Battle of Bagradas: Regulus’s defeat: Libya 255 BC.
255–245 BC Carthaginian Empire
Spartan mercenary general hired by the Carthaginians to aid in their war against the Romans during the First Punic War. Credited for developing military tactics used by Carthage, he led Carthaginian soldiers into the battle of Tunis where the Roman expeditionary force was routed and the Roman consul Marcus Atilius Regulus was captured.
By the end of 257 the Romans had confined the Carthaginians to the western third of Sicily, they had neutralized the Carthaginian forces in Sardinia and Corsica, and they were ready to invade Africa. They organized a fleet of 300 ships with crews of 300 oarsmen and 120 marines each (a total of about 100,000 men) and two legions of about 15,000 men. The invasion force of 256 B.C. was commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus. Regulus had to fight for his passage against a Carthaginian fleet lying off Cape Ecnomus. The Roman “ravens” worked again, and the Romans captured fifty Carthaginian ships and sank thirty.
The Romans landed in Africa, seized the coastal city of Aspis, and ravaged the neighboring area. Regulus advanced into the Carthaginian hinterland (apparently he intended to cut Carthage off from its allies and revenues and force it to come to terms). When he was confronted by a much larger Carthaginian army, well supplied with cavalry and elephants, he feigned retreat, lured the Carthaginian army after him into rugged terrain (where their cavalry could not operate), and smashed them. Regulus then went into winter quarters at Tunis, from which he ravaged Carthaginian territory and persuaded Carthage’s Numidian allies (or subjects) to join him in ravaging Carthaginian territory. Regulus had every reason to be confident. The Romans outside Africa had won all but two (minor) engagements against the Carthaginians, he himself had defeated them in Africa, and he expected to defeat them again in the spring. Consequently, when he offered them terms, he named terms so harsh that he seemed to be goading them to further resistance rather than trying to settle the war.
During the winter, therefore, the Carthaginians sought, and found, help in a mercenary general, Xanthippus of Sparta; Xanthippus retrained and reorganized their army to fight the legion, and in the spring he met Regulus in battle.
When campaigning began again in spring 255 they had the sense, too, to continue following his advice-it was hardly revolutionary-to operate on level terrain, bring the enemy to battle, and exploit their cavalry superiority and elephants. The Carthaginian army numbered only 12,000 infantry, which must have been roughly the same as Regulus’s, but its 4,000 cavalry vastly outnumbered his, and he had nothing to counter its ninety-odd elephants.
Regulus chose not to fight in the hilly country around Tunes or to undergo a siege there. He marched away to find open ground. Somewhere between Adyn and the Cape Bon peninsula, sometime in late May or in June 255, the clash took place. Here Xanthippus’s tactics were strikingly inventive. The elephants and elite mercenaries side by side formed the first line, the rest of the infantry stood behind in phalanx formation, and the cavalry as usual were on the wings, this time with the other mercenaries. Regulus deployed his legions in two closely packed divisions side by side-supposedly he thought this was how to cope with elephants- with the light-armed rorarii in front and his exiguous cavalry forming the usual wings. The infantry that clashed with the mercenaries made good headway, but the elephants’ charge against the other division bowled its leading ranks bloodily over. After the Carthaginian cavalry routed their opponents, they swung round to attack this division in its rear; at the same time the main Carthaginian phalanx moved into action against the wearied other Roman division.
Regulus’s army, trapped on every side on the open fields, was virtually annihilated. Two thousand did escape to make a perilous journey back to the bridgehead at Aspis; a mere 500 were captured-the consul among them. The rest had been slaughtered. Xanthippus’s tactics, to keep the Roman center occupied while its wings were swept away and then use his own wings to break it up, were essentially what Hamilcar had tried to do navally at Ecnomus. His tactics even more closely resemble Hannibal’s at Cannae forty years later and Scipio’s at Zama. A more immediate outcome was that the skillful Spartan was thanked by his employers and then dismissed: Carthage’s appreciation at being saved by a foreigner was not unalloyed. Romans later liked to visualize him being secretly murdered by Punic perfidy, but in reality he seems to have gone to work for the king of Egypt.
The defeat was severe but need not have been decisive; the Romans still held Aspis and their fleet of 350 ships defeated a Carthaginian fleet off Aspis and captured, or destroyed, over a hundred ships, but chance, and the Roman unfamiliarity with the sea, wrecked their plans. As their fleet was returning to Rome by way of the Messana strait, an enormous storm struck, hurled almost 300 of their ships on the rocks, strewed wreckage for fifty miles, and drowned the crews, perhaps as many as 100,000 freeborn Italians, a large number of whom were Roman citizens.
What Xanthippus did with the Carthaginian army is unclear. Despite what some modern writers claim, perhaps following Vegetius’ lead, there is no evidence that Xanthippus reorganised the Carthaginian army on Greek lines. It is impossible to ascertain what form Xanthippus’ `orthodox’ commands took, for instance. Assuming they were oral, rather than visual or horn signals, were they in Greek or Punic? The former might seem more likely in the context of a Spartan officer commanding a Hellenistic-era army, but Greek was at most a `language of command’ in this army. Diodorus records Xanthippus speaking with the Carthaginians through interpreters (Diod. 23.16.1) and, according to Polybius’ account of the Mercenaries’ War, Punic seems to have been something of a lingua franca for the army; he describes the Celtic chief Autaritas rising to prominence in the insurgent mercenary army through his fluency in Punic, a tongue with which all veterans were to some degree familiar (Polyb. 1.80.6). It is also significant that Xanthippus seems to have had no particular difficulty in manoeuvring the Celtic and Spanish elements in the army, neither of which were spear-armed; this perhaps suggests that it was not necessary for the Libyans or Carthaginians to serve as a spear-armed phalanx under him either. It therefore seems that the Carthaginian army was nowhere near as `Hellenistic’ as it might first appear.
Hannibal did not lead his army without assistance but, as one would expect, had help in planning and carrying out his decisions. Polybius refers to Hannibal consulting his `council’ on a number of occasions (Polyb. 3.71.5, 85.6, 9.24.4-8), and there are many instances of Hannibal delegating command of army sections, whether in battle or to conduct individual operations, to his officers (Gsell, 1928, p. 393). It is perhaps not surprising that there should have been a military council and a definite chain of command in the Barcid army-if Xanthippus had any long-term effects upon the Carthaginian army it is likely that the Carthaginian command structure was remodelled on something like Spartan lines. 21 The Spartan army had a clear chain of command, and Spartan commanders tended to be accompanied by their subordinate officers, who could offer advice and act upon orders (Anderson, 1970, pp. 69 ff.).
Carthaginian use of Elephants
Carthaginians first became acquainted with war elephants fighting against Pyrrhus of Epirus on Sicily between 278 and 276 BC. Having experienced the effect of this new weapon, Carthage quickly realized that she, too, could acquire it, as African forest elephants inhabited North Africa in great numbers. It was much easier to hire professionals to catch this variety of elephants rather than importing elephants from India. Soon Carthage had the most powerful elephant corps in the Mediterranean world, with stables housing up to 300 elephants located in the capital. At first drivers were Indians hired through Egypt, but later drivers were also recruited from other regions including Syria, Numidia and some other African states. Elephants now replaced chariots as the Carthaginians’ main striking power.
During the First Punic War (264-241 BC), the Carthaginians were only beginning to master this new arm of warfare and paid a high price for their lack of experience on the battlefield. In 262 BC, when the Romans besieged the Carthaginian city of Agrigentum on Sicily, Carthage dispatched to Agrigentum an expeditionary corps of 50,000 infantrymen, 6,000 horsemen and 60 war elephants. The Carthaginian general stationed his elephants behind the first infantry line. When the Romans destroyed this vanguard, the fleeing soldiers frightened the elephants into running away. The integrity of the combat formations was completely broken and victory cost the Romans little effort.
In spite of this bitter experience, the Carthaginians did not give up on the use of elephants. When Marcus Regulus, a Roman general and consul, landed in Africa in 256 BC, a large army was sent to prevent the Romans’ advance on Carthage, but the elephants’ contribution to the battle of Adys was slight. The Carthaginians realized that the commander of the elephant corps should be replaced and hired a Greek named Xanthippus. Xanthippus had participated in the defence of Sparta from Pyrrhus of Epirus in 272 BC and met with war elephants there. In the battle against Regulus on the Bagradas River in 255 BC, Xanthippus put nearly 100 Carthaginian elephants in file in front of the infantry lines, as was common. Although the legionaries `fell in heaps’, according to Polybius, they bravely fought elephants in the centre. On the wings, however, a larger Carthaginian cavalry force put Roman horsemen to flight. The Romans were effectively encircled and a Carthaginian victory was assured. Only a small part of the Roman army forced its way back, but `the greater number were trampled to death by the vast weight of the elephants, while the remainder were shot down by the numerous cavalry in their ranks as they stood’ (Polybius, I. 34).
This experience, and the tales of the Roman legionaries who survived, ensured that Rome did not dare to confront elephants for several years. Conversely, the Carthaginians began patently to overestimate war elephants’ abilities and soon paid a high price for it. Caecilius Metellus, Roman commander on Sicily in 251 BC, resorted to a ruse to counter the war elephant threat. He hid a considerable army in the well-fortified city of Panormus and ordered a deep ditch dug out in front of the walls. Then Metellus sent a detachment of light-armed warriors to harass the Carthaginian troops incessantly. This provocation finally forced the Carthaginian general to draw his army up in a combat formation with elephants in front, as was expected. The detachment continued to worry the elephants, without really clashing with them, ready to hide themselves in the ditch if attacked. Hopeful of gaining an easy victory before their commander’s eyes, elephant drivers were thus provoked into assailing the Romans. But the elephants failed to cross the ditch, and a hail of arrows and javelins poured onto them from the fortress walls. Injured, they rushed back, scattering their own troops. At that moment Metellus brought his main forces out of the city and completed the rout. This battle restored the Romans’ self-confidence and they were no longer afraid of facing war elephants.
It will already be clear that 1759 was a good year for literature. Apart from the classics that have endured, there was a host of now forgotten works that made an impact in their day. To take the example of Britain alone the Scots cleric Alexander Gerard made what was then considered an important contribution to aesthetics and the debate about the sublime in his An Essay on Taste, while the English clergyman Richard Hurd in his Moral and Political Dialogues, using the conceit of quizzing literary figures from the past on various subjects, was taken seriously at the time, even though for posterity he was totally eclipsed by Hume and his Essays Moral and Political. Sarah Fielding produced a kind of proto-Gothic novel, The History of the Countess of Dellwyn, in some ways anticipating the motifs that Horace Walpole would make famous five years later in The Castle of Otranto. The Irish actor and dramatist Charles (‘Mad Charlie’) Mack lin was hard at work on two plays, The Married Libertine and Love à la Mode.
Yet another figure almost totally forgotten today was the poet Edward Young, who in 1759 penned his Conjectures on Original Composition – his last significant writing. As with so many other productions of this year, one can almost discern the first shoots of the Romantic movement breaking through. Young was the first to articulate fully the now familiar notion of artist as genius – his work was a case of ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’ – and to stress that the author is creative artist, not a mere craftsman with technique. Young popularised the idea of the genius as a kind of transmission belt for divine inspirations – what a later age would call the workings of the unconscious:
Nor are we only ignorant of the dimensions of the human mind in general but even of our own. That a man be scarce less ignorant of his own powers than an oyster of its pearl or a rock of its diamond; that he may possess dormant, unsuspected qualities, till wakened by loud calls, or stung by striking emergencies, is evident from the sudden eruption of some men, out of perfect obscurity, into public admiration, on the strong principle of some animating occasion; not more to the world’s great surprise than their own.
Perhaps the one thing lacking in English literature this year was any first-class poetry, with Pope and Thomson dead, Young declining and the Romantics still some way over the horizon. In 1759 Oliver Goldsmith, whose Deserted Village was still a decade away, was then a hack with aspirations, writing ruefully to his brother in February: ‘Could a man live by it, it were not unpleasant employment to be a poet’ With a background as erratic Trinity College, Dublin, scholar, failed emigrant, failed parson, failed physician, sometime pharmacist’s assistant, amateur flautist, Grub Street hack and now apprenticed and penurious scribbler, Goldsmith hardly seemed destined for fame and fortune. The one quality he did have was energy. In 1759 he not only contributed prolific ally to Smollett’s British Magazine and even founded his own publication The Bee but wrote an angry treatise entitled Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, in which he documented the decline of the arts in Europe as a result of a lack of enlightened patronage and the bad influence of dry criticism and academic scholarship. Although critics dismissed it as too short an essay to do justice to its broad ambit, it was undoubtedly fresh, invigorating and convincing when it dealt with the London Grub Street scene.
Goldsmith had seen for himself the bitter disappointment of hungry would-be novelists, the poverty of poets, the slow or non-existent rewards of genius, the mercantile greed and low standards of London publishers and booksellers. He upset David Garrick with his attack on genteel, sentimental comedy – ‘a kind of mulish production with all the defects of its opposite parents and marked with sterility’ – and evinced a delight in epigrams and saws that drew him, inevitably, to the circle of Samuel Johnson. To be ‘dull and dronish’, he observed, was ‘an encroachment on the prerogative of the folio’ and he inveighed particularly at the straitjacket or cul-de-sac into which society forced poetry. ‘Does the poet paint the absurdities of the vulgar, he is low, does he exaggerate the features of folly to render it more ridiculous, he is very low. In short, they have proscribed the comic or satirical muse from every walk but high life, which, though abounding in fools as well as the humblest station, is by no means so fruitful in absurdity.’
