The Cycle of Battle


The Battle of Blenheim, 1704 – Original Painting by Graham Turner Ref: GT133

Battles usually start when both sides agree to fight. Sometimes there can be a ritual to them. The Battle of the Spurs (1513) resembled the fights of the New Guinea Stone Age tribesmen, where many insults are exchanged, and perhaps a few spears and arrows are thrown, until someone gets hurt and the proceedings end. If one side withdrew there could be no battle. For instance, on the morning of 4 May 1704 at Dursburg Hill, Sergeant Millner remembered that the French advanced, but after coming within allied cannon range pulled back. The two sides stood staring at each other until four o’clock, when the enemy withdrew, ‘leaving us the Honour of the day,’ the sergeant bragged.

As both sides approached each other they would send out scouts, usually cavalry, to discover the other’s position and strength, and a good site for engaging him. Once the sides had implicitly agreed on a place, they had to draw up their forces in what was known as the ‘close order battlefield’. This compact area, usually a mile wide and a mile deep, revealed itself slowly, as each side deliberately arranged their positions. The process could be agonizingly slow. At Ramillies on 11 May 1706 the allied scouts were sent out at one in the morning. Two hours later the main body marched off in a heavy fog, which cleared at about ten to reveal the enemy. At noon cannon opened sporadic fire, which by two in the afternoon had become fairly sustained. At three the infantry advanced, pausing frequently to dress their lines, to ensure they were straight. Fighting continued until just before sunset (9.19 p.m.), when the enemy was routed. It took twenty hours to arrange the forces for Malplaquet (11 September 1709). The night before that engagement the English and French camped so close to each other that they had many frequent and friendly communications. ‘But at last each man being called to his respective post,’ remembered Sergeant Millner, ‘our commerce was turned to and swallowed up and drowned in Blood.’ George Hamilton, earl of Orkney, thought that ‘it really was a noble sight to see so many different bodies marching’ into battle at Malplaquet. Colonel Blackadder thought Malplaquet ‘the most deliberate, solemn and well-ordered battle I ever saw’. Every man was in his place and boldly advanced with speed, resolution and a cheerfulness that showed confidence in victory. ‘I never had such a pleasant day in all my life,’ concluded Blackadder about an action in which 35 per cent of the participants died or were wounded.

Few soldiers possessed such sangfroid. As they waited for battle to begin, men would have to relieve themselves as they remained within their positions, because it was too risky to let them break ranks to nip behind a convenient bush. Officers might try to steel their men with a pep-talk. ‘Gentlemen you are come this day to fight … for … your king, your religion, your country,’ Viscount Dundee told his troops before Killiecrankie (1689), adding that he expected them to behave ‘like true Scotsmen’. Waiting men might smoke or talk, tell jokes, or sleep or eat—all good means of calming nerves. Alcohol was another way of doing so. Donald MacBane greatly appreciated the dram he was served before Malplaquet. Most were very tired. Before the Battle of Roundway Down (1643), Captain Edward Harley had not slept in a bed for twelve days. Before the fighting began at Culloden fifteen hundred Highlanders were reported ‘nodding with sleep in the ranks’. Often men had no food. Henry Fowler had not eaten for forty-eight hours before the Battle of Selby (1644), while the London Trained Bands were so hungry that halfway through the assault on Basing House they paused to loot a barn containing vittles: as they stuffed and drank themselves silly, they were massacred. Before Malplaquet the Cameronians had had nothing to eat for five days. Nonetheless they went into action cheerfully singing psalms.

Infantry were the key: they were the ‘Queen of Battles’, not just because before mass artillery and air power they tended to decide battles, but because there were so many of them. Foot soldiers were easier to recruit and draft, and cheaper to equip and train than were cavalry or artillery.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the normal practice was to line up the infantry, several ranks deep in the centre of the formation, with cavalry on the flanks and artillery scattered throughout between infantry battalions. Infantry consisted of pikemen and musketeers. Heavily armoured pikemen would hold their sixteen-foot iron-tipped weapons out, with the end clamped to the earth by a boot. The pikemen’s job was to protect the musketeers from cavalry as they reloaded their slow-firing weapons. Matchlock muskets, which used a glowing match cord to light the charge, were especially dangerous, since the cord could ignite the bandoleers of gunpowder charges that musketeers hung around their chests, burning them alive. In the early seventeenth century the musket, or harquebus, was so heavy that it required a forked stand on which to rest the barrel as it was pointed at the enemy. As muskets got lighter, and cheaper, the proportion of musketeers to pikemen increased from a third to two thirds.

Once lined up facing each other, the infantry opened fire, supported by slow-firing light cannon, whose balls were lucky to kill a man or two. Infantry fire was ponderous (and the pikemen could not fire at all), so first volleys produced few casualties, even though the wound that a heavy, slow-moving musket ball inflicted was appalling, with an exit hole perhaps a foot in diameter. After a few desultory rounds, one or, rarely, both lines would advance. As they came into contact, in what was known as a ‘push of pike’, the pikemen did not impale each other like suicidal hedgehogs, but lifted their weapons up, and drew their swords. Musketmen reversed their weapons, turning them into clubs. Matchlocks were so slow and inaccurate that it has been suggested they were far more lethal as cudgels than as muskets.

