The Black Watch at Fontenoy

The Black Watch at the Battle of Fontenoy by William Skeoch Cumming.

The Black Watch Chaplain at the Battle of Fontenoy, 1745 by William Skeoch Cumming (1897)

In March 1743 the regiment was ordered south into England. They reached London on 29th and 30th April, and in May embarked for the Continent, to join the army under command of the Earl of Stair at grips with the French forces of Louis XV. They sailed from Gravesend to Ostend, whence they marched to Brussels, arriving on 1 June 1743; and thence by Liege to Hanau, where lay the army commanded by George II in person, who had just assumed command from the Earl of Stair. Throughout the ensuing twelve months or more the Highlanders saw no active service, but the year 1745 was to be an eventful one for the Black Watch and indeed for the regiment’s homeland.

Leading the powerful French forces in the Low Countries was the redoubtable Marshal Saxe, one of the greatest military figures of the century. He was opposed, after King George returned to England, by the Duke of Cumberland, at least the equal of the most unsuccessful general ever to have commanded British troops. Together with his Dutch allies and some Austrians, he marched at the beginning of May to relieve the fortress of Tournai from the siege with which Marshal Saxe had opened his campaign. Leaving a force to ‘mask’ Tournai, Saxe had drawn up his army in a superb defensive position some miles away. Forming the key point of all’ L-shaped defence line was the village of Fontenoy; several woods formed natural obstacles, redoubts were constructed by the French to add to the hazards faced by the attackers, and the whole front was liberally garnished with field-guns.

On 10th May when, in the manner of the time, the Allied army began its deliberate approach, it was seen that the planned start line for the attack could be reached only through the small village of Vezon. A mixed force of infantry and cavalry, including the Highlanders, was therefore detailed to clear the place. This was achieved with little trouble, the French falling back after a sharp exchange of musketry; and that was the Black Watch’s baptism of fire. Thereafter the regiment was posted on the extreme right of the Allied line, facing the wood of Barri, which formed the point d’appui of the French left flank. The following morning the task of clearing the French from the wood was given to a certain Col. Ingoldsby, who was provided with a brigade consisting of the 12th and 13th Foot, a Hanoverian regiment, and the Highlanders. At 6.00 a.m. the brigade moved off, but a succession of quite inexplicable events halted it. Whether it was uncertainty on Ingoldsby’s part or confusion resulting from conflicting orders from his superiors, is not known (he was later acquitted at a court martial) but, despite the arrival of supporting artillery, he either could not or would not press home the attack. By 11.00 a.m. a Dutch attack on Fontenoy had failed, and the Highlanders were ordered to proceed from the right to the left flank to support them in a second assault. This was much more to their taste; off they went at the double led by Lieut.-Col. Sir Robert Munro, and stormed forward against the French positions about Fontenoy with tremendous spirit and elan. The French, protected by field fortifications and in considerable strength, were much shaken by this unusual attack launched by Highland furies armed – thanks to the granting of a request that this day they should fight with their native weapons – with broadsword and targe. Over the first line of entrenchments poured the Highlanders, but the French musketry was sustained and deadly and many of them fell and died before the fortifications. After a bitter struggle the Highlanders had to retreat, carrying with them the Lieutenant-Colonel, a man of such tremendous girth that he stuck in one of the entrenchments and barely escaped being made prisoner.

While the Black Watch was regrouping after this onslaught, there followed the tremendous episode when the solid mass of British and Hanoverian infantry – 16,000 strong – advanced into the heart of the French position, shattering the Gardes Francaises and many another distinguished regiment of the ancien regime, and retiring only after having been .virtually decimated by musketry and gunfire and innumerable cavalry and infantry counter-attacks. The Highlanders and another battalion were detailed to cover the inevitable retreat, a difficult duty even though there was no sustained pursuit, and the regiment was singled out for special praise by Cumberland in his report of the battle.

As an additional mark of favour, the men were asked if there were any special requests they might like to make. Unanimously they expressed the desire that two of their comrades, under sentence of flogging for allowing some prisoners to escape, should have the punishment remitted. Another incident is worth recording. On the morning of the battle, when the Highlanders paraded, the commanding officer saw the regimental minister standing in the ranks with drawn broadsword. This was Adam Ferguson, later Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who was threatened upon the spot with the loss of his commission if he did not at once return to his more orthodox duties. ‘Damn my commission!’ retorted the bellicose prelate and marched off to battle with his men. Their first engagement cost the regiment dearly, over 30 officers and men killed and nearly 90 wounded – not as serious as the casualties of some other regiments taking part, but bad enough.

THE BLACK WATCH

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The French 1917 Offensive in Context of 1914-17

The written histories of the French army during the opening months of the First World War often focused on the battle of the Marne in September 1914, a battle that it was crucial for the Allied armies to win. In contrast, the opening phase of the fighting along the French frontier with Germany has received remarkably little attention. In accordance with Plan XVII, the majority of the French troops were sent eastwards to deploy opposite the frontier with Germany, the direction from which the German army’s main thrust was expected. Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the French had built fortresses along their eastern frontier. It was expected that the Germans would attempt to avoid these and attack from the Metz area of Lorraine, and Plan XVII allowed the French army to deploy and react to any German incursions.

Of course, the Germans had opted instead for a strategy of envelopment; the much-discussed Schlieffen-Moltke Plan allowed for the German army to send a large force, in fact the main effort of this attack, in a wide sweeping manoeuvre through Belgium. This group of armies would, it was hoped, sweep past Paris and into the rear of the main French armies. The French, sandwiched between two German army groups, would be destroyed in a decisive battle. This short campaign would then allow the Germans to turn eastwards to deal with the Russian army, which, it was thought, would be mobilising much more slowly. With the benefit of hindsight, the numerous flaws in the German plan seem obvious but it should be borne in mind that similar plans for large-scale enveloping manoeuvres were to prove successful on the Eastern Front, in particular at Tannenberg in August 1914.

Joffre was not unaware of the possibility of a German attack through Belgium but he refused to believe that this would be the main German effort and as a result sent just a single army to cover his left flank to the north. This was the French Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac. Joffre would cling stubbornly to this belief as the early battles developed, refusing to believe the reports from commanders on the spot that they were facing the bulk of the German army in its advance through Belgium.

Joffre also planned for a series of vast spoiling offensives that would shut down any German plan. The first of these would be launched into Alsace, the Saar and Lorraine. The line of eastern fortifications would force the Germans to attack through the Trouée des Charmes (the Charmes Gap), an unfortified area between Toul and Epinal, and this would allow Joffre to concentrate his forces to respond. A second wave of French offensives would be launched towards Metz and, if the Germans came through Belgium, he would attack through the Ardennes and detach the German right wing from the rest of the army. France was, after all, numerically weaker in the field and these plans allowed for the possibility of gaining local numerical superiority. Joffre was confident that his plans would be successful and this would allow the five French armies to contain and isolate the German forces in Belgium while also engaging their central group of armies along the eastern frontier. Within the French strategy there was, however, a dangerous tendency towards ‘mirror imaging’ when predicting German moves. Perhaps the single biggest flaw in Joffre’s plans was his assumption that the Germans would conform to his ideas as to how they should deploy. The result was to be a near disaster.

Mobilisation began in France on 1 August 1914 and deployment followed the minutely detailed timetables of Plan XVII. France called up twenty-seven year classes for service, while also deploying its standing conscript army and available colonial troops. Over 4,000 trains carried these men across France to their designated railheads and from there they covered up to 30km per day in route marches to their deployment areas. At this early phase of the war French troops were still dressed in what can only be described as nineteenth-century military splendour. The infantry wore red trousers and their uniforms were topped with a red kepi. In the weeks that followed, officers would lead attacks wearing white gloves and waving swords. The French cavalry similarly wore red breeches but topped their uniforms with a polished brass helmet, complete with plume. Cuirassier regiments wore polished breastplates. The opening battles would show how unwise it was to advance on the enemy wearing such distinctive and visible uniforms.

The initial French attack took place on the extreme right flank of the French army when VII Corps of the First Army, supported by a cavalry division, was sent to occupy Mulhouse. This would gain a foothold on the Rhine and allow for later operations. On 7 August VII Corps duly crossed the frontier but its commander, General Bonneau, was far from audacious as local intelligence reports alarmed him with accounts of an Austrian outflanking move through Switzerland. Nevertheless, his troops advanced with determination and after a six-hour battle overcame German resistance at Altkirch with a bayonet charge, as per regulations – but at the cost of over a hundred men killed. Bonneau sent a telegram directly to the Minister of War, Adolphe Messimy, in Paris, trumpeting a great victory while also by-passing the chain of command. The next day Bonneau took Mulhouse without further fighting but on 9 August his position began to unravel. He was ejected from Mulhouse by a series of counterattacks by the German Seventh Army (von Heeringen) and was beaten back to the vicinity of the fortress at Belfort. Soon after, Bonneau was removed from command. This initial phase of attacks had opened promisingly, only to quickly disintegrate into a veritable rout. The organisation and firepower of the German forces had overwhelmed the French formations. The French artillery had proved ineffective while the standard infantry weapon, the much-lauded Lebel rifle was found to be outdated. The Lebel proved to be overlong and poorly balanced, while its tubular magazine made reloading much slower. These problems were exacerbated by battlefield conditions. The French senior commanders had been shown to be wanting, while at regimental level officers found that there were too few maps and communications were poor. The tendency for infantry and cavalry to put in spirited attacks, while awfully gallant, also resulted in significant casualties.

In the immediate opening phases of the war there was little time to process such lessons. The early battles of August 1914 – referred to collectively as the ‘Battles of the Frontiers’ – comprised four simultaneous battles in Lorraine, the Ardennes forests, Charleroi and Mons. The fighting developed as the French army conformed to Plan XVII and the Belgian and British armies also deployed in an effort to counter the unfolding German plan. French offensives into Lorraine and the Ardennes followed a pattern that mirrored General Bonneau’s experiences and they were repulsed by tactically superior German forces.34 In front of Nancy, the French prepared to contest the German advance, only to find that their southern flank in the Ardennes was exposed. Full-scale retreat followed on 23 August. As the northern wing of the French army at Charleroi also retreated, alarming gaps began to appear in the Allied line. When the BEF retreated from Mons, a gap opened on its right between it and its nearest French support. By 24 August all of the Allied armies were being pushed back from the German advance, despite desperate rearguard actions such as at Le Cateau on 26 August.

In Paris these developments were met with considerable alarm. On 27 August the Union Sacrée coalition government was formed under Premier René Viviani but any public confidence in this act of political unity soon disappeared as the government was evacuated from Paris on 2 September and sent to Bordeaux to escape the worsening situation. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 Parisians followed the example of their political masters and left the city.

The First Battle of the Marne, fought between 5 and 12 September, ultimately stabilised the Allied situation. It was, in fact, a series of battles fought out along a 150km front that stretched from Compiègne to Verdun, while at the same time other actions were developing on the eastern front in Lorraine. These desperate days saw convoys of taxis used to ferry over 6,000 reservists to the front. The key moment came on 4–5 September, during the prelude to the main battle, when General Gallieni realised that General von Kluck’s First Army was swinging away from Paris and exposing its left flank. This provided an opportunity for a French counter-stroke. Thereafter, now also hampered by poor communications, the German commander Helmuth von Moltke found his plan falling apart. The French armies and the BEF stubbornly held their ground south of the Marne river, and when Colonel Hentsch, a German staff officer, ordered a general retreat of the German First and Second Armies on 9 September, the battle was as good as lost. The German armies re-established themselves over 60km away along a line on the Aisne river, which would be the scene of another battle (the First Battle of the Aisne) later in September.

