The Army of Stephen The Great

The first recorded use of handguns in the Principalities is in the XVth century. The Wallachian Voivode Vlad the Impaler and the Moldavian Voivode Stefan the Great successfully used handheld arquebuses in several battles including the Battle of Valea Alba in 1476 and at the Battle of Vaslui in 1475 when Stefan ordered his artilery, followed by the archers and handgunners to fire on the Ottoman army from three sides. However, the Wallachians and Moldavians themselves refused to use gunpowder until later on because it was associated with brimstone and the devil. As such, in the XVth century the handgunner corps of both Moldova and Wallachia were made up mainly of mercenaries, generally Hungarians, Szekely, Germans, Serbians, Bulgarians and other South Danube nations. The word ‘lefegii’ literally means wage earners as the hangunners served in exchange for wages. By the start of the XVIth century the locals started using the arquebus and joined the ranks of the Lefegii. In Moldova the arquebusiers were known as ‘sânețari’ from the word ‘sâneață’ meaning gun and in Wallachia they were known as ‘pușcași’ with the same meaning. These men are armed with experimental weapons which have more an psychological impact on the enemy. The handguns can not be used in rainy weather and are prone to misfire but if used at the right moment they can break the morale of the enemy and cause them to rout.

 

The destruction of the South Danubian states meant by the Ottomans in the XVth century led to numbers of soldiers making their way North of the river to continue the struggle against their foes. Foremost amongst these soldiers are the Serbian Hussars that joined the Moldavian armies and took part in numerous battles such as the Battle of Razboieni in 1476. The Moldavians soon learned from these horsemen and formed their own corps of cavalryman known as Hansari. This army corp had a special status in the Moldavian army as, unlike other corps such as the Curteni or Lefegii which went to war in exchange for tax exemptions or for wages, they went to war in exchange for receiving loot from the battle fields (this known as ‘dobanda’). The Hansari were usually free men or small landholding peasants and their number never exceeded several thousands. This army corps appeared in the second half of the XVth century and continued to be part of the Moldavian army all the way to the XVIIIth century. Like the Curteni the Hansari were organised in units called ‘vatafii’ and were commanded by an officer called ‘vataf’. Like the equivalent Hussar corps in other armies the Hansari are very lightly armoured being protected only by a wing shield and are armed with a long cavalry spear. The Hansari exchange armour for speed and the ability to strike in the battlefield wherever the enemy is weaker.

 

The boieri class emerged from the chiefs (knezes or judes) of rural communities in the early middle ages, initially elected, who later made their judicial and administrative attributions hereditary and gradually expanded them upon other communities. After the appearance of more advanced political structures in the area, their privileged status had to be confirmed by the central power, which used this prerogative to include in the boieri class individuals that distinguished themselves in the military or civilian functions they performed (by allocating them lands from the princely domains). Being a boyar implied three things: being a land-owner, having serfs, and having a military and/or administrative function. A boyar could have a state function and/or a court function. These functions were called “dregătorie” or “boierie”. Only the prince had the power to assign a boierie. In time the boieri split into two different classes the boieri mari (great boyars) who owned large swathes of land had important functions in the administration and the boieri mici (lesser boyars) who owned less land and less important administrative positions. Starting with the first half of the XVth century the boieri became the most important political class in the Principalities. Since the boieri of the Princely Council had amongst their attributes the election of the voivode this led to increased instability as successive voivodes were elected and then overthrown at the whims of the powerful boieri. During the times of war the boieri have the obligation to raise all the fighting from their domains and join the army of the voivode. Since they are the wealthiest class in the land the boieri use heavy armours and shields for their protection and are armed with cavalry lances. They fulfill the role of heavy cavalry on the field and if their loyalties can be harnessed they can prove to be formidable foes.

Established during Stephen’s reign, the army was composed of the personal guard, a powerful and impressive special unit composed of 3,000 courtiers, most of them footmen (similar to janissaries who guarded their sultan) of the fortress guard troops (an entity composed of hirelings who were paid a monthly wage and meat and bread rations) and the border guard troops, composed of the people living along the borders who were awarded certain service privileges and commanded by marele vornic.

In wartime, Stephen was able to gather an army of 60,000 people, most of them riders. His military forces consisted of the peacetime army; boyars, or noble riders (similar to the Ottoman spahis, but having a higher motivation to fight and a stronger cohesiveness); and servant riders or footmen (called dărăbani). To these forces were added the “spoils” units, so called because the prince had promised them the items plundered from the enemy in case of victory. This army was composed of units of peasants and hirelings.

A warning and mobilization system was also set up for crisis situations. The warning was the prince’s call, and following it, the princely peacetime couriers, or ocălari, would speedily ride around the country on its main roads, giving notice to everybody. Ringing church bells and fires lit on hilltops would disseminate the call to every corner of the land. Men who were able to fight would grab their arms and horses and gather under their flags at predetermined meeting points. From there, columns of peasant fighters led by pârcălabi would head to the gathering post established by the prince.

MILITARY ARMAMENT DURING STEPHEN THE GREAT’S REIGN

The Moldavian army’s armament was designated both for hand-to-hand fighting (maces, hatchets, sickles, scythes, spears, and swords made in the country) and distance fighting (200 meter-range bows; between sixteen and twenty-four arrow quivers; firing weapons like small-caliber guns and cannons made of cherry wood, strengthened with iron or bronze rings and using stone or iron cannonballs made in Transylvania (Braşov) or Poland (Lemberg). Stephen the Great hired armorers and craftsmen to help with the local production of the bows, arrows, and swords with which he equipped his peasant fighters. The peasant fighters were responsible for bringing their own arms into battle when they were summoned. The Moldavians’ military dress was the same as that of their ancient ancestors, and the punishment for the use of foreign clothing and arms was death.

MOLDAVIA’S FORTRESSES

During the reign of Stephen the Great, the fortresses were ruled by pârcălabi,-officials who had military, administrative, and judicial authority. Thus they could be found on the border fortresses like Soroca, Tetina, and Hotin (built to counter the Poles’ attacks from the north); Chilia and Crăciuna (on the southern border to counter the Ottomans’ and Wallachians’ attacks); and Cetatea Alba., Tighina, and Orhei (on the eastern border to counter the Tatars’ attacks). The western border was secured by Cetatea Neamt, ului, Suceava’s fortress, and the Carpathians.

Stephen the Great is also the one who incorporated cannons into the fortress defense system, placing them on the country’s strategic access routes. Around the fortresses were built brick and stone external walls in the form of a polygon; they had towers at the corners to deflect cannonballs. The fortresses were also protected by grooves that were five meters deep-large enough to provide protection-and sometimes filled with water.

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NA SAN, DECEMBER 1952

On a crisp, sunny winter’s day on a red earth hilltop in North Vietnam, a young Californian named Howard Simpson was reluctantly fishing around with borrowed chopsticks in a lunchtime bowl of pho soup, while trying to ignore the stench of torn-up corpses festooning the barbed wire a few yards away. Simpson, a stocky World War II veteran with a broad smile and thick glasses, was an information officer from the US Embassy in Saigon. Part of his job was to monitor the use that the French Expeditionary Corps was making of the generous flow of US aid provided through the Military Advisory Assistance Group installed in Vietnam two years previously. He had hitched a flight here from Hanoi on a C-47 full of ammunition, to gather facts and impressions after what was being presented as a particularly significant French victory over the Communist Viet Minh insurgents.

