The Inter-World Wars Military Thinkers

General Erich Ludendorff

Throughout history, all too often the conclusion of one armed conflict has served as a prelude to the next. Never was this more true than at the end of World War I, which, although it was sometimes described as “the war to end all wars,” provided only a temporary respite. Scarcely had the guns fallen silent than people started looking into the future on the assumption that the Great Powers of this world had not yet finished fighting one another. Which gave rise to the question: How was this to be done?

To virtually all of those who tried, the point of departure was the need to avoid attrition, reopen the way toward decisive operations, and reduce the number of military casualties on the battlefield. The casualties themselves had been the direct result of the superiority of the defense as brought about by modern firepower, hence the most pressing problem was to find ways to bypass or overcome it. One of the first serious theoretical treatises to look at the problem was written by an Italian general, Giulio Douhet. An engineer by profession, during the early years of the century Douhet had become fascinated with the military applications of the internal combustion engine. A little later he was also found dabbling in futurist ideas concerning the spiritual qualities allegedly springing from those two speedy new vehicles, the motorcar and the aircraft, claiming that they possessed the ability to rejuvenate the world and Italy in particular.

As a staff officer in 1915–18, he was in a position to observe, and reflect on, the twelve abortive offensives the Italian army had launched across the River Isonzo. Surely there had to be a better way of doing things—one that, in fact, he had already promoted during the war itself, arguing in favor of the creation of a massive bomber force and its use against the enemy. His masterpiece, Il Commando del Aereo (the command of the air), was published in 1921 and, as the title suggests, tried to do for the air what Mahan had done for the sea. In his own words, “the form of any war … depends upon the technical means of war available.” In the past, firearms had revolutionized war; then it was the turn of small-caliber rapid-fire guns, barbed wire, and, at sea, the submarine. The most recent additions were the air arm and poison gas, both of which were still in their infancy but possessed the potential to completely upset all forms of war so far known.

Douhet surmised correctly that as long as war was fought only on the surface of the earth, it was necessary for one side to break through the other’s defenses in order to win. However, those defenses had become stronger and stronger until the ability to maneuver past them and take strategically important targets such as cities and industrial areas became impossible. Sheltered by this reality, the civilian population carried on almost undisturbed. As we saw, it was by mobilizing that population that the belligerents were able to produce what it took to wage total war and sustain the fight for years on end.

The advent of aircraft changed this situation. Capable of flying over battle lines and natural obstacles, and possessing a comparatively long range, aircraft were free to attack centers of population and industry. Because no effective defense against such attacks was possible—given that the air could be traversed in all directions with equal ease and there was no predicting which target would be hit next—any war would have to start with a massive attack on the enemy’s air bases so as to establish “command of the air.”

That having been achieved, and extrapolating from the events of 1916–18, Douhet suggested that forty aircraft dropping eighty tons of bombs might have “completely destroyed” a city the size of Treviso. A mere three aircraft, he calculated, could deliver as much firepower as a modern battleship in a single broadside, whereas a thousand aircraft could deliver ten times as much firepower as could the entire British navy—counting thirty Dreadnoughts—in ten broadsides. The kicker was that the price tag of a single battleship would buy about a thousand aircraft. As Douhet pointed out, moreover, even these calculations failed to take account of the fact that the science of military aviation had just begun and that aircraft capable of lifting as much as ten tons of bombs would soon be built. Carrying Douhet’s views further, investments in armies and navies would by necessity come to a halt, and given that the new weapon was inherently offensive in nature, most of the aircraft ought to be not fighters but bombers. And instead of being grafted on to the army and navy, such air fleets would be formed into an independent air force. At the outbreak of the next war, that air force would be launched like a shell from a cannon. Having obtained command of the air in this sense by destroying the enemy’s airfields, the attackers would switch from military to civilian objectives. Using gas as the principal weapon, the aim should be not merely to kill but to demoralize. Leaping over the enemy’s ground defenses, a war waged by such means might be over almost before it had begun. By minimizing the casualties of both the attacker and the defender (whose population, feeling the effects of war directly, would force the government to surrender) represented a humane alternative to an endless battle of attrition. To carry out the air offensive, Douhet proposed a comparatively small force made up of elite warriors, a vision that meshed well with the anti-democratic, fascist ideas he also entertained.

The dream of avoiding warfare by attrition was also alive in the great prophet of mechanized land warfare, John Frederick Fuller. Even as a young officer, Fuller had given evidence of a formidable intellect expressed by an interest in everything from Greek philosophy to Jewish mysticism. In the years before World War I, he made great effort to discover the principles of war, of which he settled on nine: direction, concentration, distribution, determination, surprise, endurance, mobility, offensive action, and security.’

In numerous publications—Fuller was a prolific writer who, however, often tended to overstate his case—he argued that war, like every other field of human life, was decisively affected by the progress of science. Like Douhet, he considered the most important fruits of science to be the internal combustion engine (on which depended the airplane and the tank) and poison gas. For him, future warfare on land would center on the tank and the mechanization of artillery, reconnaissance, engineering, signals, supply, and maintenance units. Fully mechanized, an army would enjoy almost as much freedom of movement as did ships at sea. Now armies could once again maneuver against each other, concentrating against select sections of the enemy front, breaking through, and bringing about victory at comparatively low cost.

In the debates about tanks and mechanization, his views, coming as they did from an ex–chief of staff of the most advanced mechanized force in history, commanded particular respect. Yet even barring his most extreme ideas—say, that armies should consist of tanks alone and every infantryman provided with his individual tankette—many of his suggestions have come to pass. Considering himself not merely a military reformer but a philosopher as well, Fuller went on to spin an immensely complicated network of intellectual propositions on the nature of war, life, history, and whatever. Combining all these different strands, many of his historical writings were decidedly brilliant. However, much of his theorizing was decidedly half-baked, tied as it was to his interest in mysticism and the occult.

In the history of twentieth-century military thought, Fuller’s name is almost always associated with that of his younger contemporary and friend Basil Liddell Hart.’ Unlike Fuller, Liddell Hart was not a professional soldier, but rather studied history at Cambridge before enlisting, received a commission, and fought in France. Gassed at the Somme, Captain (throughout his life he enjoyed emphasizing the military rank he had attained) Liddell Hart spent the rest of the war in England training infantry recruits. It was in this capacity that he first started thinking seriously about the best way to prepare for, and wage, armed conflict.

Concerning his intellectual development, two points are worth noting. First, like so many of his generation who were educated in public schools, Liddell Hart was brought up on the notion that war was akin to sport and games. In his memoirs, he explains that he was good at football—not because his coordination and technique were in any way outstanding, but because he could envisage all various combinations of play and foresee where the ball was likely to end up. Second, and again like so many of his contemporaries, Liddell Hart ended the war as a fervent admirer of the British military establishment, which after all had just fought and won the largest armed conflict in history to date.

However, within a few years he reversed himself, joining the then fashionable trend of disillusionment with the war in general and with its conduct at the hand of the British high command in particular. In criticizing that conduct, his stature as the popular journalist he became after the war and interest in sports were to come in handy. Like Fuller, Liddell Hart concluded that sending men into the maws of machine guns had been the height of folly, the origin of which was to be found not in simple bloody-mindedness but in the writings of the greatest of all military philosophers, Carl von Clausewitz. To Liddell Hart, this was the prophet whose clarion call had misled generations of officers into the belief that the best, indeed almost the only, way to wage war was to concentrate the greatest possible number of men and weapons and launch them straight ahead against the enemy. In 1914–18 the “Prussian Marseillaise” had borne its horrible fruit.

To restore the power of the offensive and save casualties, in his early writings Liddell Hart recommended “the indirect approach.” Rather than attacking the enemy head-on, he should be thrown off balance, achieved by combining rapidity of movement with secrecy and surprise, with attacks carried out by dispersed forces (so as to conceal the true center of gravity for as long as possible), coming from unexpected directions, and following the least expected route, even if this meant overcoming topographic obstacles. Above all, every plan had to possess “two branches”—drawn up in such a way as to keep the opponent guessing concerning one’s true objectives. Any plan should also be sufficiently flexible to enable an objective to be changed if it turned out to be too strongly defended.

All such maneuvers were to be carried out in two-dimensional space, along lines of communications, overcoming all natural and artificial obstacles, while trailing “an umbilical cord of supply,” and against an enemy who presumably was both intelligent enough to understand what was going on and capable of engaging in countermaneuvers. War, consisting essentially of movement, was presented almost as if it were some kind of sophisticated game played between opposing teams. This was particularly true of Liddell Hart’s mature work. The older he became, the more pronounced his tendency to give tactics a short shrift. Other subjects such as mobilization, logistics, intelligence, command, communication and control, and questions of killing and dying were also lightly skipped over. Reading his most famous and oft-reprinted book, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, one might be excused for thinking war was about operational movement and very little else.

