The battle of Vimory (26 October 1587) was the first of two defeats that helped break up a sizable German and Swiss army that had invaded France to support the Huguenot cause (Eighth War of Religion).
The army had been raised by John Casimir, regent of the Palatinate, used by money provided by Elizabeth I. Between them they were able to raise a force of 4,000 reiters, 3,000 landsknechts, 12,000 Swiss and 2,300 French troops under the duke of Bouillon. Casimir decided not to lead the invasion in person, and instead gave the command to Baron Fabian von Dohna. The French soon refused to serve under Dohna, and Bouillon was placed in command of the army, although Dohna and his Germans actually called the shots.
The invasion began in August 1587 when the army crossed from Alsace into Lorraine. The French in the army wanted to sack Lorraine, in the hope that it would force the Duke of Lorraine to ask for peace. Dohna refused to do this, and instead claimed that he had orders to join with Henry of Navarre. Later in the campaign, when Henry gave him direct instructions to join up, he refused to obey it, suggesting that this wasn’t his motive at this stage. Dohna decided to lead his army west across Champagne towards the Loire and the heart of France.
The Germans had to cross a series of rivers as they advanced into France. They crossed the Meurthe at Lunéville, then moved south-west to the Moselle at Bayon. From there they advanced down the river to Pont Saint Vincent, then headed west, across the Meuse, to Saint-Urbain on the Marne. They then moved south up the Marne to Chaumont en Bassigny, before heading west to Clairvaux on the Aube. From there they moved west to Chateauvillain, and then on to Chatillon-sur-Seine. From there they moved west to Laignes, then Ancy-le-Franc. From there they headed down the river to Tanley. Next they moved south to Noyers on the Serein. From there they moved west to Vermenton on the Cure, then south-west to Mailly la Ville on the Yonne. This finally brought then to Neuvy, on the north bank of the Loire, just about 100 miles to the south of Paris. During this long march they received some reinforcements, when Francois de Chatillon joined them near Joinville, having marched from Gascony along a very round-about route.
For most of this march the Germans were being harassed by the Duke of Guise, on their right, and his brother the Duke of Mayenne on their left. Just after crossing the Yonne they received a message from Henry of Navarre asking them to stop their advance into the centre of France and instead turn left and head across difficult mountainous regions to the upper Loire. The Germans refused to follow this order, and instead decided to cross the Loire just to the south of Neuvy, at La Charité. Howver the troops they sent there arrived 24 hours too late and found the town held against them. The Germans now also discovered that their advance had finally forced Henry III to join his army. He left Paris on 12 September, and he was now at Gien, just to their north, with the army of the duke of Epernon, and was guarding the bridges across the Loire.
Navarre’s messenger attempted to convince the Germans to try and force their way across the Loire using the many fords, but the Germans insisted on continuing to advance west along the north bank of the Loire.
Dohna’s one advantage was that Guise had no intention of cooperating with Henry III. When Henry ordered Guise to join up with him, the duke moved so that the Germans were between the two French armies, giving him a reason not to obey the King. As the Germans moved north-west to Vimory, Guise kept to their north-east, moving to Montargis, leaving Henry III isolated on the Loire.
The first significant fighting of the campaign came at Vimory. Late on 26 October Guise led a cavalry force in an evening raid on the German camp, capturing some of their baggage and causing some confusion. Dohna rallied his men and led a counterattack, and the French were repulsed. The fighting must have been at very close quarters, as Dohna and Mayenne actually came to blows, with Dohna suffering a sabre wound and Mayenne hit on the chin strap of his helmet by two pistol shots.
On the following day Guise offered to exchange the dead and the prisoners on each side, suggesting that the battle had been a draw. Cayet’s Chronologie Novenaire places the German losses at 150 men, the French at 240 men. Guise claimed to have won a major victory, killing 700 and capturing several senior officers, but this boast was probably aimed more at his backer Philip II of Spain than at accuracy.
The Germans continued to push west, heading towards Chartres. The Swiss contingent realised that the army was heading for disaster and entered into negotiations with Henry III, who promised to escort them safely home. They accepted these terms, and headed home. This helped convince Dohna that there was no point in continuing on his current route, and he decided to turn back, possibly with the aim of crossing the Upper Loire to join Navarre in southern France. However he suffered a second defeat at Auneau (24 November 1578), a few miles to the east of Chartres, and in the aftermath of this accepted Henry III’s offer of safe conduct out of France, eliminating the German army as a factor in the war.