Gallipoli August 6-9, 1915

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Major General Sir Andrew Hamilton Russell KCB, KCMG (23 February 1868 – 29 November 1960) was a New Zealand General during the First World War. A senior officer in the New Zealand Territorial Force and a veteran of the British Army, Russell was appointed to command the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade upon the outbreak of war, and rose swiftly to high command during the Gallipoli Campaign, principally for his role in the short-lived capture of Chunuk Bair. He commanded the ANZAC evacuation from Gallipoli, and went on to achieve further distinction as the commander of the New Zealand Division on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. Sir Ian Hamilton identified Russell as “the outstanding New Zealander on the Gallipoli peninsula.”

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Battle of Sari Bair, showing the British attack, 6–8 August 1915.

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Assault on Chunuk Bair, 8 August 1915.

At Anzac on August 6 1915 there was no confusion over the plans; the commanders knew exactly what they had to do. During the afternoon the Australians were to attack at Lone Pine in the south of the bridgehead, so as to give the Turks the impression that the main assault was coming from that direction, and then, after nightfall, the bulk of Birdwood’s forces were to march up the ravines towards Sari Bair. They hoped to take the crest of the ridge by morning.

The charge at Lone Pine was a particularly desperate adventure, since it was to take place in broad daylight and on a narrow front of only 220 yards where the Turks could concentrate their fire. Yet the soldiers believed in the plan. They believed in it so well and were so eager to fight that guards had to be posted in the rear trenches to prevent unauthorized men from attempting to take part. This was a wise precaution, because when the fighting did begin it created a frenzy that was not far from madness, and men were to be seen offering sums of five pounds or more for the privilege of getting a place in the front line.

Through the midday hours the soldiers committed to the first assault filed quietly into the secret underground tunnel which had been dug about fifty yards in advance of the front line and parallel to it through no-man’s-land. The sandbags plugging the holes from which they were to emerge were loosened, and they lay waiting there in darkness and in fearful heat, while the artillery barrage thundered over their heads. At 5.30 p.m. whistles sounded the attack along the line. It was the strangest of battles; soldiers erupting from the ground into the bright sunlight, others leaping up from the trenches behind them, and all of them with shouts and yells running forward into the scrub. They had about a hundred yards to go, and when they arrived at the Turkish line they found that the trenches had been roofed over with heavy pine logs. Some of the men dropped their rifles and started to claw these logs aside with their hands, others simply fired down through the chinks into the Turks below, others again went running on to the open communication trenches and there they sprang down to take the enemy in the rear. In the semi-darkness under the pine logs there was very little space to shoot; on both sides they fought with bayonets and sometimes without any weapons at all, kicking and struggling on the ground, trying to throttle one another with their hands.

Although in after years the action at Lone Pine was very carefully chronicled—the attacks and counter-attacks that followed one another through the day and night for a week on end—it is not really possible to comprehend what happened. All dissolves into the confused impression of a riot, of a vicious street-fight in the back alleys of a city, and the metaphor of the stirred-up ant-heap persists; it was the same frantic movement to and fro, the agitated jerking and rushing and the apparent absence of all meaning except that contained in the idea of mutual destruction. It was the kind of fighting which General Stopford could hardly have understood.

Seven Victoria Crosses were won at Lone Pine, and in the first few days’ fighting alone something like 4,000 men were killed there. On this first evening, however, the important thing was that by 6 p.m. the Australians had captured the Turkish front line and were resisting every effort to turn them out. If they did not altogether deceive Essad Pasha as to the true direction of Birdwood’s main attack, at least they made it impossible for him to obtain reinforcements from this part of his line. By nightfall the way was clear for the main assault on Sari Bair ridge to begin.

Mustafa Kemal made one error in his anticipation of Birdwood’s plan; he did not believe that the British would ever have attempted to climb these hills by night. Yet here again the commanders were very confident. A New Zealand major named Overton had been secretly reconnoitring the ground through the latter part of July and early August, and he had organized a troop of guides who were to lead the soldiers over the fantastically broken country to their objectives. They had an excellent map of the area which had been taken from the dead body of a Turkish officer after the May 19 assault. Twenty thousand men, under the command of Major-General Godley, were to be engaged, and they were divided into two columns. The first of these, made up chiefly of New Zealanders, was to advance up Sazlidere and a neighbouring ravine to the top of Chunuk Bair. The second, comprising British, Australian and Indian troops, was to march on a roundabout course to the north of the bridgehead, where it was to split into two halves for the assault of Hill Q and Koja Chemen Tepe.

The first column’s offensive opened brilliantly soon after night had fallen. Faithfully at 9 p.m. the British destroyer shelled the Turks at Old Post 3 in the usual way, and at 9.30 the New Zealanders rushing alongside the searchlight beam occupied the position before the enemy could get back to it. There developed almost at once some of the most brutal fighting of the campaign along the side of Sazlidere, but the Turks, as Kemal had predicted, were not strong enough to hold. They fell back along a ridge known to the British as Rhododendron Spur,26 and for a time the New Zealanders found themselves advancing through unoccupied country behind the enemy lines. ‘It was a curious sensation,’ one of their officers related later, ‘to be marching along that valley in bright moonlight, far within the Turkish lines, without opposition of any kind. One Turk, who rushed out ahead of the advanced guard, I shot dead with my pistol. He was the only Turk seen that night.’

Soon after midnight, however, things began to go wrong. The guides faltered, stopped, and finally admitted they were lost. One part of the column having marched—or rather climbed and descended—all through the night found itself back at its starting point. The part which did succeed in finding its way to the top of Rhododendron Spur sat down to wait for the lost battalions, and when dawn broke the assault of the final summit of Chunuk Bair had still not begun.

But this was nothing to the difficulties in which the second column on the left found itself almost from the outset. The men had been set to march a distance of about three and a half miles in three hours, and no doubt it might have been done if they had been on a walking expedition in peacetime, and if they had travelled in daylight with good maps and without baggage of any kind. But many of them were weakened by months of dysentery, they were heavily burdened, it was very dark and they had to fight the Turks on the way. Moreover, the guides were so confident that at the last minute they chose to take a short cut. Instead of following the easy roundabout route on the low ground to the north, they led the column into a ravine at Aghyldere, and here the Turks poured down their fire upon them. At once the whole column came to a halt, and it was not very helpful that the men had been ordered to march with unloaded rifles so as to confine their fighting to the silent bayonet. In this wilderness there was now no silence, and there was no one whom they could see to bayonet. When the commanding officer was wounded panic began to spread along the line. Some of the men, believing the opposition to be far worse than it was, started to scatter and retreat; others pressed on in broken groups into dark valleys that led nowhere, and every ridge was the beginning of another ridge beyond. They were soon exhausted. Many of the men dropped in their tracks and fell asleep, and it was difficult for the officers to harry them on since they themselves were without orders, and were bewildered by the unaccountable delays in the movement of the column. It was like a caterpillar, undulating at the centre, but without forward motion, its head and tail rooted to the ground. Daylight on August 7 found them still groping about in the ravines; and the crests of Hill Q and Koja Chemen Tepe, which they had hoped to rush at 3 a.m., were a mile or more away.

