Dargai, 20 October 1897 Part I

Dargai

The Gordon Highlanders storming Dargai Heights during the Tirah campaign in 1897. It was here that Piper Findlater won his VC. He was wounded and unable to walk and exposed to enemy fire. Despite this and his exposed position he continued playing, to encourage the Highlanders in their assault on the heights.

For a century the tangled mountains of the North-West Frontier of India provided the British and Indian Armies with a school for soldiers, a hard, unforgiving school in which mistakes cost lives and, above all, a school in which the only certainly was the unexpected. Prominent among the frontier tribes were the Afridi, of whom it was said that robbery, murder, treachery and merciless blood feuds were the very breath of life. The same, to varying degrees, might have been said of all the tribes along the frontier, the Wazirs, Mahsuds, Orakzai, Mohmands and Yusufzai. Masters of the ambush and guerrilla war, they fought constantly among themselves and regularly against the British, who could provide much dangerous sport when there was nothing more pressing to occupy their minds. Sometimes a serious incident would require the despatch of a punitive expedition which would fight its way into the tribal territory and destroy the offending villages. In due course, after they had had enough of fighting, the tribesmen would let it be known that they were willing to submit. A ‘jirga’ or council would be held, attended by the tribal headmen and the senior British military and political officers. A fine would be imposed, the troops would leave and all would remain quiet for a while. Then, in a few years’ time, the whole process would be repeated. Such events, however, tended to be local in character and it was unusual for large areas of the Frontier to be affected simultaneously.

Yet, the frontier tribes had another side to their character. Hospitality, for example, was regarded as a sacred trust. Devious with each other, they would react honestly if dealt with the same way. It could take years to win their trust, but once earned it could result in friendship for life. Many enlisted in regiments of the Indian Army and, having served their time loyally, would return home with their pensions and a mellower impression of the British Raj. Against this, the tribes were to a man devout Muslims to whom the killing of infidel Christians and Hindus was entirely impersonal and certainly no matter for conscience searching.

At the beginning of 1897, while those at home were preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Frontier was quiet, although the term was relative, and seemed likely to remain so. In July, however, it suddenly exploded in revolt along its entire length, presenting the authorities with the most formidable challenge they had ever faced, or were likely to again.

There was only one cause capable of uniting tribes normally at each other’s throats, and that was militant Islamic fundamentalism. Fanatical clergy were at work, notably the Mullah of Haddah among the Mohmands, the Mullah Powindah in Waziristan, the Mullah Sayid Akhbar in the Khyber region, and especially the Mullah Sadullah of Swat, known to the British as the Mad Fakir. Eyes blazing with fervour, Sadullah travelled from village to village preaching ‘jihad’ (holy war) against the infidel, accompanied by a thirteen-year-old boy whom he claimed was the last surviving heir of the Great Moghuls and would soon ascend the throne of his ancestors in Delhi. The situation was aggravated by Abdur Rahman, King of Afghanistan, who had recently produced a tract praising the concept of jihad and, displeased with the results of a recent frontier demarkation, urged the mullahs to drive the infidels from their land, although he had no intention of taking the field himself. Perhaps these factors would not on their own have been sufficient to provoke a general rising, but also present on the Frontier were agents of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey, determined to make trouble for the British in revenge for a humiliating diplomatic snub he had received at their hands. The line taken by these agents was to hint that Great Britain had been seriously weakened by its quarrel with the Sultan, and since the truth of this would not suffice, lies would do just as well. The Suez Canal and Aden were now in Turkish hands, they claimed, so that whereas reinforcements from the United Kingdom would normally take three weeks to reach India, they would now take six months; and, that being the case, the jihad would be over long before they could arrive. Being simple people with a limited knowledge of geography and no means of verifying the truth, the tribesmen accepted what they were told and were much encouraged.

The fuze which actually detonated the explosion had been in place since the previous year when a government clerk, a Hindu, was murdered in northern Waziristan. As the culprit was never brought to justice a fine of 2,000 rupees was imposed on the area. One village, Maizar, refused to pay its share and on 10 May 1897 the political agent, Mr Gee, arrived there to settle the dispute, accompanied by a military escort of some 300 men. The troops were offered hospitality to lull them into a false sense of security, then were treacherously attacked by over 1,000 tribesmen. After all three British officers had received mortal wounds the Indian officers took charge and embarked on a difficult fighting withdrawal from the village, despatching several cavalrymen to summon reinforcements. These reached the force during the evening, having covered nine miles in 90 minutes, and enabled it to break contact. Losses among the Indian soldiers amounted to 23 officers and men killed, and a large number of wounded; it was estimated that about 100 of their attackers were killed.

During the weeks that followed the rising spread like wildfire along the Frontier, the garrisons of fortified posts having to fight desperately for their lives against an enemy who, inflamed with religious fervour, launched repeated attacks regardless of losses. At the end of August disaster struck. The forts guarding the Khyber Pass were held by an irregular and locally raised unit known as the Khyber Rifles, officered entirely by Afridis. Raised after the Second Afghan War, they had given good service in the past but had become seriously unsettled by the mullahs’ propaganda. On 23 August the rebels closed in around the forts. That at Ali Musjid was simply abandoned, while the garrison at Fort Maude offered only a token resistance before falling back on a relief column from Fort Jamrud. Next day it was the turn of Landi Kotal, which resisted successfully for 24 hours before treacherous elements opened the gates; some of the garrison joined the rebels, some were allowed to leave after handing over their weapons, but others, remaining true to their salt, managed to fight their way through to Jamrud. Control of the pass, the vital communications route between India and Afghanistan, was not regained until December. Such was the fury of the tribal assault that those holding the smaller posts stood little or no chance of survival.

On 12 September the heliograph station at Saragarhi, midway between Forts Gulistan and Lockhart, covering the important Samana Ridge to the south of the Khyber and held by the 36th Sikhs, was attacked overwhelming strength. The garrison, consisting of twenty men under Havildar Ishan Singh, beat off two frenzied attacks during the morning, strewing the surrounding rocks with bodies. However, some of the Afridis, taking advantage of an area of dead ground, began picking away at the brick wall until part of it collapsed, creating a breach. The Sikhs ran from their fire positions to repel the renewed assault but were too few in number and in ferocious hand to hand fighting were forced back into their barrack block, where they fought to the last man. One sepoy, barricading himself in the guard room, shot down or bayoneted twenty of his assailants before perishing in the flames of the burning building; another, one of the post’s signallers, remained in heliograph contact with Fort Lockhart until the end. Jubilant, the Afridis swarmed to join their comrades who had invested Fort Gulistan that morning. Held in much greater strength, this proved to be a tougher nut to crack and, despite casualties, was still holding three days later when the tribesmen, flayed by the shellfire of a relief column advancing from Fort Lockhart, abandoned the siege and dispersed into the hills. Thanks to the 36th Sikhs, the Samana Ridge forts remained in British hands and in recognition of the fact the regiment was awarded the unique battle honour ‘Samana’.

Such desperate actions as these marked the high water mark of the rising, although months of fierce fighting lay ahead before the Frontier was pacified. The government of India had been taken aback by the sheer scale and ferocity of the revolt but reacted by despatching strong punitive columns to Malakand and against the Wazirs, Mohmands, Afridis and Orakzais. Considerations of space inhibit describing even the more important actions save one, that fought by the 1st Gordon Highlanders at Dargai, which has passed into the legends of Frontier warfare.

A contemporary general inspection report describes the battalion as being ‘A particularly fine one. The officers as a body are an exceptionally nice set; the warrant officers and NCOs seem to be very efficient, and the privates have an admirable physique.’ Like every good unit, the Gordons reflected the personality of their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. Mathias, whose bullet head, determined jaw, bristling moustache and level blue eyes indicated a no-nonsense, instinctive fighter. In many ways Mathias was a commander well ahead of his time, paying attention not only to the more obvious aspects of his profession but also to the physical condition of his men and their morale. In 1896 the battalion won the Queen’s Cup for shooting and it was regarded as having the best signallers of any British regiment in India. Field exercises took place regularly, one advanced feature being the instruction of NCOs in military sketching, in those days an essential element in reconnaissance, usually taught only to officers. Mathias kept his men fit with a programme of athletics, hill-racing and football, contests being held between companies and against neighbouring units. There were also regimental concert parties and other activities to combat the boredom of cantonment life. The impression given is that the 1st Gordon Highlanders was a highly trained, efficient battalion, entirely at ease with itself and held in high regard; it was, too, an experienced battalion, having taken part in the Chitral Expedition of 1895.

