The Ikhwan: Medieval Warriors in Twentieth-Century Arabia

Once in power and with a growing list of international customers, including the United States, the Saudi leadership sought to moderate its official position regarding armed and violent jihad and attacking, plundering, and, undermining their neighbors based on religious justification. This dilemma is illustrated in the case of the Ikhwan tribe. The Ikhwan brotherhood had become muwahhidun (Wahhabis) who had organized themselves into “Hujjar” or agricultural settlements geared for war. These fierce and highly skilled warriors provided the Saud-Wahhabi army with effective shock troops, as they conducted a campaign of conquest across the Arabian Peninsula, or conversely, dependent upon one’s personal point of view, religious unification of the prophet’s homeland in the modern era. In the post–World War I environment, the Ikwhan continued their nineteenth-century raids attacking Transjordan and the Hejaz in a series of actions between 1922 and 1924.

Since Ibn Saud sought the conquest of the Hejaz, which was then under his rival Hussein, the attacks by the Ikhwan on the Hashemites served Saud’s purpose. However, following the Saud’s conquest of the Hejaz in December 1925, he began attempts at reigning in the Ikhwan. Nevertheless, Ikhwan leaders wanted to continue the expansion of Wahhabism into British spheres of interest, including Transjordan, Iraq, and Kuwait. Faisal al-Dawish of the Mutair tribe and Sultan bin Bajad of the Otaiba tribe, de facto leaders of the Ikhwan, complained that Ibn Saud had grown complacent and questioned his devotion to the muwahhidun cause and were angry with him for calling for the moderation of the raiding and plundering, which had brought wealth, prestige, and power.

As a result of the attempts by the Saudis to decrease the level of violence and attacks on neighbors, a rebellion involving the Ikhwan erupted, and they proceeded to conduct operations against settlements in Iraq and Kuwait. While the Ikhwan insisted that all infidels (non-Muslims) and misinformed believers (generally Shia Muslims) were legitimate military targets, the Saudis recognized that this perspective would eventually lead them into direct confrontation with the British. Thus, the Saudis began suppression operations against the Ikhwan with decisive action occurring during the Battle of Sibilla (March 29–31, 1929), marking the last major battle of camel raiders in Arabia.

Similar to the warrior spirit of the Mamluks aligning in challenge to the Ottomans, the Ikhwan aligned in challenge to the Saudis. The expectations of the Mamluks and the Ikhwan were also similar. For thousands of years disputes had been ultimately settled by a champion or a group of warriors aligning on the field of battle against an opponent or opponents in order to display their superiority in a physical confrontation. “To the victor, goes the spoils,” was the defining, decisive, and operative concept.

This duel “writ large” was meant to be a contest of courage and physical as well as moral strength to determine the worthiness of the two combatants or the two combatant armies—a decision that would measure both the relative worthiness to prevail and in providing clear and unambiguous evidence of the strength to rule over a specific territory, a territory containing people, resources, markets, and trade routes. This twentieth-century battle between the Saudis and the Ikhwan was not completely dissimilar from the plight of the great warrior tribe of the Mamluks, first in facing the Ottoman Janissary arquebus (early gunpowder weapon) with sword and bow during the Ottoman-Mamluk War (1516–1516) and, then, when facing French muskets under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.

A commitment to the old ways of fighting, a commitment to earlier tradition—of muscle and sword and of horse and bow—animated the behavior of the Mamluks as well as the Ikwhan. Both groups were brave, but both eventually paying an enormous price for insisting on fighting a battle without regard to the nature of evolution, of change, and, of technological and doctrinal innovation. At the Battle of Sibilla on March 29, 1929, the Saudis attacked first into the defensive battle array of the Ikhwan, followed by a feigned disorderly withdrawal. Sensing opportunity and seizing the initiative, the Ikhwan quickly launched an attack. However, as the Ikhwan moved in for the kill, Saudi warriors previously and discreetly positioned, opened up with British-supplied automatic weapons, and crushed the Ikhwan counterattack.

The Battle of Sibilla, the last of the great Bedouin battles, was the first time the Ikhwan had lost a major military engagement. Several other skirmishes took place between the forces of Ibn Saud and the Ikhwan throughout 1929 but none on the scale of Sibilla. By January 1930, the rebel leaders had been slain or imprisoned with the remaining Ikhwan warriors given the opportunity of joining the king’s army. As a result, many were incorporated into regular Saudi units.

When Sharif Hussein was driven out of the Hejaz by the Saudi army in 1925, the British provided safe passage out of Arabia aboard an English vessel transporting him to Cyprus. Although Saud had not actively joined in the Arab Revolt during World War I, he was the recipient of a British subsidy beginning in 1916. With Hussein forced out of Arabia, the British made entreaties to Saud and proceeded to improve the relationship. In 1927, London, accepting reality, signed a treaty with him that recognized his control over the Hejaz as well as his leadership in Arabia.

To reward the contributions during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire as well as serving in constraining Saud’s power, the British set up monarchies for the offspring of their former ally, Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca. Since the French had treated Hussein’s son, Faisal, rather brusquely in Syria, the British determined that he should sit on the throne in a newly created entity in Mesopotamia, which was called Iraq. The British also partitioned a portion of Palestine that lay east of the Jordan River, splitting it off from the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea (present-day Gaza, West Bank, and Israel). There they installed Faisal’s brother, Abdullah, on the throne of what was called Transjordan. Since Transjordan was now detached from the Mandate that was called “Palestine,” the British government insisted that this territory, which came to be called Jordan, was not to be subject to the Zionist project or Jewish migration.

While the British can be criticized for making extensive and at times conflicting promises during World War I, the commitment to Hussein, his family, and his tribe for fighting in the Arab Revolt was reasonably steadfast and not without considerable reward. However, two groups that found themselves left out of the newly created borders and proto-modern states were the Armenians and the Kurds. In order to placate the Turks and create an environment for moving forward in the postwar era, lands in Anatolia that were promised to the Armenians and the Kurds were never delivered. Both the British and the French had attempted to convince the United States to accept a mandate within Anatolia for the Armenian people. While President Wilson was open to the idea, the U.S. Congress refused to back it, just as it had refused to back the establishment of the League of Nations.

France had traditional ties with a portion of Syria, which was home to a Christian group, the Maronites, and had for centuries aided the Maronites in developing a network of schools, churches, factories, and trading posts. Once the Ottoman yoke had been dispensed with, this group sought to achieve a degree of autonomy that was now becoming politically possible. Toward these goals, Lebanese nationalists persuaded the Allies at the Congress of Versailles, the 1919 conference held to institute peace accords following the conclusion of World War I, to create a state centered on Mount Lebanon’s Christian community, which came to be referred to as Greater Lebanon.

In terms of the 1920 British Mandate for Palestine, in 1914 there were about 700,000 people of which approximately 615,000 were Arab and about 85,000 were Jews, many of the latter having arrived in the Palestine area in the late nineteenth century and following the formal establishment of the Zionist organization in 1897 under Theodor Herzl. These figures would rise to a total population of 960,000 (806,400 Arab and153,600 Jewish) in 1929 and to a total population of 1,336,000 (961,920 Arab and 374,080 Jewish) in 1936.

The objective of the Zionists was “to create for the Jewish people a publicly, legally assured home in Palestine.” At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Zionist and Arab representatives conducted discussions regarding the postwar settlement in the Middle East. The Zionist delegation was led by Chaim Weizmann, and the Arabs were led by Emir Faisal (Faisal I ibn Hussein). Faisal, Hussein’s son, agreed to the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine with a very important condition: that he be placed on the throne of Syria as well. Instead, Syria was given to the French under the auspices of a League of Nation’s mandate, and Faisal withdrew his support for the Zionist project in Palestine.

While Jewish population in Palestine had doubled since the start of World War I, by 1929, this was cause for riots within the Arab community. Jewish settlers owned about 4 percent of the land in Palestine and about 14 percent of all agricultural land at a time when most of Palestine was rural and its economy and social structure were agriculture-based. Thus, Arabs began questioning how the Jews had acquired their land. Absentee landlords owned much of the land in the various villages in which the Arab Palestinians had lived. Jewish Zionists had purchased the land from these absentee landlords (who were mostly Arab) and proceeded to evict the Arab inhabitants from homes and villages where the Arabs had lived for generations.

Arab farmers who had tilled the soil for generations were removed from the land, and many headed to the cities to find work. There, they found that many industries had been bought by Jewish investors and businessmen, and many had policies of not hiring Arabs. Without income or job prospects, thousands of Palestinian Arabs ended up in refugee camps, where intense animosity arose toward the Jews. These camps became a breeding ground for fedayeen fighters (fedayeen, meaning “one who sacrifices himself”). As Arab unemployment drastically increased, so too did the violence directed at the Jewish people in Palestine.

Only in the aftermath of World War I and the Paris Peace Conference did the name “Palestine” apply to a clearly defined territory, and through the League of Nations it became the British Mandate for Palestine. When the Palestinian Arabs rioted in April 1920 and again in May 1921, it was the British government that was responsible for order in the Mandate. Accordingly, the rioting brought a strong reaction from British authorities, who tried to suppress the riots by bombarding villages from the air coupled with negotiations with noteworthy Arab Palestinians. This resulted in political concessions for the Arab population and in turn irritated the Zionist leaders. Eventually, underground Jewish groups engaged in violence that was directed at the more extreme Palestinian groups. The Zionist groups also conducted attacks against the British who attempted to maintain order in Palestine and who began slowing the rate of Jewish immigration into the Mandate.

In the following year, the United States issued the joint resolution of Congress, which gave formal U.S. acknowledgment to the ideal of a Jewish national home. The argument between the moderate Jews and the moderate Arabs focused on the scope in terms of the meaning of the Balfour Declaration (1917).

The proper interpretation of a “National Home” for the Jews, as stated in the Balfour Declaration, according to Faisal, would be to provide for Jewish refugees a safe haven and shelter in Palestine, but not an independent and “purely Jewish government,” which would result in dispossessing the Arab majority. Furthermore, Faisal’s advice to the British government was to put pressure on the Zionist movement to accept this minimal interpretation.

The Jewish position was an expansive rendering of the Balfour Declaration and one that argued under the terms of the Mandate that Britain’s principal obligation was to facilitate the Balfour Declaration, pledging the “establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” and having no territorial restrictions whatsoever—neither east nor west of the Jordan River were to be placed on the Jewish national home. Of course, Britain maintained the partition of Palestine east of the river (Transjordan) was not subject to Jewish immigration vis-à-vis the Balfour Declaration. The operative parts of the Balfour Declaration read as follows:

His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by the Jews in any other country.

