Caesar’s Army

The Republican period ran from a traditional start date established after the last King of Rome in 509BC and ended after Caesar was assassinated and Augustus became supreme ruler in 31BC. Detailed archaeological and historical evidence for this period of Roman military history is somewhat elusive, but we do have three authors who provide us with some evidence of the structure and behaviour of the early Roman army: Livy, Polybius and, of course, Caesar himself. Their descriptions are good as far as they go, but provide us with only a narrow view of the army of the late Republic. The authors, excepting Caesar, do not provide a contemporary view of Caesar’s army and tend to focus only on an idealized image of the legions, with little or no attention given to other units such as allies or mercenaries. The case is not much better with regard to the archaeological evidence. Here we can find some suitable contemporary evidence for the Roman army of the late Republic, but it is extremely limited, focusing on a few camps in Spain and naturally Alesia. Unfortunately, as most of this data was unearthed over a century ago, even this evidence is patchy. Our understanding of Caesar’s army, therefore, is built from a mix of contemporary and not so contemporary sources, scholarly research and debate.

Clearly Caesar’s legions did not simply spring to life fully formed. While they were raised as complete units, this arrangement came about as part of an inherited system of behaviour. To understand the character of the Caesarean legion it is worth taking a brief look at how the legions developed from their foundation. In reviewing the development of the legion as a whole, some of the relationships between Gaul and Rome will become apparent. The legion, as we understand it, was the consequence of a long period of changes absorbed in the wake of military defeat. Although the Roman legion is now seen as the epitome of military genius, the reality was somewhat different; in fact, Rome’s success as a military power seems to have been due more to its ability to learn from its mistakes. Rome’s brilliance was that it could accept its weaknesses and adopt the successful elements of its enemies, whilst all the time placing these within a structured military system. In due course, the legion developed from the propertied man’s annual obligation to fight to protect his land during the summer months, to the requirement for all males to fight lengthy warfare for a campaigning season (usually March to October) and finally to professional soldiers paid to fight constantly over prolonged periods of many years. This transformation was concurrent with the expansion of Roman territory and the change from the protection of the local community to the requirements for a standing army to protect a vast and diverse Empire.

The armies of early Italy were little more than war-bands of infantry and cavalry, raised by local tribes or princes when required, and fighting when the seasons allowed. Charismatic and powerful men led these bands, the best of which could provide protection for the individual and an opportunity for advancement. It could be argued that these traits were enshrined in the system from this early date, as the patronage of wealthy and powerful leaders can be seen in the armies of Rome throughout its history. Caesar was certainly a general who instilled in his legions personal devotion to him. Finally, the early system of ad hoc recruitment became more standardized, in order to provide a more regular and predictable turnout of men. The first Roman armies consisted of around 3,000 men and were organized on the basis of tribal groups, called a legio or a ‘levying’. Each tribe contributed 100 men towards the total force – the origin of the ‘century’ of Caesar’s legion. The wealthy elites in the tribe were relied upon to supply the cavalry for the army, as only they could afford expensive equipment and horses. This group, the equites or knights, survived as a social group long after their original function had vanished, serving as officers in Caesar’s army. In essence these early armies fought in similar ways to most early European armies of the period. Warrior bands would fight under the command of their local leader in unstructured groupings, while commanders would range around the battle, urging them on to fight and selecting suitable enemy leaders for combat. It is interesting to consider that the Gallic armies Caesar faced were very much on a par with these early Roman armies.

After the Roman Republic began in 509BC, the Roman army became far more formalized, along the hierarchical lines society was taking. Greekstyle Hoplite warfare was the most advanced military tradition at the time and represented a significant advancement on earlier military tactics. In Hoplite warfare, troops fought as a densely packed line of heavily armed spearmen. Cohesion was the key to this style of fighting and so the hierarchical nature of Roman society was replicated in the legion. Only those men with property were allowed to fight, giving the men a sense of duty and an interest in preserving the State. It is worth noting here that Roman citizens were providing the entire range of troop types in the army – a situation that was not to last. As Rome expanded the areas coming under its domination, there also came a necessity for an expanded army. The increased wealth of Rome meant that the number of infantry and cavalry centuries could also be increased.

By the fourth century BC, Rome’s experiences of fighting with the Latin and Gallic tribes had revealed serious weaknesses in the Hoplite form of warfare. The more flexible fighting styles of the Gauls and Samnites often highlighted the sluggish and formulaic nature of Hoplite warfare. To counteract this problem the Romans began to adopt less dense formations, which in turn required a revision of their tactics and equipment. The Roman phalanx was reorganized into fighting formations called maniples – literally ‘handfuls’. The overall result was slowly changing the legions from the rigid defensive formation of the phalanx into a cohesive collection of flexible offensive fighting units. The fourth century BC saw the entire Italian peninsula come under the control of Rome and as the sphere of influence increased, so did the embracing of allied Italian peoples into the Roman army. On campaign it became common for allied soldiers to comprise about the same number of troops as the Roman legionaries. Armed like the legionaries, these allied troops formed up either side of the legions in alae or wings. From this time on, allied or mercenary units came to be a significant feature of the Roman army.

‘On the expedition he [Marius] carefully disciplined and trained his army whilst on their way, giving them practice in long marches, and running of every sort, and compelling every man to carry his own baggage and prepare his own victuals; insomuch that thenceforward laborious soldiers, who did their work silently without grumbling, had the name of Marius’ mules.’

[Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, 13]

The turn of the first century BC saw a significant change in the character of the Roman army. This has often been attributed to just one man, Marius, but this may be somewhat overstated and simplistic. Transformations had been taking place over the course of the previous three centuries, therefore Marius’ role is most likely to have been as a catalyst for the changes already developing. The army was now spending long periods away from home and it was becoming a genuine career choice with the possibility of gaining wealth and land from the proceeds of victory. Previously, the Roman army had been an organized militia, galvanized with discipline and training. Increasingly, the army was becoming more specialized and developing a core of professional soldiers as Roman society became geared for on-going war. Pragmatism was required in the face of the demands put on the army by the ever-expanding areas of land to be controlled. This also resulted in a relaxation of the prescribed requirements for entry to the army, which had gradually been eroded almost as soon as the legion was developed. The acceptance of elements of the non-land owning populace into the army had only been done in extremis before, but now Marius attempted to increase the strength of the army by changing the property requirements for service. He allowed the recruitment of proletarii, the landless citizens of Rome, making the class-based system redundant. The state had for some time been supplying equipment to the army and so standardization was already occurring. Hence by Marius’ time, the army was equipped fairly uniformly and the complex strata exhibited in the previous system was removed. Thus Marius was unwittingly responsible for homogenizing both the equipment and structure of the legions, by allowing the process to become formalized.

In accepting the landless into the army, the State also had to accept the responsibility of arming the legions, which, up until then, had been paid for by the soldiers themselves. After their service these landless soldiers were left to fend for themselves, so while they were in the legions they were willing to follow any charismatic leader that promised them land afterwards. Gradually, a subtle difference in the mind-set of the legions emerged, from a landed militia protecting their own Roman lands, to a professional army dominating annexed foreign provinces. Soldiers began to develop greater loyalty to their generals, identifying with their leaders who, like them, sought personal enrichment rather than seeing the maintenance of the structure of the State as the purpose of their fighting. Individual grants of land and money, distributed after military successes and service, were now becoming commonplace. The politics of the late Republic were becoming ever more competitive, hence in the struggle for advancement senators succumbed to more and more aggressive policies and expansionist pressure. This was the world that Caesar made his own.

Caesar leaves out much of the detail of his army because his audience was well informed about the character of the Roman army of the period. Caesar does tell us that he was using a system of cohorts, a simplified version of the previous maniple system. Marius is thought to have been responsible for the change from maniples to cohorts but it is likely that both systems could have been in place together for a period. When Caesar set out on his Gallic adventure in 58BC the cohort system was well established. Manipular legions were made up of three distinct lines of formation, each one equipped differently and socially differentiated. The cohort legion did away with these equipment complexities, replacing them with a flexible body of similarly armed men. It is likely that the system was introduced to deal with the difficult nature of warfare in Spain. Tactics had to be developed to combat both the Spanish guerrilla warfare and the mountainous character of the landscape. The system retained the three-line formation, with a strengthened rear rank as a reserve.

Caesar formed his legions for battle into what is called a triplex acies formation, being four cohorts in front, with two lines of three cohorts behind. This formation was something of a compromise between being wide enough to form a broad frontage and deep enough to have reserves. The middle cohorts provided the reserve for the front cohorts, while the rear cohorts could be used for outflanking the enemy or if the legion was attacked in the rear. The basic building blocks of the legion were the eighty-man centuries, each one commanded by a centurion. Caesar depicts the centurions as the fundamental glue of his legion, providing harsh discipline and motivational inspiration in equal measures. Six of these centuries would provide a 400-man cohort: this played the role of an individual tactical unit on the battlefield, ten cohorts together forming the legion.

In the last century of the Roman Republic the command of the army was removed from publicly elected consuls. Only after their period of office could they command – a circumstance that had the effect of further breaking the army’s connection to a citizenry. Caesar tells us that most of the legions for his Gallic campaigns were raised during the winter months, when campaigning had ceased. As governor of three provinces, he inherited the four legions that were stationed in them and these could be augmented by further recruitment from the provinces. Initially it seems that Caesar would raise the legion out of his own money, then, after gaining acknowledgment of the unit from Rome, the legion would become the responsibility of the State to maintain. Caesar enlisted troops into the legions of both citizen and part-citizen ‘Latin’ status, thus continuing the process of blurring the qualifications for entry to the legions. By collecting these diverse groups into unified legions, and by exerting direct personal control over them, Caesar was able to place himself as the main focus of the legion’s loyalties, before that of any other – even the State. This meant that his forces were extremely loyal to him: a factor that was to play its role in the subsequent Civil War (49–45BC).

The officers of the legions were not trained. In fact, most received their posts as part of their political career. Six tribunes were placed as middle-ranking officers of the legion and these were generally young and untested men of aristocratic birth, often lacking in initiative or bravery. Caesar chose the tribunes personally, many purely on the basis of political expediency and patronage. Above the tribunes was a quaestor, a junior senator who oversaw an entire province and provided Caesar with finances. Overall control of a legion was placed in the hands of a legatus. Caesar chose a number of legati; usually former tribunes, they were senators from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, but were usually politically motivated choices.

Over the course of the Gallic Campaign, Caesar increased his legions from the four he inherited, to twelve at the height of the fighting for the Alesia Campaign. Thus, Caesar could have had up to 57,600 men at his disposal. However, this number was only the paper strength of the legion, based on around 4,800 men per legion. The actual number would, more likely, be half this amount by the campaigning of late summer 52BC. Battle casualties, infirmity, exhaustion and general wastage from the previous months’ campaigning would all have played a part in reducing this tally to less than 30,000 men at Alesia.

The 30 miles of fortifications – making up the circumvallation and contravallation at Alesia – may seem very large, but when one considers that its construction was divided among almost 30,000 available men, each soldier would only have had to dig around 5 feet of trench and rampart in the six weeks it took to prepare. In this light, the defences do not seem such a superhuman task. In fact, when one considers that it was usual for Roman legionaries to build a camp at the end of the day’s march, the building of these fortifications seems well within the capabilities of the average soldier. In truth, the greater task would have been the logistics of the operation, including the planning, design, organization, supply and implementation of the construction. However, this is where the Roman military machine came into its own. If the defences at Alesia are exceptional, this is only because the management of the army was exceptional and equal to the Herculean task. Motivation to create such an engineering feat was an important factor in Caesar’s army. Infantry training tended to focus on physical ability, including running, jumping, marching and building – clearly necessary for the construction work.

Increasingly, espirt de corps was also encouraged. The legions began to be individualized by number and by name. Added to this, individual legions were picked out by nicknames, often recognizing their exploits, and by use of awards and honours on their banners and standards. This is not to say that the legions were uncritically loyal to their leaders. While the soldiers were made to give oaths of allegiance that imposed legal and religious constraints on them, the Roman army was still prone to revolts and indiscipline was common, mainly over pay or ill treatment. Often rewards would be granted to keep the legionaries content. Caesar would often bestow on his soldiers a promotion as part of the system of rewards, especially for centurions. At Alesia Caesar’s handing over of slaves and booty to his soldiers after the defeat of Vercingetorix is a clear example of this. To this was added the spoils of war, along with donativa, one-off payments made by the general in gratitude of service. After the Alesia Campaign, Caesar decided to double the pay to ensure the loyalty of his soldiers for the coming civil wars.

The remaining archaeological evidence from Alesia is confined to the siegeworks themselves. Roman weapons of the late Republic are scarce throughout Europe, most coming from siege sites in Spain. At Alesia there is surprisingly little in the way of Roman military equipment and this is likely to be due in part to biases in the excavation of material. In the main, archaeologists have focused their attentions on understanding the form of the Roman defences. This means the results have concentrated upon the character of ditches that bordered the Roman circumvallation and contravallation. These, it has been discovered, were filled with javelins and arrowheads, which make up the predominant proportion of the total weapons discovered at Alesia. While some Roman pila (the legionary’s offensive missile) have been found, most of the other weapons are likely to be Gallic in origin. If one considers that the ramparts were mainly the focus of incoming missiles from the Gallic army, then outgoing Roman missiles would have been fired into areas further from the ramparts, where little or no excavation has been undertaken. Similarly, all the swords so far discovered seem to be of Gallic origin, and again this may not be unusual, as Roman weapons would have been retrieved after the battle had finished to be used in future campaigns, whereas Gallic ones would only have been recovered if they were considered valuable.

‘Gaius Sulpicius … commanded those who were in the front line to discharge their javelins, and immediately crouch low; then the second, third, and fourth lines to discharge theirs, each crouching in turn so that they should not be struck by the spears thrown from the rear; then when the last line had hurled their javelins, all were to rush forward suddenly with a shout and join battle at close quarters. The hurling of so many missiles, followed by an immediate charge, would throw the enemy into confusion.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars, 1]

Archaeological evidence shows that the panoply of equipment of the Roman soldier differed only in detail from that of the better-equipped Gallic warriors – sword, long shield, helmet, mail armour and spear. Nevertheless, their appearance was different enough for one soldier to comment that soldiers in the distance were not Roman because of their ‘Gallic weapons and crests’. The Romans’ equipment wasn’t the only thing that was different from the Gauls; their fighting techniques varied too. After throwing their pila, the legionaries would engage the enemy adopting a crouching stance and using a juxtaposition of punches with the shield boss and stabs with a sword. It is evident from sculptural and archaeological evidence that the majority of Roman legionaries were equipped to fight in this style, with heavy armour and equipment. A large number of weapons have been found at Alesia, almost 400 in total, 140 of which are either javelins or spears. Unfortunately, these could be either of Roman, Gallic or German origin. Some of the spearheads must be Roman but it is unclear which, as leaf-shaped spearheads were a common form used across Europe at the time. However, using other sources of evidence, we can piece together a picture of Caesar’s legionaries. In the late Republic the average legionary would have a decorative tall bronze helmet with a short neck guard and large cheek pieces, a derivative of Gallic styles. The form was called ‘Montefortino type’ and was sometimes enhanced with horsehair or feather trappings. These decorative helmets were beginning to be replaced by a more easily produced, plain style of helmet called a ‘Coolus’ or ‘Buggenum-type’ helmet. It is likely that both types were in use at Alesia. In general, legionaries would wear a mail coat that reached nearly to the knees, which was hitched up with a military belt. Some sculptures suggest that these coats could have further mail reinforcing on the shoulders. Pieces of chest fastenings from these mail coats have been found at Alesia. However, as the Gauls were the inventors of this form of defensive equipment, defining whether these fittings are Gallic or Roman is very difficult. All legionaries would also carry a long curved wooden shield, strengthened by a vertical central spine and which had a small bronze boss covering the handgrip. On a legionary’s belt there would have been a stabbing sword on the right hip and a long dagger on the left. Both these weapons seem to be copied from types common in Spain.

