Edouard de Castelnau

Portrait of Castelnau. Source: SHD


Noël Marie Joseph Edouard de Curières de Castelnau, (24th December 1851: Saint-Affrique, Aveyron - 19th March 1944: Montastruc-la-Conseillère, Haute-Garonne)


Edouard de Castelnau came from an old Catholic monarchist family from the Rouergue. He studied at the Saint-Gabriel Jesuit College (Saint-Affrique), leaving with a Bachelor of Sciences degree before preparing for Saint-Cyr. As a student at St-Cyr, he first saw action in the war of 1870. Graduating in 1869 from the Special Military School (Ecole Spéciale Militaire), he left with the rank of Second Lieutenant on the 14th August 1870 and was posted to the 31st infantry regiment (régiment d'infanterie or RI). Unable to join his unit in time due to the disorganisation of the services behind the front line, he was appointed to the 36th Foot Regiment of General d'Aurelles de Paladine's Loire army on the 2nd October; he was promoted to Captain twelve years later. Edouard de Castelnau fought at Tusey, Sainte-Maxime, Chambord, Gué-du-Loir and le Mans. In 1871, he lived in Versailles and took part in the repression of the town under the command of Colonel Davout d'Auerstaedt. Demoted to Lieutenant by the grade review commission, he was not promoted back to Captain until 1876.

His long military career then followed a more traditional route, with garrisons in Bourg, Givet, Ham and Laon. He started at the War Academy (Ecole de Guerre) in 1878, where he graduated in 1880 before being transferred to the 59th RI in Toulouse. He was a trainee at the headquarters of the 17th corps and then appointed to that of the 34th division, returning to the 126th RI and the 17th corps in 1888. On the 6th May 1889 he became Head of Battalion, receiving the Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1891 and then joining General de Miribel at the premier bureau of general headquarters in Paris in 1893. He became a Lieutenant Colonel on the 10th September 1896 and was promoted to Second in Command and then Commander of the premier bureau, being made an Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1899. With the arrival of General André in the War Department, he was removed from the management of the premier bureau. Promoted to Colonel, he left to head the 37th regiment in Nancy between 1900 and 1905. Described as a "Jesuit sympathiser", the army corps served the General as a means of displaying his opinions: during a parade dedicated to the history of the French army, he made his men act out scenes from the Old Regime through to the Republic, without making any differentiation between them. He became the General Michal's High Commander and Superior Commander in the defence of Belfort. He was made Brigade General on the 25th March 1906, commanding the 24th brigade at Sedan and the 7th at Soissons Becoming Division General on the 21st December 1909 - he had once been excluded from the promotions board by General Sarrail, then in charge of the infantry -, he then commanded the 13th division at Chaumont. Recalled to headquarters at Joffre's special request, he was promoted to Deputy First in Command of the General Staff under his command on the 2nd August 1911. That same year he was promoted to Commander of the Legion of Honour. At the end of 1913, he started at the Upper War Council. In 1914, he commanded the 11th Lorraine Army during the Battle of Morhange. Advancing methodically in conjunction with Dubail's first army, he reached the Barouville beacon, beyond Dieuze and the lake district. He saved the town of Nancy by blocking the march of Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria using a flanking manoeuvre on the 25th August. On this occasion he made a votive offering to the Virgin Mary: "To Our Lady of Prompt Succour, eternal gratitude. Nisi Dominus custoderit civitatem frustra vigilat qui custodit eam [If the Lord does not protect a city, those who watch over it guard it in vain. (Psalm 118)]", on the 12th September 1914. There then followed a fierce battle which lasted until the 10th September: Castelnau extended his victory in the Marne to the East with that of the trouée de Charmes, which prevented the French armies from being turned to the right, making it possible to regroup. He was then promoted to Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour (18th September). Then the "race for the sea" began: Castelnau moved his 11th army along the left hand side in order to surround the enemy who were retreating into the Nieuport dunes. He carried on fighting with determination at Roye and then on to Arras.