Forcing people who had lived on the land for generations to depart through an eviction process and creating conditions that drove them into refugee camps would probably not meet the expectations of the British government that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Nonetheless, the fact remained that Arab Palestinians had lived under Ottoman rule for centuries and had never possessed a state that was called Palestine. In fact, Arabs had invaded the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean in the seventh century, killing inhabitants and reducing villages to ashes while simultaneously advancing the proposition that it was God’s will that they should do so. Similarly, the Jews had marched on Jericho centuries prior to the Muslim invasions of the Middle East and North Africa and attributed their right to kill every inhabitant in Jericho and to “take all the gold and silver for the Lord’s treasury” as divine will. At a minimum, both Arab and Jewish claims of seizing property and killing the inhabitants as being legitimate behavior because it is God’s will to do so deserves, at the very least, closer scrutiny.

By 1929, Arab assaults on Jewish individuals and interests had reached new levels of violence, and underground Jewish groups responded in kind. In 1936, a general strike took place among the Arab workers in Palestine, and the situation had essentially turned into stalemate, violence, and anarchy. British authorities, now under fire from both the Arabs and the Jews, directed that an independent commission review the situation and make recommendations for the future of the Palestinian Mandate. In 1936, the British Peel Commission concluded that Arab-Jewish coexistence was impossible and recommended partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. The Jews accepted this conclusion, while the Arabs did not. From 1936 to 1939, Palestinian Arabs were in open revolt against both the Jews and the British.



The Last of the Mohicans is an American war epic mostly based on George B. Seitz’s 1936 film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s eponymous 1826 novel. Directed, co-produced, and co-written by Michael Mann, the film stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May, Russell Means, and Wes Studi and follows the fate of a group of British American colonials during the French and Indian War (1757).


James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826), the second of his Leatherstocking Tales, was an improbable and turgidly written frontier adventure set in the Adirondacks during the second year of the French and Indian War (1757) that nonetheless proved to be Cooper’s most popular and iconic work. Indeed, The Last of the Mohicans defined the image of the early American settler and Native American in the popular imagination and spawned no fewer than nine film adaptations, four TV versions, a radio version, an opera version, and three comics versions in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The best of these renditions is director Michael Mann’s 1992 film version, a movie with an exceptionally long gestation period of 40 years. When Mann was a preschooler in Chicago c.1949, he saw the 1936 film version of Last of the Mohicans starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye—an experience that sparked a lifelong interest in the saga. After making five feature films in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly neo-noir, Mann acquired the rights to Philip Dunne’s 1936 Last of the Mohicans script in 1990, easily won funding approval from 20th Century-Fox, and then undertook a new adaptation, co-written with Cristopher Crowe, using Dunne’s script as their template, not Cooper’s novel. Mann cast Daniel Day-Lewis (who had just won an Oscar for My Left Foot) in the lead role as Hawkeye and then sent him to U.S. Army Col. David Webster, an officer at Fort Bragg who taught pilots wilderness survival skills. Webster took Day-Lewis to Many Hawks Special Operations Center in Pittsview, Alabama, and had him work with wilderness expert Mark A. Baker, who put him through a rigorous training program in marksmanship, hunting, trapping, and all the other proficiencies involved in living off the land—a skill set that Hawkeye would have had. Being the consummate Method actor, Day-Lewis bulked up and worked hard to master it all, then stayed in character on set by avoiding modern technology, rolling his own cigarettes, traveling by canoe, and keeping his muzzle-loading .40-caliber Pennsylvania flintlock rifle close at hand at all times. Dale Dye of Warriors, Inc., the military advisor for Platoon, Casualties of War, and many other war films, provided technical assistance on set.


For the shoot (which ran 15 weeks, from 17 June–10 October 1991), Michael Mann was a stickler for authenticity in the reproduction of period hairstyles, tattoos, beadwork, costumes, uniforms, flags, canoes, weapons, fortifications, etc. He also insisted on hiring hundreds of Native Americans to portray their colonial-era brethren, most notably Russell Means (1939–2012), an Oglala/Lakota Sioux Indian and first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who portrays Hawkeye’s close friend, Chingachgook, in the movie. Dennis Banks, a Chippewa Indian and a close associate of Russell Means in AIM, plays Hawkeye’s friend, Ongewasgone. Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves), the actor who portrays the villainous Magua, is a member of the Cherokee tribe. Though Cooper’s novel is set in the vicinity of Lake George, Michael Mann chose to film in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Ashville, North Carolina (900 miles to the southwest), in order to better replicate 18th-century New York State because the area around Asheville more closely resembles the untouched old-growth forests of 1757. Some scenes were shot at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s North Carolina estate south of Asheville, while other scenes were shot in nearby DuPont State Recreational Forest. The real Fort William Henry was located on the southern end of Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, but for the movie, a full-scale facsimile of the fort was built at the northern end of Lake James, in Lake James State Park, about 40 miles east of Asheville. Another set built for the movie was the Indian village where Magua takes his captives (Major Heyward and the Munro sisters). The location is 30 miles southwest of Lake James, in Chimney Rock Park. In the movie the cascading waters of Hickory Nut Falls can be seen overlooking the Indian village. It was at the top of these falls where the final fight scene between Chingachgook and Magua was filmed.

Plot Summary

It is 1757 and the French and Indian War is raging in the Adirondack Mountains. British Army Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) arrives in Albany to serve under Col. Edmund Munro (Maurice Roëves), the commander of Fort William Henry on Lake George, 60 miles due north. Heyward is ordered to bring the colonel’s two daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May), to their waiting father. An old friend of the Munro’s, Heyward professes his love to Cora and proposes to her. She leaves him without an answer. Major Heyward, the two women, and a small detachment of British soldiers march through the forest, guided by Magua (Wes Studi), a Huron warrior employed by the British as a scout, but the treacherous Magua soon leads the party into an ambush in the deep woods. The soldiers are all killed or injured, and Heyward and the women in his care are saved by a Mohican chief named Chingachgook (Russell Means), his son Uncas (Eric Schweig), and his white, adopted son “Hawkeye” (Daniel Day-Lewis). All who ambushed the group are eliminated, excepting Magua, who escapes. The trio agrees to escort the women and Heyward to the fort. En route through the forest, Cora and Hawkeye form an attraction, as do Uncas and Alice. When they arrive near the fort, they find that it is under siege by the French and their Huron allies. The small party evades enemy soldiers and enters the fort where they are greeted by Col. Munro, who asks Major Heyward about the reinforcements he has requested but is disappointed to discover that his plea for help never made it to Fort Edward. Cora and Hawkeye sneak away for a private embrace, and Cora is forced to tell a jealous Heyward that she will not be able to become his wife. Munro denies his soldiers leave to defend their families during the fighting, but Hawkeye sets up their return journeys anyway. Hawkeye himself stays to be close to Cora and, though sentenced to death, is saved by a stroke of fate. During a parlay, French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm (Patrice Chéreau) gives the British soldiers a chance to leave their fort honorably and return home without their guns. Munro assents to Montcalm’s terms, but Magua rails against the decision. The following day, Col. Munro, his soldiers, and their women and children leave the fort and march away in a long column when Magua and his Huron warriors ambush them from the surrounding woods. Magua kills Munro and cuts out his heart. Hawkeye and the Mohicans battle through, leading Cora, Alice, and Heyward to temporary safety. Later, however, Magua and his braves capture the major and the women in a cave behind a waterfall (Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas escape by diving into the rushing waterfall—a feat of toughness and athleticism that is too much for their British companions—but Hawkeye vows to come back for them). Magua brings his captives to a Huron settlement and asks its sachem (Mike Phillips) to dictate their fates—and is interrupted by Hawkeye, who has come in alone to plead for their lives. The sachem rules that Heyward must be returned to the British, Alice given to Magua, and Cora burned alive. Hawkeye’s bravery allows him to leave unscathed. However, Hawkeye tells translator Heyward to beg the sachem to let him (Hawkeye) take Cora’s place. But instead, Heyward swaps his own life for Cora’s life. After Cora and Hawkeye are at a safe distance, Hawkeye shoots Heyward to put him out of his misery as he burns at the stake. Chingachgook, Uncas, and Hawkeye then go after Magua’s party to try and free Alice. Uncas fights Magua, but is killed by his enemy. Alice chooses to step off the cliff in an act of suicide. While Hawkeye holds Magua’s remaining men at bay, Chingachgook slays Magua and avenges his son. With Hawkeye and Cora by his side, Chingachgook prays to the Great Spirit to receive Uncas, calling himself “the last of the Mohicans.”


The world premiere of The Last of the Mohicans was in Paris (where James Fenimore Cooper lived from 1826–1833) on 26 August 1992. The film had its U.S. premiere in Los Angeles on 24 September 1992. After a 12-week theatrical run (widest release: 1,856 theaters), Mohicans grossed $70 million in domestic box office receipts; the foreign market gross totaled $5.5 million, so overall ticket receipts came in at $75.5 million. The movie cost $35 to $40 million to make and another $15 to $20 million to market (considered high by industry standards). In the end, 20th Century Fox earned about $15 million in initial profits on a film that cost $50 to $60 million: a moderate financial success but still impressive for a period piece (and brisk video rentals later added another $25 to $30 million to the studio coffers). Reviews were mostly positive but critics did express some reservations. For example, Desson Howe wrote: “This is the MTV version of gothic romance, a glam-opera of rugged, pretty people from long ago. Yet, by its own glossy, Miami Vice rules, the movie is stirring. Besides, novelist Cooper’s vividly drawn savages and frontiersmen were hardly the stuff of hard-nosed realism. This movie is the Cooper pulp of its day” (Howe, 1992).

