Nader Shah I

Painting of Nader Shah, he was Shah of Iran from 1736 to 1747, he created the Afsharid dynasty which was an Iranian empire of Turkic origin.

By this time a young warlord called Nader Qoli, from the old Afshar Qezelbash tribe, had risen from obscure beginnings through the chaos and disorder of the times to become a local power in the province of Khorasan in the north-east. Contemporaries described him as tall and handsome, with intelligent dark eyes; he was ruthless with his enemies, but magnanimous to those who submitted, and capable of charming those he needed to impress, when necessary. He was energetic and always happiest in the saddle; a fine horseman who loved horses. He had a prodigiously loud voice (he was once credited with putting an army of rebels to flight by the sound of his voice alone—until the rebels heard him giving orders for the attack, they believed they were only confronting a subordinate).6 The Safavid cause regained some impetus in the autumn of 1726 when this stentorian commander joined forces with Tahmasp (the son of Shah Sultan Hosein, who been named Shah by his supporters but had been chased up and down northern Iran by the Afghans and Ottomans) and reconquered Mashhad, the capital of Khorasan. In recognition of his services, Tahmasp named Nader Tahmasp Qoli Khan, which means ‘the slave of Tahmasp’. It was an honour to be given the name of royalty in this way, but Tahmasp Qoli Khan was to prove an over-mighty servant. By contrast with Nader, Tahmasp combined the faults of his father and grandfather; he was an ineffectual, lazy, vindictive alcoholic. The usual upbringing had taken its usual effect. One of Tahmasp’s courtiers commented at this time that he would never make a success of his reign because he was always drunk and no-one was in a position to correct him.7 After consolidating his position by making a punitive campaign to cow the Abdali Afghans of Herat, and having established his dominance at Tahmasp’s court, by the autumn of 1729 Nader was finally ready to attack the Afghan forces that were occupying Isfahan. An eyewitness account from this time, from the Greek merchant and traveller Basile Vatatzes, gives a vivid impression of the daily exercises Nader had imposed on the army, to prepare them for battle. We know that he made these routine for his troops throughout his career, but no other source describes the exercises in such detail.

Vatatzes wrote that Nader would enter the exercise area on his horse, and would nod in greeting to his officers. He would halt his horse and sit silently for some time, examining the assembled troops. Finally he would turn to the officers and ask what battle formations or weapons the troops would practise with that day. Then the exercises would begin:

And they would attack from various positions, and they would do wheels and counter-wheels, and close up formation, and charges, and disperse formation, and then close up again on the same spot; and flights; and in these flights they would make counterattacks, quickly rallying together the dispersed troops… And they exercised all sorts of military manoeuvres on horseback, and they would use real weapons, but with great care so as not to wound their companions.

As well as practising movement in formation, the horsemen also showed their skill with individual weapons: lance, sword, shield and bow. As a target for their arrows a glass ball was put at the top of a pole, and the men would ride toward it at the gallop, and try to hit it. Few could, but when Nader performed the exercise he would gallop along, opening and closing his arms like wings as he handled the bow and the quiver, and hit the target two or three times in three or four attempts, looking ‘like an eagle’. The cavalry exercises lasted three hours. The infantry also exercised together:

the infantry—I mean those that carried muskets—would get together in their own units and they would shoot their guns at a target and exercise continuously. If [Nader] saw an ordinary soldier consistently on top form he would promote him to be a leader of 100 men or a leader of 50 men. He encouraged all the soldiers toward bravery, ability and experience, and in simple words he himself gave an example of strong character and military virtue.

Vatatzes’ description dwells on cavalry manoeuvres and the display of individual weapon skills because these were dramatic, but his description of infantry training and the expenditure of costly powder and ball in exercises is significant, showing Nader’s concern to maximise the firepower of his troops, which was to prove crucial. This passage also makes plain the care he took with the selection of good officers, and their promotion by merit. For the army to act quickly, intelligently and flexibly under his orders, it was essential to have good officers to transmit them. Three hours a day of manoeuvres, over time, brought Nader’s men to a high standard of control and discipline, so that on the battlefield they moved and fought almost as extensions of his own mind. Vatatzes shows the way Nader impressed on the men what they had to do by personal example: a principle he followed in battle too. Training, firepower, discipline, control and personal example were part of the key to his success in war. Nader’s transformation of the army was already well advanced.

By the end of 1729 Nader’s army had defeated the Afghans in three battles, and had retaken Isfahan. Tahmasp was reinstalled in the old capital as Shah. But before Nader agreed to pursue the defeated Afghans, he forced Tahmasp to concede the right to collect taxes to support the army. The right to levy taxes enabled Nader to establish a state within the state, based on the army.

Nader duly finished off the remnants of the Afghan occupying force. He went on to throw the Ottoman Turks out of western Persia, before turning rapidly east to conquer Herat. In all these campaigns, his modernised forces, strong in gunpowder weapons, outclassed their opponents, showing themselves able to overcome the ferocity of the Afghan cavalry charges and the attacks of the provincial Ottoman troops. But while he was in Herat, he learned that Tahmasp, in his absence, had renewed the war with the Ottomans, had allowed himself to be defeated, and had then concluded a humiliating peace with the Ottomans. Nader issued a manifesto repudiating the treaty, and marched west. It is striking that he declared himself publicly in this way and sought popular support for his action—a modern moment which argues against those who deny the existence of any but local and dynastic loyalties in this period.

Arriving at length in Isfahan in the late summer of 1732, having prepared what was to come with typical care, Nader fooled Tahmasp into a false sense of security and got him drunk. He then displayed the Safavid Shah in this disreputable state to the Shi‘a courtiers and army officers. The assembled notables, prompted by Nader, declared Tahmasp unfit to rule, and elevated his infant son Abbas to the throne instead. Nader continued as generalissimo to this infant, and announced at the coronation his intention to ‘throw reins around the necks of the rulers of Kandahar, Bokhara, Delhi and Istanbul’ on his behalf. Those present may have thought this to be vain boasting, but events were to prove them wrong.

Nader’s first priority was to attack the Ottomans again and restore the traditional frontiers of Persia in the west and north. In his first campaign in Ottoman Iraq he met a setback; a powerful army including some of the best troops held centrally by the Ottoman state marched east to relieve Baghdad under an experienced commander. This was warfare of a different order to that Nader had experienced up to that time. He was overconfident, divided his army outside Baghdad in an attempt to prevent supplies getting through to the besieged city, and suffered a serious defeat. He withdrew, but within a few months, replacing lost men and equipment with a ruthless efficiency that caused much suffering among the hapless peasants and townspeople that had to pay for it, Nader renewed the Turkish war, and defeated the Ottoman forces near Kirkuk. Moving north, he then inflicted a devastating defeat on a new Ottoman army near Yerevan in June 1735. In the negotiations that followed a truce was agreed on the basis of the old frontiers that had existed before 1722, and the Ottomans withdrew. The Russians, who had made an alliance with Nader against the Ottomans, were satisfied with the performance of their ally and had already withdrawn from the Persian lands along the Caspian coast (their regiments having lost many men to disease in the humid climate of Gilan).

With the exception of Kandahar, Nader had now restored control over all the traditional territories of Safavid Persia. He decided the time was right to make himself Shah, and did so by means of an acclamation by all the great nobles, tribal chiefs and senior clerics of Persia at an assembly on the Moghan plain. There was little dissent; but the chief mullah was overheard to have spoken privately in favour of the continuation of Safavid rule, and was strangled. The infant Abbas was deposed, and the rule of the Safavid dynasty at last came to an end. It is noteworthy that despite Nader’s later reputation for tyrannical cruelty, and with the exception of the unfortunate chief mullah (whose execution carried its own political message), he achieved his rise to power almost without the use of political violence, unlike many of those who preceded him and came after him. He brought about the deposition of Tahmasp and the coronation at the Moghan not by assassination, but by careful preparation, propaganda, cunning manouevre and the presence of overbearing military force; above all by the prestige of his military successes.

