Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance I

The Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo

October brought weeks of rain to the upper Isonzo valley, turning to sleet on the heights. Italian observers on both sides of the valley glimpsed the river through ragged gaps in the fog. One morning, they saw Habsburg soldiers move steadily up the valley, two abreast on the narrow road, towards the little town of Caporetto. No cause for alarm; they had to be prisoners marching to the rear. Otherwise …

For the Italians, the Twelfth Battle began as something unthinkable. By the time they realised what was happening, they were powerless to stop it. Cadorna liked to say that he led the greatest army in Italy since the Caesars. The last week of October 1917 turned this epic boast inside out; no single defeat in battle had placed Italy in such peril since Hannibal destroyed the Roman legions at Cannae, more than two thousand years before.

The unthinkable had a name: infiltration. On the other side of Europe, while Capello’s Second Army died in droves behind Gorizia, the German Eighth Army rewrote the tactical playbook. It happened on 1 September 1917, around the city of Riga, where the River Dvina flows into the Baltic Sea. Aiming to paralyse the Russian lines rather than demolish them, the preliminary bombardment was abrupt – no ranging shots – and deep, preventing the movement of reserves. Protected by a creeping barrage, the assault troops crossed the river upstream and took the Russians by surprise, punching through their lines from several angles, attacking the weak points without trying to overwhelm all positions at once. The Germans’ mobility and devolved command let them exploit this method to the full.

Their success did not emerge from a vacuum. Since early 1916, if not before, the warring commanders had searched for tactical norms that could, in Hew Strachan’s phrase, ‘re-establish the links between fire and movement which trench warfare had sundered’. Falkenhayn’s initial bid for breakthrough at Verdun sent stormtroopers ahead in groups after massive bombardments that had destroyed French communications. The Russians discovered other elements of infiltration with Brusilov’s brilliant offensive of May 1916. The British tested different attack formations, turning infantry lines into ‘blobs’ or, later, diamonds. Although there was no magic key, infiltration tactics emerged as a solution to attritional deadlock against defences that were ‘crumbling or incomplete’. This was the situation in the Riga salient, where the Russians were preparing to withdraw as the battle began, and the garrison in the city escaped. And it was certainly the situation on Cadorna’s upper Isonzo.

A week before the Riga operation, Emperor Karl wrote to the Kaiser ‘in faithful friendship’. The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ‘has led me to believe we should fare worse in a twelfth’. Austria wished to take the offensive, and would be grateful if Germany could replace Austrian divisions in the east and lend him artillery, ‘especially heavy batteries’. He did not ask for direct German participation; indeed he excluded it, for fear of cooling the Austrian troops’ rage against ‘the ancestral foe’. The Kaiser replied curtly and referred the request to Ludendorff. The German general staff had already assessed that the Austrians would be broken by the next Italian offensive, which they expected before the end of the year. If Austria-Hungary collapsed, as it probably would, Germany would be alone: an outcome that had to be prevented. Meanwhile the Austrian high command – ignoring the Emperor’s scruple – had separately suggested a combined offensive.

Ludendorff decided he could spare six to eight divisions until the winter. He dusted off Conrad’s idea for an offensive across the upper Isonzo between Tolmein and Flitsch. Hindenburg, the chief of the general staff, sent one of his most able officers to reconnoitre the ground. An expert in mountain warfare, Lieutenant General Krafft von Dellmensingen had served in the Dolomites in 1915 and seen the emergence of fast-moving assault tactics against Romania. He now prepared a plan to drive the Italian Second Army some 40 kilometres back from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento and perhaps beyond, depending on the breakthrough and its collateral impact on the lower Isonzo. It was not intended as a fatal blow; the Germans believed the Italians were so dependent on British and French coal, ore and grain that nothing short of total occupation – which was out of the question – could make them sue for peace. Success would be measured by Italy’s inability to attack again before the following spring or summer.

The first target was a wedge of mountainous territory, five kilometres wide between Flitsch and Saga (now Žaga) in the north, then 25 kilo metres long, from this line to the Austrian bridgehead at Tolmein. The little town of Caporetto lies midway between Saga and Tolmein, near a gap in the Isonzo valley’s western wall of mountains. This breach, leading to the lowlands of Friuli, gave Caporetto a strategic importance quite out of proportion to its size. This had been recognised a century earlier by Napoleon, when he warned his commander in Friuli that if the Austrians broke through here, the next defensible line was the River Piave. South of Caporetto, the valley is a kilometre wide; northwards, the river snakes through a gorge of cliffs and steep hillsides, then broadens again at Saga, where the river angles sharply eastwards. At Flitsch, the valley splays open like a bowl, flanked on the north by Mount Rombon.

Since Austrian military intelligence had cracked the Italian codes earlier in the year, the Central Powers were well informed about enemy dispositions in this labyrinth of ridges rising 2,000 metres, where communications were ‘as bad as could be imagined’. Krafft thought the Italian defences were so shallow that losing this wedge of ground could crack open the front from Gorizia to the Carnian Alps. Eight to 10 divisions at Tolmein and three more at Flitsch should suffice. As at Riga, the artillery would deliver a very violent bombardment, then support the assault by laying down box barrages to isolate enemy units.

Hindenburg created a combined Austro-German force for the purpose, the Fourteenth Army, led by a German general, Otto von Below, with Krafft as his chief of staff. Seven German divisions, all of high quality, would join the three Austrian divisions already on the ground plus an additional two from the Eastern Front, backed by a reserve of five divisions: a total of 17 divisions, supported by 1,076 guns, 174 mortars and 31 engineering companies. It was an Austrian general who proposed applying the new tactics. Alfred Krauss, appointed to command a corps at the northern end of the sector, argued that the attack should proceed along the valley floors, avoiding the high ridges in order to isolate and encircle them. He had made a similar proposal to Conrad in 1916, in vain. This time, his advice was taken. For Cadorna, obsessed with attacking high ground and retaining it at all costs, this proposition would have made no sense. Yet it was appropriate to the terrain north of Tolmein, where the mountain ranges loosely interlock, with the Isonzo threading between them.

The attack was scheduled for mid-October, leaving only five or six weeks to prepare. The roads from the assembly areas beyond the Alps were few and poor, especially from the north; two passes linked Flitsch to the Austrian hinterland, but the roads were narrow. Fortunately the Austrians had a railhead near Tolmein. Some 2,400 convoys brought 140,000 men, a million and a half artillery shells, three million fuses, two million flares, nearly 800 tonnes of explosive, 230,000 steel helmets, 100,000 pairs of boots, 60,000 horses. Then October brought its downpours. The sodden roads sagged under the ceaseless traffic of boots, wheels and hooves. By veiling the massive concentration, however, the bad weather served the Central Powers well. The Germans went to great lengths to keep their presence secret. Transports arrived by night, some units wore Austrian uniforms, others were taken openly to Trentino then secretly moved eastwards. Fake orders were communicated by radio. The Austrian lines on the Carso, 40 kilometres away, were ostentatiously weakened to deter the Italians from transferring men northwards. The German air force, brought in for the first time, photographed the Italian lines and prevented Italian planes from overflying the Austrian lines. The gunners bracketed their targets over a six-day period, to avoid alerting the enemy.

If the Italian observers noticed nothing unusual, this was partly because they expected the front to remain quiet until spring 1918. Austrian deserters talked about an attack in the offing, but their warnings were ignored. By the 24th, the Central Powers had a huge advantage in artillery, trench mortars, machine guns and poison gas on the upper Isonzo, and roughly a 3:2 superiority in men. The Germans crouched like tigers, ready to spring. As for the Austrians, far from being demoralised by sharing their front, they were inspired by the scale of German involvement. Without knowing the whole plan, the troops realised something big was up. The possibility of moving beyond the hated mountains stirred their hearts.

On 18 September, Cadorna put the forces on the Isonzo front on a defensive footing. Without ensuring that his order was implemented, he let himself be absorbed by other matters. He was incensed to discover that Colonel Bencivenga, his chef de cabinet until the end of August (and who was so unhelpful over the Carzano initiative), had criticised his command in high places in Rome. This mattered because Cadorna’s Socialist and Liberal critics were finally making common cause, preparing to challenge his command when parliament opened in mid-October.

He was also vexed by an article in an Austrian newspaper. Cadorna filed every press clipping about himself, with references underlined in crayon. Several months earlier, a Swiss journalist had written that the Austrian lines on the Isonzo were impregnable. After the Tenth Battle, Cadorna sent his card to the journalist with a sarcastic inscription: ‘With spirited compliments on such penetrating prophecies about the strength of the Austrian lines, and hopes that you will never desist from similar insights.’ The insecurity betrayed by this gesture swallowed more urgent priorities. Now he did it again. A provincial newspaper in the Tyrol had commented that Cadorna wasted the first month after Italy’s intervention in May 1915. This criticism was too painfully true to pass; Colonel Gatti had to prepare a rebuttal explaining to readers in Innsbruck that Cadorna had not wasted even a day. (Would his revered Napoleon have written to an English provincial newspaper to explain why he decided not to invade Britain?)

Then he went on holiday with his wife near Venice. The rain was so heavy that he returned early, on 19 October, ‘in excellent spirits: calm, rested, tranquil’. By this point, the Supreme Command had been aware for at least three weeks that an attack was imminent on the upper Isonzo. The presence of Germans was rumoured. Even so, Cadorna’s staff did not take the threat seriously. The Austrians had never launched a big offensive across the Isonzo; why would they do so now, with winter at the door?

As late as 20 October, Cadorna did not expect an Austrian offensive before 1918. On the 21st, two Romanian deserters told the Italians the place and time of the attack. They, too, were ignored. Next day, Cadorna escorted the King to the top of Mount Stol, one of the ridges above Caporetto that link the Isonzo valley to Friuli. They agreed there was no reason to expect anything exceptional. On the 23rd, he predicted there would be no major attack, and said the Austrians would be mad to launch operations out of the Flitsch basin. Even on the morning of the 24th, when the enemy bombardment was under way, Cadorna advised his artillery commanders to spare their munitions, in view of the attack on the Carso that would inevitably follow. Rarely has a commander been exposed so completely as the prisoner of his preconceptions. What Clausewitz called ‘the flashing sword of vengeance’ was poised above his head, and he was unaware. He had little idea what was going on in the minds of his own soldiers; imagining the enemy’s intentions was far beyond him.

At 02:00 on 24 October, the German and Austrian batteries opened up along the 30-kilometre front. The weight and accuracy of fire were unprecedented, smashing the Italian gun lines, observation posts and communications, ‘as if the mountains themselves were collapsing’. According to Krafft von Dellmensingen, even the German veterans of Verdun and the Somme had seen nothing like it. Rather than softening up the enemy, the purpose was to atomise the defence. It succeeded with terrible effect, helped by fog and freezing rain, and more significantly by Italian negligence. For the lines on the upper Isonzo were in a sorry state.

After 18 September, the Duke of Aosta put Cadorna’s order into effect on the Carso, placing the Third Army on the defensive. The lines after the Eleventh Battle were incomplete in many places and lacked depth in most. Batteries had to be moved to less vulnerable locations. Communications along and between the lines were poor, especially at the juncture of command areas; they had to be improved. These humdrum tasks also awaited the Second Army, by far the biggest Italian force, deployed between Gorizia and Mount Rombon. Yet its commander, General Capello, was reluctant; he convened his corps commanders and paid lip-service to ‘the defensive concept’ while urging them to hold ‘the spirit of the counter-offensive’ ever-present in their minds. Capello enjoyed a mystical turn of phrase, and what he meant here was not clear. Probably Krafft von Dellmensingen was right when he wrote in his memoirs that Capello had no idea what was meant by a modern defensive battle. He followed up with an order that his commanders must convince the enemy of ‘our offensive intentions’. Again, Capello wanted to go his own way, and again Cadorna shrank from confronting him.

This confusion was most harmful on the Tolmein–Rombon sector, which was woefully undermanned. Of the Second Army’s 30 divisions, comprising 670,000 men, only ten were deployed north of the Bainsizza plateau. The northern sector had seen little significant action since 1916, and the Supreme Command judged that the mountains formed their own defence. For the same reason, none of the Second Army’s 13 reserve divisions was located north of Tolmein. East of the Isonzo, the troops were concentrated in the front line, depriving the second and third lines of strength, while the mountainous terrain would make it difficult to bring reserves forward, even supposing they could be transferred in time to be effective.

Despite these defects, nothing much was done until the second week of October. By this time, Capello was laid low with a recurrent gastric infection and nephritis. Sometimes he relinquished command and retired to bed or to a military hospital in Padua. This did not improve the efficiency of his headquarters, however. With Capello breathing down his neck and the Supreme Commander ignoring him, the interim commander’s grip was less than assured.

Illness did not shake Capello’s conceit. On 15 October, he was still talking about ‘the thunderbolt of the counter-offensive’. Four more days elapsed before Cadorna unambiguously rejected his request for extra reserves to bolster a visionary operation to push the Austrians back by six kilometres. Another four days passed before Capello explicitly dropped the idea of a counter-offensive. He did not commit himself to Cadorna’s defensive design until late afternoon on 23 October: less than 12 hours before the start of the Twelfth Battle. Incredibly, Cadorna failed to see that the practical unity of his command had been compromised, perhaps beyond repair. There was no clenched fist in charge of the army, as his father had insisted there must be. His worst nightmare had come true, and he could not see it.

The weakest section of the front was strategically the most important, around the Tolmein bridgehead. Commands were blurred; brigades and regiments came and went, and commanding officers were shuffled like playing cards. On the Kolovrat ridge and Mount Matajur, many units that faced the German army on the afternoon of the 24th only reached their positions that morning.

On 10 October, Cadorna ordered the 19th Division to move most of its forces west of the Isonzo. This was significant, for the 19th straddled the valley at Tolmein. The lines in the valley bottom, and on the hills to the west, were in better shape than the lines further east. Cadorna saw that the distribution of men and guns favoured offensive action, and wanted this to be corrected without delay. As the 19th Division was part of XXVII Corps, responsibility for implementing this order lay with the corps commander, Pietro Badoglio. Since his men stormed the summit of Mount Sabotino in August 1916, Badoglio’s career had been meteoric, raising him from lieutenant colonel to general within a year, making him the best-known soldier in the country after Cadorna, Capello, the Duke of Aosta and D’Annunzio. Now, inexplicably, he waited 12 days before implementing Cadorna’s critical order. When the Germans attacked out of Tolmein, fewer than half of the division’s battalions were west of the river, with an even smaller proportion of its medium and heavy guns. Badoglio had ordered the valley bottom to be ‘watched’ (as distinct from defended) by a minimal force. He had also instructed the corps artillery commander not to open fire without his authorisation. Around 02:30 on 24 October, this commander called for permission to fire. Badoglio refused: ‘We only have three days’ worth of shells.’ By 06:30, the telephone link between the corps commander’s quarters and his artillery headquarters, five kilometres away, had been destroyed. The artillery commander stuck to his orders, so there was no defensive fire around Tolmein.

At the northern end of the sector, the Italians were tucked into strong positions along the valley bottom between Flitsch and Saga. If Krauss were to capture this stretch of the river and take the mountain ridge beyond Saga, the Italians had to be rapidly overwhelmed. After knocking out the Italian guns, the Germans fired 2,000 poison-gas shells into the Flitsch basin. The gas was a mixture of phosgene and diphenylchloroarsine; the Italian masks could withstand chlorine gas, but not this. Blending with fog, the yellowish fumes went undetected until too late. As many as 700 men of the Friuli Brigade died at their posts. Observers on the far side of the basin scanned the valley positions, saw soldiers at their posts, and reported that the attack had failed. The dead men were found later, leaning against the walls of their dug-outs and trenches, faces white and swollen, rifles gripped between stiff knees.

