The Great Inca Rebellion – The Siege of Cuzco I

As always, the Spaniards’ first reaction to a disturbance with the Indians was to try to seize the initiative. Hernando sent his brother Juan with seventy cavalrymen – virtually every horse then in Cuzco – to disperse the Indians in the Yucay valley. While riding across the plateau of rolling grassy hills that separates the valley of Cuzco from that of Yucay, they met the two Spaniards who had been with Manco. These had been beguiled by him into leaving when he continued towards Lares, and they were now returning in all innocence to Cuzco, unaware of any native rebellion. The first sight of the magnitude of the opposition came when Pizarro’s men appeared at the brow of the plateau and looked down at the beautiful valley beneath them. This is one of the loveliest views in the Andes; the river below winds across the broad flat floor of the valley, whose rocky sides rise as abruptly as the fantastic scenery in the background of a sixteenth-century painting. The slopes are tightly contoured with neat lines of Inca terraces, and above them, in the distance, the snowy peaks of the Calca and Paucartambo hills shine brilliantly in the thin air. But now the valley was filled with native troops, Manco’s own levies from the area around Cuzco. The Spaniards had to fight their way across the river, swimming their horses. The Indians retreated on to the slopes and allowed the cavalry to occupy Calca, which they found full of a great treasure of gold, silver, native women and baggage. They occupied the town for three or four days, with the natives harassing the sentries at night but making no other attempt to drive them out. The reason for this was appreciated only when a horseman from Hernando Pizarro galloped in to recall the cavalry with all possible speed; for irresistible hordes of native troops were massing on all the hills around Cuzco itself. The cavalry force was harassed continuously on the return journey, but succeeded in entering the city, to the relief of the remaining citizens.

‘As we returned we found many squadrons of warriors continuously arriving and camping in the steepest places around Cuzco to await the assembly of all [their men]. After they had all arrived, they camped on the plain as well as on the hills. So many troops came there that they covered the fields. By day they looked like a black carpet covering everything for half a league around the city of Cuzco, and by night there were so many fires that it resembled nothing less than a very clear sky filled with stars.’ This was one of the great moments of the Inca empire. With their genius for organisation, Manco’s commanders had succeeded in assembling the country’s fighting men and in arming, feeding and marching them to the investiture of the capital. All this had been done despite the fact that the empire’s communications and supply depots were disrupted, and without giving any warning to’ the astute and suspicious foreigners occupying the land. All the Spaniards were taken by surprise by the mobilisation at their gates, and were staggered by its size. Their estimates of the numbers opposing them ranged from 50,000 to 400,000, but the accepted figure by the majority of chroniclers and eyewitnesses was between 100,000 and 200,000.

The great colourful steam-roller of native levies closed in from every horizon around Cuzco. Titu Cusi wrote with pride that ‘Curiatao, Coyllas, Taipi and many other commanders entered the city from the Carmenca side … and sealed the gate with their men. Huaman-Quilcana and Curi-Hualpa entered on the Condesuyo side from the direction of Cachicachi and closed a great gap of over half a league. All were excellently equipped and in battle array. Llicllic and many other commanders entered on the Collasuyo side with an immense contingent, the largest group that took part in the siege. Anta-Aclla, Ronpa Yupanqui and many others entered on the Antisuyo side to complete the encirclement of the Spaniards.’

The native build-up around Cuzco continued for some weeks after the return of Juan Pizarro’s cavalry. The warriors had learned to respect Spanish cavalry on level ground, and they kept to the slopes. The royal general Inquill was in charge of the encircling forces, assisted by the high priest Villac Umu and a young commander Paucar Huaman. Manco maintained his headquarters at Calca.

Villac Umu pressed for an immediate attack, but Manco told him to wait until every last contingent had arrived and the attacking forces had become irresistible. He explained that it would do the Spaniards no harm to suffer confinement just as he had done: he himself would come to finish them off in due course. Villac Umu was distressed by the delay, and even Manco’s son criticised his father for it. But Manco was applying Napoleon’s dictum that the art of generalship is to come to battle with a force vastly superior to the enemy’s. He thought that his warriors’ only hope against the Spanish cavalry lay in overwhelming numbers. Villac Umu had to content himself with occupying Cuzco’s citadel, Sacsahuaman, and with destroying the irrigation canals to flood the fields around the city.

The Spaniards inside Cuzco were suffering just as much anxiety as Manco had hoped. There were only 190 Spaniards in the city, and of these only eighty were mounted. The entire burden of the fighting fell on the cavalry, for the ‘greater part of the infantry were thin and debilitated men’. Both sides agreed that a Spanish infantryman was inferior to his native counterpart, who was far more nimble at this high altitude. Hernando Pizarro divided the horsemen into three contingents commanded by Gabriel de Rojas, Hernán Ponce de León and his brother Gonzalo. He himself was Lieutenant-Governor, his brother Juan was corregidor, and Alonso Riquelme, the royal treasurer, represented the Crown.

At the outset, while the native forces were still massing, the Spaniards tried their tactic of charging out into the thick of the enemy. This met with far less success than usual. Many Indians were killed, but the crush of fighting men stopped the onrush of the horses, and once the Indians saw that the cavalry was thoroughly embroiled they turned on it with savage determination. A group of eight horsemen fighting around Hernando Pizarro saw that it was being surrounded and decided to retreat to the city. One man, Francisco Mejia, who was then alcalde or mayor of the city, was too slow. The Indians ‘blocked his horse and grabbed at him and the horse. They dragged them about a stone’s throw away from the other Spaniards, and cut the heads off [Mejia] and off his horse, which was a very handsome white horse. The Indians thus emerged from this first engagement with a distinct gain.’

This success against cavalry on level ground greatly emboldened the attackers. They moved closer to the city until they were camped right up against the houses. In the tradition of intertribal warfare, they tried to demoralise the enemy by jeering and shouting abuse and by ‘raising their bare legs at them to show how they despised them’. Such skirmishes took place every day, with great courage shown on either side but no appreciable gains.

Finally on Saturday, 6 May, the feast of St John-ante-Portam-Latinam, Manco’s men launched their main attack. They moved down the slope from the fortress and advanced along the steep, narrow lanes between Colcampata and the main square. Many of these alleys still end in long flights of steps between whitewashed houses and form one of the most picturesque corners of modern Cuzco. ‘The Indians were supporting one another most effectively, thinking that it was all over. They charged through the streets with the greatest determination and fought hand-to-hand with the Spaniards.’ They even succeeded in capturing the ancient enclosure of Cora Cora which overlooked the northern corner of the square. Hernando Pizarro appreciated its importance and had fortified it with a palisade the day before the Indian onslaught. But his infantry garrison was driven out by a dawn attack.

If the horse was the Spaniards’ most effective weapon, the sling was undoubtedly the Indians’. Its normal missile was a smooth stone about the size of a hen’s egg, but Enriquez de Guzman claimed that ‘they can hurl a huge stone with enough force to kill a horse. Its effect is almost as great as [a shot from] an arquebus. I have seen a stone shot from a sling break a sword in two when it was held in a man’s hand thirty yards away.’ In the attack on Cuzco the natives devised a deadly new use for their slingshots. They made the stones red-hot in their camp fires, wrapped them in cotton and then shot them at the thatched roofs of the city. The straw caught fire and was burning fiercely before the Spaniards could even understand how it was being done. ‘There was a strong wind that day, and as the roofs of the houses were thatch it seemed at one moment as if the city were one great sheet of flame. The Indians were shouting loudly and there was such a dense cloud of smoke that the men could neither hear nor see one another…. They were being pressed so hard by the Indians that they could scarcely defend themselves or come to grips with the enemy.’ ‘They set fire to the whole of Cuzco simultaneously and it all burned in one day, for the roofs were thatch. The smoke was so dense that the Spaniards almost suffocated: it caused them great suffering. They would never have survived had not one side of the square contained no houses and no roofs. Had the smoke and heat come at them from all sides they would have been in extreme difficulty, for both were very intense.’ Thus ended the Inca capital: stripped for Atahualpa’s ransom, ransacked by Spanish looters, and now burned by its own people.

From the captured bastion of Cora Cora the Indian slingers kept up a withering fire across the square. No Spaniard dared venture on to it. The besieged were now cornered in two buildings facing each other at the eastern end of the square. One was the great galpón or hall of Suntur Huasi, on the site of the present cathedral, and the other was Hatun Cancha, ‘the large enclosure’, where many of the conquistadores had their plots. Hernando Pizarro was in charge of one of these structures and Hernán Ponce de León of the other. No one dared to move out of them. ‘The barrage of slingshot stones coming in through the gateways was so great that it seemed like dense hail, at a time when the heavens are hailing furiously.’ ‘The city continued to burn on that and the following day. The Indian warriors became confident at the thought that the Spaniards were no longer in a position to defend themselves.’

By extraordinary chance, the thatched roof of Suntur Huasi itself did not catch fire. An incendiary projectile landed on the roof. Pedro Pizarro said that he and many others saw this happen: the roof started to burn and then went out. Titu Cusi claimed that the Spaniards had Negroes stationed on the roof to extinguish the flames. But to other Spaniards it seemed a miracle, and by the end of the century it became established as such. The seventeenth-century writer Fernando Montesinos said that the Virgin Mary appeared in a blue cloak to extinguish the flames with white blankets, while St Michael was by her side fighting off devils. This miraculous scene became a favourite subject for religious paintings and alabaster groups, and a church called the Triunfo was built to commemorate this extraordinary escape.

The Spaniards were becoming desperate. Even Manco’s son Titu Cusi felt a touch of pity for these conquerors: ‘They secretly feared that those were to be the last days of their lives. They could see no hope of relief from any direction, and did not know what to do.’ ‘The Spaniards were extremely frightened, because there were so many Indians and so few of them.’ ‘After six days of this strenuous work and danger the enemy had captured almost all the city. The Spaniards now held only the main square and a few houses around it. Many ordinary people were showing signs of exhaustion. They advised Hernando Pizarro to abandon the city and look for some way to save their lives.’ There were frequent consultations among the weary defenders. There was desperate talk of trying to break the encirclement and reach the coast via Arequipa, to the south. Others thought that they should try to survive inside Hatun Cancha, which had only one entrance. But the leaders decided that the only thing to do was to fight back, and if necessary die fighting.

In the confused street fighting the natives were resourceful and ingenious. They evolved a series of tactics to contain and harass their terrible adversaries; but they could not produce a weapon that could kill a mounted, armoured Spanish horseman. Teams of Indians dug channels to divert Cuzco’s rivers into the fields around the city, so that the horses would slip and sink into the resulting mire. Other natives dug pits and small holes to trip the horses when they ventured on to the agricultural terraces. The besiegers consolidated their advance into the city by erecting barricades in the streets: wicker screens with small openings through which the nimble warriors could advance to attack. Hernando Pizarro decided that these must be destroyed. Pedro del Barco, Diego Méndez and Francisco de Villacastín led a detachment of Spanish infantry and fifty Cañari auxiliaries in a night attack on the barricades. Horsemen covered their flanks while they worked, but the natives maintained a steady barrage from the adjoining roofs.

The flat walls of Cuzco’s houses were exposed when the thatch was burned off in the first great conflagration. The natives found that they could run along the tops of the walls, out of reach of the horsemen charging below. Pedro Pizarro recalled an episode when Alonso de Toro was leading a group of horsemen up one of the streets towards the fortress. The natives opened fire with a bombardment of stones and adobe bricks. Some Spaniards were thrown from their horses and half buried in the rubble of a wall overturned by the natives. The Spaniards were only dragged out by some Indian auxiliaries.

With inventiveness born of desperation, the natives evolved another weapon against the Christians’ horses. This was the ayllu, or bolas: three stones tied to the ends of connected lengths of llama tendons. The twirling missile tangled itself around the horses’ legs with deadly effect. The natives brought down ‘most of the horses with this device, leaving almost no one to fight. They also entangled the riders with these cords.’ Spanish infantry had to run up to disengage the helpless cavalrymen, hacking the tough cords with great difficulty.

The besieged Spaniards survived the burning roofs, sling-shots, bolas and missiles of the Inca armies. They tried to counter each new native device. As well as destroying the street barricades, Spanish working parties smashed the flumes along which the natives were diverting the streams. Others tried to dismantle agricultural terraces so that the horses could ride up them, and they filled in the pits and traps dug by the attackers. They even began to recapture parts of the city. A force of Spanish infantry recaptured the redoubt of Cora Cora after a hard battle. In another engagement some cavalry fought its way under a hail of missiles to a square at the edge of the city, where another sharp fight took place.

The brunt of the Indian attacks came down the steep hillside below Sacsahuaman and on to the spur that forms the central part of Cuzco. Villac Umu and the other besieging generals had established their headquarters within the mighty fortress. Indians attacking from it could penetrate the heart of Cuzco without having to cross the dangerous level ground on other sides of the city. Hernando Pizarro and the besieged Spaniards deeply regretted their failure to garrison this fortress. They realised that as long as it remained in enemy hands their position in the roofless buildings of the city was untenable. They decided that Sacsahuaman must be recaptured at any cost.

Sacsahuaman – local guides have learned that they can earn a larger tip by calling it ‘saxy woman’ – lies immediately above Cuzco. But the cliff above Carmenca is so steep that the fortress needed only one curtain wall on the city side. Its main defences face away from Cuzco, beyond the brow of the cliff, where the ground slopes away to a small grassy plateau. On that side the top of the cliff is defended by three massive terrace walls. They rise above one another in forbidding grey steps, casing the hillside like the flanks of an armoured dreadnought. The three terraces are built in zigzags like the teeth of great saws, four hundred yards long, with no fewer than twenty-two salient and re-entrant angles on each level. Anyone trying to scale them would have to expose a flank to the defenders. The regular diagonal shadows thrown by these indentations add to the beauty of the terraces. But the feature that makes them so amazing is the quality of the masonry and the size of some of the blocks of stone. As with most Inca terrace walls, this is polygonal masonry: the great stones interlock in a complex and intriguing pattern. The three walls now rise for almost fifty feet, and excavations by the archaeologist Luis Valcárcel showed that ten feet more were once exposed. The largest boulders are on the lowest terrace. One great stone has a height of twenty-eight feet and is calculated to weigh 361 metric tons, which makes it one of the largest blocks ever incorporated into any structure. All this leaves an impression of masterful strength and serene invincibility. In their awe, the sixteenth-century chroniclers soon exhausted the mighty buildings of Spain with which to compare Sacsahuaman.

