The World’s First Air Hijack!

An attack which took place on 28 July 1942 resulted in one of the most extraordinary events of the Second World War. Nine Beauforts were racked up with torpedoes and took off under the leadership of Gibbs to attack a merchant ship escorted by two destroyers south-west of Greece. Two Beauforts of 217 Squadron were shot down. Three crew members of the aircraft flown by Pilot Officer R.I.C. Head were picked up by one of the destroyers. The four men in the other Beaufort, flown by Lieutenant Ted Strever of the SAAF were picked up by an Italian Cant floatplane and taken north to the Greek port of Prevesa. On the following day, they were taken in another Cant towards Taranto in Italy, but managed to overpower the armed guard and the Italian crew. They flew the Cant to Malta and landed in a bay, despite being attacked by Spitfires.

Ted Strever was a Royal Air force pilot and was based in Malta with No. 217 Squadron during the spring of 1942. Ted took off in his Bristol Beaufort bomber on one particular mission in late July to intercept an Italian supply ship. He was shot down at sea after scoring a direct hit on the supply ship, which managed to do enough damage to Ted’s plane before sinking. Not long after scrambling into their dingy after the crash Ted and his crew where picked up by an Italian sea plane and made prisoners of war.

It did not take them long to learn that they would be taken to Taranto in Italy where they would spend the rest of the war as prisoners.

The thought of their approaching doom spurred them into taking action against their captors. With the watchful eyes of the guard on them and limited communication the world’s first skyjack swung into action.

They started straight for the radio operator, clearly to make sure no contact was made to the base and successfully took him out. They then overpowered an unexpected guard and managed to get his weapon off him. The first part of their attack was successful, but the turning point came when the co-pilot pulled a pistol on them. Luck was on their side however as it was one the Italian’s own comrades that knocked the weapon from his hands in the frantic struggle to regain control. It was after that bit of fortune in the frenzied chaos that they knew the plane was theirs, and Ted wasted no time in taking over the controls.

New problems now became apparent. The first and more immediate issue was that they were fast running low on fuel. After asking the Italian Engineer kindly (at gunpoint) to switch to reserves and by changing their route, flying rather to their base at Malta instead of the African coast, this first problem was quickly taken care of. Next was the problem of flying an Italian plane. Ted’s experience was sufficient to fly an Italian plane but to the allies this was an enemy aircraft fast approaching the Malta coast. Soon there were spitfires gunning them down. Normally the sight of Spitfires off the wing of his torpedo bomber would have been comforting, however this was clearly not a Bristol Beaufort bomber and with holes being shot in his tail this was definitely not comforting.

Ted hurled the first pilot back into his seat and ordered him in hurried sign-language to land in the sea.

One of the men then whipped off his shirt and took his vest – the only white article he had – and waved it out of the window making it clear that they had come to surrender – albeit to their own side!

The first wave of Spitires managed to do fair damage to the plane but they landed safely and the world’s first skyjack was over.

Astonished to see four RAF’s in the Italian plane a member of the launch team towing them back to St Paul’s Bay said “We thought it was old Mussolini coming to give himself up!”

Ted Strever received a DFC for his achievement in the war. He died in Haenertsburg, South Africa in 1997 at the age of 77.


William Howe – 1729-1814 Part I

Germantown 6th October 1777 L to R Sir William Howe, John Sullivan and Henry Knox

Sir William Howe, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army
and Musicians of the 4th Regiment of Foot

William Howe – 1729-1814 Part II

Depiction of the Battle of Bunker Hill by Percy Moran, 1909

Howe, though, had lost his nerve when he saw the fresh line of defences on Brooklyn Heights. ‘I would not risk the loss that might be sustained by the assault,’ he said later. Clinton and many other officers felt that there would have been little risk in forcing it while the Americans were in such confusion. The Battle of Long Island cost Washington more than 1,000 casualties and prisoners, including three generals. Ministers in London were delighted when they heard about the victory (British casualties were fewer than 400), and knighted Howe for his feat, but officers in the army itself were flabbergasted that a far greater opportunity had been lost.

During 28 and 29 August, Washington made good use of the breather given him by Howe. A fleet of small boats evacuated his army from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He thereby saved himself and more than 8,000 troops to fight another day.

Although Washington had eluded capture, there was still everything to play for. Much of the enemy army was now on Manhattan, which was connected to the mainland by just two bridges, close together, on the island’s northern tip. A skilful use of British naval and military power might trap them. Yet, from 29 August to 15 September, the British Army did not move. There were some valid reasons (the difficulty of navigating the waters around Manhattan due to tidal flows, batteries and sandbanks) and some less impressive ones (bringing up the creature comforts for the soldiers in camp), but Washington gained another breather.

When Howe finally moved on 15 September, he landed not on the mainland, where Clinton had suggested that he could cut off most of Washington’s army on Manhattan, but on that island itself, just above New York at Kip’s Bay. Operations, once again, developed at a leisurely pace and the Americans gained another lease of life. Howe waited nearly another month, until 12 October, before launching an amphibious operation, which marked the third failure to trap the main body of Washington’s army, this time on the northern part of Manhattan.

The fourth missed chance took place one week later, when Washington stood and faced Howe at White Plains, north of New York. The Americans had prepared elaborate fortifications, but Howe cleverly spotted that a hill to the west of them would allow the whole position to be turned. This was done by a division of Hessian (i.e. German mercenary) and British troops, but Howe did not then exploit his success to hit the main part of the enemy position.

Reviewing Howe’s actions from the Battle of Long Island onwards, one modern historian comments: ‘to have destroyed or captured this substantial force personally led by Washington would have dealt the Americans an irreparable blow. Had such a stroke been followed by a prompt landing on the northern part of Manhattan, the war would no doubt have been over.’ It may be over-egging it to say that Howe could have won the war, but, as subsequent events would show, the months following the landings of 22 August on Long Island certainly represented the best — and perhaps the only — chance that Britain had to break the back of the American rebellion by force. Howe was too dilatory and unimaginative to seize it.

There is no unfair use of hindsight here. In the late summer of 1776 friend and foe alike were baffled by Howe’s failure. The American Major General Israel Putnam wrote after Long Island, ‘General Howe is either our friend or no general . . . had he instantly followed up his victory, the consequence to the cause of liberty must have been dreadful.’ Some have tried to build historical castles on suggestions like Putnam’s — often made rhetorically — that Howe’s insipid campaign resulted from his own desire for reconciliation between Whig and Tory brothers in America. Although his personal beliefs may have given rise to some conflict, this theory holds little water, for it is apparent that Howe saw the humiliation of Washington’s army in battle as an aid rather than an obstacle to that goal. Rather, the failures of his campaign can be seen as the product of excessive caution, and a complete inability to grasp the strategic opportunities that opened with the victory of Long Island.

Washington was criticised by many of his countrymen for mistakes of his own during this period, with one arguing that he showed ‘little genius and not much natural aptitude for war’. The American C-in-C only really paid for one of his misjudgements, though: leaving behind a large garrison in Manhattan at Fort Washington appropriately enough. When Howe captured it in November 1776, he secured a consolation prize of 2,800 American prisoners and 146 cannon.

Many advantages accrued from holding New York: it cut the rebels from their principal port; proved a rallying point for loyalist Americans (of whom there were plenty in the city and its environs); could form a base for operations up the Hudson; and gave the Royal Navy a vital anchorage. There were considerable costs, too, though. Holding the city soaked up thousands of troops from an army that could ill afford such detachments. The outposts needed to secure waterways leading to the city attracted constant enemy raids.

In garrisoning these outposts, British commanders saw the limitations of their troops. The army found recruitment very tough indeed during the late 1770s. In England and Ireland these were times of relative prosperity, so few sturdy farm lads were interested in taking the King’s shilling. Recruiting parties were often reduced to throwing criminals and invalids into uniform. (It was better in Scotland, where the Highland gentry, keen to atone for the 1745 rebellion, curried favour by raising new regiments.) Manpower problems sapped the usual quality of the British infantry and had many implications for Howe. He feared costly battles. There were constant courts martial of deserters, thieves and rapists, leading to much friction with locals and presenting a gift to rebel propagandists. Finally, the problems filling the ranks led the government to hire thousands of foreign troops, mainly from Hesse-Kassel.

The extended dispositions occupied by Howe in New Jersey in late 1776 provided Washington with a chance to end the year’s campaign with a daring coup. The rebel general’s attack on a Hessian brigade encamped near Trenton on 26 December represented a last desperate throw of the dice, a chance to win back the faith of his people at the end of a miserable year. Washington’s regulars, his Continentals, advanced in driving snow, catching the Germans unawares. In the confusion that followed, 918 Hessians were taken prisoner. Fewer escaped, shamefaced, to tell the tale of their surprise by the enemy.

Howe cannot be blamed for the poor precautions taken by the German commander. He can be held responsible for taking up such long lines in New Jersey in the first place, though, and for ordering his troops into winter quarters (i.e. to stop fighting) without realising that his enemy could not be relied upon to play by such gentlemanly European conventions. ‘Due to this affair at Trenton,’ wrote Hessian Captain Johann Ewald in his journal, ‘such a fright came over the army that if Washington had used this opportunity we would have flown to our ships and let him have all of America. Since we had thus far underestimated our enemy, from this unhappy day onward we saw everything through a magnifying glass.’ Ewald even went as far as to claim that the psychological reversal of fortunes caused by the capture of substantial numbers of George III’s troops ‘surely caused the utter loss of the thirteen splendid provinces of the Crown of England’.

Of course, those around the King or the Prime Minister did not see things in quite such bleak or portentous terms. But at the end of 1776 the conflict had in fact reached a tipping point. The British had taken their best shot — for reasons we will see, they were never again able to concentrate similar numbers of troops against the main enemy army. The American citizenry had seen what the Ministry could do, and it had failed to break Washington’s army. Far from it, even in the midst of winter his troops had rebounded from a series of defeats and humbled the professional soldiers. It would not be until the campaign of 1777, though, that affairs assumed a decisive character.

Fort Ticonderoga was a strategic prize enveloped in a thick blanket of wilderness. When this post on Lake Champlain — sitting astride the key route to and from Canada — changed hands, people wanted to know about it. But Ticonderoga’s position, so far from Europe’s corridors of power, meant that knowledge took an agonisingly long time to arrive in London.

On 7 July 1777, Lieutenant General John Burgoyne became master of the fortress, having placed guns on a hill commanding the works, thus forcing the Americans to abandon it. The ease of Burgoyne’s coup finally dented Ticonderoga’s reputation as the ‘Gibraltar of America’. It marked a hopeful opening to Burgoyne’s campaign to advance deep into the colony of New York with a force of 10,000 British and German troops. For the victorious general, the capture of Ticonderoga bolstered his ambition to push down to Albany, driving rebels to one side and the other, opening most of the 300-mile route between Montreal and New York City.

The events on the banks of Lake Champlain convinced Burgoyne that he could advance away from the water, and his line of supply, into the interior of New York, while all the time thousands of rebel militia gathered from across New England to oppose him. The third British campaign had thus begun in earnest, and was entering a dangerous phase. A serious attempt was being made to implement London’s strategy of cleaving apart the rebellious Thirteen States.

Howe simply couldn’t decide what part to play in this. Between November 1776 and April 1777 he had sent three completely different plans of campaign to London. Finally, he had resolved to take the rebel capital, Philadelphia, while sending a smaller force up the Hudson valley from New York in order to lend Burgoyne a hand. But this meant that there would be several British armies in being simultaneously: Burgoyne’s coming south from Canada; a garrison of 3,000 in Rhode Island, where Howe had sent them to secure a naval anchorage late in 1776; the garrison of several thousand needed to hold New York; the force Howe intended to send up the Hudson from that city; and the main expeditionary force, heading for Philadelphia, under Howe’s own hand. This was such an obvious violation of the military principle of concentrating force — exposing each of these five armies to defeat in detail by the Americans — that many officers simply could not believe their C-in-C was about to do it.

On 5 July, Henry Clinton returned to New York from London. There he had discussed strategy for the year ahead with Lord Germain, other ministers and the King himself. He was fully aware of Burgoyne’s expedition and believed that it made obvious strategic sense for the main army, under Howe, to move towards Burgoyne, crushing any Americans who offered battle in between. At the first of several difficult meetings in headquarters, Clinton tried to persuade Howe to abandon any idea of going to Philadelphia, or at least to postpone such a move. Instead, Clinton, in his own words, ‘with all deference suggested the many great and superior advantages . . . from a cooperation of his whole force with General Burgoyne on the River Hudson’.

That same week, Washington, collating snippets of intelligence from spies about the embarkation of various regiments on transport vessels in New York, reasoned, like Clinton, ‘there is the strongest reason to conclude that General Howe will push up the river immediately to cooperate with the army from Canada’. Both the rebel C-in-C and the British second-in-command understood that a two-pronged movement of this kind would bring together 25,000 redcoats and most likely crush the American Army.

Clinton thought he had convinced Howe, but on 18 July the latter informed him that he would shortly set sail with the substantial fleet (now carrying 15,000 troops) that had gathered in New York harbour and that Clinton should assume command of the New York garrison. Three days later, a messenger arrived and told them that Burgoyne had taken Ticonderoga. Both Clinton and Howe therefore knew the thrust from the north had begun in earnest.