(In Udine, 40 kilometres from Flitsch, Cadorna rises at 05:00, as always, to find his boots polished and uniform ironed by his bedside. After breakfasting on milk, coffee and savoyard biscuits with butter, he writes the daily letter to his family. This morning, he remarks that the worsening weather favours the defence. He is, he adds, perfectly calm and confident. At the 06:00 briefing, he learns that the second line on the upper Isonzo is under heavy shelling. He interprets the fact that there has been no assault as support for his view that this attack is a feint, intended to divert attention from the Carso.)

Zero hour was 07:30. The Austrian units spread into the fogbound valley below Mount Rombon. There was not much fighting; the powerful batteries at the bend in the river, by Saga, had been silenced. In mid-afternoon, the Italian forward units on Rombon were ordered to fall back to Saga after dark. With Austrians above and below them, their position was untenable. After burning everything that could not be carried, the three alpini battalions traversed the northern valley slopes while their attackers felt their way south of the river.

The Austrians reached Saga at dawn on the 25th to find it empty: the Italians had pulled back overnight to higher ground. For Saga guards the entrance to the pass of Uccea, leading westward. The southern side of this pass is formed by Mount Stol. The Italians hoped to block access to the Uccea pass from positions on Stol. Daylight illumines the high ridges before the valleys emerge from shadow. The Austrians entering Saga would look up at the Italian positions on Stol, and know that very little stood between them and the plains of Friuli.

It was a spectacular day’s work by the Krauss Corps. At the other end of the wedge, around Tolmein, progress had been even more dramatic. As we move there, let us pause over the sharp ridges that radiate like spokes from Mount Krn, and look more closely at one of the batteries that stayed silent on 24 October.

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Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance II

The Italian third line between Flitsch and Tolmein ran along one of these ridges, called Krasji. One of the crags was occupied by an antiaircraft battery under Lieutenant Carlo Emilio Gadda, 5th Regiment of Alpini. No more eccentric character fought on the front. Later in life, he became modern Italy’s most original writer of fiction, the author of labyrinthine (and virtually untranslatable) novels that manage to be confessional and evasive, playful and melancholy, learned and rawly emotional all at once. His work weaves rich patterns of neurotic digression; the narrative escapes from a compelling, intolerable memory or emotion by fastening onto some unrelated motif which meanders helplessly back toward the source of pain, obliging the next brilliant deviation.

Born in Milan in 1893, Gadda broke off his studies in engineering to volunteer in 1915. He was an unhappy son of the repressed middle class, one of many in his generation for whom the war meant escape from claustrophobic homes, protective mothers, dull prospects and the general powerlessness of young men in a world ruled by grey beards and wing-collars. Idealistic, upright and naïve, distracted ‘to the point of cretinism’ as he said of himself, Gadda kept his real views on the war hidden from fellow officers and his men. For he was privately scathing about incompetent commanders, politicians and ‘that stuttering idiot of a King’. Nor was he sentimental about the other ranks; their low cunning (furberia) and lack of discipline would, he feared, lead the country to fail its first great test since unification. Yet he loved the comradeship and heroism of war, and dreaded returning to the muddles of civilian life. By October 1917, he had seen action in the Alps and on the Carso.1 He was perching on a crag above the Isonzo in October 1917 because he wanted to be there; he had let another officer take the spell of leave to which he was entitled.

Looking north, towards the enemy, Gadda would have seen the Italian first line on the opposite ridge, roughly two kilometres away. The second line was a thousand metres below, on the valley floor. On the map, it all looked convincing enough. In fact, the lines were extremely vulnerable. Word came down the wire from sector HQ at 02:00 on 23 October that enemy artillery fire would commence at once, beginning with gas shells. It did not happen; the sector stayed quiet all day, which Gadda and his 30 men – who had only recently arrived on their crag – spent in strengthening positions along the eastern ridge, leading to Krn. The weather had been bad for days, and that night the temperature dropped below zero.

They are awoken at 02:00 on the 24th by the ‘very violent’ bombardment of Flitsch, four or five kilometres north. Dawn breaks in thick fog and sleet, and is followed by enemy fire of pinpoint accuracy. Gadda realises that the Austrians want to break the telephone wire linking the batteries along the ridge. They soon succeed. The fog partly disperses, though it still shrouds the first and second lines. The men peer into it. No sounds reach them. Gadda interprets the eerie silence as proof that the Genoa Brigade, in front of them, is putting up a poor show. He worries about hitting his own forward lines if he opens fire in the fog. Several nerve-straining hours later, they hear machine guns further along their ridge towards Flitsch and glimpse men a few hundred metres away: either the Italians retreating or the Austrians giving chase.

Around 15:00, the small-arms fire is drowned out by massive detonations from the Isonzo valley, at their backs. This fills the men with dread. (The Italians are blowing up the munitions dumps and bridge at Caporetto before withdrawing.) Then silence settles again. (They do not know it, but their divisional commander has just ordered all the troops in their sector to fall back. Too late! The only bridges over the Isonzo have been blown or captured.) That night, the men lie down beside their machine guns, expecting the enemy to storm the ridge at every moment.

Further south, around Tolmein, zero hour on the 24th loosed an attack with several prongs. The main thrust was directed against high ground west of the Isonzo. Two German divisions and an Austrian division radiated out of the bridgehead and over the river, striking up the steep flanks and spurs that lead to the high ridges. Again the initial bombardment was highly effective, smashing the Italian cordon around the bridgehead. By nightfall, despite stiff resistance at some points, the attackers had captured the summits that Krafft identified as keys to Italian control.

North of Tolmein and east of the Isonzo, an Austrian division overran the fragile lines below the summit of Mount Mrzli, which the Italians had tried so hard to capture since 1915. With Badoglio’s artillery standing silent, the Italians were rolled back towards the valley bottom, where six German battalions advanced on both sides of the river, meeting little resistance. By noon, the rain had turned to sleet and the Germans occupied Kamno, a hamlet halfway to Caporetto.

Around midday, between Kamno and Caporetto, the Germans clashed with a platoon of the 14th Regiment, 4th Bersaglieri Brigade. One of the Italians involved in that firefight, Delfino Borroni, is the last Italian veteran of the Twelfth Battle, still alive at this time of writing. His regiment reached Cividale on the 22nd and marched through the rainy night to the second line. They got to Livek, overlooking the Isonzo, very early on the 24th. Wet and hungry, the men found a store of chestnuts in one of the buildings and roasted them over a fire. Corporal Borroni (b. 1898) gorged himself, and had to run outside at the double. As he crouched in the bushes, trousers round his knees, the commanding officer called his platoon to fall in. ‘Fix bayonets, boys, we’re going down!’ They crept towards the valley bottom in the darkness and waited for several hours, wondering what was going on. Eventually the Germans loom out of the mist. In Borroni’s memory, they are a grey swarm, a cloud. With the advantage of surprise, the Italians take them all prisoner: a detachment of some 80 men. The next German unit arrives at noon with machine guns and forces the Italians back up the hill to Livek.

At 12:15, as Borroni and his men are ducking the machine-gun fire near Caporetto, Cadorna is still asking how many guns the Second Army can spare for the Third Army, to parry the expected thrust on the Carso.

The enemy reaches the edge of Caporetto at 13:55. A few Italian officers try to stem the flood of troops retreating through the town. Those with rifles are pulled out of the crowd; the rest are allowed to go on their way, so as not to clog up the streets. When the men see this, they start throwing away their rifles. They look as if they hate the war more than the enemy. At 15:30, the retreating Italians blow the bridge over the Isonzo. Caporetto is captured half an hour later, along with 2,000 Italian prisoners. When German bugles sound in the main square, the Slovene citizens pour onto the street ‘to welcome their German liberators’     

The right flank of the force that attacked westwards out of Tolmein at 08:00 was formed by the Alpine Corps, a specialist mountain unit of division size, comprising Bavarian regiments and the Württemberg Mountain Battalion. The WMB included nine companies, staffed and equipped to operate autonomously.

During this tumultuous day, the Supreme Command receives essential information after hours of delay or not at all. By late morning, word reaches Udine through Capello’s headquarters that the enemy has attacked out of Tolmein. During the afternoon, dribs of news indicate that the Isonzo valley has been occupied and the hills west of Tolmein are falling like dominoes. Along the front, telephone lines go dead or are answered by guttural voices. Staff officers are in denial, and corps commanders start to trade blame. Capello orders his reserves to the front, unaware that any fresh forces will arrive too late to make a difference. (The speed of the enemy advance is still unimaginable.) Several divisions collapse. In some places, the reserves push their way to the line against a current of abusive comrades. Almost nothing of this is known at the Supreme Command, where Cadorna telegraphs all Second Army units: ‘The great enemy offensive has begun.’ The Supreme Command puts its trust in the heroic spirit of all commanders, officers and men, who will know how to ‘win or die’. But the Second Army officers do not know how to win, and the men do not want to die.

In Rome, parliament debates a Socialist motion for an official inquiry into alleged secret foreign funding of pro-war newspapers in 1914 and 1915. In the words of a Socialist deputy, ‘The country has the right to know if the hands of those who are responsible for the war, who incited it and urged it on, are filthy not with blood, but with money.’ In the late afternoon, the minister of war, General Giardino, takes the floor. The chamber is packed. Instead of defending the interventionist press, however, Giardino argues against an unrelated proposal to demobilise some of the older draft classes. After reading out parts of Cadorna’s bulletin about enemy preparations for an attack, he warns that this is not the time to reduce strength. The enemy is poised to exploit dissension. ‘Let them attack,’ he perorates, ‘we are not afraid.’ The deputies thunder approval. (The next day, Corriere della Sera reports that the delirium in parliament was like the heady days of May 1915.) Back at his ministry, Giardino finds an urgent telegram from Udine: the enemy are attacking Caporetto, they have taken thousands of prisoners and huge quantities of weapons.

Around 18:00, Gatti sees Cadorna ‘serene and smiling’ amid the tumult at the Supreme Command, still half-convinced the real attack will follow on the Carso. He reviews the daily bulletin, which claims that the enemy has concentrated his forces on the front for an attack which ‘finds us strong and well prepared’ – a phrase that makes Gatti wince. The Italian guns are responding with ‘violent salvoes’.

Cadorna does not know that the batteries have been silent all day. By 22:00, the scales are falling from his eyes. The Italians have been forced back to Saga and Kolovrat. Maybe 20,000 men have been captured. It is unlikely that the line can be held. He orders Capello to prepare the withdrawal of all forces on the Bainsizza plateau. Then he retires to take a strategic decision: should the Second Army retreat? Instead of assessing the situation on its merits, he lets hope persuade him that all may not be lost. He defines three new defensive lines, west of the Isonzo. On paper they look viable; in reality, even a highly disciplined army would be challenged to build secure positions while retreating through mountains. In a separate order, he instructs Capello and the Duke of Aosta to strengthen the defences on the River Tagliamento.

By now, some 14 infantry regiments and many battalions of alpini and bersaglieri have succumbed. As one of the staff officers milling around the Supreme Command, picking up snippets of news each more appalling than the last, Gatti cannot believe what he hears. ‘Monstrous,’ he writes helplessly in his diary, ‘inconceivable’. Surely he will wake tomorrow and find it is all a dream.

The skies cleared overnight, as wind thinned the fog and low cloud. Very few telephone lines were still working. Cadorna took solace in writing to his family: ‘If things go badly now, how they’ll pounce on me. What a wonderful country this is! Let God’s will be done.’ At 07:00, he ordered a withdrawal from Mount Korada, south of Tolmein. This was a strategic position, protecting the Bainsizza line and blocking enemy access to Friuli. He still hesitated to order a general retreat to the Tagliamento; he knew how fragile the rear defences were, and feared that the Third and Fourth Armies, and the Carnia Corps, might be cut off. At 08:30 he took Gatti aside. This might look like the Austrian attack in Trentino in spring 1916, he said, but it was much more serious. ‘Napoleon himself could not do anything in these conditions.’ He blamed the soldiers. ‘My personal influence cannot reach two million men,’ he protested. ‘Not even Napoleon could do that, in his Russian campaign.’  

In the north, the Krauss Corps pressed westwards to the pass of Uccea and south to join up with the Germans at Caporetto. Italian forces east of the Isonzo were trapped, whether they knew it or not. The night passed quietly for Lieutenant Gadda and his gunners on their crag, except for occasional explosions and flares in the valley behind them. Lacking information and orders, Gadda did not know what to think or do. Yesterday’s bombardment of their ridge was heavy, but he had survived much worse on the Carso. Their munitions were almost exhausted, so they could not expect to resist for long. Or might they use the fog to trick the Austrians into thinking the ridge was strongly defended? Gadda and his men could not know it, but they were victims of a perfect application of the Riga tactics. Isolated and confused, they could be left to surrender in their own time while the enemy pressed ahead.

Around 03:00 on the 25th, a messenger brings orders to retreat across the Isonzo. Caporetto has fallen: it is in enemy hands. Gadda leads his men down the mountain an hour later, carrying all their equipment, in complete darkness. ‘My heart was broken,’ he wrote later. Italian positions on the surrounding ridges are in flames. They pass groups of men from the Genoa Brigade with no officers, and hundreds of mules abandoned or killed in yesterday’s shelling. They reach the river around 11:00 and see Italian troops, unarmed, on the far side of the river, apparently heading for Caporetto. Can it still be in Italian hands after all, or has it been recaptured? His unit of 30 has grown to a thousand or so. Enemy troops are converging towards them, they have to cross the river which runs through a steep gorge, and is in spate, five or six metres wide and very fast, barring the way. Their dream of pushing Italy’s frontier beyond ‘this cursed Isonzo’ returns to mock them.

Ranging along the bank, they find a rickety bridge of planks lashed together with telephone wire, swaying over the torrent with a metal cable as railing. It would take all day to file across. He moves upstream, hoping the enemy has not broken through further north, towards Flitsch. Soldiers coming the other way tell him the next bridge upstream has been dropped. He cannot bear to believe them, and harangues them for spreading defeatist rumours. Then he sees the blown bridge and leads his men back to the plank bridge, their only hope.

There are troops in black uniforms on the far side of the river, moving up from Caporetto. His heart leaps: ‘Look! Reinforcements!’ Then he hears machine-gun and rifle fire, and realises the appalling truth: the Germans are on both sides of the river. Some soldiers try to cross the plank bridge and are targeted by machine guns concealed across the valley. The Italians throw their rifles away and cross the planks to surrender, obeying German officers who direct the movement of men with whistles, like football referees. The heap of rifles, machine guns, cartridge clips and ammunition belts at the water’s edge rises higher. Even if they hid until nightfall, Gadda’s unit would not be able to cross ‘the terrible, insuperable Isonzo’. It would be pointless to hold out, childish even. With a heavy heart, he orders his men to put their guns beyond use. They walk the plank one by one.

The prisoners are marched to Caporetto. The Germans treat them correctly; there is no brutality. A drunken Italian soldier drops his bottle of wine at the edge of the village, staining the dust crimson. Gadda and a fellow officer manage to steal some shirts and a uniform from abandoned houses. Later, he will wish he had stuffed his pockets with biscuit from an abandoned wagon. The Germans are setting up offices, using captured Italian staff cars as well as their own to move along the valley. Groups of soldiers wander around, German and Italian, some of them drunk. Dead men and mules litter the streets. It is a fine warm afternoon. Two whores stop them and ask for introductions to the German officers. Gadda’s gallant comrade asks the girls what plans they have now. ‘Italians or Germans,’ they say, ‘it is all the same to us!’ Their carefree answer mortifies Gadda, who realises that the day’s evil has not yet been drained.

