Lee Divides and Conquers at the Second Battle of Bull Run

August 28–30, 1862

Outnumbered two to one, Robert E. Lee and his corps commanders Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet outgeneraled the Union’s pompous and unpopular John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run. The reputations of three Confederate generals rose to mythic proportions as yet another Union military leader—Lincoln’s latest candidate for top command—suffers not merely defeat but humiliation. The outcome was another blow to Northern morale and a grave political threat to Abraham Lincoln. At this point, the Union was losing the Civil War.

George B. McClellan, the vaunted “Young Napoleon” on whom Abraham Lincoln relied to redeem the Union Army from the humiliation of the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), had promised to capture Richmond in what he called the Peninsula Campaign, a name that echoed Napoleon’s “Peninsular War,” fought for possession of the Iberian Peninsula in 1807–1814. It was not the best Napoleonic parallel to evoke. The Peninsular War was one of the defeats from which Napoleon could not recover.

McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign spanned March to July 1862, culminating in the so-called Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862), the last of which was Malvern Hill (July 1). That battle ended in a tactical victory for McClellan, but a victory fought not on ground to which he had advanced, but to which he had retreated. Having set out to capture Richmond, the Young Napoleon ended up farther from the Confederate capital than he had been at the start of his endeavor. Moreover, while McClellan defended his high ground position expertly at Malvern Hill, bombarding Robert E. Lee’s attacking forces with fire from massed cannon that were positioned nearly wheel to wheel, he refused his field officers’ pleas to seize the initiative, hold Malvern Hill, and counterattack Lee. This might have revived and redeemed the Peninsula Campaign. Certainly, it would have taken a greater toll on Lee than the mere defense did. But George B. McClellan was completely cowed by the Confederate general, even when, as now, Lee committed a great blunder in fruitlessly attacking uphill. No sooner did Lee break off his attack than McClellan completed his withdrawal from the campaign against Richmond by returning to Harrison’s Landing, the location on the James River from which the Army of the Potomac had originally embarked.

Commanding a larger army than Lee, McClellan had failed in his mission. Nevertheless, his 16,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured, or missing) were 4,000 fewer than what he had inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia. Tactically, the Union forces had come out ahead. Strategically, they were humiliated. As if to certify his failure, Major General McClellan sent an abject telegram to the War Department on July 2, 1862: “I now pray for time. My men have proved themselves the equals of any troops in the world—but they are worn out. Our losses have been very great. I doubt whether more severe battles have ever been fought—we have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.”

The telegram did not appease Abraham Lincoln. Astoundingly, McClellan assessed Lee’s strength at almost 200,000 men. It was actually between 55,000 and 65,000. Feeling that McClellan was not just making poor use of the magnificent army he had built, but virtually no use of it, Lincoln summoned Major General John Pope to a conference. He assigned him to command a force to be known as the Army of Virginia. It would consist of numerous units in and around Virginia that had been slated for incorporation into the Army of the Potomac. As if this weren’t a sufficient demonstration of Lincoln’s loss of confidence in McClellan, who seemed not only unwilling but incapable of leaving Harrison’s Landing, Lincoln ordered him to return to northern Virginia and detach three Army of the Potomac corps to be put under Pope’s command and used in coordination with the Army of Virginia.

From today’s perspective, few would argue that Lincoln was wrong to shift the initiative away from McClellan; however, he could hardly have chosen a less popular officer to turn to. Pope had shown a certain brilliance as commanding general of the Army of the Mississippi against Confederate General Sterling Price in Missouri and in the capture of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River (February 28-April 8, 1862). His far greater military talent, however, was his unerring ability to alienate virtually everyone in the army, both officers and enlisted men. When he assumed command of the Army of Virginia in July 1862, he addressed his soldiers with a level of condescension that makes one cringe even to read it:

Let us understand each other. I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense. In but one instance has the enemy been able to place our Western armies in defensive attitude. I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily. I am sure you long for an opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving. That opportunity I shall endeavor to give you …

Amazingly, Pope also provoked a special outrage from the enemy. The Army of Virginia occupied a sliver of northern Virginia. Instead of trying to win over the populace there, Pope tyrannized them. He seized from the people whatever food supplies he wanted, and he repeatedly threatened to hang civilians as well as prisoners of war and traitors. Robert E. Lee found Pope’s conduct so unbecoming a military officer that he condemned him as no better than a “miscreant” in need of being “suppressed.”

It was not idle trash talk. Lee saw Pope as an inept and bombastic commander who was supplanting a timid one, McClellan. This made both the Army of Virginia and at least the three corps of the Army of the Potomac that were assigned to Pope’s command especially vulnerable—provided that Lee could strike before those three corps could link up with the Army of Virginia. Accordingly, on August 9, 1862, Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson to attack a portion of the Army of Virginia at Cedar Mountain, near Culpeper. The resulting Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862) was a minor Confederate victory that did no more than force Pope to withdraw to the north bank of Rappahannock River. But that was precisely where Lee wanted him. Lee could now attack before the reluctant, petulant, and slow-moving McClellan arrived with his three Army of the Potomac corps.

For the first time in his military career, Lee decided to violate a very basic tenet of military practice in the field. He put half the Army of Northern Virginia under Major General James “Old Pete” Longstreet, charging him with the mission of occupying Pope’s front. The other half Lee gave to Stonewall Jackson, ordering him to lead his wing on a roundabout march to the northwest, so that he could hit the rear of the Army of Virginia with a surprise attack as Longstreet attacked Pope’s front. It was a strategy Lee would use again in the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). The idea was to hold the enemy by the nose while kicking him in the rear.

Pope observed the movement of Longstreet and Jackson, but he did little enough about it, except to launch a harassing raid on the encampment of Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart. The aim of the raid was to capture or kill Stuart. While the raiders did manage to bag the cavalryman’s adjutant, Stuart himself got away. In his haste to leave, he forgot to take with him his trademark ostrich-plumed hat and crimson-lined cape. Pope’s raiders took these items as prizes—something that delighted them almost as much as having captured Stuart himself.

Jeb Stuart was outraged. Bad enough that his adjutant had been taken, but the raiders went too far when they stole that hat and cape. Duly provoked, on August 22, Stuart and a small raiding party rode full gallop into Major General Pope’s headquarters camp at Catlett’s Station. They captured 300 prisoners and “appropriated” $35,000 in Union army payroll money. Worse, perhaps, they rifled through Pope’s personal baggage, taking his dress uniform coat and also his battle plans. Four days later, on August 26, Stonewall Jackson attacked and destroyed Pope’s supply depot at Manassas Junction, Virginia, very near the site of the First Battle of Bull Run. As serious as the loss of supplies was, Jackson’s raid did far worse by severing Pope’s telegraph and rail lines. This partially cut off rapid communications to and from the field and greatly limited Pope’s ability to transfer large numbers of men rapidly. The Union commander pursued Jackson, but was unable to locate him—at least until Jackson wanted to be found.

On August 28, Stonewall suddenly materialized. He attacked a Union brigade under Brigadier General Rufus King at Groveton. The skirmish was intense. Not only were two of Jackson’s division commanders seriously wounded, but King’s “Black Hat Brigade” (later called the “Iron Brigade”) fought with a fervor Jackson had never before seen in a Union military unit. While King took a toll on Jackson, however, he also suffered heavy losses. Nearly a third of his brigade were killed, wounded, captured, or missing.

Together, the Manassas raid and the Battle of Groveton were overtures to the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862). For all the problems Jackson had caused him, Pope was actually given an important advantage. The Confederate commander had revealed himself and thereby sacrificed the element of surprise. Pope knew exactly where he was, and he began concentrating his forces accordingly, deploying near Groveton with the intention not only of defeating Stonewall Jackson, but boasting that he would “bag the whole crowd.”

Pope did what McClellan seemed unable to do. He took the initiative, and he attacked Jackson on August 29. The trouble was that the attacks came piecemeal. I Corps, under Franz Sigel, started in on Jackson, and then the Pennsylvania Reserves under John Reynolds joined in. Pope ordered Major General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps, Army of the Potomac, to get between Jackson’s Corps and Longstreet’s—but it was too late. Longstreet had already made contact with Jackson on his right. Porter was stymied, not knowing where to attack.

Another of Pope’s commanders, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, bore down on Jackson with his corps, as did elements of Major General Jesse L. Reno’s IX Corps and two divisions under Irvin McDowell, the Union commander defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run. Despite this impressive array of forces, Pope proved utterly unable to coordinate them. Individual Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac units made inroads against Jackson’s line here and there, but, lacking effective overall command, were unable to consolidate any of their gains. Each Union attack was repulsed in turn, and, after heavy fighting, Jackson remained in control of his position by the end of the day on August 29, while Longstreet, on his right, actively extended the Confederate line. Noting Longstreet’s advantage, Lee urged him to attack, but, always cautious, Longstreet declined, protesting that he had no idea of Pope’s strength to his right and front. Longstreet did launch a reconnaissance in force to ascertain what lay ahead. This resulted in some confused nighttime skirmishing, which prompted Longstreet to recall his brigades to their starting positions.

Although Longstreet had not intended this withdrawal to deceive Pope, Pope was nonetheless deceived. At daybreak on August 30, he assumed that both Jackson and Longstreet were in full and final retreat. He assumed that the Second Battle of Bull Run was over and that he had won. When it became evident that the Confederate commanders were not giving up, Pope was confused. Unsure what to do, Pope launched a massive attack against Jackson’s front. Porter’s V Corps attacked just after three in the afternoon. Although the attack was bold, it discounted the presence of Longstreet, who used his artillery to enfilade the attackers, firing along the length of Porter’s advance and cutting his men down like reaped wheat.

Lee was quick to take advantage of Porter’s repulse. He ordered Longstreet to make a general advance, and, this time, Longstreet did so wholeheartedly and with absolute confidence. His troops surged forward, smashing into Union positions on much the same ground that had been contested at the First Battle of Bull Run. Still, two Union corps managed to hold out, and federal troops were able to hold a position on Henry House Hill. This made it possible that the tide of battle could still be turned in the Union’s favor. But Pope had lost both situational awareness and the will to fight on. He saw only that his forces were being mauled and generally driven back. He did not grasp the significance of the action on and around the high ground of Henry House Hill. Accordingly, he ordered a general retreat back across Bull Run. Longstreet rushed in to take over Henry House Hill, and Pope continued to fall back, withdrawing the combined Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac to the outer defenses of Washington itself. Of the 75,696 troops under John Pope’s command, 1,724 were killed, 8,372 wounded, and 5,958 went missing. It was a devastating 21 percent casualty rate. Lee had a total of 48,527 men engaged, of which he lost 1,481 killed, 7,627 wounded, and 89 missing, making for a casualty rate almost as heavy as Pope’s—19 percent.

President Lincoln wasted no time in disposing of a general he hoped could have effectively replaced McClellan. Three short days after the Second Battle of Bull Run, Pope was ordered to service in the Department of the Northwest, where he was tasked with battling the Santee Sioux, who had staged an uprising in Minnesota. In effect, Lincoln exiled him, altogether removing him from the Civil War. His Army of Virginia was dissolved, and most of its units and personnel incorporated into the Army of the Potomac, whose three corps were also returned, all under the command of George B. McClellan—at least for the time being. McClellan was apparently rehabilitated, but—at this point—the Union was losing the Civil War.

The Arab Conquest I

During the last few years of his life, the Prophet gradually expanded his sphere of influence within the Arabian Peninsula by means of military campaigns and peaceful alliances. In the aftermath of his death, the Muslim leadership at Medina began a series of conquests that still have the power to amaze the observer. Taking place over a period of ninety years, these conquests swept away the imperial forces of the Arabs’ proud neighbors to the north and resulted in a permanent cultural transformation of the societies that came under Muslim control.

Arabia and the Fertile Crescent

The Prophet’s sudden death in 632 was a stunning and disorienting experience for his followers. Having become dependent upon him to serve as both the channel of God’s revelation and the political and military leader of the new state, the community was bereft of its religious and political leadership at a stroke. That the despair and confusion in the wake of his death did not cause the collapse of his nascent movement is a testimony to the strength of the institutions and the ideals that Muhammad had left behind and to the quality of the leadership that succeeded him.

According to the most commonly accepted version of events, several factions emerged among the Muslims, each advocating its own solution to the leadership vacancy. The three primary groups were the original Muslim migrants to Medina, the natives of Medina who converted to Islam, and the Meccans who converted after the conquest of their city in 630. Two of the first converts to Islam, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and Abu Bakr, played leading roles during the decision-making days after the Prophet’s death. In the heat of the debate over the course of action to be taken, ‘Umar made a passionate speech that convinced those present to accept Abu Bakr as the leader of the Umma. Abu Bakr was a pious, highly respected confidant of Muhammad who was famous for his knowledge of the genealogy of the region’s tribes, a valuable asset for the politics of the day. He and the Prophet had solidified their relationship by Muhammad’s marriage to Abu Bakr’s nine-year-old daughter, ‘A’isha, soon after the Hijra. The young wife became Muhammad’s favorite, and he died in her arms. The title of the position that Abu Bakr now held came to be known as that of the caliph, although as we shall see later, it is not clear whether Abu Bakr himself was addressed by this title. There is evidence, in fact, that ‘Umar and Abu Bakr worked together closely during the latter’s short administration.

With the loss of the Prophet, the new leader’s most pressing challenge was that many of the tribes that had subjected themselves to Medina no longer considered themselves under Medina’s control. Interpreting the situation in traditional fashion, they felt that the terms that they had contracted with Muhammad had been of a personal nature, and that it was incumbent upon his successor to renegotiate the terms. They failed to pay their tax and waited for Medina to react. A reversion to paganism does not appear to have played a major role in this challenge to Medina’s authority. There were, indeed, certain “false prophets” leading challenges to Islam’s dominance among tribes in central and northeastern Arabia, but these were not areas within Medina’s sphere of influence. In most cases, the revolt represented a residual tribal antipathy toward unfamiliar centralized control, and it is clear that in some cases the affected tribes were divided, with significant factions wishing not to break with the Umma. Abu Bakr’s stature as a leader, however, lay in his recognition that to allow tribes to secede from the union would doom the newly emerging society and allow a relapse into the polytheistic and violent tribalism of the recent past. He perceived that Muhammad’s polity inextricably combined religious expression with political authority. Islam was not a religion that could recognize a difference between what belonged to God and what belonged to Caesar. In the Prophet’s vision, any distinction between the “religious” and the “political” was fatuous. Political infidelity would result in religious infidelity.

The military campaign that Abu Bakr ordered to bring the recalcitrant tribes back under Medina’s control is known in Islamic history as the ridda wars, or the Wars of Apostasy. The campaign is important historically because it marks the transition to the Arab wars of conquest outside the peninsula. The campaign to coerce rebel groups to resubmit to Medinan hegemony made two seamless shifts in policy. The first was a transition from pacification of the rebellious tribes to one of subduing Arabian communities that had never had a treaty with the Prophet. The subjugation of the rebels was a short affair, which may be explained in part by evidence that many of the secessionist tribes and settlements were experiencing internal divisions over the issue of rebellion and put up only a half-hearted resistance. In the process of coercing rebel groups back under Medinan hegemony, the Muslim army at some point began to subdue the Arabian tribes that had not made submission. Despite fierce resistance from a handful of tribes, Medina won an overwhelming victory and was master of the peninsula by 634. Augmented by the manpower of the forces that it had conquered in the Ridda wars, the Muslim army was large and confident, whereas its opponents could never unite against Medina. The decisive victory by the diverse coalition that made up the Islamic state made a deep impression on many Arabs regarding the inadequacy of a purely tribal identity.

Just as the Ridda wars are impossible to distinguish from the war for the conquest of the peninsula, so the latter evolved imperceptibly into invasions of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. The specific reasons for this evolution into major international military expeditions are lost to history, but scholars have suggested three factors that may have converged precisely when the two empires were at their weakest. The first was a geopolitical motivation on the part of the Muslim leadership. As Medina’s campaign moved into the northern part of the peninsula, the objectives of the Muslim elite may well have expanded. Muhammad himself had already attempted to gain control of the Arabian tribes and settlements on the route from the Hijaz to Syria; now Abu Bakr seems to have been concerned about the threat posed to the Umma by nomads and rival settlements situated on important trade routes. He was concerned with bringing under his control any potential security threat to the trade of the new state, and he used a combination of force, cajolery, and material incentives to do so.

The second factor was the inspiration of religion itself. Many of the soldiers who fought for Medina throughout the Arabian campaigns were genuinely motivated by religious concerns. The Qur’an repeatedly enjoins believers to engage in a struggle (jihad) against unbelievers until God’s rule is established on this earth. Muslims who refuse to help either by fighting, or by helping the cause by contributing to it financially, are called hypocrites. On the other hand, those who fight are rewarded not only spiritually (in the afterlife), but also materially (the troops are to share four-fifths of the loot captured in fighting the infidels). The scriptures, the promise of material reward, and social pressure all combined to create a polity that offered powerful ideological motivations for participation in warfare.