Some other significant events occurred at the Moghan. Nader made it a condition of his acceptance of the throne that the Persian people accepted the cessation of Shi‘a practices offensive to Sunni Muslims (especially the ritual cursing of the first three caliphs). Nader’s religious policy served a variety of purposes. The reorientation toward Sunnism helped to reinforce the loyalty of the large Sunni contingent in his army, which he had built up in order to avoid too great a dependence on the traditionalist Shi‘a element, who tended to be pro-Safavid. But the new policy was not aggressively dogmatic. Religious minorities were treated with greater tolerance; he was generous to the Armenians, and his reign was regarded later by the Jews as one of relief from persecution9 (though minorities suffered as much as anyone else from his violent oppression and heavy taxation, especially in later years). The religious policy made it easier for Nader to make a grab for the endowments of Shi‘a mosques and shrines, an important extra source of cash to pay his troops. Within Persia, Nader sought only to amend religious practices—not to impose Sunnism wholesale. But outside Persia he presented himself and the country as converts to Sunnism—which enabled Nader to set himself up as a potential rival to the Ottoman Sultan for supremacy over Islam as a whole, something that would have been impossible if he and his state had remained orthodox Shi‘a.

The religious policy also served to distinguish Nader’s regime and its principles from those of the Safavids. He did this in other ways too, notably with his policy toward minorities, and by giving his sons governorships rather than penning them up in the harem. He also showed moderation in the size of his harem, and issued decrees forbidding the abduction of women, which again was probably directed, at least in part, at pointing up the contrast between his rule and that of the last Safavids.

Crowned Shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastwards to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul Empires, took Kabul and marched on towards Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul Emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which proved vulnerable to firearms and liable to run wild and uncontrollable, to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated 30,000 people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

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Jacobite military efforts in the aftermath of William’s victory in Ireland in 1691

Royal Ecossais at Culloden Moor – the one last epic stand.

The preparation of the Scottish regiment at Lille was designed to assist James’s invasion of Britain in the summer campaigning season of 1692. However, on 3 October 1691, William III had signed the Treaty of Limerick, marking the formal end of the conflict in Ireland. Louis XIV had given up on Jacobite resistance in Ireland even earlier: he had agreed to send only enough supplies to keep the war going as a diversion—which probably accounts for the lack of interest in, and respect for, the efforts of the recruiters at Lille.

King James still believed he could strike out at William in Flanders, where the prince would be busy directing his British and Dutch regiments. Theoretically, James had at his disposal over 12,000 Irish soldiers billeted in Brittany, as well as the English and Scottish volunteers at Lille. However, he had lost effective control of the Irish who were receiving their orders as part of the French Army. William’s forces in Britain, fearing another Jacobite attempt in 1692, stationed 10,000 men in a forty-mile radius of Portsmouth and had a further 4,000 infantry on stand-by in Flanders. Louis XIV considerably harassed the forces of William in the Low Countries, where the prince lost the fortress of Namur to the French in the same year. The success of this operation was keenly hoped for by a number of highly placed British officers who served King William. Some of them colluded actively with James for his restoration: the most prominent of them was Lord Churchill, who may, in January 1692, have betrayed to the French the planned English invasion of Dunkirk.

Churchill’s duplicity marks the commonest flaw of James’s support base in the years immediately after the ‘Glorious Revolution’, whose signature was irresolute conduct caused by the consistent failure to co-ordinate the different sources of Jacobite resistance. However the activities of the recruiters at Lille demonstrate the deep divisions which existed among the soldiers who owed William allegiance and whom he could send to Flanders to continue his war against Louis XIV. Despite many promises, the fact that less than two hundred defectors could be gathered at Lille between 1690 and 1691, can be attributed to the confused or divided loyalty of many of James’s former subjects combined with the strong policing activities of William’s few loyal officers.

Many British soldiers felt that William’s treatment of James was scandalous and were militant enough to express their disapproval through desertion, but few subalterns (and far fewer rank-and-file soldiers) acted on this feeling. The majority of the soldiers who went out of their way to aid James came from Dumbarton’s old regiment. This was due to three factors: first, the long history of that regiment in supporting the Stuart Crown; second, the unit’s association with Roman Catholicism, in the person of its commander, and French service; and, third, the deeply conservative social and political philosophy of its Scottish officer corps. All three of these factors were present in the beliefs and actions of the recruiters at Lille, and they account for the fact that the majority of the deserters they procured were experienced Scottish officers from regiments with a strongly conservative and loyalist character. Some of these recruits were Roman Catholic, but whether Catholic or not, they were all outraged by what they saw as the outlandish and scandalous treatment of their anointed king.

Significantly, the Jacobite army at Lille represents the last attempt to form a Scottish unit (with a sizeable Scottish component at rank-and-file level) abroad. No distinctly Scottish regiments served abroad after 1688 that were not (in some way) attached to a larger British Army. In this way it is perfectly true to say that William’s ascendancy in Britain marks the end of the tradition of private Scottish military service in foreign parts. Certainly, individual Scottish soldiers continued to serve abroad throughout the eighteenth century, not least because many of them espoused the cause of the ‘king over the water’, as King James and his successors were called. Many, however, did so for exactly those reasons that were common to earlier soldiers, including the quest for honour and profit: but none commanded regiments of their compatriots. The one exception might be the Scottish officers of the Anglo-Dutch Brigade, which survived in the United Provinces into the eighteenth century. However, the records of this unit suggest that, after 1700, few of the rank-and-file members of the regiments were Scots and the close Anglo-Dutch co-operation of the 1690s makes the ‘foreign’ status of the unit questionable. Therefore, if a trend away from independent units towards state-funded and standing forces is to be seen in this period, its culmination came directly from the interventionist political circumstances surrounding the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and the wars of the Grand Alliance (1689–97). It did not come from what might be called ‘natural’ or ‘evolutionary’ developments fostered by, among other things, changes in military technology.

China: Warlords, regionalism, and national unity, regional devolution

Wu Pei-fu, the ‘Jade Marshal’ or ‘Scholar Warlord’, was the dominant commander in the Chihli Clique throughout the early and mid-1920s. Wu was probably the best field general during the Warlord Period, but politically he was relatively naive, and was betrayed on several occasions.

Wu Peifu mediate a peace with Zhang Zuolin.

CHIHLI CLIQUE ARMY, 1920-25

C1: Trooper, 2nd Cavalry, 8th Division, 1923

This cavalryman mounted on a Mongolian pony has a padded cotton jacket and trousers worn with a pair of fur-lined boots, and his peaked cap has sewn-in ear flaps. He has been lucky to receive a pair of motoring goggles, as used by several warlord armies to protect the eyes from dust on the march. The orange armband has the Chinese character for his commander’s surname, ‘Wang’, stencilled In black. In the service of the ‘Jade Marshal’, Wu Pel-fu, General Wang Ju-ch’un commanded the 9,000-strong 8th Division in Hupeh province in 1923. The trooper is armed with a 6.5mm Mannlicher Carcano 91TS carbine, probably imported by Wu Pei-fu as part of a $5.6 million supply shipment negotiated with an Italian arms dealer in 1922. He also has a sword, based on the rna-tao sabre of medieval China; these were used at various times during the early 20th century, and special units of Nationalist troops armed with them fought the Japanese in Jehol province as late as 1933. Some cavalry also used the da-dao fighting sword, but this longer-bladed weapon was more suitable for slashing at the enemy from horseback.

C2: Military courier, 3rd Division, 1924

This boy, aged about 12, is one of those taken out of the officer training school set up by the Chihli Clique leader Wu Pei-fu to help with his army’s communications. During the 1924 campaign Wu was desperately short of reliable troops, and took the officer cadets from their academy to release other men for the front line. Although Wu had a reputation as a relatively humane commander this sacrifice of his army’s future officers would not have worried him unduly; he was reported at the time to have 30,000 boy soldiers in his army, who were all orphans of soldiers killed in previous battles. The boy is wearing the same grey cotton uniform as his adult comrades and has a leather despatch case to carry his messages. For self-protection he has been given an Italian 10.35mm Glisenti M1889 revolver.

C3: Infantryman, 11th Division, 1922

This soldier is about to leave for the front during the fighting against the Fengtien Army of Chang Tso-Iin in 1922; at this stage his grey cotton uniform is still in good condition, but it will soon show wear-and-tear. His infantry-red collar patches indicate, in Roman numerals on his left, his division; his right patch would show his personal details in Chinese characters, such as his number within his unit. This complicated system of identification was occasionally seen, but the exact protocol varied from region to region. His rank of private first class is shown by the stars on the shoulders of his tunic, but again, shortages meant that many soldiers lacked rank insignia. The red armband was described by Edna Lee Booker, a correspondent who saw Wu Pei-fu’s troops leaving for the war. The infantryman is well equipped, with a Japanese backpack and other accoutrements including ammunition pouches designed to carry clips for the Japanese Arisaka rifle, although this soldier is in fact armed with the common Mauser M1888 or a local copy. Booker also described the paraphernalia carried by the troops fastened to their packs; in this case the soldier has a teapot, but others are described as carrying trench picks, shovels, oiled-paper umbrellas, hot water bottles, lanterns and alarm clocks. 

