Hua Mulan

The Chinese heroine Hua Mulan is one of the oldest and most enduring examples of a woman who becomes a warrior because of her role as a daughter.

Scholars have argued for centuries over whether or not Mulan was a historical figure. At some level, it doesn’t matter as far as piecing together her story is concerned. The available information about her life is scarce to nonexistent, even by the often-shaky standard of what we know about other women warriors of the ancient world.

Our oldest source for her story is the “Poem of Mulan,” which appears in a twelfth-century poetry anthology compiled by Guo Maoqian, who attributes it to a sixth-century collection that no longer exists. The poem is anonymous, undated, and three hundred words long. A few details, such as the use of the title “khan” rather than “emperor,” suggest the poem dates from the Northern dynasties period (386–581 CE).

For the most part, I chose not to discuss the stories of mythical women warriors, because there are plenty of historical examples to consider. But Mulan is a special case. She is as well known in China as Joan of Arc is in the West. Despite the absence of biographical details in the original source, several regions of China claim her as their own folk heroine.

Mulan’s story is familiar to American audiences thanks to the 1998 Disney film Mulan. But the Walt Disney Company is simply one in a long tradition of Mulan adapters, and by no means the most fanciful in its interpretation. Over a period of 1,500 years, Mulan’s story has been told in Chinese operas, plays, folk tales, and now video games.

While the versions differ in the details, the basic structure of the story remains the same: Threatened by invaders from the north, the emperor (or the khan) conscripted soldiers to defend the country. Because her father was too old to fight and her brother too young, Mulan purchased a horse, weapons, and armor; disguised herself as a man; and joined the army to fulfill the family’s conscription obligation.

The original poem gives us a brief, vivid impression of Mulan’s life as a soldier, but no details:

She did not hear her parents’ voices, calling for their daughter,

She only heard the whinnying of Crimson Mountain’s Hunnish horsemen.

Myriads of mile: she joined the thick of battle,

Crossing the mountain passes as if flying.

Winds from the north transmitted metal rattles,

A freezing light shone on her iron armor.

A hundred battles and the brass were dead;

After ten years the bravest men returned.

This is war from the common soldier’s viewpoint, stripped down to misery and poetry. Later versions of the story fill this space with heroic deeds, gender-problematic romances, and, in the Disney version, a smart-mouthed dragon sidekick.

At the end of their tour of duty, Mulan and her comrades met with the emperor, who offered them honorary ranks, appointments at court, and rewards “counted in the millions.” (In one late version, the emperor discovers her gender and offers to make her his consort. She tells him she would rather die.) Mulan refused everything; all she wanted was a fast horse (or sometimes a camel) to take her home. Once there, she went into the house and put on a woman’s clothing and makeup. When she came back out, her army buddies were flabbergasted by the truth. During the ten (or sometimes twelve) years she served in the army, none of her fellow soldiers suspected she was a woman.

In Mulan’s story, the link between being a daughter and becoming a soldier is direct and irrefutable. Chinese readers/listeners/viewers would understand her action as an extreme act of filial piety. In fact, in one version of the story she receives the posthumous title Filial-Staunchness. Filial piety—respect for and obedience to one’s parents—is the foundation on which Confucian society stands. Children are loyal to their parents. Wives are loyal to their husbands. Subjects are loyal to the ruler. The ruler is loyal to the kingdom itself. If everyone performs their duties to those above them in the hierarchy, society flourishes. If duties are not faithfully performed, chaos reigns, the emperor loses the mandate of heaven, and dynasties fall. It is an alien concept for those of us who grew up in a culture defined in terms of rights rather than social duties. But it is as powerful a fundamental social principle as “all men are created equal.”

Seen through this lens, Mulan became a warrior in order to protect her father, her family, and the social order as a whole. She preserved society’s norms by stepping outside them.

Warrior daughters fought for a variety of reasons. Some, like Mulan, fought to preserve their society. Some fought to overturn it. Some fought simply to escape the narrow framework of what society expected of women. But whatever their reasons, most historical warrior daughters shared one common characteristic: they went to war as a result of their relationships with their fathers.

The warrior daughter is not an obvious outcome of the father-daughter relationship in most traditional societies, in which the male head of the family, extended or nuclear, exercised political, social, and economic power over other family members. While the details varied in different times and places, the basic outlines of the roles of fathers and daughters are remarkably consistent across those preindustrial societies for which data exists. Marriageable daughters were the ultimate trade good of the gift economy—an idea that survives in residual form in the ritual of “giving away” the bride. Royal families exchanged daughters to cement power alliances or to establish peace between hostile nations. (In medieval England, such women were called “peace-weavers.”) Wealthy merchants, cattle farmers, and plantation owners exchanged daughters to seal business alliances, consolidate holdings, or gain access to new markets. Well-to-do peasants and their urban counterparts included their daughters in the complex economic calculus that drove the exchange and/or acquisition of land, cattle, or other property. Whether payments took the form of a dowry, in which a bride brought goods or money into the marriage, or a bride-price, in which the groom’s family paid the bride’s family for a bride, at base these transactions treated women as commodities to be exchanged/given/taken/traded, based on their potential to produce children, food, status, connections, or domestic services. In such societies, daughters were more apt to be “daddy’s little asset” than “daddy’s little girl.” Even in places where the literal exchange of a daughter was a thing of the past, her legal identity was often an extension of her relationship first with her father and then with her husband. (As late as 1972, tennis star Billie Jean King could not get a credit card without the signature of her husband—an unemployed law student.)

By comparison, in traditional societies, past and present, sons have value in and of themselves. Families needed sons to carry on the name, the family business, the dynasty. (Henry VIII of England, who married and remarried in his desire to father a male heir, is perhaps the most famous example of how far this perceived need could drive a man.) Men desired sons to perform religious rites in honor of ancestors, or carry on blood feuds to avenge a family’s honor, or inherit the family farm.

In the absence of a son, a daughter could be used to “purchase” a son-in-law to serve as his successor. Or a nephew, cousin, or brother could step into the role that would otherwise be filled by a son. But in some cases, the lack of a son opened up opportunities for daughters. The chance to receive an education. To inherit a business. To inherit a kingdom. In extreme cases, a son-shaped hole allowed, or forced, a woman to step outside her expected roles and go to war in place of her father, by the side of her father, or in emulation of her father.

PLUCKY PRINCESS LEADS A BAND OF REBELS

Several hundred years after Hua Mulan, or perhaps a generation or two depending on which date you accept for the “Poem of Mulan,” a woman warrior led a rebel army against the Chinese empire on her father’s behalf and helped found the Tang dynasty, which is considered China’s cultural and artistic golden age.

Princess Pingyang (ca. 598–623 CE) took up arms in the reign of the Emperor Yangdi, second (and last) emperor of the Sui dynasty.

Yangdi took the throne in 604, after assassinating his father and older brother. By 613, his ambitious and expensive imperial projects—including building the Grand Canal, expanding the Great Wall, creating a secondary capital in the western empire, and launching repeated military expeditions into Vietnam, Tibet, Central Asia, and Korea—made him unpopular with peasants and nobles alike. Disastrous military expeditions in 612 and 613 against the kingdom of Koguryo, in what is now North Korea and southern Manchuria, were two foreign wars too many for China’s overburdened, overtaxed citizens. Peasants rose in revolt across the empire. The revolt soon spread to members of the aristocracy, many of whom controlled large personal armies. By 615, every province of the empire was in turmoil and the imperial army was engaged on a dozen fronts.

While his generals battled to contain the rebels, the emperor purged his government of any nobles whose loyalty he questioned. Pingyang’s father, Li Yuan, was one of the nobles the emperor feared most. Li Yuan was a successful general and a powerful warlord. He controlled the region of modern Shanxi, a strong tactical position from which to attack the Sui capitals at Chang’an and Lo-Yang. That was sufficient reason for the beleaguered emperor to suspect treason, but the main reason the emperor feared him was less rational. In 614, a ballad that predicted the next emperor would be named Li became popular throughout China. In 615, a soothsayer took up the thread and warned Yangdi that someone named Li would soon become emperor. In 617, the increasingly paranoid emperor began to execute people with the Li surname—a step that ensured the prophecy was fulfilled. After Yangdi ordered the execution of another high-ranking general named Li, Li Yuan decided his best chance of survival was rebellion. He sent secret messengers to his son and to Pingyang’s husband, Cai Shao, asking them to join forces with him to overthrow the emperor.

Li Yuan did not ask for help from Pingyang. He got it anyway.

Pingyang and her husband lived in the primary Sui capital, Chang’an, where Cai Shao was head of the Sui dynasty equivalent of the Secret Service, responsible for protecting the crown prince. When he received Li Yuan’s message asking for his help, Cai Shao hesitated. On the one hand, he feared taking Pingyang with him would cause suspicions in the royal court and end the rebellion before it began. On the other hand, he feared that if he left Pingyang behind she would be in danger once the emperor learned he had joined the rebellion. Pingyang, however, had no doubts about what they should do. She told her husband to join her father. She could take care of herself.

After Cai Shao left to join forces with her father, Pingyang fled to her family’s estate in Shanxi. She found the region suffering from a severe drought and widespread starvation, which the imperial officials were either unwilling or unable to alleviate. She fed the starving from the family granaries, then sold what remained. With the family’s wealth turned into hard cash, she assembled an army. Members of the families she had fed were the first recruits who joined what came to be called the Army of the Lady. After arming her newly formed peasant force, she made alliances with groups of dissidents, bandits, and neighboring warlords, one of whom brought a personal army of ten thousand troops to fight under Pingyang’s banner. Eventually she commanded a force of seventy thousand.

Dynastic histories emphasize that Pingyang kept strict discipline over her troops. Unlike many historical military leaders, she forbade looting, pillaging, and rape by her troops and punished offenders with a heavy hand. When her forces took control of a new area, she distributed food to the local people, ensuring they greeted her army as liberators rather than conquerors.

After repeated victories against the emperor’s armies in Shanxi, Pingyang joined up with her father and her husband. Together their forces encircled the Sui capital, which they captured within a year.

Yangdi fled the city and was later killed by his own men. Li Yuan became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, which would rule China for three hundred years. Her father gave Pingyang the official title of princess, the honorific title zhao, meaning wise, and the military rank of marshal, which gave her the right to military aides and staff. Despite the rank and honors, she retired from military life, presumably because the national crisis had come to an end.

Pingyang does not reappear in the dynastic histories until her death in 623 at the age of twenty-three. According to the official accounts, the struggle to win the throne for her father had exhausted her. Her grief-stricken father, now the Emperor Gaozu, broke with tradition and insisted her funeral procession include a military band and other martial honors. The official in charge of court ceremonies remonstrated with the emperor because a military band at a woman’s funeral was not an accepted practice. The emperor put him in his place, saying, “A military band plays military music; since the princess raised and commanded armies in the past in response to the righteous calls of dynastic change, she earned military merits. . . . The Princess’s achievements matched those of a minister, and she should not be compared to ordinary women. How could her funeral have no military band!” He then increased the size of the band to make his point.

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EASTERN PERIL

Doihara in a press photo in Tokyo during 1936, by then a Lt. General

With the Japanese samurai all means are permissible as long as they lead to the end in view. To them it is smart to lie, to cheat, to deceive, to intrigue, to be double-faced, hypocritical, provided it pays or brings power. It is in their nature to be false.

Amleto Vespa – former secret agent for Japan

In 1853 the United States sent four warships under Commodore Matthew Perry to barge open trade relations with Japan. The Japanese stalled and so Perry returned to Tokyo Bay a year later with more ships and hinted at war if an agreement was not reached. For centuries Japan had isolated itself from the world and until the coming of Perry it existed in an introspective, feudal cocoon. No one was allowed to leave Japan and no one could visit, with few exceptions. Perry’s arrival changed everything and Japan soon embraced the modern, industrial era, with Western experts advising on everything from postal systems to army reform.

The arrival of so many foreigners caused a schism in Japanese society that affected political life. Although Japan was nominally ruled by an emperor, since the 1600s military dictators known as shoguns had run the country. After several revolts, in 1868 imperial power was restored to the young Emperor Meiji (1852–1912), who passed a series of laws heralding a policy of Westernization and tolerance to foreigners.

While Japan eagerly embraced everything the West had to offer, few Westerners realized the bitterness felt by many Japanese toward foreigners. A philosophy known as Hakko Ichiu (Eight Corners of the World under One Rule) took hold of Japan, which preached a doctrine of racial superiority and the divine right of the Japanese people to do pretty much as they pleased. Japan was said to be at the centre of the world and the tenno (emperor) was a divine being directly descended from the Goddess of the Sun. The Japanese people, furthermore, were protected by their gods and were thus superior to all others. The Hakko Ichiu also had a profound impact on foreign policy, Japan having been given a divine mission to bring all nations under the beneficial rule of the tenno.

To realize these divinely inspired ambitions, Japan needed a modern espionage system. Adopting the German model, Japanese officials were sent to study under Wilhelm Stieber in the mid-1870s. Over the next decade Japan built up separate army and naval intelligence services, each with an accompanying branch of secret military police (Kempeitai for the army and Tokeitai for the navy). These latter organizations also provided an excellent counter-espionage service. However, where the Japanese were unique was in the use of spies belonging to unofficial secret societies working alongside or independently of the official intelligence agencies. These shadowy institutions were ultra-nationalist by nature, drawing their membership from a cross-section of Japanese society, including the military, politics, industry and Yakuza underworld. Under ruthless leadership, their henchmen would spy on, subvert and corrupt Japan’s Far East neighbours.

Perhaps the biggest losers in the Meiji Restoration were samurai warriors – the knights of the shogunate era. As Japan modernized and built an army based on universal conscription, the samurai found themselves an unwanted anachronism – even banned from publicly carrying their swords. Known as ronin, masterless samurai gravitated towards new urban centres where, unwilling to give up their martial way of life, they turned to crime. Realizing their potential, gang leader Mitsuru Toyama (1855–1944) organized the ronin into an effective force of hired muscle specializing in strikebreaking and assassination. Demand for Toyama’s services saw doors opened for him to the highest levels of society. Soon he was one of the most influential figures in the ultra-nationalist underworld, known to many by the sinister appellation ‘Darkside Emperor’ or ‘Shadow Shogun’.

