When we think of France and invasions, we tend to think of two things: the Norman invasion of England and, going the opposite way across the Channel, D-Day.
What many Brits are less aware of is the vast number of attacks that went across the Channel into France before that landmark day, 6 June 1944. This is only a small book, but this section on France is going to be quite a big one. It has to be. Our record of sending armed forces south across the Channel has been so persistent over so many centuries that this section can’t be anything other than the longest section in the book.
One of the first historical references to Brits is to them fighting in France, or Gaul as it then was. Caesar writes that he regularly came across Brits fighting in France. Now, if Caesar was telling the truth here, rather than just making up an excuse to invade us, then he is talking about Brits allied to Gauls, or even perhaps mercenaries. It has been suggested that the presence in Britain of significant numbers of Gallic gold coins may represent what survives of mercenaries’ wages.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t to be long at all until we were seriously invading Gaul/France. Towards the end of the second century, Clodius Albinus led an army from Britain, which probably included plenty of Brits, across the Channel in an attempt to seize the imperial throne. He got as far as invading Gaul, but not much further. In February AD197 he was decisively defeated by Septimius Severus at Lyon.
Constantine I tried the same trick, a lot more successfully, in the early fourth century. Again there were probably plenty of Brits in his army. Certainly, Brits would have been in his army in AD312 when he smashed the army of Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome, before taking it.
In AD383, Magnus Maximus set off on the same path, leading an army across the Channel from Britain into mainland Europe. He was successful for quite a long time, until it all ended in disaster for him at Aquileia in AD388.
And in our last outing to mainland Europe, before we walked out of the Roman Empire entirely, in the early fifth century Constantine III led an army from Britain, this time including a general from Britain, Gerontius, south across the Channel into mainland Europe. In 411, though, Constantine III was dead and Britain had rebelled against Rome and resigned from the empire. Our lack of enthusiasm for one of the world’s most famous ancient empires is somewhat ironic, considering how much time we spent building our own in more recent centuries. Or perhaps it just shows we found it more interesting running an empire than being a part of someone else’s.
Leaving the empire hadn’t removed our interest in invading Gaul, or indeed invading France as it was about to become. The ensuing decades and centuries were to make that very clear.
One of the first actions taken by Brits that we know about after Roman control ended was when a bunch of them set off to invade Gaul/France. In about 470, the Emperor Anthemius invited a British king (probably from Britain itself, but just possibly from Brittany) to help him against the Visigoths in Gaul. So Riothamus sailed with 10,000 men to Gaul. It wasn’t our most successful invasion of Gaul/France. In fact, it was definitely one of our less successful ones. After a long and bitter battle, Euric and the Visigoths smashed Riothamus’ army and Riothamus took refuge with the Burgundians.
Much more successful was that other British invasion of Gaul at about the same time that we’ve just alluded to – the creation of Brittany. Sometimes we take the name Brittany for granted, but in French, of course, it is �?Bretagne’, the same as Britain itself in the language. And Brittany is called Bretagne today because some time in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, a lot of Brits made their way across the sea to Armorica and settled there. We don’t now know how much violence was used in the process of establishing Brittany. Maybe there was none at all, or maybe there was sometimes just a threat of violence, or maybe sometimes there were actual clashes. Whatever the case, a lot of Brits ended up in a bit of Gaul and took some kind of control, to the extent that the name of the area was changed.
Of course, about this time, the people back in parts of Britain itself had a few incoming settlers and invaders on their own soil to think about. The Saxons, Angles and Jutes turned up, and after the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had established themselves, the Vikings turned up as well.
The Vikings didn’t only turn up in Britain, they appeared in France as well. And some of them managed to repeat the Briton/Breton feat of changing the name of the region where they settled. So the Norsemen became Normans and the place where they settled became Normandy. And, shortly after that, they too decided to head over here and invade us. In some ways, the Norman invasion worked in both directions. Yes, it brought a bunch of people over here from France and meant that the upper classes in England spoke French for a time, but it worked in the opposite direction as well, in the sense that it automatically gave the first Norman king of England a foothold in France and an intimate involvement in its politics. It was, in other words, a perfect recipe for renewing our interest in invading France.
