The Reich proudly considered itself an independent body politic and refused to serve merely as a passive tool in the hands of its formal head, the Habsburg Emperor. Despite these structural limitations and the paralysing effects of confessional strife during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Reich’s financial and military help against the Turkish threat was central to the Habsburgs’ survival and even to their counter-offensive after 1683.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were two armies linked to the Reich in some way, but nonetheless distinct. The first was the Imperial army proper (kaiserliche Armee), the Emperor’s own standing army which had no direct connection to the Reich except its designation. The second force was the army of the Empire (Reichsarmee), the true army of the Reich, raised and paid for by the Imperial Estates and only partially under the Emperor’s control.

In no way reflecting the true potential of the territories and almost always unsuccessful in battle, the Reichsarmee embodied the political and military weakness and fragmentation of the Reich in the eyes of many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians. Even the most patriotic eighteenth-century Reich jurists would not deny that the Germany of the Ancien Régime was suited to anything but waging wars.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Reichsarmee remained a force only mobilized in times of need, to defend the Reich’s territory in the case of a formally proclaimed Reichskrieg (as declared against France in 1674, 1689, 1702, 1734 and 1793) or to secure peace against domestic trouble-makers formally denounced as such by the Imperial Diet (Reichsexekution, as for example against Prussia in 1757, but mostly police actions against lesser disturbers of the peace). The Reichsarmee was an auxiliary force, normally fighting side by side with the Emperor’s own troops, and rather unserviceable in case of offensive operations, for which it was never intended.

The basic troop quota for the Reichsarmee, the Simplum, was fixed at 24,000 horse and foot in 1521; its monthly pay or Römermonat soon became the standard unit of account in all financial matters of the Reich. Depending on the level of danger, the Simplum could be multiplied (Duplum, Triplum and so forth). With the Imperial Executive Ordinance of 1555, the executive and thus ultimately the military defence of the Reich was to a considerable extent devolved to the Imperial Circles.

Yet, for at least a century, civil war came before defence against external threats. Shortly after 1600, the previous century’s confessional strife finally produced two formal groupings, the Catholic League (1609) and the Protestant Union (1608), and both armed at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. The noble idea of a concerted defence of the Reich was abandoned in favour of petty actions in defence of the respective confessions. When the Emperor and the elector of Saxony, the leader of Germany’s Protestant rulers, concluded the Peace of Prague in 1635, their aim was the restoration of law and order throughout the Reich and the removal of all foreign armies from its soil. They agreed to raise a Reichsarmee, organizationally unified but confessionally mixed, with the Emperor nominally in supreme command. Funded by contributions from the Imperial Estates, it was to comprise some 80,000 men. There were problems from the outset, however, particularly regarding the high command, and many Protestant princes remained lukewarm.

In 1648, the Imperial Estates were granted not only the right freely to form alliances but also the ius armorum at once exploited by the more powerful rulers to create standing armies. In the end, the Emperor himself was to profit from the trained troops of these so-called ‘armed Estates’, the support of whom Vienna secured by means of subsidy treaties and political privileges. Such forces, moreover, were generally more effective than a hastily raised Reichsarmee, which had to be approved by the Imperial Diet and consisted of a mixed bag of contingents sent by medium-sized and smaller Estates. The Emperor’s Turkish War of 1663–64 is a good illustration of the potential kaleidoscope of troops making up the military aid from the Reich. The Rhenish League sent a 13,500-strong contingent to Hungary, while Saxony, Bavaria or Brandenburg fell back on units from their standing armies to supply auxiliary troops (4,500 men). The third element finally came from the Reich proper: the Diet, summoned to Regensburg for this very purpose in 1663, granted 20,900 soldiers – a sizeable contribution, even if only a small number ever got as far as Hungary.

During the revived struggle with France in the 1670s, Vienna tried again to institutionalize a Reichsarmee under the Emperor’s sole command. The prospects were favourable given the ‘patriotic enthusiasm’ provoked by an aggressive French policy of annexations along the Reich’s western border, yet the Emperor soon had to reduce his demands and accept the Reichsdefensionalordnung of 1681–82, which laid down the future fundamental principles of the Reich’s new military organization. The Simplum of the Reichsarmee was increased to 40,000 men (12,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry), while the Triplum, i.e. 120,000 men, would usually be granted when a major war broke out. The Imperial Circles were given the responsibility of raising the contingents which together made up the Reichsarmee. The Austrian Circle, virtually identical with the Habsburg Hereditary Lands, alone accounted for 8,000 men of the 40,000 strong Simplum. The Habsburg contingent was a purely nominal part of the Reichsarmee, since it would be taken from the Emperor’s own standing army and operate as a separate force in its own right. The same was true of the forces to be provided by the ‘armed Estates’ whose territories often belonged to more than one Circle, but who fielded single contingents rather than divide their units up and amalgamate them into the Circle troops. Varying from Circle to Circle, the raising of troops was highly complicated, not least because of the political fragmentation of the Reich. In the particularly heterogeneous Swabian Circle, for instance, the fact that some 90 territories were responsible for raising 4,000 Circle troops resulted in a corresponding lack of cohesion among the latter. Hence Reiehstruppen were mostly deployed for defence purposes in order to relieve the actual fighting troops – the Emperor’s own units and the contingents sent by the ‘armed Estates’.

During the Nine Years War and the War of the Spanish Succession troops from the so-called ‘anterior Circles’ in fact bore the brunt of the defence against the French threat from across the Rhine. It was here, in southern Germany, that the Swabian and Franconian Circles, mustering some 24,000 men in the 1690s, mounted a concerted effort to ward off French aggression. Alliances between several Circles, so-called Circle Associations, could field considerable forces and thus play a role in high politics on a European scale. In 1697, an impressive league was created by the Franconian, Swabian, Electoral Rhenish, Upper Rhenish and Lower Rhenish-Westphalian Circles (‘Frankfurt Association’) with a view to raising a permanent army of 40,000 men in times of peace and 60,000 in times of war, but implementation of this scheme soon came to a standstill. In 1702, the Swabian, Franconian, Upper and Electoral Rhenish, Austrian and Westphalian Circles once more tried to set up an efficient association, which was to field more than 53,000 men (including 16,000 from the Austrian Circle alone) to defend southern Germany: via its individual members, this so-called ‘Nördlingen Association’ joined the Grand Alliance of 1701.

The disaster of Rossbach in November 1757, where Reich troops together with a French contingent were routed by the Prussians, was a serious blow for the ill-fated Reichsarmee, henceforth mocked as ‘Reißausarmee’ (run-away army). However, the scale of the Reich’s military effort should not be underestimated, and recent scholarship in this field has provided a more positive assessment.

The structure of the commanding generals (Reichsgeneralität) of the Reichsarmee, headed by the Imperial Field Marshal (Reichsgeneralfeldmarschall), was highly complex – particularly since, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, all positions had to be filled by both a Catholic and a Protestant. Among the outstanding Reich field marshals Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden (1655–1707) or Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736) deserve particular mention. Prince Eugene, succeeding Baden as Catholic Imperial Field Marshal in 1707, was not only a field marshal in the Emperor’s own standing army, exactly like his predecessor, but also president of the Aulic War Council in Vienna. This was a typical overlap: Reich generals and Austrian generals rapidly came to be one and the same thing. In 1664, only a third of the Reichsgeneralität was staffed by Habsburg generals, compared to half in the 1670s. Eventually, around 1700, it was exclusively Austrian generals who acted as Reich generals, and most of them were German princes or members of the south German aristocracy.



The Defence of Rorke’s Drift, by Alphonse de Neuville (1880)

Acting Assistant Commissary James Dalton had experience constructing field fortifications, and he advised Chard and Bromhead to use grain sacks and biscuit boxes to shore up the defensive perimeter between the hospital and storehouse.

In many ways the Zulu War was like other small wars the British had fought: it began with an initial defeat and ended in victory; it was fought against savages on the Empire’s fringes; and the simple strategy and tactics employed, so well suited to disciplined Victorian soldiers, were not unlike the means used to win other small wars in other parts of the Empire. But the Zulu War was memorable for a number of interesting small events: tragic, humorous, disgraceful and gallant.

The officers of the 24th Regiment who were commanding troops at Isandhlwana stayed and died with their men, though all of them had horses and could have tried to escape. The only officer of the 24th to leave the battlefield was Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill, and he was ordered by Pulleine to try to save the Queen’s colours of the 1st battalion. He got as far as the Buffalo River, but was drowned trying to cross at a place that came to be called Fugitives’ Drift. The colours were later found and returned to the regiment. In a little ceremony at Osborne on 28 July 1880 the Queen decorated these colours with a wreath of immortelles. Ever after, the staff of the Queen’s colours of the 1st battalion of the 24th carried a silver wreath on it.

After the battle of Boomplatz in 1848 the Queen had noted that, as usual, there was a higher percentage of casualties among the officers than among the other ranks. She wrote to Lord Grey: ‘The loss of so many officers, the Queen is certain, proceeds from their wearing a blue coat whilst the men are in scarlet; the Austrians lost a great proportion of officers in Italy from a similar difference in dress.’ The Queen was probably right. Still, many officers continued to go into battle wearing blue patrol jackets. In at least one instance their blue coats saved their lives.

There were some civilians with Chelmsford’s army, mostly transport and supply people, so the Zulu warriors had been told by their chiefs to concentrate on the soldiers, who could be distinguished from the civilians by their red coats. One of the few soldiers to escape from Isandhlwana was thin, square-jawed Lieutenant Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, nineteen years old, who lived to command the British Second Division in the retreat from Mons in 1914. He, like the other four officers who escaped, was wearing a dark coat that day. All red-coated officers were killed.

Smith-Dorrien did not have a command; he was serving as transport officer. As usual, transportation of supplies was one of the army’s major problems and there was a need for more animals than South Africa could supply. Every ox, mule and horse in the country that was for sale or hire was swept up by the army, and Chelmsford was forced to look outside the country for more. A British officer in the American Far West trying to buy animals for the Zulu War would be a theme too improbable for the producers of Westerns, but one British officer found himself buying mules for Chelmsford in Texas.

Part of the tide of Zulus which swept away the six companies of the 24th Regiment at Isandlhwana lapped at the little post at Rorke’s Drift a few miles away on the same day. Here was enacted one of the most incredible dramas in the history of the British army. The story has been brilliantly told in detail by Donald Morris in The Washing of the Spears, but it deserves to be retold here for it describes an outstanding example of the type of courage so often displayed by ordinary officers and men of Queen Victoria’s army.

Rorke’s Drift had been churned into a muddy quagmire by the passing army and the continued movement of oxen and supply wagons. A mission station-farm was located about a quarter of a mile from the drift on the Natal side of the river and this had been turned into a field hospital and supply centre. On the morning of 22 January there were thirty-six men in the hospital, together with a surgeon, a chaplain, and one orderly; eighty-four men of B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment and a company of Natal Kaffirs were there to guard the crossing; there was also an engineer officer who helped wagons to cross the river, and a few casuals.

Neither of the two regular officers entitled to hold a command (the surgeon-major did not count) was regarded as outstanding. At least neither of them had ever done anything remarkable in their careers up to this point. The senior of the two was black-bearded Lieutenant John Rouse Merriot Chard, the Royal Engineer officer. Commissioned at the age of twenty-one he had served for more than eleven years without ever seeing action or receiving a promotion.

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead was in charge of B company of the 24th at Rorke’s Drift. His brother, Major Charles Bromhead was in the same regiment, as was natural, for members of the Bromhead family had served in the 24th Regiment for more than 120 years. Charles was regarded as a brilliant officer; he had been in the Ashanti War with Wolseley and was now on staff duty in London. But Gonville, thirty-three years old with nearly twelve years of service, had been a lieutenant for eight years; he was not so bright and was almost totally deaf. He ought not to have been in the army at all. That he was left behind and assigned to the dull job of watching the river crossing was probably due to the natural reluctance of Pulleine to allow him to command a company in battle.

It was about the middle of the afternoon before Chard and Bromhead learned from two volunteer officers of the Natal Kaffirs of the disaster at Isandhlwana and of their own danger. There were no defences at all at Rorke’s Drift, but Chard decided that it would be impossible to bring away all the sick and injured men in hospital so they must do what they could to make the mission defensible. Using wagons, biscuit boxes, bags of mealies and existing walls, they managed to enclose the house, barn and kraal. Fortunately, the buildings were of stone, as was the wall around the kraal, but the house, now being used as a hospital, had a thatched roof, making it vulnerable. All the sick and injured who were well enough to shoot were given rifles and ammunition and Chard counted on having about 300 men to defend his little improvised fort.

A few refugees from Isandhlwana reached Rorke’s Drift, but most continued their flight. The mounted natives who had been stationed at the drift and the native contingent with Chard all fled, together with their colonial officers and non-commissioned officers. Chard was left with only 140 men, including the patients from the hospital, to man his 300 yard perimeter. Late in the afternoon a man came racing down the hill in back of the station shouting ‘Here they come, black as hell and thick as grass!’ And a Zulu impi of 4,000 warriors now descended on Rorke’s Drift.

The soldiers were still carrying biscuit boxes and mealie bags to the walls when the Zulus, with their black and white cowhide shields and with assegais flashing in the sun, came running into view. Boxes and bags were dropped, rifles and cartridge pouches were seized and the soldiers ran to man the barricades. Rifles crashed as the defenders fired into the black masses of Zulu warriors that swept down on them. The Zulus had a deadly open space to cross and took terrible casualties – but they came on in waves. The soldiers could not shoot fast enough and as the Zulus swept around the walls of the hospital there were hand to hand fights along the makeshift barricades, bayonets against assegais, the Zulus mounting the bodies of their own dead and wounded to grab at the rifle barrels and jab at the soldiers.

The men of the 24th had already been enraged before the Zulus arrived by the sight of their native allies and colonial volunteers deserting them. One soldier had even put a bullet into the retreating back of a European non-commissioned officer of the Native Contingent. They were in a fighting mood, and now with the Zulus upon them they fought with a frenzy.

Some of the Zulus who were armed with rifles crouched behind boulders on the rocky slopes behind the mission and fired at the backs of the defenders on the far wall. Fortunately their shooting was erratic, and they did little damage. The steady marksmanship of the soldiers was better; one private downed eight Zulus with eight cartridges during the first charge. The soldiers had found plenty of ammunition among the stores in the barn and the chaplain circulated among them distributing handfuls of fresh cartridges.

There was wild, vicious room to room fighting when the Zulus broke into the hospital; the sick and wounded, together with a few men from B Company, held them off with desperate courage until they set fire to the thatched roof. Meanwhile, Chard was trying to withdraw his men into a narrower perimeter encompassing only the barn, kraal and the yard in front of the barn. Into this area the men who had escaped from the hospital, the freshly wounded and Chard’s remaining effectives retreated and continued the fight. It was dark now, but the Zulus still came on and by the light of the burning hospital the fight went on.

In rush after rush the Zulus pressed back the soldiers. The kraal, which had been defended by bayonets and clubbed rifles when there was no time to reload, had at last to be abandoned. Rifles had now been fired so often and so fast that the barrels burned the fingers and the fouled guns bruised and battered the shoulders and frequently jammed. The wounded cried for water and the canteens were empty, but Chard led a sally over the wall to retrieve the two-wheeled water cart that stood in the yard by the hospital. It was about four o’clock in the morning before the Zulu attacks subsided, but even then flung assegais continued to whistle over the walls.

