Blind Man’s Buff, 19 August I916 – Jutland Redux I

The Germans did their own stock-taking after Jutland. Although the High Seas Fleet could feel that it had performed very creditably indeed, there was even less desire than there was before 31 May for a stand-up fight with the Grand Fleet. Scheer was prepared to carry on with his defensive fleet strategy, incorporating into his plans the lessons of Jutland. He detached from the main fleet the old, slow 2nd Squadron (the pre-dreadnought ‘Deutschlands’), which had been a hindrance at Jutland. There being only two battle cruisers available in the 1st Scouting Group, the Moltke and Von der Tann (the Derffiinger and Seydlitz were still under repair), he attached three of the dreadnoughts to it, including the newly commissioned Bayern. The most important lesson of Jutland to Scheer was the need for extensive and efficient reconnaissance, if he were to achieve his ideal of defeating the British Fleet in detail, meaning, above all, the Battle Cruiser Fleet.

If at some future date we should still encounter the enemy fast forces separated from their main fleet, we must make every endeavour to drive them into an unexpected clash with our own main fleet. . .. The first essential for this tactic is to be as secure as possible against surprise from the unexpected approach of superior enemy forces. The reconnaissance necessary to ensure this can no longer be undertaken by our surface forces, once our battle cruisers are in contact with the fast-advanced forces of the British. This must therefore be the task of the airships. For this reason, provision in principle is to be made for reconnaissance by airships for more distant operations. And this all the more so in the future, since we must expect that the British will now operate their main fleet in closer contact with the fast force, and will therefore intervene much sooner than on 31st May.

In other words, the High Seas Fleet must not again suddenly find itself up against the full might of the Grand Fleet!

Scheer’s plan for an operation on 19 August was, essentially, the original Jutland plan. It called for the 1st Scouting Group to bombard Sunderland, with the battle fleet operating in close support. Scheer’s operations order stated his intentions: ‘The enemy is to be brought to action under conditions favourable to ourselves. To this end the entire High Seas Fleet (without II Squadron) is to advance behind extensive airship reconnaissance in the direction of Sunderland, and in the event the enemy is not encountered earlier, or does not depart from his main bases early enough to cut off our retreat with superior forces, Sunderland is to be heavily bombarded, in order to force him to come out and in order to parade before the eyes of England and the world the unbroken might of the German Fleet.’ That is, the sortie was partly intended to restore the morale of the Fleet after its recent shattering experience. To protect himself from a surprise appearance of the British battle fleet, Scheer would have his front and flanks guarded by airships and submarines. The High Seas Fleet U-boats were disposed in two lines, of five submarines each, close to the English coast—one line off Blyth, the other off Flam-borough Head. In addition, nine boats of the Flanders Flotilla were disposed in two lines in the Hoofden (the southern part of the North Sea), west-north-west of Terschelling. Finally, there was to be a line off the Dogger Bank to cover Scheer’s withdrawal, although it was not ordered to be in place until the morning of the 20th. In all, 24 submarines were to participate in the operation. Whether the battle fleet pushed on, or had to retire if the Grand Fleet threatened to cut it off, Scheer hoped that the submarines on either side of his line of advance would have opportunities not only for reconnaissance, but for attack on the British forces which would certainly be drawn towards the German fleet when they heard of the bombardment. There was also the ever-present hope that he might catch a part of the British main fleet. Scheer and the German Naval Staff were still obsessed with the notion that a U-boat concentration off British naval bases would provide a good chance of reducing the British preponderance in capital ships. For long-distance reconnaissance Scheer would depend on Zeppelins, four of which were to operate on a line between Scotland and Norway, with four others to be spread between the latitude of the Firth of Forth and the North Hinder lightship. That is, one airship detachment was to operate to the north and the other was to be spread ahead of him to cover his line of advance while he was moving across the North Sea.

The High Seas Fleet (18 dreadnoughts, 2 battle cruisers, and light forces) sailed at 9 p.m. on 18 August, steaming boldly towards the East Coast, the battle fleet preceded by the 1st and 2nd Scouting Groups, which were 20 miles ahead. The last thing Scheer had reckoned on was a swift response to his movements. But, sighs the German Official History, the Grand Fleet was at sea ‘unpleasantly soon as usual’. Through a German signal intercepted at 9.19 a.m. on the 18th, Room 40 had quickly divined that the High Seas Fleet, less the 2nd Squadron, would leave harbour at 9 p.m. that night. No objective was indicated. The British machine reacted promptly. At 10.56 a.m. the Admiralty ordered the C.-in-C. (Burney, pro tem.) to put to sea and concentrate in the Long Forties, east of Aberdeen. The main fleet was away from Scapa by 4 p.m. and on its way south—a few hours before the High Seas Fleet was at sea! The Battle Cruiser Fleet left the Forth at 6.20 p.m.4 The combined Grand Fleet included twenty-nine dreadnoughts (1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th B.S.) and six battle cruisers (1st, 2nd B.C.S,). The seaplane carrier Engadine was with the battle cruisers, but, as at Jutland, the Campania did not go out, her machinery being under repair. All that the former accomplished in the way of air work was an unsuccessful attempt in the high sea to get a seaplane up (2 p.m., 19th) to attack a Zeppelin. Campania’s kite balloon, which had been transferred to the battleship Hercules, was too far back to be useful for reconnaissance. Beatty afterwards recommended that ‘the balloon should be flown from a ship in the advanced cruiser screen in order to increase the range of vision ahead of the Fleet. Had the kite balloon been well forward during operations, I am of opinion that the enemy might possibly have been sighted.’

Jellicoe had been in the south of Scotland since 7 August, taking a sorely needed rest. He was ‘quite played out’, owing to ‘the incessant strain’, as he informed the First Sea Lord (31 July). At about 9 p.m. on the 18th he was able to board the Iron Duke (it had proceeded independently from Scapa) at sea from the light cruiser Royalist, which had been lying off Dundee for just such an emergency. Burney, who was in command until then, had ordered the fleet to rendezvous at 5 a.m. on the 19th about 100 miles east of the River Tay. The entire force would then turn southward and enter ‘L’ swept channel, which ran south-eastward from the approaches to the Forth towards the southern shore of Heligoland Bight, passing the Tyne about 60 miles to seaward. (This, and another 20-mile-wide swept channel, ‘M’, lay between the German Dogger Bank and Humber minefields.)

At 11.37 a.m. on the 18th the Admiralty ordered the Harwich Force (5 light cruisers, 19 destroyers, and a flotilla leader) to assemble by early dawn on the 19th off Brown Ridge, in the Hoofden, about 50 miles east of Yarmouth. It sailed at 10.30 p.m. In addition, twenty-five submarines were involved in the dispositions: three were patrolling off Terschelling, watching the southern exits of the Bight, and two more were ordered to the Heligoland area at midday on the 18th; five were in the Hoofden; eight were off Yarmouth and six off the Tyne for coast defence; and one was on patrol off Shouwen Bank, near the Dutch coast. E-23, northernmost of the three boats off Terschelling, was the only one that got within range of the High Seas Fleet. The British submarines were for the first time equipped with long-range wireless. (This was a by-product of the Admiralty conference of 25 June, at which the C.-in-C. had stressed the great disadvantage under which the British Fleet laboured owing to the inefficiency of the wireless arrangements in the submarines. He had pointed out that, whereas the German submarines were able to communicate at a distance of 400 miles, the range of the wireless of the British boats scarcely exceeded 60 miles.)

At 5 a.m., 19 August, the battle fleet passed through its rendezvous. With the lessons of Jutland fresh in mind, the battle cruisers were in station only 30 miles ahead, in touch with the battle fleet through linking cruisers, so that Jellicoe and Beatty could exchange messages by visual signals. The 5th Battle Squadron was under the C.-in-C.’s direct control. Eight miles ahead of the battle cruisers were the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Light Cruiser Squadrons. The whole fleet was, by 5.40, moving south at 18 knots. At 5.57 a.m. the Nottingham (2nd L.C.S.), while zigzagging at 20 knots off Holy Island, was shaken by two violent explosions, the result of two simultaneous torpedo hits. They had been fired by U-52, one of the boats of the northern submarine line. A half-hour later the U-boat registered a third hit on the Nottingham. She sank at 7.10. There being no trace of the periscope or tracks of a U-boat, the first signal from the Senior Officer, 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron (Goodenough), to Beatty, which the latter passed on to the C.-in-C., suggested that she had been ‘struck by mine or has been hit by a torpedo’. The C.-in-C. did not receive this information until about 6.50. Ten minutes later he took in an important Admiralty signal of 6.15 which placed the German fleet at 5.25 a.m. about 200 miles to the south-eastward of him, or some 170 miles eastward of the Humber. No course was given. On the basis of these two pieces of information, the first in particular, Jellicoe decided to turn 16 points (i.e., to northward) ‘till situation re Nottingham is clear’, that is, whether she had been mined or torpedoed. The battle fleet altered course at 7.03, and Beatty followed at 7.30.

What Jellicoe feared was steering the Grand Fleet into a minefield trap, ‘and, until it was clear that a mine-field did not exist, it was prudent for the Fleet to avoid this locality . . .’ His defenders say that it would have been ‘foolhardy’ (Altham) or ‘lunacy’ (Dreyer) to have led the fleet into a minefield. Churchill has contended that, even on the assumption that a mine had sunk the Nottingham, ‘a comparatively slight alteration of course would have carried the Grand Fleet many miles clear of the area of the suspected minefields, and the possibility of getting between the German Fleet and home presented itself.’ Perhaps the C.-in-C. felt, on the basis of the Admiralty message, that he had plenty of time in hand and should await more information before committing the fleet to a course of action. Anyhow, it is a fact that four hours were lost, since it was not until after 9 a.m. (Beatty, at 9.30) that the C.-in-C. resumed his advance to the southward. We should not exaggerate the consequences of Jellicoe’s movement to the northward, for, as Newbolt says,

Had it never been made, that is, had Admiral Jellicoe pressed on to the southward, his advanced forces might have come in contact with Hipper’s squadron between twelve and one ; but only on the supposition that the British advance was not held up by the submarines of U-boat line No. 1 [the Blyth line], and that Admiral Scheer held on for Sunderland, in ignorance of the tremendous force which was steadily approaching his communications with [i.e., his line of retreat to] Germany. But it is in the last degree improbable that the German Commander-in-Chief would have known nothing of our Grand Fleet until it was close upon him. . . . It is certain that never, if he could possibly have avoided it, would he have joined battle with the Grand Fleet to the eastward of him, and with the prospect of an eight-hours’ daylight battle before night could bring him a chance of breaking away.

As matters developed, when Jellicoe again turned towards the enemy, he still had time to bring them to action, despite the lost hours.

At 9.08 a.m., having definitely learned that the Nottingham had been sunk by torpedoes, the C.-in-C. turned south again, shaping course S.S.E., steering for a position about 25 miles to the eastward of where the Nottingham had been torpedoed. His original intention had been to proceed down ‘L’ Channel, but in view of the possible presence of U-boats there (submarines had been found in the upper part of the channel, and he suspected that they would also be found in the lower part), he elected to cross the centre of this channel and then move to the eastward down the safer ‘M’ Channel. Clearly, this was a course which gave the Grand Fleet less chance of interposing itself between the High Seas Fleet and its base. Had he adhered to his original plan, he would have been about 20 miles farther to the eastward and might have made contact with the enemy late in the afternoon, perhaps too late for anything more than an indecisive action. The explanation for the change in plan lies in Jellicoe’s suspicion of a trap— that Scheer was using his battle fleet as a bait to draw the Grand Fleet south into his submarines and/or newly-laid mines. At 10.21 the Iron Duke received E-23’s report of 9.16 on the torpedoing of the Westfalen (see below). Although the message was mutilated in transmission and did not fit in with the information of the enemy’s position in two signals received from the Admiralty at 7 and 8 a.m., it did confirm the C.-in-C. in his belief that the High Seas Fleet was making for the English coast.

With the information available after the war, which could not of course have been known to Jellicoe on 19 August, it is possible that a course down ‘L’ Channel would have carried the fleet away from the sphere of the U-boats. At 12.34 Jellicoe altered course for ‘M’ Channel, steering south towards the centre of the channel. An important Admiralty signal of 1.15 p.m., received in the Iron Duke at 1.27 but not seen by Jellicoe until about 2 o’clock, placed the German flagship (from directionals) at 12.33 p.m. in Lat. 54° 32′ N., Long. 1° 42′ E. This was at the time when, as we shall see in a moment, Scheer was about to turn. This was not known to the Admiralty or the C.-in-C. The message indicated that there were about 60 miles between Beatty and the High Seas Fleet at the time of observation, or no more than 40 miles at 2 p.m., if the Germans had stood on. The two fleets were apparently converging at right angles on each other, with early contact inevitable. At once Jellicoe increased speed from 17 to 19 knots and turned the fleet directly towards the (presumably) oncoming enemy. At 2 p.m. the Iron Duke made the flag signal: ‘Raise steam for full speed. . .. Assume immediate readiness for action in every respect.’ And towards 2.15: ‘Prepare for immediate action. High Sea Fleet may be sighted at any moment.’ At 2.15 there followed the Nelson-like signal: ‘High Sea Fleet may be sighted at any moment. I look with entire confidence on the result.’ The weather was clear. There was ample daylight. The odds greatly favoured the Grand Fleet— and this time Beatty was within visual touch of the battle fleet. Everything was ready. But unknown to Jellicoe, fate had yet again intervened to dash the great expectations of the Grand Fleet.

