The Final Defence of Berlin

Volkssturm marching through Berlin following a speech from Goebbels. This photo, disseminated through `a neutral nation’, found its way to American press agencies on 31 December 1944. Though older than most regular troops, every man is equipped with Panzerfaust antitank weapon, greatcoat, air defence helmet and Swastika arm band. Some also have pistols. The parade, and appearance of the picture, helped give an impression of a well-armed, well disciplined, force.

The hopelessness of the German situation was obvious to most. As General of Artillery Helmuth Weidling, who was appointed to the unenviable task of leading the defence of the Reich capital, recorded:

The 24th of April had already convinced me that it was impossible to defend Berlin, and that it was also senseless from a military standpoint, since the German High Command did not have sufficient forces. In addition, the commander did not have a single regular unit at his disposal in Berlin at the time, with the exception of the Grossdeutschland regiment and an SS Brigade that was guarding the Reich Chancellery. The entire defence was handed over to the Peoples’ Reserve (Volkssturm), the police, the fire-brigade and various troops of the rear area service and various administrative departments.

The city was divided into eight outer and one inner defence sector. Communication among the various sectors was poor. Berlin had food and munitions reserves for thirty days. Since the store houses were on the outskirts of the city, however, supplying food and munitions became increasingly difficult the more the ring of Russians tightened around the defenders. On the last two days we had neither food, nor munitions. I think that the Volkssturm, the Police detachments, the fire-brigade and the antiaircraft units consisted of about 90,000 men, not counting the troops of the rear area services. There were also the Volkssturm of the second mobilisation as the various firms were closed in the course of the battle. The LVI Tank Corps reached Berlin, that is, retreated to Berlin, with 13,000 to 15,000 men. It is impossible to give an exact figure of the number of people who defended Berlin, since I did not receive figures on the troop strength of the individual units under my command.

The Volkssturm (literally `Storm of the People’ or `People’s Army’), who provided a significant part of the close defence of the city, were of greatly varying quality. Effectively a `people’s militia’, the formation was a last ditch levy for home defence, and in theory could include every able-bodied German male between 16 and 60 not already under arms. With fit men from their late teens to late 30s already largely swept up by the regular forces the emphasis was inevitably on the older, and on the young. Not technically part of the German Army, but a scion of the Party, the Volkssturm was originally decreed into existence, by Hitler, on 25 September 1944, but formally announced on the propitious date of 18 October, anniversary of the victorious 1813 battle of Leipzig. The vision of the Volkssturm was impressive indeed, calling for a total of six million men throughout the Reich. These were to be organized in over 1,000 battalions, in a series of enlistments; the first being for service in `frontline’ battalions; the second in factory and local battalions for area defence; the third of youths in the 16 to 19 bracket, as well as volunteers as young as 15; and the fourth for guard duty, but including enthusiasts of over 60 who still wished to serve. The best of the crop, the battalions of the first enlistment, were supposed to be 649-men strong, organized in three companies, each company having three five-man anti-tank squads as part of its establishment. In the event about 700 battalions actually saw service, and those of the third and fourth levies received few arms other than those they could procure for themselves. Volkssturm training, focusing essentially on weapons handling, was a basic 48-hour programme, often fitted around the continuation of work, such as that on fortification construction.

Goebbels in his capacity as both `Reich Defence Commissioner for the Reich Defence District of Berlin’, and Gauleiter, attended the swearing in ceremony of the Wilhelmplatz First Battalion on 12 November – a unit actually including employees of his own Propaganda Ministry. He described them enthusiastically as `modern troops, with the spirit of 1813, but the weapons of 1944′. This was partially true in that the Volkssturm did receive issues of new Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck antitank weapons and grenades, plus rifles, some of them obsolete – but which unit got what, and how much, appears to have been something of a lottery. The vexed question of uniforms was never really solved for although the Volkssturm had a ranking system of pips worn on the collar, not everyone had a suitable costume to put them on. The fortunate got German Army greatcoats and caps, others wore brown Party uniforms, a few captured uniform with new badges – but some received nothing more than an arm band. Not everyone had head protection, but many wore the Luftschutz helmets of the civilian air defence organization. One provincial newspaper offered constructive advice:

Uniformity of clothing in the Volkssturm is, in itself, of no importance: but camouflage is. To wear bright, or very light coloured clothing is inadvisable. It has therefore been decided that light coloured clothing, such as the party uniform, shall be dyed the new einsatzbraun

The dyeing of civilian suits, however, will only be carried out if the original colour is unsuitable for field service and provided that the suit, after being dyed, can still be worn by its owner for his lawful, civilian occasions.

Some Volkssturm would fight bravely, virtually to the last man, knocking out tanks at pointblank range: others failed totally through lack of weapons or training, and some did not make it into battle at all. At least one Berlin Volkssturm battalion, receiving no uniform or ammunition for their limited number of old Danish rifles, were able to procrastinate long enough to remain uncommitted.

The physical lines of the Berlin defence were formed by a series of concentric positions. The outer rested on a chain of natural obstacles between the Dahme and Alte Oder rivers, stretching for about 50 miles, and there were obstacle belts blocking major road junctions north and south of the city. Another zone of defence, the `green line’, was formed on the city boundary, supported where possible, by fall back positions. Within this the next layer of the onion was the main inner defence ring, or Hauptkampflinie, based on the S-bahn, or suburban rail circuit. Finally came what was optimistically dubbed the Zitadelle, or citadel, resting on the strength of what was effectively an island formed by the River Spree, the Landwehr canal and `bastions’ east and west around Alexanderplatz and Am Knie. To create a sufficient labour force for the improvement of the physical defences the only army engineer battalion available was supplemented by two of the Volkssturm and a mass of semi-skilled personnel drawn from the Reichs Labour Service (RAD); Organization Todt; civilians; prisoners-of-war; and outright slave labour. By such means 70,000 were gathered for the works. In the absence of enough fuel and motor vehicles loads of materials were moved mainly by rail, or horse and cart.

The outer rings, being of great length, could only be improved with basic field defences consisting of at least one fire-trench line, and, over a significant span, an anti-tank ditch. Bridges were blown, or prepared for demolition. Yet, what should be destroyed and when was a matter for argument. Hitler’s orders called for crossings to be obliterated indiscriminately, but at the same time some bridges were useful to the defence, and others carried gas, electrical and water supplies as well as carriageways. Speer’s account is that he argued for bridges to be preserved, with an eye to the post-war situation, while generals Henrici and Reymann conspired to keep some for tactical reasons. According to one post-war calculation only 127 of Berlin’s 483 bridges were therefore cut at this stage. The S-bahn was a significant obstacle to attackers in that the multiple rail lines formed fields of fire, and in many places cuttings or embankments provided ditches or ready-made ramparts. Artillery was the main defensive weapon, with many of the anti-aircraft guns, that had hitherto pointed skyward, being dug in against tanks alongside existing anti-tank weapons. In the city centre masonry and more limited fields of fire were turned to advantage with barricades blocking streets, machine-gun positions on roofs and in cellars and holes broken between buildings allowing defenders to move unseen from one place to another. Blocks were created in some U-bahn tunnels, and others were prepared for demolition or flooding. Weidling’s communications problems were exacerbated by the fact that many of the recently raised militia had no radios, and therefore had to rely on the civilian telephone network – and runners who might fall victim to a sniper’s bullet or bombardment at any moment. Like an orange, viewed from above, the eight main segments of the city were lettered clockwise `A’ to `H’. Each had its own commander, but the citadel was entrusted to SS Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke whose final reserve was a 1,200 man detachment of the Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler.

The Red Army Assault

Soviet strategy, as assessed by General Krebs, was essentially tripartite. The first objective would be to encircle in general; the second to divide the larger isolated area into parts; and the third to mount specific thrusts to fragment the city centre into ever smaller and manageable parts. The final assaults were likely to be made against Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz and the Charlottenburg railway station. Tank rider Lieutenant Evgeni Bessonov encountered the enemy on a reinforced railway line position as the Soviet forces enveloped Berlin from the south:

At dawn on 22 April we approached a high railway embankment and were stopped by intensive fire. We could quickly have destroyed the German delaying force and moved on forward, but the problem was that the passage under the railway bridge was filled with sand and fortified with big logs, connected with metal girders. We did not manage to destroy that barricade. We rode on tanks for some time and all of a sudden came under fire from trenches on the right-hand side of the road. The tanks stopped, I ordered, `Dismount! Fire!’ and the whole company ran towards those trenches firing non-stop from our submachine guns. Right in front of me was a Fritz in a trench. I tried to cut him down with my German submachine gun, but apparently during the skirmish at the embankment some sand had got into the bolt. I jerked the bolt, pulled the trigger, but it did not fire. The German did not think long, grabbed his rifle and aimed it at me. Right at that time a submachine gun burst sounded in the air and the German dropped dead at the bottom of the trench. It turned out that it was Drozd who cut him down with a Soviet PPsh submachine gun, which never jammed in battle. Why the hell did I carry that German submachine gun? We jumped across the trenches, some Germans fled, while the rest were killed. Andrey took away my submachine gun, took out the magazine and threw the submachine gun away.

By the last days Soviet and German soldiers were so closely locked in street battles that air power ceased to have much meaning, for aircraft were as likely to strike friend as foe. Instead it became a short-range infantryman’s war. As Soviet infantry officer Jakov Jarchin explained:

I can give you an idea. For example when we attacked an individual building, before entering, we used guns and mortars, to shell the building so that the soldiers would have easier access. Then, under support of our mortars, we attempted to surround the building, and cause the Germans to surrender. Then we threw grenades into the building. If that didn’t work we had to go in – despite the danger, advancing step by step, and sometimes fighting hand-to-hand with the Germans. In my unit we had rifles, submachine guns and spades. That’s all. Berlin was all in ruins, all because of massive American and British [air] bombardment. The population was in basements; no water and no electricity; lacking food. Equally some men were completely ruined.

Early in the afternoon of 30 April Red Army Sergeant Kantaria reached the second floor of the Reichstag and succeeded in waving the Red banner. Although German troops were still on the floor above him the distance to the Fürherbunker in the Chancellery garden in Wilhelmstrasse could now be measured in just hundreds of metres. Soon afterwards Eva Braun took poison and Hitler put his pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger. By that evening the Red flag had finally reached the top of the Reichstag.

An important witness of the final fall of Berlin was Vasily Grossman, special correspondent for the Russian Army’s Red Star newspaper. Grossman was an experienced journalist, and had witnessed both Stalingrad and the aftermath of the liberation of the concentration camp at Treblinka. Yet even he was almost dumbfounded by this `monstrous concentration of impressions’, wreathed in fire and smoke, where he saw:

Enormous crowds of prisoners. Their faces are full of drama. In many faces there’s sadness, not only personal suffering, but also the suffering of a citizen. This overcast, cold and rainy day is undoubtedly the day of Germany’s ruin. In smoke, among the ruins, in flames, amid hundreds of corpses in the streets. Corpses squashed by tanks, squeezed out like tubes. Almost all of them are clutching grenades and sub-machine guns in their hands. They have been killed fighting. Most of the dead men are dressed in brown shirts. They were party activists who defended the approaches to the Reichstag and Reichschancellery. Prisoners – policemen, officials, old men and next to them schoolboys, almost children.

With the Western Allies reaching the Elbe river the Soviet Armies began their encirclement of Berlin and the final destruction of the German armed forces (here depicted in blue). Marshal Zhukov began his main attack on 16 April 1945. Just nine days later the encirclement of the capital was complete. (c Osprey Publishing Ltd.) Other sights he observed that day ranged from the homely to the terrible: a little child crushed into the mud by tank or shell; infantry making a bonfire in the Reichstag to heat their mess tins; celebrations, looting and laughing; dead animals and hungry lions in the Tiergarten; curious soldiery and Hitler’s furniture together with his appropriately crushed globe. As Leonid Sheinker recalled, `we were happy and sad at the same time . [we] were euphoric, we hugged and kissed each other’.

An idealized view of the young Soviet soldier complete with rolled greatcoat, bayonet and red star with hammer and sickle. From a painting in the Latvian military museum, Riga.

Grossman also hinted at other occurrences when he described a meeting with a young Frenchman arguing that the Soviet Army’s treatment of women in the city was going to damage its fine `fighting reputation’. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the violation of Berlin was its scope and variety. One Danish journalist who witnessed it described it as less to do with sex than a `destructive, hateful, and wholesale act of vengeance’. At one end of the scale were children and old women gang raped to death: at the other some Russian officers, endowed with a strangely old world gentility, who made more or less willing German women semi-official mistresses, so preserving them from the worst defilement. Rape was certainly very widespread, and although a round figure of 100,000 Berlin women attacked is often quoted the true figure may never be known: some victims went unreported, some suffered more than once. Much was down to guesswork. A significant number of people – men as well as women – committed suicide, either before or after facing the rough hand, or summary justice and pillage, of the victors. As General Weidling himself described it, `the moment had come to settle the bill for the sins of the past years’.


Popes, Cardinals and War: The Military Church in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe by D.S. Chambers (Author)

‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ But blessed, too, have been the warmongers throughout the Christian centuries. Among the many aspects of this paradox a particular problem arises: how far could papal authority and the clerical hierarchy go in supporting or even committing acts of war in defence of the Church? The question has never been resolved with precision. St Ambrose (ca.340–97) proclaimed that – unlike Old Testament leaders, such as Joshua or David – Christian clerics should refrain from force: ‘I cannot surrender the church, but I must not fight’ ‘pugnare non debeo’; ‘Against weapons, soldiers, the Goths, tears are my arms, these are the defences of a priest.’ These precepts set the canonical line, but a fine distinction in culpability came to be admitted between inflicting violence directly and inciting others to acts of violence and bloodshed. It remained a matter of serious concern throughout the Middle Ages and beyond: how was the necessary defence of the Church to be defined and limited? Could the clergy, the officers of the Church, in conscience wholly avoid being involved in homicidal physical conflict, at least in self-defence?