Soon he is on his way to prison camp in Austria, ‘marching from midnight to 8 a. m.: horror, extremely sleepy and exhausted … The end of hope, annihilation of interior life. Extreme anguish for the fatherland.’ Capture is, above all, shameful. Over the next year, as he slowly starves, disgrace feeds on him. Reflecting endlessly on the defeat, he blames it on the Italian generals and their lack of foresight. Yet Gadda feels that prison is a justified punishment; the army has not risen to meet history’s challenge. Marches, battles and retreats haunt his sleep. He imagines family and friends reproaching him: ‘You let them get past … ’

During the morning of the 25th, an image of disaster emerged from the information reaching the Supreme Command: breakthroughs all along the front; morale collapsing; thousands of men making their way to the rear. The first towns west of the mountains were already threatened. Defence on the hoof was not working. Cadorna’s best if not only chance of avoiding catastrophe was to pull back the Second Army to a line far enough west to regroup before the enemy reached them. Capello advised a general retreat to the River Torre or the Tagliamento. When Cadorna disagreed, Capello took himself off to hospital in Padua. Next morning, he offered to return; Cadorna declined: he had enough on his plate without an ailing and probably sulking Capello. Where the two men saw eye to eye was in blaming many regiments for not doing their duty. Late in the afternoon, Cadorna wrote to his son: 

The men are not fighting. That’s the situation, and plainly a disaster is imminent … Do not worry about me, my conscience is wholly clean … I am very calm indeed and too proud to be affected by anything that anybody can say. I shall go and live somewhere far away and not ask anything of anyone.

By the end of the second day, the Central Powers controlled the Isonzo north of Tolmein. Mount Stol and the Kolovrat–Matajur ridge were on the point of falling. In the south, Badoglio had apparently abandoned his divisions after, or even before, they disintegrated, putting the middle Isonzo in jeopardy. The Duke of Aosta continued to prepare a retreat, moving his heavy batteries westward.

Still Cadorna procrastinated. He painted an encouraging view in the daily bulletin, claiming falsely that Saga had not fallen and that the enemy had made headway further south because Italian interdiction fire had been negated by fog. Then he telegraphed the government: ‘Losses are very heavy. Around ten regiments have surrendered without fighting. A disaster is looming, I shall resist to the last.’ Before this grim message reached Rome, the government lost a vote of confidence by 314 to 96 votes. The Socialists and anti-war Liberals had brought Boselli down. Cadorna predicted correctly that the new prime minister would be his main enemy in the cabinet, Vittorio Orlando.

Meanwhile soldiers streamed westwards, throwing away their rifles and chanting ‘The war’s over! We’re going home! Up with the Pope! Up with Russia!’ Around midnight Cadorna, Porro and the King were in a car together, returning to Udine from the front, when thousands of troops enveloped them, singing the ‘Internationale’ as they passed. Cadorna turned to his deputy: ‘Why doesn’t someone shoot them?’ Porro shrugged.

The fine weather, the enemy advance, the Italian rout, and Cadorna’s hesitancy all persisted throughout the 26th. Survivors of the Second Army were in full retreat; vast numbers of men funnelled through the few roads leading westwards, throwing away their weapons, burning whatever could not be carried, blowing up bridges and looting as they went: ‘infantry, alpini, gunners, endlessly’, as one of them remembered. ‘They move on, move on, not saying a word, with only one idea in their head: to reach the lowland, to get away from the nightmare.’ The hillsides below the roads were littered with wagons that had tumbled off the roads; ‘The horses lay still, alive or dead, hooves in the air.’

Civilians joined the stampede; the roads were clogged with carts, often drawn by oxen, piled high with chattels. The British volunteer ambulance unit watched the ‘long dejected stream’ pass along the road to Udine all day: ‘soldiers, guns, endless Red Cross ambulances, women and children, carts with household goods, and always more guns and more soldiers – all going towards the rear’. A British Red Cross volunteer saw how ‘the panic blast ran through the blocked columns – “They’re coming!”’ The command made no apparent effort to control the movement or clear the roads for guns and troops.

Caporetto: The Flashing Sword of Vengeance III

Cadorna issued an order of the day, warning that the only choice was victory or death. The harshest means would be used to maintain discipline. ‘Whoever does not feel that he wins or falls with honour on the line of resistance, is not fit to live.’ He elaborated his instructions to the Second and Third Armies for an eventual retreat, and put the Carnia Corps and the Fourth Army on notice to retire beyond the River Piave.

What forced his hand was the loss that evening of Gran Monte, a summit west of Stol. At 02:50 on the 27th, he ordered the Third Army to retreat to the River Tagliamento. The same order went out to the Second Army an hour later. Yet 20 of the Second Army’s divisions were still in reasonable order, withdrawing from the Bainsizza and Gorizia. Cadorna’s priority should have been the safe retirement of these divisions – more than 400,000 men – behind the River Tagliamento. In his mind, however, the Second Army in its entirety was guilty. Perhaps this explains his decision to make the Second Army use only the northern bridges across the Tagliamento, reserving the more accessible routes for the ten divisions of the Third Army, which retreated ‘in good order, unbroken and undefeated’, burning the villages as well as its own ammunition dumps as it went, so that ‘the whole countryside was blazing and exploding’. This question of the bridges was critical, for the bed of the Tagliamento is up to three kilometres wide and the river was high after the rain, hence impassable by foot.

Between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento, the decomposing Second Army was left to its own devices. In the absence of proper plans for a retreat, there was nothing to arrest its fall. As commanding officers melted away in the tumult, key decisions were taken by any officer on hand, using his own impressions and whatever scraps of information came his way. According to a captain who testified to the Caporetto commission, the soldiers appeared to think the war was over; they were on their way home, mostly in high spirits, as if they had found the solution to a difficult problem.

A minor episode described in a letter to the press in 1918 illustrates the point. A lieutenant told the surviving members of his battalion that they would counter-attack soon, orders were on the way. Instead of orders, a sergeant came cycling along the road. When they stopped him and asked what was going on, he said the general and all the other bigwigs had run away.

‘Then we’re going too,’ someone said, and we all shouted ‘That’s right, we have had enough of the war, we’re going home.’ The lieutenant said ‘You’ve gone mad, I’ll shoot you’, but we took his pistol away. We threw our rifles away and started marching to the rear. Soldiers were pouring along the other paths and we told them all we were going home and they should come with us and throw their guns away. I was worried at first, but then I thought I had nothing to lose, I’d have been killed if I’d stayed in the trenches and anything was better than that. And then I felt so angry because I’d put up with everything like a slave till now, I’d never even thought of getting away. But I was happy too, we were all happy, all saying ‘it’s home or prison, but no more war’.

All along the front, variants on this scene convey a sense that a contract had been violated, dissolving the army’s right to command obedience. Nearly 400 years before, in his ‘Exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians’, Niccolò Machiavelli had warned his Prince that ‘all-Italian armies’ performed badly ‘because of the weakness of the leaders’ and the unreliability of mercenaries. The best course was ‘to raise a citizen army; for there can be no more loyal, more true, or better troops’. They are even better, he added, ‘when they find themselves under the command of their own prince and honoured and maintained by him’. Machiavelli the great realist would not have been surprised by the size of the bill that Cadorna was served after dishonouring his troops so consistently, and neglecting their maintenance so blatantly, for two and a half years.

On the third day of the offensive, the Austrians and Germans gave the first signs that they would not convert a brilliant success into crushing victory. Demoted in spring 1917 from chief of the general staff to commander on the Tyrol front, Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf had to sit and watch as von Below’s Fourteenth Army turned the tables on the hated enemy. Now he called for reinforcements so he could attack the Italian left flank. At best, Cadorna’s Second, Third and Fourth Armies and Carnia Corps would be trapped behind a line from Asiago to Venice, perhaps forcing Italy to accept an armistice. At the least, the Italians would be too distracted by the new threat to establish viable lines on the River Tagliamento.

Although Conrad’s reasoning was excellent, the Germans were not ready to increase their commitment or let the Austrians pull more divisions from the Eastern Front. Any Habsburg units which might be released by Russia’s virtual withdrawal from the war had to be sent to the Western Front, where the Germans were hard pressed by the British in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). All Conrad got were two divisions and a promise that any others no longer needed on the Isonzo would be sent to the Trentino for an offensive by five divisions, to commence on 10 November. But five divisions were pathetically few for the task, and 10 November would be too late.

Cadorna’s enemies had not expected such a breakthrough. As late as the 29th, Ludendorff stated that German units would not cross the Tagliamento. By this point, Boroević’s First Army (on the Carso) and Second Army (around the Bainsizza) should have been storming after the Italian Third Army. This did not happen, due to bad liaison between commanders, exhaustion, and the temptations of looting. As a result, the Third Army crossed the Tagliamento in good order at the end of October. Both divisions of the Carnia Corps also reached safety with few losses. Von Below would characterise the Austrian Tenth Army, that should have outflanked the Carnia Corps, as not ‘very vigorous in combat’.

On the afternoon of the 27th, the Supreme Command decamped from Udine to Treviso. Cadorna did not leave a deputy to organise the retreat. Was this an oversight or a logical expression of his belief that he was irreplaceable? Or was he punishing soldiers who had, as he believed, freely chosen not to fight? Let the cowards and traitors of the Second Army make their own shameful ways to the Tagliamento; they had forfeited the right to assistance.

By the following morning, the Supreme Command was installed in a palazzo in Treviso, more than 100 kilometres from the front. Over breakfast in his new headquarters, the chief talked about the art and landscape of Umbria, impressing his entourage with his serenity, a mood that presumably owed something to the King’s and the government’s affirmations of complete confidence in his leadership. (Meanwhile the enemy reached the outskirts of Udine, finding them ‘almost deserted with broken windows, plundered shops, dead drunk Italian soldiers and dead citizens’.) Before lunch Cadorna released the daily bulletin, blaming the enemy breakthrough on unnamed units of the Second Army, which had ‘retreated contemptibly without fighting or surrendered ignominiously’. Realising how incendiary these allegations were, the government watered down the text. It was too late: the original version had gone abroad and was already filtering back into Italy.

Late on the 28th, the enemy crossed the prewar border into Italy. The Austrian military bulletin was gleeful: ‘After five days of fighting, all the territory was reconquered that the enemy had laboriously taken in eleven bloody battles, paying for every square kilometre with the lives of 5,400 men.’ The Isonzo front ceased to exist. By the 29th, the Second and Third Armies were being showered with Austrian leaflets about Cadorna’s scandalous bulletin. ‘This is how he repays your valour! You have shed your blood in so many battles, your enemy will always respect you … It is your own generalissimo who dishonours and insults you, simply to excuse himself!’

An order on 31 October authorised any officer to shoot any soldier who was separated from his unit or offered the least resistance. This made a target of ten divisions of the Second Army. The worst abuses occurred near the northern bridges over the Tagliamento, where commanders who had abandoned their men days earlier saw a chance to redeem themselves.

The executions at Codroipo would provide a climactic scene in the only world-famous book about the Italian front: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The wooden bridge was nearly three-quarters of a mile across, and the river, that usually ran in narrow channels in the wide stony bed far below the bridge, was close under the wooden planking … No one was talking. They were all trying to get across as soon as they could: thinking only of that. We were almost across. At the far end of the bridge there were officers and carabinieri standing on both sides flashing lights. I saw them silhouetted against the skyline. As we came close to them I saw one of the officers point to a man in the column. A carabiniere went in after him and came out holding the man by the arm … The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on … They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops … So far they had shot everyone they had questioned.

The narrator is Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American volunteer with the Second Army ambulance unit. Caught up in the retreat from the Bainsizza, he is arrested on the bridge as a German spy. As he waits his turn with the firing squad, Henry escapes by diving into the river. ‘There were shots when I ran and shots when I came up the first time.’ He is swept downstream, away from the front and out of the war. Immersion in the Tagliamento breaks the spell of his loyalty to Italy. ‘Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation … I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honour. I was not against them. I was through … it was not my show any more.’

The deaths in Hemingway’s chapter on Caporetto involve Italians killing each other. The enemy guns are off-stage, heard but not seen, while German troops are glimpsed from a distance, moving ‘smoothly, almost supernaturally, along’ – a brilliant snapshot of Italian awe. Henry shoots and wounds a sergeant who refuses to obey orders; his driver, a socialist, then finishes the wounded man off (‘I never killed anybody in this war, and all my life I’ve wanted to kill a sergeant’). The driver later deserts to the Austrians, a second driver dies under friendly fire, then there is the scene at the Tagliamento. It is a panorama of internecine brutality and betrayal, devoid of heroism. With the army self-destructing, nothing makes sense except Henry’s passion for an English nurse. Caporetto is much more than a vivid backdrop for a love story: it is an immense allegory of the disillusion that, in Hemingway’s world, everyone faces sooner or later. Henry’s desertion becomes a grand refusal, a nolo contendere untainted by cowardice, motivated by a disenchantment so complete that it feels romantic: a new, negative ideal which holds more truth than all the politics and patriotism in the world.

By 1 November, there were no Italian soldiers east of the Tagliamento. Cadorna had hoped to hold the line long enough to regroup much of the Second Army. Instead, early next day, an Austrian division forced its way across a bridge on the upper Tagliamento that had not been completely destroyed. This gave heart to a German division trying to ford the river further south. When both bridgeheads were consolidated, Cadorna faced the danger that most of his Second Army and all of his Third Army could be enveloped from the north. On the morning of 4 November, he ordered a retreat to the Piave line. The Austro-German commanders redefined their objectives: the Italians should be driven across the River Brenta – beyond Venice! However, Ludendorff was not yet convinced. By the time he changed his mind, on 12 November, approving a combined attack from the Trentino, the Italians had stabilised a new line on the River Piave and Anglo-French divisions were arriving from the Western Front.

Haig commented privately on 26 October that, ‘The Italians seem a wretched people, useless as fighting men but greedy for money. Moreover, I doubt whether they are really in earnest about this war. Many of them, too,’ he added for good measure, ‘are German spies.’ Although these prejudices were widely shared in London and France, the Allies were shocked by the speed of the disintegration and alarmed at its potential impact: if Italy were to be neutralised along with Russia, Austria would be free to support Germany on the Western Front. On 28 October, with Friuli ‘ablaze from end to end’, Britain and France agreed to send troops. Robertson and Foch, the respective chiefs of staff, offered six divisions: hardly enough to bail out their ally, but sufficient to bolster the defence and buy London and Paris political leverage that could be used to unseat the generalissimo.

The deed was done at an inter-Allied meeting in Rapallo, on 6 November. General Porro’s presentation dismayed the British and French; his vagueness about the facts of the situation and his pessimism confirmed that change at the top was overdue. There was even talk of retreating beyond the Piave to the River Mincio, losing the whole of the Veneto. In a stinging rebuff to the Supreme Command, and specifically to Cadorna’s allegations of 28 October, the British stated that they were ready to trust their troops to the bravery of the Italian soldiers but not to the efficiency of their commanders. When Porro tried to speak, Foch told him to shut up. On behalf of Britain and France, Lloyd George insisted on ‘the immediate riddance of Cadorna’. This gave cover to Orlando’s government of ‘national resistance’, which wanted Cadorna to go but feared a showdown. In return for an Italian pledge to hold the line on the Piave, the British and French increased their promised support to five and six divisions respectively.