The greatest living English poet was Thomas Gray, but his masterpiece had appeared eight years earlier. There are probably more famous tags from his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard – ‘paths of glory’, ‘far from the madding crowd’, ‘wade through slaughter to a throne’, full many a flower is born to blush unseen’, ‘some village Hampden, etc, etc – than from any other poet but Shakespeare. Gray was singularly unlucky in love: his schoolfriend Richard West died young, he was snubbed by fellow homosexual Horace Walpole and spent the last years of his life in a fruitless passion for the young Swiss traveller Charles Victor Bonstetten. Celibate and depressive, Gray was particularly interested in the progress of the Seven Years War and quizzed his friend George Townshend (Wolfe’s deputy) about the campaign in Canada. In January 1760 he reported the result of his conversation to Thomas Wharton: ‘You ask after Quebec. General Townshend says it is much like Richmond-Hill, and the River as fine (but bigger) and the vale as riant, as rich and as well cultivated.’ There is much more evidence of Gray’s interest in military affairs. On 8 August 1759 he commented as follows on the Battle of Minden:
The season for triumph is at last come; I mean for our Allies, for it will be long enough before we shall have reason to exult in any great action of our own and therefore as usual we are proud for our neighbours. Contades’ great army is entirely defeated: this I am told is undoubted, but no particulars are known yet; and almost as few of the other victory over the Russians, which is lost in the splendour of this great action.
Yet there are even more intimate links binding Gray to the world of military action, for possibly the best-known story about General Wolfe at Quebec involves the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. John Robison, later Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University, was in 1759 a young midshipman on the Royal William. He told Robert Southey (who passed it on to Sir Walter Scott) that on the night of 12 September during the British army’s night passage on the St Lawrence, Wolfe pulled a copy of Gray’s works from his pocket and began declaiming the Elegy. When the reading was received in silence by his officers, Wolfe upbraided them: T can only say, gentlemen, that if the choice were mine, I would rather be the author of these verses than win the battle which we are to fight tomorrow morning.’ In another version of the story, one of Robison’s students, James Lurie, remembered the Professor saying that someone else recited the Elegy from memory and that Wolfe then said: ‘I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow’ – a giveaway remark that led the company to infer that there would be a battle next day, since Wolfe had so far confided in no one. The story became widely known after William Hazlitt repeated it in the Literary Examiner in 1823. The severest, most straitlaced scholars have always affected to disbelieve the story, on three main grounds: there is no mention of this anecdote in eighteenth-century literature; it does not fit what we know of the character and personality of Wolfe; and lines like those about the flower blushing unseen and wasting ‘its sweetness on the desert air’ scarcely square with the mentality of a self-publicist. But it is known that Wolfe’s fiancée Katharine Lawler had given him a copy of Gray’s poems just before he left England. The consensus is that the story is probably true in its main outline. The prime irony was that Gray never knew that one of Britain s great military heroes had made this most famous tribute to his most famous poem.
Cast down and depressed by the debacle at Montmorency, Wolfe contemplated the likelihood that he would soon have to depart for Louisbourg, Halifax or even London, leaving a holding force on the île-aux-Coudres against his return with another army in the spring of 1760. But his anger with the French found expression in a third proclamation in early August (the first had been on 27 June) which made it clear that, since they had spurned his earlier offer of amnesty, the full fury of war would now be visited on them. The Canadians, he alleged, ‘had made such ungrateful returns in practising the most unchristian barbarities against his troops on all occasions, he could no longer refrain in justice to himself and his army from chastising them as they deserved’. What particularly infuriated Wolfe was the behaviour of Montcalm’s Indians, particularly the Ottawas and Micmacs, and their habit of scalping and mutilating prisoners or the sentries they often overpowered in the darkness in the remote British outposts. There were suspicions, too, that the French Canadians did their own scalping and mutilating and passed it off as the work of their benighted Indian allies, whom ‘unfortunately’ they could not control. But when Wolfe officially remonstrated to Vaudreuil, the Governor gave him short shrift. Since both sides had always used Indians as allies in their struggle for mastery in North America, it was arrant humbug for the British to raise the issue now just because Wolfe had scarcely a native man in his ranks. Indian atrocities, though regrettable, were part of the ‘fortunes of war’ that both sides had to suffer stoically in this increasingly bitter conflict.
It may be that Wolfe had the Indians particularly on his mind at this juncture through an association of ideas with another enemy. By the beginning of August his relations with Townshend had deteriorated alarmingly, but meanwhile Townshend had added to his portraiture portfolio by proving the first authentic sketch of an Ottawa warrior in full fighting fig. In the small hours of 8 August 1759 this brave swam the ford below Montmorency Falls, making landfall where he hoped to pick off an unwary British sentry. But luck was against him; the Ottawa found himself staring down the muzzle of a redcoat’s musket; within minutes the warrior was hauled before Brigadier Townshend. The Indian pretended not to understand anything said to him, even though there were many in the encampment who spoke the Ottawa tongue. Regarding with aristocratic hauteur ‘a very savage looking brute and naked all to an arse clout’, Townshend was sufficiently intrigued to make a quick sketch of his prisoner. This initial sketch became the first of a series of watercolours that Townshend completed during the campaign – invaluable as the only known images of North American Indians produced by an eyewitness during the Seven Years War. The would-be scalper was manacled and stowed on board a British warship, with the intention that he should be taken back to England as a present for George II, but the nimble Ottawa slipped his chains a few nights later and slid into the dark waters of the St Lawrence. Search parties were launched but no trace of the escapee was found, and the natural inference is that such an intrepid swimmer made his way safely back to the French lines.
According to Wolfe’s interpretation of the rules of war, the French use of Indians and the masking of their own atrocities as the uncontrollable actions of the painted savages gave him the justification he needed to harry the inhabitants of the St Lawrence with fire and sword. Although he had given the Canadians until 10 August to change their ways, he decided to get his reprisals in first and on 4 August sent a company of Rangers to put the settlement of St Paul’s Bay to the torch on the ground that the people there had fired on British boats. The man he chose to lead the group – one of Rogers’ Rangers named Joseph Gorham – was an Indian-hating fire-eater who went about his work with a relish that Wolfe would have recognised from his time in Scotland with Cumberland and ‘Hangman Hawley’. Wolfe’s standing order of 27 July prohibited the Rangers from scalping (one of the Indian customs they had taken over with avidity, unless the enemy comprised Indians or Canadians dressed as Indians). But the Rangers simply scalped whomever they pleased, then claimed that the enemy had been ‘masquerading’ as Ottawas. Two days later Wolfe told Monkton that if any further shots were fired at his boats, he intended to burn every single house in the village of St Joachim, although ‘churches must be spared – I shall give notice to Vaudreuil obliquely, that such is my intention’. The scorched-earth policy is a measure of Wolfe’s desperation, for he clearly hoped that a reign of terror would force the French out of their entrenchments to defend their own kith and kin. Civilians in the St Lawrence were caught in a horrible dilemma: Vaudreuil had already warned them that if they collaborated with the enemy, he would unleash his Indians against them, and now here was Wolfe warning that if they did not collaborate, he would burn hearth and home down around their heads.
After gutting Baie St Paule, Gorham and his marauders moved on to Malbaie (Murray Bay) where he burned down forty houses and barns, then crossed the river to Ste Anne de la Pocatière, where he torched fifty more. Throughout August the sky over the St Lawrence was blackened as if by a mighty forest fire, as smoke from burning farmhouses blotted out the sun. On both sides of the river the inferno raged, as Gorham’s Rangers fired every sign of human civilisation. By the middle of the month they had completed the destruction of all houses, farms and barns between the Etchemin river and la Chaudière. On the 23rd it was the turn of the villages on the north shore between Montmorency and St Joachim to taste the pyromania of Wolfe’s arsonists. The Ile d’Orléans was swept into the conflagration. At the beginning of September Major George Scott, commanding a mixed force of regulars, Rangers and seamen, proceeded downriver and began destroying all buildings, flocks and harvests on the south shore, following Wolfe’s threat to ‘burn all the country from Camarasca to the Point of Levy’. In a fifty-two-mile march, Scott and his destroyers burned 998 buildings (Scott kept a precise count), took fifteen prisoners and killed five Canadians for the loss of two killed and a handful wounded. The final tally of destruction in Wolfe’s campaign of terror was more than 1,400 farmhouses which, a New England newspaper gloatingly reported, it would take half a century to rebuild. Nor was this all. British sources kept quiet about the accompanying atrocities but the modern historian Fred Anderson sums up with terse under-statement: ‘No one ever reckoned the numbers of rapes, scalpings, thefts and casual murders perpetrated during this month of bloody terror.’
The terror tactics were probably counter-productive as they solved the Canadians’ dilemma for them. They now had little choice but to oppose the British, since Wolfe allowed them no way out. Ferocious guerrilla warfare was the inevitable upshot, with particularly bitter fighting on the north shore below Montmorency. The principal guerrilla leader was a priest named Portneuf, whom the sources confusingly refer to as both the Abbé de Beaupré and the Curé de St Joachim. Evidently a confidant ofVaudreuil, Father Portneuf tried to mitigate the worst savagery in the guerrilla warfare and deal with the British officers opposing him in a civilised way. His chivalry and gallantry were brusquely rebuffed by officers who were under orders from Wolfe to wage war to the knife. Frustrated at the priest’s able defence, Wolfe sent reinforcements to the north shore and on 23 August 300 fresh troops and field artillery arrived on the scene. A ferocious artillery barrage on Portneuf’s position at Ste Anne drove the defenders into the open, where they were butchered mercilessly. Thirty men and Portneuf himself were killed and scalped; the British used the lame excuse that the defenders had disguised themselves as Indians. No quarter was given or prisoners taken. Ensign Malcolm Fraser of the Highlanders had already promised two of the men their lives but he was overruled by the bloodthirsty local commander Captain Alexander Montgomery, who ordered all captives slaughtered in cold blood. Montgomery celebrated his hecatomb of Portneuf’s guerrillas by gutting all the houses in Ste Anne and gratuitously reducing the Château Richer to ashes.
Wolfe had once again proved himself an able disciple of Cumberland. In Tacitus’s words he had created a desert and called it peace. Even Townshend, no bleeding heart, was revolted and wrote to his wife: ‘I never served so disagreeable a campaign as this. Our unequal force has reduced our operations to a scene of skirmishing, cruelty and devastation. It is war of the worst shape. A scene I ought not to be in, for the future believe me, my dear Charlotte, I will seek the reverse of it.’
Wolfe’s apologists, beginning with the intellectually dishonest Parkman, claim that his scorched-earth policy and his massacres were simply tit-for-tat retaliation for far worse war crimes meted out by Vaudreuil, Montcalm and their allies. This is scarcely convincing. The atrocities committed on the French side, as at Fort William Henry in 1757 and elsewhere, were the results of French inability to control their Indian allies, on whom they were forced to depend because of the massive superiority in numbers enjoyed by the British. There was no general guerre à outrance order of the kind that Wolfe issued in August and it is quite clear that his orders were regarded as egregious or received with stupefaction. Quite apart from the disgust evinced by those such as Malcolm Fraser and Townshend, there is Monkton’s querying of Wolfe’s draconian instructions and the British government’s censoring of Wolfe’s despatch to Pitt on the subject. The most that can be said in Wolfe’s defence is that warfare in North America in the eighteenth century was always a nasty and barbarous business. But is it not a logical implication of that, as Wolfe’s defenders seem to think, to accept that atrocity and barbarity should therefore be raised exponentially to new heights. If the Indians were benighted savages, what was it that justified supposedly civilised European officers behaving with equal savagery? Moreover, as was famously said of Napoleon’s murder of the Due d’Enghien, it was more than a crime, it was an error. Wolfe’s atrocities did nothing to advance his ultimate aims, since the Québécois could no more be drawn out by the sufferings of their compatriots than by the ‘strategic bombing’ of their fair city.
While this cruel devastation of the Quebec hinterland went on, Wolfe probed the area of the St Lawrence above the city for some foothold or landing place, trying also to make contact with Amherst and cut Montcalm’s communications. Brigadier Murray commanded this venture, and a game of cat and mouse developed with the French, the British making temporary landfall at various points, the French ponderously following them along the shore. Atrocity bade fair to follow Murray upriver for, after a repulse on the northern shore by Bougainville on 8 August, which cost the invaders 140 men killed and wounded, Murray switched to St Antoine on the southern shore, where he threatened to raze every dwelling to the ground if the inhabitants opened fire on him. On 18 August he re-embarked, gave Bougainville the slip, landed at Deschambault farther upriver on the northern shore and destroyed Montcalm’s spare baggage and equipment.
This raid was sufficiently worrying to Montcalm to draw him temporarily from Quebec. Fearing that his communications would be cut, he rushed to Bougainville’s assistance, only to learn that the British had already withdrawn. Montcalm confessed himself relieved, for if Murray had established a bridgehead in force at Deschambault, he lacked the forces to dislodge him. But he worried about the shape of possible similar things to come, unlike the bone-headed Vaudreuil, who could see no point in Montcalm’s sortie and thought he was merely panicking. The August probe upriver stuttered out in stalemate: Montcalm returned to Beauport and Murray to Point Levis, summoned back post-haste by an increasingly jumpy Wolfe. But Murray came back with something of infinite value: news that Fort Niagara had fallen and the would-be French counterattack beaten off. When Montcalm received this intelligence, he was justifiably alarmed and sent off the Chevalier de Lévis and 800 troops to reinforce the crumbling western theatre. These were men he could ill afford to spare for, as it was, defending a front that extended from the Montmorency Falls to the northern shore of the St Lawrence upriver from Quebec, he was stretched almost to snapping point even before he detached Levis.
