Elizabeth towards War I

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European matchlock musketeers of the Elizabethan period.

By the early 1570s the Puritans had grown significantly in numbers and in economic and political clout. They were not only unsatisfied, however, but increasingly discontented. At the same time that they were trying and failing to pressure the government into killing Mary Stuart, some of the more adventurous among them surreptitiously printed and distributed a First and then a Second Admonition to Parliament. These were bold, even treasonous complaints about how far the church had, under the Elizabethan settlement, departed from the gospel and from true religion. They reflected John Calvin’s absolute rejection of everything that the English reformers had retained from the time before Luther’s revolt, and they expressed the conviction that even the office of bishop was an abomination little less repulsive than the papacy itself. The authors of the Admonitions declared that in the pure first years of the Christian era the communities of the faithful had been led by deacons and elders, not by bishops, and that fidelity to Scripture and to Christ himself required a return to that aboriginal system. This was, in England, the genesis of Presbyterianism. Because it challenged the legitimacy of the church that Elizabeth had established upon becoming queen, it was taken as a challenge to Elizabeth herself. Her reaction should have surprised no one. Those responsible for publication of the Admonitions became hunted men, finally having to flee to the continent. They continued, from exile, to produce pamphlets condemning the Rome-ish corruptions of the Elizabethan church. That church became a dangerous environment for clergy of Calvinist-Presbyterian inclination, but their beliefs continued to spread.

Meanwhile the government’s program of killing Roman Catholicism through a slow process of discouragement, through harassment and disdain rather than murderous persecution, was not working out as hoped. The lifeblood of Catholic practice was the sacraments, and that loftiest of sacraments, the Eucharist, was not possible in the absence of a priest empowered to consecrate the bread and wine. Elizabeth and Cecil were not being foolish in expecting that, deprived of its priests, the Catholic community would atrophy, especially if at the same time it were punished in large ways and small and repeatedly accused of being disloyal to England and the queen. But eliminating the priesthood turned out to be considerably more difficult than it must at first have seemed. Among the Catholics purged from the English universities after Elizabeth ascended the throne was Oxford’s proctor William Allen, already well known as a scholar and administrator though not yet quite thirty years old. Like many of his academic coreligionists Allen drifted back and forth between England and the continent in the early 1560s, eventually deciding to become a priest and fixing his attention on the large numbers of onetime Oxford and Cambridge teachers and students who were now as adrift as he was. Many of these men had been drawn to the Catholic Low Countries, particularly to the universities at Louvain and Douai. It was at the latter that, in 1568, Allen found the financial support to start Douai College, a seminary where the faculty and all the candidates for the priesthood were English.

It is not clear that Allen began with the idea of developing a cadre of missionary priests to be sent back into England. His goal, rather, seems to have been to keep the intellectual life of the English Catholic community intact in preparation for a time when it would once again be welcome at home, and to engage the Protestant establishment in disputation while preparing a Catholic translation of the Bible. His college, in any case, attracted so many exiles that soon it was filled beyond capacity, and other seminaries were established elsewhere, most notably in Rome. As the students completed their studies and were ordained, some naturally yearned to return home and minister to the priest-starved Catholics of England. Such requests were granted, and the first of the young “seminary priests” slipped quietly across the Channel in 1574. As soon as the authorities became aware of their presence, the hunt was on. Inevitably the likes of Cecil and Dudley and Walsingham saw the products of Allen’s school as spies and instruments of subversion and wanted the queen to see them in the same way. Certainly the priests were a threat to the policy of trying to bleed English Catholicism dry with a thousand tiny cuts; almost from the moment of their arrival they infused fresh vitality into a community that was supposed to be dying. The first to be caught, Cuthbert Mayne, was a Devon farmer’s son who had taken two degrees at Oxford and become a Church of England chaplain before converting to Rome. He had then departed for Douai, where, in his early thirties, he enrolled in Allen’s seminary. Within months of his ordination he was back in the west of England and, under the patronage of a wealthy Catholic landowner, taking on the public role of steward in order to travel the countryside and deliver the sacraments. Captured inside his patron’s house by a posse of more than a hundred men, he was charged with six counts of treason, convicted, and offered a pardon in return for acknowledging the queen’s supremacy. Upon refusing, he was made an object lesson in how religion was once again a matter of life and death in England. He was hanged, cut down alive, and thrown to the ground so violently that one of his eyes was put out. He was then disemboweled, castrated, and quartered. By hanging him as a traitor rather than burning him as a heretic, the government was able to deny that it was returning to the Marian persecutions. In Mayne’s case as with the hundreds of priests who would follow him to the scaffold, the queen and her council maintained the fiction that they were killing Englishmen not for their beliefs but for seeking to deliver their homeland into the hands of foreign enemies.

As the suppression of Catholics entered a new, more desperate phase, so, too, and almost simultaneously, did the conflict with the Puritans. By the mid-1570s the queen had run out of patience with the practice known as “prophesying,” which was not a matter of making predictions but simply of preaching with a pronouncedly evangelical slant rather than staying within the boundaries prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. Somewhat oddly for a Protestant of her time, Elizabeth throughout her reign displayed a strong distaste for preaching and a determination to retain many of the trappings—clerical vestments, for example, and crucifixes—that growing numbers of her subjects were coming to regard as insufferable carryovers from the age of superstition. Such issues generated more and more heat as the 1570s advanced, until finally Edmund Grindal, the archbishop of Canterbury, was suspended for refusing to suppress prophesyings as the queen ordered. Canterbury remained an unoccupied see for years, and at times it must have appeared that Elizabeth was the head of a church of which she herself was almost the sole completely faithful member. It was her good fortune to have two sets of adversaries, the Puritans on one side and the Catholics on the other, who feared and despised each other far too much ever to combine against her. (Grindal, for example, had pleaded with the queen to stiffen the penalties for attending mass.) It also continued to be her good fortune to have the Queen of Scots as her most likely successor. So long as Mary Stuart drew breath, not even the most radical Protestant could possibly wish Elizabeth harm. The church that had taken shape under her direction was a peculiar and even improbable concoction of rather uncertain identity, no more Lutheran than Calvinist or Catholic. For the time being it was able to hang in a state of suspension easily mistaken for stability between the other contending parties.

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In order to sell the story that the priests coming into England were the agents of a foreign enemy, England needed to have such an enemy. Though the pope would always be the ideal all-purpose bogeyman, no one could take him seriously as a military threat. The same was true of the Holy Roman Empire now that it was detached from Spain, run by a separate branch of the Hapsburgs, and fully occupied by intractable internal problems and external enemies as potent as the Turks. That left France and Spain, and so many factors made Spain the more compelling choice that not even the memory of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre could neutralize them for long. After the massacre, the Valois regime nominally headed by Charles IX made an effort to capture the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle and, upon failing, sensibly gave up on anti-Protestantism as the cornerstone of its domestic policy. Like England, it turned its attention to the most significant thing then happening in northern Europe: the ongoing revolt of the Dutch against Spanish rule, and Spain’s difficulty in bringing that revolt to an end. England and France alike were eager to contribute what they could to exacerbating Spain’s troubles. And England had a good story to tell in explaining its involvement: it could claim to be protecting the Dutch from the Roman Church (the Spanish Roman Church, specifically) and its Inquisition. England and France were also drawn together by the simple realization that it could be disastrous for either of them if the other became an ally of Spain’s. The 1574 death of King Charles at twenty-four did nothing to change the dynamics of the situation. He was succeeded by his nearest brother, the flamboyant Duke of Anjou, who as Henry II became the third of Catherine de’ Medici’s sons to inherit the throne. There remained one more brother, the young Duke of Alençon, who now assumed the Anjou title but is usually referred to as Alençon to keep him distinct from his brother. There was resumed talk, not particularly serious on either side, of marrying the young duke, disfigured by smallpox and bent by a spinal deformation but nearly twenty years old now, to the forty-one-year-old Elizabeth. Each side played the game in the faint hope that the other might attach more importance to it than it deserved.

Philip, meanwhile, was sinking deeper into the quagmire created by his rebellious Dutch subjects, and England and France were being drawn in with him. Philip had received from his father Charles V, thanks to the fifteenth-century marriage of Charles’s Hapsburg grandfather to the only daughter of the last Duke of Burgundy, a region of seventeen provinces, much of it reclaimed tidal plain, known for obvious topographical reasons as the Low Countries or—what means the same thing—the Netherlands. The rebellion had started in response to Philip’s efforts to impose a Spanish-style autocracy on the northernmost provinces, an almost fantastically prosperous center of trade and manufacturing where the Reformation had taken a strong hold and provided particular reason for resentment of Spanish interference. It had then spread southward as a newly appointed governor, the Duke of Alba, clamped down not only with harsh new taxes but with a reign of terror in which thousands of people, Protestants and Catholics alike, were brutally put to death. Militarily Alba was successful, bringing all but two of the provinces under control in years of hard fighting, but the savagery of his methods made reconciliation impossible. His successor Requesens tried to negotiate with the leader of the rebels, William of Orange, but resumed military operations after his overtures were spurned. In spite of crippling financial problems—Philip’s government was essentially bankrupt—Requesens, too, began to have some success, but he died in 1576 with the job of reconquest still incomplete. Much of what he had achieved was thereupon undone when his troops, finding themselves unpaid, went on a rampage of looting and vandalism. Their targets, necessarily, were the only provinces accessible to them: the ones still loyal to, or at least under the control of, Spain. Thus even the most Catholic sectors of the Netherlands were given good reason to hate the outsiders.