The ninth Inca, Pachacuti, started the fortress and his successors continued the work, recruiting the many thousands of men needed to manhandle the great stones into place. Sacsahuaman was intended to be more than a simple military fortress. Virtually the entire population of the unwalled city of Cuzco could have retreated within it during a crisis. At the time of Manco’s siege the crest of the hill behind the terrace walls was covered in buildings. Valcárcel’s excavations – made to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the Conquest – revealed the foundations of the chief structures within Sacsahuaman. These were dominated by three great towers. The first tower, called Muyu Marca, was described by Garcilaso as having been round and containing a water cistern fed by underground channels. The excavations confirmed this description: its foundations consisted of three concentric circles of wall of which the outer was seventy-five feet in diameter. The main tower, Salla Marca, stood on a rectangular base, sixty-five feet long. Pedro Sancho inspected this tower in 1534 and described it as consisting of five storeys stepped inwards. Such height would have made it the Incas’ tallest hollow structure, comparable to the so-called skyscrapers of the pre-Inca Yarivilca culture along the upper Maranon. It was built of coursed rectangular ashlars, and contained a warren of small chambers, the quarters of the garrison. Even the conscientious Sancho admitted that’ the fortress has too many rooms and towers for one person to visit them all’. He estimated that it could comfortably house a garrison of five thousand Spaniards. Garcilaso de la Vega remembered playing in the labyrinth of its corbelled subterranean galleries during his boyhood in Cuzco. He felt that the fortress of Sacsahuaman could rank among the wonders of the world – and suspected that the devil must have had a hand in its extraordinary construction.

The Great Inca Rebellion – The Siege of Cuzco II

Manco Inca and other 3 soldiers with Spanish weapons during the rebellion.

The beleaguered Spaniards now decided that their immediate survival depended on the recapture of the fortress on the cliff above them. According to Murua, Manco’s relative and rival Pascac, who had sided with the Spaniards, gave advice about the plan of attack. It was decided that Juan Pizarro would lead fifty horsemen – the greater part of the Spaniards’ cavalry-in a desperate attempt to break through the besiegers and attack their fortress. Observers from the Indian side remembered the scene as follows:’ They spent the whole of that night on their knees and with their hands clasped [in prayer] at their mouths – for many Indians saw them. Even those on guard in the square did the same, as did many Indians who were on their side and had accompanied them from Cajamarca. On the following morning, very early, they all emerged from the church [Suntur Huasi] and mounted their horses as if they were going to fight. They started to look from side to side. While they were looking about in this way, they suddenly put spurs to their horses and at full gallop, despite the enemy, broke through the opening which had been sealed like a wall, and charged off up the hillside at breakneck speed.’ They broke through the northern Chinchaysuyo contingent under the generals Curiatao and Pusca. Juan Pizarro’s horsemen then galloped up the Jauja road, climbing the hill through Carmenca. They somehow broke and fought their way through the native barricades. Pedro Pizarro was in that contingent and recalled the dangerous ride, zigzagging up the hillside. The Indians had mined the road with pits, and the Spaniards’ native auxiliaries had to fill these in with adobes while the horsemen waited under fire from the hillside. But the Spaniards eventually struggled up on to the plateau and rode off to the north-west. The natives thought that they were making a dash for freedom, and sent runners across country to order the destruction of the Apurímac suspension bridge. But at the village of Jicatica the horsemen left the road and wheeled to the right, fought through the gullies behind the hills of Queancalla and Zenca, and reached the level plain below the terraces of Sacsahuaman. Only by this broad flanking movement were the Spaniards able to avoid the mass of obstacles that the Indians had erected on the direct routes between the city and its fortress.

The Indians had also used the few weeks since the start of the siege to defend the level ‘parade ground’ beyond Sacsahuaman with an earth barrier that the Spaniards described as a barbican. Gonzalo Pizarro and Hernán Ponce de León led one troop in repeated attacks on these outer enclosures. Some of the horses were wounded, and two Spaniards were thrown from their mounts and almost captured in the maze of rocky outcrops. ‘It was a moment when much was at stake.’ Juan Pizarro therefore attacked with all his men in support of his brother. Together they succeeded in forcing the barricades and riding into the space before the massive terrace walls. Whenever the Spaniards approached these they were greeted by a withering fire of slingshots and javelins. One of Juan Pizarro’s pages was killed by a heavy stone. It was late afternoon, and the attackers were exhausted by the day’s fierce fighting. But Juan Pizarro attempted one last charge, a frontal attack on the main gate into the fortress. This gate was defended by side walls projecting on either side, and the natives had dug a defensive pit between them. The passage leading to the gate was crowded with Indians defending the entrance or attempting to retreat from the barbican into the main fortress.

Juan Pizarro had been struck on the jaw during the previous day’s fighting in Cuzco and was unable to wear his steel helmet. As he charged towards the gate in the setting sun, he was struck on the head by a stone hurled from the salient walls. It was a mortal blow. The Governor’s younger brother, corregidor of Cuzco and tormentor of Inca Manco, was carried down to Cuzco that night in great secrecy, to prevent the natives learning of their success. He lived long enough to dictate a will, on 16 May 1536, ‘being sick in body but sound of mind’. He made his younger brother Gonzalo heir to his vast fortune, in the hope that he would found an entail, and left bequests to religious foundations and to the poor in Panama and his birthplace Trujillo. He made no mention of the native siege, and left nothing to the Indian woman from whom ‘I have received services’ and ‘who has given birth to a girl whom I do not recognise as my daughter.’ Francisco de Pancorvo recalled that ‘they buried him by night so that the Indians should not know he was dead, for he was a very brave man and the Indians were very frightened of him. But although the death of Juan Pizarro was [supposed to be] a secret, the Indians used to say “Now that Juan Pizarro is dead” just as one would say “Now that the brave are dead”. And he was indeed dead.’ Alonso Enríquez de Guzman gave a more materialistic epitaph: ‘They killed our Captain Juan Pizarro, a brother of the Governor and a young man of twenty-five who possessed a fortune of 200,000 ducats.’

On the following day the natives counter-attacked repeatedly. Large numbers of warriors tried to dislodge Gonzalo Pizarro from the hillock opposite the terraces of Sacsahuaman. ‘There was terrible confusion. Everyone was shouting and they were all entangled together, fighting for the hilltop the Spaniards had won. It looked as though the whole world was up there grappling in close combat.’ Hernando Pizarro sent twelve of his remaining horsemen up to join the critical battle – to the dismay of the few Spaniards left in Cuzco. Manco Inca sent five thousand reinforcements, and ‘the Spaniards were in a very tight situation with their arrival, for the Indians were fresh and attacked with determination.’ Below ‘in the city, the Indians mounted such a fierce attack that the Spaniards thought themselves lost a thousand times’.

But the Spaniards were about to apply European methods of siege warfare: throughout the day they had been making scaling ladders. As night fell, Hernando Pizarro himself led an infantry force to the top of the hill. Using the scaling ladders in a night assault, the Spaniards succeeded in taking the mighty terrace walls of the fortress. The natives retreated into the complex of buildings and the three great towers.

There were two individual acts of great bravery during this final stage of the assault. On the Spanish side Hernán’Sánchez of Badajoz, one of the twelve brought up by Hernando Pizarro as additional reinforcements, performed feats of prodigious panache worthy of a silent-screen hero. He climbed one of the scaling ladders under a hail of stones which he parried with his buckler, and squeezed into a window of one of the buildings. He hurled himself at the Indians inside and sent them retreating up some stairs towards the roof. He now found himself at the foot of the highest tower. Fighting round its base he came upon a thick rope that had been left dangling from the top. Commending himself to God, he sheathed his sword and started clambering up, heaving up the rope with his hands and stepping off from the smooth Inca ashlars with his feet. Half way up the Indians threw a stone ‘as big as a wine jar’ down on him, but it simply glanced off the buckler he was wearing on his back. He threw himself into one of the higher levels of the tower, suddenly appearing in the midst of its startled defenders, showed himself to the other Spaniards and encouraged them to assault the other tower.

The battle for the terraces and buildings of Sacsahuaman was hard fought. ‘When dawn came, we spent the whole of that day and the next fighting the Indians who had retreated into the two tall towers. These could only be taken through thirst, when their water supply became exhausted.’ ‘They fought hard that day and throughout the night. When the following day dawned, the Indians on the inside began to weaken, for they had exhausted their entire store of stones and arrows.’ The native commanders, Paucar Huaman and the high priest Villac Umu, felt that there were too many defenders inside the citadel, whose supplies of food and water were rapidly being exhausted. ‘After dinner one evening, almost at the hour of vespers, they emerged from the fortress with great élan, attacked their enemies and broke through them. They rushed with their men down the slope towards Zapi and climbed to Carmenca.’ Escaping through the ravine of the Tullumayo, they hurried to Manco’s camp at Calca to plead for reinforcements. If the remaining two thousand defenders could hold Sacsahuaman, a native counter-attack might trap the Spaniards against its mighty walls.

Villac Umu left the defence of Sacsahuaman to an Inca noble, an orejón who had sworn to fight to the death against the Spaniards. This officer now rallied the defenders almost single-handed, performing feats of bravery ‘worthy of any Roman’. ‘The orejón strode about like a lion from side to side of the tower on its topmost level. He repulsed any Spaniards who tried to mount with scaling ladders. And he killed any Indians who tried to surrender. He smashed their heads with the battle-axe he was carrying and hurled them from the top of the tower.’ Alone of the defenders, he possessed European steel weapons that made him the match of the attackers in hand-to-hand fighting. ‘He carried a buckler on his arm, a sword in one hand and a battle-axe in the shield hand, and wore a Spanish morrión helmet on his head.’ ‘Whenever his men told him that a Spaniard was climbing up somewhere, he rushed upon him like a lion with the sword in his hand and the shield on his arm.’ ‘He received two arrow wounds but ignored them as if he had not been touched.’ Hernando Pizarro arranged for the towers to be attacked simultaneously by three or four scaling ladders. But he ordered that the brave orejón should be captured alive. The Spaniards pressed home their attack, assisted by large contingents of native auxiliaries. As Manco’s son wrote, ‘the battle was a bloody affair for both sides, because of the many natives who were supporting the Spaniards. Among these were two of my father’s brothers called Inquill and Huaspar with many of their followers, and many Chachapoyas and Cañari Indians.’ As the native resistance crumbled, the orejón hurled his weapons down on to the attackers in a frenzy of despair. He grabbed handfuls of earth, stuffed them into his mouth and scoured his face in anguish, then covered his head with his cloak and leaped to his death from the top of the fortress, in fulfilment of his pledge to the Inca.

‘With his death the remainder of the Indians gave way, so that Hernando Pizarro and all his men were able to enter. They put all those inside the fortress to the sword-there were 1,500 of them.’ Many others flung themselves from the walls. ‘Since these were high the men who fell first died. But some of those who fell later survived because they landed on top of a great heap of dead men.’ The mass of corpses lay unburied, a prey for vultures and giant condors. The coat of arms of the city of Cuzco, granted in 1540, had ‘an orle of eight condors, which are great birds like vultures that exist in the province of Peru, in memory of the fact that when the castle was taken these birds descended to eat the natives who had died in it’.

Hernando Pizarro immediately garrisoned Sacsahuaman with a force of fifty foot-soldiers supported by Cañari auxiliaries. Pots of water and food were hurried up from the city. The high priest Villac Umu returned with reinforcements, just too late to save the citadel. He counter-attacked vigorously, and the battle for Sacsahuaman continued fiercely for three more days, but the Spaniards were not dislodged, and the battle was won by the end of May.

Both sides appreciated that the recapture of Sacsahuaman could be a turning point in the siege. The natives now had no secure base from which to invest the city, and they abandoned some of the outlying districts they had occupied. When the counter-attack on Sacsahuaman failed, the Spaniards advanced out of the citadel and pursued the demoralised natives as far as Calca. Manco and his military commanders could not understand why their vast levies had failed to capture Cuzco. His son Titu Cusi imagined a dialogue between the Inca and his commanders. Manco:’ You have disappointed me. There were so many of you and so few of them, and yet they have eluded your grasp.’ To which the generals replied, ‘We are so ashamed that we dare not look you in the face…. We do not know the reason, except that it was our mistake not to have attacked in time and yours for not giving us permission to do so.’

The generals might possibly have been right. Manco’s insistence on waiting for the entire army to assemble meant that the Indians lost the element of surprise they had preserved so brilliantly during the early mobilisation. It also meant that the professional commanders could not attack while the Spaniards had sent much of their best cavalry to investigate the Yucay valley. The hordes of native militia did not necessarily add much to the effectiveness of the native army. But Manco had clearly felt that as long as his men suffered a terrible handicap in weapons, armour and mobility, their only hope of defeating the Spaniards was by weight of numbers. The heavy, determined fighting of the first month of the siege showed that the Spaniards had no monopoly of personal bravery. Once again, it was their crushing superiority in hand-to-hand fighting and the mobility of their horses that won the day. The only arms in which the natives had parity were projectiles – slingshots, arrows, javelins and bolas – and prepared defences such as breastworks, terraces, flooding and pits. But projectiles and defences rarely succeeded in killing an armoured Spaniard, and the siege of Cuzco was a fight to the death.

Manco could also be criticised for not directing the attack on Cuzco in person. He apparently remained at his headquarters at Calca throughout the critical first month of the siege. He was using his authority and energies to effect the almost impossible feat of a simultaneous uprising throughout Peru, together with the feeding and supply of an enormous army. But the Inca’s presence was needed at Cuzco. Although there were plenty of imposing fighting men in the various contingents, the army lacked the inspiration of a leader of the stature of Chalcuchima, Quisquis or Rumiñavi.