‘[Caesar’s] … soldiers, hurling their javelins from the higher ground, easily broke the enemy’s phalanx. That being dispersed, they made a charge on them with drawn swords. It was a great hindrance to the Gauls in fighting, that, when several of their shields had been by one stroke of the pila pierced through and pinned fast together, as the point of the iron had bent itself, they could neither pluck it out, nor, with their left hand entangled, fight with sufficient ease; so that many, after having long tossed their arm about, chose rather to cast away the shield from their hand, and to fight with their person unprotected.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, I. 25]

The one piece of the legionary’s equipment that can be directly attributed to Roman invention was his primary offensive weapon, the pilum. Pila were a form of spear with a long thin metal shaft and a small pointed head. Although pila are a Roman invention, examples of similar types of weapons were also developed in Gallic and German contexts. Among the huge number of missile weapons found at Alesia, pila are the predominant Roman weapons evident. Up until recently, only fragments of pila were discovered, mainly coming from the foot of Mont Réa. But in 1991 a complete example of a Roman pilum was discovered in Fort Eleven. The examples from Alesia are characterized by long thin shanks and points that come in pyramidal, leaf-shaped or lance-shaped forms. There are different ways in which pila were connected to the wooden shaft: some were connected by a socket that fitted over the shaft and was riveted to it; other pila shafts had a wide tongue that was sandwiched between the shaft and riveted in place. A final type had a pointed tang that was driven into the shaft and secured by a collar. Usually, a round shaft was used for the socketed and collared pila, whereas a square shaft was used for the tongued versions. It is likely that the socketed pilum was lighter than the tanged pilum, this is because the tanged pilum was often weighted to provide extra penetration on impact. After his excavations at Alesia, Napoleon III had replica pila made and tested. The results showed that the reconstructed examples could be launched 30m and penetrate wood 3cm thick. Heavier pila were weighted with lead and could have been thrown up to 70m. It is likely, therefore, that pila were thrown at the Gauls before they entered the defences of the circumvallation and contravallation at Alesia.

The equipment available for use by the legionary was extensive and the legionary himself carried much of it. The requirement that legionaries carry all their equipment is attributed to Marius: hence the term ‘Marius’ mules’, although the likelihood is that this is a misattribution. The soldiers had always been required to carry their equipment, a regulation that was regularly flouted. It is likely that Marius simply reinforced a standing regulation in an attempt to make the soldiers more self-reliant and less reliant on a baggage train – part of creating a professional army. Vegetius suggests up to 60 pounds of equipment should be carried during training and Josephus claims each soldier carried a saw, a basket, an axe, a pick, a strap, a billhook, a length of chain and three days’ rations. The rest of a soldier’s equipment, his tents and so on, were carried with the baggage. Along with this equipment, the Roman army took with it large numbers of servants and slaves, who were usually not armed but had sufficient knowledge of tactics to be of use. Sometimes these groups were added to the regular army to give the impression of a larger force than was actually available, such as at Gergovia, where they were mounted on horses to look like cavalry. Merchants and camp followers would also be part of the train, providing services that would otherwise be unattainable in foreign countries. Large numbers of followers and baggage had the tendency to slow the column on marches and so attempts were made to reduce these numbers. One way of reducing the reliance on camp followers was the local requisition of supplies and the creation of storage bases along the route of march. In Gaul, where Vercingetorix had instigated a scorched earth policy, this was impossible to maintain and so it is likely Caesar had more followers than he would have wished to have.

The legions also took on campaign with them numbers of artillery pieces. These could be used aggressively, either in open battles and sieges to provide preparatory fire, or defensively to protect camps and siegeworks. Roman artillery comprised various sizes of ballista (sometimes called a catapulta or catapult). The ballista was a torsion catapult that used two twisted skeins of hair or tendons to provide energy for a string that fired projectiles. The ballista was built in various sizes that fired anything from small crossbow-sized bolts to large cannonball-sized stones. Parts of ballistae occur occasionally on archaeological sites. At Alesia three bolt heads were discovered, betraying the presence of ballista there. Ballista would allow Caesar to cover most of the regions outside his defences with a combination of fire from the hills surrounding the defences and the ramparts of the circumvallation. The larger engines were probably fixed in place once built and reserved for siege work, whereas the smaller artillery was often broken down and moved on pack mules, but could also be erected on carts or wheels (carroballista) to make them mobile on the battlefield.

Caesar´s Germanic Cavalry

Caesar’s Allies

‘It was the practice of the Romans to make foreign friends of any people for whom they wanted to intervene on the score of friendship, without being obliged to defend them as allies.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

Throughout the Republican period, Rome relied heavily on its allies for additional infantry and cavalry forces to make up for a lack of manpower. In some cases these were specialist fighters recruited on an ad hoc basis and in varying strengths from the locality. More important were the allied light troops who were drawn from Mediterranean regions Rome had long been in contact with and with whom they had the closest relations. These troops were customarily raised for the duration of a campaign, which sometimes led the Romans themselves to questions their allies’ quality and commitment. Allied formations were usually under the control of an individual unit’s chief, and were armed, equipped and fought in the particular unit’s traditional style.

Usually the allied contingent of the Roman army was of equal or larger size than the legionary force and was usually formed along Roman lines. Units regularly seem to have been about 500 or 1,000 strong and broken down into either six or ten centuries. These could be arraigned with the main army in the centre of the Roman line or placed on both wings. Sometimes the more lightly armoured allied contingents were mixed with the heavier armed legionaries to prevent the allies from being picked off. Along with the heavily armed troops, many of the allies provided specialist light infantry troops, such as archers and slingers. These units are likely to have been dressed according to their ethnic origin, although there is no definitive evidence of which units were at Alesia. Over forty arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia and it is thought that some of the Roman forms of arrows with one and two barbs are likely to have been used by allied Roman troops. Roman arrows were manufactured from iron and were up to 7.8cm long and 2.5cm wide. Tests of reconstructed bows suggest they would have had a maximum range of around 300m, and so they would be able to fire at the Gauls beyond even the deepest of Caesar’s defences. Slings were also used and a number of examples of slingshot come from Alesia, most notably three with inscriptions on them. Reconstructed slingshots have shown a range of up to 400m, easily enough to provide covering fire from any of the hilltops around Alesia into the valleys below.

Throughout his campaigns in Gaul Caesar does not define the constitution of his cavalry and so we cannot be certain about their number or ethnicity. It is likely that at least some of the cavalry at Alesia were Roman. At the beginning of the conflict, Caesar was also able to call upon friendly Gallic tribes to provide him with Gallic cavalry and these were employed as warriors, as well as scouts, guides, interpreters and messengers. However, Caesar had always considered them unreliable, a belief which was confirmed once Vercingetorix rebelled and Caesar lost the majority of his Gallic troops to his rival. Some must have been retained however, if only in an intelligence role, but by the beginning of the Alesia Campaign Caesar was forced to employ new cavalry in the form of German mercenaries.

‘Caesar, as he perceived that the enemy were superior in cavalry, and he himself could receive no aid from The Province or Italy, while all communication was cut off, sends across the Rhine into Germany to those states which he had subdued in the preceding campaigns, and summons from them cavalry and the light-armed infantry, who were accustomed to engage among them. On their arrival, as they were mounted on unserviceable horses, he takes horses from the military tribunes and the rest, nay, even from the Roman knights and veterans, and distributes them among the Germans.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 65]

Caesar tells us that the bulk of the German mercenaries were cavalrymen. Evidence for Germanic cavalry in the archaeological record at Alesia is slight; this is partially because German weapons are hard to distinguish due to their similarity with Gallic weapons. One shield boss with a central projecting stud is almost certainly German, given its similarities to later German bosses. Bones of horses coming from the ditches discovered at the foot of Mont Réa have been identified as coming from a male horse of no more than three years old. These bones may represent the well-bred young stallions given to the German cavalry. If this is correct, the evidence would conform well to the German cavalry attack on this region. Recent interpretation suggests that these horse remains may have been deliberately buried in the ditches, not simply to cover them up, but in a form of sacrificial burial. It was the Gallic custom to bury sacrifices in the peripheral ditches of sanctuaries. In Gallic eyes, the circumvallation ditch may have been associated with the practice of ritual sacrifice in these periphery ditches after the defeat.

‘There is not even any great abundance of iron, as may be inferred from the character of their weapons. Only a very few use swords or lances. The spears that they carry – framea is the native word – have short and narrow heads, but are so sharp and easy to handle, that the same weapon serves at need for close or distant fighting.’

[Tacitus, Germania, VI]

Along with the cavalry, the Germans are described as using spearmen who mingled with the mounted troops. This tactic may explain the successes of the German cavalry during the Alesia Campaign. Tacitus tells us that German warriors were lightly armed, the cavalry often having only a spear and shield. The infantry were armed in a similar manner, with the addition of a number of small javelins. All the Germans were dressed lightly with few wearing armour or helmets. Some even fought completely naked. In the main, German warriors wore breeches and large cloaks that would be draped over their shoulders in regional style. Their clothing was manufactured in simple colours and patterns, the only ostentatious part of their dress being elaborate knotted hairstyles. These varied from tribe to tribe and so identified each warrior as the member of a particular clan, a practice that had continued for hundreds of years.

‘[The Germans are] … a people who excelled all others, even the largest men, in size; savage, the bravest of the brave, despising death because they believe they shall live hereafter, bearing heat and cold with equal patience, living on herbs in time of scarcity, and their horses browsing on trees. It seems that they were without patient endurance in their battles, and did not fight in a scientific way or in any regular order, but with a sort of high spirit simply made an onset like wild beasts, for which reason they were overcome by Roman science and endurance.’

[Appian, History of Rome, 3]

Caesar tells us that the River Rhine marks the border between the Gallic peoples to the south and the Germans to the north. German warriors were famed for their physique, size and fearlessness – attributes which in Roman eyes made them appear as savages. Like the Gauls, the Romans had a stereotype for the Germans, who were seen as brutish to the point of indifference to death (a recurrent image even up until the present). As ever, the reality was very different; the German peoples had as complex a society as any other of the period. There were close affinities between Celtic peoples and Germans, in art, religion and culture. An innate conservatism meant that German tribes were slow to change and reduced access to resources seems to have meant that their technologies were less advanced than in Gaul. What they lacked in technology the Germans made up for in vigour. It was this trait that so impressed Caesar in his brief excursion across the Rhine into Germany – a trait that was to put to great use during the Alesia Campaign.

Frederick the Great and Berlin

August Niegelssohn – View of the Schlossplatz in the Era of Frederick the Great, 1787

August Niegelssohn – View of Berlin in the Era of Frederick the Great, 1787

Death wields his scythe in every corner of the globe. Cannae, the Somme and Stalingrad claimed him as their own. Hiroshima gave him his busiest single day. Siberia’s gulags provided him with decades of regular employment. Both Genghis Khan and Mao Zedong worked him to the bone for a generation all across Asia. But over the centuries it is to Berlin that he has most often returned.

He was present in its earliest days when waves of Teutons, Huns and Slavs fought each other on the marshy plains. He picked them off one by one along with the Wends, the Slavic people who settled on the sandy riverbank in the seventh century, and who named it Berl after the Polabian word for swamp. He stalked their heathen wilderness as it resisted Holy Roman emperors and later Polish kings, making the Mark Brandenburg – das Land in der Mitte – one of the last parts of Europe to be Christianised.

Year after year Death visited through famine, plague and robber barons who tormented the provincial backwater until it all but drained away into the poor, unproductive soil. He marched alongside the Habsburg and Swedish armies as they scattered dismembered bodies on its muddy streets during the Thirty Years’ War. Over those heinous decades, he saw more than half the settlement’s population burnt alive, boiled in oil or simply bound with willow switches and tossed into the river. Thousands were lost to typhoid, their nostrils filled with the stench of their own rotting flesh. By 1638 Berlin had been reduced to only 845 houses, less than half the previous number. Old Cölln was totally destroyed. Death gathered up the broken settlers and abandoned souls, held them as they wept, and heard them cry out in despair for a strong leader.

In 1640 their prayers were answered with the accession of an austere and ambitious despot. Frederick William, a Hohenzollern elector and descendant of the wealthy burgrave of Nuremberg, was determined that Brandenburg-Prussia would never again be devastated by marauding armies. He harnessed its survivors’ fear to transform the devastated borderland. He built massive new fortifications around their hungry hovels and branded Berlin with his Calvinist industry. The city expanded to the south and west, spartan Friedrichstadt rising on stilts and stakes on the boggy ground, with 300 uniform, two-storey houses completed in its first year. Within two decades the neighbourhood boasted 12,000 souls. Along Wilhelmstraße aristocrats and royal ministers like Samuel von Marschall, a descendant of Scottish nobles, sited their palatial manor houses.

In return for growth and stability, the Hohenzollerns demanded total deference to their authority, and the still-traumatised Berliners whispered not a word of complaint. They devoted themselves to duty – without question, with tireless labour – and were forged into a disciplined people at arms.

‘A ruler is of no consideration if he does not have adequate means and forces of his own,’ the Great Elector wrote in his Political Testament. ‘That alone has made me – thank God for it – a force to be reckoned with.’

By the start of the eighteenth century Berlin – now ruled by Frederick William’s fanatic grandson, the ‘Soldier King’ – had grown into a great garrison. It was the capital of Prussia, the state built by an army. Its youth were conscripted, issued with uniforms, marched in step to cutting-edge weaponry factories over the now solid-stone Langebrücke. Eighty per cent of the kingdom’s revenue was spent on its fighting men and armouries. The Soldier King also reformed the civil service along military lines, prescribing the exact duties of public servants with minute precision. A minister who failed to attend a committee meeting lost six months’ pay. If he absented himself a second time, he was discharged from service. Absolute obedience was demanded of every man.

Along pristine, battalion-wide avenues soldiers saluted baton-wielding officers, trooped across cobbled parade grounds, breathed in air which reeked of gunpowder and discipline. Martial music echoed down the orderly lanes, into ranked houses scrubbed and cleaned as if for morning inspection. Every noon on Schlossplatz a bizarre troop of giant Potsdam Grenadiers – recruited or kidnapped from across Europe for their size – drilled for the Soldier King’s pleasure. ‘The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me but tall soldiers, they are my weakness,’ he told the French ambassador.

He never started a war, but war – and the phobic preparation for it – became the obsession of his dutiful and brutish capital of absolutism.


The Soldier King’s three sons were to be raised as soldiers, awoken at dawn by cannon fire, trained in the fifty-four movements of the Prussian drill code. The first boy died at his christening when a crown was forced on his oversized head. The second child had life shocked out of him by the roar of guns fired too close to his cradle. The only surviving son was a thin and delicate rebel.

Prince Frederick had enormous blue eyes and a sensitive disposition, to his father’s despair. To toughen him up, the king knocked him about. He beat him for jumping off a bolting horse. He whipped him for wearing gloves in wet weather. One wild winter night, when the wind howled in from Russia and a pitcher of drinking water froze at the dinner table, he ordered him to stand guard outside the palace. The child took to hiding under his mother’s bed.

Young Frederick’s education was strict and unimaginative, focused on mathematics, politics and warfare, bereft of literature and Latin. Why study the ancients, barked the Soldier King, as the Romans had been beaten by the Germanic race?

‘The Prince is to rise at six,’ dictated the king. ‘As soon as he has his slippers on he shall kneel at the bed and say a short prayer to God loud enough for all present to hear. Then speedily and with all dispatch he shall dress and wash himself, be queued and powdered; and getting dressed as well as breakfast – tea, which is to be taken while the valet is making his queue and powdering him – shall be finished and done in a quarter of an hour, that is, by a quarter past six.’

To instil in him love for the military, the Soldier King gave Frederick – at the age of six – a regiment of 131 children to drill. The Crown Prince Cadets were reviewed by the visiting Russian Tsar and the King of England. When he was fourteen years old, he was put in charge of the giant Potsdam Grenadiers.

Frederick called his uniform his shroud. He craved a world beyond the parade ground yet conformed for fear of unleashing his father’s rages. On clear summer nights he escaped into the palace gardens and lay on his back on the damp grass beneath the stars. Once he spotted the Great Bear and, taking aim with a pistol, fired at the beast in his fury, imagining the shot travelling across the Milky Way to strike its flank.

Frederick began to find other worlds through books. With his tutor’s help he assembled in secret his own Wunderkammer, a rich library almost wholly in French. He sat for hours in his window seat memorising Aristotle, Rabelais and Bossuet. He lingered over a thin folio of courtly lyrics, written three centuries earlier by an unknown hand, and revelled in the literary joys of summer, love and young voices rising in song. He composed poetry as well as copious letters to family and friends. While overlooking the parading officers’ plumes and the Marienkirche, he also penned essays on armed aggression and the state of Europe. Germany was fatally divided into small states, he observed; the Thirty Years’ War had been its weakest moment; Russia was in perpetual chaos; England – though rich and happy – had produced no notable painter, sculptor or musician.

As the Soldier King shamed condemned prisoners by dressing them in French clothes at the gallows, his son dreamt of being a poet in Paris or a troubadour. Young Frederick hid away his love of the arts, marching to drum beats by day, practising the flute in his locked room at night.

At the age of fifteen he was deeply confused and frustrated. His heart burst with desire, his mind sparked with curiosity, yet his life was shaped by violence, rigidity and duty. His first foreign trip fed his hunger. He travelled with his father to Saxony, the wealthiest and most scandalous German state at the time. In Dresden Frederick enjoyed plays, opera and a woman. He became infatuated with the Countess Anna Karolina, who was both a daughter and a lover of their host Augustus the Strong. Augustus – who had no aversion to incest – collected beautiful women much as the Soldier King amassed marching giants. Over the course of his life he sired 355 children.

