Peter I of Russia II

In the spring of 1699, Peter was under pressure from Frederick Augustus to attack Sweden. The monarchs of Denmark and Poland believed the time was ripe for war. Young Charles XII, who had succeeded to the Swedish throne on the death of his father in 1697, was reportedly wild and unstable. His nation had long been the dominant power in the Baltic, and its enemies now prepared to seize the territories that they claimed as their own.

Peter had, however, consistently refused to engage in war in the north before he had secured peace with the Turks in the south. Since the sultan could not be hurried, it was not until August 1700 that Peter received news that a thirty-year armistice with Turkey had been signed.

The next day, Peter declared war on Sweden, opening the Northern War. He was impatient to recover Ingria and Karelia, but he decided that his first step should be to take Narva, an important trading town on the Narva River, about ten miles from its entry into the Gulf of Finland. He ordered an army of 64,000 into siege positions outside Narva, but delays held the Russian strength to less than 40,000 men. Hopes of early capture of the town were diminished by the sturdy resistance of the Swedish garrison even after two weeks of bombardment.

Meanwhile, Peter was disturbed to learn that Charles had forced the Danes to come to terms and that Frederick Augustus had raised the siege of Riga and retreated. Then he received reports that Charles had landed at the Baltic port of Pärnu and was en route to relieve the Narva garrison. Peter hurriedly entrusted the supreme command of the Russian forces to a Frenchman in his service, the duke of Croy, and he withdrew to meet with Frederick Augustus. Eight hours after his departure, Charles took advantage of a sudden snowstorm to hurl his army of 8,000 men against the Russian positions, gaining a swift and complete victory in late November.

Peter’s hasty departure had the appearance of retreat in the face of the enemy. Many in Western Europe believed him guilty of cowardice. Charles was contemptuous. Driven by pride, and hungry for military glory and the excitement of war, he observed criteria that were remote from Peter’s standards. Peter was a realist. He had declared war on Sweden to gain certain objectives, but he was not prepared to risk himself in battle with Charles when his army was still untrained and untested. He had, moreover, half expected defeat at the hands of the veteran Swedish troops, and he saw it not as a dishonor but as a stage in the development of his army.

The magnitude of the disaster at Narva nevertheless astonished him. He had lost all of his artillery and was forced to recognize that his army was little more than a horde of untrained peasants, incapable of standing against Western troops. But he made no recriminations, and in a fury of activity, he set about creating a new military machine.

Charles did not follow up his victory by marching on Moscow, as expected. In his contempt for the tsar and the Russians, he felt confident that he could deal with Russia when he was ready. He posted small detachments to defend the Baltic states of Livonia and Ingria, and he spent the next six years occupying Poland.

Charles thus gave Peter the respite he needed to train his army in battle. During the years 1702 and 1703, Peter conquered Ingria, and in the following two years, he captured Dorpat and Narva – proving his troops were equal to the Swedes. But the aura of invincibility still surrounded Charles and his army, and Peter’s great duel with him was yet to come.

Civilian prisoners taken in 1702, after the capture of the ancient fortress-town of Marienburg, included a seventeen-year-old Livonian girl called Catherine Skavronskaya. She belonged to the family of the peasant Samuel Skavronsky, but was possibly illegitimate. Her mother died when she was three, and, apparently destitute, the child was taken into the home of the Lutheran pastor of Marienburg, Ernst Gluck. Sometime before the arrival of the Russian army, she had married a Swedish dragoon; but he was at once recalled to his troop, and she never saw him again.

The Russian commander, Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev, sent Gluck, along with his family, to Moscow to act as the tsar’s translator. But Sheremetev kept the comely and full-figured Catherine for himself. She next caught the eye of Alexander Menshikov, the son of a humble pie vendor, whose meteoric career had taken him to the innermost circle of the court. Much to Sheremetev’s annoyance, Menshikov took Catherine into his house. There Peter made her acquaintance, and it was the beginning of an intimate relationship that endured until his death.

In every way, Catherine proved to be the ideal mate. She was a woman of opulent charms, generous, and good-natured, who provided the stability and affection to which Peter could return for renewal. She possessed the amazing physical stamina needed to keep up with him, common sense, and a simple honesty, which kept her from being carried away by her exalted position, first as mistress, then as his tsaritsa and empress.

About the time of their first meeting, Peter chose the site of a new fortress and port, called St. Petersburg after his patron saint. The foundation was laid on May 16, 1703. Peter’s choice was extraordinary. The estuary of the Neva River, at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, was desolate, marshy, and unhealthy. The winters were long, dark, and bitterly cold; the summers were short and hot. Although his decision appeared hasty and impetuous, Peter was confident that he would ultimately defeat Sweden and secure Russia’s access to the Baltic. He was equally sure, in spite of the opposition of his people, that the Neva estuary was the true site for his city.

History has endorsed his decision. Peter was, in effect, transplanting Novgorod, which had been, with Kiev, an early center of Russian trade and kinship with the West. St. Petersburg was to become the capital of a reformed and reorientated Russia. Its rivalry with Moscow symbolized the conflicting currents of Russian life: Moscow stood for the old traditions and the sanctity of Orthodoxy; St. Petersburg represented the new, Westernized Russia.

Peter became obsessed with St. Petersburg. The obstacles to building a new city were enormous. Labor and materials had to be brought hundreds of miles overland to the marshy estuary. Hundreds of thousands of carpenters, peasants, and even troops were drafted, but the hostile climate killed them off at an alarming rate. Shovels, picks, and other tools needed to build the canals and raise the level of the land were lacking, and men often had to scrape earth with their hands and carry it great distances.

The fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, designed with six bastions, was the first major building that Peter started and supervised. Then, his ambitions growing, he looked west to Kotlin Island, about eight miles from the city and dominating the approach to the estuary. He decided to make this island a channel redoubt. A fortress, renamed Kronstadt and armed with a battery of fourteen cannons, was quickly erected. He posted a garrison there and wrote out their orders, which began with the uncompromising instructions: “Hold the citadel, with God’s help, and if necessary to the last man.”

Peter continued to rebuild his army, recognizing that the trial of arms with Charles could not be held off indefinitely. He was under constant strain, and he suffered bouts of illness, but nothing diminished his working tempo or his tremendous energy. The new army barely resembled the hastily trained and ill-equipped forces with which he had tried to besiege Narva. The infantry of 40,000 men and the 20,000-man cavalry were now experienced, and well-equipped with small arms and artillery manufactured in the foundries that he had established in the Urals and the armament works that he had greatly expanded at Tula. New methods of recruiting and training also ensured adequate reserves.

Peter had been playing for time and avoiding head-on conflicts with the Swedes. He was constantly on guard against one of Charles’s famed lightning attacks. Indeed, Charles almost caught up with the Russian army at their winter quarters at Grodno in March 1706, and only the breaking of the ice on the Neman River – delaying the Swedes and allowing the Russian army to withdraw – prevented a decisive battle being fought then.

At this critical stage, Peter was distracted by internal rebellions, which forced him to detach troops from his main army. In July 1705, uprisings against the tsar’s officials broke out in Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga. Many Old Believers, men from disbanded Streltsy regiments, and other malcontents had settled there, and they had been incensed by the extortions of the tsar’s governor. Peter did not underestimate the seriousness of this outbreak. Astrakhan was more than 1,000 miles from the Polish front, but rebellion could spread swiftly to Azov, to the Cossacks of the Terek and the Don, and sweeping northward, it might threaten Moscow. At once, he set aside his plans to drive the Swedes from Courland and sent troops to quell the rebellion in the south.

Peter was now waiting with his army in Kiev in readiness for Charles’s invasion. He was astonished to learn that the Swedes had turned westward against Saxony. Menshikov was sent with troops to harry the Swedes in Poland, and on October 18, 1706, near Kalisz, the Russians severely defeated a large Swedish force. Peter was en route to Narva when he was informed that Frederick Augustus, whom he had supported for so long, had just signed a secret agreement with Charles, renouncing his alliance with Russia. Peter now stood alone against Charles.

Discontent and rebellion again threatened. Peter’s projects, so numerous and on such a vast scale, had imposed intolerable burdens on the nation. The army had taken more than 300,000 men in the first nine years of the Northern War. The fortification of Azov and the naval base at Taganrog required 30,000 laborers a year in the period from 1704 to 1706. The building of the Volga-Don canal – Peter’s attempt to link St. Petersburg with the Caspian Sea – needed 30,000 men, and the English engineer in charge complained that he could obtain only 10,000 men for the work.

Taxes multiplied, and peasants escaped conscription and taxation by fleeing to the open lands beyond the Urals and to the south. Rumors spread that Peter was a changeling or the Antichrist, not the true tsar. Most Russians continued to labor and to obey, but threats of uprisings in the frontier settlements were ever present.

Peter had issued strict orders that Cossack leaders must surrender all runaway peasants and deserters who had joined them after 1695. His orders were ignored, and Cossack settlements expanded greatly in size. Finally, he sent Prince Yury Dolgoruky with troops to the Don, where the threat seemed greatest, to enforce obedience. The Cossacks regarded this as a denial of their traditional liberties.

On the night of October 9, 1707, Kondraty Bulavin, the hetman from the Ukraine, led a rebel Cossack force against Dolgoruky’s camp, killing him and his men. The victorious Bulavin declared that he would capture Azov and Taganrog, freeing the labor force, and that he would then march on Voronezh and Moscow. But loyal Don Cossacks attacked and scattered Bulavin’s army. Bulavin took refuge among the Zaporozhsky Cossacks, whose territory served as the southern buffer between Russia and the Crimean khanate. The Zaporozhsky Cossacks, as a whole, were not prepared to declare war against the tsar, but individually Bulavin was allowed to recruit volunteers. Leading his new army, he defeated a detachment of the tsar’s troops from Azov and also the loyal Don Cossacks, who had forced him to flee earlier.

The rebellion surged dangerously. Voronezh and the vast region of the upper Don were threatened. Peter sent a strong force under the command of Vasily Dolgoruky, brother of the prince killed by rebels in the previous year, and ordered him “to extinguish this fire once and for all.” Briefly, the tsar even considered rushing to the Don to conduct operations personally. In April 1708, Bulavin captured Cherkassk; but by this time, many Cossacks had grown dissatisfied with his leadership and were plotting against him. Moreover, he made the mistake of dividing his army into three parts, dispersing them in different directions. Vasily Dolgoruky crushed one of the rebel forces in the north, and a second, advancing to attack Azov, was turned back. Bulavin lost heart and shot himself. The revolt was at an end, and the Cossacks hurried to reaffirm their loyalty.

Charles, unpredictable to his own generals and to his enemies, had been expected to invade Russia in the spring of 1707. His army, rested and brought to full strength, comprised 19,200 infantry, 16,000 dragoons, and 8,450 cavalry. In August 1707, however, when Charles at last marched, he moved slowly, reaching the Vistula River at Christmas, and then turned northeast.

In January 1708, Charles suddenly rushed to the Neman River with a small detachment of troops. He nearly overtook Peter at Grodno, but had to give up his pursuit because the country through which he was passing had been scourged by the retreating Russians. Charles now established his headquarters near Minsk. All assumed that his bold plan would be to advance by way of Smolensk and, hurling his army into the heart of Russia, dictate his terms in the tsar’s capital.

