Castalla (1813)

The Battle of Castalla, 13 April 1813.

Following the success of Wellington’s victory at Salamanca and the temporary recovery of Madrid, the 1812 campaign in central Spain petered out after the failure to capture the castle of Burgos, and was followed by a difficult and costly retreat all the way back to the Portuguese border. However, the severe French losses in Russia had caused the recall of significant numbers of French troops from Spain during the spring, to face the advancing Russian and Prussian troops in central Europe. Wellington therefore saw great opportunities for the campaign of 1813, with the weakened French forces compelled to remain on the defensive. To aid his great surge forward, he looked to the British forces under the recently arrived Sir John Murray and the Spanish 2nd Army to cause a major diversion in eastern Spain, thus preventing Suchet from supporting the main French army’s efforts.

Sir John Murray is often viewed as a controversial choice for this command, largely on the basis of the harsh judgement of William Napier, the historian of the Peninsular War. He is highly critical regarding Murray’s lack of initiative in cutting off the retreat of Marshal Soult’s army from Oporto in 1809, when he commanded a brigade there. His leaving the peninsula soon after this, however, was not actually related; he simply refused to serve under William Carr Beresford, who had been created a Portuguese Marshal but was still junior to him in the British army. Indeed, Wellington, a harsh judge, who did not bear fools easily, commented on Murray’s wish to leave the army with the words ‘he will be missed’; clearly Wellington cannot have been unhappy with his performance.

During the winter of 1812 the British force still at Alicante on the east coast had grown, with reinforcements arriving from Sicily and Lisbon, and now amounted to 16,000 men, including Whittingham’s Spanish division. The Spanish 2nd Army had also been reorganised and now numbered some 20,000 men in four divisions, one of which, under Roche, was attached to Murray.

It is true that some of Murray’s troops were not of a particularly high quality, many being Italians or French, Swiss and Polish deserters. Indeed, in early February eighty-six men of the 2nd Italian Levy deserted en masse, taking their officer with them as a prisoner. Another serious difficulty was the procuring of draught animals to move stores and supplies. The troops had arrived without horses and it proved very difficult even to establish a supply train in eastern Spain, and this severely hampered any movements. Food was supplied regularly from Sicily and Algeria, but the troops needed to remain close to the coast to be able to access it, which placed a severe restriction on their manoeuvrability.

Suchet’s army retained three divisions around Xativa and had one brigade further forward at Alcoy; this Murray decided to encircle and destroy, but the attempt failed. Murray then put forward the idea of landing Roche’s division at Valencia, in the rear of the French army, and capturing it from the sea. Messages from Bentinck in Sicily, however, stating that he might be compelled to recall his Sicilian troops, ended any thoughts of such an operation – probably a good thing for all concerned.

All this inertia played into French hands and Suchet decided to strike whilst the allied divisions were still spread out and their actions uncoordinated. He attacked in two columns, successfully separating Murray from part of the Spanish army, which was forced to flee to the west, and driving Murray’s force back towards Castalla. Realising the danger, Murray immediately ordered his entire force to concentrate at Castalla, including Whittingham’s and Roche’s Spanish troops. Murray’s own troops then took up a position lining the crest of the hills to the south of the town of Biar, and centred around the hill with the castle of Castalla perched on its summit. Suchet made heavy weather of clearing the two battalions of British troops defending the Biar Pass, who then retired leisurely to the main position when the pass was no longer tenable. The delay meant that any attack by Suchet on the main allied position would now have to wait until the following day.

On 13 April 1813, in an action not unlike that at Bussaco, the French marched in solid columns up the slope of the hill, only to be met by the allied reserves advancing to line the crest at the vital moment and destroying the head of the French columns with a couple of devastating volleys, before following up with a determined bayonet charge. Whittingham’s Spanish also fought well and performed their part admirably; eventually Suchet realised the futility of continuing the attacks and took his troops back beyond the Biar Pass to avoid being trapped in front of it. Murray failed to move forward to take advantage of his victory and was generally criticised by the officers of his army for failing to do so.

Unaware of this action, Wellington penned a memorandum with his orders for the army of the east coast. His main priority was the assembly of a force of no fewer than 10,000 men, which was to be disembarked to besiege Tarragona. Such a move, Wellington judged, would force Suchet to pull back from Valencia and eventually, possibly, even from Catalonia entirely. Wellington indicated that Suchet might intervene and force the abandonment of the siege of Tarragona; in that case, Murray was to re-embark his troops and go to Valencia, and aid the Spanish in driving what remained of Suchet’s forces northwards. Wellington also warned Murray that on no account was he to allow any part of his force to be destroyed; this was unfortunate, as it undoubtedly made a naturally cautious general a very nervous one indeed.

Rear Admiral Hallowell had escorted the convoy of transports initially used to land the army at Alicante, and his squadron of three ships of the line and a few frigates still lay close at hand. Therefore, in line with his instructions, by 31 May Murray embarked 18,000 troops with a large siege battery and sailed for the Catalan coast.

On 2 June the fleet arrived off Cape Salou, 8 miles south of Tarragona. Here they met with the Spanish General Copons, who agreed to station a force of about 12,000 men of his 1st Army to the west of Tarragona in support. Murray immediately detached a brigade of troops commanded by Colonel Prevost under convoy to the Coll de Balaguer, where Fort San Felipe commanded the coastal road from Tortosa to Tarragona. After four days of bombardment, the fort surrendered when a lucky shot from two mortars sent ashore by HMS Stromboli ignited a magazine, causing an explosion.

Meanwhile the main force disembarked on 3 June and the investment of Tarragona was completed by that night. Having inspected the fortifications, Murray, with his chief engineer and artillery officers, all agreed that the only realistic line of attack was from the west. This was exactly as the French had concluded previously and by 5 June two initial batteries had been constructed. The French garrison numbered some 1,600 men under the command of General Antoine Bertoletti, who already held little hope of a successful outcome, with the western defences still not properly repaired since the French siege. General Murray was, however, actually the more nervous. He constantly fretted about a combined attack from Suchet in the south and Decaen from the north, which could overwhelm him. He also overestimated the strength of the city defences and the numbers of the defenders. He was severely criticised by his own officers for the handling of the siege, and they unanimously declared that an immediate assault on the southern defences would certainly succeed, but Murray refused to countenance such an attempt. His engineers also signally failed to drive the agenda, making contradictory analyses which further drained Murray’s confidence in the proceedings. Indeed, Murray wrote to Wellington that ‘I am much afraid we have undertaken more than we are able to perform.’

Hallowell and his sailors ignored such pessimism and energetically worked to land more siege guns and construct further batteries. By 10 June they had five batteries in operation and by the following morning there was a suitable breach in the walls of Fort Royal. Clinton’s troops were ordered to be prepared for an assault that very evening.

Murray then rode out to meet General Copons and heard from him that French forces numbering some 10,000 men were marching south from Barcelona, but that the Spanish forces had moved to intercept them. Returning to the siege, Murray then heard that Suchet was still some 30-odd miles away, on the other side of the Coll de Balaguer. Despite the fact that Suchet had no way of immediately threatening the siege operations, this news seems to have unnerved Murray to the point that he cancelled the planned assault and ordered the army to re-embark completely by dark on 12 June. He was confronted by a group of his senior officers, who argued that they should march to destroy the French column approaching from the north before continuing with the siege. But hearing on the 12th that this column was now only a few hours’ march from the city, Murray issued a series of both contradictory and deeply embarrassing orders effectively abandoning everything. In fact, the column had turned around and returned northward on learning that Pellew had landed his marines in their rear in the Bay of Rosas.

Hallowell refused to abandon all their stores so lightly and he delayed sailing until 13 June in order to bring on board all the supplies and horses, but eighteen cannon were spiked and abandoned in the batteries.

Murray had further decided that the force at the Coll de Balaguer was also to be withdrawn and the Spanish forces were effectively abandoned to escape as best they could. However, news that Suchet was actually moving southwards because of reports of Spanish advances towards Valencia, and that one French brigade had been left in an isolated position and might be cut off, seems to have renewed Murray’s belief and he promptly ordered the army to disembark again!

The intended attack came to nothing and the army simply sat and waited for Murray to make any decision at all. Instead, he ordered a council of war on 17 June, which agreed that the only realistic option now was to re-embark, which was accomplished by the 19th. Bentinck had finally arrived from Sicily on 18 June and promptly superseded Murray, but he agreed with the decision to abandon the campaign, and ordered the fort at the Coll de Balaguer to be blown up. The army sailed back to Alicante in ignominy.

Even the historian Fortescue, his harshest critic, recognises that the position Murray found himself in may well have made re-embarkation essential, but the unnecessary haste and confusion engendered was unfounded, for there was certainly time to have recovered all the siege artillery. It was not the decision that is most criticised, but the unseemly rush and the embarrassing losses incurred because of it.

The final chapter of this shambolic and deeply embarrassing campaign led to Sir John Murray having to face a court-martial in January 1815; unbelievably, he was acquitted of all charges, but found guilty of an error of judgement in abandoning his guns. It did not, however, negatively affect his future career one jot!


Battle of Vinegar Hill 1798

“Charge of the 5th Dragoon Guards on the insurgents – a recreant yeoman having deserted to them in uniform is being cut down” (William Sadler II)


This plan of Vinegar Hill near Enniscorthy, County Wexford, shows the position of the armies on 21 June 1798. The key battle in the Irish Rising of 1798, this was a struggle won by the larger and better-armed side. The poorly-led rebels in Wexford concentrated at Vinegar Hill, losing the strategic initiative and allowing the British to land reinforcements near Waterford from 16 June. Lieutenant-General Gerard Lake was able to concentrate an army of 20,000 men and a large artillery train. He attacked his 9,000 opponents on 21 June, using his artillery to devastate them. The rebels fought for two hours, suffering heavy casualties, and finally retreated when their ammunition ran out. The rebel pikemen were shot down. Their cohesion lost, the rebels suffered heavily in subsequent government punitive operations. The rising had been defeated.

The Society of United Irishmen was founded in 1791, inspired by the French Revolution. The organization’s purpose was to secure parliamentary reform and legal equality for all Irish, and it was led by Belfast Presbyterian merchants and Dublin intellectuals, most notably Wolfe Tone (1763-98) and James Napper Tandy (1740-1803). The United Irishmen garnered support among Presbyterian farmers in Ulster and among Roman Catholic peasants generally.

At first the United Irishmen advocated reform by peaceful means, but, after war broke out in 1793 between Great Britain and France, the society began to espouse outright revolution. In April 1794, it even secured promises of aid from the French for any revolution. When British authorities acted harshly to suppress the United Irishmen, the organization went underground and became avowedly militant, entirely determined to foment rebellion.

Bolstered by anticipation of promised French aid, armed Irish mobs seized control of County Wexford, but were beaten back by British troops commanded by Gerard Lake (1744-1808) at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21, 1798. In the meantime, Wolfe Tone led a French expeditionary force from the Continent only to be intercepted by a British squadron off Lough Swilly, County Donegal. The squadron easily overpowered the force, and Tone, captured, was tried and convicted of treason. He committed suicide before the court’s sentence-death by hanging- could be carried out.

Due to its natural shelter and its depth, the lough was an important naval port. In October 1798, immediately prior to the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars, a French fleet carrying Wolfe Tone of the United Irishmen, plus troops to assist in 1798 rebellion, was intercepted and defeated in a naval battle at the entrance to Lough Swilly. Subsequently Tone was captured and taken ashore at Buncrana on the east side of the Swilly.

A Martello tower that sits on the banks of Lough Swilly.

A subsequent reassessment of the threat of invasion led to the building of a series of fortifications guarding the different approaches and landing points within the lough which were completed between 1800 and 1820. Martello towers were built around 1804 to defend the approaches to Derry. The six on the lough cost €1,800 each, were armed with smoothbore cannon, firing round shot and were completed in six months.

With the defeat at Vinegar Hill, the quelling of two other local revolts, and the death of Tone, the United Irishmen’s revolt collapsed. The other principal rebel leader, Tandy, fled into French exile. In 1801, Great Britain was united with Ireland as the United Kingdom. 

The Wexford rising, as it was known, which began 26-27 May, was more serious. Here the United Irishmen were better organized and were led by charismatic local priests as well as some liberal Protestant gentry. The Wexford insurgents defeated government forces at Oulart Hill and captured the towns of Enniscorthy and Wexford, where they established a rudimentary administration. They tried to spread the rebellion into other counties but were heavily defeated at the battles of New Ross (5 June) and Arklow (9 June). The tide turned completely against the rebels with their defeat at the Battle of Vinegar Hill (21 June). Some leaders like Michael Dwyer (1771-1826) retreated with remnants of the rebel army into the Wicklow mountains, maintaining a guerrilla campaign until 1803.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: England, 100,000; Ireland, 40,000; France, 3,000 CASUALTIES: English, 1,500 killed in battle; 10,000 died of disease; Irish, 7,900 killed, wounded or captured at New Ross, Vinegar Hill, Castlebar, Ballynamuck, and Killala. Irish total combatant and noncombatant deaths estimated at 50,000. At Lough Swilly, French losses included 425 killed and 1,870 captured.

Roy Foster described the 1798 rising as `probably the most concentrated episode of violence in Irish history’. There were mass atrocities perpetrated by both sides, about 30,000 people died and over £1 million worth of property was destroyed. After this rebellion and that of Robert Emmet in 1803 (III), the government extended its military precautions. Among defensive measures taken was the building of military roads, including one across the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. During the Napoleonic wars, increased fears of foreign invasion led to the widespread construction of Martello towers along the Irish coastline. Apart from the destruction of the United Irishmen and the consequent discrediting of the ideals of fraternity and religious equality that had been at the base of its thinking, an immediate consequence of the rising was to increase pressure for union between Ireland and Britain. As the final irony, the main result of the 1798 rising was to bind Ireland closer to Britain for more than another century.

The Battle of Mansourah

Before first light on Tuesday 8 February 1250, the king’s plan was put into action. The Templars led the way, closely followed by a party of knights commanded by Louis’ brother Count Robert of Artois, which included the Englishman William Longsword, earl of Salisbury. It soon became clear that the ford was deeper than expected, requiring horses to swim midstream, and the steep, muddy banks on either side caused some crusaders to fall from their mounts and drown. Nonetheless, hundreds of Franks began to emerge on the far shore.

Then, just as the sun was rising, Robert of Artois made a sudden and unexpected decision to launch an assault, charging at the head of his men towards the Ayyubids’ riverside base. In the confusion, the Templars followed close behind, leaving Louis and the bulk of the strike force stranded in the ford. In this one instant, all hope of an ordered offensive evaporated. It is impossible to know what caused Robert to act so precipitously: perhaps he saw the chance for a surprise attack slipping away; or the promise of glory and renown may have spurred him on. As he rode off, those left behind–the king included–must have felt a mixture of shock, puzzlement and anger.