There was still one more forfeit to pay for the folly of attempting this night march. In the expectation that the Sari Bair ridge would have fallen by dawn it had been arranged that the Australian Light Horse should carry out a frontal attack just below Kemal’s headquarters on Battleship Hill, so as to prevent the enemy from enfilading on that flank. The Light Horsemen were an aggressive lot, and Birdwood at one stage had even contemplated putting them back on their horses so that they could make a cavalry charge into the rear of the Turkish lines, somewhat in the manner of the Light Brigade in the Crimean campaign. That colourful idea, however, had been dismissed, and the Light Horsemen now found themselves dismounted in the trenches below Battleship Hill. The Sari Bair ridge had not been taken but they decided to charge just the same. ‘You have ten minutes to live,’ one of the officers said to his men while they waited, and this proved to be very nearly accurate, for it did not take the Turks long to destroy 650 out of the 1,250 who came over the top, one wave following another, the living stumbling for a few seconds over the bodies of the dead until they too were dead. Only a handful reached the Turkish trenches and there they fired their green and red rockets as the signal for the others to come on. But there were none to follow them.

Other small attacks along the line came to no better end and an unnatural quiet began to spread along the front through the early hours of the morning of August 7. On the Turkish side the commanders had survived the surprise of the first shock of the offensive, but they had had no time as yet to re-group their men to meet the next assault. The British, like the crew of a ship which has barely weathered a bad storm in the night, were still dazed and uncertain. Those New Zealanders who had gained the crest of Rhododendron Spur looked down and saw far below them to the north-west Stopford’s soldiers strolling about in the sunshine at Suvla Bay. From the left-hand Anzac column, still beleaguered in the hills, there was no sound; nor was there any movement in the direction of Battleship Hill, since the Australian attack here had failed and so many were dead. The fight at Lone Pine further to the south was still going on, but apart from this the battle had stopped. Not unnaturally the New Zealanders began to feel isolated in their high perch under Chunuk Bair—they alone seemed to have penetrated into the enemy lines, and there was no knowing whether or not they were about to be entirely cut off. There was still no sign of the other units who were expected to join them there, and the plan was now running many hours behind schedule.

Presently, however, two companies of Gurkhas who had been lost all night came straggling up the spur, and with these reinforcements the New Zealanders made a rush for the summit of Chunuk Bair in the middle of this morning of August 7. It was several hours too late. By now a German Colonel named Kannengiesser had arrived on the hilltop, and although he was wounded he roused the Turkish outpost there and they drove back the attack. This was the last heavy fighting on Anzac on August 7. The rest of the day went by while the left hand column extricated itself from the frightful muddle it had got into during the night, and nothing more could be done on Rhododendron Spur until the New Zealanders were reinforced.

General Godley now decided to reorganize his force for a new attack at dawn on August 8. Through the night five columns were assembled, and their objectives were the same as before—the three main peaks on Sari Bair. It was a confused affair, for the troops were still not properly rested or supplied—most of them had been wandering about half the night in the hopeless maze of gullies and ravines, and had not even reached the start line when the attack began. But there were two encouraging events: a British Major named Allanson, in command of a battalion of Gurkhas, found himself far out in front near the centre of the line, and instead of waiting for support to reach him he elected to go on and see whether he could take Hill Q on his own initiative. He very nearly succeeded. It chanced that he struck a gap in the enemy defences, and he had actually advanced to within 300 feet of the crest before he was fired on. He then scrambled back down the cliffs in search of reinforcements, and having gathered in some British infantry managed to hoist his little force another hundred feet towards his goal: and there they perched all day on ledges and crannies in the rocks under the fire of Turkish snipers, until, at dusk, they clambered on to a better position a little higher up. It was not so much fighting as mountaineering. They were quite cut off, and at Godley’s headquarters that night nothing was known about them.

The other success was on Chunuk Bair, and here too there was another inexplicable gap in the Turkish line. A Lieut.-Colonel Malone made a rush for the summit with two companies of New Zealanders, and they surprised the Turkish outpost there asleep. One does not know why it was that these exhausted Turks had not been relieved or reinforced, but it was so, and Malone and his New Zealanders contrived to dig in just below the crest. But they had very little chance of survival: there was no cover on the open hilltop, and from either side the Turks shot shells and machine-gun bullets into them all through the day. Several times the Gloucestershire regiment and others tried to get through to them without success, and when night fell Malone and nearly all his men were dead.

Thus on the evening of August 8, forty-eight hours after the offensive had begun, the Allies had reached none of their main objectives. The Suvla plan, which was a good plan, had failed because the wrong commanders and soldiers had been employed, and at Anzac the best officers and men were employed upon a plan that would not work. And both attacks had been bedevilled at the outset by the difficulties of advancing through a strange country in the night. Even at Helles the battle had gone wrong, for the British there had launched their diversionary attack against Krithia at the very moment when the Turks were also massing for an assault. And so the Allies were thrown back to their own trenches with heavy casualties and apparently nothing gained.

It was the nadir of the campaign. And yet in a perverse way, when everything seemed to have gone wrong, when the vital element of surprise had been lost, a change was taking place at this instant and hope began again. It came chiefly from the commanders. Hamilton was now at Suvla, arguing, persuading, and finally insisting that the new army should march to the hills, and something of the same sort was happening at Anzac. Birdwood and Godley were a long way from abandoning their offensive. Instead they simplified it: they planned still another dawn attack on August 9, but this time they ignored Koja Chemen Tepe and aimed simply for Chunuk Bair and the narrow saddle of land connecting it to Hill Q—the point where Allanson and a little handful of survivors were still clinging to the cliffs. The main assault was entrusted to a General Baldwin, who was in command of four British battalions which had not yet taken part in the battle. At 4.30 a.m. in the first light of the morning every gun at Anzac, at sea or on the shore, was to fire at the crestline, and at 5.15 a.m. the infantry were to get up and charge.

The night again passed in comparative quiet at the front, but with much agitated movement behind the lines. General Baldwin was particularly unlucky. He was given two guides who were supposed to be reliable, but they led him and his column at first in one direction and then in another, until eventually they finished up against the blank wall of a precipice. When the guns opened up at 4.30 a.m. Baldwin was still roaming about some distance from the front, and three quarters of an hour later, when he should have been attacking, he was only beginning to march in the right direction. The rest of the line went into the assault without him, and it was a slow uncertain movement. Perhaps it ought never to have been begun with troops who were so tired and so utterly confused, perhaps Birdwood and his staff were no longer making any sense out of their maps and plans and were guided only by a dull persistence. Yet the crest was very near; so long as there was any hope they had to try again. And in fact, in the most unexpected way, their hope was justified.

Major Allanson, on his eyrie on the ridge, had made contact with the main body of the British during the night and had obtained a reinforcement of Lancashire troops for the new attack—a total of about 450 men in all. He had his orders direct from General Godley: he was to keep his head down until the bombardment was over and then he was to rush the Turkish trenches on the ridge.