C4: Sergeant, ‘Big Sword Corps’, 1924

This NCO belongs to an elite unit of Wu Pei-fu’s army. The ‘Big Sword Corps’ acted as a bodyguard for their commander and were responsible for keeping order, when necessary beheading officers and men who had failed in their duties. (During the fighting against Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA in 1927, Wu had to send this elite corps into battle to try to stem their advance.) As with most soldiers responsible for discipline in Chinese armies, the men of this unit were picked for their stature and strength – the big executioner’s sword needed a pretty strong man to wield it efficiently. The rank of chung-shih is indicated by the stripe and two stars on the shoulder straps, and he has collar patches in the pink of the military police. The red armband with a central yellow disc is one of several types recorded as being worn by warlord troops at the time. Besides the sword – which was not really intended for combat use – he is armed with a Mauser M1896 automatic pistol with a wooden holster-stock, and he has spare clips in the leather pouches at his waist. 

After the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916 unified military rule from Peking gave way to disseminated military rule. Within a few months the country was divided into a great number of what were known then as satraps, none of them stable or lasting, all based on regional ties, all dominated by warlords. China had become, as Sun Yat-sen had predicted it would, a sheet of shifting sand. Though there continued to be national governments in Peking they wielded very little power, and came and went with bewildering frequency.

China is a vast and diverse country. The regional diversity is expressed in dialects, often mutually unintelligible, in cuisine, in traditions and customs – and in identity. Before there was an empire there were many independent states, whose names survive in the alternative names of provinces (QiLu/Shandong, ShuBa/Sichuan, Yue/Guangdong).

In the many periods of disunity since the founding of the first state in the third century BC, regional power holding always emerged to fill the void left by a collapse at the center. The process of devolution and fragmentation was one that China knew well. The most famous period of disunity came after the end of the Han dynasty, when China was divided into three. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), an immensely popular novel written more than 1,000 years after the events it described (and almost certainly apocryphal), told of the anguish of division and civil war through a string of stories of courage, treachery, and intrigue. The stories were known to every Chinese, whether educated or not; they appeared as opera plots, as oral stories, and in cartoons. Disunity was as inevitable as unity, said the Three Kingdoms stories. Some people behaved badly in times of troubles, others came into their own – but the evil men often won; the most evil of all, Cao Cao, triumphed over the greatest strategist, Zhuge Liang, a man of brilliance and humanity.

It may seem a stretch to use a novel as a guide to understanding reactions to disunity and uncertainty – but the mentality portrayed in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms had a formative influence on young men of the early Republic, men such as Mao Zedong, who had all read the novel as boys. Theirs was a Three Kingdoms reaction to disunity: think things through carefully, devise stratagems, and know that the solutions will require force as well as intelligence. The answer was to combine Zhuge Liang’s brilliance with Cao Cao’s ruthlessness.

Warlords and their armies

The rise of regionalism and regional identities had been encouraged by the disappearance of universal examinations in 1905, and by the loss of the law of avoidance. After 1916 the center’s ability to make appointments at the provincial level disappeared, and regional rulers came to power, often soldiers, who called themselves military administrators (dujun); other people called them warlords.

These men saw disunity as opportunity for their particular regions. The negative reactions to warlordism in the civilian world reflected the fear of chaos, of the country falling apart – the fear that had haunted China’s rulers since the beginning of the empire. This fear lived in the metropolitan world of the emperors and the bureaucrats. It was not shared by warlords, men who focused on one region only, nor by many of the people whose lives they controlled, whose horizons did not extend beyond a region and its culture.

In the civilian elite’s stereotype, a warlord was a deceitful, devious, illiterate man, sunk in backward patterns of behaviour, uncouth and filthy. Zhang Zongchang, the “Dog-Meat General,” who ruled Shandong for many years, fitted the stereotype. He was uneducated, a bandit by origin, loud-mouthed, cruel. His proudest “possession” was his large harem, in which there were women from China, Japan, Russia, and western Europe. He lived by violence, he lost his power by violence, and he died violently (after he had lost power), shot at the station of his former capital, Jinan.

Few warlords were as awful as Zhang. Some were progressive figures, complex men who blended self-interest with a genuine interest in the future of China. The most famous of this type was Feng Yuxiang, a mass of contradictions, blunt and devious, a personal power seeker and devout nationalist.

Other warlords were local strongmen who looked after their own regions, and in some cases gave them the most secure and stable periods of rule they were to know in many decades. In Shanxi, Yan Xishan, who ruled the province for more than three decades, is remembered as a model ruler; in Guangdong, Chen Jitang, who controlled the province for most of the 1930s, is considered a local hero; in Guangxi, the rulers of the province from 1925 to 1949, the “Guangxi Clique,” are revered for their martial spirit, which gave the province the name of “China’s Sparta.”

Tuzi buchi wobian cao. “The rabbit doesn’t eat the grass beside its nest.” Source: traditional

The better warlords understood the old proverb about a rabbit not eating the grass beside its own burrow, and they tended to show concern for the people of the region they controlled. They provided stable government, which, even though it came with tax swindling and rampant corruption, was preferable to chaos or anarchy. Tax income stayed in the region – except for the amounts that warlords salted away in Tianjin, Shanghai, or Hong Kong (cities under foreign control) – for the time when their rule came to an end.

The men referred to as “petty warlords” did the most damage to Chinese society. They really were bandits, uncouth and crude. They exploited and vandalized the regions they controlled. Their rule was often short. When they were overthrown by other warlords they went back to banditry or joined local militias.

The number of men under arms expanded dramatically in the early Republic. By the early 1920s there were at least 1.5 million soldiers, and an equally large number of armed men not serving in formal military units – irregulars, militiamen, bodyguards, and bandits. There was a two-way traffic between the organized and the informal armed worlds.

Warlordism had a strongly inhibiting effect on one aspect of Chinese society where there might otherwise have been change. The emancipation of women, which had just begun in China’s cities, was impossible in areas under indifferent or bad warlord control. Girls had to be protected by their families from the unthinkable – rape – and so many of them lived cloistered lives at home.

The warlord system provided immense numbers of jobs – either directly, as soldiers, or indirectly, in the manufacturing and service industries that catered to the military. The continuing growth of China’s population facilitated the expansion of the military. As the population grew, employment opportunities did not. Most of the jobs in the new factories were for young women. There were more and more young men in the rural areas for whom there was no work. A few could emigrate – to Manchuria, Southeast Asia or North America – but the closed nature of migration flows limited this solution to a few regions of China, all of them coastal.

Young men from regions with no established migration chains had only a few opportunities for off-farm employment – peddling, moving to the city, or going into the military.

Warlord finances

The foreign banks, like the concessions, contribute largely to the amenity of Chinese civil war and political strife. Once loot is turned into money and deposited with them by the looter, it is sacred and beyond public recovery. Cases have been known in which generals, far from expecting interest on their deposits, have been eager to pay the banks a small percentage for the privilege of being allowed thus to cache their gain. At a town up the Yangtze [Yangzi], a Chinese military commander visited the American- Oriental Bank and said that he wished to deposit with them, instead of in his own headquarters, what he politely called his records, and left thirty large trunks with the bank. He was presently defeated, and the bank manager was a little disturbed as to what he should do if the incoming conqueror were to demand that these records be handed over. But the in-coming conqueror felt equally insecure, and was more concerned to get his own records safely in to the bank than to obtain those of his enemy. Another huge batch of trunks was brought in, and the bank manager, much relieved, had both sets of trunks piled one beside the other.

Arthur Ransome, The Chinese Puzzle (London: Allen and Unwin, 1927), pp. 123–4.

Warfare After Waterloo-European Peace I


It ultimately took the other European powers no fewer than seven coalitions and almost 25 years of virtually uninterrupted warfare to contain and defeat the threat posed by, first, Revolutionary and, then, Napoleonic France. Conflict on this scale had immense ramifications, only a few illustrations of which must suffice here. In France alone, it claimed the lives of around 38 per cent of the male generation born between 1790 and 1795; this is some 14 per cent higher than the mortality rate among the generation of 1891-95, the foremost victims of the carnage of the First World War. There were few families that had not had at least one male member killed or wounded, many of the latter being horribly maimed, if not by the weapon that had struck them, then by the crude, radical surgery – notably amputation – that was habitually resorted to as the only way of saving the lives of the badly injured. In looking for partners, many women were obliged to redefine their notions of male beauty.

