Book: The Cross in the Sky

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The Life and Adventures of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton
Soldier – Pioneer Aviator – Pathfinder for Global Peacekeeping.

by Charles Stuart Eaton

Foreword by Dick Smith AO
In Retrospect Air Commodore Dr Mark Lax OAM, CSM

The Cross in the Sky is the remarkable story of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton. As a soldier, pioneer aviator and pathfinder for global peacekeeping, Charles emerges as a trail-blazer in many realms. His story is intertwined with tectonic world events and a 65-year romance with Beatrice Rose Godfrey.

Eaton served every day of both world wars, starting with the Royal West Surreys and finishing with the Royal Australian Air Force. He was a prisoner of war and twice court-martialled by the German Army. After the Armistice, he ferried delegates to the Paris Peace Conference. In 1920 he flew in the first aerial survey of India, after which he lived amongst the Khond people of Orissa.

In Central Australia, following the disappearances of Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross and Lasseter’s Golden Quest, he led rescue missions into the Tanami and Great Sandy deserts before establishing and then participating in the air defences of north-west Australia and West Papua during World War Two. As the Australian Consul in East Timor, he assisted the post-war reconstruction of that war-torn land.

In the midst of the Indonesian War of Independence, his life-long experience culminated in initiatives that led to the first United Nations venture to monitor conflict resolution. As Australia’s first diplomatic representative to the new nation of Indonesia, Charles Eaton laid the foundations of Australian–Indonesian bi-lateral relations.

The Cross in the Sky is the story of an extraordinary man, told by his younger son—and witness to some of these events—Charles Stuart Eaton.

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Dargai, 20 October 1897 Part I

Dargai

The Gordon Highlanders storming Dargai Heights during the Tirah campaign in 1897. It was here that Piper Findlater won his VC. He was wounded and unable to walk and exposed to enemy fire. Despite this and his exposed position he continued playing, to encourage the Highlanders in their assault on the heights.

For a century the tangled mountains of the North-West Frontier of India provided the British and Indian Armies with a school for soldiers, a hard, unforgiving school in which mistakes cost lives and, above all, a school in which the only certainly was the unexpected. Prominent among the frontier tribes were the Afridi, of whom it was said that robbery, murder, treachery and merciless blood feuds were the very breath of life. The same, to varying degrees, might have been said of all the tribes along the frontier, the Wazirs, Mahsuds, Orakzai, Mohmands and Yusufzai. Masters of the ambush and guerrilla war, they fought constantly among themselves and regularly against the British, who could provide much dangerous sport when there was nothing more pressing to occupy their minds. Sometimes a serious incident would require the despatch of a punitive expedition which would fight its way into the tribal territory and destroy the offending villages. In due course, after they had had enough of fighting, the tribesmen would let it be known that they were willing to submit. A ‘jirga’ or council would be held, attended by the tribal headmen and the senior British military and political officers. A fine would be imposed, the troops would leave and all would remain quiet for a while. Then, in a few years’ time, the whole process would be repeated. Such events, however, tended to be local in character and it was unusual for large areas of the Frontier to be affected simultaneously.

Yet, the frontier tribes had another side to their character. Hospitality, for example, was regarded as a sacred trust. Devious with each other, they would react honestly if dealt with the same way. It could take years to win their trust, but once earned it could result in friendship for life. Many enlisted in regiments of the Indian Army and, having served their time loyally, would return home with their pensions and a mellower impression of the British Raj. Against this, the tribes were to a man devout Muslims to whom the killing of infidel Christians and Hindus was entirely impersonal and certainly no matter for conscience searching.

At the beginning of 1897, while those at home were preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Frontier was quiet, although the term was relative, and seemed likely to remain so. In July, however, it suddenly exploded in revolt along its entire length, presenting the authorities with the most formidable challenge they had ever faced, or were likely to again.

There was only one cause capable of uniting tribes normally at each other’s throats, and that was militant Islamic fundamentalism. Fanatical clergy were at work, notably the Mullah of Haddah among the Mohmands, the Mullah Powindah in Waziristan, the Mullah Sayid Akhbar in the Khyber region, and especially the Mullah Sadullah of Swat, known to the British as the Mad Fakir. Eyes blazing with fervour, Sadullah travelled from village to village preaching ‘jihad’ (holy war) against the infidel, accompanied by a thirteen-year-old boy whom he claimed was the last surviving heir of the Great Moghuls and would soon ascend the throne of his ancestors in Delhi. The situation was aggravated by Abdur Rahman, King of Afghanistan, who had recently produced a tract praising the concept of jihad and, displeased with the results of a recent frontier demarkation, urged the mullahs to drive the infidels from their land, although he had no intention of taking the field himself. Perhaps these factors would not on their own have been sufficient to provoke a general rising, but also present on the Frontier were agents of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey, determined to make trouble for the British in revenge for a humiliating diplomatic snub he had received at their hands. The line taken by these agents was to hint that Great Britain had been seriously weakened by its quarrel with the Sultan, and since the truth of this would not suffice, lies would do just as well. The Suez Canal and Aden were now in Turkish hands, they claimed, so that whereas reinforcements from the United Kingdom would normally take three weeks to reach India, they would now take six months; and, that being the case, the jihad would be over long before they could arrive. Being simple people with a limited knowledge of geography and no means of verifying the truth, the tribesmen accepted what they were told and were much encouraged.

The fuze which actually detonated the explosion had been in place since the previous year when a government clerk, a Hindu, was murdered in northern Waziristan. As the culprit was never brought to justice a fine of 2,000 rupees was imposed on the area. One village, Maizar, refused to pay its share and on 10 May 1897 the political agent, Mr Gee, arrived there to settle the dispute, accompanied by a military escort of some 300 men. The troops were offered hospitality to lull them into a false sense of security, then were treacherously attacked by over 1,000 tribesmen. After all three British officers had received mortal wounds the Indian officers took charge and embarked on a difficult fighting withdrawal from the village, despatching several cavalrymen to summon reinforcements. These reached the force during the evening, having covered nine miles in 90 minutes, and enabled it to break contact. Losses among the Indian soldiers amounted to 23 officers and men killed, and a large number of wounded; it was estimated that about 100 of their attackers were killed.

During the weeks that followed the rising spread like wildfire along the Frontier, the garrisons of fortified posts having to fight desperately for their lives against an enemy who, inflamed with religious fervour, launched repeated attacks regardless of losses. At the end of August disaster struck. The forts guarding the Khyber Pass were held by an irregular and locally raised unit known as the Khyber Rifles, officered entirely by Afridis. Raised after the Second Afghan War, they had given good service in the past but had become seriously unsettled by the mullahs’ propaganda. On 23 August the rebels closed in around the forts. That at Ali Musjid was simply abandoned, while the garrison at Fort Maude offered only a token resistance before falling back on a relief column from Fort Jamrud. Next day it was the turn of Landi Kotal, which resisted successfully for 24 hours before treacherous elements opened the gates; some of the garrison joined the rebels, some were allowed to leave after handing over their weapons, but others, remaining true to their salt, managed to fight their way through to Jamrud. Control of the pass, the vital communications route between India and Afghanistan, was not regained until December. Such was the fury of the tribal assault that those holding the smaller posts stood little or no chance of survival.

On 12 September the heliograph station at Saragarhi, midway between Forts Gulistan and Lockhart, covering the important Samana Ridge to the south of the Khyber and held by the 36th Sikhs, was attacked overwhelming strength. The garrison, consisting of twenty men under Havildar Ishan Singh, beat off two frenzied attacks during the morning, strewing the surrounding rocks with bodies. However, some of the Afridis, taking advantage of an area of dead ground, began picking away at the brick wall until part of it collapsed, creating a breach. The Sikhs ran from their fire positions to repel the renewed assault but were too few in number and in ferocious hand to hand fighting were forced back into their barrack block, where they fought to the last man. One sepoy, barricading himself in the guard room, shot down or bayoneted twenty of his assailants before perishing in the flames of the burning building; another, one of the post’s signallers, remained in heliograph contact with Fort Lockhart until the end. Jubilant, the Afridis swarmed to join their comrades who had invested Fort Gulistan that morning. Held in much greater strength, this proved to be a tougher nut to crack and, despite casualties, was still holding three days later when the tribesmen, flayed by the shellfire of a relief column advancing from Fort Lockhart, abandoned the siege and dispersed into the hills. Thanks to the 36th Sikhs, the Samana Ridge forts remained in British hands and in recognition of the fact the regiment was awarded the unique battle honour ‘Samana’.

Such desperate actions as these marked the high water mark of the rising, although months of fierce fighting lay ahead before the Frontier was pacified. The government of India had been taken aback by the sheer scale and ferocity of the revolt but reacted by despatching strong punitive columns to Malakand and against the Wazirs, Mohmands, Afridis and Orakzais. Considerations of space inhibit describing even the more important actions save one, that fought by the 1st Gordon Highlanders at Dargai, which has passed into the legends of Frontier warfare.

A contemporary general inspection report describes the battalion as being ‘A particularly fine one. The officers as a body are an exceptionally nice set; the warrant officers and NCOs seem to be very efficient, and the privates have an admirable physique.’ Like every good unit, the Gordons reflected the personality of their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. Mathias, whose bullet head, determined jaw, bristling moustache and level blue eyes indicated a no-nonsense, instinctive fighter. In many ways Mathias was a commander well ahead of his time, paying attention not only to the more obvious aspects of his profession but also to the physical condition of his men and their morale. In 1896 the battalion won the Queen’s Cup for shooting and it was regarded as having the best signallers of any British regiment in India. Field exercises took place regularly, one advanced feature being the instruction of NCOs in military sketching, in those days an essential element in reconnaissance, usually taught only to officers. Mathias kept his men fit with a programme of athletics, hill-racing and football, contests being held between companies and against neighbouring units. There were also regimental concert parties and other activities to combat the boredom of cantonment life. The impression given is that the 1st Gordon Highlanders was a highly trained, efficient battalion, entirely at ease with itself and held in high regard; it was, too, an experienced battalion, having taken part in the Chitral Expedition of 1895.