At this juncture, with his position in the Low Countries seemingly almost lost, Philip was rescued by the fact that his father, the emperor, had, in the course of his long career, produced illegitimate branches of the Hapsburg family tree on which grew a pair of genuinely brilliant figures. First among them was Philip’s younger (and illegitimate) half-brother Juan, known to history as Don John of Austria, a charismatic, even heroic character who in his youth had run off to pursue a military career in spite of being steered toward the church by both Charles and Philip. When he became governor-general of the Netherlands in 1576, Don John was almost thirty and not only a seasoned veteran of the Turkish conflict but the victor of the great Battle of Lepanto. He didn’t want the Dutch assignment but accepted it with the thought that it might give rise to an opportunity to fulfill an old romantic fantasy: that of invading England and liberating Mary, Queen of Scots. The situation he found himself in was very nearly unmanageable, but after two years he was making such good progress that William of Orange, in desperate straits and without hope of getting assistance from England, invited the Duke of Alençon, still under consideration as a possible spouse for Elizabeth, to become leader of the rebellion and, by implication, ruler of the Netherlands. Alençon was utterly unqualified to take command of anything, but he was eager to make a place for himself in the world and attracted by the possibility of carving a kingdom out of the Netherlands. The Dutch of course had no real wish to accept such an unprepossessing specimen as their chief but as brother and heir to the king of France he carried with him the implicit promise of substantial help. He eagerly accepted Orange’s invitation, discovered that there was no serious chance of getting meaningful assistance from his brother the king, and leaped to the conclusion that nothing could satisfy his needs more quickly and completely than a successful courtship of the English queen. Discussion soon resumed through diplomatic channels, and when word came from England that Elizabeth would never consent to marry a man she had not seen, Alençon made preparations to cross the Channel.

Elizabeth towards War II

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What is often depicted as the apotheosis of the Elizabethan Age, the turning point at which the wisdom of everything the queen had done was made manifest and the way was cleared for England’s emergence as the greatest of world powers, came in the third week of July 1588. It was then that Philip’s mighty Armada came plowing up the Channel into England’s home waters, found Drake and Elizabeth’s other sea dogs waiting, and was put to flight. It was indeed an escape for England, even a victory, though it was accomplished as much by weather and Spanish mistakes as by weapons.

Don John, though continuing to progress inch by painful inch closer toward the defeat of the rebellion, was physically and mentally exhausted by the struggle and chronically short of essential resources. When in October he contracted typhus and died, his loss must have seemed another lethal setback for the Spanish cause. But before expiring he had nominated as his successor yet another product of Charles V’s extramarital adventures. This was Alessandro Farnese, a son of Charles’s bastard daughter, great-grandson of his namesake Pope Paul III. Farnese was almost exactly Don John’s age, had been raised and educated with him as well as with King Philip’s son Don Carlos, and had been second in command both at Lepanto and in the Netherlands. Usually remembered as the Duke of Parma, a title he would not inherit from his father until ten years after becoming governor-general in the Netherlands, he was no less gifted a soldier than Don John and a canny diplomat as well. Building on what Don John had accomplished, he began to coax the southern and central provinces (which would remain Catholic and evolve long afterward into Belgium, Luxembourg, and France’s Nord-Pas-deCalais) back into the Spanish camp. The seven northern provinces—the future Holland—proved however to be too strong and too determined for Farnese to overpower them. And so the war went bitterly on, poisoning northern Europe.

Influential members of Elizabeth’s council, Robert Dudley among them, were not satisfied with merely assisting the Dutch rebels financially and leaving the military glory to Orange and his countrymen. Elizabeth, however, was still as wary of continental wars as she had been since the Le Havre debacle of a decade and a half before. She was sensitive to the costs of such wars and the unpredictability of the results. She had learned how difficult it was to manage seekers after glory, men convinced that where war was concerned it was absurd to take orders from any woman, even a queen. She sent money to Orange, but only in amounts calculated to keep him from putting himself completely under French domination. A strong French presence in the Low Countries, with their proximity to England across the narrowest part of the Channel, was less unattractive than Spanish dominance there, but not by a wide margin.

From this point forward the Dutch revolt, the religious divisions of France and England, and nagging uncertainty about the English succession all became impenetrably intertwined. The elfin little Duke of Alençon arrived in England, and to the amazement of her court, Elizabeth gave every appearance of being smitten with him. She was easily old enough to be his mother, and there was something pathetic in her infatuation with this youth whom she playfully called her “frog.” As it dawned on people that marriage was not out of the question, council and court separated into factions. Elizabeth meanwhile made clear that this time she regarded her choice of a husband as no one’s business but her own. When a loyal subject named John Stubbs published a statement of opposition to the much-talked-of marriage, both he and his printer had their right hands chopped off.

Robert Dudley was opposed, too, and probably for a multitude of reasons. He wanted to make war in the Netherlands, but he was sure that he and not the absurd Alençon should be the commander. To this wish were added his evangelical leanings, and a consequent dislike of the idea of a Catholic consort for the queen. But Dudley had kept his antipathy for Catholics within bounds when other possible husbands were under discussion, and this time more personal factors undoubtedly were in play. In 1578, after years of widowhood during which he had lived at the queen’s beck and call and lamented the fact that because neither he nor his brother Ambrose had children the Dudley line seemed doomed to end with them, he had impregnated the beautiful Lettice Knollys, daughter of the veteran privy councilor Sir Francis Knollys and widow of the Earl of Essex. The two were secretly married—secretly because Dudley knew what the queen’s reaction would be—and when Elizabeth learned she was angry and hurt. She arranged to complicate Dudley’s life financially by withdrawing certain remunerative favors, but he was allowed to remain at court and soon was restored to his old place as favorite. His bride, already the mother of several children by her first husband, gave birth to a son who was christened Robert. But she was forbidden to appear at court. (The boy, Lord Denbigh, would be the last child born legitimately into the Dudley family and would die at age three.) All this could well have injected an element of spite into Dudley’s reaction to the queen’s marriage plans.

By the early 1580s Elizabeth’s uncertainties, hesitations, and ambiguous policies had enmeshed her in a tangle of political, military, and religious conflict. In 1585 it all finally blossomed into a war that would consume the last eighteen years of what increasingly looked like an overlong reign. Much of the trouble grew out of the determination of the government’s most influential and militant Protestants—Cecil certainly, but even more his protégé Francis Walsingham—to make the queen believe that the survival of Catholicism in England posed a threat not only to domestic peace but to her very life. As early as 1581 Walsingham was asking Lord Hunsdon, Elizabeth’s cousin and one of the men to whom she had entrusted the management of the north after the revolt of the earls, to amend his reports so as to give a darker—and to the queen more alarming—appraisal of the loyalty of the region’s still-numerous Catholics. In that same year Parliament, with Cecil ennobled as Baron Burghley and dominating the House of Lords while continuing to control the Commons through his agents, passed bills making it high treason for a priest to say mass and condemning anyone attending mass to life imprisonment and confiscation of property.

This was more than Elizabeth was prepared to approve, and the penalty for “recusancy” was reduced to a fine of £20 per month—a sum so impossible for most subjects as to be no different from confiscation. The queen’s efforts to find a middle ground, to avoid being so soft on the old religion as to outrage the evangelicals or persecuting the Catholics so savagely as to leave them with nothing to lose, resulted in a policy that sometimes seemed incoherent. An innovation called “compounding,” which permitted Catholics to elude the statutory penalties by purchasing what amounted to a license to practice their faith, was soon followed by a royal proclamation declaring all the priests entering England to be traitors regardless of what they did or refrained from doing. Life became increasingly difficult for Catholics, but the Puritans complained that it was not being made nearly difficult enough. As the queen refused to approve the most draconian of Parliament’s anti-Catholic measures, the conflict between her church and her growing numbers of Puritan subjects became chronic and deeply bitter. When the archbishop of Canterbury whom she had suspended years earlier died in 1583, Elizabeth was able at last to appoint a primate, John Whitgift, whose views accorded with her own. He soon began a program aimed at purging the clergy of Puritans and suppressing Puritan practices. The Elizabethan church, therefore, was soon waging religious war in one direction while Elizabeth’s government did so in another.

And the fighting in the Netherlands dragged wearily on. Philip II’s financial problems had eased in 1580 when the king of Portugal died without an heir and he, as the son and onetime husband of Portuguese princesses, successfully laid claim to that crown. This gave him control of the Portuguese fleet and the vast overseas empire that went with it. The following year, when the so-called United Provinces under William of Orange formally repudiated Spanish rule, Philip had the wherewithal to respond by putting more resources into the capable hands of his governor-general and nephew Farnese. The result was a sequence of successes for the Spanish army and calamities for the rebellion, all of it deepening the difficulties of the English. The little Duke of Alençon, whose dalliance with England’s queen had advanced to the point where a betrothal was announced by both parties only to founder on the old religious obstacles (how could even the queen’s husband be allowed to hear mass at the Elizabethan court?), went off to try his hand as leader of the rebellion. He showed himself to be even more inept than his worst critics had expected, and died of a lung ailment not long after returning to France a thoroughly discredited figure.

In that same year, 1584, William of Orange was assassinated by an apprentice cabinetmaker eager to strike a blow for the Catholic faith, the Guises allied their Catholic League with Spain, Farnese took the city of Antwerp from the rebels, and English policy lay in ruins. Philip meanwhile was repeatedly being goaded by the raids of Francis Drake and other English pirates—if pirates is the right word for thieves who found financing at the English court and were welcomed as heroes when they returned from their raids—on ports and treasure fleets from the coast of Spain to the New World. Now he appeared to be near victory in the Low Countries, and if he achieved his aims there the English had given him an abundance of reasons to turn his army and navy on them. When Drake, on a 1585 West Indies voyage financed by Elizabeth and Robert Dudley and others, burned and looted Cartagena and Santo Domingo and other Spanish ports and brought his ships home loaded with booty, it was the last straw for Philip. He ordered work to begin on the assembly of a great fleet and the planning of an invasion of England.

For Elizabeth and her council it was a nightmare scenario, though undeniably they had brought it on themselves. They had provoked the Spanish king’s open enmity at last, and had done so in such a penny-pinching way as to leave their rebel clients virtually at his mercy. The prospect that Philip might soon subdue the Low Countries was, under these circumstances, vastly more frightening than it had been when the revolt began. And so at last there seemed no alternative except to do exactly what Elizabeth had never wanted to do: send troops. Robert Dudley was delighted, especially when he was ordered to take command. He was well into his fifties by now, however, and his experience of war was decades in the past and not really extensive. But his enthusiasm was such that he took on a ruinous load of personal debt to cover his expenses—Elizabeth was not going to pay a penny more than she was forced to—and once in the field he found that he was neither receiving satisfactory support from home nor able to outwit or outfight his seasoned Spanish adversaries. The arrival of English troops was sufficient to avert the collapse of the rebellion but not sufficient to produce victory; the result was the further prolongation, at greatly increased cost, of a conflict that offered vanishingly little hope of a truly satisfactory outcome. England’s intervention had persuaded Philip, meanwhile, that he could never recover his lost provinces—might never again know peace within his own domains—unless England was humbled. The invasion that he had in preparation began to seem not just feasible but imperative.

