The Battles of Herbsthausen and Allerheim

The capture of Philippsburg and Mainz had given France secure access over the Rhine, but the Lower Palatinate was too devastated to provide an adequate base for them inside Germany. The local truce ruled out use of the Franche-Comté to the south, heightening the importance of securing Swabian territory east of the Black Forest to sustain French forces in the Empire. News of Jankau emboldened Mazarin to believe there was a real chance of knocking Bavaria out of the war and Turenne was ordered to achieve this.

Both sides spent the opening months of 1645 raiding each other across the Black Forest. Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne was delayed by the need to rebuild his infantry shattered at Freiburg, while Franz von Mercy had detached Johann von Werth and most of the cavalry to Bohemia. Only 1,500 troopers returned in April. Turenne was able to attack first, crossing the Rhine with 11,000 men near Speyer on 26 March and advancing up the Neckar into Württemberg, which he thoroughly plundered. He then moved north-east, taking Rothenburg on the Tauber to open the way into Franconia. Mercy deliberately feigned defeatism, keeping to the south while he collected his forces. Turenne remained cautious, but was unable to sustain even his relatively small army in the Tauber valley. He moved to Mergentheim, billeting his cavalry in the surrounding villages in April.

Having received Maximilian’s permission to risk battle, Mercy planned to repeat his success at Tuttlingen. Werth’s arrival gave him 9,650 men and 9 guns at Feuchtwangen. He force-marched his troops 60km to approach Mergentheim from the south-east on 5 May. Turenne had been alerted by one of Rosen’s patrols at 2 a.m., but there was little time to collect his troops at Herbsthausen, just south-east of the town. He knew he could not trust his largely untried infantry in the open, so posted them along the edge of a wood on a rise overlooking the main road. Most of the cavalry were massed to the left ready to charge the Bavarians as they emerged from a large wood to the south. He had only 3,000 troopers and a similar number of infantry, though not all were present at the start of the battle and another 3,000 billeted in the surrounding area never made it at all.

Werth appeared first at the head of half the Bavarian cavalry to cover the deployment of the rest of the army on the other side of the narrow valley opposite the French. Mercy used his artillery to pound the wood, increasing the casualties as the shot sent branches flying through the air, just as the Swedes had done to the Bavarians at Wolfenbüttel. None of the six French cannon had arrived. Their infantry fired an ineffective salvo at long range and fell back as the Bavarians began a general advance. Turenne charged down the valley, routing the Bavarian cavalry on the left that included the units beaten at Jankau. However, a regiment held in reserve stemmed the attack, while the few French cavalry posted on Turenne’s extreme right were swept away by Werth’s charge. The French army dissolved in panic, many of the infantry being trapped around Herbsthausen. Turenne cut his way through almost alone to join three fresh cavalry regiments that arrived just in time to cover the retreat. The subsequent surrender of Mergentheim and other garrisons brought the total French losses up to 4,400, compared to 600 Bavarians.

The success was not on the scale of Tuttlingen, but it was sufficient to lift the despondency in Munich and Vienna after Jankau. The sequence of these actions underscores the general point about the interrelationship between war and diplomacy, as each change of military fortune raised the hopes in one party of achieving their diplomatic objectives, while hardening the determination of the other to continue resisting until the situation improved. In this case, Mercy was too weak to exploit his victory beyond securing the area south of the Main. Mazarin moved swiftly to restore French prestige before negotiations moved further in Westphalia. Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, D’Enghien was directed to take another 7,000 reinforcements across the Rhine at Speyer, and in a new show of common resolve Sweden agreed to despatch Königsmarck from Bremen to join the French. Having reinforced the garrisons in Meissen and Leipzig, Königsmarck arrived on the Main with 4,000 men. The return of the war to the Main area allowed Amalie Elisabeth to revive Hessian plans to attack Darmstadt under cover of the general war. She agreed to provide 6,000 men under their new commander, Geyso, who assembled at Hanau to invade Darmstadt in June.

The Battle of Allerheim [Battle of Nördlingen (1645)]

Ferdinand of Cologne sent Gottfried Huyn von Geleen and 4,500 Westphalians south past the allies to join Mercy on 4 July, to give him about 16,000 men against the enemy’s 23,000. Mercy then retired south to Heilbronn, blocking the way into Swabia. The allied troop concentration soon broke up. One commonly cited reason was that d’Enghien had managed to insult both Johann von Geyso and Hans Christoff von Königsmarck. However, the real cause of the latter’s departure in mid-July was an order from Lennart Torstensson to knock out Saxony. The instructions, dated 10 May (Old Style), were later copied and sent to Johann Georg to put pressure on him to negotiate. Given Torstensson’s inability to take Brünn, there was only a limited period of time in which to intimidate Saxony before the Imperialists recovered sufficiently to send assistance. D’Enghien meanwhile resumed Turenne’s earlier plan and marched east through southern Franconia heading for Bavaria. The division of military labour evolving since 1642 was now complete. Sweden would eliminate Saxony and attack the emperor while France knocked Bavaria out of the war.

Mercy deftly checked the French advance by taking up a series of near impregnable positions, obliging d’Enghien to waste time outflanking him. The game ended at Allerheim near the confluence of the Wörnitz and Eger rivers on 3 August. Though it is also known as the second battle of Nördlingen, the action was fought on the opposite side of the Eger to the events of 1634. Mercy had deployed with his back to the Wörnitz between two steep hills on which he entrenched some of his 28 cannon. The infantry, who comprised less than half his army, were positioned behind Allerheim in the centre. The cemetery, the church and a few solid houses were filled with musketeers, while others held entrenchments around the front and sides of the village. The cavalry were massed either side, with Geleen and the Imperialists on the right (north) as far as the Wenneberg, and Werth with the Bavarians on the left next to the Schloßberg hill, named after the ruined castle on the top.

D’Enghien had not expected to find the enemy, but seized the opportunity for battle despite his subordinates’ reservations. Königsmarck’s departure had left him with 6,000 French troops, plus 5,000 more under Turenne and the 6,000 Hessians, with 27 guns. He placed most of the French infantry and 800 cavalry in the centre opposite Allerheim, while Turenne stood on the left with the Hessians and his own cavalry. The rest of the French were deployed on the right (south) under Antoine III de Gramont opposite the Schloßberg.

It was already 4 p.m. by the time they were ready, but d’Enghien knew from Freiburg how quickly the Bavarians could dig in and did not want to give them the night to complete their works. The French guns could not compete with the Bavarians’ that were protected by earthworks, so d’Enghien ordered a frontal assault at 5 p.m. He was soon fully occupied with the fight for Allerheim, leading successive waves of infantry over the entrenchments, only to be hurled back again by fresh Bavarian units fed by Mercy from the centre. The thatched roofs of the village soon caught fire, forcing the defenders into the stone buildings. The French commander had two horses shot under him and was himself saved by his breastplate deflecting a musket ball. Mercy was not so fortunate as he entered the burning village around 6 p.m. to rally the flagging defence. He was shot in the head and died instantly. Johann von Ruischenberg assumed command and repulsed the French.

Werth meanwhile routed Gramont who thought a ditch in front of his position was impassable and allowed the Bavarians to approach within 100 metres. The French cavalry offered brief resistance before fleeing, leaving Gramont to fight on with two infantry brigades until he was forced to surrender. Werth’s cavalry dispersed in pursuit and it is possible that the smoke from Allerheim obscured the battlefield. Either way, he discovered that the rest of the army was on the point of collapse only when he returned to his start position around 8 p.m. Turenne had saved the day for the French with a desperate assault on the Wenneberg that allowed the Hessians, the last fresh troops, to overrun the Bavarian artillery and hit Allerheim in the flank. Parties of Bavarian infantry were cut off in the confusion and surrendered. Werth assumed command, collected the army at the Schloßberg and retreated around 1 a.m. in good order to the Schellenberg hill above Donauwörth.

Werth attracted considerable blame, especially from later commentators like Napoleon, for failing to exploit his initial success by sweeping round behind the French centre to smash Turenne as d’Enghien had done with the Spanish at Rocroi. Werth defended himself by pointing out the difficulties of communicating along the length of the Bavarian army that probably measured 2,500 metres. His troopers were also short of ammunition and it was getting dark by the time they reassembled. Indeed, the late hour probably proved decisive, limiting what Werth could see. His withdrawal was prudent under the circumstances, depriving the Bavarians of a chance for victory, but at least avoiding a worse defeat that would have wrecked the army.

D’Enghien had been fortunate to escape with victory, losing at least 4,000 dead and wounded. The infantry in the centre had been almost wiped out and the French court was aghast at the extent of casualties that included several senior officers. Like Freiburg, it was the Bavarian retreat that transformed the action into a strategic success, partly because at least 1,500 men were captured as Werth pulled out of Allerheim in addition to the 2,500 killed or wounded. Retreat after another hard-fought battle eroded morale. The Bavarians vented their fury on the unfortunate captive Gramont, who narrowly escaped being murdered by Mercy’s servant and was grateful to be exchanged for Geleen the next month.

The Kötzschenbroda Armistice

The immediate repercussions were soon redressed. The French captured Nördlingen and Dinkelsbühl, but got stuck at Heilbronn where d’Enghien fell ill. Mazarin refused to send reinforcements to replace the casualties, leaving Turenne outnumbered as Leopold Wilhelm and 5,300 Imperialists arrived from Bohemia in early October. By December, Turenne was back in Alsace having lost all the towns captured that year.

The stabilization of southern Germany was offset by a major blow in the north-east that indicated that the new allied strategy was working. Though the French had been unable to knock out Bavaria, their campaign in Franconia prevented relief reaching Saxony, which had been left isolated after Jankau. Königsmarck had force-marched the Swedish forces up the Main and burst into the electorate early in August. Johann Georg appealed to Ferdinand, protesting that the Swedes were deliberately ravaging his land. The emperor replied on 25 August that he had just made peace with Georg I. Rákóczi and help was on its way. It was too late. Before the letter arrived, the elector had already given up hope; he concluded an armistice at Kötzschenbroda on 6 September.

