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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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).
The states of the Apennine Peninsula in the second half of the 11th
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 of Savoy and his General Staff at the Battle of Zenta
The ‘first age of
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.