Howe’s fleet finally sailed on 23 July, on a course for the south. ‘I could not to the very last bring myself to believe it,’ Clinton wrote later. ‘I was persuaded he intended to deceive us all.’ Finally, the scales fell from Clinton’s eyes: going south was no clever ruse prior to turning about and sailing the fleet up the Hudson; Howe was taking his army in the opposite direction to Burgoyne.

The distance overland from New York to Philadelphia is roughly 100 miles. A man on a good horse could cover it in a few days. But Howe’s sea journey, complicated by contrary winds and his own indecision, took a whole month. Cooped up on board their smelly transports, short of rations and information, many of Howe’s officers worried about wider events. One Hessian colonel wrote home to Germany:

If I dared to tell you what I think of our present situation. I should say outright that our expedition into these parts of the south is not to my liking. For if, instead of coming here, we had set sail for New England and joined Burgoyne’s army, we should without fail have forced that province and its capitol to their duty before the end of the month . . . we should have had one of the most glorious campaigns, and perhaps peace before the end of it.

This letter was addressed to the Prince of Prussia, and it is important to note how closely the American events were being watched in every European capital. When news of Ticonderoga’s fall finally reached Paris, it stymied the vocal war party there. The French, anxious to gain revenge for the loss of Canada eighteen years earlier, had been supplying the Americans with muskets, cannon and powder. Many ‘volunteers’, professional officers, had also crossed the Atlantic in order to help Washington’s army. Even so, there was a reluctance to wage all-out war against Britain. They had no intention of doing it — with all the risks that war entailed — if Howe’s forces were about to crush the rebellion. Everything depended upon the 1777 campaign. In Spain and the Netherlands, too, those who felt the time was ripe to relieve George III of some of his colonial possessions awaited news.

It was early September before Clinton, in New York, received further word of Burgoyne’s progress. Messages had to be smuggled through the forests, and the information, in a letter dated 6 August, was already a month old. Burgoyne had begun the most difficult part of his advance — the inland stage — south of Lake Champlain, through the forested back country, towards the Hudson. This passage of just a few dozen miles had not been easy for Amherst in 1759 and was proving even less so for Burgoyne. Rebel militias were swarming about the British column and had started a process of blocking and flooding the route south. Even so, Burgoyne’s message did not yet show signs of alarm. Clinton replied to him on 11 September that he hoped by the 21st to set off from New York up the Hudson with the long-promised diversionary push towards Albany.

On the same day Clinton wrote, Howe succeeded in his aim of getting Washington to stand a general action in defence of Philadelphia. The American C-in-C had taken up a defensive position along Brandywine Creek, a river about twenty-five miles south-west of Philadelphia. Howe later justified his strategy for 1777 by saying that striking at the rebel capital would force Washington to fight, and that ‘the defeat of the rebel regular army is the surest road to peace’.

Washington’s dispositions that morning exploited the defensive value of the creek, with cannon and infantry ready to attack any British who crossed one of several fords. The weakness of his position was that, even though he extended his divisions over several miles, there were fords on his flanks that he could not cover. The rolling ground, with thick copses between the fields, made it very difficult for either C-in-C to have a good idea what was going on outside his immediate environ.

Howe exploited this by using 8,000 troops (just over half his men) to march in the early hours around Washington’s right flank. Meanwhile, the remainder of the army moved up to the front of the American positions, beginning a heavy bombardment to convince them that the main British assault would come in the obvious place. Howe’s manoeuvre — very similar to that of Long Island — succeeded admirably, and when his larger division attacked Washington’s flank that afternoon, the American army was thrown into confusion. Late in the day, Washington struggled to stabilise his right, while disengaging his army in order to save it. In the end, he succeeded, as once again Howe’s failure to pursue his fleeing enemy denied him the full benefits of victory.

The British C-in-C lacked vigour and aggression. One civilian who saw him on the morning of the battle recorded: ‘He was a large, portly man, of coarse features. He appeared to have lost his teeth, as his mouth had fallen in.’ This was what had become of the dashing light infantry officer who had stormed the Plains of Abraham. Howe at Brandywine was forty-eight years old. He was worn out and struggled to find a way to win. Some of those officers who were most frustrated by these failings spread rumours that his lethargy resulted from too much drinking and too much time in bed with his mistress.

When the British Army entered Philadelphia just over a fortnight later, Howe gained his objective for the 1777 campaign. It had taken him two months to get there from New York. Although his move on Philadelphia had produced the hoped-for general action, it had not been decisive. Congress had evacuated the city, and Washington was to make his camp near by. But what of Clinton and Burgoyne’s progress?

Between the Battle of Brandywine and Howe’s capture of Philadelphia, Burgoyne had been fought to a standstill on the banks of the Hudson near Saratoga. He was still well short of Albany, with the New England militias closing in on all sides. Burgoyne should have tried to fight his way out of the trap and back towards Lake Champlain, but instead gambled that he might still be able to get through to Albany, and sent a message to New York to that effect. Clinton had finally set out from New York on 3 October and managed, with the small force he could scrape together without exposing New York to capture, to take some key rebel fortresses guarding the Hudson River. By 16 October, his force was just forty-five miles south of Albany, but on that very day Burgoyne, beaten, surrounded and outnumbered, surrendered. Nearly 6,000 troops under his command went into captivity.

J.F.C. Fuller, an officer whom we shall meet again later, estimated the Saratoga capitulation as one of the decisive battles of world history. That might seem odd given the small numbers of troops involved and the remote scene of the action, but news of Burgoyne’s surrender triggered the French declaration of war, which was followed by similar announcements by Spain and the Netherlands. In Britain, the humiliating defeat destroyed the Parliamentary majority in favour of a vigorous prosecution of the war. After 1777, it became impossible to fund large-scale reinforcements to America. Such was the sympathy among Whigs for the American struggle for liberty and their schadenfreude at George III’s problems that fashionable ladies attended London parties dressed as Washington’s soldiers.

Between 1778 and 1783, Britain thus faced a worldwide onslaught against its interests from the combined forces of America, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Despite shipping thousands of troops from America to the Caribbean (further weakening the Crown’s war against the rebels), Britain lost most of its rich island possessions there to the French, as well as Florida and Minorca to the Spanish. Across the globe, the French were able to assemble powerful fleets and landing forces, which also succeeded in throwing Britain out of Senegal and southern India. It has been described as the loss of the first British Empire.

Eventually, caught out by the shuttling of French squadrons between the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard, this wider conflict also cost George III the Thirteen Colonies of America: a surrounded British force in Virginia was cut off from rescue by the Royal Navy and surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.

On the night of 18 May 1778, Philadelphia witnessed one of the strangest spectacles in its history. Processions of British officers dressed as knights, and young women as medieval damsels, celebrated a party. In a city gripped by war, there were tables groaning with food, fireworks and mock tournaments, and poetry was declaimed in the night air. This themed event, called the Mischianza, was staged as a ceremonial send-off for William Howe following his resignation. In accounts published at the time, it was described as an affectionate gesture from the officers who had served under him.

Leaving aside the fact that the British Army has always jumped at the chance to throw a party, it is interesting and only fair to point out that Howe was popular among many of his people right until the end of his command. He was correct and affable with the regimental officers he met on the march, and the soldiers appreciated his concern for their comfort.

Even as he sailed home, though, there was plenty of whispering that Howe was a failure. On his return he demanded a board of inquiry which he hoped would vindicate him. There were hearings for many months, but in the end there was no official report or ‘closure’ to the whole affair. The more people looked into his command, the more self-serving and feeble his excuses sounded: it was too cold to do anything in the winters of 1775/6 and 1776/7; it was too hot to do anything for much of the summer of 1777; the troops were too tired to finish off Washington after the Battle of Long Island; and so on.

Among those who had worked with the general most closely, there was plenty of criticism. One staff officer wrote probably the fairest assessment during the 1777 campaign: ‘Brave he certainly is and would make a very good executive officer under another’s command, but he is not by any means equal to C-in-C.’ The leader of a loyalist regiment heavily engaged at Brandywine was tougher: ‘His manners were sullen and ungracious, with a dislike to business, and a propensity to pleasure. His staff officers were in general below mediocrity.’ The most bitter but acute appraisal was made by Henry Clinton. In life the two men managed to maintain cordial relations, even though Clinton made clear that he held Howe responsible for missing many opportunities in 1776 and for a misguided strategy in 1777. However, a note later discovered in Clinton’s papers read: ‘Had [Howe] gone to the Devil before he was sent to America, it had been the saving of infamy to himself and indelible dishonour to his country.’

History, for some reason, treated Howe very leniently for at least 150 years. Much of what was written blamed others, notably Lord Germain. The American Secretary was regarded with particular distaste by many of the generals, because he had previously served in the army and been disgraced for cowardice at the Battle of Minden in 1759. But Piers Mackesy, in The War for America 1775-1783 (1964) managed a pretty credible vindication of Germain, based on the most comprehensive examination by any scholar of the state papers relating to the strategic direction of this war. Mackesy showed Germain to have been an effective mobiliser of the vast armies and fleets required for global war, whereas Howe and Clinton (succeeding as C-in-C) were described as ‘members of a stable political community who had arrived and could not be shaken from their perch . . . their fertility of invention was spent in devising reasons for inaction’.

Too many of Britain’s generals had turned into the same kind of highly paid ‘play it safe’ bureaucrats that officered the French Army of Marlborough’s time. The divisions over America among Britain’s landowning oligarchs had undermined the ability of their institutions — Parliament and the army — to win the war.

Howe was without doubt the person responsible for failing to crush Washington in 1776, when Britain had its best chance. The American victory at Trenton convinced the rebels that it was worth fighting on. Howe then failed to formulate a coherent strategy for the 1777 campaign, sending instead confusing alternatives over a period of months to London. Germain was guilty of errors, no doubt, but had the Commander-in-Chief in America been capable of thinking and acting like someone worthy of this lofty title, Germain’s influence on the strategy pursued during that pivotal year would have been kept to a minimum.

As for the disaster of Saratoga, clearly Burgoyne should have doubled back when it became clear how serious his predicament was. He alone got himself into the mess. Equally, though, Howe was the only person who could have got him out of it. Instead, the C-in-C ignored advice and took himself off to Philadelphia, having his number two with insufficient force to make a meaningful push on Albany. Clinton’s critique is hard to dispute: had Howe instead moved with his main army up the Hudson in July 1777, there would have been time enough to open the way to Albany before moving on to Philadelphia later. Such a plan would probably have saved Burgoyne, kept British forces more concentrated, and still forced Washington to give battle either in upstate New York or, eventually, near Philadelphia.

It is arguable whether Britain ever could have won a complete military victory in America. But I do think that Howe’s mismanagement of the command allowed the rebellion to grow and emboldened Britain’s enemies to wage a global war that was disastrous to its interests. Had the general ‘gone to the Devil’ before he ever took up the American command, there can be little doubt that the map of the world could look quite different today. Howe was not a completely useless general, since he had a very sound tactical touch (for example, at Long Island and Brandywine). He was, however, somebody without the faintest idea of strategy.

Victory could have been defined in 1776-7 as breaking Washington’s Continental Army, capturing or killing him and scattering resistance into guerrilla bands. Had this been done, France would not have intervened. The historical alternatives then become mind-boggling: the global French campaigns of 1778-83 bankrupted the country and led directly to the Revolution. A successful British general in America during 1775-7 might thus have forestalled those tumultuous events and thereby the consequent rise of Napoleon.

There can be no doubt, though, that the emergence of a militant revolutionary state in France, something Howe witnessed in his old age, was to present Britain with a threat of an altogether higher order. In the 1770s and 1780s it had been a fight for empire. In the 1790s and 1800s it was to be a struggle for national survival.


Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz Von Gross-Zauche Und Camminetz was the most decorated regimental commander, and one of the most effective panzer leaders, in the German Army.

He was one of only 27 men in the entire Wehrmacht to be awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. Of these he was the only one to receive grades of the decoration for both bravery and his command abilities, which led to the significant outcomes which merited the award. The other Diamonds recipients received awards for either their bravery and combat accomplishments, such as Erich Hartmann for his 352 aerial victories, or for their skill in command, such as Hans Hube and Walter Model. In the latter cases their men did the actual fighting and the award was as much for the units under their command as for them.

Von Strachwitz’s rapid rise during World War II from a lowly captain to a lieutenant general, equivalent to a major general in the UK and US armies, was nothing short of extraordinary, and this in an army not lavish in granting promotions.

He fought in nearly all of the major campaigns—the invasions of Poland, France and Yugoslavia, and the important campaigns and battles in the east including Operation Barbarossa, the battles of Kiev, Stalingrad, Kharkov, and Kursk, the Baltic States and finally of Germany and his beloved Silesia—his service being almost a microcosm of World War II in Europe. In the course of these battles, not only did he win renown—becoming a legend among those who fought on the Eastern Front who gave him the title Panzer Graf (Armoured Count)—but was also wounded 14 times, probably was probably unique amongst the ranks of Germany’s senior officers and a testament to his leading from the front.

