Fortunately for the economic survival of Japan, in subsequent decades defensive strategies, particularly in large-scale campaigns, began to center on entrenchments and fortifications, rather than on evasion and refusal of battle. Whether bushi perceived a problem and responded directly to it, or simply stumbled onto a solution for other reasons, is difficult to assess. Whatever their genesis, however, in the event, the new tactics helped prevent recurrences of devastation on the level of the Tadatsune episode.
The first significant campaign in which fortifications played a major role appears to have been Minamoto Yoriyoshi’s so-called Former Nine Years’ War against Abe Yoritoki and his sons, waged from 1055 to 1062. This contest took place in Mutsu, in the northeast, a region where warriors were heir to a three century-old tradition of establishing stockades as bases from which to control the local population. The Abe’s strategy throughout the conflict centered on ensconcing themselves and their followers behind bulwarks and palisades, in an effort to outlast Yoriyoshi’s patience and resolve. Such tactics played on the eagerness of Yoriyoshi’s troops to get back as soon as possible to their own lands and affairs. As Yoriyoshi’s lieutenant Kiyowara Takenori warned him:
Our government army is made up of mercenaries, and they are short of food. They want a decisive fight. If the rebels were to defend their strongholds and refuse to come out, these exhausted mercenaries could never maintain an offensive for long. Some would desert; others might attack us. I have always feared this.
If the Mutsuwaki, a nearly-contemporaneous literary account of the war, is to be believed, the forts the Abe manned, and the defenses they employed, could be elaborate:
On the north and east sides of the stockade there was a great swamp; the other two sides were protected by a river, the banks of which were more than three jo [about 10 meters] high and as unscalable as a wall. It was on such a site that the stockade had been built. Above the stockade the defenders stood towers, manned by fierce warriors. Between the stockade and the river, they dug a trench. At the bottom of the trench they placed upturned knives and above the ground they strew caltrops. Attackers at a distance they shot down with oyumi; at those who drew close they hurled stones. When, intermittently, an attacker reached the base of the stockade wall, they scalded him with boiling water and then brandished sharp swords and killed him. Warriors in the towers jeered the besieging army as it approached, calling for it to come forth and fight. Dozens of servant women climbed the towers to taunt the attackers with songs. . . .
Yoriyoshi’s tactics against this stockade were equally elaborate – and ruthless as well:
The attack began on at the hour of the hare [5:00-7:00 am] on the following day. The assembled oyumi shot throughout the day and night, the arrows and stones falling like rain. But the stockade was defended tenaciously and the besieging army sacrificed hundreds of men without taking it. The following day at the hour of the sheep [1:00-3:00 pm] the besieging commander ordered his troops to enter the nearby village, demolish the houses, and heap the wood in the dry moat around the stockade. He further told them to cut thatch and reeds and pile these along the river banks. Accordingly much was demolished and carried, cut and piled, until at length the stacks towered high as a mountain. . . . The commander then took up a torch himself and threw it on the pyre. . . . A fierce wind suddenly sprang up and the smoke and flames seemed to leap at the stockade. The arrows previously fired by the besieging army blanketed the outer walls and towers of the stockade like the hairs of a raincoat. Now the flames, borne by the wind, leaped to the feathers of these arrows and the towers and buildings of the stockade caught fire at once. In the fortress thousands of men and women wept and cried out as with one voice. The defenders became frantic; some hurling themselves into the blue abyss, others losing their heads to naked blades.
The besieging forces crossed the river and attacked. At this time several hundred defenders put on their armor and brandished their swords in an attempt to break through the encirclement. Since they were certain of death and had no thought of living, they inflicted many casualties upon the besieging troops, until [the deputy commander of the besieging army] ordered his men to open the cordon to let the defenders escape. When the warriors opened the encirclement, the defenders immediately broke for the outside; they did not fight, but ran. The besiegers then attacked their flanks and killed them all. . . . In the stockade dozens of beautiful women all dressed in silk and damask, minutely adorned in green and gold, wept miserably amidst the smoke. Every one of them was dragged out and given to the warriors, who raped them.
Yoriyoshi’s experiences with the Abe may have become the inspiration for increasingly widespread use of fortifications elsewhere in the country; nevertheless defensive works as elaborate or permanent as those Yoritoki and his sons occupied remained rare outside the northeast until the fourteenth century. Most Heian- and Kamakura-period fortresses were comparatively simple structures erected for a single battle or campaign.
Unlike the castle homes – protected by deep moats, wooden palisades and earthworks – of Sengoku-era warlords, early medieval bushi residences were scarcely distinguishable from those of other rural elites, and differed only in size and opulence from the dwellings of nobles in the capital.
Heian, Kamakura and Nambokucho warriors built their homes on level ground, usually on relatively high points in or very near the alluvial lowlands of rivers, and immediately adjacent to paddies and other agricultural fields. The main houses, stables and other key buildings were surrounded by water-filled ditches and hedges or fences, and accessed through wooden- or thatch-roofed gates. None of these features, however, appear to have been designed for military expediency.
Ditches were narrow and shallow – less than a meter wide and 30 cm deep – and enclosed areas of 150 by 150 meters or more, presenting an impractically long line to defend with the small number of men normally available to early medieval landowners. They seem, therefore, to have served primarily as components of irrigation works, used to warm water and as a safeguard against droughts. Similarly, fences depicted in medieval artwork are low – a meter or so in height – and constructed of wood, thatch or natural vegetation, making them more suitable for controlling wandering animals than for keeping out marauding warriors. Careful archeological studies indicate that deeper moats and earthworks did not appear around warrior homes until the fourteenth century, and did not become widespread until the fifteenth.
The terms “shiro” or “jokaku” (usually translated as “castle” in later medieval contexts) appear frequently in diaries, chronicles, documents and literary accounts of late twelfth- and thirteenth-century warfare, but only in wartime situations, and nearly always in reference to field fortifications, erected for a particular battle. Such breastworks were intended to be temporary, and were rudimentary in comparison to the castles of the later medieval period, but they were not always small in scale. Some, like the famous Taira defense works erected in 1184 at Ichinotani, near Naniwa on the Harima border of Settsu province, could be quite impressive:
The entrance to Ichinotani was narrow; the interior was broad. To the south was the sea; to the north were mountains – high cliffs like a folding screen. There seemed not even a small space through which horses or men could pass. It was truly a monumental fortress. Red banners in unknown numbers unfurled, blowing toward heaven in the spring wind like leaping flames. . . . The enemy would surely lose its spirit when it looked upon this.
From the mountain cliffs to the shallows of the sea they had piled up large boulders, and over these stacked thick logs, on top of which they positioned two rows of shields and erected double turrets, with narrow openings through which to shoot. Warriors stood with bows strung and arrows at the ready. Below this, they covered the tops of the boulders with brush fences. Vassals and their underlings waited, grasping bearclaw rakes and long-handled sickles, ready to charge forth when given the word. Behind the walls stood countless saddled horses in twenty or thirty rows. . . . In the shallows of the sea to the south were large boats ready to be put to oars instantly and head to the deeper water, where tens of thousands of ships floated, like wild geese scattered across the sky. On the high ground they readied rocks and logs to roll down upon attackers. On the low ground they dug trenches and planted sharp stakes.
These descriptions, drawn from later literary accounts of the Gempei War, doubtless incorporate considerable exaggeration, but they nevertheless offer important clues about the nature of late twelfth-century fortifications. Two points, in particular, merit special attention. First, the preparations for battle involved provisions for escape – “countless saddled horses in twenty or thirty rows” and “large boats ready to be put to oars instantly,” to ferry troops to “tens of thousands of ships” waiting in deeper water – in addition to the defensive works. And second, as formidable as Ichinotani was, it was neither a complete enclosure nor fortified in all directions. In fact, the Taira defeat there was brought about, in part, by Minamoto Yoshitsune’s attack from the hills behind it. Similar tactics decided other key battles of the age as well.
Late Heian and early Kamakura “jokaku” were defensive lines, not castles or forts intended to provide long-term safe haven for armies ensconced within. Many were simply barricades erected across important roads or mountain passes. Others were transient wartime modifications to temples, shrines or warrior residences. Their purpose, in either case, was to concentrate campaigns and battles: to slow enemy advances, thwart raiding tactics, control selection of the battleground, restrict cavalry maneuver, and enhance the ability of foot soldiers (who could be recruited in much larger numbers) to compete with skilled horsemen. And they were expendable, as well as expedient; they were never the sites of sustained sieges or – by choice – of heroic final stands. Contingency planning normally provided for withdrawal and reestablishment of new defensive lines elsewhere.
Picture scrolls indicate that most of the defense features cataloged in the descriptions of Ichinotani were commonly deployed by the late thirteenth century, and most appear in descriptions of other Gempei War-era fortifications in Heike monogatari and its sister texts. Curiously, however, some of the simplest devices – brush barricades (sakamogi) and shield walls (kaidate) – cannot be corroborated in more reliable sources for the 1180s.
Shield walls were exactly what the name implies: rows of standing shields erected behind or on top of other defense works. Standing shields had been used as portable field fortifications since the ritsuryo era, and were also deployed as counter-fortifications by besieging armies. Kaidate were used on boats as well, to convert what were otherwise fishing vessels to warships.
Sakamogi (literally, “stacked wood”) appear to have been essentially piles or hedges of thorny branches placed in front of the principal defensive palisade. They served as an application of what is sometimes called “the principle of the curtain”: a light barrier designed to break the momentum of an enemy charge, dissipating its shock power and holding the enemy under fire before he can bring force against the main walls. Brush fences of this sort were architecturally simple, yet extremely effective for the task: Martin Brice notes that, during World War I, thorn enclosures, called boma or zareba, built by the Masai of Tanzania and Kenya proved as difficult to cross, and as resistant to high explosive bombardment, as barbed wire!
Masai thorn fences represented a wartime application of a device normally used to contain and protect livestock. Japanese sakamogi may have had similar origins. Such a military adaptation of a technology developed for animal control was entirely apropos for early medieval warriors, whose main concern was restricting the movement of enemy horsemen. Brush curtains are, however, vulnerable to fire, which, as we have seen, was a favorite weapon of early bushi.
Ditches and moats, another tool borrowed from horse and cattle breeders, offered twelfth-century military architects a more durable curtaining wall for their field fortifications. Because they were intended to halt or hinder the advance of mounted troops, rather than keep hordes of attacking infantry at bay, such ditches needed to be only a few meters wide or deep, and were usually dry. Many were topped on the inner side with earthen ramparts constructed from the dirt removed to dig the trench.
Among the most remarkable examples of early medieval military ditches is the massive defensive line Fujiwara Yasuhira prepared when he learned of Yoritomo’s invasion plans in 1189. This barrier, the remains of which can still be seen today, effectively blocked the whole of the Tosando, the only route into Mutsu. Stretching some 3 kilometers between Azukashiyama and Kunimishuku, on the northeast end of the Fukushima plain, it was about 15 meters wide and 3 meters deep, featuring steep ramparts of packed earth, augmented here and there with stone. Yasuhira also set up a secondary line some 20 kilometers behind this, and stretched ropes across the Natori and Hirose rivers to form a tertiary line 30 kilometers behind that.
The line of walls constructed along the coastline of northern Kyushu, as a defense against the Mongol invasions of the late thirteenth century, was even grander. Composed of earth, granite and sandstone, and standing 2 to 3 meters high and equally wide, it stretched nearly 10 kilometers.