Augustus could not resist tempting the Soldier King and his love-struck son. During a tour of the palace, a curtain was drawn aside to reveal a waiting, naked courtesan. The Prussian King puffed and fussed and excused himself from the bedroom so Augustus, having observed the Crown Prince’s reaction, offered him the woman – in place of the Countess. Frederick may or may not have accepted the offer, but he did not give up Anna Karolina – at first.

On his return to Berlin Frederick found love of another kind. Hans Hermann von Katte was a young aristocrat, charming and handsome with high forehead and smooth, blond hair tied with a black bow. The two young men became inseparable and, like star-crossed lovers, hatched a plan to flee the barrack room for England. On the eve of their flight Katte stood on the threshold of Frederick’s bedchamber, his foot against the door as if to hold it open, their faces so close that they felt the other’s breath on their cheeks.

A wild white moon rode in the sky that night and the air felt fresh and free. But the young men were betrayed. In his fury the Soldier King imprisoned his son, and forced him to watch his friend beheaded. Death plucked love away and Frederick collapsed into a two-day faint, his soul seared by the trauma, empathy driven from his heart.


Frederick was said to like women only while taking his pleasure, afterwards he despised them. In 1733 he married Elisabeth-Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a Protestant relative of the Habsburgs. He ‘paid his tribute to Hymen’ and then – with no heir forthcoming – detached himself from his wife, making only a single formal visit to her each year, for coffee.

All his closest confidants were male. After Katte’s execution he embraced his soldier servant Fredersdorf, who would serve him until his death. He befriended a debauched Scot named Keith, an Englishman called Guy Dickens and the flautist Quantz. The Venetian coxcomb Francesco Algarotti was an especial favourite. After his wedding Frederick had written to him, ‘My fate has changed – I await you with impatience – don’t leave me to languish.’ In private the Crown Prince draped himself in an embroidered velvet robe, ruffled his hair like a Gallic dilettante and played his flute for friends with tears in his eyes. None were blind to his need to be noticed, to his appetite for fame.

In a report to London the British ambassador called Frederick’s friends ‘the he-muses’, noting that females were banned from approaching his court. One night the Soldier King swooped on the clubby boys like a black bear, throwing their robes and volumes of romantic poetry onto the fire.

Music became Frederick’s other means of escape, enabling him to hold back the shadows, helping to fill the bitter emptiness in his heart. It also thawed his icy self-control and brought solace from his father’s unpredictable temper. The Soldier King’s disregard for the arts appalled him. Before his birth, court intellectuals had been dubbed ‘dog food’. A jester had been appointed to run the Berlin Academy, which was then closed to save money.

In 1740, when his father died, Frederick set about making Berlin a cockpit of ideas and music. He reopened the Academy, inviting the French philosopher Maupertuis to be its president. He extended the old Schloss to rival Versailles. He built an Opera House, redesigned the Tiergarten, ejecting its last squatters, and modelled the Gendarmenmarkt on Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, flanked by the graceful French and German cathedrals.

His crowning construction was Sanssouci, an intimate, pink and white rococo pleasure palace above Potsdam’s cascading terraces. He filled its colonnades and gilded halls with books, artefacts, dancers and thinkers. He walked his beloved Italian greyhounds in its stately grounds, seemingly at peace with the world. Every night at 10 p.m. there was a concert in the Round Room. One evening he and Bach made music together, the king giving him a theme and asking for its composition into a fugue in six parts. He invited Voltaire to take up residence in the study.

Voltaire was the master wit of the century. Since childhood Frederick had admired him, claiming to champion his humanist ideals, devouring his plays, novels and essays. The two men became correspondents. Frederick asked him to review his essays and erotic poems (‘The love which joins them heats their kisses,/And leaves them ever closer entwined./Heavenly lust! Ruler of the world!’). He tried to lure him to Berlin for more than a decade. In 1750 his persistence paid off, helped by the offer of an annual salary of 20,000 francs.

In the years before the French Revolution Voltaire believed that only an enlightened monarch could bring social change to Europe. His distrust of democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses, pleased his all-powerful host. Both men considered plebeians to be ‘crows’ that pecked at patrician ‘eagles’, to borrow from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The common man needed to be kept in his place. Voltaire invested his political hopes in Frederick, moving to the capital, editing the king’s six-volume Art de la Guerre, dazzling Berlin’s dinner table conversation, debating questions of civil liberties late into the night.

Prussians looked forward to a new, enlightened age. They believed that Frederick was a man of peace, an intellectual, a lover of music and poetry. ‘Peace cannot fail to make art and science flourish’, he assured them. On his grand European tour Boswell wrote that Berlin ‘was the most beautiful city I have seen’.

But the capital was already a place where true identities were hidden behind masks. The young king was determined to use his inheritance ‘to acquire a reputation’, as he put it. His father had bequeathed him both a robust military and a cold, calculating heart. In his most ruthless and creative moment, he marched the country to war.


In those years Germany – ‘the battlefield on which the struggle for mastery of Europe is fought’, according to the philosopher Leibniz – was still a mishmash of more than 300 divided states and principalities. Prussia and Austria were its biggest rivals. When the old Habsburg emperor died leaving no male heir, Frederick spurred Berlin’s metamorphosis from prey to predator.

‘Having, as is well known, interests in Silesia, I propose to take charge of it and keep it for the rightful owner,’ he announced. He took Austria’s wealthiest province in seven weeks, twisting Prussia’s neurotic defensiveness into naked aggression. He seized its mines and wheat fields, abandoned his allies, shocked Europe with his gall.

He learnt the art of warfare on the hoof, leading brazen attacks, earning a reputation as the most fearless commander of the age. Risk-taking made up for his inexperience, as did his care for no one. Frederick was ‘full of fire … quick to pounce and take advantage of foibles … with no heart whatever,’ bemoaned a defeated general. ‘Your Majesty, do you want to take that battery on your own?’ an aide called to him as he led yet another cavalry charge, fighting as if he had nothing to lose.

On sleepless nights before an attack, for over twenty embattled years, Frederick soothed himself by composing poetry and reading Racine.

In 1756 the Austrians – joined by Russia and France – sought revenge and attempted to squash the treacherous upstart. Frederick answered them by seizing fickle Saxony and laying siege to Prague. He was beaten back, retreated to his books, then advanced again to Rossbach near Leipzig, where he inflicted another humiliating defeat on his enemies.

For a year the tide turned against him. Silesia changed hands, a vital convoy of 4,000 supply wagons was captured and Frederick had to borrow money from England (London wanted to keep the Continentals fighting among themselves to check French ambitions in North America). Tens of thousands of his troops were butchered on the battlefields, paying for his cold ambition with their limbs and lives. Advancing Russians terrorised East Prussia, tales of their appalling atrocities preceding them to the capital as they would at the end of the Second World War.

But in 1762 the Russian Tsarina died and – in what became known as a Miracle of the House of Brandenburg – her successor, mad Peter III, ordered his troops to change sides and put themselves under Frederick’s command. The Austrian alliance collapsed. The Habsburgs would never regain their lost territories. France surrendered the Rhineland to Frederick and Quebec to the British. Prussia, alone on the Continent, emerged victorious. As Voltaire wrote, the audacious Berliner changed the destiny of Europe.

On horseback Frederick circled the old walls, reluctant to enter the city, mortified by its ruin again. He skirted the deserted cattle market – once Berlin’s Tyburn and ‘devil’s pleasure park’, soon to be renamed Alexanderplatz after the Tsar’s grandson – and the walled gardens of Friedrichstadt. Along its wrecked streets he found only wretched orphans and gutted buildings. In the broad Achteck parade ground at the Potsdam Gate – where Potsdamer Platz would rise one day – a lone, pony-tailed, temple-shaved fire juggler spat plumes of flame into the air and begged for coins. ‘More fire, my lord?’ he called through blackened hands on seeing the king. ‘Do you want more fire?’

Frederick spiralled around the Fischerkiez’s broken boats and trampled gardens, by his dark Court Opera and the baroque Zeughaus artillery armoury, with its stone busts of agonised warriors, and into the Schloss courtyard, hardly lifting his head. War was ‘a cruel thing’, he wrote by candlelight in the cursed and battered palace. ‘Nobody who has not seen it with his own eyes can have any idea of it. I believe now that the only happy people on earth are those who love nobody.’

But what are the tears of heart-sick kings and widows if the state has been saved? he then asked in his essay Discours sur la Guerre. Frederick set about rebuilding his capital and nation. He gave 35,000 army horses to peasant farmers. He enticed skilled refugees to settle in the restored neighbourhoods. He commissioned new buildings with straight lines and in pure tones to emphasise order, precision and strength. To feed the growing population he encouraged the cultivation of potatoes, ordering that selected fields be planted with them, and sentries stationed around the perimeter. Word was spread that the potatoes were for the king’s table only, but the guards were told to ‘look through their fingers’ and not apprehend trespassers. With their hard-earned instinct for survival, his hungry, plebeian ‘crows’ stole into the fields, unearthed the royal tubers and replanted them on their own land.

Finally in league with Russia, Frederick resumed making war, pushing his territory beyond Silesia into Poland, eating its undefended provinces ‘like an artichoke, leaf by leaf’. By 1786 he linked Prussia’s scattered, conquered parts together into a unified state.

At the end of his life, with his tattered uniform patched and stained by snuff, Old Fritz was feared more than loved. Neither thunderstorm nor hailstorm was said to be as terrifying as the ‘honour’ of the king’s visit. He was isolated, alone and friendless, and no longer bothered with the pretence of humanism. Yet in their dread of disorder, in their fear of ever again being sucked into the vortex, Berliners allowed him – as other leaders before and after him – to direct and dominate their lives.


In 1806 – two decades after Frederick’s death – Napoleon captured Prussia’s capital, having destroyed its army at Jena and Auerstedt. Astride his white charger, the new emperor rode through the Brandenburg Gate, glowering from under his hat at the defeated Berliners. At the Garrison Church, he stood beside Frederick’s tomb. ‘Hats off, gentlemen,’ Napoleon told his fellow officers. ‘If he were still alive, we would not be here.’

The French Revolution had shattered the old hierarchical ways. The Ancien Régime had collapsed and its King Louis XVI had been executed. In most of Europe and America, citizens had rejected authoritarianism and put their faith in reason and progress.

But not in Berlin. German obedience – as well as faith in absolutism – had been fixed by the trauma of the Thirty Years’ War and by the egotistical Hohenzollerns. For all his learning and debates with Voltaire, and his lip-service to radical ideas, Frederick had isolated his country from the full flowering of the Enlightenment.

Frederick had created Prussia by binding together the disconnected Hohenzollern lands. As Napoleon’s troops stripped his palaces of their wealth, carrying away sculptures, paintings and a folio of medieval songs, passers-by heard the airs of a flute echo over Schlossplatz. Berliners remembered the lost king’s music and – humiliated by the French occupation – grew nostalgic for the old certainties. Then, instead of embracing tolerance and universal brotherhood, they filled the vacuum in their lives with nationalism. Frederick wrote:

Tadelt nie die Taten der Soldaten,

Leuten, die da sterben sollen,

Sollt ihr geben was sie wollen,

Lasst sie trinken, lasst sie küssen,

Denn wer weiß, wie bald sie sterben müssen.

Never criticise the acts of soldiers,

Those men who are destined to die,

Give them all that they wish,

Let them drink, let them kiss,

For who knows how soon they must die.

Fort Douaumont is modernized

The task of modernizing the Verdun forts began in 1887 with Fort Douaumont, whose prime position protected the approaches to the city from the north and east and, in particular, from Metz. It was a gigantic task. The earth covering was first removed and the masonry was strengthened with pillars and concrete supports before being covered by a buffer of sand approximately one metre thick. Then, using for the first time a ‘continuous pour’ process, a thick layer of special concrete was poured on top of the sand. The eastern side of the barracks, some of the artillery bunkers and the tunnel into the barracks from the main entrance were covered with one and a half metres of concrete. The western side of the barracks and the remaining artillery bunkers, which were intended to form a strong ‘keep’ or redoubt for last ditch defence, received a covering two and a half metres thick. After completion, the whole of the concrete carapace was covered with a layer of earth between one and four metres deep. In 1888 a thick layer of special concrete was also applied to the open southern façade of the barracks. All in all, between April 1887 and November 1888 the work of strengthening Fort Douaumont required approximately 28,000 cubic metres of concrete and a team of some sixty construction workers.

To protect Fort Douaumont further, earth was banked up around the lower floor of the barrack block, covering it completely and effectively burying half the fort. The upper floor was now at ground level. To make the ditch less vulnerable to bombardment, the scarp wall was replaced by a sloping earth bank. To defend the ditch, strong, concrete galleries were constructed in the counterscarp, facing the fort itself. Armed with revolver guns and light cannon and later with searchlights, these galleries – single at the northern corners but double at the apex of the fort – were designed to sweep with enfilading fire any enemy who managed to penetrate into the ditch. Connected to the barracks by long underground tunnels, the counterscarp galleries could be reinforced regardless of enemy fire. The original gateway was scrapped and a new entrance – an independent blockhouse protected by double flanking galleries and a drawbridge – was constructed in the gorge (south) side of the fort. From the blockhouse a tunnel ran under the rampart to an entrance on the lower floor of the fort.

The armament of the fort

The original plan for the armament of Fort Douaumont had provided for twenty guns mounted on the parapet but the revolution in high explosives and artillery in the 1880s meant that henceforward guns had to be protected if they were to remain operational at all times. As a first step, ten of the guns were dispersed in batteries outside the fort but the introduction of steel-reinforced concrete in 1897 made it possible to construct shell proof gun positions in the fort itself.

The first protected guns at Fort Douaumont were installed in 1902-1903 in a new type of strong concrete bunker known, from the experimental range on which it was first tested, as a Bourges Casemate (Casemate de Bourges). Embedded in the southwest corner of the superstructure and shielded from direct fire by a long wall forming a protective wing, this bunker was strengthened with a layer of concrete almost two metres thick. It was armed with two quick-firing 75mm field guns installed in two chambers placed in echelon, whose embrasures allowed for fire in one direction only. The fixed guns, which had a range of 5,500 metres, were sited so as to cover the southwestern approach to the fort and to cover with flanking fire the defensive works situated along the ridge between Fort Douaumont and the Ouvrage de Froideterre. An observation post and magazines completed the installation.

The construction of the Bourges Casemate marked the beginning of the period that turned Fort Douaumont into a modern, armoured fort of enormous strength. Between 1902 and 1913, further armament was provided in the form of guns housed in retractable steel turrets of very advanced design which, by rotating through 360°, covered all the approaches to the fort. The turrets were activated by a vertical movement that raised them into the firing position and lowered them again once the gun had ceased firing. Raising the turret exposed the gun embrasures and allowed the guns inside to fire. When retracted, the guns were hidden from view and entirely protected by a steel dome which, in the case of the bigger turrets, was strong enough to withstand even direct hits by the heaviest shells. The turret was set in a reinforced concrete unit that also housed the activating machinery, magazine, replacement guns and range-finding equipment. Each one was coupled with an observation post protected by a dome of steel twenty-five centimetres thick and connected to the gun by speaking tube or telephone.

Four such turrets were installed in Fort Douaumont and linked to the barracks by underground tunnels. Two lighter models housed twin eight millimetre Hotchkiss machine guns that were mounted one above the other and fired alternately to avoid overheating. Intended for the close defence of the fort, the machine guns were installed at the northeast and northwest corners of the superstructure where the visibility was best. On the eastern side of the fort a short-barrelled 155mm gun capable of firing three rounds a minute over a range of 7,500 metres protected the vital north and northeast fronts. An armoured observation post at the entrance to the turret communicated with it through a speaking tube while another some distance away communicated with the gun crew by telephone. Twin short-barrelled 75mm guns housed in a similar turret in the escarpment to the north completed the armament. The 75mm guns, which together were capable of firing more than twenty two rounds a minute over a range of 5,500 metres, were intended to sweep the intervals between the forts. Their considerable firepower more than compensated for the dispersion of the remainder of the fort’s artillery in external batteries. By 1913, all the gun turrets, observation posts and the Bourges Casemate had been linked to the barrack block by strong underground passages so that they could be accessed at all times without going outside.

Mighty though it was, Fort Douaumont formed only one element in a strong and extensive ‘centre of resistance’ which also included Douaumont village, six ouvrages, five combat shelters, six concrete batteries, an underground shelter for reserves, two ammunition depots and a whole series of concrete infantry entrenchments. A revolving turret for twin 155s on the slopes to the south of the fort and another for a 75mm gun on the ridge to the east should have completed the defence but neither emplacement was complete when war broke out. A machine gun was mounted in the observation post on the ridge, while the incomplete 75mm gun turret became a shelter.