Wolfe, unaware of Montcalm’s grave concerns, was himself undergoing a crisis in August, and perhaps we can understand the atrocities of that month as the fanatical actions of a man who had essentially lost sight of his aim. His problems were twofold: he was ill and he was at odds with his brigadiers. For most of August he was scarcely well enough to leave his sick-bed. Barely recovered from a grave attack of fever, he suffered from a steadily worsening tubercular cough and was weak from the constant blood-letting to which his physicians subjected him. High on opium and other painkillers, he could often not even urinate without terrible pain. Situated thus, he was scarcely able to deal with the accumulated hostility of all three of his brigadiers.
Wolfe had got off on the wrong foot with Townshend – admittedly not a difficult thing to do – and the cryptic diary evidence for 7 July indicates that there had been a stand-up row between the foppish aristocrat and his commander, with Townshend threatening to foment a ‘parliamentary inquiry’ into the behaviour of his commanding officer. There was further tension during the rest of July, and it seems clear that Wolfe gradually alienated Murray also during this period. The commander lost face considerably as a result of the Montmorency fiasco on 31 July, after which we find Deputy Quartermaster General Guy Carleton, previously a Wolfe favourite, joining the dissenters. Then, in the middle of August, Wolfe additionally fell foul of Monkton. The details are obscure, but on 15 August we find Wolfe apologising with ‘hearty excuses’ for any unintentional offence offered when the commander withdrew men from Monkton’s posts and thus weakened them. On 16 August Wolfe wrote again almost pleadingly to Monkton, saying: ‘I heartily beg you forgiveness.’ Captain Thomas Bell, whose diary is an important source for the Quebec campaign, relates that Wolfe destroyed his diary for the period after August but that this deleted section ‘contained a careful account of the officers’ ignoble conduct towards him in case of a Parliamentary enquiry’.
It was 27 August before Wolfe felt well enough to convene a council of war with the three brigadiers he had so seriously alienated. Wolfe almost certainly had no great opinion of their strategic abilities but consulted them, partly because such a council was a cultural norm in eighteenth-century military life and partly so that he could not later (maybe in a parliamentary inquiry?) be accused of having acted in a high-handed and authoritarian way. The council took place on 28 August. Wolfe began by outlining three possible courses of action, all of them involving an attack on the Beauport lines. The first idea was to catch the French forces between two fires, with both a frontal attack and an attack in the rear by a large force which would have crossed the Montmorency by the upper ford. The second was essentially a rerun of 31 July, with an attempt being made once more to recapture the upper redoubt, with Townshend’s men establishing a beachhead and Monkton’s crossing from Point Levis for the coup de grâce. The third was essentially a combination of the first and second scenarios. All the proposed actions were in effect simply variations on the old strategy that had failed so dismally on 31 August.
Wolfe’s apologists, anxious to rescue him from the obvious charge of bankruptcy of ideas, allege that he was simply ‘flying a kite’, that he had already decided on an alternative strategy but was determined to get his brigadiers to commit themselves in writing to a final rejection of all attacks on the Beauport front. The alternate and much more likely explanation is that Wolfe simply had no idea what to do next. Whatever the reason for his spectacularly unimaginative memorandum, it is certain that his brigadiers rejected it decisively. They suggested instead that Wolfe abandon all idea of forcing the Beauport-Montomorency front and concentrate instead on finding somewhere upriver to land the next blow. This would threaten Montcalm’s food supplies from the west and finally force him to emerge from his entrenched eyrie in Quebec. Landing at some location above Quebec would have the further advantage that the British army could concentrate, instead of, as hitherto, being vulnerable to French local superiority. Crucially, if defeated at Quebec, Montcalm would no longer have the option of being able to retreat west and continue the struggle there; the battle for Quebec would, under the new dispositions, settle the entire struggle for mastery in North America.
By the beginning of September the British had assembled a formidable naval force in the river above Quebec. On 28 August the frigate Lowestoft, the sloop Hunter and smaller vessels managed to slip past the French shore batteries and join the handful of ships already upriver. On the night of 31 August-i September five more vessels, including the frigate Seahorse, forced passage above Quebec. Wolfe thus had covering fire for any force he tried to land to the south-west of the city (i.e. upriver). His brigadiers now took in hand a skilful evacuation of the Montmorency camp, transporting the troops first of all to the Île d’Orléans. Leaving a holding force on that island to protect the base camp, hospital and stores, and another strong garrison on Point Lévis, where all the heaviest artillery was stationed, the British commanders conveyed the entire besieging army to the mouth of the Etchemin river on the south bank (south-west of Point Levis), ready for the eventual move upriver. The evacuation was another great success for amphibious operations. Monkton feinted towards the right of the French defences by the mouth of the St Charles river, while Wolfe dragged his feet about the final withdrawal of men from Montmorency, keeping five battalions there until 3 September in the hope of tempting the French commander to a rash sortie. Montcalm could not be tempted, but many observers on both sides thought he had lost a great opportunity to sow chaos during the intricate process of embarkation.
Both commanders had their problems. Wolfe was not sanguine about the outcome of the new strategy and confessed to Pitt that he had acquiesced in it with great misgivings. In his last letter to his mother, written on 31 August, Wolfe was equally pessimistic:
My antagonist has wisely shut himself up in inaccessible entrenchments, so that I can’t get at him without spilling a torrent of blood and that perhaps to little purpose. The Marquis de Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers, and I am at the head of a small number of good ones, that wish for nothing so much as to fight him – but the wary old fellow avoids an action doubtful of the behaviour of his army.
In his last letter to Pitt, dated 2 September, Wolfe complained about the difficulty of campaigning in Canada where the terrain was against him and the St Lawrence river itself attenuated his superiority in numbers and matériel. He also stressed the growing casualty roster: since the end of June he had lost 850 men dead and wounded, including two colonels, two majors, nineteen captains and thirty-four subalterns, and now there were signs that disease too was lending a hand, further reducing his effective manpower. Wolfe admitted that he had only grudgingly accepted his brigadiers’ plan to cut Montcalm’s line of communications between the Jacques Carrier and Cap Rouge rivers and the subtext of all his final messages indicated a man preparing for ultimate failure, half-accepting his responsibility for this and half-wishing to slough it off onto others – though, to be fair, when he tried to blame the navy for some of the setbacks and Admiral Saunders vociferously objected, Wolfe agreed to remove the offending words. Referring to the debacle of 31 July, Wolfe even displayed magnanimity, for his letter to Saunders reads as follows: ‘I am sensible of my own errors in the course of the campaign; see clearly wherein I have been deficient, and think a little more or less blame, to a man that must necessarily be ruined, of little or no consequence.’
Dessau 1626 by Warlord156
The battle for the Dessau bridge in 1626, from the Theatrum Europaeum The legend to the small letters on the plan reads: A. Imperialist fortifications; B. Elbe bridge; C. Imperialist redoubts; D. Mansfeld’s camp; E. Mansfeld’s fortifications; F. Mansfeld’s approach trenches; G. Imperialist approach trenches and redoubts; H. Aldringer’s approach trenches; I. Position held against Mansfeld; K. Imperialist artillery; L. Mansfeld driven off; M. Imperialist sally; N. Friedland’s cavalry on the near side of the river; O. Mansfeld’s cavalry; P. Friedland’s cavalry; Q. Mansfeld’s flight; R. Friedland commences pursuit; S. Schlick’s and Aldringer’s infantry; Y. The village of Rosslau.
Albrecht von Wallenstein’s appointment as Imperial general had come too late for matters to be concluded in 1625, when a conjunction of his and Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly’s forces might have driven the isolated Christian IV back to Denmark and out of the war. Instead they united in time only for the armies to spend the winter skirmishing, looting the countryside, and eating the peasantry out of house and home, rather than achieving anything of military significance. Meanwhile Christian was involved in two contradictory negotiations, one taking place in Brunswick, where peace with the emperor was discussed, and the other in The Hague, where attempts were made to widen the anti-Habsburg coalition in order to continue the war. The peace conference was the first of many occasions upon which Wallenstein favoured a realistic approach in order to achieve a peace settlement, but the hardline Imperialist position was determined in Vienna and Munich, and no progress was made. Matters stood little better for Christian in The Hague as most of his prospective allies did not participate, even though they realised that Wallenstein’s new army completely altered the balance, and that if as a result Christian were defeated or withdrew from the war their interests would be seriously threatened. However England and the Dutch Republic agreed to provide him with money, Ernst von Mansfeld’s army was despatched to Lower Saxony, and contacts were re-established with Bethlen Gabor. The other Christian the Younger of Brunswick, the `mad Halberstädter’, also reappeared on the scene, albeit with a makeshift army of limited military value, while another German prince, Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar, contributed troops to the revived coalition.
There were predictable tensions between the leaders of these diverse forces, at least partly as a result of which their grand plan was based on independent rather than united action. Although this was making a virtue of necessity it was nevertheless a sound strategy, as by separating they prevented Tilly and Wallenstein from combining against them. Mansfeld’s task was to draw Wallenstein away by heading east into Silesia, forcing him – so the plan went – to follow because of the threat this would pose to Bohemia, Moravia and ultimately Austria itself. As in 1623 the intention was that this force from the west would join up with Bethlen Gabor invading from the east, when together they would be strong enough to face and defeat Wallenstein. Meanwhile Christian of Brunswick was to bypass Tilly and move south, before turning and threatening his rear while Christian of Denmark confronted him from the north.
It was not a bad plan, and it also exploited the equally predictable ten- sions between Tilly and Wallenstein, the old, experienced and successful general and the younger unproven leader of a new and unproven army. Rivalry over winter quarters had been the start, but Wallenstein had come off better by moving quickly into the rich lands of the Protestant- held secularised bishoprics centred on Magdeburg and Halberstadt. With Wallenstein thus ensconced by the Elbe, Tilly remained 80 miles to the west on the River Weser, a disposition which determined their respective roles in the campaigns of 1626. There were also differences over strategy. Wallenstein wanted their forces to join up for a decisive attack on Christian early in the year, whereas Tilly preferred to play a waiting game, hoping to trap the Danes between them later in the spring. Wallenstein, closer to Christian’s main army, was thus left at risk should the king move first and attack him in strength. The result was that while the generals were arguing the relative importance of possible lines of attack or defence, each seeking support and troops from the other, they lost the initiative and were forced instead to respond to the opening moves of their enemies. Tilly was soon under pressure, and when the `mad Halberstädter’ threatened the city of Goslar Wallenstein was obliged to assist by leading a large force against him, only to find that the enemy quickly disappeared. He then had to turn back to counter an advance south by a Danish division under General Hans Fuchs, which he chased off after a sharp skirmish but without being able to force a battle. Meanwhile Mansfeld was already across the Elbe.
Rivers were of great strategic importance, not only as the easiest line of advance or retreat using the relatively good roads alongside them, but also as supply lines for bringing up heavy guns, provisions and other necessities by water. However major rivers were also potentially dangerous obstacles, particularly to a retreating army, as bridges were few and far between as well as easily fortified or broken down. Hence over the winter Wallenstein had substantial defences constructed on both sides of the Elbe bridge at Dessau, 30 miles south-east of Magdeburg, and he placed Aldringer there with a garrison to defend it. Magdeburg and its bridge were in Protestant hands, while south of Dessau all the way to the Bohemian border the Elbe flowed through Protestant Saxony, so that securing the bridge was a prudent precaution as well as preventing the river being used as a supply line by the enemy. Nevertheless it was a surprise when in April 1626, after taking the town of Zerbst nine miles to the north-west, Mansfeld mounted an attack on the defences around the northern end of the bridge.
Despite the confident accounts given in many histories it is very difficult to describe accurately what happened at battles in the early modern period. Numbers are the first problem. Contemporary reports give large, round and probably exaggerated figures, and for want of anything better these often pass from one history to the next, eventually becoming accepted as though they were established fact. The starting point in the Thirty Years War was to list the units involved, which were known by the names of their commanders and were usually well recorded, and to tot up their nominal strength, 3000 for an infantry regiment, 300 for a company, and 1000 and 100 for the equivalent cavalry formations. The result was the maximum figure, although the one often reported, but units were rarely at full strength even in total, while after deducting the sick, wounded, missing and dead the numbers available and fit to fight could be very much lower, sometimes half or less. This may not matter, as the same applied on both sides, so that the relative strengths quoted may be somewhere near right even if the absolute numbers are wrong, but it helps to explain the frequent discrepancies between different reports of the same event. Numbers of casualties were even more arbitrary, as the dead were mostly buried in mass graves and perhaps not even counted, while those who failed to return for roll-call and were not known to be prisoners were simply struck off the company lists, so that there was no distinction between casualties and deserters. Prisoners were no better accounted for, usually simply being enrolled by the winning side, and here too the numbers represent the loosest of estimates or perhaps simply guesswork. The most accurate figures after a battle seem to have been the number of enemy standards taken – a particular point of military pride – and perhaps the number of cannon captured.