In a huge heaving, screaming, smoke-filled, acrid, broiling, bloody scrum the two ranks of infantry hacked and slammed each other. They did not break into small groups independent of each other (as films often suggest), but remained within their ranks. In this ghastly experience they were helped by a disposition common to many animals who, when frightened, tend to ‘incline much to crowd in upon another’, as the earl of Castlehaven, a veteran of the Irish and French wars, noted in 1680. In the Arte of Warre (1591) William Garrard reported that in combat ranks of infantry could press so hard upon each other that it was impossible for a wounded or dead soldier to fall down. Today bunching together is dangerous, for it allows a single shell to kill many. In the early modern period this tendency to keep together was used so men would stay in ranks and lines, supporting each other as a unit. To survive units had to remain united: they must not become a mob. The purpose of hand to hand combat was to disintegrate an enemy formation, turning it into a mob of individuals to be killed at will. ‘Whatsoever may cause fear in your enemy, ought not to be omitted by you,’ advised Roger Boyle in his Treatise on the Art of War (1677). ‘Fear is truly said to be a Betrayer of that Succor which reason also might afford.’ In other words, Boyle urged creating ‘a panic fear’.

The New Kingdom Army

Ancient Egyptian Armour

The pharaoh headed Egypt’s armed forces as commander-in-chief. As the warrior king he led a highly organised and professional standing army and navy. Tactics and strategies were decided upon by the pharaoh, in consultation with his war council. During the time of Thutmose III there appears to have been only two army divisions: Amun based in Thebes and Ra based in Heliopolis.

Each division numbered approximately five thousand troops. Divisions were then organised into smaller units of approximately two hundred and fifty soldiers who were commanded by a standard bearer. A group of “shock troops” known as the Braves of the King served as the pharaoh’s personal bodyguard.


The infantry

The highly disciplined infantry or mesha was the largest group and gave Egypt an advantage over its enemies such as the Mitanni. These infantry units were composed of spearmen, archers, axe-bearers, clubmen and slingers. Many foot soldiers lacked adequate armour; some were even without shields. Within the infantry there were three main groups of soldiers: the elite first class warriors called the braves, the experienced soldiers and the new recruits of whom many were conscripts.


The charioteers

The elite of the army were the charioteers or sennyw. Charioteers backed up the infantry by scouting and protecting the foot soldiers from enemy chariot attack. Each chariot was drawn by a pair of horses and was manned by a driver and a fighter armed with spear, bow and arrows.


The auxiliary troops

Medjay troops from Nubia were first used in Egypt as mercenaries against the Hyksos. The Medjay and other foreign recruits from vassal states such as Libya became indispensable to the New Kingdom army.



The navy

The navy was first used in combined land and sea campaigns against the Hyksos. It was primarily a transport unit carrying troops and supplies to combat regions. Naval organisation was based on the size of individual vessels, i.e. larger ships carried bigger crews.


I spent my youth in the city of Nekheb, my father being an officer of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Sekenenre triumphant…. Then I served as an officer in his stead in the ship “The Offering”…Then after I set up a household I was transferred to the northern fleet, because of my valour. I followed the king on foot when he rode abroad in his chariot…

One captured Avaris; I took captive there one man and three women, total four heads, his majesty gave them to me for slaves.

…his majesty made a great slaughter among (the Nubian Troglodytes). Then I took captive there two living men, and three hands. One presented me with gold in double measure, besides giving to me two female slaves…

There came an enemy of the South…His majesty carried him off as a living prisoner and all his people carried captive. I carried away two archers as a seizure in the ship of the enemy, one gave to me five heads besides pieces of land amounting to five stat (one stat is about a quarter hectare) in my city. It was done to all the sailors likewise.

From the Autobiography of Ahmose, son of Ebana

Spanish arquebusier



1568. Battle of Jemmingen. Spanish arquebusiers. Angel García Pinto for Desperta Ferro magazine

Gonzalo de Córdoba, (1453-1515).

“el Gran Capitan.” Castilian general who reformed the tercios, reducing reliance on polearms and bringing more guns to reinforced pike formations that could operate independently because of their increased firepower. He fought in Castile’s civil war that attended the ascension of Isabel to the throne. Next, he fought in the long war to conquer Granada. He was sent to Naples from 1495 to 1498 to stop the French conquest. He lost to Swiss mercenary infantry at Seminara, but adjusted his strategy and slowly pushed the French out of southern Italy. He used the same tactics in Italy that worked in Granada: progressive erosion of the enemy’s hold over outposts and the countryside, blockading garrisons, and avoiding pitched battles where he could. He fought the Swiss again, and won, at Cerignola (1503), handing them their first battle loss in 200 years. He beat them again that year at their encampment on the Garigliano River. Between fighting the French and Swiss he fought rebellious Moriscos in Granada and against the Ottomans in behalf of Spain and in alliance with Venice. He retired in 1506, well-regarded as a great general of pike and arquebus warfare.


