Battle of Tagliacozzo, 23 August 1268


Defeat for Conradin, son of Conrad IV (HRE), the last Hohenstaufen in Sicily. He invaded the kingdom of Sicily with German and Spanish allies in 1267, seeking to make good his claim against Charles of Anjou. Suppporters revolted against Charles in Sicily. The battle was fought in central Italy as Conradin advanced south. Charles took position behind the River Salto. Conradin’s men failed to take the bridge but others crossed further up and attacked the Angevins on the flank. Then the bridge was crossed. Charles recovered by leading a charge with a hidden reserve when many of the enemy, thinking victory theirs, pursued Angevins off the field. He then defeated the returning enemy. It was largely a cavalry battle, a costly victory: `never was victory so bloody, for nearly his whole army had fallen’. Conradin fled but was captured and executed in Naples in October. It ended German Hohenstaufen rule in Sicily, leaving the Angevins in control.

Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufens, together with Frederick of Baden, was in command of 5-6,000 cavalry, mainly Germans and Italians but also including Castilians as well as Sicilians. He found his road blocked by an opposing force of some 3-5,000 French horse under Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily. The French drew up behind the River Salto in three divisions; two formed into column by a bridge while the third, including Charles himself, was secreted behind a fold in the ground about a mile from the flank. Henry of Cousances, commanding the second column, wore the royal surcoat and bore Charles’s standard in order to trick the enemy in to believing the entire French family was in view. Conradin’s army also drew up in three battles.

The Van, led by Henry of Castile, stormed the bridge, while the second and third, under Calvano Lancia and Conradin respectively, managed to ford the river downstream and then wheeled to attack the flank of the enemy battle. Henry of Cousances was finally slain and the French, badly mauled, broke in flight. The royal standard was seized in the confusion. Conradin held some of his men, but most chased after the French and set about looting their camp. It was now that Charles, having impotently observed the rout of his main force, charged up with his division and scattered the few troops who surrounded Conradin. When the imperial looters saw their commander in flight, they also took to their heels. Henry of Castile managed to rally a number of horsemen and advanced against the Angevins. However, 40 French knights feigned flight to draw out the enemy. As they broke ranks they were attacked by Charles’ battle, while the 40 knights wheeled to strike their flank. Despite a rally, they could not hold off the Angevins, and fled. Conradin, Frederick and Galvano were caught a few weeks later and, like those taken in the battle, were executed. Henry of Castile was imprisoned for 23 years.

Brother of St Louis. He conquered the Norman kingdom of Sicily and ruled it as Charles I from 1266. In 1246 he married Beatrice heiress to Provence. The papacy offered Sicily to Charles against the descendants of Frederick II. He invaded and was crowned in 1266. He defeated Manfred at Benevento and Conradin at Tagliacozzo. He suppressed revolts in Sicily. He developed Mediterranean interests. He took Corfu in 1267 but failed to recover the Byzantine Empire for the Franks. He was involved in St Louis’ crusade to Tunis in 1270. He was crowned King of Jerusalem in 1278 and became Prince of Achaea. He developed interests in northern Italy, becoming Imperial Vicar in Tuscany and Senator of Rome in 1268. He was defeated by the Genoese in 1273, and in 1275 at Roccavione. His greatest setback followed the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 with the French loss of Sicily. His fleet was defeated off Naples by the Genoese in 1284. He died on 7 January and was succeeded by his son Charles II. His descendants ruled in Naples and Hungary.

Son of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad IV who died in 1254 and descendant of Frederick II, He was named Duke of Swabia, King of the Romans, and King of Sicily from 1254 though his position was challenged by his uncle Manfred. He was named as King of Jerusalem but never ruled there. After the invasion of Sicily by Charles of Anjou, Conradin tried to recover his kingdom in 1268. He was defeated at Tagliacozzo, captured and executed on 29 October.


The Berezina 1812 Part I

Napoleon’s crossing of the Berezina an 1866 painting by January Suchodolski
oil on canvas, National Museum in Poznań

On 22 November Napoleon reached Tolochin, where he took up quarters in a disused convent. He had not been there long when he heard, from a rider sent by Dabrowski, that Minsk had fallen to Chichagov six days before. ‘The Emperor, who by that one stroke lost his supplies and all the means he had been counting on since Smolensk in order to rally and reorganise his army, was momentarily struck with consternation,’ according to Caulaincourt.

He had been expecting Chichagov to manoeuvre himself into a position to be able to join up with Kutuzov so they could attack him with overwhelming force, not to move into his rear and attempt to cut him off. As it happens, Chichagov was operating in the dark. He had received only scanty orders from Kutuzov, who had instructed him to move into Napoleon’s rear and to prevent the French from linking up with Schwarzenberg. Wittgenstein was supposed to cross the Berezina further north and link up with him, so that between them they covered a long stretch of the western bank of the river.

That night Marshal Duroc and Intendant Daru were on duty at the Emperor’s bedside, and the three of them sat up late. They discussed the situation at length, and Napoleon allegedly reproached himself for his own ‘foolishness’. He dozed off for a while, and when he woke he asked them what they had been talking about, to which they answered that they had been wishing they had a balloon. ‘What on earth for?’ he asked. ‘To whisk Your Majesty away,’ one of them replied. ‘The situation is not an easy one, it is true,’ he admitted, and they discussed the possibility of his falling into Russian hands. General Grouchy was instructed to gather all the cavalry officers who still had good mounts into a ‘dedicated squadron’ whose purpose would be to spirit Napoleon to safety in an emergency. But the Emperor remained sanguine, and if he did order the burning of some state papers before they set off in the morning, that was more to lighten the load than anything else – he also ordered the burning of more non-essential carriages. He appeared confident that he would be able to fight his way through.

What he did not know was that while he was digesting the news of the fall of Minsk, Borisov had also fallen to Chichagov. The Admiral, who had a healthy respect for him, was apparently unaware that he was on a collision course with Napoleon, whose whereabouts he did not know, but whose forces he assumed to be at least 70,000. In the event, his advance guard had moved quickly, surprised and defeated the detachment of Dabrowski’s division holding the bridgehead on the western bank of the Berezina and swept into Borisov itself, which it occupied after a stubborn resistance. The Russians then made themselves at home, and their commander, Count Pahlen, sat down to a copious dinner. He had hardly swallowed a mouthful when the alarm was sounded. An advance unit of Oudinot’s corps, consisting of five hundred men of Colonel Marbot’s 23rd Chasseurs à Cheval, had burst into the town and fallen upon the unsuspecting Russians. No more than about a thousand of them managed to save themselves by fleeing back across the river, leaving behind up to nine thousand dead, wounded and prisoners, ten guns and all their luggage.

But the fleeing Russians had had the presence of mind to fire the long wooden bridge, the only crossing over the Berezina. Napoleon had reached Bobr when he heard of this, and he must have rued the decision to burn the pontoon bridge at Orsha three days before.

The boggy trough of the Berezina ran between him and freedom; cold as it was, a slight thaw had broken up the ice on it, and it represented a considerable obstacle. ‘Any other man would have been overwhelmed,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘The Emperor showed himself to be greater than his misfortune. Instead of discouraging him, these adversities brought out all the energy of this great character; he showed what a noble courage and a brave army can achieve against even the greatest adversity.’

Napoleon momentarily entertained a plan to gather up all his forces, march northwards, knock out Wittgenstein and then make for Vilna, bypassing the Berezina altogether. But he was advised that the terrain was unfavourable for such operations. Instead, he decided to fight his way across the river at Borisov. This would involve repairing the existing bridge and building new ones under enemy fire. In order to reduce the resistance, he decided to disperse Chichagov’s forces by giving him the impression that he was planning to cross elsewhere. He sent a small detachment southwards to make a demonstration of activity at a possible crossing point further downstream, and even managed to misinform some local Jewish traders that he was intending to cross there, expecting them to pass the news on.

Everything depended on speed: Wittgenstein and Kutuzov would be coming up behind him in a couple of days, and what would happen if he were caught in the rear by them while attempting to force a passage across the river did not bear thinking about. Napoleon seemed to be energised by the crisis, and did not appear downcast. ‘The Emperor seemed to have made his mind up with the calm resolve of a man about to embark on an act of last resort,’ noted his valet, Constant.

