Japanese Invasions of Korea and Gunpowder Weapons

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Korean and Chinese soldiers assault the Japanese-built fortress at Ulsan.

Although guns were widely available in the struggle for supremacy in China during the mid-fourteenth century, they became a cornerstone of the Ming army only after the Ming conquest of China. Before the end of the fourteenth century, almost 10 percent of the army’s 1.2–1.8 million soldiers were armed with guns. The capital’s arsenals produced 3,000 cannon and 3,000 handguns annually from 1380 to 1488. These weapons were widely deployed and initially gave Ming armies an advantage over neighboring states that were not so armed. European advances in gun technology were quickly adopted in China, and the cannon it brought into the field owed as much to the West as did the Japanese army’s muskets.

Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea brought about a direct clash between three different gun-armed forces, the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. Japanese forces were armed with muskets and trained in volley fire; Chinese forces relied upon cannon; and Korean forces used cannon on armored warships to interdict Japanese maritime supply lines. On the strategic level, the Japanese were completely defeated, achieving none of their political or military goals at a tremendous loss of life. Tactically, the results were more mixed. Chinese armies succeeded when they brought their cannon up to the battlefield, and lost when they did not. The Korean navy defeated the Japanese navy using cannon to oppose their boarding tactics, but was ineffective when poorly commanded. Overall, the conflict demonstrated that guns, whether muskets or cannon, were now critical in East Asian warfare.

After the first Japanese campaign (1592–3) was driven back to the southern tip of Korea, the Ming attempted to improve the Korean army by training its soldiers to use firearms. The course of the war surprised all sides, revealing deep-seated weaknesses within everyone’s armed forces. By campaigning outside of Japan, Hideyoshi subjected the Japanese army to new military problems that it struggled to overcome. The Korean and Chinese forces suffered similar difficulties in dealing with new modes of warfare. For example, the Ming army, which possessed several different kinds of troops based upon their regional origins, had to bring southern Chinese troops, who had previously fought against ‘‘Japanese’’ pirates, to the battlefield in order to engage the Japanese in close combat. Northern Chinese troops, who emphasized cavalry and had no experience of the Japanese, were generally regarded as ineffective.

It is impossible to draw conclusions about which mode of warfare was superior without taking into account the specific conditions and commanders of a given battle. Japanese superiority in close combat, and in medium-range missile firing through their use of muskets, was negated when Chinese cannon were present on the battlefield. At the same time, the test of combat could be rendered moot by larger strategic issues. Japanese attempts to hold and control Korean territory, combined with a desire to avoid large-scale battles with the Chinese and their cannons, induced them to disperse their troops and focus on ambushes and placing small garrisons in key locations. These tactics then exposed them to even greater risk, as Korean partisans were able to ambush small Japanese units, or harass their supply lines.

Hideyoshi’s invasions, like the construction of the Great Wall, demonstrated once again the close connection between siege warfare, naval warfare, and guns. While troops in the field could maneuver to take advantage of their own strengths and avoid those of their opponents, sometimes to the extent of refusing battle entirely, siege and naval warfare quite often did not allow that possibility. Strong points had to be taken if territory was to be controlled, certain sailing routes had to be used at certain times if ships were to reach their destination. One of the greatest weaknesses of the Japanese war effort was the Japanese navy, a rather surprising circumstance given the competence of Japanese sea lords earlier in the sixteenth century.

Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun

A SECOND-RATE NAVY AND THE IMPACT OF OLD TREATIES

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The Battle of Vigo Bay. On the evening of 22 October 1702 the Anglo-Dutch fleet entered the Ria de Vigo, and sailed past the two forts of the city of Vigo that fired at them as they passed by. At the end of the bay the French fleet and Spanish treasure ships lay in the harbour of Redondela, surrounded by the Galician mountains.

In 1700 the two naval powers of England and the Dutch Republic had tried to intervene in the Great Northern War and to ease Charles XII of Sweden’s position against a strong coalition of enemies. A combined Anglo-Dutch squadron bombarded Copenhagen and the Danish fleet. Denmark was forced to make concessions. The troubles around the Spanish succession and the ensuing war forestalled any other intervention in the Nordic conflict. From 1710 onwards Dutch and British merchant vessels were being arrested in Denmark and Russia or captured by Swedes. So in 1714, after the Peace of Utrecht had ended the War of the Spanish Succession, Great Britain decided to give up its passive role in Nordic affairs. The balance by then had turned against Sweden as Peter the Great had occupied the east coast of the Baltic. Sweden had blockaded major trading ports and issued privateering commissions. British as well as Dutch shipping faced growing risks.

A British proposal for a joint naval force to protect neutral shipping was in the first instance turned down by the Dutch. The proposal itself was in line with Anglo-Dutch co-operation during the previous two or three decades. When the offer was repeated in 1715, the Dutch accepted it but their commander received strict orders to abstain from any kind of hostility. The size of the two squadrons was determined by the three-to-five ratio as established in 1689: 12 Dutch and 20 British ships. The carefully formulated Dutch instructions also curtailed freedom of operations of the British, for on its own the British squadron would have been too weak for armed actions against the Swedish Navy. In 1716 another force sailed into the Baltic. In 1717, however, Britain stiffened its policy against Sweden, creating difficult problems for its ally. The city of Amsterdam, the main seat of Baltic trade, was worried about the consequences. The Dutch therefore ordered a halt to their Baltic shipping. In 1718 it was again decided to return to the fruitful policy of sending a squadron. A force of 11 Dutch and 12 British ships operated successfully during that year. The Dutch government, however, did not accept another plan for a combined force in 1719 despite strong British pressure. From then on, the British operated alone in the Baltic until peace was concluded there in 1721. No Dutch men-of-war were sent to the Baltic. The Republic did not follow the change in British foreign policy that now favoured Sweden rather than Russia. The effects these allied squadrons had on Dutch shipping activities in the Baltic is unclear. In the years without convoys more ships passed through the Sound than in the years when there was armed protection. In the years without convoys the numbers were as follows: 569 (1714), 193 (1717, the year with a prohibition of shipping) and 544 (1719), the convoy years: 373(1715), 324 (1716) and 360 (1718). More than 200, 300 and 260 vessels sailed under armed protection in the latter years respectively. The formation of convoys always implied delay. Several vessels therefore could not make more than one voyage in a year, instead of two or three which was the norm.

The impact of the Anglo-Dutch squadrons on the Nordic struggle itself should not be exaggerated. Nevertheless, from a Dutch point of view the despatching of those squadrons were important naval activities. With one later exception in 1729, it was the last time that the Dutch Navy operated on equal terms with the British one. Another more important aspect is the fact that, in sharp contrast to previous wars, both navies now had to claim and support the rights that neutrality was supposed to give to mercantile shipping, rights they had earlier denied to Scandinavians, for example. The two allies did not enjoy mastery in the region. For Great Britain the Baltic cruises turned out to be just another incident, for the Republic it was the first and irreversible step towards the status of a second-rate naval power. During a later Baltic conflict in 1741–43, Swedish privateers again attacked neutral ships. The cry for convoy was loud in Amsterdam and nine frigates were equipped. In order to cause no political or military stir this force of small ships was split into three groups. The ships oversaw uneventful trips to Russian and Polish ports.