We must turn to Scheer’s movements. He had steamed across the North Sea without incident until 5.05 a.m., when E-23 (Lieutenant-Commander R. R. Turner), patrolling in the Bight 60 miles north of Terschelling, torpedoed the battleship Westfalen, last ship in the German line, at 1,200 yards. At 6.30 Scheer sent the struggling, though not seriously damaged, ship back to harbour under destroyer escort. (It was the Westfalen’s wireless signal reporting the hit and the damage, in violation of Scheer’s orders, that had given Jellicoe important information, via the Admiralty message received at 8 a.m., on the position of the High Seas Fleet.) As the morning wore on, Scheer found himself mystified by the reports he was receiving from his reconnaissance forces. The Zeppelin L-13, in the Hoofden, at 6.30 reported two enemy destroyer flotillas, and behind them two cruiser squadrons (really one), about 120 miles to the southward steering south-west. It was the Harwich Force. (Tyrwhitt had reached the rendezvous off Brown Ridge by 4.02 a.m. and continued to cruise in the vicinity. At 10 a.m., on the basis of E-23’s signal, which had been made at 9.16 to all ships, he turned north to get in touch with the enemy.) At 7 o’clock and at 8.10, U-53, on the eastern end of the northern submarine line, made reports, the first of battle cruisers, the second of battleships, all steering north. At 9.50 the Zeppelin L-31 sent in the inaccurate report that at 9.50 (a mistake for 8.50) the main British fleet was steering north-east. Scheer later reported that this intelligence failed to give him ‘a unified picture of the enemy’s counter-measures’, as all the enemy forces appeared to be moving away from him, instead of converging on his line of advance! Unruffled, and probably concluding that the Harwich Force was merely patrolling, while a concentration of the main British forces was taking place well to the northward, he stood on for Sunderland. At noon he was 82 miles east of Whitby.

Then came the crucial moment. At 12.03 Scheer received a report from L-13 (whose pilot, incidentally, was a reserve officer not well trained in reconnaissance work), which had been shadowing the Harwich Force, that ‘a strong enemy force of about 30 units’, including five heavy ships, 60 miles east of Cromer, was coming up from the southward at 11.30 a.m. (This was about 60 miles south of Scheer’s position at 11.30.) A second report from L-13, received at 12.22, reported this enemy force as consisting of ‘about 16 destroyers, small and large cruisers, and battleships’. (A third report, received at 12.50, located this force at 12.30, 75 miles E.N.E. of Cromer on a N.E. course. This report assured Scheer that he had made the correct decision.) A thunderstorm caused L-13 to lose contact with the British force at 1.30. But for these airship reports, especially the second, Scheer might well have pressed on towards Sunderland—another hour and Jellicoe would have been between him and his base. Instead, believing he had part of the British battle fleet within reach, he abandoned his original plan of bombarding Sunderland. At 12.15 he ordered the fleet to turn around. The battle fleet had to mark time while the 1st Scouting Group got into position ahead on the new course, and then, at one o’clock, the whole fleet shaped course to the south-eastward to engage the reported force—away from the Grand Fleet, coming down from the north. Scheer’s dream since becoming C.-in-C., of destroying a detached, weaker force, seemed on the point of realization! Alas for his hopes, L-13’s reports were mistaken ones, and Scheer was chasing a phantom battleship squadron—actually, the Harwich Force, which, of course, had no battleships with it. Moreover, not having sighted the German fleet, it had turned south at 12.45 to return to its station in the Hoofden, and was, unknowingly, steaming away from the High Seas Fleet.

At 2.35 Scheer abandoned the chase and turned to E.S.E. He gives these as the reasons. ‘The bulk of the fleet continued to advance until stopped by the minefields in the south. [He was within 25 miles of the Humber field.] . . . There was no further prospect of coming up with the enemy in the south, and it had grown too late to bombard Sunderland.’ The dominating factor in his decision must have been U-53’s report at 1.15 (received by him at 2.13) that the British main fleet was approaching, steering south, in a position some 65 miles to the north of the High Seas Fleet. This, the first precise report of the British battle fleet, must have shocked the German C.-in-C.

The German Official History rather severely criticizes L-13 for her blunder, and Scheer claims that ‘there was a possibility that we might have joined battle with the enemy fleet at 4 p.m. [2 p.m., G.M.T.], if the report of “L 13” had not induced me to turn south with a view to attacking the ships sighted in that direction.’ The Chief of the Operations Section on Scheer’s staff remarked after the war that if the C.-in-C. had only continued on towards Sunderland for another hour, instead of turning against the reported force, they would have scored ‘a substantial success. The fate of the war turned on this battle, which was the last chance to end the war by a naval success.’ To the disinterested historian

[and wargamer]

it seems that L-13’s error was in reality a blessing in disguise for the High Seas Fleet, which might otherwise have run into the vastly superior Grand Fleet—and probable disaster.

The Grand Fleet was meanwhile pressing on in an expectant mood. At about 2.30 Jellicoe received an Admiralty message of 1.36 that the High Seas Fleet was turning to starboard at 12.30. By 3 o’clock he knew that the prospect of a meeting was virtually dead. He now advanced into the centre of ‘M’ Channel. At 3.46 he learned from an Admiralty signal of 3.22 that Scheer was well on his way home. At 3.53 Jellicoe ordered the fleet to turn north, and so began the retirement.

The return passage, up ‘M’ Channel, was something of a nightmare until darkness set in, as U-boats of the Flamborough Head line, and then the Blyth line, repeatedly attacked. ‘The signal “submarine in sight” was flying almost continuously at the yard-arm of one or the other of the British ships.’ There was only one hit. The light cruiser Falmouth, on the battle cruisers’ screen, was zigzagging at 23 knots when struck by two torpedoes fired by U-66 at 4.52. She was hit twice more by U-63 at about noon, 20 August, as she was proceeding towards the Humber in tow, and finally sank the next morning when only miles from Flamborough Head.

After several abortive sweeps from its station on Brown Ridge, the Harwich Force finally made contact with the High Seas Fleet at about 6 p.m. and reported it. The fleet at that time was distant at least 20 miles, as only the control tops of a few heavy ships could be seen above the horizon, but its presence was confirmed by a heavy cloud of smoke and the Zeppelins overhead. Tyrwhitt at once started to close the enemy, but at 6.32 p.m. received a signal from the C.-in-C. saying he was too far off to support him. In fact, he had actually abandoned the pursuit and was making for home. That signal gave full discretion to attack or withdraw, but Tyrwhitt did not hesitate to take the risk of attacking a powerful and strongly escorted fleet in its own waters, without any hope of support and at least 150 miles from his base. His only chance of a successful attack was to get well ahead of the enemy and to come down to the attack at high speed, and, accordingly, with this object, he increased to full speed. Unfortunately, after an hour’s steaming it became clear that he could not reach the desired position before the moon rose, which would have made any attempt disastrous; and he therefore withdrew, reporting to the C.-in-C. at 7.32 p.m., ‘Have abandoned pursuit. Night attack conditions unfavourable.’

Commander Frost (U.S.N.) is highly critical of Tyrwhitt’s decision. ‘To be in plain sight of 20 capital ships at dark is a wonderful opportunity for any destroyer commander. Any situation, except possibly a full moon, would be favorable for a night attack. . .. That the British deliberately refused the opportunity for a night attack and that Scheer was perfectly willing to risk it disproved the claim that the British had gained a moral ascendancy over the Germans as a result of Jutland.’ The German Official History is just as unflattering. ‘The reasons which caused him and Admiral Jellicoe not to attack the heavy German forces. . . and to leave them entirely unmolested stand in basic opposition to the German conception of the use and independent attack of torpedo-boat forces.’ We cannot leave the incident there. Tyrwhitt, who was anything but a faint-hearted commander, had a good reason for not closing, one with more validity than Frost admits: he expected that the moon would make an attack both useless and too hazardous. His Navigation Officer writes,

I am sure that the risk of being able to attack only after the moon had risen made us feel quite happy about having to abandon the pursuit. The moon did not rise till about midnight, but the H.S.F. was probably retiring at high speed, and we could only have caught them up and got ahead for the attack after the moon had risen, which with our small force would have been suicidal and useless against a powerful and well-protected fleet which had not been brought to action. When the moon did rise, when on our way back, this was confirmed without a doubt, as it was as bright as day.

There never was, nor could there be, the slightest official criticism of Tyrwhitt’s action on this occasion.


Results Of 19 August – Jutland Redux II

And so the day had ended without anything happening. In the view of British critics, the main reason for the enemy ‘slipping through our hands’ was Jellicoe’s cautious strategy (‘careful and evasive attitude’ was the post-battle German evaluation), which was conditioned, they say, by the mistrust of his matériel resulting from his Jutland experiences and the as yet uncorrected defects in ship construction and shell. This is supposed to be proved by the fact that the Grand Fleet steered its southerly course ‘too close’ to the coast (no more than 70 miles from it), whereas, as a British naval officer, writing in 1962, puts it,

Had Jutland not then been fought it seems reasonable to suppose that the advance of the fleet this day would have been laid further east, that is to say, with a greater chance of cutting off the enemy if he approached the coast of England. A concentration to the east instead of the west of the Dogger Bank would have given the British commander more room for manæuvre and more time to effect an interception whether the enemy persisted in his advance or whether, if he got news of the British approach, he, at some period of the day, decided to withdraw.

The validity of the criticism is questionable on two counts. In the first place, if Jellicoe had taken the course suggested, he could not have prevented an East Coast bombardment, the likely enemy objective, or even caught the assailants red-handed. As he must have been aware, neither the Government nor public opinion would have stood for that. But even on the supposition that he had decided to sacrifice the East Coast in the hope that he would annihilate the High Seas Fleet, in all likelihood nothing would have happened.

Scheer was satisfied with the results of his outing. ‘Although on this occasion the expected naval action with the enemy did not take place, and we had to content ourselves with the modest success of two small cruisers destroyed and one battleship damaged [he was under the mistaken impression that a U-boat had torpedoed the battle cruiser Inflexible at 7.50 p.m.], while on our side the Westfalen received injuries, yet we had conclusively shown the enemy that he must be on the watch for attacks by our Fleet.’ He was particularly pleased with the performance of his submarines, which had ‘accomplished good service’ in their reconnaissance duty. The record shows that of the twenty-four U-boats involved in the operation, five (all in the Blyth and Flamborough Head lines) had sighted the British fleet and sent in eleven reports (seven from U-53); they fired sixteen torpedoes, obtaining seven hits on two light cruisers, both of which were sunk. In contrast, Scheer did not regard the air reconnaissance, on which he had relied so greatly, as wholly satisfactory. Only three of the ten airships sighted the British fleet, sending seven reports, four of which were misleading. In Scheer’s opinion, the number of airships and the large area they had to cover worked against the realiability of their reports. And he seems to have thought there had been too much patrolling in a given position and too little searching and shadowing. ‘Scouting by airships is, in any case, somewhat negative in character, since the fleet is only informed by them that the main hostile fleet is not within their field of vision, whereas the important thing is to know where it actually is.’ Despite Scheer’s critical remarks on the air reconnaissance, he had saved his skin in part because of one misleading enemy report!

It was the last time the German Fleet pushed so far into the North Sea. Although Scheer saw interesting possibilities in further sorties with a perfected reconnaissance machinery of submarines together with airships, 19 August strengthened the opinion of the Naval Staff that, while such bold sorties might damage the British Fleet, they would not produce an important, let alone a decisive, result. After 19 August 1916, therefore, the doings of the High Seas Fleet begin to fade out, and the activities of the U-boats, divorced from the fleet, become more pronounced. Especially was this the case from 6 October, the day that the Naval Staff ordered a resumption of submarine warfare in accordance with prize rules (that is, under conditions of visit and search). The order explicitly stated that ‘the employment of the submarines on purely naval duties in combined operations with the High Seas Forces or in independent action against enemy naval forces, is to be subordinated until further orders to the campaign against commerce in accordance with the Prize Regulations.’ This precluded the further use of submarines in fleet operations and knocked the bottom out of Scheer’s hopes of striking an effectual blow against the Grand Fleet. We shall see below that the influence of 19 August was equally far-reaching on the British side. Here it was a shortage of destroyers that contributed to the stalemate in the North Sea.

On the whole, British public opinion reacted favourably to the official statement on the encounter. (It was, naturally, full of gaps.) Thus, H. C. Ferraby, Naval Correspondent of the Daily Express, deemed the loss of the two ships ‘a small price to pay for bolting the door in the face of the second largest fleet in the world’. But to the Admiralty and the C.-in-C., 19 August was a day of disappointment and even of shock.

