Battle of Omdurman


Robert Kelly’s depiction of the Khalifa’s flight was wholly imaginative, but still suggests the impact which the exotic image of dervish power had on British opinion .






September 2, 1898


Near Khartoum in central Sudan


[1]British and Egyptians

[2]Sudanese Dervishes


[1]Major General Sir Herbert Kitchener

[2]Khalifa Abdullah

Approx. # Troops

[1]8,000 British, 17,000 Egyptians

[2]35,000–50,000 Sudanese Dervishes


Brings Anglo-Egyptian control of the Sudan

In the September 2, 1898, Battle of Omdurman, British, Egyptian, and Sudanese forces defeated nationalists in the Sudan, leading to the establishment of the Anglo- Egyptian Sudan. The battle also illustrated the technological advantage of European military establishments over their brave but primitively armed opponents in the wars of imperialism that preceded World War I.

Concern over the security of the Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to India, led the British government to send naval and land forces to Egypt in 1882. Following the Battle of Tel el Kebir on September 13, 1882, the British established their control over all Egypt. Although the khedive was still nominal ruler, the real power in the country rested with the British consul-general and high commissioner, and British imperialists soon considered the Nile Valley part of the British Empire.

From Egypt, the British were soon drawn into difficulties in the vast, poor, and hostile Sudan. Egypt had long sought to establish its control over the Upper Nile region but aroused strong opposition through actions against the slave trade and heavy taxes. In 1883 a prophet, Muhammad Ahmad ibn as-Sayyid Abd Allah, the son of a Nile boatbuilder, arose in the Sudan, calling himself the Mahdi. Soon he had thousands of warrior followers, known as Dervishes.

The Egyptian government decided to intervene to put down the uprising. Former Indian Army officer General William Hicks marched 8,500 Egyptian Army troops into the desert, only to be annihilated on November 3 at El Obeid by Sudanese forces under command of Abu Anja, one of the Mahdi’s best generals. The Mahdi’s reputation soared after this victory, and the entire Sudan was in revolt.

The Egyptians then sought assistance from the British government. The Egyptians still held the Nile and the city of Khartoum, at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, but Prime Minister William Gladstone decided that the Sudan must be evacuated. To accomplish this, he sent out Major General Charles Gordon.

Gordon’s nickname was “Chinese,” earned for his command of the Chinese Imperial Army that put down the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s. He had once been governor of the Sudan for the Egyptians and had taken an aggressive stance against the slave trade there. Deeply religious and eccentric, Gordon was the worst possible choice for a mission involving capitulation. He completely ignored Gladstone’s original instructions and convinced the Egyptian ministry to reestablish British control in the Sudan. Gordon then proceeded up the Nile to Khartoum, where he dallied and got besieged by the Mahdists. Gladstone was furious; only after five months had passed did his government respond to public pressure and send relief forces under General Garnet Wolseley.

Wolseley’s own trip up the Nile was as slow as that of Gordon. As his relief expedition neared Khartoum and after a siege lasting 317 days, on January 26, 1885, the Dervishes swept over Gordon’s defenses, stormed the palace, and massacred the entire garrison, presenting Gordon’s severed head to the Mahdi. On June 21, 1885, the Mahdi died. His successor, Kalifa Abdullah, and his Dervish followers completed the conquest of the Sudan, with the British this time evacuating.

Not until 1896 did the British government decide to reconquer the Sudan, part of a plan to provide a defense in depth for the Suez Canal fueled by French and Italian interest in the Sudan. Under orders from London, Egyptian army commander in chief (sirdar) major general (only a colonel in the British Army) Horatio Herbert Kitchener marched forces south from Egypt. Kitchener commanded six brigades of infantry. He had only four British battalions, and most of his 25,000- man force consisted of Egyptians and Sudanese. Kitchener also had some 20 Maxim guns, artillery, and river gunboats. He had a considerable supply train of camels and horses and built a rail line as he proceeded southward.

The methodical Kitchener captured Dongola on September 21, 1896, and Abu Hamed on August 7, 1897. He then defeated Mahdist forces under Osman Dinga and Khalifa Abdullah in the Battle of the Atbara River on April 7, 1898. On September 1, 1898, Kitchener arrived outside Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, to face the main Mahdist army. Among those present on the British side was 23-year-old soldier and reporter Winston Churchill.

After some preliminary skirmishing, on the morning of September 2 some 35,000–50,000 Sudanese tribesmen under Abdullah attacked the British lines. The Mahdists had perhaps 15,000 rifles, with the remainder of their men armed only with spears and swords. There was no real sense of how the troops should be deployed; riflemen were merely mixed in with the spearmen and swordsmen. The riflemen were to provide cover for the others to close with the enemy and fight hand to hand in true warrior fashion. The Mahdist riflemen also fired from the hip, standing or running, rather than from the shoulder; they considered firing from the prone position to be cowardly.

In a series of charges against the British position the Mahdists were simply annihilated, although disaster was narrowly averted that afternoon when Kitchener, who thought that the fight was over and was anxious to avoid a street battle for Omdurman, tried to place his forces between the Mahdists and the capital. As they moved, Kitchener’s infantry encountered a fresh force that had not participated in the earlier fighting. Fortunately for Kitchener, this attack came in separate waves. General Hector MacDonald’s Sudanese brigade managed to hold the Mahdists off, and the 21st Lancers charged and defeated another force that suddenly appeared on the British right flank. After the battle it was learned that the men of the Sudanese brigade were down to an average of only two rounds apiece.

During the Battle of Omdurman the British had used their magazine rifles and Maxim guns to kill perhaps 10,000 Dervishes and wound as many more, with 5,000 taken prisoner. The cost to the British side was 48 dead and 434 wounded. Kitchener, surveying the battlefield from horseback, is said to have announced (in considerable understatement) that the enemy had been given “a good dusting.” The battle led Hilaire Belloc to have the character Blood proclaim in The Modern Traveller:

“Whatever happens we have got The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”

The Battle of Omdurman also gave Britain control of the Sudan for all practical purposes, and made Kitchener a British national hero.

References Barthorp, Michael. War on the Nile: Britain, Egypt, and the Sudan, 1882–1898. Poole, UK: Blandford, 1984. Harrington, Peter, and Frederick A. Sharf. Omdurman, 1898: The Eye-Witnesses Speak. London: Greenhill Books, 1898. Spiers, Edward M., ed. Sudan: The Reconquest Reappraised. London: Frank Cass, 1998. Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914. London: UCL Press, 1998.

Flodden Field – 1513 – Twilight of the English Longbow


Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Flodden Field (9 Sep 1513)




The Lancashire Bowman.

The longbow was to go out of military fashion in a blaze of glory, to achieve a victory in the old classical style so that it left a glow in the hearts of the yeoman of England, but no pangs of regret in the hearts of his enemies.

The events which led to the Scottish invasion of England in 1513 need not be recapitulated; suffice to say that King James IV of Scotland had crossed the border in mid-August of that year with, for that time, an enormous army of 40,000 men. They were well furnished with the latest artillery of the day. His leaders were all those of the highest rank in the Scottish kingdom; it may be fairly said that no grown-up member of any family of position was absent from the expedition. After some initial skirmishing, the Scots had Northumberland at their mercy; but after taking the castle of Ford, stronghold of the Heron family, James loitered in the neighbourhood whilst his army daily grew less in numbers. Said to have been infatuated by the captured Lady Heron, King James appeared to be regardless of the increasing desertions of those gorged with plunder in addition to those starved through the land being foraged-out. Finally, his army numbered less than 30,000, but those that were left represented the cream of the whole and were claimed to have been one of the noblest bodies of fighting men ever gathered together. To back them, James had a most efficient train of thirty pieces of artillery which had been cast for him at Edinburgh by the master gunner, Robert Borthwick.

Against the Scots was sent the veteran Earl of Surrey, over seventy years of age, and forced, on account of his rheumatism, to travel mostly by coach. Chiefly from the northern counties, he hastily gathered together an army of between 20,000 and 26,000 men. Whilst encamped at Alnwick, Surrey sent a formal challenge to King James, naming Friday, 9th September, as the day of battle; the challenge was duly accepted in the most formal manner. At the time of acceptance, James was encamped in the low ground and, according to the old rules of chivalry, his acceptance from this spot implied that he would give battle on that site. But before long James had moved his camp from there to Flodden Hill, an eminence lying due south of Ford Castle, running east and west in a low ridge. Here, on the steep brow of Flodden Edge, in the angle between the Till and its small tributary, the Glen, James’s defensive position was so strong that no sane foe would dare to attack it.

Realising this, Surrey sent James a letter of reproach in which he pointed out that the arrangement had been made for a pitched battle, and instead James had installed himself in a fortified camp. He concluded by challenging him to come down on the appointed day and fight on Millfield Plain, a level tract south of Flodden Hill. King James refused even to see the herald who brought the message.

Surrey then marched his army up the river Till; put his vanguard with the artillery and heavy baggage across at the Twizel bridge, whilst the remainder of his force crossed at Sandyford, half a mile higher up. Now was presented to James an excellent opportunity of attacking the English whilst they were split into two parts. By failing to grasp it, James now found his foes placed between himself and Scotland; he was left with little alternative but to reverse his order of battle. Setting fire to the rude huts that his men had constructed on the summit of the hill, he moved his force on to Branxton Hill, immediately behind Flodden Edge; the movement was partially obscured from the English by the clouds of smoke that trailed over the brow of the hill. As they formed up on the ridge above Branxton, the Scottish army that had faced south were now drawn up facing north.

The two armies faced each other, both formed into four divisions and both with a reserve. Beginning on the English right, the first division was commanded by Sir Edmund Howard, the younger son of the Earl of Surrey; opposed to him were the Gordons under the Earl of Huntley and the men of the border under the Earl of Home. The second English division was led by Admiral Howard, who was faced by the Earls of Crawford and Montrose. The Earl of Surrey, with the third division, was opposed by King James himself; while Sir Edward Stanley, with the fourth division, had to try conclusions with the Earls of Lennox and Argyle, whose troops were mainly highlanders. The English reserve, mainly cavalry, was commanded by Lord Dacre; that of the Scottish under Bothwell.

