There are times when a defeat can become a triumph. Just as the heroic death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae gave courage to the rest of Greece, so the last stand of a handful of brave Texians in a fortified Mission became a rallying cry for Texas independence: Remember the Alamo!

IN the predawn hours of March 6, 1836 the Mexican army of President and Generalissimo Antonio López de Santa Anna stormed the battlements of the Alamo and slew the defending Texan garrison to a man.

This battle, though neither final or decisive, was the seminal moment in the Texas War of Independence. It bloodied the Mexican army and lent the Texans both a band of martyred heroes and an immortal rallying cry: “Remember the Alamo”!


Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna attempted to establish a benevolent dictatorship in Mexico in the 1430s. Originally a believer in republican governance, he came to believe that his fellow Mexicans were unready for self-government. After putting down revolts and consolidating his rule over Mexico, he turned his attention to the break-away province of Texas.

Following Santa Anna’s seizure of power and revocation of the Mexican Constitution of 1824 early in 1835, the English-Speaking (mostly American) majority of Texans (called “Texians“, to distinguish them from the Spanish-Speaking Tejanos) revolted in the face of his dictatorial policies. These American immigrants, originally invited by previous governments to settle in Texas as a counter to Comanche raids, were now the majority of the population; and brought with them the American distaste for tyranny. Expelling what few Mexican garrisons existed in the territory, the Texians began drafting a constitution for the new nation they envisioned, and began building an army in preparation of Mexican reprisals.

Near San Antonio de Béxar (modern-day San Antonio) was an 18th century Spanish Mission. Abandoned at the end of that century, it was briefly turned into a garrison for Spanish troops, who gave it the name, the “Alamo“. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the Alamo was held by a Mexican garrison till this force, commanded by Santa Anna’s own brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cos, was expelled by Texians under the famous knife-fighter James “Jim” Bowie, a land-owning resident of San Antonio, in December of 1835.

1492616.jpgBowie was at first ordered by the new Texian Army commander, Sam Houston, to dismantle the fort and retrieve the 19 cannons of various caliber left behind by the Mexicans. Instead, upon finding he had insufficient transport to effectively evacuate the guns, Bowie decided to improve the defenses (with the aid of engineer Green B. Jameson) and hold the Alamo. Bowie felt strongly that the Alamo could be a bastion defending Texas from Santa Anna’s coming attack. In a letter to Henry Smith, a leader of the Texas War or Independence Party, Bowie argued that “the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Bexar (San Antonio) out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march towards the Sabine.”

Bowie shared command of the mixed “regulars” and “volunteers” with Colonel James C. Neill. Neill sent to Houston and the provisional government for supplies and additional men. But at this stage both the Texas government and Houston’s incipient army were in disarray, and no help was sent to the Alamo.


James “Jim” Bowie, famous knife-fighter and local landowner, had ties to the Mexican “Tejano” community around San Antonio-Bexar; having married a Mexican bride and settled in San Antonio. Ordered by Houston to remove the garrison and cannons from the Alamo, Bowie instead chose to strengthen the defenses and hold the Alamo against Santa Anna. (Below) Bowie’s famous knife, the prototype for all future “Bowie Knives”.


On February 3, 1836 Lt. Colonel William Barret Travis arrived at the Alamo with 18 cavalrymen of the new Texan army to take over as Neill’s second-in-command. Travis was a young lawyer from Alabama, recently come to Texas to build a new life. Five days after Travis’ arrival another group of volunteers, these from Tennessee, also arrived at the Alamo. They were led the famous frontiersman and former U.S. Congressman, David (“Davy”) Crockett. A man who was already a legend in his own time, Crockett was almost as famous for his skills as a story-teller as he was for his legendary abilities as a sharpshooter.

When on February 11th Neill had to absent himself from the Alamo because of family matters, he left Travis, the highest-ranking “Regular” army officer in command of the garrison. Bowie, who led a band of 30 “Volunteers”, would act as his co-commander. Bowie and Travis detested each other, and as they prepared the fort against eventual attack, tension between the two men was high. But all supposed that Santa Anna would not attempt a winter campaign, and long before he arrived in the spring Neill would have returned, likely with reinforcements.


William Barret Travis was an Alabama lawyer who like many Americans came to Texas to make his fortune. Commissioned as an officer in the new Texas army, he was appointed co-commander at the Alamo alongside Jim Bowie; till Bowie fell ill the second day of the siege. After this Travis was in sole command. 

However, Santa Anna, who fancied himself as “the Napoleon of the West”, was doing what all great generals attempt: the unexpected. In the dead of winter he marched north toward Texas, at the head of an army of 6,019 soldiers. This force had set out in December, even as Bowie was capturing the Alamo in the first place. Their progress was slow as the army worked its way over difficult and sometimes frozen terrain; encumbered by artillery, supply wagons, and numerous camp followers. Santa Anna had spent 1835 putting down rebellions and fighting battles in Mexico against well-armed local militias; and the core of his army was comprised of loyal veterans. However, many of the soldiers were newly recruited replacements, and their officers used the march north to train their men.

Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande on February 12th, undetected by the Texian defenders. There he linked up with his vanguard brigade commanded by Generals Cos (lately expelled from the Alamo) and Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma; composed of 1,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. On February 21 his vanguard was only 25 miles from San Antonio-Béxar. Still blissfully unaware of the approaching danger, the majority of the Alamo garrison joined the town’s residents at a fiesta. Learning of the planned celebration, Santa Anna ordered Sesma’s brigade to immediately seize the virtually undefended Alamo. The history of the Texas revolt would have been very different, and the defense of the Alamo stillborn, had not a sudden rain turned the roads into a muddy morass, preventing the night raid.

On the following morning, February 23, the skies now clear beneath a brilliant rising sun, Travis’ scouts reported the approach of Sesma’s 1,500 strong advance guard, just 1.5 miles outside of town.


Santa Anna marched into San Antonio de Bexar on February 23, 1836; and demanded the unconditional surrender of the Alamo. Here his entry is depicted in the very accurate 2004 film. 

While the surprised and unprepared Texians rushed into the Alamo, the Mexican army occupied San Antonio-Bexar. A parlay soon followed, in which Bowie sent his engineer, Green B. Jameson, to ask terms. According to Mexican sources, he was informed by Santa Anna’s aid, José Bartres, that El Presidente demanded unconditional surrender (“on discretion”):

… according to the order of His Excellency… the Mexican army cannot come to terms under any conditions with rebellious foreigners to whom there is no recourse left, if they wish to save their lives, than to place themselves immediately at the disposal of the Supreme Government from whom alone they may expect clemency after some considerations.