While this battlefield success was hailed as the ‘Miracle of the Marne’, it was obvious to both sides that the inconclusive end to these opening phases meant that the war would not be a short affair. Both the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan and Plan XVII had failed to bring a decisive victory. In a similar vein, the commanders and armies of both sides had exhibited problems in terms of battlefield command, communications, training and equipment. Joffre, who was lauded as the ‘hero of the Marne’, had shown great calm in the face of the rapidly deteriorating situation, yet he had also displayed a certain slowness and lack of imagination. In the months that followed, a series of battles was fought in northern France and Flanders as the Germans and Allies sought to outflank each other in the phase of fighting that came to be known as the ‘Race to the Sea’. By the end of 1914 the front was static, with trench lines running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. A large tract of France was occupied by German forces, which over time developed more elaborate defences and trench systems. For the next four years French commanders would try to figure out how to eject these German forces from French soil. It was a problem that confounded many a high-ranking French general, and in the immediate sense Joffre showed himself unequal to the new battlefield conditions.

It was during the early battles of 1914 that Robert Nivelle first came to popular notice. At the outbreak of the war Nivelle was an obscure colonel, commanding a regiment of artillery. Born in Tulle in 1856, he was the son of a French officer; his English mother was the daughter of one of the Duke of Wellington’s officers. Following training at the École Polytechnique, Nivelle was commissioned into the artillery in 1878 and later attended the cavalry school at Saumer (1881). His early service was in the artillery and he served in Tunisia and also in the Boxer Rebellion in China. In 1908, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he was posted to Algeria. In 1912 he was promoted to full colonel and commanded both the Fourth and Fifth Artillery Regiments in the years before the war.

During the Alsace Offensive in 1914 Nivelle displayed great skill in the deployment and use of his guns, and during the Battle of the Marne (5–12 September 1914) he displayed great bravery and coolness under fire. During this battle Nivelle realised that the infantry brigade to his front was beginning to disintegrate and as the terrified infantrymen began to stream to the rear, he limbered up his guns and drove them forwards through the retreating troops. Technically speaking, it was exactly the opposite of what he should have done at that moment. But instead of ordering his unit to safety in the rear he deployed his regiment of 75mm guns and engaged the advancing Germans over open sights. At point-blank range he coordinated an intense fire on the German troops, halting their advance and stabilising his section of the line. It was a courageous act; indeed, Nivelle never lacked personal courage. In the First Battle of the Aisne (12–15 September 1914) he again laid down a devastatingly effective fire on German formations. In reality, what we refer to as the Battles of the Marne and the First Aisne consisted of a series of dispersed and confusing actions but Nivelle performed well throughout this period, especially at the engagements at Crouy and Quennevières.

Nivelle’s actions brought him to the attention of Joffre, who was impressed by his initiative and offensive spirit. In November 1914 Nivelle was promoted to command of a brigade, and in February 1915 was promoted again, to command of a division. Thereafter, his rise was nothing less than meteoric, and in December 1915 he was appointed to command III Corps of Pétain’s Second Army. By 1916 Nivelle had established a reputation that made him a contender for the commander-in-chief’s position. He would be the prime architect of the disastrous events of 1917. Nivelle was highly intelligent and an excellent artillery officer. He was extremely effective in coordinating artillery at regimental, brigade and divisional level. But it could be argued that his later promotions took him beyond his abilities and out of his ‘comfort zone’ as an artillerist.

For Joffre, the immediate problem was how to break the German lines and restore a war of movement. From late 1914, and throughout 1915, he followed a programme for offensive action. These offensives came to be characterised by the increased use of artillery, successive attacks by the infantry and high casualty figures. In late 1914 Joffre initiated his First Champagne Offensive, which ran from 10 December to 17 March 1915. This intense phase of fighting saw separate battles developing along a wide front, including three battles for the town of Perthes alone, with further fighting around Noyon and Givenchy. Supplementary attacks took place at Verdun, Artois and Woëvre. By the end of the campaign the French had advanced to a maximum depth of 2km into the German lines. French casualties stood at more than 90,000 killed, wounded or missing.

Unperturbed, Joffre turned his attention to the Artois sector. He was convinced that the Germans were sending forces to the east to counter the Russians and felt sure that he could break the line there. His Artois Offensive was launched on 9 May and ran until 19 June, and incorporated the British First Army under Haig. There were some significant successes. The French preceded the attack with a five-day preliminary bombardment and Pétain’s corps covered more than 5km in 90 minutes in one assault towards Vimy. The British attack at Neuve Chapelle on 9 May was preceded by minimal artillery preparation, however, and resulted in 11,000 casualties. Later French and British attacks made minimal gains. When the offensive was finally shut down, the French had lost more than 100,000 casualties.

Despite shell shortages and the difficulties of coordinating such large-scale attacks, Joffre persisted – with similar results. The Artois–Loos Offensive and the Second Champagne Offensive, which ran simultaneously from 25 September to 6 November, resulted in 48,000 and 145,000 French casualties respectively. By the time these two offensives had been called off in early November, the French army and the BEF had suffered over 320,000 casualties collectively.

In light of such enormous losses, it became increasingly obvious to political leaders that they needed to exert greater control over the military commanders, in particular Joffre. While the military complained about the difficulties on the Western Front, German success in the Baltic during their Vilnius Offensive in September 1915 spurred the Viviani administration to try to gain control of the war. Yet the politicians would be thwarted in these efforts. Since early 1915 Viviani had been pressuring Joffre to allow deputies to visit the front on tours of inspection but permission was not forthcoming. The government also wished to free up French forces for a campaign in Serbia but Joffre would not release them. The final straw was Bulgaria’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers in October. This occurred despite the best efforts of the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, to keep Bulgaria on the Allied side. Exasperated and looking increasingly ineffectual, Viviani resigned in October 1915. He was succeeded by Aristide Briand, who would fare no better.

In the aftermath of such huge casualties the French army hoped for a period of rest and recuperation during the winter months of 1915/16 but on 21 February 1916 the Germans took the battlefield initiative to launch a massive offensive against Verdun. This bloody battle would run in several phases and last until December. As a result, it became the longest battle in human history. Both sides allowed themselves to be drawn into a contest over objectives of questionable strategic value. For France, the battle would later define the struggle against Germany. In the decades after the war the ‘300 Jours de Verdun’ would be depicted as an existential battle and an iconic period in French history. French efforts on the Somme in the summer of 1916 were largely successful, indicating that the army was developing tactically but the Verdun battle overshadowed all other efforts. This is unsurprising. When the battle finally wound down in the winter of 1916, the French had suffered more than 550,000 casualties. To a modern reader, such casualty rates are simply beyond comprehension. Yet in his plans for 1917, Joffre was intending to unleash a further series of offensives.

Nivelle was also to play a significant role in the French army’s struggle to maintain its grip on Verdun. At the outbreak of the battle he was still in command of III Corps in Pétain’s Second Army. In April 1916 he mounted a series of attacks with III Corps on the right bank of the Verdun sector and achieved some success. But it was not without cost. Once again Nivelle’s offensive spirit came to the attention of Joffre, who was impressed with Nivelle’s confidence and ‘can do’ attitude, which was in striking contrast to the pessimism of Pétain. Joffre saw an opportunity and promoted Pétain to command the Groupe d’Armées du Centre (Central Army Group or GAC) and on 27 April 1916 Nivelle was promoted and appointed to command the Second Army. In less than two years Nivelle had been promoted from colonel to lieutenant-general.

At a time when the French people needed positive news from the Verdun front, the choice of Nivelle to command the Second Army seemed a wise one. Apart from his capabilities as a soldier, Nivelle knew how to handle visiting pressmen and politicians and had a flair for providing well-timed quotes for the press – what we would refer to today as ‘sound-bites’. After the German capture of Fleury on 23 June 1916, and at a particularly desperate time for the French, Nivelle concluded his order of the day with the inspiring line ‘Ils ne passeront pas!’ (‘They shall not pass!’). This was trumpeted from the headlines of newspapers and later became a national slogan that would be used on recruiting posters and in army bulletins. Nivelle was not without his critics, however, and some criticised him for the casualties incurred in his counter-offensives.

It is worth taking a moment to discuss some of the other personalities associated with Nivelle at this time. One of his divisional commanders was General Charles Mangin, who commanded the Fifth Infantry Division, made up largely of colonial troops. Mangin was an extremely tough and competent soldier, who had seen much campaigning in the colonies before the war. He had been wounded three times in various campaigns and had served in Mali, Senegal, Tonkin and in the Fashoda expedition of 1898. In the immediate pre-war years Mangin had pushed strongly for the establishment of a ‘Force Noire’, effectively an army of black troops made up with regiments from France’s colonies in Africa. In 1910 he published a work on the subject. Within Mangin’s central idea lurked his belief that African and Arab troops were less imaginative and less sensitive to pain and suffering. It now seems evident that he apparently also viewed them as expendable, or perhaps just more expendable than metropolitan troops. To modern sensibilities, Mangin’s views can only be seen as intrinsically racist and insensitive but at the time he was considered to be a successful commander and was valued by Nivelle within the Second Army. During the summer of 1916 Mangin had pushed some reserve units to their breaking point and there were calls for him to be removed, but Nivelle intervened on his behalf and he remained in command. Among the common soldiers Mangin was known as ‘the Butcher’ and his callous tendencies would become apparent once again during the 1917 offensive.

An equally dark and somewhat mysterious figure was Lieutenant-Colonel Audemard d’Alançon (often referred to as d’Alenson in English sources). D’Alançon occupied the role of chef de cabinet for Nivelle. This was a uniquely French appointment, combining the roles of military secretary and chief of staff. The two men had first met in Algeria before the war and it is now recognised that d’Alançon had a major influence on Nivelle in the planning of operations. D’Alançon was suffering from a terminal disease – tuberculosis according to contemporary accounts – and as a result he was driven by an overwhelming desire to see the war concluded with a French victory in the limited span still allotted to him. He was also a firm believer in the potential of offensive action and he supported Nivelle’s offensive actions at Verdun. He would later be a prime mover in the 1917 offensive, pushing Nivelle’s agenda despite the doubts that were mounting on all sides. Edward Spears wrote that he was ‘far more acute and intelligent than would have been gathered from his appearance and he was no mean judge of men’. At a more negative level, Spears noted that he:

Urged constantly, such was the frenzy of his haste, that the tempo of the attack and the speed of the preparations should be increased, until the impression one gained ceased to be that of high authority prescribing dispatch but rather of an uncontrolled force like a swollen torrent rushing madly onward.