It was not until four o’clock that the battle commenced. Then, as an old chronicler says: ‘Out burst the ordnance with fire, flame and a hideous noise… .’ The Scottish artillery was far superior in construction to the English, which was constructed of hoops and bars, whilst the Scots master gunner had cast his weapons; there were, however, more English guns. It seems as though the English gunners were superior to those serving the Scottish cannon, the latter committing the error of firing at too great an elevation so that their shots passed over the heads of the English and buried themselves in the marshy ground beyond. The old writer goes on to say: ‘… and the master gunner of the English slew the master gunner of the Scots, and beat all his men from their guns.’ The early death of Borthwick, brought down by a ball, set up a panic in his men, who ran from their guns – but it was not by artillery fire that Flodden was to be won or lost. James realised this fact and ordered an attack; the border troops of the Lords Huntley and Home appear to have been the first to come to close quarters with the English.

In an unusual silence the Scots rushed forward, their twelve-foot-long pikes levelled in front of them; the initial impetus of their onslaught carried them far into the English lines, so that at first they achieved absolute success. The English right, under Sir Edmund Howard, was thrust back, their leader thrice beaten down and his banner overturned. The English fighting line was in disorder on this flank. Some Cheshire archers, who had been separated from their corps and sent out to strengthen the right wing, fled in all directions and chaos came to Howard’s wing. John Heron, usually known as the Bastard Heron, at the head of a group of Northumbrians, checked the rout long enough for Dacre to charge down with his reserve. This committing of the reserve at such an early stage did not succeed in restoring the English line, but it did put Huntley to flight, whilst the undisciplined borderers of Home had no further idea of fighting. In a border foray, no more was expected after routing one’s opponents; Home’s men did not grasp that Flodden was no ordinary foray – ’We have fought and won, let the rest do their part as well as we!’ was their answer to those trying to rally them.

Whilst this was going on, Crawford and Montrose were furiously attacking the division of Admiral Howard; so much so that the Admiral sent to his father, the Earl of Surrey, for assistance. But Surrey was fully occupied in holding his own against the division commanded by King James, strengthened by Bothwell, who had brought up the reserve and flung them into the struggle. The battle was now at its height and was being hardly contested all along the line; it seemed, here and there, as though the English halberds were proving more deadly weapons at close quarters than the long Scottish pikes.

On the English left, the archers of Cheshire and Lancashire, under Sir William Molyneaux and Sir Henry Kickley, were pouring volleys of arrows into the tightly packed ranks of the Scottish right, highlanders under the Earls of Lennox and Argyle. Galled by the hail of shafts which spitted their unarmoured bodies, the wild clansmen finally found it to be more than they could bear. Casting aside their targets and uttering wild, fierce yells, they flung themselves forward in a headlong rush, claymore and pole-axe waving furiously in a frenzy of anxiety to bury themselves into English flesh and bone. The bowmen and pikemen were shaken, so tremendous was the initial shock, their bills and swords, which had replaced the bows, reeling and wavering under the onslaught; but discipline prevailed and their formation remained unbroken. The archers on the flanks of the mêlée stood back and poured in volley after volley at close quarters, while the inner line of pikemen and men-at-arms held off the wild highlanders. Their arrows gone, the archers threw down their bows, drew their swords and axes to fling themselves into the fray, both in front and on the flanks. It was a deadly struggle whilst it lasted, but gradually the clansmen gave way, fighting at first, but then, suddenly, in complete rout – both earls died trying to stem the tide.

Stanley pressed forward, won his way up and crowned the ridge. He did not make the error of pursuing from the field the thoroughly broken Scots whom his men had just beaten. Facing about, he charged obliquely downhill to take the Scots divisions of King James and Bothwell in flank. This struggle in the centre, between Surrey and King James, had been proceeding fiercely; the King was fighting on foot like the rest of his division, conspicuous by the richness of his arms and armour. Stanley’s flank attack, coinciding with a similar attack on the other flank by Dacre and Edmund Howard, proved disastrous to the Scots. Hemmed in on all sides, they began to fall by hundreds in the close and deadly mêlée; no quarter was asked by either side and none was given. The blood flowing from the dreadful gashes inflicted by axes, bills and two-handed swords made the ground so slippery that many of the combatants were said to have taken off their boots to gain a surer footing.

As a battle, all was over by now and nothing remained but the slaughter. Surrounded by a solid ring of his knights, James refused to yield until he finally fell, dying with the knights who had formed a human shield around him. He was said to have been mortally wounded by a ball fired by an unknown hand; he had several arrows in his body, a gash in his neck and his left hand was almost severed from his arm. Ten thousand men fell on the Scottish side; to list the slain is almost to catalogue the ancient Scottish nobility. With the exception of the heads of families who were too old or too young to fight, there was hardly a family of top rank that did not grievously suffer. The English lost about 5,000 men.

On the Scots side, the archers of Ettrick, known in Scotland as the ‘Flowers of the Forest’, perished almost to a man. To this day the sweet, sad, wailing air known by that name is invariably the Dead March used by Scottish regiments.

Japanese Rebels and Rebel Raiders

Naval Battle of the Strait of Shimonoseki, 20th July 1863

USS Wyoming, a screw sloop that won the first Naval battle between the United States and Japan at the Battle of Shimonoseki in 1863, pictured sometime after the US Civil War.

By the end of 1861 U.S. naval forces had been withdrawn from all distant stations to participate in the nation’s internal conflict. The Saginaw was one of three vessels remaining abroad—the others were cruising off Africa and Brazil—and even she was ordered to San Francisco in mid-1862. After nine months of rebuilding at the Mare Island Navy Yard, the side-wheeler joined the Pacific Squadron, with which she spent the remainder of her career.

But the Far East was not destined to be devoid of American naval forces for long. Receiving news of a Confederate privateer off the China coast, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Mare Island commandant to hasten repairs to the Pacific Squadron’s screw-sloop Wyoming, fit her for thirty months’ service, and send her directly to Manila. She arrived in the Philippines in August 1862, and Commander David S. McDougal commenced an investigation which ultimately indicated that the commerce raider was a figment of someone’s imagination. A few months later, however, Welles ordered the Wyoming to intercept the celebrated CSS Alabama at Sunda Strait.

While these orders were en route, the Wyoming touched at several Chinese ports for the dual purpose of showing the flag and seeking information pertaining to Confederate activities. Standing into Swatow in March 1863 with a pilot on board, she had the misfortune to strike a pinnacle rock while steaming at 8 knots. Water poured into the vessel more rapidly than pumps and the bilge injection could eject it, so McDougal ran her aground. After discharging stores and ammunition into a chartered schooner, the Wyoming’s men plugged the leaks sufficiently for her to reach Amoy, where she was docked for permanent repairs. A month after her mishap, the screw-sloop was ready for sea, and McDougal prepared to comply with Welles’s Sunda Strait order. But before she could sail, dispatches from Japan and news that the Alabama was actually in the West Indies caused the commander to set a course for Yokohama instead.

Isolated instances of violence against foreigners in Japan had been reported almost since the beginning of foreign intercourse with the island empire, but only gradually did Westerners become aware that these were manifestations of a more serious danger. The emperor himself and a number of the most powerful daimyo, including the princes of Choshu and Satsuma, were strongly opposed to the abandonment of seclusion and saw in the new policy an opportunity to oust the government of the Tokugawa shogun.

In the autumn of 1862, a retainer of the daimyo of Satsuma killed an Englishman whom he thought had insulted his prince near Yokohama. The British government made this and earlier incidents the occasion for demanding a sizable indemnity from the Japanese government and a smaller sum from Satsuma, over whom the shogun was said to have little control. The French minister at Edo assured British Rear Admiral Augustus Kuper that his government would support Whitehall’s demand, and the senior Netherlands naval officer offered his cooperation. This matter, which had not been settled when the Wyoming arrived, did not involve the United States, but on 25 May the American legation at Edo was burned and a short time afterward Minister Robert H. Pruyn and the consul at Kanagawa were advised to withdraw to Yokohama because the Japanese government could no longer guarantee their safety.

The situation assumed a more serious aspect a month later, when the shogun suddenly denounced the promise of his minister that the indemnity would be paid to Britain. Thereupon, the British chargé d’affaires turned matters over to Admiral Kuper to be settled by force. Since the latter thought his warships too few to protect the foreign settlement at Yokohama and to collect the indemnity at the same time, he declined to take any action until the foreign residents had had an opportunity to leave Japan. Within a few days, the Japanese paid the indemnity, but the payment was coupled with an order that all foreigners depart, so the outlook remained ominous.

Nonetheless, the Wyoming was preparing to return to the United States in obedience to orders from the Navy Department when letters from Shanghai informed Commander McDougal that the American steamer Pembroke, plying between Yokohama and the Chinese port, had been fired on by armed vessels in the vicinity of the Strait of Shimonoseki, western exit from the Inland Sea. The Wyoming’s destination was changed at once.

Arriving off the town of Shimonoseki on the morning of 16 July 1863, McDougal identified a bark and a brig, of European origin but flying the banners of Japan and Choshu, as the Pembroke’s assailants. An armed steamer displaying identical flags was anchored nearby. Taking advantage of a favorable tide, the Wyoming hoisted her colors and stood in with her men at battle stations. As she neared the town, six batteries at various points along the shore took her under fire. The vessels were McDougal’s primary targets, and shells from the Wyoming’s two 11-inch Dahlgren guns seem to have been very effective against them as she closed the range. The steamer weighed anchor, but a gush of smoke and steam following two shellbursts indicated serious damage to her boilers. She drifted ashore, and the brig, also hard hit, was seen to be settling. The bark too was reported to have suffered severe injury, but the batteries were another matter, keeping up a steady fire to which the Wyoming could make little effective reply because of their number and elevation. McDougal’s conning of his vessel was made the more difficult by strong currents and the lack of hydrographic knowledge, his pilots being “completely paralyzed and apprehensive of getting on shore.” After touching bottom once, the screw-sloop broke off the action. During seventy minutes under fire, she had received eleven shots in her hull while others had damaged her smokestack and rigging. Four of her men had been killed instantly and seven wounded, one fatally. Commander McDougal made no estimate of the Japanese loss, but he was sure that his attack had eliminated the danger from Choshu’s warships; the batteries, on the other hand, could be dealt with only by a sizable landing force.

