SABRES IN THE SNOW: MURAT AT EYLAU, 1807!

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AS DEFEAT LOOMS, MURAT’S CAVALRY SAVES THE DAY IN PERHAPS THE GREATEST CAVALRY CHARGE IN MILITARY HISTORY

In October of 1806, Napoleon decisively defeated the Prussians in a lightning campaign that culminated at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. This campaign was in response to Prussia joining Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain in the Fourth Coalition against Napoleon; following his defeat of Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.

Following Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon overran much of Prussia in a blitzkrieg-like advance, destroying the remnants of the Prussian army at the Battles of Prenzlau and Lübeck. On the 25th of October, the French captured Berlin.

With the Prussian forces scattered, only Russia still had an army in the field to oppose him. Napoleon continued the campaign; marching the Grande Armee (75,000 strong) into East Prussia. Here he sought to bring the Russians, under General Leonty Leontyevich, Count von Bennigsen, to decisive battle.

As was normal practice, Napoleon’s Grande Armee marched widely dispersed; each Corps its own independent army; the overall movements coordinated by the Emperor’s headquarters through an efficient staff, headed by the talented Marshal Berthier. With his army scattered in a broad net, Napoleon now attempted to cast this over and bag Bennigsen’s Russians.

Galloping couriers were sent to all Corps commanders, ordering them to concentrate against and envelop the Russians. However, one such courier in-route to Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps was captured by Russian Cossacks. Thus, warned that he was thrusting his head into a noose, Bennigsen began withdrawing away from the oncoming French. Napoleon pursued, and Bennigsen was brought to heal on the 7th of February, 1807, at the village of Eylau.

(To continue reading, go here)

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“13 HOURS” MAY BE THE BEST WAR MOVIE IN 15 YEARS!

Not since 2001’s “Black Hawk Down” has there been a film that captures modern combat so well as the new film by Director Michael Bay, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”.

Much like that earlier film by Ridley Scott, depicting a similar incident in recent history, “13 Hours” is the tale of Americans isolated in a North African city, desperately fighting for their lives without the support and reinforcement from home they require.

As a former Special Forces Operator, I both love such films and tend to judge them critically. With any film in which the viewer has a deep familiarity of the subject matter, one can’t help but notice flaws in the narrative or details. It’s both a blessing and a curse to know too much about the subject; and I go to every war movie prepared to be disappointed, and to make allowances for minor mistakes.

But with “13 Hours“, there were no moments that made me mentally “wince”. Instead, from the opening to the end I was riveted to the screen; and at no time did my finely-tuned “bullshit meter” go off.

The real Benghazi survivor John “Tig” Tiegen shows actor Dominc Fumusa (who portays “Tig” in the film) how to handle his weapon. The film gained great realism from the presence of these veterans on set

Since “Black Hawk Down“, there have been a handful of movies similar in style and subject: “We Were Soldiers” (2002), “Act of Valor” (2012), and “Lone Survivor” (2013). All shared the same theme: American fighting men put into deadly peril without proper support…

(To continue, go here)

 

 

 

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ZULU: DEATH AND REDEMPTION IN THE AFRICAN SUN

1467368On 11 January 1879, a British Army crossed the Buffalo River, the boundary between the British Natal province and the independent native African kingdom of the Zulus. After the refusal by the Zulu king Cetshwayo of an insulting British ultimatum, a British army prepared to march on the Zulu capital, Ulindi; with the goal of defeating and annexing the Zulu kingdom.

The Zulu War of 1879 was not officially sanctioned by the government of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It was instead the work of an ambitious colonial official, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, High Commissioner for Southern Africa. In an effort to compel the various states of South Africa into a British confederation (which would be comprised of British-run Cape Colony and Natal, the Boer republics: the Transvaal and the Orange Free State), Frere had initiated a policy of annexation of local African tribal states. The British had for most of the century battled the Xhosa tribes between their Cape Colony and Zululand. The last of these was subdued in 1878. Frere now set his sights on the Zulus.