Overt war with Spain provided a new basis for portraying England’s Catholics as agents of a foreign enemy and therefore as traitors. Suppression, along with the hunting down and execution of missionary priests, intensified. Inevitably, persecution further eroded the number of practicing Catholics, but at the same time, it gave rise to a cadre of young fanatics desperate enough to plot against the queen’s life. This development—like Philip’s anger a direct outgrowth of the government’s actions—was the best possible news for Francis Walsingham with his network of spies, torturers, and agents provocateurs. It gave him new evidence to draw on in making Elizabeth believe that it was necessary to do more to exterminate the old religion. None of the most notorious and supposedly dangerous plots against Elizabeth had the slimmest chance of success, and Walsingham himself probably actively encouraged at least one of them in order to entrap gullible young true believers. He may even have concocted the last of the conspiracies (the so-called Babington Plot, which led to Mary Stuart’s confessing to planning an escape and being accused, but not really proved guilty, of assenting to Elizabeth’s assassination) in order to get a deeply reluctant Elizabeth to approve Mary’s execution. Historians have often argued that the need to eliminate the Queen of Scots is demonstrated by the fact that after she was beheaded in February 1587 there were no more plots against the queen’s life. But it is possible that, once Mary was dead, Cecil and Walsingham no longer saw any need to put such plots in motion, nurse along the ones that they discovered, or exploit their propaganda value when the time was ripe for exposure.

What is often depicted as the apotheosis of the Elizabethan Age, the turning point at which the wisdom of everything the queen had done was made manifest and the way was cleared for England’s emergence as the greatest of world powers, came in the third week of July 1588. It was then that Philip’s mighty Armada came plowing up the Channel into England’s home waters, found Drake and Elizabeth’s other sea dogs waiting, and was put to flight. It was indeed an escape for England, even a victory, though it was accomplished as much by weather and Spanish mistakes as by weapons. But it changed very little and settled nothing. It was less a culmination than a bright interlude, and it led only to the fifteen years of trouble and decline that would be the long final third of Elizabeth’s reign.

Dargai, 20 October 1897 Part I

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The Gordon Highlanders storming Dargai Heights during the Tirah campaign in 1897. It was here that Piper Findlater won his VC. He was wounded and unable to walk and exposed to enemy fire. Despite this and his exposed position he continued playing, to encourage the Highlanders in their assault on the heights.

For a century the tangled mountains of the North-West Frontier of India provided the British and Indian Armies with a school for soldiers, a hard, unforgiving school in which mistakes cost lives and, above all, a school in which the only certainly was the unexpected. Prominent among the frontier tribes were the Afridi, of whom it was said that robbery, murder, treachery and merciless blood feuds were the very breath of life. The same, to varying degrees, might have been said of all the tribes along the frontier, the Wazirs, Mahsuds, Orakzai, Mohmands and Yusufzai. Masters of the ambush and guerrilla war, they fought constantly among themselves and regularly against the British, who could provide much dangerous sport when there was nothing more pressing to occupy their minds. Sometimes a serious incident would require the despatch of a punitive expedition which would fight its way into the tribal territory and destroy the offending villages. In due course, after they had had enough of fighting, the tribesmen would let it be known that they were willing to submit. A ‘jirga’ or council would be held, attended by the tribal headmen and the senior British military and political officers. A fine would be imposed, the troops would leave and all would remain quiet for a while. Then, in a few years’ time, the whole process would be repeated. Such events, however, tended to be local in character and it was unusual for large areas of the Frontier to be affected simultaneously.

Yet, the frontier tribes had another side to their character. Hospitality, for example, was regarded as a sacred trust. Devious with each other, they would react honestly if dealt with the same way. It could take years to win their trust, but once earned it could result in friendship for life. Many enlisted in regiments of the Indian Army and, having served their time loyally, would return home with their pensions and a mellower impression of the British Raj. Against this, the tribes were to a man devout Muslims to whom the killing of infidel Christians and Hindus was entirely impersonal and certainly no matter for conscience searching.

At the beginning of 1897, while those at home were preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Frontier was quiet, although the term was relative, and seemed likely to remain so. In July, however, it suddenly exploded in revolt along its entire length, presenting the authorities with the most formidable challenge they had ever faced, or were likely to again.

There was only one cause capable of uniting tribes normally at each other’s throats, and that was militant Islamic fundamentalism. Fanatical clergy were at work, notably the Mullah of Haddah among the Mohmands, the Mullah Powindah in Waziristan, the Mullah Sayid Akhbar in the Khyber region, and especially the Mullah Sadullah of Swat, known to the British as the Mad Fakir. Eyes blazing with fervour, Sadullah travelled from village to village preaching ‘jihad’ (holy war) against the infidel, accompanied by a thirteen-year-old boy whom he claimed was the last surviving heir of the Great Moghuls and would soon ascend the throne of his ancestors in Delhi. The situation was aggravated by Abdur Rahman, King of Afghanistan, who had recently produced a tract praising the concept of jihad and, displeased with the results of a recent frontier demarkation, urged the mullahs to drive the infidels from their land, although he had no intention of taking the field himself. Perhaps these factors would not on their own have been sufficient to provoke a general rising, but also present on the Frontier were agents of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey, determined to make trouble for the British in revenge for a humiliating diplomatic snub he had received at their hands. The line taken by these agents was to hint that Great Britain had been seriously weakened by its quarrel with the Sultan, and since the truth of this would not suffice, lies would do just as well. The Suez Canal and Aden were now in Turkish hands, they claimed, so that whereas reinforcements from the United Kingdom would normally take three weeks to reach India, they would now take six months; and, that being the case, the jihad would be over long before they could arrive. Being simple people with a limited knowledge of geography and no means of verifying the truth, the tribesmen accepted what they were told and were much encouraged.

The fuze which actually detonated the explosion had been in place since the previous year when a government clerk, a Hindu, was murdered in northern Waziristan. As the culprit was never brought to justice a fine of 2,000 rupees was imposed on the area. One village, Maizar, refused to pay its share and on 10 May 1897 the political agent, Mr Gee, arrived there to settle the dispute, accompanied by a military escort of some 300 men. The troops were offered hospitality to lull them into a false sense of security, then were treacherously attacked by over 1,000 tribesmen. After all three British officers had received mortal wounds the Indian officers took charge and embarked on a difficult fighting withdrawal from the village, despatching several cavalrymen to summon reinforcements. These reached the force during the evening, having covered nine miles in 90 minutes, and enabled it to break contact. Losses among the Indian soldiers amounted to 23 officers and men killed, and a large number of wounded; it was estimated that about 100 of their attackers were killed.

During the weeks that followed the rising spread like wildfire along the Frontier, the garrisons of fortified posts having to fight desperately for their lives against an enemy who, inflamed with religious fervour, launched repeated attacks regardless of losses. At the end of August disaster struck. The forts guarding the Khyber Pass were held by an irregular and locally raised unit known as the Khyber Rifles, officered entirely by Afridis. Raised after the Second Afghan War, they had given good service in the past but had become seriously unsettled by the mullahs’ propaganda. On 23 August the rebels closed in around the forts. That at Ali Musjid was simply abandoned, while the garrison at Fort Maude offered only a token resistance before falling back on a relief column from Fort Jamrud. Next day it was the turn of Landi Kotal, which resisted successfully for 24 hours before treacherous elements opened the gates; some of the garrison joined the rebels, some were allowed to leave after handing over their weapons, but others, remaining true to their salt, managed to fight their way through to Jamrud. Control of the pass, the vital communications route between India and Afghanistan, was not regained until December. Such was the fury of the tribal assault that those holding the smaller posts stood little or no chance of survival.

On 12 September the heliograph station at Saragarhi, midway between Forts Gulistan and Lockhart, covering the important Samana Ridge to the south of the Khyber and held by the 36th Sikhs, was attacked overwhelming strength. The garrison, consisting of twenty men under Havildar Ishan Singh, beat off two frenzied attacks during the morning, strewing the surrounding rocks with bodies. However, some of the Afridis, taking advantage of an area of dead ground, began picking away at the brick wall until part of it collapsed, creating a breach. The Sikhs ran from their fire positions to repel the renewed assault but were too few in number and in ferocious hand to hand fighting were forced back into their barrack block, where they fought to the last man. One sepoy, barricading himself in the guard room, shot down or bayoneted twenty of his assailants before perishing in the flames of the burning building; another, one of the post’s signallers, remained in heliograph contact with Fort Lockhart until the end. Jubilant, the Afridis swarmed to join their comrades who had invested Fort Gulistan that morning. Held in much greater strength, this proved to be a tougher nut to crack and, despite casualties, was still holding three days later when the tribesmen, flayed by the shellfire of a relief column advancing from Fort Lockhart, abandoned the siege and dispersed into the hills. Thanks to the 36th Sikhs, the Samana Ridge forts remained in British hands and in recognition of the fact the regiment was awarded the unique battle honour ‘Samana’.

Such desperate actions as these marked the high water mark of the rising, although months of fierce fighting lay ahead before the Frontier was pacified. The government of India had been taken aback by the sheer scale and ferocity of the revolt but reacted by despatching strong punitive columns to Malakand and against the Wazirs, Mohmands, Afridis and Orakzais. Considerations of space inhibit describing even the more important actions save one, that fought by the 1st Gordon Highlanders at Dargai, which has passed into the legends of Frontier warfare.