Saxony secured a six-month ceasefire on relatively favourable terms. The Swedes accepted the electorate’s neutrality, but allowed it to continue discharging its obligations to the emperor by leaving three cavalry regiments with the imperial army. In return, Saxony had to pay 11,000 talers a month to maintain the Swedish garrison in Leipzig, the only town Königsmarck insisted on retaining in the electorate. The Swedes were allowed to cross the electorate, but they also agreed to lift their blockade of the Saxon garrison in Magdeburg.

Won by the Sword

Louis-Gabriel Suchet, (1770-1826)

Louis-Gabriel Suchet emerged as the most successful of Napoleon’s generals in coping with the difficulties of fighting in the Iberian Peninsula. After campaigning in Italy and Switzerland during the War of the Second Coalition, he fought with distinction as a divisional commander in the successful campaigns of 1805, 1806, and 1807. Al- though his early career brought him numerous laurels in conventional warfare, Suchet received no training in the complex task of fighting simultaneously against both guerrillas and regular enemy forces. But in 1808, Napoleon promoted the rising young leader to command a corps in Spain. There Suchet had a run of successes, pacifying the province of Aragon for several years and extending French control for a time into neighboring Catalonia and Valencia. His single greatest achievement, for which he won his marshal’s baton, was capturing the Spanish fortress of Tarragona in May 1811. Only when the Earl (later Duke) of Wellington had defeated other French leaders and driven them from Spain into southern France was Suchet compelled to agree to an armistice with the enemy. Rallying to Napoleon in the spring of 1815, he held a high-ranking post in the defense of France’s eastern border. Suchet survived the end of the Napoleonic era in France by a little more than a decade, dying in 1826.

Louis-Gabriel Suchet was a child of privilege, born at his father’s country estate near Lyons on 2 March 1770. The son of a wealthy silk manufacturer, the young man joined the National Guard, then entered a volunteer battalion as a private soldier in 1792. Within a year, his fellow soldiers had chosen him as lieutenant colonel of the same unit. Suchet’s battalion participated in the siege of the port of Toulon, where his battlefield exploits brought him to the attention of General Napoleon Bonaparte. During the 1796-1797 campaign in Italy, Suchet served at times in General André Masséna’s division, at other times in the division led by General Pierre Augereau. He was wounded in battle several times, displayed both tactical skill and bravery, and rose to the rank of colonel. When the French army left Italy to pursue the Austrian enemy into their homeland, Suchet commanded the advance guard of Bonaparte’s forces.

Although he reached the rank of général de brigade in 1798 and général de division in 1799, the years following the Italian campaign saw Suchet’s career lose some of its upward momentum. His personal relationship with Bonaparte was cool: Suchet exhibited no affection for his commander, and Bonaparte reciprocated by excluding the young officer from the list of associates marked for promotion to the top of the military hierarchy. Moreover, a paradoxical combination of political traits made him suspect to the government back in Paris. Suchet’s family background gave him the appearance of a sympathizer with the de- posed aristocracy. At the same time, Suchet’s extravagant rhetoric in favor of deepening the effect of the Revolution was seen as too radical for the post-Jacobin era.

Nonetheless, Suchet saw his reputation rise in the eyes of several senior commanders. Serving as a brigade commander under Masséna in Switzerland in the spring of 1799, he pulled his unit out of a perilous position after the bold French advance into eastern Switzerland. After returning safely to French lines, the young general received the post of Masséna’s chief of staff. Later that year, he served as chief of staff to General Barthélemy Joubert in Italy. In that capacity, Suchet advised his commander to avoid fighting a superior Russian force at Novi in August. When Joubert ignored the advice and was killed in the sub- sequent battle, Suchet helped to lead the defeated French army home.

Masséna’s 1800 campaign in northwestern Italy, which culminated in the siege of Genoa, brought Suchet mixed success. As commander of the northern segment of the French line, Suchet was unable to hold back an Austrian force, being pushed as far westward as Nice and beyond. His failure forced Masséna into a defensive position behind the walls of the important Italian port city. Suchet redeemed himself, however, by halting the Austrian offensive along the river Var west of Nice, thereby safeguarding the route into southern France. By holding down some 30,000 Austrian troops in Provence during May with his own meager force of only about 8,000 men, Suchet contributed to Bonaparte’s successful crossing of the Alps and subse- quent victory at the Battle of Marengo.

In the years following, Suchet received only modest rewards. Named the French army’s inspector general of infantry in 1801, he was passed over when several of his contemporaries received the title of marshal on 19 May 1804. With the formation of the Grande Armée, Suchet got the relatively lowly post of divisional commander. Fighting in V Corps under Marshal Jean Lannes, Suchet had a string of exceptional successes. His division advanced rapidly into Germany in the summer of 1805, thereby helping to confine and capture the Austrian army under Feldmarschalleutnant Karl Mack Freiherr von Leiberich at Ulm. At the subsequent Battle of Austerlitz in early December, Suchet’s troops held the French army’s northern flank against Russian attacks, permitting Napoleon to concentrate his forces in the center for the victorious strike against the enemy’s lines. In October 1806, Suchet’s division was the first to encounter the Prussian army and achieve a French victory in the fighting at Saalfeld; in the ensuing Battle of Jena, Suchet’s men again spearheaded the French advance.

In the subsequent offensive into Poland in late 1806 and early 1807, Suchet received orders to guard the area around Warsaw. Although his troops saw action at Pultusk and Ostrolenka, Suchet had no role to play in the great battlefield dramas of Eylau and Friedland. Nonetheless, his solid, sometimes brilliant leadership now brought him ap- propriate rewards. In March 1808, Napoleon granted him several large estates and named him a Count of the Empire. Moreover, after fifteen years of service, Suchet ascended to command of an army corps. In September 1808, he received orders to take this force into Spain.

Suchet had never fought guerrillas as he was to do so often in Spain. But he had experienced enough leadership challenges to help him cope better than many of his con- temporaries in the French army with the problems of both conventional and irregular warfare in the Peninsula. Campaigning in an area in which he was unlikely to receive reinforcements, Suchet saw the need to preserve the strength of his army at all costs. Ever since his service with the ragged troops of Bonaparte’s Army of Italy in 1796-1797, Suchet had been a stickler for obtaining adequate supplies of food for his men. And he insisted on suitable medical care for them. At the same time, he had become convinced of the advantages of unwavering discipline in the army. He was also equipped by experience for the delicate task of occupying a hostile area. As military governor of Toulon back in 1793, he had begun to acquire experience in ruling over a civilian population, and he had served as military governor of the Italian city of Padua in early 1801.

Suchet arrived in Spain in December 1808. He was ordered to Aragon to join other commanders like Marshal Adolphe Mortier and General Jean Andoche Junot in besieging the key Spanish fortress of Saragossa. Dispatched to northeastern Spain at this early stage in the Peninsular War, Suchet was to spend most of the following five years here.

In helping with the siege of Saragossa, a major city on the river Ebro, the young general soon faced the problems of guerrilla warfare. His role was to hold the road center of Calatayud, to the southwest of Saragossa, thus maintaining the besiegers’ supply line with Madrid. In dealing with the local population, Suchet tested some of the policies that served him well throughout his posting in the Peninsula. In particular, he worked to win over the Spanish under his jurisdiction by avoiding the harsh requisitioning policies that elsewhere provoked fierce popular resistance.

With the fall of Saragossa in February 1809, Suchet replaced Junot as commander of V Corps and received the assignment of pacifying Aragon. Although the three divisions he now led were notoriously ill-disciplined, Suchet transformed them into a potent fighting force that later received the title of the Army of Aragon. The French leader shook off an initial defeat at the hands of General Joaquin Blake at Alcaniz in late May. Dismissing incompetent officers and reconstituting his forces, he led his troops to victories over Blake in battles at Maria and Belchite the following month, thereby freeing Aragon of conventional Spanish forces.

Suchet’s next task was to cope with insurgents within the Aragonese population. His success came from a mixture of conciliation and firmness. He capitalized on separatist feeling in Aragon and the willingness of the local population to disavow allegiance to the old Spanish monarchy. He saw no need to harass local religious leaders, and he was comfortable calling on representatives of the population to offer him advice and suggestions. In forming a police force, he tried to rely on the local population for recruits, and he had some modest success in bringing local notables into the French administration. Meanwhile, Suchet made every effort to maintain discipline among his own troops by paying them regularly and providing them with adequate rations. By employing an entire army corps in controlling the people of Aragon, Suchet assured that local insurgents, who had not yet organized effectively, could not get a foothold in the region. He soon gained a reputation for unmitigated harshness in dealing with guerrillas who fell into his hands.

Success in counterinsurgency received a boost from the fact that, starting in mid-1809 after defeating the Austrians at Wagram, Napoleon did not face organized opposition elsewhere. Since the Emperor had no need to draw troops from Spain for a number of years, Suchet was allowed to keep his forces intact. He even received a stream of reinforcements from across the Pyrenees. On the other hand, cooperation among the generals in charge of individual provinces in Spain was conspicuous by its absence. While Suchet could clear Aragon of insurgent opposition, the elusive enemy could easily slip over into a neighboring province. Nor was Suchet, for all his abilities, willing to cooperate with his fellow French generals.

Pursuing a policy certain to rouse popular feeling against the occupiers, Napoleon insisted on draining away the resources of the Spanish countryside. The Emperor directed Suchet to undertake other responsibilities that undercut the successes in Aragon. By requiring Suchet to advance into the neighboring provinces of Catalonia and Valencia in February 1810, Napoleon began to spread Suchet’s troops perilously thin. Insurgents in Aragon took notice.

Suchet failed in an initial attempt to take the port city of Valencia in April 1810, but he then produced a series of dramatic successes. His troops captured two main Spanish strongholds in southern Catalonia-Lérida and Tortosa- and Suchet became recognized as one French commander who could produce good results against both enemy regulars and enemy insurgents.