In 1714 there were two very good reasons for the Dutch government not to play an active role in the Nordic wars: the enormous debts of the admiralties and the inactivity of the fleet. The Republic was financially exhausted. Until around 1700 William III had been able to keep the size of the public debt under control, but Grand Pensionary Heinsius was not so successful during the War of the Spanish Succession. At the end of the war the debts were enormous. Many government activities came to a complete or nearly complete standstill after peace had been restored. Hardly any men-of-war were built and as few ships as possible were fitted out. Suppliers and naval captains did not receive their money. Many warships were laid up permanently and later broken up or sold. The fleet became smaller and smaller. For the three Baltic squadrons in 1715–18 the admiralties had to find special funds.

After the War of the Spanish Succession and the Great Northern War nearly all the European countries reduced the size of their navies and returned to configurations befitting a period of peace, the French, British and Dutch navies, in particular. After some time a period of rearmament started, gaining full speed from the 1750s onwards. It was general policy in western Europe as well as in the Baltic. The Dutch Republic did not follow other states, however. On the contrary, its fleet continued to decrease. Figures in the following table show how the navy declined, and not only to secondary status; the Dutch Republic fell temporarily to the status of a third-rate naval power.

There were no major conflicts in Europe after the War of the Spanish Succession and the Great Northern War until 1744. The Dutch Republic remained a loyal, but weakened ally to Britain, and when international tensions heated up, small squadrons were fitted out to join the British Navy. In the summer of 1729, for example, 12 Dutch men-of-war were gathered together with 20 British ships at Spithead because of a crisis on the Continent. It turned out to be a false alarm. Meanwhile the fleets killed time with races to measure the sailing qualities of some of the new ships.

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The year 1744, however, was decisive for Anglo-Dutch naval relations. In that year, in the middle of the War of the Austrian Succession, Britain asked for naval support on the basis of the Treaty of 1678, and it then realised what an enfeebled naval power the Dutch Republic had become. The call for an auxiliary squadron of 20 ships for use against France in order to forestall an invasion proved a request impossible for the Dutch to fulfil. The Dutch naval organisation was accustomed to fitting out no more than five to nine ships per year. The total size of the fleet had dwindled to no more than 60 vessels. Ships- of-the-line were employed only rarely. Many months passed before this Dutch auxiliary force assembled at Spithead and it became clear immediately that it was not of much use to the British Navy. Hundreds of seamen became sick, and there was a shortage of many items on board. The ships themselves leaked; the flag officers and captains quarrelled constantly; 6,000 auxiliary troops had to be transported to Scotland by British transport vessels, where they proved to be ill provided for, badly led and very uncooperative. In 1747 the Republic at long last got involved in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), and could not defend itself sufficiently. British warships had to help in safeguarding the Scheldt estuary from a French invasion.

The Treaty of 1678 had thus been applied two times in a row and on behalf of both signatories. The lessons to be drawn were obvious. Britain had learnt that the Republic was no longer a power to be reckoned with; the events of 1744 had been a sort of unmasking. Dutch merchants and skippers, however, continued to profit greatly from the Treaty of 1674. Until 1747 Dutch shipping was considered neutral and Dutch skippers exploited the terms of that old treaty, which favoured neutrals. They traded with France in all sorts of goods, including naval stores; only actual weapons were excluded. This trade was advantageous for the Dutch as well as the French. Naval stores were carried from the Baltic to French dockyards with little if any harassment from British warships or privateers. When cargoes were captured, they were sold to British dockyard contractors, the freight was paid and the ships along with their crews released. It was the first time Britain was commit- ted to a war on global scale, and it did not press too strongly on Dutch shipping activities. Britain would not repeat that policy in the Seven Years War of 1756–63.

WARRIOR PHARAOHS AND THE EGYPTIAN EMPIRE, 1551–1213

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Egyptian warriors (New Kingdom) by Jose Antonio Penas

The new unified Egypt established by Ahmose I was a true nation-state, unified in language, culture, and religion and tied to together by the Nile River. The country was blessed by the gods and prospered accordingly. The reintroduction of peace and unity once again made Egypt the richest state in the eastern Mediterranean. However, New Kingdom Egypt was in many ways different from the Egypt of the Old and Middle Periods. The Hyksos invasion and occupation had a dramatic impact on almost every aspect of Egyptian society. The biggest change was the Egyptians’ mortal fear of another inva- sion and occupation. This experience had so scarred the Egyptians that they decided they must do everything possible to prevent and defend against similar attacks in the future.

In previous periods, the Egyptians had only a small militia without professional soldiers or officers. In general, military service and the army were looked down on by Egyptian society. Now, for the first time in history, the Egyptians created a professional standing army. The leader of this new army would be a new type of king: the warrior-pharaoh. Egyptian art, in a sharp break from past practices, now depicted the king as a military leader riding in his chariot, firing arrows, wielding a sword, and holding by the hair enemies who would be either executed or enslaved. Inspired by the pharaoh’s example, the people of Egypt now looked on the army as a source of strength, unity, and national pride, the only instrument that protected the Nile Valley against further attacks. Military service was now a noble profession and a sacred duty for the defense of Egypt.

The Egyptians created an army of 20,000 permanent professional soldiers. These men were divided into four divisions, each named after an Egyptian god: Amon, Ptah, Ra, and Seth. The names of the units demon- strate that warfare was part of a holy crusade to expand and defend the power of Egypt with the full support of the gods. The army was equipped with the latest technology, much of which had been learned from the Hyksos. Bronze body armor, longer swords, and lighter shields all become standard. The Egyptians also created a chariot squadron numbering more than 3,000 vehicles; this was the core of the army’s power. These units could also be augmented by further temporary conscription in time of emergency.

This new army would not be used merely to defend Egypt against attack. A conscious decision was made to alter more than a thousand years of Egyp- tian foreign policy. The Egyptians decided they must create an empire to establish buffer zones between the Nile Valley and its enemies. The more territory the Egyptians conquered the further potential invaders would be from the Nile. Despite incredible power and wealth dating back to its found- ing in 3100 B . C . E ., Egypt had rarely ventured abroad. Now, for the first time, Egypt would attempt to conquer an empire.

American War of Independence – British Strategies

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AW 200 American War of Independence British Infantry 1775-1783

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AW 250 American War of Independence Continental Infantry 1776-1783

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One of the questions that perpetually exercises historians is whether the Americans won the War of Independence or the British simply lost it. Certainly, especially at the war’s outset, the British possessed considerable advantages. London was the seat of the world’s richest, most powerful empire. Although she had jealous rivals in Europe, England was at peace and had been unchallenged since a series of victorious wars—including much North American combat—in the first half of the eighteenth century. Her ability to project power with a potent army and a magnificent navy was unmatched, and she had the 13 colonies strategically surrounded with outposts on the western frontier, as well as in Canada to the north and her Caribbean colonies to the south. England had suppressed rebellions before (admittedly closer to home, in Ireland) and successfully made war in North America. A considerable percentage of the American population—estimated at about 20 percent—remained loyal to the crown and at least a similar number were neutral.