An exponent of Japanese expansion, Toyama became the guiding hand of the Genyosha or Dark Ocean Society formed in 1881 by Kotaro Hiraoka – a rich samurai mine owner with an eye on business opportunities in Manchuria. To collect intelligence on the region and its Triad gangs, Toyama dispatched a hundred Genyosha agents to China. The most effective front for their espionage operations came through activities in the vice trade, with the Genyosha setting up bordellos in Hankow, Shanghai, Tientsin, Pusan and Russian-controlled Central Asia. The most noted of these was the ‘Hall of Pleasurable Delights’ at Hankow. Based on Stieber’s ‘The Green House’, this brothel was extremely popular among Chinese politicians and Triad bosses. While providing a safe house for Japanese spies, it brought in funds for the Genyosha’s clandestine activities and provided ample means to blackmail clients or find potential allies among the growing number of Chinese revolutionaries.

The name ‘Dark Ocean’ referred to the genkai nada – the stretch of water between Japan and Korea, hinting at the location of the group’s first major operation. The close proximity of the Korean peninsula to the Japanese islands gave it considerable strategic value as a springboard into East Asia and as a defensive buffer against China and Russia. At the behest of the minister of war, Soroku Kawakami, Toyama and another leading Genyosha member, Ryohei Uchida, set up the Tenyukyo, a group of 15 hand-picked agent provocateurs sent into Korea as agitators.

Once inside the country the Tenyukyo established contact with the Tonghaks, a radical Korean terrorist group. Together they waged such a campaign of terror that the Korean emperor was compelled to ask China for help. As obliging Chinese troops gathered on the border, Japanese hawks were presented with the excuse they had been hoping for. After condemnation of China’s ‘aggressive’ intervention (the Chinese had not actually entered Korea yet), Japanese troops were landed and, claiming to be acting in defence of Korean sovereignty, they seized the royal palace in Seoul on 23 July 1894. The ensuing conflict, which was declared a few days later on 1 August, saw a quick succession of Japanese victories against the Chinese on land and sea, leaving part of Manchuria and the island of Formosa (Taiwan) in Japanese hands.

Despite the victory, war had stretched Japan’s resources to the limit and rival nations were quick to detect the scent of vulnerability. Pressure from France, Germany and in particular Russia obliged Japan to give up its mainland gains in China. Russia formed an alliance with China against Japan in 1896, which gave it important strategic gains including the lease of Port Arthur (1898) and rights to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Manchuria to the Russian seaport of Vladivostok.

It was clear to the Genyosha leadership that this growing Russian influence would have to be checked. However, after the Korean episode, the society’s activities had come to the attention of headline writers. The unwanted publicity increased after Toyama’s disciples assassinated the Korean princess Bin and terrorized the Korean emperor into seeking refuge in Russia. Its high profile made the Genyosha unsuitable for conducting further secret operations, so in 1898 the group dissolved. Toyama instead formed the East Asia One Culture Society, a pan-Asian group with the ambition of formulating a common system of writing in the region. To help accomplish this, the group formed the Tung Wen College in Shanghai. Still operational in 1945, the Tung Wen College had thousands of graduates working from India to the Philippines. Of course the whole project was a sham front for espionage operations – the Chinese always referred to the Tung Wen as ‘the Japanese Spy School’.

In 1901, under Toyama’s direction, his Black Ocean comrade Ryohei Uchida formed the Kokuryu-kai, or Black Dragon Society. Like the Genyosha before it, the clue to the group’s ambitions lay in its name, which really implied ‘Beyond the Amur River’, the river separating northern Manchuria and Siberia. In Chinese the Amur translates to Black Dragon River, hence the origin of the society’s most common name.

Initially the group recruited its soshi (lit. brave knights) from patriotic ronin and avoided the criminal types increasingly predominant in the Genyosha. As word of their activities spread, other crusaders for the Japanese imperial cause sought membership. Although the society quickly boasted members in upper governmental and military circles, the group was not always in line with government policy, nor did it receive official sanction.

As war with Russia approached, the group successfully lobbied for the appointment of Colonel Motojiro Akashi as military attaché to St Petersburg. Akashi was an excellent intelligence officer sympathetic to the Black Dragons’ aims. He had previously served as military attaché at Japanese embassies in Sweden, France and Switzerland. In these posts he established that Western Europe would not come to the aid of tsarist Russia if it were attacked by Japan.

While fulfilling his duties, Akashi made secret contact with anti-tsarist revolutionary cells inside Russia and around Europe. In return for financial aid, these groups provided Akashi with intelligence on the Russian military and secret services. He also made contact with Abdur Rashid Ibrahim, a Tartar Muslim who provided important information on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. More intelligence came out of Port Arthur from the British agent Sidney Reilly who had met Akashi in St Petersburg. Reilly had set up a sham company in Port Arthur to provide him with a cover story while he spied on Russian defences for Akashi.

In addition to Akashi’s work, Japanese spies posing as coolies and dockworkers infiltrated Russian bases in Manchuria. The Black Dragons were at the forefront of these actions. They sent agents into Manchuria and Siberia – and even opened a ju-jitsu school in Vladivostok to provide a front for their operations against the Russians. They observed troop and naval movements, building up detailed information on the Russian order of battle and logistics. They also had an agent in the north of Manchuria, Hajime Hamamoto, who ran a general store near to a Russian army base. By seducing wives of Russian officers, Hamamoto was able to glean important information from them, which was passed on to Military Intelligence in Japan via an agent in Vladivostok.

These secret operations gave Japan a major advantage in the war, which began on 8 February 1904 with a Japanese surprise attack on Port Arthur, two days before a formal declaration of war was made. Moving to Stockholm, Akashi stretched Russian resources, stirring up Russian and Finnish revolutionaries. On a more practical level, Black Dragon agents acted as interpreters and guides for the Japanese army, organizing guerrilla operations with allied Manchurian warlords such as Marshal Chang Tso-lin.

Japan slowly wore down the Russian opposition, capturing Port Arthur and Mukden (now Shenyang). The Russians were finally forced to agree terms with Japan after its fleet was smashed at the battle of Tsushima (27–29 May 1905). A conference was held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, resulting in Japan gaining control of Port Arthur and the South Manchurian railroad. Russia evacuated southern Manchuria, which was restored to China, and Japan’s dominance of Korea was recognized.

With Russia out of the way, the Black Dragons turned their focus to China. Having met the revolutionaries Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) and Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) in Tokyo during 1905, the Black Dragons subsidized the 1911 overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty, which made China a republic. However, this assistance was given only to destabilize China and facilitate Japan’s seizure of Manchuria – a long-term ambition of the Black Dragons.

The hunt began for a stooge in whose name the seizure of Manchuria would be justified and world opinion placated. One candidate had been identified by the Black Dragon Naniwa Kawashima, an old samurai and veteran of the Russo-Japanese war. After the war Kawashima found himself chief of police in the Japanese section of Peking. In the course of his duties he befriended his opposite number, Prince Su Chin Wang, head of Peking’s Chinese police force. Prince Su was one of eight princes of the Iron Helmet, traditionally the emperor’s closest companions, which in Kawashima’s opinion gave him the right pedigree. Prince Su agreed to the plan, but it did not receive support from the Japanese government and floundered, much to the Black Dragons’ disappointment. Su went on to form an anti-Republican army in the northeast together with the Mongol general Babojab. When this army was defeated, Su retired to Port Arthur where he died in April 1922. The search for a suitable puppet shifted from Su to the deposed Chinese emperor.

Pu Yi (1906–67), the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, had ascended to the throne in 1908 before his third birthday. Since 1925 Pu Yi had lived in a villa – the Chang, or Quiet, Garden – inside the Japanese concession of Tientsin, where he enjoyed a playboy lifestyle with his increasingly opium-addicted wife ‘Elizabeth’ Wan Jung. Faced with the crippling cost of maintaining his royal trappings, Pu Yi was desperate to regain the throne and hoped he might find support among the Black Dragons. He was well informed of their activities, recording in his memoirs how the society had taken hold in China:

[It] started out with bases in Foochow, Yentai (Chefoo) and Shanghai and operated under such covers as consulates, schools and photographers … its membership was said to have reached several hundred thousand with correspondingly huge funds. Toyama Mitsuru was the most famous of its leaders and under his direction its members had penetrated every stratum of Chinese society. At the side of Ching nobles and high officials and among peddlers and servants, including the attendants in the Chang Garden. Many Japanese personalities were disciples of Toyama’s.

Pu Yi agreed to discuss his restoration with a Black Dragon agent named Tsukuda Nobuo. However, because the Black Dragons’ policy was not shared by the Japanese government, when Nobuo learned the local Japanese consul had also been invited to the interview, he pulled out and promptly disappeared. Puzzled at the agent’s behaviour, Pu Yi sent his advisor and tutor, Chang Hsiao-hsu, to Japan to make contact with the Black Dragons directly.

In the meantime, plans were set to seize Manchuria and its vast, unexploited resources. Since the war with Russia, Japan controlled the South Manchurian Railway, which it protected with a body of troops known as the Kwantung Army based in the Japanese concession at Mukden. Before Manchuria could be seized the powerful Manchurian warlord Marshal Chang Tso-lin had to be eliminated. A former Japanese ally in the war against Russia, the marshal opposed the growing Japanese influence in the region. In 1928 the Japanese assassinated the marshal by bombing his train, leaving Manchuria ripe for the taking. The following year intelligence specialist Colonel Seishiro Itagaki was posted to the Kwantung Army to make the final plans for the seizure of Manchuria. His plan was a masterpiece of ruse and treachery.

On the evening of 18 September 1931, Japanese sappers secretly planted explosives near to the track of the South Manchurian Railway. The objective was not to destroy the tracks, but to give the impression that Chinese saboteurs had attempted to derail a passing train. The Japanese quickly condemned the ‘attack’ and launched a ‘retaliatory’ attack against the Chinese in Mukden. To ensure a successful outcome, two heavy-calibre guns had been hidden in a ‘swimming pool’ constructed at the Japanese officers’ club. One gun was trained on the Chinese constabulary barracks, the other at the air force base at Mukden airport. When news of the ‘attack’ on the railway reached the Japanese garrison, the guns opened fire on the sleeping Chinese. It was a massacre.

News of the ‘battle’ quickly travelled to Port Arthur, where Lieutenant-General Honjo ordered an all-out attack by the 20,000-strong Kwantung Army. In a feat of unparalleled military efficiency, Honjo’s men were already mobilized before his orders arrived. The rival Chinese troops were caught on the back foot and, under general orders not to engage Japanese forces, were pushed back to the Sungari River. This attack left most of southern Manchuria in Japanese hands for the loss of just two men.

The outside world condemned the ‘Mukden Incident’ as a blatant case of Japanese aggression. However, Pu Yi saw it as an opportunity to take up the throne of his native Manchuria. Eight days after the incident, Colonel Itagaki arrived in Tientsin and offered Pu Yi the throne. To his surprise, the former emperor’s advisors urged caution, suspicious that a ‘mere colonel’ was making the offer rather than Japanese politicians. Pausing for thought, Pu Yi wrote to Toyama asking him to clarify the situation.

Three weeks later, Pu Yi was introduced to a senior member of the Kwantung Army, Colonel Kenji Doihara (1883–1948). Another of Toyama’s acolytes, Doihara was an intelligence officer and had been active in northern China and Siberia for some considerable time. Even among the pantheon of villains that were his contemporaries, Doihara stands out as a particularly loathsome individual. His rise to infamy began with tricking his 15-year-old sister into posing nude for some photographs. Armed with the developed pictures, the loving brother touted them to a Japanese imperial prince who was so impressed he made her his number one concubine. In return for this favour, Doihara was posted as an assistant to General Honjo, military attaché to Peking.

Doihara must not be dismissed as a simple thug. He had a deserved reputation as a linguist, claiming to speak nine European languages and four Chinese dialects faultlessly. He enjoyed the attention of Western journalists who dubbed him the ‘Lawrence of the East’ for the way he adopted Chinese costume on his many travels round the country recruiting spies and seeking out potential allies. In 1928 he became military advisor to Marshal Chang and was almost certainly involved in his assassination, after which he was promoted to colonel. In 1931 Doihara was head of the Japanese Special Service Organ in Mukden and was declared mayor of the city after the attack on 19 September.

Doihara arrived at the Quiet Garden villa and offered Pu Yi the throne of Manchuria. Pu Yi knew that Doihara was a ‘disciple’ of Toyama and recorded his opinion of the colonel in his memoirs. Although at first taken in by him, Pu Yi came to realize – too late – the full depth of Doihara’s mendacity:

Because of the mysterious stories that were told about him the Western press described him as the ‘Lawrence of the East’ and the Chinese papers said that he usually wore Chinese clothes and was fluent in several Chinese dialects. But it seems to me that if all his activities were like persuading me to go to the Northeast [Manchuria] he would have had no need for the cunning and ingenuity of a Lawrence: the gambler’s ability to keep a straight face while lying would have been enough.

Doihara asked Pu Yi to travel to Mukden from where he would be placed on the Manchu throne. His sovereignty would be guaranteed by the Kwantung Army, which of course said it had no territorial ambitions in Manchuria. Eager for power, Pu Yi agreed in principle, but sought assurances from Doihara that he would not be merely a Japanese puppet. Doihara assured, but still Pu Yi dithered. It appeared that the empress did not trust the Japanese and would not agree to leave Tientsin. Frustrated, Doihara needed help and so called on Itagaki for advice. The author of the Mukden Incident answered Doihara’s call by playing the joker in the Japanese pack – the Manchu-born agent known as ‘Eastern Jewel’.

The daughter of the pro-Japanese prince Su Chin Wang, Eastern Jewel was born in 1907. In 1913 she was given to the Black Dragon Naniwa Kawashima for adoption as a mark of friendship between the two men. Arriving in Japan, she was renamed Yoshiko Kawashima and educated at the Matsumato school for girls. She was a thrill seeker and tomboy, with a voracious sexual appetite which she claimed was awakened by her adoptive grandfather at 15. After a string of affairs, an arranged marriage was set up for the 21-year-old Eastern Jewel with the Mongol prince Kanjurjab, son of her biological father’s ally, General Babob.