The course of a battle is often as unclear as the numbers involved. Two hundred years later the duke of Wellington noted `how little reliance can be placed even on what are supposed to be the best accounts of a battle. . It is impossible to say when each important occurrence took place, or in what order.’ There are good reasons for this. Battles were frequently confused affairs, and the participants themselves rarely had a full picture of events, so that subsequent accounts involve piecing together partial, impressionistic and often inconsistent reports to work out what might have happened. The term `battlefield’ is itself misleading, suggesting a conveniently open and something like level discrete area, whereas in fact troops, particularly cavalry, might range widely over territory broken up by streams, ditches, hills, woods, villages and other obstructions to both movement and vision; 10,000 infantry could well be spread out over two miles or more, so that a commander would often not have had a clear view of their disposition. Worse still, once action commenced the guns of the period quickly created `such an awful smoke. that we could scarcely see a pistol-shot in front of us’, as a Bavarian officer recorded after one such engagement.
The battle for the Dessau bridge is a good example of the numbers problem. Mann, in his biography of Wallenstein, puts Mansfeld’s army at 10,000 men, whereas Guthrie calculates less than 7000 in his study of the battles of the Thirty Years War. Of these Mann states that 3000 to 4000 were killed, against Guthrie’s estimate of somewhere over 1000. Conversely Mann reports 1500 taken prisoner against Guthrie’s 3000, so that according to Mann Mansfeld escaped with 5000 survivors while Guthrie says that it was only about 2000. Neither gives figures for Wallenstein’s forces, although Guthrie contends that he had at least twice as many men as Mansfeld, that is upwards of 14,000 by his calculation, whereas Diwald, in his Wallenstein biography, puts his strength at 21,000 infantry and six regiments of cavalry.
The Theatrum Europaeum, a major contemporary chronicle, made a speciality of elaborate copperplate illustrations, including detailed plans of battles commissioned from experienced military officers, and these give very helpful pictures of the terrain as it then was, together with such features as earthworks and other defences. A drawing in the Theatrum shows that the Dessau bridge, which was some distance north of the town, spanned both the Elbe and its wide flood plain. It is depicted as a narrow structure built on piers, with small Imperialist forts on the south side and a substantial defensive enclosure around the bridgehead on the north, and with protective wings and trenches securing a strip of land along the riverbank in both directions. The whole area to the south was heavily wooded, so that the road along which the Imperialist troops approached was well screened from Mansfeld on the opposite side. The fortifications would have largely hidden the bridge itself from him, and Aldringer had also covered it with tree branches, so that troops crossing could not be seen. The land north of the river where Mansfeld made his camp and positioned his forces was much more open, but he had thrown up temporary earthworks opposite and parallel to the Imperialist defences. To the east a belt of woodland started from the river close to the Imperialist right wing, extending northwards and then westwards so that it effectively bounded the whole of Mansfeld’s left flank.
Mansfeld’s initial probes in early April and a more substantial attack a week later showed that although Aldringer had only a small garrison the position had been too well prepared to be easily taken. Mansfeld accordingly brought up guns and set his men to digging approach trenching for a full-scale storm of the bridgehead. His reasons are not well established, but if his plan was to draw Wallenstein after him into Silesia he would have needed a head start so that he could reach Bethlen Gabor before Wallenstein caught up with him. Taking the bridge and leaving a rearguard to defend it would have helped to pre- vent the Imperial army following too hard on his heels. Christian of Denmark was also worried that Mansfeld’s departure would weaken his own position, so that he wanted him first to hamper Wallenstein by cutting his supply line along the river and opening up a potential threat to his rear. Fuchs was charged with supporting the action, but he was still recovering from his own clash with Wallenstein, so that he did not appear on the scene. Hence Mansfeld launched the attack on his own, perhaps tempted by the opportunity of an easy victory over the heavily outnumbered Aldringer. His career had been remarkable more for his ability to recover from setbacks and survive disasters than for any achievements in the field, and he may have wanted a triumph to register with Christian. Successive failed attacks seem only to have made him the more determined to persevere, and to have made him oblivious to the changing balance of forces around the bridge.
Mansfeld’s perversity was Wallenstein’s opportunity. It had been a frustrating winter, and he was well aware that critics in Vienna were saying that in the six months since the novice general set out with his new army nothing of consequence had been achieved. Now there was a chance of action. He could not move too early in case the attack on the bridge was a diversion as part of some larger plan, but once Mansfeld brought in artillery and his main army Wallenstein was ready to respond. The first step was to move up enough reinforcements to prevent Mansfeld gaining a quick success, and Colonel Heinrich Schlick was swiftly despatched with the necessary troops. Schlick managed to get his men over the bridge and into the northern defences either unobserved or with their numbers sufficiently hidden by the screening, so that when Mansfeld attacked on 23 April he encountered much stronger resistance than he had expected and he was obliged to withdraw. Meanwhile Wallenstein moved up his own artillery and a large force of both infantry and cavalry.
The key point in his plan was the wood on Mansfeld’s eastern flank, where the latter had not placed troops either for lack of men or because he did not think it important. On 24 April Wallenstein moved more units over the bridge, including heavy cavalry. Then under covering fire from an artillery battery south of the river, and assisted by a diversionary sally from the west side of the bridgehead defences, his men occupied the wood. Presumably Mansfeld again underestimated their number and strength, as he pressed on regardless, launching a heavy frontal attack on the fortifications early the following morning. Reports indicate that he made several unsuccessful assaults over the next three hours before Wallenstein ordered a counterattack, which was followed by heavy and evenly balanced fighting on the open ground. At the critical stage Wallenstein sent infantry reinforcements over the bridge, and the issue was then decided by a flanking cavalry attack from the wood. To add to the confusion of Mansfeld’s men some of their gunpowder wagons exploded in the rear, so that retreat quickly turned to flight. Mansfeld managed to escape back to Zerbst with many of his cavalry, but most of his surviving infantry were captured.
Wallenstein’s battle plan was well conceived and well executed, following a central principle of military strategy by concentrating superior forces before engaging the enemy. Nevertheless it was a bold undertaking, as getting large numbers of men and horses over a narrow bridge and into a small defended area in the face of the enemy had its own risks, while fighting with their backs to the river left little scope for an orderly retreat had Mansfeld proved the stronger. Wallenstein’s own report was brief and to the point:
Mansfeld and his entire army moved up to the fortifications at the Elbe bridge near Dessau, besieging and bombarding them, to counter which I led the majority of the Imperial army entrusted to me out to meet him, advancing against him from the aforementioned fortifications. Yesterday God gave us the good fortune to defeat him, cutting through his forces and putting them to flight.
He sent an officer to provide a fuller account to the emperor, who was delighted with these `impressive and knightly deeds’, as he enthusiastically wrote in congratulatory letters to Wallenstein and his principal officers.
THE RUSSIAN INVASION IN 1709
After the worst of the cold spell was over the Swedes attempted to capture the hilltop fort of Veprik. The first attempt was repelled with 400 Swedes killed and another 600 wounded. The casualties were heaviest among the officers, and Field Marshal Rehnskiöld was among the wounded. Veprik surrendered to the Swedes on the night of 7–8 January 1709.
Leaving Field Marshal Rehnskiöld in charge of the winter camp, Karl XII carried out a merciless winter campaign against the Russians, capturing several towns and—taking a page from Peter—laying waste the countryside to provide more security for the Swedish encampment. In a lightning raid on Menshikov’s headquarters, Karl XII nearly captured the Russian general, who managed to flee, but the raid killed 400 of his men while only two Swedes were killed. An early thaw began in mid-February, turning the ground to mud. Campaigning for both Russians and Swedes was impossible.
Rumors from the north reported that a large Russian army was now heading for Poland. This, combined with the fact that the king of Poland and General Krassow would probably not arrive, prompted Count Karl Piper to recommend a retreat to Poland. The advice was rejected by Karl XII. He had in effect decided to move the Swedish camp to new positions between the Psiol and Vorksla rivers. The main army went into quarters in March and April along the Vorksla, two miles south of Poltava, a fortress that commanded the road to Moscow.
The Swedes began a siege of Poltava on 1 May but made little headway. The siege followed what may have been a peace feeler by Peter the Great in the guise of a prisoner exchange. The message was carried by Erik Johan Eh -ren roos, who had been captured at Lesnaya. The message was simply that Peter was inclined to make peace but would not give up St. Petersburg. The reply was sent back by Ehrenroos on 1 May and it ignored the peace offering.
Karl XII’s search for allies had meantime proved fruitless. The Khan of the Crimean Tartars was ready to provide support, but he was a vassal of the sultan in Constantinople who had decided not to get involved and forbade the Khan from doing so. The rebellion by the Zaporozhian Cossacks was put down by the Russians in May 1709.
The Russians were eager to prevent the Swedes from capturing the Poltava fort because its vast stores of supplies would provide those sorely needed by Karl XII’s men. They made an unsuccessful attempt to force their way across the Vorskla River. At a Russian war council it was decided to cross the river far enough from Poltava to avoid the Swedish defenses, and the spot selected was Petrovka. The operation was given urgency by a message from the fort’s commandant that he would not be able to hold out much longer. The Swedes were, however, aware of the Russian plan and their own plan called for allowing a large portion—but not all—of the enemy army to cross before attacking.
THE BATTLE OF POLTAVA
The Swedish king had received a foot wound on 17 June from a musket fired from an island in the river while he was reconnoitering the bank. The wound was sustained around 0800 hours but the king continued his rounds before returning to his headquarters around 1100 hours where he fainted while trying to get off his horse. The musket ball struck the heel of his left foot and traveled the length of his sole before it exited.
Rehnskiöld, with ten cavalry and eight infantry regiments, had been given the mission to execute the agreed upon plan against the Russian crossing. The king would remain at Poltava but would join the field marshal to take part in the battle as soon as the situation at Poltava allowed. This was before he was wounded.
After he was wounded but still able to issue orders, he left it up to his field marshal whether or not to fight at Petrovka. The field marshal consulted his senior commanders and all agreed not to fight the battle, not only because of the king being wounded but also because the Russians were already well entrenched. Some historians have criticized the field marshal’s decision and claimed the failure not to attack the Russians at Petrovka contributed to the disaster that followed. While he was recovering from his wound, Karl XII received definite word that neither Stanislaw nor General Krassow was coming, since they were fully engaged in Poland.
The Russians began building a second fortified camp just north of Poltava. It was fortified on three sides while the side facing the river was left open as no threat there existed. It was a strong camp but had the disadvantage that if forced to retreat the Russians would have to retrace their steps back to Vorskla since only one track led directly to the river from the encampment. A battle had become inevitable after the Russians brought their main army across, and neither side had good withdrawal routes, being virtually surrounded by rivers.
The Russian camp was built in the form of a quadrilateral, with strong redoubts that would channel the attacks and keep the attacking columns in a deadly crossfire as long as possible. The southern side was difficult to attack because of ravines and woods. The western side faced an open plain with a forest behind it. Between this forest and the one on the south side was a piece of open ground. The Russians built six redoubts and were in the process of building four more when the battle started.
The Swedish strength consisted of 8,200 infantry, 7,800 cavalry, 1,000 irregular Wallachians, 1,300 siege-work troops with 2 guns, a baggage train protected by 2,000 cavalry and 28 guns, an unknown number of Zaporozhian Cossacks, and 1,800 cavalry along the lower Vorskla. The Russian forces consisted of 25,500 infantry with 73 pieces of artillery, 9,000 cavalry with 13 pieces of artillery, a redoubt force of 4,000 infantry with 16 artillery pieces, vthe Poltava garrison of 4,000 infantry with 28 cannons, an outpost at Yakovtsi with 2,000 troops equally divided between infantry and cavalry, and an unknown number of Cossacks.
The appalling picture painted by the above order of battle is not only in the fact that the Swedes were heavily outnumbered in infantry, but that they had no artillery placed to assist in the battle. Of their 30 pieces, two were with the besiegers of Poltava and the other 28 were with the baggage train! The Russians, on the other hand, had 130 artillery pieces.
The Swedes were outnumbered almost 3 to 1, the enemy had complete dominance in artillery, and the Swedes were going against a well entrenched foe which normally requires a superiority of 3 to 1. Only an unabashed believer in miracles could expect the Swedes to prevail under these circumstances. Since the king had decided to be carried onto the battlefield on a litter, he failed to appoint a single overall battle commander, and the orders were issued in such a hurry that by the time they got to battalion and company level there was not enough time to become familiar with them. Finally, the personality and tactical eye of the king was not present to give his troops the morale lift they sorely needed.
The Swedes had expected to launch a surprise attack at first light on June 28, and for that purpose some of the troop movements took place shielded by the woods to their rear. However, the Russians learned about the Swedish plans and moved strong cavalry forces behind their redoubts. When the Swedes realized that their surprise had been discovered they hurried their preparations. Orders went out to change from a line formation to a column in approaching the enemy positions. This caused further confusion. The Russian artillery had already opened fire on the Swedes. Rehnskiöld commanded the Swedish right and Roos the center, while Lewenhaupt commanded the left.
The Swedes easily captured the first two redoubts but bitter fighting ensued for the rest, and the attackers were severely mauled. The dust raised by the cavalry and the smoke from artillery and muskets ruined visibility. One part of the Swedish army under General Roos became separated from the rest, attacked and surrounded by cavalry, and relief forces were unable to break through. Having failed to take all the T-shaped redoubts the Swedes began to withdraw.
The Russians now came out of their entrenchments and prepared to attack. The Swedes decided to take the initiative with their own attack. The king, who was consulted, suggested that it was best to first get rid of the enemy cavalry. This was probably the best thing to do in this impossible situation, but when Rehnskiöld told him it was impossible the king is alleged to have muttered, “Well, you must do as you will.”
The Swedes thereupon launched an infantry attack while posting their cavalry in the rear. The depleted Swedish infantry lines—no more than 4,000 strong—faced 18,000 Russian infantry supported by over 70 field guns. The Cossacks were asked to bring their 28 guns forward but it was too late.
