You can mend a broken Temple, but not a broken heart


An Indian Epic in three parts to match the Indian holy trinity. It begins by asking why so many UK Indian foods places are called Muhgal ? Well, next time you look in the eye of a pretty punjabi girl you might just catch a reflection, maybe a trick of the light but it could be a …

Shiva – The Destroyer

… tiny image of the Taj Mahal or maybe it was a sumptuously dressed, turbaned man, sitting in a Peacock throne, probably the richest man in the world at that time, who could afford a monument in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite of his many wives who had died in childbirth having already produced eighteen children, and next to whom he himself would be buried.

He was Shah Jehan and his family had come to power one hundred years earlier; whilst King Henry the eighth  of England was chasing Anne Boleyn through the corridors of Hampton Court Palace, an ambitious Prince of Fergana, in modern day Uzbekistan, launched a raid from his base in Kabul to plunder the rich lands of northern India. In 1527, near a small Punjab (‘five waters’) village he came up against the vast host of India’s ruler, the Sultan of Delhi, forty thousand strong and with one hundred war elephants. The Prince, a descendant of Chingiz Khan (Genghis Khan), through Timur (Tamburlaine), could muster only fifteen thousand against him. But he had an advantage; his men were armed with pikes and arquebuses and had twenty field cannons. A few volleys from these frightened the elephants and sent them stampeding back through the Sultan’s men. By late afternoon it was all over; among the dead lay another Afghan adventurer, Ibrahim Lodhi, the last Sultan of Delhi. The name of the village where this Indian Agincourt was fought was Panipat, and the victorious prince was Babar Padishah (Babur); the first Mughal Emperor of India.

While Elizabeth the first presided over Tudor England, the Mughal domains under Babar’s grandson, Akbar, where spread across the whole of northern India to create an empire that rivalled Ming China in wealth and sophistication; Europe, on the verge of the Thirty Years war, simply had nothing like it. By the time of Akbar, Mughal India was an economic and military superpower, but one that had discovered stability through a tolerance of India’s religious traditions. Although the empire was officially Muslim, the emperor encouraged an open, moderate and Sufist interpretation of Islam and had no difficulty engaging with followers of other religions, even taking Hindu Rajput  princesses as his wives.

Many of his reputed achievements are down to obsequious biographers, but the reality was impressive enough. The stability he brought created not only an economic boom, but a cultural flowering also as the artistic traditions of Islam and Hinduism came together in architecture, portrait painting, calligraphy and Persian verse, Persian being the lingua franca of India before English. He actively engaged in discussions with religious figures; not just Muslims and Hindus, but Christians and Jews also. He even founded his own religious movement, called Din i Ilahi; achievements all the more remarkable for the fact that Akbar was completely illiterate.

By the time Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jehan, built the Taj Mahal, Europe had been through the convulsions of the wars of religion. Its richest country, Germany, had been shattered into so many pieces that it would take three centuries to put them back together again – his English contemporary was Oliver Cromwell. Mughal rule now reached its zenith, extending over most of India from the capital at Agra and is remembered alongside the Abbasid Caliphate as one of the great Islamic civilizations.

Shah Jehan is remembered as the builder of the greatest monument to lost love, yet that was not the end of his sorrow by any means. Whilst Henry Tudor was reduced to furtive assignations with the Boleyn sisters, the Mughal emperors solved the same underlying problem by having a harem. The greatest problem that this created however, was a surplus of male claimants to the throne in the event that the emperor died. The usual outcome of this was to produce a civil war whenever that happened. In Shah Jehan’s case his sons didn’t even wait for him to die, and started fighting among each other anyway. The two rival claimants were the emperor’s favourite Dara, and his younger brother Aurangzeb. Jehan had groomed Dara for power; well educated and urbane, he would have been a modernising force for the empire and is one of the great might have been’s of history. Despite his intellectual gifts however, he was no soldier; and so Aurangzeb, a dour puritanical man, won. He imprisoned Shah Jehan and then had Dara paraded through the streets of Delhi before having him beheaded and the head brought to him; further, according to legend, he had it presented to Shah Jehan on a silver platter at dinner. Jehan died a broken man in 1666, in the same year that a spark in Pudding Lane, London lit a conflagration that grew to engulf the entire city and burned for 3 days. By the time it had finished, medieval and Roman London had been obliterated and had to be rebuilt from scratch.

Aurangzeb, last of the great Mughals, rolled back the tide of moderate Sufism and imposed a stricter interpretation of Islam, even reintroducing the jizyah (tax on non Muslims). He succeed in securing stability, but at the cost of spending most of his remaining life campaigning with the army in the Deccan. Aurangzeb’s peace brought stagnation for the empire, at time when Europe, newly equipped with Protestantism and printing presses, was undergoing an intellectual renaissance. You see, Aurungzeb’s contemporaries were Gottfried Leibnitz, René Descartes and Isaac Newton.

Vishnu – The Preserver

Isaac Newton was more than just a mathematician, he should more accurately be described as a scientific mystic. His writings cover not just physics, but Christian mysticism and Alchemy; the latter being not just an early form of chemistry, but a whole philosophy and belief system. ‘Solve et coagula’ are the two alchemical processes in nature, Dissolve and Coagulate, given mathematical expression as Differentiate and Integrate. In later life, the nation’s greatest brain was put in charge of the nation’s most important asset; he was made head of the Royal Mint. There was a great deal of money around, due to burgeoning trade with India and America, thanks to the effects of a document signed by Elizabeth Tudor, during the reign of Akbar. This allowed the incorporation of a company to conduct trade with the Indies and China. Its first representatives arriving at the court of Akbar failed to make any impression at all on the records of the time; little did the great Mughal know, but those oddly dressed, uncouth ferengi (foreigners) would one day be his dynasty’s nemesis. They were the world’s first global corporation, the British East India Company.

From its early beginnings in the reign of Akbar’s son Jehangir, the Company extended its operations from its first factory (as trading posts were then called) on the Coromandel coast. As the Empire crumbled under the succession of weak emperors that followed Aurangzeb, the Company’s holdings expanded; they established local monopolies and fought off rivals, either Indian or other Europeans – their imperial strategy wasn’t Roman, it was Phoenician. Before long, the Company had become a force within the politics of the Mughal state, and a wealthy one at that. By 1757, they were vying for control of a Mughal province, Bengal. At Palashi (Plassey), a small Company force of one thousand squaddies and two thousand sepoys (from sephai, Persian for soldier) faced the fifty thousand men of the army of the Nawab of Bengal across the flooded Hoogly river. They were led by Robert Clive, a man who had, like many Company men, been shipped out to India as a teenager and had lived most of their adult lives there. Prior to this he had been a notorious juvenile delinquent who had been expelled from three schools and accused of running a protection racket in his home town of Market Drayton, in Shropshire. Thus ideally educated for a career in Mughal politics, Clive achieved victory by launching a surprise attack across the flooded river with his tiny army, whilst at that same moment half the enemy army deserted, the result of an enormous bribe that he just paid to the Nawab’s main ally, Mir Jafar. Not for nothing did Nehru say that Palashi ‘left an unpleasant taste in the mouth’, but alas such were the noble and gentlemanly antecedents of Company rule in the sub continent.

With control of Bengal, they obtained a firman (imperial decree) giving them the right to collect taxes, and their rise became unstoppable. From the presidency towns of Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai) they grew to become the single most powerful force in Indian politics. Their defeat of the Hindu power of the Maratha Confederacy removed their last significant military opponent and they were left in control of the country; in effect, the old Mughal empire, but run by a Governor General and a board of directors  after what was, in effect, a board room takeover; creating a  global company with shareholders in London and a vast Indian workforce. In fact, this corporation had not just become the most powerful  force on the sub continent – with the vast resources of the former Mughal state at its disposal, Company India by the 19th century was the most powerful entity in eastern hemisphere. A company that not only ran a government, it had its own army, its own navy and even its own flag (the stars and stripes, with the stars replaced by the union flag). It had done so by working within the Indian system and in so doing had become Indian. This was a time when Company officials, many married to Indians, would attend Hindu temples and give offerings for the success of a venture. It was the time of the White Mughals; men like James Kirkpatrick, the Company agent to the Nizam of Hyderabad who played a deadly game of cat and mouse with his French Jacobin opponents during the Napoleonic wars and conducted a tragic love affair with a teenaged Muslim noblewoman, Khair ul Nissa, for whom he converted to Shia Islam; or John Nicholson, a colonel in the Company army in the 1850’s, whose story is the strangest of all.

When, in 1857 at Barrackpore, Mangal Pandey was ordered to bite into a cartridge that he considered unclean, a whirlwind was unleashed that led ultimately to the Company’s demise. The conflict came about because the Company forgot its own golden rule – always respect Indian religion; it was known as ‘the Great Mutiny’ to the British and the ‘First Independence war’ to the Indians . A bitter and viscously fought conflict, in which both sides gratuitously killed civilians,  it ended when Nicholson led a Company army of four thousand Scottish highlanders, Sikhs and Ghurkhas against twenty thousand rebels holed up in the fortress of Delhi. Although at first purely a mutiny among Hindu troops, the rebellion had quickly spread to other religious groups; if I tell you that a reading of the contemporary accounts soon turns up words like “mujahideen” and “jihad”  then you get a fair idea of what it developed into.

Nicholson is perhaps unique among Britons in having personally inspired a religious cult. The Company policy of employing high caste Hindus as sepoys produced not only Mangal Pandey, but also a group of soldiers in Nicholson’s unit who had decided, after due deliberation, that the commander was an incarnation of Vishnu, and founded a cult called Nikal Seyn based on it.  Nicholson, the man, was a charismatic and authoritarian Dubliner with lush, swept back dark hair and a long thick beard that reached down to his chest, feared for his ferocious temper; and who considered this sort of behaviour as pagan idolatry. Apparently, he tolerated them if they kept it private, but when they started chanting and ringing bells on parade he lost his rag and had them whipped and thrown in the stockade. This didn’t put them off however, and for a while the cult flourished among his men. I’d love to be able to tell you that Nicholson repaid this touching devotion, but it wouldn’t be true. The truth was that he didn’t like India very much; its climate was unspeakably hot, the food unbearably spicy and the locals apparently divided into those who wanted to kill him and those wanted to dedicate cults to him. Nicholson was a brave man though; he died in the final assault and was known in Victorian Britain as the Hero of Delhi.

Inside the city, the rebels had proclaimed the elderly Bahadur Shah Zafar, last of the Mughals, as emperor and rallied round him. Bahadur, then a frail old man in his eighties, was a prisoner in his own palace, so completely stripped of power that he was little more than a puppet of the Company Resident (Ambassador). He devoted his few remaining days to composing some of the finest Persian verse of Mughal era, whilst making feeble attempts to prevent the mass adultery of his harem with the palace guards.

With its military victory secure, the Company staged a show trail in which Bahadur was accused of leading the rebellion and arraigned for treason; a ludicrous charge, since he had tried everything to dissuade the rebels from proclaiming him their leader and had wanted nothing to do with them; quite apart from which the Company was technically the vassal of the Mughal emperor and if anyone were guilty of treason, it was them. But such legal niceties were considered unnecessary, and Bahadur was duly convicted and sent into exile in Burma, where he died shortly after. Thus did the Mughals arrive on a stallion carrying a matchlock musket and depart in a palanquin, clutching a book of verse.

As it turned out however, the Company fared little better. Despite its victory, such was the shock in Britain at the death and mayhem that the war had unleashed that demands for reform resulted in the liquidation of the Company and the imposition of direct rule from London; thus did that unique experiment in the blending of two cultures, Company India,  become that magnificent, but oh-so arrogant, symbol of Empire, the Raj.

As for Nicholson, his grave can still be found; close to Delhi’s Kashmiri Gate, which he died trying to capture. He is referenced in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, when Kim meets an elderly Sepoy, a veteran of the mutiny, who sings the song of Nikal Seyn as they walk the great trunk road from Umballa to Delhi. Perhaps he was a Pandie (rebel), or maybe he was a Company man who had served under Nicholson, and still bore the mark of the punishment he received.

But what of the cult members, what was it that had led them to believe that Nicholson was an incarnation of Vishnu ? I recommend the following – first strip to a loincloth then get tied to a wooden post in the blazing Indian sun. To your left the Colonel is standing stony faced next to a blonde drummer boy in a red tunic who beats a tattoo. Behind you a gigantic Scottish sergeant says “can you embrace this pillar if your Vishnu is in it also ?” who then sends a river of pain down your back with a leather whip.

In those circumstances, Im advised that the Colonel’s head turned to that of a lion and razor sharp claws extended from this fingers as he holds up the broken body of the tyrant demon king Hiranyakashipu; for he is the avatar Narashima, the fourth incarnation of Vishnu.

Brahma – The Creator

In England, in 1469, the armies of the Red and the White roses, that would later join to form the Tudor rose, fought each other at Edgecott Moor near Banbury in Oxfordshire.  In Punjab however, that year saw the birth of a son to Mata Tripta, whose husband Mehta Kalu was an crop accountant for a Muslim landlord in a town forty miles west of Lahore called Rai Bhoi di Talalwandi (Nankana Sahib in modern Pakistan); both were Hindus of the Vedic Kshatri caste. From an early age the boy had a precocious talent, showing an interest in divine matters at the age of five and at the age of seven, amazing his teacher by likening the single penstroke that is the first letter of the Persian alphabet to the unity and singularity of God. He studied Arabic and Persian at  Madrassa, and mastered the latter so quickly that he again surprised his teachers by composing an acrostic in Persian at the age of ten.

After marriage the young man settled into domestic life, working by day, and by evening meditating and composing hymns with his musician friend Mardana, a Muslim, which they performed to the townsfolk. One day, at the age of twenty seven he went down to the river Bain to bathe and was not seen again for three days. When he finally emerged he had undergone a spiritual revelation, and was at first unable to speak; when he finally did it was to declare “na koi hindu na koi musalman” (there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim). From this moment began his missionary work as a Guru, to spread the message of his divine revelation by preaching and the singing of hymns. He travelled widely throughout India and the Middle East, preaching and singing, accompanied by Mardana. In Benares (Varanasi), he watched Hindus, bathing in the sacred Ganges, throw water at the moon “If your water can reach the Moon, can it reach my farm also, which is only a few miles away ?” he asked them; In Mecca, he was upbraided by an Imam for sleeping with his feet pointing to the Kaaba “then can you point my feet to the direction where there is no God ?” was his reply. He preached of a single God, and of a realisation of God that came from the singing of his virtues and the leading of a good and just life. The three pillars of his faith where Naam Japna (meditation on God by singing and chanting), Kirat Karni (moral rectitude and the earning of an honest living) and Vand Chakna (share and consume together). As he travelled and preached, his following grew, drawing members from all sections of Punjab society, but most frequently from among the Jat peasantry; a vegetarian, pacifistic community who not only opposed sati (widow burning), but actually allowed women to join;  all castes and all religions came together to “See the brotherhood of all mankind as the highest order of Yogis; conquer your own mind, and conquer the world.”. This revolutionary new faith managed to combine the humanity and compassion of Buddha and Mahavira, with the ecstatic spirituality of Bhakti Hinduism and the casteless, monotheistic, community of Islam.

In 1527, now an old man, he was in the Punjabi city of Saidpur (Eminabad in present day Pakistan), when it was attacked and looted by Babar Padishah’s troops. He was captured and imprisoned, and while there he sang to his fellow prisoners; as with many of the Guru’s songs he sang not only of the virtues of God, but also of what he saw around him; and what he saw around him there was the invasion; his song was a divine hymn about the slaughter of innocents by the Mughals. A man passing the dungeon heard the beauty of his singing and had the singer brought before him. The man was Babar Padishah himself and, impressed by the Guru’s bravery and dignity, as well as the beauty of his singing, asked his forgiveness and offered him a traditional Afghan remedy for a troubled soul – a large lump of hashish. This was politely declined, with the words that he was “…already intoxicated with the love and name of God”. Twelve years later, in 1539, when he passed from this world, the community he founded was a growing force for religious and political change within Punjab, at a time when it was entering one of the most turbulent phases in its long history. His name was Guru Nanak Dev and his European contemporary was Martin Luther; the community he founded took its name from the Punjabi word for disciple – Sikh.