Stacked against these favorable conditions were disadvantages. The British had to contend with a 3,000-mile lifeline across the stormy north Atlantic, upon which imperial forces depended for reinforcements, some logistical sustainment, and strategic direction. Internal lines of communication in America were no less fraught. While there were a handful of excellent ports, a paucity of good roads into the interior made the countryside poorly suited for maneuver and worse for logistics. As the war progressed, the British faced an increasingly aroused American populace, as well as the patriots’ European allies in what became a global struggle. In part, these last two developments reflected inept British political and diplomatic efforts, as well as the Americans’ more effective work in these spheres. Yet what hindered British more than any of these was the lack of a coherent strategy.

The objective was clear enough—end the colonial uprising and restore im- perial rule throughout the 13 colonies. Yet British leaders were divided to some degree as to whether the best method to achieve this was through conciliation or coercion. In London, policymaking responsibility lay in the hands of three individ- uals: King George III; his prime minister, Sir Frederick North; and the secretary of state for colonies, Lord George Germain, a former Army officer cashiered for misconduct. Historians have given all three exceedingly low marks for leadership ability and strategic insight. While a number of eloquent and influential British politicians—the best known being Edmund Burke and William Pitt—argued for a conciliatory policy and against the folly of violent repression, the three men at the top resolved on the latter.

While that would seem to have settled the matter, senior British officers in America had their own views. Both General Sir William Howe, who became the British commander in chief in America in October 1775, and his brother Lord Richard Howe, who assumed command of the British fleet in American waters in 1776, strongly favored conciliation. They remained at their respective posts until the middle of 1778 and their joint conduct of military operations reflected their ambivalence about prosecuting the war.

British command problems extended beyond the mixed feelings of the broth- ers Howe; indeed the entire chain of command was highly dysfunctional. The British violated the principle of unity of command in the American theater for much of the war by retaining a separate commander in chief for Canada, Sir Guy Carleton. General Howe’s deputy and eventual successor, General Sir Henry Clin- ton, while displaying flashes of professional talent, was congenitally incapable of taking risk or cooperating with either superiors or peers. Significant shortcom- ings in temperament and skill afflicted the other two senior British generals in America, John Burgoyne and Charles Lord Cornwallis, as well. Compounding the friction created by the collision of these bumptious egos, Germain back in London frequently bypassed the commander in chief to correspond directly with generals in the field. This fractured system led to considerable confusion and disastrously poor coordination, most significantly in the Saratoga and Yorktown campaigns.

Essentially, the British had two broad military schemas open to them. One was to be force oriented, that is to focus on the destruction of the main American armies, especially the one personally led by Washington. The other was to be terrain oriented—to seek to snuff out the rebellion through the control of key geographical points.

The first of these, in theory, offered the best hope to the British. In practice, destroying the enemy proved difficult to bring about for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Napoleonic battle of annihilation was alien to the Age of Reason and the eighteenth century way of war, which tended to be limited in scope and purpose. Then, during the war’s first half, General Howe was reluctant to essay a strategy of destruction due to his hopes for Anglo-American conciliation. For instance, in the fall of 1776 he routed Washington out of New York, but eschewed the opportunities afforded by his greater, seaborne mobility to cut the Americans off. Howe subsequently pushed the reeling patriots out of New Jersey, but again neglected to strike a death blow. But only part of this failure can be attributed to Howe’s personal disposition. Washington deserves at least as much credit for his skillful withdrawals.

As a result, the British ended up attempting, or at least considering, a variety of terrain-oriented schemes. The most basic was a naval blockade of American ports. Though seconded by a number of British strategists, it never got much purchase for a couple of reasons. First, despite its status as the world’s premier fleet, even the Royal Navy lacked the assets to close off completely America’s lengthy Atlantic seaboard. Further, strangling America would take time and could prove as costly to British merchants as to colonial traders, especially unpalatable for a war that was far from universally popular at home in England. Finally, in this preindustrial age, there really was not any necessary commodity that the Americans could not produce—or smuggle—in sufficient quantities to sustain the struggle.

Another tack, which the British pursued for the first part of the war, can be called the northern strategy. Here the British used the operational mobility afforded by their fleet to capture New York City as a base of operations. From there they rapidly conquered New Jersey and also Rhode Island, securing another naval bastion at Newport. A year later, they seized the rebel capital in Philadelphia, forcing the Congress into headlong and undignified flight. Almost simultaneously, though in totally uncoordinated fashion, they mounted a drive down from Canada with the goal of controlling the Hudson River valley and effectively severing the cradle of rebellion, New England, from the rest of the colonies. Successful in taking large cities, thwarted at Saratoga in the effort to command the line of the Hudson, this northern strategy ultimately failed to achieve the strategic goal of ending the rebellion. Indeed there is good reason to believe that even had the British achieved their aims in the Hudson Valley, they would have had insufficient resources to control all the key terrain necessary to cut off the colonies completely from each other.

The final terrain-centered strategy tried by the British came in the war’s concluding act, an invasion of the American south. In essence, the south always seemed like low-hanging fruit to some British strategists. Loyalist sentiment ap- peared stronger in the south, farther from the New England cockpit, and addition- ally the British could perhaps hope that southerners’ fear of hostile Indians and slave uprisings might keep them in check. Again British naval supremacy brought them swift control of coastal cities such as Savannah and Charleston. But though they won a string of tactical victories in the Carolinas and Virginia, none were strategically decisive. Meanwhile, rebellion thrived in the north and the British army in the south wore itself down chasing rebels until it became trapped itself at Yorktown.

The preceding catalog of British shortcomings and miscalculations might seem to indicate, in answer to the question posed at the beginning of this section, that the British lost the war more than the Americans won it. They certainly failed to break either the patriots’ army or their will. And they found it much easier to conquer territory than to control it. Such a conclusion, however, overlooks how American leaders and soldiers capitalized on the opportunities presented to them, and overcame their own deficiencies and errors in judgment. War is a dynamic contest of wills. The Americans proved eminently worthy of the victory they won.

The First Carlist War (1833– 40)

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Battle of Behobia, May 1837

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Zones under Carlist military control (dark orange) and areas where they found popular support (light orange)

In this case, the conflict was a civil war, with the insurgents, or Carlists, fighting in the name of the rival Bourbon line of Don Carlos against Queen Isabel II and, more generally, in favor of ultraconservative religious and political values over the relative liberal- ism associated with the queen’s rule. Although they never succeeded in placing their rival dynastic line in power, the movement in support of Carlos and his descendants would cause several major civil wars and exercise significant political influence well into the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Over 65,000 government soldiers lost their lives in the First Carlist War, and total casualties on the government side (including wounded and missing in action) numbered some 175,000. The Carlists probably lost at least an equal number of soldiers, and the total military casualties for both sides—not including civilians—may have been as high as 2.5% of the total population. Given these figures, it is not surprising that the army under- went significant changes during the course of the conflict. Above all, the government army grew dramatically after the war ’s outbreak. By the war’s end, the government casualty count alone was more than twice as high as the number of men who had been in the Spanish Army in 1828.

