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Hitler and Rommel



Throughout the summer of 1939, tensions between Berlin and Warsaw were methodically ratcheted higher, as Hitler pushed events closer to the tipping point and the Polish government maintained a belligerence which in light of the state of Poland’s army and her strategic situation was utterly unrealistic—encouraged, tragically as it turned out, by assurances from Paris and London that if Germany invaded Poland, it would also mean war with France and Britain. When on August 22 Rommel was summoned to Berlin for a special briefing, he was convinced that its purpose was to assign to him some special mission in a war he expected to begin any day. He was quite right on both counts. On August 23 the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed, a mutual non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which contained secret clauses that provided for the partition of a conquered Poland; on August 25, Rommel was promoted to generalmajor (“I left the Reichs Chancellery a brand-new general wearing a brand-new general’s uniform,” he wrote ecstatically to Lucie that night), and given a new, totally unexpected posting: when the war with Poland began, Rommel would command the Führerbeglietbataillon, responsible for the protection of the Führer’s headquarters and Hitler himself.

The German attack on Poland began in the pre-dawn hours of September 1, 1939. Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia, while carried out bloodlessly, had been tantamount to dress rehearsals for the mechanized warfare which the Wehrmacht was about to unleash against Poland. The operations in Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia had served as a “proof of concept” for its organization, machines, equipment, and doctrines. The German Army was developing a new form of warfare, and there were still plenty of kinks to work out, bugs to eradicate, as the mobility of mechanized forces, the reach of air power, and the flexibility of infiltration tactics were brought together in a form of warfare that the West would come to call “Blitzkrieg.”

The Poles’ situation was essentially hopeless: surrounded on three sides by German territory, their only chance at stemming the German advance was to abandon the western third of Poland, withdraw into the center of the country and make a stand along the Vistula River and before Warsaw, hoping that the French and British would intervene in the west and draw off enough of the German Army’s strength to allow the Poles to keep fighting. This strategy was soon in tatters as the speed with which the German spearheads advanced gave the Poles no time in which to organize defensive lines. The problem was not the shopworn cliché of cavalry charging columns of armor—a scenario that actually occurred but once—rather it was the Poles’ lack of comparable mobility: the Germans were simply moving faster than the Poles were able to respond. Even had they been able to stand on the Vistula and at the gates of Warsaw, the Poles were doomed, as they were stabbed in the back by the Soviets, who invaded from the east on September 17. The German and Soviet armies met at Brest-Litovsk on September 22, and though isolated fighting continued until October 6, the Polish campaign was essentially over. It was a staggering, lopsided victory for the Wehrmacht, whose losses in killed, wounded, and missing totaled just under 50,000, while the number of Polish dead and wounded alone was four times that number. In a speech given in Danzig a month after the campaign began, Hitler assured the world that “Poland never will rise again in the form of the Versailles treaty. That is guaranteed. . . .”

Hitler had made only a slight miscalculation in his assessment of the Allies: Britain and France had indeed honored their pledges to Poland and declared war on Germany, but then immediately thereafter the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, began to dither and blither, constantly finding new excuses for not striking at Germany across her western border, which during that sad September was held by a mere six divisions. Daladier of France followed Chamberlain’s lead, and the western front, such as it was and what there was of it, was a scene of masterful inactivity, a situation the French press soon dubbed “le Drôle de Guerre”—the Funny War—while their British counterparts called it the “Phoney War.”

Rommel saw no actual combat while commanding the Führer’s bodyguard in Poland, although on more than one occasion Hitler seemed determined to get as close to the fighting as he could, roaming as he did across Poland behind the advancing Wehrmacht, sometimes aboard the Führersonderzug, the “Führer’s Special,” incongruously named “Amerika,” or in a small armored column. When the 2nd Panzer Division forced a crossing of the San River under heavy fire from the Polish defenders, they were also under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, who wanted to personally see his tanks in action. (Hitler had played a decisive role in the creation of the first panzer divisions.) At the Baltic port of Gydnia, which the Poles had defended ferociously, Hitler decided to personally inspect the ruins of the last Polish bunker, which sat almost literally at the water’s edge at the bottom of a steep incline. Rommel, charged with traffic control, announced that only the Führer’s car and one other vehicle would be allowed down that grade—everyone else would have to remain behind. When Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and personal gatekeeper, attempted to follow in a third car, Rommel stepped into the street and blocked the way, responding to Bormann’s obscenity-laced demand to be allowed to pass by bellowing back at him, “I am the headquarters commandant and this is not a kindergarten outing! You will do as I say!” Humiliated, Bormann silently vowed retribution, though it would be years in coming.

The wreckage of Polish tanks and artillery, along with crashed Polish aircraft, were of special interest to Hitler, who had a lifelong fascination with machinery. Less attention was paid to the long columns of Polish prisoners of war, or, for that matter, the casualties suffered by the German Army. One disturbing incident took place in East Prussia, when a train filled with wounded German soldiers was eased onto a railway siding next to Hitler’s Amerika. The bloody and maimed young men were clearly visible to those aboard—Hitler ordered the shades on the windows lowered to block them from view. Rommel was present for this display of Hitler’s indifference to the plight of the soldiers who fought and bled for him, an incident which only much later would begin to signify.

What Rommel immediately gained from his presence at the Führer’s headquarters was an eagle’s eye view of how the campaign was being fought; it was highly educational. This was his first experience of seeing war from a higher command perspective, and he took away a keen understanding of how mechanized and motorized units utilized speed and surprise to create a “force multiplier”—producing favorable results from their maneuvers and attacks that were disproportionate to the numbers of men and machines involved. The applicability of his own command style and combat experiences in the Great War, especially those in Romania and Italy, quickly became obvious to him, and he began to wonder how he might gain command of one of the coveted panzer divisions. He was uniquely positioned for such a possibility: in one letter to Lucie, he wrote, “I was able to talk with [Hitler] about two hours yesterday evening, on military problems. He’s extraordinarily friendly toward me. . . . I very much doubt that I will be at the Kriegsschule much longer, when the war is over.”

Rommel was wrong on both counts: he would remain the titular commandant of the Theresian Academy for another six months, albeit temporarily posted to Berlin should it be necessary to reactivate the Führer’s escort battalion; and the war was far from over. With military operations in Poland complete, he was able to secure a few days’ leave to spend with Lucie, but returned to Hitler’s headquarters on October 2 in order to prepare for the German Army’s victory parade through Warsaw on October 5. The city was a smoldering, reeking ruin, much of it reduced to rubble by Luftwaffe bombs and Wehrmacht artillery shells; Hitler stood for two hours on a specially constructed temporary reviewing stand while units of the army and air force marched past, Rommel standing behind him and to his right throughout. Hitler and company returned to Berlin that night, and on October 6 Hitler delivered a speech to the Reichstag in which he offered to make peace with Britain and France. Poland no longer existed, he argued; the entire reason the French and British had gone to war had evaporated. In a private conference with his senior officers the following day, Hitler let it be known that if his peace overtures were rebuffed, he was determined to invade the west at the earliest possible opportunity.

Rommel would never return to Poland, and he departed the country just as the SS Einsatzgruppen, the special purpose commands, were moving in, so he remained unaware of what happened in Poland in the wake of the Wehrmacht’s triumph. The systematic, methodical extermination of Poland’s aristocratic and intellectual elite, along with her Jews, as well as anyone else the Nazis deemed unfit to live, along with the simultaneous deportation of all able-bodied men to factories in the Reich where they would become slave labor, began almost as soon as the last panzer came to a halt. It was the leading edge of a stormfront of death and despair that would sweep across Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of the Wehrmacht for the next six years. Protected by a conspiracy of silence that all but assured disappearance and death for anyone who was too assiduous in their effort to pierce it, the Nazis’ liquidation of their various “problems”—the Jewish problem, the Gypsy problem, the Slav problem, the homosexual problem, the aged or infirm or mentally ill problem—in the east would rot the morals and poison the honor of an entire generation of German officers, as well as far too many of Germany’s soldiers, who served there. Prepared, willing, to look the other way, to invoke the principle, so popular with the Germans throughout their history, of “Not kennt kein Gebot!”—“Necessity knows no law!”—millions of ordinary, decent Volk became, in the words of Daniel Goldhagen, “Hitler’s willing executioners.”