From Minsk, however, Charles advanced to the Berezina River, and then to the Dnieper. At Golovchina, he found the Russian army drawn up in strong positions. He attacked at once, and after bitter fighting, the Russians withdrew. Again he had won a victory, but it had been costly in men and equipment, and indecisive, for the Russians had fallen back in good order. In August, Charles crossed the Dnieper and marched eastward, harried by Russian light-horsemen.

Charles had expected that the tsar would not dare lay waste to his own subjects’ lands as he had done in Poland, but the Swedish army found the same vista of smoldering grass and burning villages beyond the frontier. Peter’s scorched-earth policy was yielding results. Charles summoned a war council. His generals were united in urging him to fall back to the Dnieper, but the king rejected such tactics as tantamount to retreat. He moved farther south. He sent orders to General Adam Lewenhaupt to join him with reinforcements and enough supplies to sustain the entire army for three months. Lewenhaupt was appalled. He knew that a large force of the Russian army stood between them. Loyally, he set out to obey orders. He crossed the Dnieper, and then, on September 28, at the village of Lesnaya, he met Peter. In the ensuing battle, Lewenhaupt suffered complete defeat and lost the supply train.

Charles’s advance was predicated on the support of Mazepa, who had negotiated secretly to betray the tsar. Peter was worried that the old hetman would persuade the Cossacks – whose rebellions had just been quelled – to follow him, and that the Crimean Tatars would join with them. But Swedish expectations were not realized. When at the end of October 1708, Mazepa entered the Swedish camp, he was followed by only about 2,000 Cossacks, instead of his usual complement of 20,000 to 30,000 men. Loyalty to the tsar and fear of reprisals had dissuaded most Zaporozhsky and Don Cossacks from going over to the enemy.

The climax of the Northern War was yet to come. The winter of 1708 was exceptionally severe. The rivers of Europe were frozen, and in the Ukrainian steppes, the cold was even more intense. In spite of the savage conditions, Charles marched his army farther to the south. The bravery and endurance of the Swedes were heroic. Then, in mid-February, freak thunderstorms and heavy rains melted snow and ice, turning the ground into a quagmire. Charles decided to take Poltava, a small but important trading town on the Vorskla River. He began the siege early in May 1709. The Russian army gathered on the opposite bank of the river, and Menshikov sent word to Peter that battle was imminent.

Peter rejoined his army early in June and assumed supreme command. Two weeks later, he crossed the army over the river and took up positions within a quarter of a mile of the Swedes. On the morning of June 27, the two armies clashed in general battle. The Swedes fought with great spirit, but they were now opposed by a sturdier enemy. Throughout the battle, Peter showed terrific courage, his tall figure conspicuous among the Russian troops as he drove them to greater efforts. Charles, who had suffered a severe wound in the foot, was carried on a litter wherever the fighting was most fierce so that he could encourage his men. But the Swedes were near the end of their strength and yielding ground. Charles, weak from fatigue and loss of blood, was hoisted onto a horse to order the retreat. On the battlefields, 3,000 Swedes lay dead; 2,800 were taken prisoners. The remnants of the Swedish army retreated southward toward the Dnieper, but, overtaken by the Russian cavalry, they surrendered. Charles, Mazepa, and a small band of survivors made their escape in boats across the river and found refuge in Turkish territory.

Peter was jubilant. He attended a thanksgiving service on the field of battle, and then he celebrated. The Swedish generals and officers were brought to his tent, where he showed them courtesy and praised their bravery. He stood up and gave a tribute to his mentors in the art of war. “Who are your teachers?” a Swedish general asked. “You are, Gentlemen,” the tsar replied. “Then well have the pupils returned thanks to their teachers,” the Swede commented.

Peter wrote at once to all who were close to him, giving them the news. He asked Catherine to come to him in Poltava. In his letter to General-Admiral Fedor Apraksin, he expressed concisely what he believed to be the chief outcome of the battle: “Now, with the help of God, the final stone in the foundation of St. Petersburg has been laid.”

Eager also to raise Russia’s prestige, Peter sent a stream of battle reports to Russian ministers abroad. In the chancelleries of Europe, the significance of this decisive victory was readily understood. A new power had arisen, displacing Sweden and changing the balance of Europe. Fear and suspicion of the new colossus began to condition the policies of Western European countries toward Russia.

However, Peter realized that Charles would not capitulate or come to any terms but his own; he might succeed in persuading the Turks to declare war on Russia and in invading the Ukraine with Turkish and Tatar support. Charles, supported by France and by the Crimean Tatars, was, in fact, bringing every pressure to bear in Constantinople. Through Peter Tolstoy, his ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, Peter demanded that Turkey expel Charles, still in refuge there. The demand was rejected, and on November 20, 1710, the Turks formally declared war on Russia. Tolstoy was then imprisoned in Constantinople’s Tower of the Seven Bastions. The following February, the Russians declared war against the enemies of the Cross. A few days later, Peter, accompanied by Catherine, went south to join his army at the river Pruth.

This campaign against the Turks was another chastening experience for Peter. He embarked on it hastily and in a mood of overconfidence. He planned to strike deep into Turkish territory, and with the support of the Orthodox Christian peoples of Wallachia, Moldavia, and the Balkans, take command of the Black Sea. However, when the campaign opened, the Christians did not rise against the Turks.

Early in July, beyond the Pruth, the Turks attacked the Russian army, but were repelled with heavy losses. The Russians then began to withdraw, only to be engaged in further desperate fighting. Peter’s army of 38,000 men was now surrounded by the Turkish army of 120,000 troops, supported by 70,000 Tatars. The Russians were exhausted by the heavy fighting in sultry heat. Fortunately, the vizier commanding the Turkish army did not appreciate the strength of his position. He, too, was eager to come to terms, especially since the Janizaries, the palace guards, who had suffered most in the fighting, refused to attack the Russian positions again. Finally, to Peter’s great relief, peace conditions were agreed to on July 12. The vizier had demanded far less than the tsar had been prepared to concede. Though Peter gave up all that he had won in his campaign of 1696 – including the strongholds of Azov and Taganrog on the Sea of Azov – he was spared the humiliation of being imprisoned, along with Catherine, by the Turks. Peter and Catherine returned to St. Petersburg; he was determined now to force an early peace with Sweden that would ensure Russia’s position in the Baltic. He needed such a treaty to compensate for the losses in the south and to erase the bungled Pruth campaign.

However, peace with Charles would evade Peter for ten more years. He might have succeeded earlier if he had concentrated all his forces against Sweden. But he was more cautious after the Pruth campaign. Peter nevertheless achieved some positive results. In 1713, he dispatched a fleet of ninety-three galleys, sixty brigantines, and fifty large boats – carrying in all 16,000 troops – to capture Finland. The expedition succeeded brilliantly. Naval supremacy was achieved in a major victory the following year. Toward the end of June 1714, the Russian fleet anchored about six miles to the east of Cape Hango, where a small Swedish fleet of sixteen warships, five frigates, and other smaller vessels barred the approaches to the Aland Islands and the Swedish mainland. On July 26, the Russian fleet outmaneuvered the Swedes off Cape Hango and then pursued them into Rilaks Fjord. Peter called on the Swedish admiral to surrender his outnumbered forces on honorable terms. The offer was rejected, and the Russians attacked. Fierce fighting raged for hours, but the Swedes were beaten; Russians now held the Aland Islands, a mere twenty-four miles from Sweden.

Peter regarded this naval victory as equal in importance to his land victory at Poltava. But this further proof of the emergence of Russia disturbed the rest of Europe. England and Holland, in particular, were alarmed that Russia would challenge and even take over their Baltic trade. Rivalries were further complicated by the fact that France had become the ally of England and Holland at the end of the Spanish Succession War. In 1714, when the elector of Hanover became King George I of England, he set out to drive the Swedes from northern Germany. Peter assumed that he would welcome alliance with Russia, but George refused.


Wallenstein’s Army

It was typical of Ferdinand II that while these ‘Bohemian martyrs’ were brought to the gallows, the Habsburg went on a pilgrimage to the great Marian shrine of Mariazell in his native Styria specifically to pray for their souls. In the years that followed, prayer and sword moved in perfect counterpoint for the Habsburg cause. If Ferdinand was the spearhead of spiritual revival, on the battlefield the corresponding military reawakening was to be organised by Wallenstein.

The Bohemian soldier of fortune Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (1583-1634) was one of the major figures in the Thirty Years War. His administrative and financial talents made him one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe.

Wallenstein stood out from the newly minted nobility around Ferdinand because of his logistical skills, which he deployed with unrivalled expertise despite his physical disabilities. Plagued by gout which often forced him to be carried by litter, Wallenstein ceaselessly instructed his subordinates to organise his affairs to the last detail. Agriculture was virtually collectivised under his control to ensure that every crop and animal was nurtured efficiently to supply his armies. A fortunate second marriage to the daughter of Count Harrach, one of Ferdinand’s principal advisers, brought him yet more support at court. In April 1625, Ferdinand agreed to Wallenstein raising 6,000 horsemen and nearly 20,000 foot soldiers. Wallenstein’s force gave the Emperor freedom of manoeuvre. He now had formidable forces to counterbalance the armies of the Catholic League led by Tilly, who always showed signs of answering in the first instance to his Bavarian masters rather than to the Emperor Ferdinand.

Count Jean Tserclaes Tilly (1559–1632) was an outstanding product of Jesuit training. First seeing service in Spain, the Walloon learnt the art of war from the age of 15, serving under the Duke of Parma in his war against the Dutch. In 1610, he was appointed commander of the forces of the Catholic League, established in 1609 as a loose alliance of Catholic principalities and minor states. Like Wallenstein, Tilly brought in important reforms, especially from his experience of the formidable Spanish infantry. Nicknamed the ‘monk of war’, he soon proved to be a highly capable organiser of infantry tactics, which were quickly adopted by Ferdinand’s troops.

The infantry at this stage still consisted of pikemen and musketeers. The pikemen wore armour and carried a pike, which at that time was between 15 and 18 feet long, made of ash with a sharp metal point. Their officers carried shorter pikes with coloured ribbons. The musketeers were a kind of light infantry with a light metal helmet, later replaced by a felt hat. The heavy musket they carried needed to be rested on a wooden pole with an iron fork to be fired. The ‘ammunition’ was contained variously in a bandolier, a flask of gunpowder and a brass bottle of combustible material, the so-called Zundkraut as well as a leather bag containing small metal balls. A small bottle of oil was also carried to ensure that the ‘alchemy’ required to fire the weapon functioned smoothly. This was far from straightforward. A hint of the complexity of firing this primitive musket is given by the fact that ninety-nine separate commands were needed to fire and reload the weapon.

A further forty-one commands existed for dealing with the musket at other times. As this suggests, the need to increase the rate of fire and simplify the munitions were priorities for all commanders throughout the Thirty Years War. These problems would only be solved with the advent of the Swedes, who entered the fray against the Habsburg in 1630. They had a modern solution to many of these problems: the introduction of small cartridges wrapped in paper.

The only tactical unit at this time was the company, which was deployed in a large square made up usually of between 15 and 20 companies. This formation was 50 men deep with its flanks protected by 10 rows of musketeers. Despite much practice at marching to form such elaborate formations as the so-called ‘Cross of Burgundy’ or ‘Eight-pointed Star’, it takes little imagination to realise that manoeuvring in such formations was virtually impossible. The idea of marching to a single beat of the drum had still to be widely introduced and cohesive movement was only possible by extended rank.