The forward units and large numbers of fugitives poured into Borisov on the night of 23 November. The town was strewn with dead bodies and debris from the previous night’s fighting. ‘This countless mass of wagons, with women, children, unarmed men had packed into Borisov in the conviction that the bridge would be repaired and that the crossing would be made there,’ wrote Józef Krasinski of Poniatowski’s 5th Corps, which had also entered the town. ‘The streets of Borisov were so jammed with this wagon train that it was impossible to pass through them without pushing and crushing people. As a result the streets were covered in mauled bodies, shattered wagons, smashed baggage, and all one could hear were shouts, calls, wails and lamentation … I remember that on one of the streets I pulled from beneath the horses’ hooves a baby lying in the middle of the road in its swaddling clothes, and further along I saw, by a small bridge, a cantinière’s wagon lying in the water into which it had been pushed by the French troops marching before us, and on that wagon the poor woman with a child in her arms was calling for help which none of us could give her.’

When General Eblé and his pontoneers reached Borisov and saw the state of the river they were discouraged. It was wider than they had anticipated, and the recent thaw meant that large blocks of ice were being swept down it by a slow but strong current. General Jomini, who was with Eblé, suggested that they cross further north, at Vesselovo, where there had been a bridge which might still be standing. But Oudinot had already identified a better place. One of his cavalry brigades, General Corbineau’s, which had been clearing the western bank of the Berezina of cossacks during the previous week, had just rejoined his corps having found a ford by the village of Studzienka, a dozen kilometres upstream from Borisov.

Oudinot had immediately informed Berthier of the existence of the ford, recommending it as the best place for a crossing. But Napoleon stuck to his intention of forcing a passage at Borisov, meaning to defeat Chichagov and then make a dash for Minsk, from where he hoped to be able to make contact with Schwarzenberg. From Loshnitsa at 1 a.m. on 25 November he repeated his orders to Oudinot, urging him to make haste so they could start crossing that very night. Oudinot, who had already ordered some of his units to Studzienka in anticipation, begged Napoleon to reconsider, and sent Corbineau to see him in person. It was only after he had discussed the matter with Corbineau that Napoleon accepted Oudinot’s suggestion, and he set off for Studzienka himself late that night.

A few hours earlier, Chichagov had moved off with his main forces in the opposite direction along the other bank of the river. He had been anxious about the possibility of Napoleon outflanking him to the south, and the combination of the reports of French activity to the south of Borisov and the information brought to him by three Jews from Borisov convinced him that this was indeed where the French were planning to cross. He left General Langeron with 1200 infantry and three hundred cossacks at Borisov, and General Czaplic with a few hundred men between there and Vesselovo, while he marched off southwards with the rest of his forces. When the first reports of French activity around Studzienka did reach him on the following day, he assumed this to be a feint meant to deceive him, and continued on his way. The course of the Berezina north of Borisov should in any case have been covered by Wittgenstein, and he had left orders with Czaplic to pull back his outlying units in the area.

But Wittgenstein had no intention of placing himself under Chichagov’s orders, which he would have had to do if he had linked up with him on the western bank. And he too was less than eager to take on Napoleon himself, preferring to spar with Victor, so he ignored Kutuzov’s orders to cross the river and cut the French line of retreat. In doing so he not only left the Berezina itself unguarded, he did not, as would have been the case if he had followed his orders, cover the other point at which Napoleon’s retreat could have been cut. A few kilometres west of the Berezina, at Ziembin, the road ran through a boggy area along a number of wooden bridges, and could effectively be cut by a platoon of cossacks with a tinderbox.

Oudinot had sent General Aubry with 750 sappers to Studzienka on 24 November to start making struts for a bridge, and followed with his main forces on the evening of the following day. They were joined there by General Eblé with four hundred pontoneers, mostly Dutchmen. Although Napoleon had ordered the pontoon bridge they were accompanying to be burnt at Orsha, Eblé had wisely hung on to six wagons of tools, two field smithies and two wagons of charcoal. The sappers dismantled the wooden houses of Studzienka, sawing the thick logs into appropriate lengths, while the pontoneers forged nails and braces, and turned the logs into trestles.

The riverbed itself, which at this point is less than two metres deep, is no more than about twenty metres across, but its banks are low and boggy, and cut by shallow arms of the main river, so any bridge would need to extend for some distance at either end. A major disadvantage of this as a crossing point was that the western bank, held by the Russians, rose steeply, and any troops occupying it would be in a position to rake the crossing with artillery fire.

Oudinot had placed his men behind a small rise, so they would be out of sight of the cossacks patrolling the western bank, and instructed them to work in silence. But Captain Arnoldi, commanding the Russian field battery of four light guns that had been positioned by General Czaplic to observe the possible crossing points near Studzienka, noticed the French activity on the opposite bank and sent urgent reports to his superior warning that they were preparing to cross the river there. He convinced Czaplic, who came to see for himself and then sent a messenger to Chichagov.

For his part, Oudinot stayed up all night, urging on the sappers and pontoneers, and nervously watching the other bank. ‘The aspect of the countryside was gripping; the moon lit up the ice floes of the Berezina and, beyond the river, a cossack picket made up of only four men,’ noted François Pils in his journal. He was a grenadier in Oudinot’s corps, but in civilian life he was a painter, which explains his sensitivity to the view. ‘In the distance beyond, one could see a few red-tinged clouds seemingly drift over the points of the fir trees; they reflected the campfires of the Russian army.’

The magnificent sight left Ney, for one, cold. ‘Our position is impossible,’ he said to Rapp. ‘If Napoleon succeeds in getting out of this today he is the very Devil.’ Murat and others were putting forward various plans to save the Emperor by sending him off with a small detachment of Polish cavalry while the rest of them made a heroic stand. ‘We shall all have to die,’ he affirmed. ‘There can be no question of surrender.’

In the early hours of the next morning, 26 November, the troops sitting around the Russian campfires began to withdraw, and Arnoldi’s four guns were limbered up and dragged away. Oudinot could hardly believe his eyes. Napoleon, who had reached Studzienka a little earlier, was jubilant: according to Rapp, his eyes sparkled with joy when he saw that his ploy had worked and Chichagov was off on his wild goose chase.

He ordered Colonel Jacqueminot to muster a squadron of Polish lancers and some Chasseurs, each of whom was to take a voltigeur riding pillion, and ford the river. Once across, the riders fanned out and, followed by the voltigeurs, chased off the few remaining cossacks and took possession of the west bank. Captain Arnoldi, who had clearly seen the French set up a battery of forty guns to cover both banks of the river, had sent a final despairing report to headquarters before withdrawing, expressing his conviction that this was the spot they had chosen for their crossing. But while Czaplic had delayed carrying out the order to withdraw, he did not dare defy it outright. Nor did he have the sense to send a troop of cavalry to hold and, if need be, burn the bridges at Ziembin.

Shortly after the withdrawal of the Russians, at eight o’clock, Captain Benthien and his Dutch pontoneers waded into the icy water and began installing the first trestles. They had stripped down to their pants, and struggled manfully in the strong current, which was carrying with it great blocks of ice up to two metres across. Every so often one of them would lose his foothold on the slimy riverbed and be swept away. They were only allowed to remain in the water for fifteen minutes at a time, but many nevertheless succumbed to hypothermia. They had been offered a bonus of fifty francs per man, but that was surely not the motive that drove them. ‘They went into the water up to their necks with a courage of which one can find no other example in history,’ recorded grenadier Pils. ‘Some fell dead, and disappeared with the current, but the sight of such a terrible end did nothing to weaken the energy of their comrades. The Emperor watched these heroes without leaving the riverbank, where he stood with the Marshal [Oudinot], Prince Murat and other generals, while the Prince de Neuchâtel [Berthier] sat on the snow expediting correspondence and writing out orders for the army.’

‘At this solemn moment Napoleon himself recovered all the elevation and energy that characterised him,’ recalled Lieutenant Colonel de Baudus. There are accounts of him looking dejected, and the story of his ordering the eagles of the Guard to be burnt in a fit of despair surfaces here and there. But most witnesses agree that he displayed remarkable self-possession throughout what continued to be a knife-edge situation, and far from ordering the eagles to be burnt, kept enjoining the men to cling to them in order to keep the semblance of a fighting force in existence. Some thought he actually appeared detached as he stood on the riverbank watching the pontoneers at their work.