Which of these motivations was most important to the typical rank-and-file soldier? It would be interesting to know. Few of the fighters could have been knowledgeable regarding the nature of societies beyond their own, and no doubt initially envisioned fighting and converting only pagan Arabs. As it turned out, they chose to tolerate the existence of the huge number of Christians and Jews in the lands west of Iran, and nowhere did they welcome non-Arab converts to Islam. What, then, was the nature of God’s rule that they hoped to establish as a result of their efforts? Unfortunately, it is as impossible to know the answer to this question as it is to know the exact motivations of the Frankish crusaders who went off to Palestine or of the conquistadores with Cortes who claimed to be engaging in a mission for God against the Aztecs.

A third factor in the unexpected irruption of the Islamic movement into regions outside the peninsula was one that we shall see repeated many times over the next eight centuries when nomads were recruited into armies in the Afro-Asiatic land mass: Although the nomads were supposed to be instruments of the policy of political leaders, their own needs and expectations often dictated policy. The irony facing the Medinan and Meccan elites was that a majority of their troops were of necessity the very bedouin who historically had depended on raiding settlements for the acquisition of their surplus. In a sense, the Muslim leadership was riding a tiger by depending on armies made up of the social group that posed a perpetual threat to the personal, political, and economic security of town dwellers.

It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have escaped the dilemma. Muslims expected the raids and battles to yield plunder as well as strategic or religious gains. The Qur’an stipulated that the Prophet would retain one-fifth of the captured property from such battles for distribution among the community, and the remainder would be divided among the warriors who participated in the fighting. The wars under the first caliphs continued that policy, with one-fifth of the captured property going to the caliph. Each Muslim victory yielded plunder and recruits from the ranks of the vanquished. The additional warriors made the next stage of conquest easier, but they also made the next stage imperative. Further conquests were needed to satisfy the demand and expectation of plunder. The conquest of neighboring tribes within the peninsula, then of settlements outside the peninsula, and then of contiguous areas beyond, proved to be a way of providing the nomads with loot, which kept their minds on new enemies and opportunities, rather than on the central government. Controlling the forces that made their very success possible, however, would be a continuing challenge for the Muslim leadership.

The Arabian Peninsula merges imperceptibly with the land mass of southwest Asia. So, too, did the presence of Arabs extend from the peninsula into the Fertile Crescent. From the Medinan perspective, the Syrian and Iraqi Arabs were obvious candidates for incorporation into the Umma. The Syrian portion of the Fertile Crescent received priority. As we have seen, Muhammad had already sent more than one army in its direction. Its oases and green hills were known to those who plied the caravan trade, and it was the setting for many of the important religious figures mentioned in the Qur’an. Populated by numerous Arabs, it attracted Muslims for both religious and economic reasons.

In the autumn of 633, four Arab armies entered southern Syria and were soon joined by a fifth army that Abu Bakr transferred to Syria from its location on the southern Euphrates in Iraq, where it had been engaged in raiding and reconnaissance. The total manpower of the Muslim forces probably amounted to about 24,000 troops, including both infantry and cavalry. Abu Bakr died a few months later and was succeeded by his friend ‘Umar by the same process of deliberation that had brought Abu Bakr into the leadership role a mere two years earlier. Reflecting the common vision of the two men, the Syrian conquest proceeded without interruption.

Whereas the Muslim conquest of Syria proceeded seamlessly despite the death of the first caliph, the Byzantine defense of the region never became coherent. Plague and sustained warfare had reduced the population of the area by twenty to forty percent over the previous century, and adequate provision had not been made for the loss of the Ghassanid auxiliaries. Byzantine armies, forced to move at the rate of their infantry, might travel twenty miles per day at best and by this time had developed a reputation for preferring a defensive rather than an offensive posture. They had also lost much of their discipline and combat readiness. The best of the regular imperial troops were concentrated near Constantinople, and those in Syria were outnumbered by their own, friendly, Arab forces by a ratio of at least two to one, and perhaps five to one. The populace was sullen. The numerous Monophysite Christians had no reason to feel loyalty to distant Constantinople, and the Jews were suffering severe persecution in retaliation for their active support of the Sasanian occupation that had just ended.

The first objective of the Muslims was to establish dominance over the Arabic-speaking areas of southern and eastern Syria. Many of these tribes put up stiff resistance against what they thought was another raid from desert dwellers, but many local Arabs, including Christians, joined the conquering armies. With these reinforcements, the invaders developed a numerical advantage over the local defenders. Syrian cities in the interior began to fall, and Damascus surrendered in 636. At that point, Heraclius realized that the invasion was a serious threat and sent in a huge Byzantine army that was reinforced by Arab and Armenian mercenaries. At the Yarmuk River, a tributary of the Jordan River just south of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee), the Muslims and their local allies decisively defeated the Byzantine coalition, effectively sealing the fate of Syria. The only question would be how long the sieges of the remaining cities would take. Over the next few months, Antioch and Aleppo fell, and Jerusalem capitulated in 637. The seaport of Caesarea was the last Byzantine city to fall, in 640. The Muslim Arabs now ruled the coastal plains and the interior, although they never gained effective control of the remote and rugged Lebanese mountainous areas.

Although the chronology is not certain, it appears that after the battle of Yarmuk, ‘Umar felt that he could send troops into Iraq. When the Muslims began their attacks on Iraq, local Arab nomads and the Aramaic towns fought to protect themselves. Soon, however, the primary Muslim army devastated a much larger Sasanian force at Qadisiya, northwest of Hira. It then moved on to capture Ctesiphon. From that point, the largely Nestorian and Jewish population of central Iraq put up little resistance. Meanwhile, a second Muslim army captured southern Iraq. The young Sasanian emperor, Yazdagird, fled east, and, by 638, the Muslims had secured almost all of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The conquerors established military settlements to serve as garrison cities that could ensure security, serve as supply points, and keep the Arab troops from mixing with the local people. Kufa and Basra were the biggest of these new settlements, and within a short time, each of these new towns was thronged with tens of thousands of Arabs from the peninsula.

Meanwhile, in 639, the Arab commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As requested permission from ‘Umar to lead a force into the Nile valley. ‘Umar, whose clearly stated focus had been the subjugation of Arab populations rather than conquest in general, initially refused. After further consideration, ‘Umar gave his reluctant consent, perhaps being persuaded by the security threat posed by the Byzantine army and navy that were based in Alexandria. Muslim armies now entered a new phase of their conquests. From that point, they would spread the hegemony of Islam wherever their power enabled them to overcome local resistance. ‘Amr’s army benefitted from the policies of the Orthodox patriarch, Cyrus. After the Byzantines retook Egypt from the Sasanians in 628, Cyrus had begun a savage repression of Monophysitism, with the result that Copts provided no support to their hated Byzantine overlords. ‘Amr’s army won control of Egypt by 641, and he created a military garrison and capital, calling it Fustat. Significantly, it was near the old Roman settlement of Babylon, on the southern fringe of the Nile delta, rather than at the traditional seaside capital, Alexandria. Whereas Alexandria was Greek in culture and faced the Byzantine-dominated Mediterranean, Fustat—like Kufa and Basra—was for Arab troops, and was oriented toward Medina.

The Arab Conquest II

Iran

Seven years of campaigning won the Fertile Crescent and Egypt for the Muslim armies. The flat terrain and arid and semiarid climate were familiar and congenial to the victors; the poor organization and morale of the imperial armies had allowed the traditional superiority of nomadic attackers to prevail over settled life; and after the initial shock, the population had reacted to the new administration with a mixture of relief and resignation. The momentum of the victories carried the Muslim armies to the east and to the west simultaneously, and they were continuously augmented by migrants from Arabia, new converts in the conquered territories, and even by warriors, such as former Sasanian troops, who were not required to convert as a condition of service in the Muslim army. The next stage of the conquests would prove to be no less remarkable than the first, but would be much more difficult.

The Sasanians had been defeated in Iraq, but Yazdagird’s generals organized a large army on the Iranian plateau with the intention of driving out the invaders. ‘Umar ordered a campaign to meet him that entailed having to advance through the Zagros Mountains, a terrain unfamiliar to the Arab army. The Zagros at that point are 125 miles wide. They run north and south and are arranged in parallel, rugged ridges that contain deep gorges. It was in the Zagros that the Arab army encountered Yazdagird at Nahavand in 642, the most difficult and costly of all the battles the Arabs had to fight against the Sasanian forces. The Arabs won, however, and Yazdagird once again fled to the east as a fugitive, with the Arabs in pursuit.

The Arab campaign to conquer Iran was well planned, but it faced formidable challenges. One was a change in leadership. In 644, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab was stabbed to death by an Iranian who had been captured during the conquest. His successor was ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, who had supported Muhammad from the beginning of his mission. Again reflecting the remarkable unity of the early leadership, the Iranian campaign continued without interruption under the new caliph.

The other challenges were the different terrain and the new level of resistance from the local inhabitants. In southwestern Iran, the Sasanian royal family’s favorite province of Fars produced the fiercest resistance of all. Five years (645–650) of sustained, brutal fighting were required to reduce such opposition, during which time the Sasanian aristocracy was exterminated. The inhabitants of Fars resisted conversion to Islam for longer than any other group in Iran. In order to control the other Iranian cultural areas, an invader must master the Zagros Mountains, rugged Azerbaijan in the northwest, and the Elburz Mountains south of the Caspian Sea, as well as maintain a vigilant watch on the great deserts of the interior. Moreover, unlike Iraq, whose population had not defended the Sasanian regime, other provinces fought the invaders almost as fiercely as the inhabitants of Fars did. The Muslim army encountered bitter and prolonged fighting in Azerbaijan from the fiercely independent mountain peoples there. As a result, the province suffered extensive destruction. On the northern Iranian plateau itself, the Arabs also faced stiff resistance. The Arabs secured the southern slopes of the Elburz Mountains while following the trade route east through Rayy en route to Khorasan. They took Nishapur (Neyshabur) and Merv (near modern Mary) in 651, not long after Yazdagird was murdered in that region by his own companions. Due to its size and its resistance, Khorasan was not effectively under Arab control until 654.

In 656, the conquests suddenly stopped for a decade, due to a civil war that rocked the new community of Islam. This bloody conflict was a shock to the many Muslims who had assumed that the principles of religious unity, equality, and justice would bring an end to factionalism. (The civil war will be the subject of a detailed treatment in the next chapter.) At this point, it is sufficient to say that the conflict began when the third caliph, ‘Uthman, was assassinated in 656 by disgruntled warriors from the garrison of Fustat in Egypt. These men then secured the selection of ‘Ali ibn Talib as ‘Uthman’s successor. ‘Ali was the Prophet’s cousin and had been among the very earliest of the converts to Islam. He was widely admired, and a devoted group of followers had been demanding that he be selected caliph ever since the death of the Prophet. Now, however, because he took no steps to punish the murderers of his predecessor, ‘Ali became the target of a vendetta by ‘Uthman’s kinsmen, who were known as the Umayyads.

The vendetta grew to such large proportions that it became a civil war. The leader of the Umayyad cause was ‘Uthman’s nephew, Mu‘awiya, the talented governor of Syria. In 661, ‘Ali became the third caliph in a row to be murdered, stabbed to death while at prayers in a mosque. Mu‘awiya now claimed the right to succeed ‘Ali as caliph. Because Mu‘awiya remained in Syria, Damascus became the center of Muslim political and economic power, and Medina was relegated to the periphery of the Arab empire. Mu‘awiya (661–680) proved to be a skillful and honest administrator, but one of his decisions won him enduring enmity among many Muslims. Rather than relying on a council to select the next caliph, he named his own son to be his successor. His family, the Umayyads, thus became the dynastic rulers who claimed the leadership of the Arab empire from 661 until they were overthrown in 750.

Under the Umayyads, the conquests resumed. Using Coptic sailors who had been in the Byzantine naval squadron based in Alexandria, the Arabs led several fruitless naval raids on Constantinople between 667 and 680.

During these same campaigns, however, the Arabs captured Crete and established a presence on the island of Cyprus, which they used as a base to attack Byzantine shipping for the next three centuries. Arab armies could not secure a lasting foothold in the densely settled areas north of the Taurus Mountains. The Byzantines had lost Syria and Egypt, but still retained Anatolia and the Balkans. Anatolia’s population was equal to that of Egypt and Syria combined, and by possessing it and the Balkans, Constantinople was sufficiently wealthy to remain the mighty capital of a powerful empire for centuries to come. The Sasanians had been destroyed, but the Byzantines would engage the Muslims in almost continuous warfare for centuries and present a difficult barrier against further Islamic expansion despite their notorious political instability.

North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula

North Africa did not lure the Arabs the way Syria and Iraq had. Arab troops occupied Tripoli in 643 during ‘Amr’s consolidation of his victory in Egypt, but he attempted no conquests further west. For several decades thereafter, North Africa provided an opportunity for local warriors and adventurers to make raids while the main theater of conquest lay to the east.

North Africa west of central Libya (the Gulf of Sidra) is usually referred to as the Maghrib, an Arabic word meaning “land of the west,” or “land of sunset.” The Maghribi coastal plain is fertile for most of its length, and the area comprising modern Algeria and Tunisia was a major source of wheat, wine, and olive oil for the Romans and Byzantines. Peasant villages dotted the coast and were found throughout the valleys and passes of the mountain ranges, which become progressively more imposing from Tunisia into Morocco. Most of the towns were ports along the coast, although some were located in fertile wheat-growing areas dozens of miles inland. Roman Carthage had attained a population of at least 100,000 at its peak, but it never fully recovered after having been sacked by the Vandals in 439.

In the seventh century, the Berbers were the dominant ethnic group throughout the 2000 miles from the Libyan plateau to the Atlantic coast. The Berber languages belong to the Afroasiatic language family, along with the Semitic, Chad, and ancient Egyptian languages. However, several of the major Berber dialects are almost mutually incomprehensible, and the result has been a long history of rivalry and conflict among the major groupings.

Like the Arabs themselves, some Berbers were camel nomads, a greater number were seminomads, and the largest number were settled in villages and towns. The pastoral and village Berbers had always remained little touched by Roman and Byzantine culture, but urban Berbers had assimilated to it, especially in the beautiful and prosperous areas of northern Tunisia and eastern Algeria, the Roman province of “Africa.” Under the Arabs, this province would become known as Ifriqiya.

The coastal areas of the Maghrib were largely Christian, and boasted hundreds of bishops in an age when each town had its own bishop. Luminaries such as Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220) and Augustine of Hippo (354–430) established North Africa as a major center of Christian activity. Carthage was one of the major churches in the Christian world during the third and fourth centuries. During the fourth and fifth centuries, however, a major controversy broke out within the North African Church that opened bitter ethnic and social cleavages, leaving the Christian community divided on the eve of Muslim expansion.

During the mid-seventh century, the Maghrib was a venue for raids by Arabs stationed in Egypt. Under Mu‘awiya, the Umayyads launched larger raids into Byzantine North Africa in the 660s and 670s, coordinated with their attacks on Constantinople. A notable accomplishment of these raids was the creation in 668 of a headquarters at Qayrawan (Kairouan), which eventually became one of the most important cities in North Africa. However, the raiders were not able to capture Byzantine cities or subdue the Berber tribesmen.

The first major invasion did not take place until 693. Although the army captured Carthage, it was soon expelled by tribal forces. A second invasion in 698 was more successful. In that year, Carthage was destroyed, and during the period 705–714, the Maghribi governor Musa ibn Nusayr overran the areas to the west, all the way to the Atlantic. Musa owed much of his success to Berber tribesmen, many of whom converted to Islam during the 690s and joined his army. Unlike the sedentary Berbers, numerous nomadic Berbers from the coastal plains formally adopted Islam (albeit with a considerable admixture of folk religion) by the end of the seventh century. North Africa may well have been the most Islamized of the conquered areas by that time. Thousands of nomadic Berbers joined the conquering Muslim armies. Although they were not paid a stipend as the Arabs were, the Berber warriors were allowed to share in the distribution of the plunder of the conquests, unlike the non-Arabs in the Muslim armies of the east. Many Berbers became high-ranking civil and military officers in the new administrative system.

Before he had even consolidated his position in the Maghrib, Musa received an unexpected appeal from the Visigothic royal family of the Iberian Peninsula for support against a usurper named Roderick. The Visigoths had crossed the Pyrenees three hundred years earlier, but had not managed to subdue the whole peninsula until the 630s, when Muhammad was consolidating his position at Medina. They had long been influenced by Roman culture, and provided patronage to those who produced it. The great Latin scholar Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) was a beneficiary of such cultural largesse. Initially maintaining a clear division between themselves and the much larger Hispano–Roman population, the Visigoths gradually adopted legal and religious policies during the seventh century that appeared to be creating a stable society. The economy, however, remained dangerously dependent on a weak agricultural sector that proved to be vulnerable to recurring droughts during the seventh and early eighth centuries. The famines and social unrest that resulted provoked the formation of factions within the military elite, leading to great instability within the regime. The Jews, who had already been persecuted by the Visigoths, now became scapegoats for the growing unrest, and were tortured, enslaved, and forced to convert to Christianity. The political crisis reached its peak in 710, when Roderick seized the throne and one faction within the royal family appealed to Musa for aid.

