About MSW

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“

German Army – Junior Commanders

This picture shows what appears to be the command detachment of a German infantry platoon. In the foreground, to the left of the radio operator, sits the Zugführer or platoon commander. His shoulder straps are obscured, but it can be assumed he is either an Oberleutnant or a Leutnant. His second in command, an Oberfeldwebel (Master Sergeant), can be seen sitting on an ammunition box in the centre, while one of his squad leaders (an Unteroffizier, or Sergeant – wearing an Iron Cross) sits on the edge of the trench smoking a cigarette and taking notes. From the captured Russian PPSh-41 submachine guns dotted around the position it can be assumed that these men are somewhere on the eastern front.

Far from being automatons, German junior officers were trained to be adaptable to deal effectively with the enemy and the terrain over which they conducted operations. They were the cement that held the German Army together and kept it fighting.

On the outer ramparts of the Third Reich in the final days of the war, the burden of holding together the battered remnants of the army fell upon the shoulders of a small band of veteran colonels and majors. When divisions were decimated time and again by massive Allied firepower or rolled over by Soviet tank hordes, small groups of German soldiers led by determined commanders formed ad hoc battle groups to try to close the breach in the frontline.

The German Army’s junior officer corps, i.e. between the rank of Oberst (colonel) and Leutnant (2nd lieutenant), was the backbone of Hitler’s war machine, and it was the vital link between the Führer, the Wehrmacht’s high command, and the ordinary soldiers. It was largely due to the junior officers that Hitler’s army kept fighting in spite of the overwhelming odds it faced.

Throughout the war the German Army was keen not to dilute its officer corps by directly promoting noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from the ranks, although in extreme conditions field promotions did occur. All potential officers first served in the ranks prior to selection for officer training before being given the appointment as “aspirant officer.” The basic educational qualification was set high, which meant that many NCOs were unable to progress into the officer corps. Potential officers who were selected during their basic recruit training had to have passed the university entrance examination, but more senior potential officers were exempt from this requirement. After serving several months in a unit under supervision, the aspirant officer would be dispatched to the Officer Training School at Doberitz near Berlin for a six-month basic officer training course. The majority of officers commissioned prior to the start of the war were conscripts, who were released to return to civilian life after their two years of national service.

In the early war years, the majority of colonels and majors had been professional soldiers in the old Reichswehr. They were the last of the old guard, and many were either aristocrats or the sons of career military families. The rapid expansion of the army and first wave of heavy casualties in Russia and Africa in 1941–42 meant that by the time Germany was forced on the defensive after Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, these men were leading divisions or serving as staff officers at high-level headquarters. As they rose in command their places were taken by men who had risen through the ranks to now lead frontline battalions and regiments.

The burden of leadership thus fell on men who had been commissioned as young lieutenants in the early years of Hitler’s rise to power and then progressed through officer training during the 1930s. This infusion of reserve officers after 1943 transformed the German Army officer corps from a peacetime professional force into one that reflected German society as a whole. The reserve officers were almost all from lower-middle-class stock, or university-educated professional classes. Nazi control of the German education system in the 1930s meant that this generation of officers was almost totally indoctrinated with the Führer’s racist ideology. In some divisions, this meant that more than a quarter of all officers were members of the Nazi Party.

Mission Command

A major contributing factor to the battlefield success of the German Army was the fact that its officer corps was trained in what is now known as Mission Analysis or Auftragstaktik. German officers of all ranks were trained to be able to fight without detailed orders, to make do with just a brief statement of their commander’s intentions. The commander told his subordinates what he wanted achieved, not how to do it. Subordinate officers were expected to be able to think on their feet and adapt their brief orders to meet the requirements of the situation on the ground.

German Auftragstaktik techniques differed fundamentally from the more rigid command procedures adopted by the Allies. The latter relied on what the Germans called Befehlstaktik, or detailed direction of all troops. The differences in command procedures were largely responsible for the ability of the Germans to recover from the brink of disaster time and time again.

After 1943, Allied forces regularly broke through German lines in massive set-piece attacks involving huge artillery barrages and air support. These were tightly choreographed operations and junior subordinates were allowed little freedom of action. However, these attacks invariably became bogged down or deflected. Allied commanders often showed little initiative. They just waited for further orders, for reinforcements, or for new supplies to come forward, leaving the weakened attacking troops vulnerable to counterattack.

This was the point at which the German command doctrine came into its own. It gave the commander on the ground the freedom of action to do what was necessary to stop the attack, without reference to higher command. In many cases, of course, such reference upwards was actually impossible, because the artillery bombardments or air strikes had severed communications with higher headquarters.

For the execution of Auftragstaktik, command procedures required highly trained, experienced, and confident commanders. Central to German officer training at this time was the concept that the aspiring commander should be trained to take over the job of his immediate superior. So company commanders had to be ready to take over command of their battalion if its commander was incapacitated. Likewise, platoon leaders had to be prepared to take over from their company commander if he was killed or injured.

Periods of work in staff posts then prepared officers to command a combined-arms battle group or Kampfgruppe. A working understanding of how infantry, tanks, antitank guns, artillery, mortars, combat engineers, and aviation could work together was developed through staff training and on maneuvers. Training courses started with instruction on the capabilities of the various arms and equipment found in the Germany Army, then progressed to training exercises without troops where students were given tactical problems to solve, and they walked the ground with instructors discussing the best solution. Students then graduated to full-scale field exercises with demonstration troops. On these exercises students were swapped around between command appointments to give them experience of working with different arms and equipment.

The Kampfgruppe concept was so successful for the Germans because it grew from an all-arms combat doctrine, centered on the idea of unity of command, or Einheit. The German Army had long since dropped the idea of single-service combat units. Every corps, division, regiment, and battalion contained different types of weapons and sub-units. On the battlefield it was routine for further mixing of weapons and types of unit to occur as Kampfgruppen were formed for specific missions and then disbanded when they were completed. In the Allied and Soviet armies the forming of all-arms units was constantly being frustrated by arguments about command relationships, such as tank commanders not wanting to be under the orders of the infantry. In the German Army, the role of the Kampfgruppe commander was clear cut: he was the boss, period.

There were well-practiced procedures for establishing Kampfgruppen and transferring command of sub-units to them. It was usual to build a Kampfgruppe around an existing battalion or regimental headquarters to ensure all the necessary planning and communications capabilities were readily available for the Kampfgruppe commander. While a specific Kampfgruppe might be centered on a specific battalion or regiment, it was usual for a variety of supporting sub-units to be thrown in the pot to round out its combat capabilities. These generally included combat engineers, communications units, antitank guns, assault guns, medical support, logistic units with additional ammunition and combat supplies, reconnaissance troops, military police for traffic control, intelligence specialists, heavy mortars, rocket launchers, artillery planning staff, and observers. The latter were of particular importance because they determined the level of fire support available for a specific operation.

The most successful German battalion and company commanders were usually in their late twenties or early thirties. They motivated their men by leading from the front, sharing the privations of their frontline troops. Examples of these men included Dr. Franz Bake, who achieved fame as the commander of a Kampfgruppe of Panther tanks that led the rescue attempt to open a route to the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket in February 1944. They also had to convince their troops that they had their interests at heart and were not going to waste their lives in stupid or fruitless operations. But in the extreme conditions on the Eastern Front, commanders also had to act ruthlessly to maintain discipline. The point at which units cracked under pressure was difficult to judge, but if panic was to be nipped in the bud then sometimes waverers had to treated harshly. This was particularly the case when units were in danger of being surrounded. After Stalingrad in 1943, ordinary German soldiers were very frightened of being trapped in pockets, or Kessels, and units occasionally collapsed when Soviet troops got behind them. This symptom became known as “Kessel stress,” and the Germans thought it had to be dealt with carefully if commanders were to keep their units fighting to give them a chance to break out or launch a counterattack against the enemy.

Although desertions were rare, especially in Russia where the local population was almost universally hostile to the Germans, officers were regularly urged to take harsh measures against ill-discipline. Field court martials were increasingly common as the war progressed. Junior officers were empowered to shoot on sight any soldiers who wavered in the face of the enemy, or were spotted crossing over to enemy lines. However, at the end keeping the troops fighting was an increasingly difficult task as the ordinary soldier’s faith in the Führer started to waver.



Cannon had been the backbone of the world’s artillery units for 500 years before World War II. They continued in that role throughout the war itself. When handled by skilled crews, cannon remained unmatched in their ability to deliver accurate, sustained, heavy fire from a distance. Cannon also, however, retained their traditional shortcomings. They were complex and expensive to manufacture, difficult to move on short notice, and (because of their ferocious recoil) capable of being fired only from a solid foundation.

Rocket launchers were less technologically sophisticated than even the simplest cannon. Most consisted of little more than a set of launching rails or tubes, mounted in parallel on a metal frame that could be rotated or tilted in order to aim them. Most of the rockets they fired were equally straightforward: unguided, solid-propellant weapons with diameters under 6 inches and warheads measured in tens of pounds. The individual barrage rockets fired in World War II used more potent propellants and explosives, and more sophisticated fuses, than the barrage rockets of the nineteenth century. Barrage rockets as a system, were still nearly as simple as the system developed by Congreve in the early 1800s.

Barrage rockets’ simplicity made them an ideal battlefield complement to large cannon. Because they were not precision machines, rocket launchers could be built quickly and cheaply in virtually any well-equipped factory. Because they were relatively light and produced no recoil, they could be mounted on any vehicle larger than a motorcycle. The ease of building and deploying rocket launchers encouraged commanders on both sides of World War II to bombard enemy positions with rockets as a prelude to attack. Electric ignition systems, standard by the 1940s, facilitated such barrages by allowing the rockets from a single launcher to be “ripple fired”-launched one after another at precise split-second intervals. Ripple firing multiplied the psychological impact of rocket barrages, subjecting the target to a steady cascade of explosions.