Britain’s maritime, commercial and industrial power had reached new heights, very largely because of the protection against invasion that her insular nature had afforded her. By contrast, many of Europe’s largest towns and cities, including Saragossa, Hamburg and Moscow, had been ravaged, while innumerable smaller settlements had been expunged completely. Indeed, enormous tracts of countryside, such as the Elbe valley, the focus of the final struggle for Germany, had been devastated, either by actual fighting or by the mere presence of armies of unprecedented size. Creating these had required commensurable efforts on the part of the belligerents and had led to appreciable political upheaval. This included the demise of several polities and dynasties and the fatal weakening of others. Feudal and other reforms had, however, benefited the aristocracy more often than not, while Europe’s growing bourgeoisie aspired to join the ruling classes rather than overthrow them. As always, war had brought out the best and worst in people. Scores of thousands of human beings had been transformed by their experiences on and around the battlefields, while millions more had been touched by the wider impact of a conflict that was more total than anything that had gone before: trade patterns, labour markets, investment, commerce, industry and agriculture had all been affected, though neither uniformly nor always adversely. Many people had lost everything – their homes, property, livelihoods, family. Yet, if law, order and normal life had collapsed in many areas, elsewhere it had survived almost unscathed; poverty and its symptoms, such as prostitution, were more evident in many places, whereas others enjoyed unparalleled prosperity; while the war-weariness, defeatism, bitterness, disillusionment and despair of some was juxtaposed with the triumphalism, optimism and addiction to `la gloire’ evinced by others.

The more decisive a conflict is, the longer the ensuing peace is likely to prove. However, much also depends upon the quality of that peace. Endorsed in 1814, the First Treaty of Paris granted France far more lenient terms than she had any right to expect, but the immense problems created or exacerbated by the war swiftly overwhelmed the restored Bourbons who had inherited them. Scarcely liked to begin with, Louis XVIII could neither satisfy his subjects’ aspirations at home nor reconcile their perception of France’s position in the new European order with the realities of her situation. For too many people, it was just too tempting to conclude that she had been humiliated and subjected to an unjust peace, which had included the imposition of a maladroit, anachronistic regime.

Napoleon attempted to exploit this discontent by making one last bid for power. Having escaped from exile on Elba, in March 1815 he marched on Paris at the head of his bodyguard. It proved an essentially bloodless revolution. Troops sent against `le petit caporal’ rallied to his cause, and the Bourbons fled. The Allied powers, however, convinced that they could never secure an enduring peace with the `Corsican Ogre’, promptly formed the Seventh Coalition and prepared to invade France. Napoleon, proclaimed emperor once more, responded with a pre-emptive blow against the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies in the Low Countries, but, after some initial success, was given a dose of his own strategic medicine and heavily defeated at Waterloo.

Abdicating a second time, he was exiled to the remote island of St Helena, where he was to die six years later. Although his last great adventure had lasted just 100 days, the Allies’ victory could do no more than limit the extent of the upheaval provoked by his coup d’état. At the very least, Napoleon’s gamble had compromised any hope of national reconciliation, and the French were soon in the grip of the `White Terror’. This included attempts to purge the army. Marshals Brune and Ney met their ends at the hands of a royalist mob and a firing squad, respectively, while Grouchy, Soult, Davout and Suchet were all banished or otherwise disgraced. Leading generals who had rallied to the Bonapartist cause also suffered, notably Vandamme, who was exiled, and Drouet d’Erlon, who, proscribed and condemned to death in his absence, fled abroad. Traces of Revolutionary and Imperial influence were eradicated or reduced by other means, too. A Royal decree of August 1815 formally disbanded the army to facilitate its reconstruction. Conscription was suspended and was to remain so until 1818, when Gouvion Saint-Cyr – a Napoleonic marshal who had turned a blind eye to his former master’s return in 1815 and was subsequently rewarded with the post of war minister by the Bourbons – introduced the `Appel’, which required men to register for military service; 40 000 were then selected by ballot, with the customary exemptions being granted to the eligible. Between 1815 and the inauguration of this system, many personnel were demobilized and the remainder reshuffled, while the Napoleonic architecture of corps and divisions was demolished. Even the established regiments did not survive: whereas the infanterie légere all but disappeared, the ligne was reorganized into `legions’, each of which comprised several battalions supported by cavalry and artillery detachments. Besides being relieved of the eagles and tricolours that had been restored to them during the `100 Days’, all units also lost their identifying numbers and were instead given departmental or regional titles. As a final political precaution, moreover, legions were raised in one district and garrisoned in another.

Needless to say, Napoleon’s 1815 coup did nothing to diminish the Allies’ fears and suspicions of France and, although the Second Treaty of Paris duplicated the first in so far that it paved the way for her to rejoin the concert of great powers as an equal partner, it was inevitably more punitive. If only in a bid to prevent any recidivism, the French were saddled with a war indemnity amounting to 700 million Francs as well as an army of occupation. Enormous though this force was, the need for the bulk of the Allies’ military machine seemed to have passed. Much of it was promptly dismantled. Nevertheless, most states preserved some mechanism by means of which they could quickly supplement their martial strength, should that prove necessary. For instance, anxious to preserve Britain’s maritime security and power, and mindful that most of the lengthy period required to build a sailing vessel was needed for the construction of the hull and superstructure, the Royal Navy had warships built without masts and rigging. Their upper decks covered with a protective roof, these vessels were then laid up in river estuaries or harbours. In the event of an emergency, the roof could be removed and the ship completed in a matter of days or weeks.

By contrast, the emphasis in most other European states was on land warfare. This was especially so of Prussia. Her geostrategic position was a vulnerable one and, in 1806, her partial, slow and ineffectual mobilization had contributed to a débacle that had brought her to the very brink of annihilation. In precipitating reform, however, military defeats often prove to be better catalysts than victories. After the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia maintained and refined the conscription laws she had first devised for the Befreiungskrieg. These required all able-bodied men of 20 to serve for three years with the colours and two years with the reserves. For a further 14 years thereafter, they were liable for duty with the Landwehr, a discrete, territorial service. Besides yielding a sizeable standing army, this approach gave Prussia a large pool of trained manpower that she could tap to flesh out embryonic Armeekorps. Raised on a provincial basis, their composition was fixed at one cavalry and two infantry divisions, together with artillery, cavalry and engineering units.

The coming of new forms of transport that promised to speed up the tempo of military operations both facilitated the timely activation and concentration of armed forces and accentuated the importance of such capabilities. Indeed, over the next few decades, the utilization of the steam engine in this regard was a major factor in the erosion of the technological consistency that had prevailed in military affairs since Marlborough’s time. Railways offered comparatively rapid, inexpensive transport and communication. One authority has estimated that they reduced haulage costs per kilometre by between 80 and 85 per cent. They helped create integrated internal markets, accelerated the growth of towns and, like other machines, changed the relationship between humankind and its tools. Even people’s concepts of time were transformed. Once related to the natural and essentially local world – the rising and setting of the sun, the turning of the seasons, the varying speed of travel achievable by horse or on foot – time now became an absolute. Trains could move with a regularity and predictability that the horsedrawn mail coaches could not match. The very notion of timetables demanded the synchronization of time.

No nineteenth-century French administration did more to stimulate industrialization than l’empire autoritaire. Combining Bonapartist militarism with economic dirigisme, it promoted railroad expansion with capital that was raised from small investors and channelled through the Crédit Mobilier bank. Before 1851, the French railway system essentially comprised several spokes which, radiating from Paris, rather neglected the manufacturing centres. Thereafter, its growth, by network and region alike, boosted employment, agriculture and the iron, steel and coal industries especially, while improving access to emerging markets in North Africa and the Middle East through the gateway of Marseille.

However, Germany and the USA were the principal beneficiaries of rail construction in the period 1850-70. More will be said about the latter country elsewhere, but, between 1855 and 1859, rail construction absorbed all of 19.7 per cent of the former’s total investment. 5 Although, again, laissez faire attitudes prevailed, there was appreciably more control of the development of the network in the German states, particularly in Hanover and Baden, than in France or Britain. From 1842 onwards, the Prussian authorities also sought to foster railroad construction by guaranteeing interest repayments for those entrepreneurs willing to invest in such ventures.