Frere’s ambitions aside, the existence of an independent and warlike Zulu state sharing several hundred miles of open border with British territory was in any case an unstable situation.

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Founded by Shaka in the first decades of the 19th century, the Zulus were a people as devoted to and organized for war as were the Romans or the Spartans of old….

(To continue reading, go here…)

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MASSACRE IN THE PASSES: ELPHINSTONE’S DISASTER!

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Foolish political policies and military incompetence lead to bloody disaster for the British in the First Afghan War!

In 1876, George Armstrong Custer and some 268 some members of the US 7th cavalry were “massacred” in battle against native Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. This signal, but ultimately meaningless defeat of a “modern” military force by technologically inferior tribal forces is almost universally known in America; thanks to countless books and not a few films that deal with the subject.

What is almost universally forgotten is the far greater and more politically significant destruction of a much larger British Army just 34 years earlier; by Afghan tribesman in the snowbound passes of Eastern Afghanistan.

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Afghanistan was a pawn in the “Great Game” for control of Central Asia and India. Seen here in a political cartoon of the day, Afghanistan is courted (and squeezed between) its two suitors, the Russian bear and the British lion. 

The First Afghan War (1839-1842) is best understood in context of the so-called “Great Game”: the contest for influence in Central Asia between the Russian Empire and Great Britain. India, the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, was governed from Calcutta by the East India Company (colloquial known as “John Company”); and garrisoned by an army of largely British-led native troops, called Sepoys (from a Turkic/Persian term for professional soldier, Sipahi). These Sepoy regiments supported a core of British regiments; both “John Company” troops and “Queen’s Regiments” of the regular British Army.

1461037“John Company” Sepoy soldiers. Though brave,  loyal, well-trained and equipped with the same weapons as their British counterparts (in “the Queen’s regiments”), the Bengali Sepoys often lacked shoes or wore sandals; and suffered terribly in the Afghan winter The great fear among Britain’s leaders was of a Russian invasion of the Indian Sub-continent. With reinforcement from England half-a-year’s journey by sea from India, an invasion in force by Russian forces based in Central Asia had every chance of prying the “Jewel in the Crown” from Britain’s grasp.

To invade India from their dominions in Central Asia, the Czar’s forces would need to transit through independent Afghanistan. In 1838 Russia’s ally, the Shah of Persia, laid siege to the western Afghan city of Herat. This caused ripples of fear within government circles in Calcutta, that this was the prelude to just such an invasion.

The Kingdom of Afghanistan at that time was ruled by Shah Dost Mohammed of the Durrani dynasty. For a variety of (irrational) reasons, it was felt that Dost Mohammed should be replaced with a ruler more pliable to British interests. The British Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, decided that the deposed and aged former ruler of Afghanistan, Shuja Shah Durrani, would be restored by armed force to his lost throne in Kabul; as a British client-ruler.

The stage was thus set for the First Afghan War.

MARCH ON KABUL

In the early months of 1839 an East India Company army of 20,500 men, commanded by Sir John Keane (a veteran of the Peninsula War and the Battle of New Orleans), invaded Afghanistan. The British entered the country through the Bolan Pass, initially meeting no resistance. Once in Afghanistan, they marched north toward Kabul, Dost Mohammed’s capital. The “John Company” troops proved irresistible; storming the “impregnable” fortress of Gazni; the Medieval capital of the 11th century conqueror, Mohammed of Gazni. Marching on Kabul, Dost Mohammed fled and the British captured the city.

1461080The Afghans were overawed; impressed by the seeming unbeatable British forces. Shuja Shah was installed within the massive walls of the Bala Hissar, Kabul’s Medieval fortress; and after temporarily escaping, Dost Mohammed was captured and taken back as a “guest” of the British Raj in India.

With Shuja Shah in place, the war seemed over, a complete and nearly bloodless British victory. With the “mission accomplished”, the majority of the British forces withdrew back to India. To keep order in the country and forestall Russian invasion, garrisons were established at Kandahar, Gazni, Jalalabad, and, primarily, in unfortified cantonments outside of Kabul. In total, only 8,000 troops were left to hold down the entire country.