In April 1897 the Gordons, based at Rawalpindi on the Punjab side of the North-West Frontier Province boundary, moved up to their hot weather station in the Murree Hills, expecting to remain there throughout the summer. At the beginning of August, however, in response to the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Frontier, it returned to Rawalpindi whence it was immediately despatched to Jamrud. Here it formed part of a force that prevented the rebels advancing further along the Khyber.

By October the British counter-measures had begun to take effect. Nevertheless, it was appreciated that the tribes would not submit until the war was carried onto their own territory and it was decided to advance deep into the Tirah region. In this area it was estimated that together the Afridis and Orakzais could field between 40-50,000 men and for this reason the Tirah Field Force, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir William Lockhart, was the largest punitive expedition ever assembled on the Frontier. It consisted of two divisions (the 1st under Major-General W. P. Symons and the 2nd under Major-General A. G. Yeatman-Biggs), two flanking columns, a strong lines of communication element and a reserve brigade. Altogether, 11,892 British and 22,614 Indian troops were involved, accompanied by almost 20,000 followers who performed menial but essential tasks; there were also 8,000 horses, 1,440 ponies for the sick and wounded, over 18,000 mules and an enormous number of camels, carts and baggage ponies. Lockhart’s plan was to concentrate at Kohat and enter Tirah from the south by crossing the Samana Ridge at a pass west of Fort Gulistan. He would then force two more passes which would bring him to his ultimate objective, the Tirah Maidan, a wide fertile valley upon which the surrounding tribes relied for subsistence, rarely if ever visited by Europeans before.

Together with the 1st Dorsetshire Regiment, the 15th Sikhs and the lst/2nd Gurkhas, the Gordons constituted Brigadier-General F. J. Kempster’s 3rd Brigade, which formed part of the 2nd Division. The Tirah Field Force left Kohat on 7 October, its route taking it past the now deserted ruins of Saragarhi signal station. By 15 October, marching by easy stages, it had reached Shinawari, but beyond this point progress across the Samana Ridge was blocked by a substantial force of tribesmen holding the village of Dargai, located at the summit of a towering spur that dominated the only road. The crest was lined with sangars, while the rocks themselves contained numerous fissures that provided natural rifle pits. Immediately below the village were precipitous cliffs, broken here and there by goat paths, and below these was a steeply sloping open space several hundred yards wide, forming a glacis that could be swept by fire from above. An attacker who succeeded in crossing this would then find his further upward progress restricted to goat paths or funnelled into the narrowing approach to the village itself, where he could be picked off with ease. Nature, therefore, had endowed Dargai with better defences than many a purpose-built fortress.

Lockhart had only the 2nd Division in hand, the 1st Division still being on the march some sixteen miles short of Shinawari. He nonetheless decided that the former would take Dargai at once, conduct of the operation being entrusted to Lieutenant-General Sir Power Palmer, normally responsible for the force’s lines of communication, as Yeatman-Biggs was ill. Palmer’s plan was for Brigadier R. Westmacott’s 4th Brigade to mount a frontal attack on the village, covered by two mountain batteries, while Kempster’s 3rd Brigade made a wide detour to the west, threatening the defenders’ right flank and rear.

The troops moved off during the early hours of 18 October. The route of Kempster’s brigade, which Palmer accompanied, took it up a dry watercourse that had its source near the western summit of the spur. The higher they climbed, the rougher became the going, the narrower the stream bed, the larger the boulders and the steeper the slope. After five miles had been covered the Gurkhas, in the lead, gave the appearance of flies walking up a wall. A point had now been reached at which the mules were unable to cope with the precipitous going and Palmer decided to send back his guns and the field hospital, escorted by the Dorsets and part of the 15th Sikhs. The Gordons, bringing up the rear, had perforce to halt and let them through. From about 09:00 onwards the steady thumping of guns indicated that the mountain batteries were engaged in their preliminary bombardment of Dargai.

At about 11:00 heliograph contact was established with Westmacott’s brigade, which was making slow but steady progress, often in single file, up the direct route towards the village. By noon the Gordons, after a stiff two-hour scramble, had joined lst/2nd Gurkhas and 15th Sikhs on the slopes above the source of the watercourse, attracting sporadic long range fire. The coordination between the two brigades had been excellent, for Westmacott’s battalions were now in position to launch their assault. Under a hail of fire from above, the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers and lst/3rd Gurkhas swarmed across the open slope and up the goat tracks to the village. The tribesmen hastily abandoned their positions and fled, sped on their way by a few long range volleys from Kempster’s men. The capture of Dargai had been a model operation, costing the Borderers only six casualties and the Gurkhas thirteen. Undoubtedly, the enemy’s resistance would have been far stiffer had not Kempster’s brigade threatened their rear, always a sensitive area in tribal warfare.

By mid-afternoon both brigades had been concentrated at Dargai. For the reasons quoted below, Palmer decided to abandon the position, despite the fact that two large groups of tribesmen, one estimated to be over 4,000 strong, could be seen converging on the spur from their camps in the Khanki Valley. Westmacott’s brigade, less two companies of Borderers, led off first. Between 16:00 and 17:00, with the sun falling towards the western skyline, Kempster’s brigade prepared to follow, covered initially by the 15th Sikhs. They, in turn, were covered by the Gordons and the two Borderer companies as they disengaged and passed through. By now the tribesmen, having reoccupied the sangars along the crest, were directing an increasingly heavy fire at those on the open slope below the cliffs, making the officers their special target. Major Jennings Bramly was killed and Lieutenant Pears was wounded; Second Lieutenant Young had his helmet shot off; and Lieutenant Dalrymple Hay, feeling blood running down his cheek, discovered that it had been grazed by a bullet.

When the moment came, Colonel Mathias released the Borderers then ordered three of his own five companies back into fresh fire positions from which they could support the withdrawal of the remaining two. One of the latter had succeeded in disengaging, as had half of Captain F. W. Kerr’s company, when a body of the enemy broke cover some 30 yards distant, fired a ragged volley and charged the small group remaining. Six of them were dropped almost at bayonet point, four of them falling to Private W. Rennie, and the rest made off when they were engaged by Captain Miller Wallnutt’s company from its new fire position. While this was taking place Lieutenant Young, Surgeon-Captain Gerrard and Colour Sergeant Craib, went out and rescued a wounded man who was in immediate danger of being hacked to death.

Dargai, 20 October 1897 Part II

Dargai

Storming the Dargai Heights.

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Darkness put an end to the fighting. In addition to the casualties mentioned above, the Gordons had sustained another man killed and seven wounded. Dead and wounded alike were carried down the rough two-mile track to the road, on reaching which the battalion formed up and marched the six miles back to the camp at Shinawari.

The reasons given by Palmer for abandoning Dargai include the following:

  1. The 2nd Division was not strong enough to hold the position, guard Shinawari camp and maintain communications between the two.
  2. There was no water supply between Dargai and Shinawari, and no supply of firewood at Dargai.
  3. The continued occupation of Dargai would have revealed the proposed axis of advance into tribal territory, which was not desirable.
  4. The 1st Division was still a day’s march short of Shinawari.

The reader might agree that some of these look extremely thin, while others might be regarded as excellent reasons for not having mounted the operation in the first place. As it was, the Orakzais could claim to have repulsed a British attempt to capture the position, and at this stage of the revolt the mere suggestion of a tribal victory was the last thing that was wanted. Nevertheless, for the better part of the next day Lockhart, lulled into a false sense of security by the arrival of the 1st Division, refused to accept the reality of the situation, expressing the opinion that the continued work of improvement on the road, protected as it was by strong covering parties, would in itself deter the enemy from re-occupying Dargai. However, when he was informed that evening that Dargai Heights were now held by an estimated 12,000 Afridi and Orakzai, he reacted with commendable speed. Because it knew the ground, the 2nd Division, reinforced by elements of the 1st Division, would again clear the spur. This time, there would be no subtlety of manoeuvre against the enemy’s flank and rear; what he intended was a straightforward frontal attack in strength, supported by the fire of the divisional artillery, supplemented by an additional battery. At this point personalities began to have a bearing on subsequent events. Lockhart detested Westmacott, and decided that Kempster, whom he merely disliked, would deliver the assault, under the control of Yeatman-Biggs, who had returned to duty.

When the troops, having been briefed on the operation, marched out of camp at 04:30 on 20 October, their muttered opinion of the generals was ripe, to say the least. No doubt Kempster,1 whom they loathed, received the lion’s share of the blame, which in this case was a little unfair as the decisions had not been his.