Such an extraordinary record of courage and command would have made him unique in any army of World War II. Yet he is a man of mystery, with very little known about him and nothing of substance yet been written. He is mentioned in countless books, articles and websites, but at most is only given a brief biographical outline, and even this is often inaccurate in parts. Günter Fraschke wrote a German-language biography in 1962, which, if largely factual, was nevertheless discredited for its inaccuracies and sensationalism and rejected by the Panzer Graf himself.

Unfortunately the Panzer Graf himself wrote no memoirs; left no diary, and any notes and papers were lost along with his home in 1945. His records of service in the 16th Panzer Division were destroyed along with the division in the battle of Stalingrad in 1943. After a period of distinguished service with the elite Grossdeutschland Division, he served as commander of several ad-hoc units, some bearing his name, in a period when records, if kept at all, were scanty, or lost. It all makes for a rather threadbare paper trail. His comrades-in-arms have now all passed away, so there are no witnesses to his many battles and exploits.


After the Battle of Kursk, it took the Graf several months to recover from his wound, including weeks of convalescent leave. The question then arose as to his deployment. It seems clear that he did not wish to return to the Grossdeutschland Division, and General Hörnlein equally did not want him back. The two did not got on, and the Graf had not covered himself with glory at Kursk as he had done in previous battles. Nevertheless the Panzer Graf’s undoubted talents could not be wasted. A divisional command was the next step for him, which meant that he was under consideration to take over the Panzer Lehr Division. This superbly equipped formation had been established from demonstration and training units trialing and demonstrating new weapons and tactics. All its infantry regiments were mechanized with armoured personnel carriers while its equipment tables were far more lavish than that for a standard panzer division, which for instance only had one battalion equipped with APCs with the remainder being truck borne, and here also both APCs and trucks were often in short supply.

He didn’t get this command, which instead went initially to Fritz Bayerlein. This may have been for several reasons. The least favourable was that the Graf’s personality, outlook and tactical approach did not make him suitable for a standard divisional command, which required a great deal of preoccupation with logistical and administrative matters as well as controlling a diverse range of formations not necessarily connected with direct combat, such as signals, transport, supply, medical, engineering and administration. Perhaps von Strachwitz was considered too much a hands-on front-line combat commander to have his abilities diverted by the numerous non-combat tasks often required of a divisional commander. Equally, tying down such an independent-minded commander to the chains of divisional and corps structures would not be the best use of his talents. Being independent with a regiment was a far cry to acting independently with a whole division. Perhaps the deciding factor was that the Graf could be better used for special missions or in a fire brigade role. His skill clearly lay in achieving a great deal with very little. He was one of the few commanders who could make a very real difference through his sheer presence and ability. Putting it bluntly, any reasonably competent general could achieve fair results with a well-equipped panzer division. However, very few commanders could manage a superlative result with little or few resources.

In any event, he was passed over for Panzer Lehr. The division was later deployed in Normandy, and had von Strachwitz been in command it might well have caused the Allies more difficulties than it did under its actual commander, General Fritz Bayerlein, a dilettante who had established his reputation as Erwin Rommel’s Chief-of-Staff in North Africa. His handling of Panzer Lehr during the Allied invasion of France was average, bordering on the lacklustre. He displayed none of the flair and imagination of von Strachwitz or other commanders such as Bäke, von Manteuffel or Raus, so that the superb division underachieved under his control. Later, during the Ardennes Offensive, Hasso von Manteuffel, Bayerlein’s army commander, went to great lengths, to avoid promoting him to command the XLVII Panzer Corps after its commander, General von Luttwitz, had mishandled it, being held up unduly at Bastogne. Bayerlein, as the senior divisional commander, was next in line to command a corps but, unwilling to make the promotion, von Manteuffel left well enough alone, a scathing indictment of Bayerlein.

So in April after being awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross as the twenty-seventh recipient, Graf von Strachwitz was sent to Army Group North, which had been grossly under-resourced almost since its inception. Of all the army groups, its performance in achieved objectives could be considered the most successful, despite getting little in the way of resources or reinforcements, especially in armoured fighting vehicles. The Russians themselves admitted after the war that Army Group North had fought the hardest, especially when compared to Army Group Centre in the later years.

In January 1944 the Soviets launched their Leningrad-Novgorod offensive, pushing the Germans back to the River Nava. They hoped to annihilate Army Detachment Narva and sweep through Estonia, utilising it as a base for a quick thrust into East Prussia. This army detachment, a euphemism for an understrength army, comprised seven infantry divisions, one panzer-grenadier division and three Waffen SS divisions of European volunteers—11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, 4th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nederland and the 20th SS Estonian Division—along with sundry smaller units including Estonian border guards and the wholly German 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion under Major Jahde. The foreign volunteer SS divisions performed heroically at Narva, accumulating no fewer than 29 Knight’s Crosses. The 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion, with 70 Tigers, was a highly effective unit with several tank aces, including Lieutenant Otto Carius (150 tanks destroyed), Lieutenant Johannes Bölter (139 tank kills), Albert Kerscher (106 kills), Johann Muller and Alfredo Carpaneto (50 kills each). Its total kills for the war were 1,400 Russian tanks of all types, for a loss of only 107 Tigers, a kill/loss ratio of 13.08:1, the second best kill/loss ratio of any Tiger battalion after Grossdeutschland’s battalion which achieved 16.676:1.3 Bölter and Carius were originally NCOs who had climbed through the ranks. This was one of the factors of the German Army’s success, promoting a great number of officers from the ranks of distinguished NCOs, with officer candidates having to serve in the ranks to prove themselves.

The Soviets’ winter offensive was successful in breaking the 900-day siege of Leningrad on 27 January, with the Germans making such a hasty withdrawal that they left behind 85 guns which had been shelling the city. Two German divisions were destroyed with the Russians capturing 1,000 prisoners and 30 tanks. After a period to regroup the Soviets resumed their offensive in February, forcing the Germans back to the Panther Line, which was more illusion than a fortified defensive line. The Germans now stood on the River Narva in Estonia to await the next Soviet onslaught. Here, the III SS Panzer Corps, led by the redoubtable SS General Felix Steiner, set up defensive positions across 11 kilometres east of the town of Narva. It would be the scene of intensely savage fighting.

The Russian Eighth Army did, however, manage to establish two bridgeheads across the river on 23 February, which became known as Eastsack and Westsack. These threatened to unhinge the German line. The Germans had very little in the way of armour to eliminate them, with the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion deploying four Tigers against Westsack and two against the Eastsack. On that day the battalion destroyed its 500th Russian tank. The battalion’s 2nd Company alone destroyed 38 tanks, four assault guns and 17 other guns between 17 and 22 March.

Although the Germans lacked a large armoured force they did have the Panzer Graf, who could achieve more with a handful of tanks than any other commander in the German Army. Hitler also sent General Model to take over Army Group North without any reinforcements. When asked what he had brought with him he confidently replied “Why, only me gentlemen.” So the Panzer Graf was not the only one expected to perform miracles. Perform miracles they both did. The Graf was initially promised three divisions, which would have made him feel confident about his task, but they never arrived. Along with the promise of panzers the Graf was given the grandiose title of armour commander of Army Group North which would have been more impressive had he any sizeable armoured formations to command. As it was he had to make do with what was available: the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion with just 12 Tigers still operational, Battle Group Böhrendt with a few assault guns and Panzer IIIs, units of the Feldernhalle Division with a few Panthers, and some Panzer IVs from the SS Nordland Division. His infantry was supplied by Grossdeutschland’s Fusilier Regiment mounted in APCs. Grossdeutschland also provided some tanks and Nebelwerfer rocket launchers. As a last-minute reinforcement Hitler sent over a battalion from his escort brigade, which was literally the last reserve he had available. The Russians had entire armoured and infantry corps sitting idly in reserve while the Germans could only scrape up a battalion that wasn’t urgently needed, so parlous had the German manpower and weapons situation become.

The Graf’s mission was to eliminate the Soviet Narva bridgeheads. His actions have been generally categorized as operations Strachwitz I, II and III. He chose the Westsack for Strachwitz I and spent a great deal of time preparing for it. As always, good reconnaissance was paramount along with intelligence from radio intercepts and prisoner interrogations. Most prisoners, including officers, were willing to talk, as were German captives, the very real fear of being executed proving a strong motivating factor. Leaving nothing to chance he also had his troops rehearse the attack. The training exercises were conducted with live ammunition with several casualties incurred as a result. Careful reconnaissance led him to give the Tigers a secondary supporting role due to the marshy nature of the terrain. He had to rely on his lighter Panthers, Panzer IVs and assault guns for the spearhead. After careful consideration von Strachwitz decided to attack Westsack from the west. He reasoned, correctly, that the Russians would be expecting an attack from the east as this had a good road and the German artillery had good observation points from the nearby Blue Hills. As well, a regiment of the German 61st Infantry Division was entrenched in a salient there, called the boot.

At 5:55 a.m. on 26 March, von Strachwitz launched his attack on the Westsack. It was preceded by, for what was for this period of the war, a heavy artillery and Nebelwerfer barrage. The panzers followed, supported by the infantry of Grenadier Regiments 2,44 and 23 from the East Prussian 11th Infantry Division, a hard-fighting unit commanded by General Lieutenant Helmuth Reymann. Eight Tigers had been ordered to support the infantry but they were forced to withdraw due to the softness of the ground. The Graf’s decision not to use the Tigers at the forefront had proven correct.

Ferocious fighting took place in the trackless swamps and forests with heavy casualties on both sides. The German officer losses were especially severe with all platoons and most companies being led by surviving NCOs. The Graf led from the front as usual, a familiar figure in his bulky sheepskin coat, bringing chocolates and cognac to comfort and encourage his troops. He also brought with him several Iron Crosses Second Class, which he awarded on the spot to the best fighters. When not accompanying him, his adjutant Lieutenant Famula was close behind ensuring that ammunition, food and fuel arrived on time wherever they were needed.

So vital was this operation that the Graf received Stuka support, a fairly rare event given the stretched resources of the Luftwaffe. This proved a mixed blessing however, with one bomb landing on the narrow track on which the German tanks were advancing. One minute later and it would have wiped out von Strachwitz himself. The Stuka pilots had great difficulty in finding their targets amongst the trees, and the bombs were less than effective in the forested terrain.

Early progress was good with a large number of prisoners taken, but the Russians were not prepared to give ground easily. On 27 March they counterattacked, pushing the Germans back with their first onslaught. They continued their attack into the night. This led to some very frightening close-quarter combat in the pitch-black woods. The next morning the Russians commenced a sustained artillery bombardment causing heavy casualties, many caused by the wood splinters from the fractured trees, so that companies of normally over 100 men were reduced to platoons of fewer than 30. Von Strachwitz summoned reinforcements, but they too suffered heavily from the Soviet artillery fire, arriving already badly depleted.

Immediately after the artillery barrage the Russians sent in their infantry in massed attacks which penetrated the thinly manned German defences at several points. The Luftwaffe sent in ground-attack aircraft but failed to dislodge the Russians. Several batteries of Nebelwerfers added their weight to the fire, blasting the Russian positions in a crescendo of shattering explosions. The Graf then ordered a counterattack, which threw the demoralised Russians back with cold steel. He pushed forward with everything he had to maintain the momentum. The Russians fought back tenaciously, but were steadily forced to give ground. When driven out of their trenches their resistance turned into a precipitous retreat with many surrendering. The retreat turned into a rout. They left behind some 6,000 dead and 50 guns, along with the large quantities of equipment on the battlefield. In addition, the Germans took some 300 prisoners. Against those Soviet losses the Germans suffered 2,200 dead or missing. It was a superb if costly victory at a time when the Germans were in retreat, or barely holding on along the rest of the front.

On 1 April Hyazinth von Strachwitz was promoted to the rank of major general. For a colonel of the reserve this was a very unusual promotion, and may have been unique. His monthly salary increased by around 50%. He wasn’t as fortunate as some generals, General Guderian for instance, who received a large amount each month on top of his ordinary salary as a personal gift from Adolf Hitler. Other generals and field marshals, such as von Kluge, also received monetary gifts, as well as landed estates.

The Panzer Graf’s next operation was Strachwitz II, the elimination of the Eastsack bridgehead. He knew the Russians were expecting him to attack as he had attacked the Westsack. So he did the opposite, attacking at East-sack’s northern tip to surprise them. This attack also took meticulous preparation, which was becoming his trademark. As Otto Carius stated in his memoir, Tigers in the Mud, regarding the planning for Strachwitz III, “his careful, methodical planning amazed us once again” and that “the Graf was a master of organisation.” This would seem at odds with his devil-may-care cavalrymen’s approach, but it shows that, despite his reputation for dashing raids and slashing cavalry-style attacks, he was a calm calculating man, and it was this, together with his boldness, that made him such a formidable commander and adversary.

Prince Frederick, Duke of York — 1763-1827 Part I

Positions of the armies at the start of the 1794 campaign.

There reached a point in many of the young Prince’s games where the number of servants available for duty on the lawn proved insufficient for the lesson at hand. Frederick, fifteen years of age during the summer of 1778, as General Howe relinquished the American command, heartily enjoyed his practical military education. ‘The grounds of Kew House were transformed into the terrain of the Seven Years War,’ one contemporary observed. In his enthusiasm, the Prince herded gardeners, maids and footmen into lines of troops. His war games were overseen by his military tutors and followed much study of European campaigns, in particular those of the Prussian King after whom George III had named his son. The Prince of Wales, just one year older than Frederick, occasionally played along in these sessions, but even at this early stage of their lives, it was his younger brother who relished the part of soldier.