Germany began developing rocket artillery in the 1930s, as part of the rearmament program begun by the Nazis. The standard German army rocket launcher, first deployed in 1940, consisted of six short, wide tubes arranged in a circular cluster (like chambers in the cylinder of a revolver) and mounted on a lightweight gun carriage. The launcher looked like a stubby six-barreled cannon, and with good reason: it was adapted from a mortar designed to lob smoke and gas shells onto enemy positions. Its name-Nebelwerfer (smoke thrower)-was a legacy of that early stage in its development, and was retained as a way of masking the weapon’s true function. The Nebelwerfer was far from an ideal weapon: its range was limited, its accuracy was atrocious, and the 300-yard smoke trails of its rockets instantly revealed its position for enemy gunners. Like the military rockets of earlier centuries, however, its projectiles took a psychological toll as well as a physical one. Rifle and machine gun bullets, moving at supersonic speed, were invisible, but the Nebelwerfer’s rockets arced toward their targets whistling and trailing smoke. Soldiers under attack by them could only take cover and wait for impact, knowing that if they survived they’d have to do it all again moments later. Even those who were not physically injured suffered intense emotional stress.

The Nebelwerfer’s capacity for physical destruction was also impressive. The original six-tube model could launch six 150 mm rockets, each with a 5.5-pound warhead, in under ten seconds. The later five-tube model, which fired 210 mm rockets with 22-pound warheads, could hit even harder (although even less accurately). A battery of well-concealed, well-positioned Nebelwerfers could saturate a large area with high explosive in a matter of seconds. Used against soldiers massed for an attack, they could be deadly, as Allied troops discovered after the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

The Soviet Union’s prewar involvement in rocket research and its preference for simple, robust, mass-produced weapons made it, too, a natural setting for the development of barrage rockets. The Soviet army was the first to deploy a vehicle-mounted multiple-rocket launcher, a weapon that Soviet troops called the Katyusha (roughly, “Little Katie”) and their German adversaries called the “Stalin Organ.” The Katyusha consisted of eight parallel steel rails roughly 18 feet long, mounted atop a steel frame that lifted them above the vehicle and held them at the desired launch angle (usually about 30 degrees above horizontal). Each rail carried two rockets: one attached to its top edge and one to its bottom edge. Each rocket, a little over 6 feet long and 5 inches (132 mm) in diameter, could carry a 44-pound warhead about 5 miles. The rockets were inaccurate but, especially when fired in massive quantities at the beginning of an attack, highly effective at breaking up German defenses. Designed in 1938-1939 and tested in December 1939, they were first used in combat during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and remained in active service throughout the war. Katyushas could be mounted on tanks or other tracked vehicles, but they were most often mounted on ordinary military trucks- a cheap, durable, readily available platform.

The U. S. Army experimented along similar lines, producing a variety of vehicle-mounted launchers. The first to enter service was the T27 Xylophone, named for the side-by-side arrangement of its eight launching tubes. Variations on the theme included the T27-E2 (a twenty-four-tube successor to Xylophone), the T44 (a 120-tube launcher fitted to amphibious trucks like the DUKW), and the T45 (a fourteen-tube launcher for mounting on jeeps). The most innovative launcher in the U. S. Army inventory was the T34 Calliope: a sixty-tube launcher mounted, in a wooden frame, on the turret of a Sherman tank. Calliope had two significant advantages over truck-mounted systems. First, because the launcher turned with the turret and raised or lowered with the tank’s main gun, it could be aimed quickly and easily. Second, compared to trucks and jeeps, tanks were better equipped to withstand enemy counterattacks and fight on their own once their rockets had been fired. Calliope-equipped Shermans were, in theory, capable of jettisoning their launchers in a matter of moments and becoming ordinary tanks again. Until the last months of the war, all U. S. Army rocket launchers fired the standard M8 4.5-inch rocket: short-ranged and highly inaccurate, but effective as a barrage weapon.

The Army’s attitude toward multiple-rocket launchers was ambivalent at best. On one hand, the launchers were deployed in both the European and Pacific theaters, and at least one complete artillery battalion was equipped with them. They were used in combat from June 1944 onward, but nearly all multiple-rocket launchers carried official designations beginning with T (for “test”)-a sign that they were regarded only as a temporary experiment.

The U. S. Navy and Marine Corps, by contrast, embraced rocket artillery and made extensive use of it. The Marines saw lightweight, vehicle-mounted rocket launchers as artillery support that could be brought into action quickly when assaulting enemy-held beaches. Their training school for rocketeers, established on the Hawaiian island of Oahu early in 1944, graduated its first class in April of that year. The first of six “provisional rocket detachments” was formed the same week. Each detachment consisted of one officer, fifty-seven enlisted men, and (initially) a dozen 1-ton trucks with 1-ton trailers. All six rocket detachments eventually saw action in the Pacific, first at the invasion of Saipan in June 1944 and later in the invasion of the Philippines in late 1944 and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. The Marines developed their rocket tactics through trial and error, learning from battlefield experience how to use rocket artillery most effectively. The most critical lessons involved the vulnerability of the launchers and the unarmored trucks that carried them. The Marines originally deployed their launchers ahead of the front line of troops to maximize range, but soon shifted them back to protect the rocketeers from being overrun by the enemy. They also learned, as Army rocketeers in Europe had learned, to move their launchers immediately after firing in order to avoid “counter-battery fire” by enemy artillery and mortars. Photographs show that the Marines experimented with tank-mounted launchers (offering both protection and mobility), but there is no official record of such a program.

The U. S. Navy’s commitment to barrage rockets was even stronger. Indeed, the United States led the world in developing rockets as a naval bombardment weapon. Rockets’ relatively light weight and minimal recoil enabled the Navy to mount them on landing craft originally designed to ferry troops onto enemy-held beaches. Rocket-firing landing craft filled a crucial role in amphibious invasions. Designed to operate in shallow water, they could accompany the invasion force to the beach and blanket it with high explosives just moments before the first troops went ashore. Conventional naval bombardment-cannon fire from battleships, cruisers, and destroyers stationed offshore-had to be halted or moved inland when the invasion force neared the beach, for fear of hitting friendly troops. Rocket barrages fired from incoming landing craft could hit the beach itself moments before the assault troops. Enemy troops would thus be forced to remain under cover longer, making it more difficult for them to mount an organized, effective defense.

The Navy first used rocket barrages during Operation Torch-the invasion of North Africa-in 1942, and they soon become a standard part of amphibious operations. They were used extensively in the invasions of Normandy and southern France in 1944, and in virtually every Pacific theater invasion from January 1944 on. The vessels used ranged from Landing Craft Infantry (Rocket) carrying launchers for sixty 5-inch rockets up to Landing Ships Medium (Rocket) carrying launchers for nearly 500. The landings at Iwo Jima in February 1945 were preceded by two complete barrages fired by a line of twelve LSM(R)s. The destructive power of such a bombardment was staggering: more than 10,000 rockets poured onto the beach in a matter of minutes. The psychological effect was equally so: thousands of screaming projectiles trailing fire and smoke as they arced across the sky.

Turkish [Seljuk] Rule in Persia I

The arrival of the Saljūq Turks marks a new era in Persian history. There had been Turks in the Islamic world before the eleventh century – the caliph’s mamlūks in Baghdad, such dynasties as the Ghaznawids – but these were all, in origin, slaves who had been recruited as individuals. In so far as they had held power, they had acquired it by taking over a going concern from the inside. The Saljūqs were different. They conquered Persia, and other lands, from the borders of the Dār al-Islām; they were still nomads, and they were still organized tribally. Their conquest marked the beginning of Persia’s period of Turkish rule, a period which lasted until the early sixteenth century and even, in some sense, until 1925.

The origins of the Saljūqs

The Saljūqs were a tribe of Ghuzz or Oghuz Turks, named after their leader, Saljūq (or, in a more Turkish spelling, Seljük [Seljuk]). We first hear of them in the second half of the tenth century, when they were living on the lower reaches of the River Jaxartes in Central Asia, at the edge of the Dār al-Islām proper. At that time they were converted to Islam, apparently as a result of missionary work on the part of travelling ṣūfīs. Such ṣūfīs professed a personal and emotional mystical faith. At this stage they had only loose associations, though the Saljūq period saw the foundation of convents for them, and also of orders or systems of organization (ṭarīqa, “way”). Each of these had its own form of instruction, initiation and ritual, and each its hierarchy of teachers. Early Saljūq Islam was probably, then, of a popular kind likely to be viewed with suspicion by the orthodox Sunnī ʿulamāʾ. It may have included elements that were closer to the traditional beliefs of the Central Asian steppe than to “official” Islam; though it is noticeable that when the Saljūqs had established themselves in Persia and Iraq, the Islam they supported was of a very orthodox Sunnī type.

Around the end of the tenth century, the Saljūqs gained a foothold in the Islamic lands. They were hired as mercenaries, first by the Samanids and then by the Qara-Khanids, the Turkish dynasty which had established itself in the former Samanid territories in Transoxania. The Saljūqs settled in that area, the land between the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers. In 416/1025 Maḥmūd of Ghazna, who also hoped to find them useful, installed some of them in Khurāsān, to the south-west of their earlier home. But this group behaved in a disorderly fashion and was driven out.

The Ghaznawids, as we have seen, ran into difficulties after the death of Maḥmūd in 421/1030, and during the ensuing disorders the Saljūqs as a whole were able, in 426/1035, to move into Khurāsān, led by two brothers, Toghril Beg and Chaghri Beg. It would seem that Saljūq rule did not strike the population of Khurāsān as less acceptable than that of the Ghaznawids. At any rate, the province speedily submitted. Nīshāpūr was taken in 428/1037, and later became the first of the Saljūq capitals. Open warfare with the Ghaznawids culminated in the battle of Dandānqān in 431/1040, at which the forces of Masʿūd of Ghazna were routed. The Ghaznawids withdrew to their Afghan lands and, ultimately, to India. The Saljūqs were the new masters of Khurāsān.