As the flood of Italian troops ebbed towards the Piave and the Supreme Command reasserted control over shattered units, the Central Powers made errors. Instead of striking from the north-west as von Below and Boroević swept in from the east, Conrad’s underpowered army advanced to the southern edge of the Asiago plateau and no further. The Krauss Corps was sent north to secure Carnia instead of pursuing the Italians westward.

After the war, Hindenburg described his disappointment over Caporetto. ‘At the last the great victory had not been consummated.’ Krauss accused Boroević of failing to clinch victory over the Third Army. These recriminations reflect the bitterness of overall defeat in the World War, which made Caporetto look like a missed opportunity. Piero Pieri, the first notable historian of the Italian war, put his finger on the problem: the Central Powers had, on this occasion, lacked ‘the annihilating mentality’.

King Victor Emanuel had his finest hour on 8 November, rising to the moment with a speech affirming his faith in Italy’s destiny. That day, the Second and Third Armies completed their crossing of the River Piave, which was running high after heavy rain. At noon on the 9th, the engineers dropped the bridges.

The new line lay some 150 kilometres west of the Isonzo. The fulcrum of the line was a rugged massif called Grappa, some 20 kilometres square. If Grappa fell, the Italians would be vulnerable both from the north and the east. After the Austrian attack of May and June 1916, Cadorna had planned to fortify Mount Grappa with roads, tunnels and trenches. In effect it was the fifth defensive line from the Isonzo. Engineering in mountainous terrain was what the Italian army did best, yet these works were hardly in hand when the Twelfth Battle began: a single track and two cableways to the summit, a water-pumping station, some barbed wire, and gun emplacements facing the wrong way (westwards).

When the Krauss Corps and then von Below’s Fourteenth Army hit the Grappa massif in mid-November, like the last blows of a sledgehammer, the Italians were almost knocked back onto the plains. Conrad quipped that they hung on to the south-western edge of Grappa like a man to a window-ledge. The Supreme Command packed 50 battalions onto Grappa – around 50,000 men, including many recruits from the latest draft class. The ensuing struggle was a battle in itself; the situation was only saved at the end of December, with timely help from a French division – the Allies’ sole active contribution to the defence after Caporetto. This achievement gave birth to two new, much-needed myths: the defence of Mount Grappa was acclaimed as a victory that saved the kingdom, and the ‘boys of ’99’, sent straight from training to perform miracles, proved that Italian fighting mettle was alive and well.

Foch and Robertson would have preferred the Duke of Aosta to replace Cadorna. This was said to be inappropriate because the Duke was a cousin of the King; in truth, it was impossible because Victor Emanuel loathed his tall, handsome cousin. So they accepted the government’s proposal of General Armando Diaz, with Badoglio and Giardino as joint deputies.

Diaz, a 57-year-old Neapolitan, had risen steadily through the ranks. After the Libyan war, in which he showed a rare talent for winning the affection and respect of his regiment, he served as General Pollio’s chef de cabinet. After a year in the Supreme Command, he asked to be sent to the front, where his calm good humour was noticed by the King, among others. He led the XXIII Corps on the Carso with no particular distinction. A brother general described him as a fine man and a good soldier but completely adaptable, ‘like pasta’, with no ideas of his own. Cadorna’s court journalists scoffed at the appointment, and Gatti was withering (‘Who knows Diaz?’).

Diaz would vindicate the King’s trust. News of his promotion, on 8 November, struck him like a bolt of lightning. Accepting the ‘sacred duty’, he said: ‘You are ordering me to fight with a broken sword. Very well, we shall fight all the same.’ And fight he did, though in a different way from his predecessor. He proved to be an exceptional administrator and skilful mediator, reconciling the government and the Supreme Command to each other, and rival generals to his own appointment. Journalists were told that ‘with this man, there will be no dangerous independence. State operations will be kept united at all times.’ In other words, no more ‘government in Udine’. His first statement to the troops urged them to fight for their land, home, family and honour – in that order. He was what the army and the country needed after Cadorna, and while he showed no brilliance as a strategist, he made no crucial mistakes and took the decisions that led to victory.

On 7 November, hosting his last supper at the Supreme Command, Cadorna addressed posterity over the plates: ‘I, with my will and my fist, created and sustained this organism, this army of 3,000,000 men, until yesterday. If I had not done it, we would never have made our voice heard in Europe …’ Early the following day, the King arrived to persuade Cadorna to leave quietly. They conferred for two hours. Cadorna knew he could not survive, yet the humiliation was too much. There was no graceful exit. Diaz arrived late that evening. When he presented a letter from the minister of war announcing his appointment as chief of staff with immediate effect, Cadorna broke off the meeting and telegraphed the minister: he would not go without a written dismissal. The order arrived early next morning. A new regime took over at the Supreme Command.

The phrase ‘doing a Cadorna’ became British soldiers’ slang for coming unstuck, perpetrating an utter fuck-up and paying the price.

The statistics of defeat were dizzying. The Italians lost nearly 12,000 dead, 30,000 wounded and 294,000 prisoners. In addition, there were 350,000 disbanded men, roaming around or making for home. Only half of the army’s 65 divisions survived intact, and half the artillery had been lost: more than 3,000 guns, as well as 300,000 rifles, 3,000 machine guns, 1,600 motor vehicles and so forth. Territorially, some 14,000 square kilometres were lost, with a population of 1,150,000 people.

The Austro-German offensive was prepared with a meticulousness that the Supreme Command could hardly imagine. The execution, too, was incomparably efficient. Cadorna’s general method, as he once explained to the King, was to use as many troops as possible along a sector as broad as possible, hoping the enemy lines would crack somewhere. The Italian insistence on retaining centralised control at senior levels was also archaic beside the German devolution of authority to assault team level. Caporetto was the outcome when innovative tactics were expertly used against an army that was, in doctrine and organisation, one of the most hidebound in Europe.

The Twelfth Battle was a Blitzkrieg before the concept existed. An Austrian officer who fought in the Krauss Corps described the assault on 24 October as a fist punching through a barrier, then unclenching to spread its fingers. This is very like a recent description of Blitzkrieg as resembling ‘a shaped charge, penetrating through a relatively tiny hole in a tank’s armor and then exploding outwardly to achieve a maximum cone of damage against the unarmored or less protected innards’. Those innards had, in the Italian case, been weakened by a combination of savage discipline, mediocre leadership, second-rate equipment and arduous terrain. Without this debilitation, the Second Army would not have collapsed almost on impact.

Naturally, Cadorna could not see or accept that he had undermined the troops. But he knew that others would make this charge, which is why he launched, pre-emptively, the self-serving myth that traitors and cowards were responsible for the defeat. This myth became Cadorna’s most durable legacy, thanks in part to a prompt endorsement by Leonida Bissolati, the cabinet minister. Adding a nuance to Cadorna’s lie, Bissolati claimed that a sort of ‘military strike’ had taken place. Probably he was scoring points against his rivals on the political left; instead he deepened a stain on the army that still lingers. By likening the events on the Isonzo to the recent workers’ protests in Turin, Bissolati put a political complexion on the defeat. The ease with which discipline was restored by the end of 1917 would have scotched these allegations if it had not suited Italy’s leaders to keep them alive. It also suited the Allies, who wanted to minimise the responsibility of their Italian colleagues and had their own doubts about Italian martial spirit. Ambassador Rodd and General Delmé-Radcliffe parroted the conspiracy theory in their reports to London. For the historian George Trevelyan, leading the British Red Cross volunteers who retreated with the Third Army, there was ‘positive treachery at Caporetto’; Cadorna’s infamous bulletin had told the salutary truth. For the novelist John Buchan, working as a senior propagandist in London, treachery had ‘contributed to the disaster’, for a ‘secret campaign was conducted throughout Italy’ in 1917, producing a ‘poison’ that ‘infected certain parts of the army to an extent of which the military authorities were wholly ignorant’.

For some, a more dreadful possibility underlay these accusations. Was ‘Italy’ a middle-class illusion? Instead of forging a stronger nation-state, the furnace of war had almost dissolved it. What would happen at the next test? Disaffection with the state might be wider and deeper than they had thought possible. Had the mass of Italians somehow been left out of the nation-building process? If so, what further disasters still lay in store? It was a moment when everything solid seemed to melt away. The philosopher Croce, usually imperturbable to a fault, wrote during the Twelfth Battle: ‘The fate of Italy is being decided for centuries to come.’ Even politicians who did not swallow the ‘military strike’ thesis, and knew that Socialist members of parliament were too patriotic to want peace at any price, feared the outcome if popular disaffection became politically focused. After all, Lenin had taken power in Russia in early November. For weeks after Caporetto, many officials believed that revolution or sheer exhaustion would force Italy out of the war.

This mood of shaken self-questioning subsided as the army was rebuilt in late 1917 and early 1918. It would be driven underground, into the national unconscious, first by the victories of 1918, then by Fascist suppression. Yet those who took part never forgot the fearful dreamlike days when the world turned upside down. For the essence of Caporetto lay in the wrenching uncertainty of late October, when the commanders did not know what was happening, the officers did not know what to do, the soldiers did not know where the enemy was, the government did not know if Italy was on the brink of losing the war, and ordinary citizens did not know if their country might cease to exist. All Italians dreamed that dream; the nation was haunted by an image of men fleeing the front in hundreds of thousands, throwing away their rifles, overcome by disgust with the army, the state and all its works, wanting nothing more (or less) than to go home. When the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti wrote in the 1920s that the Italians were still ‘a people of stragglers, not yet a nation’, he evoked that fortnight when the country threatened to come apart at the seams.

Under Mussolini, the myth of a military strike was discouraged; it undermined the Fascists’ very different myth of the war as the foundation of modern Italy, a blood rite that re-created the nation. The fact of defeat at Caporetto had to be swallowed: a sour pill that could be sweetened by blaming the government’s weakness. Fascist accounts of the Twelfth Battle tended to whitewash Cadorna and defend the honour of the army (‘great even in misfortune’) while incriminating Capello and indicting the government in Rome for tolerating defeatists, profiteers and bourgeois draft-dodgers. Boselli (‘tearful helmsman of the ship of state’) and his successor Orlando were particularly lampooned. One valiant historian in the 1930s turned the narrative of defeat inside out by hailing Caporetto as a deliberate trap set and sprung by Cadorna, ‘the greatest strategist of our times’. The Duce himself called Caporetto ‘a reverse’ that was ‘absolutely military in nature’, produced by ‘an initial tactical success of the enemy’. Britain and France could also be condemned for recalling, in early October 1917, most of the 140 guns they had lent Cadorna earlier in the year. Even so, the defeat was not to be examined too closely. When Colonel Gatti wanted to write a history of Caporetto, in 1925, Mussolini granted access to the archives in the Ministry of War. Then he had second thoughts; summoning Gatti to Rome, he said it was a time for myths, not history. After 1945, leftist historians argued that large parts of the army had indeed ‘gone on strike’, not due to cowardice or socialism, but as a spontaneous rebellion against the war as it was led by Cadorna and the government.

That primal fear of dissolution survives in metaphor. Corruption scandals are still branded ‘a moral Caporetto’. Politicians accuse each other of facing an ‘electoral Caporetto’. When small businesses are snarled up in Italy’s notorious red tape, they complain about an ‘administrative Caporetto’. When England lost to Northern Ireland at football, it was ‘the English Caporetto’. This figure of speech stands for more than simple defeat; it involves a hint of stomach-churning exposure – rottenness laid bare.

The Battle of Cheriton I

On the night of 28 March 1644 the Parliamentary army lay encamped close to the Petersfield–Winchester road, the Royalists a mile and a half or so to the north, but with an advance guard of brigade strength on the southern spur of the arena under the command of George Lisle. The number of cavalry in each army was very similar. Waller and Balfour had about 3,000 horse, but the Royalists may have had 200 or so more. In infantry, however, the Parliamentary generals had a distinct numerical advantage, and this was to have a very significant effect on the course and outcome of the battle. Adair accepts Sir Arthur Haselrig’s estimate of 7,000 musketeers and pikemen, but this seems very much on the large size. Using Adair’s own estimates of the strengths of the seven infantry regiments that fought at Cheriton, 5,000 to 5,500 would be a more credible estimate. In addition Waller and Balfour had two regiments of dragoons, size unknown. According to Hopton, he and Forth had 3,200 foot soldiers. They comprised his own troops 2,000 strong, and 1,200 that Forth had brought with him from Oxford. Sir William Ogle described the Oxford contingent as the Queen’s forces, that is infantry Henrietta Maria had brought from the north in May and July 1643, but it apparently included a contingent from the Oxford garrison, and also some troops from the Reading garrison, as George Lisle was colonel of one of the regiments stationed there.

The encounter stage of the battle, which began early the following morning as soon as the mist cleared, was initially an extension of the feint and counter-feint that had characterized the previous day’s skirmishing. Roe claimed that the general officers and colonels had decided to retreat at a council of war held on the evening before the battle, but Waller and Balfour seem to have decided to stand their ground, not to retreat. However, there remains a slight element of doubt. Balfour’s use of language in his post-battle report can be read as an attempt to pre-empt any rumours that the initial decision had been to retreat rather than to defend the Hinton Ampner ridge: ‘We having taken a resolution (by reason of your Excellency’s and the Committee of Both Kingdom’s commandments) to be wary and cautious to engage ourselves in a fight with the enemy but on advantage, yet we finding them resolved to put us to it …’. Possibly a decision to retreat had been overtaken by events if, as Roe suggests, energetic patrolling during the night by Birch’s regiment made it impossible to separate the two armies the following day. On the other hand the occupation of Cheriton Wood suggests resolution, not indecision, unless, of course, the intention was not to encourage Lisle’s advance guard to fall back but to secure the left flank of the Parliamentary army as it retreated towards Petersfield.

The force in Cheriton Wood was made up of 1,000 musketeers from Colonel Potley’s and the White regiment of the London Trained Bands supported by a regiment of horse and two pieces of regimental artillery. Waller and Balfour had also sent another body of musketeers to defend Harley’s little village that commanded the pass between the far end of the southern spur of the arena and the high ground on the west bank of the River Itchen. This may also be seen as a move to secure the other flank of the army in case the Royalists, denied the chance of attacking its right wing by the forces in Cheriton Wood, launched an assault against the left wing instead.

Cheriton Wood lay to the right of George Lisle’s position, but overlooking and flanking the southern spur of the arena along which the Royalists intended to deploy if, the wood was smaller than it is today. It was not until the mist began to lift, about two hours after sunrise according to Hopton, that the Royalist generals became aware of what had happened, but continuing with the policy of aggressive defence they had employed throughout the short campaign, they almost certainly moved the entire Royalist army forward to the southern ridge to support Lisle’s brigades of horse and foot. The line of battle extended from the end of the ridge adjacent to Cheriton to a point some way to the east where their troops were within range of Waller’s musketeers in Cheriton Wood. Hopton’s infantry occupied the part of the line nearest to the wood, Forth’s that nearest to Cheriton, but Hopton took care to draw up his infantry and cavalry in dead ground, possibly on the slope of the middle ridge where they could not be shot at by the enemy in the wood. Where the rest of the Royalist horse were deployed at this time in the morning is uncertain, but they are unlikely to have been on the right flank of the army. The valley of the Itchen and the arena were full of enclosures, and thus most unsuitable for cavalry fighting. It can therefore be assumed that the cavalry brigades were drawn up somewhere to the east, but in a position from which they could be brought quickly forward to harry the enemy army as it retreated. Sir John Smith had apparently been sent orders the night before to be ready to lead the pursuit with 1,000 horse.