When the Wyoming returned to Yokohama, her men learned that she was not the only vessel bearing wounds inflicted by Shimonoseki’s guns. The Dutch screw-corvette Medusa, en route from Nagasaki to Yokohama, had steamed through the strait under fire from batteries and men-of-war a few days before the Wyoming’s punitive action, and even as that action was beginning, French Rear Admiral C. Jaurés departed Yokohama with two warships to avenge an attack on a dispatch boat flying the tricolor.

French soldiers were embarked in the flagship Sémiramis, for Jaurés intended to destroy the offending batteries. When he found that his vessel drew too much water to come within range, the admiral landed the troops under the fire of the smaller Tancréde’s guns to attack a fortification to the eastward of the strait itself. This was quickly carried and, together with its magazine, destroyed. After burning a nearby village, the force was reembarked. Jaurés’s operation was conducted smartly, but, as Admiral Kuper remarked, it had done little to assure free passage of the strait.

When the French vessels returned to Yokohama, the diplomatic representatives of the foreign powers met to discuss the Japanese situation. They quickly resolved that the naval forces of their respective nations should cooperate to protect foreign rights in the treaty ports and to reopen the strait. The senior foreign naval officers, meeting on board HMS Euryalus soon thereafter to consider the diplomats’ resolution, concluded that no belligerent action should be undertaken, or even planned, until they had been assured that the shogun’s government was unable or unwilling to control the daimyo in whose principalities the treaty ports and the strait were located. No reason for this decision was given; presumably the naval officers wished to avoid responsibility for extensive military involvement in Japan so long as there was any possible alternative. Commander McDougal also had to keep in mind that his primary mission was the pursuit of Confederate commerce raiders—should the Wyoming suffer serious damage or deplete her ammunition supply, no replacement was at hand.

On the next day, however, another U.S. man-of-war stood into Edo Bay. The sailing sloop of war Jamestown had reached Macao from the Atlantic coast by way of the Cape of Good Hope on 1 June. After filling her storerooms with provisions that the naval storekeeper at Macao had purchased for her in Hong Kong, she had touched at Woosung where Captain Cicero Price learned of the threatening state of affairs in Japan. Although the Jamestown’s dependence on the winds practically limited her to duty as a guardship in one or another of the treaty ports, she could contribute sailors and marines to a force which would be landed from other vessels in the event of hostilities. But the arrival of a single obsolete warship did not suffice to change the attitudes of the senior naval officers, and Captain Price concurred in their decision.

Recognizing that the desired international naval cooperation was unlikely to be realized in the near future, the British chargé d’affaires persuaded Admiral Kuper to take unilateral action against the daimyo of Satsuma to force payment of the indemnity. Seven steam-propelled British warships, led by the screw-frigate Euryalus, bombarded the fortifications at Kagoshima, Satsuma’s capital city, on 15 August. Heavy seas whipped by typhoon-force winds and frequent accidents that befell the squadron’s breech-loading Armstrong guns limited the effect of the bombardment, but buildings in Kagoshima were seen to be in flames before the warships sought a sheltered anchorage in which to repair their damage and bury their thirteen dead. The batteries and the daimyo’s palace were shelled again as the squadron steamed out of Kagoshima Bay, and none of its vessels were hit by the feeble return fire. Nonetheless, Satsuma could boast that the British had been driven off without collecting the indemnity.

While the bombardment of Kagoshima had no direct effect on the American situation in Japan, it did show clearly that even a more formidable fleet was unlikely to be successful against Japanese fortifications unless troops could be put ashore in strength to destroy the batteries after they had been silenced by naval gunfire. And troops were not available, for Kuper’s application to the major general commanding British forces in China had received a flat refusal. Thus, the Strait of Shimonoseki remained closed to foreign shipping.

The threat of Confederate commerce raiders in the Far East seemed likely to materialize in the autumn of 1863 when the CSS Alabama was reported to be at Cape Town, where she had armed and commissioned one of her prizes as a cruiser. McDougal took the Wyoming to Macao for coal and then stood south to patrol Sunda Strait. After cruising in its waters for a month, the commander received information apparently originating with the U.S. consul at Melbourne, to the effect that a supply of coal for the Alabama’s use had been landed on uninhabited Christmas Island, some 200 miles to the southward of Sunda Strait. The Wyoming set out to investigate immediately and found no evidence of any coal having been put ashore; indeed, McDougal reported that the waters around the island offered no anchorage where a vessel might be unloaded.

Perhaps the report had been designed to lure the Union warship away from Sunda Strait, for the Alabama was actually nearby. She had destroyed a prize off Sumatra’s south coast on 6 November and steamed through the strait on the tenth, the day on which the Wyoming departed for Christmas Island. Commander McDougal later calculated that the two warships must have passed about twenty-five miles from each other, but by the time the Confederate burned another prize early the next morning, her enemy was too far to the southward to sight the blaze.

The Wyoming returned from her wild-goose chase a week later, to learn that the Alabama had indeed entered the Java Sea, but McDougal could obtain no information as to her whereabouts after 11 November. Five days were spent searching the waters in the vicinity of Anjer, after which the commander set a course for Bangka Strait, bemoaning the state of his vessel’s boilers which could no longer steam at full pressure. The Wyoming was off Singapore at the end of November, and there had the unusual experience of being mistaken for her prey—a native boat brought out a packet of papers and a letter for Commander Raphael Semmes. This evidence that the Alabama was expected caused McDougal to await her off Singapore, but the raider was more than 500 miles to the northward and did not reach Malacca Strait until late December, by which time the Wyoming was well on her way to Manila, whence she went to Whampoa for boiler repairs.

The screw-sloop dropped down to Macao on the completion of her repairs, and the Jamestown joined her early in February 1864. Captain Price had received a report that the Alabama was bound for Whampoa or Amoy to be docked, so he had left Yokohama late in December, disregarding the protests of American merchants and mariners who were sure that the Confederate would steam into Edo Bay at any moment. The sailing warship had battled boisterous winds for nearly a month to reach Amoy, whence she escorted a merchantman to Hong Kong. Price and McDougal agreed that the Alabama was no longer likely to appear in the China Sea, especially since she was reported to have been spoken off India’s Coromandel coast early in January. Nonetheless, the Wyoming was preparing to return to Sunda Strait when, in mid-February, Captain Price ordered her to Foochow in response to the vice-consul’s plea that a warship touch there.

At Foochow, Commander McDougal found that churches belonging to English and American missionary establishments had been damaged by a Chinese mob a month earlier. The vice-consuls of both nations had demanded reparation; compensation required by the Briton was paid promptly—because he was supported by a gunboat, according to McDougal. This view was probably valid, for, upon the Wyoming’s arrival, the American claim was satisfied as well. At an interview with the governor, the two vice-consuls, accompanied by the commanding officers of the USS Wyoming and HMS Bustard, were assured that the guilty individuals would be punished and that foreign property would be protected in the future.

Her Foochow mission successfully concluded, the Wyoming returned to Macao to await the mails and then proceeded to Batavia. All information indicated that the Alabama was no longer in the Indian Ocean, so the Union warship made her way to Philadelphia in accordance with earlier orders. The information was correct; the Alabama was sunk off Cherburg, France, by the USS Kearsarge while the Wyoming was still on her homeward passage.

Meanwhile, the Jamestown remained in Chinese waters until June, when Minister Pruyn asked that she return to Yokohama, both to provide a naval escort when he resumed his residence in Edo and to participate in an effort to reopen the Strait of Shimonoseki. The former mission was completed without incident, but August brought reports of another outrage in the district of the daimyo of Choshu. The American steamer Monitor, her passage from Hakodate to Nagasaki prolonged by head winds, had been fired on when she sought fuel and water in a bay on Honshu’s northwest coast.

Preparations for a movement against Choshu, whose domain included the northern shore of the Strait of Shimonoseki, were well-advanced when news of the supposedly unprovoked firing on the Monitor reached Yokohama. An ultimatum to the daimyo had been answered unsatisfactorily, whereupon the treaty powers’ diplomatic representatives concluded that a military-naval expedition should be sent to the strait. Their recommendation to this effect was discussed by the senior naval officers, who agreed to the proposed operation with the proviso that they be relieved of all responsibility for defense of the foreign settlement at Yokohama while it was in progress.

The role of the Jamestown received serious consideration. Everyone recognized that her lack of motive power amounted to a complete disability so far as the proposed expedition was concerned, yet the ministers were insistent that American sailors participate. Admiral Kuper offered one of his steamers to tow the sailer to the scene, but, as she would be very difficult to control in the strong currents of the strait, he thought it better for her to remain in Edo Bay where her presence would help to ensure tranquility. Thereupon, Captain Price chartered the American merchant steamer Ta-Kiang at $9,500 per month, put seventy men and a Parrott rifled gun into her, and ordered her temporary commanding officer, Lieutenant Frederick Pearson, to operate under Admiral Kuper’s direction, towing boats inshore, evacuating wounded men, and otherwise rendering such service as he could without exposing the Ta-Kiang unduly.

The fleet which sailed from Yokohama late in August consisted of eight British warships, of which a screw-propelled ship of the line and two screw-frigates were the largest, three French vessels, including the screw-frigate Sémiramis, four Dutch screw-corvettes, and the Ta-Kiang, flying the U.S. ensign. A battalion of Royal Marines and a detachment of sappers were embarked in the larger British vessels. Another of Admiral Kuper’s screw-sloops was escorting colliers laden with coal for the fleet from Shanghai to the Inland Sea, while a gun vessel would join from Nagasaki, bringing an interpreter and a pilot.

This array of eighteen vessels was thought to be large enough to open the strait with ease, thus proving to the emperor, the shogun, the daimyo, and other Japanese the folly of any attempt to cut off trade or to eject all foreigners. The ministers, according to Britain’s Sir Rutherford Alcock, believed that a decisive blow against Choshu, reputedly the strongest of the daimyo, would encourage his more moderate fellows to adhere to a peaceful course. Indeed, they hoped that it might result in a settlement of the rivalry between the shogun and his opponents. Lest the shogun be tempted to move against the foreign settlement at Yokohama, the Jamestown and five small British men-of-war remained at anchor in Edo Bay, while a number of troops were stationed ashore.