The early Mughal emperors enjoyed good relations with the small Sikh community, but as it grew and became more prominent it was drawn into the murky, back-stabbing world of Mughal politics. Of the nine gurus who succeeded Guru Nanak, two were brutally murdered by the Emperors; the fifth Guru Arjan Dev was put to death in 1606 on the orders of Emperor Jehangir on the apparent grounds that he either favoured Khurasu in the pre-succession war or that he had refused, or been unable, to pay a sizable ransom – or most likely, both. Similarly, the ninth, Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed by Aurangzeb in 1665 for his alleged support of Dara.

As Mughal power faded in the years after Aurangzeb, the Punjab again became vulnerable to attack from Afghanistan. During the years of the late Mughal empire, Punjab was first invaded by Nadir Shah of Persia in 1738, on his way to Delhi where his troops slaughtered 30,000 inhabitants in a single day and carried off the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Noor diamond; the Koh-i-Noor is now in the British Crown Jewels, whilst the original Peacock Throne was stolen and probably broken up, during the civil war that followed Nadir’s assassination in 1747; the Peacock Thrones that subsequent Persian Shahs used were copies of it. The death of Nadir Shah came just a year after the Battle of Culloden in Britain – many a dispossessed Jacobite took ship to India – and in the same year as series of raids were launched from Afghanistan by Ahmad Shah Abdali.

Abdali had been a cavalry commander in Nadir Shah’s army during the 1738 invasion, leading a body of 4,000 elite Pashtun horsemen. After Nadir’s death, he returned to Kandahar to build a power base and launched his first attack into India. In 1749 he forced the Mughals to give him Punjab which added to his holdings in Afghanistan became the short – lived Durrani Empire, run from his base in Kabul. In the following years there would be eight further invasions from Kabul as Abdali fought against first the Mughals, then the Marathas and, towards the end, the Sikhs.

In 1756, the year before Palashi, the fourth Afghan invasion was underway – by now an almost yearly occurrence; and Abdali’s forces ravaged the Punjab and then pushed on to Delhi. After the city had fallen, his army set out on an orgy of looting that lasted an entire month and was only halted by the onset of a heatwave and a cholera epidemic. In the Punjab, as on many other Afghan invasions, the city of Amritsar was plundered and the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) demolished by gunpowder and the lake befouled by throwing animal carcasses into it.

Through most of this period the Sikhs, who made up only about 10% of the population of Punjab, which was 75% Muslim, remained neutral, waiting to see which side would prevail; but as the mayhem and destruction continued it became clear that pacifism in the face of such terror was untenable. And so it was that the sixth Guru, Hargobind, son of the murdered Arjun, began the establishment of a military tradition and set of martial arts, that would later find expression in such as the Akali Nihang (“crocodile”) Military Order, famous for its feats against more numerous foes.

Abdali succeeded in consolidating his empire in the Punjab, fighting off first the Mughals, and then later his neighbours to the south, the Maratha Confederacy. Both sides were wary of the growing power of the Company, expanding from Bengal and tended to avoid conflict with it by not expanding too far into the interior of India. This led to a series of military standoff’s between the Durrani and the Marathas in the following years. Abdali would defeat the Marathas eight times, but his greatest victory over them was at the epic third battle of Panipat in 1761. Fought over a front of twelve kilometres it had 170,000 combatants,  divided between 100,000 mostly Muslim troops of The Durrani, the Nawab of Oudh and the Rohillas who opposed 70,000 mostly Hindu Marathas. Thus it can be said that the largest battle fought anywhere in world in the eighteen century was the standoff between Hindu and Muslim at Third Panipat; the largest battles in Europe at that time were Malpaquet in 1709 (160,000 combatants); or at Leydt in the same year as Abdali’s first invasion, 1747, where 80,000 French fought 60,000 Dutch, Austrian and British.

After Hindu and Muslim had exhausted each other fighting over the Punjab, the Sikh Community began to exert it’s own control of some areas, and succeeding in consolidating them into a single entity that briefly ruled the Punjab. In 1809, Ranjit Singh was crowned Maharajah of the Punjab by Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendant of Guru Nanak Dev; and so began the Sikh Empire where a Sikh aristocracy ruled over a largely Muslim population – although the Empire was known for the unusual practice of allowing persons of other religions to occupy prominent posts. Much of the gold decoration and stonework of the current Harmandir Sahib date from the time of Ranjit Singh’s rule.

Sikh independence was to be short lived however. Between 1777 and 1818, whilst the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing, the Company fought, and won, three wars against what was left of the Marathas, before turning their attention to the Punjab. The first and second Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845 and 1848 destroyed the Empire, which was broken up into a series of Princely States and the Raj provinces of Punjab and Northwest Frontier, one of the last areas of India to fall under Company rule. And there, truly, was the greatest beneficiary of the war between Hindu and Muslim – The British East India Company.

And so if the image of those times that has persisted in our memory is that of a magnificent Sikh warrior in distinctive blue turban and chain mail and bearing a Tegh (a long curved sword) and a Toradar Bandook (a matchlock musket) when it should be that of a heavenly singer who was both a religious and political visionary then it is through no failing of the vision, but rather a failure of humanity in the rest of us not to recognise the beauty of that vision and to let it live in the peaceful and productive spiritual bliss that it had always intended; and so it comes to be then that it was seventh Guru, Har Rai, who said … “you can mend a broken temple, but not a broken heart.”   

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Overview

  Confederate POW’s at Gettysburg

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War (table)

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

Western Theatre of the Civil War  (map)

Some would say that the independence of the USA in 1776 with the institution of slavery still in place made later conflict inevitable; indeed Samuel Johnson once asked of the American colonists “why is it that the loudest cries for liberty come from those who drive negroes ?”. But whilst slavery was undoubtedly the issue that lit the fuse, the causes of the war (known also as the War Between the States) were more fundamental than that.  Just as in Britain at the time, where the USA was known as “the Republic in the West”, industrialisation was altering the economic and political landscape as well as the physical one. The conflict was reflection of a process already underway in countries like Britain and France, that of the emerging class of self made entrepreneur created by the industrial revolution – the holders of technological and financial equity – coming into political conflict with an older elite with their wealth based on agriculture and land. Rather like the English civil war of the seventeenth century, which is frequently represented as a struggle for popular democracy against despotic monarchy. In reality it was the interests of the most wealthy part of the country, the southeast of England vying for power with the Monarchy, versus the rest of the land. For the Americans, it was a newly industrialised north desperate to modernise, versus an agricultural south wedded to the past. As the economic and political balance shifted towards the North, it became more and more difficult to justify the South’s “peculiar institution”, although the fact remained that in 1861 the bulk (about 75%) of the USA’s foreign currency earnings still came from Southern agricultural produce, especially cotton and tobacco.

The election of the first president from the newly formed Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, a noted supporter of abolition, proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the slave states, and in early 1861, seven of them seceded – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – to form the Confederate States of America. It president was Jefferson Davis, former Secretary of War in the 1850’s, with its capital at Mobile, Alabama – later moved to Richmond, Virginia.

The conflict began, at the lone federal outpost on the island of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour, in April of that year; a small garrison of Union troops deliberately left there by Lincoln, safe in the knowledge that when the inevitable war came, the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic would report that it was the South that fired first. The South duly obliged, in the form of firebrand political activist Edmund Ruffin, an advocate of States Rights, Secession and Slavery, who lit the fuse on the first canon shot on Fort Sumter. In the days that followed, four more States seceded –Arkansas, North Carolina and the jewel in the crown – Virginia; also, after a referendum, Tennessee. Crucially, the fertile agricultural Commonwealth of Kentucky declared itself neutral.

The war was fought on three fronts. A naval blockade choked off all shipping, and thus all trade to the Confederacy plus there were amphibious attacks against the major ports, plus offensives were launched on land in both the eastern and western theatres. After the fall of the port of New Orleans in 1862, cotton exports from Southern plantations had fallen by 95% – causing not only the collapse of the Southern economy but mass unemployment in Britain, where 350,000 Lancashire mill workers were put on the dole causing riots and calls for the Royal Navy to break the blockade.

There were three theatres on land. In the east the two capitals were just 100 miles apart with two huge armies in between glowering at each other – the Army of Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. As can be seen from the table, showing the top ten battles by number of combatants, most of the war’s major battles were fought in the east and mostly resulted in an uneasy stalemate, the Seven Days, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Coldharbor, Spotsylvania, Sharpsburg and Gettysburg all occurred there. In the western theatre, a different war was fought, with wide open spaces crossed by mountains ranges , rivers and railways. This theatre centred on the struggle for control of Kentucky and Tennessee, and culminated in the siege of Atlanta in 1864. Chickamauga and Shiloh were the largest battles of this theatre. Finally, in the Mississippi valley a series of campaigns where fought for control of the river, including battles with iron clad gunboats and paddle steamers on the river itself. This theatre culminated with the fall of the fortress of Vicksburg on the Mississippi river on 4th July 1863, the day after Gettysburg.

Nobody really knows how many men served in the American Civil War as records are incomplete, particularly on the Confederate side, and many men enlisted more than once to collect the bounty; a popular scam of time was to enlist in a town, collect the money, then move on to the next town to enlist again. This was later replaced by a substitute system whereby a rich man could pay someone else to carry out his service; the future presidents Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland both paid substitutes to avoid conscription, as did Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and the fathers of future presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.

What is more important than those enlisted however, is the total number who served – which comes to about 3 million – 2 million on the Union side and 1 million for the Confederates. Of that 3m, 600,000 would be casualties by the war’s end, 75% of them from disease. Civil War infantry were issued with bayonets and the cavalry with sabres, but they were rarely used. Most wounds were from gunshots – this was an infantry war, fought with percussion-cap, muzzle – loading rifles firing lead minie balls. In a typical civil war battle the two sides closed to 50 yards and popped away at each other until one side gave up. Cavalry were mostly used as the forerunners of mechanised infantry – they tended to fight mounted or dismounted with pistols and carbines, although by 1863, Union cavalry began to be issued with Spencer repeating rifles.

At the outset of war, the US army was tiny, barely 30,000 men all told, most of whom were deployed in the far west beyond the Mississippi river, defending against Native American incursions and guarding the communication routes to far-off California on the Pacific coast. The USA had not fought a foreign enemy since the Mexican war in the 1840’s and what little military experience it’s few officers possessed was learned there; although graduation through the military academy at West Point was a part of many a gentleman’s education. When war came most of the small army defected to the south, leaving the Union with the task of recruiting and equipping an army virtually from scratch.

There were something between 8,000 and 10,000 separate recorded incidents of hostilities in the conflict, but the majority of these were militarily insignificant. Of the battlefield engagements – from a skirmish involving a few hundred right up to a full scale battle involving many thousands – there were about 370. These range from the battle of Barbourville, Kentucky in Sept 1862 – an operation by 800 Rebels to destroy a training camp defended by 300 Union militia, up to the Seven Days – a complex series of interconnected battles where 92,000 Confederates led by Robert E Lee in his first major operation threw back the 104,000 man Union Army of the Potomac attempting to lay siege to the Rebel capital. Fully 35% of the battlefield engagements occurred in Virginia, with another 21% in Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky.

Two sets of historical records exist for the civil war – the Union records name the battles after the nearest body of water or river, the Confederates by the nearest populated place. Thus the first major battle of the war – the 1st battle of Bull Run, is known to Confederate historians as the 1st battle of Manassas; Since the first civil war author I read was Shelby Foote, Confederate nomenclature is adopted in this piece, with the Union name in brackets afterwards where appropriate.


Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville


Eastern Theatre of the Civil War

Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (map)

With Lincoln’s dismissal of McClellan after Sharpsburg the post of commander of the Army of the Potomac again became vacant and Lincoln pitched around for a replacement – finally appointing Gen Ambrose Burnside into the position. Born in Indiana, of Scottish ancestry, Burnside had graduated from West Point in 1847 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Artillery. Posted to Veracruz during the closing stages of the Mexican war, he arrived too late to see any action and served only on garrison duty. After the war he was assigned to the western frontier, where he briefly served in the cavalry under Braxton Bragg, then a Captain, protecting  the mail routes to California.

He resigned from the Army in 1853 and, although only a minor figure in his military career,  set up a company to manufacture the product for which he became widely known in military circles before the war – a superior design of cavalry rifle known as the Burnside Carbine. Initially contracted to mass produce the weapon for the army, his business collapsed among accusations that government officials had been bribed by a rival to cancel the contract, even though he had already heavily invested in plant – leading to financial ruin for Burnside. In 1858, he ran for a Congressional seat in Rhode Island for the Democrats, but was heavily defeated and went on instead to secure a senior position with the Illinois Central Railroad, where he met and befriended the company’s Vice President – a certain George Brinton McClellan.  Tall and imposing in stature, and jovial and friendly by nature, Burnside’s most prominent physical features were the huge bushy side whiskers that he wore all his adult life and for which he became famous . Originally known as “burn-sides”, the fashion became popular on both sides of the Atlantic and gives us the modern word “sideburns”.

Burnside had been offered command of the Army of Potomac twice before, the first being after the collapse of Peninsula campaign. However, partly out of loyalty to his close friend McClellan, but mostly through a stark realisation that he was unqualified for so demanding a role, he refused. After the fiasco of Sharpsburg, Lincoln again offered and he again refused, before finally – after an appeal to his patriotism – accepting in Oct 1862. In the late autumn of that year, and under heavy pressure from Lincoln, Burnside hatched a plan for a winter offensive. His army was massed south of Washington, between Manassas Junction and Thoroughfare Gap with Lee’s main force to his south at Culpepper Courthouse, and Stonewall Jackson and the Shenandoah Valley army to his west, south of Winchester. Burnside rejected the favoured plan of Lincoln and the Cabinet – a crossing of the Rappahannock at  Rappahannock Station and a direct assault on Culpepper along the line of the Orange and Alexandria railroad, followed by a thrust towards Richmond. He was afraid that Stonewall would attack his supply lines from the west, just as he had done to Pope in the summer, plus he had – perfectly correct – concerns that the railway would be insufficient to keep his massive army supplied. Instead, he dusted off an old plan of McClellan’s for a rapid march southeast, and cross the river at the small town of Fredericksburg, 25 miles away, outflanking Lee and opening the way for a descent on Richmond along the line of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad. The plan, while bold, was also risky since it relied on a critical dependency – the bridge at Fredericksburg was inadequate for the passage of a large force, and at any rate led directly into the town on the south bank creating a single choke point. This was to be surmounted by the deployment of pontoon bridges at various points, to allow a speedy crossing.

Burnside set out on 15th Nov and his leading elements reached Falmouth, a mile upstream of Fredericksburg on the north bank 2 days later, finding only 500 Confederate troops guarding the town on the south bank. The first part of the plan worked – when Lee realised what Burnside was doing he thought that the Federal troops would certainly cross immediately, and so deployed his army 20 miles to the south along the banks of the North Anna river, the next realistic defensive line. From that point on however, Burnside’s plan began to unravel. Due to a catalogue of administrative errors the pontoons failed to arrive on the 17th. The officer commanding the lead elements, Gen Edwin Sumner, begged to be allowed to attempt a crossing immediately using the existing bridge and nearby fords – arguing that this was their only chance to take the town while it was lightly held and then push on to occupy a ridge to the west of the town called Marye’s heights before Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia arrived. Burnside refused, believing that the heavy autumn rains would render the fords impassable and leave Sumner stranded on the south bank. This decision was to have catastrophic consequences for the Union when battle was finally joined.

The pontoons finally arrived, two weeks late, on 30th of Nov, by which time both armies had had ample time to assemble; 114,000 men of the Army of the Potomac on the north bank, and 73,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia on the south, by now well dug in on Marye’s heights overlooking the town. It wasn’t until 11th of December that Union engineers constructed the first pontoons, on either side of the town and under a murderous fire from Confederate snipers. Attempts to suppress the sniper fire by Union artillery on the north bank were ineffective as the rebels simply took shelter in the cellars under Fredericksburg until a brigade of Union troops crossed the newly constructed pontoon and fought a street by street battle to clear the snipers from the town, supported by more than 5,000 artillery shells fired from Union batteries on the north bank – the first major incident of urban fighting in the war.