Had he been paying closer attention, Rommel would have had an inkling that something seriously amiss was happening in Poland. Not long after the invasion began, Lucie contacted Rommel, asking him to make inquiries as to the fate of her uncle, a Catholic priest named Edmund Roszczynialski. Initially Rommel was fobbed off with bureaucratic excuses; more than a year would pass before he would have to inform her that there were no records of any kind regarding Father Edmund. Nor was there likely ever to be—he had simply vanished, almost certainly just one more anonymous victim of the SS execution detachments.

But by then, so much had happened to Rommel in particular and the world as a whole that the fate of a single Catholic priest became all but insignificant. In the months of October and November 1939 a titanic battle of wills was being fought between Hitler, who wanted to invade France and the Low Countries immediately if not sooner, and the Army High Command and General Staff, who, for a variety of reasons, some sound, others born of a hesitance that bordered on cowardice, sought to postpone any new offensives for as long as possible, preferably forever. The Polish Army, no matter how hard or how bravely it fought, had been not only outnumbered but also outclassed in its confrontation with the Wehrmacht. In 1939 the French Army, despite its current lethargic posture on the Western Front, was widely regarded as one of the finest, if not the finest, armies in the world. And however much the French may have lost their fondness for offensive action, no German officer who fought against them in the Great War could forget their tenacity on defense, especially at Verdun, where, undeniably, a rational army would have run away. The French Army would, of necessity, bear the brunt of any German attack in the west, and the German generals feared another prolonged, indecisive bloodbath of the sort they had fought from 1914 to 1918.

The truth is, if the German Army had attacked in the west in the late autumn of 1939, that sort of stalemate almost certainly would have been the result. Showing a singular lack of imagination, the O.K.W. (Oberkommando des Wehrmacht—the Armed Forces High Command) had developed a plan for attacking the western Allies that was little more than an elaborate rehashing of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914—precisely what the French and British army commands were planning to defend against. The plan called for the German Army to anchor its left flank on the Ardennes Forest, and advance in a gigantic wheeling maneuver across Holland and Belgium with the objective of outflanking the French and British forces arrayed against it. (The two significant departures from the Schlieffen Plan was that first, there would be no battle of the frontier this time round—the Maginot Line defenses were too formidable to make any such action feasible—and second, Holland would be invaded along with Belgium; leaving Holland neutral in 1914 ultimately came to be regarded as a poor strategic decision.) The Anglo-French defensive plan, known as the “Dyle Plan,” called for the French Army and a British expeditionary force to advance into Belgium and take up a defensive position along the Dyle River, denying the Germans any opportunity to outflank them.

Weather and logistics ultimately combined to make any offensive operations in late 1939 impossible, and during the winter of 1939–40, Generalleutnant Erich von Manstein, the Chief of Staff of Army Group A, one of three such commands assigned to the attack on the west, began to rethink the O.K.W. plan. Turning the basic concept of the plan on its ear, he proposed that rather than simply marking time in the Ardennes, the German Army deploy its panzer divisions there, giving them the mission of breaking through the French defenses and then using their speed and mobility to move behind and cut off the Allied forces that had advanced into Belgium, drawn there by a large-scale feint by the right wing of the German Army.

The plan was imaginative, bold, daring, and risky, and for all of those reasons the most senior officers of the Wehrmacht vehemently opposed its implementation. But it appealed to Hitler, who recognized that, by its inherent risk, von Manstein’s plan, which he likened to the cut of a sickle, hence the unofficial name it bore, “Sichelschnitt,” offered a victory the size and scope of which had never before been seen in any European war. He ordered further elaboration and development of the plan, much to the chagrin of Generaloberst Franz Halder, the O.K.W. Chief of Staff, who had been largely responsible for the O.K.W.’s original plan.

In its final form, Sichelschnitt, now known as “Fall Gleb”—Case Yellow—called for two Army Groups, A and B, to carry out the offensive in the west. Army Group B on the German right, would move first, its 19 infantry divisions and three panzer divisions moving across Holland and Belgium, to serve as the bait for the trap to be sprung by Army Group A. Comprised of 37 infantry and seven panzer divisions, Army Group A would rush into and through the Ardennes Forest, which the French Army regarded as too dense to allow the passage of armored units, and force a crossing of the Meuse River, after which the panzer divisions would drive hard and fast for the English Channel, bypassing tough opposition and fixed fortifications, leaving them to be reduced by the infantry divisions which followed. The infantry units would also shore up the flanks of the corridor created by the panzers on their way to the Channel. The bulk of the French Army, along with whatever forces the British sent to France, would be trapped in Belgium cut off from their supply lines, with nowhere to retreat.

No doubt all of this would have been of great professional interest to Erwin Rommel under any circumstances, but it became of far more personal interest in February 1940, when he was given command of the 7th Panzer Division, one of the units to be assigned to Army Group A for the dash to the English Channel. He had spent the winter still in command of the Führerbeglietbataillon, and was present at the Reich Chancellery on November 23 when Hitler gave a violent dressing-down to his senior generals, damning their foot-dragging and obstructionism, questioning their fighting spirit and stopping just short of open accusations of cowardice. Rommel hung on every word, as he agreed with almost everything Hitler said: he enjoyed seeing these generals, many of them titled aristocrats who had spent most of their active careers in comfortable staff postings, taken down a peg. They had grown a bit too fond, in Rommel’s eyes, of the ease and routine of a peacetime army; now the Führer was putting them on notice that he expected them to be fighting soldiers rather than simply strutting martinets in high-collared uniforms.

None of the disdain, even contempt, which Hitler displayed to his other generals ever found its way into his relationship with Rommel. (It would be a stretch to call it a friendship—it’s improbable that Adolf Hitler ever formed a true friendship as an adult.) One of the reasons for Rommel’s extended tenure as commander of the Führerbeglietbataillon—a post more suited to a lieutenant colonel or colonel rather than a brigadier general—was undoubtedly Rommel’s reputation as a frontline soldier. None of Hitler’s cronies could claim the sort of shared experiences which linked Hitler and Rommel. None of them had fought in the trenches on the Western Front—Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, had been a fighter pilot during the war, Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, and Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS and chief of the Gestapo, had been too young to serve in the army during the war. Almost alone on Hitler’s staff Rommel knew what it was like to go through combat multiple times and survive—he and Hitler could claim equally with Winston Churchill that there was something exhilarating in being shot at by an enemy who missed.