The fall of Sacsahuaman at the end of May was by no means the end of the siege. Manco’s great army remained in close investiture of the city for a further three months. The Spaniards soon learned that the native attacks ceased for religious celebrations at every new moon. They took full advantage of each lull to destroy roofless houses, fill in enemy pits, and repair their own defences. There was fighting throughout this period, with great bravery displayed on either side.

One episode will illustrate the typical daily skirmishes. Pedro Pizarro was on guard duty with two other horsemen on one of the large agricultural terraces at the edge of Cuzco. At midday his commander, Hernán Ponce de León, came out with food and asked Pedro Pizarro to undertake another tour of duty as he had no one else to send. Pizarro duly grabbed some mouthfuls of food and rode out to another terrace to join Diego Maldonado, Juan Clemente and Francisco de la Puente on guard.

While they were chatting together, some Indian warriors approached. Maldonado rode off after them. But he had failed to see some pits the natives had prepared, and his horse fell into one. Pedro Pizarro dashed off against the Indians, avoiding the pits, and gave Maldonado and his horse, both badly injured, a chance to return to Cuzco. The Indians re-appeared to taunt the three remaining horsemen. Pizarro suggested ‘Come on, let’s drive these Indians away and try to catch some of them. Their pits are now behind us.’ The three charged off. His two companions turned half way along the terrace, and returned to their post, but Pizarro galloped on ‘impetuously lancing Indians’. At the end of the terrace the natives had prepared small holes to catch the horses’ hooves. When he tried to wheel, Pizarro’s horse caught its leg and threw him. One Indian rushed up and started to lead off the horse, but Pizarro got to his feet, went after the man and killed him with a thrust through the chest. The horse bolted, running off to join the other Spaniards. Pizarro now defended himself with his shield and sword, holding off any Indians who drew near. His companions saw his riderless horse and hurried to help him. They charged through the Indians, ‘caught me between their horses, told me to grab the stirrups, and took off at full speed for some distance. But there were so many Indians crowding around that it was useless. Wearied from all my armour and from fighting, I could not go on running. I shouted to my companions to stop as I was being throttled. I preferred to die fighting than be choked to death. So I stopped and turned to fight the Indians, and the two on their horses did the same. We could not drive off the Indians, who had become very bold at the thought that they had taken me prisoner. They all gave a great shout from every side, which was their normal practice when they captured a Spaniard or a horse. Gabriel de Rojas, who was returning to his quarters with ten horsemen, heard this shout and looked in the direction of the disturbance and the fighting. He hurried there with his men, and I was saved by his arrival, although badly wounded by the stone and spear blows inflicted by the Indians. I and my horse were saved in this way, with the help of our Lord God who gave me strength to fight and to endure the strain.’

Gabriel de Rojas received an arrow wound in one of these skirmishes: it went through his nose as far as his palate. Garcia Martin had his eye knocked out by a stone. One Cisneros dismounted, and the Indians caught him and cut off his hands and feet. ‘I can bear witness’, wrote Alonso Enriquez de Guzman, ‘ that this was the most dreadful and cruel war in the world. For between Christians and Moors there is some fellow-feeling, and it is in the interests of both sides to spare those they take alive because of their ransoms. But in this Indian war there is no such feeling on either side. They give each other the cruellest deaths they can imagine.’ Cieza de Leon echoed this. The war was ‘fierce and horrible. Some Spaniards tell that a great many Indians were burned and impaled…. But God save us from the fury of the Indians, which is something to be feared when they can give vent to it!’ The natives had no monopoly of cruelty. Hernando Pizarro ordered his men to kill any women they caught during the fighting. The idea was to deprive the fighting men of the women who did so much to serve and carry for them. ‘This was done from then onwards, and the stratagem worked admirably and caused much terror. The Indians feared to lose their wives, and the latter feared to die.’ This war on the women was thought to have been one of the chief reasons for the slackening of the siege in August 1536. On one sortie Gonzalo Pizarro encountered a contingent from the Chinchaysuyo and captured two hundred of them. ‘The right hands were cut off all these men in the middle of the square. They were then released so that they would go off. This acted as a dreadful warning to the rest.’

Such tactics added to the demoralisation of Manco’s army. The vast majority of the horde that massed on the hills around Cuzco were ordinary Indian farmers with their wives and camp followers – with few exceptions a thoroughly militia army, most of whose men had received only the rudimentary arms drill that was part of the upbringing of every Inca subject. Only part of this rabble was militarily effective, although the entire mass had to be fed. By August the farmers began drifting away to sow their crops. Their departure added to the attrition of heavy losses in every battle against the Spaniards. Weight of numbers was Manco’s only effective strategy, so the reduction of his great army meant that further operations against Cuzco might have to wait until the following year. But Cuzco was only one theatre of the national uprising. In other areas the natives were far more successful.

The Mareth Line

Infantry bunker of the Mareth Line

A line from the Book of Job was among Bernard Law Montgomery favorites: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” He was a master of organization and training, of the set battle, of the theatrics of command. “Kill Germans, even padres—one per week and two on Sundays,” he told his soldiers. Not a man among the 200,000 in Eighth Army doubted that he was their leader, or that he would be stingy in spending their lives. That was something. A majority of his forty-three infantry battalions came from Commonwealth or allied armies, and he had enough political moxie to avoid prodigality with other nations’ troops. After taking command in Egypt in mid-August 1942 under Alexander’s indulgent supervision, Montgomery had whipped Rommel first at Alam Halfa, then a second, decisive time at El Alamein. That British attack on October 23, with more than a thousand tanks, cracked the much weaker Axis defenders across a forty-mile front. “The sheer weight of British resources made up for all blunders,” one account noted. Twelve days later, Rommel was in the full retreat that had led to southern Tunisia. Until Alamein, the British Army had been mostly winless; his victory in Egypt gave new life to Churchill’s government and to empire, at a cost of 13,560 British casualties but with more than twice as many exacted from his enemies. Church bells had pealed in Britain for the first time in three years. Fan letters arrived at Montgomery’s bivouac by the thousands, including some marriage proposals, and soldiers rushed to glimpse his passing car as if he were a film star, which now he was. “We all trust him to win,” one brigadier said. As a redeeming virtue, that too was something.

And yet. Sparks flew up around Montgomery. He was puerile, petty, and egocentric, bereft of irony, humility, and a sense of proportion. It would not suffice for him to succeed; others must fail. “If he admitted to an error, it was always minor, and served, like a touch of black in a color scheme, to throw up his general infallibility,” the historian Correlli Barnett would write after the war. Acknowledging the “chaos of his temperament,” his biographer Ronald Lewin described

a kindliness and intermittent humanity marred by ruthlessness, intolerance, and sheer lack of empathy; a marvelous capacity for ignoring the inessential, combined with a purblind insensitivity about the obvious; a deep but unsophisticated Christianity; a panache, a burning ambition, above all an individuality—such were the gifts which both good and bad fairies brought to Montgomery’s cradle.

He disdained the French—“quite useless except to guard aerodromes”—and especially the Americans, to whom he would be miserably yoked for the duration of the war. Montgomery dismissed Eisenhower, whom he had met in Britain just long enough to rebuke for lighting a cigarette, in four words: “Good chap, no soldier!” After their second meeting, soon to occur near Mareth, he would embroider his assessment of the commander-in-chief in a letter to Brooke: “He knows nothing whatever about how to make war or to fight battles; he should be kept right away from all that business if we want to win this war.” Before ever seeing the U.S. Army, he proclaimed that “the real trouble with the Americans is that the soldiers won’t fight. They haven’t got the light of battle in their eyes.”

Montgomery was perhaps most controversial among his own countrymen. He deemed Anderson “quite unfit to command an army.” First Army as a whole was worthless. “The party in Tunisia is a complete dog’s-breakfast,” he declared, “and there is an absence of good chaps over there.” He quipped that he intended to “drive the Germans and the First Army back into the sea.” A senior British general considered him “a thoroughly disloyal subordinate.”

Swaggering into Tunisia, Montgomery and his army were also thoroughly overconfident. He envisioned a grand sweep to Tunis, with more laurels and church bells awaiting him. “We will roll up the whole show from the south,” he told Alexander. Churchill tartly noted: “Indomitable in retreat, invincible in advance, insufferable in victory.” Yet the army lumbered like “a dray horse on a polo field,” in Correlli Barnett’s phrase, despite an enthusiasm for the amphetamine benzedrine, which was issued in tens of thousands of tablets “to all Eighth Army personnel” on Montgomery’s order.

Contrary to the Desert Victory mythology, pursuit after Alamein was hardly “relentless.” Rommel had escaped with the core of his army despite a fifteenfold British advantage in tanks, an artillery superiority of twelve to one, and an intimate knowledge of Axis weakness thanks to Ultra and other intelligence. Eighth Army had hugged the ancient Pirate Coast across Libya much closer than it hugged the retreating Axis. That lollygagging had allowed Rommel time to drub the Americans at Kasserine, return to Médenine for a drubbing of his own, then slip away again. “Once Monty had his reputation,” charged the British air marshal Arthur Coningham, “he would never risk it again.”

Now another chance to bag the enemy army obtained, thanks to a stand-or-die order from the Axis high command.

This time the last ditch was to be dug at Mareth, a line of fortifications stretching twenty-two miles between the Mediterranean and the rugged Matmata Hills in the south. For centuries, the narrow coastal gap had been the main portal into southern Tunisia for trans-Saharan caravans carrying slaves and ivory. It was said that traveling merchants seized by Berber highwaymen were forced to drink vats of hot water to flush out any gold they had swallowed.

Although Hitler had vacillated before ordering Mareth held, Kesselring—ignoring Rommel’s skepticism—considered the position a suitable place to begin converting Tunisia into “one vast fortress.” A retreat farther up the Tunisian coast, toward Gabès or Sfax, might allow the merger of Alexander’s two armies; it would also shorten Allied bombing runs to Tunis and Bizerte. Under orders issued by Comando Supremo on March 17, Mareth was “to be defended to the last.” With Rommel gone to Europe, Arnim would command the Axis army group that comprised his own Fifth Panzer Army in the north and Panzer Army Africa, renamed First Italian Army, in the south. The latter included remnants of the Afrika Korps among its 50,000 Germans and 35,000 Italians, and was commanded by General Giovanni Messe, who for the past two years had led the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia.

Built by the French in the 1930s to thwart Italian aggression from the east, the Mareth Line by an odd turn was now garrisoned by twenty-two Italian battalions backed and flanked—“corseted”—by ten German infantry battalions and the 15th Panzer Division with thirty-two functioning tanks. Wadis were scarped into antitank ditches—more than a hundred feet wide and twenty feet deep in places. Thick plaits of barbed wire screened the front, which was four miles deep and seeded with 170,000 mines. Twenty-five decrepit French blockhouses marked the line, some with concrete walls ten feet thick. The Axis flank to the west beyond the hills was protected by chotts—desert salt lakes—and was marked on French maps as terrain chaotique.

These engineering nuances were known to the Allies, of course. Anglo-American intelligence possessed not only the Mareth blueprints but also the former French commander, who, Beetle Smith reported, was indulged in Algiers with six aides—“one for himself and five for his wife. The five were always borrowing ham and bacon and sugar for Madame.” On March 12, Alexander offered his assessment of enemy intentions at Mareth in a lilting if ambiguous message drawn from the twelfth chapter of Revelation: “The devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.”

Mareth Fortifcations

The Mareth Line was a system of fortifications built by France in southern Tunisia in the late 1930s. The line was intended to protect Tunisia against an Italian invasion from its colony in Libya. The line occupied a point where the routes into Tunisia from the south converged, leading toward Mareth, with the Mediterranean Sea to the east and mountains and a sand sea to the west.

The line ran along the north side of Wadi Zigzaou for about 50 km (31 mi) south-westwards from the Gulf of Gabès to Cheguimi and the Djebel (mountain) Matmata on the Dahar plateau between the Grand Erg Oriental (Great Eastern Sand Sea) and the Matmata hills. The Tebaga Gap, between the Mareth line and the Great Eastern Sand Sea, a potential route by which an invader could outflank the Mareth line, was not surveyed until 1938.

After the French Armistice of 22 June 1940, the Mareth Line was demilitarised under the supervision of an Italo-German commission. Tunisia was occupied by Axis forces after Operation Torch in 1942 and the line was refurbished and extended by Axis engineers into a defensive position by building more defences between the line and Wadi Zeuss 3.5 mi (5.6 km) to the south but French-built anti-tank gun positions were too small for Axis anti-tank guns which had to be sited elsewhere.

The Mareth Line consisted of casemates surrounded by barbed wire and built for all-round defence in the main and reserve lines, the obstacles being doubled on the fronts and sides. The strongpoints in the main line included flanking machine-gun casemates and anti-tank gun positions; in the reserve line artillery emplacements provided covering fire in the gaps between the strongpoints in the main line. Some of the flanking casemates for machine-guns covering the gaps were connected by galleries; strongpoints on the plain and in hills had anti-tank positions. An anti-tank obstacle of vertical rails was built along the front of the line and the sides of Wadi Zigzaou were steepened. Eight artillery casemates, forty infantry casemates or blockhouses and fifteen command posts were built. The eastern sector had twelve strongpoints in the main line and eleven in the reserve line. The western sector had eleven strongpoints in the main line and seven in the reserve line.

