General Joseph, Comte Souham (1760-1837)

General Joseph, Comte Souham (1760-1837) was a French general who fought early in the Revolutionary Wars then fell out of favour, before returning to active service during the Peninsular War, where he briefly commanded the main French army.

Souham was born in Loubersac in 1760 and served in the ranks in the Royal Army from 1782, before the Revolution. He served in the elite 8th Cavalry Regiment from 1782-1790.

In 1792 he joined the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of Corrèze, which fought against the Prussian and Austrian armies on the north-eastern borders of France. He was promoted to second lieutenant colonel on 16 August 1792, and fought at the battle of Jemappes (6 November 1792), an early victory for the Revolutionary armies. In 1793 he took part in the Siege of Dunkirk (23 August-8 September 1793), and on 30 July he was promoted to général de brigade. Three weeks late he was given command of a 30,000 strong division in General Pichegru's Army of the North. During this period he served alongside General Moreau, who commanded a 20,000 strong division. The two men became close friends, so within a short period Souham had established links with two figures who would eventually be disgraced.  

On 28 April 1794 his division fought the Austrians at Mouscron, and he then occupied Courtrai. This was the first significant French success during their 1794 invasion of western Belgium. The Austrians then attempted to retake the city, and had some success of 10 May (battle of Willems) but had to retreat after Souham defeated them (Battle of Courtrai, 11 May 1794). The Allied forces continued to threaten Courtrai, and in mid-May they began a six-pronged attack on the city, triggering what became known as the battle of Tourcoing (17-18 May 1794). Souham was responsible for the French strategy that produced a major victory - the Allied army had to retreat across the Meuse, while the French occupied the areas west of the Rhine.

Souham then defeated the British at 's Hertgenbosch or Bois le Duc (October 1794). In November he and Pichegru captured the Dutch fortress of Nijmegen. They then went on to capture the Dutch fleet at Texel and finally Amsterdam. In the aftermath of this triumph the Dutch Republic became the Batavian Republic, and it remained under French domination for the rest of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

In 1798 he helped prevent Pichegru's treachery and exile from affecting the moral and performance of the Army of the Rhine, where the exiled general had been a popular leader.

In 1799 he served under General Jourdan, and took part in the battle of Ostrach (21 March 1799), a French defeat in Germany early in the War of the Second Coalition. His division was part of the reserve at the start of the battle, and had to be committed to the fighting as the Austrians began to push back the French. The French were forced to admit defeat before noon.  The Austrians pressed the retreating French, and defeated them for a second time at Stockach (25 March 1799). Souham commanded the 2nd Division at this battle, and was given the task of conducting a frontal assault on the advancing Austrians. His attack failed, but the real cause of the French defeat came elsewhere, when Jourdan split his victorious northern forces in two, believing that he had already won the battle. This gave the Austrians the chance to counterattack, and win a victory that forced the French back across the Rhine.  

The Revolutionary army suffered from frequent purges, and from 1799 Souham was suspected of being a royalist. He was exiled to his estates under suspicion of having been involved in a Royalist plot, but was then cleared and in 1800 was allowed to join General Moreau's army in Germany.

This service under Moreau meant that he came under attack from Napoleon. After Moreau's fall in 1804, Souham was arrested and spent three days in the Temple prison, under suspicion of having been involved in Pichegru's and Moreau's plotting. He was also suspected of involvement in the Cadoudal revolt, but again there was no real evidence to link him to either plot. After being released he retired to his estates.

Souham wasn't employed again until 1807 when he went to Italy. He was then sent to Spain, where he commanded the 1st Division in St Cyr's VII Corps. He fought at Lampoudan (November 1808), the siege of Rosas (7 November-4 December 1808), Cardedeu (16 December 1808) and Molins de Rey (21 December 1808). In 1809 he fought at Valls and Reus (25 February), where the French defeated a Spanish attempt to liberate Barcalona, Vich and San Colona (April) and the siege of Gerona (December 1809).

In 1810 he defeated O'Donnell at the battle of Vich (February 1810). In the aftermath of the third siege of Gerona, Marshal Augereau returned to Barcelona, but discovered that the magazines there were empty and he would need to return to Gerona for supplies. Souham was sent along the road to Vich to prevent the Spanish Army of Catalonia from interfering. That army, under General O'Donnell, outnumbered Souham by two-to-one, but he was unable to take advantage of this, and was repulsed. Souham suffered a head wound at Vich, but was compensated by being made a comte. However he was unable to continue in Spain, and the French missed his abilities. He was replaced by Marshal Augereau's less competent brother, under whose leadership the French lost control of Catalonia.

After recovering from his wound he served in Italy and then Germany, before returning to Spain in the summer of 1811 as commander of a division in the Army of Portugal. He fought at the combat of Aldea de Ponte (27 September 1811), a British rearguard action during Wellington's retreat after the end of an attempt to blockade Cuidad Rodrigo.

He was on leave when Marmont's army was defeated at Salamanca. Marmout, who was wounded in the battle, was replaced by Clausel, and then in September 1812 by Souham. It took him some time to move, but when he did move towards Burgos in late October it forced the Duke of Wellington to abandon the siege and begin a costly retreat back to the Portuguese border. Despite this success his spell in command was short, and in November 1812 he was removed for being too cautious.

War of Liberation 1813 - Spring Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Spring Campaign

At the start of the 1813 campaign in Germany he commanded a division in Ney's III Corps. He performed well at Weissenfels (29 April 1813).

On 1 May 1813 his division took part in the action of Poserna (1 May 1813), a Russian cavalry attack on Ney's corps as it was crossing the River Rippach. The French managed to get across the river, but Marshal Bessières, commander of the Imperial Guard, was killed in the fighting.

His division then fought at the battle of Lützen (2 May 1813), a failed Allied attempt to prevent Napoleon from reaching Liepzig.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign

He was part of Marshal Macdonald's army at the battle of Katzbach (26 August 1813), commanding III Corps. This was a French defeat that helped undermine Napoleon's early success at Dresden.

He commanded III Corps at the massive battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813), where his corps was posted to the north/ north-east of the city. By this point Ney was commanding a group of corps. Souham suffered another serious wound at Leipzig.

He recovered from this wound in time to take part in the defence of Paris in 1814, as commander of the 2nd Reserve Division. This sounded impressive, but only contained 500 men and he was unable to defend Paris when Napoleon left it exposed to attack. Souham was unfairly blamed for this disaster, which triggered Napoleon's first abdication.

He accepted the first Bourbon restoration, and stayed loyal to them during the Hundred Days. He was rewarded with a number of posts after the Napoleonic Wars, including a spell as governor of Strasbourg. He retired in 1832 and died five years later.  

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 September 2015), General Joseph, Comte Souham (1760-1837) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_souham.html

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