Toghril Beg: the establishment of the Saljūq empire

The two Saljūq brothers ruled together till the death of Chaghri Beg in 452/1060. This was in accordance with the Turkish conception of the nature of political sovereignty which they had brought with them from Central Asia. The Turks and Mongols of the steppe, organized as they were as nomadic tribes, saw sovereignty as the possession more of the ruling family as a whole than of any one individual member of that family. Hence, while the overall supremacy of Toghril was accepted, it was equally perfectly regular that when he headed to the west in order to extend Saljūq rule further into the Dār al-Islām, Chaghri should remain as ruler in Khurāsān. The division of power between the various members of the ruling family was later to be a cause of strife, but this initial arrangement between the brothers appears to have been amicable enough.

After the expulsion of the Ghaznawids from Khurāsān, the Buyids in western Persia and Iraq were the major enemy. They were soon eliminated, though they survived in some areas for a few more years as subject rulers to the Saljūqs. Toghril entered Baghdad in 447/1055, and the capital of the caliphate was at last restored to demonstrably Sunnī rule.

So far as the ʿAbbasid caliphs were concerned the change of secular ruler was distinctly for the better, though this did not mean that relations between them and the Saljūqs were always free of tensions and disagreements – even, at times, breaches in relations. The caliph al-Qāʾim conferred on Toghril the title of sulṭān. There was, and is, much discussion as to quite what was meant by this. An older generation of scholars, accustomed to concepts deriving from European history, liked to suppose that Toghril had become emperor to the caliph’s pope: that we see here a clear division between the spiritual and the secular power. More recent scholars have emphasized that the church/state distinction did not exist in medieval Islam, and moreover that the caliph, though certainly recognized as head of the Islamic community, had few of the powers of the pope: for example, he had no authority (at least in this period) in the matter of defining doctrine.

Muslim thinkers at the time, too, were aware of the difficulty. The leading intellectual of the day, al-Ghazālī, carefully formulated a theory that would accommodate the institution of the sultanate acceptably within the boundaries of Islamic thought. His approach was to argue that the sultanate was not separate from the caliphate, or imamate: it should be seen, he contended, as a part of the imamate. Thus the risk of positing an illegitimate division between spiritual and secular government and authority was, though possibly only notionally, avoided.

This was fair enough as far as it went, but it did, perhaps, come perilously close to envisaging the sultanate almost as a medieval papal propagandist might have wished to see the position of the Holy Roman Emperor: as the secular arm of the caliphate. Whatever the theory might say, and whatever the situation may have been in the early days of the caliphate, historians do seem to be to some extent arguing against the political realities if they deny that there was, in practice, a distinction of function in this period between caliph and sulṭān: a distinction which, at least up to a point, looks suspiciously like one between the ecclesiastical and the secular spheres.

It is also perhaps worth remarking that Islamic historians, in their wholly justifiable enthusiasm for discouraging misleading parallels between Islamic society and medieval Europe, have sometimes tended to exaggerate the extent to which medieval Christians drew a church/state distinction that was as sharp as in later centuries. In the central Middle Ages (to use, again, a European term of limited usefulness for the Islamic world), the relative positions of “church” and “state” in the two societies, though not identical, were more like each other than the experts on either side sometimes appear to imply.

By around 451/1059 Saljūq rule was established, reasonably securely, throughout Persia and Iraq, as far as the frontiers of Syria and of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. Toghril’s capital was at Rayy, a few miles from modern Tehran (the capital was later transferred to Iṣfahān). Chaghri Beg’s death in 452/1060 had left his brother as sole ruler, and when Toghril himself died in 455/1063, he could legitimately have claimed to have founded an empire. It was a remarkable feat for the chieftain of a tribe of Turkish nomads to have achieved in less than thirty years.

The consolidation of the Saljūq empire (455–485/1063–1092)

Toghril Beg left no sons. He was therefore succeeded by his nephew, Chaghri Beg’s eldest son, Alp Arslan. This was not allowed to pass without opposition from other members of the family and their supporters, but Alp Arslan was the most experienced of the contenders; and, like his father, he had a formidable power base in Khurāsān.

Alp Arslan’s reign was one in which the newly established Saljūq empire was stabilized. Even at this quite early stage, it had become apparent that to base the state on the military support of the Ghuzz tribesmen who had originally brought Toghril Beg to power was potentially hazardous. They were certainly highly efficient cavalrymen but they did not, except in wartime, take kindly to discipline; and they were not in the least inclined to submit to the central government of an Islamic sultanate.

The tradition of the steppe was quite different. According to this, a tribal khān would be freely elected, or acknowledged, by his tribe; and if he were to secure acceptance, he would need to be a member of an appropriately noble family. Which member of such a family would be accepted as khān would often depend on the tribe’s judgement of who was most suitable. A prospective khān’s suitability might well be determined by his efficiency in wiping out or otherwise neutralizing the other contenders. Once accepted, he could expect to be obeyed in war, but in peacetime, while he would occupy a position of honour, his interference in the affairs of his tribesmen would not be welcomed.

Such a system of extremely limited government worked well enough in the nomadic environment of the steppe, but it could hardly be appropriate to the very different demands of a sultanate which purported to rule the largely settled and heavily urbanized lands of Persia and Iraq. In these circumstances the state required a military force on which it could permanently rely. Alp Arslan therefore created a standing army, much of which was made up of slave (mamlūk, ghulām) troops, also of Turkish origin, after what had become the normal pattern in the central Islamic lands. This army was probably about 10,000–15,000 strong.

Such numbers may not seem very large, but it has to be remembered that a standing army, unlike a tribal levy, had to be paid, and paid all the time. For a Central Asian nomad, warfare was simply an aspect of normal life to which the techniques used in hunting were adapted, with little change. A steppe nomad would hope for plunder from battle, but he would not expect a salary; and even after the Saljūqs had established their standing army, the tribal levy could still be called on for an individual campaign if greater numbers of troops were needed.

It was not only in military affairs that the Saljūqs speedily found that what had served them adequately in a different environment would not suffice when they had become the rulers of a great settled state. They discovered that they could not do without the services of the existing Persian bureaucracy. Toghril Beg’s administration had been headed by a Persian wazīr (chief minister), al-Kundurī. He had had the misfortune to back one of the unsuccessful candidates for the throne after the death of Toghril in 455/1063, and his fall from power duly followed. His successor, perhaps the major figure in Persian history in the whole of this period, was Niẓām al-Mulk, who remained wazīr until almost the end of the reign of Alp Arslan’s son, Malikshāh. During Niẓām al-Mulk’s time in office an administrative framework was set up on Persian lines. This was of lasting importance, for in its essentials Persian government for many centuries followed the pattern established before and during the Saljūq period.

Fortunately for the historian, much may be learned about Niẓām al-Mulk’s approach to government from a treatise of his that has survived: the Siyāsat-nāma, the “Book of Government”. This work has much in common with a notable genre of Islamic, and particularly Persian, political writing known as “Mirrors for Princes”. It consists of advice to the ruler about how the government was, and should be, run, with a strong ethical emphasis on the necessity of justice and right religion in the ruler. The advice is illustrated by appropriate anecdotes from the Islamic and, in the case of Persia, the pre-Islamic past. Certain heroes who are remembered as paragons of good and just government make numerous appearances in these anecdotes. From the Islamic period, Maḥmūd of Ghazna is especially prominent as, for the pre-Islamic period, is the great Sasanian shāh Khusraw Anushirvan.

As illustrations of Niẓām al-Mulk’s points, the anecdotes serve admirably: this, after all, was their intended purpose. The difficulty arises over whether or not it is possible to use them as historical evidence, not for the Saljūq period but for the periods to which the stories refer. The temptation, for example, to give some credence to Niẓām al-Mulk’s account of Mazdak and his subversive heresy is a strong one, for we are given a good deal of fascinating detail, and sources actually deriving from the Sasanian period are very scant. Nevertheless, while some of the material may well be accurate, it is impossible to tell what, or how much. What we can say – and this is in itself of some interest – is that we have in the Siyāsat-nāma, among other things, an impression of what was known and believed about the past in educated Persian circles at the end of the eleventh century. A further point which the Siyāsat-nāma’s anecdotes serve to emphasize is the extent to which the approach to government typified by Niẓām al-Mulk and the Persian bureaucracy of his day was influenced not only by Islamic models, but also by what were thought to have been the administrative traditions of pre-Islamic Persia.

Turkish [Seljuk] Rule in Persia II

Alp Arslan’s reign did not see any considerable further expansion of the territory under Saljūq control. The most notable military event occurred near the end of the reign, as the result of the unruly behaviour of the Ghuzz tribesmen. Groups of them, unwilling to submit to the authority of the central Saljūq government, had kept going in a westerly direction, beyond the sulṭān’s jurisdiction. They had ultimately arrived on the eastern Anatolian borders of the Byzantine Empire, where they proceeded to raid and plunder in the traditional nomad way. To permit this to continue in an uncontrolled fashion was unacceptable to Alp Arslan, and he therefore marched west, in an attempt to bring an end to this manifestation of frontier private enterprise.

The result was unexpected, and quite unintended by the sulṭān. The Byzantine Emperor Romanus Diogenes chose to march east with his own forces into eastern Anatolia. In Alp Arslan’s view this was a breach of truce, and he therefore proceeded north from Syria to meet the Byzantine threat. The two armies met, in 463/1071, at Manzikert. The Byzantines were soundly defeated, and Romanus Diogenes himself was captured. Although the Byzantine Empire survived in various forms for nearly another four centuries, it was never again able to put so formidable an army into the field.

This was because of what happened in the aftermath of the battle. Byzantine control of eastern and central Anatolia lapsed, the Ghuzz tribesmen poured across the frontier, and there they stayed. The area they occupied had been one of the Byzantine Empire’s chief sources of revenue, and also its principal military recruiting ground. At the end of the century the Byzantines were able, as a result of the First Crusade, to regain possession of western Anatolia and the coastal strips. But the centre was lost for ever. In due course a new Turkish state, the Seljük sultanate of Rūm (i.e. “Rome”) was formed in Anatolia, to be followed after many vicissitudes by the Ottoman Empire. “Turkey” was a consequence of the battle of Manzikert, even though nothing had been further from Alp Arslan’s intentions than to attack the Byzantines or to occupy any of their territory.