Access to the fort

Fort Douaumont was an immense structure, measuring almost 300 metres from north to south and 400 metres from east to west. It was protected on all sides by an open glacis offering wide fields of fire in every direction and surrounded by a belt of wire thirty metres deep, which was attached to metal picket posts set in concrete. At the top of the glacis, a line of stout spiked railings two and a half metres high ran along the counterscarp. On the floor of the ditch – approximately six metres below the top of the counterscarp – a further line of railings was set at an angle along the base of the scarp. The outer wall of the ditch was strengthened by a facing of masonry on three sides of the fort, but on the south side, where the inner wall was strengthened and provided with flanking blockhouses, it consisted of only a bank of earth.

The fort was accessed by means of a wagon road that led up the glacis on the south side of the fort, passed a guard house and came down in the ditch close to the main entrance or ‘peacetime gate’. The road then ran across a drawbridge and entered a tunnel under the rampart. This led to the ‘wartime gate’, which allowed direct entry to the lower floor of the barracks. At the end of the tunnel, two ramps provided access to the upper floor of the barracks and to the covered wagon roads that passed through the barrack block at each end. Emerging from the barracks on the north side, the wagon roads became the Rue du Rempart, which served the adjoining artillery shelters and ammunition depots. Access to the fort on foot was also possible by means of steps cut into the rampart, which led to a footbridge spanning the gap between the tunnel and the wartime gate. On the top of the rampart, two light steel domes allowed for observation over the south side of the fort

The barrack block was a two storey building. The lower floor, known as the ‘wartime barracks’, comprised the fort’s administrative services, siege headquarters for the commandant and his staff, depots, magazines and two groups of cisterns each holding 520 cubic metres of water. The upper floor, or ‘peacetime barracks’, provided accommodation for the garrison of 850, workshops, magazines and kitchens as well as a bakery and an infirmary. Staircases or metal ladders linked the two floors and on each level the barrack rooms opened onto a principal corridor. On the upper floor the corridor ran throughout the whole length of the barracks and joined the covered wagon roads at either end of the building.

One year before the outbreak of the war, Fort Douaumont was complete. The strongest and most modern of all the forts around Verdun, it was the cornerstone of the whole defensive system. Its construction, modernization and armament had required a total of twenty eight years and had cost 6,100,000 gold francs.


As early as September 1914, Fort Douaumont’s 155mm gun was in action against German positions to the north of the sector. The Germans soon replied with a barrage of medium and heavy calibre shells that caused some slight damage but left the fort’s vital organs unscathed. The operation was observed by a prominent guest, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, who had been invited by the commander of V Reserve Corps, General Erich von Gündell, to view the shooting from his newly built observation tower, the ‘Gündell-Turm’. The French were not impressed and the tower soon became a favourite target of French gunners.

In December 1914 the 155mm gun was again in action, this time against the Jumelles d’Ornes, two hills that formed an important German observation post to the northeast of the sector. That brought retaliation from the Germans in February 1915 in the form of a ‘shooting match’ (Wettschiessen) between two of their biggest guns – a 420mm Krupp mortar and a 380mm ‘Long Max’ naval gun – during which thirty four huge projectiles were hurled against the fort and its immediate surroundings. Despite a great column of smoke which rose above the glacis and at first led the Germans to believe that the fort had been put out of action, only limited damage was done. On the eastern side of the barracks where the concrete carapace was only one and a half metres thick, three shells falling close together brought down the roof of the bakery and a nearby corridor, while the blast from a fourth fissured the floor and walls of the gallery leading to the 75mm turret. The guns, however, were unharmed. One 420mm shell striking the reinforced concrete collar of the 155mm turret left a deep hole but only slightly affected the turret mechanism and repairs were carried out within a day or two. Another fell without exploding close to the Rue du Rempart, where it was defused and sent to Paris for exhibition.

The fact that such a shell had hit the concrete covering of the fort and failed to explode probably encouraged the French High Command in its comfortable belief that the most powerful of the forts around Verdun was impregnable. Indeed, had the whole mighty system not been disarmed in the second year of the war, that belief might well have proved correct.


The Luftwaffe Raids: Jaboeinsätz Fighter bomber sortie; two aircraft or more Störangriff Nuisance raid; single bomber or two fighters; Pirateinsätz Attack by single bomber in bad weather.

Taken by Leutnant Leopold Wenger from the cockpit of his Fw 190, this remarkable series of images shows a “Tip and Run” raid underway on Thursday, 1 April 1943. The target on this occasion was Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. Clearly visible in the first of the pictures are the distinctive masts of the Chain Home radar station above the town; the second illustrates just how low the Jabos flew; whilst the third shot shows a vehicle being strafed. Wenger, who subsequently reported good hits in the town and setting a vehicle (presumably the one seen here) on fire, was one of three pilots involved in the attack. As well as what was described as light anti-aircraft fire, two Hawker Typhoons of 197 Squadron were scrambled and unsuccessfully attempted to intercept the intruders.

For much of their involvement in the “Tip and Run” campaign, JG 26’s area of operations was the coastal areas of Sussex and Kent, whilst JG 2 concentrated on targets from Hampshire to the West Country.

“I started to walk along the seafront when the air raid sirens sounded and immediately ‘planes swooped low over the hills from the Babbacombe direction,” recalled Terry Stevens. “I thought they were Spitfires but then I saw a black dot leave one of the leading ‘planes and an explosion threw a column of debris into the air behind the church. An RAF sergeant leapt onto a mound of sandbags and shouted to everyone to lie down. The skies seemed full of low-flying aircraft, strafing the ground. Hundreds of people, many of them RAF, were lying on the ground and it was surprising that a lot more were not killed.”

This account graphically illustrates what it was like to be on the receiving end of what was called a “Tip and Run” (sometimes a “Hit and Run”) attack – a bombing raid carried out at very low-level and at high speed by German single-engine fighters. It was the Junkers Ju 87s, the much-feared Stukas, upon which the Luftwaffe had relied so heavily as German forces had bombed and blasted their way through southern Poland in 1939 and France and the Low Countries a few months later. When the same tactics were tried against British shipping in the Channel and British airfields along the South Coast, the lumbering Stukas proved easy targets for the intercepting RAF fighters. The bulk of German medium bombers, the Dornier Do 17s and Heinkel He 111s, also lacked the speed to penetrate the British defences with any hope of surprise, and required increasingly heavy fighter escorts to battle their way to and from the target. They also lacked the bomb-aiming precision to hit pinpoint targets.

An alternative method of attack was needed, one that was fast and able to defend itself against the British aircraft, but which was also capable of carrying bombs. The result was the Jabo, the fighter-bomber. This was not an entirely original idea, as fighters had been used to carry bombs in the First World War. But never before had it been attempted on such a scale and with purpose-built aircraft. In the spring of 1940, the German Air Staff had requested that the Luftwaffe Technical Office explore the possibility of adapting the Messerschmitt Bf 109E to carry bombs. Consequently, design engineers produced a centrally mounted bomb rack which contained in a streamlined fairing, was bolted to the belly of the aircraft between the undercarriage legs. This bomb rack, designated as the ETC500, was designed to carry a single 250kg bomb and the tests and performance trials showed that a single Sprengbombe Cylindrisch 250 (SC250) bomb could be carried with little appreciable loss in performance. This gave the Luftwaffe exactly the kind of machine it wanted.

Delivery of the new Bf 109E fighter-bombers started in July 1940, the first being issued to 3 Staffel of the newly-formed Erprobungsgruppe 210 (Erpr. Gr 210). Intended as a specialist ground-attack unit, Erpr. Gr 210 was charged with operational development of ground-attack and dive-bombing techniques and equipment.

By the third week of July, the Gruppe was flying armed reconnaissance sorties and conducting regular attacks on shipping off the south and east coasts of Britain. On 19 July 1940, 3 Staffel mounted two attacks on shipping in Dover Harbour; during the first, which involved the entire Gruppe with a fighter escort from III/ JG 51, an armed trawler was hit. During the second mission mid-afternoon, the Admiralty oiler Sepoy was sunk and several near misses caused damage to the destroyer HMS Griffin; a tug and a drifter were also damaged.

Then, from 5 September 1940, onwards Luftwaffe fighter pilots had started receiving rudimentary training in using their fighters as bombers, using the gunsight as a bombsight. From the beginning of October 1940 these Jabos were used to bomb from medium and high altitudes.

This development was not universally appreciated by those that had to fly the fighter-bombers, as typified by the comments of Oberstleutnant Adolf Galland, then Geschwader Kommodore of JG 26: “We fighter pilots looked upon this violation of our aircraft with great bitterness. We had done everything possible to increase our performance. We had discarded everything dispensable in an attempt to squeeze another ounce of speed out of them. Instead of that, they now gave us bomb release gadgets and we were forced to see a third of our aircraft drop out of air combat.

“The fighter was made into a fighter-bomber as a stop-gap and a scapegoat. We started from the premise that the fighter was apparently unable to give sufficient protection to the bombers. This was true. If the fighter arm is unable to protect the bombers, it must deliver the bombs to England on its own account. The raids on England had become a question of prestige, and as day bombing could not be continued and night raids were only in preparation, this gap was to be filled by fighters transformed into fighter-bombers. Not military expedience but a momentary political demand.”

Galland also believed that the fighter-bomber attacks, “apart from their nuisance value, achieved very little of any military value”. Indeed, he stated that such missions had an adverse effect on a fighter pilot’s morale: “It is disconcerting for a fighter pilot to have to fight without being able to take the initiative. The morale of fighter pilots was affected; they had to carry bombs, release them at great altitude on an enormous target without being able to observe the effect and then had to adopt a passive attitude towards enemy fighters.”

Another step towards the Luftwaffe’s “Tip and Run” campaign came in March 1941. Though Jagdgeschwader 2 (JG 2) had continued to carry out fighter-bomber, or Jabo, attacks, but just against shipping, at this point one staffel from JG 2 was given specific low-level bombing training by Erpr. Gr 210. A further two squadrons carried out sporadic fighter-bomber attacks. Nevertheless, Jabo missions remained a secondary role for these units, until one officer, wounded in July 1941, returned to operational flying duties. Oberleutnant Frank Liesendahl commanded one of JG 2’s staffels which were engaged on such attacks. Whilst recuperating from his wounds, it is believed that Liesendahl worked on formulating tactics for low-level fighter bomber missions. He duly convinced his senior officers of the value of what a low-level fighter-bomber could achieve against shipping and in November 1941 was given permission to form a dedicated Jabo unit.

From 10 November 1941 to 18 February 1942, Liesendahl’s staffel trained and perfected the tactics they would employ against British targets. During this period Liesendahl developed what was called the Liesendahl Verfahren, the “Liesendahl Process”. Approaching the target at 450kph and an altitude of just five metres, the fighter-bomber would climb to a maximum height of 500 metres before levelling off when 1,800 metres from the target. At this point, the pilot dived down again at a speed of 550kph and a dive angle of 3°, before pulling up and “lobbing” the bomb at the target. Liesendahl’s method was quickly adopted as the preferred means of attack for Jabos.

Although the winter of 1941/1942 was spent training and practising, it is believed that some JG 2 pilots did undertake a number of trial attacks. According to British records, the first recorded Tip and Run attack was made against an unspecified target at Fairlight in Sussex on Christmas Day 1941, whilst in January 1942 “tip and run incidents” were noted as having occurred in Kent (three), Sussex (nine), Dorset (two), Hampshire (one), Cornwall (28) and the Isle of Wight (one).

Then on 4 March 1942, having finally been convinced of the value of Jabo attacks, Luftflotte 3 authorised such missions to begin on a large scale – as well as ordering another fighter group, JG 26, to form its own Jabo squadron with effect from 10 March 1942 The die was cast and for the next fifteen months, southern Britain was about to experience a new and terrifying form of air warfare. The Luftwaffe’s Tip and Run campaign was underway.

During the offensive’s first month, JG 26 undertook seventeen attacks whilst JG 2 carried out forty-nine. Then in April 1942, Tip and Run attacks increased dramatically, with British intelligence reporting 156 such attacks. April also saw a shift to land targets, particularly gas holders as these were such prominent targets.

The targets attacked in April and May 1942 suggested a high degree of planning by the Luftwaffe. For example, the Germans were aware of an underground explosives store inland from Poole and they unsuccessfully tried to attack it five times in April and May 1942. On another occasion, two fighter-bombers attacked the Betteshanger Colliery in Kent precisely at shift-change causing damage and civilian casualties.

Of greater concern were two attacks carried out by 10/JG 2 against the Telecommunications and Research Establishment (TRE) at Worth Matravers in Dorset. In the early evening of 6 April 1942, three aircraft attacked the site causing damage; at lunchtime two days later, another attack killed two and injured six, whilst a bomb passed through the 350-foot-tall tower (being used for the development of Gee), causing slight damage. The site was un-operational for four days and because of the risk further, more devastating, attacks the TRE was moved to Malvern in Worcestershire in May 1942.

By the end of April 1942, the value of such Tip and Run attacks must have been increasingly clear to the Luftwaffe – especially against shipping. Post-war analysis shows that between July 1941 and February 1942, German aircraft had sunk or damaged just 32.35% of the ships they attacked in daylight but in the period March-October 1942, this increased to 64.4%.

During June and July 1942, the number of attacks steadily fell. Far from being a good sign, this was a worrying development for both of 10/ JG 2 and 10/JG 26 had been withdrawn piecemeal to near Paris where they began re-equipping with the Focke Wulf Fw 190.

The Fw 190 was superior in all flight parameters, except turning radius, to the best Allied fighter at that time, the Spitfire Vb. It was 25 to 30 mph faster at all altitudes up to 25,000 feet and had the highest rate of roll of any fighter of the war. As a fighter-bomber, it could carry a single 500kg bomb under the fuselage and four 50kg bombs under the wings, more than doubling the bomb load of the Bf 109. It was, without doubt, an excellent Jabo.

The first Fw 190 Tip and Run was undertaken by 10/JG 2 on 7 July 1942. From now on, at least one such attack was planned or flown every day. With both German units fully operational with the Fw 190 by mid-July, the raids resumed with virtual impunity, though by the end of the month each unit had lost one Jabo to anti-aircraft fire from the ships they were attacking. These losses had resulted in the deaths of each unit’s experienced commanding officers, one of whom was Frank Liesendahl.

In August a change in tactics took place. Interestingly, this was detailed by a German War Correspondent. “Until now, every mission. has only been aimed at the south coast of England. They have not yet made an attempt to attack the English hinterland. So they prepare Operation Ypsilon, all the better because this attack shall hit industrial works on the other side of the range of hills which stretch behind the south coast. Only two ‘planes are going to carry out this difficult mission.”

September and October 1942 saw a reduction in the number of raids, with Kent and Sussex receiving the brunt of the attacks. In order to ensure the success of attacks, the fighter-bombers, due to the increasing RAF response, began to be provided with their own escorts.

On the evening of 31 October 1942, the Luftwaffe carried out its largest daylight attack on Britain since 1940, spurred on by Hitler who had become increasingly annoyed by Bomber Command’s offensive. The target was Canterbury.

The attack was carried out purely by fighter-bombers, nineteen coming from the two recognised Jabo staffels, the rest were a number of temporary fighter-bombers drawn from traditional fighter units. The total force numbered sixty-two Fw 190s. Whilst it was a success for the Luftwaffe and an embarrassment for the British, the raid was effectively the last Tip and Run attack of any substance that year.

The New Year brought a spike in activity. As another reprisal for Bomber Command’s attacks, more specifically those on Berlin on 16 and 17 January 1943, twenty-eight fighter-bombers attacked the London Docks area at lunchtime on 20 January. A further twelve Jabos carried out a diversionary attack on the Isle of Wight and Tunbridge Wells.

When the weather permitted, attacks during January and February 1943 were carried out from as far west as Torquay to as far east as Margate with the usual selection of targets – gasholders, prominent buildings, railway junctions and lines and town centres.

In addition to the two established fighter-bomber squadrons, a dedicated Jabo group had begun to form in December 1942. Schnellkampfgeschwader 10 (SKG 10) flew its first operational sortie on 7 March 1943, and by the 31st of the month had ninety aircraft available to attack Britain, an additional twenty-eight being assigned to it when the two original fighter-bomber units came under its control early in April 1943. The increased availability of aircraft allowed the Luftwaffe’s area of operations to be extended, the Jabos now striking as far north-east as Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex.

With the new force fully prepared, May 1943 saw a sharp increase in massed Tip and Run attacks – twelve specific targets were attacked in one seven-day period. On two days, two attacks were made simultaneously in an attempt to split the RAF’s fighter defences, all the attacks occurring either early in the morning, lunchtime or late in the evening, maximising their irritation to the civilian population. Night time raids were also introduced.

Despite the devastating success of many of these attacks, and only a small number of aircraft losses, the Luftwaffe was seemingly unaware of the results it had achieved in May 1943. German propaganda broadcasts, usually boastful of such attacks, preferred to play down the successes of the “fast bombers”. Indeed, far from building on its success, by the end of June the Tip and Run campaign had suddenly ended.