Reel History Versus Real History

The Last of the Mohicans is historical fiction; it superimposes a fictional plot onto an actual historical setting, intermingling fictional characters and events with real persons and real events. The main characters in the book and all other media versions (including Michael Mann’s film) are Cooper’s creations. The French and Indian War—including the siege and fall of Fort William Henry and the subsequent massacre of its evacuees—are, of course, historical realities. The movie’s depiction of these events is, however, not entirely accurate. In 1757, with hostilities flaring up between Britain and France, Lt. Col. George Monro (sometimes spelled ‘Munro,’ 1700–1757) was placed in command of 1,500 troops and 850 colonial militiamen at Fort William Henry on Lake George in the British Province of New York. On 3 August 1757 Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Marquis de Saint-Veran (1712–1759), leading an 8,000-man force of French Army regulars and Indian allies, began to lay siege to Fort William Henry by crossfire artillery bombardment. Effectively cut off from Gen. Daniel Webb’s main British force after Webb refused to send reinforcements, Monro’s small garrison stood little chance against a foe more than four times its size and with many more guns. As depicted in the film, after a week of steady battering and mounting casualties, Monro was forced to open negotiations with Montcalm on 9 August. Monro’s stout defense won him generous surrender terms; he was able to negotiate safe passage for his troops (who were allowed to keep their weapons but no ammunition) to Fort Edward, about 16 miles to the south. However, Montcalm’s Indian allies did not honor the terms of surrender. As Monro led his defeated troops away from Fort William Henry, the Indians attacked his column, leaving an estimated 185 dead. In the movie, Montcalm secretly meets with Magua and gives him tacit permission to massacre Monro’s soldiers—a massacre that is on a much greater and deadlier scale than the actual one—and Magua personally murders Monro. Actually, there’s no firm evidence that Montcalm colluded with his Indian allies to permit or abet the massacre of Monro’s retreating troops, though the issue continues to be hotly debated by historians. Furthermore, Monro actually survived the massacre but died suddenly of apoplexy three months later, on 3 November 1757, at Albany. For dramatic purposes, Cooper gave Monro two daughters. In reality, he never married and had no children.

The Blitzkrieg of 1494

The Itinerary of Charles VIII in Italy, 1494-1495

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The ‘Spanish Road‘, linking Spain’s northern territories with those in Italy and the Peninsula. In an ambitious undertaking, Spain used the Spanish Road to reinforce her position in the Netherlands with the new Army of Flanders in 1567.

Though called a ‘road’, this vital artery in fact still involved a journey by sea from Spain’s Mediterranean coast to Genoa that, like Rome, was part of Spain’s informal empire. Troops, money and supplies were convoyed by the Genoese galley squadron that formed an unofficial part of Spain’s Mediterranean fleet. From Genoa, the men marched north to Milan, centre of Spanish power in northern Italy, where they were refreshed and often joined by recruits from Spain’s Italian possessions. The main route ran from the fortress of Alessandria in the south-west Milanese lands across to Asti in Piedmont, a territory belonging to the duke of Savoy who was an ally until 1610. The road forked here, with one branch running north-west via Pinerolo which gave access to the Alpine pass of Mont Cenis and thence to Savoy proper and the upper Rhône, from where the soldiers could march north into the Franche-Comté. A subsidiary track ran along the Val de Susa west of Turin and over the Mont Genèvre. Alternatively, the men could head directly from Milan north up the Ivrea valley and cross by the Great or Little St Bernard passes through Aosta, down the Arve valley in Upper Savoy to Geneva, and then north-east along the Jura into the Franche-Comté. The three routes converged there and then headed north across the duchy of Lorraine into Luxembourg and the front. Sea transport from La Coruña covered about 200km a day, compared to the 23km a day average soldiers took to march the 1,000km from Milan to Flanders, but the overland route was safer and Spain sent over 123,000 men this way between 1567 and 1620, compared with 17,600 by sea.

The French Wars of Religion

Concern for the Road drew Spain deeper into French and Savoyard internal affairs during the 1580s, rather in the manner that the Dutch and other powers were sucked into German quarrels. In Spain’s case, however, involvement did escalate into major war, because France posed a much greater potential threat than any German territory.

France had entered a dynamic period of expansion following its victory over England in the Hundred Years War. The Valois kings consolidated royal control over the central provinces, while subduing previously autonomous border regions: Normandy in 1450, Provence in 1481, Brittany (1491), Bourbonnais and Auvergne (1523) and Saluzzo (1548). Attempts to seize Burgundy after the death of its last duke in 1477 sparked a long-running war with the Habsburgs that widened with Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494. Though this conflict ended with eventual French defeat by 1559, the country’s population had doubled across the previous century and continued to grow, reaching 19 million by 1600. The ability of the French crown to exploit this potential was hamstrung by its weakness following Henri II’s accidental death in a tournament in 1559. Government passed to his widow, Catherine de Medici, who acted as regent for a succession of the late king’s young sons: Francis II (1559–60), Charles IX (1560–74) and Henri III (1574–89). Aristocrats and others who had lost out during the previous century of growing royal power now sought to reassert their influence, under the leadership of the princes of the blood. These grandees were related by intermarriage with the royal family but excluded from rule by the principle of hereditary succession and the crown’s desire for more exclusive authority. Religion complicated matters since many princes and their provincial clients became Huguenots around 1560, embracing the French version of Calvinism, while their rivals remained Catholic. A series of bitter feuds, known as the French Wars of Religion, developed after 1562 and eroded royal authority by exposing the Valois’ inability to guarantee the peace.

International peace was no longer threatened by French aggression but by the danger that the kingdom’s implosion would suck neighbouring countries into its civil war. This was a particular problem for the Empire where princes claimed the right to recruit soldiers to assist friendly Christian powers as one of their German Freedoms. While recruitment was regulated by imperial legislation forbidding it against the emperor or the public peace, territorial fragmentation made it hard to prevent princes collecting troops for their relations or friends across the frontier. The Huguenot leaders had already appealed to the German Protestant princes in April 1562 for assistance, receiving 4,000 cavalry in the first of seven German military expeditions totalling over 70,000 men. Other soldiers were provided by the Protestant princes for the Dutch rebels, but the Catholics were equally active, supplying Spain with 57,200 men between 1567 and 1575 alone, while a further 25,000 Germans served Sweden and Denmark during their war of 1563–70. These figures illustrate the Empire’s importance, because it provided more troops than any of the other unofficial participants in the French and Dutch wars. Around 20,000 Britons served in the Huguenot and Dutch forces between 1562 and 1591, while 50,000 Swiss fought for the French crown and 20,000 for the Huguenot rebels over roughly the same period. The Palatinate was the prime mover behind German recruitment for the Huguenots, since its elector converted to Calvinism in 1560 and part of its territory lay close to the terminus of the Spanish Road. Germany’s rising population ensured that the princes had the men, but they relied on the Huguenots and their international sponsors to pay for them. The money invariably arrived late and never covered the full cost. Consequently, German intervention was intermittent and short-lived, with most expeditions lasting only a few months and ending in a shambles.

Lorraine and Savoy

Recruitment also exposed the princes to retaliation from the French Catholics who formed the League (Ligue), or ‘Holy Union’ as they preferred, in 1584 when it became obvious that the only plausible heir to Henri III, the last Valois, was Henri de Bourbon, king of Navarre and Huguenot leader. The League was a vehicle for the powerful Guise family, who were related to the Valois and controlled north-eastern France around Champagne, as well as the largely French-speaking duchy of Lorraine which was formally part of the Empire. The Guise considered themselves to be the guardians of French Catholicism and were keen to prevent anyone occupying the French throne who might want to curb their political autonomy. Their territories made them a major factor in Habsburg strategic thinking, since their cooperation was essential to secure the last stretch of the Spanish Road, as well as blocking any hostile French moves towards Alsace and the Rhine. Philip II’s decision to subsidize the League from December 1584 transformed what had been a series of seven fierce but brief civil wars into a protracted international struggle lasting until 1598. The situation within France simplified as the different factions polarized into two opposing camps, each with powerful foreign backers. England complemented its involvement in the Dutch Revolt by allying with Henri de Navarre in 1585 and funding the largest German expedition to date that lasted five months from August 1587. The League retaliated by invading the Protestant territories west of the Rhine, burning 62 villages in Mömpelgard alone.

Lorraine’s involvement was matched by that of Savoy, another territory maintaining a precarious autonomy on the Empire’s western periphery Savoy narrowly escaped being another victim of French expansion during the early sixteenth century, thanks to Habsburg intervention that forced France to return its territory in 1559 after 23 years of occupation. Duke Emanuele Filiberto saw France’s subsequent troubles as a chance to escape the tutelage of foreign kings. He moved his capital from Chambéry in Savoy across the Alps to the relative safety of Turin in Piedmont in 1560, and began fostering a more distinct identity. Italian was declared the official language, the prized Holy Shroud was moved to Turin in 1578, and writers were paid to elaborate the myth that the new capital had been founded by a wandering Egyptian prince and so pre-dated Rome and Troy. These moves were given a nationalist gloss by nineteenth-century writers, especially once the House of Savoy became kings of the newly united Italy in 1860. The family had no such grandiose plans in the sixteenth century, concentrating instead on securing recognition as the equals of other European royalty and capturing enough new territory to sustain its independence. It became a matter of pride to recover Geneva, which had been lost during the French invasion of 1536 and subsequently became an independent Calvinist republic, while its hinterland in the Vaud joined the Swiss Confederation. The duke also planned to move south over the Ligurian Apennines to seize Genoa and gain access to the sea. There were also hopes of pushing westwards into Provence and the Dauphiné, as well as east into Milan. Such ambitions could not be achieved alone, and Savoyard policy relied on capitalizing on its strategic position as ‘gatekeeper of the Alps’. In addition to controlling the Tenda Pass between Nice and Piedmont south of Turin, all three routes of the southern section of the Spanish Road ran across its territory.

The accession of Carlo Emanuele I in 1580 saw the start of a more aggressive policy. The new duke has been dismissed as an opportunist, darting in and out of Europe’s wars over the next forty years. However, his frequent shifts of international alignment were forced upon him since he could not afford to pin his fragile independence too closely to any one power, and his goals of dynastic aggrandizement remained constant underneath. The failure to retake Geneva in 1582 convinced him of the need for a powerful ally and he married Philip II’s daughter, Catalina Michaela, in 1585, agreeing to back his father-in-law’s intervention in France. In 1588 he recaptured Saluzzo in the upper Po valley just east of the Alps that had been lost to France forty years earlier. He retook the Vaud the following year, but another attempt on Geneva ended in failure, prompting him to redirect his efforts against Provence and the Dauphiné, thinking they would be easier pickings.

Supported by the Savoyard invasion of the south, the Catholic League was able to take Paris in May 1588 in defiance of Henri III’s orders. The king’s assassination by a Catholic militant on 2 August 1589 removed the last constraints on the League, which began a vicious persecution of the Huguenots. The League’s apparent success was its undoing, since it lacked its own candidate for the vacant throne. Most moderate Catholics regarded Henri de Navarre as their legitimate sovereign, but the prospect of him being recognized as king was a major challenge to Spain’s reputation. Not only was he a heretic, but he was locked in his own dispute with Spain, which had annexed half of Navarre in 1512. Having used the League and Savoy to fight the war by proxy, Philip II now intervened directly by ordering Parma’s invasion of Artois in 1590 – the act which had such a serious impact on the conduct of the Dutch War. The Palatinate and Saxony organized the seventh and last German expedition in 1591–2 to assist Henri, but the king gained his crown largely through his conversion to Catholicism in July 1593, reportedly saying ‘Paris was worth a mass’. Though his conversion alienated the more militant Huguenots it allowed the far more numerous moderate Catholics to join him, and his formal coronation as Henri IV in February 1594 was followed by his entry into Paris a month later. Philip II’s health was failing and in the face of mounting setbacks he was unable to prevent Pope Clement VIII from welcoming Henri back into the Catholic church in August 1595. The new king copied Spain’s methods with regards to the papacy, relaxing opposition to papal jurisdiction over the French church and swiftly building up a faction of around twenty cardinals. Though Spain remained the dominant factor in Rome, it was no longer the only player in town, especially as France’s rising influence allowed the pope to increase his own freedom by playing one power against the other.