During the early 1920s, Liddell Hart also became interested in mechanization, and in this so much of his thinking was “borrowed” from his mentor, Fuller, that their friendship suffered for it. Thus it was little surprise that Liddell Hart’s vision of mechanized armed forces, as set forth in his Paris, or the Future of War (1925) as well as The Remaking of Modern Armies (1927), employed a combination of aircraft, tanks, and poison gas as weapons with which defenses could be skipped over or overcome, resulting in the war brought to a swift and cheap, if violent, end.

What prevented Liddell Hart from making a detailed forecast of the Blitzkrieg, with its characteristic combination of armored divisions and tanks, was his abiding revulsion for the horrors of World War I and his determination, which he shared with so many of his generation, that they not be repeated. From about 1931 on, this caused him to switch from attempts to devise more effective ways to win toward thinking about less costly ways to avoid defeat. Following Julian Corbett without bothering to acknowledge the master, he now claimed that the “British Way in Warfare” had always been to stay out of massive Continental commitments. Instead the kingdom had relied on its navy to keep the enemy at bay (and harass and weaken him by means of well-directed strokes at selected points) and on Continental allies to deliver the coup de main. By 1939, Liddell Hart had convinced himself that “the dominant lesson from the experience of land warfare, for more than a generation past, has been the superiority of the defense over attack”; even in the air, as experiences in Spain had shown, “the prospects of the defense are improving.” Therefore, instead of Britain repeating its World War I error—which had led to so many casualties— it could safely trust the “dauntless” French to stop the Germans. Britain itself, its armed forces thoroughly modernized and mechanized, should revert to its traditional strategy, relying primarily on blockade on the one hand and airpower on the other. This had the additional advantage that it would make universal conscription and mass armies unnecessary—a preference for small professional forces that Liddell Hart, a liberal, shared with some thinkers like Douhet.

Compared with Douhet, Fuller, and Liddell Hart, Erich Ludendorff was a towering figure. Much more than the first two, he understood what modern war was like from the top, and unlike the last-named he did not regard it as some kind of field game; “the war has spared me nothing,” he would write, having lost two sons. On the other hand, and again unlike Liddell Hart in particular, neither did he shrink from its horrors.

At first, Ludendorff was perhaps no more bigoted than was required of a German officer of his generation. Indeed, during the war he once opened a proclamation to the Jewish population of occupied Poland with the words, “Meine liebe Jidden.” In the 1920s, however, influenced by his second wife, he started dabbling with anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-freemasonry (he could never make up his mind which of the three international forces posed the greatest danger to Germany). He also took a part in the 1923 Nazi Putsch; for all this he has been rightly condemned. However, this should not obscure the fact that his vision of future war was more nearly correct than any of the rest.

Having spent more than two years in charge of Germany’s war effort, Ludendorff did not believe that a first-class modern state could be brought to its knees rapidly and cheaply by aircraft dropping bombs, or by fleets of tanks engaging in mobile operations, however brilliantly. In part, his Der Totale Krieg merely continued the work of some pre-1914 militarist writers, such as Colmar von der Goltz and Theodor von Bernhardi, who had advocated total mobilization and mass armies. And up to a point, his book recounted his own experience, which by attacking many of his less cooperative colleagues sought to explain why Germany had lost the war. Yet whatever the book’s precise origins and purpose, Ludendorff’s main thesis was that the developing technologies of production, transportation, and communication made modern war into much more than merely a question of armed forces maneuvering against one another for mastery of some battlefield. Instead, war would now demand a nation’s total effort, and therefore a total devotion of all resources to its execution.

To be sure, the next war would make use of all available weapons, including poison gas. Both civilians in their cities and soldiers in their trenches would be targeted, and the resulting casualties, destruction, and suffering would be immense. Therefore, by necessity, as important as the total mobilization of material resources would be the spiritual mobilization of the people—a point on which, as Ludendorff and many of his countrymen saw it, imperial Germany with its old-fashioned, authoritarian system of government and its neglect of the working classes had been sadly deficient.

The implication of such mobilization was an end to democracy and the liberties it entailed, including not only freedom of the press but workers’ rights and capitalist enterprise as well. For either industrialists or union leaders (during the war, Ludendorff had had his troubles with both) to insist on their own privilege was intolerable. Along with the entire financial apparatus available to the state, they, too, were to be subjected to a military dictatorship. And having experienced the process firsthand, Ludendorff was under no illusion that the nation’s spiritual and material mobilization could be improvised. Hence the dictatorship he demanded, and for which he no doubt regarded himself as the most suitable candidate, was to be set up in peacetime and made permanent.

The next war would be a life-and-death struggle to be won by the belligerent with the greatest resources and the strongest will to mobilize and deploy them—which incidentally disposed of any childish illusions concerning small, professional, and highly mobile, let alone chivalrous, armed forces. Anything that did not serve the war effort would have to be ruthlessly suppressed. Politics would, in effect, be swallowed by the war. Ludendorff was never one to mince his words. “All of Clausewitz’s theories should be thrown overboard…. Both war and policy serve the existence of the nation. However, war is the highest expression of the people’s will to live. Therefore politics must be made subordinate to war.” Or else, to the extent that this did not happen, treated as superfluous and, indeed, treasonable.

In the decades after 1945, Ludendorff’s military ideas were often attacked by featherweight commentators who mistook their world—in which nuclear weapons had made total warfare as he understood it impossible—for his. During these years, it was Liddell Hart and Fuller who, whether rightly or not, were celebrated as the fathers of the Blitzkrieg. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was not their vision of World War II but Ludendorff’s that turned out to be only too horribly true.

To be sure, fleets of aircraft, though they did not drop gas, did fly over fronts and bombed cities on a scale that, had he been able to envisage it, might have made even Ludendorff blanch. The combination of airpower, armor, mobility, and wireless restored operational mobility, laying the groundwork for some spectacular campaigns in which countries the size of Poland and France were knocked down at a single blow. The Second World War also demonstrated the reestablishment of the balance between defense and offense, although events were to show that both tanks and aircraft were equally as capable of preventing a breakthrough as they were of helping one take place.

Where Ludendorff proved most correct, however, was in his insistence that the Second World War—a term, of course, that he did not use—would be broadly like the first, and like its predecessor would develop into a gigantic and prolonged struggle. As was the First World War, it would be waged on many fronts, at sea and in the air as well as on land. Like its predecessor, it would both demand and make possible the mobilization of all resources. He was also proved right in that even democratic Britain found it necessary to curtail the role of politics by setting up a national coalition government—which meant that, as long as the conflict lasted, there was no parliamentary opposition, and elections were postponed. Ludendorff’s posthumous triumph may, indeed, be seen in the fact that, by the time the war was over, a continent had been devastated and an estimated forty million people lay dead.



Hans Multhopp – Key Shaper of Modern Aerodynamics?

Hans Multhopp, holding a model of the Ta 183.


Although David Myhra among other historians claim that the post-war Soviet MiG-15 was based on the Ta 183, modern experts in Russian and Soviet aviation history such as Yefim Gordon reject this, although acknowledging that some of the captured data from Multhopp’s design work was examined by Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich in the formative study of contemporary research. The swept-wing data that was amassed at Focke Wulf was, however, utilized by the Saab design office in its preliminary work that led to the Saab J29 fighter. A member of the Saab engineering team had been allowed to review German aeronautical documents stored in Switzerland. These files captured by the Americans in 1945 clearly indicated delta and swept-wing designs had the effect of “reducing drag dramatically as the aircraft approached the sound barrier.” Although more sophisticated than the Ta 183, the Saab J 29 has more than a superficial link to the earlier German fighter project.

Of all the men of Germany, Professor Prandtl’s student, Hans Multhopp (alongside Alexander Lippisch), arguably, has to be the man of potentially the most influential aerodynamic genius that touched the post-war world. Ironically, in 1945, he was in British hands at the RAE Farnborough, but the British in their arrogance of certainty, let Multhopp dangle, as if they were not really bothered, and he was snapped up by a very grateful America. 6, 7 Decades later, in October 2014, an American unmanned orbital re-entry vehicle – a mini-space shuttle – returned from a secret orbit mission. This small craft, little-publicised and hardly known, looked very futuristic indeed, yet in its design it was a near-identical copy of one of Hans Multhopp’s 1950s `lifting body’ all-wing devices that he dreamed up for the Martin company as orbital re-entry vehicles – the precursor of the manned and unmanned NASA `Shuttles’.