The marriage – which took place in Port Arthur during November of 1927 – was seen as a means of cementing influence in Mongolia, where Japan held territorial ambitions. However, Eastern Jewel claimed that the marriage was never consummated and she quickly ditched the prince. She plunged headlong into the depths of Tokyo’s wild, bohemian underbelly. Outgrowing her adopted land, she travelled widely and even turned up as a houseguest of Pu Yi and the empress at Tientsin in 1928. With similar family backgrounds, Elizabeth and Eastern Jewel struck up an improbable relationship, the closeted empress in turns captivated by and envious of Eastern Jewel’s lurid and exotic exploits.

Eastern Jewel was in seedy Shanghai, having just walked out on a Japanese politician who had run out of money. On the prowl for a new sponsor she daringly set her sights on Major Tanaka, the head of the Shanghai secret service – or Special Service Organ. Attending a New Year party she ushered Tanaka to a discreet location and attempted to seduce him. Tanaka resisted the advances of the Manchu princess, explaining that it would be disrespectful for him – a commoner – to take her to bed. Eastern Jewel was not so easily deterred and dishonoured herself by borrowing money from Tanaka, finally breaking his resistance through a shared fetish for leather boots. Tanaka was impressed by Eastern Jewel’s forward manner and put her on the secret service payroll to fund her whims. Tanaka also paid for her English lessons, believing she might one day prove useful as a spy.

Returning to the matter of Pu Yi and the throne, Itagaki sent a telegram to Shanghai ordering Tanaka to report to Mukden. Fearful of being disgraced for lavishing official funds on his mistress, Tanaka left for Mukden on 1 October 1931. At the subsequent interview Itagaki revealed Doihara had been sent to get Pu Yi and that the Japanese forces were planning the next stage of their advance into Manchuria with the capture of Harbin. Tanaka was charged with keeping the League of Nations’ attention fixed away from Manchuria by provoking a disturbance in Shanghai. Tanaka told Itagaki he had the perfect agent in mind and was surprised – not to mention worried – when Itagaki said he knew all about Eastern Jewel. He then revealed the trouble Doihara was having with the implacable Elizabeth and mentioned he might need to borrow Eastern Jewel. Itagaki gave Tanaka $10,000, which he used to clear Eastern Jewel’s debts and begin the preparations for his Shanghai diversion.

Subsequent to this interview, Doihara wired Shanghai for Eastern Jewel. Calling in a favour from a pilot boyfriend, she flew to Tientsin that same evening. Anxious to make a lasting first impression on Doihara, Eastern Jewel disguised herself in the robes of a Chinese gentleman. She arrived and immediately caused a stir by refusing to divulge her name to the desk sergeant at Doihara’s headquarters. Suspecting treachery was afoot, Doihara placed a revolver on his desk and opened the inquisition.

‘Your name, please?’ he asked. ‘My name is of no importance,’ replied Eastern Jewel, ‘I have come to help you.’ ‘You speak like a eunuch,’ Doihara retorted. ‘Are you one of Pu Yi’s men?’ Eastern Jewel simply laughed in reply. Doihara grabbed his samurai sword. ‘Very well then, if you won’t tell me who you are, let us see what you are.’ Drawing the sword, he began to away cut the ties to her robe. Eastern Jewel did not move, but continued to stare at Doihara provocatively. Doihara flicked open the robe and ‘with a guttural samurai yell’ cut open the silk scarf she bound her breasts with. ‘I saw that she was a woman’ Doihara later confessed, ‘so I conducted a thorough investigation and determined that I had not put even the smallest scratch on any part of her white skin.’

Next day, Eastern Jewel visited the Quiet Garden and heard Elizabeth’s views on the proposed move to Mukden. She was able to report to Doihara that the empress was implacably opposed to any move to Mukden and it would take extreme measures to convince Pu Yi to travel alone. Growing impatient, Doihara resorted to terror tactics. He told Pu Yi that a price had been put on his head by Chang Hsueh-liang, the son of the murdered Marshal Chang. To lend credence to Doihara’s warnings, Eastern Jewel placed some snakes in Pu Yi’s bed. On 8 November bombs were hidden in a basket of fruit delivered anonymously to the Quiet Garden. Pu Yi recalled: ‘an assistant came running into the room shouting “bombs, two bombs”. I was sitting in an armchair and this news gave me such a fright that I was incapable of standing up.’ Eastern Jewel called the Japanese guards who came rushing in led by one of Doihara’s henchmen. He took the bombs away and then later revealed they had been manufactured by stooges of the late marshal’s son.

More was to follow. Along with warning letters, Pu Yi received a telephoned tip-off from ‘a waiter’ at his favourite Victoria Café that men with concealed weapons had been enquiring after him. Doihara then arranged for a crowd of Chinese agents to make trouble in the Chinese-administered part of the city. On 10 November martial law was declared and Japanese armoured cars surrounded the Quiet Garden to defend Pu Yi, whose nerve began to crack. Scared out of his wits, Pu Yi at last agreed to go to Mukden, travelling without the empress on Eastern Jewel’s advice. After dark he was bundled into the trunk of a car and driven to the docks by his Japanese interpreter. Elizabeth, meanwhile, was comforted by a heady mix of Eastern Jewel and opium until reunited with Pu Yi in Port Arthur six weeks later.

Eastern Jewel returned to Shanghai and began preparations with Tanaka for what became known as the Fake War. She hired gangs of Chinese street thugs and provided them with lists of Japanese business and residential addresses to attack. After the attacks began on 18 January 1932, Tanaka stoked up indignation in the Japanese community. Outraged by two more days of attacks, an ultimatum was delivered by the Japanese consul general to the Chinese mayor to stop them. However, with Eastern Jewel controlling the thugs, the Chinese mayor had little chance of success. In the face of Chinese impotence Admiral Shiozawa felt justified in landing his Imperial Marines to protect Japanese nationals. Tanaka’s mission was accomplished.

While engineering the arrival of the Japanese troops, Eastern Jewel had been busy in her now familiar role of seductress extraordinaire. The son of the Chinese republican Sun Yat-sen happened to be in town and soon fell victim to Eastern Jewel, confiding in her the rivalries in the Chinese camp. She also acted as a weathervane on international reaction to the Japanese actions. Putting her English lessons to good use, she took a British military attaché as a lover. From his pillow talk she was able to tell Tanaka that the West was unlikely to back its vigorous condemnations with any real action.

After the Shanghai incident, Eastern Jewel took up with a string of lovers. Her extravagance became so great that Tanaka offloaded her to Pu Yi’s chief military advisor, Major-General Hayao Tada. She was also indulged with the command of 5,000 Manchu ‘rough riders’, the captains of which she selected personally to her own exacting criteria of manhood. During the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937, Eastern Jewel caused outrage among the Chinese when she was seen walking through the ruined streets laughing with Japanese officers. It was rumoured she had even flown over the city in a bomber. When Peking fell to the Japanese in 1937, Eastern Jewel formed part of the administration. She abused her power by blackmailing wealthy Chinese with false accusations of assisting the enemy. Once noted for her beauty, Eastern Jewel’s debauched lifestyle began to weather her looks, although her libido remained undiminished. She found it increasingly harder to attract men and had an actor arrested on trumped-up charges of theft because he spurned her advances. Instead she increasingly began to explore her fantasies with local sing-song girls. Even Tanaka was moved to describe her later conduct as ‘beyond common sense’. At the end of the war Eastern Jewel declined an offer to return to Japan and went into hiding. Acting on a tip-off, Chiang Kai-shek’s counter-intelligence officers picked her up in November 1945. On 25 March 1948 Eastern Jewel was led to a wooden block and decapitated by a swordsman.

After the Pu Yi drama, Doihara began recruiting agents in the newly conquered territories. He broadened the Special Service Organ’s network of spies throughout southern Manchuria, utilizing large numbers of Russian refugees who had fled the Soviet Union. Desperate for employment, the men worked for Doihara as hired thugs, while women filled the brothels. European women were much in demand and acted as opium peddlers, receiving a free pipe for every six they sold.

One of Doihara’s converts was Italian-born spy Amleto Vespa, a one-time agent of Marshal Chang who had since managed a cinema. A fascist sympathizer and former member of the Mexican Revolutionary Army, Vespa had travelled extensively, coming to work with Marshal Chang Tso-lin in 1920. To avoid trouble with the Italian authorities, Vespa had obtained Chinese citizenship. Because of this, after the Mukden Incident Vespa found himself under the Japanese yoke without the usual protection afforded to Westerners. He was forced to work for the Japanese, running the spy service in Harbin until 1936 when he managed to get out of China with his family. Vespa wrote a remarkable book detailing Japan’s brutal clandestine activities in Manchuria. He was taken to meet Doihara on 14 February 1932, an encounter described in his book. Vespa disliked the man intensely:

Foreign journalists had referred to colonel Doihara as the Japanese ‘Lawrence of Manchuria’. I suspect, however, that if his sister had not been concubine of a Japanese Imperial Prince most of his success would have been still in his imagination.

Doihara left Vespa under no illusions about where his future loyalties belonged. If Vespa disobeyed, Doihara would shoot him. Vespa was told to return the following day and be introduced to the chief of the Japanese secret service in Manchuria. Vespa never discovered the true identity of this man, but many believe he must have been a Japanese prince close to Emperor Hirohito. The ensuing interview revealed the true extent of Japanese secret operations in Manchuria. In perfect English the mysterious chief told Vespa:

‘If Colonel Doihara has told you anything unpleasant, please pay no attention to it. Since, in other countries, they call him the Japanese Lawrence, he delights in showing his greatness by his hectoring manner. He has worked under me for many years, however, and I have no hesitation in saying he is much less of a Lawrence than he thinks he is.’

With remarkable candour, the chief explained how it was Japanese policy to make colonies pay for themselves. The Japanese system was to secretly grant certain monopolies to trusted individuals. Naturally the monopolies changed hands for enormous sums, in return for which the holder gained Japanese protection. The principal monopolies were the free transportation of goods by railway under the guise of Japanese military supplies; the monopoly of opium smoking dens, the sale of narcotics, poppy cultivation, the running of gambling houses and the importation of Japanese prostitutes – 70,000 Korean and Japanese prostitutes were shipped to Manchuria in the year after the Mukden Incident.

Although very strict on drug abuse at home, the Japanese flooded Manchuria with narcotics. Throughout the 1930s Manchurian streets were littered with wasted addicts and the corpses of emaciated overdose victims. To meet the demand, soya-bean farms were turned over to poppy production and drug-processing plants were set up along with ‘shooting-galleries’ for those too poor to enjoy the comforts of an opium den. Vespa revealed:

In Mukden, in Harbin, in Kirin etc., one cannot find a street where there are no opium-smoking dens or narcotic shops. In many streets the Japanese and Korean dealers have established a very simple and effective system. The morphine, cocaine or heroin addict does not have to enter the place if he is poor. He simply knocks at the door, a small peep-hole opens, though which he thrusts his bare arm and hand with 20 cents in it. The owner of the joint takes the money and gives the victim a shot in the arm.

The Japanese didn’t need bullets to kill Chinese; the drugs would do it for them – and at a profit.

By 1938 Doihara was the commander of the Kwantung Army. Based in Shanghai he successfully penetrated Chang Kai-shek’s headquarters with spies. Operating under the pseudonym of ‘Ito Soma’ and posing as a Japanese financier, Doihara managed to befriend the republican leader’s personal assistant, Huang-sen. His hook, improbable as it may sound, was a shared passion for goldfish, Doihara being an authority on the subject. In return for information and the procurement of rare goldfish, Huang-sen spied for Doihara. His information was used to foil a Chinese plan to attack Japanese shipping in the Yangtse River. The failure of the plan led to an investigation, after which Huang-sen was exposed and executed by the republicans. A follow-up investigation led in 1938 to the execution of eight Chinese divisional commanders, all of whom were found working for Doihara.

Later, as an air force major-general, Doihara sat on Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s Supreme War Council. Doihara was present at the session of 4 November 1941 when the attack on Pearl Harbor was decided. He went on to command the army in Singapore (1944–45) and ran brutal POW and internee camps in Malaya, Sumatra, Java and Borneo. Doihara was tried at the Tokyo war crimes trial and executed on 23 December 1948 by hanging. He was joined by Seishiro Itagaki, the author of the Mukden Incident, and Prime Minister Tojo, the former Kwantung Army leader. Eastern Jewel’s case officer, Tanaka, was more fortunate, surviving to tell the tale. Having opposed the decision to attack America, he retired in 1942. After the war he was an aide to the tribunal’s chief American prosecutor, Joseph Keenan. Tanaka claimed he even procured girls for the American.

As for the Black Dragons, their reputation as sinister arch-plotters meant that they were not ignored in the round-up of war criminals in 1945. General MacArthur banned the group on 13 September 1945 and ordered the arrest of seven leadership figures. He need not have bothered. Of the seven, two had never been members, a third had died of old age in 1938, while a fourth had committed suicide in 1943. The other three suspects had once been members but had renounced their membership long before.

In truth the Black Dragons had long since fallen out of favour and had ceased to be a force in Japan. Their last public meeting was held in October 1935 when Toyama protested at Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia – another episode of white aggression against men of colour, as he saw it. The Japanese police used the meeting as a pretext for a crackdown on the Black Dragons and thereafter the society dwindled to a handful of forgotten diehards working out of a dingy, backstreet Tokyo office.

While Toyama and his disciples continued to view Russia as the main enemy, a new group rose to prominence – the Strike South faction. This group called for expansion into Southeast Asia and Indonesia, rich areas abundant in the resources Japan was lacking. After an undeclared border war with Russia, which culminated in Japan’s defeat at the battle of Khalkhin Gol in August 1939, Tokyo began to favour the new option. There was just a one slight problem with their plan. If a strike south occurred, Japan would inevitably clash with Western interests, particularly those of the British Empire and the United States of America.