In 711, Musa sent an army across the Strait of Gibraltar and devastated Roderick’s forces. Whatever Musa’s intentions for the expedition might have been, the campaign rapidly became one of conquest. The largely Berber force swept across the disorganized peninsula with surprising ease, subjugating the bulk of it within five years. The invaders met little resistance from the inhabitants of most areas and were actively aided by members of the substantial Jewish population, some of whom served in garrisons that were assigned the responsibility to preserve order in captured cities. By 720, the Iberian Peninsula had been pacified, except for a small area in the mountainous north called Asturias.

Central Asia and the Indus River Valley

Some towns in Khorasan took advantage of the civil war between ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya (656–661) to assert their independence, but they were almost immediately recaptured. In order to secure its position, the Arab army in the region captured Herat in 660, extending the empire’s frontier considerably eastward. Khorasan was a wealthy province and, as the Sasanians had known, it was the front line in the defense against Central Asian nomads. The new Umayyad dynasty placed a high value on securing control of the area, and in 671 Damascus ordered a massive colonization effort, which resulted in the settlement of 50,000 Arab warriors and their families in Merv. Merv thus reasserted the role it had played under the Sasanians, serving as the primary garrison city in the east. For the next thirty years, Arabs raided across the Amu Darya for the purpose of looting and keeping the area disorganized, but not of annexing it.

Transoxiana, the target of the looting, had long been a cultural melting pot. Most of the area is desert or semidesert, but it was densely settled in the many oases and along the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river valleys that bordered it on the south and north, respectively. The two most important cities were Samarqand and Bukhara. Because of the region’s location, it was frequented by merchants from all over Asia, whose activities augmented the wealth derived from agriculture. As a result of its attraction to traders, Samarqand and Bukhara were cosmopolitan centers and numbered among their citizens Zoroastrians, Buddhists, shamanists, Nestorians, and Manichaeans, as well as adherents of other religious traditions. Intellectuals were attracted to the cities, and rich merchants were pleased to patronize them, so the two cities had a reputation for a rich intellectual life.

In 705, Qutayba ibn Muslim became the governor of Khorasan and began his spectacular, albeit destructive, ten-year career as the leader of Umayyad expansion into Central Asia. His task was quite different from that of the other Arab military commanders, who were leading bands of Arab or Berber warriors with nomadic backgrounds, and for whom constant movement was normal. By the early eighth century, tens of thousands of Arabs had assimilated into the local Iranian society in Khorasan, having bought farms or set up businesses. Although they were offered the normal stipend for military service, as well as a share in the loot, many of the Arabs were reluctant to set off on the campaigns. Qutayba was forced to supplement the local Arab contingents with Syrian soldiers and levies of non-Muslim Khorasanis. Qutayba’s army captured Bukhara in 709 after a three-year siege. The ensuing sack of the city resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and the destruction of invaluable manuscripts. In 711–712, Qutayba annexed Khwarazm (the lower reaches of the Amu Darya) and Samarqand; and in 713, he subjugated Farghana, the upper valley of the Syr Darya, which today lies in the eastern extremity of Uzbekistan. According to the Arab chroniclers, the conquest of Central Asia was unusually brutal, and Qutayba’s end was equally so: His own troops killed him. Tired of the endless campaigning, both the Arab and the Iranian Khorasanis wanted to return to their families and businesses.

About the time that Qutayba began his conquest of Transoxiana, the conquest of Sind began. Sind was the name Arabs gave to the valley of the Indus River and the territories lying to its east and west. It was one of the cradles of civilization. Like Egypt and Iraq, Sind is a desert in which riverine irrigation produces a large surplus of foodstuffs. The Indus allows a rich agricultural valley to extend for almost four hundred miles through this arid region and made possible the Mohenjo-daro civilization of ca. 2300 B.C.E. Because of the agricultural wealth to be derived from the area, it was contested by neighboring empires and had been controlled by the Sasanians. By the early eighth century, the majority of the population was Buddhist, but Hindus were engaged in an aggressive campaign to become the dominant community. During the first decade of the eighth century, an Arab merchant ship was beached during a storm near the town of Daybul, approximately where modern-day Karachi is located. Pirates plundered the passengers’ possessions and enslaved the women and children. Al-Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq, demanded that the local ruler arrange for the release of the captives and the restoration of their property, but was rebuffed. Al-Hajjaj sent two unsuccessful expeditions against the city, but the third was commanded by his young son-in-law, Muhammad ibn Qasim, who became famous as the conqueror of Sind.

In 711, Muhammad ibn Qasim’s well-equipped army captured Daybul after a fierce siege. Muhammad then moved north up the Indus. He captured the city of Multan in 713 after another arduous siege and overthrew the Hindu ruler there. Many of the local Buddhists, like those in other cities that he captured, welcomed him because they were anxious to be rid of their Hindu rulers, whom they viewed as usurpers. In fact, the bitter sieges of Daybul and Multan were the exceptions in a conquest that was characterized more by voluntary surrenders than by brutality. With the conquest of Multan, Muhammad became the ruler of all of Sind and part of the Punjab, the name given to the area through which five rivers flow to form the headwaters of the Indus. As Muslims were approaching the Pyrenees in Europe, Muhammad ibn Qasim had set up an Umayyad administration over the Indus valley, 5000 miles to the east.

The Lost War of Hungarian Independence, 1849 Part I

Battle at Tápióbicske (4 April 1849) by Mór Than.

On 17 June 1849, 190,000 Russian troops crossed the Hungarian frontier into Slovakia and Transylvania. They were under the command of General Paskevich, the leader of the punitive campaign against the Poles in 1831. The Russians carried out a series of ferocious repressions against the population, but themselves succumbed in enormous numbers to disease, especially cholera, in a campaign lasting just eight weeks. Vastly outnumbered by the Russians, most of the Hungarian army surrendered at Vilagos on 13 August. But about 5,000 soldiers (including 800 Poles) fled to the Ottoman Empire – mostly to Wallachia, where some Turkish forces were fighting against the Russian occupation in defiance of the Balta Liman convention.

In the spring of 1848 Vienna and Budapest were still in the grip of the same revolutionary fever. Eyewitnesses describe the enthusiastic reception given by Vienna to the noble gentlemen arriving by steamboat from Pressburg on 15 March. They were resplendent in their Hungarian dress uniforms, with richly decorated swords and egret feathers adorning their caps, and only Kossuth appeared as always in his simple black national dress. The delegation brought along the text of the pre-formulated Address to the Throne. The scene was described by an eyewitness as follows:

In this hour of jubilation the fiery Hungarians, with Kossuth and Batthyány in the lead, also arrived in Vienna… The jubilation that broke forth is almost indescribable. Endless shouts of “éljen!” [hurrah]. The national flag fluttered in the air, and while kerchiefs are waving, garlands and flowers flying from all the windows in the Jägerzeile and the city, the carriages slowly proceed along the streets… The next goal of the procession was the University, where a stirring speech by Kossuth, the brandishing of sabres and a chorus of acclaim celebrated the joyful avowal of friendship, and raised the hope that all barriers between Austria’s peoples had fallen and a firm moral alliance would unite them in the future.

On the morning of 17 March the Emperor-King Ferdinand assented to Count Lajos Batthyány forming a Hungarian government, as well as the appointment of Archduke Stefan as his plenipotentiary, and promised to approve every law passed by the Diet under the direction of the palatine. Apart from later complications and still open questions, the Hungarian reformers had achieved this success without bloodshed and, what is more, not through the Monarchy’s disintegration but in the spirit of independence already recognized in 1791. The King granted Hungary not only a constitution but also the right of unification with Transylvania, sovereignty over Croatia-Slavonia and the re-incorporation of the Military Border.

Within a few weeks the Hungarians had won a great victory. Even Széchenyi admitted in a confidential letter of 17 March: “Kossuth staked everything on one card, and has already won as much for the nation as my policy could have produced over perhaps twenty years.” According to the new constitution, Hungarian became the official language of the unified state; comprehensive liberal reforms were introduced and a constitutional government was appointed, answerable to a representative body that would soon be elected. After the electoral reform 7–9 per cent of the population received the franchise instead of the earlier 1.6–1.7 per cent. Considering that even after the 1832 Reform Bill only 4 per cent of the population of England had voting rights, the Hungarian achievement was remarkable.

Whether out of idealism or, as in Poland, fear of peasant uprisings or for a variety of other possible reasons, the nobility waived their rights of tax exemption, and agreed to the abolition of feudal dues and services. Thirty-one laws were worked out in feverish haste, which were supposed to transform the feudal Estate-based state into a Western-style parliamentary democracy. Hungary was also granted the right to an independent financial administration, a Foreign Ministry and its own Minister of War.

The new Prime Minister, Count Batthyány, one of the country’s greatest landowners, was an eminent statesman, even if too moderate for the Pest radicals and too progressive for Viennese court circles. Kossuth became Minister of Finance; Széchenyi Minister for Public Works and Transport (“They will hang me together with Kossuth”, he wrote in his diary); Baron József Eötvös, the writer and enlightened humanist, Minister for Culture and Education; Bertalan Szemere Minister of the Interior (later Prime Minister); and the respected liberal politician Ferenc Deák Minister of Justice. Hungary’s first constitutional government consisted of four aristocrats and five representatives of the lesser nobility—all of them rich apart from Kossuth. The Foreign Minister, the conservative Prince Esterházy, the richest man in the country, was seen as an extension of the Court; he wanted to neutralize Kossuth, “that deadly poison”.

Many questions regarding Hungary’s relationship to the Habsburg Monarchy remained open, such as agreement on the functions of the two Foreign Ministries and the military authorities. Nonetheless, Batthyány’s government prepared the way for an impressive surge of economic and cultural development, liberated the peasants, and at the same time guaranteed the nobility’s economic survival. The insurrectionist tendencies of workers and peasants were subdued, as was anti-Semitic rioting. Despite many and increasing tensions, a new and viable parliament was duly elected, in which the followers of the reform movement gained the majority. Kossuth proved his extraordinary abilities as a resolute and conscientious Minister for Finance: under adverse and confusing conditions he managed to conjure up an independent fiscal administration out of nothing. His political influence went far beyond his nominal position, not least because from July he had his own newspaper and from time to time acted as “leader of the Opposition within the government”.

The fateful questions of the Hungarian Revolution were the tense relationships with Austria, Croatia and the most important non-Magyar ethnic groups, such as the Romanians, Serbs and Slovaks. The Hungarians had always fought against the centralizing efforts of the Court and the Austrian government, but their own centralizing steps now elicited similar resistance from the Slavs and Romanians. In contrast to the representatives of national romanticism. Hungarian historians of our time, such as Domokos Kosáry, emphasize that the radicalization of these nationalities was not the result of Vienna’s policies, Pan-Slavism or rabble-rousing foreign agents. These ethnic groups, in their own social and political development, had reached a similar level of national feeling and national assertion as the Hungarians, but Kossuth and most of the authoritative Hungarian politicians were unwilling to accept their demands. Their principal aim was to secure the territorial unity of the lands of the crown of St Stephen, not their disintegration; moreover, many Hungarians lived in the territories claimed by the nationalities, and if they relinquished them, they would come under foreign dominance. Even the most progressive and revolutionary Hungarians believed so strongly in the efficacy of social reforms and the attraction of newly-won freedom that they feared no serious complications.

The culpability of the Viennese government lay in its exploitation of the national disagreements to its own advantage, using the Serbs and Croats supported by Belgrade—then still the capital of an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire—to provoke an armed conflict with Budapest. The Court wanted from the first to reverse the Hungarian reforms, which they regarded as a threat to the Monarchy’s unity. It was totally unimportant to Vienna whether one ethnic group or another achieved what it wanted; all that mattered was to gain allies against the Hungarians. That is why the representatives of the nationalities were so disappointed after the defeat of the Revolution. A Croat allegedly remarked later to a Magyar: “What you are getting as punishment we are getting as a reward.”

One of the most conspicuous characteristics of the Revolution and the War of Independence was the confusion in the army, as well as among the aristocracy and lower strata of the nobility. It tends to be forgotten that the Hungary of the time had three times the area of today’s republic, and the Magyars were less than 40 per cent of the population. The ethnic groups were already demanding autonomy and self-administration in the spring of 1848, partly—as with the Croats—within Hungary, and partly within the framework of the House of Habsburg.

The Serbs in Southern Hungary, supported by the principality of Serbia, made territorial demands, and unleashed an open revolt against the Buda-Pest government with the help of 10,000 armed “irregulars” in the service of the Belgrade government, who attacked Hungarian, German and Romanian settlements indiscriminately. Two-thirds of the Hungarian infantry regiments were serving abroad, and of the twelve hussar regiments only half were stationed in Hungary. The Batthyány government requested support from Imperial-Royal* regulars to supplement units of the newly-created Hungarian National Guard. It turned out later, however, that the Serb border guards were led by Habsburg officers, flying Imperial-Royal flags. Habsburg units were now fighting each other. In his much-quoted book on the Hungarian Revolution István Deák gave a few graphic examples of the problem of distinguishing between friendly and enemy soldiers and units, and of the moral dilemma facing the Imperial-Royal officers. The following befell Colonel Baron Friedrich von Blomberg:

In the summer of 1848 a Habsburg army colonel named Blomberg—a German national at the head of a regiment of Polish lancers—was stationed in the Banat, a rich territory in southern Hungary inhabited by Germans, Magyars, Orthodox and Catholic Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians. Confronted by the threat of an attack from Serbian rebels, Blomberg turned to his commanding general for further instructions. The commander, a Habsburg general of Croatian nationality though not very favourably disposed to the Budapest government, instructed the colonel to fight the Grenzer, and the foreign volunteers. The local Hungarian government commissioner, who happened to be a Serb, issued an identical order. Blomberg fought successfully, but when the leader of the Serbian rebels, a Habsburg army colonel of German-Austrian nationality, reminded Blomberg of his duty to the Emperor and not to the King (the two, of course were one and the same person), Blomberg ordered his Poles out of the region, leaving his German co-nationals, who happened to be loyal to the Hungarians, to the tender mercies of the Serbs. Totally uncertain, Blomberg now turned to the Austrian Minister of War, writing in a letter: “Have pity on us, Your Excellency, in our predicament; recall us from this place of uncertainty. We can no longer bear this terrible dilemma.” But Blomberg was not recalled because his regiment, so the Austrian Minister of War reminded him in his reply, was under Hungarian sovereignty. Blomberg was advised instead to “listen to his conscience”. The territory formerly under his protection was occupied by the Serbs, not without violence and plundering, yet it was twice liberated by Hungarians, first under the command of a Habsburg officer of Serb nationality and later by a Polish general.

Deák adds as a typical footnote that both Blomberg and his onetime opponent on the Serb side became generals in the Habsburg army, while the Hungarian government representative and the Polish General Józef Bem went into exile at the end of the war, and the Hungarian commander of Serb nationality, General János Damjanich, was hanged by the Austrians.

The strongest organized military resistance against the Hungarian Revolution came from the Croats. Their spokesman was Josip Jelačić—who had been promoted shortly before from colonel to general and appointed ban of Croatia—a Croat patriot, deeply loyal to the Emperor and a rabid hater of the Hungarians.

Separation from Austria and the deposing of the dynasty was not at all on the agenda until the autumn of 1848. Thus it was in the interest of the so-called “Camarilla”, the reactionary Court party and the high military in Vienna, with Jelačić as their most important and determined tool, to create an unholy confusion by their intrigues among the officer corps and the simple soldiers. Immediately after his appointment the new ban refused to comply with the orders of the Hungarian Prime Minister and the Minister of War. The latter, Colonel Lázár Mészáros, was not even in Buda-Pest at the time but fighting in Italy under Field-Marshal Radetzky in the Emperor’s service, and could not take up his post until May because Radetzky did not want him to leave Italy. In the mean time, with the agreement of the Emperor, the Hungarians declared Jelačić a rebel, and on the urging of the Buda-Pest government relieved him of all his posts. Barely three months later the Croat general was again on top—as the spearhead of the Austrian attack.

The course of that critical summer demonstrates how complex and confusing the Hungarian War of Independence was for the participants on both sides. The resolutions of the newly-elected parliament in Buda-Pest such as creating a separate (honvéd) army, a separate national budget and issuing banknotes were a provocation to the Imperial government.