It seems nearly incredible that even brave, disciplined British soldiers could have sustained such determined attacks by men equally brave and in such numbers. But they did. By morning, Chard and Bromhead had about eighty men still standing. Fifteen had been killed, two were dying and most were wounded. When dawn broke over the hills, the soldiers looked over the walls and braced their tired, wounded bodies for another charge. Their faces were blackened and their eyes were red; their bodies ached and their nerves were stretched taut from the strain. But the Zulus were gone. Around them were hundreds of black corpses; a few wounded Zulus could be seen retreating painfully over a hill; the ground was littered with the debris of battle: Zulu shields and assegais; British helmets, belts and other accoutrements; broken wagons, biscuit boxes and mealie bags, and the cartridge cases of the 20,000 rounds of ammunition the defenders had fired. Chard sent out some cautious patrols, but there were no signs of the enemy in the immediate vicinity. The soldiers cleared away some dead Zulus from the cook house and began to make tea.

About seven-thirty the Zulus suddenly appeared again. Chard called his men and they manned the walls, but the Zulus simply sat down on a hill out of rifle range. They, too, were exhausted, and they had not eaten for more than two days. They had no desire to renew the fight. Besides, the leader of the impi had disobeyed the order of Cetewayo by crossing the Buffalo River into Natal and he was doubtless considering how he would explain to his chief the costly night of savage fighting outside the boundaries of Zululand. While Chard and his men grimly watched, the Zulus rose and wearily moved off over the hills.

Later in the morning, some mounted infantry rode up and soon after Chelmsford appeared with what was left of his main force. He had hoped that some portion of his troops had been able to retreat from Isandhlwana to Rorke’s Drift, but he found only the survivors of those who had been left there. With the remnants of his column and the handful of men from Rorke’s Drift, he sadly retreated into Natal.

Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded the defenders of Rorke’s Drift: the most ever given for a single engagement. There might have been even more, but posthumous awards were not then made. Both Chard and Bromhead received the medal. There were many Welshmen in the 24th (which later became the South Wales Borderers), and among the eighty-four men of B Company there were five men named Jones and five named Williams; two of the Joneses and one Williams won the Victoria Cross. Private Williams’s real name, however, was John Williams Fielding; he had run away from home to enlist and had changed his name so that his father, a policeman, would not find him.

Private Frederick Hitch, twenty-four, also won a Victoria Cross and survived his years of service to enjoy the wearing of it as a commissionaire. The bad luck of his regiment seemed to pursue Hitch and his medal, even to the grave. One day while Hitch was in his commissionaire’s uniform and wearing his medals a thief snatched the Victoria Cross from his chest. It was never seen again. King Edward VII eventually gave him another to replace it, but when Hitch died in 1913 this one, too, had disappeared. Fifteen years later it turned up in an auction room; his family bought it and it is now in the museum of his old regiment. Mounted on his tomb in Chiswick cemetery was a bronze replica of the Victoria Cross. In 1968 thieves stole that.

Lieutenant Chard finally received his first promotion – to brevet major, becoming the first officer in the Royal Engineers ever to skip the rank of captain. He was also invited to Balmoral where Queen Victoria gave him a gold signet ring. He served for another eighteen years in Cyprus, India and Singapore, but he received only one more promotion. In 1897 cancer of the tongue caused him to retire and he died three months later.

Bromhead was also promoted to captain and brevet major, though he never rose any higher. He, too, was invited to Balmoral by the Queen, but being on a fishing trip when the invitation arrived he missed the occasion. He died in 1891 at the age of forty-six in Allahabad, still in the 24th Regiment.

Bromhead and Chard were fortunate in a sense when their moment for glory arrived: fighting with their backs to the wall, they had only to show the kind of stubborn bravery and simple leadership for which the British officer was conditioned and which he was best equipped to display. No great decision or military genius was required of them. But this is not to detract from their feat of courage and the British army was rightly proud of them.


The military hegemony of France in Europe and in many regions overseas began on 19 May 1643 with the destruction of the Spanish Netherlands Army at Rocroi by a French army led by the 21-year-old Duke of Enghien (later Prince of Conde, the “Great Conde”). The young duke’s remarkable victory over Spain’s hardened veterans signaled the end of Spain’s military predominance (which dated from the sixteenth century) and represented the fruition of the military reorganization initiated by King Louis XIII’s premier, Armand Jean du Plessis, cardinal-duke of Richelieu.

On the foundation laid by Richelieu, talented military leaders like Conde, Turenne, Luxembourg, Vauban, Catinat, Villars, Vendome, Boufflers, and Saxe, and a succession of accomplished royal ministers, like Colbert and Louvois, built the edifice of France’s military greatness.

France was ruled during its ascendancy by the “Sun King,” Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715), whose ambition and territorial designs caused many of the great wars that wracked Europe during the last decades of the seventeenth century. French hegemony was first checked by coalitions led by England and Holland and finally ended by Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), a true world war in which France lost most of its great colonial empire.

Henry IV (“le Grand”)

The end of the long period of religious-civil wars in France (Edict of Nantes, 1598) was also the end of the latest French struggle with Hapsburg Spain (Treaty of Vervins), with which France had been at war more or less continually since the beginning of the sixteenth century. The new French king, Henry IV, had triumphed over his enemies, foreign and domestic, but was shrewd enough to recognize that he had gained as much by compromise and cynical accommodation as by military prowess. The conflict with the Spanish Hapsburgs (and their Austrian cousins) was more suspended than resolved. The debilitating domestic religious question was solved temporarily by permitting the Huguenots to erect a kind of independent republic based on their centers of influence, chiefly in the south and southwest of France. But, fundamentally, the religious question had been deferred, not settled. Much depended on the king’s political skills and vision, not only for France, but for Europe.

At this time, the kingdom’s energies were directed toward re-establishing order and rebuilding the economy, as the Memoires of the Duke of Sully recount. In foreign affairs, the king conceived a fantastic project for a “United States of Europe,” a precursor of the present-day European Union. But how serious he was, and what the results of his various schemes might have been, remain subjects for conjecture: Henry IV was assassinated by a fanatic in 1610. He was succeeded by his son, Louis XIII (reigned 1610-43), who was 9 years old.

Louis XIII (“le Juste”)

Internal Conflicts

Louis’s reign was troubled by internal division, conspiracy, and conflict. In part this was due to the king’s youth and the constant jockeying for power and influence at court among regents, favorites, advisers, and councilors; in part it was due to the renewed outbreak of religious and civil wars, as the problems left unresolved at the accession of Henry IV resurfaced.

It is remarkable that, at this time, France was virtually bereft of armed forces. The “peace dividend” attendant to the accession of Henry IV was manifest in the purposeful neglect of the army and navy. In particular, Henry had allowed the ancient companies of gendarmes (regular heavy cavalry) to dwindle to nothing, since they had been arrayed against him in the civil wars. Even the royal household troops, the fabled Maison du Roi, had been cut back severely, and some units existed only as sinecures for Henry’s old comrades in arms.

Louis XIII, his favorites, and his ministers gradually rebuilt the Maison, adding new units and reinforcing the old ones, so that the Royal Army always had a well-drilled, professional core. In the dizzying succession of internal wars that beset the country until the final defeat of the Huguenots (1628), the professionalism of the Royal Army made the difference.

Louis’s enemies did not want for armed men, nor for enthusiastic amateurs to lead them, but the armies of the nobles (les grands) and the Huguenots could not stand up to the Royal Army in the field. The wars were characterized by sieges-in particular, the epic siege of the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle (1627-28). At the end of the wars, the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, stood in triumph over his enemies. Henceforward until his death (1642), he was effectively France’s ruler.


The conclusion of the internal wars allowed Richelieu to turn his attention to foreign affairs, his true metier. In Richelieu’s eyes, France’s principal enemy was the House of Hapsburg, and particularly the Spanish Hapsburgs, whose domains or dependents confronted France on all its land frontiers. Thus, from 1629 until 1659, France was almost continually at war with Spain, either at first-hand or by proxy.

These wars included the War of the Mantuan Succession (1629-32) and the Franco-Spanish War (1635-59), which just preceded open French involvement in the Thirty Years’ War (French phase, 1636-48) and continued long afterward. In this series of conflicts, France was ultimately successful, despite political divisions manifested by the various civil wars of the antiministerial Fronde (1648-53) and the treason of Conde, who threw in with the Spanish after his defeat as the leader of the Frondeurs (he served as a Spanish generalissimo until 1659).

France’s success in this period may be attributed almost entirely to the policies of Richelieu. He reformed and reorganized the army, eliminating some of the worst abuses of the oligarchic spoils system by subordinating the entirely aristocratic officer corps to central authority. He achieved some success in enlarging and professionalizing the native French forces and ending the Crown’s dependence on the superb but not always reliable mercenary contingents that historically had constituted the fighting core of the French army.

Richelieu also virtually founded the French navy, which had hardly existed as a permanent force before his ministry. For a brief (and remarkable) period the navy won several victories against the Spanish. The greatest French admiral of the period was the cardinal’s brilliant nephew, Maille-Breze (1619-49).

But Richelieu’s achievements did not long outlast him. His successor, Cardinal Mazarin (Giuilo Mazarini, premier 1642-61), allowed the navy to sink into decline, and it was of little military value until its true foundation as a professional service around 1669 by the great navy minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83). The army, however, retained a measure of efficiency, and its greatest moments were ahead of it.

Louis XIV (“le Roi Soleil”)

The Sun King’s reign had begun in 1643, but in fact Mazarin ruled France until he died in 1661, when Louis proclaimed that henceforth he would be his own chief minister. The next 54 years were a period of splendor and magnificence for France, not only in the arts but also in military affairs. France was at the zenith of its power.

In the military sphere, France was organized for war so thoroughly that no one power could long hope to withstand it. And Louis’s ambition for territorial aggrandizement might have startled even his more aggressive ancestors.


While Colbert reorganized the financial structure of the nation and launched an ambitious naval building program, his bitter enemy, the equally remarkable war minister Francois Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Louvois (1641-91), reorganized the army. Louvois was assisted in this work by Turenne, who was made marshal-general in 1660 to give him authority over all his redoubtable contemporaries in the marshalate. Turenne in turn was assisted by three brilliant but largely forgotten subordinates-Martinet, Fourilles, and Du Metz-each responsible for the reorganization of a single combat arm: infantry, cavalry, and artillery, respectively. The result of this immense effort was the first truly modern army: a permanent professional force, well organized, trained to a relatively high degree of efficiency, and subordinated to a powerful minister supported by a large, proficient civilian bureaucracy.

Logistical support of field armies was facilitated by the magazine system created by the great engineer Vauban. The rationalization of logistics, combined with the centralized control and direction of the marshaled human and material resources of the nation-state, made larger armies possible. Whereas, during the Thirty Years’ War, the average field army had numbered about 19,000 men, the late-seventeenth-century wars of Louis XIV were fought by field armies two to three times larger. To compound France’s advantages in this period, the magnificent armies created by Louvois were led by perhaps the greatest galaxy of military talent ever assembled.

The Wars of Louis XIV

Louis’s wars of aggression, conducted between 1667 and 1714, involved his blatant and barely rationalized attempts to expand France’s frontiers, particularly in the northeast (Flanders) and east (along the Rhine), at the expense of the moribund Spanish Empire and the hopelessly divided, invitingly weak Holy Roman Empire. These expansionist wars began in earnest with the War of Devolution (1667-68) and the Dutch War (1672-79), in which France gained Franche-Comte and many strong places along the frontiers. France’s principal enemy was Holland, the architect of strong coalitions which alone could hope to oppose France. Indeed, in this period, France was virtually isolated diplomatically. The French armies, led by Turenne and Conde, won brilliant victories in the field, notably at Seneffe (11 August 1674), where Conde defeated a Dutch-Spanish army led by William of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder, and at Sinzheim (16 June 1674), Enzheim (4 October 1674), and Turckheim (5 January 1675), in which Turenne gained a trio of remarkable victories against the coalition armies along the Rhine.

The period following the Treaty of Nijmegen (6 February 1679) was marked by French bullying along the Rhine and further French expansion as Louis’s “Chambers of Reunion” decreed several territories and towns “French” (since at one time or another they had belonged to any of several recent French territorial acquisitions). French troops promptly moved in to enforce the decisions of these courts, and the German emperor was forced to accede to this latest aggression. Louis followed up by revoking the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed freedom of worship to the Huguenots (1685). Europe was appalled, and France was much weakened by the emigration of thousands of her most industrious people.

Further French threats and aggressions along the Rhine led to the formation of the Dutch-inspired anti-French League of Augsburg, which consisted of virtually all the powers of Europe except for England (9 July 1686). But the English Revolution of 1688 led to the exile of the English king James II. When William of Orange and his wife, Mary, James’s daughter, took the English throne, England joined the League, which became the Grand Alliance (12 May 1689).

Meanwhile, the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-97) had broken out, and France confronted the coalition on land and sea. A new generation of French military leaders soon proved their mettle. In Flanders, the Marshal Duke of Luxembourg, Conde’s protege, won great victories over the coalition at Fleurus (1 July 1690), Steenkerke (3 August 1692), and Neerwinden (1 August 1693). In Italy, Marshal Catinat knocked Savoy out of the war after winning the decisive Battle of Marsaglia (4 October 1693). At sea. however, the French were beaten badly at Cap La Hogue (May 1692).

This war was also a true “world war.”‘ since it involved the American and Indian-subcontinent colonies of the belligerents. In America, it was known as King William s War and involved fighting between the French and English and each side s Indian allies. The Treaty of Ryswick (1697) that ended the war was unremarkable. In the complex territorial provisions. France gained Alsace and Strasbourg.

The imminent extinction of the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty preoccupied Europe in the years following the Treaty of Ryswick. When Charles II. Spain’s feeble-minded, childless king, finally died in 1700. Louis advanced the claim of his grandson. Philip of Anjou, to the Spanish throne. Since the European powers could not countenance a union of Spain and France, this brought on the War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714. in which France once again squared off against an all-European coalition.

In this war, France for once was decidedly deficient in military talent. Against the genius of the great allied commanders Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy. France had mostly second-rate marshals and generals (Luxembourg had died in 1695). The allies won a succession of striking victories: Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Turin (1706), and Oudenarde (1708). The French gained some successes in Italy and prevailed in Spain. The allies won the bloody Battle of Malplaquet (11 September 1709) at tremendous cost, and England retreated from the war effort in revulsion at the casualties. The French cause was helped immeasurably by the brilliant Marshal Villars. whose victories improved France’s negotiating position as the war wound down.

In 1713 and 1714. the exhausted belligerents negotiated treaties ending the war. Philip of Anjou was recognized as king of Spain, but the crowns of France and Spain were permanently separated. Louis XIV died in 1715 and was succeeded by his great-grandson. Louis XV.

Louis XV (“le Bien-Aime”)

The reign of Louis XV 1715-74 was marked by the gradual decline of the military machine created by Louvois and Turenne. The officer corps grew alarmingly, until by mid-century the proportion of officers to enlisted men was 1 to 15. Moreover, the quality of the officer corps deteriorated: many were weak, incompetent, venal, or amateurish. Inevitably, discipline suffered, and the once-proud army became the object of contempt-an ‘”unqualified mediocrity” in the eyes of many.

