or two in the years they’d been in France. No longer were they the biserker fighter, they now had tactics and cavalry.

About 2000 mounted knights augmented his infantry of around 5000.

Harold positioned his men in an oval on the top of a steep-sided formation called Senlac Hill, overlapping their shields Roman style.

William attacked first with waves of arrows.

Then the infantry advanced, slogging up the steep hill into a fusillade of arrows and javelins and rocks and other missiles.

The infantry were badly damaged.

The left flank lost momentum and fled down the hill. Harold’s men opposite William’s left flank gave chase and trapped the French in a swampy part of the battlefield at the foot of the hill. But this wasn’t supposed to happen and William sent in his cavalry to hack up this small group of Saxons.

Again the French went up the hill, including knights on horse with lances. William’s horse was killed by one of Harold’s brothers throwing a javelin. Again the French were turned by the shield wall.

A third assault charges the hill with the cavalry at the lead. The wall bends but doesn’t break and the Normans are repelled again.


William orders another volley of arrows and this is shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, with Harold catching an arrow in the eye, and dying. This is not definitive and some say he may have been hit by an arrow, but he was taken down by four knights who stab him in the chest, then chop off his head and a leg. Wait a sec, what did the fourth knight do? Prolly take photos with his cell phone.


The battle raged almost the whole day, 2000 men a side killed.

It actually took place not at Hastings, but nearer the appropriately named Battle, nearby which William built a monestary

The only weapon recovered from the site is one battleaxe. It’s thought the soil dissolved the rest – at least what wasn’t picked up by looters.

There are many myths surrounding the Battle of Hastings and King Harold. One of the most potent claims is that the body of the last Saxon King was buried at Waltham Abbey Church and Dina Dean, the church historian, is convinced the claim is true.

The story goes that King Harold II was buried at the altar sometime after the battle. However his body was moved on several occasions when the church was rebuilt.

In the 18th century his coffin ended up in the cellar of a local town house, whose owner liked to take his guests to have a drink round it. When the house burnt down, the coffin inside, which was made of lead, melted. Today visitors can pay their respects to the last Saxon King at a memorial stone in the graveyard at Waltham Abbey Church.




Welcome to the History of France in English, Episode Eight. I’m Tom.

This week we have more on the early history of France with more invasions, this time of Gaul by Kymrians and we’ll look at who they bumped up against and how that went and see how Britain really is just an extension of Gaul or Gaul is an extension of Britain. We also have Cocktail Party Slapdown and this week, we have French Canadians defending the territory of the French Crown as they face off against the father of the United States of America, George Washington.

So, let’s get started.

Last week we looked at the Greek influence on the Gauls. This week it’s the Kymrians.

Before I start, if you want more on the Kymrians, you should check out History of Rome and The British History Podcast by Jamie Jeffers, because the Kymrians are on a first name basis with the Romans and the early Brits, in fact, they are early Brits!

It’s the fourth Century BCE and the newest thing in Gaul is not completely new – the Kymrians have been dribbling over the border from what is Germany today for decades. A real wave of them come. It’s figured they originated where the Crimea is today, Kymrian becomes Cimbrian to the Romans and later Crimean. As the population swelled, they moved west and eventually found themselves in Gaul. Ah, Gaul, people are still finding themselves there to this day.

We’ll always have Paris…

Um, anyway, so waves of Kymbrians… where did they come from?

A cooling climate in northern Europe and a sea flood forced the Kymbrians from their homelands in what is now Denmark and into Gaul.

According to Strabo, who lived ~63/64BC to 24AD, the so-called “Cymbrian (or Kymbrian) flood” of the coasts around the German Bight is reputed to be responsible for setting off a migration of Celtic tribes. This was early in the 400s BCE. In particular, Strabo comments upon the writings of Clitarchus (or Cleitarchus), who tells the tale of horsemen not being able to outrun an incoming (?flood?) tide and who is credited with living in the ‘last quarter of the third century BC’, or before 300BC.

There two waves, one at the start of the century and one at the end. It’s thought the first was a slower more steady migration caused by the cooling temperatures and the second a faster shorter term migration caused by a sea flood which may have been tripped off from a volcanic explosion as far away as Iceland.

The Romans, according to Francois Guizot’s Popular History of France from Earliest Times, Volume One, called these people Bolg, of Volk or Belg and they became the Belgae. Some headed south to the banks of the Seine and the Marne, where they found the first wave of Kymrians.

This first wave had an element that crossed the English channel and made their way into Prydain or Britain. They forced the Gauls who had preceded them north and west to Ireland and Scotland.

In Gaul, they mingled with the Gaul-celts there and it is kind of stunning that first they developed so many little tribes and second, the Roman and Greek chroniclers knew.

The Ibero-Aquitanians had 22 tribes in the south-west of Gaul, the Gauls had 21 tribes to east and north, the Kymrians and mingled, as I said with the existing Gauls between the Loire and Garonne creating 17 tribes and the Kymro-Belgae had 23 forming just over 60 nations. This of course, is a recipe for war or for being conquered.

They all shared some common language but not entirely, common religion, but with differences, they all were fond of war, according to Diocordes, and Guizot says they loved hanging the heads of their enemies from their horses, or nailed these heads to the doors of their homes. Hey, nice door knocker…

They all sacrificed human victims to their gods, all tied their prisoners to trees and burned or flogged them to death.

This restless culture and lack of a unified state coupled with only a minor interest in agriculture at this point meant that one human needed a large space because they needed grazing land for THEIR horse and THEIR livestock and they needed to have hunting territory as well. Which meant they would constantly expanding the area required.

And it was as easy as war or weddings to break out between tribes, so they were fairly intermarried in short order.

So a climatic downturn for temperature and increase in storms made life in the north not pleasant. This was followed by a catastrophic episode that caused widespread flooding, making life along the north coast not nice again.

As people poured in from the north, looking for land and heading south, the people the south would in some cases assimilated the newcomers, in some cases the newcomers would assimilate the residents and in some cases they would fight and the loser would move on.

People naturally migrated southwards because it was warmer there and things were cooling off to the north.

And as they moved south, the people already there, would be jostled and some would spread eastwards towards Italy’s big boot and soon the area between the Alps and the Etruscans became more and more inundated with refugee Gauls and Kymrians.

When the tribes already there told them to move on, the Gauls and Kymrians and in many cases, the Itals looked on them as all Gaul regardless, offered their idle hands and swords. They were lighter skinned and fairer-haired than the Mediterranean folk, so they all looked alike to the locals.

Some would take them on in exchange for land to settle on and some would not.

And next week, we’ll see what happens when you have too many warrior-types looking for a place to live.

Next, Cocktail Party Slapdown!




So, this is a bit complicated.

The war in which this battle takes place… whoops, I mean starts, has different names depending on where you are from, but not as many as last week’s. In English or Anglo-Canada, it’s called the Seven Years War. In the States it’s called the French and Indian War, and in Quebec it’s called the Guerre de la conquete or war of the conquest. It’s considered by some historians as the first World War with battles around the globe, including North America, as in this case, Europe, Africa and India as well as the oceans.

My wife and editor, says I should cut to the chase in this episode of Cocktail Party Slapdown, because it is longish and with the preamble I am thinking of, it is the longest one yet. But I think it’s important for you to understand just how much France had invested in North American exploration and how they were used for a piggyback ride by the English into the interior. So, I’m leaving much of the preamble in. If you thought it too much or not enough or just right, let me know.

Also, to my American friends, this episode will show you just how much George Washington grew as a man from this point in his life in the mid-1700s through the 20 or so years to the Revolution which gave you your great country.

France and Britain were in a race to establish ownership of North America. The French had been surveying, establishing trading relations and building forts but had a very small population in North America. The British had been late starting but were very far along with population along the Atlantic coast.

What was in the interior was mostly unknown to the British, that didn’t stop them from laying claims.

But let’s look at what had happened up to this point.

Giovanni Verrazano and Jacques Cartier were the earliest known French or French-hired (in Giovanni’s case) explorers to reach the coast of North America.

Giovanni Verrzano was a Florentine sailor who moved to Dieppe on the north coast of France in 1506. That same year, a sailor and fisherman named John-Denis had charted the mouth of the St. Lawrence. He was from the northern French town of Honfleur.

Verrazano reached Newfoundland and possibly the St. Lawrence River in 1508. In 1522 Magellan’s ship made it around the globe along with a small portion of the crew. People in Europe freaked out.

The King of France, Francis the First, under pressure from merchants in Rouen and Lyon, hired Giovanni or as they called him, Jean, to head back over the ocean and see if he could find a way around that block of land and get to India.

Off Verrazano went in 1523, he cruised the coast, finding New York harbour which he called Angloueme, before Hudson, the Narraganset River, and coasted along to Cape Fear.

To be fair, Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for Queen Elizabeth the First in 1583 almost a century after John Cabot visited what would become St. Johns Newfoundland in 1497. But the English on the coast is no big deal.

Jacques Cartier was born in St. Malo, France. He was hired after Jean, to find a way through North America. He must have thought he’d done it when he hit the St. Lawrence.

Cartier gave the name Canada to the country he explored and made his way as far up the St. Lawrence as was possible in his day, in a ship. That was where Montreal is today and where the Indian village of Hochelaga was back then. Before hitting Montreal, he stopped closer to the mouth at Stadacona, where Quebec City would soon grow. This was in the span of 1534 to 1535.

A small matter of the religious wars (oxy-moron?) stalled exploration for France and it wasn’t until 1604 that she was able to put any effort into North America. They were a plague through much of Europe, and so England also slowed it’s work in North America.

Next Champlain arrived. While Hudson was making his way up the river that would bear his name, Champlain had headed south from Montreal through the lake that would bear his name and was on another river just north of Champlain. Douglas Hunter has two excellent books that tell the stories of both explorers, Half Moon, for the Hudson story and God’s Mercies for Champlain’s story. Between Champlain and his acolytes including Brule, they made their way into all the Great Lakes, the Upper Mississippi and western New York State, Detroit, Niagara Falls, the Susquehanna River, Chesapeake Bay, Pennsylvania and so on…

Meanwhile Hudson had returned to North America to die after being abandoned by his crew in the bay that would bear his name. Martin Frobisher would return to Britain with his ship hold full of fools gold brought back from the arctic.

LaSalle was next, exploring the Illinois River, the Ohio, down the Mississippi or the Rive Colbert as he called it, and into Texas.

LaSalle and the following French explorers would install lead survey plaques along the rivers at certain landmarks declaring their being claimed by the French crown.

It was the slow slog the English took to get into the interior that caused the problems. The French had been through almost all of the east side of North America and across to the Rocky Mountains before the English decided maybe they should possibly consider laying claim to lands the French have already claimed more than a half century prior.

So George Washington, yeah, that George Washington, is given the mission in 1753 to go west.

He was given the job of being a ‘special envoy’ and to bring a message to the French who had a fort where the city of Pittsburgh is today. The message, from King George the Second, asked the French to peacefully depart and if they didn’t “we do hereby strictly charge and command you to drive them off by force of arms.”

And, like I said, it was signed by King George the Second.

Washington was a pro at travelling in the back country. He’d been a surveryor although he was young at 21.

In London’s Gentleman’s Magazine, the writer said he was a youth of ‘great sobriety, diligence and fidelity.’

He hired a Dutch mercenary, Jacob Van Bramm, to act as his translator to speak with the French. The pair knew each other as Van Bramm had taught Washington how to fence. With swords, not with wire and such like.

At any rate, Washington made his way across the frontier. His small party of British and Indians approached the first French Fort or trading post, called Venango, at the confluence of the Allegheny River and French Creek. He was greeted warmly and spent the evening in the company of the French officers who were very free talking about the idea they would be developing the Ohio and area. The next morning when he was about to leave, he found his Indian guides had been bribed with guns and liquor and he had to wait three days before they were ready to leave. Finally the group headed out to Fort LeBoeuf with a French soldier as an escort and their Indian guides. It was a nasty trip as it was the wintry late fall and ground was hazardous with snow-covered swamps, marshes and brimming streams. December 11, he reached the fort and met the old one-eyed commander, Captain Jacques Legardeur de St. Pierre, who Washington described in his diary as having ‘much the air of the soldier’.

Washington’s message from the king was considered by the old man who asked several days for a response. Washington noted 220 birch canoes lined along the bank for military operations. St. Pierre, while polite, made it clear the French had every right to exploit the fruits of their explorations and to arrest British traders who poached French territory.

“As to your summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it,” said St. Pierre.

On December 14, he handed over a sealed message for Washington’s commander. He also stocked Washington’s canoe with supplies for his return home but once again, the French had offered the native guards gifts if they remained and they did.

Finally, by January 16, 1754, Washington was back home to report his news.

By January 28, he was given a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and ordered to train up 100 men, meet a force of another 100 and to march to the forks of the Ohio to build a fort.

His first brush with training troops was an eye-opener.

Most of the soldiers were ‘loose, idle persons that are quite destitute of house and home and I may truly say many of them of clothes.’

Not quite the right people…

By Mid-March, Washington was ordered to take what soldiers he had and get his butt to the forks.

He was authorized by his commander to use deadly force if needed.

On April 2, 1754 Washington set out with 160 recruits.

They were out on the road for three weeks and only part of the way there – because they had to build a road. That was when they heard the French had arrived in force, 1,000 troops, 360 boats and canoes and 18 artillery pieces. An advance British force of 34 was subdued.

The Indians, including Half King, the first nations leader who hated the French, were shaken by the weakness shown by the British. Washington created a phantom force, saying his commander was coming with the main force and the guns and provisions. His commander was coming, but with a force smaller than the one Washington was marching through the March mud. Much of the French forces in Canada were native French Canadians, used to back country movement in canoes and boats. They had geography on their side with access to the Great Lakes and the land drained by their rivers. The British had to battle through dense woods, through uncharted land and cross unbridged rivers and over roadless mountains.

C’est la vie.

Washington dashed off notes to governors of Maryland and Pennsylvania asking for more soldiers, which they sent.

On May 24, Washington was told a French force was only 18 miles away. He established a defensive position near where Uniontown Pennsylvania is today. It’s called Uniontown because it was founded on July 4, 1776. I’m not sure which union is linked to that date, probably the teamsters… Oh right. Um, America’s birthday.

“We have with nature’s assistance, made a good entrenchment and my clearing the brushes out of these meadows, prepared a charming field for an encounter.”

Sounds like he preparing for a picnic…

In the same missive to his commander, he reported his sentries had heard rustling noises in the dark and didn’t know if it was French interlopers or six men of his own troops who were found to have deserted.

He learned there was a French advance party camped only seven miles away.

He decided he would commit to a night attack and advanced with 40 of his own men through pouring rain.

He later explained that the French came secretly and had hid for several days ‘no more than five miles from us. From thence they sent spies to reconnoiter our camp.’

Ron Chernow in his book, Washington, says the young officer’s ‘sense of the situation, however faulty, likely predisposed him to launch a preemptive attack.’

Early that morning the Indian Half King led him to a low obscure place where 35 Frenchmen lay encamped  in a secluded glen, surrounded by rocks. First Nations warriors made their way through the woods to the rear of the French position.

Now Washington says that the French spotted the British in the early morning darkness, scurried for their weapons and got the first shots off but were decimated by the British who from their standing position, not wiping the sleep from their eyes, ripped off two volleys.

Anyone who knows how hard it is to load a musket and how important it is to keep the powder dry will find Washington’s version of things a bit hard to swallow.

The French threw down their arms with 10 killed, 21 captured and only one dead and two or three wounded on Washington’s side.

