Jean Nicholas Houchard, 1738-1793

Jean Nicholas Houchard was one of a series of French generals who were executed for their military failures during the Revolutionary terror, in his case despite having recently successfully raised the siege of Dunkirk. Houchard was born at Forbach on the Moselle on 24 January 1738. He joined the army as a volunteer in the Royal-Allemand regiment on 4 November 1753, and fought in the Seven Years War.

A trained engineer, he rose in rank after the revolution. On 15 October 1791 he became an aide-de-camp to General Custine, was promoted to brigadier on 1 December 1792, and to major-general on 8 March 1793. In May of that year he was appointed to command the Army of the Rhine. After a short period in this post, he was moved to the Army of the Moselle, where he was unable to raise the siege of Mainz (14 April-23 July 1793).

Houchard's final move was to replace Custine as commander of the Army of the North, after Custine was arrested for treason (a result of his own military failures). Houchard's first task was to lift the siege of Dunkirk, then being carried out rather ineptly by the Duke of York. At the battle of Hondschoote (6-8 September 1793) Houchard's army swept away the Allied covering force, using mass attacks and skirmish tactics to make up for a lack of skill in the mass of new recruits in the army.

From Hondschoote Houchard moved east to attack the Prince of Orange, whose Dutch army was camped between Menin and Lannoy. On 13 September the French hit the Dutch from the south and west, inflicting a heavy defeat on them and forcing them to retreat north (battle of Menin, 13 September 1793).

Two days later Houchard's series of victories came to a sudden end when an Austrian army under General Beaulie advanced from Courtrai, sweeping the French out of Menin. Houchard was forced to retreat back to his original starting points inside France.

Houchard's defeat came in the middle of the Terror, a wave of revolutionary murders thinly disguised as justice. On 22 September Houchard was arrested, and charged with 'mollesse' – softness or feebleness. Almost inevitably the charge of treason was soon added, and Houchard was accused of having helped the enemies of France enter the country, both in June and July 1793 outside Mainz and after the relief of Dunkirk. On 16 November Houchard was found guilty of 'military inefficiency' and on the followed day he was executed.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 January 2009), Jean Nicholas Houchard, 1738-1793 ,

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