After the Royalist army had been put into battle formation, Hopton apparently ordered 1,000 musketeers from his own corps under Colonel Matthew Appleyard to expel the enemy from Cheriton Wood. However, on emerging onto the open hillside from the dead ground, the fire they experienced from the western edge of the wood was so intense that there was every possibility that they would be forced to fall back if they remained where they were. Hopton therefore ordered one of Appleyard’s four divisions to move up the dry valley between the middle and northern spurs of the arena and attack Cheriton Wood from the north or the north-west with artillery support. This would have been easy to arrange if, as seems likely, the train of artillery was using Bramdean Lane to move from Sutton Down to the southern spur of the arena.

This assault from an unanticipated direction supported by cannon fire was too much for the brigade defending Cheriton Wood. It quickly took to its heels, but not so quickly as to necessitate the abandonment of its artillery pieces. There were few casualties, but Colonel George Thompson, the commander of the cavalry, may have had his leg shattered by a cannon ball at this point rather than later in the battle. The Royalists probably gained the impression that a disorderly withdrawal was getting under way, as ‘we could discern several companies of thirty, of forty, and more in some, running over the fields in the rear of their army half a mile and as well discern their horses spanned in their carriages and to their artillery’. Hopton claimed that he was keen to take advantage of the confusion by launching an attack from the environs of Cheriton Wood against the rear of Waller’s army with 1,000 foot and 1,000 horse. Forth, however, advised against it and Hopton claims to have been ‘very satisfied’ to accept his opinion.

The Lord General would have had good reason for waiting on events. With their left flank now totally secure, the Royalists’ position on the southern spur of the arena was so strong that the enemy were almost caught in a trap. In order to escape from it, Balfour and Waller had a number of choices any one of which could have ended in disaster. They are unlikely to have considered advancing down the Petersfield road towards Winchester, as their army’s march would have been across open downland with no protection against the enemy. Taking a more southerly route towards the city, on the other hand, would have involved moving across difficult country, more downland but interspersed with wooded valleys, where they could easily fall into a trap sprung by the Royalist cavalry operating with infantry support. Moreover, in both cases the enemy’s falling in behind them would have completely cut their best line of retreat back into Sussex. Other alternatives were little better. They could have ordered a general attack, but to do so most of their troops would have had to move across open ground towards an enemy drawn up in an excellent defensive position. Alternatively they could have fallen back towards Petersfield, which risked the army falling into disorder and brigades being cut off and destroyed.

However, there was probably another reason for Lord Forth’s caution, though it is not mentioned in any of the Royalist accounts, namely the disparity in numbers between the force he and Hopton commanded and the one led by Waller and Balfour. The Royalist generals would have been well aware of this, as they had a very good view of the whole of the Parliamentary army from George Lisle’s position on the southern spur of the arena. A swift advance towards the Petersfield–Winchester road at Bramdean by 2,000 of Hopton’s troops, a body only a fifth the size of Waller’s army, which threatened to cut off the latter’s best escape route, might be very risky. If the Parliamentary generals kept their heads, they could easily reinforce their right wing and possibly inflict great damage on Hopton’s men before Forth could send support.

Eyewitnesses are rather hazy about what happened next on the morning of 29 March, but a conflation of the reports of observers on both sides results in quite a high level of consensus on how thrust and counter-thrust led to a fully fledged battle developing that neither side seems to have wanted. It appears from Sir Arthur Haselrig’s account of the battle to the House of Commons, and from an estimate of the time it would have taken Lord Hopton to re-deploy the Royalist left wing in and around Cheriton Wood, that a period of between one and one and a half hours elapsed before the next significant development. Balfour claimed the Parliamentarians decided to remain where they were after the loss of the wood because the enemy was determined to fight them, and this was as good a decision as any, given the dangers they faced if they tried to move away. He therefore drew up his horse in the small heath to the north of the Petersfield–Winchester road, that is, between the enemy and the rest of his army, thus shielding it from attack by the forces on the southern spur of the arena. The cavalry were nevertheless in a very exposed position, but behind and above them was the massed firepower of the Parliamentary artillery and most of Waller’s musketeers. The length of the Parliamentary line is uncertain, but it is doubtful if it stretched in one direction as far as Bramdean village. The western end, however, was anchored in the little village mentioned by Robert Harley, and this was essential for the security of the entire army. If the Parliamentary musketeers lost control of it, not only would Forth and Hopton have turned Waller and Balfour’s flank, the enemy infantry would also be in a position to pour devastating fire into the regiments at the western end of the Parliamentary cavalry line.

When all these arrangements were complete, Waller and Balfour had as strong a position defending the Hinton Ampner ridge as Forth and Hopton had defending the southern spur of the arena. Meanwhile, on the Royalist side Hopton had drawn up his corps in a defensive posture covering all the approaches to the wood and to East Down, whilst the Lord General’s troops clustered around the position that Lisle’s brigade had occupied during the night. Forth’s infantry may even have moved down the slope of the southern spur as far as a substantial hedge that probably marked the boundary between fields on the southern spur of the arena and the heath where Balfour had deployed the Parliamentary cavalry. What is certain at the start of the next stage of the encounter, however, is that Waller’s army was in the bottom or on the north-facing slope of the Hinton Ampner ridge, and that the Royalists could look down upon them.

The exact circumstances surrounding what happened next, however, are a mystery. The key, I believe, is to appreciate that Waller and Balfour were behaving in a way that the Royalist generals had not anticipated. Instead of retreating or attacking, they had remained exactly where they were, but deployed their army in a defensive formation, which, as Harley commented, involved facing north rather than west. The only vaguely offensive move, apart from the brief occupation of Cheriton Wood, had been sending musketeers to defend the little settlement in the pass by the Itchen. There followed the Royalists’ first tactical mistake, but one from which Hopton was very careful to disassociate himself in his narrative. Having put the Royalist left wing into a defensive posture, he was making his away along the brow of the hill to consult with the Lord General when he saw to his amazement Forth’s troops ‘too far advanced, and hotly engaged with the enemy in the foot of the hill, and so hard pressed, as when he came to Lord Forth he found him much troubled with it for it seems the engagement was by the forwardness of some particular officers without order’. The form of words is interesting. Not only is Hopton saying that it was no responsibility of his, he is also hinting ever so slightly that Forth had ordered the attack by his use of the word ‘seems’. Colonel Slingsby was much more forthright. He stated in no uncertain terms that ‘we were ordered to fall on from both wings’, and thus, by implication, by somebody holding a higher rank than his own. This cannot have been Hopton’s major general of foot, Sir John Paulet, who was carrying messages between Hopton and Forth, and who had no jurisdiction over Forth’s troops. As Sir Jacob Astley, the major general of the Oxford army, was not present at Cheriton, the officer concerned can only have been the Lord General himself. The behaviour of the enemy during the night and early morning suggested that enemy generals were considering retreat as one of several options. This view would have been further strengthened if Forth had received intelligence from Hopton’s wing after the capture of Cheriton Wood on the lines of the passage from Slingsby’s account reproduced above. If so, it would surely have crossed Forth’s mind that all that was needed to induce Waller and Balfour to withdraw was a thrust against their other wing which, if successful, would render their position along the Petersfield–Winchester road untenable.

The Battle of Cheriton II

What Hopton saw from the brow of the southern spur was almost certainly the final stage of the engagement when some Royalist troops hurrying to help their fellows were being cut to pieces by enemy cavalry. The incident is described in considerable detail by eyewitnesses on both sides, and there is no doubt that the formation being destroyed was under the command of Henry Bard, colonel of a regiment of foot that had arrived from the north as escort for the first great munitions convoy of May 1643. According to Slingsby, Bard ‘leading on his regiment further than he had orders for, and indeed with more youthful courage than soldier-like discretion, was observed by the enemy to be a great space before the rest and out of his ground, who incontinently thrusts Sir Arthur Haselrig’s regiment of cuirassiers well armed between him and home and there in the view of our whole army kills and takes every man’. Slingsby’s identification of the attacking force is incorrect. Harley is very clear about the identity of the attackers. They were a commanded party of 300 men drawn from several of Sir William Waller’s cavalry regiments, including two troops of his own regiment and probably all four of Colonel Norton’s. Moreover, Sir Arthur’s account of the battle delivered to the House of Commons as reported by Yonge makes no mention of his own regiment’s involvement in the destruction of Bard’s infantry. Instead Haselrig claims to have taken ten men out of every troop of Waller’s horse to create the shock force. This is an unlikely story. The chance of destroying Bard’s regiment can only have been seen at the last moment, leaving insufficient time to complete such a complex reordering of the cavalry. Possibly Yonge misunderstood what he was hearing. It is also interesting that Royalist cavalry did not intervene, either because there was none on or close to the right wing at that juncture, which seems most unlikely as the cavalry engagement had not yet begun, or because it was all over in the flash of an eye, as may have been the case if Bard’s men were entirely musketeers or if the speed with which they advanced broke up their close order, something that could easily happen to infantry formations crossing rough ground.

The background to the incident on the left wing in which Bard’s regiment was destroyed is given only in Robert Harley’s account, but it is supported in general terms by Slingsby, Haselrig, and the writer of the report in Mercurius Aulicus. Harley wrote that a party of 1,600 Royalist foot, which, even allowing for exaggeration, must have comprised almost the whole of Forth’s infantry, had attacked the ‘little village’. This was probably at about 10 or 10.30 a.m., that is after Hopton had received Forth’s rejection of his proposal to attack the rear of the Parliamentary army from Cheriton Wood. At first the Royalists made good progress, according to Harley, driving the enemy from their hedges and setting fire to a barn, but Waller sent in reinforcements, the wind changed direction, sending smoke into the eyes of the attackers, and they began to fall back. Such an outcome is not at all surprising. Allowing for the fact that Bard’s regiment was not involved at this point, Forth could only have committed a maximum of 1,000 foot soldiers to the assault on the little village, as Hopton’s infantry regiments were all on the left wing of the Royalist army. The formation he was attacking, on the other hand, was probably much larger. Harley described the original force as ‘very strong’, and Waller drew a further 600 (Haselrig) or 1,200 (Harley) foot soldiers from the reserve to support the left wing when the attack began. The length of the engagement is uncertain, but it may have been quite lengthy as Balfour implies that he did not deploy his cavalry in the heath until after the attack had begun, and it was from the heath that the assault against Bard’s regiment was launched.

The fact that Bard’s regiment was not involved from the start suggests that it was Forth’s infantry reserve, possibly guarding the artillery. Bard therefore behaved in an appropriate manner in one respect. Seeing the main infantry body under attack, he had launched his regiment towards the fray, probably with the intention of attacking the advancing enemy foot in their right flank. The trouble was that in his determination to hit them hard, he almost certainly cut corners. First, instead of making his way to the village using the hedges that covered the slopes of the western end of the southern spur and the valley beyond, he led his men across a corner of the heath. Second, he advanced across open ground without a cavalry escort, taking a route that would have taken him to within a few hundred yards of where Balfour had drawn up Waller’s regiments of horse. If this was Bard’s most direct route towards the fighting, his regiment was almost certainly positioned in the centre of the Royalist front line rather than on the right. Otherwise a march through the enclosures followed by a short hook to the left over open ground just before he reached the enemy would have been more appropriate. That he had erupted from the centre of the Royalist line is apparent from Slingsby’s remark that the whole of the army could see the destruction of Bard’s regiment. If it had met its fate any further to the west, it would have been hidden from Slingsby’s line of sight by the gentle northward curve of the southern ridge of the arena as it neared Cheriton village. The corollary of this is that Bard’s regiment must have been close to Forth’s own position, which makes one wonder why the Lord General did not order it to halt as soon as the attack began. Possibly Bard was also under orders, but had exceeded them in his enthusiasm to get at the enemy. This may possibly explain Hopton’s statement that Forth was ‘much troubled with it, as the engagement was by the forwardness of some officers without orders’, which can be read as if it was Bard’s forwardness and its probable effects that caused Forth such concern, not the original attack.

The destruction of Bard’s regiment seems to have had a highly significant effect on morale, raising the spirits of the Parliamentarians whilst dampening those of the Royalists. However, Forth and Hopton had only suffered a reverse, they had not yet lost the battle. Indeed, Forth was able to stabilize the situation in the Itchen valley, possibly by withdrawing infantry from Cheriton Wood, possibly by drawing his own retreating infantry behind hedges on the southwest corner of the southern spur, as nothing much seems to have happened on the Royalist right wing for some hours. However, elsewhere the battle flared into life. According to Hopton, Lord Forth’s response to the setback on the right was to order Hopton to launch a cavalry attack, probably against the centre of the enemy position on the heath. The decision seems an irrational one, as the southern slope of the ridge and the heath beyond were not good cavalry country – first enclosures, then a hedge line and finally a small, narrow piece of rough heath, which would have made it difficult for the Royalist horse to maintain close order in a charge, and where the Parliamentary horse were already drawn up under the cover of their artillery and musketeers. Moreover, for the king’s horse at Cheriton as for Sir Phillip Stapleton at Newbury and Sir Thomas Fairfax at Marston Moor, there was only a single entrance into the heath, which meant that his regiments could not deploy in close order until they had passed the hedge line. Slingsby goes so far as to say that they did not have time to deploy, as the Parliamentary horse were upon them as soon as they emerged from the entrance. However, this is not confirmed by any of the Parliamentary sources, which is rather surprising if it had had a major effect on the outcome of the battle. Possibly Hopton managed to stop it as soon as he realized it was happening by moving down some musketeers to provide sufficient firepower at the entrance into the heath to deter the enemy. There were certainly Royalist foot in the valley when the cavalry fight was under way, but this still leaves unanswered the question of why Forth ordered a head-on attack on the enemy horse, backed as they were by the firepower of their musketeers and artillery pieces. A possibility, but no more than that, is that the resources committed to the attack on the little village and the fierce enemy reaction to it combined with Hopton’s defences in and around Cheriton Wood left very few infantry in the centre of the Royalist line. To make matters worse enemy horse and foot were drawn up on the little heath and on the slope behind it in such a way that they could easily move forward and divide the Royalist army in two. Thus, as at the northern edge of Wash Common during the First Battle of Newbury, cavalry were required to plug a gap caused by shortage of infantry at the critical point in the battle line, with attack being seen as the best form of defence.

To carry out the Lord General’s orders, Hopton chose Sir Edward Stowell’s brigade, 1,000 strong. It fought bravely for almost half an hour before falling back, ‘broken and routed’ in Hopton’s words, leaving the brigadier in enemy hands ‘with five wounds upon him’ after he had managed to penetrate their gun line. Another brigade commanded by Sir John Smith apparently attacked the left of the Parliamentary cavalry formation. The evidence for this is slight, but his biographer wrote of ‘both lanes and hedges lined with musketeers’, which fits the part of the battlefield around the little village better than any other. However, the brigade’s performance apparently left much to be desired. When Smith was wounded, all except his own troop made a disorderly retreat. This may explain why none of the other Royalist accounts describe the encounter, but it may have been only a tiny episode inflated into something bigger by his biographer Edward Walsingham. Parliamentary accounts of the battle only portray the enemy horse in an unfavourable light when they retreated from the southern spur at the end of the battle. Jones in particular commended the Royalists for their valour and Harley praised them for their desperate and bold charges.