Even so, at first it looked as though Robert’s audacity might win the day. Ploughing into the unsuspecting Muslim camp, where many were still asleep, the count’s combined force of around 600 crusaders and Templars encountered only token resistance. Racing in among the enemy tents, they began the work of butchery. Fakhr al-Din, who was carrying out his morning ablutions, quickly threw on some clothes, mounted a horse and rode out, unarmed, into the tumult. Set upon by a party of Templars, he was cut down and slain by two mighty sword blows. Elsewhere the slaughter was indiscriminate. One Frankish account described how the Latins were ‘killing all and sparing none’, observing that ‘it was sad indeed to see so many dead bodies and so much blood spilt, except that they were enemies of the Christian faith’.

This brutal riot overran the Ayyubid encampment and, had Robert now elected to hold the field, reorder his forces and await Louis’ arrival, a stunning victory might well have been at hand. But this was not to be. With Muslim stragglers streaming towards Mansourah, the count of Artois made a woefully hot-headed decision to pursue them. As he moved to initiate a second charge, the Templar commander urged caution, but Robert chided him for his cowardice. According to one Christian account, the Templar replied: ‘Neither I nor my brothers are afraid…but let me tell you that none of us expect to come back, neither you, nor ourselves.’

Together they and their men rode the short distance south to Mansourah and raced into the town. There the folly of their courageous but suicidal decision immediately became apparent. On the open plain, even in the Ayyubid camp, the Christians had been afforded the freedom to manoeuvre and fight in close-knit groups. But once in among the town’s cramped streets and alleyways, that style of warfare proved impossible. Worse still, upon entering Mansourah, the Franks came face to face with the elite Bahriyya regiment quartered in the town. This was to be the Latins’ first deadly encounter with these ‘lions of battle’. A Muslim chronicler described how the mamluks fought with utter ruthlessness and resolve. Surrounding the crusaders ‘on every side’, attacking with spear, sword and bow, they ‘turned their crosses upside down’. Of the 600 or so who rode into Mansourah barely a handful escaped, and both Robert of Artois and William Longsword were killed.

Back on the banks of the Tanis, as yet unaware of the dreadful slaughter then just beginning in Mansourah, Louis was making a valiant attempt to retain control of his remaining troops, even as squadrons of mounted mamluks began racing forward to counter-attack. One crusader described how ‘a tremendous noise of horns, bugles and drums broke out’ as they drew near; ‘men shouted, horses neighed; it was horrible to see or hear’. But in the thick of the throng, the king held his nerve and slowly fought his way forward to establish a position on the southern edge of the river, opposite the crusader camp. Here the Franks rallied to the Oriflame and made a desperate attempt to hold their ground, while the mamluks loosed ‘dense clouds of bolts and arrows’ and rushed in to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The damage sustained on that day was appalling. One of Joinville’s knights took ‘a lance-thrust between his shoulders, which made so large a wound that the blood poured from his body as if from a bung-hole in a barrel’. Another received a blow from a Muslim sword in the middle of his face that cut ‘through his nose so that it was left dangling over his lips’. He carried on fighting, only to die later of his injuries. As for himself, John wrote: ‘I was only wounded by the enemy’s arrows in five places, though my horse was wounded in fifteen.’

The crusaders came close to routing–some tried to swim across the Tanis, and one eyewitness ‘saw the river strewn with lances and shields, and full of men and horses drowning in the water’. For those fighting alongside the king it seemed as if there was an endless stream of enemies to face, and ‘for every [Muslim] killed, another at once appeared, fresh and vigorous’. But through it all, Louis remained steadfast, refusing to be broken. Inspired by his resilience, the Christians endured wave upon wave of attack, until at last, at around three o’clock in the afternoon, the Muslim offensive slackened. As night fell, the battered Franks retained possession of the field.

Latin sources described this, the Battle of Mansourah, as a great crusader victory, and in one sense it was a triumph. Holding out against horrendous odds, the Franks had established a bridgehead south of the Tanis. But the cost of this achievement was immense. The deaths of Robert of Artois and his contingent, alongside a large proportion of the Templar host, deprived the expedition of many of its fiercest warriors. In any battles still to come, their loss would be keenly felt. And though the crusaders had crossed the river, the town of Mansourah stood before them still, barring their advance.


In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Mansourah, Louis IX was confronted by a pressing strategic dilemma. In theory the king had two options: to cut his losses and fall back across the Tanis; or to dig in on the south bank, in the hope of somehow overcoming the Ayyubid enemy. Choosing the former would have been tantamount to conceding defeat, for though this cautious tactic might have permitted the crusade to regroup, the chances of mounting a second cross-river offensive, with a now weakened army, were limited. Louis must also have recognised that the shame and frustration of forsaking a bridgehead won through the sacrifice of so many Christian lives would crush Frankish spirits, probably beyond repair. That night, or at dawn the following morning, the king could have ordered a withdrawal, but this act would have signalled the failure of his Egyptian strategy, effectively marking the crusade’s end.

Given Louis’ earnest belief that his endeavour enjoyed divine sanction and support, and the constant pressure placed upon him to uphold the tenets of chivalry and honour the achievements of his crusading ancestors, it is hardly surprising that he rejected any thought of retreat. Instead, he immediately began to consolidate his position south of the river, scavenging materials from the overrun Muslim camp–including wood from the fourteen remaining engines–to improvise a stockade, while also digging a shallow defensive trench. At the same time, a number of small boats were lashed together to create a makeshift bridge across the Tanis, linking the old northern camp and the crusaders’ new outpost. By these measures, the Franks sought to prepare themselves for the storm of war that would surely come. And for now, Louis seems to have clung to the memory of the sudden victory at Damietta, convinced that Ayyubid resistance was about to collapse.

Three days later, the king’s hopes suffered a first blow. On Friday 11 February, the mamluks initiated a massive onslaught, spearheaded by the Bahriyya, which lasted from dawn till dusk. Thousands of Muslims surrounded the crusader camp, intent upon dislodging the Franks through aerial bombardment and bloody close-quarter combat. Christians later declared that they attacked ‘so persistently, horribly and dreadfully’ that many Latins from Outremer ‘said that they had never seen such a bold and violent assault’. The mamluks’ unbridled ferocity terrified the crusaders, one of whom wrote that they ‘hardly seemed human, but like wild beasts, frantic with rage’, adding that ‘they clearly thought nothing of dying’. Many Franks were carrying injuries from the Battle of Mansourah–Joinville, for example, was no longer able to don armour because of his wounds–but, nonetheless, they fought back manfully, aided by raking showers of crossbow bolts unleashed from the old camp across the river. Once again Louis kept his nerve and the Christians held their ground, but only through the sacrifice of hundreds more dead and injured, among them the master of the Templars, who had lost one eye on 8 February and now lost another and soon died from his wounds.

The Latins demonstrated immense fortitude in the two dreadful mêlèes endured that week. They also claimed to have killed some 4,000 Muslims in this second encounter. There are no figures in Arabic chronicles with which to confirm this count, but, even if accurate, these losses seem to have done little to dent the Ayyubids’ overwhelming numerical superiority. The crusader army had survived, albeit in a terribly weakened state. From this point onwards, it must have been obvious that they were in no position to mount an offensive of their own. At absolute best, they could hope to retain their precarious foothold on the south bank. And if Mansourah was not to be attacked, then how could the war be won?

In the days and weeks that followed, this question became ever more imperative. The Egyptians carried out regular probing attacks, but otherwise were content to confine the Christians within their stockade. By late February, with no possible hint of progress in the campaign, the atmosphere in the camp began to darken, and the crusaders’ predicament was only exacerbated by the outbreak of illness. This was partly linked to the enormous number of dead piled upon the plain and floating in the water. Joinville described seeing scores of bodies dragged down the Tanis by the current, until they piled up against the Franks’ bridge of boats, so that ‘all the river was full of corpses, from one bank to another, and as far upstream as one could cast a small stone’. Food shortages were also starting to take hold, and this led to scurvy.

In this situation, the supply chain down the Nile to Damietta became an essential lifeline. So far, the Christian fleet had been free to ferry goods to the camps at Mansourah, but this was about to change. On 25 February 1250, after long months of travel from Iraq, the Ayyubid heir to Egypt, al-Mu‘azzam Turanshah, arrived at the Nile Delta. He immediately brought new impetus to the Muslim cause. With the Nile flood long abated, the Mahalla Canal contained too little water to be entered to the south, but Turanshah had some fifty ships portaged across land to the canal’s northern reaches. From there, these vessels were able to sail down to the Nile, bypassing the Frankish fleet at Mansourah. Joinville admitted that this dramatic move ‘came as a great shock to our people’. Turanshah’s ploy was virtually identical to the trap sprung against the Fifth Crusade, and for Louis’ expedition it spelled disaster.

Over the next few weeks Ayyubid ships intercepted two Christian supply convoys heading south from Damietta. Cut off by this blockade, the crusaders soon found themselves in a hopeless position. A Latin contemporary described the awful sense of desperation that now gripped the army: ‘Everyone expected to die, no one supposed he could escape. It would have been hard to find one man in all that great host who was not mourning a dead friend, or a single tent or shelter without its sick or dead.’ By this stage, Joinville’s wounds had become infected. He later recalled lying in his tent in a feverish state; outside, ‘barber-surgeons’ were cutting away the rotting gums of those afflicted with scurvy, so they might eat. Joinville could hear the cries of those enduring this gruesome surgery resounding through the camp, and likened them to those ‘of a woman in labour’. Starvation also began to take a heavy toll among men and horses. Many Franks happily consumed carrion from dead horses, donkeys and mules, and later resorted to eating cats and dogs.46

The price of indecision

By early March 1250, conditions in the main Christian camp on the south bank of the Tanis were unbearable. One eyewitness admitted that ‘men said openly that all was lost’. Louis was largely responsible for this ruinous state of affairs. In mid-February, he had failed to make a realistic strategic assessment of the risks and possible rewards involved in maintaining the crusaders’ southern camp, holding on to the forlorn hope of Ayyubid disintegration. He also grossly underestimated the vulnerability of his Nile supply line and the number of troops needed to overcome the Egyptian army at Mansourah.

Some of these errors might have been mitigated had the king now acted with decisive resolution–recognising that his position was utterly untenable. The only logical choices remaining were immediate retreat or negotiation, but throughout the month of March Louis embraced neither. Instead, as his troops weakened and died all around him, the French monarch seems to have been paralysed by indecision–unable to face the fact that his grand Egyptian strategy had been thwarted. It was not until early April that Louis finally took action, but by this stage he was too late. Seeking to secure terms of truce with the Ayyubids, he seems to have offered to exchange Damietta for Jerusalem (raising yet another parallel with the Fifth Crusade). A deal of this sort might have been acceptable in February 1250, perhaps even in March, but by April the Muslim stranglehold was clear to all. Turanshah knew that he held a telling advantage and, sensing that victory was close at hand, rebutted Louis’ proposal. All that remained now to the Christians was to attempt a retreat north, across the forty miles of open ground to Damietta.

On 4 April orders were passed through the lines of the exhausted Latin host. The hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of sick and wounded were to be loaded on to boats and ferried down the Nile in the vain hope that some craft might evade the Muslim cordon. The remaining able-bodied crusaders were to march overland to the coast.

By this stage Louis himself was suffering with dysentery. Many leading Franks urged him to flee, either by ship or on horseback, so as to avoid capture. But in a valiant, if somewhat foolhardy, show of solidarity, the king refused to abandon his men. He had led them into Egypt; now he hoped to guide them back out to safety. An ill-conceived plan was hatched to escape under cover of darkness, leaving the tents standing in the southern camp so as not to warn the Muslims that an exodus was under way. Louis also ordered his engineer, Joscelin of Cornaut, to cut the ropes holding the bridge of boats in place once the Tanis had been crossed.

Unfortunately the whole scheme quickly fell apart. Most of the crusaders made it back to the north shore at dusk, but a group of Ayyubid scouts realised what was happening and raised the alarm. With enemy troops bearing down on his position, Joscelin seems to have lost his nerve and fled–certainly the bridge remained in place, and packs of Muslim soldiers crossed over to give chase. In the failing light, panic spread and a chaotic rout began. One Muslim eyewitness described how ‘we followed on their tracks in pursuit; nor did the sword cease its work among their backsides throughout the night. Shame and catastrophe were their lot.’

Earlier that same evening, John of Joinville and two of his surviving knights had boarded a boat and were waiting to push off. He now watched as wounded men, left in the confusion to fend for themselves in the old northern camp, started to crawl to the banks of the Nile, desperately trying to get on to any ship. He wrote: ‘As I was urging the sailors to let us get away, the Saracens entered the [northern] camp, and I saw by the light of the fires that they were slaughtering the poor fellows on the bank.’ Joinville’s vessel made it out into the river and, as the current took the craft downstream, he made good his escape.

By daybreak on 5 April 1250, the full extent of the disaster was apparent. On land, disordered groups of Franks were being keenly pursued by mamluk troops who had no interest in showing clemency. Over the next few days, many hundreds of retreating Christians were slain. One band got to within a day of Damietta, but were then surrounded and capitulated. Throughout the host, the great symbols of Frankish pride and indomitability fell: the Oriflame ‘was torn to pieces’ the Templar standard ‘trampled under foot’.

Riding north, the aged Patriarch Robert and Odo of Châteauroux somehow managed to elude capture, but, after the first twenty-four hours, shattered by their exertions, they were unable to go on. Robert later described in a letter how, by chance, they stumbled across a small boat tied up on the shore and eventually reached Damietta. Few were so fortunate. Most of the ships carrying the sick and injured were ransacked or burned in the water. John of Joinville’s boat made slow progress downstream, even as he beheld terrible scenes of carnage on the banks, but his craft was finally spotted. With four Muslim vessels bearing down on them, Joinville turned to his men, asking if they should land and try to fight their way to safety, or stay on the water and be captured. With disarming honesty, he described how one of his servants declared: ‘We should all let ourselves be slain, for thus we shall go to paradise’, but admitted that ‘none of us heeded his advice’. In fact, when his boat was boarded, Joinville lied to prevent his execution on the spot, saying that he was the king’s cousin. As a result he was taken into captivity.

In the midst of all this mayhem, King Louis became separated from most of his troops. He was now so stricken with dysentery that he had to have a hole cut in his breeches. A small group of his most loyal retainers made a brave attempt to lead him to safety, and eventually they took refuge in a small village. There, cowering, half dead, in a squalid hut, the mighty sovereign of France was captured. His daring attempt to conquer Egypt was at an end.


Louis IX’s errors of judgement at Mansourah–perhaps most notably his failure to learn fully from the mistakes of the Fifth Crusade–were now compounded by his own imprisonment. Never before had a king of the Latin West been taken captive during a crusade. This unparalleled disaster placed Louis and the bedraggled remnants of his army in an enormously vulnerable position. Seized by the enemy outright, with no chance to secure terms of surrender, the Franks found themselves at the mercy of Islam. Relishing the triumph, one Muslim witness wrote:

A tally was made of the number of captives, and there were more than 20,000; those who had drowned or been killed numbered 7,000. I saw the dead, and they covered the face of the earth in their profusion…. It was a day of the kind the Muslims had never seen; nor had they heard of its like.