“Third.” The name derived from the tripartite division common to early modern infantry squares, especially the main infantry unit in the 15th-16th-century Spanish system. Tercios started at 3,000 men, but heavy tercios could have up to 6,000 men each, formed into 50 to 60 ranks with 80 men to a file. They were super-heavy units of armored and tactically disciplined pikemen, supported by arquebusiers and lesser numbers of heavy musketeers on the corners. To contemporary observers they appeared as “iron cornfields” which won through shock and sheer mass rather than clever maneuver. Others saw in the tercio a “walking citadel” whose corner guards of clustered arquebusiers gave it the appearance of a mobile castle with four turrets, especially after the reforms introduced by Gonzalo de Córdoba from 1500. He wanted the tercios to better contend with the Swiss so he added more pikes at the front but also many more gunmen to replace the older reliance on polearms. These formations might have only 1,200 men. The new tercio was still heavy and ponderous on the move, but it was a more flexible unit with much greater firepower that could dig in for defense or advance to destroy the enemy’s main force as circumstances suggested. This reform first paid off at Cerignola (1503). At Pavia (1525), tercios destroyed the French under Francis I. For two generations after that most opponents declined battle against the tercios whenever possible, and they became the most feared infantry in Europe. They remained dominant for nearly a hundred years. Their demise came during the Thirty Years’ War when more flexible Dutch and Swedish armies broke into more flexible, smaller regiments. These units smashed the tercios with combined arms tactics that also employed field artillery and a return to cavalry shock.


Also “arkibuza,” “hackbutt,” “hakenbüsche,” “harquebus.” Any of several types of early, slow-firing, small caliber firearms ignited by a matchlock and firing a half-ounce ball. The arquebus was a major advance on the first “hand cannon” where a heated wire or handheld slow match was applied to a touch hole in the top of the breech of a metal tube, a design that made aiming by line of sight impossible. That crude instrument was replaced by moving the touch hole to the side on the arquebus and using a firing lever, or serpentine, fitted to the stock that applied the match to an external priming pan alongside the breech. This allowed aiming the gun, though aimed fire was not accurate or emphasized and most arquebuses were not even fitted with sights. Maximum accurate range varied from 50 to 90 meters, with the optimum range just 50-60 meters. Like all early guns the arquebus was kept small caliber due to the expense of gunpowder and the danger of rupture or even explosion of the barrel. However, 15th-century arquebuses had long barrels (up to 40 inches). This reflected the move to corning of gunpowder.

The development of the arquebus as a complete personal firearm, “lock, stock, and barrel,” permitted recoil to be absorbed by the chest. That quickly made all older handguns obsolete. Later, a shift to shoulder firing allowed larger arquebuses with greater recoil to be deployed. This also improved aim by permitting sighting down the barrel. The arquebus slowly replaced the crossbow and the longbow during the 15th century, not least because it took less skill to use, which meant less expensive troops could be armed with arquebuses and deployed in field regiments. This met with some resistance: one condottieri captain used to blind and cut the hands off captured arquebusiers; other military conservatives had arquebusiers shot upon capture. An intermediate role of arquebusiers was to accompany pike squares to ward off enemy cavalry armed with shorter-range wheel lock pistols. Among notable battles involving arquebusiers were Cerignola (April 21, 1503), where Spanish arquebusiers arrayed behind a wooden palisade devastated the French, receiving credit from military historians as the first troops to win a battle with personal firearms; and Nagashino, where Nobunaga Oda’s 3,000 arquebusiers smashed a more traditional samurai army. The arquebus was eventually replaced by the more powerful and heavier musket.

Arquebus vs archery

In terms of accuracy, the arquebus was extremely inferior to any kind of bow. However, the arquebus had a faster rate of fire than the most powerful crossbow, had a shorter learning curve than a longbow, and was more powerful than either. An arquebusier could carry more ammunition and powder than a crossbowman or longbowman could with bolts or arrows. The weapon also had the added advantage of scaring enemies (and spooking horses) with the noise. Perhaps most importantly, producing an effective arquebusier required a lot less training than producing an effective bowman. During a siege it was also easier to fire an arquebus out of loopholes than it was a bow and arrow.

