GREAT CAPTAINS: NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST

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This is the next in a series of posts examining the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusual for Deadliest Blogger, this will be primarily in video format; posting compelling biographical material.

 

Perhaps no general in America history elicits such a mix of admiration and repudiation as Nathan Bedford Forrest. While most historians admit his untutored, natural genius for war, they are mindful of his unsavory activities both before and after the American Civil War.

Known as “The Wizard of the Saddle”, Forrest was not only the finest cavalry commander that America ever produced; he was a first-rate practitioner of mobile warfare and combined arms. His campaigns are reminiscent of (and presage) those of such panzer leaders as Guderian and Rommel; and his rapidly moving strike forces were combined-arms formations composed of cavalry and mounted infantry, supported by batteries of horse artillery. He born to be a soldier, just as John Keats was born to be a poet. His grasp of tactics, the operational art, and ability to inspire men in battle were intuitive and self-taught, as he was without any kind of military education or experience.

(To continue reading, go here)

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ATTILA IS STOPPED AT THE CATALAUNIAN FIELDS!

BATTLE OF CHALONS

On June 20, 451 on a broad plain in the Champagne region of France, Attila the Hun, “the Scourge of God”, engaged in his greatest battle. The fate of western civilization lay in the balance. 

In Chinese history, the Huns are tentatively identified as the nomadic peoples known in their histories as the Hsiung Nu (“Fierce Slaves”). In the Second Century A.D., the Chinese Han Empire drove the Huns away from their borders in a series of campaigns. The Huns then began their long migration westward, ever searching for fresh pastures for their sheep; and new peoples to plunder and subjugate.

Modern scholarship theorizes that the Huns were not ethnically one people, but a confederation of Mongolian and Turkic nomadic clans. By the time they entered European history in the 4th century, these peoples had fused into one cultural group.

The Huns were first-and-foremost mounted horse archers. From infancy, male children were taught to ride by being placed on the backs of sheep, to prepare them for a life in the saddle. They practiced daily with their primary weapon, the powerful and deadly composite bow. To make themselves appear more ferocious and terrifying to their enemies, their cheeks were slashed with knives and allowed to scar….

(To continue reading, go here!)

 

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CONFUSION AT THE CROSSROADS: THE IRON DUKE BATTLES MARSHAL NEY AT QUATRE BRAS, JUNE 15, 1815

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Napoleon’s invasion of Belgium on the 15th of June, 1815 had caught the Duke of Wellington unprepared, his army scattered in bivouacs too far to the west. The Prussians, whose staff work was magnificent throughout the campaign, were already massing to oppose him. Napoleon learned of this on the morning of June 16th (see Part One). At 9am, he moved off with his Guard towards Fleurus.

(PART ONE HERE)

Arriving, he had an observation platform constructed around a windmill. This would serve as his headquarters throughout the coming battle. From here, he surveyed the Prussian movements to the northeast. It was soon obvious that this was Blücher’s main force he was seeing; deploying southeast of Sombreffe, their position centered on the village of Ligny. With Wellington’s forces as yet scattered, Napoleon saw an opportunity to crush Blücher before Wellington’s Army could assemble. Calling upon his reserves to join him and the forces of Grouchy’s right wing, he prepared to fight at Ligny with 68,000 men.

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At Ligny Blücher’s forces were well-positioned. Their front was protected by a meandering stream, about fifteen feet wide and four deep; its steep banks heavily overgrown. Behind this natural moat was a series of habitations and hamlets: Brye, Wagnelle, St-Armand, St-Armand la Haye, and Ligny itself. Ligny contained a number of obstacles: a ruined chateau, two farmhouses, and a church surrounded by a high-walled cemetery. All these places and more around their front the Prussians had barricaded, carving loop holes in the windowless walls, and turned each into a bastion. Behind these forward positions, Blücher’ forces waited in reserve, deployed along a low ridge.

1343532View of the St-Armand, as seen from the French vantage point. The fighting here on 16 June reduced the buildings to rubble; and the fields of rye stood at eye level, blocking much of the view for Vandamme’s advancing battalions.