In practice, when acute physical dangers threatened the Church, and its Roman power base in particular, active response must have seemed a matter of duty. The site of Rome, halfway down the ‘leg’ of Italy, was extremely vulnerable once the huge resources, military and naval strength, and well-maintained road system of the empire had gone. Successive hordes of invaders attacked or threatened the Roman bishopric’s sanctuaries and scattered estates, as well as overrunning other provinces of Italy. In the summer of 452 Pope Leo I reputedly stopped the Huns in their tracks only thanks to a miraculous if terrifying overflight of St Peter and St Paul, but Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) confronted the Lombards with military leadership. He exhorted his military captains to strive for glory, and provisioned and directed troops in defence of Rome. Two centuries later the recurrent invaders were Muslim Arabs or Moors from North Africa. Leo IV (pope 847–55) accompanied the Roman army that fought victoriously against Muslim pirates at the mouth of the Tiber, and was responsible for building fortified walls to protect the Borgo Leonino, the district near St Peter’s. John VIII (pope 872–82) in 877 commanded a galley in a joint naval campaign with Amalfitan and Greek forces against the Muslims. Maybe the scale of the victory was exaggerated, but the nineteenth-century historian Ferdinand Gregorovius felt justified in writing ‘this is the first time in history that a Pope made war as an admiral’. He quoted a letter allegedly from the Pope himself, claiming that ‘eighteen ships were captured, many Saracens were slain and almost 600 slaves liberated’. In 915 John X (pope 914–28) was present at another victory against Muslims on the river Garigliano in 915, and wrote to the Archbishop of Cologne boasting that he had bared his own chest to the enemy (‘se ipsum corpusque suum opponendo’) and twice joined battle. It is arguable that the papal resistance was largely responsible for saving the mainland of Italy from the Muslim domination that befell Sicily and much of Spain.

A very different challenge was presented by the northern ascendancy of the Frankish monarchy in the eight and ninth centuries. Its professed role was to protect the papacy, and this included large-scale ‘donations’ of territory in Italy, by Pepin (754), Charlemagne (774) and Louis the Pious (817). These confirmed at least some of the items in the forged ‘donation’ of Constantine, according to which the recently converted Emperor Constantine I, who moved his capital to Byzantium (henceforth Constantinople) in 330, transferred to the Pope extensive rights and possessions in the west. Not until the ninth century, however, did the boundaries of these claims begin to become at all geographically precise, including much of Umbria and extending north of the Appenines to parts of Emilia.

The Frankish kings’ protective, military role was graphically expressed by Charlemagne in a famous letter congratulating Leo III (pope 795–816) on his accession. In this he declared that, while his own task was to defend the Church by arms, the Pope would simply need to raise his arms to God, like Moses did to ensure victory over the Amalikites (Exodus XVII, 8–13). The other side of the bargain was that the Pope should perform coronation of his protector as emperor, the revived title duly conferred on Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas Day 800. As the imperial office also carried an aura of divinity, this protective role would eventually lead to trouble, a challenge over primacy of jurisdiction, but meanwhile it helped to preserve the papacy’s dignity. Another Germanic dynasty subsequently rescued it from the scandalous if obscure confusion that prevailed in Rome during the first half of the tenth century. During that period the local nobility, and even two unscrupulous matriarchs, Theodora and her daughter Marozia, determined the appointment and even perhaps the deposition of several popes. After 960, however, three Saxon emperors, all named Otto, began to repair the situation. Early in 962 Otto I was crowned by Marozia’s son, John XII (pope since 957), who had appealed for his protection, but in December 962 John was deposed by Otto. According to Liudprand, Bishop of Cremona, who acted as Otto’s interpreter and is therefore fairly credible as a source, this was in response to collective denunciations by senior Roman clergy. Among the alleged offences of John XII were fornication, drunkenness, arson and playing at dice, but a special emphasis seems to have been placed on publicly bearing arms. Ultimately he had turned against his imperial protector and advanced with troops against Otto’s army ‘equipped with shield, sword, helmet and cuirass’. Otto allegedly declared, ‘There are as many witnesses to that as there are fighting men in our army.’

Most successful in sharing or dominating the papacy’s authority was Otto I’s grandson Otto III. He resided in Rome once he had come of age in 996 and oversaw the appointments of his cousin Bruno of Carinthia (Gregory V, pope 996–99), who crowned him emperor, and the learned Gerbert of Aurillac (Silvester II, pope 999–1003). Both Otto I and Otto III also issued new ‘donations’, confirming the Frankish concessions of papal title to territories formerly occupied by Byzantine Greeks and Lombards. Much of central Italy, including Umbria, southern Tuscany and lands bordering the Adriatic roughly from the region of Ravenna down to Ascoli, were redefined as potential lands of St Peter. Only ‘potential’, of course, because these claims under ‘donation’ would be hard to realise and enforce; centuries of effort, with many setbacks, lay ahead. After a relapse under local political forces in the early eleventh century, the papacy again came to be protected by a German royal dynasty. From 1046 to 1055, under the Salian Henry III, a succession of reputable popes were appointed, and to one of these, Victor II, Henry conceded rule over the March of Ancona, but seemingly as an imperial vassal. For popes to have to admit the superiority or semi-parity of the emperor’s office was a hard price to pay for security.

In the course of the eleventh century lofty ideas were advanced concerning both the nature of papal authority and – as an inevitable aspect of this – ecclesiastical sanctions of warfare. There were of course earlier pronouncements on the superior nature of papal power. Gelasius I (pope 492–96) is credited with introducing the idea of the Church as a principality set above all earthly princes and the pope as the vicar not only of St Peter but of Christ himself. Nicholas I (pope 858–67) pronounced that the papacy was the greater of the two lights set over the earth, that popes were princes over the whole world, and only with their sanction could the emperor use the sword; he even quoted St Peter’s use of the physical sword against Malchus. But it was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that scholars concerned with establishing the ‘canon law’ of the Church – pronouncements, rulings and precedents governing Church affairs laid down by successive popes and jurists – built up systematically, with the support of theologians, the ‘hierocratic’ theory of superior and universal papal power, including the power to depose unworthy rulers.

These ideas, however strong in their implications for future wars, need not concern us at this point so much as two practical measures designed to ensure more effective papal authority, both of them the achievements of Nicholas II (pope 1059–61). One was the decree that laid down regular procedure in papal elections: that popes could only be elected by the ‘cardinal’ bishops, priests and deacons of Rome. As well as this constitutional provision aimed at stabilising the papal monarchy – though it failed for centuries to avert counter-elections of ‘antipopes’ – in the same year 1059 a momentous step was taken to bring the southern half of Italy and Sicily under the legal lordship of the papacy. This was the grant of conditional rulership made to the Normans Robert Guiscard and Robert of Capua, who had previously been regarded as the most troublesome and threatening of intruders in that region. The Treaty of Melfi created them dukes ‘by the grace of God and St Peter’, with a promise of the lordship of Sicily, conditional on its recapture from the Muslims. It decisively overruled or disregarded any surviving claims of Greeks, Lombards, Muslims or other de facto occupiers, and the inclusion of Sicily seems to have depended on the donation of Constantine rather than any later, more valid concessions. This turning of southern Italy into a papal fief, with obligations upon its ruler to owe the Pope military support, would have enormous consequences in the future.

Specifically on the issue of war, first, there was also a legalistic dimension that developed in the eleventh century. One of the earliest specialists in canon law, Burchard of Worms (ca.965–1025), insisted ‘the clergy cannot fight for both God and the World’, but later canonists accepted that the problem was more complicated than this. Second, there was also a spiritual dimension, investing war – in certain circumstances – with a positive value. This was an aspect of the monastically inspired reform movement in the Church. Leo IX (pope 1049–54), Bruno, the former Archbishop of Toul, was one of a group of serious reformers in Lorraine who combined austere religious standards with a warrior mentality, as did his colleague Wazo, Bishop of Liège, who was acclaimed by his biographer as a ‘Judas Maccabeus’ in his military exploits, praised for defending Liège and destroying the castles of his opponents. As archbishop Bruno had led a force in support of Emperor Henry III. As pope he waged war against his deposed predecessor Benedict IX and his partisans in 1049–50 and personally commanded an army of Swabians against the Normans in June 1053, suffering defeat at the Battle of Civitate, the disaster that made clear that the only way forward was to adopt the Normans as allies rather than enemies. Among Leo IX’s recorded declarations was the precept ‘Those who do not fear spiritual sanction should be smitten by the sword’, though it was intended mainly against bandits and pagans.

Penetrated by both monastic reforming zeal and by canon law experts who insisted on a universal, ultimate pontifical authority over the emperor and all other secular powers, the later eleventh-century papacy was almost bound to accept that force could be sanctioned, that war and bloodshed in the right cause could even be sacred. Matters reached a head in the 1070s, with recurrent conflict between the Franconian Henry IV, king, and the emperor-elect since 1056 and the former monk Hildebrand as Gregory VII (pope 1073–85). Even before he became pope, Hildebrand had been involved in the use of force. He may have served with Leo IX; certainly he was associated with Alexander II (Anselm I of Lucca) in 1061–63. He had been largely responsible for bringing the Normans into papal service, and for employing independent military figures such as Godfrey of Lorraine. They enabled Alexander to overcome the anti-pope Cadalus, Bishop of Parma (‘Honorius II’), who for a while had controlled Rome. Hildebrand, unlike so many of the medieval popes, was not born into the nobility or warrior caste, but scientific tests of his bones have shown at least that he was sturdily built and used to riding a horse.

Soon after becoming pope, Gregory VII issued direct orders to the papacy’s mercenary forces, notably the Normans under Robert Guiscard. On 7 December 1074 he wrote to Henry IV, claiming that thousands of volunteers were calling upon him to combine the roles of ‘military commander and pontiff’ (‘si me possunt pro duce ac pontifice habere’) and lead in person an army to aid eastern Christians against the Seljuk Turks.

Gregory’s conflict with Henry IV was at first a war of words rather than of arms. It was partly legalistic, over investiture to higher Church appointments and the need for clerical reforms, but even more over incompatible temperaments and claims of superior authority. The conflict blew hot and cold; in 1075, until the autumn, Gregory seemed on the point of agreeing to crown Henry emperor, but the following year he was excommunicated. Nevertheless in January 1077 he presented himself at Canossa as a penitent. In 1080 Gregory excommunicated Henry IV for the second time, whereupon the pro-imperial bishops at the Synod of Brixen elected Guibert, Archbishop of Ravenna, as anti-pope. Then Gregory announced that ‘with the cooler weather in September’ he would mount a military expedition against Ravenna to evict Guibert. He also had in mind a campaign to punish Alfonso II of Castile for his misdeeds, threatening him not just metaphorically: ‘We shall be forced to unsheathe over you the sword of St Peter.’ While it would be hard to prove that Gregory VII ever wielded a material sword, and his frequent pronouncements invoking ‘soldiers of Christ’ or ‘the war of Christ’ may sometimes have been metaphorical rather than literal, it is easy to see how his enemies – those serving Henry IV or Guibert of Ravenna – could present his combative character as bellicose on an almost satanic scale. ‘What Christian ever caused so many wars or killed so many men?’ wrote Guy of Ferrara, who insisted that Hildebrand had had a passion for arms since boyhood, and later on led a private army. Guibert, who wrote a biographical tract denouncing Hildebrand, made similar allegations. Such criticism carried on where the militant reformer and preacher Peter Damiani (1007–72) had left off; although in many respects Damiani’s views on what was wrong with the Church were compatible with Hildebrand’s, he had insisted that ecclesiastical warfare was unacceptable: Christ had ordered St Peter to put up his sword; ‘Holy men should not kill heretics and heathen…never should one take up the sword for the faith.’

Further justifications of military force initiated and directed by popes had to be devised. Gregory’s adviser and vicar in Lombardy from 1081 to 1085, Anselm II, Bishop of Lucca, made a collection of canon law precedents at his request. In this compilation Anselm proposed that the Church could lawfully exert punitive justice or physical coercion; indeed, that such a proper use of force was even a form of charity. ‘The wounds of a friend are better than the kisses of an enemy,’ he declared, and – echoing St Augustine – ‘It is better to love with severity than to beguile with mildness.’ He invoked the Old Testament parallel, arguing that Moses did nothing cruel when at the Lord’s command he slew certain men, perhaps alluding to the punitive slaughter authorised after the worship of the Golden Calf (Exodus XXXIII, 27–8) or to the earlier battle of Israel against the Amalekites, when the fortunes of war depended on the effort of Moses’s keeping his arms in the air (the episode Charlemagne had quoted to Leo III). Anselm does not go so far as to recommend that popes and other clergy should personally inflict violence on erring Christians, but he allows that they could mastermind it; the rules might be even more relaxed in wars against non-Christians, including lapsed and excommunicated former members of the Catholic Church.