Alp Arslan died in 465/1072. His son, Malikshāh, made good his claim to the throne, but as before the succession was not undisputed. This time the main rival was Malikshāh’s uncle, Qavord, who in accordance with the Turkish principle of family sovereignty had been made semi-independent ruler of Kirmān, in the south-east of Persia. His claim was based on the contention that as Alp Arslan’s brother he was the senior member of the family, and should therefore take precedence over the late sulṭān’s son. He resorted to arms, and was defeated and executed. Malikshāh’s position was assured, and his reign was characterized by an imperial unity that was never subsequently to be seen in Saljūq times.

There was some expansion of Saljūq territory during the reign: Malikshāh made his mark in northern and central Syria, where (again conforming to the notion of family sovereignty) a subject kingdom was set up by his brother Tutush. Niẓām al-Mulk remained at the head of the bureaucracy throughout the reign. Attempts were made by jealous rivals to unseat him, but he successfully (though not always easily) fought them off, and he seems to have retained Malikshāh’s confidence almost to the end.

Niẓām al-Mulk owed the security of his position in part to the extent to which he installed his own sons in responsible posts. There was no civil service “esprit de corps” in medieval Persia. The way to the top was often that of discrediting – and bringing about the fall of – the current wazīr. Only by retaining the support of the ruler and by installing as many reliable people as possible at the lower levels could a wazīr hope to remain in office. It is not naive, however, to say that one way of keeping in the good graces of the ruler was, in fact, to be an efficient administrator, since efficiency made for stability and high receipts from taxation. Niẓām al-Mulk seems to have been efficient, and he was probably honest enough according to his lights and by the standards expected of the powerful in his day.

In 485/1092 Niẓām al-Mulk was, literally, assassinated: that is, he was murdered by a member of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī sect, otherwise known, at least in Europe, as the Assassins. They had become firmly established in Persia only two years before, in 483/1090.  Niẓām al-Mulk was one of their first and most illustrious victims, but he was very far from the last. Malikshāh himself died in the same year, not long after his great minister. His death marked the end of stability in the Saljūq empire, and the beginning of a gradual decline.

The impact of the Saljūq conquest of Persia

It is important to remember that the Saljūqs came to Persia not as barbarian destroyers, but as quite long-standing converts to Islam who were familiar with – and to an extent sympathetic to – Islamic civilization and urban life. Their arrival had more the character of a tribal migration than of an outright invasion and conquest: it has been said that they acquired a vast empire “almost by chance”. There is no reason to doubt that their incursion involved some destruction and dislocation, at least temporarily; but this seems to have been comparatively incidental, and was probably no greater than that caused earlier by the depredations of the Ghaznawid armies. In all this the Saljūqs were very different, as we shall see in a later chapter, from the Mongol conquerors of the thirteenth century.

This was inevitably linked to the numbers involved in the migration. They seem to have been fairly small. We should be thinking in terms of tens rather than hundreds of thousands. Alp Arslan’s standing army of 10,000–15,000 was not untypical. Contemporary and later chroniclers normally put tribal hordes of the period in the bracket 700–10,000. Such numbers of Turks, bearing in mind the very large area involved, are perhaps unlikely to have done an excessive amount of damage.

The most important long-term effect of the Saljūq conquest was probably the change it initiated in the balance of the population of Persia. This had both ethnic and economic aspects. A large proportion of Persia’s present-day population is composed of Turks, i.e. those whose first language is some form of Turkish and whose ethnic origins are perhaps also Turkish. The question therefore arises: did the ancestors of these Turks come to Persia in the Saljūq period?

Scholars who have studied the problem have come to widely different conclusions, but as far as it is possible to judge, it would seem that while the Saljūq period certainly saw the beginnings of the significant Turkicization of Persia, the bulk of the Turks first arrived in later centuries. Nevertheless there were major Turkish movements into, for example, Gurgān and Marv in the north-east and Āẕarbāyjān and upper Mesopotamia in the northwest; and lesser settlements were established elsewhere. It would appear that the Ghuzz tribes tended not to establish themselves very extensively where there was already a significant tribal or semi-nomadic population, as in Fārs, Luristān and Kurdistān.

As we have seen, many of the Ghuzz took ill to the new Saljūq polity, and kept going to the west, to Syria as well as to Anatolia. But while this may have been in some ways a considerable relief to the central government, the difficulties did not go away. For the Ghuzz hordes were continually augmented, throughout the Saljūq period, by further immigration from Central Asia into the eastern parts of the empire, especially the province of Khurāsān. There, in the twelfth century, they presented Sanjar, the last of the Great Saljūq sulṭāns in Persia, with his most serious problem.

A further factor of great importance was that the newcomers were not only Turks: they were nomads. It is clear, then, that there was at least a limited shift of the balance of the population, not only ethnically but also away from the settled and towards the nomadic sector. It does not, however, seem that this necessarily resulted in a reduction in the amount of land cultivated, as certainly happened as a result of the Mongol invasions. There is good reason for supposing that, for the most part, the nomads probably occupied land that had previously been unexploited. Indeed, it would even be reasonable to suggest that the new nomadic settlements were beneficial to the country, in that they played an important part in the economy as a whole through their provision of meat and milk products, wool, and skins to the towns.

Overall, then, a verdict on, at any rate, the first half-century of the Saljūq period is likely to be a fairly positive one. The Saljūqs were not, by the standards of the region, destructive conquerors. The ethnic changes that occurred were not on an excessive scale. Economically the rule of the Saljūqs was probably, on balance, of advantage to the country. Administratively their achievement, or the achievement of the Persians they employed, was creative and lasting.


Initial Retreat of the Russian Army 1812

As the Russian armies retreated, discontent about the conduct of the war quickly increased among Russian officers and soldiers. Russia had not sustained a foreign invasion since that of Charles XII’s Swedes in 1709, and even that was defeated at Poltava. A contemporary recalled: ‘The victories of [Field Marshals] Peter Rumyantsev and Alexander Suvorov made the very word “retreat’’ reprehensible.’15 Throughout the 18th century, Russia fought victorious wars against Sweden, the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Poland. The 1799 Campaign in Italy, conducted by Alexander Suvorov, was regarded as a true reflection of Russian military spirit, and the setbacks in the Alps were overshadowed by heroic Russian exploits. The defeat at Austerlitz in 1805 was largely blamed on the Austrians, while the memories of Friedland were soothed by victories in Finland and Wallachia. So, on the eve of the French invasion, an offensive psychology prevailed in the Russian military. Many officers were unwilling to accept defensive warfare within Russia and were inflamed by a belligerent ardour to fight Napoleon. According to one Russian nobleman:

All letters from the Army are filled with aspiration of war and animation of the souls […] It is said that soldiers are eager to fight the foe and avenge the past defeats. The common desire is to advance and engage Napoleon in Prussia, but it seems that the Sovereign’s advisers are against this notion. They decided to wage a defensive war and let the enemy inside our borders; everyone aware of this German [italics added] strategy […] is extremely upset, considering it as the greatest crime.

And a few days into the war Colonel Zakrevsky complained:

We are retreating to that dreadful Drissa position that seems to doom us for destruction. [Our commanders] still cannot agree on what to do and, it seems, they make the worst decisions. The cursed Pfuel must be hanged, shot or tortured as the most ruinous man …

A letter written by General Rayevsky expressed similar sentiments: ‘I do not know what the Sovereign’s intentions are […] Pfuel’s voice is stronger than anyone’s […] Lord save us from such traitors.’ But Ivan Odental perhaps expressed the Army’s frustration best, writing: ‘it seems to me that Bonaparte gave our leaders large doses of opium. They are all dozing off while [worthless] men like Pfuel and Wolzogen are acting instead of them.’

Despite increasing criticism of Pfuel’s strategy, the Russian armies continued to withdraw towards the Drissa Camp. The 1st Western Army reached the camp on 8 July, when Alexander finally realized the laws of Pfuel’s plan and discarded it. Urged by his advisers, Alexander then left the Army without appointing a supreme commander. Barclay de Tolly took over the command of the 1st Western Army and also enjoyed authority over the 2nd Western Army based on his position as Minister of War.

On 14 July Barclay de Tolly abandoned the Drissa camp, detaching General Peter Wittgenstein with some 20,000 men to cover the route to St Petersburg. Barclay de Tolly then withdrew toward Smolensk, fighting rearguard actions at Vitebsk and Ostrovno. In the south, Bagration withdrew first on Minsk and then to Nesvizh and Bobruisk, eluding Napoleon’s enveloping manoeuvres and gaining minor victories at Mir and Romanovo. When Marshal Davout’s forces finally intercepted the 2nd Western Army at Moghilev, Bagration fought a diversion at Saltanovka on 23 July, while his troops crossed the Dnieper to the south and marched toward Smolensk through Mstislavl. On 2 August, the two Russian armies finally united at Smolensk, bringing their total strength to 120,000 as opposed to some 180,000 in Napoleon’s main force.

Meanwhile, in the north, French forces Marshal Oudinot attacked Wittgenstein, protecting the road to St Petersburg, taking Polotsk on 26 July. But in combats near Klyastitsy on 30 July–1 August, the French suffered a defeat, forcing Napoleon to divert Saint-Cyr to support Oudinot’s operations. And in the Baltic provinces, Macdonald’s corps was fighting near Riga, while the Russians redirected reinforcements from Finland. Finally, in the south, Tormasov defeated French forces at Kobrin and then pinned down Schwarzenberg and Reynier in the Volhynia region. On 31 July Chichagov’s Army of the Danube moved from Moldavia to support Tormasov.

Thus, by August 1812, Napoleon’s initial plan to destroy the Russian forces in a decisive battle had largely failed. The two main Russian armies eluded piecemeal destruction and united at Smolensk, while the Grand Army suffered high losses from strategic consumption and desertion.

