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The Battle of Dreux, December 19, 1562

First Battle of the French Wars of Religion

The Swiss infantry's heroic defense.

This article describes the first set-piece battle of the Wars of Religion in France. (There were nine civil wars altogether, spanning the years from 1562 to 1598.) It was a period of transition for the military art: at the beginning of this period, we see the French chivalry much as it was at the end of the Italian Wars; by the end of this conflict, the nobility have shifted from the lance to the pistol. Many of the features of these wars will be familiar to any Renaissance wargamer: landsknechts, Swiss pikemen, hordes of German mercenary reiters, and Spanish infantry in their tercios. Other of the participants were more particular to this conflict: the Hugenot "Millers" in white cassocks, charging with pistol and sword, are the most noteworthy.

One distinguishing feature of the French Wars of Religion is the proportion of shot to pike: for one reason and another, there were many more musketeers and arquebusiers in the Catholic and Hugenot armies than was typically the case during the 16th century. This was not due to any tactical consideration, but was the result of scarcity: the French considered carrying gunpowder weapons preferable to acting as pikemen, and there was no tradition, as among the Swiss and Germans, to counteract this tendency. Most pikes were foreign mercenaries. While the old "Royal" regiments of france had a typical mix of pike and shot, the newly-raised French forces were almost entirely equipped with the arquebus or musket.

At Dreux, we see the chivalry of France in all it's glory, on both Catholic and Protestant sides of the field. Already, the Hugenots were fielding large numbers of German mercenaries: both reiters and landsknechts. The Catholics had both German and Swiss foot in their ranks. One of the few odd aspects of this battle was the lack of the traditional "enfants perdus" skirmishing as a preliminary to battle - this is attributed to the fact that both sides were uneasy about fighting with their own countrymen, and so, until the battle was truly joined, were reluctant to fire on the enemy camp.


After low-level conflict throughout France in the months since hostilities first broke out on July 4 - with the Hugenots storming Beaugency, and the Catholics seizing Blois - a large Hugenot army had been assembled, mostly through the arrival of a large contingent of mercenaries from Germany. This force, commanded by the Marshall of Hesse, was guided from the Rhine to Orleans by Coligny's brother, Dandelot, avoiding interception by the forces of St. Andre as it marched through Champagne. They marched on Paris in November, but the Catholic forces, awaiting Spanish reinforcements from Flanders and some additional support from their troops in the south, refused to come out to fight.

In early December the Hugenots, abandoning their attempt on Paris, decided to move into Normandy. There, by the terms of the Treaty of Hampton Court, the English Earl of Warwick awaited them with 3000 English levies and a large sum of cash. This force was occupying Le Havre, which had been ceded to England to hold as pledge against the restoration of Calais to their control. The Catholics had earlier seized Rouen, so it was possible that the combined Hugenot forces in Normandy were intending Rouen as their target.

One fact about the Hugenots was their tendency to ignore the need for reconnaisance. On the morning of December 19, they paid the price for this tendency: they encountered the Catholic army drawn up across their path on the Chartres - Dreux - Rouen road in a single long line of battle. Their own force was so close that they were not sure a conflict could be avoided. After a few cannon shots at their light cavalry warned them of the hostile Catholic presence, the Hugenot leaders decided to march off by the Treon road. The baggage was sent away, as was most of the artillery. The army was drawn up in battle order, in case the Catholics decided to attack out of their strong position. It was not until noon, after a two-hour wait, that the Hugenots decided the Catholics were only going to stand on the defensive. They turned to the flank and began marching after their baggage and guns. This action presented a wide-open flank to the Catholic forces, which they could not resist - they advanced to battle. The Hugenots preverted to their battle array, and the conflict started in earnest.

Orders of Battle

The Catholics

Although Guise, a capable Catholic soldier, was on the field this day, he had, for political reasons, declined to command the Catholic army. This role was filled by the Constable Montmorency, a general of lesser ability. His second-in-command was the Marshal St. Andre. Their forces were broken up into a "vanguard" and a "main battle":

Main Battle: Constable Montmorency commanding

18 Companies of gendarmes, totalling approx. 1000 men.

8 companies of light horse (argoulets, horse arquebusiers, etc.), totalling approx. 500 men.

28 Companies of Swiss foot, totalling 5000 - 6000 men.

20 Companies of French foot (Picards and Bretons), totalling approx. 5000 men.

8 Cannon

Vanguard: Marshall St. Andre commanding

17 Companies of gendarmes, totalling approx. 1000 men.

20 Companies of French foot ('old bands' of Piedmont), totalling approx. 4000 men.

14 Companies of Spanish foot, totalling approx. 3500 men.

10 Companies of landsknechts, totalling approx. 2500 men.

14 Cannon.

Army Totals: Cavalry - 2,500; Infantry - 10,000 to 11,000; Cannon - 22

The Hugenots

Main Battle: Prince of Conde commanding

Gendarmes, totalling approx. 600 men,

6 Companies reiters, totalling 1400 men.

Light cavalry (argoulets and horse arquebusiers), totalling 500 men.