Why did the insurgency prove so difficult to suppress? A multitude of social, economic, political, and cultural forces all played a role in the course and outcome of the war, and it is not possible here to cover them all. Yet the condition and performance of the government army itself should not be overlooked either. As we will see, the army entered the conflict unprepared for a civil war of this magnitude or character, even if its effectiveness did improve with time.

During the decade before the Carlists took up arms in 1833, leading Spanish officers devoted substantial efforts to raising the professional and educational standards of the army. Their main instruments were the various military academies and other instructional centers that they revived during this period, and the literature they produced often stressed the instruction of recruits, as well as military science in its more technical aspects. They did not, however, pay particular attention to mountain warfare, which is what the army would face in abundance in its struggle to subdue the Carlists. In late 1834, slightly over one year after the war began, a book on the subject finally appeared, most likely because of the sudden relevance of the topic. Although the work’s author, former general staff officer Santiago Pascual y Rubio, focused on mountain warfare, aspects of his analysis apply equally well in broader terms to many of the counterinsurgencies that the army would wage throughout the century.

The mountain warfare he described had little in common with the regular warfare for which the army had been preparing. According to Pascual, in the mountains extensive experience and knowledge of military science often means little, for such conditions entail ‘‘extraordi- nary qualities’’ in commanders far different from those needed in more traditional battles. Even the most skilled commanders, he wrote, can commit grave errors when they try to apply the principles of fighting on flat land to mountain warfare. At the more practical level, he advo- cated equipping the individual soldiers as well as the cavalry lightly, reasoning that the latter needed the ability to dismount easily and fight on foot if surprised. Pascual’s march tactics involved using columns to move through valleys and ravines, while light infantry provided cover by occupying high positions. In the case of enemy fire, only the skirmishers were to answer in kind, while the columns would stay in close formation and attack with bayonets. The main aim, however, was to outflank the enemy through the use of multiple columns, thereby obscuring the main thrust of the attack. The weakness of this method would become deadly clear in practice, as the Carlists learned that ascertaining the army’s intentions allowed them to take advantage of their interior lines and defeat the Spanish forces in detail.

When the war began, the government forces numbered only 45,000 veteran soldiers, not counting the militias and the 20,000 draftees who were soon raised. The army was widely dispersed, with some troops covering the Portuguese border to prevent Don Carlos himself from entering the country, some guarding penal colonies spread around Spain, others manning the cordon sanitaire that the government had created in response to cholera outbreaks, some guarding supply and ammunition dumps, and others disarming the Royalist Volunteers, whom the government quickly acted against when the war broke out, justifiably suspicious of their loyalty to the new queen.

The Carlists, on the other hand, had to create their own army from scratch; not one unit of the regular army went over to their side. Because they were scattered all over the peninsula, the Carlists ended up creating three major forces: the army of the north, the army of Cataluña, and the army of the Maestrazgo. Through a combination of volunteers and draftees, by the end of 1834 the Carlist armies had only about 18,000 troops all together, but by 1839 the three armies probably numbered over 70,000 men, in addition to perhaps some 15,000 guerrillas. For most of the war, there was scant communication between the three armies and most of the guerrilla bands, or partidas, that sprung up elsewhere across the country. Although the liberal army would always outnumber the Carlists, the insurgency would prove very difficult to break.

The war began in earnest in the Basque city of Bilbao, where word of Ferdinand VII’s death arrived around 0300 hours on October 2, 1833. By the evening of the next day, the Carlists had gained firm control of the city. They would receive some of their strongest support in the rural, more mountainous areas around Bilbao and elsewhere in the Basque Country and Navarre, areas that—not coincidentally—had supplied the guerrilla partidas with much manpower during the War of Independence over two decades earlier. The insurgents found it very difficult to hold on to cities, however, and they relinquished Bilbao without a fight in November with the arrival of the government forces, also known as the queen’s army or Cristinos, for their loyalty to the new queen Cristina. The Carlists also gave up Logroño and Vitoria, which they had initially controlled.

Yet the war was far from over. As Napoleon’s forces had discovered after 1808 and numerous regular armies have found out since, even loosely organized guerrillas with no formal training and inferior weapons can be very tenacious opponents. The Carlists in the Basque Country may have worn makeshift uniforms, including their signature red berets and hemp sandals, and lacked sufficient weaponry and ammunition, but they were mountaineers well suited for irregular warfare, and such tasks as casting bullets and making cartridges came easily to them. Even more importantly, the Carlists in northern Spain soon gained a very effective commander, Tomás de Zumalacárregui, who ended their early series of defeats. Zumalacárregui’s task was made easier by geography and the popular support he enjoyed, as he benefited from the help of local priests, community leaders, and the tradition of resistance to central authority that characterized the region in which he operated. He was certainly not adverse to employing force when necessary; it was, after all, a horribly brutal civil war in which civilians suffered greatly and both sides employed terror and shot prisoners. Nevertheless, Zumalacárregui endeavored to foster good relations with local leaders whenever possible, and his hearts-and-minds work in general was more profound and effective than that of the Cristinos.

He proved his leadership skills on December 21, 1833, at Guernica, the emblematic Basque town that would suffer a horrible air attack during another civil war a century later, its destruction famously portrayed by Picasso. Under Zumalacárregui, the Carlist forces at Guernica held their ground, inflicting some 300 casualties to their own 100. Although he decided to withdraw when government reinforcements approached, his withdrawal did not bring with it a strategic victory for the Cristinos. Instead, Zumalacárregui put into practice a more general, classical guerrilla approach that would prove effective: shunning battle except when conditions favored his own side. To the consternation of the Spanish Army commanders, he avoided battle and led his troops into the mountainous area around Navarre instead, where he organized them into battalions.

On December 29, he decided to take on the government’s army again, this time near the village of Asarta. His force of some 2,500 men, divided into seven battalions, was not well armed, but its location between Asarta and the neighboring village of Nazar fits well into his conception of what he thought might unfold. Not only did the terrain make his position difficult to outflank, but all the roads on which his troops might flee in a worst-case scenario led to the same place, thus making it easy for him to form them up again if necessary. Not unexpectedly, the Cristinos even- tually forced a general withdrawal of the Carlists.

Yet Zumalacárregui did not deem the battle of Asarta a defeat. His army had for a while stood up and fought against an enemy of roughly equal size but with much better arms, equipment, and training, and he believed that his men had suffered fewer casualties than the Cristinos. It was now clear that they could stand firmly against an initial attack, withdraw in a relatively orderly fashion if necessary, and then reassemble without much loss. Up until this point, Carlist soldiers had typically deserted after battles. This time, the battle’s end brought with it new volunteers, and some officers in the queen’s army actually went over to the Carlists. Zumalacárregui would continue to prove an insurmountable obstacle to the government army’s success until his demise in the summer of 1835, when he died from wounds suffered during his ill-advised siege of Bilbao—an action he had reluctantly undertaken under pressure from the ruling Carlist Junta and Don Carlos himself.