On the downside, fired ammunition could not be picked up and reused like bolts and arrows. This is a useful way to reduce cost of practice ammunition or resupply yourself if you control the battlefield after a battle. The arquebus was more sensitive to humid weather. Gunpowder also ages much faster than a bolt or an arrow—particularly if improperly stored. Also, the resources needed to make gunpowder were less universally available than the resources needed to make bolts and arrows. A bullet must fit a barrel much more exactly than an arrow or bolt must fit a bow so the arquebus required more standardization and made it harder to resupply by looting bodies of fallen soldiers. It was also significantly more dangerous to its user. The arquebusier carries a lot of gunpowder on his person and has a lit match in one hand. The same goes for the soldiers next to him. Amid the confusion, stress and fumbling of a battle arquebusiers are potentially a danger to themselves. Early arquebuses tended to have a drastic recoil, they took a long time to load unless using the ‘continuous fire’ strategy, where one line would shoot and reload while the next line shot. When wet the guns were near useless; they also tended to overheat. During repeated firing, guns could become clogged and explode causing pieces of metal and wood to break off, which could be dangerous to the gunner and even those around him. Furthermore, the amount of smoke produced by blackpowder weapons was considerable, making it hard to see the enemy after a few salvoes. Prior to the wheellock the need for a lit match made stealth and concealment nigh impossible, particularly at night. Even with successful concealment the smoke emitted by a single arquebus shot would make it pretty obvious where a shot came from – at least in daylight. Bows and crossbows can shoot over obstacles by firing with high-arcing ballistic trajectories in order to reach the enemy when he has some frontal but no overhead cover (such as when your own troops are in melee with the enemy) — albeit with much less accuracy. An arquebus cannot do this.





Reich and Reichsarmee




At the beginning of February 1763, the Reichstag formally ended the Reichskrieg and declared the Reich to be neutral, which the Prussian representative Erich Christoph von Plotho declared Prussia would respect. This ended a long period of growing ambivalence and uncertainty. The liberation of Saxony remained the Reichstag’s only war aim. Increasingly, as other powers developed wider war aims, many German princes began to question their participation in the conflict. They had no interest in becoming mere auxiliaries in an Austro-Russian war to dismember Prussia or in a British war against France.

For some, the Battle of Rossbach (5 November 1757) marked the turning point, since the Reichsarmee was caught up in a battle against France that had little to do with rescuing Saxony. Bavaria and the Palatinate withdrew their troops in the following spring. Others became concerned at the way in which the conflict seemed to be turning into a religious war, with Protestant princes particularly perplexed at finding themselves on the `wrong’ side.

The Reichsarmee itself was nowhere near as ineffective as nationalist tradition held, though it was admittedly never large enough to operate as an independent force. The main losers at Rossbach were the French, whose 24,000 men were joined by only 11,000 Germans, of whom nearly 4,000 were Austrians. In subsequent battles, Reich troops were also dependent on an Austrian main force and prospered or suffered accordingly. Their last engagement was a severe defeat at the hands of Prince Henry of Prussia at Freiberg on 29 October 1762. By then, the Reichsarmee had dwindled from its initial notional strength of just over 32,000 to some 16,000. Following the Austro-Prussian truce in November, they were the last troops in the field, deserted by both France and Austria. The Reichstag’s decision to end its war was inevitable; the emperor ordered the disbanding of the imperial army on 24 February.

The existence of the Reichsarmee throughout the conflict probably made little difference in military terms. It did, however, serve as a physical reminder of the interests of the Reich, as distinct from both Austria and Prussia. That it remained in existence continuously was above all the achievement of the princes’ representatives at the Reichstag itself, who argued again and again for its renewal. Not for the first time, this much underestimated assembly of ambassadors demonstrated that it had developed an esprit de corps and a sense of identification with the interests of the Reich that helped individual representatives hold many a wavering prince to a consistent line. Indeed, though it was not represented at the peace talks, the Reich alone among all participants in the war achieved its war aims: the restitution of Saxony and the status quo in the Reich. That outcome reflected the way that the majority of German princes and their representatives at Regensburg had ignored the blandishments of both of the major German combatants.

Each side invested heavily in war propaganda. In 1756, Frederick attempted to claim that this was a religious war unleashed by Catholic Austria and Catholic France against Protestants in the Reich, and that Vienna aspired to transform the Reich into a hereditary Habsburg monarchy. Prussian propaganda variously sought to present Frederick as the injured party, as the defender of German liberty, as the guardian of all German Protestants, and as someone seeking to defend the Reich against Catholic oppression and Habsburg tyranny. The Austrian alliance with Germany’s perpetual enemy, France, was also emphasized, though Prussia was scarcely in a position to moralize on that score. Vienna reciprocated with the claim that Frederick was attempting to unleash a Protestant onslaught on the Catholics in the Reich and that his aim was ultimately secession from it.

Behind the propaganda lay more simple realities. Frederick intended to retain Silesia and possibly gain other territory. Indeed, throughout the war Frederick formulated a series of plans that would have secularized the north German bishoprics and divided them between Prussia and Hanover. Austria intended to regain Silesia and smash Prussia. The papacy in vain encouraged Vienna to think of the war as an opportunity to re-Catholicize the Reich. In 1764, however, a report prepared in Vienna reviewed the struggle of the period since 1740 as `a test of the strength of the Protestant nation against the Catholic nation’.

Claim and counter-claim inflamed passions at a time when confessional tensions ran high at the Reichstag over other problems. At root, however, the Reichstag was under no illusions. An attempt to turn a debate about a planned peace conference in Augsburg in 1761 into a religious issue failed when even some representatives of Protestant princes voted with Saxony, which argued that this was simply not the kind of issue on which the itio in partes principle had to be applied. That the congress never took place at all was due to the prevarication and lack of commitment of the major foreign powers, some of whom still hoped for a major military victory that would put them in a strong bargaining position. The true nature of the conflict in the Reich was clear to most at the Reichstag. Silesia was of no more concern to that body now than it had been in 1740. Almost all feared the restless and unpredictable aggression of the expansionist Prussia monarch. The Habsburg emperors had, after all, been contained on many occasions; for holding the emperor in check was a well-practised tradition of the Reich.

