The War of 1812* was a mere sideshow for the British, desperately committed as they were to the titanic effort of defeating Napoleon in Europe. Most of the battles in America involved less than 2,000 combatants on either side; compared to those fought in Europe, where tens of thousands were engaged. But for Britain, the American War was a nuisance that needed to be brought to a successful conclusion, an the American upstart put firmly in its place.

In 1814 Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of nations; and “the Ogre”  seemingly safely sent into exile on the Island of Elba. The greater enemy behind them, the British now turned their full attention to finishing their war in America. Even while negotiations with the United States were underway in the Belgian city of Ghent, the British were transporting an new army of 15,000 men to America. About half of these were veterans of Wellington’s Peninsular War; and were commanded by the Iron Duke’s own brother-in-law and former division commander in the Spanish campaign, Sir Edward Packenham.


The British plan called for the seizure of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. This would stop the flow of commerce up-and-down the river.  As a bargaining chip in the ongoing peace talks, it would give the British excellent leverage. America had only recently acquired the vast territories of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon; and with New Orleans in their grip, the British would be in excellent position to claim these as spoils of war. The fledgling United States could then be cut off from the American west by British holdings; and its expansion across the continent curtailed.

The future of the fledgling United States hinged  upon the outcome of this campaign.

On December 14, 1814, the British fleet cleared the approach to the city in the Battle of Lake Borgne; and the morning of the 23rd the British vanguard  of 1,800  men landed on the bank of the Mississippi, at Lacoste’s Plantation just 9 miles south of New Orleans. This was Packenham’s 3rd Brigade, commanded by  the veteran General John Keane, who would later lead the British conquest of Afghanistan at the start of the First Anglo-Afghan War. The veteran Irishman was within hours of seizing the undefended city, and accomplishing the campaign’s main strategic goal on Day One of the campaign. But Keane made the fateful decision to encamp for the day and organize his force, rather than push on.


Fortunately for the American cause, a small but well-led American force was rushing to the city’s succor: 1,000 regulars commanded by General Andrew Jackson. Known admiringly by his troops as “Old Hickory” (“tough as an old piece of hickory wood!”), Jackson and his men were fresh from victory in the Creek (“Red Stick”) War; and from driving the British out of their base at Pensacola, Florida. “Old Hickory” had a very personal hatred for the British: In 1780 during the Revolutionary War, when Jackson was 13 years old, his home had been used as a billet for a British officer.  When Jackson angrily refused to clean the officer’s boots the Englishman sabered the youth, leaving him with scars on his left hand and head. He and his brother Robert spent a year imprisoned by the British, and Robert died in captivity of smallpox. For these and likely many other reasons Jackson was delighted to have the opportunity to lead an army against his hated enemy. In all,  Jackson was a “fighting general”, whose fiercely indomitable spirit and will to win infused the troops under his command.


Upon his arrival Jackson took charge of New Orleans. The city was in a near panic, and some of the leading citizens advocated surrender in the face of what seemed an overwhelming threat. Jackson would entertain no talk of surrender, and instead placed the city under martial law. He arrested anyone who interfered or disagreed with his plans for defending the city, including a lawyer, a Louisiana legislator, a federal District Court Judge. “Old Hickory” was going to stop the British, and devil take whoever stood in his way!

The Buccaneer (1958),  Jackson (Charleton Heston) takes control of New Orleans  

Learning of Keane’s presence at Lacoste’s Plantation, Jackson famously cried, “By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!” Gathering what troops he could find at hand (about two thousand men), Jackson raided Keane’ camp on the evening of December 21st. A vicious hand-to-hand skirmish ensued by the light of campfireThe British repulsed the brief attack, and Jackson withdrew. But Keane was unsettled by the sudden appearance of American forces. For the next few days, he did nothing, choosing to wait for Pakenham and the main force to come up. Combined with his decision not to advance immediately on the 23rd, this nighttime skirmish which convinced Keane to hold in place saved New Orleans.


Coffee’s Tennessee Militia attack the British camp at Lacoste’s Plantation on the night of the 21st December

Jackson used the respite to fortify a narrow position across the British line of advance to New Orleans, beside the river and behind the shallow Rodriguez Canal; about four miles south of the city at Chalmette Plantation. Jackson’s small force of “regulars” was swelled to some 4,700 with volunteers, drawn from local militia, woodsmen, and even a force of pirates under the famed French pirate and privateer, Jean Laffite. The pirates provided something even more important to Jackson’s cause: heavy guns and expert gunners from their ships and base at nearby Barataria. With these and other field pieces he was able to glean, Jackson had at his disposal a sizable battery; which included one 32-pound gun, three 24-pounders, one 18-pounders, three 12-pounders, three 6-pounders, and a 6-inch (150 mm) howitzer. This was a very considerable battery, much more typical of the battery of a fortress than what would normally be found upon a battlefield of the day. [1] This very strong American defensive position was called “The Jackson Line”.

The Buccaneer (1958), Jean Laffite (Yul Brenner) arrives with pirates to aid Jackson (Charleton Heston)

On Christmas Day, General Edward Pakenham arrived on the battlefield and ordered a reconnaissance of the American earthworks on the 28th. Unhappy with the prospect of attacking this position, Pakenham held a command conference that evening with General Keane and Admiral Alexander Cochrane, commander of the British naval forces. Pakenham suggested reembarking the land force, and outflanking Jackson’s position with a new landing north of New Orleans, utilizing the  Chef Menteur Road. Cochrane argued for an assault against Jackson’s makeshift position, underestimating the strength of the position and insisting that Pakenham’s veterans should be able to easily drive the Americans from their redoubt; and that if the army couldn’t do it, he (Cochrane) would land his sailors and see it accomplished!

Despite Sir Edward’s misgivings, the decision was made to attack Jackson at Chalmette.


On the dark, fog-shrouded morning of January 8 Sir Edward’s force of 8,000 men launched a two-pronged assault against Jackson’s line. With bagpipes, fifes and drums the red-coated ranks advance with measured tread across the boggy ground.  General Samuel Gibbs commanded the brigade tasked with the main thrust on the British right, spearheaded by the 1st Battalion of the 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot, along with the 21st Reg of Foot, and the West India Regiment. General Keane commanded the left-hand prong, along the river, comprised of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders (who later gained fame as the “Thin Red Line” at Alma and Balaclava); and companies of the 43rd Foot. The whole British advance was screened by a 500-man “demi-battalion” of the elite 95th Rifles (the famous Green Jackets of “Sharp’s Rifles” fame).

From The Buccaneer (1958), The British attack begins 

Unfortunately for the British, the fog lifted just as the attack was crossing the open ground; and the British right-wing came under intensive and deadly artillery fire from the American parapet. Even so, Gibbs’ force pushed on, displaying the dauntless courage British regulars were famous for. But as they reached the American trench defending the parapet, the British plan began to unravel; as it was found that the 44th had inexplicably forgotten the ladders and fascines needed to cross the canal and scale the earthworks. Confusion and carnage followed as the storm column, halted in place, was lacerated by point-blank grape shot and rifle fire from American marksmen. To make matters even worse, Gibbs was killed and Pakenham was wounded and unhorsed. The General was subsequently killed as he was helped off the field, his spine shattered by grapeshot.

pake-woundedPakenham is shot from his horse

On the British left, progress was made and the Highlanders stormed the American parapet. But seeing the disaster unfolding to his right, Keane left the detached companies of the 43rd to hold the ground taken, and took the Highlanders across the field to rally and support the main attack. As they crossed the field, the 93rd were raked by fire from the guns of the American center, and pinned down. Keane became the third senior officer to fall wounded.


The two main assaults having failed, a third attempt to storm the redoubt was made by Major Wilkinson of the 21st North British Fusilier Regiment. They were able to reach the entrenchments and attempted to scale them. Wilkinson scaled the parapet, reaching the top before falling wounded to American fire. Impressed with his courage, the defenders carried him behind the rampart.


With most of their senior officers dead or wounded, the British soldiers, including the 93rd Highlanders, having no orders to advance further or retreat, stood out in the open and were shot apart with grapeshot from Line Jackson. The “immense bravery” shown by the 93rd under this maelstrom of fire was noted by Jackson biographer, Paul Wellman:

To the very edge of the canal before the rampart the few that were left of the kilted regiment marched, then halted there. The men who had been detailed to bring scaling ladders and fascines had failed to come up. Unable to go forward, too proud to retreat, although the regiment behind them had all fallen back. At length a mere handful of what had been the magnificent regiment slowly retired, still in unbroken order, still turning to face the foe. From the ramparts the Americans cheered them wildly. All rifle fire ceased. [2]

Meanwhile, the progress gained on the left was halted as the American 7th Infantry came up and threw-back the British lodgement on the redoubt.Within 20 minutes, their ranks decimated and the attack in shambles, the British survivors were ordered to retreat by General John Lambert, commanding the reserve brigade.  Lambert, the senior officer still standing, now took command. He gave the order for his reserve to advance and cover the withdrawal of the army from the field.