The reign was marked by the complete reversal of Louis XIV’s foreign policy, but France’s military commitments did not diminish appreciably, as Europe’s coalition wars continued undiminished. France was allied with recent enemies Britain. Holland, and Austria against its former ally Spain in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-20). In the War of the Polish Succession (1733-38). France supported the claim of Stanislas Leszczynski (Louis XV’s father-in-law) to the Polish crown against Saxony, Austria, and Russia. France’s most distinguished soldier during this period was James Fitzjames, duke of Berwick and marshal of France. Berwick, an illegitimate son of England’s King James II, was killed in action at the Siege of Philippsburg (12 June 1734). The Philippsburg campaign was also the last for a long-time antagonist of France, Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48)

Although a guarantor of the Pragmatic Sanction, in this war France was allied with Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Savoy, and Sweden against Austria, Russia, and Britain. France did not officially enter the war until 1744, but French “volunteers” served from 1741-a decidedly modern piece of disingenuousness.

The war marked the emergence of one of France’s greatest soldiers, Maurice, comte de Saxe (1696-1750), a German by birth-one of 300-odd illegitimate children of Augustus II “the Strong, ” elector of Saxony-a military genius and himself a prodigious womanizer. Campaigning in Flanders, the Austrian Netherlands, and Holland, Saxe won victories against the allies at Fontenoy (10 May 1745), Rocourt (11 October 1746), and Lauffeld (2 July 1747).

Saxe’s success in the Low Countries was not matched by his contemporaries in other major theaters-Italy and Germany. At sea, the British had the upper hand against the French and Spanish fleets. In North America (King George’s War), France fared miserably, incurring serious defeats by the British and British colonials and native American allies. In India, however, Dupleix was successful at Madras and in the Carnatic.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), ending the war, restored all colonial conquests to their prewar status. France gained nothing by the European provisions; essentially, the war had been a failure.

The Seven Years’ War (1756-63): The Nadir

In the Seven Years’ War in Europe, France and its principal allies, Austria (the Empire) and Russia, contended against the numerically inferior forces of Prussia and Great Britain. The allied powers, operating on exterior lines, made several poorly coordinated attempts to crush King Frederick the Great of Prussia by convergent invasions of Hanover and Prussia. Initially, the French, under Marshal Louis d’Estrees, were successful against the British-Hanoverian army led by the son of King George II, William Augustus, duke of Cumberland-whom Saxe had beaten at Fontenoy (despite the splendid bravery of the British- Hanoverian infantry).

Defeated at Hastenbeck (26 July 1757), Cumberland was trapped at KlosterZeven (Zeven) and forced to concede Hanover to the French. The Convention of Kloster-Zeven was the worst British surrender until Dunkirk (1940), not excepting Yorktown. D’Estrees’ replacement, the Marshal-Duke Louis de Richelieu, failed to cooperate with Charles de Rohan, prince de Soubise, and the prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen at the head of the Franco-Reichs army. Despite great numerical superiority, the allies were defeated badly by Frederick at Rossbach (5 November 1757).

The great victory at Rossbach eliminated one of two French armies committed to German) and effectively allowed Frederick to concentrate his energies on the Austrians and Russians. Henceforth, the French were opposed on the Rhine front by the gifted Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick. Louis, marquis de Contades. was defeated by Ferdinand at Minden (1 August 1759) and the French were driven back to the Rhine. Subsequently, Ferdinand contended successfully against the French (1760-62), finally driving them across the Rhine.

In the New World, the French, led by the brilliant Louis Joseph, marquis de Montcalm-Gozon. were initially successful (French and Indian War), but Montcalm was defeated by James Wolfe at Quebec (13 September 1759), and the British conquest of Canada was completed within a year. Both Montcalm and Wolfe died in the battle that decided the fate of a continent.

In India, weak French forces were led by Count Thomas Arthur Lally, a distinguished veteran of Irish descent, who was beaten as much by the ineptitude and machinations of his officers as by the genius of the British soldier Sir Eyre Coote. Lally lost India and went to the scaffold for it, a miscarriage of justice memorialized by Voltaire in Fragments of India.

The French navy was no match for the British at sea. British naval superiority contributed to the relative isolation of French colonial forces and the disparity in strategic mobility, numbers, and resources wherever the two powers confronted one another.

The Treaty of Paris (1763) marked the political and military humiliation of France and the ascendancy of Britain in Europe and overseas. France lost most of its North American and Caribbean empire, including Canada, and French India was practically dismantled. In Europe, France had sunk so low that it was almost eclipsed by a resurgent Spain, led by King Charles III (reigned 1759-88).

Military Reform and Rebirth

France had always been a congenial environment for military thinkers-and not a few eccentrics. Among the great theorists of the eighteenth century were Jean Charles, chevalier de Folard (1669-1752), and Marshal Saxe, whose Mes reveries is still read and admired today. During the Seven Years’ War, the innovative Marshal-Duke Victor-Francois de Broglie, victor over Brunswick at Bergen (13 April 1759), had introduced the all-arms division organization, a necessary precursor of the larger Napoleonic army corps.

Thus, despite the stagnation and enervation so pronounced at midcentury, it is not surprising that the French armed forces were reformed and modernized during the reign of Louis XVI 1774-92 . The principal agent of reform was the war minister. Claude Louis, comte de St. Germain (1707-78), who was assisted in his work by Jacques Antoine Hippolyte. comte de Guibert (1743-90; tactics and doctrine), Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (1715-89; artillery materiel and organization), and Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807; tactics and infantry organization).

Although the old army was swept away in the Revolution (1789), these reformers were directly responsible for creating the professional core of the successful Revolutionary armies. However, the fine quality of the reformed French army was already evident in 1780 in the small but magnificent expeditionary corps that Rochambeau led to America and that played such an important part in the Yorktown campaign.

Bibliography Aumale, H. E. P. L. 1867. Les institutions militaires de France: Louvois-Carnot- Saint Cyr. Paris: Levy. Dollinger, P. 1966. Histoire universelle des armees. Vol. 2. Paris: Laffont. Kennett, L. 1967. The French armies in the Seven Years’ War. Durham, N. C.: Duke Univ. Press. Susane, L. A. V. V. 1974. Histoire de la cavalerie frangaise. 3 vols. Paris: Hetzel. . 1874. Histoire de Vartillerie frangaise. Paris: Hetzel. . 1876. Histoire de Vinfanterie frangaise. 5 vols. Paris: Dumaine. Weygand, M. 1953. Histoire de Varmee frangaise. Paris: Flammarion.

Monty’s Army: Alam Halfa to the Rhine I

It is easy to dismiss Montgomery as a Second World War general who applied the doctrines and methods of 1918 to win his victories. Montgomery’s insistence that his battles be fought according to a ‘master plan’, his employment of concentrated artillery and his insistence on not moving until he had adequate logistical support, combined to give his battles the outward appearance of the great offensives that Haig mounted in France between 1916 and 1918. He won because he enjoyed superiority in material, and was able to compel his opponents to fight a series of set-piece battles, not dissimilar to those of 1918, which minimized the British army’s shortcomings. Closer inspection reveals a different picture. Montgomery did enjoy a quantitative material superiority over his enemies. But so had Cunningham and Ritchie. Both had deployed more tanks than Rommel before CRUSADER and Gazala, and it had availed them nothing. Furthermore the British army’s quantitative superiority was partially offset by the qualitative superiority of so many German weapons. Montgomery did not employ the same operational doctrine and techniques as Haig had done in 1918. His battles were a product of the doctrines that the army had developed between the wars, the lessons of its defeats in 1940–2, and his own personality.

Montgomery won his victories against an enemy who, from Alamein, through Tunisia, Italy, and Normandy, practised a highly effective defensive doctrine. The German army’s defences increasingly relied upon deep, fortified positions, and deep minefields. They no longer deployed their tanks en masse but used them as mobile pill boxes. The backbone of their defences consisted of small parties of infantry, lavishly equipped with machine-guns and mortars and supported by one or two tanks or self-propelled guns. In Italy, they usually built their main defensive positions along natural lines, either rivers or mountains, or along a series of small towns commanding main roads. In the bocage country of Normandy, visibility was so poor that they preferred to hold as strong points road junctions and villages rather than high ground. A thinly held outpost line, usually on a forward slope, gave them warning of an attack. Their main defensive positions, covered by minefields, machine-guns, and anti-tank guns sited in enfilading positions, were on the reverse slope where they were concealed from British artillery observers. The Germans ranged their mortars and artillery onto ground where the British were likely to form up for an attack. They held their positions in great depth, and, when attacked, usually mounted a swift counter-attack before the British were able to consolidate their gains.

The Germans sometimes held their positions with properly constituted divisions. But the British frequently marvelled at their ability rapidly to form improvised battle groups from the remnants of formations and thought it one of the strengths of the German army. The Germans themselves were not so sanguine. A Corps commander who fought in Italy always preferred to fight with properly constituted divisions, saying of ad hoc groupings that ‘In a major battle they melted away like butter in the sun’. One reason for this was that such ad hoc groups often lacked proper artillery support. The Germans tried to use mortars to compensate for this weakness, and in Normandy British medical officers estimated that they caused as many as 70 per cent of infantry casualties. When forced to withdraw, the Germans employed small, mobile rearguards equipped with handfuls of tanks, self-propelled guns, and anti-tank guns, mines, booby-traps, and snipers to slow the pace of the British pursuit. They usually remained in position just long enough to enable their own engineers to carry out essential demolition work and began to withdraw when it was clear that the British advance guard was about to outflank them. In the opinion of Major-General W. E. Clutterbuck, GOC 1st Division in Tunisia, the result for the British was that ‘the A.Tank mine and the H[eav]y A.Tank gun has “seen off” the t[an]k to a great extent and while the tank is still most useful to inf[antry], its real helper is becoming massed Art[iller]y’.

In finding ways of overcoming their opponents, from late 1942 onwards, British field commanders were compelled to operate within two constraints. The first was their long-held fear that the morale of their troops was dangerously fragile. The second was their knowledge that the army was fast running out of men. Together they meant that they had no option but to employ operational techniques that put a premium on minimizing casualties.

Even before the war senior commanders had harboured doubts about the fragile morale of their troops. By mid-1942 the string of defeats that they had suffered convinced them their worst fears were justified. In May 1942 Wavell decided that

we are nothing like as tough as we were in the last war and that British and Australian troops will not at present stand up to the same punishment and casualties as they did in the last war. It is softness in education and living and bad training, and can be overcome but it will take a big effort.

A month later, worried about the apparently poor morale of units in 8th Army, Auchinleck asked the War Cabinet to reintroduce the death penalty as a deterrent to stem the rising tide of deserters. Two years later, again because of a growing incidence of desertion from front line units, Alexander followed suit.

In all three cases there was a suspicion of commanders seeking easy solutions to complex, systemic problems. In making these requests, they were harking back to the same solutions that Haig and his contemporaries had espoused. They, too, had seriously doubted the willingness of the town-bred masses who filled the ranks of the army during the First World War to withstand the rigours of war with their morale intact. They, too, had believed that only an outward conformity to the tenets of military life and strict discipline would serve to maintain the army’s cohesion. Montgomery shared his contemporaries’ concerns about the morale of their troops, but he never asked for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Instead, he adopted a holistic approach to conserving morale. Firm discipline was an essential factor in maintaining the willingness of troops to fight, but discipline alone was not enough. Troops also needed good leadership, realistic training, physical fitness, and professional man-management. But the single most important factor in sustaining morale was success in battle. ‘I have no failures in my Army and the troops know it’, he told an audience of senior officers in February 1943. However, the need to ensure that each operation was successful itself limited the scope of what he could ask his troops to do. ‘I limit the scope of operations to what is possible, and I use the force necessary to ensure success.’ This meant, for example, that at the operational level in early October 1942 he substituted a new plan for the Alamein offensive because he believed that his troops were insufficiently trained to carry out his original plan. In Normandy, the early stages of the campaign convinced him that some of the divisions he had brought back from the Mediterranean were battle-weary. For the rest of the campaign he preferred to spearhead his operations with formations like 15th and 43rd Infantry divisions and the 11th and Guards Armoured divisions. Fresh from Britain, where they had been training for four years, their morale was less fragile.

Haig had begun and ended the First World War believing that if two sides were equally matched, the one with the stronger will to win would be victorious. At the tactical level, Montgomery and his colleagues shunned such simplicities. They put into practice the army’s inter-war doctrine that battles should be fought with the maximum quantity of material and the minimum quantity of manpower. Concerned about the morale of 6th Armoured division in January 1943, Lieutenant-General C. W. Allfrey, GOC V Corps, insisted on the ‘maximum use of Artillery and minimum use of bodies’. At the end of 1943, the DMT in Italy concluded that a plentiful supply of armour was essential because the infantry now expected its support as a right. Lieutenant-General Sir Sidney Kirkman, GOC of XIII Corps, echoed his opinion in November 1944.

We may at times be lavish with artillery expenditure, but the British soldier has come to expect a certain measure of support and if at this stage support appears inadequate, I consider that attacks will be launched in so half-hearted a manner that we shall incur heavy casualties without success.

But even if they had not been concerned about morale, senior officers would have been impelled to rely more upon material. In late 1942, just as supplies and equipment began be delivered in quantities sufficient to enable the army to fight battles of material, manpower began to run dry. Recruits were so scarce by late 1942 that the army had to begin to disband formations. In December 1942, Alexander cannibalized 8th Armoured and 44th Infantry divisions to find drafts to maintain his remaining British formations. In mid-1943 the equivalent of four divisions were disbanded in the UK. In the autumn of 1943, the War Cabinet, wrongly assuming that the war in Europe would end by the autumn of 1944, allocated the army an intake of only 150,000 recruits. The only way the War Office could find sufficient men for 21 Army Group was by reducing the six Lower Establishment divisions in the UK to cadres. When that did not suffice, men were transferred to the infantry from the RAF Regiment and the Royal Artillery and, once those sources ran dry, Montgomery had no option but to disband two complete divisions in late 1944.

The shrinking size of the army from late 1942 had political, operational, and tactical consequences. Churchill realized that it threatened Britain’s political influence within the Anglo-American alliance. In November 1943 he insisted that the War Office find three more divisions to commit to the cross-Channel invasion so as to give the British parity with the Americans at least in the opening weeks of the campaign. But the process of shrinkage was inexorable, and by December 1944 he could only lament that ‘I greatly fear the dwindling of the British army as a factor in France as it will affect our right to impress our opinion upon strategic and other matters’.