Hans Multhopp, of Lower Saxony and a graduate of Göttingen, was one of the leading young aerodynamics geniuses of his time, an early builder of advanced gliders and also worked in the first of Germany’s new wind tunnels. A student of Ludwig Prandtl, Multhopp had true future vision. He joined Kurt Tank’s Focke-Wulf outfit at Bremen in 1938 aged just twenty-five. Although steeped in aerodynamic calculus, Multhopp had an eye for form and design – perhaps best exemplified by his creation of the T-tail concept. Hans Multhopp may have framed the T-tail, but he also knew that the tail offered drag and weight at the expense of its functional efficiency. Multhopp had realised that placing the tailplane high up away from the wash from the main wing meant that it was more efficient and could be made smaller and lighter than a conventional low-set tail. Thus, Multhopp too was an early advocate of the tailless and all-wing concept and this led him to develop his own theories in the field, which were a stepping stone to later all-wing works. Of significance, Multhopp researched lifting all-wing, tailless body theories and forms, work that ultimately shaped the Space Shuttle (albeit a machine festooned with a vertical fin). Regarded by many as Ludwig Prandtl’s leading student, Hans Multhopp was a freethinker and his years working under Kurt Tank at Focke-Wulf may not have been easy. However, from that design bureau stemmed the seminal Focke-Wulf Ta 183. Although deemed a `Ta’ design, this was an advanced, swept-winged airframe that contained much of Multhopp’s ideas – notably the highly aerodynamic efficient T-tail (later used worldwide in military and civil aircraft design). Experts now agree that the most advanced and most influential airframe that was not a delta, nor an all-wing type to come out of Germany, was the Multhopp penned and calculated Ta 183. It was closely copied by Saab (J29A `Tunnan’) in the defining Mikoyan [?] (MiG-15/17) and it influenced American and British designs. An often forgotten Multhopp design signature was his decision to suggest two rear-mounted podded engines on pylons in the swept-wing Focke-Wulf Ta 283 design – a machine powered by a ramjet athodyd gas turbine technology. The machines of these men and their employers were the gateway to today’s understanding and practice of aerodynamics.

Ronnie Olsthoorn Aviation Art

Of Alexander Lippisch we cannot deny that his 1930s delta and swept-wing experiments informed the Messerschmitt Me 163, and the Me 262. Then came the less well known Me P. 1101 which truly was the precursor of many things American, European and Russian post-1945. Neither should we forget that the Heinkel He 178 was the first jet to fly in 1939, or that twin-engined He 280 was also a precursor. An He 280 (V7) with its engines removed was used as a glider in high speed flight research trials in Germany and achieved 578mph in a dive – the world’s fastest glider until the Space Shuttle in its landing configuration, over sixty years later. Although the He 280 lost the race to become the world’s first operational jet fighter to the Me 262 – which became the chosen instrument – the Heinkel’s learning curve was fast and steep. Of men like Voigt and Vogt, Multhopp, Tank, etc., the learning curve was significant.


(Levin August Theophile) (b. 10 February 1745, Brunswick – d. 3 October 1826, Hannover) was born to a Hanoverian noble family in the Brunswick, where his father was a colonel in the guards. His family also owned estates at Banteln in Hanover. Due to his father’s connections at the Hanoverian court, Bennigsen began his service at the age of ten as a page. Four years later he was commissioned as ensign in the guard and, in 1763, as a captain, he participated in the final campaign of the Seven Years War. A year later, after the death of his father and his own marriage to the Baroness Steimberg, he retired to his estates at Banteln, disillusioned with military service and widely regarded as an unpromising officer. Bennigsen apparently squandered his inheritance and, after his wife’s untimely death, he briefly reentered Hanoverian service before deciding to seek a career in Russia. He was accepted into the Russian service with a rank of premier major and assigned to the Vyatka Musketeer Regiment in 1773.

During the Russo-Turkish War, Bennigsen served in the Narva Musketeer Regiment and was noticed by Rumyantsev and Saltykov. In January 1779, he became a lieutenant colonel in the Kiev Light Cavalry Regiment. In 1787, he was appointed commander of the Izumsk Light Cavalry Regiment and fought at Ochakov and Bender, receiving promotion to brigadier in 1788. In 1792-1794, Bennigsen took part in the operations against the Polish insurgents, was promoted to major general on 9 July 1794 and awarded the Order of St. George (3rd class) on 26 September 1794. In 1795, he commanded a brigade at Vasilkov. After returning to St. Petersburg, he formed a close association with Valerian Zubov, the brother of the Empress’ last favorite. In 1796, he took part in the Persian Campaign along the Caspian Sea and fought at Derbent. After Paul’s accession to the throne, Bennigsen was named chef of the Rostov Dragoons Regiment (14 December 1796) and was promoted to lieutenant general (25 February 1798). However, he was dismissed from service on 11 October 1798 during Paul’s military purge of high-ranking officers. He participated in the conspiracy to overthrow Paul and according to the memoirs of the participants, was chosen to lead the coup d’état because of his reputation for audacity and courage. Despite his role in the conspiracy, Bennigsen’s career did not suffer under Alexander. He was appointed the Military Governor of Vilna and inspector of the Lithuanian Inspection on 23 July 1801. Bennigsen was then promoted to general of cavalry on 23 June 1802 with seniority dating from 4 December 1799.

During the 1805 Campaign, Bennigsen commanded a reserve corps of some 48,000 men arranged between Taurrogen and Grodno. In 1806, he was directed to take up quarters in Silesia and assist the Prussians against the French. After the Prussian defeat, Bennigsen withdrew to Poland, where he fought the French army at Golymin and Pultusk. He claimed these battles as decisive Russian victories, received the Order of St. George (2nd class) on 8 January 1807 and was appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian army on 13 January 1807. He launched an offensive in January 1807 and fought the French army at Eylau (received the Order of St. Andrew the First Called), Guttstadt, Heilsberg and Friedland, where his poor tactics resulted in the Russian defeats with heavy losses. Displeased with his actions, Emperor Alexander discharged Bennigsen on 9 July 1807. Bennigsen remained in exile until 1812, when he was ordered to join the Imperial Retinue (8 May 1812). He was considered for the post of commander-in-chief in August 1812, but was rejected in favor of Mikhail Kutuzov. Instead, he was appointed the chief of staff of the united Russian armies and bickered with Kutuzov for command throughout the campaign. After Borodino, he advised against abandoning Moscow to the French. He distinguished himself at Tarutino, where he was wounded in the leg. However, in late 1812, Bennigsen was finally dismissed because of his ongoing disagreements with Kutuzov.

Bennigsen returned to the army in early 1813 and received command of the Army of Poland. He later fought at Lutzen, Bautzen and Leipzig and besieged Torgau and Magdeburg; for his actions, he was conferred the title of count of the Russian Empire on 10 January 1814. He then commanded the Russian troops besieging Hamburg and was decorated with the Order of St. George (1st class) on 3 August 1814 for his conduct. He commanded the 2nd Army in 1815-1817 but was criticized for poor administration and forced to retire on 15 May 1818. He spent next eight years at Hanover. He was awarded almost all the highest Russian awards, including the Orders of St. Andrew with diamonds, of St. Vladimir (1st class), of St. Alexander of Neva, of St. Anna (1st class), of St. George (1st class) and a golden sword with diamonds for courage. In addition, he had six foreign decorations, the Prussian Order of Black Eagle, the Hanoverian Order of Guelf, the Dutch Order of the Elephant, the French Legion of Honor, the Swedish Order of the Sword and the Austrian Order of Maria Theresa.

Bennigsen is an over rated general. Brave officer, he showed no tactical or strategic abilities in 1806-1807 and 1813 Campaigns. Despite his claims to victories, the battles of Pultusk and Eylau were draws at best. At Heilsberg, he lost consciousness and other senior Russian commanders conducted the battle. At Friedland, he chose disadvantageous positions that led to heavy Russian casualties. Bennigsen was very ambitious officer and able courtier, who easily navigated in the court politics. His three-volume Mémoires du général Bennigsen, published in Paris in 1907-1908, contain fascinating details on the Russian operations in 1806-1813 but often embellish facts.