“What converted this local skirmish into a worldwide incident was the identity of one victim: Ensign Coulon de Villiers. Like Washington the previous fall, Villiers was carrying a diplomatic package to the British. Unlike the previous fall, Washington, instead of offering the French food and drink and shelter, had attacked them.

By one account, Villiers was reading the message out to the British after ordering the French to throw down their arms when Half King stepped forward and split the French Canadian’s head open with a tomahawk, ‘dipped his hands into the skull and rinsed them with the victim’s brains, and scalped him.’

The remaining French wounded were killed by the other First Nations warriors.

“To knock the poor unhappy wounded on the head and bereave them of their scalps,” wrote Washington.

Only a few French soldiers survived.

The French party was small and historians on both sides find Washington’s claims that its sole purpose was to gain intelligence on the British force and attack it hard to believe.

On May 29, Washington was back at ‘Fort Necessity’ in Great Meadows.

Washington was aware the French would hear of the massacre. He ordered his men to dig trenches and drive pointed stakes into the ground. He wound up with a crude, circular palisade-style stockade.

Meanwhile, in Maryland his immediate commander, Colonel Josh Fry, fell from his horse and died, leaving Washington in full command of the Virginia Regiment.

Troops continued to stream in from the British side, but the First Nations warriors under Half King weren’t impressed. They’d fought the French Canadians and knew this wasn’t going to be enough.

Half King described Washington as ‘good natured’ but naively inept and who ‘took upon him to command the Indians as his slaves’ and refused to ‘take advice from Indians.’ It’s kind of funny because these are the same sort of things Washington was saying of the regular British and the army vs the colonials and the militia.

Washington had heard there were only 500 or so French Canadians at the future Pittsburgh site – the French called it Fort Duquesnes, so he led 300 of his men out to widen the road towards the fort on June 16.

On June 28, 600 French Canadians with some regular French forces and 100 ally warriors left Fort Duquesnes led by the older brother of the man who’s brains had been used as soap by Half King.

As the French force neared, Washington’s road building soldiers abandoned most of their equipment and retreated to their fort in the meadows. It was hardly a fort other than in name. It was described as ‘an uncouth backwoods structure covered in bark and animal skins, the fort was primarily defended by nine small cannon. It could only hold sixty of seventy men, so Washington had a three-foot trench dug around it’s perimeter, which, with the spring and early summer rains was more like a moat. It stood on a low lying grassland that started off soft and boggy and would form stagnant ponds in the rain. It was surrounded by woods and high ground, protecting attackers and the fort was open to the elements with only a leaky shack in the middle to hold powder and other supplies.

Years later, Washington refused to cede the poor judgement in the fort site selection saying the Great Meadow ‘abounded in forage’ and was convenient for a stockade. Despite the abundance of forage, one of the challenges his men would face would be a lack of meat the week before the battle.

The French, their speed greatly increased by the new road, approached the British fort and were only slowed as they marched through the battlefield where Villiers brother was killed.

The unburied, mutilated bodies only increased the commitment of the French, but they stopped to bury their comrades. It was July 3.

The French marched out of the forest and their native guides told them the fort was near. It was such a rudimentary bastion, it was hard to see amid the grasses and the scrub at first. Three columns of Canadians marched forward, but wound up to the right of the fort.

Villiers redeployed his men in the woods, easy musket range to the fort. Washington decided to attack the position. He mustered his men in the fort and the British regulars that were camped outside and the advanced. Villiers seeing this, organized his force with the natives and they advanced. Washington recalled the French Canadians and Indians ‘advanced with shouts and dismal Indian yells to our entrenchments,’ but were greeted wth a ‘warm, spirited and constant fire,’

Washington had ordered his side to hold and fire. The regulars did. That was the part Washington remembered.

What he didn’t recall, was the Virginians ran back to the fort, leaving Washington and the regulars badly outnumbered. Washington ordered a retreat and Villiers withdrew and redeployed the men in the edge of the forest where they kept up a withering fire on those in the fort.

Washington’s men were having a hard time. They fired too high and caused few casualties and the light artillery was equally badly handled. And then it started to rain. And the British had a hard time keeping their powder dry.

At the end of the day, a third of Washington’s force was dead or wounded. The French had three dead and 17 wounded.

Washington and the commander of the British regulars buffed up the French casualties, saying they had suffered 300 wounded and killed.

But it was at odds with the truth.

Maybe he did chop down that cherry tree.

The brother of the man killed in Washington’s earlier attack, signaled a willingness to talk. By now, the remainder of the Virginians had grabbed the fort’s rum supply and were hammered. They had very little food: some flour, a little bacon, like that isn’t reason right there and any fresh food succumbing to the summer heat. Jacob Van Braam, the French interpreter was picked to convey the terms of surrender.

One article of capitulation was that the French assault had been retaliation for the assassination of the French envoy and brother of the French commander. Washington and McKay signed the document, admitting to the assassination, but it was in French.

The French ‘treated Washington and his men honourably as they wanted to characterize the confrontation as an act of reprisal rather than war and show due mercy to the vanquished after they ‘confessed.’

Instead of being taken prisoner, the British soldiers would be allowed to retreat with full honours of war, ‘our drums beating and our colours flying,’ as Washington said. It was July 4.

The march back saw the crumbling of the Virginia regiment and Washington incapable of stopping the rot. Washington’s diary was recovered and forwarded to governor Duquesnes.

“There is nothing more unworthy and lower and even blacker than the sentiments and the way of thinking of this Washington,’ wrote the governor.

Two years later, it was published in Paris and the French published the articles of capitulation, painting the future American president as a man who murdered a French envoy who was on a peaceful mission.

Sir Horace Walpole described the battle in which the envoy was killed.

‘The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.’

That is it for this week’s Cocktail Party Slapdown.

Oh, and we have another podcast now, called Things that seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s about things that… you get it. You can get it at iTunes or go to historylab.ca, click on podcasts and boink, there it will be.

That’s it for this week, so adieu and merciiiiiiiiii.




Welcome to the History of France in English, Episode Seven. I’m Tom.

This week we have more on the early history of France with a look at what happened to the Ligurians and the early mentions of the Celts or Gauls. We also have another Cocktail Party Slapdown. It’s the Battle of Fleurus, the one that took place in 1690.

I want to thank Ron Sapper for being such a fan of bacon.

Okay, so last we left the Ligurians, we were getting close to 600 BCE and the Celts were beginning to make themselves known to Greeks living the area of Old Gaul.

In Northern Italy today, there is still an area called Liguria. This is the rump of the old territory that once spanned from the Alps west to the Pyrenees. As was usual at this time, the tribes across this area would fight and make up and fight and make up and trade and boycott and on and on. Both were good at war and as mentioned earlier, the Ligurians, like the Celts, were often hired by kings and national leaders or want-to-be leaders.

The Ligurians, being squeezed by the Celts, moved more and more into Northern Italy and hired themselves out for fighting… will fight for land, sort of thing.

Meanwhile, the Greeks were setting up small communities for their trading network in the western Mediterranean and were bumping up against and with the local tribes, at times fighting and other times getting along just fine.

Francois Guizot in his Popular History of France, wrote about the diversity that existed across what would become Gaul.

“In the south were Iberians or Aquitanians, Phoenicians and Greeks; in the north and north-west, Kymrians or Belgians, everywhere else, Gauls or Celts, the most numerous settlers who had the honour of giving their name to the country. Who was the first to come and when? Nobody knows. Of the Greeks alone does history mark with any precision the arrival in southern Gaul. The Phoenicians preceded them by several centuries; but it is impossible to fix any exact time. The information is equally vague about the period when the Kymrians invaded the north of Gaul. As for the Gauls and the Iberians, there is not a word about their first entrance into the country, for they are discovered there already at the first appearance of the country itself in the domain of history.”

In the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, a Greek general and historian, we get a good example of just how chaotic Europe was at this stage.

He’s describing the evolution of Sicily. He lists the first two tribes of the island as the Laestrygones and the Cyclopes. He admits no one knows what happened to these. Homer of course mentions them, but then they fade. Next were the Sicanians who were driven from the Sicanus River by the Ligurians. Sicily was named for the Sicanians who at one point controlled the whole island. This appears to be true.

So in short order you have monsters who ate men, as both the Laestrygones and Cyclopes did, according to the Odyssey. Thucydides says they were the first settlers of the island that we know of… and then says the Sicanians liked to think of themselves as the first settlers… maybe they were the first non-cannibalistic giant settlers.

So Europe is pretty crazy fluxy and hard to pin down in some cases. Things come into view then fade like we’re trying to take down the details of a shoreline obscured by fog, seeing bits and pieces but never the whole thing at once, while we’re standing on the deck of a moving ship.

What appears to have happened is the Ligurians were in at least southern France before the Celts, who moved them over as they advanced. The Ligurians lived similarly to the Celts, ate similarly and traded and fought similarly but they were separate and their language was distinctly different.

The Celts are the most identifiable Gaulish tribe. Gaul is named after the Celts who, Julius Caesar says, referred to themselves as Gauls. The Greeks called them Celts.

Hecateus of Miletus was the first to use the term when he wrote about interactions between Greek traders operating in what would become southern France and more specifically, the area around Massilia or Marseilles. Apparently it came from Keltoi which is a name of a tribe in western Spain and Portugal. The Greeks had traded in that area as well and much like other Europeans who later travelled to North America and thought they’d made it to India, started slapping the word ‘Indian’ on anyone with brown skin and black hair.

The people who the word Keltoi started with, the Lusitani, a group of indo-europeans who were either influenced by or an early version of the Celts, as in the group of people who called themselves Gauls or Galli.

Anyway, the first major impact on the southern area of France was a road built by the Phoenicians or Carthaginians that ran from the Pyrenees through the Gallic Mediterranean and over the Alps through the Tenda Pass into Italy. When the Phoenicians stopped coming, the Greeks of Marseilles kept it up. When they stopped, the Romans took it over. It’s possible it’s the oldest road in France.

There is not much historically speaking written about the Phoenicians in Gaul. As they withdrew, the Rhodians filled the space. The Rhodians came from the island of Rhodes and were of Greek background. Oddly, they had taken over Rhodes from the Phoenicians as well. Next came the Phoceans, and if you remember the first two episodes of this podcast, remember the wine editions? Well, the Phoceans arrived around 600 BCE with a guy called Euxenes, a trader from Phocea, which is now in Turkey but back then was part of the Ionian community. He checked out a bay east of the Rhone river mouth.

The Segobrigians, a Gallic tribe, occupied the neighbourhood already and Nann, their chief welcomed the strangers and took them home for a great feast that was already planned. It was a tradition of this tribe and it was for his daughters marriage. Her name was Gyptis or Petta, depending on which historian is telling the story. This custom still exists in some area of the Basque country where old traditions still stand and in the Morvan of central France. Anyway, Petta or Gyptis appeared at the end of the banquet, and as you may recall, she had a cup of wine. The guest she offered it to would become the husband of her choice.

Either by accident or on purpose, she offered Euxenes the cup. This did not sit well with Gallish guests but Nann believed this was the will of the gods and accepted Euxenes as his son-in-law. As part of the deal, as if his daughter wasn’t enough, he gave him the bay he landed in and some of the land around it and Euxenes gave his wife, um, a Greek name which means the best of hostesses or the hostess with the mostest. So you know, that was fair.

Anyway, Euxenes sent his ship home to Phocea to get some colonists for his new town and waited for them on a peninsula and that kids is the beginning of Massilia and the first mention of wine in France.

Euxene’s ship returned in less than a year loaded with colonists and goods including provisions, utensils, arms, seeds, vine-cuttings, olive-cuttings, a statue of the godess Diana and other galleys similarly loaded down. The statue was brought from a temple at Ephesus and came complete with priestess.

Marseilles prospered and commerce flowed out and in from wherever the Phoenicians and Rhodians had marked out the aforementioned road as well as on the seas.

Nann eventually died and his son Conran and many of the area Gauls were jealous of the Greeks. Conran decided the new city would have to be destroyed.

Prior to celebrations for the flowering of the grape vines, Conran sent men acting as workers into Marseilles. He himself hid with his men, thousands of them – Strabo says 7,000 – in a glen near the city.

A woman who was a close relation to the Gallic chief told the Greeks of the impending attack. She was in love with one of the Marseille men and warned him to save him. The gates of the city, left open in honour of the celebration were closed and the Gauls trapped inside, some as infiltrators sent by Conran and some innocent, were killed.

Once darkness fell, the inhabitants armed themselves and sallied out of the town to the glen where the rest of he Gauls were waiting and ambushed the ambushers killing them all.

They weren’t out of the um, woods yet. So to speak. I mean, they were still surrounded by angry Gauls and often found themselves under attack.

Meanwhile Phocea was also under attack. By 542 BCE, Phocea fell to Cyrus. No, not the gang leader in Warriors. Cyrus was the King of Persia. The Phoceans abandoned their home city and moved lock, stock and barrel west and many to Marseilles. Some stopped in Corsica but after five years of pirating, they decided a pirates life was not for them and even they joined.

So Marseilles Greeks were bolstered against Gallic attack and extended the city walls around the bay and expanded her reach with more settlements, including places that are still around, like Monaco, Nice, Antibes, which I thought was older than Marseilles, but I’ve since learned, I was wrong, Saint Gilles, Agdevall and on and on. Those are the modern names, so you get an idea of the extent and success of these communities. Towns of the Gauls had so many Greek speakers in some, like Avignon that the Greeks said they felt at home there. This drove Marseilles to become a scientific and commercial powerhouse. Homer’s poems were first to be revised and annotated here. Pytheas cruised from here and explored all the way up to the Arctic circle.

But the Gauls for the most part weren’t interested in much of what Marseilles had to offer, other than wine and weapons. In fact, it looks like its influence, despite the brains and glittery stuff, didn’t extend very far at all.

That’s a gross generality but it stands.

The Gauls gained control over most of what would become France and the Kymrians. The Kymrians are thought to have started along the Black Sea – and we’ve run into them before. In the Cocktail Party Slapdown about the Battle of Balaclava, the Crimean War – the Crimea is from the word Kymrian.

By the time they made their way through Germany, they were calling themselves the Bolg or Belg and in some cases Volk. The Belgae are descended from them. But more about them next week.

Some fun facts, the Marseilles area has been inhabited by humans for at least 30,000 years. There was still an ice age on up north when people were, um, chilling here.

The level of the Mediterranean was almost 400 feet or 120 metres lower than today. And so, a cave that when it was occupied, was above water and miles from the sea is now under water by over a 100 feet or 31 metres. The Cosquer Cave was found by a French diver by the name of Cosquer… what are the odds he’d find a cave with his name… oh right. I see.

Anyway, he found the cave entrance in 1985. So while you were rocking to Glenn Fry’s ‘The Heat is On’, Billy Ocean’s ‘Lover Boy’ and my personal not favourite, ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears, Henri Cosquer was finding important stuff.

The public was clued in until 1991 after three divers died after becoming lost in the caves.

Hand stencils from 27,000 years ago were found and animal drawings of bison, horses, auks, seals, jellyfish and Otzi’s favourite meal, ibex were found dating back to 19,000 years ago. Always good to wrap up on bacon.

So we have the Greek population swollen with refugees surrounded by the Gauls angry and disaffected and under pressure from the north by the Bolg. Man, this is just going to end really well, right? This is a good place to wrap up for this week, mostly because of the ibexian bacon. Am I right?

Now it’s time for Cocktail Party Slapdown. This week we look back to the War of the Grand Alliance or the Nine Years War or the War of Augsburg or the War of Palatine Succession. Well, that’s all we have time for… just kidding, but wow, load of names for one war.

Anyway, the Battle of Fleurus is the battle we’re looking at and it takes place in what is Belgium today, near the town of Fleurus, July 1, 1690.