The highpoint of Suchet’s command in Spain came in 1811 with the capture of Tarragona; on 8 July he received the baton of Marshal of the Empire as a reward for this achievement, becoming the only French general to win this distinction in the Peninsula. As a major port and key fortress, Tarragona enabled regular Spanish forces to maintain themselves in lower Catalonia. A difficult siege began in early May, with the defenders aided by the presence of a Royal Navy squadron. British warships directed artillery fire against the French attackers, and British transports brought Spanish forces by sea to reinforce Tarragona’s garrison. By the close of June, Suchet’s Army of Aragon had breached the fortress walls, fought through the streets of the city, and captured a garrison of 9,000. But even Suchet, the disciplinarian and advocate of moderate treatment for Spanish civilians, found himself helpless to control his victorious French forces. Filled with excitement and post-battle exhilaration, Suchet’s troops sacked the city and murdered thousands of Tarragona’s population.

Suchet faced a new challenge when Napoleon ordered him to move against the city of Valencia. The city was the last base of support for Spanish regular forces in eastern Spain, and it provided crucial supplies for guerrillas operating in that part of the country. In October, a new victory over Blake at Sagunto, north of Valencia, put the Army of Aragon in a position to advance on Valencia itself. Suchet took the city in January 1812, capturing his longtime adversary Blake along with 18,000 troops. Napoleon recognized the feat of arms by naming Suchet duc d’Albufera, after a small body of water near the captured city.

But Suchet’s success at Valencia had negative consequences. For one thing, concentrating the army for a conventional campaign enabled insurgents back in Aragon to renew their activities. Moreover, Napoleon diverted troops from the Army of Portugal in western Spain in order to reinforce Suchet. With the shrinkage in French troops there, Wellington received a golden opportunity to strike at his enemy’s border fortresses at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. With these in his hands, the British commander in chief was able to advance into the center of Spain and even to take temporary possession of Madrid.

Reconstructing the Grande Armée in 1813 after his disastrous Russian campaign, Napoleon desperately needed troops in Germany. The Emperor transferred units from Italy to Germany, leaving a gap that Napoleon filled by drawing troops from Suchet’s command. Thus, Italian regiments serving under Suchet were reconstituted as a single division and sent back to Italy. Besides his diminished resources, Suchet found himself confronted with the potent opposition of the Royal Navy. In the spring, a landing force of British and Sicilian troops tried to recapture Tarragona. He was able to bring sufficient forces together to relieve the city in August, but by then the overall situation in Spain was growing increasingly unstable.

After the defeat of French forces at Vitoria in June 1813, and Wellington’s invasion of French territory in October, Suchet realized that holding extensive territory in northeastern Spain was no longer possible. He withdrew to northern Catalonia, and, in a controversial decision, refused to join Marshal Nicolas Soult in a counteroffensive Soult had planned against Wellington. In early 1814, Suchet was pushed northward to Gerona and then to the approaches to the Pyrenees at Figueras. At this time, new demands from Napoleon that troops leave Spain for the campaign in France deprived Suchet of over 20,000 troops, leaving barely 12,000 soldiers under his command.

Suchet’s troops remained a disciplined, if small fighting force in southwestern France when Napoleon’s resistance to the invading Allies collapsed in the spring of 1814. With his headquarters at Narbonne, Suchet negotiated an armistice with Wellington. It was his only important con- tact with the distinguished British commander. Alone among the senior French military leaders who served years in Spain, Suchet never faced Wellington on the battlefield. The French marshal also declared his allegiance to the restored monarchy of Louis XVIII and received a number of rewards. Elevated to the peerage, Suchet obtained a succession of prestigious military commands. Napoleon’s return from exile in March 1815 found Suchet as commander of the 5th Division stationed at Strasbourg.

Suchet joined several of the other marshals in rallying to Napoleon’s service. Although Suchet had not seen the Emperor since 1808, Napoleon showed that he was aware of the talents of this Peninsular veteran, awarding him a significant independent command. Suchet was sent to Lyons as Napoleon prepared to thrust his army into Belgium, and he was given the mission of defending south- eastern France. His “Corps of Observation of the Alps” consisted of some 8,000 regulars and 15,000 members of the National Guard. With this meager force, Suchet had to shield France from an Austrian and Piedmontese attack expected to advance from Switzerland or Savoy.

Suchet took the initiative away from the enemy by driving into Savoy and seizing the key military routes through the Alps. His offensive began on 14 June, the day before Napoleon’s troops entered Belgium. Facing a well- led, veteran Austrian army of some 48,000 men, however, Suchet was compelled to order a retreat, which most of the army carried out in a disciplined manner. More than a week after Waterloo, he learned about Napoleon’s defeat and abdication, and he followed orders from the provisional government in Paris to negotiate an armistice with the enemy.

As a penalty for having renewed his ties with Napoleon, Suchet was deprived of both his peerage and his military post at Strasbourg. His peerage was restored in 1819, but he never again received any military responsibilities. After living his last decade in obscurity, Suchet died at his chateau near Marseilles on 3 June 1826.

Tarragona (1811)

By late December 1810 Marshal Jacques Macdonald had stabilised the situation in the north of Spain and was again able to support Louis-Gabriel Suchet’s attempts to capture Tortosa. Suchet therefore moved to begin the siege on 16 December, and for once the Spanish failed to defend a strong fortress well. In fact, by 2 January 1811 the place was entirely in French hands.

This success immediately released Macdonald to carry out the siege of Lerida, whilst Napoleon ordered Suchet to take Tarragona, arbitrarily transferring half of Macdonald’s corps to Suchet’s command. At this, Macdonald promptly retired to Barcelona and left Suchet to it.

On 9 April 1811 the French were shocked to hear that the fortress of Figueras had again fallen into Spanish hands, once more threatening the supply route from France. The local Spanish insurgents had worked with a few patriots within the fortress to obtain copies of the keys to the gates and surprised the garrison before any resistance could even be attempted.

Macdonald sent the news to Suchet, asking him to abandon all thoughts of besieging Tarragona and instead to march north with his entire army. Suchet rightly pointed out that it would take him a month to march northwards, and suggested that Macdonald should seek help from France instead, given that the French border lay only 20 miles from Figueras. Suchet then began his march to Tarragona on 28 April, believing that this operation would draw the Spanish south in an attempt to relieve the place.

Napoleon promptly scraped together a force of 14,000 men at Perpignan, whilst General Baraguay d’Hilliers, commanding at Gerona, managed to collect another 6,000 men. Between them, this force of 20,000 men would seek to recapture Figueras, a task made much easier when the Spanish General Campoverde reacted exactly as Suchet had predicted and moved his force of 4,000 men by sea to help save Tarragona. He abandoned the 2,000 men of the garrison of Figueras to their fate and Marshal Macdonald then moved north to take personal command of the siege of Figueras.

Suchet began the siege of Tarragona on 7 May and three days later General Campoverde arrived by sea and bolstered the defenders with his 4,000 troops. The French were obliged to work very close to the coastline, which rendered their works vulnerable to fire from British and Spanish ships. To remedy this, the first batteries constructed faced the sea and their guns forced the warships to move further away. The French now concentrated their efforts on capturing Fort Olivo, a detached redoubt protecting the lower town. This was successfully stormed on the 29th.

Two further battalions of Spanish troops arrived by sea from Valencia, but General Campoverde sailed to seek further support, leaving General Juan Contreras in command. By 17 June the French had captured all the external defences of Tarragona and the siege was reaching a critical point; Contreras, despite having 11,000 men, simply failed to disrupt the French besiegers at all. On the 21st the lower town was successfully stormed, meaning that command of the harbour also fell to the French. Things now looked bleak for Contreras, particularly with Campoverde accusing him of cowardice from a safe distance away.

On 26 June, however, things improved for the Spanish commander. A number of troop ships arrived with a few hundred Spanish troops on board; better still, some 1,200 British troops1 commanded by Colonel John Skerrett also arrived, having been sent by General Graham at Cadiz to aid the defence. Skerrett landed that evening and surveyed the defences with the Spanish; it was unanimously agreed that Tarragona was no longer tenable. As Graham had specifically ordered that the British troops were not to land unless Skerrett could guarantee that they could safely re-embark, he rightly decided to abandon the attempt and sailed with the intention of landing further along the coast and subsequently joining with Campoverde’s force. But this was a depressing sight for the Spanish defenders and undoubtedly damaged their already fragile morale. In fact, the very day that breaching batteries opened fire on the walls, a viable breach was formed by the afternoon and was promptly stormed. Within half an hour all the defences had given way and the French infantry swarmed into the town. A terrible orgy of rape and murder followed, and it is estimated that over 4,000 Spaniards lost their lives that night, over half of them civilian. At least 2,000 of the Spanish regulars defending the town had been killed during the siege and now some 8,000 more were captured.

The capture of Tarragona earned Suchet his marshal’s baton; it had destroyed the Spanish Army of Catalonia and severely hampered British naval operations along the coast. By contrast, Campoverde was soon replaced by General Lacy, who took the few remaining men into the hills to regroup.

Suchet marched northwards to Barcelona, ensuring that his lines of communication were secure. On discovering that Macdonald was progressing well with his siege at Figueras, he turned his attentions to capturing the sacred mountain stronghold of Montserrat, which fell on 25 July. The damage to Spanish morale proved more important than the physical retention of this monastic stronghold. On 19 August Figueras was finally starved into submission after a four-month siege, thus re-opening the French supply routes. Napoleon was delighted by the news but he promptly reminded Suchet that he was yet to capture Valencia.

The Spanish forces under General Lacy continued to make forays, even into France, and attempted to disrupt French communications with predatory raids by both land and sea. These operations restored somewhat the shattered morale of the Spanish guerrillas and the flame of insurrection, so nearly snuffed out, continued to flicker and occasionally flare up, giving the Spanish some hope. Macdonald was recalled to France, another Marshal of France finding eastern Spain a step too far.

Despite his own strong misgivings, Marshal Suchet again marched south for Valencia with a force of some 22,000 men. General Joaquin Blake, commanding some 30,000 men, was tasked with opposing him but simply allowed him to march there without resistance. Suchet’s force arrived at Murviedro on 23 September and, having signally failed in a foolish attempt to storm the fortress of Saguntum by direct escalade, the French army sat down before it and patiently awaited the arrival of the siege artillery, only opening fire on 17 October. Suchet attempted a second costly assault without success and looked nervously over his shoulder at the insurrections breaking out in his rear. However, at this point General Blake decided that he must advance to protect Saguntum; having collected no fewer than 40,000 men, he attacked Suchet on 25 October and was soundly beaten for his troubles, losing over 5,000 men. The garrison of Saguntum, acknowledging that there was now no hope, surrendered the following day. Blake had simply given Suchet’s troops hope, when in fact they had none.