In the Matmata hills, Ksar el Hallouf covered an anti-tank ditch which continued the position beyond the main line which ended on the foothills. An infantry position was dug into the Matmata hills at Ksar-el-Hallouf and in the Dahar beyond, a strongpoint at Bir Soltane had two 75 mm turrets, removed from Char 2C tanks built in 1918. At Ben Gardane an advanced position was built consisting of a square redoubt inside an anti-tank ditch with casemates on the flanks and concrete infantry shelters. Small triangular strongpoints at the corners were surrounded by anti-tank rail obstacles that continued around the position. The Mareth line was equipped with obsolescent 75 mm and 47 mm naval guns for anti-tank defence and a few new 25 mm anti-tank guns and infantry small arms. The artillery casemates with 75 mm guns and most of the blockhouses and casemates had embrasures for automatic weapons. In 1938 work the Mareth line was so important that work on coast defences was stopped and in 1939 the line was occupied by colonial divisions and some locally raised units. After the outbreak of the war, a line of advanced positions (avant-postes) was built on high ground at Aram 6.2 mi (10 km) south of the main line.

The War of the Engineers I

The French engineers who designed the forts were well aware that the rifled, breech-loading guns that were increasingly coming into use in the 1870s were far superior to the cannon that Vauban and his followers had in mind when they designed and built their forts. The difficulty men like Séré de Rivières faced was unprecedented, however. In the decades between 1871 and 1914, there were three successive revolutions in gunnery.

These dramatic and sweeping changes transformed the nature of warfare in a fundamental way. This shift can be seen quite clearly, because, starting with the wars of the 1860s and 1870s, the medical services of many of the combatants began to keep records of their woundeds’ cases. As most of us would expect, the vast majority of wounds were caused by standard infantry weapons: rifles and sidearms. The only surprise revealed by these reports is the extremely low incidence of wounds caused by edged weapons—bayonets, knives, and swords. As the American summary of the Civil War data points out, there was very little hand-to-hand combat: “The bayonet and saber were military weapons of little significance,” is how the United States surgeon general put it. The contrary idea is a myth. But then, as Jean-North Cru pretty much established, a great many battlefield accounts are fictional.

The point is germane, suggests a certain healthy skepticism about stories of intense hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches. That is particularly the case given the dramatic shift in the causes of wounds that occurred in the First World War. Abruptly, the vast majority of wounds now came from artillery shells of various kinds. And this was true despite all the attention given to the power of the machine gun. In studying the data recorded by the medical services of the combatants, one comes to the conclusion that very few soldiers fell victim to rifle fire.

Another way of looking at what happened is to see it as a paradigm shift, as indeed it was. The successive revolutions in artillery transformed the nature of warfare. Some armies adapted to it much more quickly than others, which is why they were more successful in combat. As with armies, so with their chroniclers: A good many military historians continued to write about this war as though it were of a piece with the wars of Napoleon, with the Crimea, or South Africa. Nor is it fair to blame them. Stories of marksmanship and man-to-man combat are inherently more satisfying than Bernier’s image of human bodies being transformed into a ghastly confiture.

Moreover, just as gunners and engineers were always better educated than their counterparts in the cavalry and infantry, understanding their concerns, like mastering understanding their craft, requires delving into technical areas. But without a certain understanding of those areas, it is basically impossible to understand grasp both the battlefield successes of the Germans during the war, and the complicated sequence of events that led to the battles for Verdun. Besides, the story of these revolutions is intrinsically interesting.


As Séré de Rivières and his colleagues at the defense committee worked out their plans in the 1870s, they were well aware of how recent developments in the weaponry available both to the infantry and the artillery had impacted the battlefield. But to their way of thinking, the most recent advances would work to the advantages of the forts, with their prepositioned heavy artillery, safely shielded from view.

Up until the 1860s, or about the time of the American Civil War, the standard infantry weapon was a smoothbore musket. Although sturdy and durable, these weapons were highly inaccurate, and with a very short range. Forty meters was about the optimal, and even then the chances were pretty good that musket fire would miss.

In consequence, gunners who were one or two hundred meters back were basically invulnerable, could fire directly at their targets. So rifling, the practice of grooving the insides of the barrel of the gun tube, was a rude shock. A projectile fired from a rifled gun tube was vastly more accurate, and over a much longer range, particularly if it was a breech– as opposed to a muzzle-loading weapon.

Muzzle-loaded rifled muskets had been around for more than a century. But soldiers using rifles (as opposed to smoothbores) were specialists. Their weapons were finicky and fragile, and reloading them was a laborious process. The rifled weapon only became truly practicable on the battlefield when the technology improved to the point that a breech-loading weapon firing a metallic cartridge became cheap and reliable. By the mid-1860s, both the French and the Germans were equipping infantry with such rifles. These early weapons were a far cry from the rifles of 1914, but they were also a long way from the muskets of 1815.

Suddenly gunners realized that their traditional positions during battle turned them into so many targets. A volley of decently aimed rifle fire from a platoon of ordinary infantry could wipe out a whole battery of gunners, so the sensible response was to move out of range.

But that led to a problem: the gunners could no longer see their targets. So artillery fire became a much more complicated affair. The gunners needed observers to watch the fall of the shells and relay back corrections. This relatively new idea of not being able to see your target was called indirect fire.

Now it seemed to the committee, logically enough, that when it came to indirect fire, fortifications would give the defenders a great advantage. The observers were protected by the forts, would be looking out of small observation slits, or be in armored cupolas. The guns would mostly be well behind, but the beauty of the idea was that since both observers and guns were fixed in place, it would be an easy matter to dial in the exact location where you wanted to land your shells.

By contrast, the attackers would have to get into position to figure out what to do, and all the while they’d be under fire from the defense. Trying to attack a fort would be tantamount to suicide.

Producing infantry rifles was a much simpler process than producing rifled artillery, because the forces expended when the projectile was fired were so much less. Of course, the breech-loaded projectile fit much more snugly than the old muzzle-loaded one, so in consequence the forces generated were much greater, as there was hardly any leakage. But still, in order to make this principle workable for the ordinary soldier, the bullets themselves became lighter, even as their velocity increased.

Now the difficulty for artillery designers lay in scaling up the weapons. The forces required to propel a 75-millimeter-diameter shell were not simply ten times greater than what was required to propel a 7.6-millimeter shell, because the artillery shell weighed numerous multiples more than the bullet. And this was made all the more difficult if the gun was a breech-loader, since all rearward force was directed against this end of the barrel, which, in order to operate properly, had to have a mechanism that allowed it to open and close—otherwise the shell couldn’t be loaded into the rear.

But by the mid-1870s, about the time that fort building was well launched all over France (and Germany and Belgium and Austria and Russia), European gun designers began to close in on the problem. In Germany and Austria, this was done by private firms working on their own: Krupp and Skoda. In France the situation was slightly more complex, with individuals working for both government and private arsenals.

The key breakthrough for the French was made by a military officer, Charles Ragon de Bange, who figured out how to design a breech mechanism that would handle the forces involved. By 1878 his guns were in production, and in recognition of his abilities, French gunners referred to almost all the guns designed during this period by his name, even though some were actually designed by someone else. But De Bange became the generic designation for all French artillery designed right up until 1897.

Thus far—by, say, 1881—the engineers weren’t worried, because although the De Bange guns had more hitting power and longer range, they had factored all that into their designs. Even a direct hit from one of the new De Bange guns wouldn’t do any serious damage to their forts.

That was because there was a trade-off involved with these new guns. Since the expanding gases were so much more powerful, the gun tube and its mount had to be considerably sturdier. And although advances in metallurgy meant that immensely stronger metal could be employed, a certain mass was still necessary, and that mass meant weight.

Practically speaking, then, if an artillery piece was going to be mobile, able to accompany troops in the field, its weight was restricted to what could be pulled by a team of six horses. That worked out to a sort of constant; that is to say, everybody’s standard field gun turned out to be a weapon that fired a shell of around 80 millimeters over a relatively flat trajectory, with a usable range of about 6,000 meters at most. The shells fired by these guns could do horrible damage to infantry, but their explosive payload was too feeble to do anything much against fortifications, and indeed gunners mostly carried only shrapnel shells—effective only against masses of troops in the open.

Heavier weapons were thus not simply those firing larger (heavier) shells, but guns that weighed considerably more. To the extent that the armies all divided their artillery into two categories: field artillery, described above, and siege artillery. The latter was not really designed to be transported into the field and sent into action immediately. So the fort builders, eyeing their hundreds of batteries of heavy weapons, already in place, their magazines securely protected, naturally felt that the advantages were all on their side. The guns directed by the forts could destroy any enemy artillery before they could even get set up to fire.

Besides, there was no need for the fort to be invulnerable. It had to do its duty for only a week to ten days, by which time the armies would have been deployed, the battle joined.


Unfortunately for the engineers, their great project was only just winding down when they received some truly frightening news. Between 11 August and 25 October 1886, French gunners conducted a series of experiments on the fort of Malmaison, outside of Laon. Malmaison was a 36,000-square-meter rectangle, and had been selected because of its relatively exposed position. While a delegation of delighted gunners and apprehensive engineers watched, the fort was bombarded.

The gunners fired 167 155-millimeter shells and 75 shells from 220-millimeter mortars, all system De Bange guns dating from 1878.

The results were very bad news for the engineers. To their consternation, the shells, particularly those from the mortars, smashed in the carapace of the fort, pretty much destroying it completely.

The guns hadn’t changed, but the explosives used in the shells had. The new explosive was substantially more powerful than what everyone had been using before. The forts had been designed to withstand the older version, but the new shells were devastating.

Now, by the 1870s, everyone involved understood the chemistry of high explosives. There was a whole family of trinitrates, including trinitrophenol (TNP) and trinitrotoluene (TNT), and any competent chemist could make them in a school chemistry lab—provided he had the raw materials. Assuming he didn’t blow himself to glory, since TNT in its pure state is an extremely volatile compound, and TNP is even worse—or better, in terms of explosive energy.

The difficulty is that the trinitrates are extremely volatile: any sort of shock will set them off, such as heat or vibration. Firing an artillery shell involves both of these factors, so the difficulty was figuring out how to adulterate the explosives so they could be used in shells. In modern parlance, this is called weaponizing, and by the mid-1880s the French succeeded in weaponizing trinitrophenol, which they called melinite, in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what it actually was.

A kilogram of this new material contained three or four times as much energy as what gunners had been using. So much so that the new melinite shells were promptly dubbed les obus torpilles, or torpedo shells, since, compared to the older shells, the new ones were more like naval torpedoes.

De Bange was no fool: His weapons, particularly the 120 – and 155-millimeter guns, were massively overbuilt, could easily fire the new shells. Prudently, the defense committee realized that the Germans probably weren’t far behind, and that in consequence everything built before 1885—which was basically everything—was now obsolete.

For the engineers who had been beavering away with fortifications, the system of De Bange weapons firing melinite shells was a horrifying development. As they saw with the Malmaison, the new shells were capable of destroying the masonry of their forts. Gloomily, they reckoned that everyone else would soon be filling their shells with some version of melinite, and they were right. Within a few years all the major powers were using some local variant of one of the trinitrates. The Germans, prudently, went for weaponized trinitrotoluene, which was less nasty to handle, but the end result was pretty much the same.

The 220-millimeter mortar shell was a particularly obnoxious development. Historically, siege artillery aimed to blow holes in the walls of a fort or castle. There were several practical reasons why gunners confined themselves to that function, the most significant being that, generally speaking, fortifications tended to be on higher ground, so the besiegers had to contend with steep angles of fire if they were going to get a shell over the wall. Before the advent of melinite, the actual explosive force of a typical shell was such that there wasn’t much damage to be done by one that simply flew over the walls and landed . . . somewhere.

Mortars were guns with very short barrels, capable of near-vertical fire over short ranges (one being a function of the other). They had been around for a long time, but, aside from naval uses, they weren’t very effective, precisely for that reason: the shells didn’t have enough explosive force to be worth the difficulties of aiming and firing, and, of course, gunners preferred to be able to see their targets.

But a 220-millimeter melinite shell was a different matter entirely. The relatively short range of the mortar meant less stress, because less explosive was needed to force it out of the barrel. Since the shell was less stressed, it could have a higher explosive payload. Drop one of these shells onto the roof of some part of the fort, and it would do enormous damage.

What made the situation truly distressing was that both of these new guns were, comparatively speaking, portable. Not in the sense that the standard field guns used by all the major powers were, but the weight and size of the shorter version of the 155-millimeter gun meant that it could be pulled along the same roads as its smaller brethren, albeit at slower speeds and with more effort. But it was light enough that you could mount it on a regular wheeled gun carriage, which meant that it could be pulled up and brought into action just like a field gun.

Now, the engineers had never claimed their fortifications were invulnerable, only that they could withstand the artillery that an army was likely to bring up during its advance. By the time it got its siege guns into place, mobilization and deployment would have been completed, and the traditional battles would begin.

So the Malmaison demonstration was the complete reversal of the basic suppositions that had led to the forts. The keystone of the national defense policy that Séré de Rivières had lobbied for was now dangerously obsolete.

The War of the Engineers II

Fort Douaumont (Illustration from Neil Demarco’s The Great War)


On the other hand, now that the engineers knew what the new shells could do, coming up with a way to counter them was not all that difficult, at least in theory. Basically, the material that formed the carapace of the fort simply had to be made stronger. As with the development of melinite, the trick was figuring out the way to put the theory into practice.

The polygon basically had three components. The walls and the dry moat were simply there to protect the garrison and its weapons and supplies. Inside the walls, therefore, were various storage facilities. Then there were the positions for the guns and for observers to direct the fire, as well as positions enabling the defenders to beat off an infantry assault.

In the original design, hardly any attention had been paid to the structures that were inside the fort. The only exception was where the ammunition for the guns was housed, since an explosion there could be catastrophic. But now, faced with the possibility of highly destructive shells landing inside the fort itself, the engineers were forced into some serious rethinking.

Actually, they were faced with a whole set of problems. On the one hand, they had to figure out what to do with the hundreds of forts that had already been constructed, while on the other they had to make fundamental design changes in the new ones that the defensive scheme called for.

Moreover, each of the three components required a different approach. Without going into even more tedious technical details, the engineers employed a mix of three basic techniques. They developed a sturdier and more resistant concrete, generically referred to as reinforced concrete, that they could test to see that it was proof against the new shells.