By 10:00 the guns were pounding the summit, which the Gordons also brought under long range rifle fire. The enemy, secure in their sangars and rocky clefts, were little affected by this; they had, moreover, strengthened their defences and from one point they were also able to direct a crossfire across the all-important open slope below the cliff. Thus, when the lst/2nd Gurkhas rose to attack, the entire summit erupted in a wild storm of fire. Under the impact of thousands of bullets the dusty surface of the slope was churned into a dust cloud in which it seemed nothing could live. Gurkhas could be seen falling and their casualties strewed the ground. Despite this, three companies reached the cover of a rocky shelf approximately halfway across, but further progress was impossible. Worse still, every attempt by their comrades to reach them resulted in more men shot down. Jubilant, the tribesmen began waving their flags, beating drums and shouting defiance.

Kempster ordered the 1st Dorsets to make the attempt. A few managed to sprint across the fatal 150 yards to the safety of the ledge, but as a whole the battalion was stopped in its tracks. It was then the turn of the 2nd Derbyshire Regiment,2 but they fared no better. As each attack failed the frenzy of the tribesmen reached higher levels of exultation.

It was now mid-afternoon and, despite the carpet of dead, dying and wounded covering the lower half of the slope, Dargai Heights still remained firmly in enemy hands. The crisis of the battle having been reached, Yeatman-Biggs ordered Kempster to commit the Gordons and the 3rd Sikhs, his last reserves. The latter were providing an escort for the guns on a lower spur and had to await relief by a Jhind state infantry battalion, but the Gordons moved off at once.

As they clambered up the narrow path they were not encouraged by the steady stream of dead and wounded being carried past in the opposite direction. At length they formed up in dead ground screened by some low scrub at the lower edge of the slope. Nearby, grim-faced Derbys, Dorsets and Gurkhas lay firing at the enemy, now capering among the rocks and yelling derisive insults.

It is a matter of record that Highland infantry, heirs to a long and violent history in which the carrying of arms and settlement of disputes by force was usual, have always launched their attacks with a unique speed and a berserk ferocity that was very difficult and often impossible to stop. Colonel Mathias knew how best to awaken these qualities in his men and, having been told that his assault would be preceded by three minutes’

concentrated artillery fire on the summit, he used the interval to address them very briefly, his voice cutting like a whiplash through the sounds of gunfire, musketry, savage drumming and yells:

The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it!’

There was a moment’s silence. The men knew the terrible risks involved, but the Colonel had given his word on their behalf and not one of them would let him down.

‘Aye!’ It was a spontaneous roar from 600 throats.

‘Officers and pipers to the fore!’

It was now, as the sun glinted on the officers’ drawn broadswords and the Pipe Major took his place, throwing his plaid and drones across his shoulder with infinite swagger, that the inherited instincts of countless bloody if long-forgotten clan battles began to surface, causing the scalp to crawl and the hackles to rise. Like their forebears of old, they, led by their chief men and pipers, were going out to meet the enemy, steel to steel. Suddenly, the supporting gunfire ceased.

‘Bugler – sound Advance!’

Like a tidal wave the Gordons poured out of cover and onto the deadly open slopes. The pipers struck up the regimental march, The Cock o’ the North,3 a fine ranting tune that skirled across the hillside, evoking a response from every man present. Yelling, the entire battalion swept upwards. Mathias, still up with the leaders, had unleashed the full fury of his Gordons and knew that they would give the shortest shrift to anyone who got in their way.

Perhaps the sudden appearance of the battalion caught the enemy unawares. If so, the respite was only of seconds’ duration. Once again, the crest blazed with fire and, once again, the dust was stirred into a fine mist by the pelting hail of bullets. And now the Gordons began to go down. Lieutenant Lamont was killed outright at the head of his men. Major Macbean, shot through the thigh, crawled to a boulder and continued to cheer on the assault. Lieutenant Dingwall, hit in four places and unable to move, was carried to safety by Private Lawson, who then returned to bring in the wounded Private Macmillan, being hit twice while doing so. The pipers, who could neither run nor take cover and still play, continued to walk upright and thus became a special target for the enemy. Lance-Corporal Milne, among the first to set foot on the slope, continued to march upwards until shot through the chest. Piper George Findlater suddenly felt his feet knocked from under him by a sharp blow. Sitting up, he discovered that he had been shot through both ankles but, disregarding alike the enemy’s fire, the pain and the fear that he might never walk normally again, he continued to play his comrades into action. Mathias was hit but kept moving. Major Downman got a bullet through his helmet. Other men felt rounds twitching at their kilts and tunics. Major Macbean, reaching for his water bottle after the assault had passed by, found it empty save for the bullet responsible for draining the contents.

It took less than two minutes for the leading companies to reach the ledge where the Gurkhas were sheltering, although it seemed far longer. There they paused briefly to get their breath back while the others closed up. Then, with a wave of the broadsword and a sharp shout of ‘Come!’ the officers led a second rush across the ledge to the foot of the escarpment. This time the Gordons were accompanied by kukri-wielding Gurkhas, keen to exact payment for the long hours they had spent pinned down. Another pause, and then the Gordons were scrambling up the goat paths towards the summit. Already the enemy’s triumphant drumming had stopped and his firing become ragged. Instinctively the tribesmen understood that the green-kilted soldiers could not be stopped and, recognising the murder in their attackers’ eyes, they began shredding away. Those with a mind to stay quickly changed it when, far below, they saw the 3rd Sikhs crossing the open slope, big, bearded, turbaned men coming steadily on behind a line of levelled bayonets. There were, too, large numbers of Dorsets, Derbys and Gurkhas who, inspired by the Gordons’ assault, were rushing forward to join in the attack.

Thus, when the Gordons finally reached the summit, they found the sangars contained only a handful of dead and wounded. The reverse slopes of the spur, however, were black with the running figures of thousands of tribesmen, into whom a rapid fire was opened, sending many tumbling among the rocks.

Mathias, out of breath and bleeding, reached the summit alongside Colour Sergeant Mackie.

‘Stiff climb, eh, Mackie?’ he remarked. ‘I’m not quite so young as I was, you know.’

‘Och, never you mind, sir,’ replied the colour sergeant, slapping his commanding officer on the back with a familiarity justified by events, ‘Ye were goin’ verra strong for an auld man!’ If the compliment was unintentionally back-handed, the admiration was genuine, as Mathias found when his Gordons, now laughing and joking, gathered round to give him three cheers.

Yeatman-Biggs was determined that the tribesmen would not be given a second chance to reoccupy the heights and detailed the Gurkhas and the Dorsets to hold them. The Gordons volunteered to carry down their wounded, an act of kindness that was greatly appreciated. Afterwards, as they marched to their own bivouac, each regiment they passed broke into spontaneous cheering, officers and men pressing forward to shake their hands and offer their water bottles, a small gesture but a very generous one considering that no further supplies could be obtained until the following day.

As the Widow of Windsor’s parties went, the second capture of Dargai Heights was small in scale but it was as bitterly contested as any. The cost was three officers and 33 other ranks killed and twelve officers and 147 other ranks wounded, the majority of these casualties being incurred on the lowest 150 yards of the open slope. The Gordons’ share amounted to one officer and six other ranks killed and six officers and 31 other ranks wounded. In the circumstances this was little short of astonishing but can be attributed to the speed with which the attack was delivered across the most exposed portion of the open slope, this being cited in later tactical manuals.

Mathias was to receive many congratulatory telegrams on behalf of his battalion; from the Queen and from the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, from the Gordons’ 2nd Battalion, from the regiment’s friendly rivals the Black Watch, and from Caledonian societies all over the world, including the United States.