Burnside’s army began to cross in the mid afternoon, and by noon of the following day the main force was on the south bank. Lee had withdrawn from the town and divided his army in two wings. The left under Gen James Longstreet, was dug in along Marye’s heights overlooking the town, whilst the right, led by Stonewall Jackson was massed in woods on Prospect Hill, with a railway line running parallel to the river, a mile south of the town opposite the southern pontoon bridge, as a thick early morning fog carpeted this section of battlefield. Probing attacks by Union troops revealed a gap in the defences where a patch of swampy woodland 600 yards wide extended in front of the railway line, and 5,000 Union men under Gen George Gordon Meade moved forward to exploit it. An artillery duel followed by a hand-to-hand battle rapidly developed around the gap as both sides poured in reinforcements and at one point Meade’s men succeed in breaking through the gap and reaching the main defences on the wooded hill, but failure to adequately support the breakthrough meant that Jackson was able to stabilise his front, albeit at the cost of 3,500 casualties to 5,000 for the attackers. By late afternoon, Jackson was withdrawing to positions south of town as the main focus of the battle moved to Marye’s heights.

The Commander of Lee’s left wing, Longstreet, had his men along a 600 yard long stone wall that ran across Marye’s Heights, deployed three deep with 7,000 reserves behind them as well as his massed artillery batteries. In front of him an open plain sloped down to the town of Fredericksburg, cut by a canal with just three small bridges, meaning that attacking Union troops would have to be funnelled at each of these crossing points, all well within range of Longstreet’s artillery – in short, the Confederates had created a near – impregnable position. Burnside, who had expected the morning action to the south of the town to be the main fight now ordered his subordinate Gen Sumner to assault the ridge, but it was a hopeless endeavour. Under heavy artillery fire as they crossed the plain, and each wave was cut down about 100 yards from the stone wall by repeated rifle volleys. When Sumner’s men failed to carry the defences Burnside sent Gen Joseph Hooker’s corps up from the town to try as well, but with predictable results. In all fourteen charges were made against Longstreet’s men, but all were bloody failures – no Union troops got closer than 40 yards to the stone wall before the attack was called off as darkness fell and Burnside ordered his men to retreat back across the river, having lost 8,000 casualties to only 1,500 Confederate in an action that was originally intended to be a purely diversionary effort to draw the Confederates away from Jackson’s position on Prospect Hill.

That evening a distraught Burnside first tried to blame his subordinates, then declared that he would lead a fresh assault the following morning in person, before being talked out of it by his aides. The night of the 13 – 14th Dec 1862 was bitterly cold, with the aurorae playing in the clear skies above as thousands of wounded lay scattered across the battlefield. The author Louisa May Alcott documented their plight in the 1863 novel Hospital Sketches, based on her experiences as a nurse tending the wounded after Fredericksburg. In total the Army of the Potomac lost 12,000 casualties against only 5,000 Confederate, most of them on Jackson’s front.

The news of the defeat at Fredericksburg was received with consternation in Washington, with  Lincoln writing “If there is a worse place than hell, then I am in it”. Yet such was his desperation to find someone, anyone, to lead the Army of the Potomac, that he initially retained Burnside in his post. Three weeks later, in January 1863, Burnside made an abortive attempt at a further winter offensive by marching back up the north bank of the Rappahannock, intending to force a crossing at US Ford, close to Chancellorsville. The heavy winter rains however turned the roads to mud and, with some of his subordinates openly agitating against him, Lincoln was finally forced to act, and Burnside was stood down, to be re-assigned to the western theatre where, in command of smaller forces in a theatre with less political interference, he enjoyed a measure of success.

There can be little doubt, that of all the commanders of the Army of the Potomac, there can have been few more unfitted to the role than Burnside, indeed it was said of him that he should never have held any commission at all above the rank of Colonel. Yet in general, the judgement of history has been kinder to him than it might have been, for the simple reason that no-one was more aware of his shortcomings than Burnside himself, it was role he never wanted and, had it not been for his sense of patriotism, he never would have accepted it. After the war, he enjoyed a successful career in the railway business, served three terms as governor of Rhode Island, having switched parties to the Republicans, attempted mediation in the Franco – Prussian war whilst on a visit to Europe and served  two terms as Senator for Rhode Island; he was also appointed the inaugural president of the National Rifle Association.

Burnside’s replacement as commander was Gen Joseph Hooker. After graduating from West Point in 1837, he served with distinction in the Seminole wars of the 1840’s and 1850’s and in the Mexican war. After leaving the army in 1853, he worked in farming and made an unsuccessful attempt to enter politics in California. He returned to the army at the outbreak of war with the rank of Brig Gen and again served with distinction during the Peninsula campaign and at Sharpsburg. Like his earlier predecessor as commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan, Hooker was an extremely able administrator and a very effective motivator of his men; but where he differed was in his aggressive attitude to combat – his nickname among the troops  was “Fighting Joe”.

After re-organising, reinforcing, re-equipping and restoring the army’s battered morale after the debacle of Fredericksburg, Hooker went on the offensive. In late April 1863, while maintaining his main force before Fredericksburg, he sent 10,000 cavalry under Gen George Stoneman northwest to cross the river at Rappahannock Station, and thrust south to attack Confederate lines of communication back to Richmond. At the same time 40,000 men under Gen John Sedgwick would renew the attack on Fredericksburg while Hooker himself took the bulk of his force, some 70,000 strong back up the north bank of the Rappahannock, then across to the south bank and across the Rapidan river to the south, just west of the confluence to the two rivers, intending catch Lee in a pincer. Hooker took up position with his force around a small hamlet called Chancellorsville, in a broad clearing close to an area of dense woodland known as the Wilderness, a few miles south of the Rapidan, and ten miles west of Fredericksburg.  Although outnumbered two to one, and in a precarious position, Lee – still at Fredericksburg –  wasn’t fooled by the move and defied military convention by dividing his force, leaving just 10,000 men to hold off Sedgwick, while he rushed with his remaining 50,000 to confront Hooker in the woods south of Chancellorsville.

The main action of the battle of Chancellorsville opened on the 1st May with an attack by Hooker to the southeast, where he soon ran into Stonewall Jackson’s men advancing towards him close to an unfinished railway line at Tabernacle Church. Despite early success by his men, Hooker seems to have lost his nerve – perhaps believing after the failed attacks at Fredericksburg that the best way to take advantage of his superiority in numbers was to draw Lee towards a defensive position and wear him down. Whatever the reason, Hooker withdrew from the fight and by nightfall had his men dig breastworks around Chancellorsville and waited for Lee to come on to them.

That night, Lee consulted with his main subordinate Stonewall Jackson and, at his urging, hatched what is remembered as the most audacious manoeuvre of his career. The following morning, Lee split his force yet again and sent Jackson westward with 26,000 men on a broad flanking march along the narrow roads snaking through the dense woodland in front of, and then around, the huge Union army until they reached the extreme western flank of Hooker’s position. In the late afternoon, Hooker’s men were preparing their meal when their pickets reported that an unusual number of animals were bounding out of the forest, first squirrels and foxes then larger creatures such as deer. Within a few minutes the reason for every creature large and small being flushed out of the woodland became horribly apparent as Jackson’s 26,000 rebel infantry began to pour out of the forest at a right angle to Hookers entrenched troops. Pandemonium ensued as the Confederates formed into line of battle and opened fire; within minutes panic began to spread along the Union line, which collapsed like a house of cards. Within a few hours, the Confederates came within range of Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellor House. The confusion in the Union ranks was increased further when a stone pillar against which Hooker was leaning was struck by a canon ball, knocking him temporarily unconscious. Dazed, Hooker refused to relinquish command and, but for the timely arrival of Union reinforcements, his entire army would have disintegrated there and then.

Night fell with the Union troops having retreated two miles before the fighting died down. Lee’s great victory, often called his “perfect battle”, was tinged with tragedy however. That night Stonewall and few aides were returning from a reconnaissance of the Union positions when they were mistaken by Confederate pickets for a Union raiding party and fired at. Jackson was severely wounded and was carried to a field medical station where his arm was amputated. Although transferred to a military hospital the following day, pneumonia set in and eight days later he died; robbing Lee of his most able and talented subordinate. Still to this day, Stonewall Jackson’s sweep around the wing of the Union army at Chancellorsville is studied as the perfect example of how to carry out an outflanking manoeuvre.

Fighting resumed the following day, with the arrival of significant Union reinforcements, and the two armies clashed again at Salem Church and at the second battle of Fredericksburg, but by the end of the 4th of May, Hooker had had enough and withdrew back across the Rappahannock, robbing Lee of the chance to destroy the Army of the Potomac. The Union lost 17,000 casualties at Chancellorsville (out of 133,000 engaged) against 13,000 Confederate (out of 61,000). The two interlinked battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were the high watermark of Confederate fortunes in the eastern theatre. Although both were resounding rebel victories, never again would a numerically superior Union force be beaten so easily in the field.



Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – The Seven Days

Inventor and entrepreneur Thaddeus Lowe in his balloon Intrepid deploying to observe Confederate troop movements at the Battle of Fair Oaks Station

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

The Seven Days (map)

The complex series of interlinked battles fought between 25th June and 1st July, to the east and south of Richmond, known as the Seven Days, were the decisive engagement of the Peninsula campaign of the eastern theatre of the American Civil war. Lasting from March to July of 1862 , this was the Union’s first major offensive operation in that theatre since the disaster of 1st Manassas (1st Bull Run) the previous year, the war’s first major battle. The Union forces numbered 104,000 and were commanded by George Brinton McClellan, and were opposed by 92,000 Confederates under Robert E Lee.

Robert Edward Lee was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia descended originally from an English settler, Richard Lee, who arrived in the colony in 1638, founding one of Virginia’s oldest families; his father was Henry Lee III, known as “Light Horse Harry”, a hero of the Revolutionary War. Lee attended West Point and graduated in 1829 second in his class; entering the Army Corps of Engineers as a second Lieutenant  the same year. After a successful career in the Engineers, he served with great distinction in the Mexican war as a Chief Aide to the expedition commander Gen Winfield Scott; he also met and served alongside the man who would one day be his battlefield nemesis – Ulysses Grant. In 1852 he became Superintendant of West Point, before earning promotion to deputy command of a Texas cavalry regiment, where he served under Albert Sidney Johnston, then a Colonel, fighting the Comanche and Apache; he also commanded the small force sent by President Buchannan in 1859 to apprehend John Brown at Harper’s Ferry after his failed attempt at fomenting a slave uprising.

Upon the outbreak of war the Lee family home was Arlington House (now Arlington National Cemetery) located just across the Potomac from the White House, its dome still then under construction. Initially accepting promotion to Colonel, Lee was an opponent of secession but, like many men of that time felt a greater loyalty to his state and had doubts about bearing arms against it should it secede. He initially rejected a post within the Confederate army, but on 18th April 1861 when offered promotion to Major General and command of the Washington defences, he rejected that also and resigned from the army two days later on hearing of the final decision of Virginia to secede. Three days later on the 23rd, he was offered, and accepted, command of the Virginia State forces.

His early service in the Confederate army was less than stellar – the defeat at the small battle of Cheat Mountain in Sept 1861 earned the derisive nickname in the press of “Granny Lee”; but by the time of the Peninsula campaign he had gained the confidence of President Davis who appointed him his Military Advisor; it was during this tenure that he supervised the construction of trench-works around Richmond – ridiculed by the press at the time, they were to play an important role in the latter stages of the Overland Campaign in the closing phases of the war.

After the shock defeat of the Union in the war’s first major battle, Lincoln dismissed it’s commander Irwin McDowell and introduced emergency legislation to recruit and equip and army of 500,000 for a period of three months. The forces around Washington were renamed the Army of the Potomac, with McClellan placed in command. A highly experienced officer who, just like Robert E Lee, had graduated from West Point second in his class and went on to serve in the Corps of Engineers during the Mexican war. After the conflict he went on to a peacetime career where, as a fluent French speaker, he was appointed official observer to the Crimean war and witnessed the siege of Sevastopol. After leaving the army, he enjoyed a highly successful career in business and held the post of Chief Engineer and Vice President of the Illinois Central Railroad company and was also president of the Ohio and Mississippi railroad. In addition, he developed his political connections during this period and was a noted supporter of Democrat candidate Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential campaign, won by Lincoln.

Although frequently criticised during the war as being overly cautious on the battlefield, there was no denying McClellan’s outstanding abilities as an administrator. He completely built up the Army of the Potomac from scratch turning it from a disorganised and defeated rabble after 1st Manassas into a well drilled and exceedingly well equipped force; plus he was hugely popular with his men, who dubbed him “little Napoleon”, a nickname he did nothing to discourage. This warm relationship however was not shared with Lincoln, whom he detested, regarding him as an upstart and rude mannered provincial lawyer hopelessly out of his depth in the White House – referring to him more than once as “the original gorilla”.

To break the deadlock that had set in on the eastern front, McClellan conceived an audacious plan to move the entire Army of the Potomac by sea down Chesapeake Bay to Fort Munroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, just 75 miles east of Richmond. Bounded to the north by the York river and to the south by the James river, the assault was intended to outflank the Confederate defences south of Washington and capture the rebel capital Richmond in a surprise attack. The Union force set sail from Alexandria, Virginia on 17th March 1862, just seven months after 1st Manassas, with 122,000 men and 15,000 horses, landing the following day at Fort Munroe and commencing the advance up the Peninsula on 4th April.

From the outset, the Union force was hampered by the excessive caution of its commander combined with wildly inaccurate intelligence as to the enemy. The US in the 1860’s possessed no professional military intelligence service and instead had to employ the Pinkerton Detective Agency in its place. The reports provided by the Pinkertons badly over-estimated the strength of the Confederate opposition; at the first engagements for instance, close to the old British defensive works around Yorktown, McClellan was informed that the enemy numbered at least 100,000, the same size as his own army – in reality there were barely 15,000 men manning the entrenchments.

As the Confederates, commanded by the experienced Joseph Eggleston Johnston, retreated up the Peninsula the first pitched battle occurred on 5th May close to Williamsburg, where 32,000 Confederates held off 41,000 Union troops for the cost of 4,000 casualties in total, before Johnston drew off, cautiously pursued by McClellan; with further clashes at West Point and Drewry’s Bluff; the port of Norfolk was also occupied on 10th May, the operation observed by President Lincoln, then on an inspection tour of the army’s progress.

As the Union army entered the thickly wooded valley of the Chickahominy river, swollen from the early spring rain, McClellan  soon discovered that not only were their own maps wholly inaccurate, showing rivers flowing in the wrong direction, but that no local maps of the area existed at all. Due to a decision to deploy on both sides of the river, his force was divided in two by the swollen river at the first major battle of the campaign, Fair Oaks Station (Seven Pines) just 5 miles east of Richmond, when Johnston attacked him on the 31st May. A three day battle ensued resulting in a stalemate, as McClellan withdrew from the vicinity of Richmond to re-group and relocate his supply base from White House to Harrison’s Landing, bringing the first phase of the campaign to a close. The confederates lost 6,000 casualties at Fair Oaks Station, but among them was Johnston himself, wounded by a stray bullet. His replacement, appointed a few days later, was Robert E Lee.

The stalemate after Fair Oaks Station lasted a month, while McClellan re-grouped and deployed his forces in an arc around the eastern side of Richmond, but still lying astride the flooded river, as he prepared for a siege, but Lee had other ideas. On the 10th June, he ordered a cavalry raid and reconnaissance in force by 1,200 troopers under Gen JEB Stuart.