Suchet now continued his march on towards Valencia. Arriving on the north bank of the Guadalquivir river, he found Blake facing him again, encamped on the southern bank with some 30,000 men. Having only 15,000 men with him, Suchet formed an encampment here and awaited reinforcements, with which he could advance to prosecute the siege of Valencia.

Napoleon, badly underestimating the British army under Wellington, but simultaneously recognising the importance of capturing Valencia, ordered King Joseph’s army to further supplement Suchet’s operations. Marshal Marmont’s army, facing Wellington, was also weakened when Napoleon ordered him to send Suchet 12,000 men. These developments would have a very significant effect on Wellington’s operations a few months later, in early 1812.

The promised reinforcements arrived with Suchet in late December and he immediately advanced to prosecute the siege of Valencia on the 26th, successfully completing the investment of the city by that evening. By 1 January work had begun on preparing siege batteries, which were armed and ready to proceed by the 4th.

Blake moved his troops from his fortified camp in the hills into the city, but the prospects for a successful defence appeared to be very poor. There was already a severe shortage of food and the morale of the Spanish troops was so low that they were deserting en masse. Suchet added significantly to their discomfort by bombarding the city with shells until the morale of the defenders finally collapsed. Blake was forced to agree to surrender on 9 January, with around 16,000 Spanish soldiers laying down their arms.

The almost impregnable fortress of Penissicola, garrisoned by some 1,000 Spanish veterans, was now besieged, the siege guns beginning a heavy bombardment on 28 January. Despite being well supplied with food and stores by the British navy, and his troops proclaiming their determination to fight on, General Garcia Navarro, the fortress commander, seems to have lost all hope after Valencia fell. A letter describing his fears was captured by the French and used to exert enormous pressure on a man obviously unable to cope; when a forceful summons was sent in on 2 February, the commandant surrendered without delay. Almost the entire east coast of Spain was now in French hands.

Sicily and Ponza (1813)

Capture of the Island of Ponza Feby 26th 1813. From a plan by Capt Mounsey by Thomas Whitcombe [artist]; Thomas Sutherland [engraver], 1813. PAD5833

As the French debacle in Russia unfolded, allegiances became strained and Marshal King Murat apparently openly declared his intention of making peace with the British. Arriving back in his kingdom on 4 February 1813, he immediately dispatched an emissary to the Austrian Emperor, offering his troops in return for a guarantee that he could retain his kingdom as it stood presently, even if Napoleon fell, but nothing concrete came of the proposal.

Lord William Bentinck had previously received a proposal from the Russian Admiral Tchitchagov, commanding the Black Sea fleet and the Russian troops on the Danube, that he could provide 40,000 troops to attack the French possessions in Dalmatia, leading on to an invasion of Italy itself, if supported by 20,000 British/Sicilian troops. Although such a proposal may have sound very attractive to Bentinck, he declined to take up this offer once it became clear that the entire expense of paying and feeding these troops would fall on the British treasury.

Bentinck had so far followed his brief from London to send all available troops to the east coast of Spain over every other priority, despite his own hopes of leading an Italian insurrection. Napoleon had failed in Russia and was on the retreat in central Europe; because of this, the French garrisons in the Mediterranean were being severely denuded to reinforce the severely weakened forces in Germany. Bentinck saw his opportunity and began to champion his Italian dreams once again.

Now, Admiral Greig was in command of the Black Sea fleet and he had 11,000 Russian troops that could be utilised if paid by the British. With these, added to the troops that Bentinck could bring together at Sicily, he could create an army of 30,000 men, all in British pay, ready to be used anywhere in the Mediterranean. As a first move in this direction, on 26 February Bentinck sent a small force under Vice Admiral Pellew to capture the island of Ponza, to be used as a base for naval operations against coastal trade, as a supply base for smuggling British goods and as a way of providing immediate channels of communication with the Italian mainland. The troops landing on the island, whilst the naval guns pounded the small fortress, soon persuaded the governor of the island to capitulate. Some 300 prisoners were taken here, without a single casualty amongst the British troops.

Two days before this action, a convoy of fifty armed vessels with stores destined for Naples was attacked at Pietra Nera on the Calabrian coast. The attacking force, led by Captain Robert Hall, included two divisions of gunboats and four companies of the 75th Foot. The troops were landed on the coast at daylight on 14 February, and they soon took the coastal batteries and all the enemy boats were either carried off or burnt.

As regards the internal affairs of Sicily, things had begun to take on a much brighter appearance, with the quality of the Sicilian army improving, the anti-British party subsiding in influence and the British-style constitution beginning to bed in. But as always, trouble was not far away, usually harboured under the skirts of the queen – and so it proved once again.

Through the queen’s intrigues, the king had begun to take the government back under his own hand and in striving to return to the old ways, he effectively neutralised the new constitution. Bentinck reacted immediately and with great force, declaring that the alliance was to be ended immediately. This sudden threat caused an instant reaction from the king, who – true to form – immediately caved in and went back to his hunting. The harm had been done, however, and tensions grew between the Neapolitan troops stationed in Sicily and the Sicilian civilian population. This, added to renewed preparations by Murat for an invasion of Sicily, was regarded as so serious a situation that it led to Bentinck ordering some troops back from Spain.

By the end of May, however, all seemed to have settled down again, and the queen had, to all appearances, finally conceded defeat and announced her departure from the island. She would sail on 27 May for Constantinople, from where she could travel overland to Vienna. With the intrigues of the queen finally coming to an end, Bentinck felt the position on Sicily was secure enough, and he sailed for Alicante, taking as many troops as he could spare and leaving them at Ponza en route, to threaten the Italian mainland. Leaving General Macfarlane in command at Palermo, he gave him instructions to land 12,000 men on the mainland if an Italian insurrection actually materialised.

Hardly had he sailed than the news reached him that the queen had delayed her voyage because of ill health, although thankfully she did depart on 14 June for Zante. The Sicilian government, however, quickly reverted to type and once again became extremely obstructive and embroiled in petty squabbling.

By mid-July Macfarlane could only report the situation as ‘alarming’, with the new constitution on the verge of collapse. Palermo suffered regular riots and foodstuffs became scarce and expensive, adding to the unrest. Macfarlane was forced to order the return to Sicily of most of the troops sent to Ponza, and thankfully the Neapolitan troops remained loyal. In August Macfarlane felt that the situation was so grave that he wrote to Bentinck requesting his urgent return from Spain, with which he reluctantly concurred.

Sicily had rarely been any less than a severe headache for British commanders, and prospects now looked as bleak once again as they ever had. It seemed that no one would ever be able to get a firm grasp on Sicilian politics, queen or no queen, but abandoning the island to its own fate could never be an option. For all its faults, failings and frustrations, Sicily was too vital to the British cause in the Mediterranean. Perhaps that was always the problem: the Sicilians could also see that they were vital to Britain and therefore knew that they could continue their intrigues with impunity.

The Blitzkrieg of 1494

The Itinerary of Charles VIII in Italy, 1494-1495

One of the most technologically forward-looking military expeditions in history was launched for the most retrograde of reasons. Fourteen ninety-four was a time of momentous change. Less than half a century had passed since the first printed book had appeared. The Moors and Jews had been expelled from Spain just two years before. Only a year before, an Italian sailor in Spanish employ named Columbus had returned from an overseas voyage claiming to have discovered a New World. Yet none of these events loomed as large at the time as the loss of Constantinople forty-one years earlier to the Turks. Byzantium, the bastion of Christianity in the East, had fallen to the Mohammedans! Any self-respecting Christian monarch felt a duty to take up arms. King Charles VIII of France had the means to act and the inclination to do so.

His kingdom had been greatly enlarged and substantially strengthened over the past half century. The English had been kicked out of Normandy and Guienne in 1453 at the end of the Hundred Years’ War. In subsequent decades, Armagnac, Burgundy, Provence, Anjou, and Brittany had been wrested from their feudal rulers and added to the crown domains. With France almost at its modern boundaries, Charles VIII presided over the most powerful nation in Europe at a time when the very concept of a “state” was just taking shape.

With his small stature, skinny body, large head, and massive nose, the twenty-four-year-old king hardly looked the part of a mighty monarch. His hands twitched nervously and he stuttered when he spoke. “In body as in mind,” wrote a contemporary chronicler, “he is of no great value.” He had so little education that he was unable to speak Latin, the language of civilized discourse, and he was able to sign his own name only with great difficulty. But he loved tales of chivalrous derring-do like Thomas Malory’s evocation of the Camelot legend, Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485. Charles longed to be another El Cid, Roland, or Charlemagne—a great hero who would smite the infidels and reclaim the Holy Land. He wanted to go on a Crusade.

The opportunity to act out his anachronistic dream presented itself early in 1494 when the king of Naples died. Charles VIII felt he had a dynastic claim to the throne and he decided to make good on it in order to seize an operating base for use against the Ottoman Empire. Italy was then at the height of the Renaissance. Riches from agriculture, manufacture, and trade—Italy was Europe’s gateway, via the Mediterranean, to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—created a class of wealthy businessmen and nobles who financed an outpouring of art the likes of which the world had never seen before or since. Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian: All were alive in the 1490s. They benefited from a loosening of religious restrictions that was savagely denounced by moralists such as the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola, who complained that Pope Alexander VI (one of the Borgia popes) was guilty of incest, murder, and corruption. Wallowing in decadent luxury, Italy let its defenses molder. This problem was compounded by the peninsula’s lack of unity. It was split into small states poised in carefully balanced equilibrium. The most powerful were the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, the Duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Florence. In all of them, leading families such as the Borgias, Medicis, and Sforzas schemed for power and position with a bag of gold ducats in one hand and a dagger in the other. Seeking an ally against his rivals, the Duke of Milan invited Charles VIII into Italy, and the French king eagerly seized the opportunity.