What Jellicoe had long feared had come to pass: the enemy’s Zeppelins, to say nothing of their submarines, had served them well as look-outs. ‘There is no doubt of the use the Germans find for their Zeppelins, apart from raids. They hampered us terribly last week and greatly helped their S.M.s. One Zeppelin is worth a good many light cruisers on a suitable day.’ The C.-in-C. shot this query to the Admiralty on 24 August: How many airships were available on the East Coast, and did they have orders to co-operate with the fleet, should it be within the radius of their action? British scouting airships might have been of considerable assistance to the Grand Fleet on the afternoon of the 19th in locating the enemy’s U-boats and possibly also their battle fleet. The Admiralty replied (6 September) that there were available on the East Coast ten coastal airships, with three more to be ready shortly. This type, intended for coast reconnaissance, had a very limited radius within which they could operate with the fleet: 150 miles in fine weather. More suitable for fleet work was the improved North Sea type (four of which would be completed by the end of 1916 and two more early in 1917) with a radius of 400 miles in good weather. The Admiralty, however, were willing that Jellicoe should arrange for some of the coastal airships to participate in a test exercise with the fleet to ascertain whether their position when out of sight of land could be determined with sufficient accuracy to render reports received from them of value. The situation as regards seaplane carriers was less encouraging. The Fleet was still without efficient carriers. The Third Sea Lord informed the C.-in-C. at a conference in the Iron Duke (12 October) that the Italian steamer Conte Rosso was being converted into a seaplane carrier, but that she would not be available for a year. When he suggested that the flying boats would replace seaplanes and carriers, Jellicoe pointed out that their radius of action was insufficient to enable them to work with the fleet and that the difficulties of refuelling them at sea, even if they could safely make the rendezvous ordered, were great. Practically speaking, therefore, the Campania and Engadine remained the only means of aerial scouting that the Grand Fleet could expect, apart from kite balloons inflated on shore and towed by battleships.

It was the destroyer shortage that claimed most of the C.-in-C.’s attention. He (the First Sea Lord as well) believed that the German plan on 19 August had combined a projected evening bombardment of the East Coast and a submarine trap for the Grand Fleet. The submarines actually sighted and the loss of the two light cruisers proved the U-boat menace to the fleet was a real one. The C.-in-C. lost no time in making strong representations to the Admiralty on the subject of destroyers for screening. He was positive that unless all vessels, including light cruisers (which the destroyer shortage had made impossible to screen hitherto), were screened by destroyers, they must expect very heavy losses when the fleet was in a submarine-infested area. The C.-in-C. put his minimum destroyer requirements at 87, on the scale of twelve destroyers to eight heavy ships (one battle squadron), two per cruiser, and one to each light cruiser. Nominally, Jellicoe had 86 destroyers (31 at Rosyth and 55 at Scapa Flow), but deducting those refitting or away on other duties, only 70 were ordinarily available. The question of the destroyer shortage ‘is one of the greatest gravity and calls for urgent pressure on the firms who are building destroyers, as until we get more, I cannot guarantee us from further heavy losses in cruisers, if not in Battleships, from submarine attack, and with no corresponding loss to the enemy’.

For two weeks Jellicoe harped on this theme, until their Lordships simply refused to reply to his last communication on the subject (13 September). As Oliver commented, with a touch of asperity, ‘Keeping up an argument will not provide any more destroyers.’ The Admiralty’s position was that the rate of destroyer-building (14.7 months was the average time since the outbreak of the war, compared with 20-24 in pre-war days) could not be improved on appreciably, and they could not disregard their responsibilities in other directions: ‘British Light Cruisers in the Adriatic are as much in need of Destroyer protection as Light Cruisers in the North Sea. 100 Drifters blocking Otranto Straits with mine nets have only intermittent and inadequate protection, which the Admiralty have been unable to provide.’ The supplies and reinforcements to the armies in Egypt, Salonika, and Mesopotamia had to be protected, the troopships from the Dominions required escort, and so forth and so on. The best that the Admiralty could do for Jellicoe (as they informed him on 9 September) was to continue, under the scheme promulgated in August 1915, the allocation of new destroyers to the Grand Fleet until the total complement reached 100. The destroyer situation directly influenced North Sea strategy.

The Grand Fleet had invariably moved upon receiving intelligence, through intercepted enemy signals, of a High Seas Fleet sortie. This policy had broken down. It ‘needed drastic revision’, Jellicoe asserted, unless he got more destroyers for screening purposes. He could not guarantee the East Coast ports against ‘tip and run’ bombardments, or interfere with the early stages of a landing, since it would be unwise to take the fleet far into southern waters until he had an adequate number of destroyers for his light cruisers as well as his capital ships. He did make an important qualification. ‘If the circumstances were exceptional and the need very pressing, it would be necessary to accept the risk. There was general agreement on this point between the Flag officers of the Fleet and the Admiralty’. The issues raised were thrashed out at one of the most important naval conferences in the war, held in the Iron Duke on 13 September. Present were Jellicoe, his Chief of Staff, Madden, and the Chief of the Admiralty War Staff, Oliver.

The questions for decision were, in effect: (1) Was the Government prepared to face the fact that the fleet could not prevent bombardments of East Coast towns or interfere with the early stages of a landing? (2) Should the fleet disregard risks of submarines and mines, and seek the enemy whenever he was known to be at sea? (3) Or should the fleet avoid localities where the enemy could easily lay traps with submarines or mines and confine its operations to northern waters, say, north of Lat. 55° 30′ N. (approximately the latitude of Horns Reef and the Farne Islands)? The C.-in-C. held the strong opinion that the main fleet should not go south of this latitude in longitudes east of 4° E., ‘unless under exceptional circumstances, the reason being that waters so far to the eastward cannot be watched by our cruisers or our submarines, and they, therefore, offer to the enemy facilities for preparing a trap of mines or submarines on a large scale’. In waters to the west of Long. 4° E., they could afford to take the risks of mines ‘if a really good opportunity offered of bringing the High Sea Fleet to action in daylight’. (This was because the submarine patrols could very probably report whether minefields might be expected.) But in no case should the fleet go south of the Dogger Bank, on account of the submarine menace, unless it had an ample destroyer screen ‘for all ships’. Jellicoe made it clear that his proposals were independent of where the fleet was based —Scapa or Rosyth. Oliver summed up the points raised at the conference: ‘Both the C.-in-C. and the V.A., B.C.F.

[whom Oliver visited on 14 September]

hold very definite views as to the Fleet not coming far south on every occasion of the German Fleet approaching the East Coast of England, but only when there is a really good chance of engaging it in daylight. . . . The V.A. was if anything more emphatic on this point than the C.-in-C.’ Indeed he was:

I am very firmly of the opinion that the War has reached a stage when it behoves us [in] the Navy to move very circumspectly. The old proverb that ‘When you are winning risk nothing’ might well be applied now. And I think the North Sea South of Lat. 55-30 N is a very unhealthy place for Capital Ships and shd be left entirely to SM’s who might be able to deny the use of it to the Enemy except at very grave risk. If they are willing to take that risk it wd. surely be for an objective of great importance and not merely a parade. What objective could they possibly have. However [I] admit that there might be one, in which case we ought to be able to guess it and counter it. The Enemy’s Fleet is no use to them unless they can perform some such duty as breaking up the Blockade which is really now having a strangling effect and in that case they have to fight us. And in waters of our selection and not of theirs.

In a word, Beatty, no less than Jellicoe, preached caution in taking heavy ships south of latitude 55° 30′ after the events of 19 August. His letter is further proof that their strategic views after Jutland were very similar to those they held before.

On 23 September the Admiralty ‘approved generally’ the conclusions reached at the conference on the 13th, definitely adopting the view that minefields and submarines had fundamentally altered naval strategy in the North Sea.

If the Grand Fleet proceeds south of the Forth whenever the German Fleet is suspected of being about to approach the East Coast, it is certain that it will incur great and increasing risks of losses from submarine attack and from mines, while the chance of bringing the enemy to action is very small [because in weather when Zeppelins could operate ‘it seems almost impossible for our ships to close the enemy without being reported in amply sufficient time to enable him to avoid action and escape’], unless he is unduly delayed near our coast by damage to some of his ships by the local forces.

Accordingly, the heavy ships of the Grand Fleet, barring ‘exceptional circumstances’, were to keep northward of the parallel of Horns Reef. ‘Exceptional circumstances’ were defined as ‘an attempt at invasion, or that a really good opportunity is foreseen of bringing the German fleet to action in daylight in an area which is not greatly to the disadvantage of the Grand Fleet. A suitable opportunity might be afforded if the German Fleet attacked the Thames or Dover Strait defences.’ ‘Exceptional circumstances’ did not cover an enemy raid on the East Coast, like the Scarborough or Lowestoft raids, since ‘it is impossible for our capital ships from the Northern bases to bring the enemy to action for some 16 to 30 hours after his ships have been reported off our coast, the time lengthening according to the distance south to the point of attack.’ ‘Periodical exercise cruises, however, to keep the fleet efficient are necessary, and some risks must be accepted to carry them out; but taking large risks with the capital ships of the Grand Fleet from mines and submarines in dangerous areas on occasions when there is only a very slender chance of bringing the German fleet to action in daylight is not sound strategy.’

Besides the decision to keep the capital ships to the north of the parallel of Horns Reef, the firmness of the control over the movements and sailings of the Grand Fleet exercised by the Admiralty is shown by the statement in the same memorandum that, in ordering the C.-in-C. to raise steam, they would state the degree of urgency. Orders would then be given to proceed to sea and concentrate east of the Long Forties, and the C.-in-C. would arrange the rendezvous. In rough weather the fleet would not be ordered south of that rendezvous. The decisions embodied in the Admiralty memorandum ‘governed the subsequent conduct of the Grand Fleet and rank as one of the most important enunciations of naval policy issued during the war. They were the direct outcome of August 19.’ At the same time they were the culmination of a discussion on the role of the Grand Fleet that had been going on for six months.

There had been some irritation at the Admiralty after 19 August that the Grand Fleet was remaining on the defensive. The First Sea Lord had given vent to his feelings in a sharp rebuke that was not sent to Jellicoe:

It cannot be overlooked that the Commander-in-Chief lays great stress on the injury the enemy can inflict on our forces in the North Sea, but offers no suggestion as to the employment of his forces to inflict similar losses on the enemy. It is also to be noted that practically all large movements of the Fleet have to be initiated by the Admiralty. I suggest the Commander-in-Chief might again be informed that we should welcome any suggestions from him as to the employment of any of the vessels under his command with the object of inflicting similar injury to the enemy.

A month later, in their memorandum of 23 September for the C.-in-C, the Admiralty had reluctantly to admit, ‘In fact, unless the enemy desires to fight and seeks action, the chances of bringing him to action are now lessened and seem problematical.’

By this date it was clear that a stalemate in the North Sea had set in. The restrictions imposed on the Grand Fleet’s area of operations, together with Scheer’s wariness about venturing any distance from his base without submarine outposts which were no longer available, made a future meeting of the two fleets extremely unlikely.

It may be said that Admiral Scheer could not sally out without submarines and Admiral Jellicoe could not drive him back without destroyers. On the one side the apparatus of reconnaissance, on the other side the apparatus of screening, broke down. August 19 was thus at once a finale and a prologue. The first part of the great drama was over. The curtain rang down on the excursions of the German Fleet, just as they were beginning to offer a promise of success. It was to rise again, not on serried fleets seeking one another in the North Sea, but on submarines toiling night and day in tireless search for prey, while behind them a host of relentless pursuers followed hard. It is in the light of these far-reaching decisions that August 19 ranks with Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland as one of the red-letter days in the calendar of the North Sea.

Events in the autumn illustrated and confirmed this state of affairs.

Scheer planned a sortie for September on the same lines as 19 August. Unfavourable weather forced a cancellation. Before he could plan another, orders had gone out for the resumption of submarine warfare on trade. ‘Lacking U-boats’, Scheer writes, ‘I was forced to adopt quite a different scheme; instead of making for the English coast and luring the enemy on to our line of U-boats before the actual battle took place, I had to make a widespread advance with torpedo-boats to take stock of the merchant traffic in the North Sea and capture prizes. The Fleet was to serve as a support to the light craft that were sent out.’ Apparently, he expected the sortie would lead to an action with British naval forces, on which the German Official History remarks, ‘If the Commander-in-Chief hoped to clash with enemy surface forces, the chances were slight due to the limited extent of the advance.’ The Official History also notes that ‘if circumstances permitted’, his plan included the launching of a night torpedo attack.

The High Seas Fleet put to sea around midnight of 18-19 October, steering west for a point east of the Dogger Bank. Though Scheer had no submarines, he still had his airships, ten of which were spread ahead of the fleet in a wide semicircle across the Bight. (Breakdowns forced two of them back early.) A widely spread destroyer screen covered his flanks.

The Admiralty received Scheer’s signal of 5.30 p.m., 18 October, stating his intention to carry out an operation. At 7.46 p.m. they ordered the Grand Fleet to be at short notice for steam (‘The German Fleet shows signs of moving’). Other intercepted signals confirmed an impending enemy sortie, and at 11.30 p.m. orders went out to the local defence commanders—Tyrwhitt, the Rear-Admiral, East Coast (at Immingham), and the Vice-Admiral, 3rd Battle Squadron (in the Thames)—alerting them to a naval raid south. In line with the policy laid down on 23 September, the Grand Fleet did not put to sea. German intentions were not known. Jellicoe suggested to the Admiralty that Scheer might try to draw the fleet to the south and west, so as to leave a path clear for surface raiders to break loose. As a precaution, he sent a cruiser force out to look for raiders at the northern end of the North Sea.