The relative utility of fortresses had been in decline for some time. Whereas, during the 1700s, they had frequently acted as the very foundations of the supply networks within which armies moved, making sieges a common occurrence, the manoeuvre warfare emphasized by Napoleon had relegated them to a secondary role. Apart from in the Iberian and Italian Peninsulas, where large areas of barren, difficult terrain constrained the movement and concentration of armies, not least by limiting their scope for living off the land, fortresses proved of limited value during the Napoleonic Wars except as hinges for mobile forces. In fact, leaving aside the campaigns in Spain, Portugal and Calabria, major sieges were almost unheard of. Danzig had the dubious distinction of enduring two, in 1807 and 1813, while Hamburg, Magdeburg, Torgau and several other strongholds in Germany were also besieged during the course of the Befreiungskrieg. Even many of these cases occurred as much by accident as design, however, and did not involve elaborate siege operations; as the French were rolled back towards the Rhine, the garrisons of these places found themselves cut off from Napoleon’s main army and, encircled by enemy troops, were mostly beaten into submission, not by sapping, bombardment and assault, but by demoralization, starvation and disease.

If the value of fortresses was not what it once had been, the utility of railways was rapidly becoming apparent. Barely had Britain’s Manchester to Liverpool line opened in 1830 than it was used to move a regiment of infantry; in two hours, they covered a distance that they could not have marched in under two days. The Austrians, too, were quick to exploit the strategic flexibility bestowed by trains. In 1851, at a time of tension with Prussia, they employed them to reinforce their Bohemian garrisons at speed; they moved all of 14 500 personnel, 8000 horses, 48 guns and 464 wagons some 300 kilometres in just two days. Similarly, during the Franco-Austrian War eight years later, the French were to transport a total of 604 000 personnel and 129 000 horses within a period of 86 days.

A German ammunition train – Franco-Prussian War.

Where available, trains greatly simplified the movement of armies. Providing they had sufficient coal and water, these machines, like ships, could keep going round the clock; they merely needed an occasional change of crew. Travelling by train at night or in poor weather posed far fewer problems than movement by road did at such times, and, spared gruelling, lengthy marches, units arrived at their destination, not only far faster, but fresher and with fewer losses, too. Railways were also capable of carrying a variety of loads, from troops to guns, foodstuffs and munitions. They enabled forces to be succoured from afar, though the difficulty of distributing supplies from the railhead to units in the field – units that might themselves be on the move – remained and was not always overcome with complete success, as French experience in their struggle with Austria in 1859 attests. Although, for the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, the British and French reduced their need for pack animals and horse-drawn vehicles by constructing a railway between the port of Balaklava and their positions on the Saboun Hills, some ten kilometres away and 400 metres above sea-level, they could not eliminate it. Whilst this line enabled the allies to move matériel – notably ammunition for their heavy artillery, which, in all, devoured over 250 000 rounds – at a rate of up to 200 tonnes per day, then, as now, continuous supply required a continuous transport `loop’.

Napoleon Prepares for 1812 Invasion of Russia I

As early as at his last frustrating meeting with Alexander, at Erfurt four years earlier, Napoleon’s more intuitive self had been warned of the true state of their apparently cordial relationship. On a raft moored in the middle of the Niemen at Tilsit, each had tried to out-charm the other – and Napoleon, undoubtedly, had come off best. But by 1810, privily encouraged by Talleyrand’s murmurs that ‘the giant has feet of clay’, it had been the Tsar who’d begun to call the tune. And one night Napoleon’s First Valet Constant Wairy, asleep as usual in the next room, had been awakened by ‘dull and plaintive cries, as of someone being strangled’. Jumping out of bed, ‘with such precautions as my alarm permitted’ he’d opened the door:

Going over to the bed, I saw His Majesty lying across it in a convulsive posture, his sheets and bedcover thrown off and all his person in a terrible state of nervous constriction. Inarticulate sounds were coming from his open mouth, his chest seemed deeply oppressed, and he was pressing one fist against the hollow of his stomach. Terrified to see him like this, I speak to him. When he doesn’t reply, I shake him lightly. At this the Emperor wakes up with a loud cry and says: “What is it? What is it?” [And then, interrupting Constant’s apologies] “You’ve done quite right, my dear Constant. Ah! my friend, what a horrible nightmare! A bear was ripping open my chest and tearing my heart out.” Whereupon the Emperor got up and walked to and fro in the room while I was rearranging his bedclothes. He was obliged to change his shirt, the one he had on being drenched in sweat. The memory of this dream followed him a very long while. He often spoke of it, each time trying to extract different deductions from it and relate it to circumstances.’

That Napoleon has forseen the coming campaign’s exceptional difficulties, at least in part, there is no question. None of his others have called for such meticulous planning. Or for so huge a mobilization of men and resources. ‘Without transport,’ he’d written in 1811 to his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy, ‘all is useless’. And as early as June that year his ‘geometrical mind’ had begun wrestling with the problem.

Unprecedented mobility had always been a condition of Napoleonic blitzkrieg. And therefore the French armies had always lived off the rich lands they had conquered. But the far north was a different matter, as Sergeant Jean-Roch Coignet, the 2nd Guard Grenadiers’ little drill instructor, all too vividly remembers. In Poland’s sandy quagmires in 1806

we’d had to tie on our shoes with string under the insteps. Sometimes, when the bits of string broke and our shoes got left behind in the mud, we had to take hold of our hind leg and pull it out like a carrot, lift it forward, and then go back and look for the other one. The same manoeuvre over and over, for two days on end.’

Neither were Lithuanian roads – insofar as they existed – like western European ones. ‘In this part of the world,’ the Prussian lieutenant H.A. Vossler of Prince Louis’ Hussars will soon be discovering, ‘all heavy transportation normally goes by sledge in winter. Roads aren’t as important as in more southerly climes.’

Although the French army has a Supply Train, it consists of only 3,500 men and 891 vehicles, certainly not enough to maintain an invasion force of at least a third of a million men. For that’s what’s in question. One day, taking aside his War Minister Clarke on the terraces of St-Cloud, Napoleon had confided to him: ‘I’m planning a great expedition. The men I shall get easily enough. The difficulty is to prepare transport.’

Huge quantities of rice, flour and biscuit will have to be assembled and paid for. Well there’s gold and enough for that! The gold millions extorted from Prussia as reparations for her attack on him in 1806 and, in 1805 and 1810, from Austria, are lying in the Tuileries cellars, to which only Napoleon himself and his infinitely hard-working, enormously capable Intendant-General Pierre Daru have keys. By March 1812 he’s hoping to have 270,000 quintals of wheat, 12,000 of rice, 2,000,000 bushels of oats, equivalent to 20 million rations of bread and rice – enough for 400,000 men and 50,000 horses for 50 days. Since armies are also apt to be thirsty and brandy is also needed for amputations, on 29 December he has already ordered the Minister of Administration of the Army to buy at Bordeaux ‘28 million bottles of wine, 2 million bottles of brandy’, i.e., 200 days’ rations of wine and 130 of brandy for 300,000 men.

But the transport question remains. On such terrain will the existing 1,500 large-wheeled battalion wagons, each drawn by eight horses and capable of carrying 10,000 rations, suffice to feed the army for 25 days, the time needed for his swift campaign? Although really too heavy, h’d at first assumed that they would. But next day he had thought the matter over. If such a wagon is

‘“loaded with biscuit, it has to be in barrels, otherwise the biscuit crumbles, and the men complain. Nor is it suitable for grain, flour, oats, bales of hay, or barrels of wine or brandy. So each battalion must keep its wagon for its normal needs. All others must be replaced by good carriers’ wagons with big wheels, each drawn by eight horses and driven by four men, or, if need be, by three,”

all of them, preferably, foreigners. On 4 July 1811, writing to the head of his supply corps, he’d come to the conclusion that a wholly new, much lighter kind of cart must also be invented, “normally designed to carry 4,000 rations, or if necessary 6,000, and driven by two men and four horses’. Since even these can’t be counted on to cope with the terrain at its worst, an even lighter type of cart must be designed, drawn by a single horse, used to walking nose to tail, “so that only one man will be needed for several carts”. Oxen, too, will be useful. Even when prodded on by conscripts not used to wielding a goad, they can at least eat grass by the wayside before themselves being eaten.

How long will the biggest army in the history of European warfare be able to sustain itself amid Lithuania’s conifer forests? Long enough, at least, Napoleon has calculated, to roll up and annihilate its enemy.

