THE DEVIL’S GUARD: HITLER’S WAFFEN SS (PART 3)

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Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day. This multi-part series is neither an attempt to glorify or to condemn the Waffen SS; but to examine the military record of this elite organization as objectively as possible, and to present the facts in a balanced fashion.

(To read the previous installment, go here. To read Part One, go here.)

From the start of the war in 1939 to the beginning of operations in 1943, the main formations of the Waffen-SS earned a reputation for bravery, audacity, and tactical innovation second to none in the German armed forces. However, they also developed a reputation for reckless courage and tenacity that led to a higher-than-necessary casualty rate. Worse, they reflected the darker, sinister side of the Nazi state; committing numerous atrocities that would later lead to the Waffen being declared a “criminal organization” and many of its officers tried (and in most cases convicted) for war crimes.

Sepp Dietrich SS-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, commander of LSSAH till ’43, then of the 1st SS-Panzer Korps. One of Hitler’s favorite soldiers, Dietrich was indicted and convicted at Nuremberg for culpability in war crimes committed by Waffen-SS units under his command. He was sentenced to 25 years, but only served 10.

Though not directly responsible for the implementation of Hitler’s genocidal policies towards Jews and various other ethnic or political groups, certain Waffen-SS formations were at times tasked with helping their komraden in the Allgemeine SS and in the SS-Totenkopfverbände (concentration camp guards) to carry out these vile acts of repression and murder. Efforts by apologists to absolve the Waffen of any culpability in these crimes rings as hollow today as it did during the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal hearings.

That said, the bulk of all Waffen-SS formations were involved with direct military actions through most of the war, fighting beside other formations of the Wehrmacht and under the direct operational control of the German Army (Heer). In previous chapters we discussed the expansion of the Waffen-SS through 1939 to the end of 1942. During this period, the premiere Waffen-SS combat formations were originally organized as motorized infantry. They were continuously upgraded, first to Panzergrenadier divisions, then to full Panzer division status. In all cases Waffen formations were over-strengthened: a Waffen Panzergrenadier division had as many tanks as a regular German army Panzer division (a full regiment of tanks rather than only a battalion); and a Waffen Panzer division was stronger than any equivalent formation in the Wehrmacht.

By 1942 the Waffen was receiving the best and most modern equipment available (and, in some cases, captured Allied equipment, particularly Russian). This had not always been the case: at the start of the war, the Waffen formations were under-equipped and even using obsolete weapons discarded by the Heer. But by the mid-war only Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland had an equal priority to the best men and equipment.

1597492.jpg A widely circulated propaganda postcard, showing Waffen-SS soldiers carrying a wounded comrade during actions in Belgium, 1940. This image shows the Waffen soldiers carrying a variety of weapons, including the obsolete MP-34.

After being pulled out of intense fighting in Russia in 1941 and early 1942 (see previous installments, linked at top), most of the main-line formations were sent to rest and refit in France. During this period, at the urging of and under the command of SS-General Paul (“Papa”) Hausser, three of the premiere combat formation were formed into an SS-Panzer Korps. This consisted of 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich (DR), and the 3rd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf (TK). As pointed out above, all three were over-strength panzer divisions in all but name, in fact stronger than a standard army panzer division.

1415638 SS Panzer Korps commander, Paul “Papa” Hausser (left) lost an eye in combat during Operation Barbarossa.

While the authorized strength for a panzer division was 13,000–17,000, these Waffen divisions were about 19,000 strong. While most Panzer divisions were woefully under-strength in tanks (only able to field 70-100 panzers at any given time during this period), the rested and reconstituted Waffen panzergrenadier divisions had about 150 tank, as well as a battalion of self-propelled assault guns and enough half-tracks (as opposed to trucks) for all of its infantry. Further, each had been assigned a Heavy Tank (Schwere Panzer) Company of 9 Tiger tanks (Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E), Germany’s new “super-tank”; very well armored and armed with the deadly 88mm gun, capable of killing even the best-armored Allied tanks.

1415645.jpg Waffen-SS Tiger tank in action. In 1942, each division of the SS-Panzer Korps received a Heavy Company of Tigers.

This newly christened SS-Panzer Korps was a very potent formation, indeed.

In early 1943, crises on the Eastern Front called the Korps back to Russia, where it would fight in some of the greatest tank battles in history.

THE DONETS CAMPAIGN AND THE 3rd BATTLE OF KHARKOV

On January 2, 1943, the Soviets forces in south Russia/Ukraine launched Operation Star and Operation Gallop, which over the next month broke German defenses. On 2 February, German 6th Army surrendered at Stalingrad. This freed-up large numbers of Soviet troops to join the offensive. The resulting drive shattered the German line, annihilating the Italian 8th Army in the process and surrounding German forces between the Don and Donets.

1415664.jpg Red Army troops on the attack. Here a T-34 Medium Tank leads an attack, supported by infantry.

In response, Hitler reorganized the German forces in south Russia. He created Army Group South out of the shattered remnants of the old Army Group A, B and Don, placing all under the command of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Germany’s most talented strategist.

1415666.jpg Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein, Germany’s premiere strategist. Portrait by Virgilio Bettinaglio

Meanwhile, Hausser and the SS-Panzer Korp were sent into this cauldron of destruction to reinforce Manstein’s forces. Arriving on the front in late January 1943, the SS-Panzer Korps was thrown into the line defending Kharkov. They found themselves facing a deluge of hundreds of Soviet tanks of Mobile Group Popov, a Soviet Army sized formation spearheading the Soviet advance.

During the second week of February 1943, the LSSAH’s 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment under SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt, and SS-Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche‘s 1st SS Panzer Regiment fought a bitter delaying action near the town of Merefa, halting a major Soviet attack. LSSAH and its sister divisions in the SS-Panzer Korps conducted a series of fierce defensive battles over the next weeks, gradually being pushed back into the city of Kharkov itself.

1415673.jpg SS-Totenkopf soldiers, Kharkov 1943

While the Waffen divisions succeeded in throwing back every Soviet attack, their position became desperate as the Soviets maneuvered around the city, threatening to surround the SS force. On February 15, Hausser disobeyed Hitler’s orders to hold the city at all costs and withdrew his Corps from the city towards Krasnograd. Over the next week, the SS Panzer Korps fought a series or running battles against the advancing Soviet armored forces. In the process the SS formations showed great skill in the art of maneuver, destroying several Russian divisions and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, annihilating Soviet Mobile Group Popov.

1415710.jpg Waffen-SS panzergrenadiers riding in Sd.Kfz. 251 half-tracks, advancing along the snow-covered tracks.

Meanwhile to their south the Soviet spearheads had driven deep into German-held territory, driving west across the wide steppes of the Ukraine. At one point, Soviet tanks were within gun range of Hitler himself, in conference with Manstein at the airfield at Zaporozhe. The German Führer asked whose tanks these were approaching, and was shocked when told they were Soviet!

Ostfront, Adolf Hitler, Erich v. Manstein Hitler meeting with Manstein at the airfield at Zaporozhe. It was during this meeting that Hitler came close to being fired upon by Soviet tanks. This convinced the shaken Hitler that the crises in south Russia required extraordinary measures. Manstein was given permission to act without (the usual) interference by Hitler and his staff.

However great their gains, the Soviet forces had become overextended. To their south flank, Manstein prepared a large mobile force with which to counter-attack the southern flank of the Soviet bulge in the German lines. These forces included the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies, and the SS Panzer Korps which was placed under the operational control of 4th Panzer Army, commanded by Herman Hoth.

Manstein’s Donets Campaign began on 19 February and lasted through 15 March, 1943. It caught the advancing Soviet forces “flat-footed”, with the German panzer forces rolling north and destroying Soviet formations piecemeal in a series of meeting engagements. Soviet spearheads in the west were cut off from their supply sources and eventually destroyed. In this offensive, the SS-Panzer Korps played a key role; advancing from the north and linking up with 4th Panzer Army thrusting from the south and “bagging” and destroying large and powerful Soviet armored forces.

The Russian formations suffered from exhaustion after weeks of continuous combat, having penetrated (in some cases) 500 hundred miles; and having outrun their supplies were short on fuel and ammunition. In the rapidly changing conditions of rolling tank battles on the steppes, the Russians were severely handicapped by a lack of radios in each tank; and by a rigid operational doctrine that did not encourage initiative among junior officers, or straying from original battle plans by senior officers, no matter how much the situation changed on the ground. This was in stark contrast to German doctrine, and particularly that of the Waffen-SS which fully encouraged individual initiative and aggressiveness, and an informality between superiors and their subordinates. This is a feature found in all “Special Operations” units in modern history but is seldom found in “conventional” forces. (Time and again, Waffen-SS commanders defied orders and took what actions they saw necessary. It is telling that Hausser could defy Hitler himself at Kharkov and be spared even a reprimand. In the Red Army, attempt at such action would have been cut-short by a Kommissar’s bullet to the head!)

The SS-Panzer Korps prepares to advance and recapture Kharkov

By 5 March the SS-Panzer Korps had reached the outskirts of Kharkov again. Ordered to encircle the city to the north, Hausser instead chose to attack the city on 11 March, disobeying orders from both Hoth and Manstein. For the SS it was now a matter of pride that they recapture the city they had been forced to abandon just weeks earlier. A bloody and decisive struggle ensued, the 3rd Battle of Kharkov. LSSAH attacked from north, Das Reich from the west, and Totenkopf formed a protective screen along the north and northwestern flanks.

1415827Waffen panzergrenadiers advancing through the streets of Kharkov

For this operation LSSAH divided into flexible Kampfgruppe (“Battle Groups”), commanded by intrepid young commanders Fritz Witt, Theodor ‘Teddy’ Wisch, Max Wünsche, Joachim Peiper, and Kurt Meyer; under overall command of division commander Sepp Dietrich. The attacks were fiercely resisted by the Red Army. But the SS formations conducted a skilled and determined assault, sometimes fighting house-to-house, block by stubborn block. During the battle, Myer’s Kampfgruppe succeeded in capturing the entire command staff of a Soviet division. However, their rapid advance outpaced other supporting units, and Myer’s group found itself surrounded in the middle of the city. Despite fierce attack by much larger Soviet forces bent on annihilating his surrounded command, Meyer’s grenadiers held on until relieved by Peiper’s Kampfgruppe; Meyer’s small-unit leadership greatly contributing to his force’s success. By 14 March, Kharkov had fallen again and the German battle flag once more waved over Dzerzhinsky Square.

Waffen-SS “Young Guns”: (top row, left-to-right) Joachim Peiper, Kurt “Panzer” Meyer. Bottom row, left-to-right: Theodor Wisch and Max Wünsche

The spring thaw (rasputitsa) and the resulting muddy morass brought Manstein’s counter-offensive to a halt none too soon for the Soviets. Army Group South’s Donets Campaign had cost the Red Army some 52 divisions, over 70,000–80,000 casualties, and these from their most mobile forces. The Germans had destroyed the Soviets west of the Donets, restoring the line and retaking Kharkov and Belgorod (captured on March 18). It was the last great victory of German arms in the eastern front.

Russland, Herausziehen eines AutosThe spring thaw turned the dirt roads of Russia into a muddy morass, bringing Manstein’s counter-offensive to a halt, and setting the stage for the Battle of Kursk.

For the SS-Panzer Korps the cost had been high. Leibstandarte alone had suffered some 4,500 casualties, and losses within the other two SS divisions were as proportionately high. The founding commander of SS-Totenkopf, Theodor Eicke, had been killed on the 26 February while conducting an aerial reconnaissance over the battlefield, when his single-engine Fieseler Storch was shot down. (Eicke was succeeded by the very capable Hermann Priess.)