Major Grünberg, a cavalryman from Württemberg, was struck by this as Napoleon caught sight of him marching past, carrying in the folds of his cloak his beloved greyhound bitch. The Emperor called him over and asked if he would sell the animal to him. Grünberg replied that she was an old companion whom he would never sell, but that if His Majesty so wished, he would give her to him. Napoleon was touched by this and replied that he would not dream of depriving him of such a close companion.

The bridge was completed around midday. It was just over a hundred metres long and about four metres wide, and rested on twenty-three trestles varying in height from one to three metres. There was not enough planking available, so the round logs laid across the top which made up the causeway were covered with flimsy roof slats taken from the houses of Studzienka topped with a dressing of bark, branches and straw. ‘As a work of craft, this bridge was certainly very deficient,’ noted Captain Brandt. ‘But when one considers in what conditions it was established, when one thinks that it salvaged the honour of France from the most terrible shipwreck, that each of the lives sacrificed in the building of it meant life and liberty to thousands, then one has to recognise that the construction of this bridge was the most admirable work of this war, perhaps of any war.’
Napoleon, who had hurriedly swallowed a cutlet for breakfast while standing on the bank, walked over to the head of the bridge, where Marshal Oudinot was preparing to march his corps across. ‘Do not cross yet, Oudinot, you might be taken,’ the Emperor called out to him, but Oudinot waved at the men drawn up behind him and answered: ‘I fear nothing in their midst, sire!’ He led his corps across, to shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ uttered with a conviction that had not resounded in the imperial presence very often of late. Turning left, he began to deploy his troops in a southerly direction in order to ward off any potential attack by Chichagov. They were quickly lost to sight in the snow that had begun to fall again.

Meanwhile Captain Busch and another team of Dutch pontoneers had been working on a second bridge, fifty metres downstream of the first. This one, built on sturdier trestles and with a causeway of plain round logs, was intended for the artillery and baggage, and it was ready by four o’clock in the afternoon. While troops continued to trudge across the lighter bridge in an orderly fashion, Oudinot’s artillery, followed by the artillery of the Guard and the main artillery park, trundled across the other. At eight o’clock that evening two of the trestles of the heavy bridge subsided into the muddy bed of the river, and the pontoneers had to abandon their firesides, strip off and wade into the water once again. The bridge was reopened at eleven o’clock, but at two in the morning of 27 November three more trestles, this time in the deepest part of the river, collapsed. Once again Benthien’s men abandoned whatever shelter they had found for the night and went into the water. After four hours, at six in the morning, the bridge was operational once more.

For the whole of that day the Grande Armée trudged across the Berezina in the lightly falling snow. The Guard began crossing at dawn, then came Napoleon with his staff and household, then Davout with the remainder of his corps, then Ney and Murat with theirs, then, in the evening, Prince Eugène, with the few hundred remaining Italians of the 4th Corps. The bridge was low, barely above the level of the water, and it swayed, so the men crossed on foot, leading their horses. The surface coating of branches and straw had to be firmed up by the sappers from time to time. Even so, the bridge subsided in places, and those crossing it sometimes had water up to their ankles. The sheer weight of numbers and the state of the bridge meant that there was some pushing and shoving, men fell over and horses collapsed, causing obstructions and leading to fights. It was not a pleasant crossing.

Meanwhile a steady flow of guns, caissons, supply wagons and carriages of every kind trundled across the other bridge, with a two-hour interruption while the pontoneers repaired two more broken trestles at four o’clock that afternoon. Here too there were jams and outbreaks of violence. The surface of the bridge was scattered with debris and corpses, and a number of horses broke their legs by getting them caught between the round logs making up the causeway. The next vehicles, themselves being pushed on from behind, would try to drive over the struggling and kicking horses rather than stop and wait for them and their vehicles to be heaved over the side. But most of the guns and materiel of the organised units, the treasury, the wagons carrying Napoleon’s booty from Moscow, and a surprising number of officers’ carriages made the crossing successfully. Madame Fusil, the actress from Moscow, drove across in the relative comfort of Marshal Bessières’ carriage.

The approaches to the bridges were guarded by gendarmes who only allowed active units onto them and ordered all stragglers and civilians, and even wounded officers travelling in various conveyances, to wait. A large number of these non-combatants had begun to arrive in the late afternoon of 27 November, cluttering the approaches to the bridge. As they could not cross immediately they settled down, built fires and began to cook whatever they had managed to pick up, scrounge or steal.

The Berezina 1812 Part II


Victor’s 9th Corps also arrived in the late afternoon and took up defensive positions covering the approaches to the bridges. It had left one division, about four thousand men under General Partouneaux, outside Borisov to mislead the Russians, and this was to follow on under the cover of night.

As most of the army was across by that evening, the gendarmes opened the bridges to the stragglers, cantinières, wounded and civilians. But having settled down by their fires, and seeing that their encampment was defended by Victor’s men, most did not avail themselves of the opportunity, preferring to spend a peaceful night where they were. Some, like the cantinière of the 7th Light Infantry who had gone into labour that evening, had no choice. ‘The entire regiment was deeply moved and did what it could to assist this unfortunate woman who was without food and without shelter under this sky of ice,’ wrote Sergeant Bertrand. ‘Our Colonel [Romme] set the example. Our surgeons, who had none of their ambulance equipment, abandoned in Smolensk for lack of horses, were given shirts, kerchiefs and anything people could come up with. I had noticed not far away an artillery park belonging to the corps of the Marshal Duc de Bellune [Victor]. I ran over to it and, purloining a blanket thrown over the back of one of the horses, I rushed back as fast as I could to bring it to Louise. I had committed a sin, but I knew that God would forgive me on account of my motive. I got there just at the moment when our cantinière was bringing into the world, under an old oak tree, a healthy male child, whom I was to encounter in 1818 as a child soldier in the Legion of the Aube.’

A remarkable degree of order and even normality reigned over the Grande Armée as it settled down for the night on both sides of the river. A key factor was undoubtedly the presence of the Emperor and the fact that he had visibly taken the initiative, which led everyone to expect great things and kept spirits high. ‘We are still capable of fun and a good laugh,’ noted Jean Marc Bussy, a Swiss voltigeur sitting around a campfire with his comrades on the western bank of the river. One cannot but admire him. ‘When night fell, each soldier took his knapsack for a pillow and the snow as a mattress, with his musket in his hand,’ wrote his comrade Louis Begos of the 2nd Swiss Regiment. ‘An icy wind was blowing hard, and the men pressed up against each other for warmth.’

All that day Napoleon had anxiously listened for the sound of cannon announcing the approach of the Russians. But there was still no sign that Chichagov had realised his mistake. The note he penned to Marie-Louise that evening shows no trace of anxiety.
What he might have heard, had it not been over ten kilometres away, was the end of one of Partouneaux’s brigades, which had been holding Borisov. The Partouneaux division, which had only entered Russia recently, had suffered the depressing effects of the conditions in rapid order. The men had been in fine spirits when they had reached Borisov a few days before. At one point they were charged by some Russian cavalry and formed squares. One of the Russian officers, unable to control his wounded mount, had crashed into the middle of the square, where he was pinned to the snow under the thrashing animal. A couple of French soldiers pulled him clear, dusted the snow off his uniform and then went back to their posts in the firing line. The officer bided his time until the French were occupied by another Russian charge and, slipping between them, ran, hopping through the deep snow, to rejoin his own men, at which the entire French square burst into laughter.

But a couple of days later, as they camped out in a windswept spot without fires or food, their mood was very different. ‘Some wept, crying out plaintively to their parents; some went raving mad; some died under our eyes after a horrible agony,’ according to one of them. Having held Borisov as long as was necessary, the division had begun to withdraw on the afternoon of 27 November. But one of its brigades lost its way and walked straight into the midst of Wittgenstein’s army. After a running battle in which it lost half its number, it was forced to surrender. The men were stripped, beaten and marched off into captivity. One of its regiments, the 29th of the Line, was made up largely of men who had only recently been released from prison hulks in England, having been captured in Saint-Domingue in 1801. ‘Luck, one has to admit, seems to have abandoned these poor fellows,’ remarked Boniface de Castellane.