By the time they reached Smolensk, the Russian armies were already reeling from an ongoing crisis of command. The continuous retreat stirred up discontent among the troops, with many senior officers opposing Barclay de Tolly’s defensive strategy. Relations between the two commanders-in-chief deteriorated after they began to exchange recriminating letters, each unaware of the difficulties the other faced. Yet this discord was far from a simple quarrel between two generals: it also represented political friction between foreign officers and members of the Russian aristocracy, most of whom preferred a straightforward stand-up fight and bitterly resented the surrender of every inch of Russian soil, blaming the outsiders for all their misfortunes. Needless to say, chances of a harmonious partnership between Barclay de Tolly (a Livonian of Scottish ancestry) and Bagration (a Georgian prince) were thus severely compromised.

Indeed, the two commanders gradually came to represent opposing fractions within the officer corps. Barclay de Tolly was surrounded by the so-called ‘German Party’, consisting of émigrés or the descendents of settlers. The latter were usually thoroughly Russified, but they still had foreign-sounding names, and many professed Protestantism or Catholicism, unlike the Orthodox Russians. The ‘Russian’ group naturally resented numerous foreign officers, who filled Alexander’s army in the wake of Napoleon’s European conquests. For many Russians, such an influx of foreign officers seemed to have undermined the very spirit of the Russian Army and many identified with Bagration’s complaint that: ‘our headquarters is so full of Germans that a Russian cannot breathe.’ Besides, many newcomers were incompetent or inexperienced but took advantage of their social standing and connections to obtain promotions, as Bagration observed: ‘wishing to become field marshals without reading any military journals or books […] Today the rogues and impudent upstarts are in favour.’

2–7 August: Mutiny of the Generals

Leading the Army against the French, Barclay de Tolly acted under great stress and would later note that ‘no other commander-in-chief operated in more unpleasant circumstances than I did.’ Although his Scottish family settled in Russia in the 17th century and loyally served its new motherland for decades, Barclay de Tolly was still perceived as a foreigner by the ‘real’ Russians. According to Jacob de Sanglen, head of the Military Police, on the eve of the war he warned Barclay de Tolly that: ‘it is troublesome to command the Russian troops in their native language but with a foreign name.’ Barclay de Tolly could not boast ancient nobility or titles – and he never became a wealthy estate and serf owner as many around him did – but his successful career and high social status caused envy and hostility among fellow officers, and this was exacerbated by his foreign origins.

The Russian prejudice against foreign officers had deep roots, and by 1812 it was ingrained in both the Army and society. Russian senior officers gradually formed an anti-Barclay opposition party aimed at his dismissal. Barclay’s own staff members, headed by Major General Yermolov – ‘the sphinx of modern times’ as he was described for his inscrutable, conspiratorial mind – intrigued against him. Unaware of the actual circumstances and exasperated by the retreat, officers taught the rank and file to call Barclay de Tolly by the nickname ‘Boltai da i tolko’ (‘All talk and nothing else’). Soldiers complained about the continual retreat since: ‘they were prejudiced against the word “retirada’’ [retreat], considering it alien to the dignity of the courageous soldiers, whom [Field Marshals] Rumyantsev and Suvorov trained to advance and gain victory.’

Thus, confidence in the Commander-in-Chief was undermined and every new stage of the retreat intensified the malicious rumours about him. It was hard for Barclay de Tolly to parry thrusts of criticism since his cautious, albeit sensible, policy contrasted with the popular ideas of Bagration and his fire-eating supporters. One of the Russian officers understood that Barclay’s defensive strategy was ‘prudent’ but also noted ‘the extremely negative impact’ it had on the commander-in-chief: ‘The common view about him was that of a treacherous German; naturally, this was followed by mistrust and even hatred and contempt that were openly expressed.’

Bagration, with his impeccable reputation and eagerness to fight, certainly fared much better in the eyes of the common soldier. A contemporary remarked: ‘The difference in the spirit of the two armies was that the 1st Army relied only on itself and the Russian God, while the 2nd Army also trusted Prince Bagration […] His presence, eagle-like appearance, cheerful expression and keen humour inspired soldiers.’ Similar sentiments are echoed by Yermolov, who noted a dramatic difference in the state of the armies as they reached Smolensk:

The 1st Army was exhausted by the continuous withdrawal and soldiers began to mutiny; there were cases of insubordination and agitation […] At the same time, the 2nd Western Army arrived [at Smolensk] in an entirely different state of mind. The music and joyful songs animated soldiers. These troops showed only pride for the danger they had overcome and the readiness to face and overcome a new danger. It seemed as if the 2nd Western Army did not retreat from the Nieman to the Dnieper, but covered this distance in triumph.

Such were the passions on the eve of the junction at Smolensk, and the impending meeting of the two generals was naturally expected to be intense.

Yet, to everyone’s surprise, when they encountered each other on 2 August both commanders displayed unusual tact, realizing the importance of restoring a workable partnership.

When Bagration arrived, accompanied by his generals and aides-de-camp, Barclay de Tolly met him wearing a parade uniform complete with medals, sash, and plumed bicorn in hand. The two commanders then had a private conversation and each apologized for any injustice he might have caused the other. Bagration praised Barclay’s withdrawal from Vitebsk and Barclay de Tolly complimented Bagration on the skilful manner in which he had eluded Napoleon’s trap.

Bagration was pleased with this meeting and though senior in rank, agreed to subordinate himself to Barclay de Tolly. Unity of command was thus achieved for the moment. Alas, such cordiality between the generals would survive a mere seven days.

7–14 August: Offensive at Last

With the Russian armies concentrated at Smolensk the question was what to do next? Should the armies continue retreating or take advantage of their combined strengths and launch an offensive? The majority of officers, and Russian society in general, demanded a more vigorous conduct of the war. Minor successes at Mir, Romanovo, Ostrovno, Saltanovka, and Klyastitsy were already portrayed as great victories, which only intensified calls for an offensive. In early August, Pavel Pushin, serving in the 3rd Battalion of the Semeyonovsk Life Guard Regiment, noted in his diary the general restlessness prevailing in the Army: ‘We all are burning with impatience to fight, each of us is willing to shed blood to the very last drop, and, if commanded properly, we will inflict heavy losses on the enemy.’ Three days later the Army learned about Count Wittgenstein’s victory at Polotsk and the news only intensified the sentiments.

To many soldiers it seemed that the fruits of these victories were wasted by their high command (coincidentally full of ‘German’ officers) and Russian soil was being surrendered to the enemy without a fight. Bagration certainly echoed the opinion of many when he wrote to Barclay de Tolly:

With our armies finally uniting, we accomplished the goal set by our Emperor [Alexander]. With so many experienced troops gathered together, we now enjoy a superiority, which [Napoleon] tried to exploit while we were separated. Now, our goal must be to attack the [French] centre and defeat it while [the French] forces are scattered […] We would seize our destiny with one blow […] The entire Army and all of Russia demand [attack].

Conceding to public pressure, Barclay de Tolly called a council of war on 6 August. The council agreed to an attack and next day the Russian armies advanced westward in three columns on a 20-mile front. The weather was dry and the advance rapid. Yermolov recalled that the soldiers were in high spirits because: ‘the order to attack was finally given and it [was] impossible to describe the joy of our troops! Smolensk watched in bewilderment at our forces’ eagerness to fight; the Dnieper vociferously flowed, proud of the orderly movement of our troops!’

But the advance also revealed an ongoing disagreement between Bagration and Barclay de Tolly. One day after the offensive began Barclay de Tolly received news, later proved incorrect, that the French were advancing towards Porechye, north of Smolensk. Fearing Napoleon would turn his right lank, Barclay de Tolly ordered his troops to veer to the right to cover the Porechye–Smolensk route. Bagration opposed the change in direction of the 1st Western Army’s advance, since he anticipated Napoleon’s actual attack on the left flank.

Barclay de Tolly ignored Bagration’s pleas and remained on the Porechye route, awaiting new intelligence. His order to Platov (leader or Ataman of the Don Cossacks) to halt did not reach him in time, and acting under original instructions, Platov continued his march north-west, making a sudden attack on General Sébastiani’s division near Inkovo (Molevo Boloto). Instead of trying to exploit this initial success by mounting a major attack in this direction (as envisaged by the council of war), Barclay de Tolly remained idle on the Porechye route, still believing that the main threat to Smolensk lay from the north. A Russian general complained:

Instead of rapid movement that would have secured our success, the armies were given a useless rest and the enemy gained additional time to concentrate his forces! […] Circumstances still favoured us and had our Commander-in-Chief showed more firmness in his intentions [we would have succeeded]. Of course, the defeat at [Inkovo] awakened the French, but they were about to suffer from further attacks and had no time to avoid them. Yet, the Commander-in-Chief not only evaded executing the adopted plan but completely changed it.

This was a decisive blow to the Russian counter-offensive. The Russian armies remained inactive for days as Barclay de Tolly dithered, thus alerting Napoleon to Russian intentions and permitting him to prepare his troops accordingly. Finally, on 12 August, Barclay de Tolly learned that his intelligence regarding a French concentration at Porechye was incorrect and that Napoleon had assembled his army at Babinovichi, on the Dnieper, threatening the left flank of the Russian Army, as Bagration had anticipated days before. He responded by withdrawing his troops from the Porechye road to the Rudnya route on 13 August. The Russian troops reacted bitterly: the soldiers were grumbling and, after marching several times through the village of Shelomets, they called Barclay’s manoeuvres ‘oshelomelii’ or ‘dumbfounding’.

The sudden cancellation of the planned attack, lack of information on Barclay de Tolly’s plans, constant changes in orders and delayed manoeuvres aroused feelings of dismay in many Russian officers, and in Bagration above all. He clearly saw the threat to the Russian left lank but could not convince Barclay de Tolly to believe him. He complained:

I still believe that there are no enemy forces [in the direction of Porechye] […] I would be glad to coordinate my actions with [the 1st Western Army] but [Barclay de Tolly] is making twenty changes in a minute. For God’s sake, please do not change the strategy every minute; [we] must have some kind of system to act upon.

