US Army Recovery – Abrams and Vietnam


U.S. Army general Creighton W. Abrams Jr. (1914–1974) was deputy commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), during 1967–1968 and its commander during 1968–1972. As chief of staff of the army from 1972 to 1974, Abrams worked to rebuild the army and laid the foundation for its later success.

Abrams, Creighton Williams, Jr.

Birth Date: September 15, 1914

Death Date: September 4, 1974

U.S. Army general; commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), during 1968–1972; and celebrated combat leader. Born on September 15, 1914, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Creighton Williams Abrams Jr. grew up in a family of modest means in the semirural setting of nearby Agawam. Graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, in 1936, Abrams was posted to the famous 7th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas. When World War II loomed he volunteered for armored service, finding there a mode of warfare entirely congenial to his own hard-driving and imaginative style of leadership.

Abrams rose to professional prominence as commander of a tank battalion that often spearheaded General George Patton’s Third Army during World War II. Abrams led the forces that punched through German lines to relieve the encircled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, earned two Distinguished Service Crosses and many other decorations, and received a battlefield promotion to full colonel. He inspired General Patton to say that “I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer—Abe Abrams. He’s the world’s champion.”

After World War II Abrams served as director of tactics at the Armor School, Fort Knox (1946–1948); graduated from the Command and General Staff College (1949); and was a corps chief of staff at the end of the Korean War (1953–1954). He graduated from the Army War College in 1953 and then was promoted to brigadier general in 1956 and major general in 1960. Abrams held a variety of staff assignments during this period, and from 1960 to 1962 he commanded the 3rd Armored Division. In 1963 he was promoted to lieutenant general and was made commander of V Corps in Germany.

When American involvement in Vietnam intensified, in mid-1964 Abrams was recalled from Germany, promoted to full (four-star) general from far down the list of lieutenant generals, and made the army’s vice chief of staff. In that assignment during 1964–1967 he was deeply involved in the army’s troop buildup, a task made infinitely more difficult by President Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to call up reserve forces. In tandem with U.S. Army chief of staff General Harold K. Johnson, with whom he shared a set of professional values rooted in integrity and concern for the soldier, Abrams made an effective steward of the army’s affairs.

In May 1967 Abrams was assigned to Vietnam as deputy commander of MACV. In that position he devoted himself primarily to the improvement of South Vietnamese armed forces, crisscrossing the country to see first-hand what units and commanders were doing and what they needed in the way of training, support, and guidance. When during the 1968 Tet Offensive the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) forces gave a far better account of themselves than was expected, Abrams rightly received much of the credit.

Soon after the beginning of the Tet Offensive, Abrams was sent north to Phu Bai to take command of fighting in I Corps. Operating out of a newly established headquarters designated MACV Forward, Abrams concentrated on the battle to retake Hue, forming in the process a close relationship with ARVN general Ngo Quang Truong, commander of the ARVN 1st Division. Abrams coordinated the efforts of a growing assortment of U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps elements and ARVN forces while working to improve the logistical system.

After a month of hard fighting, Truong’s forces cleared Hue and raised the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) flag over the Citadel. Truong praised Abrams for knowing exactly what his forces were doing and supplying them with what was necessary if they aggressively accomplished their mission. Soon it was announced that Abrams would assume the top job in Vietnam.

General Abrams formally assumed command of MACV on July 3, 1968, having been in de facto command since shortly after the Tet Offensive. As commander of MACV, Abrams changed the conduct of the war in fundamental ways. His predecessor’s attrition strategy, search-and-destroy tactics, and reliance on body count as the measure of merit were discarded. “Body count,” Abrams said, “is really a long way from what’s involved in this war. Yeah, you have to do that, I know that, but the mistake is to think that that’s the central issue.”

Instead Abrams stressed population security as the key to success. He directed a one-war approach, pulling together combat operations, pacification, and upgrading South Vietnamese forces into a coherent whole. “In the whole picture of the war,” he observed, “battles really don’t mean much.” Under Abrams, combat operations had as their ultimate objective providing security for the population so that pacification, the most important thing, could progress. “That’s where the battle ultimately is won,” he said.

Abrams was a consummate tactician who proved to have a feel for this kind of war. He urged his commanders to reduce drastically so-called H&I (harassment and interdiction) fires, unobserved artillery fire that he thought did little damage to the enemy and a good deal of damage to innocent villagers. He also cut back on the multibattalion sweeps that gave Communist forces the choice of terrain, time, and duration of engagement. He replaced these with multiple small-unit patrols and ambushes that blocked the enemy’s access to the people, interdicting their movement of forces and supplies.

Abrams’s analysis of the enemy system was key to this approach. He had observed that to function effectively the enemy needed to prepare the battlefield extensively, pushing forward a logistics nose instead of being sustained by a logistics tail, as in common military practice. This meant that many enemy attacks could be preempted if their supply caches could be discovered and captured or destroyed. Abrams also discerned that Communist main forces depended heavily on guerrillas and the Viet Cong (VC) infrastructure in the hamlets and villages, not the other way around, and that digging out that infrastructure could deprive the main forces of the guides, bearers, intelligence, locally procured food and supplies, and other elements that they needed to function effectively. These insights were key to revising the tactics of the war.

By April 1970 Abrams’s staff had developed a briefing titled “The Changing Nature of the War.” Change had been under way since Tet 1968, said the study: “Although shifts in the level of violence, type of military operations, and size and location of forces involved are characteristics of this change, the allied realization that the war was basically a political contest has, thus far, been decisive.” The significant aspect was what Abrams had done about acting on that realization. “For the first time in the war,” said the analysis, “the enemy’s traditional bases of power are being directly challenged—his political organization and his control of the population.” That, it appeared, was where the outcome of the war would be decided, because “both sides are finally fighting the same war.”

Abrams’s force of personality and strength of character were, during his years in command, at the heart of the American effort in Vietnam. Over the course of the years his army was progressively taken away from him, withdrawn chunk by chunk until he was in a symbolic sense almost the last man left. Still, Abrams did what he could to inspire, encourage, and support the remaining forces, American and Vietnamese alike.

