Jean Nicolas Houchard
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Jean Nicolas Houchard
|Born||24 January 1739|
|Died||17 November 1793 (aged 54)|
|Allegiance|| Kingdom of France|
Kingdom of the French
French First Republic
|Years of service||1755–1793|
|Commands held||Army of the Rhine|
|Battles/wars||French conquest of Corsica |
French Revolutionary Wars
|Awards||Name inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe|
Born at Forbach in Lorraine, Houchard began his military career at the age of sixteen in the Régiment de Royal-Allemand cavalerie. He became a captain in the Bourbon-Dragons regiment in Corsica and took part in the Battle of Ponte Novu against rioters led by Pasquale Paoli, receiving a deep sabre cut across his cheek and a gunshot wound to his mouth which left him disfigured.
Houchard was a fervent patriot (supporter of the French Revolution). Phipps describes Houchard as "Brave & stupid... Tall, brave, a proved ‘patriot’". In 1792, he was colonel of a regiment of Chasseurs-à-cheval in the army of General Custine. On 11 April 1793 Houchard was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Moselle and when Custine was guillotined, Houchard replaced him in August as Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the North.
Custine prophesied that the command of an army would be “an evil present” to him. Houchard himself was fully aware that it could be a fatal command, and his confidence was thus shaken “is there any more cruel position than this?” he wrote  At the head of the army he became dejected, and let the Representatives have a free hand, over-riding his bold plan. At Hondschoote he failed to exert control over any except Jourdan’s column, and spread his forces twice when concentration on Walmoden’s left would have given decisive victory. He was “In his element” leading the charge of a cavalry regiment. After Hondschoote he failed to organise an effective pursuit, “cowed” by the minor check at Rexpoede. Then he was denounced as incapable, not without reason. “The army, which knew his faults, knew also his gallantry and his patriotism...”. In December 1792 Custine “had not enough knowledge of war and he owed much to the advice of his lieutenant, Houchard, who was a bold and capable head of an advanced guard”. His appointment to command the ‘Moselle’ was “probably done to please Custine; he, however, considered it was a harmful present to Houchard, who, he feared, would fail in the command on an army. Custine certainly could judge men, and he was right in this case, for all who knew the worthy old Houchard considered him as lost when given a charge so much beyond his powers”.
Custine stated - “‘The conduct of two armies is beyond Houchard’s power, and the conduct of one army would be above his power if he were not guided’. Unfortunately this was published, and Houchard, whilst not asking to be given any command beyond that of the ‘Moselle’, felt the slur the more that undoubtably his advice had been of use to the General that now denied his fitness to command at all”. “The conviction that ‘the soldier is good’ permeated so much of the discussion of victory and defeat that it rose to the level of dogma… ‘I say to you with the truthfulness of a true republican,… the soldiers are good, but the cowardice and crass ignorance of the officer has taught them cowardice.’ This characteristic criticism came from the pen of General Houchard, soon to suffer death for his own failures”. “There was nothing aristocratic about Houchard. He rose from the ranks as an officer of fortune, reaching the rank of captain in 1779, after twenty-four years of service. When war broke out in 1792, Captain Houchard climbed the ladder of promotion rapidly and followed Custine as chief of the Nord on 1 August. Unfortunately, Houchard soon revealed himself to be a man of limited capacity… Houchard paid for failure with his life… he went to the scaffold in November not for treachery but for incompetence. By his arrest and execution the Convention made it clear that it demanded ability as well as loyalty from its officers”.
Trial and execution
He was the main protagonist of the French victories at the battle of Hondschoote against British forces under the Duke of York and at the battle of Menin against Dutch forces under the Prince of Orange. Despite the French victories, Houchard was censured for failing to pursue the enemy and he was arrested at Lille on 24 September 1793. When accused of cowardice by the Revolutionary Tribunal, Houchard replied "Read my answer!", while tearing his shirt off and showing his many battle wounds. Houchard returned to his seat and kept repeating to himself: "The bastard! He called me coward... he called me coward!". However, the tribunal found him guilty, and Houchard was guillotined in Paris on 17 November 1793 (26 Brumaire, Year II).
- Phipps I, pp. 209-210
- p. 211
- pp. 224-5
- p. 226
- Phipps I, pp. 232-233
- p. 235
- pp. 236 & 239
- p. 244
- p. 245
- Phipps II, p. 39
- p. 47
- Lynn p.77
- Lynn p.81
- G. Lenotre, Les grands jours du Tribunal révolutionnaire
- Phipps, Ramsay Weston (1926), The Armies of the First French Republic and the Rise of the Marshals of Napoleon I, London: Oxford University Press.
- Lynn, John A (1996), The Bayonets of the Republic. Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France 1791-94, Oxford: Westview Press, ISBN 978-0-8133-2945-1.