The strange camaraderie shared by Hitler and Rommel did not go unremarked upon by the rest of Hitler’s coterie, notably by Colonel Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s chief Wehrmacht adjutant, who developed a strong dislike for Rommel and thought he had altogether too much ready access to der Führer. Ironically, Schmundt would come to appreciate what an outstanding soldier Rommel truly was and the two men would become good friends, with Schmundt often providing a back-channel to Hitler when Rommel’s need to speak with the Führer was particularly pressing. At the moment, however, “. . . relations with Schmundt are strained,” he wrote in a letter to Lucie. “Don’t know why: apparently my position with Hitler is getting too strong. Not impossible that a change will be insisted on from that quarter. . . .” Regardless of whatever might be the attitude of Hitler’s staff, Rommel had already made it known that he was chafing in the relative confinement of being the Führerbeglietbataillon commander, and was angling for a divisional command—and not just any division: he was openly lobbying for command of a panzer division.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the ‘Flying Tigers’ (American Volunteer Group: AVG)


The AVG, or the ‘Flying Tigers’ as they became known, started operations out of Rangoon and Kunming in the summer of 1941 and brought much-needed expertise to Chiang’s air operations. Having arrived in Burma with the expectation of fighting as mercenaries for the Chinese, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American pilots found that, money apart, they had another reason to fight. As one flier noted in his diary, “We are stunned … we realized that we are in the middle of one hell of a big war! … I wonder when we’ll get a chance at them.” After pilot Eric Shilling painted his engine cowlings as an open-mouthed shark, Chennault adopted this for all his fighter planes, which soon became a familiar and much-loved sight in northeastern China. Within weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the exploits of the ‘Flying Tigers’ became headline news in America. In Chongqing, Graham Peck, working for the US Office of War Information, noted the arrival of the P-40s with their “thick powerful roar, smooth as the tearing of heavy silk.” For Americans, the exploits of the ‘Flying Tigers’ were a welcome propaganda fillip in the depressing weeks after Pearl Harbor.

The Kittyhawks (a variant of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk) arrived via Burma in the spring of 1940 but the whole operation took more than six months to set up. In their first sortie over Rangoon on 20 December 1941 (some two weeks after Pearl Harbor), Chennault’s P-40s surprised a Japanese raid by Mitsubishi Ki-21 ‘Sally’ bombers. Six Japanese bombers and four fighters were shot down, though they lost pilots Neil Martin and Henry Gilbert—the first ‘Flying Tigers’ to lose their lives.

By Christmas 1941 ‘Duke’ Hedman had become the AVG’s first ace with five kills. Remarkably he achieved the rare feat of becoming an ace in a single day—in fact within 15 minutes. Hedman was an “unassuming farm boy from South Dakota” reported the Chicago Daily News. A delighted Chennault wrote to his banker father in rural South Dakota saying, “He is a first rate combat pilot and the reckless bravery of his attacks, both on strafing and bombing missions, and in aerial combat with the Japanese, are something you can well be proud of.” Indeed the ‘Flying Tigers’ became renowned for their exceptionally aggressive tactics, often flying, as Hedman had done, straight into the middle of formations of Japanese bombers, where Japanese fighters were afraid to shoot at them for fear of hitting their own aircraft. Many more aces followed. Charles ‘Chuck’ Older, leader of the ‘Flying Tigers’ 3rd Squadron, the Hell’s Angels, scored eighteen kills. After the war, the squadron gave its name to a San Bernadino motorcycle club, which later became the well-known global Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, on the suggestion of another ‘Flying Tiger’ pilot, Arvid Olsen. As for ‘Chuck’ Older, he became a Superior Court Judge in California and achieved greater fame as the presiding judge in the Charles Manson murder case involving the drug and sex-crazed cult killing of Sharon Tate, the actress wife of movie director Roman Polanski.

The success and aura that surrounded Chennault and his ‘Flying Tigers’ created a groundswell of support for his recall to service in the US Army Air Force. Subsequently, this able leader won the promotions denied to him in the 1930s and was rapidly promoted to brigadier-general. Strangely he would now report to General ‘Hap’ Arnold with whom he had formerly been in conflict over fighter-bomber tactics in the 1930s. From the end of December 1941 the ‘Flying Tigers’ were absorbed back into the regular US Army Air Force and they became the nucleus of the China-based US Fourteenth Air Force in March 1942. Chennault loomed into American public consciousness as a great American hero when his picture was displayed on the front cover of Life magazine on 10 August 1942. Time magazine would also carry his portrait on the front cover of their 6 December 1943 issue. Hollywood was quickly into the act, releasing Flying Tigers [1942] starring John Wayne; the movie even used real footage from the war in China. It was on the set of this movie that Wayne picked up the nickname ‘Duke.’

As in Malaya a key aspect of this early British failure was heavy defeat in the air. Just as in Malaya, as well as by the Americans in the Philippines, the potential threat of Japanese air power had been treated prior to the war with stereotypical arrogance. Sub-Lieutenant Russell Spurr’s father wrote to tell him that: “Their eyesight is so bad they can’t fly fighter planes. That’s assuming the little bastards could even build them.”

In reality the Royal Air Force (RAF) was quickly overwhelmed. On Christmas Day 1941 twenty-seven Ki-21 ‘Sally’ heavy bombers from the 12th Sentai and a further thirty-six from the 60th Sentai raided Rangoon Airfield. They were escorted by twenty-five Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ fighters from the 64th Sentai. A follow-up attack involved 8 Ki-21 ‘Sally’ heavy bombers, 27 Ki-30 ‘Anne’ light bombers and 32 Ki-27s. In a pattern similar to the invasion of Malaya, British radar was found wanting. Sergeant Beable complained, “Once again because of the inadequate warning system we found ourselves in the unenviable and vulnerable position of having to climb at very low airspeed into the Japanese formation some 5,000 feet or more above us.” Highly optimistic claims were made of Japanese bombers shot down. British fighters took heavy losses, airfield buildings were badly damaged and anti-aircraft batteries destroyed with the bodies of gunners “scattered in a bloody broken mess for hundreds of yards around.” Civilian casualties in Rangoon were also severe with an estimated 5,000 killed. Flight-Lieutenant Brandt reported that “Chaos reigned in Rangoon. The jails were opened, the lepers were let out and a lot of fifth column activity carried out.”

Even the arrival of the first Hurricanes did little to dent Japan’s overwhelming air superiority. Three Hurricane IIB Trops (Tropicalized) were flown in by Squadron Leader ‘Jimmy’ Elsdon. Within minutes of arriving at Mingaladon Airfield warning of a Japanese raid sounded off. Squadron Leader ‘Bunny’ Stone wrote that the Hurricanes were attacked before they reached altitude: “We were promptly jumped by about ten of them [Japanese Army fighters]. Couldn’t do a damned thing with the tanks on, never got a shot while the little buggers queued up on my tail and filled me full of holes … Decided I had had enough and dived down to the estuary, among the shipping.” Given the importance of attacking from altitude, the failure to give timely warnings of approaching enemy aircraft was a very significant factor in the failure of the Allies to stem the tide of Japanese air supremacy. Navigator Sergeant Don Purdon gave a graphic account of the peculiarities of the warning system on which they had to rely:

For warning we had to rely on an outpost in the hills manned by Burma Frontier Force soldiers who spoke little English—communications was by heliograph. I don’t think any of us could read it so we had to rely on a Burma Frontier counterpart first to read and then translate from Burmese! One never knew if the flashes in the hills meant an air raid under way or whether it was a call for rations or other mundane needs.

On 3 February the Allied air forces were struck by an unforeseen disaster. Eighteen fighters that left Calcutta’s Dum Dum Airfield bound for Lashio in eastern Burma, lost their way over the Shan Highlands and crashed one by one. It was a reminder that the hazards of flying in the Pacific War were not all about combat. Interwoven with fierce dogfights were quiet days without bombing raids; pilots on the eastern front played golf at the Rangoon Country Club and swam at the Kokine Swimming Club and generally “acted like rich kids.” For men facing death every other day carousing was almost obligatory. Brawls were frequent. When the owner of the Silver Grills whorehouse in Rangoon tried to eject the American pilots they pulled out their pistols and shot out his chandelier causing panic among the prostitutes. As more of Rangoon’s white population departed taking with them their daughters, the American pilots who had hitherto almost exclusively chased girls in this social strata, began to turn their eyes toward the Anglo-Burman girls who had previously been the preserve of the flight technicians. A disapproving British officer told them, “We don’t mind you sleeping with them but don’t for God’s sake drag them around in our hotels and restaurants.”