A contemporary general inspection report describes the battalion as being ‘A particularly fine one. The officers as a body are an exceptionally nice set; the warrant officers and NCOs seem to be very efficient, and the privates have an admirable physique.’ Like every good unit, the Gordons reflected the personality of their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. Mathias, whose bullet head, determined jaw, bristling moustache and level blue eyes indicated a no-nonsense, instinctive fighter. In many ways Mathias was a commander well ahead of his time, paying attention not only to the more obvious aspects of his profession but also to the physical condition of his men and their morale. In 1896 the battalion won the Queen’s Cup for shooting and it was regarded as having the best signallers of any British regiment in India. Field exercises took place regularly, one advanced feature being the instruction of NCOs in military sketching, in those days an essential element in reconnaissance, usually taught only to officers. Mathias kept his men fit with a programme of athletics, hill-racing and football, contests being held between companies and against neighbouring units. There were also regimental concert parties and other activities to combat the boredom of cantonment life. The impression given is that the 1st Gordon Highlanders was a highly trained, efficient battalion, entirely at ease with itself and held in high regard; it was, too, an experienced battalion, having taken part in the Chitral Expedition of 1895.

In April 1897 the Gordons, based at Rawalpindi on the Punjab side of the North-West Frontier Province boundary, moved up to their hot weather station in the Murree Hills, expecting to remain there throughout the summer. At the beginning of August, however, in response to the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Frontier, it returned to Rawalpindi whence it was immediately despatched to Jamrud. Here it formed part of a force that prevented the rebels advancing further along the Khyber.

By October the British counter-measures had begun to take effect. Nevertheless, it was appreciated that the tribes would not submit until the war was carried onto their own territory and it was decided to advance deep into the Tirah region. In this area it was estimated that together the Afridis and Orakzais could field between 40-50,000 men and for this reason the Tirah Field Force, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir William Lockhart, was the largest punitive expedition ever assembled on the Frontier. It consisted of two divisions (the 1st under Major-General W. P. Symons and the 2nd under Major-General A. G. Yeatman-Biggs), two flanking columns, a strong lines of communication element and a reserve brigade. Altogether, 11,892 British and 22,614 Indian troops were involved, accompanied by almost 20,000 followers who performed menial but essential tasks; there were also 8,000 horses, 1,440 ponies for the sick and wounded, over 18,000 mules and an enormous number of camels, carts and baggage ponies. Lockhart’s plan was to concentrate at Kohat and enter Tirah from the south by crossing the Samana Ridge at a pass west of Fort Gulistan. He would then force two more passes which would bring him to his ultimate objective, the Tirah Maidan, a wide fertile valley upon which the surrounding tribes relied for subsistence, rarely if ever visited by Europeans before.

Together with the 1st Dorsetshire Regiment, the 15th Sikhs and the lst/2nd Gurkhas, the Gordons constituted Brigadier-General F. J. Kempster’s 3rd Brigade, which formed part of the 2nd Division. The Tirah Field Force left Kohat on 7 October, its route taking it past the now deserted ruins of Saragarhi signal station. By 15 October, marching by easy stages, it had reached Shinawari, but beyond this point progress across the Samana Ridge was blocked by a substantial force of tribesmen holding the village of Dargai, located at the summit of a towering spur that dominated the only road. The crest was lined with sangars, while the rocks themselves contained numerous fissures that provided natural rifle pits. Immediately below the village were precipitous cliffs, broken here and there by goat paths, and below these was a steeply sloping open space several hundred yards wide, forming a glacis that could be swept by fire from above. An attacker who succeeded in crossing this would then find his further upward progress restricted to goat paths or funnelled into the narrowing approach to the village itself, where he could be picked off with ease. Nature, therefore, had endowed Dargai with better defences than many a purpose-built fortress.

Lockhart had only the 2nd Division in hand, the 1st Division still being on the march some sixteen miles short of Shinawari. He nonetheless decided that the former would take Dargai at once, conduct of the operation being entrusted to Lieutenant-General Sir Power Palmer, normally responsible for the force’s lines of communication, as Yeatman-Biggs was ill. Palmer’s plan was for Brigadier R. Westmacott’s 4th Brigade to mount a frontal attack on the village, covered by two mountain batteries, while Kempster’s 3rd Brigade made a wide detour to the west, threatening the defenders’ right flank and rear.

The troops moved off during the early hours of 18 October. The route of Kempster’s brigade, which Palmer accompanied, took it up a dry watercourse that had its source near the western summit of the spur. The higher they climbed, the rougher became the going, the narrower the stream bed, the larger the boulders and the steeper the slope. After five miles had been covered the Gurkhas, in the lead, gave the appearance of flies walking up a wall. A point had now been reached at which the mules were unable to cope with the precipitous going and Palmer decided to send back his guns and the field hospital, escorted by the Dorsets and part of the 15th Sikhs. The Gordons, bringing up the rear, had perforce to halt and let them through. From about 09:00 onwards the steady thumping of guns indicated that the mountain batteries were engaged in their preliminary bombardment of Dargai.

At about 11:00 heliograph contact was established with Westmacott’s brigade, which was making slow but steady progress, often in single file, up the direct route towards the village. By noon the Gordons, after a stiff two-hour scramble, had joined lst/2nd Gurkhas and 15th Sikhs on the slopes above the source of the watercourse, attracting sporadic long range fire. The coordination between the two brigades had been excellent, for Westmacott’s battalions were now in position to launch their assault. Under a hail of fire from above, the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers and lst/3rd Gurkhas swarmed across the open slope and up the goat tracks to the village. The tribesmen hastily abandoned their positions and fled, sped on their way by a few long range volleys from Kempster’s men. The capture of Dargai had been a model operation, costing the Borderers only six casualties and the Gurkhas thirteen. Undoubtedly, the enemy’s resistance would have been far stiffer had not Kempster’s brigade threatened their rear, always a sensitive area in tribal warfare.

By mid-afternoon both brigades had been concentrated at Dargai. For the reasons quoted below, Palmer decided to abandon the position, despite the fact that two large groups of tribesmen, one estimated to be over 4,000 strong, could be seen converging on the spur from their camps in the Khanki Valley. Westmacott’s brigade, less two companies of Borderers, led off first. Between 16:00 and 17:00, with the sun falling towards the western skyline, Kempster’s brigade prepared to follow, covered initially by the 15th Sikhs. They, in turn, were covered by the Gordons and the two Borderer companies as they disengaged and passed through. By now the tribesmen, having reoccupied the sangars along the crest, were directing an increasingly heavy fire at those on the open slope below the cliffs, making the officers their special target. Major Jennings Bramly was killed and Lieutenant Pears was wounded; Second Lieutenant Young had his helmet shot off; and Lieutenant Dalrymple Hay, feeling blood running down his cheek, discovered that it had been grazed by a bullet.

When the moment came, Colonel Mathias released the Borderers then ordered three of his own five companies back into fresh fire positions from which they could support the withdrawal of the remaining two. One of the latter had succeeded in disengaging, as had half of Captain F. W. Kerr’s company, when a body of the enemy broke cover some 30 yards distant, fired a ragged volley and charged the small group remaining. Six of them were dropped almost at bayonet point, four of them falling to Private W. Rennie, and the rest made off when they were engaged by Captain Miller Wallnutt’s company from its new fire position. While this was taking place Lieutenant Young, Surgeon-Captain Gerrard and Colour Sergeant Craib, went out and rescued a wounded man who was in immediate danger of being hacked to death.

Dargai, 20 October 1897 Part II

Dargai

Storming the Dargai Heights.

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Darkness put an end to the fighting. In addition to the casualties mentioned above, the Gordons had sustained another man killed and seven wounded. Dead and wounded alike were carried down the rough two-mile track to the road, on reaching which the battalion formed up and marched the six miles back to the camp at Shinawari.

The reasons given by Palmer for abandoning Dargai include the following:

  1. The 2nd Division was not strong enough to hold the position, guard Shinawari camp and maintain communications between the two.
  2. There was no water supply between Dargai and Shinawari, and no supply of firewood at Dargai.
  3. The continued occupation of Dargai would have revealed the proposed axis of advance into tribal territory, which was not desirable.
  4. The 1st Division was still a day’s march short of Shinawari.

The reader might agree that some of these look extremely thin, while others might be regarded as excellent reasons for not having mounted the operation in the first place. As it was, the Orakzais could claim to have repulsed a British attempt to capture the position, and at this stage of the revolt the mere suggestion of a tribal victory was the last thing that was wanted. Nevertheless, for the better part of the next day Lockhart, lulled into a false sense of security by the arrival of the 1st Division, refused to accept the reality of the situation, expressing the opinion that the continued work of improvement on the road, protected as it was by strong covering parties, would in itself deter the enemy from re-occupying Dargai. However, when he was informed that evening that Dargai Heights were now held by an estimated 12,000 Afridi and Orakzai, he reacted with commendable speed. Because it knew the ground, the 2nd Division, reinforced by elements of the 1st Division, would again clear the spur. This time, there would be no subtlety of manoeuvre against the enemy’s flank and rear; what he intended was a straightforward frontal attack in strength, supported by the fire of the divisional artillery, supplemented by an additional battery. At this point personalities began to have a bearing on subsequent events. Lockhart detested Westmacott, and decided that Kempster, whom he merely disliked, would deliver the assault, under the control of Yeatman-Biggs, who had returned to duty.

When the troops, having been briefed on the operation, marched out of camp at 04:30 on 20 October, their muttered opinion of the generals was ripe, to say the least. No doubt Kempster,1 whom they loathed, received the lion’s share of the blame, which in this case was a little unfair as the decisions had not been his.

By 10:00 the guns were pounding the summit, which the Gordons also brought under long range rifle fire. The enemy, secure in their sangars and rocky clefts, were little affected by this; they had, moreover, strengthened their defences and from one point they were also able to direct a crossfire across the all-important open slope below the cliff. Thus, when the lst/2nd Gurkhas rose to attack, the entire summit erupted in a wild storm of fire. Under the impact of thousands of bullets the dusty surface of the slope was churned into a dust cloud in which it seemed nothing could live. Gurkhas could be seen falling and their casualties strewed the ground. Despite this, three companies reached the cover of a rocky shelf approximately halfway across, but further progress was impossible. Worse still, every attempt by their comrades to reach them resulted in more men shot down. Jubilant, the tribesmen began waving their flags, beating drums and shouting defiance.