Where Tilly proved so successful in organising infantry tactics, Wallenstein proved no less formidable in handling cavalry. Cavalry like infantry were divided into heavy and light. The heavy cavalry were cuirassiers and lancers, both armoured down to their boots. In addition to their main weapon, lancers were also armed with a sword and two pistols, symbols of their privileged status as bodyguards to the commanders in the field. The cuirassiers carried the heavy straight sabre or ‘pallasch’, which was designed to cut as well as thrust.

The horsed ‘carabiniers’ were organised as light cavalry as their only armour was a metal helmet and a light breastplate. Equipped with a shorter musket and 18 cartridges, these horsemen also carried pistols and a short sword. The dragoons were also equipped with a short musket and were indeed originally horsed musketeers. As the barrels of their muskets were often decorated with a dragon, they became known as dragoons. Deployed as advance guard cavalry they carried an axe with which, in theory, they could batter down doors and gates.

To these conventional groupings Wallenstein added new elements. An important part of the horsed advance guard was the ‘ungrischen Hussaren’, or Hungarian hussars. Together with the Croats they formed the irregular elements of the army who could be deployed to plunder and terrorise their opponents as well as perform scouting and reconnaissance.

The origin of the term ‘hussar’ to this day is a source of debate. The word most likely stems from the Slavic Gursar or Gusar. Other theories link the word to the German Herumstreifender or Corsaren; this last with its imagery of piracy perhaps being nearer to the truth than many a Hungarian would care to admit. Famous for giving their enemies no quarter, they became the nucleus of what would become the finest light cavalry in the world.

As with the infantry, the cavalry were grouped into companies. Often these were called Cornetten and hence the title of the junior officer of each such company was ‘Cornet’. As these were formed into a square, the custom arose to call four of these companies a ‘squadron’ from the Italian quadra, meaning square. In theory every cavalry regiment consisted of ten companies each of a hundred riders but in reality no cavalry regiment had more than 500 men.

Drill of these formations was aimed at disordering infantry by charging the last 60 paces at the enemy’s pikemen or cavalry. There was to be no firing from the saddle until the cavalry could ‘see the white in the eye of the foe’ (‘Weiss im Aug des Feindt sehen thut’). Led by such Imperial officers as Gottfried Pappenheim, famous for his many wounds and refusal to be impressed by titles, or the redoubtable Johann Sporck, a giant of a man with hair like bronze, perhaps the most feared cavalry general of his time, the Imperial cavalry was trained in shock tactics relying on aggression and surprise to demoralise their opponents.

The artillery remained a strict caste apart. Each unit of artillery was in theory organised to have 24 guns of different calibre. Mortars and other guns were added to each unit. Every gun had as its team a lieutenant and eleven gunners. These were supported by the so-called Schanzbauern or Pioneers, who were organised into units as large as 300 under an officer of the rank of Captain. The unit had its own flag made of silk which displayed as its badge a shovel and its men were also skilled carpenters able to strengthen bridges, not just demolish them.


My Tin Soldier Collection – TYW Imperialists


Mithridates VI Eupator and His Army

At the time of his father’s death, Mithridates VI was in his early teens. He was well aware that it would suit many at court if he got no older. His untimely death would enable his mother to continue as regent until his younger brother was old enough to assume the throne, and undoubtedly this situation would also suit the younger brother and his supporters.

It was also apparent that the new regent of Pontus intended to continue her husband’s policy of friendship with Rome, even though the Romans, worried by the growing power of Pontus, took every opportunity of chiselling away at the kingdom’s borders. The gains of the war with Aristonicus were reversed, with the senate refusing to allow Pontus control of Phrygia, and supporting the claims of the Bithynians to disputed parts of Paphlagonia. Given the spirited character of Mithridates and his later determination to expand the kingdom at every opportunity, it is unlikely that he took this Roman interference patiently. Therefore it might well be that the Roman governor in Pergamum quietly let it be known that Rome would not be unhappy if the charismatic young Mithridates never came to power.

It was probably at this point that Mithridates, aware of his numerous and powerful enemies, earned his nomination as the world’s first experimental toxicologist. He started taking small doses of poison on a regular basis; both to accustom himself to the taste, and his system to the effects. After a while he had put together a small pharmacopoeia of poisons and antidotes that were known for generations afterwards as ‘Mithridatic potions’. Pliny the Elder gives one such antidote claiming that it was found by Pompey among Mithridates’ private papers in his own hand–writing. The ingredients were two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue (a bitter aromatic plant), pounded together with a grain of salt. This might not have conferred immunity to poison as claimed, but would certainly have given the poison swift enough passage through the victim’s system to limit any damage. Other potions described by Pliny and the later writer Celsus have literally dozens of ingredients, and are also described as the fruit of Mithridates’ relentless investigations.7 Mithridates’ alleged immunity to poison might well have saved his life on several occasions, not least because it persuaded potential assassins that poison was not even worth trying.

While accepting that Mithridates had powerful ill–wishers, we should be wary of the romantic myth that the young king took himself off into hiding in the Pontic wilderness like an early version of Robin Hood. Hunting and horse riding were normal parts of a Persian prince’s upbringing. No doubt Mithridates enjoyed these enthusiastically, but it is unlikely that he was engaged in them for seven years in the wilderness as was later reported. Someone, at least, was certainly ruling as Mithridates VI, as coins appear bearing his image, and dedications on statues refer to him as king of Pontus.

It is probable that young Mithridates, who was as aware as anyone of the mortality rate among the royalty of the region, abandoned Sinope in favour of extended tours of his kingdom. This both removed him from his mother’s court (and his mother’s cooks) and gave him the chance to gather personal support among the provincial governors of the kingdom’s provinces (called eparchies). This support would be needed for the power struggle with his immediate family which Mithridates must have known was imminent. That these tours later gave his biographers the chance to link a period in the wilderness with a similar legend about the great Persian king Cyrus, was something of a bonus.

With Mithridates, those responsible for promoting his image had promising material to work with. The young king was handsome enough to bear comparison with Alexander the Great; if only Alexander had been able to handle a sixteen-horse chariot as Mithridates could. The Romans, who considered Asiatic monarchs effete and decadent, readily made an exception for Mithridates. Naturally robust, he regularly exercised and took part in sporting events. This gave him exceptional stamina, and he was said to have been able to ride 1,000 stades (about 110 miles) in a day, wearing out a chain of horses in the process. He was also a keen bowman, and alleged that it was his passion for archery which led him to keep a bow handy at all times (one never knows when having a long–range weapon about might come in handy). His fondness for exercise gave Mithridates a formidable physical presence, which as a skilled propagandist he exploited – for example by sending copies of his armour to Delphi, ostensibly as a gift to the gods, but in reality to show that the ruler of Pontus was powerful in every respect.

The writer Justin also reports that when Mithridates was born in Sinope, the skies above his birthplace were illuminated by ‘a comet which burned with great splendour, so that for seventy days in succession, the whole sky appeared to be on fire with a brightness that seemed to obscure even the sun. The tail of the comet covered a quarter of the sky, and its rising and setting took a whole four hours’.8 Justin was quoting a historian called Trogus. Though Trogus’ father had probably fought against Mithridates, the son was definitely a fan. Mithridates was for him a king ‘whose greatness was afterwards such that he surpassed all kings in glory – not only those kings of his own times, but of preceding ages too’.

Mithridates was well aware of the advantages of what would today be called a personality cult. He deliberately portrayed himself as a fusion of Greek and Persian culture, giving himself the Greek nickname of Eupator, ‘loving father’, and also adopting the title of Dionysius, a god associated with liberty, peace and law; on the other hand, Mithridates habitually dressed in the robes of a Persian noble. He explicitly boasted to his troops that they found in him the best of both worlds. ‘I count my ancestors, on my father’s side, from Cyrus and Darius, the founders of the Persian empire, and on my mother’s side Alexander the Great and Seleucus Nicator, who established the Macedonian empire’.9

Sadly, at this point Mithridates’ mother was not present to hear her lineage so proudly recounted. Some time before 116 BC the lady departs from the scene. Some historians believe that Mithridates had her killed, others assert that she was merely thrown into a dungeon and forgotten. It appears that the palace coup by which Mithridates removed his mother from power was a largely bloodless affair. Basically, having survived to an age when he could rule the country, Mithridates simply started to do so. His orders were obeyed, and politically his mother became irrelevant.

The younger brother was disposed of. He was executed. The nature of the charge was largely irrelevant, since everyone knew that his true crime was that he had been born of the same parents as the king, and (to paraphrase the later Roman emperor, Augustus) one can have too many Mithridatids. Perhaps working on the principle that one kept one’s friends close, and one’s enemies closer, Mithridates took his younger sister (Laodice, naturally) as his wife. His older sister (Laodice) was already married to the king of Cappadocia as a result of a foreign policy adventure on the part of Mithridates V. His remaining sisters he kept in luxurious seclusion, unwilling to marry them to possible rivals, yet reserving them for a suitable diplomatic match should the need arise.

Now firmly in the saddle, Mithridates could take stock of his kingdom. The heart of Pontus was the royal capital of Amaseia, where the Pontic kings were traditionally buried. High in the hills, yet only 82km from the Black Sea coast, Amaseia was a highly defensible site, protected on one side by the river Iris, and on the other by steep cliffs. The great citadel contained both the royal palace and a huge altar to Zeus Stratios, whom the Mithridatids identified with Ahura–Mazda, the Iranian fire god and official protector of the dynasty. Originally founded by the ancient Hittite civilization, Amaseia gained its name from Amasis, the legendary queen of the Amazons who was said to have ruled from there. The cool climate and fertile soil of the area produced crops such as the apples for which the region is famous even today.

Mithridates knew that the true strength of his kingdom lay here and in the lands of the interior, especially along the Lycus and Iris river valleys. These areas often comprised huge tracts of temple land such as those at Comana and Zela (the temple complex at Comana was large enough to support 6,000 sacred slaves, reports the geographer Strabo).10 Comana was also a rare city in the Pontic interior; a lively trade centre with a famously cosmopolitan and decadent lifestyle. These provinces of the interior gave Mithridates unquestioning loyalty almost to the last. It was here, in the many highly-defensible royal strongholds which dotted the area, that Mithridates was later to keep his reserves of treasure, and from here that he raised levy after levy of troops.

The interior provided support and manpower, and these in turn gave Pontus dominance of the fertile coastal plain, and the wealthy Greek cities of (from west to east) Amastris, Sinope, Amisus, Pharnarcia and Trapezus. These not only provided trading outlets for the Pontic interior and beyond but were also useful bases from which Mithridates intended to fulfil the ancestral ambition of expanding across the Black Sea. Between the interior and the coastal plain, the thickly forested mountains had the timber for the ships which could make this ambition possible. From the borders of Armenia to the mountains of Paphlagonia the kingdom was about a thousand miles across, and with a population estimated as being over two million strong.

A large population and reserves of money and metal meant a strong army. We do not know as much as we would like about the Pontic army, the composition of which certainly changed as Mithridates’ empire grew and shrank. Certainly even the core levies of the kingdom would have been a mixture which varied from Greek cities with the latest in military technology to semi–barbarian tribes such as the Leucosyrians from the deep interior. It is an interesting reflection of Mithridates ability as a leader that he was able to keep this cosmopolitan army largely intact and coordinated, not to mention that for decades he kept it considerably more loyal and disciplined than the forces of his Roman opponents.