At the operational and tactical levels, Montgomery recognized, as early as December 1942, that ‘In all my operations now I have to be very careful about losses, as there are not the officers and men in the depots in Egypt to replace them’. Henceforth British field commanders could afford to be prodigal with munitions and equipment, but not with men. Faced with a possible shortage of artillery ammunition in March 1944, Alexander insisted that ‘artillery has proved a battle winning factor in this war—and now it appears that we must give it up and sacrifice men’s lives (which we haven’t got) to do this job. I think it’s dreadful.’ Shortly before the Normandy landing, the Adjutant-General told Lieutenant-General Gerald Bucknall, GOC XXX Corps, whose troops were about to assault the beaches that the ‘manpower & Reinforcement situ[atio]n [is] very touchy’. The shortage of replacements severely constrained commanders’ freedom of action. It reduced their willingness to seize fleeting opportunities, for fear that they might lead to heavy and unsustainable losses. In March 1944, Montgomery concluded that ‘We have got to try and do this business with the smallest possible casualties’. Initially he pushed 2nd Army hard to take the area southeast of Caen in order to secure the airfields that his air support required. He told his army commanders that they must penetrate inland rapidly. ‘We must crack about and force the battle to swing our way.’ But, by 10 July, faced by mounting casualties, he told Dempsey that, whilst he must enlarge the bridgehead, he had to avoid excessive losses. Second Army had plenty of tanks; what it lacked was a sufficiency of infantry. Dempsey therefore persuaded Montgomery to allow him to mount an all-armoured attack, Operation GOODWOOD, on 18 July. In September 1944, confronted by an equally serious shortage of drafts in Italy, Alexander admitted that ‘Commanders are forced to act cannily with serious adverse effects all the way down the tree’. The need to keep casualties to a minimum in 1944–5 placed a premium on careful preparations and planning and the avoidance of all unnecessary risks. In June 1944 Leese ordered that, in a set-piece attack, infantry brigade commanders should issue their orders forty-eight hours before H-hour and that six hours of daylight should be left to enable platoon commanders and tank troop commanders to make their plans. Two months later, Dempsey believed that if a battalion were ordered to attack an organized defensive position, it had a fifty per cent chance of success if it had two hours to make its preparations. It had a guarantee of success if it had twice as long. Dwindling manpower and the perceived deficiencies of the morale of their troops meant that from late 1942 onwards the British could not afford to operate with the same haste or develop the same disregard for casualties that characterized both the Russian and German armies.

The doctrine that Montgomery and his acolytes practised from Alamein onwards was not original, but neither was it the same as Haig had practised in 1918, although there were some superficial similarities. Indeed, recent research on the battles of 1918 has suggested that Haig in fact failed to practise any operational doctrine, and that he failed in a real sense to command the BEF. Haig believed that it was his task as the C-in-C of the BEF to establish a ‘master-plan’ and then leave it to his subordinates to carry it out. If he interfered in the actual conduct of operations beyond deploying his own general reserve, he would paralyse their initiative. These ideas synergised with Haig’s own personality. He was highly self-disciplined, he held himself aloof and found it difficult to form friendships with his equals. He liked order, disliked changing his mind or hearing his ideas opposed by subordinates. He picked weak and acquiescent men to fill staff posts at GHQ and dismissed officers who had crossed him. It was not surprising, therefore, that senior officers found it difficult to raise awkward questions with him. The result was that GHQ was isolated from the rest of the army, and from the realities of the battlefield. In 1918 Armies, Corps, and Divisions were left largely to their own devices to find solutions to the tactical problems that they confronted in the period of semi-mobile warfare that followed the collapse of the German spring offensive.

Montgomery’s operational doctrine was an amalgam of inter-war doctrine, the lessons that the high command drew from operations in the field and in exercises at home since 1939, and his own ruthless personality that drove him to always seek to impose his will on those around him. The experience of defeat in France, Greece, and North Africa taught the British to avoid operational manoeuvres in favour of set-piece attrition battles based on the possession of superior quantities of material. Montgomery agreed with Haig that battles should be conducted according to a ‘master-plan’, designed by the commander and intended to minimize the risk of confusion and error. To that end the plan had to be simple, for complex plans were inherently more likely to fail. He also agreed that subordinate commanders had to conduct their own part in the battle in accordance with the plan and their commander’s wishes.

But as an army and army group commander, Montgomery did not believe that his job stopped there. He prepared the master-plan and allocated resources to his army and corps commanders, but he also coordinated their movements once the battle had begun and liased closely with the RAF to ensure proper air support for the ground forces. Coordination was facilitated by the fact that Corps were deliberately organized flexibly so that their composition could be changed quickly to suit any particular operation. But this high degree of flexibility was bought at some cost. In July 1944, when 15th (Scottish) division, was switched from VIII Corps to XXX Corps, its commander complained that ‘their staffs are almost complete strangers to my staff and of course have different ways of working which require a certain time before we can say that we are in complete sympathy with them’. It was the task of corps and divisional commanders to prepare their own plans to fight the tactical battle in accordance with the Army commander’s plan. Senior officers exercised control over their subordinates by setting them a well-defined centre line for their advance and ordering them to move along it in a series of ‘bounds’.

In order to enable him to exercise command without imposing unnecessary delays on the tempo of operations, Montgomery discarded written operational orders in favour of verbal orders, issued either in face-to-face meetings or, during mobile operations, using r/t. He expected his subordinates to do likewise. The issue to subordinate commanders of marked-up maps showing start lines and objectives usually supplemented verbal orders. ‘There is’, according to one visitor in July 1943, ‘a strong anti-paper complex everywhere in 8th Army HQ . . .’ Far from remaining aloof from the rest of the army, Montgomery went out of his way to maintain contact with them. To ensure that all ranks understood their part in the ‘master-plan’, Montgomery tried to address all officers down to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel himself and again expected them to do the same to their subordinates.

Nor did Montgomery employ a staff of yes-men. One of the first innovations that he introduced when he took command of 8th Army was to appoint Auchinleck’s BGS, Freddie de Guingand, as his Chief of Staff. The latter’s role was not only to co-ordinate all staff functions, thus freeing the army commander to ponder how to fight the next battle. He also had the power to take decisions in Montgomery’s name when the C-in-C was away from his main headquarters. This enabled Montgomery to go forward and command from near the forward edge of the battle. Before D-Day, Montgomery urged all commanders down to Corps level to follow his example. The Court of Enquiry that investigated the reasons for the collapse of the Gazala line and the fall of Tobruk in June 1942 concluded unequivocally that commanders had to command from the front. By Alamein it had finally became common practice for formation commanders in 8th Army to exercise command in battle from a small tactical HQ. However, until 1944, 8th Army’s practice was not shared by formations training in Britain. Their commanders, preparing for D-Day, were told that forming a tactical HQ should be the exception, rather than the rule. On taking command of 21st Army Group, Montgomery overturned this recommendation. He expected his subordinates down to the level of division to follow his example and fight the battle from a tactical HQ, and most did so. Some paid the price by becoming casualties, but their readiness to command from the forward edge of the battle meant that Corps Commanders like Sir Brian Horrocks, who used a tank or a light aircraft to go forward to his division’s HQs, could, in the eyes of their subordinates, develop ‘a marvellous facility for turning up at the right moment’. However, merely because commanders were on the spot did not necessarily mean that they invariably took the correct decisions. On the opening day of GOODWOOD, ‘Pip’ Roberts, then commanding 11th Armoured Division, was following closely behind his armoured brigade commander and ordered the latter to mask rather than capture the village of Cagny. It was only after the war that he discovered that in doing so he enabled the Germans to reinforce their defences and block the further advance of his division.

When he took command of 8th Army on 25 June 1942, Auchinleck realized that it was essential that commanders ‘dispense with constant discussion with or reference to his subordinates’ and actually command them. Some of his senior staff officers thought that he was incapable of doing so. Auchinleck’s critics also thought he too-readily assumed that once an order had been given it would automatically be carried out. Montgomery did not make the same mistakes. Unlike Haig, he believed that it was an essential task of an army commander to monitor the execution of his orders to ensure that his subordinates were acting at all times in accordance with his master-plan. Just as he planned his battles two levels below himself, so he monitored the work of commanders two levels down. It was Montgomery’s refusal to allow his senior subordinates the latitude customary in the British army to develop their own interpretation of orders that more than anything set him apart from his contemporaries. Determined to impose his will on the enemy, he knew that he first had to impose it on his own subordinates. What he called maintaining a ‘firm grip’ was ‘essential in order that the master plan will not be undermined by the independent ideas of individual subordinate commanders at particular moments in the battle’.

Montgomery established his ‘firm grip’ through a variety of means. He imposed a rigorous training regime at all levels of his army, and he insisted that units and formations devised and practised drills to ensure that they could carry out common tasks rapidly and efficiently. Most of the shortcomings in 8th Army’s training had already been recognized by Wavell, Auchinleck, and their senior staff officers before Montgomery arrived. What Montgomery did do was to insist for the first time that all commanders took the training of their troops seriously. Only if they did so would ‘the doctrine laid down permeate throughout the formation.’ Realism, including the lavish use of live ammunition was essential. ‘We must’, he told a Staff College audience in September 1942, ‘adopt common-sense safety precautions and accept the risk of a few casualties in order to get the Army fit for battle.’ Whenever possible, he tried to rehearse operations before mounting them. Before Second Alamein, X Corps practised how to effect a passage through deep minefields, putting special reference on preparing rapid artillery fire-plans to overcome enemy anti-tank screens. Units earmarked for the landing in Sicily practised assault landing techniques at the northern end of the Red Sea. The 7th Armoured division spent three months in North Africa undergoing individual and unit training and combined operations training before landing in Italy in September 1943. Training was also conducted when formations were at rest. By December 1942, 1st Armoured, 4th Indian, and 50th divisions had all been left behind by the speed of 8th Army’s advance, but their Corps Commander, Horrocks, was busy chivvying them to ensure that they spent time in training. ‘I am going off the day after tomorrow’, he informed Montgomery, ‘to spend two days each with 50 and 4 Ind[ian] Divisions, just to see that the training is not all on paper . . .’

Monty’s Army: Alam Halfa to the Rhine II

THE BRITISH ARMY IN NORTH AFRICA 1940 (E 1416) A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 19 December 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Much time was devoted to inculcating battle drills in the expectation that they would speed the tempo of operations. A week before Montgomery arrived in the desert, Auchinleck’s newly appointed BGS, Brigadier de Guingand, asked Corps commanders to develop a battle drill for breaking through deep enemy positions protected by minefields. ‘In the German Army this type of operation is carried out stage by stage in accordance with a standard procedure which may be modified for particular conditions. This has proved successful in recent operations.’ Montgomery had already enthusiastically embraced battle drills in Britain and lost no time in insisting that all arms develop them. They ‘will enable deployment to be speeded-up’ as well as ensuring the proper co-ordination between all arms. He appeared to have succeeded. At Alamein the Germans captured British orders that seemed to them to be clearer and briefer than anything they had seen before. Almost simultaneously the General Staff formerly endorsed the practice in an ATM.

Montgomery did not remain isolated from his generals. On the contrary he went out of his way to train them. ‘I do concentrate’, he wrote in, September 1943, ‘on teaching my Generals, and I am certain one has got to do so.’ He spread his ideas through a series of short booklets distilling his experiences as a field commander and by organizing lectures and study periods at which he presided. Before D-Day, he continued the process. On 13 January 1944, for example, he spoke to all Army, Corps, and Divisional commanders in 21st Army Group, explaining to them how he intended to stage-manage his battles and issued each of them with another pamphlet, Notes on High Command in War.

Like Haig, Montgomery preferred to be surrounded by his own men, but the criteria he employed in selecting them was professional competence, not whether he found them personally congenial. He was ruthless in placing men who he had trained in his methods and who had demonstrated their ability as commanders in the field in command of units and formations under his command. Before Alamein, for example, he obtained not only two new Corps Commanders, Leese and Horrocks, but also a new CRA, Sidney Kirkman. On returning from Italy to take command of 21st Army Group, he quickly installed a number of senior staff officers who had worked closely with him in 8th Army in key staff posts and throughout his tenure in command kept close control over appointments. These measures went a long way to ensure that formations that had fought in the Mediterranean and formations that had been training in Britain since 1940 practised a common operational doctrine by 1944.

However, Montgomery did not always get his own way over appointments. He did not think that Crerar was fit to command an army in action, only two of his original corps commanders in Normandy, Guy Simmonds and Gerald Bucknell, were his protégés and his attempt to dismiss the commander of the Guards Armoured division, Alan Adair, was blocked. Officers excluded from his favoured circle were resentful, but he was hardly unique amongst Second World War generals in placing men he knew and trusted in key positions under him. General Sir Richard McCreery, for example, began the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel and GSOI to Alexander, then commander of 1st division. When Alexander became C-in-C Middle East in 1942, McCreery became his CGS and ended the war, still under Alexander, as GOC 8th Army.

The extent to which other senior commanders followed Montgomery’s example and reduced the latitude of their subordinates to interpret orders varied. Neither Alexander, when he commanded Army Groups in Tunisia and Italy, or Leese, when he commanded 8th Army in Italy, tried to do so to the same extent as Montgomery. The fact that their forces contained large allied contingents made it politically necessary for them to adopt a more relaxed policy towards those of their subordinates who were also allied or Dominion commanders responsible to their own governments.

The reaction of subordinates confronted by this new regime varied. Some positively welcomed it. ‘Pip’ Roberts, who commanded an armoured brigade in the desert in 1942, contrasted Montgomery’s precise orders before Alam Halfa favourably with Ritchie’s indecisiveness before Gazala. ‘There was one firm plan’, he later wrote, ‘and one position to occupy and we all felt better.’ When he commanded VIII Corps in Normandy, O’Connor found that ‘what Montgomery gave to his commanders was a sense of assurance. A sense of confirmation having examined the plan.’ Others did not like his methods but they seldom lasted long. Montgomery did share another attribute with Haig, namely his willingness to dismiss senior officers who he believed had failed in action through showing insufficient determination and drive to carry out his orders. Since Ritchie’s appointment to command 8th Army, senior officers had grown increasingly prone to question his orders. But Montgomery would not tolerate this habit he called ‘bellyaching’. He dismissed Herbert Lumsden from command of X Corps and Alec Gatehouse from command of 10th Armoured division after Alamein because he had no time for officers he believed had shown signs of ‘“wilting under the strain”’. Shortly after arriving in London, Lumsden was reputed to have entered his London club wearing a bowler hat and his uniform and said, ‘I’ve just been sacked because there isn’t enough room in the desert for two cads like Montgomery and me.’ Others whose careers suffered because they were insufficiently ruthless in driving their troops forward included D. C. Bullen-Smith (dismissed from command of 51st Highland division in July 1944), Bucknell, and ‘Bobby’ Erskine (dismissed from command of XXX Corps and 7th Armoured division in August 1944).

Again in contrast to Haig, Montgomery developed human and technological systems to monitor the work of his subordinate commanders. As an Army Group commander he could keep in close personal contact with his army and corps commanders. But he could not hope personally to visit each of his divisional commanders regularly, and so he employed a team of specially trained liaison officers to monitor their work. They visited divisional HQs in the afternoon when the commander was making his plans for the next day. They interviewed him, and he briefed them about his intentions. When Montgomery debriefed them in the evening, the liaison officers could tell him about not only each divisional commander’s plans, but also his state of mind. If Montgomery was disturbed by anything they told him, he quickly contacted the relevant army or corps commander. On top of this Montgomery also eavesdropped on his own subordinates. During CRUSADER some British commanders began unofficially to copy the Germans, and to monitor the operational traffic on their own units’ wireless nets. By this method messages picked up from forward nets could be in the hands of Army HQ within ten to fifteen minutes, whereas normal ‘sitreps’ took up to twelve hours to filter through. At Alam Halfa this process was systematized in the shape of the ‘J’ service, which was developed largely by the GSO1 (Operations) at 8th Army’s HQ, Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Mainwaring. It brought to light a worrying series of lapses in the command and control system. After Alamein the J system was established on a permanent basis. Parallel developments took place in Britain. The result was that in North West Europe a ‘Phantom’ patrol was attached to each divisional HQ to intercept traffic on the divisional and brigade nets and pass it back immediately to army HQ.