The French theory was that even in the roadless wilderness of this ‘High Region’ a strong air–ground base could be implanted and kept supplied by airlift alone – a concept for which the British ‘Chindit’ campaign in Burma in 1944 offered encouraging precedents. The Viet Minh had been born as elusive guerrilla bands; but for two years now, with Chinese help, they had been reinventing themselves as a conventional army, with 10,000-man divisions and light mobile artillery. Such forces are a great deal more unwieldy to move and supply than furtive packs of guerrillas, and the French Air Force could hope to track and harass their marches, robbing them of surprise. By using their American-supplied transport aircraft to create and sustain strong garrisons in the hills, complete with field artillery for defence and paratroop battalions for aggressive sorties, the French high command hoped if not to block, then at least to channel and hamper the cross-country movement of Giap’s large regular formations, and to lure him into attacking them where they were strongest. Howard Simpson would be told that what had happened here at Na San seemed to vindicate that hope.

The garrison which had defended Na San over the previous few nights was a microcosm of the French Expeditionary Corps and its local allies. As he was jeeped across the camp Simpson saw French Colonial and Foreign Legion paratroopers, Legion infantry, North African riflemen, lowland Vietnamese from the Red River delta, and Thais recruited in the hills round about. Virtually all the officers were mainland Frenchmen or ‘blackfeet’ from France’s North African colonies. On previous occasions Simpson had not received a particularly warm welcome from the French Army in the field. Here at Na San, however, most of the officers of the Troupes Aéroportées d’Indochine (TAPI) and the Légion Étrangère were happy to drink the ‘Amerloque’s’ whisky and let him look around; they had a story that deserved to be told.

Since mid-October 1952 the Viet Minh’s military commander-in-chief, General Vo Nguyen Giap, had been leading three divisions of his best troops, trained and equipped by Communist China, deep into these Thai Highlands – the jumbled, forested hills of north-west Tonkin that straddled the border with Laos to the south. Until recently these sparsely populated highlands had played little part in France’s six-year-old Indochina War; the cockpit of the fighting against General Giap’s regulars had been the Red River delta, 100 miles away to the east. But after a first probe in October 1951, this last autumn Giap had opened a new front here in the High Region.

The tribal peoples of the border country had no love for Ho Chi Minh’s Communist cause, and the French had never needed to guard these hills with more than a chain of tiny forts scattered along the ridges between the Red and Black rivers, mostly garrisoned by local recruits. There were no usable roads, and apart from jungle tracks the lines of communication to these remote posts had been maintained by air. Few had airstrips that would take anything larger than small bush aircraft, and any large-scale resupply or reinforcement had to be done by parachute. Since October 1952, these little garrisons had been swept aside by Giap’s advance; French paratroopers had made sacrificial jumps to buy time for their retreat, and now the remaining defended islands in this green ocean had been pushed west of the Black River. Their anchor had been planted here, at Na San, where a dirt airstrip had been skinned with pierced steel plates to allow its use by the Air Force’s C-47s, and an entrenched camp had been created in Giap’s path with frantic haste. It was held by a mixed garrison of a dozen battalions, designated ‘Operational Group Middle Black River’ – GOMRN for short.

The defences of Na San were a series of dug-in positions surrounded with barbed wire and minefields, most of them manned by single companies of a hundred or so French troops, and arranged to occupy a rough ring of hilltops about 3 miles across that surrounded the airstrip cupped in the valley below. Inside this outer rampart GOMRN’s commander – a dour, one-eyed paratroop colonel named Jean Gilles – had built a continuous inner ring of entrenched strongpoints around the airstrip, headquarters, medical aid post, stores depots, and artillery and heavy mortar positions. But not all the garrison had arrived, the defences had not been fully prepared, and most of the vital artillery was not yet in place when the first Viet Minh units reached the area in the third week of November. In keeping with their guerrilla tradition, they arrived unannounced.

Strongpoint PA8 in the northern face of the inner ring was held by only 110 men – 11th Company, III Battalion of the Foreign Legion’s 5th Infantry Regiment – but it was exceptionally well built. Its commander, Captain Letestu, had served in the Maginot Line as a young ranker, and understood exactly how to lay out a defensive position; under his guidance his légionnaires had worked with a will, and their generous allocation of machine guns were well sited in sandbag ‘blockhouses’ pushed out to sweep the approaches to the wire. All this fieldcraft and labour might have gone for nothing on the night of 23/24 November. With neither warning nor preparatory fire, a Viet Minh battalion infiltrated right up to the northern wire of PA8 under cover of some nervous movement by Thai troops, and at about 8pm they tried to rush it. The only other officer, Lieutenant Durand, was killed at once, and Letestu led a small counter-attack force into a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the two enemy platoons that had got into the trenches. The Viet Minh were finally killed or driven out at about 9.30pm, by which time 11th Company had already lost 15 men dead or disappeared and as many again seriously wounded.

Meanwhile heavy mortar fire was falling on the southern part of the position, heralding another attack. In the absence of French artillery, Captain Letestu got in radio contact with the Foreign Legion mortar company in the central area, and although no fire plans had yet been prepared Lieutenant Bart managed to bring down the fire of his ten weapons on the threatened sector and the gullies approaching it.4 A company of 3rd Colonial Parachute Battalion from the central reserve was sent to reinforce PA8, arriving at about 11pm just in time to help hold off a dangerous attack; but Letestu was furious to overhear their commander Captain Guilleminot reporting that he had arrived to ‘retake the strongpoint’, and obliged him to get back on the radio and put the record straight. The wounded were now being cared for by the battalion medical officer Lieutenant Thomas, who with Sergeant Chief Rinaldi had disobeyed orders and crawled half a mile from the central camp to slip through the enemy ranks and the barbed wire.

The last attack came at about 12.30am; it was repulsed like the others, and a useful part was played by a ‘PIM’ – a Viet Minh prisoner long kept by the company as a tame porter. On his own initiative he replaced the wounded crew of one of the company’s 60mm mortars and loaded and fired it by himself. The enemy finally fell back under cover of darkness, taking most of their casualties with them, but 64 corpses and five abandoned wounded were found around the strongpoint. Next morning Colonel Gilles – not a man much given to public praise – told Captain Letestu that he had saved Na San; he also ordered the officers of the other strongpoints to come and examine Letestu’s ‘magisterial’ example of field fortification.

AN ISLAND FORTRESS

A pillbox of the FW3/22 design, a regular hexagon, at Wellingore airfield, Lincolnshire. Some of the reinforcing steelwork can be seen, and another, identical pillbox is visible in the distance.

One of the principal designs of pillbox was the hexagonal FW3/22 infantry pillbox designed to accommodate up to five light machine-gunners (armed with Bren guns), together with one rifleman. It was to be built of reinforced concrete, with walls 12–15 inches thick, i.e. bulletproof. The huge loss of equipment in France, however, meant that the infantry rifle would have to replace the Bren in this and other designs. A larger design was numbered FW3/24; the most frequently built, this was an irregular hexagon, with a theoretical complement of five light machine gunners, two riflemen and a commander. FW3/23, a rectangular shape sometimes seen built into river or sea banks, had a rear portion accommodating an open light anti-aircraft position. Its complement was four men armed with three light machine guns and one rifle.

An FW3/28a pillbox with two alternative positions for a 2-pounder anti-tank gun above the Kennet and Avon Canal, part of the GHQ Line. Wootton Rivers, Wiltshire.