Louis the Fourteenth is on the French throne. He’s called the Sun King and he’s the most powerful emperor in Europe, thanks to his victory in the Franco-Dutch War. France has sided with Catholic elements in Scotland and Ireland which are under attack by the protestant-based English and Dutch. The war brings in the Holy Roman Empire, which is essentially Germany, English, the Dutch Republic, Spain, Piedmont Savoy and Scotland.

The war was waged by Louis and company because the Spanish throne was about to require a new royal bum to warm it and everyone involved had their own idea of which bum was the best suited for the job. Much of the land war was fought in what was called Spanish Netherlands, which was under Spanish control, as the name would suggest. Today, it’s Belgium.

Militarily, France is the  most powerful force in Europe and England is the most powerful on the water at this point. Even so, France manages a stunning victory on the water that we’ll cover in the future.

This week, we look at France winning a land battle despite having the smaller force under the command of the Duc de Luxembourg.  He was facing a multi-national force under the command of Prince Georg Friedrich of Waldeck. Friedrich would grow tired of losing to Luxembourg, but this was still early days in the war and Waldeck was coming in from a victory he’d had the year before.

But Luxembourg was a clever commander. He and Waldeck played cat and mouse and as they closed, Waldeck made a surprise move, cross a river obstacle using portable bridging equipment, seizing a stronghold on Waldeck’s side by forcing the garrison to surrender and causing another stronghold to be abandoned. Waldeck had no choice but to turn and engage the French or flee.

French and Dutch cavalry had mixed it up just outside of Fleurus as they scouted the no-man’s land between the two armies. Waldeck had 38,000 men, and he chose a position with a small river in front of him, sided with high banks and stretched his forces, two lines and anchoring each end in a small town, the left in Heppignie and the right in St. Brice. Just ahead of St. Brice, on Luxembourg’s side as Ligny, another small community and closer to the centre of Waldeck’s line but on Luxembourg’s side were two small villages, St. Amant and Fleurus. A frontal assault would be slowed by the stream and the steep banks and Waldeck was confident he would chop the French to pieces.

About five miles from Waldeck’s army, Luxembourg split his force in two sending the two columns towards the allies but each column split prior to engagement about two miles away from the allies and the outside arms swept wide and hit Waldeck’s forces from the side – outflanking both ends of his columns. He achieved surprise by using the terrain and cavalry to screen the movement of his men.

Waldeck was completely unaware of being outflanked.

Nice work pickets!

By 10 in the morning Luxembourg’s right wing was in position and they began firing their artillery on Waldeck’s flank. The French left started its attack with a cavalry charge which ended in the death of commander of the left flank forces. These cavalry pulled back to Fleurus to regroup. Meanwhile the right under Luxembourg stopped the artillery and sent In the cavalry. The infantry of Waldeck had been hammered to good effect by the big guns and when the horses came rumbling across, it further weakened the resolve of the allies and when the French infantry began advancing on both flanks, the forces of Waldeck realized they were surrounded. Some fought across the stream into Fleurus where they made a stand but where overwhelmed.

Waldeck rallied his troops and their formed a line again but it crumbled under the weight of advancing French infantry buoyed by the momentum of earlier success. The allies broke and retreated to Nivelles.

The French suffered 3,000 dead and another 3,000 wounded of their force of 34,000. The allies had 6,000 dead, 5,000 wounded and 8,000 captured of their 38,000.

King William, who was fighting the Catholic King James in Ireland to keep him from claiming his crown  and the throne of England, was defeated by Luxembourg in person and through his surrogates a number of times. At one point he is reported to have said, “I cannot defeat that hunchback!” Luxembourg, who had a curved spine, replied “how does he know I have a hump, he has never seen my back!” referring to the fact that he’d never had to turn and retreat in any engagement with the king.

That’s all for your cocktail party slapdown for this week.

If you have any questions of comments, you can check out historylab.ca and click on the podcast tab in the menu, there you’ll find the show notes, maps and photos in support of the podcast. You can leave your comments and questions there or you can go to iTunes and check out the podcast there and rank us and leave a comment, which would be more than awesome. It would be bacony without any of the problems of bacon!

Oh, and we have another podcast now, called Things that seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s about things that… you get it. You can get it at iTunes or go to historylab.ca, click on podcasts and boink, there it will be.

That’s it for this week, so adieu and merciiiiiiiiii.


Welcome to the History of France in English, Episode Six. I’m Tom.

This week we start on the journey into Gaul’s early appearance in history and as usual, a Cocktail Party Slapdown. This week’s slapdown is not an out and out victory for the French and that’s not because I’ve run out of out and out victories – far from it. I just like the story of a feisty corps of cadets  fighting an impossible battle against the odds and doing well. I’m talking about a Second World War battle, early in the war. In fact it’s probably the last of the Battle of France or it’s the first fight for the resistance.

But first some shoutouts. Louise, you’re too kind. I appreciate the generous praise, please consider going public with it!

Gaul first hit the history books around the same time as the first mention of wine in France. How convenient. But that may not be the first historic mention of a proto-gaulic people.

Ligurians were talked about for a while before the mention of Massalia by the Greeks around 600 BCE, which, if we all remember episode 1, was the first historic mention of wine in France.

Wow, you guys have awesome memories.

You all deserve bacon!

Unless you aren’t supposed to have bacon, for dietary or religious reasons. I mean, I know I’m being downloaded in Israel and in Palestinian territory, as well as Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Indonesia, Singapore and well, almost 70 countries in all, with some significant Muslim and Jewish populations. So no bacon for you. For you, um, delicious chocolate cake. Who doesn’t like cake?

And, on with the show. Where was I? Oh yeah, Ligurians. Not sure how they felt about bacon. It looks like they may have been displaced by the Celts when they arrived on the scene, sort of being squeezed by them to the north and eventually, the Romans in the south. The Greeks, who had a pretty good idea of what it was like to be squeezed wrote about them being the folk who lived next to the Celts who were the people they dealt with when the Phocoeans arrived in southern France. Some suggest the Ligurians may have been the descendents of the cro-magnons who were creating the cave art we talked about two episodes ago and maybe even Oetzi’s neighbours. They fit in nicely in the late bronze age of Oetzi and the iron age of the Celts.

There was a Roman poet who we know as Lucan today. He was born in what would become Spain, in Cordoba in 39 CE. His full name was Marcus Annaeus Lucanus. He wrote a poem of what the Ligurians looked like:

..Ligurian tribes, now shorn, in ancient days

First of the long-haired nations, on whose necks

Once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme.

Um, yeah, it’s in English. You didn’t think I’d say it in Latin? I mean, this is the History of France in English Podcast, right! But it was written in Latin. I figure it’s bad enough you have to listen to me mutilate French without hearing me mangle latin.

So they had long reddish hair and were the first of the long-haired nations. The Gauls or Celts also had long hair – so, you know, it could be suggesting that the Ligurians were in the hood first.

You know, if you talk like that, which is cool. I’m, um, down with it dog.

Yes, I did.

Apparently, the Ligurians were similar to Gauls in the way they lived and were, like the Gauls, hired as mercenaries by neighbours, like Hamilcar. No, not the second world war transport glider. I mean Hamilcar, the Carthaginian commander back in 480 BCE and father of the better-known Hannibal. Yeah, that Hamilcar had Ligurians in his army.

For more on Hannibal, check out Jamie Redfern’s History of podcast series. He has one on Hannibal. For more on the things of the Second World War check out Ray Harris and his History of World War Two podcast. I’ll put links up on the history.ca website under podcasts.

Ray Harris’s World War II podcast webpage is here.

Jamie Redfern’s History of… podcast is here.

Another guy was Agathocles, the Greek tyrant of Syracuse and king of Sicily in 361-289 BCE. So they were a busy bunch.



Oh and as side note, Agathocles was a badass. He was mentioned as being a bad ass by Machiavelli. If Machiavelli calls you a badass, well. You know.

The Ligurians were sought-after soldiers.

William Smith in his Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, says there were two areas to receive the name Liguria. We’re talking about the old Liguria here, the big one. It stretched from the Alps to the Mediterranean Sea in a wide arc ending near Massalia or Marsellies.

Smith through ancient sources links the Ligurians through many different references. If you want to read the whole thing, I’ll put a link on the website. But essentially, he lists references literary and in old timey travelogues and geographies on Southern France, northern Italy and eastern Spain along the Mediterranean Sea.

Hesiod, an ancient Greek poet from 750 to 650 – somewhere in there, we’re not sure exactly, mentions the Ligurians as one of the more distant of the known races in the then known world.

He was as respected as Homer and lived about the same time, but referred to himself as just a humble farmer from Beotia in central Greece.

Archaeologists say Ligurians favoured stone ‘beehive’ style structures for homes, tool sheds and animal shelters. These were all stone – including the roof which was made by overlapping slabs of stone like fish scales, at an angle to cause the water to drain off. These were sturdy structures and there are about 3,000 of them scattered around southern France to this day. Oppida were also a Ligurian construction. These early forts were built on hill tops out of piles of stones. Some can still be seen on high points today.


Instituto Politécnico de Tomar, says the Ligurians went through a series of cultural changes that can be traced through their burial rites. In the ninth century BCE, the dead were cremated and buried in urns. This evolved to cremation and burial in metal urns as the iron age spread. The type of metal and what was buried with the remains would depend on the availability of the metal and rank of the dead person and their gender.

Meanwhile in the outside world, things were happening that would affect the Ligurians. One of these things was Greek expansionism and the rise of Carthage and the Etruscans. Greece had been establishing colonies in southern Italy since the ninth century BCE and this is when the Ligurians had been first noted as Greek traders made their way up the boot of Italy and across southern France. As noted in 600 BCE, they settled Massalia to the west, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In 800 BCE the Etruscans were becoming more influential and signs of trade and communication between their culture and the Ligurians grows after this point. The influence and power of the Ligurians grows as well as before they were poor farmers on poor land but as trade through their area grew, their hill forts became strategic centres and suddenly travelers and traders had to cut deals with the locals for unhindered passage. Gravesites began to bear iron swords and bronze razors for the men and metal spindles for the women. Sweet.


Celts start popping up in Greek reports around now and that along with a war in the eastern Mediterranean will have a big impact on the Ligurians and the Celts and that’s what we’ll talk about next week.


Now it’s time for the cocktail party slapdown.

As the Nazi army flooded France, the waves swept allied soldiers aside in many areas. Pushing the British Expeditionary Force north towards the coast and driving back the front lines. The French command changed gears and reorganized defences into so-called hedgehogs, with defenders forming around a natural obstacle and the surrounding area to be covered with artillery. The shock of the initial blitz caught everyone by surprise after the phony war had gone on for so long. But then things got tougher when you would expect French morale would be weakened by the shock. Early in the campaign, German losses were ‘remarkably light’ as Julian Jackson says in his ‘The fall of France, the Nazi Invasion of 1940.’ According to Jackson the early casualty rate for the Nazis was 2,500 a day from May 10 to June 3. From June 4 to June 18, defence tightened up and the Germans saw their losses double.

An example of how this happened is demonstrated by the Saumur Cavalry School. It’s an interesting battle for a number of reasons. First off, you have French cavalry students facing off against German Cavalry graduates. The French school cadets were facing the German First Cavalry Division. There were 10,000 Germans rolling down the road towards the French school under command of General Kurt Feldt. Feldt, a veteran of the First World War was no slouch. He was a highly decorated officer and even this early in the war, already had a string of victories behind him. He would survive the war, being captured just after the German surrender in May, 1945.

The battle of Saumur, he said, was one of his greatest tests and he complimented the students and staff of the school for the solid defence.

As his leading elements approached the  bridges over the Loire River, around midnight June 18, a 25 mm gun fired, hitting a German armoured car. Cadet Hoube went on to shoot up a number of German vehicles with his old weapon, including two more armoured cars and seven tanks.

As the Germans tried to cross each bridge, the French would destroy it. One by one, the Germans saw their opportunities blow up in their face. Meanwhile the French government had called for a cessation of hostilities only to be countered by General De Galle calling for French soldiers to carry on their fight.

The French checked their wounded and dead and the Germans brought up their artillery and 2,000 shells and began to hammer the 800 defenders spread in the area of Saumur.

On the flank of the French defence was Lieutenant Jacque Desplat, an instructor at the school. Along with a small group of cadets, he had some Algerian infantry. They were holding the island of Gennes, which could provide a bridging base for the Germans if captured.

It came under heavy attack and Desplats could be seen moving from position to position with his Airedale Nelson at his side. The dog seemed immune to the gun fire, said witnesses.

After the first day of the attack, Desplat prepared his cadets and men for the coming, inevitable night raid. After fending off attacks and enduring shelling all day, the evening didn’t bring rest.

As darkness fell, Germans swarmed across in the hundreds in quiet rubber boats. The handful of French defenders fought back. Desplat was battling his own one man resistance at an isolated part of the island when he was hit in the leg. Ducking under a willow tree for cover, he was applying a bandage to staunch the flow of blood when a shell burst killed him.

Eventually the Germans subdued or killed the remaining cadets. A survivor accompanied a German officer to check for dead and injured comrades when they found Desplat’s body, guarded by his wounded dog, Nelson. The young cadet asked if he could put the shivering dog out of its misery. “I will do it myself in honour of your commander,” said the German officer.

Meanwhile resistance continued in Saumur and Feldt commanded the town be sealed and bypassed.

The French had used up all of their ammunition and cadets were led out by their school commandant.

Saumur remained in German hands until it was liberated in August of 1944 by one of its former students. General George S. Patton on his big western sweep relieved the town of its captors. Patton had attended the school in 1912.

Feldt praised the defence of the town and area by the cadets and Adolf Hitler mentioned the resistance as he cautioned his generals against writing off the French will to fight.

Young untrain or incompletely trained French teens and young adults had held off the cream of the German army for two days at odds of more than 10 to one.


That’s a wrap for another week. If you have any questions or comments, you can check out historylab.ca and click on podcasts and leave your comments there or go to iTunes and rank us and leave a comment there, that would very cool. Next week, we’ll be back with more history of France in English, until then, adieu and merci!






This map gives you an idea where Oetzi was found in the alps. It was in what would become Italian Gaul or Gaul Cisalpina.


History of France in English – Episode 5

Welcome to the History of France in English, Episode Five. I’m Tom.

This week, we’ll continue our look at pre-historic France or what would become France, also, we’ll have another cocktail party slapdown, with a look at the Battle of Balaclava and some more shoutouts.

I’d like to thank Pat and welcome Gerry to the podcast listeners gallery. Nice to have you here. If anyone would like to help out the History of France in English Podcast, it would be grand to have a comment posted in the iTunes store or on the website page at historylab.ca/podcast.

Last week, we wrapped things up for the pre-history piece with Neolithic man kicking back in Brittany, hoisting a few cold ones… stones that is, to create a series of monuments. This week, let’s move ahead a bit more, to about 5,300 years ago and the Copper age-early Bronze age, in the south-west of what would become Gaul. Here, in the alps, an elder from an area village has eluded his attackers. We’re not sure why they’re after him, but he’s lost them by leaving the trail and looping through the forest. He may have been a shepherd and has an intimate knowledge of the area.

Now, in the mountains again, he’s found a spot where he can rest and have a meal.

This is what scientists think Oetzi would have looked like, um if he was sort of a Chippendale dancer… He is wearing his leggings and shoes, you can see his belt and pouches and his loin cloth and he is carrying his bow, unstringed.

He has time for the large, leisurely meal of ibex, bread and is resting when he’s attacked again, shot in the back and his attackers close in for the kill, he grabs his dagger and fends off some of the blows with his hands. It looks like he may have stabbed one of his attackers before slumping from his wounds.