Chichagov had by now realised that he had been duped. Most of his men were still at Borisov and points further south, but he ordered Czaplic to attack the French forces which had already got across the Berezina, promising to send reinforcements. But his men, who had been force-marched some fifty kilometres south and were now ordered to hurry back, made slow progress through the heavy snow. There was much grumbling and even the threat of mutiny. ‘One of the regiments I had ordered to go and reinforce Czaplic hesitated and then refused outright to move,’ Chichagov recorded. ‘My exhortations having produced no effect, I was obliged to have recourse to the threat of firing on it. I had cannon unlimbered and levelled at it from behind.’ Some of Chichagov’s units did however come up to reinforce Czaplic that night, and more were on the way.

Before dawn on 28 November, as Oudinot finished gulping down the warming soupe à l’oignon his staff had cooked up at their campfire, the first shots resounded on the western bank of the Berezina as a reinforced Czaplic pushed northward under a strong artillery barrage. Oudinot organised a defence, and led his men out under murderous fire from the Russian guns, but he was hit by a shell splinter – his twenty-second wound. Napoleon, who was on the scene, put Ney in command with orders to hold the Russians back at all costs in order to cover the retreat of the remainder of the Grande Armée, the stragglers and, finally, Victor’s men.

It was a tall order. Czaplic and Chichagov had over 30,000 fresh troops who had not suffered any serious military losses, and all Ney could put up against them were 12 to 14,000 emaciated and half-frozen remnants: all that was left of Oudinot’s 2nd Corps, the Dabrowski division and a few survivors from Poniatowski’s 5th Corps, the Legion of the Vistula, and a handful of other units (his own 3rd Corps had all but ceased to exist, with one regiment numbering forty-two men, another only eleven, and the 25th Württemberg Division’s six regiments of infantry, four of cavalry and divisional artillery park down to a grand total of 150 men). Three-quarters of them were not even French. Almost half were Poles, there were four regiments of Swiss, a few hundred Croats of the 3rd Illyrian Infantry, some Italians, a handful of Dutch Grenadiers and Colonel de Castro’s 3rd Portuguese Regiment. This motley bunch rose to the occasion magnificently.

The Russians under General Czaplic, a Pole in Russian service, advanced in force through the wooded terrain, but Ney sent in Dabrowski’s Poles, who forced them back to their starting positions. Two more divisions sent by Chichagov then arrived on the scene, Voinov’s and Shcherbatov’s. They launched a massed attack, supported by an artillery bombardment which sent splinters of pine and fir shooting murderously through the ranks of the Poles. Dabrowski was wounded and handed over command to General Zajaczek, who was soon carried off the field himself with a shattered leg, leaving General Kniaziewicz in command, but he too was put out of action. As the Poles fell back in hand-to-hand fighting among the trees, Ney reinforced them with whatever units came to hand.

Although these were numerically weak, they displayed barely believable spirit. The 123rd Dutch Light Infantry regiment, down to eighty men and five officers, cheered as it went into action. At one point a cannonball shattered the trunk of a huge tree heavy with snow, which came crashing down and buried a dozen men of the French 5th Tirailleurs, but they all clambered out from under the snow laughing like children amidst the bursting shells. When, a few moments later, a shell killed their Colonel’s horse, throwing him to the ground, they rushed forward to his aid, but he sprang up and shouted at them: ‘I am still at my post, so let everyone remain at theirs!’

In order to relieve the pressure on them, Ney sent in General Doumerc with his cuirassiers and three regiments of Polish lancers. They charged the Russians, sowing panic and driving them back. Czaplic was wounded and General Shcherbatov was captured, along with two thousand others and a couple of standards. A countercharge by Russian hussars and dragoons steadied the situation, but the Swiss regiments, which had now taken over the French front line, supported by the Dutch, the Croats and the Portuguese, held their ground.

The battle raged all day, with the Swiss making no fewer than seven bayonet charges when they ran out of cartridges. ‘It was worse than a butchery,’ noted Jean Marc Bussy. ‘There was blood everywhere on the snow, which had been trampled as hard as a beaten earth floor by all the advancing and retreating … One hardly dared to look to right or left, out of fear of seeing that a comrade was no longer there.’ The fighting was so hot that they forgot about the freezing temperatures, and they kept their spirits up with shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ As death closed in around them in the icy wood, the Swiss broke into the strains of the old mountain lied ‘Unser Leben Gleicht der Reise’. The fighting did not stop until eleven o’clock that night, when the Russians, having failed to push the defenders back one step from their morning positions, finally gave up.

It was a magnificent victory for the French, but a bitter one. As they made fires and dragged in their wounded to dress them as best they could, they knew that they would have to leave them behind the following day. The four Swiss regiments had lost a thousand men, and mustered no more than three hundred between them. ‘We hardly dare speak to each other, for fear of hearing of the death of another of our comrades,’ recalled Bussy. Of the eighty-seven voltigeurs in his company who had laughed around their campfires the previous night, just seven were left alive. The 123rd Dutch Light Infantry had ceased to exist. The Dutch Grenadiers were down to eighteen officers and seven other ranks.

Their heroics were honourably matched by Victor’s men defending the crossings on the other bank. They numbered no more than eight thousand men, mostly Badenese, Hessians, Saxons and Poles, and were facing an army over four times that. But here too morale was unaccountably high. They were attacked at nine o’clock in the morning and held their positions until nine that evening against overwhelming odds.

Wittgenstein’s first attacks were concentrated on the Baden brigade, commanded by the twenty-year-old Prince Wilhelm of Baden, which was holding the right wing of the French defence perimeter. Prince Wilhelm’s men had been greatly cheered when, three days before, they had come across a convoy from Karlsrühe with food and supplies of every sort. The men were able to exchange worn-out uniforms, overcoats and boots for new ones, and to help themselves to food and delicacies. ‘Every officer had received something from home and everyone jumped on the packages destined for them,’ wrote Prince Wilhelm. ‘Thus it was that I saw Colonel Brucker, standing on one of the wagons, open up a large box which I assumed to be full of victuals, and from it he drew a wig and, quick as a flash, he removed the old one he had on his bald head and donned the new one, trying to mould it to his head with his hands.’ Prince Wilhelm himself was in a good mood that morning as his greyhounds had caught a hare, which he had eaten and washed down with wine that had come in the convoy. Although they were now attacked by overwhelming forces, he and his men stood firm, at the cost of terrible losses.

Hoping no doubt to break the determination of the defenders, Wittgenstein established a strong battery beyond the left wing of Victor’s line, and began shelling the area behind it. This was by now occupied by a dense mass of thousands of people, horses and vehicles, up to four hundred metres deep, stretching for over a kilometre along the riverbank. Shortly after midday, Russian shells began to rain down on this vast encampment, bringing hideous destruction as they exploded among the mêlée, killing and maiming people and horses, sending splinters of wood and glass from shattered carriages flying through the air. It was the end of the road for many of the civilians. Captain von Kurz watched in horror as a beautiful young woman with a four-year-old daughter had the horse she was riding killed and her thigh shattered by a Russian shell; realising that she could go no further, she untied the blood-soaked garter from her leg and, after kissing her tenderly, strangled her child and, clutching her in her arms, lay down to await death. Seeing her wagon stuck, Baska, the cantinière of the Polish Chevau-Légers, cut her horse free and, taking her small son in her arms, rode into the Berezina on it. She got more than halfway across before the horse began to drown and sank beneath the surface, throwing her and her son into the water, from which only she was able to wade ashore.

Panic broke out, and a mad rush for the bridges ensued, with people driving their wagons and horses over the corpses of men and beasts, over the wreckage of carriages and abandoned luggage. This merely served to compact the mass pressing around the bridge-ends like a flock of frightened sheep, and now every Russian shell found a target. The massacre continued until Victor managed to mount an attack on the Russian batteries which forced them to pull back out of range.

Although the shelling had stopped, that did not relieve the pressure on the crossings. A mass of people, horses and vehicles converged on the bridges, with those behind pushing forward continuously, so that it was not possible to avoid trampling those who stumbled and fell. ‘Anyone who weakened and fell would never rise again, as he was walked over and crushed. In this dense mass even the horses were so hard-pressed that they fell over, and, like the men, they too could not get up again,’ remembered Sergeant Thirion. ‘By the efforts they made to do so they brought down men who, being pushed from behind, could not avoid the obstacle, and neither men nor horses ever rose again.’