A diplomat, observing the skill with which Abrams orchestrated the complex endeavor, once remarked that he “deserved a better war.” That wasn’t the way Abrams looked at it, recalled his eldest son: “He thought the Vietnamese were worth it.”

Abrams left Vietnam in June 1972 to become army chief of staff. In that position he set about dealing with the myriad problems of an army that had been through a devastating ordeal. He concentrated on readiness and on the well-being of the soldier, always the touchstones of his professional concern. Stricken with cancer, Abrams died in office on September 4, 1974. However, he had set a course of reform and rebuilding that General John W. Vessey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), later recalled: “When Americans watched the stunning success of our armed forces in DESERT STORM, they were watching the Abrams vision in action. The modern equipment, the effective air support, the use of the reserve components and, most important of all, the advanced training which taught our people how to stay alive on the battlefield were all seeds planted by Abe.”

References Buckley, Kevin. “General Abrams Deserves a Better War.” New York Times Magazine, October 5, 1969. Colby, William, with James McCargar. Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989. Davidson, Phillip A. Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988. Palmer, General Bruce, Jr. The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984. Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1999. Sorley, Lewis. Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

The House of Hanover


King and warrior

In 1743, George II became the last British monarch to lead his army into action at the Battle of Dettingen, in the War of the Austrian Succession.

In their search for a successor to maintain the sort of monarchy they wanted, the English had looked first to the Netherlands. Now a German dynasty was to occupy the throne, but the Hanoverians were at home among a people for whom Protestantism and patriotism were coming to mean the same thing.

Anew century heralded a new succession crisis, and further fears of Britain falling back into “popish” hands. In 1702, Queen Anne ascended the throne, and though no one felt the least anxiety about her loyalties, she was still a Stuart and the daughter of James II, a Catholic king. She was also going to die without an heir, as her last surviving child, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, died in 1700, aged only 11 years. In 1701, Parliament had rushed through the Act of Settlement to preempt any bid by the exiled James II himself, should he outlive Queen Anne, or by his son James Edward Stuart or daughter Louisa Maria Teresa, if he should not. Instead, the Act established that the succession would go to the reliably Protestant (and German) Sophia, Electress of Hanover.

Union dues

Scotland’s Parliament, irritated at England’s high-handed conduct in passing the Act of Settlement without consultation, brought in an Act of Security in 1704, insisting on its right to choose a monarch of its own. The Westminster Parliament retaliated with an Alien Act that marked out Scots in England as foreigners to be discriminated against—putting the Scots and their economy at a major disadvantage. In these less than ideal circumstances, the Scottish Parliament had little alternative but to commit itself to a permanent relationship with England. Both countries passed complementary Acts of Union in 1707.

Sophia died just a few weeks before Anne herself died, so on August 1, 1714, Sophia’s son became King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

A foreigner on the throne

George was aged 54 by the time he was crowned king of a country to which he was a stranger. His previous life as a German prince included service in the Hanoverian army in the War of the Spanish Succession. Set in his ways, he never became fully naturalized in England—or in the language of English. But staunch Protestantism mattered more than nationality at this time.

After the failed Jacobite rising of 1715 to restore the Stuarts to the throne, and a second minor scare in 1719, George’s reign was comparatively secure, and for the most part peaceful. George did, however, take Britain into the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718–20), fighting alongside the Dutch Republic, Austria, and France to thwart Philip V of Spain in his plans to take the French throne and territories in Italy, over which he felt his wife, Isabella Farnese, was entitled to reign. In the realm of domestic government, George’s fears of Jacobitism led him to be suspicious of the Tories—despite their traditionally being the monarchical party—and consequently into the embrace of the constitutionalist Whigs, who favored a diminution in the power of monarchy.

Soldier king

George II, who acceded to the throne in 1727, was also a veteran of the War of the Spanish Succession. However, his most ferocious fights had been with his own father—the prince was arrested and banned from the court after one particularly bad quarrel in 1717.

An early event of George II’s reign was the War of Jenkins’ Ear, fought against Spain from 1739, over the right of Britain to sell slaves in the Spanish Empire (it was named after an English sea captain, Robert Jenkins, wounded by Spanish coastguards). Failure to prosecute the war vigorously enough contributed to the fall of Robert Walpole’s Whig government. By 1742, the war broadened out to become part of the War of the Austrian Succession, in which Britain sided with the Austrian Maria Theresa, and her “Pragmatic” party (in favor of bending the rules to allow her succession to the Habsburg throne as a female), against France, who had Frederick II of Prussia in its camp. The end of the War of the Austrian Succession was little more than a pause for breath before, in 1756, the same combatants (albeit in a different combination of alliances) became embroiled in the Seven Years’ War. Before this, in 1745–46, George had to overcome the threat to the British throne of a new Jacobite rebellion.

Mail Armour


In the Song of Roland there are references to “double mail” and “triple mail”, while in his account of the fight between Richard of England and William of Barres, the poet Guillaume le Breton refers to the “thrice-woven hauberk” of the combatants. In terms of the usual way of making mail, in which each ring was threaded with four others, this is a nonsense. It is equally unlikely that anyone would have worn three full hauberks. It is possible to weave mail very densely so that each ring is interlocked with six others, but no Western example is known: however, that does not mean it did not happen. Perhaps Guillaume meant that these two wealthy and important men had reinforced the chests of their hauberks with additional strips of mail. In this same passage, Guillaume le Breton speaks of plates of steel being inserted under the hauberk and the aketon. This is the earliest evidence for the use of plate armour. Gerald of Wales describes the Norse wearing coats of “iron plates skilfully knitted together” when they attacked Dublin in 1171, but this anticipation of the later medieval “coat of plates” never seems to have become popular. Furthermore, another layer of protection was introduced by the mid-thirteenth century, when the padded surcoat was being replaced by one in which strips of iron were riveted to its inside.

