The Escape of Flying Officer Tom Wingham, RAF

Tom Wingham, together with the other members of the crew of their Halifax II bomber, belonging to No. 102 (Ceylon) squadron, had just returned from a bombing trip to Germany, when they were told to report to Boscombe Down to test the latest Halifax bomber – the Halifax III prototype. They still had three more trips to do before they completed their tour but they had been selected for this job because they were the most experienced crew in the group. This was a welcome relief to the crew as the losses within the squadron were mounting with each mission and the odds of survival were quickly diminishing.

The development tests were scheduled to last for about five weeks but problems with the aircraft resulted in the five weeks turning into five months. On their return to their home base of Pocklington in Yorkshire, they discovered that they had been ‘screened’, which meant that the three trips needed to complete their tour had been deemed to be done. The crew was then split up and Tom Wingham chose to go to RAF Rufforth, just outside York, as a bombing instructor with the Heavy Conversion Unit.

By March 1944, Tom Wingham was becoming restless and although his job as an instructor was important, he wanted to get back into the war. His opportunity came when a drinking companion, Fgt-Off Jim Lewis, a navigator who was part of a crew that was being reformed, asked him if he was interested in joining them. Tom Wingham jumped at the chance and together with two gunners, WO John Rowe and F/Sgt Harry Poole, both instructors from RAF Driffield, they made up the crew. The rest of the crew consisted of pilot Sqn Ldr Stan Somerscales and wireless operator Fgt-Off Jack Reavill.

On the 20 April 1944, the crew took over a brand-new Halifax that had been delivered just two days previously by an ATA pilot. She maintained that it was one of the best Halifax bombers she had ever flown. The crew took it on an air test to ensure everything worked as it should and declared it fit for operations. On 21 April the crew carried out two raids on railway yards in France and Belgium and then was stood down for another crew to take the bomber on a raid to Dusseldorf. The second crew was led by the CO of No.76 Squadron, Hank Iverson, but Group HQ ordered him and his crew to stand down as they had completed their quota of trips for that month. Stan Somerscales and his crew were taken off ‘stand down’ and given the green light to take part in the raid.

At 10.36 p.m. on 22 April the big Halifax bomber once again lifted off the runway at Home-on-Spalding Moor (Yorkshire), together with other bombers, and headed south towards northern France. As they passed over Liége Tom Wingham settled himself down in the prone position to carry out checks on his bombsight. Minutes later there was a muffled thud and the aircraft shook slightly. Over the intercom came shouts of, ‘What was that?’ Then F/Sgt Harry Poole in the mid-upper gun turret shouted, ‘The wing’s on fire!’ They discovered some time later that they had been attacked by a Me. 110 nightfighter flown by Fähnrich Rudolph Frank, one of the Luftwaffe’s top night-fighter aces with forty-five victories to his credit, using an upward-firing cannon called a Schräge Musik.

Within seconds Stan Somserscale ordered the crew to bale out as he knew there was no way of saving the aircraft. Tom Wingham immediately jettisoned the bomb load to make it easier for the pilot to maintain control and then clipping on his parachute, moved his seat from over the escape hatch. Being a new aircraft the hatch was extremely tight and it took the combined efforts of himself and Jim Lewis to force it open. All the time the flames were creeping along the wing and into the fuselage. As he watched Jim Lewis drop out, Tom looked back along the fuselage, which by now was enveloped in smoke and flames, and saw Jack Reavill about to leave by one on the other hatches. Sitting on the edge of the hatch, Tom dropped out and as he pulled the ripcord of his parachute he saw the burning aircraft plunging towards the ground. He discovered later that the aircraft crashed between Maastricht and Aachen.

Tom Wingham remembered nothing after pulling the ripcord until he came to in the middle of a field. He lay there for a while trying to collect his thoughts, and then his back and legs started to become extremely painful as he struggled to his feet. Hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes whilst unconscious hadn’t helped his situation. He glanced down at his watch and was aware that he was having great difficulty in focusing. His jaw was also very swollen and tender. He realised later that he was suffering from concussion probably brought about by the heavy metal parachute clips hitting him on either side of the jaw as his parachute opened. Gathering up his parachute and harness, he rolled it into as tight a bundle as possible then struggled across the field and hid it under the hedgerow.

Looking up at the stars Tom managed to fix a position and headed in a south-westerly direction. Reaching a small river he waded across then decided to settle down for the night. In the morning the sun spread a warm feeling through his aching and bruised body but his vision was still out of focus which was causing him some concern. He decided that it would be safer to travel at night and so rested beside the river until dusk. With the gathering darkness he started off, not knowing where he was headed for or indeed what country he was in. He had in fact crossed the Dutch–Belgian border during the night and was now in Belgium. The walking had helped ease the pains in his back and legs. Stumbling on through the darkness he came upon a village and although he could hear voices he could not identify their nationality, so decided to skirt the village and continue in a south-westerly direction.

His vision was still giving him cause for worry and the only way he could work out his course was to lie flat on his back, identify the North Star and line up his body to the south-west. This of course was conditional on clear nights, but on the second day he was caught out in the open during a violent thunderstorm and within minutes was soaked through to the skin in a torrential downpour. In addition to this he could hear the sound of engines as bombers flew overhead on their way to targets in Germany. Then suddenly he heard the sound of gunfire and minutes later saw a burning Lancaster bomber hit the ground and explode just a mile or two from where he was standing.

Tom realised that he was in dire need of help and decided to trudge back to the village he had skirted earlier and make his way to the church. He found the church deserted so decided to wait in the undergrowth until the dawn came. Then he saw movement and watched as a woman emerged from a cottage. She opened a pen full of sheep and proceeded to drive them towards a field close to where Tom was hiding. Taking a chance, he stepped out and explained to the woman in a mixture of gestures and sign language that he was the member of an RAF bomber crew that had been shot down and had parachuted into a field. The communication proved to be difficult but then the realisation of what he was trying to say became apparent to the woman and she quickly ushered him into the cottage.

On entering the cottage he was confronted by three men – the woman’s husband and their two sons. After managing to explain to them that he was a downed RAF airman they helped him take off his wet clothes. Meanwhile one of the sons had disappeared and had gone across the street to another cottage where he knew there was a Dutch policeman, Herman Ankoné, who had been visiting some friends in the village. Unwittingly, the woman Tom had approached for help was known locally as the worst gossip in the area and so the policeman, knowing this, was wary of offering his help. However, they had approached him and by doing so had compromised themselves, so he decided to check Tom out in case he had been a German ‘plant’.

Entering the cottage, the policeman barked out a number of commands in German and getting no response from Tom, proceeded to verify that he was who he said he was. Tom was initially shaken but after realising that the man was not German but in fact Dutch, he relaxed. Again the language barrier was causing problems, so the policeman indicated using sign language and pencil and paper that an English-speaking policeman would come later that evening.

At 9 a.m. a tall policeman in uniform entered the cottage and began to interrogate Tom until he was satisfied that Tom was indeed an RAF airman. Introducing himself as Sgt Vermullen, the policeman told Tom that he and all the other officers in the district just over the border were members of the local Dutch Resistance.

After being given fresh clothes and a meal, Tom was taken to another house in the village where he was instructed to wait until he was collected by other police officers that evening. Promptly at 6 p.m., three Dutch police officers, including Sgt Vermullen and officer Ankoné, arrived to take him over the border into Holland. He was taken to a farmhouse close to the border and introduced to Richard Linckens and his wife Cisca. The couple were members of the Resistance who helped escaping and evading allied airmen and had aided more than forty since the beginning of the war. In order to allay any suspicions from the German border guards, the couple maintained a very friendly relationship with them and on numerous occasions entertained the guards in one room, whilst in another room allied airmen were enjoying a meal. During the two days Tom Wingham stayed there he remembers having supper with Cisca, whilst her husband was having coffee in the next room with some of the German border guards!

On the evening of the second day, the three Dutch policemen arrived to escort him to another safe house in a village called Slenaken. On the way the group ran into a patrol of German border guards and Tom had to jump out of the vehicle and hide in an orchard until they had passed. The group resumed their journey and for the next three days and nights Tom Wingham stayed at the home of Sgt Vermullen in the company of his wife and three children.

Again this aid and hospitality was extended willingly despite the risk that families might pay for it with their lives if they were discovered. Then after the third day, a guide turned up to take him to another safe house. After saying farewell and thanking his hosts, Tom Wingham and the guide set off on a two-hour trek through pitch-black woodland to an isolated farmhouse over the border in Belgium. The farmer and his wife welcomed him but were nervous about him being there. They emphasised the point to the guide that it could only be for one night. The next morning he was told that another guide would come to collect him after lunch but lunchtime came and went, with the farmer and his wife becoming increasingly agitated. Then a message came to say that it would be the following day before he could be collected. Despite Tom feeling a sense of embarrassment at being foisted on the couple, he had no choice but to stay put until the following day.

Just after lunch the following day, the farmer gave Tom an old bicycle and he was taken to a lane some distance from the farm. There he was told to wait until his guide arrived to take him to his next point of contact. After about thirty minutes a woman and a young girl, Madame Coomans and her daughter Mady, suddenly appeared on bicycles and stopped beside him. Once again there was a problem with language but Madam Coomans, the mother, spoke a few words of English and managed to explain to Tom what was going to happen. The mother and daughter would cycle in front with at least a 50yd gap between each of the bikes. In the event of the mother being stopped by a German patrol, the daughter would turn around and cycle back towards Tom. He in turn would turn around and take the next turning off the road. The daughter Mady would catch up and overtake him and then lead him on to safety.

Still suffering from concussion, Tom set off behind the two women, all the time having great difficulty in focussing. Fortunately everything went smoothly and just before dark they reached the small town of Wandre. They parked their bicycles at the rear of the home of the parish priest, before entering the Manse. Here they were warmly welcomed and the priest’s housekeeper provided them with a hot meal. The priest, who spoke good English, explained to Tom what was going to happen next. He was to go and stay the night at the home of Mme Coomans and the next day he was to travel with a guide to Brussels to join up with a group of evaders who were going down the escape line to Spain.

The following morning he was woken to be told that he was too late to join the others in Brussels. Due to a directive from London to the escape line organisers to suspend all movement of airmen, he was to stay with the Coomans. This created a major problem, because Mme Coomans’ husband had no knowledge of his wife’s Resistance activities. Nevertheless, Tom Wingham moved into the small house and lived there for the next seven weeks without Monsieur Coomans’ knowledge as he went to work as a miner blissfully unaware of who was living in the spare room upstairs.

Madame Coomans’ husband worked a regular 2-10 p.m. shift, so she set out her husband’s timetable for Tom Wingham:

8 a.m. – Got up and had breakfast.

10 a.m. – Went to local estaminet (bar) to play cards with friends.

12.30 p.m. – Returned home for dinner.

1.25 p.m. – Departed for work at the mine.

10.20 p.m. – Returned from work.

11 p.m. – Went to bed.

In between all these times Tom Wingam was allowed out of his room, but never allowed to leave the house – not even to use the outside toilet. The stairs from downstairs led directly into the first bedroom, there was no landing, whilst the door to the second bedroom was at the foot of the bed in the main bedroom.

During the day, visitors, in the shape of the local priest, a member of the escape committee from Liége and sometimes the paymaster for the Resistance, would occasionally visit to see if he needed anything and to pay Mme Coomans for Tom Wingham’s food. Tom was constantly concerned about what would happen if M Coomans ever found out that he was in the house. He was told that he would probably just tell him to leave, as he was neither for nor against the Germans and equally he was neither for nor against the English.

As the days turned into weeks the arrival of June heralded the beginning of summer and Tom longed to be able to walk in the warm sunshine. Then on 6 June news came through of the D-Day landings and the retreat of the German army. Two weeks later Tom Wingham’s world almost collapsed around him when he heard a sudden screeching of tyres and the slamming of car doors outside the house. There came a hammering on the doors and shouts in German for the doors to be opened. He had been betrayed to the Gestapo.

Tom had been listening to the BBC on the radio at the time, so switching it off and changing the dial settings, he raced upstairs with the intention of escaping through a window at the back of the house and into the woods. As he went to open the shutter, he saw a leather-coated figure at the back trying to force open a window in the back. Now desperate, he raced downstairs and into the cellar, frantically looking for a place to hide. It took a few moments for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness and it became obvious that there was nowhere to hide. The cellar was cluttered with old boxes and the usual items found in a cellar. Upstairs he heard the Gestapo searching the rooms. Suddenly he spied a tiny alcove behind the stairs that led to the cellar, surrounded by old crates. The alcove, which was about 4ft high and just 18in wide, was his only hope and so he somehow squeezed in and pulled the crates around him.

He heard heavy footsteps pounding down the wooden staircase into the cellar. Barely daring to breathe, his heart was beating so loudly that he thought the Germans must have been able to hear it. The two Gestapo men stopped and struck matches to enable them to peer into the inky blackness. Fortunately for Tom they had not thought to bring torches with them and after a few moments, including a time when they moved close to the crates behind which he was hiding, they left. Tom remained crouched whilst he heard them banging around upstairs and then he heard car doors slamming shut followed by an engine starting, and the scream of tyres as they sped away.

He waited for almost an hour before emerging from the cellar just to ensure that they had gone. He discovered later that the Gestapo had gone to the mine, picked up M Coomans and taken him to their headquarters in Liége for questioning. After many hours of questioning the Gestapo realised that he knew nothing of his wife’s involvement with the Resistance, which of course he didn’t, and released him. M. Coomans returned home in the early hours of the morning, not knowing that Tom was still in the house.

That evening Tom slipped out of the back door and made his way through the dense wood to the Manse at the other end of the village and explained what had happened to the priest. He was then passed on to another Resistance group, who took him to a small terraced house in the village where he stayed with an elderly widower who lived alone. Once again Tom found himself confined to the house, not even being allowed to use the outside toilet.

The reason for this was because one of the attached houses was the home of members of the Belgian Nazis (Rexist Party), and one of their sons was away fighting with the Waffen SS. Their bedroom window overlooked the widower’s outside toilet and it was too dangerous for Tom to even consider stepping outside in case they spotted him.

After one week some members of the Resistance came and took him to a farm a couple of miles outside the town. The farmer named M. Schoofs, his wife, a son called Pascal and two daughters made Tom very welcome and he quickly became integrated as part of the family. This was a complete change for Tom, in as much as he could walk freely around the farm and help in the fields picking fruit. It also gave him a chance to repay their hospitality in a small way and not feel completely obliged, although this had never been suggested or hinted at by any of the people who had helped him.