Few of Gregory VII’s successors could equal that extraordinary pope’s remorseless energy, but on their part there was no renouncing of coercion by force. Even Paschal II (pope 1099–1118), a sick and elderly monk, who submitted to the humiliation of imprisonment by the Emperor Henry V in 1111, spent much of his pontificate going from siege to siege in the region of Rome. In the year of his death he supervised the mounting of ‘war machines’ at Castel Sant’Angelo to overcome rebels occupying St Peter’s. Innocent II (1130–43) was engaged in war with a rival elected soon after himself – possibly by a larger number of the cardinals – who took the name Anacletus and for a while even controlled Rome itself. Both of them found strong backers. Anacletus persuaded the German king Lothar to bring military force against his rival; Innocent obtained the support of Roger II, the Norman ruler of Sicily. In July 1139 Innocent definitely had the worst of it when an army led by himself was ambushed at Galluccio, near the river Garigliano between Rome and Naples. He was taken prisoner and had to concede to Roger investiture as king of Sicily, which Anacletus had previously bestowed on him. This was a considerable upgrading of the title ‘Apostolic Legate’, which had been conferred on Roger’s father and namesake in 1098 in recognition of the successful reconquest of Sicily from the Muslims. The grant of kingship was the culmination or reaffirmation of the policy intended to ensure a strong and loyal military defence for the papacy in the south. As a favoured relationship it had not worked altogether smoothly. One of its lowest points was Robert Guiscard’s delay in coming to the help of Gregory VII in 1084, when he delivered Rome from its long siege by Henry IV, but caused a bloodbath; another low point was the war in the 1130s mentioned above. Yet another papal defeat by Norman forces, in spite of the concession of kingship to Roger II, befell Adrian IV at Benevento in 1156. In all these military conflicts it cannot be proved that Paschal II, Innocent II, Anacletus or Adrian IV engaged physically in fighting, but in each case they accompanied armies and appear to have directed – or misdirected – field operations.

A formidable challenge arose in the middle of the twelfth century on the part of the empire, the very authority that was supposedly ‘protecting’ the papacy. In the hands of Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, of the Swabian Staufer or Staufen family – generally but incorrectly called Hohenstaufen – the empire or its lawyers advanced its own claims to government of cities and lands in northern Italy, including the city of Rome, despite local civic aspirations. The English cardinal Breakspear, elected as Adrian IV (pope 1154–59), duly crowned Frederick in 1155, but his safe arrival at St Peter’s had depended on his relative, Cardinal Octavian, securing it with armed force. The imperial decrees issued at Roncaglia, near Piacenza, in 1158 made clear that Frederick had no greater respect for the judicial, fiscal and territorial claims of the papacy than he had for civic autonomy. Adrian IV, under whose rule there had been a certain advance in papal control of central Italian castles and towns, protested vehemently to the emperor. In practice, however, in his three invasions of Italy Frederick was more concerned with Lombardy and its rapidly growing and de facto independent mercantile cities, above all Milan, which as punishment for its defiance he devastated in 1162. Without seeking direct military confrontation, the astute Sienese jurist Cardinal Rolando Bandinelli, elected as Alexander III (pope 1159–81), gave financial and moral support to the Lombard cities. He had meanwhile to contend with a series of anti-popes elected by proimperial cardinals. After the Lombard League’s famous victory against Frederick at Legnano in 1174 Alexander was able to play the role of mediator and peacemaker. Much of central Italy nevertheless was subjected in his time to imperial, not papal, jurisdiction and taxation, under the direction of men such as Christian of Mainz, whose administrative capital was Viterbo, and Conrad of Urslingen, who in 1177 became imperial Duke of Spoleto. In 1164 Frederick Barbarossa had even ordered Christian to move with an army to help install his antipope in Rome. The reversal of this imperial heyday had to wait until after the deaths of Barbarossa (drowned on crusade in 1190) and his son Henry VI in 1197.

Pope Julius versus Venice and France I

Pope Julius II

Despite his eventual recovery, the sickness that struck Cesare Borgia on that fateful August 12 was to destroy his life. The disappearance of Alexander from the scene created a vacuum which brought chaos in its train; several cities rose in open revolt. A French army under Francesco Gonzaga had already reached Viterbo, only forty miles from Rome; meanwhile, a Spanish army under its brilliant young general Gonsalvo de Córdoba was hurrying northward from Naples. In normal times Cesare might have been able to deal with the situation; but now, desperately ill in the Vatican, he was powerless to take the swift military action necessary to save his career. Political action was his only hope; and that meant ensuring from his father’s successor the support he needed. He managed to secure some 100,000 ducats from his family’s private treasury, and with this, from his sickbed, he hoped to bribe the coming conclave. At all costs he must prevent the election of his most dangerous enemy, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, who had been living in exile in France during the greater part of Alexander’s pontificate. The surest way of achieving this was, he knew, to block the cardinal’s return to Rome.

He failed. Della Rovere arrived unscathed, together with Cardinal Georges d’Amboise, Louis XII’s chief counselor, who was as ambitious for the tiara as he was. A third determined candidate was Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, who had broken with Alexander over his pro-French policies; now released from prison by d’Amboise in order to cast his vote for the Frenchman, he found himself unexpectedly popular and began lobbying on his own account. In fact, d’Amboise was soon effectively eliminated: a French pope at such a moment seemed almost as bad an idea as another Spanish one, particularly after della Rovere had spread the word that it would mean the second removal of the Papacy to France. The struggle seemed to be between della Rovere and Sforza; neither, however, could accumulate the votes necessary to carry the day, and the choice of the cardinals finally fell on a compromise candidate, Francesco Todeschini-Piccolomini, Archbishop of Siena, who took the name of Pius III as a tribute to his uncle Pius II. He was already sixty-four but looked and acted a good deal older and was crippled by gout. There was a general feeling that he would not last long.

In fact, he lasted twenty-six days, one of the shortest pontificates in history. He had been a fine, upstanding churchman of unquestioned integrity and had been the only cardinal brave enough to protest when Alexander had transferred papal territories to his son the Duke of Gandia. There were strong indications that, had he lived, he would have summoned a General Council and driven through the reforms that were so desperately needed. With his death on October 18, 1503, the opportunity was lost—and it was the Church that paid the price.

One of the shortest pontificates was followed by the shortest conclave. It lasted for a few hours on November 1. Giuliano della Rovere had done his work well and had spread his money astutely; he had even managed to secure the vote of Ascanio Sforza, the only other serious potential contender. And it was plain to all that he was born to command. In the words of the Venetian envoy:

No one has any influence over him, and he consults few or none. It is almost impossible to describe how strong and violent and difficult he is to manage. In body and soul, he has the nature of a giant. Everything about him is on a magnified scale, both his undertakings and his passions. He inspires fear rather than hatred, for there is nothing in him that is small or meanly selfish.

It might have been thought that the election of this terrifying figure as Pope Julius II—he had scarcely bothered to change his name—would spell the end for Cesare Borgia. It did not. Just two weeks before, the Orsini had stormed Cesare’s palace in the Borgo, and he, by now fully restored to health, had taken refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo. He was still there when messengers arrived from della Rovere assuring him of his protection in the event of their master’s being elected. Accordingly, the moment he heard of the election, Cesare had returned to his old quarters in the Vatican. But, as he well knew, he was there only on sufferance. It was in Julius’s interest to string him along, simply because his power base was the Romagna, where Venice was helping herself to more and more cities; Julius for the moment had no army and consequently needed Cesare’s. When he had no more use for the Duke of Valentinois, he would unquestionably ditch him.

As of course he did. Cesare Borgia still retained much of his old fire, but without his father’s protection and support the days of power and glory were gone and he fades out of our story. Exiled to Spain in 1504, he died in 1507, fighting for his brother-in-law King John of Navarre at the siege of Viana. He was thirty-one years old.

There is a story that when Michelangelo was working on his fourteen-foot bronze statue of Pope Julius II and suggested putting a book in the pope’s left hand, Julius replied, “Nay, give me a sword, for I am no scholar!” He spoke no more than the truth; he was indeed a soldier, through and through. Not since Leo IX—at Civitate in 1053—had a pope led his army personally in battle; Julius did so on several occasions, notably when, in January 1511, aged sixty-eight and wearing full armor, he personally trudged with his army through deep snowdrifts to capture Mirandola from the French. His world, like that of his enemy Alexander VI, was exclusively temporal; for the spiritual he had no time or inclination, and to establish the Papacy firmly as a temporal power was the primary task to which he devoted his pontificate. This involved, inevitably, a good deal of fighting. Already by the autumn of 1504 he had succeeded in bringing both France and the empire into an alliance against Venice—another instance of foreign armies being invited into Italy to settle what were essentially domestic differences—and in April 1506, immediately after laying the cornerstone of the new St. Peter’s, he led his entire Curia on an expedition to regain Perugia and Bologna from the local families who saw themselves as independent despots and ruled accordingly. The Baglioni in Perugia surrendered—one suspects rather to the pope’s disappointment—without a fight; the Bentivoglio in Bologna put up rather more resistance, but eventually the paterfamilias, Giovanni—who had ruled there for over forty years—fled to France and the pope made his triumphal entry into the city.

Venice, however, remained his archenemy. Five years before, he had been her most trusted friend in the whole of the Sacred College; but she had recently seized several cities in the Romagna that had previously fallen to Cesare Borgia. Those cities, which had traditionally belonged to the Holy See, she had refused to surrender; so now Julius was determined on her destruction. Italy, as he saw it, was divided into three. In the North was French Milan, in the South Spanish Naples. Between the two there was room for one—but only one—powerful and prosperous state; and that state, Julius was determined, must be the Papacy. A new stream of emissaries was dispatched from Rome—to France and Spain, to the Emperor Maximilian, to Milan, Hungary, and the Netherlands. All bore the same proposal, for a joint expedition by Western Christendom against the Venetian Republic and the consequent dismemberment of its empire.

The states of Europe could not be expected to feel much sympathy for such a policy. Their motive for joining the proposed league was neither to support the Papacy nor to destroy Venice but to help themselves. However much they might try to present their action as a blow struck for righteousness against iniquity, they knew perfectly well that their own conduct was more blameworthy than ever Venice’s had been. But the temptation was too great, and the territories promised them were irresistible. They accepted. So it was that what appeared to be the death warrant of the Venetian Empire was signed at Cambrai on December 10, 1508, by Margaret of Austria on behalf of her father, Maximilian, and by Cardinal d’Amboise for the King of France. Julius himself, though his legate was present at Cambrai, did not formally join the League until the following spring; he seems to have been uncertain whether the other signatories were in earnest. But when in March 1509 King Ferdinand II of Aragon announced his formal adherence, he hesitated no longer. On April 5 he openly associated himself with the rest and placed Venice under an interdict, and on the fifteenth the first French soldiers marched into Venetian territory. A month later, on May 14, the French met the Venetians just outside the village of Agnadello. For Venice, it was catastrophe. Her casualties were about 4,000, and her entire mainland empire was as good as lost. Before the end of the month the pope’s official legate received back the fateful lands in the Romagna with which the whole tragedy had begun.

But very soon the pendulum began to swing. Less than two months after Agnadello came the first reports of spontaneous uprisings on the mainland in favor of Venice, and on July 17, after just forty-two days as an imperial city, Padua returned beneath the sheltering wing of the Lion of St. Mark. There had as yet been no sign of Maximilian in Italy, but the news of Padua’s defection brought him down from Trento with an army. His siege began on September 15, and for a fortnight the German and French heavy artillery pounded away at the walls, reducing them to rubble; yet somehow every assault was beaten back. On the thirtieth the emperor gave up.

When Pope Julius was told of the reconquest of Padua, he flew into a towering rage, and when, after Maximilian’s failure to recover it, he heard that Verona too was likely to declare for Venice, he is said to have hurled his cap to the ground and blasphemed St. Peter. His hatred of Venice was as vindictive as ever, and although he had agreed to accept a six-man Venetian embassy in Rome, it was soon clear that he had done so only in order to inflict still more humilation on the republic. On their arrival in early July, the envoys had been forbidden, as excommunicates, to enter the city until after dark, to lodge in the same house, and even to go out together on official business. One only was granted an audience, which rapidly deteriorated into a furious diatribe by Julius himself. Not, he maintained, until the provisions of the League of Cambrai had been carried out to the letter and the Venetians had knelt before him with halters around their necks would he consider giving them absolution.

At first Venice rejected the pope’s terms outright; she even appealed to the Turkish sultan for support, requesting as many troops as he could spare and a loan of not less than 100,000 ducats. But the sultan remained silent, and by the end of the year the Venetians saw that they must capitulate. And so, on February 24, 1510, Pope Julius II took his seat on a specially constructed throne outside the central doors of St. Peter’s, twelve of his cardinals around him. The five Venetian envoys, dressed in scarlet—the sixth had died a few days before—advanced toward him and kissed his foot, then knelt on the steps while their spokesman made a formal request on behalf of the republic for absolution and the Bishop of Ancona read out the full text of the agreement. This must have made painful listening for the envoys—not least because it lasted for a full hour, during which time they were forced to remain on their knees. Rising with difficulty, they received twelve scourging rods from the twelve cardinals—the actual scourging was mercifully omitted—swore to observe the terms of the agreement, kissed the pope’s feet again, and were at last granted absolution. Only then were the doors of the basilica opened, and the assembled company proceeded in state for prayers at the high altar before going on to Mass in the Sistine Chapel—all except the pope, who, as one of the Venetians explained in his report, “never attended these long services.”

The pendulum, it seemed, was swinging again. The news of the pope’s reconciliation with Venice had not been well received by his fellow members of the League; at the absolution ceremony the French, imperial, and Spanish ambassadors to the Holy See, all of whom were in Rome at the time, were conspicuous by their absence. Although Julius made no effort to dissociate himself formally from the alliance, he was soon afterward heard to boast that by granting Venice absolution he had plunged a dagger into the heart of the King of France—proof enough that he now saw the French, rather than the Venetians, as the principal obstacle to his Italian policy and that he had effectively changed sides. By the high summer of 1510 his volte-face was complete, his new dispositions made. His scores with Venice had been settled; now it was the turn of France.

By all objective standards, Pope Julius’s action was contemptible. Having encouraged the French to take up arms against Venice, he now refused to allow them the rewards which he himself had promised, turning against them with all the violence and venom that he had previously displayed toward the Venetians. He also opened new negotiations with the emperor in an attempt to turn him, too, against his former ally. His claim, regularly resurrected in his defense by later apologists, that his ultimate objective was to free Italy from foreign invaders, would have been more convincing if he had not invited those particular invaders in in the first place.