The design of even the standard FW3 pillboxes varied from area to area: for example, some entrances were protected by an external blast wall, which might also contain a loophole. In the absence of the blast wall, one assumes a wall of sandbags was constructed to protect an entrance, this vulnerable feature being positioned facing away from the likely direction of attack. One or more small rifle slits in the entrance wall gave rear protection. Other pillboxes, such as the FW3/27 often seen on airfields, where all-round fire was considered absolutely necessary, were entered by low-level ‘creeps’. Different Commands had their own designs: Northern Command, for example, employed a lozenge-shaped design, examples of which can be seen in the Holderness area of Yorkshire and along the River Coquet stop line. Inside the majority of pillboxes would be an internal wall, often ‘T’- or ‘Y’-shaped, to support the roof and deflect blast, splinters or bullets ricocheting inside the pillbox.

Where pillboxes were built in what were considered to be primary strategic locations, these were often of a so-called ‘shellproof standard’, having walls at least 42 inches thick, as opposed to the bulletproof standard of 12–15 inches. The shellproof design was expected to be proof against tank and light artillery fire. There is evidence that some pillboxes not built to this standard were later strengthened with additional concrete skirts. Along Southern Command’s section of the anti-tank GHQ Line, for example, in July 1940 it was planned to have approximately six hundred shellproof pillboxes in place, with a much smaller number of the bulletproof design of pillbox. In addition, over two hundred of the 2-pounder anti-tank gun design – the FW3/28 and FW3/28a (with dual positions for the gun) – were planned. Because of materials shortages and changes in tactical thinking, initial plans were seldom fulfilled.

 

The land defences of Britain 1940–2, showing principal stop lines (these often following physical features) and Army Commands.

The British Isles, located off the mainland of Europe, have faced the threat of large-scale invasions for almost a thousand years, the last successful landing being that of William of Normandy in 1066. William and his knights also brought over their horses (as the Wehrmacht, still partly dependent on horse-drawn transport, would have done in 1940). Medieval wars with France and Henry VIII’s conflict with Catholic Europe led to invasion fears and as a result a number of artillery forts were built along the south coast. The conflict with Napoleonic France led to the building of Martello towers (brick-built artillery towers sited to defend the vulnerable coastline of south-eastern England) from the end of the eighteenth century. The rise of the French navy under Napoleon III initiated the building of the powerful Palmerston forts around the main naval bases (named after the British Foreign Secretary) in the mid-nineteenth century. With the outbreak of the First World War and with German forces on the other side of the Channel, anti-invasion defences were constructed along British coasts. These included fieldworks, together with small concrete defence works; the latter were christened ‘pillboxes’ after their apparent resemblance to the small, round boxes used at that time to contain pills. Small reinforced concrete defence works had also been used with deadly effect by Germany, in conjunction with machine guns, along the Western Front.

The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 and the occupation of much of western Europe by Germany in the summer of 1940 meant that invasion was once again a likely threat. Even before the German offensive in France had ended, the British GHQ Home Forces had issued an instruction in the middle of May 1940 for defensive steps to be taken against the landing of enemy troops by air, tactics that had been employed successfully in Norway and Holland. With the fall of France in June, Germany began to make preparations for the invasion of Britain, issuing Führer Directive 16 on 16 July. If Germany had had sufficient maritime ability to invade at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation, then this might have met with success. However, she had also lost vital aircraft, especially transports, and much of the armoured equipment used in France was at its last gasp. Operation Sea Lion, the code name for the invasion, was planned to make use of both seaborne and airborne forces, and a date was set by Hitler and the German High Command for the launch of the operation: 16 September 1940. The planned invasion envisaged seaborne landings between Worthing and Folkestone with airborne landings behind the port of Dover.

A number of events led to the postponement of the planned invasion, the principal one being Germany’s failure to gain air superiority during the Battle of Britain. Another factor was the German navy’s (and probably also Hitler’s) disquiet at the chances of successful and sustained landings in the face of the much stronger Royal Navy, coupled with the prospect of deteriorating seasonal sea conditions. In addition, the attraction of an attack on Germany’s ideological enemy, the USSR, meant that in the late summer of 1940 Hitler had already begun to switch his attention eastwards, and the army groups gathered for Sea Lion were gradually moved to Poland. Hitler would pin his hopes on the success of the U-boat offensive and the Luftwaffe’s night bombing campaign against Britain, expecting that this would bring the country to its knees and lead to its surrender, or to the agreement of terms favourable to Germany, especially once the USSR was defeated. But this was not known to Britain in the latter part of 1940 and into 1941. Whilst Britain prepared for what seemed an imminent invasion, a part of the British Isles was already under German occupation: the Channel Islands had been seized in a relatively bloodless manner in June 1940; their occupation would last until May 1945.

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The catastrophic collapse of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force in the summer of 1940 led to the evacuation of British (and French) forces from Dunkirk, and this was coupled with the British Army’s massive loss of war material, especially heavier weaponry. The most serious losses were in heavy machine guns and artillery, especially anti-tank guns. The British Army’s 2-pounder anti-tank gun was a complicated and precision-made weapon and it would take time to make good the losses. In the meantime the Army would have to rely on extemporised anti-tank weapons such as obsolete artillery pieces and even the Molotov cocktail, a bottle filled with an inflammable liquid ignited by large matches attached to the sides of the bottle.

Hasty preparations were immediately put in hand for the country’s defence against invasion by sea and air: Britain now knew of Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics and could respond, albeit with very limited military assets. With Germany occupying most of western Europe, it was not known from which direction the enemy might come or where he might land. General Ironside, Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, had to produce a scheme to defend many hundreds of miles of coastline (the ‘coastal crust’), and to provide a substantial inland barrier (the GHQ Line), as well as mobile reserves behind the Line. In the event, the Germans would opt, in their planning for Sea Lion, for the shortest crossing route. The British Army Commands had also to consider a possible German occupation of the neutral Irish Republic with German diversionary attacks aimed at Ulster or, by air or sea, against the western side of Britain. Landings on the Scottish coast from occupied Norway had also to be considered.

The fear of fifth columnists and paratrooper landings led, on 14 May 1940, to the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to be renamed the Home Guard. A covert branch of the Home Guard was also formed, the Auxiliary Units, trained to function as stay-behind cells operating from underground, camouflaged bases. Their role would be to harass an invader’s rear areas by sabotage and assassination. In addition, a parallel secret intelligence organisation was set up with a force of civilian spies in order to gather intelligence information. This information was to be passed by radio to army signal units, who were also located in underground hides. The organisation was known as the Auxiliary Units Special Duties Section. Some remains may still be seen: for example, the camouflaged signals base (Zero Station) on the top of Blorenge hill above Abergavenny in South Wales. The National Trust organises guided walks at Coleshill House, the headquarters of the Auxiliary Units, where an underground training hide, known as an operational base, may still be seen.

The threat of enemy invasion, whether real or imagined, led to the erection of many improvised roadblocks around the country, intended to hinder enemy movement and to act as posts to check identities, but these often proved obstructive to the movement of home forces and many were soon removed. The enemy’s innovative use of aircraft to land troops in order to capture airfields and other strategic or vulnerable points such as bridges led to a new threat coming from the sky: airfields now had to be protected against airborne landings, as well as against bombing and strafing attack. Areas where enemy gliders or transport aircraft might land were obstructed by poles and wires, or whatever was available – even by old cars and sewer pipes. Lakes and reservoirs had cables stretched across their water, and pillboxes were sited to prevent enemy seaplanes landing and disgorging troops. The signal that enemy forces had landed was the ringing of church bells in the vicinity: church bells were otherwise not heard for most of the war.