For the next few weeks Tom enjoyed the open-air life, only interrupted by the odd raid by the Gestapo. They almost always made their raids either first thing in the morning or in the evenings. When it was suspected that they were in the area, Tom would get up early in the morning and go to the bottom of one of the fields and hide, and do the same thing again in the evening.

One evening one of the Resistance members called and asked him if he was prepared to join up with an RAF pilot and steal a German plane from a local airfield and fly it back to England. Tom immediately jumped at the chance but the town priest suggested that he be allowed to check on the validity of such a daring proposal. The priest returned saying that it was indeed a genuine proposal and arrangements were put into place to take Tom to Liége to await final instructions. He was taken into the town and placed in the care of an elderly couple in their third-floor apartment.

After two days of waiting and hearing nothing, it was soon realised that the whole project was a non-starter. Increasing German patrols and searches by the Gestapo in the town made the old couple extremely nervous. The Resistance was contacted and arrangements were made to take him back to the farm. Early one evening a member of the Resistance, a Belgian Intelligence agent, arrived with two bicycles and the two men set off to cycle back to the village of Wandre. They had just left the outskirts of Liége when another cyclist, a German soldier, joined them. He accompanied them almost all the way to Wandre before leaving them.

Just a mile from the farm, the two men stopped and parted and Tom walked the rest of the way, whilst the Belgian took the other bicycle back to Liége.

Towards the end of August there were a growing number of German soldiers retreating from the advancing allies. Then suddenly the farm was surrounded by German troops camping out in the fields, hedgerows or anywhere else they could. The officer in charge then told Madame Schoofs that he was taking over part of the farmhouse and making it his headquarters. He told her that their barns would be commandeered as billets for his men. Taking M Schoofs to one side, Tom suggested that he should leave so as not to cause problems for the family in the event of him being discovered. But because of the situation, and the reduction in the level of danger, the couple decided that Tom should play the part of a deaf Flemish mute, as it might arouse suspicion if he suddenly left.

That lunchtime the family, including some of the workers from the fields, sat down in the kitchen to enjoy a rather sumptuous roast lunch of veal. At one point the whole family, with the exception of Tom, left the table to harangue a bunch of dejected, straggling soldiers as they trudged their weary way through the farmyard. As they did so, Tom, still at the lunch table, looked up to see two German soldiers looking longingly at the pile of food on the table.

Tom’s chair was situated close to the door leading into what was becoming the German officer’s control room and suddenly it was pushed ajar violently and Tom was almost thrown to the floor. The German officer’s head peered around the door shouting out commands. On receiving no response he shouted even louder, Tom had to play the part of a deaf mute all the time. At this point Mme Schoofs, on hearing the commotion, stormed into the kitchen and started to berate the officer about how she felt a German officer should behave and how she did not want dirty Boche boots soiling her Belgian kitchen floor. For a moment there was silence, then the officer muttered something and quietly shut the door and locked it.

Word started to come through that retreating bands of Waffen SS troops were killing young Belgian men indiscriminately, so it was decided that Tom Wingham should be moved to a safer location. The problem was how to get him past the German troops now surrounding and even camped within the farm itself. Within the hour Pascal told Tom to get ready to move and so Tom Wingham prepared himself for one of the most nerve-racking moments since he had bailed out of his aircraft. Pascal came in to fetch him and the two men walked out into the farmyard. Waiting in the middle of the farmyard was a very fat peasant woman of around thirty-five years of age holding a battered pushchair. With her was a young child aged between two and three years old, who was playing with some of the German soldiers.

The woman glanced at Tom and then shouted for the child to come to her or Papa wouldn’t push her in the chair. Tom was stunned for the moment as he realised that he had just been ‘married’ off, and dressed in ill-fitting pinstripe trousers and a black jacket, he tottered off with the woman, followed by goodbyes and laughter from the Schoofs family and totally bemused looks from the German soldiers lounging around.

The couple made their way back to Wandre, where members of the Resistance were waiting. After saying goodbye and giving grateful thanks to his ‘bride’ of a few hours, Tom Wingham was placed in a safe house.

Two days later an American tank column entered the village and Tom was able to arrange passage to Paris where he met up with his navigator. The two men returned to England on 16 September.

Tom Wingham returned to operational flying, this time on Mosquitoes with No. 105 squadron. He completed four more missions including, on the night of 2 May 1945, being in one of the last four aircraft of Bomber Command to bomb Germany.

It cannot be emphasised enough the dangers that the men, women and children placed themselves in to help allied soldiers and airmen to escape the clutches of the German army and Gestapo. The identities of the vast majority of these people will never be known, as after the war they just went back to their normal way of life. The debt owed to these people can never be repaid but should never be forgotten as they helped in their own way to shape the course of history.

No. 102 Squadron RAF

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GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI, (1807–1882).

Born in Nice to a sea captain father, the young Garibaldi was a professional revolutionary. He took part in the Mazzinian uprising against the Piedmontese monarchy in 1834 and, following its suppression, was condemned to death for his role in the fighting. Garibaldi, however, had fled to Brazil. There, he met his first wife, Anita, and fought gallantly for six years (1836–1842) on behalf of the South Rio Grande republic, trying to achieve independence. Garibaldi ended the war as admiral of the would-be republic’s small fleet. In 1846, he organized and commanded the Italian legion that fought for Uruguay in its war against Argentina. Garibaldi’s reputation as the “hero of two worlds,” and his familiar penchant for South American peasant garb, dates from this period.

News of the 1848 revolutions, however, prompted his return to Turin. Garibaldi fought bravely against the Austrians in Lombardy and in defense of the Roman republic in the spring of 1849. Together with a faithful band of volunteers and Anita, Garibaldi broke out of Rome and retreated toward Venice, which was still resisting Austrian rule. After suffering heavy casualties, they were forced to take refuge in the swamps surrounding Ravenna, where Anita died of exhaustion.

Garibaldi, at the lowest ebb of his fortunes, was expelled from Piedmont-Sardinia and was forced to lead the life of an exile once more. He worked briefly as a candle-maker in Camden, New Jersey, before returning to Europe in 1854. He established himself in a house on the Sardinian Island of Caprera and gradually became more politically realistic. Under Camillo Benso di Cavour’s influence, Garibaldi accepted that the Piedmontese monarchy offered the best hope of unifying Italy. This renunciation of his Mazzinian and revolutionary principles restored him to favor in Turin, and in 1859 Garibaldi was made a general in the Piedmontese army.

Garibaldi was violently critical of the Treaty of Villafranca. In January 1860, he endorsed the latest venture launched by Giuseppe Mazzini, the “Action party,” which openly espoused a policy of liberating southern Italy, Rome, and Venice by military means. To this end, in the spring of 1860, Garibaldi led a corps of red-shirted patriots from Genoa to the assistance of a Mazzinian uprising in Palermo. The “Expedition of the Thousand” is the most famous of all Garibaldi’s military exploits. After landing near Palermo with the support of ships from the British fleet, Garibaldi swiftly took command of the island. On 14 May 1860, he became dictator of Sicily and head of a provisional government that was largely dominated by a native Sicilian who would play an important role in the political future of Italy, Francesco Crispi.

With the support of thousands of Sicilian peasants and workers, Garibaldi then invaded the Italian mainland, intent on marching on Rome. He entered Naples in September 1860. He was joined there by the principal republican theorists, Mazzini and Carlo Cattaneo, and for a brief moment it looked as if the process of Italian unification would take a radical turn. Cavour’s shrewdness enabled him to outmaneuver Garibaldi. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States, blocking the road to Rome. Garibaldi decided not to compromise Italian unity by risking a conflict with the Piedmontese. On 26 October 1860, he consigned southern Italy to the monarchy.

Garibaldi, however, was unable to consider Italian unification complete while Rome remained under clerical domination, protected by French troops. He became a thorn in the side of the first Italian governments by carrying on his own independent foreign policy. In 1862, Garibaldi returned to Sicily to raise another army of volunteers willing to march under the melodramatic slogan “Rome or Death.” The outraged reaction of Napoleon III compelled the Italian government to intervene, and Garibaldi’s advance was halted by Italian troops at Aspromonte in Calabria. There was a skirmish, and Garibaldi was shot in the foot. Garibaldi was briefly imprisoned, but his international fame (especially in England, to which he made a triumphal visit in 1864) soon led to his release.

In 1866, Garibaldi led Italian troops in the Trentino, liberating a great part of the Italian-speaking territory under Austrian rule before being ordered to relinquish his gains upon the end of the hostilities between Prussia and Austria. His short reply amply conveyed his disgust at the command: Garibaldi sent a one-word telegram saying obbedisco (I obey). His exploits in the Trentino were a prelude to further impolitic attempts to take Rome in the fall of 1867. Escaping from house arrest on Caprera, he joined 3,000 waiting volunteers in Tuscany. The courage of his amateur troops, however, was no match for the French army defending Rome, and at the small but bloody battle of Mentana on 3 November 1867, Garibaldi was decisively beaten. Once more, he was forced into exile on Caprera.

Garibaldi played no role in the liberation of Rome in 1870. His last campaign was on behalf of the French Republic. Garibaldi led a corps of Italian volunteers at the battle of Dijon in the fall of 1870, and his efforts were a useful contribution to what was the only French victory of the Franco–Prussian War. In his last years, Garibaldi dedicated himself to writing his memoirs (and heroic poetry) and became a declared socialist. He died on Caprera in 1882, but his myth has been a powerful influence on Italian political life ever since

RISORGIMENTO

In Italian, the Risorgimento means the awakening of national sentiment that led to the creation of the modern Italian state. The decisive moment for Italian political unity was the wars of 1859–1861. Thanks to a felicitous combination of international and domestic factors and skillful diplomacy, Italy was substantially united under the rule of the House of Savoy. First, the international context was favorable for the reduction of Austrian power in Italy. Austria had isolated itself during the Crimean War by staying neutral and was facing France’s challenge to its role as the power broker in Europe. Liberal England, moreover, wished to see the end of the anachronistic absolutist regime of the Bourbons in southern Italy. Within Italy, Piedmont-Sardinia, thanks to the modernizing efforts of Camillo Benso di Cavour, had emerged as a power of some weight capable of attracting the middle classes of Lombardy, Tuscany, and the rest of northern Italy to its cause. Liberal and nationalist ideas, moreover, were widespread by the end of the 1850s. The views of Vincenzo Gioberti, Cesare Balbo, and Massimo D’Azeglio had been read by every educated Italian, and republicans and democrats such as Carlo Cattaneo and Giuseppe Mazzini also had a substantial following, particularly in central Italy.

Cavour’s unique diplomatic skills turned these favorable conditions into political action. First, he persuaded Napoleon III to ally France to Piedmont in July 1858 at Plombières by promising France Nice and the duchies of central Italy (the eventual status of Savoy was left open) in exchange for French assistance to liberate Lombardy and Venetia from Austrian rule. The four northern Italian regions so liberated were then to form a federation under the presidency of the Pope. Cavour then goaded Austria into declaring war in April 1859, allowing Piedmont-Sardinia to appear as the innocent victim of an act of aggression by a larger power. As the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino demonstrated, without French support the Piedmontese army would never have been able to defeat the Austrians. Simultaneous insurrections in Tuscany, Modena, and Parma in favor of unification with Turin were in large part organized by Cavour’s agents, thus nullifying the Plombières agreement by thwarting Napoleon III’s ambitions. The peace of Villafranca in July 1859—which granted Lombardy to Piedmont but insisted on the return of absolute rule in central Italy—was a tardy attempt by Napoleon and the Austrians to close the Pandora’s box opened by their own ambition. The treaty provoked Cavour’s resignation, but by now the movement for unification with Piedmont in central Italy was too strong to be blocked by anything short of a bloody war of repression. Cavour returned triumphantly to office in January 1860 and, in exchange for the cession of Savoy as well as Nice to France, was allowed to incorporate all of north-central Italy into Piedmont-Sardinia.

Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi regarded Cavour’s patient diplomacy as too cautious, however. At the beginning of 1860, the so-called Action Party was founded with the specific goal of liberating Rome, Venice, and southern Italy from absolutist and Papal rule. In April 1860, Garibaldi and his “Thousand” redshirts sailed from Genoa to Palermo to assist the Mazzinian uprising that had broken out against Bourbon rule. With the assistance of the British fleet, Garibaldi disembarked and swiftly established his personal dictatorship over Sicily. In August 1860, he crossed the Strait of Messina at the head of an army of Sicilians and marched on Naples, which he entered in September without encountering resistance. He was joined by Mazzini and Cattaneo, who openly argued that the red-shirts’ conquests should herald a democratic and republican solution to the unification of Italy.

Cavour, alarmed by this project, used the threat of a democratic revolution in Italy to persuade France to give him a free hand in southern Italy. Piedmontese troops invaded the Papal States and blocked Garibaldi’s road to Rome, and at Teano on 26 October 1860, Garibaldi ceded his conquests in person to Victor Emmanuel II. This decision was confirmed by regional plebiscites in February 1861. Only the wealthiest citizens were allowed to vote, and, particularly in the south, ballot fraud was widespread. Italy had completed its liberal revolution but had installed a regime that was ignorant of the needs of the southern peasantry and strongly identified with the interests of the northern upper classes. It is not fanciful to claim that many of Italy’s subsequent problems stemmed from the political settlement of the process of unification.

Von Braun to the USA

Countless immigrants have come to America expecting to find the streets paved with gold, and the “German scientists” were no different. Instead of ensconcing them at a New World Peenemünde, however, the U.S. Army dropped them off in a crude cowpoke wasteland where the most notable recent events were the explosion of atomic bombs and the invention of the margarita cocktail. They were not so much put to work there as stashed where no other country could get at them— particularly Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, which had their own shopping lists for German expertise. One of their disarmed Wunderwaffen was put on display along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, under a billboard that read “This is a V-2 rocket seized by U.S. Army Ordnance,” but its inventors were hidden far from civilization in a guarded camp. The primary rationale for bringing them over in the first place had disappeared when Japan surrendered, but the reasons were multiplying all the time.

