Rogers and His Rangers I

In 1755, as overall commander in America, Braddock had started off with several British advances against the French, most of which ended in disaster. The campaign seasons from 1755 through 1757 all went poorly for the colonists and the British. The French form of guerrilla warfare on the frontier was far superior to the major campaigns of regular forces that the British were attempting. As British general John Forbes neatly summarized, “the French have these several years by past, outwitted us with our Indian Neighbors, have Baffled all our projects of Compelling them to do us justice, nay have almost everywhere had the advantage over us, both in political and military Genius, to our great loss, and I may say reproach.” In 1757 the Crown charged William Pitt with the conduct of the war, and he began focusing on using the superior Royal Navy—combined with regular and provisional forces—in an attempt to drive the French from North America once and for all. The plan called for a naval blockade to cut off essential supplies and trade goods from Canada and increasing the resources needed to campaign on the ground. In addition to regular troops, the Crown took over the financing of provincial units, including the invaluable rangers.

Braddock’s defeat opened the floodgates for French and Indian frontier raids. From the end of 1755 until early 1756, attackers swarmed in from the Pennsylvania frontier south to Georgia. By the fall of 1756 the Ohio Valley Shawnees and Delawares had killed or captured upward of three thousand colonists in the Appalachian range. The frontier receded as survivors flocked east to more densely settled areas. In Pennsylvania, for example, the raiders pushed as close as seventy-five miles from Philadelphia. The French reported that “all these provinces are laid waste for forty leagues from the foot of the mountains, in the direction of the sea.”

After Braddock’s defeat, colonial assemblies began commissioning ranger units and offering bounties for Native scalps. For example, the Virginia House of Burgesses raised three fifty-man ranger companies and offered a bounty of £10 (approximately $2,000 in today’s currency) for each scalp of an Indian male over twelve years of age. Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie noted that over the fall of 1755 and early winter of 1756, the rangers devastated many Native villages. In New Hampshire, Robert Rogers received permission to enlist experienced frontiersmen from Colonel Joseph Blanchard’s militia to become “Rogers’ Rangers.”

The problem of French and Indian raids was particularly acute in Pennsylvania, where the pacifist Quaker-dominated assembly had always avoided any kind of support for a militia system. The raiders made no distinction between pacifists and combatants, and even after the pacifist Moravian settlement of Gnadenhütten (“huts of grace” in German) was annihilated in November 1756, the Quaker assembly was slow to act. The main obstacle was an impasse over taxes between the assembly and the proprietors, the Penn family. The stalemate finally broke after Germans from the frontier began parading the dead and mangled bodies of their loved ones on carts down High Street in Philadelphia and the Scots-Irish on the frontier threatened to take up arms and march on the statehouse. In order to avoid breaking with their pacifist theology, the assembly passed a bill to provide £55,000 for “the King’s use.”

On the Pennsylvania frontier, Lieutenant Colonel John Armstrong also formed a ranger unit of mountaineers to face the danger. Armstrong had attempted to protect the area with a string of traditional forts and militia garrisons, but found these were useless in ending the raids. He went on the offense, and in 1756, with three hundred men, led a strike against the village of Kittanning, a Delaware settlement on the Allegheny River north of Fort Duquesne. Just before dawn on the morning of September 8, 1756, the rangers overran the village, capturing and killing the inhabitants and then destroying the settlement. The idea was to eliminate the village as a forward operating base to attack the Pennsylvania frontier. But the rangers did not leave it at that. In retribution for prior attacks, the rangers took no prisoners, chasing surviving men, women, and children into the forest in search of scalps. Although the attack on Kittanning was a success, it was costly and in the long term prolonged the conflict: it came at the same time that Quaker representatives from the colony were in talks with the Delaware and Shawnee, hoping to convince them to return to the status of neutrality.

Major General Braddock’s defeat led the British to rethink their strategy on the continent and their reliance on the “fickleness” of the Indians as guides and scouts. Major General Jeffery Amherst, now commander-in-chief of the British army in North America, chose instead to lean on the American settlers who knew guerrilla warfare the best, the rangers. Well acquainted with the American tradition of using ranger units to counter the French and their Native allies, Amherst turned to Robert Rogers and his rangers. The most famous leader of American rangers, Rogers had extensive experience in the field. He was a true backwoodsman, ideally suited to frontier warfare. He noted in his Journals that he became familiar with “some knowledge of the manners, customs, and language of the Indians,” adding that he was knowledgeable of the “British and French settlements in North America, and especially with the uncultivated desert, the mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and several passes that lay between and contiguous to the said settlements.”

In the summer of 1754, during King George’s War, Rogers was a fourteen-year-old living with his parents, James and Mary Rogers, in the Great Meadow frontier of New Hampshire when Abenakis from Canada laid waste to their farm and the surrounding area. Rogers then joined Captain Daniel Ladd’s company of rangers and began his storied career. During this war Massachusetts governor William Shirley had enlisted colonists whom he called “snowshoe men,” or rangers, to defend the frontier. They were to “hold themselves ready at the shortest Warning to go in pursuit of any Party of Indians, who frequently in time of War make sudden Incursions, whilst there is a deep Snow upon the Ground, and retreat as suddenly into the Woods after having done what Mischief they can.”

Robert Rogers’s service began when he raised a unit of New Hampshire volunteers for service in the 1755 Lake George campaign. The backwoodsmen Rogers recruited were experienced hunters like he was. At times, British regulars were simultaneously shocked by the lack of discipline among provincial rangers and in awe of their skills in scouting and raiding. Rangers cared little for the redcoats and regulations of the regulars. One British officer observed that the rangers “have no particular uniform, only they wear their cloaths short.” Each man carried his musket, hatchet, possibles bag containing sixty bullets, buckshot, and a long knife. They also carried a “bullocks horn full of powder” that “hangs under their right arm by a belt from their shoulder.”

Rogers spent 1755 and 1756 leading his men on scouting expeditions from Fort William Henry up to Lake George and Lake Champlain. In March 1756 he managed to approach the walls of France’s greatest citadel, Fort Carillon (later renamed Fort Ticonderoga by the British), on Lake Champlain. By the time he was recalled to meet Governor Shirley in Boston, now the overall British commander in North America, the papers had made him a celebrity. The Boston Evening Post hailed him as the man “who has made himself famous in these Parts of America, by his Courage and Activity with his Scouting-Parties near Crown-Point.” Rogers was pleased with the meeting, during which the governor “soon intimated his design of giving me the command of an independent company of Rangers.” Shirley authorized Rogers to raise a company of sixty-six men “used to traveling and hunting, and in whose courage and fidelity I could confide” in order to “distress the French and their allies by sacking, burning, and destroying their houses, barns, barracks, canoes, battoes, etc., and killing their cattle of every kind; and at all times to endeavor to way-lay, attack, and destroy their convoys of provisions by land and water, in any part of the country.”

Throughout 1756 Rogers’s Rangers scouted from Fort William Henry and Fort Edward to report on the French and their Native allies on Lake Champlain. Rogers looked for targets of opportunity and used the surprise of an ambush to capture and bring back prisoners for interrogation. The risks were extremely high; unlike regular forces fighting in Europe, the war on the American frontier did not always include the option of surrender. If captured by Natives, colonists could expect a level of torture that made death a blessed relief.

When Major General James Abercrombie assumed command of British forces in America in the summer of 1756, he summoned Rogers to Albany. Pleased with Rogers’s efforts, the major general added a new company of rangers to be commanded by his brother, Richard Rogers. When General John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudoun, assumed command, Rogers reported that he had also taken command of a group of about thirty Stockbridge Indians, whom Rogers had sent scouting; Rogers reported they had returned with two “French scalps, agreeable to their barbarous custom.” Rogers used his knowledge of the French language to his advantage. On a scouting party within a mile of Fort Carillon, he spied a French sentry. Taking five men, he boldly approached the soldier and answered the sentry’s challenge “in French, signifying that were friends; the centinel was thereby deceived, till I came close to him, when perceiving his mistake, in great surprize he called, Qui etes vous? I answered ‘Rogers,’ and led him from his post in great haste, cutting his breeches and coat from him, that he might march with the greater ease and expedition.” This prisoner, like others taken before, provided a boon of information for the British over the French and Indian strengths and plans.

That winter Rogers’s force was increased by two more ranger companies and split between Forts Edward and Henry. In mid-January 1757, Rogers set out from Fort Henry with a snowshoe-clad heavy scouting party down from Lake George in the direction of Fort Carillon. Due to injuries on the first day, by the second day the party was reduced to seventy-four officers and men. On January 21, 1757, midway between Crown Point and Carillon, the party spotted a sled traveling between the two posts. Sending Lieutenant John Stark with part of the force to intercept the sled, Rogers and another force attempted to block the sled’s line of retreat back to Carillon. At that point Rogers spotted about ten more sleds that had spotted them, and all beat a path to safety back at the fort. “We pursued them,” wrote Rogers, “and took seven prisoners, three sleds and six horses; the remainder made their escape.” Rogers learned from the prisoners that the fort was well garrisoned with French and their Indian allies, and the men who had escaped the ambush would surely rouse the garrison. Here Rogers held a council of war in which his officers suggested they should “return by a different route from that by which the party came.” The men were soaked and exhausted, and Rogers ordered them back to the fires of their last camp to clean their wet weapons and prepare to fight or retreat. The cocky twenty-four-year-old was defiant, stating “that they would not dare pursue him.”

After the halt, at around two in the afternoon, the rangers marched on in single file about a half-mile, with Rogers in the lead and Lieutenant Stark taking up the rear. Rogers should not have wasted time returning to his camp; in fact, by doing so he violated one of his own famous “Rules of Ranging.” Rule V states that “in your return take a different route from that in which you went out, that you may better discover any party in your rear, and have an opportunity, if their strength be superior to yours, to alter your course, or disperse, as circumstances may require.” Instead Rogers led his men into a deadly ambush in which the first sign they had of the enemy “was the noise in cocking their guns.” Entering a valley where the French and Indians had taken positions in the wood line, they met “the enemy, who had here drawn up in the form of a half-moon, with a design, as we supposed to surround us, saluted us with a volley of about 200 shot, at the distance of about five yards from the nearest, or front, and thirty from the rear of their party.” As men fell all around, Rogers was wounded, but still ordered his men to rally with the rear guard on the closest hill. Several more were killed or captured as they fell back. “My people,” noted Rogers, “however, beat them back by a brisk fire from the hill.” Here Rogers placed his officers and men in a high defensive position, all the while fearing being flanked. Outnumbered, almost surrounded, and in a desperate situation, the rangers did have one distinct advantage: they were wearing snowshoes and could skim across the surface while the French had to plow through waist-high snow. The French and Indians moved to flank them on their right, and Rogers sent his reserves over to hold them off. Rogers noted they performed well, “giving them the first fire very briskly,” forcing them to take cover where “it stopped several from retreating to the main body.” They then made a head-on assault, but using the cover and concealment of the trees, Rogers recorded that “we maintained a continual fire upon them, which killed several, and obliged the rest to retire to their main body.” The standoff continued in this way for several hours, with the enemy taunting Rogers by name with threats. They claimed that they were about to be reinforced, and if Rogers refused to surrender they would “cut us to pieces without mercy.” They then tried flattery, stating that it was “a pity so many brave men should be lost; that we should, upon our surrender, be treated with the greatest compassion and kindness.” The rangers turned down the offers, replying that “we were determined to keep our ground as long as there were two left to stand by each other.”