It might be assumed that the core of the army was the phalanx, a unit of close–formation pikemen who used long pikes as their primary weapon. Because a pike could be up to twenty–one feet long, this meant that several ranks could present their pikes to the enemy at once, forming a veritable hedge of spears. (The Roman general Aemilius Paullus faced the phalanx in 168 BC during the third Macedonian war, and admitted that just the memory of it bearing down on him was enough to bring him out in a cold sweat.) Horrible as the phalanx was when advancing head–on, it was pathetically vulnerable on the flanks. Three ranks of men with their pikes levelled cannot be easily turned to face a threat on the left or right, and since the forward progress of the phalanx required everyone to move forward in time, even a few rabbit holes in the wrong place could severely impair its progress.

However, given the right conditions, and adequate cover for the flanks, the phalanx could keep an enemy army pinned whilst cavalry swept down to take them from the sides and rear. It was a technique which Alexander had used time and again to conquer huge swathes of Asia, and it was still the preferred form of warfare among his successors. The Greek cities of Pontus provided a good supply of phalangites (as members of a phalanx are called), and the interminable wars of the Seleucids and their successors meant that there was always a large pool of mercenaries to draw upon, as the Mithridatids often did. Often only the front ranks of the phalanx wore armour, but Pontus, with its wealth and large iron reserves could afford to be generous in this regard.

On rough ground, where the phalanx feared to tread, it was the job of the peltast to rush in. Because they required rather less training than the rigorously drilled phalanx, peltasts were often recruited from semi–Hellenized tribes, or newly levied citizens. Because their mobility was the peltasts’ prime asset, it was also easy for the peltasts to rush out again if they encountered opposition stronger than they could handle. They wore minimal armour, and carried a spear twice as tall as themselves (so about 11 feet), the better to deal with cavalry. (Cavalry, though useless against formed troops, was death on hooves to skirmishers and troops which had broken ranks.) The prevalence of bowmen in oriental armies meant that peltasts also needed large, light shields and metal helmets. By contrast, the phalangites had discovered that raising their pikes to between forty-five degrees and vertical managed to deflect a surprising amount of incoming arrows, and they therefore coped with just a minimal shield strapped to a forearm.

Dealing with enemy bowmen, as opposed to enduring them, was the job of psiloi. These were very lightly-armed, highly mobile troops, often armed with missile weapons themselves. The close ties between the Mithridatids and Crete meant that Pontus always had a good supply of Crete’s famous mercenary archers on tap, and within Pontus itself, it was a rare shepherd who was not proficient with a sling.

A special class of mercenaries were the Galatians. Thanks to their warrior culture, the Galatians were usually happy to fight against anyone, and between themselves if no-one else was available. The wealth of Pontus meant that the Galatians could combine business with pleasure, and large numbers of them were usually available to fight under the Mithridatid standard. It appears that the Galatians still fought in traditional Gallic style. Though skilled metal workers, all but tribal leaders generally fought naked. This is less silly than it seems when one considers that many deaths in ancient battles resulted from dirty clothing being forced into the bloodstreams of the wounded. Slashers to a man, every Gaul who could afford it wielded a long sword which some did not even bother putting a pointy end on to. The Gauls made excellent shock troops, as it took experienced opponents to stand firm against a headlong charge by hundreds of large sword-wielding warriors who wore nothing but spiky lime hairstyles and ferocious expressions. The bad news was that the Galatians had only a rudimentary grasp of military discipline, and tended to regard setbacks as an invitation to go home.

The perfect mixture for an ancient army was generally regarded as about fifty-five percent heavy infantry, twenty percent light infantry and skirmishers and twenty-five to thirty percent cavalry. Not many ancient armies managed to get to the thirty percent cavalry mark, but thanks in part to the south Pontic Cappadocian plains and the plains of Lycaonia, the Pontic army managed this without difficulty. Because horsemen in the ancient world fought without stirrups, any attempt to charge at high speed with a couched lance would have propelled the lancer backward over his horse’s buttocks on impact. Therefore cavalrymen fought with swords or with long spears which they wielded at shoulder height. The exceptions were heavily-protected horsemen known as cataphracts (literally ‘covered-overs’), who were virtually an armoured phalanx on hooves. However, Mithridates seems not to have made much use of this innovation in warfare.

His cavalrymen still varied as much as did the infantry. From the very east of the country, Armenia Minor provided both armoured heavy cavalry able to stand and fight all but heavy infantry, and light horse archers, capable of emulating their Parthian cousins and firing over the rumps of their horses even as they galloped away from their attackers.

The Galatians made use of the fact that they occupied some fine horse country, and were considerably better horsed than their compatriots in Europe. Because the horsemen tended to be from among the aristocracy, they were armoured, and usually carried sword and shield. In this they were similar to Cappadocian cavalry who seem to have been kitted out as were the average Greek horsemen, on unarmoured horses with riders wearing cuirass or mail, and carrying javelins and/or xyston (a kind of long thrusting spear). As will be seen, Mithridates expansion of his kingdom was to increase the variety of the cavalry arm even further.

Finally, Mithridates seems to have been the first of his line to give serious consideration to a navy, although the raw material in the form of well-forested hillsides and Greek expertise had been available for decades. In part, Pontus had not needed a fleet, because the kingdom made a point of being friendly with the pirates who infested the coast of Crete, and more recently, Cilicia. Now, with mastery of the Black Sea in mind, Mithridates began to recruit shipbuilders. It might also have occurred to him that if the questions of Phrygia and Paphlagonia could not be amicably resolved, Pontus and the Romans were probably going to have a serious falling out at some point.

Given that the Roman navy was as bad as the Roman army was good, and that the only practical way of getting an army to face Mithridates in Asia Minor was to bring it by sea, it would be a good idea to face the Romans on the water rather than on land. The problem was what to do about the Romans and their allies already in Asia Minor. From the later evidence, it appears that the young Mithridates spent a substantial part of his early reign considering this question.


When the Russian armies poured across Germany’s eastern borders in the beginning of 1945, the Army High Command introduced a major improvisation, the LEUTHEN Project, which constituted a radical change in the Army’s replacement and training policy. To the German mind Leuthen, a small town in Silesia where Frederick the Great had won a major battle with improvised forces, was the symbol of a victorious last-ditch stand. It was probably for this reason that the Army selected the term Leuthen to designate this project. The plan foresaw that all training units of the entire replacement army were to be transferred and assigned to the field forces as soon as the code word LEUTHEN was transmitted to them. In immediate proximity of the front these training units were to be subjected to a more realistic combat training than they could possibly receive in the zone of the interior. Moreover, they were to serve as security forces in rear area positions or defense lines. The original idea was therefore both sound and practical, but it should have been put into effect much sooner, when the front was still stable. What actually prompted the execution of the LEUTHEN Project at that late stage, whether it was still the original intention as officially proclaimed or rather the steadily deteriorating situation on the fighting fronts, must be left to conjecture. In reality all the LEUTHEN units were immediately committed and thrown into the thick of fighting in critical situations.

What did the LEUTHEN units look like? In every Wehrkreis there were a number of training and replacement units of various arms which were under the command of division staffs. The men who had completed their training and were ready for combat duty were in the replacement units. The training units were composed of recently inducted recruits who were to be prepared for combat by undergoing an eight-week basic training course. Upon receiving the code word LEUTHEN, the division staffs were to move out with all training units that had completed one to seven weeks of training.

One of the units alerted in this manner was the Special Administrative Division 413 which consisted of several training battalions, a regimental headquarters, an artillery battalion with an odd assortment of guns, and elements of an engineer and a signal battalion. As a tactical unit, the division was really no more than a reinforced infantry regiment commanded by an elderly general with a small staff. Needless to state, it was absolutely incapable of any combat assignment. The cadre up to the division commander consisted of personnel unfit for combat because of sickness, injury, or for lack of tactical qualifications. Most of the noncommissioned officers had suffered combat injuries of such severity that they were barely fit for garrison duty. Some of the men were entirely untrained, others had completed one half to three quarters of their basic training. Some of them were unarmed because the number of weapons provided for training units did not suffice to arm every soldier. In addition, the various formations had absolutely no organic transportation. There were no more horses than those needed for the normal garrison functions and the division had no field kitchens since the food had always been prepared in the permanent garrison kitchens. The clothing and equipment were equally defective. Quite a few soldiers, for instance, could not be issued garrison belts. In general, everything was in exactly the condition to be expected from a home station in times of stress where shortages have become the rule rather than the exception.

When the LEUTHEN division moved out it was therefore no more than an improvisation of the poorest sort. This might not have mattered so much had the division undergone a rigid training schedule far behind the lines. But even while it was on the approach march to its destination, one of its battalions was shifted from the Main River valley to Hammelburg where a small enemy armored force had broken through. The remainder of the division was immediately sent into combat and annihilated.

In summarizing, one may state that the LEUTHEN Project was doomed from the outset because it was applied in a situation for which it was entirely unsuited.


In view of the extremely heavy losses of manpower, the shortage of weapons, and the precarious condition of the transportation system, the situation of the German Army became so critical that the need for improvisations grew even more urgent during the last few weeks of the war. The organizational improvisations of that period were a far cry from those introduced during earlier stages. In many cases the selection and training of replacements was makeshift. Equipment of all types was totally inadequate and consisted of whatever was left over or could be picked up. Since no guns were available, the organization of new artillery units was practically impossible. Whatever new infantry units were organized during this period were of limited capability in the field. In Bavaria, for instance, the last regular activation of a new infantry division took place in November 1944. What followed thereafter was pure improvisation, not so much because of the shortage of trained replacements, but because of the inadequate supply of weapons and equipment.

Although the organization of new divisions had become impossible, replacement units were sent to the front until the beginning of March 1945. Then even this function could no longer be accomplished. Each Wehrkreis assumed command over its replacements, organized a few emergency infantry battalions and transferred them to the nearest tactical command. Many well-trained soldiers were still available but, because of the serious shortage of infantry heavy weapons, it was no longer possible to organize entire machine gun companies. The battalions were therefore composed of a small battalion staff and four rifle companies. Each company had one machine gun platoon with two heavy machine guns and a few locally requisitioned wood-gas-burning trucks, one of which carried a cook stove. The few artillery battalions organized during this period were composed of a great variety of guns. No two batteries were alike and every section had guns of different caliber.

During that period occurred a very significant incident which demonstrated the effects of the improper utilization of administrative personnel. Several first-rate panzer battalions were in the process of rehabilitation at the Grafenwoehr troop training grounds in Bavaria. When enemy armored spearheads approached the area, a corps commander responsible for a near-by sector of the front ordered the staff of the training center to assume the tactical command of the panzer battalions and stop the enemy advance. The commander of the training center was a general well along in years who had always handled administrative assignments very competently but had never during his long career commanded a panzer unit. His staff was composed of elderly reserve officers and ordnance specialists. Their leadership spelled disaster for the panzer battalions.

The numerous organizational improvisations introduced during that period were only stop-gap measures applied in time of extreme emergency. Since most of them were adopted to overcome purely local critical situations they are of little consequence in a study of this type.

American Tanks Do Not Surrender

Sep 12, 1918 – French-supplied US Army Renault light tanks, led by Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton, advancing as part of the American offensive on the German salient at Saint-Mihiel, in eastern France.

