Collapse of bridge, Angers, France

ANGERS – Catastrophe de la Basse-Chaine (10 April 1850)
225 soldats du 11e Léger furent noyés á la suite de la rupture du Pont
Publisher: A. Bruel, Angers

Angers Bridge, also called the Basse-Chaîne Bridge, was a suspension bridge over the Maine River in Angers, France. It was designed by Joseph Chaley and Bordillon, and built between 1836 and 1839. The bridge collapsed on 16 April 1850, while a battalion of French soldiers was marching across it, killing over 200 of them. The bridge spanned 102 m (335 ft), with two wire cables carrying a deck 7.2 m (24 ft) wide. Its towers consisted of cast iron columns 5.47 m (17.9 ft) tall.

Soldiers stationed in the region frequently used the bridge, and two battalions of the same regiment had crossed earlier that day. The third battalion arrived during a powerful thunderstorm when the wind was making the bridge oscillate. When the soldiers began to cross, their bodies acted as sails, further catching the wind. Survivors reported that they had been walking as if drunk and could barely keep themselves from falling, first to one side and then to the other. As usual in crossing that bridge, the soldiers had been ordered to break step and to space themselves farther apart than normal. However, their efforts to match the swaying and keep their balance may have caused them to involuntarily march with the same cadence, causing resonance. In any case, the oscillation increased. At a time when the bridge was covered with 483 soldiers and four other people (though the police had prevented many curiosity seekers from joining the march), the upstream anchoring cable on the right bank broke in its concrete mooring, three to four meters underground, with a noise like “a badly done volley from a firing squad”. The adjacent downstream cable broke a second later, and the right-bank end of the deck fell, making the deck slope very steeply and throwing soldiers into the river. Many of those who fell were saved by their fellow soldiers who had not yet crossed and by residents of Angers who came to the rescue, but a total of 226 people died.

The Basse-Chaine Bridge, known as the Angers Bridge, collapsed into the River Mayenne, in western France, just after 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 16th, 1850, killing over 200 and injuring many more.

The suspension road bridge, designed by Joseph Chaley, was authorised in 1835 and built between 1836 and 1839. At the time there was quite a fashion for building suspension bridges in France, but following the Angers disaster, the building of such bridges was halted for over 20 years. On that morning the bridge was being used heavily as there was a military camp nearby. A squadron of hussars had barely cleared the bridge, when the head of the 11th battalion appeared on the other side. The Colonel in charge, Simonet, reported afterwards that he shouted a warning to the men to break into sections as they crossed and for the band to cease playing, but a fierce storm was raging and his words were carried away by the wind. He reported that to do so was usual procedure, but no written order was given. The drummers and some of the band had safely crossed over when, with a terrible crash, the cast iron column on the right bank gave way, crushing those waiting to file onto the bridge. The 102 metre long deck of the bridge then fell, in one piece, into the river taking with it 483 military personnel and 4 civilians – a maid and three children. A plaque erected on the bridge in 1900 commemorates the 223 who died, including the children and their maid.

Repairs had taken place on the bridge the previous year, 1849, as it had been heavily used during the construction of a stone bridge nearby. However, the commission of enquiry formed on April 20th, found that the combination of three factors had caused the disaster – the storm, described at the time as a hurricane, which caused the bridge to sway, the resonating effect of soldiers marching in step and rusted cables. The wire strands of the cables had separated from the concrete moorings, allowing water to penetrate and cause rusting. One cable snapped.
Bridges of Dublin

Image of Pont de la Basse-Chaîne (from Wikimedia Commons)


The following letter from Lieutenant-colonel Simonet, of the same regiment gives a short hut affecting account of the disaster. It is curious that the same officer should be the survivor of the terrible catastrophe which occurred at the battle of Leipsic, when Paniatowski and so many others were drowned in the Elster :—