From this point onwards the traces of the past, almost always less common for the middle part of a battle than one would wish, become highly fragmentary. They are often no more than brief snapshots of the fighting, which are not only impossible to relate to one another but also rarely capable of being allotted a specific place in the timeline of the battle. On the Royalist left wing the rest of Hopton’s command may have been more successful than Stowell’s brigade. Slingsby wrote of the left wing as well as the right being ordered to advance after the capture of Cheriton Wood, and E.A., the writer of one of the Parliamentary reports, describes a defeat suffered by some or all of Waller and Balfour’s cavalry in that part of the battlefield:

The enemy presently came on with their main body of horse very powerfully, and were met courageously, yet being of the greater number (for our whole body was not then together) forced ours to a disorderly retreat, at which time the day was doubtful if not desperate, our foot all the while being engaged on the left wing.

This cannot be either the episode in which Smith was mortally wounded, or the one in which Stowell was captured, and the clear implication is that it took place on the Parliamentary right.

Slingsby also recounts an episode that occurred on the Royalist left wing soon after the battle became general, but it is not the encounter that E.A. described. Hopton’s regiment of infantry repulsed an enemy cavalry charge on three separate occasions by performing classical parade ground drill for pike and musketeers. There is enough detail in the account to show that the regiment was positioned on open ground some way in advance of the crest of the spur. Lord John Stuart then sent the Queen’s regiment of cavalry down to its assistance, but it made ‘an unhandsome charge’, after which the cavalry action became general. Interestingly, Stuart’s obituary talks of his receiving his mortal wound in an action that took place in a large open low-lying expanse of ground, not a hill full of hedges and bushes. This description neatly fits the lie of the land to the south and east of Cheriton Wood as I have depicted it.

A series of engagements lasting for between three and four hours then ensued across the centre and east of the battlefield, which seems impossibly long for what appears to have been primarily a cavalry engagement. Possibly the situation in the valley in front of Hinton Ampner became completely chaotic by midday, with a seething mass of horsemen pushing backwards and forwards across the small heath under no control, a scene first suggested by Burne and taken up by many historians since. However, it is more likely that fighting was intermittent, but such as to force both sides to feed in all except their last reserves. Initially, the Royalists were on the offensive pushing back the enemy cavalry to the foot of the Hinton Ampner ridge but, as we have seen, they were unable to break through. When the brigades commanded by Stowell and Smith fell back in disorder, the Parliamentary horse appear to have gained complete control of the heath, but they in their turn found difficulty in making progress against enemy infantry drawn up behind the hedge that marked the northern boundary of Balfour’s Little Heath. Haselrig indeed uses very similar words to those used by Hopton in describing Stowell’s difficulties in breaking through the Parliamentary position in the centre: ‘their horse were surrounded by musketeers who lined the hedges and beat us back always when we drove them back.’

The nature of the landscape in which the heath was set, that is, with enclosures both to the north and the south, probably explains why neither the Royalist nor the Parliamentary cavalry was able to achieve a breakthrough. It may also explain why those accounts of the battle written by Parliamentarians had very little to say about the part their horse played in the major cavalry action. The report of Sir William Balfour, Essex’s lieutenant general of horse, was completely silent about the cavalry actions, but this may be because Essex’s regiments had failed to distinguish themselves yet again. However, in the end, inspired, E.A. says, by some London Trained Band musketeers, the right wing of the Parliamentary cavalry accompanied by some infantry appears to have pushed back a weak Royalist cavalry screen and gained the brow of the southern spur of the arena somewhere near Cheriton Wood.

Long before the cavalry and infantry moved forward on the right, however, the tactical manoeuvre that would decide the outcome of the battle was under way on the opposite side of the battlefield. In mid-afternoon Waller’s infantry and dragoon regiments supported by some of the London brigade began pushing around the west side of the cavalry mêlée safe in the knowledge that they would not be attacked. Moving out of the Itchen valley, they began to ascend the slopes of the southern spur of the arena from the direction of Cheriton village, where they were successful in pushing back the Royalist infantry, a body which by then included troops that had earlier taken part in the attack on Cheriton Wood, as it was here that their commander Colonel Matthew Appleyard was wounded.

The advance of the enemy foot on both flanks put the Royalist army in great danger of being surrounded. Hopton took the credit for securing the retreat of the shattered brigades of horse and their supporting infantry from the heath using a small body of Oxford army cavalry, with which he successfully defended the entrance into the enclosures on the southern spur of the arena. That the withdrawal from the heath was successfully accomplished is confirmed by other sources, but Hopton’s role in it rests on his testimony alone.

Initially Forth and Hopton attempted to make a stand on top of the southern spur, probably where it was crossed by Broad Lane, but the fire coming from the Parliamentary infantry and dragoons making their way along the southern spur towards them was too strong, and they decided to retreat to the place where the Royalist army had camped on the night of 27 March, the high ground to the south of Alresford.

There followed a pause of anything up to an hour, which gave the Royalist generals time to collect most of their infantry into a body and also some of their horse, and to plan their army’s escape to Basing House, eighteen miles to the north. Eventually Waller’s artillery commander, James Wemyss, brought some cannon into play, and the Royalist army ran for cover. The artillery train started off in the direction of Winchester, but then quickly turned northwards into a landscape of woods and valleys that made cavalry pursuit difficult, whilst the infantry with a small cavalry escort pursued a parallel course using a lower route with plenty of passes to delay the enemy. A small body of foot remained behind in Alresford to win the rest of the infantry and the artillery train time to reach the safety of the woods. Some were killed or captured, but most also managed to make their escape. Finally the horse took off over the downs, pursued for some miles by the enemy. All three sections of the army arrived safely at Basing House just after midnight. Both Harley and Birch’s biographers blame senior commanders for showing too much caution once the battle was clearly won, but Adair is probably right to absolve Waller (and by implication Balfour) from blame. Even if Harley’s own troop was fresh, and keen to harry the Royalists as they retreated, the rest of the Parliamentary cavalry were probably too exhausted and too scattered to do much against an enemy that had not broken and run.

The immediate reaction of the London newspapers and of the Parliamentary officers who had fought at Cheriton and written reports of the fighting was that through God’s mercy the army led by Waller and Balfour had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, once under way, the battle had been an uninspired slogging match, which appeared to develop its own momentum (or lack of momentum) after the initial Royalist error of attacking Parliament’s left wing with too small a body of infantry. To Birch’s biographer Roe it was ‘the worst prosecuted battle I ever saw’. It is therefore surprising that only he was of the opinion that there was a logical order of events, beginning with the decision not to retreat and ending with the infantry advance on both wings at about 4 p.m.

ALMENAR 1710

From the surrender of Lerida until 1710, there were not any more large- scale military actions on the Eastern Peninsular front, because the Bourbon army was not able to launch major campaigns against Catalonia, given its precarious situation on the other fronts that had to be defended. However, in 1710 Philip’s troops began a campaign, this time aimed at definitely conquering Barcelona. Unfortunately for the Bourbon interests, the Allies had rebuilt their army, thanks largely to the massive arrival of recruits and money from England. Therefore, when the Bourbon forces tried to advance into Catalan territory through the Urgell region, they failed to achieve fruitful results. Despite the long blockade of the town of Balaguer, the Bourbon army could not conquer it, and the Allies received constant reinforcements during the spring and summer of 1710. So the Bourbon commander, the Marquis of Villadarias, had to withdraw to the outskirts of Lerida to prevent his weary troops, who had also suffered several epidemics, from suffering greater hardships.

The Bourbon retreat Because of the alarm generated by the arrival of reinforcements at the Allied camp, what have initially been an organized retreat, finally turned into an exhausting march that decimated the Bourbon army.

Prelude Among the information provided in Lord Mahon’s work, written in the 19th century, an interesting document stands out written by General Stanhope on July 31st 1710, and addressed to the Earl of Sunderland. The letter explains with complete clarity the conditions under which the Battle of Almenar took place, and also the role played by the English troops. The first thing that is reflected in this letter is Stanhope’s aggressiveness, in broad contrast to the caution showed by both King Charles III and Guido von Starhemberg. In view of Stanhope’s urgent need to attack, the Allies adopted a compromise solution by posting some troops under the command of the English officer to act in the vanguard of the army (Lord Mahon, 1832, appendix cxi-cxv).

My lord,

Three days after the date of my last to your Lordship, which went by Mr. Craggs, our succours joined us about nine in the morning, upon which a council being called, it was strenuously urged by the English, Dutch, and Palatines, to march immediately to Lerida, in order to force the enemies to a battle, by cutting them off from that place: but the King and Mareschal strongly opposed, and showed themselves determined not to venture any thing. Their pretence for not doing it was, that the enemies’ army might get to Lerida, and cross the river before we could be up with them; which afterwards proved to be otherwise, since they did not get over the river, by twelve hours, so soon as was pretended they would. Our next thought was to cross the Segre at Balaguer, and push to get over the Noguera, to which purpose I was despatched with eight squadrons of dragoons, and 1000 grenadiers, with which I marched at midnight, and took post at Alfaraz [Alfarras], on the Aragon side of the Noguera, at six in the morning of the 27th.

The enemies had commanded ten squadrons of horse, 1000 grenadiers, and seven battalions of foot, to prevent our taking post: but notwithstanding that they had much less way to march, the negligence of their commanding officer, the Duke of Sarno, made them come late; for we did not discover them till nine in the morning: and when they did discover us, instead of attacking us, they possessed themselves of Almenara [Almenar], a village on the Noguera, about two miles below Alfaraz, where we were. About noon, our left wing of horse passed the river, which I formed on a plain about cannon shot from the river, between which plain and the river was a deep valley. By this time the enemies’ horse came up space and formed before me about eighteen squadrons, which I was going to attack, when the Mareschal came up and prevented, seeming still determined not to hazard any thing.

The troops on both sides were gradually accumulated in the vicinity of Almenar, deployed with their cavalries above the town, on the high plateau overlooking the entire area.

The battle

After repeatedly asking the King and Starhemberg for permission, Stanhope finally gave the order to attack at dusk, just when all the Allied army had crossed the Noguera river at Alfarras. It is worth noting this, unknown even to Stanhope, because this is why Starhemberg took so long to give him permission to attack. A defeat of the Allied cavalry when half the troops had not yet crossed the river would have been extremely dangerous for the Allied army.

I herefore marched to them with the left wing, which consisted of twenty-two squadrons, which were formed in two lines, and a corps de réserve of four squadrons; the ground we were drawn up in, not allowing us to make a greater front. So soon as we began to move, the squadrons of the enemies which had come down the rising I mentioned, retired to their line. When we got up that rise, with my first line consisting of but ten squadrons, we found the enemy drawn up in two lines, the first of twenty two squadrons and the second of twenty, with two battalions of foot betwixt their lines, and a brigade of foot on their right. I was therefore forced, so soon as I came in presence, to make a halt to get up some squadrons from the second line, the ground where the enemies were being so much wider than that which I had marched from; besides that getting up the hill had put our line in some disorder.

It is noteworthy how Stanhope guided the march of horse regiments because, despite the substantial number of troopers involved (about 4,000), he managed to stop and reform them, all in full view of the enemy, showing the great experience, calmness and courage of the Allied officers. Another important aspect was the sun’s position, which lit the battlefield from behind the Allies in such a way that the Bourbon horsemen did not realize of the magnitude of the Allied attack. This is not something that can be undervalued, as the dust raised by the four thousand trotting horses would have magnified the effect of the sunlight, while undermining the morale of the defenders, who could not see exactly what was falling on them. This is highlighted by an anonymous source, a horseman of Lord Raby’s regiment who was present at the battle (Falkner, 2005, p. 223):

About an hour before the sun set on the 16th day of July 1710, our squadrons had orders to advance, the left [of] our army being a great deal nearer to the enemy than our right, therefore our right wing was obliged to advance as fast as our horses could go. The sun then was not above a quarter of an hour high [per sobre de l’horitzo] when the left began to engage and the right was soon and behold how like lions our men fell upon them with sword in hand.

Despite the initial reservations of some Allied commanders, the attack was very successful. Although some points of resistance faced up to the attackers, the line of Bourbon cavalry was broken up by such a fierce attack led by the English commander.

The enemies were so good as to give us the time we wanted; we brought up six squadrons and put our line in good order, which consisted thus of sixteen in all: six English, four Dutch, and six Palatines. Mr. Carpenter and I were on the left; Mr. Frankenberg, the Palatine General, and Major- General Pepper, on the right. So soon as ever we were thus formed we attacked them; and, by the blessing of God, broke their two lines, which consisted of forty-two squadrons.

On the right were the Gardes du Corps and other choice regiments, which did not do ill, but their left made no resistance. I cannot sufficiently commend the behaviour of all the troops that were engaged, which never halted till we had driven their horse off the plain, beyond their infantry, which was in the valley; and if we had had two hours’ day light more, your Lordship may be assured that not one foot soldier of their army could have scaped. The night gave them an opportunity to retire to Lerida, which they did in such confusion, that they threw away their tents, lost good part of their baggage, and some of their cannon, and have continued ever since encamped within and about the glacis of Lerida. The Duke of Anjou and all his Generals were in the action.

Consequences of the victory

As a result of the fight and the chaotic withdrawal of the Bourbon army, an odd situation took place in which King Philip was escorted by Catalan troops. The event is explained in the Bourbon letter collected by Castellvi and it had no major consequences, but it does show how the Bourbon officers mistrusted even the Catalans in their ranks.

Despite the swift action, the battle was extremely hard, according to Stanhope. The fact that two Allied colonels died is quite relevant, because it demonstrates that high-ranking officers put themselves at risk in combat, especially horse regiment officers, and often had a higher percentage of casualties than other soldiers (Lord Mahon, 1832, appendices CXI-CXV).

I am sorry, now, my Lord, to tell you, that this action has cost her Majesty very dear, in the loss of two young men of quality, who would have made a great figure in this country, and done it great service,- my Lord Rochford and Count Nassau. Lord Rochford had joined us with his regiment from Italy but the day before; and he brought it in so good order, and set them so good an example, that, though they had to do with the best troops of the enemy, they beat them. I have often had occasion to mention Count Nassau to your Lordship: he was this day on the left of all, at the head of his own regiment, which was outflanked by several squadrons, and exposed to the fire of their infantry; notwithstanding which disadvantages he broke what was before him, and, after so vigorous an action, was unfortunately killed by a cannon from a battery of our own. Enclosed I send your Lordship the list of what other officers have been killed and wounded.

Out of the six squadrons of her Majesty’s troops which were engaged, viz. two of Harvey’s, two of Nassau’s, two of Rochford’s we have 200 men killed and wounded, and four out of five of them with swords. A Palatine regiment which was on our left, and a Dutch regiment which was in the centre, have likewise suffered considerably; the others had better fortune, having met with little opposition. The commanding officers of all nations signalised themselves; and it has been of no small use to me, who had been very little conversant with the treble service, to have the assistance of Mr. Carpenter, who was with me during this whole action, and did not a little contribute to the good success of it..

As for the Bourbon army, the defeat had reduced its cavalry, and especially its morale, which was decisive for the further development of the campaign. Moreover, the defeat at Almenar confirmed that without the help of Louis XIV and the French forces, Philip was unable to keep the Spanish territories under control, given the threat posed by the Allies.

Defeat at Brihuega

After the victory of Almenar, the Austriacist army continued to advance into Aragon, where some weeks later it had a decisive victory against the Bourbon army. Philip’s troops broke up and, as happened in 1706, the Allies were again able to choose their strategic goals and achieve them without hindrance from opponents.