The fighting finally began to taper off at sunset, as human targets began to blend in with the growing shadows. At this time Rogers “received a ball thro’ my hand and wrist, which disabled me from loading my gun. I however found means to keep my people from being intimidated by this accident; they gallantly kept their advantageous situation, till the fire ceased on both sides.” Under darkness the rangers fell back, making it to Lake George by sunrise. With many wounded, Rogers dispatched Lieutenant Stark and two other men to Fort William Henry to bring up transportation for the wounded. The next day a relief force with a sled guided the party back to the fort, where fifty-four survivors including six wounded men arrived. Rogers guessed they had been attacked by 250 French and Indian fighters, and he had heard that the French reported 116 men killed or mortally wounded.

By late 1757 Loudoun and his commanders came around to the use of American guerrilla rangers and decided to increase their numbers for the upcoming campaign season to a thousand men. Rogers was then given the order to raise five companies of New England rangers that he would command.

However, Rogers and his command saw the war through different lenses. This war in America was not a contest between the “King’s Champions” who, under bright banners in colorful uniforms, would meet their enemy on the field of honor while advancing by fife and drum. No. For Robert Rogers and his neighbors, the Seven Years’ War in America was a fight for survival on the frontier, dominated by the guerrilla tactics of small-unit ambushes and raids, using the elements of stealth and surprise to dominate the enemy. Quarter was neither freely given nor expected by either side, and civilian settlements were considered fair game. As early as 1756, Rogers had pressed Loudoun for permission to “plunder Canada” with attacks and raids upon the settlements of the French and their allied Natives. Loudoun demurred. He thought this would simply turn into a scalping party by the New Englanders, something he considered a “Barbarous Custom.” Besides, rather than enemy scalps, he needed the intelligence that prisoners could provide. He ended the practice of awarding bounties for scalps. Loudoun’s successor, Major General Abercrombie, freely used the rangers on scalping parties and reported to London that he had sent them out to do “as Much Mischief as they” could.

While the scouting and raiding by the rangers proved valuable, British authorities had little faith in using American provincial troops. General James Wolfe opined that “Americans are in general the dirtiest, the most contemptible cowardly dogs you can conceive.” In fact, he considered rangers in particular to be “Lazy cowardly People.” The rangers developed a reputation of being poorly disciplined and insubordinate. After going on a scout with Rogers’s men to Fort Carillon in late 1757, Captain James Abercromby (no relation to the general) complained that “the Ranger officers have no Subordination amongst them.” He advised his commanders that if the ranger force was to be expanded, they should be led by regular British officers “to introduce a great deal of Subordination.”

At Fort Edward in December 1757, Rogers’s Rangers mutinied after the regulars flogged two privates. The rangers knew Rogers’s first rule: “All Rangers are to be subject to the rules and articles of war.” This also included brutal forms of corporal punishment that were rare among provincials. Two respected veteran rangers, Samuel Boyd and Henry Dawson, were convicted of stealing rum from the fort. They were taken by the regulars and brutally whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip with nine separate lashes, each tipped with a sharp metal barb. The rangers had seen enough. Unlike regular British troops, they did not consider themselves professional career soldiers, but rather colonial citizen-soldiers who had temporarily taken up arms under contract to protect their neighbors on the frontier. Their concept of discipline and service could not have been more foreign than that of the regular officers, who used the brute force of corporal punishment to ensure the discipline of the regular forces—many of whom enlisted from the most impoverished classes of Britain.

The event may not have spiraled out of control had Rogers been there. But he had been bedridden fighting scurvy, and his men took action. First they focused their anger on the greatest symbol of oppression: the whipping post. After they gathered around it and cut it down, they attempted to free the prisoners from the guardhouse. They surrounded the stockade and began to knock boards off of it until two ranger officers, Captain Charles Bulkeley and Captain John Shepherd, intervened at some risk to themselves. Shepherd grabbed a weapon from one of the mutineers and ordered some of the men who had accompanied him to fire on the next man who attempted to destroy the guardhouse. The regulars heard the commotion in the American camp and went to investigate. The commander of Fort Edward, Lieutenant Colonel William Haviland, had little use for the rangers and demanded that Rogers turn over the ringleaders of the mutiny. Rogers complied, but warned Haviland that if the men were treated too brutally, he could not ensure that a good portion of his command would not desert. This stand simply convinced the lieutenant colonel that the rangers were unfit for service at the fort and should be transferred away due to their bad influence on the regulars. General Abercrombie concurred and informed his commander Loudoun that he had always felt that the rangers were “unfit for service.

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Rogers and His Rangers II

The legacy of what became known as the “Whipping Post Mutiny,” combined with the great expense of equipping the ranger companies, led Loudoun to conclude it would be better if he could train regular troops to perform the scouting and raiding duties for the army. Indeed, Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, wrote Loudoun, “I hope that you will, in time, teach your Troops to go out on Scouting Parties, for, ‘till Regular Officers with men that they can trust, learn to beat the woods, & to act as Irregulars, you never will gain any Intelligence of the Enemy, as I fear, by this time you are convinced that Indian Intelligence & that of the Rangers is not at all to be depended upon.” In a break from tradition, Loudoun had started placing regular officers under provincial command in order for Rogers to teach them the fundamentals of ranging. Rogers accepted fifty-five “Gentleman Volunteers” for training in “ranging discipline.” In December 1757, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage (later of Lexington and Concord fame) offered to raise and pay for a five-hundred-man regiment of “light-armed foot,” provided the Crown compensated him and advanced him to the rank of colonel. Loudoun approved, believing that this would cut the expenses and improve discipline. In 1758 Gage began recruiting, and by May Gage’s new 80th Regiment of Foot was established with the newly minted colonel at its head. However, Gage had ignored officers with ranging experience, used very few of the men who had training under Rogers and his men, and instead filled positions with regular line officers. Gage would prove to be a competent administrator, but lacked the aggressiveness needed for battle. In time Gage’s force proved to be inept at ranging, and when they were used, they were placed under the command of Rogers.

In 1757, as Rogers trained his rangers on Rogers Island (across the Hudson from Fort Edward), he codified his method of guerrilla warfare into what has come down to us as Rogers’s “Rules of Ranging.” In attempting to standardize his rules for guerrilla warfare, Rogers distilled his concepts into twenty-eight “Standing Orders” that outlined his principles. Here he was training his men for “ranging, or wood-service, under my command and inspection; with particular orders to me to instruct them to the utmost of my power in ranging-discipline, our methods of marching, retreating, ambushing, fighting &c.” Rogers noted the list of rules were based on his own experience “which upon various occasions, I had found by experience to be necessary and advantageous.” The rules have proven to be a timeless guide to small-unit fighting. In fact, a fictionalized folksy version of the rules, originally printed in Kenneth Roberts’s 1937 novel about Rogers, Northwest Passage, follows the “Ranger’s Creed” in the U.S. Army Ranger Handbook. However, the original rules from Rogers’s journals are still studied by Army Ranger students today.

The rules cover a wide variety of subjects, even including the daily inspections during which men would appear “at roll-call every evening, on their own parade, equipped, each with a Firelock, sixty rounds of powder and ball, and a hatchet, at which time an officer from each company is to inspect the same, to see they are in order, so as to be ready on any emergency to march at a minute’s warning.” The rules contain timeless pieces of advice as well. For example, Rogers cautions rangers moving on patrol, “if your number be small, march in a single file, keeping at such a distance from each other as to prevent one shot from killing two men, sending one man, or more.” When crossing wetlands where tracks are easy to follow, Rogers suggests that men shift from walking in single file to abreast “to prevent the enemy from tracking you,” then to resume their former order on dry land. Men should keep moving and camp after it is “quite dark” in an area that will permit sentries the ability to see and hear “the enemy some considerable distance.” In order to quickly respond to any threat, Rogers orders that half of the men remain awake “alternately through the night.” He calls for prisoners to be separated “till they are examined” in order to extract the most information from each. He also warns against returning from a patrol using the same route, writing, “in your return take a different route from that in which you went out, that you may the better discover any party in your rear, and have an opportunity, if their strength be superior to yours, to alter your course, or disperse, as circumstances may require.” While traveling in large bodies, he required units to send out flanking parties on all sides to “prevent your being ambuscaded, and to notify the approach or retreat of the enemy.” In a rejection of standard practices of eighteenth-century European warfare, he calls for men to take cover under fire, adding, “If you are obliged to receive the enemy’s fire, fall, or squat down, till it is over; then rise and discharge at them.” He advises men to cover each other as they “advance from tree to tree, with one half of the party before the other ten or twelve yards.”

Robert Rogers foresaw many circumstances that modern fighters know well. Modern military tactics call for leaders to point out rally points for troops on patrol. If caught by an ambush and command is scattered, men automatically fall back to the rally point and set up a perimeter of defense. Rogers foresaw this, noting, “If the enemy is so superior that you are in danger of being surrounded by them, let the whole body disperse, and every one take a different road to the place of rendezvous appointed for that evening, which must every morning be altered and fixed for the evening ensuing, in order to bring the whole party, or as many of them as possible, together, after any separation that may happen in the day.” The modern soldier is well acquainted with the whisper just before dawn of the order to “stand to,” which is short for stand-to-arms. The twilight hour of dawn has historically been the preferred time for a surprise attack, a crucial fact not lost on Rogers. He ordered his men at daybreak to “awake your whole detachment; that being the time when the savages choose to fall upon their enemies, you should by all means be in readiness to receive them.” He gave practical advice for avoiding being ambushed by following main roads and using common fords. He showed them how to follow the enemy without being discovered. Rather than following directly behind them, Rogers advised his men to circle around them “to head and meet them in some narrow pass, or lay in ambush to receive them when and where they least expect it.”

In January 1758 Loudoun ordered Rogers to recruit five new companies of rangers, including a company of Natives. All were to be “able-bodies, well acquainted with the woods, used to hunting, and every way qualified for the Rangeing service.” Four of the new companies were sent to Louisburg, North Carolina, and Rogers took command of the fifth at Fort Edward.