Mail provided protection to the wearer while leaving him freedom to move. Those who have worn modern examples of chain mail stress that a belt helps to redistribute weight and makes the garment more comfortable to wear. No belts are shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, but they do appear in later illustrations. Differential ring sizes were a way of tailoring the hauberk to the contours of the human body, but they may also have served to lighten it – in the St Petersburg armour, heavier rings occur high on the chest and smaller, lighter ones lower down. Even in crusader settlements in the East where heat might have inclined men to lighter forms of protection, the Franks clung to Western mail. They did adopt the hazagand, a mail jerkin covered with fabric on the outside and padded within, first mentioned in the Chanson d’Antioche, but the general preference for Western armour suggests that it was effective.

Contemporaries, indeed, commented how well knights were protected, although presumably wealthier men had the best armour. At the siege of Falaise in 1106, Robert Fitzhamon received a heavy blow on the helmet which left him an idiot until his death, but Henry I survived a serious strike at Brémule in 1119. In his memoirs, the Arab nobleman Usamah tells us of an encounter with Franks in which his cousin was thrown from his horse and repeatedly stabbed by their footsoldiers before being rescued, and comments that he was saved by his mail. On another occasion, he jabbed his lance at a Frankish knight who seemed to be wearing only a surcoat. The knight was so badly hurt by the blow that he doubled up in the saddle, dropping his shield and helmet. However, the man recovered, because under the coat he was wearing mail. But the mail had to be properly prepared. When Earl Patrick of Salisbury was ambushed and killed in Aquitaine, William Marshal (Guillaume le Maréchal) managed to slip on his hauberk and fight, but this did not protect him from a severe sword-wound in the thigh, for he was not fully equipped. Usamah says that his father was badly injured by an enemy spear because a groom had left undone the fastening of his hauberk.

The constant effort to improve protection which ended with the knight swathed in many layers – steel plates, padded a aketon, mail, perhaps sometimes in double or triple layers, a leather breastplate and a padded and later armoured surcoat and coat of plates – is suggestive of the shortcomings of mail. It is difficult to see how any mail could resist a direct hard thrust from a couched spear, backed by the momentum of a mounted man. Guillaume le Breton says that Richard I and William of Barres galloped at each other, spears lowered, and only the plate armour finally stopped the lance, which had pierced the shield, torn the “thrice-woven” hauberk and holed the aketon. The consequences of such a blow could be terrible:

Nought for defence avails the hauberk tough,

he splits his heart, his liver and his lung

And strikes him dead, weep any or weep none. (Sayers)

Our best evidence of the ferocity of medieval warfare comes from the injuries inflicted on the victims of the Battle of Wisby in 1361. These caused an eminent anatomist to remark: “It is almost incomprehensible that such blows could be struck” and he explained their effectiveness by suggesting that attackers “stepped or jumped forward” as they struck their blow. Wisby was a largely infantry battle, and perhaps a man on horseback could not strike so hard, but cavalry engagements involved extremely close-quarter fighting. Usamah reports how one of his men escaped after his head was caught under the armpit of a Frank in a skirmish. The Bayeux Tapestry shows that arrows could penetrate mail, and crossbow quarrels must have been deadly. The likelihood is that while it could not stop a true blow, mail was very effective against glancing blows which, in the confused hacking-match of battle, must have been far more common.

How to Make Chain Mail Armor from Start to Finish

USS Monadnock (BM-3)


Monadnock crossing the Pacific Ocean during the Spanish-American War. This must have been an ‘exciting’ crossing…

A monadnock of more than 3,100 feet in southern New Hampshire close to the border of Massachusetts; often called Grand Monadnock to distinguish it from Little Monadnock which lies nearby to the east.

The second Monadnock, an iron‑hulled, twin‑screw, double‑turreted monitor, was laid down by Phineas Burgess at the Continental Iron Works, Vallejo, Calif., in 1874; launched 19 September 1883; completed at Mare Island Navy Yard; and commissioned there 20 February 1896, Capt. George W. Sumner in command.

After fitting out Monadnock served as a unit of the Pacific Squadron along the west coast. During the next 2 years exercises and training cruises sent her along the Pacific coast from Puget Sound to Baja California. After the outbreak of war with Spain, she was ordered to join Dewey’s fleet in the Philippines. She departed San Francisco 23 June 1898, touched at Hawaii early in July, and reached Manila Bay 16 August. She operated on blockade duty in the Manila‑Marviles‑Cavite area, with brief voyages to Hong Kong, until December 1899. On 26 December, she sailed for Hong Kong and for the next 5 years, cruised the rivers of China, particularly the Yangtze, and along her coast to protect American interests. Between 27 January and 7 October 1901, she stood almost continuous duty at the mouth of the Yangtze protecting the foreign settlement at Shanghai, operating similarly on four other occasions: 6 December 1902 to 8 April 1903; 18 September 1903 to 10 March 1904; and 8 April 1904 to 28 November 1904.

On 3 February 1905 she returned to Cavite. Operating out of Olongapo, she remained in the Philippines, with two interruptions for brief visits to Hong Kong, until decommissioned at Cavite 10 March 1909. Recommissioned in reserve 20 April 1911, she resumed operations out of Olangapo, until placed in full commission 31 January 1912 at Cavite. For the next 7 years she cruised with submarines, and towed targets. Decommissioning for the last time 24 March 1919, her name was struck from the Navy list 2 February 1923, and her hull was sold, on the Asiatic Station, 24 August 1923.