Wernher von Braun’s colleagues began to arrive from Germany at the end of 1945. They traveled across the Atlantic in Spartan troopships, not one of Donald Douglas’s transoceanic DC-4 “Super Mainliner” airplanes as had their boss (albeit in a military transport configuration). Their first job was to start what they had recently been forced to stop—constructing and launching V-2s, now using the boxcar-loads of jumbled parts for some 100 missiles that had been laid out in the Tularosa Basin’s caustic desert environment. Basically, they were to nurse the American military and civilian participants in Project Hermes along the learning curve that had consumed their attention since 1942. “That job took eight months,” von Braun later recalled. “We seemed to be expected to do it in two weeks.” Only about half of the roughly 6000 V-2s produced in Germany were ever launched during the war, so the experience at White Sands in 1946 was somewhat frustrating for the military, industrial, and academic boffins who converged there to try out the famous rocket. The V-2 trove was rapidly turning into scrap metal. Eighty miles from El Paso, moreover, the living conditions were rather less civilized than at the former Nazi showcase on the Baltic seashore.

The first shot on April 16 flew out of control, shed a tail fin, and crashed at close range. The second and third reached higher altitudes, but smashed to smithereens in deep craters on impact (as designed), pulverizing the technical payloads placed aboard by eager scientists like James Van Allen from the University of Iowa and teams from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The V-2 was a battlefield munition with lots of problems, they soon appreciated, not a refined scientific instrument. By the end of 1946, the launch failure rate was more than 33 percent. “Frankly, we were disappointed with what we found in this country during our first year or so,” von Braun later said. Still, it was not such bad duty at a time when German cities lay in ruins, many of his countrymen were destitute and starving, millions were nothing but ash, and former leaders awaited execution for war crimes. And it got steadily better.

Not all American scientists were keen to use the V-2 booty and the onetime enemies who came with it. In January 1947, for example, prominent faculty members at Cornell—such as the renowned German émigré Hans Bethe, who had directed the Manhattan Project’s theoretical division, and illustrious aerodynamicist William R. Sears—spearheaded a protest against the War Department’s importation of German scientists and engineers. “The fact that these men were directly or indirectly linked with a regime whose infamous record included, among other things, the most brutal persecution of free science must fill every citizen, and in particular every scientist, with deep apprehension,” stated a resolution sent to the Federation of American Scientists, advising that the Germans be sent back to where they came from when their work was finished. A month earlier, following War Department-sanctioned publicity about Operation Paperclip, Overcast’s successor, forty luminaries—including Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Norman Vincent Peale, and Rabbi Stephen Wise—had sent a telegram to President Truman, protesting that the Germans’ “former eminence as Nazi Party members and supporters raises the issue of their fitness to become American citizens or hold key positions in American industrial, scientific, and educational institutions.” This was exactly the kind of public reaction the military had sought to head off with strict secrecy. In the summer of 1947, Rep. John D. Dingell, Democrat from Detroit, gave the protest a populist voice on the floor of the House of Representatives, saying, “I have never thought that we were so poor mentally in this country that we have to go and import those Nazi killers to help us prepare for the defense of our country.” Perhaps to some small extent, certain elements of the U.S. military agreed with this line of thought, noting in a September 18, 1947, security report that Wernher von Braun “is regarded as a potential security threat,” though “not a war criminal” based on available records.

But the protests were evanescent, indecisive, handicapped by the secrecy of government policies, and swamped by larger issues. In addition to the first rumblings of cold war rivalry with the Soviet Union, there were business imperatives in Washington, as always. Leaders of American industry and their trade associations, many of whom had served in intelligence units that had cherry-picked all over Germany for superior technology and expertise, successfully lobbied President Truman for a commercial exploitation program, which ran until it was shut down in 1947 for the sake of German economic recovery. Military budgets naturally plummeted in the immediate postwar years, leaving Fort Bliss as bleak as ever, and the decimated aviation industry jumped at the chance to capitalize on German technology. “Very early on we became involved with von Braun and his associates when they were stationed at Fort Bliss (surely a euphemism),” remembered). Leland Atwood, president of North American Aviation, whose nascent Rocketdyne division in Los Angeles would become a premier producer of large rocket engines. “Our rocket work was, in large measure, built on the Peenemünde V-2 model to start with.”

Early in 1946, Wernher learned that his parents were alive, albeit completely dispossessed, in Silesian territory now part of Poland, thus reenacting the centuries-old ebb and flow of Junker fortunes. The family’s experience with gaining and losing estates was truly prodigious. Wernher was allowed to return to Germany under round-the-clock military guard in order to marry his eighteen-year-old first cousin, Maria von Quistorp, in March 1947. On the same trip, he collected the baron and baroness, who immigrated along with his bride to El Paso that month under the dependent provisions of Operation Paperclip.

Gradually, von Braun’s army handlers loosened their grip. Top officials in Washington from the Oval Office down fell into line with the notion of Germans as “intellectual reparations,” and life moved on with amnesiac velocity. In December 1947, the Dora war crimes trial at Dachau ended and its proceedings were classified, the army having helped von Braun to avoid in-person testimony. The Peenemünders were wise enough to shut their mouths and self-censor their own war stories, while their military milieu took care of placing their files under lock and key. The perceived value of their knowledge continued to trump any other considerations. The British released Walter Dornberger, who came to the United States under the U.S. Air Force’s newly independent auspices (and by 1950 was an executive at Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, New York). As early as July 1947, Popular Science magazine boasted that the U.S. Navy’s homegrown Viking missile would double the V-2’s altitude record and weigh much less than “one of those Nazi dinosaurs.” Just four years after the last V-2 fell on London, the British Interplanetary Society named von Braun an Honorary Fellow in 1949. Technological progress itself was making the “Nazi scientists” seem both less magical and less dangerous. To the lifelong benefit of most of them, it was also making what happened during the war more unbelievable.

On September 23, 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb. On October 1, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. In November 1949, von Braun’s extralegal immigration status was normalized with a proper visa by riding a trolley back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border at Juarez. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops attacked across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. For the last few years, von Braun had so much time on his hands that he wrote a science-fiction novel of nearly 500 manuscript pages, but the world suddenly changed very much in favor of a longtime anti-Communist rocket builder. The novel, titled “Mars Project”—in which seventy passengers go to Mars in ten spaceships after the West defeats the East with atomic bombs dropped from an orbiting space station—was an amateurish brick of 1920s space-travel fantasies and 1930s Nazi propaganda about the Bolshevik menace. It is safe to say that the many New York editors who turned it down could not appreciate how well it expressed a dream of what an unspoiled Peenemünde might have accomplished had Hitler fought the ultimate war of annihilation against the Asian hordes. Von Braun would eventually sell the rights to a German publisher, which had it rewritten by a Luftwaffe veteran and illustrated with Frau im Mond-style pictures.

In the spring of 1950, the Germans left Fort Bliss behind and transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, a former chemical munitions plant that Senator John Sparkman was godfathering out of its postwar doldrums. Von Braun moved with his wife and toddler daughter, Iris. Another daughter, Magrit, arrived in spring 1952 (a son, Peter, came in 1960). In addition to becoming a family man, he had found God. He told The New Yorker that “as long as national sovereignties exist, our only hope is to raise everybody’s standards of ethics.” “I go to church regularly now,” he added. “Did you at Peenemünde?” the reporter asked. “I went occasionally,” he replied. “But it’s really too late to go to church after a war starts. One becomes very busy.”

In 1952, he began an enormously successful sideline as a popularizer with a series of lavishly illustrated articles—pre-screened by the Defense Department, like all of his outside writing—in Collier’s magazine that let loose the same flights of imagination he had released at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, now amplified by the power of American advertising. The vivid full-color pictures of manned spacecraft, lunar and planetary exploration, and giant wheel-shaped orbital stations, with breathless commentary, struck a nerve of pleasure in the American public similar to what a later generation would experience at Star Wars movies, propelling von Braun into the heavens of mass media promotion. The Collier’s phenomenon led to similarly cathartic appearances in 1955 and 1957 on Walt Disney’s popular television shows that promoted “Tomorrowland” at the Disneyland theme park. On November 30, 1956, he appeared on comedian Steve Allen’s popular television show. Fan mail inundated his office, much of it answered in colloquial English by a public affairs man, though von Braun was a sponge for American slang. On March 13, 1958, he and Maria dined with Washington socialite Perle Merta, the famous “hostess with the mostess.” Had nothing else ever happened to von Braun in America, the Collier’s and Disney exposure would have cemented him in the minds of baby boomers in the way that Luke Skywalker took hold of mass consciousness a generation later. The illustrations and animated images were pseudoscientific, but they helped to sell an adventure to a gullible or skeptical audience. Von Braun had done it all before, of course.

By 1953, Redstone Arsenal was well on its way to being the American incarnation of Peenemünde, with von Braun installed as civilian director at the Army’s Guided Missile Development Division of the Ordnance Missile Laboratories, under the command of a Brigadier General, Holger Toftoy—essentially the same organizational scheme and vocabulary that the Wehrmacht had used. Huntsville would soon be called “the German part of the state” by native Alabamans, as the Peenemünders transplanted their cultural proclivities for music and literature into the provincial Southern town. They did not perturb the racially segregated society that the state epitomized and were as insulated from any center of liberal thought as they had been in El Paso. On April 14, 1955, von Braun became a U.S. citizen.

As at Peenemünde, the men developed weapons, not spaceships. Their first product was a liquid-fueled rocket dubbed the Redstone, essentially an updated A-4 with a nuclear warhead. Redstone finally manifested the massive destructive potential of guided missiles that the conventionally armed V-2 had only implied. It was followed by the more powerful Jupiter—known as an IRBM, or intermediate range ballistic missile, as compared to the ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles, being developed elsewhere—which devolved into a byzantine turf battle between the army and air force over which service would have the biggest, longest rocket and thus dominate the new field’s gigantic budgets. During this growing bureaucratic turmoil, which must have felt more than vaguely familiar to the Peenemünders, both the United States and the Soviet Union announced that they would try to launch a satellite around the earth as part of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year research program. The army was soon ready with von Braun’s Jupiter-C—a modified Redstone booster with two smaller stages on top—but the navy’s far less mature follow-on to Viking, called Vanguard, got the nod from Washington instead, much to his disappointment. As a result, the nation received its biggest political shock since learning about the Russian A-bomb when a satellite called Sputnik went into orbit on October 4, 1957. When Vanguard crumpled back onto its launchpad in a fireball after rising only a few feet off the sand at Cape Canaveral on December 6, a nationwide television audience carried away an indelible image of embarrassing inferiority.

To the rescue came Wernher von Braun’s Jupiter-C on January 31, 1958, when Explorer I joined Sputnik in orbit. The I-told-you-so sweetness of his triumph appealed to the spirit of Everyman, vaulting him from mere TV-star to national hero. Although the army still kept him on a leash, warning him in June 1958 not to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science because it was on the so-called pink list of Communist-influenced organizations, his persona now had a life of its own. Some matters remained sensitive, however. In December, an assistant answered a query from a researcher at the University of Texas about whether von Braun had ever been a member of the Nazi Party with a curt denial: “In answer to your question, Dr. von Braun was not a Nazi.”

The satellite contest convinced Ike that the nation should have a civilian space agency, which became von Braun’s first nonmilitary employer. Though the Soviets scored another goal when they launched the first man into space on April 12, 1961, it was von Braun’s reliable Redstone that answered for the home team on May 5. The young new President Kennedy then decided to go for broke. From these Olympian heights, von Braun would not descend until after the moon was covered with boot prints. The past was erased. Nothing else mattered. He was the prophet of the Space Age.

The Norman Imperial Crown

Norman progress in Sicily during Robert’s expeditions to the Balkans: Capua, Apulia and Calabria, and the County of Sicily are Norman. The Emirate of Sicily, the Duchy of Naples and lands in the Abruzzo (in the southern Duchy of Spoleto) are not yet conquered.

Following William’s death his younger brother Drogo was elected to his position of Count of Apulia while a third brother, Humphrey, was given some of William’s former estates. Back in Normandy the seven sons who had stayed behind were watching these developments with considerable interest. These were the children of Tancred’s second marriage and in 1047 the eldest of them, Robert, decided to join his half-brothers in Italy.  

He arrived to a cool reception. Drogo didn’t particularly like his father’s second wife and detested her children, so he sent Robert off with a small band of followers to cut his teeth in a frontier fortress deep inside Byzantine Calabria, the heel of the Italian peninsula. The castle overlooked a coastal plain which held the picturesque ruins of the ancient city of Sybaris, but if Robert expected anything approaching luxury he was quickly disillusioned. The small, dank fortress was malaria-ridden and dark, languishing in a particularly sparse region of Italy. Calabria was much poorer than Apulia, with a heavily forested, mountainous interior and little land suitable for agriculture. The coastal regions had been desolated by centuries of malaria and Saracen raids, and since the local populations were thoroughly Hellenized they were more loyal to the Byzantines and less likely to welcome the Normans as deliverers.   

To survive, Robert was forced to live off the land, which he managed to do with a combination of cunning and brutality. A favorite tactic was to set crops on fire and then charge money to extinguish it, a scheme which did not improve his popularity with the local populations. Before long he was being called ‘Guiscard’, ‘the crafty’, and had acquired a reputation among the other Normans as someone to watch. He was shrewd enough to understand that a good leader should be feared by his enemies and loved by his allies. To this end he shared every hardship with his men, eating at the same campfire and sleeping on the same hard ground, but was also remarkably generous. Wealth for him was always a means, and almost never an end to itself. When a visiting Norman bishop mentioned that he was building a cathedral back home, Robert, whose own resources were stretched, loaded him down with every bit of treasure he owned. The financial loss was more than compensated by the public relations gain. The cleric returned to Normandy and brought with him stories of the wealthy, generous knight of Calabria, and Robert, who was chronically short of men, was inundated with fresh recruits.  

Before he had had a chance to expand his power, however, he was swept up into a larger conflict. When the Normans had first arrived in Italy they had been greeted as liberators by a Lombard population that was eager to escape the imperial tax collectors. As time when on, however, they had discovered that the rapacious Normans were a good deal worse than the Byzantines that they had replaced, brutally suppressing any sign of independence and squeezing their provinces for every drop of money. When Byzantine agents entered Apulia looking for a way to destabilize Norman control to neutralize the threat in Calabria, they found a very receptive audience. A massive conspiracy was hatched to assassinate every major Norman in Italy and in 1051 it was carried out. Drogo was cut down as he entered his private chapel, and by nightfall all of Apulia was in uproar.  

The surviving Normans, still not fully understanding how much public opinion had turned against them, responded by brutally ravaging the lands of anyone who was involved, thinking that they could restore the status quo with a display of strength. This was the final straw, and it provoked a response from the most powerful figure in Italy, Pope Leo IX.  