This was in keeping with Santa Anna and the Mexican government’s official position toward the Texian rebels: In late December 1835, the Mexican Congress passed the Tornel Decree, declaring foreigners fighting in Texas against Mexico “pirates”, to be treated with summary justice. Santa Anna had in the previous year shown scant clemency to rebels in Mexico, and his reputation preceded him. Even had the Texian garrison within the Alamo been so inclined, they were under no illusions that they could expect mercy at the hands of Santa Anna.

Not that they were so inclined:

To this demand for unconditional surrender, Travis and Bowie answered with a blast from the fort’s 18 pounder cannon, signaling their defiance.

Clip from the 1960 film, “The Alamo”, in which Travis (herein portrayed by Lawrence Harvey) answers Santa Anna’s demand for unconditional surrender with a cannon shot.

In response, Santa Anna ordered the raising of a blood-red flag over the highest tower in the town, and the playing of the Degüello; a bugle call used by Spanish armies, signaling “no quarter” to their opponent. The name “Degüello” derives from the Spanish verb for the act of throat-slitting; and so the tune was also known as the “cut throat” song!

The coming battle would be to the knives.

“The Alamo” (2004): as the Mexican play the “Deguello”, Travis (Patrick Wilson) explains its meaning to Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). 


Over the next 12 days, as the Mexican army prepared and more troops marched into their camp, the defenders of the Alamo waited. Night after the night, Santa Anna subjected them to a desultory bombardment by cannon, meant to harass and deprive the garrison of sleep. For their part, the defenders responded with occasional sallies and sniping, in which they killed small numbers of besiegers. During this time, the long rifles of the Americans (most famously Davy Crockett) proved superior in fire-fights to the aging smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets of the Mexican troops.


The Mexican soldiers at the Alamo were armed with the venerable but inaccurate Brown Bess musket; the standard weapon of the British Army from 1722-1838. Like all muskets it was a smooth-bore; out-ranged and less accurate than the American Long Rifles used by many of the Alamo defenders.

On the second day, Bowie fell ill and Travis took over effective command. That same day, a company of Mexican soldiers occupied some abandoned huts near the walls. A two hour skirmish battle erupted, in which the Texians drove the Mexicans out, and fired the huts.

On February 24 Travis sent out a dispatch informing the Texas government and Sam Houston of his situation, and pleading for reinforcements and supplies. Travis addressed this stirring missive (the most famous of several he sent before the end) “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World”; writing:

As news of the Alamo’s plight spread, Texans gathered at Gonzales preparing to go to their aid. The nearest garrison of any strength was 90 miles away at Goliad, commanded by Colonel James Fannin. The men gathering at Gonzales waited impatiently for days for Fannin to march and join them in going to Travis’ succor. Fannin finally set out on February 26 with 320 men, four cannons, and several wagons filled with much needed supplies. However, only a mile out they returned to Goliad. Why Fannin failed to move is unknown. He blamed his officers, and they his indecision. Some 32 men from those in Gonzales, tired of waiting for Fannin to act, rode to the Alamo; where, after a brief skirmish with a Mexican cavalry patrol, they arrived at the Alamo on the night of the 27th. They were greeted with joy by the beleaguered garrison.


Unbeknownst to the men in the Alamo celebrating this small reinforcement, that same day Mexican General José de Urrea had defeated Texian Colonel Frank W. Johnson in a skirmish to the east. This engagement is referred to (rather grandiosely) as the Battle of San Patricio; in which 200 Mexicans defeated a force of less than 50 Texians. On March 3, three more battalions (some 1,000 Mexican troops) marched into San Antonio in parade uniforms. These newcomers brought with them news of the engagement at San Patricio, and the Mexicans (now at approximately 3,100 men) celebrated this minor victory throughout the night.

(Hearing this celebration, along with the parading soldiers that day in their splendid dress uniforms, led the defenders of the Alamo to believe this all heralded the arrival of Santa Anna; who had actually been in San Antonio since the first day. This mistaken impression, of Santa Anna arriving just days before the end with rest of his army, entered the vast store of myth and legend surrounding the Alamo, and was perpetuated in the 1960 film.)

Travis sent out Crockett and two others  to try and find Fannin’s much awaited reinforcements. Instead, they returned in the early hours of the 4th with some 50 men they had found camped 20 miles away, who’d left Fannin and were riding to the Alamo. This would be the last reinforcement of the garrison (others attempting to reach the Alamo were intercepted and driven off by Mexican patrols); which now numbered between 185 and 260 men.

1492660 David “Davy” Crockett was already a living legend when he arrived at the Alamo with a party of Tennessee volunteers. A former Congressman and famed sharp-shooter, he and his Tennesseans held the wooden palisade along the south side of the Alamo. Despite being the lowest and weakest section of the defenses, Crockett and his back-woods markesmen defended their wall longer than any others.

That same night Santa Anna presented his plan of assault to his senior staff. Several of his battalion commanders argued for a delay till March 7, to allow the Mexican heavy artillery (12 pounder “Napoleon Guns”) to arrive; at which time they could stand off and pound the fortifications into ruin. But an impatient Santa Anna had no wish for a “bloodless victory”, but instead demanded the fortress be stormed with bayonet. The date for the assault was set for the pre-dawn hours of March 6.

The plan of attack was for the assault force, in 4 columns of 1,800 men, to storm the fortress from as many directions. General Cos would lead one column consisting of the Aldama Battalion and three companies of the San Luis Battalion against the northwest corner of the Alamo. Colonel Francisco Duque would lead the Toluca Battalion and the remaining rifle companies of the San Luis Bn against the north wall; where a repaired breach seemed to present a weakness in the defenses. Colonel José María Romero commanded the third column, comprised of the rifle companies from the Matamoros and Jiménez Battalions, whose target was the east wall. The fourth column, to attack the low wooden parapet by the Chapel on the south side, was composed of the light companies of the Matamoros, Jiménez, and San Luis Battalions, and commanded by Colonel Juan Morales. Santa Anna himself would command the reserve force, 400 elite men of the grenadier companies from each of the battalions (and, presumably, the men of his elite Presidential Guard).

On March 5, according to the legend (disputed by many historians, but verified by one of the lone survivors, Susanna Dickenson, wife of Captain Almaron Dickinson) Travis held a meeting for all of the garrison. He informed them that help was unlikely to arrive in time to save them. Travis gave each the choice to leave the fortress by whatever means they chose (either throwing themselves on the mercy of Santa Anna or attempting to infiltrate  through the Mexican lines in the darkness); or to stay and likely die fighting. The legend has Travis drawing a line in the sand with his saber, asking those willing to die for the Texian cause to cross and stand alongside him. Alternatively, Susannah Dickinson recalled Travis announcing that any men who wished to escape should let it be known and step out of ranks. In either case, only one (according to legend, and that disputed) chose to leave the Alamo (a man named Moses Rose).