Prisoners were herded into holding camps across the Delta and sorted by rank. According to Arabic testimony, Turanshah ‘ordered the ordinary mass to be beheaded’, and instructed one of his lieutenants from Iraq to oversee the executions–the grisly work apparently proceeded at the rate of 300 a night. Other Franks were offered the choice of conversion or death, while higher-ranking nobles, like John of Joinville, were held aside because of their economic value as hostages. Joinville suggested that King Louis was threatened with torture, being shown a gruesome wooden vice, ‘notched with interlocking teeth’, that was used to crush a victim’s legs, but this is not hinted at elsewhere. Despite his illness and the ignominious circumstances of his capture, the monarch seems to have held his dignity.

In fact, Louis’ circumstances were markedly improved by Turanshah’s own increasingly uncertain position at this time. Since his arrival at Mansourah, the Ayyubid heir had favoured his own soldiers and officials, thereby alienating many within the existing Egyptian army hierarchy–including the mamluk commander Aqtay and the Bahriyya. Keen to secure a deal that would consolidate his hold over the Nile region, Turanshah agreed to negotiate and, in mid-to late April, terms were settled. A ten-year truce was declared. The French king would be released in return for Damietta’s immediate surrender. A massive ransom of 800,000 gold bezants (or 400,000 livres tournois) was set for the 12,000 other Christians in Ayyubid custody.

In early May, however, it suddenly seemed that even the fulfilment of these punitive conditions might not bring the Christians to liberty, because the Ayyubid coup–so long awaited by Louis at Mansourah–finally took place. On 2 May Turanshah was murdered by Aqtay and a vicious young mamluk in the Bahriyya regiment, named Baybars. The ensuing power struggle initially saw Shajar al-Durr appointed as figurehead of Ayyubid Egypt. In reality, though, a seismic shift was now under way–one that would lead to the gradual but inexorable rise of the mamluks.

In spite of these dynastic upheavals, the Muslim repossession of Damietta went ahead as planned and Louis was released on 6 May 1250. He then set about collecting the funds with which to make an initial payment of half the ransom–200,000 livres tournois–177,000 of which was raised from the king’s war chest and the remainder taken from the Templars. This massive sum took two days to be weighed and counted. On 8 May Louis took ship to Palestine with his leading nobles, among them his two surviving brothers, Alphonse of Poitiers and Charles of Anjou, and John of Joinville. As yet, the vast majority of the crusaders remained in captivity.

In adversity’s wake

All Louis IX’s hopes of subjugating Egypt and winning the war for the Holy Land had ended in failure. But in many ways the true and remarkable depth of the French king’s crusading idealism only became apparent after this humiliating defeat. In similar circumstances, shamed by such an unmitigated debacle, many a Christian monarch would have sloped off back to Europe, turning his back on the Near East. Louis did the opposite. Realising that his men would likely remain rotting in Muslim captivity unless he continued to pressure the Egyptian regime for their release, the king chose to remain in Palestine for the next four years.

In this time, Louis served as overlord of Outremer and, by 1252, had secured the liberation of his troops. Working tirelessly, he set about the unglamorous task of bolstering the kingdom of Jerusalem’s coastal defences–overseeing the extensive refortification of Acre, Jaffa, Caesarea and Sidon. He also established a permanent garrison of one hundred Frankish knights in Acre, paid for by the French crown at an annual cost of around 4,000 livres tournois.

Given the ardent self-promotion typical of other crusade leaders–from Richard the Lionheart to Frederick II of Germany–Louis also showed an extraordinary willingness to accept responsibility for the dreadful setbacks experienced in Egypt. The king’s supporters tried their best to transfer the blame to Robert of Artois, emphasising that it had been his advice that led to the march on Mansourah in autumn 1249 and criticising the count’s reckless behaviour on 8 February 1250. But in a letter written in August 1250, Louis himself praised Robert’s bravery, describing him as ‘our very dear and illustrious brother of honoured memory’, and expressing the hope and belief that he had been ‘crowned as a martyr’. In the same document, the king explained the crusade’s failure and his own incarceration as divine punishments, meted out ‘as our sins required’.

Eventually, in April 1254, Louis travelled home to France. His mother Blanche had died two years earlier, and the Capetian realm had become increasingly unstable. The king returned from the Holy Land a changed man, and his later life was marked by extreme piety and austerity–wearing a hair shirt, he ate only meagre rations of the blandest food and engaged in seemingly constant prayer. At one point Louis even considered renouncing his crown and entering a monastery. He also harboured a heartfelt, lingering desire to launch another crusade, thereby, perhaps, to win redemption.

The Egyptian expedition reshaped King Louis’ life, but the events on the Nile also had a wider effect upon Latin Europe. The crusade of 1250 had been carefully planned, financed and supplied; its armies led by a paragon of Christian kingship. And still it had been subjected to an excoriating defeat. After one and a half centuries of almost unbroken failure in the war for the Holy Land, this latest reversal prompted an outpouring of doubt and despair in the West. Some even turned their backs on the Christian faith. In the second half of the thirteenth century–as Outremer’s strength continued to fade and new, seemingly invincible, enemies emerged on to the Levantine stage–the chances of mounting another crusade to the East seemed bleak indeed.

Henry VIII: the pursuit of glory

Henry VIII meets the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1513. The top of the painting shows the battle of the Spurs, in which Henry and Maximilian’s combined forces routed their French foes.

To the young Henry VIII, the pursuit of glory on the battlefield was the key to his achievement of `true majesty’. In a document dated 20 March 1512, Pope Julius II had stripped Louis XII of his title, `Most Christian king of France and of his kingdom’ and offered it to Henry in return for the prosecution of a successful campaign against the French king. This was a rare `carrot’ indeed for a king so eager to emulate the deeds of his illustrious ancestor and namesake, Henry V. Throughout 1512 the royal propagandists sought to present the French king as a usurper of Henry’s rightful claim to the crown of France and the lands of Anjou, Maine, Gascony, Guyenne and Normandy. Early in the year “it was concluded, by the body of the Realme in the high Courte of Parliament assembled, that warre should be made on the Frenche Kyng and his dominions.” The formal declaration of war was delivered in April and, by the end of the month, the English fleet, under the command of Edward Howard, had embarked to raid the French coast.

Lord Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset was appointed to lead the main English army. Dorset was to join up with Ferdinand’s forces and invade Guyenne. It was agreed prior to departure that Ferdinand would supply the English with ordnance, cavalry and carriage for supplies. However, Ferdinand, who had now changed his mind and wanted to attack Navarre before turning to Guyenne, made no such preparations. Dorset’s proposal to attack Bayonne as a base from which to assault Aquitaine was refused. It soon became apparent that Ferdinand simply wished to use the English force to act as a cover for his seizure of the Kingdom of Navarre, which he quickly defeated and annexed. Ferdinand’s failure to follow the agreement laid down before the departure of Henry’s army effectively destroyed any hope of Dorset achieving anything meaningful. In the context of the military history of Henry’s reign, the campaign was relatively insignificant, so much so that Vergil insisted that, “nothing worth recording was done in these parts.” However, considerable sums of money were expunged on the campaign, in a series of payments executed by William Sandes in his role as treasurer of the army. Guyot Heull, Captain of the Almayns was paid for six weeks wages, cloth for coats and “houses,” and total payments for the wages, victuall and other costs incurred in the execution of this minor campaign totaled 80,857li. 17s. 4d.

More symbolic of developments in the rest of Henry’s reign was his manipulation at the hands of an ally with a hidden agenda. Ferdinand’s failure to provide the ordnance and equipment determined in the negotiations before the campaign, and his alteration of the campaign objective, destroyed any hope of success – not simply the quality of the English troops.

The ignominious failure of this campaign did not discourage the young king. By 5 April 1513 he had again committed himself to war “on the part of England, with the Pope, Margaret of Savoy (on behalf of the Emperor) and Ferdinand of Aragon, against Louis XII King of France.” In signing this `Holy League’ Henry committed himself to an invasion of “Aquitaine, Picardy, and Normandy… within two months,” and even Ferdinand’s withdrawal from this great coalition could not discourage Henry from leading his army personally. It was his opinion that “his English subjects were of such high spirits that they tended to fight less willingly and less successfully under any commander other than their king.” Moreover he maintained that:

it behoved him to enter upon his first military experience in so important and difficult a war in order that he might, by a signal start to his martial knowledge, create such fine opinion about his valour among all men that they would clearly understand that his ambition was not merely to equal but indeed to exceed the glorious deeds of his ancestors.

Whether Henry was indeed determined to exceed the deeds of his ancestors, and the extent to which he did so, remain beyond the remit of this thesis. It does however seem clear that the pursuit of glory, through military adventure and more importantly victory, weighed heavily in the mind of Henry VIII. Although Henry fought for tangible gains, diplomatic and territorial, “he also fought in the shadow of his ancestors. for an honourable place in the history of his country.” Indeed, his reign was to end with England at war with Scotland and France: the 1540s saw domestic concerns firmly subordinated to Henry’s pursuit of military renown.

These concerns aside, in 1513, Henry agreed to “cross the sea with 30,000 men,” and offered to negotiate with the Venetians and urge them to peace with the Emperor, so that the Spanish in Italy could turn to attack southern France. The Emperor would attend in person and retain an army of 3,000 horses, 6,000 Swiss and 2,000 Landsknechts, to be paid for by Henry. This represented Henry’s first personal venture onto the battlefields of Europe. In the company of such an auspicious ally, the king was determined that the campaign should be a successful one, so extensive preparations were made. Polydore Vergil claimed that “there had almost never been seen in England so redoubtable an army, whether in the toughness of the soldiers or the excellence of their equipment.” This statement is almost certainly guilty of the same hyperbole that characterises much of Vergil’s chronicle; however, the `Army Royal’ of 1513 was excellently equipped and well organised.  

The forward crossed to Calais in mid-May, followed at the end of the month by Lord Herbert with the rearward. Henry himself arrived with the middle-ward as late as 30 June, by which time both the forward and rearward had departed Calais and encamped at Therouanne. Henry set out from Calais with the `middleward’ on 21 July and “notwithstandyng that the forward and the rerewarde of the kyngs great army were before Tirwyn, the King of his awne battayle made 3 battailles after the fasshion of the warre.”

Whilst in France, the army besieged and destroyed the town of Therouanne and seized Tournai (granted to the English in the peace of 1514 and garrisoned until 1519). They were also victorious in the grandly christened ‘Battle of the Spurs’.

‘Battle of the Spurs’

Occurring on 16 August 1513, during Henry VIII’s first French campaign, the Battle of the Spurs was a running engagement between French and English cavalry before the walls of the besieged French town of Thérouanne. The name derives from the nature of the encounter, which was not a planned, set-piece battle, but a spontaneous pursuit by the English of French cavalry surprised in an attempt to resupply the town’s garrison.

Also known as the Battle of Bomy for the French village nearest the action, the Battle of the Spurs began when French cavalry made a dash for Thérouanne intending to throw sides of bacon to waiting members of the hungry garrison. All went awry when the middle ward of the English army suddenly appeared directly in the path of the Frenchmen. The English deployment appears to have been entirely fortuitous, and not the result of any advance intelligence concerning French intentions. Besides the English cavalry to their front, the French also found themselves assailed on their flanks by a detachment of English archers and a battery of light artillery deployed by Henry’s Imperial ally, Emperor Maximilian I. In danger of being outflanked and encircled, and coming under a galling fire from the archers, the French cavalrymen put spur to horse and fled, discarding weapons and horse armor to facilitate their escape.

Joined by their Burgundian allies, the English cavalry pursued the fleeing enemy across the flat fields of Guingates east of Thérouanne. Desperate French officers tried to turn their men and make a fighting retreat, but only a few Frenchmen under the Chevalier Bayard were able to make a stand before a narrow bridge. Their action did not stem the rout, but it did buy time for the main force to reach safety. Nonetheless, the pursuing allies captured six French standards and a distinguished group of prisoners, including such nobles as the duc de Longueville and the vice admiral of France. Although not much of a battle in military terms, the encounter near Bomy was a glorious triumph for English honor and a marvelous enhancement to the military reputation of the English king. Although later reports said that Henry shared in the glory of pursuing the fleeing foe, he was well to the rear when the skirmish began and is unlikely to have had much of a personal role in it. This fact did not prevent Henry from taking credit for a great victory, which he was shortly thereafter to describe in glowing terms to Archduchess Margaret of Savoy. The surrender of Thérouanne on 22 August added further luster to the Battle of the Spurs, although the encounter soon paled in significance next to the victory over James IV of Scotland won a few weeks later at Flodden Field by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey.

However, the “strategic value of Henry’s gains was negligible,” and the campaign has come in for extensive historical criticism. The Emperor, not Henry, enjoyed “tangible,” strategic advantages “when Therouanne was put out of action and Tournai was occupied by a friendly power.” Henry’s manipulation at the hands of his allies was completed when Ferdinand and Maximilian abandoned plans for a second invasion of France and made a separate peace with Louis XII. By August 1514 Henry had also concluded a peace, which, although outwardly beneficial (allowing him the retention of Tournai, the reinstatement of his French pension and assuring the marriage of his sister, Mary, to Louis), in reality left him with little more than empty coffers and an expensive, isolated outpost.

Battle of Shanhaiguan

Date: May 28, 1644

Location: Shanhaiguan, Hebei Province, northeast China

Opponents: (* winner) *Manzhu and Ming forces Rebels

Commander: Dorgon (Manzhu commander); Wu Sangui (Ming army) Li Zicheng

Approx. # Troops: 60,000 Manzhus; 40,000 Mings 60,000

Importance: Brings establishment of the Qing Dynasty

The Battle of Shanhaiguan (Shanhaikuan, or the Battle of Shanhai Pass) on May 28, 1644, pitted Manzhu (Manchu) and imperial Chinese troops against a force of rebel Chinese. It was the decisive event in the replacement of the Ming dynasty by that of the Qing (Ch’ing).

The Ming period (1368-1644) saw major military and administrative accomplishments and a great flowering in the arts, but by the 17th century the dynasty was under increasing pressure from the Japanese and the Dutch and from rebellions within China, especially by the Manzhu. Descended from the Mongols who had invaded China in the l2th century, the Manzhu in Manchuria had become tributaries to the Ming dynasty.

In 1616 Manzhu leader Nurhachi, after uniting the Jurchen (Nuzhen, Nu-chen) Mongolian tribes, proclaimed a new dynasty, the Later Jin (Chin), at his capital of Liaoyang. For the next decade he waged war against the Ming dynasty, capturing most of southern Manchuria and much of Mongolia. Nurhachi, known by his successors as Emperor Taizu (Ch’ing T’ai-tsu), died in 1626. He was succeeded by his son Huang Taiji (Hung Taiji, sometimes erroneously known in Western literature as Abahai). Huang Taiji ruled during 1626-1643. A highly effective administrator who was also respected for his military abilities, he was also determined to expand the empire.

Huang Taiji established a base in Korea and repeatedly raided into China. He also improved his army’s weapons, adding significant numbers of gunpowder artillery to counter that of the Ming; his cavalry came to be regarded as the best in Asia. In 1634 the Manzhus conquered inner (southern) Mongolia and absorbed large numbers of the inhabitants into their forces.