As was often the case during the war, the Waffen was again involved with an atrocity: after the recapture of Kharkov soldiers from LSSAH allegedly murdered several hundred wounded Soviet soldiers in the city’s military hospital. Such abominable actions blackened the name of what was an otherwise superb and admirable fighting force.

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Standartenfuhrer Fritz Witt, commanding officer of 1st SS PG Regiment, conferring with Hauptsturmfuhrer Max Wünsche, commander of 1st Battalion/1st SS Panzer Regiment during the fighting around Kharkov.

The mud had brought the advance to a halt short of Kursk, and left a westward bulge remaining in German lines. Manstein wished to continue the northward drive and eliminate this dangerous salient as soon as the ground hardened.

Hitler agreed, but decided to make this operation the main German summer offensive on the Eastern Front. To this end plans were drawn-up at OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, “Supreme Command of the Armed Forces”) for a grand offensive, a pincer move from the north and the south of this salient.

The stage was set for the Battle of Kursk.

NEXT: THE TIGERS ROAR AT PROKHOROVKA 

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END OF THE CALIPHATE: MONGOL SACK OF BAGHDAD 1258

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On February 13, 1258 a Mongol army entered the city of Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.  There followed a week of rapine and destruction, as the city was sacked. The Khan ordered the death of the last Caliph, Al-Musta’sim. It is an event that rocked the Muslim world, the repercussions of which are felt to this day.

Hulagu Khan, commander of the Mongols in the Middle East and founder of the Persia-based Il-Khanate, was the grandson of Genghis Khan and brother to both China’s Kublai Khan, and to another Kha-Khan (“Great Khan”, the title carried by the overlord of the entire Mongol Empire) Khan Möngke. At its peak, the realm Hulago created included Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan and parts of Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.

The sack of Baghdad culminated the initial phase of the Mongol attempt to conquer the Middle East; begun with Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarezmia in 1221. A project abandoned after Genghis Khan’s death, his grandson took up the task, supported by perhaps the largest Mongol army ever assembled: by order of his brother, Great Khan Möngke, 20% of the empire’s fighting men were allocated to the task. Not less than 100,000 warriors formed Hulago’s horde, and likely many more than that.

Hulago opened the campaign by attacking Alamut, the chief stronghold of the feared  Assassins (Asāsiyyūn). This fortress citadel, thought at the time to be impregnable, lay in the mountains of Iran, about 60 miles from modern Tehran. Seeing the “handwriting on the wall”, the Assassins surrendered on condition their lives were spared. Nevertheless, Alamut was destroyed and with it the power of the Assassin cult, which had terrorized the Middle East since the 11th century.

The ruins of lofty Alamut. From here, the “Old Man of the Mountain”, leader of the Assassin cult, directed an army of dedicated killers throughout the Middle East for almost two centuries. Hulagu Khan destroyed the citadel on his way to the sack of Baghdad.

Baghdad was then the ancient seat of the Abbasid Caliphate; a secular and religious authority within Islam that dated back to the 8th century. Established after the overthrow of the original Caliphate of the Umayyads in 750, the first Abbasid Caliph (which title means “Successor” to Mohammed) had built Baghdad as his new capital. For centuries, Baghdad was the power-center of Islam in the world. Though secular power had since the 11th century rested in the hands of Turkish Sultans; the Caliph was still the ultimate religious authority within Islam. Though schismatic Caliphates had contested Abbasid authority from time-to-time in Spain, Morocco and Egypt, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad was the oldest and most recognized throughout the world.

Artist’s conception of the round city of Baghdad under the Abbasids.

Baghdad at its height in the 11th century had claim to being one of (if not the) largest cities in the world; boasting a population of between 1.2 million and 2 million souls. The city had a uniquely Persian design and flavor: unlike in Greek and Roman engineering tradition, where cites are laid out in a rectangular grid, the Persians built cities in a circular pattern, all streets radiating out from a central hub. At the center of Baghdad was the Golden Gate Palace; residence of the caliph and center of his administration. Surmounting the building was a 39 meter-high green dome; one of the largest in the world in its days (18 meters higher than Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock; though fully 15 meters less than the lofty dome of Hagia Sophia.

In the face of imminent Mongol invasion, the foolish Caliph Al-Musta’sim took no steps to call upon allies, raise additional troops, or strengthen his capital. Hulago’s massive army reached Baghdad on January 29th, defeating the inadequate Abbasid army outside the walls (breaking dykes to flood their position, drowning many of the Caliph’s army in the process). The siege was brief by the standards of the time. The Mongols wheeled up siege engines and catapults; and Baghdad was subjected to the “endless storm”, in which warriors attacked day-and-night, in shifts, till the walls were carried.

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By February 5 the Mongols controlled a stretch of the wall. The Caliph attempted too late to negotiate, but was refused. On February 10th the city surrendered. Three days later, the Mongols entered the city, and Baghdad was subject to a week of sack and pillage. Much of the burgeoning population was put to the sword, the gutters and canals of the city running red. Before they were done, the Mongols destroyed large sections of the city; gratuitously ruining canals and dykes forming the city’s irrigation system and water supply. Baghdad would never recover its former glory.

The last Caliph was put to death shortly after. Because many of Hulagu’s soldiers were themselves Muslims; and because to them it was sacrilege to shed the Caliph’s “holy” blood, Hulago had the Caliph wrapped in a Persian rug and thrown into the street. The Khan’s horsemen then rode over the rug, crushing the Caliph to pulp within.

An alternative story, relayed by Marco Polo, is that Hulagu Khan found the caliph’s great storeroom filled with treasure; which could have been spent on the defense of his realm. The Khan had Al-Musta’sim locked him in his treasure room without food or water, telling him “eat of thy treasure as much as thou wilt, since thou art so fond of it.”

The fall of the Abbassid Calphate ended any central authority in Islam (though later Muslim leaders from time-to-time have claimed such authority; most notably the Ottoman Turkish Sultans). To this day, no such universally recognized central authority exists. In dealing with the Islamic world, we face this problem daily; as every Imam has the right to issue fatwas as his own conscience dictates, without reference or recourse to a higher authority.

It bears remembering that the stated goal of ISIS and Al Qaeda is to recreate the lost Caliphate; that jihad against the West can continue once again under a united Islamic world.

 

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SABRES IN THE SNOW: MURAT CHARGES TO GLORY AT EYLAU, 1807!

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

In October of 1806, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte decisively defeated the Prussians in a lightning campaign that culminated at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. This campaign was in response to Prussia joining Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain in the Fourth Coalition against France. This coalition was a response to Napoleon’s victory over Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, which resulted in Austria withdrawing from the war.

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

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

As was normal practice, Napoleon’s Grande Armee marched widely dispersed, each Corps its own independent army. The overall movements of the Grande Armee were well coordinated by the Emperor’s headquarters through an efficient staff, headed by the talented Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier (the man who translated Napoleon’s strategic vision into coherent orders). With his army scattered in a broad net, Napoleon now attempted to cast this over and bag Bennigsen’s Russians.

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

Napoleon had only four Corps on hand: Marshal Augereau’s VII Corps, Soult’s IV Corps (the men who had delivered the “one sharp blow” at Austerlitz, storming the Pratzen Heights), Murat’s Reserve Cavalry Corps, and his own matchless Imperial Guard; in all, about 45,000 men and 200 guns. Bennigsen, on the other hand, had approximately 67,000 troops and 460 guns, with a further 9,000 Prussians under General Anton Wilhelm von L’Estocq nearby. But Ney’s VI Corps was approaching the Russians from the northwest, and Davout’s III Corps was coming from the south; a total of 30,000 additional troops. Napoleon decided to pin the Russians in place with the forces he had on hand, allowing these late arriving corps to envelope Bennigsen’s army from both flanks. In essence, his plan was what General George Patton would later call “holding (the enemy) by the nose,” so that he could “kick them in the pants”.

1471413.jpgOpposing commanders: Count Von Bennigsen (L), commanded the Russian forces opposing the French at Eylau. Following the battle, he was decorated by the Czar, the only general thus far able to avoid defeat at the hands of “The Ogre”. Napoleon (R) in 1807 was a general in the full flower of his genius. At Eylau he suffered his first reverse.

Advanced Russian and French elements skirmished all day on the 7th over Eylau village, at the center of the battlefield. As darkness fell, the Russians withdrew back across a shallow valley and prepared for a general engagement the following morning. Both armies spent a miserable night on the frozen ground, snow flurries gusting sporadically. As they lay shivering in the night, Napoleon’s soldiers couldn’t know how the snow would be a source of both heartbreak and salvation for many of them on the following day.

BATTLE COMMENCES

With intermittent snow flurries threatening a coming blizzard, the battle began in earnest at 8AM on February 8 with a massive artillery duel. After 30 minutes, Napoleon ordered Marshal Soult’s Corp, on the French center-left, to advance and  began to “pin” the Russian right, under General Tutchkov. But Soult’s men were soon halted by intense fire, and fell back to their starting position around Windmill Hill, north of Eylau village.

Meanwhile, to the south, the vanguard of Marshal Davout’s III Corps, an infantry division commanded by General Louis Friant (the officer who would later command the Grenadiers of the Old Guard at Waterloo), began to arrive opposite the Russian left. To stop their progress, Bennigsen launched a cavalry attack from his left.

At 10:30AM, to relieve the pressure on Davout’s oncoming reinforcements and pin the Russian left in place, Napoleon ordered the 15,000 men of Marshal Augereau’s VII Corp, supported by St. Hilaire’s division of Soult’s Corps, to advance. Marching down into the shallow valley, the French soldiers were quickly lost from sight as the storm gusted up to blizzard level.

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In what today we would call a “whiteout” Augereau’s men lost their way. Instead of moving against the Russian left they drifted northward toward the Russian center. This is easy to explain: most men are right-handed, and tend to stride more strongly with their right (dominant) leg. Thus it is easy to “drift” off course to one’s left, a common problem with hikers lost in the wilderness. At Eylau, in the blinding snow, the 15,000-strong ranks of Augereau’s Corps marched blindly into the “kill box” of the 70 massed guns of the Russian grand battery, arrayed across the center of Bennigsen’s line. Worse, the Russian batteries were still engaged in a fierce artillery duel against French guns around Eylau. Cannon balls flew back-and-forth across the valley. As they pushed up the slopes of the Russian side of the valley, Augereau’s doomed men drifted into this maelstrom of iron.

Caught in the crossfire, the carnage was sudden and total. Grapeshot from the Russian batteries raked their front, while round-shot from their own guns tore into their ranks from the rear. In minutes, Augereau’s VII Corps virtually ceased to exist. Of the two divisions totaling 15,000 men which comprised the Corps, only 3,000 returned to their starting position at the French side of the valley; amounting to a staggering 80% casualty rate. Of their senior officers, both of the two division commanders were mortally wounded, with Marshal Augereau himself wounded, though not fatally.

Before they could regain their own lines, worse was yet in store for Augereau’s shattered battalions. The Russians now launched an all out counter-attack with infantry and cavalry. The survivors of the VII Corps understandably broke and began fleeting back to their own side of the valley. All might have been cut down as they fled, but for the heroic stand of one regiment, the 14th Line; which instead formed square on a small hillock. As the pursuing Russian cavalry thundered down upon them, they held fast, repulsing the enemy and giving time for their fleeing comrades to escape.

