This week in history: The Dreyfus Affair

All countries have their dark moments in history. Sometimes they are terrifyingly dark pogroms, and other times they are more subtle moments of sad indictment on a society. December 1894 was one of those moments in France. A trial against a young soldier by the French Government inspired Émile Zola to write to a national newspaper, and launched the Zionist movement which was itself so influential in the birth of Israel.

Alfred Dreyfus was born in Alsace in 1859, his father worked in textiles, and the young Jewish family grew up in a Yiddish speaking area of Alsace. When the Germans won control over Alsace after the Franco-Prussian war the population were given the choice of remaining in the place they had always lived and renouncing their French nationality, or keeping their nationality and leaving what was now German territory. The family opted for the latter and upped sticks to Paris…

After a French education Alfred entered the military, after watching his home town be overtaken by the German as a small boy he wanted to contribute to protecting France, and became an officer trainee in 1893.

The French were still, even after the loss of Alsace, embroiled in to-ing and fro-ing with the Germans, and espionage was as common as it is today, albeit a little more que than Q technology wise. In the office of the German ambassador the French placed a cleaning lady who though appeared to her German ’employers’ as a stupid illiterate commoner, was infact a highly literate spy. She served passing a number of secrets on, and in 1894 she passed on the letter that divided France.

The bordereau was apparently found in a waste bin, though its good condition may also suggest that Madame Bastian stole it by some other means, contained a list of secrets that a contact was apparently willing to pass onto the Germans.

After some investigation suspicion fell on the only Jewish officer trainee, Dreyfus. A man who had is roots in what was now Germany, Alsace. Further investigation convinced the intelligence agents  (who frankly weren’t showing an awful lot of intelligence) that the handwriting in the note belonged to Dreyfus.

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the anti-Semitism prevalent in the French military persuaded the investigators that despite an almost devoted love of France that Dreyfus was guilty.

The trial divided France. With those persuaded that he must be the criminal, this strange foreign sounding man who had even whilst in training argued with his commanding officers over his treatment, against those who protested his innocence.

Dreyfus was found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment on the charmingly named Devil’s Island, but his sentence did not end the divisions in France. The battle over Dreyfus continued. In 1898 Émile Zola accused the government of anti-Semitism, and the debate raged on…

Despite finally discovering the real spy in that same year, the military were unwilling to admit the snafu and Dreyfus even found himself subject of a further court marshal. Happily though, in December 1900 he was finally pardoned.

Despite the appalling treatment of the government and military Dreyfus returned to his commission, and served as a reserve Major during World War I (his imprisonment causing health problems), even serving on the front line in 1917.




This week long ago: Please may I have some Moor please sir?

The Battle of Tours or Battle of Poitiers took place on October 10 732.

The battle has two names from its site at Moussais-la-Bataille which is located between the two. Charles Martel led the Franks and Burgandian forces against the Moorish caliphate of the Umayyad dynesty led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.

Charles Martel in the battle

The battle is often characterised, particularly by historians of the nineteenth century (in the heat of muscular christianity and the regrowth of catholicism) as being a decisive moment in the Christian defence of Europe. In the less religiously inclined twentieth century the battle has been interpreted more as the first step in the increased political power of the Franks and the setting up of the initial stages for Carolingian Empire.

The battle itself happened after a build up of seven days worth of skirmishes. In the cold French October the Franks had an advantage (clearly no-one had told the moors to pack their woolly jumpers) of knowing what to expect. The Umayyad forces also underestimated the strength of the Franks and did not sufficiently scout the forces.

Post the defeat the Moors retreated over the Pyrenees.

If you wanted a Franco-Moorish face off though we don’t sell the exact belligerents there are a few chaps in the HaT ancients range, the Strelets Normans and some other ancient chaps could perhaps be suitably amended. Have you recreated this battle? What did you use?

Battle of Winchelsea 29 August 1350

The Hundred Years War (which was of course not 100 years but 116 years, which evidently isn’t as catchy) was a series of battles between the Plantagenets/Angevins and the Valois. The House of Anjou’s forces comprised: Burgandy, Aquitaine, Portugal, Navarre, Flanders, Hainaut, Luxembourg, England, the Montfort house of Brittany and the Holy Roman Empire (always good to have the big guys on your side…). The House of Valois, younger sons who suceeded the House of Capet in Burgandy, were supported by France, Castille, Scotland, Genoa, Majorca, Bohemia, the Blois house of Brittany, and the Crown of Aragon (said in movie voice over tone this sounds like the Arthurian sword “the crown of Arragoooon”).

The 100 Years war is often characterised as one of those many occasions on which the French and the English had a rather big tiff, and though there are no shortage of such moments in history (or indeed in the present), this was a lot more convoluted. Firstly, the Kingdom of France was not France as we think of it today but rather part of the eastern side of modern France, and secondly more of what is now modern France, was Aquitaine (as in Eleanor of). So indeed yes, France and England were of different sides, but a fair bit of what was then France is now Belgium, and an even larger part of the side that the Kingdom of England supported is now the bulk of France. And if all that fails to convince you its worth keeping in mind that the English crown was part of the House of Plantagenet, which is itself part of the House of Anjou, which was based in Orléans and Angers.

Medieval Kingdom of France, Aquitaine and all the other bits that are now France

The Battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer or the Battle of Winchelsea was part of the 100 Years war and took place in August 1350. Castille, as an experienced and talented sea warring kingdom had provided support to the House of Valois in this capacity. Their support had on occasion been less warfare and more general piracy, but so too had that of the English naval support. After a series of attacks by Carlos De la Cerda, Castillian nobleman cum mercanary-mercantile-navalman, Edward III resolved to attack the Castillian fleet on its way back from Flanders. With his fleet comprising around 50 ships with a range of enchanting names from the romantic Isabelle, to the Awdry-esque Thomas and Edward, to the Beveridge -Bevan-esque Welfare.

Edward III

Don Carlos expected some level of attack and whilst in port at Flanders he had recruited mercenary soldiers (Belgium doesn’t only make chocolates they made not only ponytailed scary boy Jean-Claude van Damme remember, but the utterly terrifying Tintin and Poirot) and set about attacking Edward’s ships that were anchored at Winchelsea. Which is currently a very very very small village a couple of miles south of Rye, but then was an important trading and naval port.

The Castillians took the battering ram approach to warfare, and chose to steer their ship into the vessel of the King, which promptly began to sank. The Castillians made use of their mercenary archers from Flanders and proceeded to deplete a number of Edward III’s navy, whilst also taking advantage of their exceptionally tall ships and dropping hefty lumps of iron onto English ships. In amongst which also sank the vessel of the  Black Prince (so named because…well frankly pick one of a dozen reasons ranging from he actually was black, or at least part Turkish so probably a bit browner than most pasty anglo-saxons, to it being in regard to his coat of arms).

Edward III and Edward, Black Prince

Remarkably the English did not lose…

Robert Namur, who was later knighted, was taken by a large Castillian (no snickering at the back) and despite cries for help, his comrades proved deeply unhelpful. However, one of his squires, Hannequin, who was not later knighted, saved his master and enabled the Castillian vessel to be taken.  Then a further 14 enemy vessels were taken, and though the English suffered heavy losses they evenually won, and arrived at a truce with the Basques.