His French counterparts expressed similar concerns. They found that d’Alançon pushed for offensive action while also acting as a shield for Nivelle against the doubts expressed by senior officers. General Micheler referred to his ‘keen intelligence and character’ but also was concerned about his influence over Nivelle, stating that d’Alançon seemed often divorced from reality, showing a marked tendency to twist facts to fit his desired reality. Jean de Pierrefeu, who served on Nivelle’s staff in 1917, was equally critical of d’Alançon and later wrote that:

Colonel d’Alançon had the true gambler’s temperament, as was proved by his reply to Colonel Fetizon, deputy-chief of the Third Bureau, a calm methodical man of considerable common sense, who had asked, ‘And if we fail? What then?’ D’Alançon replied, ‘Well, if we fail, we will throw our hands in.’ We certainly lived in a gambling atmosphere.

These tendencies would reappear during preparations for Nivelle’s offensive in 1917. The Nivelle–Mangin–d’Alançon partnership resulted in further offensives during the later phases of the Verdun battle. Having organised the counterattacks on the right bank of the Verdun sector in April 1916, Nivelle now focused his attention on Fort Douaumont, which had been lost to the Germans in February. Quite apart from its symbolic value to the French, the fort stood on a height at 1,200ft and dominated the surrounding area. Despite this dominant position and its comprehensive defences, the fort had fallen to the Germans quite easily. To add further insult, the Germans also captured Fort Vaux in July and Nivelle’s attempt to recapture this fort was beaten off with such high casualties that Pétain forbade any further attempts to recapture the forts. However, during July Nivelle continued to mount counterattacks against the German assaults. Mangin mounted a particularly effective counterattack before being stopped in his tracks, with heavy casualties, on 11 July.

While it is easy to criticise such offensives, the alternative was to allow the Germans to break through and exploit. Nivelle also persuaded Pétain to allow him to engage in further efforts to retake the forts but accepted the caveat that he had to engage in very thorough preparations. In the weeks that followed, Nivelle engaged in massive artillery preparations, gathering more than 500 additional guns, including two 400mm railway guns, in his planned attack zone. These were to support the Second Army’s existing artillery. Ultimately there would be one artillery piece for every 15 yards of front, with over 15,000 tons of shells stockpiled. The assault troops rehearsed over ground prepared to resemble the approaches to Fort Douaumont and their advance would be preceded by a creeping barrage once the attack began. On 19 October a three-day preparatory bombardment began, which targeted not only Douaumont but also other known German positions and lines of communication in that zone. This bombardment proved accurate and devastating, while the use of gas shells proved extremely effective.

By the time the infantry assault began on 24 October 1916 the fort had been rendered virtually untenable due to the intensity of the barrage and had already been partially evacuated. A thick mist aided the attacking troops while the creeping barrage moved ahead of their advance. The light artillery fired 70 yards ahead of the advancing French infantry, while the heavy artillery fired 150 yards ahead. The whole movement was coordinated using field telephone communications and the barrage lifted in stages to allow the troops to advance. The troops crossed the devastated landscape at a rate of about 25 yards per minute and on reaching the fort Mangin’s divisions (made up of Moroccan and Senegalese troops and units of Coloniale infantry) cleared the defences using flamethrowers. Nivelle repeated this success at Fort Vaux on 2 November and in a subsequent eight-division attack on 15 December he pushed the Germans back a further 3 miles and captured more than 9,000 prisoners. The key to Nivelle’s success seemed deceptively simple: methodical preparation followed by massive and focused artillery bombardment. But unlike in previous offensives, this artillery fire was concentrated along narrow corridors to create lanes for the attacking infantry.

In the context of this vast attritional battle that had ground down the French army and nation throughout much of the preceding year, these successes seemed little short of miraculous. Criticism over continuing these attacks as winter drew on, and the casualties incurred, was lost amidst the general public rejoicing. Nivelle became a national hero and received much attention in the French press. The Briand government, which was looking increasingly threatened, also made much of this new public hero.

It has been repeatedly suggested that Nivelle’s fellow generals, and in particular his immediate commander, Pétain, disapproved of his methods. Yet at this time Nivelle was keeping step with Pétain’s own philosophy of thorough preparation followed by a focused attack for a specific and limited objective. In this context, Nivelle’s methods had potential for success. Problems would occur in 1917, however, when he tried to develop attacks based on these principles but on a vast scale. His success in 1916 imbued Nivelle with the vast confidence that would later prove so damaging. To his staff officers he announced ‘We now have the formula’, while in his parting address to the Second Army he announced ‘The experience is conclusive, our method has proved itself.’ Nivelle would later refer to these tactics as the ‘Verdun Method’, while in the press it was referred to as ‘Nivelling’.

By late 1916 new armaments programmes were supplying better equipment to the French army. There was more and better artillery, while at battalion level there were increased numbers of weapons such as trench mortars, light machine guns and flamethrowers. New infantry doctrine was drawn up to reflect this and lessons were incorporated based on German infiltration tactics. On the surface at least there was much to be confident about.

The French army was still wedded to the idea of the offensive and this would have dangerous consequences in 1917. Also, it became increasingly obvious to any observant staff officer that the troops were exhausted. Morale in the winter of 1916/17 was at an all-time low. This was against a backdrop of discontent on the home front and political uncertainty. All the indicators should have urged for caution but instead Nivelle precipitated perhaps the biggest gamble undertaken by the French army during the war.

Dargai Heights, 20 October 1897 Part I

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.

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 1st/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.

Dargai Heights, 20 October 1897 Part II

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.

Tirah Field Force (1897-1898)

The North – West Frontier of India was ablaze in Pathan tribal hostilities in 1897. The British sent many punitive expeditions to suppress these tribal revolts. The Tochi Field Force was sent to quell the Isazais in the Tochi Valley, and the Mohmand Field Force was organized to suppress hostile Mohmands. The Malakand Field Force conducted operations against the Swatis, Utman Khel, Mamunds, and Salarzais, and the Buner Field Force punished the rebellious Bunerwhals.

The Afridis had been receiving a subsidy from the Indian Government for many years to safeguard the strategic Khyber Pass. On 23 August 1897, hostile Afridis and Orakzais attacked and seized the forts at the Khyber Pass. Four days later, Orakzais attacked in overwhelming strength the British posts on the Samana Ridge, about 30 miles south of the Khyber Pass and the southern boundary of the Tirah region, and close to Peshawar.

To punish the rebellious tribes and dis courage any further hostilities to the south, especially in Waziristan, it was decided to form the Tirah Field Force and invade Tirah, the homeland of the Afridis and Orakzais. It was initially difficult to assemble a sufficient number of men due to other ongoing punitive operations. On 10 October 1897, however, under the command of General Sir William S. A. Lockhart, the Tirah Field Force was assembled at Kohat and prepared to advance. Numbering 34,506 British and Indi an officers and troops, with 19,934 noncombatant followers and 71,800 transport animals, the Tirah Field Force was the largest British Army expedition to deploy to the field in India since the Indian Mutiny.

The Tirah Field Force consisted of two divisions, plus support and reserve elements. The 1st Division was commanded by Major General W. P. Symons, with its 1st Brigade commanded initially by Colonel (later General Sir) Ian S. M. Hamilton, then by Brigadier General R. Hart, V. C., and the 2nd Brigade commanded by Brigadier General A. Gaselee. Major General A. G. Yeatman – Biggs commanded the 2nd Division, which consisted of Brigadier General F. J. Kempster’s 3rd Brigade and Brigadier General R. Westmacott’s 4th Brigade. The lines of communication were commanded by Lieutenant General Sir A. P. Palmer, and the Rawalpindi Reserve Brigade by Brigadier Gener al C. R. Macgregor. There were also two mobile columns (the Peshawar Column , commanded by Brigadier General A. G. Hammond, V. C., and the Kurram Movable Column, by Colonel W. Hill) to provide flank security and support. Support elements included 10 field and mountain artillery batteries, totaling 60 guns, and the first machine- gun detachment deployed to the North- West Frontier.

The Tirah Field Force strategy was to advance north, subjugate the Tirah region, then move farther northeast to recapture the Khyber Pass. The Tirah area, however, was basically unknown to the British, and the combined strength of the Afridis and the Orakzais was estimated at around 40,000-50,000.

The British advance began on 11 October 1897. Seven days later, routes over the Samana Ridge were reconnoitered, and fighting broke out almost immediately. The 5,000-foot high Dargai Heights, key terrain dominating the area, were seized by the British on 18 October with casualties of 10 killed and 53 wounded. It was decided not to hold the Dargai Heights and the British evacuated the position.

After more units and supplies, including ammunition, had arrived, the Dargai Heights were again attacked on 20 October 1897. The Pathans had reinforced their positions on the Heights, and a British artillery barrage failed to dislodge the tribal warriors. Gurkhas led the attack, but were pinned down by accurate rifle fire. At about noon, the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders- with bayonets fixed and the regimental bagpipes playing “Cock o’ the North” – led a five battalion assault. Before the British reached the summit, the tribesmen fled. The second capture of Dargai cost the British 36 killed and 159 wounded, and was the only set – piece battle of the campaign.

A pause in the hostilities ensued as the 1st Division and transport, traveling on bad roads, rejoined the leading 2nd Division. The advance continued on 28 October 1897, and the next objective was the 6,700-foot Sampagha Pass. The Tirah Valley was reached after little resistance on 1 November 1897. The following eight days were spent gathering supplies and reconnoitering the area. The Orakzais were showing signs of submission although there was constant harassment and sniping from the Zakha Khel, a powerful Afridi clan. Lockhart retaliated by launching a scorched earth campaign, leveling villages, destroying crops, and felling orchards. On 11 November, Orakzais tribal chiefs agreed with peace terms to return all captured weapons to the British, surrender 300 of their own breech – loading rifles, pay a 30,000 rupee (£10,000) fine, and forfeit all allowances and subsidies.

British units continued operating to eliminate resistance throughout November 1897, but the Zakha Khels engaged in frequent hit – and – run engagements, especially against vulnerable support and transport elements. The Afridis, as a tribe, had not submit ted fully to the British, but with the approach of winter, the British began their 40-mile march through the Bara Valley to the Khyber Pass on 7 December 1897. Each division marched on a separate route. In snow and frigid temperatures, the British continued. The 2nd Division was harried the entire way and fought numerous rear- guard actions. The British march “looked more like a rout than the victorious withdrawal of a punitive force”(Miller 1977, p. 279).After having been separated, the Tirah Field Force’s two divisions converged at the Indian frontier town of Barkai on 14 December.

Lockhart did not feel he had totally accomplished his mission. On 22 December 1897, the 1st Division marched to the Bazar Valley, the home of the Zakha Khel, and the Peshawar Column advanced to the Khyber Pass. (This latter operation is frequently called the Bazar Valley Expedition.) By 1 January 1898, three British brigades held the Khyber Pass, while two additional brigades blockaded the Afridi territory. The British fought a few engagements and destroyed Afridi villages and captured Afridi cattle and sheep. The last of the Afridi clans submit ted to British demands in April 1898, signaling the end of the Great Pathan Revolt. From 12 October 1897 to April 1898, the British suffered 1,150 total casualties (287 killed, 853 wounded, and 10 missing).

Battle of Saragarhi

The Punjab Frontier Force was set up and comprised the 1st, 2nd (Hill), 3rd and 4th Regiments of infantry as well as cavalry units. Acting primarily as rapid-response regiments, they would patrol the British borders in search of any Afghan aggression. The Sikhs displayed great bravery during the war and were employed effectively at both Ahmed Khel and Kandahar towards the end of the conflict in 1880. Their courage and dedication was admired by the British and would be utilised to greater effect in future campaigns.