In June 1915, Castelnau, promoted to Commander of the Central group of armies, led the Champagne offensive of the 25th September 1915: in a few days he took 25,000 prisoners, seized 125 canons and took control over an area of German land several kilometres wide. Following this victory he was promoted to Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour (8th October 1915) and became Generalissimo Joffre's Deputy. Castelnau's popularity in public opinion was such that the Lyon Express - similar comments were made in the foreign press, including the Manchester Guardian - made the following comments about his promotion: "It is a promotion that is nothing short of being undeniably deserved, because his loyalty to the Catholic faith has kept him away from it for a long time. It is well known that under the Masonic denouncing regime of Combes and General André, General de Castelnau was a General who was refused any kind of promotion" (23rd December 1915). His opponent, General Von Kluck would say of him: "the French opponent with whom we instinctively felt the most empathy, because of his great military talent and chivalry, is General de Castelnau. And I would like him to know that". In February 1916, following a trip to Thessaloniki to study the potential organisation of the place, his recommendations for the Meuse defence had consequences for the Battle of Verdun and meant that right bank was not lost to the enemy. General de Castelnau was sent on a liaison mission to Russia on the 18th January 1917. On his return in March, he took command of the Eastern armies and, having been awarded the military medal in September, took part in the great victory offensive of 1918, arriving triumphantly in Colmar and then in Strasbourg. Despite the services he gave to the Nation, he never rose to the rank of Marshal. The Republic remained suspicious of the military following the Dreyfus affaire and his contacts in rightwing traditionalist circles and his militant Catholicism, which would earn him the nickname of the "fighting friar" from Clémenceau, revived the ghost of the law of 1905 - the First World War would claim his three sons! He carried on working beyond retirement age and specially employed, though never taking command, he presided over the national commission for military graves, which was in charge of the large national cemeteries.

In 1919, at the age of sixty eight, he was elected as MP for the Aveyron on the ticket of the Bloc national and was to be highly active in the Chamber's Army Commission. Marginalised because of his extreme rightwing militancy and his confirmed warmongering, he succeeded Barrès in 1923 at the head of the League of Patriots (Ligue des Patriotes). Beaten in the 1924 elections, the following year he founded the National Catholic Federation (Fédération nationale catholique or FNC), a movement encouraged by Pius XI to thwart the Leftwing Coalition's anticlerical project. Well established in the parishes (in less than a year he set up an enormous pyramid organisation comprising between 1.5 and 2 million members) and organising mass demonstrations, most notably in Alsace-Lorraine, in the West and the Massif Central region, the Federation forced Herriot's government to do a U-turn. The FNC, a real breeding ground of retired officers such as Tournès, Margot, Navel, de Reynies, de la Bussières, Picard, de Maitre d'Allerey, Etienne, Amiot, Mazurier and Keller, was also an important pressure group which, in addition to its role as arbitrator during elections, kept its eye on parliamentary life, not hesitating to publish in the media a list of MPs who had voted for or against such and such a government bill, especially in those areas that were in keeping with its values, such as education, the family and religious freedom and suggesting others through the intermediary of its representatives in the Chamber. In addition, General de Castelnau had access to a soap-box, the Paris Echo, an influential rightwing newspaper in which he fought anticlericalism as well as the policy of Franco-German reconciliation championed by Briand. Castelnau's political influence diminished during the 1930's. Anticlericalism no longer dominated thoughts, Catholicism found other battle grounds and the nationalist values of the Federation receded in the face of the reactionary movements of the Leagues and pro-fascist movements. In 1940, in retirement at his home in the Hérault, although in favour of the national values of the Revolution, he showed deep mistrust towards Pétain and expressed disapproval of the armistice. He died at the château de Lasserre in Montastruc-la-Conseillère in 1944. He was buried in the new family vault in Montastruc. Although forgotten by history, General Edouard de Castelnau was a key public figure at the time. A man of the world and well-read, he was the Maintainer of the Toulouse Floral Games, a member of the Institute, founding member of the Mutual Aid Association of the French Nobility and member of the Aveyron Sciences, Arts and Letters society. His courage and mastery of the military art elevated him to the International Dignities of the War Cross, the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, of Saint Gregory the Great, of the White Eagle, of Saint Stanislas and Saint Anne of Russia, of Saint Alexander Nevski, of the Order of Victoria of England, of the cavalier of the Virtuti militari of Poland and of the Grand Cross of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem.

  • Portrait de Castelnau. Source : SHD