On 11 July 1848 Lajos Kossuth, nominally “only” Minister of Finance, gave the most significant speech in Hungarian history. He was ill with fever and had to be supported as he mounted the dais in the Parliament at Buda-Pest; and when he left it around mid-day all the deputies jumped enthusiastically to their feet. In a voice which was at first a whisper but soon rose to its full strength, he spoke about Croatia, the Serbs, the Russian menace, and relations with Austria, England, France and the new German state. All his arguments were directed at just one end: that Parliament should vote a credit of 42 million gulden for the establishment of a 200,000-man national army. Kossuth pulled out all the stops, and witnesses regarded the speech as a masterpiece of rhetoric.

“Gentlemen! (Calls of ‘Sit down!’ to which he answered Only when I get tired.’) As I mount the rostrum to demand that you will save the country, the momentous nature [of this moment] weighs fearfully upon me. I feel as if God had handed me a trumpet to awaken the dead, so that those who are sinners and weaklings sink to eternal death, but those with any vital spark left in them may rise up for eternity! Thus at this moment the fate of the nation is in the balance. With your vote on the motion. I am placing before your God has confided to you the power to decide the life or death of the nation. You will decide. Because this moment is so awe-inspiring I shall not resort to weapons of rhetoric… Gentlemen, our Fatherland is in danger!”

In his oration Kossuth depicted the Serb and Croat danger and the dynasty’s underhand attitude (with ironic asides about the “collision” between the Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King combined in the same person), to heighten the impression of Hungary’s isolation in the Europe of the day. He spoke of England, which would support the Magyars only if it was in its interest. Kossuth then expressed his “deepest empathy” with the trailblazers of freedom, but he did not wish to see Hungary’s fate dependent on protection from France: “Poland too relied on French sympathy and that sympathy was probably real, yet Poland no longer exists!”

Finally Kossuth spoke of relations with the German Confederation. The Hungarians, still harbouring illusions, sent two politicians to the Frankfurt Assembly. They hoped that Austria would join the German Confederation, believing that in that case the Pragmatic Sanction of 1722–3 would become null and void, and Austria-Hungary could then settle its own fate. The King would reside in Buda and an independent Hungarian monarchy could be preserved. According to Hungarian sources, as late as May even the Austrians believed in a German-Austrian-Hungarian alliance against the Slavs. Be that as it may, Kossuth made no bones about the importance he attached to an alliance with Germany:

“I say openly that I feel this is a natural truth: that the Hungarian nation is destined to live in a close and friendly relationship with the free German nation, and the German nation is destined to do the same with the free Hungarian nation, united to watch over the civilization of the East… But because the Frankfurt Assembly was still experiencing birth-pangs, and nobody had yet developed the form in which negotiations could have been brought to a conclusion—and this could happen only with the ministry formed after the election of the Regent—one of our delegates is still there to seize the first moment when somebody is available with whom one can get into official contact to start negotiations about the amicable alliance which should exist between ourselves and Germany—but in a way that does not require us to deviate even by an inch from our independence and our national liberty.”

After the frenzied applause at the end of the speech, with which his request for the necessary funds was answered (“We shall give it!” the deputies shouted, rising to their feet), the weary Kossuth, moved to tears, concluded:

“This is my request! You have risen as one man, and I prostrate myself before the nation’s greatness. If your energy in execution equals the patriotism with which you have made this offer, I am bold enough to say that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against Hungary!”

Despite Kossuth’s pessimistic assessment of the European situation and the ebbing of the revolutionary tide from France to Poland, the radical Left put the government under pressure. It should, first and foremost, refuse the King’s request to provide 40,000 recruits from Hungary to suppress the Italian war of independence. The cabinet was split, and the differences between the moderate Batthyány and the energetic and determined Kossuth became increasingly sharp and undisguised. Vacillation over the question of the recruits further fanned the flames of conflict with the dynasty—for which, meanwhile, the situation had vastly improved. In Prague Field-Marshal Windisch-Graetz had defeated a revolt by the Czechs. Hungarian politicians did not recognize—or, if they did, it was too late—the psychological and political significance of the ageing Field-Marshal Radetzky’s victory at Custozza over the Piedmontese army and the effect the re-conquest of Lombardy would have on Austrian morale.

The die was cast on 11 September 1848, when 50,000 Croat soldiers, border guards and national guardsmen entered Hungary led by General Jelačić, whom the Emperor had reinstated the previous week. They crossed the river Dráva and advanced towards Budapest flying black and yellow flags, covertly encouraged by members of the court and the Viennese Minister of War. In this war Habsburg generals were leading troops against Habsburg generals, or—as the Hungarian aristocrat Count Majláth aptly described the confused situation in the summer of 1848—“the King of Hungary had declared war on the King of Croatia while the Emperor of Austria remained neutral, and these three monarchs were one and the same person.”

In these days Kossuth made a round-trip across the Great Hungarian Plain which had immense political and psychological importance. He addressed crowds in settlements and villages, and recruited thousands of volunteers for the honvéd army. This tour was a unique experience in the lives of the peasants, as is amply reflected in Hungarian literature and art. No one else for a century held such powerful appeal for the dour and suspicious people of the Puszta. Almost every community of any size named a street after Kossuth or erected a monument to him. He lives on in folksong to this day:

Lajos Kossuth—golden lamb,

Golden letters on his back;

Whoever is able to read them,

Can become his son.

Lajos Kossuth is a writer

Who needs no lamplight.

He can write his letter

In the soft glow of starlight.

During the September days Kossuth was already playing a leading role in every particular. He managed to obtain the House’s consent for the election of a small permanent committee to assist the Prime Minister; this soon became the National Defence Committee, which on 8 October took over the government under the leadership of Kossuth as its newly-elected President.

The court no longer regarded the government as Hungary’s legitimate representative, and appointed Field-Marshal Count Ferenc Lamberg, a moderate Hungarian magnate, as royal commissioner and commander-in-chief of all armed forces in Hungary. Simultaneously, a little-known politician was entrusted with forming a new government in place of Batthyány’s. Meanwhile the palatine as well as Batthyány resigned. Lamberg’s appointment, not endorsed by the acting Prime Minister, caused general indignation, and shortly after his arrival from Vienna, in broad daylight, the “traitor” was dragged from his carriage by an enraged mob and lynched.

King Ferdinand immediately dissolved the National Assembly, declared a state of siege, and appointed General Jelačić royal plenipotentiary and commander-in-chief. However, Jelačić could not assume the absolute powers conferred on him because on 29 September his army was beaten by a Hungarian unit at Pákozd near Pest, and his troops were now marching not towards Buda-Pest but in the opposite direction. Just over a week later the Second Croatian Army suffered a shattering defeat at Ozora south of Lake Balaton. Both victories, which temporarily saved the capital and the Revolution, were celebrated in poetry and drama.

Several days later, again on Kossuth’s recommendation, Parliament declared the royal manifesto null and void. Open war between Hungary and Austria was now inevitable. On that day Kossuth’s reign began: between September 1848 and April 1849, as president of the National Defence Committee, he became de facto “temporary dictator dependent on parliament”, i.e. for the duration of the crisis. Kossuth was not only the political leader, but also the inspiration, the organizer and the chief propagandist of the fight. That the Revolution was carried through into a War of Independence and that the nation chose the road of armed resistance, was doubtless due in the first place to the charismatic aura of this veritable tribune of the people. Much has been written by historians and former associates about his negative traits: his jealousy and vanity, coldness and egotism, his inability to put himself in the place of opponents, and lack of understanding of the concerns of the nationalities. His illusions about foreign politics are perhaps best explained by the fact that until 1849 he had never set foot anywhere west of Vienna. Of his generals he encouraged incompetent ones and persecuted Artúr Görgey, the most gifted; he drove them into battle when all hope of winning the war has gone.

Why then did people forgive Kossuth everything? He was the liberator personified; he was the one who did away with the last vestiges of feudalism, freed the peasants, emancipated the Jews, promoted industry. But above all he embodied—not only for his compatriots—the concept of independence.

The Lost War of Hungarian Independence, 1849 Part II

Austrian cavalry charge on Hungarian border outpost.

The army of Nicholas I, was large in size and formidable in appearance—just as it was meant to be. One other feature of Nicholas’s military policy deserves attention: its parsimony. Nicholas was interested in maintaining the largest army possible at the lowest possible cost. Of course, soldiers’ pay in Russia remained both sporadic and negligible. But when multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of men in the ranks, the total military wage bill amounted to a formidable sum. Much more expensive was the cost of equipping the troops—supplying them with uniforms, firearms, and munitions. And the most costly item in the debit column of the military ledger was foodstuffs and forage. In the effort to establish control over those costs, Nicholas had a preexisting instrument ready to hand: the notorious system of military colonies.

The Vienna October Revolution was a turning-point in Austrian history, with far-reaching consequences for Hungary’s future as well. The rising of workers and students broke out on 6 October. The spark that ignited the tinderbox of accumulated discontent was the mutiny of a Grenadier battalion of the Viennese garrison, which the Minister of War, Latour, wanted to send to the aid of Jelačić in Hungary. Latour himself was attacked and lynched in the Ministry building and his mangled corpse was strung up on a lamppost. The Emperor, the Court and the highest officials fled to Olmütz in Moravia.

The appeal by the revolutionary German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath in his poem “Wien” (Vienna) to the Germans to rise up was just as futile as the hope that the Hungarian revolutionary troops would succeed in relieving Vienna from the besieging Imperial troops. The Austrian-Croatian Imperial Army defeated the somewhat reluctantly advancing small Hungarian force at Schwechat. On 31 October Field-Marshal Windisch-Graetz marched into Vienna, drowned the uprising in a bloodbath, and set up a military dictatorship which lasted till 1853. The Polish revolutionary General Józef Bem managed to flee, but First Lieutenant Messenhauser who had refused to turn his guns against the people, was executed together with a number of radicals, among them Robert Blum, a deputy of the Frankfurt Assembly.

Both sides now armed for war. Austria had gained a new prime minister in the person of the diplomat and general Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, incidentally brother-in-law of the ambitious Windisch-Graetz: he was, in Robert A. Kann’s assessment, “an adventurer and political gambler”. Radetzky controlled Northern Italy and Windisch-Graetz became commander-in-chief of the impending campaign against the Hungarian rebels.

Schwarzenberg, together with Archduchess Sophie, succeeded in persuading Emperor Ferdinand to abdicate in favour of Archduke Franz, his eighteen-year-old nephew and the Archduchess’s son. The change of rulers took place on 2 December 1848. The arrogant and imperialistic Schwarzenberg (Széchenyi called him a “cold-blooded vampire”) was determined once and for all to downgrade Hungary to the level of a province. The new Emperor, who added to his name that of Joseph to signify his recognition of enlightened “Josephinismus”, relied on Schwarzenberg as he did on none of his subsequent advisers. The consequences of this reliance were more than questionable: thus, for example, the forcible dissolution of the Austrian Reichstag at Kremsier and the arrest of several deputies in March 1849.

Meanwhile the Magyars refused in mid-December to recognize the new Emperor as their king, because he had not been crowned with the Crown of St Stephen and did not feel bound by the royal oath of his predecessors. Kossuth had not intended this conclusive break, but probably welcomed it.

In December Austrian troops attacked Hungary from all sides. A peace mission to Vienna of moderate Hungarian politicians, among them the former Prime Minister Batthyány and the Minister of Justice Deák, failed; Windisch-Graetz refused even to receive them. The Hungarians were fenced in from all sides. Parts of the Austrian army under General Schlick attacked from Galicia in the north, and in the south-west the Romanians and Saxons joined the offensive. The Serbs advanced from the south, the Croats approached across the Dráva and the Danube, and Windisch-Graetz struck from the west. They occupied Buda-Pest in January 1849, and Kossuth fled with the deputies and officials—altogether about 2,000—to Debrecen, 220 km. to the east. The provisional capital was no more than a giant village, with only a single doctor in private practice, but as a centre of Calvinism it counted not only as the most distant town from the attacking Austrian army, but also as a symbol of resistance to the Catholic Habsburgs.

By the end of 1848 all appeared lost for the Magyars; the Austrians believed they had throttled the Hungarian Revolution “as in the coils of a boa-constrictor”, as Friedrich Engels wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Yet the Hungarians fought on with ever-increasing ferocity, though with varying success. Windisch-Graetz proved a rather ineffective commander, and fell victim to his own vanity as well as to the tactical superiority of the Hungarian revolutionary generals. After a strategically unimportant victory at Kápolna, to the east of Buda-Pest, over troops led by the Polish General Henryk Dembinski, Windisch-Graetz believed that the Hungarians had been finally beaten, and in a report to the Court, which was still at Olmütz, announced his imminent entry into Debrecen. This ill-considered move led to the abovementioned imposed constitution of 4 March, which gave the resisting Hungarians an enormous psychological boost to their by now victorious military campaign against Austria.

On 14 April 1849 the Hungarians replied to the proclamation of the octroied (granted) constitution, which eliminated Hungary’s ancient rights and denied it Croatia-Slavonia, Dalmatia and Transylvania, with a psychologically understandable but politically unwise “Declaration of Independence”. In it the parliament in the great Calvinist church at Debrecen proclaimed the dethronement of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, Kossuth was unanimously elected provisional Head of State with the title of “Governor-President” and Bertalan Szemere Minister of the Interior.

Hungary was isolated, yet its army fought on with such success that many people spoke of a “springtime miracle”. One of the revolutionaries’ principal demands was the creation of a national army with Hungarian as the language of command. Commands, however, still had to be drafted and conveyed in German, because many of the key officers did not understand a word of Hungarian. One of Kossuth’s most devoted associates was the Englishman General Richard Guyon, who had been a first lieutenant in a Hungarian hussar regiment before the Revolution and who, having a Hungarian wife, had become an ardent Magyar patriot. Another of the numerous foreign professional officers was General Count Karl Leiningen-Westerburg, a member of the Hessian ruling house and related to the Coburgs and hence the English royal house; through marriage and predilection he also became Hungarian.

In the autumn of 1849 close on 50,000 members of the Imperial-Royal army were fighting on the Hungarian side, including about 1,500 professional officers. These regular units were not integrated into the new honvéd army; the soldiers kept their uniforms, leading to tragicomic misunderstandings, since it was often impossible to differentiate between friend and foe. The bugle and drum signals, the drill and, as already mentioned, the language of command remained the same. At least 1,000 officers or approximately 10 per cent of the Habsburg officer corps decided in favour of the Hungarian cause. The military historian Gábor Bona estimates that of the honvéd army’s 830 generals and staff officers 15.5 per cent were Germans, 4.2 per cent Poles and 3.6 per cent Serbs and Croats. The cosmopolitan character of the revolutionary force was maintained from the hopeful beginning to the bitter end of the War of Independence. Hungarians of German origin (excluding the Transylvanian Saxons) generally stood by the Magyars, as did many Slovaks and, without exception, the Jews who hoped for emancipation. About 3,000 Poles, many of them officers, fought for the Magyars.

But it was first and foremost Kossuth who, with his dynamism and incorrigible optimism, supplied the motley army with tens of thousands of recruits, with arms and munitions from abroad, and eventually created a war industry out of nothing. By June 1849 Kossuth succeeded in mustering a honvéd army of 170,000.

At a time when the tide of revolution was receding and reaction was being consolidated, the Hungarians’ dazzling victories in the spring of 1849, culminating in May in the reconquest of the capital, moved all of Europe. In Germany Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Heinrich Heine and Ferdinand Freiligrath, among many others, took a deep interest. The first edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung for the year opened with Freiligrath’s poem “Ungarn”, extolling the Hungarians’ fighting spirit. The unconditional support of Marx and Engels for the Magyars was connected with their admiration for the last active revolutionary movement. Engels wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung: “For the first time in a very long time there is a truly revolutionary personality, a man, who dares to take up the gauntlet of the desperate fight for his people, who is a Danton and a Carnot combined for his nation—Lajos Kossuth.”

While the Hungarians were still retreating in the autumn of 1848, Engels wanted to mobilize the public in his newspaper in order to protect “the greatest man of the year 1848”. In April 1849 he already praised the Magyars’ “well organized and superbly led army”, calling Generals Görgey and Bem “the most gifted commanders of our time”. At the same time Engels (as well as Marx) expressed his contempt for the Czechs and above all the South Slavs—the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, who were “nations lacking history”. The Austrian South Slavs were nothing more than the “ethnic rubbish” of a complicated “thousand-year evolution”. Since the eleventh century they had lost “any semblance” of national independence, and were “torn tatters” dragged along by the Germans and Magyars.

During that spring, despite the splendid victories achieved by the Hungarian troops led by Görgey, Bem, Klapka and other talented officers, and the liberation of all of Transylvania and most of Hungary, the inevitable catastrophe—the intervention of Russia—was fast approaching. By March that intervention had already been agreed upon as the Austrian government proved unable to master the situation on its own. This was the natural consequence of the cooperation between the Habsburgs and the Romanovs, which had become even closer since the defeat of the Polish Revolution of 1830–1. It was thus not Kossuth’s Declaration of Independence that had prompted the invasion.