The persistence of the Reichsarmee and the consistency of Reichstag policy also formed a counterpoint to another remarkable manifestation of the conflict. The Prussian king’s audacity, his occasionally inspired military leadership, and his sheer dogged determination to survive against overwhelming odds turned him into a hero. In Prussia itself, support for Frederick II was extraordinary, and the King rapidly achieved a degree of personal popularity never experienced by any predecessor.



25th Regiment of Foot. A lengthy period of service in Minorca (1768-80) was followed in 1782 by an expedition to Gibraltar, which was under attack by Spain. In the same year the Regiment was retitled ‘The 25th (Sussex) Regiment of Foot’. It was thought that the addition of an English county name would stimulate recruiting! ‘Lady Louisa Lennox with her husband’s Regiment, 25th Regiment of Foot’ with Lord Lennox beside her, and Fort St Philip, Port Mahon, in the background, c1771. Oil on canvas, one of a set of six unsigned oil paintings on canvas attributed to Giuseppe Ignacio Maria Chiesa (1720-89), c1769-71

Invaded by Britain’s Royal Navy in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession, Minorca temporarily became a British possession. Britain took possession in 1713 under the terms of the Article XI of the Treaty of Utrecht. Under the governorship of General Richard Kane, this period saw the island’s capital moved to Port Mahon, and a naval base established in that town’s harbour.

During the Seven Years’ War, France captured the island after the Siege of Fort St Philip (1756), following a failed British relief attempt. Thanks to the Treaty of Paris (1763), the British returned to the island again following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War. During the American War of Independence, the British were defeated for a second time, in this instance by a combination of French and Spanish forces, which regained the island after a long siege of St. Philip’s Castle in Port Mahon on 5 February 1782. The British ceded the island back to Spain the next year in the Treaty of Versailles. Minorca was invaded by the British once again in 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, but it was finally and permanently repossessed by Spain by the terms of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. The British influence can still be seen in local architecture with elements such as sash windows.


As the rest of the Balearic Islands, Minorca was not occupied by the French during the Peninsular War, as it was successfully protected by the Royal Navy, this time allied to Spain.

The French invasion of Minorca in April 1756 was the event that finally sparked a formal declaration of war between France and Great Britain. The Royal Navy had a major base at Port Mahon on Minorca and another at Gibraltar, and they were under orders to intercept any French movement in the Mediterranean and to observe French preparations in the port of Toulon. There had been reports that the French were preparing an invasion fleet against Great Britain from various bases, and Admiral John Byng was sent to the region with an additional 10 ships of the line to protect the two naval bases. The Royal Navy had already deployed many ships of the line to protect commerce between the West Indies and North America, as well as to intercept any French shipping either dealing in commerce or reinforcement of overseas garrisons. The British had 2,500 troops on the island of Minorca, while the French, under the command of Admiral Count Augustin de la Gallissonniere, had assembled an invasion force of 12 ships of the line and 15,000 soldiers.

The French had landed and invested Port Mahon by the middle part of April. By 8 May they had opened fire on the defenders of Port Mahon, the same day that British reinforcements left Gibraltar. When news of the French invasion reached London, Great Britain acted, formally declaring war on France on 17 May 1756. The naval battle of Minorca occurred on 20 May; Byng’s squadron by this time numbered 13 ships of the line. The British had five ships heavily damaged, and the French pulled away and blockaded Port Mahon. Byng felt that the reinforcements he had on board were not sufficient to lift the siege of Port Mahon, and he returned to Gibraltar, forcing the garrison on Minorca to surrender on 28 May. Admiral Byng was later tried by court martial, convicted of not doing his utmost, and shot.

Siege of Fort St Philip


The Rebirth of the German Cavalry


Late 19th century Prussian Cuirassiers

The countryside around Konitz simmered in the warm September sun. The fields were not planted. There were no rivers and few trees. An occasional, gentle rise in the landscape was all that interrupted the drab flatness of the area. Located in the Baltic province of West Prussia, far from the burgeoning cities and metropolises of industrializing Imperial Germany, Konitz offered the added attraction of its isolation. This was probably what appealed most to Prince Friedrich Karl, nephew of the old emperor and the empire’s first inspector general of the cavalry. Indeed, the prince, turning more irascible and peculiar with every year since the great Wars of Unification, did not like outsiders to observe his annual cavalry exercises.

Friedrich Karl stood atop a tall observation platform. Next to him were veteran cavalry generals just as enthusiastic as he was about the great impact that mounted warriors would have in a future war. For a week, two cavalry divisions had maneuvered against each other, roaming widely through the countryside around Konitz. Now, to hold down costs, just one division remained. The generals’ binoculars focused on a spot about a mile away, where 3000 Teutonic horsemen were drawn up for battle.