‘I had only fifteen minutes left,’ Allanson wrote in the report he made two days later. ‘The roar of the artillery preparation was enormous; the hill, which was almost perpendicular, seemed to leap underneath one. I recognized that if we flew up the hill the moment it stopped, we ought to get to the top. I put the three (Lancashire) companies into the trenches among my men, and said that the moment they saw me go forward carrying a red flag, everyone was to start. I had my watch out, 5.15. I never saw such artillery preparation; the trenches were being torn to pieces; the accuracy was marvellous, as we were only just below. At 5.18 it had not stopped, and I wondered if my watch was wrong. 5.20 silence. I waited three minutes to be certain, great as the risk was. Then off we dashed, all hand in hand, a most perfect advance, and a wonderful sight. . . . At the top we met the Turks; Le Marchand was down, a bayonet through the heart. I got one through the leg, and then for about what appeared to be ten minutes, we fought hand to hand, we bit and fisted, and used rifles and pistols as clubs; and then the Turks turned and fled, and I felt a very proud man; the key of the whole peninsula was ours, and our losses had not been so very great for such a result. Below I saw the straits, motors and wheeled transport on the roads leading to Achi Baba. As I looked round I saw that we were not being supported, and thought I could help best by going after those who had retreated in front of us. We dashed down towards Maidos, but had only got about 100 feet down when suddenly our own Navy put six twelve-inch monitor shells into us, and all was terrible confusion. It was a deplorable disaster; we were obviously mistaken for Turks, and we had to get back. It was an appalling sight: the first hit a Gurkha in the face: the place was a mass of blood and limbs and screams, and we all flew back to the summit and to our old position just below. I remained on the crest with about fifteen men; it was a wonderful view; below were the straits, reinforcements coming over from the Asia Minor side, motor-cars flying. We commanded Kilid Bahr, and the rear of Achi Baba and the communications to all their Army there.’

There is some doubt about the shells that fell on Allanson. The Navy deny that they were theirs, and even those soldiers who, from just below, were observers of the skirmish, were not quite certain what had happened. They saw that Allanson, on reaching the summit, had caught the Turks in the open as they were running back to their trenches after the bombardment. They saw the hand-to-hand fighting with the bayonet, and at the end of it they saw the excited and triumphant figures of the Gurkhas and the British waving on the skyline. Then as they disappeared over the other side the thunderclap occurred, but it was impossible to know the direction from which the shells had come or who had fired them.

Yet the incident was not absolutely disastrous. Allanson was still on the top, and although wounded was prepared to hold on there until reinforcements arrived. And it was indeed a wonderful view, the best that any Allied soldier had ever had on Gallipoli. After three and a half months of the bitterest fighting the Turks were now displaced from the heights, and in effect their army was cut in half. ‘Koja Chemen Tepe not yet,’ Hamilton wrote in his diary. ‘But Chunuk Bair will do: with that, we win.’

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Kut-al-Amara

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A British Disaster

1916

The First World War battle of Kut-al-Amara was the greatest military disaster ever to befall the British Army. Some 25,000 were lost in the fighting and another 16,000 were taken prisoner, few of whom survived captivity.

Within three months of the start of World War I, the British occupied Basra (now in Iraq), which was the Ottoman Empire’s port at the head of the Persian Gulf. Turkey had allied itself with Germany so Britain, with its huge navy, needed to secure its oil supplies in the Middle East.

The British also sought to destabilize the Ottoman Empire, which had been in decline for centuries, and also add its eastern provinces to the British Empire. In December 1914, an Anglo-Indian force advanced forty-six miles northwards from Basra. Then in May and June of the following year they advanced another ninety miles up the River Tigris. Although the oil supplies were now secure, the lure of the fabled city of Baghdad was too strong for Major-General Sir Charles Townshend, commander of the Sixth (Poona) Division. They were just eighteen miles outside Baghdad – and 300 miles from their base in Basra – when they met a strong Turkish force at the ancient city of Ctesiphon. After a fruitless battle, the British pulled back a hundred miles to Kut-al-Amara, arriving there on 3 December.

Kut-al-Amara lies on the River Tigris at its confluence with the Shatt-al-Hai canal. It was 120 miles upstream from the British positions at Amara, and 200 miles from Basra. The town lies in a loop of the river, with a small settlement on the opposite bank, and in 1915 it was a densely-populated, filthy place. The civilian population added up to around 7,000, many of whom were evicted when Townshend’s army of 10,000 marched into the town. Aware that his men were exhausted, Townshend resolved to stop at Kut, a town of key importance if the British were to hold the region. As a market town, it had good supplies of grain and it offered his men some shelter and warmth in the freezing night temperatures.

Townshend’s decision to stop at Kut was approved by the region commander-in-chief General Sir John Nixon, but the War Office in London wanted him to continue his retreat to the south because it would be impossible to get reinforcements to him there, given the other demands on manpower at the beginning of the war. Unfortunately it was already too late. By 7 December, Townshend’s 10,000 men were under siege by a Turkish force of 10,500 and eight more Turkish divisions, recently released from Gallipoli, were massing near Baghdad.

Townshend calculated that there were enough supplies in Kut to last a month. Fortunately he had evacuated the cavalry on the day before the Turks arrived because there was little forage. However, Townshend was told that it might take two months for a relief force to arrive. Even so, he kept his men on the full daily ration because he planned to break out. General Nixon, on the other hand, ordered him to remain and hold as many Turkish troops around Kut as possible.

The Turkish commander, Nur-Ud-Din, and his German counterpart, Baron von der Goltz, were given straightforward instructions. They were to drive the British out of Mesopotamia. In December they made three large-scale attacks on Townshend’s position. These were beaten off with high losses on both sides so the Turks then set about blockading the town. At the same time, Turkish forces were dispatched south to prevent any British relief columns reaching Kut.

In the following January a British expeditionary force led by Sir Fenton Aylmer set out for Basra. However, their efforts w ere repeatedly repulsed at Sheikh Sa’ad, the Wadi and Hanna, involving them in heavy losses. They met similar resistance in March, this time at Dujaila.

A second relief operation began in April under Sir George Gorringe. He managed to get far enough to meet up with Baron von der Goltz and the Turkish Sixth Army, piercing their line some twenty miles south of Kut. The expedition then ran out of steam and it was abandoned on 22 April. A final attempt to reach the town on the paddle steamer Julnar also failed, although small quantities of supplies were dropped by air. By this time, sickness in the town had reached epidemic proportions.

On 26 April 1916 Townshend was given permission to ask the Turks for a six-day armistice. They also agreed that ten days’ food could be sent to the garrison while the talks were underway. If he were allowed to withdraw, said Townshend, he would give the Turks £1 million sterling and all the guns in the town, along with a guarantee that his men would never again engage with the Ottoman Empire. Khalil Pasha, the military governor of Baghdad, wanted to accept, but the Minister of War Enver Pasha demanded unconditional surrender. He wanted a spectacular victory so that British prestige was damaged as much as possible.

During the armistice period Townshend destroyed everything that was useful in the town and on the 29 April the British garrison surrendered. It was the greatest military disaster ever to have befallen the British Army. There were 227 British officers, 204 Indian officers and 12,828 other ranks – of whom 2,592 were British. All of them were marched into captivity.

While Townshend himself was treated as an honoured guest, his undernourished men were force-marched to prison camps where they were savagely beaten, many being killed in acts of wanton cruelty. More than 3,000 men perished in captivity and those who were released two years later were little more than walking skeletons.

Approximately 2,000 British losses were sustained during the fighting at Kut-al-Amara and another 23,000 troops were lost in the attempts to relieve the trapped army. The Turks lost 10,000 men.

It was a grave error to have made a stand at Kut. Until then the British had the initiative in the fighting in Mestopotamia. The loss of Kut and the Poona Division stunned the British and their Allies and it provided a huge morale boost for both the Turks and the Germans, particularly because it came so soon after Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Gallipoli.

Baron von der Goltz did not live to witness the triumph. He died of typhus ten days before the surrender, although there were persistent rumours that he had been poisoned by a group of young Turkish officers. Townshend was released in October 1918, in time to assist in the armistice negotiations with the Ottoman Empire.