Lakshmi Bai (1828–1858)

The belief that giving birth brings with it a biological imperative to protect also fuels the widely held idea that mothers of all species—sparrows, bears, and tigers, as well as humans—will fight to protect their children against external threats. Taken to its logical extreme, the idea that a mother will fight against all odds to protect her children leads us from a mother who fights to defend her children from a threatening individual to one who fights to defend her children against a threatening army. Not surprisingly, most stories about women who fought for home and children center on defense. Historically, mothers who fought to protect their children in time of war typically did so from a defensive position—often literally a last-ditch effort. Women guarded the wagons in an army’s baggage train. They dug trenches, rebuilt fortifications, and carried weapons and water to those who fought. They formed home guard defense units, training alongside men too old and boys too young to join the regular army. When necessary, they stood on the walls of besieged cities or fortresses and repelled invaders with rocks, boiling oil, gunfire, and defiant words.

The story takes a different turn when Mom goes to war at the head of an army, as we see when we look at the cases of three female rulers of small kingdoms who took on the greatest empires of their times in order to protect or avenge their children.

Lakshmi Bai (1828–1858), the Rani of Jhansi, joined the rebellion against British rule—variously known as the Indian Mutiny, the Sepoy Rebellion, or the First Indian War of Independence—only when she had no options left.

Like the Romans before them, the British in India established relationships with client-kings. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, Indian rulers negotiated with the British East India Company for military support against other Indian rulers. By 1857, what had once been protection had become a protection racket. Rulers of the “princely states” enjoyed personal luxury and titular authority, but British political agents held the real power in their kingdoms through a combination of fiscal control and military threat. East India Company troops, made up of Indian soldiers with British officers and British weapons, were stationed in the princely states. These troops were officially a royal prerogative but they were also a sword over the royal head. Only the most powerful and/or lucky Indian states managed to retain their sovereignty in real terms.

Lakshmi Bai was the widow of Raja Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, the ruler of the kingdom of Jhansi, which had been a British client state since 1803. Several months before his death, the childless raja adopted a distant cousin named Damodar Rao as his son and made a will naming the five-year-old boy as his heir, with Lakshmi Bai as regent. He made sure he took all the steps needed to make the adoption legal.

Adopted heirs were an accepted practice in Indian kingdoms—both Gangadhar Rao and his predecessor had been adopted. Unfortunately for Lakshmi Bai and her son, a new governor-general was in control and making changes. James Andrew Broun Ramsay, Lord Dalhousie, instituted an aggressive policy of annexing Indian states on what now (and to many Indians then) seem flimsy excuses, most notably the doctrine of lapse. The British already exercised the right to “recognize” (i.e., control) succession in the princely states with which they had client relationships. Dalhousie now declared that if the British government in India did not ratify the adoption of an heir to the throne, the state would pass “by lapse” to the British. Few adopted heirs were ratified. (Does this surprise anyone?)

When the raja died in 1853, Dalhousie refused to acknowledge Damodar Rao as the legal heir to the throne and seized control of Jhansi, replacing the raja with a British bureaucrat. Lakshmi Bai did not initially oppose the British takeover with violence. Instead she contested the decision in the British courts, with the support of the prior British political agent at Jhansi and the advice of British counsel. She continued to submit petitions arguing her case until early 1856. All her appeals were rejected.

Meanwhile, discontent was building among the Indian soldiers who made up the vast majority of the British East India Company’s army. The British made a number of policy decisions that many Indians perceived as an organized attack on the religious beliefs of both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The final straw came when the company handed its Indian troops the hottest new weapon in the British arsenal: the Enfield rifle. Rumors spread that cartridges for the Enfield were greased with a combination of beef and pork fat. Since the cartridges had to be bitten open, such grease would make them abominations for both Hindus and Muslims. British officers, each certain that the troops under his command were too loyal to believe anything so foolish, were slow to respond to the rumors. By the time they assured their men that the cartridges were greased with beeswax and vegetable oils, the damage was done.

In May 1857, discontent turned to mutiny. Eighty-five sepoys at the army garrison of Meerut refused to use the new rifles. They were court-martialed and put in irons. The next day, the regiments stationed at Meerut stormed the jail, killed the British officers and their families, and marched toward Delhi, where the last Mogul emperor ruled, at least in name.

The mutiny at Meerut was the spark needed to set off a revolt that was already loaded, primed, and ready to fire. Thousands of Indians outside the army had their own grievances against the British. Reforms regarding child marriage and the protection of widows were seen as attacks on Hindu religious law. Land reform in Bengal had displaced many landholders. Members of the traditional nobility resented the forcible annexation of Indian states and wondered whether theirs would be the next to go. Leaders whose power had been threatened rose up, transforming what had begun as a mutiny into a many-headed resistance movement. Violence spread across northern India.

On June 6, the East India Company troops stationed in Jhansi mutinied. Two days later, they massacred the British population of the city and marched out to join their counterparts in Delhi. Given Lakshmi Bai’s conflicts with their government, the British were quick to blame her for the uprising in Jhansi, though there is no evidence for her initial involvement. In fact, she wrote to the nearest British authority, Major Walter Erskine, on June 12, giving her account of the mutiny and asking for instructions. Erskine forwarded her letter to Calcutta, with a note saying it agreed with what he knew from other sources. He authorized the rani to manage the district until he could send soldiers to help her restore order.

With the region in chaos, Lakshmi Bai soon found herself under attack by two neighboring princes and a distant claimant to the throne of Jhansi, all of whom saw the crisis as an opportunity to do a little empire-building of their own. In order to defend her kingdom, she recruited an army, strengthened the city’s defenses, and formed protective alliances with the rajas of nearby Banpur and Shergarh. As late as February 1858, she told her advisors she would turn the district over to the British when they arrived.

Erskine’s positive assessment of the rani’s actions was not enough. The central government in Calcutta still believed Lakshmi Bai was responsible for the Jhansi mutiny and subsequent massacre. Her efforts to defend Jhansi only confirmed that belief.

On March 25, Major General Sir Hugh Rose and his forces arrived at Jhansi and besieged the city. Threatened with execution as a rebel if captured by the British, Lakshmi Bai resisted. In spite of a vigorous defense, by March 30 most of the rani’s guns had been disabled and the fort’s walls breached. On April 3, the British broke into the city, took the palace, and stormed the fort.

The night before the final British assault, Lakshmi Bai escaped from the fortress with her ten-year-old son and four companions. The next day, the rani and her small retinue reached the fortress of Kalpi. She was now an official rebel and threw herself into the fight.

Defeated again and again through May and into early June, Lakshmi Bai and the rebel forces retreated before the British. On June 16, Rose’s forces closed in. The rani led the remnants of her army into battle. On the second day of fighting, she was shot from her horse and killed.

Roman historians demonized Boudica. The British response to the Rani of Jhansi was more complicated. British newspapers denounced Lakshmi Bai as the “Jezebel of India.” But Rose compared his fallen adversary to Joan of Arc. Reporting her death to his commanding officer, he said: “The Rani was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders. Although she was a lady, she was the bravest and best military leader of the rebels. A man among the mutineers.”

Despite the praise of her enemies, Lakshmi Bai failed to obtain the only thing she wanted from the British: her adopted son received a pension, but was never recognized as the ruler of Jhansi, which was absorbed into British India.

The Indian independence movement adopted the Rani of Jhansi as a nationalist icon in the early twentieth century.

Mehmed II

The capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Army, under the command Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II on 29th May 1453. With this conquest Ottomans became an Empire and one of the most powerful empires. After the Constantinople conquest, 21 years old Ottoman Sultan II. Mehmed also took the title “The Conqueror”, which was added to his name.

Built just before the 1453 siege of Byzantine Constantinople, Rumeli Hisarı (the Rumelian castle) on the European shore of the Bophorus was used along with the Anadolu Hisarı (the Anatolian castle) to seal off the city from the straights and deny it any possible relief.

Mehmed II (Mehmed Fatih; Mehmet II; Mehemmed II) (b. 1432-d. 1481) (r. 1444-1446; 1451-1481) Ottoman sultan Mehmed II was the fourth son of Murad II (r. 1421-44; 1446-51) and the seventh Ottoman ruler, whose first reign covered the period from 1444 to 1446 and whose second reign spanned three decades, from 1451 to 1481. Mehmed was born on March 30, 1432 in Edirne, which was then the Ottoman capital. The name and ethnicity of his mother have been the subject of much fruitless speculation but her identity remains unknown; she must in any case have been of non-Muslim slave origin. Mehmed’s early years are equally obscure. According to some sources, in 1434 he was sent with his mother to Amasya, where Mehmed’s half-brother Ahmed Çelebi (1420-37, the eldest son of Murad II) was governor, and where Murad’s second son, Alaeddin Ali Çelebi (b. 1425?-43), also appears to have been in Mehmed’s retinue. When Ahmed Çelebi died suddenly in 1437, the five-year-old Mehmed became the provincial governor of Amasya and Alaeddin Ali Çelebi was sent to govern Manisa, in western Anatolia. Two years later, in 1439, both princes were brought to Edirne for their circumcision, after which Murad had his sons switch positions, sending Mehmed to Manisa and Alaeddin Ali to Amasya. It is widely believed that Alaeddin Ali, who participated with his father in a successful campaign against Ibrahim Bey, the ruler of Karaman, was the sultan’s favorite, but in the spring of 1443, shortly after the campaign against Ibrahim Bey, Alaeddin Çelebi was assassinated. While the episode is shrouded in mystery, some historians believe the assassination was the result of an order from Murad; others suggest it was a consequence of political infighting among the sultan’s leading men. Regardless of its cause, the death of Alaeddin Çelebi left nine-year-old Mehmed as the sole living heir of Murad II. In July 1443 Murad brought his son from Manisa to Edirne to reside at court and gain experience in affairs of state.

In the later months of 1443 a crusading army, which had left the Hungarian capital of Buda, advanced deep into the Balkans and was finally halted by the Ottoman army in a bitter winter battle between Sofia (capital of present-day Bulgaria) and Edirne in December. Although hostilities were terminated in June 1444 by a 10-year truce signed by Murad at Edirne, to be ratified later by the king of Hungary, the truce was soon broken by Hungary under papal dispensation and an even larger crusading army was assembled and began its march toward Ottoman territory. Already engaged in another military campaign against Ibrahim Bey of Karaman in Anatolia, Murad II swiftly defeated the Karamanids, returned by forced march to Edirne, and went on with his army to confront and defeat the crusaders at the Battle of Varna (November 10, 1444).

In Edirne, the sultan had left the 12-year-old Mehmed as regent of the state’s Balkan territories. At this time Mehmed was under the tutelage of his father’s chief vizier, Çandarli Halil Pasha, and his kadiasker (army judge), Molla Hüsrev. During this period the young regent was exposed to several crises, including the death of the leader of the radical Hurufiyya Sufi movement who gained many adherents as well as the protection of Prince Mehmed himself before being proscribed by the authorities and executed. During the same period, a Janissary revolt ended in the burning of the market quarter and the attempted destruction of one of Mehmed’s special advisors, Sihabeddin Pasha, a man of the devsirme, or child levy. When Murad returned from fighting the crusaders in late November or early December 1444, he abdicated in favor of his young son, retiring to Manisa and leaving Mehmed to rule as sultan under the tutelage of Çandarli Halil Pasha and Molla Hüsrev.

Mehmed’s first reign as sultan was as troubled and difficult as had been his earlier regency; little more than 18 months after his enthronment and accession ceremony Mehmed was deposed and packed off to Manisa and Murad II resumed the sultanate. It is not clear why Murad was recalled to Edirne by Halil Pasha. It may have been that Mehmed was planning an offensive against Constantinople which would have been supported by men of the devsirme while being vehemently opposed by Çandarli Halil Pasha; it may have been that the Janissaries were unhappy with Mehmed. Despite being deposed, Mehmed continued to work with his father, taking part with him in military campaigns in 1448 against a further Hungarian invasion (the second Battle of Kosovo, October 1448) and again in 1450 in Albania. He seems to have ruled western Anatolia intermittently from Manisa as a virtual fiefdom, from which he undertook naval campaigns against Venetian possessions in the Aegean.

When Murad II died at Edirne in February 1451, Mehmed was once again in Manisa. His second reign began when he acceded to the throne in Edirne on February 18, 1451, confirming all his father’s ministers in their posts, including Çandarli Halil as grand vizier, and ordering the judicial murder of the youngest son of Murad II, then an infant, in an act that historians have seen as the initiation of the so-called Ottoman “law of fratricide,” although considerable doubt remains on this point. Mehmed was now 19, marked by the traumatic experiences of his childhood and youth, and determined to exercise absolute authority as sultan.

The first months of his reign were apparently tranquil: existing truces with Serbia, Venice, and lesser Aegean and Balkan entities were renewed, a three-year truce was negotiated with Hungary, and particular assurances of Mehmed’s benevolence were accorded to the Byzantine Empire, leaving Mehmed free to warn off Ibrahim Bey of Karaman from his pretensions to Ottoman territory in Anatolia. Soon, however, the situation changed and the determining features of Mehmed’s reign began to manifest themselves: a sharp increase in state expenditure; lavish buildings works, including a vast new palace complex at Edirne; and an aggressive foreign policy, manifested first against the Byzantine Empire and signaled by the construction in 1452 of the fortress of Rumeli Hisari on the European shore of the Bosporus, effectively blockading the Straits and isolating the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Mehmed spent the autumn of 1452 and spring of 1453 in Edirne planning the final conquest of Constantinople. He ordered the casting of huge siege guns, assembled land and sea forces, and moved a vast array of soldiers and equipment from Edirne to the land walls of the Byzantine capital.

Mehmed left Edirne late in March 1453 and began to besiege Constantinople on April 6. The siege lasted 54 days, the outcome remaining uncertain until the final storming of the city walls on May 29, after which Mehmed gave the city over to his soldiers for three days of pillaging. Mehmed entered the city later on May 29 and proceeded to the famed metropolitan church of Hagia Sophia which he transformed into a Muslim mosque, called Aya Sofya. Most of the surviving population of the city were enslaved and deported. The Byzantine Empire was now effectively at an end, and Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. The conquest of Constantinople also marked the end of the old, paternalistic Ottoman state of Murad II. Within a brief time Çandarli Halil Pasha, whose attitude toward the siege had been equivocal at best, was dismissed and later executed. He was replaced as grand vizier by Zaganos Pasha, a product of the devsirme, whose more aggressive attitudes would henceforth dominate the affairs of the sultanate.