Fortifications of this scale required enormous labor resources. Manpower costs for Yasuhira’s Azukashiyama ditch have, for example, been calculated at more than 20,000 working days. Thus, even mobilizing the entire adult peasant population of the neighboring three districts – at the time, about 5,000 men – the project would have taken forty days or more to complete. Workers for military construction projects were usually conscripted locally, on the basis of various tax obligations.
Ditches and dry moats, augmented with sakamogi or earthen ramparts, were more than adequate barriers against Japanese ponies. Unlike European or later medieval Japanese castles, moreover, twelfth-century jokaku did not trap the defenders inside, and therefore constituted only a part of the strategy underlying the battles and campaigns in which they were deployed. Indeed, the construction and use of barricades was intimately bound up with the question of how and when to throw one’s own mounted troops at the enemy. Warriors waited behind the walls for the right moment to charge out and counter-attack, or to withdraw to secondary or tertiary lines.
Wooden gates (kido or kidoguchi), through which defenders on horseback could rush forth to assault besieging forces, constitute the one ubiquitous feature of late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century fortifications. As the only points at which mounted warriors – of either side – could readily cross the barricades, they were usually the nodal points of battle. Consequently, they were the most heavily defended parts of the line, flanked by one or more shielded platforms (yagura, literally, “arrow stores”) from which archers could shoot down at approaching troops.
On occasion, attacking armies mobilized laborers to build counterfortifications or dismantle enemy barricades. In the Mutsu campaign, for example, Yoritomo set eighty men, under Hatakeyama Shigetada, to hauling rocks and earth with plows and hoes in order to fill in parts of the Azukashiyama ditch, so that his horsemen could cross. But while the sheer size of the Azukashiyama ditch, and of Yoritomo’s army, made counter-mining operations practical and necessary, against less extensive – and more densely defended – fortifications this tactic would have exposed the workers and their supervisors to rocks and arrows launched from the ramparts. Similarly, bushi who dismounted to scale the walls of the trench made themselves vulnerable to horse-borne counter-offenses, or made it easier for the defenders to withdraw and escape. More commonly, therefore, warriors confronting fortifications focused on storming the entrances and on flanking attacks.
The architectural features, and the tactical considerations, that governed Kamakura-period fortifications continued to dominate the fortresses and skirmishes of the Nambokucho era as well. But the battles of the 1330s also introduced a new role for warrior strongholds, new kinds of fortresses, and new forms of siege warfare.
During the eighth month of 1331, Go-Daigo fled the capital and “reestablished his imperial abode” in Kasagi temple, on the border between Yamato and Yamashiro. There he speedily erected fortifications and began sending out calls to arms. In response, the shogunate dispatched Sasaki Tokinobu, in command of troops from Omi and reinforced by 800 horsemen under the Kuge and Nakazawa families of Tamba, to capture him. On the first day of the ninth month, as 300 outriders from this force, under Takahashi Matashiro, approached the foot of Mount Kasagi, they were ambushed and routed by the castle garrison. Concerned that “should rumors spread of how [the shogunate’s men] lost this first battle, and how the castle was victorious, warriors of the various provinces would gallop to assemble there,” Kamakura promptly sent a massive army – nearly 75,000 men, according to Taiheiki – to invest the castle.
At dawn, on the third day of the ninth month, this force assaulted Kasagi “from all directions.” But the castle defenders fought back fiercely, showering the attacking troops with rocks and arrows such that:
Men and horses tumbled down one upon another from the eastern and western slopes surrounding the castle, filling the deep valleys and choking the roads with corpses. The Kozu River ran with blood, as if its waters reflected the crimson of autumn leaves. After this, though the besieging forces swarmed like clouds and mist, none dared assail the castle.
While the shogunal leaders stood at bay in front of Kasagi castle, “which held strong, and did not fall even when attacked day and night by great forces from many provinces,” to their rear other imperial loyalists were “raising large numbers of rebels, and messengers rushed to shogunal headquarters daily”:
On the eleventh day of that month, a courier was dispatched from Kawachi, reporting that, “Ever since the one called Kusanoki Hyoe Masashige raised his banner in service of the Emperor, those with ambitions have joined him, while those without ambition have fled to the east and west. Kusanoki has impressed the subjects of his province, and built a fortress on Akasaka mountain above his home, which he has stocked with as many provisions as he could transport, and manned with more than 500 horsemen. Should our response lag, this must become a troublesome matter indeed. We must direct our forces toward him at once!” . . .
Meanwhile, on the thirteenth day of that month a courier was dispatched from Bingo, with the message that, “The lay monk Sakurayama Shiro and his kinsmen have raised imperial banners, and have fortified [Kibitsu] shrine of this province. Since they have ensconced themselves within it, rebels of nearby provinces have been galloping to join them. Their numbers are now more than 700 horsemen. . . . If we do not strike them quickly, before night gives way to day, this will become an immense problem.”
Go-Daigo’s loyalist followers looked to fortifications not just as tactical barricades – devices for focusing battles, delimiting campaigns, or trammeling enemy horsemen – but as rallying points, sanctuaries, and symbols of resistance. Thus, while most twelfth- and thirteenth-century defense works had been constructed across or adjacent to roads, beachheads and other travel arteries, Kusanoki Masashige and his allies ensconced themselves in remote mountain citadels, whose purpose and presence defied Kamakura authority, and served as a beacon to other recruits.
Descriptions in Taiheiki and other texts, and depictions of fortifications in fourteenth-century scroll paintings, indicate that fortresses of the period were architecturally similar to those of the early Kamakura era, albeit now fully enclosed and often reinforced with wooden palisades and additional yagura erected at various points along the walls between, as well as adjacent to, the gates. The latter two innovations were a necessary consequence of the first. For, unlike the easily abandoned defensive lines favored by twelfth- and thirteenth-century warriors, the citadels Kusanoki and his compatriots occupied allowed the defenders no rapid means of escape or retreat. Indeed, they invited encirclement and siege, beckoning enemy horsemen – hitherto stymied by trenches and simple earthworks – to dismount and assault the walls directly.
Compact enough to be easily defended on all exposures, and located on terrain sufficiently treacherous to render them difficult to approach quickly or in large numbers, such citadels were not readily taken by direct onslaught – even if besieging forces did not really have to contend with the collapsing sham walls, decoy armies of mannequins, and other imaginative slight-of-hand tactics Taiheiki attributes to Kusanoki Masashige. More often, it seems, mountain castles fell to attrition – sometimes hastened by cutting off the garrison’s water or food supplies. Others were captured by infiltration or stealth.
In this way, relatively small numbers of warriors could tie up sizeable enemy forces for long periods, buying time and credibility for Go-Daigo’s cause, and whittling away at the morale of Kamakura’s troops. Kusanoki’s garrison of “more than 500 warriors” on Mount Akasaka in 1331 held “what looked to be a hastily-devised” fort “less than one or two hundred meters across” for nearly three weeks, against a shogunal army allegedly comprising “more than 20,000 horsemen.” In 1333, he held Chihaya castle near Mount Kongo in Kawachi for more than two months, while a besieging force “rumored to have been over 800,000 horsemen at the beginning” of the siege dwindled to “scarcely 100,000 riders.”
“What is the function of orderly knighthood?” wrote the twelfth-century English philosopher John of Salisbury. “To protect the Church, to fight against treachery, to reverence the priesthood, to fend off injustice from the poor, to make peace in your own province, to shed blood for your brethren, and if needs must, to lay down your life.” This was a splendid ideal, often put into practice during the Middle Ages. It lingers still in the army-officer tradition of France and Germany, in the public-school tradition of England. To medieval men, knighthood was more than a career; it was a spiritual and emotional substructure for an entire way of life.
The knight, the chevalier, was a man who owned a cheval, who served in the cavalry, and who guided his life by chivalry. His duty was to fight the enemies of his feudal lord. Said the fourteenth-century French chronicler Jean Froissart: “Gentle knights were born to fight, and war ennobles all who engage in it without fear or cowardice.
Fighting was the gentleman’s trade. He had been bred to it from babyhood, with all his education directed toward toughening his body and spirit. His school was a guardroom in a military post; his home a castle, perpetually prepared against assault. As a vassal he was frequently summoned to wars of lord against lord, to be paid for his services with booty taken in the capture of an enemy castle or with goods plundered from merchants on the roads. Or he might receive a summons from his king, who found profit in making war. “Only a successful war could temporarily fill royal coffers and re-endow the king with fresh territory,” writes the scholar Denys Hay. “Every spring an efficient king tried to lead his warriors on aggressive expeditions. With peace came poverty.”
War was also the gentleman’s joy. Peacetime life in a grim castle could be very dull, for the typical noble had almost no cultural resources and few diversions besides hunting. Battle was the climax of his career as it was often the end. The noble troubadour Bertrand de Born speaks for his class: “I tell you that I have no such joy in eating, drinking, or sleeping as when I hear the cry from both sides: ‘Up and at ‘em!’, or as when I hear riderless horses whinny under the trees, and groans of ‘Help me! Help me!’, and when I see both great and small fall in the ditches and on the grass, and see the dead transfixed by spear-shafts! Barons, mortgage your castles, domains, cities, but never give up war!” (It is true that Dante, in the Inferno, saw the bellicose Bertrand de Born in hell, carrying his severed head before him as a lantern.)
As Europe became more stable, central governments more efficient, and the interests of commerce more powerful, the warlike ideal faded. The military organization of society yielded to a civil structure based on legality. In the late Middle Ages, knights found themselves out-of-date; war fell more and more into the hands of base ruffian mercenaries, sappers and miners, and artillerymen. The military traditions of the noble knight remained, but were transformed into the pageantry of which we read in Froissart. Commercialism altered the noble caste; around 1300, Philip the Fair of France openly sold knighthoods to rich burghers, who thereby gained exemption from taxes as well as social elevation. In our time, the chevalier has become a Knight of Pythias, or Columbus, or the Temple, who solemnly girds on sword and armor to march past his own drugstore.
The knight was originally the companion of his lord or king, formally admitted to fellowship with him. Around the year 1200, the church took over the dubbing of the knight and imposed its ritual and obligations on the ceremony, making it almost a sacrament. The candidate took a symbolic bath, donned clean white clothes and a red robe, and stood or knelt for ten hours in nightlong silence before the altar, on which his weapons and armor lay. At dawn, mass was said in front of an audience of knights and ladies. His sponsors presented him to his feudal lord and gave him his arms, with a prayer and a blessing said over each piece of equipment. An essential part of the ceremony was the fastening of the spurs; our phrase “he has won his spurs” preserves a memory of the moment. An elder knight struck the candidate’s neck or cheek a hard blow with the flat of the hand or the side of his sword. This was the only blow a knight must always endure and never return. The initiate took an oath to devote his sword to good causes, to defend the church against its enemies, to protect widows, orphans, and the poor, and to pursue evildoers. The ceremony ended with a display of horsemanship, martial games, and mock duels. It was all very impressive; the more earnest knights never forgot their vigils or belied their vows. It was also a very expensive undertaking, so much so that by the fourteenth century, many eligible gentlemen preferred to remain squires.