To defend their vast country the Russians, he knows, have two armies, plus a third, currently engaged fighting the Turks in Moldavia. The First West Army is commanded by Barclay de Tolly, a Lithuanian of Scottish descent who, remarkably, had once served in the ranks and who since the Friedland disaster, as Minister for War, has modernized the Russian army on French lines. It’s being concentrated around Vilna (Vilnius). The Second West Army, commanded by the fiery and temperamental Georgian Prince Bagration, is cantoned further south around Grodno, 75 miles further up the Niemen. By driving a wedge between Barclay and Bagration in a surprise attack of the kind he has so often launched before, Napoleon, with the reputation of his own invincibility and no fewer than ten army corps and three ‘reserve’ cavalry corps at his disposal, is planning to defeat them in detail. And if all goes well the campaign will indeed be over within a couple of weeks.

But how, on a given day in the summer of 1812, concentrate the Grand Army, with its 150,000 horses and 1,000 guns, on the banks of the Niemen – frontier between Poland and Russian Lithuania? That’s the immense logistic problem he has set himself. And on which day? Neither too early – summer comes late to the North and the corn must be ripe for fodder. Nor too late; with autumn coming on in mid-August that would be to risk the very winter campaign so feared by Colonel Ponthon. Midsummer Day should be about right.

All over Europe units are being reinforced. Regiments normally four battalions strong are being increased to five. In its Courbevoie barracks outside Paris the infantry regiments of the Imperial Guard – an entire crack army corps 50,000 strong – are being brought up to scratch. Two whole companies of oldsters, ‘only too happy to be assigned such pleasant duties’, are being weeded out from the 2nd Grenadiers and replaced by ‘superb men who keep arriving daily’ from the Line, for which Guard NCOs are in turn being trained to take commissions. While teaching a squad of officer cadets their new command duties Sergeant Coignet is having them teach him his ABC, while the adjutants-major train them in theory. Such is the system, and

Napoleon himself checked up on the results. For fifteen days a hundred men, presided over by the adjutants-major, were making up cartridges. To avoid any danger of an explosion they had to wear shoes without hobnails, taken off and inspected every two hours. We made up 100,000 packets. The moment this harvest was in – major manoeuvres in the plain of St-Denis, and reviews at the Tuileries, together with sizeable artillery parks, wagons and ambulances! The Emperor had them opened and himself climbed up on a wheel to make sure they were full.’

The regiments of the Young Guard, too, are hurriedly being brought up to strength. Its officers, taken from the Old Guard, will still draw their higher pay; but otherwise its regiments are really no different from those of the Line. Now it’s to consist of thirteen regiments of tirailleurs, thirteen of voltigeurs, one of fusilier-grenadiers, one of fusilier-chasseurs, one of flankers, one of éclaireurs, and one of national guards – ‘ten distinct denominations for infantry units armed in exactly the same way and all carrying the same model of standard-issue musket’. Paul de Bourgoing, a well-educated young lieutenant of the 5th Tirailleurs just back from fighting in Spain, is present as the new recruits come in,

‘fifteen hundred young men in blouses, waistcoats, village costumes, or citizens of various provinces of the vast French Empire, traipsing over the vast barrack square to the rattle of sixteen drums. The drummers had almost all been taken from the Pupils of the Guard [a regiment consisting wholly of soldiers’ sons]. Almost all were Dutchmen. Some, from Amsterdam and Frisia, were only fifteen. Great care had been taken not to let any one company contain too many nationals of any one country: “That won’t be good either for discipline or for warfare,” my major told me. “Shuffle them together like a pack of cards! Choose the twelve men who seem to have the thickest beards, or are likely to grow them. Above all, don’t take any blondes or redheads;

only men with black beards, whom you’ll place out in front.”’

Carrying axes and wearing tall bearskins and white leather aprons, these are to be sappers and march at the head of the regimental column:

So I passed these 1,500 two-year-old chins in review as swiftly as possible. Most were still beardless. Scarcely 25 or 30 of them were destined ever to see their maternal hearths again.’

On the Elbe, meanwhile, an Army of Observation, soon to become I Corps, is being drilled to a degree of efficiency ‘almost equalling the Imperial Guard’ under its fearsomely disciplinarian commander, Marshal Davout, Prince of Eckmühl. One of its strongest infantry regiments, the 85th Line, has spent the winter in the strongly fortified town of Glogau, ‘as in a besieged city’. Its 1st battalion’s portly 2nd major C.F.M. Le Roy6 is a staunch democrat who regards all blue-blooded persons with contempt, Napoleon as ‘an enterprising genius’ and the Russians as barbarians. After ‘deciding to be born in the midst of a nation execrated by all others’, he’d begun his military career ‘by chance’ as a conscript in 1795 but ‘continued it by taste’. During that winter of 1811/12 he has been amused to see how at the Grand Casino the wives of the local nobility, ‘without fear of besmirching their sixteen quarterings of nobility’ have been happy to gamble and dance with the young officers; and, not least, how ‘more than one felt an impulse to fall into [the] Line – and enjoyed doing so’.

In Southern Germany, too, the various principalities of the French-dominated Confederation of the Rhine are reluctantly supplying fresh contingents to General Vandamme’s VIII Corps. Meanwhile Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, Napoleon’s troublesome youngest brother, though destitute of military experience, is no less reluctantly preparing himself to assume overall command both of it, as well as Prince Poniatowski’s V (Polish) Corps and General Reynier’s Saxons (VII). None of these sacrifices, though unwelcome, are novel. In 1806 the little duchy of Saxe-Coburg had been overrun by the bluecoats; and only ten months have gone by since the kind-hearted Duchess Augusta was pained to see

the fragments of our poor little contingent return from Spain – eighteen men out of 250! Most of the losses haven’t been due to actual fighting, but mainly to disease, scarcity and neglect, added to the hardships caused by the Spanish climate. Half the town turned out to meet the survivors,’

she’d noted in her diary. Now she’s depressed to see a fresh contingent march out, this time northwards.

What is their destination? Coignet, in Paris, may not know; but all these tens of thousands of conscripted Germans certainly do. Writing home to his family for some pocket money for this new campaign, one of Davout’s corporals hears it’s going to be India, a country evidently populated by monkeys [‘aux Singes’ = aux Indes]. Which way? Via Russia, of course, whose emperor is, for the third time, to be ‘taught a lesson’.

Napoleon Prepares for 1812 Invasion of Russia II

This new Grand Army is certainly not only made up of willing soldiers. Far from it. All over Europe – even from faraway Naples where Napoleon’s glamorous brother-in-law Joachim Murat is putting his lazzaroni and released convicts into exceptionally colourful uniforms – all unmarried 18-year-olds who haven’t been able to afford to pay for a substitute to go and get killed for them and who’ve drawn the recruiting sergeant’s shortest straw – all, that is, who haven’t fled to the hills and become ‘bandits’ – are being accompanied to the outskirts of their towns or villages by weeping relatives who never expect to see them again. As usual, desertion en route for the depots is wholesale. Most of the reluctant peasants whom Lieutenant Heinrich von Brandt is seeing co-opted into the 2nd Vistula Regiment at Posen have never in their lives worn boots or slept in a bed and ‘only knew of white bread and coffee by hearsay’ and are having to be kept to the colours by a combination of good food and lodgings and, for deserters (‘almost all were caught’) 50 to 60 strokes of the cane on their backsides. After fetching a whole route-regiment of deserters from the He de Ré to Lübeck Joseph Guitard a tall chestnut-haired captain in Coignet’s regiment, is having to go back into Prussia and fetch another. The equivalent of a whole division of the Grand Army consists of such would-be deserters.

Napoleon, of course, knows perfectly well what he’s about, and whose interests he’s serving. The French nation’s of course. But who are the ‘nation’? The middle classes, of course, as opposed to le peuple, whom he one day boasts to Narbonne that he has “pacified by arming it”. Adding as a corollary: “In my hands war has become the antidote to anarchy.” As for the old aristocracy, those of them who’ve rallied to the cause of an upstart throne “borne up”, as Napoleon himself realized, “on the bayonets of the Imperial Guard, all sons of self-owning peasants”, some are really devoted to his cause, if not always, like Caulaincourt and Narbonne, to his policies. Others, perhaps most, are decidedly ambivalent: “A blue is always a blue, a white always a white,” he’ll ruefully tell his First Ordnance Officer Gaspard Gourgaud one day on St Helena.