It was March 23, 1918, and George could barely contain his excitement as the train chugged and clattered its way up to the station at Bourg. He had spent the past year working his way through the ranks up to captain and establishing a Tank School in the French city. And today was the day that his first ten tanks would finally arrive.

Much as George loved horses, and much as he’d enjoyed his first skirmish driving a Dodge car, there was something about the tank that he just couldn’t get enough of. Its sheer brutal power and capacity for destruction appealed to his aggressive nature. There was nothing subtle about them, nothing that danced around the topic—the tank was a force of destructive power that knew nothing except to charge fearlessly into battle. Perhaps George felt a kind of kinship with them.

Either way, when the train hissed and puffed to a halt at the station where George stood waiting for it, it took all of his self-control to stop him from rushing up to it. A different officer might have stood and watched as the tanks were backed off the train, but George went straight into the first tank, driving it himself with typical hands-on enthusiasm. There was also one practical consideration: George was the only American present who had any experience driving tanks at all.

Earlier in the year, George had been sent to Liverpool as Pershing’s personal aide. When Pershing was sent to Paris, George followed him there, where he’d spent three months overseeing the training of American troops there. After that he was moved to Chaumont and oversaw the base. All this training and organizing was something he found intensely boring; he implored Pershing to get him to the front lines and into the thick of the action, and Pershing did his best. With cavalry being used less and less, Pershing aimed to give George command of an infantry battalion. At that point, George didn’t care what he was allowed to command as long as he could get into the fighting. As British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig described in his diary after meeting the young man, he was “a fire-eater, and longs for the fray.”

As George himself started hunting for a different position in the army, the idea of working with tanks started to occur to him. At first, he was strongly opposed to them and preferred the cavalry that he’d grown up with, but gradually, he started to warm to the idea. One aspect that appealed to him was that the troops inside the tanks were kept a little safer from gunfire than most other soldiers. George himself appeared to have no fear for his life and never did, but he wrote to Bea that “I love you too much to try to get killed.”

When he came down with jaundice and had to be admitted to hospital, George was no doubt frustrated by even more idleness. But it was in the hospital that he met Colonel Fox Connor. Connor was a great commander in his own right, but he is best known for his mentorship of young officers that would later become prominent in World War II; he was the man who made Eisenhower. He immediately recognized a fighter in George and encouraged him to work with tanks.

Finally, on November 10, 1917, George was given his assignment to establish the AEF Light Tank School. After being trained by the French army at Champlieu, studying the results of the Battle of Cambrai, and going to the Renault factory to watch the tanks being made, George was finally ready to teach his fellow Americans how to drive tanks.

On April 3, 1918, shortly after his precious borrowed tanks had arrived at the Tank School on the train, George was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In between attending the Command and General Staff College in Langres, he also trained his men to use tanks in support of infantry. In this period, he wrote a 58-page paper on light tanks. His childhood tutors would probably have fainted to discover that their “dimwitted” pupil had just written the basis of the US Tank Corps, dyslexia or no.

Even considering his demonstrations were going well and inspections of the Tank School had rendered others impressed, George was still bored; he longed to be on the actual front, in the thick of the fighting. Major LaFavre, a Frenchman, finally indulged the fiery young commander by driving him to the German front for a look at the battle. Although George didn’t actually get to fight, he did take off his helmet and have a smoke to insult the Germans.

Finally, in August 1918, George was given command over the 1st Tank Battalion and sent along with the rest of the Tank Corps to the railroad through St. Mihiel to Verdun. They were to free the railroad, allowing for the establishment of a new base. George was to go into battle at last. His speech the night before the fight was to the point: “American tanks do not surrender.”

September 12, 1918, would be George’s first taste of a world war. He waited in his tank behind the front lines, listening to the shelling. At first, he was nervous about sticking his head out of the parapet, but within a few hours of the fight starting, George was bored of waiting. He climbed out of the tank and headed into the thick of battle on foot.

This day would be one of the best of George’s life: reckless, dangerous, characterized by rash decisions, and endlessly exciting. He marched fearlessly across a bridge that was presumed to be mined (it wasn’t), hitched a ride on random tanks that he came across, and spent a few hours hiding in an open shell hole – a hole blown in the earth by an explosive shell – after diving off a tank that was being violently fired on. He escaped the shell hole  by traveling across the battlefield, listening for the sounds of the machine guns and throwing himself to the ground anytime he heard the machine guns open. He described his calculation of the time between the guns opening and the bullets arriving as “the only use I know of that math has ever been to me.”

He returned to his ranks later that afternoon to happily organize an attack on a small town called Beney. Even discovering that his food hamper had been replaced with rocks by some courageous prisoner of war wasn’t enough to dampen George’s enthusiasm; he simply pinched some crackers off a dead German and carried on with his organizing.

The next day, Patton adopted what would be his characteristic method of leadership: leading from the front. Walking in front of his tanks as an inspiring example to his men, he led his troops to victory, capturing Jonville on September 14. The battle had been a great triumph for the Allies and especially for George. Only five of his men had been killed in the battle, and the success of the tanks had proven to high command that they were more than useful—in the right hands though.

And it was largely agreed that George’s hands were about as right as they could get.

A Purple Heart for George

September 26, 1918 dawned with thick fog and even thicker enemy fire.

The hoarse crack of German machine guns filled the sky as George led his brigade towards Cheppy, determined to clear out those nests of guns and clear the way for the U.S. I Corps, who followed behind. A hundred and fifty tanks rumbled on behind them; George led the way on foot, watchful among the heavy fog. It shrouded the landscape, hiding the hulking shapes of enemy guns, muffling their crack so that the loudest sound seemed to be the eerie rumble of the tanks that followed them.

At George’s side, his orderly, Private First Class Joe Angelo, strode along with not a care in the world. At only twenty-two, he was as fresh-faced as a young boy. Gun tucked close to his body, he kept one eye on the enemy and one on George.

A crossroads emerged from the fog as they advanced. George gestured sharply, bringing the men and tanks to an abrupt halt. He listened for a moment to the sound of the machine guns before turning to Joe and speaking in a low voice. “Stay here and watch for the Germans,” he ordered. “I’m going on ahead.” Before Joe could protest, George shifted his gun and headed on up the knoll ahead, scanning the shrouded landscape for sign of the enemy. He was determined to flush out those nests of sinister enemies and destroy them with the power of his tanks. The loudest sound in the muffling mist was his own harsh breathing as he advanced slowly, leaving his fifteen men behind.

The deafening whistle of a shell split the silence. George flung himself to the earth as shells hurtled above him; he heard the crack and thunder of their explosions behind him and prayed that his men and tanks were safe. Then, a familiar shot rang out from somewhere near the crossroads—the sound of an American rifle discharging. Adrenaline stung George’s hands and feet and he scrambled back over the knoll, shouting, heedless of the Germans all around.

“Joe!” he yelled. “Is that you shooting down there?”

Joe’s response was lost in the chaos of machine guns and shells that broke loose, the air shattered with bullets and explosives.  It was as if the clouds had burst and were raining death down upon them. George hurried over the knoll in time to see him gesture with his rifle towards the body of a German soldier that lay nearby in a pool of blood. George’s blood was on fire.

“Come on!” he yelled down to Joe. “We’ll clean out these nests.”

Joe scrambled up the hill beside his commander and they advanced together towards the ranks of German machine guns, expecting their tanks to emerge from the fog and reinforce their attack at any moment, but no support came. A heavy spatter of machine gun shots sent them both diving for cover. George cursed. “Why aren’t my boys taking out these nests?” he snapped. “Joe, go and find out what’s going on back there.”

Joe was back almost as quickly as he’d disappeared, running half-crouched to avoid the screaming bullets. “The tanks are stuck in the mud, sir!”

George swore again. “Follow me.”

They crawled, then ran, back to the tanks, which were sunken to the hubs in mud. George seized a shovel and started digging, yelling at his men and at Joe to hurry up and help. Sweat poured down the back of his neck as he worked manically, aware of the shells that struck ever closer, sending up sprays of earth. Half-deafened by the chaos, George looked up at last to see his tanks moving again. More by gestures than words, he urged them forward and led them back up the hill. Now they could return fire and the world dissolved into one continuous blast of noise.

Halfway down the other side of the hill, they spotted a huddle of infantrymen among a scattering of bodies. They turned their terrified faces to George, clinging to their guns and each other with pale shadows of that morning’s bravado.

“What are you lot doing?” George roared at them.

“We don’t know what to do, sir,” one cried plaintively. “Our officers are all dead.”

“Joe, take these men to the tank detachment,” George barked. The infantrymen hurried over to Joe, delighted to finally have leadership; the fact that it came in the form of a Private First Class like themselves did not occur to them. Joe led them quickly back to the tanks. Heavy fire from the German artillery continued to pound into the American ranks. Seeing that they were drawing all the fire, George yelled for Joe again. “Go ‘round the side and wipe out those German nests,” he ordered. “Take fifteen men with you.”

Joe’s eyes were two terrified white circles in his dirty face. “I’m sorry, but they’ve all been killed.”

Despair filled George for a moment. “My God! They’re not all gone?”

“I’m sorry, sir. They’ve all been killed by machine guns.”

George gritted his teeth, fire rising in him on behalf of the brave men that had all perished. “I’ll clear them out myself,” he growled, seizing his gun and heading for the heaviest fire.

“Sir! No, sir!” Joe lunged forward and grabbed George by the arm. “It’s suicide!”

George grasped a handful of Joe’s dark, wavy curls where they stuck out from under his helmet and shook him so hard that the young man’s teeth rattled. “We’re going,” he said and plunged into the fog. Joe was right behind him. Blood seething, George charged forward. Then a muzzle flashed in the mist, terribly close. George heard the crack and felt something shatter in his thigh. He stumbled to a halt, barely comprehending, as pain began to blossom through his leg. When he looked down, a round circle of blood had opened on his leg.

“Sir.” Joe was beside him.

George could say nothing. He collapsed without a sound.

With bullets raining around them, it was young Joe who pulled the unconscious George to safety, despite the danger he was placing himself in. He dragged his commander to the nearest shell hole and bandaged the wounds in his leg: the entrance wound in his thigh and the ugly exit wound in his left buttock. For two hours, George lay senseless in the shell hole as Joe kept watch. When he revived, his first concern was for the battle. Lying in the mud and blood, he swiftly took command of the battle. Joe was instrumental; he ran back and forth between George and the tanks, carrying his orders all over the battlefield despite the peril. It was only after those German nests were finally destroyed that Joe was allowed to find some infantrymen to help carry George out of the shell- hole and to safety. And George would only allow himself to be taken to a hospital once he’d given his report to a command post.

George received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day, as well as a Purple Heart when the award was established in 1932. Joe was also awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, but perhaps the highest title he could lay claim to was the way that snobbish George chose to describe his low-born orderly: “without doubt the bravest man in the American Army.” He told American newspapers in 1919 that he had never seen Joe’s equal.

George’s wound meant the end of World War I for him. While he was promoted to colonel not long after his part in the battle, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive – as the battle would be known later – would prove successful. The victory came at a high price, in both lives and currency; in only three hours, the Allies alone used more ammunition than was fired in the entire American Civil War. The offensive would continue for forty-seven days and cost almost sixty thousand German and American lives alone. But on November 11, 1918, an armistice would finally bring an end to the First World War.