Around and behind the coast, fieldworks and concrete defences (pillboxes and gun houses) were built, minefields were laid (in June 1940, fifty thousand anti-tank mines had been issued), and many types of obstacle were installed or erected to prevent the enemy’s movement, especially of his tanks. Twelve armoured trains, manned by Polish soldiers, patrolled the coast from Cornwall to the Moray Firth. The defence of beaches and landing grounds by pillboxes and fieldworks had begun before the Second World War in Britain’s colony of Malta, against the rise of Mussolini’s Italy.

In 1940 Defence Zones were established around the parts of Britain’s coasts deemed most vulnerable, with restricted access for civilians. Residents in the Zones were told to stay put in invasion occurred, to avoid roads being clogged with refugees, but this did not stop a gradual and large-scale migration from coastal areas in the early war years. Although a ‘scorched earth’ policy (the destruction of food supplies, petrol installations and vital public services and buildings so as to deny them to the enemy) was considered in the event of an invasion this idea was quickly dropped. To hinder an invader further, milestones and signposts were removed. Instructions were issued for the denial to an enemy of fuel supplies by immobilising machinery or by contamination. Also, any vehicles likely to fall into enemy hands were to be immobilised. Beaches were defended by pillboxes, barbed wire, minefields and, from 1941 onwards, anti-tank and anti-boat metal scaffolding.

Inland, anti-tank stop lines were built, the principal one being the GHQ Line running inland along the southern and eastern sides of England, protecting approaches to London, with subsidiary stop lines built by Army Commands to give some protection to the vital ports and manufacturing regions such as the Midlands against the invader’s armoured thrusts. These lines, a key factor of the country’s defences in the summer of 1940, followed existing features wherever possible, such as canals, railway lines, rivers and also natural barriers such as the North Downs (GHQ Line). Where existing features were not available, anti-tank ditches were dug. Crossing points were defended by pillboxes and gun houses, with major towns and cities along the lines’ routes turned into anti-tank islands. It was hoped that these defences would delay the enemy long enough for precious reserves to be directed towards the threat. In effect, a battleground had been prepared.

The British Expeditionary Force already had experience of building anti-tank ditches and pillboxes in France during the winter of 1939–40. The anti-tank ditches were revetted with wood to present a sheer face to any tank encountering the obstacle. Ideally, both faces of the ditch would be reinforced so as to prevent a tank backing out of the ditch. In other locations riverbanks were similarly revetted. Important bridges were identified for demolition, the larger ones receiving demolition chambers in bridge supports, such as the railway bridge crossing the South Forty Foot Drain in Lincolnshire. At Sarre in Kent minor bridges were destined to receive pipe mines. It was realised that not every bridge could be destroyed: vital services such as telephone or electricity cables, gas mains and water supplies often ran across bridges, meaning that these should not be destroyed. And the possibility of British counterattacks against the invader had to be considered. Roads, bridges and airfield runways would be cratered by buried charges – if time allowed.

Because the enemy’s intentions were not known, the defence posts along the lines had to have all-round defence. Where anti-tank obstacles of steel rails with concrete cylinders were sited, these had to be provided with hardened defences (pillboxes) or fieldworks for troops to prevent the obstacles’ removal. The surveying of the defence lines was carried out by Royal Engineer reconnaissance parties, sent by the Army Commands, which had previously identified suitable routes in their Command areas. It was intended that the lines and their defences would prove a barrier to the enemy’s general movement, especially that of his tanks and reconnaissance forces. Where the nature of the defence work was identified – be it pillbox, fieldworks, minefields or obstructed bridges – these would be marked on the ground and on a map referred to in the Royal Engineers’ report to the Command. Where bridges crossed the stop line, these were prepared for demolition, obstructed with steel rails or, where the surface of the bridge was suitable, mined. The anti-tank mine was a cheap and effective weapon. Large stocks were accumulated and used not only by the Army but also by the Home Guard: for example, Eastern Command (see the National Archives, reference WO 166/1193) anticipated that the Home Guard in the Cambridge area would acquire over ten thousand of these weapons by late 1941. The mines were not to be laid until the enemy was close.

The steel-rail anti-tank barriers were, on the giving of the appropriate code word (various words were used to denote different states of emergency), ‘armed’ by slotting them into wooden-lined prepared sockets, gravel being packed around any gaps to prevent removal by the enemy. Instructions issued by Northern Command in late 1941 advised that vertical and bent (not welded) rails presented a satisfactory anti-tank barrier as long as the sockets were also lined with wood. To reinforce the barrier, concrete cylinders (they came in two sizes), in groups of three, were to be placed in front of the steel barrier to prevent the tank charging and breaking the rails. In some areas the cylinders had a central hole in which to insert a pole to enable their movement along the ground. Gaps at the side of the barrier would be closed by concrete ‘dragons’ teeth’ (also known as pimples) or anti-tank walls. The inland stop lines, it was hoped, would prevent the rapid progress of the enemy’s reconnaissance forces and delay and ‘corral’ the enemy’s tank and infantry forces, giving time for the reserves to be gathered together for an attack. However, some of the stop-line defences were futile given the shallowness of many of the watercourses chosen, especially during the summer months. A Southern Command report in July 1940 on a proposed stop line along the River Wylye in Wiltshire concluded that it could be breached with ease and, once breached, would render the rest of the line ‘useless’. Although many stop lines were proposed, it is clear that a significant number were, on surveying, found to have no tactical value and were abandoned; others were never fully developed. In June 1940 Army Commands were also preparing towns and cities for defence as anti-tank islands, but at that time resources were very thinly spread. London, in addition to its southerly protection by the GHQ Line, would eventually have three concentric rings of defences, with the central government area of Whitehall being one of three ‘keeps’, the others being at Maida Vale and the Tower of London. The vital port of Liverpool, in addition to defences ringing the city, had also to have defences on the Wirral to protect the approaches to the Mersey Tunnel.

The pillboxes, designed to provide hardened fighting bases for the troops defending the stop lines and Vulnerable Points (VPs) such as airfields, were built in vast numbers in the space of a few summer months and were of a number of official and unofficial designs. Research carried out in connection with the Defence of Britain Project from 1995 onwards indicated that approximately 28,000 were built, of which a little short of 25 per cent survive. In May 1940, before France had fallen, a list of drawings was issued to Army Commands by the War Office Department FW3 (Fortifications and Works) of a range of pillbox designs for use in differing tactical situations. At the same time drawings were also issued for the design of the iron-rail anti-tank barriers, the bent-rail version (commonly known as the ‘hairpin’).

 

Tactical Use of Static and Mobile Linear Barriers

The distinctions in the case of static barriers can become blurred. For example, in certain locations some linear barriers appear originally to have been temporary in intention, but may have then become long term fixtures. Looking at the Corinthian Isthmus, the stone wall built by Anastasius and rebuilt by Justinian was intended to be permanent and some of it is still there. Other walls which were built to stop Xerxes or Epameinondas were clearly temporary. The site of Artaxerxes’ Trench may have been reused for the Wall at Macepracta, described by Ammianus Marcellinus, and is possibly now the location of the Wall at Umm Raus. Also, while the objective may be different, the working principle was similar – namely, the use of a continuous physical object (a wall) or a void (a ditch) to obstruct the progress of the threat in the direction of the builder.

The use of mobile linear barriers in the context of sedentary states fighting battles against nomads is common. Static linear barriers provided the means to block the progress of mounted nomads and as a defence against their stinging arrows. Therefore, it might be a logical progression, rather than to wait until the threat comes to the fixed barrier, to make the barrier mobile and take it to the threat.