More important for our purposes, however, is how the regular Spanish Army responded to Zumalacárregui and the Carlist insurrection in general. Its counterinsurgency methods evolved over time, including certain methods that would repeat themselves in other wars during the rest of the century. Early in the war, after the battle of Asarta, Cristino army leaders wisely elected not to pursue Zumalacárregui, who took his battalions to the Navarrese valley of Amescóa, about thirty-five miles southwest of Pamplona. Surrounded by mountain ranges but relatively well connected with the Basque Country, it was good guerrilla terrain.

The strategy of the queen’s army was to build a line of forts at key points along the Ebro River between Pamplona and Logroño, thereby boxing the Carlists into the southwest corner of Navarre while also securing their own communications line with Madrid. But the forts were hardly sufficient to root out the insurgents, who may have lacked resources but benefited from superior local intelligence, knowledge of terrain, and a lack of burdensome supply trains. As a result of the failure of this counterinsurgency strategy, a new supreme commander, General Vicente Gonzalo de Quesada, took over the government’s army in February 1834. He came up with a new plan for subduing the Carlists in the north that, while theoretically sensible, in practice proved more difficult to realize than he had expected.

He too aimed to take away some of the Carlists’ mobility and force them to concentrate into smaller areas, where he could then wield his superior force against the insurgents on his own terms. To achieve this goal, he sought to place large and well-armed columns at key points, create smaller, mobile—or ‘‘flying’’—columns that could be brought together or separated as necessary, and build more forts to better secure his own communications. The problem lay in the human and logistical resources that such a strategy entailed. The mobile columns he envisioned would require 10,000 troops and 400 horses, and garrisoning the forts as necessary required another some 3,000 men. Maintaining security in the cities of San Sebastian and Pamplona, moreover, required about 2,500 troops. Such numbers were simply too high, even as the Spanish government called up another 25,000 men in addition to the regular draft in February.

In late June, José Rodil replaced Quesada as the Cristino commander in chief in the north, and he modified the government’s counterinsurgency strategy in the north once again. Believing that key individuals lay behind much of the rebels’ fighting spirit and success on the battlefield, he divided his forces into three parts, two of which he devoted to pursing Zumalacárregui and Don Carlos, respectively. The third’s task was to garrison the existing forts. Unfortunately for Rodil, the gamble did not pay off. Although at one point he came close to capturing Carlos, in general his strategy was counterproductive, as it exacted grueling marches from his men for little gain.

To make matters worse for the Cristinos, Zumalacárregui organized some of his best and most audacious officers and sergeants into very small, highly mobile units—or flying bands—that severely hindered government communications, and these units would grow in size with time. Taking advantage of their local knowledge, they made communications very dangerous for the Cristinos, harassing them, monitoring their movements, and intercepting messages. Much like the Spanish guerrillas fighting the French decades earlier, the Carlists thereby tied down an increasing number of the queen’s troops. In this way, the Carlists compen- sated at least in part for their relative lack of numbers, which were too small to blockade the government garrisons in a traditional fashion.

After Zumalacárregui’s death in June 1835 and the defeat at Mendigor- ri´a one month later, the Carlists in the north suffered a notable loss of momentum. They gained almost complete control of the interior of the Basque provinces, but the concurrent shift from Zumalacárregui’s strategy of roving operations to one of occupation also led to a decline in Carlist morale, and a stalemate ensued. After another failed attempt by the Carlists to besiege Bilbao and a major Cristino victory at Luchana at the end of 1836, the queen’s army attempted to break the stalemate with a decisive offensive in the north. However, their plan, which called for a simultaneous advance on Carlist territory in Guipúzcoa from Pamplona, San Sebastian, and Bilbao, presupposed an operational-level competence that the army simply did not have, and all three columns suffered high losses and had to return to their bases. From this point on, it was clear that the war’s center of gravity no longer lay in the north.

The army also failed in its attempts to crush the famous ‘‘expeditions’’ later launched by the Carlists, which consisted of several large columns—one led by Don Carlos himself—that made their way through various parts of Spain. Although they made their presence known all over the peninsula, motivating the existing guerrilla partidas and garnering much popular support, they did not change the military balance directly. They did, however, draw attention to the seeming impotence of the government forces that pursued them, thereby publicizing their cause in Spain and abroad and helping weaken the position of the Queen’s government in Madrid. To make matters worse for the Cristinos, in lower Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia the government forces struggled with increasing difficulty against not only independent guerrilla bands but also troops under the command of Ramón Cabrera, a former seminarian who proved to be one of the Carlists’ most effective military leaders. The Cristinos created a new force—the so-called army of the center—in response to the growing difficulties they faced in the east.

In the end, though, internal rivalries within the Carlist camp facilitated the end of this long and bloody civil war. In early 1839, the commander in chief of the Carlist forces, General Rafael Maroto, asserted his authority over the theologically extremist and intransigent faction of the movement by having four rival Carlist generals shot. Negotiations between him and the leader of the Cristino forces, General Baldomero Espartero, ensued. The two men signed an armistice on August 29, and the war-weary north could finally return to peacetime. In the east, Carlists continued to fight, but the queen’s army could easily concentrate on this area now, effectively crushing all remaining resistance by the summer of 1840.

Thus, when all was said and done, victory had come not through brilliant counterinsurgency planning or operations, but rather from improvised strategy and attrition. Yet during the course of the conflict, the Spanish Army had experimented with various counterinsurgency tactics, and its operations had improved over time. The question remained, then, what the army would learn from the experience. Did this victory herald institutional change in the Spanish Army? Unfortunately for subsequent Spanish governments, it did not. Instead, army culture remained very much oriented toward regular war. Moreover, political interests and conflicts continued to plague the officer corps, which only grew in size as promotions were handed out to reward loyalty.

Steven’s Balagan
Spanish and Portuguese Military History, Wargaming, and other stuff

THE CHARIOT REVOLUTION

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The war chariot was made possible by two inventions, the spoked wheel and the bit. Complete chariots have been found in Egyptian tombs. The frame was made of wood covered with leather. It had two wheels, each with four (later six) spokes, and an axle placed at the very rear of the body for stability on fast turns. Attached to the sides were one or two quivers, each containing thirty or forty arrows, a bow case, and sometimes a quiver for javelins.

The early periods of Egyptian history (Dynastic, Old and Middle Kingdoms) were characterized by peace, prosperity, and pyramids. The Mediterranean to the north, the desert to east and west, and the jungles and cataracts to the south provided Egypt with natural protection from the outside world. From the emergence of Egyptian civilization in 3100 B . C . E . to the end of the Middle Kingdom, around 1652, Egypt not only enjoyed (mostly) internal peace and stability but also suffered no invasions. This period of security from outside attack is almost unprecedented in human history; possibly only the Japa- nese, who were safe from the time of the first emperor Jimmu in 660 B . C . E . until World War II, can boast a greater such period. It is no wonder that Egyp- tians believed themselves to be blessed by their gods.