Approaching their objective on 4 September, the ships of the combined fleet were formed into three columns according to nationality, with the Ta-Kiang steaming humbly at the rear of the French line. That afternoon they anchored within sight of the Choshu batteries, which Admirals Kuper and Jaurés reconnoitered in person and then agreed that the attack should be launched on the first favorable tide.

HMS Euryalus made the signal for the engagement to begin on the afternoon of 5 September. The vessels weighed anchor and formed into advanced and light squadrons, the first of which steamed into a bay within easy range of the batteries while the lighter ships took up positions from which they could direct a flanking fire against the same works. The two flagships and the cumbersome ship of the line lay farther out. There was no sign of Japanese activity as the warships maneuvered into position, but when the Euryalus’s bow guns fired the first rounds, eight batteries responded smartly. The action then became general, with even the Ta-Kiang’s Parrott rifle contributing eighteen rounds to the bombardment. Some three hours later the batteries had been silenced, but the admirals agreed that it was too late in the day to put a landing force ashore.

The Japanese opened the engagement on the morrow, scoring several hits on two vessels of the advanced squadron before fire from the fleet silenced the batteries once more. Soon thereafter, eight of the smaller ships, of which the Ta-Kiang was one, towed boats carrying about 1,000 men from the British, French, and Dutch warships toward the beach. The landings were made without accident, but HMS Perseus, providing covering fire, was swept ashore by a strong eddy. The landing force encountered little opposition as it overran the batteries in succession, after which their guns were dismounted and spiked and their magazines blown up. This work of destruction completed, Admiral Kuper ordered the force to reembark. The French and Dutch contingents were already in their boats when a group of Japanese soldiers burst out of a valley to the rear of a battery to attack a party of British seamen who had not yet been marched to the beach. The marine battalion quickly arrived on the scene to help repulse the attackers, who were pursued to a stockade which they defended for a time before being dislodged and dispersed. Thereafter, the stockade was burned and the British force reembarked.

The next day, 7 September, was devoted to the embarkation of the captured guns, the senior officers having agreed that their removal would be the best guarantee of Choshu’s good behavior, and to measures to refloat the stranded Perseus. By midnight, she had been lightened sufficiently to be towed off by a consort at high water. On the eighth, Admirals Kuper and Jaurés boarded the gun vessel Coquette, which led four screw-sloops in to attack the two batteries which had not been destroyed. No return fire was noted, so a landing party removed the guns and leveled the works.

The combined fleet’s operation was completed by sundown, 10 September. Sixty-two pieces of ordnance had been embarked, ten batteries and their equipment destroyed, and Vice Admiral Sir Augustus Kuper wrote his superiors: “. . . I have satisfied myself, by personal examination of the entire Straits, that no batteries remain in existence in the territory of Prince Choshiu, and thus the passage of the Straits may be considered clear of all obstructions.”

It had been a smartly conducted operation. The leadership of Admirals Kuper and Jaurés seems to have been judicious and decisive, while the officers and men under their joint command worked together with little evidence of friction or misunderstanding. Nor was the American contribution entirely negligible—the Ta-Kiang enjoyed the distinction of being “mentioned in dispatches” for her services as gunboat, towboat, and hospital ship—the twenty-three wounded men, with a surgeon and attendants to care for them, were embarked in her for transportation to Yokohama.

Lieutenant Pearson and his men who served in the Ta-Kiang must have been envied by their fellows, for they were the only members of the Jamestown’s company to experience the excitement of active service while in Japanese waters. After they returned to the sloop of war, her vigil off Yokohama continued its uneventful pattern through the remainder of 1864 and into 1865.

As the Jamestown rode at anchor in Edo Bay, other U.S. warships were en route to the Far East. Three screw-sloops, the Iroquois, Wachusett, and Wyoming, had orders to seek the Confederate raider Shenandoah in East Indian waters during the spring of 1865. Only the Iroquois actually arrived before the war’s end; she spent two months cruising in the vicinity of Sunda Strait before returning home. The Wachusett was so unfortunate as to lose a topmast and then to run aground in West Indian waters, while the Wyoming did not steam into the Indian Ocean until August, by which time the elusive raider, disguised as the British merchantman she had been originally, was well on her way toward Cape Horn from her Bering Sea hunting ground.

The Jamestown’s sojourn in Japan came to an end when Minister Pruyn was finally able to dispense with her support early in April. Captain Price took his command to Macao, where he found orders to sail across the Pacific to Mare Island. The sloop of war stood out of Macao Roads on 17 June 1865, and her departure marked the disappearance of the sailing warship from the East India Station. To be sure, sailing storeships would continue to serve the U.S. Navy in the Far East for almost a decade longer, but they assumed warship duties only in cases of pressing emergency. Thus, as the Jamestown’s seamen loosed her sails and hove up the anchor, as Captain Cicero Price directed his navigator to set a course across the South China Sea to the Bashi Channel, an era was coming to an end. Undoubtedly it would have ended earlier but for the American Civil War; the commanding officer of the Vandalia, on her never-completed passage to the East India Station early in 1861, had reported from the Cape Verde Islands a conversation with foreign naval officers which indicated that his sailing man-of-war would be the only one in the Far East.

Showdown at Shimonoseki Strait

Battle of the Straits of Shimonoséki

Guadalcanal Landing

Routes of Allied amphibious forces for landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, 7 August 1942

The airfield at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal under construction by Japanese and conscripted Korean laborers in July 1942

Initial U.S. Marine defenses around the airstrip at Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, 12 August 1942

On July 6, 1942, 400 Japanese soldiers and engineers plus about 2,000 mostly Korean laborers under the command of Captain Tei Monzen began constructing an airfield on Guadalcanal. To speed the process, local labor was conscripted at no pay, but meals were provided. The effort went on 24 hours a day, the Japanese using flares and floodlights at night to illuminate the emerging red clay and gravel strip. While the work was underway, protection was afforded by aircraft operating out of Rabaul in New Britain and from the strips being cleared on islands along the air and navigation route down “the slot” between New Britain and Guadalcanal.

The necessary Japanese air, sea, and island movements were duly reported by the string of Australian coast watchers who had remained behind with their radios in secluded locations on many of the islands. On Guadalcanal there were four coast watchers: Martin Clemens, Snowy Rhodes, Don Macfarland and Ken Hay, the latter two located together. Reporting to them on Japanese activities were a number of loyal native scouts, several of whom had infiltrated the runway construction team at Lunga. As a result, none of the Japanese initiatives had gone unnoticed by either General MacArthur in Australia, Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii, or by the Joint Chiefs in Washington. The question was what to do about it.

MacArthur had troops in training at Rockhampton on the northwest coast of Australia, but he had no naval force. He wanted carriers along with more land-based planes and troops to begin the counteroffensive against New Britain and New Ireland. Admiral Nimitz had no intention of releasing any carriers to MacArthur and wanted to attack Tulagi as a first step before moving on New Britain and the Japanese base at Rabaul.

U.S. Army and Navy plans differed radically, but the biggest obstacle was deciding who was to command the operation. Though the Solomons were in MacArthur’s theater, Nimitz and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral King were leery of MacArthur’s ability and perseverance in protecting carriers from bases 1,000 miles away in Australia. Chief of the Joint Staff in Washington, General George Marshall, sided with MacArthur, but the Navy had won a great victory at Midway, and Admiral King had momentum with which to press the advantage.

On July 2, the decision was made by General Marshall and Admiral King in favor of the Navy. The boundary between Admiral Nimitz’s South Pacific Area and MacArthur’s area was nudged west sufficiently to include the southernmost islands in the Solomons under Nimitz. Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley would be on-scene commander of the land and sea effort. Directly under him was Rear Admiral John S. McCain, head of the committed land-based aircraft. Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher would command the naval task force. Under Fletcher was Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, responsible for the carriers, and Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, commanding the amphibious forces that would assault the beaches. Leading the Marines was Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift.

By late June, Nimitz had sent five Marine air squadrons to the South Pacific to take part in whatever campaign was eventually decided upon. The admiral also requested B-17 heavy bombers from the Army. Four squadrons were sent to New Caledonia. In addition to Marines and the troopships needed to make the assaults, three aircraft carriers, one battleship, and the accompanying cruisers and destroyers were dispatched to join with additional forces made available by MacArthur and the Australians.

In a pre-invasion meeting of the principals under Ghormley, Admiral Fletcher announced that he would not risk his carriers within range of Japanese land-based aircraft for more than 48 hours. Ghormley was absent from this gathering of subordinates, and no one there was able to reverse Fletcher’s resolve.

On July 22, the U.S. 1st Marine Division departed Wellington, New Zealand. The task force proceeded north for a dry rehearsal of the intended Guadalcanal invasion off Koro Island in the Fijis. Two landing exercises were planned but were called off after two botched attempts to reach the beaches. Coral reefs made reaching shore safely impractical given the landing craft on hand. Admirals Fletcher, Turner, and McCain plus General Vandegrift attended the rehearsal and, from the chaos, implemented changes in debarkation procedures and the timing of invasion boat waves. It was there that the decision was made to land first on Tulagi and later at Guadalcanal on D-Day.

The flotilla departed the Fijis on July 31, and proceeded to a point southwest of the Solomons. On August 5, 82 ships in the expeditionary force swung north with a landing force of over 19,000 men who would scramble over the side into some 450 landing boats of various types. The weather that night was overcast with visibility reduced by haze and scattered squalls. There was no contact with the Japanese. The following morning found the troop ships poised just off Guadalcanal and Tulagi, near the end of the Solomon chain.

Guadalcanal is 90 miles long by 25 miles at its widest and is shaped like a bulky caterpillar. The island, a mound of coral, rainforest, swamps, and inactive volcanoes, would soon make its mark in history.