Wherever possible, however, they used a much cheaper and even more effective technique: either digging down into the ground or sandwiching earth and masonry. Although the most visible sign of this was thicker walls, what was really going on was that more and more of the structure was subterranean, as that was the easier and most efficient way to protect the interior structures of the fort.

Gradually, therefore, the polygon became simply an enormous hulking mound whose most visible feature was the entrance (at the rear), and the dry moat and wall configuration marking the perimeter.

So far, so good, but there still remained the rather more difficult matter of protecting the guns and their observers. Simply making the walls thicker was not a solution, since the thickness would severely limit the mobility of the gun. So gradually, over the next twenty years, the engineers began to rely more and more on thick iron plates.

In fact, as time passed, the visible surface of one of the newer forts (or one that had been extensively renovated) was beginning to look more like some sort of bizarre naval vessel, with round humps scattered over its surface, some of them looking like squat iron chimneys, others simply bulges.

But upgrading a fort was an expensive proposition, and there was only so much money available for national defense. The parties of the left were more amenable to spending money on fortifications than on arming a professional military, but as the years rolled by, and the modernization of the forts consumed more and more money, the competition increased, with a growing cadre of officers questioning whether the money couldn’t be better spent on weapons, and members of the government wondering whether it was necessary to spend anything at all on national defense.

Given the horrific nature of the war, we sometimes forget the extent to which the elected representatives who formed the governments of the major powers were increasingly of the opinion that wars were obsolete, or impossible, or anyway to be avoided at all costs. And as is usually the case with parliamentary democracies, the result was generally a patched-together compromise that didn’t satisfy anyone. The engineers got enough money to upgrade some forts, and the gunners got enough money to develop a new gun—a compromise that left both groups at odds with each other, and with the government.


As if the widespread adoption of TNP as the preferred explosive material for shells was not enough of a challenge for the beleaguered engineers, by 1897, they were faced with yet another innovation, one that fundamentally transformed the nature of artillery, and had an impact on the battlefield that was even more dramatic.

Although Sir Isaac Newton didn’t work it out as a law until 1687, every gunner realized that when he fired his cannon, the expanding gases generated by the explosion did much more than hurl the cannonball at the enemy. The gases, confined by the cannon barrel, also pushed back. This was a practical example of Newton’s third law, that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Gunners called it recoil. Fire the gun and it moved backward, shifted position.

Over the centuries the recoil phenomenon got worse, first as the fit of the projectile in the barrel became tighter, and then, with the advent of rifling, breech loading, and TNP, a serious problem.

At first, navies largely were immune, because their guns were mounted directly to the ship itself. Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the squat four-wheeled gun carriages of sailing vessels. When one of them was fired, it rolled back, was slowed down by its own weight, by the friction of the wheels on the deck, and by cables attached to the carriage.

Much the same principle applied to cannon mounted in forts. The gun mounts connected the carriage directly to a mass of stonework embedded in the earth, and the sheer disproportion of the mass absorbed the energy of the recoil. Provided the gun mount was sturdy enough to take the stress, the gun would remain firmly in place.

But gunners who were required to move their weapons from battle to battle had a bit of a problem. The most practical way to transport a cannon was to mount the gun carriage on wheels and pull it behind a team of horses. But then, when you fired it, those same wheels worked against you, as the gun would move backward, or jump wildly.

As the problem became more acute, gunners came to depend more and more on mechanical devices to keep the gun from moving around each time it was fired. Not only was the movement dangerous to the gunners, but it meant that they had to manhandle it back into position after each round, and aim all over again. The more potent the gun, the worse the problem.

To dampen the recoil, gunners used mechanical wedges, ramps, and dirt—anything and everything that would absorb the energy. But as the range of the guns increased, as indirect fire became the norm, the inherent weakness of mechanical recoil devices became more noticeable. As long as the gunners were aiming directly at the target, simply sighting the gun as if it were a giant musket, the fact that it moved after each round was fired was not much of a problem.

But in indirect fire it was. Even at a relatively short range of, say, 5,000 meters, a one-degree shift in the position of the gun tube from one round to the next would mean that the second round would land nearly 100 meters from the first—and that was assuming the gunners could reposition the gun to within one degree of the initial position. So in actual practice, the margin of error was significant.

So the gunners in a fort had a terrific advantage. They had a fixed field of fire, and could figure out the precise aim necessary to hit any given target well in advance. Or, in other words, they could, through practice, master the terrain, while their opponents couldn’t. Besides, getting a heavy siege gun in position would take a great deal of time. The potency of an explosive like melinite meant that although there had been serious advances in metallurgy over the course of the nineteenth century, gun carriages still had to be extremely heavy, so they could withstand the shock of being fired and absorb some of the recoil. It would hardly do to block the wheels of the gun carriage so it couldn’t move, only to have the barrel fly off when it was fired. Nor would the gunners be enthusiastic about firing such a weapon.

But by 1897, French artillery designers had come up with a truly elegant solution to the problem. The gun tube was resting on a trough, attached to the gun mount by hydraulic cylinders. When the gun was fired, the barrel moved back, the cylinders absorbed the forces generated, and then recoiled, moving the barrel back to exactly the same position.

There were all sorts of advantages to this scheme. The gun tube remained in exactly the same position, indispensable for indirect fire. The gun mount and carriage could be much lighter, since the hydraulic rams absorbed the shock of firing. And since nothing moved, the rate of fire increased dramatically. The new French field gun, the justly legendary 75, could in theory fire 15 rounds per minute, whereas the gun replaced could only manage three.

Suddenly, everybody’s artillery was obsolete. The new French gun, on account of the size of the shell, was the best field gun in the world. And the French army had it: it was lighter and hence more mobile, it had a much higher rate of fire, and its explosive shells had a significantly higher payload of high explosive.

The 75 really was the perfect gun of its type, and neither the Germans nor the Austrians were able to match it. Although by 1914 their standard field gun used the same principle, their weapons were markedly inferior. The 75 is really a fascinating piece of machinery, because generally speaking, devices relying on new technology always have teething problems, and rarely deliver immediately on the claims of their inventors, one reason being a failure on the part of the user to understand what he has.

But here, almost uniquely, was a weapon that sprang forth in perfection, more or less like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. So by 1900, the attitude of French artillery officers, basically, was that they had the perfect weapon, and there was no need to develop more.

The superiority of the 75 was not mythical. It was better than its German counterpart, the 7.7-centimeter field gun, in two key respects: It had a 1,400-meter range advantage firing shrapnel shells, and although the range was the same for both guns when firing high-explosive shells, the French shells contained five times as much explosive as did the German ones (0.650 kilograms as opposed to 0.160 kilograms). The first advantage evaporated fairly quickly, as both sides discovered that high-explosive shells were more effective, but this only emphasized the advantage of the French gun in firing explosive shells, owing to the considerably greater amount of explosive carried.

Had the armies of 1914 and after relied exclusively on fieldpieces of less than 80 millimeters, the French would have had a tremendous superiority, and a good many analysts seem to believe that this was the case, writing as though these guns were the mainstays of German and French divisional artillery. Unfortunately for the French, the battlefields of 1914–1918 would be controlled by a combination of heavy artillery, field howitzers, and infantry guns, principally mortars.

But the French put all their faith in the 75. In 1914, a French army corps had 120 of them. A German army corps had only 108 7.7-centimeter field guns. But in addition it deployed 36 10.5– and 16 15.0-centimeter howitzers. When the American army began doing tests, they found that at distances from two to three thousand meters, the howitzer was two and a half times as accurate as the 75-millimeter field gun, and that over the practical range of both weapons, the howitzer would always do significantly more damage than the field gun. Multiplying out the values obtained by the American experiments suggests that each German infantry division had as much killing power in its 105-millimeter howitzers as did all the artillery of a French division. Given that enormous advantage, a German army corps simply outgunned its French (or British) counterpart.

The War of the Engineers III


In order to understand how that came to happen, and why it continued for the first part of the war, it is unfortunately necessary to peer into the labyrinth of the Third Republic, where basically, the army was run by a committee called the Conseil Supérieure de la Guerre. Although at first glance this seems a tedious detour, it helps to explain much of what was going on once the war began, and why the army was so woefully unprepared to fight it.

The CSG was composed of the five or six officers who would become army commanders if a war broke out. The chair, or president, was the minister of war. If there was an actual war, the vice chair would then become commander in chief of the general staff.

Given the revolving door at the ministry, this was a most unsatisfactory solution, one made all the worse by the fact that the vice chairmanship was almost as unstable as the ministry itself, as a brief account of the changes in 1910–1911 makes clear. In June 1911, Adolphe Messimy became minister of war, replacing François Louis Goiran (and not, as is sometimes said, Jean Brun).

The vice chair of the CSG was General Trémeau. But Trémeau was succeeded by General Michel, who was also president of the Haute-commission des Places Fortes, and thus presumably more interested in the continuous renovation and modernization of the forts than in dealing with the army’s many problems.

A month after becoming minister of war, Messimy tried to reorganize the command structure, although it was in such a bureaucratic muddle that it would be more correct to say he tried to create a command structure. He realized, correctly, that in order for the army to function properly, it needed an actual head, a chief of staff, not a rotating committee head. So Messimy was proposing the same model that existed in Germany and Austria-Hungary (and elsewhere). The chief of staff would be an actual position, held by a senior officer on a quasi-permanent basis. If there was a war, that man would become the overall commander in chief of the army.

Better late than never, one might say; at least Messimy was trying to create a coherent system of command and control for the army. Given the distrust and even fear that the parties of the left had for the army, this was a major step. The difficulty was finding a senior officer who would take the job, because the government was adamant that whoever this man was, he would not have the authority to recommend officers for promotions at the higher levels, that is, from colonel to general and thence on up the ranks to the level of the army commanders.

This demand was a considerable sticking point. The parties of the left had controlled the government since 1871, and they had never been enthusiastic about the army, an institution that in their view was controlled by generals whose politics were an anathema. Professional officers were monarchists, Roman Catholics, fundamentally opposed to the values of the Third Republic. The army had been the instrument that raised the two Napoleons to power, had massacred the Communards.

The somewhat mythical and certainly grossly exaggerated rise of General Georges-Ernest Boulanger in the 1880s had turned their fears into a sort of obsession. The idea of Boulangerisme, a military coup, haunted them, and, as a logical result, the government had insisted on making a political orientation the litmus test for promotion. Under Louis André, minister of war from 1900 to 1904, there was a real inquisition mounted to root out practicing Roman Catholics, as it was felt that those were the most politically unreliable.

Unfortunately, the four years of the André ministry was the most long lived of the group. From the end of the André ministry in November 1904 until the war began in August 1914, France had no less than fourteen ministers of war. André’s successors had hardly located their desks before they were out, so his policies had a much longer life than is suggested even by his comparatively long tenure: Of his 40 predecessors between 1871 and 1900(!), only one, Charle de Freycinet, had a longer tenure (nearly five years).

The politicization of promotion would have catastrophic consequences for the army, and for the country, once the fighting started. The process of promotion in peacetime armies is always suspect, because it tends to favor skills that have nothing much to do with fighting and winning wars. But demanding that only officers with certain political beliefs be put into leadership positions stacks the deck still further, not to mention destroying morale.

And in fact, Messimy had difficulty finding a senior officer who would take the job, given those conditions. The logical choice was General Paul Marie Pau, who, since he was born in 1848, was a safe choice, since at the age of 63, he’d be headed for retirement shortly, and wouldn’t cause any difficulties politically.

But Pau wasn’t about to accept the conditions imposed by the government, and turned the offer down. So Joffre, who was amenable, was given the post instead. The Third Republic wanted a politically aware general as chief, and they got one with a vengeance, as once the war began the one talent Joffre unquestionably had was in knowing how to get rid of possible rivals. It’s interesting how many of the senior generals whom Joffre sacked also happened to be men who in the normal course of things would have been in the group of possible replacements. Those who were too politically connected to sack, like Maurice Sarrail, Joffre managed to dispose of rather cleverly: Sarrail, who was the poster general for the left, was shipped off to command the Anglo-French expedition to the Balkans. A better dumping ground could hardly be imagined.

As a result, it took a very long time to force Joffre out, even after the unmitigated chain of setbacks and disasters of 1915. But at the same time, the generals who emerged, the few really successful men, like Pétain and Fayolle and even Foch, had all spent years watching helplessly as the government meddled and interfered in the army. As a result, they had no great love for their civilian overlords. One can imagine, for instance, how Ferdinand Foch, whose brother was a Jesuit, felt about André’s anti-Catholic inquisition. And when the time came, he repaid the favor with interest.

As chief of the general staff, Joffre would also serve as vice chair of the CSG, while General Auguste Dubail would continue his job as chief of the army staff, a confusing distinction. But Dubail was basically Joffre’s head of personnel, although without any actual authority (when the war began Dubail received an army command, and was then—according to him—made a scapegoat for one of the many failed offensives).

But Joffre soon found that his authority in peacetime was severely limited, not restricted just to promotions. He had no authority over the various bureaus overseeing the development of weapons, or for that matter any of what the ministry of war called the directions des armes du ministère. These were the specialists who decided what equipment the army needed. Given the revolving door at the ministry, they pretty much operated independently, as Joffre promptly discovered.

He had noticed what one would think was a rather blindingly obvious defect. On the one hand, the specialists at the artillery bureau had decided, along with a good many gunners, that the 75-millimeter gun was the only weapon the army needed. But as we have seen, geography dictated that the Germans would be forced into the Meuse valley, either above or below Verdun, or both. But in that case, the 75 was basically useless. That was because the barrel could be elevated to only 16 degrees from the horizontal, a typical design constraint for field guns of the period. But for the intended theater of operations, this was a serious drawback.

Because the defense of the heights of the Meuse posed a problem that could not be resolved by the flat trajectory of the 75: there existed, all along these steep heights, considerable numbers of dead angles that it would not be able to reach.

So Joffre, sensibly enough, suggested the need for a 105– or 120-millimeter howitzer like the Germans had. But General Michel, who was at that time still the vice chairman of the CSG, thought the older 155-millimeter Rimailho gun was fine, despite its limited traverse, so the matter was buried. But once he became chief of staff, Joffre brought the matter up again, and this time he got his way.