Lieutenant Carl von Suckow had become separated from his fellow Württembergers and was caught in the crush. ‘I found myself being dragged along, jostled and even borne along at some moments – and I do not exaggerate,’ he wrote. ‘Several times I felt myself being lifted off the ground by the mass of people around me, which gripped me as though I had been caught in a vice. The ground was covered in animals and men, alive and dead … At every moment I could feel myself stumbling on dead bodies; I did not fall, it is true, but that was because I could not. It was only because I was held up on every side by the crowd which pressed in on me. I have never known a more horrible sensation than that I felt as I walked over living beings who tried to hold on to my legs and paralysed my movements as they attempted to raise themselves. I can still remember today what I felt on that day as I placed my foot on a woman who was still alive. I could feel the movements of her body, and I could hear her scream and moan: “Oh! take pity on me!” She was clinging to my legs when, suddenly, as a result of a strong thrust from behind, I was lifted off the ground and wrenched from her embrace.’ As he found himself being forced back and forth near the entrance to the bridge, he experienced ‘the first and only real moment of despair I had felt during the entire campaign’. He finally grabbed the collar of a tall cuirassier who was clearing a path for himself with a mighty stick, and was dragged onto the bridge and over the river.

As those caught in the throng could not see in front of them, many found that they came to the river not at the head of one of the bridges, but on the bank. Since they were still being pushed from behind by others they were forced into the water, through which they tried to wade over to the bridges and clamber on from the side. The crush on the bridges themselves was just as great, and those walking in the middle were pressed from both sides as those at the sides moved along facing outwards and pushing inwards with their backs in order not to be thrown into the water.

Those who could not stand up for themselves did not have much of a chance, and many who had somehow managed to make it thus far perished here. A Saxon under-officer named Bankenberg, who had had both legs amputated above the knee after Borodino, had been rescued from Kolotskoie by his comrades. He had been tied onto a horse, and survived all the tribulations of the retreat with courage, but they lost sight of him at the Berezina, and he was never seen again.

In the afternoon Wittgenstein mounted a second assault on Victor’s defences, and the Baden brigade was finally forced to give ground. But Victor sent in the Brigade of Berg, made up of Germans and Belgians, and then his remaining cavalry. This, consisting of Hessian chevau-légers and Badenese hussars as well as French chasseurs, no more than 350 men in all, was led into the charge by Colonel von Laroche with such dash that it routed the Russians. A countercharge by Russian cavalry virtually annihilated the Germans, but the French defences had been saved, and as night fell Victor’s men were occupying the same positions as they had that morning.

Many of those still hoping to cross found themselves blocked by the barricades of abandoned vehicles, dead horses and human corpses which impeded access to the bridges, and as night began to fall and the fighting died down, they too began to settle down for the night, in the hope that crossing might be easier in the morning.
Victor received the order to withdraw, but seeing the numbers of non-combatants still on the eastern bank, he decided to hold it until daybreak, thus giving them a chance to cross. General Eblé and 150 of his pontoneers cleared the bridges of the corpses, carcases and vehicles that had accumulated on them in the afternoon rush. In order to clear the approaches they dragged many of the abandoned vehicles onto the bridges and then pushed them into the water, and unharnessed and led to the west bank as many of the abandoned horses as they could. They had to drag away or push over carriages and wagons that could not be wheeled away, heaving the carcases of horses and human corpses to the side to create a kind of trench between two banks of dead men and beasts.
At nine o’clock that evening Victor began sending some of his units, his supply wagons and his wounded across, and by one o’clock in the morning of 29 November he had only a screen of pickets and a couple of companies of infantry left with him on the east bank. He and Eblé urged the remaining stragglers to cross, warning them that the bridges would be burnt at first light, but most of them were either too tired or too apathetic. ‘We no longer knew how to appreciate danger and we did not even have enough energy to fear it,’ wrote Colonel Griois, who remained by his fireside along with other comrades from Grouchy’s corps. Others were apparently too absorbed by other preoccupations, and the surgeon Raymond Pontier swore that he saw two officers fighting a duel instead of crossing.

At about five o’clock in the morning, Eblé ordered his men to start setting fire to wagons and carriages still littering the eastern bank in order to wake up the non-combatants, and to shout loudly that the bridges would only be open for a couple of hours. A few availed themselves of this, but at six o’clock, when Victor withdrew his pickets and marched across, the remainder began to realise that their last chance had come. A mass of them swarmed onto the bridges, pushing and shoving to get over. Sergeant Bourgogne, who had come back to see if he could pick up any stragglers from his regiment, watched as a cantinière, holding onto her husband who had their child on his shoulders, was pushed into the icy water, dragging her family with her, and as a wagon with a wounded officer was tipped over, horse and all, to disappear instantly beneath the ice floes.

Eblé had orders from Napoleon to burn the bridges at seven o’clock, as soon as Victor’s last man was across, but he could not bear to leave so many of his countrymen stranded, so he delayed the execution of the order until 8.30. By then Wittgenstein’s men could be seen advancing towards the bridges on the opposite bank, and groups of cossacks were already picking over the booty left behind in the wagons and carriages littering the approaches. As Eblé fired the bridges, some of those still on them tried to struggle through the flames, others threw themselves into the water in order to swim the last stretch, while hundreds of others were pushed into it by the pressure of those behind who did not know the bridges now led nowhere.

The morning after the French had marched off, Chichagov rode up to the scene of the crossings. He and his entourage would never forget the grim spectacle. ‘The first thing we saw was a woman who had collapsed and was gripped by the ice,’ recalled Captain Martos of the engineers, who was at his side. ‘One of her arms had been hacked off and hung only by a vein, while the other held a baby which had wrapped its arms around its mother’s neck. The woman was still alive and her expressive eyes were fixed on a man who had fallen beside her, and who had already frozen to death. Between them, on the ice, lay their dead child.’

Lieutenant Louis de Rochechouart, a French officer on Chichagov’s staff, was deeply shaken. ‘There could be nothing sadder, more distressing! One could see heaps of bodies, of dead men, women and even children, of soldiers of every formation, of every nation, frozen, crushed by the fugitives or struck down by Russian grapeshot; abandoned horses, carriages, cannons, caissons, wagons. One would not be able to imagine a more terrifying sight than that of the two broken bridges and the frozen river.’ Peasants and cossacks were rummaging through the wreckage and stripping the corpses. ‘I saw an unfortunate woman sitting on the edge of the bridge, with her legs, which dangled over the side, caught in the ice. She held to her breast a child which had been frozen for twenty-four hours. She begged me to save the child, not realising that she was offering me a corpse! She herself seemed unable to die, despite her sufferings. A cossack rendered her the service of firing a pistol at her ear in order to put an end to this heartbreaking agony!’ Everywhere there were survivors on their last legs, begging to be taken prisoner. ‘“Monsieur, please take me on, I can cook, or I am a valet, or a hairdresser; for the love of God give me a piece of bread and a shred of cloth to cover myself with.”’

Estimates of the numbers left behind on the eastern bank of the river vary wildly, from Gourgaud’s dismissive assertion that only two thousand stragglers and three guns failed to get across, Chapelle’s estimate of four to five thousand along with three to four thousand horses and six to seven hundred vehicles, to Labaume’s of 20,000 and two hundred guns, which is certainly too high. Chichagov recorded that nine thousand were killed and seven thousand taken prisoner, which seems closer to the mark. Most are now agreed that during the three days the French lost up to 25,000 (including as many as 10,000 non-combatant stragglers) on both banks, of which between a third and a half were killed in action. Russian losses, all inflicted in the fighting, were around 15,000.

The crossing of the Berezina was, by any standards, a magnificent feat of arms. Napoleon had risen to the occasion and proved himself worthy of his reputation, extricating himself from what Clausewitz called ‘one of the worst situations in which a general ever found himself’. His soldiers had fought like lions. But it was above all a triumph for Napoleonic France, and its ability to create out of the rabble of a score of nations armies which were in every way superior to their opponents, which fought intelligently as well as loyally, and which in this instance did so as though they had been defending their own wives and children. ‘The strength of his intellect, and the military virtues of his army, which not even its calamities could quite subdue, were destined here to show themselves once more in their full lustre,’ as Clausewitz put it.



1. FAILED RECONNAISSANCE The English army marches inland from the coast, conquering Maine and settling in the castle of Beaufort. French scouts track the English advance but are captured and interrogated. Now Clarence knows for sure that a rival army is close by.