Battle of Tarutino on 6 (18) October 1812

Germany, 1847 by Peter von Hess, 1792-1871

The painting is a part of the series devoted to the great battles of the Patriotic War of 1812. On 6 (18) October 1812 in Tarutino the Russian Army made the first attack since the beginning of the war which resulted in the defeat of Murat’s unit. The next day Napoleon ordered his soldiers to leave Moscow. Here the critical stage of the battle after the attack of ten Cossack Regiments under the command of Vasily Orlov-Denisov is depicted. Cossacks rapidly attacked elements of the 2nd Cavalry Corps of the French. “…At 9 a.m., when we were going to look for provisions, lots of Cossacks attacked us. The 4th Division of Cuirassiers and the whole unit of Seguin were defeated – all fled in disorder.” That was how a French cuirassier captain recalled these events in his letter. The Cossacks returned with rich booty and captives after the defeat of the enemy bivouacs. Several soldiers caught by surprise were still in their coats which they used as wrapping for the night and in caps that they usually wore out of ranks. General Levin (Leonty) Bennigsen on a bay horse is depicted on the left. His command staff includes Quartermaster-General Karl Toll and a company officer of the Semenovsky Life-Guards Regiment wearing the Order of St. Vladimir of the Fourth Class with a bow and the Prussian Pour le Merite. General Vasily Orlov-Denisov, the commander of a Cossack unit, approaches them riding a grey horse. He is wearing a red jacket of the Cossack Life-Guards Regiment, which he commanded. Several Cossacks escort French cavalry captives; among them there are carabineers in white collars, gilt cuirasses and helmets with red horse hair plumes, cuirassiers in blue jackets, silver cuirasses and horsetail helmets. One of the Cossacks raises the Standard of the 1st Cuirassier Regiment high in the air – the first French colour that was captured by the Russians as trophy during the Patriotic War. Imperial Cossacks (who differed from other Cossack Regiments which wore blue uniform by wearing a red one) are passing by and greeting their commander and the trophies. In the right corner of the picture the artist portrays a Don Cossack Artillery team entering their position. On the left there are elements of the unit commanded by General Egor Meller-Zakomelsky. Imperial Hussars in red hussar pelisses are riding with their sabers naked, ready for battle. A French cuirassier, who helps a wounded officer, is asking for aid. In the middle, behind the Hussars the Imperial Uhlans, Dragoons and horse artillery are placed. Egor Meller-Zakomelsky wearing a Hussar uniform and a hat with a white plume is shown next to Bennigsen. He gives orders to an officer of the Chuguevsk Uhlan Regiment. In the background of the picture one can see Cossacks and French Cavalry still fighting as well as other French elements approaching. Murat “… was throwing himself on all bivouacs, gathering all horsemen on his way and when he managed to gather a squadron of those, immediately started an attack… During his entire military career Murat, who was nicknamed “the child of victory” (L’enfant gate de la Victoire), had never been wounded before that day, when he shed his blood for the first time. He got hit by a [Don Cossack] pike in his thigh”. At a distance a church of the Teterinki village can be seen, where the French artillery is bombarding the attacking Russian infantry.

Hell’s Battlefield: Heilsberg.


Alexander Farnese, The Duke of Parma

The negotiations between France and the Netherlands have been massed, in order to present a connected and distinct view of the relative attitude of the different countries of Europe. The conferences and diplomatic protocolling had resulted in nothing positive; but it is very necessary for the reader to understand the negative effects of all this dissimulation and palace-politics upon the destiny of the new commonwealth, and upon Christendom at large. The League had now achieved a great triumph; the King of France had virtually abdicated, and it was now requisite for the King of Navarre, the Netherlands, and Queen Elizabeth, to draw more closely together than before, if the last hope of forming a counter-league were not to be abandoned. The next step in political combination was therefore a solemn embassy of the States-General to England. Before detailing those negotiations, however, it is proper to direct attention to the external public events which had been unrolling themselves in the Provinces, contemporaneously with the secret history which has been detailed in the preceding chapters.

By presenting in their natural groupings various distinct occurrences, rather than by detailing them in strict chronological order, a clearer view of the whole picture will be furnished than could be done by intermingling personages, transactions, and scenery, according to the arbitrary command of Time alone.

The Netherlands, by the death of Orange, had been left without a head. On the other hand, the Spanish party had never been so fortunate in their chief at any period since the destiny of the two nations had been blended with each other. Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma, was a general and a politician, whose character had been steadily ripening since he came into the command of the country. He was now thirty-seven years of age — with the experience of a sexagenarian. No longer the impetuous, arbitrary, hot-headed youth, whose intelligence and courage hardly atoned for his insolent manner and stormy career, he had become pensive, modest, almost gentle. His genius was rapid in conception, patient in combination, fertile in expedients, adamantine in the endurance or suffering; for never did a heroic general and a noble army of veterans manifest more military virtue in the support of an infamous cause than did Parma and his handful of Italians and Spaniards. That which they considered to be their duty they performed. The work before them they did with all their might.

Alexander had vanquished the rebellion in the Celtic provinces, by the masterly diplomacy and liberal bribery which have been related in a former work. Artois, Hainault, Douay, Orchies, with the rich cities of Lille, Tournay, Valenciennes, Arras, and other important places, were now the property of Philip. These unhappy and misguided lands, however, were already reaping the reward of their treason. Beggared, trampled upon, plundered, despised, they were at once the prey of the Spaniards, and the cause that their sister-states, which still held out, were placed in more desperate condition than ever. They were also, even in their abject plight, made still more forlorn by the forays of Balagny, who continued in command of Cambray. Catharine de’ Medici claimed that city as her property, by will of the Duke of Anjou. A strange title — founded upon the treason and cowardice of her favourite son — but one which, for a time, was made good by the possession maintained by Balagny. That usurper meantime, with a shrewd eye to his own interests, pronounced the truce of Cambray, which was soon afterwards arranged, from year to year, by permission of Philip, as a “most excellent milch-cow;” and he continued to fill his pails at the expense of the “reconciled” provinces, till they were thoroughly exhausted.

This large south-western section of the Netherlands being thus permanently re-annexed to the Spanish crown, while Holland, Zeeland, and the other provinces, already constituting the new Dutch republic, were more obstinate in their hatred of Philip than ever, there remained the rich and fertile territory of Flanders and Brabant as the great debateable land. Here were the royal and political capital, Brussels, the commercial capital, Antwerp, with Mechlin, Dendermonde, Vilvoorde, and other places of inferior importance, all to be struggled for to the death. With the subjection of this district the last bulwark between the new commonwealth and the old empire would be overthrown, and Spain and Holland would then meet face to face.

If there had ever been a time when every nerve in Protestant Christendom should be strained to weld all those provinces together into one great commonwealth, as a bulwark for European liberty, rather than to allow them to be broken into stepping-stones, over which absolutism could stride across France and Holland into England, that moment had arrived. Every sacrifice should have been cheerfully made by all Netherlanders, the uttermost possible subsidies and auxiliaries should have been furnished by all the friends of civil and religious liberty in every land to save Flanders and Brabant from their impending fate.

No man felt more keenly the importance of the business in which he was engaged than Parma. He knew his work exactly, and he meant to execute it thoroughly. Antwerp was the hinge on which the fate of the whole country, perhaps of all Christendom, was to turn. “If we get Antwerp,” said the Spanish soldiers — so frequently that the expression passed into a proverb — “you shall all go to mass with us; if you save Antwerp, we will all go to conventicle with you.”

Alexander rose with the difficulty and responsibility of his situation. His vivid, almost poetic intellect formed its schemes with perfect distinctness. Every episode in his great and, as he himself termed it, his “heroic enterprise,” was traced out beforehand with the tranquil vision of creative genius; and he was prepared to convert his conceptions into reality, with the aid of an iron nature that never knew fatigue or fear.

But the obstacles were many. Alexander’s master sat in his cabinet with his head full of Mucio, Don Antonio, and Queen Elizabeth; while Alexander himself was left neglected, almost forgotten. His army was shrinking to a nullity. The demands upon him were enormous, his finances delusive, almost exhausted. To drain an ocean dry he had nothing but a sieve. What was his position? He could bring into the field perhaps eight or ten thousand men over and above the necessary garrisons. He had before him Brussels, Antwerp, Mechlin, Ghent, Dendermonde, and other powerful places, which he was to subjugate. Here was a problem not easy of solution. Given an army of eight thousand, more or less, to reduce therewith in the least possible time, half-a-dozen cities; each containing fifteen or twenty thousand men able to bear arms. To besiege these places in form was obviously a mere chimera. Assault, battery, and surprises — these were all out of the question.

