This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

January 2002


10 January 1871:   At the battle of Le Mans (Franco-Prussian War), French general permits Breton regiments to be annihilated by advancing Prussians.

It is one of history’s ironies that at the crisis point of the Franco-Prussian War the fate of France lay in the hands of a largely Breton army.

Provoked into declaring war by the machinations of Bismark, an ill-prepared France soon found itself being beaten by the smaller forces of Prussia. Organized under an efficient General Staff, the Prussian armies forged ahead while the French muddled through with an improvised administration jokingly referred to as “System D” (for disarray.) The ramshackle empire of Napoleon III, or “Napoleon the Well-Meaning,” soon crumbled, the Emperor fell prisoner to the Prussians at Sedan, and before long the Germans were beseiging Paris itself.

In a desperate attempt to lift the siege of Paris and reverse the course of a war that was rapidly tumbling towards defeat, the French turned to the western lands north of the Loire river. There General Antoine Eugene Alfred Chanzy hastily assembled a force he grandly dubbed “the Army of the Loire.” This army was in fact composed mainly of Bretons and Normans hastily trained and handed weapons. But the French authorities saw to it that the force was kept under-supplied and ill-equipped, and sacked its leading Breton officer, General de Keratry, at the first opportunity. Chanzy’s protests against the conditions in which the army was kept brought only exhortations that he “think like a Frenchman,” as if Napoleonic elan would somehow make up for the lack of material and training.

There were reasons the French authorities were nervous about creating an armed Breton force. There were still those living in Brittany who had witnessed the last revolt by Cadougal against Napoleon I, and earlier revolts such as the Chouan uprising in the 1790s, were also a recent folk memory. Nevertheless, Chanzy was confident that in the hour of crisis the Bretons would fight bravely against the German invaders.

The did fight bravely, but they could not achieve the impossible. With time running out for the French, General Chanzy gathered his raw force and advanced down the railway line between Rennes and Paris. The Germans, besieging Paris, saw what was coming and sent out a force to meet Chanzy halfway.

The two collided at Le Mans, some 117 miles southwest of Paris. Although the Franco-Breton army outnumbered the opposing force of Prussians under Prince Frederick Charles, the ill-trained and poorly armed conscripts were no match for the Prussian veterans. The Prussians soon seized the initiative and went over to the attack. Chanzy, unable to conduct complex maneuvers or conduct a fighting withdrawal with his improvised army, could do little more that throw the Bretons into desperate assaults against the advancing Prussians.

The three-day battle of Le Mans left over 10,000 Bretons and French dead or wounded, and utterly destroyed the Army of the Loire. The last hope for lifting the siege of Paris vanished a week later when the last remaining French field army was destroyed at the battle of San Quentin. The war ended in a humiliating defeat for France on 28 January 1871.

In the First World War over 40 years later, young Bretons would again turn out and be sacrificed in disproportionate numbers against German invaders. And again in World War II the Bretons would contribute disproportionate numbers to the ranks of the “French” Resistance, and would suffer the consequent deportations and reprisals at the hands of the German occupational forces. Today nearly every village and town in Brittany bears memorials and cenotaphs to the dead of these three wars. But the memory of the Breton sacrifices on behalf of France would be conveniently forgotten by the Free French authorities in 1945, when they seized upon charges of “collaboration” by a small minority as a means with which to repress and destroy the entire Breton nationalist movement. Ironically, this took place at the direction of Charles De Gaulle, himself of Breton ancestry, and whose uncle had been a noted Breton nationalist poet.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2002 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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