The one British success that day was on the opposite side of the canal. Here, the Americans had another battery. A belated British assault force, which had been meant to arrive earlier and, storming the battery, turn the guns to enfilade Jackson’s line across the canal; arrived late and succeeded in taking the redoubt. But their success came to late to influence the battle, and Lambert ordered this force to abandon its gains and retreat as well. The irony of this is that when he learned the British held the opposite bank and the defending redoubt, allowing enfilade fire upon his line, Jackson was prepared to himself withdraw if the British renewed the attack.


In all the British had suffered 2,042 casualties: 291 killed (including both Generals Pakenham and and his second-in-command, Gibbs), 1,267 wounded (including General Keane and Major Wilkinson) and 484 captured or missing [3]. Jackson’s men had suffered a mere 71 casualties: 13 dead; 39 wounded and 19 missing.

The news of victory, one man recalled, “came upon the country like a clap of thunder in the clear azure vault of the firmament, and traveled with electromagnetic velocity, throughout the confines of the land.” Jackson became a nation hero, receiving the Thanks of Congress as well as a Congressional Gold Medal. The fame he gained at New Orleans would sustain and propel Jackson into the White House.  Once Jackson was elected to the Presidency in  1829, the “8th of January” was celebrated as a national holiday until 1861 brought the American Civil War.


The irony of the Battle of New Orleans was that the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, had been signed on December 24th. However, that doesn’t rob the American victory of significance. Had the British won the battle and seized New Orleans, they may well have leveraged the victory to gain better terms; perhaps even gaining the Louisiana Purchase territories from the United States.

The history of the United States and North America could have been very different, indeed.


Actor Charleton Heston brought Andrew Jackson to the screen twice in his career. In 1958s The Buccaneer, and the first time in this film from 1953, “The President’s Lady”; which focused on the love affair with his wife, Rachel. In this clip, we see Jackson during his run for the Presidency, leading to the last scene, his Inaugural. 


*Known as The American War to the British and Canadians

  1. The largest guns in Napoleon’s “grande batterie” at Waterloo the following year were only 12 pounders, much smaller than the 32 and 24 pound naval guns Jackson had in place at Chalmette.
  2. Wellman, Paul, The House Divides: The Age of Jackson and Lincoln, From the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Foulsham Publishing
  3. The 44th suffered heavy casualties at New Orleans that January, 1814. Less than thirty years later, the same regiment would suffer annihilation in January of 1842 in the icy passes of Afghanistan during the Retreat from Kabul.
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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 Army’s 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 warriors is very well 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.

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 and ultimate control of Central Asia, between the Russian Empire and Great Britain. India, “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, was governed from Calcutta by the Honorable East India Company (colloquial known as “John Company”). The vast sub-continent was garrisoned by an army of largely British-led native troops, called sepoys (from a Turkic/Persian term for professional soldier, sipahi). These sepoy regiments were supported by a core of British “Queen’s Regiments”, units of the British Army rotated into India from the United Kingdom.

“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.


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, Muhammad of Ghazni. Marching on Kabul, Dost Mohammed fled and the British captured the city.

The 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. The fugitive Dost Mohammed was soon captured and taken back to India as a “guest” of the British Raj.

With Shuja Shah in place, the war seemed over, a complete and very lopsided British victory. With the “mission accomplished”, the majority of the conquering 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.

Unfortunately for British fortunes, the main force of some four Brigades at Kabul were 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. By the time he was assigned to command the Kabul garrison, he was a Companion of the Bath and former aide-de-camp to King George IV. Sadly, he was also a doddering 60 years old; and by his own admission, not fit for command.

He was not only old, he was also perpetually ill. Beyond that, he was a man who seemed at every turn incapable of making a decision, and vacillated constantly between one option and another. To make matters even worse, he was peevish and jealous of his younger subordinates, refusing to delegate decisions.

It was a myopic appointment and the best argument against a strict seniority system: granting command of an army in one of the most dangerous countries in the world to a dithering old man. The blame for what was to follow rests equally on the frail shoulders of Elphinstone and those in Calcutta who appointed him.

Lord Elphinstone (“Elphy Bey” to his troops) was far too old to be placed in command of an army occupying one of the most warlike and volatile places on earth. His dithering indecisiveness allowed a series of minor provocations to go unchecked and ignite a general uprising.

The late historical fiction writer, George McDonald Frasier, through the mouth of his creation, that incomparable rascal Harry Paget Flashman, sums up Elphinstone’s contribution to what followed thus:

“Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth-century – Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan – I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgment – in short, for the true talent for catastrophe – Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.“Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War (to spiral out of control) and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision; and managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, wrought out of order complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.”  [1]

An excellent assessment of the incompetent General Lord Elphinstone!

With the British occupation forces reduced, and with the Afghans becoming familiar with their occupiers (and with familiarity came contempt), trouble soon began.


It started with minor incidents in the distant hills, where tribesmen began sniping at isolated British garrisons and columns.

In Spring of 1841, despite these signs of simmering discontent among the hill tribes, and following the misguided advice of the British Emissary in Kabul, Sir William Hay Macnaghten (who as Lord Auckland’s senior aid had been the principal architect of Britain’s Afghan involvement), the Government in Calcutta further reduced not only the garrison strength of Elphinstone’s Army of Kabul from four to two brigades. At the same time it was decided to reduced the subsidies (i.e., bribes) paid to the tribes in the hills to keep open the vital passes connecting the British forces with their base in India.

The result was predictable. Taking insult, the tribes rose in rebellion, immediately closing the passes. Throughout the hill country that summer and into the autumn, British patrols found themselves engaged in running skirmishes with local tribesmen; and every remote outpost subject to desultory harassment. In November, one of the withdrawing Brigades, under the command of General Robert (“Fighting Bob”) Sale, in route though the passes back to India, found itself under attack; and had to cut a bloody path out of Afghanistan.

On the afternoon of November 2, a mob rose in Kabul and marched on the house of the British political agent in Kabul, the celebrated Sir Alexander “Sekunder” Burnes. Burnes had been warned by his Afghan servants that there was a stir in the city, and that, if he remained his life would be in danger. With a insouciance bordering on arrogant stupidity, Burnes dismissed these warnings. An “old hand” in the region and fluent in several of the Afghan languages and dialects, he was sure he had the measure of the local temperament, and that there was little danger from “the Kabul shopkeepers”. [2]

Burnes in local garb. Fluent in the local languages, Burnes liked to go out among the population to “take the temperament” of the man on the street; and to fraternize with local Afghan girls. This latter activity earned him resentment which ultimately flamed to hatred.

When the mob attacked and set fire to the gate to his home, attempting to storm the compound, Burnes and those inside (his younger brother Charlie, his political assistant Major William Broadfoot [3], and a guard of 15 sepoys) fought back fiercely. Burnes was informed that help was on the way from Shah Sujah in the Bala Hissar. Burnes took to the roof, watching for relief; but none was forthcoming. For hours he waited in vain. When an Afghan offered to lead them safely out of the compound to the Bala Hissar, Burnes and his party disguised themselves in local garb. However, two blocks away the mob caught them in a garbage-strewn back-alley, and butchered all with knives and cleavers. The mutilated bodies of Burnes, his brother, and Broadfoot were hung from meat hooks in the city’s bazaar.

Murder of Burnes and his party.

Elphinstone, with an army only 1.5 miles outside the city, could decide on no course of action in response. For hours, while the Kabul mob besieged Burnes’ residence, the furious troops, ready to rush to the aide of their famous countryman, remained idle in their cantonment. When word came of Burnes’ death, the soldiers were eager to be led into the city to exact retribution. But, at Macnaghten’s urging, Elphinstone decided to take no action other than retrieving the remains of Burnes’ and the others; then retreating back into their camp. This humiliating failure to protect their own against a mob of “shop keepers”, or to seek revenge after the fact, was seen by the Afghans as evidence of British weakness, and only fanned the flames of revolt.

The British cantonments outside of Kabul; seen here in an almost idyllic painting, before the rising of the tribes. In the far background is the city of Kabul; the Medieval walls of the Bala Hissar rising up the hill on the left. The Beymaroo Heights, from which Afghan snipers fired down upon the camp, can be seen on the right of the painting.

Afghan warriors began streaming down from the hills, to attack the hated ferengi [4] at Kabul. By mid-November, the British found themselves under virtual siege in their lightly defended camp; with Afghan snipers firing into the camp from the surrounding high ground. On November 23, a large force of Afghans occupied the Beymaroo Heights, overlooking the British cantonments; laying down a deadly fire with their jezails (the ubiquitous Afghan long-barreled rifle) and from a pair of guns.

Two attempts were made to drive the Afghans off the heights. The first time the Afghans retired, but returned soon after the British withdrew back into their cantonment. A second attempt was made ten days later, this one led by Elphinstone’s second-in-command, the equally incompetent Brigadier John Shelton; leading the single British regiment on scene, the 44th Regiment of Foot. The Brigadier had lost an arm earlier in his career, but despite this handicap was a pugnacious fighting leader. Stubbornly brave, he was unfortunately not blessed with an abundance of good judgement. Where angels feared to tread, Shelton bulled his way through. Taking the 44th up the sloops of Beymaroo, he occupied the heights, his command taking heavy casualties to long-range fire from the Afghan’s jezails. These out-ranged the British soldier’s smooth-bore Brown Bess Muskets, and the Afghans quickly learned exactly how close they could safely come to a British formation.