The papal palace in Rome had been deluged for years with woeful tales of rape, murder, and robbery along the major routes of southern Italy, all begging for assistance against the footloose bands of Norman mercenaries who respected no law but that of the sword. Such concerns might normally have been better directed towards the local secular authority, but Leo was uniquely suited to lead the charge. Already renowned for holiness in an age of worldly pontiffs, he alone had the charisma and standing to pull together the scattered powers of Italy into a cohesive force. The blood and death of battle didn’t shock him – as a bishop he had led the field armies of the German emperor, Conrad II, in a raid on northern Italy and saw no reason why his new position should bar another outing.  

The pope had had experience with the Normans before. They were uncomfortably close to the Papal States, were notorious for their simony – a practice he was doing his best to stamp out – and had already proved so irritating that he had refused William the Conqueror’s request for a marriage in order to humble them. If something wasn’t done to stop these lawless and uncontrollable Normans, they would begin to encroach on Vatican territory. If the pope couldn’t find some way to bring them to heel, his reputation would suffer accordingly and he would face the real danger of being surrounded by a sea of Normans. 

His first thought had been to awe the Normans into submission. He had traveled to southern Italy where he summoned Drogo de Hauteville before him. Dressed in the full robes of his office, the Holy Father had coolly ordered him to rein in his men. Drogo had seemed appropriately chastened, but a few months later he had been assassinated and southern Italy was plunged into chaos. 

For Pope Leo, now was the perfect time for him to strike. The Normans were leaderless and frustrated, flailing in all directions, and nearly every non-Norman baron of southern Italy, from Abruzzo to Calabria, had risen up against them. But he had to act fast before tempers cooled. Writing to the Byzantine emperor, Constantine IX, Leo offered a joint alliance and then traveled to Germany to discuss matters with his cousin the western emperor. Having shorn up imperial support for the anti-Norman coalition, he raised an Italian army as quickly as possible and marched into Apulia, proclaiming that he would put an end to the ‘Norman menace’.  

News that an invading army was on the way – led by the Vicar of Christ himself – finally woke the Normans to the danger. A desperate call went out for every able-bodied man and Robert hurried back from Calabria. Under the circumstances everyone was willing to put aside their past differences, and the united Normans elected the blunt, soldierly Humphrey, the oldest surviving Hauteville, as their leader. His first action was to send a message to Leo asking for terms, but Leo was in no mood to hear an appeal. He had his enemies right where he wanted and didn’t intend to let them escape. 

Humphrey and Robert held a hasty conference to decide what to do. They were heavily outnumbered, and the fact that the pope was there in person unnerved them. But as bad as the situation was it would only grow worse if they delayed. A Byzantine army was heading down the coast and if it were allowed to link up with Leo, the odds would become too great. There was a serious food shortage; the local population had gathered up the harvest despite the fact that it was still green, and there was simply nothing to eat. If they didn’t attack now they faced the threat of starvation.  

With no realistic alternative, the Normans drew up by the Fortore River near the little town of Civitate and sent another emissary to the pope. This time, however, it was only a ruse, and in the middle of the negotiations they attacked. Leo’s Lombard allies were caught by surprise and fled in a panic, and were soon joined by the bulk of the army. Only the pope’s German regiment stood their ground against the Norman charge, but they were now outnumbered and were slaughtered to a man. The pope, dressed in distinctive flowing white robes, watched the entire debacle from a nearby hilltop with growing horror. When it became apparent that his forces were beaten he rode to a neighboring town and anxiously demanded sanctuary. The townsmen, however, were aware of what had just taken place and had no intention of offending the victors. The moment a Norman soldier rode up to the gates Leo was unceremoniously tossed out.  

The pope suffered his defeat graciously, walking proudly out to meet his enemies, and those watching from the walls might have wondered just who had won the recent struggle. The Normans fell down before him, begging for forgiveness and swearing that they were faithful Christians. Some knelt to kiss his ring, and still others ran to fetch him a horse, and some refreshment. When he had dined they escorted him to the town of Benevento – maintaining a respectful distance – and installed him in its finest apartments. Their courtesy never slipped an inch, but not all the deference in the world could hide the fact that Leo was now a captive, and the news quickly spread throughout Europe: the Vicar of Christ was a prisoner of the Normans.  

Their victory was more complete than they knew. The pope was humiliated and broken, but even if he had wanted to mount another challenge he would have found it impossible. Just a few months after the battle, the churches of Rome and Constantinople suffered a serious break and the threat of a vast anti-Norman alliance vanished along with any hope of cooperation between the eastern and western halves of Christendom. 

The only thing that threatened the Norman position now was tension between the brothers, which was rapidly mounting. Humphrey tolerated his younger sibling better than Drogo had, but his patience was wearing thin. Robert was enjoying himself in Apulia and had no intention of hurrying back to impoverished Calabria. Things came to a head at a banquet hosted by the elder brother. He accused Guiscard of dragging his feet, and the furious Robert was offended enough to draw his sword before being restrained by his friends. Feeling bitter and humiliated, he made his way back to Calabria, and began the work of expanding his influence.  

Happily for him, he found the situation had greatly improved in his absence. Byzantine power in Italy was in the middle of a spectacular collapse; shrinking budgets and dithering rulers in Constantinople had left much of the local population feeling abandoned, and the garrisons left behind were demoralized and easily convinced to surrender. One town after another submitted to Guiscard, and those that resisted were either overwhelmed or fell prey to one of his famous ruses. In Otranto he managed to talk his way through the gates, and by the fall had seized Calabria’s one productive agricultural region. Each success gave him a greater reputation, which in turn brought in more recruits that allowed more fortresses and more victories. By 1057 even Humphrey had to admit Robert’s ability.  

The elder Hauteville was dying of malaria and exhaustion, and was well aware that the Normans were in desperate need of a new type of leader. Their stubborn independence made their conquests unstable, and their harsh rule fueled the anti-Norman feeling among the populations they dominated. It was no longer enough to be a good soldier; leadership of the fractious Normans now required diplomacy, statesmanship and vision if they were ever to become more than petty barons. Humphrey was determined to leave his people in the hands of someone who saw a greater destiny for them, and there was only one serious candidate. Swallowing his pride, he summoned Robert and the two had a public reconciliation.  

Not everyone was pleased with the selection, however, and Robert had to spend several months putting down various Norman barons who contested his election. For good measure he forced even the loyal nobles to re-swear allegiance to him, then returned to the toe of Italy to complete the conquest of Calabria. Here his youngest brother Roger joined him. Barely twenty-five, Roger had the same broad Hauteville shoulders and large frame, but was more easy-going than Robert. Where Guiscard was calculating, Roger was convivial, but that merely masked an iron-willed determination.  

At first the two of them worked together well. They made a stab at Reggio which commanded the straits between Italy and Sicily and Robert felt comfortable enough to leave the campaign in Roger’s hands as he returned north to put down yet another rebellion. They were too similar, however, for the partnership to work for long. Perhaps recognizing the family ambition in his brother, Robert refused to grant him land or an independent source of income. Roger was eager to build up his wealth so he could marry, and his frustration turned to anger when Robert started slowing down the payments for his garrisons. When he formally complained, Guiscard dismissed his concerns, suggesting that his brother would benefit from the same rough conditions that he had had to suffer in his early days.  

This kind of response only made things worse, and before long the animosity escalated into a full-blown war. Roger went on a rampage through his brother’s Calabrian lands, burning crops, pillaging the countryside and kidnapping merchants for ransom. Not one to back down, Robert responded in kind, and the resulting devastation caused a famine that provoked a massive popular revolt. The scale of the rebellion caught the Normans completely by surprise and soon threatened to spread into Apulia. The alarmed brothers hastily patched up a truce, agreeing to share all further conquests equally.  

Peace was restored just in time for Robert to receive a papal ambassador summoning him to Melfi for a personal meeting. When he asked what the pope wanted, the answer must have seemed too incredible to be true. It had been barely five years since a pontiff had led an army to crush the Normans, and now one of his successors was asking for an alliance.  

The reason for the about-face in Vatican policy was the election of Nicholas II, a reforming cleric who wanted to end simony, the practice of buying church offices, and free the papacy from external control. The German emperor had traditionally been the pope’s protector, but in practice that had usually meant that the pontiff was a German puppet. The only way for the pope to break free was to find a counterbalancing power and the closest one available was the Normans.  

Nicholas called a synod to meet at Melfi, and there made the alliance official. Robert pledged his loyalty and promised to defend him against the emperor. In return the pope confirmed his right to hold the land he had already seized and gave him the suggestive title ‘Duke of Apulia and Calabria as well as Sicily yet to be conquered’. The fact that he didn’t actually control all of Calabria – or any of Sicily for that matter – hardly bothered Guiscard. The pope had given him the legitimacy to conquer everything he could and he didn’t intend to waste the opportunity.   

He spent the next year evicting the Byzantines from Italy, reducing the imperial holdings to the single city of Bari in the heel of the Italian peninsula. There they stubbornly resisted, clinging on to their ancestral homeland, and Guiscard was willing to let them be for the moment. He already had a more tempting target in mind – the rich fields of Sicily – and could wait for the rest of Italy to fall into his grasp. It must have been a heady feeling as he looked across the straits to the island just off the coast. The son of a minor lord of France had raised himself to the same level as his contemporary, Duke William of Normandy. There were now two Norman duchies at opposite ends of Europe, both planning to invade an island kingdom. Sicily was ripe for conquest and exerted an irresistible pull on Robert. Things had only become more chaotic since his eldest sibling, William Iron-Arm, had left, and the island was now divided between warring Arab and Berber factions. Even more promising, one of the Berber emirs had actually invited Robert to come, asking for his assistance in fending off his rivals. The two brothers crossed to Sicily in 1060 and immediately seized Messina, then plunged deep into the interior. By the end of that year they controlled most of the east coast and were making inroads towards Palermo.  

In the second year, however, the advance abruptly halted. Besieging fortresses took time and Robert was impatient to bring the Muslims to battle. The stress of a long campaign was also beginning to show as the brothers started arguing about the division of spoils. Neither could completely agree about who was actually in charge, so they settled on an awkward joint rule. This was a particularly bad idea as Robert had no patience for consolidation and was easily bored. His attention in any case was needed on the mainland; long absences invited revolts and his restless barons hardly needed the encouragement. For the next ten years he put in sporadic appearances, leaving the conquest of Sicily largely in Roger’s capable hands.  

In the meantime Robert continued to put pressure on the southern Italian city of Bari and in the spring of 1071 it finally fell, extinguishing the last vestiges of the Roman Empire in Italy. Guiscard entered the city in triumph, dressed in the Greek style, and surrounded by his closest supporters. He was the sole master of southern Italy, and had at last made his dukedom a reality. For another man this might have been enough. His enemies at home were cowed and peaceful, the pope had turned from being a rival into an ally, and there was no one left to challenge his authority throughout the south. But Guiscard was already dreaming of greater things. Something in the pageantry of Bari had caught his imagination. He had seen it in the palaces and churches of Sicily and in the luxury of captured imperial baggage. The landless knight who had made himself a duke turned his eyes thoughtfully to the East. There, glittering Byzantium, the biggest prize of all, was waiting.

At sixty-five-years-old (elderly by medieval standards), Robert Guiscard deserved a rest. Most men his age were settling down to enjoy the fruits of their labours, which in Robert’s case were plentiful. There were always the pleasures of hunting in the Apulian countryside or relaxing in one of his many palaces to distract him. But Guiscard had no intention of retiring. He was far too easily bored; he infinitely preferred fighting to governing and in any case he had become obsessed with the Byzantine Empire.

The past two decades of fighting Byzantium had left their mark. He had started by copying parts of the imperial seals into his own, and had then graduated to using the Byzantine title ‘dux imperator’ in his public decrees. This was equal parts vanity and shrewdness. Most of his subjects were thoroughly hellenized and posing as a Byzantine successor added a bit of legitimacy to his rule. Just in case anyone missed the point, he had a copy made of the imperial robes of state that he was careful to don at every opportunity.

All this strutting gained the attention of Constantinople, which was under disastrous attack by the Turks and wanted to make peace with the Normans as quickly as possible. Emperor Michael VII had a young son named Constantine, and Guiscard had a young daughter named Helena; a marriage proposal was arranged and the Norman duke was promised a fancy new title. He could now call himself nobelissimus – only a step below a Caesar – could wear the color purple, and could reasonably hope that one day a descendant of his would sit on the imperial throne. Young Helena was shipped off to Constantinople, and Guiscard sat back to congratulate himself on a nice bit of diplomacy.

Unfortunately for him, events in Constantinople moved faster still. Just after Helena arrived, the emperor was overthrown by an old general named Nicephorus III. The Norman princess was dispatched to a convent and her prospective husband, Constantine, was exiled. The news of it all was disappointing for Guiscard, but only momentarily. The Byzantines were weak, overextended against the Turks, and vulnerable. An attack now would almost certainly yield great fruit. In the meantime Helena was a convenient pawn to provoke a war.

The first step was to make an ultimatum that would be rejected out of hand. Playing the part of aggrieved father, Guiscard demanded that his daughter be instantly restored to favor, married to Constantine and crowned empress. This would have been political suicide for Nicephorus. He could hardly start honoring the son of the man he had displaced, so he sensibly refused. Guiscard immediately declared war and started marshalling a great invading army. To bolster his effort, he found a wandering monk whom he claimed was the deposed emperor Michael – somehow escaped from captivity just in time to give an official blessing to the invasion. The ruse didn’t fool anyone since the monk wasn’t a particularly good actor, but Guiscard hardly cared. He had gotten his war and now he was going to claim his throne.

It took nearly a year to raise an army, but the effort produced a magnificent result. Medieval western armies didn’t tend to be particularly diverse, but Robert had recruited soldiers from all over southern Italy: Muslims from Sicily mixed with Lombards and Greeks from Apulia and Calabria, while French and Norman adventurers filled out the rest. Cities all along the Italian coast were conscripted to build ships, and when they couldn’t fill the demand, additional ones were bought from the heavily forested Croatian coast. By the spring of 1081 there were one hundred and fifty ships waiting to transport twenty thousand soldiers, horses and besieging equipment across the Aegean. All that was needed was the command from the sixty-four-year-old Guiscard. However, before he could give it, the ground in Constantinople shifted again. Nicephorus III was overthrown by a brilliant young general named Alexius, who sent word that he was prepared to recognize all of Guiscard’s demands. The disgraced Constantine was to be restored as co-emperor, Helena was to be rescued from her convent, and the pair would be married.