A British victory came in 1880, but the war was now more than just an Anglo-Afghan affair, as Russia waded into the conflict. A period known as the `Great Game’ was initiated, and in what has been known since as the `Cold War of the 19th century’, the two powers sidestepped each other without ever locking horns. To stabilise their forces, the British raised two more Sikh regiments, the 35th and the 36th, who would see battle in the next big conflict in the region, the Tirah Campaign.

The war was almost inevitable. In the face of further British expansion during the Great Game, the empire became tangled up in issues with various local hill tribes. Although rarely united, they put their forces together against the British in what became known as the Tirah Expedition. As a result, the British lost a fair amount of land in the north west including the strategically important Khyber Pass. With access to the pass now in Afghan hands, the security of the British Raj was in jeopardy. Up to 40,000 soldiers were called into the area including many Sikhs, who were keen to put their skills to the test after being marginalized from the main army in the previous Anglo-Afghan War. After initial assaults by the Gurkha and Highland regiments, the Sikhs were called in to supplement the Highland charge on the bloody but successful Dargai Heights.

Undoubtedly the greatest Sikh achievement of the war was the Battle of Saragarhi. A backs-to-the-wall conflict of Thermopylae proportions, 21 Sikh soldiers managed to defend a small outpost from 10,000 tribesmen for more than seven hours. Despite receiving no aid from any of the surrounding British forts, the 36th Sikhs Regiment fought courageously and, even in defeat, managed to blunt the Afghan assault for long enough to save the two forts of Gullistan and Lockhart. To this day, Saragarhi Day is celebrated annually in honour of this heroic sacrifice and each of the 21 received the Indian Order of Merit posthumously.

The main British Field Force was now in the ascendancy, but guerilla warfare was taking its toll on the beleaguered soldiers. In November 1897, a unit from the Northamptonshire Regiment was going through a village in the Saran Sar Pass when it came under heavy fire. In the end, the group had to be saved and extracted by a combination of Sikhs and Gurkhas, who managed to haul the British out of harm’s away with only 18 men killed.

The terrain and local knowledge of the Afghans even made life difficult for the impressive Sikhs, who were ambushed while on the hunt for straggling Afridis, one of the many Afghan tribes. Along with two companies from the Dorset Regiment, the Sikhs were cornered in a number of burned-out houses before making it to safety. 25 men and four officers were killed. The next move of the expedition was to starve the Afghans of their winter food supplies. Accompanying the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 36th Sikhs made a grave error and, after a misunderstanding, abandoned the strategically valuable heights to the west of a pass. Their position was taken up by a group of Afridis, who inflicted casualties on the men from Yorkshire, forcing them to escape with the aid of a relief column.

Battle of Eckmühl 1809

Antoine de Marbot recounted an incident that demonstrated the properties of the two styles of cuirass, when at Eckmühl in April 1809 French and Austrian cuirassiers crashed together, while the accompanying light cavalry drew off to the flanks to avoid being caught up in the fight.

The cuirassiers advanced rapidly upon each other, and became one immense melée. Courage, tenacity and strength were well matched, but the defensive arms were unequal, for the Austrian cuirasses only covered them in front, and gave no protection to the back in a crowd. In this way, the French troopers who, having double cuirasses and no fear of being wounded from behind had only to think of thrusting, were able to give point to the enemy’s backs, and slew a great many of them with small loss to themselves. [When the Austrians wheeled about to withdraw] the fight became a butchery, as our cuirassiers pursued the enemy. This fight settled a question which had long been debated, as to the necessity of double cuirasses, for the proportion of Austrians wounded and killed amounted respectively to eight and thirteen for one Frenchman.

A further item of protective equipment used by heavy cavalry was a consequence of the knee-to-knee charge formation: the long boots worn to prevent the legs being crushed. Some thought them more an encumbrance than a protection, as Marbot observed of a dismounted cuirassier officer at Eckmühl who was unable to run fast enough to escape the enemy – he was killed in the act of pulling off his boots

At Landshut one of the Archduke’s Corps (V) attacked a strong force of Bavarians, driving it from the town, before turning to attack an isolated French force under Davout occupying Regensburg. Unfortunately, the Archduke had discovered too late that Davout was unsupported. While Archduke Charles pulled back, having failed to destroy Marshal Louis Davout’s III Corps during the action at Teugn-Hausen on 19 April, Napoleon launched his counteroffensive on the following day, splitting the Austrian army in two. Napoleon pursued what he erroneously believed was the main force southward toward Landshut, leaving Davout and Marshal François Lefebvre to deal with what he perceived as an Austrian rear guard. However, on 21 April, as Davout closed in on the village of Eckmühl, he realized that he faced a much stronger force. Despite this Davout attacked, but a tenacious Austrian defense held firm.

Archduke Charles could have been crushed 24 hours earlier, but Napoleon had now arrived. With his arrival, the uncoordinated and disparate French forces began to take on some cohesion. But even Napoleon misread what was happening. He did not realise until it was almost too late that Davout was facing most of the Archduke’s army.

Davout sent Napoleon a number of messages during the day expressing his concerns, but it was only in the early hours of 22 April that Napoleon finally recognized his error.

As soon as he saw his mistake, his legendary skills of improvisation took hold immediately. Davout was supported by the bulk of Napoleon’s forces and a concerted effort was made to break the Austrian left, which was sheltering behind a battery of guns. Prince Rosenberg and his staff of IV Korps watched for two hours while 22 Austrian battalions held out against overwhelming numbers until 68 French battalions attacked them on three sides. As Napoleon committed his cavalry, Rosenberg’s retreat degenerated into a rout. Repeatedly he had asked Charles for reinforcements but repeatedly Charles had advised him to extricate himself as best he `thought fit’. The Archduke had no intention of sacrificing fresh troops on ground not of his own choosing.

Nevertheless, seeing panic taking hold among Rosenberg’s men, Charles immediately deployed a Cuirassier brigade and his Grenadier Reserve under Rohan to stem the tide. The Austrian cavalry slowed the French advance, forcing the infantry to form squares, but Rohan’s grenadiers with the exception of two battalions broke under the tide of IV Korps’s demoralised remnants. IV Korps was facing annihilation as a heavy mass of French cuirassiers approached to finish off its survivors.

It was 7 p. m. and the rising moon illuminated a dramatic scene. Six thousand French cuirassiers in two lines supported by their Württemberg and Bavarian auxiliaries advanced towards two much thinner lines of Austrian cuirassiers supported on their flanks by some squadrons of hussars. The tired French horsemen trotted forward while the Austrians with the gradient in their favour galloped towards them, about to break into a charge. As there were five French regiments against just two Austrian, this fight could only last a few moments and the Austrians were soon riding as fast as they could back to their lines. Two battalions of Austrian grenadiers appeared and formed square but were cut to pieces by St Sulpice’s Cuirassiers. The Archduke Charles himself escaped only with the greatest of difficulty. Exhaustion on the part of the French, and darkness, rescued the Austrians from annihilation. Charles however could take some consolation from the fact that he had husbanded his forces and he had not even committed 33,000 of his troops.

Thus ended the Battle of Eckmühl; unsatisfactory for Napoleon, who had not deployed his characteristic ruthlessness to inflict a `second Jena’ and highly unsatisfactory for the Archduke Charles, who had seen his elite units fail to rise to the occasion, though they had bought him the time necessary to effect an escape from the clutches of his foe.

In fact Charles’s position at this stage was stronger than it appeared. Eckmühl was a rearguard action fought by Rosenberg against a greatly superior enemy attacking him from the west, south and east. Two Austrian Korps, I and II, were far from demoralised and the Generalissimus still had his lines of communication with Vienna, though these now ran through Bohemia. True, II and IV Korps had been defeated and had retired in poor shape, but they had not been completely crushed. On the morning of 23 April Charles wrote to his brother, the Emperor, advising him to leave Schärding where he was awaiting results and not rely on the Archduke to be able to save either him or Vienna.

While Napoleon paused, Charles got most of his army across the Danube, leaving a small force to withstand the siege that was inevitable the following day when the French invested Regensburg. It was here that Napoleon received his only known wound in twenty years of making war, when a spent cannonball hit his foot. Napoleon’s failure to pursue Charles has been attributed by the renowned French military historian General H. Bonnal to his dwindling grasp of the strategic imperative to destroy his opponents. His Bavarian campaign involved his forces in three battles in as many days but each time Charles was able to withdraw in reasonable order. As the Austrians had lost two- thirds of their artillery the question rightly arises as to what might have happened had the French cavalry pursued them `epée dans les reins’. But Napoleon later admitted to Wimpfen that he never imagined the defeated Austrians would rise like a phoenix from the ashes within weeks.

Retreating across the Danube at Regensburg, the Austrian army marched through Bohemia to link up with the left wing of the army arriving from Landshut. The French advanced and occupied Vienna on 13 May. Eight days later the reunited Austrian army engaged Napoleon once more at the Battle of Aspern-Essling.

Saipan Landing I

During the night, on final approach, all hands in Kelly Turner’s four transport divisions had been impressed by the flashes of bombardment silently lighting the horizon ahead. Drawing closer to Saipan, they whiffed its acrid waste, sharp on nostrils and tongues. On June 15, the eastern sky was brightening over the light southeasterly swells. Each transport division embarked a Marine regiment, approached Saipan’s hundred-fathom line, and entered the outer transport area off the western shore.

An officer in one of the transports, a veteran of Sicily and Salerno, looked at the black form of Mount Tapotchau, backlit by twilight, and said, “That silhouette is made to order for a night landing under a good moon. Every natural landmark stands out. Perfect, I say, except she’s coral-bound. That’s the gimmick.”

The Fifth Amphibious Force, having finished its oceanic transit, prepared to make its power felt on land. On board the LCI gunboats, the smallest commissioned ships in Turner’s task force, all hands turned to, unpacking and loading their abundance of rockets. Marines in the transports and amtracs and LSTs checked their weapons, breathed deeply to calm their nerves. Draper Kauffman and his UDT reviewed the results of their lagoon reconnaissance. Kelly Turner signaled to Harry Hill, “TAKE CHARGE. GOOD LUCK.” In the dawning daylight of “the other D Day,” transports began lowering boats.

The drone of radial engines manifested over Saipan before six A.M., when the commander of the Enterprise air group, Bill “Killer” Kane, arrived on station to serve as air coordinator of the day’s flying circus covering the assault. His first order of business was to direct an air strike set for H Hour, 0830. With him: a dozen Hellcats to provide combat air patrol over the landing force and eight Avengers to encourage Tojo’s submarines to keep a respectful distance.

Surveying the armada below—the transports bearing three divisions, battleships worthy of Jutland, the sheer numerosity of Turner’s tractor fleet, dropping from davits and gathering in the assembly areas—Kane had little sense that his day would come to an early end. As he flew over the transport area, the air bursts began. Anxious gunners in Turner’s invasion fleet had his range. One of the shells was close enough to fill Kane’s cowling with steel. Riddled by friendly fire, his engine began to smoke and he began spiraling down to the sea. He had enough horses to keep his nose up and manage a water landing. He would be rescued later and returned to his carrier. But his forced relief from duty by that spooked antiaircraft crew served to promote James D. “Jig Dog” Ramage, skipper of Bombing Ten, to Kane’s post as air coordinator. He would look after the H Hour air strike and the subsequent close support of the troops. Circling at two thousand feet, in awe of the spectacle below, he, too, kept a respectful distance.