2. FRENCH AND SCOTTISH MOVEMENTS The Franco-Scot forces march west from Tours and cut off the English escape route north that leads to the safety of Normandy. The two armies are now only 12.9 kilometres (eight miles) apart.

3. CLARENCE’S HURRIED MARCH Eager to engage the French, Clarence and 1,500 men-at-arms dash towards the French camp after sightings are confirmed by the English forward foraging parties. As second in command, the Earl of Salisbury Thomas Montgau is told to assemble archers and then follow his superior into battle.

4. CROSSING THE RIVER The French and Scottish forces congregate on the other side of the river Couesnon. The only bridge is heavily garrisoned, so the English knights dismount and wade across the river in full armour. Outflanked, the French and Scots retreat into a church.

5. ATTACK ON THE CHURCH Bursting out from the river bank, the English men-at-arms assault the church. The river crossing leaves the English troops scattered and disorganised and very few troops are now under effective command, as many are still on the road behind.

6. CLARENCE PRESSES ON A lull in the fighting gives Clarence the opportunity to wait for reinforcements. Foolishly, he declines and advances towards the village of Baugé. Hidden over the ridge lies the main force of Franco-Scots, who vastly outnumber the English.

7. THE FINAL CHARGE The Scottish and French forces are now back in line, but once again ignoring the advice of his commanders, Clarence presses on. A charge up the hill to the waiting Franco-Scots is ordered despite Salisbury and the archers still not arriving.

8. MELEE AND ENGLISH DEFEAT After a desperate assault, the English are routed by the larger French and Scottish army as Clarence and all of his commanders are killed. Without the support of the longbowmen, the English lose more than a thousand men, while the French and Scottish casualties only number in the hundreds.

9. SALISBURY’S LATE ARRIVAL The French and Scottish leave the battlefield, along with the mountain of English bodies behind to rot. Salisbury arrives the next day with reinforcements but he is too late to even glimpse the opposing army, and to his horror, finds only the dead.

10. MOMENTUM WITH THE FRENCH Clarence’s body is recovered and shipped back to England, where an angered Henry V prepares to return to France with a new army. After the battle, and with the confidence of their victory, the French begin planning a conquest of Normandy.

The English aura of invincibility was finally lost as a reckless advance saw their forces obliterated by a French and Scottish coalition Nearly six years had passed since Agincourt and Henry V was still the master of northern France. The dauphin, the future Charles VII, desperately appealed to the Scots for help, and soldiers arrived shortly after, ready for battle against the English. By March 1421, Henry was back in England, so the heir to the throne, Thomas of Clarence, led the army in his stead. Utilising chevauchée raiding tactics, Clarence swept inland, plundering his way through the countryside. Meeting little to no resistance, it wasn’t until the end of the month that the French would finally muster a force to fight back.

The Battle of Baugé was the zenith of Scottish support in France in the Hundred Years’ War. The Scots had been at war on and off with the English for decades and had actively assisted the French since 1382, when they were asked to join with Charles VI in return for equipment and supplies. The French had supported Scotland during Edward I’s invasion of the country, so both had a history of common interest. The agreement was known as the `Auld Alliance’ and was a constant thorn in the side of the English, as the French and Scots tried to force a war on two fronts. The Truce of Leulinghem was signed with the English in 1389, but it wasn’t long until the Scots were back in the fold. After Baugé, the Scots were involved in the losses at the battles of Cravant and Herrings and their role in the war was effectively at an end after a major defeat at the battle of Verneuil. Taking place 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Paris, the Franco-Scots’ charge was decimated by the English longbowmen, who killed half of the opposing forces.


The Fighting for Shevardino Redoubt

What Kutuzov got was a position near the village of Borodino, 124 kilometres from Moscow. For the Russian staff officers who initially viewed this position from the main highway – the so-called New Smolensk Road – first impressions were very good. Troops standing on either side of the highway would have their right flank secured by the river Moskva and their front protected by the steep banks of the river Kolocha. Problems became much greater when one looked carefully at the left flank of this position, south of the main road. Initially the Russian army took up position on a line which ran from Maslovo north of the road, through Borodino on the highroad itself and down to the hill at Shevardino on the left flank. The centre of the position could be strengthened by the mound just to the south-east of Borodino which became the famous Raevsky Redoubt. Meanwhile the left could be anchored at Shevardino, which Bagration began to fortify.

Closer inspection soon revealed to Bagration that the position on the left assigned to his army was very vulnerable. A ravine in his rear impeded communications. More important, another road – the so-called Old Smolensk Road – cut in sharply behind his line from the west, joining with the main highway to the rear of the Russian position. An enemy pushing down this road could easily roll up Bagration’s flank and block the army’s line of retreat to Moscow. Faced by this danger, Bagration’s army began to withdraw to a new position which abandoned Shevardino and turned sharply southwards from Borodino in a straight line to the village of Utitsa on the Old Smolensk Road. On 5 September Bagration’s troops at Shevardino fought off fierce French attacks in order to cover the redeployment to this new line, losing 5,000–6,000 men and inflicting perhaps slightly fewer casualties on the enemy.


Having defeated the retreating Russians at Smolensk and capturing that city in August, Napoleon closely pursued the 1st and 2nd Armies of the West, under Kutuzov, who succeeded General Barclay de Tolly as commander in chief on 20 August. While Barclay urged immediate confrontation with the French, then steadily advancing east, Kutuzov decided instead to withdraw to Borodino, there to make a stand, a decision made as a result of political pressure urging the defense of Moscow. The main part of the Grande Armée duly followed, with an Austrian auxiliary corps under Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg and French general Jean Reynier observing Alexander Tormasov’s 3rd Army of Observation and Pavel Chichagov’s Army of the Danube far to the south, while Marshal Macdonald’s corps kept watch on the Russians situated far to the north.

Although the French had left the vicinity of Smolensk with 156,000 men as recently as 19 August, by the time they reached the outskirts of Borodino on 5 September they were down to 133,000 fit for action (86,000 infantry, 28,000 cavalry, and 16,000 artillerists) and 587 guns, all units depleted by disease and generally wearied by the laborious march deep into Russia that had begun on 22 June. The Russians mustered about 155,000 men, of whom 115,000 were regulars (the remainder were Cossacks and militia) plus they were more rested and enjoyed a numerical superiority in artillery, with 640 guns. Nevertheless, the Russian total included a proportion of virtually untrained militia known as Opelchenie, about the same number of new recruits in the regular army, and a large body of Cossacks who could not be relied upon to execute orthodox charges against formed troops. Thus, the two armies stood on approximately equal terms.

The French advance guard made contact with the Russians on 5 September when they came in sight of the Shevardino redoubt, a forward earthwork manned by General Dmitry Neverovsky’s division, supported by light infantry and cavalry, which the Russians had constructed about 3 miles southwest of Borodino. Afternoon was passing, and Napoleon needed to take the position so that he could deploy his men to face the rest of the Russian army waiting for him a mile-and-a-half beyond the redoubt. He ordered in Compans’ 5th division of Davout’s 1st Corps, supported by two cavalry corps. At the same time the Emperor ordered Poniatowski’s Polish Corps to circle to the south and take the position from the flank.

The French came on in skirmish formation and poured a terrific fire into the Russians. The latter responded as best they could, with most damage coming from their cannon. The time had come to take the redoubt, and Compans sent in his best troops. At the point of the bayonet, the Terrible 57th Line swept the flanking defenders away and entered the redoubt.

They found not a single man standing left to oppose them. The sun was setting and Prince Bagration mounted an attempt to retake the bloody position. His cavalry had a terrific clash with the French and got the best of it, but could not follow up in the darkness. Bagration claimed to have taken the redoubt and then withdrawn, but their relatively small losses suggest they did little more than skirmishing. What is clear is that the Russians had a stiff fight over a relatively useless position.

Battle of the Sajó River [Battle of Mohi]

Béla IV flees from Mohi, detail from Chronicon Pictum

Date April 11, 1241

Location Muhi on the Sajó River in northeastern Hungary

Opponents (* winner)



*Mongols Commander Subotai

Hungarians King Béla IV

Approx. # Troops

*Mongols As many as 120,000

Hungarians More than 100,000


The Mongols ravage eastern Hungary and Transylvania and gain access to all central Europe

The victory over a Hungarian army led by King Béla IV at Muhi on the Sajó River gave the Mongols access to all of Central Europe. Genghis Khan died in 1227, but his son and successor, Ogatai Khan, continued Mongol expansion. The Mongols conquered Korea in 1231 and defeated the Chin Empire during 1231–1234. In 1235 in the course of a conference with Mongol leaders, Ogatai outlined a plan of expansion in four areas: China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe.