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Baghdad: The Ottoman Death Knell

The British reversed the humiliation of their surrender at Kut-al-Amara in February 1917 by retaking the town. The Anglo-Indian Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force then advanced another fifty miles up the River Tigris to al-Aziziyeh where the regional commander-in-chief Sir Frederick Stanley Maude ordered them to wait until he had received confirmation from London that a march on Baghdad was in order. Their target lay another fifty miles up the river.

This hiatus gave the regional Turkish commander-in-chief Khalil Pasha a chance to plan his defence of Baghdad. He had some 12,500 men under his command, including around 2,300 survivors from the fall of Kut-al-Amara. Two divisions of 20,000 men under Ali Ishan Bey were on their way to Baghdad across the desert from western Persia (Iran), but it was unlikely that this force would arrive in time to help in the city’s defence. Even if they did, the Turks would still only have 35,000 men at their disposal when they faced a British army of 120,000. The British would also be supported by cavalry, a flotilla of gunboats and planes for spotting and light bombing.

Khalil dismissed the option of avoiding this unequal fight by retreating from Baghdad. Simply handing the southern capital of the Ottoman Empire over to the British would be too much of a humiliation for the Turks. He also rejected the option of creating an aggressive ‘forward’ defence by abandoning work on the fortifications at Ctesiphon. For some reason, Khalil also discounted the flooding of the overland approaches to Baghdad. This would have caused Maude’s men immense difficulties and the threat of flooding remained a worry for the British even after the capture of the city.

Instead Khalil chose to defend Baghdad itself. He built defences on either side of the Tigris to the south of the city and then he deployed the Turkish Sixth Army to defend the southeast approaches to the city along the Diyala River.

After waiting for a week at al-Aziziyeh, Maude resumed his advance on 5 March 1917. Travelling up the east bank of the Tigris he reached the Diyala three days later. Small-scale crossings under the cover of darkness on the following evening resulted in the successful establishment of a small bridgehead on the north bank. Taking the bulk of the forces across the well-defended river proved to be less easy. Instead, Maude built pontoon bridges several miles downstream and moved the main body of his forces to a position from where they could cross to the west bank of the Tigris. His aim was to outflank Khalil’s defences along the Diyala and move directly on to Baghdad.

However, the German Army Air Service had just brought planes into the area. They spotted what the British were attempting to do and informed Khalil, who then moved the bulk of his forces across the Tigris, so that he would be able to counter a British attack from the southwest. He left just one regiment on the Diyala which the British overrran on the morning of 10 March. Khalil was effectively outmanoeuvred.

Khalil’s next priority was to guard his rear so he moved his forces to the west of their position in Tel Aswad. Their task was to protect the railway that started from Baghdad and ran all the way back to the heart of the Ottoman Empire and on to Berlin. The battle for Baghdad was then halted by a sand-storm. The Germans urged Khalil to stage a counterattack but by the time the weather had cleared he had decided to pull out of the city. At eight p.m. on 10 March the retreat from Baghdad was under way.

On the following day Maude’s troops entered the city without a struggle. Baghdad’s 140,000 occupants lined the streets, cheering and clapping. For the last two years the Turkish Army had been requisitioning private merchandise and shipping it out of the city. General Maude issued a proclamation that read:

People of Baghdad, remember for twenty-six generations you have suffered strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her allies for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity or misgovernment. Our armies do not come to your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.

However, Iraq did not gain its independence. The League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to run Iraq as well as Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Egypt. There was an uprising in 1920, so the British installed Lawrence of Arabia’s friend Prince Faisal as king. He promised to safeguard British oil interests in Iraq, for which Britain paid him £800,000 a month.

Some 9,000 Turkish prisoners were taken at the fall of Baghdad. Britain had sustained 40,000 casualties over the entire campaign, many having died from disease. Maude himself contracted cholera after drinking contaminated milk. He died on 18 November 1917 and was buried just outside the city walls of Baghdad.

The capture of Baghdad was a decisive propaganda blow for the Western Allies and it ended Turkish activity in Persia. Meanwhile Maude’s force moved on rapidly to capture the strategically vital railway at Samarrah.

Shanghai Area 1937

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Officers of the Chinese 88th Division studying a map, Shanghai, China, Sep-Nov 1937; note Germany-supplied helmets.

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It seemed increasingly likely that Vice Admiral Hasegawa Kiyoshi, the commander of the Japanese Third Fleet, had bitten off more than he could chew when aggressively expanding the operations in the Shanghai area. August 16 was the crucial day. Repeated Chinese attacks put the Japanese defenders under severe pressure and stretched their resources to the limit. Rear Admiral Okawachi Denshichi, who headed the Shanghai marines, had to hastily throw in precious reserves, including irreplaceable tanks, to prevent a Chinese breakthrough. It was a crisis situation, and for the first time the marines had to think the unthinkable. If they did not get help from the outside, they might actually lose the battle.

Three times during the course of August 16, Hasegawa himself sent telegrams to his superiors, each more desperate-sounding than the previous one. After his second telegram, sent at about 7:00 p.m., warning that his troops could probably only hold out for six more days, the Naval Command issued an order to the marine barracks at Sasebo Naval Base in southern Japan to dispatch two units of 500 marines each to Shanghai. After Hasegawa’s third telegram later that night, the navy opted for yet more reinforcements. Two units of the marines, consisting of a total of 1,400 soldiers, waiting in Manchuria for deployment at Qingdao, were ordered to immediately embark for Shanghai.

The Chinese, however, did not feel that things were going their way. The battle continued to be much bloodier than anyone had foreseen. Throwing infantry en masse against fortified positions was perhaps the only feasible tactic available to an army rich in manpower confronting an adversary with an obvious technological edge. Yet, it turned the battle into a contest of flesh against steel. The result was a tremendous loss of life. Chiang Kai-shek was losing patience. After several days of fighting, his troops had still not succeeded in dislodging the Japanese from the streets of Shanghai. The Japanese marines entrenched in the Hongkou and Yang-shupu areas had proved to be a harder nut to crack than he or any of his generals had expected. At a meeting with his divisional commanders, he ordered a massive attack to be launched in the early morning of August 17. The troops were to field more firepower, and be better prepared than they were for the assault three days earlier. Codenamed Operation Iron Fist, it was the most ambitious Chinese offensive in the first crucial week of the Shanghai campaign.

Although the initiative was Chiang’s, in its actual execution the operation was mainly a German undertaking. Colonel Hans Vetter, the advisor assigned to the 88th Division, played a key role in planning the offensive. He wanted to use the Stosstrupp, or shock troop tactics that the Germans had introduced to much effect in the trenches towards the end of the Great War. After intensive artillery bombardment, a small, elite group of determined, well-armed men was to punch through the Japanese lines and fight its way deep into the enemy camp before the defenders had even had a chance to recover from the initial surprise. The procedure was to be followed both by the 88th Division moving in from the west, targeting the area south of Hongkou Park, and by the 87th Division carrying out a parallel operation from the east.