Kempster ordered the 1st Dorsets to make the attempt. A few managed to sprint across the fatal 150 yards to the safety of the ledge, but as a whole the battalion was stopped in its tracks. It was then the turn of the 2nd Derbyshire Regiment,2 but they fared no better. As each attack failed the frenzy of the tribesmen reached higher levels of exultation.

It was now mid-afternoon and, despite the carpet of dead, dying and wounded covering the lower half of the slope, Dargai Heights still remained firmly in enemy hands. The crisis of the battle having been reached, Yeatman-Biggs ordered Kempster to commit the Gordons and the 3rd Sikhs, his last reserves. The latter were providing an escort for the guns on a lower spur and had to await relief by a Jhind state infantry battalion, but the Gordons moved off at once.

As they clambered up the narrow path they were not encouraged by the steady stream of dead and wounded being carried past in the opposite direction. At length they formed up in dead ground screened by some low scrub at the lower edge of the slope. Nearby, grim-faced Derbys, Dorsets and Gurkhas lay firing at the enemy, now capering among the rocks and yelling derisive insults.

It is a matter of record that Highland infantry, heirs to a long and violent history in which the carrying of arms and settlement of disputes by force was usual, have always launched their attacks with a unique speed and a berserk ferocity that was very difficult and often impossible to stop. Colonel Mathias knew how best to awaken these qualities in his men and, having been told that his assault would be preceded by three minutes’

concentrated artillery fire on the summit, he used the interval to address them very briefly, his voice cutting like a whiplash through the sounds of gunfire, musketry, savage drumming and yells:

The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it!’

There was a moment’s silence. The men knew the terrible risks involved, but the Colonel had given his word on their behalf and not one of them would let him down.

‘Aye!’ It was a spontaneous roar from 600 throats.

‘Officers and pipers to the fore!’

It was now, as the sun glinted on the officers’ drawn broadswords and the Pipe Major took his place, throwing his plaid and drones across his shoulder with infinite swagger, that the inherited instincts of countless bloody if long-forgotten clan battles began to surface, causing the scalp to crawl and the hackles to rise. Like their forebears of old, they, led by their chief men and pipers, were going out to meet the enemy, steel to steel. Suddenly, the supporting gunfire ceased.

‘Bugler – sound Advance!’

Like a tidal wave the Gordons poured out of cover and onto the deadly open slopes. The pipers struck up the regimental march, The Cock o’ the North,3 a fine ranting tune that skirled across the hillside, evoking a response from every man present. Yelling, the entire battalion swept upwards. Mathias, still up with the leaders, had unleashed the full fury of his Gordons and knew that they would give the shortest shrift to anyone who got in their way.

Perhaps the sudden appearance of the battalion caught the enemy unawares. If so, the respite was only of seconds’ duration. Once again, the crest blazed with fire and, once again, the dust was stirred into a fine mist by the pelting hail of bullets. And now the Gordons began to go down. Lieutenant Lamont was killed outright at the head of his men. Major Macbean, shot through the thigh, crawled to a boulder and continued to cheer on the assault. Lieutenant Dingwall, hit in four places and unable to move, was carried to safety by Private Lawson, who then returned to bring in the wounded Private Macmillan, being hit twice while doing so. The pipers, who could neither run nor take cover and still play, continued to walk upright and thus became a special target for the enemy. Lance-Corporal Milne, among the first to set foot on the slope, continued to march upwards until shot through the chest. Piper George Findlater suddenly felt his feet knocked from under him by a sharp blow. Sitting up, he discovered that he had been shot through both ankles but, disregarding alike the enemy’s fire, the pain and the fear that he might never walk normally again, he continued to play his comrades into action. Mathias was hit but kept moving. Major Downman got a bullet through his helmet. Other men felt rounds twitching at their kilts and tunics. Major Macbean, reaching for his water bottle after the assault had passed by, found it empty save for the bullet responsible for draining the contents.

It took less than two minutes for the leading companies to reach the ledge where the Gurkhas were sheltering, although it seemed far longer. There they paused briefly to get their breath back while the others closed up. Then, with a wave of the broadsword and a sharp shout of ‘Come!’ the officers led a second rush across the ledge to the foot of the escarpment. This time the Gordons were accompanied by kukri-wielding Gurkhas, keen to exact payment for the long hours they had spent pinned down. Another pause, and then the Gordons were scrambling up the goat paths towards the summit. Already the enemy’s triumphant drumming had stopped and his firing become ragged. Instinctively the tribesmen understood that the green-kilted soldiers could not be stopped and, recognising the murder in their attackers’ eyes, they began shredding away. Those with a mind to stay quickly changed it when, far below, they saw the 3rd Sikhs crossing the open slope, big, bearded, turbaned men coming steadily on behind a line of levelled bayonets. There were, too, large numbers of Dorsets, Derbys and Gurkhas who, inspired by the Gordons’ assault, were rushing forward to join in the attack.

Thus, when the Gordons finally reached the summit, they found the sangars contained only a handful of dead and wounded. The reverse slopes of the spur, however, were black with the running figures of thousands of tribesmen, into whom a rapid fire was opened, sending many tumbling among the rocks.

Mathias, out of breath and bleeding, reached the summit alongside Colour Sergeant Mackie.

‘Stiff climb, eh, Mackie?’ he remarked. ‘I’m not quite so young as I was, you know.’

‘Och, never you mind, sir,’ replied the colour sergeant, slapping his commanding officer on the back with a familiarity justified by events, ‘Ye were goin’ verra strong for an auld man!’ If the compliment was unintentionally back-handed, the admiration was genuine, as Mathias found when his Gordons, now laughing and joking, gathered round to give him three cheers.

Yeatman-Biggs was determined that the tribesmen would not be given a second chance to reoccupy the heights and detailed the Gurkhas and the Dorsets to hold them. The Gordons volunteered to carry down their wounded, an act of kindness that was greatly appreciated. Afterwards, as they marched to their own bivouac, each regiment they passed broke into spontaneous cheering, officers and men pressing forward to shake their hands and offer their water bottles, a small gesture but a very generous one considering that no further supplies could be obtained until the following day.

As the Widow of Windsor’s parties went, the second capture of Dargai Heights was small in scale but it was as bitterly contested as any. The cost was three officers and 33 other ranks killed and twelve officers and 147 other ranks wounded, the majority of these casualties being incurred on the lowest 150 yards of the open slope. The Gordons’ share amounted to one officer and six other ranks killed and six officers and 31 other ranks wounded. In the circumstances this was little short of astonishing but can be attributed to the speed with which the attack was delivered across the most exposed portion of the open slope, this being cited in later tactical manuals.

Mathias was to receive many congratulatory telegrams on behalf of his battalion; from the Queen and from the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, from the Gordons’ 2nd Battalion, from the regiment’s friendly rivals the Black Watch, and from Caledonian societies all over the world, including the United States.

Yeatman-Biggs recommended that the Victoria Cross be awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel Mathias, Piper Findlater and Private Lawson. In Mathias’ case the supreme award was denied, thanks to an incredibly priggish decision by the War Office that neither general officers nor battalion commanders were eligible for the Cross, presumably because they were doing nothing less than their duty.4 Queen Victoria made her own feelings known in no uncertain manner by promptly appointing him as one of her aides de camp with the rank of colonel, although he continued to command the battalion until its return to Scotland the following year. Piper Findlater5 and Private Lawson received the award in the field. In addition, Colour Sergeants J. Mackie and T. Craib, Sergeants F. Ritchie, D. Mathers, J. Donaldson and J. Mackay, and Lance-Corporal (Piper) G. Milne were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the last mentioned being decorated personally by the Queen when he was invalided home.6

The Tirah Field Force fought many more battles as it penetrated deeper into tribal territory, but none was as fiercely contested or as critical as Dargai. Early in November it reached its objective, the Tirah Maidan, a beautiful, fertile valley one hundred square miles in extent, flanked by pine-clad slopes and dotted with copses. There were numerous houses, each of which, significantly, was fortified against its neighbours. In the storerooms were piled high the fruits of the recent harvest – Indian corn, beans, barley, honey, potatoes, walnuts and onions. The entire valley was deserted, the inhabitants having taken their families with them into the hills. Lockhart despatched columns into every corner of the Tirah, where the resistance encountered clearly indicated that the tribes had no intention of submitting. Reluctantly, he decided that if they would not talk he would begin laying waste the valley. The troops, many of whom came from farming stock, did not enjoy the work, but the sight of groves being felled and columns of smoke rising from burning buildings produced the desired result. With the exception of the ungovernable Zakha Khel, who did not submit until the following April, the tribes sent in their leaders to a jirga where they accepted their punishment: they would give up 800 serviceable rifles, pay a fine of 50,000 rupees and return all the property they had stolen during the rising. On 7 December, with the worst of the winter snows approaching, the evacuation of the Tirah Maidan began. The withdrawal of the 1st Division was comparatively uneventful, but that of the 2nd Division was subject to constant ambushes and attacks that inflicted 164 casualties and were obviously not the work of the Zakha Khel alone. Nevertheless, so thoroughly had the rising been put down that during the next twenty years only five major punitive expeditions were required to police troublesome areas, and never again was fighting so widespread along the Frontier.

It would be absurd to suggest that any love was lost between the British and the tribes, but there was a great deal of mutual respect and during both World Wars thousands of the latter volunteered for service with the Crown. There was even a sense of loss when the British left India, for now no one remained for their young men to prove themselves against, even their hereditary Hindu enemies having been removed far to the south of them by the creation of the Islamic state of Pakistan. Yet the world was to hear of them again, for when the Soviet Union launched its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 the Frontier again became an arsenal and huge numbers crossed to fight alongside their co-religious kindred in the Mujahideen. For all its size, the Soviet Army was unable to cope. In the end, therefore, the mullahs’ promise of a successful jihad had been fulfilled, albeit a century after it was made and against a very different kind of infidel.