Though Harry Hill had immediate command of landing operations, Kelly Turner made sure to retain certain privileges of overall command. He had thought through the location of every ship in the plan. His talent, his admirers said, was a meticulous, hands-on approach to crafting a war plan; in Washington, at Main Navy, he had practiced the state of the art at the level of high strategy. The invasion of Saipan marked his return to the tactical; his talent poured forth into crafting the plan. “He carried it in his own mind,” Hogaboom said. “He rarely had to refer to the plans, although the plans were voluminous. He supervised, himself, the actual maneuver and the actual position of the ships as they approached a position at D Day. He was determined to meet his D Days. He was determined to meet his H Hours.” What followed from there would be up to the Marines.

It wasn’t yet six when Turner issued the order he always deemed his due: “Land the landing force.” The dispatch set his numerous assembly into motion. The bow ramps of LSTs swung open, releasing amtracs to roll forward. LSDs opened their stern gates and began disgorging LCMs bearing waterproofed tanks, which, tightly packed in the well deck, slid down the ramp and entered the sea, bouncing once or twice, then motoring smoothly atop the swells. After reporting to the control officer at the line of departure of their assigned beach, they would stand by until they were needed, on call, not belonging to any particular wave. The amtracs approached the transports, cargo nets draped over the side, and Marines began mounting up.

North of the main assembly area, another group of transports milled at sea. Carrying a regiment from each of the two Marine divisions, they were assigned to make a feint, a diversionary landing that Turner hoped would freeze Japanese troops in place and prevent them from moving south from Tanapag into the Charan Kanoa landing area.

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At 6:30, two hours before H Hour, the transports of the diversionary force began hoisting out their boats off Tanapag. More than a hundred LCVPs formed in the assembly area and then came alongside the transports to simulate the embarkation of troops of the Second Regiment of the Second Marine Division, and the 24th Regiment of the Fourth, as well as a battalion of the 29th Marines. For several minutes the boats remained alongside the transports, rising and falling beside the nets, then shoved off for the rendezvous area while smoke boats and control vessels took positions near a plausible line of departure. The setup consumed more than an hour, in the hope that the Japanese were watching from shore. On a signal from the commander of the control group, the charade ended. The landing boats reversed course and returned to the transports to be hauled back aboard. Generals Watson and Schmidt would use them as their floating reserve.

It was seven A.M. when the LST group carrying the two assault regiments of the Fourth Marine Division stopped outside the rendezous area and began launching amtracs. Crabbing down the nets from the transports, armed men filled the tractors. The sense of it was vivid, the feeling of starting in. Robert Graf checked his cartridge belt, heavily loaded with ammo; shifted the straps of the weighty bandoliers that pinched his shoulders; vetted his first aid kit and two canteens of water; tested his pack, loaded with items he might never use or that might save a life, one could never tell which. With all its useful things, the pack was heavy enough that, under fire, it might plausibly claim his own. On his right leg were a Ka-Bar in its sheath and a throwing knife holstered like a gun. His gas mask went over the shoulder, its bulk hanging in the way as he reached for his rifle, checking its action, and grabbed a life belt. He looked up from his kit. “Now our group was standing, waiting to start.”

Lieutenant Carl Roth came over and looked him over as his quadriceps burned, spun him around to survey his gear. Like all platoon commanders, Roth wore no insignia—it only encouraged snipers—and was underarmed, carrying a carbine instead of an M-1 Garand. Roth led his men into the hold of the LST-84, where they found their amtracs. They were Army vehicles belonging to the 708th Amphibian Tank Battalion. The tractors were ready for them, engines running, fumes fouling the air. The Marines piled in and took their places. Waiting and listening, then waiting some more, they finally heard the grinding of gears, telling them at last that they would soon be on their way. They heard the crash of the bow doors opening and the propulsive sensation of rolling forward. Down they went, out the ramp. Nosing down, the LVTs dropped into the Pacific. The coxswains raced their engines, whose whining revolutions belied their pedestrian’s speed toward the line of departure.

The Army crews were largely veteran tankers, hastily retrained as demand for amtrac personnel surged. The one hundred LVTs of their battalion had been hastily refitted, up-armored with extra steel plate at the destroyer base in San Diego—half an inch on the bow and cab, a quarter inch on the sides and the ramp. It was seven o’clock when the amtracs carrying the 25th Marines were underway to the assembly area. Ten minutes later, the LSTs embarking two regiments from the Second Marine Division dropped ramps and released their alligators.

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Looking toward shore from the line of departure, three thousand yards out from the reef, each coxswain drew a bead on the major landmarks that showed him the way. Three in particular stood out. There was Mount Tapotchau, straight ahead to the east. The pier at Garapan was up the coast to the left; the dock at Charan Kanoa jutted out between Green and Blue beaches, fronting the town and its gable-roofed buildings. As they drew closer, details came into focus. The beach, a ribbon of crushed coral just ten to fifteen yards deep. Shrubs atop the beachfront bluff. Groves of trees on higher slopes farther inland. A coastal road and a narrow-gauge rail line that connected Saipan’s west-coast towns, Charan Kanoa, Garapan, and Tanapag. The clearing behind the Green beaches held an airstrip, and three high towers of a radio station sat to its north.

The Sixth and Eighth regiments of General Watson’s Second Marine Division would go ashore on the left, north of Charan Kanoa, at Red and Green beaches. The 23rd and 25th regiments of the Fourth Division, under Schmidt, would land on the right, south of the town, on Blue and Yellow beaches. Each of the regiments’ battalion landing teams was responsible for a six-hundred-yard section of beach, this being the width deemed optimal for the delivery of a Marine battalion’s concentrated force as well as its lifeline of waterborne supply.

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The largest units of troops—divisions and regiments—were governed abstractly, maneuvered by generals on rubber topographic models and seldom seen in person unless embarked on board ship or arrayed for review. An infantry regiment had about thirty-three hundred men. Its basic unit of maneuver was the battalion. Fortified with heavy weapons companies and engineers, a battalion landing team, under the command of a lieutenant colonel, had thirty-three officers, two or three Navy surgeons, and forty corpsmen. The key line officers were the captains of the two-hundred-fifty-man companies, and their principals in turn were the lieutenants leading the forty-six-man platoons. Below them—arguably of even greater importance—were the sergeants of the thirteen-man squads and the corporals of the fire teams of four. Companies, platoons, and squads, large to small, were the units that most powerfully shaped and held the fortunes and memories of individual men.

Robert Graf ducked low while waves crested the bow of his amtrac, torrents of salty spray washing over the Marines inside. The gunner up front got the worst of the sea shower. “Being low in the water, we were unable to see much of what was going on,” Graf said. “Slowly we went forward until we were in our assigned departure area. We started our circling, waiting.” He had time to think of his parents and two sisters, and of the inferno that had nearly engulfed him at West Loch. His unit, Easy Company, Second Battalion, 23rd Marines, was going ashore on Blue Beach Two. He wasn’t sure it would go well.

Overhead, carrier planes were reporting on station. Turner’s plan called for a sweep against enemy positions to take place at H Hour minus 90, and now it began, a droning horde mustered not by Mitscher but by the escort carriers of the support groups. Each of the eight small flattops in the two CVE task units put up eight FM-2 Wildcats and a quartet of Avengers, wings sagging with a load of eight five-inch high-explosive rockets and a dozen hundred-pound bombs tucked in their bellies. Specialists in troop support, they bore down fast, roaring over the amtracs, the reef, and the gentle lagoon. The Wildcats strafed the beach head-on, followed at thirty-second intervals by the Avengers, which attacked in pairs, two planes to a beach. They let fly their rockets, dropped their frags, and retired across the island.

Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito, was the commander of the army’s 43rd Division and the senior Japanese Army officer on Saipan. But Saito’s guns were still silent. There was nothing for his inland artillery and mortars to shoot at yet. Captain Whitehead, Turner’s commander of support aircraft, was eager to keep things that way. To stop a Japanese counterattack on the landing area, he passed what was known about the locations of Japanese gun and troop positions to Commander Ramage, the air coordinator from the Enterprise. But the carrier pilots struggled all day long to find targets through the cloak of smoke that rose after the naval bombardment. The Japanese had gone to ground under ingenious schemes of camouflage. The air strikes lacked the volume and sustenance required of an effective area bombing attack. Turner meant it more to demoralize and suppress the defenders than to wipe them out. His belief that planes could do what ships couldn’t might have been the optimism of a man who had never flown a strike aircraft under fire. If the enemy could not move beneath this storm of lead and shrapnel, they usually found the wherewithal to hunker down and endure, looking to survive until a more opportune hour.

After thirty minutes, the air strike ended and the planes returned to their carriers. Admiral Hill took over as preparatory naval gunfire resumed. The California drenched Red Beach with everything she had, but after pouring white phosphorus rounds inshore of Red Beach One, she ceased fire when some of her shells burst prematurely, casting smoky streaks of the incendiary chemical over the assembly area. There, a control boat dropped a flag, and a column of LCI gunboats motoring along the line of departure executed simultaneous ninety-degree turns and set out toward shore. With a dozen of them allocated to each beach, surging along in a single rank, they would offer the final salvo of preparatory fire before the amtracs went in. Diversely configured with 20 and 40 mm guns, rails bristling with 4.5-inch rockets, the gunboats were a mile and a half out when mortars and artillery began falling around them. The incoming fire surprised Captain Inglis in the Birmingham, on station with the Indianapolis on the division boundary line, firing at targets on Green Beach. Inglis had not expected so many Japanese guns to remain in action. The gunboat crews pulled the pins on their rockets, five hundred at a time, and threw the switches that armed the launchers.

On another signal from the control boat, the first wave of amtracs came to the line of departure. The first wave was anchored in the center by a seven-vehicle wedge of LVT(A)s. The amtanks were arrayed like an arrowhead pointed toward the enemy. Flanking the wedge to each side was a rank of six troop-carrying LVTs. Without fanfare, the coxswain in Robert Graf’s amtrac opened the throttle and his engine’s song went from gurgle to growl to roaring whine. Led by an LVT(A) serving as the wave guide, flying a numbered flag at the point of the wedge, the first assault wave, nineteen vehicles strong, followed the LCI gunboats in the Second Division landing area. From Red Beach One in the north to Green Beach Two in the south, the full two-regiment line consisted of seventy amtanks and forty-eight LVTs carrying eight Marine infantry battalions to shore. The second wave departed the line four minutes later, followed by the third wave six minutes after it. As Graf’s amtrac passed the Norman Scott, a voice on the destroyer’s PA system called out, “God bless you all!”

Inglis had not seen its like, this parade of ferocious small ships motoring toward the reef in formation, followed at close intervals by rank after rank of amtanks and amtracs. As he looked out to sea, the spectacle of the LCI gunboats in their rush, leading the first wave of troop-laden alligators, took his breath away. He had what he called a “$6.60 orchestra seat, close enough to see the anxious but determined expressions of the faces of the Marines in the landing craft.”