The exercise of looking at the use of temporary and mobile barriers might be valuable in showing how linear barriers fitted into a broad spectrum of such barriers in general.

1: Role of linear barriers on the battlefield and in passes

One-time threats

Many very substantial linear barriers have been constructed across areas where an expected one-time threat would cross. Linear barriers which have already been mentioned include the following: Cnidus’ Reşidiye peninsula canal, which was started but remained unfinished during the reign of Cyrus; the Corinth Isthmian walls, built to block Xerxes’ Persians; Ataxerxes’ Trench, cut before the Battle of Cunaxa (401 BC); and the Wall of the Judean King Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BC), who tried to stop the Seleucid King Antiochus Dionysus.

Other examples include: Crassus’ Servile War Wall, built across the toe of Italy on the Rhegium Peninsula, in order to contain Spartacus and his rebel slave army; Caesar’s earthwork to block the Helvetii who were trying to migrate to Gaul in 58 BC; the Teutoburg Forest Wall, built parallel to the routeway, from behind which the Germans could attack the Romans; and at Hakata Bay where in 1281 the Japanese faced a second attack from the Mongol and Korean forces commanded by Kubilai Khan. (The Japanese had built a stone faced embankment more than twenty-two kilometres along the coast about three metres high and wide, after the first attack in 1274 was broken up by storms and Japanese resistance.)

Passes

A clear category emerges where passes were fortified or refortified with linear barriers in order to strengthen the positions of the defenders. A pass is an obvious place for a defending power to force a battle, as the narrowness of the location helps make the task of the defender easier against a larger attacking force.

Thermopylae, where the Greeks delayed the Persian advance in the fifth century BC, has already been discussed. In the following century the situation was reversed. In 330 BC Alexander the Great advanced on Persepolis, leading 20,000 troops across the Zagros Mountains and onto the ten kilometre-long pass of the Persian Gates. The local satrap Ariobarzanes built a wall across the pass and forced Alexander to retreat. Reversing the story of Thermopylae, the Greeks followed a local guide up treacherous paths onto the plateau above the pass, and then crept up behind the Persians who were annihilated in a joint attack from behind and in front. This manoeuvre left open the road to Persepolis for Alexander.

In 192 BC the Seleucid King Antiochus III invaded Greece and was confronted by the Romans, here the invader, rather than the defender, built the wall. ‘There Antiochus built a double wall on which he placed engines. He sent Aetolian troops to occupy the summits of the mountains to prevent anybody from coming around secretly by way of the hill called Atropos, as Xerxes had come upon the Spartans under Leonidas, the mountain paths at that time being unguarded.’ The Romans, under Marcus Porcius Cato, like many others, got round behind Antiochus using the mountain path – forcing him to withdraw. Later in 146 BC the Romans forced their way through Thermopylae in order to put down a Greek revolt.

The Bulgars and the Byzantines had a joint history of battles in barricaded passes. In 811 the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoras I laid waste to Bulgaria and burnt the capital Pliska. On hearing that the Bulgarians were defending the passes, Nicephoras set out for the Vǎrbitsa Pass on the route back to Constantinople where the Bulgars had built a wooden wall. The Byzantines tried to burn the barricade and were either themselves burned or drowned in the moat built behind the wall. Victory went the other way in 1014 when Bulgar Khan Samuil built a wooden wall across the pass at the village of Klyuch, or Kleidion meaning key, in the Haemus Mountains which provided the main invasion route into Bulgaria. In the summer of 1014 the army of Basil II was repelled at the wall. Again, a path behind the wall was found and the Bulgarians were overwhelmed.

A Letzimauer, or Swiss stone wall, played a key part in the Battle of Stoss Pass in 1405 in the Appenzell Wars between 1401 and 1429, when the local populace from the region fought off the Hapsburgs. Appenzell’s force of 400 men defended the wall at the Pass against which 1,200 Hapsburg soldiers were suffocated or halberdiered.

Battlefields

Although many battles have been fought at passes most took place on more open ground. Even here there was a consistent record of the use of linear barriers.

When heavily outnumbered, Caesar built a linear barrier in 48 BC, around the forces of Pompey who were camped on the coast of north-western Greece below Dyrrhachium. The barrier was twenty-two kilometres long and included four forts. Pompey’s forces also constructed a linear barrier. If anything, this was testimony to the wall-building capacity of the legionary which could be put to use making more permanent linear barriers.

In 484 the Sasanian Shah Peroz led an army against the Hephthalite chief Akhunwar who was crossing the Gorgan Plain to the east of the Caspian Sea. Procopius describes how the Persians (Sasanians) ‘gave chase at full speed across a very level plain, possessed as they were by a spirit of fury against the enemy, and fell into the trench, every man of them.’ Peroz was killed and his army routed. The Sadd-i-Iskandar may have been built subsequently by the Sasanians in order to counter the Hephthalite threat.

The nomadic Arabs proved adept users of tactical linear barriers. In AD 627 Mohammed led roughly 3,000 defenders of Medina against a confederate Arab and Jewish army more than three times its number. The Muslims dug a trench – hence the name the Battle of the Trench – which negated the enemy’s superiority in numbers and cavalry; soon the siege was lifted and the confederacy collapsed. Having proved impossible to dislodge from Medina, Mohammed was able to return in triumph to Mecca.

After the ninth century, linear barriers intended for long term use appear increasingly to have fallen out of use in Europe. This might have been because of the improvements in the military technology of point defences, like burghs and castles, and the mobility of mounted men at arms. The technology employed by infantry improved in turn, to the extent that they could fight off heavily armoured mounted knights by using a combination of weapons of extended reach, like pikes. They also used projectile weapons, for example longbows, and battlefield linear barriers which might be either static or mobile. Thus, linear barriers returned to the military repertory in a somewhat different and now predominantly tactical, battlefield form.

By the fourteenth century, infantry had increasingly got the measure of cavalry. Obstacles were built on the battlefield in the form of ditches – often filled with spikes and other horrors to increase the lethality of plunging into them. These served to channel and break up the momentum of mounted men at arms. In 1385, for example, the Castilians invaded Portugal, met an army reinforced by a contingent of English archers, and were soundly beaten. Excavations of the Aljubarotta have revealed a ditch about 240 metres wide across the Portuguese front and numerous pits. In 1387 the English commander of the mercenary White Company in Italy, Sir John Hawkwood, drew up archers behind drainage dykes at Castagnaro. At Agincourt in 1415 the English archers built a barrier of sharpened stakes which they carried with them. These allowed the construction of a mobile palisade. Indeed, when the French declined to attack, the English literally upped their sticks and reformed closer to the French lines, the better to provoke them into attack with a barrage of arrows.

Linear barriers used on the battlefield demonstrate that ancient and Middle Ages rulers and commanders did not suffer from any prejudice against their deployment. The point is that earlier leaders were flexible in their willingness to consider the value of linear barriers in a whole range of situations, both immediate and long term, and tactical and strategic.