It’s worth noting that William, the first Norman king of England, didn’t actually die over here. He had already tried to invade Brittany in 1076–77, only to be thwarted by the French King Philip I and eventually he died in France attacking Mantes, in a campaign against allies of the French king. It was in some sense an indication of how much time future English monarchs were going to spend attacking France.
Sure enough, William’s successors soon got in on the act. In 1097–98, William Rufus attacked the Vexin and Maine in France. And in 1105, Henry I took an army to France to try to seize back Normandy, then held by his brother. The army landed at Barfleur in the spring and finally, in 1106, Henry triumphed at the Battle of Tinchebrai. Then war broke out between him and Philip’s successor, Louis. Henry was victorious at the Battle of Bremule in 1119 and the war ended in 1120.
Henry II’s reign opened up new opportunities for English kings to invade bits of France after he inherited Anjou and married Eleanor of Aquitaine. He then gradually extended his lands by selecting from a menu of diplomacy, violence and threat of violence as he saw fit to extend his control. By the time he was finished, he controlled vast parts of western, northern, central and southern France.
So it went on, with varying degress of success. In 1242, Henry III lost the brief Saintonge War to the French. Then along came the Hundred Years War. Confusingly (and, let’s face it, somewhat disappointingly for the pedantic), this wasn’t a single war lasting exactly 100 years, but was instead a scrappy, messy series of campaigns spread out over a period of more than 100 years in total, separated by periods of non-fighting. I’m not going to go into much detail on the Hundred Years War here, partly because France is already going to be the longest section in this book and partly because it’s a war with which many Brits are familiar. So I’ll just say that there were some notable English victories, including Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), and some notable English defeats, including Pontvallain (1370), Paty (1429) and Castillon (1453). At times it seemed like we would win the lot, particularly when Henry V, after Agincourt, was supposed to inherit the French throne, but at the end in 1453 we had pretty much lost the lot. By the time it was all over we were left with little more than Calais.
Nevertheless, the English defeat in the Hundred Years War did not end the English appetite for invading France.
Henry VIII, who had a big appetite for other things as well, made several attempts. It’s quite possible that he had dreams of starting a whole new phase in the Hundred Years War. In 1513, in an alliance with the Emperor Maximilian against France, he was involved in a battle at Guinegate (or Enguinegatte) in France, which became proudly known in Britain (though no doubt not in France) as the Battle of the Spurs, due to the enthusiastic French use of that particular bit of kit for departing the field hastily. After this, Henry took Therouanne and Tournai.
In 1522, he had another go, in alliance with the Emperor Charles this time, sending troops from Calais out to invade Picardy. And in 1523, a large English army under the Duke of Suffolk advanced through the Somme region, and only halted its advance about 50 miles from Paris.
In 1544, Henry invaded yet again. This time his army besieged and took Boulogne. But, frankly, that was about as far as it all got. It was Henry’s last attempt at invading France. Soon his daughter, Mary, would give it a go. She sent an army under the Earl of Pembroke into France to fight alongside the forces of her Spanish husband Philip II against the French.
By contrast, Elizabeth I generally saw Spain as more of a threat than France and therefore spent more time organising military activities against that country instead. Her successor, James I, ordered an invasion of France in the 1620s. It wasn’t a success. The Anglo-French War of 1627–29 was pretty disastrous from our point of view. In 1627, the Duke of Buckingham besieged Saint Martin de Ré for three months, but failed to take it. In 1628, two expeditions were supposed to aid the defenders of La Rochelle against the French king, but neither achieved anything of note.
During the middle of the seventeenth century we had other things on our mind, like the Civil War.