With Henri IV accepted as king, the League looked increasingly like a Spanish puppet and its leaders defected one after another, leaving Spain to fight alone. Henri formally declared war on Spain in January 1595, invading the Franche-Comté and cutting the Spanish Road. Spain had to re-route this section further east into the Empire via Saarbrücken. Two years later, Field Marshal Lesdiguières drove the Savoyards from the Dauphiné and captured the Maurienne and Tarantaise valleys, cutting the southern end of the Road. Spain launched a counter-attack from the Netherlands, capturing Amiens after bitter fighting, but it was clear its intervention in France had proved counterproductive. Both sides accepted papal mediation, leading to the Peace of Vervins in May 1598, whereby Spain recognized Henri IV, returned Amiens and Calais, and compelled Lorraine to surrender occupied Metz, Toul and Verdun. The French evacuated Savoy and put the question of Saluzzo to papal arbitration.

Savoy offered to surrender its French-speaking possessions between the Rhône and Saône if it could keep Saluzzo – a possession that completed its hold on the western Alps. The proposal alarmed Spain, because it would expose the Road as it left the Alpine valleys and skirted Calvinist Geneva. Carlo Emanuele was secretly encouraged to hold out for better terms by the offer of Spanish military assistance. Henri lost patience and sent 20,000 men back into Savoy before any Spanish help could arrive, and Carlo Emanuele cut his deal with France with the Treaty of Lyons on 17 January 1601, ceding his French-speaking subjects in return for Saluzzo. The Road narrowed to the Chezery valley between Mont Cenis and the two-span bridge at Grésin over the Rhône, west of Geneva, and its vulnerability was demonstrated when France temporarily closed it in July 1602. Spain tried to reopen the Geneva route deeper in the mountains by sponsoring Carlo Emanuele’s assault that December: the famous ‘escalade’ that failed to retake the city and led to rapidly deteriorating relations between Spain and Savoy. Keen to maintain good relations with a resurgent France, Savoy placed growing restrictions on Spain’s use of the Grésin route, finally expelling the soldiers guarding it in 1609. The political reorientation was completed in a formal alliance with France the following year. Spain needed another way over the mountains.

The Swiss Passes

Concern for the western route had already prompted Spain to sign a treaty with five of the seven Catholic Swiss cantons in May 1587 to use the St Gotthard pass. This was the only practical way across central Switzerland and ran through the Catholic cantons east of lakes Luzern and Zug, and then down the Reuss valley to the Rhine. From here, soldiers could march through the friendly Austrian possessions of the Breisgau and Upper Alsace and rejoin the original Road north via Lorraine to Luxembourg. The only alternative way through central Switzerland via the Simplon Pass to the upper Rhône was long and could be blocked by the powerful Protestant canton of Bern. The governor of Milan managed to renew the 1587 treaty in 1604, but the Catholic Swiss were growing nervous over the revival of French influence, and one of the original signatories refused to sign. Though the Catholic cantons had formed a holy alliance in 1586, they had no desire to fight their Protestant neighbours. Swiss politics were a tangle of local relationships, like those in the Empire, where conflicting interests inhibited polarization into sectarian violence. The renewed treaty obliged Spain to march its troops in detachments of two hundred men at two-day intervals, with their weapons loaded separately in wagons. Spain used the St Gotthard route six times between 1604 and 1619, but the Catholics of Uri and Schwyz closed it temporarily in 1613, preventing the governor of Milan from drawing on German recruits during the war with Savoy. These were not conditions that a great power could tolerate for long.

It was possible to send men by sea through the Adriatic to Trieste and then across Inner Austria and the Tirol to the Rhine. However, this was not only very long but liable to disruption by Venice, a power that frequently opposed Spanish policy in Italy. Venice also controlled the Brenner Pass, which offered the best access to the Tirol from Italy. Only three routes remained between these eastern routes and the central Swiss passes. One road ran north from Milan over the Splügen Pass, east of the St Gotthard, and down the Upper Rhine past Chur and Lake Constance to the Breisgau. East of the Splügen lay the Engadin valley that exited through the upper reaches of the Inn into the Tirol. Finally, there was the 120km corridor of the Valtellina that ran north-east from Lake Como to enter the Tirol either through the Stelvio Pass, open between June and September, or the slightly lower Umbrail, generally passable throughout the year. Though further east, the Valtellina offered a faster route, taking roughly four days to cross, compared to ten days over the St Gotthard.

All three routes were in the hands of the Rhetian free states, more commonly known as the Grisons, or Grey Leagues. Rhetia was a federation of three alliances loosely associated with the Swiss Confederation, but also nominally allied to the Austrian Habsburgs. Like the Swiss, Rhetia had emerged from a network of alliances among the Alpine communities that rejected Habsburg rule during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The actual Grey League controlled the far upper reaches of the Rhine, including the city of Chur, whose bishop refused to join. The Holy House League held the Engadin valley of the upper Inn, while the smaller Ten Parish League bordered on the Tirol in the north-west. All three were composed of self-governing communes that sent representatives to a council to coordinate external relations. The Grey League held a majority, but agreement of at least two of the three alliances was necessary for binding decisions. Rhetia’s strategic significance derived from conquests it made from Milan in 1500–32. The mountaineers had not only taken the Valtellina but also the county of Chiavenna at its southern end: this controlled access both southwards into Milan and northwards along the Splügen and Engadin routes.

Like Switzerland, Rhetian government was not democratic in the modern sense. A significant part of the population was disenfranchised, and while the inhabitants of Chiavenna and the Valtellina had been left with self-government, they were treated as conquered territories and denied any representation in the Rhetian council. Social tensions grew more pronounced as population growth placed increasing pressure on the relatively meagre local resources by the 1570s. Communal government fell into the hands of the ‘Big Johns’ (Grosse Hansen), networks of families who secured a controlling stake in the village councils and increasingly assumed noble titles and lifestyles. As in Switzerland, the decentralized political structure ensured that local control translated into greater opportunities for wealth and influence at a higher level. Foreign powers were prepared to pay handsomely for favourable decisions in the Rhetian council to open the passes or permit military recruitment among the overpopulated villages. External influence encouraged factions aligned to different powers, heightening existing tensions. Conflicts in the council passed back to village level as the Big Johns used their influence in the local law courts to pursue personal vendettas. This struck at the heart of the communal ideal upon which Rhetian (and Swiss) society was based, since the primary purpose of all early modern association was to preserve the public peace and the courts were intended to uphold this. The spread of Lutheranism complicated this from the 1520s, as many families converted, while others remained Catholic. Protestants regarded their faith as an expression of independence from Habsburg jurisdiction and that of the bishop of Chur. Their disenfranchised southern subjects (the Sudditi) in the Valtellina clung to Catholicism as an expression of their own identity. Linguistic differences reinforced these divisions, since the northerners spoke German, while the southerners spoke Italian.

Matters worsened as the Rhetian church fell under Calvinist influence and began insisting on greater supervision at parish level to enforce the reformation of life just as the Capuchins and other missionaries sent by Cardinal Borromeo and the bishop of Chur arrived to promote Catholic renewal. The Rhetian leadership felt increasingly beleaguered, not least because their three alliances were outnumbered by their subject populations in Chiavenna and the Valtellina. These grew increasingly restless, revolting in 1572 and 1607. Matters were further complicated by the fact that the majority of the inhabitants of the actual Grey League also remained Catholic, while the 4,000 Protestants living in the Valtellina felt very insecure. It is scarcely surprising that the Calvinist political leadership equated Catholicism with subversion and used its influence in the local courts to instigate a campaign of persecution from 1617.

Fuentes, the governor of Milan, induced the Rhetians to permit small detachments of Spanish soldiers to transit the Valtellina after 1592, but the council then promised exclusive access to the French in December 1601 and signed a similar agreement with Venice two years later. The governor retaliated, building Fort Fuentes at the top of Lake Como to block the entrance into Chiavenna in 1603 and imposing a grain embargo. The Rhetians remained unmoved, so that by 1610, Spain was without a satisfactory route across the Alps. Fortunately, this was now less pressing since the conclusion of the Twelve Years Truce with the Dutch.

Twenty-Fifth Dynasty: The Kushite Egyptian I

Kushite Egyptian Army

Nubia was lost to Egypt about 1080 B.C. after a civil war between its viceroy (titled “The King’s Son of Kush”) and the Libyan-connected High Priest of Amun at Thebes. The later partly-Egyptianised Kings of Kush adopted many of the trappings of Egyptian kingship and were fanatically devoted to the Egyptian religion. When the Libyan Pharaoh Tefnakht attempted to extend his control to southern Egypt, till then ruled by the priests of Amun as vassals of Kush, the Kushite King Piye retaliated by sending a crusading army down the Nile in 730 B.C. to restore the decadent northerners to godliness, defeated their combined armies and became Pharaoh of Egypt as far north as Thebes. His successor Shabaka finished them off in 712 and extended the dynasty’s rule to the whole of Egypt. A series of wars with Assyria for control of Syria followed, with eventual defeat for the Kushites, who were driven right out of Egypt in 664 B.C., but continued to rule in the Sudan, moving their capital south to Meroe circa 593 B.C. to found the Kingdom of Meroe. Assyrian depictions of Kushite troops show charioteers, archers, and infantry with pairs of javelins and smallish round shields. The few armoured infantry are probably officers. Nubian royal monuments show large numbers of ridden horses. The change to 4-horse 3-crew chariots was complete by 673 B.C..

In Nubia, following the end of Egyptian rule there in the late Twentieth Dynasty, there must also have been military activities. Again these are not documented for some time, the first indication of a civil war being found in the extremely difficult inscription of Karimala carved in the temple at Semna at the Second Cataract. Military actions must have played a significant role in the formation of the new Kushite state that had come into existence by about 750 B.C.. Under the rule of Kashta (c. 750-736 B.C.), the Kushite army had become sufficiently large and well-armed to invade Egypt and take control of Thebes and leave a garrison there. Again, military activities within Egypt itself are implicit, but the response of Kashta’s successor, Piye (c. 736-712 B.C.), to the southward expansion of the Libyan dynast, Tefnakht, is detailed in the text of a very long inscription, known as the “Victory Stela.” Although couched in the language of a conventional Egyptian royal inscription, this document does detail the progress of Piye’s campaign against the coalition of northern rulers led by Tefnakht. There are references to conflict on the river, to sieges, and to siege engines, scaling towers, and ladders.