On March 10, 1758, Rogers led a force of 183 men up from Lake George to Fort Carillon. However, the campaign started off on the wrong foot. The British commander of Fort Edward, Colonel Haviland, had previously sent out a raiding party under the future American Revolutionary War hero, Israel Putnam, and had made it public knowledge that Rogers’s command would venture out as well upon Putnam’s return. One of the men had been captured and another had deserted to the French, and it was clear to Rogers that by sending his party out at this point, the commander had lost his most valuable commodity—the element of surprise. In addition, Rogers had originally been promised four hundred men for the raid, but had only 183. Rogers had a premonition about the events that would unfold: “I acknowledge I entered upon this service . . . with no little concern and uneasiness of mind,” he recalled, “for there was the greatest reason to suspect that the French were, by the prisoner and deserter above mentioned, fully informed of the design of sending me out.” He also questioned Colonel Haviland’s motives for the orders. The rangers had nothing but problems with the regulars at the fort, and Rogers noted, “I must confess it appeared to me (ignorant and unskilled as I was then in politicks and arts of war) incomprehensible; but my commander doubtless has his reasons, and is able to vindicate his own conduct.”

The rangers utilized advance scouts, flanking parties, and even ice skates to cross the lake. On March 13, advancing on the fort, they took to the woods and used snowshoes to remain under cover of the forest. Next they split the command into two divisions and proceeded along parallel routes to within two miles of the garrison’s advanced guards. After advancing along a narrow valley following a creek, the advance scouts informed Rogers that perhaps as many as ninety-six Natives were advancing in their direction. Rogers ordered his men to drop their packs and set an ambush. After placing the men, “we waited till their front was nearly opposite to our left wing, when I fired a gun, as a signal for a general discharge upon them.” The volley killed as many as forty Natives, and the survivors retreated. Rogers ordered a charge. But they did not go far: unbeknownst to the rangers, the party they had ambushed was but an advanced guard of six hundred or more French and Indians.

Rogers ordered his men to fall back to their previous position, “which we gained at the expence of fifty men killed.” He rallied the survivors and managed to drive off the enemy. With their backs to the mountain, Rogers’s men were attacked on three sides and the rangers drove them back a third time. With around two hundred men, the Natives then proceeded to climb the mountain to their rear. Here Rogers sent a lieutenant with eighteen men to hold the ridgeline and sent more to cover his left. Rogers recorded that “the fire continued almost constant for an hour and half from the beginning of the attack, in which time we lost eight officers, and more than 100 private men killed on the spot.” Rogers and about twenty survivors retreated to the ridge and reunited with the men previously sent there. Here one of the detachments was cut off and surrounded. They were offered what they thought were good terms and surrendered; only then did they discover that their fate was to be “inhumanly tied up to trees and hewn to pieces, in a most barbarous and shocking manner.”

“I now thought it most prudent to retreat,” Rogers noted. Closely followed by Natives, the force retreated back to Lake George and gathered some of the surviving wounded with their sleds. He sent word to Fort Edward for help bringing in the wounded and resumed the march the next morning. Rogers summarized that he had faced perhaps a hundred Canadians, supported by no less than six hundred Indians; he thought his forces might have killed as many as 150 of the enemy, at a cost of nearly his entire command. Despite his prescience, Rogers never accepted responsibility for the disaster he led his men into and never questioned his own judgment in setting an ambush for an enemy force without first determining its size and composition. Instead he blamed Colonel Haviland for advertising the raid and sending out an undersized force.

Rogers and his men continued to scout and support the British in 1758, taking part in the Battle of Carillon on July 7 and 8. Now promoted to the rank of Major of Rangers, the new British commander in North America Major General Jeffrey Amherst ordered Rogers on a mission he had long sought, an attack on hostile Native settlements in Canada. By summer of 1759 the situation for the British in America had improved much. In July the British captured Carillon (or Fort Ticonderoga) and Fort Niagara. They had now taken the war directly to Canada, with the key city of Québec under siege. Amherst was also set on revenge. He had sent a delegation under a flag of truce to parley a treaty with the Abenakis at St. Francis in Québec. Amherst became incensed when he learned that his men had been taken as prisoners. Rogers noted, “this ungenerous, inhumane treatment determined the General to chastise these savages with some severity.” Amherst ordered Rogers to take a force of two hundred men and “march and attack the enemy’s settlements on the south side of the river St. Lawrence, in such a manner as you shall judge most effectual to disgrace the enemy, and for the success and honour of his Majesty’s arms.” However, he added, although the enemy had “murdered the women and children of all ages, it is my orders that no women or children are killed or hurt.”

Rogers saw this as a golden opportunity to settle an old score. These were the same people who had attacked the Great Meadow in 1745, when he was just fourteen, destroying his homestead and killing so many of his neighbors. In September 1759, half a lifetime later, Rogers paddled north from Crown Point in the company of two hundred men, with vengeance on his mind. Most were rangers, but the force also included Stockbridge Indians, Mohegans who were part of the rangers, and a few regulars. Ten days later they hid their boats at Misisquey Bay (present-day Missisquoi Bay) and began an overland march to St. Francis. They left two Natives behind to watch their boats and supplies, only to learn the French and Indians had discovered them and had a force of four hundred in pursuit. “This unlucky circumstance,” noted Rogers, “(it may well be supposed) put us into some consternation.” With their line of retreat blocked and supplies and boats captured, Rogers elected to press ahead with the mission. He sent a messenger back to Crown Point asking for supplies to be diverted over the mountains to the Connecticut River, offering the force a second route. After ten days of pushing through wetlands to avoid being easily followed, they reached the St. Lawrence about fifteen miles north of the town. Fording the river, they marched south. Climbing a tree, Rogers finally spotted St. Francis about three miles away. At around 8:00 p.m., as the light faded, he gathered two officers and left to observe the town. He found the Indians in “a high frolic or dance,” guaranteeing the element of surprise. Returning to his force at 2:00 a.m., he set out with them an hour later. Reduced by the rigors of the journey to 142 men, they quietly approached to within five hundred yards of the village, stowed their packs, and prepared to attack. Rogers waited until half an hour before sunrise; then his men swarmed through.

The surprise was complete. Rogers noted that the “enemy had not time to recover themselves or take arms for their own defence, till they were chiefly destroyed.” A few broke for their canoes along the water, only to be chased down and shot by the rangers. The rangers had no sympathy for their victims and no reason, in their own minds, to follow Amherst’s “orders that no women or children are killed or hurt”: Rogers explained that this tribe “had for near a century past harrassed the frontiers of New England, killing people of all ages and sexes in a most barbarous manner.” In a six-year period, Rogers continued, this tribe had captured or killed “400 persons.” As they looted and destroyed the village, Rogers noted, “we found in the town hanging on poles over their doors, c., about 600 scalps, mostly English.”

Rogers found two storehouses with corn that he planned on using for the return trip. Just after sunrise, he ordered that the town be burnt. Some Natives were incinerated alive, as “the fire consumed many of the Indians who had concealed themselves in the cellars and lofts of their houses.” The Catholic church was looted and its bell was taken. By 7:00 a.m. Rogers concluded that the event was over. He bragged of killing “at least two hundred Indians, and taken twenty of their women and children prisoners.” He released most, but brought away two boys and three Native girls; he also liberated five “English captives” with whom he would return. However, the French reported that Rogers and his men killed only forty people and carried away ten prisoners.

Learning that a large force of French and Indians were actively searching for them and expecting them to return via Lake Champlain, Rogers met with his officers and they agreed that the Connecticut River was their only viable route back south. After marching south for eight days, provisions began to run short. Rogers divided the command into several independent companies who—split up with guides—would lead them along different paths to a predetermined rally point at the mouth of the Amonsook River. There supplies from Crown Point should have been waiting for them; however, when they arrived, Rogers and his men discovered that the officer who had been sent from Crown Point with supplies had given up and returned hours before their arrival. After building a raft, Rogers set out with a couple of men for the nearest settlement, a frontier fort known simply as the Fort at Number 4 (now Charlestown, New Hampshire). They arrived after several days and were able to send food and rescue to the rest of the party. Men continued to drift in, and by the time he reached Crown Point on December 1, 1759, Rogers tallied forty-nine men lost since leaving St. Francis.

Rogers’s St. Francis raid is significant for several reasons. It demonstrated that General Amherst and the British had accepted “the first way of war” in America, to use Grenier’s phrase. This is war between partisan or guerrilla bands, targeting civilians and their farms and villages. It incorporates the raid and ambush and rarely includes quarter to men—and only occasionally to women and children. The British were now willing to use American rangers in place of their fickle Native allies to act as guides, scouts, and raiders. Rogers demonstrated that American forces could be just as well adapted to the same long-range raiding that the French and Indians had already practiced for a century along the frontier. Finally, it demonstrated to the French and Indians that their homelands were no longer immune from the terror they had long practiced themselves, with their own frontier raids into the northern British colonies.

The fall of Québec in 1759 and Montréal the next year marked the end of much of the Native raiding along the frontier and foretold the demise of New France. Ultimately, however, the war was not won by the guerrilla tactics practiced by Rogers and others. The British under Gage had attempted to train forces for unconventional warfare, but met with little success. Instead it was William Pitt’s use of naval and regular forces in conventional warfare that turned the tide. Cut off by blockades from trading with the French, many tribes declared neutrality, and some switched sides to the British.

British Army: War with Revolutionary France, 1792–1801 Part I

Frederick, Duke of York (1763-1827)

Like Benjamin Franklin’s two immovables of human existence – death and taxes – in the eighteenth century there were two certainties of British life, at least in retrospect: war with France, and more red coats. More red coats, that is, after first a drastic reduction in their numbers. But as the century entered its final decade, the nature of war with the old enemy was changing. Britain was fighting a very different sort of France and a very different sort of French army, and the war – or more accurately wars – would see the ranks of red swell to a size that would be unmatched for another hundred years.

In February 1793 the ‘Committee of Public Safety’, the executive government of Revolutionary France, had declared war on every power in Europe except Russia. This time the contest was neither dynastic nor commercial, however, for the ends of the Revolution were ends of principle and ideology: the fight against it was a fight for the survival of Britain’s constitutional monarchy (and to many, therefore, for the survival of Britishness). And at first it looked as if the Revolution’s resources would be as infinite as its goals, for the Committee of Public Safety passed a measure authorizing a levée en masse, and France would soon have 850,000 men in its army. But because the Royal Navy, ‘the wooden walls’, had been so determinedly strengthened in the decade before, that vast army of Frenchmen would not be able to come to England by sea. On the other hand, because the British army had been so comprehensively run down, Britain would not actually be able to take Paris, the only certain way of defeating France. The strategy would have to be indirect, therefore: the Royal Navy would squeeze the enemy commercially, seize its colonial wealth – principally the sugar islands of the West Indies – and use those gains to subsidize the continental powers traditionally able to field large armies. It would be Russia, Prussia and Austria that would do the ‘heavy lifting’ in battle with the massive, vigorous new armies of La République.

