Siege of Arras, 1640

In the early stages of the Thiry Years' War France had avoided direct conflict with the Habsburgs, feeling herself too weak to risk open war. Instead, Cardinal Richelieu'funded such enemies of the Empire as Sweden and the United Provinces, whilst building up the French army in readiness for the inevitable conflict. In 1636 war broke out and an Imperial army invaded France, taking the fortress of Corbie and threatening Paris. By 1639 however, the moment had come to strike back at Spain, and Richelieu realised from the disasters of 1636 that the Spanish Netherlands would make an ideal defensive barrier for France. French troops captured Hesdin in 1639 and were poised to strike at the capital of the province of Artois: Arras.

View of the siege of Arras, showing the attackers' extensive works.

In order to make their task easier, the French planned to bluff the Spanish into weakening the garrison of Arras then to attack suddenly before it could be reinforced.

The plan worked perfectly - when Maréchal de Châtillon threatened the Spanish-held fortresses of Aire and Béthune, troops from the garrison at Arras were sent to reinforce them. Maréchal de Châtillon then linked forces with Maréchal de La Meilleraye and the two commanders invested Arras on June 13th with a vast force of 23,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry. The French dug extensive lines of circumvallation and contravallation around the town, including a number of forts and a large fortified camp to the south. The encirclement was made difficult by the nature of the ground around Arras - the lines needed to cross 4 wide waterways. This also posed numerous communication difficulties for the besiegers, who could not move large amounts of troops across the rivers quickly.

The fortifications of Arras consisted of two halves; the town in the east and the abbey in the west, forming a figure-of-eight. The walls had been bastioned'in the 16th century under Charles V'and more recently some earthen demi-lunes'and a covered way'had been added.

A detailed plan of the siege, showing the fortified lines and trenches dug by the besiegers.

The garrison, though depleated through Châtillon's feint towards Aire and Béthune, was strong and determined. It was commanded by the experienced Colonel Owen Roe O'Neill, an Irishman who had served in the Spanish army in the Netherlands for many years.

The siege was a momentous event - the French king Louis XIII joined the besieging army and Richelieu wrote to the marshals from Doullens, "You will answer with your heads if you do not take Arras." Work pressed ahead on the siege works and it looked as though the town's fall was inevitable when a large Spanish force attempted to relieve Arras by cutting the besiegers' supply lines. All seemed lost until, on August 2nd, a convoy of 1500 wagons escorted by 2,000 men managed to reach the starving French troops.

On August 8th O'Neill, seeing that the French had been resupplied and that the attack on the eastern section of the town's fortifications was dangerously near the walls, ordered a sortie against the besiegers. It was in this desperate fight that the famous playwright and duellist Cyrano de Bergerac was injured by a sword-cut to the neck. At length the Spanish were beaten back within the walls. They surrendered the following day on seeing that the French had laid mines beneath the fortifications and were ready to detonate them.

The capture of Arras was a great acheivement for the French. Not only had they taken possession of an important town, but they had breached the first line of fortified places defending the southern frontier of the Spanish Netherlands. These lines would eventually be turned round and organised into a defensive barrier protecting France - Vauban's'Pré Carré.

For Spain, the loss of Arras was just one of a series of disasters that befell her. Catalonia had revolted and joined France, Portugal and her colonies had seceded from the Spanish empire and the northern Netherlands provinces were lost forever. The capture of Arras was another blow to Spain's already crumbling empire.

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