 

Notes

  1. Kempster had an unfortunate personality and was so unpopular throughout the Tirah Field Force that its members coined the verb ‘to be kempstered,’ that is, generally mucked about. For all that, he was a capable enough officer in action.
  2. Later the Sherwoood Foresters.
  3. The Cock o’ the North was the nickname of the Duke of Gordon who had raised the regiment 104 years earlier.
  4. At the time the Victoria Cross warrant also incorporated a clause to the effect that in the event of subsequent ‘scandalous conduct’ the award would be forfeit. This rarely happened but when it did there was an understandable public outcry in protest. King Edward VII put an end to this sort of sanctimonious humbug.
  5. To quote from a footnote in Chapter 26 of the Gordon Highlanders’ regimental history, The Life of a Regiment: The incident of the wounded piper continuing to play, being telegraphed home, took the British public by storm, and when Findlater arrived in England he found himself famous. Reporters rushed to interview him; managers offered him fabulous sums to play at their theatres; the streets of London and all the country towns were placarded with his portrait; when, after his discharge, he was brought to play at the Military Tournament, royal personages and distinguished generals shook him by the hand; his photograph was sold by thousands; the Scotsmen in London would have let him swim in champagne, and the daily cheers of the multitude were enough to turn an older head than that of this young soldier. A handsome pension enabled Findlater to rest on his laurels and turn his sword into a ploughshare on a farm near Turriff. He re-enlisted for the Great War, though not fit for foreign service.’
  6. Throughout their subsequent history the Gordon Highlanders celebrated the anniversary of Dargai wherever they were stationed. Thanks to government economies that have reduced the Army’s strength to the lowest level for 300 years, the regiment no longer has an independent existence, having merged with the Queen’s Own Highlanders to form a new regiment, The Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons). This will, however, continue to celebrate the anniversary of the action.

The Assault on Levita

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The survivors of the enemy convoy sunk on 7 October 1943 were landed on Stampalia, where the LRDG had M2 patrol. A small naval craft (the Hedgehog) dispatched from Leros to bring back ten prisoners of war for interrogation, called with engine trouble at Levita, about twenty miles to the west of Calino. A party sent by motor launch to the assistance of the Hedgehog found only a smoldering wreck and was fired on from the island. As the possession of Levita was considered essential to the Navy, and as it would be useful as an observation post, the commander of 234 Brigade ordered the LRDG to capture the island. Major Guild and Captain Tinker urged that a reconnaissance should be made before the assault force was landed, but permission to do this was not granted.

It was decided to attack with forty-eight men under the command of Captain J. R. Olivey, the force including twenty-two from A Squadron under Lieutenant J. M. Sutherland, and the remainder coming from B Squadron. Sutherland’s patrol (R2), was withdrawn from the coastal battery on Mount Scumbardo, in southern Leros, and was joined by a few men from R1 and T2 patrols. The B Squadron party included Y2 and part of S1 patrol. In case the enemy should be occupying both ends of Levita, B Squadron was to land to the west of the port, which is on the south coast, and A Squadron to the east. The objective was to reach the high, central ground over- looking the port.

The landings were to be made from two motor launches in small, canvas boats, but as these had been punctured in air attacks, the troops had to patch them with sticking-plaster before they could practice rowing in them. The force had four infantry wireless sets for inter-communication between the two parties and with the launches, and a larger set for communication with Leros. When they were about to leave at dusk on 23 October, however, it was discovered that the A Squadron set had not been netted in with the others.

Most of the men were violently seasick before they reached Levita. It took A Squadron a long time to float the canvas boats from the tossing launch, but they eventually got away and landed on a very rugged coast, where the men rescued as much of their gear as they could from the rocks and dragged it up a cliff face. Sutherland told his wireless operator to try to get in touch with Olivey, but at no stage was he able to do so.

After disembarking the two parties, the motor launches were to shell a house thought to be occupied by the enemy in the center of the island. Instead of shelling this building, however, they concentrated on an old hut on a ridge in front of A Squadron. When the shellfire ceased, Suther- land’s party moved towards the ridge and discovered nearby the burnt-out hull of the Hedgehog. They then came under machine-gun fire from the rear, presumably from somewhere near their landing place. This kept them pinned down on bare ground until they were able to get together and rush the gun position, which they captured with a dozen prisoners. Trooper H. L. Mallett was severely wounded and died despite the efforts of the medical orderly (Private B. Steedman) to save him.

Although they again came under machine-gun fire, A Squadron continued to advance and secured the ridge before daylight. They flushed the enemy out of the hut, but did not occupy it because it was in a vulnerable position. Trooper A. J. Penhall was mortally wounded, but Trooper R. G. Haddow, although severely wounded in the stomach, recovered as a prisoner of war. Several other men received minor wounds.

At the first streaks of daylight, three or four seaplanes began to take off from the Levita harbor. The New Zealanders, who overlooked the harbor from the ridge, opened fire, and for a moment it seemed that Trooper L. G. Doel had put one seaplane out of action with his Bren gun, but it moved out of range and took off after some delay. When the seaplanes came overhead and began to strafe, the men returned the fire, but as their bullets only bounced off harmlessly they decided not to waste ammunition.

Having met no resistance on landing, B Squadron was within 500 yards of the enemy head- quarters by dawn and could hear fighting on the other side of the island. Had Sutherland been able to make contact with Olivey by wireless, he would have advised him of his position, and B Squad- ron could have gone ahead without fear of firing on A Squadron. The Germans, who received reinforcements during the day, isolated the New Zealanders on the ridge with air attacks and machine-gun and mortar fire, while they encircled and captured most of the B Squadron party.

Having disposed of B Squadron, the enemy was then able to employ his full strength against A Squadron, which was holding three positions on the ridge. Sutherland had with him the wireless operator, the medical orderly, the wounded, three or four other men, and the German prisoners. Sergeant E. J. Dobson was in charge of a party in a central position, armed with a Bren gun, a Tommy gun, and some rifles, and farther away on high ground, Corporal J. E. Gill had the third party. Trooper J. T. Bowler, who went down to the landing place for water, and a man who attempted to deliver a message from Gill to Sutherland, were not seen again and were presumed to have been killed. The enemy eventually overwhelmed Sutherland’s force, but Gill and three men avoided capture for four days by hiding among some rocks. They were unable to attract the attention of a launch that circled the island and, as they were without food and water, had to give themselves up to the enemy.

With instructions to evacuate the force from Levita, the commanding officer of the LRDG (Lieutenant-Colonel Easonsmith)* arrived by launch during the night 2425 October, but found only Captain Olivey, the medical officer (Captain Lawson), and seven men of B Squadron at the rendezvous. Olivey returned with Major Guild the following night to search for the missing men, but found nobody. The LRDG lost forty men on Levita.

Operation Airthief – the plan to hijack an Fw 190A

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Armin Faber’s Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3 of III/JG 2 at RAF Pembrey, June 1942.

In June 1942, Oberstleutnant Armin Faber was Gruppen-Adjutant to the commander of the III fighter Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 2 (JG 2) based in Morlaix in Brittany. On 23 June, he was given special permission to fly a combat mission with 7th Staffel. The unit operated Focke-Wulf 190 fighters.
The FW-190 had only recently arrived with front line units at this time and its superior performance had caused the Allies so many problems that they were considering mounting a commando raid on a French airfield to capture one for evaluation.
7th Staffel was scrambled to intercept a force of six Bostons on their way back from a bombing mission; the Bostons were escorted by three Czechoslovak-manned RAF squadrons, 310 Squadron, 312 Squadron and 313 Squadron commanded by Alois Vašátko. A fight developed over the English Channel with the escorting Spitfires, during which Faber was attacked by Sergeant František Trejtnar (Czech) of 310 Squadron. In his efforts to shake off the Spitfire, Faber flew north over Exeter in Devon. After much high-speed manoeuvring, Faber, with only one cannon working, pulled an Immelmann turn into the sun and shot down his pursuer in a head-on attack.
Trejnar bailed out safely, although he had a shrapnel wound in his arm and sustained a broken leg on landing; his Spitfire crashed near the village of Black Dog, Devon. Meanwhile, the disorientated Faber now mistook the Bristol Channel for the English Channel and flew north instead of south. Thinking South Wales was France, he turned towards the nearest airfield – RAF Pembrey. Observers on the ground could not believe their eyes as Faber waggled his wings in a victory celebration, lowered the Focke-Wulf’s undercarriage and landed.
The Pembrey Duty Pilot, one Sergeant Jeffreys, grabbed a Very pistol and ran from the control tower and jumped onto the wing of Faber’s aircraft as it taxied in. Faber was apprehended and later taken to RAF Fairwood Common by Group Captain David Atcherley (twin brother of Richard Atcherley) for interrogation.

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By the spring of 1942 the Fw 190 had become an uncomfortably sharp thorn in the side of RAF Fighter Command. Obviously, if an airworthy example of the Fw 190 could be captured and its secrets probed, that would be of inestimable value. Capt. Philip Pinckney, a British commando officer, hatched a daring plan to gain that end.

In an operation of this type, two men might succeed where more might fail. Pinckney suggested that his good friend Jeffrey Quill, chief test pilot at the Supermarine Company, should accompany him on the enterprise.

The essentials of the plan were as follows. On Night 1 a Royal Navy motor gunboat, equipped with direction-finding radio, was to carry the pair to a point within about two miles of a selected beach on the French coast, where they would disembark into a folding canoe. The pair would paddle ashore, hide their boat in sand dunes and lie up during the following day. On Night 2 the pair would move inland to within observation range of the selected Fw 190 airfield, and hide up before dawn. During the daylight hours the pair would keep the airfield under observation and plan their attack. On Night 3 the pair would penetrate the airfield defences by stealth, and conceal themselves as near as possible to one or more Fw 190s at their dispersal points. The pair would then wait until the next day, when the ground crew arrived to run the engine of one of the fighters.

The pair would then break cover, shoot or drive away the ground crewmen, and Jeffrey Quill would jump into the cockpit and taxi the machine to the runway. As he did so, Pinckney would be outside the plane warding off any attempt to interfere with the operation. Once Quill was safely airborne, Pinckney would withdraw to a previously prepared hide. On Night 4 he would return to the hidden canoe. Just before dawn he would launch the craft and paddle out to sea, making radio transmissions so that the motor gunboat could home on the craft and pick him up.