The fundamental basis of Kushite rule was military power. Close links between the king and his army are apparent throughout the 25th Dynasty. The devotion of Piy’s troops to their master is constantly stressed in the text of his triumphal stele, and physical prowess and military training were held to be of importance both to the rulers them- selves and to their soldiers. Hence the young Taharqo was present in person at the battle of Eltekeh (701 BC), while a stele from Dahshur recounts details of a gruelling military exercise organized by the same king in the desert between Memphis and the Faiyum. However, in spite of the strength of their armed forces, the Kushite kings perhaps felt unequal to the task of controlling both their native land and a unified Egypt. This may have influenced their toleration of a decentral- ized administration within Egypt, since the principalities that had enjoyed near-autonomy under the Libyan pharaohs retained their indi- viduality throughout the rule of the Kushites.

The evidence of the “Victory Stela” of Piye implies a style of campaign typical of the Late Bronze Age, but in western Asia there were now changes in army, weaponry, and warfare, introduced by the principal power, Assyria. The Assyrians had iron weapons, although at this stage they might not been the decisive factor in their victories. More significant may have been the larger types of horse that had been introduced and bred, leading to a far greater use of cavalry and reduction in chariotry. The Assyrians used a heavy chariot, rather than the fast light- framed vehicle of the Late Bronze Age. They also had sophisticated siege engines and scaling towers that they used with great effect, and which are depicted in the scenes of their campaigns in Palestine.

Established as the major power holders in Egypt, the Kushites under Piye’s successors, Shabaqo, Shebitqo, and Taharqo, began to offer support to the rulers of Palestine and the Levant in their bids for independence from the Assyrians. The first major conflict came at the battle of Eltekeh (701 B.C.), in which the Egyptian-Kushite army was forced to retreat. Later activities were apparently more successful, but led to Assyrian invasions of Egypt. The Kushite position was made more difficult by the political machinations of the Libyan dynasts, one of whom, Psamtik, eventually succeeded in reuniting the whole of Egypt under his rule, forcing the last Kushite pharaoh, Tanwetamani, to abandon Thebes and Upper Egypt (656 B.C.).

ELTEKEH. Battle in 701 BC between the Egyptian-Kushite and Assyrian armies. It is documented by the Annals of Sennacherib and the biblical record of 2 Kings 20. Eltekeh (Assyrian: Altaqu) is probably to be identified with Tell esh-Shallaf, 15 kilometers south of Joppa. The Assyrian army was marching south toward Ekron, having captured Joppa, when they encountered the Egyptian army sent by Shabaqo advancing from Gaza. The biblical record states that Taharqo led the Egyptian army, although he was not reigning as pharaoh and was probably too young to have participated. The Egyptians were defeated and withdrew to Gaza to recoup. The battle was one engagement during the campaign of Sennacherib against Judah, which also included the sieges of Lachish and Jerusalem.

ISHKHUPRI (671 BC). Site of a battle between the invading armies of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, and the Egyptian-Kushite forces under Taharqo. It is recorded only in the Assyrian records, where its location appears to be somewhere in the Eastern Delta or on the Ways of Horus. It might perhaps be identified with a place on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, near Faqus.

Piankhi (1) (Piye) (d. 712 B.C.) Second ruler of the Nubian Twenty-fifth Dynasty.

 He reigned over Egypt and Nubia (modern Sudan) from 750 B.C. until his death. He was the son of the Nubian ruler KASHTA and Queen PEBATMA. Piankhi entered Egypt in response to pleas from people suffering under the reign of TEFNAKHTE of SAIS in the Twenty-fourth Dynasty (r. 724-717 B.C.). Piankhi claimed that his military campaign was justified by his desire to restore the faith of the people in the god AMUN. The great temple of Amun at NAPATA maintained the traditional tenets and rituals of the cult, but the Egyptians appeared to have become lax in their devotion. Piankhi sent an army into Egypt to rectify that lapse in Amunite fervor. A stela of victory at the temple of Amun in Napata, reproduced at other major Egyptian sites, recounts the military campaigns conducted in his name. His army faced a coalition of Egyptian forces led by Tefnakhte of Sais. Other rulers allied with Tefnakhte were OSORKON IV of TANIS, PEFTJAU’ABAST of HERAKLEOPOLIS, NIMLOT (4) of HERMOPOLIS, and IUPUT (4) of LEONTOPOLIS. They marched to Herakleopolis and were defeated in a confrontation with Piankhi. Tefnakhte fled but was taken prisoner when the Nubians moved northward. Piankhi conducted two naval battles to defeat Tefnakhte in the Delta, and all of the local rulers surrendered. Piankhi returned to Thebes soon after to celebrate the Amunite Feast of OPET. He stayed several months and then returned to Napata. Piankhi had married PEKASSATER, the daughter of Nubian king ALARA. While in Thebes, he had his sister, AMENIRDIS (1), adopted by SHEPENWEPET (1) as the GOD’S WIFE OF AMUN, or Divine Adoratrice of Amun. The Nubians ruled almost all of Egypt at the end of Piankhi’s stay. His dynasty would bring about a renaissance of the arts in Egypt and would maintain a vigorous defense of the nation. Piankhi died at Napata and was buried in the royal necropolis at El-Kurru. Burial chambers for his favorite horses were erected around his tomb. Piankhi was succeeded by his brother SHABAKA.

Shabaka Shabaka (reigned ca. 712-ca. 696 B.C.) was a Nubian king who established the Twenty-fifth Dynasty in Lower Egypt and thus became the first of the “Ethiopian” pharaohs.

Shabaka succeeded his brother Piankhi as ruler of the Nubian kingdom of Kush in what is now northern Sudan. At this time the people of the Mediterranean world called all black people south of Egypt “Ethiopian,” so this name became associated with the Egyptian dynasty of Nubian kings. Shabaka and his successors, however, had nothing to do with the modern country called Ethiopia.

Piankhi had subdued Lower Egypt 10 years before Shabaka came to power but had failed to leave a permanent administration there. Thus Shabaka had to undertake the task of reconquering Lower Egypt completely anew. Despite the fact that Shabaka, unlike Piankhi, established an effective administration over all of Egypt, Piankhi received more attention in the histories because he left much more detailed written descriptions of his activities.

During Shabaka’s reign Egypt experienced the prelude to the Assyrian conquest. Shabaka appreciated the serious danger of the growing power of the Assyrians to the north-east of Egypt, and he tried to get Syria and Palestine to revolt in order to create buffer states. This attempt failed when the Assyrians put down the revolts, and Assyria and Egypt approached a major confrontation. It is, however, unclear whether any battle actually took place at this time. Shabaka is often identified with the “So” of the Old Testament who fought the Assyrians, but this identification is highly tenuous.

The remainder of Shabaka’s reign seems to have been peaceful. He established his capital at Thebes in Middle Egypt and fostered the priesthood and religious architecture. He restored the ancient temple at Thebes and completed much repair work on temples throughout Upper and Lower Egypt. According to Herodotus, he abolished capital punishment in Egypt.

About 696 he was succeeded by his nephew Shabataka (Shebitku). The threat of Assyrian attack still hung over the kingdom, so Shabataka also placed his younger brother Taharqa on the throne as coregent, as had been commonly done throughout Egyptian history in order to assure the development of strong leadership.

After Shabataka died 5 years later, Taharqa became the sole ruler, but he was eventually driven out of Lower Egypt by the Assyrians and the Twenty-fifth Dynasty came to an end. Shabaka’s descendants did, however, continue to rule in Kush for another thousand years, while Egypt continued in its decline under a succession of foreign conquerors.

Taharqa (Taharqo, Tarku, Tirhaka) (d. 664 B.C.) Ruler of the Nubian Twenty-fifth Dynasty He reigned from 690 B.C. until forced to abandon Egypt. He was the son of PIANKHI and the cousin of SHEBITKU, whom he succeeded. His mother, ABAR, came from NUBIA(modern Sudan) to visit and to bless his marriage to Queen AMUN-DYEK’HET. They had two sons, Nesishutef- nut, who was made the second prophet of Amun, and USHANAHURU, who was ill-fated. Taharqa’s daughter, AMENIRDIS (2), was adopted by SHEPENWEPET (2) and installed as a GOD’S WIFE OF AMUN at THEBES.

In 674 B.C., Taharqa met the Assyrian king ESSARHADDON and his army at Ashkelon, defeating the enemy and raising a STELA to celebrate the victory. He also built extensively, making additions to the temples of AMUN and MONTU at KARNAK and to MEDINET HABU and MEMPHIS. One of his structures at Karnak was erected between a SACRED LAKE and the outer wall. He built two colossal uraei at Luxor as well and a small shrine of Amun at the third cataract of the Nile. In 680 B.C., Essarhaddon once again attacked Egypt and took the capital of Memphis and the royal court. Taharqa fled south, leaving Queen Amun-dyek’het and Prince Ushanahuru to face the enemy. They were taken prisoner by Essarhaddon and sent to Nineveh, Assyria, as slaves. Two years later, Taharqa marched with an army to retake Egypt, and Essarhaddon died before they met. Taharqa massacred the Assyrian garrison in Egypt when he returned. ASSURBANIPAL, Essarhaddon’s successor, defeated Taharqa.

Taharqa’s position in Egypt was made difficult by the self-interest of the Libyan dynasts of the Delta, who constantly changed their allegiance. The principal anti-Kushite and pro-Assyrian ruler was Nekau I of Sau, although even he joined with other dynasts in the rebellion against Ashurbanipal. The details of the conflict between Taharqa and the Assyrians are documented in official Assyrian inscriptions, including a rock-cut stela at the Nahr el-Kelb and records of omens responding to requests to the sun god Shamash. Although it is generally thought that the Assyrian fighting machine was better equipped and trained than that of Egypt, Taharqa showed remarkable ability in assembling new forces and some success in open battle. The internal political intrigues of the rulers of the Delta and western Asia played a significant role in the successes and failures of both sides.

TANUTAMUN, Taharqa’s cousin, was installed as coregent and successor and Taharqa returned to Nubia. He was buried at Nuri in Nubia. His pyramidal tomb was small but designed with three chambers.