Once atop the crest of the heights, the British stood for hours while under sustained long-range fire from all around, to which they could not reply effectively. Compounding their dilemma, Shelton had the men form squares; a formation suitable for repelling cavalry attack, but which made the closely-packed troops better targets for the Afghan skirmishers harassing them. One officer, Lieutenant (later Major General) Vincent Eyre, scathingly observed:

“All have heard of the British squares at Waterloo, which defied the repeated desperate onsets of Napoleon’s choicest cavalry. At Beymaroo we formed squares to resist the distant fire of infantry, thus presenting a solid mass against the aim of perhaps the best marksmen in the world, the said squares being securely perched on the summit of a steep and narrow ridge, up which no cavalry could charge with effect …” [5]

One Captain Colin Mackenzie, wounded during the battle, wrote:

The front ranks had been literally mowed away … Our ammunition was almost expended and by one pm the men were faint from fatigue and thirst. But no water was procurable and the number of killed and wounded was swelled every instant. I tried to persuade Shelton to effect a retreat only to be told: ‘Oh no, we will hold the hill some time longer.’ On Shelton’s refusal to retire, Colonel Oliver, who was a very stout man, remarked that the inevitable result would be a general flight to cantonments, and that, as he was too unwieldy to run, the sooner he got shot the better. He then exposed himself to the enemy’s fire and fell mortally wounded. [6]

For hours Shelton kept the 44th sitting on top of the barren heights, exposed to a destructive fire. Finally, the troops could take no more and Shelton (himself having sustained five wounds) attempted to withdraw back to camp. Carrying the numerous wounded was slow going, and as the British were still descending the slopes, Afghan cavalry, brandishing wickedly-sharp talwars, swarmed up to and occupied the crest of the heights they had just abandoned. Stragglers, many of whom were wounded and unable to keep up with the main body of the regiment, were were cut off and butchered. The horsemen then charged down upon the retreating 44th. The regiment responded with a massive volley of musketry. So old and inaccurate were their Brown Bess Muskets that when the smoke cleared, not a single Afghan appeared to have had been hit. Astonished and demoralized, the regiment broke, pursued back to the safety of the camp by whooping Afghan horsemen. George St. Patrick Lawrence, who had watched helplessly from his post in the cantonment during the battle, wrote of his horror at witnessing how “our flying troops [were] hotly pursued and mixed up with the enemy, who were slaughtering them on all sides: the scene was so fearful that I can never forget it.”[7])

As can be expected, this disastrous engagement had a terrible effect on the army’s morale. Shelton came under general opprobrium for his disgraceful lack of judgement. Captain Mackenzie (quoted above), who like most of the officers blamed the reverse on Shelton, wrote that the Brigadier’s incompetence “neutralized the heroism of the officers. Their spirit was gone and discipline had almost disappeared.” No less an observer than General Charles Napier, conqueror of Sind, later went so far as to blame Shelton for the debacle about to unfold, writing after the fact, “It seems to me that to Shelton may be traced the whole misfortune of this Army.” Napier went on to suggest that Shelton should have been shot as “the author of all ill”. While all this may be warranted, Elphinstone was the man in command of the Army of Kabul, and bears ultimate responsibility. It should be noted that Elphinstone showed not the least initiative, doing nothing to support his Second-in-Command in his (ineffectual) efforts on the Beymaroo Heights.

After this, no more effort was made to clear the heights of snipers. Shelton recommended an immediate withdrawal from Kabul back to India, before the tactical situation grew worse and the winter closed passes. Elphinstone however dithered, unable to come to a decision. Instead, he held daily “command meetings”, scornfully described by Eyre as “Jackdaw Parliaments”, during which Elphinstone seemed to be swayed by the argument of the last man speaking. By this time even the most junior officers held their commander in contempt, and spoke to him in a manner “most insubordinate and at times down right rude”.[8]

Time was running out for a decision to withdraw, yet still Elphinstone vacillated, unable to decide. He sent for reinforcements from Kandahar to the south, but the snows of winter had by now closed the southern passes. Sale’s Brigade, which had reached Jalalabad on November 12 after weeks of fighting; was unwilling to come back through the blood-stained passes they had just traversed. The decision made in the spring to reduce the size of the Kabul army (not to mention cutting of the subsidies paid to the hill tribes) must have, on reflection, seemed foolish in the extreme.

At this moment the situation worsened for Elphy Bey and the British at Kabul with the arrival on the scene of Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammed’s deceitful but charismatic and capable son. Possessed of great charm and some degree of military ability, Akbar Khan soon became the rallying point and leader for the anti-British/anti-Shuja forces.

Akbar Khan

At the instigation of Akbar Khan, peace talks were initiated. Macnaghten and an escort of British officers met the young Afghan prince outside the cantonments. Arriving at the designated location, an open meadow beside the river, the British party found a carpet spread and Akbar waiting with a small band of warriors.

The British reined-up, but had no sooner dismounted to greet the Afghans than Sir William was seized and murdered; along with several of the officers of his escort. Thus ended the less-than-illustrious career and life of William Hay Macnaghten, the man whose foolishness had done much to create the disaster unfolding at Kabul.

The seizure and murder of Macnaghten and his escort by Akbar Khan and his guards.

Again, as when Burnes was murdered, Elphinstone did nothing but dither.

Finally, in late December, negotiations were renewed. With troop morale in complete collapse, and his subordinate officers incapable of agreeing on a course of positive action, Elphinstone accepted Akbar Khan’s offer of safe conduct for the British army out of Kabul, back to India.


The retreat from Kabul started on January 6, 1842. Snow was falling, and the temperatures were dropping rapidly. The mountains before them were already ice-capped, and the passes promised to be treacherous.

Elphinstone’s army at this point consisted of the one British infantry battalion, the 44th Regiment of Foot; three Sepoy regiments of regular Bengal Native Infantry; one regiment of Afghans loyal to Shah Shujah (who was retreating out of Afghanistan along with his patrons); two regiments of Bengal Horse; and six guns of the Bengal Horse Artillery. In total, there were 700 British and 3,800 Indian troops. Including camp followers (mostly the families of the soldiers, British and Indian), 16,000 souls set out under the nominal leadership of Elphy Bey for Jalalabad, some 140 km away.

Between them and safety lay 85 miles of high mountains and icy cold, snow-bound passes.

With the 44th forming the vanguard, the column set off with some attempt at military order. The march started late, as arrangements between the British and Akbar concerning where the column was to camp that first night were still not complete. Despite Akbar Khan’s guarantees of safe passage, the rear guard of the column had not yet completely marched out of the cantonments when bands of Afghan horsemen descended upon the camp like jackels. The stores of supplies meant to feed the column on the march were lost, before the British had even gotten free of the cantonments. Stragglers were cut down by Afghan horsemen; who hovered at the rear and flanks of the column like packs of hungry wolves. The British wounded, left behind under pledges of protection, were butchered in their sick beds in the camp hospital.

1879 panoramic photo of the Bala Hissar

As they passed the grim battlements of the Bala Hissar, the British could even at this late moment have saved themselves by turning and occupying the fortress; which course many officers (and Shah Shujah) begged Elphinstone to take. The Bala Hissar was well-provisioned and situated for defense. From its safety the army could have held Kabul until spring opened the passes for a relief column to reach them.

Instead, the column trudged on fatefully towards the glowering mountains, and the shadowy passes winding their way through.

Though it was militarily necessary to push through the first of the great passes ahead, the looming Khord-Kabul Pass, on that first day; the column, encumbered by 12,000 cold and terrified camp followers and 2,000 camels and other animals loaded with stores and baggage, moved at a snail’s pace. Instead, Elphinstone chose to halt the march that first day at 2pm just 6 miles outside Kabul and stopping for the night make a cold camp. Without tents or food, the army shivered all night long in the snow.

This pass, through some of the highest mountains in the world, was covered with snow and ice when Elphinstone’s column retreated through it those terrible day in January 1842

The next day was wasted in frequent halts while Elphinstone attempted negotiations with Akbar, who continued to promise food and firewood, as well as escort; none of which appeared. Instead, Afghan tribesmen sniped continuously from the heights above, which the British failed to picket in advance. Occasionally, bodies of Afghan horsemen would savage the column, cutting down the shivering and miserable fugitives.

Oddly, no attempt was made by Elphinstone or Shelton to send detachments to clear and picket the heights overlooking the passes. This was rudimentary tactics in mountain warfare, and by just such expedient Alexander the Great had moved through these same mountains unmolested. It was not as if such history was unknown to the educated British officers: Even Lady Sale, the formidable wife to Brigadier Robert Sale and among the non-combatants in the column, noted the lack of pickets and suggested (to no effect) that Elphinstone correct the situation. [9]

The British soldiers time-and-again sallied forth with bayonet to drive marauding Afghans from the way; or to protect women and children. But at every turn, their efforts were hampered by the narrowness of the terrain (in places the passes were only yards wide and the cliffs thousands of feet high); and by the throngs of terrified and stampeding non-combatants.