Yet in a remarkable coincidence, on the very day Pinckney submitted his proposal, the need for this risky operation disappeared. On the afternoon of 23 June an Fw 190 pilot had become disorientated in a dogfight with Spitfires over southern England. He mistook the Bristol Channel for the English Channel and made a wheels-down landing at Pembrey airfield, south Wales [above]. Thus, the RAF gained the coveted example of an Fw 190, without having to resort to the risky ‘Airthief operation.

Post-war Spitfire XIV

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The final Spitfire variant, the Mk 24, was similar to the Mk 22 except that it had an increased fuel capacity over its predecessors, with two fuel tanks of 33 gal (150 l) each installed in the rear fuselage. There were also zero-point fittings for rocket projectiles under the wings. All had the larger “Spiteful” tail units: modifications were also made to the trim tab gearings in order to perfect the F 24’s handling characteristics. Late production aircraft were built with the lighter, short-barrelled, electrically fired Mark V Hispano cannon.

Performance was impressive – the F 24 achieved a maximum speed of 454 mph (731 km/h), and could reach an altitude of 30,000 ft (9,100 m) in eight minutes, putting it on a par with the most advanced piston-engined fighters of the era.

Although designed primarily as a fighter-interceptor aircraft, the Spitfire proved its versatility in several different roles. In fighter configuration the F 24’s armament consisted of 4 × short-barrelled 20 mm Hispano cannon – operational experience had proved that the hitting power of these larger weapons was necessary to overcome the thicker armoured plating encountered on enemy aircraft as the war progressed. The aircraft also served successfully in the fighter-bomber role, being capable of carrying 1 × 500 lb (230 kg) and 2 × 250 lb (110 kg) bombs, with rocket-projectile launch rails fitted as standard.

A total of 81 Mk 24s were completed, 27 of which were conversions from Mk 22s. The last Mk 24 to be built was delivered in February 1948. They were used by only one RAF squadron, 80 Squadron, until 1952. Some of the squadron’s aircraft went to the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force where they were operated until 1955.

Introduced into service in 1946, the F. Mk 24 differed greatly from the original Spitfire Mk I in many respects and undoubtedly brought the design to the peak of perfection, being twice as heavy, more than twice as powerful and exhibiting an increase in climb rate of 80% over the prototype aircraft, ‘K5054’. These remarkable increases in performance arose chiefly from the introduction of the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine in place of the famous Merlin of earlier variants. Rated at 2,050 hp (1,530 kW), the twelve-cylinder Vee liquid cooled Griffon 61 engine featured a two-stage supercharger, giving the Spitfire the exceptional performance at high altitude that had been sometimes lacking in early marks.

In growing numbers and with increasing capability the Spitfire served throughout World War II, not only with the RAF but with the nation’s allies, including US and Soviet squadrons. It also had the distinction of remaining in production throughout the entire war and was operational post-war, the last mission flown by a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire PR.MK 19 of No. 81 Squadron in Malaya on 1 April 1954.

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Raid on Medway I

Upnor Castle, which lies opposite the dockyard at Chatham, played an important part in the defence of the yard at the time of the Dutch raid.

Attack on the Medway, June 1667 by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest, painted c. 1667. The captured ship the Royal Charles is right of centre.

On 13 June 1667 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: ‘I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone, that I do this night resolve to study with my father and wife what to do with the little that I have in money.’

He, like many Londoners, was thrown into a panic by an extraordinary raid on the Royal Dockyards of Chatham, which contained in oak the defensive strength of England. Only a rusty chain and a tiny river-fort provided the last defence against invasion. That panic was shared by the government. A coastal town was captured and three capital ships and 10 lesser vessels were burnt, while around 30 vessels were scuttled and two others – including the pride and flagship of the navy, were towed away. The one-sided attack proved to be, it can be argued, the worst defeat in the Royal Navy’s history. And it vies with Majuba Hill (1881) and the fall of Singapore (1941) as the most humiliating defeat of British arms.

The Stuarts, by making friends of the Spanish and French, ensured that the threat from those two rival powers would be diminished for the best part of a century. That peace was interrupted when it became clear that the Parliamentarians were winning the Civil War against Charles I. A French squadron with transports evaded the navy in the North Sea and reached Bridlington, but was then destroyed in the harbour. Cromwell’s Commonwealth was not threatened from overseas, partly because in a Europe hit by financial crisis, no power was strong enough to mount a serious challenge. That did not change much when the Stuarts were restored.

But the Dutch, sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, were a different matter.

During the Commonwealth, Cromwell had successfully seen off the Dutch in a war sparked by trade disputes and fought entirely at sea. The English were victorious at the Battle of Scheveningen and the Dutch were forced to accept an English monopoly on trade with England and English colonies. Cromwell sought to avoid further conflict with the Dutch Republic.

The restoration of Charles II saw widespread demands at home to reverse the Dutch dominance in world trade. Charles, however, was personally greatly in debt to the House of Orange, which had lent enormous sums to his father during the Civil War. But a conflict soon developed over the education and future prospects of his nephew, William III of Orange. That dispute, which had wide implications for the royal houses of Europe, was temporarily solved, thanks largely to the diplomacy of Lord Clarendon, a favourite of the king. In 1664, the situation quickly changed when Clarendon’s enemy, Lord Arlington, superseded him as the king’s favourite. Arlington and the king’s brother James, Duke of York, the Lord High Admiral, saw the opportunity for great personal gain in a war with the Dutch. James headed the Royal African Company and hoped to seize the possessions of the Dutch West India Company. The two were supported by the English ambassador in The Hague, George Downing, who despised the Dutch. He, either falsely or over-optimistically, reported that the Republic was politically divided between Orangists, who would gladly collaborate with an English enemy in case of war, and a faction of wealthy merchants that would give in to any English demand in order to protect their trade interests. Arlington planned to subdue the Dutch completely by permanent occupation of key Dutch cities. Charles was easily influenced and became convinced that a popular and lucrative foreign war at sea would bolster his authority as king. Naval officers were hungry for promotion and fortune in a conflict which they thought would be a walk-over.

Enthusiasm for war became infectious. English privateers attacked Dutch ships, capturing about 200. Dutch ships were obligated by treaty to salute the English flag first. In 1664 English commanders provoked the Dutch by not saluting in return. Many Dutch commanders could not bear the insult. English propagandists got to work, invoking the Amboyna Massacre of 1623 when ten English residents in the Dutch fortress of Victoria were executed by beheading for alleged treason, after first being tortured by a seventeenth-century version of water-boarding. Scurrilous broadsheets demonised the Dutch as drunken and profane. Pamphlets documented, without any real evidence, Dutch atrocities in the colonies. Under such a mountain of print, most Englishmen believed, in the poet Andrew Marvell’s words, that the Dutch were the ‘undigested vomit of the Sea’. Such vilification was at least partially an expression of unease with the presence of notable Cromwellians in exile in Holland. Charles had some reason to be nervous about at least the possibility of a Dutch invasion coordinated with an uprising within England.

Behind such fear-fuelled bigotry was of course the time-honoured motive for war – mercantile competition. The English sought to take over the Dutch trade routes and colonies while excluding the Dutch from their own colonial possessions. Contraband shipping had gone on from English colonies in America and Surinam for a decade, and the English were in no mood to give up such revenues. The Dutch, for their part, considered it their right to trade with anyone, anywhere. They too suffered from myopic double standards as they themselves enforced a monopoly in the Dutch Indies and threatened to extend it to India, after having expelled the Portuguese from that region.

Relations were decidedly tense on all fronts. James sent the Royal African Company’s Robert Holmes to capture Dutch trading posts and colonies in West Africa. With royal authority, the English invaded the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in North America on 24 June 1664, and controlled it by October. The Dutch responded by sending a fleet under Michiel de Ruyter, which recaptured their African trade posts, seized most English trade stations there and then crossed the Atlantic for a punitive expedition against the English in America. In December 1664, the English suddenly attacked the Dutch Smyrna fleet. Although the attack failed, the Dutch in January 1665 decreed that their ships could open fire on English warships in the colonies whenever threatened. Charles used this as a pretext to declare war on the Netherlands on 4 March 1665.

Since their defeat in the First Anglo–Dutch War, the Dutch had become much better prepared. Beginning in 1653, a ‘New Navy’ was constructed, a core of 60 new, heavier ships with professional captains. However, these ships were still much lighter than the 10 biggest ships in the English navy. With the threat of war growing, in 1664 the Dutch decided to replace their fleet core completely with still heavier ships. Upon the outbreak of war the following year, the new ships were quickly completed, with another 20 ordered. In the run-up to hostilities, cash-strapped England could only build a dozen ships. During the course of the war the Dutch shipyards built seven vessels to England’s one.

Still, on paper England appeared, fallaciously as it turned out, to be a giant facing the little Dutch boy. Her population was four times as big and its confidence was still on a par with its post-Armada period. But money was tight, with few cities able to dig deep into their coffers. The Dutch burghers were able to spend the equivalent of £11 million on the war, the English barely half that. And God seemed to have deserted England. The outbreak of war was swiftly followed by both the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, bringing England virtually to her knees. Furthermore, the English fleet had already suffered severe cash shortages, despite having been voted a record budget of £2,500,000 by Parliament. The navy could only pay its sailors with ‘tickets’, or debt certificates, as Charles lacked an effective means of enforcing taxation. The only way to finance the war was to capture Dutch trade fleets.

The first encounters were, unsurprisingly, at sea and British naval power at first seemed supreme. At the Battle of Lowestoft on 13 June the English gained a great victory. It was the worst defeat of the Dutch Republic’s navy in history. However, the English proved unable to capitalise on the victory. The leading Dutch politician, Johan de Witt, quickly restored confidence by joining the fleet personally. He sacked ineffective captains and introduced modern tactics.

In August, de Ruyter returned from America to a hero’s welcome and was given supreme command of the confederate fleet. The 60-year-old de Ruyter was highly respected, even loved, by his sailors and soldiers, who used the term of endearment Bestevaêr (‘Grandad’) for him. A pious, lowly born man, cautious in his personal nature, he always led from the front and refused to back away from danger. He also, unusually for one of his standing, had an utter disregard for rank. Meanwhile, the Spice Fleet from the Dutch East Indies managed to return home safely after the Battle of Vagen. That hit English pockets hard.