There was, in any case, another motive for the pope’s sudden change of policy. Having for the first time properly consolidated the Papal States, he was now bent on increasing them by the annexation of the Duchy of Ferrara. Duke Alfonso II, during the past year, had become little more than an agent of the French king; his saltworks at Comaccio were in direct competition with the papal ones at Cervia; finally, as husband of Lucrezia Borgia, he was the son-in-law of Alexander VI—a fact which, in the pope’s eyes, was alone more than enough to condemn him. In a bull circulated throughout Christendom, couched in language that St. Peter Martyr said made his hair stand on end, the luckless duke was anathematized and excommunicated.

In the early autumn of 1510 Pope Julius had high hopes for the future. A joint papal and Venetian force had effortlessly taken Modena in mid-August, and although Ferrara was strongly fortified there was good reason to believe that it would not be able to withstand a well-conducted siege. The pope, determined to be in at the kill, traveled north by easy stages and reached Bologna in late September. The Bolognesi gave him a frosty welcome. Since the expulsion of the Bentivoglio in 1506 they had been shamefully misgoverned and exploited by papal representatives and were on the verge of open revolt. The governor, Cardinal Francesco Alidosi, had already once been summoned to Rome to answer charges of peculation and had been acquitted only after the intervention of the pope himself, whose continued fondness for a man so patently corrupt could be explained, it was darkly whispered in Rome, only in homosexual terms. But the tension inside the city was soon overshadowed by a yet graver anxiety. Early in October a French army under the Seigneur de Chaumont and Viceroy of Milan marched south from Lombardy and advanced at full speed on Bologna. By the eighteenth it was three miles from the gates.

Pope Julius, confined to bed with a high fever in a fundamentally hostile city and knowing that he had less than a thousand of his own men on whom he could rely, gave himself up for lost. “O, che ruina è la nostra!” he is reported to have groaned. His promises to the Bolognesi that they would be exempted from taxation in return for firm support were received without enthusiasm, and he had already opened peace negotiations with the French when, at the eleventh hour, reinforcements arrived from two quarters simultaneously—a Venetian force of light cavalry and a contingent from Naples, sent by King Ferdinand as a tribute after his recent papal recognition. The pope’s courage flooded back at once. There was no more talk of a negotiated peace. Chaumont, who seems to have felt some last-minute qualms about laying hands on the papal person, was persuaded to withdraw, a decision which did not prevent Julius from hurling excommunications after him as he rode away.

It is hard not to feel a little sorry for the Seigneur de Chaumont. He was dogged by ill luck. Again and again we find him on the point of a major victory, only to have it plucked from his grasp. Often, too, there is about him more than a touch of the ridiculous. When Julius was besieging Mirandola, Chaumont’s relief expedition was twice delayed: the first time when he was hit on the nose by an accurately aimed snowball which happened to have a stone lodged in it, and then again on the following day when he fell off his horse into a river and was nearly drowned by the weight of his armor. He was three days recovering, only sixteen miles from the beleaguered castle; as a result, Mirandola fell. A month later, his attempt to regain Modena failed hopelessly, and on February 11, 1511, aged thirty-eight, he died of a sudden sickness which he—though no one else—ascribed to poison, just seven hours before the arrival of a papal letter lifting his sentence of excommunication.

But by this time the Duke of Ferrara, on whom the ban of the Church weighed rather less heavily, had scored a brilliant victory over a papal army which was advancing toward his city along the lower reaches of the Po, and Julius was once again on the defensive. In mid-May Chaumont’s successor, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, led a second march on Bologna, and on his approach the inhabitants, seeing their chance of ridding themselves once and for all of the detested Cardinal Alidosi, rose in rebellion. The cardinal panicked and fled for his life without even troubling to warn either the Duke of Urbino, who was encamped with the papal troops in the western approaches, or the Venetians, a mile or two away to the south; and on May 23 Trivulzio entered Bologna at the head of his army and restored the Bentivoglio to their old authority.

Cardinal Alidosi, who in default of other virtues seems at least to have possessed a decent sense of shame, barricaded himself in his hometown, Castel del Rio, to escape the papal wrath, but he need not have bothered. Julius, who had prudently retired a few days earlier to Ravenna, bore him no grudge. Even now, in his eyes, his beloved friend could do no wrong: he unhesitatingly laid the entire blame for the disaster on the Duke of Urbino, whom he summoned at once to his presence. The interview that followed is unlikely to have diminished the duke’s long-standing contempt for Alidosi, for whose cowardice he was now being made the scapegoat. When, therefore, on emerging into the street he found himself face to face with his old enemy, who had just reached Ravenna to give the pope his own version of recent events, his pent-up anger became too much for him. Dragging the cardinal from his mule, he attacked him with his sword; Alidosi’s retinue, believing that he might be acting under papal orders, hesitated to intervene and moved forward only when the duke remounted his horse and rode off to Urbino, leaving their master dead in the dust.

The grief of Pope Julius at the murder of his favorite was, we read, terrible to behold. Weeping uncontrollably and waving aside all sustenance, he refused to stay any longer in Ravenna and had himself carried off at once to Rimini in a closed litter, through whose drawn curtains his sobs could be plainly heard. But there were more blows in store. Mirandola, for whose capture he had always felt himself personally responsible, was within a week or two to be lost to Trivulzio. The papal army, confused, demoralized, and now without a general, had disintegrated. With the recapture of Bologna, the way was open to the French to seize all the Church lands in the Romagna for which he had fought so hard and so long. All the work of the last eight years had gone for nothing. And now, at Rimini, the pope found a proclamation nailed to the door of the cathedral, signed by no fewer than nine of his own cardinals with the support of Maximilian and Louis of France, announcing that a General Council of the Church would be held at Pisa on September 1 to investigate and reform the abuses of his pontificate.

Pope Julius versus Venice and France II

As both a pope and a man, Julius had many faults. He was impetuous—“so impetuous,” wrote the contemporary historian Francesco Guicciardini, “that he would have been brought to ruin had he not been helped by the reverence felt for the Church, the discord of the princes and the condition of the times”—mercurial, vindictive, a poor organizer, and a deplorable judge of character. Though an adept diplomatic tactician, he had little sense of long-term strategy. Eaten up by worldly ambition, he was utterly unscrupulous in the pursuit of his ends. Certain qualities, however, he possessed in full measure. One was courage; another was indomitability of spirit. On his journey back to Rome, at the age of nearly seventy, he was already contemplating a new league, headed by himself and comprising Venice, Spain, England, and if possible the empire, whose combined forces would drive the French once and for all from the Italian Peninsula; and by the beginning of July negotiations had begun.

These presented no serious problems. Ferdinand of Spain had already gained all he could have hoped for from the League of Cambrai and had no desire to see any further strengthening of the French position in Italy. In England, Ferdinand’s son-in-law Henry VIII willingly agreed to keep his rival occupied in the North while his allies did the same in the South—although he was obliged to point out to the pope, while accepting his proposals, that it would have been better if they had not been carried by an obvious double agent (recommended, it appears, by the late Cardinal Alidosi), who was regularly reporting all developments to King Louis. Venice, which throughout the negotiations was fighting hard—and on the whole successfully—to resist French offensives in the Veneto and Friuli, asked nothing better. Maximilian, as usual, dithered; but even without him, the new league promised to be a force to be reckoned with.

One reason, apart from his natural temperament, for the emperor’s ambivalent attitude was the proposed Church Council at Pisa which he and King Louis had jointly sponsored. Already Louis was beginning to regret the idea, and support for it was rapidly falling away. After two short sessions, local hostility was to force its removal to Milan; and there, although under French protection, it was openly ridiculed to the point where a local chronicler forbore to record its proceedings because, he claimed, they could not be taken seriously and anyway he was short of ink.

Meanwhile the pope, having almost miraculously recovered from an illness during which his life had been despaired of, was able to proclaim the Holy League on October 4 and begin preparations for war. He soon found, however, that King Louis also held an important new card in his hand: his nephew Gaston de Foix, Duc de Nemours, who at the age of twenty-two had already proved himself one of the outstanding military commanders of the day. Courageous, imaginative, and resourceful, this astonishing young man could make a decision in an instant and, having taken it, could move an army like lightning. A dash from Milan in early February 1512 was enough to thwart an attempt by a papal army to recover Bologna; unfortunately, it also suggested to the citizens of Bergamo and Brescia that with the French forces away on campaign this was an opportune moment to rise in revolt and return to their old Venetian allegiance. They were quickly proved wrong. Marching night and day in bitter weather—and incidentally, smashing a Venetian division which tried to intercept him in a battle fought by moonlight at four in the morning—Nemours was at the walls of Brescia before the defenses could be properly manned, and he and his friend Bayard led the assault, fighting barefoot to give themselves a better grip on the sloping, slippery ground. Brescia was taken by storm, the leader of the revolt was publicly beheaded in the main square, and the whole city was given over to five days’ sack, during which the French and German troops fell on the local inhabitants, killing and raping with appalling savagery. It was another three days before the 15,000 corpses could be cleared from the streets. Bergamo hastily paid 60,000 ducats to escape a similar fate, and the revolt was at an end.

The campaign, however, was not. Nemours, determined to give his enemies no rest, returned to Milan to gather fresh troops and then immediately took the field again. With an army that now amounted to some 25,000, he marched on Ravenna and laid siege to the town. As a means of drawing out the papal army, the move was bound to succeed. Its commander, the Spanish viceroy in Naples, Ramón de Cardona, could not allow a city of such importance to be captured under his nose without lifting a finger to save it. And so on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1512, on the flat, marshy plain below the city, the battle was joined.

Of all the encounters recorded in Italy since Charles VIII had taken his first, fateful decision to establish a French presence in the peninsula nearly twenty years before, the Battle of Ravenna was the bloodiest. When at last the papalists fled from the field they left behind them nearly 10,000 Spanish and Italian dead. Several of the leading Spanish captains, some of them seriously wounded, were in French hands, as was the papal legate, Cardinal de’ Medici. Ramón de Cardona himself, who had taken flight rather earlier in the day—he is said not to have drawn rein until he reached Ancona—was one of the few to survive unharmed. But it had been a Pyrrhic victory. The French losses had also been considerable, and, worst of all, Nemours himself had fallen at the moment of triumph, in a characteristically impetuous attempt to head off the Spanish retreat. His place was taken by the elderly Seigneur Jacques de La Palice, who was possessed of none of his speed or panache. Had the young man lived, he would probably have rallied what was left of the army and marched on Rome and Naples, forcing Julius to come to terms; but La Palice was cast in a more cautious mold. He contented himself with occupying Ravenna, where he was unable to prevent an orgy of butchery and rape which surpassed even that suffered by the Brescians a few weeks before.

Now there suddenly occurred one of those extraordinary changes of political fortune which render Italian history as confusing to the reader as it is infuriating to the writer. When the news of Ravenna reached him, Julius, foreseeing an immediate French advance on Rome, prepared for flight. Just before he was due to leave, however, he received a letter from his captive legate, whom La Palice had unwisely permitted to correspond with his master. The French, wrote Cardinal de’ Medici, had suffered losses almost as great as those of the League; they were tired and deeply demoralized by the death of their young leader; their general was refusing to move without receiving instructions and confirmation of his authority from France. At about the same time the Venetian ambassador in Rome sought an audience with the pope to assure him that, contrary to widespread rumors, the republic had not accepted any French proposals for a separate peace and had no intention of doing so.

At once Julius took new courage. Overpowered, at least temporarily, in the military field, he flung all his energies into the Church Council that he had summoned for May 1512. This had now become more necessary than ever, since King Louis’s renegade Council of Milan had taken advantage of the victory of Ravenna to declare the pope contumacious and suspend him from office. It was true that even in Milan itself few people took the findings of so transparently political a body very seriously; nonetheless, this open split in the Church could not be allowed to go unchecked or unanswered. On May 2, with all the state ceremonial of which the papal court was capable, the Supreme Pontiff was borne in his litter to the Lateran, followed by fifteen cardinals, twelve patriarchs, ten archbishops, fifty-seven bishops, and three heads of monastic orders: a hierarchical show of strength that made the handful of rebels in Milan seem almost beneath notice, precisely as it was intended to do. At its second session this Lateran Council formally declared the proceedings of the Council of Pisa/Milan null and void and all those who had taken part in it schismatics.

On that very same day Pope Julius also proclaimed the adhesion of the Emperor Maximilian to the Holy League, and Maximilian now gave orders that all subjects of the empire fighting with the French army should immediately return to their homes on pain of death. To La Palice, this was disastrous news. He had already suffered a serious depletion of his French troops, most of whom had been recalled to deal with the impending invasion of Henry VIII in the north; the precipitate departure of his German mercenaries now left him in the ridiculous position of a general without an army—or at least without any force capable of holding the Swiss and Venetians whom he suddenly found ranged against him. Meanwhile, the Spanish and papal forces were also back in the field and, although only a shadow of what they had been before their recent defeat, were able to advance virtually unopposed on all fronts. By the beginning of July the pope had not only regained all his territories but had even extended them to include Reggio Emilia, Parma, and Piacenza. La Palice, with what was left of his army, had no choice but to return to France, where Louis XII, who only three months before might have had the entire peninsula within his power, now saw all his hopes annihilated.

Pope Julius II died on February 21, 1513, of a fever, probably brought on by the syphilis from which he had suffered for many years. There had been little of the priest about him apart from his dress and his name. His pontificate had been dominated by politics and by war; his strictly ecclesiastical activities had been largely confined to routine matters, though it was he who had issued the fateful dispensation which authorized Henry VIII to marry Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder brother, Arthur.