Surveying their positions from his command post at the windmill at Fleurus, Napoleon’s keen eye discerned their weakness: the Prussian right was hanging on open ground; disposed with the expectation that Wellington’s divisions would soon arrive down the road from Quatre Bras and form-up on this flank. In the meantime, however, that flank was insecure.

Napoleon laid his plans accordingly: while Vandamme’s III and Gérard’s IV Corps probed, assaulted and wore-down the Prussian center; and a cavalry wing under Grouchy pinned the Prussian left, he would watch and wait for Blücher to commit his reserves to that fight. Then he would commit his Guard to drive back the Prussian right. However, to form the anvil upon which this attack would crush the Prussian forces, he would need Ney.

At 2pm, Marshal Soult, his Chief of Staff, wrote Ney a message, describing the Prussian forces and of the Emperor’s impending attack on them at Ligny. It commanded Ney to attack whatever force was before him (Wellington’s) and to “push them back vigorously”. Then Ney was instructed to “turn in our direction and bring about the envelopment of the body of the enemy troops I have just mentioned to you (the Prussians)”. Ney was expected, by this order, to send whatever he could spare eastward along the Quatre Bras-Namur road and fall upon Blücher’s right-wing. A second message was sent to Ney less than an hour later. To the earlier instructions the Emperor rather dramatically added the warning, “The fate of the Empire is in your hands.”

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Marshal of France Michel Ney, Duc de Moskowa; known as “the Bravest of the Brave”. He was given the almost impossible task of defeating Wellington at Quatre Bras, and then aiding Napoleon by attacking the Prussians at Ligny.

Ney’s supporting role in the coming battle at Ligny could not have been made more clear, in the eyes of Napoleon and Soult. However, this was in contradiction of Ney’s earlier orders, which he was preparing even then to execute. By the time these messages arrived, Ney would be heavily involved in his own fight at Quatre Bras; unable to spare (in his mind) a single regiment.

That, however, was not apparent in the morning hours of the 16th. While the Prussians were deploying in force, the Anglo-Dutch army was scarcely to be seen.

CONFUSION AT QUATRE BRAS

Due to the abysmal state of staff-work in Wellington’s army (poor even by the inadequate standard of the day), and the late hour in which the orders went out (carried by a wholly inadequate corps of staff officers, galloping through the dark of night, over unfamiliar country roads, to unit headquarters scattered over a hundred square miles); the next day would witness utter chaos on the roads. Setting out from their bivouacs and marching along roads little better than farm lanes, many units soon found themselves utterly lost in the darkness. Morning light found 90,000 men and beasts clogging the two narrow dirt roads leading to Quatre Bras.

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Hannoveran infantry marching down the narrow roads leading to Quatre Bras from Nivelles.

The worst congestion occurring on the Nivelles east-west road; along which 60,000 of Wellington’s troops were attempting to march. Units became hopelessly intermixed, and interfered with each other’s movement. Others marched without their complete compliment of supplies; or even all of their constituent units. The experience of one officer is illustrative of the confusion amongst Wellington’s scattered regiments in the pre-dawn darkness of the 16th June, as they scrambled to respond to the late-night movement orders. At the village of Soignies, southwest of Nivelles, the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment of Foot had departed in the night, marching east. In their haste none noticed that the regiment’s Light Company, detached on picket duty two miles to the south, had been left behind. The first inkling that company’s commander had that his regiment had gotten movement orders was when he returned to headquarters at dawn to see to his company’s breakfast; only to find the place deserted of its former British occupants! The officer, Ensign (later Major) Neville Macready, later recounted the incident:

I ran into the house and asked, “Where are the troops?” “They marched at 2 this morning”, was the chilling reply. “By what road?” “Towards Braine le Compte”. [1]

Throughout the fighting on the 16th of June, the location and arrival time of Wellington’s formations was a matter of wild speculation, beyond his control; severely hampering his ability to come to the aid of his Prussian ally or even to hold onto the crossroads at Quatre Bras against Ney’s advancing forces. The bulk of the army would, in fact, never make it to Quatre Bras, missing the battle entirely.