Yet Alexander was never more truly heroic than in this position of vast entanglement. Untiring, uncomplaining, thoughtful of others, prodigal of himself, generous, modest, brave; with so much intellect and so much devotion to what he considered his duty, he deserved to be a patriot and a champion of the right, rather than an instrument of despotism.

And thus he paused for a moment — with much work already accomplished, but his hardest life-task before him; still in the noon of manhood, a fine martial figure, standing, spear in hand, full in the sunlight, though all the scene around him was wrapped in gloom — a noble, commanding shape, entitled to the admiration which the energetic display of great powers, however unscrupulous, must always command. A dark, meridional physiognomy, a quick; alert, imposing head; jet black, close-clipped hair; a bold eagle’s face, with full, bright, restless eye; a man rarely reposing, always ready, never alarmed; living in the saddle, with harness on his back — such was the Prince of Parma; matured and mellowed, but still unharmed by time.

The cities of Flanders and Brabant he determined to reduce by gaining command of the Scheldt. The five principal ones Ghent, Dendermonde, Mechlin, Brussels Antwerp, lie narrow circle, at distances from each other varying from five miles to thirty, and are all strung together by the great Netherland river or its tributaries. His plan was immensely furthered by the success of Balthasar Gerard, an ally whom Alexander had despised and distrusted, even while he employed him. The assassination of Orange was better to Parma than forty thousand men. A crowd of allies instantly started up for him, in the shape of treason, faintheartedness, envy, jealousy, insubordination, within the walls of every beleaguered city. Alexander knew well how to deal with those auxiliaries. Letters, artfully concocted, full of conciliation and of promise, were circulated in every council-room, in almost every house.

The surrender of Ghent — brought about by the governor’s eloquence, aided by the golden arguments which he knew so well how to advance — had by the middle of September (19th Sept. 1584), put him in possession of West Flanders, with the important exception of the coast. Dendermonde capitulated at a still earlier day; while the fall of Brussels, which held out till many persons had been starved to death, was deferred till the 10th March of the following year, and that of Mechlin till midsummer.

The details of the military or political operations, by which the reduction of most of these places were effected, possess but little interest. The siege of Antwerp, however, was one of the most striking events of the age; and although the change in military tactics and the progress of science may have rendered this leaguer of less technical importance than it possessed in the sixteenth century, yet the illustration that it affords of the splendid abilities of Parma, of the most cultivated mode of warfare in use at that period, and of the internal politics by which the country was then regulated, make it necessary to dwell upon the details of an episode which must ever possess enduring interest.

It is agreeable to reflect, too, that the fame of the general is not polluted with the wholesale butchery, which has stained the reputation of other Spanish commanders so indelibly. There was no killing for the mere love of slaughter. With but few exceptions, there was no murder in cold blood; and the many lives that were laid down upon those watery dykes were sacrificed at least in bold, open combat; in a contest, the ruling spirits of which were patriotism, or at least honour.

It is instructive, too, to observe the diligence and accuracy with which the best lights of the age were brought to bear upon the great problem which Parma had undertaken to solve. All the science then at command was applied both by the Prince and by his burgher antagonists to the advancement of their ends. Hydrostatics, hydraulics, engineering, navigation, gunnery, pyrotechnics, mining, geometry, were summoned as broadly, vigorously, and intelligently to the destruction or preservation of a trembling city, as they have ever been, in more commercial days, to advance a financial or manufacturing purpose. Land converted into water, and water into land, castles built upon the breast of rapid streams, rivers turned from their beds and taught new courses; the distant ocean driven across ancient bulwarks, mines dug below the sea, and canals made to percolate obscene morasses — which the red hand of war, by the very act, converted into blooming gardens — a mighty stream bridged and mastered in the very teeth of winter, floating ice-bergs, ocean-tides, and an alert and desperate foe, ever ready with fleets and armies and batteries — such were the materials of which the great spectacle was composed; a spectacle which enchained the attention of Europe for seven months, and on the result of which, it was thought, depended the fate of all the Netherlands, and perhaps of all Christendom.

History of the United Netherlands, Volumes I-IV, Complete

by John Lothrop Motley – written 19856-07


BORN 27 August 1545

DIED 3 December 1592

KEY CONFLICTS Habsburg-Ottoman Wars, Eighty Years War

KEY BATTLES Lepanto 1571, Gembloux 1578, Siege of Antwerp 1584–85

Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, a nephew of Philip II of Spain, learned the principles of command from Don John of Austria, whom he followed to Lepanto in 1571, and subsequently to the Netherlands. Parma was given credit for the rout of the rebels at Gembloux in 1578 and succeeded Don John as governor-general soon after. He was a thorough professional with a lucid grasp of strategy, and showed his skill in siege warfare from the outset, taking Maastricht in 1579.

From 1582 he embarked on a systematic campaign of reconquest, capturing a series of strategic towns culminating with Antwerp.


Just as Parma was poised to reconquer all of the Netherlands, he was stopped. Philip II, frustrated by English piracy, resolved on an invasion of England. He ordered Parma to keep his Army of Flanders on standby at coastal ports, waiting for Spanish vessels to carry it to England. Parma opposed this plan, which ended in a debacle for Spain, and it deprived him of the chance of suppressing the Dutch revolt.


CAMPAIGN Eighty Years War

DATE September 1584-August 1585

LOCATION Antwerp, southern Netherlands

In September 1584 the Duke of Parma laid siege to the major port city of Antwerp. He knew that the answer to reducing the city lay in cutting it off from supplies arriving by sea, so he built a 750-m (2,460-ft) pontoon bridge blocking access to the port from the Scheldt estuary. On land Parma surrounded the city with siege lines and forts. Antwerp’s defenders responded by opening the dykes to flood the land around the city and attempting to destroy the bridge with fireships and floating explosives. Parma’s thorough conduct of the siege resisted all such efforts to break it, however, and after almost a year the starving city had no choice but to surrender.

Gustav Knittel

Schwimmwagen Type 162 on Eastern (Ost) Front, Russia, driven by SS-Hauptsturmführer Gustav Knittel

Gustav and his twin brother, Bernhard, were born on November 27, 1914, in Neu-Ulm, Bavaria, the sons of a baker. Gustav’s life’s ambition was to be a soldier, so he joined the Allgemeine-SS (General-SS) and the Nazi Party in the spring of 1934, because he thought membership in these organizations would help him when he applied to join the Reichswehr. It did not. Gustav received his Abitur (school leaving certificate, roughly equivalent to today’s high school diploma) in 1934 and promptly tried to enlist in the army but was rejected. (He was one year too early. Hitler’s military expansion did not begin in earnest until 1935.) Disappointed, he enlisted in the Waffen-SS instead and was assigned to the SS-Standarte “Deutschland” of the SS-VT in Ellwangen. He was promoted to SS corporal in 1936 and SS sergeant in 1937.

In a sense, advancement in the Waffen-SS was easier than in the more class-conscious army, and Knittel took advantage of this fact. He applied for officer training and was sent to the SS-Junkerschule at Bad Toelz, where he graduated 7th in his class in 1938. Commissioned SS second lieutenant on November 9, 1938, he returned to the SS Deutschland Regiment. The following summer, he was named adjutant of the SS Reserve Motorcycle Battalion “Ellwangen.” He was promoted to SS first lieutenant on November 9, 1939.

Knittel first saw action in France, as a platoon leader in the 15th (Motorcycle) Company of the LAH, where he did well until he was severely wounded in the left thigh during the attack on St. Pourcain on June 19, 1940. After he recovered, he was given command of the 3rd Company of the Leibstandarte’s Reconnaissance Battalion (later redesignated 1st SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion “Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler”). He led this company in the conquests of Yugoslavia and Greece, and in Operation Barbarossa, until July 10, 1941, when he was wounded by shrapnel and shot through the right shoulder as the Leibstandarte stormed the heights at Marchlewsk. After stops at various hospitals, he was sent to the SS replacement and training battalion at Dachau to recover.

Promoted to SS captain on November 9, 1941, Knittel was back in action on the Eastern Front later that month, where he distinguished himself in the capture of Rostov. He continued to lead his company in the retreat to the Mius, after which he was given command of the 3rd (light half-track) company of the 1st SS Recon. This unit was sent to the Sennelager Maneuver Area in Germany, where it was rebuilt and reequipped following its heavy losses on the Russian Front. Knittel and his men were then sent to Normandy, where they recovered from the winter fighting and trained new replacements until after the 6th Army was encircled at Stalingrad. The Leibstandarte was then hurried to the southern sector of the Eastern Front, where it took part in the battles around Kharkov. Knittel was wounded in the leg near Bereka on February 15 and in the left arm near Teterewino on July 11, but he remained with his troops.