This was the pattern that would continue for the next five days, as the Army of Kabul slowly died in the snow. Each morning those strong enough to go on rose out of the snow that had covered them in the night, and trundled along on bloody and frozen feet. Like sheep, the non-combatants would at times break into panicked flight, as harassing Afghan cavalry galloped among them, slashing and killing with wicked sharp blades.

In the myriad of vicious little skirmishes over those terrible eleven days, Shelton found some measure of redemption. Responding to attacks up and down the column, Shelton led a small “fire brigade” in attempting to repulse the reivers. Captain Hugh Johnson wrote: “Nothing could exceed the bravery of Shelton. He was like a bulldog assaulted on all sides by a lot of curs trying to snap at his head, tail and sides. Shelton’s small band was attacked by horse and foot, and although the latter were fifty to one, not a man dared to come close.” [10]

At one point, Akbar demanded that Elphinstone, Shelton, and the senior non-combatants such Lady Sale, be handed over to his “protection”; and to the shame of the British Army, Elphy Bey and his senior officers surrendered themselves while their troops pushed on without them. (To his credit, Shelton protested and demanded to be allowed to return to his men.)

The bottleneck passes of the Khord-Kabul, the Huft Kotul, the Tezeen, and the Jugdulluk were scenes of unspeakable nightmare; as women and children were butchered and left in piles. The Sepoys were particularly affected by the cold (many had no shoes); and in the end merely huddled like sheep, waiting for the butcher’s knife to put them out of their misery.

Jugdulluk, seen in the spring 1842 when the British Army of Retribution returned through the pass. They found the way carpeted with the skeletal remains of the dead from Elphinstone’s column.

In this last pass, Jugdulluk, the Army of Kabul finally died. In this grim, mountain-shadowed place the Afghans blocked the way with logs of prickly holly-oak. The soldiers tore at the sharp spiny branches with bloody hands, to clear the way; all the while the Afghans poured deadly fire from the heights above. With scimitar in hand, tribesmen rushed down on the column, butchering the defenseless women and children. Finally, the few surviving men of the 44th fought through the blockage and gained the relative safety beyond. Of the 4,500 soldiers Elphinstone had departed Kabul with just 6 days earlier, only twenty officers and forty-five soldiers survived the Jugdulluk massacre.

These surviving scarecrows reached the village of Gandamack on the 13th of January. At first the villagers came out to greet them and engaged in seemingly friendly conversation. But they soon attempted to seize the soldier’s muskets from their hands. Driving them fiercely away, the British sealed their doom.

They were surrounded on a hillock by gathering villagers. When called to surrender, one British sergeant gave the famous answer, “Not bloody likely!”

The last stand of the 44th at Gandamack.

The Afghans swarmed about, shooting the soldiers down at their leisure; then rushed in with sword. Only a bare 6 men of Elphinstone’s army survived to be taken prisoner.

At Jalalabad, General Sale’s Brigade, ignorant of what was befalling their comrades in the passes, waited for the army to arrive. At last a lone horseman, an army surgeon named Dr. William Brydon, rode up to the gates. Asked where the Army of Kabul was, he replied: “I am the Army”!

Dr. Brydon rides into Jalalabad, the sole man of Elphinstone’s army to make it through the passes.


The First Afghan War didn’t end there. The British returned that summer and exacted bloody revenge on the populace of Kabul, destroying much of the city in the process. They relieved their remaining garrisons; and the hostages and prisoners were returned, including Shelton (who was subsequently court martialed) and Lady Sale. Elphinstone died in captivity, his last words reportedly being, “‘It really is too bad.”

Then, Britain’s policy having changed, they withdrew from the country altogether; returning Dost Mohammed once more on his throne with a treaty of friendship in place. The disaster was forgotten by many in the years that followed. But it was not without lasting consequences.

Before Afghanistan, the British and John Company’s army had an almost mythical reputation, an aura of invincibility. After The Retreat, that myth was forever shattered. Following Kabul, the Sikhs of the Punjab, a strong military state, lost their fear of Britain’s displeasure. The bloody Anglo-Sikh Wars would follow just a few years after Kabul; and just a few years after these, the Great Mutiny would shake the Empire to its core.

Blame for the disaster must be placed squarely upon the foolish appointment of one frail, dithering old man to command an army on deadly ground. But a lesson from today can also be drawn here: In the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, where every tribal male was a marksman and a warrior; where tribes fight each other constantly, only uniting to eject foreigners; no effort to modernize and “nation build” by an outside power has any chance to succeed. The Afghans are best left to their own devices, a good buffer state but an impossible vassal.

Modern British soldiers patrolling the fields of Afghanistan, where their red-coated ancestors once fought and bled; pawns in the “Great Game”.

1. Fraser, George MacDonald: Flashman; Barrie & Jenkins, 1969

2. Burnes was a famous explorer of the remote regions of India and central Asia in the 1820s and 30s. His 1834 book, “Travels into Bokhara”, was a bestseller in England. He spoke Persian fluently, as well as Pashtan and several other dialects of Central Asia. Burnes was particularly hated by the local Afghans in Kabul, not only as a visible symbol of British occupation; but because he was very active with the local Afghan women. Burnes was not alone in “fraternizing” with Afghan women, who at least in Kabul were more-than-willing to engage in relations with the foreign conquerors. However, in a land where women were and still are routinely killed in “honor killings” for the mere suspicion of engaging in extramarital sex, and which is seen as a slur against the manhood of their male family members, this activity fanned the flames of hatred against the British and Burnes in particular.

3. William Broadfoot was the brother of the more celebrated George Broadfoot ; who had gained a great reputation with the Afghans and was then serving with Sale’s Brigade at Jalalabad. George Broadfoot would himself die in battle 4 years later, in the First Sikh War.

4. Ferengi, the Arabic term for “foreigner”; deriving from the Persian word for “Franks”, or Europeans.

5. Eyre, Sir Vincent (1843). The Military Operations at Cabul: Which Ended in the Retreat and Destruction of the British Army, January 1842. With a Journal of Imprisonment in Affghanistan. John Murray. pp. 115–16.

6. Dalrymple, William (2013). Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 332

7. Macrory, Patrick: The Fierce Pawns; J.B. Lippincott Co., 1966; P. 208. The author is working off of the first-hand accounts of eye witnesses.

8. Eyre, p. 123

9. Dalrymple, p. 372

10. Dalrymple, p. 380

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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 Three go here)

It was in 167 BC that the deep resentment among the Jews towards the Hellenization policy of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes exploded into active rebellion. The spark was struck in the village of Modi’in, 19 miles to the west of Jerusalem.

Living in Modi’in  was an elderly priest of an ancient family, the Hasmoneans.  His name was Mattathias ben Johanan. He and his five  sons had returned to Modi’in following the Seleucid sack of Jerusalem and the purge of its Orthodox Jewish citizens the previous year (see Part Three).

To Modi’in came an official of the Seleucid court, whose name is lost to history. He ordered the people of Modi’in and those in the region thereabout to gather in the village center. Here an alter was set-up by the official’s servants. Standing before the throng, the royal officer turned to Mattathias, standing with his sons in the forefront of the crowd. As a senior and respected priest, the official called upon Mattathias to comply with Antiochus’ orders and lead the Jews of Modi’in in giving sacrifice to the Olympian gods of the Greeks.

“You are an honorable and great man in this city”, said the official; “and strengthened with sons and brethren: Therefore, come and be first to fulfill the king’s commandment, like all the people of his empire have done; including the men of Judah and such as remain at Jerusalem.” Before Mattathias he dangled a carrot: “Do this, and your House will be numbered among the king’s friends (philoi), and thou and thy children shall be honored with silver and gold, and many (additional) rewards.” [1]

 Mattathias listened to this offer of royal favor if only he would lead his fellow Jews in sacrificing to the Gods of the “gentiles”. But neither the king’s good will, nor the promise of riches held any allure for the old man. We can only imagine the stern set of his weathered countenance; as he answered with loud voice:

“Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments: Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not hearken to the king’s words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand, or the left.” [2]

Such a  firm and principled refusal to comply with the royal edict must have shocked and galvanized those listening. When another priest stepped forward to make the sacrifice in his place, rage overcame Mattathias. He slew the other priest, and in the scuffle that followed, the Seleucid official and his guards were all slain; likely by Mattathias’ sons and their friends.

With the bloody sword in hand, Mattathias addressed the assembled Jews: “Let everyone who has zeal for the Law and who stands by the covenant follow me!”

The die was cast, the gauntlet thrown down. Mattathias, his sons and their supporters fled into the hills. There, they resolved to defend their religion and their people’s unique place in the world from desecration and destruction.