When the LCI gunboats were just fifty yards from the reef, the signal to fire came. Within three seconds five hundred rockets were airborne. The parade spectacle vanished in the backwash of smoke. A gray carpet covered the waters beyond the reef, and though the winds pushed it seaward, it was heavy enough to obscure the landing area from view. No targets of opportunity were apparent. All the gunboat rocketeers could do was smother their assigned sectors in high explosives. After two salvos were off the rails, five shifted from beach to bluff.

Carrier planes struck inland targets. Flying low over the first wave, fighters showered the alligator fleet with brass cartridges. When the LCIs were finished, their long single rank opened like a double pocket door, half splitting away to the left, half to the right. Through the opening came the first wave of amtracs, churning through smoke toward the reef. “As the troops came abreast and passed us,” one gunboat crewman wrote, “an eerie silence fell. All that could be heard was the whine of the amtracs.”

Lieutenant Roth told his platoon, “Lock and load your pieces. Fix bayonets.” There were crisp metallic sounds as eight-round clips went into their rifles and bolts were snapped forward, pushing the first shell into the chamber. Robert Graf turned on his safety, reached over his shoulder, took his bayonet from his pack, and fitted it on the end of his rifle, keeping the butt on the deck and muzzle skyward. As the beach drew closer, perceptions grew sharper.

In the Fourth Marine Division’s landing area, amtracs carrying the 23rd and 25th Marines moved past the Tennessee to either side. The battleship hit the sugar mill with her main battery, then enfiladed the southernmost beach, Yellow Three, concentrating on gun positions near Agingan Point. “The beaches were a mass of smoke,” Captain A. D. Mayer would write, “but the Mark Eight radar operator could effectively observe the salvo landing on the beach on his radar screen, and control same.” But pinpoint accuracy was an illusion on an A scope. Two days earlier the Indiana had put sixty-three high-capacity sixteen-inch shells into that strongpoint, but still the Japanese were in business. Tests had revealed that the burst of a sixteen-inch high-explosive projectile would shock but not destroy emplacements built from sand and coconut logs. “These bursting projectiles would have great disruptive effect but doubtful penetrating power,” Admiral Hill said. The Marines would pay the price.

To hold formation, the amtrac drivers kept an eye to their periscopes, watching ahead while also checking the line to each side. Holding steady amid the waves and slow-moving tide, worrying (but not too much) about the high-angle barrage the Japanese were sending them, the drivers consulted one another on the radio, keeping their line tight. Crawling toward Green Beach One, Marshall E. Harris was talking to his best friend from radio school, Robert B. Lewis, in an amtank nearby. He was asking him if they’d drifted too far left when Lewis’s voice vanished beneath an explosion. Harris felt a concussion, then heard another explosion. Turning his periscope to the side, he saw black smoke and fire on the water. “Flames boiled out of blackened, bent metal hatches—Bob’s tank.” His platoon commander, Lieutenant Michael, motioned to him to keep going. He never saw Lewis again.

As the cleated tracks of the amtracs mounted the reef, their hydrostatic transmissions dropped automatically into low gear, enabling the heavy vehicles to haul themselves up and over. The surf could make things dicey. Off Red Beach, large swells were crashing hard over the reef. A coxswain had to time his approach such that the wave cupped his transom and carried them onto the reef. He would have to keep moving, for the next swell would bid to roll him over or swamp his engine while he was still on the coral. As the amtracs clawed over the reef, the California, off Red Beach, and the Tennessee, off Yellow, shifted to targets farther inland, beyond the map line that Holland Smith had set as the first day’s objective for his Marines. Known as the O-1 line (for “Objective One”), it roughly paralled the beach about fifteen hundred yards inland. The Birmingham kept watch off Afetna Point while the Norman Scott, Monssen, and other destroyers moved close, released by Admiral Hill to the freelancing counterbattery missions that destroyermen relished. Two thousand yards offshore, between the boat lanes leading to Blue and Yellow beaches, the Norman Scott fired on gun positions near Blue Beach One. As her captain, Seymour D. Owens, watched the first wave of amtracs go in, an artillery shell landed close off the forecastle, wounding three men. Hammering the bluffs to keep the enemy’s heads down, the destroyers kept at it until the first amtrac wave was about three hundred yards from shore, then trained out to the flanks. Dropping into the calm lagoon waters, the amtracs began the last leg to shore.

Saipan Landing II

The volume of incoming fire grew; neither the aircraft nor the naval fire support had an answer for what the Japanese had installed on Saipan’s reverse slopes. “There was a loud explosion to our right,” Robert Graf wrote, “and we saw one of our craft exploding, bodies flying through the air.”

Carl Roth said, “Unlock your pieces. Good luck. Keep low, and get inland as fast as you can and get off the beach. They’re zeroing in on it.” Turner had overestimated the threat of beach defenses—pillboxes with machine guns, fire trenches, antitank trenches, and the like. Artillery and mortars located inland were the problem. He had underrated them. The clouds obscuring the early reconnaissance photos hid the guns from Nimitz’s analysts. They revealed themselves against the first waves.

Control officers off Blue and Yellow beaches reported the first waves of the Fourth Marine Division ashore at 8:43. Five minutes later an air observer reported the Second Marine Division’s amtracs piling onto Red and Green beaches, though not always in the right place. Heavy fire poured into the first wave from the shrub-topped bluff behind Red Three. Heavier fire enfiladed them from Afetna Point, far to the right. The volume of it startled the drivers, and even the slightest flinch at the wheel caused them to veer left, carrying in the Sixth Marines farther north than they were supposed to be. The same problem beset the Eighth Regiment, only worse, owing to a northward-carrying tide. Both of its battalions landed on Green One, causing congestion and a dangerous massing of forces there, as well as a void on Green Two, just to the south. The architect of the Second Marine Division’s confusion was a battery of heavy machine guns and antiboat guns on Afetna Point. Having somehow survived the morning bombardment by the Birmingham and Indianapolis, it enjoyed a run of terrible glory. Head still down, filled with silent prayer, Robert Graf heard the smooth tenor of the engine change as his tracks bit into the ground. His platoon was on the beach.

As the critical hour began ashore, the naval fire support shifted inland, leaving the amtracs to their own devices. The bow gunners trained their fifties on the thin ribbon of sand and scrub ahead as the mortars and artillery continued their incessant high-angle fall. General Saito’s artillerymen and mortar teams were in impressive form given the plastering that had been leveled upon them from air and sea. Lofting shells on tall parabolas from crevices, ravines, and the back sides of hills, they began taking a toll on Turner’s force. The beach where Easy Company of the 2/23 went ashore, Blue Beach Two, took a particularly brutal deluge. “More and more shells came pounding at us and more tractors were hit,” wrote Graf. “Bodies, both whole and in pieces, were scattered about.” He saw men mortally wounded but still alive, floating with the aid of life jackets. The Marines left no man behind, except by necessity at H Hour, when the imperative to get off the beach was existential. The whole operation depended on it. Already, with the arrival of the second wave, the boat lane was a bottleneck, with a huge inflow of machines grinding through it.

Amtracs had their appeal, foremost their armor plate, which was proof against all but the closest artillery rounds. But many veteran Marines preferred the old LCVPs with their bow ramps, which when dropped allowed them to make a quick low rush forward out of the hold. Amtracs, in contrast, required them to stand up and dismount over the side, and that meant exposing themselves to enemy fire. When Donald Boots hit the beach, enemy gunners were waiting. The platoon sergeant and gunnery sergeant of his pioneer company were shot dead along with a few other men. As bullets zipped overhead, his platoon, deprived of their leadership, dropped to the beach and pressed themselves into the crushed coral for cover. Boots moved left, bounding into a large shell crater with several other men as machine gun fire whipped overhead. When the mortars came, Boots didn’t think he would survive.

“It was really tragic to watch the effect of this mortar fire on our own troops,” said Captain Inglis.

The Japanese were extremely accurate, and as they walked this shellfire up the beach, this shellfire falling at about ten yard intervals, our Marines at first stood up under the fire without flinching, continued their operations of sorting out and transporting to front lines the equipment which had been landed and which was lying on the beach. After the first two or three shells had fallen it was quite apparent to us that the Marines were beginning to flinch under the fire and at first they threw themselves on the ground and then eventually, after this fire was continued, broke and ran. Through high powered optical instruments we could almost see the whiskers on men’s faces, and the whole impression that I received was something unreal, something that you might see in the London Graphic, for instance, as sketched in the imagination of an artist. It seemed almost too dramatic and too close to be realistic.

Though the largest Japanese coastal guns had been easy for the Navy to destroy, as they were sited conspicuously in fixed emplacements vulnerable to direct fire, and beach positions evaporated quickly in the initial barrage, the inland positions were trickier even when ship commanders could see where the fire was coming from. “The mobilization of that mass of field artillery and mortars on the reverse slope of the hills back of the beaches was a complete unknown to us when we landed,” Hill said.

Captain Inglis felt a mounting frustration. “We tried our best to determine the source of this fire, but the Japanese, being past masters in the twin arts of playing possum and camouflage, had very successfully concealed their batteries from observation and the source of the fire could not be determined from observation from the ship, or from the spotters ashore, nor from observation from aircraft, nor from photographs taken by aircraft.” There were many eyes on D Day, but none were all-seeing. It remained to the assaulters to push forward and deliver themselves from death.

The Second Armored Amphibian Battalion, a Marine outfit, hit Red Beach One promptly at H Hour. General Watson, who hadn’t wanted to use his regular amtracs as fighting vehicles on land, had his men debark from the troop-carrying LVTs immediately, to begin the fight in the footprint of the tides. As LVTs unloaded elements of the Second Battalion, Sixth Marines, high on the beach, the unit’s seventeen LVT(A)-4 amtanks sought routes inland, to serve as a sort of mobile amphibious armored striking force. Their crews were freelancers as soon as they went ashore, and thus they acquired a fearsome responsibility: to use their thin-skinned “armored pigs” to hold the exposed far left flank of the entire two-division landing beach. This meant facing off against anything the Japanese might send them from the north. Turner had anticipated this; the whole purpose of the feint he had carried out off Garapan was to let the first two battalions of the Sixth Marine Regiment get ashore and dig in before a counterattack came.

“I never will forget the concussion of the battleships’ guns and the power and compression that blew over us,” remembered R. J. Lee. The driver of his amtank was looking to push inland off the beach, but with a deep trench just behind the shrub line there was no way forward. He threw the pig into reverse and backed out to the water’s edge, where he unlimbered the 75 mm cannon and began blasting to cut a navigable lane. The Japanese had built only the simplest of defensive works, thanks to the efforts of U.S. submarines to strangle their source of supply. But their trenches, foxholes, and log obstacles near the beach were made reasonably effective by the pressure of artillery and mortar fire coming from the highlands far away. Marine amtanks on Red Beach struggled to get over the bluffs behind the beaches. Lee had gotten off perhaps four shots when Japanese artillery found his range. The open turret took a direct hit. Before the smoke washed everything black, Lee saw his platoon leader and two of his sergeants dead.