However, by 1658, we again had forces fighting in France, and not just fighting in a battle in France, but fighting on both sides in a battle in France. This was the so-called Battle of the Dunes near Dunkirk. Allied with the French, on this occasion, were some of Cromwell’s forces. While fighting alongside the Spanish was a selection of some of the Royalist Forces of the exiled Charles II. The French and Cromwell’s troops won. By the end of the century, we were back in action in France. The Nine Years War of 1688–97 saw us attack France with rather varied results. We had successes, but there was also the disaster of the attack on Brest, in which a large force landed in an attempt to take Brest, only to find itself unable to advance in the face of heavy fire and unable to retreat either. Losses were heavy.
In the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701–14, we were back once again. In September 1709, the Duke of Marlborough won the bitterly fought battle of Malplacquet and in 1711 he proved that the defensive Lines of Ne Plus Ultra (No Further) were rather misnamed when he crossed them and took Bouchain.
In the War of the Austrian Succession, we were at it yet again. We had another amphibious disaster, landing troops to try and take Lorient, but failing even though the defending forces were weak.
Then there was the Seven Years War, in which (despite some distinctly unhappy previous experiences) we took to �?amphibious descents’ with gusto. For instance, we landed forces and attacked both St Malo and Cherbourg.
During the Amercian Revolutionary War, we fought assorted naval actions off the French coast, such as the Battle of Ushant off Brest in 1778.
We come at last to the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. I hope I’m not rushing too much, but there is a lot to get through on France. Early on, in 1793, British forces advanced into north-east France. We had some successes, like the Battle of Famars, which allowed us to besiege Valenciennes, and the little battle at Villers-en-Cauchies. But eventually the loss of Austrian support led to the collapse of the campaign and British forces having to retreat all the way to northern Germany, from where they were evacuated by sea. That’s a long retreat.
There were a variety of naval and amphibious actions in French waters during the wars: for example, the occupation of Toulon by Hood in 1793, and the landing on Corsica in 1794, which resulted in the brief Anglo-Corsican Kingdom of 1794–76.
It took a long tine to beat Napoleon, but by late 1813, while other Allied armies were advancing from the east, Wellington, having fought his way across Spain, was about to launch his invasion of southern France. In October, at the Battle of the Bidassoa, he smashed his way through Soult’s lines and into France. A string of battles followed and by April 1814 he was ready to assault Toulouse, that had once been part of Henry II of England’s lands all those centuries ago. Wellington’s men suffered heavy casualties in the assault on 10 April, and they didn’t take the city that day. But after Soult had withdrawn from the city, Wellington entered it on 12 April and the same day news of Napoleon’s abdication arrived.
In 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington was to invade France again, this time, for a change, from the north-east, not from the south-west. He entered Paris on 7 July 1815.
This brings us to the twentieth-century battlefields of France.
I’m not really even going to attempt to deal here with the suffering, sacrifice and bravery shown by so many Brits in two world wars in France. It is a subject too vast and important for this modest book. I’ll simply mention a few brief details.
We’ve all heard of some of the First World War battles fought by Brits on French soil. The Somme campaign is the obvious one, but there are others which are less well known and which deserve to be better known. For instance, there was the bitter fighting to stem the German Spring Offensive in 1918 and the dramatic battles in the last Hundred Days offensive of the war, which saw the German Army thrown into retreat and included important actions such as The Pursuit to the River Selle.
Similarly, in the Second World War there are the actions we all know about, like Dunkirk and D-Day. However, there are a large number of other battles involving Brits in France that deserve to be remembered. In this category fall the 1940 Battle of Arras, in which British troops launched a counter-attack against the advancing German forces and gave them a serious shock; the Raid on St Nazaire in March 1942; the tragic Raid on Dieppe, in which so many Canadians and Brits, but particularly Canadians, died; the heavy fighting in Normandy after D-Day; and the invasion of the South of France, in which British paratroopers formed part of the 1st Airborne Task Force.