Twenty-Fifth Dynasty: The Kushite Egyptian II

The Assyrians Return

A half-century later in the mid-eighth century B.C. the Assyrians returned, but to a very different world. In addition to their old enemy Urartu, which had taken advantage of Assyrian weakness to extend its influence deep into northern Syria, formidable new powers had appeared. To the east, the Medes, Indo- European immigrants from central Asia, had built a loosely organized kingdom that incorporated many of the other Iranian tribes living on the Iranian plateau and threatened Assyria’s eastern frontier. To the northwest in central and western Anatolia the kingdoms of Phrygia and Lydia occupied the core areas of the second millennium B.C. Hittite Empire and could provide aid to potential rebels among Assyria’s southern Anatolian subjects. The most formidable threat to Assyrian interest in western Asia, however, was the reappearance of Egypt as a major power.

The resurgence of Egypt was the work of the Nubian kings of the twenty-fifth dynasty. Supported by the priesthood of the god Amun at Thebes, they reunited Egypt, suppressing the Libyan chieftains, who had ruled Egypt for over two centuries, and joining Egypt and the kingdom of Kush into a single state. The result was the virtual recreation of the great empire of the New Kingdom, a kingdom that extended for over a thousand miles from near modern Khartoum in the south to the Mediterranean in the north. Within Egypt, the twenty- fifth dynasty marked a period of political and cultural revival in Egypt. Local dynasts were subordinated to royal authority and the military was strengthened. Temple construction and royal art revived. So did funerary and theological literature, all of which were characterized by emulation of archaic Egyptian styles and high-quality workmanship.

Eventually the campaigning of the Kushite (Twenty-fifth Dynasty pharaohs in Syria-Palestine led to direct conflict with a new imperial power: the Assyrians. In 674 BC Taharqa (ruled 690-664 BC) was able temporarily to deter the invading forces of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon ruled 680-669 BC), but in the ensuing decade the Assyrians made repeated successful incursions into the heart of Egypt, and only the periodic rebellions of the Meeks and Scythians – at the other end of the Assyrian empire – prevented them from gaining a more permanent grip on the Nile valley. In 671 Be Esarhaddon captured Memphis describing the event with relish in an inscription at Senjirli:

‘I laid siege to Memphis, Taharqas royal residence, and conquered it in half a day by means of mines, breaches and assault ladders; I destroyed it, tore down its walls and burnt it down. His ‘queen’, the women of his palace, Ushanahuru, his heir apparent, his other children, his possessions, horses, large and small cattle beyond counting, I carried away as booty to Assyria. All Ethiopians I deported from Egypt – leaving not even one to do homage to me. Everywhere in Egypt, I appointed new local kings, governors, officers (saknu), harbour overseers, officials and ad- ministration personnel’ (Pritchard, 1969: 293).

Three years later Taharqa had succeeded in briefly reasserting the Kushite hegemony over Egypt, while the Assyrians were distracted by problems elsewhere. But by 667 B.C. Esarhaddons successor Ashurbanipal (ruled 668-627 B.C.) had penetrated beyond the Delta into Upper Egypt, where he must have severely damaged morale by pillaging Thebes, the spiritual home of the Egyptians.

A fascinating insight into the campaigns of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal in Egypt has been provided by the survival of a fragment of relief from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh which shows the Assyrian army laying siege to an Egyptian city. The details of this scene, such as the depiction of an Assyrian soldier undermining the city walls and others climbing ladders to the battlements, bear strong similarities with Egyptian siege representations described above, showing that ancient siege warfare from North Africa to Mesopotamia used similar tactics and weaponry. The rows of captive soldiers being marched out of the city appear to be mainly foreign mercenaries. In the bottom right-hand corner of the scene a group of native Egyptian civilians are shown clustered together with their children and possessions. The inscriptions of both Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal show that the usual Assyrian practice of deportation was employed, with Egyptian physicians, diviners, singers, bakers, clerks and scribes (as well as prisoners of war and members of the ruling families) being resettled in the Assyrian heartland.

TANWETAMANI (reigned 664-656 BC). Last pharaoh of the Kushite 25th dynasty. His name can be rendered as Tanutamun or Tantamani. After the death of Taharqo and his accession, Tanwetamani led his army to Egypt. The coalition of Delta rulers fled to their hometowns and Tanwetamani regained control of Memphis. He supposedly defeated Nekau I of Sau in battle. Ashurbanipal mustered his army, and in 663 BC marched to Egypt, accompanied by Nekau’s son, Psamtik I, who hoped to be installed in his father’s place. Ashurbanipal appears to have received little opposition, and he pursued Tanwetamani from Memphis to Thebes, which was sacked. Ashurbanipal withdrew, but the Thebans still acknowledged Tanwetamani as pharaoh. In the north, Psamtik I ascended the throne in Sau, and Egypt was divided between the two powers. Ashurbanipal now faced problems in other parts of the Assyrian Empire, and Psamtik began to consolidate his position. His successes ended with a Kushite withdrawal from Upper Egypt, achieved through diplomatic means in the year 9 of both pharaohs.


Twenty-Fifth Dynasty c. 750-656 B.C.

Kashta c. 750-736 B.C.

Piye (Piankhy) c.  736-712 B.C.

Shabaka c.  711-695 B.C.

Shebitqo c.  695-690 B.C.

Taharqo 690-664 B.C.

Tanwetamani 664-656 B.C.

The Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 B.C.) was a time when Egypt broke into smaller quarrelling kingdoms or succumbed to foreign invaders. Technically Egypt remained united under the Twenty-first Dynasty (1069–945 B.C.) with its capital at Tanis in the Delta. In reality, the priests of Amun-Ra in Thebes and various local rulers exercised independent control over Upper Egypt. During the latter part of the New Kingdom, many Libyans settled in the Delta and large numbers of Nubians moved into Upper Egypt. The previous ethnic homogeneity of Egyptian society ended even though the newcomers tended to assimilate themselves into the predominant Egyptian culture. Some of the Libyans in the Delta assimilated so well that they took control of Egypt from the Twenty-first Dynasty in 945 B.C.. The new Libyan king, Sheshonq I (945–924 B.C.), began the Twenty-second Dynasty (945–715 B.C.) and continued to use Tanis as his capital. Under Sheshonq I, the fortunes of Egypt briefly revived. The priests at Thebes found that their independence was curtailed. Even more dramatically, Sheshonq I invaded Palestine and restored Egyptian control over the region by defeating the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He was, in all probability, the Shishak of 1 Kings 14:25–8 and 2 Chronicles 12:1–12, who carried away treasure from Jerusalem during the reign of King Rehoboam of Judah. In popular culture, this would also make him the Shishak of the Indiana Jones adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), who supposedly carried off the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to his capital at Tanis (but who almost certainly did no such thing). Unfortunately for Egypt, the successors of Sheshonq I were nowhere near as capable. By 818 B.C. a rival Twenty-third Dynasty had arisen in a section of the Delta, along with eventually a very brief Twenty-fourth Dynasty and other regional rulers. Political authority had become so badly fragmented by 750 B.C. that Egypt was exceptionally vulnerable to foreign invasion.

The foreign invaders who established the Twenty-fifth Dynasty over Egypt were the kings of Kush in Nubia. King Piye of Kush (747–716 B.C.) invaded Egypt in about 728 B.C., and reached as far north as Heliopolis but then withdrew without establishing permanent control. Shabaqo [Shabaka] (716–702 B.C.) succeeded his brother Piye as king of Kush and proceeded to invade Egypt and make it part of his kingdom. The Nubian Twenty-fifth Dynasty was undoubtedly black. It made Memphis its Egyptian capital and, although they never completely stamped out all locally autonomous rulers in Egypt, the Nubian pharaohs attempted to extend Egypt’s control into Palestine and Syria as Sheshonq I had done. This action brought the Nubians into conflict with the Assyrian Empire at the height of its power. In 701 B.C. Shabitqo (702–690 B.C.), the nephew and successor of Shabaqo, attempted to thwart Sennacherib of Assyria’s invasion of Judah. He was defeated, and furthermore he managed to draw Assyrian attention to Egypt. A series of Assyrian attacks on Egypt began in 674 B.C. in which control of the country see-sawed back and forth between the Nubians and the Assyrians. Finally in 663 B.C. Ashurbanipal of Assyria invaded Egypt and sacked Thebes, ending Nubian authority in Egypt for good.

The Kushite state was originally centered around their capital of Napata in what is today the central Sudan, south of what is known as Nubia. In the late 8th c. B.C. the Kushite King Piye, fed up with the degeneracy he claimed was rampant in Egypt proper, led his army north against the disunited Egyptian princes. After several sieges (including amphibious operations) and battles he was able to take control of all of Egypt, founding the 25th dynasty. The Kushite state, especially under King Taharqa, intervened against Assyrian interests in the Levant. This led to several battles in the area of southern Israel. Eventually Taharqa’s forces were driven back into Egypt, and were eventually expelled from Egypt completely when Assyrian armies captured Thebes in 663 B.C. The kingdom of Kush was famous for its horses at this time.

Inevitably, however, the ambitions of the kings of the twenty-fifth dynasty to reassert Egyptian influence in Syria- Palestine also raised the risk of a disastrous collision with the Assyrians.

Beginning in the mid-eighth century B.C., the Assyrians reacted to the new situation with a whirlwind of military campaigns that lasted or almost a century. In rapid succession they defeated their principal enemies: Babylon, Elam, Urartu, and the Neo- Hittite kingdoms of Syria and southern Anatolia. When the peoples of southern Syria and Palestine turned to Egypt for support, the Assyrians crushed Egypt also, driving the twenty-fifth dynasty kings back into Nubia, where their successors became the rulers of the first great empire in the African interior. At the peak of their power during the reign of the king Assurbanipal in the mid-seventh century B.C. the Assyrians ruled the greatest Near Eastern empire up to that time, including western Iran, all of Mesopotamia, southern Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, and Egypt.

c. 750–656 B.C. 25th Dynasty

c. 750–736 B.C. Kashta. Kushite power acknowledged in Thebes and Upper Egypt.

c. 736–712 B.C. Piye (Piankhy) Tefnakht ruler of Sau expanded power and took control of Memphis. A coalition of Libyan dynasts led by Tefnakht marched into Middle Egypt. Nimlot of Khmunu, a Kushite vassal, joined Tefnakht. Piye sent the Kushite army based in Thebes against Tefnakht. Despite several confrontations, the Kushite army failed to defeat the coalition. Piye led second army to Egypt and besieged Nimlot in Khmunu. A part of the army was sent north and relieved the Kushite ally, Peftjauawybast, who had been besieged within Herakleopolis. Khmunu yielded, and Piye led his army north. Tefnakht fled back to Sau. The Kushites captured Memphis and Piye received the submission of the Libyan dynasts at Athribis; Tefnakht swore his oath of fealty at Sau.