In April 1897 the Gordons, based at Rawalpindi on the Punjab side of the North-West Frontier Province boundary, moved up to their hot weather station in the Murree Hills, expecting to remain there throughout the summer. At the beginning of August, however, in response to the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Frontier, it returned to Rawalpindi whence it was immediately despatched to Jamrud. Here it formed part of a force that prevented the rebels advancing further along the Khyber.

By October the British counter-measures had begun to take effect. Nevertheless, it was appreciated that the tribes would not submit until the war was carried onto their own territory and it was decided to advance deep into the Tirah region. In this area it was estimated that together the Afridis and Orakzais could field between 40-50,000 men and for this reason the Tirah Field Force, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir William Lockhart, was the largest punitive expedition ever assembled on the Frontier. It consisted of two divisions (the 1st under Major-General W. P. Symons and the 2nd under Major-General A. G. Yeatman-Biggs), two flanking columns, a strong lines of communication element and a reserve brigade. Altogether, 11,892 British and 22,614 Indian troops were involved, accompanied by almost 20,000 followers who performed menial but essential tasks; there were also 8,000 horses, 1,440 ponies for the sick and wounded, over 18,000 mules and an enormous number of camels, carts and baggage ponies. Lockhart’s plan was to concentrate at Kohat and enter Tirah from the south by crossing the Samana Ridge at a pass west of Fort Gulistan. He would then force two more passes which would bring him to his ultimate objective, the Tirah Maidan, a wide fertile valley upon which the surrounding tribes relied for subsistence, rarely if ever visited by Europeans before.

Together with the 1st Dorsetshire Regiment, the 15th Sikhs and the lst/2nd Gurkhas, the Gordons constituted Brigadier-General F. J. Kempster’s 3rd Brigade, which formed part of the 2nd Division. The Tirah Field Force left Kohat on 7 October, its route taking it past the now deserted ruins of Saragarhi signal station. By 15 October, marching by easy stages, it had reached Shinawari, but beyond this point progress across the Samana Ridge was blocked by a substantial force of tribesmen holding the village of Dargai, located at the summit of a towering spur that dominated the only road. The crest was lined with sangars, while the rocks themselves contained numerous fissures that provided natural rifle pits. Immediately below the village were precipitous cliffs, broken here and there by goat paths, and below these was a steeply sloping open space several hundred yards wide, forming a glacis that could be swept by fire from above. An attacker who succeeded in crossing this would then find his further upward progress restricted to goat paths or funnelled into the narrowing approach to the village itself, where he could be picked off with ease. Nature, therefore, had endowed Dargai with better defences than many a purpose-built fortress.

Lockhart had only the 2nd Division in hand, the 1st Division still being on the march some sixteen miles short of Shinawari. He nonetheless decided that the former would take Dargai at once, conduct of the operation being entrusted to Lieutenant-General Sir Power Palmer, normally responsible for the force’s lines of communication, as Yeatman-Biggs was ill. Palmer’s plan was for Brigadier R. Westmacott’s 4th Brigade to mount a frontal attack on the village, covered by two mountain batteries, while Kempster’s 3rd Brigade made a wide detour to the west, threatening the defenders’ right flank and rear.

The troops moved off during the early hours of 18 October. The route of Kempster’s brigade, which Palmer accompanied, took it up a dry watercourse that had its source near the western summit of the spur. The higher they climbed, the rougher became the going, the narrower the stream bed, the larger the boulders and the steeper the slope. After five miles had been covered the Gurkhas, in the lead, gave the appearance of flies walking up a wall. A point had now been reached at which the mules were unable to cope with the precipitous going and Palmer decided to send back his guns and the field hospital, escorted by the Dorsets and part of the 15th Sikhs. The Gordons, bringing up the rear, had perforce to halt and let them through. From about 09:00 onwards the steady thumping of guns indicated that the mountain batteries were engaged in their preliminary bombardment of Dargai.

At about 11:00 heliograph contact was established with Westmacott’s brigade, which was making slow but steady progress, often in single file, up the direct route towards the village. By noon the Gordons, after a stiff two-hour scramble, had joined lst/2nd Gurkhas and 15th Sikhs on the slopes above the source of the watercourse, attracting sporadic long range fire. The coordination between the two brigades had been excellent, for Westmacott’s battalions were now in position to launch their assault. Under a hail of fire from above, the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers and lst/3rd Gurkhas swarmed across the open slope and up the goat tracks to the village. The tribesmen hastily abandoned their positions and fled, sped on their way by a few long range volleys from Kempster’s men. The capture of Dargai had been a model operation, costing the Borderers only six casualties and the Gurkhas thirteen. Undoubtedly, the enemy’s resistance would have been far stiffer had not Kempster’s brigade threatened their rear, always a sensitive area in tribal warfare.

By mid-afternoon both brigades had been concentrated at Dargai. For the reasons quoted below, Palmer decided to abandon the position, despite the fact that two large groups of tribesmen, one estimated to be over 4,000 strong, could be seen converging on the spur from their camps in the Khanki Valley. Westmacott’s brigade, less two companies of Borderers, led off first. Between 16:00 and 17:00, with the sun falling towards the western skyline, Kempster’s brigade prepared to follow, covered initially by the 15th Sikhs. They, in turn, were covered by the Gordons and the two Borderer companies as they disengaged and passed through. By now the tribesmen, having reoccupied the sangars along the crest, were directing an increasingly heavy fire at those on the open slope below the cliffs, making the officers their special target. Major Jennings Bramly was killed and Lieutenant Pears was wounded; Second Lieutenant Young had his helmet shot off; and Lieutenant Dalrymple Hay, feeling blood running down his cheek, discovered that it had been grazed by a bullet.

When the moment came, Colonel Mathias released the Borderers then ordered three of his own five companies back into fresh fire positions from which they could support the withdrawal of the remaining two. One of the latter had succeeded in disengaging, as had half of Captain F. W. Kerr’s company, when a body of the enemy broke cover some 30 yards distant, fired a ragged volley and charged the small group remaining. Six of them were dropped almost at bayonet point, four of them falling to Private W. Rennie, and the rest made off when they were engaged by Captain Miller Wallnutt’s company from its new fire position. While this was taking place Lieutenant Young, Surgeon-Captain Gerrard and Colour Sergeant Craib, went out and rescued a wounded man who was in immediate danger of being hacked to death.

Dargai, 20 October 1897 Part II

Dargai

Storming the Dargai Heights.

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Darkness put an end to the fighting. In addition to the casualties mentioned above, the Gordons had sustained another man killed and seven wounded. Dead and wounded alike were carried down the rough two-mile track to the road, on reaching which the battalion formed up and marched the six miles back to the camp at Shinawari.

The reasons given by Palmer for abandoning Dargai include the following:

  1. The 2nd Division was not strong enough to hold the position, guard Shinawari camp and maintain communications between the two.
  2. There was no water supply between Dargai and Shinawari, and no supply of firewood at Dargai.
  3. The continued occupation of Dargai would have revealed the proposed axis of advance into tribal territory, which was not desirable.
  4. The 1st Division was still a day’s march short of Shinawari.

The reader might agree that some of these look extremely thin, while others might be regarded as excellent reasons for not having mounted the operation in the first place. As it was, the Orakzais could claim to have repulsed a British attempt to capture the position, and at this stage of the revolt the mere suggestion of a tribal victory was the last thing that was wanted. Nevertheless, for the better part of the next day Lockhart, lulled into a false sense of security by the arrival of the 1st Division, refused to accept the reality of the situation, expressing the opinion that the continued work of improvement on the road, protected as it was by strong covering parties, would in itself deter the enemy from re-occupying Dargai. However, when he was informed that evening that Dargai Heights were now held by an estimated 12,000 Afridi and Orakzai, he reacted with commendable speed. Because it knew the ground, the 2nd Division, reinforced by elements of the 1st Division, would again clear the spur. This time, there would be no subtlety of manoeuvre against the enemy’s flank and rear; what he intended was a straightforward frontal attack in strength, supported by the fire of the divisional artillery, supplemented by an additional battery. At this point personalities began to have a bearing on subsequent events. Lockhart detested Westmacott, and decided that Kempster, whom he merely disliked, would deliver the assault, under the control of Yeatman-Biggs, who had returned to duty.

When the troops, having been briefed on the operation, marched out of camp at 04:30 on 20 October, their muttered opinion of the generals was ripe, to say the least. No doubt Kempster,1 whom they loathed, received the lion’s share of the blame, which in this case was a little unfair as the decisions had not been his.

By 10:00 the guns were pounding the summit, which the Gordons also brought under long range rifle fire. The enemy, secure in their sangars and rocky clefts, were little affected by this; they had, moreover, strengthened their defences and from one point they were also able to direct a crossfire across the all-important open slope below the cliff. Thus, when the lst/2nd Gurkhas rose to attack, the entire summit erupted in a wild storm of fire. Under the impact of thousands of bullets the dusty surface of the slope was churned into a dust cloud in which it seemed nothing could live. Gurkhas could be seen falling and their casualties strewed the ground. Despite this, three companies reached the cover of a rocky shelf approximately halfway across, but further progress was impossible. Worse still, every attempt by their comrades to reach them resulted in more men shot down. Jubilant, the tribesmen began waving their flags, beating drums and shouting defiance.

Kempster ordered the 1st Dorsets to make the attempt. A few managed to sprint across the fatal 150 yards to the safety of the ledge, but as a whole the battalion was stopped in its tracks. It was then the turn of the 2nd Derbyshire Regiment,2 but they fared no better. As each attack failed the frenzy of the tribesmen reached higher levels of exultation.

It was now mid-afternoon and, despite the carpet of dead, dying and wounded covering the lower half of the slope, Dargai Heights still remained firmly in enemy hands. The crisis of the battle having been reached, Yeatman-Biggs ordered Kempster to commit the Gordons and the 3rd Sikhs, his last reserves. The latter were providing an escort for the guns on a lower spur and had to await relief by a Jhind state infantry battalion, but the Gordons moved off at once.