By the conquest of Constantinople Mehmed had realized an Islamic ambition that dated back to the first sieges of the city by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century. The Ottoman state was now an empire, controlling the “two lands” (Anatolia and Rumelia) and the “two seas” (the Black Sea and the Aegean). Mehmed himself was henceforth known by the sobriquet “Fatih,” or “the Conqueror,” arrogating to himself not only the Muslim title of sultan, first claimed by Bayezid I (r. 1389-1402), but two additional titles implying universal sovereignty, the old Turkish title of Khaqan and the Roman-Byzantine title of Qaysar (Caesar). It is in the light of his self-image as world-ruler and his ambitions for universal monarchy, contrasted with the practical limitations on the realization of that policy, that the complex record of Mehmed’s activities during his almost 30-year reign can be best understood.

In the first place, Istanbul was rapidly restored to its historic position as a true imperial capital. The city was progressively redeveloped and was repopulated by successive waves of forced immigration from newly conquered areas. Moreover, Mehmed rebuilt the city through the development of new residential and mercantile quarters grouped around a mosque complex or a market. Edirne was quickly abandoned by Mehmed as an imperial residence in favor of new palaces built within the walls of Istanbul, the first being the so-called Old Palace and the second being the New Palace, better known as the Topkapi Palace, built at the furthest extremity of the city, overlooking the confluence of the Bosporus, the Golden Horn, and the Sea of Marmara.

Secondly, the almost continuous warfare that marked Mehmed’s reign can be seen as an attempt to expand Ottoman territory by the elimination or neutralization of all competing polities, Muslim as well as Christian, that stood in the way of the realization of his imperial ambitions. The remaining fragments of territory where Byzantine rule still endured were rapidly absorbed by Mehmed’s burgeoning empire. Most of the Balkan states that still formed part of the Christian Orthodox world were also incorporated by a combination of warfare and diplomacy (Serbia, 1457; Bosnia, 1461-63), while Venetian possessions in the east came under sustained Ottoman attack with the Ottoman-Venetian war of 1463-79 and the capture of Negroponte in 1470. North of the Danube River, the Ottomans were still not strong enough to take Belgrade (although they besieged it unsuccessfully in 1456) or to do more than ravage Hungarian territory by ceaseless razzias intended to preempt any hostile presence on the lower Danube. The Balkan territories of Wallachia and Moldavia remained a military danger zone for the Ottoman armies and an area of abiding contention. Conversely, toward the end of his reign Mehmed was able to eradicate the Genoese trading colonies in the Crimea and to bring the Giray dynasty, the Crimean Khanate, into a vassal relationship (1478), thus controlling territories on all sides of the Black Sea, which for almost three centuries was given the sobriquet of the “Ottoman lake.”

In Anatolia, Mehmed went on to control most of the remaining Muslim dynasties, employing a combination of strategies that included forced annexation and dynastic marriages. These dynasties were themselves largely of Turkoman origin, such as the Isfendiyarid in northern Anatolia, with its valuable Black Sea port of Sinop and its copper mines in the vicinity of Kastamonu. Karaman, long a thorn in the Ottomans’ side, was neutralized in 1468 and re-annexed in 1474; the eastern Anatolian Turkoman confederacy of the Akkoyunlu (or “White Sheep” Turkomans), led by Uzun Hasan, proved more difficult to subdue, but the confederacy was much diminished by Mehmed’s 1473 victory over Uzun Hasan in the Battle of Tercan (Otluk-beli).

In the latter years of Mehmed’s reign, when he was already in poor health, the practical limitations of his policies became more apparent. Success had brought its own problems, including confrontations with the Egyptian Mamluk Empire and with Hungary, which would not be solved in the Ottomans’ favor until the reign of Mehmed’s grandson, Selim I (r. 1512-20). There is no doubt also that Mehmed harbored a deep desire to conquer Italy and to bring Rome, as well as Constantinople, under his domination, but an expedition mounted against southern Italy in 1480 was a disastrous failure, and the Ottoman bridgehead at Otranto was abandoned the following year, after Mehmed’s death. Likewise, a complex amphibious operation in the same year against the crusading Knights of St John and their island fortress of Rhodes was a costly failure.

While Mehmed Fatih is known primarily for his military successes, especially for the conquest of Constantinople, and for his impressive role in expanding the Ottoman Empire, there were other important aspects of his long reign. Mehmed’s attempts to build up a unified and centralized empire strained the state’s finances, forcing several devaluations of the Ottoman currency and requiring the extension of the state’s monopolistic and unpopular tax-farming system. Through these measures, and despite vast and continuous military expenditure, the state treasury still contained some three and a half million ducats of ready money at the time of the sultan’s death. At the same time, these actions and the frequent confiscation of private lands by the state alienated most of the old Ottoman landed families and society at large, creating strong social discontent.

Altogether, it is difficult to arrive at a balanced account of Mehmed’s reign. His complex personality has been endlessly discussed but still defies satisfactory analysis. Mehmed seems to have been affected by both the perils and humiliations of his early years and possibly by the influence of what may be termed the “war party” at the outset of his reign. Attempts to describe him as a renaissance figure and a free thinker must be viewed with some misgivings in light of his preoccupation with enforcing strict religious orthodoxy. The darker aspects of his nature continue to defy analysis; although these are well documented, they stand in contrast to the historical picture we have of both his father, Murad II, and his son, Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512).

Mehmed II died on May 3, 1481 while encamped with his army on the first stages of a campaign in Anatolia, possibly directed against Rhodes or the Mamluk Empire. There is substantial circumstantial evidence that Mehmed was poisoned, possibly at the behest of his eldest son and successor, Bayezid. Mehmed’s death unleashed a short-lived but violent Janissary revolt and then a lengthy succession struggle between Bayezid and his brother Cem, who long contended for the throne. Although Bayezid immediately reversed many of his father’s fiscal and military policies, Mehmed’s reign was one of undeniable achievement, the conquest of Constantinople and its subsequent transformation being foremost amongst his accomplishments.

Further reading: Franz Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, translated by Ralph Manheim, edited by William C. Hickman (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), a work to be used with caution, and read in conjunction with Halil Inalcik, “Mehmed the Conqueror (1432-1481) and His Time,” Speculum, xxv (1960), 408-427, reprinted in Halil Inalcik, Essays in Ottoman History (Istanbul: Eren, 1998), 87-110; Michael Doukas, The Decline and Fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks, trans. H. J. Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975); Colin Heywood, “Mehmed II and the Historians: The Reception of Babinger’s Mehmed der Eroberer during Half a Century” (to appear in Turcica, 2009); Halil Inalcik, “The Policy of Mehmed II towards the Greek Population of Istanbul,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 23-24 (1969-70), 231-249; Kritovoulos, History of Mehmed the Conqueror, trans. C. T. Riggs (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1954); Bernard Lewis et al., The Fall of Constantinople: A Symposium Held at the School of Oriental and African Studies 29 May 1953 (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1955); Julian Raby, “A Sultan of Paradox: Mehmed the Conqueror as a Patron of the Arts.” The Oxford Art Journal, 6, no. 1 (1982), 3-8; Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965); Tursun Beg, The History of Mehmed the Conqueror, edited and translated by Halil Inalcik and Rhoads Murphey (Minneapolis: Bibliotheka Islamica, 1978).

Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115)

The states of the Apennine Peninsula in the second half of the 11th century.

The name Matilda means “mighty in war.” The gran contessa Matilda of Tuscany (1046–1115) lived up to her name. According to military historian David Hay, she was not only the most powerful woman of her time but was among the best European military commanders of her day—high praise for a woman who at best plays a supporting role in general histories of the period.

Matilda was born in 1046, at the start of the “high middle ages,” a period when Europe was beginning to recover from the political and economic chaos left behind by the unraveling of the Roman Empire in the West. She was the daughter of Margrave Boniface II of Canossa and his second wife, Beatrice, who was the daughter of the Duke of Upper Lorraine and a military commander in her own right. Through Beatrice, Matilda was a cousin of the Holy Roman Emperors Henry III and Henry IV.

Her father’s assassination in 1052 and the subsequent deaths of her older siblings left Matilda the sole heir to extensive lands. She held much of the territory between northern Italy and Rome, including a system of fortresses that controlled access to the two main road systems across the Apennine Mountains. Although she was pressured twice into marriages that were politically advantageous to others, she kept control of her inheritance and the power that went with it at a time when it was not common for women to do so.

In 1076, a long-standing dispute between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire flamed into armed conflict. As the ruler of lands lying directly between the two greatest powers in Latin Christendom, Matilda was physically in the middle of things.

The Investiture Controversy was the culmination of several generations of conflict surrounding the relationship between religious and secular power in general and the relative power of the papacy and the Holy Roman emperor in particular. The issue at the heart of the controversy was who controlled appointments to church offices—and the wealth and power church officials wielded.

Unresolved issues regarding lay investiture of bishops came to a head with the consecration of the reformist monk Hildebrand as Pope Gregory VII in 1073. Secular rulers had long claimed the right to appoint bishops and abbots in their realms and to perform the ritual that installed them in office. Gregory initiated reforms throughout the church, including a ban on simony, aka trafficking in ecclesiastical offices. Gregory expanded the definition of simony to include lay investiture of bishops. His ban on lay investiture of bishops was not just a religious reform. It also struck at the power of secular leaders.

The routine appointment of the archbishop of Milan in 1075 provided the spark for ten years of war. Local reformers in Milan had elected a new archbishop, but after initially accepting the local choice, Emperor Henry IV attempted to install the chaplain of his Saxon campaign in the position instead. Gregory ordered Henry to stop interfering in church affairs. In January 1076, Henry pushed back. He called a council of German bishops and convinced them to depose Gregory. Gregory then excommunicated the emperor. For good measure, he excommunicated Henry’s most active supporters among the bishops.

The potential consequences for Henry were serious. In theory, excommunicating a monarch absolved his subjects from their obligation to obey him. In the Kingdom of Germany, where the monarch was elected by his peers, an excommunicated king could easily be deposed.

Henry discovered he had overestimated the strength of his position. Many of the German bishops backed away from Henry as fast as their ceremonial robes would allow and reconciled with the pope. With the validity of their oaths of allegiance in question, his newly pacified Saxon subjects rose once again in revolt, while his opponents among the German princes pressed for the election of a new king. His supporters won Henry a year and a day to free himself from excommunication before a new king was elected. He needed to grovel hard and he needed to do it fast.

In January 1077, Matilda and an armed force escorted the pope through her territory as he traveled toward Augsburg to meet with the German princes and bishops. When Matilda and Gregory reached Mantua, where he was scheduled to meet his escort from Germany, they learned Henry was nearby. Matilda moved the pope from Mantua to her castle at Canossa—a fortress in the heart of the Apennine Mountains where she could ward off a small imperial force if necessary.

Matilda was prepared to defend the pope against attack, but Henry came to Canossa not as an aggressor but as a penitent.

Having crossed the Alps with a small escort, including his queen and infant heir, through what contemporary chronicles unanimously describe as unusually severe winter conditions, Henry presented himself at the gates of Canossa without any of the trappings of royalty. For three days he stood before the gates, barefoot and dressed in a plain wool robe, begging for the pope’s mercy—sometimes in tears. Occasionally, he knocked on the door, but was not allowed to enter. On the fourth day, after negotiations in which Matilda played a key role, the shivering emperor was allowed into the fortress to beg face-to-face.

Gregory granted Henry absolution, but the emperor’s humiliation at Canossa did not end his quarrels with the pope or his problems in Germany. Despite the fact that Henry had been reinstated in the church, his opponents back home elected a new king to replace him, Rudolf of Swabia. Both king and anti-king petitioned Gregory for his support.

At the Lenten synod of 1080, representatives of both would-be kings presented their petitions to Gregory in person. After hearing their arguments, Gregory excommunicated Henry a second time, on the grounds that he had not kept the promises he made at Canossa, and gave Rudolf his support. Henry convinced another council of German bishops to depose the pope. This time Henry’s bishops elected an antipope, Archbishop Guibert of Ravenna, who took the title of Clement III (1080–1100).

On October 15, 1080, Rudolf died in battle. No longer threatened by the existence of a rival candidate for the crown, Henry returned to Italy at the head of an army, to settle the question of the papal succession and his long-delayed coronation as Holy Roman emperor.

Matilda of Tuscany stood in his way.

Matilda had been an ardent supporter of church reform since childhood. She supported the monk Hildebrand before his election to the papacy in 1073 and continued to support his efforts after his investiture as Gregory VII. While Henry and Rudolf faced off in their final battle, Matilda mustered troops to defend Gregory against Henry and Guibert. She would provide the main military support for Gregory and his successors in their struggles with Henry for the next twenty years.

The first battle of the Investiture Controversy took place in October 1080, as soon as word of Rudolf’s death reached Italy. Henry’s Italian supporters attacked and defeated Matilda’s troops near her castle at Volta: the first of several defeats Matilda suffered at the hands of Henry’s supporters. Matilda was not yet a seasoned commander, unlike her younger cousin Henry, who had spent most of his adulthood on the battlefield. According to contemporary accounts from both sides of the conflict, she suffered heavy losses after Henry entered Italy in the spring of 1081. Bishop Benzo of Alba, a hard-core Henry supporter, mocked her as “wringing her hands and weeping for lost Tuscany.”

And yet there are signs Matilda was still a serious force in Italy. Henry felt threatened enough to convene a court that judged her guilty of treason for refusing to honor her feudal allegiance to him, placed her under “ban of empire,” and stripped her of her title and her lands. Like Gregory’s excommunication of Henry, this act released her vassals from their feudal obligations.