Clip from the 2004 film, “The Alamo”; in which Travis (Patrick Wilson) gives the garrison the option to leave or stay and die.


That night (5 March) the Mexican artillery was silent for the first time in 12 nights, and the sleep-deprived garrison in the Alamo slept soundly. Outside, at midnight, Santa Anna’s army began assembling for the pre-dawn assault. At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of March 6, the attacking troops advanced silently; their bayonets and the brass-work on their shakos glittered coldly in the frosty night. Finding a trio of advance pickets outside the walls fast asleep, these three men were quietly dispatched, giving the defenders no alarm. It was not until the heads of the Mexican columns were within musket range that the defenders were awakened by the (imprudent) shouts of “Viva Santa Anna!” and bugle calls that now sounded from all around as the storm columns surged toward the walls.

Leaping to their posts, the Texians began pouring fire into the dense masses outside their walls. The columns wavered under the withering fire, and whole files were mowed down by grape shot from the fort’s many guns. According to one Mexican officer, José Enrique de la Peña, “a single cannon volley did away with half the company of chasseurs (light infantry) from (Duque’s) Toluca battalion”, assaulting the north wall. Colonel Duque himself was struck a mortal wound in the hip, and fell beneath the feet of and was trampled by his onrushing soldiers. His command was taken over by Santa Anna’s aide-de-camp, General Manuel Fernández Castrillón.

The fire was so intense from the west wall and from the eastern side that the columns attacking those places veered away, moving to join instead the attack on the weak north wall. Here they followed the gallant example of General Juan Amador (allegedly the first to scale the 12′ wall) and carried the position, hoisting each other up and onto the parapet.

All along the walls, Texians leaned forward to fire into the ranks below. However, exposing themselves in the process, many were killed by fire from the massed musket fire of the attacking forces. Travis himself, on the gun platform defending the beleaguered north wall, leaned over to discharge a shotgun into the faces of attackers attepting to climb the walls. He was fatally shot in the process (though one version has him surviving long enough to kill a Mexican officer in a sword duel before succumbing to his wound).

1492690As the north wall was overrun, the Mexicans turned the captured Texian guns upon the defenders of the west and east walls; helping to clear these as the assault force advanced into the fortress. Along the south wall, where Crockett and his sharp-shooting back-woods Tennesseans held off all attack, the cry went up “Behind us! Their over the wall!!” Turning their guns about, they attempted to stem the tide. But this diversion of their fire only allowed Morales’ men, hitherto stalled, to at last breakthrough on the southwest corner of the fort and also gain entrance.

Crockett and others attempted to defend a hastily erected barricade in front of the chapel. But Morales’ men turned the captured 18 pounder on the southwest corner against them, blasting their barricade into splinters. The storm columns pressed forward with bayonet.  Crockett’s Tennesseans battled them in a desperate close-quarters struggle, using their rifles as clubs, or fighting with knives or hatchets. But they were unable to stem the glittering tide of steel, and fell back fighting towards the church.

Bowie was killed laying in his sick bed. A popular account grew up of how he died fighting, discharging a brace of pistols into the first Mexicans entering his room; then killing two more with his famous “Bowie Knife” before being bayoneted.

1492697.jpgOutside the fort, some survivors were intercepted by Mexican cavalry, attempting to flee into the darkness. Others were captured, to be taken before Santa Anna for final justice. Those laying on the ground or on the walls were shot or bayoneted repeatedly by Mexican soldiers, whose blood-lust was aroused by the terror of the assault.

Scenes from The Alamo (2004); including some (but not all) of the final storming.

By dawn the fighting at Alamo was over. All but a handful of the defenders were dead. One story, related by Mexican sources, states that Crockett was among the handful of prisoners; that he was spared by General Castrillón when his final band of Texians was overwhelmed in the chapel. Castrillón asked Santa Anna to pardon them and give them their lives, but Santa Anna refused. Crockett and the other prisoners were executed on the spot.

Only Susanna Dickenson, a handful of Tejano women from San Antonia, two negro slaves, and her daughter were allowed by Santa Anna to go free. He showed some gallantry, offering even to adopt her daughter and raise her in Mexico City. Susanna refused, and as she and the others departed the Alamo, Santa Anna paraded his army, ordering the troops to render arms and salute them as they passed.

The exact casualty count among Santa Anna’s assault force is disputed. But Mexican sources put it at over 300, and others as high as twice that number: full a third of the the assault force that attempted to storm the fortress in the pre-dawn darkness.


When news reached Houston of the Alamo’s fate, he ordered an immediate retreat eastward, away from Santa Anna’s victorious army. With him went the government of the new Texan state and many hundreds of Texian civilians, fearful of Mexican reprisals. As he marched eastward, he used his time to build an army. The words, “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry of all.

Pursued by Santa Anna, Houston finally stopped and turned on the Mexicans on April 21st at the Battle of San Jacinto. In 18 minutes, the Mexican camp was overrun and their army shattered. Santa Anna was captured the following day, dressed as a common soldier.

The “Napoleon of the West” had met his Waterloo.



The Alamo today
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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.


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.


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

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. Bennisgen, 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.


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.

1471412.jpgIn 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 walked blindly 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.


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!


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!”


“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”!


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.)


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.


  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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If you loved the first list, here is Deadliest Blogger’s list of favorite military quotes, part two:

“When the situation is obscure, attack!” – General Heinz Guderian

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” – Sun Tzu

“Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) – Julius Caesar, on the very brief campaign against the Pontians.

1394806.jpg“Few men are born brave. Many become so through training and force of discipline.” – Flavius Vegetius

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” – Winston Churchill, when questioned during Operation Barbarossa how he, a life-long anti-communist, could call for support of Stalin.

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” – General Robert Edward Lee

1394799.jpg “We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means.” – Carl Von Clausewitz

“War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” – JRR Tolkien

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. – Sun Tzu

“In war truth is the first casualty.” – Often attributed to Aeschylus

1394800.jpg“During war truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” – Winston Churchill

“”A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.” – Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., on the value of hard training.

“The art of concentrating strength at one point, forcing a breakthrough, rolling up and securing the flanks on either side, and then penetrating like lightning, before the enemy has time to react, deep into his rear.” – Gen. Erwin Rommel, on the definition of Blitzkrieg (“Lightning War”); as he practiced it in France, 1940


“War is the province of chance.” – Carl von Clausewitz

“I shall return!” – Gen. Douglas MacArthur, on departing from the Philippines in 1942

“I have not yet begun to fight” – John Paul Jones

1394803.jpg“Molon labe!” (Come and take them!) – Leonidas of Sparta, in response to the Persian demand that the Spartans at Thermopylae lay down their arms.

“Nuts” – General Anthony McAuliffe, Dep. Commander 101st Airborne Division at the Battle of the Bulge, in response to the German demand for the surrender of Bastogne.