This would be a struggle not only for the existence of the Jewish people’s unique culture;  but for monotheism over polytheist paganism. Would the Jews become just another Hellenized Syrian people? Or would they remain a singular people, considering themselves especially chosen by God, and governed by the laws of Moses?


Mattathias and his sons fled into the hills of Samaria and northern Judea. There they gathered men likewise resolved to resist the Seleucids; and roamed from village-to-village, proclaiming revolt and destroying the pagan alters of the Hellenizers.  It can be presumed that they also attacked isolated Seleucid outposts and detachments, gathering up supplies in the process.

Mattathias died a year later. He left the leadership of the rebel movement in the capable hands of his strong son, Judah; who showed exemplary leadership skill and had likely been the military commander even while his father lived.

Meanwhile, word of what had occurred at Modi’in quickly reached the Seleucid capital, Antioch; and the sons of Mattathias and their small band of followers were declared outlaws.  Apollonius, Seleucid governor of Samaria [3], set out with a small force of some 2,000 soldiers (likely light-infantry mercenaries from local garrisons) to track down and destroy the rebels. He was the same man who had conducted the massacre at Jerusalem a few years earlier, and established the fortress known as the “Acra” in the heart of the city.

For days Apollonius soldiers searched the hills, with Judah’s small band eluding them. Tiring work for troops more used to the easy life of garrison towns. As the column wound its way through the Samarian hills, Judah and a force of some 600 fighters waited for them at a place called Nahal el-Haramiah (the wadi Haramia).

The modern road snakes through the hills around the wadi today; likely following the ancient track used by Apollonius’ army. From the hills above, Judah’s warriors sprang from hiding, pelting the surprised Seleucid soldiers with javelin and sling-stone. Before they could organize themselves from road-march formation, Judah’s men charged down hill, falling upon Apollonius’ hired soldiers with a fury. Apollonius was among those cut-down, and by Judah’s own hand. His surviving soldiers fled.

This was the Jewish rebels first victory in battle against their foe. Judah took for himself Apollonius’ sword. He would use it for the rest of his life against their oppressors.


A replica Greek kopis; very possibly the style of sword captured by Judah from Apollonius

It was about this time that Judah acquired the surname “Maccabee“: the “Hammer”[4]. Relentless foe of the gentiles and Hellenizing Jews who threatened his faith and his people’s identity, this was the first of many victories to come.

Following this victory, recruits flocked to the standard of the Maccabee. But Judah understood that the Seleucid army was nearly invincible on anything resembling flat or open terrain. Local Seleucid garrisons, comprised of low-quality militia or light-infantry mercenaries were on thing. But the Seleucids had a standing army of some 12,000 professional soldiers stationed around Antioch; Hellenistic phalangites and armored cavalry. If called up from their farms or their military settlements all throughout Syria, the “regular” Seleucid army could also field some 20,000 Graeco-Macedonian phalangites; descendants of the veterans settled by Antigonas One-Eyed and Seleucus Nicanor, men who’d fought for Alexander the Great or his Successors.  These were the battle-winners of Hellenistic warfare and among the best heavy infantry in the world for nearly two centuries. Only the Roman legions were more respected and feared on the battlefield; and the Seleucids could call upon some 5,000 “imitationRoman legionaries that comprised half of the king’s royal foot guards (See Armies of the Successors: the Seleucids). In battle, these formed the anvil upon which an enemy would be broken. The mallet was the superb armored cavalry lancers of the horse guards (the Hetairoi, or Companions”, and the “Agema” regiments) and “line” cataphract regiments. These could scatter lighter-armed cavalry, and then roll-up the enemy’s main battle line. If this were not enough, the Seleucid dynasty famously maintained a royal herd of Indian elephants. The largest of the pachyderm species available to the ancient powers, these were highly prized and fearsome weapons on the battlefield.


The Seleucid forces would have to be defeated before his people could be free. But Judah knew he must fight them on ground of his choosing. The rough, rocky hills of Samaria and Judea were the perfect terrain for a light guerrilla force such as his own; where Seleucid detachments could be ambushed as he had Apollonius’ army at the Haramia wadi, or fought on rock-strewn plains that would break-up their tight formations.


Following the defeat of Apollonius, another force under an officer named Seron was dispatched to avenge the Seleucid defeat. This army was twice the size of that which Judah defeated at Nahal el-Haramiah, some 4,000 troops. Again, we have no knowledge of the composition of these forces; but it is likely that these were, again, mercenaries or drawn from garrisons in southern Syria.

The sources say Seron spread his forces to avoid the kind of ambush that had destroyed Apollonius’ forces. But tactically this makes little sense, as doing so invites defeat in detail instead. As the writers of these sources are all Jewish, they likely had no real understanding of Seron’s strategy. A more plausible theory is that he spread his forces in a wide net across the Samarian hills, moving south toward Judea, attempting to locate and bring the Maccabeean forces to battle. What we know is that Judah eluded detection, and instead caught the main detachment under Seron himself isolated as it climbed the pass of Beth Horon; the same place where the Israelite hero Joshua defeated the Amorites. No details survive, other than that Seron suffered the same fate as Apollonius, and his troops scattered in terror.

1880 drawing of the “ascent” of Beth Horon: A perfect place for Judah’s forces to attack from the heights above.

Once again, the doughty Jewish patriots had defeated the imperial forces; and the legend of Judah “the Hammer’s” continued to grow.

That same year, 166 BC. the Seleucid Empire was threatened by another, far deadlier enemy; far to the east. From out of the arid plains of central Asia, a nomadic people called the Parthians had invaded the so-called “Upper Satrapies” (modern eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan). In 167, the year before, they had captured the region of Herat, called by Herodotus “the bread-basket of Central Asia”.  Antiochus Epiphanes’ father, Antiochus the Great, had won great fame by restoring this region to the empire following a three year campaign (209 BC – 206 BC).

The revolt of the Maccabees was (at this stage) more annoyance than real threat to the Seleucid state. But the Parthian conquest of Herat threatened control of all the Upper Satrapies, and of cutting the Seleucids off from India, source of rich trade. Antiochus Epiphanes, the “Mad King”, now departed  Antioch; and set off with a large army to repel the Parthians and restore the situation in the east. He appointed as regent in Antioch Lysias, a “distinguished man of royal lineage” [5]. He left his regent with the guardianship of his six year old son-and-heir, the future Antiochus Eupator; and a mandate “to conquer Judea, enslave its inhabitants, utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole nation.” [6] While Josephus may be engaging in hyperbole, and Antiochus may not have ordered the destruction of the whole Jewish nation (only a small portion of which was actively engaged in revolt); it is clear he left instructions to his regent to crush the Maccabeen revolt and punish any who sided with the rebels. Judea and Samaria were to be pacified, no matter how much blood must be shed to do so.

Lysias organized a large expedition (at least 5,000 men [7]) to carry out the king’s wishes,  under two generals: Nicanor son of Patrocles, a member of the king’s inner circle of “Friends” (philoi basilike) and another  general named Gorgias. Gorgias is a few years later found as the Seleucid military governor of Idumea, and he may have held this position at this earlier date as well. He is described only as “a general and a man of experience in military service”; and later in Second Maccabees he is called “the accursed man”[8]. Responsibility for overseeing the royal punishment of the rebels fell upon the shoulders of the Seleucid governor of Coele Syria (Palestine) and Phoenicia, Ptolemy, son of Dorymenes.

The composition of the Seleucid force is again unknown. But as the bulk of the “regular  army”marched east with the king, presumably including at least a large portion the elite royal guard units of foot and cavalry; what remained to Lysias in Antioch was those guards remaining and mercenaries. It is unlikely that he called-up the Seleucid phalanx, composed of Graeco-Macedonian settler-farmers. These were only mustered for major campaigns, and if any were mobilized for war in 166-165 BC they would likely have accompanied the king on his eastern expedition. As what guards remained in Antioch were likely there to protect the king’s heir and the royal family, what Lysias sent south with Nicanor and Gorgias were almost certainly mercenary foot, perhaps stiffened with a small number of “regulars”.

Marching along the coastal plain of Philistia (an area with a long history of hostility to the Jews of the interior), the Seleucid forces were accompanied by “a thousand slave-dealers”, to buy the vast number of prisoners anticipated.  Here the Seleucid force was augmented by garrisons and contingents from the coastal cities of Philistia, no doubt dispatched by order of the governor, Ptolemy son of Dorymenes. Contingents also arrived from Iudmea in the south, perhaps including an elite cavalry continent of Thessalian settlers (see Note 7). With these reinforcements, the Seleucid force may have numbered the 20,000 cited by 2 Maccabees.

The army turned east and camped  at  Emmaus at the mouth of the Ajalon Valley, 7.5 miles from Jerusalem and astride the road between that city and the coast. Located on the edge of the Judean hill country, from here the Seleucid generals could launch patrols into the hills that were home to Maccabean rebels, and control egress from the hills into the coastal plain (still loyal to the Seleucid government). From this base they prepared for extensive mopping-up operations against the rebel’s stronghold.



Ancient road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, winding through the Judean hills. 