George had encouraged his sons to cultivate a ferme ornee at Kew, a place where, following the aristocratic fashion of the day, they could till the soil and learn the simple pleasures of farming and good economy. Alas, the growing shoots were often trampled underfoot by phalanxes of servants, as Frederick, captivated by his namesake’s Seven Years War victories, strove to re-enact battles like Rossbach and Leuthen.

For the Prince, schooling in generalship began with classroom study of great generals from Julius Caesar to the King of Prussia. The early manoeuvres at Kew in turn gave way, late in the summer of 1780, to his departure from England, en route to the Continent to learn from the great generals of the day. Rumour suggested that the impregnation of one of the Kew milkmaids sped his departure. Frederick’s itinerary, however, was designed with serious study in mind. He would remain overseas for seven years. That George III sent his son to learn warfare from the great German masters of the late eighteenth century (the Duke of Brunswick and, after this preparation, the Prince’s idol, Frederick the Great of Prussia himself) may be seen as a sign that the achievements of Marlborough and in the Seven Years War had not lessened Britain’s inferiority complex in matters of military science. The Duke of York had therefore been carefully schooled prior to assuming command and had benefited from a professional education more complete than almost any other British general who might be called upon to lead an expeditionary corps. But, of course, he lacked practical experience or read regimental service, so when the chance finally appeared for him to lead an army in battle, nobody knew whether he could do so successfully.

The French attack of 6 September 1793 on the Austrian lines near Herzeele was typical of the Revolutionary Army. The phalanxes advanced, a riot of Jacobin fervour tempered by the experience of veteran cadres from the old Bourbon regiments. There was much shouting, cheering and general high spirits from the ragamuffin soldiers. They had been thrown forward by their general, Lazare Carnot, a man who would be dubbed ‘the organiser of victory’ for his vigorous mobilisation of society in defence of the Revolution. On this day in the Spanish Netherlands — modern Belgium — Carnot’s troops punched a hole in the Allied front and headed almost due north, towards the sea, just ten miles away.

As it happened, a British army, under the command of Field Marshal the Duke of York, occupied positions in the dunes around Dunkirk. The government at home had ordered this British contingent of the allied army to take the French-held port. Military men had not been consulted in this decision, and the Navy was reluctant to provide any support, even though doing so would have entailed little more than sailing across the Channel. So the British had achieved nothing during the first week of their siege, and in any case had none of the special artillery needed to batter down the town’s walls. Indeed, it could barely be called a siege, since the absence of naval support meant French gunboats harassed the British lines and kept open the garrison’s communications with the outside world.

By 6 September, some heavy guns had finally arrived and were being assembled near the town. At the Duke’s headquarters, reports of a French attack to the south were therefore treated with a concern that grew into alarm. If Carnot’s advance continued, British troops around Dunkirk would soon have the enemy to their flank and rear. Orders were given to break camp and withdraw from positions surrounding the port.

As accounts of the French advance flew about the British regiments, there was considerable disorder and many panicked. The 30 siege guns brought over from England were left behind, along with 300 barrels of gunpowder and other valuable stores. A loss of this kind was considered disgraceful by professional soldiers; indeed, when something similar happened in Spain twenty years later, Wellington insisted the general responsible be court-martialled. But such a punishment would have been too embarrassing to King and Ministry to be countenanced. Instead, the Duke rallied his troops after the debacle. One of his staff officers wrote home: ‘His good humour and spirits never forsake him, and he meets the unfortunate events that have happened with a degree of constancy and resolution that do him infinite honour.’ The task of commanding the small field army that Britain could deploy in 1793 had been given to the Duke, in part, because it was assumed that being a prince would help in the difficult matters of diplomacy needed to bind together the polyglot forces of the anti-French alliance.

Frederick was only thirty years old at the time of Dunkirk. A striking figure, over six feet tall, broad chested (but increasingly stout), his shock of hair and straight nose gave him a bearing considered by many at the time to be the acme of noble good looks. He had also, prior to September 1793, demonstrated bravery in action and some skill at the head of his troops. Following Dunkirk, though, many officers serving in Flanders wrote accounts that suggested the Duke was an incompetent dilettante, more fond of wine and women than of grand strategy. These reports produced a rapid effect — much malicious gossip in the corridors of Westminster and a measure of public ridicule, including a caricature by the master, James Gillray, showing the Duke ‘campaigning’ with a whore astride his lap and a bottle in his hand. One courtier, visiting the Duke’s headquarters a month after Dunkirk, wrote home, ‘Some of the things reported in England may be true, but I am persuaded that he is both good natured and humane, although, by sometimes talking absurdly, he gets a contrary character.’

It was the Duke’s habit of holding forth to his young staff that was at the root of these problems. One noble visitor (and politician) surveying the scene in Flanders told a confidant: ‘He talks too much, and is careless to whom. I ventured to tell him so, and took an opportunity of recommending him to ask the superior officers to dinner; and, as he could not prevent their writing home, to try at least and furnish them by his conversation there with materials which would do no harm [original emphasis].’ In terms of modern political management, Frederick’s mistake was not briefing the right people with the right line.

There has been some debate about whether the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ rhyme was a response to the events of 1793-4 in Flanders or to the brief campaign he led five years later in Holland, but the essential point is that early in his career the Prince became an irresistible target for popular lampoon. The King had sent one of his sons to lead an army fighting in defence of monarchy (so barbarously defiled by the French regicides). Failure was dangerous to that principle in Britain itself because the Jacobins had plenty of sympathisers there, even in Parliament. In our own era the shocking defeat of an army led by the King’s son would obviously create a huge news story. We should not be surprised, then, that it caused a sensation in London more than two centuries ago, for even then irreverence, republicanism and merciless satire were widespread.

After the shock of September, the campaign settled down somewhat in the latter part of 1793. The armies contesting the Low Countries found themselves in a predicament very similar to that faced during Marlborough’s time. So many troops had used these open lands as their thoroughfare during the preceding centuries that a dense network of fortresses and defensive barriers had evolved. These checked rapid progress by either side and demanded constant resort to siege warfare. During the marches between strongpoints the British contingent recovered some of its equilibrium, and in April 1794, for example, the Duke received widespread praise for planning a brilliant cavalry attack at Beaumont. But grand designs to smash the French were to be rudely discomfited just a few weeks later.

On 17 and 18 May, the protagonists fought the Battle of Tourcoing. It consisted of an attempt by the Duke of York to concert multiple attacks on 40,000 men of the French Armee du Nord, which held an exposed portion of the line. Frederick’s British corps was not large enough to mount this attack on its own, so allied cooperation was the order of the day. The Austrians were brought into the fight — and in such strength that command of the whole devolved to an Austrian field marshal. The battle turned into a dismal fracas because York’s plan relied on several different columns marching with equal determination to envelop the French Army to their front. Once the various columns had begun their trek, their commanders began to hesitate and the whole design felt apart. During the second day, the French pressed home counter-attacks and the allies lost 4,000 men killed or wounded and 1,500 captured.

Following Tourcoing, the coalition campaign in the Low Countries fell apart. The Austrians decided, after a year of see-saw fighting, that their province was more trouble than it was worth and effectively gave up trying to defend it. Once the largest contingents in this multinational army had begun to abandon it, in the second half of 1794, the other allies had no choice but to join their retreat into the Netherlands. There were scenes of much confusion and disorder during these marches, and cooperation between the nations effectively collapsed amid mutual recriminations.

This saga is important mainly because it showed the British Army struggling to make a good show of itself. From its dispatch the previous year, a bewildering array of shortcomings had been exposed on the battlefield. There were one or two chapters where a single brigade of horse or foot distinguished itself, it is true, but overall, taking to the field ten years after America had won its independence, the organisation had displayed every symptom of an atrophied, inefficient, peacetime army. Although the army had shrunk somewhat in the 1780s, it still remained substantially larger than it had been before the American rebellion. However, its need for recruits outstripped the supply of fit young men, largely because the economy was still so healthy, with emergent industries skimming surplus men off the land. Those who tried to fill the ranks thus often relied on ‘crimping’, or cheating of various kinds: signing up the old or patently unfit; taking men who were re-enlisting having already deserted; and doing deals with local magistrates to put convicted felons into uniform.

Towards the end of 1794’s marching up to the top of various hills and marching down again, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Calvert, one of York’s most trusted staff officers, wrote to an old friend, a major general, in England. His letter reveals the extent of this army’s deficiencies or ‘wants’ and the rage that such military incapacity aroused in a keen young colonel:

We want artillerymen, we want a general officer at the head of the artillery, we want drivers and smiths; we want three major generals of infantry; we want a commanding engineer of rank and experience; we want a total reform in our hospital; we want at least two out of the four brigades of mounted artillery with which his Grace of Richmond is amusing himself in England; we want a total stop put to that most pernicious mode of bestowing rank on officers without even the form of recommendation, merely for raising (by means of crimps) a certain number of men, to restore to the army those independent disinterested feelings, and those high principles which should actuate a soldier, and form the basis of the military discipline of a free country, and to relieve deserving officers from the intolerable grievance of seeing men without merit, without family, or the smallest pretension to any military ability, pass over their heads and arrive at a very high, and till now a very respectable rank in the army, solely through the means of a rascally crimp.

Without going into every particular of Calvert’s invective, the key shortcoming that he identified was in the leadership of Britain’s army — both at the level of hopeless regimental officers who owed their position to political patronage and in the inability to find any capable superior officers who had exercised higher command. These failings in George III’s army were just as apparent to Britain’s allies. ‘Even more disadvantageous for the English infantry was their rare knowledge and intercourse of the company-officers with their men,’ wrote one Brunswick officer, adding: ‘It happened often that one could notice whole regiments on the march, of which the officers followed only hours later, when they had finished breakfast at leisure.’ Under such circumstances, the regiment turned out under the command of its non-commissioned officers. The same was true of drill at home, where the absence of officers also often led to sergeants running the show. This unfortunate pattern did at least produce one good side-effect: Britain entered the Napoleonic Wars with a cadre of skilled NCOs, and certainly they provided the disciplinary backbone for its army.

Officers’ amateurism was matched at national level by the ignorance of Britain’s political leaders about how to make best use of their armed forces, a shortcoming that produced the bungled siege of Dunkirk. During the first decade of struggle against the French revolutionaries, the desire to ‘do something’ while hazarding little and staying close to the sea, ready for evacuation by the Royal Navy, was a defining characteristic of British policy. This led one French authority to comment derisively: ‘To doubt the defeat of an army sent by the British Ministry to any part of the Continent to contend against our troops would have been imputed to disaffection.’

Of course, not everything was woe: the redcoats did show certain impressive qualities during the fighting of 1793-4. The cavalry managed some dashing charges, which was a little surprising, perhaps, given that the mounted arm was later considered one of the weaker parts of the machine, but their successes were due in part to the strength and breeding of their horses. A quality bloodline — some indescribable quantum of grit or determination — was also evident in the British foot-soldier, who frequently stood in situations where others would have broken. Lastly, although the officer corps in general was sadly lacking in professionalism, some zealous, impressive men emerged in middle tiers of the army in the Low Countries: Calvert himself, later a key member of the army’s higher staff; Colonel John Moore, who commanded a brigade under York; Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, who led the 33rd Foot; and John Le Marchant, who distinguished himself as a cavalry officer and would later become an important military educator.

During 1793-4, the legions of France withstood the attempts of ancien regime Europe to throttle their new society. In these campaigns the Jacobins taught grim lessons to the professional soldiers of many other countries. French armies attacked with an alacrity and creativity that old Austrian or Prussian generals accustomed to stately eighteenth-century warfare found very hard to counter. Carnot and Jourdan, another Armee du Nord commander, crafted new decrees that created in France the world’s first true mass army — one of conscripts from the breadth of society. Not only did this produce vast numbers of recruits but it brought artisans, intellectuals even, into the ranks, whereas Britain struggled to recruit volunteers of quality.

All in all then, by late 1794, the members of the first great anti-French coalition were smarting from lessons learned in the Low Countries and were keen to end hostilities as soon as it could be done in a dignified way. For the British Prime Minister, there was an added problem. William Pitt knew that the continued presence of the Duke of York at the head of this battered army afforded the opposition an irresistible handle both against the Ministry and the King. It therefore finally fell to Pitt to write to George III requesting that the Duke be recalled. His letter, dated 23 November 1794, is a long and difficult read, because in it Pitt had to tell the King just how problematic his son’s continued command had become, while surrounding this distasteful message with sugary expressions of loyalty and courtly courtesy. ‘It is indeed impossible that the zeal and meritorious exertions of the Duke of York should be disputed by anyone who has the opportunity of being accurately informed of his personal conduct,’ noted Pitt before slipping in the dagger: ‘but the general impression is formed on other grounds . . . the want of experience and of habits of detail may have made it impossible for him to discharge all of the duties of his situation, and effectually to prevent or remedy abuses and evils which have crept into the service.’ The Prime Minister noted how difficult ‘the impression’ of this incapacity made it for the Duke to carry on leading the army in the Netherlands before alluding to the bigger underlying issue: ‘it is impossible to say how far this impression, if it is not removed, may operate in Parliament and in the Public to the disadvantage of Your Majesty’s Government . . . it will be impossible to prevent this subject from being brought into Parliamentary discussion.’