12 Companies French foot, totalling approx. 1500 men.

6 Companies landsknechts, totalling approx. 2000 men.

5 Light cannon.

Vanguard: Admiral Coligny commanding

Gendarmes, totalling 500 men.

4 Companies reiters, totalling approx. 1000 men.

11 Companies French foot, totalling approx. 1500 men.

6 Companies Landsknechts, totalling approx. 2000 men.

Army Totals: Cavalry - 4,000; Infantry - 7,000; Cannon - 5

Notes: The Landsknechts on the Hugenot side were easily beaten, and came in for heavy criticism. The Catholic Swiss, on the other hand, performed more heroically than in almost any other battle of the century. The emnity between these two groups was extremely fierce on this field. The foot units probably had about 20% arquebusiers - the French foot might be slightly higher than this. It is known that the Catholic French foot near Epinay put out a screen of "enfants perdus" part-way through the battle, and to have deployed three ranks of arquebusiers along their front when charged by reiters. The Swiss may have had fewer, while the French, Spanish, and landsknechts proportionally more. (De la Noue, an eye-witness of the battle speaking of the French troops, recommended 25% as the correct figure; in 1570, a third of all Landsknechts were ordinarily shot troops. In 1526, Frundsberg had his landsknechts composed of only 1/8 shot. The Swiss tended to be lighter on shot, while the Spanish tended to be at the same level as the landsknechts or higher.)

Battlefield and Deployments

The map below shows the deployments of both sides at the start of the battle:

The streams on each side of the field cannot be forded. Along each river are paths - the roads running north-south from Marville to Nuisement and the one running from the west toward Nuisement are "high roads." Westward on the east-west road is Treon. North along the north-south road is Dreux. (North is at the top of the map.)

Catholic forces in and around Epinay deployed so as not to be seen: pikes were laid on the ground; cavalry dismounted, etc. (This was done by St. Andre at Guise's advice.) Epinay (and probably Blainville) were fortified and occupied by the Catholics. The Hugenot artillery was with Conde's forces, although only 5 light guns were kept on the field, all others being sent off toward Treon with the baggage. The Catholic camp was to the north of Blainville, about halfway to Nuisement to the east of the high road. Conde's light cavalry was presumably arrayed with the reiters - no exact deployment is known.

The Catholic and Hugenot commands were divided as follows:

Description of the Battle

Once the Catholics advanced, the Protestant forces charged as well, resulting in a meeting all up and down the line. Note, however, that the left end of the Catholic line was not opposed to any of the Hugenot force, and remained in and around Epinay. The two "halves" of the battlefield initially saw very different outcomes:

Coligny's Initial Assault on Blainville

The Hugenot gendarmes and reiters swept away the Catholic forces around Blainville, defeating first the horse and then the foot. The Hugenot foot may have participated in this later action, but there is no record of their having done so. At the end of the battle, they still occupied a position to the front of Blainville, however. The cavalry, after slightly wounding and capturing the Constable himself (fighting in the front lines despite his being 70 years of age!), ran off in pursuit of the fleeing Catholic horse. They discovered the Catholic camp, and looted it. It took Coligny a fair amount of time to regroup his forces. The defeated Catholic cavalry spread false word of a defeat all the way to Paris.

Conde's Attack

To the west, Conde had decided to assault the Swiss, and not to attempt the fortified village of Epinay. Sending his infantry and two squadrons of reiters as an observation force to cover Epinay, he sent his gendarmes, supported by his reiters, against the Swiss. He kept 100 gendarmes under Rochefoucault in reserve, along with some of his infantry (presumably the French).

The Swiss defended heroically, being literally ridden through by the initial charge of the Hugenot gendarmes, and then coming under flank attack by both reiters and gendarmes. They were pushed back toward St. Andre's line, and left behind several guns, but they held the attacking cavalry off. St. Andre sent some of his gendarmes to counter-attack, but these were repulsed by reiters, and regrouped behind Epinay.

Conde then ordered the landsknechts to attack the Swiss, leaving their observation post in front of Epinay to do so. The Swiss, seeing their traditional enemies, counter-attacked with vigor, defeating them easily. Conde seemed obsessed by the Swiss foot, and threw everything he had at it: his last reserve was Rochefoucault's 100 gendarmes, and these. too were sent against the Swiss, to no avail. The Hugenot attackers, now bloodied, pulled back.