1461081Unfortunately for British fortunes, the main force of some 4 Brigades at Kabul was placed under the command of one of history’s most ineffectual generals: Major General Sir William George Keith Elphinstone.

Known as “Elphy Bey” by the Sepoy troops under his command, Elphinstone was a veteran of Waterloo, where he had commanded a battalion of foot….

(To continue reading, go here)

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MAD KINGS AND MACCABEES (PART THREE)

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In the 2nd century BC a “mad king” threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew’s unique identity. A champion arose, David-like, to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee: “The Hammer”! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

(To read Part Two go here)

For Antiochus, fourth of that name to rule the Seleucid Empire, and self-named Epiphanes; the only way to unite the disparate peoples of his vast domain was through the promotion of Hellenism as the universal culture of the empire. A true zealot in the cause of Hellenism, Antiochus founded (or reorganized) Hellenic cities throughout the lands under his rule; and engaged in a vast building program of temples and public buildings.

Close at hand to the center of his kingdom in norther Syria lay Judea; home to the Jews. A long disputed border province between his lands and the rival kingdom of the Ptolemies in Egypt, Coele-Syria (“Hollow Syria”, ancient Palestine) was too important strategically to be allowed to defy his edicts, and the Jews maintain their unique religion and culture.

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Coin of Antiochus IV, with victory-bearing Zeus on the reverse. Zeus was the deity Antiochus identified with his reign; making the Olympian king the chief  god of the Seleucid Empire

For years, Antiochus had patronized the ruling party in Jerusalem that embraced Hellenism. Menelaus, the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem and defacto chief magistrate of the Jews towed the royal line and promoted Antiochus’ policies. However, he was venal and corrupt, and used his position to embezzle from the Temple treasury. Wildly unpopular even among many of the Jewish Hellenized-elites, a revolt against his rule had erupted in 168-167 BC; at the very time when Antiochus, campaigning in Egypt, needed stability in this province which lay between his army and home. The rebels in Jerusalem drove Menelaus into hiding and slaughtered many of his adherents. But Antiochus, hearing of this in Egypt, was told that the rebellion were not just against the corrupt Menelaus; but, falsely, against Seleucid rule.

Returning from Egypt after his humiliation by the Romans at Eleusis, Antiochus entered Jerusalem and chastised the city….

(To continue reading, go here)

 

 

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DIADOCHI: MACEDONIAN GAME OF THRONES (PART 8)

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Long before George R.R. Martin penned his tale of war, intrigue and treachery the ancient world was scene to its own version of Game of Thrones.

(This is the eighth  in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadochi. Part 1 can be read here,and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on here. The previous installment, Part 7, can be found here  . Stay tuned to this blog for future installments! Special thanks to Michael Park for his indispensable help in filling in the gaps in the sources and putting-up with my incessant questions!)

It was now early summer, 320, three years after the death of Alexander the Great [1]. Perdiccas, to whom on his death-bed Alexander had passed his signet ring; and who had ruled the empire ever since was now likewise dead. He had played the “game of thrones” to win, gambling all and coming up short. He had been killed by his own officers while trying to defeat the renegade satrap, Ptolemy son of Lagos in Egypt.

The day after his death, there was an assembly of the Macedonian Royal Army. Ptolemy, the erstwhile enemy of yesterday, was invited to speak [2]. This invitation so close on the heals of Perdiccas’ murder may suggest his collusion with the officers responsible.

Ptolemy was well received, and  the soldiers offered him the regency for the two kings. But the politically canny son of Lagos refused to step into Perdiccas sandals, thereby making himself the focus of every ambitious general’s envy. Instead, he nominated to be custodians of the  kings two other officers:  Peithon, Alexander’s former Bodyguard, satrap of Media and Perdiccas’ former senior sub-commander (as well as one of his three killers); and Arrhidaeus, the officer who’d aided Ptolemy in the bringing of Alexander’s corpse to Egypt. They were given the mission to take the Royal Army out of Egypt and back to Syria; to where Antipater was enroute from Asia Minor.