In a single lifetime, that of George III, the presence of a king or royal prince at the head of an army had changed its symbolic role dramatically. His father, George II, had in 1743 been the last British sovereign to lead his armies into battle, at a time when such a gesture was still seen as an expression of commitment and statesmanship. But by the end of Frederick’s command in Flanders, it was clear that the political costs of associating the royal house so closely with a failed expedition were too great to stomach. Pitt’s letter thus marks a turning point in the relationship between army and society in Britain. In Russia, Austria or Prussia, sovereigns and princes continued to lead the campaigns against France in person, for they did not have a raucous democracy like Westminster’s to contend with, one in which they would be held accountable for failure.

Removing the Duke required considerable delicacy, and for several weeks after his recall to England he remained in a sort of official limbo. He was still a young man who expected some active employment in life, but there were precious few posts appropriate for someone with the exalted rank of field marshal. In a rather distracted way, ministers decided to offer him the post of C-in-C, in place of the septuagenarian, inactive Lord Amherst (of Seven Years War fame), who had held on to the position for years like some military bed-blocker. The C-in-C, who occupied offices on London’s Horse Guards Parade, was at this stage a sort of inspector-general who tried (often unsuccessfully) to instil some sort of common standards among the scattered regiments of the British Army.

So, a tactic devised by Pitt and his colleagues to relieve the Duke of York of his field command ended up producing spectacular dividends. For it did not take long after the Field Marshal started work at Horse Guards in February 1795 for the great advantages of this scheme to make themselves felt. First, his role in the Flanders campaign, with all its problems, had made him an excellent person to diagnose the army’s ills. His youth and feelings of anger at those recent transactions also energised him to his new task. Finally, the very royal pedigree that had become a liability in his field command proved a vital asset when scaling the mountain of army reform, for it placed him and his mission above petty political vendettas. Virtually any other general who could have been considered for the post would have soon attracted the label of ‘Whig’ or ‘Tory’.

The first general order issued on 14 February 1795, as the Duke took up his new office, announced, ‘all matters respecting His Majesty’s Military Service, excepting what may relate to the Foot Guards, should pass through His Royal Highness’ hands’. Leaving aside the usual awkwardness of the Guards, this order gave the Duke a plenipotentiary mission to reform the army. Such a broad rubric might have caused paralysis in someone too indecisive to use it, but York and the small team he had with him were determined to wreak change. Not only did the pride of the army demand it, but the threat of French invasion and national catastrophe appeared increasingly real.

In 1795, the army headquarters at Horse Guards consisted of about 35 people. The Duke had brought with him four picked officers (including the fulminant Colonel Calvert) to act as his trouble-shooters. Apart from the Commander-in-Chief and his office, there were two principal branches of the staff: the Adjutant General (dealing with personnel and legal matters) and the Quarter Master General (whose task was to sustain the army). The whole amounted to about twenty officers and a dozen or so secretaries and clerks. The army of 1795 could hardly, then, be accused of being overmanaged or carrying a vast retinue of civil servants. This may well have helped the new C-in-C in his great mission, since it made it easier to grip the machine and turn it to his purpose, and in the years following his appointment, the staff were in a continual frenzy: firing off directives, general orders and circular letters. Someone had taken charge at last.

Early in May 1799, the Antelope, an inn near High Wycombe, to the west of London, received an unusual group of visitors. The dozen or so men in their twenties and thirties were the first ever class of a new, as yet untitled academy. (In 1801, as a result of the Commander-in-Chief’s patronage, it was finally christened the Royal Military College.) The class of 1799 arrived with their trunks, portmanteaus and valises, banging about the inn’s narrow corridors, each vying for the best quarters. Their stay in Wycombe was intended to last for a year, and during that time they would be taught the skills needed to organise an army on operations: everything from map-making to finding forage and making proper reports to generals.

This small nucleus of men was part of a broader drive for military education being forced through by the Duke of York. In Flanders, six years earlier, there were simply no British officers qualified for service as staff officers for the Quarter Master General, so the five men chosen for this duty had been foreigners. The principal lecturer at the Royal Military College was General Francis Jarry, a distinguished old Frenchman who had served both his own sovereign and Frederick the Great. This business of organising an army, it will be noted, could only really be learned from a foreigner; Jarry was a savant of some renown in Europe and therefore considered quite a catch by the college’s sponsors. Classes began (in rooms at the Antelope) on 4 May 1799, with the lessons given in French, which soon exposed the poor education of some of the students.

Colonel John Le Marchant, who attributed many of the French successes on the Continent to superior headquarters organisation, was the leading figure in the creation of this first British staff college. The task of launching the RMC was full of petty frustrations, though, and Le Marchant wrote to one friend demanding, ‘How can we be so absurd as to oppose that, neglecting as we do all instruction and the aid of science in our military enterprises, we are to be victorious over troops that possess those advantages in the highest degree of perfection?’

York and those around him at Horse Guards had set the improvement of professional standards in the officer corps as one of their main objectives during his first three years as Commander-in-Chief. Military education was evidently critical. In 1802 the RMC opened a much larger junior division to prepare hundreds of teenagers for commissioning as officers; this was the beginning of Sandhurst. In 1803 the Duke of York’s School was also established, giving a basic education to more than 1,200 boys.

Whatever measures were taken to instruct the officer corps, it was well understood that time would be needed for these new establishments to have an effect. It was also the case that this training, even of captains or majors in staff duties, was reform from the ‘bottom up’ that could not, particularly in 1795, when the Duke took over, solve the problem of there being so few senior officers who knew their business. Similarly, the system of promotion by seniority of the ranks above colonel made it extremely difficult for the Duke to put gifted officers like Moore and Wellesley in command of brigades as quickly as he’d like.

From the outset, therefore, there were attempts to force those in place to do their jobs better. In May 1795, for example, the headquarters at Horse Guards issued a general order to the army demanding that regulations for the manoeuvring of troops ‘be strictly followed and adhered to’, and setting out a weekly training regime to be followed by all regiments. Monday and Friday were allocated for regimental training; on Tuesday and Saturday the regiments had to combine for brigade exercises; and Wednesday was set aside to put ‘the whole line’, what the French at this time were calling a division, through its paces. The aim of this was to encourage regimental, brigade and higher commanders to learn the basics of their craft: to see how long it took to effect certain formation changes on different types of ground; to observe how other regiments behaved; to encourage competition between them; and to understand how larger armies had to be organised in the field.

Each regiment was to be exercised ‘under the personal direction of its own Commanding Officer’, an allusion to their frequent absence and the woeful lack of commitment shown by many lieutenant colonels. The absenteeism noted by the Brunswick officer in Flanders permeated all levels of command. When regiments were posted to India or the Caribbean, where disease carried off so many, it was the norm for many officers to make their excuses and disappear. Often they exploited a loophole whereby a man commissioned or promoted into a regiment serving overseas had up to one year before having to present himself to his commanding officer. The staff at Horse Guards tried to tackle this problem with an angry letter to commanding officers in September 1795, threatening that those who did not report forthwith for embarkation to their regiments serving overseas would be ‘reported to His Majesty and superseded’. The scale of these abuses can be deduced from the fact that the letter was addressed to the colonels of no fewer than thirty-nine regiments.

Threatening officers with ‘supersession’ meant putting them to the back of the promotion queue. This tactic shows how limited the Duke’s options were in trying to force out men who held commissions purely because they were the idle sons of minor gentry owed a favour by someone of influence. Sacking or court-martialling them for dereliction of duty was almost impossible. In this and other matters, many of the Duke’s early orders were only partially successful. The reputation and social standing of the army thus remained low, with one leading admiral even proposing that it could be scrapped and replaced with a larger force of marines.

Other methods were tried to lick the officer corps into shape. The practice of ‘recruiting for rank’, basically a medieval tradition whereby a man who raised enough men for the King could get a captain’s or even a colonel’s commission, was ended. This method put unqualified officers in charge of men who were often too old or crooked (in either sense) for service, the ‘crimping’ referred to by Calvert in his angry letter home from Flanders.

Within more established regiments the Duke tackled another abuse: the buying of commissions to advance a young man to the rank of major or even lieutenant colonel while still in his early twenties. Many of these transactions took place while the ‘officers’ were in their teens and still at school. New rules stipulated that promotion from ensign (or second lieutenant), the first officer rank, through lieutenant to captain required at least two years’ regimental service. Those seeking to become majors had to have been soldiers for at least six years.

Changes to the commissioning and promotion system touched a nerve in British society. An officer’s warrant was one of the most easily defined marks of gentility. Those with money and influence had become used to trading in such papers, buying respectability for their sons. They resented the change. Many openly opposed notions that merit should be the principal measure for promotion in the army.

To Britain’s landed class, the army was part of a bargain. They paid tax and in return they got the vote and something for their family: a decent way for a son to earn a living. This same principle applied to the Navy, Church and magistracy. But by the end of the eighteenth century the army was the biggest source of patronage and enough of its commissioned class were also serving as Members of Parliament to make any radical change fraught with difficulty. Some 65 of the 558 MPs in the Parliament of 1796-1800 were army officers, making them the largest single occupational group.

In the battle for reform, the Duke brought a unique ability, as the King’s favourite son, to steer such socially sensitive change. What higher loyalty could redcoated reactionaries espouse than devotion to the Crown? Sir Walter Scott noted: ‘No rank short of that of the Duke of York — no courage and determination inferior to that of HRH — could have accomplished so great a change in so important a service but which was yet so unfavourable to the wealthy and powerful whose children and proteges had formerly found a brief way to promotion.’ The C-in-C knew that reforming the officer corps was one of his most difficult tasks; it would take many years, and even the early steps made him some implacable enemies.

Prince Frederick, Duke of York — 1763-1827 Part II

Anderson, William; Frederick Augustus (1763-1827), Duke of York, Reviewing Troops in Flanders; National Army Museum;

Frederick Augustus (1763–1827), Duke of York, Reviewing Troops in Flanders

The Napoleonic Wars (and it is fair to call them such from this time, when Bonaparte had become the most powerful figure in the new republic) triggered many forms of social change in Europe, not least nationalism. In Britain, the very real threat of invasion accelerated this trend. The French landed in Ireland in 1798 to back a revolt there (it was eventually crushed with a certain brutal ineptitude). In preparing to meet this challenge in England itself, the government found that a boisterous anti-French patriotism brought people flocking to the colours of volunteer and militia regiments. This rage militaire even turned military encampments into places of fashion and society where the wives of those John Bulls who raised new bands of volunteers also disported themselves in uniform.

While the Duke of York thus tried to take the steps that would produce a regular army capable of fighting on the Continent in the long term, much attention was also given in the late 1790s to giving some sort of military bearing to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers being prepared for home defence. This was an urgent imperative, so whereas many years passed before the Duke appeared in person at the Royal Military College, he took the leading role in inspecting the new bands of citizen soldiers much sooner.

Some 15,000 volunteers were drawn up in Hyde Park for the King’s Birthday Review in June 1799. Their regiments had names like Loyal Hackney and Royal Westminster. The Duke of York rode his charger down their line to ensure everything was in order before George III himself arrived in a carriage at 9 a.m. The guns of the Honourable Artillery Company boomed out a salute as the King’s carriage was driven along the line of regiments that stretched from the Serpentine to Hyde Park Corner. The heady nationalistic atmosphere as he watched them loosing off a volley with their muskets may be gleaned from a report in the Gazette: ‘After the firing, the whole waived their caps in the air and gave three hearty huzzas; which, joined to the sound of military music striking up at the same moment, and the various expressions of joy from the spectators, even the female part of them joining by waving of handkerchiefs, is said to have drawn tears of joy from their gracious sovereign.’

In these events the King and his family performed a service recognisable from the wars of the twentieth century: that of leading national mobilisation. There was a political point in this banging and hallooing by overenthusiastic volunteers, and it was rammed home in the official account, which described the scene as a ‘splendid assemblage of citizen-soldiers, armed in defence of the best of sovereigns and the happiest, most perfect constitution upon earth’. Early jitters about Jacobinism and the future safety of Britain’s royal house had passed.

At the King’s Birthday Review, the Duke of York’s older brother, the Prince of Wales, and two younger ones were also present in military attire. They acted, though, as spectators, unlike the C-in-C who was master of ceremonies. This disparity aroused the worst kind of princely sibling rivalry, which, ultimately, would threaten the Duke of York’s reforms.

George III himself still played an important role in the armed forces, particularly in the promotion of admirals and generals. Frederick, widely regarded as his favourite son, was actually running the army, or at least its administration. He was strengthening the HQ at Horse Guards and its role in promoting regimental officers, making his own office increasingly important as a fount of patronage. The Prince of Wales, meanwhile, held only the rank of colonel. This was little more than a ceremonial bauble and he came to resent the fact that, as heir to the throne, he was of considerably inferior military rank to his younger brother. The Prince seemed to make little allowance for the fact that he was infinitely more interested in sybaritic pleasures than the tedium of the drill square. As for the Duke of Kent, one of York’s younger brothers, he had devoted quite a few years to soldiering, but had proven a poor officer who bridled at tickings off from his superior, the C-in-C. Indeed, over time, Kent’s dislike and envy of his older brother hardened into something quite dark and unpleasant.