At the same time, using the justification of nonpayment of tribute and the failure of the Koreans to contribute troops against the Ming, in 1636 Emperor Huang Taiji sent a large army into Korea and the next year compelled the Joseon dynasty to formally renounce the Ming dynasty. During 1636-1644 a series of expeditions established Manzhu control over the Amur River region. In 1636 at Mukden, Huang Taiji proclaimed the establishment of a new imperial dynasty, the Qing, which was merely a renaming of the Later Jin proclaimed by Nurhachi earlier. In 1643, however, Huang Taiji died, possibly at the hands of one of his officials. His five-year-old son Shunzhi (Shun-chih) became emperor (r. 1643-1661), although real authority was exercised by his uncle, Prince Dorgon, as regent.

Meanwhile, from 1635 the Ming dynasty had been further weakened by a number of internal rebellions. The greatest threat came from rebel chieftain Li Zicheng (Li Tzu-ch’eng). In 1640 Li seized control of Henan (Honan) and Shaanxi (Shensi) provinces south and southwest of Beijing, respectively. In 1644 Li moved against the imperial capital of Beijing. Ming emperor Chongzhen (Chu’ung-chen) then recalled two of his frontier armies, including the one at Shanhaiguan commanded by Wu Sangui (Wu San-kuei). Sources differ as to whether Wu refused to come to the aid of the emperor or his forces simply arrived too late; in any case, Li seized control of Beijing on April 25, 1644. Just before the rebel troops took Beijing, Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide.

Wu learned of Emperor Chongzhen’s death while on his way to Beijing and evidently considered surrendering to Li, in part because the rebel had taken Wu’s father hostage. Nevertheless, Wu returned to Shanhaiguan. After pillaging Beijing, on May 18 Li set out after Wu.

Wu meanwhile had decided that he would rather treat with the Manzhus than with Li, so he called on Prince Dorgon to assist him in overthrowing the rebel regime.

Li passed his army of some 100,000 men through Yongping (Yang-p’ing) and almost to Shanhaiguan. Accounts differ as to what happened next, but apparently on May 25, 1644, Wu appealed to Dorgon for immediate assistance. Dorgon promptly responded, arriving at the strategic Shanhai Pass at Shanhaiguan at the eastern end of the Great Wall on the next day with 100,000 men. Li may not have known the true strength of the forces against him until the actual battle on May 28. Had he known that he was confronted by a much larger and more experienced force, he probably would have refused battle. The allies were also aided by a large sandstorm that morning that masked their deployment. The Sino-Manzhu forces probably numbered 50,000 Manzhus and 40,000 Chinese. Wu may have been able to raise upwards of another 80,000 men in local Chinese militia, but there is no proof that they participated in the battle. Li probably commanded something on the order of 60,000 men.

The allies turned the battle when Wu’s veterans attacked the rebel left. Sheer numbers told. Li’s army then fled the field. The allies broke off the pursuit after a dozen miles. Li withdrew to Beijing but had neither the supplies nor the forces to resist a siege. He had himself hastily proclaimed as emperor on June 3 and then executed Wu’s father. Li stripped Beijing bare of supply animals and anything of value and then withdrew the next day, leaving behind a city in flames.

Wu hoped to establish himself as viceroy in a continuation of the Ming dynasty, but Dorgon’s force was simply too powerful. Wu bowed to the inevitable, agreeing to serve the Manzhus. Dorgon gave him the assignment of hunting down Li, which Wu accomplished in 1645, executing Li.

Dorgon moved the Manzhu capital to Beijing and there established the new dynasty of the Qing (1644-1911). The Manzhus adopted most of the Ming administrative system and culture, and the new dynasty became one of the greatest in Chinese history.


Hsu, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Parsons, James Bunyan. Peasant Rebellions of the Late Ming Dynasty. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970.

The End of Braddock’s Life and March

George Washington and the remnants of the two Grenadier companies marched through the night toward Dunbar’s camp. It was not an easy task for the exhausted Washington, who was still weak from his fever. He later wrote: “The shocking Scenes which presented themselves in this Night’s March are not to be described. The dead, the dying, the groans, lamentations, and crys along the Road of the wounded for help . . . were enough to pierce a heart. The gloom and horror of which was not a little encreased by the impervious darkness occasioned by the close shade of thick woods which in places rendered it impossible for the two guides which attended to know when they were in, or out of the track but by groping on the ground with their hands.”

Left on the small rise on the west side of the Monongahela River and with Washington and the remnants of the two Grenadier companies scrambling in desperation back to Col. Dunbar’s [CO 48th of Foot] camp for help, Braddock realized that he and the remaining troops with him were exposed and vulnerable. He therefore ordered an immediate march through the night to try to take them out of striking range of the French and Indians. Covering the same ground as Washington and marching all through the night and next day, they reached Gist’s plantation at ten o’clock the next night.

Although unknown to Braddock or even Washington, the wagoneers who had cut loose their horses and fled during the battle had galloped into Dunbar’s camp early on the morning of July 10 1755 with fragmentary news of the defeat. The names of these dubious mercuries were Michael Houber, Jacob Novre, and Matthew Laird—to judge from the German names of the first two wagoneers, some of Franklin’s Pennsylvania teamsters. Dunbar immediately sent up supplies to the retreating soldiers. From Dunbar’s camp, riders or perhaps a runaway wagoneer carried the news to Fort Cumberland. Charlotte Browne wrote “It is not possible to describe the Distraction of the poor Women for their Husbands.” It was not long before the news was seeping throughout all the Middle Atlantic colonies, carried by post riders from town to town and tavern to tavern. Slaves also reportedly played a major role in disseminating the news in the southern colonies, as they visited neighboring plantations to court their lovers in the dark. Indeed, one of the first thoughts to strike the southern leaders was that the defeat might lead to a rebellion by the slaves. Dinwiddie wrote shortly after the defeat: “The negro slaves have been very audacious on the news of the defeat on the Ohio. These poor creatures imagine the French will give them their freedom. We have too many here; but I hope we shall be able to keep them in proper subjection.”

After sleeping the night at Gist’s plantation, the retreating column resumed its march, retracing its steps through the line of encampments that had marked its westward march only days before. From Gist’s, on Braddock’s orders, deposits of flour were left along the road for any stragglers who might need food. Several men who subsequently made it into camp said they would have died had it not been for the wounded Braddock’s presence of mind, not to mention attention to detail under duress, in leaving the flour. The batman recorded that “This day there was a wounded Soldier Came up who says there was seven more Came from the place of the Ingagement together but they all dyed on the Roade and he says there was several dead as he marched along, he not being Able when Arrv’d here hardly to speeke for want of Nourishment, he living on Raw flower and water when he Came to it, which was left for them.”

On Friday, July 11, the column reached Dunbar’s camp. Braddock, carried in a litter because he could not tolerate the pain caused by a jarring wagon, was still in charge and issuing orders. The next day he tried to restore at least minimal structure to the mauled band by having the troops parade at the evening retreat at the head of their respective regiments and companies. His first thought, however, was to provide for the wounded, ordering that they be placed in wagons for the continuation of the retreat.

Then came the most controversial decision. The same day the army, under Braddock’s order and Dunbar’s execution, destroyed or buried all its ammunition and provisions in order to free up more wagons to transport the wounded. They smashed and buried more than fifteen hundred artillery projectiles and shells, as well as cannon balls, muskets, bullets, and even the pioneers’ axes and tools. The soldiers destroyed the remaining artillery, keeping only two 6-pounders. They stove in casks with 50,000 pounds of gunpowder and poured them into a spring. The horses were dying so fast that the soldiers burned one hundred wagons for lack of horses to pull them and to keep them out of enemy hands. The intent was to strip the army of encumbrances for a faster retreat.

What was remarkable about the decision was that the army was not even being chased. The drunken French and Indians had failed to pursue the fleeing British and Americans. The garrison at Fort Duquesne was actually fearful that Dunbar’s troops would reunite with the survivors from the battlefield and advance on the fort. In fact, what was left of Braddock’s army, survivors and baggage train alike, was fleeing pell-mell from nothing.

Altogether, the value of the hastily destroyed equipment was significant, perhaps in excess of £300,000. Dunbar destroyed stores that had been assembled over the course of months in London and Ireland and shipped across the Atlantic and which would have been invaluable for the defense of the frontier had the army stood rather than fled.

A persistent rumor later arose that the contents of the pay chest, up to £25,000 in gold coins, were poured into the barrel of a cannon and buried. Treasure hunters have searched for it ever since. Equally likely, the pay chest never left Fort Cumberland or, if it did, was looted by the French or Indians on the battlefield, along with the general’s papers, including the diagram of Fort Duquesne and all the Anglo-American plans for the assaults on Fort Niagara and other northern French positions, which was an even greater loss. In any event, the destruction of the supplies later drew intense criticism from those who like to second-guess decisions made in the field. Perhaps the only bonus from the abandoning of provisions was a sudden influx of food into the soldiers’ hands. The batman got six or eight hams, the most that he could carry on his horse.

Still fearful of pursuit by the enemy, the officers resumed the tight line of march, complete with pickets and sentries, on Sunday, July 13, as they retraced their steps over Chestnut Ridge toward the Great Meadows. However, Braddock’s strength was waning. Carried in his litter along the march, he grew increasingly silent except to give the necessary occasional orders. He knew his loss was utter and his reputation in shreds. He retreated into himself as much as to Fort Cumberland. He fell silent for hours at a time, muttering only several times as evening fell that Sunday, “Who would have thought it?”

As his life slowly slipped from his body, he turned to the severely wounded Lieutenant Robert Orme, aide-de-camp to Braddock and said, “We shall better know how to deal with them another time.” These were his last words. He died at eight in the evening on Sunday, July 13.

The next morning the remaining officers who could still walk buried Braddock, with military honors, in two blankets and a crude “coffin” fashioned of pieces of bark. Washington later wrote that he had officiated at the burial. They buried the general in the middle of the road that his pioneers had cut only days before on the eastern slope of Chestnut Ridge, not far from Jumonville and the Great Meadows. The gravesite was just yards from a small creek as the road began to rise toward the top of a hill. Then they ordered all the wagons and soldiers to march over and obscure Braddock’s gravesite to protect his body from desecration by the Indians. The Indians subsequently did try to find Braddock’s grave in order to dig him up and scalp him. But they never succeeded.

Before he died, Braddock gave Washington his war horse and the services of his cook Bishop, who in fact served Washington for many years afterward as major domo at Mount Vernon. Either before or after Braddock’s death, Washington also obtained the general’s sash, leopard skin saddle pad, and one or both of his pistols.

The retreat to Fort Cumberland continued without delay, with Dunbar now in command. The condition of the wounded grew worse. Maggots began to infest their wounds in the heat. A full accounting of the dead, wounded, and surviving was not undertaken until July 15, when the army reached camp on the east side of the Youghiogheny. On the 16th, they reached the Little Meadows in the rain. They made Fort Cumberland the next day. The surgeons immediately went to work on the wounded, removing “many Sluggs & other ragged pieces of lead” from those who had not died en route. Many of the balls were identified by their caliber as being British, further evidence of the devastating effect of “friendly fire” throughout the engagement.

At the fort, the officers, wounded and well, penned dispatches to their superiors. Orme, though much weakened by the wound to his thigh and able only to dictate, composed letters to Napier, Fox, and Dinwiddie on the 18th. Washington also wrote Dinwiddie, as well as his brother, the same day. St. Clair, though wounded, wrote to Commodore Keppel. All of these letters described the “unhappy affair,” as Orme put it, albeit from differing angles.

The finger-pointing and recriminations had started. Orme, in his report to Napier, was careful to protect the reputation of His Excellency, while blaming the disorder of the enlisted men, and to a lesser degree St. Clair, for the disaster. Other officers, wrote Orme to Dinwiddie, “were sacrificed by their unparalleled good behaviour.” Orme commended the conduct of the Virginia officers (but not Washington by name) to Dinwiddie: “I have the pleasure to acquaint you that Captain Polson (who was killed) and his company behaved extremely well, as did Captain Stuart and his light horse, who I must beg leave to recommend to your protection and to desire you will be so kind to use your best endeavors to serve him as he has lost by the death of the general the rewards he really deserved by his gallant and faithful attendance on him.” In fact, Captain Stewart had two horses shot out from under him, and separate balls grazed his brow and forehead and another shot away his sword and scabbard. His Virginia light horse lost twenty-five of its twenty-nine members killed.

Orme concluded: “As the whole of the Artillery is lost and the Terror of the Indian remaining so strongly in the men’s minds, as also the Troops being extremely weakened by Deaths, Wounds and Sickness, it was judged impossible to make any further attempts; therefore Col. Dunbar is returning to Fort Cumberland [behind 1,200 men with the wounded and artillery who arrived the 17th], with everything he is able to bring along with him. I propose remaining here till my wound will suffer me to remove to Philadelphia, from thence I shall make all possible Dispatch to England.”

Orme’s letter to Fox was different, however. It stands out from the others. First, Braddock expressly ordered him to write it on the day before he died, a point made clear in the opening sentence of the letter. Second, although Fox was Secretary at War and properly might have had an interest in the outcome of the battle, Fox was also a close friend of George Anne Bellamy. The letter thus was also possibly intended for her consumption. Third, Braddock dictated to Orme most of the content of the letter. It describes the action in only the most cursory terms, at least in comparison to the letters to Napier and Dinwiddie. It mentions the conduct on the battlefield of only two officers: Burton (Bellamy’s “darling friend”) and Braddock. The thrust of the letter was to report on these two officers (in fact, Burton’s bravery and role in the battle had arguably been secondary to those of Halkett and Gage, among others). The letter reports the mortal wound of Braddock and sums up the brief description of the battle by stating: “I had the Generals Order to Inform You, Sir, that the behavior of the Officers deserved the very Highest Commendation.” Braddock wanted Fox, and possibly by extension Bellamy, to know that he died as an officer in the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards. This parting sentence summarizes much about Braddock’s character and system of values. The final sentence of the letter reports the wounds suffered by Morris and Orme and the death of Shirley and states “all the papers are lost.” At one level, this ostensibly refers to the military plans that were lost to the French. At another level, it also might mean personal correspondence between Braddock and Bellamy, if such existed. Perhaps it refers to both. The fact that Braddock, knowing he was dying, would order Orme to write such a letter, which he probably knew would ultimately arrive in the hands of George Anne Bellamy, suggests that their relationship was indeed close.

In contrast, Washington’s dispatch to Dinwiddie focused, not unnaturally, on the conduct of the Virginia troops. “The Officers in gen’l behavd with incomparable bravery, for which they greatly suffer’d. . . . The Virginia companies behav’d like Men and died like Soldiers; for I believe that out of 3 companys that were on the ground that day, scarce 30 were left alive . . . the dastardly behavior of the Regular troops (so called) (English soldier) expos’d all those who were inclin’d to do their duty to almost certain Death; and at length, in spite of every effort to the contrary, broke and ran as Sheep before the Hounds. . . . Col. Dunbar, who commands at present, intends as soon as his men are recruited at this place, to continue his march to Phila. into Winter Quarters, so that there will be no Men left here, unless it is the poor remains of the Virginia troops, who survive and will be too small to guard our frontiers.” Washington himself limped back to Mount Vernon to recover from his illness and the exhaustion of the campaign.