Yeatman-Biggs recommended that the Victoria Cross be awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel Mathias, Piper Findlater and Private Lawson. In Mathias’ case the supreme award was denied, thanks to an incredibly priggish decision by the War Office that neither general officers nor battalion commanders were eligible for the Cross, presumably because they were doing nothing less than their duty.4 Queen Victoria made her own feelings known in no uncertain manner by promptly appointing him as one of her aides de camp with the rank of colonel, although he continued to command the battalion until its return to Scotland the following year. Piper Findlater5 and Private Lawson received the award in the field. In addition, Colour Sergeants J. Mackie and T. Craib, Sergeants F. Ritchie, D. Mathers, J. Donaldson and J. Mackay, and Lance-Corporal (Piper) G. Milne were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the last mentioned being decorated personally by the Queen when he was invalided home.6

The Tirah Field Force fought many more battles as it penetrated deeper into tribal territory, but none was as fiercely contested or as critical as Dargai. Early in November it reached its objective, the Tirah Maidan, a beautiful, fertile valley one hundred square miles in extent, flanked by pine-clad slopes and dotted with copses. There were numerous houses, each of which, significantly, was fortified against its neighbours. In the storerooms were piled high the fruits of the recent harvest – Indian corn, beans, barley, honey, potatoes, walnuts and onions. The entire valley was deserted, the inhabitants having taken their families with them into the hills. Lockhart despatched columns into every corner of the Tirah, where the resistance encountered clearly indicated that the tribes had no intention of submitting. Reluctantly, he decided that if they would not talk he would begin laying waste the valley. The troops, many of whom came from farming stock, did not enjoy the work, but the sight of groves being felled and columns of smoke rising from burning buildings produced the desired result. With the exception of the ungovernable Zakha Khel, who did not submit until the following April, the tribes sent in their leaders to a jirga where they accepted their punishment: they would give up 800 serviceable rifles, pay a fine of 50,000 rupees and return all the property they had stolen during the rising. On 7 December, with the worst of the winter snows approaching, the evacuation of the Tirah Maidan began. The withdrawal of the 1st Division was comparatively uneventful, but that of the 2nd Division was subject to constant ambushes and attacks that inflicted 164 casualties and were obviously not the work of the Zakha Khel alone. Nevertheless, so thoroughly had the rising been put down that during the next twenty years only five major punitive expeditions were required to police troublesome areas, and never again was fighting so widespread along the Frontier.

It would be absurd to suggest that any love was lost between the British and the tribes, but there was a great deal of mutual respect and during both World Wars thousands of the latter volunteered for service with the Crown. There was even a sense of loss when the British left India, for now no one remained for their young men to prove themselves against, even their hereditary Hindu enemies having been removed far to the south of them by the creation of the Islamic state of Pakistan. Yet the world was to hear of them again, for when the Soviet Union launched its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 the Frontier again became an arsenal and huge numbers crossed to fight alongside their co-religious kindred in the Mujahideen. For all its size, the Soviet Army was unable to cope. In the end, therefore, the mullahs’ promise of a successful jihad had been fulfilled, albeit a century after it was made and against a very different kind of infidel.

 

Notes

  1. Kempster had an unfortunate personality and was so unpopular throughout the Tirah Field Force that its members coined the verb ‘to be kempstered,’ that is, generally mucked about. For all that, he was a capable enough officer in action.
  2. Later the Sherwoood Foresters.
  3. The Cock o’ the North was the nickname of the Duke of Gordon who had raised the regiment 104 years earlier.
  4. At the time the Victoria Cross warrant also incorporated a clause to the effect that in the event of subsequent ‘scandalous conduct’ the award would be forfeit. This rarely happened but when it did there was an understandable public outcry in protest. King Edward VII put an end to this sort of sanctimonious humbug.
  5. To quote from a footnote in Chapter 26 of the Gordon Highlanders’ regimental history, The Life of a Regiment: The incident of the wounded piper continuing to play, being telegraphed home, took the British public by storm, and when Findlater arrived in England he found himself famous. Reporters rushed to interview him; managers offered him fabulous sums to play at their theatres; the streets of London and all the country towns were placarded with his portrait; when, after his discharge, he was brought to play at the Military Tournament, royal personages and distinguished generals shook him by the hand; his photograph was sold by thousands; the Scotsmen in London would have let him swim in champagne, and the daily cheers of the multitude were enough to turn an older head than that of this young soldier. A handsome pension enabled Findlater to rest on his laurels and turn his sword into a ploughshare on a farm near Turriff. He re-enlisted for the Great War, though not fit for foreign service.’
  6. Throughout their subsequent history the Gordon Highlanders celebrated the anniversary of Dargai wherever they were stationed. Thanks to government economies that have reduced the Army’s strength to the lowest level for 300 years, the regiment no longer has an independent existence, having merged with the Queen’s Own Highlanders to form a new regiment, The Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons). This will, however, continue to celebrate the anniversary of the action.

Ia Drang Valley

Ia_Drang_Infantry_disembarking_from_Helicopter

The 1st Cavalry Division deploys the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, at Ia Drang two miles to the northeast of Landing Zone X-Ray. There they are ambushed by Communist forces and nearly overrun until rescued by the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry. American losses are 276 men to an estimated 400 Viet Cong.

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The most significant individual battle of the Vietnam War was fought on November 14, 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands. It was the first engagement of North Vietnamese Forces and an American unit, bolstered by the technology of the helicopter to deliver troops into battle. The 1st Air Cavalry Division prevailed, but not without sustaining significant casualties, and the victory was sealed when US airpower was unleashed against the numerically superior forces of the PAVN. This earliest of battles is described with great detail using eyewitness accounts in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway ‘ s We Were Soldiers Once and Young (2004 [1992]). Such writing was possible because the authors had been involved in the battle as commander and reporter, respectively. They not only chronicle the battle moment by moment, but they offer a gripping analysis of the impact of the outcome of the battle on decision – making in Washington, Saigon and Hanoi. The American leadership assumed massive force and technology would always prevail, and the PAVN leadership decided to minimize force size to avoid casualties. They also realized that Cambodia provided sanctuary: “I was always taught as an officer that in a pursuit situation you continue to pursue until you either kill the enemy or he surrenders… Not to follow them into Cambodia violated every principle of warfare. It became perfectly clear to the North Vietnamese that they then had sanctuary; they could come when they were ready to fight and leave when they were ready to quit “. Ultimately, the North Vietnamese analysis of the battle and subsequent battlefield strategy would prevail.

Operations in mid-October by units of the 1st Air Cavalry provided intelligence on PAVN dispositions and General Westmoreland decided on a spoiling attack. This resulted in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, a forested area just east of the Chu Pong massif, from 23 October to 20 November. It was the first major battle between PAVN and US Army units and one of the war’s bloodiest encounters.

On 27 October Westmoreland committed a brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry to search-and-destroy operations. For two weeks there was sporadic but light contact between the opposing sides. This changed on 14 November. Over the next four days savage fighting erupted over landing zones (LZS) X-Ray and Albany. It began when Lieut. Col. Harold Moore’s understrength 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment-some 450 men-landed at LZ “XRay” almost on top of two PAVN regiments of 2,000 men. Outnumbered and in unfamiliar terrain, the Americans fought desperately. In bitter, sometimes hand-to-hand combat, the Americans drove back the attackers. Beginning the next day, 15 B-52 bombers from Guam began six days of Arc Light strikes on the Chu Pong massif. It was the first time that B-52s were employed in a tactical role in support of ground troops. Moore’s battalion was relieved by Lieut. Col. Robert Tully’s 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was then ordered to vacate LZ “X-Ray” and march overland to “Albany” two miles away. Three PAVN battalions ambushed the Americans en route, and in the most savage one-day battle of the war 155 Americans were killed and another 124 wounded.

The battle ended when PAVN units withdrew across the border into Cambodia. In a month of fighting the 1st Air Cavalry had lost 305 killed. The Americans estimated PAVN losses at 3,561, less than half of these confirmed. Both sides claimed victory. The PAVN learned they could survive high-tech American weapons and the new helicopter tactics. They also learned to minimize casualties by keeping combat troops close to US positions in what Giap referred to as his “grab them by the belt” tactic.

The PAVN had inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, even while suffering horrendously themselves. But the PAVN leadership believed that even lopsided body counts favoured them and would eventually wear down American resolve. The Americans believed they had prevented a decisive PAVN success before the US deployment could be completed. Westmoreland and his chief deputy, General William DePuy, both of whom had learned their trade in the meat-grinder battles of World War II, saw their estimated 12 to 1 kill ratio advantage as proof that the war could be won through attrition, by carrying the conflict to the PAVN in search and destroy operations. Indeed, Time magazine selected General Westmoreland as its Man of the Year for 1965. In that year the United States lost 1,275 killed, 5,466 wounded, 16 captured, and 137 missing. RVN forces lost 11,403 killed, 23,296 wounded, and 7,589 missing. The Allies estimated VC/PAVN dead at 35,382 killed and 5,873 captured.

The Battle

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LTC Hal Moore, Commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, on the radio during the fight for LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam. Hal Moore regarded the battle as a draw, and I agree with that assessment. Another veteran put it, “The survivors of Landing Zone X-Ray have always had an aura of fame about them. They fought in the first violent “stand up” fight of the war, and they won… barely.”