So for ten years the British army had little to do except, as Macaulay put it, take some sugar island, courtesy of the Royal Navy, or ‘scatter some mob of half naked Irish peasants’ who made trouble for absentee landlords or who, in 1798, rose more ominously in support of a half-cock French landing. Occasionally the army might try some ‘descent and alarm’ in a diversionary attack, usually in the Low Countries, but the legatees of the great victories of Blenheim, Dettingen and Minden would soon be, in Macaulay’s words again, ‘beaten, chased, forced to re-embark, or forced to capitulate’. It was breaking windows with guineas once more, and a double humiliation after retreat from America.

To make matters worse, yellow fever killed so many men in the West Indies that military recruiting was desperately blighted. Britain, unlike France, had no system of conscription – nor much likelihood of being able to enforce one. The navy had the press gang, but the army’s only means of coercion (the ballot) was employed in filling the ranks of the militia, the nation’s unlikely safeguard in the event that a few transports should evade His Majesty’s ships in the Channel.

Nor were some of the measures taken to make up for lost time very helpful. The decision in 1793 to appoint the first commander-in-chief since the American war was a good one, but the decision to appoint the 76-year-old Lord Amherst, the hero of Ticonderoga in the annus mirabilis of 1759, whose health and vigour was even feebler than his age suggested, was certainly not. When he was replaced after two years by the duke of York, Henry Dundas, the secretary of state for war – at last a cabinet post in its own right – complained that ‘Amherst was a worthy and respectable old man … but the mischief he did in a few years will not be repaired but by the unremitting attention of many’. In 1795, then, the army’s stock stood as low as the life expectancy of its troops.

Remarkably, however, the army did not entirely lose heart. Or rather, enough of its capable officers did not. Indeed, a sort of grim determination now took hold which would be a useful example during the frequent periods of military doldrums in the following two centuries, perhaps best exemplified by the remarks of the young Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Wellesley after the ill-fated expedition to Flanders in 1793–4: ‘At least I learned what not to do, and that is always a valuable lesson.’

A valuable lesson indeed, if scant comfort to countless widows and orphans. There were, though, some less bloody lessons to be learned during the lean years of the 1790s. The ‘variety of steps in our infantry and the feebleness and disorderly floating of our lines’, of which the young James Wolfe had complained after Dettingen, were replaced, if with some resistance, by a standard drill. It had been devised by Colonel Sir David Dundas, known (and not always affectionately) as ‘Old Pivot’, for the drill was based on Frederick the Great’s instructions, with their emphasis on the lines of infantry changing direction, and thus the direction of their fire, by pivoting on the left, right or centre points of the line – a slower method than hitherto, but one that cured the problem of Wolfe’s ‘floating’. Still, ‘made in Germany’ was not a recommendation to every officer, and the 1792 Rules and Regulations for the Movement of His Majesty’s Army took a deal of enforcing – which the duke of York’s appointment went some way to doing, convinced as he was that it was better to have an imperfect drill understood by all than a hundred and one different variants all claiming to be the perfect system.

Indeed, the painfully slow reform of the army really began with York’s outrageous promotion to field marshal and commander-in-chief at the age of 32 – and without the distinction of success in the field. There was just something in the character of George III’s younger son that recommended him to generals far more experienced than himself. It was, of course, prudent for any ambitious officer to be on good terms with the King’s son, but this alone could not have explained the near-universal respect for York’s energy, devotion to the army, administrative ability – and, though it had been comparatively little tested, physical courage. Not for nothing was he known to all ranks, rather like the marquess of Granby, as ‘the soldier’s friend’. If only he had won even a minor victory in the field and had possessed the figure of a Wellesley or a Moore rather than the corpulence of his brother the Prince Regent, there might today be a worthy statue of him in Whitehall.

One of York’s most pressing tasks was to reform the purchase system. In the decade or so of stagnation after the American war the worst practices had returned, and there were as many new ones. Other than in the artillery and engineers, where commissioning and promotion were still conducted on merit and tightly controlled by the Board of Ordnance, in many regiments the officers were neither capable nor even at duty. The system of a hundred years before, whereby a man of modest means could enrich himself (or at least make a living) through foreign service had developed into a system by which a rich man could buy himself an agreeable, prestigious life. The rough and ready country gentry of Marlborough’s day did at least have to be present in order to make their money, whereas now the ‘gentleman’ could use his family means to buy himself a fine uniform and the admiration of London or Bath, and as long as his regiment was not required for duty overseas his presence on parade was scarcely desired. When his regiment was posted abroad he simply exchanged into another that was returning home: there were always impecunious officers keen enough for the cheaper life in India or, while life actually lasted, the West Indies. Sometimes it did not even have to be the tropics to put off a blade: Beau Brummell famously sold out of the 10th Light Dragoons when they were posted to Manchester on the grounds that he had ‘not enlisted for foreign service’.

York managed to curb some of the worst excesses of purchase but in truth it needed the active support of the entire officer corps to end the abuse, and in a sense every officer, good or bad, had a stake in the old system. Arthur Wellesley himself had risen to command of the 33rd Foot (which by then he had taken to India) entirely by purchase and without doing a day’s actual duty in several of the regiments through which he had advanced in rank. What York did manage to do was impose minimum qualification times, so that an officer at least had to spend a decent period in each lower rank before buying his way into the next one up, and establish a reporting system by which he was able to advance outstanding officers on merit without purchase. Frederick the Great had abolished purchase in the Prussian army and substituted a rigorous system of selection and training of cadets, and Revolutionary France had swept away purchase along with much else of the ancien régime; but both countries had universal conscription and therefore a better class of soldier. Perversely, perhaps, Britain’s ‘scum of the earth’ responded quite extraordinarily well to being led by the sort of men who would pay for the privilege of doing so – backed up, of course, by the lash. The job of these ‘gentlemen’s sons’ was by and large straightforward: ‘the NCOs showed us how to fight,’ wrote one old soldier after Waterloo, ‘and the officers how to die’.

There continued to be a stiffening of professionally minded officers, however, many of them from the ‘marches’ and beyond – Scotland and Ireland: men of good, ancient family whose fathers’ estates could not run to supporting a fashionable life either out of or in uniform, or who found the prospect of life in their native counties somewhat too confined. Arthur Wellesley was one of these, although his family was a shade grander than the average laird’s son or rack-renting Irish landlord.

British Army: War with Revolutionary France, 1792–1801 Part II

The regiments in which they served were changing, too, both outwardly and in substance. Gone were the proprietor-colonels, for the financial arrangements had become much tighter. Colonelcies were now largely honorific, and increasingly the domain of senior officers or royalty. Command in all its executive functions was in the hands of the lieutenant-colonel, who nine times out of ten would have purchased the rank, although as the war rolled on and new regiments were raised (and casualties mounted), there was a marked increase in ‘field promotion’ – promotion without purchase as reward for merit, or in strict seniority to fill dead men’s boots.

And the regiments now went by different titles. Originally known by its colonel’s name – Barrell’s Regiment, for example, or Howard’s – and from 1751 by its number in ‘the line’, in 1782 each regiment was identified with a particular part of the country in an attempt to stimulate recruitment. So the 34th Foot now became, for instance, the 34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot, and the 9th Foot became the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment. Some of the most senior regiments were allowed a grander title, such as the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment, whose colonel was General Sir John Burgoyne, rehabilitated after his Saratoga humiliation. Some were distinguished as ‘Fusiliers’ in addition to their territorial affiliation, such as the 21st (Royal North British Fusilier) Regiment, or (later) as ‘Light Infantry’ rather than mere pedestrian ‘Foot’, such as the 43rd (Monmouthshire) Light Infantry. As in other reorganizations of the British infantry in the past two centuries there were territorial anomalies, such as the renaming of the very Scottish 25th Foot as the 25th (Sussex) Regiment – until 1805, when its recruiting area was transferred to the Scottish Borders, whose name it then took. These county affiliations served the regiments well in more ways than the original recruiting intention, but their greatest test – the rapid expansion of the army in the First World War – proved that the system was indeed an act of genius, if accidental. Would, for example, the county of Durham have been able to raise fourteen extra infantry battalions in 1914–15 quite so easily, and the War Office have had them battle-ready so quickly, had not the battalions been able to take on the instant identity of the Durham Light Infantry? It is doubtful.

The ‘county’ system continued until the twenty-first century, when the cull and reorganization of 2006 left only one county name in the whole of the army as the regiments disappeared into ‘regional’ – or, in the case of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, national – multi-battalion groupings. The exception was the three-battalion Yorkshire Regiment, which says much for the consciousness of that independent-minded county, as well as the shrewdness of the regiment’s elders in holding fast to a firm local identity when the strong recruiting power of its former regiments (the Green Howards, the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire, and the Duke of Wellington’s) was lost.

Changes in the infantry were by no means the only developments during the 1790s, which in many ways was the decade of waiting. While the duke of York was gathering up the reins at the Horse Guards as best he could, the army had the great good fortune to find there was now an able man in charge of the Board of Ordnance – Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond. Besides thoroughly reorganizing the Ordnance’s administration and the supply of gunpowder, Richmond raised the Royal Corps of Artificers to supervise military construction, the Royal Corps of Artillery Drivers to replace the civilian hireling gun teams, and the Royal Horse Artillery to support the cavalry. Without these reforms the army would simply not have been able to take the field against the rapidly modernizing forces of Revolutionary France.

But when would the opportunity come to put these innovations to the test? In 1799 there was another ignominious expedition to Flanders, led gallantly but ill-advisedly by the duke of York in person, and there were more costly and futile descents on the enemy coast, urged by the prime minister, the younger Pitt, just as his father had championed the equally ineffectual tip and run raids forty years earlier. Although these showed an offensive spirit of sorts, they showed no instinct for, and arguably no understanding of, the decisive use of force. The breakthrough – in Egypt – was to come almost by accident.

On 8 March 1801 at Aboukir, at the mouth of the Nile, the British army carried out its first successful opposed landing from the sea. The ships were under the command of Admiral Alexander Cochrane, uncle of the famous Sir Thomas – the ‘sea wolf’, the only captain who could rival Nelson in daring – and himself a bold and resourceful officer, fruit of the two decades of spending on ‘the safeguard of the sea’. The landing force was commanded by a fellow Scot, Sir Ralph Abercromby, with yet another, the 39-year-old Major-General John Moore, as his deputy.

Into the boats at the ships’ side clambered 5,000 red-coated marines and infantry – 5,000 muskets with little expectation of keeping their powder dry, knowing the work would have to be done with the bayonet. Once the boats were full, redcoats packed tight as the cargo on a slaver, the ‘bluejackets’ began pulling for the shore.

Half a mile distant, in the sand dunes of the Nile Delta, 2,000 Frenchmen lay waiting for them. An onshore breeze made the sea choppy, and as the boats ploughed through the swell several of them were overwhelmed, sinking with the loss of all but the strongest and least encumbered swimmers. Cannon shot now smashed into others, the French guns hardly needing to take aim against so numerous a flotilla. And then, as the boats began running in through the surf, into the breakers charged the French cavalry to cut at the assault troops before they could scramble out and gain a footing.