These tensions found focus in army matters. They damaged sibling relations and those between the Prince of Wales and the King, who declined point-blank to take seriously his oldest son’s pretensions to promotion. The King’s oldest son resented his father’s refusal to promote him, and as the sovereign became increasingly debilitated by his ‘madness’ their enmity worsened. So, while the Duke of York’s career as C-in-C was generally a great boon to the army, there was a reverse to this particular medal for his growing power complicated the affairs of the royal family. With hindsight, it can be argued that such conflicts were inevitable until British royals, shorn of real authority, assumed a purely symbolic role in national mobilisation (as in the Second World War), but in 1799 there was still much real work for the Duke of York to do.

During the latter part of that year, with the prospect of an expedition to the Netherlands, the Duke sponsored legislation that finally allowed volunteering from reserve forces into the regulars on a substantial scale in return for a cash bounty. The army’s thirst for manpower was immense. Its West Indian campaigns of 1793-6 had cost it 80,000 men dead or rendered unfit by sickness. Attempts to match France’s new conscription laws had failed. Legislation passed in 1796 (the Quota Acts) had been intended to draw men from each county for military service, but Britain simply wasn’t ready for large-scale military service on the French pattern and the new regulations were widely ignored or flouted. By putting forward the 1799 bill, Horse Guards returned to the fray, with the measure allowing more transfers from reserve forces providing a partial solution.

However, since the regular forces still needed huge numbers of volunteers, the C-in-C tried to make service more attractive. One of his first directives stopped the practice of powdering hair. The ritual of scraping the locks back and dusting them (often with flour!) was an irksome routine that had been forced on soldiers for decades as part of some eighteenth-century idea of what constituted a smart appearance. In addition, more practical uniforms were issued, improved barracks built and financial incentives improved, for example by reducing pay stoppages so the men ended up with more in their pockets. Such measures earned the Duke the sobriquet ‘the soldier’s friend’.

The dramatic expansion of the army in order to meet the threat of foreign invasion offered several vital possibilities for the reformers: it allowed incompetent senior officers to be shunted off to the task of home defence; it brought a new generation of men into the more junior commissioned ranks (most paid nothing for their commissions, thus representing a wider band of society, and many volunteers transferred into the regular army, where they formed a bloc striving for advancement); lastly, it created a large pool of trained manpower that allowed Britain to introduce a limited form of conscription — by drafting men from the reserves into regular regiments — that was to prove vital in sustaining an army large enough to fight Napoleon.

On 23 August 1804, the Commander-in-Chief appeared for yet another review, this time atop the cliffs near Hythe in Kent. There were a few superficial similarities with the event in Hyde Park of five years before: many of the 4,000 troops in front of him wore red coats and the Duke was on horseback again, attired in his formal regimentals. But much more was different.

After the initial inspection of troops and the firing of salutes, the brigade arrayed in front of the Duke came to life. They marched in slow time and then with the hurried pace prescribed for the new light infantry. They formed column and line, and all the time the redcoated regiments were protected by a screen of green jackets, riflemen of the 95th. Then the troops were guided through a mock battle, with the sharpshooters seeking concealed positions in hedges, the artillery firing numerous blanks and the infantry of the line showing how they could deliver a devastating volley. ‘The whole of the review was conducted with the greatest order, no mistake occurred,’ as one account trumpeted it.

The Duke had spent that August morning watching Major General John Moore’s brigade being put through its paces, with that zealous officer proudly at its head. This force was undoubtedly the elite of the army in 1804, although one or two other regiments might have disputed that honour. They had undergone a summer of training in a new system of tactics and discipline at Shorncliffe Camp. Moore’s machine had been refined and practised until it functioned very smoothly indeed. Following the brief peace of 1801-3, this new brigade stood guard at one of the likeliest landing points for any French army. Napoleon had anointed himself Emperor and gathered a huge, well-trained invasion army across the Channel at the so-called Camp of Boulogne. Landing boats were being collected in the French harbours, just as they would be in 1940. Britain’s leaders faced the real possibility that the French enemy would overwhelm them.

Moore could justly take the credit for bringing his regiments to this pitch of preparation, but so much else was due to years of patient reform by the Duke. It was York who had ordered regular field training back in 1795. The creation of new light corps — both infantry regiments and the 95th Rifles — was another innovation nurtured by the C-in-C, for he had realised that these fast-moving, hard-hitting formations would form the vanguard of future Continental expeditions. The system of defence for southern England, complete with Martello towers and Moore’s brigade, was another plan that had been overseen by the C-in-C. And, slowly but surely, the quality of both officers and men reaching frontline regiments like Moore’s had been improved. The spectacle of Moore’s brigade in full flow, then, was a powerful and tangible sign of how the Duke’s reforms were bearing fruit. There were some less visible ones, too.

When Britain sent an expedition to Egypt in 1800, three officers from the first class of Royal Military College graduates had comprised part of its headquarters. This tiny but vital reinforcement had greatly helped in the organisation of the army. Improvements in the equipment and training of the soldiers had also been evident when the redcoats defeated the French at the Battle of the Pyramids in 1801. This British Army campaign in Egypt marked, in the view of Baron Jomini, one of Europe’s leading military thinkers, ‘the era of its regeneration’.

Years of military build-up had, by late 1804, created a vast force for the protection of Britain and its empire. When the wars had begun, a dozen years before, the army had about 50,000 troops. By the time of the Shorncliffe Camp, it was ten times that. Much of this vast figure was made up of volunteer civilians, enthusiastic amateurs of questionable military value, but armed and trained nevertheless. There were also the army’s formal reserves — militia and yeomanry — financed by wily Parliamentarians on the condition that the troops were kept for home defence and thus unavailable for overseas expeditions. Of the full-time army, about 100,000 soldiers were needed to defend various imperial outposts, from Canada to India. This left Britain’s political leaders with the ability to deploy an expeditionary army in Europe of anything up to 50,000 well-trained regular troops.

Between 1804 and 1809 there was much debate about how best to play this card in the game to defeat Napoleon. The aim was to find somewhere it might have great effect while at the same time being retained under British command, for it was still small compared to the forces of Continental powers like Russia and Austria. It took years for this conundrum to resolve itself; indeed William Pitt, the leading advocate of an energetic campaign against the French, died before it did. The key point, though, is that the decade of army reforms of the late 1790s and early 1800s secured the country from invasion and gave several prime ministers the option of becoming serious players in the business of Continental warfare.

During this decade, the Duke of York provided constant supervision and guidance. It must be remembered that at this time many a gentleman in trade or even on the army staff considered a working day of four or five hours (often just in the morning) to be an arduous office existence. The C-in-C’s routine at Horse Guards began at 9 a.m. and rarely ended before 6 p.m. It was normal for him to respond to 300 letters in a day. Managing the business of officer careers proved to be a huge part of this workload and he set aside Tuesdays and Fridays (while Parliament was sitting) for interviews with men who felt they had been unfairly treated or merited promotion. He had taken steps to increase the role of commanding officers in assessing who should get a step up in rank and who should not. At the same time, he accepted that some commanding officer’s vendetta or favouritism might prevent a deserving man from rising even under the improved system, so he made himself a one-man court of final appeal, encouraging those who felt hard done by to approach him at royal levees or even as he strode down Whitehall. The Duke’s larger-than-life persona during this time of bustle and activity was later described by William Makepeace Thackeray as: ‘Big, burly, loud, jolly, cursing, courageous; he had a most affectionate and lovable disposition, was noble and generous to a fault, and was never known to break a promise.’

It should come as no surprise that a man of such enormous energy also had outsize appetites. He consumed fine food and wine voraciously, requiring successive alterations to his uniform. The Duke spent virtually without limit, getting through his substantial income and frequently requiring credit. As for his sexual activities, Gillray had been on to something when he had caricatured the Duke a decade earlier. At the time of the Shorncliffe review, he had become besotted with a woman who would in time become a grave danger to him. Mary Anne Clarke had married a stonemason, taking his name, before moving on to live with a stockbroker and then an army agent. Some accounts described her as an actress, although it is fairer to say that she was a bright, attractive woman who perfected the knack of seducing men and living off them. One otherwise sober life of the Duke of York, published in 1827, noted rather bitterly, ‘This prostitute had sufficient charms to attract the notice of a prince.’

For Frederick, stuck in the proverbially loveless royal marriage (to a Prussian princess), Mary Anne proved an excellent match: she was great fun and an exciting lover. So mesmerised was he by her that the Duke installed her in a beautiful house in Gloucester Place and gave her £1,000 a year. For some time, he maintained a routine of spending weekdays at his town house in Piccadilly and going to his country estate near Weybridge, where his wife lived, at weekends. However, such was the Duke’s thirst for Mrs Clarke’s company that he rented her a country house too, conveniently located near his rural abode. History does not record the excuses he gave his wife when popping off for his weekend amusement.

Mrs Clarke was also a person of gargantuan tastes — for dresses, shoes, furnishings and all other emblems of fashion. In time, she ran up huge debts with tradesmen, using the Duke’s name to secure her credit. Their affair lasted something like three years before he ended it and agreed a deal whereby she would keep quiet about their relationship in return for £400 a year. Evidently, though, this was hardly enough to keep Mrs Clarke in the style to which she had become accustomed.

The House of Commons was in a state of nervous excitement on the morning of 27 January 1809. Reports were flying about London of the battle waged twelve days earlier at Corunna in Spain. General Sir John Moore had fought a gallant rear-guard action against the French but had been mortally wounded on the field. Britain had at last found an arena where its army could make a difference, the Iberian peninsula, where Portugal and Spain were trying to fight off French domination. In the Members’ lobby and corridors of the House there was discussion among Moore’s partisans and his foes. Had the Ministry dispatched 33,000 troops to Spain with little prospect of success against the invading French, so dooming a brave general? Or was Moore himself guilty of bungling a chance to give Napoleon a poke in the eye?

Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley, always an acute judge of the political temperature, had weighed whether the latest expedition, ending in the Royal Navy’s rescue of Moore’s army, would rebound to the credit or debit of the government of the day. He concluded that Napoleon had obliged them, for, he wrote, ‘I am convinced they could not have come off with honour if the French had not attacked.’ Corunna could thus be added to a list of recent battles in which the rebuilt British Army had made a very respectable showing of itself.

Wellesley’s presence at Westminster that day was due to the vote of thanks he was due to receive from the Commons. Members wanted to record their gratitude for the victory won by the future Duke of Wellington several months earlier in Portugal. Wellesley’s triumph had been of a less equivocal nature than Moore’s: he had defeated a French army at the Battle of Vimiero and forced them to surrender Portugal. Having tasted this success, the government was determined to maintain a bridgehead in the peninsula. But if Wellesley thought that morning’s business was all going to be plain sailing, a lap of honour for the conquering hero, he would be sorely disappointed.

The excitement stemmed less from Vimiero, which was already several months in the past, or from the contrary opinions about Moore’s ultimate sacrifice, but from the mischief that Colonel Gwylym Lloyd Wardle, MP, was about to make. He had put down a motion one week earlier, so Members had been aware for several days that he was about to launch a spectacular blow against the administration. He was a Radical, part of a loose faction in the Commons that denounced the government and its war policy, and had gained a certain popularity among Britain’s downtrodden citizens by attacking corruption, humbug and improper influence-peddling wherever they claimed to find it.

Wardle stood to speak, knowing the advance rumour had guaranteed the House would hang on his every word. He called for an urgent inquiry into the conduct of the Duke of York as Commander-in-Chief. As he spelled out his charges, and it became clear that the Duke’s various enemies had coalesced against him, it must have been the stuff of York’s nightmares.

Wardle owed his military rank to having recruited a certain number of men, a system since scrapped. His further progress had been checked by the army reforms. Now he stood ready to produce witnesses who would claim that their advancement had been blocked for the wrong reasons. But Wardle’s star turn was to be Mary Anne Clarke, who would tell the spellbound Members that she had run a promotion racket whereby aspiring officers paid her to bring their names to the Duke of York’s attention. In time, a further component of this conspiracy would emerge — clear evidence that Wardle, Clarke and the others had been incited and perhaps bankrolled by none other than the Duke of Kent, who resented his removal from the command of Gibraltar’s garrison in 1803.

Some elements of this politically explosive cocktail had been apparent for some months. When the Duke of York had angled (with no chance of success) for a command in Spain in 1808, for example, a caricature was published showing a ‘Female Junto’ of stylishly dressed ladies pleading with him not to go, saying their concern was for his sake, ‘not for our pensions’. This apparent reference to a string of paid-off mistresses had been sufficiently elliptical to amuse only those in the know. However, a pamphlet, also published in 1808, had drawn together some riotous misbehaviour by cadets at the Royal Military College with the circumstances surrounding the Duke of Kent being dismissed from Gibraltar into a clear ad hominem attack on the C-in-C.