When Scheer put to sea, there were four Harwich submarines patrolling off Ameland on the Dutch coast, and three Blyth submarines off Horns Reef. One of the former, E-38 (Lieutenant-Commander J. de B. Jessop), sighted the German fleet, and at 8.43 a.m. (19 October) fired two torpedoes into the light cruiser München at 1,300 yards. She managed to get home safely, in tow of the light cruiser Berlin. (Jellicoe was unhappy over the failure to sink the München. ‘They are very difficult to sink, or else our torpedoes don’t hit hard enough.’) Scheer sighted no enemy forces, and when he reached a position east of the Dogger Bank, shortly after 11 a.m., he altered course to E.N.E. with the intention of proceeding back through the channel south of Horns Reef. At 2 p.m. he ordered his airships to return home and definitely turned back himself. The only reason given in the German Official History is that at 2 p.m. he decided that the bright night would not be favourable for a torpedo attack. (He seems to have had some notion of running into the Harwich Force at night, if he had held his course.) E-38’s torpedoes, in conjunction with the heavy sea, which prevented his destroyers from keeping up, and the knowledge (via a report from the Neumünster radio station at 11.35 a.m.) that his enterprise had become known to the enemy, are sufficient to explain Scheer’s decision to return to harbour.

And so ended the sortie. It was the last movement of the High Seas Fleet as a whole until April 1918. Without submarines for reconnaissance, Scheer would take no chances, particularly after burning his fingers on 3 November. On this date the submarines U-20 and U-30 were stranded in a fog off Bovbjerg on the west coast of north Jutland (Denmark). Assuming that a British squadron might be at sea off the Skagerrak, Scheer sent the battle cruiser Moltke, four dreadnoughts, and a half flotilla of destroyers to render assistance. They managed to bring in U-30, but could not save U-20, as her back was broken. On the return home, 5 November, two of the battleships were successfully torpedoed by a British submarine, J-1 (Commander Noel Laurence), in ‘thick and dirty weather’, with the track of the torpedoes obscured by the heavy seas. The damage in both cases was not very serious. The Emperor sharply criticized Scheer for ‘risking a squadron, and by so doing nearly losing two armoured ships in order to save two U-boats’.

Although it was not immediately apparent to the British, in fact battle-fleet strategy was in abeyance until the need to protect the Scandinavian convoys, brought about by unrestricted trade attack, opened a new and quite different phase for the Grand Fleet in the latter part of 1917. Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1916, it was time for another wave of public distrust of the Admiralty, and one of the criticisms levelled at it was the absence of offensive naval action in the North Sea.

Marcomannic Wars

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius [Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; 26 April 121 – 17 March 180] believed that the barbarian groups beyond the Rhine and the Danube had been allowed too much freedom of action while three of the regional legions had been fighting in the east. Indeed, both archaeological evidence and the scant literary sources suggest that the balance of tribal power beyond the middle Danube and in Bohemia had changed dramatically around this time, though for reasons that remain obscure. Relative imperial neglect probably played a part, allowing unexpected and undesirable violence to break out. Authorised warfare between tribal clients was a healthy part of Roman policy as it created a managed instability that prevented any one group from becoming too powerful and channelled the excess energy of martial societies away from Rome and towards one another. But unauthorised warfare beyond the northern frontier was something different: without sufficient Roman oversight or surveillance, it might rapidly flare up into something more threatening. Defeated war bands, occasionally whole tribes, might try to seek refuge in the empire, and while that was often a desirable way of bringing new farmers and soldiers into the empire, it only worked when such population movements could be controlled.

Nowadays Rome’s European frontiers, with their ‘Germanic’ barbarians, loom disproportionately large in the historical imagination, both popular and scholarly: the frontier is often imagined as a breakwater against which barbarian tides lapped endlessly across centuries until the dam burst and the empire fell. In fact, the political dynamics on the Rhine and Danube frontiers were similar to those in Africa, Arabia, Britain and wherever the socially more complex and technologically more sophisticated empire confronted tribal groups whose power structures rarely stayed stable for long. For those neighbours, the empire was a juggernaut towering on the horizon. Roman actions, and fear of Roman actions, shaped the decisions of barbarian elites everywhere, even those at three or four removes from the frontier itself. The churning landscape just beyond the European and African frontiers was as much a product of Rome as the barbarians: even the smallest Roman expedition could wipe out whole sections of a population, lay waste to years’ worth of seed grain and stockpiled wealth and render a group’s homeland uninhabitable. When the empire was distracted, it presented an opportunity. Not to correct the immeasurable disparity in power, that could never happen; rather to seize momentarily a small piece of Roman prosperity, accessible along well-built roads leading deep into the imperial provinces. To do so was worth the inevitable and often devastating response. We have no idea what was happening beyond the Danube frontier when some of its garrison legions were detached to the Parthian War. But the return of the legions either directly provoked a violent response or triggered an outbreak of intertribal violence that drove a medium-sized barbarian army into Pannonia.

Marcus’s response was determinedly punitive. Iallius Bassus, who had been with Lucius on the eastern campaigns, was made governor of Pannonia Superior, traditionally the most senior command on the Rhine–Danube frontier. At the same time, a man named Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus first enters the historical record as the governor of Pannonia Inferior. Pompeianus is a remarkable example of the way in which the oligarchic elite that dominated imperial government could open itself to conspicuous talent. Pompeianus was the son of a minor equestrian official from Antioch in Syria, a part of the Hellenistic east that had as yet launched very few of its native sons into the international elite of equestrian, let alone senatorial, government. On his personal merits alone, however, Pompeianus would go on to enter the senate, becoming a special friend of Marcus, marrying into the imperial family and remaining a central figure in Roman politics for the rest of the century.

Pannonia Inferior was Pompeianus’s first significant command, and both he and Bassus would experience very heavy fighting. Late in 166 or early in 167, several thousand Langobardi and Obii invaded Pannonia Superior. They had come from a region well beyond the immediate frontier zone, which was settled with Marcomanni opposite Pannonia in the modern Czech Republic, Quadi opposite the Danube bend, and the Sarmatian Iazyges in the land between the Danube and the Carpathians. These distant invaders were rapidly annihilated by Bassus, but the prospect of reprisals frightened the client kings closer by. Eleven of the middle Danubian tribes chose as their spokesman the Marcomannic king Ballomarius and he sued for peace before Bassus. Ballomarius protested his own and his fellow clients’ loyalty to the emperor and dismissed the actions of the Langobardi and Obii as a freak aberration. The plague had detained Marcus at Rome, so Bassus concluded a provisional peace and waited until his emperor was ready.

In spring 168, Marcus began a personal inspection of the Danube frontier. No one doubted that this was a preamble to war. Lucius would accompany the expedition as well, in part because the troops knew him from the Parthian War, and the project’s scale can be judged by the number of important men involved. Furius Victorinus, the experienced guard prefect who had accompanied Lucius to the east, now went north with both emperors, but he and many of his guardsmen would die, probably of plague, en route to the frontier. He was replaced by M. Bassaeus Rufus, previously prefect of the vigiles (the urban security force of Rome) and briefly prefect of Egypt. The other guard prefect, M. Macrinius Vindex, came, too, which suggests that Rome was left ungarrisoned in the emperors’ absence. Marcus’s other trusted generals – Aufidius Victorinus, Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, Pontius Laelianus, the last two of whom had both served stints on the Danube frontier – were with him, not with specific portfolios but as comites Augusti, companions of the emperor.

Our sources are confused and two centuries of modern scholarship have yet to produce a fully satisfactory chronology of what we call the Marcomannic Wars and what Marcus referred to as his expeditio Germanica. The frontier of Pannonia Superior had not been settled by the treaty of Ballomarius and Bassus, and by 168 a Marcomannic king (perhaps, but not necessarily, Ballomarius) had been killed in battle there. The tribal leaders asked Roman permission to choose his successor and Lucius argued that this was success enough: why not call off the whole campaign and spare themselves the expense and the danger? Marcus demurred, planning to spend winter outside Rome for the first time since becoming emperor, choosing instead the Adriatic hub of Aquileia which was equidistant from the capital and the frontier. In the end, sickness in the ranks proved so bad that Marcus acceded to Lucius’s wishes and agreed to return to Rome. But having got his way, Lucius proved unlucky: just days after leaving Aquileia, he had a stroke and died at Altinum. Marcus returned to Rome with his adoptive brother’s body. He was now sole emperor, as Antoninus Pius had always intended.

There was little time for grief, but Marcus had his brother deified as duty required. Lucius’s death left Marcus’s 19-year-old daughter Lucilla the widow of a divus. She may already have begun to show the ambition and ruthlessness that would define her later career, or Marcus may have felt that a marriageable princess was too tempting a target for court intrigue. Regardless, he scandalised senatorial opinion by marrying Lucilla off again before the mourning period for Lucius was over. Worse still, she was given not to a senatorial grandee, but to the equestrian marshal Ti. Claudius Pompeianus. Marcus had good reasons for this decision. Only one of his daughters was ever given an aristocratic husband, lest it lead to a dynastic challenge to the heir apparent, Lucius Commodus (he became the emperor’s only surviving son after the youngest, Annius Verus, died in summer 169). Pompeianus proved a loyal supporter of the dynasty, as well as an important patron for other equestrians. Most significant of these was Helvius Pertinax, the equestrian son of a freedman, who was adlected into the senate without ever having set foot in the senate house, or serving in the qualifying posts of quaestor, aedile or praetor. That he would eventually become emperor, even if only briefly, illustrates some of the social change that was overtaking Roman society, not least under the combined pressure of plague and war and the indiscriminate death toll they took on the traditional elites.

The marriage of Lucilla to Pompeianus – which both she and her mother Faustina had vigorously opposed – was not the only scandal of 169. New legions had to be raised for the Marcommanic campaigns and, in order to finance them, Marcus auctioned off property from the imperial household. The event was proverbial in antiquity, and has become a handy shorthand for imperial crisis in the modern scholarship, but it was a gesture of neither ostentatious self-sacrifice nor personal frugality. It was, rather, the only way to generate fresh revenue without raising taxes at a time when a badly depleted population might not be able to pay them. Fresh soldiers were in such short supply that Marcus authorised the recruitment of gladiators into the legions, an unprecedented action which drove up the price of public games across the empire and fell so heavily on local magistrates that Marcus soon enacted price-capping measures.

These varied financial expedients were ultimately successful and by late 169 Marcus was ready to return to Pannonia. Faustina stayed in Rome with the young and sickly heir to the throne, Lucius Commodus. Pompeianus came with Marcus as his chief counsellor, which meant that Lucilla did, too, as did many veteran commanders of the eastern wars: Pontius Laelianus, Dasumius Tullius Tuscus, Claudius Fronto. Where they over-wintered is unclear, perhaps at either Singidunum or Sirmium (respectively Belgrade and Sremska Mitrovica in modern Serbia), both now coming to prominence as major imperial cities. Indeed, Marcus’s Danubian wars mark a transition in the history of the Balkan provinces, previously cultural backwaters but thereafter increasingly urbanised and studded with wealthy farms and villas that would make the region central to imperial history in the coming centuries: as our story continues, a much longer list of Balkan towns – Mursa, Naissus, Poetovio, Serdica, Viminacium, Nicopolis ad Istrum – will join Sirmium and Singidunum in these pages.

Marcus himself led the major offensive of 170, pushing deep into Marcomannic territory. It was a fiasco: imperial propaganda was capable of turning a trivial skirmish into a towering victory, but now there is not so much as a whiff of success in the sources. Instead, the campaign triggered a massive barbarian invasion of Italy. Aquileia was besieged and the North Italian plain penetrated. This was an early harbinger of later history – Italy had to be defended at the Alps or, better still, just beyond them. If Alpine defences failed, the peninsula was effectively ungarrisoned and helpless. In 170, the Balkans also experienced heavy damage. The Costoboci, a tribe whose name is otherwise barely known, made it all the way to the province of Achaea, indeed as far as Attica, where they violated the shrine of the Eleusinian mysteries. The invaders’ numbers, their divisions, their routes, all are unrecoverable, but they did more than ravage crops and kidnap farmers, which the government usually tolerated as an acceptable loss. Instead, there was a lot of hard fighting against Roman forces, with conspicuous and high-level deaths: in 170, the governor of Moesia Superior, whose name is not preserved, was either killed or cashiered for incompetence. His command was given to the governor of Dacia, the experienced Claudius Fronto, who himself fell in battle before the year was out. The emperor’s own army got cut off beyond the Danube, and a special fleet command, under Valerius Maximianus, was needed to carry supplies to Marcus and his troops.