The bar at the famous Strand Hotel was the scene of much heavy drinking. After one heavy night, seven pilots missed morning roll call and one of them, Robert Smith, was still too drunk to fly. It was not just the pilots who misbehaved. Rangoon crew chief, George Reynolds, crashed an American Volunteer Group (AVG) car and, fearing attack by two approaching Burman, shot one and wounded the other. Reynolds was jailed but released the next morning with the whole affair quietly hushed up. Houses, abandoned by owners who were fleeing Rangoon, were occupied by pilots and crew who proceeded to loot the properties. Pilot George Burgard purloined a truck and with crew chief Ed McClure filled it with stolen goods. Burgard wrote in his diary that he had acquired “so much stuff it would not be believed if I listed it.” He was clearly an optimist about his chances of survival. On 21 February the AVG met a mission by the whole 77th Sentai (squadron): “There were … Jap planes all over the sky. I tried to shoot them all down myself, but got only two in a full hour of fighting. It was a wild scramble … I got one [bullet] thru my wing that shot out my right tire. Some fun.” Thieving was not just personal. At the ports, the AVG commandeered crates and stole whatever was useful at the base: spare parts, tools, guns and ammunition. Normal logistics had simply broken down. The entrepreneurial Burgard survived the war and eventually became a supplier of parts for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency).



Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard during the retreat from Moscow” 1856 by artist Aldolphe Yvon.


Michel Ney was a man of striking appearance with fiery red hair, possessed of utter fearlessness, if limited intelligence. He obeyed Napoleon’s order almost too long, staying on in Smolensk with his 6,000-strong rearguard and twelve guns to delay the Russian advance and protect the main French force with its moving township of stragglers. He found himself cut off by Kutuzov’s main army of 80,000 men.

An officer was sent by the Russians to negotiate the seemingly inevitable surrender but even as this happened the ill-disciplined Russian troops opened fire on the French. Ney declared furiously to the officer: ‘A marshal never surrenders. There is no parleying under fire. You are my prisoner.’ Ney ordered his vanguard to attack down a ravine and up the other side against the tens of thousands of astonished Russians: and was repulsed.

Ney took charge himself, personally leading three thousand men into a frontal assault. This time they reached the Russian front line but were blocked by a second massed rank of Russian troops and forced back across the ravine, which the Russians did not dare cross to attack them. His remaining men now faced the Russian army along the road which similarly held back from attacking, believing the French to be stronger than they were. Instead a huge artillery barrage opened up on the French position, to which Ney’s six remaining guns bravely if feebly responded.

To the consternation of his men, Ney ordered a return to Smolensk: the last thing they wanted was to withdraw back further into Russia. On the way Ney saw a ravine with a stream at the bottom: concluding that this must lead to the Dnieper, he decided to follow it, with the help of a peasant guide, reasoning that his men would be safe if they could cross the great river. Ségur described the subsequent appalling, heroic story:

At last, about eight o’clock, after passing through a village, the ravine ended and the peasant, who walked first, halted and pointed to the river. They imagined that this must have been between Syrokorenia and Gusinoë. Ney and those immediately behind him ran up to it. They found the river sufficiently frozen to bear their weight; the course of the ice which it bore along being thwarted by a sudden turn in its banks, the winter had completely frozen it over at that spot: both above and below, its surface was still moving.

This observation was enough to make their first sensation of joy give way to uneasiness. This hostile river might only offer a deceitful appearance. One officer committed himself for the rest: he crossed to the other side with great difficulty, returned, and reported that the men and perhaps some of the horses might pass over; but that the rest must be abandoned; and there was no time to lose, as the ice was beginning to give way because of the thaw.

But in this nocturnal and silent march across fields, of a column composed of weakened and wounded men and women with their children, they had been unable to keep close enough to prevent their separating in the darkness. Ney realized that only a part of his people had come up. Nevertheless, he might have surmounted the obstacle, thereby securing his own safety, and waited on the other side. The idea never entered his mind. Someone proposed it to him but he rejected it instantly. He allowed three hours for the rallying, and without suffering himself to be disturbed by impatience or the danger of waiting so long, he wrapped himself up in his cloak and passed the time in a deep sleep on the bank of the river.

At last, about midnight, the passage began. But the first persons who ventured on the ice called out that it was bending under them; that it was sinking; that they were up to their knees in water: immediately after which that frail support was heard splitting with frightful cracks, as in the breaking up of a frost. All halted in alarm.

Ney ordered them to pass one at a time. They advanced with caution, not knowing in the darkness if they were putting their feet on the ice or into a chasm: for there were places where they were obliged to clear large cracks and jump from one piece of ice to another, at the risk of falling between them and disappearing for ever. The first hesitated but those who were behind kept calling to them to make haste.

When at last, after several of these dreadful panics, they reached the opposite bank and fancied themselves saved, a vertical slope, entirely covered with rime, again opposed their landing. Many were thrown back upon the ice, which they broke in their fall or which bruised them. By their account, this Russian river appeared only to have contributed with regret to their escape.

But what seemed to affect them with the greatest horror was the distraction of the females and the sick, when it became necessary to abandon, along with all the baggage, the remains of their fortune, their provisions, and, in short, their whole resources against the present and the future. They saw them stripping themselves, selecting, throwing away, taking up again and falling with exhaustion and grief upon the frozen bank of the river. They seemed to shudder again at the recollection of the horrible sight of so many men scattered over that abyss, the continual noise of persons falling, the cries of such as sank in, and, above all, the wailing and despair of the wounded who, from their carts, stretched out their hands to their companions and begged not to be left behind.

Their leader then determined to attempt the passage of several wagons loaded with these poor creatures; but in the middle of the river the ice sank down and separated. Then were heard, proceeding from the abyss, cries of anguish long and piercing; then stifled, feeble groans and at last an awful silence. All had disappeared!

Only 3,000 soldiers and some 3,000 stragglers made it across: as many again had been lost on the march and in the crossing.

The survivors trooped through the night to a village called Gusinoë which, astonishingly, was well-provisioned and whose wooden houses provided a desperately needed respite. But even as they rested, a force of some 6,000 Cossacks under General Platov appeared from the woods, threatening them. Ney ordered his men to pull out of their shelters and ruthlessly placed the stragglers between his soldiers and the enemy, which now opened up with light artillery.

For two days the two forces marched in parallel along the banks of the Dnieper, the 1,500 remaining Frenchmen being shadowed by the 6,000 Cossacks. Suddenly a blaze of musketry and artillery opened up on the French from a wood; but Ney ordered his men to charge directly into the fire and the Cossacks withdrew. The French crossed another smaller river in single file under Cossack fire: but Ney again attacked the enemy. They moved further south the following day. De Beauharnais at last came out of Orsha to give them a safe escort for the last few miles. Napoleon jumped for joy when he heard Ney had been saved. ‘I have then saved my eyes. I would have given 300 million from my treasury sooner than have lost such a man.’

In spite of this good news and the rest being obtained by the French at Orsha, a deadly trap was now being set. Admiral Chichagov, who had taken Minsk, was now determined finally to annihilate the French: he intended to seize and destroy the single bridge across the Berezina at Borisov ahead of the French forces. The French had already burnt the bridges across the Dnieper behind them. Napoleon’s vanguard from Minsk had travelled to Borisov in an attempt to secure the bridge, meeting up with other French, Polish and German troops.

