Gentlemen of the French guard, fire first!

January 6 2012

The eighteenth-century punctiliousness over fine points of the military game may be illustrated by the famous legend of the encounter between the English Guards and the French Guards at the Battle of Fontenoy in the War of the Austrian Succession. When the Red Line and the White Line had approached one another to within point-blank range, an English officer is said to have stepped forward from the ranks, made his bow to the enemy, and cried: “Gentlemen of the French Guards, fire first!” Obviously the Guards could not have afforded to indulge in these courtesies if a precocious Industrial Revolution had enabled King George and King Louis to equip their toy-soldiers with Bren guns instead of muzzle-loading smooth-bore muskets; but it is equally obvious that, even if the French and English troops had been armed, in A.D. 1745, with weapons that were no more formidable than those of Cortez’s Aztec adversaries, and could thus have exchanged their courtesies with almost complete material impunity, they would not have exchanged them, even so, if they had not been acting as “living chessmen” but had been fighting in deadly earnest for causes which they personally had at heart.

Wikipedia, edited: “On obtaining the summit of the ridge the Allied column found itself facing the first line of French infantry. The French and Swiss guards, together with the regiments of Aubeterre and Courten, rose and advanced towards the crest, whereupon the two forces confronted each other at a distance of 30 paces. The moment was immortalised by Lord Charles Hay of the 1st Regiment of Guards who, stepping forward, took out a hip flask and drank with a flourish, shouting out to his opponent, ‘We are the English Guards, and we hope you will stand till we come up to you, and not swim the Scheldt as you did the Main at Dettingen!’ He then led his men in three cheers. Voltaire’s version of this famous episode has become proverbial. He wrote: ‘The English officers saluted the French by doffing their hats … the French returned the greeting. My Lord Charles Hai, captain in the English Guards, cried, “Gentlemen of the French Guards, fire!” The Comte d’Auteroche, then lieutenant of the French Grenadiers, shouted, “Gentlemen, we never fire first; fire yourselves.”’ In the event, the French were the first to fire. The volley was somewhat ineffective but threw the 3rd Guards into some confusion and wounded George Churchill. Captain Lord Panmure led the unbroken companies of the 3rd Guards to the flank of the 1st Guards. Up to this point the British column had not fired a single musket shot, but now the Allied infantry poured a devastating discharge into the French. The volley of musketry, with the battalion guns delivering numerous rounds of grape-shot, swept away the enemy’s front rank, killing and wounding between 700 and 800 men and reducing the rest to a shambles.”

I haven’t checked the sources of that, not even the Voltaire. Another site has: “Selon Voltaire (Le siècle de Louis XV), lors de l’avancée de l’infanterie anglaise, les officiers anglais saluèrent leurs homologues français et le capitaine Charles Hay cria: ‘Messieurs des Gardes françaises, tirez!’ Ce à quoi le Comte d’Auteroche, lieutenant, aurait répondu: ‘Messieurs, nous ne tirons jamais les premiers, tirez vous-mêmes!

Exchanging courtesies; painting of Fontenoy by Édouard Detaille

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

One Response to “Gentlemen of the French guard, fire first!”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    This reminds one of the Duke of Wellington’s testy remark to his second before his duel with the Earl of Winchilsea: “Now then Hardinge, look sharp and step out the ground. I have no time to waste. Damn it! Don’t stick him so near the ditch. If I hit him, he will tumble in.”


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