Meanwhile, Claudius Pompeianus, with Helvius Pertinax as his chief lieutenant, began to clear northern Italy of its unwanted guests. Fighting at the frontier continued in 171, when Marcus was headquartered at Carnuntum near modern Vienna. A barbarian army that Pompeianus had chased out of Italy was now trapped at the Danube crossing and destroyed. Marcus divided the plunder he retrieved among the provincials, and these victories, though small, contained the damage well enough to allow a return to the traditional policy of setting one group of barbarians against another. That seemed to work. As the end of the campaigning season approached in autumn 171, Marcus received various embassies at Carnuntum. The Quadi made peace, offering to supply the Roman army and agreeing to prevent the passage of either the Marcomanni or the Iazyges (their western and eastern neighbours, respectively) through their territory. Other defeated barbarians were allowed into imperial territory and settled deep in the interior provinces. It was all starting to look like a return to frontier business as usual, welcome because there was now trouble elsewhere: the Mauri who had caused trouble under Antoninus Pius were again raiding across the straits of Gibraltar into Spain, which required an emergency arrangement combining the imperial province of Hispania Tarraconensis with the ungarrisoned senatorial province of Baetica under a single military commander.

In the next year, 172, the value of Marcus’s Quadic treaty became clear. With the middle Danube bend and the Dacian fronts calm, Marcus was able to launch a second invasion beyond the river, focused solely on the Marcomanni in what is now Bohemia. It was another arduous campaign, during which one of the praetorian prefects, Macrinius Vindex, was killed in battle. But Marcus had gained the confidence of his troops and they began to attribute to him a supernatural ability to call down aid from the gods. In one case, he was said to have summoned a thunderbolt to destroy a barbarian war engine, an event duly commemorated on coins; in another, he (or rather his favourite, the Egyptian magician Arnouphis) had apparently summoned a rainstorm to revive his parched and exhausted troops: they proceeded to win a victory against all odds. Both miracles are depicted on Marcus’s column in the Piazza Colonna at Rome, and coins seem to credit Mercury for the miraculous victory. The scale of actual military achievement may not have been equal to the propaganda triumphs, though both Marcus and the caesar Commodus had taken the victory title Germanicus before the start of 173. Commodus may have been at the front with his father, which would mean that most of the imperial family, including Faustina, Lucilla and her husband Pompeianus, were at Carnuntum late in 172. In the following year, Faustina was hailed as mater castrorum, mother of the camps, a sign that the soldiers regarded her as a protecting patron. Not long afterwards, the rest of the family also joined Marcus and Faustina on the Danube: Fadilla, now married to Lucius Verus’s nephew Plautius Quintillus; and Cornificia, married to Petronius Sura Mamertinus, grandson of Pius’s praetorian prefect Mamertinus. And then bad news came from the east.

In 172, while Marcus was proclaiming success on the Danube front, there was either a fully fledged uprising or an outbreak of intensive banditry in the Egyptian delta. At the same time, the Parthians attempted to bring Armenia back under the tutelage of Ctesiphon, no doubt emboldened by the detachment of some imperial troops from Cappadocia to the Danube. But the scale of the Danubian war meant Marcus could not give the east the attention it needed, and there was no longer a Lucius Verus available to serve as the face of the imperial dynasty. Avidius Cassius, the long-serving governor of Syria and a native Syrian himself, was granted extraordinary imperium in the east, of the kind that no one outside the imperial family had possessed since the days of Augustus’s trusted lieutenant Agrippa a century and a half before. In practical terms, Cassius had become Marcus’s plenipotentiary east of the Bosporus and the suppression of Lower Egypt was his first task.

Meanwhile, Marcus passed most of the campaigning season of 173 beyond the Danube, possibly reaching as far as the headwaters of the Vistula. The Quadi were certainly one target, perhaps because they had broken their oath not to help the Marcomanni. In the following year, he turned against the Iazyges beyond the Danube bend, in the Great Hungarian plain between the river and the Carpathians, or, in Roman terms, between Pannonia and Dacia. He did well enough to refuse the Iazyges the peace terms they sought, preferring to continue the fighting in 175. That year brought something far worse than another round of frontier warfare: Avidius Cassius, perhaps the most reliable man Marcus had, revolted and claimed the imperial title.


Marcus still expected to die soon, and he was unsettled by what he saw on the frontiers. The Mauri in Tingitania remained uncontrollable: a group had again crossed into Baetica to raid and had even laid siege to the town of Singilia Barba (modern Antequera in Málaga province). Meanwhile, the Danube was again calling and, though Marcus would take personal charge of the campaign, he wanted Commodus to gain the experience of real war. To shore up the dynasty before they set out, he married Commodus to Bruttia Crispina, the descendant of a leading Hadrianic aristocrat; her father, Bruttius Praesens, already a prominent man when he was made consul in 153, was designated as consul for the second time for 180. In August 178, the emperors left for the Danube front. Old Pompeianus went with them as always, and now Commodus’s father-in-law Bruttius did, too. Both guard prefects, Tarruttienus Paternus and Tigidius Perennis, accompanied the expedition and both would keep their posts into the next reign. Helvius Pertinax was made governor of Dacia, to support the flank of the main army, and Paternus was put in charge of the field army; the campaign proper was launched in 179 into Quadic territory at the Danube bend. Modern scholars are divided over whether Marcus intended to conquer and hold a new province of Marcomannia beyond the Danube, but the sources, written and archaeological, reveal dozens of Roman forts throughout what is now Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and it is certainly possible to discern in them a prelude to occupation and provincialisation.

At the start of the next year’s campaigning season, however, Marcus fell gravely ill yet again. It may be that he had finally succumbed to the plague, but he had never been particularly robust, so we cannot be sure. Nor are we sure quite where he was when this final sickness overtook him – perhaps near Sirmium. He summoned Commodus, commended him to the counsel of his own senior advisers and begged him to continue the war effort whether or not he was personally inclined to do so. The old emperor then proceeded to starve himself, perhaps hoping that this would cure his illness, perhaps trying to hasten death. After seven days, on 17 March 180, he knew he was dying. When the duty tribune asked him for the day’s watchword, which it was the emperor’s task to set, Marcus sent the man to Commodus: ‘Go to the rising sun,’ he said, ‘for I am now setting.’

Commodus’s first decision as sole emperor, so far as we can tell, was to conclude a treaty with the Marcomanni and the Quadi. This left intact the old line of the Danube frontier, scotching any plans Marcus might have had for imperial expansion, and it brought to the region a peace that endured for half a century. The terms were very much in Rome’s favour. The defeated tribes were required to supply the empire with an annual tribute of grain and to collectively contribute more than 20,000 soldiers to the Roman army. They would be posted to distant auxiliary units and kept away from their homeland to break down any lingering sense of tribal identity they might have. Back home, both the Marcomanni and the Quadi were partially disarmed and forbidden to attack their neighbours – the Iazyges, the Buri and the Vandals – without Roman permission. They were also forbidden to make use of the Danube islands and even of a strip of land on their own, left bank of the river. Large-scale political meetings could take place only when a Roman centurion was present to supervise.

In many ways, Commodus’s decision to end his father’s war was wise. It restored the old imperial preference for client kingships in regions not worth the effort of conquest and it made sure those clients would be dependent upon Rome for their hold on internal power. An unintended, but ultimately more lasting, consequence was the efflorescence of civilian life and Roman civil society in the Danubian provinces, which had developed very quickly thanks to two decades of wartime investment in the region’s infrastructure. Thus it is not true, as many have argued, that Marcus’s worthless son threw away the chance to create a great trans-Danubian province as his father had planned. There is no definitive evidence that Marcus was planning to extend the frontiers into central Europe, and the return to the pre-war status quo was both strategically sound and tactically sensible. What is more, however much Marcus’s trusted old adviser Claudius Pompeianus, brother-in-law to the new emperor, might argue against the return to Rome, Commodus would have to present himself to the people to be acclaimed by them and the senate. Delay would breed their resentment, while the military’s dynasticism would keep the frontiers quiet for a time. As soon as the treaty was concluded, Commodus presented himself at Rome as the son of the deified Marcus and the bringer of peace through conquest. He celebrated a formal triumph on 22 October 180.

Marcomannic Wars

The Battle of Wissembourg, 4 August 1870 Part I

In a telegram to Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm’s headquarters on 4 August, Moltke reiterated that he was seeking to “bring the operations of [the Second and Third] Armies into consonance.” Both armies must advance to join in “the direct combined movement” against Louis-Napoleon’s principal army. General Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal [chief of staff of the Prussian 3rd Army] and the crown prince complied, pushing their army steadily westward in the first days of August. Moltke landed his first blow in Alsace, where the Prussian Third Army rammed into Marshal Patrice MacMahon’s I Corps in two stages, a small “encounter battle” at Wissembourg on 4 August and an orchestrated clash at Froeschwiller two days later. Although MacMahon commanded a “strong corps” of 45,000 men – “strong” because it contained four divisions instead of the usual three – the marshal had strong responsibilities. Expected to hold the line of the Vosges, threaten the flank of any Prussian attack toward Strasbourg, maintain contact with Douay’s VII Corps in Belfort, yet never lose touch with the Army of the Rhine to his north, the marshal needed every man that he had, and then some.

To cover his vast sector of front, MacMahon placed his four divisions in a wide square, one division and headquarters at Haguenau, a second division at Froeschwiller, a third at Lembach, and a fourth at Wissembourg, a charming little village on the Lauter river, which was France’s border with the Bavarian Palatinate. By means of this rather ungainly placement of his divisions, MacMahon simultaneously defended the border with Germany, kept contact with Failly’s V Corps, and still had two divisions far enough south to threaten the flank of any Prussian push toward Strasbourg or Belfort. Still, ten to twenty miles of rough country separated each of the four French divisions, a dangerous separation partly necessitated by shortages of food and drink, which forced MacMahon to scrounge among the local population. If MacMahon took the initiative, he would have time to close the gaps and join the units in battle. But if MacMahon were attacked on any of the corners of his square, none of the French divisions would have time to “march to the sound of the guns.” They were too far apart, a fact brutally driven home to the 8,600 troops of MacMahon’s 2nd Division at Wissembourg on 4 August.

Marshal MacMahon’s 2nd Division, commanded by sixty-one-year-old General Abel Douay – Felix Douay ‘ ‘s brother and president of the military academy at St. Cyr before the war – had only arrived in Wissembourg late on 3 August. MacMahon hurriedly shoved Douay forward after receiving Leboeuf’s vague warning of “a serious affair.” Although the French had built Wissembourg into a formidable defensive line in the eighteenth century – a network of towers, moats, redoubts, and trenches along the right bank of the Lauter – Marshal Niel had abandoned the fortifications in 1867, removing their guns and maintenance budgets. Decay followed swiftly in the warm, moist shelter of the Vosges: A war correspondent at Wissembourg in 1870 found the walls crumbling, the moats filled with weeds and rubbish, the glacis already sprouting elms and poplars. Still, the place had considerable tactical importance if the Germans came this way. Wissembourg was an important road junction for Bavaria, Strasbourg, and Lower Alsace and, after looking it over, General Douay’s engineers recommended that Wissembourg be cleaned up and defended as a “pivot and strongpoint” for operations on the frontier, a recommendation that Douay passed back to I Corps headquarters. Ultimately, Douay’s great misfortune was to have landed at the last minute in the exact spot chosen by Moltke for the invasion of France. Seeking to pin the Army of the Rhine with his First and Second Armies while swinging Third Army into Napoleon III’s flank, Moltke wired Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm late on 3 August: “We intend to carry out a general offensive movement; the Third Army will cross the frontier tomorrow at Wissembourg.”

The Prussian Third Army’s seizure of Wissembourg on 4 August was as good an indictment of French intelligence and reconnaissance in the war as any. When General Douay inspected the town on 3 August, he had no inkling that 80,000 Prussian and Bavarian troops were closing rapidly from the northeast in response to the Prussian Crown Prince’s order of the day: “It is my intention to advance tomorrow as far as the River Lauter and cross it with the vanguard.” Indeed the Prussians had been masters of the Niederwald, the sprawling pine forest that ran along both banks of the Lauter and cloaked the Prussian approach, for weeks. French infantry officers could not recall a single French cavalry patrol entering it. What intelligence Douay received on 3 August came not from the French cavalry, but from Monsieur Hepp, Wissembourg’s subprefect, who warned that the Bavarians had already seized the Franco-German customs posts east of the Lauter and that large bodies of German troops were in the area. Still, Douay retired that evening without pushing his eight squadrons of cavalry across the Lauter to reconnoiter. Only on the morning of the 4th did Douay finally send a company of infantry across the river. No sooner had they touched the left bank than they were thrown back by Prussian cavalry. This was interpreted as nothing more serious than an “outpost skirmish” in the French camp. Reassured, General Douay ordered morning coffee at 8:00 a. m. and wired the results of his reconnaissance to MacMahon at Strasbourg. Relieved that there was still time to mass his corps on the frontier, MacMahon made plans to move his headquarters to Wissembourg the next day. Even as his telegraph operators tapped out this intention to Leboeuf at Metz, the first Prussian shells were exploding in Wissembourg and General Friedrich von Bothmer’s Bavarian 4th Division was splashing across the Lauter. In the Chateau Geisberg, Abel Douay’s, hilltop headquarters above Wissembourg, confusion was total.