The reasons for this have never been satisfactorily explained. The fact that German post-attack intelligence, normally quite poor throughout the war, underestimated what the attacks had achieved undoubtedly did little to support their continuation, as did the fact that the nocturnal Tip and Run raids generally failed to live up to expectations.

Perhaps the real reason why the Tip and Run attacks ended was far simpler in that there were few fighter-bombers available for such raids left in north-west Europe. Believing that the greatest threat from the Allies lay in the Mediterranean theatre, the “soft underbelly of Europe”, the Luftwaffe had begun moving aircraft from northern France and the Low Countries. So drastic was the drain on resources in this region that by the end of June 1943 the only Jabo unit still in northern France was the nocturnal wing of SKG 10.

For those who had lived for fifteen months under the threat of a Jabo attack, the reasons why they had suddenly ended were of little concern – they were just grateful that the skies had, for the time being, become relatively quiet.

HMAS Sydney in the Korean War

HMAS Sydney in Korean waters, 1951-52. Honisett, Ray. [AWM ART28077]

A Firefly FR 5 on HMAS Sydney’s catapult with its engine running but not quite ready to launch. The ship’s USN S-51 `plane-guard’ helicopter has just launched and taken up its position off the port bow.

A replacement Firefly FR 5 being lowered onto HMAS Sydney’s flight deck in Sasebo.

HMAS Sydney 3 – September 1951 to January 1952 The RAN had formed its own Fleet Air Arm in 1948 with considerable help from the RN and Australia’s first aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney, had only arrived at her new home port in 1949. The need to withdraw Glory for a refit in Australia posed a problem for the Admiralty since Ocean, the next light fleet carrier intended for service in the war zone, would not be ready to deploy until May 1952. To fill the gap the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fraser, asked the First Naval Member of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board, Vice Admiral Sir John Collins, if it would be possible for `Sydney to relieve Glory for two or three months operational flying if the Korean business is still going’. Collins supported the idea and put it to the Australian Government which approved the deployment in May 1951. This was a substantial increase in the nation’s commitment to the war and a significant development in Australian history since only three nations, the UK, USA and Japan, had previously deployed aircraft carriers in combat operations. For the deployment Sydney embarked elements of 20 and 21 CAGs and sailed for the war zone after a work up with 805 and 808 (Sea Fury FB 11) and 817 (Firefly FR 5) NAS embarked. She secured alongside Glory in Kure Dockyard, Japan on 27 September 1951 to transfer aircraft, stores and the USN S-51 helicopter detachment for SAR duties. Sydney sailed for her first war patrol on 3 October 1951 and sent her aircraft into action from a position off the east coast two days later. On only her fifth day of operations she equalled the record number of eighty-nine sorties flown in a single day set by Glory. Judged by the standards of her peers with their recent extensive wartime carrier-operating experience, Sydney had started well and continued to do so.

On 14 October she had to stand out to sea to avoid Typhoon RUTH and although she managed to avoid the epicentre, high winds and seas destroyed six aircraft in her deck park. Replacement aircraft were provided from the RN Aircraft Holding Unit (AHU), at Iwakuni and Sydney began her second war patrol on 18 October. During this period she flew 474 sorties which included the provision of close air support for the Commonwealth Division which formed part of the UN land forces in Korea. Rear Admiral Scott-Moncreiff had succeeded Rear Admiral Andrewes as FO2FES on the latter’s promotion and he flew his flag in Sydney during her third war patrol which began on 4 November so that he could gain firsthand experience of carrier operations. Her aircraft carried out a number of strikes on rail targets that were synchronised with other Allied air arms. After a brief respite, Sydney took part in Operation `Athenaeum’ from 18 November, a series of co-ordinated attacks by aircraft and naval gunfire against Hungnam, a transport hub on Korea’s east coast. She resumed operations off the west coast during early December and then spent Christmas 1951 in Kure Dockyard.

These accounts of individual carrier operations that are illustrative of overall Commonwealth carrier operations. For example, on 26 October 1951 Firefly WB 393 of 817 NAS was hit by antiaircraft fire while attacking a railway tunnel near Chaeryong, north of Haeju. The pilot, Sub Lieutenant N D MacMillan RAN, managed a successful forced landing in enemy territory and both he and his observer, Chief Petty Officer J Hancox RAN, got out of the wrecked aircraft and took cover in a ditch, keeping NKPA soldiers that had encircled them at bay with their Owen submachine-guns. Sydney had a section of Sea Furies in the area and these were instructed to provide top cover, strafing enemy troops to prevent them from capturing the downed aircrew. Sydney herself was 75 miles away and her captain, Captain D H Harries CBE RAN, had doubts about the wisdom of sending her USN helicopter to rescue them because of fears that it might not locate the crash-site and clear enemy territory before nightfall. The crew insisted that they be given the chance to try, however, and Harries approved the sortie. Meanwhile Meteor jet fighters of 77 Squadron RAAF joined the Sea Furies in giving top cover. By 17.15 the jets had to go but the Sea Fury pilots, Lieutenants Cavanagh and Salthouse RAN, elected to remain, despite their low fuel state, another advantage of the piston-engined Sea Fury over the early generation of jet fighters. At 17.25 the SAR helicopter arrived, having flown at a speed considerably above the maximum quoted in the S- 51’s aircrew manual. As it landed the observer, Chief Petty Officer Gooding USN, jumped out and shot dead two NKPA soldiers who had crawled to within fifteen yards of the wrecked Firefly. An hour later the helicopter with the two rescued aircrew on board, and still escorted by the Sea Furies, landed at the Allied airfield at Kimpo just as darkness fell.

Sydney sailed on 28 December for her sixth war patrol during which emphasis was placed on the defence of small islands off the west coast held by South Korean forces. Her seventh and last patrol began on 16 January 1952 and when she entered Sasebo for the last time on 26 January, FO2 described her work in the Korean war zone as being `quite excellent’. She had flown a total of 2366 sorties in forty-three operational flying days, an average of 55.2 per day, and her expenditure of ammunition amounted to 154 500lb and 1000lb bombs, 1197 rocket projectiles and 73,440 rounds of 20mm ammunition. All replacement aircraft, ammunition and stores came from RN stocks. She lost fifteen aircraft in action and three pilots killed.

Railways at the Boer War

The Boer War was another eminently preventable clash which started off with patriotic cheers, and ended with much soul searching about the state of the British Empire. At the turn of the century, the current Republic of South Africa was divided into four territories: Natal and the Cape Colony, which were British colonies, and two Boer republics, the Transvaal and Orange Free State. To the north, Rhodes had created the British South Africa Company, which became Rhodesia. South Africa had been initially colonized by the Dutch and Germans, but the British arrived in the early nineteenth century and tensions between the two groups were at the root of the Boer wars. In the first Boer War, which was small and was little more than a few skirmishes ending in one major battle where the Boers triumphed during the winter of 1880-81, the Boers had established their right to autonomy in the Transvaal, but the British refused to accept that the Boer republics could be fully independent states. Prior to the second Boer War the discovery of great mineral wealth – especially gold – in the Transvaal, which was largely exploited by British capital, had exacerbated tensions and the large British mining companies were concerned that Boer intransigence might threaten their interests.

The immediate casus belli was the British demand for voting rights for their citizens living in the Transvaal but the President, Paul Kruger, had prevaricated, postponing their eligibility for the franchise. A solution might have been found but for the bellicose nature of Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner in South Africa, who effectively sabotaged the peace negotiations. In truth, though, the long-standing hostility between the two colonizing forces in the country had been bubbling away for many years and it would have taken a concerted peace initiative on both sides to have prevented a war. Britain had long sought the establishment of control over the two Dutch colonies and saw Boer intransigence over the franchise as an opportunity to unify the whole of South Africa under the British flag. In fact, preparations for war had started early in 1899 with measures such as the establishment of the Department of Military Railways and the construction of ambulance and armoured trains in the railway yards of both Natal and Cape Town.

Girouard, now a major, was appointed as the head of the Department of Military Railways and, having read the numerous reports on the performance of the railways in the Franco-Prussian War, he was aware that the Germans had gained an advantage by having a clear administrative structure in contrast to the French muddle. The old question arose: who should be in charge of the railways, the military or the railway managers? Girouard knew the answer. He was aware that, left to their own devices, military commanders would, for example, insist on having trains steamed up and ready ‘just in case’, or require wagons to be unloaded while still on the main line, blocking it for other traffic. The military, in other words, had to be trained to understand the scope and limitations of the railways, and could not be allowed to be their master. Girouard immediately appointed a group of officers who would act as liaison between the military and the railway authorities, and, as Pratt puts it, ‘protect the civil railway administration from interference by military commanders and commandants of posts’. At the station level, officers were appointed who would be the sole liaison between the railway administration, the stationmasters, and the military, in order to prevent senior army personnel commandeering trains for their own purposes.

This structure was all the more important because the railways in South Africa were fairly basic affairs, all built to the narrow 3ft 6in Cape gauge and designed to accommodate light goods and passenger trains, rather than heavy military traffic. Moreover, the distances were huge. From Cape Town, the principal British base, to Pretoria, the Boer HQ which would be the ultimate objective, was over 1,000 miles and the roads were poor and unusable at times of heavy rain. A single-track railway line stretched from Cape Town on the southern coast through Kimberley and Bloemfontein through to Johannesburg and Pretoria, while a branch headed off from Mafeking towards Rhodesia. From Durban on the east coast there was another line through to Ladysmith which also eventually reached Johannesburg. These lines became the vital supply route for the Army as supplies to the forces at the front were sent from seaports, sometimes quite long distances, along the railway to a railhead and picked up by horse transport, and consequently the shape of the railway network in southern Africa determined the course of the war. For the British in particular – the Boers all had horses – the railway was the major means of transport for long distances, although there were times when the soldiers would march or ride while their supplies were taken by rail. It was inevitable, therefore, that the key battles took place in railway towns or in countryside easily accessible from the line. The British could only maintain their army using railway resupply and the various towns whose names reside in the memory through the prolonged sieges they suffered were important precisely because they were on the railway line. Many of the same cast of characters as in Sudan turned up in the Boer War: Churchill, Kitchener and Girouard, who was to prove to be a crucial figure, all played significant parts.

The war finally broke out in October 1899 and in its first phase the Boers captured large swathes of land in the two British colonies, including long stretches of the railway, and besieged three British garrisons at Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. Attempts by the British Army to relieve the sieges ended in a series of humiliating defeats and early in 1900 reinforcements had to be brought from Britain, creating a force totalling 180,000 men. The takeover of much of the railway in the British colonies by the Boers resulted in a shortage of stock, prompting the military to send immediate requests to Britain for extra locomotives and wagons. For their part, in the early stages, the Boers themselves rather ignored the railways, preferring to keep to their horses but proving adept at sabotaging lines used by the British.

In the second phase of the war, the British staged a fightback with expanded forces and here the railway was crucial as the army headed northwards to re-establish control over its own territory and then advance into the Boer states. The arrangements made in anticipation of the conflict came into play. Every day, all the Army’s requirements were collated through Girouard’s Department of Military Railways, which decided whether requests should be accepted or rejected. The number of wagons allocated for each department, such as hospital, ordnance or engineering, was calculated in great detail and nothing could move without a permit from Girouard’s department. A small group of soldiers carrying out a specific duty might be exempted but they would have to travel sitting higgeldy-piggeldy on the supplies. As Ernest Carter, a railway historian, concludes, this disciplined allocation of railway resources in the Boer War ‘proved conclusively that even a single line passing through enemy territory could be maintained in a serviceable condition sufficiently reliable to allow of a campaign being conducted at a point many hundreds of miles from a supply base’.

As the Boers retreated, they invariably destroyed railway facilities, making heavy use of dynamite, still a relatively new explosive first patented in 1867 and little used in intervening wars. It was the usual catalogue of mayhem, except that dynamite made the job of destruction far easier: bridges and long sections of track were blown up, railside equipment such as pumps and water tanks was destroyed, stations were flattened and huge obstructions were brought down by triggering explosions on the sides of railway cuttings. In response, the British created an organization of 20,000 men, a tenth of their overall strength, composed of a motley mix of soldiers, former railwaymen and local natives, to ensure the continued operation of the railways.

When the British Army began to invade the Boer republics, the Department of Military Railways spawned a separate organization, the Imperial Military Railways, both to repair and maintain captured lines in the two republics, and to operate them. The Afrikaners employed by these railways were unwilling to stay in their jobs under the British and therefore had to be replaced by soldiers and railwaymen from the Cape Colony and, later, also by local black workers.

As the British troops headed northwards, elaborate patrols were devised using armoured trains to protect the line, which was absolutely vital for the British advance. It was the first time that armoured trains were extensively and successfully operated in any conflict. The British had deployed them in Egypt, Sudan and India in the 1880s, using conventional rolling stock that was reinforced with steel plating and equipped with a few machine guns and sandbags for protection, and often pushing a light wagon at the front to detonate mines or limit the damage from obstacles left on the line. They were little more than armoured patrol vehicles, but during the Boer War far more sophisticated versions were developed.

Several had been built in anticipation of the war and ultimately twenty saw action on the South African railways. Their reputation was initially rather tarnished by the capture on 15 November 1899 of an early model carrying 120 men including, famously, Winston Churchill, who yet again had made sure that he was in the right place at the right time to see action. This time, he was a mere reporter, sending despatches to the Morning Post although at times he behaved as if he were still an officer in the British Army. Churchill recounts an early sortie with the train, which he describes as a strange machine, ridiculing it as ‘a locomotive disguised in the habiliments of chivalry. Mr Morley [John Morley, the leading opponent of the war] attired as Sir Lancelot would seem scarcely more incongruous.’ His first foray with the train passes off without serious incident but his second leads to his capture and a series of brushes with death.

Churchill’s train had consisted of a couple of sets of four vans, three of which were armoured, including one with a 7-pounder gun so old-fashioned that it was still loaded through the muzzle (‘an antiquated toy’, as Churchill described it), an ordinary wagon with a breakdown gang and a locomotive which, for protection, was in the middle of the train between the two sets of wagons. The patrol’s mission was to try to obtain information about the siege at Ladysmith and the state of the railway. At 5.30 a.m., the train crept out of Estcourt, thirty miles south of Ladysmith, and had reached Chieveley, about halfway to their destination, when Boer horsemen were spotted. Captain Haldane, the commander of the train, decided to beat a retreat but the train had fallen into an ambush. Round a curve, they saw a large troop of 600 Boers above them and bullets and shells started raining down on the wagons. The engine driver opened the regulator to accelerate out of trouble, which was precisely what the Boers had sought, as the train then ploughed at speed into a boulder they had laid on the tracks round a bend. Even though the train was notionally in the command of Haldane, it was Churchill who assumed control of the situation, or at least he did according to his account written for the Morning Post. He reports how he told the driver, who was a civilian and therefore anxious just to escape, that ‘if he continued to stay at his post, he would be mentioned for distinguished gallantry in action’, not an honour that was Churchill’s to bestow. Nevertheless, with such encouragement, the fellow ‘pulled himself together, wiped the blood off his face [and] climbed back into the cab of his engine’. Leaving Haldane to sort out the defence, Churchill organized the removal of the debris and the stone from the tracks, and ordered a group of men to push the broken wagon off the track. Despite being still under fire, they succeeded and the engine, minus the front group of trucks, which had become detached, gradually pulled away. All these efforts to escape proved, however, to be in vain because, as Churchill describes it, ‘a private soldier who was wounded, in direct disobedience of the positive orders that no surrender was to be made, took it upon himself to wave a pocket handkerchief.’ As a result, the men around him began to surrender and Churchill tried to run away. While Churchill criticizes the hapless fellow, the humble soldier’s action most likely changed history by ensuring the great man’s survival. Churchill had already run down the track with two Boers shooting at him, fortunately missing him on either side (‘two bullets passed, both within a foot, one on either side… again two soft kisses sucked in the air, but nothing struck me’), and had fortuitously, too, forgotten his Mauser pistol in the cab of the locomotive, and was therefore unable to shoot his pursuers. Without the private’s white handkerchief, it was probably only a matter of minutes before Churchill, who was behaving as a combatant rather than a newspaper reporter, would have been shot. After his capture, however, anxious to be released, he stressed his civilian role but to no avail and he was imprisoned in Pretoria, from where he escaped, regaining British territory by jumping goods trains like an American hobo.

Churchill’s armoured train was an early version, more lightly armed than its successors. Later types would be far more heavily protected and were successfully used on several occasions against the Boers. The armoured train became a far more sophisticated weapon, consisting of a locomotive in the middle, pushing armoured vans and wagons with various pieces of equipment for repairing lines. At the front, there was an open wagon fitted with a cow catcher – like US locomotives – both to sweep obstructions off the rails but also to explode mines, thereby saving the rest of the train, particularly the locomotive, from further damage. Behind the locomotive there was a heavily armoured wagon with usually a 12-pounder quick-firing gun or a couple of smaller ones. Each end of the train would be protected by armoured trucks containing soldiers armed with rifles and a machine gun. It proved a useful weapon. In one skirmish, the legendary Boer leader Christiaan de Wet, who had been instrumental in developing successful guerrilla tactics, often focussed on sabotaging the railway and disrupting communications by wrecking the telegraph wires, was for once caught napping when four armoured trains managed to cut him off from his wagons and he lost all his ammunition and explosives.