This is the end of Otzi, the Ice Man of the Alps who was found when a glacier melted in 1991.

It’s at least one of the versions that have been put forward by the various scientists investigating this man who lived in the Alps, west of the Bremmer Pass and north of where Verona would grow at the edge of the Adige river. The valley the river flows down forms a natural passage through the mountains. It’s believed a trade route between the Italian side and the Austrian side of the Alps ran along the river, over mountains and down the other side. Otzi was found in the mountain area, above the valley.

Otzi may have been fleeing attackers when he arrived at this spot. He may have had an argument with rival hunters or was ambushed. He was holding his dagger in the same hand that scientists found was so badly wounded, it would not have worked very well, in fact, some of his fingers may not have worked at all, they were so badly cut.

Others say Otzi may have been ritually killed and that is why his tools and other kit were left with him and not taken. The gear was substantial and some of it was very expensive, including a copper axe with yew handle. Scientists have made a replica and found it could fell a yew tree without sharpening, so it was effective. Also found with him was the dagger, a sheath for the dagger, a kit for sharpening arrowheads, he had a bow and second unfinished bow in his pack, he had a quiver with two finished arrows, complete with fletching or feathers to stabilize them in flight, a bunch of unfinished arrows, a rough net for catching birds or rabbits, two birchbark contained that had been stitched together with thread made of tree bast. One of the containers was blackened inside and it appears it was used to carry embers from the last fire for use in future fires. Ötzi’s equipment was made with 18 different types of wood, with the most suitable wood being chosen for each object. Bark, bast, grasses, leather and flint were also fashioned into utensils and items of clothing.

Although it cannot be assumed that Ötzi made all the objects himself, he certainly could have collected and selected the materials himself.
Ötzi and his contemporaries evidently possessed excellent knowledge of natural materials. The ability to use natural raw materials to their best advantage was a vital skill for people living at the time. He had a kind of fungus that could be used to start fires as well.

He also had a sort of first aid kit in the form of two hide strips, on to each of which a round lump of material had been threaded. The strips were attached to Ötzi’s clothing. Analysis showed that these lumps consisted of the fruiting body of the birch polypore fungus.
Right up until the 20th century such bracket fungi were used for many medicinal purposes. Mushroom field guides call birch polypore “inedible,” some mentioning that it is bitter tasting despite having a pleasant, mushroomy smell. It has nonetheless long been used by herbalists, especially for making a tea from dried specimens that is believed to act as a restorative tonic.

Because it can be used in the final stages of sharpening knives and razors, it is also called the razor strop fungus. Like some other fungal conks, it will smolder for a long time and can be used to start fires.

So, how far did a copper age guy range? It looks like they were fairly mobile. Examining his tooth enamel and bones have shown that Ötzi probably spent his childhood in the upper Eisack Valley or the lower Puster Valley. He had evidently lived at least ten years in the Vinschgau prior to his death. Considering the terrain, this is a pretty wide area.

Archaeological excavations on the castle hill of Schloss Juval in the Vinschgau at the entrance to the Schnals Valley have unearthed the remains of a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement. Could this have been Ötzi’s home?



We are missing some of his story, his body was moved by enthusiastic amateurs and it was damaged during the removal as was some of his gear – in fact, his yew bow was used as a stick to pry his body out of the ice. The people who found him, thought he was a modern tourist who had succumbed to the cold, so they weren’t acting as if this was an important crime scene or historic find.

Otzi was found in September 1991 near a 10,500-foot-high pass at the top in the Schnals Valley in Italy, 300 feet from the Austrian border. His head and shoulders had been exposed for around a week, then covered again by a few inches of snow, when he was discovered by a German couple.

It was fluke luck. In fact, everything about it is fluke luck. If Otzi had died on the mountain side and not in a gully, he would have been crushed by the glaciers and ground to pieces as it made its way down the mountain. Instead, he died in a small depression where the ice formed over him, encasing him but not crushing him and the ice he died in stayed fairly still while other ice formed over that ice and flowed over it.

Otzi’s murder wasn’t immediately apparent. It was 10 years after his discovery that a radiologist spotted the arrowhead in the CT scan. It as buried in the Iceman’s left shoulder, indicating that he had been shot from behind. Later work revealed that the arrow had pierced a major artery in the thoracic cavity, causing a hemorrhage that would have been almost immediately fatal. The oldest accidentally preserved human ever found was the victim of murder.

Other scientists filled in biographical details. Analysis of chemical traces in his bones and teeth indicated that Ötzi, grew up northeast of where Bolzano is today, possibly in the Isarco River Valley, and spent his adulthood in the Venosta Valley. Pollen found in his body placed his final hours in the springtime, and his last hike probably along a path up the Senales Valley toward an alpine pass just west of the Similaun Glacier. Close examination of his hand revealed a partially healed injury, suggestive of a defensive wound from an earlier fight. The genetic results add both information and intrigue. From his genes, it’s known the Iceman had brown hair and brown eyes and that he was probably lactose intolerant and thus could not digest milk—somewhat ironic, given theories that he was a shepherd. Not surprisingly, he is more related to people living in southern Europe today than to those in North Africa or the Middle East, with close connections to geographically isolated modern populations in Sardinia, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula. The DNA analysis also revealed several genetic variants that placed the Iceman at high risk for hardening of the arteries. (“If he hadn’t been shot he probably would have died of a heart attack or stroke in ten years.”  Said one investigator. Perhaps most surprising, researchers found the genetic footprint of bacteria known as Borrelia burgdorferi in his DNA—making the Iceman the earliest known human infected by the bug that causes Lyme disease.

The autopsy results have also rewritten the story of the Iceman’s final moments. The neuroscientists determined that blood had indeed accumulated at the back of the Iceman’s brain, suggesting some sort of trauma—either from falling on his face from the force of the arrow, or perhaps from a coup de grâce administered by his assailant. DNA analysis of the final meal is ongoing, but one thing is already clear: It was greasy. Initial tests indicate the presence of fatty, baconlike meat of a kind of wild goat called an alpine ibex. “He really must have had a heavy meal at the end —a fact that undermines the notion that he was fleeing in fear. Instead, it appears he was resting in a spot protected from the wind, tranquilly digesting his meal, unaware of the danger he was in, just before he was attacked.

Well, at least he had something like bacon for a last meal. Good one Otzi! Clearly he was almost ready for anything. Grass matting was found that may have been worn over his head as protection from the rain. Other clothing included a striped goat skin coat worn with the striped fur side out. The pattern was made by alternating dark and light fur cut in stripes. Otzi also wore a loin cloth about a foot long, pulled between the legs like a diaper and held up with his belt.

Um, yeah, he had a belt…it was about six or seven long – it was broken in places – and about two to three inches wide and made of calfskin. It had pouches attached and the pouches held an assortment of tools including an awl that could be used for stitching, tattooing or even a toothpick, some sharpening equipment, tinder fungus and a drill, a flint flake and scraper.

He also had a bearskin cap that was made several pieces of skin all stitched together with animal sinew. The cap had straps to tie it to keep it on his head.

He was wearing leggings that covered the thigh to the ankles and were fitted with leather laces to tie them to the belt. The bottom of the leggings were attached to his shoes. Oh yeah, he had shoes.

The shoes had two elements, one was an outer net made of deer hide and the second was an inner grass net that held hay for insulation. Sort of like today’s winter boots with an leather outer and a felt liner. A shoe expert from Bata made a pair and wore them on a hike and said they worked very well.

In addition to the clothes and equipment, Otzi also was sporting 57 tattoos ranging from groups of lines on his ankles, a cross behind his knee, lines on his back and a number of other places that wouldn’t be displayed normally, leading researchers to consider other reasons. Apparently the tattoos align with acupuncture points and it’s thought they were part of a treatment system for Otzi’s various health issues.

The world Otzi lived in included small villages of huts holding large families.

And early farms growing were naked wheat, einkorn, emmer wheat, barley, poppy, flax and peas. The domesticated animals – cattle, pigs, sheep and goats – were mainly used as sources of meat but also provided leather, sinews, milk and possibly wool.
The livestock, especially sheep and goats, were driven to high grazing land in the summer. It’s thought this may have been a job that Otzi did at some point in his life.

When he died he was in his 50s and suffering from whipworm, possibly lime disease, arthritis and heart disease. Fifty was a pretty good age back then and he may have been a village leader, which would explain the axe, which would be very rare.

Copper was just starting to be mined in this area and would have been scraped off outcrops and smelted over a fire equipped with a bellows to get the heat high enough to melt the metal. It would have been collected in a beaker and poured into a mould made of sandstone and once cooled, would have been hammered into its final shape. The copper in Otzi’s axe was fairly pure.

Copper was also used in jewelry and in weapons.

The copper age was one of upheaval in Gaul and across Europe. Trade expanded as more ore was sought and that brought with it wealth and crime and trade and war.

Next week, we enter the era of Gaul in history.



Now the Cocktail Party Slapdown.

The Battle of Balaclava holds a special place in my heart. I live in Balaclava, Grey County, Ontario. It’s named for the famous battle of the Crimean War. A number of Grey County men took part in that war and were honoured with communities and streets named after them and the battles they took part in. One of the street names the pops up in Grey County is Canrobert.

Canrobert is the name of a French commander who took part in the Battle of Balaclava. Sure, we all remember the tragic charge that was memorialized in a number of poems and movies and books and songs, the classic Charge of the Light Brigade. The slaughter that took place during that gallant, foolhardy waste of brave men and horses was mitigated by a French force that saw what was happening and rode in to do what they could to save who they could.

The charge highlighted a serious problem in the British army. Rich, well-born men do not necessarily good commanders make. Such was the case of Thomas James Brudenell, Seventh Earl of Cardigan. Historian John Keegan, calls Cardigan ‘stupid, overbearing, arrogant and vindictive.’ He was also the estranged brother-in-law of his commanding officer – Lord Lucan. Cardigan was the man at the front of the charge of the Light Brigade.

The Battle of Balaclava came about when the invading force of British, French and Turks were marching down a peninsula to capture the important Black Sea port of Sevastopol. The defending Russians had finally brought in enough soldiers to attempt to push the joint force out and had sent a force down a road toward a small town called Balaclava. The terrain was a rocky plain with deep, steep valleys, all on a slope to the sea. The main road carrying the Russian advance was up one of these valleys. The allied commander was a Brit, and he was warned a Russian force was approaching but thought it a feint and didn’t act immediately. By the time he did, the Russians were storming the outer defenses.

In fact, when officers headed out to the pickets for inspection saw the signal the pickets were under attack, they were shocked. “Hello,” said Lord William, “there are two flags flying; what does it mean?” “Why, that surely is the signal that the enemy is approaching,” said Major McMahon. “Are you quite sure?” Hardly were the words out of McMahon’s mouth, when bang went a cannon from the redoubt in question, fired on the advancing masses of the enemy, according to Fletcher & Ishchenko’s The Crimean War: A Clash of Empires.

British troops did remarkably well, the Scottish 93rd regiment received the nickname Thin Red Line during this battle, for holding off a Russian cavalry charge. Back then, the usual thing for infantry, which is what the 93rd regiment was, to do when faced with cavalry was to either roll up into a ball on the ground and pray for your mommy or to form a square protecting all four directions with gunfire and forcing the cavalry to run around you taking fire. Forming line was considered crazy because the cavalry can usually charge right through, take minimal casualties and then turn around and hit your line again from behind with sabres drawn, ripping you apart.

The 93rd stood firm and the wave of Russian cavalry took two volleys of musket fire delivered point blank and broke and fled.


The British soldiers were doing great. The commanders couldn’t let that go on, so an ambiguous order was given the Light Brigade to charge. Apparently they were supposed to charge and recapture guns up on a ridge along the road I mentioned before, but the commander, our ‘stupid’ sweater loving Cardigan, led the charge straight ahead, down the road, with, um, guns to the right of him, guns to the left of him and guns ahead of him. French general Boisquet said, ‘it was magnificent, but it wasn’t war.’

The cannonballs fired at the Light Brigade litter the road and ditch in this photo of the battle scene by one of the world’s first war photographers, Roger Fenton.

The guns to the left, right and in front along with sharpshooters, shot up the charging Light Brigade as it travelled the roughly two miles down the road to the Russian guns straddling the road.

Up on one of the ridges overlooking the road, were British, French and Turkish soldiers, watching in horror. The French commander of the Chausseurs Afrique or Hunters of Africa, a cavalry unit formed from regular French cavalry and French settlers from Algeria, was among the spectators. But he didn’t just sit and watch. Major Abdelal led the chausseurs in an attack up the Fedioukine Heights to charge the flank of the Russian battery, forcing them to drag away their guns. By charging the guns, these men were responsible for saving the lives of some of the British cavalry.

Alexander Kinglake’s The Invasion of the Crimea, volume 5, described the attack by the French:

“The front of the French charge was formed by two squadrons of the regiment under the immediate command of Major Abdelal, and these were supported by the two remaining squadrons of the regiment under Colonel Champeron. Champeron’s two squadrons were in echelon and these two squadrons, upon approaching the enemy, were to veer away to the left, to fall upon the two battalions of foot which constituted the infantry support to the guns. This infantry was two battalions of Black Sea Cossacks.

The ground about to be invaded was much broken and scrubby, being encumbered with a tall undergrowth reaching up to the girths of the saddles; but the want of smooth even turf was not likely to be discomposing to men who had learnt war in the ranges of the Atlas. Abdelal’s two squadrons, advancing briskly in foraging order, broke through the enemy’s line of skirmishers, and having by this time a front which was nearly at right angles with the front of the Russian guns, drove forward with excellent vigour upon the flank of the nearest half – battery, and already were near to their goal, when, with singular alacrity, the guns of the half-battery thus attacked, and those also of the other half-battery which had not been directly assailed, were limbered up by the Russians and briskly moved off at a trot, whilst the two battalions of foot which constituted the infantry supports to the guns fell back all at once, without waiting for the impact of Champeron’s two squadrons then rapidly advancing against them ; and, moreover, the Cossack squadrons on the left of the battery which constituted its cavalry supports went about and began to retreat.
Then, to arrest the overthrow with which he seemed menaced, or to cover the retreat of his guns, General Jabrokritsky in person put himself at the head of two battalions of the famous 1 Vladimir ‘ regiment which had proved itself well just five weeks before in its fight with our troops
on the Alma, and proceeded to hazard the somewhat rare enterprise of advancing with foot-soldiers against cavalry ; but already the object of General Morris had been attained, and — exactly, as it would seem, at the right moment — he caused the ‘recall’ to be sounded. In an instant the victorious squadrons glided back to their place in the brigade ; and it soon appeared that the losses,
though involving certainly a considerable reduction of strength from a body of only a few hundred horsemen, were small in proportion to the brilliancy of the service these squadrons had rendered. They had ten men killed (of whom two were officers) and twenty-eight wouuded ; but in the course of the swift moments during which these losses befell them, they had neutralised  the whole of the enemy’s infantry on the Fedioukine Hills, had driven his artillery there posted into instant retreat, and in this way had not only done much towards the attainment of a general victory, but, failing that result, had prepared for our Light Brigade, whenever the moment for its retiring up the valley should come, a complete immunity from one at  least of the two flanking fires under which it had been condemned to advance.

Well imagined, well timed, undertaken with exactly apt means, performed with boldness well as with skill, and then, suddenly, at the right moment, arrested and brought to a close, this achievement was not only brilliant in itself, but had the merit of being admirably relevant, if so one may speak, to the then passing phase of the battle, and became, upon the whole, a teaching example of the way in which a competent man strikes a blow with the cavalry arm. The troops engaged in this enterprise were not the fellow countrymen of those whose attack they undertook to support ; but that is a circumstance which, far from diminishing the lustre of the exploit, gave it only a more chivalrous grace. The names of General Morris and General d’Allonville are remembered in the English army with admiration and gratitude.”