In the Philippines, the U.S. government simply substituted its rule for that of Spain. Whereas the Cubans reacted more or less docilely, Philippine insurrectionists under Emilio Aguinaldo waged a bitter struggle against what came to be an American garrison of more than sixty thousand men. Forty-two hundred Americans and about five times that many Filipinos died during a four-year guerilla war. Ambush was countered by burning villages and crops; torture became routine on both sides; atrocity was met with counter-atrocity. The conflict generated sensation, courtsmartial, prisoner-of-war issues, and growing anguish in both the islands and the United States that eerily prefigured the Vietnam years. For the first but not last time in the twentieth century the United States found itself caught up in a dehumanizing Asian campaign. Commenting on the infamous “Samar Expedition” by soldiers seeking bloody and somewhat indiscriminate revenge against insurrectionists who had massacred an army patrol, a young marine—conveniently ignoring two hundred years of mutually vicious frontier warfare with Native Americans—wrote that “subduing savages is a new thing to the American people and they will howl at the necessary adjuncts.” But the commander of the punitive Samar raid had done only “what others have done—except that he failed to kill them all—if he had done the latter, who would have told the tale? Whatever you do; do thoroughly.”

The navy and its marine corps performed a wide variety of blue- and brownwater tasks all over the archipelago. Amphibious assaults were launched at Lingayen Gulf and elsewhere as the army sought to flush out the guerrilla enemy. Monitors and destroyers bombarded rebel strongholds, while shallow-draft gunboats and other craft were employed in search-and-destroy operations “upriver.” When Aguinaldo was at last captured by ruse in his mountain stronghold, he was hustled to the closest beach and taken away in the cruiser Vicksburg.

As Kenneth Hagan has observed, the Philippine campaign, like Vietnam later, was no battleship war. Unlike Vietnam, however, the island insurgents enjoyed no adjacent sanctuary, no “impregnable base” next to the battlefields, as the Viet Cong and later North Vietnamese Army did after 1965. Aguinaldo and his people were sealed off and isolated by the United States Navy, allowing the army to encircle and gradually destroy them.

Suez Operation I





On 2 August 1956 the British cabinet approved military preparations to overthrow Nasser and seize the Canal. This was the antithesis of appeasement, itself condemned by most British newspapers. None wrote with more vim than The Times, eager to compensate for its pusillanimity towards Nazi Germany:

Nations live by vigorous defence of their own interests…Doubtless it is good to have a flourishing tourist trade, to win Test matches, and to be regaled by pictures of Miss Diana Dors being pushed into a swimming pool. But nations do not live by circuses alone. The people, in their silent way, know this better than the critics. They still want Britain great.

Eden flattered himself that he “had one outstanding quality and that was his capacity to gauge public opinion.” Yet only a third of the population supported the use of force (though that figure rose to just over a half after the conflict ceased). And some people in the know, such as Sir Dermot Boyle, Chief of the Air Staff, quickly concluded that “Eden has gone bananas.”

Eden’s mental state was not improved over the next three months by having to deal with Dulles, whom he compared unfavourably to Ribbentrop. The Secretary of State’s leaden manner was tiresome enough: his speech was slow, Macmillan memorably observed, but it easily kept pace with his thought. Still more exasperating, though, were Dulles’s tortuous opinions. His message, delivered at Eisenhower’s behest, was that Britain should not try to “break Nasser” by force; but it contained enough ambivalence to foster Eden’s illusion that he might secure American acquiescence, if not support. Dulles’s initial response was that Nasser must be made to “disgorge his theft” so that the Canal could be internationalised and oil supplies secured. After his first meeting with Eden at the start of the crisis, Dulles concluded that Britain and France (intent on ending Egypt’s aid to Algerian rebels) would invade the Canal area. He told Eisenhower, “I am not (repeat not) sure from their standpoint they can be blamed.” But he added, with characteristic contrariness, “I believe I have persuaded them that it would be reckless to take this step.”

Eisenhower himself was addicted to “zigging and zagging” and averse to making categorical statements. The President later claimed that he had told Eden of “our bitter opposition to using force.” But he expressed no bitterness. Eisenhower said that force was justifiable as a last resort and, the soul of Rotarian affability, he never threatened a hostile American response to British aggression in Egypt. Furthermore, after seeing him in September, Macmillan confirmed the President’s soft line. They had been comrades in the Mediterranean theatre of war, where Macmillan learned the “strange language of his own” that Eisenhower spoke. Macmillan had also learned a more crucial lesson after narrowly surviving a plane crash in Algiers—he emerged from the wreckage with his moustache “burning with a bright blue flame.” In hospital he read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, concluding from it that Britons were the Greeks in America’s new Roman Empire and that they must surreptitiously direct their brash masters just “as the Greek slaves ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.” So Macmillan wilfully misinterpreted the President’s words. He reported, “Ike is really determined, somehow or other, to bring Nasser down.”

Thus encouraged, Eden cooperated with Dulles’s various attempts to find a peaceful solution. There were conferences of interested parties and appeals to the United Nations. A Canal Users’ Association was formed and the Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies was sent as an envoy to Cairo, where he decided that “These Gypos are a dangerous lot of backward adolescents.” Nothing came of these efforts. Nasser stood firm, encouraged by the fact that, contrary to western prognostications, Egyptian pilots proved quite capable of running the Canal on their own. So Anglo-French military preparations continued, plagued by predictable snags. The invasion was at first code-named “Hamilcar” but only after British soldiers had painted large capital aitches on their vehicles for aircraft recognition did they realise that the French spelled it “Amilcar.” Although equipped to fight guerrillas in Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya (to which Cairo Radio beamed pro–Mau Mau propaganda in Swahili), British forces were ill prepared to mount a major seaborne invasion. The army had to hire civilian lorries, Coca-Cola trucks and Pickford’s furniture vans to help transport munitions. Moreover, its old breech-loading rifles were inferior to the semi-automatic Czech weapons of the Egyptians. The RAF was beset by technical problems and an acute shortage of transport aircraft; and beside those of the French its planes looked “almost Victorian.” The navy was obliged to requisition freighters and passenger ships and to bring back into service Second World War landing craft that had been pensioned off as ferries and pleasure boats. An American admiral thought the British capacity for amphibious lift “nothing short of pitiful.” In the days of the Raj London would have expected India to make good some of its military deficiencies. Shrewd observers reckoned that it might recruit Israelis to fill the role of sepoys.