On 21 November, 1812 these forces faced an overwhelming Russian army. Although fighting furiously, they were finally forced to retreat back down towards the remnants of the Grande Armée at Orsha. From there Napoleon had set out through blinding snow which had turned the roads into a quagmire. When he learnt of the capture of Borisov, Napoleon exclaimed loudly, looking upward: ‘Is it then written above that he would now commit nothing but faults?’ He ordered his remaining cavalry forward on the few horses that had not been eaten or died, in a ‘sacred squadron’ which was to act as a personal bodyguard. It seems clear that he believed the end was near, both for his army and for himself, and he intended to die fighting.

Oudinot, without Napoleon’s knowledge, was out with a foraging party and surprised the Russians at Borisov, driving them over the bridge across the Berezina; but Oudinot was powerless to prevent the town being burnt down. The French were trapped. Then came a glimmer of hope: a ford had been discovered across the huge river, which was normally at this time of year frozen over but was now a vast flowing stream bearing huge blocks of ice. This was at Studzianka, where the river was only six feet deep; the ford was some 100 yards across.

Both Oudinot’s men and Marshal Victor, who had been driven back by the Russian General Wittgenstein in the north, arrived to reinforce Napoleon: these relatively fresh troops were appalled to witness the pitiable state of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Ségur wrote:

When instead of that grand column which had conquered Moscow, its soldiers saw behind Napoleon only a train of spectres covered with rags, female pelisses, pieces of carpet or dirty cloaks – half burnt and riddled by fire – and with nothing on their feet but rags of all sorts, their consternation was extreme. They looked terrified at the sight of those unfortunate soldiers, as they filed before them with lean carcasses, faces black with dirt and hideous bristly beards, unarmed, shameless, marching confusedly with their heads bent, their eyes fixed on the ground and silent, like a troop of captives. But what astonished them more than all was to see the number of colonels and generals scattered about and isolated, who seemed only occupied about themselves, thinking of nothing but saving the wrecks of their property or their persons. They were marching pellmell with the soldiers, who did not notice them, to whom they no longer had any commands to give, and of whom they had nothing to expect: all ties between them being broken and all distinction of ranks obliterated by the common misery.

Napoleon was grateful to be reinforced by the two small flanking armies: his own had been reduced from 100,000 to 7,000 men, perhaps one of the most terrible rates of attrition in history, without suffering a single defeat. Victor had 15,000 men and Oudinot 5,000. But there were still 40,000 stragglers, refugees, women, children and wounded following behind.




On the night of 25 November, Napoleon ordered him to build two 300-foot bridges across the Berezina to connect with the causeway across the extensive marshes on the other side.

Oudinot embarked upon a brilliant piece of deception, sending stragglers to other fords down the river to give the illusion that the French would attempt to cross there. Fortunately, General Eble had refused to carry out Napoleon’s order to destroy all heavy equipment, and he had saved six wagons’ worth of bridging equipment. On the night of 25 November, Napoleon ordered him to build two 300-foot bridges across the Berezina to connect with the causeway across the extensive marshes on the other side.

It was a fantastically risky and arduous operation, made possible only because the bulk of the Russian forces had left the west bank to face what they believed would be the main crossing place further south. The bridges were erected some 200 yards apart, supported by twenty-three trestles. They were connected by sappers doing fifteen-minute shifts during the freezing night in the icy waters, which was all they could sustain; many were swept away and drowned or died of exposure. Only forty of the 400 ‘pontonniers’ who built the bridge survived. Sergeant Bourgogne described the scene: ‘We saw the brave pontonniers working hard at the bridges for us to cross. They had worked all night, standing up to their shoulders in ice-cold waters, encouraged by their general. These brave men sacrificed their lives to save the army. One of my friends told me as a fact that he had seen the Emperor himself handing wine to them.’

In spite of these valiant efforts, Napoleon believed the end was imminent. With the Russian artillery across the river, it would take only a few lucky artillery shots to destroy the bridges: the causeway across the marshes was equally vulnerable. The big Russian armies were anyway closing in from all sides – the east, the north and the south. Kutuzov to the east had 80,000 men, Wittgenstein to the north 30,000 and across the river Tchaplitz had 35,000. To the south Chichagov had 27,000. Even reinforced by Oudinot and Victor, the French had just 40,000 and 40,000 stragglers. Yet Kutuzov was still some thirty kilometres away, involved in the hunt for Ney’s small force, while both Wittgenstein and Chichagov hesitated, the latter deflected by reports that the French would cross to the south. Astonishingly, on 26 November, Tchaplitz’s division withdrew to the south, making possible a crossing of the river.

Napoleon seized his chance. Using rafts, he had 400 men transported across the river to seize the opposite bank as a bridgehead and clear it of the few remaining Cossacks. At 1 p.m. the infantry bridge was completed and at 4 p.m. the artillery and wagon bridge was finished. The following day Napoleon crossed over with the Guard. The stragglers were told to cross at night, but many instead preferred to take shelter in the village of Studzianka on the east bank. It proved a fatal mistake. That same night a French division blundered in a blizzard into the Russian lines and 4,000 men were killed or captured.

By the night of the 28th the three Russian armies had converged on the east bank in force, launching a ferocious artillery barrage against the French rearguard commanded by Victor, Ney and Oudinot. Ney, fearless as ever, led a charge and inflicted some 2,000 casualties on the Russians. But there were far too many even for him – a total of 60,000 men already, being supported by Kutuzov’s 80,000-strong army, compared with the remaining 18,000 French soldiers and the 40,000 stragglers and civilians.

While this desperate rearguard action was taking place, pandemonium broke out on the bridges: the artillery bridge broke and those in front were pushed into the freezing river, while those behind fought to get back against the press of refugees and on to the other bridge. Many of the civilians scrambled down the banks of the river and tried to swim across, grasping at the sides of the pontoons before being swept away. Ségur wrote:

There was also, at the exit of the bridge, on the other side, a bog into which many horses and carriages had sunk, a circumstances which again embarrassed and slowed the clearance. Then it was, that in that column of desperadoes, crowded together on that single plank of safety, there arose a wicked struggle, in which those in weakest and worst situation were thrown in to the river by the strongest. The latter, without turning their heads and hurried away by the instinct of self-preservation, pushed on towards the goal with fury, regardless of the cries of rage and despair uttered by their companions or their officers, whom they had thus sacrificed . . . Above the first passage, while the young Lauriston threw himself into the river in order to execute the orders of his sovereign more promptly, a little boat, carrying a mother and her two children, was upset and sank under the ice. An artilleryman, who was struggling like the others on the bridge to open a passage for himself, saw the accident. All at once, forgetting himself, he threw himself into the river and, by great exertion, succeeded in saving one of the three victims: it was the youngest of the two children. The poor little thing kept calling for his mother with cries of despair and the brave artilleryman was heard telling him not to cry, that he had not saved him from the water merely to desert him on the bank; that he should want for nothing; that he would be his father and his family.

At half past eight in the morning the French set fire to the bridge to prevent the Russians crossing:

The disaster had reached its utmost bounds. A multitude of carriages and of cannon, several thousand men, women and children, were abandoned on the hostile bank. They were seen wandering in desolate groups on the bank of the river. Some threw themselves into it in order to swim across; others ventured themselves on the pieces of ice which were floating along; some there were also who threw themselves headlong into the flames of the burning bridge, which sank under them: burnt and frozen at one and the same time, they perished under two opposite punishments. Shortly after, the bodies of all sorts were seen collecting together against the trestles of the bridge. The rest awaited the Russians.

Some 20,000 French soldiers had perished along with around 35,000 civilians. Some 10,000 Russians had also been killed.

In what had been one of the most terrible scenes in history, the French army escaped a seemingly complete destruction and survived with around half its previous strength. French pride had been saved by those heroic bridgebuilders, nine-tenths of whom had perished, just as the skippers of small boats would rescue British pride at Dunkirk more than a century later.