Central forts of the “Wissembourg lines” in the eighteenth century, the twin towns of Wissembourg and Altenstadt still possessed redoubtable fortifications for an infantry fight: moats, loopholed stone walls and towers, and an elevated bastion just behind and to the right on the Geisberg. Douay had posted two of his eight battalions, six guns, and several mitrailleuses in the riverfront towns of Wissembourg and Altenstadt on the 3rd. He arrayed the rest of his infantry, his cavalry, and twelve cannons on the slopes above the twin towns. As the Bavarians swarmed over the Lauter, every French gun, deployed in a line from Geisberg on the right along to Wissembourg on the left, poured in a seamless curtain of fire. The French infantry, all veterans with Chassepots, adjusted their sights and commenced firing with devastating effect. Nikolaus Duetsch, a Bavarian lieutenant casually inspecting his platoon in Schweigen on the left bank of the Lauter, recalled his amazement when one of his infantrymen suddenly threw up his arms and cried, “Ich bin geschossen” – “I’m hit!” And he was. “The bullet came from the Wissembourg walls, more than 1,200 meters away.” Closer in, every French bullet struck home as the Bavarians, emerging from the morning fog in their plumed helmets, struggled through thickly planted vineyards and acacia plantations to reach the Lauter.

For the first time, the Bavarians heard the tac-tac-tac of the mitrailleuse. These rather primitive “revolver cannon” did not traverse their fire across the field like late nineteenth-century machineguns, rather they tended to fix on a single man and pump thirty balls into him, leaving nothing behind but two shoes and stumps. Needless to say, the gun had a terrifying impact out of all proportion to its quite meager accomplishments as a weapon. (“One thing is certain,” a Bavarian infantry officer wrote after the battle, “few are wounded by the mitrailleuse. If it hits you, you’re dead.”) Johannes Schulz, a Bavarian private hustling toward Altenstadt, later described the carnage in the Bavarian lines. The French artillery and rifle fire was so intense and accurate that every Bavarian attempt to form attack columns on the broken, marshy ground before Wissembourg was shot to pieces. Schulz’s own platoon leader was punched to the ground by a bullet in the chest; miraculously, he rose from the dead, saved by his rolled greatcoat, which had stopped the bullet. As the Bavarians wavered, Schulz recalled the blustery appearance of his regimental colonel, whose shouted orders showed just how deeply Prussian tactics had penetrated the Bavarian army in the years since 1866: “Regiment! Form attack columns! First and light platoons in the skirmish line! Swarms to left and right!” That first attempt to cross the Lauter and break into Wissembourg was brutally cut down by the Turcos of the 1st Algerian Tirailleur Regiment, who worked their Chassepots expertly from the ditch, the town walls, and the railway embankment, which formed an impenetrable rampart along the front and eastern edge of Wissembourg. Though ten times stronger than the defenders, the Bavarians wilted, the officers shouting “nieder!” – “get down!” – the wild-eyed men breaking formation and crawling away in search of cover, terrified by their first sight of African troops. Schulz remembered the conduct of his battalion drummer boy; shot cleanly through the arm, the boy screamed over and over, “Mein Gott! Mein Gott! Ich sterbe furs Vaterland! ” ” – “My God, my God! I’m dying for our Fatherland!”

It had rained in the night and the morning was hot and humid; fog rose from the fields. Most of the Bavarians and Prussians, hacking their way through man-high vines, recalled never even seeing the French; they merely heard them, and fired at their rifle flashes. Adam Dietz, a Jager ” armed with Bavaria’s new Werder rifle, every bit as good as the Chassepot, bitterly concluded that the Prussian tactic of Schnellfeuer – “rapid fire” – was impossible when the troops were lying prone: “Rapid fire is not so rapid when you’re lying flat because it takes so long to reload; you have somehow to reach into your cartridge pouch, find a cartridge with your fingers, eject, load, aim, and only then, fire.” Clearly the French – the Turcos and two battalions of the 74th Regiment – were having a better time of it, standing behind cover in Wissembourg and Altenstadt, loading, aiming, and firing as quickly as they could. Only the Prussian and Bavarian artillery limited the losses. Several German guns crossed the Lauter on makeshift bridges and joined the infantry assault, blasting rounds into the wooden gates at close range and giving an early glimpse of the bold tactics conceived after Koniggr ” atz. The rest, deployed on the ” left bank of the Lauter, shot Wissembourg into flames, dismounted the mitrailleuses, and pushed the French riflemen off the town walls. For this, they could thank the French artillery; firing an unreliable, time-fused projectile and standing too far back from the action, the French guns, after some initial success, caused little damage on the Prussian side. Still, with the outskirts and canals of Wissembourg choked with Bavarian dead, it was an inauspicious start to the war.

Luckily for thirty-nine-year-old Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, Prussian tactics never relied on frontal attacks. They groped always for the flanks and the line of retreat, and Wissembourg was no exception to this rule. Even as Bothmer’s division foundered in Wissembourg and Altenstadt, General Albrecht von Blumenthal, the Third Army chief of staff, was directing the Bavarian 3rd Division against the French left and swinging the Prussian V and XI Corps into Douay’s right flank and rear. From the rising ground behind the Lauter, Blumenthal and the crown prince could make out Douay’s tent line with the naked eye. It was clear that the French general had no more than a division with him, and that he was dangerously exposed, what soldiers called “in the air,” with no natural features protecting his flanks, no reserves, and no connection to the other divisions of I Corps.

Abel Douay did not live to recognize the utter hopelessness of his situation. Riding out to assess the fighting in Wissembourg, he was killed by a shellburst as he stopped to inspect a mitrailleuse battery at 11 a. m. By then the Prussian envelopment was nearly complete. The Prussian 9th Division, leading the V Corps into battle, had crossed the Lauter at St. Remy, taken Altenstadt, and stormed the railway embankment at Wissembourg, taking the embattled Algerians between two fires. Six more Bavarian battalions swarmed across the Lauter above Wissembourg, closing the ring. Though surrounded, the French held on, blazing away along the full circumference of their narrowing ring on the Lauter, while the French batteries above fired as quickly as they could into the swarms of Bavarians and Prussians on the riverbank. Ultimately it was the Wissembourgeois, not the French troops, who ran up the white flag. Faced with the certain destruction of their lovely town, the inhabitants emerged from their cellars and demanded that the 74th Regiment open the gates and let the Germans in. Here was an early instance of the defeatism that would plague the French war effort from first to last. Major Liaud, commander of the 74th’s 2nd battalion, bitterly recalled the interference of the townsfolk, who pleaded with his men to end their “useless defense” and refused even to provide directions through their winding streets and alleys. When Liaud sent men onto the roofs of the town to snipe at the Germans, he was scolded by the mayor, who reminded him that the French troops “were causing material damage” and needlessly prolonging the battle. The battle ended abruptly when a crowd of determined civilians advanced on the Haguenau gate, lowered the drawbridge, and waved the Bavarians inside.

If victory belonged to the Germans, it was not immediately apparent to the troops. Indeed the brave French stand in Wissembourg knocked the wind out of the Bavarians, and left them gasping for most of the afternoon, leaving the Prussians to complete the envelopment. Captain Celsus Girl, a Bavarian staff officer who rode back from the Lauter at the climax of the battle, was amazed to discover the roads east of the river clogged with Bavarian stragglers (Nachzugler) too frightened by the sounds of battle to advance. “There were clusters of men beneath every shade tree on the Landau Road . . .. Most were just scared, trembling with `cannon fever’ . . .. Nothing would move them; they answered my best efforts and those of the march police with passive resistance.” And this was the better of the two Bavarian corps; after inspecting General Ludwig von der Tann’s Bavarian I Corps before the battle, Blumenthal and the crown prince had judged it incapable of fighting and left it in reserve, far behind the Lauter. Though the Bavarians were a disappointment, raw German troop numbers carried the day. As the French guns and infantry on the Geisberg tried to disengage their embattled comrades below prior to a general retreat, they were themselves engulfed by onrushing battalions of the Prussian V and XI Corps, which worked around behind the Geisberg, pushed the French inside the chateau, and then stormed it.

Fighting raged for an hour, with French infantry, barricaded inside every room and on the roof, firing into the masses of Prussians assaulting the ground floor. Considering Prussia’s military reputation, a French officer was appalled by the crudity of the Prussian attack: Wave after wave of Prussian infantry broke against the walls of the chateau and its outbuildings. The largely Polish 7th Regiment was mangled, losing twenty-three officers and 329 men. On the slopes below the Geisberg, Prussian, and Bavarian troops from Wissembourg joined the attack, pushing uphill through the remnants of the French 74th Regiment. A Bavarian sergeant took the Chassepot from the hands of a French corpse on the hillside and was amazed to find the rifle sights set at 1,600 meters, an impossible shot with the Prussian needle rifle or the Bavarian Podewils. The battle for the chateau stalled until gunners of the Prussian 9th Division succeeded in wrestling three batteries onto an undefended height just 800 paces from the Geisberg. At that range they could not miss, and white flags shortly appeared on the roof. Among the casualties of this last bombardment was the Duc de Gramont’s brother, colonel of the French 47th Regiment, whose left arm was ripped off by a shell splinter. Two hundred Frenchmen surrendered as the rest of Douay’s division fled westward, abandoning fifteen guns, four mitrailleuses, all of the division’s ammunition, and 1,000 prisoners. Abel Douay, by now a rigid corpse on a table in the Chateau Geisberg, had never stood a chance. He had stood in a bad position against twenty-nine German battalions with just eight of his own. Marshal MacMahon did not learn of the disaster until 2:30 p. m., when he resolved to collect the survivors of Douay’s division and lead a “fighting retreat” through the Vosges passes to Lemberg and Meisenthal, where he would be better positioned to unite with the Army of the Rhine and Canrobert’s VI Corps. The collection point would be a little village on the eastern edge of the Vosges called Froeschwiller.

The Battle of Wissembourg, 4 August 1870 Part II

There would be no retreat, fighting or otherwise, for the companies of Algerian tirailleurs and the 300 men of the French 74th Regiment still trapped inside Wissembourg. There the fighting sputtered from house to house, though most Prussian and Bavarian infantry simply strolled in through the Landau or Haguenau gates and looked around curiously. A thirsty Bavarian private recalled accosting the inhabitants of the town and demanding beer and cigars. While engaged on this errand, he bumped into a squad of Prussians with red French army trousers flapping from their bayonets. He remembered wondering how they had got there. The Prussians yelled “three cheers for the Bavarians” – “vivat hoch ihr Bayern!” – as they ran laughing past. General Blumenthal’s adjutant, a dour Mecklenburger, did not share those comradely sentiments; he rode in through the Haguenau gate – “furious, silent, cold” – searching for the Bavarian unit that had stolen his favorite horse that morning. A Bavarian officer sat and watched the young mayor of Wissembourg, the official who had caused the French garrison so many problems. Clearly not an Alsatian, he was a “thirty-six-year-old man with black hair and a Mediterranean face.” As bullets ricocheted around the Marktplatz, the mayor, still apparently determined to spare the town “material damage,” stood holding the French flag and demanding to speak with the Prussian commander-inchief. No one paid any attention to him.

Most of the German troops were riveted by their first sight of Africans; they peered curiously at the dead or captured Turcos “as if at zoo animals,” and hesitantly touched their “poodle hair.” Leopold von Winning, a Prussian lieutenant, described the “amazement” of his Silesians, who “stared disbelievingly at the Algerian tirailleurs, some of them blacks with woolly hair, others Arabs with bronze skin and sculpted features.” The Prussians and Bavarians crowded around the Turcos, making faces, barking gibberish and pantomiming madly, even offering cigars or their flasks in the hope of a word. The poor Wissembourgeois, offered protection by the French the night before, now felt the dead weight of war. Column after column of German troops entered the town demanding bread, meat, wine, wood, straw, forage, and rooms for the night. Bothmer’s divisional staff settled into Wissembourg’s only hotel and were pleased to find the dining room table already set for Douay’s officers.

On the Geisberg, Prussian troops combed through the abandoned French tents, and General Douay’s luxurious bivouac became the object of curious pilgrimages from both banks of the Lauter. Gebhard von Bismarck, an officer in the Prussian XI Corps, later described the scene:

“Next to [Douay’s] staff carriage was an elaborate, custom-made kitchen wagon, with special cages for live poultry and game birds . . . but the troops were most interested in two elegant carriages on the edge of the camp, the contents of which were scattered far and wide: suitcases, men’s pajamas and underwear, and women’s things too, undergarments, corsets, crinolines and peignoirs. Our Rheingauer laughed and laughed.”

Douay’s headquarters provided more than titillation. Captain Bismarck and the other Prussian officers were “astounded by the French maps.” They were of poor quality on an all but useless scale. Junior officers had none at all, a startling contrast with the Prussian army – though not the Bavarian – where even lieutenants were provided with the best large scale maps. “We went through the knapsack of a French officer and found only a copy of Monde Illustre’ with its “vue panoramique du theatre de la guerre ‘ ,” scale 104:32 centimeters. I still have it, surely one of the crudest means of orientation ever used by an army at war.” While the professionals interrogated French prisoners and scrutinized their maps, their conscripts drank in the sights and smells of war. Most were unnerved. Franz Hiller, a Bavarian private, never forgot the scene on the Geisberg after the battle. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere. Many of the corpses were decapitated, or missing arms or legs. Hiller observed that inexperienced men like himself invariably paused to peer inside the wagons full of mutilated corpses, then staggered back in shock. This was the real “baptism of fire,” rendered even more poignant for Hiller by a sad discovery: “I saw the corpse of a young Frenchman and thought `what will his parents and family think and say when they learn of his death?’ His pack lay ripped open at his side; there was a photograph of him. I took it, and have it to this day.”