George stayed in Europe recuperating from his injury until March 1919. Then he was sent home to Camp Meade, Maryland to serve as a major. In June he was sent to Washington, D. C. to write manuals on the operating of tanks. Here he started to revolutionize the strategic use of tanks in the American army, assisted by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later become the Allied commander of the Second World War. George and Eisenhower forged a partnership that would prove formidable in the war that was coming.

Jordanian Forces 1948

At the time of the Arab-Israeli War of 1947-1948, the Arab Legion was the most effective and best organized Arab fighting force. Established by Great Britain in 1920-1921 when the Emirate of Transjordan was formed, the Legion was funded, trained, and commanded by British officers. Until 1939, it was led by Lt. Col. F. G. Peake; he was followed by Sir John Bagot Glubb (Pasha) (1897-1986).

When Jordan became an independent country in 1946, the Legion became a regular army but continued to receive British subsidies, supplies, and advice. During the conflict in 1948, under Glubb Pasha, it was instrumental in King Abdullah I’s military successes in areas that the Partition Plan had allotted to the Arab Palestinian state as well as in East Jerusalem. Other Arab countries and Palestinians blamed the Legion for its failure to prevent the formation of the Jewish state and for the limited and restricted Arab advances on the eastern front.

Bowing to nationalist and anticolonialist elements in the region, on 1 March 1956 King Hussein of Jordan dismissed Glubb Pasha. Thus the leadership fell into the hands of Jordanian commanders and, in 1969, the Legion was renamed the Jordanian Armed Forces.

Israeli-Transjordanian Battles for the West Bank, 1948

After taking over the region called Transjordan after World War I, Great Britain found it necessary to create a local military force to defend the territory against both internal and external threats. In October 1920 the British created a unit of 150 men, called the Mobile Force, under Capt. Frederick G. Peake. Transjordan was in a state of relative anarchy at that time, having experienced many centuries of benign neglect under the Turks. Thus, when Amir’Abdallah ibn Husayn, descendant of the Prophet and the son of the Hashimite Shaykh of Mecca, arrived in 1921 with the intent of making himself king (with British approval), he was not universally welcomed despite his lofty pedigree. Almost immediately, ‘Abdallah was forced to suppress a series of tribal challenges to his rule. His security problems forced him to turn to the British for help in late 1921, and London agreed to expand the Mobile Force under Peake to meet Abdallah’s military needs. Between 1921 and 1923, the British built up the Mobile Force-renamed the Arab Legion – to a reinforced battalion in strength and used it to crush a series of tribal revolts throughout the country. Nevertheless, beginning in 1922, Arabian Ikhwan warriors under ‘Abd al-Aziz Ibn Sa’ud began raiding Transjordan, eager to expand the areas they had conquered for their Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft and armored cars were dispatched to Transjordan and, together with the new Arab Legion, succeeded in stopping the tide of Saudi expansion.

By 1926, Peake’s Arab Legion had accomplished a great deal. The force had grown to about 1,500 men and officers. A small number of the officers were British, but the rest, and all the enlisted, had been recruited from the settled villages of Transjordan. (The Transjordanian towns supported ‘Abdallah’s centralized rule and the security from Bedouin raiding it promised.) The legion had decisively defeated several of the more aggressive Arabian tribes, which had prompted Ibn Sa’ud to rein in his forces from further attacks on Transjordan. Finally, by crushing the various tribal revolts, the legion had forcefully asserted the strength of the monarchy and demonstrated its ability to rule the Bedouin tribes.

Between 1926 and the outbreak of the Second World War, the British decided to exert greater control over the Arab Legion and to rationalize their own force structure in the Middle East to reduce the costs of empire. The legion was reduced in strength, placed under the command of the British high commissioner in Jerusalem, and relegated to internal-security duties. The RAF presence in Transjordan was also greatly reduced. Finally, a new force, called the Transjordan Frontier Force (TJFF) was created to take over the external-security responsibilities previously handled by the legion and the RAF. The TJFF was created in the image of the British Indian Army, with all billets above the rank of major held by British officers. But the TJFF proved less successful in policing the borders against raids by Saudi and Iraqi tribes than had the Arab Legion. In response, Capt. John Bagot Glubb was made Peake’s second in command in 1930 and ordered to raise a “Desert Mobile Force” to deal with the raiding tribes. Glubb enjoyed great success recruiting Bedouin tribesmen to serve in the new force, which he employed more in the manner of a nomadic warrior band (albeit one with trucks and armored cars) than a conventional Western military force. Glubb’s outfit succeeded in once again pacifying Transjordan’s borders.

World War II saw the Arab Legion grow into a professional military. The small size of the British army at the start of the war forced London to scrounge ground forces wherever it could to meet the wide-ranging Axis challenges. The Arab Legion became one of the beneficiaries of Britain’s desperation. Both the Desert Mobile Force and the TJFF were amalgamated into the legion, which by the end of the war had grown to a force of nearly 8,000 men and officers. The heart of the army was a 3,000-strong mechanized brigade (built from the core of Glubb’s Desert Mobile Force) and the Desert Patrol Force of 500 men.’ The legion was then commanded by Glubb and officered largely by British regulars, seconded from the British army. In addition, the legion had gained some combat experience during the war. Elements of the legion, including the Desert Mobile Force, participated in the British campaigns to overturn the anti-British Rashid ‘Ali government in Iraq as well as the conquest of Syria from Vichy France. Other units of the legion were posted to garrisons throughout the Middle East to free up British regulars and other Commonwealth troops for combat duties, and the Arab Legion briefly trained for duty in Egypt, where they were to have been deployed had the Germans not been turned back at El Alamein.

The War of Israeli Independence, 1948

In 1948, when the Arab Legion marched into Palestine, it was the most professional indigenous military in the Middle East. Jordan’s army was trained and led entirely by British officers or Jordanian officers trained in the British manner. In fact, all but five of the officers of the rank of major or higher were British, including Glubb, who remained its commander.’ The British saw to it that the legion was well prepared for conventional military operations. During the first twenty-four years of its existence, the Jordanian army was responsible for both internal and external-security duties, but regardless of other priorities, Jordanian soldiers and officers constantly practiced for combat operations against organized militaries. Moreover, during the Second World War, internal-security duties and even combat against Arabian tribes had taken a backseat to the need to prepare the legion for combat with the Iraqi army, the Vichy French, and the Germans.

Ultimately, the British built the Jordanian army in their own image – or at least in the cherished image of Britain’s vanished colonial forces. Just as Britain traditionally relied on a small, long-term-service professional army, so too did Jordan. Just as Britain traditionally relied on a purely volunteer force, so too did Jordan. Just as the British emphasized the quality of their manpower rather than its quantity, so too did Jordan. Just as the British stressed the skills of the individual soldier honed in constant practice over many years, so too did Jordan. In Nadav Safran’s words, “excellently drilled and ably commanded by British officers it was then [1948] a model of the level of effectiveness that could be achieved with Arab soldiers through careful training and organization.”

The Jordanian Armed Forces on the Eve of War

As a result of this British tutelage, the Arab Legion in 1948 was a highly motivated elite body of long-term-service professionals. Glubb purposely insisted that the legion remain all volunteer so that it could retain its carefully nurtured esprit de corps. In 1948, Jordan was one of the most backward regions of the Arab world, and the pay of an enlisted man was almost a princely sum. In addition, the military was considered a prestigious career among the Bedouin. The combination of the legion’s prestige, economic benefits, and esprit contributed to a very high retention rate, with many personnel serving for decades and many sons of legionaries following their fathers into the king’s service. Moreover, by keeping the force small, the legion had its pick of new recruits and was able to man its ranks largely from Transjordan’s minority Bedouin population, whom the British believed made better and more loyal soldiers. Last, the small size of the army allowed Jordan to continue to provide high-quality training for its troops.

Nevertheless, the Arab Legion did have its problems, mostly related to the economic backwardness of the country. Because Glubb favored the Bedouin over the Hadari townsmen, the tribesmen made up at least 50 percent of legion strength (although they represented no more than 30 percent of the larger Jordanian population). Unfortunately, the Bedouin rarely had an education, so literacy was almost nonexistent among legion recruits. Even fewer had any technical background. Most had never owned anything more complicated than an ancient bolt-action rifle. Of course, the Hadari had had greater exposure to machinery than the Bedouin, and so they were heavily represented in the mechanical-support branches, but this advantage was entirely relative, and few had any true technical training. Moreover, the legion suffered from friction between the Bedouin and the Hadari, and the British were forced to mostly segregate the two groups into separate units to prevent them from feuding.

At the outbreak of war in May 1948, the Arab Legion had 8,000 men, fifty British armored cars, and about twenty artillery pieces. As paltry as this arsenal may seem, it greatly exceeded that of the Israeli Haganah units they faced. For example, in the initial battles around Jerusalem, to which the legion committed nearly half its strength, the heaviest weapons the Israelis possessed were two medium machine guns and two Plat shoulder-fired antitank weapons. For the war, Glubb formed the legion into a single divisional command with two brigades, each of which had two battalions of infantry, as well as a number of independent infantry companies. An armored-car company was attached to each infantry battalion. The artillery was organized as a separate battalion with three batteries. Finally, a third brigade was organized as a “dummy” formation to fool the Israelis into believing that another brigade was in reserve to deter them from launching a counteroffensive against Transjordan itself. The most significant material problem the legion faced was a shortage of ammunition. Before the outbreak of fighting, Glubb estimated that he had only enough rounds for one short battle if it involved the entire division. Against this force, the Israeli Haganah could field 50,000 poorly armed and mostly untrained troops. No more than half of this force was organized into the nine Palmach and Haganah field brigades ready for deployment anywhere in Palestine. The rest were regional militia that could only be used to defend their town or settlement. At the start of the war, the Israelis had no real armor, artillery, aircraft, or even heavy crew-served weapons to speak of. Moreover, the Jews had to spread these forces to fend off five other Arab armies in addition to the legion.

Jordanian Goals and Strategy

There is considerable uncertainty regarding King ‘Abdallah’s intentions when he ordered the invasion of Palestine in May 1948. It is clear that he did not hope to eradicate the Jewish state altogether, unlike his Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi allies. At least initially, in 1947, it appears that ‘Abdallah hoped only to occupy the parts of Palestine reserved by the UN commission to the native Palestinians and annex them to his own state. At that time, the monarch opened secret negotiations with the Israelis intended to reach an accommodation that would allow him to divide the territory with the Jews without bloodshed. As time went by, however, his ambitions appear to have grown. He apparently began to desire that the new Jewish state be reduced to an autonomous region of Jordan. Barring that, ‘Abdallah hoped to increase the amount of territory under Jordanian control and, in particular, he seems to have wanted to control Jerusalem rather than leaving it an international city as specified by the UN partition plan. It might be most accurate to say that ‘Abdallah intended to conquer the West Bank territories and then take whatever else he could if the opportunity arose.’