The Swedish right drove the Russians back and captured some field guns which they turned against their enemy. However, a gap had developed between some of the regiments, and Russian infantry poured into that gap. Panic began to set in among the Swedish infantry, and Lewenhaupt’s attempt to halt the stampede failed. Rehnskiöld, who tried to come to Lewenhaupt’s aid, was captured. Most of the Swedish infantry which had crossed the field against the Russian lines was destroyed.
Roos, who had earlier become separated from the main Swedish army after he lost 1,100 men in attacking the redoubts, withdrew to the south, not knowing where the main army was. He was pounced upon by Russian cavalry and infantry and forced to surrender his remnants.
The battle was over but the killing continued. With Rehnskiöld and Piper captured, Lewenhaupt was left in command. Karl XII was in the middle of the debacle and tried his best to stem the stampede, but his feeble voice could not be heard above the din. The murderous fire was like a great scythe bringing down men, horses, and trees. Twenty-one of the king’s twenty-four litter-carriers were killed, and the litter was finally shattered. It looked like the king would be captured but an officer stopped, dismounted, and lifted Karl into the saddle, only to have the horse shot from under him. Another horse was provided but now his wound was fully reopened and bleeding profusely.
The Swedish cavalry, which was basically intact, covered the remnants of the infantry in their withdrawal to the camp at Pushkarivka. The reserve regiments, artillery, and Mazeppa’s Cossacks were placed in defensive positions around the camp. The two infantry regiments besieging Poltava managed to fight their way through the Russian lines to the camp. Most of the defeated army had reached the camp by noon. The Swedes had left some ten thousand on the battlefield, 6,901 dead and 2,760 prisoners. The Russian losses were relatively light: 1,345 killed and 3,290 wounded. It was almost the exact opposite of previous Swedish-Russian encounters.
No immediate pursuit was launched by the Russians, as their troops were almost as confused as the Swedes, and Peter wanted to celebrate the victory. The Swedish army had been defeated but it had not surrendered. About 16,000 Swedes gathered at Pushkarivka to join the approximately 6,000 Cossacks already there.
Future plans had to be laid and they boiled down to a retreat to Poland to join Stanislaw and Krassow by one of several routes known to the Cossacks. The first leg of the retreat was a withdrawal to Perevolotjna, at the junction of the Vorskla and Dnieper rivers. The route would then go north to the Vorskla fords, cross the river and move south along the Dnieper to the Khan’s dominions and join the king at Ochakov on the Black Sea from where the entire army would return to Poland. The baggage was sent ahead and the infantry and cavalry followed under the command of General Kreutz. Horses were gathered for the infantry to increase the speed. The march continued through the heat of the day of 28 June and through most of the night. The whole army arrived safely at Perevolotjna on 30 June.
The first order of business was to get the Cossacks, starting with the leadership, across the Dnieper to safety since the Russians would not show them any mercy. To do otherwise would be a stain on Swedish honor. Second, the wounded king had to be spirited away to safety in Turkey, despite his own arguments to stay with the army. Lewenhaupt chose to remain with the army after he gave the king his word that he would continue the fight; but he chose his words carefully. The Cossack leaders were moved across the river on 30 June, followed by the king and his group the following day.
General Menshikov appeared with 6,000 dragoons and 2,000 Cossacks early on 1 July and asked for a parley. Kreutz was sent to find out what terms the Russians were offering. He came back stating that Menshikov offered normal surrender terms. Lewenhaupt consulted his colonels and they asked what the king’s last order had been. Lewenhaupt gave a rather evasive answer that he had only asked the army to “defend itself as long as it could.” Lewenhaupt directed the colonels to poll the soldiers if they were willing to fight. This was contrary to all Swedish army practice. The answer from the soldiers was that they would fight if the others did.
The surrender—termed by some as shameful—took place at 1100 hours on 1 July: 1,161 officers and 13,138 non-commissioned officers and men filed into Meshikov’s camp and laid down their arms. Englund gives higher figures for the Swedes who were surrendered (see below). Only few ever saw their homeland again. It should be noted that several of the Swedish regiments had seen little action, particularly the cavalry which was virtually intact. The Swedes actually outnumbered Menshikov’s tired troops, and an inspiring and resolute combat leader would have opted for a daring attack rather than captivity. Lewenhaupt was no such leader. The 5,000 Cossacks who had remained with Lewenhaupt were not included in the capitulation, and most grabbed horses and rode away, but some were caught, tortured in the most brutal manner, and killed.
Englund gives precise and startling figures of the losses sustained by the Swedish army—which had numbered 49,500 the previous summer. He notes that almost exactly 20,000 entered captivity and when the roughly 2,800 taken prisoner during the battle are added, he arrives at a grand total of about 23,000 prisoners.
Karl XII reached the Bug River on 7 July and entered the Ottoman Empire on 10 July, eventually joined by about 1,800 of his troops. They were granted asylum and treated as welcomed guests. The last action was that of the rearguard on the other side of the Bug when it was caught by Russian cavalry. The 300 Swedes surrendered, but an equal number of Cossacks fought to the last man.
IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCES OF POLTAVA
It is not surprising that the consequences of a battle historians have long considered one of most decisive in history would be great and long-lasting. Here we will only deal with the immediate effects.
The results of the battle shocked Europe; in a matter of days the whole political situation on the continent had been changed. However, the Great Northern War dragged on, inconclusively, for another decade, which caused great fiscal strain and disaffection in war-weary Sweden.
The scavengers moved in to carve up the carcass of the Swedish Empire. Denmark seized Schleswig, Bremen, and Verden, but turned some of those territories over to Hannover in order to gain its alliance. Danish forces also invaded southern Sweden but were defeated by General Magnus Stenbock in the Battle of Helsingborg in February 1710, forcing them to withdraw across the Sound. Stenbock then proceeded to Germany where he defeated the Danish army at the Battle of Gadebusch in 1712. He was thereafter set upon by much stronger allied forces and compelled to surrender in 1713. Russia occupied Poland, Karelia, Livonia, Estonia, and Ingria. Augustus (who was reinstated as King of Poland), moved against Pomerania with a Saxon-Polish army but was stopped. The Saxons and Russians were also repulsed from Stralsund in 1713. A Russian fleet defeated a Swedish squadron in the Gulf of Finland in the Battle of Hangö in 1714. However, they did not yet feel strong enough to offer an open challenge to the Swedish navy. There were still some teeth left in the old lion.
Karl XII stayed in exile for four years, trying to convince the sultan to attack Russia. He had some success as Turkey entered the war in October 1710 and moved an army of 200,000 under Grand Vizier Baltaji Mehmet to the Russian frontier. This move by the Ottoman Empire was also encouraged by the French.
An overconfident Tsar Peter invaded Moldavia with 60,000 men, was outmaneuvered by the Turks, and driven back to the Pruth River where his starving army was surrounded in July 1711. Peter had never been in greater peril; however, luck was with him. Rather than forcing Peter to surrender Mehmet entered into negotiations which led to the Treaty of Pruth on 21 July 1711. Among the terms of the treaty was a promise by Peter to withdraw from Poland, stay out of Polish internal affairs, and provide Karl XII a safe passage back to Sweden. Forcing Peter to surrender on the Pruth would have had unimaginable historical consequences.
Karl XII was bitterly disappointed, and stayed in Turkey for the next three years. He wisely did not believe Peter the Great would keep his promise of safe passage any more than he did regarding the Polish provisions. The Swedish king kept insisting that his host should renew the war. Karl was finally placed under house arrest after a fierce hand-to-hand struggle on 1 February 1713. He remained under virtual arrest until he departed the following year. While General Sparre and 1,200 Swedes who had been in Turkey took a separate route, Karl XII in the company of two aides made the dangerous journey, incognito, across the unfriendly states of Europe to enter Stralsund on 11 November 1714.
Will and Ariel Durant present a different version of these events. They write that Karl XII was encouraged to return by the Turks who gave him gifts, money, and a military escort. If Karl was given a military escort, it could only have been as far as the border with the Holy Roman Empire in Hungary. For the rest of the journey through Hungary, Austria, and into Germany southeast of Nuremberg, the king probably traveled incognito. Karl XII stayed in Stralsund helping to fight off a siege, but headed back to Sweden in December 1715 after an absence of more than 15 years.
The ambush site was an excellent choice, and the deployment of the Tories and Indians was equally well adapted to the terrain. The spot selected was about six miles east of Fort Stanwix, where the military road on which Herkimer’s column was marching crossed a deep ravine about 700 feet wide and 50 feet deep. The summer rains had made the ravine passable only on the log causeway. The forest of beech, birch, maple, and hemlock provided a dark shade for the thick undergrowth which came within a few feet of the road. To make the picture complete, according to Hoffman Nickerson, “when the middle of the advancing column was down in the ravine [it would be impossible] for either the van or the rear to see what was going on” (The Turning Point of the Revolution).
The deployment of the ambushing force was as practical as it was classical. Its form might be seen as the sleeve of an inverted bayonet scabbard. The top—the closed end—was astride the road on the west side of the ravine; there the Tory troops provided the blocking force whose opening fires would smash the head of Herkimer’s column and thus bring the whole to a halt. The Indians were disposed along the sides of the sleeve to attack the flanks of the column and, of equal importance, to close around the end of the rear guard and thus complete an encirclement so that the fire of the entire ambushing forces converged on their entrapped enemy. To open the action, the bottom end of the sleeve was left open to allow the advancing column to enter and proceed until its head would be abruptly halted by the first volley.
Herkimer, Cox, and the whole column marched unhesitatingly into the trap. (What may have happened to the security elements supposedly protecting the column remains an unknown factor.) Tories and Indians lying hidden in the undergrowth listened to the militiamen of Cox’s regiment as they stumbled across the causeway and filed up the western slope of the ravine. The August heat was growing in intensity under the interlaced branches and thick leaves of the trees. Many of the farmer-soldiers fell out of the column to get a hasty drink from the shallow brook while dipping the cool water in their hats to splash over their flushed faces.
While the first oxcarts were getting closer to the causeway, Ebenezer Cox had crossed the little spur that made up the west side of the ravine and was riding toward the shallower depression beyond it. As his horse started up the slope, he heard the shrill blasts of a silver whistle sounding three times. They were the last sounds Cox ever heard. The volley from the Tory muskets crashed out of the brush, tearing into the militia’s vanguard with fearful effect and dashing Cox from the saddle, dead before he hit the ground.
A few yards behind Cox, Herkimer heard an even greater roar of firing to his rear. Could it be that his whole column was already falling victim to this ambush? He had wheeled and started toward the rear when a bullet felled his horse. At the same time Herkimer took a bullet in his leg, shattering the bone beneath the knee. The Indians on the east side of the ambush broke from their cover, unable to resist the hope of scalps to be taken and oxen to be slaughtered. They swept forward, whooping their war cries, brandishing tomahawks, spears, and scalping knives to fall upon the wagon train and the rear guard. Their headlong rush became a torrent of war-painted bodies that poured around the oxcarts and directed itself upon the terror-stricken rear guard. The best of the Tory eyewitnesses, Colonel John Butler, saw not only the premature attack but its results:
The causeway was already hopelessly choked with their unwieldy wagons, when the eagerness of some drunken Indians precipitated the attack and saved the rearguard from the fate that overtook the rest of the column. The first deliberate volley that burst upon them from a distance of a very few yards was terribly destructive. Elated by the sight, and maddened by the smell of blood and gunpowder, many of the Indians rushed from their coverts to complete the victory with spear and hatchet. The rearguard promptly ran away in a wild panic.
Despite what Butler wrote, the rear guard did not save itself. Except for a few units such as Captain Gardenier’s, Colonel Visscher’s regiment took off at a dead run, pursued by whooping Indians. The flight became a massacre. Skeletons were later found as far back as the mouth of Oriskany Creek, over two miles from the battlefield.
A look into the ravine after the smoke of the initial volleys had settled must have been like a glimpse into hell itself. Unwounded men had fallen to the ground as though struck by the same blasts of fire that had killed or wounded men all around them. After the first shock, however, militiamen knelt or propped muskets across the bodies of the dead to return the fire. At first, they could only fire back at flashes from the underbrush or even at the yells of their enemies when they moved behind cover. Soon a ragged line formed, extending from the head of the shattered wagon train, along the road up the slope from the causeway, and ending where Cox’s surviving men hugged the dirt to form an inadvertent spearhead facing the Tories at the west end of the ambush.
It was not an organized movement; it was instinctive action alone that made these frontier Americans seek cover and comradeship as they tried to fight back. They rallied along the road, and the line eventually became a series of small circles of men taking cover behind trees. The tight little circles gradually moved up the slope until they formed a rough semicircle on the higher ground between the two ravines. Fighting back was the only way to survive. Retreat into the hell of the ravine would mean certain death by musket or tomahawk.
The ambush was now becoming a pitched battle. Pressure on the main body was relieved by the departure of the mass of Indians, who were intent on pursuing the rear guard. Herkimer’s men were therefore able to fall back fighting. One must admire the toughness of seemingly undisciplined frontier militia to rally on their own until their officers could bring order out of chaos.
From the outset, leadership came right from the top. When Herkimer was pulled away from his dead horse, he was carried to high ground. There he ordered his saddle brought up and placed against a large beech tree somewhere near the center of his encircled command. Seated on his saddle, with his wounded leg stretched out before him, he maintained control. To set an example, he coolly took out his pipe, lit it, and continued to puff away as he gave his orders. One of those orders, which was to prove a decisive factor, pertained to individual tactics. Herkimer observed that an Indian would wait until an American had fired, then dash in for the kill with the tomahawk before his victim could reload his musket. He ordered the men to be paired off behind trees so that one would be ready to fire while his partner was reloading. The simple tactic paid off demonstrably; the Indians’ dashes declined markedly.