Montgomery and his colleagues were only able to command from near the forward edge of the battlefield because by late 1942 the army finally had the communications system that it required. They could now rely on receiving a steady flow of up-to-date information about their own and the enemy’s troops, and they could issue realistic orders in time for their subordinates to act upon them. The army’s mature system of C31 rested upon a greatly expanded signal establishment, and the manufacture of more and better equipment. In the course of the war the establishment of an infantry division’s signals regiment increased from 491 to 743 all-ranks, and an armoured division’s regiment from 629 to 753. The army was also issued with more radios. Between 1939 and 1945, the Ministry of Supply produced over 550,000 wireless sets for the army. It might have been better equipped sooner but for the fact that it received a lower priority than did the other two services for radio equipment. The quality of radio equipment also improved, so that by 1943 armoured units, for example, had sets that enabled commanders to control their whole regiment on a single frequency. However, the system did not depend solely on more and better radios. Cable retained its technical advantages over wireless in that it could carry a larger volume of traffic more securely. At Alamein, in Tunisia, and for much of the fighting in Sicily, Italy, and North West Europe, the distances and speed with which operations were conducted diminished compared to the war in the desert, and mountains degraded the performance of radios. It therefore became possible and necessary for signallers to create elaborate systems of line communication. This trend was most discernible in infantry formations, but it also occurred, although to a lesser extent, in armoured divisions. It was one reason why the British Army could employ large artillery concentrations in the second half of the war. The outcome of these developments was a more flexible communications system, with inbuilt redundancies that both reduced the likelihood of communications collapsing and facilitated the rapid transmission of information and orders. From 1942 onwards, commanders were far less likely to lose battles because their communications failed.

The purpose of the ‘master plan’ was to produce the maximum concentration of force at the decisive point and time. One of the first things that Montgomery did when he arrived in the desert in August 1942 was to end Auchinleck’s experiments with new forms of organization. Henceforth

Divisions must fight as divisions and under their own commanders, with clear-cut tasks and definite objectives; only in this way will full value be got from the great fighting power of a Division, and only in this way will concentration of effort and co-operation of all arms be really effective.

This greatly assisted team-building, for it meant that divisions were more likely to reap the full benefits of their training. Raymond Briggs believed that one reason why his own 1st Armoured division performed more effectively than the other two armoured divisions in X Corps at Alamein was that, unlike them, all of its component units had been able to spend a month training together before the battle.

The most obvious expression of Montgomery’s pursuit of the principle of concentration, and the one which gave his battles the same outward appearance as those of the First World War, was the army’s employment of concentrated artillery. But appearances were deceptive. It was only in Normandy that Montgomery was able to employ the same high concentrations of artillery that Haig had employed on the Western Front. On the opening day of the Somme, the latter had massed 92 guns per kilometre of front; at Vimy Ridge he had 161 guns per kilometre; at Pilckem Ridge 172 guns per kilometre, and at the Ghelveult Plateau 324 guns per kilometre. The latter represented the heaviest concentration of artillery employed by the BEF throughout the First World War. Comparable figures for Alam Halfa were 9 guns per kilometre, for Alamein 31 per kilometre, and for Cassino 127 per kilometre. Haig’s concentrations dropped in the final year of the war. He employed only 125 guns per kilometre at the opening of Cambrai, 110 at Amiens, and 160 on the opening day of the assault on the Hindenburg Line. The only one of Montgomery’s offensives in Normandy that exceeded these figures was GOODWOOD, when he employed 259 guns per kilometre. However, other offensives had the support of thinner concentrations of artillery. The opening day of EPSOM was supported by only 64 guns per kilometre, the Canadian attack towards Falaise on 8 August 1944 (TOTALIZE) by 98 guns per kilometre, and the opening of the Anglo-Canadian offensive in the Reichswald on 8 February 1945 (VERITABLE) by 105 guns per kilometre. To some extent Montgomery used air power to compensate for his relative paucity of artillery, but he could not always do so. GOODWOOD, TOTALIZE and VERITABLE were supported by large numbers of bombers, but bad weather ruled out the heavy air support planned for EPSOM.

Furthermore, although some of the techniques that Montgomery and his colleagues employed were the same as those used by Haig between 1916–18, others were not. Montgomery was not the first Second World War field commander to recognize that massed artillery was a battle-winning factor of major importance. Auchinleck had employed it in July 1942 to inflict a series of hammer blows against the advancing Axis forces on the Alamein line. He was able to do so not only because the comparatively short line his troops held made the physical concentration of his guns possible, but also because sufficient 6-pdr. anti-tank guns had now been issued to relieve his field artillery of their anti-tank role. It was this artillery, plus Rommel’s own logistical problems, that were decisive in stemming the final German advance. After being bombarded for seven hours, a German infantryman lamented that the barrage was ‘such as I have never before experienced. Tommy has brought our attack to a standstill.’

Montgomery discovered how to use massed artillery successfully on the offensive. By late 1942, confronted by deep German defensive positions, the British had learnt that no attack could succeed without overwhelming fire-support provided by artillery and air support. ‘Fire dominated the battlefield. Fire is the chief antagonist of mobility’, and Montgomery did re-employ some of the same techniques that Haig’s army had perfected twenty years before. The artillery battle, for example, began with a counter-battery programme to destroy, or at least neutralize, the enemy’s guns. In Normandy each hostile battery that was located was deluged with an average of 20 tons of shells. In principle, after 1942 covering fire for infantry and tanks could be called down by a FOO at the request of the unit his guns were supporting. In practice, the army usually employed techniques first devised in 1916. Because the precise position of enemy defences was rarely known with sufficient accuracy, concentrations on known targets were employed less frequently than timed creeping barrages.

However, to dismiss the way in which the British employed their artillery as an outstanding example of the use of ‘brute force’ is to overlook the myriad ways in which forces in the field introduced innovations to enhance their combat effectiveness between 1942 and 1945. Some were relatively minor, like the use of 17-pdr. anti-tank guns to destroy concrete pillboxes that had proved resistant to field gun shells.106 Far more important were the drills that the gunners devised to augment the speed and effectiveness of their fire. Standard concentrations (‘stonks’) were first employed by 8th Army at Alamein in October 1942 and later used by 1st Army in early 1943. By the eve of the Normandy landing they had been perfected. They were standard drills in which the fire of individual batteries and regiments were superimposed upon a single map reference and then moved about as necessary. They could be employed both to support attacks or to lay down defensive fire to break up enemy counter-attacks. Air Observation Posts made their mark in the mountains of Tunisia, the first campaign when the army had a reasonable supply of medium and heavy guns. Flown by Royal Artillery officers, not RAF pilots, AOP pilots were soon entrusted with firing regimental and even divisional concentrations. In 1942 a new type of formation entered the army’s order of battle, Army Groups Royal Artillery (AGRA). Normally allocated on a basis of one per corps, AGRAs usually consisted of a mixture of field, medium, and heavy regiments. They provided a new element of flexibility in the provision of fire-support by enabling army commanders to mass their guns against a particular part of the enemy’s defences.

Developments such as these, when coupled with improved communications, produced an extremely flexible system of fire-support. Commanders could centralize control of their artillery at divisional, corps, or even army level, or decentralize it down to individual units. Hundreds of guns could be brought down quickly on a single target for a set-piece attack. At Alamein, 1st Armoured division’s gunners could produce a divisional concentration in five to ten minutes. By July 1943 gunners in Sicily had cut the time to only two minutes, and, even in the more difficult terrain of Italy, company commanders could summon a divisional concentration and expect to receive it in ten minutes. Moreover, in more mobile operations, by mid-1943 improved command and communications systems made it possible (although each battalion could have its own affiliated battery and each brigade its own affiliated field regiment) for the divisional CRA to exercise almost instantaneous control over all the guns in his division when necessary. This produced a real camaraderie between the infantry and their supporting gunners. The Russian army also employed massed artillery in support of its ground operations. But by 1944–5, in the opinion of at least one senior German gunner, the British artillery outshone it both in tactical flexibility and the speed with which it could lay down effective fire. Rommel himself was impressed, not just by the weight of fire that British gunners could deliver but by their ‘great mobility and tremendous speed of reaction to the needs of the assault troops’.

Montgomery’s interpretation of the principle of concentration also meant attacking on much narrower fronts than the BEF had employed in the First World War. Rawlinson’s 4th Army attacked on a front of 15,000 yards at Amiens on 8 August 1918; a month later it broke the Hindenburg Line on a front of 11,000 yards. By contrast Operation LIGHTFOOT, the opening stage of the Alamein offensive, was mounted on a front of about 7,000 yards. On 26 March 1943, the 8th Armoured Brigade led the assault on the Tebaga Gap to outflank the Mareth Line on a front of less than 1,000 yards. On 6 May 1943, Anderson mounted his final thrust in Tunisia on a front of only 3,000 yards. The opening phase of Operation GOODWOOD was mounted on a front of only 2,000 yards. From 1942 onwards, the British also mounted their offensives in considerable depth in order to sustain the momentum of the advance. Anderson employed two armoured divisions to exploit the gap he expected his infantry to make. For GOODWOOD, Dempsey’s spearhead, 11th Armoured division, was followed by no less than two other armoured divisions.

Air superiority was an essential pre-requisite because attacks on the narrow fronts that Montgomery favoured required a very high density of troops to space. They were only possible from late 1942 onwards because allied air superiority denied the Germans the possibility of disrupting British forces before they attacked. Montgomery recognized that it could only be secured if ground and air force commanders worked in the closest co-operation. He strove to secure that by preparing his plans from the outset in co-operation with his air commander. Air superiority prevented the Luftwaffe from interfering with his own operations. It supplied reconnaissance reports, and, either in the form of tactical air support or, less frequently, support provided by medium and heavy bombers, it supplemented the fire-power of his artillery. The latter could produce fire-support in all weathers and at any time of the day or night. But its range and the destructive power of its projectiles were limited. Air power could not operate at night or in bad weather. But when it was available, it enabled Montgomery to fight the kind of ‘deep battle’ that had been denied to Haig. It could hit the enemy far behind his front line, isolating the battlefield by destroying the enemy’s supply lines, and delaying the arrival of his reserves. It also played a major role in reducing the tempo of German operations relative to that of the British by disrupting German communications. Closer to the front line, when appropriate command and control techniques were in place, air power could deliver a demoralizing weight of high explosive onto enemy front line troops. In Normandy, the 2nd Tactical Air Force, sometimes assisted by the heavy bombers of Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force, inflicted heavy losses on the Germans and denied them a large measure of tactical and operational mobility by forcing them to abandon movement in daylight. But air attacks not only inflicted heavy material losses on the Germans. By investing their ground forces with a sense of their own inability to hit back, their morale was also undermined. By Normandy, adding direct air support to the land operations, making a single integrated plan, had become a fundamental part of 21st Army Group’s operational technique. Captured German officers frequently remarked that ‘our overwhelming air superiority was one of the most, if not the most, important factor of our success’.

Haig has been much criticized for the ways in which he employed intelligence material. With the exception of a handful of occasions, such as the opening of his offensives at Cambrai and Amiens, surprise and deception had rarely formed a central plank of his operations. In the second half of the Second World War, accurate intelligence, and the willingness to act upon it, and the use of security and surprise as a force-multiplier were vital components of British operational doctrine. On 29 October 1942, for example, Montgomery decided to shift the thrust line of Operation SUPERCHARGE further south when his intelligence discovered that Rommel had brought up the 90th Light Division to hold the line where he had originally intended to attack. In February 1944, ‘sigint’ gave allied commanders in the Anzio beachhead ample warning of the timing and direction of a major German counter-offensive intended to drive them back into the sea and enabled them to mass sufficient forces to repulse it. In Normandy the combination of signals intelligence and aerial reconnaissance enabled the British successfully to practise C31 warfare. They killed or captured some twenty German army, corps, or divisional commanders. At the divisional level, the British improvised an intelligence organization to locate the numerous German mortars that caused them such heavy casualties. At the unit level, they patrolled energetically to ascertain the position of the enemy’s defences. General von Obstfelder, GOC of LXXXVI Corps, warned his troops in July 1944 that the enemy employed ‘tricks and is very cunning. During his attack he stages feints to provoke our anti-tank guns to open fire. If an anti-tank position is discovered it is as good as lost before it has a chance to fire.’

Montgomery believed that surprise was second only to high morale as a factor making for success. In January 1944 he told his senior officers that achieving surprise was an essential element in the stage management of battle. The British multiplied the effectiveness of their own forces by combining surprise, achieved by security, and active deception. By 1943–4 the British had effectively blinded most German intelligence sources. Allied air superiority meant that the Luftwaffe was able to provide few reconnaissance reports. Although the Germans continued to capture POWs, most knew little about anything other than their own sub-unit’s activities. The result was that the British could practice a successful deception policy and were repeatedly able to achieve tactical, operational, and sometimes even strategic surprise. The deception techniques that 8th Army successfully employed before Alamein to hide the direction, weight, and timing of the initial assault were not in themselves new. What was new was the thoroughness with which camouflage schemes were co-ordinated by the General Staff and incorporated into the main plan for the battle from the very beginning. Before D-Day, not only had the allies persuaded the Germans that they had far more divisions in Britain than was actually the case, but they had also convinced them that the main allied landing would take place in the Pas de Calais. The result was that prisoners captured from 716th Infantry Division on D-Day complained bitterly that they had been utterly surprised by the allied landing.

The British army that landed in Normandy in 1944 was not the sole creation of Montgomery. It was an amalgamation of formations that had fought under his command in the Mediterranean and the formations that had trained in Britain since Dunkirk. However, just as it would be wrong to attribute the causes of its successes and failures to one man, it would be equally wrong to ignore the fact that Montgomery made a major contribution to enhancing its combat effectiveness. He did not create the army’s operational doctrine, but he did insist that formations under his command practised a common interpretation of it. The outcome was that by the second half of the war, the British possessed what was in some respects a military machine capable of considerable flexibility on the battlefield. Auchinleck had employed a series of thrusts along alternative axes to destabilize Rommel’s army during the first battle of Alamein. But he had failed to break through in July partly because he lacked sufficient reserves and partly because, although he had concentrated his artillery, he continued to employ his infantry in brigade groups rather than divisions. Montgomery also attacked along a series of different thrust lines, but, unlike Auchinleck, took care to ensure that he had the reserves necessary to exploit success. The first thrust compelled the enemy to begin to commit his reserves, the second, coming from an unexpected direction, left him unbalanced, and the third was a decisive break-through operation on yet another part of the line. Montgomery employed this technique at Alamein in October-November 1942, at Mareth in March 1943, and again around Caen during his attempts to encircle the town between June and August 1944. His obsession with remaining ‘balanced’ throughout his operations was a product of his need constantly to create new reserves so that he had troops on hand to mount the next thrust. The essence of Montgomery’s generalship was to defeat his enemy by unbalancing him. This was an appropriate operational technique, because the combination of deception and security that the British practised plus allied air superiority meant that Montgomery could switch his main thrust lines far more speedily than could the Germans. Supplied with a sufficiency of equipment and an insufficiency of men, Montgomery’s operational techniques were chosen to exploit the strengths and weaknesses of the army he commanded.

The ability of the British army to overcome the Germans in the second half of the war continued to depend, as it had done before Alamein, on its ability to mount successful combined arms operations. ‘It cannot be emphasised too strongly’, Montgomery insisted in August 1942, ‘that successful battle operations depend on the intimate co-operation of all arms, whether in armoured or unarmoured formations. Tanks alone are never the answer; no one arm, alone and unaided can do any good in battle.’ Montgomery and his acolytes continued to reiterate this until the end of the war. The level of operational and tactical co-operation of British formations was undoubtedly better after 1942 than it had been earlier in the war. However, there is ample evidence that also points to continued serious shortcomings.