Spurred on by English officers, and particularly by James Stanhope, the Austriacist troops advanced into Castile to dominate the centre of the Iberian Peninsula, and especially its capital. Philip had to flee Madrid for the second time and Charles was finally crowned King of Spain. However, in the long term this strategic decision was one of the Allies’ worst mistakes during the war, although it seemed quite an interesting option in the autumn of 1710.

On one hand, lack of connection with the Austriacist territories of Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia disrupted both communications and the logistics line for the Allies, which were very elongated and highly vulnerable to Bourbon dragoons raids. On the other hand, failure to close the passes connecting France and the Iberian Peninsula allowed Louis XIV to send a large contingent of troops to his grandson. These troops were under command of the Duke of Vendome, and to finally restore the situation, another French army under the command of the Duke of Noailles invaded the north of Catalonia to threaten the Austriacist territories. Since the bulk of the Allied army was in Castile, it was an optimal situation for the Bourbon’s interests, because there was no Allied force large enough to fight with. This offensive therefore further destabilized the precarious strategic situation of the Allies.

Noailles decided to besiege Girona at the end of 1710, with the intention of smoothing the way to Barcelona. The Allies were certainly surprised by the fact that the siege began in December, as it was unusual to conduct offensive actions in late winter. Given the serious strategic situation, the Austriacist commanders decided to retreat to Catalonia to pass the winter there. The English contingent took a different route from the rest of the army, and was surprised and surrounded by Bourbon forces in Brihuega, where they surrendered a few days later. In turn, Starhemberg, the supreme Allied commander, met the entire Bourbon army in Villaviciosa, when trying to help the English (not knowing that they had already surrendered). Both sides claimed victory in the muddled battle that took place on December 10th. However, the clash left Vendome’s army so damaged that Starhemberg was able to retreat to more optimal positions in the Segarra area.

The demarcations of the armies were not much changed during the following campaigns, because the 1710 campaign went on well into the following year and Vendome did not move until summer of 1711. The attempt to cross the Allied defensive line culminated in the Battle of Prats de Rei and the subsequent siege of Cardona, two Allied victories that left the Bourbon army badly damaged and withdrawing again to Lerida. But the English army was no longer present in Catalonia after the surrender of Brihuega, except for some small units. In the Iberian Peninsula there were no significant battles in 1712-1713, due to the opening of peace negotiations, as mentioned throughout the book.

In addition, the Imperial army was solidly defeated by Marshal Villars’ troops in Denain, and the war situation quickly deteriorated for the Austriacist side, as, for their part, the English and the Dutch were negotiating agreements with the Bourbons.

The Treaty of Utrecht ended the English intervention in Catalonia, and shortly afterwards the final chapter of the War of the Spanish Succession began: the Catalan campaign of 1713-1714.

GUMBINNEN TO TANNENBERG: EAST PRUSSIA, AUGUST TO SEPTEMBER 1914

Russian prisoners of war after the Battle of Tannenberg.

Eastern Front, 17–23 August 1914.

Movements of 23–26 August 1914. Red: Germans, blue: Russians

Movements of 27–30 August 1914.

The general staff had expected that Russia would be slow to mobilize, but the Tsar’s army defied these estimates by coming into action quite quickly against the German forces in East Prussia. There the 200,000 men of the German Eighth Army, commanded by 66-year-old Generaloberst Maximilian Wilhelm Gustav Moritz von Prittwitz und Gaffron, had been deployed to secure the eastern frontier while Germany’s main onslaught fell upon France in the west. Although the Russian army’s preparedness to conduct offensive operations was considerably less than that of the Germans, it nevertheless responded with alacrity to a French request to launch an offensive on the Eastern Front. Having moved two armies into East Prussia in mid-August, III Corps of Russian General Rennenkampf’s First Army struck the German I Corps at Stallüponen on 17 August.

Altogether the Russians fielded some 250 battalions against a German strength of about 144, although the German Eighth Army’s artillery was significantly stronger in terms of the ratio of supporting guns to battalions and of the amount of heavy artillery it had available. In addition, Russian command and control and support arrangements were generally archaic: for example, compasses were available, but few maps were issued, even at formation headquarters. Many Russian junior officers could not read maps in any case. Insufficient availability of telephone cable meant that many operational messages were necessarily sent by radio, but these were often transmitted ‘in clear’ (unencrypted) because the Russian signallers either had no codes or else the message recipients were incapable of decoding them. Meanwhile, little mechanical transport was available to the Russian army, and despite the updating action taken after Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1904 much of the army’s other supporting services and logistical arrangements were still primitive. In East Prussia in 1914 neither the Russian commander-in-chief, General Jilinsky, nor his two army commanders, General Rennenkampf (First Army) and General Samsonov (Second Army) displayed more than average competence as commanders, while at the same time the dislike of Rennenkampf and Samsonov for each other was well known. On the other hand, events on the German side would reveal shortly that the professional ability and judgement of the Eighth Army commander, Generaloberst von Prittwitz und Gaffron, also failed to measure up to that which was expected of an army commander.

In response to the Russian attack, von Prittwitz und Gaffron ordered I Corps, commanded by General der Infanterie Hermann von François, to withdraw his corps to Gumbinnen. But von François refused to do this and instead attacked the Russians, taking some 3,000 prisoners before at last being forced to fall back to Gumbinnen, albeit with the loss of seven guns. Meanwhile, General der Kavallerie (later Generalfeldmarschall) Anton Ludwig August von Mackensen’s XVII Corps43 and Generalleutnant (later General der Infanterie) Otto von Below’s I Reserve Corps moved to reinforce von François, arriving at Gumbinnen at about midday on 20 August. Gumbinnen was then the scene of the next clash, where von François attacked the Russian flank that morning and took a further 5,000 prisoners. Von Mackensen’s XVII Corps was, however, less fortunate. It arrived at Gumbinnen ahead of von Below’s corps and was immediately committed to the battle, where a local Russian advantage in artillery first halted the German advance and then broke the newly arrived corps. There followed the rare sight of an entire German corps rendered non-effective, one division actually breaking and fleeing the battlefield, with many of its soldiers retreating as far as fifteen miles before their flight was finally halted. Although they had lost about 19,000 men, Gumbinnen was a victory for Rennenkampf’s First Army, but it had been achieved in relative isolation, as General Jilinsky lacked both the aptitude and the essential command and control facilities to coordinate the actions of his two armies successfully and thus exploit the Russian success.

In the belief that his rival’s success at Gumbinnen heralded an imminent German collapse, and determined to gain his own victory, General Samsonov advanced his Second Army to the south of the Masurian lakes. Although these sizeable lakes now effectively divided the two Russian armies from each other such that the Second Army could no longer be supported by the First, von Prittwitz und Gaffron assessed that the Russian advance was so strong that the whole of the Eighth Army should now withdraw west of the River Vistula. At 19.00 hours on 20 August he issued the necessary warning order and notified by telephone chief of the general staff Generaloberst Helmuth von Moltke at army supreme headquarters in Koblenz of his intentions. In practice, this decision was somewhat premature, for within 24 hours two of the principal staff officers in Eighth Army headquarters had persuaded von Prittwitz und Gaffron that offensive action rather than a withdrawal was both necessary and feasible. Accordingly the army commander rescinded his earlier order for a retreat to the Vistula, thus stabilizing the operational situation and establishing the foundation from which a major German success would shortly be launched.

But for Generaloberst von Prittwitz und Gaffron it was all too late. His initial call to Koblenz had provoked horror within a high command and general staff that could not countenance either the abandonment of German territory or an apparently blatant disregard of von Moltke’s direction for the Eighth Army to counter the Russian advance by offensive rather than defensive action. Since that fateful telephone call, von Moltke had solicited reports from a number of general staff officers in key posts within the various units, formations and headquarters of the Eighth Army, and from these he had ascertained that the situation was by no means as precarious as that portrayed by von Prittwitz und Gaffron. As a result, and irrespective of the Eighth Army commander’s subsequent change of orders on 21 August, von Moltke decided to replace him forthwith.44 This decision, and von Moltke’s choice of a new commander for the Eighth Army, would have important and far-reaching consequences both for the army and, in due course, for Germany.

The officer now selected by von Moltke to take over command of the Eighth Army was 66-year-old General der Infanterie (later Generalfeldmarschall) Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und Hindenburg, whose chief of staff at the Eighth Army would be Generalmajor Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff, an officer who had already gained a formidable reputation on the Western Front during the siege of Liège, where he had served as deputy chief of staff of the Second Army. Paul von Hindenburg was born on 2 October 1847 and, having gained a commission in the 3rd (Prussian) Regiment of Foot Guards (3. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß), served as a junior officer during the wars against Denmark, Austria and France in the period to 1871. Consistently regarded as a very capable general staff officer, as well as a pragmatic and strong leader, he rose to command an army corps as a Generalleutnant, eventually retiring from active service in 1911. He had achieved command of an army corps despite his well-known preference for service with troops rather than in staff appointments, a preference that rarely resulted in rapid advancement in the peacetime army but which earned him the loyalty and respect of those he commanded. During the later years of his service, von Hindenburg had been considered as a possible contender both for the post of chief of the general staff and for that of Prussian minister of war, but this did not happen. When he retired as a corps commander in 1911 his last first-hand experience of a major conflict had been as an infantry junior officer in 1871, so that when von Hindenburg was recalled to serve his country as commander of the Eighth Army in late August 1914, almost half a century had passed since he had been at war. Nevertheless, the formidable combination of army officer training, the general staff system and a rigorous process of selection for high command – together with the inherent ability and personal qualities von Hindenburg brought to his new assignment – ensured that the right man had been found to produce a German victory in East Prussia. In addition, this was an area that von Hindenburg already knew well, not only due to the number of manoeuvres and general staff training exercises staged there but also because he had been born in Posen (modern Pozna in Poland) in East Prussia.

Dressed in his old 1911-era uniform, von Hindenburg was met by his new chief of staff at the main railway station in Hannover on 23 August, from where they would travel on together to Eighth Army headquarters. Generalmajor (later General der Infanterie) Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff45 was a very different man from von Hindenburg, but the personalities of the two generals complemented each other very well. Born in 1865 and in due course commissioned into the infantry, Ludendorff had no direct experience of combat or of a major conflict prior to 1914. Unlike von Hindenburg, however, he readily accepted that a career in the general staff was the route to speedy professional advancement, and having achieved membership of the staff he quickly demonstrated his aptitude, intellect and professional abilities. Despite his undoubted professional competence, he also acquired a reputation as an ambitious, mercurial, violent and abrasive officer who carried these less-positive traits into his approach to the organization and conduct of warfare. His vision of modern conflict was one of ‘total war’, waged to the uttermost extent of the resources of the nation, with little thought for matters of morality or principle if these should prejudice the army’s operations. From 1904 to 1913 Ludendorff had worked in the operations and mobilization department of the general staff, rising within it to head that department from 1908 until 1913. In that capacity he had been very directly involved in the several measures proposed to increase the size of the army in the pre-war years and had suffered the frustration of seeing the increases essential to the success of the Schlieffen Plan refused by the government in 1912 and 1913. Indeed, he had also been an important contributor to von Moltke’s operational review and modification of various aspects of the Schlieffen plan, having worked closely with him in the years prior to the outbreak of war. So it was, at Hannover Hauptbahnhof (the city’s main railway station) on 23 August 1914, that the leadership duo that would just a year later assume total command of the German army for the remainder of the war, was formed. The two officers’ onward journey to the Eighth Army headquarters at Marienburg (now Malbork) on the Vistula took them north and east from Hannover, and they arrived there later that day. En route they developed their own strategy to deal with the Russians, and on 25 August von Hindenburg signed off the operation order that committed the Eighth Army to what would become known as the Battle of Tannenberg, a defining moment not only of the fighting on the Eastern Front but also of the wider war. On 26 August von Hindenburg was promoted Generaloberst.

In fact, the operations staff at the headquarters of the Eighth Army had already produced a design for battle which virtually mirrored that devised by von Hindenburg and Ludendorff on 23/4 August. There, the chief of operations, Generalmajor Grünert, but more particularly his deputy, Oberstleutnant Max Hoffman, had also identified the disjointed command and control arrangements between the two Russian armies and the very different operational approaches of Rennenkampf and Samsonov. They assessed that this offered the Eighth Army an excellent opportunity to isolate and destroy the two Russian armies separately by conducting a holding action against one Russian army while concentrating and employing the maximum force against the other. In addition, the physical barrier provided by the Masurian lakes further exacerbated what was already the virtually non-existent coordination between the two Russian armies.

Given Samsonov’s over-optimism and recklessness – even now he was pushing his Second Army onwards at best speed in order to attack the German right, with his exhausted infantry regiments marching up to twenty kilometres a day – and Rennenkampf’s caution, the Germans judged that Samsonov clearly posed the greater threat. A captured Russian map showing the First Army’s operational plan, together with the steady flow of intelligence gleaned from German intercepts of Russian radio traffic (all still sent in clear), tended to confirm this assessment. However, if the Germans had miscalculated and Rennenkampf should break through on the northern flank, which was held by a predominantly cavalry force of just one division necessarily deployed on a frontage that exceeded thirty kilometres, then the Eighth Army risked an overwhelming attack into its rear area while its main combat units were still dealing with Samsonov to the south. In any event, the meeting of minds between the new commander and his chief of staff and the in-place operations staff of the Eighth Army meant that the army’s new offensive could be launched in fairly short order.46

As ever, the railway played a crucial part in moving major elements of the German corps speedily and largely undetected to concentrate against the Russian Second Army to the south. The German I Corps was still de-training to the west of Tannenberg on 25 August following its move south-west from Gumbinnen when Ludendorff, concerned by the threat posed by Rennenkampf, ordered its commander, General der Infanterie Hermann von François, to attack Samsonov’s Second Army forthwith. This was despite the fact that none of the I Corps’ heavy artillery was by then available and that neither I Reserve Corps nor XVII Corps would be able to support such an attack as both corps were still moving south by road to join the battle against Samsonov. At first von François refused to launch such an ill-judged venture, but he was then visited by von Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffman. The outcome of the ensuing discussion was a statement by von François that, if the attack order were indeed to be confirmed, he would only agree to carry it out on the understanding that the resulting action would unavoidably have to be carried out by the infantry alone! Hoffman, who was undoubtedly more in tune with the Russian deployment and activities than Ludendorff, supported von François’ decision but did not declare this to the new chief of staff. Fortuitously, however, just then intelligence was received that Rennenkampf’s progress was sufficiently slow for his army to be unable to threaten the Eighth Army’s rear. At the same time, Samsonov had ordered a pursuit of what he had mistakenly assessed to be a still-demoralized and routed German XX Corps commanded by General der Artillerie Friedrich von Scholtz.

As a result, the original assessment of the Russian intentions made by Hoffman and Grünert was validated. Von François was no longer required to carry out his premature attack, while Samsonov’s Second Army was drawn even more deeply into the German trap. Battle was finally joined when Samsonov launched his own attack at dawn on 27 August, advancing north-westwards on a general line from Allenstein to Osterode. At that stage the two corps commanded by von Below (I Reserve Corps) and by von Mackensen (XVII Corps), which had deployed to the north and south of Tannenberg, fell upon the Russian right. By that evening the Russian advance had been halted, with many casualties sustained. Samsonov, however, was relatively undisturbed by this turn of events and still anticipated the imminent arrival of the First Army from the north. In the meantime, early that morning von François’ I Corps – now with its full complement of heavy artillery available – had begun a seven-hour bombardment of the Russian left, accompanied by a series of attacks that virtually annihilated the Russian corps on the Second Army’s left wing. Samsonov threw five more divisions into the battle, but they failed to break through the German forces that had by then almost encircled him. By nightfall on the 27th the Russian army group commander, Jilinsky, was at last becoming aware of the disastrous situation concerning his Second Army and ordered Rennenkamp to hasten his attack from the north.