While armoured trains were occasionally used in offensives against entrenched Boer positions, for the most part they were deployed to patrol lines in an effort to prevent sabotage. They were also used rather like the cavalry to make reconnaissance trips and escort conventional trains. Nevertheless, as Churchill’s mishap showed, they were vulnerable to ambush and could not be deployed without their own protection force, usually in the form of cavalry reconnaissance teams who would check the line and the surrounding area but at times bicycles were used, too. These were remarkable contraptions developed in a Cape Town workshop by Donald Menzies, who experimented with various types. The basic version, which did see regular active service, involved two men sitting side by side, with the great advantage that they could ride and shoot at the same time, since, obviously, no steering was required as the wheels were flanged like those of all railway rolling stock. It could travel at up to 30 mph but was not stable at such high speeds and generally cruised at about 10 mph. Menzies also produced a huge eight-man version with four pairs of men pedalling side by side, but it was beset with difficulties as it was too heavy – 1,500lb with eight men aboard – and consequently was difficult to brake, made too much noise and caused violent shaking, and there is no evidence that it was actually used in combat situations.

The official report published after the war recommended that in the operation of armoured trains ‘it was important that the officer commanding the train should be a man of judgment and strong nerve… he had to be ever alert that the enemy did not cut the line behind him… and had to keep his head even among the roar which followed the passage of his leading truck over a charge of dynamite, and then to deal with the attack which almost certainly ensued’. Inevitably, having such strong-minded officers in charge of the trains led to clashes with the railway authorities as the armoured trains transcended the boundary between the military and railway. Girouard later complained that the officers commanding the trains frequently rode roughshod over the railway’s needs: ‘Armoured trains were constantly rushing out, against orders of the Traffic department, sometimes without a “line clear” message, and this caused serious delays to traffic.’ One can almost feel Girouard’s frustration as he continues: ‘In fact, instead of assisting traffic by preventing the enemy from interrupting it, they caused more interruptions than the enemy themselves.’ As Pratt put it, ‘civil railway officials were heard to say that attacks by the enemy are not nearly so disturbing to traffic as the arrival of a friendly General with his force’. Regulations were subsequently issued to ensure that the armoured trains, like all other traffic, deferred to the army officers whose job was to liaise with the railway authorities to ensure efficient use of the lines.

The armoured trains proved popular with the British and were a formidable weapon, causing panic among the enemy, as stressed by an officer who had served in them: ‘There is no doubt that the enemy disliked them intensely and that the presence of an armoured train had a great morale effect.’ The post-war report rather optimistically outlined seven uses for armoured trains, including obvious aspects such as reconnoitring, patrolling and protecting the rail lines, along with more adventurous ideas like ‘serving as flank protection to infantry’ and ‘attempting to intercept the enemy’. While for the most part this analysis overemphasized their usefulness, since armoured trains would play little role on the Western Front in the First World War, they would assume much greater importance on the more fluid Eastern Front and, in particular, would be crucial to the Bolsheviks’ victory in the subsequent Russian civil war. In the Boer War, they were used to best effect to counter guerrilla attacks, a role they would play numerous times again.

The armoured train was a natural development of the basic idea of mounting guns on trains, which, as we have seen, was first used in battle in the American Civil War. Such trains were a railway weapon, likely to be deployed in an offensive action, in contrast to armoured trains whose main purpose was to patrol an unstable area. The concept of using the railways to deploy large artillery guns had made considerable progress since the days of General Lee. In particular, the problem of aiming the guns had been solved to some extent by incorporating a turntable on the car, which enabled the gun to be rotated easily, and methods of dispersing the force of the recoil, using a specially constructed chamber, had also been developed, enabling guns to be fired broadside without toppling over or damaging the track. The French had used a couple of rail-mounted guns to defend Paris during the siege in 1871 and a unit of the Sussex Army Volunteers had experimented with putting a 40-pounder on a rail wagon. As a result of these developments, the British Army tried to make use of a pair of mobile guns built in the workshops of the Cape Government Railway during the Boer War. In the event they were little used in anger, principally because of the difficulties of bringing such unwieldy and slow vehicles within range of a battle site on a single railway track already heavily used by conventional traffic.

Once the advance into the Boer republics had started, the British expected to win the war within months as the superiority of their forces told – and back home the Tories won an election on this basis. The fighting was, however, prolonged for two years by the ability of the Boers to wage a destructive and effective guerrilla war with a small force, frequently targeting the railway and other transport links. The Boers’ guerrilla tactics were extremely difficult to counter since they were operating in their home terrain against an enemy unaccustomed to this style of fighting. The Boers, who were mostly farmers, were all experienced riders and excellent shots, with the result that even a small group of men could prove difficult for the less skilled British to defeat. In response the British became more and more ruthless, with a scorched-earth policy of astonishing cruelty that involved destroying the Boer farms and forcing the destitute women – the vrouewen who were at the centre of the Boer rural lifestyle – and children into camps. To force the Boers’ families off the land, livestock was slaughtered and crops destroyed, giving them no alternative but to leave their homes. The treatment meted out by the British to these refugees in what became the world’s first concentration camps was the cruellest aspect of the war, and, inevitably, to transport them they were herded into trains, prefiguring the similar German atrocity by forty years. The mortality rate in the camps was appalling, with 26,000 deaths, a quarter of those interned, and, most horribly, no fewer than half of those under sixteen perished. Women whose husbands were still fighting were singled out for harsh treatment by being given smaller rations. There was a series of separate camps in which 107,000 Africans were interned, but an accurate assessment of the death rate was never made. The terrible conditions endured by the Boer women and children caused a scandal back home which greatly increased opposition to the war.

Clearing the farms in this way was designed to break the will of the Boers and prevent them living off the land. Protecting the supply line, most importantly the railway, became the key strategy for the British. While the Boers continued to attack the railway lines during this third phase, the British engineers became increasingly adept at repairing such breaches. They would boast that a routine break in the tracks discovered by the dawn patrol would be repaired in general by 9 a.m. Of course, they had far more difficulty repairing the damage wreaked by the retreating Boers in their own territory, which caused long delays to the cumbrous British Army moving into the republics. However, the engineers became adept at restoring at least a limited service very quickly. During the course of their retreat northwards, the Boers destroyed more than 200 bridges, several more than a hundred feet in length. Yet for the most part services were restored within days by putting in a temporary line, often with steep gradients and sharp curves, over hastily constructed low-level bridges cobbled together with sleepers and rails. While these jerry-built constructions were at times washed away in wet weather or collapsed under the weight of heavy trains, they were vital in keeping the British line of communication intact.

As territory was won by the British, the railway lines had to be protected and land defended through a process of attrition. The railway was crucial to this strategy. Once the British established control over a section of track or a bridge, a chain of blockhouses was built alongside them to prevent attacks by Boer squads. Connected to each other by telephone and telegraph, they were sited so that one could be seen from the next, a maximum of three-quarters of a mile away. Huge quantities of barbed wire, a recent invention, were strung up between them and trenches and trip wires provided an additional obstacle to any Boers attempting to reach the railway. While proving very successful, the blockhouses required huge numbers of soldiers to man and protect them. By the end of the war some 8,000 of these blockhouses had been built next to the railways, along other key supply routes and across the veldt, demanding the services of 50,000 British soldiers and 16,000 Africans, probably twice the total number of Boers who were fighting in the final guerrilla phase of the war. The blockhouses were expensive, too – costing up to £1,000 each – and difficult to construct, taking about three months, but proved remarkably effective as in conjunction with the armoured trains they all but guaranteed the security of the railway line.

This tactic of containment and harassment worked, albeit slowly. The Boers eventually surrendered in May 1902, ground down by the gradual progress of the British through their territory, and with little room to manoeuvre as the soldiers in the ever-lengthening strings of blockhouses provided increasingly detailed intelligence on the whereabouts of the enemy. The Boers were harried and, unable to fight, forced into finally accepting peace terms which the British had offered several times previously. After lengthy negotiations, the Boer republics were incorporated into the British Empire a few years later, but the cost of dragooning the Boers into Britain’s fold had been high. Far from being the short conflict which the politicians expected, it turned out to be the bloodiest and most costly of Britain’s wars between 1815 and 1914.

Karl XII – The Baltic and Saxon Campaigns I

Karl XII spent much of September 1700 at his headquarters in Sweden conferring with his advisers and the high command about how to best deal with Augustus. Since the armistice between Russia and Turkey was now known, the tsar’s intentions were not certain. Peter had actually issued a declaration of war on Sweden on 30 August but it did not become known in Sweden until much later.

It was obvious that additional Swedish troops had to be sent to the Baltic provinces. However, the most thorny question was how and where to strike back at Augustus. One option was to begin an offensive from Livonia. The second option was a direct attack on Augustus in Saxony.

The second option was the soundest from a military standpoint and the one that Karl XII favored. Swedish forces would be going against a root of the current problem—Saxony. Forces could be augmented from those already in Germany—in Pomerania, Bremen, and Verden. The forces in Germany had gone through a strengthening program during the summer, and even if almost half were left in garrisons, over 10,000 could be provided for an invasion of Saxony. By further strengthening from the army used on Zealand, a force easily capable of dealing with the Saxons could be rapidly assembled. Furthermore, an offensive into Saxony would keep the Baltic provinces from becoming a battlefield. Livonia, for example, still had not recovered from the destructive effects of the great famine that had swept through the province in 1695–1696, leaving more than 50,000 dead. The problem of crossing Brandenburg territory was initially believed manageable since Brandenburg had allowed Saxon troops to cross its territory. An order was sent to Field Marshal Gyllenstierna in Germany to be prepared for the operation, either as a main attack or as a diversion in case the Livonian option was chosen.

The option to attack Saxony directly ran into a hornet’s nest of foreign policy problems. The Dutch and English opposed it vigorously. They were primarily concerned about the effect of such an action in case the issue of the Spanish succession turned into war. King William III was primarily worried that he would lose his traditional recruiting ground for mercenaries. The Dutch were also providing quantities of supplies to Sweden for use in their war with Augustus. This welcomed help could be jeopardized by an invasion of Germany.

The Saxon invasion of Livonia was a breach of the 1660 Treaty of Oliva, for which France was a guarantor. Sweden suggested to Louis XIV that he might want to cooperate in the proposed invasion as guarantor to the treaty which had been broken. Help was not expected but Sweden wanted to know the French attitude on the issue. The French were not willing to go further than to offer their good offices for mediation. In view of the strong views of Holland and England, particularly William III, those powers were informed that Karl XII would attack Augustus through Livonia.

The final nail in the coffin of the planned Saxon invasion was news from Ingria that a large Russian army was approaching its border with obvious intentions to invade. To regain Ingria was a primary Russian goal since its earlier loss had excluded them from access to the Baltic. The Russian declaration of war was received in late September. There was no way of countering a Russian invasion by going after Saxony. Winter was approaching and all available troops were quickly embarked to defend against the attacks by Augustus, now joined by Russia.

Swedish operations in Livonia had been too reactive and tame for Karl XII, despite the fact that Riga had held and General George Johan Maidel had inflicted a significant defeat on a part of Saxon army, forcing it to retire back behind the Dvina. The major worry was that the Livonian nobility was showing signs of unrest, and the Swedes did not fully trust their troops led by a Swedish officer, Count Otto Vellingsk.

Augustus made a second attempt in July to take Riga with an army of 17,000. A Swedish success was required to keep the loyalty of the Livonians. The news that Denmark had been knocked out of the alliance caused Augustus to halt his operation against Riga. Augustus was the epitome of duplicity and double dealing among a number of like-minded rulers of that time. He sent an urgent message to Tsar Peter for help while at the same time appealing to Louis XIV to arrange an armistice with Karl XII. Simultaneously, he shrewdly reinforced garrisons that had to be held to keep a line of communication open to his Russian ally.

Karl XII did not know about the Saxon withdrawal from Riga until he reached Pernau, but he knew about a mediation offer from Louis XIV. This led to a debate about the king’s methods concerning foreign policy by chancery officials both at his headquarters and in Stockholm. These complaints began at the time the king returned from Zealand, and centered on his openness and naiveté in dealing with foreign diplomats, and in not leaving adequate instructions and sufficient power for others to act in his place.

There is probably truth to these complaints. We have seen in the previous chapter that Karl’s father had a strong dislike for diplomacy, and this probably extended to his son. Karl was very direct and a person of few words. His advisers would present him various options; he thanked them and told them he would let them know his decision. This he did, but what apparently did not sit well with them is that he did not tell them why he had selected one option over another.

The chancellery officials felt that he was too preoccupied by military matters at the expense of diplomacy, and that when he did venture into that field failed to follow the elaborate customs that had come to characterize that craft. But it also sounds a bit like sour grapes. Karl XII sought and listened to advice from both military and civilian leaders who had more experience, and in the case of both Denmark and Saxony he bowed to foreign policy necessities.

Gustaf Jonasson provides an example of the difficulties between the civilian chancellery officials and the king. Karl graciously accepted Louis XIV’s offer to mediate between Augustus and himself. However, to the officials in the chancellery, who had to negotiate the offer, he insisted that Augustus had to evacuate Swedish Livonia before an armistice was signed. To the civilians this was the same as throwing down a gauntlet, showing that he did not want peace.

Chancellery papers and correspondence with the king and among themselves have been used to paint a monarch who preferred the sword to the pen. Professor Hatton provides some very rational explanations for these difficulties. The first is that the king was young and inexperienced. She observes that the king was naturally more concerned with short-term objectives, and that this is the natural difference in attitude between a soldier and a diplomat. It is an early example of the difficulties in civil-military relations. She also notes that the officials who prepared letters and documents did so with an eye for the future. She writes: In times of crisis, therefore, and in times of decision, officials tended to emphasize Charles XII’s sole responsibility for the course adopted and to set down their objections and fears on paper as a form of insurance for the future.

Andrina Stiles, among others, considered Professor Hatton an apologist for Karl XII and his obstinacy. As an example Stiles quotes Hatton:

If anyone could have saved Sweden’s great power position he [Karl XII] would have been the man, with his gifts as a commander, with his capacity for inspiring loyalty in his maturity, and with his dedication to the task fate had allotted him.

Karl assumed, probably correctly, that the reason for Augustus’ peace feeler was to delay the departure of Swedish forces from Sweden until it was too late in the season. Karl felt he would be negotiating from a position of weakness until he had his army in Livonia. This is shown by the fact that after landing in Livonia he expressed himself ready to proceed with an armistice while Augustus still held three Livonian forts. He was also willing to conclude an armistice at this time for another important reason—it would leave him free to deal with the Russians. It was clear thinking and correct strategy.

Vellingk reported to Karl XII that Augustus had become alarmed when the Russians appeared to concentrate their effort in Ingria while ignoring his pleas for help. Augustus had put his army in winter quarters in Courland while he traveled to Warsaw. Karl XII and his military advisors decided that pursuing the Saxons in Courland was probably a waste of time in view of the Russian threat to Ingria. The Swedish king found the recommendation of the French emissary, Count Louis Guiscard-Magny, who arrived in mid-November, convincing. He agreed with Karl XII that Augustus should return the forts he had seized and pay restitution costs before ratification of any treaty.

The decision had already been made to turn against the Russians with all forces that could be spared, since the threat from Augustus seemed rather remote. The Swedish forces—8,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry—were to be marshaled at Wesenberg. Magazines to support a six-week campaign were established, including winter clothing. Colonel Henning Horn, the garrison commander at Narva, was told that help was on its way. When Karl XII was asked where he intended to go into winter quarters, he answered simply that winter quarters would not be necessary since the army would be on the move.

At this time a Russian army of about 40,000 had begun the bombardment of Narva. The Russian army was not a rabble as some writers would have us believe, but included seasoned veterans from the war with Turkey, and there were many highly qualified foreign advisers. Among those was Field Marshal Charles Eugen de Croy, a former imperial general. The expectation was that Narva would fall to the Russians by the end of November. Tsar Peter sent General Boris Sheremetev (1652–1719), promoted to field marshal in 1701, with 5,000 men to destroy the Swedish supply depots at Wesenberg, but General Vellingk’s Livonian troops stopped him before he reached the depots. However, he turned the territory between Wesenberg and Narva into a wasteland to delay the Swedish advance which had started on 13 November with less than 11,000 troops—despite arguments by some at headquarters that marching to the relief of Narva would risk a battle with the huge Russian army.