The North Vietnamese Army attacked a Special Forces camp at Plei Me; when it was repulsed, Westmoreland directed the division to launch an offensive to locate and destroy enemy regiments that had been identified in the vicinity of the camp. The result was the Battle of the Ia Drang, named for a small river that flowed through the valley, the area of operations. For thirty-five days the division pursued and fought the North Vietnamese 32d, 33d, and 66th People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) Regiments, until the enemy, suffering heavy casualties, returned to his bases in Cambodia.

With scout platoons of its air cavalry squadron covering front and flanks, each battalion of the division’s 1st Brigade established company bases from which patrols searched for enemy forces. For several days neither ground patrols nor aeroscouts found any trace, but on November 4 the scouts spotted a regimental aid station several miles west of Plei Me. Quick-reacting aerorifle platoons converged on the site. Hovering above, the airborne scouts detected an enemy battalion nearby and attacked from UH-1B Huey gunships with aerial rockets and machine guns. Operating beyond the range of their ground artillery, Army units engaged the enemy in an intense firefight, killing ninety-nine, capturing the aid station, and seizing many documents.

The search for the main body of the enemy continued for the next few days, with Army units concentrating their efforts in the vicinity of the Chu Pong Massif, a mountain range and likely enemy base near the Cambodian border. Communist forces were given little rest, as patrols harried and ambushed them.

The heaviest fighting was yet to come. As the division began the second stage of its campaign, enemy forces began to move out of the Chu Pong base. Units of the U. S. 1st Cavalry Division’s 3d Brigade, which took over from the 1st Brigade, advanced to establish artillery bases and landing zones at the base of the mountain. Landing Zone X-RAY was one of several U. S. positions vulnerable to attack by the enemy forces that occupied the surrounding high ground. Here on November 14 began fighting that pitted three battalions against elements of two North Vietnamese regiments. Withstanding repeated mortar attacks and infantry assaults, the Americans used every means of firepower available to them-the division’s own gunships, massive artillery bombardment, hundreds of strafing and bombing attacks by tactical aircraft, earth-shaking bombs dropped by B-52 bombers from Guam, and, perhaps most important, the individual soldier’s M16 rifle-to turn back a determined enemy. The Communists lost more than 600 dead, the Americans 79.

Although badly hurt, the enemy did not leave the Ia Drang Valley. Elements of the 33d and 66th PAVN Regiments, moving east toward Plei Me, encountered the U. S. 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, a few miles north of X-RAY at Landing Zone ALBANY, on November 17. The fight that resulted was a bloody reminder of the North Vietnamese mastery of the ambush, as the Communists quickly snared four U. S. companies in their net. As the trapped units struggled for survival, nearly all semblance of organized combat disappeared in the confusion and mayhem. Neither reinforcements nor effective firepower could be brought in. At times combat was reduced to valiant efforts by individuals and small units to avert annihilation. When the fighting ended that night, almost 70 percent of the Americans were casualties and almost one of every three soldiers in the battalion had been killed.

Lessons!?

Despite the horrific casualties from the ambush near Landing Zone ALBANY, the Battle of the Ia Drang was lauded as the first major American triumph of the Vietnam War. The airmobile division, committed to combat less than a month after it arrived in country, relentlessly pursued the enemy over difficult terrain and defeated crack North Vietnamese Army units. In part, its achievements underlined the flexibility that Army divisions had gained in the early 1960s under the Reorganization Objective Army Division (ROAD) concept. Replacing the flawed pentomic division with its five lightly armed battle groups, the ROAD division, organized around three brigades, facilitated the creation of brigade and battalion task forces tailored to respond and fight in a variety of military situations. The newly organized division reflected the Army’s embrace of the concept of flexible response and proved eminently suitable for operations in Vietnam. The helicopter was given great credit as well. Nearly every aspect of the division’s operations was enhanced by its airmobile capacity. During the battle, artillery units were moved sixty-seven times by helicopter. Intelligence, medical, and all manner of logistical support benefited as well from the speed and flexibility helicopters provided. Despite the fluidity of the tactical situation, airmobile command and control procedures enabled the division to move and keep track of its units over a large area and to accommodate the frequent and rapid changes in command arrangements as units moved from one headquarters to another.

Yet for all the advantages the division accrued from airmobility, its performance was not without blemish. Though the conduct of division-size airmobile operations proved tactically sound, two major engagements stemmed from the enemy’s initiative in attacking vulnerable American units. On several occasions massive air and artillery support provided the margin of victory, if not survival. Above all, the division’s logistical self-sufficiency fell short of expectations. It could support only one brigade in combat at a time, for prolonged and intense operations consumed more fuel and ammunition than the division’s helicopters and fixed-wing Caribou aircraft could supply. Air Force tactical airlift became necessary for resupply. Moreover, in addition to combat losses and damage, the division’s helicopters suffered from heavy use and from the heat, humidity, and dust of Vietnam, taxing its maintenance capacity. Human attrition was also high: hundreds of soldiers, the equivalent of almost a battalion, fell victim to a resistant strain of malaria peculiar to Vietnam’s highlands.

Westmoreland’s satisfaction in blunting the enemy’s offensive was tempered by concern that enemy forces might reenter South Vietnam and resume their offensive while the airmobile division recuperated at the end of November and during most of December. He thus requested immediate reinforcements from the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii and scheduled to deploy to South Vietnam in the spring of 1966. By the end of 1965, the division’s 3d Brigade had been airlifted to the highlands and, within a month of its arrival, had joined elements of the 1st Cavalry Division to launch a series of operations to screen the border. Army units did not detect any major enemy forces trying to cross from Cambodia into South Vietnam. Each operation, however, killed hundreds of enemy soldiers and refined airmobile techniques, as Army units learned to cope with the vast territorial expanse and difficult terrain of the highlands.

Moore, Hall G., and Joseph L. Galloway ( 2004 [1992] ). We Were Soldiers Once and Young: Ia Drang – the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam. Novato, CA: Presidio Press.

Battle of Reports – Gettysburg I

In the orders, issued less than a month before the Battle of Gettysburg, Adjultant General and Inspector General CS Army Samuel Cooper[1] required all officers to “confine their statements to the facts and events connected with the matter on which they report.” This included “sieges, campaigns or battles.” He emphasized further that: “No extraneous subject, whether of speculation or of collateral narrative, has a proper place in the official reports of military operations. As much conciseness as is consistent with perspicuity and fullness of statement, will be observed in such communications.”

Problems had come up earlier in the war over Confederate officers’ fulminations against other officers in their official reports. General Joseph E. Johnston returned one of Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s after-action reports during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 because it criticized Longstreet, and Longstreet tried to quash one of Major General Daniel H. Hill’s reports on the operations around Suffolk in the spring of 1863 for its intemperate language. Those earlier tiffs very likely helped provoke Cooper’s directive in June.

Years later, Dr. Hunter McGuire, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s physician, elaborated on what constituted a good report in his opinion, as exemplified by Lee and Jackson: “Everyone has noticed how free from boasting and exaggeration are the reports of Jackson and Lee. They are simple, modest, unpresuming records of the facts as they knew them.” Lee could be sarcastic and disparaging face-to-face, but he exercised admirable restraint when it came to criticizing others in his military dispatches. He did not seem to think criticism in the official record served any useful purpose, and he often glossed over the failures of subordinates by striking any mention of them from his staff-prepared reports. His aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, who often prepared those reports, said, “Never in a public dispatch did the commanding General blame anyone under his command.” In the case of Lee’s two Gettysburg reports, Marshall wrote that the commanding general “struck from the original draft many statements which he thought might affect others injuriously, his sense of justice leading him to what many considered too great a degree of leniency.” Marshall declared that Lee’s official report was “substantially true, as far as it goes,” but added that, “it is not complete in many particulars which should be known to understand the campaign fully.”

Brigadier General Alfred Iverson

Thus did Lee repress any urge he might have felt to condemn one or more of his trusted lieutenants who let him down in Pennsylvania, starting at the top with Longstreet and Brigadier General James E. B. Stuart. Even Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, Jr.-who had badly mishandled his brigade on July 1, getting the majority slaughtered, turning the survivors over to Brigadier General Dodson Ramseur, and then trying to lie his way out of it all in his official report-was not singled out for censure. Iverson is significant because his blundering could well have been the difference between a brilliant Confederate triumph at Gettysburg on July 1 versus the heartbreaking defeat that ultimately transpired, and because he was the only officer at Gettysburg whose conduct caused Lee to relieve him of command. Lee was not hesitant about trying to court-martial Iverson and boot him out of the army, yet when it came time to write his reports, Lee passed over Iverson’s role in the defeat without saying a word.