Both the Prussians and the Bavarians studied French tactics at Wissembourg, carefully noting their strengths and weaknesses. Bavarian Captain Max Lutz concluded that the French tactics, supposedly created for the technically superb Chassepot, were actually ill-suited to the French rifle. Instead of exploiting the Chassepot’s range, accuracy, and rate of fire by lengthening their front, the French had massed their troops in narrow positions that were easily crushed by artillery fire, demoralized, and outflanked. The French thus put themselves at a double disadvantage: They could not take Prussian attacks between cross fires and could not themselves launch enveloping attacks. They were, as Lutz put it, always “zu massig aufgestellt” – “too compactly formed.”

After Wissembourg, the Berlin Post waxed grandiose on the significance of the battle. “The German brotherhood in arms has received its baptism of blood, the firmest cement.” Wissembourg had blazed “the path of nationalism” for Prussia and the German states. The Prussian Volkszeitung took the same line, generously crediting the Bavarians: “the Bavarians have decisively defeated the enemies of Germany . . . the battlefield bears witness to their unwavering fidelity.” The truth, of course, was altogether different. Like poor Lieutenant Bronsart von Schellendorf, hunting furiously for his stolen Grauschimmel among the unruly Bavarians, the Prussians had turned an intensely critical gaze on their new south German ally before the smoke of the battle had even lifted. What they found was an undisciplined Bavarian army that had performed abysmally in 1866 (as an Austrian ally) and still seemed unprepared for the tests of modern warfare.

Bavarian march discipline was scandalous, at least as bad as French. The south Germans left far more stragglers in their wake than the Prussians. Whereas Prussian units could march directly from their rail cars into battle, the Bavarians needed days to sort themselves out. Every march route traversed by the Bavarians in the early weeks was left littered with discarded equipment, much of which was missed in battle, another problem for the south Germans. “Our troops have no fire discipline,” a Bavarian officer confessed after the battle. “The men commence firing and transition immediately to Schnellfeuer, ignoring all orders and signals until the last cartridge is out the barrel.” Excitement or panic partly explained this, as did a trade-union mentality that did not prevail in the Prussian army: “[Bavarians] feel that they have done their duty simply by firing off all of their ammunition, at which point they look over their shoulders expecting to be relieved. Many [Bavarian] officers also subscribed to this delusion.” Bavarians rarely attacked with the bayonet and proved only too willing to carry wounded comrades to the rear in battle, leaving gaps in the firing line. After the war, Prussian analysts discovered that Bavarian infantry had needed to be resupplied with ammunition at least once in every clash with the French, a hazardous, time-consuming process that involved conveying crates of reserve cartridges into the front line and distributing them. The Prussians, who nearly always made do with the ammunition in their pouches, marveled that Bavarians averaged forty rounds per man per combat, no matter how trivial. In the Prussian army, such exuberance was frowned upon; Terraingewinn – conquered ground – was the sole criterion of success. For this, fire discipline was essential. In the ensuing weeks, the Prussian criterion would be hammered into the Bavarians.

Having picked Wissembourg clean, the Germans moved off in pursuit of MacMahon’s 2nd Division. Even Bavarian officers shied at the excesses of their men as they slogged through a cold, pelting rain. The passing French troops had churned the dirt roads to the west into quicksand. Many of the Prussians and Bavarians lost their shoes in the slime, and marched on in their socks, cold, wet, and miserable. The Bavarians looted every house or shop they passed, often ignoring their officers, who had to wade in with drawn revolvers to force them back on the road. The Prussian XI Corps – comprised mainly of Nassauer, Hessians, and Saxons annexed after 1866 – had its own crisis as scores of Schlappen and Maroden – “softies” and “marauders” – fell out and refused to go on. Ultimately, as in the Bavarian corps, they were all raked together and pushed down the roads to Froeschwiller, perhaps by the example of the largely Polish Prussian V Corps, which plowed stolidly through the rain, earning the grudging admiration of a Bavarian witness: “gute Marschierer.”

In Metz on 4 August, Louis-Napoleon roused himself and dispatched an enquiring telegram to General Frossard at Saarbrucken: ” “Avez-vous quelques nouvelles de l’ennemi?” – “Have you any news of the enemy?” Indeed he had. The Prussian First and Second Armies were on the move, so swiftly and in such strength that Frossard had already abandoned his post on the Saar and pulled back to Spicheren, an elevated village commanding the Saarbrucken- ” Forbach road and railway. By the end of the day, Napoleon III had frozen with fright. Ladmirault, still creeping forward on Frossard’s left, was urgently pulled back; Bazaine was ordered to remain at St. Avold, the Imperial Guard at Metz. Failly’s V Corps, Napoleon III’s only link with MacMahon, was forgotten in the hubbub at Metz. It remained at Saargemuines without orders, an oversight that would doom MacMahon two days later. By now, Marshal Leboeuf’s command was turning in circles. The emperor pestered him with messages and the empress, in Paris, thought nothing of waking the major general in the middle of the night with urgent telegrams that usually began “I did not want to wake the emperor and so I have cabled you directly . . . ” Leboeuf may well have wondered whose sleep was more important, but groggily rose and replied anyway.


The outcome of the 90-minute battle was hardly in doubt.

Date: 5 November 1757.

Location: One mile north-west of Weissenfels (Route No, 71) to the west of the road to Halle.

War and campaign: The Seven Years’ War; German Campaign of 1757.

Object of the action: Frederick interposed his army between the French army and its objectives in Saxony.

Opposing sides: (a) Frederick the Great commanding the Prussian army, {b) Prince Saschen-Hildburghausen and Prince de Soubise leading a Franco-Imperial army.

Forces engaged: (a) Prussians: 27 battalions; 45 squadrons. Total: 20,000-22,000. (b) Allies: 62 battalions; 82 squadrons; approx. 80 guns. Total: 41,000.

Casualties: (a) 548 Prussians killed and wounded, (b) approx. 10,000 allies including many prisoners.

Result: The rout of the Franco-Imperialist army cleared Frederick’s western front at a critical period.

The Battle of Rossbach is perhaps Frederick the Great’s most famous action, and certainly one of the most complete victories that military history has to show. Years of aggression and faithlessness had brought their reward, and by the autumn of 1757, one year after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, King Frederick II of Prussia found himself surrounded by a ring of enemies. Austrians, French, Russians and Swedes were all closing in on Brandenburg, the heartland of the Prussian monarchy, and Frederick was compelled to adopt the desperate strategy of racing against each enemy in turn with a small mobile army. By this means he hoped to defeat his adversaries piecemeal, or at least prevent them from combining against him.

For long Frederick was denied the kind of action he desired. The most suitable target seemed to be the large but disorganised army of Frenchmen and south and west Germans which the Prince of Sachsen-Hildburghausen and the Prince de Soubise had led into Saxony against his western flank, but at the first Prussian lunge the allies recoiled out of reach, and Frederick had to march away at the news that an Austrian raiding corps was threatening Berlin. Although Frederick was too late to prevent the Austrians from exacting a fine from his capital, he heard that the allies had plucked up courage to resume the offensive, and were advancing once more towards Saxony, Frederick accordingly hurried back to meet them, and by 4 November the rival armies were facing each other near Rossbach.

In their usual muddled way, the allied commanders determined on a flanking movement around the southern end of the Prussian position-Soubise, in the hope of manoeuvring the enemy into a retreat, but Hildburghausen with the intention of crushing Frederick in a decisive battle. After hours of delay and confusion, the allied army set out at 11.30 on the morning of 5 November. The broad columns marched from the camp of Miicheln due south to Zeuchfeld, where they changed direction and struck east along a spur that stretched through Pettstadt towards Reichardtswerben. Down to the left they could see the southern edge of the Prussian camp at Rossbach, and behind the village the low hummocks of the Janus and Polzen Hills extending eastwards parallel to their own line of march. At about 2.30 in the afternoon the Prussians suddenly struck their tents, and marched out of sight behind the Janus Hill as if in retreat, an impression which was strengthened by the reports brought to the allied generals by the light cavalry scouts. At this Soubise was converted to Hildburghausen’s aggressive views, and the allies rushed recklessly on in an attempt to overtake and crush the enemy. There was no further attempt at reconnaissance: no arrangements for a proper deployment.

At first Frederick had paid no heed to the reports of the allied movements and, still quite unperturbed, he had sat down to lunch with his generals in his headquarters at Rossbach. One of the company, however, was the independently minded cavalry general Seydlitz, who quietly sent a warning to the army. It was entirely owing to the initiative of this subordinate that the horse and artillery were ready to move off as soon as Frederick realised his mistake. The King delivered the entire cavalry into the hand of Seydlitz, despite his lack of seniority, and gave him orders to march to the left and head off the enemy thrust to the rear. Seydlitz directed the march of his horse eastwards behind the screen of the heights, all the time gauging the progress of the opposing armies, then arranged his command in two lines behind the Polzen Hill. Although a powerful Prussian battery had already opened fire from the Janus Hill, Seydlitz kept his excited squadrons under perfect control, and waited until the foremost enemy troops had reached the stretch of land to the north of Reichardtswerben before he led the cavalry over the swell of land into the charge.

The cavalry corps at the head of the allied columns was taken unawares, and only 2 Austrian cuirassier regiments were able to deploy in any sort of order to meet the shock of the first Prussian line. The resistance of the Austrians gave time for a powerful reserve of French cavalry to lend a hand in the fight, but an inner core of ill-trained German regiments was already giving way when the Austrians and French were thrown back under the impact of Seydlitz’s second line. Seydlitz was cool-headed enough to be satisfied with his success, and reassembled his troopers in the hollows near Tagewerben to await a further opportunity. The rest of the Prussian army came into sight of the enemy over the top of the ridge, the left wing under Prince Henry hastening its march and wheeling around until the troops faced west. Some French regiments leading the allied infantry quickly recovered from their shock, and made a resolute advance against the Prussians with the bayonet. Just before the encounter the French discipline collapsed: firing broke out without order, and the troops turned in flight. Seydlitz launched a second charge from Tagewerben, which completed the allied rout, and all was over before Prince Henry’s infantry had time to deliver more than a few volleys.

The behaviour of a few units, notably the Swiss regiments of Diesbach and Planta, saved the honour of the allied army, but the rest of the troops broke up into disorganised mobs or gangs of marauders. Frederick could now spend his time more profitably elsewhere, and marched off to Silesia, where in the next month he would defeat the Austrians in a hardly less renowned victory at Leuthen. Nevertheless Rossbach stands alone as an example of the superiority of good leadership and high morale over mere weight of numbers, and is noteworthy as being the first occasion on which a Continental army was inspired to victory by a feeling that can be compared with nationalism in the modern sense.

Rossbach and German history

This ten-to-one ratio of lossesis extremely rare in 18th-century battles, magnifying the scale of the Prussian triumph. Frederick’s military reputation was restored after defeats earlier that year, and he went on to win another striking victory over the Austrians at Leuthen in Silesia that December. The two successes convinced Britain to continue its backing for Prussia, greatly contributing to Frederick’s survival during the subsequent five years of war. Austria abandoned its plans to recover Silesia and made peace on the basis of the pre-war status quo in February 1763.

The immediate military consequences were far less dramatic. Hildburghausen resigned, but the imperial army reassembled and fought on with some success until the end of 1762. Later writers largely ignored the divisive impact of the Seven Years War on German politics, using Rossbach as a symbol of Prussia’s allegedly superior political and military organization. In fact, over-confidence and inept leadership turned simple defeat into disaster. While Rossbach is celebrated for the Prussians’ disciplined movement, cavalry shock attacks and infantry firepower, it was the French who pointed to the future with their mixture of linear and column formations. All these elements were to be refined by Napoleon and contribute to Prussia’s own disaster at Jena in 1806

Partisan Warfare in Russia

The legendary First World War and Russian Civil War partisan cavalry unit known as ‘Shkuro’s Wolves’, pictured in 1919 during a lull in anti-Bolshevik operations. Recruited from Kuban Cossacks, the Wolves were named after their wolf-skin standard and papakhas (hat).

Locally recruited Basmachi guerrillas pose with their Soviet commissar and advisor. During the 1920s elements of the native populations of the Soviet Union’s central Asian provinces waged an unsuccessful war against their Russian masters.

The German military had experience of partisan/guerrilla warfare from its days as the colonial power in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) when local uprisings were put down with ruthless brutality. These bandsmen are members of the German colonial forces. Indeed, a nephew of the German commander in this region when they suffered their greatest defeat rose to become head of Germany’s anti-bandit (partisan) warfare on the Eastern Front.

Partisan and guerrilla warfare can be loosely defined and differentiated in the following manner. Partisan troops are those members or affiliated members of the armed forces that are operating behind enemy lines, whereas guerrillas are generally civilians fighting against an occupying force. However, both terms are often used indiscriminately. In addition, the situation is not helped by the Axis use of the umbrella term partisans only to replace it with bandits to highlight the illegal and outlaw nature of the fighters.