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Following 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, and tensions between they and the British East India Company led to the outbreak of war between Britain and the Sikh Kingdom (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, 1845 the British and Sikhs fought the first battle of the war, a confused and savage engagement at Mudki.  Eleven days later a bloody second 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 next day, with the Sikhs finally retreating.


After this bloody and nearly disastrous battle, Gough pulled back and rested his forces through the following weeks. The Khalsa, even more battered by the encounter, also pulled back 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 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, 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 won distinction at Mudki and Ferozeshah the previous month.

Now he was tasked to interpose his division between Ranjodh Singh’s advancing forces and Ludhiana.

Smith moved rapidly, force-marching his troops to accomplish this task. Along the way he collected additional forces from outlying garrisons and detachments. 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’s army 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]. Ranjodh Singh’s formidable forces awaiting Smith at Aliwal now numbered 20,000 men and 70 guns.

Smith 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 6 intervening miles, reaching the battlefield at 10am, 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 that 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; and with the artillery massed on the right and center and left. With 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 like 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 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 soldiers; the latter wielding their terrifying kukris. Along with the village the British captured two heavy (large-caliber) guns.


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); 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, most 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 spearhead of most assaults; setting the all-important example of valor that inspired the Indian regiments.

In the face of the British general advance and the danger specifically on 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 and Bengali 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 lancer 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, and after a fierce and bloody minute of melee, 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.


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

Meanwhile the right-wing of the 16th Lancers, commanded by Major 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 certain Sergeant Newsome; who shouted out “Hullo boys, here goes for death or a commission!” Newsome, reaching the Sikh square first, leapt his horse over the kneeling front rank of Sikh infantry and went to grab a Sikh colors. Rushed at from all sides, he was killed, suffering 19 bayonet wounds. But his sacrifice in search of personal glory was not 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.


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.

Image result for Sikh soldiers Anglo-Sikh War

In this charge many of the soldiers and officers became casualties; the 16th sustaining some 144 casualties (out of 300 men deployed). Harry Smith met the squadrons fighting back through the Sikh line and called out “Well done 16th”! In all, the 16th 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.


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.

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 only exception was the 16th Lancers who suffered a disproportionate 50% casualties. 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 made by a grateful monarch and Parliament “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 his greatest victory was behind  him: Aliwal, the perfect battle and the crowning jewel in an exemplary career.



  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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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. The British had for most of the century battled the Xhosa tribes between their Cape Colony and Zululand. The last of these was subdued in 1878. Frere now set his sights on the Zulu Kingdom.

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

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.


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*), 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; and sent out scouts to look for the Zulu army he suspected must be coming.

The Zulus, indeed, were 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 mainbody 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 mainbody 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 fix the advancing Zulus; which Pulleine and he still mistakenly judged to be moving against Chelmsford’s rear, rather than their own position. But Durnford’s force encountered the rapidly advancing left “horn” of the Zulu impi, some 6,000 strong. Durnford 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 main, hastily-forming British position, formed firing line among the other native levies.


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.






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.


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, very well constructed wooden boxes 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!

While this theater-of-the-absurd played out at the supply wagons, the companies on the firing line began to run out of ammunition. As they perceived a lessening in the intensity of the fire they’d been enduring, 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.

His flanks collapsing and his main line out of 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; and 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.


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

As his command was collapsing around him, the unfortunate Pulleine reportedly 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 the Zulus from capturing them. 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 man in the neck and 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 tradition, slit open the bellies of all the fallen. It was a Zulu religious custom, allowing 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, having failed to find the 4,000 men now heading for Pearson’s column: 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 still trying to pry open the desperately needed ammunition crates with their bayonets.

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)



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, 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 3pm 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 more than sufficient ammunition readily available.

The Zulus broke into the burning hospital building at-or-around 6pm; 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 the Victoria Cross.

The battle raged throughout the night, coming to an end around 2am. For the next two hours, until 4am, 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 7am 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 Zulu Campaign.

The Zulu War would go on. Though forced to 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 Chelmsford’s reinforced army returned to Isandlwana and buried the skeletal remains of the dead.

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




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 utterly lacking in any kind of field works or other kind of defenses. 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 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; 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.



* 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.

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

(This is the sixth 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. Or you can read the previous installment 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!)


Philip II, father of Alexander, married at least four times; as well as having multiple concubines. His first (or perhaps second) wife was an Illyrian princess Audata, daughter of king Bardylis, whom he took after his victories in 358 BC to cement the peace between Macedon and the Illyrian Dardanians[1].  We know very little of Audata but her name and heritage, and that she took the royal Macedonian queenly name of Eurydice after their union. However, she was soon supplanted as Philip’s primary queen by Olympias the Molossian princess, mother of Alexander. Audata bore a daughter by Philip, Cynane. She may have died either in childbirth or shortly after, because she soon disappears from the record.

This half-sister of Alexander grew up at the Macedonian court. But for her gender she might have been another great warrior-ruler like her half-brother; for Cynane seems to have been a true-life amazon, as was not uncommon among her mother’s people[2]. When only a girl (perhaps 14) Cynane accompanied her father, king Philip, on campaign against the Illyrians, during which she killed the  Illyrian warrior queen Caeria in battle “with a fatal blow to the throat”[3].

When she was 17 or 18 years old, about 340, Cynane was married to Philip’s nephew, her cousin Amyntas son of Perdiccas. This Macedonian prince was the son of Philip’s older brother, whose death in battle had left Philip as regent for the five-year-old Amyntas[4]. There marriage was of short duration, as Alexander had her husband executed upon taking the Macedonian throne in 359. Thereafter, Cynane left the court to raise their only child, a daughter named Adea, away from the court of Pella on an isolated estate. Thereafter she refused further marriages, preferring to stay the widow of Amyntas and raising her daughter in the Illyrian warrior traditions. Reared like a boy, Adea was taught hunting, weapon-craft, and the science of war; and proved to be as bold as her mother: a true Amazon princess.

In spring of 321, possibly at the time when Craterus and Antipater were occupied with the preparations for their campaign against the Aetolians (see below) Cynane made her first (and, as it was to prove, only) move on the great chessboard of Macedonian imperial politics. Taking her daughter with her, the wealthy princess  left her estate bound for the royal court in Asia, with the intent of presenting her 14-year-old daughter Adea to the girl’s half-uncle, King Philip Arrhidaeus, as a prospective bride. Accompanied by an escort of mercenary soldiers paid from her own purse, she reached the River Strymon near Amphipolis; where she found an armed force sent by Antipater to stop her crossing[5]. But by sheer force of personality (and perhaps the unwillingness of the soldiers to lay violent hands upon the daughter and granddaughter of their beloved Philip) she pushed past this obstacle.