James Ewell Brown (“JEB”) Stuart was Lee’s cavalry commander, and had a long personal association with his superior, going back to the early 1850’s, having known Lee socially before the war. He attended West Point during Lee’s superintendence of the Academy and earned several distinctions for his outstanding skills in horsemanship. Assigned to the cavalry after graduation he served with distinction on the western frontier and showed early leadership promise, soon achieving promotion to first Lieutenant and later Regimental Quartermaster. In 1857 he was wounded fighting against the Cheyenne, whilst serving under Edwin Sumner, then a Colonel, and in 1859 was one of the troopers serving under Robert E Lee when he captured John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. He defected to the  Confederates on the outbreak of war, and was soon promoted to Brig General, going on to serve in all the major campaigns of the Eastern theatre. Noted for the red-lined cape and wide felt hats adorned with an ostrich feather he habitually wore, Stuart cut a dashing figure, famed not only for his horsemanship but also his mastery of reconnaissance; although he was nonetheless thought by some subordinates to be a little too fond of showmanship and “military foppery “.

Stuart set out a few days later and conducted a circuitous ride by way of Hanover Courthouse, past Cold Harbor, White House, Charles City Crossroads and Malvern Hill, completing a circuit of McClellan’s huge army all the while raiding Union depots, destroying infrastructure, taking prisoners and generally disrupting McClellan’s carefully planned dispositions, pausing only to accept drinks and bouquets from admiring southern women. By one of those quirks of fate that crop up endlessly in the Civil War, the man assigned to pursue, and hopefully capture Stuart, was none other than Gen Philip St George Cooke, his own father in law. As with so many families in the Civil War, the conflict split them down the middle with members joining both sides. At the outbreak of war Cooke opted to fight for the Union, a decision that Stuart remarked he “would regret only once, but that would be continuously !”. Although the raid was of negligible value militarily as a piece of wartime propaganda it was a masterpiece, with Stuart returning to Richmond to a hero’s welcome.

The Seven Days battles began on the 25th June with a minor clash at Oak Grove, a small wooded area cut in two by the waters of White Oak Swamp and was the only offensive action McClellan took during the battles. Two Union divisions took part, one of them containing a brigade commanded by Gen Daniel Sickles, who would later famously defend the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg; the action was inconclusive leading to 1,100 casualties on both sides.

The main action began on the 26th of June when Lee attacked the northern flank of McClellan’s army at Mechanicsville, three miles northeast of Richmond. The original plan had been for the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah Valley led by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to outflank the Union position by an overnight march, but Jackson failed to arrive in time, resulting in a tactical Union victory with heavy Confederate casualties – but as was frequently the case with McClellan, he acted as if the battle had been a defeat, and withdrew his force to the southeast, surrendering the initiative to Lee, who never let it go from that point on.

As McClellan withdrew from the Mechanicsville area, with the rest of his huge force still deployed in an arc around Richmond, the two armies clashed again the following day, three miles to the east at the battle of Gaines Mill (Chickahominy) where 60,000 Confederates attacked a force of 35,000 entrenched close to the northern bank of the Chickahominy. As at Mechanicsville, confused orders led to the late arrival of Stonewall’s troops, allowing the Union force, led by Gen Fitz John Porter to escape to the southern bank, but at the cost of 7,000 casualties.

Although McClellan’s force was still largely uncommitted, and the small part that had been engaged had performed well, Lee’s aggressive move completely unnerved McClellan and he ordered a general retreat to the southeast with the intention of concentrating around the Union base at Harrisons Landing on the James river. On 29th June, McClellan’s force was located around Savage’s Station on the Richmond and York River railroad, preparing to retreat to the southeast around White Oak Swamp when Lee attacked again with a force of 14,000 led by Gen John Magruder against 26,000 union troops under Gen Edwin Sumner. Yet again, confused orders on both sides led to a disjointed action with only part of Magruder’s force deployed, and part of Sumner’s force withdrawn. The action is notable for the first use of an armoured railroad gun, a 32-pounder rifled Brooke naval gun mounted in a sloping iron casement and pushed by a locomotive. This fearsome weapon however, which far outclassed anything the Union force possessed, was insufficient to overcome the Confederates numerical disadvantage, and the action ended in a bloody stalemate with 1,500 casualties, plus 2,500 Union wounded left behind as McClellan’s force withdrew again after the battle.

The following day, 30th June, with McClellan’s army now safely to the south of White Oak Swamp, Lee attacked again, but this time with a much bigger force. Ten miles southeast of Richmond, at the battle of Glendale (known also as Frayser’s Farm or Charles City Crossroads), he deployed 45,000 against 40,000 Union men. As with so many of Lee’s plans in the Seven Days, his orders were misunderstood, misread and in some cases simply ignored by his subordinates, resulting in a uncoordinated and disjointed battle, with units committed piecemeal to the fight, that ended in a bloody stalemate with 7,500 casualties on both sides. Yet again, although McClellan had succeeded in repulsing Lee and keeping his army intact, he treated the engagement as if it had been a defeat and continued his withdrawal to the south.

The final, and largest, battle of the Seven Days took place on 1st of July just three miles south of the Glendale battlefield where 55,000 Union troops had taken up a fortified position on the north bank of the James river, and were attacked by an equal number of Confederates at the battle of Malvern Hill (known also as Poindexter’s Farm). Lee’s complex plans to defeat the Union force were yet again poorly executed by his subordinates who also came up against a fearsome artillery barrage from the Union guns massed on the hill, supplemented by 50-pounder shells fired by three river gunboats; a feature of the conflict, virtually from the outset, was that the Confederates possessed better infantry, but the Union had far the better artillery. Despite this, Lee’s troops closed to within 200 yards of the Union centre, but by nightfall had been badly repulsed with 6,000 casualties, allowing McClellan to withdraw again to his base at Harrison’s Landing three miles to the southeast.

McClellan now established a strongly fortified base on the James river and Lee declined to renew the attack, retreating instead to the defences of Richmond. A golden opportunity to end the war in its second year had been wasted, and shortly afterwards the entire Union force was withdrawn, to be re-deployed south of Washington to reinforce the newly assembled Army of Virginia under Gen John Pope. President and General blamed each other for the defeat, with Lincoln accusing McClellan of caution bordering on cowardice and McClellan blaming Lincoln for failing to reinforce him against an enemy that he still believed to be twice the size of his own army. Northern morale plummeted after the embarrassing defeat, whilst southern morale skyrocketed, despite the clumsy performances of many of Lee’s subordinates, whilst Lee himself was now raised to the status of a military genius in the eyes of many. McClellan, for his part, would retain command of the Army of the Potomac, but was not retained in his other role, General in Chief of the Union forces, into which Lincoln promoted Gen Henry Halleck without consulting, or even notifying McClellan.


Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Second Manassas and Sharpsburg

President Abraham Lincoln and General George Brinton McClellan

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War (table)

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

Second Manassas and Sharpsburg (map)

The second battle of Manassas (2nd Bull Run) on 28th to 30th Aug, fought over substantially the same ground as the war’s first battle, was the largest engagement of the Northern Virginia campaign of the eastern theatre of the Civil War which lasted from mid July to early September of 1862. In total the Union deployed the 78,000 troops of the newly formed Union  Army of Virginia under Gen John Pope, who were opposed by 50,000 men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E Lee. The campaign is considered as a resounding Confederate victory.

The Army of Virginia had been established by Washington on 26th June 1862, the same day as Lee’s attack at Mechanicsville that began the Seven Days, with Gen John Pope appointed as its commander. Pope was a Mexican war veteran, who had also had a peacetime army career as a topographical engineer. At the outbreak of war he was assigned to the western theatre and despite a personality regarded as prickly and prone to bragging by his subordinates, he enjoyed the confidence of his commanding officer Gen Henry Halleck and led a number of successful actions. As commander of Union Army of the Mississippi, in Feb 1862, he was tasked with clearing Confederate obstacles from the river and as part of the campaign captured the rebel stronghold of New Madrid, Missouri in a surprise attack, then went on to capture the fortress of Island No. 10 on the Kentucky Bend of the great river, taking 12,000 prisoners and opening navigation of the river as far south as Memphis, Tennessee to the Union. For this success, Halleck promoted Pope to Maj Gen and placed him in command of one wing of his own army, then besieging Corinth, Mississippi, when Pope was summoned to Washington to be placed in command of the Army of Virginia.

After the embarrassing defeat of the Peninsula campaign, Lincoln had turned to Pope as a man more inclined to offensive intent than the over-cautious McClellan and tasked him with the defence of Washington and the Shenandoah Valley as well cutting the strategic Virginia Railroad connecting Gordonsville and Lynchburg in order to draw Lee out from the defences of Richmond. Campaigning in the Shenandoah had been in progress for 6 months, with the Confederate forces under the command of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a former mathematics professor. Despite his poor performance in the Seven Days, Jackson had enjoyed huge success in the Shenandoah, where his small force of 17,000 had defended the rich farmlands from three separate Union armies, each larger than his own, totalling  more than 53,000 men. At the battles of Kernstown, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic Jackson’s tiny force had consistently out-fought, out-marched and out-thought the Union forces, inflicting many casualties and stealing so many supplies from the enemy that the commander of the largest Union force, the hapless Gen Nathaniel Banks, was known to the rebel troops as “Quartermaster Banks”.

From an early point in the campaign, Pope showed that he had very different ideas on the prosecution of war from McClellan, believing that the consequences of rebellion should be brought home to civilians found to be aiding or sympathetic to the rebels. He ordered that any house from which shots were fired at Union troops be burned and its occupants taken as POW’s and that his officers be given licence to arrest any male civilian they considered “disloyal”. In addition he ordered that his army subsist from the land when in rebel areas, handing over worthless vouchers in payment, a system that rapidly degenerated into a licence for theft by his men. This caused outrage in the South where the press dubbed him “Miscreant Pope”.

Pope opened the campaign by concentrating his forces near Cedar Mountain, preparing to attack Gordonsville, while Jackson marched from the Valley and attempted to interdict him by occupying Culpepper Courthouse and Lee prepared to take the Army of Northern Virginia north from the defences of Richmond to confront Pope. On the 9th Aug at the battle of Cedar Mountain, 16,000 confederates under Jackson met and defeated 8,000 Union men under Banks, inflicting 2,400 casualties, but had to withdraw to Gordonsville after Pope brought up his main force. On Aug 13th, upon hearing that McClellan was evacuating his force from Harrison’s landing, Lee made his move and advanced to the Rappahannock river in the hope of confronting Pope before McClellan could reinforce him.

As Pope moved south along the Orange and Alexandria railroad to confront Lee, resulting in a series of inconclusive skirmishes around Rappahannock Station, Stonewall succeeded in getting behind Pope’s force and on 27th Aug captured and destroyed the gigantic Union supply depot at Manassas Junction, causing Pope to abruptly disengage and move north to confront him. The following day, the 28th Aug, one whole wing of Lee’s army under Gen James Longstreet, 28,000 strong, attacked the small Union of force of 5,000 guarding Thoroughfare Gap, scattering them and allowing Longstreet to reinforce Stonewall – with dire consequences for Pope as he had now allowed two significant portions of Lee’s army to unite against him.

Two days later, Stonewall made an attempt to lure Pope into battle by attacking part of his army along the Warrenton Turnpike, about two miles to the west of the stone bridge over Bull Run, where the war’s first battle had been fought. As Pope brought up his main force, 62,000 strong, Longstreet approached from Thoroughfare Gap and brought the Confederate force to 50,000 setting the scene for the 2nd battle of Manassas (2nd Bull Run). Jackson deployed along an unfinished railway embankment and prepared for the attack. Unaware of how close Longstreet was, Pope was convinced he had trapped Jackson and launched an assault against the embankment, with heavy losses on both sides. As Longstreet arrived early the afternoon, he threw his 25,000 men against the Union forces recovering from the morning assault against Jackson and sent them reeling back across the old 1st Manassas battlefield and over Bull Run where they established fresh defensive positions. The Union lost 10,000 casualties, against just 1,300 Confederate – a crushing Confederate victory.

Pope withdrew his force to the northeast, concentrating around Centreville, but by Aug 31st, he had lost his nerve and decided to withdraw his army to the defences of Washington until directly ordered by Halleck to attack. Lee however had plans of his own, and on 1st September sent Stonewall and 20,000 men against a force of 8,000 Union men at the battle of Chantilly inflicting 1,500 casualties – including the two Union divisional commanders Philip Kearney and Isaac Stevens who were both killed. This brought to a close the disastrous Northern Virginia campaign, with Pope withdrawing to the defences of Washington under virtual siege. The campaign had cost the Union 16,000 casualties out of 78,000 engaged against 9,000 Confederate out of about 50,000 engaged. Union morale plummeted further after the disaster , whilst Lee’s reputation as a military genius was cemented. Modern scholarship regards the Northern Virginia Campaign as Lee’s finest achievement. Pope was removed from command shortly afterwards, and spent the remainder of the war on the western frontier, out of harm’s way.

Whilst the Union armies failed in the field, Lincoln had political problems of his own. Although an avowed opponent of slavery, he was also a realist. His principal war aim was to re-establish the Union; a precipitous move against slavery might damage the southern economy, but would have dire consequences for his own side too – “I would do it, if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and three more states would rise” he said. Nonetheless, in June 1862, on the eve of the Seven Days, Congress, now controlled by the Republicans, outlawed slavery in the western territories, settling the principal issue that had triggered secession in the first place. Lincoln took a secret decision to emancipate all slaves in rebel held areas, believing that such a proclamation would extinguish any remaining support for the Confederacy in Europe, particularly Britain and France. He was persuaded however by his wily Secretary of State William Seward to avoid any public announcement until better news arrived from the battlefield. Unfortunately for Lincoln, there was worse to come. In the western theatre, Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had re-invaded Kentucky and attempted to establish a pro-Confederate government at Lexington. Meanwhile Lee, emboldened by his recent success, went on the offensive.

On the 3rd Sept, two days after the Confederate victory at Chantilly , Robert E Lee notified President Davis in Richmond that he intended to invade Maryland and attempt to raise the state for the Confederacy, then capture the rail centre at Harrisburg. The following day 40,000 troops crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford, near Leesburg, into Maryland and headed for the town of Frederick. A Maryland woman watched Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as they passed – “… the dirtiest men I ever saw … a most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves. Yet there was a dash about them that our Northern men lacked.”; whilst another wrote “This body of men moved with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two men dressed alike, the officers hardly distinguishable from the privates … were these the men who had defeated again and again our splendid legions ?”.

Desperate to get the Army of the Potomac back into the field Lincoln reluctantly turned again to McClellan to take the lead, reasoning that if anyone could get the army back on  its feet again, it was him. The decision was highly controversial however and caused a split in Lincoln’s cabinet, the majority signing a petition opposing the decision; Lincoln, always the pragmatist, felt that he had no choice saying “we must use the tools that we have”.

Despite having only 55,000 men at his disposal, against 90,000 available to McClellan, Lee defied military convention, as he did many times in his career, and split his force by detaching Stonewall to attack the Union ammunition depot at Harper’s Ferry, where in 1858 Lee himself had captured the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown. Deploying 30,000 against just 13,000 defending the town, Jackson forced their surrender after a three day siege, the largest Union surrender of the war. Lee meanwhile had concentrated his remaining force at Hagerstown, 20 miles to the north.

McClellan meanwhile, who had assumed that Lee’s objective must be to swing around to the east and threaten Washington, and was pursuing with his usual excess of caution, was handed the most extraordinary piece of luck. On 13th of September, as Jackson was besieging Harper’s Ferry, the Union commander was handed a piece of paper, found by one of his men in a field near Frederick used by the Confederates as a camp a few days earlier. The paper was wrapped round three cigars, but when opened and read, turned out to be a copy of Lee’s battle plan. At a stroke, McClellan now knew where Lee was headed and that he had split his force into two. “Here is a paper .. “ he told his men “with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home …”. A similar enthusiastic message was sent to Lincoln promising that he would “send trophies”. Typically for McClellan however, he did nothing for a whole day before finally making his move.