Guiscard’s temper was legendary, and his rage on this occasion was especially fierce. The poor emissary who brought the news expecting that it would be gladly received had to flee from the chamber in fear for his life, and for two days the Norman duke sulked in his tent in a black mood refusing to see visitors. Alexius had neatly cut the ground out from under his feet, but the preparations had come too far to stop. Guiscard’s eldest son, Bohemond, was sent with an advance guard to form a bridgehead, and a month later Guiscard followed with the main army.

By June the Normans had reached Durrës, the second largest imperial city, nestled at the head of the old Roman road that led to Constantinople. It was well defended and seemingly impregnable, situated on a high peninsula and guarded by marshes on the landward side. Guiscard attempted to talk it into submission and nearly succeeded, but the defenders were confident they could hold out and that the emperor wouldn’t abandon them to their fate. A few days later, they were given dramatic evidence of the imperial attention. The Venetian fleet, bribed by Alexius, showed up without warning and engaged the Norman ships in battle. Using submerged pipes, they funneled Greek Fire underneath the Norman vessels, burning them below the waterline.  

Guiscard was now in a difficult position. Without naval support an effective blockade was impossible and there seemed to be little hope of taking the city by storm. Even worse, winter was approaching with the familiar problems of shelter, fuel, and maintaining supply lines in a hostile country. Morale plummeted, and an outbreak of dysentery swept through the ranks, further demoralizing everyone. Soldiers began to talk openly about retreat, but Guiscard wasn’t the type of man to back down and burned his remaining ships to prevent desertions. For the common knight it must have seemed as if they were trapped in a nightmare. The defenders of Durrës sensed the mood and began an ominous new chant. The emperor Alexius was on his way, they said, at the head of a massive relief army.

Alexius Comnenus was a formidable opponent. Claiming descent from one of the patrician families of ancient Rome, he was a rare combination of military and political brilliance. At the age of forty he had never lost a battle and was the empire’s most acclaimed general. Byzantium was in desperate need of such a man. Marauding Turks were overrunning the eastern frontiers, Slavs and Bulgars were invading from the west, and incompetent leadership in Constantinople only accelerated the pace of disintegration. By the decade’s end there had been frantic appeals to the one general capable of stopping the bleeding, and Alexius obliged, easily expelling the elderly occupant of the palace.

Despite the new emperor’s unblemished military record, however, the Norman invasion presented a serious problem. The chaos afflicting the empire had reduced the army to a disorganized mess and it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. There was still a highly effective core – the famous Varangian Guard – but the rest was a mix of undisciplined militias, mercenaries, and private bodyguards. It wasn’t exactly an inspiring force, but for the moment it would have to do. The empire was under attack and there was no time for training or drills.  

Both Alexius and Guiscard had reasons to avoid the battle. While the Norman lines were weakened with disease, they were still frighteningly potent, and the emperor would have liked to let the coming winter soften them up a bit more. He also doubted the loyalty of his mercenaries, and had good reason to suspect that they would desert at the first sign of trouble. Robert, on the other hand, was now caught between the imperial army and a heavily fortified city, and was unenthusiastic about initiating a battle. His normal practice would have been to withdraw to find a more suitable position to attack, but thanks to his rash decision to scuttle the fleet that was no longer an option.  

The only ones actually looking forward to the fight were the Varangians. Fifteen years earlier, William the Conqueror had burst into England, killing the rightful king and subjecting the Anglo-Saxons to an increasingly brutal reign. Many of those who found life intolerable under the Norman boot eventually made their way to Constantinople where they enlisted in the ranks of the Guard. Now at last they were face to face with the hated foreigners who had despoiled their homes, murdered their families, and stolen their possessions. Hastings could finally be avenged.  

Guiscard led the first attack against the center of the Byzantine line. The Normans had never yet encountered an enemy that could stand up to a cavalry charge, but against the wall of Varangians, it was the Normans who broke. Repeated charges were no more effective, and the Varangians began to slowly advance, wading into the Norman line with their wicked, double-headed axes. Unfortunately for Alexius, the rest of the Byzantine army failed to follow their lead. His Turkish auxiliaries chose this moment to desert, and the hopelessly outnumbered Varangians were left exposed and surrounded. The few that managed to escape fled to a nearby chapel dedicated to the archangel Michael, but there was no sanctuary against the Norman fury. The church and all within were burned to the ground.

The defeat seemed to sap the remaining strength from Byzantine territory. Durrës surrendered after another week of symbolic resistance and the rest of northern Greece wasn’t far behind. When Guiscard reached Macedonia, the town of Kastoria surrendered without a fight, despite being guarded by three hundred Varangians. If even the elite forces of the empire were not loyal, then Constantinople was as good as won, and Guiscard boasted that he would be in the capital in time for Christmas. For once, however, he had met his match. Alexius couldn’t stop the Normans with a sword, but he still had his pen, and where armies had failed, diplomacy would succeed.

Southern Italy was a tinderbox waiting to explode, filled with barons and nobles who resented the Norman yoke and who despised their subservient status. They were held in check only by fear, each of them unwilling to take the first step. Alexius merely had to provide some motivation. Byzantine agents were sent to Italy loaded down with bags of gold whispering that now was the time to strike. Almost overnight the peninsula flared into open revolt. The man Guiscard had left to represent him southern Italy wrote desperately to his master that if he didn’t return soon he wouldn’t have a home to return to.

Guiscard hesitated as long as he could. The longer he let the rebellion fester, the more difficult it would be to suppress. But he had Byzantium on its heels and the invasion was sure to falter in his absence. Valuable ground would be lost and the wily Alexius would have time to recover. Finally in the early months of 1082 news arrived that forced his hand. The German emperor, Henry IV, was marching on Rome and the frantic pope was calling for Norman protection at once. Taking a public oath to remain unshaven and unwashed until he returned, Guiscard left the army in his son Bohemond’s care and left for Italy.

Pope Gregory VII was a strange ally for the rough Norman duke. Idealistic, principled, and inflexible, he was the last person who would be expected to stand by the morally ambivalent Guiscard. Necessity, however, had driven them together. Gregory was involved in a great controversy, which had thrown Christendom into turmoil. He was attempting to break the Church free from secular control and had clashed with the German emperor, Henry IV. The first victory had belonged to the pope. Henry had been excommunicated and had been forced to trek barefoot in the middle of winter to the remote castle of Canossa in northern Italy, and beg Gregory to lift the sentence. That had merely been the opening salvo, however, and as soon as he was strong enough the emperor had threatened to bring his army to Rome and appoint a new pope if Gregory wouldn’t back down. Gregory needed a defender, and there was only one figure in Italy capable of being one. Swallowing his pride, he had offered Guiscard legitimacy and papal support in exchange for protection. The deal worked well enough until Guiscard left to invade Byzantium. A letter from Alexius, along with a few bags of gold, had found their way to emperor Henry urging him to descend on defenseless Italy. The emperor, of course, hardly needed to be asked twice.

Henry’s army had little problem breaking into Rome. Gregory fled to Hadrian’s mausoleum, and just managed to hold out. His supporters still controlled the left bank of the Tiber, and disease began to decimate the imperial ranks. Henry withdrew with most of his forces to higher ground and settled in for a siege.

Guiscard meanwhile was busy trying to stamp out the revolt in southern Italy, ignoring the pope’s increasingly panicked letters. By the end of 1084 he had crushed the last resistance, and could have come to Gregory’s aid but he hesitated. As he had feared, the Byzantine campaign was in serious trouble, and if he didn’t return immediately there was the real possibility of a complete collapse. On the other hand, his attention was simultaneously needed in Rome, where a valuable ally was fighting for his life. For one of the only times in his life, Robert Guiscard didn’t know what to do.

Once again, however, the decision was made for him by outside forces, this time by the Romans themselves. They were tired of Gregory, blaming his inflexibility for the long siege and severe privation, and they opened the gates and invited Henry to take full possession of Rome. The emperor entered in triumph, declared Gregory deposed, and appointed his own candidate. Guiscard now had no choice but to act. If Gregory was destroyed than so was the Hauteville legitimacy. Byzantium would have to wait. Gathering a massive army from every part of his domain, he marched on Rome.

Henry was not foolish enough to be there when Guiscard arrived. His weakened army was no match for the Normans and he knew it. Three days before Guiscard appeared, the emperor advised the Romans to defend themselves as best they could and then slipped away. The panicked inhabitants of the city barred the gates, but they were doomed. The walls of the city had been built 800 years before during the reign of the emperor Aurelian and hadn’t been significantly updated since. Within minutes of Guiscard’s first attack, his soldiers broke in and fanned out through the city killing and looting as they went. Gregory was escorted from Hadrian’s mausoleum to the Lateran in triumph and once again seated on the papal throne.

The victory, however, was a pyrrhic one. The Muslim and Greek contingents of Guiscard’s army saw the city as their prize to plunder and started a frenzy of rape and murder. After three days of this treatment the cowed citizens were pushed to their limit and took to the streets, waging a desperate guerrilla campaign against the invaders. Any semblance of order vanished in the chaos and the Normans, realizing they had lost control, started setting fires in an attempt to flush out their enemies. The damage was immense. What wasn’t burned down was despoiled. From the Lateran to the Coliseum barely a building was left standing. Neither churches, nor palaces, nor ancient pagan temples were spared.

Gregory had been restored, but he was now so universally hated that he had to accompany Guiscard’s army when it withdrew. He found a new home in Salerno, where he set up his court in exile, and concentrated on his reform of the Church. He died the following year and was buried, as was fitting, in a Norman tomb. He was defiant until the end, but his last words were bitter: “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile”.

Robert Guiscard, meanwhile, was finally free to concentrate on Byzantium. The war had not gone well without him. His son, Bohemond, was a superb knight and a good general, but he lacked his father’s ability to inspire. Despite demolishing three successive armies that the emperor had sent against him, the mood in the Norman camp was increasingly defeatist. It had been nearly four years since they had sailed from Italy, and yet they were no closer to taking Constantinople than on the day they had arrived. Most of them were exhausted and homesick, beginning to feel as if this long campaign would never end. Bohemond managed to hold them together for a few more months, but at the end of the campaigning season he committed the cardinal sin of underestimating his opponent. As he was crossing a river in northern Greece, Alexius lured him into attacking a decoy force while the main imperial army plundered the Norman baggage. After an afternoon spent chasing shadows, Bohemond returned to his camp to find that four years worth of spoils had vanished. For the weary army it was the last straw. The moment Bohemond’s back was turned the men surrendered en masse to Alexius.

It was a severe setback, but Guiscard was nothing if not persistent. Although he was now seventy, he had lost none of his vigor and he immediately gathered another army. He spent the winter in Corfu, but typhoid fever struck the camp killing thousands. When it finally abated, he gave orders to sail to the Byzantine island of Cephalonia as the first step of the campaign. In the middle of the crossing, however, Guiscard himself was struck by the fever and was barely strong enough to stand when he arrived. He died on July 17, 1085, having never lost a major battle.

The body was taken back to Italy, but just off the coast of Otranto the corpse washed overboard in a storm and was badly damaged. The sailors managed to recover it, but the decision was made to remove the heart and entrails and bury them in a small chapel while the rest was embalmed and completed the journey to the Hauteville mausoleum in Venosa, Italy. There it was interred in the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in a magnificent tomb.

He had lived an extraordinary life, and his accomplishments had earned him a spot as one of the greatest military adventurers. With a mixture of vision, political skill, and force of personality he had taken a small barony and turned it into one of the great powers of Europe. Along the way he had evicted the Byzantines from Italy, the Muslims from Sicily, saved the reformed papacy, and held two emperors at bay. An anonymous stone worker put it best in an inscription above his tomb: “Here lies Guiscard, Terror of the World…”

Artemisia I of Halicarnassus: the only woman at the table

Fifty years after Tomyris defeated Cyrus the Great of Persia, Artemisia I of Halicarnassus fought on the side of another Persian king, Xerxes, in his war against the Greeks in 480 BCE.* Like her namesake, Artemisia II,† she ruled the Carian city of Halicarnassus and the nearby islands of Cos, Calymnos, and Nisyros as a vassal of the Persian Empire. She commanded five ships on the Persian side at the Battle of Salamis—a battle the Persians lost in large part because Xerxes ignored her advice.

Ten years earlier, the Greeks had slaughtered a Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. Now the Persians were back for revenge, led by Xerxes himself.

In addition to a land army, reported by Herodotus to be the largest army ever assembled, Xerxes also put together a navy to fight the Greeks. Artemisia was the only woman in the fleet,‡ but she was not the only non-Persian to bring ships to the fight. Persia was a land power. Every ship in the Persian fleet was provided by an oceangoing Persian vassal state, including some places we think of today as Greek.

Herodotus reported that it was “a most strange and interesting thing” that Artemisia fought in the war against Greece.6 She had a grown son who would have been the logical choice to serve as the Carian commander. Instead, Artemisia chose to command the Carian ships herself. According to Herodotus: “Her own spirit of adventure and her manly courage were her only incentives.”§

Before Salamis, Artemisia distinguished herself in the Battle of Artemisium, which took place off the Greek island of Euboea (known today as Évvoia) at the same time the Persian army was forcing its way through the pass at Thermopylae. When the news came of the Persian victory at Thermopylae, the Greeks withdrew. Both fleets suffered heavy losses. There was no clear winner.

After his victory at Thermopylae, Xerxes marched across Greece and burned Athens to the ground. The Greeks abandoned Athens before the Persians arrived and rallied their navy off the coast, near the straits of Salamis. Now Xerxes had to make a decision. He could call it a win and go home. He could besiege the Greek cities until they sued for peace. Or he could meet the Greeks in a sea battle, hoping for another decisive win.

He called a war council with his fleet commanders, including Artemisia. Unlike the other commanders, Artemisia advised him not to fight the Greeks at sea. The Persian fleet was larger, but the Greeks were more experienced seamen. If Xerxes did not rush into a sea battle, the Greeks would soon disperse. But if Xerxes allowed himself to be sucked into another naval disaster it could mean the ruin of his land army as well as his navy.

Xerxes did not take Artemisia’s advice. He decided the Persians had lost at Euboea because he was not there to oversee the battle in person. (Hubris much?) He ordered the Persian fleet to pursue the Greeks into the narrow channel between the island of Salamis and the Greek mainland. Artemisia may have believed the orders were a mistake, but when the Persian triremes rowed out of Phaleron Bay, her ships were among them.