The ban was easy to pronounce but proved hard to enforce. Rather than meet Henry’s forces on the battlefield, Matilda retreated to her fortress at Canossa. While Henry’s main army besieged Rome, Matilda’s forces attacked Henry’s supply lines and raided the holdings of his northern supporters from the protection of her network of mountain castles. She kept Gregory’s communication lines open and provided him with information about Henry’s movements—military and diplomatic. She exerted enough pressure on Henry’s allies from her mountain stronghold that by 1082 his beleaguered supporters insisted he come north and campaign against Matilda in person.

After systematically ravaging the north, Henry besieged Rome itself. He captured the city on March 21, 1084. With Henry in control of the city, Guibert was consecrated as pope on March 24. Seven days later, on Easter Sunday, Guibert returned the favor and crowned Henry as Holy Roman emperor—which had to be a relief to Henry, who had ruled as king of the Germans since 1056 without papally approved imperial authority.

With the imperial crown on his head and a consecrated pope in his pocket, Henry left Rome on May 21, 1084. As he hit the road for Germany, he ordered his Italian allies to capture Matilda and destroy her fortresses, which would secure his lines of communication with Rome and gut the military strength of the papal reformists.

The combined troops of Henry’s supporters marched along the Via Emilia, through the Po Valley—pillaging as they went. Matilda monitored their progress from the security of her Apennine fortresses. On the night of July 1, 1084, her opponents camped on the plain at Sorbara, close to one of Matilda’s castles. Having crossed the valley from Parma to Modena unopposed, the invaders grew careless and did not set an adequate guard.

The next day, Matilda led a small force in a dawn raid on the sleeping camp of Henry’s supporters—the first time she met imperial forces in open battle in three years. Her troops broke through the camp’s outer defenses, causing panic among the enemy ranks. They slaughtered large numbers of fleeing foot soldiers, captured a hundred knights, and took more than five hundred horses as part of their booty. Matilda lost a handful of her men and “no one of note”—the medieval assessment of a successful battle. Sorbara was a major victory in medieval terms and a turning point in the war, giving new hope to the reform party at the moment when Henry seemed triumphant.

For the next six years, Matilda was on the offensive against Henry’s supporters. Pope Gregory’s death in exile in 1085 did not end the conflict. Matilda became the secular rallying point for the reform cause and the armed supporter of two reformist popes in succession: Victor III, whose papacy lasted only four months, and Urban II, who completed Gregory’s reforms, launched the first crusade, and left the papacy stronger than he found it.

In the spring of 1090, Henry mounted a counterattack. He seized Matilda’s remaining lands in Lorraine, then invaded northern Italy. Over the next two years, he drove his armies toward Canossa. He took city after fortress after city with a combination of military victories and bribery. (The promise of imperial privilege, in which an autonomous town owed fealty only to the emperor, was a tempting offer to towns held in feudal tenure to a more-or-less local lord.) When she lost Mantua and Verona, the first to bribery and the second to betrayal, Matilda fell back south of the river Po. Henry continued to press her.

In September 1092, after a string of imperial victories, Henry offered Matilda generous peace terms if she would recognize Guibert of Ravenna as Pope Clement III. Against the advice of many of her supporters, she refused.

That October, Henry moved against Canossa, hoping to force Matilda to surrender by trapping her in her fortress. Warned of his approach, Matilda withdrew with an armed force to an outlying castle. After Henry exhausted his troops against Canossa, she attacked. Henry’s siege turned into a rout, with Matilda’s forces harassing the emperor’s troops as they retreated in disorder across the Po.

Henry remained in Italy for the next three years, but the war was effectively over.

Whether or not Matilda actively fought, sword in hand, she was a “combatant commander” by any standard. Over the course of a forty-year military career, Matilda mustered troops for long-distance expeditions, fought successful defensive campaigns against the Holy Roman emperor (himself a skilled commander), launched ambushes, engaged in urban warfare, directed sieges, lifted sieges, and was besieged. She built, stocked, and fortified castles. She maintained an effective intelligence network. She negotiated alliances with local leaders. She rewarded her followers with the favorite currencies of medieval rulers: land, castles, and privileges.

Matilda fielded her last military action in 1114, putting down a revolt in the city of Mantua less than a year before her death. Mighty in war to the end.

PRINCE EUGENE AND THE WAR OF THE SPANISH SUCCESSION I

Prince Eugene of Savoy and his General Staff at the Battle of Zenta

The ‘first age of heroes’

Confidence, that critical of military factors, allowed the Habsburgs’ army to assume the offensive rapidly. As it rolled the Turks out of central and eastern Europe, the army became better disciplined and organised. It was to become by the end of this period more than capable of holding its own against any force in the world, thanks in no small part to that dazzling architect of Habsburg military power, Prince Eugene.

A young, not very prepossessing or especially handsome youth had arrived in Vienna that autumn of 1683. Small even by the standards of his time, this man appeared almost crippled to his contemporaries, who found the idea that he might want to make soldiering his career risible. His manner was taciturn but his pride was Olympian and indeed he had much to prove. He had been spurned in his quest for a military career by the court of Louis XIV and his rage at this humiliation was unquenchable. When he arrived in Vienna he made enemies at court almost by blinking but Kaiser Leopold recognised early on that here indeed was a soldier of potential, though it is unlikely that even Leopold realised the full extent of the military genius whose spindly frame stood before him.

Eugene of Savoy like many a patriotic ‘old’ Austrian did not possess a drop of what today would be called Austrian blood. By birth he was Italian and his temperament and his rapidity of decision constituted what were once considered typical Latin traits. By upbringing he was French and this invested him with his limitless and rigid devotion to revenge and his obsessive detestation of the French monarch Louis XIV. When many years later, after France had come to regret all too painfully its rejection of Eugene, a message from the French court gingerly enquired whether Eugene after all might consider serving France and said that a dazzling career awaited him in the service of Louis XIV. The Prince of Savoy demonstrated that he neither forgot nor forgave: ‘I should like to accept the invitation to return to France,’ he replied, ‘but only at the head of an invading army to occupy it.’

Eugene had arrived with Lorraine’s polyglot relief force and had performed bravely with energy and imagination at the raising of the great siege. He was a natural choice to take a commission and perform a role in the pursuit of the Turkish hordes. With Vienna saved and the besiegers in full flight it was tempting to see the Ottoman lands as wide open for reconquest. Vienna would no longer be a border city on the fracture line of two empires, she would take her place – and this was the strategic significance of 1683 – at the heart of an immense domain protected from Islamic intrusion by a vast hinterland. This hinterland first and foremost was Hungary.

Asia, Metternich later quipped, began on the Landstrasse in Vienna, and though the Landstrasse hardly existed in 1683 the dusty tracks to the east of the Austrian city created (as they do even today) the sense of a limitless expanse stretching far into an unknown world. Only the fortresses offered punctuation marks on the horizon and one by one these would have to be captured or destroyed. From 1683 to 1699 the war against the Turks would pitilessly roll the Ottomans out of Hungary. But these were hard campaigns and, as so often happens after moments of euphoria, they suffered at first from excessive zeal and inadequate preparation.

On 27 September 1683, Lorraine’s cavalry entered the great fortress of Pressburg, but further east at Barkan the Turks caught the Polish hussars in an ambush which only Lorraine’s rapid deployment of his dragoons en masse prevented turning into a rout. The following month, the fortress of Esztergom, later to become the seat of the Hungarian bishops, was occupied and returned to the Habsburgs after eighty years of Ottoman suzerainty and a siege of six days. It really did seem as if nothing could stop the Imperial troops, and the news the same week of Kara Mustafa’s execution for failing to take Vienna raised morale further. By 1684, a coalition of the Venetian Doge, the Habsburg Emperor and the King of Poland pledged to wage continuous war against the Turk. With the capture of Visegrad in June the route to Buda, the key to western Hungary, was open.

But Buda, or as the Austrians called it, Ofen, was a formidable obstacle. Its ramparts were as thick as Vienna’s, but unlike that city it lay not on a flat plain but on a dramatic rocky hill above the Danube, dominating the surrounding landscape with its citadels and towers. A vast fleet of barges and supply vessels was sent from Vienna down the Danube to provision the siege forces with artillery and other weapons and victuals.

The Ottomans proved no less tenacious than the Viennese and after a year Lorraine broke off the siege as his troops were decimated by the terrible ‘Morbus Hungaricus’ or swamp fever, which persuaded the patriotic and influential priest Marco d’Aviano to advise Lorraine that the siege should be lifted, if only temporarily. By the time the siege was resumed a few months later, the Turks had used the interval to strengthen their defences and once again the Habsburg troops, though now reinforced by Prussians and Bavarians, found they could make little impact on the fortress. Only with the arrival of new guns in June 1686 did the siege resume progress and a breach on the Gellért side of the fortifications allow the Bavarians to gain a foothold. After several days of fierce combat, during which Prince Eugene’s hand was pierced by an arrow fired at close range near the main gate, the city’s defenders began to tire.

A summons by Lorraine to the Turkish commander to surrender brought the reply that Buda would be defended ‘until my last gasp of breath’. Meanwhile the Imperial War Council had agreed that the capture of Buda would not bring offensive operations against the Turks to an end. A new war aim had been formulated and this was nothing less ambitious than ‘the annihilation of the Ottoman Empire’. A fresh artillery barrage a few weeks later breached the main gate and the Imperial troops poured in, wreaking havoc on all traces of humanity they could find, including women and children. Only with considerable difficulty did Lorraine get his men under control as the pent-up bloodlust of months took over and hundreds of innocent civilians were slaughtered with the greatest brutality and mutilation. Of the 13,000-strong Ottoman garrison, barely 2,000 survived.

With the fall of Buda in 1686 the great Hungarian plain and the Danube routes to Belgrade were open and Leopold, true to his alliance with both the King of Poland and Venice, pushed his forces south and east. The following year, at the Battle of Nágyharsány, the defeat of the Hungarians by the Turks at Mohács, a century and a half earlier, was avenged and a year after that Belgrade was stormed.

The capture of Belgrade was a triumph which rang the church bells throughout the Habsburg lands. It was the jewel in a campaign of conquest that had pushed Habsburg power hundreds of miles down the Danube. But in the uncertainty of war, which made Belgrade change hands with increasing frequency over the coming century, the Ottomans launched a vigorous counter-attack. The great city fell to the Ottomans the following year and the Habsburg forces’ grip began to weaken, beset by indifferent leadership and Ottoman tenacity. Eugene had returned west to Austria’s second front, the war against his hated foe Louis XIV, and it was only when peace was concluded in early 1697 that Eugene returned to Hungary.

His reputation preceded him. Against France Eugene had demonstrated that swiftness of movement which he had learnt during his campaigning against the Turks. It was to make him famous; the Siege of Cuneo was raised virtually as soon as the besieging French heard the Prince was riding to that town’s relief. He had also learnt, as Wallenstein had at the beginning of the century, that his cavalry, well handled, were some of the finest the world had ever known.

The bridge at Zenta

But it was to be back on the eastern front at Zenta in 1697 that Eugene, now commander-in-chief, was able to harness all his military experience to deal a crippling blow to the Ottoman Empire. In the fifteen years since the Siege of Vienna, his army had become better equipped and trained to deal with their eastern foe. Against an enemy that was formidable in hand-to-hand combat and deadly in its use of the ‘arme blanche’, the Imperial infantry had learnt the hard way to close ranks and maintain fire discipline. Those units that failed to move swiftly could face immediate destruction. Contemporary accounts are littered with descriptions of Imperial infantry cut to pieces for failing to form a line before the enemy was within 20 paces of them. Eugene imposed new training regimes which forced his men to react much more quickly. Eugene invested his troops with a keen sense of the need for speed almost as if his own sense of movement had been sharpened by his encounters with the Ottomans. After the slow, methodical warfare on the plains of Piedmont his lightning-like thought processes relished the fast-moving demands of eastern warfare. In Hungary he almost allowed himself to be led by instinct rather than planning. Nothing expressed this more vividly than his actions in the second week of September 1697, which culminated in Zenta.

On 11 September one of Eugene’s scouts caught a solitary pasha out riding without an escort. After failing to get any information from him the Prince ordered his Croat horsemen to draw their swords and prepare to cut off the pasha’s head, a command which unsurprisingly focused the Turk’s mind more acutely than had Eugene’s earlier request.

The pasha began to explain: Ottoman forces were at that very moment crossing the Tisza river at Zenta, not many miles from where they stood. On closer questioning, the prisoner thought it would take the best part of the day to effect the crossing. The pasha’s life was spared but Eugene immediately leapt into the saddle and rode with his hussars to Zenta, ordering the rest of his army to follow him at once. Eugene realised that he had been given a unique chance to win a great victory. By the time he arrived at Zenta, with the bulk of his cavalry, although the Ottomans had strongly entrenched the entry to the bridge their army was still crossing the river.

Eugene immediately had his cavalry attack the entrenchments in close formation, achieving almost complete surprise. The Turkish defenders panicked and began to withdraw on to the bridge, where they were overcome by indescribable confusion and terror. Attempts to rally failed and, as Eugene’s infantry came up an hour later with the artillery, the entrenchments were stormed and volley after volley was poured into the mass of Turks on the bridge. His artillery pounded the forces on the other side of the river. Within six hours the devastation was complete. Twenty thousand Turks lay dead or wounded and more than 10,000 had been drowned as the crowded bridge collapsed under Austrian shellfire. Eugene lost just 350 men. So dazzling was this victory that the victors captured not only the Sultan’s seal, treasury and harem (some eighty strong) but also the entire Ottoman baggage train, including nearly a hundred camels.

Austrian Army 1700-22

The Treaty of Karlowitz and the reorganisation of the Military Frontier

The political consequences were no less dramatic. Within less than eighteen months the Treaty of Karlowitz was signed, on 26 January 1699, ending centuries of Ottoman power in Central Europe. Turkey was obliged to surrender Hungary and even parts of Bosnia, which Eugene had raided returning, according to a contemporary account, with ‘many beautiful Turkish women’. The picturesque land of Transylvania though nominally independent would henceforth be governed by Austrian appointees. At a stroke the entire eastern frontier of the Habsburg Empire had been shifted many hundreds of miles to the east. Even the Military Frontier, the fortified borderlands between the two empires, had to be reorganised to incorporate these new territorial acquisitions.