Queen Victoria asked Napolean III that the Provincial Marine mounted unit that took part in the French Charge, be allowed to wear gold spurs as a tribute from her to mark their efforts which saved British troops from destruction.

The Crimean War saw the rise of the war photographer. Roger Fenton was one of the first to perform this duty and his photos of the aftermath of the charge are graphic in their depiction of just how crazy it was to charge through a literal hail of cannon fire. There is a photo with this post and the website for more is here.



The History of France in English Podcast – Episode 4

Salut! And welcome to this week’s History of France in English podcast. I’m Tom.

If you’re still celebrating your holidays, good for you and if you’re back at work, well, good for you as well.

This week we’re looking at prehistoric France, including what the landscape was like, what the people were like and how they survived and how they left their mark. We’ll also have a cocktail party slapdown, looking at the valiant Free French Victory in a delay action that took place in the North African desert against none other than the Desert Fox himself, Erwin Rommel.

But first, some shoutouts.

Topping the list this week is the person who goes by the moniker PappaC. He had some very kind words for the podcast and helpful suggestions, including me not umming and ahing and tightening up my enunciation. Yes, I’ve been told my enunciation was the inspiration for Benicio Del Toro’s character Fenester in Usual Suspects. I’ll do my best PappaC and thanks!

I also want to say hi to Cathy who says my history of wine bit was a hit with her, I’ll drink to that.

Ray, we have a world war two example of French victories for the cocktail party slapdown and it’s from early in the war, so enjoy!

Okay, so on with the show.

This week, we’re looking at the earliest times of humans in the land of what would become France.

The earliest signs of humans in this area date back up to 950,000 years. Yeah, I know. It’s between 950,000 and 80,000, so I’m thinking go conservative and say 80,000.

Certainly for modern-ish man, that’s the more reasonable date. It also coincides with evidence around the world of a migration of people around this time out of Africa.

At this time, the climate was cooler. Mary Platt Parmele describes what you’d see – ‘if the mind could be carried back on the track of time and we could see what we now call France as it existed twenty centuries before the Christian era, we should behold the same natural features; the same mountains rearing their heads, the same rivers flowing to the sea, the same plains stretching out in the sunlight. But instead of vines and flowers and cultivated fields we should behold great herds of ox and elk, and of swine as fierce as wolves, ranging in a climate as cold as Norway and vast inaccessible forests, the home of beasts of prey, which contended with man for food and shelter.’

So you know, things were moving along really well. Predators wandering around, packs of vicious pigs snuffling about.

But about 74,000 years ago, things get worse.

A huge volcano in Indonesia blows up. The Toba supervolcano was the biggest, baddest volcanic eruption in two million years. Enough lava flowed to create two Mount Everests!

They figure it was about 5,000 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens blast in 1980.

It rained sulfuric acid on both poles.

Some scientists believe it kicked off a 1,000-year long ice age almost wiping out early humanity. Others say it was a shorter term annoyance. I remember reading about it five or six years ago and it just sounded so badass, I had to work it in. Best scenario, colder temperatures for five to 10 years, causing a global winter that would have affected migration and reduced plant life in France and the rest of Europe. Worst case, human population reduced from the hundreds of thousands globally to tens of thousands, along with other lifeforms and an ice age moves in.

Moving on, you have bands of people moving around the French peninsula, living in front of cave mouths, using just inside the cave for shelter and storage and staying the heck out of the dark interior because, well, they don’t have flashlights and it’s scary.

I’m really not sure what happened to us. I mean that is really good advice, to stay the heck out of the dark. If you watch any horror movies at all, you know what happens to the nosey people who check out the dark places. Flocks of vicious pigs grab them. Or the sundry predators.

But someone decided they had to venture deeper.

An article in New Scientist tells us that cave signs found in French caves span 25,000 years from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Two Canadian students studying cave art in France think there’s more to the work than self-expression and that the early lines, dots and dashes may indicate early humans were trying to communicate with symbols instead of pictures.

This could have been as long ago as 40,000 years.

It’s been suggested a creative explosion took place around this time, which coincided with humans beginning to think abstractly. Now “writing” wasn’t supposed to have happened  until about 5,000 years ago. If you want more about that, you should check out the History of English podcast, Kevin Stroud’s early episodes on the Indo-European language development. I’ll put a link up at historylab.ca. http://historyofenglishpodcast.com/index.html

Before the two Canadian students’ work, scientists focused on the paintings and not on the odd dots, spirals, lines and other things.

Genevieve von Petzinger of the University of Victoria was surprised she was the first to consider doing comparisons of these symbols in cave art.

When she and April Nowell decided it was worthy of their masters project, they looked among art from the Chauvet caves in southern France.

Among the 146 sites they compared, they found 26 signs reappeared – all drawn in the same style – and all combining common straight lines, circles and triangles with symbols that were more complex, including what looks like a lightning zig-zag, an eye as in what you see with, and birds’ feet – but this might be my doctor’s prescription writing.

The pair are working to see if the marks are an early form of writing. In some cases, the symbols are less abstract; for example, a tusk of a mammoth representing the whole animal.

Most of the symbols have been found in caves and on rocks in the Rhone Valley and Lot regions in the south. Nothing has been found in the north because for a large portion of this period, it was under a lot of ice, what with the glaciers and all.

Genevieve says ‘I was really surprised to discover this. This incredible diversity and continuity of use suggests that the symbolic revolution may have occurred before the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.’

The ramifications of this discovery are pretty big – almost as big as Toba. The date of the creative explosion was tens of thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

Jean Clottes, former director of the French caves, thinks we shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, she says it should be expected. She adds that older evidence existed but may have been inscribed on perishable surfaces that have succumbed to time. She says: ‘Language and abstract thought were probably practised long before 35,000 years ago, since “modern humans” are some 200,000 years old.’


In the 19th Century, the first cave paintings were found in France in the Dordogne region as was evidence of cro-magnon man.

The geologist Louis Lartet discovered the first five skeletons of this type in March 1868 in a rock shelter named Abri de Crô-Magnon.

This kicked off a flurry of similar discoveries across Europe, but none as rich or numerous as what has been found in France.

These early humans, the cro-magnons, were pretty average in many ways – you might not look twice at one if you passed him at the mall. I mean they did have long faces with a low brow, but that’s not exactly rare nowadays. They also had a heavier than average build. Go to a gym, again, not that unusual. Their brains were bigger than ours and they had similar vocal chords, so they could talk.

They had rectangular eye sockets and their average height was five feet seven for a male although there have been really large males in the six and a half feet tall range. No basketball nets have been found from that time though.

Hunter/gathering males tended to be slightly larger than average, about five feet 10 inches.

Some had straight hair, some curly. The skin tone is believed to be tanned, according to an article in the Oxford Journal.

They would have hunted cave bears, mammoths, horses (run black beauty, run!) and reindeer, hmm, how seasonal, (run Rudolph, run!) according to research results published in 2004 in Science Daily.

That article published results that showed that bones found in a cave in southern France were from meals cro magnons had prepared. The same research showed Neanderthals and cro magnons ate the same sort of meals and were equals when it came to hunting.

Neanderthals also lived in the area 80,000 years ago. It’s still very nice today.


If you skip ahead to about 6,000 years ago, Neolithic man was building his own places to stay, first out of wood and later out of stone. They also planted crops and kept animals for food.

I hope it was the pigs because they freak me out.

And while cave drawings and the early writing code were found in the caves of southern France, the largest concentrations of the Neolithic settlements are found in Brittany. It appears the first stone structures were tombs and eventually huts were made of rock as well. Carnac has standing stones and monuments from this era as well as burial mounds.

According to legend, St. Cornely was chased by Roman soldiers after criticizing their penchant for animal sacrifice. When he ran out of running room, near Carnac, he whirled around and changed the soldiers to stone, where they stand to this day.

There are a few things wrong with the legend, the first being, the stones were erected thousands of years before St. Cornely was around.

What the stones do tell us is that Neolithic man was pretty successful. He obviously had time on his hands to build things and that’s a good indication you’ve got things pretty much under control. Especially the roaming wild pigs.

So what did these more modern humans chow down on?

Well it’s complex. There’s a fad out there now, called the stone-age or cave man diet. It’s an interesting idea, but short of finding DNA from the prehistoric plants and animals and doing a Jurassic Park on them, what the neolithics ate and what modern humans are eating, even if it has the same name is not even close when it comes to size, shape, colour, taste…


Let’s start off with meat. I like meat. So what sort of meat did they eat? Rats, mice, squirrels. Organ meat, including brains, tongues, stomach, eyes, liver and kidneys. Maybe we should call what they ate, the zombie diet.

They also munched on grubs, large beetles, roaches, lizards, newts, frogs, turtles and anything else with meat.

For veggies they’d be eating stuff we would consider unpleasant because it was bitter. This would be food that had not yet been modified by years of manipulation by farmers and scientists. They ate old versions of beavery things like twigs, woody stems, bark and pith, that’s pith with a t-h.

They ate grains, sorghum, grapes, lentils.

Milk was avoided by many because after childhood, neolithics didn’t have the enzyme to digest it. This was something that came back as people began to drink milk and raise milk-giving animals like goats and cattle and horses. Again, Kevin Stroud has some cool info on how this came about, so check out his podcast.

But having the flexibility to build a home in a good spot instead of chasing after migrating animals and then trying to find a cave to hunker down next to makes life a lot easier.

Okay, so that’s a good place to wrap that up. Next week will take us through the rest of prehistory and then we can get down when France, er Gaul, enters the history books.


Next up, cocktail party slapdown!


The Battle of Bir Hakeim was a delaying action by French troops against an assault by German and Italian troops led by Erwin Rommel, the highly regarded and decorated German General.


It took place at a time when the allies were desperate for a win of any type. British troops were facing the juggernaut of Rommel heading along the north coast roads of Africa, towards British-held Egypt.

Marie Pierre Koenig

Marie Pierre Koenig

Stretched across the roads were small speed bumps deployed by General Neil Ritchie and these stretched into the desert, south of the north coast. The deepest defensive position was held by Free French Provincial Marines and some smaller units of engineers and artillery.

The commander of these troops, General Marie Pierre Koenig had spent weeks preparing his defenses for the  onslaught. There were mine fields, barbed wire and trench systems.

He had ten days supply of food for his 3,703 men.

He had 20,000 shells for his 54 75 millimetre guns and ammo for the assorted anti-tank guns, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns, British-supplied anti-tank rifles and other weaponry.

He was facing one of the best generals of the Second World War who was bringing along 47,000 seasoned troops, including two elite Italian divisions, as well as the top notch German troops.

By the way, before you snort too much at the term of elite Italian divisions, much of that army’s problem in the early fighting of the war had more to do with bad equipment. The troops often showed suicidal willingness to die in battle.

When the battle commenced on May 26, 1942, with the French outnumbered more than 10 to 1, the French general had a heavy weight on his shoulders.

The Italians had circled around the flank and on May 27, attacked the French from the rear. A concentrated attack with artillery support, it still faltered a bit against the dug-in French. Six tanks managed to make it through the direct fire and mine fields and were shooting up the French positions, forcing a French captain to burn his classified documents and the regimental flag to prevent them from being captured. However, the defence held and the tanks were eventually destroyed by the French firing their 75 millimetre guns directly at the tanks from very close range.


The Italians lost half their tanks in the first wave of the assault.

While the French held, the British lost an Indian brigade and had two others so shot up they had to retreat.

Now the French were even more isolated.


On May 28 and 29, British bombers accidently bombed the French positions because so many Italian tanks were in the area. The French tried to eradicate the tanks to prevent further confusion but were eventually driven back by artillery barrage.

On May 29, 620 of the Indian prisoners captured from the brigade earlier in the battle were released in the middle of the desert and began making their back to the French fort, putting stress on the limited supplies of food and water already taxed by a lack of resupply.

Water and food arrived on May 30 but that night the British 150th brigade to the north was wiped out.

Once again, the French force isolation was increased.

German General Erwin Rommel

German General Erwin Rommel

June 2, Rommel’s supply lines were threatened by the French position and he had to take it to allow further movement east.

German and Italian troops once again set against the French position.

Again the French held.

On June 3, Rommel himself sent a hand written note to General Koenig: “To Bir Hakeim troops. Any over-lengthened resistance means a needless bloodshed. You will eventually share the same destiny that the two British brigades of Got-el-Oualeb, which got destroyed two days ago. We will cease combat if you raise the white flags and come to us, without weapons.”. The only answer was a cannon salvo from the 1st artillery regiment which destroyed a few German trucks. On June 3 and 4, every attack was preceded by heavy 105 mm and stuka bombings, and was repulsed by the defenders. General Rommel would recount: “A surrender proposal, brought to the defenders by our negotiators, had been rejected, and the attack against the fortifications, the positions and the minefields set by the French troops was launched around 12 pm, from the north-west by the Trieste Motorized Division, and from the south-east by the 90th Light Infantry Division. The June battle started with an artillery bombardment; bombings went on during ten days with an uncommon violence. During that time, I had to command myself, at several times, the assaulting troops. On the Western Desert Campaign, I had not seen a more relentless fight.”

The French managed to hold out until June 11, when they withdrew.

Friedrich von Mellenthin, one of the staff officers of the Afrika Korps, would later write that he “had not ever been confronted, during the whole desert campaign, to such a relentless and heroic defense”.





History of France in English episode 3

Salut! And welcome to this week’s History of France in English podcast. I’m Tom.

Once again, I want to thank you all for you support, it really is gratifying. Also, your suggestions and tips are also welcome and needed if this project is going to improve with time. So thanks for what’s been offered so far and I encourage you to go historylab.ca and click on Podcast in the menu, there you can read the podcast notes, check out any photos I have in support of the podcast and you can also send me your comments. You can also search me out on facebook, a format I’m not entirely comfortable with yet, but I’m trying. Search History of France in English and you’ll find me.

I’ll have more shoutouts next week, but this week, the Christmas edition, I have only one shout out and that’s to Sandra Richmond, because without her support, there would be no History of France in English podcast and even if there were, it would be a sorry second to this one. Merci Sandra.


This week’s episode is a shorty because it’s the holiday season and I have some other responsibilities to tend to and apparently if I don’t soon, there won’t be much left…

Anyway, this week, we’re looking at Christmas in France, Christmas is called Noel, from a French phrase which means, the good news.

When was the first Christmas in France?

Well, probably the best date to consider is 496. The Christmas Day of that year is when the first Frankish king was baptized.

Clovis the first converted because of his wife, a sort of common theme. He is known for the conversion, unification of the Franks and the conquering  of Gaul.

For what would become France, Clovis had a huge impact. His conversion made Christianity much more palatable to the masses (um, no pun intended…) and his ability to tie all the small kingdoms together under him and to be able to pass that power on to his children made France a great power in europe.

I’ll get into much more detail about Clovis later, right now, I’m sort of looking at the Christmassy aspect.

So he and his 3,000 soldiers converted on the day celebrated by the Christians as the birthday of Christ. A real sign of the cross, if you know what I mean, getting converted on such an auspicious day. And he did this in spite of the fact his first son died shortly after being baptized, against his will. His second son was also baptized against his will and the second son almost died as well. That was probably more of a comment on the mortality rate of children at the time more than the strength of vindictive pagan Aryan gods.

The scene of the conversion was the city of Reims. A Christmas market is held every year in Reims and they put on quite a show.


In southern France a large log is put on the first at Christmas Day and is left to burn until New Year’s day when the remaining piece is retrieved and incorporated into the wedge of the plow to ensure a good harvest in the next growing season.