Sort of: The specialists at the bureau managed to delay the matter indefinitely. There were plenty of good designs, but for some reason none of them met the specifications—a dodge that everyone who has worked with a bureaucracy understands. Nor was there any money available. Eventually the French firm of Schneider came up with a design that was approved. But production, such as it was, proceeded at a dilatory pace.

The 155-millimeter gun that Michel had been so keen on hardly existed in any quantity: There were only 84 of them in service in 1912, hardly enough to equip an army corps, and by 1914, the army only had 104 of them.

Nor was it much of a weapon. As it weighed over 10,000 kilograms, it was hardly a mobile weapon; by contrast, its German counterpart, the 15-centimeter howitzer, weighed roughly a fifth of that, had a much greater angle of fire (43 degrees), and outranged the Rimailho by 2,500 meters. All in all, not much of a weapon.

Production of the 105-millimeter howitzer was going at a glacial pace. The army was supposed to begin taking the gun into service at the rate of 16 guns a month, with deliveries slated to start in October 1914. As the official British Army handbook issued to its officers in July 1914 put it, “it is probable, however, that the artillery of an army-corps will be eventually increased by 2 batteries of 4 guns each of 105 millimeter guns.”

Moreover, to add insult to injury, the Schneider howitzer, like the Rimailho, was not all that successful a design. The equivalent German gun was lighter, fired its shells at a higher angle, and its range was nearly the same. It was far too heavy and bulky for the projectile it fired. The impression one gets from these two weapons is that the French designers had failed to grasp a basic point about howitzer design: that to be useful as divisional artillery, they had to be just as mobile as the field guns.

Nor was this a difficult task. Since howitzers have a shorter range, the stresses exerted on the shell are much less, so not only can it contain more explosive, but the same gun carriage used for the standard field gun can handle the howitzer. In consequence, the German 10.5– and 15-centimeter howitzers used basically the same gun carriage as the 7.7-centimeter field gun. Fitted out for the field, the 10.5-centimeter howitzer weighed only 190 kilograms more than the field gun, and its explosive shell contained roughly ten times as much high explosive. So they were equally mobile, and could be deployed at the divisional level, as indeed they were.

The Schneider, however, was either deliberately designed so as not to be as mobile as the 75, or, perhaps more reasonably, was conceptualized as being a piece of heavy artillery, as the French simply refused to give the army corps anything besides the field guns; such heavy weapons as they had were all hoarded at the army group level.

General Fayolle noted in his diary how this worked out in practice, in his typically cheerful and nonjudgmental way.

One of the great faults that is clung to obstinately is the duality of the command of the artillery. The heavy guns are under the orders of the Army group; that is to say, of a general who is some kilometers from the field of battle and knows nothing of the realities of the locale. . . . It is completely insane.

Not only did the French not have the right weapons, not only did they refuse to adopt them until well along in the war, but they absolutely refused to parcel them out to the control of the combat commanders, the divisional generals who were actually conducting the fighting.


After the two successive revolutions caused by the introduction of melinite and the creation of the long-recoil field gun, one faction in the army began to argue that technology had neutered the forts. That argument resonated with a gradual shift in the way the army was regarding its basic posture in the event of war.

Now, it is a capital error to assume that by August 1914 the army was committed to the principle of the offensive at all costs; it would be considerably more accurate to say that the professional officer corps, divided into various chapels, was unable to agree on any one doctrine. The situation was exacerbated by the relative powerlessness of the new chief of staff, and the newness of his position.

What actually happened in the fifteen years preceding the war was the rise of a chapel arguing for a fundamental change: that the army should move away from its late-nineteenth-century notion of strategic defense, to the idea of strategic offense. To them, the adoption of the 75-millimeter field gun, and the successful planning for a speedy mobilization, all seemed to point toward this idea. The idea of taking the war to the enemy, rather than waiting for him to invade, became more and more practicable.

But at the same time, the engineers who had built the forts continued to grapple with the problems caused by the new high-explosive shells. The committee charged with overseeing the forts was now firmly enshrined in the military bureaucracy of the Third Republic. It will be remembered that General Michel, who was chairing that committee, had also been the vice chairman of the CSG before the Messimy reform that resulted in the creation of an actual chief of staff. So as a result, the engineers continued to get money, and they continued to grapple with the problems posed by the new high-explosive shells.

The problems boiled down to two: how to armor the forts so they were proof against the new shells, and how to protect their guns.

These were two entirely separate issues. To simplify the problem considerably: The first simply involved pouring more concrete, covering over the largely brick and stone walls with a sandwich of earth and concrete, and then enclosing what lay inside the walls. So when a fort was upgraded, or modernized, it increasingly started to look like a quadrilateral mound, with very little of it being exposed.

There was not enough money to upgrade every fort, but then the engineers realized that the new shells meant that some forts were no longer doing their job, while others would clearly be in a secondary role.

Earlier, in tracking the construction of the forts at Verdun, their positions were explained by asking the reader to envision an imaginary circle, with the ancient citadel at the center. Invoking that same imaginary circle, all the forts in the northeast quadrant (0 to 90 degrees) and those in the northwest quadrant (270 to 360 degrees) were all upgraded. And, of course, the structures built after 1885 were already constructed according to the new principles.

But the forts in the southern half were largely left alone. So too with the two initial forts that were on the right bank nearest the city: Belleville and Saint Michel. And hardly anything was done to the forts de rideau, the line of forts running from Verdun down to Saint-Mihiel.

The reason seems fairly obvious: Given the heights of the Meuse below Verdun, it was hardly likely that an invading army would be able to get the 220– or 270-millimeter mortars close enough to the forts for their shells to reach them. These weapons all had a range of roughly 5,000 meters, and the terrain around those forts was such that it hardly seemed likely that it would be possible to wrestle a weapon weighing six or seven thousand kilograms up the steep slopes that were the norm in the southern reach of the heights, and get it within the required range.

So the first problem was relatively easy to solve simply by throwing money at it. But the other problem was more complicated. Forts were essentially protected gun platforms. But in order for its guns to be useful, they had to be sufficiently protected from enemy shell fire. Prior to the introduction of melinite, this had hardly been much of a consideration. The forts looked quite different from their seventeenth-century ancestors, but the gun emplacements were pretty much the same: large openings in the outer walls through which the gun fired, the only addition increasingly being that the gun was protected above as well as in front.

But a high-explosive shell exploding close by the opening would probably wreck the gun, even if it was a near miss.

The theoretical solution to the problem was to mount the weapon in a steel turret. Now that the forts were all going to be largely enclosed structures, you could envision one as being analogous to a battleship, where, increasingly, the guns were mounted on the deck in turrets, as opposed to the older, slab-sided approach.

So between 1885 and 1910, the engineers went through a whole series of progressively more sophisticated designs, as they created the perfect mechanism. What emerged by the start of the century was a truly ingenious system.

The turret was basically a steel cylinder with a rounded steel hat as a roof. When the fort was under fire, the turret was retracted down into the body of the carapace, so that all that was visible was the rounded top, a sort of flattened tortoise shell made of thick steel. When you needed to fire the gun, the cylinder was elevated, so the basic principle was what the French engineers called the tourelle à éclipse, the disappearing turret.

The engineers experimented with various configurations, and quickly discovered that although a spherical turret was better able to withstand shells than a cylindrical one, the best solution was to retract the turret entirely.

The principle is simple, but the technology involved is anything but. First of all, the barrel of the gun has to be contained completely inside the steel cylinder. A turret that would contain the entire gun—and its crew—would be impossibly large, so enormous, so heavy, it would be impossible to retract it and then raise it up again.

The engineers got around this problem by the simple expedient of sawing off a piece of the barrel, a sort of aftermarket modification that enabled them to take the existing (at the time) 120– or 155-millimeter gun and fit it entirely inside the turret. That, of course, reduced the range of the gun considerably, but given the range of the heavy mortars, they reckoned, sensibly enough, that 5,000 meters was perfectly adequate.

But protecting the gun tube was only half the battle. Since the turret had to be raised and lowered, the recoil of the gun had to be absorbed somehow. Otherwise, the first time the gun was fired, the relatively delicate mechanism that raised and lowered the turret would be damaged.

The solution to that was simple as well: a hydraulic buffering system. So, although the 75-millimeter gun was the first field gun using this principle, it was already being employed in the guns mounted in the turrets—some ten years, roughly, before the advent of the field gun.

The gun the engineers picked was the 155-millimeter weapon from 1878. So the army could have easily converted this gun, put a wheeled carriage on it, and had reasonably modern heavy artillery. The system De Bange guns were excellent weapons, in terms of range and hitting power. Their only defect was the lack of a recoil mechanism, something that the fort engineers had already solved.

So basically, one branch of the army was developing a weapon that would have been a perfect fit for another part of the army—but the two sailed along in perfect disharmony. The artillery bureau had no interest in developing any other gun, or in modernizing any of their existing weapons, just like the army commands had no intention of giving heavy artillery to the local commanders.

This was, as Fayolle pointed out, crazy. Particularly because, as we shall see in the next chapter, the Germans did precisely that. Superiority in combat is not simply a function of having weapons that are better or the same as your enemy possesses. Using them efficiently on the battlefield is the key. To do that means decentralization, delegating command down to lower levels, which in turn requires highly trained officers farther down the chain of command. In another bitter passage, Fayolle writes why he believed the Germans were better. “They don’t have as many mediocre and ignorant company officers as we do,” he confided to his diary, and, much later in the war: “The great superiority of the German army is in training and instruction.”

But the two groups proceeded in immaculate independence and mutual disdain. Although the disappearing turrets were expensive propositions to build and mount, the French built some 60 of them, some with one 155-millimeter gun, others with two.

The chief difficulty with the turrets was that the gun was fixed. The gunners could make changes in elevation, but, by comparison with other mounts, their field of fire was extremely restricted. Think of the field of fire as being a triangle, with the apex sited at the point where the gun barrel was attached to the mount. The greater the angle of the apex, the more useful the gun. Of course, guns mounted in a fort by definition had a smaller field of fire—i.e., a narrower angle—because of the embrasure, but the disappearing turret restricted that angle enormously.

The engineers were well aware of this, and came up with various solutions. In certain angles of the forts, those where they judged the emplacement would not be susceptible to enemy artillery fire of the sort that would destroy the position, they placed pairs of guns in protected casemates, called casements de Bourges.

Although the new 75-millimeter gun had basically the same range as the older 155-millimeter weapon, it had a much smaller footprint. It weighed only about a third as much, had a lower profile, and was smaller all the way around, so it made these installations much more practicable. The 75 became the basis for all the fixed armaments of the forts designed after 1904 (although the older gun turrets were still being built and put in place right up until the start of the war).

The smaller size meant that the guns could sit comfortably back inside the protecting wall, shielded to a certain extent by an overhang, and their position made the openings extremely hard to hit. But the embrasure was such that the guns had a wide field of fire.

So the next logical step was to design a turret that not only could be raised and lowered, but also be rotated on its mount. In theory, this turret was the ideal solution, and the lighter 75-millimeter gun, coupled with its more compact shape, made the notion of a rotating turret much more practical. The smaller the weapon, the smaller the turret; the smaller the turret, the less weight, and that in turn reduced the motive power required to move it. In the years before 1914, motive power was a major issue, as the idea of diesel-powered generators was still simply an idea.

The idea was even more practicable if machine guns were used instead of field guns, so those were built as well. So now the engineers felt they had devised a set of complete solutions to their original problem. The upgraded forts were basically shellproof. The new turrets and casemates gave them integral firepower that would largely be immune to enemy bombardment. Meanwhile, the emplaced batteries that were shielded by the forts would be able to shatter the attacking forces.

Now, since almost everyone who has any familiarity with the opening of the First World War knows that the Germans overpowered the Belgian forts rather quickly, an account of these expensive engineering efforts seems pointless. And indeed, as we noticed earlier, at the same time as the engineers were solving the problems posed by the new shells, other factions in the army were increasingly restive about the whole concept of the forts.

Japan at Bay

No one—and especially not the members of Japanese Imperial General Headquarters or the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff—expected Okinawa to be the last battle of World War II. Why the surprise? The Joint Chiefs, having woefully underestimated enemy striking power at the beginning of the Pacific War, had just as grievously exaggerated it at the end.

Actually, as some perceptive Okinawans were already privately assuring each other: “Nippon ga maketa. Japan is finished.” In early 1945, after the conquest of Iwo Jima by three Marine divisions, the island nation so vulnerable to aerial and submarine warfare had been almost completely severed from its stolen Pacific empire in “the land of eternal summer.” Leyte in the Philippines had been assaulted the previous October by an American amphibious force under General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur, and in the same month the U.S. Navy had destroyed the remnants of the once-proud Japanese Navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. On January 9, Luzon in the Philippines was invaded, and on February 16—17, like a “typhoon of steel,” the fast carriers of the U.S. Navy launched the first naval air raids on Tokyo Bay. A week later Manila was overrun by those American “devils in baggy pants.” In late March Iwo fell to three Marine divisions in the bloodiest battle in the annals of American arms. Not only was Old Glory enshrined forever in American military history by the historic flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi, but more important strategically and more dreadful for Japanese fears was the capture of this insignificant little speck of black volcanic ash—a cinder clog, 4½ miles long and 2½ miles wide—for it guaranteed that the devastating raids on Japan by the new giant B-29 U.S. Army Air Force bombers would continue and even rise in fury.

Iwo became a base from which the Superforts could fly closer to the Japanese capital undetected and under protection of Iwo-based American fighter planes. Perhaps even more welcome to these gallant airmen, crippled B-29s unable to make the fifteen-hundred-mile flight back to Saipan could now touch down safely on tiny Iwo; or if shot down off the shores of Nippon, could even be reached by Iwo-based Dumbo rescue planes. Thus, not only could these exorbitantly expensive aerial elephants be saved, but their truly more valuable crews as well. On the night of March 9, to prove their worth and sound the requiem of the “unconquerable” island empire, the Superforts already striking Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe in pulverizing three-hundred-plane raids came down to six thousand feet over Tokyo to loose the dreadful firebombs that consumed a quarter of a million houses and made a million human beings homeless while killing 83,800 people in the most lethal air raid in history—even exceeding the death and destruction of the atomic-bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were to follow.