The Battle of Salamis began on September 20, 480 BCE.

The triremes that made up the fleets on both sides were wooden warships that were state-of-the-art naval technology. In battle, when speed and maneuverability were at a premium, three banks of rowers powered the ships. The prow at the waterline ended in a ram: a timber core covered with cast bronze. (Do not forget the ram. It plays an important role in Artemisia’s story.) Only amateurs—like the Persians—tried to board an enemy ship and fight it out on deck; experienced crews used the ram to strike another ship and then retreated before the enemy could fight back.

The narrow channel off Salamis turned Persia’s superior numbers into a liability. The Persian fleet advanced in tight lines, similar to the formation of Persian troops in a land battle. The smaller, more maneuverable Greek ships soon gained the upper hand. At one point in the confusion of battle, Artemisia found herself pursued by an Athenian ship. She was blocked on one side by Persian ships and by enemy ships on the other. Desperate to escape capture by the enemy, she rammed another ship from the Persian fleet, which sank with its entire crew.* This maneuver convinced her pursuer that her ship was either under Greek command or had switched sides in midbattle—not an unknown situation in a fleet that was made up of ships provided by Persian vassal states with varying degrees of commitment to the empire.

The Greek commander’s decision not to continue the pursuit was an expensive one. The Athenians had put a price on Artemisia’s head, because they “resented the fact that a woman should appear in arms against them”†—ten thousand drachmas to anyone who captured her alive.‡

Xerxes watched the battle from the high land overlooking the channel. When an aide brought Artemisia’s action to his attention, Xerxes made the not-unreasonable assumption that she had rammed an enemy ship, and declared, “My men have turned into women, my women into men.”§

Artemisia made one last appearance in the history of the Greco-Persian wars. After the Battle of Salamis, Xerxes feared the Greeks would be emboldened by their victory and march against the Persian forces quartered at the Hellespont. One of his generals, Mardonius, suggested Xerxes return to Persia and leave Mardonius in command of an army of three hundred thousand men, with which he would subdue the Greeks. Artemisia advised the emperor to follow Mardonius’s suggestion. If the Greeks won, Xerxes could blame Mardonius. If the Persian army defeated the Greeks again, Xerxes could take the credit. (A dubious management strategy by modern standards.) This time, Xerxes followed Artemisia’s advice. He gave Artemisia the job of escorting his (illegitimate) sons to Ephesus.

We know nothing about Artemisia’s life after she headed to Ephesus. Perhaps she went home to Halicarnassus and turned the reins of power over to her son. Perhaps her “manly courage” spurred her on to new adventures.

Prince Jozef Anton Poniatowski, (1763-1813)

Prince Jozef Poniatowski was a nephew of the last king of Poland-Lithuania. Born into an affluent family, he was raised to be a soldier. He spent a large part of his life fighting for Poland: first against the Russians in the war of 1792-1794, then as one of Napoleon’s generals, and finally as a Marshal of the French Empire. As the head of the Polish force of the Duchy of Warsaw, Poniatowski served throughout the campaign in Russia in 1812 and stood by Napoleon until his death at the Battle of Leipzig the following year.

Poniatowski was born on 7 May 1763 in Vienna to Andrzej Poniatowski, a general in the Austrian Army, and Teresa Kinsky, a descendant of an old Czech family. On the election to the Polish-Lithuanian throne of Jozef’s uncle Stanissaw August, Jozef and the other members of his family received a princely title. A year later his father received the hereditary title of a Czech prince from the Austrian empress, Maria Theresa. After the loss of his father, young Jozef enjoyed the patronage and assistance of his crowned uncle in Poland, who wished to raise his nephew to be a true Pole.

In February 1780 Jozef joined the Austrian Army with the rank of second lieutenant of the 2nd Regiment of Carabiniers of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. His exceptional talents for military service and his hard work led to rapid advancement. In 1784, already holding the rank of major, he was sent to Galicia to organize a Polish uhlan (lancer) regiment, of which he served as commander for the next two years. In 1786 Poniatowski transferred to the elite light cavalry regiment at Moravia that bore the name of the Emperor Joseph II, and of which Poniatowski was appointed lieutenant colonel.

In January 1788 the Emperor appointed Poniatowski as his personal aide-de-camp during the war against Turkey; at this time Poniatowski was wounded. By year’s end Poniatowski was asked to come to Poland to join the newly formed units of the enlarged Polish army. He arrived in Warsaw in August 1789 and on 3 October was nominated a major general. In January 1790 he was appointed commander of the Royal Foot Guard, though he served only briefly in this capacity, for in the spring he took over command of the Bracsaw and Kijew divisions based in Tulczyn, which constituted a quarter of the Polish Army.

On 3 May 1791 the Polish parliament adopted the first Polish Constitution, a circumstance which resulted in the Russo-Polish War the following year, when Russian forces crossed the Polish border seeking to back the Targowica Confederation (a legal, self-proclaimed political faction opposed to the monarch and other state institutions), established by a group of Polish magnates opposing the new constitution. The Polish army was no match for the Russian forces and therefore could do little more than simply slow their advance. Poniatowski suffered a defeat at the Battle of Boruszkowce, only to win the next one at Zieleuce, for which he became the first recipient of the Polish Order Virtuti Militari. When the king of Poland joined the Targowica Confederation in July 1792, Poniatowski resigned and left the army for Warsaw. In August of the same year Poniatowski left Poland for Saxony and Vienna. In July 1793 he left Vienna under pressure from the Russian ambassador and went to Brussels.

The following year, in May, he returned to Poland to join the Polish insurgent troops, under the command of Tadeusz Ko$ciuszko (Thaddeus Kosciusko), who were fighting against Russian forces. While the fortunes of each side shifted throughout the war, the ultimate outcome of the insurrection could be but one, given the disproportionate strength of the Russian army as compared to the numbers fielded by the Polish insurgents. After the collapse of the uprising and the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Poniatowski once more went to Vienna.

His biographers refer to the ensuing twelve years as a lost time. After the defeat of the Prussian army at the battles of Jena and Auerstädt (14 October 1806), the Prussian king Frederick William III asked Poniatowski, after the departure of Prussian troops from the king’s Polish territories, to organize a citizens’ militia in Warsaw (part of Prussian Poland). Poniatowski willingly accepted, stressing that the formation would serve the people of Warsaw, not the Prussian authorities. On 28 November 1806 Poniatowski welcomed the Grand Duke of Cleves and Berg, Marshal Joachim Murat, on his entering Warsaw with a French corps. On 6 December Poniatowski decided to serve Poland on the side of the French emperor. Ten days later he was ordered to begin recruiting men for a Warsaw Legion.

On 5 January 1807 Poniatowski presented Napoleon with a “memorandum” suggesting that Napoleon form a Polish state consisting of the Prussian and Russian occupied territories. Just before the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw as a result of the Treaty of Tilsit of 7 July, Poniatowski was honored with the French Legion of Honor by Napoleon; he was then nominated the minister of war on 7 October. After the departure of Marshal Louis Davout from the duchy in September 1808, Poniatowski became head of the newly formed Polish forces there.

As a commander in chief and organizer of the duchy’s army, Poniatowski ensured that the newly raised troops were well equipped and respected in society. He paid special attention to the soldiers’ uniforms, which became some of the most colorful in Europe. According to the constitution of the duchy, the army was to number 30,000 men, a figure that was attained very rapidly. Shortly thereafter, however, because of financial problems arising out of the considerable sums expended in feeding, arming, and equipping the army, some regiments were sent for service in Danzig (Gdansk), Silesia, Prussian forts in Pomerania, and even as far as Spain. There were 15,500 soldiers stationed in the duchy itself.

It was this army, which in 1809, as a French ally in the War of the Fifth Coalition, fought against the 30,000- strong Austrian army of Archduke Ferdinand, who crossed the border of the duchy in April. Poniatowski, whose troops were not strong enough to directly face Ferdinand’s army, decided to leave Warsaw undefended and march south toward Austrian Galicia, which fell under his control. Meanwhile the outcome of the war was decided on other battlefields. As a result of the Battle of Wagram, the Austrians sued for peace and concluded the Treaty of Schönbrunn (14 October), which applied to the Duchy of Warsaw as well. By its terms the Duchy of Warsaw gained the old capital of Poland-Krakow-and enlarged its territory by 50 percent. Poniatowski himself was praised for his part in the campaign.

From 1810 Poniatowski worked toward the enlargement of the army of the duchy and the strengthening of the country’s fortifications. In the end the duchy’s military forces exceeded 60,000 men. For Napoleon’s Russian campaign in 1812, the Duchy of Warsaw supplied almost 100,000 men. These constituted the regular regiments of the Duchy of Warsaw and the National Guard. Most of these troops were scattered in various multinational regiments of the Grande Armée. Poniatowski himself commanded the 36,000-strong all-Polish V Corps, which formed the right wing of the army.

Napoleon and Poniatowski before the burning city of Smolensk

On 17 August Poniatowski’s troops took part in the Battle of Smolensk (by which time only about 15,000 of his men remained), on 4-5 September in the action at Szewrdin, and two days later at the Battle of Borodino. By the time V Corps reached Moscow, Poniatowski’s command had been reduced to a mere 5,500 men. During the retreat Poniatowski served in the rear guard, protecting the remnants of the Grande Armée. Wounded on 29 October, however, he did not take part in the end of the campaign.

On 13 December Poniatowski returned to Warsaw and started to rebuild his corps. He faced a daunting task, for only 380 Polish soldiers returned from the campaign. With the Russian army approaching Warsaw, Poniatowski left for Krakow, where he continued to raise new recruits. Concerned that the Austrians would join the Russians and Prussians, Poniatowski left Krakow on 7 May 1813 and with barely 17,000 men marched toward Silesia. Three months later, on 10 August, he stopped an Austrian army from marching toward Saxony-the main theater of operations during the campaign of 1813 in Germany.

Death of Poniatowski. Painting by January Suchodolski.

Poniatowski and his troops fought at the decisive Battle of Leipzig on 16-19 October. After the first day of the action Napoleon created him a Marshal of the Empire for deeds performed on the battlefield. Three days later, covering the retreat of Napoleon’s army, Poniatowski drowned when attempting to cross the Elster. Five days later his body was recovered from the muddy river, and in 1814 he was buried in Warsaw. Three years later his body was transferred to the Royal Cathedral on Wawel Hill in Krakow.

References and further reading Askenazy, Szymon. 1905. Ksiaze Jozef Poniatowski 1763-1813. Warsaw: Gebethner and Wolff. Chandler, David, ed. 1987. Napoleon’s Marshals. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Delderfield, R. F. 2004. The March of the Twenty-Six. London: Leo Cooper. Macdonnell, A. G. 1996. Napoleon and His Marshals. London: Prion. Skowronek, Jerzy. 1984. Ksiaze Jozef Poniatowski. Warsaw: Ossolineum. Young, Peter. 1973a. Napoleon’s Marshals. London: Osprey. —. 1973b. Napoleon’s Marshals. New York: Hippocrene.

The Military Genius of Tadeusz Kosciuszko

His American and Polish Campaigns

Born in 1746, in 1765 Kosciuszko enters the charter class of the Knight’s School, the Polish Military Academy founded by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski. He graduates in 1766 as a chorazy (an Ensign or First Lieutenant) and stays on as an instructor. In 1769 he leaves for France and further military studies. Returning to Poland only for a short time in 1774-5, he sails from France for the Americas in the summer of 1776.

In America, a new social experiment is being attempted: the revolution of the British Colonies against the most potent nation on earth. It is a revolt which is being fought more on principle than passion. In Kosciuszko’s decision to join the fight for colonial independence, national pride was not an issue, rather the principle of freedom was. (The willingness to join the fight for colonial independence was not unlike that of more recent memory when in our own time people of all nationalities fought in the Spanish Civil War.)

Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, Kosciuszko seeks a commission from the Continental Congress. He is armed with a letter of recommendation from Prince Czartoryski to Washington’s second-in-command, General Charles Lee. Although the Continental Congress is the only authority in the Colonies, it is in a financial quandary and its leadership is most precarious. Decisions are not easily made. Fortuitously for Kosciuszko, however, the Congress fears that the British fleet might attack the port of Philadelphia and so it begins to seek an engineer who could help construct fortifications for the port’s defense. Thus Tadeusz Kosciuszko receives a commission as a Lt. Colonel and is assigned to the task.

Kosciuszko relishes the opportunity to employ in real terms the lessons of his military training. But the fortification of the port of Philadelphia is by no means all that compels the Congress to require the services of a military engineer.

A look at the Colonies at the time shows a land bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and criss-crossed by many rivers, navigable ones at that, and many connecting lakes. These waterways can be used by the British to deliver supplies and arms directly from England unencumbered. British troops can travel up and down the Hudson River-Lake Champlain complex from New York City to Montreal and vice-versa. Control of this route is especially critical, since it can split the land forces of the upstart Colonies in two. How desperate the Continental Congress must be to rely upon a young, untested foreign officer who does not yet know the terrain involved.

Kosciuszko quickly plans the defenses of Philadelphia. He builds Fort Mercer as the main fortification and erects palisades in the water to canalize the English ship movement to areas near either shore where they can be bombarded from the banks. He knows the value of being able to deliver withering fire from covering barricades irrespective of the terrain involved. The feared attack does not occur. Kosciuszko’s work is greatly admired.

Fort Ticonderoga

Kosciuszko’s reputation being established, he is next sent to prepare the defenses of Fort Ticonderoga, situated right at the neck of Lake Champlain-Hudson River access route. Should the British control this route then their forces in Montreal and in New York City can support each other. Fort Ticonderoga is a vital blocking point to their movements up and down this waterway. The local topography is such that Sugar Loaf Hill overlooks the Fort. Kosciuszko immediately tells the commanding general to man the hill with artillery. He is countermanded by the fort commander who considered placement of heavy guns there as unattainable because of the terrain.

The British under Burgoyne reach the Fort; a few days later a British battery appears on the Hill, vindicating Kosciuszko’s judgment. The American position becomes untenable.

The Battle of Saratoga

The Colonial garrison is forced to retreat south towards Albany. The new American general, General Gates, asks Kosciuszko to make a new defensive line at a place of his choosing. Kosciuszko selects Bemis Heights on the Hudson River, a most formidable position on the high ground, slightly south of Saratoga. Time an again Burgoyne attacks unsuccessfully. Heartened, General Gates selects Gen. Benedict Arnold to attack the British barricades redoubt. The Americans take a redoubt which overlooks the British position. Burgoyne now must retreat or surrender. He surrenders on October 17, 1777. This action marks the first victory for the Upstart rebels over the British. It convinces France to enter the war on the side of the Colonies.