The offensive against Eastern Europe began in 1236–1237, when Ogatai sent 130,000 Mongols into the region. Batu Khan had nominal command, but Subotai exercised real command. Subotai defeated the Bulgars and then led his army across the frozen Volga River in December 1237. In the course of their winter campaign the Mongols destroyed the northern Russian principalities, culminating in the defeat and death of Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir in the Battle of the Sil River on March 4, 1237. At the same time, Mongol forces to the south entered the Ukraine, where they reorganized and reequipped their forces.

During the next two years Subotai consolidated Mongol control over eastern and southern Russia. While the states of Central and Western Europe knew little about Mongol conquests or intentions, the Mongols gathered accurate intelligence about the political situation to their west. Subotai began the offensive in November 1240 with 150,000 men, again campaigning in winter to achieve maximum mobility on horseback in the marshlands and across frozen rivers. When Kiev rejected surrender demands, Subotai captured it on December 6.

Leaving behind 30,000 men to control the conquered territory and maintain his lines of communication, Subotai invaded Central Europe with 120,000 men. The Mongols moved on four axes. Kaidu, grandson of Ogatai, commanded the northern flank; Batu and Subotai had charge of the two central forces; and Kadan, son of Ogatai, protected the southern flank. The two middle forces were to pass through the central Carpathians into Transylvania and then meet at Pest, on the east bank of the Danube.

Kaidu meanwhile moved into Silesia, defeating a Polish army under King Boleslav V at Kraków (Cracow) on March 3, 1241. To meet Kaidu, Prince Henry of Silesia put together a mixed force of some 40,000 Silesians, Germans, Poles, and Teutonic Knights. King Wenceslas of Bohemia marched north with 50,000 men to join them. However, Kaidu struck before the two opposing forces could join. In the hard-fought Battle of Legnica (known as the Battle of Liegnitz in German and also called the Battle of Wahlstatt) on April 9, 1241, Kaidu smashed Prince Henry’s army. Kaidu then halted, having achieved his aims of devastating North-Central Europe and preventing its armies from moving south.

The Mongol southern advance had gone well. In mid-April the Mongols secured Transylvania, and Kadan drove north through the Iron Gates to join Subotai. On March 12, 1241, Hungarian king Béla IV, informed of the Mongol advance, called a conference of nobles at Buda, on the west bank of the Danube, to discuss how to meet the threat. On March 15 the conferees learned that the Mongol advance guard had already arrived at Pest, just opposite Buda.

Sure that the Pest defenses could hold the attackers, Béla IV gathered some 100,000 men over the next two weeks. At the beginning of April he set out from Pest to meet the invaders, confident that he had sufficient strength to defeat them. The Mongols withdrew before Béla’s cautious advance. Late on April 10 about 100 miles northeast of Pest, the Hungarians encountered and defeated a weak Mongol force defending a bridge at Muhi on the Sajó River, a tributary of the Tisza. Béla IV then established a strong bridgehead on the east bank of the Sajó and camped for the night with the bulk of his force on the west bank in a strong defensive position of wagons chained together.

The Mongols attacked the Hungarians before dawn on April 11, 1241, striking the bridgehead with arrows and with stones hurled by catapults, followed closely by an infantry assault. The defenders fought fiercely, and the Hungarians sortied from the main camp to their aid.

They soon discovered that the attack was only a feint. Subotai had led 30,000 men across the river some distance south of the bridge, and this force now came in from the south and rear of the Hungarians. The Hungarians found themselves packed in a small space and devastated by Mongol arrows, stones, and burning naptha. King Béla IV managed to escape with some of his men to the north toward Pozsony (Bratislava). Although Mongol losses in the battle were heavy, the Hungarian force was virtually destroyed. It suffered between 40,000 and 70,000 dead, including much of the Magyar nobility.

With this Hungarian defeat, only the Danube River prevented a further Mongol advance. The Mongols held Eastern Europe from the Dnieper to the Oder and from the Baltic to the Danube. In a campaign lasting only four months, they had destroyed Christian forces numbering many times their own. Following the victory, the Mongols ravaged all eastern Hungary and Transylvania. With a majority of its settlements having been destroyed and a large portion of the population slain during the Mongol occupation, which lasted until 1242, the Hungarian state had to be completely reconstituted.

References Allsen, Thomas. Mongol Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Grousaset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970. Nicolle, David. The Mongol Warlords: Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Hulegu, Tamerlane. London: Brookhampton, 1998.

Battle of Cape Matapan, 27–29 March 1941

Prior to the battle of Matapan, the Warspite picks up her Swordfish floatplane on the run. Illustration by Dennis Andrews.

The deteriorating military situation in Africa and Greece in 1941, however, made it clear that some offensive response by the Regia Marina was necessary if these theaters were to remain viable for the Axis powers. The Germans were now becoming more insistent that something be done to restore the situation in the Mediterranean. At their urging, and because of the general feeling at Supermarina (Italian naval headquarters) that an attempt should be made to re-establish the dynamics of conflict in the area, Operation Gaudo was born.

Vittorio Veneto firing upon Allied cruisers during the daytime phase of the Battle of Cape Matapan near the Island of Gavdos.

Supermarina committed the brand-new Littorio-class battleship Vittorio Veneto, sporting nine 15-inch guns and displacing 45,000 tons, as well as six of its seven 10,000-ton heavy cruisers and two of its best light cruisers to the operation. Usually reluctant to risk its capital ships, Supermarina had outdone itself for this mission. The Italians were further motivated by Luftwaffe reports on March 15, 1941, indicating that two of the three British battleships in the Mediterranean had been severely damaged and were not operational. Perhaps Supermarina officials would have been less sanguine had they known that those two battleships and their sister ship were not damaged, but anchored comfortably in Alexandria Harbor and quite ready to fight. Moreover, the British ships were led by one of the most competent and aggressive sailors in the Royal Navy.

Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, affectionately known as “ABC” to his men, had entered the Royal Navy as a cadet at age 14. While nurtured in a battleship navy, he was an early convert to air power. Cunningham had taken over a superb fleet whose training included night combat, which at that time was considered apostasy by most navies around the globe and ruled out as a matter of course. The British Mediterranean Fleet, however, excelled in night actions during prewar maneuvers and applied the lessons learned during the war years.

There were those in the Italian Naval Operational Command Centre (Supermarina). Admiral Riccardi, the Italian Chief of Naval Staff, and other leading members of the RMI, such as Admirals Campioni and Iachino, were particularly anxious to deliver a knock-out blow to Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. There is more than a suspicion that they entertained and even cherished the thought of bringing about some form of massive set piece battle in which the British could be put to the sword in the Mediterranean – a type of new style Jutland with a different result from the original encounter in the North Sea. These ideas were all very well in theory, but the reality of the situation was what counted in Berlin and Wilhelmshaven. Appreciating that something needed to be done to improve its standing in the eyes of its Axis partner, Supermarina strove to orchestrate a plan (codename Gaudo) that would succeed in restoring some pride to the Italian Navy. One effective way of doing that would be to intercept and destroy a couple of lightly screened Allied convoys scheduled for late March: AG.9 en route from Alexandria to Piraeus and GA.9 going in the opposite direction. As John Winton suggests, it was an excellent plan which might well have succeeded had it not been discovered in advance.

Its secrecy was compromised to some extent by the Italians themselves. Their rather understandable eagerness in checking repeatedly on the location of the Mediterranean Fleet through increased surveillance patrols of both Alexandria and the convoy routes south of Crete in the days leading up to the launching of Gaudo certainly alerted Cunningham and his staff to the likelihood of some imminent action in the Eastern Mediterranean. These suspicions were confirmed by the latest ‘Ultra’ intercepts provided for the Admiralty by the members of Hut 6 (working on the Luftwaffe’s ‘Light Blue’ code) and Dilly Knox and Mavis Lever (who concentrated on the RMI’s ‘Alfa’ code) at Bletchley Park. This signals intelligence suggested that German exasperation at the Italian failure to deal effectively with the Allied convoys to Piraeus and Suda Bay was such that the Supermarina intended to send its main surface fleet south of Crete in search of the troop transports and supply ships that had so far eluded its submarine arm and that 28 March was scheduled as D-Day for this operation.