The knight was bound to serve his master in his wars, though in the early period of feudalism for only forty days a year. Wars were, then, necessarily brief – raids rather than actual wars. Few pitched battles occurred unless one party sent a challenge to fight at a set time and place. The commander’s purpose was not to defeat the enemy but rather to harm him by burning his villages, massacring his peasants, destroying his source of income, while he raged impotently but securely in his castle. “When two nobles quarrel,” wrote a contemporary, “the poor man’s thatch goes up in flames.” A chanson de geste of the period happily describes such an invasion: “They start to march. The scouts and the incendiaries lead; after them come the foragers who are to gather the spoils and carry them in the great baggage train. The tumult begins. The peasants, having just come out to the fields, turn back, uttering loud cries; the shepherds gather their flocks and drive them toward the neighboring woods in the hope of saving them. The incendiaries set the villages on fire, and the foragers visit and sack them. The distracted inhabitants are burnt or led apart with their hands tied to be held for ransom. Everywhere alarm bells ring, fear spreads from side to side and becomes general. On all sides one sees helmets shining, pennons floating, and horsemen covering the plain. Here hands are laid on money; there cattle, donkeys, and flocks are seized. The smoke spreads, the flames rise, the peasants and the shepherds in consternation flee in all directions . . . In the cities, in the towns, and on the small farms, wind-mills no longer turn, chimneys no longer smoke, the cocks have ceased their crowing and the dogs their barking. Grass grows in the houses and between the flag-stones of the churches, for the priests have abandoned the services of God, and the crucifixes lie broken on the ground. The pilgrim might go six days without finding anyone to give him a loaf of bread or a drop of wine. Freemen have no more business with their neighbors; briars and thorns grow where villages stood of old.”
With the coming of large-scale wars, such as William’s conquest of England, and with the crusades, the rudiments of strategy began. Military thinkers reflected on the role of cavalry and infantry, the choice of terrain, the use of archers, and the handling of reserve units.
The supreme cavalry tactic was the charge at full gallop against a defensive position. Terrified peasants would break and run before the oncoming menace of iron men on wild beasts. Nevertheless, the charge had its dangers for the attackers; in broken or swampy terrain it was ineffective, and a concealed ditch could bring it to naught. Stouthearted defenders could protect their position with rows of sharpened stakes planted at an angle between them and the enemy. In the face of such an obstacle, the most intrepid steed will refuse. If the defense possessed a well-drilled corps of bowmen, these would greet the charging knights with a hail of arrows or bolts. But they had only a few moments. The effective limit of an arrow was only about 150 yards, and good armor would deflect all but direct hits. A sensible archer aimed at the horse, for a knight once dismounted was at a serious disadvantage.
Once the cavalry charge was over, the battle became a series of hand-to-hand engagements. As the armies engaged, the archers retired, leaving the battle to the knights. The issue was decided by the number killed and wounded on either side; the side with fewer casualties held the field. The number of knights killed in battle was remarkably small, however; prisoners of distinction were held for ransom. There was even a curious traffic in captives, who were bought and sold by merchants on speculation. Non-ransomable prisoners were stripped of their precious armor, and then they were often finished off with a dagger to save the cost of maintaining them.
The medieval army, until the thirteenth century, consisted almost entirely of combatants, with very few of its men concerned with the auxiliary services and supplies. Medical services hardly existed, and soldiers had to forage for themselves, for the army was expected to live off the country. Usually about a third of the troops were mounted knights, although the proportion varied greatly with circumstances. Some of the infantry were professional soldiers, but most were peasants impressed for the campaign. They wore whatever armor they could provide, usually heavy leather jerkins reinforced with iron rings, and they carried shields, bows and arrows, swords, spears, axes, or clubs.
The knight’s equipment represented a compromise between offensive and defensive demands, or between the need for mobility and the need for self-protection. For offensive purposes, the queen of weapons was the sword. The knight, who had received it from the altar after a night of prayer, could regard it with holy awe as the symbol of his own life and honor. Certain swords are celebrated in legend, Arthur’s Excalibur, Roland’s Durendal. The pommel of the sword was often hollowed, to contain relics; to take an oath one clasped one’s hand on the sword hilt, and heaven took note. To suit individual tastes, there was much variation in the sword blade, grip, and guard. The most popular model had a tapering blade three inches wide at the hilt and thirty-two or thirty-three inches long. It was equally effective for cutting or thrusting. The steel blades were made of layered strips of iron, laboriously forged and tempered. Much learned discussion dealt with the relative merits of blades from Toledo, Saragossa, Damascus, Solingen, and Milan. Two-handed swords had their vogue, but the soldier who used one had to be very strong. Since neither arm was free to carry a shield, he was likely to be undone by an agile adversary while he was preparing his blow. These swords were best used for judicial beheading.
The lance or spear was the traditional weapon of the horseman, and it lingers to our own times as a symbol of the mounted knight. In 1939, the Polish cavalry, with ridiculous gallantry, carried lances into battle against German tanks. With a ten-foot steel-pointed spear, a charging knight could overthrow a mounted enemy or reach over a shield wall and pin his victim. But his spear was nearly useless after the first clash; the knight had to throw it away and take to the sword or battle-axe, which could deal cruel blows even through armor, often driving the links of chain mail into the wound, where they would fester and cause gangrene. Some knights carried a mace, or club, the most primitive of weapons, made all the more fearsome by the addition of deadly spikes. The mace was the badge in battle of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and it was also, as the scholar William Stearns Davis points out, “the favorite of martial bishops, abbots, and other churchmen, who thus evaded the letter of the canon forbidding clerics to ‘smite with the edge of the sword,’ or to ‘shed blood.’ The mace merely smote your foe senseless or dashed out his brains, without piercing his lungs or breast!” By one of history’s pretty ironies, the mace survives as a sanctified relic, borne before the president at college commencements by the most ornate member of the faculty.
Arming a knight was a slow process. In time, as the weight and complexity of armor increased, the chevalier was unable to prepare himself for conflict unaided. He had to sit down while a squire or squires pulled on his steel-mailed hose, and stand while they fitted the various pieces, fastening them with a multitude of straps and buckles. First came an undershirt, made of felted hair or quilted cotton, to bear the coat of mail, or hauberk. This was an actual shirt, usually extending to mid-thigh or even below the knee and composed of steel links riveted together. If well made, it could be very pliable and springy and could even be cut and tailored like cloth. A superb hauberk in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is composed of over 200,000 links and weighs only about nineteen pounds. Cruder coats of mail could weigh two or three times as much. Despite its strength, the hauberk did not fully protect the wearer against a mighty blow. It was also subject to rust; as a result very few early hauberks have survived to our own time. One method of derusting was to put the coat of mail with sand and vinegar into a leather bag and then toss it about. Our museums have adapted this technique for cleaning hauberks by making powered tumbling boxes.
Defensive armor steadily became more elaborate, with coifs to cover the neck and head, elbow pieces, knee guards, and greaves. Because the face remained vulnerable, helmets increased in weight and covered more and more of the face until they came to resemble cylindrical pots with slits for the eyes. As usual, security was gained at a cost. The knight had to bandage his head, for if he took a fall, he might easily sustain a brain concussion. William Marshal, a famous English champion who lived at the end of the twelfth century, won a tournament, and afterward could not be found to receive the prize. He was finally discovered at a blacksmith’s, with his head on the anvil and the smith hammering his battered helmet in an effort to remove it without killing the wearer. In a hot fight on a hot day, the sun beat down on the helmet; perspiration could not be wiped away, one could not hear orders or messages or utter comprehensible commands, and if the helmet was knocked askew, one was blind. There are many examples of death from heat stroke or from drowning after a fall into even a little stream. At Agincourt, many French knights fell into the deep trampled mud and suffocated. Moreover, the pot helmet concealed one’s identity; hence knights painted bearings on their helmets and shields. Thus, heraldry began.
In the fourteenth century, the hauberk yielded to plate armor, which was fitted to the figure and often magnificently decorated. A full suit of plate armor weighs sixty pounds or more. Just the helmet and cuirass of one French knight at Agincourt weighed ninety pounds. If properly articulated and well oiled, plate armor permitted much freedom of movement. A famous fifteenth-century French athlete could turn a somersault wearing all his armor but his helmet and could climb the under side of a scaling ladder using only his hands. But no matter how well equipped, the armored knight was still vulnerable. A base villein could stab his horse, a pikeman could hook him in the armpit and bring him down, and once dismounted, he was in a sorry state. He moved clumsily. His buttocks and crotch were unprotected to permit him to hold his seat in the saddle. If he fell on his back, he had to struggle like a turtle to right himself. A light-footed adversary could readily lift his visor, stab him in the eyes, and finish him off.
The shield was generally made of stout wooden boards, nailed together, bound by casein glue, and covered with heavy hide surrounded by a metal rim. Often it had a metal boss in the center to deflect the opponent’s sword blade. Foot soldiers carried round shields, but knights usually bore kite-shaped shields, which protected the legs.
To carry the steel-clad knight into battle or tourney, a heavy, powerful horse was needed. Such chargers were rare and costly in days when fodder was scarce and animals usually thin and small. Horse farmers bred them deliberately for size and strength. The Arabian strain was popular, and a white stallion was the most prized of all. Riding a mare was considered unknightly. To sustain the clash of battle, the horse needed long and careful training. His rider, cumbered with sword, shield, and spear, usually dropped the reins and guided his mount by spurring, leg pressures, and weight shifting.
The great weapon of infantry – and of Mongol and Turkish cavalry – was the bow and arrow. The short bow is very ancient, the property of most primitive peoples the world over. As we see in the Bayeux tapestry, it was drawn to the breast, not the ear; at short range it could be lethal. The six-foot longbow, shooting a three-foot “clothyard” shaft, was apparently a Welsh invention of the twelfth century; it became the favorite weapon of the English. Only a tall, strong man with long training could use it effectively. There is a knack: The bow-string is kept steady with the right hand and the body’s weight is pressed against the bow, held in the left hand one pushes instead of pulling, using the strength of the body more than that of the arm. At short range, the steel-headed arrow could penetrate any ordinary armor. A good archer could aim and deliver five shots a minute.
At the end of the twelfth century, with the general adoption of the crossbow as a weapon, the age of mechanized warfare began. The crossbow is a short instrument of steel or laminated wood, mounted on a stock. One draws it usually by setting its head upon the ground and turning a crank against a ratchet. A catch holds the drawn bow until one is ready to trigger the short, thick arrow, called the bolt or quarrel, which has great penetration at short range. The church deplored the use of this inhuman weapon, and many considered it to be unknightly. While a good longbowman could beat a crossbowman in range and rapidity of fire, with the new weapon the half-trained weakling could be almost the equal of the mighty archer.
The medieval art of war was centered upon the castle or stronghold, the nucleus for the control and administration of surrounding territory as well as the base for offensive operation. Within its walls, a little army could assemble and prepare for a little war. It was designed to repel the attacks of any enemy and to shelter the neighboring peasants fleeing with their flocks and herds before a marauder. The earliest castles of medieval times – such as those William the Conqueror built in England – were of the motte-and-bailey type. They were mere wooden structures with a watchtower, set on a mound, or motte, and surrounded by a ditch and palisade. Below the mound was a court, or bailey, within its own ditch and stockade, spacious enough to provide shelter for the domain’s staff of smiths, bakers, and other workers, and refuge for peasants in time of alarm. The motte-and-bailey castles were replaced by stone structures, many of which we still visit. The first datable stone donjon, or keep, was built in France at Langeais, overlooking the Loire, in 994. Stone construction had to await the progress of technology, effective stonecutting tools, hoisting devices, and winches. Once the techniques were mastered, castlebuilding spread fast and far. A census taken in 1904 lists more than 10,000 castles still visible in France.