Kosciuszko’s and the Continental Army’s success makes him ponder, for here a citizen army defeated a highly trained professional army. Could this be done elsewhere, particularly in his beloved Poland too?

Fortification of West Point

Kosciuszko’s next major assignment is the fortification of West Point. another developing blocking position. His defenses are brilliant. Located on imposing sheer cliffs, they give a commanding view of the water and interlocking artillery fire. David C. Arney, Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point, looking down from the location of the Kosciuszko monument at West Point, has written of Kosciuszko’s work on the fortification of West Point in the following terms:

Kosciuszko overlooks the river at its critical point, where ships have to negotiate a sharp turn to pass up river. Kosciuszko’s background of strong geometric mathematics skills and military training at the Warsaw Military Academy gave him the tools to become an expert at designing and building fortifications. That’s exactly what Washington had him do for the headquarters at West Point. The fortification was so strong it could never be breached without complete knowledge of its structure. Giving that structure to the enemy British forces was what Benedict Arnold did to earn the label of “traitor”.

As part of the fortification, Kosciuszko has an enormous chain constructed to span the width of the Hudson. It is designed to remain submerged and un-observable to unwary ships. At the right moment, it can be raised above the water, stranding the ship and making it a sitting duck for the American batteries. British ships never try to sail past West Point but Kosciuszko’s already enormous credentials are further enhanced. While at West Point, Kosciuszko is given a gift, a black slave, Agrippa Hull, to be his personal body servant. He promptly releases the man, but Agrippa stays on to serve him. Kosciuszko serves in the Continental Army for a further three years, moving throughout the enormous southern campaign. No longer a staff officer, he actually commands troops and is involved in hand to hand fighting. On one occasion, four bullets tear his clothing, but none came in contact with his flesh. He also sees many slaves, which reinforced his thinking about the dignity of the common man. Following Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown and the eventual and complete American success, Kosciuszko is promoted on July 15, 1784, much after the war, to Brigadier General. He is also awarded the order of Cincinnatus by General George Washington.

How do Colonial leaders regard Kosciuszko? When General Gates, the original hero of Saratoga is receiving accolades from a visiting doctor, he says:

    “Stop, Doctor, let us be honest. In war, as in medicine, natural causes not under our control do much. In my case, the great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests, which a young Polish engineer was skillful enough to select for my encampments.”

Likewise, George Washington writes:

    “while I am on this subject, I would like to take the liberty to mention that I have been informed that the engineer in the Northern Army (Kosieski, I think his name is) is a gentleman of science and merit. From the character I have had of him he is deserving of notice.”

From his good friend Thomas Jefferson he receives the following accolade

    “He is as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known and of that liberty which is to go to all and not to the few or rich alone.”

An apt summary of the impact of Kosciuszko’s sojourn in America is given in the following passage by Miecislaus Haiman in his book Kosciuszko in the American Revolution (The Kosciuszko Foundation, New York, 1975, 198 pp.):

    “The American Revolution ultimately shaped Kosciuszko’s character. It deepened and widened his thoughts. It taught him the practical meaning of these ideas which were inborn in him and which he tried to fathom in theory in his youth. He was returning to Poland with an important military experience, but, above all, with a new political and social vision. His American experiences became the foundation of his future role in Poland which so strongly involved all her subsequent history.”

Return to Poland

After eight years in America, Kosciuszko returns to Poland in July 1784. Here he had observed a society where, except for black people, everyone in the population was free. As a young man in France he had been exposed to discussions of liberty for everyone and had read the writings of French philosophers. In the Poland he returns to, power rests in the hands of about 10% of the population, the szlachta and the magnaci, that is the noble estate, while the bulk of the population are peasant serfs. These are obliged to work so many days a week. in the fields of the owner of the estate to which they are attached and from whom they receive a plot of land for their own use. Kosciuszko, who himself returns to his family estate at Seichowicze, cuts the obligations of the serfs on that estate by half.

He seeks a commission in the Polish Army but it is only in 1789, five years after his return, that the King, Stanislaw August Poniatowski commissions him as a Major General. He is given an assignment under Prince Jozef Poniatowski, the King’s nephew.

The Battle of Dubienka

On May 3, 1791, the Polish Sejm, or parliament, enacts a new constitution. Its liberal characteristics prompt some magnates, formally convened at Targowice, to request Catherine the Great of Russia to intervene so as to bring about the suspension of the new constitution. As the Russians advance into Poland from the east, Kosciuszko is assigned to the defense of the part of Poland that lies between the Rivers Wisla and Bug. His valiant efforts lead to his being awarded the Virtuti Militari cross. As Prince Poniatowski consolidates his forces towards Warsaw, Kosciuszko fights a rear-guard action. At Dubienka he faces a superior Russian force of 20,000 to his 5,000. He establishes an extremely comfortable defensive position between the River Bug and the Austrian border, anchoring his line at either end in the built up area of a village, each an obstacle which channels the attacking military force to a place where it cannot act as a unit and can be dealt with piecemeal: in front of him he had a bog, a swamp. He wins the professional admiration of the Russian, General Kochowski, who faces him. On July 18, 1792, the Russians ford the Bug and mount repeated frontal attacks which are repulsed. Then they infringe Austrian sovereignty and attack from the rear forcing the Poles to disengage and retreat. Quickly, the Russian general orders the burial of their 4,000 dead in the hope of concealing their number. The Polish losses are only 90 dead. Kosciuszko continues to fight a rear-guard action as he retreats towards Warsaw.

On July 25, word reaches him that the King, fearing senseless slaughter in the face of the numerically superior Russian forces, has agreed to accede to the demands of the Targowice Confederation and to capitulate to the Russians. On July 30, Kosciuszko, like many of his counterparts, decides to tender his resignation. Though he is promoted to the rank of major general and is called to an audience with the King, he declines the request of the King to continue to serve, leaves Poland and journeys to Leipzig.

The Kosciuszko Uprising

On 23 November, 1793, the Second Partition of Poland is promulgated. Poland now loses an additional 42% of its territory through annexation by Russia and Prussia. This leaves only 29% of the pre 1773 state nominally in Polish hands. Even this area is under the de facto occupation by Russian troops. The Poles seethe and plan an uprising. Messages are sent to Italy, to where Kosciuszko has traveled, telling him everything is ready for the uprising and asking him to take leadership. He tells the delegation he will accept but on one condition. Za szlachte tylko nie bede sie bic. (“For the landed gentry alone I will not fight.”). Why was Kosciuszko chosen? The landed gentry was divided and it would have been difficult to find another leader, even Prince Jozef Poniatowski, who would be trusted. Kosciuszko was the ideal person, he had the experience, and his ideals inspire.

Let me digress. Upon his return to Poland from the States, Kosciuszko felt that what Poland needed was to organize a citizen’s army drawn from all the estates and modeled after that of the United States. He worked out a plan and submitted it to the King. It envisaged a Standing Regular Army, a Standing Active Reserve, and a Local Militia, very much like the current National Guard. It also envisaged a General Mobilization whereby every one between the ages of 18 and 55 would be called to arms. All these people would be fully trained. Though the King did not adopt the plan, fearing that the Militia could easily be transformed into the private armies of the various magnates, the plan does give insight into Kosciuszko’s thinking. So does the oath he takes in Krakow on the Rynek Glowny on March 24:

    “I, Tadeusz Kosciuszko swear in the sight of God and the entire Nation that I will not use the authority and power vested in me for private subjugation but only in the defense of the integrity of the Nation’s borders, the recovery of its sovereignty and the granting of universal freedom, so help me God and His Son’s innocent Sacrifice.”

For all his authority and power as leader of the insurrection, he finds himself in a difficult economic, political and social situation: the Polish armed forces amount to no more than 12-13,000 soldiers, while the Russians have 21,000 troops stationed in what is left of Poland. The peasants, to whom he offers relief from their obligations to the landed gentry, flock to his banners. What kind of weapons can they be equipped with to allow them to fight with a standard military force?. The genius of Kosciuszko is evident in the solution: the kosa, or scythe. Though its blade is normally mounted at a 90 degree angle to its handle, it is a very simple operation to mount it so that it takes the form of a pike or long sharp bayonet. All one has to do is to heat one end of it, straighten it up and put it back on the handle. Moreover, those who carried it know how to use it for they have handled it from the time they were old enough to go into the fields. This is Kosciuszko’s secret weapon.

The Battle of Raclawice

Kosciuszko’s objective is to reach Warsaw. In ten days he has assembled a force of approximately 4,000 regular troops, 2,000 Kosinierzy, or scythe-bearers and 12 cannons. On April 4, his way is blocked a short distance at Krakow, at Raclawice, by a superior Russian force under General Tormasow who initiates the attack. But the tactics improvised by Kosciuszko are unlike any the Russians have experienced. The regular military procedure at the time was to assemble the forces in very tight musket formations, shoulder to shoulder and several rows deep, facing the enemy. In this manner the formation would put out a high volume fire and continue to do so without pause as those who had fired their musket fell behind to reload and the next row stepped forward to fire. Kosciuszko, however, has learned in America unconventional warfare, where one fires from behind a tree, from a ravine or from behind a rock, in other words, where one takes advantage of natural features of the landscape. Now he stealthily moves the Kosinierzy up a gully to within 200 to 300 yards of the Russian cannons. Then, leading the charge, he has them cover the remaining distance at the double on a narrow front. They thus get to the standing Russian formation without suffering many casualties and they capture the cannons. In military terms it was only a tactical victory, but for the Polish people it was also a great moral, social and political one.

One of the Kosinierzy, Wojciech Bartos, personally captured a cannon. To mark his valor, Kosciuszko elevates him to the rank of chorazy and gives him a new name, that of Wojciech Glowacki. He also decrees that the land he tilled would be his in perpetuity and that he would be free of obligations to his former landowner. As an additional mark of his appreciation for the valor of the Kosinierzy, he dons the sukmana, or peasant russet frock coat. On April 17, there is an uprising in Warsaw and on the 24 in Wilno.

The Battle of Maciejowice

The ebb and flow of the uprising continues through September when on the 15th, Kosciuszko receives notice of a new threat in the form of a fresh Russian force some 12-13,000 strong moving across the Wolyn between the Bug and Wisla Rivers. Concerned that the 14,000 strong force under General Fersen will link up with it, he plans to attack Fersen before the latter is able to accomplish the link up. He decides to assume command personally and to this end rides out from Warsaw to Maciejowice, covering the 120 km distance in 11 hours, changing horses repeatedly. Looking the situation over, he develops a battle plan which calls for him to be joined by a force under General Poninski some 40 km away. He sends an order to Poni�ski to join him, but the messenger carrying the order is captured by the Russians. Kosciuszko realizes what has happened and a second messenger is dispatched who makes it through, but a delay of about six hours has occurred. Aware of this Fersen. attacks. It is the 10th of October. Though Kosciuszko had the high ground, he had only 7,000 troops to Fersen’s 12,000. At the back of his position runs a swampy river, but the Russians move across it, attack Kosciuszko’s right wing and crush it. Part of the Polish cavalry quits the field while Kosciuszko entreats with them to regroup. They run into a Kossak patrol and in a brief skirmish, Kosciuszko falls off his horse, is wounded and then severely cut on the head. With that event the Kosciuszko insurrection generally comes to an end. Taken prisoner, Kosciuszko is supposed to have said as he regains consciousness, “jam Kosciuszko wody” meaning “I am Kosciuszko, give me water.” The Russians propagandize that instead he has said Finis Poloniae, the Latin for “Poland is finished,” Poles counter with Jeszcze Polska nie zginela or “Poland has not yet been lost,” words destined to become the first verse of Poland’s National Anthem.

The End of General Gordon

Days passed without any sign of British steamers, and the morale of the government troops began to droop once more. ‘Gordon Pasha used to say every day, “They must come tomorrow,”’ recalled Bordeini, ‘but they never came and we began to think that they must have been defeated by the rebels after all.’ Gordon had all the ammunition moved along the waterfront, to the Catholic church, where it would be safer behind thick stone walls. He had a mine primed in the church, with a fuse linked to the palace, so that it could be blown if necessary. He had long ago had two massive mines set up in the basement of the palace itself, ready to blow himself to smithereens before the dervishes could capture him. The small steamer Mohammad ‘Ali was kept moored and provisioned at the palace jetty, to provide an escape-route for the consuls and other prominent citizens.

On Sunday 25 January 1885 the sun came up weak and pallid. The morning was cold, and the Nile was at its lowest, a dirty brown trickle between mud-banks and shoulders of dried mud like cracked and broken leather. Gordon was on the terrace with his telescope at first light, scanning the dervish positions. In wad an-Nejumi’s camp at Kalakla, near the White Nile, to the southwest, thousands of dervish warriors had left their positions and were couching and loading camels. Gordon sent his ADC, Khalil Agha Orfali, a Syrian ex-Bashi-Bazuk, to the telegraph office on the ground floor to order the men stood to. He expected an attack. He instructed the officers on the defences to hold their positions until 0800 hours the following morning, when, he assured them, British troops would arrive.

He called his Chief Clerk, Giriagis Bey, and had him convene a committee meeting in his office at the palace. Once again, Gordon did not attend in person. Instead, Giriagis relayed his instructions that every male in Khartoum above the age of eight years must be collected and told to line the defences alongside the troops.

After the meeting Bordeini Bey asked to see Gordon and was shown into his room next door. Gordon was sitting on a divan near a table on which Bordeini saw two full boxes of cigarettes. When the Bey entered, Gordon pulled off his tarboosh and flung it moodily at the wall. ‘I have nothing more to say,’ he told him. ‘People will no longer believe me, and I have told them over and over that help would be here, but it has never come, and now they must see I tell them lies. If this, my last promise, fails, I can do no more. Go and collect all the people you can on the lines and make a good stand.’

Bordeini realized that Gordon was more agitated than he had ever seen him, and in fact had been too upset to attend the meeting. This was why he had sent Giriagis instead. His hair seemed to have turned white overnight. Gordon told Bordeini that if the attack came, he should stay in his house until he sent for him. ‘Now leave me and let me smoke these cigarettes,’ he said. They were Gordon’s last recorded words.