Cynane’s move on the board was a dangerous gambit on her part, as it ran contrary to the plans of Perdiccas the Regent (see Part 5); who at even at this early point may have been planning to marry Cynane’s half-sister, the princess Cleopatra, and take the throne for himself. Perdiccas may also have been cognizant that any son produced by such a union (Philip Arrhidaeus and Adea) would have a very strong claim to the throne, provided the mentally deficient king could indeed father children; superseding that of Alexander IV, child of Alexander and the “barbarian” Roxane. As Perdiccas was aligned more closely with this side of the royal family (Olympias, Cleopatra, Roxane, and Alexander IV) such a shift in power was contrary to his interests.

So, having crossed the Hellespont, the royal amazons and their entourage were met outside Sardis by Perdiccas’ hot-headed brother Alcetus, commanding a strong force of Macedonian soldiers, sent to stop and send them back home to Macedon.

Like his brother, Alcetus was a prince of highland  Orestis in upper Macedonia. Much like the highland nobility of Scotland, the Macedonian highland lords were arrogant, harsh, possessed of a prickly temperament and touchy of their honor. Or, to use a “Game of Thrones” analogy, like the bannerman of the North: one doesn’t expect tact or soft words from an Umber. Brother of the powerful Regent and satrap of recently conquered Pisidia, the high-handed Alcetus was exactly the wrong person to handle the delicate diplomatic challenge posed by Philip’s amazon daughter in a tactful manner.

Romm has suggested that Cynane and Alcetus had grown up together in the royal palace of Pella (he as a page to her father, King Philip) and must have been well-acquainted[6]. Under other circumstances their reunion might have been a pleasant one. But now their interests were diametrically opposed.

Meeting on the road, Alcetus and his troops blocked their passage. Cynane stated boldly, before “the fierce array of armed Macedonians”[7]  her mission, that Philip’s grand-daughter should be queen of Macedon. Alcetus threatened her life if she did not stand-down from her demand. Berating him in front of his men, Cynane denounced him for his “treachery toward the blood of Philip”.[8]

(Alcetus’ Macedonian soldiers) at first paused at the sight of Philippus’ daughter, and the sister of Alexander; but after reproaching Alcetas with ingratitude, undaunted at the number of his forces, and his formidable preparations for battle, she bravely advanced to fight against him. She resolved upon a glorious death, rather than, stripped of her dominions, accept a private life, unworthy of the daughter of Philippus.[9]

Tragedy ensued, and in the resulting scuffle Cynane was slain, perhaps by Alcetus himself. Instantly, the Macedonian soldiery were shocked and then outraged, that a daughter of the royal house had been so foully murdered. They took the 14-year-old Adea under their protection, “howling with rage”[10] against Alcetus and threatening mutiny if her mother’s last wishes were not immediately implemented.

Thanks to his brother’s shortsighted violence Perdiccas now had no choice but to reverse himself and acquiesced to the soldier’s demand. The good will of the Macedonian soldiers must be maintained at all cost. Adea’s marriage to her uncle, King Philip Arrhidaeus, was hastily arranged. The redoubtable Cynane had made her move, and sacrificed herself to “queen” her pawn.

Raised “in the manly arts” of hunting and fighting, Adea/Eurydice may well have seen herself as an amazon warrior, such as often depicted in contemporary Greek art such as on this potter shard

Thus a new player now joined the game. Though not yet 15 years old Adea was ready for the role she was destined to play in the game, and it would be a compelling one. She took the royal name of Eurydice, as did her grandmother Philip’s Illyrian bride. It is by this name that she will henceforth be referred.

Eurydice had, understandably, grown intoxicated by the power of being the darling of the Macedonian soldiery. In this role the young Amazon thrived, and attempted to use this and her close relationship with her “idiot” husband, Philip, to advance herself to the top of the game.[11]  From the beginning she became a thorn in the side of whoever had guardianship of the kings; presuming to speak for her husband and bristling at the authority of mere generals, she of royal blood on both sides. Raised like a man, she seems to have seen no reason she should not be a queen-regnant and lead the Macedonian soldiers (who adored her) as king in all but name.

Carved figurine thought to be Philip II, from the royal Macedonian tomb at Vergina (ancient Aigai). There is controversy surrounding the exact occupants of Tomb 1 at the site. It may be Philip’s tomb, but it could alternatively be the tomb of Philip III Arrhidaeus and Eurydice. In either case, as Arrhidaeus strongly resembled his father this image could represent either king in middle age; and how Arrhidaeus would have looked at the time of his marriage to Eurydice.

The amazon princess seems to have quickly won the trust and affection of her husband. While much older than her, he had the mind of a child. It is possible but doubtful that their relationship was a sexual one; but it certainly seems to have been one of affectionate loyalty on both of their parts. She was the senior partner in all matters, and through him attempted to play “the game of thrones” to their mutual advantage.

Before concluding this chapter in the tale something needs be noted regarding the attitude and motivation of the Macedonian soldiers, rank-and-file, who placed Eurydice on the throne beside Philip Arrhidaeus.

The common soldier was for the most part unconcerned with the political machinations of their leaders and the grandees who played this game of thrones. But these hardened veterans who comprised the “Macedonian people in arms” were, by legal right under Macedonian tradition, the arbiters of who sat the throne. While their power was very nearly absolute, each Macedonian king was elected upon the death of his predecessor by the Macedonian army. In practice the candidate must come from the royal family, the Argeads (or Temenidae). The loyalty of the Macedonians to their royal house was nearly unshakable. In all their actions the rank-and-file sought to serve their king and the royal house as best they could see it. Any player in the great game had to take into account that the soldiers, at this stage, were loyal not to their generals but to the king(s); and obeyed their leaders only so far as these leaders appeared to be acting in the name or interests of the royal house.

Ancient Sardis, site of much of the initial intrigues that led to the First War of the Diadochi

In the case of Cynane and Adea/Eurydice, the Macedonian soldiers acted out of loyalty to these lesser branches of the royal tree, over that of the Regent. They were outraged by Alcetus’ slaying of Cynane, daughter of Philip; and it is surprising he was not himself lynched on the spot. This loyalty and willingness to disobey what they considered an “unlawful” order that went against what they perceived as the good of the royal house trumped military discipline and the chain of command. Despite leading them to victory in Cappadocia (the first victorious campaign since the death of Alexander) and against the Pisidians, Perdiccas’ authority was still dependent upon his position as regent for the kings. In so far as the soldiers thought he acted in the interest of the royal house, he had their conditional obedience, but not their love. That, they reserved for their kings; and particularly their personal choice, Philip Arrhidaeus and now his spirited young queen!

Servants and defenders of the royal house, the Macedonian soldiers here as at Babylon “united in opposition to their general’s wrongdoings and around the future of the royal house and their king”[12]. It was a pattern that would repeat itself in the coming years of strife; and the player in the game, no matter how hitherto successful, who forgot where their loyalty truly lay would pay for that mistake dearly.