Charles and his ministers sought foreign help. In the summer of 1665 the bishop of Münster, an old enemy of the Dutch, had been induced by promises of English subsidies to invade the Republic. At the same time, the English made overtures to Spain. Both strategies backfired. Louis XV was greatly alarmed by the attack by Münster and the prospect of an English–Spanish coalition. He feared that a collapse of the Republic could create a powerful Habsburg entity on his northern border, as the Habsburgs were the traditional allies of the German bishops. He immediately promised to send a French army corps and French envoys. There was consternation at the English court. It now seemed that the Republic would end up as either a Habsburg possession or a French protectorate. Either outcome would be a disaster for England. Clarendon, always having warned about ‘this foolish war’, was ordered to quickly make peace with the Dutch without French mediation. Instead, he encouraged the Orangists to seize power, but that was foiled by the return of de Witt from his fleet.

The Dutch created a strong anti-English alliance. On 26 January 1666, Louis declared war and days later Frederick III of Denmark was bribed into doing the same. Charles made a new peace offer, which vaguely promised to moderate his demands if the Dutch would only appoint William to some responsible function and pay £200,000 in ‘indemnities’. De Witt considered it a mere feint to divide the Dutch and their French allies. He was having none of it and decided to strike hard with a fleet of 85 ships.

Eighty English ships, under General-at-Sea George Monck, the Duke of Albemarle, set sail at the end of May to confront the threat. But 20 of them under Prince Rupert peeled off to intercept a phantom French squadron believed to be joining up with the Dutch – in fact, most French vessels were in the Mediterranean. Albemarle came upon de Ruyter’s fleet at anchor on 1 June and immediately attacked the nearest Dutch ship before the rest of the fleet could come to her aid. The Dutch rearguard under Lieutenant-Admiral Cornelius Tromp set upon a starboard tack, taking the battle toward the Flemish shoals and compelling Albemarle to turn about. A ferocious battle raged until nightfall. Albemarle’s strength was reduced to 44 ships, but with these he renewed the battle, tacking past the enemy four times in close action. With his fleet in too poor a condition to continue to challenge, he retired towards the coast with the Dutch in pursuit.

The following day Prince Rupert returned with his 20 ships, joined Albemarle. During this stage of the battle, Vice-Admiral George Ayscue, on the grounded Prince Royal, surrendered, the last time an English admiral did so in battle. On the fourth day the Dutch broke the English lines several times. The English again retreated, but de Ruyter was reluctant to follow because gunpowder was running low. The battle ended with both sides claiming victory, even though the English had lost 10 ships against the Dutch four.

One more major action was fought – the St James’s Day Battle on 4 and 5 August ended in English victory because they lost one ship to the Dutch two. It failed to decide the war as the Dutch fleet escaped annihilation and at this stage simply surviving was enough for the Dutch. Five days later, Charles made another peace offer to de Witt using the notorious Henri Buat, a Dutch cavalry officer with a track record of conspiracy, as an intermediary. Among the letters he took to The Hague, presumably by mistake, was one containing the secret English instructions to their contacts in the Orange party, outlining plans for an overthrow of the state’s regime. Buat was arrested, condemned for treason and beheaded. His accomplices in the conspiracy fled the country to England. De Witt now had proof of treachery within the Orange movement.

The mood in the Republic now turned grimly belligerent. To raise temperatures even higher, in August English Vice-Admiral Robert Holmes, during his raid on the Vlie estuary in August 1666, destroyed merchantmen and sacked the island of Terschelling, setting the main town aflame. In this he was assisted by a Dutch captain, Laurens Heemskerck, who had fled to England after having been condemned to death for cowardice shown during the Battle of Lowestoft.

After the Great Fire of London in September, Charles again reduced his demands in an attempt to withdraw from the war without losing face. He was rebuffed.

By the beginning of 1667 Charles’s active fleet was in a poor state owing to spending cuts and the remaining big ships were laid up. Johan de Witt saw his chance. Negotiations had been in progress at Breda since March, but Charles had been procrastinating over the signing of peace, hoping to improve his position through secret French assistance. De Witt vowed to end the war quickly with a clear victory, thereby ensuring a more advantageous settlement for the Dutch Republic. He sent his brother Cornelis to supervise the fleet’s preparations. The Dutch commanders, fearing the treacherous shoals in the Thames estuary, hired two English pilots, one a dissenter named Robert Holland, the other a smuggler who had fled English justice.

Admiral de Ruyter gathered together his various squadrons and set sail for the Thames on 4 June with 62 frigates or ships-of-the-line, about 15 lighter ships and 12 fireships. The fleet was in three squadrons: the first was commanded by de Ruyter himself, the second by Lieutenant-Admiral Aert Jansse van Nes, and the third by Lieutenant-Admiral Baron Willem Joseph van Ghent. The latter, on the frigate Agatha, was the real commander of the expedition; he had done all the operational planning as he had been the former commander of the Dutch Marine Corps, the first in history created for specialised amphibious operations. That was now headed by the English Cromwellian Colonel Thomas Dolman.

On 6 June a break in the fog bank revealed the Dutch task force sailing into the mouth of the Thames. The attack caught the English unawares. Despite ample warning from spies, no serious preparations had been made. Most frigates were at Harwich and in Scotland. Sir William Coventry had earlier dismissed the likelihood of the Dutch landing anywhere near London, believing that purely as a morale-booster they would launch a token attack on Harwich. That port was strongly fortified, leaving London protected by only a small number of active ships, most of them prizes taken earlier in the war from the Dutch. In March the Duke of York had ordered the discharge of most of the crews of the prize vessels, leaving only three guard ships at the Medway. The number of fireships was hastily increased from one to three, and 30 large sloops were prepared to row ships to safety in an emergency. But such measures merely underlined the lack of a clear line of command, with most responsible authorities giving hasty orders without bothering to coordinate them first. The result was utter confusion. King Charles stood aloof and English morale plummeted. English soldiers, not having been paid for months or even years, were not over-eager to risk their lives. England dithered while the main Dutch fleet took five days to manoeuvre around the shoals and reach the approaches to Chatham.

At the Royal Dockyard, Commissioner Peter Pett, despite having raised the alarm, sat on his hands until 9 June when, late in the afternoon, about 30 Dutch ships, Van Ghent’s squadron of frigates, were sighted off Sheerness. Pett sent a gloomy message to the Navy Board, lamenting the absence of Navy senior officials whose help and advice he believed he needed. When decisive action was required, Pett was more interested in avoiding future blame.

Van Ghent’s frigates carried marines who were landed on Canvey Island in Essex. They had strict orders not to plunder, as the Dutch wanted to shame the English whose troops had sacked Terschelling. Nevertheless, tCaptain Jan van Brakel’s crew couldn’t control themselves and commenced looting rather than soldiering. They were driven off by English militia and upon returning to the Dutch fleet found themselves under threat of severe punishment. Van Brakel offered to lead the attack the next day to avoid the penalty.

King Charles was finally spurred into action and ordered the Earl of Oxford to mobilise the militia of all counties around London. All available barges were gathered to lay a ship bridge across the Lower Thames, so that the English cavalry could quickly switch positions from one bank to the other. Musketeers from the Sheerness garrison were sent to investigate reports of Dutch raiding parties on the Isle of Grain. It was only in the afternoon of 10 June that the king instructed Albemarle to go to Chatham to take charge. Admiral Prince Rupert was sent to organise the defences at Woolwich a full three days later.

Albermarle found to his utter dismay that at Gravesend and Tilbury there were too few guns to halt a Dutch advance upon the Thames. To prevent such a disaster, he ordered all available artillery from the capital to be positioned at Gravesend. On 11 June he went to Chatham, expecting the backbone of England’s naval strength to be well prepared for an attack, but found only 12 of the 800 dockyard men present. Only 10 of the 30 sloops were there because the remainder had been used to ferry to safety the cherished personal possessions of senior officers, in Commissioner Pett’s case, his collection of model ships. No munitions or powder were available and the six-inch thick iron chain that blocked the Medway, installed in the Civil War to repel a possible attack of the Royalist fleet, had not been protected by batteries. Albemarle immediately ordered the transfer of the artillery from Gravesend to Chatham.

The full Dutch fleet arrived at the Isle of Sheppey on 10 June and launched an attack on the incomplete Sheerness Fort. Captain Jan van Brakel in Vrede, desperate to assuage the dishonour of his men, led and, followed by two other men-of-war, sailed as close to the fort as possible to batter it with cannon. Only the frigate Unity, stationed off the fort, was able to engage. It was supported by a number of ketches and fireships at Garrison Point, and by the fort itself where 16 guns had been hastily placed. The Unity fired one broadside, but when a Dutch fireship approached, she withdrew up the Medway, followed by the support vessels. The Dutch fired on the fort. Two men were hit and when the Scots soldiers of the garrison realised that no surgeon was on duty, they deserted. Seven remained, but their position became untenable when some 800 Dutch marines landed about a mile away. The fort and its guns were captured and blown up,

Confusion reigned on the English side, as Spragge, Monck and Admiralty officials issued conflicting orders. As his artillery would not arrive soon, Monck on the 11th ordered a squadron of cavalry and a company of soldiers to reinforce Upnor Castle. River defences were hastily improvised with blockships sunk, and the chain across the river was guarded by light batteries. Pett proposed that several big and smaller ships be sunk to block the Musselbank channel in front of the chain. HMS Golden Phoenix, HMS House of Sweden, HMS Welcome and HMS Leicester were scuttled along with the smaller vessels Constant John, Unicorn, John and Sarah. Spragge took soundings and discovered that this was not enough to block the second channel, several more were sunk, including the Barbados Merchant, Dolphin, Edward and Eve, Hind and Fortune. The job was done by men from the remaining warships, which were temporarily left crewless. They were placed in a too-easterly position on the line and could not be covered by fire. Monck then decided also to sink ships in Upnor Reach, presenting another barrier to the Dutch should they break through the chain at Gillingham. The defensive chain placed across the river had at its lowest point been lying practically 9ft under the waterline between its stages, leaving it possible for light ships to pass over it. The defenders tried to raise it by placing stages under it closer to the shore.