5 January 1757: Louis XV cheats an assassin’s blade

Freezing weather saves the French king’s life from an assailant’s knife but it doesn’t cool his thirst for revenge

On 5 January 1757, Versailles shivered under a thick blanket of snow. At six that evening, Louis XV,the 56-year-old king of France, left his daughter’s apartments to return to his own rooms at the Grand Trianon. As he walked through the marble courtyard towards his carriage, the guards stood motionless, their torches held aloft.

And then the assassin made his move, slipping out of the darkness to plunge a short knife into the king’s chest. The cold probably saved Louis’s life, since his clothes were so thick that the knife penetrated less than half an inch into his chest. The writer and historian Voltaire, one of the king’s fiercest critics, later claimed that it had been merely a “pinprick”. Even so, Louis feared the worst: when the queen ran to his side, he made a point of apologising for his countless affairs.

The assassin, meanwhile, made no attempt to resist arrest. A former domestic servant from Arras called Robert-François Damiens, he appears to have been outraged by the rigid policies of the French Catholic church, for which he held Louis personally responsible. Almost certainly he was insane.

What followed, however, was simply horrific. On 28 March, Damiens was publicly tortured with pincers and burned with sulphur, hot wax and boiling oil. The executioner then cut off his arms and legs. Finally Damiens’s torso – he was still alive, incidentally – was burned at the stake. Among the crowd was the womanising adventurer Giacomo Casanova. “I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears,” Casanova wrote, “as I heard his piercing shrieks.” But his fellow spectators, he noted, watched with hungry glee, their eyes bright with pleasure. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

5 January 1858

Austrian general Joseph Count Radetzky dies aged 91. A veteran of the Napoleonic wars, he suppressed risings in Lombardy and Venetia in his eighties and defeated the Piedmontese at Novara. He is immortalised in Johann Strauss the elder's Radetzky March.

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5 January 1895: Alfred Dreyfus is branded a traitor

Scandal erupts as the Jewish officer is humiliated in public

A week after Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French artillery, had been cashiered for allegedly passing secrets to the Germans, the paper Le Petit Journal ran a colour picture of the ceremony on its front page. In the foreground stands Dreyfus, ashen but unblinking. Before him, an adjutant is breaking Dreyfus's sword over his knee. The headline reads: “The Traitor.”

Even today, Dreyfus’s enforced degradation on the Champs de Mars remains one of the darkest days in French history. Born in Alsace in 1859, Dreyfus had made swift progress through the ranks of the army. Time and again, however, his superiors remarked on his chilly personality, as well as the supposed stain of his Jewish background.

Then, in 1894, French military intelligence discovered that somebody was selling artillery secrets to the Germans, and suspicion fell on the blameless Dreyfus. He steadfastly maintained his innocence, but on 22 December, seven judges found him guilty.

On 5 January, Dreyfus was led into the courtyard of the capital’s École Militaire. There, as some 5,000 men looked on, an official read his sentence aloud, before the adjutant tore off his uniform’s stripes, cuffs and buttons and snapped his sword in two. At that, wrote one observer, Dreyfus staggered, but then steadied himself and cried out: “Vive la France! You have degraded an innocent man. I swear that I am innocent.”

But it was no good. By the spring, Dreyfus had been sent into solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. He would not be freed until four years later. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

5 January 1919

The German Workers' Party, the forerunner of the Nazi Party, is formed in Munich. In September Adolf Hitler joins the party, which will change its name in 1920 to the National Socialist German Workers' Party.

5 January 1922

British polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton died of a heart attack on board his ship, the Quest, while it was anchored at South Georgia. He is buried on South Georgia in the Norwegian cemetery at Grytviken.

5 January 1941

Pioneer aviatrix Amy Johnson was killed when she lost her way in adverse weather conditions and the Airspeed Oxford aircraft she was flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington near Oxford ran out of fuel. Johnson was forced to bail out into the Thames Estuary where, despite an attempted rescue, she either drowned or died of hypothermia. Her body was never found. A memorial service for her was held in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields nine days later.

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