One could see the castle from afar on its commanding hill, or if it was in flat country, perched on an artificial mound. Sometimes the building gleamed with whitewash. The visitor passed a cleared space to the barbican, or gatehouse, which protected the entrance. Receiving permission to enter, he surrendered his weapon to the porter and crossed the drawbridge over the dank, scummy moat, the home of frogs and mosquitoes. Beyond the drawbridge hung the portcullis, a massive iron grating that could be dropped in a flash. Such a portcullis was discovered at Angers. Although it had not been used for 500 years, its chains and pulleys, when cleaned and oiled, still functioned. The castle’s entrance passages were angled to slow attackers and were commanded by arrow slits, or “murder holes,” in the walls above. At Caernarvon Castle in Wales the visitor has to cross a first drawbridge, then pass five doors and six portcullises, make a right-angled turn and cross a second drawbridge.
One traversed the enormous walls, sometimes fifteen or twenty feet thick, to reach the inner bailey. The walls were topped by runways, with crenelated battlements to protect defending archers and with machicolations, or projections with open bottoms through which missiles or boiling liquids could be dropped. At intervals, the wall swelled out into bastions, which commanded the castle’s whole exterior. If by some unlikely chance an attacker succeeded in penetrating the interior, he could not be sure of victory. The different sections of the parapets were separated by wooden bridges, which could be destroyed in a moment to isolate the enemy. In the winding stairways within the walls, there were occasional wooden stairs instead of stone ones; these could be removed, so that an unwary assailant, hurrying in the gloom, would drop suddenly into a dungeon.
The heart of the defensive system was the keep, a tower sometimes 200 feet high and with walls twelve feet thick. Underground, beneath the keep, were the oubliettes, dungeons opening only at the top and used for prisons or for storing siege provisions, and enclosing, if possible, a well. Above were living quarters for the noble and his guardsmen, and at the top, a watchtower with a heraldic banner flying from it.
The stoutness of the castles is made evident by their survival on many hilltops of Europe and Syria. During World War II, some sustained direct hits by high-explosive and incendiary bombs, with little effect. At Norwich and Southampton, the medieval walls were hardly harmed by bombardment, whereas most of the houses built against them were destroyed.
But the castles were not impregnable. Remarkable siege engines were invented, especially by the Byzantines – battering rams, catapults that hurled stone balls weighing as much as 150 pounds, arbalests, or gigantic crossbows. Miners would patiently and dangerously dig a tunnel under the moat, under the very walls. The tunnel was propped with heavy timbers and filled with combustibles. These were ignited, the props were consumed, and with luck, a section of the wall would fall into the moat. At the same time, archers drove the defenders from the battlements. Soldiers ran forward with bales of hay, baskets of earth, or other material, to fill the moat. Others followed them across this causeway and hung scaling ladders against the walls, with shields held over their heads to deflect missiles. To climb a ladder holding the shield on one arm and keeping a hand ready to grasp the dangling sword is no small achievement. An alternative method of attack was to construct a wheeled wooden siege tower as high as the wall, with a commando party concealed on the top story. The tower was pushed up to the wall, and a drawbridge dropped, on which the gallant band of assailants crossed to the battlements. It was in this manner that the crusaders took Jerusalem.
The casualties in storming a castle were usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable. There are many examples of successful attacks on supposedly impregnable castles and towns. Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre with his siege machines in 1191. Edward, Prince of Wales, “the Black Prince,” took Limoges in 1370 by mining and direct assault. Irritated by the resistance, he commanded that more than 300 men, women, and children be beheaded. “It was great pity to see them kneeling before the prince, begging for mercy; but he took no heed of them,” says Froissart, with hardly a hint of reprobation. In general, however, the defense of castles and walled towns was stronger than the offense. By far the best way to reduce a stronghold was to find a traitor within the walls, and if one could not be discovered, then to starve out the garrison. But a prudent castellan kept his fort well stocked with a year’s supply of food, drink, and fuel. Hence, sieges could often be very long, lasting as much as two years, and were almost as exhausting to the besiegers as to the besieged.
The dwindling of feudalism and of the nobles’ independence and the introduction of gunpowder and siege cannons in the fourteenth century made the castle obsolete. Gentlemen abandoned the discomforts of life in an isolated stone prison without regret. They much preferred a spacious manor house or a residence in town among their own kind.
War was waged on the high seas as well as on land. In time of need, the monarch would simply commandeer his nation’s merchant vessels. These might displace 200 tons or more; by the fifteenth century, we find even 1,000-tonners. A crusader’s ship could transport 1,000 soldiers with their horses and equipment. The ingenious Frederick II built for his crusade fifty vessels, similar to modern landing craft, with doors at the waterline, so that knights could disembark on horseback. In the Mediterranean, the Byzantines, Venetians, and Genoese favored long, narrow galleys, very maneuverable and with formidable beaks for ramming the enemy.
The admiral built on his merchant ships a forecastle and a sterncastle, from which his archers could fire down on the enemy’s decks. His purpose was to sink his opponent by ramming, or if that did not work, to grapple and disable him by cutting his rigging and then boarding. For hand-to-hand combat, he was likely to carry quicklime to blind the defenders, and soft soap mixed with sharp bits of iron to render their footing precarious. The Byzantines mounted catapults on their ships; they also introduced the West to Greek Fire, apparently a mixture of petroleum, quicklime, and sulphur. The quicklime in contact with water ignited the bomb, a primitive napalm.
Map of Kalenga – Iringa in 1897 (showing the German attack)
Despite their success at Lugalo, and the raids which they were in the habit of launching against native enemies, Hehe strategy seems to have been essentially defensive. Oral tradition describes their immense confidence in the fort which Mkwawa had built at Kalenga, of which the people sang that ‘there is nothing which can come in here, unless perhaps there is something which drops from the heavens’ (Redmayne). It had originally been surrounded by a simple wooden stockade, but the king had sent an officer called Mtaki to the coast to study the Arab fortifications there, and – inspired by his report – had ordered it to be rebuilt in stone. Work began about 1887, and by 1894 the whole site – nicknamed ‘Lipuli’, or ‘Great Elephant’ – was surrounded by a stone wall about 2 miles long, 8 feet in height and up to 4 feet thick. The garrison was 3,000 strong and included the two Maxim guns captured at the Lugalo. However, the Hehe did not know how to operate these, so they played no part in the siege and were eventually recaptured intact by the Germans.
With hindsight Mkwawa’s confidence in this fort seems incomprehensible. The impressive perimeter was too long for the garrison to hold in strength, and there was no operational artillery to counter the German field guns, which had already destroyed stone forts at Isike and elsewhere in East Africa. Mkwawa must have been aware of this, because his garrison had been joined by a group of anti-German Nyamwezi who had survived the fall of Isike. Tom Prince, who fought in the siege, believed that if they had made a stand outside the fort the Hehe would probably have won another victory, but their ruler would not allow this. To make matters worse, Mkwawa still had his arsenal of 300 rifles under his personal control, and had only issued 100 of them when the attack came. According to Hehe tradition he had temporarily lost his wits, ordering his warriors to load their guns with blank charges, and placing his reliance on magic charms placed on the paths to deter the German advance.
So when the long-awaited German invasion force came, it encountered no resistance as it approached Kalenga and built a stockaded camp only 400 yards from the walls. The column was commanded by the provincial governor, Freiherr von Schele, and comprised three companies of askaris and a number of field guns. For two days the artillery battered the defences, then on 30 October a storming party under Tom Prince scaled the walls and broke into the fort. The walls themselves proved to be only lightly held, while the main body of the defenders was hidden among the huts inside, those with firearms shooting from concealed positions on roofs and in doorways. According to von Schele’s report (Schmidt), every house inside the stronghold had been specially prepared for defence, complete with loopholes and reinforced walls. But after four hours of fighting Mkwawa realized that the fort was lost: he allegedly tried to blow himself up inside one of the houses, but was led away to safety by his officers. At this point resistance collapsed and the Germans took possession of Kalenga with its stores of gunpowder and ivory. One German officer and eight askaris had been killed, with three Germans and twenty-nine askaris wounded. Von Schele claimed that 150 Hehe died in the fighting or were burnt to death when the attackers set fire to their huts. If correct this figure would represent only 5 per cent of the garrison, which does not imply a particularly determined defence: perhaps the Hehe were demoralized by the ease with which Prince’s men had surmounted the supposedly impregnable wall, or possibly Mkwawa’s departure had persuaded them that further resistance was useless.
But Hehe morale was quickly restored, and resistance continued in the hills outside the fort. On 6 November a force estimated at 1,500 warriors charged von Schele’s marching column on its return journey to Kilosa. They broke through the line of porters, but were stopped by the rifle fire of the askaris and retreated, leaving twenty-five dead behind. Once again the authorities tried to open talks with Mkwawa, but he wisely refused, no doubt aware of the German habit of arresting their enemies during negotiations. He continued to avoid attacking regular troops, while raiding the neighbouring tribes who had submitted. So in 1896 Prince was sent with two companies of askaris, each 150 strong, to establish a fortified post at Iringa, a few miles from the ruins of Kalenga. In an attempt to divide the Hehe, Prince recruited Mpangile, the victor of the Lugalo battle, who had recently surrendered to the Germans. He was given the title of ‘sultan’, and set up as a puppet ruler over the pacified Hehe villages. Mpangile gained nothing from his defection, however. In February 1897 Prince became suspicious that he was secretly ordering attacks on German patrols, and despite a lack of concrete evidence summarily executed him.
The war dragged on for two more years, but there were no more major engagements. The Hehe resorted to guerrilla warfare, ambushing isolated patrols and caravans and raiding the villages which were under German control. Prince sent his askaris out on regular patrols to hunt down hostile bands and burn the villages which sheltered them. On several occasions they came near to capturing Mkwawa, and gradually their scorched earth tactics bore fruit. Drought and famine intensified the pressure, and in the first half of 1897 more than 2,000 warriors came in and surrendered. Now only a hard core of loyalists remained around Mkwawa. In January 1898 one of Prince’s columns surprised the Hehe chief’s camp. Once again he got away thanks to a rearguard action by his followers, but many other warriors – described by Prince as ‘mere skeletons’ – were taken prisoner. Soon afterwards Mkwawa organized his last successful operation: an attack on a German outpost at Mtande, which took the thirteen-man garrison by surprise and annihilated it. The governor of German East Africa, General von Liebert, now offered a reward of 5,000 rupees for his head.
In July a patrol under a Feldwebel Merkl was following up information received from a local tribesman when it intercepted Mkwawa’s trail near the River Ruaha. The patrol followed it for four days, and eventually captured a boy who claimed to be Mkwawa’s servant and offered to lead them to where he was hiding. Near the village of Humbwe, Merkl was shown two figures lying on the ground, apparently asleep. It is an indication of how wary the Germans still were of their opponents that the Feldwebel made no attempt to take the men alive. Instead, obviously fearing a trap, he opened fire from cover. One of Merkl’s bullets struck Mkwawa in the head, but it was clear from the subsequent examination that both of the Hehe had already been dead for some time. Tired and ill, the king had first shot his companion and then himself. With his death all Hehe resistance ceased, but his surviving people continued to revere him, and in 1904 the Germans sent his sons into exile on the grounds that they were the focus of a potentially inflammatory cult honouring their father.