An emissary of the French Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, suggested the idea of a clandestine Anglo-French pact with Ben-Gurion during a meeting with Eden on 14 October 1956. The proposal attracted him. It offered an end to Dulles’s interminable negotiations and an instant pretext for Britain and France to intervene in Egypt. While Israel thrust across the Sinai Desert, its main object being to smash Nasser’s blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba and gain permanent access to the Red Sea, the two European powers would have a justification for “protecting” the Suez Canal, separating the combatants and ousting Nasser. Eden thus embarked on his fatal course. Goaded by the Suez Group, desperate to assert his political virility, convinced that the Empire would rot away unless it took a firm stand, he brushed aside all obstacles. He dismissed political and military reservations. He got an obliging Lord Chancellor to rule that Nasser’s confiscation of the Canal Company was illegal and that the “infringement of an international possession is the equivalent of an attack on national property giving one the right to self-defence.” The Prime Minister also overcame the few scruples of his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, who was described by an English diplomat as Eden’s “bell-hop” and by an American diplomat as a “crooked Welsh lawyer.” In tribute to his glossy pliability, Churchill called him “Mr. Celluloid.”

Lloyd was secretly dispatched to a villa at Sèvres, near Paris, with orders to take matters forward with Mollet and Ben-Gurion. The Foreign Secretary disliked foreigners—a positive advantage in such a job, Churchill allegedly told him. Furthermore, Lloyd later wrote, France and Israel were “the two nations in the world I most mistrust.” He made his feelings plain after opening the conclave with a joke that fell flat, to the effect that he should have worn a false moustache. According to General Moshe Dayan, Lloyd gave the impression that he was “bargaining with extortionate merchants” and showed a distaste for “the place, the company, and the topic.” Nevertheless, progress was made and the negotiations were ratified at a subsequent meeting. To the cynical amusement of the French and the angry scorn of the Israelis, the Foreign Office’s main concern was that Albion’s perfidy should never be divulged. Clearly this was Eden’s chief anxiety, as evidenced by his efforts to purge the written record. He revealed little or nothing to officials. He informed few ministers about the Sèvres protocols, merely getting the cabinet to accept that “in the event of an Israeli attack” Britain would join France to separate the belligerents. He misled parliament and the press, though he did confide in the gentlemen of The Times, rightly thinking that they regarded discretion as the better part of journalism. He kept Eisenhower in the dark. Eden did not even take the high command into his confidence. General Sir Hugh Stockwell, the land task force commander, only gathered from the French three days before the event that Israel would assail Egypt. The British invasion fleet itself could not set off from Malta until the expiry of the Anglo-French ultimatum demanding Nasser’s withdrawal from the Canal. In short, the whole enterprise was vitiated by hypocrisy.

So Britain’s military operation, unlike that of its allies, was initially hamstrung and ultimately doomed by the need to conceal its true purposes. The Israelis stormed into the Sinai on 29 October and, after some fierce battles, soon had the Egyptians retreating to guard the Canal. France did not wait for the expiry of the ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of both sides and hardly bothered to hide the fact that it was fighting on behalf of Israel—to Eden’s acute embarrassment. But from its congested base at Akrotiri in Cyprus the RAF was hesitant about unleashing its squadrons of Canberras and Valiants on Egyptian military targets, which prompted Ben-Gurion to impugn Britannia’s virtue: “The old whore!” Moreover, the British armada of 130 warships, sailing from their deep harbour at Valletta in Malta at the pace of the slowest landing craft, could not reach Port Said until 6 November. During that week the military were hampered by contradictory and unpremeditated orders from their political masters, who wanted them to win the war while pretending to keep the peace. Meanwhile, there was ample time for opposition to coalesce at home and abroad.

It began in the Tories’ own ranks. Anthony Nutting resigned, unwilling to reveal his motives at the time but unable to stomach what he later called “this squalid piece of collusion.” Others followed suit. Foreign Office mandarins protested about a conspiracy that one junior minister called “the most disastrous combination of the unworkable and the unbelievable.” Eden’s press secretary quit, evidently thinking that the gods wished to destroy his beleaguered boss, who was now “mad, literally mad.” There was also disaffection in the services, Mountbatten begging Eden to “turn back the assault convoy before it is too late.” The Labour Party, led by Hugh Gaitskell, made a cogent case against the so-called “police action,” which was really an undeclared war in breach of the United Nations charter and other covenants. Moreover, the ultimatum was self-evidently absurd, since if each side moved ten miles from the Canal Nasser’s forces would have to retreat while Ben-Gurion’s advanced into Egyptian territory. Bombing Egypt, the victim of aggression, rather than Israel, its perpetrator, indicated that Britain’s peace-keeping role was a sham. Using its veto to defeat the motion for a cease-fire in the UN Security Council showed that Britain’s true object was to seize the Canal. Grey aced, red-eyed and hoarse-voiced, Eden was pushed on to the defensive in parliament. And Selwyn Lloyd was obliged to assure the Commons that there had been “no prior agreement” with Israel—a lie that did not prevent him from later becoming Speaker of that honourable House.



Suez Operation II




Professed patriots of all classes and political persuasions rallied behind the embattled government, regarding the Gaitskellite assault as treason. Lord Home, an appeaser at Munich but an aggressor at Suez, assured Eden: “If our country rediscovers its soul and inspiration, your calm courage will have achieved this miracle.” The Suez Group cheered the affirmation of imperial power, one of its members asserting that the area around the Canal was “in some essential sense part of the United Kingdom.” The Beefeater press was equally staunch. Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express declared that Eden was acting to “safeguard the life of the British Empire.” It was aptly said, though, that no cause was truly lost until it won the backing of the Express. Even more telling than its support was the defection of The Times, whose recent history, Beaverbrook wrote, “was also a history of the decline of the British Empire.” The Thunderer rumbled about the damage done to Anglo-American relations by deceiving Eisenhower. Britain was “not a satellite” of the United States but an ally, it stoutly maintained, and what that alliance “cannot stand is a lack of candour.”