That day’s exercise was a tactical drill. The attackers would hit the enemy’s flank, engaging his squadrons and beating them back. Assigned the task of breaking through were the Third East Prussian and the Fifth West Prussian Cuirassiers, their breastplates gleaming gloriously in the late summer sunlight. A second strike wave of lesser strength, about 100 meters behind the first, consisted mainly of lighter cavalry, including the famous “Blücher” Hussars of the Fifth Pomeranian Regiment. Their job was to protect the flank and rear of the first wave or to hurl themselves forward if a rout of the enemy was imminent—or if the Cuirassiers failed. Two regiments of Uhlan lancers stood in reserve about 400 meters behind the Cuirassiers. Barely visible from the platform was a regiment not assigned to this attack.

When the order was given, the Cuirassiers moved forward at a trot. After a few hundred meters the pace quickened to a slow gallop as the squadrons performed a diagonal echelon maneuver and prepared for the final charge into the enemy line. At this point Friedrich Karl swung his binoculars back to the left to observe the dispositions of the Hussars, the Uhlans, and the flanking regiment. Indeed, one of the main goals of the exercise was to coordinate the movements of the three waves with nearby units to maximize the advantages of attacking in great strength. The frown on the prince’s face was indication enough that these formations were not showing proper initiative in supporting the attack. Further irritation followed when he noticed that the charging heavy cavalry had pulled up short, thinking, apparently, that it was just a drill.

Friedrich Karl’s final report attempted to derive lessons that would be useful in the next maneuvers—and in the next war. “Three-wave tactics” would be effective in battle,” he wrote, but the battlefield itself was no place to improvise them. These tactics had to be practiced in peacetime exercises that simulated actual battle conditions—including charges of cheering Cuirassiers ridden through to the end—until the commands and their execution became routine. Unfortunately, the German cavalry had little wartime experience with massed attacks. The result was that supporting and neighboring units were unclear and confused about their roles. The main goal of a successful charge was for the charging division to attract all nearby cavalry into the fray “like iron drawn to a magnet.” Only a “well-schooled” cavalry division with good leaders would be “the cutting edge that decides a battle.”

The great cavalry exercises at Konitz in September 1881 were the high-water mark of a remarkable revival in the fortunes of the German cavalry. The golden era of mounted warfare that Friedrich Karl and his professional entourage revered had lapsed into legend more than a century earlier. At Rossbach (1757), Leuthen (1757), and Zorndorf (1758), Prussian cavalry generals had led successive strike waves of Cuirassiers and Hussars that justified the confidence and faith of their great warrior monarch, Frederick II. This tradition crashed to the ground, however, during the Napoleonic wars, nor was the succeeding generation kind to Prussia’s horsemen. Industrialism brought not only rifled steel cannons with greater range and accuracy but also mass-produced infantry rifles; the Prussian “needle gun”; and the French chassepot, which fired much more rapidly than the old muskets. Consequently, the cavalry was assigned no major role in Prussia’s wars against Denmark (1864) and Austria (1866). The three Prussian armies that descended on Bohemia in the latter campaign deployed their cavalry in the rear. These units saw only limited action in the last hours of the great battle at Königgrätz.

The turnaround began during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Indeed, a new cavalry legend was born as Germany’s three armies marched west into Lorraine to engage Marshal François Bazaine’s Army of the Rhine near Metz. Bazaine seized the initiative on 16 August against the German Second Army of Friedrich Karl, attacking him at Mars-la-Tour before the German First and Third Armies could offer support. Outnumbered and pounded by superior French artillery, the Second Army was in a precarious position. Orders for an attack were therefore issued to General Bredow’s cavalry brigade, consisting of one regiment of Cuirassiers and one regiment of Uhlans. Charging in one unsupported wave, the roughly 800 riders overran enemy infantry and artillery positions, penetrating some 3,000 meters before they were forced to retreat. The “Death Ride of Mars-la-Tour” had cost Bredow 379 men and 400 horses, but he had purchased valuable time for the Second Army. There were altogether eight cavalry charges during the battle, pitting cavalry against infantry, artillery, and opposing cavalry. Deciding the day, in fact, was a great clash of about 6,000 German and French riders. Although Mars-la-Tour was a bloody draw, Bazaine fell back to defensive positions near Metz, where the Germans attacked with greater success 2 days later.

The Siege of Badajoz: March-April 1812


Storming of Badajoz by Chris Collingwood.


The last siege of Badajoz conducted by Wellington’s army was typified by a failed main assault on the breech and a successful secondary assault on the castle. The Allies had failed to take Badajoz before, and the lack of an adequate British siege train, along with qualified engineer officers and engineer troops, would make infantry assaults the major instrument in the siege. The gallantry of the British infantry is legendary, and Wellington undoubtedly felt grief over the horrific losses. The skilled defence of Badajoz by General Phillipon and his garrison is contrasted with the amaterish way in which the British engineering arm conducted the siege. The heavy losses prompted the British to create the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners.