The Maccabees had an active and effective intelligence and communications network, essential to the success of any guerrilla movement. Aware of his enemy’s movements and (likely) divining their intent, Judah Maccabee showed his abilities as a guerrilla-fighter of genius; as he prepared a bait for his foe that would prove irresistible.

Gathering his forces at Mitzpah, on the plateau north of Jerusalem, Judah arranged for word to leak to the Seleucid commanders at Emmaus of his presence there. Nothing could be more enticing to a regular force engaged against an elusive foe than the chance of catching and crushing that enemy encamped and unawares. Leaving Nicanor and the contingents from the coast to guard the camp, Gorgias set out at sunset with 5,000 infantry (likely the troops from Antioch) and 1,000 “picked cavalry” (see Note 7, below) to conduct a march up into the hills with the intent of conducting a night attack on the rebel camp at Mitzpah.

This was precisely the response Judah was hoping for: he had lured his enemy into dividing their army.

Judah now carefully organized his forces. He selected his men according to the strict precepts found in the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy; weeding them down to a select 3,000 men. These were then organized into squads and companies, each assigned a specific task in what he planned. To prepare them and bolster their morale, he recalled for them the victories of old, in the days of Joshua and Gideon; when Jewish guerrillas routed much larger forces. He then set out from Mitzpah, on a circuitous night march of his own. Taking advantage of his intimate knowledge of the terrain, he avoided Gorgias’ approaching forces. When the Seleucid attackers arrived at Mitzpah, they found the enemy gone.

Thinking the Maccabean rebels had fled into the surrounding hills, Gorgias ordered his men to spread out and find their trail. However, Judah was not fleeing; he was counter-attacking.

In the pre-dawn hours the Jewish rebels arrived in the hills south of Emmaus. From these heights, Judah could see the enemy camp below. As dawn broke, the Maccabee forces attacked, rushing down upon the  unprepared camp. Awakening from the their slumber, Nicanor’s men were astonished at the sudden appearance of the Jewish attackers; who they assumed Gorgias had put paid to that very night. Surprise turned quickly to panic, and the poorly trained levies fled in utter rout. Nicanor, the sources say, did not stop till he reached Antioch!

Though they found the camp filled with rich loot, Judah did not allow his men to get out of hand; but, maintaining their discipline, they took what they could carry and burned the rest. When Gorgias and his force returned later that morning, they found their base in flames, and Judah’s army drawn up and ready for battle. Astonished and demoralized by this sudden reversal of fortune, he avoided battle and withdrew as well.

Emmaus was an utter disaster for the Seleucids in their war against the Jewish rebels. Ptolemy son of Dorymenes, governor of Coele Syria, who was responsible to the capital for crushing the rebellion, was soon after sacked, losing his position. For Judah Maccabee, it was the greatest victory thus far. As they marched back into the Judean highlands that were their stronghold, the Jewish rebels rejoiced.

On their return they sang hymns and praises to Heaven, for he (God) is good, for his mercy endures forever. Thus Israel had a great deliverance that day… [9]



1. 1 Maccabees 2, 17-18
2. 1 Maccabees 2, 20-22
3. 2 Maccabees 6:1–11 suggests that Apollonius may have been an Athenian “senator”. If so, he may have been a friend of King Antiochus’ from his days in Athens prior to becoming king.
4. There are alternative explanations for this surname. One of these is that the name Maccabee is an acronym for the Torah verse Mi kamokha ba’elim Adonai, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?”; that  this may have been the battle-cry of the Jewish rebels. An even more obscure explanation comes from Rabbi Moshe Schreiber; who writes that it was an acronym for his father’s name, Mattityahu Kohen Ben Yochanan. Some scholars even maintain that the name is a shortened form of the Hebrew maqqab-ya ¯hû (from na ¯qab, ‘‘to mark, to designate’’), meaning ‘‘the one designated by Yahweh.’
5. 1 Macc 3:32. We know little more about Lysias’ lineage. Perhaps he was a cousin of the king. He almost certainly must  have been a member of Antiochus Epiphanes’ inner circle of trusted officers, the philoi basilike (“Royal Friends”).
6. Josephus, Antiquities, XII, vii, 2. Here Josephus may be engaged in hyperbole.
7. 1 Macc 3:39 – “…sent with them forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry to go into the land of Judah and destroy it, as the king had commanded.” These numbers are preposterous. The “grand army” of the Seleucid Empire numbered some 60,000 – 70,000; of which less than 40,000 were “regulars” (the rest being light-infantry skirmishers drawn from Asiatic levies and subject hill tribesmen); of which 7,000 cavalry would represent nearly the entirety of available Seleucid regular forces. But such armies were only mustered rarely, and always under the direct command of the king in person. With Antiochus Epiphanes leading a large force into the eastern satrapies, no such grand muster as would be required to field such an army was possible for Lysias at this time. It is more likely that the 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry Gorgias took with him to attack the Maccabee camp at Mitzpah was the bulk of the forces assigned for this expedition.  1 Macc 4:1 refers to the horsemen as “picked”.  At the Daphne parade in 166, there was a regiment of cavalry called the Epilektoi (“Picked”), numbering 1,000 troopers. These were recruited in the Seleucid military colony of Larissa in Trans-Jordan, named for the city in Thessaly and populated by Thessalian horsemen who’d served under Alexander. These were an elite among Graeco-Macedonian cavalry. It is likely that the “picked” cavalry under Gorgias was this regiment; especially as Gorgias was certainly later and may have at this time been governor of Iudmea, which province the colony of Larissa might have been a part of.
8. 2 Macc 12:35
9. 1 Macc 4:24-25
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Many such lists have been compiled, all perforce subjective to one degree or another. In creating this list, and in placing each of these commanders in the order presented, the over-arching question posed was: who would I want commanding my army were I the President, appointing a commander-in-chief; and, perhaps more importantly, if all squared off against each other who would be most likely to come out on top. I chose “fighting generals”, who knew how to win the wars they fought. Here are Deadliest Blogger’s Top Ten Generals in American History:


10. Winfield Scott


Scott Rose to fame as the man who defeated Mexico in a brilliant amphibious campaign far ahead of its time, followed by an audacious march on Mexico City. He also devised the “Anaconda Strategy” that helped to strangle the Confederacy and help the Union win the Civil War. A bold, clear-sighted and creative strategist, “Old Fuss and Feathers” too often gets overlooked when such lists as this are compiled. In his day, no less an expert than the Wellington called him the greatest living general.

9. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Disparaged by the flamboyant MacArthur as “the best clerk I ever had”, Ike was the archetype of the modern “political general” in the age of coalition warfare. Never forgetting that his primary mission was to keep the various allies happily working in concert, he nevertheless orchestrated a massive campaign against the Axis in Europe and North Africa that brought total victory. No general in history has commanded a larger force on land, sea, and air. While he often had to allow his British allies to take the bit in the teeth– and to put-up with the vainglorious and barely competent Montgomery–he managed to win the war with minimal casualties and no major defeat (though several severe embarrassments). In all, he was the consummate professional soldier.

8. Douglas MacArthur

Even more theatrical than the famously dramatic Patton (Eisenhower, who served as aid in the 1930s, once quipped, “I studied dramatics under MacArthur”), MacArthur was the epitome of the general-hero at a time when America needed one. He successfully led the southern theater of the Pacific Campaign, and presided over the surrender of Japan. In Korea in 1950, his audacious strategy of landing massive forces behind the North Koreans at Inchon was a masterpiece. He drove the North Koreans out of the South and back to the Chinese border. But for that country’s intervention against his forces, the war would have ended in 1950 with MacArthur acclaimed the greatest general of the 20th century. As was, he succeeded in extricating his army intact, and after appointing Ridgeway to lead 8th Army stopped the Chinese advance, stabilizing the line. His disagreement with the Joint Chiefs and President Truman over how to deal with the Chinese situation led to his sacking.

7. Ulysses S. Grant

The model for the modern American general, Grant was fearless, aggressive, and determined. He understood better than any of his contemporaries (except Sherman, perhaps) the war he was fighting and waged it to a successful conclusion where less men had failed. Grant was a determined, dogged commander who never lost heart in the face of the enemy, despite hideous casualties. After taking a beating during the first day at Shiloh, he merely shrugged and said, “We’ll lick ’em tomorrow”— and he did. There was a move to relieve him after this most sanguine battle; but Lincoln overruled Grant’s detractors: “’I can’t spare this man; he fights.” Grant was the ultimate pugnacious combat commander, a pit bull who would never let him go once he had sunk his teeth into an enemy.

6. Robert E. Lee

Often placed at the top of lists like this, Lee’s legend benefited from dying soon after the war. He made grave tactical and strategic mistakes (particularly at Gettysburg), and was greatly aided by the help of such able sub-commanders as Jackson and Longstreet (who often gets little credit). Lee was also an inspiring commander, a bold strategist, and a tactical innovator who came very close to winning an unwinnable war. His dauntless energy and aggressiveness during the Seven Days Battle are particularly striking when compared to the performance of his adversary, the over-cautious McClellan. His two invasions of the North were well-conceived and had every chance of succeeding. The first was thwarted in part by lost orders falling into his enemy’s hands, resulting in McClellan being able to concentrate his forces against Lee’s at Antietam. At Gettysburg, a campaign which was initially even more successful, he may have been suffering from a mild heart attack (this would explain his lethargy and lack of imagination during the battle). Had anyone else been in command of the Confederate war effort in the last two years, the war would have ended much sooner than it did.