Unfortunately, in history, all good things must come to an end. In 1652, for the first time in 1,500 years, an invader attacked and conquered Egypt. According to an Egyptian chronicler, “For what cause I do not know a blast of the gods smote us unexpectedly from the east. Asiatic invaders marched against our land. Their race was called HYKSOS.”

The Hyksos (“Shepard-Kings”) were a Semetic-speaking people who came from Palestine to the northeast. Like most pastoralist peoples in history, they had no permanent homes, nor did they practice agriculture. Instead, almost everything they needed they took from their animals: milk, food, clothing, the tents they lived in, even the alcohol they drank. They were constantly on the move from one place to another, searching for land on which their animals could graze. Pastoralists had little in the way of art, nor were they literate. However, these peoples usually excelled at war and in military technology.

The Hyksos were no exception, possessing a number of military advan- tages over the seemingly more civilized Egyptians. The Hyksos brought with them the composite bow made of wood and horn layered together through lamination and bound with sinew that gave it a huge advantage in distance, power, and accuracy. They wore bronze body armor (the Egyptians had no armor at all), and they had developed a much lighter shield, which left them less encumbered than their Egyptian foes, whose shields weighed them down. Last, the Hyksos introduced into Egypt the most significant military weapon of the Bronze Age: the chariot. Chariots had been around for centu- ries, but it was not until the 1600s B . C . E . that they became important militarily due to numerous innovations and improvements. The new chariot was made of light wood, with a leather platform to carry two men. It was pulled by two horses wearing new harnesses that allowed them to pull heavier loads faster without the risk of choking. New spoked wheels, rather than the old solid wheels, were also vital to the chariot’s development; they were far lighter and sturdier. These chariots were therefore more durable and, weighing only about 60 pounds, could now travel much faster, about 10 miles per hour. One of the men in the chariot was the driver; the other man, who was tied to the chariot to keep his hands free, did the fighting. He was equipped with the composite bow, and the chariot carried a quiver with maybe as many as 80 arrows. Chariot armies had a huge advantage over infantry forces, using their superior speed and mobility to move quickly around the battlefield, fir- ing their arrows at stationary targets while moving fast enough to avoid the incoming missiles of their enemies. Foot soldiers still participated in battles, especially on lands unsuitable for chariots or in defending or besieging cities or camps. They also served as support troops for the chariot teams both in and out of battle. However, it was the chariots that decided the major battles of the period.

Typically, chariot armies would spread out in long lines across a suitably flat and wide battlefield. There was significant space between each chariot in front, in back, and on the flanks to provide plenty of room to maneuver. When the two armies engaged, chariot teams did not simply crash into each other, as horses avoid an actual, physical collision if at all possible. Instead, the chariot teams would move toward an enemy force and in many cases pass completely through the numerous gaps in the opposing line, or, if this avenue was not available, they might turn back or move along the front of an enemy formation. If one side did not break after the first charge, a second charge, this time from the opposite direction, might be necessary. At some point, when one army had suffered significant casualties and panic began to spread among its ranks, some chariot teams would lose heart and begin to retreat either in an orderly fashion or in headlong flight, seeking a secure ref- uge. The chariot force that remained together on the field could then claim the victory.

In 1652, the introduction of these new weapons hit Egypt like a thunder- bolt as the Hyksos conquered all of Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta bordering the Mediterranean) and Upper Egypt (the region further south along the Nile) as far as Abydus. The Hyksos established their capital at Avaris (Tanis), in the Nile Delta. Their rule was known as the Second Intermediate Period, and their kings constituted Egypt’s Dynasties XV and XVI. At the same time, the Hyksos were establishing their rule in the north; the kingdom of Kush (Nubia), to the south, took advantage of Egyptian weakness and regained its independence. Kush also took control of much of the upper reaches of the Nile, ruling as far north as Elephantine and the First Cataract.

This period marked the nadir of Bronze Age Egypt. Only a small part of the Nile remained free, as Egyptians controlled only the first eight nomes (administrative districts) of Upper Egypt from Abydus to Elephantine, with a capital at Karnack (Thebes). This part of free Egypt was ruled by Dynasty XVII, established by Rahotep. Rahotep and his successors kept the traditions of the Old and Middle Kingdoms alive in education, in religion, and even in the building of pyramids. However, the wealth and power of Dynasty XVII pharaohs were greatly diminished; their pyramids were made of mud.

Egyptian humiliation would last for nearly a century, until the pharaoh Sekenre Ta’a II, “The Brave” (d. 1570), decided he could no longer endure the national humiliation of foreign occupation of north and south: “I should like to know why I, an Egyptian pharaoh, sit united with an Asiatic and a Nubian?”

He rebelled, breaking the uneasy peace that had existed in Egypt since the days of the conquest. The revolt began with an attack on the Hyksos and their king, Apophis I. Unfortunately, Sekenre Ta’a was killed in battle. His tomb and mummy have been found; his face, neck, and head were crushed by a Hyksos battle-axe. His cause was carried on by his two sons, first by Kamose (r. 1570–1567). He was inspired not only by patriotism but also by the personal desire to avenge his father. Kamose reorganized the Egyptian army; specifically, he adopted Hyksos technology: bronze body armor, the lightweight shield, the composite bow, and, most notably, the chariot. After this reorganization, Kamose was able to dramatically expand the territory held by the Egyptians north to the Nile Delta and south to Buhen.

In 1567, Kamose, like his father before him, was killed in battle, and the task of liberating Egypt fell to his younger brother, Ahmose I (r. 1567–1542). He was only 10 years old when he ascended the throne, so it was not until 1557 that he attacked. His first target was the Hyksos, and, using his brother’s new army, he recaptured Memphis (Egypt’s ancient capital), Avaris (the Hyksos capital), and, last, Sharuhen, the final city in Egypt still occupied by the Hyksos. The Hyksos were driven out, and their last king, Apophis III, was killed. After defeating the Hyksos, Ahmose moved south to attack Kush. He was successful there, as well, driving the Nubians from Buhen to the Third Cataract.

For both wars, we have a remarkable eyewitness account: a soldier from Ahmose’s army inscribed his battle experiences on his tomb. His name was also Ahmose, the son of Ibana (his mother) and Baba (his father). He wrote:

I was taken by boat, the Northern, because I was brave and I accompanied the pharaoh, life and health be upon him, into battle and fought bravely in the pharaoh’s presence. Avaris was sacked and I was rewarded with gold and four slaves, one man and three women. After his majesty had slain the Asiatics, he sailed south to destroy the Nubian bowmen. The Nubian king met his doom, the gods of Egypt took him, and the pharaoh carried him off into captivity. His majesty made a great slaughter amongst the Nubians and I came away with gold, four slaves, and three hands [the cutting off and taking of hands of enemies killed in battle was a sign of bravery in battle and proof of the enemies a soldier had killed]. Pharaoh returned to Karnak, his heart rejoicing in valor and victory. He had conquered both the Northerners and the Southerners.