Watching from Napoleon’s command post on the plateau above was Marcellin de Marbot , a gallant young officer of hussars serving that day as an Aide-de-Camp to the Emperor.  In his memoirs, which make for fascinating and rousing reading[1], Marbot recounts the events that followed:

The snow having stopped for a moment, one could see this gallant regiment almost completely surrounded by the enemy, waving its Eagle aloft to show that it still stood fast and needed help. The Emperor, touched by the devotion to duty of these brave men, decided to attempt their rescue; he told Marshal Augereau to send an officer with orders to them to quit the hillock, form a small square and withdraw towards us; while a brigade of cavalry would go to meet them and second their efforts.

…it was almost impossible to carry out the Emperor’s command because a swarm of Cossacks separated us from the 14th. It was clear that any officer sent towards the unfortunate regiment would be killed or captured before he got there. Nevertheless, an order is an order; and the Marshal had to obey.

The first two messengers sent to carry the Emperor’s instructions gave their lives in the attempt. Marbot himself was next selected to make a third attempt.

Well-mounted on his swift Arab mare, Lisset, Marbot raced down the slope and through the screen of swarming Cossacks:

…flying rather than galloping, rushed through space, leaping over the piled up bodies of men and horses, over ditches and the broken mountings of guns, as well as the half-extinguished bivouac fires. Thousands of Cossacks were scattered about the plain. The first ones to see me behaved like hunters who, having raised a hare, mark its presence by shouts of “Yours! Yours!” But none of them tried to stop me, firstly because I was going so fast, and also perhaps because each one thought I would be caught by his comrades who were further on. In this way I escaped from them all and arrived at the 14th without either I or my excellent mare having suffered a scratch.

Reaching the surrounded regiment, its position protected by a rampart of Russian dead, Marbot gave the battalion commander the Emperor’s orders. Down to a mere handful, and with battalions of Russian foot in line now bearing down upon them, their officer replied:

“I can see no way of saving the regiment. Return to the Emperor and give him the farewells of the 14e Régiment de Ligne which has faithfully carried out his orders, and take him the Eagle he gave which we can no longer defend; it would be too terrible to see it fall into enemy hands during our last moments.”

1471416.jpgTaking the Regimental Eagle, Marbot attempted to return to the French lines; only to have his horse collapse under him, the fall knocking him unconscious. Astonishingly, he awoke four hours later, wounded and stripped naked. (Marbot continued fighting on throughout Napoleon’s campaigns, eventually commanding a brigade of light horse at Waterloo, where he was wounded.)

Meanwhile, the Russian foot swarmed over the 14th, which fought on to the death. Moving onward across the valley floor, the Russian masses, bayonets glittering coldly, pushed on up the slopes toward Eylau and Napoleon’s command post.

For the first time since Marengo in 1800, Napoleon looked defeat in the eye.

With his center in danger of collapsing and the two flanking Corps of Marshals Ney and Davout still hours away from effective commitment, Napoleon’s battle plan appeared to be collapsing into ruin. His center  had ceased to exist; and nothing stood between the oncoming Russians and his own command post but his own Imperial Guards and Murat’s Cavalry Reserve.

1471418.jpgAt 11 am the Russian vanguard pushed into Eylau and to within 100 yards of Napoleon himself. Two battalions of the Imperial Guard rushed forward, battling the Russian grenadiers in the alleys and streets of the village. By 1130, the “grognards[2] had pushed the Russian vanguard out of the village. But the bulk of the Russian center was still advancing in rank-after-rank, unstoppably toward Napoleon’s position.

Napoleon now summoned Marshal Murat, his brother-in-law and the dashing commander of his Reserve Cavalry Corps. Pointing to the oncoming Russians, he asked, “Will you let those men devour us”?

“Will you let those men devour us??”

Murat immediately whirled about, galloping off to join his Corps, waiting to the rear. He hastily gathered them together, marshaling the regiments into one massive column. Each squadron drew-up behind the other, every trooper knee-to-knee. 10,700 superbly mounted cavalry: 4 regiments of armored cuirassiers to the front, followed by regiments of dragoons, hussars, and chasseurs.

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Murat’s Reserve Cavalry Corps, 10,700 strong, charges forward in a massive column, into the oncoming Russian infantry. Led by the iron-clad cuirassiers, they his the enemy like a battering ram!

THE CHARGE

As they formed up, Russian musket and cannon shot whistled among them. Seeing some of his men flinching, Colonel Louis Lepic of the Grenadiers à Cheval (Horse Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, known in the French army as “The Gods” on account of their lofty demeanor) called out with icy contempt: “Heads up, by God! Those are bullets, not turds!”

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“The Gods”: the Grenadiers à Cheval (heavy cavalry) of the Imperial Guard. These were held in reserve, and charged to support the safe withdrawal of Murat’s column.

At 11:45, wielding only his riding-whip, Murat’s led his regiments forward, a massive battering ram of men and horses. Walk turned into trot, trot to canter, canter broke into furious gallop!

Cresting the edge of the plateau on the French side of the valley, the hitherto triumphant Russian infantry were greeted by the thunder of 42,800 hooves as a torrent of French cavalry bore down upon them. The cuirassiers, at the head of the column, smashed into the staggering Russian regiments. As Captain Parquin of the Imperial Guard so eloquently observed, “the brave phalanx of infantry was soon leveled to the earth like a wheat-field swept by a hurricane”!

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Murat charges at the head of the lead squadrons of cuirassiers, armed only with his riding crop!

Unchecked, the French cavalry swept into the valley, cutting down the fleeing survivors and scattering the prowling Cossacks like chaff before a hurricane. Breaking into two columns, one part wheeled to the right, smashing into and routing the Russian cavalry harassing Friant’s advancing vanguard, before rejoining their comrades. The main thrust followed Murat up the slope to the Russian side of the valley. Bursting out of the blinding snow, they overran the Russian artillery batteries that had so punished Augereau’s Corps. Sabering the hapless gunners and spiking their guns, Murat’s cavaliers exacted a bloody vengeance!

1471429.jpgGalloping onward, the cavalry hit the unprepared ranks of infantry that comprised the Russian second line. As Marbot describes, “the terrible weight of this mass broke the Russian center, upon which it charged with the sabre, and threw it into complete disorder.” Here, the swirling snow and poor visibility that had caused Augereau so much mischief worked in Murat’s favor. Many Russian regiments were surprised as the French appeared out of the blizzard, and were ridden down before they could form squares. In other cases, hastily forming squares were shattered before they could set themselves to repel the charge.

Murat’s cavalry now found itself in the heart of the Russian army. While they had torn through the first two lines, they were now in hazardous position: between the reforming survivors of their charge behind, and Bennigsen’s final reserves of cavalry and infantry to their front. These latter now began firing upon them with musketry and cannon. Murat’s horsemen were in an untenable position, with their path of retreat perilous.

Perhaps sensing their predicament, Napoleon committed his own Guard Cavalry under Marshal Bessières, to cover their withdraw.

Led by Lepic’s magnificent Grenadiers à Cheval, visually striking in their tall bearskin shakos, and followed by the Emperor’s Guard Light Cavalry, the  Chasseurs à Cheval (including the squadron of Egyptian Mameluks) these 2,000 elite cavalry plunged forward into the valley.  Furiously laying about them with sword, they opened a blood-stained passage through which Murat’s weary horsemen could safely travel.

1471430As Murat’s retreating riders streamed past the Guard cavalry formed a barrier between them and the Russian reserve. The Russians advanced cautiously; and as they approached the ranks of the Guards, a Russian officer called upon them to surrender.

“Look at these faces,” the redoubtable Lepic demanded, “and see if they mean to  surrender!” With that he and his men wheeled about, and cut their way back to freedom.

Seeing the wounded Lepic after the battle, Napoleon went to him and said: “I thought you had been captured, general Lepic. I was feeling deeply sorrowful about it.” Lepic replied: “Sire, you will only ever hear of my death.” That evening, Lepic received 50,000 francs, which he immediately distributed to his men. Five days later, he would be promoted to general. (He continue to serve with gallantry throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Retiring in 1814, Lepic was awarded by the returned Bourbon king, Louis XVIII with the title of Count.)

AFTERMATH

The charge of Murat’s cavalry at Eylau was not only a seminal moment in the battle; it was the finest moment in the history of Napoleon’s cavalry.

Napoleon had good cause to be grateful to his cavalry arm, which now came indisputably into its own as a finely tempered and practically irresistible battle weapon”.[3]

What had seemed just an hour earlier to be a Russian victory had now turned back in favor of the French. Bennigsen was stunned by the sudden reversal, and never regained the initiative.

Davout and Ney’s Corps arrived and stabilized the French line. That evening, the Russians withdrew, leaving Napoleo in possession of the corpse-strewn battlefield. The French remained at Eylau for another week, burying the dead and resting after their exertions. Eylau was the costliest battle for Napoleon’s Grande Armee to that date. 10,000–15,000 French and some 15,000 Russians had fallen (another 3,000 Russians were taken prisoner).

Napoleon wrote his wife, the Empress Josephine, on February 14:

“My Dear; I am still at Eylau. The country is covered with dead and wounded. It is the worst aspect of war. It is heartbreaking and my soul is oppressed at the site of so many victims.”

Though Napoleon held the field after the battle, Eylau can only be regarded as a bloody, miserable draw. Strategically, the Emperor had failed to gain his objective, the destruction of Bennigsen’s army. That would wait till the following summer, when both armies would meet again at Friedland.

 

On the blood-drenched snowy field of Eylau the Russians had shown Europe that, despite the victories of Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena-Auersted Napoleon and his Grande Armee were a dangerous enemy, but not invincible.

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  1. Napoleon, who read Marbot’s book in exile on St. Helena, said that it was the “best book I have read for years”, and that it had “given me the greatest amount of pleasure”. Napoleon further expressed his admiration for Marbot: “I should have liked to show Marbot my appreciation by sending him a ring. If I ever return to active life, I will have him attached to me as an aide-de-camp. He’s an educated man, who expresses himself simply, well, and correctly in writing.”
  2. Grumblers: the term used for the emperor’s veteran soldiers, and particularly the men of the Old Guard.
  3. David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company), p.554)
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A PERFECT BATTLE: SMITH SMASHES THE SAVAGE SIKHS AT ALIWAL, 1846

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THE TURNING POINT OF THE FIRST ANGLO-SIKH WAR COMES AT ALIWAL AS SIR HARRY SMITH FIGHTS THE PERFECT BATTLE, AND THE 16th LANCERS RIDE TO GLORY.

Following their humiliation in the First Afghan War (1839 to 1842), British prestige on the subcontinent was badly eroded. In the Punjab the independent and well-armed Sikhs were looking to take advantage of perceived British weakness to expand their kingdom into the Bengal. At the close of 1845 the growing instability of the Sikh government, the bellicose arrogance of the Khalsa (the army of the Sikh Kingdom), and tensions between the Sikhs and the British East India Company led to the outbreak of the First Anglo-Sikh War.

This map of India in 1848 shows the political geography at the time of the Anglo-Sikh Wars. The Sikh kingdom is in the upper left, the northwest portion of the subcontinent. Below is a map of the operational area during the 1845-46 First Anglo-Sikh War.

The Khalsa, the semi-independent professional army of the Sikh Kingdom (arguably the most “modern” and disciplined non-western army in the world at the time) began hostilities on December 10, 1845 by crossing the Sutlej River into British territory. The British forces near the frontier, under the command of General Sir Hugh “Paddy” Gough responded by marching the Army of the Sutlej west towards the river. On the evening of the 18 December the British and Sikhs engaged in the first battle of the war; a confused and savage engagement at Mudki.  Eleven days later a second bloody battle  was fought at Ferozeshah (December 21-22, 1845) in which the combatants, like two punch-drunk prize fighters, stubbornly slugged it out all day. The battle was renewed the following day, with the Sikhs ultimately retreating.