The slackening of the Indians’ fire, however, did little at first to reduce the fierceness of the hand-to-hand fighting that occurred where enemies closed in personal combat. Bayonets and clubbing muskets took their toll again and again as former neighbors, Tories and Patriots, found themselves face to face. In about an hour, however, this deadly combat was brought to an abrupt halt. By 11:00 A.M. black thunderheads had arrived overhead, and soon peals of thunder and lightning flashes swept across the forest, followed by a torrential downpour. The rain prevented keeping priming dry enough for firing, and the guns fell silent as suddenly as the firing had begun.
The rain continued to beat down for another hour. Herkimer and his officers took advantage of the summer storm to tighten up their perimeter. Then a strange distraction appeared. A solid column of men in oddly colored uniforms—at a distance they appeared to be wearing graybuff jackets and an odd assortment of hats—came marching down the road from the direction of Fort Stanwix, aligned like regular troops. A ragged cheer went up from Herkimer’s men: they must be a battalion of Continentals making a sortie from the fort!
As the column drew nearer, Captain Jacob Gardenier (whose company of Visscher’s rear-guard regiment had stayed to fight with the main body) took a second look, and barked out to his men: “They’re Tories, open fire!” The men heard him, but none obeyed. One militiaman even dashed forward to greet a “friend” in the front rank and was immediately yanked into the formation and made prisoner. Gardenier sprang forward, spontoon in hand, to lead a charge against this new enemy. And enemies they were indeed—a detachment of the Royal Greens under Major Stephen Watts, the young brother-in-law of Sir John Johnson. The Tories had turned their green jackets inside out in an almost successful trick to deceive the militiamen into holding their fire.
Gardenier plunged into the Tory formation, thrusting about him with his spontoon until he had freed the prisoner. Three of his nearest enemies recovered enough to attack Gardenier with their bayonets, pinning him to the ground by a bayonet in the calf of each leg. The third Tory thrust his bayonet against his chest, but the rugged Gardenier, a blacksmith, parried it with his bare hand, pulled his attacker down on top of him, and held him as a shield. One of Gardenier’s men jumped in to help his captain and managed to clear enough room for him to regain his feet. Gardenier, by now berserk in his battle fury, jumped up, grabbed his spontoon, and plunged it into the man he had been holding. The wounded Tory was recognized by some of the militia as Lieutenant Angus MacDonald, one of the despised Highlanders who had served as one of Sir John Johnson’s close subordinates.
In spite of the deadly scuffle going on right in front of them, the militiamen still hesitated, but only until the enraged Gardenier was back among them, roaring out his command to fire. This time the militia obeyed, and thirty of the Royal Greens went down at the first volley. Then began the most savage fighting of the fiercest frontier battle of the war. The pitch of ferocity that mounted in both sides has been told best by the novelist Walter D. Edmonds, who lived and did his research in the Mohawk Valley: “Men fired and flung their muskets down and went for each other with their hands. The American flanks turned in, leaving the Indians where they were. The woods were filled suddenly with men swaying together, clubbing rifle barrels, swinging hatchets, yelling like the Indians themselves. There were no shots. Even the yelling stopped after the first joining of the lines, and men begun to go down” (Drums along the Mohawk).
Such bloodthirstiness could not sustain itself, and finally unwounded men began to pull back to reform the lines they had left before the bloodbath. They left between them heaps of the dead, some still clutching hatchet or musket, others lying face-up where they had fallen. For a while there was intermittent sniping, but it seemed mostly to come from the muskets of the white men. The Indians had fallen strangely silent. The restless lull in the firing was broken by new sounds, at first thought to be another rainstorm. But it was soon recognized for what it was: the booming of a cannon shot, followed by a second and a third. Demooth had gotten through to the fort and there was going to be a sortie!
In the meantime, Indian runners had brought word to their fellow warriors that their camps had been attacked by the Americans in the fort and were being ransacked. It was too much for Brant’s Indians. They had never intended, and had never been trained, to fight a pitched battle. Where were the British? The Iroquois had lost many warriors—and for what? There were no dead to be looted or scalps to be taken here under the deadly fire of American muskets. So, in spite of the pleas of Butler and his officers, Brant made the decision to slip away back to the camps where his warriors might still retrieve some necessities for survival. The mournful cry “oonah, oonah” sounded back and forth through the forest, and the militiamen realized that the Indians were retreating, disappearing silently through the underbrush. They were soon followed by the Tories, who needed no convincing that without their Indian allies they would be outnumbered by Herkimer’s men, who still thirsted for revenge.
The woods were soon emptied of the enemy, all except three Iroquois who, not as easily discouraged as their brothers, had remained hidden until they could loot and scalp when the militiamen left. They were discovered, and in a last desperate rush made for Herkimer himself. The three were shot down as they dashed in, one falling almost at the general’s feet.
It was all over, all except the tragic counting of the living, the dead, and the wounded. There was no accounting for the missing. The exhausted survivors had neither the strength nor the time to search for them. They came to pick up Honnikol, who was still seated with his back to his tree, still smoking his pipe and nursing his wounded leg with its red bandanna bandage. But first they had to hear his decision. It was not easy, yet it was obvious: The militia were in no condition to take on the redcoats at the fort; there were fifty wounded to be carried, and only a hundred or more left who could march. Herkimer ordered the march to begin homeward, and a detachment was sent ahead to arrange for boats to come up the Mohawk and pick up the wounded at the nearest ford.
The actual losses on both sides were never accurately totaled. A reasonable estimate has it that of the 800 militiamen who had set out from Fort Dayton on 4 August, “all but 150 of Herkimer’s men had been killed, wounded or captured—counting out those of the rearguard who fled” (Scott, Fort Stanwix and Oriskany). As for the Tory and Indian losses, probably 150 had fallen.
The sortie that Gansevoort had ordered, a somewhat limited effort, was made by Willett with 250 men and a fieldpiece. It was they who had attacked the Tory and Indian camps and systematically looted them, carrying off twenty-one wagon loads of everything movable—weapons, ammunition, blankets, clothing, and all sorts of supplies. Willett was careful to strip the Indian camps of all cooking utensils, packs, and blankets, an act which went far to stir a seething discontent between the Indians and their British masters. Willett withdrew before a British counterstroke could cut him off from the fort, getting all of his loaded-down wagons through the gate without the loss of a single man.
Three days later, Willett performed another feat. He crept out of the fort at 1:00 A.M. and made his hazardous and painful way through swamps and wilderness to General Schuyler at Stillwater. The general was brought up to date on the siege of Stanwix and the results of Oriskany. As Schuyler believed that St. Leger was making a methodical siege of the fort, he selected Benedict Arnold to lead an expedition to relieve it. Arnold, a major general, had eagerly volunteered to do the job, which would ordinarily have gone to a brigadier general.
Arnold left with several hundred volunteers from New York and Massachusetts regiments. By the time he had left Fort Dayton, he had picked up enough reinforcements to bring his total to about 950. Since St. Leger reportedly had about 1,700, even the intrepid Arnold had to pause and consider the odds. As he pondered, a subordinate came up with a stratagem that Arnold heartily approved. A Mohawk Valley German named Hon Yost Schuyler was respected and honored by the Indians, though considered a half-wit by the whites. At the time Schuyler was under sentence of death for trying to raise recruits for the British, so Arnold’s offer of a pardon was appealing. Hon Yost was to go to the Indians with St. Leger and spread stories of Arnold advancing to attack them with an army of thousands.
Hon Yost was a cunning rascal when he wanted to be. He propped up his coat and shot it through several times. Then, with an Oneida as his accomplice, he entered a camp near Stanwix, going in alone at first, to relate a marvelous tale of his escape from Fort Dayton, exhibiting the holes in his coat as evidence. The Indians were dismayed to hear of thousands of Americans led by Arnold, the most feared name on the frontier.
Hon Yost was finally brought before St. Leger, in whose presence he added to his story by relating how he had managed to escape on his very way to the gallows. In the meantime the Oneida had passed among the camps to warn his brother Iroquois of their imminent danger: Arnold’s force had now grown to 3,000 men, all sworn to follow their legendary leader in a campaign of revenge and massacre.
St. Leger’s Indians, already disgusted with Oriskany and its aftermath, were quick to pack up what few belongings they had left and rally around for an immediate departure. The efforts of St. Leger and his officers to placate them and persuade them to stay were words lost on the wind. As the Indians gathered to leave, they became more disorderly. They began to loot the tents of officers and soldiers, making off with clothing and personal belongings, and seizing liquor and drinking it on the spot. St. Leger reported the rioters as “more formidable than the enemy.”
Without his Indians, St. Leger now had to give in to pressures to leave, and his whole force took off for the boats at Wood Creek, taking only what they could carry on their backs. They left behind them tents as well as most of St. Leger’s artillery and stores.
Arnold arrived at Fort Stanwix on the evening of 23 August, saluted by the cheers of the garrison and a salvo of artillery. The next morning he dispatched a detachment to pursue St. Leger. Its advance elements reached Lake Oneida in time to watch the enemy’s boats disappear down the lake. Arnold left Stanwix with a garrison of 700 men, and marched with the other 1,200 to rejoin the main army at Saratoga.
The question of whether Oriskany was a victory or defeat for the Patriots cannot be answered by looking down the narrow vista provided by the battlefield. In one sense Oriskany was a defeat, simply because the battle prevented Herkimer from accomplishing his mission of relieving Fort Stanwix. Even more seriously, Tryon County had been dealt a severe blow because its staggering casualties left the Mohawk Valley virtually defenseless in terms of its own militia protecting it. In another sense, the battle was a victory for Herkimer and his cause. Not only had his militia fought its way out of an ambush, it had beaten the enemy on the field of battle, and at battle’s end remained masters of the battlefield.
In the long run, the consequences of Oriskany made possible the eventual relief of Fort Stanwix on 23 August. Moreover, the battle was a strategic success, for St. Leger had been forced to retreat all the way back to his starting point in Canada. Now there would be no one to don the dress uniforms of St. Leger’s officers that were being carried in Burgoyne’s baggage train, and no one would be coming out of the west to join and reinforce Burgoyne in his fateful advance southward.
Lithuanian Grand-Duke Jagiełło’s brothers wanted heavier cannons to oppose the Teutonic Knights’ new weapons, but since gun carriages did not exist yet the heavy weapons could only be transported by water. Because the Teutonic Knights controlled the lower reaches of the Nemunas River, the only route from Poland to Lithuania was from the Vistula up the Bug River to the Narew, then up that river’s tributaries until close to streams that led down to the Nemunas at Gardinas. Cannon could be dragged over a short portage, or perhaps even transported the entire way over the many bodies of water in the Masurian Lake district. Not unexpectedly, the Teutonic Knights sought to block this route by building forts in the wilderness north of the Narew. This presented some complications, because that land belonged to the Masovian dukes, but it did hinder Jagiełło’s efforts to send assistance to his brothers. The wilderness had been unoccupied since the withdrawal of the Sudovians to the east, and empty of all humans other than raiding parties from Prussia, Lithuania, and Masovia. But technically it was still Masovian.
Meanwhile the war had become even more brutal than before. The Teutonic Knights decapitated any Poles captured in the Lithuanian forts – they accused them of apostasy and aiding pagans – and the crusader raids into Samogitia met so little resistance that they were little more than manhunts. In reprisal the Samogitians occasionally sacrificed prisoners to their gods, burning knights alive, tied to their mounts in full armour over a giant pyre, or shooting them full of arrows while bound to a sacred tree. Even so, the war was not continuous. Despite the desperate nature of the fighting, there were truces and sudden changes in alliances; and nothing disturbed the universal love of hunting, for which special truces were arranged.
Although Vytautas was a crusader ally, as he saw his ancestral lands being destroyed he began to look for an alternative means of returning to power in Vilnius. Intellectually, he understood that it was most logical to join forces with his cousin, but Vytautas was a passionate man, not always ruled by his mind. Besides, he had not forgotten Jagiełło’s past treacheries and, well-aware of assassination plots, he surrounded himself with Tatar bodyguards. Consequently Vytautas was an emotional pendulum, swinging from one side to the other, forced to seek help from someone, but not liking any of the available allies. The Teutonic Knights took a cynical but philosophical view of this, as one chronicler stated: ‘Pagans rarely do what is right, as the broken treaties of Vytautas and his relatives prove’.
Still, when he considered the situation rationally Vytautas saw his present alliance with the Teutonic Order as a losing strategy. Victory under such circumstances would make him an impoverished ruler, hated by his own people and dependent upon the goodwill of the grand master. He may have sent a message to Jagiełło, somehow evading the order’s efforts to watch over his every move; if so, it was undoubtedly vague, the kind which would do no harm if discovered. Or perhaps Jagiełło merely sensed that the time was ripe to make his cousin a proposal. All that is known for certain is that in early August 1392 Jagiełło sent Bishop Henryk of Płock to Prussia as his emissary. This rather unpriestly Piast prince-bishop was related by marriage to the king’s sister, Alexandra of Masovia. Henryk used the opportunity provided by confession to inform Vytautas of his master’s propositions. Vytautas, under the pretext of allowing his wife to make a visit home, told Anna to negotiate with Jagiełło; he also managed to secure the release of many hostages who had been kept in honourable captivity in scattered fortresses. Then he gave his sister in marriage to Bishop Henryk and dismissed the English crusaders who had just arrived to join another invasion of Lithuania. He thus eliminated from the game the most dangerous bowmen in Europe, warriors who had been so effective in recent battles with Jagiełło’s subjects.