2: Defeating nomads on open ground – mobile linear barriers

The armies of sedentary states found it almost impossible to defeat a nomad horde that was well-led on open ground. The combination of mobility and bow-and-arrow power meant that such armies could destabilise and decimate the more static armies of sedentary states. Even if the body armour of elite troops could stop the nomads’ arrows, a terrible toll would still be taken of less well armed soldiery and horses. Nomad armies were, however, occasionally beaten. Crusaders defeated a Turkish force of mounted archers at the Battle of Dorylaeum (1097) where a line of heavily armed dismounted knights defended less well armed compatriots, until reinforcements attacked the Turks in the rear. At Ain Jalut (1260) the Mamluks induced the hitherto invincible Mongols into an ambush by feigning retreat. The Mamluk forces used midfa, or portable hand cannons loaded with explosive gunpowder, to incite fear and disorder among the Mongol cavalry.

These battles anticipated the means to defeat nomad forces – the protected line that blocked arrows, and the explosive energy from gunpowder. If the line could be composed of a solid yet moveable inanimate material, one that obstructed nomad arrows, and incorporated crossbows and firearms that could outrange nomad projectiles on a flat trajectory, then the terms of battle could be more than equalised.

Linear barriers did not need to be static. They could be put on wheels or sledges and taken to the enemy. That way protection could be provided against nomad arrow storms and cavalry attacks. Meanwhile, the mobile barrier could provide a fortified screen through which the defenders’ bows, crossbows, firearms and cannon raked the enemy.

At the Battle of Mobei in 119 BC the Han general, Wei Qing, used rings of heavily armed chariots, or wu gang, first to break Xiongnu charges, and then to launch a successful counter-attack. These vehicles protected infantry and crossbowmen from Xiongnu arrows and gave them the security to be able to shoot back accurately. Han cavalry dealt with any Xiongnu who broke through.

Mobile linear barriers could be improvised of the most obvious available vehicle used by most armies, that is, the wagon or cart, which had always been used to protect camps during halts and to defend camps behind the main battlefield. Mobile defences in Europe were developed first against non-nomad forces. For example, in 1428 at Rouvray, Sir John Fastoff, anticipating attack by larger forces, formed their convoy of carts into an enclosure. By the fifteenth century war wagons were being specially designed so that mobile barriers could be formed. The most famous war wagons were perhaps those of the Hussites, led by Jan Žižka in the early fifteenth century, and known as vozová hradba or wagon walls.

Gulyay-gorod reconstruction.

The Russian Gului-gorod, used in the sixteenth and early seventh centuries, have already been discussed. The Battle of Molodi in 1572 – where the protection afforded by the Gului-gorod was critical – perhaps marked a turning point in the fight between settled states and nomads. It has been seen how static linear barriers built by the Russians played a crucial part in closing down the Pontic Steppe. At the same time the Russians also used mobile linear barriers to defeat the nomads in the field.

These developments in military technology ultimately meant that the fight could be taken to the open ground preferred by nomad hordes of mounted archers, and for them to be defeated there. The importance of Molodi is not perhaps sufficiently recognised in the West – for never again did a major nomad army invade a great empire.

Roman Frontier: The River Euphrates

The fort at Hân al-Manqoûra (Syria) from the air.

 

Map of the northern section of the eastern frontier in Cappadocia and Syria.

To turn from the Occident to the Orient is to enter a new world. Here, Rome took over long-established kingdoms and inherited their frontiers. Equally significantly, she faced a dangerous foe, the only other major power which bordered the empire, Parthia. Much of Rome’s relationship with her neighbour was governed by peace treaties and a wary understanding of each other’s power. The route to Parthia lay across and down the River Euphrates, and for most of the first and second centuries this river formed the boundary between the two states.

The point where the two empires were conjoined was comparatively narrow. In the time of Augustus and for the next 200 years, Rome and Parthia met for a distance of only about 260km (155 miles) along the River Euphrates from Armenia to the north to the Syrian Desert to the south. In the desert there was little room for manoeuvre so the frontier remained static, but to the north, there was a continuous tussle to control the strategically located kingdom of Armenia lying to the north of the Parthian empire and east of the Roman province of Cappadocia.

Following the conquest of the Seleucid kingdom based on Syria and later Egypt, legions were maintained in the new provinces. Troops stationed in Judaea were concerned with internal security rather than with any external threat, as in Egypt. Syria was a different matter. It was the bulwark against Parthia. Augustus based four legions, supported by auxiliary units, within the province, including at the capital Antioch, athwart the main route into – and out of – Parthia. The area between Roman Syria and the Black Sea was left to be controlled by the resident client kings who undertook the work of defence on behalf of the empire. They defended not only their section of the frontier but, on demand, supplied troops to operate with the Roman legions, as attested from Augustus to Vespasian. These client kingdoms, however, were gradually incorporated into the empire as their kings died or Roman emperors decided. By the time of Trajan the process was complete. The legions were all now on the River Euphrates, and spread more evenly than in previous years along the frontier, yet still controlling the access routes to Parthia. Two legions lay in Syria, at Zeugma/Belkis and Samosata/Samsat facing Parthia and two in Cappadocia to the north, at Melitene/Malatya and Satala/Kelkit opposite Armenia. The southern three guarded routes across the river, routes which allowed passage not only for caravans but also for armies, while the fourth lay at the southern end of the Zigana Pass leading to the Black Sea. While the Euphrates might have formed the frontier, it cut through the mountains of Cilicia and in places the resulting gorge was 3,000m (10,000ft) deep, a formidable obstacle in its own right.

There is little more that can be said about this frontier. At least fifteen auxiliary regiments are known to have been based in Cappadocia in the middle of the second century and about twice that number in Syria, but the bases of these units are generally not known.

This frontier came under significant threat from the Parthians in the second century, as will be discussed below. The Upper Euphrates from Melitene/Malatya to Satala/Kelkit and thence northwards to the Black Sea remained the frontier, but further south Rome pushed forward into the desert, and this will also be considered below. The Euphrates remained a significant line of communication and on its southern bank sat the great oasis city, and Roman garrison, of Dura-Europos. Excavations between World Wars I and II led to the identification of the military quarter in the city, the only eastern site where this arrangement has been recognized and planned.

The End at Verdun

Raymond Abescat took part in the offensive against Douaumont and was lucky to come out of it alive. Eighty years after, as one of the last of the Verdun veterans, he recorded his memories of 24 October 1916 and they were as vivid as if they had happened the day before. He recalled ‘a particularly disturbing moment’ quite unrelated to the military achievement of that day:

There were a few of us in some shell holes. About four in each crater. In one of these hollows there were only three men, whereas the one that I was in held five along with the sergeant. As it was a bit of a squeeze the sergeant said to me: ‘Look, get in with the other three!’ I was about to do so when a comrade volunteered and went there in my place. A moment went by. Suddenly, a German plane flew over us… ‘A bad sign, that!’ And in fact, a few minutes later a whole artillery discharge rained down on our heads and a shell landed right in the hole where I ought to have been. Of the four who were there three were killed and the fourth – the one who had taken my place – was buried under the earth. We got him out gravely wounded. Because of that I have always felt that survival depends on factors that are completely arbitrary.