On the evening of August 6, 1942, on Guadalcanal, Japanese Captain Monzen had been pleased with construction progress at the new airfield. The job was nearly finished. Repair shops, bomb storage sheds, a medical clinic, and an administration building were ready. Serviceable roads now connected the facilities and perimeter guard posts. Only a small section of the runway needed to be graded. In spite of the daily attacks in the preceding week by high-altitude B-17 bombers, construction was ahead of schedule. For the first time, there would be no work done after dark. Monzen approved extra sake rations for the Korean laborers and local islanders, among whom was 15-year-old Bruno Nana. ”We sold them food,” he recalled, “and I worked on the communication lines. That night, though, there were rumors that the Americans were coming, so I left for my village.”


At 2:00 a.m. on the 7th, the American amphibious force under Admiral Turner was still undetected by the Japanese as the fleet sailed in from the southwest. The seamen sighted Savo Island and its narrows to the north and south that opened into Sealark Channel. Transport elements were separated 40 minutes later, with the Tulagi group swinging north of Savo and the Guadalcanal support ships cutting in from the south of the island.

The Marines on the troop ships roused from slumber at 3:00 a.m., made their way to breakfast, then began to gather on deck to await dawn. H-hour for Tulagi was set for 8:00 a.m., and Zero-hour for the landings on Guadalcanal was to commence 70 minutes later. The islands of Gavutu and Tanambongo, some 3,000 yards east of Tulagi, were to be taken the same morning by smaller contingents of Marines.


As twilight began to lift the shroud of darkness just before 6:00 a.m., the Japanese occupying Tulagi looked seaward. They were astounded by the number of deep-draft vessels that littered the channel to the south, looming dark and foreboding in the light of a quarter moon. A radio message was beamed toward Tokyo. ”Large force of ships, unknown number or types, entering the sound. What can they be?”

Preparatory fire from three cruisers and four destroyers opened up on Tulagi and Guadalcanal at 6:14 a.m. The Japanese men on the islands shook sleep from their eyes and stared into the waning darkness as red tracers streaked toward them. Moments later shells struck the beaches and geysers of red flame burst skyward into the gloom.

The noise also roused the Australian coast watchers who peered seaward, then reveled at the sight of the massive amount of shipping offshore. Allied cruisers and destroyers lay close in, their guns pounding the beaches. Beyond were transports and freighters. The concussion of exploding rounds could be felt at their mountain hideouts, miles away.


Protecting the troop convoy was Admiral Jack Fletcher’s Task Force 61 positioned 60 miles southwest of Guadalcanal and included the aircraft carriers Saratoga, Wasp and Enterprise. On board were 94 Wildcat fighters with which to support the invasion and defend the fleet. Fletcher had no intention of allowing any gaps in coverage above his prized flattops. Two carriers had gone to the bottom on Fletcher’s watch: the Lexington during the battle of the Coral Sea and the Yorktown during Midway. In the process, the Japanese had lost a total of five carriers, an excellent exchange ratio for the Allies against an opponent who had limited ability to quickly replace losses. Though the lessons of the victory at Midway were still being digested, one thing stood out: failure of the Japanese to adequately provide air cover at all times above their carrier force had proven fatal. Fletcher’s staff laid on the requirement to maintain no less than 24 F-4Fs constantly on combat air patrol (CAP) above his flattops and a like number over the transports congregating in Sealark Channel 60 to 80 miles north of his maneuvering task force. Available aircraft beyond that would be used to provide close air support over the beaches. If shortages occurred, the CAP over the carriers would have priority.

In the early morning darkness, Task Force-61 turned into the wind in rough seas and under heavy clouds. From the carrier ready rooms, pilots made for the flight decks at 5:00 a.m. Climbing aboard an F4F Wildcat fighter on the Saratoga was 30-year-old Lieutenant James J. “Pug” Southerland II, a strapping naval academy graduate who was leader of a four-ship flight in Fighting Squadron Five’s “Scarlet 2” Division. Lieutenant (j.g.) David C. Richardson, who would later retire as a Vice Admiral, was with Southerland that day. “Well, you know ‘Pug’ stands for ‘pugnacious,’ and he was that. He boxed at Annapolis, and was very good at it, lettering in the sport [as well as in wrestling and golf]…. [He] was well liked by everyone in the squadron, had a gregarious kind of personality. He graduated a year late, I’m not sure why, some kind of thing with too many demerits.” In fact, he missed his ship’s departure home from their European trip his senior summer and was pushed back a year in punishment. “He was a good pilot, though.” Pug was “an aggressive type, very competent, very cheerful individual. Lot of fun to be with,” recalled Richardson. “Pug was an excellent shot. He scored consistently in the top four to five pilots in our squadron,” but was untested in aerial combat.

Southerland started his engine as twilight broke in the east, his first mission would be on combat air patrol (CAP). Operation Watchtower, the retaking of the Solomons, was about to begin. About 30 minutes after VF-5’s first scramble, Southerland’s flight began launching at 6:17 a.m. Later described as “an ominous beginning,” Pug watched as Charles “Ike” Eichenberger released brakes, then lost control of his Wildcat in the slipstream of the aircraft just launched ahead. His wing scraped against Saratoga’s pitching deck, causing the plane to yaw sideways, get hung up in the catwalk, and flip overboard. The Wildcat smacked into the sea inverted, but Eichenberger struggled free from the flooded cockpit. He emerged gasping for air only to be re-submerged under the foaming curl of the carrier’s cascading wake. Spit out behind the big ship, he was soon hoisted aboard plane-guard destroyer Phelps, his injuries such that he would not take to the air again during the campaign.

Southerland and the other two F4F-4s launched and conducted a short flight which afforded a first-class view of the American landings on Tulagi. He returned and trapped aboard the Saratoga at 8:30 a.m. Forty-five minutes later he was deck launched, and was back on deck at 11:30 a.m. His next flight was scheduled for 1:15 p.m. in what was turning into a very busy day.


As soon as the American naval force off Tulagi and Guadalcanal were reported to Imperial Japanese Headquarters, Hirohito and Yamamoto were immediately informed. Yamamoto was fully aware of what this counteroffensive meant should it be allowed to succeed. All available naval and air power needed to be marshaled in an effort to thwart the American scheme. Within two hours, orders were sent to Vunakanau Air Field near Rabaul on New Britain Island. The 4th Air Group had been scheduled to launch 27 Betty bombers to attack the air base at Milne Bay, New Guinea. Escort was to be provided by Zeros from the famed Tainan Kokutai. That mission was put on hold while countering the Guadalcanal invasion was being discussed.

Rear Admiral Sadiyoshi Yamada, commander of the air assets at Rabaul, had little to go on. From the initial radio message, Yamada suspected that Tulagi was being invaded, so he launched a reconnaissance bomber to investigate. By this time however, U.S. Marines in the first wave destined for Tulagi had boarded their landing craft and were on their way. At 8:00 a.m. sharp, a few Japanese peeked from protective cover and watched the first Marines set foot on the west coast of the island. Before the Japanese reconnaissance plane out of Rabaul was anywhere near Tulagi, another message arrived from Tulagi. ”Enemy forces overwhelming. We will defend our posts to the death, praying for eternal victory.”

Admiral Yamada assembled his staff and began to brief an intended counterstrike. The Milne Bay mission was scrubbed, and an attack on the seaborne transports off Guadalcanal was ordered. The 4th Air Group staff officer wanted time to download the general purpose bombs intended for land targets and rearm with aerial torpedoes, but the Admiral overruled. With no idea regarding the location of any Allied aircraft carriers, he was concerned that his bombers might be caught on the ground during an air strike.

The Betty, with its 81-foot wingspan and 1,100-gallon wing tanks had the exceptional range needed for the mission. The Japanese dubbed the bomber the Type One Lighter, which due to its lack of self-sealing tanks and absence of armor presaged a richly deserved nickname. The planes easily caught fire when hit. However, armed with 7.7 mm machine guns in the nose, top turret, and mid fuselage, and one 20 mm cannon in the tail, its gun crew could launch a hail of bullets at any attacker. But unlike the sporadic Allied attempts at intercept using obsolete fighters over New Guinea, the bomber crews knew they would be challenged by a large force of U.S. Navy pilots flying F-4F Wildcats. On February 20, they had encountered the same type of planes from the Lexington operating east of Rabaul. During that melee, 15 of the 17 unescorted Betty bombers in the attack force were either shot down or ditched. Fighter escort was deemed mandatory if the bombers were to have any chance of success.

The staff decided that the strike force would be protected by 18 Zeros, but Lieutenant Commander Tadashi Nakajima, flight leader of the Tainan Air Group, protested that the 1,100-mile round trip to Tulagi was too extreme and might cost him half his command. The argument became heated, but the admiral overruled again, and the longest fighter mission up to that time in history was laid on.

At 9:50 a.m., the first five Zeros lifted off (one aborted), their mission to sweep ahead of the bomber force and engage any interceptors. Sixteen minutes later, 27 G4M1 Betty bombers took to the air, followed by the remaining 12 Zeros.

The bombers assembled into three nine-plane “V”s, forming a huge arrowhead in the sky. Above and behind the armada were 12 of Japan’s most experienced Zero pilots. In the second flight (Shotai) was Saburo Sakai, element leader of the third section. He had bested the American flyers over the Philippines and later during the East Indies campaign, but that was against the P-40 Warhawk, a relatively inferior aircraft compared to the Zero. He was eager to match skills against American Navy pilots in their Wildcats, but he knew that carrier training whittled out the weak and mediocre, so he would be up against the best Allied aviators in the business.

Sakai’s Zero, V-128, as well as the others on the mission, all had their troublesome radios removed to save weight. The pilots would rely on visual signals to communicate between wingmen and leader. Due to the 560-mile distance each way, the Zero pilots had been briefed to keep the external fuel tank still attached during fighting, jettisoning it only after it was empty.

Battle of Agincourt



Illustration from the Battle of Agincourt - archers / battles/agincourt.html


In 1413 King Henry IV of England died and was followed on the throne by Henry V. The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) continued, with English kings claiming the throne of France and its territory and the French kings seeking to expel the English. In prosecuting the war, Henry V concluded an alliance with Duke John of Burgundy, who promised to remain neutral and be Henry V’s vassal in return for territorial gains at the expense of France. In April 1415 Henry V declared war on King Charles VI of France, assembled a force of 12,000 men at Southampton, and crossed the English Channel to land at the mouth of the Seine on August 10.