Oudinot, one of the heroes of the battle, who had been wounded, was evacuated to a village at Plechenitzi; there he and his small force were surprised by some 500 Cossacks: the marshal, his wound dressed, ran out of the house brandishing two pistols to join the Italian General Pino. With seven or eight men they fought off their Russian attackers, including cannonfire, before being rescued.

The following week’s march by the rump of the Grande Armée was eased by far fewer Russian attacks: Kutuzov seemed to draw back on the eastern side of the Berezina, preferring not to pursue. But the cold weather now returned in all its ferocity. Thousands more died in the cold, falling in the snow or simply not rising in the morning. By 2 December, as Napoleon limped into Moldechno, there were only 13,000 men remaining – around a thirteenth of the original army.

Polish Revolutions


Battle at Miłosław, 1868 painting by Juliusz Kossak.

The central European nation of Poland spent much of its history between the 17th and 20th centuries struggling for the right to exist as an independent nation. Yet, throughout this period, the rebellious spirit of the Polish people was never completely eradicated. In a series of agreements negotiated in the late 18th century, the neighboring nations of Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland, with each country adding parts of he country to its own territory. It was not until 1918, at the end of World War I, that Poland established its own independence, only to be invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II.

After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite, although it was more tolerantly governed than was common. The Solidarity movement of the 1980s paved the basis for a turn toward democracy in the 1990s when the Soviet bloc was dissolved.

In 1807 France created the Duchy of Warsaw out of land it had taken from Prussia and enlarged the territory in 1809 by taking land from Austria. However, French expansion into Polish territories was halted in 1815 by the defeat of the French in the Napoleonic Wars. As part of the war spoils set out in the Treaty of Venice, Russia was granted control of the Kingdom of Poland. Initially, Czar Nicholas I allowed Poland to exist in a semi-autonomous state. However, in 1830, he made the decision to call up the Polish army to assist in his efforts to halt the move toward democratization in Belgium and France. His actions gave rise to a new wave of Polish nationalism, and a newly awakened sense of rebellion led to the first Polish revolution. The revolution was in large part a response to the French and Belgian revolutions and to the emergence of democratic socialism in Poland.

Hostilities began on the night of November 29, 1830, when a group of civilians attacked Belweder Palace. Their aim was to kill the first viceroy of Poland, the Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich Romanov. Constantine was the grandson of Catherine the Great of Russia. Ironically, Constantine had organized the Polish army and was a strong supporter of the Poles. He considered himself more Polish than Russian and had married a Pole, Johanna Grudzinska, in May 1820. In the confusion that accompanied the attack, Constantine managed to escape. Because he was hesitant to attack those whom he considered his own people, he refused to order his troops to counterattack.

Simultaneously with the attack on the palace, cadets from Warsaw Military College overwhelmed Russian forces along the Austrian and Prussian borders. The cadets captured a number of generals, executing those who refused to join the revolutionary movement. The revolution gained strength as it spread to Lithuania, where the revolt was spearheaded by Emilia Plater. Plater, who died a heroine, was representative of the many women who took up arms to fight for Polish independence. Convinced that victory was within their grasp, the revolutionary government expelled Russian garrisons, deposed the Romanov dynasty, and established its own government.

Ultimately, Russian forces, which initially outnumbered the Polish forces 10 to one, overwhelmed the Poles and Liths who were weakened by indecisive military leaders, and recaptured Warsaw in September 1831. Without mercy, Russia apprehended more than 25,000 prisoners and exiled them to Siberia. The leader of Polish romanticism, poet Adam Mickiewicz, was one of those sent into exile. Although he was not exiled, the composer Frédéric Chopin left Poland at this time but continued to express his despair over the Polish situation in his musical compositions.

After the war, the czar began the Russification of Poland with the intention of eradicating any remaining tendencies toward Polish nationalism. He was unsuccessful, however, and only caused Polish rebels to go underground as they waited for a new opportunity to rid themselves of the Russian invaders. A subsequent uprising in 1846 in the Free City of Kraków and in those cities along the Austrian border was halted by the quick and brutal action of Austria and her allies.

When Alexander II ascended to power in Russia in 1855, he exhibited more tolerance toward Poland and reinstated the semi-autonomous state that had existed before the first revolution. While the majority of the Polish people were delighted to regain some of the ground that had been lost, revolutionary groups stepped up their efforts to incite rebellion. When the government attempted to draft the rebels into the army, insurrections broke out in January 1863 and again spread into Lithuania and into what was known as White Russia.

This conspiracy that developed into the second Polish revolution originated at the School of Fine Arts and the Medical Surgical Academy in Warsaw in 1861. Most revolutionaries split along ideological lines into the radical Reds who seized control of the revolution through the Central National Committee and the more moderate Whites. Members of the Whites, generally the landowning and bourgeoisie classes, saw alliances with Britain and France as more likely avenues toward eventual independence than taking up arms against the powerful Russian government and military. Splinter groups also surfaced. When the revolt began, Poland was operating without an organized army and was forced to depend on guerrilla fighters to engage Russian forces.

By the mid-19th century, the Kingdom of Poland had become home to large numbers of Ukrainian peasants who did not share the Polish desire for independence. This lack of unity within Poland provided Russia with excellent opportunities to undercut Polish efforts toward independence. Among the Polish population, participation was widespread. Out of a population of some 4 million people, an estimated 200,000 individuals took up arms at some point in the second Polish revolution.

When Russian forces prevailed in May 1864, the czar was determined to wipe out all elements of Polish nationalism. Once the Russian administration was entrenched in Poland, all Polish children were required to learn Russian. The Roman Catholic Church, which was seen as instrumental in keeping Polish nationalism alive, came under close scrutiny. In order to exert its right to control Poland, the czar also confiscated a good deal of land and curtailed Polish autonomy. Even though the Poles had been defeated, the desire for independence had been roused in many young people, particularly university students. It was those individuals who kept Polish nationalism alive during the following decades.

Further reading: Biskupski, Mieczyslaw B. The History of Poland. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000; Davies, Norman. Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Leslie, R. F., ed. The History of Poland Since 1863. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980; Naimark, Norman M. The History of the “Proletariat”: The Emergence of Marxism in the Kingdom of Poland, 1870–1887. New York: Colombia University Press, 1979.



The French attempt to get two barges laden with supplies past Aiguillon, to the further reaches of the Garonne. Two sorties issue from the city, one of small boats from Lunac, and another, led by Alexandre de Caumont, over the Lot bridge and through the French camp and north along the river, which capture the barges and bring them into the city. The French launch a counter attack as de Caumont is attempting to return, and after several hours of fighting and heavy losses the French capture the gate and fighting their way onto the bridge. They cut the sortie party off, and many are killed, and many others, including de Caumont, are taken prisoner. De Caumonts enormous ransom, mostly paid with an advance from the Earl of Lancaster, is paid and de Caumont is fighting again within days.

Running from April to August 1346, the unsuccessful French siege of the Gascon town of Aiguillon seriously weakened the French military position throughout south- western France.

In late 1345, Ralph STAFFORD , Lord Stafford, captured Aiguillon after a brief siege. Situated at the confluence of the Lot and the Garonne, the town commanded the approaches to La Réole and BORDEAUX ; control of Aiguillon was therefore vital to the security of English GASCONY . An arrangement seems to have been made in advance with confederates within the town, who attacked the French garrison and opened the gates shortly after Stafford’s arrival. Determined to restore French fortunes in the southwest after the recent successful campaigns there of HENRY OF GROSMONT , earl of Lancaster, PHILIP VI dispatched a large army to the region in March 1346. Commanded by the king’s son, John, duke of Normandy, and numbering almost twenty thousand, the army arrived at Aiguillon on 1 April. After proclaiming the ARRIÈRE-BAN for southern France, the duke settled down for a long siege, vowing that he would not withdraw until the town fell.