The march to Narva was grueling as troops waded, hungry and tired, through mud from autumn rains halfway up their legs. At night they slept in the open. King Karl XII demonstrated his supreme confidence in victory by ordering a regiment that had not reached Wesenberg by the designated departure date not to hurry after the army but instead take up position at Lake Peipus to prevent the beaten Russian army from bringing their artillery safely across the lake. Such optimism was infectious and caused rising morale among the troops.

The Swedes were encouraged by the news that about 400 Swedish cavalry commanded by the king had encountered Sherementev’s force and put it to flight. The engagement is reported that way in a number of earlier books including books from the 1960s, but the initial reports on which they relied were not accurate. General Sherementev had already received orders to withdraw from a pass where he was posted and not to engage the Swedish army. The force the king encountered was therefore only a rearguard. The Swedes did capture a number of guns and supplies. However, the word spread through the ranks of the Swedish army that the king had won a major victory, and this helped to further raise their morale.

The Swedish army was within two kilometers of Narva by 19 November and a series of shots were fired to let Colonel Horn know that the help he was waiting for had arrived. The Russians had been warned by General Sheremetev that the Swedes were approaching, but they were not expected to launch an immediate attack on an adversary outnumbering them almost four to one. Instead the Russians expected the Swedes to undertake the customary build-up of forces before a battle took place.

This lack of urgency may have been the reason for a historically controversial event. Tsar Peter left his army on the night of 17–18 November for Ingria, ostensibly to organize reinforcements and meet with Augustus. Not only did he depart on the eve of the battle, but he took the nominal army com mander, Field Marshal Fedor Golovin, with him. Peter turned the command over to the very reluctant Eugen Croy. Some have described Tsar Peter’s departure as an act of cowardice, but Massie takes exception to this charge. However, it seems highly unusual for Peter and his principal deputy to choose the eve of battle to leave. Some accounts have—incorrectly—the tsar fleeing with his defeated army.

The Russian army was positioned in a large fortified camp on the southern side of Narva. It is generally agreed that the Russian army numbered 40,000 and that the Swedes had 10,000. Croy, when he saw how small the approaching Swedish army was, wanted to take a strong force and leave the fortified camp to meet them in open battle, but the reluctance of his Russian subordinates forced him to change his mind. The Russian army remained within their camp. It was protected by a wall nine feet high, and a ditch about six feet wide. The artillery numbered some 140 cannon. The weakness of their position, pointed out to the tsar by Croy, was that they were spread out for seven kilometers, leaving open the possibility that a concentrated enemy attack at one point could achieve local superiority before reinforcements could arrive on the scene.

Croy watched the Swedish approach with growing alarm. All had expected that the Swedes would start digging their own trenches and establish a camp, but instead he saw through his telescope that the Swedish soldiers were carrying equipment needed to cross obstacles. He was beginning to realize that the Swedes, contrary to all rules for an inferior force, were about to storm his position.

The Swedes had noticed the weakness of the Russian deployment and the king ordered General Karl Gustav Rehnskiöld to quickly prepare a plan of attack. It was decided that the infantry would launch the main attack against the center of the Russian camp in two groups. After breaking in, one group would turn north and one would turn south, rolling up the Russian line. The Swedish artillery, positioned on a slight rise, would support the attack. The cavalry was to remain outside the camp to deal with possible sorties or flight. Rehnskiöld would command the left wing of the Swedish army while Vellingk commanded the right. King Karl commanded a separate small force on the far left in the company of Colonel Magnus Stenbock (promoted to field marshal in 1713).

The Swedish attack began at 1400 hours in the middle of a snowstorm that was more of a problem for the defenders than the attackers as the wind blew the snow into the defenders’ faces. The Swedish infantry halted thirty paces from the breastworks and fired a devastating volley that made the defenders fall like grass. Throwing bundles of twigs and brush into the ditch, the Swedes climbed over, scaled the breastwork, and killed everyone they found in what one Swedish officer described as a terrible massacre.28 Within fifteen minutes the Swedes had broken into the center of the fortified camp and a furious battle ensued.

The first part of the Russian army to give way was their right wing. Many thousands fled toward the river, so many in fact that the bridge collapsed. The rest defended themselves within a wagon fort until darkness. The Russian left held out until dawn when it found itself completely surrounded and surrendered. There were so many prisoners captured that the Swedes found themselves unable to feed them. They were divided into groups. Those who had fought bravely were allowed to keep their arms while those who had not proven themselves worthy of that honor were disarmed. All soldiers were permitted to return home. From 0400 on the 21st until far into the next day a steady stream of Russians left and marched east. High-ranking officers were detained; the non-Russian officers were freed without ransom; the Russians were sent to Sweden in the hope that they could be used in a future prisoner swap.

The Swedish losses were 677 dead and 1,205 wounded. Some of the Swedish casualties were incurred by friendly fire in the night battle. The most reliable figure on Russian casualties is that between eight and ten thousand were killed. The rest of the Russian army were wounded and/or captured. The wounded were freed along with the prisoners but it is doubtful that many reached their homeland. Field Marshal Croy and nine other generals were captured, along with ten colonels and thirty-three other senior officers. The most important booty captured was the Russian artillery: 145 guns, 12 mortars, and 4 howitzers. Also captured were 10,000 cannonballs and 397 barrels of powder. The captured standards were sent to Stockholm.

The young king acquitted himself well. He was one of the first over the entrenchment, lost his horse and sword in the ditch, mounted a new one provided by a cavalryman, and had three shots fired at him—one failed to penetrate his water-soaked uniform while the second bullet was found after the battle in his neckerchief. Word of his courage spread like wildfire among the troops.

The magazines of food in the Russian camp were welcomed additions to the meager Swedish supplies, and the Swedish soldiers moved into the abandoned Russian tents. Before long, this proved to have been a grave mistake because of disease (see below). The victory, particularly its magnitude, astonished Europe.

Many historians consider that Karl XII made a strategic mistake in not following up his victory at Narva despite the urgings of his advisers. They felt that the Russian realm was demoralized after Peter’s already brutal reforms and that a Swedish invasion might have begun a revolt against the tsar.

Karl, in choosing to turn instead against Poland, made the right military decision based on what he knew at the time by going after what he considered his strongest opponent, Augustus. He had little respect for the Russian army after Narva, and could not have known that the feverish activities carried out by Peter the Great over seven years would result in a vastly improved and well-equipped army. Only in retrospect, and with the knowledge of what Peter was going to do, can it be remotely considered a strategic mistake. Even then, to leave the undefeated Polish-Lithuanian-Saxon armies on his flanks and rear would have been a perilous gamble.

The decision made by Karl XII is very much like that made after the Battle of Breitenfeld when Gustav Adolf opted not to risk a drive against Vienna with unreliable allies in his rear and a hostile Bavaria hugging his flank. Most historians, with the notable exception of General Fuller, apparently fail to see the similarity in the strategic decision made by Karl XII. Finally, it should be noted that the forces available to Karl XII in 1700 were totally inadequate for an invasion of Russia.

Happenings at the other end of Europe created difficulty for Sweden’s operations against Augustus. About the same time as the battle of Narva, Charles II of Spain died, thus triggering the struggle over his succession. The French changed their attitude to the war in the Baltic almost overnight. The French emissary Guiscard had worked hard to bring about an armistice between Augustus and Sweden. With a possible war looming on the horizon it was in French interests to see the war in the Baltic continue so as to keep either Sweden or Augustus from joining the maritime powers.

The splitting of the continent into pro-French and anti-French states served to complicate things for Sweden. Sweden found herself driven by the need for international loans—which came from the maritime powers—and by the need to have the Travendal Treaty upheld by them.

Sweden was obligated by the Travendal Treaty to help the maritime powers in case they were attacked. In February 1702 Karl XII promised both defensive and offensive help as soon as his own war was concluded. We now run into a situation where everyone saw their own problems clearly but not those of others. The maritime powers became annoyed when Karl XII did not end the war in the Baltic and join them.

Karl XII could not gain freedom of action lest he upset relations with the maritime powers, and that he could not do since their cooperation was what kept Denmark-Norway in place. He could not move against Augustus in Saxony for fear of upsetting England and the Dutch Republic. After the enemies of France gained substantial victories in 1706 they could no longer claim that Karl XII was spoiling their war by entering Germany. When this opportunity came Karl XII immediately invaded Saxony. The calculated risk worked and immediately knocked Augustus out of the war. If this could have taken place much earlier the many years of Swedish war in Poland could have been avoided and forces released for use against Russia in the 1702–1706 period.

Swedish campaign plans had to be changed considerably. An infectious disease had ravaged the Russian camp at Narva before the battle, and unfortunately it spread to the Swedish soldiers when they moved into the Russian tents. It spread like wildfire among the Swedes, causing untold deaths. Karl XII determined to avoid enclosed camps from then on.

It proved impossible to bring reinforcements from Sweden until spring, and the same was true for equipment and money. As a result the Swedish army was forced to go into winter quarters in Livonia and Estonia.

There were no indications that the defeat at Narva would lead Peter to the negotiating table. He became thoroughly determined to rebuild his shattered army. Church bells were melted down to make cannons, taxes were increased, and training was intensified.

The tsar and Augustus concluded a treaty when they met at Birsen in February 1701. Augustus had been wooed by both France and the Empire, and he had entered into a secret understanding with Emperor Leopold in return for a guarantee of his position as king of Poland. He was therefore able to demand stiff conditions from Tsar Peter who had just sustained a major defeat at the hands of the Swedes. In the Treaty of Birsen the tsar agreed that Estonia and Livonia would pass to Augustus when Sweden’s Baltic possessions were divided. The Russians also agreed to pay heavy subsidies and provide an auxiliary army of up to 20,000 troops to assist Augustus. Ingria was to go to the Russians.

Augustus was now in a seemingly strong position. He had secured a very favorable treaty with Russia, and the Emperor had guaranteed his Polish crown, as had Prussia. Augustus also held up hopes that Denmark-Norway would re-enter the war provided Sweden suffered defeats in the Baltic.

Montross writes that Augustus, Karl XII’s cousin, typified the worst German despotism of the age:

Called Augustus the Strong because of his gross appetites, he left 354 illegitimate children as his chief claim to historical fame. The moral tone of the court at Dresden is suggested by the fact that one of his natural daughters became his mistress after marrying her half-brother.

The strong position of the Saxons meant that for Karl XII, they had become the primary enemy. The Russians were kept in their place by their defeat and by Swedish garrisons spread along their borders. Augustus falsely professed his peaceful intent to the emperor and the maritime powers, but he had set his sight on delivering a serious defeat to the Swedes, and his troops raided southern Livonia from their base in Courland.

Reinforcements from Sweden in the spring brought the strength of their army to about 24,000. This was not enough to mount simultaneous attacks against Augustus and the tsar. It was important, however, to keep both enemies guessing as long as possible. In the end it was planned to make a crossing of the Dvina that would bring on a main battle with the Saxons. After the hoped for victory, the Swedes could then clear out Courland with part of their forces while the majority of the army took on the Russians in the dry weather of the late summer or after the roads had frozen in mid-winter. The rainy season had to be avoided. In this way the battlefields would be moved away from the provinces.

The Swedish crossing of the Dvina was well prepared. A pontoon bridge was constructed in Riga in the spring, strong enough to support cavalry. It would only be floated into position at the last moment. Diversionary plans were also made to confuse the Saxons and protect the operation. Furthermore, troops were stationed so as to protect Estonia and northern Livonia from invasion, while other forces were sent north to test Russian defenses in preparation for future operations.

There was a narrow window for beginning the operation. It could not start until the roads had dried out after the spring thaw but before the fall rains. It also could not begin until the grass was high enough for horses to eat and, most important perhaps, until more reinforcements from Sweden had arrived. Ten thousand soldiers landed in Reval in May, and the forces already in the Baltic provinces were ordered to leave their winter quarters. The army began its southward march from the Dorpat area on 17 June, which also happened to be Karl XII’s nineteenth birthday. The army followed the road to Riga, but at Wenden it turned right towards Kokenhausen in an attempt to draw the Saxons away from the planned crossing site over the Dvina. When the army had reached a point about five kilometers from Kokenhausen on 3 July, it turned left and headed for Riga at maximum speed. Everything was ready at Riga.

Since Augustus was in Warsaw, General Adam Heinrich von Steinau commanded the Saxon forces. He had at his disposal 9,000 Saxons plus some Russian auxiliaries under General Repnin. He did not know where the Swedes would cross and had spread his troops thin to cover the likely crossings. This operation demonstrates the superiority of the offense against a defense when the main point of attack is unknown. He could only concentrate his forces once the enemy intention was known, and by then it could be too late. Steinau also fell for a Swedish feint against Kokenhausen by sending reinforcements to that fort. He was further misled by another Swedish feint towards Dünamunde the night before the crossing. The crossing began at dawn on 9 July.

The Swedes had achieved tactical surprise. The river was crossed using a dense smoke screen as Gustav Adolf had done at the Battle of the Lech in 1632. The boats made the crossing behind the smoke screen. In addition, there was a screen of small boats piled high with bales of hay to absorb musket and cannon fire. The troop transports were provided with large rectangular sheets of leather to absorb musket fire.

The Riga fort and armed merchant ships provided excellent covering fire by engaging enemy gun positions. The fire support was so effective that General Steinau gave them high praise for the Swedish success. An important part of the assault plan miscarried. The pre-constructed bridge, built in sections, to span the 2,000-foot-wide river could not be launched in a timely manner since a strong northwesterly wind prevented its deployment. The failure of the bridge prevented the use of most of the Swedish cavalry.

The crossing of the infantry and small units of cavalry was meantime a complete success. About 6,000 Swedes were eventually in the bridgehead. Karl XII went across in the first wave despite the protests of his aides and advisers. There was some hard fighting as the Saxons tried to drive the Swedes back. However, after a battle that lasted several hours the Saxons decided to withdraw. Due to the absence of most of their cavalry, however, the objective of forcing a decisive battle on the Saxons through pursuit could not be carried out. Although the Swedes improvised in getting their cavalry across after the bridge failure, it took such a long time that it was too late to launch a pursuit.

The Swedish infantry showed great discipline under heavy fire. They carried the fight to the enemy in such a determined manner that the experienced Saxon troops were astonished. This was particularly true at the beginning of the battle when the Swedes were heavily outnumbered as they tried to establish a beachhead.

The Swedish victory in crossing the Dvina made an even greater impression in Europe than the victory at Narva because the Saxon army was viewed as more experienced and had a high reputation. The conduct of the Russian auxiliary troops was a disappointment for the Saxons. The four Russian regiments that General Steinau had placed in reserve panicked and fled before taking part in the battle. The losses in the battle were relatively light. The Swedes lost 500 in dead and wounded; the Saxons lost 800 dead and wounded plus 700 captured.

The failure to get the cavalry across the river in a timely manner robbed the Swedes of the decisive victory they had hoped for. Consequently, they were forced to change their campaign plan for the year.

Karl XII – The Baltic and Saxon Campaigns II

The planned pursuit of Peter the Great was contingent upon first having knocked Augustus out of the war, and the failure to do so upset the plans. There was no way the Swedes could move against the Russians with a full-strength Polish-Saxon army in their rear or flank. The Swedes spent the rest of the year securing Courland and Swedish Livonia. The Saxons abandoned the forts of Kokenhausen and Kobron without a fight, but they had to be forcibly ejected from Dünamunde. The main Swedish army took up positions in Courland from which they could foil any Saxon attempt to link up with the Russians, and which were also centrally located for the defense of the northern territories. It was also a good location for the receipt of reinforcements and supplies from Sweden.

Swedish relations with the maritime powers were soured by English, Dutch, and Prussian suspicions that Sweden’s intent was to incorporate Courland into their empire, despite Swedish assurances to the contrary. In fact such a step was on the long-term Swedish calendar. The Swedes also launched an expedition against Archangel on the White Sea but it failed and the Swedes accused the Dutch of revealing their plans.

Naively, Karl XII was drawn into the complicated politics and internal squabbles in Poland. Up to now Karl XII had basically fought Augustus as the elector of Saxony, but now that he had withdrawn his army into Poland the Swedes were presented with a problem. Cardinal Michael Stephan Radiejowki, the Primate of Poland, wrote a letter to Karl XII at the request of Augustus, warning the king not to enter Poland. Letters were also received from Poles of the opposite opinion, primarily James Sobieski who lived in exile in Silesia after his unsuccessful attempt to gain the Polish crown in 1697.

The idea of Augustus’ dethronement and his replacement by Sobieski originated at the Swedish Chancery. The chancellor had raised this with the king on several occasions. Karl XII therefore proposed that the Poles be told that if they wanted to get rid of Augustus, Sweden would help. This went too far for the diplomats who wanted the Poles to sort out their own affairs. They urged caution in dealing with Polish groups.

For Karl XII’s military campaign against both Augustus and Peter the Great, it was important to get this issue settled without waiting for the slow diplomatic route. He therefore answered the Polish Primate’s letter by coming out in the open with his demand that the Poles dethrone Augustus, unwisely promising he would not enter Poland until an answer was received. The king did not realize—as he admitted—that Radiejowski would make the letter public in preparation for the Diet in December 1701.