St. Andre's Counter-Attack

On Guise's advice, St. Andre now ordered a general advance, covered by arquebusiers deployed as "enfants perdus." He had 200 gendarmes in his center, supported by 500 arquebusiers, Spanish pikes on his left, and the French 'old bands' on his right. His landsknechts and what remained of his already-beaten cavalry also charged. The only troops left to meet this assault, which fell on the exposed Hugenot flank, were two reiter companies and two squares of French infantry. The infantry were quite raw, being recruits from the south - they broke at once, while the reiters, too, were defeated. The recently-beaten landsknechts were now exposed, and they too fell under the flank assault, led by Guise, surrendering en masse.

The Prince of Conde rallied a few gendarmes and reiters, and charged into the front of Damville's Catholic gendarmes, but to no avail: his men were beaten and he was taken prisoner. It was now about 3:30 PM, and Guise and St. Andre saw the battle as won.

Coligny Comes to the Rescue

After rallying his dispersed gendarmes and reiters, and collecting some of the horsemen fleeing from the collapse of Conde's line, Admiral Coligny set off to repair Conde's misfortune. Approximately 1000 reiters and 300 gendarmes remained, and with these Coligny advanced at around 4:00 PM. The Catholics under St. Andre and Guise came forward to meet them, and the battle dissolved into confused fighting in and around Blainville as darkness fell. The Catholic horse was defeated, and St. Andre was taken prisoner, only to be murdered by his captor after he had surrendered (apparently the result of not paying his debts...) Ultimately, Coligny was unable to defeat the remaining Catholic foot, who had taken position among the trees and houses of Blainville. He withdrew his cavalry a distance of three miles, where he rallied his army undisturbed. Darkness had already fallen.

Results and Aftermath

While considered a Catholic victory, the action at Dreux was certainly not decisive. The Catholics were entirely unable to follow up their victory. Admiral Coligny sent his remaining infantry south to Orleans (along with the captured Constable), and marched with his horse into Normandy, where he picked up some local levies and proceeded to capture Caen and other small towns. He claimed to have lost, besides the 1500 surrendered landsknechts, only 140 horse and 2200 foot. The Catholics claimed that 6000 Hugenots remained dead on the field. Both sets of figures are probably inaccurate, with the truth somewhere between the two. Catholic losses were as heavy as the Protestant's.

With St. Andre murdered, and Montmorency captured, Guise assumed command of the army, which he marched south, to lay seige to Orleans. On February 18 he was assassinated by a Hugenot fanatic, who claimed to have abandoned the Hugenot cause to come over to the Catholic lines. In fact, it was merely to get access to Guise.

Catharine induced the prisoners, Montmorency and Conde, to negotiate a peace. This was realized in March of 1563, at the "Peace of Amboise." The Hugenots were granted many of their demands for tolerance, and a four-year peace was realized. The Catholic and Hugenot armies joined forces, and marched against Le Havre, where they easily defeated the English under the Earl of Warwick. (His men were suffering from typhus, and his relieving fleet was trapped in the Channel by contrary winds...)

Final Words: A Quote from Sir Charles Oman

In his excellent book, "A History of the Art of War in the 16th Century" (Greenhill Books, London, and Presidio Press, California, reprinted 1991), Sir Charles Oman first quotes De la Noue, and then adds his own two cents' worth:

De la Noue, philosophizing in his usual acute style, says that there were seven things to note about the battle of Dreux:

  1. It opened without any preliminary skirmishing, which was due to the reluctance of the combatants to start a civil war.
  2. The resistance of the Swiss infantry passed all heroism seen in other wars, and settled the day.
  3. The extraordinary self-restraint of Guise, in holding back so long, and not striking until Conde's horse was absolutely exhausted, was very notable.
  4. The battle lasted five hours - well into the dark. Usually battles were settled in a short clash in these wars.
  5. That the two commanders-in-chief were both taken prisoner is an incident unique in history.
  6. The army that lost the battle retreated in good order, unpursued.
  7. The exceptional courtesy with which Guise treated his prisoner Conde, whom he invited to supper, and harboured in his own bedroom at Dreux, instead of putting him in chains, was a testimony to the Duke's essential magnaminity, which even enemies were forced to recognize. The only parallel was the treatment of John of France by the Black Prince after Poitiers in 1356.

One might add a few of one's own glimpses of the obvious, namely:

  1. Commanders-in-Chief should not act like cavalry brigadiers.
  2. It is criminal for an army with superior cavalry not to know that an enemy is within an easy day's march.
  3. Steady infantry can win a victory, but cannot utilize it when the enemy has a superior cavalry force still in the field, and can block pursuit.
  4. Reserves of both arms are necessary; simple linear tactics dangerous.

What else can you say?

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