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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

8 August 1640: The Irishman Colonel Owen Roe O'Neill, defending the City of Arras against the French Army of Louis XIV ordered a sortie against the besiegers. The Irish Leader knew that the French had been resupplied and that the attack on the eastern section of the town's fortifications was dangerously close to being launched. It was in this desperate fight that the famous playwright and duellist Cyrano de Bergerac was injured by a sword-cut to the neck.

The Siege had begun when the French had invested Arras on June 13th with a vast force of 23,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry. Maréchal de Châtillon and Maréchal de La Meilleraye commanded them. The French dug extensive lines of around the town, including a number of forts and a large fortified camp to the south.

The French dug extensive lines of circumvallation and contravallation around the town, including a number of forts and a large fortified camp to the south. The encirclement was made difficult by the nature of the ground around Arras - the lines needed to cross 4 wide waterways. This also posed numerous communication difficulties for the besiegers, who could not move large amounts of troops across the rivers quickly.

The fortifications of Arras consisted of two halves; the town in the east and the abbey in the west, forming a figure-of-eight. The walls had been bastioned in the 16th century under Charles V' and more recently some earthen demi-lunes'and a covered way had been added.

The siege was very important to both sides as Arras represented one of the most important fortified places under Spanish rule in Artois  - King Louis XIII himself joined the besieging army and Cardinal Richelieu had written to the marshals that:

 You will answer with your heads if you do not take Arras.

But the French pressed ahead and beat off Spanish attempts to cut their supply lines. The trenches drew ever closer to the fortress. Despite taking the French by surprise O’Neill’s attack  was at length beaten back within the walls. O’Neill had done all that was required of him and he had held a vastly superior force at bay for far longer than was expected. A siege that was expected to last days had cost the French weeks of the campaign season. The following day he asked for terms. His epic defence won the admiration of friend and foe alike. The following year he returned home to partake in uprising against English Rule.