By far Julius’s most important legacy was as a patron of the arts. He had a passion for classical statuary, enriching the Vatican collections with masterpieces such as the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön. (The latter had been accidentally unearthed in 1506 by a man digging in his vine                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    yard.) But he is nowadays chiefly remembered for his decision to replace the old Basilica of St. Peter with a new building, infinitely more magnificent than its predecessor. The plans for this he eventually entrusted to Donato Bramante,5 who, abandoning his original design for a Greek cross-in-square church with the tomb of St. Peter directly beneath a vast dome, eventually decided on a more traditional Latin basilica with nave and aisles, together with a portico derived from the Pantheon. Away went the ancient mosaics, the icons, the huge medieval candelabra; it was not long before the architect had acquired a new nickname, Il Ruinante. The work on St. Peter’s alone would have kept him fully employed for the rest of his life, but Julius also made him responsible for a radical redesign of the Vatican Gardens.

The pope also gave encouragement and employment to the twenty-six-year-old Raphael, whom he commissioned to fresco his own apartments—he refused absolutely to inhabit those of the hated Alexander—and to Michelangelo, whom, as we know, he had to bully mercilessly (“I’m a sculptor, not a painter,” the artist protested) into painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It has been suggested that, despite the bullying, the two men were lovers. Both, certainly, were homosexual, and Julius, although he had engendered three daughters while still a cardinal, was widely accused of sodomy. On the whole, the idea seems improbable; but we shall never know.

Excessive modesty was never one of the failings of Pope Julius II, and as early as 1505 he also commissioned Michelangelo to design his tomb. This was originally intended to stand thirty-six feet high and to contain forty statues, all of them over life size; according to Vasari, the principal reason for his decision to rebuild St. Peter’s was in order to provide suitable accommodation for it. Unfortunately, the money ran out and the project had to be radically revised. A far more modest version can now be seen in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome; but Julius was actually buried in what there was of his new St. Peter’s—as, doubtless, he would have wished.

The R4M rocket

Me 262 with R4M underwing rockets on display at the Technikmuseum Speyer, Germany

The 5.5cm R4M aircraft rocket; drawn from a British report on its discovery. This is the air-to-air version with a shaped-charge warhead for antiaircraft use.

The R4M had two shaped-charge warheads: PR-3 for aerial fighting and the larger PB-2, used for attacking tanks.

The R4M rocket – from the German Rakete (rocket), 4-KiIogramm, Minenkopf (mine-head) – was nicknamed the Orkan (Hurricane) missile. It weighed 8.51b (3.85kg), measured 32in (812mm) in length and 2.16in (55mm) in diameter. It was developed in 1945 and a few were fitted to Me-262 and Fw-190s aircraft. It was highly effective and in April 1945 a squadron of Me-262 jets are reported to have brought down 30 American B-17 bombers in a single mission.

The fighter version of the Me262 could fly at 540 mph – it could far outstrip the Mustangs, and it could reach 30 000 ft in seven minutes. It could fly for only an hour, which was a drawback, but its 30-mm guns could pack an awful punch. Later it added the new R4M rockets to its armament, being able to carry 24 of these high-velocity air- to-air rockets which were ripple-fired to form a dense pattern. Fired at a B17 formation, a single rocket was usually more than enough to cause lethal damage.

The tactic used by Me262 pilots when attacking US bombers was generally to place themselves about three miles behind the bomber `box’ and about 6000 ft above. From this position they began a dive to reach a speed of over 540 mph with which to penetrate any fighter screen. Continuing down to 1000 to 1500 ft below the `box’ the German pilot would then pull up, throttle back in order to lose some of this forward speed, then level out some 1000 yards behind the target at about 100 mph, firing rockets (if carried) at 650 yards’, then following up with his 30-mm from closer range. The pilot would accelerate away and over to avoid flying debris, as his target bomber disintegrated.

Produced by the Rheinmetall Company, the Rakete 4 Minenkopf (R4M) air-to-air rocket, nicknamed Orkan (Hurricane), was developed to deal with Allied heavy bombers. The projectile was composed of a simple steel (later cardboard) tube with eight flip-out fins for stabilization. It was 82 cm (32.2 in) in length and 5.5 cm (2.16 in) in diameter. It was powered by a diglycol, solid-fuel, fast-burning rocket propellant. It mounted a 0.50 kg (1.1l b) war- head, either high-explosive for anti-aircraft use or armor-piercing against tanks. It was usually used in a battery of twelve or twenty-four, mounted and fired from a wooden launch rail attached under wing. The projectiles were unguided and aimed by a cockpit gunsight. They were provided with enough fuel to be fired effectively from 1,000 m, thus beyond the range of bombers’ defensive weapons. The rockets were serially fired in four salvos of six missiles each, at intervals of 0.07 seconds, from a range of about 600 m to 1,000 m and at a speed of 1,700 ft/s. One single hit often meant a kill, but it was not an easy task to take accurate aim on a target which was taking evasive action. Simple and easy to manufacture, the R4M was used operationally only for a brief period just before the end of World War II.

Nivelle’s failure

Nivelle’s failure was no greater than that of others, indeed rather less. He took more ground than Joffre did in his offensives or than Haig did at Arras. But Nivelle had promised more. Instead, he had carried the exhausted French army beyond breaking point.

(A.J.P. Taylor)

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Nivelle Offensive was that, despite its failure, there were so few consequences for its instigator, Nivelle himself. Yes, his career as a commander was over, and for a man who was so ambitious and had such tremendous self-belief this must have been devastating, but, as was the case with so many failed First World War commanders, there would be no court-martial or further sanction.

There was, however, a Commission of Enquiry, which met in a series of sessions from August to October 1917. Its brief was to ‘study the conditions in which the offensive of 16–23 April took place in the valley of the Aisne and to determine the role of the general officers who exercised command’. It was an investigative commission only and had no power to impose any sanctions. It was headed by General Brugère and the other two members were Generals Foch and Gouraud. None of these officers had served under Nivelle during the offensive and were deemed suitable to carry out the inquiry due to their seniority. Nivelle did not attend all the sessions and submitted some of his testimony in a series of memoranda. Generals Micheler, Mazel and Mangin also attended to give evidence. Painlevé was deeply disappointed with the remit of the commission and later dismissed its report as mere ‘rose water’.

Some time was spent considering Nivelle’s overall principles, with Foch expanding on how Nivelle’s concepts were flawed and how continuing the Somme offensive might have been more fruitful, perhaps even resulting in victory in 1917. The testimonies of Nivelle’s subordinate commanders followed a pattern. Micheler, Mangin and Mazel all confessed to having had doubts about the plan and its operational security but they had ultimately felt obliged to follow orders. Mangin, now thoroughly disillusioned with his former chief, referred to Nivelle’s Napoleonic attitude, while Mazel was described as ‘cold and reserved’ throughout the proceedings. Pétain, who had initially not been invited to attend, also obtained a hearing, during which he trotted out his previous criticisms. It seems that he was making an effort to disassociate himself from all blame, although it can be argued that he should have been more forceful in his opposition in March and April.

The commission also sought out the report prepared in early 1917 by Nivelle’s former chief of operations, Colonel Renouard. This report had contained pessimistic predictions regarding the offensive’s likelihood of success and several staff officers had read it. Interestingly, the members of the commission found that the report had been removed from the files.

The commission’s final thirty-page report is an excellent source for historians as it unpacks the development of Nivelle’s plan throughout its span. The role of the subordinate generals is also outlined and some, such as Mangin, are given credit for their performance. General Duchêne could not be criticised, it was stated, as his army’s offensive had never truly got under way. Ultimate responsibility rested, the report concluded, with Nivelle.

Other aspects of the plan also drew severe criticism. The presiding generals concluded that the logistical measures necessary to maintain the artillery supply, and hence the barrage, had not been put in place. The medical services were singled out for particular criticism as they had inadequate personnel in place to evacuate wounded from the battlefield and then too few field hospitals and transport facilities.

Further points were also discussed that contributed to the offensive’s failure. These included:

•  inadequate artillery preparation;

•  poor performance by the tanks;

•  weather;

•  lack of operational security;

•  the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line; and

•  the availability of German reserves.

Mention was also made of the activities of ‘defeatist’ and pacifist elements within France. The report made positive mention of the ‘magnificent élan’ and performance of the troops. The message was clear: the cause of the defeat lay not with the troops themselves but with their senior commanders. It was perhaps the commission’s president, General Brugère, who best summed up the main problem in a letter to Poincaré, in which he stated that Nivelle ‘had not been up to’ the demands of senior command.

Paradoxically, the Germans also formed an investigative group to examine the French attack. It reached many of the same conclusions as the French inquiry. The Germans paid special attention to the deployment of the tank force, commenting, ‘We can only conclude that the main striking force of an offensive resides in tanks and it is a question of developing the other arms in such a way that they can keep up with them.’ The German general staff would pay much attention to tank actions during the First World War as they developed new operational doctrines during the interwar years. This process would ultimately produce the tactical methods of ‘Blitzkrieg’.

The issue of casualties was a major feature of the French inquiry. In the offensive’s early phases losses were being estimated at around 96,000 in total, killed, wounded or missing. It is now clear that these initial calculations were underestimated. During the worst phase of the army mutinies the losses were deliberately downplayed in the hope of minimising the public and political outcry. During wartime it was also difficult to get accurate casualty numbers due to various battlefield factors and the enormous pressures faced by administrative and medical staff. However, it would appear that there were some attempts to conceal the extent of the casualties. For example, casualties from the Russian brigades were not initially factored in, while lightly wounded who returned to their units were also not counted. Most modern accounts give the figure of 134,000 casualties, which includes 100,000 wounded, 30,000 killed and 4,000 missing or taken prisoner. A post-war study by the 1er Bureau of the GQG calculated the numbers to be much higher, and factored in losses for the whole of the operation from 16 April to 10 May and also included those who suffered light wounds. This gave significantly higher totals of 48,000 dead, 120,000 wounded and 4,500 taken prisoner or missing. The Canadian historian G.W.L. Nicholson calculated as many as 187,000 losses in total. Such casualty rates represented the worst losses since November 1914. The debate about the final casualty figures still continues. Due to the fact the GQG withheld the casualty figures at the time, the idea that the true total was much higher has endured. Some French sources claim 200,000–250,000 men killed.

Can the Nivelle Offensive be considered anything other than a failure? In the light of such casualty figures it is obvious, by any sensible criteria, that it was a costly failure. Yet at the time there were attempts to cast it in a more positive light. Estimates of the numbers of German casualties vary but some sources claim as many as 163,000 total casualties, including more than 28,000 taken prisoner. More than 180 German artillery pieces and over 400 machine guns (some sources say 1,000) had been captured, along with 149 Minenwerfer and much other equipment. Some territorial gains had been made and key terrain features captured, while the Sixth Army’s advance was one of the biggest French advances since the war had settled into trench warfare in 1914. The army was firmly rooted on the Chemin des Dames and these new positions would facilitate further actions in the summer of 1917. In the wider context of the French army’s experiences in the First World War, this could be cast in a positive light. The wasteful offensives of 1915 had, for example, achieved less for similarly high casualties.

The key issue that made Nivelle’s failure so disastrous in 1917 was the timing of it. The French army was on the brink of exhaustion at the beginning of the offensive and was then pushed beyond endurance to breaking point. And the suffering and sacrifice did not bring the promised victory. Such failures had been absorbed by the army and the French nation in 1914, 1915 and 1916, but by 1917 there was simply no room for further failure.

The aftermath of the events of 1917 also demonstrates that the ties binding the French government, army and people together in the war effort were in a critical state after this failure. In his classic study of military strategy, On War, Carl von Clausewitz developed the concept of the ‘trinity of war’: the synergetic relationship between government, people and army that is necessary if a nation is to successfully conduct a modern war.

This principle was developed by later strategic theorists during the twentieth century and it remains largely true today. Alexandr Svechin, writing in the 1920s in the context of First World War and the recent Russian revolution and civil war, summed up this principle simply by stating that ‘war may be waged only by the will of a united people’. It is glaringly apparent that, at the time of the Nivelle Offensive, this ‘trinity of war’ had broken down in France. The relationship between the government and the military commanders was dysfunctional. The politicians were trying to exert more control over the military but their efforts were often ill-considered and largely ineffectual. Also, there was a lack of consistency; Painlevé found his efforts thwarted by colleagues within government, including Premier Ribot, who believed in Nivelle and his plans.

Within the military, the subordinate commanders never united in a concerted effort to oust Nivelle, despite their misgivings about him and his plans. He had his critics, yet the tendency was for generals to air their grievances privately to the politicians and the press while failing to present a united front at crucial meetings in order to have Nivelle removed. A greater loyalty to their own profession and the principles of command did not allow senior generals to unite and demand Nivelle’s removal. Svechin later summed up the dysfunctional nature of the French political–military relationship during the run-up to the offensive:

Officially the operation was greatly approved and everyone glorified the successes that would be achieved but then wrote confidential letters to influential politicians asking them to keep the army from launching an operation that had absolutely no chance of success. However, they did not have the civic courage to repeat these doubts in front of Nivelle at a special meeting called by Minister Painlevé.

The mutinies that broke out in the wake of the failed offensive are ample proof that the rank and file of the French army had lost faith in their senior commanders. In this fractured relationship, command and control systems and military discipline broke down. The French public were also in a state of discontent with the politicians – all politicians, regardless of faction or party – and with how the war was being run. In the spring and early summer of 1917 this discontent erupted in strikes and protests that broke out across France. The French people sympathised with the poilus in the trenches and supported their mutinies as they had lost faith in the government and the military leaders. Ultimately, all the links within the crucial ‘trinity of war’ had broken down. By June 1917 France had ceased to function as a united nation at war.

In a wider context, the Briand government had also allowed itself to be drawn into a damaging political contest between British politicians, in particular Lloyd George, and senior British commanders. It could be argued that, like a contagion, the dysfunctional aspects of the French government and military also affected the political–military relationship of the British.