Russian senior officers who disliked Barclay de Tolly before now openly despised him. Conspiracy theories lourished in this fertile ground: especially after the Russians, searching Sébastiani’s headquarters at Molevo Boloto, found a message from Marshal Murat describing the Russian offensive. Could it be that someone at Barclay de Tolly’s headquarters had notiied the enemy about the counter-offensive? On 12 August, Pavel Pushin of the Semeyonovskii Life Guard Regiment noted in his diary:

A few days ago, General Sébastiani’s personal papers were captured. Notes were found in his portfolio that contained numbers, places and day-by-day movement of our corps. Rumours have it that, as a result, all suspicious persons were removed from headquarters, including Flügel Adjutants and Counts …

Not surprisingly, all of these persons were non-Russians, mostly Poles. It later transpired that the Polish Prince Lubomirski, one of the adjutants, accidentally overheard several generals discussing Russian offensive plans in the street and had sent a message to his mother, urging her to lee the coming bloodshed. Murat – who was billeted at Lubomirski’s family home – had intercepted this letter. Another incident further increased Russian suspicions against the Poles in particular. As the troops marched back and forth between Prikaz Vydra and Shelomets, some soldiers noticed:

a woman following our columns and, when asked, she always replied that she was with General Lavrov. Everyone was satisfied with her answer until one joker decided to flirt with her and, in a moment of passion, tore off her hat, which revealed a male head underneath. It appeared that he was a spy; he was [arrested] and sent to headquarters.

14–19 August: Napoleon Strikes Back – The Battles of Krasnyi, Smolensk and Lubino

Russian hesitation gave Napoleon enough time to adjust his plans. His first reaction to news of the action at Inkovo had been to suspend preparations for the drive on Smolensk, followed by an order to concentrate the Grand Army around Lyosno, in order to meet the Russians. But by 10 August Barclay de Tolly’s indecision convinced Napoleon that the Russian offensive presented no significant threat. Meanwhile, an opportunity to deal the enemy a decisive blow had presented itself.

Napoleon’s manoeuvre on Smolensk was a masterpiece. He concentrated his corps on a narrow front between Orsha and Rosasna on the northern bank of the Dnieper; then, under cover of a heavy cavalry screen, the Grand Army crossed to the southern bank. Napoleon’s plan was to advance eastwards along the left bank, taking Smolensk while the Russians were preoccupied with the northern approaches.

By daylight on 14 August almost the entire Grand Army was across the Dnieper and advancing on Smolensk. However, Napoleon’s plan was thwarted by a small Russian detachment led by General Neverovsky, which Bagration had deployed at Krasnyi to watch for any potential flanking manoeuvres. Neverovsky’s troops made a successful fighting retreat to Smolensk, ‘retreating like lions’ as one French officer described it. Their exploits enthralled the Russian Army, and future guerrilla leader Denis Davidov reflected what many felt at the time: ‘I remember how we looked at this division, as it approached us in midst of smoke and dust. Each bayonet shone with an immortal glory.’

Without Neverovky’s staunch resistance at Krasnyi, the French might well have reached Smolensk by the evening of the 14 August and taken the city, cutting the Russian line of retreat. However, as a result of this action, Napoleon decided to halt his advance for a day in order to regroup his forces, missing his chance of taking Smolensk by surprise.

Hearing of Napoleon’s flanking attack, both Russian armies rushed back to Smolensk. On 15–16 August the Russians repulsed French assaults on Smolensk but were nonetheless forced to abandon the city. Smolensk was almost completely destroyed and of 2,250 buildings only 350 remained intact. Meanwhile, of the city’s 15,000 inhabitants only 1,000 remained in its smoking, smouldering wreck. The Russians lost about 10,000 men in the two-day battle. French losses reached a similar figure, though Russian sources often claim as many as 20,000 French casualties.

As the Russians withdrew to Moscow, Napoleon attempted to cut their line of retreat but at the Battle of Valutina Gora (Lubino) on 19 August Barclay de Tolly’s army succeeded in clearing its way to Dorogobuzh. Once again the fighting proved bloody, this battle claiming over 7,000 French and around 6,000 Russian casualties.

The Longbow in the Wars of the Roses

At the time of the expulsion of the English from their Continental possessions, no blame was laid at the door of the longbow, nor did there seem to be any permanent discrediting of its power. Nevertheless, as future events proved, in spite of the triple victories of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, to say nothing of many lesser successes, archery as a weapon of war was on the downgrade in the mid-fifteenth century. The bow still retained its supremacy as a missile weapon over the clumsy arbalest, with its complicated array of wheels and levers. In fact, the testimony of all Europe was given in favour of the longbow – Charles of Burgundy considered a corps of 3,000 English bowmen to be the flower of his infantry; thirty years before, Charles of France had made the archer the basis of his new militia in a vain attempt to naturalise the weapon of his enemies beyond the Channel. After a similar endeavour, James of Scotland had resigned himself to ill success and so turned the archery of his subjects to ridicule. Before that, however, he had ordered a law to be passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1424:

‘That all men might busk thame to be archares, fra they be 12 years of age; and that at ilk ten pounds worth of land, thair be made bow makres, and specialle near paroche kirks, quhairn upon hailie days men may cum, and at the leist schute thrusye ab out, and have usye of archarie; and whassa usis not archarie, the laird of the land sail rais of him a wedder, and giff the laird raisis not the same pane, the kings shiref or his ministers sail rais it to the King.’

In England Edward IV proclaimed that every Englishman and Irishman living in England must have of his own a bow of his own height ‘to be made of yew, wych, or hazel, ash or auborne or any other reasonable tree, according to their power’. The same law provided that buttes or mounds of earth for use as marks must be erected in every town and village, and listed a series of penalties for those who did not practise with the longbow.

Richard III was one of the kings who recognised the value of the archer; Shakespeare makes him say, just prior to the Battle of Bosworth: ‘Draw archers, draw your arrows to the head!’ There are also records telling that Richard sent a body of 1,000 archers to France to aid the Duke of Brittany. Henry VII also provided anti-crossbow legislation and sent large levies of English archers to fight for the Duke of Brittany. During this entire period English longbowmen served in many parts of the then-known world.

The introduction of gunpowder was the beginning of the end for the archer; although over 400 years were to pass before the bow and arrow were finally overcome by gun-fire, the seeds were sown in the fourteenth century at Crécy and Sluys. The making of a skilful archer was a matter of years, but an adequate gunner could be produced in a few months – it was far too easy to attain a certain amount of proficiency with the new weapons for the bow to remain highly popular. At first the longbow was vastly superior to the newly invented handguns and arquebuses, which did not attain any great degree of efficiency before the end of the fifteenth century. When they did, the bow – the weapon par excellence of England – fell into disuse, although the archer could discharge twelve or fifteen arrows while the musketeer was going through the lengthy operation of loading his piece. The longbow could be aimed more accurately and its effective range of 200 – 240 yards was greater; the hitting-power of a war-arrow, weighing about two ounces, was far greater than that of a musket-ball, weighing from one-third to half an ounce. Archers could be lined up as many as ten deep and shoot together over each other’s heads to put down an almost impassable barrage; and it was a terrifying barrage that could be seen descending. It is not outside the bounds of possibility to claim that the musket used at Waterloo in 1815 was inferior to the longbow used at Agin-court in 1415, both in range and accuracy.

Early firearms were reasonably good weapons of defence when they could be rested upon ramparts and their powder kept dry, otherwise they were far less deadly than the longbow in competent hands. In 1590 Sir John Smyth, a formidable military writer of the time, in his work The Discourse presented a wholesale condemnation of the new weapons, the mosquet, the caliver and the harquebus. The book was hastily suppressed by English military authorities; the stern, lone voice, crying for a return to the older and more effective ways of the longbow did not coincide with current military thinking. One also had to consider that the merit of early firearms lay in the prestige which they brought to the princes who armed their men with them.

In many of the battles of the Wars of the Roses, artillery was combined with archers, so that the enemy was put in a position where he had either to fall back or to charge in order to escape missile fire – just as similar tactics had won the field of Hastings for William in 1066. Edgecott Field was notable as a renewed attempt of spearmen to stand against a mixed force of archers and cavalry. Here the Yorkists were entirely destitute of light troops, their bowmen having been drawn off by their commander, Lord Stafford, in a fit of pique. This meant that Pembroke and his North Welsh troops were left unsupported. The natural result followed; in spite of the strong position of the King’s son, the rebels, by force of archery fire, quickly caused them to descend from the hill into the valley, where they were ridden down by the Northern horse as they retreated in disorder.

During the period of this war, armour had possibly reached its elaborate peak, as an old description of a knight arming for the Battle of Tewkesbury indicated: ‘… and arming was an elaborate process then, as the knight began with his feet, and clothed himself upwards. He put on first, his sabatynes or steel clogs; secondly, the greaves or shin-pieces; thirdly, the cuisses, or thigh-pieces; fourthly, the breech of mail; fifthly, the tuillettes; sixthly, the breastplate; seventhly, the vambraces or arm-covers; eighthly, the rerebraces, for covering the remaining part of the arm to the shoulder; ninthly, the gauntlets; tenthly, the dagger was hung; eleventhly, the short sword; twelfthly, the surcoat was put on; thirteenthly, the helmet; fourteenthly, the long sword was assumed; and, fifteenthly, the pennoncel, which he carried in his left hand.’

Notwithstanding the undoubted strength of this array, the archer still appeared to achieve sufficient penetration with his shafts to be considered a worthwhile part of the forces.

At Towton, on Palm Sunday, March 29th, 1461, Lord Falconbridge, commanding part of the army of Edward IV, used his archers in an interesting tactical expedient which sufficed to decide the day when both armies were employing the same weapon. The snow, which was falling very heavily, was being blown by a strong wind from behind the Yorkists and into the faces of the Lancastrians; it rendered the opposing lines only partially visible to each other. Falconbridge ordered his archers to the front, to act more or less as skirmishers. It must be explained that two types of arrows were then in use – the flight arrow and the sheaf arrow; the former was lightly feathered, with a small head; the latter was high-feathered and shortly shafted with a large head. Flight arrows were shot at a great distance and, at proper elevation, could kill at 240 yards. Sheaf arrows were for closer fighting, requiring but a slight elevation, and were often shot at point-blank range.