But the tide of redcoats was as unstoppable as the waves themselves. Men landing on a beach find little cover and, after a galling fire on the run-in, have little thought but getting at those shooting at them. And there were none more determined to go to it with the bayonet that morning than the 42nd Highlanders, the Black Watch, the only regiment in the army as yet allowed to wear the kilt (and with the red hackle in their bonnets, a distinction whose origins are long forgotten but which even today evokes a fierce sense of specialness). The fighting, hand to hand and with little quarter, did not last long. The cold steel of the Forty-second and half a dozen other regiments – English, Welsh and Irish (truly a microcosm of the newly constituted United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) – at last silenced the guns and chased the rest from the dunes and back towards Alexandria. The assault landing, ever a precarious business, had succeeded: could Abercromby now complete his task of destroying the French army in Egypt?

It was a daunting enough task. The French had been in Egypt for three years. It had been General Napoleon Bonaparte’s great egotistic mission, a speculative strategic adventure which vaguely threatened British interests in India by menacing the Levant. Bonaparte had come by sea, but a month later, in August 1798, at the battle of the Nile Nelson had made sure he could not leave that way, famously sailing into the shallows on the enemy’s blind side and destroying the French fleet as it lay at anchor. With his army washed up amid the pyramids it was not long before Bonaparte was back in Paris on the pretext of fulfilling his destiny. But a stranded army abandoned by its general was still an army, and it was Abercromby’s own destiny to deal with it.

He had some 14,000 men against 20,000 – unpromising odds, but the French officer opposing him was not of the first water. The brilliant General Kléber, whom Bonaparte had left in charge, had been assassinated by a Syrian student the year before, and in his place now stood Jacques-François de Menou, or Abdullah as he preferred after his ‘conversion’ to Islam. Menou was to prove as sedentary as Abercromby was active, though at 48 he was sixteen years Abercromby’s junior.

The route to Alexandria, the French army’s base, offered neither room for manœuvre nor opportunity for surprise. Abercromby’s lodgement was at the point of a narrow spit of land in the Nile Delta, with the sea on one side and Lake Aboukir on the other. But he lost no time in enlarging the perimeter to gain depth in case of a counter-attack, and to make space for his regiments to recover after their passage from Sicily. On 13 March, five days after the initial landing, he struck out from the bridgehead, skirmishing briskly with Menou’s outposts at Mandora, and by the twentieth had managed to extend his front across the 3 miles of the isthmus, with his right flank resting on the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Nicopolis and his left on the lake and the Alexandria canal. Expecting a counter-attack, he placed John Moore’s division on the right of the line, the Guards brigade in the centre and three more brigades on the left towards the lake, backing them with a second line of two brigades and dismounted cavalry. And this would prove prudent, for, having progressively lost the initiative over the past fortnight, Menou now managed to stir himself into a night attack.

He struck in the early hours of 21 March, but Abercromby, anticipating the move, already had his men stood to arms. The main weight of the attack fell on Moore’s division, in particular the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment. As day broke, the Glosters (the spelling is one of those cherished peculiarities of every regiment) found themselves so hard pressed that their colonel ordered the rear rank to turn about to fight off an envelopment – a drill not found in the Dundas regulations. With both front and rear ranks simultaneously engaged and therefore unable to support each other, all the Glosters could rely on was their speed of reloading, the vigour of their bayoneting and the toughness belied by their pastoral recruiting area. They literally fought back to back, the French dead piling up by the minute to both front and rear, until the attack was utterly spent.

In recognition of this singular feat of arms the Glosters were awarded the distinction of wearing Sphinx badges both at the front and at the back of their head-dress – another of those cherished peculiarities which 200 years later would still somehow convince a Glosters soldier that he was a part of something special, still make a man fight just a little harder because he knows that others wearing the same badge have managed to fight hard in the past.

The battle of Alexandria was as hard fought as any one of Marlborough’s great ‘quadrilateral’. The casualties were heavy on both sides, but the French could make no impression on the British line, and towards late morning, with their cavalry blown, their guns running out of powder and their infantry exhausted, they turned tail for the security of the ancient port of Egypt after which the battle was named. A few months later Menou and his besieged, demoralized army surrendered.

Aboukir (Abu Qir) and Alexandria were magnificent turning points in the British army’s reputation – the culmination of, in the words of one of Bonaparte’s officers (later a Russian general), Henri Jomini, ‘l’époque de sa régénération’. The infantry especially had somehow regained that doggedness and defiance which seemed to have reached its high-water mark at Minden and been on the ebb ever since, particularly after Yorktown. In Egypt British generals had planned things well, and executed them even better; and superior French numbers had been overcome by sheer fighting spirit. The army of Revolutionary France which would soon under ‘Emperor’ Napoleon become the Grande Armée was not invincible after all. Although it took a little time for the truth to sink in (the cabinet had agreed to unfavourable peace terms in October before even knowing the outcome of the fighting), the King’s ministers could at last see that a well-found and well-generalled British army supported by the Royal Navy could gain decisive results. The question that they now had to answer was where that decision should be sought.

But fate played a cruel, if ultimately obliging, trick at Alexandria. Armies are much the better for being led by generals who take a good share of the shot rather than just the major share of the prize money. Sir Ralph Abercromby, who despite his years was in the thick of the fighting at Alexandria (at one point grappling hand-to-hand with two French dragoons), had been fatally wounded. Moore, his deputy, who was also wounded (as well as three other generals), took command in the hour of the dying hero’s triumph – with eerie portent of his own later fate. And Moore, thrust into the prominence of command, would thereby gain in due course the authority to work his own reforms, and take them to the enemy on the mainland of Europe.

In Egypt, then, the British army had served notice that it was to enter the fight on land and as a force to be reckoned with – exactly as Marlborough had done by his march into Bavaria a hundred years before. And the army’s elastic order of battle would stretch to its greatest length to date. Once again, officers were learning how to rebuild an army – and in the face of their most dangerous enemy yet.

Corpo di Spedizione Italiano and Units after 1943

Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia)

As Europe’s first fascist dictator, it was inevitable that Mussolini would commit troops to the “anti-Bolshevik crusade”. However, up to June 1941, World War II had gone badly for Il Duce. He had nothing to show in comparison with Hitler’s territorial gains. In May 1940, Mussolini’s frustration was further heightened when the German armies drove the British forces off the continent and brought France to her knees. It now seemed certain that Germany would win the war. Desperate to share in the spoils of war, Mussolini announced on 10 June 1940 to an enormous crowd gathered in the Piazza Venezia that Italy was at war with Britain and France. Unfortunately, Il Duce was caught in what his Foreign Minister Ciano ironically called “an outbreak of peace” which left Mussolini in a state of limbo. His ego and thirst for power drove him subsequently to invade the Balkans. The Italians invaded Greece in October 1940, only to be militarily humiliated by the Greeks. However, fascist honour was restored by the German Blitzkrieg in the Balkans in April 1941. Greece and Yugoslavia were quickly conquered, and a British expeditionary force was expelled from the mainland. It found refuge on Crete, which was then taken by a German airborne assault in May. This was followed by Turkey signing a formal treaty with Berlin that granted the Germans passage through the Dardanelles.

These factors convinced Mussolini of the Führer’s invincibility and that the impending German attack on the Soviet Union would be an unqualified success. He was convinced he would gain the prestige that he longed for, and Italy would share in the spoils of war. He thus joined the war against Russia and committed a force of 60,000 men to the struggle, known as the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia). This force comprised three divisions: Pasubio and Torino, which were 1938-type binary divisions (two infantry regiments and an artillery regiment each plus support services), and the 3rd Mobile Division Principe Amedeo Duca d’Aosta. The latter had two mounted cavalry regiments, a Bersaglieri cycle regiment, a light tank group with obsolete L-3s, an artillery regiment and service units. Later, he sent the 63rd Assault Legion Tagliamento to represent his fascist Blackshirts.

The CSI on the Eastern Front

In July 1941, the supposedly motorized CSI followed the German Army through the Ukraine, mainly on foot. Morale was high at the prospect of an easy campaign, and the Germans were impressed with their Italian allies. Unfortunately, this initial euphoria soon disappeared. Inadequate leadership, armour and transport, plus shortages of artillery and anti-tank weapons, revealed the corps to be ill-equipped for the fighting it was to encounter. Undeterred, in March 1942, Mussolini sent II Corps comprising the Sforzesca, Ravenna and Cosseria Infantry Divisions, together with the élite Alpine Corps comprising the Vicenza Infantry and Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions. Further Blackshirt units were also sent, formed into the 3 Gennaio and 23 Marzo Groups to reinforce the CSI, now designated XXXV Corps. This force of 227,000 men became the Italian Eighth Army. In August 1942, it was guarding the Don Front north of Stalingrad with German liaison officers and formations attached to ensure its reliability. Although a Russian attack had been expected, the Italians were unable to resist the massive armoured thrust that was hurled against them on 11 December 1942. II and XXXV Corps crumbled almost immediately, leaving the Alpine Corps stranded and resulting in a huge gap in the Don defences. The lack of anti-tank guns and medium tanks was keenly felt in this rout. The Italians were left to fend for themselves during their retreat, in which they were harassed continually by the Red Army. In January 1943, the survivors regrouped in the Ukraine but the Italian Eighth Army had ceased to exist. The disillusioned Germans sent the survivors back to Italy.

The Fall of Mussolini

Once in Italy, the survivors bitterly blamed both Mussolini and Hitler for the suffering they had endured. This, in part, influenced the events that were to follow in Italy when, on 25 July 1943, Mussolini was voted out of office by his own Fascist Grand Council and subsequently placed under arrest. On 8 September, Italy officially quit the war. After the fall of the fascist regime, the liberated areas of the country turned to the Allies. On 12 September, Mussolini was rescued from captivity on Gran Sasso by a German commando unit under the leadership of Otto Skorzeny and then evacuated to Germany. Later, in the town of Salo on the shores of Lake Garda, Il Duce set up a puppet fascist state, the so-called Italian Social Republic or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Republic of Salo. The official foundation of the armed forces of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) was on 28 October 1943.

A virtual civil war had broken out in Italy after Mussolini’s deposition and Italy’s exit from the Axis camp. Some of the Italian forces actively resisted the Germans and were defeated and made prisoner; others deserted to swell the ranks of the resistance; and a few remained loyal to fascism. The Germans were anxious to utilize the pro-fascist elements in the struggle against the now greatly augmented resistance. Above all, they were determined to keep open the vital lines of communication between Austria and northern Italy. Mussolini’s republic cannot be considered anything but a puppet state of the greater German Reich. Four infantry divisions were formed and trained in Germany: the Italia, Littorio, San Marco and Monterosa Divisions. These and other units were under German control. For example, a unit that was formed in France after the fall of Mussolini from two battalions of the Blackshirt militia wore Italian Army uniforms with the Wehrmacht eagle and swastika above the left breast pocket and as a cap badge. It returned to Italy in October 1943 to fight the partisans and later the Allies at Anzio. It was granted the title, 1st Battaglione 9 Settembre, by Mussolini in August 1944. In October 1944, it was attached to the German Brandenburg Division and, as part of this unit, fought against the Red Army on the Eastern Front from October 1944 to January 1945, when it was brought back to Italy to take part once again in anti-partisan fighting.