Beginning on August 13, Henry laid siege to the Channel port of Honfleur. Taking it on September 22, he expelled most of its French inhabitants, replacing them with Englishmen. Only the poorest Frenchmen were allowed to remain, and they had to take an oath of allegiance. The siege, disease, and garrison duties all depleted Henry V’s army, leaving only about 6,000 men.

For whatever reason Henry V then decided to march overland from Honfleur to Calais, moving without baggage or artillery. His army departed on October 6, covering as much as 18 miles a day in difficult conditions caused by heavy rains. The English found one ford after another blocked by French troops, so Henry V took the army eastward, up the Somme, to locate a crossing. High water and the French prevented this until he reached Athies (10 miles west of Péronne), where the English found an undefended crossing.

At Rouen the French raised a force of some 30,000 men under Charles d’Albert, constable of France. This force almost intercepted the English before they could get across the Somme. Henry V’s trail was not hard to find, marked as it was by burning French farmhouses. (Henry once remarked that war without fire was like “sausages without mustard.”)

D’Albert got in front of the English and set up a blocking position on the main road to Calais near the Chateau of Agincourt, where Henry’s troops met them on October 24. Henry’s force faced an army many times his own in size. His men were short of supplies, and enraged local inhabitants were killing English foragers and stragglers. Shaken by the prospects, Henry V ordered his prisoners released and offered to return Honfleur and pay for any damages he had inflicted in return for safe passage to Calais. The French, with a numerical advantage of up to five to one, were in no mood to make concessions. They demanded that Henry V renounce his claims in France to everything except Guyenne, which he refused to do.

The French nobles were eager to join battle and pressed d’Albert for an attack, but he resisted their demands that day. That night Henry V ordered absolute silence, which the French took as a sign of demoralization. Daybreak on October 25 found the English at one end of a defile slightly more than 1,000 yards wide and flanked by heavy woods. The road to Calais ran down its middle. Open fields on either side of the road had been recently plowed and were sodden from the heavy rains.

Drawing on English success in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, Henry V drew up his 800 to 1,000 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers in three major groups, or “battles.” The “battles,” in one line, consisted of men-at-arms and pikemen, while the archers were located between the three “battles” and on the flanks, where they enfiladed forward about 100 yards or so to the woods on either side.

About a mile away d’Albert also deployed in three groups, but because of French numbers and the narrowness of the defile these were one behind the other. The first rank consisted of dismounted men and some crossbow men, along with perhaps 500 horsemen on the flanks; the second was the same without the horsemen; and the third consisted almost entirely of horsemen. Each commander hoped to fight a defensive battle, Henry in particular so that he might employ his archers.

Finally, in late morning when the French had failed to move, Henry staged a cautious advance of about a half mile and then halted, his men taking up the same formation as before, with the leading archers on the flanks only about 300 yards from the first French ranks. The bowmen then pounded sharpened stakes into the ground facing toward the enemy, their tips at breast height of a horse.

Henry’s movement had the desired effect. D’Albert was no longer able to resist the demands of his fellow nobles to attack the English and ordered the advance. The mounted knights on either flank moved forward well ahead of the slow-moving and heavily armored men-at-arms. It was Crécy and Poitiers all over again, with the longbow decisive. A large number of horsemen, slowed by the soggy ground, were cut down by English arrows that caught them in enfilade. The remainder were halted at the English line.

The cavalry attack was defeated long before the first French men-at-arms, led in person by d’Albert, arrived. Their heavy body armor and the mud exhausted the French, but most reached the thin English line and, by sheer weight of numbers, drove it back. The English archers then fell on the closely packed French from the flanks, using swords, axes, and hatchets to cut them down. The unencumbered Englishmen had the advantage, as they could more easily move in the mud around their French opponents. Within minutes, almost all in the first French rank had been either killed or captured.

The second French rank then moved forward, but it lacked the confidence and cohesion of the first. Although losses were heavy, many of its number were able to retire to re-form for a new attack with the third “battle” of mounted knights. At this point Henry V learned that the French had attacked his baggage train, and he ordered the wholesale slaughter of the French prisoners, fearing that he would not be strong enough to meet attacks from both the front and the rear. The rear attack, however, turned out to be only a sally from the Chateau of Agincourt by a few men-at-arms and perhaps 600 French peasants. The English easily repulsed the final French attack, which was not pressed home. Henry V then led several hundred mounted men in a charge that dispersed what remained of the French army. The archers then ran forward, killing thousands of the Frenchmen lying on the field by stabbing them through gaps in their armor or bludgeoning them to death.

In less than four hours the English had defeated a force significantly larger than their own. At least 5,000 Frenchmen died in the battle, and another 1,500 were taken prisoner. Among those who perished were many prominent French nobles, including d’Albert. The Duke d’Orléans and Marshal Jean Bouciquan were among the captured. Henry V reported English losses as 13 men-at-arms and 100 footmen killed, but this figure is too low. English losses were probably 300 killed. Among the badly wounded was Henry V’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester.

Henry V then marched to Calais, taking the prisoners who would be ransomed. The army reached Calais on October 29. In mid-November Henry V returned to England.

The loss of so many prominent French nobles in the Battle of Agincourt greatly increased Duke John of Burgundy’s influence to the point of dictating French royal policy. Henry V returned to France in 1417 and went on to conquer Normandy by the end of 1419, with the exception of Mont St. Michel. In 1420 at Troyes he concluded peace with Charles VI, who agreed to the marriage of Henry to his daughter Catherine. The French king also disowned his son, the dauphin Charles, and acknowledged Henry as his heir. Over the next two years Henry consolidated his hold over northern France, but unfortunately for the English cause he died in 1422, leaving as heir to the thrones of England and France a son just nine months old.

References Hibbert, Christopher. Agincourt. New York: Dorset, 1978. Keegan, John. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo & the Somme. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years’ War: The English in France, 1337-1453. New York: Atheneum, 1978. Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years’ War: Trial by Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

The Battle of Ethandun, A.D. 878 I


Three months after the battle of Ashdown (A.D. 871) Alfred succeeded to the throne, on the death of his brother Ethelred. The history of the next seven years is one of gradual expansion by the Danish army in all directions. In the south Alfred was driven further and further west, till by the beginning of 878 most of Wessex had been overrun, many of its inhabitants had fled overseas to Gaul and the remainder were incapable of offering a concerted resistance. Alfred himself, with a small band of followers, took refuge in the almost inaccessible island of Athelney at Easter, 878. His fortunes were at so low an ebb that according to popular legend, he was reduced to living disguised in the cottage of a swineherd.

Then came one of the most astonishing reversals of fortune in our history. In the short space of seven weeks the military situation had been so transformed that the King with a powerful army was able to defeat in pitched battle the hitherto victorious army of the Danish King Guthrum, who submitted to baptism and by the treaty of Wedmore promised to retreat from Wessex. How this sudden reversal of fortune came about and where the decisive battle was fought.

The story of ‘Alfred and the cakes’ is largely responsible for the false picture that is usually conjured up of a fugitive king, hunted from pillar to post, with no army and no resources. But the contemporary records do not support this. What the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does state is that the King ‘with his little force raised a work at Athelney from which he assailed the (Danish) army’. Moreover, a Danish landing in North Devon was defeated by a force under one of his thegns at Countisbury Hill. All this does not sound compatible with the swineherd story; yet there is generally a grain of truth embodied in folk-tales such as this. Here the explanation may be that in the course of one of his raids some local setback overtook his force, and for the time being he had to fly for his life, and to live for a day or two in disguise and concealment. At this time the Danish army of Guthrum (the Danish leader who had ravaged Wareham in 875) was based on Chippenham, 50 miles away.

Even if, as I think likely, the clashes usually occurred in the region of the Mendips it would be a long day’s march back to Athelney. As for the inaccessibility of the island, all prudent generals establish a firm and if possible impregnable base before undertaking operations, especially when they are so fluid and mobile as were those of the year 878. An inaccessible base does not therefore necessarily indicate weakness.

The natural inference is that during the spring of 878 Alfred was busy reorganizing the army that had recently met with a severe reverse, hardening and training it by a series of raids, exactly as the British army was hardened and trained after its reverse in the spring of 1918.

And what was happening in the rest of Wessex during those fateful months? We do not know; but there is no record of any Danish operations in Hampshire, southern Wiltshire or Dorset. That army could not be everywhere, and we know that it had settled down at Chippenham a few months previously. The inference is that during that period Alfred was in communication with what remained of the Wessex forces in those counties, encouraging, instructing, and preparing them for the great day, whether by ‘underground’ methods or not. No other inference is possible when we consider the upshot.

Let us now examine Alfred’s problem. Let us assume that the nuclei of his army-to-be were forming at Winchester, Old Sarum, Dorchester (accepting Oman’s surmise that a Dorset contingent was included), and Athelney. Taking the hostile base at Chippenham as centre of a circle, the Wessex contingents were spread out on one-third of the circumference of this circle. In other words, they were spread over a front of 100 miles, while their opponent was only 50 miles distant from each contingent. This gave a great advantage to an enterprising enemy, operating on ‘interior lines’, whilst presenting a difficult problem to the English King. Under modern conditions, with modern means of communication and transport, the Wessex army would profit by its position on ‘exterior lines’ to attack the enemy simultaneously from two or more directions. But such an operation was clearly beyond the power of Alfred’s troops; his policy was that of Napoleon—to concentrate off, not on, the field of battle.

Where, then, should that point of concentration be? Obviously it should be out of sight of the enemy, yet not so far off that the individual contingents would have a long march round the perimeter before reaching the rendezvous. The sooner they were assembled after starting on their marches the better the chance of surprising the enemy. The two most distant contingents were based on Athelney and Winchester respectively. If Alfred had a primitive map in his possession at Athelney we can imagine him drawing a straight line on it joining up these two places. Midway on this line would theoretically be the best place for the rendezvous (provided there was no fear of molestation on the part of the enemy), for this would involve the shortest possible marches by the various contingents. Unfortunately we do not know Guthrum’s dispositions nor how far from Chippenham he had pushed forward his forces. The further forward they went, the thinner on the ground they would be, and it does not seem to have been the military policy of the Danes to disperse their forces. On the other hand, there was a natural disposition on the part of all armies in those days to go for the high ground. All the Wessex battles that can be located were fought on high ground. There is such a line of high ground about 20 miles to the south of Chippenham, extending from the Mendips to Salisbury Plain, and we may accept as a working hypothesis that this line was occupied, though not in strength, by the Danes during the spring of 878, Chippenham being the base and the site of the army reserves.