There was a further bizarre postscript to Mkwawa’s career. When the British took over Tanganyika in November 1918 at the end of the First World War, they received a request from the Hehe elders for the return of their king’s skull, which they said had been taken as a trophy by the Germans twenty years earlier. The German authorities continued to deny all knowledge of it, but the British governor of Tanganyika, Sir Edward Twining, continued to pursue the matter. He finally located the relic in 1953, in a museum in Bremen. It was formally identified by a German forensic surgeon from the bullet wounds, and in 1954 it was returned to Mkwawa’s grandson Chief Adam Sapi. It remains in the custody of the Hehe, as a memorial to their country’s finest hour.
Cameron, Thomson and Elton all have eyewitness accounts of the Hehe during Munyigumba’s reign. Redmayne’s article, based largely on anthropological fieldwork among the Hehe, provides a comprehensive overview of the history and organization of the kingdom. The main source for the war from the German side is Schmidt.
Laudon, on May 2, 1758 rose from his post and hustled forward upon Reichenau. Behind him, Daun prepped the main army for a similar move. The marshal’s men marched to Wodierold, on May 3. With that still unsatisfactory, Daun bolted through Choitzen (May 4), and, next day, finally reached his magazine. The post there was much more suitable to keeping the enemy observed. Laudon, still following his rôle as vanguard, made Landscron his post. Laudon was a very opinionated man, and he found himself frequently at loggerheads with Marshal Daun over the best choices to make for military operations. Had he served with Frederick, he might not have been so eager to talk, for the Prussian king was not fond of obstinate subordinates. In short, the Prussian military was far more regimented and orderly compared to its Austrian counterpart at this stage. The major decisions all rested solely with the person of the king. Especially those calls involving basic military planning.
Frederick, meanwhile, was preparing to put Olmütz under blockade. One problem was the relative remoteness of Olmütz from nearby Prussian magazines. A week was devoted to preliminary reconnaissance and study of the approaches to the city as well as its defenses. Frederick had 48 battalions and 103 squadrons spread out with his command, including 26 battalions and 33 squadrons in the main force. It was not until May 12, that the Prussians were set for the serious work ahead.39 Next day, the Prussian king rode out to look at Olmütz with his own eyes. He had visited Olmütz before, but the state of defensive posts now were much stronger than on his previous visit.
The monarch was really like a fish out of water. Frederick was an excellent planner on campaigns and battles, but insofar as the cumbersome mechanics of his time necessary for a siege, he was out of his element. Nevertheless, within a few weeks the king expected Olmütz to fall, which could then allow him to start on the final leg of the plan: the march on Vienna. If he ever seriously believed that, he was doomed to disappointment.
Meanwhile, with Hadik pulling back, Laudon felt compelled to move into the vacuum left at Höhenstadt (May 6). Here Laudon was so close to the wily Prussians he pushed out light detachments to Müglitz and Ausse to observe them. Our old friend General Jahnus kept in close contact with Laudon, and pressed patrols through Schönberg and Gronberg to keep the bluecoats under close scrutiny. General DeVille had fallen back on Olmütz; he sent his infantry to join the garrison directly, but kept his cavalry near, but outside, the city. The various Austrian efforts were much more vigorous against the Prussian invaders of Moravia than they ever were during the invasion of Bohemia in 1757. This activity even briefly threatened Frederick’s designs upon Olmütz. The king was relieved to see the pressure ease off.
Frederick would have liked nothing better than an all-out battle with Daun, but the marshal, with the Austrian army still doing its best to recover from the Leuthen Campaign, did not feel so inclined. However, as soon as the rumor of the approach of Laudon proved accurate, the Prussian leader made immediate efforts to oppose his advance. Meanwhile, Frederick busied himself in his spare moments with writing verse and recounting the exploits of Charles XII of Sweden at Narva to his reader, Henri de Catt (who had recently been very ill). At Aschmeritz, the bluecoats congregated a large force—23 battalions and 13 squadrons—fronting Littau. They were ensconced about Sternberg, while Lacy crept up to Prossnitz to check their designs. Frederick intended to stay at Littau for a while, which he converted into a supply and ammunition depot.
The king was certain the key to defeating the Austrians lay not so much in mauling the various detachments that were about, but in knocking off Daun’s main force. Even so, Laudon made an especial nuisance out of himself. So, just before midnight on May 21–22, Frederick set off with a detail to throw some consternation into Laudon. The Prussian force, ten battalions of infantry and 17 squadrons of horse, was divided into three columns, and tried to approach stealthily. The men struck near dawn Laudon’s scattered line hard about Namiest—about 22 miles west of Olmütz. That attack was really a rather heavy artillery bombardment with many rounds being fired in the process. But Laudon was tipped off by friendly peasants, and the artillery exchange was carried on until about 1800 hours. The indomitable Austrian commander then preempted the Prussian ground attack with one of his own first. The Prussian front was driven in, and there were a number of casualties. This enabled Laudon to pull back his scattered forces on to Konitz. The king pursued only up to the place. He said of Laudon’s losses “we captured 3 officers and 43 men.” This did demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, that the Austrians would fight if left no choice.
Indeed Olmütz proved to be a far tougher nut to crack than Frederick had first calculated. She was protected by a garrison of 8,500 men under our old friend, General Marschall, backed up with 324 guns. This total included 110 12-pounder (or heavier) guns, and 91 mortars. As for the general, he was a valiant, skilled man whose rough appearance belied the capable leader that inspired confidence in his men by steady direction. Before the siege, Marschall had ordered all unnecessary individuals out of the city. Convalescent soldiers sheltering there were evacuated to points further in the interior, while the city suburbs of Novė Sady, Selena Ulice, Powel, and Stredni Ulice were torn down to keep the enemy from sheltering in them. It was a rough, but probably a necessary precaution. A garrison was put at Kloster Hradisch, as well as Rebscheine, Pablowitz, and other outlying villages, which Marschall considered essential to the safety of Olmütz. Daun (who lay idle at Leutomischl until May 23) did nothing to interfere with the Prussians as they closed up on the fortifications. He finally marched through Zwittau and, reaching the road to Olmütz, took encampment at Gewitsch—31 miles north-northwest of Olmütz. This in spite of the efforts of Vienna to get him moving.
Daun’s right wing took in the ground from Gewitsch fronting Kornitz, while the horsemen, of the left, were deployed close to the grenadier battalions. The latter took cover on a rise between Jauermeritz and Biskupitz. Daun was doing all he could to take advantage of the natural features of the ground. While he was so occupied, General Harsch moved on Mährisch-Tribau, beyond this point the irregulars of Laudon & Co. were busy harassing the bluecoats as much as possible. The Prussian supply trains had to come from Troppau (which was distant about 40 miles), but for the most part little happened. Good thing; it was said the Prussians needed 400 wagons a day during the siege just to maintain themselves. May 28, one of the roving Austrian bands lit up the country at Heidenpiltsch. The bluecoat force did its best, but some 300 wagons and a number of horses were taken. Another Prussian post, at Laskau under Major-General Christian von Möhring, became the victim of Laudon’s energetic adventures. Möhring was caught nearly by surprise, and, after a short fight, was driven from the field (night of June 7–8).
Nor were these the only operations undertaken by the two sides. The Prussian light force of Major-General Puttkammer, leading a force of 800 men, was suddenly jumped and routed by the Austrian Lt.-Col. Carl Graf Lanjus von Wellenburg (night of May 16–17) while on escort duty near Moravsky Beroun. The Prussians lost about 150 killed or wounded. The escort force lost half its number captive, while the train was dispersed, Franz von LeNoble received a wound and Puttkammer got away with less than 200 of his men.
And, during the night of June 4–5, the garrison launched its first major sortie. Under Major-General Simbschen, this force was about 550 men strong; the action inflicted some heavy damage on one section of the besieging lines, inflicting a loss of about 150 men, 50 of whom were captured. Further, on the night of June 13–14, an Austrian force of some 700 men under General Draskovitch, divided into four smaller formations, struck at the Prussian left side batteries, while an additional 300 men under Captain Rierra attacked the right wing batteries. Although this attack was finally and savagely repulsed, Frederick reported heavy damage, including seven guns spiked.
Meanwhile, Marshal Daun was preparing to march. June 15, some cavalry under General St. Ignon rode towards Prerau, which was an intention to screen the intermediate country there from the irruptions of Prussian raiders, as a prelude to the next move of the main Austrian army. The army rose from Gewitsch, and, under terrible sheets of rain, advanced on Prodivanow (June 16). Daun was determined to stay close enough to Olmütz that he could reinforce the fortress. On June 17, under better conditions, the march was resumed to a new site mapped out between Prödlitz and Evanowitz. Henry Lloyd makes out all of this was done without the Prussians even becoming suspicious. Keith was said to have a force (approximately 6,141 infantry) before Olmütz about then, along with seven squadrons of horse.
With Daun having reached a post from where he could better react, his cohorts used the time wisely. General St. Ignon (June 18), with his best effort, erupted against a Prussian force ensconced at Hollitz. The enemy, five squadrons of the Bayreuth and Puttkammer Dragoons, were abruptly forced to beat a retreat. The allied left, under Count Stainville, had things all its own way. Prussian losses of 200 killed and 150 taken prisoners were reported by General Lloyd, and Stainville also sacked the village of Wisternitz. The Prussian force thereabouts, seven squadrons of cavalry, along with a full battalion of infantry and “two pieces of cannon” were under General Mayr. This bold stroke appeared to take the bluecoats by surprise.
The bluecoat force, which boasted a band of infantry and two cannon at its back, was decimated in a short fight. Minus some 800 killed/wounded, they had to beat a retreat. Mayr himself was badly wounded and taken from the field. This represented a serious demonstration of the enemy’s prowess, and the king was obliged to pull back his outer posts. The Prussian army was reordered near Prossnitz and Czetcowitz.
That accomplished, Frederick earmarked June 20 for a powerful reconnaissance in force. He took some 12,000 men and moved on Prödlitz, scouts being sent to check out Daun’s preparations. This was the extent of Frederick’s reconnaissance, and the Prussians returned to Prossnitz. Next day, Daun detached new General Baron Bülow with 12,000 men; the latter was to make for Prerau and a reinforcement of the force in Olmütz.
Meanwhile, the news that the Prussians were sweeping virtually unchecked through her dominions proved to be most disturbing to Maria Theresa. There were actually preparations made to depart should the Prussian king take the notion of marching suddenly on the capital. This intelligence was not encouraging for the Austrians. There was an additional snag to offering an effective defense to the invaders: were all the available troops shifted to Moravia to defend Olmütz and block the road to Vienna from that side, what was to keep Prince Henry from moving against Prague in Bohemia? This was a legitimate concern of the Imperialists as well. If the Austrians vacated Bohemia, that would open the states of the Reich to the vengeful Prussians, and the only available defense then would be the largely ineffective Imperialist Army. This force had yet to recover from the hammering of Rossbach.