Originally created, as we have seen, in 1553 as a form of cordon sanitaire running from Senj across Sisak to Durdevac, the Military Frontier had been financed by the Styrian nobility and administered by the War Council in Graz. From the 1630s, the Habsburgs had encouraged immigration from the Turkish provinces, offering the privilege of internal self-administration and freedom of religion for the settlers along the Military Frontier so that many Serbs of Orthodox religion found refuge in what gradually became one long, armed encampment where every tenth inhabitant was under arms.

After the Treaty of Karlowitz this frontier was now vastly expanded to include Lower Slavonia, Illyria and the Banat. New units of locally recruited cavalry known as Serežan were engaged for piquet and police duties among a population that was extremely mixed but, thanks to the continuous skirmishing, increasingly made up of resourceful and practical men, natural warrriors often capable of rising rapidly through the ranks. This huge extension of the Military Frontier would feed the tactics and manpower of the Balkans into the Imperial standing army for its campaigns in the coming century, giving Austrian arms a reputation for dash and style.

Politically, Karlowitz marked decisively the decline of one empire and the rise of another. Throughout south-eastern Europe Christians rejoiced at the fall of the Turkish oppressors. Optimism and euphoria abounded. From Mount Athos a group of Orthodox monks made a pilgrimage all the way to Vienna to lay at the feet of the Emperor Leopold a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary. They were convinced that within months the Imperial armies would liberate the entire Balkan peninsula.

It was not to be. Left to their own devices, no doubt Leopold and Eugene would have seen Karlowitz as a brief armistice. They contemplated pushing the Turks further back and reconquering, again, Belgrade, left by the Treaty of Karlowitz in Turkish hands. But the completion of this particular ‘Austrian mission’ in the east was never to happen, though several wars would still be fought against the Ottomans throughout much of the next years. It would be more than a century before the monks of Athos and Greece were, in Metternich’s memorable phrase, ‘condemned to life’, and then Austria would play no significant role in the struggle for Greek independence.

Marlborough (l) and Eugene (r) went on to spectacular success in an enduring partnership throughout the war.

War with France

Austria, secure to the east, now turned towards her other great ‘mission’ whereby she contributed forcefully to the balance of power in Europe. This mission meant that she could not be indifferent to the activities of Louis XIV of France.

The issue of who would succeed to the Spanish throne at the beginning of the eighteenth century after the death in 1700 of the infirm and childless Charles II, son of Philip IV, was not one any Austrian Habsburg could regard with Olympian detachment. When Louis XIV proposed uniting the Spanish with the French throne the response could only be war. Not for the last time would Austria become the lynchpin of a coalition whose aim was to prevent mainland Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power.

While shifting the focus of the Austrian Habsburgs dramatically from the east to the west, the War of the Spanish Succession would provide the world with extravagant confirmation that as a military power the Habsburg armies were a force to be reckoned with. Hard though it might be to imagine a more dazzling victory than Zenta, Prince Eugene was about to demonstrate with the Duke of Marlborough his brilliance even more impressively than he had on the parched plains of Hungary. The small Bavarian village of Blindheim, not far from the banks of the Upper Danube, was surrounded by lush grass and fertile fields.

In the war that was coming, Kaiser Leopold did not find it easy to ally himself with the Protestant maritime powers, England and the Netherlands. But the world had changed and it was a sign of Leopold’s intelligence as a monarch that he possessed the ability to realise that he must adapt to the new circumstances and draw the correct conclusions from events. He was, understandably, outraged by the Pope’s support of France, whose diplomatic machinations had taken every advantage of Leopold’s difficulties in the east. With the Ottomans defeated, Leopold did not flinch for a moment from defending the interests of his house and from entering battle for the Spanish inheritance even though in military strength and statesmanship he was far inferior to his French cousin. (Louis XIV, like Leopold, was also the son of a Spanish Habsburg mother.)

The war began in a rather understated way on the north Italian plain near Legnagno. A French army under the dry and unimaginative Nicolas Catinat had occupied and fortified the Rivoli defile above Verona to ensure that a patchwork of Italian possessions remained loyal to Louis XIV. Catinat was encouraged by the court to demonstrate boldness and defeat the Habsburg troops as soon as possible should they descend from the Tyrol. Unfortunately for Catinat, Eugene was at the summit of his abilities in 1701 and his troops, fresh from the war of movement and energy in the east, were as keen as their commander to gain ascendancy over their French enemy as soon as possible. Eugene raised the old military art of the feint to new levels of sophistication. The Italian campaign of 1701–2 was subsequently overshadowed by the glittering victories of Blenheim and Oudenarde but this opening of the war revealed all Eugene’s armies’ qualities which later were so admired by the Duke of Marlborough.

As Catinat was expecting Eugene to approach via Rivoli, the Imperial commander wasted no time sending out messages en clair that this was precisely what he was doing. At one point Eugene proved so successful in giving the impression that he was entering Italy along the Adige that even his corps commanders believed this was their planned route. In fact Eugene had long decided to descend on the Italian plain through Vicenza further to the east. By guaranteeing Venetian property and keeping a firm grip on his troops to ensure that the agreements with the Veneto land-owning families were respected, the secret was well kept. Any soldiers found looting were summarily executed, much to the relief of the locals, who gradually came to welcome the Imperial troops and prefer them to their French foes. A key part of Eugene’s great success in masking his real intentions was the support of the Venetians of the plain whose understandable antagonism to a foreign army was powerfully reduced not least by Eugene’s excellent relations with the local clergy. By 27 May Catinat had to report to Paris that, despite his ‘vigilance’, Eugene had succeeded in reaching the Venetian plains without giving battle.

Where Eugene was bold, Catinat was cautious and in a fierce cavalry engagement on the Mincio, Eugene forced the French to retreat over the Oglio in a strange series of manoeuvres which is sometimes called the Battle of Carpi. The news of this engagement, coupled with the fact that the army of Louis XIV had not, contrary to popular belief, defeated or even hindered Eugene’s deployment, was enough for Paris to sack the hapless Catinat and send the aged Villeroi to replace him.

Villeroi in his early seventies was an experienced general but, at this stage of his career, rich years at court had sapped his appetite for risk. ‘It is difficult,’ Louis XIV said later to him, ‘at our stage of life to have much luck.’ As soon as he was established on the plains of Lombardy, Eugene set about constructing a powerfully defensive position in front of the fortress town of Chiari. He was aware that the French would be encouraged to take the offensive and his plan now was to create an anvil of such strength that the hammer-blows of the French would prove incapable of making any serious impression. For supplies he raided the estates of the wealthy Mantuan aristocracy while giving strict orders that the possessions of the less well off inhabitants were to be untouched.

The position at Chiari was well suited to Eugene’s ends. Streams protected his forces on three sides and the earthworks he set about constructing with the fortress at his rear offered no scope for surprise cavalry attacks. His infantry was arranged into a solid line three ranks deep. Thus drawn up they waited until the French infantry had dressed their lines and advanced to within 15 paces. At this moment they let fly three volleys of such withering effect that within an hour Villeroi had suffered nearly 3,000 casualties.

The news of the French defeat resounded around Europe, emboldening the maritime powers to sign the second treaty of the Grand Alliance. The Austrian infantry had proved capable of being stubborn in defence and were well drilled against what were then considered to be the finest foot soldiers in Europe.

PRINCE EUGENE AND THE WAR OF THE SPANISH SUCCESSION II

The seizure of Cremona

Villeroi fell back on Cremona, where events took a picturesque turn. After five months of careful consolidation following his victory at Chiari, Eugene again took the offensive. His army was still well provisioned and disciplined. He had executed forty-eight soldiers for looting houses around Mantua and, continuing his excellent relationship with the local clergy, had been informed by a Father Cossoli, a priest in Cremona, of a secret route into that town via one of the sewerage canals.

While Eugene formed two columns to approach the two main gates of the town before dawn, he detached 400 soldiers under an intrepid Scot, Captain Francis Macdonnell, to enter the town by this clandestine route, await the quiet moment before dawn, then emerge and open the gates from within. The plan was executed the night before the first day of February when temperatures were low enough to prevent the worst of the vermin and stench of the canal from demoralising Macdonnell’s men as they crouched awaiting their moment to strike.

The Austrians achieved complete surprise. One gate was seized and more than a thousand French soldiers were slaughtered in their beds as one of Eugene’s columns entered the town. Villeroi himself was captured and, it is said, was only saved from being bayoneted in his bed by the quick-witted Macdonnell.4 Villeroi promptly offered Macdonnell not only a commission but an entire regiment in the French army if he would return to France with him, but the Scottish officer politely refused.

The news of Villeroi’s capture spread through the town as the morning wore on. But Eugene had not reckoned with the 600 men of two Irish regiments in the French service commanded by Dillon and Burke. One of the Austrian columns approaching from the other side of the river Po had been delayed. The Po Gate and the Citadel roused by the firing in the rest of the town had not been overwhelmed as Eugene had planned. They were held by men of the Dillon regiment and the Irish took up a strong position around the Citadel, giving the Austrians their first check of the day. Even fierce hand-to-hand fighting failed to dislodge them. At first Eugene ordered Villeroi to tell the Irish to lay down their arms but Villeroi merely shrugged and, pointing to his surrendered sword lying on the floor, observed: ‘I should be delighted to oblige but I am no longer in command here.’

Eugene then asked Macdonnell to tell the Irish that they would all be slaughtered if they did not surrender immediately and that greater honour and improved pay and conditions awaited them in the Austrian service where many Irishmen had made splendid careers as officers. To this ultimatum the Irish replied that their pride was insulted by so ‘ungenerous an offer’ which they felt was ‘unworthy of a great prince’ who would ‘surely know the true value of honour and loyalty’. As an added expression of their ‘disappointment’ they felt compelled to keep Macdonnell prisoner.

The Austrians resumed the attack but without much success. After two hours of fierce fighting Eugene gradually realised that without his second column entering the Po Gate he could not dislodge the Irish and that with every minute that passed the town which at dawn had fallen into his hands as a prize would become, with the imminent approach of a large French relief force, a trap. By mid-afternoon Eugene broke off the action. Well might he later report that Cremona had been ‘taken by a miracle; lost by an even greater one’.

Aside from the Irish heroics – Louis XIV would increase their pay and honour them generously on their return to France – it had been a bad day for French arms. Eugene’s withdrawal and the subsequent inconclusive action at Luzzara in no way detracted from the lustre that surrounded his leadership and the quality of his troops. Louis XIV realised that his taunting of the ‘Abbé Eugene’ and his refusal to offer the Prince a commission in the French army all those years ago had been an expensive gesture.

Nevertheless, whatever the vicissitudes of the campaigns in northern Italy, along the Rhine French arms and those of their allies, the Bavarians, were victorious. There, one German town after another trembled at the thought of the almighty French army. If French prestige were to be destroyed it would have to be here.

Marlborough and Eugene cooperate

The presence of the Bavarians – for neither the first nor the last time on the side of the Habsburg’s enemies – implied a threat to the crown lands and even Vienna. Eugene was hastily recalled and though there is some controversy over the exact authorship of the plan that was next devised, it is clear that Eugene immediately saw that the army of the maritime powers under Marlborough would need to travel from the distant Lowlands all the way down the Rhine to the valley of the Upper Danube if the French threat was to be met.

Marlborough’s march to the Danube is rightly seen as one of the great feats of his generalship. Eugene had grasped immediately on his return to Vienna as head of the Imperial War Council that the junction of his forces and Marlborough’s in the valley of the Upper Danube was the best way to defend the Habsburg marches. He wrote to Marlborough suggesting he withdraw his forces from the northern to the southern sphere of war and by happy coincidence Marlborough’s judgement ‘exactly coincided’ with his own.

This was the first sign of the strong sympathy between the two men whose relationship was to be so critical for Europe over the next six years. Where Eugene was mercurial in mood, neurotic and highly strung, the more stolid Marlborough enjoyed more earthy pleasures. Despite their different temperaments and attitudes they formed a partnership that is still considered one of the most successful in the history of modern warfare. Their combined talents all but destroyed France as a military power, and their personal differences were sublimated in their respect for each other’s military skill.

Marlborough’s execution of the march to the Danube was faultless, keeping the French guessing that an attack was being prepared against Alsace until it was too late for the French marshal Tallard to stop the British, Danish and Dutch troops reaching the Danube. Eugene performed a no less notable ‘ruse’ in marching his men during the same days, over similar terrain. He also gambled on the French army in Alsace misinterpreting his intentions and left a small screen of troops to engage in much activity along the Rhine while he stole away. At the same time a network of Austrian spies in a campaign of calculated disinformation reported that Eugene’s troops were heading for Rottweil to the west. Eugene’s movements in fact were contrived to give the French every reason to think he was to remain in the neighbourhood of the Upper Rhine. Raising the Siege of Villingen he ordered the breaches to be repaired. In every order and disposition he appeared determined to remain where he was. His movements were arranged with ‘a masterly penetration of his enemy’s mind’.

Leaving some eight battalions at Rottweil, he headed off towards the valley of the Neckar with about 15,000 troops. These he had chosen for their mobility and nearly one third were cavalry: his best cavalry, including the formidable cuirassiers, then considered among the elite of the Habsburg troops. Suddenly from the moment Eugene reached Tübingen a curious thing happened. All this open and rather unhurried activity ceased. Eugene and his 15,000 men abruptly, and to the consternation of the French spies, simply disappeared. Behind him a fog of rumours and ill-considered reports, contradictory and fantastic, were all that was left. Eugene headed towards Höchstädt on the Danube and would soon be within shouting distance of his ally.

As had been the allies’ intention all along, Marlborough now aimed to disrupt the freedom of movement of the Franco-Bavarian force under Marcin and the Elector of Bavaria, who were centred on Augsburg, threatening the approaches to Vienna. The Franco-Bavarians reacted with predictable hostility and began marching north to threaten Marlborough’s supply line. The Franco-Bavarians would cut this supply line once they reached the northern bank of the Danube and so they obliged Marlborough to march in parallel with them back north. Unwittingly, this only brought Marlborough closer to Eugene.