Plans for the attack came at a critical time. Zhang Zhizhong knew that he faced a window of opportunity while he was still enjoying a significant, but probably only temporary, advantage against the Japanese. The window had to be utilized before reinforcements arrived. However, the odds were not good. Urban combat with modern weaponry of unprecedented lethality was a costly affair, especially when the enemy had the upper hand in the sky. Japanese airplanes were a constant menace, carrying out incessant sorties against the Chinese positions at all times of the day. The Chinese Air Force remained a factor, but it was a question how much longer it would hold out against the more experienced Japanese pilots and their better and more maneuverable aircraft.

The growing Japanese presence overhead, maintained by both ship-borne planes and planes based on airstrips on Chongming Island in the Yangtze Delta, greatly complicated any major movements on the ground. “The transport and deployment of Chinese units met significant obstacles due to the busy activity of the Japanese naval aircraft,” German advisors recalled later. Even so, the Chinese Army continued its troop build-up in the Shanghai area. The 98th Infantry Division arrived on August 15 and placed one brigade, half its strength, at the disposal of 87th Infantry Division, keeping the division’s rear area covered during Operation Iron Fist.

As the countdown to the planned final strike continued, morale remained high in the Chinese camp. Despite the lack of progress in the days since the battle had broken out, and despite the heavy casualties, a feeling of relief permeated the ranks. After civil wars that in effect had lasted a quarter century, all Chinese were at long last fighting on the same side. Many officers rushed to write their wills, expecting to die for their country. Few wanted to be killed. Still, they felt that if they had to give their lives, this was a worthy cause. “I was very happy and excited,” said Zhang Fakui, the commander of the right wing in the Pudong area, east of Huangpu, which had been designated as the 8th Army Group. “This was the first and only national war I fought in.”

Iron Fist kicked off as planned at 5:00 a.m. on August 17. With the expenditure of all available firepower, the 87th and 88th Infantry Divisions launched simultaneous assaults against stunned and bewildered Japanese. In line with the Stosstrupp approach of rapid penetration, Zhang Zhizhong introduced a new tactical principle, prompted by the severe losses during the first few days of fighting. Forces under his command were to identify gaps in the Japanese defenses and exploit these, rather than launch massive, costly and most likely futile attacks on heavily fortified positions. Once an enemy stronghold was spotted, the main forces would evade it and leave just enough troops to keep it pinned down.

Chen Yiding, a regimental commander of the 87th Infantry Division, was a pivotal figure in the assault. His soldiers, each equipped with provisions for two days, made good progress during the first hours of Iron Fist, taking advantage of their local knowledge and moving with the slippery dexterity of alley cats. They would enter into a building on one street, knock down the wall inside and exit onto the next street, or they would throw down beams from rooftop to rooftop, sneaking as quietly as possible from one block to the next without being noticed by those on the ground. They proved elusive targets for the Japanese, who would expect them to come from one direction, only to be attacked from another.

Nevertheless, changing the tactical situation of the previous days was not enough. The attackers encountered well-prepared defenses that sometimes could not be circumvented, and losses started piling up from early in the assault. An entire battalion of the 88th Division was wiped out trying to take a single building. Despite the sacrifices, there was no major breakthrough anywhere along the Japanese defense lines. This was partly a result of strong support from Japanese naval artillery in the Huangpu River, and partly a reflection of poor coordination between Chinese infantry and artillery.

Equally detrimental to the Chinese cause was their careful avoidance, during the first days of combat in Shanghai, of fighting inside the International Settlement, or even in the predominantly Japanese part of the settlement, in order not to anger the outside world and swing international opinion against them. This approach frustrated their German advisors. “It was obvious that the attacking troops had been told to only take on enemies standing on Chinese territory, not the ones inside the international areas,” the Germans wrote with an almost audible sigh of regret in their after-action report.

Their frustration was shared by several Chinese officers at the frontline. “We are much handicapped by the demarcation of the foreign areas,” the adjutant to a divisional commander told a western reporter. “We could have wiped out the enemy if it had not been for orders from the Central Government and our commander to avoid causing damage to foreign lives and to give them adequate protection.” The existence of the large foreign community mainly played into Japanese hands. Many of Chiang Kai-shek’s officers believed that if the Chinese had been able to move through the French Concession and the International Settlement and attack the Japanese from the rear, they could have won easily. “Without the protection provided by the foreign concessions they would have been wiped out,” said Zhang Fakui.

At the same time, the Chinese commanders had only hazy ideas about conditions at the frontline and were sometimes misled by exaggerated claims made by officers in the field. At 9:00 a.m. on August 17, the commander of the 87th Infantry Division reported to Zhang Zhizhong that the Japanese Navy Club, a key position, was in his possession. However, when Zhang sent his own people to the spot to investigate, it turned out a four-story building right next door was still occupied by the Japanese who were determined to defend the building to the last man. The divisional commander’s self-assured claim was further undermined later that afternoon, when Japanese troops carried out two counterattacks from a nearby naval drill ground. It was, therefore, understandable that not all officers trusted reports that their own units sent back to them. One regiment of the 87th Division was under specific orders to document any advance it made. Every time it had taken a key objective along its predetermined route of advance, it was to pull down a street sign and send it back as evidence that it indeed was in control of the position.

At the end of the day, the Japanese won. Defense had proved stronger, as it had for four long years on the Western Front during the Great War. The challenge the Japanese faced was tough, but at least it was straightforward and uncomplicated. They had to hold on to Hongkou and Yang-shupu and wait for reinforcements to arrive. They proved themselves adept at this job. In many cases, Chinese soldiers found themselves fighting for the same objectives they had been targeting when the battle for Shanghai began several days earlier. Pan Shihua, a soldier in the 88th Infantry Division, took part in a harsh seesaw struggle around the Eight Character Bridge, where lax preparation caused casualties to run unnecessarily high. “Because we hadn’t done reconnaissance well enough beforehand, we found ourselves surrounded by Japanese armor on all sides,” he said. The Chinese forces were getting bogged down. Zhang Zhizhong’s window of opportunity was closing fast.

German Advisory Corps In China 1937

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Falkenhausen 1937.

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Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.

When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”

The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”

Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.

Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.

It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.

Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.

The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.

Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.

Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”

It Is Better to Die in Battle Than to Live in Shame

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The rise of Slobodan Milosevic, the man who was to become Serbian president, was sealed by an apparently impromptu speech he gave in Kosovo Polje on 24 April 1987. The leader of the League of Communists of Serbia emerged from a meeting of angry Kosovo Serbs who were complaining of harassment at the hands of the local ethnic Albanian-dominated authorities:

First I want to tell you, comrades, that you should stay here. This is your country, these are your houses, your fields and gardens, your memories. You are not going to abandon your lands because life is hard, because you are oppressed by injustice and humiliation. It has never been a characteristic of the Serbian and Montenegrin people to retreat in the face of obstacles, to demobilise when they should fight, to become demoralised when things are difficult. You should stay here, both for your ancestors and your descendants. Otherwise you would shame your ancestors and disappoint your descendants. But I do not suggest you stay here suffering and enduring a situation with which you are not satisfied. On the contrary! It should be changed, together with all progressive people here, in Serbia and in Yugoslavia. . . . Yugoslavia does not exist without Kosovo! Yugoslavia would disintegrate without Kosovo! Yugoslavia and Serbia are not going to give up Kosovo!