Meanwhile the huge Japanese merchant fleet, employed in carrying vital oil and valuable minerals to the headquarters of an empire singularly devoid of natural resources, had been steadily blasted into extinction by the flashing torpedoes of the United States Navy’s submarines. Here indeed were the unsung heroes of the splendid Pacific sea charge of three years’ duration: four thousand miles from Pearl Harbor to the reef-rimmed slender long island of Okinawa. These men of “the silent service,” as it was called, were fond of joking about how they had divided the Pacific between the enemy and themselves, conferring on Japan “the bottom half.” In fact it was true. Only an occasional supply ship or transport arrived at or departed Nippon’s numerous sea-ports, themselves silent, ghostly shambles. Incredibly, the American submarines, now out of sea targets, had penetrated Japan’s inland seas to begin the systematic destruction of its ferry traffic. Transportation on the four Home Islands of Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Hokkaido was at a standstill. Little was moved: by road or rail, over the water or through the air. In the Imperial Palace hissing, bowing members of the household staff kept from Emperor Hirohito the shocking, grisly protests arriving in the daily mail: the index fingers of Japanese fathers who had lost too many sons to “the red-haired barbarians.” Most of these doubters—silent and anonymous because they feared a visit from the War Lords’ dreaded Thought Police—were men who had lived and worked in America, knowing it for the unrivaled industrial giant that it was. They did not share the general jubilation when “the emperor’s glorious young eagles” arrived home from Pearl Harbor. Their hearts were filled with trepidation, with secret dread for the retribution that they knew would overtake their beloved country.

For eight months following Pearl Harbor, the victory fever had raged unchecked in Japan. During that time the striking power of America’s Pacific Fleet had rolled with the tide on the floor of Battleship Row. Wake had fallen, Guam, the Philippines. The Rising Sun flew above the Dutch East Indies, it surmounted the French tricolor in Indochina, blotting out the Union Jack in Singapore, where columns of short tan men in mushroom helmets double-timed through silent streets. Burma and Malaya were also Japanese. India’s hundreds of millions were imperiled, great China was all but isolated from the world, Australia looked fearfully north to Japanese bases on New Guinea, toward the long double chain of the Solomon Islands drawn like two knives across its lifeline to America. But then, on August 7, 1942—exactly eight months after Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagomo had turned his aircraft carriers into the wind off Pearl Harbor—the American Marines landed on Guadalcanal and the counter-offensive had begun.

In Japan the war dance turned gradually into a dirge while doleful drums beat a requiem of retreat and defeat. Smiling Japanese mothers no longer strolled along the streets of Japanese towns and cities, grasping their “belts of a thousand stitches,” entreating passersby to sew a stitch into these magical charms to be worn into battle by their soldier sons. For now those youths lay buried on faraway islands where admirals and generals—like the Melanesian or Micronesian natives whom they despised—es—caped starvation by cultivating their own vegetable gardens of yams and sweet potatoes. And the belts that had failed to preserve the lives of the boys who wore them became battle souvenirs second only to the Samurai sabers of their fallen officers.

This, then, was the Japan that the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff still considered a formidable foe, so much so that it could be subdued only by an invasion force of a million men and thousands of ships, airplanes, and tanks. To achieve final victory, Okinawa was to be seized as a forward base for this enormous invading armada. In the fall of 1945 a three-pronged amphibious assault called Operation Olympic was to be mounted against southern Kyushu by the Sixth U.S. Army consisting of ten infantry divisions and three spearheading Marine divisions. This was to be followed in the spring of 1946 by Operation Coronet, a massive seaborne assault on the Tokyo Plain by the Eighth and Tenth Armies, spearheaded by another amphibious force of three Marine divisions and with the First Army transshipped from Europe to form a ten-division reserve. The entire operation would be under the command of General of the Armies MacArthur and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Okinawa would be the catapult from which this mightiest amphibious assault force ever assembled would be hurled.

The Divine Wind

Japanese Imperial Headquarters, still refusing to believe that Nippon was beaten, still writing reports while wearing rose-colored glasses, also anticipated an inevitable and bloody fight for Okinawa as the prelude to a titanic struggle for Japan itself. While the American Joint Chiefs regarded Operation Iceberg as one more stepping-stone toward Japan, their enemy saw it as the anvil on which the hammer blows of a still-invincible Japan would destroy the American fleet.

Destruction of American sea power remained the chief objective of Japanese military policy. Sea power had brought the Americans through the island barriers that Imperial Headquarters had thought to be impenetrable, had landed them at Iwo within the very Prefecture of Tokyo, and now threatened to provide them a lodgment 385 miles closer to the Home Islands. Only sea power could make possible the invasion of Japan, something that had not happened in three thousand years of Japan’s recorded history—something that had been attempted only twice before.

In 1274 and 1281 Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan and Mongol emperor of China, massed huge invasion fleets on the Chinese coast for that purpose. Japan was unprepared to repel such stupendous armadas, but a kamikaze, or “Divine Wind”—actually a typhoon—struck both Mongol fleets, scattering and sinking them.

In early 1945, nearly seven centuries later, an entire host of Divine Winds came howling out of Nippon. They were the suicide bombers of the Special Attack Forces, the new kamikaze who had been so named because it was seriously believed that they too would destroy another invasion fleet.

They were the conception of Vice Admiral Takejiro Onishi. He had led a carrier group during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. After that Japanese aerial disaster known to the Americans as “the Marianas Turkey Shoot,” Onishi had gone to Fleet Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of Japan’s Combined Fleet, with the proposal to organize a group of flyers who would crash-dive loaded bombers onto the decks of American warships. Toyoda agreed. Like most Japanese he found the concept of suicide—so popular in Japan as a means of atonement for failure of any kind—a glorious method of defending the homeland. So Toyoda sent Onishi to the Philippines, where he began organizing kamikaze on a local and volunteer basis. Then came the American seizure of the Palaus and the Filipino invasion.

On October 15, 1944, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima—the first kamikaze—tried to crash-dive the American carrier Franklin. He was shot down by Navy fighters, but Japanese Imperial Headquarters told the nation that he had succeeded in hitting the carrier—which he had not done—and thus “lit the fuse of the ardent wishes of his men.”

The first organized attacks of the kamikaze came on October 25, at the beginning of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Suicide bombers struck blows strong enough to startle the Americans and make them aware of a new weapon in the field against them, but not savage enough to shatter them. Too many kamikaze missed their targets and crashed harmlessly into the ocean, too many lost their way either arriving or returning, and too many were shot down. Of 650 suiciders sent to the Philippines, only about a quarter of them scored hits—and almost exclusively on small ships without the firepower to defend themselves like the cruisers, battleships, and aircraft carriers. But Imperial Headquarters, still keeping the national mind carefully empty of news of failure, announced hits of almost 100 percent. Imperial Headquarters did not believe its own propaganda, of course. Its generals and admirals privately guessed hits ranging from 12 to 50 percent, but they also assumed that nothing but battleships and carriers had been hit.

Thus was the kamikaze born, in an outburst of national ecstasy and anticipated deliverance. In the homeland a huge corps of suiciders was organized under Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki. By January 1945 they were part of Japanese military strategy, if not the dominant part. So many suiciders would be ordered out on an operation, to be joined by so many first-class fighters and bombers: the fighters to clear the skies of enemy interceptors, the bombers to ravage American shipping and guide the kamikaze to their victims.

They needed to be guided because they usually were a combination of old, stripped-down aircraft and young, often hopped-up flyers. Admiral Ugaki did not use his newest planes or his most skilled pilots, as Admiral Onishi had in the Philippines. Ugaki considered this wasteful. He believed that the “spiritual power” of the “glorious, incomparable young eagles” would compensate for the missing firepower of obsolete crates from which even the instruments had been removed. At a period in the Pacific War when perceptive Japanese commanders were beginning to ridicule the “bamboo-spear tactics” of the School of Spiritual Power, as opposed to the realities of firepower, Ugaki was showering his brave young volunteers—for brave they truly were—with encomiums of praise intended to silence whatever reservations they may have had about piloting these patched-up old cripples, and also to inspire the nation.

So the suiciders were hailed as saviors: wined, dined, photographed, lionized. Many of them attended their own funerals before taking off on their last mission. Farewell feasts were held in their honor at the numerous airfields on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. Solemn Samurai ceremonies were conducted, and many toasts of sake drunk, so that some of the pilots climbed aboard their airplanes on wobbly legs. It did not seem to occur to the Japanese—and especially Ugaki—that insobriety might affect the aim of the kamikaze and thus defeat the purpose of the suicide corps; and this was because the concept of the suicide-savior had so captivated the nation from schoolgirls to Emperor Hirohito himself that the slightest word of criticism would have been regarded as treason. And it was this very deep and very real faith in another coming of a Divine Wind that dictated to the planners at Imperial Headquarters exactly how the battle of Okinawa was to be fought.

The speed with which the Americans were overrunning the Philippines had produced a mood of the blackest pessimism at Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo in late 1944—until those roseate reports of kamikaze success during December and January replaced the darkest despair with the brightest hopes. By 1945 Headquarters had decided that the United States would next strike at Okinawa to seize a base for the invasion of Japan proper, as the four Home Islands were called. It was now believed that the kamikaze corps could greatly improve the chances for a successful defense of Okinawa, and thus perhaps—even probably—prevent enemy landings in the Home Islands. So a plan called Ten-Go, or “Heavenly Operation,” was devised. New armies were to be formed from a reserve of military-age men who had been deferred for essential labor, while a powerful air force built around the kamikaze would be organized to destroy the Americans.

More than four thousand airplanes, both suicide and conventional, would launch an all-out attack, joined by hundreds of suicide motorboats operating from Okinawa and the Kerama Islands and followed by a suicide dash of Japan’s remaining warships, including the mighty battleship Yamato. The air assaults would come from two directions: north from Formosa where the Japanese Army’s Eighth Air Division and the Navy’s First Air Fleet were based, and south from Kyushu, with a more powerful force combining several Army and Navy commands, all under the direction of Vice Admiral Ugaki. On February 6 a joint Army-Navy Air Agreement stated:

In general Japanese air strength will be conserved until an enemy landing is underway or within the defense sphere … Primary emphasis will be laid on the speedy activation, training and mass employment of the Special Attack Forces (kamikaze) … The main target of Army aircraft will be enemy transports, and of Navy aircraft carrier attack forces.

On its face this was a bold plan conceived in an atmosphere of the most cordial cooperation. Actually, the only leaders motivated by the same conviction were those who believed that the war could no longer be won. Otherwise, there was a deep divergence: the Navy officers seeing Ten-Go as the last opportunity to score a great, redeeming victory; the Army staffers in agreement that the final battle would be fought not on Okinawa but on Kyushu. Though their views conflicted, their reasoning was logical: the sailors, certain that if airpower could not stop the enemy at Okinawa, neither would it do so on Kyushu; the Army insisting that even on the Philippines the Americans had not yet fought a major Japanese army, and that, shattered and whittled by the suicide-saviors, they could be repulsed in Japan proper. However, all—even the doubters—were convinced that at the very least a severe defeat must be inflicted on the Americans to compel the Allies to modify their demand for Unconditional Surrender.

There was one more consideration, probably more apparent to the Army than the Navy. Bamboo-spear tactics were out. The illogical belief that spiritual power could conquer firepower had spawned that other cause of Japan’s absolute inability to halt the American charge across the Pacific: the doctrine of destroying the enemy invaders “at the water’s edge.” Those nocturnal, massed frontal attacks known as “Banzai charges” had repeatedly been broken in blood, leaving the Japanese defenders so weakened that they were powerless to resist. Now there was a new spirit informing the Japanese Army: defense in depth—as careful as the Banzai was reckless, as difficult for the enemy to overcome as the foolhardy wild Banzai had been easy for him to shatter, and so costly in the attrition of enemy men, machines, and ships as to weary the Americans and thus induce them to negotiate.

Ambush, or the tactics of delay raised to a military science, began on the large island of Biak off the western extremity of New Guinea. It was conceived by Colonel Kuzume Naoyuki, commander of about eleven thousand troops of the defense garrison there. Disdainful of the doctrine of destruction at the water’s edge, he decided instead to allow the Americans to come ashore unopposed so that they would stroll unwarily into the trap he would prepare for them. This would turn the area around the vital airfield there into a martial honeycomb of caves and pillboxes—all mutually supportive—filled with riflemen, automatic weapons, artillery, batteries of mortars, and light tanks. Naoyuki also stockpiled these positions with enough ammunition, food, and water—that priceless liquid was less than abundant on Biak, where the heat and humidity would take a toll equal to enemy gunfire—to sustain his defense for months. Thus, when the 162nd Infantry of the Forty-first Division of the U.S. Army landed on Biak on May 27, 1944, they did indeed move confidently inland expecting little opposition—until they reached that vital airfield. Then, from the low-lying terrain around them and the ridges above, there fell a terrible storm of shot and shell that pinned them to the ground; it was not until dark that amtracks were able to extricate them from the trap.

Thereafter, there was no foolish and furious Banzai by which the Japanese enemy customarily bled itself to death. Biak was a grinding, shot-for-shot battle. Ambush, or delay, was repeated at Peleliu and Iwo Jima, battles that the U.S. Marines expected to be won within days or a week or so but lasted for months, with staggering losses not only in valuable time but in still more valuable life and equipment.