On 8 August the Franco-Bavarians were approaching the Danube crossing at Dillingen when Tallard was suddenly brought intelligence that Eugene was on the other side at Höchstädt with 39 squadrons and 20 battalions. Eugene’s rapid and secret march had achieved the utmost success. He had been helped by the slowness of communications of those times: a message could barely cover a hundred miles and might take several days to arrive. Movements could be disguised by a combination of disseminating contradictory messages and carefully planted cavalry screens.

In this case the effect on the morale of the Franco-Bavarians was dramatic. With no inkling of his existence Eugene had brought reinforcements the size of a third of Marlbrough’s forces to within striking range. Moreover, as the reports confirmed, Eugene’s leadership had ensured that these were all disciplined and highly trained troops serving under a soldier whose name was already invested with the prestige of countless battle honours. Eugene’s sudden appearance not only transformed the equation of power on the Upper Danube but it allowed Marlborough, who had been finding his ally, ‘Turkish’ Louis of Baden, something of a trial, a perfect opportunity to rid himself of this narrow-minded pedant and dispatch him to the Siege of Ingolstadt.

One serious obstacle remained before these two commanders could effect the junction of their forces: the Danube. On the same day that Tallard was apprised of Eugene’s arrival, the Savoy Prince crossed the Danube to hold a council of war with his English ally. Marlborough agreed that the northern bank of the river was the key to his lines of communications and so dispatching 3,000 of his cavalry to follow Eugene back, he began preparing for the rest of his army to cross the river.

Blenheim

Eugene’s position was perilous, as he was barely a day’s march away from a Franco-Bavarian force that was three times the size of his own. An urgent message to Marlborough spurred the Englishman to march his infantry through the night. Before dawn on 11 August Marlborough had crossed the river at Merxheim with twenty battalions while a further column was crossing the river at Donauwörth. By the afternoon of the following day the two allies were together at the head of an army of 52,000 men made up of Danes, Hessians, Austrians, English, Prussians and Dutch. Marlborough’s achievement was all the greater for the fact that his artillery arrived only by the following day.

The French and their Bavarian allies chose to deny Marlborough further progress along the Danube, convinced that rather than risk an indecisive action the allies would retreat northwards along their lines of communication. A strongly fortified position, the lynchpin of whose right flank would be the village of Blindheim five miles away from where Eugene and Marlborough stood, was prepared by Tallard and the Elector. But if the French and Bavarians thought Marlborough would shun battle they were mistaken. At two in the morning of Wednesday 13 August, the allies broke camp and began their march westwards towards Blenheim, as Marlborough’s scouts called the village of Blindheim. Eugene and Marlborough had surveyed the battlefield from the church tower of Tapfheim the day before and, despite the care with which the French were laying out their position, it was clear that it was a battleground made for a bold frontal attack.

By seven o’clock the allied columns began to deploy in line about a mile away from the Franco-Bavarian position still shrouded in the early morning mist. Eugene’s troops took rather longer to arrive on the allies’ right flank because the hills of Schwennenbach and French artillery made their deployment far from painless. The ground was ‘so embarrassed with brambles, hedges and other encumbrances that there was no marching by columns’. By half past twelve the Prince was ready and within an hour the entire line on both sides was engaged.

From the beginning Eugene had subordinated himself to Marlborough and both men had agreed that the key to the French position lay between the villages of Blindheim and Oberglauheim. Eugene’s task was to hold the numerically superior forces of the Elector and Marcin while Marlborough attacked the French line on the allied left flank and centre. The French centre was weak; too many regiments had been crammed into Blindheim but when the first attack went in against the village, Marlborough’s forces were repulsed, with heavy loss.

In contrast to the war of movement and dynamic ebb and thrust familiar to those who had served Eugene in the east, the initial phase of the battle here was a textbook example of that perfection of restraint with which the disciplined armies of the eighteenth century fought in western Europe. When a distance little longer than a cricket pitch separated the advancing English from the French palisades a volley from the defenders crashed out, felling one in three of the attackers. Still the British regiments, obedient to their officers, reserved their fire until their leading officer gave the agreed signal by touching the woodwork of the outer palisade with his sword, whereupon they too volleyed but failed to make any impact on the carefully constructed defences.

Any attempt to turn the French line from here was doomed to failure and Marlborough, who had lost a significant part of his force in the failed attempt to storm the village, renewed his attack against the weaker French centre, this time with more success. His cavalry, though inferior in number and stationary, saw off a violent attack by the French Gens d’Armes elite household cavalry, an event which later analysts of the battle would regard with significance as indicating that the French cavalry were in a less robust form than might have been expected. Despite the tremendous feats of arms performed by the infantry, Blenheim would be decided by cavalry and in particular the cavalry of Prince Eugene, which was comprised, though by no means exclusively, of several regiments of Austrian horsemen (Lobkowitz, Styrum and Fugger’s Dragoons and Cuirassiers).

Eugene’s infantry brigade made up of Prussians and Danes initially carried much before them but soon the Franco-Bavarian numbers began to tell and by about 2.30, Eugene’s position was becoming desperate as the enemy cavalry and artillery began to shatter his lines. The pressure of these attacks mounted and first the Prussians and then the Danes began to withdraw behind the little Nebel stream. Eugene was about to commit his reserves to stem this crumbling edifice of his infantry, which threatened to engulf his entire wing, when a message from Marlborough arrived asking for urgent cavalry reinforcements as his centre came under renewed pressure from repeated French cavalry attacks. All Marlborough’s centre was pressed and shaken. His cavalry had just been caught while still in the disorder of forming on the further bank of the Nebel. Here was the crisis of the battle and had the French commanders comprehended it correctly they would no doubt have deployed their reserves – idle and unused around Blenheim – to roll the English centre back across the river and slaughter it in the marshy land beyond.

It is the most remarkable testament to the powerful bond Eugene and Marlborough had formed during their very brief acquaintance that at the moment when Eugene’s own forces appeared to be facing their greatest peril of the day, he, without hesitating, ordered Fugger’s brigade of heavy cavalry to ride immediately to Marlborough’s aid. Eugene knew the battle would be decided on Marlborough’s front and with his swiftness of thought lost not a second in ordering support to his embattled ally.

Fugger, scion of a wealthy family from Augsburg which though situated in Bavaria was a ‘Reichstadt’ and therefore no friend of the Elector of Bavaria, was not a man to be trifled with. He had earlier rejected a plea from the Dutch infantry for help on the ground, that he answered only to Prince Eugene. Now he needed no further prompting and made haste to correct his earlier reserve towards his allies. The three squadrons of his own cuirassiers plus three further squadrons of the Lobkowitz Cuirassiers reinforced by some of Styrum’s Dragoons came thundering across the battlefield and crashed into the French cavalry in flank, permitting Marlborough’s demoralised Dutch infantry – who were about to be swept away – to reform.

As in so many battles, the line between utter defeat and outright victory was extremely thin. In less than twenty minutes the great threat to the allies’ centre had been resolutely met, thanks to the discipline of a few hundred fresh Austrian cavalry engaged with the rapidity of perception that was their commander’s hallmark. The French cavalry were literally ridden off the battlefield first by the Austrians and then by a counter-charge of Marlborough’s united cavalry. It was as if the tables had been turned in a few minutes. The pressure was now on the French with their line crumbling and their powerful right wing still holding Blenheim but bottled up and isolated, unable to affect the outcome of the battle.

As Tallard would later poignantly write: ‘I saw one instant in which the battle was won; if the cavalry had not turned and abandoned the line.’ The French centre was exposed by the rout of the French cavalry. Further weakened, it severed into two disconnected parts. Tallard and the Elector of Bavaria lacked the empathy of their opponents and they made little attempt to coordinate. Blenheim itself surrendered as darkness fell, adding 10,000 prisoners to the 12,000 casualties on the Franco-Bavarian side.

The political consequences of this day were even more significant than the character of the military success. It was the first great defeat Louis XIV had suffered and utterly destroyed all the stratagems with which he had dreamt of menacing Vienna and advancing a Franco-Bavarian force along the valley of the Danube. It sealed in blood the bond between Catholic Vienna and Protestant London and between Marlborough and Eugene. At the same time it put paid to any chance of a Hungarian insurrection and threw the Bourbons on to the defensive. For five years the myth of French invincibility would remain shattered until on the great palisades of Malplaquet the French defence recovered its stubbornness.

After Blenheim the two victors went their own ways. While Marlborough, after due adulation in London, defeated the French in another great though more modest victory at Ramillies, Eugene returned to Vienna to be feted by a grateful court. Both men were lavishly rewarded. In Vienna in addition to a fine Palais near the cathedral along the Weihburggasse, the Prince was given ground to construct the magnificent Schloss Belvedere under the design of Lukas von Hildebrandt. Further east on the Marchfeld, the hauntingly beautiful Schloss Hof, immortalised by Canaletto, was another gem to be added to the victor’s laurels. Eugene, the unlikely warrior whose fearless courage bordered on hysteria on the battlefield, became a great patron of the arts and the Belvedere remains to this day one of the great triumphs of Austrian baroque.

Turin: The attack of Prince Leopold of Anhalt Dessau.

The Siege of Turin: Oudenarde and Malplaquet

It was not to be long before the sound of the guns would take Eugene on the road to war again. He was determined not to allow the year of 1706 to pass without some great action. It was time to deal with Louis XIV’s ambitions on the Italian peninsula again. Checked on the Danube and in the Lowlands after his defeat at Ramillies, Louis wanted to undermine the Habsburgs’ allies around Turin. The French invested the city and occupied the surrounding land and Alpine foothills.

Another army would have to make its way from the Alpine fastnesses of the Tyrol down to the Piedmontese foothills. Eugene marched with only 24,000 mostly Austrian and German troops across the Alps, ascending mountains and crossing rivers through country occupied by his enemies. To everyone’s astonishment he arrived in time to relieve the besieged garrison, venturing an attack on the French at four o’clock in the morning on 7 September 1706 notwithstanding his inferiority in equipment and numbers. The French were prepared and their artillery decimated Eugene’s front ranks until the Prussians on Eugene’s left wing under Prince Leopold of Dessau broke through the French entrenchments on their third attempt and put their obstinate opponents to the bayonet. This encouraged Eugene’s right wing, made up of Palatinate and Gotha troops, leavened with some Württemberg regiments, to push forward. At the same time Count Daun who commanded the garrison erupted from the citadel with several thousand troops, further disordering the French lines that were now pressed upon two fronts.

The Prussians mounted the ramparts first and in a letter to Zinzensdorf, Eugene generously acknowledged the Prussians’ valour noting: ‘The Prince of Anhalt has once more done wonders with his troops at Turin. I met him twice in the thickest fire and in the very front of it, and, I cannot conceal it, that in bravery, and especially in discipline his troops have far surpassed mine’.

The raising of the Siege of Turin added further laurels to Eugene’s reputation, and although the Prussian infantry under his command had distinguished itself, the Austrian garrison had also fought with great vigour and courage. The confusion of the French had greatly increased as a result of their rear line being attacked by Daun, whose troops wounded the senior French commander, Marcin and the Duke of Orleans. Marcin, who was captured, died the following day. His troops left more than 5,000 dead on the battlefield and twice as many wounded. Barely 16,000 survivors fled over the Alps into France, all that remained of an army which had at one point been reckoned at nearly 60,000 strong. The abandoned supplies were stupendous. More than 200 cannon and 80,000 barrels of powder as well as standards and treasure fell into Eugene’s hands.

The strategic effects were even more spectacular as the French rapidly lost one place after another in Italy and were forced to conclude a general capitulation according to the terms of which they evacuated Italy entirely. On hearing the news of Turin, Marlborough wrote: ‘It is impossible to express the joy it has given me but I really love this Prince [Eugene]. This glorious act must bring France so low that … with the blessing of God we have such peace as will give us quiet for all our days.’ By 1707 France had lost a third of the Spanish inheritance she claimed and the Habsburg Emperor had secured Lombardy and the Netherlands by the two great battles of the previous year.

On 11 June 1708 at Oudenarde, the two allied commanders again formed an invincible duo, Marlborough’s mood visibly lifting when he was joined by Eugene after a string of British losses in Flanders. Their opponents, the Dukes of Burgoyne and Vendôme could not abide each other. Once again at a critical moment in the battle, Eugene’s cavalry rode against their old opponents, the French Household dragoons, though with less effect this time. Nevertheless, the left wing of the allies under Eugene never let Marlborough down and this great battle was won, as at Blenheim, because of the cohesion of command.

Oudenarde opened the way for Eugene to attack and take by storm the citadel of Ryssel, hitherto regarded as impregnable. France was now utterly humbled north as well as south of the Alps and the dreadful winter of 1708 forced her into further concessions though not as many as Eugene and Marlborough desired. Both men agreed not only that no single possession of the House of Austria should be in French hands but that Louis XIV should assist in expelling his own grandson Philip from Spain. Not even defeated France could bear such extreme humiliation, and war began again. In the Netherlands the great armies limbered up for another sanguinary struggle.

At the outset of the great Battle of Malplaquet, Eugene received a graze to the head from a passing shot. It was almost an omen, because this victory was more bitterly contested than any other in the campaigns to date. The French retired from the field exhausted but in good order. They had given a good account of themselves and had shown resilience when pushed. Their defensive position, the bloc, was formidable and this battle cost Marlborough many of his finest regiments. The French were not pursued by Eugene’s horse which in one final melee had fought their opponents to a standstill but were themselves so exhausted that they were incapable of harassing the French further.

It was to be the last of the great duo’s victories but they could look back on an undefeated partnership that had restored the balance of power to the Continent. Nonetheless, Malplaquet marked the point at which France would be pushed no more. France sued for terms and one by one her network of fortresses was surrendered but the complete destruction of France was no longer deemed possible and any plans for a march on Paris to fulfil the promise of total revenge were abandoned after the Tories took over in London and Marlborough was recalled and dismissed. With the death of the Emperor Joseph I on 17 April 1711 all enthusiasm on the part of England to support Austria began to wane.