On the 16th of September, Lee with 18,000 of his men, took up defensive positions along a three mile ridge, a few miles to the east of the small town of Sharpsburg, and overlooking a small stream called Antietam Creek. Writing after the war, Lee’s subordinate Gen James Longstreet recalled the day “ … the blue uniforms of the Federals appeared among the trees crowning the heights on the eastern bank of Antietam Creek. The number increased and larger and larger grew the field of blue until it seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see …”. McClellan had brought his main force, 90,000 strong, against Lee’s tiny, divided army. “There was but a single item in our advantage” one of Lee’s aides remembered “ … but it was an important one. McClellan brought superior forces to Sharpsburg, but he also brought himself …”.

Had McClellan hurled his force across the creek that day, the war would have ended there and then, but he did not attack until the following day, believing that he had a least 100,000 men opposing him, giving Lee the chance to order Jackson to force march through the night from Harper’s Ferry and also to call up further troops under Gen Ambrose Powell Hill stationed at Botelers Ford, who would arrive mid way through the following day, more than doubling Lee’s force.

The battle commenced the following morning with an attack against Stonewall’s corps, at the northern end of the Confederate line, with an assault by 9,000 men of Gen Joseph’s Hooker’s corps along the Hagerstown turnpike towards a plateau on which sat a small whitewashed German Baptist chapel named Dunker Church. Seeing the Confederates massed in a cornfield ahead of them, an artillery duel ensued followed by a ferocious hand-to-hand fight in the cornfield before Confederate reinforcements arrived and a back-and- forth duel ensued that lasted all morning and ended in a bloody stalemate. At midday action shifted to the centre of the Confederate line, where 2,500 rebels held a sunken lane against twice that number of Union troops, as another hand to hand fight developed and each side threw in reinforcements until another stalemate ensued.

The final action of the day occurred in the southern section of the battlefield, where Gen Ambrose Burnside and 12,500 men had been ordered to stage a diversionary attack across the creek to coincide with the morning assault in the north, but due to confused orders, Burnside started his attack late. Immediately in front of Burnside’s position was a stone bridge over Antietam Creek, beyond which a small force of Confederate sharpshooters and a few artillery pieces were hiding in woods on a hill overlooking the bridge. Burnside appears not to have known that the creek was only waist deep and could have been forded with ease, instead funnelling his men across the bridge, where the rebels picked them off at will, causing heavy casualties. Eventually, after three separate assaults, sheer weight of numbers told, and the bridge was crossed and the Confederates were pushed back into the town, until AP Hill’s force arrived on the battlefield in the nick of time and stemmed the Union advance. By 18:00 the fighting had died down and Lee’s battered force re-grouped for the final assault that must come the next day – but it never did. McClellan, still convinced that he was outnumbered paused himself and allowed Lee to escape to the south, back across the Potomac. Desperate pleas from Washington to pursue Lee’s broken army were ignored as they “would not be prudent”.

Sharpsburg had 22,800 casualties, not only the single bloodiest day in the civil war, but the single bloodiest day in all US history, before or since. Lincoln held McClellan solely responsible for a stalemate that should have been a decisive victory – despite the huge odds in his favour his excessive caution meant that fully one third of the Union force never fired a shot. Lincoln sacked McClellan, who took no further part in military operations for the remainder of the war. In 1864, he secured the Democrat nomination for the presidential election of that year to stand against him  – a battle which he also lost.

Although a disaster in many ways, Sharpsburg came to be regarded a turning point in the war. It wasn’t the victory that Lincoln was looking for, but it was as much as he was going to get; on 22nd September he issued the Emancipation Proclamation – finally ending any thought in the minds of the British or French governments of any intervention in the war in favour of the Confederacy.



Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War

The largest battles of the civil war where approximately the same size as Waterloo (about 200,000), but that doesn’t even make it into the top ten European  battles of the century. The major clashes of the Napoleonic wars and the Franco-Prussian war were all significantly larger than any battle in the American Civil war. The battle of  Sadowa (Königgrätz)  for instance, the decisive engagement of the Austro-Prussian war fought less than a year after the Civil War had 430,000 combatants; that makes it bigger than the Seven Days and Chancellorsville put together. The conflict’s best known battle, Gettysburg, had 170,000 combatants and so was the same size as Austerlitz – although Gettysburg lasted longer, three days whereas Bonaparte needed only eight hours to annihilate Kutuzov in 1805.

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War

Location Year Troops Loss % Result
The Seven Days, VA 1862 196,000 18.4% CS Victory
Chancellorsville, VA 1863 195,000 15.5% CS Victory
Fredericksburg, VA 1862 188,000 9.5% CS Victory
Cold Harbor, VA 1864 167,000 10.4% CS Victory
Gettysburg, PA 1863 166,000 27.7% US Victory
Wilderness, VA 1864 163,000 17.6% Draw
Spotsylvania CH, VA 1864 152,000 20.9% Draw
Chickamauga, GA 1863 130,000 27.2% CS Victory
Sharpsburg, MD 1862 114,000 19.9% Draw
2nd Manassas, VA 1862 112,000 16.3% CS Victory

Ive classified the battles by the total number of combatants, and while this is a reasonable enough guide, it can sometimes be misleading. For instance the Siege of Corinth, Mississippi in 1862 had 185,000 combatants, which would have made it fourth on this list, but the majority of these never fired a shot and consequently the casualties were very small (about 1,000 on each side). Ive only included battles were the majority of the forces deployed were actually engaged. Therefore battles like Resaca, Georgia in 1864 and Yorktown, Virginia in 1862 which would have been seventh and eighth on this list, and 3rd Petersburg (tenth) have also been excluded.

Ten Bloodiest Battles by Attrition Rate

Battle Year Combatants Attrition % Outcome
2nd Murfreesboro (Stones River), TN 1863



US Victory
Gettysburg, PA 1863



US Victory
Chickamauga, GA 1863



CS Victory
Shiloh, TN 1862



US Victory
Spotsylvania Courthouse, VA 1864



US Victory
Perryville, KY 1862



CS Victory
Fort Steadman, VA 1865



US Victory
Sharpsburg (Antietam), MD 1862



Wilderness, Virginia 1864



3rd Winchester (Opequon), VA 1864



US Victory

This table shows the ten costliest battles by attrition rate, that is total casualties / total combatants. Ive excluded sieges and other battles where there were instances of mass surrender, ie where most of the “casulaties” were POW’s. Therefore Grant’s victories at Fort Donaldson and Vicksburg, and Stonewall’s capture of Harper’s Ferry are all excluded. On this measure, Rosecran’s victory over Bragg at 2nd Murfreesboro was the costliest battle on this measure, with nearly a third of those engaged as casualties; with Gettysburg and Chickamauga not far behind.

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the 19th Century


Battle Year Combatants Outcome
Nanjing, China



Taiping Rebellion (Qing victory)
Siege of Paris, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Leipzig, Germany



Napoleonic wars (Allied victory)
Sadowa, Czech Republic



Austro-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Dresden, Germany



Napoleonic wars (French victory)
Siege of Metz, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Sedan, France



Franco-Prussian war (Prussian victory)
Solferino, Italy



2nd Italian war (French / Sardinian victory)
Gravellotte, France



Franco-Prussian war (French victory)
Wagram, Austria



Napoleonic wars (French victory)


The question of which was the largest war of the 19th century is a matter of some debate, however broadly speaking, in scale, cost and impact, the biggest four were probably –

  1. The Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815)
  2. The Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864)
  3. The American Civil War (1861 – 1865)
  4. The Franco Prussian War (1870 – 1871)

Although the Franco-Prussian war has many of the century’s largest battles, it was relatively short in duration containing a small number of large battles, most fought on the frontier – as a contest it was over within three months, although the siege of Paris continued into the following year. The American Civil War, by comparison, had more soldiers (about 3m), but lasted much longer (4 years) and consisted of a large number smaller battles (nearly 400). The largest battle of that conflict was the Seven Days which had 195,000 combatants – about the same as Waterloo, but neither make it onto the list above. Neither do two other decisive battles of the 19th century – Austerlitz (1805) and Gettysburg (1863); both of which had about 170,000 combatants although Gettysburg lasted much longer, 3 days, whilst Napoleon needed just 8 hours to annihilate Kutuzov at Austerlitz.

The Battle of Nanjing, China (1864)

The 3rd battle of Nanjing was the decisive engagement of the Taiping Rebellion, which raged across southern China from 1850 to 1864, the latter stages occurring at the same time as American Civil War. About 1,000,000 government troops, loyal to the ruling Qing dynasty, fought about 500,000 well-armed Taiping rebels.

The Qing (“ch-ing”), known in western histories as the Manchu, had ruled China since the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 and were originally from Manchuria, being of a separate ethnic group to the majority Han. Qing power reached its zenith in the early 18th century, particularly under the 61 year reign of the Kangxi Emperor and formed the basis of what is now the territorial area of modern China. During the early and mid 19th century a combination of natural disasters, economic stagnation and disastrous wars against more technologically advanced foreign powers, such as the British who annexed Hong Kong, had substantially eroded Qing authority.

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom grew from a quasi-religious, millenarian cult founded by Hong Xiuquan (“hung hsiu-chuan”) in Guangxi province during the 1840’s. Hong had been an applicant for the Imperial Civil Service the previous decade who had locally been exposed to the preaching of Christian missionaries, and possessed a Chinese translation of the bible. Although he paid little attention to Christianity at the time, when in 1836 he failed the entrance examinations for the 4th time (not so strange, the pass rate was less than 5%) the failure brought on a period of intense depression which culminated in a nervous breakdown during which he claimed to have experienced a spiritual revelation during a series of dreams. He interpreted this experience as a divine summons to rid China of “demon worship” and came to believe that he was a re-incarnation of the younger brother of Jesus Christ and began preaching among the local community of the Hakka ethnic group, of which we was a member. He laid out a quasi-Christian philosophy that included common ownership of property, equality for women (but also strict separation of the sexes) and the destruction of Buddhist and Confucian symbols and images. By 1840, the sect had as many as 40,000 followers and attracted the attention of the Qing authorities who attempted to violently supress it, leading eventually to civil war.

The revolt proper began in Guangxi province in 1850 when a 10,000 strong Taiping force attacked and captured the town of Jintian (present day Guiping). The Qing government, already heavily committed in the 2nd Opium War against the British, failed to quell the revolt and by 1853 and the rebels had occupied Nanjing and declared it their capital, changing its name to Tianjing (“heavenly capital”). The Heavenly Kingdom expanded its control over more of south east China and attempted to enlist the support of European powers, but were rebuffed. In 1860 they attempted to take the city of Shanghai, but were repulsed by Qing forces, by now trained and advised by a small number European officers, and a slow painful fightback by the government began.

By 1864, most of the rebel area had been re-occupied and the Qing, by now with the support of western powers, prepared to re-take Nanjing. By June, Nanjing had been surrounded and was preparing for siege when Hong suddenly died, most likely of food poisoning. With a force of 500,000 Qing troops against of maybe 400,000 in the city a bitter struggle erupted in the outer suburbs as government troops took the city gates and bridges one-by-one, eventually capturing the city on the 19th of July, and carrying out a massacre of the inhabitants in which as many 100,000 may have been killed. The fall of Nanjing effectively destroyed the Taiping army and, although sporadic resistance and interlinked rebellions in neighbouring provinces continued for several years afterwards, the Heavenly Kingdom collapsed with the fall of the city.

The Taiping rebellion may well have been the largest and bloodiest civil war in all human history, although the Napoleonic wars in Europe were a larger scale conflict. Both sides engaged in the destruction of urban commercial centres and rural agricultural production, including the massacre of inhabitants, as an economic warfare tactic; as many as 600 major towns and cities were destroyed in this way. It has been estimated that as many as 20-30m people died during the conflict – to put that in context, it is more than the total Soviet Union war dead, civilian and military, during the whole of the second world war.

Always an avowedly peasant and working class movement, the Taiping were referenced in later Chinese history by both nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen and communist Mao Tse Tung as examples of the power of ordinary Chinese to stand up to a decaying and corrupt imperial system. Although victorious in the rebellion, the Qing dynasty was gone within 50 years; the last emperor, Pu Yi, was overthrown in 1912 and China became a republic after 2,000 years of rule by the Emperors.

Siege of Paris (1870)

At the outset of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, France was led by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III (nephew of Napoleon I). Although elected as president of the Second Republic in 1848, he seized power in a bloodless coup-d’état in 1851 and crowned himself Emperor, initiating the short lived Second Empire. He had already fought a successful war in Italy to aid the Italian nationalists in ejecting the Austrian army from northern Italy and speeding Italian Unification as well his attempt to install Maximillian Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico; he was also the prime mover in the coalition that fought Russia in the Crimean war.

Prussia was then a monarchy under William I, but real power lay in the hands of his formidable Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Territorially enlarged from wars with Austria and Denmark, and rapidly industrialising – Prussia was the “Tiger” economy of 19th century Europe, riding a wave of German nationalism as head of the North German Confederation – a growing and ever present threat to the pre-eminence of France in European power politics.

When war broke out in 1870, the French appeared the stronger side – the two armies where evenly matched in size (900,000 French v 1.2m Prussians, Wurttenburgers and Bavarians), but the French had the interior lines and a much shorter route to the frontier. In addition, the French army was 50% regular troops, whilst the bulk of German force was conscript. In weapons the French had a clear advantage – the German Dreyse rifle that had decimated the Austrians at Sadowa was now outclassed by the French Chassepot – the best in the world; also the French possessed the Mitrailleuse, an early form of machine gun. The Prussians for their part had the steel barrelled breech loading Krupp six-pounder artillery piece that fired contact detonating shells, whilst the French still used bronze cast muzzle loaders. The greatest advantage the Prussians had however was their leaders – they had the only professional general staff in Europe – the speed and efficiency of their mobilisation plus their adaptable tactics where to prove the decisive factor from day one.

Only partly mobilised and badly organised, the French Army of the Rhine was divided into two wings – one under Marshall McMahon and accompanied by Louis Napoleon; the other, commanded by Marshall Bazaine and under huge political pressure, attacked first and crossed the border to occupy the manufacturing town of Saarbrucken. Rapidly outnumbered by the speedy Prussian mobilisation, the French fell back fighting a series of rear-guard actions as the Prussians, many deployed by rail, started to pour across the border. The fast moving Prussian columns surrounded them and used their superior artillery to destroy most of the French army at the catastrophic defeats of Metz and Sedan in September 1870, after just 3 months of war, with Louis Napoleon himself among the captured. Von Moltke is reputed to have said to a captured French officer after Sedan “If my army had your rifles, I would have won this war in three weeks, and if your army had my generals then you would have won in two weeks!”

What was left of the French army fell back into the defences of Paris. Completely cut off from outside supplies and able to communicate only by hot air balloon or carrier pigeon, the French held out from Sept until January of the following year, by which time much of Paris had been damaged by artillery bombardment and food was running out. The city was surrounded by 240,000 regulars of the pan German force and its defences contained 200,000 French regulars, plus another 200,000 militia and sailors; 640,000 in total. French defeat brought about German re-unification plus the loss of Alsace – Lorraine and a huge indemnity (5 billion francs); the re-building of Berlin was paid for largely with the French indemnity. The most important consequence however was the proclamation of the 19th century German Empire – the Second Reich – in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Dresden and Leipzig (1813)

The four day battle fought near Leipzig, Germany in October 1813 was also known as the Battle of the Nations, and was far the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, and the largest pitched battle of the whole century. It was the decisive engagement of the Sixth Coalition war, fought by the allied powers to finish off Napoleon after his defeat in Russia. Just two weeks after Napoleon’s return from Russia a coalition formed consisting of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Great Britain, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Sicily and Sardinia to capitalise on his defeat and finish him off. Napoleon, who still had a few allies (Kingdom of Italy, Duchy of Warsaw, Naples, Denmark-Norway, Switzerland, Confederation of the Rhine) was able to put 900,000 troops into the field against about 1 million allied troops, although this number swelled as the war went on and Napoleon’s allies began to defect – the allies swelled to 1.2m, whilst Napoleon’s army reduced to 400,000.