Iverson offers a different study in Gettysburg after-action reports. On the first day of the battle, Iverson, as part of Major General Robert E. Rodes’s division, sent his brigade into action on Oak Ridge while he himself hung back. When the leaderless troops went astray and marched straight into a slaughter pen, Iverson went to pieces and abjectly turned over command of his brigade to Ramseur. Iverson tried to cover up his “misconduct” in two reports, in which he said among other things, that “General Rodes took upon himself the direction of the brigade”; that “the regiment promised me… did not report to me”; and that “I endeavored… to make [another] charge with my remaining regiment and the Third Alabama, but in the noise and excitement I presume my voice could not be heard.” None of this dissembling made any points with Lee, who relieved him of duty and wanted Iverson court-martialed but was prevented from doing so by Jefferson Davis’s intervention. In the meantime, he assigned him to provost marshal duty. As soon as possible he had Iverson reassigned to the cavalry and exiled him forever from the Army of Northern Virginia. Iverson thus became the only general officer to be punished for his performance at Gettysburg.

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Armistead led his brigade from the front, waving his hat from the tip of his saber, and reached the stone wall at the “Angle”, which served as the charge’s objective. The brigade got farther in the charge than any other, an event sometimes known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, but it was quickly overwhelmed by a Union counterattack. Armistead was shot three times just after crossing the wall. Union Captain Henry H. Bingham received Armistead’s personal effects and carried the news to Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was Armistead’s friend from before the war.

Pickett’s report.

Because we do not have Pickett’s own words, and because Lee’s terse Gettysburg reports are models of obfuscation and ambiguity, we are forced to try to reconstruct Pickett’s report from limited historical evidence-bits and pieces of information plus passing references and paraphrasing by those who claimed to have read the thing. There are two primary questions to be answered. First, what exactly did the report say? Second, whom did Pickett blame for the disaster of July 3? Each of these fundamental questions, however, raises a graduate exam’s worth of related questions.

As for what the report said, we can find hints of it in the comments of others. What quickly emerges is that everybody from the commanding general down agreed that “support”-or lack thereof-was the crucial issue. On the night of July 3, an exhausted Lee told Brigadier General John D. Imboden: “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did to-day in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been-but, for some reason not yet fully explained to me, were not- we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.”

The same lament was heard from the officers of Pickett’s division. Peyton and Aylett, being Virginians and having the same perspective on the day’s events, provide strong clues to what would have been going through Pickett’s mind when he wrote his own report. Both of them expressed barely-contained anger, though they refrained from identifying any culprits in their plain vanilla reports. Peyton said the division was “unsupported on the right and left” by the time it reached the stone wall, implying criticism of the divisions of Brigadier General Henry Heth and Major General W. Dorsey Pender and of the two brigades under Wilcox, all of which were part of the assault formation from the beginning. Heth’s division, commanded by Pettigrew, and Pender’s division, commanded that day by Isaac Trimble, were both on Pickett’s left flank when they went into action. In Lee’s plan they were part of the main attack on the center of the Union lines, but in the eyes of the Virginians of Pickett’s division, they were no more than “support troops.” Wilcox’s two brigades on the right were aligned en echelon to Pickett’s division; their job was to cover that flank, so, by the military definition, they were definitely in a support role. The advance of Pettigrew’s, Trimble’s, and Wilcox’s troops was poorly coordinated with Pickett’s advance-a fact that was glaringly apparent to everyone on the Confederate side. In this light, Major Peyton’s statement could be interpreted as a criticism of all three officers and their troops.

Aylett’s remarks on the fight at the stone wall echoed Peyton’s: “No supports coming up, the position was untenable, and we were compelled to retire.” This implies that the blame rested with Longstreet, Anderson, or the troops back on Seminary Ridge, who did not “come up” at the critical time. Neither Peyton nor Aylett were trained professional officers who could be expected to make a distinction between “supports” and “reserves.” They probably regarded all troops who were not part of Pickett’s division as supports. So, although Peyton and Aylett provide some clues as to what Pickett might have thought in the days after the charge, the clues, like the language the two officers used in their reports, are too vague to give us much insight.

[1] Samuel Cooper (June 12, 1798 – December 3, 1876) was a career United States Army officer, serving during the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. Although little-known today, Cooper was also the highest-ranking Confederate general during the American Civil War. After the conflict, he remained in Virginia as a farmer.

Battle of Reports – Gettysburg II

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Map of the third and final day during the Battle of Gettysburg.

There are, however, other trails to follow. Several Confederate officers who fought at Gettysburg, who knew Pickett well, and who were likely to be familiar with his report later talked about its contents. These included E. P. Alexander, Longstreet, and Colonel Taylor of Lee’s staff. Alexander, who commanded Longstreet’s artillery on July 3, said in his Military Memoirs that Pickett’s report “reflected unjustly upon the brigades of Hill’s corps [the divisions of Pender/Pettigrew and Heth Trimble] among which the break first occurred.” Alexander did not claim to have seen the report himself, but he wrote knowingly of its contents, and he was certainly well acquainted with everyone at both Longstreet’s and Lee’s headquarters who would have handled the report. Still, in the absence of direct observation, Alexander’s comments must be considered hearsay.

Longstreet, who was Pickett’s corps commander and, equally important, was as close to him as any man in the Army of Northern Virginia, could have cleared up the mystery easily in any of the several postwar accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg he wrote for publication. Unfortunately, he seems either to have been completely in the dark, or to have been covering for his old friend, when he wrote disingenuously in Battles and Leaders: “The only thing Pickett said of his charge was that he was distressed at the loss of his command. He thought he should have had two of his brigades that had been left in Virginia; with them he felt that he would have broken the line.” Like Alexander, Longstreet did not claim here to be quoting directly from the report. Even so, his description of Pickett’s sentiments hardly indicates anything so potentially destructive of good morale that Lee should have ordered the report suppressed.

Colonel Taylor, who received the report at army headquarters and passed it on to General Lee, is hardly more helpful than Alexander or Longstreet, but he does offer one vital clue about the document’s contents. In his Personal Reminiscences, Taylor wrote: “The report passed through my hands, but was not carefully perused. Not realizing then the extent to which we were making history, I took no note of the contents of the report; but the inference is clear from reading General Lee’s letter that General Pickett complained of the lack of support and charged it home to some one [emphasis added].”

Reading between the lines, we can infer that Pickett pinned the blame on a specific person (“some one”), not an entire unit, which seems to let Pettigrew’s North Carolinians, the most frequently mentioned villains, off the hook.

If Pickett’s report was indeed a personal attack on a fellow officer, that alone would have given the commanding general grounds to “suggest” that the report be rewritten. If we pursue Taylor’s lead by seeking an individual culprit in Pickett’s report, there are plenty of suspects among those who fell down in their duty that day. The list of suspects must begin with Longstreet, who exercised overall command of the assault, including the troops borrowed from A. P. Hill’s Third Corps. Lee told his First Corps commander that morning, “I am going to take them…on Cemetery Hill. I want you to take Pickett’s division and make the attack.” It was as clear as that. When Longstreet demurred, Lee insisted, causing his subordinate to lament later, “Lee should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plan.” But Lee chose instead to rely on Longstreet’s professionalism and loyalty to do everything necessary to make the attack succeed. This was in keeping with Lee’s oft-demonstrated willingness to leave all arrangements up to his corps commanders, a fact which must have been known to Pickett from long experience.

When Pickett made his troop dispositions on the morning of July 3, it was under Longstreet’s watchful eye. It was also Longstreet who placed the artillery batteries in position, put Alexander in charge of the bombardment, and decided when and if the assault should be made. Pickett stood face to face with Longstreet just before moving his men forward. Longstreet had one further, crucial bit of responsibility during the assault-the authority to order forward the reserves after Pickett’s men had engaged the Federals on Cemetery Ridge. Unfortunately, none of this was written out in formal orders; the division of responsibilities was arrived at in discussions with Lee on the morning of July 3.

In the initial advance, Longstreet refused to commit the divisions of Major Generals John B. Hood and Lafayette McLaws, despite being “so ordered” by Lee. Then he refused to send reinforcements forward at the height of the charge, feeling it was “useless” and a further waste of men. The Comte de Paris described the situation in his early account: “Longstreet did not give to Pickett’s desperate attack the support of all the force placed at his disposal, and did not cause any diversion to be made in his favor by the two divisions under Hood and McLaws.”