In much of France, children would leave their shoes or wooden clogs or sabot, by the fire on Christmas eve and in the morning they would hold a gift, who it was from, depended on where you were, for some, baby Jesus would drop it off and for others it was Pere Noel or Father Christmas. Oddly France is the home of the first mention of a Christmas tree, but the tree has never been as popular there as it is in Germany or Britain or North America. Even so, the first mention historically is in a document dated 1521 in Selestat. Like Reims, Selestat marks this historic event with a Christmas market.

In eastern and northern France, the Christmas season begins on December 6, la fête de Saint Nicolas, and in some provinces la fête des Rois* is one the most important holidays of the Christmas season. In Lyon, December 8 is la Fête de lumières, when Lyonnais pay hommage to the virgin Mary by putting candles in their windows to light up the city.

*Epiphany (la fête des Rois) is usually celebrated the January 6, but in some places in France it is celebrated the first Sunday after January 1.


In Alsace, goose is the main course, in Burgundy it is turkey with chestnuts, and the Parisians feast upon oysters and pat de foie gras. Le Revellion may consist of poultry, ham, salads, cake, fruit and wine.

French families used to have a Three Kings Cake with a bean hidden in it. Whoever found the bean in their slice was made King, or Queen, for the day.  In France the children go out to look for the Kings, taking gifts of hay for the camels.

Another name for this day is Twelfth Day. It is the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which used to be one long holiday. It was the last night of the Feast of Fools before the Lord of Misrule had to give up his crown and become themselves once again. Sounds as good a method as any to find a leader for a country.

During the first Christmas season of the First World War, in 1914, informal ceasefires took place between the combatants including British, French and German soldiers. In many cases, they held joint services for burials, sang carols and exchanged gifts before returning to the bloody job of killing each other.

A 2005 movie, Joyeux Noel, documents the truce, you might want to put it on your watch list for next Christmas.

That’s your lot for this week. We’ll be back next week with a full length episode with a look at early Gaul and a cocktail party slapdown among other things.

So from all of me to all you, joyeux noel and merciiiiiiiiii!


The History of France Podcast episode 2

Hi there and welcome to this week’s History of France in English podcast. I’m Tom.

I want to say, I was heartened by the support shown in messages and downloads of the podcast and by the interest it generated in Historylab.ca, the history website behind the podcast.

I also want to thank the History Podcasts facebook page and its denizens. In particular, Jamie Jeffers, it was his British History podcast that made me think I could do my own – I mean, if a lawyer… never mind. I also want to thank Zack Twalmey. Zack had loads of helpful advice and his When Diplomacy Fails podcast made my walks with Merv, my dog go overly long thanks to his um, longish podcasts… which I enjoy Zack, don’t go changin’.

Jamie Redfern was the one who beat me into the History Podcast facebook page. Jamie’s podcast, he does the History Of, Hannibal now, Alexander before and whatever in future and it’s a lot of fun.

I’m not going to go into a long list of all the podcasts I listen to weekly. I will list some more people who have been kind and in some cases more than kind since I announced the launch of the HoFiE podcast: Stephen Guerra, Antonio Rodrigues, Michael Litts, who has a great list of history podcasts, check historylab.ca for the link, Jordan Harbour, Ian Campbell because he thinks, iike I do, that Sigourney Weaver would make a bodacious Boadicea, Dan Martin and Shawn McLearn.

There will be more mentions of podcasts but I don’t want to turn the start of this thing into a long salute… sort of like it is already.

This week, we’re having a special salute to Christmas with a look at the First Christmas celebrated in the new world, Samuel Champlain’s Christmas on Ste. Croix Island on what would become the border of the United States and Canada, the first Aboriginal Carol and another cocktail part slapdown with another French Naval victory over the Royal Navy, again, at the height of its powers, during the Napoleanic Wars.

But first, we have to wrap up the business we started last week, the history of wine in France. I’ll pour.

There’s this guy, Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d’Aussy who was born June 3, 1737 and died December 6, 1800 He wrote a book, The History of Wine in France. It’s originally part of a book Legrand intended to write, the English translation is  “History of the private life of the French from the origin of the nation until our days”.

He originally intended to produce this much fuller narrative, but only finished the three volumes on food and drink (first published in 1783).

Writing at the end of the 18th century, Le Grand says there was a time when even Parisian wine was worthy of praise back in the early days of France, when it was called Gaul. He says the growers in the region around the capital city were probably victims of success. In order to meet the demand of the nearby tipplers, they concentrated on crops that gave a high yield but didn’t pay as much attention to the quality. Over decades, they turned their wine into plonk.

And in a country like France, that spelled the end of that run in a serious way.

Want to know how seriously the French take their wine? Consider the rivalry between Champagne and Burgundy.

This thing went on for decades. From Paris to the palace of Louis The 14th, university students would write their thesis on the issue, locals would advertise in any way possible to either promote their wine or put down the competition and even doctors became wrapped up in it.

It sort of started with a king.

For most of his life, Louis the 14th would sip Champagne wine with the support of his doctor Antoine d’Aquin who advocated the King drink champagne with every meal for the benefit of his health. Wish he was your doctor, right?

As with most average folk, kings get older and with age comes health problems. Different doctors seeking the king’s favour would proffer their advice – one being he should stop drinking champagne and switch – because he’d been drinking it his whole life and now he was old and having problems, it must be the champagne to blame – right?

This was the advice of Guy-Crescent Fagon who was in cahoots with the King’s mistress to oust d’Aquin and have himself appointed as Royal Doctor which he achieved in 1693.


Fagon quickly ordered that only Burgundy wine must be served at the royal table.


This development had a ripple (no pun intended) effect throughout both regions and in the Paris markets.


Wine had long held reputations for various health benefits depending on where it was from, so both Champagne and Burgundy were concerned with the reputation of their wines, even to the extent of paying medical students to write theses touting the health benefits.


These theses were then used as advertising pamphlets that were sent to merchants and customers.


So we had the odd situation of The Faculty of Medicine in Reims, in the champagne region, publishing several papers to refute Fagon’s claim that Burgundy wine was healthier than champagne. Then, in reply, Burgundian winemakers hired physician Jean-Baptiste de Salins, dean of the medical school in Beaune, the capital of the Burgundy region, to speak to a packed auditorium at the Paris Faculty of Medicine.


Salins praised Burgundy wine’s deep color and robust nature versus the pale red color of Champagne and the “instability” of the wine to travel long distances and the flaws of the bubbles from when secondary fermentation would take place. Yes, Champagne, back then, was a not what it is today…


The text of his speech was published in newspapers and pamphlets throughout France and had a damaging effect on champagne sales. Burst it’s bubbles, so to speak.


For 130 years, the war continued with plays, poems, novels, non-fiction – allegedly, polishing the rep for the respective wine. At times, the two regions were on the brink of a civil war.


A turning point occurred when several Champagne wine makers abandoned efforts to produce red wine in favor of focusing on harnessing the effervescent nature of sparkling champagne.


As the bubbles became more popular, doctors throughout France and Europe commented on the health benefits of the sparkling bubbles which were said to cure malaria. Still water was considered a bad thing – after all swamps were still water and they had um, well, mosquitoes for one thing and for another gave off bad air, which everyone knew was um, bad for you.


La Grand also briefly outlines a similar quarrel between Auxerre and Joigny before saying that France would have been lucky to have only such quarrels dividing it.


France’s long wine history never prevented it from importing wines. Le Grand’s overview of the foreign wines finding flavour favor in France includes wine from Gaza, once much prized and imported by Syrian merchants, wine from Cyprus, once regarded as some of the best in the world, and various types of malvoisie, mainly from Crete, but also from the island of Madeira (and known by that name). He ends his brief overview with lists of wines from Germany, Spain, Italy, and Greece which were popular in his own time. I’ll put them up on podcast page of historylab.ca, you might be surprised at what’s there and what’s not.


Wine of course was used in most celebrations.


Public festivities often included free-flowing wine, sometimes literally in fountains set up for the purpose, sometimes served at tables. Special occasions could also prompt the opening of a few barrels for public consumption.


The wine harvest itself – the vendange – has long been an almost pagan occasion for celebration and Le Grand describes some of the excesses which arose, even in monasteries, under pretext of such celebration and of the official condemnations which resulted, adding “if one had to condemn everything abused by men, what institution, even sacred, would be spared?”


Jamie Jeffers has some hilarious references to the holy abuses of alcohol featured on his British History Podcast. Check Historylab.ca for the link. The Link for Jamie Jeffers The British History podcast is here.


That observation ends Le Grand’s chapter on wine in the strictest sense. He follows this with a brief one on “Artificial Wines”, meaning in this case those flavored with various spices, sugar, etc. As he points out, these anticipated later drinks – the ancestors of today’s cocktails – made with stronger spirits. As early as the Gauls, people had infused wine with various flavors and by Charlemagne’s time wine was already being cooked down to a thicker, more unctuous drink (like today’s sherry and port). As time went on, wines were flavored first with herbs – such as absinthe – and then spices from Asia.


More recently we had some unscrupulous vinters and bottlers ‘enhancing’ wine with antifreeze, but let’s hope those days are behind us.

Anyway, after the French Revolution, after LeGrand had finished his writing, the amount of poor quality French wine increased. Napolean’s minister of the interior, Jean Antoine Chaptal decided the issue that needed to be addressed as the technology gap. In the last and first episode, we talked about what the Celt farmers were doing with their grapes, ahem, and that included dusting them with ashes and other methods of fertilization and ripening. In 1801, Chaptal published a treatise on how to improve the wine, including adding sugar to increase alcohol content, a process which is named after him. Chaptalization is a recognized practice in the art of winemaking even today. Like many things under Napolean, this step forward was a turning point in wine tech because it took all of the available information and put it together in one place.

As the decades crept by, French wine edged up in quality so that by the middle of the 19th century, it was back and enjoying new popularity just in time for the booming middle class.

The Gironde estuary region and especially Bordeaux, increased trade with England and even at home in Paris. By the time of the 1855 Paris Exposition, even the new emperor could see how important wine was for the economy of France and that Emperor, Napolean III had the Bordeaux merchants create a ranking system for the wine and that system became one of the world’s most famous. It went from first growth to fifth growth or crus, and you can see this on bottles even today, although some critics suggest the system needs updating.

The French wine standards were the benchmark for the world.

But like all good things, this was to end.

The same drive for knowledge and experimentation would cause serious problems.

The collection of botanical species and their introduction brought disease in the form of a mildew and a pest, a mite, that spread throughout the French vineyards, causing widespread loss of vines not seen since that other pest, Domition, had them ripped up.

Henri Mares found that by sulfuring vines with copper sulfate and lime helped control the mildew. Just as this was being solved, another plague hit the grape growers in the form of the mite, which went after the root stocks.

This was beat by bringing in hardier root stocks from North America, which worked until downy mildew was brought in with the root stocks and caused problems in 1878 followed by black rot in 1880s. Ever resilient, the growers experimented and created new combinations to hold off the different diseases and pests and in so doing, created new flavours, many of which are around to this day.

Louis Pasteur, he of pasteurization fame, was hired by the French government to take the art of winemaking into the scientific realm and he did. Pasteur modernized wine making and much of what he found to improve wine, including reducing spoilage is still practiced today. I’ll drink to that.

The wine trade in France led to the development of an expanded rail network that was the envy of the world. In particular, this opened the Languedoc in southern France to the rest of France, Europe and the world.

The world’s wine industry owes much of the success it enjoys today to the challenges and solutions that French growers faced and found in it’s history and I think that’s worth toasting.


Okay, so now onto the special section this week. In fact, this week and next week, we’ll a have special Christmas section in the podcast.

This week is the First Christmas in North America – which was probably the one celebrated by Samuel de Champlain.

I won’t go into the details of the entire expedition as it deserves it’s own episode. He was probably the best explorer of his time. His map making was superior, he was a gifted writer, a warrior who could grasp the tactics and strategies of any environment, he knew how to win hearts and minds and he chose to make partners of the first inhabitants of the new world rather than conquering them. And he learned from his mistakes, which is why Quebec City is still around today, but his first settlement is not.

The Ste Croix River forms part of the border between Canada and the United States today, but in 1604, it just looked like a nice place to live, according to Samuel Champlain. So he and his men, 79 of them, hunkered down for winter. It was about as far north as their homes back in France, so they expected the same winter.

You know, until the snow arrived in October and kept piling up so that when Christmas came there were a couple of feet of snow on the ground and the wine and cider were frozen. The only thing not frozen was the fortified wine.

Many of the men were not happy with the weather and chose to remain inside, by the fire. A dozen or so went out regularly to hunt and fish. Essentially, it was the hunters who survived the winter best and the guys who stayed in, ate only the salt beef and pork became horribly sick with scurvy and in many cases, died.

Champlain’s 1606 Christmas went much better. For one, the location wasn’t a damp island surrounded by broken ice that couldn’t be crossed in a boat or on foot. Port Royal was a model settlement with gardens and proper shelter and a club.

The Order of Good Cheer – as the English version goes – was a medal that went around to different members of the community, making them responsible for providing the meat and fish for the day. As their turn approached, they would head out to ensure they would have a supply of meat and fish that was superior to that provided by the person preceding them. By appealing to the competitive nature of the men, “We spent this winter very pleasantly, and had good fare by means of the Ordre de bon temps, which I established and which everybody found beneficial to his health and ore profitable than all the varieties of medicines they might have used,” wrote Champlain. “This order consisted of a chain which we used to place with certain small ceremonies around the neck of one of our company commissioning him to go hunting that day. The next day it was conferred to another and so on, in succession. All competed with one another to do it best and to bring back the finest game,”

A decade later, A Jesuit priest was in what would become Ontario, Canada, not far from Georgian Bay’s south east coast. The French had established a series of missions here, the biggest was Ste Marie. Celebrations given in the dense forest (near Ste. Marie) with a priest, his assistant and a group of hunting  is recorded in Chapter VI of the Jesuit chronicles, The Relations of 1644-45′.”  The relations are books where the jJesuits relate what happened…
As the story goes a considerable band of Christian natives who were preparing for their great hunt and for securing a provision of Elk meat, took to the dense forest accompanied by Father Gabriel Druilletes. Because the Iroquois relentlessly pursued the Huron they were “compelled to remain at a distance of several days journey from the house of prayer” and because the journey would involved several months they wanted to have someone along to teach them the way of heaven.
Equipped with a small trunk of necessary supplies for saying Mass, Father Druilletes and his assistant -a young Frenchman that served him at the altar, travelled along with the sign of the cross. The Father said Holy Mass everyday for the group, waiting on any who could not be there at the same time.
The main body of the group preceded a small boat in which Father Druilletes and his assistant traveled to meet at an appointed rendezvous. Food was scarce but each person had a share -a piece of smoked meat without bread almost as hard as a piece of wood and as insipid as tow’. When the sun set they would stop at a place suitable for camping -each person laying down their burden -then kneeling down to thank God for his goodness in having preserved the whole band. Next they put up temporary dwellings -a task taking two to three hours.
The Festivals and Sundays were observed in a most holy manner where the native people confessed and received communion. According to The Jesuit Relations the group had a special devotion for the night the Son of God was born and there wasn’t a single soul that refused to fast on the day before.
“…they built a small Chapel of Cedar and fir branches in honor of the manger of the infant Jesus; they wished to perform some penance to prepare themselves for better receiving him into their hearts on that holy day; and even those who were at a distance of more than two days journey met at a given place to sing Hymns in honor of the new born child and to approach the table whereat it was his will to become the adorable food. Neither the inconvenience of the snow nor the severity of the cold could stifle the ardour of their devotion. That small chapel seemed to them a little Paradise…”
They begged the Father for their consolation and instruction, to do everything in their flying Chapels that was done in a permanent and stationary church and they celebrated with bonfires to pay honor to the Christ child with small cedar and other woods of all kinds from the great forests around them. A bonfire was a way of celebrating a big event in the 17th Century.
Ste. Marie Among the Hurons program coordinator Larry Ford says 1639-49 celebrations of the birth of Christ most likely coming to this area from Quebec, involved traditionally three Masses including Midnight on December 24th (which continues today), at dawn on Christmas Day and another one during mid-afternoon or early evening on Christmas Day.
“During the day there was a large or elaborate meal as possible to celebrate the day. Gifts were actually given on January 1st -New Years Day. These gifts were very practical or religious in nature being such things as a rosary, book, crucifix or food like oranges or fruits if available but these would be very rare in New France at the time,” said Ford.
“There would be different feasts between the days of Christmas and Epiphany including the Feast Day of St. Stephen on December 26th, the Feast Day of St. John on December 27th and Holy Innocence Day on December 28 -a day set aside for all the babies put to death by King Herod, who at the time was trying to put the Christ Child  to death.”