We can now return to our imaginary line connecting Athelney with Winchester. Midway along it, on a lofty plateau overlooking East Knoyle, several ancient trackways converge at the place now known as Willoughby Hedge. I believe it also to be the site of Egbert’s Stone. The spot is 8 to 10 miles from the Salisbury Plain massif, where, according to our hypothesis we have placed Guthrum’s advanced line or temporary boundary. Alfred, working it out on his primitive map, or in his mind’s eye, could hardly wish or expect to find a more suitable place for a rendezvous for his scattered forces. Strategically it was the best site, tactically it was sound—near, but not too near, the hostile border, convenient roads led to it from the required directions, and finally it was a place that could be easily indicated to distant contingents who had no maps, and it could be as easily found by them for it was the place where the great King Egbert had erected his Stone of victory after his campaigns in the far west.

Orders were, accordingly sent out indicating Egbert’s Stone as the rendezvous, and fixing a day by which all contingents must be concentrated there. I compute that May Day was selected.

If Alfred himself took the direct route he travelled by Langport, Castle Cary and along the old Hardway by Kingsettle Hill (on which Alfred’s Tower now stands) and thence by the primeval Long Lane to Willoughby Hedge. On the King’s arrival at the rendezvous the assembled hosts, in the simple words of the Chronicle, ‘were fain [glad] of him’.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that on the very day after his arrival at the rendezvous Alfred set out with his newly formed army, marching that day straight towards his enemy, and attacking the Danish main army under its king on the following day.

There are two puzzling points about this narrative: First, how did Alfred manage to march and fight a victorious battle only a few hours after the assembly of this army in contingents from all over the south of England? Second, how came it that the Danish main army was concentrated in position about 20 miles to the south of his base camp of Chippenham, before the Saxon army had concentrated? (For it must have been in position before Alfred set out, else he would not have advanced with such precision and speed in exactly the right direction.)

I suggest that there is a common explanation to these two puzzles, and it is that the Saxon army did not concentrate only the day before the advance commenced, but quite a number of days earlier. The Chronicle does not say that the army arrived at Egbert’s Stone two days before the battle, but that Alfred in person arrived on that day. It is inconceivable that the Saxon contingents would all arrive on the same day, or that this conglomeration could be organized and welded into a fighting machine in a few hours. The practical difficulties were more than usually great on this occasion, but there is no space in which to enumerate them.

On the morning after the arrival of the King the army set out on its march, and halted for the night at Iglea, which is now held to be Eastleigh Wood, two miles south-east of Warminster and seven miles due north of the rendezvous. Near here (one mile west of Sutton Veny) there is an ancient earthwork which would provide security for the army that night. This was highly desirable for they were now nearing the hostile position. Where was this position situated? It is time to enquire.

Assuming that the Saxon host began to assemble a week or more before Alfred’s arrival, news of the concentration would be brought to Guthrum by his scouts. When the size of the concentration became evident the Danish king would set out from his base camp with his reserves, calling in at the same time his outlying parties and concentrating his army in a defensive position somewhere on a line between Chippenham and Egbert’s Stone, on the massif to the south of Edington or Bratton. Having arrived here he would select the strongest possible position supplied by nature, reinforcing it artificially if time admitted (i.e. digging a protective ditch).

In the direct line of approach from Egbert’s Stone one of three ancient tracks might be used by the Saxons, the right-hand one passing to the left of Scratchbury Camp, and the other two to the right and left of Batdesbury Camp. Guthrum would therefore look out for a position astride these three tracks, on the forward slope of some cross ridge, but only just over the crest, after the manner of the time. Such a position leaps to the eye if the contoured map, one-inch, or preferably 1/25000 O.S. be used. This ridge is 6,000 yards due south of Edington village; it runs from north-east to south-west and is in fact the ridge already referred to, three miles north-east of Warminster. The ideal position would be on the forward slope of this ridge, covering a front of about 2,500 yards, and curving with the contours in order to attain the greatest possible field of view, about 150 yards below the crest line. That would, in my opinion, be the ideal position for the purpose. The fact that Alfred marched so directly and promptly towards it would seem to imply that he was aware of its situation before he set out, and that therefore the Danes had at least two days in which to dig. We might therefore expect to find faint traces of such a ditch as I have suggested and in the place that I have suggested. And we do find it, precisely where I have suggested. It is marked on both the one-inch and 1/25000 maps as ‘Ancient Ditch’. (In the case of the 1/25000 an extension to the east is shown that I believe is in reality a separate work.)

It may of course be a mere coincidence that the ditch is just where we should expect it to be; it may be that it was dug previously and perhaps made use of by the Danes. We cannot be sure. But what we can be sure about is that it is a military work (closely resembling Wansdyke in its siting) and that it was dug for a specific purpose, a defence by a northern army of the Edington position against an expected attack from the south. There may be some other occasion in our history which would fit into this position but I fancy there is none in recorded history. So it seems the most reasonable course to associate it with a piece of recorded history into which it does fit.

Assuming that this was the position taken up in the first instance by the Danes, it would be visible to the Saxon scouts from Battlesbury Camp, only 2,500 yards away, and the first clash would take place on the intervening ground. Hence perhaps the name Battlesbury, just as we have a Battlebury on the site of what I hold to be Mount Badon.

The Battle of Ethandun, A.D. 878 II



Of the momentous events of the following day we have only two accounts and they are so short that they may be quoted in full.

From the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’: ‘He proceeded to Ethandun, and there fought with all the army and put them to flight, riding after them as far as the fortress, where he remained a fortnight. Then the army gave him hostages with many vows that they would go out of his kingdom.’

From ‘Annals of the reign of Alfred the Great’, by Bishop Asser: ‘The next morning he removed to Ethandun, and there fought long and fiercely in close order against all the armies of the pagans, whom with the divine help he defeated with great slaughter, and pursued them flying to their fortification. Immediately he slew all the men and carried off all the booty that he could find without the fortress which he immediately laid siege to with all his army. And when he had been there fourteen days the pagans, driven by cold, famine, fear, and last of all by despair, asked for peace.…’

It must be confessed that Asscr’s account reads like a mere embellishment of the Chronicle, and it is odd that Alfred had not given him some first-hand details of the battle, as he did in the case of Ashdown. In effect all Asser adds to our knowledge is the fact that the English fought in close order (densa testudine), a fact that is curiously omitted in Giles’s standard translation, and misquoted in Lee’s Alfred the Great.

The whole battle is therefore a matter of pure conjecture. My own picture of the course of events is as follows:

When dawn appeared on the morning of the battle, the Saxon scouts on Battlesbury Hill who had previously reported the approach of the Danish army, spotted and reported to Alfred their precise dispositions, lining the ridge in front of them. Alfred came up to the hill, examined the position and decided on his method of attack. There was no obvious way of outflanking the position, even if such a manoeuvre ever entered the head of the impulsive king who only seven years before at Ashdown had charged ‘like a wild boar’ straight in the face of the enemy. One may assume that he employed the same tactics, charging in close order in an endeavour to pierce a hole in the enemy’s long line. The attack, whatever the tactics employed, was successful; the Danes fled towards their own base camp, even as they had fled seven years before. Those on the western end of the line presumably took the track leading over Bratton Camp, and those on the east the track leading past Edington. The former may be supposed to have attempted a stand on the top of the ridge 500 yards south of Bratton Castle (marked BB on the sketch-map). It forms a strong position. The Edington fugitives might try to hold the defile between Edington and Tinhead Hills. This position (marked CC) resembles the position of the field of Wodnesbeorh, in the two battles of A.D. 592 and 715. The third phase of the battle would be the pursuit to Chippenham, a further 14 miles to the north. A possible argument in favour of some of the fighting at least taking place on site BB is the proximity of the Bratton White Horse, believed by many to have been cut, in its original form, in celebration of the victory. In favour of site CC is the proximity to Edington, from which the battle drew its name. But this argument is not as strong as it may appear to modern eyes, for place-names in that area must have been few and far apart. Witness, the name Hastings for the battle fought on the Sanlake brook.

The fall of Chippenham crowned the victory of Edington and paved the way for the Christianization of the Danes and the extirpation of paganism in the land of England.


Considering the importance of the battle of Ethandun it is not surprising that numerous attempts to identify the site have been made through the ages. Camden was the first writer to equate Ethandun with Edington in Wiltshire. His view held the field for some centuries. Heddington in Wiltshire, Edington in Berkshire, Yattendon, Yatton, and Edington in Somerset have also been suggested, but all have been dropped except the last-named which still receives some support in Somerset. The claim for this Somerset site was first advanced by Dr. Clifford in 1877. It was repeated by the Rev. C. W. Whisder in 1906, but there are weighty objections to it. In the first place it cannot be supported on philological grounds: for it derives from Edwinetune (Edwin’s town), whereas the Wiltshire Edington has consistently appeared as Edendone, the Norman equivalent of Ethandun. In the second place, it does not fit in with the situation of Iglea, over thirty miles away. In the third place, it is contrary to Inherent Military Probability that Alfred would have selected as his point of concentration a place on the extreme left of his long line, necessitating a flank march of 100 miles on the part of the Hampshire contingent. None of these objections apply to the Wiltshire Edington. It is moreover supported by the two most recent historians of the period, Hodgkin and Stenton.


It is obviously of primary importance to ascertain the correct site of this stone, for the whole strategy of the campaign depends upon it. The Chronicle states that it was ‘on the eastern side of Seiwood’; Asser states that it was ‘in the eastern part of the wood which is called Selwood’. The modern village of Penselwood is about 7 miles west of Willoughby Hedge, but the extent of the wood in the ninth century is unknown. The O.S. Map of the Dark Ages shows it as being of considerable extent. Dr. G. B. Grundy, in the Archaeological Journal of 1918, placed the Stone at Willoughby Hedge and his view seems to have been accepted by the most recent historians of the period.