The possibility of Longstreet being held culpable by Pickett is supported by something Lee told Colonel William Allen after the war: “The imperfect, halting way in which his corps commanders fought the battle gave victory finally to the foe.” If Pickett did in fact blame Longstreet, he would have received a lot of moral support in the years after the war from such prominent Longstreet bashers as Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton, and J. William Jones, long-time secretary of the Southern Historical Society, all of whom pinned the blame for the failure at Gettysburg squarely on the First Corps commander.

Representative of their opinions are the words of Jones, written to the editor of the Richmond Dispatch in 1896. In the letter, he accused Longstreet of not making his attack “as ordered, with his whole corps, supported by A. P. Hill.” Instead, Longstreet sent Pickett forward “with a bare 14,000 men against Meade’s whole army while the rest of our army looked on.” These words reflected a long-running feud between Jones and Longstreet, but could they have been the same sentiments Pickett felt and perhaps expressed when he sat down to write his report? Perhaps. One of Pickett’s own colonels, Eppa Hunton of the 8th Virginia, harbored an even blunter version of the same view. “It seems clear,” he wrote, “that if Longstreet had supported Pickett by the rest of his corps… and by part of Hill’s corps… he would have penetrated and held the lines of Meade.” At least some of Pickett’s officers, it seems, thought the buck stopped with the First Corps commander.

While Pickett wrote no memoirs and remained aloof from the war of words between former comrades after Appomattox, he was not completely silent on the central event of his life. Fortunately for us, he expressed himself on the subject of the battle, although it was done, not for the general public, but for a more select and sympathetic audience. About a decade after the war, Pickett addressed a reunion of his division’s veterans in Richmond. In a speech long on oratorical flourishes and short on facts, he recounted a version of events the veterans must have loved:

We marched across one mile… into the jaws of death under fire from 200 pieces of Ordnance and upon the center of the foe… without support and without faltering. Oh grand but fatal day…. Had we been supported, had others followed to hold what we had gained at such heroic sacrifice then would our freedoms have been secured. If the views Pickett expressed on this occasion were the same as his feelings in the weeks after Gettysburg, then the principal objects of his wrath seem to have been the “supports” back on Seminary Ridge who failed to come forward at the critical time. This view certainly agrees with the accounts of Colonels Allan and Mayo and Major Timberlake: It was those behind Pickett’s men-not those on the flanks-who failed in their duty that day.

PT-Boats in Surigao Strait

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Battle of Surigao Strait – US Navy PT Boats, IJN Fuso & Yamashiro.

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PTs 130, 131, and 152, three of six boats positioned furthest into the Mindanao Sea, were the first to spot the Japanese on radar. As the Japanese ships drew close, the three boats revved engines and dashed south. By 11:50 P.M., they actually saw the Japanese ships and began transmitting contact reports by radio. Within moments, lookouts on destroyer Shigure spotted the PTs. While Fuso and Yamashiro hung back, Shigure turned on searchlights, lofted illuminating star shells over the PTs, and advanced to confront them. Seconds later, 4.7-in. projectiles from Shigure’s main batteries bracketed the PTs. The Battle of Surigao Strait began.

To Bob Clarkin on the 152 Boat, the next moments were a riotous blur. “The first thing I remembered was the boat hauling ass away. We hadn’t fired torpedoes and we were caught in a searchlight. The noise was incredible.” Bob heard an explosion forward. “Charlie Midgett, the guy on the bow thirty-seven-millimeter gun was down. He looked pretty bad to me. He probably died right away.” Fires flared topside and below decks. “Some of the guys carried Charlie and a couple of wounded down to the skipper’s cabin. The mattresses in crew’s quarters were burning, so I went below, hauled them up, and tossed them over the side.” By then, 152 was covered by screening smoke from the 130 Boat, but incoming rounds still howled and splashed around them. “The skipper signaled me to roll one of the stern depth charges.” The charge exploded behind them. It was meant to fool the Japanese, but Bob doubted they’d even notice.

This was the first of a string of brief, unequal duels—a nuisance for the Japanese, chaos for the PT crews. Caught under destroyer star shells, searchlights, and gunfire, most boats had no time to line up a good torpedo shot. The 152 Boat—on fire, her bow splintered, one crewman dead and three others wounded—was the worst hit in the first duel. But Boat 130 also was pounded when its skipper Ian Malcolm slowed to lay covering smoke for 152. “We took a hit on our port forward torpedo. It shaved off most of the warhead’s TNT and ripped up twelve feet of deck before it left through the bow. The fish’s detonator cap was hanging by a wire. I dove for it, but one of the gunner’s mates got there first, tossed the detonator cap to me, and I batted it over the side.” The concussion silenced 130’s radio gear. Unable to communicate what he’d seen, Malcolm nursed the 130 southeast to link up with the three PTs waiting near Camiguin Island.

In 127’s chart house, Tom Tenner picked up something on his radar screen. “I saw some blips and called them out. The skipper wanted to know more, but it was hard to judge course and speed; sometimes the radar picked them up sometimes it missed them, depending on how high the waves were. It seemed there were about eight ships: two large blips, one medium, and the rest smaller. We finally estimated their speed at twenty to twenty-two knots.

“Just then Boat 130 came over. They’d been shot up and lost their radio, but their skipper was able to tell us what he’d seen.” Sitting topside as pointer on the forty-mm, Don Bujold heard Jack Cady’s greeting to Ian Malcolm. “The boat captains had these Rudy Valle-type megaphones. I remember Jack Cady shouting across to Malcolm: ‘Mai, are you scared?’ And Malcolm shouted back: ‘Hell, no, I’m terrified!'”

When the 130 Boat arrived, 127’s radioman Jake Hanley left his topside GQ station and went below. “We moved bow to bow with the 130, and Malcolm came aboard. We crowded into the chart room. Ian was pretty excited, but Cady was a man who could calm anyone down. Cady took down Malcolm’s information; I got the code book out and converted the information into coded groups of four or five letters to transmit by voice on the radio. I had to repeat the code groups over and over before I got an acknowledgment. I could tell the Japanese were trying to scramble the signal, but I finally got a confirmation.”

It was the 130’s information and 127’s transmission, received just after midnight, that first alerted the battleship, cruiser, and destroyer lines exactly what was coming and when to expect it. Meanwhile, Nishimura radioed Kurita: “Advancing as scheduled while destroying enemy torpedo boats.”

Battle of Talas River – Redux

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In 751 a Tang (T’ang) dynasty army commanded by Gao Xianzhi (Kao Hsien-chih), military governor of Anxi (An-hsi) in the Western Regions, met an Arab army in battle at Talas River near Samarkand. The Chinese were defeated. Although this was not a major military confrontation, it had great consequences.

Tang power and prestige stood at their zenith up to 750. Tang military forces had scored major successes and secured the frontiers from Tibet to Central Asia; the northern steppes were under a friendly semi-sedentary people called Uighurs, while the Khitans in the northeast and the Xixia (Hsi Hsia) in the southwest were contained. International trade flourished by land along the Silk Road, and by sea routes. However soon all would change. The aging Emperor Xuanzong (Hsuan-tsung), infatuated with a young concubine, the Lady Yang (Yang Guifei), had been neglecting his duties while her corrupt family and favorites dominated the government. The military system that had made the empire strong during the previous 100 years was deteriorating. Many of the frontier garrisons were manned by nomadic mercenaries and commanded by non-Chinese generals. Meanwhile Muslim Arab power had been expanding eastward.

The conflict began as one between two local states, Ferghana, a Chinese client state, and Tashkent. It led to battle between Ziyad bin Salih, governor of Samarkand under the Ummayyad Caliphate, assisting Tashkent, and General Gao Xianzhi and his Chinese forces. Gao was badly defeated when his ally the Western Turks defected to the Arabs and retreated across the Pamir Mountains. The battle was not significant in the short term, because the Arabs did not press eastward to threaten China, but because of what followed in the long term. In the same year, nearer to home, the aborigines in Yunnan in southwestern China revolted and declared independence, creating a state called Nanzhao (Nan-chao).

Finally in 755 the Turkic general and once imperial favorite An Lushan (An Lu-Shan) began a rebellion that captured both Tang capital cities and threatened the throne. The immediate result of events in 755 was the recall of Chinese forces from Central Asia, creating a political vacuum. That left the Arabs in a strong position. Likewise the power vacuum enabled the Tibetans and the Xixia people to expand their power at China’s expense. Even as an ally the Uighurs expanded their power at the Tang’s expense. Without Chinese military protection the Buddhist states in Central Asia would fall to the rising power of Islam. Chinese power would not return to the region for another 600 years.