The siege of Olmütz had in the interim finally opened. Four days after Daun marched to Gewitsch, the Prussian engineers, led by Colonel Giuseppe Federico Balbi, completed the first parallel. A miscalculation caused the line to be dug about 800 yards short of where it should have been. So the bombardment that was opened immediately afterwards could do little because the range was too great. A second parallel had to be completed (June 2), wasting precious time. The garrison commenced to sortie against the Prussian lines. The effort on the night of June 4–5 was so successful, the next night another effort was made. This one was squashed, most effectively. The early shelling wasted, in addition, some 1,220 rounds of shot for negligible results on the first day. This second line was largely on the west side of the Morawa, as the opposite side was swampy and under water at many points.
June 9, the king took an inspection tour of Balbi’s works—most especially the main entrenchments (which had been erected on top of the Täperberg). The monarch enquired when these works were expected to be put to full use. Balbi’s brazen reply when the enemy had been beaten down could not have pleased the impatient Frederick. At the western side of the river stood Keith, commanding a detachment of 8,000 men with 71 guns. He was making a great effort of his own, but so were the defenders, whose artillery was capably directed by Lt.-Col. Adolph Nicolaus von Alfson. The latter maintained a superiority in artillery performance throughout the siege and gave the bluecoats much distress with their enterprise.
The latter lay in four distinct camps during the course of the siege. The first was at Littau, a post which extended over the Morawa and covered the road from Olmütz on that side. A second was at Neustadt, on the far side of the Morawa. The third was at Prossnitz, where the king had his headquarters; it kept the Austrians penned in from relief to the south. The fourth camp, that of Keith, encamped round Olmütz itself. From Olmütz, Littau was a good 15 miles to the northwest, Prossnitz to the south, Neustadt about 20 miles to the north from the fortress. About 20 miles west of Littau Daun was encamped, with Laudon making efforts against the scattered Prussian detachments. There is reason to believe the Austrian commander thought Frederick’s true intentions were still towards Bohemia, which meant the maneuver against Olmütz was a mere ruse.
Prince Henry, meanwhile, had been occupied with the Imperialists. He planned for Mayr to be set against them, preceding a major move. The latter had spent the winter trying to rebuild their army. Hildburghausen having resigned, the command of the still shaky force, after some haggling, was entrusted to Field Marshal Prince Friedrich Michael von Pfalz-Zweibrücken. The latter arrived at Nurnburg on March 31, and immediately set about rectifying some of his army’s most pressing concerns. The cautious Imperialist circles immediately went into council of war meetings. A reluctant decision was made at council to move from lower Saxony into a position closer to Bohemia. About the same time as the Imperialist change of order, Serbelloni resumed his career as a soldier by taking command of the Austrian forces in western Bohemia on April 16. Brabant puts the effective Imperialist strength by the end of April at “26,264 men and 3275 horses.” The allies, especially the Austrians, had been wrestling with the idea of whether or not the motley Reich forces would be any better than in 1757. Serbelloni’s presence was to provide a prop to the Imperialist effort, such as it was.
This concentration of the Imperialist Army in the defense of Saxony and Bohemia was of scant comfort to the Saxon minister Brühl, who hinted he feared the Reich army “almost as much as the enemy.” The condemnation may seem justified in view of that force’s dismal performance at Rossbach and other military actions. Zweibrücken just now could dispose of about “35,000” men near Saatz, while Daun had been decent enough to earmark 15,000 Austrians to join this force. This made for a total, more or less, of 50,000 men; far superior in numbers to the force with Henry. Mayr had been engaged in burning the magazines and harassing the troops of Zweibrücken’s command. The latter lacked light troops, so there was little effective resistance. Prince Henry’s winter march, already alluded to, had opened the drama in Saxony.
General Hülsen was left at Freibergsdorf with about 11,000 troops. His task was to guard Saxony while Henry was absent. Now there was a new offensive. Henry moved succinctly upon Taltitz on May 23, ready to go. Lt.-Gen. Georg Wilhelm von Driesen was to be the vanguard of the force. Mayr fanned out ahead, reaching Hof on the same day. Simultaneously, the Imperialist leader at this site, Major-General Michael Gottfried von Rosenfeld, moved troops to Liechtenfels. Then he finally hitched towards Regnitz, there to take up a position hard by.
Driesen came sweeping down upon the circle, “advising” town leaders like those at Hollfeld, and Marienweiler—among others—that a series of Prussian requests needed prompt attention. Driesen forthwith occupied Bayreuth, and boldly announced to the residents that he needed their cooperation by not taking action against his Prussians. In exchange, Driesen would do his best to leave the local population alone as far as possible. Even Nurnburg was threatened with Prussian fury, but Driesen’s bark, like the proverbial canine, was worse than his bite. Mayr glided through Hollfeld, intending to put Bamberg to its mettle. May 31, Prussians suddenly appeared on the outskirts of Bamberg, and a few hussars even forced their way into the streets of the city.
In response, Rosenfeld rushed reinforcements towards the stricken post, which initially repulsed the enemy’s efforts, but, about 1400 hours, an impressive force of bluecoats appeared, complete with an artillery complement. Soon shelling reduced more than three dozen buildings to ruin and the city fathers had to sue for peace. Prussian losses had been 70, against Imperialist casualties of 23; Rosenfeld promptly withdrew on Bürgebrach. Bamberg itself was ravaged by the infuriated Prussians during the night, although dawn brought restored order. Contributions were levied, however. The city appeared on the point of giving in to what amounted to extortion when suddenly news arrived of Lt.-Gen. Karl Franz Dombâle’s approach with a relief force. Prussian demands were for some two million thalers (or talers). And even extended to demanding outright neutrality of the city for the rest of the war.
Dombâle, with about 10,000 men—over 3,000 of whom were new recruits—reached Möerfeldon on May 31, deviating through Donauworth and Walldürn, rather straggling along. He finally reached Würzberg with his main body to join Rosenfeld on June 9.60 Dombâle’s chief concern for the moment, though, was not how to relieve Bamberg from its troubles, but how to keep Würzberg. That being acknowledged, Dombâle seriously questioned the capability of the town’s walls to withstand a serious enemy effort.
Fortunately, that would not be a problem. By then, Driesen was preparing for nothing more than a managed, orderly withdrawal from his exposed forward position. During the night of June 9–10, Driesen abandoned his comfortable quarters at Bamberg and retired on Bayreuth, pausing first at Hollfeld. Prince Henry moved forward on Hof, so as to screen Driesen from any follow-up pursuit by the enemy. Driesen reached Hof on June 14, thereby reuniting with Henry’s main body. On June 5, the Prussian irregulars at Sebastienberg were turned out of their posts by Major-General Ujházy. This move caused reinforcements, from both sides, to gravitate towards that place. Prince Henry had Generals Wunsch and Ziethen before Sebastienberg, but hoped this did not presage a major enemy effort. Henry was not too disappointed; he had wrestled the forward posts from Croats only a few hours earlier.
Diagram of German M19 5cm automatic mortar as sited in the Channel Islands and at points on the Atlantic Wall.
Rheinmettall-Borsig produced ten studies into developing a complete system for an automatic mortar before making a final choice which would become the M19 5cm Maschinengranatwerfer. The operational role of the system was to provide firepower to cover areas of ‘dead ground’ which could not otherwise be observed. This was usually an area on the coastline with steep cliffs, but that was not exclusive. Apart from firing the 5cm calibre mortar bomb, the weapon used in the M19 system was completely different to the standard GrW36 used by the infantry. Using standard dismountable mortars in such a defensive role would have only been a short-term solution and they would have needed to be removed periodically for service. Emplacing a weapon mounted in a specially-produced turret or cupola would provide a permanent position, ready to provide all-round 360-degree traverse and able to come into action at a moment’s notice to cover all points of approach to the defensive site. Initially, these automatic mortars were intended for installation in the Westwall and the Eastwall, a defensive system also known as the Oder-Warthe-Bogen Line. This was built between 1938 and 1940 on the border between Germany and Poland. It covered a length of around 20 miles and included around 100 main defensive emplacements. After the successful campaigns in 1939 and 1940, it was decided not to install the weapons in these locations and instead they would be sited at intervals along the Atlantic Wall, which included several being built on the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney.
The M19 installation on the island of Jersey was built at Corbière Point at the western end of the island, which was turned into a strongpoint to defend the headland. From here its high rate of fire could be useful in engaging targets at close quarters and overlap with the firepower of machine guns and two 10.5cm field guns also sited at the point. The neighbouring island of Guernsey had four M19 automatic mortar installations, including one located at Hommet, overlooking Vazon Bay on the north-west coast, where its firepower could be integrated with that of machine guns, at least three pieces of artillery with 10.5cm calibre and a 4.7cm gun of Czechoslovakian origin. On Alderney there were two M19 strongpoints with other similar installations built along the much-vaunted Atlantic Wall, including three in Norway, nine in Holland, one in Belgium, twenty-two along the French coast and twenty along the Danish coastline, with four more planned but not built. For such a small weapon it absorbed a huge amount of resources in manpower to build the emplacement, with tons of concrete and steel in its construction. The sites of the M19 automatic mortars were out of all proportion compared to those built for heavier weaponry in defensive positions. The M19 mortar could fire HE bombs at a rate of between sixty and 120 rounds per minute, although the higher rate of fire was rarely used in order to minimise stresses and prevent the weapon from overheating. The crew could engage targets at ranges between 54 and 820 yards, which was closer than artillery could achieve, and together with support fire from other weapons such as machine gun, any infantry attack would have been met with fierce opposition. Indeed, one M19 position on the Eastwall held out for forty-eight hours when attacked by troops of the Red Army in early 1945.
The M19 weapons were mounted in steel cupolas which had an internal diameter of 6ft 6in to accommodate the three-man crew during firing. Initially, there were two main designs of cupola, the 34P8 and the 49P8, but it was a third type, the 424PO1, which became the most widely used with armour protection 250mm thick. The cupolas were mounted on specially-prepared bunkers designated ‘135’, with concrete protection up to 11.5ft thick, and the ‘633’, which was the most common design and the type used in the Channel Islands. The M19 bunkers were divided into several rooms including the firing room and had accommodation for up to sixteen men. Each bunker had its own independent generator to provide power to traverse the firing platform and cupola, but in the event of a power failure the weapon and cupola could be elevated and traversed by means of hand-operated wheels. The ammunition storage room had racks for thirty-four trays, each pre-loaded with six bombs, giving a total of 204 bombs ready to fire. Ammunition boxes containing ten bombs each to reload the spent trays were stored in this room, and it was the task of the crew members to reload these. In total an M19 bunker could have ammunition reserves of up to 3,944 bombs stored in readiness for use. These bunkers were equipped with field telephones and optical sight units such as the Panzer-Rundblick-Zielfernrohr, an armoured periscope with a magnification of × 5. Because it was an indirect fire weapon, the M19 had to be directed on to its targets and integrate its fire by overlapping with neighbouring weaponry.