‘Abdallah’s intentions were complicated by the limited military forces at his disposal and by the divided loyalties of his British officers. On the one hand, the Arab Legion simply was not large enough to occupy all of Palestine; it was not even large enough to conquer the various parts assigned to the Palestinians by the UN. On the other hand, the Israelis could be expected to fight tooth and nail, and Jordan could not be sure how its ostensible Arab allies would react to blatantly self-serving moves. Beyond this, ‘Abdallah was completely dependent on Glubb and the other British officers, whose loyalties were divided between Amman and London. The British government made it clear that, although they had little love for their erstwhile Jewish subjects in Palestine, they would not tolerate actions in contravention of the UN settlement. London specifically ordered all of the British officers seconded to the Arab Legion “to abandon their units if these invaded Jewish territory.”

In the end, Jordanian strategy attempted to straddle these competing positions. Glubb intended to push into the West Bank immediately and occupy it up to the international borders declared by the UN. The legion would then shift to the defensive as quickly as possible to avoid unnecessarily provoking the Jews and to secure the Palestinian territories as soon as they had been taken. One final consideration in Glubb’s approach was the need to minimize his own casualties. A problem with having a small, long-term-service professional army was that casualties were not easily replaced. Consequently, Glubb wanted to avoid bloody battles at all costs, particularly in the streets of Jerusalem, where the training of his troops would be discounted and many might be killed in house-to-house fighting.

Course of Operations

The first Jordanian combat operations actually occurred before the outbreak of war on 14 May 1948. Israelis from the four Etzioni settlements outside Jerusalem began harassing Arab military movements during April 1948. The British considered these actions intolerable and had sent British regulars with tanks and backed by a reinforced company of the Arab Legion plus Arab irregulars to attack these settlements in early May. Remarkably, the Jews held their positions against the assault, but the British still decided that they had taught the Jews enough of a lesson and withdrew their own forces. The Arab Legion company and the Palestinian irregulars remained, however, hoping to receive orders from Amman to resume the attack.

A week passed, and on May the company commander, Col. Abdallah at-Tel, took matters into his own hands and ordered an attack on the settlements. The Jews had about Soo able-bodied settlers (men and women) in the four settlements but had only small arms. While the Arab force was somewhat smaller, it was centered on the legion company and was backed by a squadron of armored cars as well as considerable artillery and mortar support. In three days of fighting, the Arabs succeeded in isolating the four settlements, and then the legion company assaulted the main settlement of Kfar Etzion with heavy-fire support. The Arabs used part of their force to pin the Israeli defenders along their main line of defenses, and then sent another portion with the armored cars to outflank the primary Jewish positions. On 13 May the legion was able to take Kfar Etzion, prompting the other three settlements to surrender.

The main body of the Arab Legion crossed over the Jordan River into Palestine on the morning of 14 May 1948. There they linked up with the Jordanian troops already operating south of Jerusalem and quickly occupied the superb defensive terrain of the Samarian hills. Glubb deployed one of his brigades to cover the entire area from Janin to just north of Ramallah, which allowed him to concentrate his other brigade, plus a num her of independent infantry companies, in and around Jerusalem and establish brigade headquarters at Ramallah.


On 1 7 May King ‘Abdallah ordered Glubb to attack Jewish Jerusalem in strength. This was a clear contravention of both the UN plan and the orders of the British government. Nonetheless, Glubb reluctantly complied, rationalizing it simply as intervention to end the confused fighting that had been raging in the city for the last three days. He detached one of the battalions sent initially to Samaria, the 3d Infantry, from its parent brigade and ordered it back south to Jerusalem to take part in the attack on the city. The Jordanians then launched a coordinated attack from both north and south of town with a supporting thrust against the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. From the north, Glubb sent the 3d Infantry – supported by armored cars, artillery, and mortar batteries -into the Shaykh Jarrah area of northeastern Jerusalem. In the center, several companies of the legion bolstered by Palestinian irregulars were ordered to assault the isolated Jewish Quarter and either overrun it or besiege it. Meanwhile, the Jordanian units that had come up from the Etzioni Bloc (since reinforced to about a battalion in strength), tried to envelop Jerusalem from the south by attacking the settlement of Ramat Rachel on the road to Bethlehem.

The legion’s northern thrust met initial success but then was brought to a halt by fierce Jewish resistance. The Israelis had only seventy members of the Irgun Zvi Leumi, the freelance militia-terrorist group headed by Menachem Begin, in Shaykh Jarrah. This small force was easily overpowered by the legionaries, thereby cutting off the Jewish garrison on Mount Scopus. The Jordanians then attempted to drive westward, from what would later be known as the Mandlebaum Gate, to surround the Old City and cut it off from Jewish territory. Although the Arab Legion had a huge advantage in firepower – the defenders had only a pair of light machine guns and two antitank weapons – they could not break through the Israeli positions. After their initial rebuffs in this sector, the Jordanians shifted their effort closer to the Old City. The legionaries employed excellent combined-arms tactics, moving in teams of infantry and armor supported by mortar fire and, occasionally, artillery when practical. Nevertheless, they found the going very tough against the under armed, but resourceful, Israelis. Eventually, the course of the fighting centered on the Israeli-held monastery of Notre Dame de France at the northwest corner of the Old City. Although it was defended by no more than a handful of Israelis with only one Plat antitank weapon and a handful of rounds, the Jordanians could not take the position. They lost several armored cars to Israeli Plat rounds and Molotov cocktails, and their battalion suffered nearly 50 percent casualties. Late on 24 May, Glubb called off the attack, fearing additional losses. The legion effort north of the Old City then slacked off considerably until the first UN-brokered ceasefire halted fighting altogether on 10 June.

The southern thrust of the initial Jordanian offensive, against Ramat Rachel, was conducted in conjunction with Egyptian units and was even less successful than the northern assault. Elements of the Egyptian invasion force had marched across the Negev Desert to Beersheba and then on to Jerusalem, where they linked up with the units of the Arab Legion south of the city. On 21 May the two Arab armies launched a combined assault against the small Israeli force defending the village on the hills south of Jerusalem, driving out the defenders by sheer weight of numbers. However, later that day, a company of the Haganah’s Etzioni Brigade reinforced the Israelis, who counterattacked and retook the village. Over the next three days, the Arabs attacked the settlement over and over again, recapturing it several times only to lose it to Israeli counterattacks each night. On 24 May reinforcements dispatched by Glubb arrived at Ramat Rachel to restart the flagging offensive. In the ensuing battle, the legionaries and Egyptians once again managed to storm the kibbutz, but the Israelis also brought up reinforcements and retook it early the next day. In that counterattack the Israelis also succeeded in taking a nearby monastery that dominated the surrounding terrain and that had served as a jumping-off point for the Arab attacks on Ramat Rachel. With the loss of this key base of operations, the Egyptians and Jordanians called off their attack and dug in, ending their joint effort to envelop Jerusalem from the south.

Only in the center, against the Old City, was the Arab Legion able to secure its objectives. The Jewish Quarter had the disadvantage of being surrounded by Arab-controlled territory and cut off from the Jewish section of the new city. However, it had the advantage of being an ancient Middle Eastern madinah, overbuilt with adjoining houses and cut by narrow winding streets that were easy to block or defend. While the British were in Palestine, the Israelis had smuggled a small amount of supplies and some Haganah and Irgun soldiers into the Old City so that it could withstand the inevitable assaults and likely siege they expected would follow the British withdrawal. The Arab Legion attacked the Old City on all sides on 16 May, slowly overpowering the small number of defenders and forcing them to give ground. The Israelis attempted a relief operation during the night of 17-18 May. This effort was badly bungled and turned into a frontal assault on Arab Legion positions. The Jordanians proved to be excellent marksmen and inflicted heavy casualties on the Israelis. Nevertheless, the main attack so diverted the legionaries that another force was able to surprise and overpower the Arab irregulars guarding Mount Zion and then breach the Zion Gate into the Jewish Quarter. Although the legion was surprised by the operation, they quickly regrouped and counterattacked the Israeli forces holding open the Zion Gate. In a brief, fierce fight during the day, the Jordanians defeated the Israelis and again shut off the Old City from the Jewish-held sector. For the next ten days, the Israelis tried to open a corridor to the besieged Jewish Quarter, but all of their attacks failed. The legion devised a very effective tactic of allowing the Israeli soldiers and sappers to penetrate through the Zion Gate and then trap them in a kill sack in the small courtyard on the Arab side of the gate. Meanwhile, inside the Old City, the legion conducted a highly effective clearing operation. The Jordanians did an excellent job, using armored cars in conjunction with small infantry teams and support from mortars and direct-fire weapons on the city walls. They pushed deeper and deeper into the Jewish Quarter, defeated several more Israeli relief efforts, and finally compelled the defenders of that sector to surrender on 28 May.



Roman Army at Adrianople.

Following Valens’s defeat and death, the empire’s government of the East, closely identified with the person of the emperor, ceased to exist. The ministers and the insignia of power and even the imperial treasury had traveled with Valens wherever he went, and all those people and riches were scattered, fleeing through the Balkan Mountains. No authority in Constantinople was capable of assuming power, even if only provisionally, and for once no general decided to take advantage of the situation by usurping the throne.

Only in the West were there an emperor and a government. In fact, there were two emperors: Gratian, who was a young man of nineteen, and his little brother Valentinian II. As soon as Gratian learned of the enormity of the Roman defeat and the death of his uncle, he and his army retraced their steps in great haste and took up positions in lllyricum, resolved to defend the empire should the barbarians come their way. It was up to Gratian and his ministers to choose a new emperor of the eastern empire, and they needed a few months to find the right candidate, but in January 379, Theodosius, one of Gratian’s generals, was, with the consent of the army, proclaimed emperor of the East.

Much the same process had occurred when Valens was nominated: First the army of the West acclaimed Valentinian, and only afterward did he decide to appoint his younger brother to govern in the East. From a political point of view, the East was indeed the younger brother of the West, for several reasons: The empire had been born in the West, Rome was in the West, the richest senators wrere those from the West; the western units of the army traditionally contained the most seasoned warriors, and they were also the ones that most easily succeeded in imposing their candidates for the imperial throne. Moreover, the West was synonymous with Latin, and Latin was still the language of the army and the law. But Easterners were starting to reject this status of political minority; for some time, they had known that theirs was the most populous, wealthiest, and most civilized part of the empire. Constantine had simply recognized that fact when he transferred the capital to the shores of the Bosporus. In the dissatisfaction that the Greek East felt at the political and military hegemony of the Latin West lay the seeds of competition—if not hostility—between the two parts of the Roman Empire; those seeds would not fail to produce fruit, and soon.


Theodosius is the last great protagonist of this story: the man who, in the years after Adrianople, worked harder than anyone else to fill the breach and redress the situation as far as possible.

Like almost all emperors, Theodosius was a career army officer; he came from the Far West, from Spain, and he was only thirty-two years old, but he already had experience to spare. His father, Theodosius the Elder, had been Rome’s most famous general in the days of Valentinian and had fought in half the world, from Britain to Africa. His son had grown up accompanying him on his various campaigns until, at a very early age—twenty-six or twenty-seven—he was appointed governor of one of the frontier provinces. At the time, Theodosius, a young man with all the right connections, seemed destined for swift promotion and a brilliant career; but in the Roman Empire, careers sometimes ended suddenly and badly. Valentinian started to mistrust Theodosius the Elder, who was too popular with his soldiers, exactly the type of general who might attempt a coup d’etat, and so the emperor relieved him of his command and subjected him to a political trial. Then Valentinian died, but his sons, likewise unwilling to keep so awkward a man as Theodosius the Elder on their hands, had him condemned to death and executed. His son was spared on condition that he retire to private life, and he had gone to live on his estates in Spain.