Eisenhower too reckoned that “nothing justifies double-crossing us.” Actually both he and Dulles would have accepted even the duplicity if Britain and France had presented them with a swift fait accompli. As it was, the President had to face a fraught hiatus during which Russia crushed the uprising in Hungary (2 November), Dulles went into hospital for a cancer operation (3 November) and he himself was fighting for re-election (6 November). During that critical week he quelled his rage and excelled himself as a global statesman. Freezing out Eden politically, “Ike” affirmed that their personal friendship remained warm. He even professed to understand why the Prime Minister had responded to Nasser’s affront “in the mid-Victorian style,” while wondering if “the hand of Churchill might not be behind this.” The President opposed Russian intervention in the Middle East and rejected Moscow’s proposal that the Soviet Union and the United States should make common cause against Britain and France. To enforce his will he deployed America’s overwhelming economic might, instantly transforming Harold Macmillan from hawk to dove. “We must stop, we must stop,” the Chancellor exclaimed, “or we will have no dollars left by the end of the week.”

Eisenhower not only refused to buoy up sterling but insisted that “the purposes of peace and stability would be served by not being too quick in attempting to render extraordinary assistance” to Britain over oil supplies. He took advantage of the hostility to the Suez operation in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, India and Pakistan. And he mobilised support in the United Nations, not only the forum of world opinion but a body capable of imposing sanctions on pariah states. In the face of this pressure Eden crumbled. He held a cabinet meeting on 6 November at which Macmillan’s warning about a run on the pound proved decisive. Eden therefore telephoned Mollet and told him that he could not continue. A French official recorded this frantic outburst of despair:

I’m finished. I can’t hold on. The whole world reviles me…I can’t even rely on all Conservatives. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church, the oilmen, everyone is against me. The Commonwealth is tearing itself apart. Nehru wants to smash its bonds. Canada and Australia no longer follow our lead. I can’t dig the Crown’s grave…I can’t make England the only champion.

So a cease-fire was announced on the very day when the seaborne invasion took place at Port Said. Eden had deemed the Egyptians yellow but they resisted strongly and the Allied forces could only occupy the northern tip of the Canal, itself now blocked with ships sunk by Nasser. So abruptly did hostilities cease that the first British troops were being withdrawn as later units were landing. General Stockwell wryly informed the War Office, “We’ve now achieved the impossible. We’re going both ways at once.”

Eisenhower single-mindedly pursued his own course, determined to restore the status quo. He bullied and cajoled the Israelis until they withdrew from Sinai. He refused to supply a financial “fig leaf” to hide Anglo-French nakedness until Suez was handed over to a UN force. This was agreed within a month. The British government did its best to present retreat as victory, even claiming that the intervention had saved the situation in the Middle East by bringing in the United Nations—a conceit punctured by the future Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, who said that it was “like Al Capone taking credit for improving the efficiency of the Chicago police.” In fact, Nasser only let in the UN peacekeepers on sufferance. His prestige waxed as Eden’s waned. The Prime Minister had conducted, as a Labour MP said, the most spectacular retreat from Suez since the time of Moses. The Suez Group had nothing but contempt for his weakness. Churchill’s verdict was widely quoted: “I doubt whether I would have dared to start; I would never have dared to stop.” To mount the invasion and then call it off almost at once, said the Minister of Defence, was “like going through all the preliminaries without having an orgasm.” Eden further demonstrated his impotence by flying off to recuperate in Jamaica, despite a friend’s warning that “all the doctors were black.”

On his return Conservative daggers were out for him, the sharpest wielded by Macmillan. Enough time had elapsed, in the prophetic words of that radical firebrand Aneurin Bevan, “to permit the amenities of political assassination. Even a minor Caesar is entitled to be despatched with due decorum.” Ill health provided a genuine excuse for Eden’s resignation. Conservatives preferred Macmillan to R. A. Butler as his successor. So did Eisenhower, who extolled Macmillan’s straightness but failed to recognise his Janus face. But on the very day when Queen Elizabeth asked Macmillan to form a government, 10 January 1957, the President had second thoughts. He said that Butler would have been easier to work with because “Macmillan and Eden were somewhat alike in the fact that both could not bear to see the dying of Britain as a colonial power.” Although the French, incensed by the desertion of their ally, had other ideas, Eisenhower himself reckoned that Britain’s post-imperial destiny lay in Europe. A possible “blessing” might emerge from Suez, he said, “in the form of impelling them to accept the Common Market.” The corollary of this, he considered, was that America would have to fill the vacuum left by Britain (and France) between the Mediterranean and the Gulf “before it is filled by Russia.” So early in 1957 he enunciated the so-called “Eisenhower Doctrine.” In the name of the global struggle against Communism, it stipulated that America would give economic aid and, if requested, military assistance to Middle Eastern countries. Few welcomed this neo-colonial overture. Nasser condemned it as an informal version of the Baghdad Pact. The Arab world in general feared, and had some reason to fear, the imposition of a new overlord, Uncle Sam instead of John Bull.


Battle of Quatre Bras, (16 June 1815)



Fought two days before Waterloo, the Battle of Quatre Bras took place around the crossroads of the highways from Nivelles to Namur and Brussels to Charleroi, on the same day in which Napoleon was engaging the Prussians at Ligny. The forces engaged included parts of the left wing of the (French) Army of the North (Armée du Nord) under Marshal Michel Ney and elements of the Anglo-Allied army (British, Dutch-Belgian, and various German troops: Hanoverians, Brunswickers, Nassauers, and others) under the Duke of Wellington. Despite being outnumbered, Wellington held this position that day.

Napoleon had crossed the frontier between France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands (Belgium having recently been combined with Holland) on 15 June, driving back the Prussian outposts. Napoleon’s intention on the sixteenth was to crush the Prussian army, now assembling in the Sombreffe position. He sent Ney to brush aside Wellington, preventing him from linking up with the Prussians. Quatre Bras marked the hinge between the two Allied armies. If the French were to take it, the Allies would be separated from each other and unable to bring the superior numbers of their united forces to play against Napoleon, who could then defeat each of their armies alone.