He was in action again on 16 November:

On that occasion I got a piece of shrapnel in my ankle. It was between nine and ten in the morning and there was no question of moving a muscle because everything that did move was shot down! I had to wait till night-time to get myself as best I could to the first-aid post. My war ended there. The time that had elapsed between being wounded and getting medical care had brought on the beginning of gangrene. I almost had to have my leg amputated. When I got over it, I wasn’t sorry to have left that hell behind me without meeting a tragic end…

Abescat’s reference to the fighting of 16 November shows that the battle did not end with the reclaiming of Douaumont. Nivelle and Mangin were eager to inflict more defeats on the now discomfited Germans. Fort Vaux was added to the tally of success on 2 November, the Germans having abandoned it as being not worth defending; to the French this low-cost seizure helped to cancel out the easy taking of Douaumont that had rankled ever since February. But a more positive flourish was required before the fighting could be closed down. It came in mid-December with a three-day battle on a six-mile front, in which Mangin’s troops advanced two miles beyond Douaumont and took 115 guns, a mass of machine guns and mortars, and 11,000 prisoners. Though only a right-bank offensive it was seen as an unambiguous triumph, and was acknowledged as such by the German Crown Prince. He wrote in his memoirs:

At dawn on December 15th our artillery positions and all the ravines north of the line Louvemont-Hill 378-Bezonvaux redoubt were heavily bombarded with gas shells. The French infantry advanced shortly before 11 a.m., after two hours’ drum-fire on the whole front from Vacherauville to Vaux. On our side the co-operation between infantry and artillery again left much to be desired, and our barrage came down too late.

In the centre of our front in Chauffour and north of Douaumont part of the 10th Division and General von Versen’s 14th held their positions with great stubbornness till late in the evening. In the sectors to the right and left of them, however, the enemy broke through on a wide front. On our right wing Vacherauville, part of Poivre Hill, Louvemont and Hill 378, and on our left the whole Hardaumont and Bezonvaux redoubt ridge were lost. During the latter part of the day the enemy extended his large initial gains, and enveloped the positions still held by our troops in the centre from either flank and in rear. Fighting went on till late in the evening, but all our struggles were in vain… This second defeat before Verdun was marked by a disproportionately high total of prisoners lost, exceeding even those taken on October 24th. The enemy’s communiqué claimed 11,000 prisoners, mostly unwounded, from all five of our divisions engaged…

The spirit of our troops had declined to a marked degree… to a considerable extent their morale and power of resistance was unequal to the demands placed on them by their onerous task…

The mighty drive of the battles for Verdun in 1916 was now at an end! To the bold confident onslaught of the first February days had succeeded weeks and months of fierce, costly and slow advance; then the gradual diminution of our forces had led to the cessation of the offensive, and finally two regrettable setbacks had wrested back from us much of the blood-soaked ground we had so dearly won. Small wonder if this ill-starred end to our efforts wrung the hearts of the responsible commanders.

I knew now for the first time what it was to lose a battle. Doubt as to my own competence, self-commiseration, bitter feelings, unjust censures passed in quick succession through my mind and lay like a heavy burden on my soul, and I am not ashamed to confess that it was some time before I recovered my mental balance and my firm confidence in ultimate victory.

That confidence too, it is scarcely necessary to add, would also end in disillusion.

This final stage of the campaign, spectacularly conducted under new management, was bound to cause casualties in the structure of the French high command. Nivelle and Mangin were so much in the ascendant that they had to be rewarded. Pétain slipped back somewhat into the shadows, to return in a vital role some months later, but the more significant victim was Joffre. On 13 December, two days before the final attack began, he was appointed technical adviser to the government and deprived of direct powers of command. On the 15th Nivelle was summoned to G.Q.G. to take over the post of Commander-in-Chief. On the 26th Joffre effectively fell on his sword by resigning. Some honour was retrieved when he was made Marshal of France on the following day, but the die was cast and he began his journey into an obscurity from which he would never emerge. An embarrassing scene took place at Chantilly in which Joffre, appealing for loyalty among the staff who had worked under him since August 1914, found only one officer prepared to stay with him as he relinquished his command; the fact that he had ‘limogé’ numerous generals in his time did not make his own removal seem the less pathetic. He would still have duties to perform but they would be ceremonial only, such as heading a French military mission to the United States in 1917 or serving as figurehead president of the Supreme War Council in 1918.

Meanwhile Mangin celebrated the new regime with an Order of the Day that trumpeted greater glory to come: ‘We know the method and we have the Chief. Success is certain.’ Future events – though not this time at Verdun – would show that his claim was as empty as Nivelle’s ‘We have the formula’ assertion on the steps at Souilly all those months before. But for the moment Nivelle was the hero of the hour, and Verdun was his triumph. And if nothing else the long struggle was over.

What kind of a battle was it that had thus come to an end after 298 days? Where in its almost ten grim months had Verdun taken the concept of modern war?

The Germans seized the opportunity of a major campaign to try out certain technical innovations. Von Knobelsdorf’s use of phosgene in his June offensive added another name to the burgeoning list of noxious gases; curiously, or perhaps not in view of the way the secretive Falkenhayn was running the campaign, the Kaiser only heard about it from the newspapers. Flamethrowers, initially tested in the region in 1915, were also employed on a major scale here for the first time. In July the flamethrower units were given the insignia of the death’s head; this would later become the insignia of the Waffen SS. Steel helmets were first used en masse at Verdun; the British equivalent came into use roughly at about the same time. Additionally German Sturmtruppen – ‘Stormtroopers’, trained to break through at speed leaving other units to ‘mop up’ behind them – had their first trial runs at Verdun: they would wreak much havoc in the great German attacks of 1918.

Artillery dominated the battle, and was by far the greatest killer. It was used on a massive scale. In White Heat, specifically devoted to ‘the new warfare 1914–18’, John Terraine wrote about Verdun: ‘The statistics of the artillery war… are staggering. For their initial attack the Germans brought up 2,500,000 shells, using for the purpose some 1,300 trains. By June the artillery on both sides had grown to about 2,000 guns, and it was calculated that in just over four months of battle 24 million shells had been pumped into this stretch of dedicated ground.’ But artillery on both sides was often massively inefficient and wasteful. Heavy guns were not always the super-weapons they were thought to be; some had to be re-bored after firing 50 to 100 rounds; moving them meant rendering them ineffective for many hours at a time. There were innumerable instances on both sides of casualties by ‘friendly fire’; thus the infantry could find themselves hating their own apparently careless or uncaring gunners more than the enemy. Communications were primitive and vulnerable; telephone wires were constantly being cut by shell fire; runners with vital messages often took hours to get through or never got through at all. Any assumption that one might have of cool Teutonic precision or brilliant Gallic inspiration and dash should be put to one side. This was for much of its time a monster of a battle in which gallantry had little meaning and glory was only in the eye of the distant beholder.

The cost in human terms was enormous. Estimates vary but one much quoted is that total French casualties, dead, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner, were around 377,000 while the Germans lost about 337,000, a very high proportion of these figures being fatalites.

The concept and conduct of the battle attracts few approving nods from military historians. Summing up the campaign Peter Simkins has written:

The French Army had come through major crises in February and June and had saved Verdun, but nobody had gained any strategic advantage from the bloodletting, certainly not the Germans. Falkenhayn’s fatal irresolution and failure to match the means to the end had merely resulted in the German Army being bled white along with the French. Neither side ever fully recovered from the hell of Verdun before the end of the war.

Adding together the casualty figures as given above, and noting some of the collateral consequences of the battle, Richard Holmes has commented:

700,000 and for 1916 alone: rather more than half the casualties suffered by Britain and her Empire in the Second World War. Nine villages, which had stood on those uplands for a thousand years, were destroyed and never rebuilt. Woods and fields were so polluted by metal, high explosive and bodies that they were beyond cultivation. Declared zones rouges, red zones, they were cloaked in conifers and left to the recuperative powers of nature.

A distinguished scholar of the German Army in the twentieth century, Michael Geyer, has written:

More than any other battle, Verdun showed the military impasse of World War I, the complete disjuncture between strategy, battle design and tactics, and the inability to use the modern means of war. But most of all, it showed, at horrendous costs, the impasse of professional strategies.