The war was fought on three fronts. In Dec 1813, Swedish troops attacked the Danes in Holstein and fought the battles of Bornhoved (Swedish victory) and Sehested (Danish victory). By the terms of a separate treaty after the war in 1814, Denmark was forced to cede Norway, which had been previously ruled by Sweden during the 17th century. The Norwegians however rejected this and declared independence and this led to a Swedish invasion of Norway which restored rule from Stockholm and left Norway part of Sweden until 1905 when it regained its independence.

Meanwhile, in Iberia, A force of British and Portuguese regulars with Spanish partisans led by Arthur Wellesley had been tasked with completing the ejection of the French, begun in 1808. Allied victories at Burga and Vitoria where 100,000 allied troops (50% British, 25% each Spanish and Portuguese) defeated 65,000 French were followed by the Spanish capture of Pancorbo the following month. Despite a French fightback at the battles of Maya and Roncesvalles, by October 1813 the allies were across the Bidasoa river and into France proper.

The main action however took place in Germany. Napoleon invaded Prussia with a force of 400,000 in April 1813 and defeated the allies at Lutzen and Bautzen, inflicting heavy casualties; a brief armistice was declared in June with the combined casualties from April having now reaching 250,000. When fighting resumed  in August, Napoleon with 135,000 defeated 214,000 Austrians, Russians and Prussians at the two day battle of Dresden; but weakened by his losses and lacking cavalry he withdrew 190,000 of his force to Leipzig in Saxony, where he was finally cornered by 430,000 Russian, Austrian, Prussian and Swedish troops (although 50% of the allied force was Russian). The resultant four day battle completely destroyed Napoleon’s force and he was compelled to flee. The following year, 1814, the allies invaded France and finally forced Napoleon to abdicate on 6th April 1814 – to be exiled to the Italian island of Elba, whilst the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France.

Sadowa, Czech Republic (1866)

Known also the Battle of Konnigratz, it was the decisive battle of the Austro-Prussian war. Fought less than 12 months after the end of the Civil War in America, it had more than twice the number of combatants as that war’s largest battle – The Seven Days, Virginia (1863) which had 190,000. Austria’s defeat is regarded as an important milestone in the development of Prussian and, ultimately, German nationalism. The conflict marked the end of Austrian ambitions to be the leader of the huge collection of German speaking states that the medieval German empire (the First Reich) had collapsed into after the devastation of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. The emerging power of Prussia, now rapidly industrialising and, with possession of the coal fields of Silesia, taken from the Austrians a century earlier, now became the clear leader among the German states. Fought in a single day near the village of Sadowa in Bohemia; 221,000 Prussians, armed with rapid firing, breech loading Dreyse rifles beat 206,000 Austrians and Saxons still armed with muzzle loading musket-rifles; the Austrians suffering 44,000 casualties, against only 9,000 Prussian. The aftermath of the battle led directly to the formation of North German Confederation and fostered the idea of “little-Germany” nationalism – the idea of unification of German speakers, but without Austria. It was also an important pre-cursor conflict to the Franco – Prussian war four years later.

Gravellotte, Metz, Sedan (1870)

Marshall Bazaine’s early advance into Saarland was quickly reversed as the German commander von Moltke deployed his huge force to outflank and surround them. The French rapidly withdrew across the border with the Prussians in pursuit; on 4th August von Moltke attacked part of McMahon’s army at Wissembourg in the first major battle of the war. 8,000 French troops with 12 guns fortified the small town and fought hand to hand in the streets against 60,000 Germans. The local populace, trapped in the town during the fighting were eventually so sickened by the slaughter around them, that they formerly surrendered the town to the Germans to stop the bloodshed.

Further Prussian victories at Worth and Spickeren left Bazaine’s force falling back towards the fortress of Metz and led to the two interlinked battles of Mars-Le-Tour and Gravellotte. At the second of these the French were finally able to establish an effective defensive posture and took a heavy toll of the Prussian infantry, who lost 20,000 casualties to Chassepot and Mitrailleuse fire against 12,000 of their own, almost all of those from artillery fire . Although a tactical French victory, Baziane’s army had been badly mauled and fell back to the defences of Metz to regroup and await re-enforcements from McMahon.

Von Moltke, like Grant at Fort Donaldson in 1862 or O’Connor in the western desert in 1940, realised that by quick manoeuvre he could cut off the routes into the town and turn a fortress into a prison. Quickly surrounding Metz he trapped 190,000 French troops in the fortifications of a small town designed to hold a tenth of that number.

The newly formed French Army of Chalons commanded by McMahon made two attempts to relieve Metz, the first was defeated at Beaumont-en-Argonne whilst the second occurred close to the fortress of Sedan where McMahon’s main force was deployed. Again, the battle centered on a small town, in this case Bazeilles, who’s populace where trapped in the town during the fighting and helped the army build barricades as the battle commenced with a street by street fight for the town. The fighting spread south from the town into the countryside with McMahon himself wounded – under heavy Prussian artillery fire, the French were finally driven inside the defences of Sedan, where they were rapidly surrounded and cut off from any relief. The following day, 2nd September, 120,000 men of the army of Chalons surrendered along with their commander McMahon and their Emperor Louis Napoleon. Shortly afterwards, and facing starvation, the 190,000 troops in Metz also surrendered.

With the fall of Sedan, the bulk of France’s field army had been lost after just 3 months of war; on the following day, 3rd September the news of Louis Napoleon’s capture reached Paris and a bloodless coup-d’état ensued led by Trochu, Favre and Gambetta that overthrew Louis Napoleon and proclaimed the Third Republic, plus a determination to continue the war. Just as in 1940 after Dunkirk, the small remnant of the regular army that survived fought back with near fanatical bravery, but it was too late. Once they had fallen back to the defences of Paris, their fate was sealed. Louis Napoleon was to go into exile after the war in Britain, where he lived at Camden House, Chislehurst until his death in 1873, referring several times in his last words to Sedan.

Solferino (1859)

Louis Napoleon is remembered as the loser at Sedan, but he was no fool, he had his successes too. One of these was his assistance to the Italian independence struggle, Il Risorgimento (“the Resurgence”). Italy had long been divided into petty states that individually fell prey to many foreign powers over the centuries – Spanish, French and Austrian – and its independence movement was initially looked on favourably by France and Britain, but neither were prepared to do anything to upset the Austrians. Consequently the First Italian Independence war, fought by the leading Italian state, Piedmont to drive the Austrians from Lombardy and Venice, failed through lack of great power support.

The situation was brought home to Louis Napoleon personally in 1858, when an attempt was made on his life; this shocked Napoleon into realising that the Italian situation would spiral out of control if not resolved and he determined to aid the nationalists in the hope of acquiring a useful ally in the new Italy and seriously diminishing his rival Austria in the process. Piedmont had previously been an ally for the French in the Crimean war; it also had a railway line designed by Brunel.

Thus was set the scene for the Second Italian Independence war, the decisive engagement of which was the seventh largest battle of the 19th century, fought near the villages of Solferino and San Martino, south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona.

In 1858, Louis Napoleon concluded a secret treaty with the Comte di Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont that France would aid the Italians in ejecting the Austrians from Lombardy and Venice, whilst receiving the provinces of Nice and Savoy in return. Napoleon committed half the French army – 130,000 men, plus brought along 70,000 Sardinian troops against 240,000 Austrians.

At the outbreak of war, there were no French troops in Italy, so the French commander, McMahon organised a mass deployment by rail into Piedmont to link up with the Sardinians. The first major clash was at the battle fought for the railway junction at Magenta, near Milan in June 1859 where McMahon’s 60,000 men defeated 125,000 Austrians and shortly afterwards occupied Milan. The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I now personally took command of his army, the last European battle in which two monarchs personally led their armies against each other.

Attempting to counter – attack after their defeat at Magenta, they ran into the French at Solferino and were drawn into a confused and fast moving fight for three small towns Solferino, Cavriana and Volta Mantovana. Badly mauled, the Austrians drew off beyond the Micinio and Po rivers and, at the treaty of Villafranca in July 1859 ceded Lombardy to the Piedmontese, but not Venice. The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed two years later, in 1861.

The battle will remain best known however, for the visit to battlefield after the conclusion by a Swiss businessman and philanthropist where he witnessed the suffering of the battle’s estimated 30,000 casualties and was moved to found an organisation to relieve their suffering who took it’s symbol from the reverse colours of the Swiss flag. The businessman was Henri Dunant and the organisation he founded was the Red Cross.

Wagram (1809)

During the Fourth Coalition war, and after Napoleon’s success against the Austrians at Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, Austria had been left subdued, and the Emperor turned his attention to Prussia. At the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon’s 120,000 French troops defeated 110,000 Prussians and Saxons so comprehensively that Berlin was occupied shortly afterwards and Prussia reduced to a French vassal state, which it would remain until the Sixth Coalition war in 1812. The trauma that Prussia suffered during the Napoleonic occupation acted as a spur to the modernisation of the state – later reformers such as Clausewitz , Scharnhorst and Gneisenau served in the army and were profoundly affected by it, as was the philosopher Hegel who called it “the end of history”.

Wagram was the main engagement of the Fifth Coalition War, and was fought in 1809; the coalition consisted of Austria, Great Britain, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia and Brunswick against a French led alliance with Duchy of Warsaw, Confederation of the Rhine, Italy, Naples, Switzerland and Holland.

The war was fought on two fronts. In Iberia, both Spain and Portugal had been invaded a few years earlier and the small British force driven out, when Napoleon entered Madrid at the head of 80,000 troops having first fomented a coup. By 1809, however, the British had returned and with Arthur Wellesley in command set about the recovery of Portugal, after Marshall Soult had invaded again. Wellesley’s Anglo-Portuguese force defeated Soult at Grijo and Porto in May, whilst Marshall Ney with another French force was defeated by the Spanish at Puente Sanpayo. With Portugal secure, Wellesley pushed on into Spain and linked up with Spanish partisans. The costly British victory at Talvera forced Wellesley’s hasty retreat after the battle with French re-enforcements nearby, but the essential objective, that of liberating Portugal, had been achieved.

Buoyed by allied success in Iberia, and heavily subsidised by the British, the Austrians made their move by invading Napoleon’s ally, Bavaria in March 1809. The Austrians massed their army in Bohemia on the frontier of Prussia, then a French vassal, in the hope that it would foment an anti – French revolt and bring in Prussia on the allied side, but this never happened. Also, Austrian hopes of assistance from the Russians were dashed by the fact that they were technically at war with Britain, which also meant that Britain’s ally Sweden would not intervene either. Nonetheless, the speed of the Austrian advance across the Inn river caught the French by surprise and at first they fell back as a series of mistakes by the French commander Berthier allowed the Austrians to occupy the old imperial capital of Regensberg. Napoleon himself arrived in Bavaria on 17th April to take command and launched a series of counterattacks that resulted in the French victories at the battles of Eckmuhl and Ebersberg and re-took Regensberg while the battered remains of the Austrian army fled back across the border.

Pursuing them, Napoleon crossed into Austria and, on the 13th May occupied Vienna for the second time in four years. Despite a failed attempt to cross the Danube that resulted in the battle of Aspern-Essling (Napoleon’s first significant battle defeat), the French retained the initiative and crossed the Danube in force in June and resumed the offensive. The two armies finally met near the village of Wagram north east of Vienna where 140,000 French fought a two day battle against 160,000 Austrians resulting in a decisive French victory with high casualties on both sides (80,000 in total), mostly caused by artillery fire into the packed ranks of 300,000 troops crammed into a battlefield just a few miles across.

Napoleon imposed harsh terms on the Austrians taking provinces containing 20% of Austria’s population and leaving them bankrupt. Despite his overwhelming success, the Fifth Coalition war was to prove the high water mark for French ambitions – just three years later Napoleon embarked on his disastrous Russian campaign, followed by the cataclysm of the Sixth Coalition war in 1813/14 that climaxed with the battle of Leipzig and the eventual fall of France and Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814.

Copyright ©2015 Savereo John


Libya – A Lesson From History

Originally published 27/03/2011


Muammar Q’daffy is, they say, something of a military history buff. Perhaps whilst he is holed up in whatever secret location he has chosen, he has dipped into a copy of William Beehler’s 1913 book The History of the Italian-Turkish War. If not, I would advise him to obtain a copy and read it; for it is one of the great ironies of history that the man who is currently in hiding for fear of being killed by a Tomahawk cruise missile launched from a Royal Navy submarine in the Med rules over a country that almost exactly 100 years ago witnessed a seminal moment in the history of warfare. Just 28 miles south east of Q’daffy’s compound in Tripoli lies the Tajura Oasis. It was there, on the 1st November 1911, that Lt Giulio Gavotti, flying a German-built Taube (“Dove”) monoplane of the Italian airforce, dropped three 2kg bombs onto a Turkish military encampment – the first documented occasion in history of an air raid. In Gavotti’s own words ..

“…Before long I could clearly see the dark mass of the oasis approaching fast. With one hand holding the joystick, I opened the box containing the bombs, extracted one and placed it on my lap. Changing hands on the joystick, I extracted a detonator and put it in my mouth. After I had closed the box and primed the bomb and detonator, with about one mile to go to the oasis, I was ready. I could now clearly see the Arab (sic) tents – there were two square camps, one of about 200 tents, the other of about 50. Shortly before this, I had grabbed the bomb in my right hand, tore off the security key with my teeth and threw it out from the cockpit. I followed the bomb for a few seconds before it disappeared. After a moment I saw the little tents covered by a dark cloud; I had aimed at the bigger tents and had missed, but had fortunately hit the little ones instead. I overflew the camp several times and dropped two more bombs, but could not see the effect ….”

The Italo-Turkish War, known as the Guerra di Libia (Libyan War) to the Italians and the Trablusgarp Savasi (Tripolitan War) to the Turks, broke out in 1911. Italy, although an ancient land, was in still a young country in political terms; the Italian re-unification movement Il Risorgimento (“the Resurgence”) had occurred barely fifty years earlier; this was a land long divided and controlled piecemeal by foreign powers. Northern Italy had been fought over for centuries by France and Austria. The 7th largest battle of the 19th century, Solferino, was fought there during the Italian Independence War and was witnessed by Swiss businessman Henri Dunant who was inspired to found the Red Cross. Italy in the early 20th century was a society still trying to define itself; everyone knew there was an Italy, but who were the Italians ?. Its government in that period was a constitutional monarchy under Victor Emmanuel III; power however was vested in the veteran politician Giovanni Giolitti, serving his third (out of an eventual total of five) terms of office as Prime Minister. A political liberal, his early ministries were marred by financial and political mismanagement. This resulted in his impeachment for abuse of power in 1893, following the collapse of the Vatican owned Banca Romana after it was shown to have indulged in fraudulent transactions involving an array of leftwing politicians; although the impeachment was subsequently quashed he was to spend seven years in the wilderness whilst Italy was governed by figures of the right. Foremost among them was former Garibaldian nationalist Francesco Crispi, who saw Austria-Hungary as Italy’s great enemy and the Ottoman Empire as a source of potential colonies. Rehabilitated, Giolitti returned to power in 1903, but had to live with the rapidly growing nationalist tide.

The policy of Europe towards Turkey had been set at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, called by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, to attempt a diplomatic solution to the increasing problem of declining Ottoman Turkish power. Turkey in that era comprised not just the modern-day country, but also most of the Balkans (known in those days as the “Near East”), the North African shore and virtually all of what we today call the “Middle East”, except for Persia which had maintained a precarious independence. It had occupied those regions during the heady days of late medieval period when the gunpowder – equipped armies of the earliest Ottoman emperors had swept all before them. By the mid 19th century however, political stagnation and economic decline had left Turkey weak and vulnerable in the face of the newly industrialised European powers, most especially Russia, which was desperate to obtain an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, via the Dardanelles. Moscow’s attempt to appropriate swathes of Ottoman territory had already triggered two major conflicts; the Crimean War in 1853 and the Russo-Turkish War in 1877. In the discussions that followed the Congress France and Britain agreed a carve up of the most valuable Turkish assets in North Africa, with the French taking Algeria and Tunisia and the British taking Egypt and Cyprus. Italian diplomats got wind of the plan and threatened to obstruct it unless they got something too; to mollify them, the French offered Tripolitania as part of the Italian sphere of influence. This was further cemented in 1902 by a secret treaty between France and Italy which allowed each other freedom of intervention in Morocco and Tripolitania.