5. William T. Sherman

Hated in the South to this day for the devastation he brought them, Sherman stands out as the most clear-sighted strategist of the Civil War. He understood that to break the Confederacy’s indomitable will he had to make war too terrible to bear. His concept of “tough war” presaged the “total war” concept unleashed in the 20th century. Sherman achieved his famous “March to the Sea” by an advance that constantly threatened multiple objectives, keeping the Confederate defenders off balance. Only Jackson and Forrest marched armies faster, and no one marched one further than Sherman. Unlike Grant, he seldom threw his men away attacking heavily defended places or entrenched enemies; instead obtaining his objective by maneuver. He made war hell for his opponents, not his own soldiers.

4. George Washington

This list could not exist had Washington failed. He was a master of guerilla warfare, using maneuver and audacity both to preserve his inferior army and to defeat British forces where possible. His ultimate victory over the greatest power of the age presaged that of Nguyên Giáp, the North Vietnamese generalissimo who defied America in the Vietnam War. He was an inspiration to his troops, sharing their terrible privations and always placing himself at the point of maximum danger in battle. Tactically he was solid if not overly imaginative. But as a strategist, he ran circles around nearly every commander the British sent against him. His boldness was perfectly matched with prudence, a combination necessary for a general fighting with limited resources against an enemy with control of both the land and the sea. Despite the odds against him, he seldom lost a battle and always succeeded in extricating his army to fight another day. In the end, he understood how to win the war he was fighting, and in so doing birthed the United States of America.

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest


Perhaps the most feared general in American history, “that Devil Forrest” was the prophet of mobile warfare. His campaigns were (allegedly) studied by German proponents of the blitzkrieg and compare favorably to those employed by Rommel and Guderian. Though often considered a “cavalry leader” (he was probably the finest in American history), his task-forces were actually well-balanced mobile arms combat teams of cavalry, mounted infantry, and horse artillery. He also has the distinction of being the “fightingest” general in American history, personally killing with his own hands some 30 union soldiers (and losing 29 horses in the process!). Forrest was dubbed “The Wizard of the Saddle,” but he was in truth a wizard (and prophet) of modern warfare.

2. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

His reputation for solidness on the battlefield earned him the name “Stonewall.” But this nickname belies the aggressiveness and rapidity of movement that became his hallmark on the battlefield. During the Valley Campaign, Jackson marched his infantry brigades so quickly and covered so much ground that they came to be known as Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry.” Brave, eccentric, religiously upright, and bold, Jackson was at his best when given independent command, perfectly complimenting his commander-in-chief, Lee, as a Corps commander. His crowning glory at Chancellorsville cost him his life when he was wounded coming back from an evening reconnaissance by his own sentries. It can be argued that the Battle of Gettysburg (and the Civil War) was lost the moment those shots echoed in the woods at Chancellorsville.

1. George S. Patton, Jr.

No general was more controversial—or effective—during WWII than old “Blood-and-Guts.” The only American commander admired and feared by the German high command, Patton was the ultimate progenitor of mobile combat. Like Forrest, he was a prophet of mobile warfare and advocated using every vehicle in his Third Army—artillery caissons to supply trucks to the backs of tanks—to transport his infantry so that they could keep up with the relentless pace he set for his armor. The ultimate warrior, he was the U.S. Army’s Master of the Sword and an Olympic competitor (1912, in the Military Pentathlon). As a young cavalry officer, he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico. (During this campaign, he got into an Old West style gunfight with two of Villa’s lieutenants, killing them both!) He created and led America’s only armored brigade during the First World War. Before the Second World War, he was the primary exponent of armored warfare and quickly became America’s foremost “tank man” during the war. In Sicily at the head of 7th Army and in Europe leading 3rd Army he consistently displayed a boldness and aggressiveness that are the hallmark of great commanders throughout history. He combined the fearlessness of Grant with the aggressiveness of Jackson, and created in Third Army a force as mobile as that of Forrest’s. Even more theatrical than MacArthur, he is the general against which nearly every American general since has measured himself and sought to emulate.



*Author’s note: In creating this list, the over-arching question posed was: Whom would I want commanding my Army were I the president of the United States? Also, if these men faced each other on a neutral battlefield, who would come out on top?

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Happy 241st birthday to the finest force the world has ever known…the United States Marines!

Semper Fi, Devil Dogs! Ooh-Rah!!

Much has been said about “The Corps”. Here are some of the best quotations about the U.S. Marines:

“The safest place in Korea was right behind a platoon of Marines. Lord, how they could fight!” [MGen. Frank E. Lowe, US Army; Korea, 26 January 1952]

“Marines know how to use their bayonets. Army bayonets may as well be paper-weights.” [Navy Times; November 1994]

“Why in hell can’t the Army do it if the Marines can. They are the same kind of men; why can’t they be like Marines!?” [Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, US Army; 12 February 1918]

“The United States Marine Corps, with it fiercely proud tradition of excellence in combat, its hallowed rituals, and its unbending code of honor, is part of the fabric of American myth.” [Thomas E. Ricks; Making the Corps, 1997]

“The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.” [James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy; 23 February 1945; in response to the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, immortalized in a photograph by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.]

“I have just returned from visiting the Marines at the front, and there is not a finer fighting organization in the world!” [Gen. Douglas MacArthur, US Army; Korea, 21 September 1950]

“We have two companies of Marines (520 men) running rampant all over the northern half of this island, and three Army regiments (3600 men) pinned down in the southwestern corner, doing nothing. What the hell is going on?” [Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., US Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; during the assault on Grenada, 1983]

“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. The Marines don’t have that problem.” [Ronald Reagan, U.S. President; 1985]

“Marines I see as two breeds, Rottweilers or Dobermans, because Marines come in two varieties, big and mean, or skinny and mean. They’re aggressive on the attack and tenacious on defense. They’ve got really short hair and they always go for the throat.” [RAdm. “Jay” R. Stark, US Navy; 10 Nov. 1995]


“They told (us) to open up the Embassy, or ‘we’ll blow you away.’ And then they looked up and saw the Marines on the roof with these really big guns, and they said in Somali, ‘Igaralli ahow,’ which means ‘Excuse me, I didn’t mean it, my mistake.’” [Karen Aquilar, U.S. Embassy; Mogadishu, Somalia, 1991]

“No finer military organization than the Marine Corps exists in the world.” [Admiral George Dewey, US Navy, 1898]

“I am convinced there is no smarter, handier or more adaptable body of troops in the world.” [Winston Churchill writing about US Marines, 1917]

“In 150 years they have never been beaten. They will hold.” [Col. Preston Brown, US Army speaking of the Marines replacing routed French units in a desperate last-ditch effort to stop the German advance on Paris during WWI, June 1918. The Marines stopped the Germans]

“Do not attack the Marines. They fight like devils. Leave the Marine yellowlegs alone. Strike the American Army.” [a captured Chinese Army Headquarters directive to Chinese troops in Korea, 1951]

“The eyes of the Nation, the eyes of the entire world and the eyes of history itself are on that brave little band of Marine defenders who hold the pass at Khe Sanh.” [President Lyndon B. Johnson during the 77 day siege of the US Marine bastion at Khe Sanh, 19 February 1968. The Marines held, Khe Sanh did not fall]

“Retrieving wounded comrades from the field of fire is a Marine Corps tradition more sacred than life.” [Robert Pisor, The End of the Line, 1982]

“Panic sweeps my men when they face the American Marines.” [captured North Korean major, Korea 1951]

“I’d give a million dollars to be a US Marine.” [former heavyweight boxing champ of the world Riddick Bowe who completed only 11 days of USMC boot camp at Parris Island before dropping out, The Detroit News, 16 April 200]

“Apparently the Marine Corps has a training program that can knock out even a former heavyweight champion of the world.” [Sgt. Kevin Robinson, US Army, Army Link News speaking of former heavyweight boxing champ not being able to make through Marine Corps boot camp, 3 March 1997]

“You cannot exaggerate about the Marines. They are convinced to the point of arrogance that they are the most ferocious fighters on Earth. And the amusing thing about it is that they are.” [Kevin Keaney, US Navy chaplain, Korea 1951]

“There is the finest body of troops in the world, those gallant Marines who are ever ready to devote themselves to the interests of their country.” [Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of England, 1879]

“A ship without Marines is like a garment without buttons.” [Rear Admiral David Porter, US Navy, 1863]

“The Marines are at all times prompt in the execution of any duty.” [Col. Robert E. Lee, US Army (prior to the Civil War) after the capture of abolitionist John Brown, 18 October 1859]


“The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” [Gen. John J. Pershing, US Army]