Soon after 1389 the Serbian Patriarch Danilo recorded what he claimed was a speech given by Prince Lazar to his men on the eve of combat:

You, oh comrades and brothers, lords and nobles, soldiers and vojvodas [dukes] great and small. You yourselves are witnesses and observers of that great goodness God has given us in this life. . . . But if the sword, if wounds, or if the darkness of death comes to us, we accept them sweetly for Christ and for the godliness of our homeland. It is better to die in battle than to live in shame. Better it is for us to accept death from the sword in battle than to offer our shoulders to the enemy. We have lived a long time for the world; in the end we seek to accept the martyr’s struggle and to live forever in heaven. We call ourselves Christian soldiers, martyrs for godliness to be recorded in the book of life. We do not spare our bodies in fighting in order that we may accept the holy wreaths from that One who judges all accomplishments. Sufferings beget glory and labors lead to peace.

In all of European history it is impossible to find any comparison with the effect of Kosovo on the Serbian national psyche. The battle changed the course of Serbian history, but its immediate strategic impact was far less than many subsequently came to believe. Its real, lasting legacy lay in the myths and legends which came to be woven around it, enabling it to shape the nation’s historical and national consciousness. This came about through a particular set of historical and political circumstances in the decades following the battle. A legend was created around the character of Lazar, primarily by monks, which was later preserved through the tradition of cycles of epic folk poetry. These provided a link to past glory and more importantly an inspiration for the Serbs in the nineteenth century and during the Balkan Wars when the time was ripe to shrug off Ottoman domination.

In the late 1980s, with Milosevic acting as cup-bearer, the Serbs were again to drink from the Kosovo chalice and, fortified by its heady brew of nationalism, they marched confidently into war and disaster. The irony is that Milosevic had predicted that ‘Yugoslavia would disintegrate without Kosovo’, yet it was Yugoslavia’s fate to disintegrate with Kosovo, as the fissures that spread from the unhappy province managed to splinter the rest of the country. That did not mean of course that Kosovo, with its majority ethnic Albanian population, would be happy to stay in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia. Far from it. By the end of the twentieth century what remained of Yugoslavia, then just Serbia and Montenegro, would face utter catastrophe as the conflict that began in Kosovo eventually exploded into war.

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The Battle and Its Aftermath

Because it has become so central to the Serbian story, Kosovo can rightly be described as its historical crossroads. But for the Turks in the late 1380s it had no such metaphysical connotations. It was simply the next domino in their conquest of the Balkans. Much of it lay under the control of the powerful local lord Vuk Brankovic. Its plains were rich and fertile and its mines gave forth an abundance of minerals, especially gold and silver.

After the Battle on the Maritsa in 1371 the Turks spent time consolidating their rule in Bulgaria and Macedonia. By the mid-1380s, however, they began to raid Serbia itself. It was clear to all that a decisive battle was coming, especially if the Serbian lords did not submit and agree to become vassals beforehand. In 1389 Sultan Murad, acknowledging the importance of the coming conflict, not only led his troops personally but came to Kosovo with his two sons, Bayezid and Yakub. On the Serbian side the main contingents were led by Lazar and Vuk Brankovic. King Tvrtko of Bosnia had sent men under the command of Vlatko Vukovic. There were most probably also some Albanian contingents under Lazar’s flag plus mercenaries from many parts of the region, as there were in the Turkish ranks too.

Considering the vast repercussions of the battle it is striking how little hard information there is about what actually happened. Later myth-makers and hagiographers were to compose histories crammed with a wealth of detail, such as Danilo’s account of Lazar’s eve-of-battle speech, but very little of this has any grounding in fact. All we know for sure is that Lazar and Sultan Murad died, along with many others. Vuk Brankovic, Vlatko Vukovic and Bayezid survived, and immediately after the battle the Turks retreated to Edirne (Adrianople), their capital at that time. Today Kosovo is written and talked about as the great Serbian defeat, the end of empire and the beginning of centuries of Ottoman bondage. Yet none of this is strictly true. First, many of the initial reports from Kosovo, far from lamenting a great Christian catastrophe, celebrated a triumph over the Turks. Secondly, as we have seen, the Serbian Empire had begun to collapse as far back as 1355 after the death of Dusan. Thirdly, after the battle, a form of Serbian state, the so-called despotate, survived, on and off, for another seventy years. Despite the constant threat from the Turks, the despotate was to see a Serbian cultural renaissance, the most important monuments of which are the monasteries of the Morava valley.

The very first record of the battle that has come down to us was made by a Russian monk who was on Turkish territory at the time, close to Constantinople. Writing twelve days after the battle he noted the death of the sultan but said nothing of victory or defeat. By contrast King Tvrtko in Bosnia was soon trumpeting his victory. On 1 August 1389 he wrote to the senate of the Dalmatian town of Trogir informing them of the sultan’s defeat. He then wrote to the Florentine senate. This letter has not been preserved, but their reply has been. In it he is congratulated on the victory and, significantly, reference is made to twelve men ‘who broke through the enemy ranks and the camels tethered round about, opening a way with their swords, and reached Murad’s tent.

‘Blessed above the rest was he who, running his sword into the throat and skirt of the leader of such a great power, heroically killed him.’

At the time the question of who had killed the sultan did not seem very important, but in later chronicles the man was named. He was Milos Obilic, or in earlier writings Kobilic. No historian can say with absolute certainty whether Obilic was an historical character, but his name came to loom ever larger, not only in Serbian epic poems about the battle but also in the national pantheon of heroes.

Gradually reports of the battle began to filter across Europe but they were either unspecific about its outcome or they talked of a Christian victory. As in Chinese Whispers these reports also tended to become ever more distorted in the telling. By the time they reached Paris, for example, the French chronicler Philippe Mesière recorded that the sultan ‘had been completely defeated. . . . Both he and his sons fell in the battle as well as the bravest of their army.’ These reports did not talk much about the death of Prince Lazar, who, at least in the west, was an obscure Balkan princeling.

A wealth of modern scholarship has examined scores of chronicles, Serbian, Turkish and others, written in the decades after the battle. What appears to have happened is that both sides, reeling from the loss of their leaders, now needed to consolidate power in the hands of their successors. On the Turkish side this was swift and bloody. After Murad’s death Bayezid summoned his younger brother Yakub, murdered him and then hurried home to Edirne to secure his succession.

On the Serbian side it was the consolidation of power in the hands of Lazar’s clan which gave birth to the myth of Kosovo. Lazar’s widow Milica needed to secure the succession of their son Stefan, who in 1389 was still a young boy. Apart from retaining power, she had other urgent matters to attend to. Although it was not immediately evident that Kosovo was a military defeat, its implications were soon becoming clear, While Lazar’s Serbia had been relatively wealthy and strong, it was no long-term match for the far more powerful Ottomans. If both armies had suffered heavy losses, only the Turks had a plentiful supply of fresh manpower to call upon when they returned home. No sooner had Bayezid secured his succession than the Turks were back demanding that Milica submit to his authority. With the Hungarians threatening the north, there was little choice. What had been Lazar’s Serbia became a vassal state. Stefan and his brother Vuk were not yet old enough to lead troops for Bayezid, but tribute had to be paid including the despatch of Lazar’s fourteen-year-old daughter Olivera to grace Bayezid’s harem.

In a bid to shore up her power-base against the potential threat of the other marauding Serbian lords who might now want to partition her lands, Milica put church scribes to work to sanctify Lazar in order to bolster Stefan’s claim on power. So, as the scribes eulogised his ‘saintly’ father, young Stefan, like the Nemanjas, could also claim to be a ‘sapling’ from a ‘holy root’. It would be too cynical to suggest that securing the position of young Stefan was the only reason for the canonisation of Lazar, but it was certainly a powerful motivation. In medieval society the church was the main source of news and information for ordinary people. As Lazar had been favoured by the church above the other Serbian lords of the time, its priests were happy to play their part.