In the spring of 1943, Kurt “Panzer” Meyer, the commander of the 1st SS Reconnaissance, was earmarked to command the 25th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth.” Knittel succeeded him as commander of the 1st SS Recon and led it in the Battle of the Kursk and the subsequent retreats through Russia and Ukraine. He was promoted to SS major on April 23, 1943.

In March 1944, Knittel’s battalion held Hill 300 against five major Soviet attacks and enabled the army’s 68th Infantry Division to escape encirclement. For this and other actions, Gustav Knittel was awarded the Knight’s Cross. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Germany for a short leave and married 21-year-old Raymonde Gauthier on May 6. They would have one child, a son named Bruno, who was born on May 28, 1946. Knittel, meanwhile, returned to the war.

After three years on the Eastern Front, Knittel and his men were thrown into the Battle of Normandy a few days after D-Day. Here they were in action almost daily, and the Leibstandarte was again smashed. It was here, as he witnessed the devastating power of the Allied air forces, that SS Major Knittel realized that the war was lost. He nevertheless continued fighting—in Normandy, in the Falaise Pocket, and in the retreat across France to the Siegfried Line. After the retreat ended, Knittel finally managed to secure a noncombat position. Following a brief furlough at Neu-Ulm, Knittel took charge of the 1st SS Field Replacement Battalion at Luebbecke in Westphalia.

Because he knew that the war was lost, Gustav Knittel did not want to return to the front. Meanwhile, however, the brutal Wilhelm Mohnke replaced the badly wounded Theodor Wisch (who lost both of his legs) as commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division. It was Mohnke—who had obviously been impressed by Knittel’s performance in Russia—who insisted that he be reassigned as commander of the 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion. Knittel arrived back at the Western Front on December 13, 1944, where he was named commander of Schnell Gruppe Knittel (Fast Group Knittel), a battle group built around the 1st SS Recon. Knittel asked Mohnke to give the command to another, but his appeal was rejected.

The Battle of the Bulge began on December 16. By this point of the war, the 1st SS was almost completely brutalized, especially under Mohnke’s command, and at least a dozen atrocities were committed. On December 17, at Wereth, members of Knittel’s battalion murdered 11 African American soldiers from the U.S. 333rd Artillery Battalion after they had surrendered. It is not clear whether or not Knittel knew about this, but it seems fairly certain that he was aware of atrocities against civilians at Stavelot, Parfondruy, and Renardmont on December 19. It is not certain that he sanctioned these murders, but it is certain that he did little to restrain his men. His battalion was not involved in the Malmedy Massacre, as its route of advance that day was south of Kampfgruppe Peiper, which did the killing. Later in the battle, Knittel covered the retreat of the remnants of Joachim Peiper’s regiment.

For Gustav Knittel, the war ended on December 31, 1944, when American airplanes bombed his command post near Vielsahn. The SS major suffered a serious concussion (his fifth wound of the war). He had not returned to active duty when Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945.

Following the surrender, Knittel hid out at a farm near Stuttgart. On January 5, 1946, he attempted to visit his wife at Neu-Ulm, but found that agents of the American CIC (Counter Intelligence Service) were waiting for him. He was taken to Schwaebisch Hall, where he was a defendant in the Malmedy trials. He confessed to the murder of American prisoners, but later averred that the CIC obtained the confession as a result of physical abuse and psychological torture. The CIC agents naturally denied this, and Knittel was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment on July 16. Six weeks later, his wife filed for divorce.

Gustav Knittel filed at least three appeals and his sentence was progressively reduced. He was released as part of an amnesty on December 7, 1953. Shortly thereafter, he went to work for Opel as a car salesman.

Knittel suffered his first heart attack in 1968 and the rest of his life was characterized by ill health, which forced his retirement in 1970. He died of heart failure during surgery in an Ulm hospital on June 30, 1976.

James and George Keith

James Francis Edward Keith

The overthrow of James II and the subsequent attempts of the exiled Jacobites to restore the Stuart dynasty led to many Scots seeking refuge on the Continent. Several of these ‘attainted’ political exiles found a living through military service, and a prime example of the breed was James Keith. Born in June 1696 at Inverugie Castle near Peterhead, Keith came from a privileged and honourable background. For centuries the Keiths had been the hereditary earls marischal of Scotland, and James’s elder brother George was the tenth to bear the title. George served in the British army under Marlborough but on the death of Queen Anne he stayed loyal to the Stuarts and joined the Jacobites. The brothers were both present in 1715 at the shambolic defeat of the Earl of Mar’s rising at Sheriffmuir and both had to flee the country. In May 1716 they stepped ashore at Paul de Leon in Brittany. James went to Paris to seek service with the exiled king, the would-be James III, but, as he was just seventeen years old, he was told by the king’s mother to stay in Paris to complete his education, for which the exiled royal household would pay. Unfortunately, nothing came forth from the treasury for some time and James Keith, too proud to borrow from friends, had to get by through selling ‘horse furniture . . . and other things of that nature which an officer commonly carries with him’. At last, however, the Stuart promise was fulfilled and James began his studies. A plot in 1717 for the king of Sweden to invade Scotland on behalf of the Jacobites brought James a commission as a colonel of horse before the scheme was abandoned. In June 1717 Peter the Great visited Paris and James tried in vain to secure a post in his service: ‘I thought it high time (being about 20 years old) to quitte the Academy, and endeavour to establish myself somewhere, where I might again begin my fortune.’

Some friends advised James in 1718 to offer his services to Spain, said to be about to invade Sicily in a war with the Holy Roman Empire, but now he had a reason to be reluctant. ‘But I was then too much in love to think of quitting Paris, and tho shame and my friends forced me to take some steps towards it, yet I managed it so slowly that I set out only in the end of that year, and had not my mistress and I quarrel’d, and that other affairs came to concern me more than the conquest of Sicily did, it’s probable I had lost many years of my time to very little purpose, so much was I taken up with my passion.’ Early in 1719 George and James Keith took a ship from Marseilles to Palamos on the Catalan coast, only to be arrested by the local commandant on suspicion of being agents of the French enemy. The confusion was sorted out with the help of the Duke of Liria, none other than a fellow Jacobite, James Fitzjames, an illegitimate grandson of James II. The Keith brothers now became intimately involved in the planning for a Jacobite invasion of Britain via the Highlands, the enterprise we know as the 1719 Rising, and James sailed with the invasion force. The mixed force of Spaniards and Scots reached Loch Duich in mid April 1719 and set up their headquarters in Eilean Donan Castle. For the Jacobites the campaign came to an inglorious end after a skirmish in Glen Shiel, on the back of which the Spanish surrendered and the others had to look to their own safety. ‘As I was then sick of a feavour,’ wrote Keith, ‘I was forced to lurck some months in the mountains, and in the beginning of September having got a ship I embarcked at Peterhead, and after 4 days landed in Holland.’ A perilous journey through France, then at war with Spain, followed for the Keith brothers before they reached safety in Madrid.

There now ensued a string of unsatisfactory years for the younger Keith, when he found that a bureaucratic mix-up seemed to have deprived him off his commission in Spain and he had to kick his heels and rely on the sympathy of friends. He thought of going home but was advised it would be unsafe to return to Britain. Instead he went to Paris and stayed for two years, pretending to be still receiving treatment for a tumour he had had removed from his shoulder, making half-hearted attempts to join French service, and, it seems, having another love affair. When hostilities erupted in 1726 between Britain and Spain, his offer to join any invasion force was turned down; but he did take part in the siege of Gibraltar in 1727 before he concluded that no further advancement in Spanish service was possible for a Protestant. Hoping for promotion to the command of a regiment of Irish mercenaries, Keith ‘received the answer I expected: that His Majesty assured me that howsoon [as soon as] he knew I was Roman Catholick, I shou’d not only have what I asked, but that he would take care of my fortune’. The Duke of Liria, newly appointed as the Spanish ambassador to the Russian court, agreed to help him and successfully obtained for the young Scot an offer of a post from Tsar Peter II. At the beginning of 1728, Keith set off across Europe to a bright new future.