In the fall of 1494, Charles led some 27,000 men across the Alps, bringing with him a new way of war. Since most Italians disdained military service, they had turned over the protection of their city-states to mercenary captains, the condottieri (contractors), whose paid followers, many of them foreigners, were grouped into compagnie (companies). They had some primitive cannons and arquebuses—a handheld firearm ignited with a burning match—but mostly they were mounted men-at-arms. Lacking much loyalty to their paymasters, and always acutely conscious that today’s enemies could be tomorrow’s employers, the condottieri evolved a style of warfare that was highly stylized and strikingly ineffectual. Machiavelli told the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a four-hour battle between two mercenary armies that resulted in only one man dying—and that happened when he fell off his horse and suffocated in the mud.

Charles VIII’s forces fought with a brutality and determination altogether alien to Italy. Most of his soldiers were French, and they were part of one of the first national armies in Europe since the days of the Roman legions. Slightly fewer than half were traditional cavalrymen carrying lances and swords and protected by bulky suits of plate armor. The rest were a combination of French crossbowmen and archers along with Swiss pikemen, then the most feared mercenaries on the continent. The Swiss had revived Alexander the Great’s phalanx, and with their eighteen-foot pikes arrayed in a hedgehog formation they had repeatedly bested the knights on horseback who had ruled European battlefields for a millennium. But it was not the Swiss pikemen or the French bowmen that made Charles’s army so formidable. It was his artillery.

Cannons had been introduced into Europe more than a century before, probably from China. They had already played a notable role in piercing castle walls, but early artillery had not been terribly effective. It consisted of giant bombards woven out of iron hoops, often so big and unwieldy that it had to be assembled at the siege site and could barely be moved. At first the ammunition consisted of arrowlike projectiles, then stone balls that tended to shatter on impact. Loading one of these contraptions was so difficult that firing three rounds in a single day was considered quite a feat.

France led the way in the development of better artillery in the 1400s. Royal cannon makers, borrowing from techniques used to cast church bells, began to make lighter and more mobile guns out of molded bronze. On the sides, around the center of gravity, they added small handles known as trunnions that allowed the guns to be mounted on two-wheeled wooden carriages. Thus deployed, cannons could be traversed right or left, up or down, with relative ease. They could also be transported from spot to spot more quickly because French gun carriages were hitched to swift horses, not to the plodding oxen used for artillery in Italy.

Along with these better cannons came better propellant and ammunition. Gunpowder, a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal that had first been introduced to Europe in the thirteenth century, became more concentrated and reliable in the fifteenth century through a process of “corning,” in which flakes were first mixed with a little liquid and then dried and cut up. The extra explosive force of corned powder was used to spit out solid iron cannonballs that traveled farther and hit harder than the stone shot of old. By the 1490s, smoothbore, muzzle-loading artillery had essentially reached the shape it would assume for the next 350 years—but only in a few parts of Europe. The Italians were still relying on antiquated siege pieces and outdated castles. They were not prepared to face an army with such advanced weaponry and such ferocity in using it.

The Neapolitans first got a taste of what was in store for them in October 1494 when they sent an army north to launch a preemptive attack on the French invaders who were massing around Milan. The Neapolitans were occupying the castle at Mordano when they came into contact with Charles VIII’s legions. They might have expected to hold out for weeks, months, even years, but they had not reckoned with the power of Charles’s three-dozen-odd guns, which breached the fortress walls (or possibly its gate) in three hours. The Frenchmen rushed inside and slaughtered all the occupants. Then they moved into Tuscany, capturing a series of frontier fortresses with shocking ease. Piero de Medici, ruler of Florence, was so terrified that he gave up power and allowed Charles VIII to enter his city uncontested. The French then walked into Rome before proceeding on to the largest Italian state, the Kingdom of Naples. Their way was barred by the fortress at Monte San Giovanni, which had once withstood a siege of seven years’ duration. Charles’s cannons breached its walls within eight hours, allowing his troops to slay everyone inside. More than seven hundred Neapolitans died, including women and children, compared to only ten Frenchmen. A contemporary marveled at the impact of French cannon: “They were planted against the walls of a town with such speed, the space between each shot was so little, and the balls flew so quickly, and were impelled with such force, that as much execution was done in a few hours, as formerly, in Italy, in the like number of days.”

King Alfonso II of Naples, knowing he could not withstand this onslaught, abdicated his throne. On February 22, 1495, Charles entered Naples—then one of the biggest cities in Europe, with a population of about 150,000—beneath a canopy of gold cloth borne by four Neapolitan noblemen.

Within less than six months, Charles had marched the length and breadth of Italy, brushing aside resistance wherever he went. The speed and power of his artillery, the discipline of his troops, and the savagery with which they were employed—all left the Italians awestruck. Their days of sheltering behind old-fashioned castle walls had ended in a crash of shattered masonry. Contemporaries saw 1494 as a momentous year, much as subsequent generations were to regard 1789, 1914, or 1939.

Not even the setbacks subsequently suffered by li franzisi (the French) could dispel the lasting impression they had made. The French army was chased out of Italy in the summer of 1495 by a coalition of Italian states buttressed by the might (and military technology) of newly unified Spain. Charles never got a chance to fight for the Holy Land. Within three years, he was dead—killed, stupidly enough, when he cracked his outsize cranium against a low doorjamb in one of his palaces.

But Charles’s invasion had left a lasting legacy—and not only by spreading all over Italy the malady that would become known as syphilis (the French called it “the Italian disease” or “the Neapolitan disease,” while to the Italians it was “the French disease”). The French incursion triggered a sixty-year contest for hegemony in Italy pitting France against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, the House of Valois against the House of Habsburg. The Habsburgs eventually prevailed in the first major coalition war in modern European history, thanks to the efficient Spanish army organized in massive formations of musketeers and pikemen known as tercios. The French suffered for not having adopted handheld firearms as readily as they did cannons.

The events of 1494–95 may not have made France a long-term winner, but they definitely left Italy a long-term loser. City-states could flourish in the days of edged weapons but not in the Gunpowder Age. Having failed to develop polities big enough, complex enough, and rich enough to deploy advanced gunpowder armies, the Italians lost control of their own destiny and would not become a unified nation for almost four centuries. In the meantime, their countryside was ravaged by foreign armies, their cities sacked by drunken soldiers. (Italians’ persistent, if perhaps unfair, reputation for being poor soldiers—so at odds with the glory of the Roman legions—dates back to these dark days.) Within a few years, Italians like Niccolò Machiavelli were speaking nostalgically about the pre-1494 world as a lost golden age.

Writing in the 1520s, Francesco Guicciardini, a Florentine politician and historian who was a friend of Machiavelli’s, recalled how ineffectual combat had been before the French came: “When war broke out, the sides were so evenly balanced, the military methods so slow and the artillery so primitive, that the capture of a castle took up almost a whole campaign. Wars lasted a very long time, and battles ended with very few or no deaths.”

All that changed with the arrival of Charles VIII. “The French came upon all this like a sudden tempest which turns everything upside down….” Guicciardini continued. “Wars became sudden and violent, conquering and capturing a state in less time than it used to take to occupy a village; cities were reduced with great speed, in a matter of days and hours rather than months; battles became savage and bloody in the extreme. In fact states now began to be saved or ruined, lost and captured, not according to the plans made in a study as formerly but by feat of arms in the field.”

French Railway Guns

There were some heavy guns in the French armoury at the beginning of the First World War, but they were either in static fortress positions or awaiting installation in warships: the French philosophy of attack, mobility and rapid fire had no place for big guns. It reflects creditably on French designers that from some very crude rail-mounted guns they finished the war with efficient modern pieces which even included a massive 520-mm (20.5-in) gun. Some were in action in the Second World War ­Ind after the French defeat in 1940 passed into German hands. They included 305-mm (12-in), 320-mm (12.6-in), 340-mm (13.4-in) and 370-mm (14.5-in) guns and though most remained in France to back up the Atlantic Wall defences some were sent East. One 370- mm gun was in action as late as January 1945 against Soviet forces. Rail guns h­ave passed into artillery history for, as one writer remarked, ‘improved reconnaissance methods have made it hard to conceal a soldier, so a massive gun with a railway line extending behind it becomes an easy target’. The

 French built a large number of rail guns during the First World War; some were very crude lash-ups with guns taken from fortresses or naval pieces. Both types required a mount which could not be fitted on a railway flat car and as a result they were temporary arrangements which varied from gun to gun.

The 194-mm (7.6-in) mle 1875 was straight out of the nineteenth century coastal forts found in France and Britain. Guns like this and the more sophisticated Canon de 240-mm and 140-mm were mounted on sloping ramps which took some of the recoil, the rest was absorbed by the backward movement of the railway truck mounting. Some had ground anchors and could be cranked back into their firing position after each shot.

Canon de 240-mm modele 1884

This was one of the most widely used calibres in the French army. The mle 70-81 was comparatively crude and the mle 1893-96 and 1884 were not only more powerful but mounted on improved carriages. The Vasvasseur pattern carriage was similar to the inclined ramps of earlier designs, but with improved buffers recoil was reduced to 1.5 m (5 ft).

Canon de 240-mm modele 1893-96

A heavier piece, the mle 1893-96 had a 360-traverse platform on a well base wagon. It was also one of the first guns to be fired from a prepared platform-anchored mounting which was later to be incorporated into the Batignolles design.

Materiel de 274 modele 87, 93

This was the smallest calibre adapted by Schneider for a non-recoil sliding mount. The basic design was similar for their 274-mm (10.78-in), 285-mm (11.2-in), 305-mm (12-in) guns and howitzers. The 320-mm (12.6-in) 340-mm (13 4-in) and 370-mm (14.5-in) guns had a similar mount but with bigger bogies to take the greater weight. The basic design consisted of two heavy side plates rigidly connected by an elaborate system of cross transoms to make a rigid box. The side members accepted the gun trunnions in a reinforced area with a solid steel bushing to take the shock of recoil.