It was not until 1911 however that the Italians finally acted. Giolitti, back in power since 1903, was opposed to war, believing it to be imperialistic in intent, and for which Italy was moreover, economically unprepared. He would later argue passionately against Italy’s entry in to The Great European War in 1915, on much the same grounds. The nationalist tide was too great however, and he was bounced into action; anti-war sentiment came also from the Socialist opposition, including the young Benito Mussolini, then editor of the leftwing newspaper Avanti !. Turkey was presented with an ultimatum demanding the annexation of the provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Public sentiment was whipped up by the right – wing press with exaggerated stories of attacks on Italian citizens and businesses by religious fanatics. Turkey responded by offering a deal similar to that which they offered the British over Egypt, i.e. that the territory would remain formally under the suzerainty of the Sultan but would actually be controlled by the UK. This was deemed insufficient and war was declared on 29-09-1911.

Italy, and most of Europe, expected a short decisive campaign with the poorly equipped Turkish military expected to put up little resistance. As well as aerial reconnaissance and bombing the Italians also showed innovation in deploying some of the first armoured cars in warfare, constructed at the Fiat works in Torino – then Italy’s largest industrial city. Libya had no regular Turkish army to defend it, and the few thousand troops that were there had no senior officers, who had to travel to the battlefield at their own expense. All the early Turkish resistance was by local Bedu and Tuareg tribesmen led by Turkish officers. The Italian fleet appeared before Tripoli the day before war was declared, but didn’t open fire for a further five days. After a short bombardment the small garrison fled and the city was occupied by 1,500 sailors. Further unopposed landings took place at Tobruk, Al Khums and Darnah. Only at Benghazi did they meet any serious resistance when 4,000 Italian troops ran into 450 Turkish regulars dug into the dunes overlooking the landing beach; they took a heavy toll before finally withdrawing from the city. At Tobruk in Dec 1911 a small force of 200 Turkish regulars and Arab militia took on and defeated 2,000 Italian troops, the only Turkish victory in the war. They were led by a brilliant young Turkish officer – Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk.

With the ports secure, the Italians put ashore 20,000 troops commanded by Marshal Carlo Caneva, to mop up the small Turkish force, but were almost annihilated a few months later at Sciara Sciat near Tripoli where they were surrounded by fast moving Libyan cavalry assisted by some Turkish regulars. They extricated themselves, but realised that they had hopelessly underestimated the opposition and increased the expeditionary force to 100,000. The Turks would eventually deploy 8,000 troops and 20,000 local Arab militia, led by Qur’ranic scholar Omar Mukhtar. Born in the village of East Janzour, near Tobruk, Mukhtar already had considerable military experience from his years as a Mujahideen fighting the French in Mali and Chad. He brought not only new tactics, but foreign fighters as well to swell the local Arab militia, many of them from Egypt and Palestine

At sea, the war was almost as one-sided as the air war. In January 1912, an Italian force passed through the Suez canal and at the Battle of Kunfida Bay, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, destroyed the small force of gunboats that where the Turks only presence in the Red Sea. Later, off the coast of Lebanon at the Battle of Beirut, the main Italian fleet destroyed the only remaining Turkish ships in the Med, one of them an American Civil War era Ironclad built in 1860’s, and established complete command of the sea from that point on. Thus emboldened, they went on to seize the main Turkish-held islands in the Aegean sea, beginning with Rhodes.

By mid 1912, both sides were weary of the conflict which had, especially for the Italians, taken far longer and cost far more than they had ever imagined. Peace feelers were put out by both sides, but the issue was decided for them in the autumn of 1912 when Slav nationalists in Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro took advantage of Turkey’s weakness to declare war and initiate the First Balkan War to wrest control of the last remaining Balkan enclaves of Ottoman rule. By the Treaty of Lausanne (1912) Italy gained Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, but was forced to return the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea. Thus did a minor and little written about conflict in the early 20th century set in chain the sequence of events that would culminate in the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by a Serb nationalist in the former Ottoman city of Sarajevo in 1914 that ignited the Great European War. It also created the (Italian administered) territory on the north African shore that would one day become the modern state of Libya. Curiously to the 21st century mind, no Libyan was consulted at any point during that process.


In 2011, Libya again finds itself a pawn in the hands of others; but since this is the 21st century one of those “others” is the country’s erstwhile leader Muammar Q’daffy. Like France or India, Libya is a state created from the boundaries of a former colonial administration and lumped together a variety of cultural and ethnic traditions that had never previously been used to thinking of themselves as a unified group. Independence, when it came, was a leap in the dark for the young state. But before Independance came, there were the years of the Italian administration prior to the second world war. Omar Mukhtar continued his resistance to the Italians, conducting a guerrilla campaign against them for decades afterwards. His power base was in the Green Mountains, and in the remote oasis town of Al-Jaghbub (Giarabub in Italian), close to the Egyptian border. This was the home base of the Senussi Order, a religious – political movement founded in Mecca in 1837 by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi, the Grand Senussi. The Senussis were instrumental in organising resistance first to French, and later Italian control in the Sahara. When Al-Jaghbub fell to the Italians in 1926, it was Omar Mukhtar who re – organised the Sennusite forces and continued the fight against the Italians.

By the 1930’s Italy was no longer governed by men like Giolitti; instead the former editor of Avanti ! (“Forward !”) had completed his transition from Socialism to National Socialism. By combining the elements of Nationalism, Militarism and Socialism he created Fascism – rarely seen in the modern world, although the Ba’thist Socialism of Syria, and of Iraq before the American attack, certainly come close. Mussolini took a much harder line against Mukhtar’s insurgency, and in 1930 dispatched General Rodolfo Graziani to deal with him. Graziani first organised mass deportations of Arabs from towns in the interior of Cyrenaica and held them in a series of concentration camps along the coast where many died or were executed; having emptied the countryside of sympathisers he then ringed the area with troops, constructed a barbed wire fence along the border with Egypt and eventually ran Omar to ground and captured him. He was hanged in public on 11-09-1931, his last words were said to be “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” (“To God we belong and to Him we shall return.”).

In 1940, the Second world war was in its early stages in Europe and was essentially Fascist Germany and Italy against the decadent liberal democracies, France and Britain. Graziani was in command of the 150,000 men, 600 tanks and 1,200 aircraft of the Italian 10th Army, tasked by Mussolini to seize the Suez Canal, then held by the British. He moved his huge force into Egypt but then halted and established a chain of fortified camps. The British forces were commanded by General Richard O’Connor and comprised the British 7th Armoured Brigade and the Indian 4th Infantry Division, barely 38,000 men with 250 tanks and about 150 aircraft. Like Grant at Fort Donaldson in 1862 or Moltke at Sedan in 1870, O’Connor realised that by bold and rapid manoeuvre he could isolate the forts and cut off their supplies – turning a fortress into a prison. He staged a series of lightning strikes around the open flanks of the Italian camps and captured most of their occupants. Dashing on into Libya, O’Connor captured a string of towns familiar to a modern audience, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, Beda Fomm, Ajdahbia and finally halted at El-Agehiela (Al-Uqayla, 25 miles west of Brega). By the time he stopped O’Connor had taken 110,000 prisoners, destroyed 400 tanks and destroyed or captured 1,000 aircraft, effectively ending Italian control of Cyrenaica. Although a rout for the 10th Army, one small Italian unit held out until March 1941, a month after O’Connor reached Al-Uqayla. Col. Salvatore Castagna and his small force of Italian regulars and Libyan militia held the town of Al-Jaghbub, home of the Senussi Order, against a much bigger British force – the only Italian success of the campaign. Graziani resigned after the catastrophe and took no further part in the war. Due to the deal reached with the Allies when Italy surrendered, no senior Italians stood trial for war crimes and Graziani was never charged either for his actions in Libya or for his maltreatment of Ethiopian POW’s in the Abyssinian invasion.

Libya became a British Protectorate for a short while after the war and transitioned to full independence in 1951, the result of a UN Security Council resolution in 1949; Libya was the first country in the world to be established by direction of the UN. Initially a constitutional monarchy under Idris as-Senussi, grandson of the Grand Senussi of Al-Jaghbub. Oil was discovered in 1959 and commercial exports began in 1963. As with so many other states in Africa and beyond, the discovery of oil and the tsunami of western petro-dollars that followed soon after destabilised the fragile new state and led inevitably to a coup-d’état, in this case by Q’daffy in 1969. From the beginning his skill at knitting together the various ethnic and religious groups in Libya was undone by his bizarre and eccentric views on the government and on the outside world. On coming to power he abolished all existing laws and put in place a one party state “execution is the fate of anyone who forms a political party” he said in 1972. With a mixture of Sharia law and state socialism he nationalised all the main industries and imposed income caps on all citizens; an extensive secret police network existed to gather information on citizens in a manner similar to North Korea or Iraq before the invasion, together with brutal repression of any opposition. What he had created was, in effect, Libyan Fascism – where Graziani failed, Q’daffy succeeded. Yet it was his actions towards foreign governments that would eventually make him enough enemies that when the Arab Spring came to Libya, that there were few who would be willing to help; Lockerbie was only the most the visible example of a leader who was like a bull in a diplomatic china shop for more than four decades. Some in the Arab world saw through him very early on, in 1971 Gaafar Nimiery, then President of Sudan observed “he has a split personality, both parts evil”.

Only Russia and China demurred in the security council vote, eventually abstaining; yet the UN, and US, were in fact bounced into action by Sarkozy and Cameron who were minded to go it alone. Had the UN not backed action, what little authority it still had would have faded away. Just as with Saddam Hussein in 2003, the west judged him simply too dangerous to have at large when they were already deep into a war with Al Qaeda. In the case of Q’daffy, for the heady first few days when it looked like the rebels would stroll into Tripoli, the western powers had all declared the for rebels, formally or informally. Their die was cast at that moment, they could not now allow him to stay in power, even if the country were partitioned. A rogue state that has previously launched terrorist attacks against the US, the UK and many others, on the borders of southern Europe is simply too dangerous to contemplate. Whatever UN resolution 1973 says, the west will have to see through the overthrow of Q’daffy in any event.

If the events of the past week are anything to go by, a military defeat of Q’daffy seems inevitable, although what is likely to come in his wake is anyone’s guess right now. A long drawn out war is in no – one’s interest, least of all Libyans. Future governments can be devised, but first we have to escape from the current arrangement. Q’daffy was derisive of British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s suggestion in the first few days that he might like to pack his bags for Venezuela, but it would be have better for all concerned, including Q’daffy himself, if he had taken Hague’s advice. There is still time for him to step down, but not much time, because with the war going the way it is right now if he isn’t killed by a British Tomahawk (made in America) with the words “Lockerbie” stencilled on the side, then it may be his own side who dispose of him. But he is the past, the future belongs to Libyans. The UN created Libya in the first place, and it can do so again. The 1911 intervention by Italy in Libya triggered a far greater conflagration, but does history always have to be that way ? Cannot revolutions sometimes be harbingers of positive change ? Can a successful transition of Libya into a peaceful and productive state become a template for others in that troubled region ?

The TV news coverage of Libya has thrown up some excellent reporting and analysis. Lisa Holland’s powerful reporting on Sky News and the overall coverage from the English language version of Al Jazeera has been of a high quality. But for me the definitive image of the affair came from BBC news; in the early days many foreign contractors had been stranded in the desert, terrified of the moment that either bandits, or worse, Q’daffy’s men turned up. One told of the moment that he finally knew he was safe – when he reached his destination on the coast he saw a huge sign put there to greet him and his colleagues – “Welcome to Free Benghazi !”

Copyright ©Savereo John 2011

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Originally published 21/10/2010

In the wake of the recent, twentieth, anniversary of German re-unification, it is easy to forget that that same day also marked another great milestone. A payment of 68 million Euros was made by the German government as the final instalment of the country’s reparations debt imposed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, after the end of the First World War.

So deep has become the notion of Germany’s guilt for the First World War that it has rarely been questioned outside of Germany, yet the more one looks at the events that led to war in 1914, the more unlikely it seems that the blame should lie with entirely with Germany. Perhaps a greater myth, however, about the conflict is its very name “world” war. In reality, the great bulk of the fighting and dying took place in Europe. True there were other theatres of war; British troops faced the Germans in German East Africa (Tanganyika) and in German South West Africa (Namibia); they also faced the Turks in Palestine (Israel and Jordan) and in Mesopotamia (Iraq); or the capture of the German base at Tsingtao in China by the Japanese; not to mention the little remembered sea battle near the Falkland Islands in 1914 when Admiral Maximillian von Spee’s German Pacific squadron, making a dash for home after the fall of Tsingtao met Admiral Dovetee Sturdee’s British naval task force sent from Scapa Flow to intercept them as they attempted to raid Port Stanley for its coal supply.

So lets begin by calling it the Great European War

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the re-joining of the two halves of Germany was the final act of an ancient tragedy that befell Europe three hundred years ago. In the seventeenth century, Europe’s dominant power was the Medieval German state, known as the Holy Roman Empire. Whilst Shah Jehan, then the world’s richest man, was building the Taj Mahal in Mughal India, Europe was convulsed by a series of conflicts springing from the protestant reformation, such as the English Civil War and the Thirty Years War; the latter being fought almost entirely in Germany. The devastation wrought by the conflict, which ended in 1648, not only re-drew the map of Europe, it also shattered Germany, then as now the richest country in Europe, into so many pieces that it would take 230 years to put them back together again. That is until 1871 when Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, after a Prussian – led alliance of German states had defeated France in the war of 1870, to create the 19thcentury German Empire, sometimes known as “the Second Reich”. The debt whose final payment has just been made was imposed upon Germany by the Versailles Treaty; in addition to accepting blame for causing the war, an indemnity was demanded of 269 billion gold marks (the equivalent of 100,000 tons of gold); that is £23.9 billion, which would be £270 billion at today’s values. Payment was due to complete in the 1980′s, but had been suspended during the global financial crash of 1930, and not subsequently resumed until after 1945.

The actual reparations payments were in fact made, to France and Britain, in the 1920′s under a plan drawn up by the American banker Charles Dawes – the so-called “Dawes Plan”. The payments were supposed to be redistributed among the other allied powers, but this never happened; Belgium for instance, which suffered four years occupation never received anything. The plan involved various US banks (including JP Morgan) loaning the funds in the form of bonds which Germany then repaid to the banks. It was those same banks, or their successors, that received the final payment. Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1925, but his plan proved to be unworkable and had to be replaced by the Young Plan in 1929.

The war came about due to a sequence of events that began when a Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot dead the heir to the Hapsburg throne in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, in protest at the Austrian annexation of the province. It was the latest in a century long chain of violence and uncertainty that had dogged the Balkans since the withdrawal of the Turks in the 19th century. The Crimean War had been fought in the 1860′s by Britain and France to prevent the Russians from grabbing former Turkish territory, and the early years of the 20thcentury saw the Italo-Turkish war of 1911, fought for control of Libya. Despite the Turkish forces including the young Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the conflict laid bare the weakness of the Ottoman military and encouraged Slav nationalists to embark on the two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913 from which the modern states of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Bulgaria and Albania were created as they fought first Turkey and then each other to carve up the Ottoman legacy; with Austria taking the ethnically mixed province of Bosnia, then as now an objective for Serb nationalists.

The Habsburgs delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, laying responsibility for the killing on the Serbian government; since Princip’s group, the Black Hand, had links to the Serbian intelligence services and had been involved in an number of attempts to kill Hapsburg officials in the preceding years. This brought Russia into the equation, which then saw itself as the leader and protector of the Slav minorities within the former Ottoman territories in Europe; and led to a Russian threat to go to War with Austria-Hungary if military action were taken against Serbia.