DEATH IN THE TALL RYE

While the Emperor prepared to destroy the Prussians at Ligny, Ney had yet to receive Soult’s order issued at 2pm; to brush aside those scant forces opposing them (in the morning only General Perponcher’s 2nd Netherlands Division, spread out in front of the crossroads); and come to Ligny posthaste. Ney was still following his original orders from early that morning: to take up a strong holding position at Quatre Bras (with, the Emperor had specified, not less than six divisions; problematic in-and-of-itself in that throughout the fighting on the 16th Ney only had available to him a mere 3 divisions of infantry and three brigades of cavalry); then to probe northwards up the Brussels Road as far as Gennape; and, finally, to prevent any movement by the Duke of Wellington to link up with the Prussians. Those same instructions, issued before Napoleon was aware of the strong Prussian concentration around Ligny, suggested that once the Emperor had pushed back the Prussian pickets before him that he would swing west to join Ney at Quatre Bras. So far from expecting to aid Napoleon at Ligny, Ney began the Battle of Quatre Bras with the misunderstanding that he was merely to seize and hold the crossroads till the Emperor arrived….

(To continue reading, go here!)

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DISASTER IN THE DESERT: CRASSUS AT CARRHAE!

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In June of 54 BC, the seemingly invincible Roman Republic turned its baleful gaze upon the Parthian-ruled lands of Mesopotamia. The result would shake an empire and change the course of history!

Marcus Licinius Crassus, co-ruler of the Roman state and the wealthiest man in Rome, had long coveted the military glory. Now, at last, as Pro-Consul of Roman Syria and at the head of a mighty army, he seemed poised to see his dream become reality.

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Crassus had partnered with the skilled political operator, Julius Caesar, and the famed military leader Pompeius Magnus, in a political alliance that virtually ruled the Roman world; which became known as the First Triumvirate. But power and wealth were not enough for the aging Crassus. A true Roman of his class, he hungered for the kind of military glory that Pompey had earned in his youth, against the Pirates and in the east; and which Caesar was even then winning in Gaul. Following hisConsulship in 55 BC, Crassus took Syria as his Pro-Consular governorship. His intent was to emulate Alexander the Great, and at the head of a massive army of legions and auxiliary troops invade the Persia-centered Arsacid Empire of the Parthians!

The Parthians were a conquering race of nomads, of Scythian origin; who, a century earlier, had come off of the Eurasian steppe and seized Persia and Mesopotamia from the decadent and decaying Seleucids, the Graeco-Macedonian dynasty founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The Parthians were still semi-nomadic after a century ruling the heartland of the old Persian Empire; living in tent cities along the Tigris river, and practicing the arts of horse archery and cavalry warfare.

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Their very formidable army was composed of masses of unarmored horse archers; experts with the powerful re-curve, composite bow. Mounted on swift horses or ponies, these operated in an amorphous mass in battle, weakening and bewildering their opponents with rapid maneuver and showering them with a blizzard of arrows.

The horse-archers were backed by a small cadre of heavily armored nobles, called by the Greek and Roman sources “cataphracts”. Recruited from the Parthian aristocracy,…

(To continue reading, go here.)

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART SEVENTEEN

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

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

Our explorations into “the Age of Arthur” have taken us to 511 A.D.* We have suggested that as Ambrosius Aurelianus grew old, he passed the reins of military leadership to his chosen successor; the man known to legend as “Arthur”.

REVOLT IN THE NORTH

We now come to 514 A.D. Our guide has been the 9th century Welsh monk, Nennius; whose Historia Brittonum tells of 12 battles waged by Arthur in his role as “Dux Bellorum” (warlord) of the British.

At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in Britain … Then it was that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons…

Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their warleader (or ‘dux bellorum’).

The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein.

The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey.

The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas.

The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of      Celyddon Coed.

The eighth battle was in Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his [shield,] and the heathen were put to flight on that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The ninth battle was in the City of the Legion.

The tenth battle was on the bank of the river called Tribruit.

The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned.

The final battle was on Badon Hill, in which 960 men fell in one day from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns

Our discussion now comes to this tenth battle, at “river called Tribruit”.

In or about 514-515 A.D. events in Gododdin, in the north of Britain, threatened to unravel Arthur’s Northern Settlement (see Part Thirteen).