Materiel de 400 modele 15, 16

This rebored ex-naval gun was shortened and turned into a howitzer by St Chamond. It was fired from a Batignolles emplacement though the majority of the recoil force was taken by the hydro-pneumatic buffers. The Batignolles mount was also used on the 305-mm (12-in) mle 93/06 and 370-mm (14.5-in ) mle 1887

Obusier de 520 mle 16

This piece was a product of Gallic pride and political pressure. After the Germans had deployed 42-cm (16.5-in) howitzers against the Belgian forts and French forts at Verdun the French demanded a bigger gun. The 520 mm (20.5-in) howitzer was built and paraded for politicians. It saw little action, but is of interest as the only gun to be designed during the war rather than adapted from existing prewar stocks. Two were built, but since they weighed 255 tonnes, took three hours to emplace and only had a range of 14600 m (15965 yards ) they were expensive luxuries.

Battle at Plancenoit

Prussian assault on Plancenoit. At 4 pm, even as Ney was preparing his grand cavalry assault on Wellington’s position, the Prussian vanguard was massing under the cover of the Bois de Paris forest along Napoleon’s right (eastern) flank. Here the lead elements of Von Bülow‘s IV Korps: two infantry brigades, two batteries of guns, and a regiment of Silesian Hussars were poised to strike toward the village of Plancenoit. Behind them and still marching forward was the rest of the Corps, in total some 32,000 men.

Map of battle at Plancenoit

The Young Guard at Plancenoit.

General Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow’s troops drove the French out of Plancenoit. It was gutter fighting, close-quarters carnage with bayonets and musket butts in alleys and cottage gardens. Cannon blasted roundshot and canister down narrow streets fogged by powder smoke and puddled with blood. A few French troops hung on to some houses on the village’s western edge, but they were in danger of being surrounded by Prussian troops advancing in the fields either side of the village.

Napoleon could not afford to lose Plancenoit. It lay behind his line and would make a base from which Blücher’s troops could advance on the Brussels highway. If that highway was cut, then the French would have no road on which to retreat. They would be effectively surrounded, and so the Emperor sent his Young Guard to retake the village.

The Young Guard was part of the Imperial Guard, those elite troops so beloved of the Emperor. To join the Guard a soldier had to have taken part in three campaigns and be of proven character, a requirement less moral than disciplinary, and the successful applicants were rewarded with better equipment, higher pay and a distinctive uniform. Traditionally the Guard, which had its own infantry, cavalry and artillery and so formed an army within the army, was held back from battle so that it was available to make the killing stroke when it was needed. There was, naturally enough, some resentment within the wider French army of the privileges accorded to the Guard, but nevertheless most soldiers held the ambition of being chosen to join its ranks. Their nickname, ‘the Immortals’, was partly sarcastic, referring to the many battles when the Guard had not been called into action (the Guard called themselves grognards, grumblers, because they found it frustrating to be held in reserve when other men were fighting). But if there was resentment there was also admiration. The Guard was intensely loyal to Napoleon, they were proven to be brave men, they fought like tigers, and their boast was that they had never been defeated. No enemy would ever underestimate their fighting ability or their effectiveness.

The Young Guard were skirmishers, though they could fight in line or square like any other battalion, and there were just over 4,700 of them at Waterloo. When it became apparent that Lobau’s outnumbered men were being driven from Plancenoit the Emperor despatched all eight battalions of the Young Guard to retake the village. They were led by General Guillaume Philibert Duhesme, a thoroughly nasty character who was a child of the French Revolution. A labourer’s son, he had risen to high rank because he was competent, but he was also corrupt, venal, cruel and sadistic. He had trained as a lawyer, then become a soldier, and regarded Napoleon with some suspicion, believing, rightly, that the Emperor had betrayed many of the principles of the French Revolution, but Duhesme was too good a soldier to be ignored and Napoleon trusted him with the Young Guard. Duhesme was an expert on light infantry tactics, indeed his slim textbook Essai Historique de l’Infanterie Légère became the standard work on the subject for much of the nineteenth century.

Light infantry, trained to think and act independently, were perfectly suited to the counter-attack on Plancenoit. The Young Guard advanced and took musket fire from houses on the village edge, but Duhesme refused to let them answer that fire, instead leading them straight into the streets and alleys that would be cleared by their bayonets. It worked, and the Prussians were tumbled back out of the village and even pursued for some distance beyond. General Duhesme was badly wounded in the head during the vicious fighting and was to die two days later.

The Young Guard had done everything asked of it and upheld the traditions of the Imperial Guard, but von Bülow’s men were being reinforced minute by minute as more troops crossed the Lasne valley and made their way through the woods to the battlefield. The Prussians counter-attacked, driving the French out of the houses on the western side of the village and besieging the stone-walled churchyard. Colonel Johann von Hiller led one of two Prussian columns that:

succeeded in capturing a howitzer, two cannon, several ammunition wagons and two staff officers along with several hundred men. The open square around the churchyard was surrounded by houses from which the enemy could not be dislodged … a firefight developed at fifteen to thirty paces range which ultimately decimated the Prussian battalions.

The Young Guard was fighting desperately, but Blücher could feed still more men into the turmoil and slowly, inevitably, the Young Guard was forced back. The Prussians recaptured the church and its graveyard, then went house by house, garden by garden, fighting through alleys edged by burning houses, and the Young Guard, now hopelessly outnumbered, retreated grudgingly.

Napoleon had thirteen battalions of the Imperial Guard left in his reserve. He had arrayed them north and south to form a defensive line in case the Prussians broke through at Plancenoit, but to prevent that he now sent two battalions of the Old Guard to reinforce the hard-pressed French troops in the village. The two battalions went into the smoke and chaos with fixed bayonets, their arrival heartened the French survivors and the fight for Plancenoit swung again, this time in favour of the French. The newly arrived veterans of the Old Guard fought their way back to the high churchyard, captured it and garrisoned themselves inside its stone wall. Even they were hard-pressed and at one moment their General, Baron Pelet, seized the precious Eagle and shouted, ‘A moi, Chasseurs! Sauvons l’Aigle ou mourons autour d’elle!’ To me, Chasseurs! Save the Eagle or die around her! The Guard rallied. Pelet, later in the fight, discovered Guardsmen cutting the throats of Prussian prisoners and, disgusted, stopped the murders. For the moment, at least, Pelet had stiffened the French defence and Plancenoit belonged to the Emperor, and so the threat to Napoleon’s rear had been averted.

Yet von Bülow’s men were not the only Prussians arriving at the battlefield. Lieutenant-General Hans von Zieten’s 1st Corps had left Wavre early in the afternoon and taken a more northerly route than von Bülow’s men. They had been delayed because General Pirch’s 2nd Corps was following von Bülow’s southern route and von Zieten’s and Pirch’s Corps, each of several thousand men with guns and ammunition wagons, met at a crossroads and there was inevitable confusion as the two columns tried to cross each other’s line of march. Von Bülow and Pirch had been sent to attack Napoleon’s right wing at Plancenoit, while von Zieten’s men took the more northerly roads so that they could link up with Wellington’s men on the ridge.

A History Changing Decision

General von Zieten’s men had been heavily engaged in the fighting at Ligny, where they had lost almost half their strength. Now, in the slanting sun of the evening, von Zieten led around five thousand men towards Wellington’s position. They would have heard the battle long before they saw it, though the pall of powder smoke, lit by the sheet-lightning of gun-flashes, would have been visible above the trees. The first contact came when the leading troops reached the château of Frichermont, a substantial building on the extreme left of Wellington’s position. It had been garrisoned by Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar’s Nassauer troops, the same men who had saved Quatre-Bras with their gallant defence two days before. Saxe-Weimar had been fighting all afternoon, staving off French attacks on Papelotte and La Haie; now suddenly he was attacked from the rear. One of his officers, Captain von Rettburg, recalled how his infantry was driven back ‘by numerous skirmishers followed by infantry columns’:

Skirmishers even attacked me from the hedges in my rear. When I drove them off I became aware that we were faced by Prussians! They in turn recognised their error which had lasted less than ten minutes but had caused several dead and wounded on both sides.

What von Rettburg does not say is that it was his bravery that ended the unfortunate clash of allies. He made his way through the musket fire to tell the Prussians their mistake. The Nassauers wore a dark green uniform, which could be mistaken for the dark blue of French coats, and their headgear was French in shape.

More chaos was to follow. General von Zieten’s men were needed desperately on the ridge. Wellington knew another French assault was likely, and if the Prussians reinforced his left wing he could bring troops from there to strengthen his centre. General von Zieten sent scouts ahead and one of them, a young officer, returned to say that all was lost. He had seen Wellington’s army in full retreat. Just like Marshal Ney he had mistaken the chaos behind Wellington’s line for defeat, thinking it was a panicked attempt to escape when in fact it was just wounded men being taken to the rear, ammunition wagons, servants and stray horses. Shells exploded among them and roundshot, skimming the ridge, threw up gouts of earth where they landed. It looked as if the French were cannonading the panicked mass, adding to the impression of a rout. The Prussian officer could probably see little that happened on the ridge itself, it was so fogged by powder smoke, but through that smoke he would have seen the red flash of French cannons firing and the smaller flicker of muskets, their sudden flames lighting the smoke and fading instantly. Every now and then there was a larger explosion as a shell found an artillery caisson, and the ‘cloud’ of French skirmishers was close to the ridge’s crest, and so were some of the cannon, and behind the skirmishers were prowling cavalry, dimly visible through the smoke. No wonder the young officer believed that the French had captured Wellington’s ridge and that the Duke’s forces were in full retreat. He galloped back to von Zieten and told him it was hopeless, that there was no point in joining Wellington because the Duke was defeated.

And at that same moment a staff officer arrived from Blücher with new orders. The newcomer, Captain von Scharnhorst, could not find von Zieten, so he galloped to the head of the column and gave them their orders directly: they were to turn round and march south to help Blücher with his stalled attack on Plancenoit. Wellington, it seemed, would not be reinforced; instead the Prussians would fight their separate battle south of Napoleon’s ridge.

General von Müffling, the liaison officer with Wellington, had been waiting for von Zieten’s arrival. He had expected it much earlier, but now, at last, von Zieten’s Corps was in sight at the extreme left wing of Wellington’s position. Then, to von Müffling’s astonishment, those troops turned and marched away. ‘By this retrograde movement,’ he wrote, ‘the battle might have been lost.’ So von Müffling put spurs to his horse and galloped after the retreating Prussians.