Within a few years of the battle Stefan Lazarevic was old enough to fulfil his obligations as a vassal most importantly he was required to come to the Sultan’s aid along with his soldiers. This led to a curious situation, but one which was then accepted as fate. While Lazar himself was being venerated as a saint and as the man who had given his life to save the Serbs from Murad’s Turks, his son was now fighting for Murad’s son Bayezid, who was also his brother-in-law.

Immediately after the battle, Bayezid had successfully consolidated his power, and there were ever fewer Balkan Slav leaders left who had not yet submitted to his authority. In 1396, however, the Turks had to confront the last serious crusade against them, but, in part thanks to Stefan’s intervention, the Christians were defeated. In 1402, though, Bayezid’s luck turned. This time the threat came from the east. Bayezid’s army suffered a crushing defeat at Angora (Ankara) at the hands of Timur (Tamerlane), the Mongol leader who had begun to build up his empire in far-off Samarkand. Bayezid was captured and was said to have been carried around in a cage until he died. Timur’s incursion into Asia Minor did not last long and his power crumbled after his death in 1405. However, the damage he wrought on the Ottomans was considerable and the episode managed to give a respite to the rump Byzantine Empire still lingering on in Constantinople. Stefan Lazarevic, who had fought at Ankara with Bayezid, now seized his chance to slip the Ottoman leash. Escaping from the battlefield, where his men had defeated a Tartar unit, he collected his sister Olivera from Bayezid’s harem and paid a visit to the emperor in Constantinople, Manuel II Palaeologus. He conferred on Stefan the title despot or ruler, which in Byzantine terminology does not have the negative connotations that it has in English.

Following the demise of Bayezid, his sons plunged into a bloody civil war in a bid to secure the succession. By 1413 it was over and Despot Stefan once again had to submit to Ottoman suzerainty. His nephew and successor Djuradj Brankovic (1427-56) tried to organise resistance with other Christian powers but, as usual, their own short-term interests came first. In 1427 the Hungarians made a deal with the Turks by which Djuradj Brankovic would be recognised as despot of a semi-independent buffer state which was to lie between them. It was not to last. The Turks occupied Serbia briefly in 1439 and again finally in 1459 when Smederevo, the purpose-built Danube fortress town and capital of the despotate, fell. On the map, Serbia as anything else but a far-flung Ottoman province ceased to exist. In the minds of the Serbs, however, Serbia was simply awaiting its resurrection.

Battle of Baliqiao (Palikao): 21 September 1860

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The Battle of Baliqao was the culmination of the Second Opium War. An Anglo-French force of 4000 men soundly defeated a Qing Army of 30,000 east of Beijing. The allied victory was followed by the sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace northwest of the city, and the conclusion of the conflict. Prince Seng-ko-lin-Chin, one of the most successful Qing generals and Prince Sengbao, brother of the Emperor, blocked the road to Beijing with troops drawn from the Green Standard Army, reinforced by Imperial Guard troops of the Banner Army. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Anglo- French force led by French General Cousin de Montauban and British General Sir John Hope Grant attacked the Qing positions at the front and flank. After hard fighting the Qing cavalry was repulsed. The Imperial Guard held the bridge at Baliqao, but French artillery, and a determined bayonet charge by experienced infantry, dislodged them with heavy losses for the Chinese.
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The Anglo-French expeditionary force landed and seized the forts at Tangku, then advanced up the Peiho River to Beijing. The combined Anglo- French force fought two successful engagements against overwhelming Qing forces, ultimately defeating them at Baliqao.

The victory at Chang chi wan over vastly superior forces gave Grant and Montauban even greater confidence in reaching the capital. As the Allies were en route to Toung-chou, the 101st Regiment under General Jamin arrived, further increasing French strength. After spending the night encamped outside the walled town, Grant and Montauban followed a canal tributary of the Peiho towards Baliqiao and its stone bridge, which carried the metalled road to the imperial capital. On the morning of 21 September, as the British and French columns moved out of their encampments past Toungchou, they found Prince Seng-ko-lin-ch’in’s army, reinforced by Imperial Guard soldiers under General Prince Sengbaou, brother of the emperor. Some 30,000 strong, it stood in position before Baliqiao Bridge.

The Chinese position was formidable, with its left on the canal, reinforced by the village of Baliqiao, another village in the centre, and a third on the far right. The road to Beijing passed through the rolling and wooded terrain and veered towards the canal and its stone bridge. Seng-ko-linch’in had brought order to his routed army, and strengthened its resolve with several thousand troops from Beijing. The prince’s position was supported by more than 100 guns in the villages, across the canal defending the bridge, and along the entire front. His army included a division of Banner soldiers, but the majority were drawn from the Green Standard Army and assorted cavalry. The Imperial Guard were kept in reserve at the bridge, but the main army under Sengbaou was disposed with strong cavalry on the flanks deployed in depth of squadrons and interspersed between the infantry battalions in and behind the villages. The Chinese front covered a distance of 5km (3 miles) but lacked substantial depth. Yet, there were significant knots of trees, which obstructed the line of sight of both armies.

Keeping to the line of battle used at Chang chi wan, Grant took the left and Montauban the centre and right with the canal to protect his flank. Montauban used the wooded terrain to mask his paltry numbers, sending the first column in a slightly oblique attack against the Chinese centre. General Jamin would move to Collineau’s right and against the Chinese left. Grant moved to the far left of Collineau, hoping to flank the Qing army with his column. General Collineau’s advance guard comprised the elite companies of the 101st and 102nd Regiments, two companies of the 2nd Chasseurs a pied (elite light infantry), an engineer detachment, two batteries of horse artillery and a battery of 4-pound foot artillery. Montauban and Jamin commanded the 101st Regiment along with two more companies of the 2nd Chasseurs a pied, a battery of 12-pounders and a Congreve rocket section.

Collineau’s infantry advanced through the woods towards the Chinese centre. The rapidity of the movement startled Sengbaou, and he moved much of the cavalry from the wings to protect his centre. The French advance guard moved in skirmish order, and formed out along the road towards Baliqiao. Montauban ordered Jamin’s brigade forward. Two large bodies of Qing cavalry, some 12,000 in all, charged each of the French columns. Collineau’s artillery poured fire into the serried ranks of Mongol and Manchu cavalry, while the elite companies found security in the ditch that ran along the main road. Accurate fire took its toll on the cavalry, but Collineau soon found himself embroiled in hand-to-hand fighting around his position. Generals Montauban and Jamin also managed to deploy their guns and fire with devastating effect while their infantry formed two squares just before the cavalry hit their position. The French 12-pound battery was positioned between Collineau and Jamin’s brigades and continued to pour canister into the enemy. After some time, the cavalry broke off their attack, having failed to break the French squares or overrun Collineau’s precarious position. The respite allowed Montauban to take stock, re-form and advance upon the villages held by the Green Standard battalions.

Cavalry Redeployed

Sengbaou and Seng-ko-lin-ch’in did not renew their cavalry assault, as Grant’s column moved against their right. Montauban could not see the British advance because he was in one of the squares during the attack. Grant’s appearance forced the Qing generals to redeploy their cavalry to the flank, thereby allowing Montauban to attack the village closest to the centre. With an abundance of cavalry, it remains unclear why Singbaou or Seng-ko-lin-ch’in did not leave a substantial body to retard the advance of the French. Grant’s force was larger, had more guns and cavalry, and one can only surmise that they perceived this threat to the flank as a priority and underestimated the elan of the French assault.