The first North American Christmas carol was written by a saint — and a member of the Society of Jesus. Now known as “The Huron Carol”, it was written by Saint John de Brébeuf, Jesuit missionary to the Huron Indians, who was martyred in 1649 by the Iroquois. Father de Brébeuf worked among the Hurons from 1626 until he was burnt at the stake after suffering heinously brutal torture. The Iroquois also attacked and destroyed the Huron mission in 1649 and 1650.

According to Jesuit Father Francis X. Heiser’s account (The Christmas Book, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1952, pp. 82-84), Father de Brébeuf wrote the Huron language Christmas hymn, “Jesous Ahatonnia” (“Jesus is Born”), which he adapted from a sixteenth century French folk song. The Hurons who escaped the Iroquois attacks preserved the hymn. They later settled at Loretto, near Quebec, led by other missionaries. Father Étienne de Villeneuve recorded the words of the hymn, which were found among his papers following his death in 1794.

Father Heiser gave the second stanza of Father de Brébeuf’s hymn in the original Huron language. (He said that the Hurons have no M, so the missionaries substituted for it the French dipthong ou, so “Mary” appears as “Ouarie” (pronounced ‘Warie’).

By the way, the first recorded account of a Christmas tree in North America dates from 1781, in Sorel, Quebec, a short distance from Montreal. This tree was at the house of Baron Frederick-Adolphus Riedesel, the commander of a company of German soldiers sent by the Duke of Brunswick to help defend Canada during American Revolution.

And now, it’s time for cocktail party slapdown. This week, we look at the  Battle of Grand Port, which took place late August of 1810 east of the large island of Madagascar, the large island off the south-east coast of Africa, by the tiny Mauritius islands. These were highly important as far as trade and shipping were concerned. Their strategic placement on the map gave them control over a vast area of open ocean in a vital area for Great Britain. Much of Britain economy depended on trade and much of that trade depended on goods that were shipped past these small islands from India and other points.

And Napolean Bonaparte knew this and so he’d sent French frigates to the area to harass British shipping.

Prior to the battle, the English had captured French signals books in a daring raid that also captured a fort that guarded the harbour of Grand Port. When the French Squadron arrived, the English used a ruse de guerre or a trick of war – flying a French Flag over the captured French fort – hey, everything’s cool, come on in. They also used the captured codes to transmit with the signal flags, the password, so the French were sailing into a trap.

The Royal Navy is full of clever bastards. Well, to a point.

Here is an image from a painting of the battle.

Here is an image from a painting of the battle.

That flag they used, when they were bringing it down to replace with the Union Jack, caught fire and brushed against ammunition, setting it off. A huge explosion killed six men in the fort, 12 others were badly burned and a sailor climbing aboard the captured French boat Victor, was hit by a cannon that fired a cannonball when it went off when it was dismounted by the blast along with five others.

If it happened in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it.

Anyway, the French had two Frigates, the Bellone and Minerve, the Brig Victor and two captured prizes, the East Indiamen Wyndam and Ceylon. The British have four Frigates, Iphigenia, Magicienne, Sirius and Nereride so they have the edge in firepower. They also have surprise working for them until the Victor enters the harbour and Nereide fires broadsides causing the Brig’s captain to surrender being outgunned and caught by surprise.

The captain of the Nereide had tried to send men to take possession of the Victor, but the fact the French squadron was now entering the harbour, the Victor’s captain raised his flag again at which point the aforementioned explosion took place, sort of causing people to shift focus. The lone British sailor about to take possession of the prize, Victor, was hit by the cannonball that was sent flying by the discharged cannon that had been dismounted when the flag set fire to the ammunition.


So the French are in the harbour with the exception of the East Indiaman Wyndam which has crept off to hide because it couldn’t make it into the habour. It took shelter in a nearby cove. The captain of the Sirius saw this and sent some boats to take possession of it. The men had forgotten their weapons, but for some reason, and someone is going to have to explain this to me, they brought foot stretchers with them… you know, I’ll put a link on historylab.ca if you don’t and used these to take the ship back. Click here to see what foot stretchers are. http://forum.woodenboat.com/showthread.php?131404-Foot-Stretchers

The actual battle hadn’t even started and already there where more than two dozen casualties on the French side and just under a dozen on the British side.

During the lull, the British commander sent a flag of truce party to ask they French send the Brig Victor over as it had surrendered at one point. The French wouldn’t consider it.

The British then bombarded the French ships with mortars they’d landed at the mouth of the harbour and installed on a small island there. The French moved their ships back out of range and anchored.

The French had also moved the buoys marking the channel into the harbour between the reefs, making things tougher for the British.

And the French had anchored their smaller squadron in a semi-circle facing the narrow harbour entrance, meaning the larger British squadron would have to run a gauntlet of French fire to gain access to the harbour, one at a time.

Pretty clever bastards on the French side.

The other Indiaman, the Ceylon, surrendered soon after the battle began, the merchant ship wasn’t really up to a full out brawl, leaving the now even smaller French squadron with two frigates and one brig facing four frigates. However, the British grounded two of their frigates thanks to the French handiwork with the marking buoys.

The Nereide also wound up with one of it’s anchor lines cut, and the wind blew it around so it’s rear was facing the French broadsides, not a good thing.

The French commander was wounded in the face by a splinter, knocking him unconscious and his lieutenant spirited him below. The commander of the Nereide had his eye taken out its socket but remained in command.

The man who took over command for the injured French commander, converted his Frigate into a superfrigate by adding a second gun deck through some clever underfire carpentry work, bolstering the fire power. He also had an improvised bridge built to shore to allow French soldiers to come across with more guns and ammunition dramatically increasing the speed of reloading and firing the increased number of guns.

The Nereide was demolished with 200 casualties and eventually she surrendered but because the boat carrying the news of the surrender was holed that information came with escaped French prisoners who had jumped overboard during the battle and swam to the French flagship.

The French commander, in view of the darkness and the earlier ruse de guerre with the British using a French flag, waited until morning before accepting the surrender.

The French offered to send the prisoners they’d taken home to Britain under parole if the British surrendered Iphigenia and the small island at the mouth of the port which the British did.

It was one of the bloodiest Frigate encounters of the war and the British had lost four of their ships to the French.

The French losses were 37 killed , 112 wounded, some damage to their ships and the Wyndam remained captured by the British. The British losses were 105 killed, 163 wounded, all the survivors captured, the Magicienne sunk and the other three Frigates captured and the troopship Ranger captured.

Sounds like a French victory to me.

Next week, the week of Christmas, we’ll have a shorter episode with a historical look at Christmas in France. Until then, I bid you adieu and merciiiiiiiiiii.


Here is a link to a youtube vid with the Huron Carol sung in Wendat or Huron.








This is the History of France In English podcast.

I’m Tom Villemaire.

I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time. I have a French last name and my family background is part French Canadian and part Irish, Scottish and English with some Polish thrown in for a bit of old world class.

At any rate, with the French last name, I was ragged through school for being a frog. At first I thought I was being complimented on being a good swimmer, because, you know, frogs are great swimmers. But that wasn’t the angle they were coming from.

It’s no wonder people think this about the French. I mean it’s such a standard joke, there must be some truth to it, right? The French are obviously a race of cowards… that  can swim better than anyone.

Yeah right. The thing is not all of them are great swimmers.

The problem is the history taught to people who speak English is written by English speaking people. That usually means someone with an English bias.

And you can’t blame the English for being biased, especially against the French. I mean, they were conquered by a guy called William in 1066, who came to England from Normandy. Normandy is part of France. And they are constantly reminded of this every time they look at the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom because there are two mottos on the coat of arms. One is Dieu et mon droit and the other is Honi Soit que mal y pense. They are both French phrases. The first means God and my Right and refers to the God given right of a monarch to rule and the second is Shame be to him who thinks evil of it.

 The last French monarch’s motto was a longstanding French saying and the war cry of the French army:  Montjoie Saint Denis.

Montjoie Saint Denis doesn’t mean I surrender.

So, as this is the first podcast and I’m still trying to figure out how to tackle it in a format that works, today we’ll try things in a number of bite-sized pieces.

The first will be a cultural sort of topic and that’s the history of wine in France.

Okay, so wine in France, when does wine first pop up in the historical record?

Did the history of wine in France start here in Phocaea, Turkey? Some say yes, Phocaean sailors settled what would become Marseille, France and in the process, brought vines and wines. Others say the vines and wines were already there, but maybe the Phocaeans brought access to a wider market. Almost everyone agrees there was a pitch taste to the most popular wine. Go figure.

Well, right along with the establishment of France’s oldest city, Marseille.

Oh, and before we go any further, a disclosure up front. My French is lousy and my knowledge of wine stinks. I like wine, to drink and cook with, but only because of the taste – I can’t tell you much more than that.

As I was saying, the first mention of wine in France was a reference to the establishment in Gaul of the city of Massalia by the Greeks in 600 BC. Some say the grape was brought to what would become France, by the Phocaeans, who were Greeks from what is today, Turkey. There were people already living there, the Celts were already living it up in southern France. The Celt leader’s daughter married the Phocaean leader, and the Phocaean was given some land as a wedding gift and that is where he founded the city. According to this story, the Greek was also given a cup of locally made wine. So in this version, grapes and wine are already available. And yes, Antibes was founded earlier, but there is no mention I can find, of wine, which doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

There are at least two other views on the origin of wine in France.

Pliny had a lot to say about the wine grown in what would become France.

Pliny says the first to make wine known to the Gauls was a Helvetian, named Elicon, who, after making money in Rome and wanting to return home, headed off with wine which he sold as he passed through Gaul. While doing this, he was urging the local Celts to (Quote) conquer the happy land which produced so sweet a liquor. (Unquote)

Helvetia was a part of ancient Gaul that is now in Switzerland.

Then there’s Plutarch and Titus-Livy. They say it wasn’t a Helvetian, but a Tuscan who brought the early vine and wine industry to Gaul. This man, was unhappy with the Roman empire and went among the Gauls with the best wine of the Italian penninsula, giving it to the chiefs to drink, which inspired them to put three hundred thousand men under arms, head over the alps and sack Rome. But that comes later. Like between 390 and 387 BCE.

Here’s another interesting winey fact. At the beginning of December, 2012, last week in podcast time, some 150 grape seeds dating to the first century A.D. were unearthed at the Etruscan site of Cetamura del Chianti in Italy. The seeds were found in a waterlogged ancient well, so their DNA may have been preserved well enough for study.

“We don’t know a lot about what grapes were grown at that time in the Chianti region. Studying the grape seeds is important to understanding the evolution of the landscape in Chianti. There’s been lots of research in other vineyards but nothing in Chianti,” explained Nancy Thomson de Grummond of Florida State University.

So you have some ancient historians saying the wine was already in France in 600 BC, some saying it was brought in by someone coming from Italy.

Once again, we’re seeing the possibility of bias coming out in the history – which is totally understandable. There are good arguments to be made that all the stories are true to an extent. I mean, it’s possible there were native vines already in Gaul producing grapes already being made into wine. It’s possible traders between Greek communities and later Roman communities as well as others brought their wines and vines as part of the trade with the Celts and other tribes.

By the way, modern archaeologists have found grape seeds throughout France dating before Greek and Roman culture, in some cases they are 12,000 years old. But we don’t know if it was used for wine or eating or maybe making delicious grape jelly.

The wine back then wasn’t awesome but it was passable. Most wine back then wouldn’t be considered awesome by today’s standards.

The wine that Jesus Christ would have sipped was a thick sweet wine and that was common for the time. Wine was often mixed with water – a tradition that still continues in the catholic church.

What is accepted is that by the time the Romans conquered southern Gaul, including what would become Provence, they were pretty happy with the produce of Provence, including the wine, to refer to it as the province of the city of Rome.

What today is called resinated wine was very popular and this is a good example of people becoming used to something weird and then eventually liking it or even loving it. Before barrels and casks, wine was shipped in clay amphorae. The amphorae were lined with pine resin or pitch and of course, that would flavor the wine. Over time, what was considered and necessary evil was slowly accepted and, as people became used to the taste and associating it with the good times that went with wine, even loving it. A place in the Rhone valley, called Vienna back in the day and called Vienne today, produced a wine the locals and the Romans liked. If you want to try something like it today, you would have to buy a Greek retsina, retsina is a resinated wine.

So the Romans loved the pitch, baby. And many wine wise guys caught on to this and decided to um, adjust their wines to please their roman customers. So they would put pitch right in the containers of wine as an enhancer.

Some of the wine experts of the day, like Dioscorides, said the infusion of pitch was necessary for Gallic wines: otherwise, they would have soured; the climate not being warm enough to ripen the grape.

The reason alleged here by Dioscorides proves, either that the climate of Gaul was then really a little colder than it is now, or that the art of making wine was still in its infancy.

Or again, it might have been a bit of bias on the part of the Romans. By 200 BC they had taken southern France into the Roman empire and Caesar conquered the rest by about 50 BCE. As they Celts didn’t have a written language, we only have the word of the Romans and Greeks to go on and they didn’t think good grapes could be grown anywhere where you couldn’t grow olives. So southern France or Gaul was it, as far as the Romans or even the Greeks were concerned. Anywhere else just wasn’t possible.

But by the early first century CE, wine vines were being tried in all sorts of places. This added Bordeaux and Burgandy to the places where wine could be grown and apparently, they are doing okay.

And what sort of other special technology did the Gaul use to get their wine to be so special?

The Gauls fertilized their soil with marl and ash. The grapes were even powdered with ashes when they began to ripen; “and one cannot deny,” the Pliny adds, “that the dust in this country contributes more to their maturation than the Sun.”

“It is difficult to pronounce upon the merits of those of the Narbonnaise Province; because the inhabitants, to change the taste and the color, adulterate them, smoke them, mix in herbs, harmful things, and even aloes.”

Pliny says this sort of thing was common among the Greeks and Latins who, according to the different qualities of their wines, threw in pitch, plaster, ashes, seawater; and many other similar ingredients. In Italy, all this tinkering had been reduced to an art; it was what was called conditura vinorum.

In 92 CE France’s later dominance as a wine-producing nation was literally uprooted when the emperor Domitian ordered that most French vines be torn up. This forced the Gauls back to the beer and other drinks. Two centuries later, Probus was in charge and he not only allowed the vines to be replanted but had Roman soldiers help in this effort. In order not to tempt future famine, the cultivation was controlled, to ensure farmers didn’t just rip up all the wheat and other crops the empire needed and plant grapes.

Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast of course, goes into great detail on Domitian and you should check it out if you haven’t already. See historylab.ca for the link: Click here for the link..