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After this nearly disastrous battle, Gough pulled back and rested his forces through the following weeks. The Khalsa, even more battered by the encounter, withdrew across the Sutlej. They left behind a strong garrison on the British side of the river at Sobraon, a bridgehead for their next invasion.

Encouraged by British inaction the Khalsa commanders dispatched a force a few weeks later, in January 1846, of 7,000 men and 20 guns under Ranjodh Singh Majithia. Their mission was to cross the Sutlej further east of Gough’s position and threaten his line of supply by capturing the British depot at Ludhiana. To thwart this move Gough dispatched a division under the experienced and highly capable Sir Harry Smith.

Smith was a long-serving veteran of Britain’s 19th century wars. He first saw action as a very young Lieutenant in Britain’s invasion of the Rio de La Plata region of Argentina, where he won 220px-sir_harry_smithdistinction. Smith served throughout the Peninsula War in the famed 95th Rifles (the “Green Jackets”), and on the staff of the Light Division. As a 22-year-old Captain he met the love of his life, a beautiful 14-year-old Spanish girl of aristocratic birth, freshly out of the convent; who, along with her older sister, sought the protection of a British officer during the dreadful sack of Badajoz in 1810. Smith soon married Juana María de los Dolores de León, later known as Lady Smith, for whom the town of Ladysmith in South Africa is named. Wherever Harry Smith was later posted, the vivacious Juana was by his side, a true 19th century “power couple”. Smith went on to serve in America during the War of 1812, where he was horrified at the burning of Washington, DC: such wanton vandalism contrasted badly with the humane way Wellington conducted his campaign in southern France in 1814. In 1815 the 28-year-old Smith fought in the Battle of Waterloo, the seminal event for the British army in the 19th century. He went on to serve with distinction in campaigns in South Africa and India, being knighted following the Gwalior Campaign of 1843. Now, in 1846, Smith was given command of a division in Gough’s army, and had won distinction at Mudki and Ferozeshah the previous month.

Smith’s task was to interpose his division between Ranjodh Singh’s advancing forces and Ludhiana. Moving rapidly, Smith force-marching his troops, collecting additional forces from outlying garrisons and detachments along the way. Smith maneuvered around Sikh blocking forces; and despite having to move across open country bisected with stream-beds and scrub, while his enemy had the use of the roads, managed to arrive at Ludhiana in time to protect the depot.

Resting his exhausted command for a day, Smith was reinforced with an additional brigade under Sir Hugh Wheeler (who would die 11 eleven years later defending Cawnpore during the Great Mutiny). Marshaling his force of 12,000 men and 20 guns, Smith moved against Ranjodh’s army. Smith’s command consisted of a division of cavalry, led by Brigadier-General Charles Robert Cureton and composed of two brigades supported by 3 batteries of horse guns; and an infantry division composed of four brigades, supported by 2 field batteries and 2 eight-inch howitzers. Only one regiment of cavalry and three of infantry were British (“Queen’s Regiments“). The bulk of the army was comprised of Indian sepoys and sowars (cavalry troopers) along with two battalions of the vaunted Gurkhas.

The Order of Battle for Smith’s army at Aliwal was as follows:

Commander: General Sir Harry Smith.
Cavalry Division: Brigadier General Cureton –

  • Brigadier Macdowell’s brigade: HM 16th Queen’s Lancers, 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry and 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry.
  • Brigadier Stedman’s brigade: Governor General’s bodyguard, 1st Bengal Light Cavalry, 5th Bengal Light Cavalry and Shekawati Cavalry.
  • Horse Artillery: Major Laurenson, 3 batteries.

Infantry Division:

  • Colonel Hicks 1st Brigade:  HM 31st Foot, 24th and 47th Bengal Native Infantry.
  • Brigadier Wheeler’s 2nd Brigade: HM 50th Foot, 48th Bengal Native Infantry and Sirmoor Battalion of Gurkhas.
  • Brigadier Wilson’s 3rd Brigade: HM 53rd Foot and 30th Bengal Native Infantry.
  • Godby’s 4th Brigade: 36th Bengal Native Infantry and Nasiri Battalion of Gurkhas.
    Artillery: 2 field batteries and 2 eight-inch howitzers. [1]

The Sikhs had taken up a strong position just south of the Sutlej, their 4 mile-long line running along a low ridge and anchored on either flank by the villages of Bhundri (Bhoondree) and Aliwal. Ranjodh Singh had also been reinforced, including days earlier by the arrival of the highly-trained Avitabile Regiment [2], well-drilled in the most modern European military methods by Italian mercenary-adventurer, Paolo Avitabile [3]. The  formidable Sikh force awaiting Smith at Aliwal now numbered 20,000 men and 70 guns.

Sir Harry began his advance upon the Sikh position at daybreak on the 28th of January, 1846. His cavalry led the approach, in contiguous columns of regimental squadrons closely supported by their horse artillery in the intervals. The infantry followed at some distance, also in contiguous columns of brigades with the foot artillery in the intervals. The British advanced over the six intervening miles, reaching the battlefield at 10 am; where the Khalsa was prepared and awaiting them. Throughout the march the troops maintained their formations and arrived in surprisingly good order.

Smith deployed his forces, while riding closer to the Sikh position with his staff for a personal reconnoiter. From a rooftop in a tiny hamlet between the opposing lines, he observed the enemy positions. Smith noted that though the river, running behind and parallel to their line, protected the Sikh rear from direct attack; it also cramped their rear area, preventing the Sikh command from posting reserves behind their line or moving forces to reinforce endangered sections. In the event they were forced to give ground or make a general retreat, the river might prove a deadly obstacle.

Smith formed his army with his infantry in line and his cavalry echeloned back on either flank and to the rear of the infantry. His artillery was distributed in batteries across his front. To the so drums beating and bugles calling-out, the well-ordered lines of British and sepoy regiments began their advance.

The battle formally commenced with the Sikh batteries opening fire at 600 yards.

There was no dust, the sun shone brightly. These maneuvers were performed with the celerity and precision of the most correct field day. The glistening of the bayonets and swords of this order of battle was most imposing; and the line advanced. Scarcely had it moved 150 yards, when, at ten o’clock, the enemy opened a fierce cannonade from his whole line.[4]

Though under fire, Smith briefly halted his line to decide the best course of action, now that he could see the enemy dispositions more clearly. He resolved that the key to unraveling the enemy position was to strike the enemy’s left at Aliwal, and then to roll-up their entire line from left-to-right.

As they drew closer to the enemy, Smith ordered his right-most brigades, that of Hicks 300px-bataille_de_mudki_1-323x220and Godby (the latter of these echeloned behind the right flank) to sweep to the right and assault Aliwal village. With bayonets glistening in the bright morning sun the second-line regiments deployed and advanced: one British (HMs 31st Foot), three Bengali, and a battalion of the fearsome Gurkhas. This detachment swept forward, conducting a “rapid and noble charge” [5]. Storming into the village, they overpowered and quickly drove out the garrison: in the 19th century, no fighting man in the world was more adept with the bayonet than the British “Tommy”, or more deadly at close-quarters than their Gurkha’s; the latter wielding their terrifying kukris. Along with the village the British captured two heavy (large-caliber) guns.

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In answer to this reverse on his left flank, Ranjodh Singh ordered the Sikh cavalry massed on the high ground to the east of the village to attempt to outflank Smith’s right. Smith countered this move by ordering Cureton from the reserve to deploy half of his cavalry to support the right. Cureton led Stedman’s brigade of cavalry, reinforced with a squadron of the 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry, to the east of Aliwal village, where the Sikh sowars (cavalry troopers) were deploying.  Cureton’s squadrons  charged these with alacrity and skill, breaking-up and scattering the Sikh cavalry before them and earning great praise from Smith in the after-action dispatches.

With his right triumphant and secure, Smith ordered a general advance; with the force in captured Aliwal pressuring the now exposed Sikh left. The Sikh center was deployed on a slight ridge, behind a nullah (dry stream bed) and supported by a myriad of guns. Smith, in his dispatch to Gough after the battle, described this stage of the battle, in which the Sikh left and center were driven back, thus:

“While these operations were going on upon the right, and the enemy’s left flank was thus driven back, I observed the brigade under Brigadier Wheeler (center right), an officer in whom I have the greatest confidence, charging and carrying guns and everything before it; again connecting his line, and moving on, in a manner which ably displayed the coolness of the Brigadier and the gallantry of his irresistible brigade (Her Majesty’s 50th Foot, the 48th Native Infantry, and the Sirmoor battalion); although the loss was, I regret to say, severe in the Queen’s 50th.” [6]

It should be pointed out that while British (“Her Majesties”) regiments in any Indian battle were in the minority, with most of their armies being composed largely of sepoys led by British (East India Company) officers; the casualties among British regiments tended to be higher. This is best explained in that the British tended to act as the vanguard and spearheaded most assaults; setting the all-important example of valor that inspired the Indian regiments.

In the face of the British general advance and the specific danger to his left, Ranjodh Singh now attempted to wheel back and reform his line, anchoring on the village of Bhundri at the far right of his line. At the same time, a force of Sikh cavalry swept out and deployed into the plain beyond Bhundri to threaten the British left flank.

Smith’s cavalry commander Cureton responded by ordering Bere’s squadron of the 16th “The Queen’s” Lancers and the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry to drive this force back. The 16th, alone of British light cavalry regiments, wore red instead of blue tunics, along with the lancer’s jaunty Polish tschapka; the helmet made famous by Napoleon’s Polish Lancers. For this reason the 16th was known as “The Scarlet’s“. Bere’s lancers charged the Sikh horsemen with great violence, breaking and driving them back to the bank of the Sutlej. By contrast, the 3rd Bengali failed to press home their attack, leaving the 16th to do the lion’s share of the labor.

Returning from their successful charge, Bere’s squadron encountered the European-trained Avatabile Regiment, which formed “square” to receive cavalry. (According to Sikh practice, this was actually either a triangle or trapezoidal formation, rather than a square.) Rather than veer off the squadron charged home, in spite of receiving a devastating volley, and in a notable feat of arms broke through the Sikh square. After a fierce and bloody minute of melee, the lancers rode out the other side.

This was remarkable, in that conventional tactics of the day held that a square formation was nearly impervious to cavalry assault, “rock” to the cavalry’s “scissors”. One explanation for the success of this feat was the 16th had been newly resupplied with fresh horses. The regiment had not had time to properly train their mounts for battle before the campaign. Standard training involved teaching the horse to veer-off when charging a square. But these new mounts had not been so (properly) trained. Spurred-on by their riders, the 16th’s gallant mounts plowed into and through the ordered ranks of the Sikh infantry.

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The second squadron of the left flank of the 16th Lancers, standing in reserve, now charged further battalions of the Avatabile Regiment, breaking these up as well. Two horse artillery guns, acting in support of the wing, then unlimbered and opened fire on the remains of the regiment, completing its ruin.