In fact, partisans/guerrillas have a long and honourable lineage in Russian and Soviet military history stretching back to the Napoleonic Wars, when partisan units of Cossack and other mounted troops waged war on the Grand Army’s supply lines and rear before and during the retreat from Moscow. During the First World War partisan operations were undertaken by Cossacks and regular cavalry, groups of which infiltrated behind German and Austrian lines to carry out disruptive missions such as blowing up railway lines, intelligence gathering and kidnapping. Specialist units were established in the Cossack formations by order of the Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovitch, the Ataman of Cossack forces at the front during 1915, but reports on their achievements were such that the majority were disbanded. Nevertheless, some units, such as Shkuro’s Wolves, acquitted themselves well. Following the revolution of March 1917, Russia’s armed forces began to go into gradual decline and as that fateful year drew to a close the Bolshevik coup of November led to open civil war that spread across the empire now turned republic. Over the next four years partisan and guerrilla formations of all shapes, sizes and levels of effectiveness flashed across the vastness of Russia from the mountains of the Caucasus, across the steppes of Ukraine, the tundra and forests of Siberia to the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean. As the Soviet government emerged from the civil war victorious and extended its somewhat tenuous grip across the provinces, names such as that of Chapayev became known to the public of the USSR as one of the partisan leaders who had contributed to the destruction of ‘interventionists and counter revolutionaries’. Indeed, the lauding of partisan leaders and groups formed almost a staple of Soviet popular culture into the mid-1930s. Furthermore, the value of partisan warfare was seriously studied by the higher echelons of the Soviet military.

In parallel, Soviet military theory during the 1920s and into the 1930s included the use of partisan formations to disrupt invaders’ lines of supply, communications and reinforcement.

Plans were laid for the establishment of secret bases along anticipated invasion routes to supply partisan groups who would train in the use of ‘captured weapons and equipment’. Local forces would be supported by specialists, such as radio operators and demolition experts, who would be parachuted in. Some work and training was under taken by the Ukrainian Military District in the years leading up to 1936. However, Stalin, increasingly suspicious of the armed forces, was, like Hitler, a military theorist and a firm believer in the offensive as the ultimate strategy. Furthermore, any thoughts that a war would be fought on Soviet territory were anathema to him. Equally unappealing was the prospect of encouraging and arming elements of the populace in the very areas where famine, disease and starvation stalked the land in the wake of his disastrous agricultural policy of forced collectivisation. Training such victims in the ways of partisan and guerilla warfare was not to be encouraged. Consequently, as the infamous purges of the armed forces decimated the officer corps, thoughts of any war waged on Soviet land was replaced by offensive operations beyond the frontiers and the partisan bases already built were allowed to revert to their natural condition whilst the plans mouldered on shelves in the archives. Another major aspect of partisan warfare that Stalin wished actively to eliminate was the very set of characteristics that made for effective leadership in partisan groups: the ability to think and plan independently beyond the control of Moscow; the capacity to adapt to local circumstances as required; and the charisma to hold together such a group in times of danger and low morale. Lumped together, these characteristics were known disparagingly as Partisanshchina–a trait not to be encouraged in a totalitarian regime.

It was the shock of the Axis invasion that would regenerate the need for partisan warfare on a scale unimaginable only a few years before as the people, not only the armed forces, would be called upon to fight a ruthless invader.

Minsk race course witnessed the partisans’ grand parade on 17 July 1944. As one participant recalled, ‘They were met with enthusiasm, they marched proudly with medals on (their) chests! They were the winners!’ Dozens of units were represented and hundreds of fighters marched past the podium where Ponomarenko took the salute alongside other Party luminaries. The final order to the partisans was to, ‘start preparations for (their) disbandment.

Often overlooked, due to the scale of partisan operations behind AGC, the partisan formations to the rear of AGN were to take centre stage as 1944 dawned. During 1942 there had been little activity in the north but the Leningrad Partisan HQ had worked hard to increase the number and efficiency of the units it oversaw. Consolidation of small bands into larger ones and a ruthless review of the qualities of the leaders resulted, by the summer of 1943, in a considerably more effective force. As the area under the control of the LPHQ was smaller than that of, for example, Belarus communications, control and co-ordination were simpler. By the end of 1943 10 partisan brigades, numbering ‘35,000 active fighters and thousands of auxiliaries’ were in place. During October 1943 Fifth Partisan Brigade captured the town of Plijusa on the Luga–Pskov rail line to prevent the deportation of the civilian population. This action was replicated by other formations across the rear of AGN. Indeed, it was the groundswell of popular disaffection that was to lead to Hitler’s decision to withdraw to the Panther Line when the Red Army offensive was gaining momentum four months later.

The Soviets intended to drive AGN away from the Leningrad district into the Baltic States and began their attack on 14 January 1944. Partisan attacks did not begin until virtually all the security troops had been committed to the front line. It was on the evening of 16 January that the partisans began to interfere with the railways by destroying Tolmachevo station. The following night a more general series of attacks on security posts and the track itself were carried out. By 20 January the railway situation was described as ‘tense’ and in some areas as ‘completely paralysed’. Supply and troop transports ground to a halt as partisan attacks increased ‘tremendously’. The 8th Jaeger Division took four days to move and then only partially into position, three days later than anticipated due to the mining of both road and railway. As the Germans withdrew, NKVD personnel were parachuted into Estonia and Latvia to organise partisan groups. By mid-February the Eighth Leningrad Partisan Brigade was identified heading for Latvia. Active measures by the HSSPF Ostland had drafted thousands of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Schuma troops to deal with this threat–they succeeded, intercepting the partisans in a series of running fights. The majority of the partisans from the Leningrad region had been enrolled in the Red Army but the surviving infiltrators behind AGN confined their activities to propaganda and intelligence work due to the general antipathy of the locals to the prospect of Soviet liberation.

Far to the south in Ukraine Medvedev and Kovpak’s units still continued their combat and propaganda missions. The Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Partisan Movement, Colonel General Strokach, was, by late 1943, closely connected with the regular army and expanding his role to look beyond the borders of the USSR. Rather than just sending partisan units behind Axis lines, where the fighting with nationalists was increasing and with much of Ukraine back under Soviet control, Strokach’s staff began to train pro-Soviet partisans for operations in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Whatever motives were announced for these activities during the winter of 1943–1944, the long-term aim was to lay the foundations for future Communist regimes in those countries. Czechoslovakia, of which only Slovakia nominally existed, and Poland both had governments in exile in Britain, of which Stalin fundamentally disapproved. However, both had partisan movements and those of Poland were mainly anti-Soviet. The Polish Home Army (the AK) was a large, active and well-organised force that operated in both German and Soviet-claimed Poland. The AK wanted a return to Poland’s pre-1939 frontiers which effectively put it at odds with the USSR’s claims to western Ukraine and Belarus. The Ukrainian Partisan Staff was, therefore, to bend its efforts to create a pro-Soviet, Communist partisan force to match the AK in those areas. By January 1944 the Red Army had crossed into pre-war Polish territory into land Moscow coveted. The Polish government in exile had ordered the AK to support Soviet operations, but Polish partisans could not be mobilised into the Soviet-sponsored Polish Army. In western Ukraine and Galicia NKVD partisan units, such as those of Medvedev, and those organised by Strokach operated regardless of international boundaries. When a frontier was crossed the unit commander would open his sealed orders that generally read that he should ‘act according to the existing conditions’. Fighting promptly broke out with the AK when the Soviets began to bring the tiny GL (Guardija Ludowa) into play. The GL was a Polish Communist Party partisan group. Members of the GL were flown to a Ukrainian Partisan Staff’s training camp where they had prepared for operations in Poland. In April 1944 the Polish Staff for the Partisan Movement was set up in Rovno, overseen by Strokach, to control the GL units that were now operating against the Germans, the AK and the Ukrainian nationalists. At the same time the Czechoslovak Communist Party appealed to Moscow for help in waging a partisan war. Once again a training cadre was taken in by Strokach’s staff. During the spring and summer of 1944 bases were established, particularly in Slovakia, and covert recruitment of local partisans began. Their situation was helped by the Red Air Force that flew in supplies almost at will due to the Luftwaffe’s weakness over Eastern Europe.

Finally, on 28 August 1944 the Slovaks rose up against their pro-Nazi government, but the country was, during the course of the next week, overrun by a motley collection of German troops. A Soviet attempt to alleviate the situation, by elements of First Ukrainian Front battling its way through the Carpathian Mountains, failed. By the end of October the Slovakian Uprising was over, but, nevertheless, some stragglers fought on in the mountains. The Soviet effort in Slovakia was certainly greater than that made to support the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. When that tragic event ended in the defeat of the AK there were many stragglers who made their way east. With the AK apparently a broken force, Stalin directed the NKVD to round-up any units found in Soviet territory. Interestingly, such partisans were referred to in NKVD reports as, ‘illegal formations, rebels or bandits’. Indeed, round-ups of AK fighters had been going on for months prior to the Warsaw Uprising. One unit, answering the call to go to Warsaw in July to reinforce the forthcoming uprising, had arrived east of the city at the same time as the Red Army. Having liberated several villages in the wake of the retreating Germans, they suddenly radioed a message, un-coded, that was intercepted in Britain, ‘they [Red Army] are approaching us . . . they are disarming us’. The foundations were being laid for the Soviet liberation of Poland.

For the Soviet partisans the stage for its most impressive operation had been set several months before. During the winter of 1943–1944 the Soviet fronts facing AGC had been relatively quiet. Hitler, convinced that the next series of Soviet offensives would continue to push against AGS, had split that front into two, Army Group South Ukraine (AGSU) and Army Group North Ukraine (AGNU). The latter was expected to be the target and, therefore, was the strongest in terms of armour. The southern flank of AGC ran south-west from Bobruisk just below the Pripet Marshes to a point west of Lutsk and the AGNU and AGSU took over with fronts that sloped eastwards to the Black Sea west of Odessa.

From the spring of 1944 onwards Moscow had received a stream of intelligence reports that detailed AGC’s order of battle and defensive preparations. More and more partisan and NKVD intelligence-gathering operations were carried out. Before this the NKVD had tended to act alone due to a lack of trust in partisans other than their own units. The reason for this was simple: the NKVD was afraid of its agents falling into the hands of German-run ‘mock partisan’ bands who operated in the hope of flushing out the real thing and bandit sympathisers. However, the orders under which the partisans now operated did not come from the CHQPM, as that body had been wound up on 13 January 1944.

The responsibility for the partisans now rested with the Communist Party of the appropriate republic and its local regional hierarchy. The partisans were directed, by the Belorussian Communist Party’s Central Committee, to cease operations behind AGC to encourage the Germans to reinforce their belief that the offensive was aimed at AGNU. Then, on 20 June, they unleashed another Operation Rail War. This time the targets were the one heavy capacity, double-tracked line and the five lower capacity lines on which AGC depended. The few-surviving German records are slim but indicate almost two-thirds of the 4,000 demolition attempts succeeded, ‘the lines Minsk–Orsha and Mogilev–Vitebsk were especially hard hit and almost completely paralysed for several days’. The Soviets calculated that ‘the partisan bands blew up 40,000 rails and derailed 147 trains’. Roads were mined and convoys attacked.

Operation Bagration burst across the lines of AGC in a series of waves from 22 June 1944, three years to the day after Operation Barbarossa had provoked the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets termed it. However, as the Red Army advanced up to 50km per day, AGC began to collapse, the partisans came out into the open. Several units had been ordered to ambush and mount delaying attacks on retreating German forces and to try and secure river crossings. The latter efforts were generally unsuccessful but the former were not. As German units, escaping from cities such as Vitebsk, disintegrated under air and artillery fire, the partisans, eager for revenge, struck. With no facilities for and probably less inclination to take prisoners, the partisans, their numbers augmented by any civilians inclined to pick up a gun, wreaked a fearful toll. No figures are available but it is estimated that up to 20,000 German troops died trying to escape from the Vitebsk encirclement. Similar episodes occurred throughout Belarus during the last week of June and into July. Within a week the Red Army had reached and crossed the Berezina River and on 3 July entered Minsk, capital of Belarus. AGC had dissolved in less than a month.

Across Belarus thousands of partisans were drafted into the regular army, whilst others took the opportunity to go ‘Fritz hunting’ alongside special army units tasked with flushing out German stragglers, of which there were thousands wandering amidst the marshes and forests.

The partisan parade in Minsk effectively signalled the end of the ‘amateur’ partisan.

Now it was the time for the NKVD, the ‘professionals’, such as Vershigora’s 1st Ukrainian Partisan Division, to head west to continue with their old and new tasks. A partisan medal, in two classes, was struck and issued liberally. In the Baltic States and Ukraine nationalist partisans fought on against Soviet rule for over a decade. Simultaneously, the Soviet partisan movement rapidly became enshrined in many, somewhat embellished, official histories, films and other media forms.

Whilst there is no doubting the vileness of German rule in the occupied territories, there are grounds for doubting some of the tales of the partisans’ achievements, but such histories are always written by the victors. Nevertheless, for the ordinary men and women who lived and fought against the invader it was a time in their lives of which they have every right to be justly proud. There is no doubt that they made a definite contribution to the victory over the Third Reich by their very defiance.