Reaching Moscow in October, he ‘received orders from the Felt Marechall Prince Ivan Dolgorusky to take command of two regiments of foot belonging to his division, but being as yet entirely ignorant both of the language and manner of service, which I already saw was very different from that of other countries, I desired a delay of three months in which I might inform myself both of the one and the other, which he readily granted me.’ The Russian court was as full of intrigue as it had ever been but, as a newcomer, Keith stayed clear of close involvement with the cabals and cliques, a wise stance in view of the constitutional upsets that took place soon after his arrival. Peter II, the grandson of Peter the Great, fell ill and died, probably of smallpox, in 1730, at the young age of fifteen, and was succeeded by Anna, the Duchess of Courland. The powerful Dolgorusky family hoped to retain the power behind the throne but underestimated the mettle of the new tsarina. Anna won over the loyalty of her troops, and the leading Dolgoruskys were banished to Siberia. Not long after these changes, Keith was surprised to receive a letter one evening informing him that Count Levenwolde, the adjutant general of the army, wanted to see him. ‘I reaved all night what cou’d be the meaning of such a message . . . I concluded I might have some enemy at court.’ The interview, in fact, was to offer Keith the rank of lieutenant-colonel in a new guards regiment, a post he accepted ‘in an instant’. ‘All Mosco was as surprised as I was myself’, recalled Keith, ‘I received hundreds of visits from people I had never seen nor heard of . . . who imagined that certainly I must be in great favour at Court, in which they were prodigiously deceived.’

Early in 1732 he received further promotion, being appointed as one of three inspectors of the army under an inspector-general. Assigned the frontier districts along the Volga and the Don and part of the Polish frontier at Smolensk, he set out on a long journey, travelling more than ‘1,500 leagues’ to visit around thirty-two regiments. He arrived in St Petersburg at the New Year to find everything ‘in mouvement’ because the king of Poland had died and the supporters of the claimants for the elected monarchy were competing for Russian support. The candidates were Augustus, the Elector of Saxony and son of the late king, and Stanislaus Leczczynski, the father-in-law of Louis XV of France; the majority of the Poles favoured the latter but the Russians preferred Augustus and mobilised the army to ensure his ascendancy to the throne. Keith was ordered to lead 6,000 foot soldiers to Ukraine to be ready to cross the frontier. In August, with the election likely to go against Russian desires, troops under the command of the Limerick-born soldier Count Peter Lacy headed for Warsaw. Stanislaus departed from the capital for Danzig, where Lacy hemmed him in. Keith moved to combat pro-Stanislaus forces in the province of Volinia, now the west-central region of Ukraine. In mid-December he led his troops, which now included 4,000 Cossacks, across the frozen Dnieper and spent ten fruitless days in search of the enemy before the Cossacks captured a troop of cavalry on Christmas Eve. Rumours that the Volinian force was increasing in strength prompted the transfer of command to Lieutenant-General Prince Schahofski, who had orders to disrupt the province. Keith found dishonourable the prince’s instruction to ruin the enemy’s estates and tried in vain to avoid such action. ‘In my march I assembled some thousands of cattel, and some hundreds of miserable bad horses, which I sent immediately to the army, and at the same time reported to him [the prince], that the whole inhabitants were abandoning their villages, and most of them retiring into Moldavia; that if he continued to ravage the country it wou’d very soon become a desert, and our own troops wou’d be in hazard of dying of hunger.’

At the end of January the army advanced to Vinnitz on the Bug river. Keith was lodged in the village of Litin when word came in that the enemy was in camp about 12 miles away and preparing to confront the Russians when their westward march brought them through the forest near a place called Latitchef. According to Keith, Prince Schahofski dismissed this warning brought by a spy and refused to countenance a change in the order of the march to meet the threat. In the event, the Poles sprang the ambush too soon, attacking a quartermaster’s party moving ahead of the main army. This allowed Keith to lead some Cossacks and dragoons to the attack and, finding the enemy numbers much lower than feared, routed them for the loss of only twenty on their own side. Prince Schahofski was now recalled to the Ukraine to attend to internal business and command reverted to Keith.

Advancing to Medziboz, Keith was invited to enter the castle where, he was assured by the governor who had met him outside the town, everything had been prepared for his arrival. Leaving his army to make camp and with only twenty-four dragoons as an escort, Keith accepted the invitation. The castle garrison was on parade with drums beating and colours flying. ‘I soon perceived the folly I had committed,’ wrote Keith, ‘but it was too late to retreat, and my only way was to put a good face on the matter.’ He sent his adjutant to bring in his equipage in all haste and to mix grenadiers among the wagons, and then waited fretfully until they came. Ironically, as he had only light artillery, he could not have taken the castle if the garrison had shut the gates in his face, but now he was able to turn the tables on the foe and order the protesting governor to march his garrison out.

Mason, George; George Keith (1692/1693?-1778), 10th Earl Marischal; Aberdeenshire Museums Service;

George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal

Keith’s memoir goes on to describe a series of manoeuvres and small battles across the plains and woods of Ukraine until the text peters out at the end of 1734, with the army going into winter quarters. The War of the Polish Succession came to an end in 1736 and by then Keith’s reputation had grown in stature, bringing a promotion to lieutenant-general. Russia now embarked on another war with the Turks. Keith had a narrow brush with death or at least disability; wounded in the knee at the siege of Ochakov on the Black Sea on 2 July 1737, he was saved from undergoing amputation of the shattered limb only by the intervention of his brother George, who hurried to his aid and brought him away for better treatment than army surgeons could provide. This was good news for the Tsarina Anna, who is reputed to have said she would rather lose 10,000 of her best soldiers than Keith. A two-year convalescence gave the Scot the opportunity to visit Paris and London where, to his surprise, he was acclaimed a hero and received by George II, his Jacobite youth clearly forgiven if not forgotten. He returned to Russia to be the governor of Ukraine.

During peace negotiations with the Turks in 1739 there occurred an incident that has acquired some legendary status in the annals of the Scots who fought in Europe. At the end of a session of talks conducted through interpreters, the Turkish vizier bowed and, taking the astonished Keith by the hand, said in a broad Scots accent that it made him ‘unco happy’ to meet a fellow countryman so far from home. The vizier was the son of a bellringer in Kirkcaldy.

The death of Anna in October 1740 let loose the usual intrigues and attempts to establish power until Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great, emerged the winner in November 1741. Keith at once declared his loyalty to her. By now he was once more in the field, commanding in the war that had broken out against Sweden. At the siege of Willmanstrand he came across an orphan prisoner called Eva Merthens. It was an odd way in which to meet a lover but Keith’s mistress is who Eva became, and to her and their children he left what little wealth he managed to accrue. She died in 1811. Once hostilities with Sweden ended, Keith was appointed to head a military-diplomatic mission to the former foe. Honours now came his way in dizzying fashion: ceremonial swords from Sweden and Russia, the Order of Saint Andrew and an estate in Livonia among them. The former Jacobite ignored the 1745 Rising back home.

By this time, however, dissatisfaction was beginning to cloud the mind of the general. Once again there was an animus against foreigners in the Russian government. George Keith, still seen as a Jacobite, was refused permission to enter the country to visit him and James’s letters to his brother seem to have been intercepted. He should not have been surprised that his position at Elizabeth’s court invited jealousy and resentment – the tsarina paid him a great courtesy when she reviewed the troops at Narva in 1746 – but he felt aggrieved when he sensed he was being passed over and was falling out of royal favour. There was a rumour that the plump, attractive monarch had amorous desires for her general, a delicate problem for Keith, for if he refused her advances he might find himself travelling to Siberia. At last, in 1747, he obtained permission to leave Russian service.

His fame had preceded him and he was at once welcomed into the service of the ruler whom Elizabeth viewed with most suspicion: Frederick II of Prussia. Left broken and wasted at the end of the Thirty Years War, the economy, prestige and administration of Prussia had been restored by the energetic Hohenzollern ruler Frederick William to such an extent that it had become a major power in northern Europe. In 1675 the Prussian army, trained under French officers, had even defeated the more powerful Swedes at Fehrbellin. Frederick William’s skilful foreign policy had extended his rule over East Prussia, and his son Frederick I consolidated the advance by making Prussia a kingdom in 1701, encompassing most of northern Germany and extending east beyond Königsberg, much to the concern of the Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick II showed every inclination to build on the achievements of his father and grandfather to extend Prussia’s reach. In 1740 he ordered an invasion of Silesia, then part of the weakened Habsburg Empire. Other European leaders took their cues and their sides, and the result, the War of the Austrian Succession, lasted on and off for eight years. It was thoroughly natural that the bellicose Frederick should wish to draw James Keith into his circle of advisors. With the newly conferred rank of field marshal, and comfortable with a monarch he found affable and polite, James wrote to his brother George, then in Venice, to join him in Berlin, where both began to participate in the cultural and social life of the Prussian capital. In 1749 James became governor of Berlin; he is also credited with the invention of the Kriegsschachspiel, or war-game, as an exercise.