In camp at Fort Cumberland, the rote of military life reasserted itself, but this time tainted by blame, especially by the officers of the common soldiers. A court-martial was convened, and fifty-six prisoners were tried for their conduct during the engagement, most probably for cowardice or desertion. On Monday, July 28, mass floggings were carried out against the enlisted men. On August 1, Dunbar received a letter from Commodore Keppel asking that the surviving seamen (only five of them were not killed or wounded) return to Hampton. On August 3, they left the army and proceeded down through Virginia, where they ultimately boarded the HMS Garland at Hampton for the long voyage home.

Dinwiddie wanted Dunbar to remain at Fort Cumberland and make another attempt to take Fort Duquesne. However, a council of war decided that the scheme was not feasible in light of the overwhelming losses suffered. On August 2, Dunbar marched from Fort Cumberland for Philadelphia. For this decision, for his hasty retreat, and for destroying the artillery and supplies, Dunbar immediately began to attract criticism.

Orme attacked St. Clair as well. Writing to Washington, with whom he remained on friendly terms, Orme stated: “I know the ignorant and rascally C____ D____ [Colonel Dunbar] is one promoter [of criticism of Braddock] through resentment and malevolence and the thick headed baronet [St. Clair] another, intending to build his character upon the ruins of one much more amiable than his can be. For my part I judge it a duty to vindicate the memory of a man whom I greatly and deservedly esteemed. . . . It is very hard the bluntness and openness of a man’s temper should be called brutality and that he who would hear opinions more freely than any man should be accused of obstinacy and peremptoriness.”

St. Clair also must have gotten wind of Orme’s finger-pointing early on, for on July 22, he wrote another report to Napier which detailed his repeated attempts to warn Braddock of the danger, to reunite the two columns into one more powerful force and, once the battle was on, to urge Braddock to take the high ground, most of which initiatives the general had brushed aside. He told Napier that even if the British had won the battle, he was determined to ask leave to be recalled, “finding I could be of little use being never listen’d to.”

Gage reported to Napier on why the common soldiers fought so badly, blaming it on the American locals: “no officers ever behaved better, or men worse. I can’t ascribe their behavior to any other cause than the talk of the country people, ever since our arrival in America—the woodsmen and Indian traders, who were continually telling the soldiers, that if they attempted to fight the Indians in a regular manner, they would certainly be defeated. These discourses were prevented as much as possible, and the men in appearance seemed to shew a thorough contempt for such an enemy; but I fear they gained too much upon them. I have since talked to the soldiers about their scandalous behavior, and the only excuse I can get from them is, that they were quite dispirited, from the great fatigue they had undergone, and not receiving a sufficient quantity of food; and further that they did not expect the enemy would come down so suddenly.”

Orme’s accusations in particular next assumed the form of public letters as he retreated to Philadelphia to recuperate from his wound before embarking for England in November. The colonial press picked up his accusations and magnified them. As early as August 30, Gates, back in New York, responded that “there has not been one true account publish’d as yet a great deal of pro & con in the news papers and yesterday Col. Gage and the officers of the Van Guard contradicted Captn: Orme’s publick letter by an advertisement which you will see in the Philadelphia Gazette. A few who were the General’s favourites gratefully strive to save his fame by throwing the misfortune of the day on the bad behaviour of the troops, but that was not the case.”

News of the defeat reached London in late August via the frigate HMS Seahorse, which raced homeward from Virginia carrying Commodore Keppel. The news was greeted by a mixture of shock and langor. Most of the aristocracy were in the country enjoying the late summer holidays and the start of the shooting season. Besides, given the pace at which armies and news moved in the eighteenth century, the war had for months been out of sight and out of mind. It was no longer popular. The government held no high-level inquiry, perhaps because the defeat was too embarrassing. Cumberland, the godfather of the expedition, was also the son of the king and may well not have wanted an inquiry. The attitude in London is perhaps best summed up by Walpole’s remark: “Braddock’s defeat still remains in the situation of the longest battle that ever was fought with nobody.”

Nonetheless, Braddock, being dead, of course came in for the most criticism. One British officer who participated in the action wrote: “In the time of the Action, the General behaved with a great deal of Personal Courage, which every body must allow—but that’s all what Can be said—he was a Man of Sense and good natur’d too tho’ Warm and a little uncouth in his manner—and Peevish—with all very indolent and sem’d glad for any body to take business off his hands, which may be one reason why he was so grossly imposed upon, by his favourite [Orme]—who realy Directed every thing and may justly be said to’ve Commanded the Expedition and the Army.”

Scaroyady also had an acerbic assessment: “It was the pride and ignorance of that General that came from England. He looked upon us as dogs, and would never hear anything what was said to him. We often tried to tell him of the danger he was in with his soldiers, but he never appeared pleased with us, and that was the reason that a great many of our warriors left him and would not be under his command.”

Franklin rendered a more balanced judgment in his Autobiography: “This General was, I think, a brave man, and might probably have made a figure as a good officer in some European war. But he had too much self-confidence, too high an opinion of the validity of regular troops, and too mean a one of both Americans and Indians.”

But Washington offered what is perhaps the truest assessment of Braddock, both as a commander and as a man: “Thus died a man, whose good and bad qualities were intimately blended. He was brave even to a fault and in regular Service would have done honor to his profession. His attachments were warm, his enmities were strong, and having no disguise about him, both appeared in full force. He was generous and disinterested, but plain and blunt in his manner even to rudeness.”

Thus, His Excellency Major General Edward Braddock remains one of those simple people fated to leave behind a complex, mixed reputation because of their very limitations. There can be little question that his struggle to overcome adversity, as well as his personal behavior on the battlefield, did “deserve the highest commendation.”

At the end of the day, Braddock was done in not only by his French and Indian enemies but also by a confluence of adverse circumstances: formidable geography, almost nonexistent intelligence, colonial assemblies which would not pay, colonial governors who dissembled, Americans who failed to provide logistical support, Americans with their own agendas, Quakers who did not lift a finger, Indian allies who failed to materialize, bad weather, drunken and ill-humored troops, and conniving staff officers. Braddock never stood a chance.

However, neither judgments on Braddock’s character nor his staff’s efforts to assign and avoid blame were of account to the inhabitants of the Middle Atlantic colonies. By August 1755, with Dunbar marching to Philadelphia at the head of the surviving troops and a skeleton force of Virginians holding Fort Cumberland, the frontier lay open to hordes of pro-French Indians sallying forth from Canada and Fort Duquesne. By mid-August, colonial reconnaissance patrols had reported four to five hundred Indians and French at Great Meadows. In response, Fort Cumberland prepared for a siege and transferred its hospital, including Nurse Charlotte Browne, to Frederick, Maryland. The Virginia House of Burgesses voted £40,000 to increase Virginia troop levels to twelve hundred, and Dinwiddie commissioned Washington as colonel of the reactivated Virginia Regiment.

Within three months of Braddock’s defeat, the entire frontier was aflame with French and Indian attacks, which came to be known simply as “the Outrages.” Thousands of families abandoned their homes and farms and fled back into the Piedmont and Tidewater, terrified. So severe were the depredations that it was said that no English settlers would be left west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. With Fort Cumberland all but abandoned, the new frontier line was drawn at Frederick, Maryland. Raids penetrated to within a hundred miles of Philadelphia. Perhaps fifteen hundred settlers were murdered and many more taken captive. According to one estimate, the frontier counties of the three middle Atlantic colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania lost between a third and a half of their populations between 1755 and 1758, with some four percent of their prewar inhabitants murdered or captured. The French and their Indian allies killed civilians, women and children indiscriminately. They gloated at the sufferings of their victims. The impact on the psyche of Americans at the time was devastating.

Moreover, there was a premeditation to the Outrages that chilled the soul. One large raid in Pennsylvania consisted of 1,400 Indians and French divided into scalping parties of forty each. A week before, they had sent out numerous small scouting parties. The attack groups were targeted on carefully chosen settlements on the Pennsylvania frontier, such as Shamokin, Juniata, and Harris’s Ferry (today’s Harrisburg), until the whole frontier was blanketed. Each party thoroughly scouted its target for several days, and then all attacks were launched at the same time to achieve complete surprise.

Like other aspects of the Braddock expedition, the horrors of the Outrages can only be comprehended by peeking into the lives of common people long buried by history. Two lives will suffice.

The consequences of Braddock’s defeat came home to Thomas Jemison on his prosperous farm near Gettysburg. Jemison and his family had lived in central Pennsylvania for a dozen years after emigrating from Ireland. He was concerned about the Indian depredations, but none had taken place as far east as Gettysburg. He believed that if he could get safely through one more year the Anglo-American forces would drive the Indians back. (He had lost a brother serving under Washington at Fort Necessity.)

One morning he and his wife and six children were sitting down to breakfast with a visiting family of neighbors. Twelve-year-old Mary later recalled that “Father was shaving an axe-helve at the side of the house; mother was making preparations for breakfast; my two older brothers were at work near the barn; and the little ones, with myself, and the [neighbor] woman and her three children, in the house.” The neighbor had just left on horseback for some supplies.

There was a sudden, appalling crash of gunfire, a glimpse of the neighbor and his horse lying dead in the yard, and then a rush of bronze bodies. ‘They first secured my father, and then rushed into the house, and without the least resistance made prisoners’ of them all. The raiders, ‘six Indians and four Frenchmen,’ grabbed all the food they could carry and, ‘in great haste, for fear of detection,’ drove the little herd of frightened humanity into the woods. All day long they hurried westward, the captives offered nothing to eat or drink. ‘Whenever the little children cried for water, the Indians would make then drink urine or go thirsty.’ That night they slept, hungry, exhausted and afraid, on the ground, and before dawn were forced to march on. They were given some breakfast at dawn, and some supper that night when they camped in a swamp.

After supper the Shawnees tore the shoes from Mary’s feet and replaced them with moccasins, and did the same for one of the neighbor boys. Mary’s mother knew what that meant and hugged her, urging her to be brave and careful, to remember her English and her prayers. Her father could not speak; he had been ‘sunk in silent despair’ since the attack. The Shawnees led the two children away from the rest of the captives, whom they then tomahawked, scalped and dismembered. Mary was spared the sights and sounds of the killings, but the next day was forced to watch as the warriors stretched, cleaned and cured the scalps. ‘My mother’s hair was red, and I could easily distinguish my father’s and the children’s from each other.’

Mary was adopted by a Seneca family at Logstown, married to a Delaware warrior, widowed in a Cherokee raid, and later moved to western New York’s Genesee River country, where she chose to spend the rest of her eight decades of life as a Seneca wife, mother of eight, and matron.

Or the case of Jacob Fisher:

1758 was the worst year yet. The outrages resumed along Mill Creek, near Woodstock [Virginia], when fifty Shawnees and four Frenchmen surrounded a congregation of several families seeking refuge in George Painter’s large log house. When Painter tried a desperate run for help, they shot him down in the yard. The others surrendered, hoping in vain for mercy.

The warriors fired the house and tossed George Painter’s body into the flames. They burned the barn and laughed at the screams of the burning animals trapped inside. They snatched four babies from their mothers’ arms, strung them up in trees, and used them for target practice until they dangled, quiet and bloody, before the horrified eyes of the families. Then they drove forty-eight surviving prisoners, men, women and children, on a hellish, six-day march over the western mountains to their village.

There, after consultation with the matrons, they told Jacob Fisher, a pudgy twelve year-old, to gather a large pile of dry wood. He burst into tears. “They’re going to burn me, father,” he sobbed.

“I hope not, son, do as they say,” said the helpless father. Jacob, weeping, brought the wood, which the warriors and the women arranged in a circle around a sapling. They tied the howling Jacob to the sapling with a long rope cinched to his wrist and set the wood afire. Then, while Jacob’s father and brothers watched, the Shawnees poked him with sharpened sticks, forcing him to run around the sapling, first winding himself tight to it, then spiralling outward, into and out of the flames. It took him hours and hours to die.

Three years earlier, soon after the defeat of Braddock, and as the Outrages were just starting, Captain Charles Lewis of the Virginia Volunteers happened upon a similar scene of scalping and massacre of innocent women and children. He wrote in his journal: “This horrid scene gave us a terrible shock, but I hope with the leave of God we shall still overcome the cruel, barbarous and inhuman enemy.”

Braddock’s march was the opening chapter in a long and complicated struggle for the continent of North America. Three years after Braddock’s defeat another general, John Forbes, battling fatal cancer and carried in a litter along a different route, captured the citadel of French power on the Forks of the Ohio and stopped the Outrages, but not before many more Americans, Scots Highlanders, and Englishmen died and had their heads impaled before the ramparts of Fort Duquesne.

But that is another story.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands I

The night was clear and the visibility exceptional even at two in the morning when officers on Scharnhorst’s bridge first made out the dark masses of the Falkland Islands on the northern horizon. The early summer dawn three hours later promised a rare, cloudless day, the first in weeks. At 5:30 a.m., Admiral von Spee signaled Gneisenau and Nürnberg to leave the squadron and proceed to reconnoiter Port Stanley. The admiral, with Scharnhorst, Dresden, and Leipzig, would remain to the south, while his three colliers waited off Port Pleasant, a bay twenty miles southwest of Port Stanley. As the sun came up, Captain Maerker and Commander Hans Pochhammer of Gneisenau got a better look at the coast, whose capes, bays, and hills they identified with the aid of compass, binoculars, and maps. On deck, a landing party was assembling; Pochhammer looked down from the bridge at the men in white gaiters carrying rifles, one oddly bringing his gas mask. As promised, the summer morning was near perfect: the sea was calm, with only a slight breeze from the northwest gently rippling the surface; the sky was high, clear, and azure. Port Stanley was hidden from the south by a range of low hills, but by seven o’clock, as they came closer, Maerker and Pochhammer could see their first target, the radio mast on Hooker’s Point. They also noticed, near the place where the Cape Pembroke lighthouse stood at the tip of a sandy, rock-strewn peninsula, a thin column of smoke. It appeared to rise from the funnel of a ship.

The British squadron began to coal early that summer morning. By 4:30 a.m., the collier Trelawny was secured to the port side of Invincible and at 5:30 a.m. all hands had been summoned to begin coaling. By two hours later, when the crew was piped to breakfast, 400 tons had been taken aboard. Coaling never resumed that day. Just after 7:30 a.m., a civilian lookout in the observation post on Sapper Hill saw two columns of smoke on the southwestern horizon. He raised his telescope, then picked up his telephone and reported to Canopus: “A four-funnel and a two-funnel man of war in sight steering northwards.” (Nürnberg had three funnels, but because of the angle of the approaching ship, the spotter missed one.)