These were the tactics that Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima intended to employ on Okinawa with his defending Japanese Thirty-second Army. After his arrival there in August 1944, he hurled himself into the gratifying task of turning that slender long island into an ocean fortress. In January 1945, he sent his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Isamu Cho, to Tokyo for a review of his defenses. Imperial Headquarters planners were delighted with his preparations, for they dovetailed with Ten-Go. Ushijima’s monster ambush was just the tactic to lure the Americans within range of the suiciders—airborne and seaborne—to be smashed so shatteringly that the Thirty-second Army could take the offensive and destroy them.

Upon his return to Okinawa, Isamu Cho was a happy soldier, thirsting for battle and bursting to tell his chief the good news about Japan’s devastating new weapon of the Divine Wind.

The Final Siege: Antwerp 1914 Part I

42 cm M-Gerät

On Saturday, 10 October 1914 Admiral von Schroeder, Antwerp’s new military governor, and General von Beseler, commander of the siege troops that had captured the fortress, watched as the siege corps marched in review, celebrating the capture of the Belgian National Redoubt. The most noteworthy thing about that day was the absence of civilian bystanders. Antwerp was practically empty of its citizens, most of them having fled before the fall of the city. Buildings were smashed and the smoke from the petroleum tanks burning at Hoboken could still be seen rising above the city to the west. Antwerp had become a dead city.

The forts were also dead and empty, their defenders having either escaped to the west, surrendered to the Germans or fled to Holland, where they would be kept in internment for the remainder of the war. It seemed as if it was all over for Belgium. Since 4 August Belgium’s three fortresses had been crushed by German siege guns and the remnant of the Belgian army was fleeing to the French border. But the loss of the city and the forts was not the end. In fact, the Belgian army escaped to the west only because the forts and defenders held out long enough for them to do so. Thanks to the Belgian and British defenders of Antwerp, the Belgian army would live to fight on and to hold a small piece of west Flanders that would cost the Germans (and the Allies) hundreds of thousands of casualties over the next four years. The Germans captured the city but they lost the Battle of Belgium.

On 16 August the last forts of Liège fell. In short order the German First and Second Armies advanced across Belgium. On the 17th the Belgian government fled from Brussels to Antwerp. The following day King Albert moved his army headquarters from Louvain to Mechelen, 25km from Antwerp. On the same day the Belgian army, minus the 4th Division at Namur, withdrew from its concentration point on the Gette and headed to Antwerp. When it seemed as though Namur was about to fall, General Michel pulled the 4th Division out of the fortress and it eventually made its way via France to Antwerp. The Germans marched triumphantly through Brussels on 20 August and began to move south into France. General von Kluck detached and left behind III Reserve Corps, along with the German Naval Division, to keep watch on the Belgian forces at Antwerp, and to guard his lines of communication to Liège.

King Albert and his commanders ordered a number of sorties from Antwerp to disrupt the German forces guarding the city. If they succeeded, perhaps the Belgians could move further across the country and disrupt the German lines of communication. Regardless, the goal was to cause havoc. The first sortie occurred on 24 August in the direction of Mechelen. The Germans easily held their position and pushed the Belgians back. On 9 September a second sortie was launched towards Vilvoorde and met with greater success, this time reaching a point 16km from the fortress line. On that same day, realizing the danger Antwerp posed to the German flank, and needing to remove the obstacle blocking the seizure of the channel ports, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered its capture. A relatively ineffective third sortie took place on 27 September, at the same moment as the siege of the fortress began.

On 27 September the Battle of Antwerp began, just as the other fortress sieges had, with a heavy bombardment. The following day King Albert received reports that this wasn’t just a demonstration of strength but an all-out offensive to capture the city: large bodies of German reserves were observed assembling at Liège to move towards Antwerp.

There was a general belief among those in the army and the government, and perhaps also the Belgian population, that Antwerp would never fall to a besieger. It was one of the largest fortified places in the world, with numerous forts. On the map the defences seemed to be formidable and impregnable, but the only map that mattered to the Germans was the one that told them the distance between their heavy siege artillery batteries and their targets: Antwerp’s obsolete ring of forts.

Fortress Antwerp was built by the Spanish in 1567, as the northern bastion and major port city of the Spanish Netherlands. The Spanish surrounded the city with a bastioned wall fashioned with lunettes to the north, east and south, the Scheldt river acting as a major obstacle to the west. A large crown work called in later years the Vlaamsch-Hoofd or Tête de Flandres defended the left bank of the Scheldt. Two large citadels flanked the eastern and western ends of the enceinte where it met the river. This was what King Leopold’s commission of government and military officials found when he ordered a study of Belgium’s defences. In 1859 the decision was made to create a national redoubt and to improve the defences of Antwerp so it could serve as a place of refuge if Belgium were attacked. The army would retreat, along with the government, into the city, safe behind the ring of forts, and await rescue by the allied powers according to their terms of guaranteed neutrality.

Between 1861 and 1871 General Brialmont directed the construction of eight large forts along the southern flank of the city, between the outskirts of Wijnegem and Hoboken. These were simply called Forts I to 8. Their purpose was to extend the fortress perimeter in order to keep enemy guns out of range of the city. Flood zones were developed to protect the outlying portions of the perimeter. However, after the Torpedo Shell Crisis of 1885, and because the town had outgrown Brialmont’s inner ring, these defences had become obsolete. To counter the increased range of enemy guns, a second ring of forts was built further out from the city.

Due to financial constraints, only a few works were actually constructed. Two forts were built to the south at Walem and Lier, and a defensive dyke that could be controlled to create a flood zone was added on the left bank of the Scheldt, covered by Forts Zwijndrecht and Kruibeke. To the north Fort Ste-Marie was built and Forts St-Philippe and La Perle were modernized. Each of these forts was built of brick. Fort Steendorp was the first to be built using brick with a layer of concrete added on top. As funding became available in the late 1880s, Fort Schoten was built to the northeast, along with the small Fortin of Duffel to guard the Brussels–Antwerp railway. These were built entirely in non-reinforced concrete. The ring was completed in 1893 with the construction of Forts Oorderen, Berendrecht and Kapellen.

A new round of construction was planned in 1900 but was delayed for funding reasons until 1906. Thirteen new forts and twelve permanent interval redoubts were added. The forts were polygons, surrounded by a water-filled moat, with the entrance reached by a bridge across the moat. These forts more closely resembled the configuration of Brialmont’s earlier models, Forts 1 to 8, than the more modern Forts of the Meuse at Liège and Namur. The latter forts were built on high ground and had a central redoubt surrounded by a dry ditch. The terrain around Antwerp was flat and low-lying, with a high water table, so no ditch would stay dry for long.

By 1914 Antwerp was one of the largest fortresses in the world, with a circumference of some 95km. It consisted of thirty-five forts and twelve redoubts. The guns in the older forts were placed in open air batteries, but the new forts were equipped with 15cm, 12cm and 7.5cm guns in revolving steel turrets. The approaches to the forts were defended by 5.7cm rapid-fire guns in turrets. Like the forts of Liège and Namur, the Antwerp forts were built to withstand shelling from 21cm siege guns. Unfortunately the German siege corps brought much larger guns to use against the forts in 1914, including the 42cm and 30.5cm howitzers. Many of the forts were incomplete when the Germans approached in early September 1914.

The Opposing Forces at Antwerp

Belgium had six divisions to defend the fortress: a total of 80,000 men. Four divisions were tasked with defending the perimeter, with one division in reserve; the weakest division – the remnant of the 4th Division from Namur – was placed at Termonde to guard against a German crossing of the Scheldt. One cavalry division with 3,600 men was located southwest of Termonde to guard the lines of communication between Antwerp and Ghent. Finally, the forts were garrisoned with 70,000 fortress troops. General de Guise, who had left Liège in July, was in charge of the entire force.

The German siege corps was commanded by General Hans von Beseler and had a total strength of about 125,000 men. It consisted of III Reserve Corps, IV Ersatz Division, one division of Marine Rifles from Marine-Korps-Flandern, one Bavarian Division, the 26th and 27th Landwehr Brigades, one brigade of siege engineers, one brigade of light artillery and nine extremely powerful heavy siege mortar batteries. The heavy artillery batteries included the following:

•  KMK Battery 2: Hauptmann Becker with two 42cm Gamma

•  KMK Battery 3: Hauptmann Erdmann with two 42cm M-Gerät (which saw action at Liège)

•  SKM Battery 1: Hauptmann Neuman with two 30.5cm mortars (which saw action at Liège)

•  SKM Battery 4: with two 30.5cm mortars

•  SKM Battery 5: Hauptmann Sharf with two 30.5cm mortars

•  SKM Battery 6: Hauptmann Buch – one 30.5cm mortar

•  Festungsartillerie-bataillon Batteries 7 and 9, each with two 30.5cm Austrian mortars.

The Battle for Antwerp

Great Britain played a significant role in the battle for Antwerp. In fact, had it not been for the assurances of Sir Winston Churchill, there might not have been a battle in the first place. In support of his promises, the British sent a Royal Naval brigade and a brigade of Royal Marines – a total of 10,000 men under the command of General Archibald Paris – to Antwerp, although they were mostly raw recruits, poorly equipped and trained, with few, if any combat skills.

On 2 October, a few days into the battle for Antwerp, things were not going well for the Belgians. King Albert notified the British government of his intentions to pull out of Antwerp immediately to prevent his army from being trapped, as it was apparent that the fortress line was breaking and the Allies didn’t appear to be coming to the aid of the Belgians. General Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, had planned to send British troops to relieve Antwerp, and the French had promised the same, but these forces were still a few days away and would not reach the area in time. Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, replied that the British would send a brigade of marines to arrive on 3 October. Churchill himself decided to make a visit to Antwerp to reassure his ally, not least because it was in Britain’s best interests that Antwerp hold out as long as possible so the channel ports were not seized by the Germans. Their loss would be a severe blow to the allied efforts.

Churchill worked out an arrangement with the Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles de Broqueville, under which the Belgians would hold out until the Allies arrived from the south. De Broqueville told Churchill he was confident they could hold for at least three more days, possibly more. Churchill assured him that if, in three days, they were not confident they could hold, they were under no obligation to stay and could retreat with Britain’s help: ‘If we can’t help them hold, we’ll help them get out.’ Thus, on the evening of 3 October some 2,000 marines were dispatched by train to Antwerp.

The fortress was far from complete at the start of the battle and the defences were still being organized. Concrete protection around the turret cylinders was not yet in place, and the engineers were obliged to use sandbags instead. Many of the turrets were without guns, and several of those that had guns were missing their firing sights. The forts also had other major construction flaws, in particular the quality of concrete used in their construction. They had been built to withstand 21cm shells, but the Germans had brought 30.5cm and 42cm guns to the front with an unlimited ammunition supply. Even if all the fortress guns had been available, the forward observation posts had not yet been set up so the guns would be firing blind. They also lacked an adequate supply of munitions. Worst of all, the Belgian guns did not have the range to reach the German batteries.

The engineers worked to overcome numerous geographic challenges presented by the region. The city had continued to expand outward, and obstacles blocking the guns’ lines of sight had to be cleared. Churches, farms and trees were levelled to the ground with explosives – nothing that stood in the way was spared. Because the land was flat, once the surrounding structures were cleared away, the outlines of the forts were easily visible to enemy observers. Worse, when the guns fired, they produced black smoke that could be seen for miles.

Principal targets of the German guns

•  below the Nethe river:

Fort Lier (10), Tallaert Redoubt (h), Fort Koningshoyckt (11), Boschbeck Redoubt (i), Dorpveld Redoubt (j), Fort Wavre-Ste-Catherine (12), Duffel Redoubt (k), Fort Waelhem (13);

•  to the west of the Willebrouck Canal:

Fort Breendonck (14), Lettereide Redoubt (l), Fort Liezele (15), Puers Redoubt (m), Fort Bornhem (16);

•  north of the Scheldt:

Fort Ruppelmonde (17), Lauwershoek Redoubt (n), Landmolen Redoubt (o), Fort Haesdonck (18), Fort Cruybeke (19), Fort Zwyndrecht (20); and

•  northwest of Antwerp, on either side of the Scheldt:

Fort Ste-Marie (21), Fort St-Phillippe (22).

Preparation of a 100km defensive perimeter line was a monumental task. Interval trenches were dug along most of the perimeter, but they tended to be shallow and poorly organized, and had no bomb-proof shelters. In some places they were little more than gullies. Obstructions were placed across the access roads. Paving stones were pulled up and used as barricades. Miles of barbed wire was stretched along the perimeter and around the defensive strongpoints. Infantry parapets were built up along the streams and canals. Bridges and viaducts were strewn with explosives, ready to be destroyed at a moment’s notice.

The outer ring of fortifications extended three-quarters of the way around the city, beginning on the right bank of the Scheldt north of the city and ending on the left bank to the northeast. The outer perimeter consisted of large forts with permanent redoubts built between the forts to serve as rallying points for the interval defence. The outer ring, beginning on the right bank northeast of Antwerp, below the Netherlands border, was arranged as follows: Berendrecht Redoubt (a), Oorderen Redoubt (b), Fort Staebroek (1), Staebroek Redoubt (c), Fort Ertbrand (2), Fort Cappellen (3), Fort Brasschaat (4), Dryoek Redoubt (d), Fort Schooten (5), Audaen Redoubt (e), Fort St Gravenwezel (6), Shilde Redoubt (f), Fort Oeleghem (7), Massenhoven Redoubt (g), Fort Broechem (8), Fort Kessel (9). The inner ring consisted of Forts 1 to 8 (23 to 30) and Fort Merxem (31). The Vlaamsch-Hoofd (32) was located across the Scheldt from the town centre.

The fortress was divided into five defensive sectors:

•  Sector 1: north – Forts St-Phillipe, Merxem, Cappelen

•  Sector 2: east – s’Gravenwezel, d’Oelegem

•  Sector 3: southeast – Nethe line near Lier and Duffel

•  Sector 4: along the Rupel – Bornem, Liezele

•  Sector 5: left bank of the Scheldt and in the area of Waes.

The Belgian army ordered the 1st and 2nd Divisions to Sector 3, while the 3rd and 6th Divisions were kept in Sector 4; the 4th Division occupied Termonde and the 5th Division remained as the general reserve.