As detailed previously, between 508 and 510, Arthur campaigned north of the Wall. He nipped-in-the-bud a conspiracy by the chieftain Caw o’ Brydyn [1], crushing his forces at the Battle of the Bassus  (tentatively placed near modern Glasgow). He then turned back an incursion by the Picts (possibly coming to join in Caw’s rebellion) at the Battle of the Celyddon Forest. Arthur spent the rest of that year and, perhaps, part or all of the next in settling affairs in the north to his liking.

(To continue reading, go here.)

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DIADOCHI: MACEDONIAN GAME OF THRONES (PART 5)

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

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

THE SITUATION AT THE END OF THE LAMIAN WAR

With both the Lamian War concluded, and the revolt of the Greek settlers in Bactria crushed, the Greeks were once more reduced to submission. Any external threat to the Macedonian Empire was gone; and no new existential threat to Macedon and Macedonian supremacy would arise till the coming of the Celts, 41 years later.

The Macedonian leaders could now turn their attention to the matter of who would rule the Empire bequeathed to them by Alexander the Great.

The year 322 ended in Greece with Antipater and Craterus busy pacifying the city-states; establishing client oligarchies and, as in Munychia overlooking the port of Athens, garrisons. Key Macedonian garrisons seem to have been at Athens, Chalcis (across a narrow strait, on the island of Euboea); Corinth, whose broad and lofty mountain-top acropolis, the Acrocorinth was perhaps the strongest fortress in Greece and the key to passage in-and-out of the Peloponnese; and the Cadmeia of Thebes.

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This latter needs explanation, as Thebes was destroyed by Alexander in 335. However, the citadel, known as the Cadmeia, appears to have been restored and garrisoned as a Macedonian fortress; to keep Boeotia and central Greece under the Macedonian’s thumb.

Only isolated and isolationist Sparta in the south; and wild Aetolia in the mountainous west remained free of Macedonian dominance. Antipater and Craterus (now acting as first-and-second in command of Macedonian forces in Europe) planned a campaign in the west to reduce Aetolia in the coming year (321).

At this stage in the game, both men had relatively good relations with the Regent, Perdiccas, in Asia; and there was as yet no hint of the trouble to come. As a sign of both good faith and acceptance of the Regent as spokesman for the Kings, Antipater had deferred to Perdiccas’ judgment the settlement of the Samian issue; important to Athens, now governed by Antipater’s men. Antipater would soon make moves to tie his house  closer to the Regent; as well as the other great men of the empire. Perdiccas, perhaps as early as autumn of 323, insecure in his position and looking to shore it up with a marriage alliance, had negotiated with Antipater for his daughter Nicaea’s hand. While still pending, it was likely the two houses would be united in marriage; making strife between them unlikely…

(To continue reading, go here.)

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART SIXTEEN

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

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

As we attempt to reconstruct the life of an “historical” King Arthur, it is important to bear in mind that all of this is highly speculative. We know little of Arthur beyond the legends; and that little we do have in way of “historical” data come from sources centuries later. However, unlike many modern historians who use this paucity of contemporary material as excuse to dismiss an historic Arthur as mere invention; we are here attempting to build a plausible narrative based upon what is available.

Certainly the historical facts support the possibility, even the likelihood of a British national leader in the late 5th/early 6th century; who defended the remnants of Roman civilization in Britain; and led the resistance to Anglo-Saxon expansion on the island. We see evidence in the archeological record, including the locations of Anglo-Saxon burial sites, that in the early 6th century the seemingly inexorable advance of the Anglo-Saxons across Britain was arrested and thrown back to the eastern fringes of the island.

Procopius, the Byzantine historian of the mid-6th century, noted that there was an ongoing exodus of Saxons from Britain to the continent during his lifetime. Something (or someone) caused this to happen; almost certainly by making successful war upon the hitherto triumphant Anglo-Saxons.  It goes without saying that successful warfare is impossible without good leadership; so such an achievement must be attributed to a otherwise unknown British leader.

Why would not that leader be the basis for the later stories and legends of “Arthur”?

(To continue reading, go here)

 

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