In the long run what Karl XII had done made little difference. His dilemma was that he could not undertake a campaign against Russia with an undefeated Augustus in his rear. Karl XII felt he had the blessings of the chancery, but admitted that he should not have put the dethronement demand on paper.

The answer to Karl XII’s July letter to the Polish Primate did not arrive until the middle of October, and it turned down his suggestion and warned against any encroachment of Polish territory. The war against Saxony had now also become a war against Poland, because Augustus had sought sanctuary in that country and the Poles were not willing to expel him. Karl XII was furious but it was too late in the year to do anything about it and this was probably the reason for the three-month delay in the Polish answer.

Russian forces were also going into action against Swedish territory in the north, destroying Swedish hopes of keeping the war away from their provinces. Colonel (later General) Anton von Schlippenbach had been left to defend Livonia with 7,000 troops. Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev fought an indecisive battle with Schlippenbach near Dorpat. Each side suffered about 1,000 casualties but the Russians captured 350 Swedes that were sent to Moscow. This caused great joy in a city used to being constantly defeated by the Swedes.

The Russians, under Sheremetev, administered a severe defeat to Schlippenbach at Hummelsh of six months later (18 July 1702). The Swedes were virtually annihilated—2,500 casualties from a total force of 5,000. An additional 300 were captured while the Russian losses were placed at 800. The virtual destruction of Schlippenbach’s army left Livonia wide open to the Russians except for a few garrisons in the main cities. Sheremetev’s army had free reign in the Swedish province. The savage Kalmuk and Cossack cavalry moved at will through Livonia laying the countryside waste, burning villages, and taking thousands of civilian prisoners.

Among the captives was a 17-year old peasant girl named Martha Shavronska who was not sent to work on the Azov fortifications as the others. Instead she begun an amazing “career” as a concubine, first to Sheremetev, then to Menshikov, and finally to Peter the Great himself who married her in 1707 and crowned her Empress Catherine I of Russia.

The Russians also took control of Lake Ladoga and Lake Peipus south of Narva. Finally, they captured the Swedish fort of Nöteborg at the southern end of Lake Ladoga where it connects with the Neva River. The fort controlled the trade from the Baltic to the Russian interior via a network of rivers. Nöteborg, with a small garrison of only 450, was captured after a 10-day siege on 22 October 1702, and renamed Schlüsselburg. The whole length of the Neva River to the Gulf of Finland was occupied, and Peter founded a city at the mouth of that river named St. Petersburg.

Despite holding the military advantage for the next five years and winning every engagement, Karl XII was unable to achieve final victory. He became mired in the same wars and political maneuvering as his predecessors. When his campaigns are reduced to lines on a map, it looks like a spider’s web of maneuvering. The Swedes being mired down in Poland and Lithuania was like a gift on a silver platter for the Russians. It gave Peter the Great seven precious years between the defeat at Narva and the Swedish invasion to rebuild and strengthen his army. He also did his best to keep the Swedes mired down by generous subsidies to factions opposed to Karl XII, even entering into an alliance with Lithuania in 1702.

Karl XII marched on Warsaw in 1702 and occupied it on 14 May with no opposition. Then he marched westward seeking out Augustus, who had finally reappeared to defend his crown. The armies met in the battle of Klissow. The Swedes were outnumbered almost two to one, with their army consisting of 8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. Opposing them in strong positions difficult to assault were 7,500 Saxon infantry, 9,000 Saxon cavalry, and 6,000 Polish cavalry. Almost all the Swedish artillery was behind struggling through the mud to keep up with the army. There were only four guns available at the start of the battle. The Saxons had 46 guns.

After viewing the Saxon positions, Karl XII changed his battle deployment by thinning out his center and right to mount a risky envelopment of the Saxon right. The weakened Swedish center and right were barely able to repulse heavy assaults while the envelopment was in progress. Eventually, the Swedes fell on the Saxon right flank as the center and right moved forward to pin down the troops to their front. The Saxons were hopelessly caught in a pincer and forced back on the marshland in their rear. When it was all over the Swedes entered the enemy camp. They had lost 300 killed and about 500 wounded. The Saxons had about 2,000 killed and 1,000 captured. One of those killed on the Swedish side was Karl’s brother-in-law, Fredrik IV, the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Augustus escaped by fleeing through the swampy marshland.

The next substantial engagement with the Saxon army came about a year later, in June 1703, at Pultusk. After a rapid forced march the Swedes pounced on the surprised Saxons and scattered their army. Karl XII chose not to pursue but laid siege to the nearby fortress of Thorn, which Augustus had garrisoned with 6,000 of his best infantry. When Karl proposed to storm the fortress with only 600 men, his officers protested. At that time Karl XII is alleged to have uttered these words: Where my soldiers are, there also will I be. As for Sweden, I should be no great loss to her, for she has had little profit out of me hitherto. He was persuaded not to undertake the reckless attack, and the army settled down to a six-month siege. It was successful in the end and cost only 50 Swedish casualties. In addition to the garrison, the booty included 84 cannons and 1,000 stands of arms. The walls of the fort were razed and the city had to pay a contribution of 60,000 riks-dollars. The following year the Swedes, through excellent use of their cavalry, produced another victory at Ponitz.

Karl XII was still fixed on destroying Augustus and his influence in Poland. His pacification campaign went on to capture Cracow and Poznan, and Ebling was occupied in 1704. In July that year Karl saw to it that his candidate, Stanislaw Leszynski was elected king of Poland and Lithuania.

Since Karl did not have sufficient forces to also effectively counter the Russians in the far north, they were allowed to pick off Swedish possessions one at a time. Dorpat was captured in July 1705 and Narva the following month. All the Swedish inhabitants of Narva were massacred by the Russians. A Russian army under Scottish General George Ogilvie occupied Courland in 1705 but avoided any major engagement with Karl XII. The Swedish king chased the Russians out of Lithuania but halted when he reached Pinsk in July 1706.

The Swedish cavalry had proven a decisive arm in several battles, and the best example is the Battle of Fraustadt on February 3, 1706. At this time Karl XII was besieging the fortress of Grondo where Ogilvie had been forced to retreat with his whole army corps. Peter was determined that Grondo be held, otherwise the road into Russia would be open to the Swedes. Ogilvie was ordered to withdraw from Grondo by the tsar after the news of Fraustadt. After he threw all his guns into the river Ogilvie managed to escape from Grondo in the direction of Kiev through the Pripet Marshes as ordered.

General Rehnskiöld had been left behind to secure Poland. Tsar Peter implored Augustus to make a diversionary attack in the west to relieve the pressure on Grondo. To accommodate his ally, Augustus crossed the Oder with 15,000 troops while the Saxon General Johann Matthias von Schulenburg with 20,000–30,000 men, composed of Russians and Saxons, approached from the west simultaneously. Augustus was so sure of victory that he sent his minister to Berlin to request that Prussia not provide a safe refuge for the escaping Swedes.

General Rehnskiöld had only 8,000 men, mostly cavalry, and he was therefore heavily outnumbered by both Augustus and Schulenburg. He could not let them join and decided to strike at the stronger force under Schulenburg. Despite being outnumbered by more than three to one, he attacked the Saxons and Russians in strong positions, deliberately chosen to resist the feared Swedish cavalry by being anchored on two villages. Attacking at full gallop, the Swedes put the Saxon cavalry on the wings to flight. They then pressed in on the center in a double envelopment while the Swedish infantry attacked the center. The result was disastrous for the Saxons. Of the combined Saxon-Russian army of 30,000,50 eighty percent were killed or captured. Those killed were estimated at 7,000–8,000. The Russians who were captured were massacred, undoubtedly in revenge for the Russian massacre of Swedish civilians at Narva.

Augustus did not try his own luck against the Swedes, and withdrew his army. Karl XII was so impressed by Rehnskiöld’s victory that he immediately promoted him to field marshal.

Peter the Great was furious and worried. Portions of a letter he wrote to his Foreign Minister Fedor Golovin are quoted by Massie:

All the Saxon army has been beaten by Rehnskjold and has lost all its artillery. The treachery and cowardice of the Saxons are now plain: 30,000 men beaten by 8,000! The cavalry, without firing a single round, ran away. More than half of the infantry, throwing down their muskets, disappeared, leaving our men alone, not half of whom, I think, are now alive … By giving money [to Augustus] we have only brought ourselves misfortune … .

After the Blenheim and Ramillies campaigns (1704–1706) the maritime powers appeared to have the upper hand in the War of the Spanish Succession, and Karl XII felt they would no longer be sensitive to a Swedish invasion of Saxony. The maritime powers were also worried about the possibility of an alliance between Saxony and Prussia. William III sent John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to Berlin to dissuade King Frederick I by threats, bribes, and promises alike to convince the king to prepare to fight France.

Karl XII decided to strike at Saxony, and the Swedish army crossed the border into Silesia on 22 August 1706. They were greeted as liberators by Protestant Silesians. By the time the Swedes reached the Saxon border a state of panic existed in the electorate. Augustus and his family fled in various directions. The Saxon governing council, empowered to govern in Augustus’ absence, resolved not to fight. They were war weary after losing 36,000 of their troops trying to keep Augustus on the Polish throne. The primary cities such as Leipzig and Dresden were quickly occupied without resistance, and Karl XII dictated his terms to the Saxons at his headquarters in Altranstädt Castle.

The main terms were simple and the Saxons accepted them in the Treaty of Altranstädt, signed on 13 October 1706:

Total and permanent abdication by Augustus of his claim to the Polish crown.

Augustus’ recognition of Stanislaw as the king of Poland.

Saxony to break its alliance with Russia.

Surrender to the Swedes all Swedish nationals in Saxon service or prisoners.

Saxony to pay all the costs of the Swedish army wintering in Saxony.

At age twenty-four the Swedish king was at the apex of his career. In six years of continuous campaigns against Danes, Saxons, Poles, and Russians he had never lost a battle, and his reputation in Europe had never stood higher. But he had also spent six years that proved precious to Russia. Karl XII now settled down for the winter while contemplating his next moves.


Karl XII and his army spent the winter of 1706–1707 and much of the following year in well-deserved rest in Saxony at the expense of their former enemy. In an unbroken string of victories Karl XII had eliminated two of the three enemies ranged against Sweden in the Great Nordic War—Denmark and Saxony. However, Russia still remained, and the Swedish king was deter mined to deal with that power next. The Swedes also did not sit idle in Saxony. They were constantly drilling, and reinforcements were arriving in preparation for the next campaign.

Two events during Karl XII’s stay in Saxony are worth mentioning. The appearance of the Swedish army in the heart of Germany sent earthquakelike tremors through Europe. During the winter of 1706–1707, numerous emissaries arrived in Saxony trying to divine Karl XII’s intentions now that he was only some 300 kilometers from the Rhine. Louis XIV proposed an alliance that would tip the European balance in his favor. The two countries would then divide the German states between them. Silesia begged the Swedes to remain and defend them against the Empire. Karl went so far as threatening to march on Vienna if the Lutherans in Silesia were not granted religious freedom. Voltaire reports that Emperor Joseph is alleged to have commented to a representative of the Pope who was angry at the effrontery of the Swedish king: You may think yourself happy that the King of Sweden did not propose to make me a Lutheran; for if he had, I do not know what I might have done.

The most famous emissary was John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722). The maritime powers were anxious not to have Karl XII align himself with France, and, judging from the instructions Marlborough had received before he set out on his mission, to prevent such an eventuality they were willing to go far.

The two-day meeting between the two most successful generals of the age tells one much about the difference in their personalities. Marlborough, commander-in-chief of British forces, showed up splendidly attired. Karl XII appeared in the same blue coat he always wore.

Karl XII told Marlborough that he had his hands full in dealing with Russia, a war he expected to last two years. He had no desire to be the arbiter of Europe. It appears Marlborough agreed to support Sweden with respect to its problems both with Denmark and the Empire, to recognize Stanislaw as king of Poland, and guarantee the Treaty of Altrastädt. Marlborough, an experienced diplomat as well as general, was careful not to put his promises on paper, thereby affording him some deniability when it came to his assurances concerning Stanislaw and Altrastädt, items that would not sit well with his allies, especially the Dutch. His mission was judged a success since he had assured himself, after discussions with Karl XII and some of his officers, and stealing a glance at a map the Swedish king either intentionally or inadvertently left on his desk, that the Swedes would be busy with the Russians for the next two years and had no intention to involve themselves in affairs in the west. Karl XII had asked that a document detailing what had been agreed to be provided. Such a document was delivered to the king after he had left Saxony.

The alarm in the west was somewhat, but not totally, put to rest. If the Swedes were quickly victorious, as was expected, there was nothing to prevent them from turning west and dictating terms to both sides.


That Peter the Great was worried when he became convinced that Karl XII would invade Russia, and that he would be left to face him alone, is best illustrated by his feverish search for allies and the massive peace offensive he launched. As most accounts of the peace offensive differ to some extent.

Peter’s peace offer eventually included the return of Dorpat, Livonia, and Estonia with the exceptions that he wanted to retain Schlusselburg, the Neva river valley, St. Petersburg, Narva, and Reval. This was totally unacceptable to Karl XII. While some members of the Riksdag and the administration in Stockholm urged acceptance as they had done with respect to earlier peace offers from Augustus, the king politely refused. He viewed it as only “kicking the can down the road,” not the permanent solution he was seeking.

In his peace offensive, the Russian tsar approached both sides in the War of the Spanish Succession, first the maritime powers and the Empire. He promised to provide 30,000 troops for their fight against France if they could convince Sweden to accept his peace offer. The Dutch did not reply to his request and he thereupon approached Denmark and Prussia. The attempt to get these countries involved failed. He then approached France, promising to provide troops for use against the Empire, the Netherlands, and England if they could mediate a peace. Louis XIV accepted, but his offer of mediation was politely refused by the Swedish king, who stated that the Russians could not be trusted to keep their promises.

Peter’s final attempt, which had begun before 1707, was to seek the help of England. For this purpose he was willing to give huge bribes to Marlborough and others—even though, due to his enormous wealth, he was skeptical of Marlborough accepting a bribe. The English duke nevertheless arranged for the Russian emissary to travel to London and meet Queen Anne. The queen told the Russian that, provided that her current allies Holland and the Empire agreed, she was prepared to make an alliance with Russia through it becoming a member of the Grand Alliance. Marlborough kept Russian hopes alive by promising to use his influence with the Dutch. This was at the same time that Marlborough had his two-day meeting with the Swedish king and made the promises mentioned earlier in this chapter.

English duplicity went even further according to Massie. A Russian ambassador-at-large in Europe, Heinrich von Huyssen, claimed that a different approach to Marlborough was under consideration. The Duke had said that he would be willing to arrange English help for Russia in return for a substantial Russian gift of money and land for him personally. Peter, when informed, said Marlborough could have any one of three fiefs and 50,000 ducats per year for life. Nothing came of this offer.

Tsar Peter also sought the support of the Empire for a new candidate for the Polish throne. His suggested candidates included James Sobieski, the son of the former king, Eugène of Savoy, and finally Francis Rakoczy. Sobieski declined and the emperor, wary of offending Karl XII, made the excuse that Eugène was preparing for another campaign and therefore not available. Rakoczy did accept but only on condition that the Polish Diet make a request for him.

Karl XII’s principal subordinates had assumed that the Swedish army would proceed north to retake the territories seized by the Russians. When they learned the king’s real intent, Bain reports that they all objected except for Field Marshal Rehnskiöld.

The Swedish army was ready for its greatest test in mid-August 1707. In the late afternoon of 27 August 1707, Karl XII himself rode out of Altrastädt to catch up to his main army which had already departed. Accompanied by only seven officers he detoured and rode into Dresden, the enemy capital, to pay a surprise visit to his cousin Augustus. Surprise was achieved; the Swedish king found his relative in his dressing gown. Quickly donning something more appropriate, the two relatives embraced before taking a ride along the Elbe. Now that Augustus had been punished, Karl harbored no ill feelings. He also visited his aunt, Augustus’ mother. It was the last time he would see either.

The king’s foray into the enemy capital practically alone gave his subordinates a sense of alarm at his recklessness. They told the king that they were ready to besiege Dresden had he been made a prisoner. The next day Augustus held an unscheduled council meeting in Dresden. This led Baron Henning von Stralenheim, a Swedish diplomat in the field with the king, to comment to Karl XII: You see they are deliberating upon what they should have done yesterday. We don’t know what caused the king to make the detour to Dresden; it appears to have been a sudden impulse to see his relatives.

The Best Mods for Pike & Shot: Campaigns: Great Northern War – Narva, Poltava, Lesnaya, Jakobstadt, Kliszow, Holowzyn, Duna, Warsaw, Systerback, Fraustadt, Poniec, Gemauerhof