To prevent the kind of surprise attack from a relieving force that had recently destroyed an army of French besiegers at AUBEROCHE , the duke ordered that defensive trenches be dug behind the French siege lines. However, Lancaster, whose army was far inferior in numbers, withdrew to Bordeaux to regroup, waiting for an opportunity to disrupt the French lines of supply and communication. Commanded by Stafford and by the captain of the town, Sir Hugh Menil, the garrison numbered about nine hundred men—six hundred archers and three hundred men-at- arms, with the latter including the famous captains Walter MAUNY and Alexander de Caumont. In the early weeks of the siege, the garrison made frequent sorties on foot and by barge to prevent the French from bridging the rivers and completely encircling the town. By June, the French had cut off communication to the west, although, on 16 June, a daring sortie by Caumont captured two French supply barges.

In July, a contingent of Lancaster’s army fought its way into the town with more supplies, while Normandy found it increasingly difficult to feed his huge force from the surrounding area. Lancaster also harassed the besiegers by killing foragers, seizing supply trains, and attacking isolated units. In late July, a force two thousand strong, which the duke had detached to check raids on his supply lines, was attacked and defeated by the Anglo-Gascon garrison from Bajamont. With the siege stalemated and the CRÉCY campaign developing in the north, Philip recalled his son. On 20 August, after failing to persuade Lancaster to accept a local truce, Normandy abandoned the siege of Aiguillon and marched east along the Garonne. With the duke’s departure, Lancaster moved quickly to clear the Lot Valley of French garrisons and to secure English control of most of Gascony.



A kinsman of EDWARD III and revered ancestor of the House of LANCASTER , Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster, was among the most important of England’s military and diplomatic leaders during the first decades of the HUNDRED YEARS WAR .

Called Henry of Grosmont to distinguish him from his father, Henry, earl of Lancaster, Grosmont was knighted in 1330 when he was called to PARLIAMENT in place of his blind father. Descendants of Henry III, his family led the baronial opposition to EDWARD II, who executed Grosmont’s uncle, Thomas, earl of Lancaster, in 1322. Although Grosmont’s father supported the deposition of Edward II in 1327, his relations with the king’s supplanters, Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, earl of March, were equivocal and may have kept Grosmont from court until Edward III overthrew his mother and March in 1330. Being of similar age, Grosmont quickly won the king’s confidence. In April 1331, he accompanied the king to France, where, disguised as a merchant, Edward had a secret meeting with PHILIP VI. Grosmont also served in the Scottish campaigns of the 1330s and in April 1336 was appointed king’s lieutenant in SCOTLAND .

In March 1337, Edward ennobled Grosmont as earl of Derby, one of six young noblemen given earldoms to enlarge the English military command in preparation for war with France. In August 1337, Derby led a raid on Cadzand. In 1338, while in the Low Countries with the king, he participated in negotiations that created Edward’s ANTI-FRENCH COALITION , and he took part in the brief THIÉRACHE CAMPAIGN . In June 1340, Derby fought at SLUYS and in September was present at the siege of TOURNAI and helped negotiate the Truce of ESPLECHIN . He spent most of the following winter in the Low Countries in the custody of the king’s creditors. Beginning in 1343, Derby served as the king’s representative in a series of continental negotiations that concluded in 1345 with the failed Anglo-French peace talks held at Avignon under the auspices of Pope CLEMENT VI.

Made lieutenant of AQUITAINE on 13 March 1345, Derby launched a highly successful campaign that culminated in October with the battle of AUBEROCHE , a victory that brought the Agenais and most of Périgord and Quercy under PLANTAGENET control. Auberoche increased both the earl’s reputation and his wealth; his great London palace, the Savoy, was built with the RANSOMS taken in this campaign. In 1346, Lancaster—he had succeeded his father in 1345—conducted a successful CHEVAUCHÉE that captured Poitiers and extended English authority into Saintonge. In 1347, he laid down his lieutenancy in Aquitaine to participate in the siege of CALAIS and then helped negotiate the Truce of CALAIS on the town’s fall. He became a founding member of the Order of the GARTER in 1348 and, in 1351, became, as reward for his services, only the second duke in English history (after EDWARD, THE BLACK PRINCE ). In an unprecedented show of favor, Edward III also gave the duke a lifetime grant of palatine powers in the county of Lancaster, thereby making Lancaster virtual ruler of his own APPANAGE .

Lancaster led another chevauchée in Aquitaine in 1349, fought at the Battle of WINCHELSEA in 1350, and was involved in negotiation of the abortive Treaty of GUINES in 1354. Appointed royal lieutenant in BRITTANY in September 1355, he oversaw the English war effort in that duchy until 1358 and also conducted a successful chevauchée in NORMANDY in 1356. Lancaster also participated in the RHEIMS CAMPAIGN of 1359–60 and was chief English negotiator at the talks that resulted in the Treaty of BRÉTIGNY in 1360. However, he did not live to see the treaty implemented, dying at Leicester Castle on 23 March 1361. Because of the Livre de seyntz medicines, a French memoir written by Lancaster in 1354, we know a great deal more about his personality than is common for nonroyal figures of the fourteenth century.



The chevauchée, a swift and highly destructive raid through enemy territory, was a military tactic frequently employed by English forces during the HUNDRED YEARS WAR , especially in campaigns before 1380. Such raids sought to destroy the authority and legitimacy of the VALOIS monarchy and to win profit and honor for the English Crown and soldiery.

Further Reading: Burne, Alfred H. The Crécy War. Ware, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1999; Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War. Vol. 1, Trial by Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. Fowler, Kenneth. The King’s Lieutenant: Henry of Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster, 1310–1361. London: Elek, 1969.

Medieval Armor And Weapons




Cold Steel Arms: Axe heads, maces, morningstars

The armor worn in France throughout the medieval period was directly derived from that worn in the Migrations Period by the leaders of Germanic war bands, and its basic structure, which included a shield, helmet, and coat, changed little between ca. A. D. 100 and 1150. In the early period, the shield (Lat. scutum, OFr. escu) was normally constructed of wood covered with leather and reinforced with strips of bronze or iron centered on a hemispherical metal boss that covered the grip. Down to ca. 1000, the shield was usually ovoid or round and about three feet in diameter. A round shield of similar construction continued to be used by infantry into the 15th century, but a longer and narrower shield of Byzantine origin, shaped like an elongated almond, was introduced in the 11th century for use by heavy cavalry and predominated from ca. 1050 to 1150. The normal type of helmet (MHG helm, OFr. helme, MidFr. heaume) in the period before 1150 took the form of a more or less convex cone, most commonly constructed from four or more triangular sections of metal or some other hard material bound by iron bands. It was usually supplied with a nasal bar and until ca. 750 with hinged cheek plates as well.

The coat was almost always made of mail (OFr. maille), a mesh of interlocking iron rings of uniform size. The names most commonly given to the mail coat in the period before ca. 1300 were derived from the Old Germanic word *brunaz ‘bright’: Lat. brunia, OFr. brunie or bro(i)gne. Down to ca. 800, no protection for the neck was generally worn, but in the 9th century it became customary to wear a mail hood with attached shoulder cape over or partially under the mail coat and under the helm. This caped hood was apparently known as the halsbergen ‘neck guard’ in Frankish and by a derivative word variously spelled halberc, halbert, (h)auberc, etc. in Old French. This word (in English in the form “hauberk”) has been applied since at least the 17th century to the mail coat or brogne itself, but this was an error of the antiquarians, and historically it had designated only the caped hood as long as the latter was still in use—that is, until the 14th century. The hood proper, which was often attached directly to the brogne, was called the coiffe, and from the 12th century onward the brogne with attached coiffe was called an haubergonne.