Further reading: Beckwith, Christopher I. The Tibetan Empire of Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987; Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes, a History of Central Asia. Trans. by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

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T’ang armies

The Sui dynasty was founded in northern China in 581 AD and had reunited the whole country by 589. Initial successes were followed by a disastrous war with Koguryo and several rebellions. A military family from the northern frontier succeeded in establishing the new T’ang dynasty, which united China by 623 and extended Chinese frontiers further than ever before. Sui and early T’ang armies were based on the fu-ping militia system, both infantry and cavalry being conscripted but thoroughly trained. The system could not cope with prolonged service on distant frontiers, however, and the militias were progressively replaced by professional troops until being abolished in 753. Some T’ang armies in the steppes were composed entirely of cavalry, though such armies were usually mostly Turkish auxiliaries. Other T’ang armies in Central Asia had all their infantry mounted. Sui armies must use infantry.

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T’ang infantry were divided into pu-ping “marching infantry” and pu-she “foot archers”. Classification is awkward because it was the ideal that all troops should carry bows – even, apparently, if also armed with spears – but it is not clear how far this ideal was achieved. Some Sui cavalry carried lance, others sword and shield. Under the T’ang, most heavy cavalry were armed in originally Turkish style with lamellar armour, lance and bow; but occasional sources show lances only. Sui armies used wagon-laagers and chevaux-de-frise against Turkish cavalry, and T’ang forces also occasionally used defences. Mo-ho are the Manchurian tribes called Malgal by the Koreans. Some fought for the Sui against Koguryo and against Chinese rebels, and for the T’ang against Turks, Tibetans and Silla.

Final Assault on the Reichstag

A total of 89 heavy artillery guns and Katyusha rocket launchers were trained on the Reichstag for a thunderous barrage before the infantry stormed it, turning the structure into a ruin.

When the Reichstag was finally taken on 30 April 1945, Soviet soldiers swarmed through its elegant hallways to scrawl graffiti recording their presence, and their feelings about the Germans.

By the evening of the 28th April 1945, Marshal Zhukov’s lead forces were preparing the final assault on the Reichstag. Chuikov’s Eighth Guards advanced from the south, Berzarin’s Fifth Shock Army with 11th Tank Corps from the east, and Kuznetsov’s Third Shock Army the unit designated to make the actual seizure – from the north-west. The spearhead unit from Third Shock was General S. N. Perevertkin’s 79th Rifle Corps. They had two major obstacles to overcome before they reached the Reichstag building. First, the Moltke Bridge would have to be seized and a crossing of the Spree forced. To this task was assigned 171st Rifle Division. Then, after the corner building on the opposite Kronprinzenufer had been cleared, the 171st would have to join the 150th Division in neutralising the huge complex of the Ministry of the Interior – ‘Himmler’s House’ – which was expected to mount a terrific resistance. Late on the 28th, the Germans attempted to blow the Moltke Bridge, but the explosion left the centre section hanging precariously in place. The Soviet soldiers tried to force a crossing but were driven back by murderous fire from German pillboxes. Shortly after midnight, however, two Soviet battalions succeeded in blasting their way through the barricades and across the bridge, where they proceeded to clear the surrounding buildings to allow a crossing in force.

At 0700 hours the next morning, Soviet artillery began a 10-minute pounding of ‘Himmler’s House’. Mortars were also hauled up to the second floor of a next-door building and fired point-blank through the windows. The infantry began the assault, but it was another five hours before they managed to storm into the complex’s central courtyard. The fighting was intense and vicious. Close-range combat was pushed from room to room and up and down the stairways. Finally, at 0430 hours on 30 April, the Ministry of the Interior building was secured, and the Red Army troops began taking up their positions for the storming of the Reichstag.

While this battle raged, just a few hundred yards away, the last Fuhrer-conference was getting underway in the bunker. General Weidling reported on the situation, sparing nothing in his description of the city’s, and the Third Reich’s, plight. There was virtually no ammunition left, all of the dumps being now located in Soviet-occupied sectors of the city; there were few tanks available and no means for repairing those damaged; there were almost no Panzerfausts left; there would be no airdrops; an appalling number of the ‘troops’ left defending the city were red-eyed youngsters in ill-fitting Volkssturm uniforms, or feeble and frightened older men or those who had been earlier deemed unfit for military service. It was inevitable, Weidling told Hitler, that the fighting in Berlin would end soon, probably within a day, with a Soviet victory. Those present reported later that Hitler gave no reaction, appearing resigned to his fate and the fate he had inflicted on the country. Still, when Weidling requested permission for small groups to attempt break-outs, Hitler categorically refused. Instead he glared dully at the situation maps, on which the locations of the various units had been determined by listening in to enemy radio broadcasts. Finally, around 0100 hours, Keitel reported to the Fuhrer that Wenck was pinned down, unable to come to the Chancellery’s aid, and that the Ninth was completely bottled up outside the city. It was over. Hitler made his decision to kill himself within the next few hours.

Around noon on the 30th, the regiments of the l50th and l7lst Rifle Divisions were in their start positions for the attack on the Reichstag. In a solemn though brief ceremony, several specially prepared Red Victory Banners were distributed to the units of Third Shock Army which, it was thought, stood the best chance of being the first to hoist it over the Reichstag. In l50th Division, one banner was presented to 756th Rifle Regiment’s. First Battalion, commanded by Captain Neustroyev; another went to Captain Davydov’s First Battalion of the 674th Regiment; a third to the 380th’s First Battalion, led by Senior Lieutenant Samsonov. Banners were also given to two special assault squads from 79th Rifle Corps, both of them manned by elite volunteer Communist Party and Komsomol (Young Communist League) members.

At 1300 hours, a thundering barrage from 152mm and 203mm howitzers, tank guns, SPGs, and Katyusha rocket launchers – in all, 89 guns – was loosed against the Reichstag. A number of infantrymen joined in with captured Panzerfausts. Smoke and debris almost completely obscured the bright, sunny day. Captain Neustroyev’s battalion was the first to move. Crouching next to the captain, Sergeant Ishchanov requested and was granted permission to be the first to break into the building with his section. Slipping out of a window on the first floor of the Interior Ministry building, Ishchanov’s men began crawling across the open, broken ground towards the Reichstag, and rapidly secured entrances at several doorways and holes in the outer wall. Captain Neustroyev took the rest of the forward company, with their Red Banner, and raced across the space, bounding up the central staircase and through the doors and breaches in the wall. The company cleared the first floor easily, but quickly discovered that the massive building’s upper floors and extensive underground labyrinth were occupied by a substantial garrison of German soldiers. One floor at a time, they began attempting to reduce the German force. The task uppermost in everyone’s mind was to make their way to the top and raise the banner; the soldiers who succeeded in this symbolic act, it had been promised, would be made Heroes of the Soviet Union. Fighting their way up the staircase to the second floor with grenades, Sergeants Yegorov and Kantariya managed to hang their battalion’s banner from a second-floor window, but their efforts to take the third floor were repeatedly thrown back. It was 1425 hours.

Immediately after the beginning of the attack on the Reichstag, German tanks counter-attacked against the Soviet troops dug in around the Interior Ministry building. The 380th Regiment, which had been attempting to storm the north-western side of the Reichstag, came under withering fire and was forced to back off and call for help from an anti-tank battalion. Meanwhile, on the second floor, Captain Neustroyev radioed a request for a combat group to support his men and ordered them to clean out the German machine-guns still on the second floor. Sergeants Yegorov and Kantariya were entrusted with the banner once again, and the battalion readied for the battle to take the third floor.

Towards 1800 hours, another strong assault was launched up into the third floor of the Reichstag. This time the Red Army infantrymen succeeded in blasting their way through the German machine-gun positions. Three hundred Soviet soldiers now occupied the German parliament building but a much larger number of heavily armed German soldiers remained in the basement levels. However, the Soviets enjoyed the better position and after a number of tense hours, in the early morning hours of 1 May – the Soviet workers’ holiday, and the target date for their conquest of Berlin – they finally cleared the remaining Germans from the building. Even before all German opposition had been wiped out, at 2250 hours, two Red Army infantrymen climbed out onto the Reichstag’s decimated roof and hoisted the Red Victory Banner. Berlin was under the control of the armies of the Soviet Union.