By 1551, Ahmose had liberated Egypt after more than a century of foreign rule and national humiliation. Ahmose I was the first king of Dynasty XVIII (1551–1295), and his victories inaugurated the New Kingdom, which would mark the final, dazzling epoch of ancient Egyptian civilization.

The Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) – North German Federal Navy

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The Battle of Havana on 9 November 1870 was a single ship action between the German gunboat Meteor and the French aviso Bouvet off the coast of Havana, Cuba during the Franco-Prussian War.

At 8 a. m. on November 7 the Meteor arrived in Havana harbour after leaving Nassau some days before. An hour later the French aviso Bouvet arrived from Martinique, steaming in from the opposite direction. The next day the French mail steamer SS Nouveau Monde left the harbour for Veracruz but was forced to return a few hours later due to fears that she would be captured by the Prussian gunboat. Later that day the Meteor’s captain, issued a formal challenge to the captain of the Bouvet to fight a battle the next day. The Bouvet accepted and steamed out of the harbour to wait for the Meteor. The Meteor had to wait 24 hours before it could meet the French vessel due to neutrality laws, since Spain was a neutral country during the conflict.

Upon the end of the 24-hour waiting period, the Meteor steamed out to meet the Bouvet which had been waiting 10 miles (16 km) off the border of the Cuban territorial sea. As soon as Meteor had passed the border line, Bouvet opened fire on the German gunboat. The battle came to an inconclusive end when the Bouvet, which had closed the range in an attempt to board the Meteor, suffered damage to a steam pipe which knocked out her propulsion and was forced to retreat into neutral waters under sail, whereupon she came under the protection of Spain once again. Neither ship was permanently disabled, mostly suffering damage to masts and rigging (the Bouvet’s boilers and machinery remaining intact and functioning) and very few killed and injured on either side. The battle was not considered significant by commentators of the day.

Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866 had led to the formation of the North German Confederation the following year and, with it, the transformation of the Royal Prussian Navy into the North German Federal Navy. In the summer of 1867 the navy took possession of the armored frigates Friedrich Carl (6,000 tons, from La Seyne) and Kronprinz (5,800 tons, from Samuda), followed early in 1869 by the 9,800-ton armored frigate König Wilhelm, the former Turkish Fatikh, which the navy had purchased from the Thames Iron Works in 1867 after the sultan defaulted on its contract. Krupp received the artillery contracts for all three ships, having developed all-steel muzzle- loading rifles superior to the latest Armstrong rifled muzzle loaders. 78 Production problems delayed delivery of the first guns until the summer of 1869, prompting the postponement of a scheduled West Indian cruise by the new “armored squadron” until the following summer. In July 1870 the onset of war with France forced another change of plans.

Wishing to complete the process of German unification with a victorious war against the French, Bismarck succeeded in baiting France into declaring war on Prussia on 19 July 1870. As the Prussian army and its allies from the lesser German states mobilized and crossed onto French soil, the north German navy deployed the small ram Prinz Adalbert as harbor watch at Hamburg and concentrated its three armored frigates with the small turret ship Arminius at the new North Sea base of Wilhelmshaven; meanwhile most of the unarmored fleet was dispersed to defend the Baltic coast. The French fleet enjoyed a great superiority over the north German navy. Its 400 warships included seventeen seagoing frigates in the same class with the König Wilhelm, Friedrich Carl, and Kronprinz. French navy leaders pondered attacks on Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, the destruction of merchant shipping, and cooperation with the army in landing troops on the north German coast. But the navy and the army had done little prewar planning for amphibious assaults, and the fleet included too few of the small vessels needed for close coastal operations. In any event, French navy leaders concluded that they could execute landings only on the beaches of the Baltic. Such operations were unthinkable without an alliance with Denmark, which resolved to remain neutral following the Prussian army’s invasion of France in the first days of the war.

Nevertheless, the northern squadron, under Vice Admiral Bouët-Willaumez, moved from the Channel into the Baltic, while the Mediterranean squadron, under Vice Admiral Martin Fourichon, relocated to the North Sea. Together they seized enough merchantmen early in the war to deter German-flagged vessels from venturing out. At the onset of bad weather the French squadrons withdrew to Cherbourg, but by then the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan (2 September 1870) had decided the outcome of the war. After the imperial government gave way to a republic over thirty warships were disarmed, their men and guns put to use ashore in the defense of Paris and other northern cities. Meanwhile, naval units left in the Mediterranean evacuated the French garrison from Rome, abandoning the city to be annexed by Italy. France pursued the war for another five months, sustained in part by American arms shipments that the north German navy could do nothing to stop. The only action beyond European waters came on 9 November 1870, when the 350-ton screw gunboat Meteor, commanded by future admiral Eduard Knorr, engaged the 800-ton dispatch steamer Bouvet in an inconclusive two-hour duel off Havana.

Throughout the war, the north German navy at best annoyed the French. Admiral Prince Adalbert himself underscored the irrelevance of sea power in the Prussian– German strategy by spending the war with the army, as he had in 1866. At the end of the first week of August 1870, Vice Admiral Jachmann took the König Wilhelm, the Kronprinz, the Friedrich Carl, and the Arminius on a sortie all the way to the Dogger Bank but encountered no French warships. The French made their first appearance in the North Sea, off Wilhelmshaven, shortly after Jachmann returned to port. Thereafter, the durable Arminius went out on more than forty sorties while the armored frigates were idled by engine trouble. On 11 September Jachmann finally took all three frigates out on a second squadron sortie, but by then the French already had left for home. After the French navy seized a number of German merchant ships early in the war, Bismarck authorized commerce raiding against the French merchant marine. In November 1870, after most of the French navy had returned home, Captain Johannes Weickhmann took the corvette Augusta to the Atlantic coast of France, where he captured three ships at the mouth of the Gironde in January 1871. The action caused alarm in nearby Bordeaux, then serving as temporary capital of the new Third Republic. With several French armored frigates bearing down on him, Weickhmann took the Augusta to the safety of Vigo in neutral Spain, where it remained blockaded until the war ended. The Augusta’s three prizes were the only French merchantmen taken by the Germans in the war. In comparison, the French navy captured no German warships but seized more than 200 merchantmen, paralyzing German overseas trade for more than half a year.

At its birth the German empire ranked as the foremost military power in Europe, but the negligible role played by the Prussian and the north German navy in the wars of German unification left deep scars on the younger generation of the officer corps. The frustrated young men included Lieutenant Alfred Tirpitz, then 21 years old, who spent most of the Franco-Prussian War at anchor in Wilhelmshaven aboard the König Wilhelm. For Tirpitz, the humiliation of 1870 helped shape his later conviction that Germany must have a fleet capable of offensive action.

Russian Praetorians

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Russian Guards of the 18th Century.