Meanwhile, the right-wing of the 16th, commanded by Major J. Rowland Smyth, charged another battalion of Sikh infantry and a battery of guns. Smyth began this attack with three rousing cheers for the Queen. The charge began, and was led by a big Sergeant named Harry Newsome. As they approached the Sikh triangular “square”, bristling with baynets, swords and shields, Smith spurred his mount on, shouting back to his comrades, “Hullo boys, here goes for death or a commission!”  Newsome’s mount leaped over the first, kneeling rank of Sikh infantry, and leaning from the saddle snatched an enemy standard.  But rushed from all sides he was killed, suffering 19 bayonet wounds. But his sacrifice did not go for naught: it is reported that the squadron was aided in breaking into the Sikh square behind him because Newsome’s horse was so fiery that it went straight through the Sikh infantry, throwing their ranks into hopeless disarray in the process.

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Smith noted in his memoir that “The enemy fought with much resolution; they maintained frequent encounters with our cavalry hand to hand. In one charge, upon infantry, of H.M.’s 16th Lancers, they threw away their muskets and came on with their swords and targets against the lance.” Even though trained well with musket and bayonet, the Khalsa always showed a predilection to throw these aside and resort to their traditional weapon, the “Kirpan” (a razor-sharp tulwar) and targe; not unlike 18th century Scottish highlanders! These Sikh tulwar’s inflicted truly horrific wounds, severing limbs and heads and hamstringing cavalry mounts.

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In this charge many of the soldiers and officers became casualties; the 16th sustaining some 144 casualties (out of 300 men deployed). Major Smyth, who had charged through the Sikh’s with his squadrons, received a bayonet thrust in the back below the waist, and the bayonet had broken-off in the wound. Despite this, Smyth had remained in the saddle and even led his troopers charge back through the other side of the enemy formation. Smyth refused medical attention until all of his wounded had first been attended to. The Major recovered and returned to his regiment six weeks later; and lived to a ripe old age.

Harry Smith met the returning squadrons and called out, “Well done 16th”! In all, the lancers had beaten and scattered near ten-times their number. Though later eclipsed in the public perception by the (disastrous) Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, for years after British school boys gloried in the heroic charge of the 16th Lancers at Aliwal.

Meanwhile, Smith ordered the cavalry from his right-wing to join the survivors of the 16th on his left; and the whole cavalry force delivered a last devastating charge, capturing the village of Bhundri and driving the garrison to the river bank.

His Majesty’s 53rd Foot now came up behind the cavalry and cleared Bhundri of the remaining determined pockets of Sikh defenders.

While this cavalry fight was raging on the Smith’s left flank, the British and Bengali infantry regiments all along the center, supported by artillery, pressed the Sikhs back to the Sutlej with musketry and bayonet. As the Khalsa regiments took to the fords to escape across the river, a battery of 9 Sikh guns unlimbered on the river bank and attempted to cover their retreat. It succeeded in firing only one salvos before being overrun with bayonet by the rapidly pursuing British and Bengali troops. Ranjodh Singh attempted to bring some of his guns back across the river, but only two reached the far bank, two more being abandoned in the stream and a further two sunk irretrievably in quicksand.

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Bengal Horse Artillery in action

On the far bank Ranjodh Singh formed a new line; but these were quickly dispersed when Smith brought up artillery.

AFTERMATH

The battle ended with a complete British victory. It turned the tide of the war, giving the initiative back to the British. It also broke the fearful spell the Sikh legend of ferocity had cast upon the minds of the British sepoys and sowars. At Moodkee and Ferozeshah the Bengali troops had shown a marked reluctance to engage with the feared Khalsa. Aliwal changed this, the Bengalis in subsequent battles attacking the Sikhs with great élan.

Smith’s army suffered 589 casualties. The casualties were spread evenly through all the units, provoking the admiration of the Duke of Wellington for Smith’s use of combined arms in his tactics. The 16th Lancers were an exception, suffering a disproportionate 50% casualties; the high price of glory. The Sikhs admitted to 3,000 killed and lost all their 67 guns, camp and baggage. The actual toll may have been somewhat higher.

An elated Smith described it as “one of the most glorious victories ever achieved in India”. For his service and this victory, he was raised by a grateful monarch and Parliament to the Peerage, given the title “Baron of Aliwal”.

Thirteen days later, Gough would bring the Sikhs to battle at bloody Sobraon, the decisive battle of the First Anglo-Sikh War.  Smith rejoined his commander-in-chief in time to lead his division in that triumphal engagement, which ended the first war between the British in India and their bellicose Sikh neighbors. Later that year, Smith was promoted to Major General for his services to the Queen and Empire.

A Second Sikh War would break out a few years later, but Sir Harry Smith (his lady by his side) was by then in Africa, appointed in 1847 Governor of the Cape Colony. There he led successful engagements against both the Boers and the  Xhosa tribesmen. But the crown jewel in his exemplary military career was Aliwal, the perfect example of a well-conducted  battle by an exceptional officer.

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Notes:

  1. The exact composition of Smith’s army are as follows:

British Forces:

  • HM 16th Queen’s Light Dragoons (Lancers). This was one of the only cavalry regiments in the British army to wear scarlet tunics.
  • HM 31st Foot (East Surrey Regiment)
  • HM 50th Foot (later the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment)
  • HM 53rd Foot (later the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry)

Indian Forces (Army of the Bengal):

  • Governor General’s Bodyguard
  • 1st Native Cavalry
  • 3rd Bengal Native Cavalry
  • 5th Bengal Native Cavalry
  • 4th Irregular Cavalry
  • Shekawati Cavalry
  • 3 Batteries of Horse Artillery
  • 2 Field Batteries of Artillery
  • 24th Bengal Native Infantry
  • 36th Bengal Native Infantry
  • 47th Bengal Native Infantry
  • 48th Bengal Native Infantry
  • Nasiri Gurkha Battalion
  • Sirmoor Gurkha Battalion

2. In his memoir Harry Smith calls this reinforcement Avitabile’s “Corps”, 4,000 strong, with 12 guns and a strong force of cavalry.

3. Avitabile was the Sikh appointed governor of the Peshawar, and as such controlled access to the Khyber Pass for the British the First Afghan War. Following Elphinstone’s disastrous retreat from Kabul and the destruction of his army in the passes, Avitabile rendered the British both financial and logistical aid; allowing Pollock’s army to return and avenge Elphinstone’s defeat. He departed Sikh service on the eve of the First Anglo-Sikh War, in 1843, returning with a vast fortune to Naples.

4. Smith,  Sir Henry (Harry) George Wakelyn: The autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith, baronet of Aliwal on the Sutlej, G.C.B.; London: J. Murray, 1903; ch. 45

5. ibid

6. ibid

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ZULU: DEATH AND REDEMPTION IN THE AFRICAN SUN!

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

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

Frere now set his sights on the Zulu Kingdom. Ambitions aside, the existence of an independent and highly-warlike Zulu state sharing several hundred miles of open border with British territory was an unstable and ultimately intolerable situation for the colonial government in the Cape.

Founded by the military savant Shaka in the first decades of the 19th century, the Zulus were a people as devoted to and organized for war as were the Romans or the Spartans of old. Every Zulu male belonged to one of the regiments (amabutho) of the 35,000 strong Zulu Army (impi). These were settled across the land in regimental kraals (villages), ready to be called-up as needed. Young Zulu men were forbidden to marry until they had “washed their spears” in the blood of an enemy. Therefore the Zulus were a people ever at war with their neighbors. Such a bellicose nation dwelling on the defenseless border of their Natal and Transvaal territories was in impossible security risk for the British government.

CHELMSFORD INVADES

The British army that invaded Zululand consisted of 7,800 men, divided into 3 columns. Colonel (later Field Marshal) Sir Evelyn Wood of the 90th Light Infantry marched one column into the North of Zululand as a diversion. Colonel Sir Charles Pearson of the 3rd Foot (The Buffs) attacked from the southeast, nearest the coast. The main thrust, nearly 4,000 strong, was to be delivered by the “Center Column”, personally led by the British commander-in-chief Sir Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford. This force was comprised of the 24th Regiment of Foot (2nd Warwickshire Regiment*), a squadron of the Imperial Mounted Infantry and of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles,and units of the Natal Native Infantry, Natal irregular horse and Royal Artillery.

After crossing the Buffalo River at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, Chelmsford’s column made slow progress. Nine days into the invasion the Center Column had pushed just 10 miles into Zululand; where on the 20th they reached the distinctive mound of Isandlwana (the “Crouching Lion”). There Chelmsford made camp on the gentle slopes. Contrary to his own general instructions to all columns on the eve of the invasion, Chelmsford failed to order even elementary defenses around the camp. Instead, he sent out scouts to look for the Zulu army he suspected must be coming, and waited.

The Zulus were, indeed, coming.

Hearing of the British incursions into his realm, King Cetshwayo had dispatched an army of some 24,000 warriors, commanded by two Zulu royal princes (inDunas). His command to them was simple: “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers. Undetected by Chelmsford’s scouts, the Zulus were closing in on Center Column at Isandlwana.

On the 18th, 4,000 warriors were detached from the main-body to attack Pearson’s column to the southeast. The remaining 20,000 moved closer to Chelmsford’s force.

On January 21, 1879, a British mounted detachment contacted a Zulu force to the east. Thinking this was the main-body of the Zulu army, Lord Chelmsford made the decision to set out at dawn the following day in pursuit, with the intent of finding the Zulus and bringing them to battle. Little did he know that this was the detached force moving east to attack Pearson’s column; and that the main Zulu army was moving on his base camp at Isandlwana.

The battlefield at Isandlwana. It was here, on the gentle slopes below the rock formation called “The Crouching Lion” (center-left in the picture) that the British were camped and fought their desperate battle. The white stones scattered along the slope are memorial markers, denoting places on the field where fell the British defenders.

At dawn on the 22nd of January, Chelmsford left the camp at Isandlwana, taking with him the 2nd Battalion of the 24th, along with the Mounted Rifles and several guns. To defend his camp and his supplies, he left at Isandlwana approximately 1,400 men, including the 1st Battalion of the 24th and a detached company of the 2nd Battalion, along with a battery of field guns and an engineer company, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine.

At 11 AM a troop of Mounted Rifles, led by Lt. Charles Raw, scouting to the north, spotted a few Zulu boys running away. Pursuing, they came to a valley beyond and found, standing to arms, the 20,000 warriors of the Zulu army!

Their presence detected, the Zulu’s immediately began a rapid advance on Isandlwana, pursuing Raw’s men. A battalion of Natal Native horse led by Lt.Colonel Anthony William Durnford rode out to aid Raw and harass the advancing Zulus; which Pulleine and he still mistakenly judged to be moving against Chelmsford’s rear, rather than their own position. But Durnford  encountered the rapidly advancing left “horn” of the Zulu impi, some 6,000 strong, and his force began a fighting retreat back toward their camp with the Zulus hot on their heels.

The Zulus were known for their ability to advance at a miles-chewing, loping run. Their endurance was such that they could maintain this pace for hours, eventually overtaking horsemen whose mounts could not sustain such a sustained pace. Durnford and his men succeeded in staying ahead of the pursuing Zulus, and arriving on the right of the hastily-forming British line, formed firing line among the other native levies.

TACTICS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

The Zulu attacked the British position at Isandlwana in their traditional “Horns of the Buffalo” formation: a center (the head) to fix the enemy, two wings (the horns) to envelope him, and a reserve (the loins) to reinforce where necessary.

 

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As the diagram above shows, when contact was made with the enemy the head and horns advanced to meet him. In the second phase, the head gave way, luring the enemy forward. Its warriors reinforced the horns and formed the joints between these and the loins; who now engaged the enemy frontally. In the final phase, the horns envelope the enemy, who is now encircled and destroyed. These were very sophisticated tactics for a “tribal” army. By such methods Shaka had created the finest and most lethal native army in Africa.