Helmets and mail coats were expensive, and before ca. 800 they were worn only by kings, nobles, and their most distinguished companions-in-arms. In the 9th century, however, they came to be distributed to the ordinary members of royal and noble military retinues, newly named vassals, and from ca. 950 they were to be characteristic of knights, who were always expected to appear for battle in the most complete and up-to-date armor.

The period 1150–1220 saw the first major changes in the form of armor used in France since the Frankish conquest. Most of these changes were in the direction of increased protection for the body, already begun with the adoption of the long shield. In the late 12th century, the sleeves of the brogne were extended from the elbows to the wrists and finally acquired attached mittens. Mail leggings, or chausses, though occasionally worn earlier, similarly came into general use among knights ca. 1150 and were worn to ca. 1350. Also ca. 1150 began the custom of wearing a surcoat (OFr. surcote, cote a armer)—a loose, generally sleeveless cloth coat probably borrowed from the Muslims— over the coat of mail. The surcoat was universally adopted by ca. 1210 and worn thereafter until ca. 1410. Throughout this period, it was commonly emblazoned with its wearer’s heraldic “arms,” but these new ensigns were primarily displayed on the shield— which between 1150 and 1200 also lost its traditional boss, between 1150 and 1220 was made progressively shorter and wider, and between 1200 and 1250 was given an increasingly triangular shape through the leveling of its upper edge.

Although the traditional conical helm continued in use until ca. 1280, several new forms emerged in this period that were destined to supersede it. The most important were the flat-topped “great” helm, which between 1180 and 1220 evolved to enclose the whole head in a cylinder of steel pierced only by slits for seeing and holes for breathing, and the close-fitting hemispherical bascinet, which emerged ca. 1220. The great helm survived with little further structural change from 1220 to 1400, and from ca. 1300 its apex was often provided with a distinctive heraldic “crest” (cimier) of wood or boiled leather, worn primarily in the tournaments to which, by 1380, the helm was restricted. The bascinet was at first worn under the helm and over the coif of the mail hood, but from ca. 1260 the hood was increasingly replaced with a mail curtain (the camail or aventail) suspended from the outside of the bascinet, and the bascinet thus augmented gradually replaced the clumsy great helm as the principal defense for the head in real warfare. In consequence, the bascinet became steadily larger and more pointed, and acquired in the last decade of the 13th century a movable “visor” (vissere) to protect the face.

The eight decades between ca. 1250 and ca. 1330 witnessed a major change in the history of European armor, stimulated in large part by the development of weapons capable of piercing mail: the gradual introduction of pieces of plate (at first of whalebone, horn, and boiled leather, as well as of the iron and steel that ultimately prevailed) to cover an ever larger part of the mail. By 1330, every part of the body of a knight was normally protected by one or several plates, including a poncholike “coat of plates” concealed by the surcoat. By 1410, the various pieces of plate, including a breastplate and backplate instead of the earlier coat of plates, were all connected by straps and rivets in an articulated suit, or “harness,” of polished steel. After ca. 1425, this “white” armor was usually worn without a surcoat or any other covering.

The adoption of elements of plate to protect the body steadily reduced the importance of the shield, which between 1250 and 1350 diminished steadily in size until it was only about 16 inches in height. Even this diminished shield was finally abandoned between 1380 and 1400. A new form of shield called the targe, of similar size and structure but roughly rectangular in outline, concave rather than convex, often deeply fluted and cusped, and provided with a notch, or bouche, for the lance, was introduced in the same two decades, but it was used primarily in tournaments, and knights of the 15th century seem to have done without any shield in battle.

The only offensive weapons commonly borne by the Frankish warriors who seized power in Gaul in the 5th century were the lance, or framea, of sharpened ash; the barbed javelin, or ango; and the throwing ax, or frankisca. The lance or spear, whose more expansive form, equipped with an iron head, was destined to displace the sharpened form and survived with little basic change until the end of the Middle Ages and beyond—for many centuries the only weapon generally available to ignoble as well as noble warriors.

Kings and the leaders of war bands also carried swords, usually of the long, straight, double-edged type called in Latin spatha, first developed by the Celts of Gaul ca. 400 B. C. and later borrowed by Germans and Romans. As the Old French use of espee for “sword” suggests, the spatha (whose blade was ca. 30 inches long) was ancestral to most of the later forms of sword developed in western Europe, of which some thirty-three types and subtypes have been recognized by scholars, four of them antedating A. D. 600. Around 600, the Frankish king and nobles temporarily abandoned both spatha and frankisca in favor of a machete-like single-edged sword called a saxo, whose 18inch blade permitted it to be used for stabbing and even throwing as well as slashing; but under Viking influence the spatha, which the Scandinavians had continued to use and develop, was reintroduced into Frankish lands and quickly became the principal weapon not only of the rulers and nobles but of the rank-and-file members of the new heavy-cavalry units ancestral to the knights of the 10th and later centuries.

Lesser weapons were also employed by knights after 1050. Special forms of ax, hammer (bec), mace, club, and flail were introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries to supplement the sword, but it was only after 1300 that these were both fully developed and commonly used. Most knights and squires also carried a stiff dagger on their sword belt after ca. 1350. All of the knightly weapons were used by the nonknightly combatants who could acquire them, but among the base-born infantrymen a number of weapons scorned by the knightly class were also employed. The simple bow, despised by most Germanic tribes outside of Scandinavia, was little used in France outside of Normandy before the 14th century, when six mounted archers were included in the “lance,” or standard tactical unit of the royal army. The crossbow, or arbaleste, was reintroduced into France ca. 950 and was commonly used thereafter to ca. 1550, primarily by special infantry units placed from ca. 1200 to 1534 under the overall authority of a grand master of the crossbowmen (arbalest[r]iers). After ca. 1350, the bow and crossbow were supplemented on occasion by a primitive handgun. In addition to these projectile weapons, the infantryman of the 14th and 15th centuries had at his disposal new forms of polearm, which were in essence lances with special forms of head.



Playing a major role in medieval warfare, artillery evolved parallel to the art of fortification. Although Roger Bacon introduced gunpowder to the West ca. 1260 and the English used cannon at Crécy in 1346, it took a further century of experimentation before cannon supplanted trébuchet (i. e., tension) artillery. Improvement of explosives, projectiles, and guns was impeded by the difficulties in obtaining adequate amounts of matériel and equipment. But by 1400 cannon had come into regular use, and the final campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War made their superiority unmistakable. Either protecting sappers or breaching walls themselves, they became an indispensable tool in sieges. In response, defense tactics and military architecture changed rapidly after 1450. Governments were compelled to modernize fortifications, and every town was driven to acquire artillery for its own defense.

Following French use of artillery at Formigny (1450) and Castillon (1453), where cannon were shown to be useful on the field as well as in siege warfare, the Valois monarchy led the way in the perfection of technology, in the development of an institutional infrastructure, and in the exploitation of the full potential of the new arms. Gaspard Bureau, maître de l’artillerie for Charles VII, formed a permanent force of cannoniers that grew steadily thereafter. Limited range, inadequate rates of fire, and immobility limited reliance on artillery for the remainder of the 15th century, and cannon remained auxiliary to cavalry and infantry in the army of Louis XI. Only the triumphs of Charles VIII, who made dramatic use of artillery in Brittany and in the Italian campaign of 1494, removed all doubt that only armies with adequate artillery could hope to prevail in modern warfare.