The affair at Quatre Bras was unexpected and took Wellington by surprise. Until 16 June, this important road junction on the line of communication between Wellington’s headquarters in Brussels and that of Field Marshal Gebhard Fürst Blücher von Wahlstatt, commander of the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine, was held by men from the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd (Dutch-Belgian) Division. These were Nassauers from a German state on the Rhine under the command of Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar. Although Wellington had ordered this force to join the remainder of the division at Nivelles on the evening of 15 June, the commanders on the ground, General Baron de Perponcher-Sedlnitzky and General Baron de Constant Rebecque, used their initiative and did not carry out this instruction. Thanks to them, Wellington was in a position to fight a battle there on the sixteenth.

The hamlet of Quatre Bras consisted of one large farmhouse, an inn, and several smaller buildings. The surrounding countryside was undulating. The other solid buildings included the farm of St. Pierre at Gémioncourt, the village of Pireaumont, and the farm of Grand Pierre Pont. South of the Nivelles road and west of the Charleroi road was the Bossu Wood. The Delhutte Wood was to the southeast. Ney had his headquarters in the village of Frasnes.

The forces at Ney’s disposal that day included I Corps under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon, although this never arrived on the battlefield; II Corps under General Honoré, comte Reille; and General François Etienne, comte Kellermann’s III Cavalry Corps; around 25,000 men, excluding d’Erlon (20,000 men).

At daybreak, Perponcher reinforced Saxe-Weimar with men of the 1st Brigade. He had around 7,000 men in position. At 6:00 A. M. the Prince of Orange arrived from Brussels and expressed his satisfaction with the dispositions. There were some brief exchanges of fire but nothing serious.

On the morning of the sixteenth, Wellington rode from Brussels to Quatre Bras to inspect the situation there. Arriving about 10:00 A. M. he observed the French activity at Frasnes, and judging them to pose little threat he merely ordered up Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton’s division (5,000 men) to support the Netherlanders. The duke then rode to Blücher’s headquarters at the Mill of Bussy, near Brye, to confer with him.

While Wellington was absent, Ney’s forces formed up for the attack. The Prince of Orange perceived the danger and ordered up further forces. The prince’s nine battalions, supported by sixteen guns, were spread thinly over a front of 3.5 kilometers. At the commencement of the battle, part of the Dutch-Belgian artillery was deployed in the center of their position, across the Charleroi road. Some guns were left to cover Quatre Bras. A battalion of Nassauers was posted south of the Bossu Wood. A battalion of Jäger (light infantry) was placed between Gémioncourt and Pireaumont. Part of a militia battalion held the farmhouse at Gémioncourt, while the main part of it took up positions on the hilltop 150 meters northwest of the farm. Four battalions were deployed along the eastern edge of the Bossu Wood. Three battalions were held in reserve.

Facing the Dutch-Belgians were 9,600 infantry and 4,600 cavalry with 34 guns. The French assault commenced around 2:00 P. M., with Reille personally leading his divisions into battle. General Jean-Baptiste Jamin’s brigade opened the assault, attacking part of the 27th Jäger. Gilbert, comte Bachelu’s division advanced on Pireaumont, forcing back other elements of the Jäger. The artillery of the 9th Division (General Maximilien, comte Foy) engaged the Dutch-Belgian batteries, causing heavy losses. General Maximilien Foy’s columns then moved up the Charleroi road, with General Jean-Pierre Gauthier’s brigade engaging the defenders of the Bossu Wood, forcing back the first line. Saxe-Weimar led a counterattack that drove the attackers out of the Wood. The Prince of Orange reinforced this position just before Prince Jérome Bonaparte’s division (8,000 men) arrived.

While weight of numbers told, Saxe-Weimar conducted a skillful defense, only relenting to the pressure slowly. Gauthier used the respite to rally his men. Howitzer shells rained down on the militia battalion, softening it up for an attack from Jamin’s brigade. The 5th Militia fell back to Quatre Bras. With 22,000 men engaged against 8,000, the position of the Dutch-Belgians was critical. However, General Jean-Baptiste van Merlen’s cavalry brigade arrived shortly after 3:00 P. M., followed by Picton’s division. They were able to stabilize the position.

Picton reinforced the Allied left, deploying his battalions along the Namur road to the east of Quatre Bras. General Carl Best’s Hanoverian brigade also arrived, bolstering the position further. The Allies now had 12,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 27 guns available. The 5th Militia counterattacked, recapturing the farm of St. Pierre. With the Prince of Orange at their head, they fought off several French cavalry charges with volley fire.

Jamin now moved east of Gémioncourt with cavalry support. The Jäger and militia fought them off, but an attempt to charge the retiring French with the 6th (Dutch- Belgian) Hussars did not fare well. A countercharge by two regiments of French cavalry scattered them. This movement continued into the Dutch-Belgian artillery. Losses were heavy, and the Dutch-Belgians were routed. It was at this moment that Wellington returned.

Nassau and British infantry fought off the attacking French. The Brunswickers, nearly 7,000 men, now arrived, the Prince of Orange having ordered them up. With fresh troops, the situation could again be stabilized. Two companies of Brunswick Jäger moved into the Bossu Wood, much to the relief of the Nassauers, who were low on ammunition. The 2nd Light Battalion was sent toward Pireaumont. The remainder, four battalions of infantry and four squadrons of cavalry, drew up between the Bossu Wood and the Charleroi road.

Ney now decided to move on the crossroads at Quatre Bras. Bachelu advanced from Pireaumont against the Allied left, covered by artillery and with Jamin in support. Wellington now took tactical control of the battle. He drew up seven of Picton’s battalions 500 meters south of Quatre Bras. Best’s men were used to defend the Namur road, supported by the 95th Rifles and Captain Thomas Rogers’s Battery. Just as Bachelu crossed the Gémioncourt brook, Picton’s men fired a devastating volley, followed by a bayonet charge. The French retreated, but the 2nd Cavalry Division under General Hippolyte Marie, comte Piré, halted the pursuit and counterattacked. The square of the 42nd Highlanders was broken, and the color of the 44th Foot fought over. The British held on, but only just.