The 101st stormed the village of Oua-kaua-ye in the centre, dispersing with ease the infantry defending it, and suffering little from their ineffective artillery. Following up, Montauban ordered both brigades to attack the village of Baliqiao, which was defended by more determined troops. Qing infantry defended the road across which Collineau advanced. His elite companies made short and bloody work of these soldiers and continued towards the village. Large cannon in the streets and across the canal fired on the French columns. Jamin brought up his batteries to silence the Chinese guns while the infantry moved in from two directions. The village and bridge at Baliqiao were defended by the Imperial Guard. These soldiers did not give ground. Collineau brought his cannon up to form crossfire with Jamin’s batteries.

Collineau Storms the Village

After tearing the Imperial Guard troops apart, Collineau formed his troops into an attack column and stormed the village. Fighting raged at close quarters for more than 30 minutes. Montauban led the 101st to Collineau’s support securing the village. Not wanting to lose momentum, Collineau re-formed his command and advanced rapidly upon the bridge, with the French batteries providing effective and deadly fire. The Chinese artillerists manning their guns were killed, and the Imperial Guard gave ground under the canister, followed by Collineau’s attack. The bridge was taken.

Grant’s column helped the Chinese along as its attack on the left dislodged the Green Standard troops from their village, while the British and Indian cavalry rolled up the line, overwhelming Qing cavalry that tried to hold their ground. The British attack was swift, but hard-fought. Grant’s line of attack brought him within sight of a wooden bridge that crossed the canal some 1.6km (1 mile) west of Baliqiao.The arrival of the British on Seng-ko-lin-ch’in’s far right, and the collapse of his forces in the face of their attack, compelled the general to pull his army from the field before it was trapped on the far bank of the canal. By noon, only five hours after the battle began, Grant’s British were on the far side of the canal across the wooden bridge, while Collineau’s elite companies established a bridgehead at Baliqiao. The victory sealed the fate of the imperial government.

The Allied expedition sacked the Imperial Summer Palace northwest of Beijing, and the emperor capitulated to European demands. Napoleon III, flush with victory over Austria the year before, rewarded Montauban with elevation to the rank of Count of the Empire, as Comte de Palikao’. Little did Montauban know that he would end his illustrious career as Minister of War in 1870, presiding over the collapse of the Second Empire and the fall of France to German armies.

Battle of Oudenaarde [Oudenarde] , (11 July 1708)

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The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Oudenaarde (John Wootton).

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The perfect illustration of the difficulties of double command. In 1708, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, wanted to raise the morale of his Dutch allies by winning a battle in Flanders. His main objective was to retake all the territories lost the two previous years. On the French side, the king had sent his grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, to command the field army with the Marechal de Vendôme on a secondary front. Eugene of Savoy’s army was far away, and Marlborough’s troops were deployed all over northern Flanders, with Brussels as headquarters. On 16 May, the French army advanced toward Brussels, its superior number pushing away Marlborough’s troops. Then Bourgogne stopped waiting for orders from Versailles, 200 miles away. A very religious man, Bourgogne was also very cautious and was always at variance with Vendôme’s orders. On the other side, Marlborough asked Prince Eugene to join his army as soon as possible to coordinate an aggressive defense.

At the beginning of July, a sycophantic noble follower of Bourgogne suggested an attack toward Bruges and Ghent. The two towns were easily taken, and the royal army decided to encircle Oudenaarde on the River Scheldt. But Marlborough had discerned this move and sent his army to cross the river before the French arrived.

On 11 July, the French general Biron discovered the waiting allied troops and asked for orders. Vendôme refused to believe Biron and left his army without deployment orders until it was too late. Marlborough, urging his troops on, arrived at noon and deployed on a line of low hills north of Oudenaarde. His lines were protected by meadows and hedges. By 3 P.M., Bourgogne gave the order to the marching French to assault the waiting English lines. The attack began on the French right, soon supported by the center. All this uncoordinated movement gave predictable results, as all the columns were repulsed. The French left, under Vendôme, remained useless.

Eventually, with Eugene’s army facing Vendôme, Marlborough took the initiative. Following the retiring French right, he managed to encircle them, forcing thousands to surrender. The French rout sent them back to Bruges. Marlborough’s victory restored allied morale. The French had lost more than 15,000 soldiers and were no longer able to protect their northern border. France lay open to an invasion.

References and further reading: Belloc,H. The Tactics and Strategy of the Great Duke of Marlborough. London: Arrowsmith, 1933. Bluche, François. Dictionnaire du Grand Siècle. Paris: Fayard, 1990.

Vendôme, Louis Joseph, duc de (1654–1712). Maréchal de France.

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Vendôme was one of Louis XIV’s late appointments to high command, a role in which he proved less able than he had previously shown himself to be as a subordinate to Luxembourg. Vendôme fought throughout the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697), including service under Luxembourg at Steenkerke (July 24/August 3, 1692). He next went to Spain, where he campaigned in Catalonia from 1695. He took Barcelona in 1697, after a two-year Allied occupation. Vendôme was the main French commander in northern Italy during the opening years of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). He replaced the captured Villeroi in northern Italy and was immediately defeated at Luzzara (August 4/15, 1702) by an Imperial army led by Prince Eugene. Vendôme faced Eugene again at Cassano (August 16, 1705), this time beating him. That allowed Vendôme to add additional Italian territory to Louis’ conquests.

Vendôme was recalled to Flanders to repair the damage done to French defenses when Marlborough partially broke the Lines of Brabant. He managed to slow Marlborough down over the rest of 1707. The next year, Vendôme bested Marlborough in a campaign of maneuver that allowed him to retake Bruges and Ghent. However, Marlborough and Eugene linked, caught up with Vendôme, and defeated him soundly at Oudenarde (June 30/July 11, 1708). Worse lay ahead: Vendôme lost the siege of Lille (1708) and with it, Louis’ confidence. He was removed from command, and was not restored until 1710. Thereafter, he fought with more success against the British and other Allied forces in Spain, winning at Brihuega (December 8–9/19–20, 1710) and again at Villa Viciosa(December 10/21, 1710). He died two years later. By that time, the succession in Spain was essentially won for Louis’ grandson, Philip V, in part due to Vendôme’s efforts.

Duc de Bourgogne, Louis, Duke of Burgundy

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Louis de France, Duke of Burgundy, and later Dauphin of France 1682 –1712 was the eldest son of Louis, Dauphin of France. He became the official Dauphin of France upon his father’s death in 1711 but he died himself a year later.

In 1708, during the Spanish War of Succession, Louis, Duke of Burgundy, was given command of an army in Flanders, advised by Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme. Confusion arose over who was in command of the army, which led to delays in giving orders. For a time, all military decisions had to be referred to King Louis XIV. This caused further confusion as messages had to travel between the battle front and Versailles. The Grand Alliance, which opposed France in the war, took advantage of the indecisiveness and advanced its forces. The culminating Battle of Oudenarde was a significant defeat for the French due to Louis’ poor choices and reluctance to support Vendôme. In the aftermath, France lost the city of Lille and Grand Alliance forces made their way into France for a brief time.

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