The war with Austria came to an end. Silesia remained in Prussian hands and Austria, fearing Frederick would now descend on Saxony, sought an alliance with France. Prussia formed an alliance with Britain. The flurry of diplomatic shadowboxing and alliances resulted in the Seven Years War, which broke out in 1756 with Prussia’s expected attack on Saxony. Frederick was in a precarious position, with France, Austria, Russia and Sweden ranged against him, but he had, as well as senior officers of Keith’s calibre, an extremely well-drilled, fiercely disciplined army, practised, for example, in a manoeuvre labelled oblique order that allowed the troops to march across the enemy’s front, wheel and exert increasing pressure on the enemy flank. The Prussian fusiliers could fire between three and seven rounds per minute, and the cavalry could sustain a charge over a great distance. These attributes enabled the Prussians to overcome the Saxons in the autumn of 1756 and invade to Bohemia to lay siege to Prague in the following spring. The Austrian army, equipped with new artillery, held them at Kolin in central Bohemia in June 1757 and a few weeks later near Königsberg the Russians overcame the Prussians and swept west along the Baltic coast. Frederick showed that he still had to be reckoned with when his army defeated the advancing French at Rossbach in November 1757, wheeled about and dealt a blow to the Austrians a month later at Leuthen, 250 miles to the east near Wroclaw. In the following year the Russians were checked at Zorndorf on the Oder.

At the beginning of October 1758 Frederick had his army positioned in an elongated formation stretching over 4 miles of countryside in eastern Saxony, facing the Austrians. The central command post lay at the village of Rodewitz. The end of his right flank, 2 miles to the south, under the command of Keith, rested in the village of Hochkirch, a small place huddled on a hilltop around its church. Densely wooded hills, now taking on the colours of autumn, stretched away to the south. ‘The Austrians deserve to be hanged if they don’t attack us here’, Keith is reported to have said. Frederick recognised his vulnerability and intended to move to stronger ground as soon as possible. This proved to be the coming Saturday, the fourteenth. On the night of the thirteenth, however, the Austrians launched a bold and effective move. Cutting a route through the woods during the dark hours, they managed to insert infantry around Hochkirch, ready to attack before five in the morning. The Prussians were caught unawares but they responded quickly and a firefight ensued in thick mist and semi-darkness. The struggle swirled around the churchyard in Hochkirch. In the confusion Keith had mounted his horse, shouting desperately for his aides to assist him to regain control of their predicament, when shots hit him in the right side. Then, as a cannonball knocked him from the saddle, a final fatal bullet struck his heart and he fell into the arms of his servant, an English cavalryman called John Tebay. By 7.30 the Austrians had Hochkirch and Frederick was pulling back. Keith was buried on the following day in the village churchyard with full military honours. Some months later Frederick had the remains brought to Berlin to lie in the crypt of the garrison church, but a memorial urn was placed in the village church in 1776 by the general’s kinsman, Robert Keith, who was British ambassador to Vienna at the time.

A Golden Export to Canada

In the early months of the Civil War, the Confederates had a highly effective espionage ring in Washington. Besides Rose Greenhow, there was, for instance, a man—working as a Confederate spy—employed in the quartermaster office of the U.S. War Department. Much of the agents’ intelligence traveled from Washington to Richmond on what the Confederates called “The Secret Line,” a network of men and women who used boats and wiles to get documents across the Potomac River from Washington or Maryland to Virginia and then on to spymasters in Richmond.

As the war raged on, the Confederacy expanded its espionage activities, forming the Secret Service Bureau, a clandestine unit within the Confederacy’s Signal Corps. The bureau ran spy networks and covert missions out of Richmond, Canada, Great Britain, and Continental Europe. To finance the secret Canadian operations, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, signed this “warrant” (opposite page) requesting $1 million from the Secretary of the Treasury, payable for “Secret Service.”

Thompson, which appears at the upper left of the warrant, refers to Jacob Thompson, who would take the money, in gold, to Canada. A Washington insider, Thompson had served in Congress and had been Secretary of the Interior under President James Buchanan. He had no experience in espionage—or in sabotage, which was to be one of his missions.

In February 1864, the Confederate Congress had secretly passed a bill authorizing sabotage against “the enemy’s property, by land or sea.” Thompson’s $1 million came from the $5 million Secret Service fund granted by the Confederate Congress. The bill also allowed saboteurs to get rewards based on how much damage they caused.

Thompson’s star operative was Confederate Army Capt. Charles H. Cole, a veteran of battle who had been assigned to Secret Service missions operating out of Canada. Cole slipped into the United States and, assuming the identity of a Philadelphia banker, became an actor in a complex plot.

Near the U.S.-Canadian border were two large camps for Confederate prisoners of war. One was on Johnson’s Island, off Sandusky, Ohio, on Lake Erie, and the other was at Fort Douglas in Chicago. The Canadian plotters planned to take over Lake Erie passenger ships and then use them to seize the USS. Michigan, a warship that patrolled the lake for the Union. After seizing the Michigan, the conspirators would then attack the camp at Johnson’s Island and free thousands of prisoners. Joined with prisoners freed at Fort Douglas in another operation, the ex-POWs, along with anti-Lincoln militants, would assume control of the region and force the Union to end the war.

Cole, who had been given about $4,000 in gold for his mission, was supposed to charm the officers on the Michigan, get them to be less vigilant (perhaps by slipping drugs into their drinks), and signal when the ship was ready for boarding. The signal was to go to John Yates Beall, leader of a guerrilla band of about 20 men. They had seized a small passenger steamer that sailed between Detroit and Sandusky.

Beall waited in vain for the signal, unaware that the seemingly charmed or drugged Michigan officers had been tipped off about Cole by a Confederate prisoner aware of the plot. Beall, rightfully assuming that Cole had failed, sped to the Canadian shore, abandoned the ship, and set it afire.

Toward the end of the war, the $1 million in gold financed several other bizarre operations. About 20 men crossed the border to raid St. Albans, Vermont. They robbed three banks of about $200,000 and, trying to burn down the town, managed only to set fire to a woodshed.

A much larger incendiary plan was hatched for New York City in November 1864. Eight agents entered the city and obtained from a sympathetic chemist bottles containing a mixture of phosphorous and carbon disulfide that would burst into flame when exposed to air. The agents left open bottles in hotel rooms and a theater and broke a bottle on a stairway in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. The fires were quickly put out, New York did not burn down, and no one panicked.

In December 1864, John Beall tried to derail Union trains near Buffalo. Union counterintelligence agents trailed him to a station where he waited for a train to Canada. He was tried and convicted as a spy and a guerrilla and was hanged. Union agents next caught Robert Cobb Kennedy, one of the New York arsonists. In his confession he admitted trying to set the museum on fire, adding “but that was only a joke.” He also was hanged.

Shortly after the war ended, Canadian authorities arrested another Confederate terrorist: Luke Pryor Blackburn, a Kentucky doctor. He was charged with conspiracy to murder in a foreign country. While in Bermuda caring for victims of a yellow fever epidemic, Blackburn had secretly collected victims’ sweat-soaked clothing and blankets and shipped them to Canada. Believing that yellow fever could be transmitted by the victims’ clothing, he hoped to start an epidemic in Northern cities. President Lincoln was to be presented with a gift of dress shirts packed with rags of fever victims’ clothing. Blackburn was acquitted for lack of evidence. He returned to his native Kentucky, where he resumed his medical practice and was elected governor in 1879.

Although the Confederates’ $1 million operation in Canada had little effect on the war, a plot discussed in Canada had profound consequences. Shortly before the Vermont raid, John Wilkes Booth arrived in Montreal and checked into a hotel that served as a Confederate headquarters. Rumors there swirled about plans by Booth and others to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him until he freed all Confederate prisoners of war; presumably they would fight again and help win the war. While in Montreal, Booth went to a bank and traded $300 in gold coins—presumably Confederate gold—in a currency transaction. (He later left for New York, where, coincidentally, he was on the stage of a theater when the Confederate arsonists struck.)

The kidnapping was to take place in March 1865. But a change in Lincoln’s schedule thwarted Booth and his associates. After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, there was no need for a kidnapping; the war was over. But five days later, Booth, on his own, changed the plan from abduction to assassination, with the aid of others in the original plot. Booth entered Ford’s Theatre in Washington on the evening of April 14, opened the door of the presidential box, shot Lincoln in the back of the head, leaped to the stage, shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannus”—“Thus always to tyrants”—and escaped. Lincoln died the next morning. On April 26, Booth was killed while resisting capture, and the full story of the original plot died with him.