The advancing archers had been carefully instructed to let fly a shower of sheaf arrows, with a greater elevation than usual, and then to fall back some paces and stand. Aided by the gale, the Yorkist arrows fell among the Lancastrian archers, who, perceiving that they were sheaf arrows and being misled by the blinding snow as to their opponents’ exact distance from them, assumed that the enemy were within easy range. They commenced firing volley after volley into the snowstorm, all of which fell sixty yards short of the Yorkists until the snow bristled with the uselessly expended shafts like porcupine quills. When the Lancastrians had emptied their belts, the Yorkists moved forward and began firing in return, using not only their own shafts but also those so conveniently sticking out of the snow at their feet. Their shooting had great effect and men fell on all sides as the wind-assisted shafts came hissing into them; in a short time it was possible for the billmen and men-at-arms of Warwick and King Edward to advance comfortably forward without receiving any harassing fire from the Lancastrian archers. Needless to say, the Yorkist archers then laid aside their bows and went in with the more heavily armed infantry. It was a strategem that won the battle, and was one that could only be used when the adversaries were perfectly conversant with each other’s armaments and methods of war.

Even in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the longbow still retained its supremacy over the arquebus and had yet some famous fields to win, notably that of Flodden in 1513, where, as will be seen from the next chapter, the old manoeuvres of Falkirk were repeated by both parties, the pikemen of the lowlands once again being shot to pieces by the archers of Cheshire and Lancashire. As late as the reign of Edward VI we find Kett’s Insurgents beating, by the rapidity of their archery fire, a corps of German hackbuteers whom the government had sent against them. Nor was the bow entirely extinct as a national weapon even in the days of Queen Elizabeth. It was in the reign of the Virgin Queen that the first really great archery writer appeared on the English scene. Roger Ascham, tutor to Elizabeth when she was a princess, was the author of the book Toxophilus, which remains the classic in the field. Allowing for certain minor differences, the phraseology and certain advances which have been made in equipment, Ascham’s book is as valuable to the archer today as it was when it was written four centuries ago. His ‘instructions’ can be, and are, used today in teaching novice archers. Ascham’s relation to the bow corresponds to that of Izaak Walton to the rod and reel.

Last Flights

Colonel Barker, VC, in one of the captured German airplanes against which he fought his last battle.

As the Germans fell back step by step early in October 1918, much of the Allied air effort was devoted to attacks on road junctions, railway stations and other bottlenecks. The German Flying Corps continued to fight fiercely, if spasmodically, and to inflict losses on the Allied day bombers, although in doing so their own losses were far from light.

On 1 October, for instance, DH9s of No 108 Squadron had just attacked Ingelmunster station when they were intercepted by thirty-three enemy scouts. A running fight developed, and in the next ten minutes, during which the DH9s managed to stay in close formation, they shot down four of the enemy without loss.

During the first week in October the two Australian fighter squadrons, No 2 with its SE5s and No 4 with its Camels, were very active, carrying out many ground-attack sorties against enemy airfields and lines of communication. No 4 Squadron in particular received several mentions in the official communiqués, beginning on 2 October:

‘Lieutenants O. B. Ramsay and C. V. Ryrie, 4 Squadron AFC, left the ground at 4.45 am to attack Don Railway Station, where they dropped four 25-lb bombs, observing one direct hit; they then dropped four more bombs on Houplin Aerodrome and fired at machines and mechanics on the Aerodrome from 700 feet. A train steaming out of Haubourdin was also fired at and made to pull up.’

Then, on 5 October:

‘A patrol of 4 Squadron AFC, consisting of Captain R. King, 2nd Lieutenant T. H. Barkell and 2nd Lieutenant A. J. Palliser, during a flight of 1 hour 20 minutes, carried out the following work: Destroyed one balloon in flames; dropped twelve 25-lb bombs from a low height on a train in Avelin Station and on the Aerodrome, obtaining four direct hits on the station and one on a shed on the aerodrome. They also fired a large number of rounds into a “flaming onion” battery, and three times attacked horse transport, which scattered in confusion. The sheds on Avelin Aerodrome were also shot up, and finally a train was fired at, one wagon of which exploded, completely wrecking two trucks.’

In October a new German scout, the Fokker D.VIII, appeared at the front in small numbers. It was developed from the Fokker E.V, which had been assigned to Jasta 6 for operational trials in July but which had been withdrawn after three crashes involving structural failure of the wing. Imperfect timber and faulty manufacturing methods were found to have been the cause, and in September production was started again, the type now bearing the designation Fokker D.VIII. A parasol monoplane, the D.VIII was more manoeuvrable than the D.VII biplane and had a better operational ceiling, although it was slightly slower. Only about ninety had been delivered by the end of the war and, although its pilots reported that it handled well, it had little chance to prove itself in action.

With the end of the war in sight, and enemy aircraft absent from the front for lengthy periods, the leading Allied fighter pilots flew intensively, keen on adding to their scores. By the end of October, Eddie Rickenbacker of the 94th Aero Squadron had scored twenty-six victories, putting him well ahead of any other American pilot; the next in line was Captain W. C. Lambert of the RAF, with twenty-two, followed by Captain A. T. Iaccaci (RAF) and Frank Luke with eighteen, Captain F. W. Gillet (RAF) and Raoul Lufbery with seventeen, then Captains H. A. Kuhlberg and O. J. Rose (both RAF) with sixteen each. Rickenbacker survived the war to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war he was active in both the automobile and airline industries and was largely responsible for building up Eastern Airlines, of which he became chairman in 1953. During the Second World War he toured widely, visiting USAF units overseas. In one flight across the Pacific his aircraft had to ditch, and he and his crew spent twenty-one days on a life-raft before being rescued. He remained active in various fields until his death in July 1973, at the age of eighty-two.

In the Cigognes, René Fonck scored his sixty-eighth and sixty-ninth victories on 5 October. There was no one to come near him now, but sightings of enemy aircraft were so infrequent that it would be the end of the month before he scored again.

Meanwhile, in the north, the RAF took its latest fighter, the Sopwith Snipe, into action during these final weeks. No 43 Squadron had begun offensive patrols with its new Snipes on 26 September; these mostly involved bomber escort or diversionary patrols in conjunction with bombing raids, and in six days the pilots claimed the destruction of ten enemy aircraft for no loss. Unfortunately, only two of the enemy machines could be confirmed, these being credited to Lieutenants E. Mulcair and R. S. Johnston. Throughout October No 43 continued to fly escort missions, often with the DH9s of Nos 98 and 107 Squadrons. On occasions the Snipe pilots would also indulge in some bombing; on 23 October, for example, they obtained several direct hits with 20-lb Cooper bombs – four of which could be carried beneath the Snipe’s fuselage – on the railway station at Hirson.

In October a second unit, No 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, also began to exchange its Camels for Snipes at Serny. The first patrol with the new aircraft was flown on the 26th, when nine Snipes led by Lieutenants T. C. R. Baker and T. H. Barkell ran into fifteen Fokker D.VIIs over Tournai. Barkell, although wounded in the leg, shot down two of the enemy, while Lieutenants Baker, E. J. Richards and H. W. Ross got one each. On the following day the Squadron lost Lieutenant F. Howard, shot down and killed in a dogfight over the same area.

The next three days saw some of the greatest air battles of the war as the German Flying Corps threw its dwindling reserves into action against the Allied aircraft that were now swarming everywhere behind the enemy lines. On 28 October, fifteen Snipes of No 4 Squadron AFC, led by Captain A. T. Cole, came upon twelve Fokker D.VIIs which were attacking a formation of DH9s over Peruwelz and destroyed five of the enemy for no loss. Later in the day, ten Snipes under Captain R. King were detailed to escort twelve SE5as of No 2 Squadron AFC in a bombing attack on Lessines, north of Ath on the Dendre river. The SEs carried out their bombing attack and then climbed to join the Snipes, which were engaging about thirty Fokkers. By the time the SEs arrived the fight was virtually over; two of the Fokkers had been destroyed by Lieutenant A. J. Palliser, a third by Major W. A. McLaughry and a fourth by Lieutenant T. C. R. Baker, who had already shot down a D.VII while out on patrol by himself that morning. Another Fokker was destroyed by Lieutenant E. L. Simonson of No 2 Squadron, who shot the enemy off a Snipe’s tail.

In the afternoon of 29 October, fifteen Snipes of No 4 Squadron in two flights under King and Baker were patrolling near Tournai in fine but hazy weather when they encountered an equal number of Fokker D.VIIs at 14,000 feet. Conscious that there were other strong formations of Fokkers in the area – probably sixty aircraft in all – the Australians quickly engaged the first gaggle, which were apparently preparing to attack some Allied two-seaters lower down. A fierce battle ensued, during which two Fokkers were shot down in flames by Lieutenant G. Jones. Two more were destroyed by Lieutenant Palliser, while Lieutenants Baker, P. J. Sims, O. Lamplough and H. W. Ross accounted for one each. Unfortunately, Sims failed to return from this fight.

On 30 October, the bomb-carrying SE5as of No 2 Squadron AFC joined other aircraft in an attack on Rebaix airfield. The bombs were dropped from a very low altitude – sometimes as low as twenty feet – destroying several hangars and buildings as well as three LVG two-seaters parked nearby. The raid was escorted by eleven Snipes of No 4 Squadron, but no enemy aircraft were sighted.

There followed a spell of poor weather which finally broke on 4 November, when No 2 Squadron AFC formed part of a force that carried out a highly successful attack on Wattines airfield. The raid, which was escorted by No 4 Squadron AFC and the Bristol Fighters of No 88 Squadron RAF, was hotly contested by the enemy, and in the running battle that developed six Fokkers were shot down. But it was a bad day for No 4 Squadron: Lieutenant Goodson was hit by anti-aircraft fire, crashing into the canal at Tournai, and Lieutenant C. W. Rhodes was shot down in combat, both airmen surviving to become prisoners. They were luckier than Captain T. C. R. Baker and Lieutenants Palliser and P. W. Symons, all of whom were shot down and killed.