At 7:45 a.m., Canopus received the Sapper Hill message. Because there was no land line between the grounded Canopus and Sturdee’s flagship in the outer harbor, Captain Grant could not pass along the message by telephone. And because Invincible was out of sight, hidden from him by intervening hills, he could not signal visually. Glasgow, however, was anchored in a place from which she could see both Canopus and Invincible. Accordingly, Canopus hoisted the signal “Enemy in sight.” Glasgow saw it and, at 7:56 a.m., Luce raised the same flags on his own mast. There was no response from Invincible, busy coaling and surrounded by a haze of coal dust. Impatiently, Luce, still in his pajamas, snapped at his signal officer, “Well, for God’s sake, do something. Fire a gun, send a boat, don’t stand there like a stuffed dummy.” The firing of a saluting gun and its report echoing through the harbor attracted attention. By training a powerful searchlight on Invincible’s bridge, Glasgow passed the message. Meanwhile, Luce said to his intelligence officer, “ ‘Mr. Hirst, go to the masthead and identify those ships.’ Halfway up,” Hirst said, “I was able to report, ‘Scharnhorst or Gneisenau with a light cruiser.’ ”

Spee had achieved complete surprise. Sturdee, not imagining the possibility of any threat to his squadron, had made minimal arrangements for its security. The armed merchant cruiser Macedonia was slowly patrolling outside the mouth of the harbor. The armored cruiser Kent, assigned to relieve Macedonia and the only warship that could get up full steam at less than two hours’ notice, was anchored in Port William. Invincible, Inflexible, Carnarvon, and Cornwall also were anchored in Port William; Bristol and Glasgow were in the inner harbor where Canopus was grounded. By eight o’clock, only Carnarvon and Glasgow had completed coaling and Carnarvon’s decks still were stacked with sacks of coal. Kent, Cornwall, Bristol, and Macedonia had not yet begun to replenish their bunkers; they would fight that day with what remained from Abrolhos. Bristol had closed down her fires for boiler cleaning and opened up both engines for repairs, and Cornwall had one engine under repair. In Cornwall’s wardroom, her officers, many already in civilian clothes, were breakfasting on kippers, marmalade, toast, and tea and making plans for a day of shooting hares and partridges on the moors behind the town.

The sound of Glasgow’s gun found Admiral Sturdee in the act of shaving. An officer raced to the admiral’s quarters, burst in, and announced that the Germans had arrived. Later, Sturdee was reported to have replied, “Send the men to breakfast.” After the war, Sturdee gave his own version of the moment: “He [Spee] came at a very convenient hour because I had just finished dressing and was able to give orders to raise steam at full speed and go down to a good breakfast.” It was said of Sturdee that “no man ever saw him rattled.” Nevertheless, while the admiral may have been pleased by the luck that had brought the enemy so obligingly to his doorstep, he may also have wondered whether perhaps the greater luck was on Spee’s side. The situation of the British squadron was awkward; Kent was the only warship ready to fight. It was possible that Spee might boldly approach Port Stanley harbor with his entire squadron and unleash a storm of 8.2-inch shells into the crowd of ships at anchor. In the confined space of the harbor, some British ships would mask the fire of others and Sturdee would be unable to bring more than a fraction of his superior armament to bear. Accurate salvos from Scharnhorst and Gneisenau might damage, even cripple, the battle cruisers. Even once the British ships raised steam, Spee still might stand off the harbor entrance and subject each vessel to a hail of shells or a volley of torpedoes as it emerged. With these apprehensions in every mind, all eyes were on the flagship to learn what steps Sturdee intended to take.

At 8:10, signal flags soared up Invincible’s halyards. Kent, the duty guard ship, was ordered to weigh anchor immediately and proceed out through the mine barrier to protect Macedonia and keep the enemy under observation. The battle cruisers were told to cast off their colliers so as to leave themselves freer to fire even while they were still at anchor. All ships were ordered to raise steam and report when they were ready to proceed at 12 knots. Carnarvon was to clear for action, to sail as soon as possible, and to “engage the enemy as they come around the corner” of Cape Pembroke. Canopus was to open fire as soon as Gneisenau and Nürnberg were within range. Macedonia, unfit for battle against warships, was ordered to return to harbor. Having issued his orders, Sturdee went to breakfast.

At 8:20 a.m., the observation station on Sapper Hill reported more smoke on the southwestern horizon. At 8:47, Canopus’s fire control station reported that the first two ships observed were now only eight miles off and that the new smoke appeared to be coming from three additional ships about twenty miles off. Meanwhile, bugles on all the ships in the harbor were sounding “Action,” the crews were busy casting off the colliers, smoke was pouring from many funnels, and the anchorage was covered with black haze. The engine room staffs aboard Cornwall and Bristol hurried to reassemble their dismantled machinery.

Sturdee’s breakfast was short. He was on deck at 8:45 a.m. to see Kent moving down the harbor to take up station beyond the lighthouse. “As we got near the harbor entrance,” said one of Kent’s officers, “I could see the smoke from two ships on our starboard over a low-lying ridge of sand.” It would be another hour before the battle cruisers and Carnarvon could weigh anchor, and still longer before Cornwall and Bristol were ready.

At the Admiralty, few details were known and the worst was feared. At 5:00 p.m. London time, Churchill was working in his room when Admiral Oliver, now Chief of Staff, entered with a message from the governor of the Falkland Islands: “Admiral Spee arrived at daylight this morning with all his ships and is now in action with Admiral Sturdee’s whole fleet which was coaling.” “These last three words sent a shiver up my spine,” said Churchill. “Had we been taken by surprise and, in spite of our superiority, mauled, unready, at anchor? ‘Can it mean that?’ I said to the Chief of Staff. ‘I hope not,’ was all he said.”

“As we approached,” said the commander of Gneisenau, “signs of life began to appear. Here and there behind the dunes, columns of dark yellow smoke began to ascend . . . as if stores [of coal] were being burned to prevent them falling into our hands. In any case, we had been seen, for among the mastheads which could be distinguished here and there through the smoke, two now broke away and proceeded slowly east towards the lighthouse. . . . There was no longer any doubt that warships were hidden behind the land. . . . We thought we could make out first two, then four, then six ships . . . and we wirelessed this news to Scharnhorst.”

The Germans, up to this point, had little premonition of serious danger. Then Gneisenau’s gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Johann Busche, staring through his binoculars from the spotting top on the foremast, believed that he saw something ominous: tripod masts. When he reported this to the bridge, Captain Maerker curtly dismissed the observation. Tripod masts meant dreadnoughts, Busche was told, and there were no dreadnoughts in the South Atlantic. Maerker continued to take Gneisenau and Nürnberg closer to their initial bombardment position four miles southwest of Cape Pembroke. He did not bother to pass Busche’s report along to Admiral von Spee.

As Gneisenau and Nürnberg drew closer, the 12-inch guns of Canopus, invisible to the German ships, were being elevated and trained on them by guidance from the shore observation post. When Maerker’s two ships were near Wolf’s Rock, six miles short of Cape Pembroke, they slowed their engines, turned, and glided to the northeast, swinging around to present their port broadsides to the wireless station. But Canopus, sitting on her mudbank, spoke first. As soon as her gunnery officer, ashore in the observa-tion post, judged the range to be down to 11,000 yards, he gave the signal. At 9:20 a.m., both 12-inch guns in the battleship’s forward turret fired. The reverberating roar shook the town and the harbor and produced shrill cries from circling flocks of seabirds. The shots fell short, but the Germans hoisted their battle flags, turned, and made away to the southeast. As they did so, Canopus tried again with another salvo at 12,000 yards. Again the shots were short, but this time by less, and some observers believed that one of the shells ricocheted, sending fragments into the base of a funnel on Gneisenau. With the Germans moving out of range, Canopus had played her part. She had saved the wireless station, the anchored ships, and the town from bombardment, and had provided Sturdee’s squadron with time to leave the harbor. Captain Grant ordered a cease-fire.

Captain Maerker had just signaled Spee that Gneisenau was about to open fire when he received a shock. Without warning, two gigantic mushrooms of water, each 150 feet high, rose out of the sea a thousand yards to port. This was heavy-caliber gunfire, although the guns themselves could not be seen. Immediately, Maerker hoisted his battle ensigns and turned away, but not before a second salvo spouted up 800 yards short of his ship. Before abandoning his mission, Maerker considered a final attempt to harm the enemy. The first British cruiser coming out of the harbor was recognized as a County-class ship (it was Kent) and Maerker, believing that she was trying to escape, increased speed to cut her off outside the entrance to Port William. Scarcely had he settled on a closing course, however, when he received a signal from Scharnhorst. This was not the unopposed landing Spee had planned. He had no wish to engage British armored cruisers or old battleships with 12-inch guns and he ordered Maerker to suspend operations and rejoin the flagship: “Do not accept action. Concentrate on course east by south. Proceed at full speed.” Spee retreated because, although he now knew that a 12-inch-gun ship or ships were present, he was certain that they were old battleships that his squadron could easily outrun. Maerker turned and made off at high speed toward the flagship twelve miles away.

By 9:45 a.m., Glasgow had come out of the harbor and joined Kent. The light cruiser’s captain, John Luce, carrying memories of Coronel, was eager to attack the Germans by himself, but he was ordered to remain out of range, trail the enemy, and keep Admiral Sturdee informed. At 9:50 a.m., the rest of the squadron weighed anchor and proceeded down the harbor. First came Carnarvon with Stoddart aboard, then Inflexible, Invincible, and Cornwall; only Bristol, still reassembling her engines, and Macedonia were left behind. At 10:30 a.m., as the last of the line of British ships cleared the Cape Pembroke lighthouse, five retreating plumes of smoke could be seen on the southwestern horizon. Three hours had passed since the enemy first came in sight, and Sturdee could be thankful for the fine weather. Had there been fog or mist, he might have had less than half an hour’s notice of Spee’s arrival. Instead, the sun was shining from a blue, cloudless sky, and a light northwesterly breeze scarcely ruffled the sea: ideal conditions for a long-range action. Everyone on both sides who survived the battle recalled the extraordinary weather: “The visibility of the fresh, calm atmosphere surpassed everything in the experience of sailors,” recalled Pochhammer of Gneisenau. “It was a perfect day,” wrote an officer on Inflexible, “very rare in these latitudes and it was a beautiful sight . . . when the British ships came around the point and all flags (we had five ensigns flying to make sure not all should be shot away) with the sun on them.” Aboard Invincible, a sublieutenant was “struck by the magnificent weather conditions and, seizing my camera, climbed up the mast into the main top. The air was biting cold as I . . . stood and watched the enemy . . . away to the southwest, five triangles of smoke on the horizon. It was a brilliant sunny day, visibility at its very maximum. And there they were, the squadron that we thought would keep us hunting the seas for many weary months . . . providentially delivered into our hands.”

The battle cruisers, their speed climbing to 25 knots, crept inexorably to the head of the line, passing Carnarvon, overtaking Kent, then alone with only Glasgow before them. From the flagship’s bridge, Sturdee, watching the smoke from the five fleeing ships, knew that, barring some wholly unforeseen circumstance, Spee was at his mercy. His force was superior; Invincible and Inflexible, just out of dry dock, could steam at 25 knots; Spee’s armored cruisers, after five months at sea, would be fortunate to manage 20. Thus, Sturdee could bring Spee’s armored cruisers within range of his 12-inch guns in less than three hours and then would have six hours before sunset to complete their destruction. The weather was beyond his control, but so far there was nothing to indicate any change in the prevailing near perfect conditions. Up Invincible’s halyard soared the signal “General Chase.”

Lieutenant Hirst of Glasgow afterward recalled: “No more glorious moment in the war do I remember than when the flagship hoisted the signal ‘General Chase.’ . . . Fifteen miles to the eastward lay the same ships which we had fought at Coronel and which had sent brave Admiral Cradock and our comrades to their death.” Glasgow, out in front and off to the side, had a splendid view of the British battle cruisers as they charged ahead, their bows cleaving the calm, blue sea with white bow waves curling away, their sterns buried under the water boiling in their wakes, their 12-inch-gun turrets training on the enemy with the barrels raised to maximum elevation. Above, on the masts and yards, Royal Navy battle ensigns stood out stiffly, the white color of the flags in stark contrast to the black smoke pouring from the funnels. There was no hurry; the admiral had a clear, empty ocean in front of him. Just as Spee at Coronel had been able to use his advantage of greater speed and heavier guns to destroy Cradock, so Sturdee would be able to use his own greater power and speed to destroy Spee. Each British battle cruiser carried eight 12-inch guns, firing shells weighing 850 pounds. The German armored cruisers carried eight 8.2-inch guns, each firing a shell of 275 pounds. Sturdee could use his speed to set the range; then, keeping his distance, use his big guns to pound Spee to pieces.

According to Commander Pochhammer of Gneisenau, it was not until the chase was under way that the Germans were certain of the identity of the two big ships that had emerged from the harbor. “Two vessels soon detached themselves from the number of our pursuers; they seemed much faster and bigger than the others as their smoke was thicker, wider, more massive,” Pochhammer said. “All glasses were turned upon their hulls.” It was not long before the spacing of the three funnels and the unmistakable tripod masts forced the German seamen to confront “the possibility, even probability, that we were being chased by English battle cruisers . . . this was a very bitter pill for us to swallow. We choked a little . . . the throat contracted and stiffened, for it meant a life and death struggle, or rather a fight ending in honorable death.”

Meanwhile, Sturdee calmly set about making his tactical arrangements. He had difficulty seeing the enemy because of the volume of smoke belching from the battle cruisers’ funnels, but Glasgow reported the Germans twelve miles ahead, making 18 to 20 knots. Knowing that Spee could not escape, Sturdee decided to postpone an immediate engagement. He ordered Inflexible to haul out on Invincible’s starboard quarter, stationed Glasgow three miles ahead of Invincible on the port bow, and instructed Kent to drop back to his port beam. Soon, with the battle cruisers and Glasgow making 25 knots, he found that he was leaving his own armored cruisers behind. At eleven o’clock, the admiral signaled Carnarvon and Cornwall, five miles behind the battle cruisers, asking what their maximum speed was. Carnarvon replied 20 knots (actually, it was 18) and Cornwall 22. Not wanting his squadron scattered too widely, Sturdee reduced the speed of the battle cruisers from 25 to 24 knots and then to 20 knots to allow the squadron to come closer. These changes, in effect, nullified the signal for General Chase. Never-theless, so confident of the day’s outcome was Sturdee that, at 11:32 a.m., he signaled, “Ships’ companies have time for next meal.” Men who had begun the day shifting sacks of coal and were covered with grime now had an opportunity to wash and change clothes. “Picnic lunch in the wardroom,” wrote one of Invincible’s officers. “Tongue, bread, butter, and jam.” No one remained below, however, and soon the upper decks were lined with officers and men, sandwiches in hand, watching the five German ships on the horizon.

[Meanwhile, around 11:00 a.m., just as the British light cruiser Bristol came out of the harbor, the signal station on Mount Pleasant reported sighting three new ships—“transports or colliers”—about thirty miles to the south. There had been unfounded rumors that German nationals were gathering at South American ports to occupy and garrison the Falklands, and Sturdee ordered Bristol and Macedonia to intercept and destroy these ships. Two of the ships, which turned out to be the colliers Baden and Santa Isabel, were overtaken; their crews were taken off and both vessels were sunk by gunfire. Later, once the German squadron for which the coal had been intended had been sunk, the British regretted having destroyed such valuable cargo. The third German ship, the collier Seydlitz, escaped and was interned in Argentina.]