Perdiccas was now forced to reassess his position. The Cynane incident had shown how tenuous  his position was with the army, shaken his control of the kings (particularly Arrhidaeus) and perhaps the loyalty of some of his top officers. Themselves ambitious men, some of these perhaps now smelled a hint of blood in the water.  At a council of his chief philoi (“friends”, his inner circle of advisers) Eumenes again argued against the decision to marry Antipater’s daughter Nicaea. Instead, the Cardian, representing the interests of Queen Olympias in Epirus, pushed for marriage to the princess Cleopatra, Alexander’s sister. Alcetus had argued for caution: doing so would certainly bring war with Antipater and Craterus (the “Europeans”). It is perhaps a sign of Perdiccas’ distrust of his chief military lieutenants, Seleucus (who was nominally second-in-command to the Regent), Peithon satrap of Media, and Antigenes who commanded the elite Silver Shields guards brigade that they seem to have taken either a subsidiary role or none at all in this debate.

Actor Neil Jackson as Perdiccas in 2004 film, “Alexander”

Perdiccas now (or perhaps earlier) ordered Alexander’s body brought north from Babylon, where it had lain in state since the conqueror’s death. Though Alexander’s last will had specified that his body be laid to rest at the Oasis of Siwah, home to the ancient oracle of Amon Ra, for reasons of his own ambitions Perdiccas now wanted to personally take the king’s body back to be buried instead in Macedon, at the royal burial site at Aigai. Perdiccas (with Alexander’s sister Cleopatra at his side) would escort the dead kings body home, perhaps with the late king’s mother Olympias coming to meet them from Epirus. In Macedonian tradition a king buried his predecessor and gave the funeral oration. With Alexander’s mother and sister beside him, Perdiccas laying Alexander to rest in the ancient tombs of the Argead kings was powerful symbolism; which he would use as opportunity to put aside the two kings, “idiot” and infant, and proclaim himself king in Macedon.

Vergina, Greece, the site of ancient Aigai, earliest capital of the Macedonian kingdom and site of the royal burial grounds of the Argead kings (above). It was here that Alexander buried his father, Philip II, and the Regent Perdiccas planned to bring the body of the conqueror from Babylon. The tombs were pillaged over time by successive invaders; but still managed to yield up valuable archaeological treasures in recent years. In 1976 a team of archaeologist under the leadership of  Manolis Andronikos discovered what is thought to be the tomb of either Philip II or of Philip III. Several other royal tombs at Vergina have been uncovered since. 

But while waiting, Perdiccas decided to settle one last piece of business in Asia Minor; to tie off one loose thread.


The old one-eyed satrap of Phrygia had been independent too long. He had disobeyed Perdiccas orders earlier to aid Eumenes in the conquest of Cappadocia, and Perdiccas suspected his loyalty. Antigonas was summoned to appear, a list of charges having been prepared against him.

Sean Connery as Antigonas “One-Eyed”, as a young soldier in Philip’s service to aging “Diadochi”

With the gruesome fate of others who had recently crossed the Regent fresh in his mind, Antigonas decided his best chance of survival lay in fleeing to the only power capable of nay-saying Perdiccas: Antipater and Craterus in Greece.

Crossing the Aegean, he traveled to wild Aetolia in the west, where Craterus was leading the European’s forces in the final stages of their campaign to crush the Aetolians.

Aetolia is a land of forests and mountains, perfect terrain for sturdy and independent hill tribesmen. The Aetolian League was still some years in the future, but even at this early date the Aetolian towns and cantons had banded together in matters of foreign policy. Much like the later Swiss, they had hitherto resisted conquest or dominance by their more “civilized” Greek neighbors. The Athenian general Demosthenes, the best of Athenian commanders in the early years of the Second Peloponnesian War, had been sent packing when he tried to subdue the Aetolians in 426 BC.

They were a notorious hard nut to crack.

But during the Lamian War they had sided with Macedon’s enemies, and noW Antipater and his new son-in-law Craterus were at last bringing them to heel.

They came with a considerable force, victorious veterans of the Lamian war. The Europeans had the largest number of Macedonian infantry (phalangites) of all the armies under service in 321, a very formidable force indeed. Diodorus states:

At this time Antipater and Craterus had taken the field against the Aetolians with thirty thousand infantry and twenty-five hundred cavalry; for of those who had taken part in the Lamian War, the Aetolians alone were left unconquered.[13]

The scrappy Aetolians were not daunted by the armament coming against them. In true hill tribesmen fashion they abandoned those villages and towns in the valleys that could not be defended, strongly garrisoned those well fortified, and took to the remote hills:

….gathering together all who were in the full vigor of manhood to the number of ten thousand, they retired to the mountainous and rough places, in which they placed the children, the women, and the old, together with the greater part of their wealth. The cities that could not be defended they abandoned, but those that were particularly strong they secured, each with a considerable garrison, and boldly awaited the approach of the enemy.[14]

The Macedonians were past-masters at mountain warfare; much of their native land being highland regions. But the Aetolians initially gave as good as they got, repelling Macedonian incursions into their hills with losses. Though the narrative doesn’t specifically state it, the fortified towns were either blockaded or captured. It is likely that the younger Craterus, who had spent many years under Alexander campaigning against hill tribes in Anatolia, Persia, and Bactria (Afghanistan) took the lead in these operations; as the vigorous “Old Rope” Antipater was pushing 77 years old.

The rugged and beautiful landscape of Aetolia provided perfect refuge for its defenders and a graveyard for would-be conquerors. Here Craterus and Antipater campaigned in 321 BC 

As the winter of 321-320 came on, the Aetolians expected the Macedonian forces to withdraw to friendly territory. In this expectation they were dismayed, when Craterus constructed shelters for his troops to winter in Aetolia, preventing the hill-men from coming down from the high places. Faced with the prospect of starvation through the winter, their prospects looked grim. Capitulation seemed a certainty.

Then Antigonas arrived, bringing ominous news from Asia.

Far from being prepared to accept Craterus in Asia as a partner in the Regency for the two kings, as specified in the original Babylon settlement of 323, Antigonas informed his old comrade Antipater and Craterus that Perdiccas was preparing to march into Macedonia to deprive them both of their independent commands.  Worse he would first repudiate his marriage to Antipater’s daughter and marry instead the princess Cleopatra, paving his way to the throne. He also told them of the pitiful fate of Cynane at the hands of Perdiccas’ brother. This spurred the Europeans into action:

Craterus and Antipater, dumbfounded by the unexpected news, met in council with their commanders. When the situation had been presented for deliberation, it was unanimously decided to make peace with the Aetolians on whatever terms were possible, to transport the armies with all speed to Asia, to assign the command of Asia to Craterus and that of Europe to Antipater, and also to send an embassy to Ptolemy to discuss concerted action…[15]

An armistice was hastily made with the Aetolians, while plans were made to move against Perdiccas.