“Let’s get the hell out of here before she blows up,” another sergeant said to the five survivors. The amtank’s seven-cylinder radial aircraft engine, owing to the aviation gasoline that fed it, was always a fire hazard. They shimmied through the escape hatch into the water and turned and charged the beach, weapons held high. Lee looked to his right and saw one of his crew, Gus Evans, rifle raised over his head, take a bullet to the face and go down. He was reaching for him when he, too, was hit. Two head shots—one a ricochet, the other penetrating the helmet but somehow retaining only enough force to knock him cold. “Lights out for me,” Lee said. “I heard my four-year-old son calling, ‘Get up, Daddy, get up, Daddy,’ and by the grace of God and my son I made it back to the beach.”

On Red Three, a trio of amtanks under the command of Lieutenant Philo Pease found a path through a grove of trees and made it up onto the bluff. Crossing a narrow road, they approached a trenchworks. The lead vehicle tried to cross it but came to grief, stuck fast, treads clawing the air. According to the driver, S. A. Balsano, Japanese soldiers were “on us like flies.” There was no way forward, or back, either, for the rear amtank was stuck, too. Lieutenant Pease realized their only hope was to get moving again, or artillery would surely find them. He saw that the second amtank in his column, the one right behind him, might be able to pull the third one free of its snag. He ordered his crew to stay with their stranded lead vehicle and try to break it free while he ran outside, exposing himself in order to help the commander behind him to rig a tow cable. As a cluster of enemy troops approached, one of Pease’s crew, Leroy Clobes, stuck a light machine gun through the side hatch and leaned into the trigger, scattering them. Balsano, the driver, jammed his Thompson through the front hatch and jackhammered away. Then they realized that the foreign voices they had heard were coming from the trench beneath them.

Pease reached the amtank behind him only to find himself going to the assistance of a dead man. A Japanese soldier had drawn a bead on the other commander and shot him dead where he stood. Ducking low under fire, Pease inherited the job of attaching the cable. The enemy rifleman chambered another round and took him down next. A corporal in Pease’s amtank, Paul Durand, took command, shouting, “Shoot all the sons of bitches you can!” Nearby he spotted a straw house that seemed to harbor an enemy squad. Traversing the 75 mm gun onto it, he blew it right down. At that point a Japanese light tank appeared and put a 37 mm round through the hull of the third amtank in line, killing the driver. Marine bazookamen put the enemy armored vehicle out of business in turn, but here, exposed under merciless direct fire, was the root of General Watson’s worry all along: Amtracs were sitting ducks. Lieutenant Pease’s surviving crew were lucky. Inspecting their stranded amphibian later, one of them found a magnetic mine fastened to the undercarriage. Somehow it had failed to explode.

South of them, Green Beach One was chaos, its six-hundred-yard frontage hopelessly congested after the arrival of two full battalions. The commanders of the first wave’s amtanks tried to deepen the beachhead by driving inland. Their advance was conspicuous to the well-spotted mortarmen and artillery gunners in the hills. Coming under heavy plunging fire, several of the amtanks became bogged down in a rice paddy. Two others, driven by Sergeant Benjamin R. Livesey and Sergeant Onel W. Dickens, pushed on. Crossing the end of the single runway paralleling Green Beach, they turned up a dirt road leading north past the Japanese radio station. The road was little more than a cart path, barely wide enough for two-way traffic. Along it they clattered, fortunate to evade the incoming fire. A Japanese machine gun nest, then another, revealed themselves with spitting tracers. The armored amphibians turned the fury of their 75 mm howitzers and .50- and .30-caliber machine guns onto them, to overwhelming effect. Passing through a banana grove, Livesey realized its value as cover and stopped there as the mortars continued to fall. As the crew crouched low, they heard the chatter of small arms fire as Japanese soldiers opened up on them from down the road. “We scrambled back into our tank,” Livesey said, “and scanned ahead into the grove of trees, using our gun sight and binoculars to spot a building with some Japs moving around inside it. We opened fire with everything we had.”

Their 75 mm main gun was loaded with high-explosive and incendiary rounds. Several hits produced larger explosions followed climactic ally by a mushrooming fireball that marked the demise of a Japanese fuel dump. Livesey ordered his driver forward and shot up the area for effect. About a hundred yards on, he came upon a clearing and stopped again, breaking out water for his crew. As Dickens’s amtank rolled up alongside, Livesey and his men dismounted to talk with them. No other Marines had yet made it that far inland. “We were alone and isolated,” Livesey said, “but enjoying our success.” They were picking through the wooden crates that constituted their magazines, counting their remaining shells, when, down the road, four behemoths of foreign origin loomed into view.

The Japanese medium tanks were in a single column, moving toward the landing beach. They did not seem to see the Americans hustling to remount. Once buttoned in, Livesey and Dickens turned out after them, unlimbering their 75 mm guns and opening fire. His ammunition passers were scrambling to find armor-piercing shells when the enemy column turned and came directly at the Marines. “It was us or them,” Livesey said.

Neither side’s vehicle was a match for the other’s main gun. Livesey’s vehicle shook from a hit to its engine compartment, but June 15 was his day; the shell was a dud. Gales of machine gun fire washed over them. Though the 75s liked to jam and did, the gunners and loaders kept their breech blocks smoking, and Marine Corps marksmanship was equal to the moment. Destroying three of the enemy tanks in succession, they stopped the Japanese armor just fifty to seventy yards away. Livesey watched one of the enemy tankers pile out of his hatch and start running for the hills, a good thing given that Livesey’s ammunition passers were nearly down to smoke shells. He threw a few rounds after the enemy squirter, but as artillery and mortars in the hills began bracketing them again, he and Dickens and their crews opted to bail out. As they set out on foot to the beach, mortar shrapnel killed one of Dickens’s men, Private Leo Pletcher. The freelancing foray by Livesey and Dickens would earn each of them a Navy Cross. More important, it relieved pressure on the vulnerable Second Marine Division foothold by blunting an armored assault that might have fallen upon the beach.

The fighting on the left flank continued stiff and sharp. The Sixth Marines were able to force a shallow beachhead no more than a hundred yards deep, as far as the coastal road behind Red Beach. But pillboxes and machine gun positions checked their progress. An enemy tank on the beach that everyone had thought was disabled opened fire with its 37 mm gun on the LVTs that were bringing in the Sixth Marines’ reserve unit, the First Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel William K. Jones. One of the vehicles that got hit was carrying the staff of Jones’s boss, the regimental commander, Colonel James P. Riseley. Many of them were badly wounded. Soon after landing, Riseley learned that the commander of his Third Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel John W. Easley, had been hit, too.

As Riseley was setting up his regimental command post near the center of Red Beach Two, as many as two dozen Japanese troops charged down the beach from the north. They reached the rear area of the regiment’s Second Battalion, where wounded Americans were laid out in stretchers under tents near the beach. The Marines rallied, established a firing line, and annihilated the Japanese force. But the close-run assault proved that no one was safe in a battle of infiltration. On the day, the commanders of all four of the Second Marine Division’s assault battalions were wounded in action: Raymond L. Murray of the 2/6 (hit along with his executive officer), Henry P. Crowe of the 2/8, John C. Miller of the 3/8, and Easley of the 3/6. After nightfall, the task of closing the gaps in their lines would be a matter of life and death.

To break the pressure of the counterattack, Riseley ordered the First Battalion to pass through the Third Battalion area and renew the push toward the O-1 line. Riseley would have given the job to no one other than the 1/6’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jones. He would call him “the best damn battalion commander in this division, or any other division.” At the moment, Jones was the only officer of his rank physically able to lead an assault on that high ground. The 1/6 had taken a hundred casualties on the way to the beach. Coming ashore, the survivors had replaced their soaked equipment and gear by harvesting from those who had fallen ahead of them. Jones rallied them forward.

With units scattered and intermingled thanks to the whirligig movements of amtracs in surf and tide, and with the heavy fire urging survival ahead of record keeping, it was difficult to count the wounded. The first casualties were brought to the beach for loading onto LVTs at about 10:40. The total number of killed and wounded that day would total more than two thousand, most of the casualties inflicted by artillery and mortar fire. But an untold multitude emblematized by Lieutenant Colonel Easley refused to report to triage for fear of being removed from the company of their men at the front.

The Mighty “Constitution”

Victory at sea by USS Constitution over HMS Guerriere painting by Anton Otto Fischer  

Isaac Hull, the Constitution’s first wartime captain, a kind but thoroughgoing seaman who commanded the almost worshipful loyalty of his crew.

Captain Hull had already decided to head for the south, and Bermuda, at the first chance: a few days earlier the Constitution had scattered a group of sail eastward in a long chase beginning at sunrise that had carried them within forty miles of Cape Race, Newfoundland. A British sloop of war ran free, but in mid-afternoon the Constitution caught up with an American brig that had been taken a prize by the sloop, with a British master’s mate and five seamen aboard. From the prisoners they learned that the British squadron was just to the east, on the edge of the Grand Banks. “I determined to change my cruising ground,” Hull noted; it was time to keep the enemy guessing again about his whereabouts.

In fact, the British squadron had sailed east for three weeks after giving up its chase of the Constitution off New Jersey; they had gone to escort a homebound West India merchant convoy and only a few days earlier had finally turned back for New York. On August 10 1812 an American merchant brig, the Betsey, bound for Boston from Naples with a load of brandy, had fallen in with a lone British frigate on the Western Banks. The Betsey’s master, William B. Orne, was taken aboard as a prisoner and his ship sent on to Halifax as a prize.

The cruising frigate was the Guerriere; she had gone with the rest of the squadron halfway across the Atlantic but then been detached and ordered to Halifax, the first in a regular rotation that would send one ship of the British cruising force at a time into port to replenish her stores and refit while the others maintained a constant presence off the American coast. On her way into Halifax the Guerriere had already encountered several American merchant ships, better luck than the squadron had had in its weeks of blue-water sailing. The day after taking the Betsey the Guerriere halted and boarded the brig John Adams, bound for New York. Finding that the ship was sailing under a British license, Dacres told her captain he could go on his way, but not before he first wrote an entry into the merchant ship’s register:

Capt. Dacres, commander of his Britannic Majesty’s frigate Guerriere, of forty-four guns, presents his compliments to commodore Rodgers, of the United States frigate President, and will be very happy to meet him, or any other American frigate of equal force to the President, off Sandy Hook, for the purpose of having a few minutes tête-à-tête.

At two o’clock on the afternoon of August 19, after a day’s sailing southward in pursuit of the privateer captain’s report, the Constitution spotted a sail in the far distance off the larboard bow. Hull was on deck instantly, followed quickly by nearly every man on board. “Before all the hands could be called, there was a general rush on deck,” said able seaman Moses Smith. “The word had passed like lightning from man to man; and all who could be spared came flocking up like pigeons from a net bed. From the spar deck to the gun deck, from that to the berth deck, every man was roused and on his feet. All eyes were turned in the direction of the strange sail, and quick as thought studding-sails were out, fore and aft.” The Guerriere spotted the American almost simultaneously. On her deck Dacres handed Orne his glass and asked if he thought she was an American or a French frigate. Orne said he thought American for sure, but Dacres replied that she “acted most too bold to be an American.” Dacres paused, then added, “The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him,” even remarking to Orne that he would “be made for life” by being the first British captain to capture an American frigate. The British crew facetiously hung up a barrel of molasses in the netting for their soon-to-be prisoners; Yankees were said to like a drink of molasses and water known as switchel. Ten impressed Americans in the crew were allowed by Dacres to go below, and Dacres turned politely to Orne and asked if he would like to go below as well and assist the surgeon in the cockpit in case any of the men were wounded in the battle—“as I suppose you do not wish to fight against your own countrymen.” Just before he left the deck, Orne saw the main topsail backed, the yard rotated around so the sail caught the wind and checked the ship’s forward motion, as the Guerriere prepared to stand to and face the rapidly approaching American. An English ensign broke out at each masthead, and the drum began to roll to bring the men to quarters.