Scene from 1986’s “Shaka Zulu”; depicting the young Shaka training his first cadre of followers in the new Zulu tactics.

As the Zulu impi neared the British camp, Paulleine saw first the right horn of the Zulu formation coming over a hill to his left. Estimating this force at 4,000 strong, and not yet seeing the rest of the oncoming Zulu’s, he sent word to Chelmsford (received by the general between 9am and 10am) that this force might be attempting to get into his rear. To prevent this, Paulliene sent out all companies of the 24th into extended firing line ahead of the camp; in effort to pin and engage the Zulus at distance with firepower.

The British infantryman in 1879 carried the breach-loading Martini-Henry rifle. An 8lbs, 49 inch weapon, it was a heavy caliber (.450) rifle, capable of delivering deadly and sustained fire out to 1,800 yards. If the enemy came to close quarters, it sported a socket-type spike bayonet, 20.4 inches in length. The Martini-Henry was the first non-muzzle loading weapon of the British army, and a trained soldier could fire off a round every 6 seconds. Recently brought into service, the British military establishment had very high expectations concerning its effectiveness.

“I am inclined to think that the first experience with the Martin-Henry’s will be such a surprise for the Zulus, that they will not be formidable after the first effort.”

The Zulus themselves despised firearms. Long acquainted with the muzzle-loading muskets of the whites, the Zulu were unimpressed with their lack of accuracy and relative slow rate of fire. The ethos of their warrior culture was philosophically at odds with firearms in any case: “The generality of Zulu warriors, however, would not have firearms – the arms of a coward, as they said, for they enable the poltroon to kill the brave without awaiting his attack”[1]. A sentiment right out of the pages of Homer; but dangerously out of date in the last quarter of the 19th century. Nevertheless, the Zulus were brave and capable proponents of this ancient military philosophy.

The primary weapon-system of the Zulu warrior was the iklwa (the shorter, heavier Zulu version of the Bantu light thrusting/throwing spear, the assegai) and a large oval shield made of cowhide. The tactics introduced by Shaka called for the Zulus to close with their enemy as rapidly as possible; and using their shield to hook and pull the enemy’s shield out of the way, to then thrust at the now-exposed armpit or left side of their opponent. While the British rifle-and-bayonet put them at a distinct disadvantage; the speed with which they were able to close the distance with the British would come as a shock to Chelmsford’s riflemen; and both sides learned to respect the tactics of the other, and adopted measures to deal with them. For their part, Zulus learned to lay low, and only rush forward where terrain masked the fire of British rifles. The British soon discovered that the best way of dealing with the rapid rush of Zulu impi lay in erecting fortified posts or fighting from behind barriers that slowed or stopped the Zulu advance, giving the riflemen time to mow them down.

But in this first encounter on January 22, 1879, below the looming rock formation of Isandlwana, neither side understood clearly the challenges their opponents offered. The Zulus were rushing headlong into the rapid fire of British riflemen, who could knock a warrior down at a thousand yards. While Paulliene’s red-coated companies moving forward into extended lines in open terrain had no reason to suppose that they could not keep the fast-moving Zulu masses at bay with aimed fire at that distance.

Both sides were in for a shock.


FOR WANT OF A SCREWDRIVER

As the morning drew on, the “head” and right “horn” of the Zulu army engaged the British defenders beneath the “Crouching Lion”. The fire from the red-coated British soldiers was so hot that for the first two hours the Zulus were indeed pinned down, their warriors forced to lie flat on their stomachs beneath the fusillade of hot lead. But the left horn of the Zulu formation was working its way around the British right, forcing Paulliene to pull his line back closer to the camp. Here, the 2 guns left in the camp joined the fire. Morale amongst the British remained high, as the Zulu advance seemed halted.

 

However, “Murphy” intervened at this crucial moment; for it is an immutable law that whatever can go wrong will, and at the worst possible moment. In this case, it was the lack of a screwdriver (and an overly-officious, bureaucratic officer) that doomed the defenders of Isandlwana.

As ammunition supplies on the firing line began to run low (each soldier carried only 60 rounds in his ammunition pouch), runners were sent back from the platoons on the firing line; to the supply wagons further up the slope, at the back of the camp.

There, they found utter confusion.

Thousands of extra rounds of rifle ammunition were contained in heavy wooden boxes  stored on the supply wagons. These had been sealed for transport with strong iron screws, rather than simple nails. Somehow, incredible as it seems in retrospect, the Quartermaster’s Corp had failed to bring the screwdrivers necessary to open these crates and issue the desperately needed ammunition.

Modern reenactors at Isandlwana: here a British rifle squad of the 24th Regiment of Foot fire Martini-Henry rifles. Firing lines such as this, drawn up in extended line across the slopes, succeeded for a time in pinning down the masses of the Zulu impi

When the runners came for ammunition resupply, they found frantic Quartermaster’s assistants desperately trying to break open these boxes. The situation was made worse by the bureaucratic fussiness of the Battalion Quartermaster, who demanded that the runners return to their companies on the line and obtain written authorization from their commanding officers for any ammunition distribution from his stores! The boxes were eventually broken open with rifle butts, but this along with the distance from the supply wagons in the camp to the firing line further down the slopes, delayed the troops getting vitally needed replenishment.

While this theater-of-the-absurd played out at the supply wagons, the companies on the firing line began to run low on ammunition. As they perceived a lessening in the intensity of the fire the Zulu warriors rose and surged forward. While the “head” kept the British line occupied before the camp, the left and right horns rushed to either side, sweeping against the British flanks.

Paulliene had entrusted the flanks to Native Natal irregulars, Africans trained-and-organized in European fashion. These were recruited mostly from men of the Xhosa tribe, whose fathers and grandfathers had been victims of Zulu aggression before becoming subjects of the British Cape Colony. They had grown-up on tales of Zulu battle prowess, and their fear of the Zulu went to the morrow of their bones. As the Zulu impi now bore down upon them most broke and ran, deserting their positions in panicked flight. Durnford, fighting among his command, was cut down, his body later found lying near a wagon, surrounded by the bodies of his men.

With his flanks collapsing and his main line low on ammunition, Paulliene’s position rapidly deteriorated. With the Zulus swarming around their flanks and into their rear, the men of the 24th hastily formed squad, platoon and company squares wherever they could. The fighting was desperate and ferocious, bayonet against raw-hide shield and iklwa stabbing spear. The men of the 24th were brave and well trained. They stood firmly, giving as good as they got. But numbers soon told, as islands of red-coated soldiers were swarmed over by the Zulu wave.

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Images of the desperate last minutes at Isandlwana. The bottom from “Zulu Dawn” (1979)

As his died around him, the unfortunate Pulleine gave orders to 36 year old Lieutenant Teignmouth Melville to flee with the Queen’s Colors (the country’s national flag trimmed with gold fabric, and with the regiment’s insignia placed in the center), to prevent its capture. Retiring to his tent, Pulleine sat down to compose a letter, possibly to his family, or perhaps to sketch a report of the defeat for Chelmsford. Before he could finish, a Zulu warrior broke into the tent. Pulleine lifted his service revolver, and firing wounded the warrior in the neck but was himself fatally stabbed. He died having done little wrong by the conventions of the day. But he fell victim (as did his command) to a chain of misjudgments and the mistakes of others. It is worth noting that in battle what often leads to disaster is not what you don’t know: it is what you think you know, but which proves incorrect.

Melvill with the Queen’s Colors and another Lieutenant, Nevill Coghill, did temporarily escape the slaughter on horseback. Riding hard for the river, they were closely pursued by Zulus. There they were caught while attempting to cross, and both were killed[2]. The Colors washed down river, to be retrieved ten days later.

At around 2:29 that afternoon, a solar eclipse occurred, appropriately darkening the stricken field. Isandlwana was over, and 1,300 British and native soldiers lay slain on the field. The 1st Battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot had ceased to exist. The Zulus, as was their custome, slit open the bellies of all the fallen; to allow the souls of the dead, which they believed dwelt within a man’s belly, to be freed to go on to the after-world rather than to remain and haunt the battlefield.

This was the grisly site that greeted Chelmsford when in the late afternoon he returned to Isandlwana: his camp looted and destroyed, the disemboweled bodies of the men he’d left there scattered about the slopes. Their corpses lay in platoon and company sized clusters, where they had fallen, fighting to the end. At the supply wagons, bodies were found of soldiers stabbed in the back, killed while trying to open the desperately needed ammunition crates.

It was the worst defeat suffered by the British Army at the hands of native warriors since Elphinstone’s disastrous retreat from Kabul during the First Afghan War, more than thirty years before.

Opening from the excellent “Zulu” (1964)

 

REDEMTION AT RORKE’S DRIFT

Before crossing the Buffalo River into Zululand, Chelmsford had established a supply depot at the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. This depot was guarded by some 140 men of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th, including men left there at the makeshift hospital who were too sick to continue the march with the main column. They were commanded by two Lieutenants: John Chard, an Engineer officer there to build a bridge across the river, and Gonville Bromhead, an aristocratic professional who was at the time nearly deaf! These two untried officers with a scratch force of red-coated soldiers would soon be engaged in one of Britain’s most celebrated battles.

By 3 pm word reached Rorke’s Drift of the unfolding disaster at Isandlwana, and that Zulu forces were likely on their way to finish off the garrison. Chard, the senior of the two officers, assumed command and quickly set about fortifying the otherwise defenseless position. Working quickly, a defensive perimeter and interior redoubts were constructed out of mealie bags, supply crates, and overturned wagons. This perimeter incorporated the storehouse, the hospital, and a stout stone kraal. The buildings were made defensible as well, with loopholes (firing holes) knocked through the external walls and the external doors barricaded with furniture.

The approaching Zulu force of between 3,000-4,000 warriors was comprised of married men in their 30s and 40s, along with an ibutho of young unmarried men. None had engaged during the fighting at Isandlwana: having been assigned to the “loins” or reserve of the Zulu formation at Isandlwana, they were ordered to sweep around the British left flank. The Zulus reached Rorke’s Drift at 4:30 pm, having fast-marched some 20 miles from the morning encampment they had left around 8 am. For the next 11 hours they would engage the British in relentless assaults; in all a testament to the determination, stamina, and physical endurance of the Zulu warriors.

All the rest of that afternoon of January 22nd the Zulus launched probes and assaults against various points in the British position, supported by rifle fire from the heights above by warriors armed Martini-Henrys taken from off of the dead at Isandlwana. Most of their attacks were directed against the northern side of the defenses, while rifle fire was directed against the defenders of the south wall.

Each assault was beaten back. Several penetrated into the perimeter, only to be met with flying squads from the reserve, meeting them with rifle fire and bayonet. With no place to run the British defenders fought with desperate courage and iron determination. Chard and Bromhead provided exemplary leadership, as did the cadre of regimental NCOs. (Both officers were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for valor.)

The nature of the defenses was such that the Zulus were never able to use their numbers to good effect, and swarm the defenders as they had at Isandlwana. And unlike the earlier, larger battle, here the British had a fortified position and more than sufficient ammunition readily available.

The Zulus broke into the burning hospital building at-or-around 6 pm; where a fierce fight developed beneath the blazing thatch roof. Those patients able to stand kept the Zulus at bay, while others broke holes through interior walls to allow evacuation. The heroic actions of two privates, Henry Hook and John Williams during this most desperate portion of the battle earned both of these soldiers the Victoria Cross.

The battle raged throughout the night, coming to an end around 2 am. For the next two hours, until 4 am, the British were subject to rifle fire from the Zulus in the hills above their position; using the light from the burning hospital building to illuminate their targets.