All this had happened in 376. Two years later, Gratian found himself obliged to choose a candidate to rule the eastern empire, one with shoulders broad enough to bear up under a frightful load. Moreover, the emperor’s choice had to be popular with the army, otherwise, Gratian’s own throne might begin to wobble. His selection of Theodosius, who met these requirements, quickly proved to be an astute move. Theodosius was cruel when necessary, but he had a political sensibility; he knew how to accept compromise when it was inevitable, but he also knew how to solve a problem at its root when he thought the situation required it. For example, he brutally simplified the religious question. When named emperor, he was not yet even a Christian, but he quickly got himself baptized and lined up with the Catholics, not the Arians. As Arianism was almost unknown in the West, this was probably an obligatory choice for a Westerner, but Theodosius drew political conclusions from it. The new emperor would put an end once and for all to the religious disputes which sowed discord among his subjects and which, in Valens’s time, had weakened the very authority of the emperor; he would no longer allow these theological arguments, so typical of Greek intellectuals, to split the East. One year after taking power, Theodosius published an edict three lines long, in which he decreed that his subjects were bound to follow the only true religion, namely Catholicism. All other Christian sects were stripped of their authority; they could no longer possess religious buildings or practice their faith in public, and should anyone object, not only would God punish him in the next life, but the state would see to his punishment in this one as well.

The edict in which Theodosius imposed Nicene Catholicism as the state religion of the empire was issued at Thessalonica in 380, and it was emblematic of the new emperor’s summary way of working and of his capacity for drastically simplifying problems. The Arians were the edict’s primary targets, and in practice it condemned their church to death by slow strangulation.

With the pagans, Theodosius was at first a bit more cautious, but when he felt strong enough to do so, he took drastic measures against them, too. Sacrifices had long been forbidden, but in 391 the emperor definitively suppressed all pagan cults, closed their temples, and forbade under penalty of death any form of polytheistic worship; the following year, he extended the prohibition to the private worship of the Lares and Penates, the Roman household gods.


Unable to use so unilateral an approach in handling the crisis with the Goths, Theodosius showed himself capable of much greater flexibility. Obviously, the war was not over, and therefore his first goal was to reconstitute the army and resume operations against the Goths. The barbarians had to be made to understand that, despite their great victory at Adrianople, the Roman Empire was not yet defeated. Without losing any time, Theodosius promulgated some extremely harsh laws: Enlistment officials were required to sign up all conscripts at once, without allowing themselves to be swayed by exemptions or bribes; all proprietors of great estates had to furnish their quota of men, taking them from among the peasants who worked their land; all deserters, and all those who were obligated by law to perform military service but had so far, one way or another, managed to avoid it, had to report to their units or face a death sentence. The enlistment officials were authorized to draft, without any formalities, all soldiers’ sons, all vagrants, all unemployed men without a permanent residence, and also all immigrants capable of bearing arms. The emperor threatened death by burning as the punishment for any administrator of a large estate who concealed the presence of an immigrant among his workers; all immigrants were to be reported and consigned to the enlistment officials.

With these drastic measures, Theodosius succeeded, for better or worse, in putting the army back on its feet; at the same time, he was hiring Hunnish and even Gothic mercenaries. Although the Goths had entered the empire in different groups and merged into a single army under Fritigern’s command, they continued to be an aggregation of tribes, some of them with no connections at all to one another; many of those tribes had remained on the other side of the Danube, withdrawing to mountainous regions where they were able to keep the Huns at bay. Theodosius did not hesitate to open negotiations with their leaders, offering advantageous terms to any of them willing to furnish him with mercenaries to fight against the other Goths, and some of the leaders accepted the deal. One in particular, Athanaric, had once been very popular among the Goths, had fought against the Romans, and then had been more or less shoved aside, not least because he was old. Theodosius invited him to Constantinople, received him with all honors, and had his statue erected in the Hippodrome, next to those of Roman politicians; and although Athanaric died shortly afterward, many warriors had accompanied him to Constantinople, and they agreed to serve in the Roman army.


The army as rebuilt by Theodosius was not necessarily capable of succeeding where Valens’s army had failed. The veterans who fell at Adrianople were not easy to replace, and the quality of the new units surely did not reach the level of those that had been destroyed. But Theodosius used the army not so much to defeat the Goths as to force them to negotiate and to accept a reasonable compromise. Even though Adrianople had been a crushing victory, the victors were still in a precarious situation. The Gothic leaders’ strategic abilities were of little use if their men could not manage to take any cities; without fortified cities to serve as bases and winter quarters, the barbarians could be masters of Thrace, they could advance to the suburbs of Constantinople, but they could not say they had conquered the country. However well armed they might have been, they were still just vagabond marauders, and what was worse, the authority that Fritigern had won for himself in the moment of danger had partly dissolved the morning after the victory, when it seemed that anything was possible, and many chieftains had decided to strike out on their own.

Theodosius and Gratian conducted their operations prudently, reoccupying lost territory a little at a time, guaranteeing the security of Constantinople, and trying to show the Goths that the empire was still able to make them pay a heavy price. It was half a bluff, but in the end it was successful. One after another, the leaders of the various groups let themselves be persuaded to make peace, in exchange for the same concessions, more or less, that Valens had promised in the beginning and then taken back. Some of the leaders received cultivable land, enough for the families of their men to settle on, in the same territories they themselves had laid waste during years of pillage and atrocities; other chieftains received officers’ appointments and stipends in the army, and their men were persuaded to enlist. At last, in 382, Theodosius scored a coup by convincing Fritigern, who was still in command of the largest Gothic band, that he should agree to talks.

The envoy sent to negotiate with Fritigern was Saturninus, who had directed operations against the Goths the year before Adrianople and was one of the generals who escaped the massacre by a whisker. Saturninus negotiated a treaty that at least in appearance satisfied everyone, and he was received in triumph upon returning to Constantinople. The following year, in recompense, the emperor appointed him consul.

The rhetorician Themistius, who a few years earlier had publicly congratulated Valens for making peace with the Goths, was charged with delivering an encomium in honor of Saturninus. In this oration, humanitarian rhetoric encountered before can be heard to vibrate anew, as if nothing had changed. Themistius lauded the government for having found a political solution to the problem, for receiving the Goths in peace instead of trying to annihilate them: “Philanthropy has prevailed over destruction. Would it perhaps have been better to fill Thrace with corpses instead of farmers? The barbarians are already transforming their weapons into hoes and sickles and cultivating the fields.” This was the ideology of the “melting pot,” viewing the barbarians as destined to be integrated into the empire as so many had been admitted in the past. Their descendants, Themistius said, “can’t be called barbarians; for all intents and purposes, they’re Romans. They pay the same taxes we do, they serve with us in the army, they’re governed in the same way and subject to the same laws. And before long, the same thing will happen with the Goths.”

In practice, Theodosius’s solution to the Gothic problem had been in the air for a long time and more than once had been on the point of implementation before going awry. Valens had let the Goths into the empire with the idea of enlisting them in the army, and although the inefficiency and corruption that characterized the military authorities’ treatment of the refugees had driven them to rebellion, Valens had always remained open to the prospect of a negotiated peace; indeed, just a few hours before being killed at Adrianople, the emperor had been involved in discussions with Fritigern’s envoys, trying to find a solution. In 382, Theodosius did exactly what could have been done six years before, though he could not easily cancel out everything that had happened in the interval—the years of pillaging and atrocities, the destruction of an army, the death of an emperor, and the siege of the imperial capital. After Adrianople, enrolling Gothic warriors in the imperial army was much more difficult, as was explaining to the civilian population that the Goths were really just refugees, people who should receive humane treatment, a useful workforce.

And yet the ruling classes of the empire gave this a try, and one can either admire their goodwill or be astonished by their cynicism. To the politicians who collaborated with Theodosius, the acceptance of the Goths, despite everything that had happened, posed no problem at all; official speeches and the verses of the court poets all harped on the same string. A Gaulish rhetorician, Pacatus, enthused over all the new Roman soldiers, barbarians, yes, but so willing to learn: “O wonderful and memorable! Those who once had been enemies of Rome, now marching under Roman commanders and Roman banners, following the standards they used to fight against, filling as soldiers the cities they had formerly emptied and devastated as enemies. The Goth, the Hun, and the Alan, learning to express themselves according to the rules and taking their turn on guard duty and fearful of being criticized in their officers’ reports.” The tale of the barbarian who throws away his animal skins and learns to dress like a civilized person and obey orders and observe discipline was told again and again by the authors of Theodosius’s time, and the implication was clear: Exchanging those bestial clothes for garb befitting a citizen and learning to live according to the rules made one a Roman. All the rhetoric about the universality of the empire, about its capacity for assimilation, was trotted out to demonstrate that Theodosius had made the right choice. And, to be clear, it wasn’t all empty rhetoric; to a certain degree, that capacity for assimilation genuinely existed. The empire really was absorbing the barbarians, even though, as it did so, it inevitably changed.

The most striking example of how the Roman army absorbed and integrated the Goths is given by a group of gravestones found in the latter half of the nineteenth century in a paleochristian cemetery near Portogruaro, in the Veneto, where once stood a Roman city with a name of good augury, Concordia. A considerable number of these gravestones, almost forty, are dedicated to soldiers in Theodosius’s army, soldiers from many different regiments—so many that people at first wondered why they had all been buried in this one particular place. Later research suggested that toward the end of his reign, in 394, Theodosius had fought a great battle more or less in that area against one of the usual usurpers, and part of his army probably remained encamped near Concordia for a long time, so we may conclude that the gravestones go back to that period. Since they come from a Christian cemetery, all the gravestones presumably memorialize soldiers who were Christians. Many regimental names are of the fanciful variety typical in the late empire—the Bracchiati, the Armigeri—and many have the names of barbarian tribes: The Heruli seniores, for example, or the Batavians, the unit held in reserve at the battle of Adrianople, whose troops had saved their skins by running away in time.

If you read the inscriptions on all these gravestones, they give the impression that the army was a very compact society, where everyone was linked to everyone else by ties of camaraderie or kinship, and also by religious bonds. In many cases, the inscription states that the dead man’s gravestone has been paid for by his comrades-in-arms or by fellow villagers or countrymen serving in the same regiment; the frequent mention of wives demonstrates that the military was a real microcosm, in which men lived with their families. Moreover, the tone of these inscriptions is decorous and devout, and they offer many dedications and regards “to the best of colleagues,” “to the holy church of the city of Concordia.” But a close look at the names of the soldiers reveals that they were almost all barbarians. They all have Flavius as a first name, because it had been the name of the imperial family since the reign of Constantine, and every immigrant who was granted citizenship received that name; following Flavius, almost every soldier has a Germanic and in many cases even a Gothic name, such as Flavius Andila, a noncommissioned officer in the Bracchiati, or Flavius Sindila, who served in the Herulian regiment.

This was the positive face of integration, the proof that Theodosius’s policy could succeed: The Goth became a Roman soldier, swore loyalty to the empire, learned to comply with military discipline and to appreciate his stipend and his pension; and the army, which was a community, seemed like the perfect machine for handling this integration process. It absorbed barbarians, ground them down, and transformed them into Roman veterans, into the men whom emperors in their public discourses addressed as “comrades in arms” and who constituted the real pillar of the empire.