Among aristocratic officers wholeheartedly devoted to his cause is General Count Philippe de Ségur. One day during the Consulate this son of a distinguished father, both bitter enemies of the Revolution, had been loitering outside the Tuileries gates in a state of such deep depression that he was contemplating suicide, when a troop of Chasseurs of the Consular Guard had come trotting out. On this scion of France’s ancient military caste the sight of their brilliant green and red uniforms and other accoutrements had had an effect only comparable to that of St Paul’s vision en route for Damascus. Throwing in his lot with the new Caesar, the young Philippe de Ségur had gone and joined up; and like his fellow aristocrat Montesquiou Fézensac had of course been swiftly promoted. After various exploits he is now an officer at Imperial Headquarters, where his special task as Assistant Prefect of the Palace is to supervise the pack mules which, on campaign, transport the imperial gold dinner service and other domestic chattels. If half of de Ségur’s mind is deep in military matters, the other is no less deep in classical literature; and it’s by no means impossible that he’s already contemplating a great historical work – not that either he or anyone else, in this spring of 1812, can envisage what it will be. Filled with what will turn out to be a passionate, if, in the event – in Gourgaud’s eyes – altogether too ambivalent admiration for his idol, he is already well aware that of all the allies being pressed into service in this gigantic expedition ‘only the Italians and Poles were really enthusiastic for our cause’.

Of none of the Grand Army’s officers is this truer than of a certain Elban officer, by name Césare de Laugier (or Loggia). Setting out from Milan in February with the rest of Prince Eugène’s IV Corps, the adjutant-major of the Guards of Honour of the Kingdom of Italy, each company of which comes from a different North Italian city and has a different-hued facing to its green-and-white uniform, has crossed the Alps and gone into cantonments in Southern Germany, where he’s sure the inhabitants ‘love’ them. Inside its new-fangled Grecian-style helmet, whose huge plumed and combed crest culminates in an agressively beaked, rapacious and gilded eagle’s head, Césare de Laugier’s head is full of notions of antique military exploits. Not a little naïve himself, he paints a touching picture of his compatriots’ mentality:

They know no other divinity than their sovereign. No other reason but force. No other passion but glory. All is levelled out in discipline and passive obedience, the soldier’s prime virtue. Ignorant of what’s in store for them, they’re so convinced of the justice of their cause that they never try to find out which country it is they’re being sent to. Having heard it said at each war’s commencement that they’re destined to deal the final blow to the Englishmen’s tottering power, they end up by confusing all existing powers with England. They assess the distance separating them from it by the number of marches they, for several years now, have been making from one side of Europe to the other, without ever reaching that country which, goal of all their efforts, vanishes before their eyes.’

Reviewed on 14 May on the esplanade at Glogau outside that town’s fortifications, the adjutant-major will write in his diary:

The whole of IV Corps is under arms. The Viceroy got here yesterday. The Royal Guard, occupying as of right the right of the front line, which is very long, finds itself situated in the town cemetery. Only the graves interrupt our regular alignment. Some superstitious minds are trying to extract a sinister presage from this circumstance, and are complaining of our being put here. The Roman legions would certainly have sacrificed to their gods to exorcize such sinister auguries.’

But evidently Prince Eugène, a somewhat stolid but very capable soldier, is above such fears; and, in an order of the day expressess his satisfaction with IV Corps’ turnout. Nothing could make the Guardia d’Onore’s adjutant-major feel more ecstatic.

All through the spring and early summer of 1812 Europe’s roads resound to the tramp of marching boots as no fewer than seven armies march northwards. Each division sets out after the one ahead of it at two-day intervals. With a distance of 100 paces (70m) between battalions, its regiments march ‘in two files sharing the road whose crown they leave free’. Halting for ‘five minutes in every hour and at three-quarters of the day’s march for half an hour’ and with a day’s rest every fifth, they tramp on northwards at an average speed of 25 miles a day. Every second day they pick up rations, provided along the route by Count Daru’s16 administration. ‘The step of the NCO who marches at the head of the regiment,’ explains that amusing raconteur Captain Elzéar Blaze (who is himself lucky enough not to be sent to Russia),

must be short and regular; for if the right advances at a regular pace, the left will have to gallop. The least obstacle on the road, even if it’s only a runnel to cross, and if the first man to encounter the obstacle pauses for even half a second, the men in the last battalion will have to run for a quarter of an hour to catch up. All this an experienced officer sees at a glance; orders a brief halt; and everything resumes its wonted course. After we’ve marched an hour there’s a five-minute halt, to light our pipes. This is known as la halte des pipes. The soldier must never be deprived of any of his pleasures. Everyone dines on what he has in his pack, and then off we go again, breaking each league with five-minute halts.’

Looking out of his window in Dresden, capital of the kingdom of Saxony, a nine-year-old boy, Wilhelm von Kügelgen, watches them go by:

The long dark columns of the Old Guard with their proud eagles, tall bearskins, and martial faces hovering like gloomy dream-pictures. The warlike sound of drums and pipes; then the ghostly figures of the pioneers with glinting axes and long black beards, and behind them the endless transport columns. Day after day they passed under our window, man by man, brigade after brigade. I saw almost all the arms of the Grand Army: the tall carabiniers with plumed helmets and gilded cuirasses; the light chasseurs, hussars, voltigeurs; all types of infantry and artillery with good horse-drawn vehicles. And, lastly, long columns of pontoon-bridging and other military equipment.’

It’s at Dresden, namely, that the new Charlemagne has ordered the kings and princes of a conquered Europe to come and do him homage. Since few if any – the King of Saxony apart – are sincerely attached to his cause, perhaps a festive display of political and military might will impress on everyone the futility of stirring up trouble behind his back? His father-in-law the Emperor of Austria is to be guest of honour and his young daughter, Marie-Louise, Empress of the French, leading lady – Prussia’s king and queen have to beg to be allowed in and even then are only grudgingly admitted.

What, one wonders, are the 47-year-old upstart emperor’s thoughts as, with his young blonde empress seated at his side, the imperial cortège leaves Paris at 5.30 a.m. on 9 May, for ‘the supreme effort, the most difficult task of all?’ – namely, by crushing Russia to crush Britain and secure for himself and for France the domination of the world? Is he perhaps even hoping the Dresden event may, in itself, suffice to bring the Tsar to heel? Otherwise what was the meaning of his rueful aside to his police prefect, just before leaving:

‘Well, one must finish what one has started!’

No previous campaign, as far as we know, had been preluded by such a remark.

Von Kügelgen goes on:

One stormy night when the torches would hardly burn he arrived like the Prince of Darkness. Flashes of lightning lit the sky, and peals of thunder mingled with the populace’s half-hearted cheers and the ghostly ringing of churchbells. There was a good deal to be seen in Dresden at this time. The presence of so many armies filled the town with martial pomp. Bells pealed and cannons boomed to welcome the princes. Grand parades and manoeuvres entertained them. At night the town shone under the magical glare of a thousand lamps. A broad rainbow of gay paper lanterns arched the sky high above the Elbe, which reflected every colour of the spectrum, the prettiest light-effect one could possibly imagine. Fireworks crackled in the air. Every house was filled to the brim with soldiers who talked, laughed and swore in almost every European language.’

The romantic poet Heinrich Heine, too, sees him

high on horseback, the eternal eyes set in the marble of that imperial visage, looking on, calm as destiny, at his guards as they march past. He was sending them to Russia, and the old grenadiers glanced up at him with so anxious a devotion, such sympathy, such earnestness and lethal pride: Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!

Among the princelings who are anxiously waiting here to placate him, two of Duchess Augusta’s sons have every reason to be worried. For a third brother has been so imprudent as to take a commission in the Russian army, causing Napoleon, like an angry landlord, to threaten to ‘chase’ their father out of his duchy. But at the festivities what impresses them most is

the contrast between the very human Emperor Franz, with his friendly courteous bearing,17 and Napoleon, decidedly curt and rude, though possibly not intentionally so, merely over-elated by his extraordinary luck and cleverness. The adulation and sickening flattery with which he’s everywhere received further increase the contemptuous, harsh attitude peculiar to him.’

An assessment certainly not shared by Napoleon’s First Secretary. Baron Claude-François Méneval has

many opportunities to observe these august assemblies. In the vast apartments of the Dresden palace I contemplated the procession headed by Napoleon. The Empress of Austria’s health being too feeble for her to stand the fatigue of walking through all these apartments, the Emperor walked ahead of her, hat in one hand, the other resting on the door of her sedan chair, as he talked gaily to her. All who witnessed these social events agreed that by his affability, intellect and seductive manners he exerted an irresistible ascendancy over his noble guests. He was the most amiable and charming man in the world when he wanted to be.’

Napoleon may be invincible, the Duchess concedes in her diary: but at what cost in human blood and suffering?