The Great Power alliances of the period now came into play, with the Hapsburgs calling upon their ally Germany to aid them against Russia. The Germans, whilst they had no great enthusiasm for a conflict with Russia, feared that Austria could never stand alone against the Russians and that their inevitable defeat would open up the Balkans to Russian control – something they would never tolerate. This in turn brought in France which was allied to Russia in an arrangement that included not only military co-operation, but financial support as well – the expansion of the Russian railway network was largely paid for by loans from France. In particular the extension of Russian railways westwards towards the German border was viewed with alarm in Berlin as it would allow Russia to speedily deploy its huge army to the border in the event of war.

French policy in this regard was driven by its experience in the war of 1870, when it had had to face an alliance of German states unaided and been soundly defeated; its leader Emperor Napoleon III was taken prisoner, it lost the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and was forced to pay a huge indemnity of 5 billion Francs – the re-building of Berlin in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies was largely paid for with the French reparations payments. France’s defeat in that conflict had largely come about because of its failure to conclude defensive alliances with Russia and Britain. There was some sympathy for the French from the Austrian and Danish governments, both of whom had lost territory to Prussia after wars in the preceding decades, but they lacked confidence in the French to hold off the Germans, and so stood aside, as did the British. By 1914, however, the French had concluded an alliance with the Russians and also had an understanding with the British, who were afraid of what Germany might demand from France in the event of another victory. From the French perspective, if war came with Germany again, they would this time be aided by the biggest army in the world (the Russian) and the biggest navy in the world (the British).

So, whilst it can be seen that France and its ally Russia, had reasons to want to seek a showdown with Germany and Austria, the reasons why Britain and Germany might want to go to war with each other are less easy to divine since there seemed so little for either to gain from conflict. In the years since 1918, two main strands of thought have arisen, one from a broadly left-wing viewpoint and the other from a broadly right-wing perspective. Both are myths.

The left-wing myth is that war in general, and the Great European War in particular, came about as a consequence of capitalism. Whilst this theory was popular at a time when Marxism was an active force in European politics, it is less commonly heard since the collapse of communism in the 1990′s. The argument goes that firstly imperial competition for colonies inevitably leads to conflict and secondly that manufacturers of armaments stand to make huge profits from any war and thus secretly agitated behind the scenes for a war in order to boost profits. Yet a close examination of the facts shows this to be manifestly untrue. Firstly, the imperial squabble theory falls apart because the two wealthiest combatants, Britain and Germany were not in competition for colonies – Britain and France were in such a competition, but were on the same side. Secondly, whilst arms manufacturers undoubtedly stood to gain from war, at least on the winning side, they form only a small part of the economy; the vast bulk of the business communities in both Britain and Germany where implacably opposed to war as the destruction of property and interruption to sea-borne trade was bad for every other kind of business. A good example of the dilemma facing the European business community was the Rothschild banking family. With successful operations in London, Paris, Vienna and Berlin this iconic capitalist dynasty faced complete ruin from the war and went to frantic lengths to try and avert it, including making direct personal appeals to the three cousins that were monarchs of main potential combatants, King George of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholai of Russia – but without avail. In Britain, the days leading up to war saw an upsurge in bellicose anti-German rhetoric in the press, most especially in the Times (whilst the Guardian ran a number of pacifist leaders). The head of the London branch of the family, Lord Charles Rothschild made a desperate appeal to the Times’ Foreign Editor Henry Wickham Steed and its proprietor Lord Northcliffe to tone down their rhetoric which was “hounding the country into war”. Their response was to describe Rothschild’s appeal as “a dirty German- Jewish international financial attempt to bully us into advocating neutrality” and ran an even more bellicose leader the next day; hardly The Thunderer’s finest hour.

The other great myth is that of German militarism as the war’s underlying cause. Whilst this is more difficult to rebut in the modern era, with our knowledge of the Nazi party in the 1930′s and 1940′s, it is equally false. Whilst it is true that there were hawks within the German government, as there were in every country at the time, the picture of Germany as an authoritarian, undemocratic and militarised state in 1914 simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the main, this false view of early 20thcentury Germany comes about because of a reading of the wilder extremes of pan – German nationalism that existed at the time tend to get interpreted in the 21stcentury as the forerunners of Nazism, which in a sense they were; but – and this is the important point – no-one knew that at the time. Although the polity of the German Empire in 1914 might appear more authoritarian, compared to say, Britain or France, it was far from being the militarised despotism of popular legend.

Take democracy for instance. The Reichstag (equivalent to the British House of Commons) had universal male suffrage from the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, in Britain it wasn’t introduced until 1918. Consequently German enfranchisement for the lower chamber was more widespread than British (23% of the total population in 1900, compared to 18% in Britain). Germany also had much more powerful left-wing, and thus anti-war, movements than Britain. The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) had over 1 million members and was not only the biggest political party in Europe, it was the biggest left-wing party in the world; compare this to the various radical nationalist parties at the time, which had barely 500,000 members between them. The British Labour Party in 1914 was the “third party” in the House of Commons with just 42 seats, way behind the Conservatives and the Liberals – a political minnow in comparison.

The notion of Germany in 1914 as being excessively militarised is also false. Whilst it is true that Germany had a larger army than Britain or France, it also had a bigger population, as well as a much longer border to defend. The following table shows starkly the myth that Germany was Europe’s most militarised society; it shows the wartime strength of the armed forces (i.e. Army plus Navy including reserves) in millions as percentage of total population

Country    Millions    % of Population

Russia          3.4             0.77
France         1.8             2.29
Germany     2.1             1.33
Austria        1.3             0.85
Britain         0.5             1.17

We can therefore see that, in fact, the most “militarised” state in Europe was not Germany at all, but France. Another indicator of military strength, the early 20thcentury naval arms race between Britain and Germany, is also not what it seems. That Germany aspired in the late 19thcentury to challenge Britain’s naval dominance is beyond question; what is less well known is the extent to which they failed. The Germans wanted to achieve a parity of battleships with the British; yet despite the scaremongering of the right wing press in Britain they never even got close. In 1914 Britain had 15 Dreadnoughts to Germany’s 9, a fact the Germans were well aware of as early as 1908, when they gave up trying match the British navy and concentrated on funding the army instead, a perfectly sane policy since the most likely threat of attack came from France and Russia, not Britain.

Here in Britain however, perhaps as a result of the fate that afflicts any victor in war, that of believing your own propaganda, we have a whole bunch of myths of our own as to why we went to war with Germany in 1914. The line that was pedalled at the time, and continues to be believed today, is that Britain was obliged to fight because of the Entente alliance with France and because of its commitment to guarantee Belgian neutrality. In fact, neither assertion is true since neither treaty explicitly committed Britain to use force. The greatest myth of all concerning The Great European War, is that Britain’s involvement was inevitable – nothing could be further from the truth. To understand Britain’s alliances in the early 20thcentury, we have to first understand two things; the disconnect between public opinion and the reality of government policy on the one hand, and how British governments in the late imperial era saw Britain’s relations with the outside world on the other.

That popular opinion saw the rapidly expanding economy of Germany as a threat to British interests is beyond question. Popular literature, and the popular press, of the time was filled with lurid fictions of German invasions of southern England. Books such as “The Invasion of 1910”, by the Anglo-French journalist William Le Queux, were just the best selling example of a sub genre of popular fiction at the time, that of the anti-German war fantasy. Originally serialised in the Daily Mail it depicted a seaborne German invasion of an unsuspecting Britain, with the story including scenes deliberately depicting the destruction of selected home counties towns with high proportions of Daily Mail readers, to enhance its sales. To be fair, such junk was not restricted only to Britain; the Germans had their equivalents too, usually depicting a sudden seizure of the port of Antwerp in Belgium by the Royal Navy as a prelude to a huge British army invading the nearby industrial area of the Ruhr Valley.

Yet, whatever its citizens may have thought, British foreign policy shows that right up to 1914, it did not consider Germany a serious threat to British interests. The alliance with France grew out of the international politics of the late 19thcentury and is not at all what it was subsequently represented to be. British policy at that time was remarkably little concerned with Europe; since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain largely withdrew from European politics and concentrated on consolidating its empire instead. Many factors have been identified in explaining the extraordinary success of Britain in the 19thcentury; democratic constitution, modern financial system, rapid industrialisation, high quality education system and, of course, a vast overseas empire. But there is one crucial factor that is hardly ever mentioned – for 100 years from the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain stood aside from every war fought in Europe – this despite the fact that there were many wars going at that time – the Prusso-Austrian War, The Prusso – Danish War, the Prusso – French War, just to mention the main ones. The only conflict that Britain fought during that whole period against another European power was the, relatively small scale, Crimean War – and that was in Asia.

British policy therefore was directed towards a global stage, not a European one. By the late 19thcentury the reality of maintaining history’s greatest assemblage of colonies, territories, dependencies and mandates known collectively as the British Empire was beginning to tell – the so called phenomena of imperial over-stretch. British policy was concerned with identifying and containing threats to the Empire. The danger of direct attack from another European country was considered to be minimal, and could in any event be contained by the Royal Navy. If you had told a British diplomat of the 1890′s that there would be war in the twentieth century with another European power they would most likely have thought either Russia, as almost happened in the 1870′s over Afghanistan, or France as almost happened in 1898 over Sudan, the so – called Fashoda Crisis; the last serious dispute between the two countries which subsequently led to the Entente Treaty.

The main thrust of British foreign policy at that time was to identify potential threats to the Empire and to neutralise them by concluding alliances. Although Germany might have seemed a natural ally to Britain in this process, in fact the opposite was true – Germany’s colonial empire was tiny and did not cut across any British interests. True, they would have helped in the event of a European war, but Britain thought that it would either be neutral in such a conflict, or would only be involved at sea – so what help would Germany really be ? In reality they had far less to offer Britain on a global stage than France did.

We can now see that the Entente Treaty concluded with the French was not, as is commonly supposed, a reaction to German strength – it was actually the opposite. Germany was not considered to be a global player and therefore not worth concluding an alliance with, at least from the British point of view. We should therefore think of the alliance with France as similar to the Nazi – Soviet pact of 1939. I mean that in the sense that it was an alliance intended to neutralise a potential enemy by making them your ally. Far from fearing Germany, Britain allied with France precisely because they considered France to be more of a threat than Germany.

When the crisis of 1914 broke, the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith was caught completely unprepared and was split over whether or not to go to war. Britain then had one of its rare coalition governments; the Liberals were the largest party with 272 seats, against 271 for the Conservative and Liberal Unionists. They were kept in power by 84 Irish Nationalist MPs and 56 Labour

Half of the cabinet were threatening resignation if war was declared, whilst others, led by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) threatened resignation if Britain did not support France. The difficulty that Asquith faced was that whilst public opinion could be brought around to intervention in support of France under the Entente treaty (although statements made at the time that Britain was legally bound to fight were false, there was no obligation to go war in the treaty), it was a different matter to go to war in support of the French alliance with Russia. This was a separate treaty to which Britain was not a signatory; quite apart from the fact that Tsarist Russia was viewed very differently then to now. We tend to think in the 21stcentury of the Romanovs as tragic, almost romantic figures, the “Doctor Zhivago” version of history; but that was not how they were seen at the time. To most people of centre – left outlook in 1914 Romanov Russia was thought of as a backward, medieval despotism – remember that serfdom wasn’t abolished there until 1861. Very few Britons were prepared to fight in order to save Russia from the Germans and the Austrians. As it transpired however, the Germans made everyone’s mind up for them when it became obvious that they intended to invade neutral Belgium. In fact Britain had already considered this possibility and had a plan to prevent the Germans from seizing the Belgian ports, completely unacceptable to Britain, by seizing them itself, just as they and the French would later do in Norway in 1940. Meaning that even if the Germans hadn’t violated Belgian neutrality, Britain certainly would have done so.

In the event however, the Germans got there first and gave Asquith a politically acceptable reason to fight. It was claimed at the time that Britain was obliged to intervene, but again this wasn’t true, there was nothing in the 1839 treaty that established Belgian security that compelled Britain to take military action – it was a strategic choice. Nevertheless, the German invasion of Belgium saved Asquith’s government from collapse and set Britain against Germany even though neither country particularly regarded the other as a deadly enemy. It was of course open to the Germans to abandon their invasion of Belgium, but that would have been disastrous. Mobilisation in 1914 meant assembling millions of troops behind the lines then transporting them by rail to the border. Had they halted the deployment at the last moment, most of their army would have been stuck on thousands of trains close to the Belgian border at exactly the moment that a big French army and an even bigger Russian army was preparing to attack them from east and west simultaneously. Insane at it seems, the calculation was made that this risk was even greater than taking on the richest country in the world, Britain, in an unnecessary war. Somewhat like the USA in the modern world, such were Britain’s huge financial resources that whatever side they were on was bound to win in the long run. Germany had to win by a quick decisive campaign through Belgium and into northern France. When that failed, the final outcome was only a matter of time, the only real surprise is that it took four years.

And so in November 1918, the economics of war finally asserted themselves. Despite the Germans stunning victory in the east against the Russians, a combination of the British naval blockade, the resilience of the French army in the face of horrific losses, the arrival of an American force in France and the full mobilisation of British military power from across the globe had left Germany bankrupt and starving and they finally had sue for an armistice. By this time 13 million had been killed, but that was just the precursor to an even greater horror. An outbreak of the highly virulent Spanish flu among the troops in 1918, was carried around the world as they de-mobilised and led to a world-wide pandemic that killed 20 million – more than had died the fighting.

At the peace talks in 1919, Britain was fully aware of the dangers of imposing too severe a penalty on the Germans; but the French were not to be denied. For them, the war had meant two million dead and a vast tract of north eastern France laid waste. Much has been written about the devastation wrought by the fighting, but nothing in our modern experience even comes close to describing it. Perhaps a single image will help. In 1914, the French village of Douaumont was a thriving rural community, a few miles from an ancient fortress that had guarded the road to Paris since Roman times. In 1916 it was the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting between French and Germans during the battle of Verdun. Such was the intensity of the artillery bombardment that the village was completely obliterated – and I mean that quite literally, there wasn’t a single stone left standing. In fact, the only way you could tell that there had been ever anything there at all was a vague grey smudge in the soil visible only from the air. During the battle, the combatants fired off 40 million artillery shells, that’s six per square metre of the battlefield, which in some places resembled the surface of Mars with a permanent smog overhead of Mustard Gas and Phosgenes mixed in with the noxious smell from the rotting corpses that littered the battlefield. All that is left now is a cemetery containing the remains of 100,000 unidentified soldiers from both sides out of the three hundred thousand who perished there.

In such circumstances, it was idle to expect any sympathy from the French. They were intent first on recovering the territory lost in 1871, then they were going to impose an indemnity on Germany of such severity as to prevent them from ever waging war on France again. The dangers of crippling Germany economically, as described in the book The Economic Consequences of Peace by the economist John Maynard Keynes who was a member of the British delegation and famously stormed out of the conference, were not considered. In his own, prophetic words –

“If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing.”

After a conflict in which so many had died there had to be someone to blame, and that someone was always going to be the loser. But the problem with the demonization of the “other” is that, as the Jihadiis of the 21stcentury have discovered – if you scream for war against the Americans for long enough then one day that war will happen – so it was with Germany after 1918. If you demonise a country long enough and impose a penalty of such severity as to drive them into the arms of a true tyrant, then a real life demon is what you will get. And we did get one, the illegitimate son of Ms Shickelgruber.

Many things led to The Great European War – Turkish political decline, Russian expansionism, Slav nationalism, French wounded pride from 1870, British indifference to European affairs for 100 years and finally, and least importantly, a rapidly expanding Germany hemmed in all sides by envious neighbours. Germany has had to say sorry for many things that happened in the 20thcentury, including some that were genuinely her fault; but it is high time that we acknowledged that we never should have blamed them for the Great European War – it was as much the fault of Britain and France as it was of Germany.

There, was that so hard ?

Copyright ©2010 Savereo John

Savereo John History now has a new home

Savereo John History now has a new home – you will find here mostly military history from the 19th and 20th centuries plus new stuff as I add it. Happy reading !

Savereo John