Veterans Day and the Siege of Lille

“God help me, I love it so.” – General George S. Patton on war.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, Germany surrendered to the Allied powers, thereby ending World War I.  To commemorate this final denouement of one of the most devastating conflicts in world history, we Americans created Veterans Day.

Today, of course, Veterans Day is designed to honor the veteran soldiers of all of our wars, which, for all their brutality and destruction, abound with examples of humanity, sacrifice, compassion and adherence to a code of honor that exemplifies the very best of the human spirit.

The war stories citing these virtues are numerous, but one of my favorite examples of the warrior’s bond and military “valor”—understood in the best sense of the word—occurred in the seventeenth century during the reign of the France’s King Louis XIV.  The Sun King, as he came to be known, spent more time waging war than any monarch in Europe up to that point, and on this particular occasion, in the summer of 1667, Louis was engaged in one of his many sieges, this time against the city of Lille, which he would ultimately incorporate into France.

As it happened, the siege occurred during a particularly nasty spell of hot weather, so when the commanding general in charge of defending Lille — the Comte de Brouais — learned that Louis and his troops lacked ice, de Brouais made sure ice was sent to the French King and his army every morning.  After a few weeks or so of receiving this daily ration of ice, Louis asked to meet with the officer who delivered it.  At their meeting Louis told the officer that, given the extreme heat, his troops really could use more ice than de Brouais was providing them, and Louis asked the officer to pass his request along to de Brouais.

The next day the Comte de Brouais sent back word that he believed the siege was going to be a long one and therefore he worried that if he upped the ration to Louis he would run out of ice before the siege was over.

When Louis got this message he was accompanied by one of his top military aides, the Duc de Charost, who shouted out, “Fine! And be sure to tell de Brouais not to surrender unless he absolutely has to!”

Louis turned to his aide in amused disbelief.  “Are you mad?” he inquired. “You are telling our enemy to hold on as long as he can?”

“I am afraid so, Sire,” Charost replied. “It is a matter of family honor.  You see, the Comte de Brouais is my cousin.”