Meanwhile a furious argument was raging between Lieutenant-Colonel von Reiche, one of von Zieten’s staff officers, and Captain von Scharnhorst. Von Reiche wanted to obey the original orders and go to Wellington’s assistance, despite the report of the Duke’s defeat, but von Scharnhorst insisted that Blücher’s new orders must be obeyed. ‘I pointed out to him’, von Reiche said:

that everything had been arranged with von Müffling, that Wellington counted on our arrival close to him, but von Scharnhorst did not want to listen to anything. He declared that I would be held responsible if I disobeyed Blücher’s orders. Never had I found myself in such a predicament. On one hand our troops were endangered at Plancenoit, on the other Wellington was relying on our help. I was in despair. General von Ziethen was nowhere to be found.

The troops had paused while this argument raged, but then General Steinmetz, who commanded the advance guard of von Zieten’s column, came galloping up, angry at the delay, and brusquely told von Reiche that Blücher’s new orders would be obeyed. The column dutifully continued marching eastwards, looking for a smaller lane that led south towards Plancenoit, but just then von Zieten himself appeared and the argument started all over again. Von Zieten listened and then took a brave decision. He would ignore Blücher’s new orders and, believing von Müffling’s assurance that the Duke was not in full retreat, he ordered his troops onto the British–Dutch ridge. The Prussian 1st Corps would join Wellington after all.

The 1st Corps had its own guns, 6-pounder cannons and 7-pounder howitzers, and they were the first of von Zieten’s weapons to be unleashed on the French. They were presumably firing along the face of the ridge, probably aiming at the gun-flashes lighting the smoke around La Haie Sainte, and fairly soon after opening fire the Prussian guns found themselves being answered with counter-battery fire. Captain Mercer, of the Royal Horse Artillery, tells the story best:

We had scarcely fired many rounds at the enfilading battery, when a tall man in the black Brunswick uniform came galloping up to me from the rear, exclaiming ‘Ah! Mine Gott! Mine Gott! Vat is it you done, sare? Dat is your friends de Proosiens; ans you kills dem!’

The Prussian guns had been aiming at Mercer’s battery and caused casualties, and Mercer, despite the Duke’s orders that forbade counter-battery fire, had responded. That mistake too was eventually corrected. Such errors were probably unavoidable: there were too many unfamiliar uniforms in the allied armies and the smoke was casting a gloom over a battlefield lit by the glare of flames. It was past seven in the evening now and the fortunes of war had swung sharply against the Emperor, yet all was not lost.

Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was working its magic again. Ten battalions had been sufficient to stall the Prussian attack on Plancenoit, and eleven battalions remained in reserve. The French were pushing hard at Wellington’s line, they were close to the ridge top now, especially at the centre above La Haie Sainte. Ney had pleaded for more troops so he could launch a killer blow at Wellington’s centre and Napoleon had refused him, but now, with Prussian numbers increasing, it was time to throw the best troops of France, if not of all Europe, at the Duke’s wounded line.

What If: ‘From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond’ I

The Great Allied Tank Offensive of 1917

Prologue: The Battle of Paardeberg, South Africa, February 1900

Major General Horace Smith-Dorrien could not believe what he was seeing. Throughout the scorching South African summer day the British infantry had been ordered into reckless frontal assaults against an entrenched Boer position. The task had been hopeless. The famous Afrikaner marksmen had gunned down the attackers time and again. The dusty veld was carpeted with khaki-clad bodies that revealed the futility of the British tactics. But now, yet another attack was being formed up in the early evening light.

Watching through binoculars, Smith-Dorrien looked on in dismay as the British line rose from cover with a roar and moved forward at the double. A crash of rifle fire burst from the Boer line in response. Officers leading the advance with swords drawn were prime targets and were swiftly picked off. The British line convulsed as bullets ripped through its ranks. Gaps appeared. Survivors bunched together, pushing forward, stepping over the fallen of earlier assaults. The Boers concentrated fire on these heroic pockets and mowed them down. Within minutes it was all over. The attack had simply been destroyed.

The attack left a deep impression on Smith-Dorrien. He remembered after the war: ‘It was a gallant charge, gallantly led, but the fact that not one of them got within 300 yards of the enemy is sufficient proof of its futility.’ No amount of heroism could overcome the effects of modern firepower. Surely there had to be a better way of making war?

The desire for a ‘better way’ would plant a seed in Smith-Dorrien’s mind that would finally bear fruit in the First World War – but first, the solution had to be devised.

Necessity is the Mother of All Invention

In December 1903 the visionary science fiction author H. G. Wells published his story ‘The Land Ironclads’ in the Strand magazine. The prescient tale took place during a thinly disguised reimagining of the Boer War, where an army representing the British became deadlocked by the trenches of their opponents. After a month of stalemate, a bold new weapon takes to the field – the land ironclads of the title, mechanical behemoths one hundred feet in length, studded with guns and guided by huge searchlights. The mechanical monsters prove invulnerable to the rifle fire of the enemy and crush the defences with ease. In years to come, Wells would look back with pride on his prediction of armoured warfare.

Unfortunately for the British Army, the technology described in the story still lay in the future. Working with the equipment that was available, a number of officers proposed the use of bulletproof, man-portable shields that could be carried or rolled across the ground. Numerous experiments took place in Britain and India. Disappointingly, all work with the shields proved unsatisfactory. The devices were heavy and unwieldy, and it was soon found that they were only mobile on firm, flat ground.

However, an unorthodox and intriguing design emerged in 1912. After several uncomfortable experiences driving trucks over rough terrain, Australian inventor Lancelot de Mole designed a caterpillar-tracked transporter that could carry heavy loads across battlefields. Although he envisaged a transport rather than a fighting vehicle, de Mole suggested that his machine would be capable of crossing trenches and sufficiently armoured to withstand enemy fire. De Mole forwarded his proposal to the British War Office. In a stroke of good fortune, the design was brought to the attention of General Sir Ian Hamilton. Earlier in his career Hamilton had favoured the use of super heavy artillery and had been intrigued by the idea of using steam traction engines to haul it into battle. Hamilton used his influence to attract interest in de Mole’s design, prompting the Royal Engineers to carry out a feasibility study on the vehicle. The resulting report was issued in early 1914 and drew a very favourable conclusion. Unfortunately, the scandal of the Curragh incident7 in March and command reshuffle that followed distracted the authorities and the report was largely forgotten.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 came with armoured technology still beyond reach. Instead, the British Expeditionary Force marched into battle relying on suppressing fire, use of cover, and extended formations to keep its infantry safe. These methods served well enough in the defensive battles of August 1914. But the casualties suffered attempting to storm the German trenches at the Battle of the Aisne in September gave a stark warning that the killing power of modern weapons now far exceeded those that had been used in the Boer War. Defenders occupying earthworks could inflict severe losses on any attacker whilst suffering comparatively few in return. This imbalance between attack and defence led to the trench deadlock that took hold of the Western Front at the end of 1914. The lines ran from the Channel coast to the Swiss border. There were no flanks to turn, no room for manoeuvre, and seemingly no way through the barbed wire, machine guns, and artillery fire of the defenders.

The British Army cast about for solutions to the impasse. Amongst the many officers drawing up proposals was the official war correspondent Ernest Swinton. An intelligent and imaginative man, Swinton remembered a conversation with a friend who had once suggested that civilian tractors running on caterpillar tracks might have some military application.8 In October, Swinton had passed his thoughts on to his friend Colonel Maurice Hankey, who was working as an assistant to the prime minister.

On 28 December 1914, Hankey issued a paper of military ideas known as the ‘Boxing Day Memorandum’. Amongst various suggestions for the conduct of the war there was a paragraph that spoke of the future. Hankey suggested the use of ‘Numbers of large heavy rollers, themselves bullet proof, propelled from behind by motor-engines, geared very low, the driving wheel fitted with a caterpillar driving gear to grip the ground, the driver’s seat armoured and a Maxim gun fitted. The object of this device would be to roll down the barbed wire by sheer weight, to give some cover to men creeping up behind and to support the advance with machine gun fire.’

This paragraph had an electrifying effect on Winston Churchill, then serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, who immediately wrote to the prime minister urging that the proposal be pursued.10 The vehicle that would ultimately become known as the tank had a powerful supporter. Science fiction was about to become reality.

Design

Armoured cars had served with some success in 1914 but the idea of creating a tracked fighting vehicle was a new concept within the British military. It was such a radical idea that it was not clear who should have authority over the design. Should it be developed by the navy, which had more experience with steel and engines, or by the army, who would actually use it in battle? Without a firm hand to guide the project, the proposals could easily have become lost amongst the papers of the overworked War Office and disappeared from view, or else have languished in forgotten obscurity on the cluttered desks of important figures.

Fortunately for the British the vehicle had two enthusiastic champions. Churchill had immediately seen the potential in the device and supported it throughout its creation, but his influenced waxed and waned with the fortunes of his political career. However, his enthusiasm was shared by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Douglas Haig. Haig had been promoted to the post of CIGS during the hasty command reshuffle that took place in the aftermath of the Curragh incident of early 1914. Although desperately disappointed to be denied a combat command, he overcame his frustration by absorbing himself with his work. He proved to be a determined and energetic CIGS. Convinced that the war could only be won by defeating Germany on the Western Front, Haig was an enthusiastic supporter of new technologies that promised to break the deadlock. His fascination with innovative weapons was sometimes to his detriment, and at one point he was even taken in by a charlatan who claimed to have invented a death ray. However, when it came to the development of armoured vehicles, Haig’s instincts were correct. He saw the tank as a decisive weapon and used the strength of his position to ensure that the work was fully funded and pursued with vigour.

The British had another major advantage in their early design work. Although it had been overlooked for the better part of a year, the feasibility study on the de Mole vehicle was suddenly remembered. The report gave the wartime designers a crucial head start. Driven by Churchill’s enthusiasm and Haig’s determination, work on an armoured vehicle began in early 1915 and the project progressed rapidly. Debate followed as to its ideal size, weight, armour, and armament. Numerous tests and rigorous trials took place. The process was further complicated by the need for absolute secrecy so that the Germans would have no time to develop countermeasures.