After sunset there were three other visitors: consuls Martin Hansall and Nikolaos Leontides, and a Greek doctor. They remained with him until midnight. After they had gone, Gordon stayed up for another hour, writing, chain-smoking and occasionally pacing the room. At one in the morning he called his ADC, Orfali, and told him to check with the telegraph room to see if there was any news from the defences. Orfali returned minutes later to report that all was quiet.

Half an hour afterwards Gordon heard the sound of gunfire from the southern ramparts. Orfali told him that there had been a minor attack on Burri fort, but that it had been repulsed. Gordon then prepared for bed. After closing all the doors along the corridor, Orfali went down and instructed the duty telegraph clerk to notify him immediately if there were any developments. He then retired to his room.

At about 0300 hours, Orfali roused Gordon and told him the Mahdi had launched an attack from the direction of the White Nile. Gordon threw on his dressing-gown and prepared for action, but the first reports suggested that the attack had been broken off. Soon after, though, both Gordon and Orfali heard shooting, and several orderlies ran down from the terrace and told them that waves of dervishes were flooding into the town.

The Mahdi and ‘Abdallahi had crossed the White Nile by boat shortly after last light, and joined their hordes under ‘Abd ar-Rahman wad an-Nejumi near Kalakla. At midnight, just as Gordon was bidding farewell to Hansall and Leontides, the Mahdi had given wad an-Nejumi the order to attack. The dervishes had advanced so silently on the gap in the defences that the troops manning the ramparts further to the east never heard a sound. They were not aware that an attack was in progress until minutes before the enemy crossed the line. The troops had been expecting an assault from the west, near Burri, believing that the gap was too muddy for an offensive.

The dervishes burst suddenly out of the night, carrying old angarebs to help them breast the deep mud. Some waded waist deep into the slough and allowed themselves to be used as stepping-stones by their advancing companions. Others found the ground in places less muddy than they had expected. Within minutes they were inside the town. Sentries opened fire blindly in the darkness. The starving soldiers awoke to find the enemy scrambling over the parapet in thousands, screaming death to the unbelievers.

The 5th Egyptian Regiment, under Colonel Hasan Bey al-Bahnassi, saw the enemy racing towards them. ‘They came in shouting,’ said Sid ‘Ahmad ‘Abd ar-Razak, a subaltern of the 4th battalion. ‘They broke in near the White Nile. We fired in that direction, and when we saw the enemy were behind us, Nos. 3 and 4 companies formed square, and we remained firing until the square was broken, then we formed groups and fell back on the 1st Regiment. The [dervishes] broke in amongst us and there was a mêlée, then some [of us] were taken prisoner, and others were killed.’

The government Jihadiyya, manning the wall further along, were attacked simultaneously by massed assault parties. They smashed against the Burri gate, west of the palace, and the Masalamiyya gate, to the south. In places the Sudanese troops put up a stiff resistance. ‘Though we went on firing our rifles until they were too hot to hold,’ said a survivor, Yuzbashi (Captain) ‘Abdallah Adlan, ‘[the dervishes] finally poured over the ramparts by sheer force of numbers, and anyone who remained standing was killed. Life was dear, and many of us threw ourselves down among the dead and wounded while the dervishes passed over us into the town.’

Faraj Pasha, the Commander-in-Chief, had been at Buri when the assault began. He rode down the defences on a horse, bawling at his men to hold steady. When he reached the Masallamiyya gate, though, he realized that the dervishes were inside, and that the game was up. According to some witnesses, he threw a civilian coat over his uniform and ordered the sentry to open the gate. He told his men to stop firing, and surrendered to the enemy.

The dervishes surged through the native town and dashed across the open space to the Blue Nile waterfront. Aroused by the noise, the population ran outside to see warriors teeming through the streets. Many civilians were butchered where they stood. The dervishes, wild with victory, broke into the houses, massacring, raping, pillaging and looting. ‘The whole town was now filled with the screams of the people and the shouts of the

[dervishes]

,’ wrote Nushi Pasha, in his official report based on eye-witness accounts. ‘They killed everyone they met, attacked the inhabitants in their houses and slaughtered them and ransacked everywhere.’ Other eye-witnesses reported that the Mahdi’s men systematically raped the fairer-skinned women, especially Egyptians, and women of the Ja’aliyyin and Shaygiyya tribes. Some officers shot their wives and children, then put bullets through their own heads, rather than allow them to fall into dervish hands. Mohammad Pasha Hussain, the Head of Finance, saw his daughter and her husband murdered in front of him, and refused to flee with his friends. Instead he hurled curses on the Mahdi at the onrushing warriors until they silenced him permanently.

They caught the Greek consul, Nikolaos Leontides, in his house, and severed both his hands at the wrists before cutting off his head. They smashed their way into the house of another Greek family nearby, shooting the father through the forehead and cleaving his twelve-year-old son’s head with an axe, splattering brain matter and blood over his pregnant wife, who was claimed as a concubine by wad an-Nejumi. Almost all the Egyptian Copts in the town were murdered. Among the dead was the American consul, a Copt called Aser, who died of a heart attack when his brother’s head was struck off before his eyes.

Many people were betrayed by their former slaves and servants. Austrian consul Martin Hansall’s servant led a party to his house. In the courtyard, they found Hansall’s carpenter, Mulatte Skander, whose head they cut off. Hansall himself came downstairs, unarmed, to find Skander’s headless corpse lying in a pool of blood. A second later the warriors hacked off Hansall’s head, and in a killing frenzy stabbed both his dog and his parrot. They took man, dog and parrot outside, doused them in alcohol, set them on fire, and tossed them into the Blue Nile.

Franz Klein, a Hungarian Jew who had converted to Catholicism, and who had been the official tailor to many governors-general of the Sudan, was seized in his house and had his throat cut from ear to ear in front of his Italian wife and five children. His eighteen-year-old son was speared to death, and his daughter raped.

On the waterfront, the brother left in charge of the Catholic Mission, Domenico Polinari, opened the gate a crack. He found the guards chopped to pieces, and thousands of chanting dervishes standing over their bodies, brandishing bloody spears and swords. He slammed the gate shut and fled with some black workers to a hay shed in the corner of the ornate garden. Seconds later, dark figures burst through the gate and swarmed over the high walls. The blacks lost their nerve and quit their hiding-place, only to be caught and dismembered by the dervishes. Every man employed in the Mission grounds was killed. Polinari remained concealed, but could hear clearly their shrieks of terror, and the dry thwack of the dervish swords. A group of warriors came into the hut and poked their spears into the hay. Astonishingly, they missed him.

Dawn was already gathering over Omdurman, blood-red streaks gashing the night sky. Further along the Nile bank, hundreds of Mahdist banners were bobbing around the palace, and scores of dervish warriors were massing. According to one account, they were reluctant to enter, since several former palace servants had told them it was mined. But Gordon had abandoned the idea of blowing himself up, which would have been suicide, and therefore an act of cowardice and a betrayal of faith.

How Gordon actually died is a mystery. The figure of the hero standing on the palace steps in full uniform, sheathed sword at his belt, revolver unfired, with a host of spear-toting dervishes below him, is a familiar icon of the British Empire. The concept of martyrdom, with its Messianic overtones, was dear to the Victorian mind, and that this is how it happened seems somehow obvious to us, mainly because of George William Joy’s famous painting The Death of Gordon. Lytton Strachey’s embellishment in his biographical essay The End of General Gordon, suggesting that there was a dramatic pause while Gordon and the dervishes contemplated each other, has also added to the myth. The 1960s film Khartoum, starring Charlton Heston as Gordon, has the dervishes actually backing away when Gordon appears.

This image, though, is based on an account by Bordeini Bey, who had last seen Gordon hours before, and seems highly unlikely. Bordeini stated that Gordon was on the roof terrace in his dressing-gown until first light, when he descended to his room and dressed in his uniform. He then stood outside the door of his office, which was situated at the head of the stone steps leading down to the palace entrance.

A moment later, four dervishes came up the stairs. At least one of them had worked as a servant here previously, and knew the layout of the place. According to some accounts, Gordon demanded, ‘Where is your master, the Mahdi?’ The first man, a tribesman of the Danagla named Taha Shahin, ignored the question and bawled, ‘O cursed one, your day has come!’ He ran his spear into Gordon’s body. Gordon staggered, made a gesture of contempt, and turned his back. Taha stabbed him again, between the shoulder-blades. Gordon collapsed in a gush of blood. Taha’s three companions then came forward and hacked at the body with their swords until he was dead.

It might be better for posterity, perhaps, to leave Gordon standing there at the top of the steps, passively waiting for a martyr’s death. His ADC, Orfali, though, describes a very different passing – one that has Gordon fighting to the bitter end. This story cannot be dismissed, because, unlike Bordeini, Orfali was certainly present in the palace when the dervishes entered it, and his account is rich in the sort of convincing detail the other stories lack.

Orfali relates that within five minutes of Gordon learning that the dervishes had broken into the town, he had organized a defence of the palace. He stationed more than fifty soldiers and servants at windows, at the door on the ground floor, and on the roof terraces. Each man was armed with a Remington and had 120 rounds of ammunition. As the dervish mass streamed into the garden, cascades of fire roared out of the windows and rained down from the roof. About seventy warriors were killed or wounded. They were quickly replaced by their comrades, who ran round the walls and climbed over the vine trellis at the back. ‘They were met with the fire from the windows and terraces,’ recalled Orfali. ‘They came in great numbers, very quickly. Some ran to the entrance, killed the guards, and opened the door. Then they all ran to the [ground floor] door and killed the telegraph clerks.’

Some hared up the stairs on the right and began to slaughter the soldiers on the terrace. Others broke down the door into the upper corridor with axes, only to find Charles Gordon waiting for them with a loaded Webley revolver in one hand, a drawn sword in the other, and a grim look on his face. As they staggered back in surprise, he fired five or six rounds, knocking down two of them. He ran his sword through another, then began to reload his pistol, but at that moment some warriors who had entered from the other end of the corridor smashed through the door behind him. Orfali, standing next to him, rushed to block their way. A spearman stabbed him in the face. Gordon ran to help, but was hit by a hurled spear that glanced off his left shoulder. Ignoring the wound, he opened rapid fire. Orfali, with blood streaming down his face, fired blindly at point-blank range. Three bodies hit the floor, and the rest retreated, several of them losing blood.

Gordon was bleeding slightly from the glancing spear wound. Orfali’s face was covered in blood, but the wound was not as severe as it looked. They retired to Gordon’s room and reloaded their weapons. Gordon’s left hand was already black with powder burns from his rapid firing. A moment later, they heard more dervishes clumping up the stairs, and ran out to meet them. Just as they reached the head of the stairs, a dervish leaned out of an office door and rammed a spear into Gordon’s left shoulder from behind. Orfali chopped at the man’s hand, almost cutting it off. The dervish toppled across the corridor and down the stairs, and was impaled on the spear of one of his comrades coming up. At almost the same moment, a warrior on the top step cut Orfali’s leg with his blade.

More warriors were bounding down the corridor behind them. They were trapped on both sides. Another dervish slashed Orfali’s left hand. Gordon hacked him down with his own blade, and kicked him in the head. A tall black man, skulking in the doorway of one of the rooms, stepped out suddenly and fired at Gordon with a revolver. Gordon staggered, hit in the breast. He brought his own pistol up, and snapped a shot at the big warrior, knocking him flat.

Before he had even fallen, dozens more warriors sprinted up the corridor behind him. Gordon and Orfali blasted off their last rounds, then turned and tried to fight their way downstairs with their swords. They forced their way step by step, fighting shoulder to shoulder, cutting and thrusting, until they reached the bottom. By this time, Gordon had lost so much blood that he could scarcely stand. A last thrust from a spearman took him in the right hip, and he sank down on the mat at the base of the staircase. Orfali tried to back into the Finance Office nearby, but was knocked senseless with a club. He lay there among the corpses until afternoon. When he came round, he saw Gordon’s body lying where it had fallen, covered in blood and flies. His head had been cut off.

Orfali’s account is the most detailed of all the versions of Gordon’s death, but may not be the final word. Another eyewitness, a servant of Giriagis Bey, claimed that Gordon was not killed in the palace at all, but shot in the street while leading a party of soldiers and servants towards Martin Hansall’s house. Yet another eye-witness on the dervish side, a former clerk from el-Obeid named Ibrahim Sabir, claimed that Gordon was shot by a standard-bearer called Mursal Hammuda while standing at the top of the steps. Only when the body had rolled to the ground was it identified as that of Gordon. A chief called Babikr Koko came riding up on a horse, cut off Gordon’s head with his sword, stuffed it in a leather bag, and rode away.

What happened to Gordon’s body is uncertain. Most probably it was simply dropped into the Blue Nile. The river to which he had returned over and over again in his life became his final resting place.

The killing, raping, torture and looting in Khartoum continued until 1700 hours, when the Mahdi ordered it stopped. By that time, as many as ten thousand men, women and children may have been massacred.

Rudolf Carl von Slatin, still in chains at the dervish camp in Omdurman, had been up all night. He knew that something was afoot, but had not been told that the dervish army had advanced. He had just fallen asleep at dawn when he was awoken by the clatter of musketry and the roar of artillery-fire from across the river. He realized that the Mahdi must have launched an offensive. ‘Excited and agitated,’ he wrote, ‘I awaited the result with intense impatience. Soon shouts of rejoicing and victory were heard in the distance, and my guards ran off to find out the news. In a few minutes they were back again, excitedly relating how Khartoum had been taken by storm and was now in the hands of the Mahdists.’

At first he was not inclined to believe them. Crawling out of his tent, though, he saw that the camp was jam-packed with thousands of exultant warriors, most of them gathered before the pavilions of the Mahdi and the Khalifa ‘Abdallahi. Suddenly, Slatin noticed a slave marching directly towards him followed by a crowd of crying people. The slave, one of ‘Abdallahi’s warriors, whom Slatin recognized as a southerner called Shatta, was carrying something wrapped in a bloody cloth. Shatta halted before Slatin and made an insulting gesture. Then he unwrapped the cloth, and showed Slatin the severed head of Charles George Gordon. ‘Is this not the head of your uncle, the unbeliever?’ he leered.

Slatin was staggered. For a moment his heart seemed to stop. Then he recovered his self-control. He studied Gordon’s familiar features, looked the slave in the eye, and said quietly, ‘What of it? A brave soldier, who fell at his post. Happy is he to have fallen. His sufferings are over.’

From Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure by Michael Asher.