There were four sieges of Badajoz during the Peninsular War, all taking place in 1811-12. The initial siege was undertaken by the French and was a success; it was followed by two failed British attempts. The fourth and last of these operations was also undertaken by the British. This time they carried the day, but it was a very bloody episode and the superb performance of the British infantry was marred by their disgraceful conduct afterwards. They indulged in a three-day orgy of rapine, drunkenness and plunder against an allied and friendly population that had not opposed the British siege operations in any way.

Wellington’s sieges in Portugal and Spain are not noted for the skill and thoroughness with which they were conducted. Many of them were failures, and those that succeeded were usually marked by heavy casualties incurred by the besiegers because the cities had to be taken by storm. Badajoz was one of the keys to Spain; it had to be taken so that the Allied army could continue into the interior and eventually into southern France. It stood on the Guadiana River and water formed a natural obstacle on two sides. The city was strongly fortified and had formidable outworks called the Pardaleras and the Picurina. Across the Guadiana was San Cristobal and the fortified bridgehead for the bridge over the river. The works were garrisoned by about 5000 men ably commanded by General Armand Philippon (1761-1836), who proved a redoubtable adversary.

Siege works were then opened against the eastern side of the fortress on 15 March 1812 amidst terrible weather that made construction difficult at best. The troops that worked on the first siege parallel laboured in water up to their waists and were under heavy French fire from the outset. The French sortied from the fortress on 19 March but were repulsed, and work continued.

Batteries were built to fire on the fortress and on 24 March six batteries opened fire on the Picurina as well as on the San Roque lunette. Additionally, artillery bombarded the main walls, or curtain, of Badajoz between the bastions of Trinidad and San Pedro.

Stolid Defence

Major-General Thomas Picton’s (1758-1815) division assaulted the Picurina on the night of 25 March and took it after a desperate fight; Picton’s casualties were heavy. The next day the British siege guns opened fire on Badajoz once more, this time bombarding the curtain between the Trinidad and Santa Maria bastions. The city wall was formidable however, and it was not until 5 April that two breeches were opened that were believed to be passable by an assault force. Still, Wellington ordered that another breech to be opened before an assault could take place.

Wellington underestimated the lengths to which the defenders had gone to make an assault upon Badajoz if not impossible, then at least as expensive as possible for any attacker. Obstacles had been built in the ditch to render it unusable as a customary rallying place. Although the walls had been breeched, the defenders had erected more obstacles within them and had shored up the defences behind the breeches to stop any penetration of the fortress.

Wellington had planned a main attack by two columns, consisting of the Light Division and the 4th Division, which would go for the breeches. A supporting attack against the fortress’s castle across the Roillas, which was flooded and could only be crossed by a dyke that was 60cm (2ft) under water, was to be made by Picton’s 3rd Division. Other, smaller supporting attacks were to be made on the Pardaleras, the San Vicente bastion and the San Roque lunette.

The attacks jumped off at 8 p.m. on 6 April. The assaults on the breeches were expensive failures, the defenders not only causing the attacking columns horrendous casualties but also taunting the attackers throughout the fighting. The performance and sacrifice of the British officers and men was exemplary, but the defence was too professional and savage, and the breeches were choked with British killed and wounded.

Picton’s attack on the castle at first failed, and Picton himself was wounded. He rallied his men, however, and they gained a foothold on the lower walls. Scaling ladders were raised and the British poured over the parapet. Again, resistance was savage, but the British fought through adversity, taking the castle but with heavy casualties. The San Vicente bastion was also taken, and the heart went out of the defenders.

General Philippon and the garrison withdrew into San Cristobal, where they surrendered the next day. Badajoz thereby fell, and the British troops who had behaved so well in the mayhem of the breeches now went wild and sacked the city. The orgy continued until it finally burned itself out and order was restored. The same would happen when San Sebastian was taken the following year.

Captain Darryl Hollands – Steamroller Farm 1943

The previous evening a German counter-offensive had cut the road between El Aroussa and Medjez el Bab. The commander of Y Division, a scratch force holding this sector of the front, had no idea of the enemy’s strength and he decided to probe the area of Steamroller Farm, four and a half miles to the north, and the pass lying immediately beyond. The troops detailed for the task included a company of the 2nd Coldstream Guards, A Squadron 51 RTR, equipped with Churchills, and a troop of field guns. Hollands, a quiet man with immense resources of physical courage, had already been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal when, as a sergeant, he had rescued a pilot from a burning aircraft at Dunkirk; now, he was commanding A Squadron’s 1 Troop.

As the force approached Steamroller Farm it was apparent that it was heavily defended and the squadron came under fire from an anti-tank gun screen sited beyond an intervening wadi. A fierce fire fight ensued, during which the tanks were also dive-bombed by a Stuka squadron. At this point the squadron commander, Major E. W. H. Hadfield, was ordered to break through ‘at all costs’ and secure the high ground around the pass. Hadfield now had only nine of his Churchills left and he felt that these would be sacrificed to no purpose if they were committed to such an attack. Nevertheless, he had to comply in some way and ordered 1 Troop to advance on the objective, forgetting that casualties had reduced its strength to a single tank, Hollands’ own Adventurer.