Alistair Horne has been honourably referred to, and frequently quoted, in these pages, so that it is perhaps superfluous to include him in this brief gathering of opinions. But there is one passage towards the end of his book which sums up so much so pertinently that it virtually demands its place, if offered here in slightly abbreviated form:

Who ‘won’ the Battle of Verdun? Few campaigns have had more written about them (not a little of it bombastic nonsense) and accounts vary widely. The volumes of the Reich Archives dealing with it are appropriately entitled ‘The Tragedy of Verdun’, while to a whole generation of French writers it represented the summit of ‘La Gloire’…

[I]t suffices to say that it was a desperate tragedy for both nations. Among the century’s great battles, Verdun has been bracketed with Stalingrad. However, Antony Beevor, in his book Stalingrad, gives that battle the palm, stating: ‘In its way, the fighting in Stalingrad was even more terrifying than the impersonal slaughter at Verdun. The close-quarter combat in ruined buildings, bunkers, cellars and sewers was soon dubbed “Rattenkrieg” by German soldiers. It possessed a savage intimacy which appalled the generals, who felt that they were rapidly losing control over events.’ (One might add that, in common with the whole Russo–German war of 1941–45, Stalingrad was conducted with a racial-cum-ideological viciousness which would have appalled both sides at Verdun.) But if there was no ‘savage intimacy’, there was at Verdun a kind of terrifying loneliness. As the French historian Marc Ferro has written, ‘Each unit was on its own, often bombarded by its own guns, and told only to “hold on”… The only certainty was death – for one, or other, or all.’ It could be said that this was not so much a battle between victors and vanquished – such terms rapidly lost all meaning in so attritional an encounter – as between victims.

Robert Georges Nivelle (October 15, 1856 – March 22, 1924) was a French artillery officer who was briefly commander-in-chief of French forces during World War I.

Born in Tulle, France, to a French father and English mother, Nivelle graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1878 and served in Indochina, Algeria, and China as an artillery officer. He rose in rank from sub-lieutenant in 1878 to regimental colonel in December 1913, which he held at the start of the war in August 1914. A gifted artilleryman, the intense fire he was able to maintain played a key part in stopping German attacks during the Alsace Offensive early in the war, the First Battle of the Marne (September 5–10, 1914) – where he earned fame by moving his artillery regiment through an infantry regiment on the verge of breaking and opening fire on the Germans at point-blank range – and the First Battle of the Aisne (September 15–18, 1914). He received a promotion to Brigadier-General and command of a brigade in October 1914, then of a division early in 1915, then of a corps at the end of that year. A leading subordinate to Philippe Pétain at Verdun in 1916, he succeeded Pétain in command of the Second Army during the battle, and later in the year succeeded in recapturing Douaumont and other forts at Verdun.

Nivelle was an exponent of aggressive tactics, arguing that by using a creeping barrage he could end the war on the Western Front. His ideas were popular with the besieged Aristide Briand, the French Prime Minister and in December 13, 1916 Nivelle was promoted over the heads of the Army Group Commanders to replace Joseph Joffre as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. He devised a grand plan to win the war in 1917. This involved a British attack to draw in German reserves, followed by a massive general French attack aimed at the Arras–Soissons–Reims salient. However, Nivelle was willing to talk about his plan to anyone who asked, including journalists, while the Germans captured copies of the battle plan left in French trenches; consequently the element of surprise was lost. When launched in April 1917, the Aisne campaign (Nivelle Offensive) was a failure. He continued with the strategy until the French Army began to mutiny.

Nivelle was replaced in early May by Philippe Pétain, who restored the fighting capacity of the French forces. Nivelle was reassigned to North Africa in December 1917, where he spent the rest of his military career before retiring in 1921.

Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin, (1866–1925)

French Army general. Born on July 6, 1866, in Sarrebourg in the Moselle Department of Lorraine, Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin was expelled with his family following the German occupation as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. In 1885 Mangin joined the 77th Infantry Regiment and entered L’École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr the next year, graduating in 1888. Most of his early military career was spent in the French colonies. Known as an aggressive commander, Mangin was three times wounded in colonial service. His first assignment was in Senegal, and he led the advance guard of Colonel Jean Baptiste Marchand’s expedition across Africa to the Nile River at Fashoda in 1898. Admitted to the École de Guerre in 1899, Mangin was assigned to Tonkin in northern French Indochina before returning to Senegal during 1906–1908. Promoted to colonel in 1910, he carried out military operations in French West Africa

While in Africa, Mangin found time to write a book, La Force noire, which he published in 1912. In it he suggested that France could offset its population imbalance with Germany by utilizing troops from its African possessions. Such troops could be employed effectively in North Africa, freeing up French forces there. Mangin also believed that native soldiers, once they had completed their service, would form the nucleus of a new colonial elite who would be loyal to France. That same year the French Chamber of Deputies authorized the raising of several battalions of Senegalese troops. Under Mangin’s command, they carried out military operations in Morocco, seizing Marrakech in October 1912.

Returning to metropolitan France, Mangin was promoted to général de brigade on August 8, 1913. At age 47, he was the youngest general in the French Army. On August 2, 1914, Mangin took command of the 8th Brigade. Entering Belgium, he fought in the earliest battles of World War I near Charleroi. On August 31 he received command of the 5th Infantry Division. Mangin took part in the Battle of the Marne (September 5–12) and in the First Battle of Artois (December 17, 1914–January 4, 1915). He was promoted to général de division in early 1915. Mangin greatly admired African troops and used them whenever possible in his attacks.

Mangin was one of France’s more skillful commanders. His hallmarks were careful coordination and attacks launched on time and in an aggressive fashion. Utterly fearless, Mangin often inspected his troops at the front and was wounded several times. He was equally reckless with the lives of his men, winning him the sobriquet “The Butcher.”

In the spring of 1916, Mangin was ordered to Verdun with his 5th Infantry Division of Général de Division Robert Nivelle’s III Corps. Mangin’s division succeeded in recapturing from the Germans Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux, and Mangin soon became Nivelle’s favorite commander. Appointed commander of the Sixth Army, Mangin led it in the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive in Champagne (April 16–May 9, 1917) but failed to capture his objective of the Chemin des Dames. Attempting to shift the blame for his own failure, Nivelle relieved Mangin in May.

Absolved of any fault by a board chaired by Général de Division Ferdinand Foch, Mangin in December 1917 commanded VI Corps, the reserve of the First Army, which was in March 1918 assigned to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force. On June 16, 1918, he received command of the Tenth Army during the Second Battle of the Marne (June 15–18) and led it with distinction in helping to halt the last attacks of the German Ludendorff Offensive (March 21–June 18).

Foch then selected Mangin to launch the first counterattack. Mangin’s forces then drove toward Laon, which he seized in October. As part of Army Group East, Mangin’s Tenth Army was preparing for a major offensive in Lorraine in early November, but the armistice of November 11, 1918, superseded. The Tenth Army entered Metz (November 19) and then reached the Rhine at Mainz (December 11) and occupied the Rhineland.

Following the war, Mangin commanded French occupation troops in Lorraine in the Metz area. In this capacity, he supported Rhineland autonomy movements in an effort to detach that area from the rest of Germany. Made a member of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre (War Council), his last assignment, which he retained until his death, was the inspectorate of French colonial troops. He also wrote his recollections, Comment finit la guerre (1920). In 1921 he carried out a diplomatic mission to South America. Mangin died in Paris on May 12, 1925.