Once charges that the King’s son had kept Mrs Clarke in such lavish style and had been blatantly corrupt were made on the floor of the Commons, they inevitably caused uproar. The Secretary at War leapt up and promised an immediate inquiry, in which the whole House of Commons would sit in judgement; he insisted that the C-in-C would be found innocent. Lieutenant General Wellesley was next on his feet, immediately hazarding his Vimiero laurels in support of the Duke’s good name. This defence gave Wellesley’s direct recognition that fourteen years of patient reform by York had turned the army into something capable of facing the French ‘masters’ of war. But that, of course, was no answer in itself to the charges of influence-peddling.

During the weeks that followed Wardle’s first speech, the Commons heard testimony from a variety of witnesses. As anticipated, Mrs Clarke was indeed the most sensational, providing juicy morsels about the Duke’s private life as well as claims that she used her feminine wiles to get men promoted. Newspapers reported each twist and turn, every coffee house was abuzz with it, and the mob was in a state of febrile excitement, cheering Colonel Wardle whenever he appeared in public.

As the weeks wore on, though, there was a certain relief among ministers, because none of the witnesses (who gave their testimonies without taking any oath) was able to deliver a knockout punch. When it finally came to a division on Wardle’s motion, on 16 March 1809, the charge that the C-in-C had behaved corruptly was defeated by a substantial margin (364 votes against Wardle; 123 for him). Most of the army officers — by this time they had reached an all-time peak of seventy-nine MPs — who were there agreed with Lieutenant General Wellesley’s view rather than Colonel Wardle’s.

This affair was the first modern British scandal in more ways than one. The Ministry was concerned that so many MPs had voted with Wardle. Although the evidence against the Duke never amounted to much — for there was no proof that anyone had gained anything by improper means — he was damaged by it. The appearance of wrongdoing scuppered him. A typically modern phenomenon, the curious consensus among backbenchers, press and mob, ultimately proved more important than the facts of the case. So, a couple of days later, the Duke of York stood down as Commander-in-Chief. Lieutenant General Wellesley, who, by this point, was about to set sail for Portugal with a new expedition, thought the Duke’s treatment completely undeserved. This view was shared among many junior officers, emerging in their letters and journals.

Just a few months after the Duke’s resignation those who had brought it about fell out with one another. Mary Anne Clarke, having failed to receive the money promised by Wardle (on behalf, she said, of the Duke of Kent), retracted her evidence, turning on her co-conspirators. She published her own account of the scandal in which she stated, ‘My acquiantance with Colonel Wardle, and his associates, has convinced me that the garb of patriotic ardour conceals the most destructive passions and principles that can have no end but in self-advancement, power and honours [original emphasis].’ Having emerged as the author of so much humbug, Wardle eventually left England. Two years after stepping down, a vindicated Duke of York was restored to his post of Commander-in-Chief, which he held for sixteen more years.

Although his latter period at Horse Guards also saw valuable reform, much of it directed at improving the ordinary soldier’s lot, few remember the Duke for much more than the nursery rhyme. There are one or two other legacies, too. A handsome statue of him looks out across the Mall to Horse Guards. Less obviously, the number of ‘Duke of York’ pubs is a mark of soldierly affection for him, dating back to an era when retired redcoats often became publicans. It is interesting to note, by this crude standard of military respect, that there are more Duke of York pubs than there are boozers named after Wellington.

Certainly, the British Army before him was not rubbish. Also, it can be proven that the many reforms and directives spewed out by Horse Guards from 1795 to 1809 were the work of a team. But all of the Duke’s staff would have been powerless without the patronage of an engaged leader who brought to the bureaucratic battle the hitting power of being ‘Field Marshal’ and ‘HRH’.

The class envy and latent republicanism of many Britons fed the scandal that brought him down in 1809 and later starved him of the historical reputation he deserved. Plenty of people still have trouble conceding that any member of royalty can achieve anything of substance, but the Duke was an indispensable figure at a pivotal time in history. For at the same moment that it became unacceptable for him, as a royal prince, to command an army in the field, it required a man of this pedigree to overhaul the institution of the British Army. There would be many subsequent moments, such as after the Crimean War, when the army would have benefited enormously from a similarly committed royal patron but lacked one.

One of the best eulogies to the Duke’s reforms was made in the House of Commons in January 1809 by Arthur Wellesley, just as the Clarke scandal broke:

I can say from my own knowledge, as having been a lieutenant colonel in the army when HRH was appointed to command it, that it is materially improved in every respect; that the discipline of the soldiers is improved; that under the establishments formed under the direction of HRH, the officers are improved in knowledge; that the staff of the army is much better than it was; and much more complete than it was; that the cavalry is improved . . . and everything that relates to the military discipline of the soldiers and the military efficiency of the army has been greatly improved since HRH was appointed Commander-in-Chief.

As for the Duke of York’s success in mastering the arcane ways of Whitehall in order to overwhelm politicians and get what he wanted for the army, the best estimate came from Lord Palmerston. ‘A strong man; son of one king and brother of another,’ the minister who had dealt with York on many matters said, ‘heir presumptive, a political leader . . . he was always at the head of the army (except during a short interval) and took advantage of every opportunity to push on his encroachments.’

The situation on the eve of the Peninsular wars was well described by William Napier, an army officer who would fight in that conflict and write the first great history of it. Public opinion knew little of the Duke of York’s great work to redress the organisation’s failings which had been exposed in the Low Countries during the 1790s. Ironically, the prince found himself considered to be part of the problem rather than its solution. As Napier wrote:

England, both at home and abroad, was in 1808, scorned as a military power . . . An ignorant contempt for the British soldiery had been long entertained, before the ill success of the expeditions in 1794 and 1799 appeared to justify the general prejudice, and the excellent discipline afterwards introduced and perfected by the Duke of York was despised.

These words succinctly sum up attitudes that were expressed in countless coffee houses, parliamentary debates or cruel caricatures during the early 1800s. Yet, as York resigned his office, public perception lagged behind reality: the organisation stood on the threshold of legendary victories.

There are many reasons why the Duke deserves a reputation as the greatest reformer in the history of the British Army. His success was to have an effect on everything from the survival of the British political system in the face of the French threat to the shaping of Europe after it had passed. He forged a shield to defend Britain against invasion, and then a sword that would be used to strike back at Napoleon. Ultimately, though, it was not the Duke of York but Wellington who would have the opportunity to plunge that weapon into the enemy.


In the early years of the nineteenth century, wealthy shipowner Laskarina Bouboulina (1771–1825) commanded a fleet in the War of Greek Independence against the Ottoman Empire.

Bouboulina was the daughter of a Greek ship’s captain from the island of Hydra, Stavrianos Pinotsis, and his wife, Skevo. Stavrianos was imprisoned for his participation in a failed rebellion against the Ottomans in 1769–1770. Bouboulina was born in the prison in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) where he was held. Her father died soon after. It is not unreasonable to assume she grew up with a grudge against the Ottomans.

After her husband’s death, Skevo took her infant daughter home to Hydra. Four years later, she married again. Her new husband was also a sea captain, this time from the island of Spetses. According to some accounts, Bouboulina’s stepfather encouraged her interest in ships and the family business—both the interest and the encouragement were unusual for the time and place.

Like her mother, Bouboulina married twice: the first time at the age of seventeen to Dimitrios Yiannouzas and again at the age of thirty to Dimitrios Bouboulis. Both her husbands were Spetsiot sea captains. Both died in sea battles with the Algerian pirates who often raided the coasts of Greece.

The death of her second husband in 1811 left Bouboulina a wealthy widow with six children. Many women in her position would have relied on a male relative to manage their fortune. Bouboulina took over management of both of her husbands’ mercantile shipping businesses. She proved to be a successful businesswoman.

In 1816, Ottoman officials gave Bouboulina a new reason to dislike the Turkish government: it tried to seize her fortune on the grounds that her second husband had fought on the Russian side in the Turco-Russian wars. She retained her fortune, reputedly helped by the sultan’s mother, who convinced her son to intervene on Bouboulina’s behalf.

Bouboulina was not the only Greek to resent Turkish rule in the early nineteenth century. Greeks had been part of the Ottoman Empire for roughly four hundred years. For much of that time, they had enjoyed a privileged position. Educated Greeks dominated the Ottoman administration and Greek merchants held a near monopoly on trade in the Turkish Mediterranean. Privilege is not the same thing as independence, however. In the late eighteenth century, vague discontent turned into Greek nationalism thanks to two international movements. Romantic Hellenism created an interest in ancient Greek mythology and literature throughout Europe, bringing with it a renewed sense of ancient Greece as the birthplace of democracy. At the same time, the revolutionary ideals of the American and French revolutions led nationalist groups across Europe to dream of new states based on shared languages and culture rather than imperial provinces shaped by the political maneuvering of the great imperial powers.

In 1816, members of the Greek merchant diaspora in Odessa founded a secret society dedicated to liberating Greece from Ottoman rule, the Filiki Eteria. By the early 1820s, hundreds of wealthy and educated Greeks belonged to the society—intellectuals, shipowners and sea captains, members of the clergy, landowners, and merchants. Bouboulina purportedly became the only female member of the Filiki Eteria, though her name does not appear among the 1,093 names on the surviving membership lists. Whether she was an official member of the organization, or an unofficial one-woman ladies’ auxiliary, she devoted her fleet and her fortune to the independence movement.

Buying arms and ammunition in foreign ports and smuggling them into Spetses in her ships was risky enough, but Bouboulina also commissioned a Spetses shipyard to build a warship, the Agamemnon§—an in-your-face act of rebellion that brought Bouboulina to the attention of Ottoman officials once again. The Ottomans imposed strict limits on how large Greek-owned ships could be and the size and number of armaments they could carry. The Agamemnon did not meet those standards. The Ottomans accused Bouboulina of secretly building a warship—as in fact she was. She bribed the officials and completed the construction of the ship without incident. At 108 feet long, with eighteen heavy cannons, the Agamemnon was the first and largest ship in the Greek fleet.

The War of Greek Independence began on March 25, 1821, with an unsuccessful raid into Moldavia by a band of Greek expatriates led by Alexander Ypsilantis, the head of Filiki Eteria. Two weeks later, the region known as the Peloponnesus, including the island of Spetses, rose in revolt.

Fifty-year-old Bouboulina paid for and commanded four ships in addition to the Agamemnon, and a small private army of Spetsiots. Her ships were captained by her sons and half-brothers, several of whom died over the course of the rebellion. She called her troops her “brave lads”; they named her Kapetanisa (Lady Captain).

Soon after the war broke out, Bouboulina blockaded the port at Nafplion, a key Ottoman stronghold. Nafplion was guarded by three fortresses and armed with three hundred cannons. “Everyone” considered the fort to be impregnable. Bouboulina proved everyone wrong. Nineteenth-century Greek historian Anargyros Hatzi-Anargyrou wrote an eyewitness account of her assault on Nafplion:

On December 4, 1821, as I remember, on board her own vessel, she alone gave orders for the boats to attack the fort. They immediately sail forward but a rain of bullets and cannon fire from the seaside fortifications make her brave lads fall back for a moment. Like an angry Amazon, watching the battle over the side of her boat, she then shouts—Are you women then and not men? Forward! Her officers obey, regroup and attack—they fight but die in vain, since the fort was impregnable by sea. For this reason, she herself lands with her forces and stays until the fall of the fort on 30th November 1822, leading her men in battle, spending her fortune.”

In the following years, Bouboulina participated in other military engagements against the Ottomans. Her most famous action occurred in September 1821, after the Turkish position at Tripolis fell to besieging Greek forces. The fall of the city was followed by three days of massacre and looting that left thirty thousand dead. Bouboulina led her sailors into the town, where, at the risk of her own life, she defended the women and children who lived in the harem of the city’s ruler—reportedly because of the promise she had made to the sultan’s mother.

At the end of 1824, while war with the Ottomans continued, civil war broke out between opposing factions of rebels over leadership of the new Greek state. Connected by marriage to one of the rival leaders, Bouboulina was deemed a dangerous opponent to the Greek government and arrested twice. Finally, she was exiled to Spetses.

She remained in Spetses until her death on May 22, 1825, five years before the formation of an independent Greek state recognized by the European powers. Instead of dying in the battle for Greek freedom, she was killed by a stray bullet fired in a vendetta with another Spetsiot family. She was impoverished at her death, having lost her sons, her ships, and her considerable fortune in pursuit of Greek independence.

Greece gave her the honorary title of admiral after her death. (And yes, her image appeared on a Greek postage stamp in 1930, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Greek independence.)


When we think of Katherine of Aragon, we tend to think of her as Henry VIII’s aggrieved first wife—worn out by miscarriages, humiliated by false pregnancies, and abandoned for a newer model because she was unable to satisfy Henry’s obsession for a male heir. The battles we associate with her name are legal battles.

But in fact, in an earlier, happier time, Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England (and Queen Isabella of Castile’s youngest daughter), successfully defended her adopted country against invasion by Scotland. The only reason she didn’t lead an army onto the field was bad timing.

In June 1513, Henry VIII prepared to go to war against Louis XII of France alongside the pope and the Emperor Maximilian. In anticipation of his absence while on the continent, Henry named Katherine Regent and Governess of England, Wales, and Ireland. Her powers as regent included the authority “to fight and wage war against any of our enemies in our absence.” She had the authority to assemble an army and “arm and equip them for war and to station, prepare and lead them” (emphasis mine).