720 B.C. Battle of Qarqar. Sargon II of Assyria defeated Yau’bidi, ruler of Hamath, then marched south, recapturing Damascus and Samaria. The Assyrian army defeated an Egyptian force at the battle of Raphia, and captured the Egyptian vassal ruler of Gaza. The Assyrians were left in control of the Egyptian border at Brook-of–Egypt.

c. 711–695 B.C. Shabaqo

710 B.C. Year 2. Shabaqo and the Kushite army marched into Egypt, defeating the Saite pharaoh Bakenranef in battle.

701 B.C. A joint Egyptian-Kushite army marched to support Hezekiah of Judah in his rebellion against Assyria. The army of Sennacherib defeated them at the Battle of Eltekeh.

c. 695–690 B.C. Shebitqo

690–664 B.C .Taharqo

679 B.C. Esarhaddon led the Assyrian army to Brook-of-Egypt.

678 B.C. Taharqo might have been active in the Levant while Esarhaddon confronted problems in Babylonia.

677 B.C. Esarhaddon attacked Sidon, Taharqo’s ally.

674 B.C. The Assyrian army marched to Egypt but was defeated in battle.

671 B.C. The Assyrians invaded Egypt again. The Egyptian-Kushite army marched to meet them, and there were two battles between Gaza and Memphis. There was a third battle on 11 July 671, at Memphis, which was captured andsacked. Taharqo fled.

669 B.C. Taharqo regained control of Memphis and Lower Egypt and the Assyrian army returned to oust him, but Esarhaddon died en route and the campaign was abandoned.

667 B.C. The new Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, marched his army to Egypt and defeated Taharqo, capturing Memphis. Taharqo fled. There was a rebellion against the Assyrian army by the Libyan dynasts. In response the Assyrians attacked Sau and other Delta cities, massacring the population.

664–656 B.C. Tanwetamani

664 B.C. Tanwetamani led a Kushite army to Memphis, where he defeated and killed the Assyrian vassal, Nekau I of Sau. Nekau was succeeded by Psamtik I.

663 B.C. Ashurbanipal led his army to Egypt and pursued Tanwetamani from Memphis to Thebes, which was sacked. Tanwetamani fled to Napata. The Assyrians withdrew, leaving Psamtik I as their vassal ruler in Lower Egypt.

Taharqa Taharqa (reigned ca. 688-ca. 663 B.C.) was a Nubian pharaoh of Egypt. He was the last ruler of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, the so-called Ethiopian Dynasty, and was driven out of Lower Egypt by the Assyrians as they began to conquer Egypt.

When Shabaka conquered Lower Egypt and thus asserted Nubian rule, he was accompanied by his nephew Taharqa, who was about age 20. Later, during Shabaka’s reign as pharaoh, Egypt confronted the growing might of Assyria on the battlefield. Taharqa was at the head of the Egyptian army, but it is not clear whether the two forces actually fought. Taharqa’s brother Shabataka succeeded Shabaka, and he made Taharqa his coregent in order to assure his succession. About 688 B.C., approximately 23 years after Nubian rule had been imposed over Egypt, Taharqa assumed the throne in his own right.

The next few years were peaceful, and Taharqa moved his capital to Tanis in the Delta so that he could stay well informed about events in the neighboring Asian countries. By 671 B.C. Egypt and Assyria again approached a confrontation, so Taharqa prepared to fight for the continued survival of Egypt. But the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, crossed the Sinai Desert and defeated Taharqa’s army on the frontier. In 2 weeks he was besieging Memphis. The Egyptian army crumbled under the attack of the better-disciplined Assyrian army, which was armed with iron weapons.

Taharqa fled to Upper Egypt, leaving Esarhaddon to take control of Lower Egypt. Two years later Taharqa re- turned with a fresh army and managed to recover control of the Delta, but this success was short-lived, and Esarhaddon’s successor, Ashurbanipal, drove Taharqa south again. After this final defeat he never again tried to campaign in the north. Egypt then entered into a long era of successive foreign rulers.

During his period of Egyptian rule Taharqa had encouraged many architectural projects, as had his Nubian predecessors. He erected monuments at Karnak, Thebes, and Tanis in Lower Egypt, and he built a number of important temples in Cush, as the Upper Egyptian Nubian state was then known. During the last 8 years of his life in Kush, he continued to foster his architectural interests. In 663 B.C. Taharqa accepted as a coregent Tanutamon, whose precise relationship to him is not clear. The next year Taharqa died and was buried in a pyramid in Nuri. Tanutamon had immediately invaded Lower Egypt himself when he was named coregent, and he managed to gain control of it for almost a decade, only to be driven out by the Assyrians, as Taharqa had been. Although the Nubians had managed to rule Egypt for only about 75 years, their kingdom of Kush in the northern Sudan survived for almost a millennium.

Pacification of Colonial Africa 1885–1914

Once the diplomats had stopped haggling and Africa’s new frontiers had been agreed, the generals took over. They were ordered to enforce partition, win over collaborators and chastise any Africans who objected. Whatever their nationality, soldiers followed the strategic principle tersely summarised by Rhodes on the eve of the 1893 Ndebele War: ‘If you strike, strike hard.’

What Rhodes meant by striking hard was modern total war waged with the latest and most lethal military technology. Firepower cleared the way for the new political settlement: defiant Africans faced bombardment by long-range artillery firing explosive shells, machine-guns and magazine rifles which, together, created a killing zone of over a mile in depth. Recalling this hurricane of missiles, one stunned survivor of a German assault on an East African stockade recalled the moment of terror: ‘whenever I put my hand up there is a bullet’. Each new contrivance of death was speedily introduced to the African battlefield; in 1912 the French and Italians deployed aircraft in Morocco and Libya, where Sanussi tribesmen were bombed. Superior weaponry kindled an overweening confidence, such as that of a young trooper who had just joined the British South Africa Company’s gendarmerie, whose job it was to turn Rhodes’s theory into practice. He told his parents: ‘Active service won’t be much of a picnic though I reckon the Maxims will make short work of the niggers.’

Of course they did, but superior weaponry never compensated for blundering generals. Occasionally Africans did win battles, most spectacularly in 1896 when a 30,000-strong Italian army – over two-thirds of them Eritrean askaris (native soldiers) – was trounced by the Emperor Menelik II at Adwa. Hubris, poor intelligence and ignorance of the terrain did for the Italians, but heavy Abyssinian casualties ruled out a counter-offensive into their colony of Eritrea. On a smaller scale, Mkwana, an East African chief and slaver, encircled a German punitive column in 1891 and killed 300 Schutztruppen. His own losses were three times that number, but he managed to capture two machine-guns. Without ammunition, spare parts and trained gunners they were valueless. Within two years the Germans were back and he was defeated. Rhodes’s theory of African warfare was applied throughout the continent. Hammer blows, repeatedly struck, produced the desired result of cowed and biddable subjects. Overawed by the deadly efficiency of the European war machine and demoralised by heavy casualties, Africans submitted and collaborated. Everywhere, piles of corpses testified to the hopelessness of further resistance, which seemed tantamount to mass suicide.

A few of the defeated did actually choose suicide as an alternative to subjection. In East Africa, large numbers of Hutu took their own lives rather than continue resisting the Germans. After his defeat at Omdurman, the Khalifa Abdullahi fled with nearly 10,000 of his followers (two-thirds of them women and children) and planned a counter-attack on Khartoum. His forces were cornered at Um Debreikat in November 1899 and crushed by an Anglo-Egyptian force. As his army dissolved, he gathered his closest followers together, knelt in prayer and waited until they were shot to pieces in what was a public suicide. Six hundred dervishes died with him; British losses were four dead.

The ability to unleash total war was an essential ingredient for upholding that crucial element in imperial rule: prestige. Africans, it was imagined, respected the iron fist and treated hesitancy or forbearance as evidence of a faltering will. This was the lesson the British had learned in India and the French in Algeria. Ideally, submission had always to be total, although there were many occasions when more than one hard knock was needed to secure it. There were over 300 punitive operations in German East Africa between 1889 and 1903, and it required two campaigns in 1895 and 1900 to bring the Asante of the Gold Coast finally to heel.

It was easy to find pretexts for the minor wars of coercion and retribution that proliferated across Africa between 1885 and 1914. New regimes brought with them unwelcome and sometimes intolerable rules. Slave-trading and slavery were outlawed, and the rulers of the slaving polities in East, Central and West Africa and their Arab accomplices fought desperately to defend their profits. Africa was well rid of them and their victims welcomed their overthrow. In Baghirimi (Chad) there was heartfelt rejoicing when the brutal, slaving warlord Rabah Zubayr was defeated by the French, captured and executed at Fort-Lamy (N’Djamena) in 1900.

The commonest cause of wars was the belated discovery by chiefs that the concessions made in treaties coaxed out of them by the likes of Peters and Rhodes went far beyond what they had intended. Wars to recover relinquished autonomy were treated as rebellions by treacherous rulers. Another frequent cause of insurrection was the imposition of hut and poll taxes, novelties that were universally detested. At home, these small wars were celebrated as the victories of civilisation over barbarism. In 1891 Le Petit Journal vilified the Tokolors of Upper Senegal as a breed of voracious parasites who lived ‘solely from wars and the captives of slave trades. They neglect herding and agriculture, and feed themselves by extortion, the ransoming of caravans and the selling of slaves.’8 The German conquest of Cameroon, as described in a popular contemporary adventure story, Kamerun, was a struggle between civilisation and the Duala, who were ‘the worst savages known to this globe’.

Such creatures exempted themselves from any humane considerations. African armies were torn apart by shells and bullets, the wounded were bayoneted, villages were burned, wells were blocked, livestock impounded and crops destroyed as a warning that resistance was futile and led to nothing but suffering. The man on the spot knew best, and felt free to choose any corrective he thought necessary to crush opposition. In 1888 General Joseph Gallieni told his subordinates to ignore instructions from Paris and go ahead with the elimination of the Tokolor chiefs, who were stumbling blocks to French rule and, it went without saying, civilisation.9 The nomadic tribes who lived by rustling and raids against their neighbours on the eastern marches of Chad were officially characterised as ‘congenital brigands’ in 1909. This was a licence to kill their menfolk, occupy or destroy their oases and kidnap their wives and children.

Extreme severity was justified by each colonial power as a lamentable necessity imposed on the civilisers by the obstinacy of the purblind who clung to the archaic African order. Once it had been swept away or reformed in accordance with European values, then Africans would find tranquillity and opportunities for enlightenment and prosperity. This was the message of the imagery on the obverse of the campaign medal awarded to British soldiers engaged in the pacification of Africa between 1900 and 1914. It showed a serene Britannia holding aloft a laurel garland against the background of a rising sun.