Alongside these wider ramifications, debate has continued as to why the offensive failed. The 1917 inquiry identified many of the key issues, which can be summed up as a combination of failings in leadership, choice of terrain, planning and preparation. Also, Nivelle had allowed himself to be drawn into what would now be referred to as ‘mirror-imaging’ – effectively, he expected the Germans to conform to his plans as to how the offensive would unfold. As A.J.P. Taylor put it, ‘the Germans did not conform to Nivelle’s requirements’.

Perhaps inevitably, Nivelle himself has remained the focus of criticism. Yet even if one accepts that he was ultimately responsible for the failure, further questions remain as we are faced with a general who was demonstrably intelligent but who nevertheless acted in a seemingly irresponsible manner. Using modern ‘Principles of War’ criteria to examine the offensive, it can be shown that, in some respects, Nivelle can be considered to have performed well. The concept of ‘Principles of War’ has been in circulation since classical times and by the First World War had been codified by many armies. While there are variations in criteria in different nations, the modern US scheme identifies nine main principles:

Principles of war


Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time


Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive and attainable objective


Seize, retain and exploit the initiative


Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared

Economy of force

Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts


Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power

Unity of command

For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander


Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage


Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding

It is possible to assess Nivelle’s plan using these criteria. With respect to ‘Mass’, Nivelle had assembled a very large force and in that respect he scores well. Also, it is clear that he thought that he was fulfilling other criteria such as ‘Objective’, ‘Initiative’, ‘Manoeuvre’ and ‘Economy of Force’. In reality, any objective analysis of these principles at the time should have made it clear to him that he was not planning comprehensively to fulfil these requirements. For example, his objective was the German reserve armies and their artillery, and while that may have seemed clear enough to Nivelle, he paid too little attention to the defences and forces that the French formations needed to fight through to reach this objective. Also, as the offensive stalled, new objectives in the shape of key terrain features began to dominate the battle in a classic example of ‘mission creep’. This in turn affected the ‘Economy of Force’ principle as French formations became bogged down in these secondary fights.

It is possible to disassemble Nivelle’s plan using other criteria to illustrate how operational realities contradicted elements of his plan. While he was confident that he was seizing the initiative and was convinced of the primacy of the offensive, he was not assessing the opposition or the battlespace correctly or objectively. His over-controlled approach to his staff and his intolerance of dissent exacerbated this lack of objectivity.

The principle of ‘Surprise’, in a First World War context, was simply not achievable for Nivelle due to the long preparatory barrage. In terms of ‘Security’, his plan was dangerously compromised owing to his own indiscretions and those of others, and also through the capture by the Germans of operational plans. Nivelle’s difficulties with his subordinate commanders should have indicated that he was far from achieving ‘Unity of Command’.

So, although Nivelle may not have assessed his situation using such precise criteria, it is still somewhat perplexing that he did not reflect on the viability of his plans at some point in an objective manner, especially given the increasing level of dissent among his army group commanders. It is difficult to explain. To an observer, it seems to be an example of what Norman Dixon, in his classic book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (London, 1975), referred to as ‘obsessional neurosis’. As Nivelle’s plans advanced, he increasingly identified with them and became intolerant of dissent. His profound confidence and self-belief meant that he could not assess his own plans objectively, and his efforts to convince politicians and generals only served to increase his belief in his own abilities. As the offensive neared, he became increasingly inclined to assess intelligence and reach conclusions that fitted his own plans, and these assessments ran counter to the actual implications of the information being presented. While Nivelle had never been inclined to factor in others’ opinions and assessments of his plan, by March 1917 it would seem that he had ceased to heed the opinions of his subordinate commanders. The one exception to this was, of course, Colonel d’Alançon, who was similarly obsessed with carrying out the plan. Equally, his close association with Mangin did not result in an objective assessment of the military situation. Mangin’s ‘can-do’ attitude and his indifference to casualties only facilitated the process. Nivelle’s mindset was neatly summed up by the historian Anthony Clayton:

The undoubted virtues he had shown before 1917 turned to touchy, rigid, and over-controlled behaviour when under the stress of Supreme Command, with consequent errors of judgement, rejection of unpalatable information, stereotyping of outgroups, an authoritarianism based on a wish for showy assertion and, when failure became evident, scape-goating.

Yet was Nivelle deserving of all the blame for this disaster? He was the architect of a military failure of vast proportions, but it could also be argued that the conduct of the politicians and also his subordinate commanders enabled his flawed military decision-making process. At a political level it is obvious that officials of both the Briand and Ribot governments had profound misgivings, yet they failed to remove Nivelle. This is particularly true in the case of Painlevé, who as Minister for War never believed in Nivelle’s plan and yet, despite the fact that he sought the opinion of dissenting generals such as Pétain and Micheler, could not follow-through on plans to remove him. Accounts of the succession of meetings called to discuss the plan would make for comical reading, had this political indecision and lack of willpower not resulted in such tragic circumstances. The manner in which the subordinate commanders voiced their dissent also ensured that the plan went ahead. While they shared their doubts privately with politicians, especially Painlevé, there was a distinct lack of willingness to push the point forcefully at the various key meetings. Even Pétain would not openly support the last-minute attempt to oust Nivelle in April. Norman Dixon refers to this as ‘a terrible crippling obedience’. Similar tendencies had been seen during the Boulanger and Dreyfus affairs: under pressure from politicians, the press or the public, senior commanders closed ranks. In this case, while senior commanders might have opposed Nivelle’s plans, their loyalties to the army and their brother generals meant that they did not push the point as strongly as they should have done.

Ultimately the committee of inquiry would treat Nivelle quite lightly, perhaps due to the politicians and senior commanders being aware of their shared responsibility. An unpacking of the whole affair in an inquiry would have been messy indeed and no one would have emerged unsullied. For Nivelle, the sanction was reasonably light. In December 1917 he was appointed as commander-in-chief in North Africa and this role removed him from the Western Front for the remainder of the war. In July 1919 he was not invited to the official victory parade in Paris but remained in Algeria, presiding over victory celebrations there. Yet after the war he gradually returned to favour. He remained in touch with David Lloyd George and, in a somewhat surreal aside, the pair later exchanged photographs. Despite the events of 1917 and their consequences, the two men still seemed to share a level of regard for each other. The Australian historian Elizabeth Greenhalgh also noticed a peculiar entry in the index to Lloyd George’s memoirs in which Nivelle is described as ‘unfortunate as Generalissimo’. This was an understatement indeed.

Nivelle was subsequently given two military commands within post-war France and in March 1920 was appointed as a member of the war committee (conseil superior de guerre). Due to his command of English, he was sent to America in 1920 as part of the French delegation to the tercentenary celebrations to commemorate the arrival of the Mayflower in America. During this tour he was well-received by the American public. In December 1920 Nivelle was awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur.

Despite the interest of French scholars in Nivelle, he remains an oddly opaque figure. Denis Rolland, the premier French historian of the First World War, subtitled his biography of Nivelle ‘L’inconnu de Chemin des Dames’ (‘The unknown of the Chemin des Dames’). This can be interpreted in various ways, yet it could be argued that Rolland has hit on one of the central paradoxes about Nivelle. At a certain level we know much about him – the formulation of his plan, his interactions with politicians and fellow-generals. Yet Nivelle ‘the man’ remains a total mystery. Behind the overconfident bluster, it is extremely hard to get a sense of the man or to hear his ‘voice’. Accounts by third parties are largely unsympathetic and, although much of his correspondence survives in various archives, he never wrote a volume of memoirs. We are left considering a figure who showed promise and considerable ability in 1916 but who went on to plan what was arguably France’s worst military disaster of the war. Surviving accounts of planning meetings suggest an over-confident general prone to bombastic outbursts and implausible promises. Yet he managed to convince a succession of political and military leaders of the soundness of his plans for a considerable period. It seems that Nivelle will remain a somewhat mysterious figure.

Nivelle died on 22 March 1924. In June 1931 his ashes were placed in the governor’s crypt in Les Invalides in Paris. This commemorative ceremony for Nivelle and fifteen other marshals, generals and admirals included both Catholic and Protestant religious services, a military parade and a 75-gun salute and concluded with an address by the then Minister of War, André Maginot. Considering the damage caused by the Nivelle Offensive to the French army and indeed to France itself, this rehabilitation of Nivelle was generous. However, he has yet to be commemorated with a statue in France and, given the painful associations with his period as commander-in-chief, it seems unlikely that this will change.

The figure perhaps best placed to shed real light on Nivelle, his close associate Colonel d’Alançon, died in September 1917. A bitterly disappointed man, d’Alançon had left the GQG along with Nivelle and returned home on sick leave. A few months later he was dead. Like Nivelle, he remains a largely silent figure. His impact on his brother staff officers was mixed. Perhaps Jean de Pierrefeu best summed up d’Alançon’s complex character:

Of all the actors in this war of position he was, in my eyes, the most original. He was a romantic figure, consumed with ambition, hardly to be measured by our ordinary standards. This silent man, for long modest and retiring, suddenly resolved to tempt Fortune with a spirit and a will worthy of the days when adventurers carved out kingdoms for themselves. By his strength of will, his inspired enthusiasm, his facility in dealing with great events, he always reminded me of a Napoleon devoid of genius.

General Mangin remained remarkably tight-lipped about Nivelle after 1917, at least in public. Yet in many ways he fared better than his former commander. Despite his reputation as ‘the Butcher’ among French troops, Mangin returned to service in 1918 and took command of the Tenth Army. He later played a significant role in the Second Battle of the Marne (15 July–6 August 1918) and received a measure of political and public approval for his performance in the final campaigns of the First World War. His attitude remained grimly realistic. He could perhaps be given credit for summing up the battlefield experience of so many First World War generals when he stated: ‘Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.’ Following the war, Mangin’s Tenth Army occupied the Rhineland, where he created some controversy owing to his attempts to encourage the inhabitants to create a ‘Rhenish Republic’ separate from Germany. He also angered local mayors by pressuring them to establish official brothels for the use of his troops. Mangin died suddenly in Paris in March 1925, apparently the result of acute appendicitis combined with a stroke, although some alleged that he had been poisoned. He was buried in Les Invalides. When German troops entered Paris in 1940 Hitler ordered that his statue be destroyed. In 1957 it was replaced by a new statue.

It is worth considering for just a moment some of the potential outcomes of the events in the summer of 1917. While the practice of engaging in counterfactual history is often problematic, if not a complete waste of time, it is interesting to reflect on the possible further ramifications of Nivelle’s failure in 1917. This reverse pushed the army into a state of open mutiny and it ceased to function effectively. The collapse in military morale coincided with a period of public disillusionment and political turmoil. To suggest that France was in a state of near-collapse and as a result was close to dropping out of the war is not mere idle supposition. Indeed, Field Marshal Haig wrote of the possibility of France ‘falling out’ during the height of the crisis in 1917. The greatest fear of the Ribot government was that revolution would break out in France as it had done in Russia. This would in all probability have taken France out of the war and left Britain and Belgium to continue the fight alone in Europe while awaiting American support. In turn, the Americans would not have been in a position to provide meaningful support until 1918. Would such a strategic situation have forced the Allies into a negotiated peace with Germany and Austro-Hungary? Peace, yes, but on the terms of the Central Powers?

At the very least it can be seen that the French army’s collapse came at a crucial moment in the wider strategic context. By May 1917 Russia’s ability to assist in the war effort was looking increasingly doubtful. The October Revolution would move Russia towards a separate peace with Germany and Austro-Hungary. Despite British and French efforts to keep Russia in the war, this would become a reality with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. By 1917 Italy was also in a state of near-collapse, while Romania had already dropped out of the war. The year 1917 had opened with a spirit of Allied optimism, but by the summer and autumn it was becoming increasingly obvious that there would be no Allied victory yet. The Nivelle Offensive was one of a series of Allied setbacks that would continue until the end of the year, with the British army suffering its own martyrdom at Passchendaele. Rather than emerging victorious, for the Allies 1917 became a period of grimly hanging on until the Americans could arrive in force and until war industry could provide more tanks, aircraft and other military materiel.

For France, the losses incurred during the offensive were significant, and it could be argued that in the final analysis they were also unnecessary. It was, quite simply, an offensive that should not have gone ahead. In this, it was in keeping with several other ill-conceived Allied efforts during the war. It added yet another large contingent to France’s growing total of war casualties. By the end of the war France had suffered more than 1.3 million fatal casualties. More than 3.2 million soldiers had been wounded, with more than a million of them permanently disabled. More than 600,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner, some of who would return home and decrease the numbers of ‘missing’. Thousands had been classed as missing, many of whom were, of course, dead. This pushed the total of fatal casualties higher. It is unlikely that the true number of casualties will ever be accurately calculated as proper figures were not kept during the war. Also, many of the wounded died from their injuries after the parliamentary report on casualties was completed in the summer of 1919 and so were not included in the figures. Whichever figure one chooses, the scale of French losses is depressingly large. After the war a French officer calculated that a formation of troops equalling the number of French war dead would take eleven days and nights to march past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in parade formation.

This number of casualties obviously had a major impact on France in the years after the First World War. In demographic terms, it resulted in a collapse in both marriage and birth rates. In the years up to 1914 France had been concerned that German births would ensure that the French would be outstripped in manpower terms. This now became an absolute reality. In military terms, it translated into a defensive mindset and later fostered the development of the Maginot system of fortifications. In any future war France would need to rely for its defence on a series of fortifications, on a grander and more modernised scale than the Verdun forts. From the 1930s it was also envisaged that this system of fortifications would be backed up by a scheme for mobile defence using tanks. While the development and basic wisdom of the Maginot scheme are still much debated, the impulse that drove it had a certain clear logic. France expected another war and from the 1920s found itself increasingly isolated and devoid of immediate allies. It seemed that it would face a future German attack alone, at a time when its supplies of manpower were finite. The Maginot plan, and a programme for acquiring allies in Eastern Europe, seemed like sensible policies. The manpower issue also resulted in a fall in the size of the French labour force, with corresponding falls in industrial production. This was particularly true in respect of iron and steel production, which had knock-on effects for weapons production.