‘Jock Columns’

With the fall of France and Italy’s entry into the war on 10 June 1940, British expectations that Italy would ally itself with Nazi Germany were realized. New theatres of operations became a definite concern for the British as territorial possessions, dominions and protectorates came under threat from a new enemy which saw British forces and territories overseas as its primary targets. The Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini, fearful that the war might end without his Fascist empire becoming a reality, hoped to occupy and annex French and British colonies and Egypt, which was a British protectorate. This would give him control of the Suez Canal and considerable influence on world trade, allowing Italy to dominate the central and eastern Mediterranean.

Their nation’s entry into the war was both surprising and unwelcome to many Italians. The most senior commanders knew just how ill-prepared the country was. The reaction of many was one of surprise and despondency – indeed, as Tenente Paolo Colacicchi of the Granatieri di Sardegna recalled:

In fact, of no enthusiasm at all. Marshal Balbo, who was the governor of Libya and one of the four Fascists – the Quadrumvirs of Italy – was apparently playing billiards when the news came through Italy had declared war and he was so angry that he picked up the billiard balls and smashed all the glasses in this billiard room. He was absolutely furious because he knew the position there and he had a lot of friends in Egypt among the British.

Italo Balbo was dead less than a month later, killed when his plane was shot down by Italian anti-aircraft fire whilst over Tobruk harbour, but Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, of the Italian Comando Supremo, continued to counsel against Mussolini’s annexationist ambitions. There was little military ardour amongst the Italian troops in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica either, as Paolo Colacicchi confirmed:

I was commanding a platoon then in a machine-gun battalion on the Tunisian front and I was told to call my men and tell them we were at war now with France (this was a few days before France gave up) and Britain. And the main reaction amongst my men was ‘What about our mail? Aren’t we going to hear from home anymore?’ Which is symptomatic, I think, of the type of man we had there. These were not all young; they were not even good troops. There were some recruits, but there were very few and they were tired and wanted to be home. They were thinking of home, they were thinking of leave and they were thinking of their fields left unattended. They certainly had no imperial or aggressive dream about them. This was one of the problems.

Despite this lack of will amongst many of his subjects, the Duce was not to be denied. In August 1940, Italian forces occupied the British protectorate known as British Somaliland, and Mussolini turned his attention to Egypt, defended by a small, but relatively modern (by comparison with its opponent), Western Desert Force. This consisted of 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions with elements of 6th Division from Palestine. Commanded by Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, it comprised approximately 36,000 men. On 9 September 1940, Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani, who had replaced Balbo as commander of Italy’s North African forces, was finally persuaded to invade Egypt with the X Armata (Italian Tenth Army) of 80,000 men. After an advance of sixty miles, the Italian force (chiefly composed of unmotorized infantry formations) stopped at Sidi Barrani and set up fortified camps. This was disappointing for O’Connor who had plans to annihilate them if they moved on Mersa Matruh.3 The Commander-in-Chief Middle East, Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, resisted pressure from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to launch an immediate counter-attack. Instead, he and O’Connor began planning an unconventional all-arms surprise attack on the Italian camps.

The plan depended on co-operation from the aircraft of Air Headquarters Western Desert and especially from Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw’s No. 202 Group. Despite his aircraft chiefly being obsolete Gloster Gladiators and increasingly obsolescent Bristol Blenheims operating with no radar and an unreliable signals network, Collishaw’s guiding principle was that obtaining and retaining air superiority were essential before any other task, even close support for troops in an advance or retreat, could be attempted with any reasonable hope of success. Nevertheless, he and O’Connor forged excellent relations. Chiefly, aircraft were to ensure that the initial advance of almost seventy miles by O’Connor’s force was not detected and reported by Italian reconnaissance planes.

Although O’Connor was not a tank officer and had never worked with large armoured forces, this was not a barrier to his successful use of the tanks Although O’Connor was not a tank officer and had never worked with large armoured forces, this was not a barrier to his successful use of the tanks available to him. There was considerable experience in his command of military exercises in desert conditions, which the British had acknowledged for many years as ideal for armoured warfare. In the inter-war years several formations trained there and, in 1938, Major-General Percy Hobart had trained the ‘Mobile Division’ (7th Armoured Division’s predecessor) in modern armoured warfare theory. Although Hobart was no longer in command by late 1940, 7th Armoured’s training put it in good stead for the role envisaged by O’Connor, as O’Connor himself explained:

The ‘Infantry’ tanks from their name were there to assist the infantry’s advance and help them in every possible way and they were obviously used for that. The 7th Armoured Division with its much larger radius of action could be used in a way – especially in this fine desert country – for getting behind and cutting off troops – in fact in the way strategic cavalry used to be used.

O’Connor’s unsophisticated approach to the operation was based rather more on common sense than military theory:

It’s quite true I had read most of [Basil] Liddell Hart’s ideas in his books but at that time the ordinary officer of my ‘height’ in the army didn’t really have any great reason for adopting his point of view. We had our own regulations, our own instructions and I don’t think that I considered very greatly Liddell Hart’s any more than I considered our own Field Service Regulations. In our very small operation, I can’t think I said to myself, ‘Now, what would Liddell Hart have done?’

On 9 December 1940, after a long and difficult approach march, shielded by the light reconnaissance units of 7th Armoured and Collishaw’s aircraft, O’Connor’s infantry with Matilda heavy tanks in close co-operation attacked and routed the Italians. Within two days, 38,000 prisoners, seventy-three tanks and 237 guns had been captured.6 Soon Bardia and Tobruk had fallen. The Italian forces fell back into Libya but were harried all the way and eventually outflanked and trapped. This culminated in a further heavy Italian defeat on 5 February 1941 at Beda Fomm and the surrender of X Armata with the loss of 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,200 guns during the campaign. British losses were 1,744 killed, wounded or missing. O’Connor, having reached El Agheila, was for pushing on into Tripolitania in the hope of completely driving the Italians from Libya, despite being at the end of considerably extended and, therefore, attenuated supply lines. Wavell prevented him from doing so.

The campaign was a masterpiece of all-arms co-operation based on established principles and was possible because of the quality of the highly trained forces at O’Connor’s command. In this regard it harked back in many ways to the later battles on the Western Front in 1918. It was the high water mark of British military operations in the Western Desert for over eighteen months but, for many, it was the radix malorum of all subsequent failings in those operations. This was through the inappropriate application of its lessons, through the slavish adherence of first 7th Armoured and then other armoured formations to an erroneous tactical doctrine, and because it gave the misleading impression that all Italian formations could be easily overcome in battle.

This critique presupposes that circumstances would have allowed a different approach. They did not. Just as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the Great War had struggled to inculcate ‘the lessons of the fighting’ in its forces whilst engaged in almost continuous conflict on the Western Front, with few opportunities for meaningful tactical training schemes incorporating, for example, tanks and artillery, so circumstances dictated possibilities for the British Eighth Army (as Western Desert Force became known on expansion to a two-corps organization in September 1941). There was simply no time to review the lessons of the offensive at the level of detail required before events intervened. The strategic situation in the Mediterranean and Africa required Wavell to dispatch a large part of O’Connor’s command to Greece. The units that replaced them were newly formed and inexperienced (especially in desert warfare). There was little continuity of learning and few opportunities for training. There were also fundamental problems with the structure and organization of British formations which were not addressed and which were to present particular problems.

Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell VC

The British Army was heavily outnumbered by the Italians, so General Archibald Wavell formulated a plan with his senior commanders to retain the initiative by harassing the enemy using mobile all-arms flying columns. Campbell’s brilliant command of one of these columns led to them being given the generic name “Jock columns” (although it is unclear if the idea originated with Campbell or not).

British armoured divisions were too heavy on armour and too light on infantry and lacked sufficient artillery (with no self-propelled guns). In tactical terms, this encouraged them to focus on tank-versus-tank operations in which there was no co-operation with the other arms – something which O’Connor believed was a result of the influence of Liddell Hart’s theories on commanders of armoured units. As a consequence, ad hoc formations of all arms except tanks were formed. These ‘Jock Columns’ – named after their inventor Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell VC of 4th Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) – were typically made up of a battery of 25-pounder field guns, a motorized ‘motor’ infantry company, an armoured car troop, a troop of 2-pounder anti-tank guns and a section of 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns, plus ancillary arms such as medical personnel and signallers. Until July 1942, these seemingly aggressive formations were actually responsible for dissipating the artillery strength of the British in the desert and impeded effective co-operation between the infantry and armour. This tactical schism was exploited repeatedly by the new, and extremely skilful, tactician who arrived soon after the defeat at Beda Fomm to lead their opponent’s forces.