During the reign of Augustus, straddling the BCE and CE period, wine amphorae were produced in huge amounts in the Narbonnaise area, especially in Bezier. In Rome these amphorae were found in various ruins. One example is an amphorae that was marked with a note saying “I am a white wine from (the Bezier) region and I am five years old.”

Grape growing spread through Gaul. In some places it was banned again, like in the area where Belgium is today. They felt the alcohol promoted nasty habits.

About 1200 years after the first mention of wine in the Gaulish-French history, it is being grown throughout what would become France. By 600 CE it was grown in the Champagne region, in the Paris basin, the Loire valley. By this time, wine was being grown in Britain, but more out of desperation, one senses.

And by this time the catholic church was influencing the area and wine was an integral part of the sacrament of communion.

Because of the church influence and the increasing importance of wine, the Valois of Burgandy rose to power essentially on the popularlity of their wine.

We’ll stop the history of wine segment there, because there’s still lots to cover and I can feel a droning coming on. We’ll pick it up next week.

Now it’s dinner party slapdown time. Today’s topic is French naval victories. Stop laughing, there’s lots of them. Probably the most important French naval victory from a world history point of view took place at the height of the Royal Navy’s dominance, that’s the British Royal Navy, but a conceit of that country’s navy is it be called THE Royal Navy.

At any rate, when Britain was caught up in a revolutionary war with some of its colonies in North America, no, not Canada, the ones that would become the United States, she suffered a serious and ultimately for the revolution, deadly blow.

The Battle of the Chesepeake caused the defeat of the British land forces at Yorktown and the American victory in the war. It can be argued without the French, there would be no America today.

The French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul comte de Grasse, led his fleet of 24 ships of the line against two British admirals and their 19 ships of the line. De Grasse’s fleet suffered 220 wounded and killed, two ships damaged. The British suffered 90 killed, 246 wounded, five ships damaged and one scuttled.

It took place  September 5, 1781, after months of movement by the British between New York and the coast of Virginia. Admiral Graves, the British admiral in charge of the North America station, had tried to cut off a convoy coming from France with supplies and cash to aid the rebels. Unsuccessful, he eventually met up with the second British Admiral, Hood. Hood was an extremely aggressive commander. A third admiral, Sir Francis Samuel Drake was also involved but not in charge of a fleet.

The British had the weather gauge, which meant they were above the French in the winds, so they had the control of when to give battle. The wind eventually changed to the French favour and battle was already engaged. It was a hard fought battle but the French prevailed, the English eventually had to retreat as they suffered far greater damage and loss of men.

Even General George Washington acknowledged the role of the French Navy: “You will have observed that, whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest.”


Next week, the wrap up of the history of wine in France, more on the evolution of france and another cocktail party slapdown.

Salut! And welcome to this week’s History of France in English podcast. I’m Tom.

If you’re still celebrating your holidays, good for you and if you’re back at work, well, good for you as well.

This week we’re looking at prehistoric France, including what the landscape was like, what the people were like and how they survived and how they left their mark. We’ll also have a cocktail party slapdown, looking at the valiant Free French Victory in a delay action that took place in the North African desert against none other than the Desert Fox himself, Erwin Rommel.

But first, some shoutouts.

Topping the list this week is the person who goes by the moniker PappaC. He had some very kind words for the podcast and helpful suggestions, including me not umming and ahing and tightening up my enunciation. Yes, I’ve been told my enunciation was the inspiration for Benicio Del Toro’s character Fenester in Usual Suspects. I’ll do my best PappaC and thanks!

I also want to say hi to Cathy who says my history of wine bit was a hit with her, I’ll drink to that.

Ray, we have a world war two example of French victories for the cocktail party slapdown and it’s from early in the war, so enjoy!

Okay, so on with the show.

This week, we’re looking at the earliest times of humans in the land of what would become France.

The earliest signs of humans in this area date back up to 950,000 years. Yeah, I know. It’s between 950,000 and 80,000, so I’m thinking go conservative and say 80,000.

Certainly for modern-ish man, that’s the more reasonable date. It also coincides with evidence around the world of a migration of people around this time out of Africa.

At this time, the climate was cooler. Mary Platt Parmele describes what you’d see – ‘if the mind could be carried back on the track of time and we could see what we now call France as it existed twenty centuries before the Christian era, we should behold the same natural features; the same mountains rearing their heads, the same rivers flowing to the sea, the same plains stretching out in the sunlight. But instead of vines and flowers and cultivated fields we should behold great herds of ox and elk, and of swine as fierce as wolves, ranging in a climate as cold as Norway and vast inaccessible forests, the home of beasts of prey, which contended with man for food and shelter.’

So you know, things were moving along really well. Predators wandering around, packs of vicious pigs snuffling about.

But about 74,000 years ago, things get worse.

A huge volcano in Indonesia blows up. The Toba supervolcano was the biggest, baddest volcanic eruption in two million years. Enough lava flowed to create two Mount Everests!

They figure it was about 5,000 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens blast in 1980.

It rained sulfuric acid on both poles.

Some scientists believe it kicked off a 1,000-year long ice age almost wiping out early humanity. Others say it was a shorter term annoyance. I remember reading about it five or six years ago and it just sounded so badass, I had to work it in. Best scenario, colder temperatures for five to 10 years, causing a global winter that would have affected migration and reduced plant life in France and the rest of Europe. Worst case, human population reduced from the hundreds of thousands globally to tens of thousands, along with other lifeforms and an ice age moves in.

Moving on, you have bands of people moving around the French peninsula, living in front of cave mouths, using just inside the cave for shelter and storage and staying the heck out of the dark interior because, well, they don’t have flashlights and it’s scary.

I’m really not sure what happened to us. I mean that is really good advice, to stay the heck out of the dark. If you watch any horror movies at all, you know what happens to the nosey people who check out the dark places. Flocks of vicious pigs grab them. Or the sundry predators.

But someone decided they had to venture deeper.

An article in New Scientist tells us that cave signs found in French caves span 25,000 years from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Two Canadian students studying cave art in France think there’s more to the work than self-expression and that the early lines, dots and dashes may indicate early humans were trying to communicate with symbols instead of pictures.

This could have been as long ago as 40,000 years.

It’s been suggested a creative explosion took place around this time, which coincided with humans beginning to think abstractly. Now “writing” wasn’t supposed to have happened  until about 5,000 years ago. If you want more about that, you should check out the History of English podcast, Kevin Stroud’s early episodes on the Indo-European language development. I’ll put a link up at historylab.ca. http://historyofenglishpodcast.com/index.html

Before the two Canadian students’ work, scientists focused on the paintings and not on the odd dots, spirals, lines and other things.

Genevieve von Petzinger of the University of Victoria was surprised she was the first to consider doing comparisons of these symbols in cave art.

When she and April Nowell decided it was worthy of their masters project, they looked among art from the Chauvet caves in southern France.

Among the 146 sites they compared, they found 26 signs reappeared – all drawn in the same style – and all combining common straight lines, circles and triangles with symbols that were more complex, including what looks like a lightning zig-zag, an eye as in what you see with, and birds’ feet – but this might be my doctor’s prescription writing.

The pair are working to see if the marks are an early form of writing. In some cases, the symbols are less abstract; for example, a tusk of a mammoth representing the whole animal.

Most of the symbols have been found in caves and on rocks in the Rhone Valley and Lot regions in the south. Nothing has been found in the north because for a large portion of this period, it was under a lot of ice, what with the glaciers and all.

Genevieve says ‘I was really surprised to discover this. This incredible diversity and continuity of use suggests that the symbolic revolution may have occurred before the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe.’

The ramifications of this discovery are pretty big – almost as big as Toba. The date of the creative explosion was tens of thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

Jean Clottes, former director of the French caves, thinks we shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, she says it should be expected. She adds that older evidence existed but may have been inscribed on perishable surfaces that have succumbed to time. She says: ‘Language and abstract thought were probably practised long before 35,000 years ago, since “modern humans” are some 200,000 years old.’


In the 19th Century, the first cave paintings were found in France in the Dordogne region as was evidence of cro-magnon man.

The FrenchgeologistLouis Lartet discovered the first five skeletons of this type in March 1868 in a rock shelter named Abri de Crô-Magnon.

This kicked off a flurry of similar discoveries across Europe, but none as rich or numerous as what has been found in France.

Chauvet in the Pyrenees and Lascaux are not open to the public, but Lascaux II, a reproduction of Lascaux, is very good.

These early humans, the cro-magnons, were pretty average in many ways – you might not look twice at one if you passed him at the mall. I mean they did have long faces with a low brow, but that’s not exactly rare nowadays. They also had a heavier than average build. Go to a gym, again, not that unusual. Their brains were bigger than ours and they had similar vocal chords, so they could talk.

They had rectangular eye sockets and their average height was five feet seven for a male although there have been really large males in the six and a half feet tall range. No basketball nets have been found from that time though.

Hunter/gathering males tended to be slightly larger than average, about five feet 10 inches.

Some had straight hair, some curly. The skin tone is believed to be tanned, according to an article in the Oxford Journal.

They would have hunted cave bears, mammoths, horses (run black beauty, run!) and reindeer, hmm, how seasonal, (run Rudolph, run!) according to research results published in 2004 in Science Daily.

That article published results that showed that bones found in a cave in southern France were from meals cro magnons had prepared. The same research showed Neanderthals and cro magnons ate the same sort of meals and were equals when it came to hunting.

Neanderthals also lived in the area 80,000 years ago. It’s still very nice today.


If you skip ahead to about 6,000 years ago, Neolithic man was building his own places to stay, first out of wood and later out of stone. They also planted crops and kept animals for food.

I hope it was the pigs because they freak me out.

And while cave drawings and the early writing code were found in the caves of southern France, the largest concentrations of the Neolithic settlements are found in Brittany. It appears the first stone structures were tombs and eventually huts were made of rock as well. Carnac has standing stones and monuments from this era as well as burial mounds.

According to legend, St. Cornely was chased by Roman soldiers after criticizing their penchant for animal sacrifice. When he ran out of running room, near Carnac, he whirled around and changed the soldiers to stone, where they stand to this day.

There are a few things wrong with the legend, the first being, the stones were erected thousands of years before St. Cornely was around.

What the stones do tell us is that Neolithic man was pretty successful. He obviously had time on his hands to build things and that’s a good indication you’ve got things pretty much under control. Especially the roaming wild pigs.

So what did these more modern humans chow down on?

Well it’s complex. There’s a fad out there now, called the stone-age or cave man diet. It’s an interesting idea, but short of finding DNA from the prehistoric plants and animals and doing a Jurassic Park on them, what the neolithics ate and what modern humans are eating, even if it has the same name is not even close when it comes to size, shape, colour, taste…


Let’s start off with meat. I like meat. So what sort of meat did they eat? Rats, mice, squirrels. Organ meat, including brains, tongues, stomach, eyes, liver and kidneys. Maybe we should call what they ate, the zombie diet.

They also munched on grubs, large beetles, roaches, lizards, newts, frogs, turtles and anything else with meat.

For veggies they’d be eating stuff we would consider unpleasant because it was bitter. This would be food that had not yet been modified by years of manipulation by farmers and scientists. They ate old versions of beavery things like twigs, woody stems, bark and pith, that’s pith with a t-h.

They ate grains, sorghum, grapes, lentils.

Milk was avoided by many because after childhood, neolithics didn’t have the enzyme to digest it. This was something that came back as people began to drink milk and raise milk-giving animals like goats and cattle and horses. Again, Kevin Stroud has some cool info on how this came about, so check out his podcast.

But having the flexibility to build a home in a good spot instead of chasing after migrating animals and then trying to find a cave to hunker down next to makes life a lot easier.

Morbihan, in Brittany, is the best place in France to see neolithic remains such as megaliths and standing stones. Other places to visit in the region include Carnac.

Okay, so that’s a good place to wrap that up. Next week will take us through the rest of prehistory and then we can get down when France, er Gaul, enters the history books.


Next up, cocktail party slapdown!


The Battle of Bir Hakeim was a delaying action by French troops against an assault by German and Italian troops led by Erwin Rommel, the highly regarded and decorated German General.


It took place at a time when the allies were desperate for a win of any type. British troops were facing the juggernaut of Rommel heading along the north coast roads of Africa, towards British-held Egypt.

Stretched across the roads were small speed bumps deployed by General Neil Ritchie and these stretched into the desert, south of the north coast. The deepest defensive position was held by Free French Provincial Marines and some smaller units of engineers and artillery.

The commander of these troops, General Marie Pierre Koenig had spent weeks preparing his defenses for the  onslaught. There were mine fields, barbed wire and trench systems.

He had ten days supply of food for his 3,703 men.

He had 20,000 shells for his 54 75 millimetre guns and ammo for the assorted anti-tank guns, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns, British-supplied anti-tank rifles and other weaponry.

He was facing one of the best generals of the Second World War who was bringing along 47,000 seasoned troops, including two elite Italian divisions, as well as the top notch German troops.

By the way, before you snort too much at the term of elite Italian divisions, much of that army’s problem in the early fighting of the war had more to do with bad equipment. The troops often showed suicidal willingness to die in battle.

When the battle commenced on May 26, 1942, with the French outnumbered more than 10 to 1, the French general had a heavy weight on his shoulders.

The Italians had circled around the flank and on May 27, attacked the French from the rear. A concentrated attack with artillery support, it still faltered a bit against the dug-in French. Six tanks managed to make it through the direct fire and mine fields and were shooting up the French positions, forcing a French captain to burn his classified documents and the regimental flag to prevent them from being captured. However, the defence held and the tanks were eventually destroyed by the French firing their 75 millimetre guns directly at the tanks from very close range.


The Italians lost half their tanks in the first wave of the assault.

While the French held, the British lost an Indian brigade and had two others so shot up they had to retreat.

Now the French were even more isolated.


On May 28 and 29, British bombers accidently bombed the French positions because so many Italian tanks were in the area. The French tried to eradicate the tanks to prevent further confusion but were eventually driven back by artillery barrage.

On May 29, 620 of the Indian prisoners captured from the brigade earlier in the battle were released in the middle of the desert and began making their back to the French fort, putting stress on the limited supplies of food and water already taxed by a lack of resupply.

Water and food arrived on May 30 but that night the British 150th brigade to the north was wiped out.

Once again, the French force isolation was increased.

June 2, Rommel’s supply lines were threatened by the French position and he had to take it to allow further movement east.

German and Italian troops once again set against the French position.

Again the French held.

On June 3, Rommel himself sent a hand written note to General Koenig: “To Bir Hakeim troops. Any over-lengthened resistance means a needless bloodshed. You will eventually share the same destiny that the two British brigades of Got-el-Oualeb, which got destroyed two days ago. We will cease combat if you raise the white flags and come to us, without weapons.”. The only answer was a cannon salvo from the 1st artillery regiment which destroyed a few German trucks. On June 3 and 4, every attack was preceded by heavy 105 mm and stuka bombings, and was repulsed by the defenders. General Rommel would recount: “A surrender proposal, brought to the defenders by our negotiators, had been rejected, and the attack against the fortifications, the positions and the minefields set by the French troops was launched around 12 pm, from the north-west by the Trieste Motorized Division, and from the south-east by the 90th Light Infantry Division. The June battle started with an artillery bombardment; bombings went on during ten days with an uncommon violence. During that time, I had to command myself, at several times, the assaulting troops. On the Western Desert Campaign, I had not seen a more relentless fight.”

The French managed to hold out until June 11, when they withdrew.

Friedrich von Mellenthin, one of the staff officers of the Afrika Korps, would later write that he “had not ever been confronted, during the whole desert campaign, to such a relentless and heroic defense”.



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