As they clambered up the narrow path they were not encouraged by the steady stream of dead and wounded being carried past in the opposite direction. At length they formed up in dead ground screened by some low scrub at the lower edge of the slope. Nearby, grim-faced Derbys, Dorsets and Gurkhas lay firing at the enemy, now capering among the rocks and yelling derisive insults.

It is a matter of record that Highland infantry, heirs to a long and violent history in which the carrying of arms and settlement of disputes by force was usual, have always launched their attacks with a unique speed and a berserk ferocity that was very difficult and often impossible to stop. Colonel Mathias knew how best to awaken these qualities in his men and, having been told that his assault would be preceded by three minutes’

concentrated artillery fire on the summit, he used the interval to address them very briefly, his voice cutting like a whiplash through the sounds of gunfire, musketry, savage drumming and yells:

The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it!’

There was a moment’s silence. The men knew the terrible risks involved, but the Colonel had given his word on their behalf and not one of them would let him down.

‘Aye!’ It was a spontaneous roar from 600 throats.

‘Officers and pipers to the fore!’

It was now, as the sun glinted on the officers’ drawn broadswords and the Pipe Major took his place, throwing his plaid and drones across his shoulder with infinite swagger, that the inherited instincts of countless bloody if long-forgotten clan battles began to surface, causing the scalp to crawl and the hackles to rise. Like their forebears of old, they, led by their chief men and pipers, were going out to meet the enemy, steel to steel. Suddenly, the supporting gunfire ceased.

‘Bugler – sound Advance!’

Like a tidal wave the Gordons poured out of cover and onto the deadly open slopes. The pipers struck up the regimental march, The Cock o’ the North,3 a fine ranting tune that skirled across the hillside, evoking a response from every man present. Yelling, the entire battalion swept upwards. Mathias, still up with the leaders, had unleashed the full fury of his Gordons and knew that they would give the shortest shrift to anyone who got in their way.

Perhaps the sudden appearance of the battalion caught the enemy unawares. If so, the respite was only of seconds’ duration. Once again, the crest blazed with fire and, once again, the dust was stirred into a fine mist by the pelting hail of bullets. And now the Gordons began to go down. Lieutenant Lamont was killed outright at the head of his men. Major Macbean, shot through the thigh, crawled to a boulder and continued to cheer on the assault. Lieutenant Dingwall, hit in four places and unable to move, was carried to safety by Private Lawson, who then returned to bring in the wounded Private Macmillan, being hit twice while doing so. The pipers, who could neither run nor take cover and still play, continued to walk upright and thus became a special target for the enemy. Lance-Corporal Milne, among the first to set foot on the slope, continued to march upwards until shot through the chest. Piper George Findlater suddenly felt his feet knocked from under him by a sharp blow. Sitting up, he discovered that he had been shot through both ankles but, disregarding alike the enemy’s fire, the pain and the fear that he might never walk normally again, he continued to play his comrades into action. Mathias was hit but kept moving. Major Downman got a bullet through his helmet. Other men felt rounds twitching at their kilts and tunics. Major Macbean, reaching for his water bottle after the assault had passed by, found it empty save for the bullet responsible for draining the contents.

It took less than two minutes for the leading companies to reach the ledge where the Gurkhas were sheltering, although it seemed far longer. There they paused briefly to get their breath back while the others closed up. Then, with a wave of the broadsword and a sharp shout of ‘Come!’ the officers led a second rush across the ledge to the foot of the escarpment. This time the Gordons were accompanied by kukri-wielding Gurkhas, keen to exact payment for the long hours they had spent pinned down. Another pause, and then the Gordons were scrambling up the goat paths towards the summit. Already the enemy’s triumphant drumming had stopped and his firing become ragged. Instinctively the tribesmen understood that the green-kilted soldiers could not be stopped and, recognising the murder in their attackers’ eyes, they began shredding away. Those with a mind to stay quickly changed it when, far below, they saw the 3rd Sikhs crossing the open slope, big, bearded, turbaned men coming steadily on behind a line of levelled bayonets. There were, too, large numbers of Dorsets, Derbys and Gurkhas who, inspired by the Gordons’ assault, were rushing forward to join in the attack.

Thus, when the Gordons finally reached the summit, they found the sangars contained only a handful of dead and wounded. The reverse slopes of the spur, however, were black with the running figures of thousands of tribesmen, into whom a rapid fire was opened, sending many tumbling among the rocks.

Mathias, out of breath and bleeding, reached the summit alongside Colour Sergeant Mackie.

‘Stiff climb, eh, Mackie?’ he remarked. ‘I’m not quite so young as I was, you know.’

‘Och, never you mind, sir,’ replied the colour sergeant, slapping his commanding officer on the back with a familiarity justified by events, ‘Ye were goin’ verra strong for an auld man!’ If the compliment was unintentionally back-handed, the admiration was genuine, as Mathias found when his Gordons, now laughing and joking, gathered round to give him three cheers.

Yeatman-Biggs was determined that the tribesmen would not be given a second chance to reoccupy the heights and detailed the Gurkhas and the Dorsets to hold them. The Gordons volunteered to carry down their wounded, an act of kindness that was greatly appreciated. Afterwards, as they marched to their own bivouac, each regiment they passed broke into spontaneous cheering, officers and men pressing forward to shake their hands and offer their water bottles, a small gesture but a very generous one considering that no further supplies could be obtained until the following day.

As the Widow of Windsor’s parties went, the second capture of Dargai Heights was small in scale but it was as bitterly contested as any. The cost was three officers and 33 other ranks killed and twelve officers and 147 other ranks wounded, the majority of these casualties being incurred on the lowest 150 yards of the open slope. The Gordons’ share amounted to one officer and six other ranks killed and six officers and 31 other ranks wounded. In the circumstances this was little short of astonishing but can be attributed to the speed with which the attack was delivered across the most exposed portion of the open slope, this being cited in later tactical manuals.

Mathias was to receive many congratulatory telegrams on behalf of his battalion; from the Queen and from the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, from the Gordons’ 2nd Battalion, from the regiment’s friendly rivals the Black Watch, and from Caledonian societies all over the world, including the United States.

Yeatman-Biggs recommended that the Victoria Cross be awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel Mathias, Piper Findlater and Private Lawson. In Mathias’ case the supreme award was denied, thanks to an incredibly priggish decision by the War Office that neither general officers nor battalion commanders were eligible for the Cross, presumably because they were doing nothing less than their duty.4 Queen Victoria made her own feelings known in no uncertain manner by promptly appointing him as one of her aides de camp with the rank of colonel, although he continued to command the battalion until its return to Scotland the following year. Piper Findlater5 and Private Lawson received the award in the field. In addition, Colour Sergeants J. Mackie and T. Craib, Sergeants F. Ritchie, D. Mathers, J. Donaldson and J. Mackay, and Lance-Corporal (Piper) G. Milne were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the last mentioned being decorated personally by the Queen when he was invalided home.6

The Tirah Field Force fought many more battles as it penetrated deeper into tribal territory, but none was as fiercely contested or as critical as Dargai. Early in November it reached its objective, the Tirah Maidan, a beautiful, fertile valley one hundred square miles in extent, flanked by pine-clad slopes and dotted with copses. There were numerous houses, each of which, significantly, was fortified against its neighbours. In the storerooms were piled high the fruits of the recent harvest – Indian corn, beans, barley, honey, potatoes, walnuts and onions. The entire valley was deserted, the inhabitants having taken their families with them into the hills. Lockhart despatched columns into every corner of the Tirah, where the resistance encountered clearly indicated that the tribes had no intention of submitting. Reluctantly, he decided that if they would not talk he would begin laying waste the valley. The troops, many of whom came from farming stock, did not enjoy the work, but the sight of groves being felled and columns of smoke rising from burning buildings produced the desired result. With the exception of the ungovernable Zakha Khel, who did not submit until the following April, the tribes sent in their leaders to a jirga where they accepted their punishment: they would give up 800 serviceable rifles, pay a fine of 50,000 rupees and return all the property they had stolen during the rising. On 7 December, with the worst of the winter snows approaching, the evacuation of the Tirah Maidan began. The withdrawal of the 1st Division was comparatively uneventful, but that of the 2nd Division was subject to constant ambushes and attacks that inflicted 164 casualties and were obviously not the work of the Zakha Khel alone. Nevertheless, so thoroughly had the rising been put down that during the next twenty years only five major punitive expeditions were required to police troublesome areas, and never again was fighting so widespread along the Frontier.

It would be absurd to suggest that any love was lost between the British and the tribes, but there was a great deal of mutual respect and during both World Wars thousands of the latter volunteered for service with the Crown. There was even a sense of loss when the British left India, for now no one remained for their young men to prove themselves against, even their hereditary Hindu enemies having been removed far to the south of them by the creation of the Islamic state of Pakistan. Yet the world was to hear of them again, for when the Soviet Union launched its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 the Frontier again became an arsenal and huge numbers crossed to fight alongside their co-religious kindred in the Mujahideen. For all its size, the Soviet Army was unable to cope. In the end, therefore, the mullahs’ promise of a successful jihad had been fulfilled, albeit a century after it was made and against a very different kind of infidel.

 

Notes

  1. Kempster had an unfortunate personality and was so unpopular throughout the Tirah Field Force that its members coined the verb ‘to be kempstered,’ that is, generally mucked about. For all that, he was a capable enough officer in action.
  2. Later the Sherwoood Foresters.
  3. The Cock o’ the North was the nickname of the Duke of Gordon who had raised the regiment 104 years earlier.
  4. At the time the Victoria Cross warrant also incorporated a clause to the effect that in the event of subsequent ‘scandalous conduct’ the award would be forfeit. This rarely happened but when it did there was an understandable public outcry in protest. King Edward VII put an end to this sort of sanctimonious humbug.
  5. To quote from a footnote in Chapter 26 of the Gordon Highlanders’ regimental history, The Life of a Regiment: The incident of the wounded piper continuing to play, being telegraphed home, took the British public by storm, and when Findlater arrived in England he found himself famous. Reporters rushed to interview him; managers offered him fabulous sums to play at their theatres; the streets of London and all the country towns were placarded with his portrait; when, after his discharge, he was brought to play at the Military Tournament, royal personages and distinguished generals shook him by the hand; his photograph was sold by thousands; the Scotsmen in London would have let him swim in champagne, and the daily cheers of the multitude were enough to turn an older head than that of this young soldier. A handsome pension enabled Findlater to rest on his laurels and turn his sword into a ploughshare on a farm near Turriff. He re-enlisted for the Great War, though not fit for foreign service.’
  6. Throughout their subsequent history the Gordon Highlanders celebrated the anniversary of Dargai wherever they were stationed. Thanks to government economies that have reduced the Army’s strength to the lowest level for 300 years, the regiment no longer has an independent existence, having merged with the Queen’s Own Highlanders to form a new regiment, The Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons). This will, however, continue to celebrate the anniversary of the action.