Aboard the German ships, the mood was somber. “Towards noon, the two battle cruisers . . . were about 18,500 yards away. Four other cruisers were observed,” said Pochhammer. “We took our meal at the usual time, eleven forty-five, but it passed off more quietly than usual, everybody being absorbed in his own thoughts.” As the meal finished, the thunder of heavy guns sounded across the water. “Drums and bugles summoned us to our battle stations. A brief handshake here and there, a farewell between particularly close friends, and the mess room emptied.” Soon after noon, Sturdee became impatient. It was evident that Stoddart’s flagship, Carnarvon, still six miles astern and unable to force more than 18 knots out of her engines, could not catch up. As Cornwall could manage 22, she was ordered to leave Carnarvon and come on ahead. Even this seemed too slow and Sturdee decided to begin his attack with the two battle cruisers. At 12:20 p.m., Captain Richard Phillimore came aft on Inflexible and told his men that the admiral had decided “to get along with the work.” The crew cheered and the battle cruisers again moved up to 25 knots.

Admiral von Spee, less than ten miles ahead, was heading southeast at 20 knots. Gneisenau and Nürnberg were 2,000 yards ahead of Scharnhorst, Dresden was on the flagship’s port beam, and Leipzig lagged behind. Gradually, this speed increased to 21 knots, except for Leipzig, which continued to fall behind. By 12:47 p.m., Sturdee had closed the range to Leipzig to 17,500 yards, and he hoisted the signal “Engage the enemy.”

At 12:55 p.m., there was flash, thunder, and smoke. The first shot was claimed by Captain Phillimore of Inflexible (known in the service as Fidgety Phill), who had opened fire at Leipzig with his A turret, a two-gun salvo at the range of 16,500 yards. This was 4,000 yards farther than any British dreadnought had ever fired at a live target, and from his post high in Inflexible’s foretop, her gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Rudolf Verner, saw the shells fall 3,000 yards astern of the German squadron. Again Inflexible fired and Verner experienced “the roar from the forward turret guns and heavy masses of dark, chocolate-colored cordite smoke tumbling over the bow; a long wait and tall white ‘stalagmites’ growing out of the sea behind the distant enemy.” Soon after, Invincible opened fire with a two-gun salvo from her A turret, and high fountains of water rose from the sea a thousand yards short of the target. Within fifteen minutes, however, when the range was down to 13,000 yards, the tall splashes began straddling Leipzig. One salvo raised towering columns of water so close to the small ship that both sides lost sight of her and thought she had been hit.

Leipzig’s plight forced Spee to make a decision. Looking back, he could see the high bow waves of the battle cruisers, the clouds of black smoke pouring from their funnels, the jets of orange flame shooting out through smoke, and, after an agonizing wait, the towers of water rising soundlessly alongside the hapless light cruiser. The admiral made his choice. At 1:20 p.m., Invincible observed the German squadron splitting up: the three light cruisers were turning to starboard, to the southwest, while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were turning to port, east-northeast, directly into the path of the onrushing battle cruisers. Spee had realized that the British combination of 12-inch guns and higher speed gave his squadron no chance in a prolonged chase and that it was only a matter of minutes before the lagging Leipzig received a crippling blow. In order to give his three light cruisers a chance to escape, he chose to hurl his armored cruisers against the British battle cruisers. “Gneisenau will accept action. Light cruisers part company and try to escape,” the admiral signaled. The German light cruisers immediately turned to starboard, their wakes curling away from Scharnhorst.

Sturdee had foreseen that the German squadron might do this. In three typewritten pages of instructions issued at Abrolhos Rocks, he had instructed that if, in an action, the East Asia Squadron divided itself, the British battle cruisers would see to the destruction of the German armored cruisers, while the British armored cruisers dealt with the German light cruisers. Therefore, as soon as Luce in Glasgow saw the German light cruisers turn away, and without any signal from Sturdee, he immediately left his position ahead of the battle cruisers and made for the fleeing German ships. Kent and Cornwall followed Luce in this new chase while Carnarvon, now ten miles astern and too slow to have any chance of overtaking the enemy light cruisers, continued in the wake of the battle cruisers.

As his light cruisers swung away to the southwest, Spee led Scharnhorst and Gneisenau around hard to port, to the northeast toward Invincible and Inflexible. The main action between the battle cruisers and the armored cruisers now began with the two admirals jockeying for position. Spee’s hope was to get as close to the enemy as he could with his shorter-range guns, just as Cradock had tried to do with Good Hope and Monmouth at Coronel. Sturdee understood this maneuver and, four minutes after Spee had turned toward him, he deliberately turned 90 degrees to port, parallel with the enemy. Sturdee was resolved to fight at his own range, beyond the reach of the German 8.2-inch guns (13,500 yards), but within range of his own 12-inch (16,400 yards). He meant to use against Spee the same tactics that Spee had used against Cradock.

The two squadrons now were running parallel toward the northeast, with Invincible training on Scharnhorst, and Inflexible on Gneisenau. At 1:30 p.m., the German cruisers, their guns elevated to achieve maximum range, opened fire. Their first salvos were short; then, with the range diminishing to 12,000 yards, the third salvo straddled Invincible and five columns of water shot up around her. Soon, all four ships were firing broadsides, which included their rear turrets. “The German firing was magnificent to watch,” said an officer on Invincible, “perfect ripple salvos all along their sides. A brown-colored puff with a center of flame marking each gun as it fired. . . . They straddled us time after time.” Scharnhorst, especially, lived up to her reputation as a crack gunnery ship, and at 1:44 p.m., she hit Invincible. The shell burst against the battle cruiser’s side armor, causing a heavy concussion but failing to penetrate.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands II

From the beginning, Sturdee’s intention to fight at a range beyond the reach of Spee’s guns had been frustrated by the Germans’ having the lee position. The dense smoke from the battle cruisers’ funnels was blowing toward the enemy, obscuring the British gun layers’ view of their targets. In addition, the discrepancy between the range of the British 12-inch and the German 8.2-inch guns was only about 3,000 yards, a narrow margin for Sturdee to find and maintain. For a few moments when the range dropped below 12,000 yards, the Germans fired rapidly and effectively. Then, at two o’clock, to ensure that a lucky German shot did not cripple one of his battle cruisers, Sturdee edged his ships away to port and opened the range to 16,000 yards, where Spee could not reach him. At the same time, he reduced speed to 22 knots to lessen the effects of funnel smoke. For the next fifteen minutes, there was a lull in the action and the two squadrons gradually drew apart.

In this first phase, despite the disparity in strength, the battle had been far from one-sided. In contrast to the rapidity and accuracy of German fire, British gunnery had been an embarrassment. During the first thirty minutes of action, the two battle cruisers fired a total of 210 rounds of 12-inch ammunition. Inflexible had scored three hits on Gneisenau, one below the waterline and another temporarily putting an 8.2-inch gun out of action, while Invincible could claim only one probable hit on Scharnhorst. At this rate the battle cruisers would empty their magazines without sinking the enemy. The primary cause of this bad shooting was smoke. The wind blowing from the northwest carried dense funnel smoke and clouds of cordite gas belching from the gun muzzles down toward the enemy, almost completely blinding Invincible’s gunners in the midships and stern turrets. The only clear views were those over the bow from A turret and that of the gunnery officer high in the foretop. Inflexible’s situation was even worse: she was smothered and blinded not only by her own smoke but also by Invincible’s smoke blowing across her line of vision. This excuse notwithstanding, the performance of the battle cruisers caused deep misgivings. “It is certainly damned bad shooting,” a friend said to Lieutenant Harold Hickling of Glasgow. “We were all dismayed at the battle cruisers’ gunnery, the large spread, the slow and ragged fire,” Hickling added later. “An occasional shot would fall close to the target while others would be far short or over.” An officer in Invincible’s P turret was alarmed to observe that “we did not seem to be hitting the Scharnhorst at all.” Said Hickling, “At this rate, it looks as if Sturdee, not von Spee, is going to be sunk.”

Excessive smoke was not the only cause of the slow, inaccurate gunfire of the battle cruisers. A British officer in the spotting top of Invincible, Lieutenant Commander Hubert Dannreuther, who happened to be a godson of the composer Richard Wagner, found that his excellent, German-made stereoscopic rangefinder was rendered useless not only by smoke, but also by the vibration caused by the ship’s high speed, and by the violent shaking of the mast whenever A turret fired. In Invincible’s P turret, conditions were impossible. The gun layers could see nothing except enemy gun flashes through enveloping clouds of smoke, and every time Q turret, across the deck, fired over them, everyone in P turret was deafened and dazed by the blast. On Inflexible, Lieutenant Commander Rudolf Verner in the battle cruiser’s foretop was almost the only man aboard his ship who could judge the location of the enemy, and he, handicapped by the smoke from the flagship ahead, had great difficulty observing what damage his gunners were causing.

From afar, however, the battle appeared as a dramatic tableau. “With the sun still shining on them, the German ships looked as if they had been painted for the occasion,” said an officer on Kent, coming up astern. “I have never seen heavy guns fired with such rapidity and yet such control. Flash after flash traveled down their sides from head to stern, all their 5.9-inch and 8.2-inch guns firing every salvo. Of the British battle cruisers, less could be seen as their smoke drifted across their range. Their shells were hitting the German ships. . . . Four or five times, the white puff of a bursting shell could be seen on Gneisenau. . . . By some trick of the wind, the sounds were inaudible and the view was of silent combat, the two lines of ships steaming away to the east.”

In fact, the few large British shells that managed to hit were inflicting serious damage. “A shell grazed the third funnel and exploded on the upper deck above . . . ,” said Gneisenau’s Commander Pochhammer. “Large pieces of shrapnel ripped down and reached the coal bunkers, killing a stoker. A deck officer had both his forearms torn off. A second shell exploded on the main deck, destroying the ship’s boats. Fragments smashed into the officers’ mess and wounded the officers’ little pet black pig. Another hit aft entered the ship on the waterline, pierced the armored deck and lodged in an ammunition chamber . . . [which] was flooded to prevent further damage. . . . These three hits killed or wounded fifty men.”

Suddenly, Spee made another move: he turned and made off to the south, hoping that the pall of smoke over the British ships would obscure his flight and that in that direction he might find a cloud bank, a rain squall, a bank of fog. Said Pochhammer: “Every minute we gained before nightfall might decide our fate. The engines were still intact and were doing their best.” Because of the smoke surrounding their ship, it took a few minutes for Invincible’s officers to realize what was happening; by then, Spee had opened the distance to 17,000 yards. Once Sturdee understood, he swung his battle cruisers around and chased at 24 knots. He still had sufficient time and the afternoon remained bright. This second pursuit lasted forty minutes, during which the range was reduced to 15,000 yards; then the battle cruisers turned to port to free their broadsides. At 2:45 p.m., the British battle cruisers recommenced the cannonade.

Eight minutes after Sturdee opened fire, Spee abandoned his southerly flight, and for the second time took his two armored cruisers around to the east to accept battle. The German ships turned in unison and once again broadside salvos of 12-inch and 8.2-inch shells thundered from the opposing lines. Spee now was trying to come closer. The British were within range of his 8.2-inch guns, but he was maneuvering to close to 10,000 yards, where his secondary armament of 5.9-inch guns could come into play. Gradually, the two lines drew nearer; by 3:00 p.m., the range had diminished to just over 10,000 yards and, at extreme elevation, the port German 5.9-inch batteries opened fire. Invincible suffered more heavily as German gunners concentrated on her; for the next fifteen minutes, Sturdee’s flagship was hit repeatedly by both 8.2-inch and 5.9-inch shells. One 8.2-inch shell plunged through two decks and burst in the sick bay, which was empty. Somehow, on the British ships, this kind of luck seemed to hold; the ship was pummeled, but there were almost no casualties. When the canteen was wrecked, crew members cheerfully gathered up the cigarettes, cigars, chocolate, and tins of pineapple scattered across the deck. Not all the German shells exploded. One 8.2-inch shell cut the muzzle of a forward 4-inch gun, descended two decks, and came to rest unexploded in the admiral’s storeroom, nestling between his jams and a Gorgonzola cheese. An unexploded 5.9-inch shell passed through the chaplain’s quarters, entered the paymaster’s cabin, where it tumbled dozens of gold sovereigns from his money chest over the deck, and then passed harmlessly out the ship’s side.

The action was now at its most intense. The fire of the battle cruisers had become more accurate and both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were blanketed by huge waterspouts. Now German spotters, like the British, were greatly hampered and could not see whether they were hitting. “The thick clouds of smoke from the British funnels and guns obscured our targets so that, apart from masts, only the sterns were visible,” said Pochhammer. “Again we tried to shorten the distance but this time the enemy was careful not to let us approach and we knew that we were in for a battle of extermination.” Time after time, Scharnhorst shuddered as 12-inch shells pierced her deck armor and exploded in her mess decks and casements. One 12-inch shell hit a 5.9-inch gun, exploded, and tumbled gun and gun crew into the sea. Gneisenau was also suffering. A huge explosion smashed the starboard engine room; water flooded in and, when the pumps became unworkable, the compartment was abandoned. Splashes from 12-inch shells landing in the sea nearby were throwing huge volumes of water over the decks, sometimes extinguishing fires set by previous, more accurate shells.

By 3:15 p.m., the action had been under way for two and a quarter hours. From the spotting tops, the scene remained the same: a cloudless sky, a calm surface ruffled by a breeze, and, from the two groups of ships, clouds of black smoke punctured by the orange flashes of guns. On Invincible’s bridge, Sturdee sensed that time was passing, the afternoon waning, the matter dragging out. The smoke interference plaguing his gun layers was now so intolerable that the admiral led his battle cruisers around to port, back across their own wakes, navigating an arc from which they emerged at 3:30 p.m. on a southwesterly course with Inflexible leading. This placed the battle cruisers on the windward side of the German ships and for the first time they had a clear view of their targets. With Inflexible now in front, Verner was at last able to observe the enemy and the effects of his own ship’s gunnery. By 3:35 p.m., he said, “for the first time I experienced the luxury of complete immunity from every form of interference. . . . I was now in a position to enjoy the control officer’s paradise: a good target, no alterations of course, and no ‘next-aheads’ or own smoke to worry one.” During the turn, two of Scharnhorst’s 8.2-inch shells struck Invincible’s stern, wrecking the electric store and the paint shop, and a 5.9-inch shell exploded on the front plate of A turret between the two guns, which dented, but did not pierce, the armor. These hits on the British battle cruisers did nothing to reduce their fighting value.

Spee countered Sturdee’s turn by suddenly turning again himself, this time back to starboard, heading northwest as if to parry Sturdee by crossing his bows. In fact, Spee’s reason for swinging his ships was that so many guns on the Scharnhorst’s port side were out of action that he wished to bring his other broadside to bear. And, indeed, once the turn freed her disengaged side, the fresh starboard batteries opened a brisk fire. Gneisenau, not nearly so badly damaged and still firing all of her 8.2-inch guns, followed the flagship around and engaged Invincible. British shells crashed into the sea near the German ship and drove torrents of seawater across the ruins of her upper deck. Fire parties found themselves struggling to keep their feet in this surging flood. Worse, a hit on Gneisenau below the waterline flooded two boiler rooms, reducing her speed to 16 knots and giving her a list to port that made her port 5.9-inch guns unusable.