Vytautas plotted his betrayal carefully, arranging for the Samogitian warriors stationed in the crusader castles entrusted to him to kill or capture the Germans in the garrisons. After this had succeeded, he sent Lithuanian armies on widely separated fronts into Prussia and Livonia and overwhelmed what forces the Teutonic Knights still had in Samogitia. Vytautas’ return to Lithuania was greeted with wild enthusiasm. Every Samogitian appreciated his courage and cunning, contrasted his genial personality with Jagiełło’s vengeful brothers, and understood that the series of military disasters was likely now at an end; and the highlanders were happy to see the reign of foreigners – Poles – at an end.
It was a year before Grand Master Wallenrode was able to take his revenge. In January of 1393 he struck at Gardinas, employing Dutch and French knights. This threatened to cut the major communication route between Masovia and Vilnius, effectively isolating Lithuania. Vytautas and Jagiełło appealed to the papal legate to arrange for peace talks, which did in fact take place in Thorn in the summer. After ten days, however, Wallenrode became ill and left the conference. A short while later he died.
The new grand master, Conrad von Jungingen, was a decisive leader of far-reaching plans and far-reaching vision. Regional peace could be achieved, he believed, by a decisive victory in Vilnius, the one location that Vytautas and Jagiełło had to defend with all their might.
Already collecting in Prussia in the waning days of 1393 was a great army of French and German crusaders, among whom was a body of Burgundian archers (perhaps English mercenaries) whose concentrated firepower had the potential to savage the pagans quite as badly as they had mauled French armies in recent years. The crusaders began their march up the Nemunas in January 1394, relying on the thick ice to serve as a highway into the Lithuanian heartland. Vytautas attempted to halt the crusader march early on, but he barely escaped death under the first barrage of his enemies’ missile weapons, and his army was badly routed. The Lithuanian stand turned into a hurried retreat before the 400 advancing crusader knights and their thousands of sergeants and infantry.
Vytautas received a reinforcement from Poland, a strong contingent of knights, to join the 15,000 mounted warriors under his command, but their numbers were insufficient to stop the advance of the now much-feared archers into the heart of his country. The crusaders passed through forests, swamps, and open fields, evading ambushes, to reach Vilnius, where Vytautas was joined by his Rus’ian troops. The grand prince fought a desperate engagement, giving and taking heavy losses until his Rus’ian wing fled and was followed by one Lithuanian unit after the other. At last, he, too, had to retreat, and again he barely escaped the field alive. While Vytautas sought to rally his scattered and demoralised forces at a safe distance, the Teutonic Knights settled down to besiege his capital, a place they knew well from 1390. They made new plans to celebrate the conversion of the Lithuanians, this time assured by their arms that the baptismal ceremony would take place properly – a true conversion, not the ambiguous promises of Jagiełło and Vytautas, whose Christian names were used only in formal documents. What further proof, the crusaders asked, did anyone need that their allegiance to Rome was very thin?
On the eighth day of the siege the Livonian master arrived to reinforce the crusader host. He was welcomed heartily, for now the crusaders could surround the entire city, contain the sorties from the fortress, and make a determined assault on the wall at its weakest point. The Livonian forces were sent to the river front, where they built two bridges, then rode across the river to plunder the countryside. In this foraging they lost fifty men (only three of them German and only one a knight, indicating that a large native contingent was present) while killing and capturing ‘innumerable’ Lithuanians. Nevertheless, the siege did not go well. After another week of fighting, the firing posts that the engineers had built for the archers, the siege towers, and the bridges were destroyed by an inferno that the garrison set during a sortie. Nevertheless, the crusaders had some successes – their artillery had brought down a stone tower and set fire to various wooden fortifications. Soon afterward, however, the Lithuanians set a tower in the crusader camp ablaze, which not only caused extensive casualties among the French but destroyed most of the supplies, so that the crusaders would be unable to remain at Vilnius as long as planned. The grand master allowed the war of engineers to continue four more days, but it was obvious that the Lithuanians could destroy new siege works almost as fast as the crusaders could build them. An assault would require more time to prepare than the army could be kept fed by its remaining supplies. Also, Vytautas had been regrouping his scattered forces. Scouts were reporting that he would soon be coming to relieve the city. This meant that the crusaders would have to fight on two fronts – an unattractive prospect.
The leaders of the crusader armies met, discussed their situation, and reluctantly agreed to abandon the siege. The grand master sent the Livonian forces home first, then moved west himself, harassed by Lithuanians cutting down trees across the road, fortifying the river crossings, and laying ambushes in the woods. The Prussian force alternately negotiated and fought its way along the route away from Vilnius, then abruptly changed direction and marched through Samogitia, thereby avoiding Vytautas’ army and the obstacles he had erected.
The expedition had been one of the most memorable enterprises of the medieval era – the siege of an enemy capital with knights and military specialists drawn from all of Europe – and a chivalric exploit worthy of any land; but the capture of the greatest city in Lithuania was beyond the ability of the crusaders. The war continued, with the Teutonic Order striking up the Nemunas River and ravaging the Samogitian settlements; they were far from attempting another invasion of the highlands, farther yet from Jagiełło’s capital. The Lithuanians remained on the defensive, biding their time. They had no reason to risk everything on a pitched battle, no reason to carry the war back into Prussia. Not yet, at least.
By the end of 1393 Vytautas was master of Lithuania. He had driven all Jagiełło’s brothers from the land, and when his forces won a major battle in 1394, crushing the Volhynian, Galician, and Moldavian dukes, Jagiełło completely abandoned his brothers to their fate: Kaributas went into exile in Cracow; the Moldavian ruler also fled to Cracow, where he was imprisoned; Skirgaila died in Kiev in 1396, probably poisoned; and Svidrigailo fought for the Teutonic Order briefly before achieving a reconciliation. The former bishop, Henryk, died, unmourned, of poison.
Jagiełło retained the title of supreme prince, and Vytautas was satisfied with the lesser title of great prince until his very last days. But as time passed, so real authority passed into the hands of Vytautas.
Meanwhile the crusader raids into Lithuania continued. Not only were the Prussian forces constantly in Samogitia, but so too was the black and white banner of the Livonian master – a black centre stripe horizontally flanked by white, with contrasting triangular tails fluttering behind. The last raid into Samogitia came in the winter of 1398, when the crusaders took 700 prisoners and 650 horses, and killed many people; they had surprised the defenders by entering the country during changeable weather, a gamble that had rarely proven worth the risk before, but paid high returns when successful. Vytautas did not retaliate. He was campaigning in southern Rus’, longing for an end to the troublesome northern war that was hindering his chances for success on the steppe. Only his promise to Jagiełło stood in the way of making peace. Of course, promises were not serious obstacles to Vytautas.
Vytautas had an excuse to refuse obedience to Polish orders soon afterward, when Jadwiga (who – not Jagiełło – was legally rex of Poland) demanded a tax from the Lithuanians, a tax that Vytautas’ boyars had no desire to pay. The royal demand was not unreasonable. Vytautas had depended on Polish aid to defend Samogitia, and Polish nobles and clergy were asking why they had to bear all the costs, while the Lithuanians paid nothing. The Poles probably reasoned that Vytautas had no choice, and that no matter how much he protested, in the end he would make his subjects pay.
This presumed reasoning underestimated Vytautas. The grand prince was not fixated on Samogitia. Instead, he was studying the situation on the steppe. In the process of driving Jagiełło’s brothers from their lands in southern Rus’, Vytautas had confirmed suspicions that the Tatar hold on the region had weakened. Moreover, his popularity among his people would be seriously undermined if he appeared to be a mere Polish puppet.
Vytautas understood that if he did not pay the tax he would have to sue for peace with at least one enemy. Better the Teutonic Order than the Tatars, he reasoned, for it was against the weakened Tatars that he saw the best prospects of territorial expansion. In contrast to the potential conquest of the steppe, he could at best fight a defensive war against the Teutonic Knights. Peace with the grand master, of course, could be had only at a price – Samogitia. Fortunately for Vytautas, Jagiełło was caught up in the dream of driving the Tatars from the steppe too, removing them forever as a threat to his Polish and Lithuanian frontiers; and his Polish subjects, who had lived for generations in fear of the Tatars, agreed. It helped that Jadwiga knew the grand master personally and liked him; she had always wanted peace with Prussia and had encouraged the many inconclusive meetings with the grand master’s representatives in the past. Now it appeared that there was the likelihood of a breakthrough in the negotiation process.
Peace talks with the Teutonic Order culminated in September 1398 in the Treaty of Sallinwerder, which surrendered Samogitia to the Germans. Vytautas and Jagiełło led their armies to Kaunas, where the last pagans of Samogitia surrendered to the Teutonic Order. The Samogitians growled, but they understood that they could not fight without the grand prince of Lithuania and the prince-consort of Poland. Besides, they had been under crusader control before, and it had not lasted.
The next year, in the summer of 1399, a great army of Lithuanians, Rus’ians, Tatars, Poles, and Teutonic Knights rode out onto the steppe to challenge Timur’s domination there. The result was another military disaster. Had Vytautas been successful, the history of the Teutonic Order would have taken a new and more exotic turn than anyone had previously imagined. But even defeat on the steppe did not mean a return to the old ways. In the years to come some Teutonic Knights would accompany Vytautas against Rus’ian foes as far away as Moscow, and others would board ships to destroy a pirate stronghold on the island of Gotland.
It appeared that the crusade was at an end. The Teutonic Order had achieved its goal, the Christianisation of most pagans and the conquest of the rest. The Teutonic Knights still welcomed a handful of crusaders to assist in garrisoning their castles in Samogitia, but the crusade was essentially over by 1400
Interestingly, the greatest complaints against the Teutonic Order came from those churchmen who were unhappy that the grand master was not forcing his new subjects to undergo baptism immediately. Conrad von Jungingen was instead pursuing a policy of economic development, and creating from the many petty Lithuanian boyars a smaller, dependable ruling class. He assumed, probably correctly, that in the course of time, this would result in the voluntary conversion of these stubborn woodsmen.
Vytautas believed that too. He secretly encouraged the Samogitians to hold out. He would soon be coming to free them again.
Soviet cruiser Kirov protected by smoke during evacuation of Tallinn in August 1941.
Bombs start to fall near ships moored in Tallinn for the evacuation.
The Port of Tallinn on 1 September 1941 after having been seized by the Germans.
Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs.
Soviet Convoy Tallinn to Kronstadt: Night of 27/28 August 1941
The major Soviet warship and transport losses came in August in one of the least known, although the worst, convoy actions of the entire war. The Soviets sought to relocate smaller warships from Tallinn to Kronstadt and to evacuate as many personnel by ship as they could before the Panzers arrived in the Estonian capital. In the German attack on the hastily formed Soviet convoy the Soviet Navy lost 18 small warships and 42 merchantmen and troopships, most to a night encounter with a dense minefield. The following day, as all major warships fled the convoy, Luftwaffe dive bombers struck floundering and exposed troopships and transports. Only two survived. Total loss of life was at least 12,000.
The evacuation of Soviet troops from the Estonian capital Tallinn is probably the largest destruction caused by sea mines in a single operation. Soviet minesweeper force was too weak and managed to clear only a narrow channel through the “Juminda” barrage. In the zone between Point Juminda and Kalbådagrund were 3 000 mines. To prevent minesweepers from sweeping channels in this barrage there was also a 150 mm battery on Point Juminda. Light forces threatened the evacuation convoys from the north. The Germans had also total air supremacy. The Baltic Red Fleet had earlier during the Summer used a route close to Estonian coast, but now it was forced to the middle of Gulf of Finland. Navy ships and transport vessels were to travel through a single narrow 150-mile channel.
Three large convoys carried most of the troops. A fourth convoy was made of smaller vessels. Many smaller vessels sailed alone. The total number of naval ships and small vessels was 153 and the number of transports and other vessels was 75. The ships and vessels were to be ready for departure on the roads off Tallinn between the net barrage and boom defence by 22.00 hours on 27 August. A force seven north-east wind delayed the beginning of the operation for more than 12 hours. The submarine chasers, launches, minesweepers and other small vessels could not sail in such weather. As a result, the evacuation fleet had to make its way through the mine barrages in darkness. The Baltic Red Fleets ships formed three task forces; the main force, covering force and rear guard. The main force was to protect the first and second transport convoys in the most dangerous section of the route, from Point Juminda to Suursaari island. The covering force was to protect second and third convoys between the islands of Keri and Vaindlo. The rear guard was to protect the third and fourth convoys from the rear. The small submarines M 98 and M 102 were sent to patrol areas south from Helsinki.
The first convoy had been planned to depart on 27 August at 22.00 hours. A convoy plan in shows three pairs of minesweepers in front, followed by a minesweeper and the merchantmen in a single line, three submarines followed the merchantmen and the two destroyers were the last ones. The flanks were covered by coastal patrol ships, MO-type patrol boats and a tug.