DEMETRIUS I, KING OF MACEDON

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Marble bust of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. Roman copy from 1st century AD of a Greek original from 3rd century BC.

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The grail was his: Demetrius was king of Macedon. Immediately after the murder of Alexander V, the nobles present—members of Alexander’s court, now surrounded by Demetrius’s forces—agreed to his kingship, and he was duly acclaimed by the assembled army. But there were still hearts and minds to be won in Macedon itself, and Demetrius went about this by the traditional combination of action and words. He quelled an uprising in Thessaly and took steps to improve the security of central Greece, where the alliance between the Boeotians and Aetolians had been renewed in response to Demetrius’s and his son’s conquests in the south. In the Peloponnese, only the Spartans now held out against him, and they were no more than a nuisance.

At home, he played all the cards that supported his claim to the throne. He stressed his father’s loyal service to the Argeads and the illegitimacy of the Antipatrid regime, and missed no opportunity to recall Cassander’s murder of Alexander IV. His long marriage to Phila helped as well; as Cassander’s sister, she provided an appearance of continuity, now that Cassander had no surviving descendants. Ironically, through Phila, Demetrius was the heir of those to whose ruin he and his father had devoted so much time and energy.

In order to help secure Thessaly, and to give himself another port, one of Demetrius’s early acts as king was to found the city of Demetrias. The site, at the head of the Gulf of Pagasae (near modern Volos), was well chosen. The city was hard to assault, and served successive Macedonian kings for decades as one of the “Fetters of Greece”: as long as they controlled the heavily fortified ports of Demetrias, Chalcis, and Corinth (Piraeus was desirable too), they could move troops at will around the Greek mainland and restrict other shipping. And most commercial traffic in those days was seaborne.

A sign of how critical all this was for him was that he ignored what was going on elsewhere in the world—or maybe he just did not have the forces to cope. He had already, I think, effectively ceded the Asiatic Greek cities, and Lysimachus completed his takeover there by the end of 294. In the same year, Ptolemy, to his huge relief, regained Cyprus. The defense of the island had been in the hands of Phila, but in the end she was pinned in Salamis and forced to surrender. Ptolemy courteously allowed all members of Demetrius’s family safe conduct off the island and back to Macedon, laden with gifts and honors. The Ptolemies would now retain Cyprus until the Roman conquest of the island two hundred and fifty years later.

Lysimachus, as already mentioned, was chiefly occupied with a war against the Getae in northern Thrace, around the Danube. In 297 the warlike Getae had taken advantage of the fact that Lysimachus’s attention was focused on Asia Minor to go to war. Lysimachus sent his son Agathocles to deal with the Getae, but it had not gone well: Agathocles had been captured, and Lysimachus had been forced to come to terms, which included marrying one of his daughters to the Getan king and returning territory he had occupied. But in 293, once he had more or less settled his affairs in Asia Minor, Lysimachus took to the field to recover the territory he had been forced to give up. Again, the war went badly; we know no details, but it is surely to the credit of the Getan king Dromichaetes that he was able twice to defeat as brilliant a general as Lysimachus. This time, it was Lysimachus himself who was taken prisoner. He was held at their capital, Helis (perhaps modern Sveshtari, where a tomb has been discovered which might be that of Dromichaetes and Lysimachus’s nameless daughter). It was the best part of a year before his captors were induced to let him go, and again Lysimachus lost territory to them, and had to leave hostages to ensure that he would not attack again. It was the last of his attempts to gain control of inner Thrace.

In 292, while Lysimachus was tied up, Demetrius, short on gratitude to the man who had so rapidly recognized his rulership of Macedon, took an expeditionary force into Asia Minor and Thrace. It was a sign of his future intentions, a declaration of war. Fortunately for Lysimachus, a united uprising by the central Greek leagues, backed by his friends Pyrrhus and Ptolemy, recalled Demetrius to Greece. As it happened, before he got back his son Antigonus Gonatas had succeeded in defeating the Boeotians and putting Thebes under siege (it fell the following year). But Demetrius was unable to return to his abandoned campaign, because Pyrrhus chose this moment to invade Thessaly. Demetrius advanced against him in strength; Pyrrhus, his work done, withdrew.

Pyrrhus’s retreat was tactical; he had no intention of giving up his attempt to expand the frontiers of Epirus at Demetrius’s expense. Two years later, in 290, he inflicted a serious defeat on Demetrius’s forces in Aetolia (the victory was so spectacular that he was hailed as a second Alexander), but lost the island of Corcyra (Corfu). The island was betrayed to Demetrius by Pyrrhus’s ex-wife Lanassa (whose domain it was), allegedly because she was irritated at being ignored by her husband. She married Demetrius instead. In 288, while Demetrius was laid low by illness, Pyrrhus seized the opportunity to invade Thessaly and Macedon. Demetrius hauled himself out of bed and drove Pyrrhus out.

The two kings had pummeled each other to exhaustion, and they made a peace which recognized the status quo in respect of Demetrius’s possession of Corcyra and Pyrrhus’s of the Macedonian dependencies given him by Alexander V in his hour of desperation. Demetrius was left in a powerful position. Macedon, though slimmer, was united under his rule; there was a treaty in place with his most formidable enemy; in central Greece, only the perennial hostility of the Aetolians remained; and he had done enough to secure the Peloponnese for the time being. He had the best fleet, and could call up a massive army. It was quite a turnaround for the Besieger, and he began to dream his father’s dreams. Perhaps Demetrius was his own worst enemy.

DEMETRIUS’S PRIDE

The style of Demetrius’s kingship was typically flamboyant, and he demanded obsequiousness from his subjects. An incident from 290 is particularly revealing. It was the year of the Pythian Games—the quadrennial festival and athletic games held at Delphi, second only to the Olympics in prestige. But the Aetolians controlled Delphi, and restricted access to the festival to their friends. A few weeks later, then, Demetrius came south to host alternate games in Athens.

He and Lanassa entered the city in a style that reminded many of Demetrius’s outrageous behavior a dozen or so years earlier, when he had made the Parthenon his home and that of his concubines. They came, bringing grain for ever-hungry Athens, as Demetrius, the aptly named savior god, and his consort Demeter, the grain goddess. They were welcomed not only with incense and garlands and libations, but with an astonishing hymn that included the words: “While other gods are far away, or lack ears, or do not exist, or pay no attention to us, we see you present here, not in wood or stone, but in reality.” Obsequiousness indeed, but the point became clearer as the hymn went on to request of the king that he crush the Aetolian menace.

Many Athenians regretted such excesses, and all over the Greek world resentment built up against the new ruler. It was impossible for Demetrius to present himself as the leader the Greeks had been waiting for when he had to crack down hard on incipient rebellion and tax his subjects hard to pay for yet more war. Talk of the freedom of the Greek cities faded away, and between 291 and 285 Ptolemy deprived Demetrius of the Cycladic islands and the rest of his Aegean possessions, thus regaining the control over the entrance to the Aegean that he had lost in 306 and furthering his aim to control as much of the Aegean seaboard as he could. The promise of relief from taxes and a measure of respect for local councils was just as important in this enterprise as military muscle. Dominance in the Aegean was to serve successive Ptolemies well, both strategically and commercially.

Ptolemy also confirmed his control of Phoenicia by finally evicting Demetrius’s garrisons from Sidon and Tyre. But these were pretty much Ptolemy’s last actions; in 285, feeling the burden of his seventy-plus years, he stood down from the Egyptian throne in favor of Ptolemy II. Maybe he had a terminal illness, because only two years later he died—in his bed, remarkably enough for a Successor. But then “safety first” had been his motto, for most of his time as ruler of Egypt.

Despite these losses, Demetrius might have hung on in Macedon. But he was a natural autocrat, and that was not the Macedonian way. Demetrius never managed the kingly art of finding a balance between being loved and being hated, or at least feared. His subjects came to resent his luxurious ways and his unapproachability. Macedonian kings were supposed to make themselves available to petitions from their subjects, yet Demetrius was rumored on one occasion to have thrown a whole bundle of them into a river—or at least to be the sort of person who might. This kind of talk, charging him with eastern-style monarchy, did his reputation no good. Nor did the fact that he wore a double crown, indicating rulership of Asia as well as Europe.

Ignoring the rumbles of discontent, Demetrius began to prepare for a massive invasion of Asia. But the proud Macedonian barons resented their country’s being thought of as no more than a launching point for eastern invasion; they did not want to be on the periphery of some vast Asian kingdom. It was all right when Philip and Alexander had done it, because that was for the greater glory of Macedon. But this war would be fought against fellow Macedonians, for the greater glory of an unpopular king. The idea of taking thousands more Macedonians east, following the tens of thousands who had already gone, did not go down well either, since the country was already somewhat depopulated.

But Demetrius was no Cassander, content with Macedon alone; he was as addicted to warfare as Alexander the Great. Just as Alexander had set out from Macedon and seized all Asia from the Persian king, so Demetrius intended at least to deprive Lysimachus of Asia Minor. But whereas Alexander had invaded Asia with about thirty-seven thousand men and no fleet to speak of, Demetrius was amassing a vast army, over a hundred thousand strong, while a fleet of five hundred warships was being prepared in the shipyards of Macedon and Greece. In typical Besieger style, some of these ships were larger than any vessel that had ever been built before, and he used the best naval architects available. The precise design of these ships is a matter of intelligent guesswork, but it will give some idea of their scale to say that, whereas a normal warship had three banks of rowers in some arrangement (hence its name, “trireme”), Demetrius was having a “ fifteen” and a “sixteen” built.