Forewarned of Admiral Iachino’s intended operational sortie off Crete, but not the composition of the force that would be undertaking it, the Admiralty swiftly re-routed and then recalled its two merchant convoys. If the Italians were spoiling for a fight, so was Cunningham. Risks had to be accepted in such a situation, but the prospect of doing real harm to the Italian Fleet was too good an opportunity for him to miss. He sought to make the most of his advantages by sending Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell’s Force B (four light cruisers and four destroyers) out from Pireaus to act as live bait for Iachino’s warships in the waters off Crete and lure them unwittingly into the steely embrace of Cunningham’s Force A (the carrier Formidable, three battleships and nine destroyers) coming up from the southeast. If this could be done successfully, Cunningham felt his warships could then set about the enemy with some gusto.

On the same day (27 March) that Pridham-Wippell’s Force B left port to get into its pre-arranged position south of Crete to begin trailing its cape for Iachino’s fleet to follow, the very ships it was hoping to attract rendezvoused south of the Straits of Messina and moved off south-eastwards towards Crete – and the convoy routes to and from Greece that lay further to the south. Although the RMI had no carriers to rely upon, the force that gathered in Sicilian waters was still quite impressive. Apart from his flagship the battleship Vittorio Veneto and four destroyers that had come from Naples, Iachino had gathered a fleet of six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and nine other destroyers from their bases at Taranto, Brindisi and Messina. It was a fleet that could have done an awful lot of damage to any Allied convoy it came across, but it lacked constant air cover and reconnaissance support. In the absence of a carrier, however, Supermarina had fully expected to have at its disposal the planes of Fliegercorps X operating from their base in Sicily – so the aerial deficiency was not regarded as being critical at this stage.

Whatever the Fliegerkorps might have done for the Italians, the fact remained that Cunningham was far better served by aerial reconnaissance than his opponents. At lunchtime on 27 March, an RAF flying boat based on Crete reported that three Italian heavy cruisers of the Trento class and a destroyer were at sea and heading towards the island. This report confirmed the accuracy of the earlier signals intelligence and convinced Cunningham that action was in the offing. Despite his aggressive instincts, he didn’t want to reveal his hand too soon lest the enemy fleet break off the operation and return to its home bases. Wishing to deceive Italian agents in Alexandria about his intentions to leave port and go out for a showdown with Iachino’s warships, Cunningham behaved ashore as if hoisting anchor was about the last thing on his mind on the evening of 27 March. What Michael Simpson describes as an ‘elaborate charade’ seemed to work perfectly. Force A left Alexandria after dark undetected by spies and sped towards its pre-arranged meeting with Force B south of Crete later in the morning of 28 March.

Over the course of the next thirty hours a fleet action that had promised so much for the Italians turned into another grievous defeat every bit as bad as the earlier Taranto débâcle, if not worse. Whether the Battle of Matapan deserves the ringing epithet of ‘a naval Caporetto’ given to it by the Italian critic Gianni Rocca is arguable, but what is clear is that it was a tragedy and one that had been largely, and sadly, self-inflicted. While aircraft and radar both had a critical role in assisting the British cause on 28 March, the stunning victory that would come his way after nightfall was gifted to Cunningham by his adversary Iachino. Aware from a lunchtime air raid that the Gaudo operation had already lost its surprise element, Iachino had opted for a safety-first policy by turning westward in a bid to put his ships beyond the range of what he assumed had been purely shore-based RAF units. Once the Vittorio Veneto had been hit and holed in the stern during a torpedo attack in the mid-afternoon, he could do no more than abandon the operation and – after sterling work by his damage control party – make course for home at the best possible speed. As the Italian Fleet limped westward it was spotted by one of Warspite’s reconnaissance planes and targeted again at dusk by both carrier and land-based aircraft. As luck would have it in trying to finish off the battleship an Albacore 5A, the last carrier plane to make an attack, succeeded in totally immobilizing the heavy cruiser Pola at 1946 hours. As she remained dead in the water, the rest of the fleet retired from the scene as hastily as possible. After exchanging a series of messages about the plight of the Pola and her crew with Carlo Cattaneo, one of his divisional commanders, Iachino made a gross tactical error at 2018 hours in sending back two other Zara class heavy cruisers and four destroyers to go to the aid of the crippled warship. While Iachino’s humanity cannot be faulted for trying to rescue her officers and men, the return of Cattaneo’s entire group to retrieve the Pola by towing her to safety when he knew by this time that the Mediterranean Fleet was at sea is simply unfathomable. One can only imagine he thought the British ships weren’t close enough to be an active threat during the hours of darkness and that by morning he would have arranged sufficient air cover for Cattaneo’s entire group that Cunningham wouldn’t dare to intervene. It was an egregious error. Iachino may have thought that the British wouldn’t risk engaging in any night fighting, but if he did he didn’t know his opposite number. Cunningham was determined not to let the battleship get away and was prepared to bring the enemy fleet to action in the dark if need be, even though his ships had not practised night fighting for some months and the skills necessary to become good at it still remained rudimentary at best.

In the end, of course, the night action that took place didn’t involve Iachino’s entire fleet, but just Cattaneo’s division of it. They had the wretched luck to return to the stricken Pola just when Cunningham arrived at the same spot with Force A. Martin Stephen describes the scene graphically: ‘With flashless cordite and radar the British were sighted men in a world of the blind.’ At what amounted to point blank range the result was never in doubt. Fiume and Zara were soon rendered into smoking hulks by the broadside they received. In a little over four minutes the Zara class of heavy cruiser had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. As Cunningham described it later it was ‘more like murder than anything else’. Removing his battlefleet from what Barnett describes perfectly as a ‘chaotic mêlée’, Cunningham left his own destroyers to deal with their Italian equivalents. During the course of the evening, two of the four enemy destroyers were sunk (Alfieri and Carducci) while Oriani was damaged but managed to escape along with the unscathed Gioberti.

It was a magnificent victory for Cunningham, but it might have turned out even better had he not sent a sloppily phrased signal to the rest of his ships shortly after putting the heavy cruisers out of action that seemed to imply that all those not engaged in dealing with the enemy should withdraw to the northeast. While the ambiguous message was not intended for his light cruiser squadron, Pridham-Wippell didn’t realise that at the time. He broke off his pursuit of the Vittorio Veneto and withdrew to the northeast to conform with his C-in-C’s apparent orders. By the time that Cunningham had become aware of what had happened, Iachino’s flagship and her accompanying warships had escaped to live and fight another day. That was more than could be said for Vice-Admiral Cattaneo and 2,302 officers and men of the Regia Marina who perished in these engagements. Correlli Barnett calls it ‘the Royal Navy’s greatest victory in a fleet encounter since Trafalgar’. Is it churlish to suggest that it could have been even greater? It might well have been but for the ambiguously worded signal Cunningham had sent while basking in the glow of his battlefleet’s destructive blitz against Cattaneo’s heavy cruisers. Michael Simpson, the editor of Cunningham’s papers, draws another valid conclusion about the Battle of Cape Matapan, namely, that the C-in-C would have been far better served had he had two carriers rather than only one with him on this operation. Extra aircraft would have given him far more systematic reconnaissance and firepower than was available to him from only having Formidable and some of the land-based RAF torpedo-bombers at his disposal.

One thing that all the leading naval analysts who have reviewed the action off Cape Matapan agree upon is that this crushing defeat for the Regia Marina was as much psychological as it was material. It dealt a real blow to the esteem in which the Italian fleet was held and made the Supermarina far more cautious than it otherwise might have been. This attitude of restraint was further reinforced by yet another rout its forces suffered at the hands of the British only a few days later in the Red Sea, in what became an ultimately fruitless Italian quest both to attack Port Sudan as well as to retain their base of Massawa on the coast of Eritrea. In the face of a sustained land and aerial offensive launched by the enemy which closed in on the port on 6 April and captured it two days later, the Italians would lose six seaworthy destroyers, a torpedo boat, five MAS (fast motor torpedo boats) and nineteen of their merchant vessels, while six German ships, including the passenger ship Colombo, suffered the same fate. Somehow the degree of hopelessness into which the Italian naval cause had sunk was typified by the scuttling of the vast majority of these craft by their own crews at a total cost of 151,760 tons.