The Germans also raised a unit composed of Bersaglieri personnel. Before the RSI was proclaimed, this formation was called the Voluntary Battalion of the Waffen-SS. It should not be confused with the 29th Grenadier Division of the Italian SS, which appeared later and was formed by more than 15,000 Italian recruits who joined the Waffen-SS.

From September 1943 to the end of February 1944, a separate SS battalion was being formed at the SS Heidelager Training Centre at Debica, Poland. Major Fortunato, a former Bersaglieri officer who had served in Russia, was tasked in the selection of new recruits loyal to the Germans. Most of the volunteers came from the Italian 31st Tank Battalion of the Lombardia Division and the élite alpine Julia Division.

The formation, which had 20 officers and 571 men, was referred to as the SS Battalion Debica. For the most part, these troops were considered as Waffen-SS men; and by early March 1944, the men of the SS Battalion Debica had been kitted out in German paratrooper uniforms.

On 21 March 1944, the SS Battalion Debica was deployed to carry out anti-partisan operations around the Pellice Valley, southwest of Turin. On 12 April, the SS Battalion Debica was incorporated into SS Battle Group Diebitsch. However, it was not deployed to the Anzio frontlines. During April and May, the battalion fought around Nocera Umbra, Assisi and San Severino Marche against Italian partisans, suffering 50 casualties. New volunteers were able to keep the battalion’s strength at 500 men and 20 officers.

In early June 1944, SS Battalion Debica, now subordinated to the German I Parachute Corps, was in action to the north of Rome along the Tyrrhenian coast. It suffered heavy losses while fighting American tank units in this area and against partisans behind the German lines. The 200 or so survivors were then dispersed among small battle groups. On 16 June, the SS Battalion Debica was ordered to Florence to help guard the defensive positions of the Gothic Line under Army Group von Zangen. Because the battalion was understrength, it was sent to Pinerolo for refitting. By August, the battalion was back to full strength and ordered to take part in Operation Nightingale against partisan strongpoints in the Chisone and Susa Valleys. On 7 September the SS Battalion Debica became part of the new Waffen Grenadier Brigade der SS (Italian nr. 1), being converted into the new 59th Waffen-SS Reconnaissance Battalion.

Fourteen captured Italian Carro Armato P 40 tanks were supplied to the newly formed division, 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger, in July 1944, but they proved unreliable.

The 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger was a mixed German Volksdeutsche and pro-fascist Italian formation. To combat Tito’s partisans in the Carso and Julian Alps, the SS Karstwehr Company had been formed in the summer of 1942, initially to combat partisans in the Karst alpine regions bordering Austria, Italy and Slovenia. Out of this special anti-partisan mountain combat company grew a division (after Mussolini’s removal made Himmler decide that the Karstwehr Battalion should be strengthened with locally recruited Volksdeutsche from the South Tyrol, and subsequently by Italian fascist “loyalists”). A divisional headquarters was set up in the town of Moggio in the province of Udine. The division consisted of two mountain infantry regiments and one mountain artillery regiment. Apart from one brief encounter with the British in the latter stages of the war, all the actions fought by this unit were against the partisans. General Paul Hausser, a Waffen-SS corps commander, referred to the non-German part of the division as, “a mixture of Italians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Ukrainians”. The division began to fall apart in the closing weeks of the war, with only the German component fighting on to the end. The remnants surrendered to the British 6th Armoured Division in Austria at the beginning of May 1945.

Late 19th Century Infantry Firepower

A French officer, Colonel Ardant du Picq, more than most, perceived that the high rates of fire and long range of modern weapons meant that close-order battle was no longer possible:

Ancient combat was fought in groups close together, within a small space, in open ground, in full view of one another, without the deafening noise of present-day arms. Men in formation marched into an action that took place on the spot and did not carry them thousands of feet away from the starting point. The surveillance of the leaders was easy, individual weakness was immediately checked. General consternation alone caused flight.

Today fighting is done over immense spaces, along thinly drawn out lines broken every instant by the accidents and obstacles of terrain. From the time the action begins, as soon as there are rifle shots, the men spread out as skirmishers, or, lost in the inevitable disorder of rapid march, escape the supervision of their commanding officers. A considerable number conceal themselves, they get away from the engagement and diminish by just so much the material and moral effect and confidence of the brave ones who remain. This can bring about defeat.

He drew the conclusion that the old ways of the close-order battle must be replaced, arguing that

Combat requires today, in order to give the best results, a moral cohesion, a unity more binding than at any other time. It is as true as it is clear, that, if one does not wish bonds to break, one must make them elastic in order to strengthen them.

His tactical conclusion was that infantry should fight in open order in which they could maximise the effectiveness of their weapons and take shelter from enemy fire:

Riflemen placed at greater intervals, will be less bewildered, will see more clearly, will be better watched (which may seem strange to you), and will consequently deliver a better fire than formerly.

He had seen men under fire, understood their actions, and argued that their instinct to seek shelter from the firestorm was right, but that it needed to be controlled and organised:

Why does the Frenchman of today, in singular contrast to the [ancient] Gaul, scatter under fire? His natural intelligence, his instinct under the pressure of danger causes him to deploy. His method must be adopted … we must adopt the soldier’s method and try to put some order into it.

Du Picq, who was killed in 1870 at the very start of the Franco-Prussian War, offered a brilliant analysis of the problems posed by the new firepower. But European powers found their way to a solution to the problem via hard experience, particularly in the wars of German unification which pitted Prussia against Austria (1866) and France (1870–1). In 1815 Germany had become a confederation of thirty-nine individual states and cities, dominated by Prussia in the north and Austria in the south. The year 1848 raised the prospect of a full union of the German people, and while Austria and Prussia united against the spectre of liberalism, they became rivals for leadership in Germany. The subsequent tensions were inevitably of deep concern to France whose rulers feared a strong state on their eastern frontier. Under Bismarck, Prussian Minister-President after 1862, Prussia played the national card. In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria broke into war.

The Prussian military system had been thoroughly reformed after Napoleon had crushed it at Jena in 1806. The crucial development was the growth of a Great General Staff, embodied in law in 1814. Bright officers were selected to what was effectively a military brotherhood, charged with continuous study of the art of war and the drawing up and review of plans. Essentially a managerial system, in the long run it proved brilliantly suited to control large complex armies. Because it was successful in the wars of 1866 and 1870–1 the General Staff developed enormous prestige and decisive influence in military affairs. General Staff officers formed specialised groups, such as that dealing with railways, and were skilful at spotting ways in which new technology could be adapted for military use. Ultimately every general in command of an army had a chief of staff who had a right of appeal if he did not like his superior’s plans. To prevent these officers losing touch with military reality they were rotated through regular periods of service in line regiments. The Prussian General Staff presided over an army of 300,000 raised by a highly selective form of conscription. These were backed up by 800,000 reserves, each of whom at the age of 32 passed into the militia or Landwehr which would only be called up in emergency. In 1859 Prussia had tried to move to support Austria against France, but mobilisation had been a fiasco. As a result the General Staff paid careful attention to the use of railways to get troops quickly to the front. At the same time reserve and regular battalions were firmly attached to local military districts so each got to know the other.

In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria over the leadership of Germany led to war. Prussia had only half the population of its adversary and the Austrians had a long-service conscript army of 400,000 which, in theory, could strike first into enemy territory. But the Austrian army could not concentrate quickly because its units were used for internal security, scattered in such a way that the men were always strangers to the people whom they garrisoned. Prussia thus had time to summon its reserves and to take the initiative under Helmuth von Moltke. Moreover, the Austrian advantage in numbers was partially nullified because Prussia allied with Italy, forcing Austria to dispatch an army there. In Italy in 1859 Austrian forces had failed to implement firepower tactics, and had been overwhelmed by direct (and very costly) French attacks. They were now armed with a good muzzle-loading Lorenz rifle, but thought that they should hold their troops together in large units that were trained to deliver bayonet charges. Also, aware of the inadequacy of their cannon in Italy, the Austrians had bought excellent rifled breech-loading artillery.

Moltke sent three armies along five railways to attack Austria through Bohemia, with the intention of concentrating them against the enemy’s main force. In the event, two of these armies confronted the Austrians in their strong and partly fortified position at Sadowa/Königgrätz on 3 July 1866. Each side had about 220,000 men. Fighting was ferocious but the Prussians held on until their third army arrived to bring victory. Prussian infantry tactics were the revelation of Sadowa. In 1846 the Prussian army had adopted a breech-loading rifle, the Dreyse needle-gun. This had a potential firing rate of about five shots per minute and it could be loaded and fired from the prone position. The Dreyse was scorned by other armies: it lacked range because the gas seal on the breech was inadequate and it was feared that such a high rate of fire would encourage soldiers to waste their ammunition before charging the enemy, so overburdening supply lines. At Sadowa the Austrian artillery did much damage, but the rapid fire of the Dreyse at close range cut down the Austrians whose forces were gathered in large close-order units highly vulnerable to this kind of firestorm. The British Colonel G.F.R. Henderson commented that the Prussians did not charge with the bayonet until the enemy had been destroyed by musketry: ‘The Germans relied on fire, and on fire alone, to beat down the enemy’s resistance: the final charge was a secondary consideration altogether.‘

Important as the Dreyse was, the real key to victory was tactical and organisational. Moltke, like Clausewitz, understood the fluidity of battle and the problem of control:

Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander’s intent.

He developed what would later be called the doctrine of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik), under which subordinate officers, even down to platoon level, were instructed in the intentions of the overall commander, but left to find their own way of achieving this end. At Sadowa the Prussians made their infantry firepower count by closing with the enemy in forest land where the strong Austrian artillery could not bear upon them. This enabled them to shoot into the packed Austrian ranks as their junior officers led them around the enemy flanks. Fire and movement was the solution to the conundrum so ably propounded by du Picq.

This was possible because junior officers in the Prussian army were thoroughly trained, and understood the need to accept responsibility for the progress of their soldiers, and staff officers rotated through the fighting units communicated what senior commanders wanted. In addition, at the core of the Prussian army was an excellent corps of long-term NCOs well able to support their officers. At Sadowa the Austrians suffered 6,000 dead, over 8,000 wounded and about the same number missing, and conceded 22,000 prisoners. The Prussians lost 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Austria made peace almost immediately and Prussia took over all the north German states, enormously enhancing her military capability. The obvious lesson of Sadowa was firepower. The Austrian Field Marshal Hess articulated another very clearly: ‘Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time … and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.‘ Strike first would become an article of faith amongst the general staffs of Europe in the years down to 1914.