The whole defence issue would remain a contentious subject for inter-war French governments, played out in national debates and contests between the right-wing Bloc National and the leftist Cartel des Gauches. The Poincaré government of 1922–24 took a hard-line stance regarding German war reparations and sent more than 40,000 troops to occupy the Ruhr in the hope of forcing payment. This resulted in the Dawes Plan, which made provision for phased payments by Germany. In 1924 a moderate socialist government was elected but proved to be disorganised and riven by internal factions. Poincaré was returned to office in 1926 and pursued a radical economic policy before retiring from politics in 1929. The post-war years saw much political turmoil in France, and in the early 1930s the factions of the extreme left and right flourished due to the difficulties of the Depression. This coincided with hugely differing views between political parties and factions as to how to approach strategic and defence issues. The short life of the leftist Popular Front government of 1936 was dominated by economic and labour issues, while its policy with regard to the civil war then raging in Spain served to further illustrate the fractured nature of French politics and society. The Daladier government of 1938 instigated new armaments programmes and also tried to accelerate existing ones but France still struggled to keep pace with German military expansion.

The political and economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s ensured that a long-term, coherent strategic policy was impossible. It should also be remembered that these events took place in a country that had been ravaged by war. Millions of francs needed to be spent on reconstruction owing to the fact that so much French territory had been devastated between 1914 and 1918. The evidence of war was apparent to all in the shape of destroyed towns and villages, ruined farms, the shell-damaged landscape and the dangers of unexploded ordnance. This damage needed to be repaired, and agriculture and industry needed to be re-established. Many people were unwilling even to imagine that another war was possible. Getting over the ‘Grande Guerre’ and trying to repair France would occupy not only the next few years but the next few decades.

Alongside the physical damage wrought on France, the human damage was also obvious to all. A whole generation had suffered in the war, and France had become a country with hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. The war wounded, many of them showing evidence of terrible wounds, became a feature of French society. While most towns and villages soon had their own war memorials, they also had a grim reminder of the war in the shape of veterans who were limbless, sightless or otherwise maimed.

The war had created a scar across the French landscape and a wound deep within the psyche of the French people. The desperate years of 1914–1918 had been marked by grim defence against a series of German offensives. Equally costly had been the many futile offensives launched by French generals themselves. Indeed, the Russian strategist A.A. Svechin later singled out the French offensive strategy on the Western Front for particular criticism. During 1915 and 1916, Svechin argued, alternative strategies could have been pursued in Italy and the East, in what he referred to as the ‘Paris–Salonika–Vienna–Berlin logic of attrition’. Ultimately, the French allowed operational and tactical interests to supersede strategic imperatives. All the Allies were complicit in this to some degree but France, with the largest Allied army on the Western Front, had the most to lose by being drawn into this cycle of pointless and futile offensive actions.

Within the catalogue of failed French offensives, the Nivelle Offensive holds a special (but unenviable) place owing to its costliness and sheer futility. Quite apart from the dashed expectations of the French nation, the timing of the disaster caused huge concern. It seemed inconceivable, at this late point in the war, that senior generals could still plan and execute such disastrous attacks. Had no lessons been learned since 1914? One of the positive dividends of the failure of the Nivelle Offensive was the very clear signal sent to the army commanders by the government, the public and the soldiers themselves that this type of offensive had to stop. The crisis of 1917 signalled an end to a certain type of generalship. While there would be later failures and reverses, the strategy of limited offensives initiated by Pétain would become the norm for the French army for the remainder of the war. Nivelle’s offensive marked the end of a particular, brutal learning curve.

Since the end of the war in 1918 generations of French scholars have studied the ‘Grande Guerre’ and its impact on France. They include figures such as Pierre Renouvin, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, Jean-Jacques Becker, Denis Rolland, Guy Pedroncini, Nicholas Offenstadt and many others. Non-French scholars, such as Robert M. Doughty, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Ian Sumner and Anthony Clayton, have also made the French army during the war the focus of their particular attention. While the Nivelle Offensive is not explored in huge depth in every case, a common feature is that it is singled out as a particular example of poor generalship resulting in needless losses.

The legacy of the Nivelle Offensive for France has been long and difficult. In the run-up to the centenary of the offensive in 2017 it will be fascinating to see how these painful events will be commemorated. In recent years efforts have been made to focus on the plight of individual soldiers, and to commemorate those involved in the army mutinies. The centenary will no doubt expose all the difficulties associated with commemorating lives lost in a military failure. For France, the Nivelle Offensive remains the epitome of military futility – a doomed plan driven by an overly ambitious and flawed general.

Pope and Emperor

Giulio De’ Medici was the bastard son of Giuliano, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother, who had been assassinated by the Pazzi in Florence cathedral forty-five years before. Lorenzo had tracked down the mother and had persuaded her to allow him to bring up the boy as his own. Then, when Lorenzo himself died in 1492, Giulio was placed under the guardianship of his second son, Giovanni. Since the guardian was only three years older than the ward, the two became close friends, and when Giovanni became Pope Leo X one of his first acts was to legitimize his cousin, making him a cardinal and effective ruler of Florence.

Despite their mutual affection, the two could hardly have been more different. Leo was unusually ugly, with a huge head and a fat, red face, but he possessed a charm which many found irresistible. Clement, now forty-eight, was tall and slim; he might have been good-looking but for his thin, tightly compressed lips, haughty expression, and almost perpetual frown. He was pious, conscientious, industrious; but nobody, with the single exception of his friend Benvenuto Cellini, liked him much. Guicciardini went so far as to describe him as “somewhat morose and disagreeable, reputed to be avaricious, far from trustworthy, and naturally disinclined to do a kindness.” Anyone who thought that his election signaled a return to the extravagant and easygoing days of Pope Leo was in for a disappointment.

It might reasonably have been supposed that such a man would prove at least a competent pope. Alas, Clement was nothing of the kind. He was vacillating and irresolute, terrified when called upon to make a decision. He might have been a moderately good major; as a general he was a disaster. Leopold von Ranke, the great German historian, dubbed him the most disastrous of all the popes, which—if one remembers the Papacy in the tenth and eleventh centuries—seems a little unfair; the fact remains that the eleven years of his pontificate saw the worst sack of Rome since the barbarian invasions, the establishment in Germany of Protestantism as a separate religion, and the definitive breakaway of the English Church over Henry VIII’s divorce.

Finding himself, as Hadrian had before him, caught in the whirlpool caused by the rivalry between Charles V and the King of France, Clement dealt with the situation even more clumsily than his predecessor. His first loyalty should clearly have been to the emperor, to whom he largely owed his election; but in 1524 he joined with Venice and Florence in a secret alliance with France, and Francis, with an army of some 20,000, marched back over the Mont-Cenis pass into Italy. In late October he recaptured Milan, then turned south to Pavia, where he spent the winter trying unsuccessfully to divert the Ticino River as a means of taking the city. He was still there four months later when an imperial army arrived. Imperialists and Frenchmen met just outside Pavia, and on Tuesday, February 21, 1525, battle was joined.

The Battle of Pavia proved to be one of the most decisive engagements in European history. It was also the first to prove conclusively the superiority of firearms over pikes. When the fighting was over, the French army had been virtually annihilated; Francis himself had shown, as always, exemplary courage: after his horse had been killed under him, he had continued to fight on foot until at last, overcome by exhaustion, he had been obliged to give himself up. A prisoner, he was sent to Spain, where he remained for a year in not uncomfortable confinement until Charles released him in return for his signature to what was known as the Treaty of Madrid, by which he renounced all claims to Burgundy, Naples, and Milan. When he returned to Paris, however, and the terms of the treaty were made public, there was a general outcry. Pope Clement in particular was aghast: without a French presence in Italy, how could he hope to defend himself against the emperor? Hastily he recruited Milan, Venice, and Florence to form an anti-imperialist league for the defense of a free and independent Italy—and invited France to join. Though the ink was scarcely dry on the Treaty of Madrid, and though he and the pope held widely differing views on Milan—the pope favoring the Sforzas, while Francis wanted the city for himself—on May 15, 1526, the king, with his usual flourish, signed his name.

The League of Cognac, as it was called, introduced an exciting new concept into Italian affairs. Here, for perhaps the first time, was an agreement dedicated to the proposition that Milan, and so by extension all other Italian states, should be free of foreign domination. Liberty was the watchword. It need hardly be said, however, that Charles V did not view the League in quite this light. To him it was a direct and deliberate challenge, and over the next few months relations between himself and the pope steadily deteriorated. Finally, in September, two letters from the emperor were dispatched to Rome. They could hardly have been more outspoken if they had been written by Martin Luther himself. The first, addressed personally to the pope, accused him of failing in his duties toward Christendom, Italy, and even the Holy See. The second, to the cardinals of the Sacred College, went further still. If, it suggested, the pope refused to summon a General Council for the reform of the Church, it was the responsibility of the College to do so without his consent. Here was a clear threat to papal authority. To Pope Clement, indeed, it was tantamount to a declaration of war.

In and around Milan the fighting had hardly ever stopped; there must have been many Milanese who, on waking in the morning, found it difficult to remember whether they owed their allegiance to the Sforzas, the emperor, or the King of France. An imperial army had marched into the city in November 1525 and spent the winter besieging the unfortunate Duke Francesco Maria Sforza in the citadel, and Sforza had finally capitulated on July 15, 1526. The news of his surrender had plunged the pope into black despair. His treasury was empty, he was detested in Rome, and his theoretical ally Francis was not lifting a finger to help him. Meanwhile, the Reformation was gaining ground and the Ottoman threat still loomed. And now, as autumn approached, there were rumors that the emperor was preparing a huge fleet, which would land some 10,000 troops in the Kingdom of Naples—effectively on his own doorstep. More serious still, Clement was aware that there were imperial agents in the city, doing everything they could to stir up trouble against him with the enthusiastic help of a member of his own Sacred College, Cardinal Pompeio Colonna.

For well over two centuries, Rome had been split by the rivalry of two of its oldest families, the Colonna and the Orsini. Both were enormously rich, and both ruled over their immense domains as if they were themselves sovereign states, each with its own cultivated court. Their wealth in turn allowed them to contract advantageous marriages; people still talked of the wedding festivities of Clarice Orsini with Clement’s uncle Lorenzo de’ Medici, the most sumptuous celebrations of the fifteenth century. But the Orsini had long enjoyed what might be called a special relationship with the Papacy, by reason of the fact that all the principal roads leading north out of Rome passed through their territory. Successive popes, therefore, had taken care not to offend them.

This alone was more than enough to antagonize their rivals, whose outstanding representative in the 1520s was Pompeio Colonna. The cardinal had begun life as a soldier and should probably have remained one. He had entered the Church only because of family pressures; never could he have been described as a man of God. Julius II, indeed, who was even less of one, had refused to promote him; it was Leo X who had eventually admitted him to the Sacred College, but any gratitude that he might have felt was certainly not extended to Leo’s cousin. For Clement he cherished a bitter hatred, powerfully fueled by jealousy, and a consequent determination to eliminate him—either by deposition or, if necessary, by death.

In August 1526 Pompeio’s kinsman Vespasiano Colonna came to Rome to negotiate a truce between his own family on the one hand and the pope and the Orsini on the other. Clement, much relieved, disbanded his own troops—whereupon the army of the Colonna instantly attacked the city of Anagni, effectively blocking communications between Rome and Naples. The pope had still not recovered from his surprise or had a chance to remobilize when, at dawn on September 20, that same army smashed through the Gate of St. John Lateran and poured into Rome. At about five that same afternoon, after hours of heavy fighting, Clement fled along the covered passage that Alexander VI had built for just such eventualities, leading from the Vatican to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Meanwhile, the looting and plundering had begun. As one of the secretaries of the Curia reported:

The papal palace was almost completely stripped, even to the bedroom and wardrobe of the Pope. The great and private sacristy of St. Peter’s, that of the palace, the apartments of prelates and members of the household, even the horse stalls were emptied, their doors and windows shattered; chalices, crosses, pastoral staffs, ornaments of great value, all that fell into their hands was carried off as plunder by this rabble.

The mob even broke into the Sistine Chapel, where the Raphael tapestries were torn from the walls. Golden and jeweled chalices, patens, and all manner of ecclesiastical treasures were seized, to a value estimated at 300,000 ducats.

With proper preparations made, a pope could hold out in the Castel Sant’Angelo for months; on this occasion, however, the fortress was completely unprovisioned. Clement had no choice but to make what terms he could. The ensuing negotiations were delicate, but their results were less than satisfactory to Pompeio Colonna, who now realized that his attempted coup had been a failure. Public opinion had swung dramatically against his family. Rome had been plundered, and the Colonna had—rightly—been blamed. In November the cardinal was deprived of all his dignities and benefices, and the leading members of his family suffered similar treatment. Apart from three small fortresses, they had lost all their property in the Papal States.

Clement had survived, but only just. According to another member of the Curia, writing toward the end of November 1526:

The pope sees nothing ahead but ruin: not just his own, for which he cares little, but that of the Apostolic See, of Rome, of his own country, and of the whole of Italy. Moreover, he sees no way of preventing it. He has expended all his own money, all that of his friends, all that of his servants. Our reputation, too, is gone.