A striking paradox of Peter the Great’s rule is that, despite his many achievements in building a strong Russian state, he failed to establish a reliable mechanism for the transfer of supreme executive power and helped create the conditions for a century of palace coups. In the century after Peter’s death in 1725, army officers were involved constantly in questions of sovereign power, although they never seized power for themselves. The one episode that could have ended with an officer on the throne was the failed Decembrist uprising. In this section I review these instances of military intervention in politics.

The Era of Palace Coups

Peter himself had come to power with the assistance of military officers. Peter was ten years old when his father, Tsar Feodor, died in 1682. Feodor’s sister Sophie, with the aid of Muscovite strel’tsy (musketeers), seized power and declared herself regent. In 1689 Peter organized her overthrow with the help of his so-called play regiments, which later were transformed into elite Guards regiments. An attempted revolt by the strel’tsy in 1698 was crushed and Peter had their units disbanded; many of them were executed. Peter then ruled without challenge until his death in 1725.

In a momentous change before his death, Peter sought to make succession dependent on the wishes of the sitting tsar. Previously the oldest son generally had succeeded, but there was no set mechanism in the absence of an heir. Peter himself was unable to appoint his own successor, however, because he died suddenly in 1725. There were four pretenders to the throne in 1725: Peter’s grandson, his two daughters, and his widow (Peter’s only son, Alexis, had previously been charged with treason and tortured to death). All of the successions in the next century were marked by instability and officer involvement, and there were at least eight coups or attempted coups during this period. The Guards regiments established by Peter played a key role in these events. The most tumultuous period was 1725–1762, during which seven different monarchs occupied the throne. Only with the accession to power of Catherine the Great in 1762 did Russia once again have a stable leadership.

The details of these succession struggles are less important for our purposes than some general points about the role of officers in these conflicts. First, these palace coups involved only a small fraction of the officer corps, elite Guards officers. These officers were members of the Imperial court, and they generally acted at the behest of and on behalf of more powerful members of the court. Second, these elite officers generally acted out of personal motives and grievances, not corporate ones. To the extent that corporate interests were involved, they were those of the Guards, and not the officer corps as a whole. It was only in the late eighteenth century that Guards officers began to see themselves as distinctly military, rather than as members of the broader elite. Third, the Guards officers did not try to seize power for themselves. They remained loyal to the principle of autocracy. Finally, efforts to prevent coups through the use of material incentives, political spies, changing commanders, or creating counterbalancing units were only marginally successful.

Military Parade of Emperor Paul in front of Mikhailovsky Castle painting by Alexandre Benois, taken from the art book World of Art

The last successful military coup in Russia took place in 1801. Tsar Paul I, who had succeeded his mother Catherine the Great to the throne in 1796, was assassinated by a group comprised largely of Guards officers. Paul had alienated the military because of a purge of more than twenty percent of the officer corps, his favoritism toward elite units that he had established, and his adoption of Prussian drill and tactics. Fifty officers were involved in the coup, which made it larger than the palace coups of the eighteenth century. The coup had some support in broader society, particularly among the nobility, who were unhappy with Paul’s efforts to restrict their privileges. Thus, unlike the previous interventions, which were strictly matters of the Imperial court, the intervention of 1801 had broader military and societal support. It also is important to note that Paul I had changed the law on succession, instituting the principle of primogeniture (succession of the oldest son) in 1797. The coup of 1801 was a partial challenge to this effort to establish a stable succession mechanism, although Paul’s eldest son Alexander took his throne. The coup was not a challenge to the principle of autocracy itself.

Under Paul’s erratic rule, certain ukazy were issued to ease the burdens of the peasantry. A decree promulgated in April 1797, for example, laid down that landowners, some of whom exacted five or six days of labor a week from their serfs, should now require them to work only three days; the remaining three days belonged to the serfs for the cultivation of their own lands, and Sunday was for rest. However, it is doubtful this was ever enforced. The serfs had no means of recourse against landowners who ignored it. Paul, eager to limit the power of the upper classes, partially restored the right of the peasants to petition the throne with their grievances. But it was difficult to exercise this right, and landowners could still uproot their peasants and send them to Siberia. As if to negate these limited benefits, Paul insisted that unrest among the peasantry must be dealt with firmly. He issued a manifesto calling on all serfs to obey their masters without question.

At the same time, Paul antagonized the gentry by assailing privileges that Catherine had bestowed. In 1785, she had granted a charter guaranteeing them immunity from corporal punishments, payment of taxes, and deprivation of rank and estates except by judgment of their peers. He did not impose taxes on the gentry, but would “invite” them to contribute to the treasury for special purposes. He also required them to serve in the army. Refusal resulted in disgrace, banishment from court, and more serious punishments – often so savage that they caused severe injury or death. It was not uncommon for Paul, in one of his bouts of temper, to take away an offender’s noble rank – a crushing loss of privilege.

Foreign policy was also subject to Paul’s whims. He had criticized Catherine’s extensive military commitments and had vowed that on ascending the throne he would cancel them. But he was so strongly opposed to the revolutionary movement that he involved Russia in several European squabbles. He joined a coalition against France in 1799. He sent an army under the command of the brilliant Russian General Alexander Suvorov to join with the Austrian forces in northern Italy. But when the Austrians failed to support their allies sufficiently, relations between the two states quickly became strained. The combined armies nevertheless gained several victories in Italy and were preparing to invade France when Suvorov received orders to march on Switzerland without delay. In a feat of remarkable military daring, he led his army over the Alps by way of the St. Gotthard Pass. In Switzerland, however, relations between Russians and Austrians deteriorated further, and in 1800, Paul, angered by Austrian complaints about the disrespectful behavior of the Russian troops, suddenly canceled the accord and recalled Suvorov and his army. He next severed relations with Great Britain, mainly because the British failed to honor their promise to cede the island of Malta. By banning British ships from Russian ports, he inadvertently damaged Russia’s trade. He then joined the new Armed Neutrality with Sweden, Denmark, and Prussia to oppose British sea power, thus bringing Russian trade with its principal customer to an official standstill.

Meanwhile, Paul had reversed his earlier policy with France and decided that Napoleon was a necessary ally. He became enthusiastic about alliance with France, Austria, and Prussia for the purpose of partitioning Turkey and destroying British power. Russia and Britain now came close to war. In January 1801, the tsar formally annexed Georgia, which had been under divided Turkish and Persian suzerainty, and then he ordered a force of 23,000 Cossacks to proceed toward British India, which he dreamed of conquering.

Paul had antagonized the regular army and the gentry, the two main pillars of his throne, to the point where a palace revolution had become almost inevitable. The military governor of St. Petersburg, Count Peter Pahlen, was the leader of the final conspiracy. On March 11, 1801, he and several officers of the guard dined together and then set out for the Mikhailovsky Fortress, which Paul had ordered rebuilt for greater security. The sentries did not hesitate to admit the military governor and the officers with him. They made for the emperor’s bedchamber, but it appeared to be empty. Paul had heard them approaching and had hidden in the chimney of the fireplace, but one of the party noticed his dangling feet. They dragged him out, screaming for mercy. Someone struck him with a gold snuffbox and then strangled him with a scarf.