As the Constitution came up, her crew could see another bit of English facetiousness; on one of the ship’s topsails painted in large letters were the words NOT THE LITTLE BELT, a sarcastic allusion to Rodgers’s mistaken encounter with the Little Belt when he was seeking to intercept the Guerriere off Cape Henry the year before. If there had been any doubt as to the ship’s identity, it was now gone.

Since the Constitution was to windward, she held the weather gauge, and with it several theoretical advantages in a ship-on-ship engagement. A ship to leeward, heeling away from the wind, exposed a portion of her hull below the waterline to the enemy’s shot; in a close action the smoke from a windward ship’s guns might envelop an opponent, obscuring the aim of her gun crews; the sails of the ship on the weather side could block the wind and becalm the leeward ship, hindering her maneuverability. But most of all, the commander of the ship that held the weather gauge held the power of decision; he could haul away and avoid a fight, and an equal opponent to leeward could never intercept and catch him, or he could use the wind to steer a direct course to come up as quickly as possible to close with the enemy. That posed its own risks, though: the more direct the angle of approach, the more exposed the approaching ship was to the enemy’s broadside while unable to answer with her own. But that was the course Hull now chose to take.

Several times Dacres wore his ship and fired broadsides as the American came up. The first fell short, and others went too high, and each time Hull ordered his ship to yaw slightly to larboard and windward to take the enemy fire on the side of the bows and avoid being raked from stem to stern down the vulnerable length of the deck. Ships usually went into battle with topsails only to avoid the danger of sails catching fire from their own cannons’ flaming wads and to keep the number of sail trimmers needed to a minimum, but Hull now ordered the main topgallant sail set to close rapidly and bring his ship right alongside the enemy. The crew broke out with three cheers.

With the Constitution coming up on her windward quarter the Guerriere could now bring her sternmost guns to bear and some of her shots started to tell. Several men on the Constitution were mowed down, and Lieutenant Morris impatiently asked Hull for permission to fire.

“No, sir,” Hull replied.

A dead silence hung over the ship. “No firing at random!” Hull shouted into it. “Let every man look well to his aim.” At 6:05 p.m. the Constitution was directly alongside the Guerriere, less than a pistol shot, or two dozen yards, away. Then came the first crashing broadside from every gun on Constitution’s starboard side, double-shotted and fired right into the deck and gunports of the enemy.

To Orne, crouching in the cramped cockpit below the Guerriere’s waterline, it sounded like “a tremendous explosion … the effect of her shot seemed to make the Guerriere reel, and tremble as though she had received the shock of an earthquake.” Almost instantly came an even more tremendous crash. And then as the smoke from the last shot cleared, the men on the Constitution were cheering like maniacs: Guerriere’s mizzenmast had gone by the board. “Huzzah boys! We’ve made a brig of her!” one of the Constitution’s crew shouted. “Next time we’ll make her a sloop!” shouted another voice. Hull, who had literally split his dress breeches excitedly leaping atop an arms chest on the deck for a better view, exclaimed, “By God that vessel is ours.” The cockpit of the Guerriere was instantly filled with wounded and dying men, barely leaving room for the surgeons to work at the long table in the center that they kneeled or bent over. From the decks above, Orne said, blood poured down as if a washtub full had been turned over.

Most of the Constitution’s sails and spars were still undamaged, and now she began to forge ahead. Hull ordered the helm put to port to bring the ship to starboard and cross the Guerriere’s bows. The English ship attempted to turn in parallel to foil the maneuver, but the drag of her fallen mizzenmast in the water prevented her from answering her helm, and the Constitution began to pour a murderous fire, two full broadsides, into the enemy’s larboard bow. Grapeshot, clusters of balls weighing a couple of pounds apiece that separated like a shotgun’s blast when fired, swept across the decks and mowed men down while round shot continued to take a toll on the Guerriere’s masts.

To keep the Guerriere from passing across her stern and raking the Constitution in turn, the American ship bore up, but the Guerriere’s bowsprit and jibboom crossed her quarterdeck and became entangled in the mizzen rigging. Men crowded on the forecastle of the Guerriere preparing to board or repel boarders, and Morris quickly suggested to Hull that he call the Constitution’s boarders too, then joined the men running for their ship’s stern preparing to board the enemy. As Morris began to wrap a few turns of the mainbrace over the enemy’s bowsprit to hold her fast, a musket ball tore into his abdomen, knocking him to the deck grievously wounded. Lieutenant William S. Bush, the captain of the ship’s marines, leapt on the taffrail at almost the same moment, sword in hand, shouting, “Shall I board her?” when he was drilled through the cheek by a musket ball that tore through the back of his head, shattering his skull and killing him instantly. The facetious barrel of molasses hanging over the Guerriere’s deck was riddled with holes and molasses poured over the deck. During the closest part of the battle the Constitution’s gunners fired a hundred rounds of canister shot—cylinders packed with bullets, nails, bolts, and scraps of old iron—which was even more deadly than grapeshot at short range.

Although only a few of the Guerriere’s forwardmost guns would bear, the British sailors ran one of the guns almost into the window of the captain’s cabin of the Constitution and a flaming wad came aboard, starting a fire, but the American sailors quickly put it out. Marines in Constitution’s mizzentop kept up a steady barrage of musketry, shooting down over the head-high breastwork of hammocks packed into the netting over both ships’ rails that offered some protection for the crews on the deck, clearing the forecastle of the enemy and wounding Dacres in the back as he stood on the piled hammocks to get a better view of the situation. Hull was about to climb back atop the arms chest when a sailor grabbed him by the arm and, pointing to the epaulets on his shoulders that made him an equally prime target for the enemy’s sharpshooters, said, “Don’t get up there, sir, unless you take them swabs off!”

Boarding would still have been an extremely dicey move at this point, the boarders having to make their way in a heavy running sea single file over the bowsprit of the Guerriere. But in rapid sequence the ships now tore away, the foremast of the English ship fell in a cascade of spars and rigging over her starboard side, and then her mainmast went too. Not a spar was left standing on the Guerriere but the bowsprit. Hull immediately ordered his sails filled and hauled off.

For half an hour the Constitution stood off nearby, repairing her rigging. The sun had gone down, and it was hard to see if any colors were still flying from the enemy, though her guns had fallen silent. William Orne made his way up on deck. The scene was “a perfect hell.” Blood was everywhere, like a slaughterhouse. The men who were still sober were throwing the dead overboard, but many of the petty officers and crewmen had broken into the spirit locker and were screaming drunk. The mastless ship, with nothing but a jury-rigged scrap of canvas flying from the bowsprit, lay “rolling like a log in the trough of the sea,” her main deck guns rolling under water. Water also poured in from thirty holes smashed through her side below the waterline. A British ensign was still flying from the stump of the mizzenmast, but with a crack the spritsail yard carried away, taking with it any hope of bringing her before the wind and fighting on.

The American ship now wore back and stood across the Guerriere’s bow, completing her picture of helplessness. From the Constitution a boat rowed over under a flag of truce, and Lieutenant George Read hailed the ship: “I wish to see the officer in command.” Dacres stood on the deck appearing slightly dazed. Read hailed again: “Commodore Hull’s compliments and wishes to know if you have struck your flag.”

The British officers had already held a council and agreed that further resistance was futile, but Dacres seemed to make an effort to utter the fateful words. “Well, I don’t know,” he finally said, “our mizzenmast is gone, our main-mast is gone—and upon the whole, you may say we have struck our flag.” Read asked if they could send their surgeon to lend assistance. “Well, I should suppose you had on board your own ship business enough for all your medical officers,” Dacres replied. “Oh, no, we have only seven wounded, and they were dressed half an hour ago.” Dacres then turned to Orne and said, “How our situations have suddenly been reversed: you are now free and I am a prisoner.”

The British captain came across in the boat to present his sword to Hull and formally surrender. “Your men are a set of tigers,” he said to Hull in wonderment. Not a single shot had hulled the Constitution; her casualties were seven dead and seven wounded. The British ship officially reported fifteen dead and sixty-two wounded, but Orne was certain that at least twenty-five more of her crewmen were dead, their bodies dumped over the side or the men swept to their deaths with the falling of the masts. The American victory had taken twenty-five minutes, and the accuracy of American fire had been decisive. Hull would later single out for praise his black sailors: “I never had any better fighters than those niggers,—they stripped to the waist, and fought like devils, sir, seemingly insensible to danger, and to be possessed with a determination to outfight the white sailors.”

All night Constitution’s boats went back and forth removing the prisoners. Hull later told a friend, “I do not mind the day of battle, the excitement carries one through: but the day after is fearful.” Midshipman Henry Gilliam was aboard Guerriere the whole night, and the scene of her decks “were almost enough to make me curse the war,” he admitted to his uncle in a letter a few days later; “pieces of skulls, brains, legs, arms & blood Lay in every direction.” Morris had pulled himself off the deck and gone back to his station after being shot, but once the action was over he found he could not speak and the pain began to overwhelm him; he was carried down to the cockpit and spent an agonizing night. “The pain nearly deprived me of all consciousness,” Morris said. But Evans was amazed by the fortitude of the wounded men; Orne had had the same reaction in the cockpit of the Guerriere, almost doubting his own senses as he witnessed men making jokes as they were having an arm amputated. Evans had no sleep at all, working through the night assisting the Guerriere’s surgeon to dress the wounds of the British injured. The next day Evans amputated the leg of Richard Dunn, one of the Constitution’s men. Dunn muttered, “You’re a hard set of butchers,” and then stoically submitted to his fate.

With dawn the condition of the Guerriere was clearly hopeless; she was, said Hull, “a perfect Wreck,” and he hastened to get the remaining wounded men off before she sank. Six feet of planking had been completely shot away in one place below her waterline, there was five feet of water in the hold, and the pumps could not keep up. At three o’clock in the afternoon the two captains watched wordlessly from the Constitution’s quarterdeck as Lieutenant Read’s boat began to row back across for the last time, and minutes later the English frigate was ablaze from the scuttling charge Read had set, her guns discharging in succession as the heat of the flame reached them; then there was a momentary silence followed by a deafening roar. It was like waiting for a volcano to erupt, Moses Smith remembered; then the quarterdeck, immediately over the magazine, heaved skyward in a single piece and broke into fragments; then her whole hull parted in two. Seconds later the entire ship disappeared beneath the sea’s surface. “No painter, no poet or historian could give on canvas or paper any description that could do justice to the scene,” Evans said, “a sight the most incomparably grand and magnificent I have experienced.”

That evening the bodies of Lieutenant Bush and one of the Guerriere’s men who had died from his wounds were committed to the deep.

U.S.S. CONSTITUTION 1812//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js