The first fully functional prototype was ready for trials in August 1915. It was a caterpillar-tracked, rhomboid-shaped vehicle with room for heavy weapons in side sponsons and machine guns in its central hull. It was a slow-moving and somewhat crude machine, but it was also a revolutionary weapon. Having passed its trials, the tank was demonstrated to senior government and military figures. Ernest Swinton remembered: ‘it was a striking scene when the signal was given and a species of gigantic cubist steel slug slid out of its lair.’ The display was impressive. One observer commented, ‘wire entanglements it goes through like a rhinoceros through a field of corn.’ There was one burning question that was raised by the army representatives: ‘How soon can we have them?’ The Ministry of Munitions thought it could have fifty tanks ready by early 1916 with more to follow.

Yet armoured innovators, including Swinton and Churchill, urged that the army should be patient and not launch a premature attack with a handful of machines. It would be better to build up the armoured branch until it was powerful enough to strike a decisive blow against the German line. Their views found favour with Field Marshal Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien had been promoted to full command of the British Army in France in mid-1915 and he had been searching for innovative ideas for breaking the deadlock ever since. The development of the tank had enormous promise. However, Smith-Dorrien knew that the matter could not be rushed. Earlier in the war he had criticised the hasty deployment of undertrained infantry. He would not see the same mistake made with the new armoured branch. Time was needed to train the crews and devise tactics for the vehicles. Although the temptation to deploy them immediately was very great, Smith-Dorrien made the bold decision to hold back the tanks until they were adjudged to be battle ready.

The vehicles were assigned their own organisation that could coordinate command, training, and operational planning. To maintain secrecy, the tanks were formed into the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. In the meantime designers, crews, and commanders worked feverishly on all aspects of the new arm. Tactics had to be devised entirely from scratch and crews had to be trained in the use of the new machine. The designers tested and refined the MK I tank, correcting problems, adding features, and producing improved versions. There was also some interchange of ideas with the French, who were working independently on their own tank designs.

In September 1916 an agreement was reached between the British and French armies: neither side would deploy their tanks until the other was ready, thus ensuring that their combat usage came as an unpleasant surprise to the Germans. The decision would have important consequences.

April 1917: Allied Plans

April 1917 was to be a critical month in the Allied war effort. The German retreat to the fortifications of the Hindenburg Line, although strategically sound, also revealed that the battles of 1916 had inflicted serious damage on the German Army. After a relative lull during the bitterly cold winter months, the dawning of the spring signalled that it was time for the British and French to renew the offensive and hurl the invader back to his own borders. To do this, they would deploy their carefully prepared secret weapon.

Tanks had been gathering behind Allied lines throughout late 1916. Officers had the chance to inspect them, and tank commanders had the opportunity to work with the infantry that they would be supporting in battle. Every effort was made to maintain secrecy during this assemblage. Tanks were concealed in aircraft hangars, in wooded areas and even in disused railway tunnels to keep them from the prying eyes of German reconnaissance aircraft. Despite the best efforts of the British, the Germans gathered some inkling of the new machines. Remarkably, this information had virtually no influence on their military planning. General Erich Ludendorff paid them no heed, prompting Churchill’s postwar assessment that when it came to tanks, ‘the ablest soldier in Germany was blind’. At the front line there were vague warnings that the Allies were preparing ‘land cruisers’ for their next offensive. However, what these machines looked like or were capable of remained a mystery, and the Germans were taken completely by surprise when the tanks finally attacked.

It was decided that April would be the month when the tanks were to be unleashed on the enemy. The French intended to deploy their own vehicles in support of their massive offensive against the Chemin des Dames. The British had agreed to play their own role in supporting this operation by attacking around Arras. There was an optimistic hope that if both British and French attacks broke through then they would drive onwards to link up deep in German-occupied territory, outflanking the Hindenburg Line at a stroke. More realistically, the British attack would draw in German reserves and distract attention from the heavy French assault.

The German position around Arras was anchored on the dominating heights of the Vimy Ridge to the north and on the sophisticated defences of the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt to the south. The trench lines were constructed in depth and the position stretched back some ten thousand yards. Faced with these strong defences, the British had assembled approximately five hundred battle-ready tanks. The majority of the vehicles were MK I and MK II tanks, little changed from the first prototype that had been demonstrated in September 1915. However, a significant proportion of the force consisted of the more sophisticated and reliable MK IVs which had only recently rolled off the production lines.

The Battle of Arras would be defined by surprise. Unlike earlier battles, which had been characterised by bombardments lasting a week or more, the Arras attack was to be preceded with a short but intense bombardment of no more than forty-eight hours. As soon as the barrage lifted, the tanks would lead the assault on the German line, crushing any unbroken wire beneath their tracks and making a path for the infantry. Surviving German strongpoints would be destroyed by the 6-pounder guns carried by the ‘male’ versions of the tanks, whilst the machine-gun-armed ‘females’ would mow down any German counterattacks. The British infantry would surge forward to consolidate the ground and continue the advance. The Battle of Arras represented a remarkably ambitious plan and its reliance on an entirely untried weapon was unprecedented in the history of warfare. The Heavy Branch was about to receive its baptism of fire.

First Blood

The British attack had originally been planned for 9 April but the assault was delayed for three days due to unusually poor weather. It was bitterly cold when the battle began on 12 April and many accounts recalled the sudden snow flurries that swept across the area.

As planned, the Royal Artillery had opened the fighting with an intense bombardment. After forty-eight hours of constant shelling the fire reached its crescendo, the gunners labouring feverishly to work their guns, with many stripped to the waist despite the unseasonable cold. As its final act, the artillery smothered the German position with a mixture of dense poison gas and choking black smoke, blinding the defenders to ensure that they would not see the approach of the tanks until it was too late.

Tanks were carefully concealed all along the British line and their commanders nervously counted down the minutes until zero hour. Although thoroughly trained, none of the crews had any real idea what to expect. Some crewmen had battle experience in other arms of service, but this was the first time any had seen actual combat from the inside of their vehicles. One veteran recalled a tank commanded by a young second lieutenant who had ‘never seen a shot fired in his life’ but who was determined to ‘attack Germany all on his own’ by ‘shooting at every living thing he saw’.

At zero hour the tanks lurched forward from the British trenches. The advance seemed painfully slow. Some tanks failed to move from their start positions due to engine failure or the driver ‘missing the gears’. Others lumbered forward a short distance before experiencing similar breakdown or else becoming stuck in soft ground. The ironclad line was ragged in places. The clouds that blinded the German defenders would not last forever. Infantrymen strained to get forward and ahead of the slow-moving machines, not wanting to be caught in no man’s land when the Germans recovered their wits.

Yet, although it was slow, the tank attack had a relentless quality. The vehicles clambered through shell holes and over battlefield detritus. Suddenly, they had reached the wire belts – already thoroughly mangled by the British bombardment – and crashed through the steel defences without pause. One crewman remembered the sound as his tank crushed the obstacle: ‘It screeched against the hull … snapping and scraping, snapping and grating, it eventually fizzled out and we had got ourselves through.’

Peering through the thick lenses of their gas masks, the German infantry in the front line witnessed an amazing – and appalling – sight. Dark, mechanical shapes were emerging from the smoke. The growl of their engines and the grinding of their tracks were audible even above the din of battle. As the machines approached, their hulls were suddenly lit with flashes as their numerous guns opened fire. The dreaded materialschlat – the ‘battle of equipment’ – had taken on a new and terrible form.

The defenders were stunned. A British officer recalled with quiet understatement: ‘The Germans … were too staggered at the sight of the tank to make much resistance.’ Many surrendered on the spot, and those who did not were powerless to resist the tanks and the infantry that followed close behind. The tanks rumbled over the trenches and beyond, leaving behind small parties of infantry to mop up in their wake.

Yet not all the defenders were numbed by the experience. Runners sprinted down communication trenches to warn the rear areas of the approaching metal monsters. Infantry officers snatched up field telephones, bellowing for immediate artillery support to stop the fabled ‘land cruisers’. At the other end of the line, the German gunners gritted their teeth against the brutal British counter-battery fire and responded with every gun they had.

The tanks pushed forward, moving even deeper into the German position. Shells began to burst around them. Shrapnel from near misses rattled against the hull. Direct hits proved fatal, igniting the vulnerable fuel tanks and reducing tanks to burning wrecks. German machine-gunners fired entire belts of ammunition at the tanks, hoping to find a weak point. Although most bullets bounced off the armour, these bursts of fire shattered vision periscopes, rendering the crew effectively blind. Even worse was the previously unknown effect of ‘splash’: bullet impacts on the exterior of the tank caused interior armour to flake, hurling tiny pieces of hot metal into faces of the crew. A tank commander remembered ‘a smash against my flap at the front caused splinters to come in and the blood to pour down my face. Another minute and my driver got the same.’ In places German infantry assaulted isolated tanks directly, attempting to tear open the crew hatches, thrusting bayonets through vision slits and jamming grenades between the tracks.

The attackers steadily lost vehicles, some knocked out by enemy action, others suffering breakdowns, or ditching in shell holes. But the remaining tanks ploughed forward, pressing ever deeper into the German defensive system. In the skies overhead Royal Flying Corps observation aircraft watched and reported on the advance. Vimy Ridge fell to the triumphant Canadians, whilst the Australians captured Bullecourt with the aid of dozens of tanks. With the flanks secure, the British attack drove deep into the central German position. The haul of prisoners was immense.

However, the attack gradually lost its momentum. Although the tanks could pass through German shelling to an extent, their supporting infantry and cavalry were not so fortunate. As a result leading tanks became isolated and were either forced to fall back or else be overrun by German attacks. As evening approached it was clear that the attack was petering out and it was decided to consolidate the gains and prepare for a renewed advance the following day.

The British Army had made the deepest advance against a German position since the dawn of trench warfare, with some spearheads reaching the very last of the defence lines before they were forced to stop. Key positions had been taken at a comparatively low cost in lives. Thousands of German prisoners had been captured. For the first time in the war, church bells were sounded across Britain to signify a great victory.