After repeated calls for help Emperor Franz Joseph was finally obliged to appeal to Tsar Nicholas I in an official letter—printed in the Wiener Zeitung on 1 May 1849—for armed assistance in “the sacred struggle against anarchy”. The Tsar replied by return, advising that he had ordered the Viceroy of Poland, Field-Marshal Prince Ivan Paskevich, to hasten to the aid of their Austrian comrades-in-arms. Austrian humiliation culminated in Franz Joseph’s arrival in Warsaw, where on 21 May 1849, with a genuflection, he kissed the hand of the Ruler of all the Russias. The young Emperor enthusiastically reported the event to his mother:

He received me exceptionally graciously and cordially, and at 4 o’clock I dined with him tête-à-tête. We travelled very fast, and the Russian railways are especially outstanding for their good organization and smooth ride. Altogether everything is so pleasantly orderly and calm here.

Hungarian and foreign historians, and in particular contemporaries have long debated whether Russia’s intervention, so detrimental to Austria’s prestige, was really necessary for the defeat of the Revolution. In a report on the campaign Captain Ramming von Riedkirchen, chief of staff to the Austrian commander, Haynau, appointed at the end of May, stated:

The question is often raised whether the Austrian state in that situation, without Russian aid, would have been able to defeat the Hungarian uprising, which, after its unexpected successes in the spring of 1849, grew so rapidly and became so immense. […] In order to attain a decisive military superiority, which was also assured in all aspects of foreign relations, the Russian armed intervention was indispensable in Hungary and Transylvania. The mighty and imposing aid of a Russian army would inevitably lead to success, and result in the establishment of peace in Austria and the whole of Europe, even if Austria’s performance were less energetic and successful.

The Austrian historian Zöllner is also of the opinion that “the victory of the monarchical conservative forces would not have been possible without foreign help.” Deák, on the other hand, believes that the Austrians could have achieved victory by themselves, even though it might have taken them longer. A breakdown of war casualties cited by him, appears to confirm his thesis:

The Austrians kept inadequate records, the Hungarians kept almost none. It seems that about 50,000 Hungarians died and about the same number of Austrians. The Russian expeditionary forces lost only 543 killed in battle and 1,670 wounded. The Austrians kept inadequate records, the Hungarians kept almost none. It seems that about 50,000 Hungarians died and about the same number of Austrians. The Russian expeditionary forces lost only 543 killed in battle and 1,670 wounded. On the other hand. Paskevichs army buried 11,028 cholera victims.

In the event Russia’s intervention sealed the fate of Hungary. Against 194,000 Russians and 176,000 Austrians with a total of 1,200 artillery pieces, the 152,000 honvéds (according to some estimates 170,000) with 450 field-guns did not stand a chance. Yet the fighting lasted until August.

The Hungarians were totally isolated. Kossuth and his Prime Minister Szemere addressed a desperate appeal to the peoples of Europe: “Europe’s freedom will be decided on Hungarian soil. With it world freedom loses a great country, with this nation a loyal hero.” Even Kossuth’s emissaries in London and Paris, Count László Teleki and Ferenc Pulszky, both with excellent social connections, could achieve nothing. As so often before and after in Hungarian history (from 1241 to 1956), no European power lifted a finger in the interests of the Magyars. Lord Palmerston, for example, never wavered from his belief in the necessity of preserving the Monarchy’s integrity. Even though in Parliament he publicly declared himself disturbed by the Russian intervention, in a personal conversation with the Russian ambassador in London he expressed the hope that the Tsar’s army would act swiftly.

Paskevich, Haynau and Jelačić attacked the Hungarian units from all sides, forcing them back into the far south-eastern corner of the country. Until that time the deputies still held their meetings in the National Assembly in the southern city of Szeged, and on 28 July they crowned their work with two significant and symbolic enactments on the equality of nationalities and the emancipation of the Jews. The Nationalities Law was passed after Kossuth had negotiated in July with the Romanian liberal intellectual Nicolae Balcescu, and Serbian representatives over the possibility of reconciliation and co-operation. Although Law VIII of 1849 reinforced Hungarian as the official language, it also envisaged the free development of all ethnic groups: every citizen had the right to use his own language in his dealings with the authorities; the majority would determine the language to be used in local administration; and primary schools would use the local language.

The bill for the emancipation of the Jews provoked no debate. The government and deputies recognized the community as equal; it had stood by the nation with 10,000–20,000 volunteers and numerous officers in the honvéd army and made donations for weapons as loyally as the Christian Hungarians. After the war the Jews paid a high price for the public avowal of their Hungarianness; some of their leaders were arrested, and some communities had to pay colossal fines.

In retrospect the optimism at Szeged is incomprehensible. The government was in flight; many of the weary and depleted units were surrounded, and some were actually in retreat. Hundreds of deputies had already left; mighty armies were inexorably moving across the country—and yet hope still persisted in this second temporary capital. The Prime Minister, Szemere, spoke optimistically of the British and French governments’ “awakening”. Kossuth declared to the assembled peasants: “The freedom of Europe will radiate out from this city.”

Barely a fortnight later the dream was over. After defeats at Szeged and Temesvár Kossuth abdicated and fled, disguised as the butler of a Polish nobleman. He shaved off his distinguishing beard, changed his hairstyle and, armed with two passports, one in the name of a Hungarian (“Tamás Udvardi”) and an English one in the name of “James Bloomfield”, took off for Turkey. On August 11 he had already transfered full military and civilian authority to Görgey, the Minister of War, who—as Head of State for a day—surrendered to the Russians at Világos near Arad with his shrunken army of eleven generals, 1,426 officers and 32,569 other ranks, with 144 field-guns and sixty battle flags. Whether Görgey’s preference for laying down his arms before the Russians and not the Austrians goaded the Austrians to even more appalling retribution against the revolutionaries is a moot question. The surrender at Világos marked the end of revolution in the Habsburg empire, which had run its course several weeks earlier when the last German republicans capitulated to Prussia. Heinrich Heine in Paris saw the collapse of Hungary as the final act in the drama of the Europe-wide Revolution: “Thus fell the last bastion of freedom….” Prince Paskevich reported to the Tsar: “Hungary lies at the feet of Your Majesty.” The Tsar exhorted the Austrians to show clemency to the defeated rebels.

Surrender at Világos, 1849

The young Emperor celebrated his nineteenth birthday at Bad Ischl. His mother, as always, had arranged everything beautifully: there was a large birthday cake with nineteen candles, a Tyrolean choir sang the Austrian national anthem, and the happy young man bagged six chamois bucks. Afterwards, however, Franz Joseph committed a grave error: as always, he needed the advice of his implacable Prime Minister Schwarzenberg, and on 20 August the Council of Ministers, presided over by the Emperor, determined that all the Hungarian ringleaders, from staff officers upwards, should be court-martialled.

The retribution was entrusted to the infamous German General Baron Ludwig von Haynau, illegitimate son of the Elector Wilhelm I of Hesse-Kassel. He had earned himself the sobriquet “the hyena of Brescia” for his gory deeds in Italy where, after occupying the Lombard city, he ordered the public flogging of local insurgents, among them women, and the arrest and execution of a priest who was dragged from the altar. In the words of the old Field-Marshal Radetzky, “He is my best general, but he is like a razor that should be put back into its case after use.” Feldzeugmeister Haynau worked fast, without mercy and delighting in his assignment. “I am the man who will restore order, I shall have hundreds shot with a clear conscience,” he wrote to Radetzky. Originally no death penalty was to be carried out without approval from Vienna, but the Emperor and the government finally gave in to Haynau’s urging; it would suffice to announce the executions retrospectively.

On 6 October 1849, the anniversary of Minister of War Latour’s murder, thirteen generals of the Hungarian revolutionary army were executed in the fortress of Arad. A fourteenth former officer of the Imperial army was also condemned to death as a Hungarian general, but at the last moment his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The thirteen heroes of the Revolution, whose anniversary is annually commemorated in Hungary, included a German of Austrian origin, a German-Austrian, two Hungarian-Germans, a Croat, a Serb from the Bánát and two Hungarians of Armenian origin. Not all the five “pure” Hungarians were familiar with the Hungarian language. Six civilians were executed in Pest, among them the moderate former Prime Minister of Hungary, Count Lajos Batthyány. He had stabbed himself in the neck with a dagger smuggled into the military prison by his sister-in-law and, although army doctors saved his life, it was impossible to hang him and he had to be shot despite the terms of the original sentence.

On Haynau’s orders 2,000 officers and civilian patriots were imprisoned, and 500 former Habsburg officers, including 24 Imperial-Royal generals, were court-martialled, and about forty officers (though no more generals) were executed, while most of the others were condemned to years of imprisonment in chains. The total number of executions has been estimated at 120.

In his History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526–1918 the American historian of Austrian origin, Robert A. Kann, assessed the reprisals thus:

To the enduring shame of the Schwarzenberg government even the intervention of the czar for the brave Hungarian commanders was rejected… The action of the Schwarzenberg government and its henchmen stands in contrast to Grant’s generous attitude toward the officers of the South after the surrender at Appomatox in the American Civil War. Schwarzenberg managed to unite English, French, German, and even Russian feelings in common revulsion against him and Haynau, who was publicly insulted during his subsequent “goodwill” visits to Brussels and London.

Haynau soon became intolerable to the Court as well, and was pensioned off in 1850. Strangely he bought an estate in Hungary and was even outraged that the “New Landowner” (as he was caricatured in one of Jókai’s novels) was shunned by the other landowners. He died, supposedly insane, in 1853.

The other principal character on the Imperial side, Ban Jelačić, lived on for a few more years, but also mentally deranged. As a disappointed Croat patriot he had given up on his cause; the Austrian government kept only very few of the promises made to the Croats. Each historical turning-point influenced the Jelačić myth. Thus in 1866, before the settlement between Hungary and Croatia, an equestrian statue was erected to him in the main square of Zagreb, pointing his index finger towards the north in the direction of Hungary. Eighty years later, in 1947, the statue was dismantled and the place renamed “Square of the Republic”. After the rebirth of Croatia in 1990, the government restored the statue, this time with the index finger pointing south, i.e. towards neither the long-forgotten Hungarian enemy nor the new arch-enemy Serbia. The place is once again called “Ban Josipa Jelačić square”.

A magyar szabadságharc tisztjei – Hungarian generals of the Hungarian independence war(1848-49)

The End of the Panzer Divisions I

During the autumn of 1944, in the aftermath of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, and in the aftermath of the Red Army’s colossal breakthroughs in the East, the Nazi regime and the German people mobilized their last reserves of ferocity and fanaticism. The propaganda vision of a people’s community at arms and the free rein given to violence on both foreign and home fronts enhanced a pattern of exploitation and dehumanization already permeating German society from the factories to the countryside. Rationality gave way to passion and to fear as retribution loomed for a continent’s worth of crimes.

The Wehrmacht went out fighting and it went down hard. Like the German people, it neither saw nor sought an alternative. The prospective fate implied in the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender could assume terrifying form to men who had seen—and participated in—the things done “in the name of the Third Reich and the German people.” That meant reconstructing shattered divisions by placing officers at road junctions and impressing every man without a clear destination, even if cooks became tankers and sailors found themselves in the Waffen SS. It meant filling out ranks with teenage draftees and men combed out of the increasingly moribund navy and air force. It meant reequipment by an industrial system that continued to defy the best efforts of the Combined Bomber Offensive. It meant morale enforced by laws making a soldier’s family liable for any derelictions of duty. It meant field courts-martial that seemed to impose only one sentence: death.

Combine Eisenhower’s commitment to a continuous front with the relative weakness of Allied ground forces, and weak spots must inevitably emerge. The most obvious one was in the American sector: the Ardennes Forest, a static sector manned by a mix of green divisions and veteran outfits that had been burned out elsewhere. Hitler’s intention, shared and underwritten by High Command West, was to replicate the success of 1940 by striking through the Ardennes for Antwerp. The port’s capture would both create a logistical crisis for the Allies and divide the British from the Americans, opening the way to their defeat in detail and—just possibly—to a decisive falling-out between partners whose squabbling, egalitarian relationship was never really understood by German strategic planners who believed in client systems rather than alliances.

That the Allies still had absolute control of the air over the front, and that German fuel supplies were about enough to get their tanks halfway to Antwerp, did not concern the Führer. Nor were his generals excessively disturbed. The planners of High Command West preferred in principle a more limited operation: a double envelopment aimed at Liege. They were, however, never able to convince even themselves why Germany’s last reserves should be used that way. What was to be gained, except a drawn-out endgame?

At least the West was geographically small enough to offer something like a legitimate strategic objective. The Eastern Front presented only the prospect of a second Kursk, with the last of the panzers feeding themselves into a Russian meat grinder somewhere east of the existing front line. Panzer Lehr’s Fritz Bayerlein echoed many of his counterparts when he said he persuaded himself that the attack would succeed in order to give his orders credibility and sustain the aggressive spirit of his subordinates. If Operation Watch on the Rhine proved a Twilight of the Gods, then it would be a virtuoso performance as far as the army’s professionals and the zealots of the SS could make it.

By mid-December a buildup overlooked or discounted by confident Allied commanders gave the Germans a three-to-one advantage in men and a two-to-one advantage in armored vehicles in their chosen sector of attack. A new 6th SS Panzer Army had been organized in September under Sepp Dietrich. By this time in the Western theater the distinctions and antagonisms between army and Waffen SS had diminished, especially in the panzer formations, where the consistently desperate situation and the relatively even numbers of divisions made close mutual support a necessary norm. In the projected offensive, 5th Panzer and 6th SS Panzer Armies would fight side by side with few questions asked.

Part of the army panzers’ reconstruction involved reorganization. Both in Russia and in the West, the events of 1944 had resulted in serious losses of trained specialists and no less serious discrepancies between the numbers actually available in the combat units and those in the divisions’ rear echelons. One response was pairing panzer divisions by twos in permanent corps that would assume service and training responsibilities. Five were organized and saw action, against the Russians in the final campaign. More significant was the introduction on August 11 of the Panzer Division Type 1944. This gave each panzer grenadier regiment an organic pioneer company and each tank battalion organic maintenance and supply companies. Both changes acknowledged the decentralization that had become the panzers’ tactical and operational norm. Battalions consistently shifting rapidly from place to place and battle group to battle group would now be more self-sufficient. Divisions would now be better able to concentrate on planning and fighting—at least in principle.

The new panzer divisions were still authorized two tank battalions, each of as many as 88 tanks. Paper may be infinitely patient; reality is less forgiving. In the autumn of 1944, Allied heavy bomber strikes repeatedly hit most of the big tank manufacturing complexes: Daimler-Benz, MAN in Nuremberg, and the Henschel Tiger II plant in Kassel. Speer was able to sustain production, but only around half of the 700 Panthers and Panzer IVs scheduled for delivery in December reached the intended users.

The shortages also reflected decisions made in the Armaments Ministry. Speer had kept up tank production by transferring resources from the manufacture of other vehicles and by cutting back on spare parts. The latter dropped from over a quarter of tank-related contracts in 1943 to less than 10 percent in December 1944. Critical resources, like the molybdenum that made armor tough as opposed to brittle, were in critically short supply. Quality control slipped badly in everything from optics to transmissions to welding. The continued willingness of Germans to report for work despite the bombing is often cited. The on-the-job efficiency of men and women deprived of everything from their homes to a night’s sleep has been less investigated.

The increasing use of slave labor in war plants had consequences as well. Distracted, tired foremen and overseers were easier to evade. Risks that seemed foolhardy in 1943 took on a different dimension as the Reich seemed on the edge of implosion. Deliberate sabotage was probably less significant than hostile carelessness. But increasing numbers of panzers were coming on line with screws poorly tightened, hoses poorly connected—and an occasional handful of shop grit or steel filings deposited where it might do some damage. That was no small matter in contexts of frequently inexperienced crews and frequently nonexistent maintenance vehicles.

The immediate response was to reduce the number of tanks in a company to 14, and where necessary to replace those with assault guns of varying types. Even with these makeshifts, 15 panzer divisions still had only one tank battalion. Sometimes an independent battalion would be attached—Leibstandarte, for example, benefited by receiving the Tigers of the 501st SS as its de facto second battalion. Other divisions found themselves with new battalions equipped with Jagdpanthers or Jagdpanzer IVs, trained for antitank missions rather than tank tactics, or in the close cooperation with panzer grenadiers that remained the assault guns’ mission in an offensive.