For two years the body of Alexander had waited in Babylon for his funeral carriage to be completed, which would in turn carry his body to its final resting place. What that would be is disputed to this day. Diodorus claims that the leaders agreed in Babylon that the body should be interned at the Temple of Ammon at the oasis of Siwah, in accordance with late king’s own wishes. But Perdiccas had other ideas.

The funeral carriage was now ready, and the body of the dead conqueror, lying in a sarcophagus of hammered gold and preserved “with spices such as could make the body sweet-smelling and incorruptible”  could begin its journey.

The funeral carriage, or catafalque, prepared over two years, was truly a thing of wonder. Diodorus describes it so:

At the top of the carriage was built a vault of gold, eight cubits wide and twelve long, covered with overlapping scales set with precious stones. Beneath the roof all along the work was a rectangular cornice of gold, from which projected heads of goat-stags in high relief. Gold rings two palms broad were suspended from these, and through the rings there ran a festive garland beautifully decorated in bright colors of all kinds. At the ends there were tassels of network suspending large bells, so that any who were approaching heard the sound from a great distance. On each corner of the vault on each side was a golden figure of Victory holding a trophy. The colonnade that supported the vault was of gold with Ionic capitals. Within the colonnade was a golden net, made of cords the thickness of a finger…[16]

Golden tablets showed various martial scenes from Alexander’s life. This magnificent carriage, upon which Alexander’s golden sarcophagus would lie, was pulled by “sixty-four mules, selected for their strength and size. Each of them was crowned with a gilded crown, each had a golden bell hanging by either cheek, and about their necks were collars set with precious stones.”[17]

Two artist’s images of Alexander’s splendid funeral cart

On its journey the funeral carriage would be accompanied by a small army of engineers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, muleteers and sutlers,  and workmen to make repairs along the way to the road it must pass over, and to fix any damage to the carriage itself. It was to be escorted by Arrhidaeus, the officer who had been in charge of the preparation of the catafalque and a force of troops sent by Perdiccas.

As it traveled west, people along the way stopped to gaze in wonder. Crowds followed this moving temple to the fallen conqueror, who was already being worshiped as a god. Diodorus tells us that “from every city into which it came the whole people went forth to meet it and again escorted it on its way out, not becoming sated with the pleasure of beholding it.”[18]

In July of 321, near Damascus, Ptolemy met the funeral procession with a force of cavalry. It may be that Arrhidaeus colluded with Ptolemy in this. Perdiccas’ troops were scattered, and Alexander’s catafalque and the royal corpse within was taken. Ptolemy brought the body of the conqueror back to Egypt. But not to bury it at Siwah, as Alexander had wanted. Instead, he kept it at his temporary provincial capital at ancient Memphis; within sight of the pyramids. Ultimately he planned to house it at his new city of Alexandria at the Nile’s mouth, then still under construction.

Possession of Alexander’s body was Ptolemy’s way of proclaiming himself, in one sense, the conqueror’s heir. In time a story was circulated, from the Ptolemaic court, that Philip II was Ptolemy’s actual father; making him Alexander’s half-brother. This was another way of attaching himself and the dynasty he would found to the magic of Alexander’s name and legacy. With the body housed in the city named for him, the Ptolemies were saying to the Hellenic World that Alexandria was the one true capital of Alexander’s empire and themselves his heirs.

Alexander’s corpse would eventually rest in the city that bore his name, the magnificent Alexandria-in-Egypt. In 321 the city was still under construction, and the body was taken temporarily to Memphis

But that was still in the future. For now, in 321, this theft of the royal corpse was the ultimate act of defiance against the authority of the Regent. It was not the first.

Ptolemy had been given Egypt as his satrapy at the Babylonian settlement in 323 (see Part 2). When he arrived he relieved Alexander’s former satrap, the Greek Cleomenes; who stayed on as his deputy (and likely Perdiccas’ spy).[19] In 322 Ptolemy brought Cleomenes up on charges of financial malfeasance, and after executing him confiscated Cleomenes’ accumulated wealth, which amounted to 8000 talents. (It is not clear if this huge amount was his personal, ill-gotten fortune or money in the provincial treasury Cleomenes had raised during his stewardship.  This large sum allowed Ptolemy to raise a force of mercenaries, some 8,000 strong. His popularity with the Macedonian soldiers, dating back to when he was an officer of Alexander’s, was also attracting to Egypt a number of officers and rankers seeking employment in his private satrapal army.

None of which events went unnoticed by Perdiccas, who watched these activities with suspicion.

In 323 civil strife broke out in the Greek city-state of Cyrene in western Libya, between democratic and oligarchical factions. Cyrene was an ally of the empire, a useful buffer between the Macedonian satrapy of Egypt and the Carthaginian Empire to the west. The oligarchs appealed to Ptolemy for help. In 322 he responded by sending his general, the Macedonian Ophellas, with a force to intervene. Cyrene was occupied, and annexed to Ptolemy’s Egypt. This without ever petitioning the kings (through their regent, Perdiccas) for permission.

Actor Elliot Cowan as Ptolemy in 2004’s “Alexander”

From Perdiccas’ perspective, Ptolemy had for two years been thumbing his nose at the Regent’s authority. The theft of Alexander’s corpse was the final straw. The gauntlet was thrown down, and Perdiccas had either to declare the popular Ptolemy an outlaw or resign his authority as regent.

Perdiccas chose the former.

The stage was set for war. The First War of the Diadochi had begun. It was the beginning of a struggle that would last, with but brief intermissions, for fourty years. It would rage across Alexander’s empire, engaging its full military resources. The initial struggle would pit Perdiccas, as representative of the central authority, against on the one hand the “Europeans”,  Antipater and  Craterus (and, in a supporting role, Antigonas), and against their junior partner Ptolemy in Egypt.

The Europeans were already marshaling their forces to cross into Asia. Perdiccas decided to deal with Ptolemy, the junior partner, first.