About 4:00 P. M. Wellington ordered the Brunswickers into the fray. They were deployed west of the Charleroi road, near Gémioncourt, and along the northern bank of the brook. The light companies of the vanguard passed through the Bossu Wood to link up with the Jäger. The Life Battalion deployed in line 250 meters south of Quatre Bras at the sheepfold. They re-formed in square, as French cavalry threatened them. By 4:30 P. M. the Brunswickers had taken up their positions. The 42nd and 44th Foot, now having rallied, moved up on their left. A battalion of Hanoverian militia covered this flank. The Brunswick cavalry covered the right. Two battalions were held in reserve, the 3rd Line taking up positions in the farm buildings at Quatre Bras, with the 2nd Line to its right and the 92nd Foot to its left.

Ney now deployed a battery of 12-pounders along the path from Gémioncourt to Pierrepont. These heavy guns opened fire on the Brunswickers, while skirmishers from Foy’s division moved forward, toward the Gémioncourt brook. This bombardment lasted an hour, inflicting heavy casualties. To keep his young and experienced troops calm, the Duke of Brunswick stayed on his horse, smoking his pipe.

Had d’Erlon’s Corps come up as ordered, Ney could have finished the job. Instead, the British 3rd Division now arrived, which the Prince of Orange had also ordered up. It was now after 5:00 P. M. and the Allies had 24,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 39 guns available. The affair was slowly going their way, and the French only had one fresh reserve at hand, a division of cavalry. Ney sent in Foy’s men for another attack. They advanced between the Charleroi road and Bossu Wood, which was now largely in French hands. Piré’s cavalry moved up in support. The ten battalions of French infantry here amounted to nearly 5,000 men. There was little two battalions of Brunswickers could do to stop them. They fell back under the cover of cavalry charges led by the Duke of Brunswick.

The French pressed on, forcing the Duke of Brunswick to seek shelter in the square of his Life Battalion. He then moved forward, leading two battalions in a counterattack, but was mortally wounded by fire from some French lancers. The Brunswickers were demoralized and fell back.

About 6:00 P. M. the British 5th Brigade (Major General Sir Colin Halkett) now went into action. The Brunswickers were rallied and moved up in support. They had only just reached their positions in a field of tall rye when Ney staged his last desperate attack, throwing in what was left of Reille’s corps. Several battalions of Hanoverians and of the King’s German Legion met the French. The British Guards fired several effective volleys. This attack, too, was driven back.

Ney was still expecting the imminent arrival of d’Erlon’s corps. However, a messenger then arrived to inform him that d’Erlon was moving on Ligny. Napoleon had ordered him there without telling Ney. The French had now too few men to win at Quatre Bras. Nevertheless, Ney sent in two regiments of cuirassiers in another attempt to beat a hole through the Allied position. They closed in on Halkett’s brigade. The 69th fired a volley at 30 paces, but the French troopers rode into them, taking a color and scattering the 33rd Foot. Piré’s lancers and chasseurs followed up, but the squares of the 30th and 73rd remained steady. The French cavalry then tried to find a way through the brigades of Major General Sir Denis Pack and Major General Sir James Kempt, but musketry drove them off. The Allied center held firm.

About 6:30 P. M. more Allied troops arrived in the form of Major General Sir Peregrine Maitland’s 1st Brigade of Guards (2,000 men) and two batteries. The infantry moved into the Bossu Wood, clearing most of it of the French, while the artillery deployed east of Quatre Bras. The Dutch-Belgians, Nassauers, and Brunswickers took the opportunity of recovering much of their lost ground.

At 7:00 P. M. the remainder of the Brunswickers arrived and was placed in reserve. An hour or so later, more Nassauers arrived. Wellington, now having some 30,000 men available, staged a general attack, throwing back the French. The battle ended with both sides holding their original positions. The Anglo-Allies lost around 4,800 men, the French just over 4,000. With more troops on their way, particularly his cavalry, Wellington would have been able to go over to the offensive the next day, had Blücher held his positions at Ligny, where the Prussians were fighting ferociously at the same time as the Anglo-Allies were engaged at Quatre Bras. As, however, Napoleon broke Blücher’s center, forcing him back, Wellington was obliged to withdraw the next morning to Waterloo. Here, the Prussians joined him and avenged their defeat at Ligny.

References and further reading Boulger, Demetrius Charles. 1915. The Belgians at Waterloo. New York: Scribner. Clay, Matthew, and Gareth Glover, eds. 2006. A Narrative of the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Waterloo, with the Defence of Hougoumont. Huntingdon, UK: Ken Trotman. De Bas, F., and T’Serclaes de Wommersom. 1908. La campagne de 1815 aux Pay-Bas. Vol. 1, Quatre-Bras. Brussels: Albert Dewit. Delhaize, Jules, and Winand Aerts. 1915. Études realtives a la campagne de 1815 en Belgique. Vol. 1. Brussels: A. de Boeck. Hofschröer, Peter. 1998. 1815 The Waterloo Campaign: Wellington, His German Allies and the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras. London: Greenhill.—.2005. Waterloo 1815: Quatre Bras and Ligny. London: Leo Cooper. Houssaye, Henry. 1900. 1815 Waterloo. London: Adam and Charles Black. Lettow-Vorbeck, Oscar von. 1904. Napoleons Untergang 1815. Vol. 1. Elba-Belle-Alliance. Berlin: E. S. Mittler. Pflugk-Harttung, Julius von. Belle Alliance. Berlin: R. Eisenschmidt. Robinson, Mike. 2005. The Battle of Quatre Bras, 1815. Stroud, UK: Spellmount. Siborne, William. 1848. History of the War in Belgium and France in 1815. London: T. and W. Boone. Weller, Jac. 1992. Wellington at Waterloo. London: Greenhill.




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