The firing platform on which the mortar was mounted could be elevated when firing and lowered when not in use. The loaded ammunition trays were fed up to the platform by means of an elevator where the loader removed them and fed the trays into the left-hand side of the weapon’s breech. As it fired, a mechanism moved the tray along to feed the next bomb into the weapon, and the process continued until the empty tray emerged on the right-hand side of the weapon, where a handler removed them and placed them in the descending elevator section. These were removed by another member of the crew and taken to the ammunition room, where they were reloaded ready for reuse. The M19 could fire the standard types of Wurfgranate 36 bombs, which these were fitted with colour-coded graduated propellant charges to be used according to the range required. The red charge was for use at ranges from 22 to 220 yards and the green charge was for ranges from 220 to 680 yards. There were training bombs which had no filling and could not be fired, which were really for familiarising crews with handling procedures of the weapon. There were two training systems developed to teach crews how to operate the M19; the first was the Sonderanhangar 101 mounted on a trailer and the other was the Ubungsturm, which replicated the complete cupola layout.
Preparing the weapon to fire, the operator lifted the barrel clear of the breech by means of a cam and lever mechanism which allowed a bomb on the loading tray to be aligned with the chamber. As the barrel was lowered over the bomb, the firing pin in the breech was activated to initiate the propellant charge. The recoil forces on firing unlocked the barrel a fraction of a second later and the cam mechanism lifted the barrel clear of the breech, and another bomb was loaded ready to fire as the tray was fed through.
As the Allied campaign to liberate Europe continued in the second half of 1944, the Germans had to rethink their defensive strategy. From September 1944 they renewed construction work on the Westwall to improve defences and began to install M19 systems at certain locations. The actual numbers of M19 systems built and turrets installed varies according to sources. Some, for example, state that perhaps seventy-three such installations were built in the Atlantic Wall. These did not cause the Allies any unnecessary problems and those along the Westwall were largely ineffective, while those in the Channel Islands never fired a shot in anger. In summary, it was indeed a great deal of effort for such a small weapon which did not play a decisive role in stopping or even slowing down the Allied advance.
Powder soaked but ferocity unabated. Lee’s picked force of dismounted dragoons takes advantage of the garrison’s confusion to force the drawbridge at Paulus Hook with clubbed muskets and the bayonet. The British had previously sent out a foraging party of their own, for whom Lee’s advancing force was mistaken – with disastrous results.
The British grip on New York, won at a staggering cost to the Americans in a series of battles in late 1776, remained a hindrance and a threat to the Continental cause until the final British withdrawal in November of 1783. British vessels of war prowled up the Hudson as far as the great American bastion of West Point, while soldiers and supplies took advantage of Manhattan’s superb harbour and transportation system.
Neither Washington nor his subordinate commanders were willing to leave matters as they stood. The isolated British and Loyalist bastion across the Hudson allowed the British to control access to the river, but it also offered an inviting target. ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee’s brilliantly successful raid on the outpost at Paulus Hook kept the British nervous and uncertain in the very heart of their strongest position in their former colonies.
The British in the American War of Independence sought to employ Alexander’s strategy in Afghanistan – immobile forces scattered in penny packets across the disputed territory. Such outposts certainly restricted the movement of American rebels in the northern colonies, but they also enabled a mobile force that had amassed temporary superiority to swoop in – with disastrous results at Paulus Hook. For any organization to take advantage of an opportunity or to respond to an onslaught, information is as vital a factor as mobility – and mobility allows the transmission of vital news and a prompt response to it. The role of horsemen in battle is as much to prevent intelligence of their side’s actions as it is to acquire knowledge of the position, strength and intentions of the enemy. Henry Lee (1756-1818) dismounted his dragoons at Paulus Hook for a sudden descent on his target garrison – while screening forces along the roads stood ready to limit British awareness of his raid.
Battle of Paulus Hook: 19 August 1779
George Washington appreciated the value of intelligence, and ran a sophisticated espionage network that kept him aware of British movements and vulnerabilities, much to the profit – and survival – of his cause. The advantages offered by mounted soldiers were too obvious to be ignored, and by the summer of 1779 there were enough rebels on horseback to become a considerable part of the strategic equation.
Two earlier incidents in the war show the versatility of the mounted combatant. Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre ‘Bloody Ban’ Tarleton (1754-1833) of the 1st Dragoon Guards was perhaps the finest British cavalry officer of the war: skilled, resourceful and legendarily ruthless. His favoured use of his troopers’ mobility was to spread terror and anxiety throughout the rebellious colonies. More than one incident prompted the phrase ‘Tarleton’s Quarter’, meaning that prisoners would not be spared. Luck enhanced his reputation: in a duel with George Washington’s distant cousin, Colonel William Washington (1752-1810), Tarleton escaped after Washington’s sword broke at the hilt; in the process, he wounded Washington and his horse with a pistol shot.
Tarleton also favoured what would now be called ‘decapitation strikes’. In March 1781, he launched a raid on Charlottesville, Virginia, in the hope of capturing Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), then governor of the state. As a Brigade Major in 1776, he diverted a scouting party under his command to capture Colonel Charles Lee (1732-1782) in a New Jersey tavern. Lee was one of the very few American officers who had ever served the British crown – in the very regiment that captured him! Tarleton may have, inadvertently, done the Americans a favour: Charles Lee was a dour and pessimistic officer and, after an exchange secured his release, he nearly lost the battle of Monmouth in 1778 out of his conviction that the Continentals could never prevail against British soldiers.
Another Lee was the far more capable Henry Lee, Light Horse Harry’ to his peers and his soldiers. Lee made his reputation from his own ability to appreciate and take advantage of an opportunity – a trait for which his considerably more famous son Robert E. (1807-1870) is legend.
In perhaps the strangest use of cavalry during the war, Lee and his Virginian Dragoons were instrumental in feeding the Continental Army during the terrible winter of 1777-78. Washington forbade the confiscation of forage from the friendly Pennsylvania farm country, and his men suffered greatly. An early and heavy run past Valley Forge of small, fatty fish called shad offered hope – more, certainly, than was offered by Washington’s desperate letters to Congress asking for food. Men plunged into the water with nets, buckets, pitchforks, anything to toss the shuddering fish on shore. Seeing that the shoal was about to move past the desperate Continentals, Lee ordered his dragoons to charge into the Schuylkill River. The churning of the horses’ legs in the water frightened the fish back into the nets and the clutches of the starving soldiers. There was even a surplus, which would help in the lean weeks that were to follow.
A String of Outposts
By 1779, the War of Independence had entered nearly its final phase. Washington’s army, including the infant cavalry arm, emerged from Valley Forge with a confidence and level of drill that enabled them to face the regulars of General Sir Henry Clinton (1730-1795) in pitched battle – as they demonstrated despite Charles Lee’s misgivings at Monmouth. Clinton accordingly held his army in the port and city of New York, the most economically and strategically valuable territory in the Colonies, with a chain of outposts to secure communications and movement throughout eastern New York and New Jersey. The British offensive effort in subsequent years would be concentrated in the southern colonies, with ‘Bloody Ban’ Tarleton leading British and Loyalist forces on raids throughout the South until Tarleton’s conclusive defeat at Cowpens in January of 1781.
Defended enclaves can pacify a considerable portion of surrounding territory if they can support each other – as the United States has recently demonstrated in the urban environments of Iraq. The difficulty lies in establishing how far apart such outposts can be placed, in order to maximize the area of territory while still leaving them capable of mutual support and rapid relief in the event of a major attack. In August 1779, Major Lee, then 23 years old, took advantage of the absence of Nathaniel Greene (1742-1786), Washington’s quartermaster at Valley Forge, to approach Washington and express his belief that Clinton had made a major mistake in the positioning of his outposts.
A Penny Packet
The modern site of the battle of Paulus Hook is a street corner in Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1778, it was a peninsula jutting out from the New Jersey shore, directly opposite New York City and the Hudson. That July, Clinton led out a powerful force from the peninsula towards the American bastion of West Point. General ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne (1745-1796) had earlier captured the British outpost at Stony Point after Clinton retreated back down the Hudson. Lee suggested to Washington that a similar such sudden onset might take an additional bastion directly under Clinton’s nose.
The fort at Paulus Hook was essentially a fortified beachhead on the New Jersey shore, onto which the British could land and from which they could move out to exert their control over the nearer countryside. The fort’s garrison consisted of 200 men of the British 64th Regiment, under Major William Sutherland, plus 200 Loyalists, enclosed within tremendously strong fortifications. Traffic could ford the creek in front of the peninsula at only two points.
As a second line of defence, British engineers had cut a moat across the neck of the isthmus, the only access being through a barred drawbridge gate. In between the drawbridge and the actual stockade itself were the entanglements of the day, abatis – lopped trees felled and cut in a manner calculated to impede or halt an attacker’s movement under the garrison’s fire.
Behind that were three batteries of cannon, commanding the Hudson and the countryside, as well as a central bastion with barracks, plus the fort’s magazine and six cannon. At some distance, there were an additional infantry redoubt and a blockhouse. The British rear lay safe under the guns of the British fleet in the Hudson, and Clinton had established a set of lantern codes and signal guns to summon aid from New York.
Lee’s plans for a swift descent upon the fort were fleshed out by a diet of information provided by Captain Allen McLean, commander of a force of mounted rangers. These long-range scouts lurked in the salt-water marshes at the base of the peninsula and transmitted a fairly accurate ongoing report of the numbers and status of the fort’s garrison. Even today, a horse’s ability to traverse swamp, water and road compares favourably with mechanized transport.
An additional example of the efficacy of horses in difficult terrain is provided by the career of the legendary ‘Swamp Fox’ – General Francis Marion (1732-1795). He earned his sobriquet by lurking in the South Carolina swamps. With his troopers using and feeding their own horses in the course of their raids and forays, Marion made British control of the region uncertain even after the disastrous American capitulation at Charleston in May 1780. Eventually Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805) sent Tarleton himself to bring the ‘Swamp Fox’ to bay, but Marion’s intelligence network, and his use of the rivers to move and conceal his cavalry, proved more than Tarleton’s celebrated ferocity could overcome.
Washington approved of Lee’s raid, on certain conditions: there would be no effort to hold the post. Lee was to capture the garrison, disable the cannon, blow up the magazine and retreat to a fleet of pontoon boats in the nearby Hackensack River before the British could counter-attack. Lee accordingly dismounted his own dragoons and used McLean’s mounted rangers to control the roads leading into Paulus Hook. Colonial horsemen would prevent warning of Lee’s attack from reaching the bastion, or any messages for aid from reaching any British detachments on the Jersey shore.
Lee’s choice to put his troopers on foot was a difficult call, but one necessitated by his bargain with Washington. The circular route planned for the attack was a 22.5km (14-mile) march through the marshes into the post, then a shorter rush with the prisoners out to and across the river and safety. Ferrying horses under pursuit was too great a risk for Lee’s own command, and his mounted forces were relegated to screening and reconnaissance duties.
Captain McLean’s surveillance had been quite intensive, but the aftermath of the battle revealed that his scouts and one disguised spy had missed two vital elements in the situation. The first, which would hinder Lee, was the arrival of a force of 40 Hessians sent over from New York to bolster the garrison. The second determined the ultimate success of the onslaught, for on the night of Lee’s attack Major Sutherland sent 132 of the Loyalists in a foraging party out into the Jersey countryside. The British sentries, accordingly, were expecting a large number of men coming stealthily towards their post – friendlies.