Katherine’s regency was not a polite fiction. Government documents carried the official imprimatur “teste Katerina Anglie Regina” (witnessed by Katherine, Queen of England). Signing herself “Katherine the Qween”


, she ruled on appeals to pardon felons and signed warrants for payment of government expenses. She appointed minor officials. She settled questions related to the estate of the Countess of Somerset and a long-running dispute over ecclesiastical jurisdiction between the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Winchester. And when Henry’s brother-in-law, James IV of Scotland, mustered troops across the border in Scotland, Katherine enthusiastically organized England’s defense.

Writing to Thomas Wolsey, who was responsible for many details of the expedition to France, Katherine described herself as “horribly busy making standards, banners and badges”—a description that hid the full range of her preparations for war behind a ladylike camouflage of needlework. Her mother had organized the Spanish war against Granada. Now Katherine proved herself to be her mother’s daughter. She summoned able-bodied men to fight in England’s defense. When the mayor and sheriffs of Gloucester ignored her letters asking how many men and horses they could supply, she followed up with a sharply worded order to answer within fifteen days. (They did.) She sent a fleet of eight ships with troops, heavy artillery, and gunners toward the Scottish border to reinforce the army, which was under the command of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. She levied stores of grain, beer, and rope; suits of light armor; and the then enormous sum of ten thousand pounds, to be held by the abbot of St. Mary, near York, in case of need.

On August 22, James invaded England with thirty thousand men, backed by modern French artillery and financed by the French crown. He captured four English castles in quick succession and then settled into a fortified camp at Flodden Field.

Howard had been in the north since early August. Now he mustered his forces at Newcastle.

Concerned that James might defeat Howard, Katherine raised a second army from the Midland counties, then a third, which she intended to lead herself—as a strategist if not as a field commander.

On September 9, she moved out with what contemporaries described as “a great power” or a “numerous force.” She carried with her two helmets, at least one of them decorated with “crown gold” by the royal goldsmith. She never had a chance to wear them.

That same day, the Earl of Surrey defeated James IV at Flodden Field. King James was killed in the battle.


The battle which ensued actually took place on the slopes of Branxton Hill and contemporaries often referred to it by that name. Over the centuries, it became known by the name of James IV’s first encampment at Flodden. Today it is peaceful farmland, in a remote and beautiful corner of England, about four miles from the town of Coldstream and an hour and a half’s drive from Edinburgh. It has been claimed that the battlefield is one of the best preserved of its period in Europe. The position of the various English and Scottish divisions, or ‘battles’, as each individual unit was then known, are clearly shown on markers that explain the course of the fighting. On a clear day it seems a tranquil spot, with little trace of the terrible events that took place there five hundred years ago.

But on the afternoon of 9 September 1513 the weather was atrocious, as it had been for weeks, and the hillside was blanketed in low, swirling cloud and smoke from the fires set when the Scots had abandoned their first camp, all blown about by a blustery wind as the rain continued to fall. Atop Branxton Ridge was the entire Scottish army, having swiftly moved the mile and a half from Flodden Hill to meet Surrey’s threat. Though the ground was not of James IV’s original choosing, his larger numbers and commanding position should have given him the advantage. His guns had been hurriedly dragged over the wet ground and now stood ready to fire at his command. The Scots were compelled to react quickly to Surrey’s bold seizing of the initiative but they did not lack confidence as they peered downhill at the smaller English force.

At the Scottish army’s centre, commanding the largest division, was the king himself. There would be no place in the rearguard for James Stewart. The counsel of some of his commanders that, for the sake of his kingdom, he should stay back until the course of the fighting became clear, was angrily dismissed. James believed that he must be visible to his soldiers and he may have had some concerns about the reliability of the Highland and Border troops. There had been a significant number of desertions after the fall of Norham Castle. His presence would unite and, he hoped, inspire the entire Scottish force. More fundamentally, his character and the principles by which he had always lived, the very fabric of his belief in kingship, would not allow him to skulk in the rear. He believed that his honour would be forever diminished if he did not enter the combat with his troops. Surrey had read him well.

James and his commanders drew up their troops in a diamond formation, ‘four up and one in reserve, with each of the forward units just a bowshot distance from its neighbour’. On the left were ten thousand men commanded by Lord Hume and the earl of Huntly, a combined force of Highlanders and Borderers, with the latter more numerous. In the left centre three earls, Errol, Crawford and Montrose, commanded seven thousand men from central Scotland and the Lowlands. The main ‘battle’, fifteen thousand strong, was to their right and led by James IV himself, with the royal household troops at their core, fighting under the banners of St Andrew and St Margaret. To the king’s right were five thousand men commanded by Argyll and Lennox, Highlanders and their chieftains, and a small group of Frenchmen. In reserve, and originally on the extreme right but eventually moved behind the king, were five thousand men from the Lowlands and Borders led by the earl of Bothwell. It was as impressive an array of unity behind their sovereign as Scotland would ever see.

The battle began in the mid-afternoon with a great volley of fire from James IV’s artillery aimed at the English army below. The Scottish king hoped to inflict severe casualties in the heart of the opposing force and, essentially, to pound it into a state of such weakness that it would be overwhelmed by his superior numbers in any subsequent hand-to-hand fighting. The admiral, Surrey’s son, who had arrived at the foot of Branxton Ridge before his father and the rest of the English forces, took his men back down to the other side of the small intervening ridge and desperately called for his father’s aid. The sound of the guns and the glimpses of the Scottish army, tightly drawn up in pike formations, convinced him that he would be wiped out if the rest of the English did not arrive swiftly.

Yet King James’s beloved cannons faced difficulty from the outset. They had been hurriedly positioned on soft ground and were firing downhill, making it difficult to gauge the range that they needed to inflict real damage on the English. Most of the shot flew over the heads of Howard’s men. And the Scottish gunners, under their master gunner, Robert Borthwick, were inexperienced. It has been suggested that James did not order the use of sighting rounds at this point because he did not want to reveal his position but the guns were, in any case, unstable and their position could not be quickly changed. When Surrey and his younger son, Lord Edmund Howard, arrived with Dacre’s men to back up the admiral, it became clear that they would have to combine their formations in a manner that could match the Scots. This they achieved impressively. The admiral retained the largest group of English soldiers in the vanguard, a total of about fourteen thousand men, his brother to his right and Sir Marmaduke Constable to his left. The rearguard, probably somewhat under twelve thousand men, was commanded by Surrey himself, with Lord Dacre’s cavalry behind him, ready to move as needed. Yet to appear was the Lancashire magnate, Sir Edward Stanley, whose detachment was still struggling to reach Branxton.

The English had smaller guns but their lighter ordnance was far more easily moved and their gunners were quick and accurate. They also had the advantage of firing uphill. Soon they began to inflict considerable casualties on the Scottish gunners and some of the men in the centre, under James IV’s direct command. Surrey, meanwhile, had moved the English army forward. They stopped in a marshy area at the foot of the main climb up to Branxton Ridge, where a small stream ran. The line where they halted can be plainly seen today and the ground is still damp, even in dry weather. In 1513, it became the site of a terrible slaughter.

James IV now decided that he must commit the Scottish host to the fight. The English guns were making a mockery of his state-of-the-art technology and his losses were mounting. He would defeat the English with his pike formations and their French captains and he himself would take the field. Although it may seem obvious with hindsight that he could merely have refused to give battle, or at least ensured that he personally had a safe route back into Scotland if things went awry, the character of James Stewart meant that such considerations would never have entered his head. It would be a memorable contest, the greatest test of his generalship and a timely demonstration to the rest of the world that he had mastered the latest arts of warfare. Above all, it was to be a vindication of his very personal style of kingship, an inspiring example to be recounted and admired through the long winter nights. He was forty years old and the grey was beginning to show in his reddish hair. This was his supreme moment. And so, at about five o’clock, he gave the order to advance.

On that gloomy and cold autumn afternoon, the English army at the foot of Branxton Ridge saw a fearsome sight. The Scots were moving down the hill towards them, in complete silence, as they had been trained by their king’s French advisers. There were no battle cries, no Gaelic screams or imprecations. Clutching their fifteen-foot-long pikes, the Scots, many of whom were barefooted in order to get a better grip on the slippery slopes, moved remorselessly towards their foe. None would have anticipated what transpired over the next couple of hours.

First of the Scottish divisions to move was the vanguard commanded by Hume and Huntly. Engaging Edmund Howard’s forces, the weakest in the English formation, it met with immediate success as many of the younger Howard’s men took flight and his standard bearer was cut down by the Highlanders. Eventually, he was rescued by the bastard John Heron but by that time his part in the fighting was effectively over. Determined to press home his advantage, James IV now committed his second division to commence their descent; he intended to follow them closely. He did not know that Hume, who had been harried by Dacre’s Border cavalry, was about to retire to the top of Branxton Ridge and would take no further part in the fighting. Whether or not an agreement had been reached among the Borderers on both sides to hold back from further combat, the truth is that when the king needed Hume’s help, it was not forthcoming. Without it, the king and his troops faced a much more difficult task. Nor was it yet apparent that the second division, trapped by a small stream at the foot of the main hill and the slight rise behind it, were about to be cut to pieces by Englishmen wielding a weapon far deadlier than a pike in hand-to-hand fighting: the shorter agricultural hedging implement known as the brown bill, or halberd. For it was on these two factors – the uneven, boggy ground and the deadly use of a weapon that the Scottish had underestimated – that the outcome of the battle of Flodden was to hinge.

Even at this point, there were those among the king’s advisers who implored him not to risk himself. They pointed out that if he entered the fray he would not be able to command effectively but this very salient point was not what James IV wanted to hear. For him, there was now no going back. Yet even as he moved off it must have been apparent that things were not going according to plan for Errol, Crawford and Montrose, though the full extent of the disaster being wrought on the second Scottish division was not yet apparent. Hemmed in and unable to use their pikes, the men fought heroically but all three earls and hundreds of their followers were cut down by the English.

James’s huge ‘battle’ advanced down the slopes of Branxton Ridge, crossed the stream and mounted the small hill beyond. It was a stirring and colourful spectacle, even on a day without a hint of sunlight. The king himself, under his red and gold royal banner, was clad in full armour, over which he wore a gold and scarlet surcoat decorated with the royal arms of Scotland. His household knights and nobles who fought with him that day were richly dressed and armoured, too, partly for show but also to protect them from English arrows. But at Flodden this much feared weapon, the staple of English armies for centuries, inflicted far less damage than the continued volleys of shot and the viciously wielded bill. Soon there were many dead in the king’s division but it continued forward without breaking, intent on making a conclusive breakthrough of Surrey’s lines. But the English fell back at key moments of the Scottish advance, regrouping and luring their opponents ever onwards into tighter and tighter combat, cutting them down remorselessly. This brutal fighting continued for upwards of two hours, as the Scots tried unsuccessfully to counter with their swords and James, caught in the thick of the encounter, could neither summon his reserve under Bothwell nor compel the Highlanders, watching from the top of the ridge, to come to his aid.

In the end, Bothwell moved first, probably without orders, since James was not in a position to issue any. His intervention made matters worse, since he attacked Surrey’s rear with five thousand men and inadvertently put pressure on the Scots engaged in close-quarters combat ahead of him. The Highlanders, perhaps riven by internal disputes about the best course of action and dissuaded at first by one of James IV’s French commanders from charging down the hill to his aid, eventually realized that they must commit in order to save the day for Scotland. But they were prevented from doing this by the belated arrival of Sir Edward Stanley and his troops. Mounting the hill, Stanley’s men loosed their arrows in great numbers at the Highlanders, shooting most of them in the back. Lacking the protective clothing of the royal division, the Highlanders were mowed down before they could come to James’s assistance.

Without hope of rescue, James and his men fought on with great bravery. Eventually, their bulky armour and ineffective weapons told against them. As his losses mounted, the king probably realized that he could not win. But he would not surrender. He would not allow himself to be taken prisoner, to sit in London at the king of England’s pleasure, or even to try to flee. How could he return to Scotland after such a defeat? In one last desperate effort, he gathered his household troops and made for Surrey’s banners, apparently hoping that if he could kill the earl, the English might yet concede. But the carnage intensified and, as his own banner-bearer was killed beside him, he knew what he must do. Thrusting himself forward into the midst of his enemies, he made his final charge. In the press of men and weapons he must have realized that he had only moments to live. His armour could not save him now. Pierced below the jaw by an arrow, his throat gashed by the unforgiving English bill, he fell dying, choking on his own gore. He had got to within a spear’s length of Surrey. And as the blood of the last king of medieval Scotland seeped into the muddy earth of Northumberland, his magnificent guns stood deserted on the hill above, the mute witnesses of his destruction.


Katherine was in Buckingham, forty miles north of London, when she received the news, along with a portion of the Scottish king’s surcoat, decorated with Scotland’s royal arms. She sent the surcoat to Henry in France.

Traditional military histories of the battle take little notice of Katherine’s role as regent and quartermaster and do not refer to her intention to lead her troops into the field. At most, they mention that she sent James IV’s bloodied surcoat on to Henry in France as what one author condescendingly dubs “a handy souvenir.”

Her contemporaries were more generous. They acknowledged that she had played a key role in the war and pointed out that Katherine’s defense of the home front was more important than anything Henry accomplished in his military adventures in France. Isabella must have been proud.