The chances of survival, let alone success, were very slim, and in these circumstances Hollands’ reaction was to give himself up for dead, get on with the job, and do as much damage as he could in the process. Adventurer moved forward, only to find the way ahead blocked by the wadi. Hollands told his driver, Trooper John Mitton, to reverse some little distance, and then swung the tank towards the road on the right, which crossed the wadi on a causeway. This placed the vehicle broadside on to the enemy, but fortunately the latter’s view was interrupted by scrub and their shots cracked harmlessly past. Reaching the road, Adventurer turned left, heading for the causeway, and had just rounded a bend where the scrub ended when it came face-to-face with an Eighty-Eight at thirty yards’ range. The tank rocked to a standstill and got in the first shot, wrecking the gun.

Hollands set off again, believing that he had had his share of luck for the day. Adventurer roared across the causeway, turret traversed left towards the enemy. The road began to climb and, rounding a double bend, Mitton braked sharply when he encountered a barrier of camouflage. For the second time in minutes he was confronted by the yawning black muzzle of an Eighty-Eight. It suddenly vanished within a huge belch of flame. From within the vehicle came a clatter of falling equipment. The round had simply scoured its way along the top of the turret, tearing away the extractor fan casing and smashing the rear stowage bin. In the turret the gunner was frantically struggling to bring the main armament to bear but was thwarted by a loose round that was temporarily fouling the traverse gear. The black muzzle belched flame again, but for some reason the second round missed completely. Meanwhile, Trooper Hank Howsen, the hull gunner, was methodically loading a fresh belt into his Besa machine-gun. He snapped the cover shut, pulled back the cocking handle, laid the weapon and fired a long burst through the Eighty-Eight’s camouflage. The gun crew took to their heels pursued by Adventurer with Hollands firing his Thompson sub-machine-gun and hurling grenades at them from the turret.

Having twice survived sudden death by a whisker, Hollands was fighting mad. Clearing his jammed traverse gear, he turned left off the road and headed for some infantry positions on high ground near pine trees, overrunning slit trenches on the way to the crest. From this, he could see that the enemy had parked their transport, amounting to 27 vehicles, further along the road behind a spur, and his gunners set them ablaze. As Adventurer was now completely alone in the heart of the German position he asked Hadfield to reinforce him as quickly as possible. However, so intent was Hollands on his work of destruction that he was barely aware of the passage of enemy aircraft overhead at about 1730. They dropped paratroops to reinforce the garrison of Steamroller Farm, with the result that A Squadron found itself even busier than before. Hadfield could spare only one tank, that of Lieutenant J. G. Renton, who set off along the same route.

Meanwhile, Hollands had become involved in a very personal duel. A German in a camouflaged slit trench immediately ahead of Adventurer kept bobbing up and shooting at the tank with a rifle grenade thrower. Two belts of Besa and three armour piercing rounds failed to solve the problem. Mitton recalls that when a fourth AP was fired into the ground just short of the trench, ‘It seemed to vanish in a cloud of smoke and dust. The net flapped wildly, breaking free from the blast. When the dust settled the German crawled out, stood looking dazedly at the tank, turned slowly, dropped his rifle and staggered away.’ No one aboard was inclined to take the matter further.

At this point two PzKw IIIs appeared close to the head of the pass. Hollands was unable to depress his main armament sufficiently to engage them but Renton had now come up alongside and his gunner, Trooper Nicholson, put three rounds into each. Shortly after 1800 Hollands received the order to withdraw. Hardly had the move begun than his radio failed completely and with it the intercom. Climbing out of the turret, he sat on the front of the vehicle, directing Mitton with hand signals through the open visor. When they stopped briefly to put two AP rounds into the second Eighty-Eight, the engine stalled and refused to restart. Renton overtook and the two crews attached a tow chain under mortar and machine-gun fire, Renton being wounded as he scrambled back aboard. Adventurer’s engine started at the first pull and the two tanks succeeded in reaching their own lines, picking up the crew of a burning Churchill on the way.

As the combined force was clearly too small to capture the objective, it was ordered to withdraw by the commander of Y Division. A Squadron’s losses amounted to three killed, eleven wounded, three tanks destroyed, two disabled and the rest damaged to a greater or lesser degree. At first, no one was inclined to believe Hollands’ and Renton’s story, but three days later the infantry took possession of the area and reported even greater damage than had been claimed, including two PzKw IIIs, eight anti-tank guns, two light anti-aircraft guns, two mortars, 25 assorted vehicles and up to 200 personnel casualties. The Fight at Steamroller Farm had effectively destroyed the enemy’s chances of taking El Aroussa; an intercepted radio message from the German battlegroup commander, who was evidently unfamiliar with the characteristics of the Churchill, justified his withdrawal on the grounds that he had been attacked by a ‘mad tank battalion that had scaled impossible heights.’ Hollands received the Distinguished Service Order, Renton the Military Cross and Mitton the Military Medal.