As dawn brightened the eastern sky, the defenders at Rorke’s Drift found that the Zulus had withdrawn. Parties were sent out to scout, collect weapons, and (when found) “finish off” the Zulu wounded. These activities were interrupted, and British given a great scare, when around 7 am the Zulus suddenly reappeared in force on the crest of the hills above. The exhausted British rushed to man their positions once again, expecting another assault.

Riflemen defending an interior redoubt against Zulu assault.

But no attack materialized. After a brief time, the Zulus left; this time for good.[3]

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was over.

The British lost a mere 17 dead; though virtually every man in the command had some kind of wound. All were exhausted, having fought for the better part of ten hours, and were running low on ammunition: of 20,000 rounds in reserve at the mission, only 900 remained; the riflemen expending an astonishing 19,000 rounds in their successful effort to repel the Zulu attackers.

The number of Zulu dead is disputed. The official count was 351 men. But other witnesses put the dead (including those wounded Zulu “put out of their misery”) at as high as 600. The discrepancy in casualties between the British and their Zulu attackers is dramatic.

The heroism of the defenders resulted in the award of 11 Victoria Crosses for valor; the most ever received by one regiment in a single action. Another four Distinguished Conduct Medals were also awarded. Oddly, Lord Chelmsford was critical of the number of awards given to veterans of the Rorke’s Drift defense. “It is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke’s Drift, could not bolt and so fought like rats for their lives, which they could not otherwise save”. A sour reflection from a commander whose decisions had led to one Britain’s greatest defeats at the hands of native warriors, commenting upon men who had given their country its only reason to celebrate Chelmsford’s otherwise disastrous invasion of Zululand.

The war would go on. Though forced to a temporary retreat out of Zululand, the British would be resupplied and reinforced by May of that year, and return to ultimately defeat the Zulus and annex their kingdom. For his part in initiating the Zulu War and later laying the ground-work for the First Boer War, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was recalled and cashiered the following year (1880).

In May 1879 Chelmsford’s reinforced army returned to Isandlwana and buried the skeletal remains of the fallen. 

But on January 22, 1879, the British suffered both a humiliating and costly defeat; and a heroic and redeeming victory.

LESSONS LEARNED

As with any battle and campaign, there are lessons to be learned.

At Isandlwana, Chelmsford made the fatal error of dividing his forces in the face of the enemy. Without proper reconnaissance and unaware of the enemy’s dispositions or precise intentions, he took half of his command on “wild goose chase” away from his camp on the morning of the 22nd. He left a camp well-garrisoned. But contrary to his own orders given at the start of the invasion, he utterly failed to erect any kind of field works or other defenses for his camp. All of these mistakes can be accounted for by the utter hubris of both Chelmsford and the British authorities in general who underestimated their opponent and overestimated their own capabilities.

It is striking that this disaster at the hands of native forces came just 3 years on the heels of a similar defeat and for many of the same reasons in North America: Custer’s defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Zulus, by contrast, knew exactly where their enemies lay, and kept their forces concentrated. Using terrain and rapid movement to their advantage, they achieved strategic surprise by arriving within strike distance of the British camp undetected. When discovered by a British mounted detachment, they immediately went over to a well-coordinated and rapid assault, achieving tactical surprise as well.

All of these mistakes by the British and achievements by the Zulus might still have been negated by the superior firepower of the British riflemen, had not the incomprehensibly stupid lack of proper tools by the commissariat and the British drawing up their battle line so far down-slope from the their supply wagons, deprived the British soldiers of available ammunition resupply during the crises of the battle.

At Rorke’s Drift different lessons can be gleaned.

The first, one that the British would learn from and employ in their successful advance into Zululand later that year, was that Zulu mobility and mass was best met from behind a fortified position or good defensive terrain. That facing an enemy who could maneuver nearly as rapidly as cavalry in open ground was dicey at best.

The second was that given proper supply of ammunition, the steady fire of British riflemen armed with the Martini-Henry breach-loading rifle could deliver sufficient fire to devastate massed enemy warriors. If given time to do so.

For posterity, Rorke’s Drift has given a lesson in the force-multiplier effect of desperation. Having no way of retreating or surrendering, the British were forced to fight with a much greater determination and courage than is normally found in even the best of fighting men facing hopeless odds. With a secure position, a plenitude of supplies, and confidence in both themselves and their officers, the men of the 24th forever secured their place in the annals of British arms.

Scene from the terrific 1964 film, “Zulu”; depicting (erroneously) the final Zulu attack at dawn the 23rd. A great scene, and typical of what happened throughout the day; in truth the fighting ended at 2am the 23rd with the Zulu withdrawing.

 

NOTES

* The regiment would be designated as “The South Wales Borderers” in 1881.

  1. Bourquin, S. Military History Journal, V.4, No.4, The Zulu Military Organization, South African Military History Society, Dec. 1978.
  2. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross for this doomed attempt to save the colors. However, their action in leaving the battle did not go uncriticized. The premiere soldier of the day, General Sir Garnet Wolseley, commented: “I don’t like the idea of officers escaping on horseback when their men on foot are being killed.” In this Wolseley was, in my opinion, entirely correct.
  3. In the 1964 film “Zulu”, the Zulus return to salute the British for their bravery. But this is mere speculation on the part of the filmmaker.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR, PART TWELVE: ARTHUR’S LINDSEY CAMPAIGN

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

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

But who was Arthur?

Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

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

THE LINDSEY CAMPAIGN

The earliest author from which we have any details on Arthur’s military career is Nennius; a 9th century Welsh monk. He states that Arthur fought twelve battles against his enemies before the climatic engagement at Mount Badon (Mons Badonicus). It is important to keep in mind that Nennius wrote three centuries after the events he purports to chronicle. He may have had available to him sources lost to us today; so shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Nor should we accept his account without skepticism. That said, as it is our purpose here to build a “working theory” on who Arthur may have been, and using what sources and artifacts that are left us we can take Nennius as a road map, however sketchy. We can attempt to place the location of his twelve battles, and so trace Arthur’s career and rise to supreme power amongst the Celtic kings of Britain.

We have already discussed the first of these twelve battles, the battle at the River Glein, in our last installment. The year is 507[1], and Arthur the Dux Bellorum (war leader) of Britain and his band of mounted Combrogi (“fellow-countrymen”, comrades-in-arms) range across Britain, responding to foreign threats and incursions. In this year they have come to Lindsey and defeated a band of Angle pirates at the mouth of the Glein. This was the first of Nennius’ twelve battles.

In his Historia Brittonum, Nennius writes that Arthur’s “second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis...”

1463965Roman Lindum (Lincoln), viewed from the southside of the Witham (Dubglas?) River

Linnius is most likely Lindsey, the area around Lincoln (then Roman Lindum). On the fringe of the Anglo-Saxon zone of occupation, this Roman city was largely deserted by the first decade of the Sixth Century. It may have still contained a Romano-British garrison, or even been the seat of an independent British chieftain. In the last installment we discussed the possibility that Lindum was an outpost of the British kingdom centered on York (Eburacum). This may have been the North Yorkshire kingdom of Elmet, or a minor petty-kingdom (or city-state) which scholars sometimes refer to as Ebrauc (or Cair Ebrauc). Alternately, it may have been incorporated into an early Anglo-Saxon petty kingdom in Lindsey.

But then what modern river can we identify as the “Dubglas” (which translates as “Black Water”) River, where Arthur’s battles were fought? Lincolnshire has many small muddy rivers, flowing off the peet moors of the Midlands into the Wash or directly into the North Sea. Some have identified the Trent as the possible candidate; and Arthur’s presence here might have been in response to an Angle incursion deep into the region, which threatened to cut the main road between the northern and southern British kingdoms.

In my opinion, though, the most likely candidate is another of the great rivers of Britain: the Witham. This flows in a great curve through Lindsey, past Lindum and then bending southeast, flowing eventually into The Wash. Its dark flow could easily be described as the “black water”.

1463972.jpgThe Withan River: could this be the Black Water?

It is no coincidence that many of Arthur’s battles take place at rivers. Rivers are naturally defensible obstacles, often forming the borders between peoples. Many of the battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons over the next century were fought at the fords of such boundary-rivers. The Angle settlements in Lindsey were likely near the coast, and the Witham/Dubglas may have separated them from a British outpost at Lindum. Another possible scenario is that the Angles of Lindsey decided to eliminate this British outpost, and Arthur came to break this siege.

Another question arises: Arthur fights his next four battles along the “Dubglas”. Why so many? It must be remembered that Nennius gives no time-frame for these next four battles. Were they fought in rapid succession; or over a period of years?

While we can never know for certain that the puzzle pieces, however well fitted, are correct a working hypothesis presents itself:

Once the thriving capital of the Roman province of Flavia Caesariensis, by the dawn of the 6th century Lindum had long been on the frontier-zone, and may have been deserted by its civilian populace. But its location was strategic, as two major Roman roads met here: Ermine Street, the main north-south artery in the east, connecting Londinium to Eburacum (York) and beyond to the foot of the Highlands; and the Fosse Way, the main cross-island highway connects Lindum and the Kingdom of Elmet with Arthur’s own home kingdom of Dumnonia[2].

It is very likely that the ruler of Elmet (who Castleden identifies as Gurgust Lethum, descendent of Cole Hen, born 490 AD; though others identify this monarch as already reigning in the 490s) maintained a beleaguered garrison here.

1463975Roman Britain, at the end of the Roman occupation. Though the adminstrative divisions of the island imposed by the Romans had disappeared by the 6th century, replaced by Sub-Roman Celtic successor kingdoms; the Roman road network was still in existence and vital to trade and the military unit of the British kingdoms.

It was perhaps the siege of this garrison, and the awareness of the threat an Angle-held Lindum would present to the integrity of Celtic Britain, that precipitated Arthur’s campaign against the Angles in Lindsey. Or this operation could have been a coordinated effort between Arthur and the forces of Gurgust to destroy Anglish Lindsay. In either case, Arthur was on his way to Lindum, moving north up the Fosse Way when he learns from local peasants about an Angle warband landing at the nearby mouth of the Glein . This first of Nennius’ twelve battles was but an unplanned meeting engagement; wiping out this chance incursion. (See Part Eleven)

These destroyed, Arthur now rides swiftly northward. It is only 40 some miles to Lindum from the Glein/Glen near modern Spalding. The following day Arthur suddenly appears unexpectedly in the rear of the Angle host besieging the fortress.

Surprise is the greatest of all assets in war. As the German Panzers showed during the blitzkrieg, and the Mongols demonstrated 700 years before them, rapidly moving mobile forces can outstrip news of their coming to achieve decisive strategic and even tactical surprise. In this fashion, Arthur and a small force of hard-hitting heavy cavalry could seem to appear out of nowhere, strike a blow, and then fade away; leaving terror and death in their wake.

1463993.jpg Late Roman reenactors: Arthur’s Combrogi might have looked very much like this!

Close beneath the southern walls of Lindum the Dubglas/Witham flows west to east before turning southeast toward the Wash. Perhaps in the meadows on the south bank of the river the British fought the second of Nennius’ battles, and the first in the series along the “Dubglas”. The outcome of the battle may have been a British defeat; or, if a victory, certainly not a decisive one. In either case, three more would be waged here.

Let us assume Arthur was victorious in driving the Angles from around Lindum. After feasting with his ally King Gurgust within the fortress walls, Arthur leads the combined forces deeper into Anglish Lindsey. Let us imagine that the Angle host has crossed the Dubglas/Witham down-river, camping now on the east bank, defending a ford. Here is fought the third of Nennius’ battles. The Britons arrive, and attempt to force the crossing. The Angles, holding the opposite bank, resist with their customary ferocity.