Training and equipment were general problems in divisions preparing for the Ardennes offensive. Panzer Lehr, the army’s show horse, had its full complement of men, a third tank battalion equipped with assault guns, and one of the supplementary heavy antitank battalions. Das Reich, however, reported a large number of inexperienced recruits, and reported individual and unit training as at low standards. Leibstandarte described morale as excellent, but combat readiness above company level as inadequate. The 116th Panzer Division was short of armor, motor vehicles, and junior officers and NCOs. Second Panzer Division lacked a third of its vehicles: on December 14, one panzer grenadier battalion was riding bicycles. It was all a far cry from the spring of 1940.

In its final form, Watch on the Rhine6 incorporated three armies deployed on a 100-mile front under Model, commanding Army Group B since Rundstedt had been restored, at least nominally, to his former position in September. The balance of forces at the cutting edge, and their missions, demonstrated the army’s decline relative to the Waffen SS. Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer was the spearhead, with Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Hohenstaufen, and Hitler Jugend as its backbone, and five army infantry divisions as spear-carriers and mop-up troops. Fifth Panzer Army would cover Dietrich’s left, and Manteuffel had the army’s armored contribution: Panzer Lehr, 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions, plus four infantry divisions. Protecting his left flank in turn was the responsibility of 7th Army, with four infantry divisions and no armor to speak of.

Watch on the Rhine’s order of battle incorporated 200,000 men, 600 armored vehicles, almost 2,500 supporting aircraft—that number itself a triumph of concentration involving stripping the Reich’s air defenses. Radio silence was draconically enforced. Camouflage was up to Eastern Front standards. Parachute drops and sabotage units were expected to confuse surprised defenders even further. The offensive seemed structured to maximize what the Germans—the panzer troops in particular—considered their main strength: sophisticated tactical and operational expertise.

Model could in principle call on another ten divisions, but only two were panzers; the offensive would rise or fall with its starting lineup. The operational plan was Sichelschnitt recycled. Dietrich, at the Schwerpunkt, was to break through around Monschau, cross the Meuse around Liege, and strike full tilt for Antwerp. Manteuffel would cross the Meuse at Dinant and aim for Brussels. The panzers were expected to be across the Meuse before the Allies could move armor sufficient to counter them.

As so often before, however, German focus devolved into tunnel vision. None of the specific plans addressed the subject of Allied air power. The responsible parties similarly avoided addressing directly the fuel question. By comparison to the Western campaign’s early months, fuel supplies were impressive, but the Panthers and Tigers were always thirsty. Were the Americans likely to be so confused, so feckless, and so obliging as to leave their fuel dumps intact as refilling points? In the climate of December 1944, asking such a question suggested dangerous weakness of will and character.

Sepp Dietrich might be an unrefined, unimaginative, hard-core Nazi, but he did not lack common sense. All the Waffen SS had to do, he later said sarcastically, was “cross a river, capture Brussels, and then go on to take Antwerp . . . through the Ardennes when the snow is waist-deep and there isn’t room to deploy four tanks abreast let alone armored divisions. When it doesn’t get light until eight and it’s dark again at four—and at Christmas.” Sixth SS Panzer Army had four days to reach the Meuse. Dietrich and his staff set the infantry divisions to breach US defenses on day one, December 16. When the hastily reconstituted army units faltered in the face of determined American resistance, the word was “panzers forward.” But Kharkov and Kursk were a long way back. The Waffen SS had made its recent reputation in defensive fighting. Experience in offensive operations had been diluted by expansion. Officer casualties had been heavy. From battalion to division, 6th SS Panzer Army correspondingly eschewed finesse in favor of head-down frontal attacks.

Tactical maneuver was further restricted by rain periodically freezing into snow as temperatures hovered in the low thirties. Fields already saturated by the heavy rains of early autumn turned into glutinous paste when the heavy German tanks tried to cross them. The alternative was straight down the roads and straight down the middle from village to village. Each attack was expected to put the finishing touches on an enemy that seemed on the ragged edge of breaking. Yet the “Amis” held on—and without the fighter-bombers grounded by the same weather that slowed the panzers.

For the sake of speed the SS neither used their reconnaissance battalions to probe for weak spots, nor their pioneers to assist the tanks. The tanks repeatedly pushed ahead and just as repeatedly lost contact with their infantry, only to run afoul of ambushed Shermans and M-10s, or bazooka teams taking advantage of relatively weak side armor. Even the 57mm popguns of the infantry’s antitank units scored a few kills. The panzer grenadiers, many of them half-trained recruits or converted sailors and airmen, were at a surprising disadvantage against American regiments, some of which had been in action since Normandy.

The 12th SS Panzer Division, on the German right, lost most of its Panthers in the first two days and made no significant progress thereafter. Its neighbor, Leibstandarte, similarly held up, responded by sending forward an armor- heavy battle group. It included most of the division’s striking power: a battalion each of Panthers, Panzer IVs, and Tiger Bs: together around 100 tanks, a mechanized panzer grenadier battalion, pioneers, and some self-propelled artillery. Its commander was Lieutenant-Colonel Jochen Peiper. He had been Himmler’s adjutant from 1938 to 1941 and had enjoyed the Reichsführer’s mentoring and patronage. He had developed into a hard-driving, charismatic risk-taker whose men followed him in good part because of his reputation as someone who led from the front and was the hardest man in any unit he led. Peiper was, in other words, an archetype of the kind of officer the Waffen SS nurtured in Russia and now turned loose in the West.

Peiper was also just the man to throw the dice for an entire panzer army. His mission was to reach the Meuse, capture the bridges before they were demolished, and hold until relieved. It was 100 miles over back-country roads that were little more than trails. Orders were to avoid combat when possible, and to tolerate no delays. The battle group’s movements were a model tactical exercise—at first. The panzers bypassed confused American rear-echelon troops, slipped between elements of American convoys, and overran American supply dumps. With his fuel low, Peiper refilled his tanks with 50,000 gallons of US gas captured without firing a shot.

The panzers captured a key bridge at Stavelot on December 18, and pushed through to the Amblève River. All they had to do was cross, and the way to the Meuse would be open. But an American engineer battalion blew the bridges Peiper was expecting to rush—in one case literally under the gun of a Tiger VIB. American tanks and infantry, moving faster than expected, retook Stavelot and cut the panzers’ line of communication. The sky was clearing, and the fighter-bombers returned to hammer Peiper’s columns relentlessly. The battle group was down to three dozen tanks, as much from breakdowns as from combat loss. Its infantry, exposed to the weather day and night in their open-topped half-tracks, on cold rations and broken sleep, were numb with cold and fatigue. Peiper requested permission to withdraw. It was refused. Relief attempts were stopped almost in their tracks. As the Americans closed in, Peiper made his stand at a village called La Gleize. After two breakout efforts failed, with his tanks out of fuel and his ammunition exhausted, on Christmas he led out on foot the men he had left. Moving by night, 800 survivors of the 6,000 who began the strike a week earlier made it back to Leibstandarte’s forward positions.

Peiper left behind about 100 of his own wounded and another 150 American POWs. The senior US officer later reported that the Germans had appropriately observed the rules of war. But from the operation’s beginning, Kampfgruppe Peiper and the rest of Leibstandarte had left a trail of bodies in its wake: as many as 350 Americans and well over 100 Belgian civilians. The consequences were epitomized by the GIs bringing in some prisoners from Peiper’s battle group who asked an officer if he wanted to bother with them. He said yes. Not everyone did. For the rest of the war it was not exactly open season on Waffen SS prisoners, but they surrendered at a higher degree of immediate risk than their army counterparts.

Pieper was not necessarily a liar or a hypocrite when he not only insisted at La Gleize that he did not shoot prisoners, but seemed surprised by the allegation. He is best understood as resolving a specific form of the cognitive dissonance that increasingly possessed the Wehrmacht in particular and the Reich as a whole. The question of whether someone, Peiper or a superior, somehow either gave orders to take no prisoners or made it clear that “no delays” was a euphemism for “no prisoners” is misleading. Since Normandy, a pattern had developed in which both sides processed refusing quarter, shooting prisoners, and similar frontline atrocities, as mistakes, misunderstandings, or part of “the filth of war”: fear, frustration, vengeance, the semi-erotic thrill of having an enemy completely at one’s mercy.

Inexperienced troops are more prone to be trigger-happy, and there was ample inexperience on both sides of the line in June 1944. Even a thoroughly ideologized German was likely to see a difference between more or less Aryan “Anglo-Saxons” and despised, despicable Slavs. Nor was there much to gain by making things worse than they had to be. Within the same few days in Normandy, elements of the Hitler Jugend murdered Canadian prisoners in cold blood, and other troops of the division negotiated a local truce with a British battalion enabling both sides to bring their wounded to safety. Such agreements were not everyday occurrences, but they did happen. An officer of 9th Panzer Division describes one of his men bringing a wounded American back to his own lines and returning laden with chocolate and cigarettes as tokens of appreciation. A story improved in the telling? Perhaps. But nothing similar was plausible even as a rumor in the East. And one Russian Front was bad enough.

What did transplant from the East was a frontline culture that since 1941 had developed into something combining convenience and indifference, embedded in a matrix of hardness. Hardness was neither cruelty nor fanaticism. It is best understood in emotional and moral contexts, as will focused by intelligence for the purpose of accomplishing a mission. It was—and is—a mind-set particularly enabling the brutal expediency that is an enduring aspect of war.

In commenting on Kurt Meyer’s trial and death sentence, a Canadian general asserted he did not know of a single general or colonel on the Allied side who had not said “this time we don’t want any prisoners.” In fact, there is a generally understood distinction, fine but significant, between not taking prisoners and killing them once they have surrendered. Recent general-audience works on the Canadians and Australians in World War I, for example, are remarkably open in acknowledging relatively frequent orders at battalion and company levels of “no prisoners” before an attack. Shooting or bayoneting unarmed men is another matter entirely. It might be called the difference between war and meanness.

James Weingartner highlights the discrepancy between the US Army’s judging of war crimes by Americans and its response to comparable offenses involving Germans. That was not a simple double standard. For the Americans, as for the British and Canadians, expedience and necessity remained situational rather than normative, on the margin of legal and moral systems but not beyond them. On the German side of the line, hardness transmuted expediency into a norm and redefined it as a virtue. Impersonalization and depersonalization went hand in hand. Interfering civilians or inconvenient POWs might not be condignly and routinely disposed of—but they could be, with fewer and fewer questions asked externally or internally. The French government was shocked and embarrassed to find Alsatians represented among the perpetrators of Oradour. Defended in their home province as “forced volunteers,” they were tried and convicted, but pardoned by Charles de Gaulle in 1953 for the sake of national unity.

The inability of the Waffen SS to break through on the north shoulder removed any possibility of success Watch on the Rhine might have had. Instead of exploiting victory, Das Reich and Hohenstaufen found themselves stymied by roads blocked for miles by abandoned vehicles out of fuel or broken down. While the SS ran in place, however, Manteuffel had used his infantry skillfully to infiltrate, surround, and capture most of the green 106th Infantry Division’s two forward regiments before sending his armor forward. The 116th Panzer made for Houffalize. Second Panzer and Panzer Lehr pushed through and over the 28th Infantry Division toward Bastogne, destroying an American armored combat command in the process.

The 101st Airborne Division got there first, dug in, and has been celebrated in story, if not song, ever since. The Germans originally hoped to take the town by a coup de main. When that proved impossible, Bayerlein argued that Bastogne was too important as a transportation center to be bypassed. Manteuffel was already concerned that his forward elements were too weak to sustain their progress; attacking Bastogne in force would only make that situation worse. He was also too old a panzer hand to risk tanks in a house-to-house fight against good troops. The Panzer Baron had begun his career in the horse cavalry, understood the importance of time for Watch on the Rhine, and decided to mask the town and continue his drive toward the Meuse.

That the choice had to be made highlighted the growing difficulty the panzers faced in being all things in every situation. In 1940, motorized divisions had been available for this kind of secondary collateral mission. In 1941, the marching infantry could be counted on to come up in time to free the panzers for their next spring forward. In 1944, 15th Panzer Grenadier Division did not arrive at Bastogne from army group reserve until December 24.

Fifth Panzer Army benefited from a cold front that set in on the night of December 22, freezing the ground enough for the Panthers to move cross-country. Soft ground, however, was the least of Manteuffel’s problems. His spearheads knifed 60 miles deep into the American positions, along a 30-mile front. Second Panzer Division, generally regarded by the Americans as the best they faced, got to within five miles of the Meuse on December 24—ironically near Dinant, where 7th Panzer had staged its epic crossing in 1940. But its fuel was almost exhausted. Model responded by ordering the division to advance on foot. Brigadier General Meinrad von Lauchert had been commanding the division only since December 13. He had been a panzer officer since 1935, led everything from a company to a regiment in combat, and recognized bombast. But he was not a sorcerer, and could not conjure fuel where none existed. Second Panzer was at the far end of its operational tether.

By platoons and companies, Americans fought bitter defensive actions throughout the sector—in one case holding out in a castle. Thirty-two men would be awarded the Medal of Honor from first to last during the Battle of the Bulge, and determination increased as word spread that the Germans were not taking prisoners. To the north, what remained of the 106th, a regiment of the 28th, and combat commands of 7th and 9th Armored Divisions, held another key road junction—St. Vith—for five vital days against first infantry, then the elite panzers of the Führer Escort Brigade from Model’s reserve. Not until 2nd SS Panzer Division advanced far enough to threaten the town from the north did the hard-hammered garrison withdraw.

In the process of working their way forward, elements of Dietrich’s panzers seeking to evade the clogged roads in their sector began edging onto 5th Panzer Army’s supply routes. Manteuffel ordered them kept off; the corps commander responded by establishing roadblocks whose men were authorized to use force to regulate traffic. There are no records of shots being fired, but army and SS columns remained entangled as tempers flared and cooperation eroded.

Model released some of his characteristic nervous energy by briefly directing traffic himself, while reassuring Hitler that the chances of victory remained great. But the overall supply situation was rapidly deteriorating. The clearing skies accompanying the cold front meant the return of allied planes en masse: an average of 3,000 sorties a day, disrupting operations and turning the movement of troops and vehicles to nighttime—including the vital fuel trucks.

Model had from the beginning recommended eschewing a drive to the Meuse in favor of a quick turn north to isolate and then encircle the dozen or so American divisions concentrated around Aachen. Dietrich’s staff had been clandestinely working on a similar backup plan since December 8. Manteuffel underwrote their thinking on December 24, when he phoned the High Command and declared Antwerp was beyond his reach.

Any lingering optimism was dispelled on Christmas when 2nd Panzer was attacked by its literal counterpart, the 2nd US Armored Division. The Americans encircled the panzers’ leading battle group, destroying it as artillery and RAF Typhoons frustrated relief efforts by the rest of the division supported by elements of the 9th Panzer, newly arrived from High Command reserve. Six hundred men escaped—walking and carrying no more than their personal weapons. It was getting to be a habit for the panzers. Two thousand more were dead or prisoners. Over 80 AFVs remained on the field, knocked out or with empty fuel tanks. The rest of the division fought on around the village of Humain, so fiercely that it took one of the new flame-throwing Shermans to burn out the last die-hards. On December 27, 2nd Panzer was withdrawn. On January 1, 1945, it reported exactly five serviceable tanks.

Panzer Lehr, on 2nd Panzer’s left, had moved more slowly and less effectively—due in part perhaps to a bit of self-inflicted fog and friction. Bayerlein missed a possible chance to reach the Meuse when, on December 22, he halted to rest his men and allow them to celebrate Christmas with the extra rations sent forward for the occasion. According to some reliable accounts, Panzer Lehr’s commander had also sacrificed a good part of December 19 flirting with a “young, blond, and beautiful” nurse in a captured American hospital.

The story invites comparison with the “yellow rose of Texas,” whose dalliance with Santa Anna allegedly distracted the Mexican general in the crucial hours before the battle of San Jacinto. But a harem of nurses would have made no difference as Allied reinforcements continued to arrive in the northern sector and Patton’s Third Army conducted a remarkable 90-degree turn north that took it into Bastogne on December 26.

Hitler was confronted with two choices: evacuate the salient and withdraw the panzers for future employment, or continue fighting to keep the Allies pinned down and draw them away from the industrial centers of the Ruhr and the Saar. Being Hitler, he decided on both. The infantry was left to hold the line, supported by what remained of the army’s panzers and, temporarily, the Waffen SS, for whom Hitler had other plans.

The operational result was two weeks of head-down fighting as American tanks and infantry hammered into the same kind of farm- and-village strong points that had so hampered Watch on the Rhine. Now it was German antitank guns ambushing Shermans whose relatively narrow treads restricted their off-road mobility in the deepening snow. Not until January 16 did Patton’s 11th Armored Division connect at Houffalize with elements of the 1st Army advancing from the north, forcing back Panzer Lehr despite its orders to hold the town “at all costs.” For the next two weeks the Americans pushed eastward as the defense eroded under constant artillery fire and air strikes. It was not elegant but it was effective. The Bulge from first to last cost the Germans over 700 AFVs—almost half of the number committed. About half the Panthers still in German hands were downlined for repair.