“There is no better group of fighting men anywhere in the world than in the United States Marine Corps.” [Sen. Irving M Ives in the Congressional Record, April 1951]

From the “Halls of Montezuma”: Marines enter Mexico City, 1847

“The more Marines I have around me, the better I like it. The Marines have pride and benefit from it. They are tough, cocky, sure of themselves and their buddies. They can fight and they know it.” [General Mark Clark, US Army]

“The Marines will never disappoint the most sanguine expectations of their country—never! I have never known one who would not readily advance in battle.” [Capt. C.W. Morgan, US Navy, 1852]

“The Marines have landed and the situation is well in hand.” [Richard H. Davis, war correspondent, Panama, 1885]

“Before the Marines are through with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in Hell.” [Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, US Navy, 1943]

“They are quite brave.” [a Japanese staff officer describing the victorious US Marines on Guadalcanal in a dispatch to Tokyo, 4 March 1943]

“Guadalcanal is no longer merely the name of an island. It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese Army.” [MGen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi, Imperial Japanese Army, 1943 after the US Marines handed the Imperial Japanese Army its first military defeat in over 1,000 years]

“The American Marines are terribly reckless fellows. They would make very good storm troopers.” [German Army report. Belleau Wood, France, 1918]

“Their fiery advance and great tenacity were well recognized by their opponents.” [LtCol. Ernst Otto, Imperial German Army, writing of the repeated US Marine onslaughts in Belleau Wood, France, 1918]

“In the Army, shock troops are a small minority supported by a vast group of artisans, laborers, clerks and organizers. In the Marines there are practically nothing but shock troops.” [John Lardner, combat correspondent, Iwo Jima, 6 March 1945]

“I cannot say enough about the two Marine divisions. If I used words like brilliant, it would really be an under-description of the absolutely superb job they did in breaching the so-called impenetrable barrier. It was a classic—absolutely classic—military breaching of a very, very tough minefield, barbed wire, fire-trenches type barrier.” [Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, US Army, speaking in Saudi Arabia after the battle for Kuwait, 27 February 1991]

“I have respect for the Marines. God bless them, every one.” [Sgt. William Stuart, US Air Force, Afghanistan, 27 September 2002]

“Thank God for the Marines!” [an Army Air Corps B-29 crewman after his crippled bomber made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima after the Marines captured the island, May 1945]

“The {expletive} Marines have killed every living thing except the snakes and lizards!” [Capt. James A. Smith, US Army viewing the carnage after US Marines battled through Nasiriyah, Iraq, 24 March 2003]

“There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion.” [Gen. William Thornson, U.S. Army]

“Freedom is not free, but the U.S. Marine Corps will pay most of your share.” [Ned Dolan]

“For over 221 years our Corps has done two things for this great Nation. We make Marines, and we win battles.” [Gen. Charles C. Krulak, USMC (CMC); 5 May 1997]

“Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever!” [GySgt. Daniel J. “Dan” Daly, USMC; near Lucy-`le-Bocage as he led the 5th Marines’ attack into Belleau Wood, 6 June 1918]

“Gone to Florida to fight the Indians. Will be back when the war is over.”
[Col. Archibald Henderson, USMC (CMC); in a note pinned to his office door, 1836]

“Don’t you forget that you’re Marines! Not all the communists in Hell can overrun you!” [Col. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, USMC; rallying his First Marine Regiment near Chosin Reservoir, Korea, December 1950]

“They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now!”[Col. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, USMC; when the Marines were cut off behind enemy lines and the Army had written the 1st Marine Division off as being lost because they were surrounded by 22 enemy divisions. The Marines made it out inflicting the highest casualty ratio on an enemy in history and destroying 7 entire enemy divisions in the process.]

“Marines die, that’s what we’re here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever. And that means YOU live forever!” [the mythical GySgt. Hartman, USMC; portrayed by GySgt. R. Lee Ermey, a Marine Corps Drill Instructor using his own choice of words in Full Metal Jacket,1987]

“You’ll never get a Purple Heart hiding in a foxhole! Follow me!” [Capt. Henry P. Crowe, USMC; Guadalcanal, 13 January 1943]

“We are United States Marines, and for two and a quarter centuries we have defined the standards of courage, esprit, and military prowess.” [Gen. James L. Jones, USMC (CMC); 10 November 2000]


“I have only two men out of my company and 20 out of some other company. We need support, but it is almost suicide to try to get it here as we are swept by machine gun fire and a constant barrage is on us. I have no one on my left and only a few on my right. I will hold.” [1stLt. Clifton B. Cates, USMC; in Belleau Wood, 19 July 1918]

“I love the Corps for those intangible possessions that cannot be issued: pride, honor, integrity, and being able to carry on the traditions for generations of warriors past.” [Cpl. Jeff Sornij, USMC; in Navy Times, November 1994]

(Thanks to Chris Pangalos, Spartan warrior and US Marine!)

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Henry V leads the original “Band of Brothers” to a bloody triumph against all odds on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with meShall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which the Immortal Bard places in the mouth of his hero, King Henry V of England, is one of the great battle speeches in literature. Though likely Shakespeare’s own invention, it brilliantly portrays a young, inspiring commander attempting to hearten his starving and dispirited soldiers, in desperate straights as the face battle against (seemingly) hopeless odds. Whatever (if anything) Henry may have actually said that fateful morning in October is lost to history. But what is not lost is how he, and his tiny force of desperate men, stood firmly on the muddy field of Agincourt and defeated five-times their number, which included the flower of French chivalry.

Henry V (center), and as portrayed by Lawrence Olivier (L) and Kennth Branagh

Soon after coming to the throne in 1413, the 26 year old Henry proclaimed his intention to renew the century-old Plantagenet claim to the crown of France, the original casus belli for the Hundred Years War, which had lain dormant for a generation. This was a particularly audacious move, in that France had defeated the English and largely driven them from France in the previous century; and were widely considered a much stronger kingdom. However, the King of France at this time, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness (a trait he would perhaps pass on to his grandson, Henry VI of England). As often when the monarch is weak or infirm, powerful nobles had maneuvered to fill the power vacuum the king’s incapacity created. Factions had come to blows, and France was a nation whose nobility were divided against each other.

Henry, whose own claim to the English throne was questionable (his father had usurped the crown from his weak cousin, King Richard II), understood that nothing so unites a nation like a foreign war and a common enemy. The glorious victories of Edward III and the Black Prince sixty-and-more years earlier were hardly forgotten; and many an Englishman of all classes in society had benefitted from the pillage brought off from frequent campaigns across the Channel during their campaigns in France. What Henry needed to cement the loyalty of his subjects was success in battle against the hated French; and to gain a reputation as a warrior king.

Map depicting area of Henry’s 1415 campaign; from the estimable Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt”

On 11 August, 1415 Henry crossed to Normandy to begin a grand raid across northern France, following the same strategy Edward III and others had used before. However, a short and successful raid was not in the cards. Henry’s first target, the port town of Harfleur, at the mouth of the River Seine, held out for much longer than expected. By the time the town was stormed, on September 22, it was too late in the season to exploit the gain. The delay had also allowed the outraged nobles of France to assemble a large army near Rouen, under the command of the greatest magnates in the realm. These were marching north to punish Henry for his effrontery.

Henry’s army lost precious time besieging Harfleur.

Merely embarking his army and returning to England would do little to improve his reputation, and might well be seen as cowardly; potentially fatal to a young king seated insecurely on an ill-gotten throne. So, instead, Henry decided to extend the campaign with a raid through Picardy; perhaps consciously following in the footsteps of Edward III and his Crecy campaign of 1346. Defiantly marching through northern France, he could end this chevauchée at the sanctuary of English-held Calais; the only lasting fruit of Edward III’s great victory of Crecy.

As with any Medieval armies which sat down in one place too long, Henry’s army at Harfleur was racked by dysentery. So it was a sick and slow English force that set out, marching through a largely bare and (with winter approaching) an increasingly wet countryside. The English soon discovered that a dauntingly-large army, led by the greatest lords of France, were following close on their heals and looking to bring them to battle. Worse, arriving at the River Somme, Henry found his way across blocked by a second French force of several thousand on the opposite bank; looking to block his crossing and trap him on the western bank.

This was exactly the same situation his great grandfather had faced almost 70 years earlier. At risk of being hammered against the river by the pursuing French main army, Henry marched upriver; seeking an unopposed crossing point. All the time, the blocking force across the river shadowed his march, prepared to stop any attempt to cross. However, at a bend in the river, one that bulged northeast for many miles, Henry was able to cut across the base while the blocking force had to travel around the outside circumference. This allowed the English to find a crossing place unopposed.

However, this delay in getting across the Somme allowed Henry’s pursuers to cross down river and join the blocking force. The French, now north of Henry, moved to cut him off from Calais and force him to battle. The English halted near the castle of Agincourt, not far from where the French sat across their line of march. Here, the terrain narrowed between two woods; offering Henry a place where his smaller army could fight with both their flanks secure. The English camped and prepared for battle.

(To continue reading, go here)

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