1463977.jpg A ford of the Witham River

This is an infantry fight: the ford restricts the frontage, and even the best cavalry cannot force their way frontally through a determined shieldwall. Besides, Lindey is wet, marshy land, far from ideal for cavalry operations. Arthur and his armored Combrogi dismount and join Gurgust’s household troops in the battle in the ford.

Though Nennius indicates that, as in all of these, Arthur was victorious, it is more likely the battle resulted in a stalemate, if not a downright British repulse.

Both sides withdraw to lick their wounds. It is late in the season. The belligerents return to their homes for the winter.

THE LEGEND GROWS

Britain did not exist in a vacuum, and events in Britain likely reverberated across the Channel. Arthur’s “word fame” had spread beyond Britain’s shores.

Warriors seek three things in life: A cause to fight for; comrades to fight beside; and an inspiring leader to follow. We can only imagine that individual warriors, “free lances” in search of employment, flocked to Arthur’s standard; swelling the ranks of the Combrogi of his Comitatus.

In 507, the fame of the “Dragon Lord” attracted a more substantial reinforcement.

That year, a decisive battle was fought in Gaul. Clovis, first King of the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks, defeated the Visigoths at Battle of Vouillé/Campus Vogladensis. The result was the end of Visigoth rule in Gaul, as the descendants of Alaric and Euric retreated back into their territories in Spain. Gaul was on its way to becoming France.

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John Morris suggests that as a result a Visigoth noble named Theodoric, commanding the Visigoth naval squadron in the Bay of Biscay, arrived in Cornwall seeking sanctuary for himself and his forces [3]. The evidence supporting this theory is questionable, and much of Morris’ theory that follows is highly speculative. But it is an interesting one to contemplate.

We know a Theodoric ruled in Western Cornwall from about this time, into the middle of the century. During which time he repelled Irish incursions and settlements in Cornwall and south Wales. The theory that Theodoric was a Visigoth expatriate is mostly based upon his name; which is indeed Visigoth, and one not yet in usage by the Britons or Franks.

With the Franks driving the Visigoths from Gaul, could this Theodoric have brought a Visigoth fleet and band of warriors to join the Pendragon of Britain?

Cornwall (Kernow) was ruled by several petty king, all possibly vassals of the King of Dumnonia. It is highly unlikely that such a Visigoth settlement in Cornwall would have been tolerated had not the newcomers been accepted by the local authorities, and by Arthur; who while not yet accepted as High King of Britain, filled the role of Dux Bellorum, the de facto warlord of Britain.

If we allow that Theodoric may have been a Visigoth émigré, and that he was welcomed by Arthur and the Dumnonii, then we are left with the picture of a powerful naval lieutenant based near Lands End, at the tip of Cornwall. He is charged by Arthur with patrolling the southwestern coast; both warding against and eradicating Irish/Scotti settlements. This is the role Theodoric played faithfully for the next several decades. His loyalty and competency secured Britain and Arthur’s southwestern flank, allowing Arthur to concentrate on defeating his Anglo-Saxon enemies and recovering the “Lost Lands” of Lloegyr.

THE SCOURING OF LINDSEY

Continuing with our hypothetical scenario, the following spring Arthur returns to Lindsey to continue the war against the Angles under their chieftain, whom (following Geoffrey of Monmouth, for want of a better source) we will call Colgren. This time Arthur brings a force of infantry to augment the Elmet levy, perhaps even some of Theodoric’s Visigoth warriors. King Gurgust is waiting at Lindum with the forces  of his kingdom, stiffened by his own “Teulu” (household troops). The combined forces were likely not more than 2,000 and very likely under 1,000. Of these, the professional warriors of Arthur’s Combrogi numbered no more than 500, and likely closer to 300; Gurgust’s Teulu likely another 120 men. If Theodosius’ came with some of his Visigoths, perhaps these numbered as many as 300 more (more would have been a threat to the British themselves).

All or most of these professionals would have been cavalry. The rest, the militia of Elmet (perhaps including some of the town militia of Eburacum/York and Lindum/Lincoln), would have been infantry levies armed with spear and a small number of archers.

Once again the armies engage at the River Dubglas, in the fourth of Nennius’ Twelve Battles. We don’t know the outcome (Nennius states that Arthur was triumphant in this battle, but if so it was an indecisive victories). But a plausible scenario is this:

Colgren’s host, perhaps augmented by additional bands of Angles and Saxons as winter gave way to spring, would have mustered behind the Dubglas/Witham; perhaps near Bardney, a plausible location. They were prepared to oppose the Britons at the fords. With his cavalry advantage, Arthur would have had little trouble locating the enemy; the Anglo-Saxons, an infantry host, less so. On the day of battle, Arthur drew up the British infantry (likely led by Gurgust) at a ford opposite the Angles. Pushing across, the Britons engage the Anglish shieldwall in close combat.

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Meanwhile, Arthur leads a flying column of cavalry and his lightest infantry across the river at a higher crossing place. Lindum is on the left-bank: perhaps Arthur set out before the rest of the host, taking the circuitous route along the marshy and heavily wooded left-bank. At the height of the fighting, he appears behind and on the right flank of the fully-engaged Anglish!

The Angles are brave warriors, and fight stubbornly. But their flank crumbles under the sudden assault. It is unlikely that the surprise was complete, and Colgren is able to withdraw the bulk of his forces to fight another day. Perhaps his doomed right flank buys the rest time to get away.

But the Britons are across the river, and now advance down the left (eastern) bank of the river. We don’t know where the main stronghold of this early Angle settlement was. But if it was near the mouth of the Witham (a logical place for a pirate stronghold: near the sea) than it makes sense that still another battle was fought beside this river (the 5th of Nennius’ battles, and the final along the “Dubglas”).

Pursuing the retreating Angles the British have the advantage of cavalry, allowing Arthur to harry the Angle rearguard as they attempt to withdraw south to their stronghold (near modern Boston?). This forces the Angle ceorls at the end of the column to stop and form shieldburg.

We know nothing of “Colgren”. But one didn’t become leader of a band of hardened Germanic warriors except through ability. The Germans followed proven leaders, men whose “word fame” was praised by bards and poets. We can assume that the Angle leader was neither cowardly nor incompetent. Colgren can abandon his rearguard to certain destruction while escaping with the bulk of his forces, or stop and fight. A courageous warrior, he chooses battle.

Again, we have no details of this battle in Nennius; but we can speculate that the Angles would have attempted to take up as strong a defensive position as possible. Perhaps they form their shieldburg in a loop of the river; both flanks securely resting on the bending river.

Arthur waits for the rest of the British forces, following as fast as they were able, to join him. The Britons draw up their Army opposite the Angle position. Arthur places his infantry in the center, his cavalry waiting on either flank. The Britons harass the Angles with arrows and javelins, in late Roman military practice; then close with spear. The Angles’ shieldwall repels the British assault, the levies no match for these hardened Germanic warriors. Then, as the Britons disengage, Colgren’s warriors go over to the offensive. They push hard against the shieldwall of the British infantry, which loses cohesion as it tries to back away; and tactical withdrawal threatens to become rout.

1463994 Hypothetical reconstruction of the Fourth Battle of Dubglas River (Nennius’ 5th Battle)

But as they advance past the safety of the river’s loop, the Anglish flanks are exposed. Horns blare, as Arthur orders both wings of heavy horse to charge! This is also the signal for the infantry to halt their retreat, and hold firm.

Both of the Angles’ flanks are crushed back onto their center by the British cavalry. The flanks crumble, the center soon follows, and the Angles break and flee for their lives.

In the ensuing pursuit, Arthur’s riders hunt-and-harry the fleeing Anglish, riding down the fugitives without mercy! Their blood lust is loosed, and British swords rise and fall like threshers at harvest. Few Angles survive to reach their stronghold; and those that do are too panicked to bar the gates against the close-pursuing Britons.

Colgren’s body is found the next day, drowned in the river while attempting to escape.

These Angles are broken utterly, the survivors surrendering at the discretion of the conquering Britons. Arthur takes the best of the prisoners into his service; the Germanic warriors bending their knee, swearing an oath to Wotan as well as the Christian God to serve Arthur faithfully. (The practice of taking prisoners of war into military service within a successful general’s bodyguard was common in the 5th and 6th century. The concept of nations or national loyalties did not exist in this age of ever-changing alliances, shifting tribal confederations, and ad hoc armies of military adventurers. The warrior class from Persia to Scotland was often quite willing to accept service with whatever successful leader would employ them.) The remaining Angle survivors are allowed to retain their farms as military settlers (foederati), in fealty to Arthur’s ally, the King of Elmet. They will protect this section of coast from their piratical cousins.

NEXT: ARTHUR’S NORTHERN CAMPAIGN


Notes:

  1. Historically, if he existed at all, Arthur most likely occupies the period between the last quarter of the 5th century and the first half of the sixth. I have made the argument in earlier installments that Arthur’s career as Dux Bellorum (warlord of the Romano-British kingdoms) can best be placed in the first decades of the sixth; and his reign as Emperor (Amerawder) between 516 and 535.
  2. In exploring Arthur’s identity, we have explored the possibility that he held land in the south, in Dumnonia. While it is certain he was not the king of Dumnonia, he may have held lands in Triggshire as a vassal of that king. While it may seem strange that the war-leader (Dux Bellorum) of the Celtic British kingdoms might have been at the same time a vassal of one of these kings; such complicated and often contradictory allegiances and subordinations are not without example in history. The Plantagenet kings of England were equals and rivals to the kings of France; even while owing fealty and homage to the French crown for those lands they held in France.
  3. Morris, John, The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. P. 127. Barnes and Noble Books, 1996
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“OLD HICKORY” BREAKS THE THIN RED LINE AT NEW ORLEANS!

battle-new-orleans“OLD HICKORY” SHATTERS THE BRITISH ATTEMPT TO CONTROL THE MOUTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI AT NEW ORLEANS; AND SAVES THE FUTURE OF THE UNITED STATES!

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, and 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 a new army of 15,000 men to America. About half of these were veterans of Wellington’s Peninsular War, commanded by the Iron Duke’s own brother-in-law and former division commander, Sir Edward Packenham.

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The British operational 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. 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 brigade, rather than push on.

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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 this hated enemy.

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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 charge 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.

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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 formidable array, 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”. Supporting this position was a 20 gun naval battery on the west bank of the river, commanded by a Commodore Daniel Patterson.

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, that evening Pakenham held a command conference 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. The pugnacious 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.

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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).

A secondary attack would be made against Patterson’s battery on the west bank. This force of 780 men was comprised a battalion of 85th Regiment of Foot with detachments of sailors and Royal Marines, commanded by Colonel William Thornton. Their role was to overrun the American guns and turn them against the flank of Jackson’s line.

In all, as sound a plan as could be made under the circumstances.

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 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.

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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.

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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 the Jackson Line. 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, now the senior officer still standing, took command. He gave the order for his reserve to advance and cover the withdrawal of the army from the field.

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The one British success that day was on the opposite side of the canal. Here, Thorton’s attack on the naval battery was successful, and were able to turn the guns to enfilade Jackson’s line across the canal. Unfortunately, this was too 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 allowing enfilade fire upon his line, Jackson was prepared to withdraw the American forces if the British renewed the attack.

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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.

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.

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 such a victory to gain better terms; perhaps even taking the Louisiana Purchase territories from the United States.

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

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*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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