The rise of Prussia threatened the France of Napoleon III. The nephew of the great Napoleon had taken advantage of the turbulence of the Second Republic to seize power and declare the Second Empire in 1852. He stood, above all, for the dominance of France in European affairs. The Prussian victory in l866 was therefore a blow to the very foundations of the regime, and all parties in French public life thereafter regarded war with Prussia as inevitable. This focused attention on the French army, a long-term conscript body very like the Austrian but with far more fighting experience. However, it lacked a reserve force, while French officers and NCOs enjoyed low pay and status and suffered a constipated promotion system. There was a General Staff, but its officers formed a tiny elite who had little to do with the army as a whole. At all levels there was an absence of initiative, partly because Napoleon, though lacking real military grasp, cultivated the ‘Napoleonic myth’ of the heroic and omnipotent leader.

In reaction to Sadowa the French adopted a new breech-loading rifle, the chassepot. This had an excellent breech mechanism which doubled both the rate of fire and, at 1,200 metres, the effective range of the Dreyse. Remarkably the mitrailleuse, a crude machine-gun, was developed, but it was surrounded by such tight security that the troops were never able to integrate it into their tactics. Because these weapons were costly, the smooth-bore Napoleon cannon of 1859 remained the dominant artillery piece. In 1868 legislation was passed to create a reserve whose members would ultimately pass into a territorial militia, the garde mobile. But Napoleon was unpopular, the Legislative Assembly obstructed the law and so the system was barely operating by 1871.

The French decided that tactically the new weapons favoured the defensive, so they grouped soldiers in large solid units to produce massive firepower, denying any flexibility to local commanders and laying units open to the risk of being outflanked; indeed, the French system was highly centralised and dependent on the will and capacity of the emperor. Even worse, despite bellicose intentions and pronouncements, no real plans were made for war against Prussia. This negated the key advantage of a standing army, that it could strike first before an enemy dependent on conscription could gather his forces. Moreover, the French army was very dispersed. Its troops were used for internal security, so units were spread out and not allowed to serve in their areas of origin.

When war came in 1871 the French planned to mobilise and concentrate their armies on the frontier at Metz and Strasbourg, but Staff planning was hopeless. Choked roads and railways and poor attention to logistics turned this process into a nightmare. At the end of July, when Napoleon arrived at Metz to assume command, barely 100,000 of 150,000 troops had arrived, and only 40,000 of 100,000 had reached Strasbourg. The reserve system worked so slowly that there was no support for the regulars, while the garde mobile was wholly untrained, unequipped and, in places, openly disloyal. Supplies of bread and other essentials failed, while there was indiscipline and even explicit grumbling against the regime. But perhaps the key factor in spreading demoralisation was that in the absence of plans Napoleon was vacillating.

The French had originally projected a thrust into the sensitive junction between north and south Germany. Then the notion of a defensive stance to repel a Prussian attack came to the fore. The hope of Austrian intervention, perhaps supported by the south German states who loathed Prussia, led to the establishment of strong forces at Strasbourg. This force, under Marshal Maurice MacMahon, was rather cut off by the Vosges mountains from Napoleon’s main force around Metz. It was unclear to Napoleon’s senior commanders which, if any, of these options, none of which had been properly thought through and planned, was to be taken. Such hesitancy quickly communicated itself to the soldiers, for armies are highly sensitive to this kind of doubt. Here, then, was an army without a strategy, led by a vacillating ruler tormented by painful illness but keenly aware that his regime needed military success.

By contrast, the Prussians were devout believers in speed and their planning enabled Moltke to deliver three armies to the frontier where French inaction permitted them to organise themselves at leisure. They were backed up by a steady flow of reserves, so that Prussian forces quickly outnumbered the French. The process of concentration was by no means perfect, and moving troops and supplies away from the railhead caused congestion. For both armies the frontier with its hills and rivers posed considerable problems. Moltke directed his superior forces to converge on the French. Since Sadowa he had systematised tactics so that the standard attack force was now the 250-man company. Moreover, Moltke had noted the heavy losses inflicted upon his infantry by Austrian artillery, and had bought Krupp rifled guns. There was uncertainty about how best to deploy these, but they were mostly brought up close to the front to support the infantry. Late on in the Sadowa battle the Austrians had launched a charge of their heavy cavalry to cover their retreat, but it was cut to pieces by rifle fire. As a consequence the Prussian cavalry was now trained very thoroughly for an active role in reconnaissance which it discharged very effectively.

The first encounter of the war, at Wissembourg on 4 August 1870, set the pattern. The Crown Prince of Prussia with 60,000 men and 144 guns bumped into a single division of 8,000 French with twelve guns, well entrenched and sheltered by the buildings of the town. Frontal attacks against intense fire from the chassepots of the well-entrenched French infantry cost the Prussians dearly. However, Prussian artillery moved up to blast the French positions; the few and outranged French guns could make no reply. This enabled the Prussian infantry to work around the French flanks and to force a retreat. But against a single division, the Prussians suffered 1,500 casualties, almost as many as against a vast Austrian army at Sadowa, though they inflicted 2,000. Ultimately they were victorious in five major battles. The failure of French command is all too evident, in that even on the one occasion they were not outnumbered, they still failed to win.

It cannot be said that the generalship on either side was of a very high standard. At Gravelotte on 18 August 30,000 Prussians attacked rows of trenches rising to St Privat: they advanced in what was virtually an eighteenth-century formation, a thin skirmish line succeeded by half-battalions backed up in a third line by massed battalions. Too many senior officers were just plain old-fashioned or distrusted the new methods of Auftragstaktik, which Moltke had applied at Sadowa. Within minutes of launching their assault they had lost 5,000 men. Gradually small units under junior officers fanned out, extending and thinning the line of attack, while twenty-six field artillery batteries bombarded the French positions which were seized at a cost of 8,000 casualties. Some 70 per cent of German casualties were caused by rifle fire, but about the same proportion of French casualties were inflicted by explosive shell. The French never really adapted their tactics to the aggressive Prussian artillery attack. Their commanders were hamstrung by tight central control and reluctant to take any initiative which at times could have snatched victory. At Mars-la-Tour on 18 August General Cissey saw an opportunity to destroy the Prussians and ordered his men into columns of attack but they refused, reflecting their distrust of the high command which had failed to develop sensible methods of attack.

The Prussians isolated Napoleon III and his army in Metz, then arrived before Paris on 19 September where Napoleon had been overthrown and Gambetta had formed a new French Government of National Defence which refused to surrender. As a result the city was bombarded and after the capitulation of Metz on 29 October, a close siege was set. Large numbers of French reservists had never reached the active front. Concentrated on the Loire, they threatened the Prussian army there, and even managed to reconquer Orléans on 10 November. But ultimately Paris starved and on 28 January 1871 an armistice was agreed which led to peace. The new Republic tried to wage a people’s war by calling every man to arms, and the Prussians suffered some casualties from a motley assortment of francs-tireurs, civilians, deserters and irregulars, who sniped at the invaders. But the French people saw no point in continuing a lost war, and refused to support it, so a guerrilla war never developed.

The Franco-Prussian War effected a dramatic change in the balance of power in Europe, symbolised by the proclamation at Versailles of the German Empire on 18 January 1871. The new Reich now became the dominant European power. This was apparently a triumph for the professionalism of the Prussian army and its aggressive tactics. On the face of it a well-trained European army had shown twice within five years that it could bring war to a rapid and successful conclusion. The role of the General Staff had been vital and as a result it was widely copied. But the logistical problems of the German army in 1866 and 1871 had been quite substantial and soldiers had often ended up foraging, with evil results for the countryside at their mercy. But these wars were fought close to bases on a continent with good communications and over short periods of time.

The New Armies of the 1700s

The flintlock musket was the outward symbol of the new armies that were appearing in western Europe in the late 1600s; the weapon was expensive, but it was safer and more convenient than the old matchlock—it also allowed soldiers to stand closer together and thereby pour a heavier fire on opposing troops; it was also more easily fitted with the bayonet, which was soon considered the queen of battle.

Another symbol was the new uniform. Though the colour was far from uniform yet, the trend was toward outfitting the soldiers with identical shirts and pants, a stiff frock coat, heavy boots, and mitred hats. The hats made the soldiers seem taller, and they certainly required them to stand straighter—which made them more imposing to any enemy, and the improved posture gave them more self-confidence. Certainly they were better prepared for fighting in cold and wet weather, and when it was too hot, the frocks could be piled onto carts to be carried to the evening campsite, along with the knapsacks that soldiers carried until immediately before combat.

There were also more impressive fortresses, stout structures made of brick and stone, with successive lines of defence and well-protected cannon that could sweep each killing zone. Each fortress had barracks for soldiers and supply bunkers in case of siege or orders to outfit troops hurrying into the field. No commander in his right mind would order an immediate assault on such a place, and few wanted to leave his army half-unemployed and subject to disease and discontent while starving the defenders out. Still, since it was impossible to ignore fortresses, every campaign could easily end in a murderous assault on the most weakened part of the defences, a storm that might end in piles of dead and wounded attackers or the slaughter of defenders who were unable to escape or surrender.

Siege tactics were universally understood, so that once trench lines and tunnels had reached a point from which an assault was possible, any trained observer could judge whether or not the fortress could be defended successfully. At that time the defending commander would have to decide whether to sacrifice valuable soldiers in vain or to surrender the place and march away ‘with honours’. The attacking commander similarly wanted to avoid losing men, and an essentially intact fortress was more useful than one which had been heavily damaged in pitched battle.

Improvements in artillery were obvious—better gun carriages, mortars for sieges, and heavy cannon for battering static defences. The largest of these weapons still adorn military museums in Europe and the Americas, and are found at many of the historic sites maintained for visitors and school children. Field artillery tended to be melted down and the metal reused.

Roads, bridges and canals were better, too. Though many were constructed to facilitate military operations, civilians did not hesitate to use them as well. Trees planted on the south side of roads allowed for travel in the shade, and public wells kept men and beasts from dehydrating. As transport costs went down, general prosperity went up. Government officials and economists realised that this commerce could be converted into tax monies that would subsidise royal expenses—the military, palaces and mistresses.

There was also an equally significant change underway that Kenneth Chase described in Firearms, a Global History—a greater emphasis on discipline and drill. Earlier, few commanders had the time or money to train recruits fully—permanent forces were needed for road work, building fortifications, and guard duty; and when an army was needed, regular troops were supplemented by recruits and hurried to the battlefield with minimum additional drill. Training too often involved firing expensive gunpowder, exhausting horses, wearing out uniforms, and disrupting the peasantry. Therefore, as Robert Citino in The German Way of War and Christopher Clark in Iron Kingdom note, field exercises were rare. Even Friedrich Wilhelm von Hohenzollern (1620-88), the Prussian ruler known the Great Elector, was too budget-conscious to send his magnificently trained soldiers out to practise in the rain and mud.