Naturally, Demetrius’s preparations involved propaganda as well. Above all, he wielded the old, potent slogan of Greek freedom against Lysimachus. At a local level, a prominent public building in Pella displayed symbolic paintings, copies of which formed the wall paintings of a later Roman villa.10 One of the panels of the painting depicted Demetrius’s parents as king and queen of Asia, the idea being that he had inherited a natural claim, while other panels showed Macedon as the ruler of Asia by right of conquest. But history is littered with failed promises of manifest destiny.

The Western Front: Lions Led by Donkeys?

Blackadder Goes Forth is the fourth and final series of the BBC sitcom Blackadder, written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, which aired from 28 September to 2 November 1989 on BBC One. The series placed the recurring characters of Blackadder, Baldrick and George in a trench in Flanders during World War I, and followed their various doomed attempts to escape from the trenches to avoid certain death under the misguided command of General Melchett. The series is particularly noted for its criticism of the British Army leadership during the campaign, and also refers to a number of famous figures of the age. In addition, the series is remembered for the poignant ending of the final episode.

By Dr Gary Sheffield

The scale of human devastation during World War One has often been blamed on incompetent leadership. Dr Gary Sheffield offers an alternative view.

The generals

Douglas Haig was ‘brilliant to the top of his Army boots’. David Lloyd George’s view sums up the attitude of many people towards Haig and other British generals of World War One. They were, supposedly, ‘donkeys’: moustachioed incompetents who sent the ‘lions’ of the Poor Bloody Infantry to their deaths in futile battles. Many popular books, films and television programmes echo this belief. The casualty list – one million British Empire dead – and the bloody stalemate of the Western Front seem to add credence to this version of events. But there is another interpretation. One undeniable fact is that Britain and its allies, not Germany, won the First World War. Moreover, Haig’s army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured, the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 ‘Hundred Days’ campaign rates as the greatest series of victories in British history.

Even the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917), battles that have become by-words for murderous futility, not only had sensible strategic rationales but qualified as British strategic successes, not least in the amount of attritional damage they inflicted on the Germans. No one denies that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had a bloody learning curve, or that generals made mistakes that had catastrophic consequences. However, before dismissing the generals as mere incompetent buffoons, we must establish the context.

Haig and the Allies

From 1915 to 1918 the BEF learned, in the hardest possible way, how to fight a modern high-intensity war against an extremely tough opponent. Before 1914, the British army had been primarily a colonial police force, small but efficient. By 1916 it had expanded enormously, taking in a mass of inexperienced civilian volunteers. Later still, it relied on conscripts. Either way, it was a citizen army rather than a professional force.

The generals, used to handling small-scale forces in colonial warfare, had just as much to learn about a type of war for which they were almost entirely unprepared. It is not surprising that in the course of its apprenticeship the BEF had a number of bloody setbacks. What was extraordinary was that, despite this unpromising beginning, by 1918 this army of bank clerks and shop assistants, businessmen and miners should have emerged as a formidable fighting force.

An inescapable fact of life for Haig and his predecessor as commander-in-chief, Sir John French, was that Britain was the junior partner in a coalition with France. Naturally, the French tended to call the shots, even though the British C-in-C was an independent commander. Thus in July 1916 Haig fought on the Somme largely at the behest of the French, although he would have preferred to attack, somewhat later, in the Ypres salient where there were more important strategic objectives. At this time the French army was under heavy pressure from German attacks at Verdun. This reality of coalition warfare also helps to explain why Haig never contemplated halting the Battle of the Somme after the disastrous first day.

The one real achievement of the Anglo-French armies on 1 July 1916 was to relieve pressure on Verdun, as the Germans rushed troops and guns north to the Somme to counter the new threat. If Haig had called off the offensive on 2 July, he would have thrown away this advantage. Sitting back and letting Britain’s principal ally’s army be mauled was simply not an option for Haig. The alliance between France and Britain was always a somewhat uneasy one. Lack of co-operation, let alone British inaction in 1916, might well have caused the coalition to fall apart.

Techniques and strategies

In 1914-17 the defensive had a temporary dominance over the offensive. A combination of ‘high tech’ weapons (quick-firing artillery and machine guns) and ‘low tech’ defences (trenches and barbed wire) made the attacker’s job formidably difficult. Communications were poor. Armies were too big and dispersed to be commanded by a general in person, as Wellington had at Waterloo a century before, and radio was in its infancy. Even if the infantry and artillery did manage to punch a hole in the enemy position, generals lacked a fast-moving force to exploit the situation, to get among the enemy and turn a retreat into a rout.

In previous wars, horsed cavalry had performed such a role, but cavalry were generally of little use in the trenches of the Western Front. In World War Two, armoured vehicles were used for this purpose, but the tanks of Great War vintage were simply not up to the job. With commanders mute and an instrument of exploitation lacking, World War One generals were faced with a tactical dilemma unique in military history.

It is not true, as some think, that British generals and troops simply stared uncomprehendingly at the barbed wire and trenches, incapable of anything more imaginative than repeating the failed formula of frontal assaults by infantry. In reality, the Western Front was a hotbed of innovation as the British and their allies and enemies experimented with new approaches. Even on the notorious first day on the Somme, the French and 13th British Corps succeeded in capturing all of their objectives through the use of effective artillery and infantry tactics; the absence of such methods helps to explain the disaster along much of the rest of the British position.

Breakthrough battle

The problem was that in 1914 tactics had yet to catch up with the range and effectiveness of modern artillery and machine guns. Warfare still looked back to the age of Napoleon. By 1918, much had changed. At the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, the BEF put into practice the lessons learned, so painfully and at such a heavy cost, over the previous four years. In a surprise attack, massed artillery opened up in a brief but devastating bombardment, targeting German gun batteries and other key positions. The accuracy of the shelling, and the fact that the guns had not had to give the game away by firing some preliminary shots to test the range, was testimony to the startling advances in technique which had turned gunnery from a rule of thumb affair into a highly scientific business.

Then, behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of shells, perfected since its introduction in late 1915, British, French, Canadian and Australian infantry advanced in support of 552 tanks. The tank was a British invention which had made its debut on the Somme in September 1916. Overhead flew the aeroplanes of the Royal Air Force, created in April 1918 from the old Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. The aeroplane had come a long way from its 1914 incarnation as an extremely primitive assemblage of struts and canvas, its task confined to reconnaissance.

By Amiens, aeroplanes were considerably more sophisticated than their predecessors of 1914. The RAF carried out virtually every role fulfilled by modern aircraft: ground attack, artillery spotting, interdiction of enemy lines of communication, strategic bombing. This air-land ‘weapons system’ was bound together by wireless (radio) communications. These were primitive, but still a significant advance on those available two years earlier on the Somme.

Military revolution

The German defenders at Amiens had no response to the Allied onslaught. By the end of the battle, the attackers had advanced 13km (eight miles) – a phenomenal distance by Great War standards. The Germans lost 27,000 men, including 15,000 prisoners and 400 guns. It was, the German commander Ludendorff admitted, the ‘Black Day of the German Army’. From this point onward, the result of the war was never in doubt. Amiens demonstrated the extent of the military revolution that occurred on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. It was a modern battle, the prototype of combats familiar to armies of our own times.

One cannot ignore the appalling waste of human life in World War One. Some of these losses were undoubtedly caused by incompetence. Many more were the result of decisions made by men who, although not incompetent, were like any other human being prone to making mistakes. Haig’s decision to continue with the fighting at Passchendaele in 1917 after the opportunity for real gains had passed comes into this category. In some ways the British and other armies might have grasped the potential of technology earlier than they did. During the Somme, Haig and Rawlinson failed to understand the best way of using artillery.

Haig, however, was no technophobe. He encouraged the development of advanced weaponry such as tanks, machine guns and aircraft. He, like Rawlinson and a host of other commanders at all levels in the BEF, learned from experience. The result was that by 1918 the British army was second to none in its modernity and military ability. It was led by men who, if not military geniuses, were at least thoroughly competent commanders. The victory in 1918 was the payoff. The ‘lions led by donkeys’ tag should be dismissed for what it is – a misleading caricature.

Books

Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield (Headline, 2001)

British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One by John Laffin (Sutton, 1988)

Western Front by Richard Holmes (BBC, 1999)

The Evolution of Victory by Andy Simpson (Tom Donovan, 1995)

About the author Dr Gary Sheffield is Senior Lecturer in the War Studies Group at King’s College London, and Land Warfare Historian at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham.

LINK

The Assault on Levita

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The survivors of the enemy convoy sunk on 7 October 1943 were landed on Stampalia, where the LRDG had M2 patrol. A small naval craft (the Hedgehog) dispatched from Leros to bring back ten prisoners of war for interrogation, called with engine trouble at Levita, about twenty miles to the west of Calino. A party sent by motor launch to the assistance of the Hedgehog found only a smoldering wreck and was fired on from the island. As the possession of Levita was considered essential to the Navy, and as it would be useful as an observation post, the commander of 234 Brigade ordered the LRDG to capture the island. Major Guild and Captain Tinker urged that a reconnaissance should be made before the assault force was landed, but permission to do this was not granted.

It was decided to attack with forty-eight men under the command of Captain J. R. Olivey, the force including twenty-two from A Squadron under Lieutenant J. M. Sutherland, and the remainder coming from B Squadron. Sutherland’s patrol (R2), was withdrawn from the coastal battery on Mount Scumbardo, in southern Leros, and was joined by a few men from R1 and T2 patrols. The B Squadron party included Y2 and part of S1 patrol. In case the enemy should be occupying both ends of Levita, B Squadron was to land to the west of the port, which is on the south coast, and A Squadron to the east. The objective was to reach the high, central ground over- looking the port.

The landings were to be made from two motor launches in small, canvas boats, but as these had been punctured in air attacks, the troops had to patch them with sticking-plaster before they could practice rowing in them. The force had four infantry wireless sets for inter-communication between the two parties and with the launches, and a larger set for communication with Leros. When they were about to leave at dusk on 23 October, however, it was discovered that the A Squadron set had not been netted in with the others.