By 1779, the Americans had captured considerable cavalry equipment from the British, which they used to equip their own units. A great many of the heavy sabres taken from British troopers in 1778 wound up in American hands. The British had provided their own forces with lighter carbines and musketoons, which meant that Lee and his men carried full-size British Brown Besses’ and French Modele 1763 Charleville muskets. Lee divided his force of approximately 400 men into three columns delineated by their origins: a force of McLean’s dismounted rangers, a company of the 16th Virginia and two Maryland companies. The three forces were to arrive simultaneously at the objective by three different routes, an early example of the traditional American preference for columns converging on a single objective. In the event, optimism and synchronicity failed.
The combined force set forth with a wagon train in the early evening of 18 August as a deception aimed at lurking British spies. The hope was that they would mistake the formation for a supply convoy. The three columns divided once they entered a woodland, and the Maryland force and the Virginians got utterly lost in the darkness, reducing Lee’s forces to the 200 men under his own direct command. Long experience of travel had its uses, for Lee’s horsemen continued on towards the distant garrison while avoiding the roads where detection would be the most likely. Instead they waded chest-high through creeks and canals until they reached the British moat, their cartridge belts and muskets utterly soaked. The time was now 3 a. m.
Lee broke his remaining men into a vanguard and reserve, and ordered his men to fix bayonets and ford the British ditch at a shallow spot located by one of his lieutenants. The initial force struggled through the water, up the slope, and into the abatis, through which they pried their way with their bayonets. As the British sentries began to realize that this was not their foraging party and began to fire, Lee’s reserve column rushed up through the area cleared by the vanguard and carried the gate into the fortification with a bayonet charge. About 12 of the British were killed before the bulk of the garrison surrendered.
Success and Withdrawal
Major Sutherland and 26 of the Hessians managed to barricade themselves into the smaller of the two infantry redoubts. From there, they peppered the Americans with largely inaccurate fire and sent alarm signals to the British in New York. These were answered by ships in the Hudson and cannon from Manhattan, and Lee knew that his time was running out. Lee found his men surrounding 156 surrendered British soldiers and three officers. Darkness, confusion and the need for haste kept Lee from disabling the post’s cannon, a procedure usually performed by thrusting a bayonet into the gun’s touch-hole, rendering the cannon briefly or permanently unable to fire.
Humanity frustrated two more of Lee’s objectives. As his men moved to burn the British barracks and fire the fort’s magazine, they found the families of some of the garrison and sick men cowering inside the buildings. Lee accordingly rounded up his captives and made for the main road out of the post, only to find that his plans continued to go relentlessly astray. Lee availed himself of a horse and rode ahead to the appointed rendezvous with the boats on the Hackensack. No boats waited there, the commander having assumed as the sun rose that the attack had been cancelled. Lee rode back to his men and their prisoners on the road, finding 50 of the missing Virginians on the way, their cartridges still dry.
Lee had no choice, accordingly, but to retrace the original route of the attack. This was exposed in the daylight to British observation and interdiction, potentially trapping Lee’s force: the Loyalists were returning from their foraging expedition and the Hessians and Major Sutherland were pursuing from the fort, while reinforcements were already on their way across the Hudson. The Loyalists, under the hated Colonel Van Buskirk, met the column at the ferry road and opened fire, drawing a return volley from the Virginians and from the 200 reinforcements providentially sent to Lee by the American commander in New Jersey, General William Alexander (1723-1786). Lee’s prisoners could march, and his own casualties were extremely light: two killed, three wounded.
McLean’s horsemen had done their work well in restricting information of the raid. (The descendants of one little girl would later record her memories of being detained by the rangers screening Lee’s movements as the assault force passed.) Coming down the road from the fort, Major Sutherland ran into Lee’s reinforced rearguard and retreated back to his empty bastion, concluding the raid in the Americans’ favour. The fort at Paulus Hook would be re-garrisoned and held until the final British retreat from North America, but from now on it was a beleaguered liability, not a useful foothold. ‘Light Horse Harry’ would receive a medal from the Continental Congress and further opportunities for daring exploits in the successful War of Independence.
By late December 1810 Marshal Jacques Macdonald had stabilised the situation in the north of Spain and was again able to support Louis-Gabriel Suchet’s attempts to capture Tortosa. Suchet therefore moved to begin the siege on 16 December, and for once the Spanish failed to defend a strong fortress well. In fact, by 2 January 1811 the place was entirely in French hands.
This success immediately released Macdonald to carry out the siege of Lerida, whilst Napoleon ordered Suchet to take Tarragona, arbitrarily transferring half of Macdonald’s corps to Suchet’s command. At this, Macdonald promptly retired to Barcelona and left Suchet to it.
On 9 April 1811 the French were shocked to hear that the fortress of Figueras had again fallen into Spanish hands, once more threatening the supply route from France. The local Spanish insurgents had worked with a few patriots within the fortress to obtain copies of the keys to the gates and surprised the garrison before any resistance could even be attempted.
Macdonald sent the news to Suchet, asking him to abandon all thoughts of besieging Tarragona and instead to march north with his entire army. Suchet rightly pointed out that it would take him a month to march northwards, and suggested that Macdonald should seek help from France instead, given that the French border lay only 20 miles from Figueras. Suchet then began his march to Tarragona on 28 April, believing that this operation would draw the Spanish south in an attempt to relieve the place.
Napoleon promptly scraped together a force of 14,000 men at Perpignan, whilst General Baraguay d’Hilliers, commanding at Gerona, managed to collect another 6,000 men. Between them, this force of 20,000 men would seek to recapture Figueras, a task made much easier when the Spanish General Campoverde reacted exactly as Suchet had predicted and moved his force of 4,000 men by sea to help save Tarragona. He abandoned the 2,000 men of the garrison of Figueras to their fate and Marshal Macdonald then moved north to take personal command of the siege of Figueras.
Suchet began the siege of Tarragona on 7 May and three days later General Campoverde arrived by sea and bolstered the defenders with his 4,000 troops. The French were obliged to work very close to the coastline, which rendered their works vulnerable to fire from British and Spanish ships. To remedy this, the first batteries constructed faced the sea and their guns forced the warships to move further away. The French now concentrated their efforts on capturing Fort Olivo, a detached redoubt protecting the lower town. This was successfully stormed on the 29th.
Two further battalions of Spanish troops arrived by sea from Valencia, but General Campoverde sailed to seek further support, leaving General Juan Contreras in command. By 17 June the French had captured all the external defences of Tarragona and the siege was reaching a critical point; Contreras, despite having 11,000 men, simply failed to disrupt the French besiegers at all. On the 21st the lower town was successfully stormed, meaning that command of the harbour also fell to the French. Things now looked bleak for Contreras, particularly with Campoverde accusing him of cowardice from a safe distance away.
On 26 June, however, things improved for the Spanish commander. A number of troop ships arrived with a few hundred Spanish troops on board; better still, some 1,200 British troops1 commanded by Colonel John Skerrett also arrived, having been sent by General Graham at Cadiz to aid the defence. Skerrett landed that evening and surveyed the defences with the Spanish; it was unanimously agreed that Tarragona was no longer tenable. As Graham had specifically ordered that the British troops were not to land unless Skerrett could guarantee that they could safely re-embark, he rightly decided to abandon the attempt and sailed with the intention of landing further along the coast and subsequently joining with Campoverde’s force. But this was a depressing sight for the Spanish defenders and undoubtedly damaged their already fragile morale. In fact, the very day that breaching batteries opened fire on the walls, a viable breach was formed by the afternoon and was promptly stormed. Within half an hour all the defences had given way and the French infantry swarmed into the town. A terrible orgy of rape and murder followed, and it is estimated that over 4,000 Spaniards lost their lives that night, over half of them civilian. At least 2,000 of the Spanish regulars defending the town had been killed during the siege and now some 8,000 more were captured.
The capture of Tarragona earned Suchet his marshal’s baton; it had destroyed the Spanish Army of Catalonia and severely hampered British naval operations along the coast. By contrast, Campoverde was soon replaced by General Lacy, who took the few remaining men into the hills to regroup.
Suchet marched northwards to Barcelona, ensuring that his lines of communication were secure. On discovering that Macdonald was progressing well with his siege at Figueras, he turned his attentions to capturing the sacred mountain stronghold of Montserrat, which fell on 25 July. The damage to Spanish morale proved more important than the physical retention of this monastic stronghold. On 19 August Figueras was finally starved into submission after a four-month siege, thus re-opening the French supply routes. Napoleon was delighted by the news but he promptly reminded Suchet that he was yet to capture Valencia.
The Spanish forces under General Lacy continued to make forays, even into France, and attempted to disrupt French communications with predatory raids by both land and sea. These operations restored somewhat the shattered morale of the Spanish guerrillas and the flame of insurrection, so nearly snuffed out, continued to flicker and occasionally flare up, giving the Spanish some hope. Macdonald was recalled to France, another Marshal of France finding eastern Spain a step too far.
Despite his own strong misgivings, Marshal Suchet again marched south for Valencia with a force of some 22,000 men. General Joaquin Blake, commanding some 30,000 men, was tasked with opposing him but simply allowed him to march there without resistance. Suchet’s force arrived at Murviedro on 23 September and, having signally failed in a foolish attempt to storm the fortress of Saguntum by direct escalade, the French army sat down before it and patiently awaited the arrival of the siege artillery, only opening fire on 17 October. Suchet attempted a second costly assault without success and looked nervously over his shoulder at the insurrections breaking out in his rear. However, at this point General Blake decided that he must advance to protect Saguntum; having collected no fewer than 40,000 men, he attacked Suchet on 25 October and was soundly beaten for his troubles, losing over 5,000 men. The garrison of Saguntum, acknowledging that there was now no hope, surrendered the following day. Blake had simply given Suchet’s troops hope, when in fact they had none.
Suchet now continued his march on towards Valencia. Arriving on the north bank of the Guadalquivir river, he found Blake facing him again, encamped on the southern bank with some 30,000 men. Having only 15,000 men with him, Suchet formed an encampment here and awaited reinforcements, with which he could advance to prosecute the siege of Valencia.
Napoleon, badly underestimating the British army under Wellington, but simultaneously recognising the importance of capturing Valencia, ordered King Joseph’s army to further supplement Suchet’s operations. Marshal Marmont’s army, facing Wellington, was also weakened when Napoleon ordered him to send Suchet 12,000 men. These developments would have a very significant effect on Wellington’s operations a few months later, in early 1812.
The promised reinforcements arrived with Suchet in late December and he immediately advanced to prosecute the siege of Valencia on the 26th, successfully completing the investment of the city by that evening. By 1 January work had begun on preparing siege batteries, which were armed and ready to proceed by the 4th.
Blake moved his troops from his fortified camp in the hills into the city, but the prospects for a successful defence appeared to be very poor. There was already a severe shortage of food and the morale of the Spanish troops was so low that they were deserting en masse. Suchet added significantly to their discomfort by bombarding the city with shells until the morale of the defenders finally collapsed. Blake was forced to agree to surrender on 9 January, with around 16,000 Spanish soldiers laying down their arms.
The almost impregnable fortress of Penissicola, garrisoned by some 1,000 Spanish veterans, was now besieged, the siege guns beginning a heavy bombardment on 28 January. Despite being well supplied with food and stores by the British navy, and his troops proclaiming their determination to fight on, General Garcia Navarro, the fortress commander, seems to have lost all hope after Valencia fell. A letter describing his fears was captured by the French and used to exert enormous pressure on a man obviously unable to cope; when a forceful summons was sent in on 2 February, the commandant surrendered without delay. Almost the entire east coast of Spain was now in French hands.