It is likely that all understood that with Perdiccas gone, primacy now belonged to Craterusor Antipater; allies of Ptolemy against the late Regent. It had already been agreed between these two men that Antipater would rule in Europe, while Craterus acted as guardian for the Kings and Regent in Asia.

The soldiers agreed enthusiastically to Ptolemy’s proposals; and the army and court prepared for its trek back to Syria; while Ptolemy returned to Memphis, where he continued to organize Egypt into his own personal kingdom, and base of power. Here he would bide his time, watching and waiting for opportunities to expand his power, one careful bit at at time. He was a gambler who only made safe bets, never risking all on a single throw of the dice.

But  just two days after the murder of Perdiccas, before the Royal Army could break camp and begin the march back, word came that there had been a momentous battle between Craterus and the late Perdiccas’ lieutenant, Eumenes of Cardia, in Asia Minor; one that would once again change the game and reset the pieces on the board.

EUMENES AND NEOPTOLEMUS

When Perdiccas set off for Egypt, he left his philoi, the wily Eumenes of Cardia in command in Anatolia; with instructions to block Antipater and Craterus from crossing theHellespont into Asia. To help him in this endeavor Perdiccas instructed his hotheaded brother, Alcetas, satrap of Pisidia; and Neoptolemus,  satrap of Armenia to obey Eumenes, and join their forces to his. Together, their combined armies would be approximately equal to that of the Europeans (Antipater and Craterus). Further, he had dispatched the imperial fleet, under Cleitus the White (who had successfully commanded at sea against the Greek allies during the Lamian War) to the Hellespont; to help Eumenes in preventing Antipater and Craterus from crossing into Asia. Operating from ports along the Asian side of the strait, Cleitus’ fleet [3] could have made transporting Antipater and Craterus’ forces across the straits potentially suicidal. For this reason, the Regent felt safe in marching the bulk of the Royal Army to Egypt; his arrangements for defending his rear in Anatolia strategically sound.

But his plans relied upon his commanders staying loyal; and working together in harmony. As events would show, this was an unrealistic expectation…

(To continue reading, go here)

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART TWENTY

5cee5ab2e41c57e4aa54a4ad13608c33Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the twentieth-part of our discussion of Britain in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.

(Read Part Nineteen here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)

ARTHUR RETURNS SOUTH

Geoffrey of Monmouth states that Arthur was in the north, at Alclud, subduing the “Scots and Picts”. Alclud is obviously Alt Clut, the original name for Dumbarton Rock; the chief stronghold of Strathclyde. This meshes well with the scenario described here previously, in which Arthur is in the north fighting outlaws (the “Dog-Heads”) and Angle pirates near Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) at the battles of Tribruit/ Tryfrwyd and Agned Hill (Nennius’ 10th and 11th battles). News of Ælle’s invasion would have reached him there, likely before the Saxons crossed the Thames at Londinium ; a trading town, and traders are always willing to sell information in time of war to both sides. Word of the gathering of longships and warriors in Kent would not have gone unnoticed in any case; and the Britons in the south would have been laying in supplies and preparing for the worst.

Whether Arthur was still at Din Eidyn following the victory at Agned Hill (identified earlier as the volcanic rock known as Arthur’s Seat at Edinburgh), or had moved to Alt Clut in Strathclyde as Geoffrey suggests; he was in the north and had to cover some 450-500 miles (depending on location and route) as quickly as possible. Speed was essential!

This was an existential crisis of the first order. If Badon/Bath fell to the Saxons, Romano-Britain would be cut in two. Arthur’s own native kingdom of Dumnonia would be isolated, and a fatal blow struck to British unity.

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Losing no time, Arthur and his Combrogi (and perhaps some picked mounted men from among the northern petty-kings who owed him favors and allegiance) rode southward post-haste!

(To continue reading, go here!)

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