Minesweeper Nr. 71, Krab First sweeper pair
Minesweeper Nr. 72, Dzherzhinski First sweeper pair
Minesweeper Nr. 57, Viesturs (former Latvian) Second pair, also T 298
Minesweeper Nr. 91, Lyapidevskiy Second pair
Minesweeper Nr. 52, Buyok Third pair
Minesweeper Nr. 56, Barometr Third pair
Mobile base Leningradsoviet
Headquarters ship Vironia, former Estonian merchantman 2026 brt
Transport VT-524 (former Latvian merchantman Kalpaks) 2190 brt
Transport VT-547 (former Estonian merchantman Järvamaa) 1363 brt
Icebreaker Kristjanis Voldemars 1932 brt
Floating workshop Serp-i-molot
Transport VT-511 (former Estonian merchantman Alev) 1446 brt
Transport VT-530 (former Estonian merchantman Ella) 1523 brt
Transport VT-563 (former Latvian merchantman Atis Kronvaldis) 1423 brt
Submarine Щ 307
Submarine Щ 308
Submarine M 79
Coastal patrol ship Bayan Left flank, minesweeper without sweeping gear
Patrol boat MO-507 Left flank
Coastal patrol ship Ametist (former Estonian Sulev) Left flank
Tug OLS-7 Right flank
Patrol boat MO-208 Right flank
Coastal patrol ship Kasatka Right flank
The submarine Щ 301, motor mine sweepers KTЩ-1201, KTЩ-1206, KTЩ-1208, KTЩ-1209, KTЩ-1210 and KTЩ-1211, transport VT-505 (Ivan Papanin), salvage vessel Neptun, schooner Urme (in tow) were also included in the first convoy, total 36 vessels. One reference list only 32 vessels, he has not listed Щ 301, Ivan Papanin and Urme. Instead of Neptun he lists salvage vessel Saturn. One reference differs in the list of motor mine sweepers, KTЩ-1201, -1203, -1204, -1205, -1206 and list of patrol boats, MO-204, MO-207.
The plan of the second convoy in shows three pairs of minesweepers in front, followed by Azimuth, Moskva and merchantmen in a single line and the Tshapaev as last one. The flanks were covered by MO-type patrol boats and motor mine sweepers.
Minesweeper No. 43 LVP-12 First sweeper pair
Minesweeper No. 44 Izhorets-38 First sweeper pair
Minesweeper No. 42 Second pair
Minesweeper No. 47 Izhorets-69 Second pair
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1510 Third pair
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1511 Third pair
Transport VT-523 (Kazhakhstan)
Transport VT-584 (former Estonian merchantman Naissaar) 1892 brt
Motor schooner Atta (former Estonian)
Transport VT-505 (Ivan Papanin) 3374 brt
Transport VT-537 (former Latvian merchantman Ergonautis)
Transport VT-550 (former Lithuanian merchantman Shauliai)
Coastal patrol ship Tshapaev
Patrol boat MO-214 Left flank
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1512 Left flank
Patrol boat MO-200 Right flank
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1514 Right flank
The transport VT-543 (Vtoraya Pyatiletka), tug KP-12 towing TK-121 and tug Tasuja towing sweeper No. 86 (Izhorets-33), patrol ship Shors, sweepers No. 84 (Izhorets-28), No. 88 (Izhorets-31) and No. 121 (Izhorets-71), motor mine sweepers KTЩ-1203, KTЩ-1204, KTЩ-1205 and KTЩ-1509 were also included in the second convoy. Transport VT-505 (Ivan Papanin) is included in the convoy plan but it is listed in the first convoy. Minesweeper No. 42 is included in the convoy plan, but it is not listed. The second convoy had according to and 34 vessels, but one reference lists only 21. Two references lists agree with the larger vessels, but some smaller vessels are not listed.
The plan of the third convoy was two pairs of minesweepers in front, followed by Amgun, the merchantmen in a single line and Kolyvan as last one. The flanks were covered by MO-type patrol boats and motor mine sweepers.
Minesweeper Nr. 58, Osetr First sweeper pair
Minesweeper Nr. 33, Olonka First sweeper pair
Minesweeper Nr. 35, Shuya Second pair
Minesweeper Nr. 83 Second pair
Transport VT-518 (Luga)
Transport VT-512 (Tobol) 2758 brt
Transport VT-581 (former Estonian merchantman Lake Lucerne) 2317 brt
Transport VT-581 (Balhash)
Transport VT-546 (former Estonian merchantman Ausma) 1791 brt
Transport VT-574 (former Estonian merchantman Kumari) 237 brt
Transport VT-543 (Vtoraya Pyatiletka) 3974 brt
Transport VT-529 (Skrunda)
Salvage vessel Kolyvan
Patrol boat MO-501 Left flank
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1104 Left flank
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1109 Left flank
Patrol boat MO-502 Right flank
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1101 Right flank
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1106 Right flank
The third convoy included also minesweeper Jastreb. The transport VT-543 (Vtoraya Pyatiletka) in the convoy plan is listed in the ships of the second convoy. According to, and the third convoy had 21 vessels, inluding the Vtoraya Pyatiletka. Minesweeper Jastreb is not in one reference’s list, but there is sailing ship Hiiusaar.
The fourth convoy was made of 11 smaller vessels. It had.
Coastal patrol ship Ost
Coastal patrol ship Razhvedtshik
Gunboat I-8 armed tug
Minesweeper 5M2 (Piksha)
Minesweeper 8M1 (Povodetsh)
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1503
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1504
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1505
Motor minesweeper KTЩ-1506
Salvage vessel Saturn
Barge TT-1 Torpedo transport
One reference adds to this list a large number of vessels: Submarine Щ 301, mine sweepers Izhorets-12, Izhorets-17 and TЩ-86, motor mine sweepers Jastreb, Vaindlo, Voronin, KTЩ-1208, -1209, -1210, -1211, motor torpedo boat TKA-121, survey ships Sekstant and Vostok, tugs Esro, Kaja, Paldiski, Venta, Vilma, KP-6, KP-17 and S-101, sailing ship Atta, VR-6, coastal ships Vaindlo and Vormsi, transport Everita and ice breaker Tasuja. There were 38 vessels.
The main Soviet battlefleet under the command of Vice-Admiral V. Tributs, departed Tallinn harbor at 14.52 hours. The cruiser Kirov was Tributs’ flagship.
Flotilla leader Leningrad
Destroyer Jakov Sverdlov
Submarine Kalev (former Estonian)
Submarine Lembit (former Estonian)
Submarine S 4
Submarine S 5
Icebreaker Suur Tõll (former Estonian) 2417 brt
Mine sweeper T-204 (Fugas)
Mine sweeper T-205 (Gafel)
Mine sweeper T-206 (Verp)
Mine sweeper T-207 (Shpil)
Mine sweeper T-217
The small vessels in the main force were motor torpedo boats No. 37, 73, 74, 84, 103, 113 and 114, MO-class patrol boats No. 112, 131, 133, 142, 202 and 204. The submarine Щ 405 may have been in the main force.
The covering force sailed under command of rear admiral Pantelejev.
Flotilla leader Minsk
Submarine Щ 322
Submarine M 95
Mine sweeper T-203 (Patron)
Mine sweeper T-210 (Gak)
Mine sweeper T-211 (Rym)
Mine sweeper T-215
Mine sweeper T-218
The small vessels in the covering force were motor torpedo boats No. 33, 53, 91, and 101, MO-class patrol boats No. 207, 212, 213 and 510. The submarines M 98 and M 102 were in the covering force, but they were sent to patrol south from Helsinki.
The rear group was made of old destroyers and small patrol ships. The rear group was under command of rear admiral Rall.
Coastal patrol ship Burja
Coastal patrol ship Sneg
Coastal patrol ship Tsiklon
The small vessels in the rear group were motor torpedo boats No. 51 and 61, MO-class patrol boats No. 5, 195, 197, 204, 210, 211 and 232.
The first transport convoy sailed between islands Naissaar and Aegna at 12.15. A mine exploded in the sweeping gear of the first sweeper pair at 13.09 hours, four miles NW Aegna island. The second convoy passed Naissaar and Aegna at 15 hours and the third convoy 20 minutes later. The fourth convoy sailed at 14:15. The main force of Baltic Red Fleet weighed anchor and departed Tallinn harbor at 14.52 hours. It took the lead with the cruiser Kirov as flagship.
The Navy ships and convoys formed a line 15 miles long. The first convoy passed Keri island at 16 hours and was off Juminda peninsula at 1800 hours. Soon thereafter the ships sailed directly to the mines. The steamer Ella was first to sink. Then began German air attacks, artillery fire from Finnish coastal batteries and later in the evening torpedo attacks by German Schnellboots and Finnish patrol boats. All this caused confusion, the train of ships stretched and sailing through the 200 m wide swept channel became impossible. The sweeping equipment of many sweeper were damaged by explosions and drifting mines cut loose from moorings were great danger. The sunset was at 20.40 hours and at 22 hours the visibility was only a cable length. Warships were not giving much protection to merchant ships, as they were fully occupied with drifting mines.
On the evening of 28. August following ships were lost:
At 18.05 VT-530 (Ella) from the first convoy hit a mine and sank.
At 18.20 tug LP-5 (S-101) from the fourth convoy that tried to rescue people from Ella hit a mine and sank.
At 18.30 icebreaker Kristjanis Voldemars from the first convoy was sunk by bombs.
At 19.40 the minesweeper Nr. 71 (Krab) sailing in the first sweeper pair of the first convoy hit a mine and sank.
At 20.11 submarine S 5 hit a mine and sank in 40 seconds.
At 20.20 rescue vessel Saturn towing Vironia hit a mine and sank.
At 21.45 Vironia hit a mine and sank. Vironia from the first convoy was damaged by air attack 18.30 and taken to tow by Saturn from the fourth convoy.
At 20.30 gunboat I-8 hit a mine and sank.
At 20.48 submarine Щ 301 hit a mine and sank.
At 20.50 destroyer Jakov Sverdlov hit a mine and sank after 5-6 minutes.
At 21.57 transport Everita from the second convoy hit a mine and sank. The ship had drifted slightly too much south from the sweeped lane.
At 22.05 the minesweeper Nr. 56 (Barometr) sailing in the third sweeper pair of the first convoy hit a mine and sank.
At 22.15 coastal patrol ship Tsiklon from the rear group hit a mine and sank.
At 22.30 destroyer Skoryj from the covering force hit a mine and sank while towing the damaged flotilla leader Minsk.
At 22.45 destroyer Kalinin from the rear group hit a mine and sank.
At 23.00 destroyer Volodarskiy from the rear group hit a mine and sank.
At 23.05 destroyer Artyom from the rear group hit a mine and sank.
At 23.00 VT-518 (Luga) from the third convoy hit a mine. As no towing was possible, the master decided to scuttle the ship.
Barge TT-1 hit a mine and sank.
The armed tug OLS-7 disappeared during the night.
Other ships lost on 28.8. are:
VT-547 (Järvamaa) hit a mine and sank at 21.00 near Suursaari, or was mined and sank 29.8. at 17 hours west from Suursaari.
Hiiusaar was bombed.
Schooner Atta was torpedoed by Finnish VMV-17.
Before midnight the four convoys had to anchor in the middle of the barrage. The main force had sailed through the mine barrage and anchored north from Vaindlo. Flotilla leaders, four destroyers and few transports from I, II and IV convoys were north of Mohni lighthouse and the bulk of transports from the II and III convoys north from Juminda. On the morning of 29. August the ships continued their way. Bombers attacked again and sank several transport ships. Without air cover and anti-aircraft guns and their possibility to manoeuvre limited by mines, they were easy targets. During that day following ships were lost:
At 05.30 tug I-18 was captured by Finnish patrol boats.
At 05.30 tug Paldiski was captured by Finnish patrol boats.
At 06.51 a vessel sank in mine explosion, it might have been the salvage vessel of the third convoy, Kolyvan.
At 07.43 coastal patrol ship Sneg hit a mine and sank 30 minutes later.
At 08.39 a ship was sunk by mine.
At 08.41 another ship was sunk by mine. These two ships may have been transports Naissaar and Ergonautis from the second convoy.
At 09.06 VT-501 (Balkhash) from the third convoy hit a mine and sank.
At 12.30 VT-512 (Tobol) was sunk by bombs.
At 13.00 VT-546 (Ausma) was sunk by bombs.
At 15.00 VT-524 (Kalpaks) was sunk by bombs.
at 15.07 VT-520 (Evald) was sunk by bombs.
At 17.40 VT-563 (Atis Kronvaldis) was sunk by bombs.
At 18.10 tanker No 12 was sunk by bombs 5 miles east of Suursaari.
VT-529 (Skrunda) was hit 5 miles NW Vaindlo and the ship was scuttled 30.08.
VT-511 (Alev) was damaged by bombs and sank few miles west from Lavansaari.
VT-543 (Vtoraya Pyatiletka) was sunk by bombs.
A number of ships were beached at Suursaari during 29.8.:
The floating workshop Serp-i-molot was damaged by bombs and beached on southern end.
VT-505 (Ivan Papanin) was hit by bombs and the ship was run aground on west coast of Suursaari.
VT-581 (Lake Lucerne) run aground on south end of Suursaari after bomb damage.
VT-550 (Shauliai) was hit by bomb and towed to Suurkylä harbour on Suursaari.
The main naval forces arrived to Kronstadt in the afternoon of 29.8. The only transport that survived was Kazakhstan. The ship was damaged by bomb 29.8. at 07:15 near Vaindlo and it arrived to Kronstadt 2.9.
Zubkov summarizes the losses during Tallinn evacuation as:
22 navy vessels, these were 5 destroyers, 3 coast guard ships, 2 minesweepers, 2 submarines, one gunboat, one motor torpedo boat and 8 patrol boats.
43 other vessels, including 19 transports, one tanker, one ice breaker, a floating workshop, 7 tugs and two rescue vessels.
by Jari Aromaa.