Before going further we must briefly consider two other neighbouring sites that have advocates. The first is Brixton Deverill, 3 miles due north of Willoughby Hedge. It lies in a valley, and seems an odd place for King Egbert to erect his Stone, for it could not be visible from any distance, nor is it on a junction of highways. The second is about one mile to the north-east of Westbury. This seems still more unlikely, for a march from this place to Iglea would involve turning sharp back for about five miles and then advancing along almost the same line—a nonsensical proceeding. Moreover the Westbury site is north, rather than east of Selwood.

Returning to the examination of Willoughby Hedge, Dr. Grundy confined his argument almost exclusively to the system of ancient trackways, a subject on which he was an unrivalled authority. He showed that tracks converged on Willoughby Hedge from all directions, making it a natural rendezvous for contingents coming from widely separated districts. To particularize, a track runs west by Kingsettle Hill (whereon is situated Alfred’s Tower). This is the track by which the Somerset contingent would travel and would lead to Cornwall. A second track runs almost due north to Iglea. This would be used in Egbert’s time by his North Wiltshire troops. A third goes north-east to Andover and North Hampshire. A fourth runs due east to Old Sarum and South Hampshire and a fifth goes due south to Shaftesbury and Dorset. The spot is 717 feet in height.

We have now to consider why King Egbert should elect to place a stone there. We may safely assume that it would be erected to mark or celebrate some outstanding event, such as a great victory or treaty.

Now in A.D. 815 and again in 825 Egbert conducted victorious campaigns against the men of Cornwall. It is probable that he would return from these campaigns along the ancient ridgeway, coming from the Mendip Hills. At the point where the trackways diverge near Willoughby Hedge, the South Hampshire contingent would take the right-hand fork heading for Southampton; those for North Hampshire the central track, whilst those for North Wiltshire would strike due north. At this spot therefore the victorious army would disperse. There would be leave-takings and perhaps the King would show his gratitude by giving a banquet. Is it too fanciful to picture that during the feasting some chieftain might make the suggestion that the spot would be a good place to erect a memorial-stone to record the victory? Willoughby Hedge was the highest point they had encountered since entering Wiltshire; it is a commanding site, and a stone erected here would be visible for many miles around in every direction. Here, then, I think is the most likely place we could find for the erection by Egbert of his memorial stone. Its site would become well known throughout Wessex, and Alfred in notifying the rendezvous would merely have to name the stone without any further specification. Nor, in referring to it afterwards did the chronicler or Asser think it necessary to define its position. Everyone knew where it was.

Alfred H. Burne

Battle of Pavia

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 Italian Wars: The Battle of Pavia, Feb. 24 1525, painting by Joachim Patinir




The battle of Pavia in 1525 was another milestone in the development of warfare. The city of Pavia was besieged by the French who were themselves in turn opposed by a Spanish relief army.

In a daring night move the Spanish quit their trenches and made a flank march against the French. The morning saw the Spanish concentrated to the north of Pavia while the French were scattered around the town.

King Francis reacted quickly and moved his artillery reserve against the last of the Spanish troops as they deployed. The cannon delivered effective fire which created sufficient disorder for the French gendarmerie (knights) to charge and scatter the Spanish division. After subsequently defeating the Spanish heavy cavalry Francis brought up his Swiss infantry. As at Bicocca the Swiss attacked frontally and as at that battle they were galled by the Spanish arquebusiers. Reaching the Spanish line the Swiss could only sustain the briefest of melees before being routed by Spanish pikemen.

Elsewhere on the battlefield Landsknechts employed by the French attacked those in the pay of the Spanish and were beaten after a hard fight. The men at arms with the king continued to perform sterling service until they came up against a unit of arquebusiers firing from the edge of a wood.

Unable to penetrate into the wood without dismounting, the French were blasted off the battlefield. The remnants of the French chivalry were destroyed by the Landsknechts. Pavia and Bicocca showed that three or four close range volleys from arquebusiers were sufficient to shatter any unit in Europe.

This is not to suggest that unsupported arquebusiers could withstand a push of pike or a cavalry charge, any more than longbowmen could. Missile troops would need to be supported by heavy infantry for another century and a half until the advent of the bayonet allowed them to turn their guns into makeshift spears.

After Pavia the French discarded bows in favour of the arquebus and its larger and later relative the musket. The musket had a longer barrel than the arquebus which increased both accuracy and muzzle velocity. The barrels of the period were made deliberately thick in order to avoid rupturing and so the longer barrelled musket was impossible to hold steady without the aid of a fork rest for the barrel.


Renaissance Italy lacked a strong institutional framework that enjoyed a broad consensus. The medieval wars pitting proponents of imperial supremacy (the Ghibellines) against those who advocated papal supremacy (the Guelfs) were fought to a stalemate. Neither the emperor nor the pope enjoyed much real power over the mosaic of cityrepublics, territorial principalities, or fiefs in central and northern Italy. In the kingdom of Naples, which was theoretically a fief of the church, control passed from a French (Angevin) dynasty to one linked to Arago´n without much interference from the rest of Italy. Much internecine warfare wracked the peninsula, as aristocrats fought each other for primacy in their respective cities, as larger towns conquered their rural hinterlands, and as the larger territorial states attempted to absorb the smaller ones around them. The Peace of Lodi in 1454 inaugurated an era of relative peace for forty years, but it did not extinguish the various pretexts of territorial ambition, dynastic ambition, or autonomist sentiment that could engulf Italy in new large-scale hostilities.


The entry into Italy of the French king’s army in his quest to make good his claims to the throne of Naples in 1494 ignited many simultaneous conflicts. The French king Charles VIII (ruled 1483– 1498) was assisted by the ‘‘tyrant’’ of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (ruled 1494–1499), who was losing his grip on power in Lombardy. Florence swept the Medici out of power and restored a real republic, but it needed French support to survive, and subject cities rebelled against it. The Aragonese Pope Alexander VI Borgia (reigned 1492–1503) had no army able to oppose the French, so the great force of Charles VIII advanced to Naples virtually unopposed and chased away the local branch of the Aragonese dynasty. But within a year the pope, the Republic of Venice, the duke of Mantua, King Ferdinand of Arago´n (monarch in Sicily; ruled 1468– 1516), and the Emperor Maximilian I (ruled 1493– 1519) drew together and threatened to bottle up the French king’s army in southern Italy. Only a fighting retreat in 1495 allowed Charles VIII to regain France, and his Neapolitan regime collapsed behind him.

His successor Louis XII (ruled 1498–1515) launched a new army into Italy in 1500, this time laying claim to Milan as well as Naples. With Genoese and Venetian help, the French army quickly seized most of northwest Italy, but the king would not rest on this success. By secret treaty with Ferdinand of Aragon, he agreed to split the kingdom of Naples between the two of them. Fighting soon broke out between Spaniards and French over their respective shares, and the latter were driven out. The new spoiler was now Venice, exploiting tensions everywhere in order to extend its hold in the Adriatic basin. A new alliance of Aragon, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the pope crushed Venetian ambitions in 1509. But Venice allied with the pope, with Ferdinand, with the Swiss cantons, and with the emperor to expel the French from Milan soon after. By the end of 1512, the French were ejected from Italy a second time.

Francis I (ruled 1515–1547), successor to Louis XII, sent a fresh army in 1515 to occupy Milan and its territory. This time the pope, and even the new king of Arago´n, Charles I, recognized the French king’s conquest, but the French position deteriorated rapidly as Charles became king of Spain in 1516 and then Holy Roman emperor in Germany in 1519. As Emperor Charles V, the young Habsburg monarch and his allies expelled the French from Milan in 1521 and defeated renewed attempts to recapture it. In 1525 Francis I was captured at the battle of Pavia. The wars were far from over, but this turn in the fighting marked the onset of a new and durable phase of Habsburg ascendancy in Europe.


The union of large territories under the sway of a single monarch was a dynastic accident, but Charles was able to harness the wealth of Spain, the Low Countries, the German principalities, and almost half of Italy to keep the French at bay. Soon he would be king in Mexico and Hungary as well. In each of these realms he inherited monumental problems, but after each crisis he appeared more powerful than ever. In 1527 a new French league against him came apart after an imperial army besieged and sacked Rome itself, an event whose impact on the people of Rome and on European public opinion was catastrophic. Genoa, with its fleet and its commerce, swung over to Charles in 1528. The emperor then supported the restoration of the Medici as absolute princes in Florence. After a brief truce, French armies occupied Savoy and most of Piedmont in an attempt to reconquer Milan. Intermittent campaigning in Italy and over half of Europe could not break the stalemate, however. The new French king Henry II (ruled 1547–1559) would not let Italy out of his sights. France intervened in Parma in 1551 to expel papal forces there and in 1552 backed a Sienese uprising against its imperial garrison; in 1555 France supported the extremist Pope Paul IV (1555–1559), who called for Spain’s removal from Naples, and yet again a French army descended on the peninsula to occupy the territory. But Habsburg armies won victories everywhere in those years, until France consented to the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559.

The Italian Wars were but one theater in a continental struggle involving most of western Europe, with France and the Habsburg territories constituting the eternal adversaries. The 1559 treaty might only have been a truce had not religious divisions led to a French civil war that lasted intermittently for three generations. Habsburg territorial ascendancy in Italy was complete, with the conquest of Milan, Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. The duke of Piedmont-Savoy, the princes of Mantua, Parma, Ferrara, and Florence, and the rich republic of Genoa were reduced to satellite status. Moreover, Charles (who retired in 1555) followed a policy of encouraging stability in the peninsula, allowing the minor princes to impose greater control over their subjects, and stifling any Protestant sentiment. The enduring legacy of these wars was a long Pax Hispanica that underlay the renewed prosperity and heightened influence of Italy in the world until the next great disruption after 1620.


Hale J. R., and M. E. Mallett. The Military Organization of a Renaissance State: Venice c. 1400 to 1617. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1984.

Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology and Tactics. Baltimore, 1998.

Pepper, Simon, and Nicholas Adams. Firearms and Fortifications: Military Architecture and Siege Warfare in Sixteenth- Century Siena. Chicago, 1986.

Taylor, Frederick Lewis. The Art of War in Italy, 1494– 1529. Westport, Conn., 1973.