On 28 August the fighting continued, and the German encirclement of the Second Army was completed when von François again disobeyed an order from Ludendorff, which on this occasion required him to move to assist von Scholtz’s XX Corps. Fortunately, XX Corps did not need this assistance, and by driving instead upon Neidenburg (now Nidzica), von François’ I Corps effectively cut off the Russians’ potential escape route to the south. Although the remnants of the ensnared Second Army fought on bravely and enjoyed some local successes, including the temporary recapture of Neidenburg, the end was not in doubt. Late on the night of 29 August Samsonov walked alone into the dense fir woods, took out his pistol and shot himself. The last units of his decimated army dug in and continued fighting until the morning of 31 August, when they surrendered. By then the last of the Second Army’s ammunition was gone, and there was no hope of resupply or relief. In the defeat of the Second Army 50,000 Russians had been killed or wounded, with 92,000 prisoners taken by 31 August – the ‘day of harvesting’ as von Hindenburg termed it – together with some 500 guns.

Of the great haul of prisoners taken, no fewer than 60,000 were directly attributable to the actions of von François, who had yet again modified Ludendorff’s orders for his I Corps at the end of the main battle, thus ensuring that the remaining Russian troops could not infiltrate away to the south and east. Although his intuitive command of I Corps had been most effective in accordance with the concept of Auftragstaktik, and he was a key contributor to the German victory against the Second Army, von François had not endeared himself to Ludendorff during the Battle of Tannenberg. Consequently, despite his clear professional ability and suitability for advancement and high command, von François was destined to remain a corps commander throughout the war.

Meanwhile, now fully aware of Samsonov’s fate, Rennenkampf withdrew his First Army, only to find himself being pursued by German forces now reinforced by an additional two corps from the Western Front. During the ensuing Battle of the Masurian lakes, fought between 5 and 15 September, von Hindenburg’s forces finally crippled Rennenkampf’s army, which lost more than 125,000 men including 30,000 as prisoners, together with 200 guns. However, the defeat of the Russian First Army was not as decisive as that of the Second Army: Rennenkampf managed to disengage and withdraw part of his command successfully, often marching his men more than thirty kilometres a day on congested roads in blistering heat. The end of this follow-on battle by the Masurian lakes marked the conclusion of the Battle of Tannenberg, a German victory that had great significance for the wider conflict, shaping its future course and that of European history, but particularly that of tsarist Russia.

Tannenberg also assured the future prominence and fortunes of von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The former continued as commander-in-chief on the Eastern Front throughout 1915, achieving several further successes. By the end of that year von Hindenburg had become a household name within Germany and internationally, and when the Kaiser relieved General der Infanterie Erich Georg Sebastian von Falkenhayn of his post as chief of the general staff in August 1916 von Hindenburg assumed that appointment, becoming in practice Germany’s supreme warlord throughout the remaining years of the war.

Meanwhile, Ludendorff continued as von Hindenburg’s principal adviser, and so from August 1916 he exerted a very significant influence upon many aspects of an army that was by then engaged in a modern, industrialized war of attrition. He addressed the army’s doctrine, tactics, technology and organization with great energy, as well as the key policies and practicalities that affected the means of industrial production necessary to support such an army. Whereas von Hindenburg was unquestionably Germany’s military and national figurehead during those years, he lacked the sheer ability of his subordinate. Ludendorff’s was the intellect and the brain that drove the nature and spirit of the army and, arguably, that of the German nation in arms from 1916 to 1918, while von Hindenburg’s great skill was to recognize Ludendorff’s considerable, if sometimes erratic, attributes and his own limitations, simultaneously directing, supporting and focusing the former while not deluding himself over the latter. The enormous breadth of power and responsibility that was accorded to von Hindenburg and Ludendorff from 1916 made them true warlords of their time and exemplars of more than a century of Prussian and German military professionalism. For both of these senior officers their ultimate wartime achievements were the culmination of a process that began in East Prussia during August–September 1914 at Tannenberg and the Masurian lakes.

Lee Divides and Conquers at the Second Battle of Bull Run

August 28–30, 1862

Outnumbered two to one, Robert E. Lee and his corps commanders Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet outgeneraled the Union’s pompous and unpopular John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run. The reputations of three Confederate generals rose to mythic proportions as yet another Union military leader—Lincoln’s latest candidate for top command—suffers not merely defeat but humiliation. The outcome was another blow to Northern morale and a grave political threat to Abraham Lincoln. At this point, the Union was losing the Civil War.

George B. McClellan, the vaunted “Young Napoleon” on whom Abraham Lincoln relied to redeem the Union Army from the humiliation of the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), had promised to capture Richmond in what he called the Peninsula Campaign, a name that echoed Napoleon’s “Peninsular War,” fought for possession of the Iberian Peninsula in 1807–1814. It was not the best Napoleonic parallel to evoke. The Peninsular War was one of the defeats from which Napoleon could not recover.

McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign spanned March to July 1862, culminating in the so-called Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862), the last of which was Malvern Hill (July 1). That battle ended in a tactical victory for McClellan, but a victory fought not on ground to which he had advanced, but to which he had retreated. Having set out to capture Richmond, the Young Napoleon ended up farther from the Confederate capital than he had been at the start of his endeavor. Moreover, while McClellan defended his high ground position expertly at Malvern Hill, bombarding Robert E. Lee’s attacking forces with fire from massed cannon that were positioned nearly wheel to wheel, he refused his field officers’ pleas to seize the initiative, hold Malvern Hill, and counterattack Lee. This might have revived and redeemed the Peninsula Campaign. Certainly, it would have taken a greater toll on Lee than the mere defense did. But George B. McClellan was completely cowed by the Confederate general, even when, as now, Lee committed a great blunder in fruitlessly attacking uphill. No sooner did Lee break off his attack than McClellan completed his withdrawal from the campaign against Richmond by returning to Harrison’s Landing, the location on the James River from which the Army of the Potomac had originally embarked.

Commanding a larger army than Lee, McClellan had failed in his mission. Nevertheless, his 16,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured, or missing) were 4,000 fewer than what he had inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia. Tactically, the Union forces had come out ahead. Strategically, they were humiliated. As if to certify his failure, Major General McClellan sent an abject telegram to the War Department on July 2, 1862: “I now pray for time. My men have proved themselves the equals of any troops in the world—but they are worn out. Our losses have been very great. I doubt whether more severe battles have ever been fought—we have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.”

The telegram did not appease Abraham Lincoln. Astoundingly, McClellan assessed Lee’s strength at almost 200,000 men. It was actually between 55,000 and 65,000. Feeling that McClellan was not just making poor use of the magnificent army he had built, but virtually no use of it, Lincoln summoned Major General John Pope to a conference. He assigned him to command a force to be known as the Army of Virginia. It would consist of numerous units in and around Virginia that had been slated for incorporation into the Army of the Potomac. As if this weren’t a sufficient demonstration of Lincoln’s loss of confidence in McClellan, who seemed not only unwilling but incapable of leaving Harrison’s Landing, Lincoln ordered him to return to northern Virginia and detach three Army of the Potomac corps to be put under Pope’s command and used in coordination with the Army of Virginia.

From today’s perspective, few would argue that Lincoln was wrong to shift the initiative away from McClellan; however, he could hardly have chosen a less popular officer to turn to. Pope had shown a certain brilliance as commanding general of the Army of the Mississippi against Confederate General Sterling Price in Missouri and in the capture of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River (February 28-April 8, 1862). His far greater military talent, however, was his unerring ability to alienate virtually everyone in the army, both officers and enlisted men. When he assumed command of the Army of Virginia in July 1862, he addressed his soldiers with a level of condescension that makes one cringe even to read it:

Let us understand each other. I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense. In but one instance has the enemy been able to place our Western armies in defensive attitude. I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily. I am sure you long for an opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving. That opportunity I shall endeavor to give you …

Amazingly, Pope also provoked a special outrage from the enemy. The Army of Virginia occupied a sliver of northern Virginia. Instead of trying to win over the populace there, Pope tyrannized them. He seized from the people whatever food supplies he wanted, and he repeatedly threatened to hang civilians as well as prisoners of war and traitors. Robert E. Lee found Pope’s conduct so unbecoming a military officer that he condemned him as no better than a “miscreant” in need of being “suppressed.”

It was not idle trash talk. Lee saw Pope as an inept and bombastic commander who was supplanting a timid one, McClellan. This made both the Army of Virginia and at least the three corps of the Army of the Potomac that were assigned to Pope’s command especially vulnerable—provided that Lee could strike before those three corps could link up with the Army of Virginia. Accordingly, on August 9, 1862, Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson to attack a portion of the Army of Virginia at Cedar Mountain, near Culpeper. The resulting Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862) was a minor Confederate victory that did no more than force Pope to withdraw to the north bank of Rappahannock River. But that was precisely where Lee wanted him. Lee could now attack before the reluctant, petulant, and slow-moving McClellan arrived with his three Army of the Potomac corps.

For the first time in his military career, Lee decided to violate a very basic tenet of military practice in the field. He put half the Army of Northern Virginia under Major General James “Old Pete” Longstreet, charging him with the mission of occupying Pope’s front. The other half Lee gave to Stonewall Jackson, ordering him to lead his wing on a roundabout march to the northwest, so that he could hit the rear of the Army of Virginia with a surprise attack as Longstreet attacked Pope’s front. It was a strategy Lee would use again in the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). The idea was to hold the enemy by the nose while kicking him in the rear.

Pope observed the movement of Longstreet and Jackson, but he did little enough about it, except to launch a harassing raid on the encampment of Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart. The aim of the raid was to capture or kill Stuart. While the raiders did manage to bag the cavalryman’s adjutant, Stuart himself got away. In his haste to leave, he forgot to take with him his trademark ostrich-plumed hat and crimson-lined cape. Pope’s raiders took these items as prizes—something that delighted them almost as much as having captured Stuart himself.

Jeb Stuart was outraged. Bad enough that his adjutant had been taken, but the raiders went too far when they stole that hat and cape. Duly provoked, on August 22, Stuart and a small raiding party rode full gallop into Major General Pope’s headquarters camp at Catlett’s Station. They captured 300 prisoners and “appropriated” $35,000 in Union army payroll money. Worse, perhaps, they rifled through Pope’s personal baggage, taking his dress uniform coat and also his battle plans. Four days later, on August 26, Stonewall Jackson attacked and destroyed Pope’s supply depot at Manassas Junction, Virginia, very near the site of the First Battle of Bull Run. As serious as the loss of supplies was, Jackson’s raid did far worse by severing Pope’s telegraph and rail lines. This partially cut off rapid communications to and from the field and greatly limited Pope’s ability to transfer large numbers of men rapidly. The Union commander pursued Jackson, but was unable to locate him—at least until Jackson wanted to be found.

On August 28, Stonewall suddenly materialized. He attacked a Union brigade under Brigadier General Rufus King at Groveton. The skirmish was intense. Not only were two of Jackson’s division commanders seriously wounded, but King’s “Black Hat Brigade” (later called the “Iron Brigade”) fought with a fervor Jackson had never before seen in a Union military unit. While King took a toll on Jackson, however, he also suffered heavy losses. Nearly a third of his brigade were killed, wounded, captured, or missing.

Together, the Manassas raid and the Battle of Groveton were overtures to the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862). For all the problems Jackson had caused him, Pope was actually given an important advantage. The Confederate commander had revealed himself and thereby sacrificed the element of surprise. Pope knew exactly where he was, and he began concentrating his forces accordingly, deploying near Groveton with the intention not only of defeating Stonewall Jackson, but boasting that he would “bag the whole crowd.”

Pope did what McClellan seemed unable to do. He took the initiative, and he attacked Jackson on August 29. The trouble was that the attacks came piecemeal. I Corps, under Franz Sigel, started in on Jackson, and then the Pennsylvania Reserves under John Reynolds joined in. Pope ordered Major General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps, Army of the Potomac, to get between Jackson’s Corps and Longstreet’s—but it was too late. Longstreet had already made contact with Jackson on his right. Porter was stymied, not knowing where to attack.

Another of Pope’s commanders, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, bore down on Jackson with his corps, as did elements of Major General Jesse L. Reno’s IX Corps and two divisions under Irvin McDowell, the Union commander defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run. Despite this impressive array of forces, Pope proved utterly unable to coordinate them. Individual Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac units made inroads against Jackson’s line here and there, but, lacking effective overall command, were unable to consolidate any of their gains. Each Union attack was repulsed in turn, and, after heavy fighting, Jackson remained in control of his position by the end of the day on August 29, while Longstreet, on his right, actively extended the Confederate line. Noting Longstreet’s advantage, Lee urged him to attack, but, always cautious, Longstreet declined, protesting that he had no idea of Pope’s strength to his right and front. Longstreet did launch a reconnaissance in force to ascertain what lay ahead. This resulted in some confused nighttime skirmishing, which prompted Longstreet to recall his brigades to their starting positions.

Although Longstreet had not intended this withdrawal to deceive Pope, Pope was nonetheless deceived. At daybreak on August 30, he assumed that both Jackson and Longstreet were in full and final retreat. He assumed that the Second Battle of Bull Run was over and that he had won. When it became evident that the Confederate commanders were not giving up, Pope was confused. Unsure what to do, Pope launched a massive attack against Jackson’s front. Porter’s V Corps attacked just after three in the afternoon. Although the attack was bold, it discounted the presence of Longstreet, who used his artillery to enfilade the attackers, firing along the length of Porter’s advance and cutting his men down like reaped wheat.

Lee was quick to take advantage of Porter’s repulse. He ordered Longstreet to make a general advance, and, this time, Longstreet did so wholeheartedly and with absolute confidence. His troops surged forward, smashing into Union positions on much the same ground that had been contested at the First Battle of Bull Run. Still, two Union corps managed to hold out, and federal troops were able to hold a position on Henry House Hill. This made it possible that the tide of battle could still be turned in the Union’s favor. But Pope had lost both situational awareness and the will to fight on. He saw only that his forces were being mauled and generally driven back. He did not grasp the significance of the action on and around the high ground of Henry House Hill. Accordingly, he ordered a general retreat back across Bull Run. Longstreet rushed in to take over Henry House Hill, and Pope continued to fall back, withdrawing the combined Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac to the outer defenses of Washington itself. Of the 75,696 troops under John Pope’s command, 1,724 were killed, 8,372 wounded, and 5,958 went missing. It was a devastating 21 percent casualty rate. Lee had a total of 48,527 men engaged, of which he lost 1,481 killed, 7,627 wounded, and 89 missing, making for a casualty rate almost as heavy as Pope’s—19 percent.

President Lincoln wasted no time in disposing of a general he hoped could have effectively replaced McClellan. Three short days after the Second Battle of Bull Run, Pope was ordered to service in the Department of the Northwest, where he was tasked with battling the Santee Sioux, who had staged an uprising in Minnesota. In effect, Lincoln exiled him, altogether removing him from the Civil War. His Army of Virginia was dissolved, and most of its units and personnel incorporated into the Army of the Potomac, whose three corps were also returned, all under the command of George B. McClellan—at least for the time being. McClellan was apparently rehabilitated, but—at this point—the Union was losing the Civil War.