The End of the Panzer Divisions II

The battle of the Bulge was the end of panzer operations in the West. Afterward it became, in Manteuffel’s words, “a corporal’s war—a multitude of piecemeal fights.” It was not much of an exaggeration. Operation North Wind was originally intended to support the Ardennes offensive. Launched into Alsace in January, well after Watch on the Rhine had failed, North Wind burned out four more mechanized divisions to no purpose on any level, strategic, operational, or tactical. The American spearheads that pushed toward the Rhine in February and the British and Canadians that struggled through the Reichswald to their north encountered limited armored opposition, and most of that on company scale. As the Allies crossed the Rhine, encircled the Ruhr, and fanned out across a dying Reich, the scale diminished further.

At least so it appeared. Much of the time the Germans were shuffling the panzers from crisis point to crisis point in a near-random fashion defying close analysis. Regiments and divisions, reduced to cadres and skeletons, mounted counterattacks noted in their records and histories that had so little impact that they failed to make Allied war diaries except as last stands.

Panzer Lehr offers a good case study. After Houffalize it was withdrawn into reserve and rebuilt—numerically at least. The quality of the replacements was described as “bad”: poor training, no experience. Vehicles were in short supply. Most of the tanks were under repair or lying by the side of the road somewhere. When new ones arrived they had not been adequately inspected and tested at the factories. They had not been “driven in” due to the lack of fuel. For the same reason the quality of the new drivers was low. Without time for checkups and overhauling at unit level, non-operational losses were an ongoing problem even when moving from skirmish to skirmish.

Panzer Lehr next saw action in February, committed to the Reichswald in support of the hard-pressed 116th Panzer. Its counterattacks were repeatedly stopped by tank and artillery fire of an intensity the division had never experienced. Mobile operations did not occur, grumbled one commenter, because the enemy refused to engage in them! From the Reichswald, Lehr was ordered south against the US 9th Army. It was “urgently awaited” locally—but as a mobile antitank defense against the fast-moving Americans. Hitler wanted a full-scale counterattack—a mission the panzer regiment’s commander dismissed as “clearly unimaginable.” Instead Lehr went into the line around Rheydt and Mönchengladbach and took heavy losses from air strikes and ground attacks. It fell back to Krefeld too weak to defend the city.

For what it was worth, Panzer Lehr’s tank destroyers helped hold the Adolf Hitler Bridge across the Rhine until it could be blown. By then the division had only 20 serviceable tanks. Its panzer grenadier regiments had been reduced to battalion strength. Fuel shortages and breakdowns cost heavy vehicle losses. Communications equipment, a core element of the panzers’ effectiveness throughout the war, was in short supply. Replacements were so scarce the division was impressing stragglers. When, on March 7, Panzer Lehr Division was finally authorized to retreat across the Rhine itself, infantry strength was down to a single battalion. Two tanks remained operational. “It would be superfluous,” noted the commenters, “to describe the mood of the totally exhausted soldiers.”

Two days later a battle group of fragments, built around 18 freshly repaired or newly arrived tanks, was ordered to the Remagen bridgehead. Along with bits and pieces of the 9th and 11th Panzer Divisions, grandiosely titled “Corps Group Bayerlein,” it was expected to wipe out the bridgehead before the Americans could reinforce it. Bayerlein, Model—whose army group was responsible for the sector—and Hitler disagreed on the timing and direction of the attack. Albert Kesselring, who replaced Rundstedt as High Commander West on March 11, added his voice to the mix.

Hitler had convincingly insisted that the Russians were about to suffer a catastrophic defeat, after which the main German forces would redeploy and deal with the Western allies. All Kesselring had to do was hold on. How much of this Kesselring believed and processed through the generic optimism that gave him the nickname “smiling Albert” remains incalculable. What was certain was that the projected jump-off points for the attack kept falling into American hands before the Germans could get into position. First US Army made the subject moot on March 22 with an armored breakout to the northeast that joined 9th Army’s spearheads to encircle the whole of Army Group B.

The Ruhr Pocket matched anything achieved by the Russians: over 300,000 Germans in some kind of uniform with some kind of military identity, ranging from schoolboys carrying bazookas to the remnants of famous divisions like 3rd Panzer Grenadier, 116th Panzer, and Panzer Lehr. An attempt at breakout failed when the Americans again overran the assembly areas. Lehr’s records speak of “over-hasty withdrawals” and concede the division’s fighting spirit was broken. By April 5, 15 AFVs remained. One battle group was built around four of them, three squads of bazooka men, a dismounted panzer grenadier company, and a local-defense pioneer company with all of its men over 50 years old.

Ten days later, as the Americans continued to carve up the pocket, the division staff concluded further resistance useless. The last rounds were fired off; the last armored vehicles destroyed; and what remained of Panzer Lehr waited for the Ami tanks to come and get them. Walther Model committed suicide on April 21 after telling a group of stragglers to go home and wishing them luck. When Germany surrendered, the German army in the West included three mechanized divisions: two armored, one panzer grenadier. The once mighty had fallen a long way.

The military bureaucrats responded to disaster by shuffling paper. In October 1944 a new type of panzer grenadier battalion was introduced on a scale of one or two to each army and Waffen SS division. Its rifle companies rode bicycles instead of trucks. In March the armored force introduced the Panzer Division 45. It created the “mixed panzer regiment,” a battalion each of tanks and mechanized infantry plus support units: 40 tanks, half Panthers and half Panzer IVs. The other panzer grenadiers were now “partially motorized,” a euphemism for the riflemen moving on foot. Panzer divisions unable to meet even these reduced standards were to be converted to “battle groups.” Waffen SS panzer divisions lost two of their six infantry battalions, and two of the remaining four were to be equipped with bicycles. For practical purposes the new order remained a paper exercise. It nevertheless epitomized that demodernization of the Wehrmacht noted by so many scholars. And on March 28, Heinz Guderian was dismissed as Chief of Armored Troops and Acting Chief of Staff.

Guderian’s position had never been exactly stable, despite his involvement in screening officers accused of complicity in July 20, his acceptance of the brutal suppression of the Polish Home Army and the destruction of Warsaw, and his tail-wagging support for the army’s increasing Nazification. Requiring all General Staff officers to be “National Socialist officers” might be discounted as eyewash. But making the Nazi salute compulsory was more than a gesture—and was widely understood as such by all ranks.

After the war Guderian described his behavior as a set of compromises intended to encourage Hitler to listen to military reason. For Guderian that meant concentrating Germany’s resources on the Eastern Front. He understood that this was the least worst alternative. But the Western allies had in fact halted their offensive, and been halted, short of the Rhine. Guderian shared a common German sense that Anglo-American fighting power was sufficiently mediocre that, for a while at least, High Command West could hold on with limited reinforcements. And at worst there was still some space in the west to trade for time. The Ruhr, Guderian argued, was finished: bombed out. The Silesian factories, in contrast, were still producing and must be defended.

German intelligence reported over 200 Soviet infantry divisions and two dozen tank and mechanized corps from the Baltic to the Carpathians—eleven-to-one odds in infantry, seven-to-one in tanks, plus the massive forces deployed in Hungary that through December continued the pressure on Budapest. Guderian responded on two levels. He began transferring mobile divisions eastward, with the intention of forming a central reserve strong enough to wage a maneuver battle on the Reich’s frontier: the Lodz-Hohensalza area. That kind of fight, he argued, remained the strength of German soldiers and commanders. In any case it was the only chance for—what? Did Guderian share Hitler’s hopes for the kind of miracle that had saved Frederick the Great? Was he playing out a bad hand because of professional pride? Or was he concerned with scoring points against his internal opponents?

What is known is that by mid-December Guderian had managed to reposition fourteen and a half panzer and panzer grenadier divisions. All were understrength. Most had been reconstructed like their counterparts remaining in the west, with replacements drawn from anywhere and equipment assembled ad hoc—not much for a front of 750 miles.

What is also known is that Guderian continued to argue in vain for the withdrawal of Army Group North from Courland, where its two dozen divisions were operationally useless, and to advocate equally in vain for a general shortening of the lines in the east—a position supported by Harpe and Reinhardt, the senior officers on the ground.

What is finally known—not least because Guderian was at pains to tell his version of the story in postwar safety—is that on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, and January 9, Guderian met with Hitler, described the catastrophe looming in the east, and was blown off. Hitler dismissed the intelligence estimates as nonsense and ordered the responsible officer committed to an asylum. Guderian responded by calling the Eastern Front a house of cards that would collapse entirely if broken at any point. Hitler ended the dialogue by reasserting that the Eastern Front must make do with what it had.

When Guderian denounced the Führer’s “ostrich strategy,” he was being too generous. The ostrich is supposed to hide its head in the sand when confronting danger. Instead Hitler extended his neck—into Hungary. In early December, three rebuilt panzer divisions—3rd, 6th, and 8th—were dispatched to the theater as the core of a counteroffensive to recover ground lost in the autumn. That plan was forestalled first by predictable shortages of fuel and ammunition, then by a major Soviet offensive beginning in late December that set the stage for the war’s final large-scale clash of armor.

Operationally Stavka’s intention was to complete the capture of Budapest and open the way to Vienna. Strategically the aim was to fix Hitler’s attention. Budapest would prove a difficult nut to crack, but the design’s second half succeeded brilliantly. Hitler initially responded by sending south the two best divisions of Guderian’s painfully assembled reserve, Totenkopf and Viking: IV SS Panzer Corps under Herbert Otto Gille. Gille is one of the forgotten generals of the Waffen SS—perhaps because he fits neither of the familiar physical stereotypes: bar-room brawlers like Dietrich and Eicke or male models like Meyer and Peiper. Slightly built, wearing glasses, Gille looked like a middle-aged high-school science teacher. But he had commanded Viking for over a year and brought its survivors out of the Korsun Pocket, the first to wade into a flooded, freezing river at the head of a human chain. He led IV SS Panzer Corps ably in the autumn fighting around Warsaw, in the process winning Totenkopf’s collective respect: neither an easy task nor necessarily a positive recommendation.

More than any of his senior counterparts in the Waffen SS, Gille eschewed ideologically connected behavior and rhetoric. He projected an alternate image with long and respectable antecedents in German military culture:

a good comrade off duty but hard as he needed to be when it counted—a soldier doing a job. Now his job was to break through to Budapest. On the night of January 1 the panzers struck. Taking advantage of a collective post-New Year’s hangover on the Russian side, IV SS Panzer Corps advanced 30 miles and knocked out over 200 tanks. But with half their strength still under way and only 100 Panthers and Panzer IVs between them, Viking and Totenkopf had no chance to break into the city directly. Finding that out cost them 3,500 men and 40 tanks and assault guns.

A simultaneous attack by III Panzer Corps similarly foundered against resistance too strong to be broken by the hundred-odd tanks available, even though 25 were Tigers. Gille’s corps redeployed, went in again on January 9 around Esztergom, and broke into the rear echelons of the Soviets encircling Budapest. This time the SS got to within sight of the city towers. Gille called for a breakout. Hitler refused.

On January 12 the overextended SS again pulled back and shifted locations, this time south to Lake Balaton. On January 18 the corps attacked a third time, broke through on a 20-mile front, and advanced almost 40 miles the first day. The long 75s of “Guderian’s Ducks” proved their worth as the panzers drove forward across open country on hard-frozen ground. On January 20 the Waffen SS reached the Danube, and this time came within 15 miles of Budapest before the surprised Russians concentrated enough force to stop what remained of them.

Taken together, the three attacks had been another bravura performance by Hitler’s panzers, tactically on a level with the best of anything done in 1941-42. Gille and his men understood their efforts as a rescue mission, and had fought with reckless desperation even by Waffen SS standards. Once more, however, requests for a breakout were dismissed. Instead Hitler ordered the corps to withdraw.

The Führer saw Gille’s operations as an initial step in driving the Red Army back from Budapest and securing the oil fields that were the Reich’s last source of fuel. In mid-January he had begun removing SS divisions from the Ardennes for rebuilding. Most of what remained of Germany’s arms production was poured into that process. Once again sailors without ships, airmen with neither planes nor bases, found themselves wearing SS runes. Guderian’s expectation was that these refurbished shock troops would be transferred east. Instead, Hitler ordered 6th SS Panzer Army to Hungary for the offensive that, he informed his generals, would decide a war that was essentially about controlling resources.

Operation Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening) was the final showcase and last stand of the panzers. Six Waffen SS divisions were committed. Sixth SS Panzer Army had I SS Panzer Corps with Leibstandarte and Hitler Jugend: parent and child. The II SS Panzer Corps included Das Reich and Hohenstaufen, old and new avatars of Himmler’s personal army. Gille’s corps was initially assigned to Balck’s 6th Army, alongside III Panzer Corps with two of the army’s originals: 1st and 3rd Panzer Divisions. Put together, it added up to around 600 AFVs, the best available. Leibstandarte still boasted its battalion of 36 Tiger Bs. Hitler Jugend had an attached battalion of 31 Jagdpanzer IVs and 11 Jagdpanther.

But the transfer of men and material was disrupted at every turn by Allied air attacks, and the consequences of earlier attacks, on a railway network no longer capable of sustaining the rapid, reliable, large-scale troop movements of 1942-43. Not until March 6 was the main German attack ready—and then almost 300 of its tanks and assault guns reached the front only during the next week.

Hitler entertained hopes of not merely relieving Budapest, but crossing the Danube, continuing into Romania, and recapturing those oil fields as well. Reality was a last-ditch breakout attempt on February 11 by what remained of the city’s garrison. Fewer than 1,000 men reached German lines. The commander, seeking to escape through the city sewer system, was driven to the surface by flooding and unheroic ally surrendered the next day.

At least with Budapest gone the panzers were free to concentrate on their Soviet opponents—if they were able to reach them. The weather had broken in late February. Rain and melting snow softened the ground so badly that Balck established “road courts-martial,” with the power to execute out of hand anyone responsible for road maintenance who failed in that duty. Morale did not improve. Nor did the offensive make much initial progress as the heavier AFVs became bogged down on roads Dietrich described as “catastrophic” or sank up to their turrets in the marshy fields. The panzer grenadiers took heavy losses advancing on foot against a well-developed defensive system manned by no fewer than 16 rifle divisions. By the second day they had managed to open enough gaps for the panzers to move through. By the third day Hitler Jugend achieved a local breakthrough when a dozen of its heavy tank destroyers took out a Soviet antitank screen and the reconnaissance battalion’s half-tracks machine-gunned and drove over the fleeing Russians in a style reminiscent of eighteenth-century cavalry. But the advance stopped at the Sio Canal, connecting Lake Balaton with the Danube.

In the absence of air and artillery support, the panzers were compelled to push right up to the canal banks to cover the infantry as they crossed. That brought them into killing range of Soviet antitank guns, and AFVs were no longer expendable assets. Where they were forced to retreat, the rubber boats of the assault troops were easy targets. Elsewhere Das Reich and Hohenstaufen were stymied. Leibstandarte managed to establish a bridgehead, and its pioneers managed to put a bridge across the Sio. But field bridging equipment had long since failed to keep pace with the panzers’ increasing weight. The bridge promptly collapsed. Only heroic improvisation under heavy fire reopened it sufficiently to funnel forward tank destroyers able to counter the T-34/85s that for three days kept counterattacking what was in any case a foothold to nowhere. On March 15, Dietrich and his staff ordered a withdrawal, intending to shift the army’s Schwerpunkt to II SS Panzer Corps. On March 16 it ceased to matter.

The Soviets had been able to contain Spring Awakening without committing their sector reserves. Instead those forces were concentrated west of Budapest, on the German left flank and rear. On March 14, Gille’s corps reported the threat. On March 16, under cover of a heavy fog, a million men and 1,699 armored vehicles tore a 20-mile hole in the Axis defenses and kept going. Balck, an operational optimist, had been too engaged by Spring Awakening’s chimerical prospects to retain deployable German armored reserves. By the time he, Dietrich, and Hitler could agree on the timing and direction of a counterattack, its prospects were long gone and the situation had deteriorated to sauve qui peut.

Viking was almost surrounded. Its CO pulled back in defiance of Hitler’s order to stand fast, but it was Hohenstaufen’s intervention that enabled Viking’s remnants to withdraw. The IV and II SS Panzer Corps in turn held open a corridor long enough for most of the Germans cut off by the Soviet offensive to escape. That included all that was left of 1st Panzer Division—11,473 men and exactly one operational tank, as of April 1. Leibstandarte and Das Reich, the farthest east of the Panzers, managed to bring out the men able to walk.

Hohenstaufen’s panzer regiment alone accounted for more than 100 verified kills in the course of the fighting. But 6th SS Panzer Army was reduced to fewer than 100 AFVs. More than 1,000 tanks and assault guns, Hungarian as well as German, fell to the Soviets. Relatively few had been knocked out. It was empty fuel tanks, engine breakdowns, and “General Mud” that finished off the panzers. The Russians captured enough usable tanks to put them into service against their former owners.

