Maximilien Sebastien Foy, 1775-1825

Maximilien Sebastien Foy (1775-1825) was one of Napoleon’s most able divisional commanders, and performed well during the Peninsular War before fighting in the Waterloo campaign.

Foy was the son of a French father and an English mother. Foy entered the artillery in 1792, but like many officers he picked the wrong side in one of the many political battles of the period and lost his rank in 1794 after criticising the more extreme actions of the government.

He was reinstated after the Thermidor coup of July 1794.

In 1796 Foy served with the Army of the Rhine under Moreau and was wounded at Kehl.

In 1799-1800 he served under Massena. In 1799 he commanded part of the artillery at the two battles of Zurich.

In 1800 he fought at Engen (2nd Stockach) and Biberach.

In 1803 he commanded the coastal defenses at Boulogne and the mobile artillery that protected the large and vulnerable flotilla of transport vessels that were gathered for the planned invasion of Britain.

In 1805 he served in Marmont’s corps.

He briefly served as a diplomat in Constantinople, accompanying Sebastiani’s mission to the Ottomans.

Although he remained in active service, his career was hampered for some time by his opposition to Napoleon’s decision to become Emperor.

In 1807 he served under Junot, taking part in his invasion of Portugal, the start of the disastrous French intervention in Iberia.

In 1808 he fought at Vimeiro (21 August 1808), where he commanded the artillery reserve. Despite the French defeat in that battle he was promoted to general de brigade.

In 1809 he took part in the pursuit of Sir John Moore and fought at Corunna (16 January 1809), where he commanded a brigade on Delaborde’s division.

He then took part in Soult’s invasion of Portugal, playing a part in the passage of the Avé (25-26 March 1809), on the march to Oporto. Foy was captured after the battle of Oporto (12 May 1809), when Wellington retook the city. He was mistakenly believed to be the hated one-handed Loison, and was almost murdered in revenge, but showed he still had both hands and was reprieved. He was soon released and was back in service in Spain.

In 1810 he was crated a Baron. He fought at Busaco (27 September 1810), commanding a brigade in Heudelet’s division. He was badly wounded as his troops attempted to attack up the ridge. His troops were forced to retreat, carrying the wounded Foy with them. He then returned to France to carry news of the progress of the campaign to Napoleon, and ask for reinforcements for a possible attack on the Lines of Torres Vedras. While in France Foy was promoted to general de division and ennobled as a baron.

Foy returned to Spain to command a division in VI Corps under Marmont. He was thus present during the Salamanca campaign. When Wellington invaded Spain, Marmont concentrated his troops north of Salamanca, leaving garrisons in the Salamanca Forts. Once the forts fell, Marmont retreated to the Douro, with Foy posted to the west of the main British positions.

On 15 July Foy and Bonnet were ordered to cross the Douro as part of an attempt to outflank Wellington. The rest of Marmont’s army moved west along the north bank of the river, convincing Wellington that Foy’s move was genuine. He thus moved his force west to block this move, but Marmont then turned most of his men back and crossed the Douro to the east of the new British position. Foy and Bonnet were ordered back to the north bank of the Douro. However Marmont was unable to take advantage of his advantage. After a rearguard action (combat of Castrejon, 18 July 1812), Wellington took up a strong position. Part of Marmont’s army attacked the British left (combat of Castrillo, 18 July 1812), but this attack was soon cancelled, and the standoff resumed. The two armies continued to manoeuvre as the moved south back towards Salamanca, before Marmont made a crucial mistake that allowed Wellington to attack.

He was one of the few senior French commanders to emerge from the battle of Salamanca (22 July 1812) with his reputation enhancing, carrying out a rearguard action that allowed the survivors of the defeat to escape across the River Tormes. However his 1st Division then suffered heavy losses at Garcia Hernandez (23 July 1812), one of the most impressive victories won by the British cavalry during the Napoleonic period.

Foy’s division was still one of the least damaged in the French army, and was thus chosen to try and lift a series of Spanish sieges of isolated French garrisons in the north. He raised the siege of Toro on 17 July, but Astorga surrendered on 18 August, unaware that Foy was so close. He reached La Baneza, sixteen miles from Astorga, on 20 August, and rescued seventy sick soldiers from Astorga on the following day. He then lifted the siege of Zamora (22 August). Foy then took part in the early stages of the pursuit of Wellington in the aftermath of the failed siege of Burgos, but the French army that had been gathered to force Wellington back soon fell apart as various contingents had to return to their own areas.

During the winter of 1813 Foy was posted closes to Wellington’s lines, with his HQ at Avila, half way between Salamanca and Madrid. In February he launched the only attack on the British lines during the winter, an attempt to defeat an isolated part of the 50th Regiment at Bejar (20 February 1813). However the commander of the detachment was alert, and the attempt ended in failure.

In April he was sent to take command of the siege of Castro-Urdiales (22 March-12 May 1813), a port that had fallen to an Anglo-Spanish force in 1812. The siege had proved to be more difficult than the French had expected, and Foy required significant reinforcements before he was able to force the garrison to evacuate by sea.

In 1813 Foy defended Tolosa. He then took part in the final battles in Spain, fighting at Maya (25 July 1813) and on the Nive (9-12 December 1813). He was wounded once again, at Orthez (27 February 1814).

After Napoleon’s first abdication Foy kept his rank in the restored Royal Army, but he sided with Napoleon during the Hundred Days and commanded the 9th division, part of Reille’s corps.

Foy fought at Quatre Bras (16 June 1815), where his division was in the centre of the French line. His artillery inflicted heavy losses on the Dutch-Belgian artillery early in the battle, before his infantry attacked up the Charleroi road. Although his troops made some progress, they were unable to win the battle before Allied reinforcements arrived, and the battle ended as draw, with both armies remaining in their original positions.

At Waterloo his men took part in the repeated attacks on Hougoumont. Foy was wounded yet again, this time in the shoulder.

In August 1815 Foy retired from the army and began a political career. He was quickly accepted by the Bourbons, and accepted a staff position in 1819. He also wrote a four volume autobiographical history of the Peninsular War, published despite being partly incomplete just after his death. 100,00 mourners are said to have attended his funeral in 1825.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 June 2018), Maximilien Sebastien Foy, 1775-1825 ,

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