Most of the men were violently seasick before they reached Levita. It took A Squadron a long time to float the canvas boats from the tossing launch, but they eventually got away and landed on a very rugged coast, where the men rescued as much of their gear as they could from the rocks and dragged it up a cliff face. Sutherland told his wireless operator to try to get in touch with Olivey, but at no stage was he able to do so.

After disembarking the two parties, the motor launches were to shell a house thought to be occupied by the enemy in the center of the island. Instead of shelling this building, however, they concentrated on an old hut on a ridge in front of A Squadron. When the shellfire ceased, Suther- land’s party moved towards the ridge and discovered nearby the burnt-out hull of the Hedgehog. They then came under machine-gun fire from the rear, presumably from somewhere near their landing place. This kept them pinned down on bare ground until they were able to get together and rush the gun position, which they captured with a dozen prisoners. Trooper H. L. Mallett was severely wounded and died despite the efforts of the medical orderly (Private B. Steedman) to save him.

Although they again came under machine-gun fire, A Squadron continued to advance and secured the ridge before daylight. They flushed the enemy out of the hut, but did not occupy it because it was in a vulnerable position. Trooper A. J. Penhall was mortally wounded, but Trooper R. G. Haddow, although severely wounded in the stomach, recovered as a prisoner of war. Several other men received minor wounds.

At the first streaks of daylight, three or four seaplanes began to take off from the Levita harbor. The New Zealanders, who overlooked the harbor from the ridge, opened fire, and for a moment it seemed that Trooper L. G. Doel had put one seaplane out of action with his Bren gun, but it moved out of range and took off after some delay. When the seaplanes came overhead and began to strafe, the men returned the fire, but as their bullets only bounced off harmlessly they decided not to waste ammunition.

Having met no resistance on landing, B Squadron was within 500 yards of the enemy head- quarters by dawn and could hear fighting on the other side of the island. Had Sutherland been able to make contact with Olivey by wireless, he would have advised him of his position, and B Squad- ron could have gone ahead without fear of firing on A Squadron. The Germans, who received reinforcements during the day, isolated the New Zealanders on the ridge with air attacks and machine-gun and mortar fire, while they encircled and captured most of the B Squadron party.

Having disposed of B Squadron, the enemy was then able to employ his full strength against A Squadron, which was holding three positions on the ridge. Sutherland had with him the wireless operator, the medical orderly, the wounded, three or four other men, and the German prisoners. Sergeant E. J. Dobson was in charge of a party in a central position, armed with a Bren gun, a Tommy gun, and some rifles, and farther away on high ground, Corporal J. E. Gill had the third party. Trooper J. T. Bowler, who went down to the landing place for water, and a man who attempted to deliver a message from Gill to Sutherland, were not seen again and were presumed to have been killed. The enemy eventually overwhelmed Sutherland’s force, but Gill and three men avoided capture for four days by hiding among some rocks. They were unable to attract the attention of a launch that circled the island and, as they were without food and water, had to give themselves up to the enemy.

With instructions to evacuate the force from Levita, the commanding officer of the LRDG (Lieutenant-Colonel Easonsmith)* arrived by launch during the night 2425 October, but found only Captain Olivey, the medical officer (Captain Lawson), and seven men of B Squadron at the rendezvous. Olivey returned with Major Guild the following night to search for the missing men, but found nobody. The LRDG lost forty men on Levita.

Fourteenth Air Force

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14th Air Force B-24, China, c. 1944.

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Newly arrived Fourteenth Air Force B-24 Liberators on the line at Kunming Airport.

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B-25s in China.

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The Japanese were unable to defeat Nationalist China before they had commitments to their Pacific War, from December 1941. Now with Allied aid supporting China, even if in limited quantities, the Chinese were getting stronger as the Japanese were weakening. A stalemate now existed in China and the Japanese Imperial army no longer had the will to try and defeat the Chinese. At the same time, the Nationalist and Communist forces could not hope in the short term to defeat such large Japanese forces stationed in China. Japanese tactics had also changed since 1941 with the emphasis now on holding onto what they had gained rather than trying to conquer more territory. When they went out on operations the main aim of the Japanese was to take food and other supplies from the population. As time went on, the Japanese Imperial army was less willing to confront Chinese forces, whether regular or guerrilla. At the same time, the average Chinese soldier had lost their inferiority complex towards the Japanese army and its soldiers.

Although the Chinese theatre was still important to the Japanese, the situation with the Allies was to take on more significance. Their struggles in the Pacific from 1942–5 and with the British in Burma from 1943–5 became more important. Much of their heavy equipment had, however, been transported to other theatres and in particular the Pacific Islands. Because of their weaknesses the Japanese Imperial army had now to concentrate on trying to control the guerrilla threat in China until 1945 (see Chapter 6).

In one final desperate effort to reverse their decline in China the Imperial army launched a large-scale offensive. In April 1944, the ‘Ichi-Go’, or ‘Number One’, offensive was begun and was to be one of Japan’s last major operations in China. Huge Japanese forces were marshalled for the offensive with 400,000 men, 1,500 artillery pieces and 800 tanks taken from all over China. Ichi-Go was divided into two separate operations with the first, ‘Ka-Go’, aimed at destroying all Nationalist forces still north of the Yangtze River. One of Ka-Go’s aims was to surround and destroy the Nationalist army that held part of the Peking–Wuhan railway. This objective was easily achieved, although the Japanese advance was limited by lack of supplies once they out reached their supply lines. A second phase, known as Operation ‘U-Go’, was to be launched once Ka-Go had got underway. The aim of U-Go was to knock out the airbases of the US 14th Air Force which were being used to bomb the Japanese mainland. After destroying these airbases the combined Japanese force was to advance into Szechwan province with the ultimate aim of capturing the wartime capital Chungking. Nationalist divisions facing the offensive were made up of poorly trained and armed conscripts who were soon demoralized and fell back in front of the advancing Japanese. U-Go was a great success and the US air bases fell in quick succession as the Nationalist forces retreated in confusion. On 8 August the city of Hengyang, to the east of the Chinese capital, fell to the Japanese and it seemed that an advance on Chungking was now inevitable. As the campaign in southern China dragged into November 1944, however, the Japanese began to run out of food and other supplies. Vital air cover was also lost when the Japanese had to send its fighters to Japan to defend their homeland. Over the next few months Ichi-Go ground to a halt and the Chinese finally began to make some successful counter-attacks. Chiang Kai-shek had been proved right when he said that ‘The Japanese will run out of blood before the Chinese will run out of ground’.

In April and May 1945 the Japanese launched what was to be their last offensive in China with the aim of capturing a US air base at Chihchiang. The Chihchiang Offensive was launched from territory recently taken during the Ichi-Go operation. Large Nationalist forces were stationed to halt the advance and after being reinforced to a strength of four divisions they threw back the Japanese. In early 1945 the Japanese Imperial High Command had already introduced plans to consolidate their positions in China. By withdrawing units from outlying garrisons in southern China they intended to concentrate them in central China in the region of Wuhan. Other formations would be gathered in the Canton region and in the Peking region, where they faced less opposition from guerrilla forces. As the Japanese tried to move their forces into these fastnesses they came under attack by Chinese guerrillas.

Fourteenth Air Force

By the time the land route to China had been reopened, the Chennault air plan had already come a cropper. Even Roosevelt finally accepted the conclusion his military chiefs had reached long before: the Chinese Nationalists would do little to defeat Japan. Within China, signs of shirking were only too clear. Inflation and corruption, fueled by American supplies and money, became rampant. Chinese military casualties fell below 300,000 for the first time since 1937. The American military mission in Chungking, now directed by Major General Albert C. Wedemeyer, believed that only the Communist Eighth Route Army and the OSS-supported Chinese-Mongolian partisans were real fighters.

The decline of the Nationalist Army did not reflect any lack of effort by Tenth Air Force’s air transports in flying “the Hump.” By August 1943, C-46s were delivering 5,000 tons of supplies a month to China, an unthinkable figure when Chiang had demanded that support a year earlier. By January 1944, Tenth Air Force effort reached 15,000 tons a month. The commitment took a heavy toll. The transport force lost at least one aircraft for every one of the 500 air miles between India and China; more than 1,000 aircrewmen perished along the route. At its peak strength, Tenth Air Force had 650 aircraft in the air every day, around the clock. This effort made it possible for Chennault to mount Operation Matterhorn, the strategic bombardment of Chinese and Formosan targets with B-24s and B-29s based in China.

The opportunity cost to the Chinese Nationalists was high, too, since 90 percent of the cargo tonnage in 1943–44 was aviation gasoline and ordnance, not Lend-Lease arms for the Chinese Army. This imbalance exacted its toll all too soon. As the airlift over “the Hump” provided more logistical support, Arnold sent more operational wings to China and created a new command for Chennault, the Fourteenth Air Force, which included one B-29 bombardment wing. When Churchill and Roosevelt met Chiang Kaishek on their way to Teheran in November 1943, they promised Chiang, awash in self-importance, a great air war from China against Japan. Their meeting coincided with the first American bombardment of Formosa. They also promised to push operations in Burma to open the Ledo-Burma Road and increase Lend-Lease aid. In return for recognition of his role as Allied Generalissimo in Asia, Chiang promised to use his army to the best of its limited ability to support the American and British offensive.

In the latter half of 1943, the effect of the mounting Allied air raids from inland China against Japanese communications, port facilities and merchant shipping forced the Japanese to launch a radical campaign to neutralize Allied forward airfields. Unable to destroy Allied air power with their own air forces, the Japanese Army untertook a land expedition to capture the airfields directly. In the spring of 1944, two Japanese armies operating from north and south opened a corridor from Hankow to Hanoi. The success of this campaign forced a· major change in Allied planning for the China-Burma theatre. For the first time, the Allied tactical air forces in China received the manpower and equipment to take the fight to the Japanese on equal terms. The Flying Tigers struck back …

On Thanksgiving morning, November 1943, a raiding force of 14 Mitchell bombers escorted by 8 Mustangs and 8 Lightnings departed their forward bases in China to strike at Japanese airfields on Formosa.