Monty’s Army: Alam Halfa to the Rhine III

At the operational level, several factors degraded the effectiveness and reduced the tempo of British combined arms operations. Because attacks were usually mounted on narrow fronts, troops had little room for manoeuvre. They had to assault frontally, and consequently the Germans had only to move reinforcements to seal off a relatively narrow penetration. In one extreme case at the start of Operation BLUECOAT in Normandy on 30 July 1944, XXX Corps’s axis of advance was a single track that was unsuitable for its tanks, and a single road that it shared with VIII Corps. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that the two German divisions holding the threatened sector quickly stalled the British advance. Secondly, unless there were overwhelming operational needs, commanders never mounted a major operation without first ensuring that their maintenance was adequate to sustain the operation. Montgomery believed that the limits of what was operationally possible were set by the limits of what was logistically possible. The German experience suggests that he was right. They concentrated on the tactical aspects of operations to the neglect of logistics, and in North Africa and Normandy they eventually paid a heavy price for doing so. In both theatres the final collapse of the German position owed a great deal to the prior collapse of their logistical support. Thirdly, Montgomery was reluctant to let fluid operations develop. They did not permit the careful planning and control that characterized his approach to battle management. After Alamein, he therefore ‘gave precise instructions to Lumsden about the development of operations for the pursuit to Agheila, and kept a firm hand on the battle to ensure the master plan was not “mucked about” by subordinate commanders having ideas inconsistent with it’. One of his divisional commanders believed that the cause of his lackadaisical pursuit of Rommel after Alamein was his unwillingness to risk a failure. But before Montgomery is dismissed as being hopelessly cautious, it is as well to examine his conduct of the pursuit from the Seine to Brussels. In twelve days, his armoured regiments travelled an average of 26 miles each day.146 In 1940, by contrast, the German Panzers only managed an average of 21 miles per day between crossing the Meuse and reaching the Channel coast. Moreover, Montgomery’s caution ensured that the Germans were never able to mount the kind of riposte against his troops that Rommel had inflicted so successfully on the British in North Africa in 1941–2.

Despite the undoubted improvements made in British C3I since Dunkirk, in February 1944 Alexander still believed that British (and American) battle procedures were too slow compared to those of the German army. There were several reasons for this. The command and control procedures of formations that had spent most of the war in the UK often lagged behind those that had honed them on the battlefield. As late as February 1944, the staff of VIII Corps still issued lengthy written orders for an attack when what was really necessary was for the CCRA to issue map tracings to his gunners and the Corps commander to visit his divisional commanders to explain his orders in person. Even in Normandy, the wireless link between the Corps’s HQ and its divisions operated too slowly because it was usually manned only by a signaller, rather than by a staff officer. Despite improvements in signal security, intercepted wireless messages remained one of the German army’s most valuable sources of intelligence. Major-General von Broich, GOC 10th Panzer Division in Tunisia, for example, received ample warning about British air attacks by listening in to conversations between ground controllers and aircraft.

The army also suffered because its pre-war training system had not prepared enough middle-ranking officers to jump several ranks in rapid succession to become formation commanders. Pre-war staff trained officers were spread very thinly in the army by 1944. In 7th Armoured division in September 1944, for example, there were only nine pre-war pscs in the entire division—the divisional commander, his infantry brigade and armoured brigade commanders, his signals officer, four regimental or battalion commanders, and a squadron commander. Some commanders had not really understood that their job was to issue clearly defined orders. Major-General R. K. Ross, GOC of 53rd (Welsh) division, ran orders groups in 1944 that resembled ‘councils of war, rather than occasions when clear and definite orders reflected the grip of the commander on the situation’. As Harding admitted in September 1944, ‘Many Division and Corps Commanders have failed, and involved casualties because

[they were]

not trained for such commands.’

Senior officers themselves also continued to pay the penalty for leading from the front. In January 1943 Harding, then commanding 7th Armoured division, was so seriously wounded that he had to be evacuated, although he recovered sufficiently to resume his active career. Others were not so fortunate. In May 1943 Major-General E. G. Miles, GOC 56th division, was so seriously wounded while reconnoitring that he had to be replaced. Three days after landing in southern Italy, G. F. Hopkinson, GOC 1st Airborne division, was killed by a German machine-gunner. In 1944 two divisional commanders in Italy, W. R. Penny (GOC of 1st Division) and G. W. R. Templer (GOC 6th Armoured division) were both wounded by mines. In North West Europe, divisional commanders continued to be at risk. In June 1944 Major-General T. G. Rennie (GOC 3rd division) was wounded in Normandy. He returned to command of 51st Highland division, only to be killed crossing the Rhine in March 1945.

But it was at the tactical level that British combined arms operations were found most wanting, and where the army’s shortcomings did most to reduce the tempo of its operations. Alamein had shown that infantry unsupported by tanks could take their objectives, provided they attacked at night and had plenty of artillery support. Thereafter, units typically only ever attacked behind heavy artillery support. By 1943, infantry were taught to advance close behind the barrage so they arrived on top of the German positions within two minutes of the barrage lifting, and before the neutralizing impact of the artillery had dissipated and the Germans were ready to fight back.

There were plenty of occasions when successful co-operation was achieved between all three arms. In ideal circumstances, infantry operated with tanks and artillery with which they had trained. The attack was methodically planned, all arms had a chance to rehearse their part in it, and then had time to ‘marry up’ with their supporting arms. Units that worked together on a regular basis could develop a close camaraderie. The 1st Gordon Highlanders of 51st Highland division, and a squadron of the Northants Yeomanry of 33rd Armoured Brigade, co-operated so frequently between Normandy and the Rhine crossing that the latter ‘look on themselves as being almost Gordon Highlanders’. On 16 June 1944, 49th division carried out an almost textbook combined arms attack. Operating in conjunction with a squadron of Shermans and with the support of seven field and four medium regiments, one of its battalions captured the village of Crisot, held by 12 SS Panzer Division at a cost of only three killed and twenty-four wounded. In the bocage, where visibility was often limited by high banks and hedges to only 150 yards, by August 1944 tanks and infantry developed a drill to reduce their losses that impressed even the Germans. One or two squadrons of tanks supported the leading battalion. It advanced with two companies forward, using a road as its centre line. Each company had a single platoon as its spearhead, and it was supported by a troop of four tanks. The two leading tanks covered the infantry as they advanced to the next hedge, and were themselves covered by the rest of the troop. The infantry reconnoitred one field ahead of the tanks and one field outward to their flank. In this fashion infantry and tanks moved slowly forward by bounds from one hedgerow to the next.

But the army’s reliance upon heavy fire-support undoubtedly decreased the tempo of its operations. Faced by an enemy in a prepared position, battalion commanders were told that ‘time is then required to “soften” the defences, to make preparations for the attack, and to apply a heavy methodical programme of bombardment to blast a path that their troops can take with the least loss to themselves’. Fire-support could so crater the terrain that ground forces often found their way forward blocked. The availability of heavy artillery support encouraged junior leaders to rely increasingly on the gunners to blast a way through for them. By the Sicilian campaign, infantry units had slipped into the habit, when they encountered resistance, of halting and calling down artillery support, rather than trying to outflank the enemy or fight their way forward with their own weapons. Infantry battalions in North West Europe, faced by stiff German opposition, advanced on average between 380–525 yards per hour in daylight and 305–420 yards at night. The mountainous terrain meant that distances covered were even less in Italy. Such a slow rate of advance allowed the Germans to move up reserves to block the advance or to slip away unmolested. The British also sometimes failed to reap the full benefits of carpet bombing by heavy bombers because fear of ‘shorts’ caused them to pull back their foremost troops before the bombing occurred. The result was that the infantry were slow to follow up the bombers and the Germans were given sufficient time to recover their composure and man their defences.

The willingness of the infantry to move forward rapidly was essential, for the gunners could not win battles on their own. Against troops who were well dug-in, even massive concentrations of artillery killed or wounded remarkably few enemy soldiers. Men under cover were almost immune from anything other than a direct hit and calculations in Italy showed that only 3 per cent of field artillery shells actually fell into a trench. In September 1944, a field and a medium regiment fired nearly 500 shells over a thirty-minute period at a small German strong point near San Martino in Gattara. The strong point consisted of four weapons pits containing machine-guns and three other slit trenches, all sited within a 50-yard radius of each other. When the infantry advanced, they approached within 40 yards of their objective before the Germans opened fire and stopped them. The (literally) fatal mistake the infantry had committed was to wait fifteen minutes between the end of the bombardment and arriving on their objective.

The main effect of artillery was not to kill the enemy, but to degrade their morale. German soldiers defending the beaches in Normandy on 6 June 1944 reported that the ‘drum fire inspired in the defenders a feeling of utter helplessness, which in the case of inexperienced recruits caused fainting or indeed complete paralysis. Their instinct of self-preservation drove their duty as soldiers, to fight and destroy the enemy, completely out of their minds.’ Later in the month Gefreiter J. Seibt wrote in his diary

I am writing my war adventures in a dug-out approximately 50 metres away from Tommy. It is a dark, foggy and cold day, and the clothes from yesterday are not dry yet. The frame of mind of all of us is miserable and the only thought is always: “How will this all end?” Everyone is absolutely fed up. Yes, that is due to the enemy artillery, which fired yesterday without a break. Today one hears the fire in intervals of minutes, but it was not so calm, particularly the drum fire. I don’t know how long this will last. I also don’t know whether today is the 24th, 25th or 26th or 27th of June. My watch was already knocked out of action during the first hour of the operation. Time, however, is not money here. One dare not stick one’s head out of the dug-out, as otherwise one stops a bullet immediately. The only salvation is death.

Experiments conducted in Britain, information gathered from battles from Alamein onwards and POW interrogation reports suggested that soldiers under continuous shellfire reached the limits of their psychological endurance after between two and four hours of shelling. The crucial factor in undermining the enemy’s morale was not the weight of individual shells but their number, and for that task field guns were better suited than medium or heavy artillery. Some formations, notably 43rd division, recognized the implications of this, and from Normandy onwards began to employ ‘pepper-pot’ tactics. At the start of an attack every weapon under the division’s command, including not only its field guns and mortars, but also its light anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns, and medium machine-guns bombarded the enemy’s positions in an effort to demoralize the defenders. By early 1945 such tactics were being employed on a grand scale. During the opening stages of Operation VERITABLE, the fire-power of XXX Corps 1050 artillery pieces was supplemented by 114 Bofors light anti-aircraft guns, 80 medium mortars, 60 Sherman tanks, 24 17-pdr. anti-tank guns, and 188 medium machine-guns.

British commanders were slow to adjust their fire-plans to take account of the ways in which the Germans deployed their defending forces. The most common reason why attacks stalled was because they encountered unlocated German defences echeloned in depth beyond the range of their own artillery support. In Normandy the bocage made it extremely difficult for the gunners to locate their targets. 21 Army Group’s fire-plans tended to devastate the foremost German-defended positions, but to leave the main line of resistance relatively unscathed. GOODWOOD failed because, although the initial British bombardment devastated the first German gun line and enabled VIII Corps’s tanks to advance 4,000 yards, a second line some 3,000 yards behind it remained intact. The first formation to recognize and try to overcome this problem was II Canadian Corps, in operation TOTALIZE in August 1944. The Canadians devised a fire-plan to co-ordinate the work of artillery, heavy-bombers, and fighter-bombers to neutralize both the German defence lines blocking their advance.

It was not until the middle of the Normandy campaign that the army finally abandoned the last remnants of its pre-war conviction that tanks and infantry within armoured divisions could and should operate separately. By Alamein the British accepted that each armoured division needed a whole lorried infantry brigade, but until Normandy they remained committed to the idea that armoured and infantry brigades should fight separate, albeit co-ordinated actions. The tanks’ role was to forge ahead when the terrain was suitable, destroying the enemy’s armoured and unarmoured forces and dislocating his lines of communication by deep penetrations or flank attacks. The infantry’s function was to cover the advance of the tanks in close country, to mop up and hold ground taken by the tanks, and to form a secure pivot around which they could manoeuvre. In the close country of Tunisia and Italy, the two brigades usually tried to work closely together, one advancing close behind the other. But combined attacks by both the armoured and lorried infantry brigades were deprecated because they required exceptional co-ordination and left the divisional commander without any reserves. The role of the divisional artillery was to neutralize or destroy hostile anti-tank guns to enable the tanks to advance unhindered. To help them do so, by late 1942 most armoured divisions had a regiment of self-propelled guns attached to its armoured brigade. Von Thoma attributed Rommel’s defeat at Alamein to the fact that the British gunners destroyed half of his anti-tank guns. It was an indication of how dependent armour had become on artillery that during the North West European campaign 11th Armoured Division expended only 50,764 rounds of tank gun ammunition but 508,720 rounds of 25-pdr. ammunition.

It took the defeat of 22nd Armoured Brigade at Villers Bocage and the abortive advance of the armoured divisions of VIII Corps during GOODWOOD before armoured commanders recognized that tanks and infantry had to operate on a far more intimate basis if they were to overcome the dense anti-tank defences that the Germans prepared in North West Europe. After GOODWOOD, on O’Connor’s initiative, 11th and Guards Armoured divisions did reorganize themselves more flexibly. In close country, they operated in four regimental groups. One armoured regiment married up with a lorried infantry battalion, while the division’s armoured reconnaissance regiment operated with the armoured brigade’s motor battalion. Henceforth, infantry actually rode on the backs of the tanks so that they could give instant support to the armour.

But there were also many occasions when co-operation broke down, sometimes with costly results. There were several common causes of failure. Sometimes the attacking troops failed to carry out a proper reconnaissance of enemy defences. On 23 April 1943, 2nd Infantry Brigade (1st division), supported by two squadrons of Churchills from 142nd RAC, failed to hold the gains it had made on Gueriat ridge in Tunisia because a line of unlocated anti-tank guns knocked out several of its supporting tanks and the Germans were able to mount a rapid counter-attack. Sometimes fire-plans were inadequate. At Salerno a battalion attack failed because the artillery fire-plan had failed to provide for a reserve of guns to deal quickly with flanking machine-gun fire. Sometimes units were thrown into an attack without sufficient time to ‘marry up’. In July 1944 in Normandy, two companies of 4th Welch (53rd Welch Division) suffered sixty-seven casualties when they raided the village of Esquay in part because their supporting Churchill tanks arrived late at their rendezvous. The infantry commander had blithely assumed that they would be able ‘to appear from out of the blue after the inf[antry] had advanced 900 yds and join smoothly in the attack’.

Perhaps the most common cause of failures in combined arms operations was communications breakdown. The Royal Corps of Signals was responsible for providing communications down to unit level. But communications within each unit were provided by the unit itself. This was one reason why the weakest link in the army’s communication system remained the infantry battalion. At the end of the Tunisian campaign, Anderson decided that ‘The question of forward infantry communications required special study. Practically no progress has been made since the last war.’ Even during training, commanders of artillery and armoured regiments realized that their success depended on the efficiency of their signallers. But infantry commanders could carry on without any form of electrical communications by relying on welltrained runners.