The German front in the south was never reestablished. For the next six weeks, operations amounted to a fighting withdrawal to, then past, Vienna. The Germans still had some sting in their tails. The last remaining tanks of Leibstandarte, predictably led in person by Peiper, retook a few villages around Sankt Pölten. For the panzers, SS or army, the primary mission nevertheless became covering the retreat as long as possible, then, wherever possible, pulling back quickly enough to surrender to the Americans. But the story of those final days is best expressed in the myth of the chamber pot.

On March 27, Hitler, enraged by the failure of his chosen troops in Hungary, ordered Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Hohenstaufen, and Hitler Jugend to remove the cuff titles bearing their division names. The alleged response exists in many versions involving combinations of a chamber pot full of armbands and high decorations being sent to the Führer’s headquarters—sometimes accompanied by a severed arm, and sometimes by the injunction “kiss my ass.”

Reality was predictably less spectacular. The most credible version has Dietrich saying with tear-filled eyes, “So this is the thanks for everything,” and ordering the morale-killing message not to be passed to his men. The chamber pot and the epithet are gestures of defiance borrowed and adapted from Goethe’s Sturm und Drang play Götz von Berlichingen—a bit of wishful thinking by postwar SS nostalgists. Ironically, the divisions had been ordered to remove their armbands for security purposes when sent to Hungary. Many replacements never even received them.

From Stavka’s perspective, Hitler could not have been more obliging had he been on Stalin’s payroll. The Soviet High Command’s plan to finish the war dated from October, and involved two major offensives. The secondary attack would be mounted against East Prussia; the main one across Poland. In a decision with as many postwar implications as military aspects, Zukhov and Konev, personal and professional rivals since the war’s early days, were each assigned command of a front under Stalin’s direct command—objective Berlin.

Given the Soviets’ overwhelming numerical superiority, developed operational effectiveness, and improving logistical capabilities, the Germans could do little but play out the hand, as a trumped bridge player tosses meaningless cards onto the table. Even before Gille was transferred to Hungary, Guderian’s concept of a mobile defensive battle fought by a strong central reserve was arguably two years behind the times. Its potential was further diminished when the army group commanders concentrated four more mechanized divisions closely behind what they considered vital sectors. That approach, a variant of the Model model, was arguably only a year out of date. Its success depended on a far closer balance of quality and quantity than existed in 1945. The dispersed panzers were in fact a security blanket for an infantry who might stand to a finish—but whose chances of withstanding a major attack were limited to the point of being imaginary.

The main Soviet offensive made five miles in the first three hours of January 12. By the end of January 13, the breakthrough was 25 miles deep. The panzer divisions in its way were overwhelmed, able to do no more than fight for mere survival. Zukhov’s 26th Guards Rifle Corps evoked the panzers’ glory days by seizing a vital bridge before German engineers could throw the demolition switches. Warsaw fell on January 17, and Hitler’s blind rage led him to turn Guderian over to the Gestapo for interrogation, albeit briefly. On January 20, Konev’s spearheads entered Silesia. By January 31, Zukhov was on the Oder at Küstrin, 40 miles from Berlin.

The primary German response, initiated by Hitler, was to transfer the newly organized Grossdeutschland Corps from East Prussia. With Grossdeutschland, Brandenburg and Hermann Göring Divisions also under command, it went into action on January 16. But the trains carrying its rear echelon were intercepted by Soviet tanks; the best it was able to do was to serve as a rallying point for disorganized soldiers and fleeing civilians. Ever-dividing, ever-shrinking pockets, most coalesced around a couple of tanks, perhaps some half-tracks, and a company or so of panzer grenadiers, made their way toward the Oder, hoping above all to avoid attracting Soviet attention. The lucky ones beat Zukhov by a day or two.

To the north the Russian attack took five days to break through a German defense, enervated by the withdrawal of its armored reserve. As Russian tanks reached the Baltic, the Germans withdrew in the only direction open to them—eastward, into Königsberg. And the near-forgotten Courland Pocket, with its two forlorn panzer divisions, stood to, waiting for the Russians to finish it.

The Red Army’s pause at the end of January was in part to refresh its logistics, in part to secure its flanks, and in part to structure its internal priorities. The attacks into Pomerania and Silesia in February and March scarcely make a footnote to the story of Hitler’s panzers, apart from their success in screening a withdrawal- cum-evacuation into the relatively safe zone of the Sudetenland. The battle for Berlin was another matter. The Reich’s capital was defended by the Wehrmacht’s flotsam: boys and old men, convalescents and comb-outs, foreigners fighting with ropes around their necks, equipped with anything handy. Factories and rail sidings were full of armored vehicles that could not be moved for lack of fuel and fear of air attack.

Guderian’s hopes of forming new reserves by transferring divisions from the West and evacuating Courland were not much less delusional than the Führer’s. His plans for a local spoiling attack to disrupt the Russians on Berlin’s doorstep primarily featured winning a screaming argument with Hitler. The attack itself collapsed within days—a predictable outcome given its limited striking power.

The final Russian offensive began on April 16. It was still a Zukhov- Konev derby, with the final prize the Reichstag. Familiar numbers flash across the screen: 21st Panzer Division, 25th Panzer Grenadier, LXVI Panzer Corps, 3rd Panzer Army, SS Northland Panzer Grenadiers. All by now were shadow formations exercising ad hoc command over constantly changing orders of battle that meant nothing except in a wire diagram. The tanks and assault guns that remained went down by ones and twos, on streets and in neighborhoods with names all too familiar.

No narrative of the Reich’s final days can be called typical. Let one stand nevertheless for many. The 249th Assault Gun Brigade was evacuated from West Prussia, reorganized and reinforced, and picked up new guns in Spandau, at the factory itself. It went into action in Berlin on April 27. In three days it destroyed 180 Soviet AFVs—at least by its own reckoning—and had only nine guns left. They fought in the heart of Berlin: on Frankfurter Allee, around the Technische Hochschule, across Alexanderplatz. One of the officers was hanged by an SS flying squad, presumably for “cowardice.” Another received the Knight’s Cross for valor.

On May 5, Hitler’s death was announced. The CO called his men together, and it was decided to break out toward the Elbe. In the darkness, the brigade lost contact. Half cut its way through to the Elbe. The other half, three guns, came under Russian fire. The lead vehicle took a direct hit. The next one got stuck. The third came to help, saw the second gun blown apart, and was itself disabled. Its crew escaped. The 249th had fought to the last gun and the last round. Adolf Hitler had long been aware the war was lost. Instead of a glorious final victory, he sought a heroic downfall, a Wagnerian Götterdammerung. What he achieved was in macrocosm the fate of this single small unit: downfall in chaos.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006)

Synopsis

An American war film adapted by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis from the book of the same title by James Bradley and Ron Powers (2000), Flags of Our Fathers recounts the story of the five Marines and one Navy Corpsman who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. Directed, co-produced, and scored by Clint Eastwood, the film examines how the event changed the lives of the surviving flag raisers.

Background

On 23 February 1945 Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took a hasty snapshot of five U.S. Marines and a sailor raising the American flag on the summit of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, signaling a key moment in wresting the island from the Japanese (though the flag-raising photographed by Rosenthal was actually the second one with a larger flag, not the first, and the Battle of Iwo Jima would rage on for another 31 days). Published in the New York Times two days later and then picked up by hundreds of U.S. newspapers, the photograph won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize and quickly became, for Americans, the most iconic image of World War II—reproduced on 150 million 3¢ postage stamps, 1.2 million war bond drive posters, and 5,000 billboards in 1945 and later immortalized by the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington Ridge Park, Virginia: a colossal sculpture by Felix de Weldon dedicated in 1954 that features bronze figures of the six flag raisers 32 feet tall. Almost 49 years after the battle, James Bradley, son of John “Doc” Bradley (1923–1994), a medic on Iwo Jima, discovered a letter postmarked 26 February 1945 that his father wrote mentioning his own involvement in the flag raising: a startling revelation that inspired Bradley to co-author, with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers (Bantam, 2000), a compelling account of the battle and how the three surviving flag raisers fared afterwards. The book spent 46 weeks on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, 6 weeks at the number-one spot. A month after its publication, Steven Spielberg acquired the option on the film rights for DreamWorks Pictures and hired screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (Jarhead) to write a screen adaptation. Actor-director Clint Eastwood read the book in 2003, liked it, and wanted to make a movie version. On 26 February 2004, at the Academy Awards Governors Ball, Eastwood and Spielberg conversed with each other about Flags of Our Fathers and Spielberg suggested that he produce and Eastwood direct, an arrangement formalized that July. Thereafter, Eastwood brought in Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) to do a rewrite that was completed in late October 2004. Reading about the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective—especially that of the island’s garrison commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi—Eastwood decided to film Letters from Iwo Jima, a companion film shot entirely in Japanese.

Production

Jared Leto was originally cast as Rene Gagnon but dropped out due to scheduling issues. With the exception of Barry Pepper, Paul Walker, and Harve Presnell, the large cast—nearly 100 speaking parts—was composed of unknowns. Filming took place over a 58-day period in far-flung locations in the winter of 2005–2006. Eastwood made a scouting trip to Iwo Jima in April 2005 but determined it was too remote for a large-scale film production. Instead, the battle scenes were shot on Reykjanes, a volcanic peninsula in Iceland that featured black sand beaches and craters almost identical in appearance to Iwo Jima. A couple of scenes were shot at Universal Studios’ backlot, but most of the stateside scenes were shot at various locations in Pasadena, Los Angeles, Chicago, and at the USMC War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. A bond drive scene supposedly taking place at Soldier Field in Chicago was actually filmed at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, using lots of computer-generated imagery (CGI) (though exterior shots of the real stadium were also used). Shooting ended early in 2006. The shoot for the movie’s companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, began in March 2006.

Plot Summary

The three surviving US servicemen who were the flag raisers at Iwo Jima—Marine Pfcs. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe)—are celebrated as heroes in a U.S. war bond drive. They reflect on their experiences during and after the war via a series of flashbacks. After training at Camp Tarawa in Hawaii (October 1944), the 28th Marine Regiment (5th Marine Division) joins an invading armada headed for Iwo Jima, a small island off Japan’s mainland. To soften Japanese resistance, the Navy shells Iwo Jima for three days. Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper) is put in charge of Second Platoon. On the fourth day of the battle—19 February 1945—the Marines land on Iwo Jima in Higgins boats. They meet no immediate resistance but then, all at once, Japanese heavy artillery and machine guns open fire on the advancing Marines. The beaches are secured, but casualties are heavy. After two days of fierce fighting, the Marines mount an assault on Mount Suribachi. Doc saves the lives of several Marines under fire, earning the Navy Cross in the process. After a dogged fight, the mountain is secured. On 23 February Sgt. Hank Hansen (Paul Walker) is ordered to scale Mount Suribachi. His squad reaches the summit and hoists the American flag atop Suribachi. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal (Michael Cumpsty) sees the flag as he reaches the beach and asks to keep the flag himself. However, Col. Chandler Johnson (Robert Patrick) counters that his own 2nd Battalion is more deserving of the flag than Forrestal. Rene Gagnon is sent up with Second Platoon to replace the first (smaller) flag with a second one intended for Forrestal. Mike, Doc, Ira, Rene, and two other marines—Cpl. Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker) and Pfc. Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross) are photographed by Joe Rosenthal as they send up the second flag. On 1 March Mike is hit by “friendly fire” and dies from his wounds. Later that day Hank and Harlon are also killed in action. Two nights later (4 March), while Doc tends to an injured soldier, Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski (Jamie Bell) is kidnapped by the Japanese and pulled through an underground tunnel. Doc finds his mutilated body a few days later. On 21 March a mortally wounded Franklin Sousley dies in Ira Hayes’ arms. Three squad members remain: Doc Bradley, Ira Hayes, and Rene Gagnon. A few days after Sousley’s death, Doc is injured and returns home. On 26 March the Battle of Iwo Jima ends in American victory (but at a grave price: 6,700 dead and 19,000 wounded). Joe Rosenthal’s photograph appears in newspapers throughout the country. Rene Gagnon is asked to name the six men in the photo: he identifies himself, Mike Strank, Doc Bradley, and Franklin Sousley, but misidentifies Harlon Block as Hank Hansen. Gagnon identifies Ira Hayes as the final man in the photograph, but Hayes says that it isn’t him, but Harlon Block in the photo. Gagnon asks Hayes to re-evaluate, mentioning that, as flag raisers, this denial will send them both home, but Gagnon refuses to give in and threatens Gagnon’s life if he dares to name Hayes in the photograph. Gagnon does eventually name Ira Hayes as the sixth man in the photograph. Bradley, Hayes, and Gagnon are then sent stateside to raise money for the war effort. Hayes calls the bond drive a joke, but Bud Gerber (John Slattery) of the Treasury Department disciplines them and admits that the U.S. government is nearly bankrupt; if the bond drive fails, the United States will be forced to abandon the Pacific and all their sacrifices will be in vain. The three agree not to tell anyone that Hank Hansen was not in the photograph. As the trio is sent around the country on their fundraising tour, Ira Hayes suffers from survivor’s guilt and the lingering effects of battle fatigue and also faces blatant bigotry as a Pima Indian. In the throes of alcoholism, Hayes vomits one night in front of Gen. Vandegrift (Chris Bauer), commandant of the Marine Corps; Vandegrift orders him sent back to his unit. After the war, the three survivors return home. Ira Hayes hitchhikes to Texas to see Harlon Block’s family and tell Harlon’s father that his son was indeed in the famous photograph. At the dedication of the USMC War Memorial in 1954 the three surviving flag raisers see each other one last time. The next year Ira Hayes dies of exposure after a night of heavy drinking. That same year Doc Bradley visits Iggy Ignatowski’s mother to tell her how her son died. Rene Gagnon attempts to begin a professional life in the business sector, but finds that the offers he received during the bond drive have been rescinded and spends the rest of his life as a janitor. Doc, however, finds success as the owner and director of a funeral home. In 1994, close to death, Doc relays his vivid tale to his son, James.

Reception

Released 20 October 2006, Flags of Our Fathers ran for eight weeks (widest release: 1,876 theaters) and earned $33.6 million in gross domestic box office receipts. Exhibition in foreign markets (November 2006–March 2007) earned another $32.3 million, for a grand total of $65.9 million: disappointing results but probably inevitable because (a) the film lacked star power and (b) it presented a dishearteningly revisionist depiction of “The Good War,” showing the U.S. government cynically exploiting military heroism for propaganda and fundraising purposes. After theaters took their percentage of the gross and P&A (promotion and advertising) expenses were deducted, both co-producing studios—Paramount and DreamWorks—ended up in the red. Originally budgeted at $80 million, Flags would have lost far more money had Clint Eastwood not completed the film well ahead of schedule and under budget, bringing it in for only $55 million. Though it flopped at the box office, Flags enjoyed strong sales on the U.S. home video market, grossing $45 million. Reviews were mostly affirmative, some adulatory. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and praised Eastwood’s two-film project as “one of the most visionary of all efforts to depict the reality and meaning of battle. The battle scenes, alternating between close-up combat and awesome aerial shots of the bombardment and landing, are lean, violent, horrifying. His cinematographer, Tom Stern, wisely bleeds his palette of bright colors and creates a dry, hot, desolate feeling; there should be nothing scenic about the film’s look” (Ebert, 2007). Philip French found Flags of Our Fathers to be “touched by greatness. It argues that soldiers may go into battle for country and glory but they always end up fighting for the survival of themselves and their comrades” (French, 2006).

Reel History Versus Real History

Historians concur that Bradley and Powers’ book is a well-researched and accurate rendition of the Battle of Iwo Jima; the 7th War Loan Drive (aka “Iwo Jima Tour,” May–July 1945); and the postwar lives of Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and Doc Bradley. Likewise, Eastwood’s film version is a faithful adaptation of its source material. Interviewed by Robert Siegel on National Public Radio on 19 October 2006 regarding the film’s historical accuracy, Charles D. “Chuck” Melson, Chief Historian of the U.S. Marine Corps, found the film to be quite true to life, describing the war bond drive, the ships coming to Iwo Jima, the beachside invasion and resulting chaos, and the flag raising. Asked by Siegel if the movie was accurate or exaggerating when it dramatized Rosenthal’s photograph as “the very fulcrum on which public support for the war effort in 1945 rested,” Melson answered, “I think it would take a social historian to really pin that one down” (Siegel, 2006). Melson’s judicious answer notwithstanding, the movie does exaggerate the importance of the Rosenthal photograph in winning the war in the Pacific. The United States would have prosecuted the war to its conclusion, whatever the success or failure of the 7th War Loan Drive. Fortunately, the Drive far exceeded expectations by raising over $26 billion ($353 billion in 2017 dollars)—an astonishing sum of money.