It was a hard loss for the Australians to bear, with the end so near. The Germans were now in full retreat from the Scheldt, and in the days that followed both Australian squadrons were engaged in attacks on enemy forces near Ghislenghien, rolling stock at Enghien and on Croisette airfield. No opposition was encountered in the air, and so the Snipes of No 4 Squadron came down to join the SEs in strafing attacks. The last offensive sortie by the Australian Snipes was carried out on 10 November, when enemy columns were strafed in the Enghien area.

The sturdy Snipe had fulfilled all its expectations in the hands of the Australians; but it was the extraordinary exploit of a Canadian pilot, Major W. G. Barker, that was to enshrine the fighter in aviation history during those last weeks of the war.

Bill Barker had arrived in France in 1915 with the Canadian Mounted Rifles, and after spending his twenty-first birthday in the mud of Flanders had applied for a transfer to the RFC. Accepted as an air gunner with the lowly rank of Air Mechanic, he had been posted to No 9 Squadron RFC, which in the closing months of 1915 was flying BE2c observation aircraft from Allonville. He was an expert shot, having hunted elk from horseback as a boy, and his skill was rewarded when he destroyed a Fokker monoplane that attacked his BE behind the enemy lines.

Early in 1916, Barker was commissioned and posted to No 4 Squadron RFC, which also flew BEs, as an observer. After taking part in the air operations over the Somme, during which he was slightly wounded in a skirmish with an enemy fighter, he applied for pilot training in the autumn of 1916. He was awarded his pilot’s brevet in January 1917 and posted as a captain to No 15 Squadron, flying on artillery spotting duties. He survived the bloody fighting of 1917 and was awarded the Military Cross; in September he was posted to No 28 Squadron, which took its Sopwith Camels to France in October. He was given command of ‘C’ Flight, and adopted Sopwith Camel serial number B6313 as his ‘personal’ aircraft. Together, pilot and machine were to make a formidable team.

His first victory with No 28 Squadron came on 20 October 1917, when he shot down an Albatros near Roulers. This was followed, six days later, by two more. These were Barker’s last victories in France for the time being, for in November No 28 Squadron was sent to the southern front as part of the Allied effort to bolster the Italians, who had suffered a series of reverses in their campaign against the Austrians. When Barker went to Italy, so did his faithful B6313.

Barker shot down an Albatros on 29 November and another on 3 December, the first of nine victories he was to score with No 28 Squadron on the Italian Front. On 8 March 1918 B6313 was damaged when it crash-landed in mist at Asolo, but it was flying again a week later and Barker celebrated the Camel’s return to action by destroying an Albatros D.III at Villanova on 18 March, followed by another near Cismon the next day.

On 10 April 1918 he was posted to command No 66 Squadron at San Pietro, and once again he took B6313 with him. By 13 July his score stood at twenty eight enemy aircraft and four observation balloons destroyed. One of his victims during this period was Oberleutnant Frank Linke-Crawford, the third-ranking Austrian ace with thirty victories.

On 14 July 1918 Barker was promoted Major and given command of No 139 Squadron, which was then flying Bristol Fighters at Villaverla. Once again, his Camel went with him; to keep the paperwork straight, it was officially transferred to ‘Z’ Aircraft Park, which was a maintenance unit, and attached to No 139 Squadron. Barker had it painted in the markings of No 139: multiple narrow white stripes applied vertically between the fuselage roundel and the tailplane.

Although Barker flew Bristol Fighters on some occasions, he usually accompanied the two-seaters in his B6313, and while flying this aircraft he destroyed six more enemy machines, the last on 18 September 1918 over the Piave front. The useful life of B6313 was now coming to an end; the Camel had already been re-engined several times, and its airframe was showing dangerous signs of wear and tear. Accordingly, the commander of the RAF contingent in Italy, Colonel P. B. Joubert de la Ferté (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté kcb, cmg, dso), directed that the aircraft be dismantled and the pieces placed in storage for spares; Major Barker was to be allowed to take any souvenirs he wished. As a long-standing fighting partnership between one man and one aircraft, it was probably unique.

At the beginning of October 1918 Barker returned to the United Kingdom and was posted to No 201 Squadron at La Targette. The Squadron was then still equipped with Sopwith Camels, but was due to receive Snipes in the near future. One Snipe, serial E8102, was allocated to Barker for use in the Squadron; his overall brief was to test the aircraft to the fullest extent in action and to develop new air fighting techniques.

By the time he joined No 201 Squadron, Barker’s score of aircraft destroyed stood at forty-six. His decorations included the DSO and Bar, MC and two Bars, the Croix de Guerre and the Italian Cross of Valour. He was just twenty-four years old.

Barker’s time with No 201 Squadron, however, was short-lived, amounting to little more than a refresher course, and in the last days of October he was ordered back home to take up a new and safer posting as CO of a flying school at Hounslow in Middlesex. On the morning of the 27th, he took off from La Targette for the last time and set course westwards towards the English Channel.

Suddenly, as he cruised high over the Forêt de Mormal, something caught his attention: a flicker in the sky, several thousand feet higher up. It was the wing of a turning aircraft, glittering in the sun, and Barker knew that in this area the chances were that it was a Hun. He decided to climb up and investigate.

The strange aircraft turned out to be a Hannoveraner two-seat observation aircraft, flying at 21,000 feet. At this altitude, which was well above the normal patrol level, its crew possibly thought that they were immune from attack. Nevertheless, the enemy observer was wide awake, and put a burst of Spandau bullets through the Snipe’s wing as Barker closed in to make his attack. The Canadian fired back and saw his bullets strike home, but the Hannoveraner flew steadily on. Twice more the Canadian closed in, exchanging bursts of fire with the enemy gunner. Both aircraft were hit repeatedly. Suddenly, Barker decided to change his tactics. Long ago, he had removed the conventional radial sight from his twin Vickers machine-guns and replaced it with a simple peep sight, which he claimed was more accurate. He now concentrated on hitting the German gunner, and after a burst or two saw the man throw up his arms and collapse in the cockpit.

The German aircraft was defenceless now, and Barker closed in to finish it off from point-blank range. After a few moments it broke up, its fuselage spinning down towards the forest and its wings drifting in the air. It was Barker’s forty-seventh victory.

Elated, he did not see the Fokker D.VII coming up under his tail. The first indication of its presence came with a confused sensation of whiplash cracks as bullets spattered his aircraft, followed by a spasm of searing pain as one of them tore into his right thigh. The Snipe fell into a spin which Barker corrected by instinct, half dazed with the shock of his wound. Looking round, he found that he had dropped into the middle of a formation of about fifteen more Fokkers and immediately flung his Snipe into a steep turn, loosing off an inconclusive burst at an aircraft that flashed across his nose. He fired at a second, again with no apparent result, but almost at once found himself on the tail of a third.

This time there was no mistake. There was a short burst from Barker’s guns and the Fokker trailed a short stream of white fuel vapour before bursting into flames and rolling earthwards in a ball of fire.

By this time, the Germans were queueing up for a shot at Barker’s twisting aircraft. Bullets crackled around his ears and ripped savagely through the Snipe’s wings and fuselage. Two Fokkers attacked simultaneously from behind. Barker throttled back and hammered one of them as it flashed past, seeing part of the enemy’s tail break away. Then another Fokker came up from below and fired a burst into the underside of the Snipe. Bullets shattered Barker’s left leg and he blacked out. The Snipe nosed over into a dive, and the rush of icy air brought the pilot round. At 12,000 feet he managed to pull the aircraft out of its plunge.

The Snipe creaked and groaned alarmingly, and smoke poured from its overworked engine. When another Fokker came at him head-on, Barker, thinking that his aircraft was on fire, weak as he was through loss of blood and with both his legs smashed, made up his mind to ram it. Then, almost at the last moment, he saw an opportunity and opened fire. The Fokker disintegrated in a cloud of fragments and Barker flew unscathed through its floating wreckage.

Suddenly, Barker realized that his left arm was useless. Looking down, he saw that his sleeve was soaked with blood; a bullet had shattered his elbow. For the second time in this incredible, one-sided battle, Barker fainted.

Again, it was the rush of slipstream that brought him to his senses. Pulling out of the dive, he saw his avenue of escape cut off by eight more Fokkers, which split up to attack him from several directions. One Fokker made a fatal mistake and turned in front of him; Barker’s guns chattered again and the enemy aircraft went down to crash. Resigned now to the fact that he was going to be shot down by the others, he fired his remaining ammunition at them. Miraculously, they broke off the action and flew away eastwards.

Barker, his strength failing rapidly, dived to within a few feet of the ground. Both his legs and his left arm were completely useless, preventing him from using the rudder bar. Somehow, he managed to keep a firm grip on the control column as the tattered, smoking, oil-slicked wreck of the Snipe sank lower. Finally, the wheels struck the ground with a jarring crash; the Snipe bounced into the air and fell on its back. By some miracle it failed to catch fire.

The aircraft had crashed near some British observation balloons, whose ground crews pulled him barely alive from the wreckage. He was taken to Rouen hospital and was still there, deeply unconscious and fighting for his life, when the Armistice came. He eventually went on to make a full recovery, and to receive one of the best-earned Victoria Crosses in the history of air warfare. Sadly, he was killed while working as a test pilot in 1930, at the age of thirty-six.

While Barker lay in hospital, the war entered its last days. After 4 November, a day of intense air fighting, the RAF’s daily summaries noted that enemy air activity was slight; sometimes it was absent altogether. Officially, between 4 and 11 November, the RAF claimed sixty-eight enemy aircraft destroyed and twenty-four ‘driven down out of control’ for the loss of sixty of its own.

In the last hours of the war, the weather was fair but misty. During the night of 10/11 November, No 214 Squadron’s Handley Page 0/400s dropped 112 bombs on Louvain railway sidings, the crews reporting many direct hits. Some of the bombs hit an ammunition train, causing explosions and fires all over the sidings.

At 11.45 am on 11 November, an RE8 observation aircraft of No 15 Squadron touched down at Auchy. Its crew, Captains H. L. Tracy and S. F. Davison, reported that no enemy aircraft had been seen; British troops were in Mons, where the British Expeditionary Force’s long retreat had started more than four years earlier, and enemy AA fire was nil.

On the Western Front, at last, all was quiet.