Flying at wave-top level over the Formosa Strait to avoid radar detection, the pilots of the 14th Air Force (joined en route by aircraft of the Chinese-American Composite Wing) struck a completely unprepared target. Forty-two Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Not a single Allied airplane, not a pilot, was lost.

It was this raid, and what it heralded for the future, which convinced the Japanese High Command of the necessity to eliminate Allied air power in China.

In December of 1943, Lieutenant-General Shunroku Hata, commanding officer of the China Expeditionary Army, ordered an immediate aerial offensive against American installations to be followed by a massive land offensive in the spring of 1944. The Flying Tigers were to be exterminated!

Operation /chi Go, the code-name for the planned spring campaign, was expected to realise several purposes. Chennault’s airfields would be neutralized by the novel approach of capturing them with ground forces, a reliable land transport route would be established from northern China to Indochina, potential bases from which B-29 bombers could strike the Japanese mainland would be destroyed and, finally, Chang Kai Shek’s Nationalist government could well be overthrown by a substantial military reverse.

The poorly led Chinese armies were no match for regular Japanese troops. Attacking from north and south, the Japanese forged a corridor along the old railway route from Sienning through Changsha, Hengyang and Lingling to the ancient capital of Kweilin.

A great part of the Chinese army simply vanished. The surviving remnants were pushed back either side of the corridor. By the beginning of December, 1944, the railroad from Hanoi to Hankow was operating again. The Japanese army was reorganizing in preparation for the final drive on Kunming and the Nationalist capital at Chungking. Detached forces were steadily mopping up the few remaining Allied bases in the mountainous eastern pocket.

The very low priority accorded the ChinaBurma theatre by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington restricted the Allied response to the Japanese offensive to a more or less ineffective air interdiction of supply lines.

It was not until General Albert Wedemeyer replaced General Stilwell that the principal Allied focus shifted from Burma to China.

Claire Chennault, commander of the 14th Air Force, at last found a commanding officer receptive to his perception of the proper employment of US air power. He argued vigorously that with sufficient aircraft and supplies he could sever enemy supply lines, weaken and demoralize their ground forces and provide such air support as would allow the ·numerically huge Chinese armies to best their hated foes.

The first task facing Wedemeyer on assuming command was to halt the Japanese advance and, if possible, seize the initiative with a determined counter-offensive. Wedemeyer and Chennault worked well together; the fruit of their joint planning became known as Operation Alpha.

Air operations in China were completely reorganized. After lengthy debate, Washington agreed to close down the strategic bombing offensive of the Japanese mainland from the bases around Chengtu. The tremendous cost of lifting supplies over the hump did not produce a comparable result. Nor did it aid one whit in the defense of China; furthermore, the Marianas offered a much better site for the mighty Superforts.

Wedemeyer was given permission to make some use of the B-29’s before they departed for the Pacific.

On the eve of the start of Operation Alpha, the 14th Air Force mustered some 700 serviceable aircraft together with an adequate level of munitions, replacements and gasoline. They were at least on par with their adversary. For the first time in their operational history, the Flying Tigers could not use the chronic shortages of manpower and equipment as the excuse for their troubles. They had the tools to get the job done …

The Japanese did not look kindly on the growing U.S. Army Air Forces presence in China, however, and ordered the China expeditionary army to begin ICHI-GO (Operation One) in January 1944. For the next ten months the Japanese Army pushed the Nationalists back and overran base after base, forcing the forward-based Fourteenth Air Force fighters and bombers deeper into China, more than half of which remained unconquered. The Chinese Army’s resistance was erratic and ultimately futile, but Japanese casualties and the lengthening logistical tail of the Japanese divisions brought operations to a halt in January 1945. The Japanese generals in China cautioned Tokyo that they could not advance far enough to capture the bases of the new B-29s, which had a range of 4,000 miles.

The strategic bombing champions, however, had already concluded that an enlarged Matterhorn was too tall a challenge. With the decline of Fourteenth Air Force and military support of Chiang Kai-shek, operations in the China-Burma-India theater, divided into the Southeast Asia and Chinese theaters in 1944, reverted to a British Commonwealth effort to restore the British Empire, a goal the United States failed to support with any enthusiasm. The war with Japan would be won elsewhere.

The Shadow of Rome

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King Philip V, and Amyntas, Son of Alexandros, 197 BC

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Battle of Cynoscephalae

When the Greek world had first become aware of Rome over a century before, it had been with the awareness of a predator seeing a large and tempting quarry wander into view. At that time Rome had just gained the upper hand in a long drawn–out series of wars with the mountain peoples of south central Italy. Not that the hillmen had yet admitted defeat – their stubborn refusal to submit to Rome would still provide a welcome distraction for Rome’s armies in Mithridates’ day. However, by 290 BC the Romans had at least temporarily beaten their foes into sullen submission, leaving Rome the dominant state in Italy.

It might occur to a general with an ambitiously expansionist viewpoint that an army which defeated Rome could easily mop up the rest of Italy, use Italy’s massive reserves of manpower to absorb Sicily, and from there sweep east once more and conquer the rest of the world. That, roughly, was the master plan of Pyrrhus of Epirus, another of the successors of Alexander the Great, and generally agreed to be the best general of his day. Claiming that he was supporting the Greek cities of southern Italy against Roman aggression, Pyrrhus and his army of 25,000 men invaded the peninsula during the 280s BC and tried repeatedly to master Rome.

It was the first clash of the Greek and Roman worlds, and from the Roman perspective this passage of arms ended as a winning draw. Pyrrhus was unable to wear down the stubborn resistance of Rome, despite repeatedly beating its citizens in the series of bloody battles which have given the modern world the expression ‘a pyrrhic victory’, meaning a win which costs more than it is worth. The battles left both armies exhausted, but the Romans, fighting on their native soil, had greater stamina in terms of money and manpower. Belatedly, Pyrrhus concluded that he had bitten off more than he could chew. He withdrew, possibly to marshal his forces for a further attempt. However, Pyrrhus died before he could resume his assault, and his failure handed the Romans hegemony of the Italian peninsula.

Graeco–Roman relations remained in a state of armed non–aggression for the remainder of the third century BC. This is not to say that the world was at peace – far from it. The empire of Alexander the Great had fractured into the kingdoms of Macedonia, which also dominated Greece, the Seleucids, with their rambling, semi–shambolic empire that stretched from the Mediterranean coast almost to the Himalayas, and the Ptolemies who dominated Egypt. These states, each large enough to be considered empires in their own right, engaged in continual and largely–pointless warfare which produced little change apart from mercenaries becoming wealthy and border peasants perpetually confused as to which empire they were currently part of.

Rome too had been engaged in non–stop warfare. However, by the time Rome had finished, a large number of North Africans, Gauls and Spaniards, Corsicans and Sicilians were left in no doubt at all as to which empire was in charge. Many of Rome’s new possessions were acquired at the cost of Carthage, Rome’s great rival in the west. By 202 BC Carthage had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory, and Hannibal, the general who had almost brought Rome to its knees with his epic invasion across the Alps, had fled to the Hellenic kingdoms of Asia.

Roman eyes followed Hannibal east. It would be wrong to claim that Pyrrhus’ master plan was dusted down and rewritten for Roman protagonists, but it is also certain that the Roman senate considered that it had unfinished business with the heirs of Alexander.

Rome itself was changing. By and large the Greeks had heretofore regarded the Romans as uncivilized, simply because the Romans had no art of their own, no literature, and indeed, barely any pretension to literacy. That the greatest Roman historians were currently alive was only because they were the first ones that Rome had ever had. However, Rome was beginning to acquire culture admittedly this culture had been looted wholesale from other cities, but it was culture nevertheless. Matters such as the theatre were beginning to stir interest, and once Rome got over its bemusement at the first Greek philosophers to arrive in the city, intellectual inquiry became socially acceptable among the warrior elite that ruled Rome under the name of ‘the Senate’. Over the next two generations Greek culture was to make the same sort of headway in Rome as Roman legions were making in Greece –’Conquering her rough conqueror’ as one poet put it. By the 140s BC even Cato the Elder, a misanthropic anti–Hellenic reactionary, saw nothing incongruous in erecting Rome’s first basilica – a Greek–style building for use in public affairs. Even Roman religion began to merge with the Greek version, until only the names of the gods and goddesses differed. But sharing much of the same culture did not make the Romans more Greek – they called contemporary Greeks ‘ Graeculi ‘ (‘Greeklings’ or ‘little Greeks’) – diminished descendants of their great forebears. And as for the peoples who shared Asia Minor with the Greeks, well, they were Asiatics – decadent, cowardly, servile, and generally beneath contempt. It never seemed to occur to the Romans, in all the decades that followed, that their contempt and lack of understanding were just as heartily reciprocated by the peoples of Asia Minor.

Philip V of Macedon, the Hellenistic ruler nearest to Rome, had long been uncomfortable with Roman interference on the western shores of the Greek peninsula. Consequently, although Greek and Carthaginian usually got along like cat and dog, Philip had allied himself with Hannibal in the war against Rome. True, Philip’s actual contribution to the war effort had been negligible, but Rome had reasons for being unforgiving. After sixteen desperate years of warfare against Hannibal, Rome needed slaves to work her depopulated fields, money for her depleted treasury, and money also to pay for the increasingly luxurious tastes of her upper classes. Like any shrewd business concern, Rome chose to leverage her prime asset to clear her liabilities. And Rome’s prime asset was a very, very good army, honed to perfection by a decade and a half of fighting Hannibal, the greatest tactician until Napoleon.

Furthermore, Philip was then allied with the Seleucid king Antiochus III, and the pair were picking off those small Greek city states which attempted to maintain a degree of independence. For the imperial power which Rome now rightly considered herself to be, these small states were potential stepping stones into mainland Greece, so the senate was none too pleased to see the Hellenic empires consolidating the region under their control. Rome hastened to ally herself with such of these small states as remained. Sooner or later, the senate reasoned (sooner, as it happened), Philip’s territorial ambitions in Greece would bring him into collision with their new allies, and thus Philip would provoke war with Rome itself.