“Before entering the faubouig of Angers, an aide-de-camp of Gen. Duzer came to me with an order to enter the town by the suspension-bridge, and to draw up my men on the Place d l’Arademie, where he proposBed to review them. I had scarcely resumed my march by column in sections, when the weather, which had been before very fine, suddenly changed to a perfect tempest; a furious wind, and pouring rain. It was then half-past eleven. It was under these gloomy -auspices that I entered on the fatal bridge, after having stopped the band, and broke the regularity of the step, as is usual in such cases. The wind was so high that the floor of the bridge rose and fell from it so much that I had difficulty in keeping my seat on my horse. Scarcely had the section of the advanced guard, the pioneers, and the greater part of the band reached the opposite bank of the river, when suddenly a horrible crash was heard, and the floor of the bridge gave way under our feet. With the exception of the head of the column and the two rear sections, all the rest of the battalion followed the movement on the bridge, and fell into the water. Ah, what a spectacle. Never was there a more heartrending one. My poor mare turned over, left me in the water, and then, suddenly rising, nearly crushed me. I rose and endeavoured to catch her, but Captain Desmarest, my adjutant-major, who was marching behind me, and to whom I owe my life, seizing me by the arm, drew me forcibly lo the left side of the bridge (the water then up to my armpits); then, assisted by some soldiers, I was lifted into a small boat, when one of the inhabitants, an old soldier, received me in his arms in a fainting state. From thence I got into a washerwoman’s boat, and then gained the shore. I was saved, but too earnestly occupied with the fate of my children, my friends, and my comrades, to think of accepting the assistance which was eagerly offered me by the inhabitants and the officers of the garrison.”

A letter from Angers says:—
“The lieutenant colonel, an old officer of the Empire, assisted by the adjutant and some of the men, escaped with his life; but although seriously wounded and bruised he would not quit the spot, but remained to watch over the rescue of his companions in arms. It is impossible to describe his solicitude and his coolness in the midst of ihe frightful scenes by which he was surrounded. The inhabitants of the town warmly seconded the exertions of the officers, who forgot themselves to go to the assistance of their soldiers. A grand musical congress was to have place next week at Angers, but in consequence of this catastrophe the committee have decided that it shall not take place.”

The following additional particulars of this terrible catastrophe, are from the Precurseur of Angers, published on the subsequent day:—

“Every one on the spot vied with each other in rendering assistance, and as the soldiers were got out they were led into the houses adjoining, and every, assistance given. A young lieutenant of the 11th (M. Loup) rendered himself conspicuous for his heroic exertions; and a young workwoman, at the imminent danger of her life, jumped into the water, and saved the life of an officer who was sinking. It is impossible for us at this moment to estimate the number of lives that have been lost; of those who escaped with their lives there is scarcely one but has received wounds from the bayonets of his comrades. Several acts of devotion deserve to be mentioned. Several soldiers who had reached the shore unhurt, immediately stripped and swam to the assistance of Ins comrades.

“Ten o’clock -— The muster-roll has just been called over. Of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd companies there only remain 14, 16, and 19 men respectively. The number deficient amounts to 219, to which must be added 33 dead, and 30 wounded in the hospital, making the total loss to the battalion 282. There is reason, however, to hope that there may yet be some in private houses which may not be included in the number of those whose fate has been known.

“Two  o’clock. —- The number of bodies found up to this time amounts to 123. The names of the officers killed or drowned, as yet ascertained, are Capt. Dore, Lieut. Cottez, Sub-lient PorteDrapeau Carette, and Sub-lieuts. Forgues and Lebreck. It appears that some people belonging to the town were walking on the bridge at the time of the accident, for among the bodies found are those of a servant and two children.

THE FUNERAL.-The President of the Republic reached Angers on Thursday night. The list of the dead was, at his request, given him. He passed the whole of Friday morning in visiting the hospital where the wounded are taken care of. He was accompanied by the minister of war and the general officer commanding the department of the Maine and Loire. Several of the survivors are in a state which leaves little hope of their recovery. The orderly officers of the President have also visited the private houses where the wounded took refuge. The greatest attentions are paid to the unfortunate survivors. The funerals of the unhappy victims took place at one o’clock on Thursday, in the church of Angers; the orderly officers, the civil and military authorities filled the church and its approaches. All the shops were closed, and the town wore an appearance of deep sorrow. The usual military honours were paid as the dead were laid in their graves.
The Hobart Town Advertiser, 13 August 1850