There was also a new emphasis on developing a professional officer class. The most highly born nobles had always insisted on being given commands equal to those of their ancestors; even when still junior officers they were allowed to wear the most magnificent uniforms, prance on the best mounts available, and take their pick of the prettiest girls. Those who commanded regiments also received royal subsidies that allowed them to maintain their expensive lifestyles, even though this came at the cost of regimental preparedness; and kings looked the other way because they were dependent on the goodwill of the aristocracy. Often young nobles demonstrated great courage; however, they could be the despair of generals who wanted their orders obeyed, not merely followed when proud subordinates found them convenient and did not seem to be an affront to their status. Nobles tended to think for themselves on those occasions they chose to think, but they had a tendency to forget what they were supposed to think. Hence, when an opportunity presented itself for some damn-fool act of bravery, they did it. Self-control was rare. Moreover, it was not easy for them to identify with the soldiers—social classes did not mingle, partly because common soldiers tended to be, well, common; and partly because familiarity might breed contempt, making the soldiers doubt the officers’ ability. Still, nobles made the better officers than equally well-trained men from the gentry or commercial classes because they had grown up expecting to give orders and to be obeyed, and soldiers generally accepted that as the natural order of the world.

Leading the way in by-passing the upper nobility and mercenaries was Prussia, a state whose rulers had never been reluctant to hire foreign officers and integrate them into the minor nobility. The Great Elector had employed the minor aristocracy known as Junkers as officers and administrators, giving them little choice in the matter—no more than he did the apple-sellers in Berlin to choose whether to knit or not while waiting for customers. Work, work, work was his answer to the region’s lack of natural resources, just as hurry, hurry, hurry made the army formidable on the march and in the attack.

If middle-class youths or minor nobility in Germany or Russia had the potential to be good officers, this meant a potential lessened reliance on foreign mercenaries with military experience. There had always been an aura of suspicion about foreigners who were often both arrogant and ambitious, who did not speak the local language well and who did not understand the nuances of social conventions. This provided opportunities for young men such as Napoleon Bonaparte to receive the training they would then put to use after the noble officers fled France rather than risk a shave from the national razor—the guillotine.

Multinational Austria remained the most welcoming to foreigners, followed by the minor states in Italy where the rulers were often foreigners themselves, and Russia, where the boyars thought that every new idea was foolishness if not heresy.

Paralleling these trends was a growing awareness in all classes that everyone belonged to a nation rather than merely being subjects of a distant ruler. Historians tend to associate this process with the French Revolution, which made many Italians, Spaniards and Germans believe that they, too, were members of great nations. Oddly, in a sense, this awareness of national identity was appearing at the same time that a new international culture was spreading across Europe. As summarised in Matchlocks to Flintlocks, ‘As France came to replace Spain as the dominant nation in Western Europe, the French language and French customs spread rapidly into the neighbouring states. To hold one’s head up in polite society meant having it full of French ideas.’

This Lingua Franca made it easier for ideas to circulate. Some innovations in military theory and practice were widely accepted; some ideas, especially those connected with experimental science, were both exciting and safe; others, those associated with what we call the Enlightenment, had mixed receptions—traditionalists were outraged, while the younger set laughed at the humour without necessarily adopting the underlying philosophy. Life at the upper levels of society became less serious, even frivolous, to an extent unimagined before. Religion became formalised—with intellectuals and leaders of society making withering comments about institutionalised ignorance and superstition, the foolishness of the unwashed masses and ignorant country folk who still took miracles seriously, hypocritical priests and pedantic schoolmasters. Yet, when plagues raged through a kingdom, everyone prayed fervently and later raised monuments to God and His saints for ending the suffering. Superstition and credulity thus mixed easily with sophistication and cynicism.

To the extent that the Enlightenment meant abandoning old methods in favour of new ones to resolve practical problems, it had a profound impact on the military arts. First, there was the introduction of an effective supply system to replace foraging for food and fodder. Providing cooks and brewers assured that all units were fed, avoided dispersing soldiers every afternoon to look for food and fodder, and made it more certain that everyone would be present when roll was called the next morning. It also made the peasantry much happier, since there were fewer thefts and rapes; and villages which were not pillaged could be more effectively given lists of supplies to be delivered (or else).

John Lynn, in Women, Armies and Warfare, noted that this resulted in the almost total disappearance of camp followers. This made it possible for armies to become larger, since the resources once needed to feed and shelter women and children could support additional soldiers. Also, the sexual license that probably drew some men into military service was no longer present, making it easier to avoid quarrels over women and women’s quarrels with other women. Wives and whores (cohabiting women) gave way to prostitutes, a somewhat easier class to discipline.

Officers began to look upon their commands as a way to make money—charging soldiers for uniforms, medical care, retirement benefits and other costs that often ate up much of their slender incomes. Soldiers no longer found desertion easy, and while recruits were often still technically volunteers, in practice communities were expected to provide their quotas.

Regimental Histories

We have good information about the organisation of armies in this era, but less about the individual units. For example, were ordinary soldiers taking increased responsibility to deal with comrades who slacked duties and avoided exposure to danger? This seemed to be the case to the extent that earlier even prisoners-of-war could be forced into the ranks to fight against their former comrades. But no longer—unlike mercenaries of yore, recent captives took every opportunity to get back to their comrades. As the influence of cliques of thugs diminished, pride in being a member of an elite unit—or even an average one—seems to have increased.

This was a new experience. By the ancient practice of accepting recruits from wherever a unit passed, or even compelling young men to enlist, most regiments had once been composed of a wide variety of nationalities. Even in the Swedish army—often regarded as the best in the period 1630-1715—only elite companies were composed of native Swedes; the rest of any regiment could be Poles or Germans or other locally recruited youths. Now the tendency was to recruit units from only a few regions, a practice that resulted in more homogeneity and greater unit cohesion.

This presented the Austrian monarchs with a serious problem. How could they make their multinational army as loyal to the dynasty as competing monarchs were able to do by combining love of country with respect for the ruler? Since it was difficult to assure unit cohesion when soldiers might not even be able to speak to one another, they needed a common language of command. Only German qualified.

Prince Eugene, himself an Italian reared at the French court, discouraged the enlistment of Italians. It was not a question of courage or competence, but of commitment—Italians tended to see through the foolishness of military life and, worse, they had little enthusiasm for the Hapsburgs. Eugene wanted German soldiers, but he was quite willing to enlist Bohemians, with their rich military tradition, because most Czechs knew a bit of German and were Catholic. German as the language of command also made it easier to work with allies from the Holy Roman Empire. Pressure to make Hungarians equal came much later.

There was also the matter of morale. After 1730 the Austrian army was beaten too often to go into battle with much confidence. It had been very different earlier, when Prince Eugene commanded victorious armies, but after the wars with Louis XIV ended and his successful siege of Belgrade in 1717, he retired to a pleasant life in Vienna (his Belvedere palace overlooking the city and his impressive Stadtpalais inside the walls) to collect art and books. The luxury of his later private life contrasted strongly with his austere practices as field commander. His reforms of the army had been rigorously practical. Dressing soldiers in grey frocks made it easy to see which units were his and which were the enemy’s, even when thick white smoke obscured the battlefield, and the thickness of the frocks limited injury from spent projectiles; and since most soldiers reacted to incoming fire as if they were walking into heavy rain, concentrating on keeping their high hats from falling off prevented them from ducking their heads, a pose that was often followed by a panicked flight to the rear.

The Austrian army as a whole was weak, but some regiments were effective. This suggests that a study of armies at the regimental level might tell us much about the changes that were occurring in the 1700s. A good example of what can be learned is from the previously-mentioned Deutschmeister Regiment of the Hapsburg army.

The long-time grandmaster of the Teutonic Order, 1694–1732, Franz Ludwig, had little to do with the regiment beyond persuading his brothers to allow recruiters to raise troops in their lands in the Palatinate and Neuburg, but that was an important concession, because other, equally staunch Roman Catholic rulers would not have allowed recruiters to speak with their subjects. With the outbreak of war with France in the War of the Spanish Succession Franz Ludwig’s two regiments of foot and a regiment of dragoons were withdraw from the Croatian and Hungarian frontiers, returning only in 1717 for the campaign that captured the great fortress at Belgrade, far to the south where the Danube makes its turn east toward the Black Sea.

The Deutschmeister regiment eventually came under the command of Charles Alexander of Lorraine (1712-80), one of the most important field marshals of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years War (1756-63). Everyone knew that he was competent but not brilliant.

Charles Alexander was not a lucky general, but no Austrian general did any better against Frederick the Great and Maurice de Saxe; he lost four times to the former and once to the latter, but he always reformed his army quickly and limited the territorial losses. He could be considered successful in one sense, in that Austrian soldiers who had given up the fight quickly between 1740 and 1746 in the First Silesian War had become warriors by 1756, when the second war with Prussia began. Austrian regiments then fought with such determination that the Prussians hardly recognised them.

This may have had little to do with Charles Alexander, and more to do with the greater popularity of Empress Maria Theresa and a new determination not to be humiliated again. In any case, Charles Alexander’s position at the head of the army was secure. Maria Theresa was reluctant to give command to anyone outside the royal family, and even though he had only been married to her sister briefly, her only alternative was her husband, Charles Alexander’s brother, who had no military talent at all. The empress’s policy of concentrating power in the hands of the imperial family meant that there was little chance for another Eugene of Savoy to rise to greatness.

The office of grandmaster was a sinecure, to provide Charles Alexander incomes after he retired from imperial service, but it was also logical, since the new Deutschmeister Regiment had earned great fame under his command. This was officially the 4th regiment of the household troops, but its costs were covered by the Teutonic Order.

The Deutschmeister regiment was a well-dressed outfit. Standard gear for all infantry regiments included low-rimmed black felt hat with white brocade trim and regimental insignia, but the Deutschmeister soldiers were distinguished from other units by their pearl white overcoats with sky blue lapels and white buttons; they wore white neckbands, white shirts, white socks, white leggings (black in bad weather), black shoes, red leather cartridge case decorated with an eagle, backpack, flintlock, bayonet and sheath. Officers wore the same outfit—no gold or silver, and brocade permitted only when off-duty. They carried swords, daggers and pistols. Drummers and fifers dressed in red coats with blue shirts. The cavalry unit was also #4, the Archduke Max cuirassiers, with a proud heritage going back to the Thirty Years War; it was shot to pieces at the battle of Grocka in 1739, and during the Seven Years War was commanded by Johann Baptist Serbelloni (1696-1778), who was a member of the Knights of Malta and whose notoriously bad German was matched by his slowness in getting into the thick of the fight.

The regiment was ever more associated with the monarchy and less to the military order from which it sprang. Modern efforts to associate the Teutonic Order with Nazism run up against the fact that Hitler hated the Hapsburgs and nobles in general; he also hated the Roman Catholic Church, filling his earliest concentration camps with priests who objected to euthanasia; he mistrusted professional army officers, who repeatedly plotted to overthrow him; and his plans for National Socialism meant the creation of a new society that had no room for these artefacts of a culture that he declared were useless and dangerous.