The result, according to one staff officer, was that ‘The biggest clot in a battalion was made the Signal Officer’. The infantry were also handicapped because they had to wait longer than other arms of service for sufficient radio equipment, and the sets they did receive were too heavy and operated on frequencies that were particularly susceptible to interference. Their problems were made even worse by difficulties in providing sufficient batteries and replacement signallers. The result, according to the commander of an infantry training centre in the Middle East in 1943, was that ‘The standard of r/t procedure is appallingly low’. Communications between infantry and their supporting tanks remained an unresolved problem from Alamein to the end of the war. When infantry and armoured units had the opportunity to train together before a battle, their communications were usually satisfactory. When they did not, they invariably broke down. This placed serious constraints on the infantry’s tactical flexibility. They went into battle expecting that their communications would collapse and ‘The result is that the plan had to be too rigid, and once troops are committed it is impossible for them to adjust themselves to the enemy’s reactions’.

Infantry that were closely supported by tanks and artillery usually found it comparatively easy to arrive on their objective, albeit often very slowly. But they also had to be able to hold it. Units that had studied German tactics knew they had to prepare to meet a swift counter-attack. Shortly after landing in Normandy, for example, a company of 10th Parachute battalion repulsed a German counter-attack by directing the fire of two field regiments onto the German troops as they formed up. They then allowed the survivors to approach their positions before opening rapid fire at short range with their own small arms and mortars. On 8 July 1944, Lieutenant Ranzinger of 21st Panzer division, recorded that the previous day a counter-attack east of Caen by infantry and tanks of his division was quickly stopped by a combination of ‘Murderous art[iller]y and mortar fire’ and infantry small arms fire. But British units that had not prepared to meet a swift German counterattack and had not practised a drill to consolidate their gains rapidly and bring forward anti-tank guns and other heavy support weapons, were frequently driven off their gains. On 18 June 1944, despite the support of several medium and seven field regiments, an attack mounted by 231st Infantry brigade was driven out of the village of Hottot in Normandy when German infantry infiltrated between its two leading battalions and German tanks attacked them from the front.

Failures such as these suggest that even commanders as determined and energetic as Montgomery and Horrocks could not overcome that combination of weariness and sheer human inertia that overtook many units and formations coming out of battle and force them to begin training for the next one. After the occupation of Sicily, 50th division congratulated itself that, despite its inability to get behind and cut off the German rearguards that had opposed it, the division did not require any special training in operating in close country. Time devoted to training was not always spent appropriately. In anticipation of a swift advance inland from the beaches, before D-Day 7th Armoured division trained almost exclusively for rapid, mobile exploitation operations, whereas they would have done better to work on effecting better infantry-tank co-operation. A few weeks after the landing a tank troop commander in 24th Lancers noted in his diary ‘In the afternoon all Officers are summoned to a lecture in a nearby field, given by Major Bourne, 21C of the 3rd R.T.R., who has apparently had quite a lot of experience of fighting in this class of country. It is a warm day, and a lot of drowsy Officers pay scant attention to this important advice . . .’.

In December 1943 the DMT at 15 Army Group in Italy circulated, with Alexander’s endorsement, a report on recent operations that concluded

Our tactical methods are thorough and methodical but slow and cumbersome. In consequence our troops fight well in defence and our set-piece attacks are usually successful, but it is not unfair to say that through lack of enterprise in exploitation we seldom reap the full benefit of them. We are too flank-conscious, we over-insure administratively, we are by nature too apprehensive of failure and our training makes us more so.

It was, in fact, a remarkably candid and generally accurate assessment of the operational and tactical capability of the army. It omitted only one salient fact. This system served the British army’s needs remarkably well. It delivered victory at an acceptable cost in human terms and without breaking the morale of front line units. The British army did not win its battles from Alam Halfa to the Rhine by the simple application of ‘brute force’ and a reversion to the methods of 1918. From the autumn of 1942 onwards, division for division, the British did enjoy a quantitative superiority in weapons and munitions. This was the product of three factors: their own factories were finally coming on full-stream; supplies were being delivered in growing quantities from the USA; and the bulk of the German army was being bled white in Russia. However, commanders in North Africa before Alamein had also enjoyed this superiority and had shown that they did not know how to exploit it. Furthermore, their quantitative superiority was to some extent offset by the qualitative inferiority of many of their weapons. Within a doctrine that continued to constrain the initiative of subordinate commanders, they developed more efficient C31 systems and new operational and tactical methods. The key to the British army’s success from Alam Halfa onwards was that they had discovered how to employ the weapons they possessed in such a way as to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses.


King Andrew II died on 21 September 1235. Two years earlier he had lost his second wife, Yolande de Courtenay, sister of Robert and Baldwin II, Latin emperors of Constantinople. Although nearing sixty, he contracted a third marriage with Beatrice, the young daughter of the marquis of Este. Upon Andrew’s death, the widow, who was already pregnant, considered it advisable to flee the country, and it was abroad that she gave birth to a son, Stephen, father of Andrew III, the last king of the dynasty.

Béla IV (1235–1270) had already become known for his conservative views. Between 1228 and 1231, as a younger king, he had taken serious measures to reverse his father’s ‘useless and superfluous perpetual grants’; but at that time his father had often prevented his decisions from being put into effect. Now, as king, he began his reign by expelling or imprisoning his father’s principal counsellors and confiscating their estates. Palatine Denis, who was held to be more responsible than anyone else for what had happened during Andrew II’s reign, was blinded. Béla also made efforts to restore the kingdom to the state it had been during the time of his revered grandfather. As a first step he ordered that the barons should henceforth stand during meetings of the royal council, having their seats burnt as a symbolic act. He also ordered that all those with grievances should submit these, by written petition, to the office of the judge royal in order that their cases might be examined. Only the most important cases would be placed before the council. However, Béla’s foremost aim was to put an end to the dissolution of the kingdom’s castle organisation, so he ordered a careful census of what remained of it and, in order to swell the dangerously diminished stock of royal estates, he resorted once again to the rescinding of his father’s land grants. All these measures bore witness to the king’s determination to interpret royal power as being almost absolute; and, indeed, they seemed to reinforce royal authority for a short time. The Italian Rogerius, canon of Oradea and later archbishop of Split, an astute contemporary who described in his Carmen miserabile the story of the Mongol invasion, was of another opinion. He thought that Béla’s actions had provoked ‘hatred’ between the king and his subjects, leading to a level of tension that he saw as the main reason for the catastrophe that was to follow.

It was at this time that the mysterious ‘eastern’ Hungarians became involved for a moment in the history of their western relatives. In the tenth century it was still recalled that the Hungarians had been cut into two by the attack of the Pechenegs in about 895 and that one part of them had remained in the East. This episode seems later to have been forgotten, and the existence of these distant relatives only became known again via the conversion of Cumania. Prompted by hints provided by a missionary, a Friar Julian and three other Dominicans left for the East in 1235 in order to find the lost Hungarians. Following the instruction of the chronicles, the Dominicans looked for them first in ‘Scythia’, that is, around the sea of Azov, but the eastern Hungarians were finally found in Bashkiria, along the River Volga, in a land called Magna Hungaria by Friar Julian. By the time he encountered them, all his companions had died. It was there that Julian realised the danger posed by the Mongol expansion, and as soon as he had arrived home he informed his king of it. In 1237 a new mission was dispatched, this time with the aim of converting the pagan Hungarians, but it had to stop at Suzdal, for in the meantime Khan Batu’s troops had begun their westward movement and had swept away the Hungarians’ eastern relatives for ever.

Mongol pressure led to the first migration of the Cumans into Hungary. In 1237 Prince Kuthen asked for his people’s admission, promising that they would become good Hungarian subjects and adopt the Roman Catholic faith. Regarding the Cumans as potentially useful allies against the Mongols, as well as against his own subjects, Béla settled them on the Great Plain, but their arrival only deepened the crisis in Hungary. The king was overwhelmed with complaints that the Cumans had violated women and disregarded property rights. There was little he could do to prevent these transgressions, but was nevertheless accused of bias in favour of ‘his Cumans’.

In the meantime the Mongols arrived on the scene. Kiev fell in December 1240 and in the spring of 1241 the Mongol armies set out for Hungary. The right wing crossed Poland and, having defeated Henry, duke of Silesia at Legnica on 9 April, invaded the kingdom of Hungary from the north. The left wing pushed through the passes of the Carpathians from the south. The main army, led by Batu in person, aimed the very heart of the kingdom. On 12 March they broke through the defensive works of the pass of Vorota and defeated Palatine Denis Tomaj. Five days later Vác was plundered by their vanguard.

Few realised the seriousness of the danger. While the royal army was gathering near Pest and the Mongols were advancing with a speed that only nomadic horsemen could attain, a riot broke out against the Cumans who were accused of complicity with the enemy. The crowd slaughtered Kuthen and his retinue, while his enraged people left the royal camp and marched away, doing as much damage as they could. Nevertheless, even without the Cumans, the Mongols still thought that the Hungarian army outnumbered them. Béla confidently marched eastwards and met Batu near Muhi on the River Sajó. It was there that took place the battle which was to be greatest military catastrophe experienced by medieval Hungary prior to 1526.

The Hungarian troops took position on the plain, surrounded by their carts. According to Batu, they ‘closed themselves in a narrow pen in the manner of sheep’, which made effective defence impossible. By dawn the Mongols had crossed the river above and below the Hungarian camp, encircled it and killed by archery all those who could not escape. The very best of the Hungarian army perished, including the palatine, the judge royal and both archbishops along with other bishops and barons. Béla’s brother, Coloman, was severely wounded and died soon after in Slavonia. Although the Mongols did their best to catch him, Béla managed to escape, and a number of nobles were later rewarded for helping him with fresh horses. He asked Frederick of Austria for help, but the duke preferred to take advantage of the situation and forced Béla to cede three counties. From Austria the king fled to Slavonia, and continued to send letters to the West asking for help. But all was in vain, for Gregory IX and Frederick II, whose support he might have hoped for, were heavily engaged in fighting each other.

In fact the help could not have arrived in time, for the Mongol storm subsided as quickly as it had arrived. In the beginning of 1242 the invaders crossed the frozen Danube and took Esztergom with the exception of the castle. They chased Béla as far as Trogir in Dalmatia, but did not have time to lay siege to the city. The news came that the Great Khan, Ögödey, had died at the end of 1241, and Batu wanted to be present at the election of his successor. In March the Mongol army withdrew from the country, killing and taking thousands of captives en route. ‘In this year’, noted an Austrian annalist under the year 1241, ‘the kingdom of Hungary, which had existed for 350 years, was destroyed by the army of the Tatars.’

Internal development and the Mongol invasion brought about notable changes during second half of the thirteenth century. Some of them turned out to be decisive. By about 1270 political events had led to a rapid decline of central power and brought about an anarchy that culminated in 1301 with the dying out of the Árpádian dynasty. But this was also a period of major social and economic changes, unparalleled since the eleventh and until the nineteenth centuries. Ancient forms of serfdom began to disappear, and wide regions of what is today Slovakia, as well as of Transylvania, which had been almost uninhabited before, began to be settled with increasing density during these decades. Special attention must be given to the emergence of the diet (or parliament) and of local autonomies, preparing the way for the growing influence of the nobility as an ‘estate’ in the following period.


The destruction caused by the Mongols during the course of a single year is hardly imaginable. They carried off thousands of captives, and what they left behind was vividly described by Rogerius, who had been a captive of theirs but managed to escape with some of his companions. For a week they wandered in Transylvania from village to village ‘without meeting anyone’, guided by church towers and living on roots. When they finally arrived in Alba Iulia ‘they found nothing but the corpses and skulls of those slaughtered by the invaders’. The spectacle must have been the same wherever the enemy had passed, and even many decades later villages throughout the kingdom were found to have been uninhabited ‘since the time of the Mongols’. The fields could not be tilled while the enemy was there and the unburied corpses caused the spread of epidemics. Consequently, there followed in 1243 a horrible famine, which ‘took more victims than the pagans before’, according to an Austrian contemporary.

The number of casualties has been disputed, but there is no doubt that the invasion led to something of a demographic catastrophe. Some scholars put the loss, probably with exaggeration, at about 50 per cent of the population (Gy. Györffy), but even the most prudent estimates do not go below 15 or 20 per cent (J. Szücs). The disaster can certainly be compared to the Black Death, which was to strike the West a century later, and its consequences were of the same importance. The trauma caused by the Mongol attack itself prompted a series of comprehensive political reforms, but its indirect social effects were even more significant. Strange as it may seem, the cataclysm speeded up the process of transformation that had begun in the reign of Andrew II. The next few decades saw spectacular changes that transformed the general outlook and social structure of the kingdom profoundly and enduringly.

The Transdanubian region where the invaders spent only a couple of months was relatively spared, but the Great Plain, which had borne the Mongol presence for a whole year, was devastated. Archaeological excavations have shown that in the region of Orosháza, east of Szeged, 31 out of 43 villages disappeared for ever. In the immediate outskirts of Cegléd, eight ruined churches were in later centuries to serve as reminders of the villages that must once have stood around them. In the late Middle Ages many deserted places still bore the name of a patron saint, showing that they had been inhabited in earlier times. It has been demonstrated that medieval place names ending with the word egyház (‘church’, as in the names of the modern towns Nyíregyháza and Kiskunfélegyháza) also referred to an abandoned church. Obviously not all the deserted localities should be attributed to the Mongol destruction. The abandonment of settlements must have been as common in Hungary as elsewhere in Europe, and the apparent disappearance of many villages that had been mentioned before 1241 was probably due to a change of name. Nevertheless, it is clear that the consequences of the Mongol invasion were grave indeed. It is a significant fact that all of the 40 Hungarian monasteries that are known to have disappeared at this time lay in the area that was affected by the invaders, 35 being on the Great Plain and the remainder in the adjacent part of Fejér county.

The profound transformation in the network of settlements on the Great Plain should be seen, on the whole, as a consequence of the Mongol invasion. Even today this part of Hungary is characterised by towns and large villages, with each having an extensive area belonging to it, while a dense network of much smaller settlements is more typical elsewhere. The lands belonging to the abandoned settlements on the Great Plain were taken over by the survivors and used as pastures. In this way, the general destruction in the thirteenth century can be seen as a prerequisite for the spectacular boom in horse and cattle breeding in the following period.

No less fatal for the whole of eastern Hungary was the simultaneous collapse of eastern European commerce. An initial blow had been dealt by the sack of Constantinople in 1204, for as a consequence the main commercial route that led through the Balkans lost its importance. Flourishing towns like Bač and Kovin, which had hitherto lived off the trade along this route, soon declined to the status of insignificant villages. However, the final blow was brought about by the Mongol destruction of Kiev in 1240.

It seems that, until that date, eastern Hungary had been a flourishing region. It was not, of course, more civilised than the western half of the kingdom, but it had certainly developed dynamically. Among the evidence for this are thousands of pennies of Friesach dating from Andrew II’s reign that have been found along the route leading to Kiev, but not elsewhere. They were probably buried at the time of the Mongol attack. The earliest known royal privilege that contained liberties for a community of peasant settlers was granted in 1201 by King Emeric to Walloons who came to the royal forest of Sárospatak. The village they founded, later to be called Olaszi (now Bodrogolaszi), lay along the route towards Kiev. The earliest urban privilege we know of was accorded by Andrew II in 1230 to the German ‘guests’ (hospites) of Satu Mare. The fact that Galicia remained a target of Hungarian foreign policy until about the same time was probably not unrelated to its economic importance. The route to Galicia led through the passes of the north-eastern Carpathians, so the king and his court must have been frequent visitors to the region. After the destruction of Kiev, commerce with the East virtually ceased to exist and the region quickly became marginalised, from the economic as well as the political point of view. Užhorod, a ‘great and flourishing town’ in the time of Idrisi, was not to recover from the blow until modern times. The same could be said of many other centres in the region, which henceforth would experience a royal visit no more than once a century.


