Jean Nicolas Houchard
Jean Nicolas Houchard (24 January 1739, Forbach,
Moselle – 17
November 1793) was a French General of the
French Revolution and the
French Revolutionary Wars.
3 Trial and execution
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
Battle of Ponte Novu
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 prophesised 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
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
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 .
ISNI: 0000 0003 6418 0744