He had good reason to be depressed. Strategically he was vulnerable on every side, and the emperor was exploiting his vulnerability to the full. The previous August, the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent had won one of his greatest victories at Mohács in Hungary. And now there came the news of the defection of Ferrara, whose duke, Alfonso II d’Este, had joined the imperialists. “The Pope,” wrote the Milanese envoy, “seems struck dead. All the attempts of the ambassadors of France, England, and Venice to restore him have been in vain.… He looks like a sick man whom the doctors have given up.” Still his tribulations were not over. On December 12 a Spanish envoy delivered a personal letter from the emperor repeating his demand for a General Council. Early in 1527 it was learned that an imperial army under the Duke of Bourbon was advancing on the Papal States.

Charles, third Duke of Bourbon, was one of the exalted members of the French nobility and the hereditary Constable of France. He should have been fighting for his king, to whom he was distantly related, but Francis’s mother, Louise of Savoy, had contested his inheritance and in a fit of pique he had sold his sword to the emperor. Despite his treachery he was a charismatic figure, admired by all his men for his courage. He never shirked an engagement and could always be found where the fighting was thickest, easily distinguishable by the silver-and-white surcoat he always wore and by his black, white, and yellow standard on which was emblazoned the single word ESPÉRANCE. Now, as he advanced southward from Milan at the head of an army of some 20,000 German and Spanish troops, the citizens of all the towns along his route—Piacenza and Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna—worked frantically on their defenses. They could have saved themselves the trouble: the duke had no intention of wasting time on them. He led his army directly to Rome, drawing it up on the Janiculum Hill immediately outside the city wall, and at four in the morning of May 6, 1527, the attack began.

In the absence of heavy artillery, Bourbon had decided that the walls would have to be scaled, a technique far more difficult and dangerous than that of simply pounding them till they crumbled. He himself was one of the first of the casualties. He had just led a troop of Germans to the foot of the wall and was actually positioning a scaling ladder when he was shot through the chest by an arquebus. (Benvenuto Cellini, who was present, goes a long way toward claiming personal responsibility.) The fall of the unmistakable silver-clad figure was seen by besiegers and besieged alike, and for an hour or so the fate of the siege hung in the balance; then the thought of revenge spurred the Germans and Spaniards on to ever-greater efforts, and between six and seven in the morning the imperial army burst into the city. From that moment on there was little resistance. The Romans rushed from the wall to defend their homes, and many of the papal troops joined the enemy to save their own skins. Only the Swiss Guard and some of the papal militia fought heroically on until they were annihilated.

As the invaders approached the Vatican, the pope was hustled out of St. Peter’s and led for the second time along the covered way to the Castel Sant’Angelo, already thronged with panic-stricken families seeking refuge. Such were the crowds that it was only with the greatest difficulty that the portcullis could be lowered. One cardinal had to be pushed in through a window by his servants; another was pulled up in a basket. Outside, in the Borgo and Trastevere, the soldiers embarked on an orgy of killing. Cardinal Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, the future Pope Julius III, was hung up by his hair. Almost all the patients in the Hospital of Santo Spirito were massacred; of the orphans of the Pietà, not one was left alive.

The imperial army crossed the Tiber just before midnight, the Germans settling in the Campo de’ Fiori, the Spaniards in Piazza Navona. The sack that followed has been described as “one of the most horrible in recorded history.” The bloodbath that had begun across the river continued unabated: to venture out into the street was to invite almost certain death, and to remain indoors was very little safer; scarcely a single church, palace, or house of any size escaped pillage and devastation. Monasteries were plundered and convents violated, the more attractive nuns being sold in the streets for a giulio apiece. At least two cardinals were dragged through the streets and tortured; one of them, who was well over eighty, subsequently died of his injuries. “Hell,” reported a Venetian eyewitness, “has nothing to compare with the present state of Rome.”

It was four days and four nights before the city had any respite. Only with the arrival on May 10 of Pompeio Colonna and his two brothers, with 8,000 of their men, was a semblance of order restored. By that time virtually every street in the city had been gutted and was strewn with corpses. One captured Spanish sapper later reported that on the north bank of the Tiber alone he and his companions had buried nearly 10,000 and had thrown another 2,000 into the river. Six months later, thanks to widespread starvation and a long epidemic of plague, the population of Rome was less than half what it had been before the siege; much of the city had been left a smoldering shell, littered with bodies lying unburied during the hottest season of the year. Culturally, too, the loss was incalculable. Paintings, sculptures, whole libraries—including that of the Vatican itself—were ravaged and destroyed, the pontifical archives ransacked. The painter Parmigianino was imprisoned, saving his life only by making drawings of his jailers.

The imperial army, meanwhile, had suffered almost as much as the Romans. It, too, was virtually without food; its soldiers, unpaid for months, were totally demoralized, interested only in loot and pillage. Discipline had broken down: Germans and Spaniards were at each other’s throats. Pope Clement, however, had no course open to him but once again to capitulate. The official price he paid was the cities of Ostia, Civitavecchia, Piacenza, and Modena, together with 400,000 ducats, a sum which could be raised only by melting down all the papal tiaras and selling the gold and jewels with which they were encrusted; the actual price was higher still, since the Venetians, in spite of their alliance, had seized Cervia and Ravenna. The Papal States, in which an efficient government had been developing for the first time in history, had crumbled away. Early in December the pope escaped from Rome and traveled in disguise to Orvieto; it was there that he received ambassadors from Henry VIII of England, seeking their master’s release from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. One of them reported:

The Pope lieth in an old palace of the bishops of the city, ruinous and decayed; as we came to his privy chamber we passed three chambers, all naked and unhanged, the roofs fallen down, and, as one can guess, 30 persons—riffraff and others—standing in the chambers for a garnishment. And as for the Pope’s bedchamber, all the apparel in it was not worth 20 nobles … it were better to be in captivity in Rome than here at liberty.

Where the annulment was concerned, the pope—it need hardly be said—dithered; the ambassadors returned disappointed.

Peace, when it came, was the result of negotiations begun during the winter of 1528–1529 between the Emperor Charles’s aunt Margaret of Savoy and her sister-in-law Louise, the mother of King Francis. The two met at Cambrai on July 5, 1529, and the resulting treaty was signed in the first week of August. The Ladies’ Peace, as it came to be called, confirmed Spanish rule in Italy. Francis again renounced all his claims there, receiving in return a promise from Charles not to press the imperial claims to Burgundy, but France’s allies in the League of Cognac were left completely out of the reckoning and were thus obliged to accept the terms that Charles was to impose at the end of the year—terms which included, for Venice, the surrender of all her possessions in South Italy to the Spanish Kingdom of Naples. Francesco Maria Sforza was restored to Milan (though Charles reserved the right to garrison its citadel); the Medici, who had been expelled from Florence in 1527, were also restored (though it took a ten-month siege to effect the restoration); and the island of Malta was given in 1530 as a new home for the Knights of St. John.

It was—to those who felt that the King of France had betrayed them—a shameful settlement. But at least it restored peace to Italy and put an end to the long and unedifying chapter in her history, a chapter which had begun with Charles VIII’s invasion of 1494 and had brought the Italians nothing but devastation and destruction. To seal it all, the emperor now crossed the Alps for the first time, for his imperial coronation. This was no longer an indispensable ceremony; his grandfather Maximilian had done without it altogether, and Charles himself had been nearly ten years on the throne without this final confirmation of his authority. The fact remained, nonetheless, that until the pope had laid the crown on his head his title Holy Roman Emperor was technically unjustified; to one possessing so strong a sense of divine mission, both title and sacrament were important.

Imperial coronations were traditionally performed in Rome. On landing at Genoa, however, in mid-August 1529, Charles received reports of Sultan Süleyman’s steady advance on Vienna and at once decided that a journey so far down the peninsula at such a time would be folly; it would take too long, besides leaving him dangerously cut off in the event of a crisis. Messengers sped to Pope Clement, and it was agreed that in the circumstances the ceremony might be held in Bologna, a considerably more accessible city which still remained firmly under papal control. Even then the uncertainty was not over: while on his way to Bologna in September Charles received an urgent appeal from his brother Ferdinand in Vienna and almost canceled his coronation plans there and then. Only after careful consideration did he decide not to do so. By the time he reached Vienna, either the city would have fallen or the sultan would have retired for the winter; in either event, the small force he had with him in Italy would have been insufficient to tip the scales.

And so, on November 5, 1529, Charles V made his formal entry into Bologna, where, in front of the Basilica of San Petronio, Pope Clement was waiting to receive him. After a brief ceremony of welcome, the two retired to the Palazzo del Podestà across the square, where neighboring apartments had been prepared for them. There was much to be done, many outstanding problems to be discussed and resolved, before the coronation could take place. It was, after all, only two years since papal Rome had been sacked by imperial troops, with Clement himself a virtual prisoner of Charles in the Castel Sant’Angelo; somehow, friendly relations had to be reestablished. Next there were the individual peace treaties to be drawn up with all the Italian ex-enemies of the empire. Only then, when peace had been finally consolidated throughout the peninsula, would Charles feel justified in kneeling before Clement to receive the imperial crown. Coronation Day was fixed for February 24, 1530, and invitations dispatched to all the rulers of Christendom. Charles and Clement had given themselves a little under four months to settle the future of Italy.

Surprisingly, it proved enough. And so the peace was signed, and on the appointed day, in San Petronio, Charles received from the papal hands the sword, orb, scepter, and finally the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. It was the last time in history that a pope was to crown an emperor; on that day the seven-hundred-year-old tradition, which had begun when Pope Leo III had laid the imperial crown on the head of Charlemagne, was brought to an end. The empire was by no means finished, but never again would it be received, even symbolically, from the hands of the Vicar of Christ on Earth.


Some German research was far ahead of its time; this remarkable drawing of a caseless cartridge – one using a solid block of propellant to support the bullet instead of a brass cartridge case – was discovered in 1945, but it was to be another 40 years before the idea was successfully incorporated into a practical weapon system.

During World War II, Germany began an intensive program to research and develop a practical caseless ammunition for military use, which was driven by the rising scarcity of metals, especially copper used to make cartridge cases. The Germans had some success, but not sufficient to produce a caseless cartridge system during the war.

WWII – Germans experiment with caseless ammunition – Formed Nitrocellulose (NC) employed to save “strategic materials” (brass).  Steel cases were used instead.

Nitrocellulose or “guncotton” is formed by the action of nitric acid on cellulose fibers. It is a highly-combustible fibrous material that deflagrates rapidly when heat is applied. It also burns very cleanly, burning almost entirely to gaseous components at high temperatures with little smoke or solid residue. The burning rate of nitrocellulose is dependent upon the pressure a pile of uncontained nitrocellulose will burn slowly, with a high, bright flame, but when placed in a high-strength, sealed container, the same material will burn very quickly, bursting the container. Nitrocellulose, the primary component of modern, ignites at a relatively low temperature of around 170 °C (338 °F).

Gelatinised nitrocellulose is a plastic, which can be formed into many shapes of gun propellants such as cylinders, tubes, balls, and flakes. The size and shape of the propellant grains can increase or decrease the relative surface area, and change the burn rate significantly. Additives and coatings can be added to the propellant to further modify the burn rate. Normally, very fast powders are used for light-bullet or low-velocity pistols and shotguns, medium-rate powders for magnum pistols and light rifle rounds, and slow powders for large-bore heavy rifle rounds. These are known as Single-base propellants.

Solid propellants (caseless ammunition)

A recent topic of research has been in the realm of “caseless ammunition”. In a caseless cartridge, the propellant is cast as a single solid grain, with the priming compound placed in a hollow at the base, and the bullet attached to the front. Since the single propellant grain is so large (most smokeless powders have grain sizes around 1 mm, but a caseless grain will be perhaps 7 mm diameter and 15 mm long), the relative burn rate must be much higher. To reach this rate of burning, caseless propellants often use moderated explosives, such as RDX. (Caseless ammunition might be considered a return to the mid-19th century, since the first practical cartridge repeater, the “Volcanic” pistol, used a charge of black powder in a cavity in the bullet base. This weapon was the direct ancestor of the Henry and Winchester rifles, though they switched to metal-cased ammunition. Some early rifles and revolvers also used combustible-paper cartridges, but they required a separate ignition system.) The major advantages of a successful caseless round would be elimination of the need to extract and eject the spent cartridge case, permitting higher rates of fire and a simpler mechanism, and also reduced ammunition weight by eliminating the weight (and cost) of the brass or steel case.

While there is at least one experimental military rifle (the H&K G11), and one commercial rifle (the Voere VEC-91), that use caseless rounds, they are meeting little success. The caseless ammunition is of course not reloadable (a major disadvantage in civilian markets, where reloading is common) and the exposed propellant makes the rounds less rugged. Also, the case in a standard cartridge serves as a seal, keeping gas from escaping the breech. Caseless arms must use a more complex self-sealing breech, which increases the design and manufacturing complexity. Another unpleasant problem, common to all rapid-firing arms but particularly problematic for those firing caseless rounds, is the problem of rounds “cooking off”. This problem is caused by residual heat from the chamber heating the round in the chamber to the point where it ignites, causing an unintentional discharge.

Belt-fed machine guns or magazine-fed submachine guns designed for high volumes of fire usually fire from an open bolt, with the round not chambered until the trigger is pulled, and so there is no chance for the round to cook off before the operator is ready. Such weapons could use caseless ammunition effectively. Open-bolt designs are generally undesirable for anything but belt-fed machine guns and pistol-cartridge submachine guns; the mass of the bolt moving forward causes the gun to lurch in reaction, which significantly reduces the accuracy of the gun. Since one of the motivating factors for the use of caseless rounds is to increase the rate of fire to the degree that several shots can be fired to the same point of aim, anything that reduces the accuracy of those first shots would be counterproductive. Cased ammunition serves as a heat sink, to carry heat away from the chamber after firing; the hot case carries away much of the heat before it can transfer to the chamber walls, and the new case absorbs heat from the chamber, reducing the risk of cook-off.