At this moment, when the two squadrons were trading blow for blow, an apparition appeared four miles to the east. A white-hulled, full-rigged, three-masted sailing ship, flying the Norwegian flag and bound for the Horn with all canvas spread, was, in the words of a British officer, “a truly lovely sight . . . as she ran free in the light breeze, for all the world like a herald of peace.”

Scharnhorst, still plunging ahead through a forest of waterspouts, now had been struck by at least forty heavy shells. And there was no respite; with implacable regularity, orange flames glowed from Invincible’s turrets and a few minutes later more 850-pound shells burst on Scharnhorst’s deck or plunged through to the compartments below. What surprised the British was the volume of fire still coming back from a ship as badly battered as Scharnhorst. Her upper works were a jungle of torn and twisted steel; her masts and her third funnel were gone and the first and second funnels were leaning against each other; her bridge and her boats were wrecked; clouds of white steam billowed up from the decks; an enormous rent was torn in her side plating near the stern; red and orange flames could be seen in her interior; and she was down three feet at the waterline. Yet still her battle ensign fluttered from a jury mast above the after control station and still her starboard batteries fired. From Invincible’s spotting top, Dannreuther reported, “She was being torn apart and was blazing and it seemed impossible that anyone could still be alive.” On Inflexible, Verner, astounded by the continuing salvos from the German armored cruisers, ordered his crews to fire “rapid independent,” with the result that at one point, P turret had three shells in the air at the same time, all of which were seen to land on or near the target. Yet the German fire continued. “We were most obviously hitting [Scharnhorst,] but I could not stop her firing. . . . I remember asking my rate operator, ‘What the devil can we do?’ ”

At about this time, a shell splinter cut the halyard of Spee’s personal flag on Scharnhorst and Captain Maerker on Gneisenau noticed that the admiral’s flag no longer flew from the flagship’s peak. If Spee was dead, Maerker would be in command of the squadron. He signaled: “Why is the admiral’s flag at half mast? Is the admiral dead?”

Spee replied, “No, I am all right so far. Have you hit anything?”

“The smoke prevents all observation,” Maerker said.

Spee’s last signal was characteristically generous and fatalistic. “You were right after all,” he said to Maerker, who had opposed the attack on the Falklands.

Nevertheless, for another half hour, Scharnhorst’s starboard batteries boomed out. Then, just before four o’clock, she stopped firing. Sturdee signaled her to surrender, but there was no reply. Instead, slowly and painfully, the German cruiser’s bows came around. Listing to port, with three of her four funnels and both her masts shot away, her bow so low that waves were washing over the forecastle, Scharnhorst staggered across the water toward her enemy. As she did so, Spee sent his last signal to Gneisenau: “Endeavor to escape if your engines are still intact.” At just that moment, Carnarvon arrived on the scene and opened fire with her 7.5-inch and 6-inch guns. These blows were gratuitous. With water pouring into her bow, Scharnhorst rolled over on her side. Then, at 4:17 p.m., her flag still flying, her propellers turning in the air, the armored cruiser went down, leaving behind a cloud of steam and smoke. Every one of the 800 men on board, including Admiral von Spee, went down with her. Sturdee’s battle cruisers, still under fire from Gneisenau, did not stop to look for survivors, and fifteen minutes later, when Carnarvon passed over the spot, her crew saw nothing in the water except wreckage.

Once her sister was gone, Gneisenau was subjected to an hour and a half of target practice by the two British battle cruisers. Salvos of 12-inch and smaller shells smashed into the ship, shattering her funnels, masts, and superstructure and flooding a boiler room and an engine room. The Germans still fired back, aiming mainly at Invincible and hitting the British flagship three times in fifteen minutes. One of these hits struck and bent the armored belt at the waterline; the result was the flooding of one of the battle cruiser’s compartments. But this success could not reverse the conclusion. The British ships, steaming in a single ragged line, were firing at a range of 10,000 yards, but so dense was the smoke that they still had difficulty in observing their own gunfire. At 4:45 p.m., no longer able to contain his frustration, Inflexible’s Phillimore abruptly turned out of line, reversed himself to port, and ran through the smoke clouds out into the sunlight. Gneisenau lay 11,000 yards away on his starboard beam. Now with a clear and slow-moving target at relatively close range, Inflexible opened a devastating fire. Phillimore had no order from Sturdee to make this turn, but the admiral understood and later approved. Nevertheless, a few minutes later, Sturdee ordered reforming of the original battle line with his flagship leading. Much to Verner’s disgust, he found himself once again blinded by Invincible’s smoke.

For the Germans, there was no chance of escape; Maerker faced a choice between surrender and annihilation. He made his choice and held his ship on a convergence course with Invincible, ordering stokers from the wrecked boiler and engine rooms to fill out the ammunition parties feeding the starboard batteries. Even at the end, according to the gunnery officer, “the men with their powder-blackened faces and arms, [were] calmly doing their duty in a cloud of smoke that grew ever denser as the firing continued; the rattling of the guns running backwards and forwards; the cries of encouragement from the officers, the monotonous sound of the order transmitters, and the tinkle of the salvo bells. Unrecognizable corpses were thrust aside; on the walls were splashes of blood and brains.” Below, seawater was pouring into an engine room, a boiler room, and a dynamo room and over the sucking and swirling sounds of water came the cries of trapped and drowning men. Dense clouds of smoke and steam swirled through total darkness. As the dead and wounded grew in number, the size of the ammunition parties dwindled. The wireless station was destroyed and the wireless officer’s head blown off. In the medical dressing station, the ship’s doctor and the ship’s chaplain were killed.

It was time to end it. Sturdee brought his ships in and pounded Gneisenau from 4,000 yards. The vessel was a place of carnage. Her bridge and foremast were shot away, her upper deck a mass of twisted steel, half her crew dead or wounded. One of Carnarvon’s shots had buckled Gneisenau’s armored deck, jamming it against the steering gear and forcing the ship into a slow, involuntary turn to starboard. Yet despite this devastation, the armored cruiser’s port guns and fore turret continued to fire spasmodically. At 4:47 p.m., she ceased firing and no colors were seen, but it was uncertain whether she had struck—several times her colors had been shot away, and each time they had been hoisted again. At 5:08 p.m., her forward funnel crashed over the side. By 5:15 p.m., Gneisenau had been silent long enough for Sturdee to order “Cease Fire,” but before the signal could be hoisted, a jammed ammunition hoist on Gneisenau came free, shells again reached the cruiser’s fore turret, and a final, solitary shot was fired at Invincible. Grimly, the battle cruisers returned to work. A last British salvo was fired and she halted, rocking in the swell, water flooding in through the lower starboard gun ports. At 5:50, Sturdee repeated his signal to “Cease Fire.” Still, the German cruiser’s flag remained flying.

At 5:40 p.m., Maerker had given orders to scuttle the ship. The stern torpedoes were fired and the submerged tubes left open to the sea while explosive charges were fired in the main and starboard engine rooms. With thick smoke clinging to her decks and water gurgling and gushing through the hull, the ship rolled slowly over onto her starboard side. Gneisenau went down differently from Scharnhorst, submerging so slowly that men on deck were able to muster and climb down the ship’s sides as she heeled over. Survivors estimated that about 300 men were still alive at that time. Emerging on deck, the men, coal blackened from the bunkers and the engine rooms, carried the wounded with them and began putting on life belts. As the ship slowly heeled over, Captain Maerker ordered three cheers for the kaiser and there was a thin chorus of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” When the order “All men overboard” came, the men slid down the side and jumped into the water. At 6:00 p.m., Gneisenau sank and British seamen, watching from Inflexible, began to cheer until the captain ordered silence and commanded his men to stand at silent attention as their enemy went down.

When their ship went down, between 200 and 300 survivors were left struggling in the water. A misty, drizzling rain was falling, the sea was beginning to roughen, there was a biting wind, and the temperature of the water was 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The British battle cruisers, 4,000 yards away, carefully closed in on the survivors, attempting to repair and launch their own damaged boats, steaming slowly, lowering boats, and throwing ropes. All around the ships, rising and falling on the swell, men floated, some on hammocks, some on spars, some dead, some still alive and struggling, then drowning before a boat could reach them. A few German sailors were able by their own efforts to swim to the high steel sides of a British ship and be pulled in by ropes. Some were so numbed by the shock of cold water that they could not hold on to anything and drowned within sight of the rescuing boats and ships. Some were alive but too weak and, before they could be brought in, drifted helplessly away into the dark. The wind brought awful cries from the men in the water. “We cast overboard every rope end we had . . . ,” said a young English midshipman, “trying to throw to some poor wretch feebly struggling within a few yards of the ship’s side. If we missed him, the swell would carry him out of reach. We could do nothing but try for another man. . . . Some of the Germans floated away, calling for help. It was shocking to see the look on their faces as they drifted away and we could do nothing to save them.” Every effort was made; when Carnarvon with Stoddart on board reacted slowly in joining the rescue work, Sturdee dropped his mask of imperturbability. “Lower all your boats at once,” he signaled imperatively, and Carnarvon lowered three boats, which picked up twenty Germans. By 7:30 p.m., the rescue work was completed. Of Gneisenau’s complement of 850 men, Invincible had brought aboard 108, fourteen of whom were found to be dead after being lifted on deck. Inflexible picked up sixty-two, and Carnarvon twenty. Heinrich von Spee, the admiral’s son, did not survive.

One of those saved was Commander Pochhammer, second in command of Gneisenau. After the war, he recalled:

The ship inclined more and more. I had to hold tight to the wall of the bridge to avoid sliding . . . then Gneisenau pitched violently and the process of capsizing began. . . . I felt the ship giving way under me. I heard the roaring and surging of the water come nearer. . . . The sea invaded a corner of the bridge and caught me. . . . I was caught in a whirlpool and dragged into an abyss. The water eddied and murmured around me and droned in my ears. . . . I opened my eyes and noticed it was brighter. . . . I came to the surface. The sea was heaving. . . . I saw . . . [our ship] a hundred yards away, her keel in the air[;] the red paint on her bottom glistened in the sunset. In the water around me were men who gradually formed large and small groups. . . . Albatrosses with three to four yards wingspan surveyed the field of the dead and avidly sought prey. . . . It was a consoling though mournful sight to see the first of the English ships approaching . . . to see her brought to a standstill as near to us as appeared possible, her silent crew ranged along the side, throwing spars to help support us and making ready to launch boats. One boat was put in the water, then re-hoisted because obviously it was damaged and leaked. . . . The wind and the swell were slowly driving the English away from us. Eventually, two boats were launched . . . a smaller one . . . [came] in our direction, a sort of dinghy, four men were rowing . . . a young midshipman in the bow. A long life line was thrown to me . . . [but] I lacked strength to climb into the boat. The boat was half full of water. Eventually, the little boat bobbed alongside the giant, whose flanks had a dirty, yellow color. . . . I was quite unable to climb the rope ladder offered to me. A slip knot was passed under my arms . . . and then, all dripping, I found myself on a ship of His Britannic Majesty. From the hat bands I saw it was the Inflexible.

Wrapped in blankets, given a hot-water bottle and brandy, and placed in a bunk in the admiral’s quarters, Pochhammer was treated as a guest of honor. Even in the cabin, the German officer was cold; British warships, he discovered, were not heated by steam but by small electric stoves. Captain Phillimore came to see him and invited him to dinner in the officers’ wardroom. There, Pochhammer, who spoke English, was offered ham, eggs, sherry, and port. Gradually, other rescued German officers appeared. That evening, as the senior surviving officer of the East Asia Squadron, he was handed a message from Admiral Sturdee: “Flag to Inflexible. Please convey to Commander of Gneisenau: The Commander-in-Chief is very gratified that your life has been spared and we all feel that the Gneisenau fought in a most plucky manner to the end. We much admire the good gunnery of both ships. We sympathize with you in the loss of your admiral and so many officers and men. Unfortunately the two countries are at war. The officers of both navies who can count friends in the other have to carry out their country’s duty, which your admiral, captain and officers worthily maintained to the end.” Commander Pochhammer replied to Sturdee: “In the name of all our officers and men I thank Your Excellency very much for your kind words. We regret, as you, the course of the fight as we have learned to know during peacetime the English Navy and her officers. We are all most thankful for our good reception.” That night, falling asleep, Pochhammer felt the vibrations as Inflexible moved at high speed through the South Atlantic.

The pursuit of the German light cruisers continued through the afternoon into darkness. For over two hours, from 1:25 p.m. to 3:45 p.m., in a straightforward stern chase, Glasgow, Kent, and Cornwall raced south after Leipzig, Dresden, and Nürnberg. The pursuing British ships—two armored cruisers and a light cruiser—were overwhelmingly superior in armament: Kent and Cornwall each carried fourteen 6-inch guns and Glasgow had two 6-inch and ten 4-inch; if the British could catch the Germans, the outcome was certain. In this situation, however, success depended more on speed than on guns and, except in the case of Glasgow, the margin of speed was narrow.

When the three German light cruisers broke away to the south, they were ten to twelve miles ahead of their pursuers. Had their design speed still been applicable—Nürnberg’s and Dresden’s were over 24 knots, Leipzig’s 23—their chance of escape would have been excellent. Nominally, Glasgow, designed to reach 26½ knots, could catch them, but one ship could not possibly have overtaken and overwhelmed three. Here, however, design speeds did not apply. The German ships had been at sea for four months with no opportunity to clean their hulls, boilers, and condensers. Beyond decreased efficiency and slower speeds, any attempt to force these propulsion systems to generate sustained high speeds could actually pose a threat. Under the extreme pressures reached in a high-speed run, boilers and condenser tubes contaminated by the processing of millions of gallons of salt water might leak, rupture, even explode.

Glasgow quickly developed 27 knots and drew ahead of Cornwall and Kent. By 2:45 p.m., Luce, who was the senior officer on the three British cruisers, found himself nearly four miles ahead of his own two armored cruisers and within 12,000 yards of Leipzig. He opened fire with his bow 6-inch gun. One shell hit Leipzig, provoking her to turn sharply to port to reply with a 4.1-inch broadside. The first German salvo straddled Glasgow and when the next salvo scored two hits, Luce pulled back out of range. This reciprocal maneuver was repeated several times, but each time Leipzig turned to fire, she lost ground, giving the two slower British armored cruisers opportunity to creep up.

At 3:45 p.m., the German light cruiser force divided. Dresden, in the lead, turned to the southwest, Nürnberg turned east, and Leipzig continued south. Luce had to make a choice. For over an hour, his Glasgow, in front of Kent and Cornwall, had been firing at Leipzig, the rearmost of the German ships. The leading German ship, Dresden, already had a start on him of sixteen miles. The sky was clouding over; rain squalls were in the offing; at the earliest, if he pursued the distant Dresden, Luce could not come up within range until 5:30 p.m. He therefore decided to make sure of the two nearer, slower German ships and to let Dresden go. As the sky became overcast, then turned to mist and drizzle, Dresden grew fainter in the distance and eventually faded from sight.