Philip did not go down without a fight – he fought with skill and tenacity, but still was driven out of Greece. In 197 BC his phalanx and his determination to resist were broken in the Battle of Cynoscephalae. Philip paid over a thousand talents of bullion, and sullenly yielded hegemony of Greece. The Romans, conscious of Macedon’s value as a bulwark against the wild tribes further north, let his kingdom of Macedonia be – for the present.

The Greek cities had largely supported the Romans against Philip in return for their ‘freedom’. They remained passive, leaving the Romans with secure lines of communication as they went on to challenge the greatest of the Hellenistic realms – the Seleucids. Antiochus III had been warned by the Romans that he should confine his activities to the east of the Aegean Sea, a warning which the Seleucid king blithely ignored. Taking advantage of Philip’s discomfiture at the hands of the Roman legions, Antiochus blatantly interfered in the affairs of Thrace, right next door to Macedon on the coast of the Black Sea.

Rome may have defeated Macedon close to home, but Antiochus appears to have been convinced that the upstart power would receive a brutal reality check if it was foolish enough to challenge the Seleucids on their own ground. This conviction was soon put to the test as Rome was not slow to pick up the gauntlet. An army arrived, led by Lucius Scipio, who in turn was accompanied by his brother, the famous Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal. The decisive confrontation between two sides occurred in 190 BC at the Battle of Magnesia. Partly through the help of the army of Pergamum, Roman allies in Asia Minor, the Romans were victorious. This was a decisive moment in the history of the eastern Mediterranean, for though the Romans had no intention of occupying Seleucid territory (though gold and slaves would still do nicely, both as tribute and booty), Seleucid power was irrevocably weakened by defeat. Antiochus was forced to restrict his sphere of influence again, this time to the Syrian side of the Taurus Mountains, leaving Rome the dominant power in Asia Minor.

The Seleucid empire, always a somewhat ramshackle affair, now began the generations–long process of slowly falling apart at the seams. When Antiochus IV attempted to restore his dynasty’s fortunes in 168 BC with an invasion of Egypt, he and his army were stopped by a single Roman envoy. The envoy bluntly ordered the king and his army to turn back. When Antiochus asked for time to consider his options, the Roman used his stick of office to draw a line in the sand around the king. He informed Antiochus that he was not to step over that line until he had decided on his course of action. That course of action, when Antiochus eventually got over his indignation, turned out to be the cancellation of the invasion, and a retreat back to Asia with whatever shreds of dignity could be retrieved from the situation. It was a chilling demonstration, both of the power of the Romans and of their arrogant ignorance of how to behave in civilized society.

If the Seleucids were content to allow their empire to moulder slowly away, the Macedonians chose to go out with a bang. Their agents were constantly fomenting problems for the Romans in Greece, whilst in any case, the Romans found themselves driven to distraction by the petty feuds and small wars with which the Greek cities celebrated their new freedom. In 167 BC the Romans deposed the Macedonian king, and when even that proved insufficient to control his irrepressible nation, they finally occupied Macedon and made it a province in 147 BC.

At the same time the Romans bluntly informed the Greeks of the limits of their freedom by making an example of the city of Corinth. For taking Macedon’s part in the recent troubles, the Romans attacked the city, sacked it, enslaved every man, woman and child in the place, and burned its buildings to the ground so comprehensively that this great Greek city was deserted for over a century. The civilized world was appalled. Whilst it was accepted that the Romans had an unhealthily zealous approach to warfare, and the diplomatic finesse of country bumpkins, the utter destruction of one of the pearls of Greek culture (and over a minor military disagreement!) was an act of horrifying barbarity. The destruction of Corinth, the humiliation of Antiochus and the subjugation of Macedonia signalled clearly that the age of the Hellenic empires was nearing its end.

Consequences of Königgrätz

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Battle of Königgrätz, by Georg Bleibtreu. Oil on canvas, 1869.

While there is general consensus about the momentous consequences of Königgrätz, there is no agreement about why the battle went the way it did. Historians continue to debate whether it was Prussian competence or Austrian incompetence that accounted for the outcome. The safe answer, which has the added advantage of being true, is that it was a bit of both.

There is no question that Benedek played his hand badly. He failed to decisively attack the Prussians when they were at their weakest, while wending their way through the passes of the Giant Mountains. He then failed to take advantage of his initial success at Königgrätz on the morning of July 3. Until the early afternoon, the Austrians had a large numerical advantage over their Prussian opponents. If Benedek had gambled on an all-out offensive, he might have been able to crush the Elbe Army and the First Army before the Second Army arrived. Failing that, Benedek should have retreated while the going was still good. Instead he stayed in place, leaving his right flank dangerously exposed, and suffered the consequences. Moltke later commented that “[n]o one, of course, dreamed” that the enemy would open themselves up in this fashion.

The needle gun further contributed to the Austrian defeat. Time after time, their superior breechloaders allowed small Prussian units to maul more numerous adversaries. Fransecky’s heroic 7th Division never could have held its pivotal position in the Swiepwald were it not equipped with rapid-fire rifles. As Friedrich Engels wrote afterward: “It may be doubted whether without [the needle gun] the junction of the two Prussian armies could have been effected; and it is quite certain that this immense and rapid success could not have been obtained without such superior fire, for the Austrian army is habitually less subject to panic than most European armies.”

Railways also helped determine the outcome. In just twenty-one days, the Prussians transported 197,000 men and 55,000 horses. Their rapid concentration and advance caught the Austrians off guard. The whole conflict lasted just seven weeks. The war against France four years later took slightly longer, because the French people refused to admit they were beaten, but the major combat was also relatively brief, in large part because the Prussians once again were able to transport and concentrate troops more rapidly than their foes.

Of course, railroads and guns do not operate themselves. The human factor must never be lost sight of. Observers generally agreed on the superior motivation and training of Prussian troops. An English journalist found that, in contrast to the peasant conscripts who made up the Austrian ranks in 1866, the Prussian “rank and file are men of education, who know what they are fighting about, not mere machines drilled to mechanical perfection.” They were thus “more in earnest, more thoughtful, more willing to risk their lives for a principle, whether false or true, more imbued with a sense of duty.”

Prussian commanders were also more thoughtful and more earnest than their Austrian counterparts. Above all, the genius of Helmuth von Moltke towered over the battlefield. As a reward for his service, the chief of staff was awarded a large cash grant by his grateful king, which allowed him to purchase a thousand-acre estate in Silesia. A few years later, his victory over France would earn him promotion to field marshal and the title of count. All those accolades were fully deserved. It is true that Moltke’s plans did not work perfectly in 1866; the General Staff did a particularly poor job of meeting the army’s logistical requirements. But Moltke and his “demigods” were far ahead of anyone else in harnessing industrial technologies to the demands of warfare. Their only rivals in this respect were Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and the other Union leaders who had marshaled superior manpower, factories, railroads, and riches—though not superior technology per se (the North and South had roughly comparable weapons)—to crush the Confederacy. But their knowledge was lost after 1865, when the United States disbanded what had been for one brief moment the most powerful army in the world, whereas the German Army continued to develop Industrial Age warfare in accordance with Moltke’s high-risk credo: “Great successes in war cannot be gained without great dangers.”

The most important military innovation associated with Königgrätz—and the most lasting—was the superb planning that went into the Prussian victory. War had become too complex to be managed by one person, even a great captain like Napoleon, Frederick the Great, or Helmuth von Moltke. A whole management system was now required, and all across Europe, states copied the Prussian model of the General Staff. All of the continental armies adopted such Prussian innovations as staff rides, war games, and, above all, the writing of complex war plans in peacetime. Many even imitated Prussia’s spiked helmets. The Prussians still retained an edge, however, because no other general staff enjoyed the kind of unfettered power that theirs had. This advantage proved much more lasting than any technological edge, which did not—could not—last long in an age of frenetic weapons innovation.

Within days of Königgrätz, every army in Europe was rushing to buy its own breech-loading rifles, many of them superior to the thirty-year-old needle gun. Four years later, when Prussia went to war against France, its infantrymen were at a disadvantage in small arms. The French were armed with a newer breech-loader called the Chassepot that had three times the range of the needle gun. They even had a primitive machine gun called the Mitrailleuse, capable of firing 150 rounds a minute, though they were never able to make very effective use of it. Just as Austrian infantry had been slaughtered charging Prussian rifles in 1866, so Prussian infantry was slaughtered charging French rifles in 1870. Prussia prevailed anyway, ironically enough, because of its artillery. While its cannons had been inferior in 1866, they were superior by 1870. Having seen that muzzle-loaders were outdated, the Prussians scrapped them after 1866 and reequipped their entire force with Krupp’s breech-loading rifled cannons made of cheap and durable cast steel. France continued to rely on old bronze muzzle-loaders. Better artillery gave Prussia a crucial edge in 1870 that allowed its gunners to annihilate the French army from long range.

Such technological flip-flops were to become common in the Industrial Age, when plummeting manufacturing costs allowed a state to completely reequip an army of hundreds of thousands within a relatively short period. No army could now afford to wait twenty years or more to field a new weapon, as the Prussians had waited for the needle gun. It was even more unthinkable that any army could rely on the same gun for a century and a half, as the British army had relied on the Brown Bess from the 1690s to the 1840s. In the Industrial Age inventions could transform the battlefield within months.

In those circumstances it proved impossible for any state to develop and maintain a lasting technological edge over equally sophisticated adversaries. Europe was swept by arms races in the decades before World War I, but no power gained an enduring advantage. By 1914 all the major combatants had repeating rifles, machine guns, quick-firing artillery, railroads, telegraphs, and all the other inventions that had transformed warfare.

They also had large conscript armies to operate those weapons. Following Prussia’s victories in 1866 and 1870–71, every major European state except Great Britain copied the Prussian system of putting a large portion of its young men through military training, conscripting them for a few years of active-duty service, and then keeping them in reserve for wartime. Just as Prussia had been subdivided into military districts, so too France, Russia, Italy, and other states were subdivided to facilitate mobilization. And just as Prussian mobilization plans had been drawn up by officers schooled in its War Academy, so other European states set up staff colleges of their own (France’s École Supérieure de Guerre was founded in 1880) to bring their officers up to Prussian standards.