  1. Philip was also married early in his life to a Elimiot princess named Phila. This union produced no children, and their is no record of what became of this wife, or whether or not she preceded or followed Audata in the list of his wives. There is also dispute as to the timing of Philip’s marriage to Audata; whether it was before or after his victory over her father.
  2. Amazon-like warrior women are far more common in myths and legends than in real history. Physiology works strongly against women in all competitive physical activities vis-a-vis men; and this is particularly true in warfare. Men are just by-and-large stronger and faster than women. But there are exceptions, and certainly warrior-maidens must have existed. Illyria in particular seems to have produced a culture that encouraged and engendered fighting females.
  3. Polyaenus VIII, 60
  4. Amyntas was briefly titular king of Macedon, and is thus reckoned as Amyntas IV. But within a year of assuming the regency and guardianship of the boy king, Philip defeated the Illyrians and avenged Perdiccas’ death; and was hailed by the Macedonians as their king. Thereafter Philip took care of his nephew, raising the boy at court. But there was no further talk of his accession to his father’s throne.
  5. Though it is sometimes stated that Antipater waited at the Strymon to stop her, it is impossible to believe that the stern and implacable “Old Rope” could have been there in person and yet allowed her to pass. Almost certainly a mere lieutenant commanded the force sent to hinder her passage, one Cynane was able to over-awe in a way she never could have Antipater himself.
  6. Romm, James, Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire; Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2011, p. 146
  7. Macurdy, Grace Harriet, Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman-Power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt, John Hopkins University Press, 1932; p. 51-52.
  8. Arrian, Successors I, 22-24
  9. Polyaenus VIII, 60
  10. Macurdy, Hellenistic Queens; p. 50
  11. Bosworth unkindly referred to their union as that of an “amazon and an idiot”. As previously discussed Philip III Arrhidaeus  was very possibly autistic, if not brain damaged by some childhood trauma. It was suggested by ancient sources hostile to her that Olympias may have deranged the little prince with the steady applications of some toxin, in order to remove a rival to her son. While this would not have been out of character for that Medea-like harridan, it is just as likely that the boy was born with some version of autism. Arrhidaeus comes down in the history as a very sad and sympathetic character; used by those he relied upon for their own ends.
  12. Roisman, Joseph, Alexander’s Veterans and the Early Wars of the Successors; University of Texas Press, 2012; p. 106
  13. Dio, XVIII, 24, 1
  14. Dio, XVIII, 24, 2
  15. Dio, XVIII, 25, 4
  16. Dio, XVIII, 26, 5-6
  17. Dio, XVIII, 27, 5
  18. Dio, XVIII, 28, 1
  19. It has been argued, perhaps correctly, that Cleomenes was merely nomarch of one of the districts in Egypt, rather than the provincial satrap.


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.
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This time we focuses on the Civil War’s “Wizard of the Saddle”

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.

1549921.jpgForrest’s background was that of a self-made millionaire; his fortune made before the war as a land speculator, planter, slave trader, and even Mississippi Riverboat Gambler! He had also gained a reputation as a duelist and a man of extreme personal courage. His fiery temper was terrifying to subordinates and superiors alike; and on at least one occasion threatened his superior (Braxton Bragg) with death.

A rank amateur with no military training, Forrest enlisted, along with his younger brother and son, as a private in the Tennessee Mounted Rifles when the Civil War broke out; despite the exemption granted major planters from military service. He quickly showed his natural command ability. Upon seeing how badly equipped his fellow soldiers were, Forrest offered at his own expense to outfit a cavalry regiment. Despite having no formal military education, he was commissioned by the state’s Governor as a Lieutenant Colonel and authorized to recruit and train a regiment of Confederate Mounted Rangers. In October 1861 this unit was christened, “Forrest’s Cavalry Corps”. The elite company of this force was his own Escort Company, for which he selected the best soldiers available; and became the best Confederate cavalry in the Western Theater.

1549914.jpgHis bold leadership and the quality of his command won early distinction; particularly at the Battle of Sacramento in December 1861, and two months later at Ft. Donelson. Here he refused to surrender his forces, and broke out of Grant’s encirclement with 4,000 men. After the surrender of Ft. Donelson, with Nashville on the verge of surrender, he evacuated machinery and key personnel from the city before it could fall into Union hands.

The day after the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Shiloh, Grant dispatched Sherman with two infantry brigades and two battalions of cavalry in pursuit of the retreating Confederate forces. At a place that came to be known as Fallen Timbers, Forrest with 300 of his horsemen charged Sherman’s vanguard. The Confederate riders charged through the Union picket line, and nearly captured Sherman himself. As more Federal infantry came up, the Confederates pulled back, except for Forrest; who found himself in the midst of an entire Union Brigade.  After emptying his revolver, he laid about himself with his saber; before being shot at close range, the bullet piercing his side and lodging near his spine. Forrest effected his escape by grabbing-up a union solder, and pulling him up onto the front of his saddle. Using this unfortunate as a human-shield, Forrest spurred out of the encirclement. (Throughout the war he is credited with personally killing, with his own hands, 30 enemy soldiers: the most ever by an American general. He had 29 horse killed under him throughout the war; causing Forrest to comment that he ended the war “one up”.)

1549918In July 1862, Forrest won the First Battle of Murfreesboro, causing the defeat and surrender of some 900 Federal troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Turpin Crittenden with all their armaments. During the Vicksburg Campaign he led his cavalry deep behind the Union lines; discomfiting Grant’s plans with mobile raids behind Union lines. His greatest victory came in 1864, at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads. Here with a mere 3,500-man force he defeated 8,500 men under Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis. Using  superior tactics and mobility, he captured 16 artillery pieces, 176 wagons and 1,500 stands of small arms; inflicting on Sturgis’ force 223 killed, 394 wounded and 1,623 men missing (for a cost of only 96 Confederates killed).

Forrest spent the remainder of the war playing hit-and-run against vastly superior Union forces; causing a frustrated Sherman to call him “That devil, Forrest”. Though he never had more than a light division’s worth of troops under his command, and was constantly hampered by the orders of generals inferior to himself in ability, he ended the war as perhaps the most feared commander on either side. When asked after the war what the secret to his success was, he responded, “By getting there first with the most men.” (Not, as often quoted, “Git thar firstest with the mostest!”)

1549919.jpgIn 1866, after the end of the war, Forrest is alleged to have joined the newly formed Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It is thought that Forrest spent some two years with the KKK, before disbanding the group (though it continued on in other forms to this day). Forrest however, in testimony before Congress in 1871, denied association with the Klan. In 1875, Forrest attended a racial reconciliation meeting with black southerners; for which he was criticized by white racists. His speech, which was characterized by the New York Times as “friendly”, seems to make clear that he was at odds with the goals of the Klan then and later:

I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt – that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going…When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.

Forrest died two years later, in 1877.

Forrest’s views on race or negro rights, and his connection (or not) with the KKK are still the subject of controversy. What is not in dispute is his amazing ability to discomfit his enemies by rapid maneuver and sudden and unexpected attack. He practice lightning warfare 80 years before the German blitzkrieg; a man born generations before his time. No less a judge than his old adversary, Sherman, gave him a fitting epitaph:

“He (Forrest) was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.”


Great Captains: Frederick the Great

Great Captains: Napoleon Bonaparte

Great Captains: Alexander the Great

Great Captains: Julius Caesar

Great Captains: Hannibal Barca

Great Captains: George S. Patton, Jr

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