The military defeat brought about a radical change in Béla IV’s political outlook. In the first place, it clearly indicated the necessity of constructing strong fortresses. Many of the early earth and timber castles had probably been abandoned by the time of the invasion, while those still in use were destroyed by the invaders. Apart from the walled cities of Esztergom and Székesfehérvár, there were only a few fortified monasteries and stone castles that were able to resist the Mongols. The most spectacular change of the years following the invasion was, therefore, the rapid spread of stone-built castles.

Béla completely abandoned the old principle according to which the erection and administration of fortresses was a royal prerogative. Immediately after the Mongols had left the country he initiated a large-scale programme with the aim of adopting the type of stone castle that had already become common in the West. The policy of lavish land-grants was renewed. Béla, as he himself put it, was prompted by his royal office ‘not to reduce but to enlarge’ his grants.4 Both the castle-building programme and the creation of a knightly army were dependent on the lords receiving huge parcels of land, from the revenues of which they could construct and maintain castles. The king himself began such construction on the royal demesne, and simultaneously permitted others to do the same on their own estates. The first known authorisation for a private person to build a castle was issued in 1247, and by the time of Béla’s death about a hundred new fortifications stood throughout the kingdom, ready to face a new invasion. They were held by bishops, lay lords, as well as the king and the queen.

The most important new castles lay mainly in the royal forests and were erected by the king himself. Good examples are Spišský hrad and Šarišský hrad. The castle of Visegrád, perched on a hill above the great bend of the Danube north of Budapest, was built by Queen Mary to be the centre of the forest of Pilis. The fortifications erected by nobles, often called ‘towers’, were more modest constructions. They normally consisted of a massive tower, sometimes supplemented by a palace and a chapel, and surrounded by a stone wall, the whole site occupying no more than an acre. During the first decades they were usually built on inaccessible peaks, often in a remote mountain region, clearly indicating that they were intended to serve not as residences but as refuges for the owner and his family in case of danger. The outcome of the programme set in motion by Béla and continued by his immediate successors can still be seen. All over the Carpathian basin there are hundreds of castles great and small, often rebuilt or enlarged later and now lying mostly in ruins, that have nuclei dating back to the second half of the thirteenth century.

Another military implication of the invasion was that there was a pressing need to modernise the army. The bulk of the king’s army continued to consist of the castle warriors serving as light cavalry. Although they were unable to afford more than the traditional leather armour, the king tried to increase their number and modernise their equipment. From the 1240s onwards he began to grant small parcels of land in the uninhabited royal forests upon the condition that the grantees equipped a certain number of heavily armoured cavalrymen for the royal army. It was the descendants of these settlers who, by the end of the Middle Ages, had come to form the lesser nobility of the basin of Turc and of the district of the ‘ten-lanced’ (decemlanceatus) nobles of Spis. The king also wanted to increase the number of heavily armoured Western-style knights, and proved to be as generous as his father had been in distributing enormous landed estates among his barons and followers.

In view of the Mongol menace, mounted archers skilled in nomadic warfare were also needed. This military element had hitherto been furnished by the Székely and the Pechenegs, but after the invasion the role of the latter was taken over by the Cumans, whom Béla managed to lure back into his kingdom in 1246. In order to bind them closely to his dynasty, he made his eldest son marry Elisabeth, the daughter of the Cuman prince. He assigned them a territory of their own in those regions of the Great Plain that had recently become uninhabited. One of their groups, later called ‘Major Cumans’, settled east of Szolnok, while the ‘Minor Cumans’ occupied the sandy area between the Danube and the Tisza. It might have been about the same time that a group of nomadic Alans, called jász in Hungarian and, for an unknown reason, Philistines in some Latin sources, also appeared in Hungary. In the early fourteenth century they were allotted a district of their own in Heves county, in the region now called Jászság.

The extensive pastures that the Cumans and Alans found on the Great Plain enabled them to pursue their traditional nomadic life for some time, but within two or three centuries they had become assimilated into the surrounding population. By then their temporary nomadic ‘dwellings’ (descensus) had been transformed into villages, and they had also abandoned their original languages. That of the Cumans, a Turkic language, left no written traces, while that of the Alans is represented by a list of 38 Iranian words scrawled on the back of a legal document from 1422. Both the Cumans and the Alans were directly subjected to the king and, like the Székely or the castle warriors, were expected to perform unlimited military service. Their constant presence in the Hungarian army in all of its wars gave it a peculiarly exotic flavour.


While the military system of Gustav Adolf served as the basis for European warfare in the eighteenth century, few were able to apply it fully. While the external aspects of his ideas were practitioners failed to understand his flexible employment of the combined arms team on the battlefield. Arnold J. Toynbee refers to an historical cycle of invention, triumph, lethargy and disaster.

Walter Goerlitz writes that the strategy of the time was that of a chess board which concentrated on felicitous maneuvering and avoided, wherever possible, the more painful decisions of a direct encounter. One of the foremost military historians of that age, Count Wilhelm von Schaumberg Lippe, writes in his Mémeoires sur la Guerre Défensive that the aim of the art of war should be to avoid war altogether, or when that was not possible, to lessen the evil aspects of war. Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill and Orrery, wrote in the 1670s:

Battells do not now decide national quarrels, and expose countries to the pillage of the conquerors, as formerly. For we make war more like foxes, than like lyons, and you will have twenty sieges for one battell.

As so often in history, economics dictated how wars were fought. The professional armies of the western powers were expensive instruments that could not be quickly replaced. Long periods of training were required to perform the mathematically prescribed deployments and maneuvering with precision. The infantry under Marlborough and Eugène of Savoy (1663– 1736) fought in long thin lines often several kilometers in length. The infantry were trained to march directly into several sets of triple deployments, one behind the other and each three or four ranks deep. These lines were expected to retain their perfect alignment even during the heat of battle. The soldiers were drilled to carry out intricate movements and to keep strictly in step in their ingenious wheeling and maneuvering.

It is not surprising that in such an environment there were few advances in weapons technology. Identifiable progress was primarily in refinements of weapons already in existence. The flintlock musket with the ring bayonet remained the basic infantry weapon, with only minor alterations.

There was practically no change in artillery. The Swedish technology of the early seventeenth century quickly spread across Europe, spurred on by a lively export from Sweden to the arms merchants in Amsterdam of at least 1,000 pieces annually starting in the 1650s. The weapons manufacturers in other countries were quick to copy.

Cavalry had a diminished role. They were used primarily as skirmishers, to fight enemy cavalry, as flank security, and for raiding the enemy’s lines of communications.

The most notable achievement was in the field of siege craft—both the construction of fortifications and in breaking through them. The credit for these achievements belongs to Marshal Sébastian le Prestre de Vauban (1633– 1707). Space forbids going into his accomplishments, but two books are recommended for those who wish to pursue this subject further.

The new fortresses created problems that were not easy to solve. As pointed out by Parker, a fortress or walled town with a strong garrison and supported by strategically located strongpoints was too dangerous to bypass and had to be taken. Most of the pitched battles therefore took place between the besiegers and armies sent to help the besieged. The number of sieges increased while the number of pitched battles declined dramatically. Marl-borough fought only four major battles during his ten campaigns but was involved in thirty sieges.

The expanse of the battlefield and the extent of campaigns were dictated by three factors—the reduced role of cavalry, the limited range of weapons, and logistics. Supplies were gathered in a limited number of magazines. The location of these magazines and their distances from the battlefield dictated the scope of campaigns and put a limit on wars.

What did the Swedes think about the western form of warfare in the early eighteenth century? They were not very impressed, to say the least. Frost writes that the Swedish General Staff had nothing but contempt for the linear tactics of contemporary European armies. In the view of the Swedes, western warfare was too defensive and precluded any final decisions by arms.

Frost believes that the differences between western linear tactics and those of the Swedes are overdrawn and that western tactics were not as defensive as depicted. However, as an excellent historian, Frost qualifies his statements by pointing out that western observers were baffled by Swedish tactics.

There were considerable differences between the western approach to warfare and that of Sweden, driven largely by Karl XII’s war aims based on two centuries of endless wars in the Baltic. Swedish war aims were the total defeat of its enemies, not the acquisition of a fort, city, or even a province, and the Swedish army was trained and organized to achieve those objectives. In short, the Swedish forces were geared for offensive war.

The Swedish army was as well equipped as its western counterparts. They were superbly trained and had a high level of discipline. This discipline was not based on severe corporal punishment or death as in the armies in the west, but on exemplary leadership. Karl XII shared the life of his soldiers, including sleeping in the open, eating the same rations as his men, and enduring the same hardships as they did. This example was followed by the other officers in the army. The king and his officers exposed themselves to hostile fire as much as the men. The king was invariably to be found at the hottest place on the battlefield, and his rashness was often deplored but the men liked it. He was truly loved and respected by his men, and this was sufficient to instill in them a discipline and aggressive spirit that seldom made disciplinary measures necessary.

The Swedes retained the pike while it had been discarded by western armies. This was not because modern infantry weapons, including bayonets, were lacking—in fact Frost points out that the Swedish bayonet was superior to many found in the west. The Swedes simply considered that the pike still had a role to play.

During Gustav Adolf’s time the Swedish infantry attack on enemy infantry was conducted at a steady pace behind continuous musket salvos delivered by each forward rank as one passed through the other, moving ever closer to their enemy. The Swedish infantry regulations under Karl XII had the infantry engaging the enemy infantry on the run, in some cases without unslinging their muskets. There was no pretension of any fire and maneuver, as the first—and in most cases the only salvo—was delivered as close to the enemy as possible. At the battle of Fraustadt on 13 February 1706, some of the infantry did not let loose even a salvo as it attacked headlong in one wave through three artillery salvos and one musket salvo before they stormed the enemy infantry line with sword, pike, and bayonet.

In a slow, traditional approach by the infantry, stopping momentarily to fire salvos, the enemy’s stationary infantry should have been able to deliver 4 to 5 well-directed musket salvos and several artillery salvos at the attackers while they were in the killing zone to their front. In a dead run the enemy only had time to fire one, or at the most two, musket salvos. Having thousands of screaming Swedes approach at a dead run was enough to unnerve the best trained and battle-hardened infantry and make their fire inaccurate. Running at the enemy could theoretically reduce casualties and this may well be what was behind Swedish thinking.

Karl XII, while making some use of artillery, appears to have put less faith in firepower than his predecessors, and this is a definite divergence from the combined arms doctrine of Gustav Adolf. Marlborough, while walking through the Swedish camp in Saxony, was surprised at the scarcity of artillery.

At the Battle of Klissow in 1702, Karl XII, having only four guns at the outset, launched his attack on the Saxons without waiting for the rest of the artillery to arrive. In the invasion of Russia, Karl XII brought a total of 72 guns to support an army three times as large as Gustav Adolf had brought to Germany, supported by over 80 guns. Gustav Adolf had 200 guns at Frankfurt on Oder and 150 at the Battle of Werden. At Poltava, Russian artillery dominated the battlefield while most of the Swedish artillery was with their baggage train.

Unlike the western armies, Sweden still placed great emphasis on the cavalry arm. The Swedish cavalry charged theoretically in “knee to knee” formations mounted on large horses that must have been a disconcerting view to enemy formations.

Frost’s observation that the spectacular results of these aggressive tactics [by the Swedes] played an important part in their success, since they ensured that morale remained high, is on the mark. An unbroken string of victories over a decade instilled a great sense of loyalty to and blind faith from the troops in Karl XII as a military leader. The king’s simple life in the field and his reckless courage endeared him to his men. This military virtue of an army is labeled by Carl von Clausewitz as one of the most important moral powers in war.

As with any military commander who loses a battle, particularly one as history-changing as Poltava, there is no lack in the literature of criticism and reasons for the ultimate defeat. I am reminded of the famous saying by Marshal Turenne that when a general makes no mistakes in war, it is because he has not been at it long.


In examining and judging Karl XII’s strategy we must do so based on what the king knew or should have known when he launched his invasion of Russia. Military strategy must specify the ends—objectives to be achieved; military strategic concepts—the ways in which these objectives are to be achieved; and finally military resources adequate to achieve the objectives.

Napoleon was one of Karl XII’s severest critics. In his memoirs dictated from his exile in St. Helena, Napoleon bluntly claimed that Karl XII was merely a brave soldier who knew nothing about the art of war. It must be kept in mind that Napoleon was writing for posterity after his own disastrous Russian campaign, which he wanted to put in the best of lights.

Napoleon’s arguments are not that the goal was unreasonable or that the resources were inadequate, as so many other writers have contended. He noted that Karl XII had 80,000 of the best troops in the world available for the invasion. He focused on the military strategic concepts, claiming that these were wrong. Napoleon’s severest criticism is aimed at Karl splitting his forces and not following the example of Hannibal by abandoning all lines of communication and establishing a base in Russia.

This is strange criticism coming from a military leader who did just that in 1812; he captured Moscow but lost his army and empire in a disastrous winter retreat with inadequate provisions. Napoleon’s criticism of Karl XII turning south instead of continuing on to Moscow, only ten days march away, has more logic. Clausewitz also levels mild criticism at Karl XII for not going after Russia’s center of power: its capital.

Napoleon, who took basically the same route as Karl XII initially, kept a copy of Voltaire’s history of Karl XII on his nightstand or desk throughout his invasion in 1812. While dismissing Voltaire’s arguments with annoyance, he assured his subordinates and advisers that he would not repeat the mistakes of the Swede.

We must look at the situation as it existed at the time of the invasion. The Swedes, based on past experience, had little respect for the Russian army. For Karl XII, the Russian weaknesses were demonstrated at the Battle of Narva. The king had concluded that the Swedish Baltic provinces could not be secured except by eliminating the Russian menace. This was to be done by dictating a lasting peace in the Russian capital. Karl XII believed strongly that this was achievable, as did most observers. Near panic gripped Moscow when Peter the Great began to strengthen the Kremlin defenses. Fuller writes: There was nothing astonishing in this, for Charles’s [Karl XII’s] prestige now stood so high that, with the exception of a few clear-sighted observers, all Europe predicted that he would crush the Tsar and dictate peace from the Kremlin.

While Sweden had begun the war on sound financial footing, it now found itself in the usual financial straits, and this made a long defensive war unthinkable. The usual source for loans—the maritime powers—had dried up as they were fully engaged in the War of the Spanish Succession. Karl XII was well aware of these facts and concluded that the only reasonable course of action was to deliver a quick and decisive blow at the Russians in their homeland, and for this he had adequate supplies. In view of Peter the Great’s feverish attempts to rebuild and transform his army, Karl may have concluded that time was not on Sweden’s side since Russia would be more difficult to deal with 10–20 years in the future.

When it comes to the concept of operations selected by the Swedish king, there are some reasons for criticism. The direct route he chose through Lithuania—rather than the more northerly one—was obviously chosen to avoid leaving Poland to the mercy of the Russians who had already begun large-scale raids in that country. It was a logical decision but the logistical support that Karl XII arranged proved disastrous.

There was one thing the Swedes had not counted on: one of the severest winters on record in Russia. As in the case of 1812 and again in 1941, “General Winter” came to Russia’s assistance. Karl XII was to learn, as Napoleon and Hitler did, that an army without sound logistics is at a distinct disadvantage when operating against a patient enemy willing to trade space for time.