Each campaign in Africa, however small, was a magnet for ambitious young officers keen to make a name for themselves and pocket generous campaign allowances. A quarter of the German officers who served in East Africa were allowed to add a talismanic ‘von’ to their surnames, which officially distinguished them as gentlemen, and all got higher pay. Kitchener and Lugard got peerages for their African exertions, and French veterans of African campaigns like Gallieni and Charles Joffre (who captured Timbuktu in 1893) rose to occupy senior commands in the First World War.

Young, enthusiastic and daring officers keen for a scrap were not the invention of writers of British schoolboy fiction; they were everywhere in Africa. Typical was Lieutenant ‘Bobo’ Jelfs, an Old Etonian, who found himself besieged in Ladysmith in 1899. Are we ‘rotters’ or ‘heroes’, he asked his mother in a letter, adding that he was convinced that ‘we have played the game’ by keeping the Boers occupied. The games fetishism of Victorian public schools produced a breed of fellows who would man outposts or lead columns into the bush with the same jaunty spirit as they faced leg-breaks or tackled a beefy front-row forward.

These swashbucklers were as addicted to sport as they were to war, and were glad whenever the two could be combined. The result was a ghastly incident during the 1893 Ndebele War when several sportcrazed officers treated one skirmish as a big-game hunt, afterwards each adding up his ‘bag’ of dead tribesmen. One athletic warrior briefly dodged the fire of four machine-guns and was applauded when he finally fell. An attempt to photograph the corpse of ‘so plucky a fellow’ failed, depriving his killers of the big-game hunter’s object of desire, a trophy. Cries of ‘Tally Ho’ echoed across the veldt as Imperial Yeomanry troopers of the Northumberland Hussars set off in pursuit of Boer partisans in 1900. One huntsman in khaki remembered the ‘splendid exhilaration of the charge or the chase with “Brother Boer” as the quarry’.

It was perhaps natural for Africans for whom hunting was an economic necessity to admire sporting officers who stalked big game and were masters of bushcraft. The skills of Nimrod coupled with personal fearlessness won respect and enhanced an officer’s standing. British, German and French officers all imagined that they possessed those inner qualities of character that won the adulation and confidence of black soldiers.

Europe’s black armies were recruited from what were officially judged to be the most warlike tribes, whose genes and upbringing made them natural soldiers. Colonel Charles Mangin, a veteran of campaigns in West Africa, claimed that ‘warrior instincts’ remained ‘extremely powerful in primitive races’, whose peculiar nervous systems made them ‘resistant to pain’. Raw, atavistic impulses, tempered by strict discipline, would transform the African recruit into as hardy and brave a soldier as any European. He was conditioned to obey orders instantly through drill, which also taught him the complex manoeuvres that were vital for the most efficient application of firepower.

European officers were proud of their ability to bond with the African soldier. Many talked themselves into believing that they possessed a profound insight into his psyche, which was usually assumed to be wild, childlike and fickle, yet capable of intense loyalty. It was axiomatic that an African recruit with a warrior tradition fought well if treated with a paternal firmness exercised with a blend of astringency and fairness. He also adored and followed officers who showed outstanding bravery. French and Spanish officers who commanded Muslim troops in North Africa prided themselves on possession of the mystic quality of barraka, a rare divine favour that spared the lives of the audacious. After seeing him risk death on the battlefield, Moroccan infantrymen imagined that the young Francisco Franco, who served there between 1912 and 1917, was blessed with barraka.

With or without supernatural advantages, European officers were expected always to show a benevolent consideration for the welfare of the men they commanded. It was absent in Colonel Burroughs of the Sierra Leone Regiment, whose neglect and callousness provoked a mutiny and mass desertion in 1901. ‘He punish too much and flog plenty’, complained one soldier. Burroughs’s superiors in the War Office agreed, judged him ‘unfit to command’ and sacked him. The spiritual brotherhood of black Schutztruppen and their German officers was vividly expressed in a marching song of the 1890s. ‘Here we are marching side by side in the darkness of the night . . . brother and brother slaying beast and foes alike. Officers, askaris, and porters marching all together as one.’ According to one of their officers, these soldiers were men reborn as ‘Germanised blacks’ after having been ‘deethnicised and de-Arabised’. The Sudanese mercenaries, who made up a fifth of the East Africa Schutztruppen, had found a new homeland. Their sons and those of locally recruited askaris were given early training in military kindergarten so that, in time, they would follow their fathers into the army.

France was generous to its black soldiers. Senegalese tirailleurs were paid fifteen francs a month and were allowed to have up to four épouses libres who accompanied them on campaign and whom they were free to sell if they wished. ‘Wives’ were also commandeered on campaign. After their discharge veterans received pensions and were exempt from taxes and forced labour, and former NCOs were appointed as trustworthy village headmen. In Nigeria, the neighbours of the Hausa treated them with suspicion because they were the backbone of the colonial army and police.

War was creating a new elite in Africa. Of course, the soldier had always been a man who was respected (and feared) in native communities, and this tradition was turned to advantage by the new regimes. All were hastily assembling armies and gendarmeries, and shrewd and ambitious Africans recognised the benefits that flowed from active collaboration. Local power could be turned to personal profit. Bullying and extortion were applied by native troops serving as tax collectors in Cameroon in 1901. A missionary vainly protested that ‘injustice was done’ and ‘cruelties committed’.

Hausa troops and local levies plundered and fired the town of Satiru after crushing a Mahdist uprising in Northern Nigeria in 1906, killing anyone who got in their way. Operational necessity compelled white officers to overlook such behaviour, which was also common among white troops. African villages provided the Connaught Rangers with ‘pigs, potatoes, chickens and raw hides which we used as blankets’ as they marched towards the Tugela River in 1900. Boer farms produced better pickings and officers turned a blind eye or, on occasion, joined in.

African muscle powered the machinery of conquest in those malarial regions that were fatal for mules and oxen. On average, each fighting man required one or two porters to carry his food and ammunition, and, in turn, their own thin rations. Tests proved that one sturdy porter could carry forty pounds on his head, which represented 250 rounds of ammunition, and two porters could bear the mounting and barrel of a Maxim gun.

Native labourers laid railway tracks in the Sudan and South Africa and undertook the myriad heavy chores of base camps. They and the porters were paid for their drudgery but when demand outstripped supply, as it so often did, wages soared. During the Boer War, British army rates of pay were higher than those in the goldfields, which led to an exodus of black miners. Desertion was a constant nuisance, which was why, whenever possible, logistics officers imported men from distant areas who could not slip away easily to their homes.

Forced labour was frequently employed. Egyptians convicted of crimes during the Alexandrian riots were shipped to Sawakin in 1885 to unload ships. It was grinding work in oppressive heat, and one labourer tried to murder a British officer so as to get himself hanged. Discipline was harshly enforced with the whip: during the Boer War insubordinate labourers were given twelve lashes. Women were corralled into loading camels during campaigns in Somaliland, for local custom exempted men from such menial work. Their husbands received their wages, again in keeping with local practice.

In non-malarial zones, pack animals bore the brunt of carrying provender, equipment, ammunition and their own fodder. They were fed, watered and tended by locally recruited camel drivers and muleteers. Wastage rates were always shockingly high: during operations on the southern border of Algeria in 1900, nearly all the 35,000 camels commandeered by the French died from exhaustion. Over 400,000 horses, mules and donkeys were casualties of the Boer War. Many had been carried by sea from Australia and the United States.

Big armies stiffened with contingents of white troops were needed to defeat the larger and better-armed African states. France deployed 12,000 men in Dahomey during the 1890s, 18,000 against the Merina kingdom of Madagascar between 1894 and 1905, and more than 20,000 to impose a protectorate over Morocco in 1912. Italy fielded a force of 30,000 for its Abyssinian misadventure in 1896, and 35,000 for its invasion of Libya in 1911. Kitchener, who always erred on the side of safety, needed 15,000 British, Indian, Egyptian and Sudanese troops to reconquer the Sudan.

By far the largest concentration of white troops in Africa assembled in South Africa between 1899 and 1902. Four hundred and forty-five thousand British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian soldiers and a substantial contingent of Boer turncoats were needed to subdue the Transvaal and Orange Free State and suppress a subsequent guerrilla insurgency.

The dominion contingents were volunteers, as were the Imperial Yeomanry, enthusiastic young horsemen and patriots who were raised in 1899. They were asked to sign a book on arrival at Cape Town and again on departure: one gave his reason for joining up as ‘patriotic fever’ and his reason for leaving as ‘enteric fever’. Death rates from disease among white soldiers fell during the last decade of the nineteenth century thanks to advances in preventive medicine. French troops in West Africa were ordered to drink only filtered water and were vaccinated against smallpox after an epidemic in Dahomey in 1892. Oddly, vaccination was voluntary for British forces ordered to South Africa, where contaminated water produced widespread outbreaks of typhoid and enteric fevers.

The conquest of Africa continued well after 1914 with large-scale French and Spanish operations in Morocco in the early 1920s and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. These and the earlier wars of conquest and pacification gave the European powers what they wanted: secure colonies with obedient populations. They also confirmed what earlier generations of Africans had already surmised – that political power came from the barrel of a gun.

Alternate Endings — Ten Hypothetical Events That Would Have Changed the Outcome of World War Two


Decisions during wartime are monumental things. Each move and countermove has the potential to change the course of history. Here are ten shocking ways the Second World War could have unfolded differently than it did.

1. Germany Invades Britain Instead of the Soviet Union

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 proved to be his undoing, but it didn’t have to play out the way it did. After the fall of France a year earlier, the Fuhrer had his military chiefs come up with a plan for an assault on the United Kingdom, an operation dubbed Sea Lion. Preparations began in earnest in the summer of 1940; by the autumn, the British were convinced that an invasion was imminent. What’s more, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact securely in place (a treaty of non-aggression between Germany and the U.S.S.R.), Hitler didn’t have to worry about a war with the Soviets; Stalin was content with his share of Poland, and had his sights set on Finland.

But Hitler soon nixed the plans to conquer England. For starters, it became painfully obvious that more time and preparations were needed. The Fuhrer also knew that an invasion in 1940 would be risky. Britain’s navy controlled the Channel, and as the Battle of Britain revealed, the Luftwaffe didn’t own the skies. What’s more, Hitler wanted to attack Russia sooner rather than later.

But what if the Nazi dictator delayed his conquest of Russia until 1942 or 1943? Germany might have continued its air assault on Britain while sustaining its naval blockade around the Isles. Then, after an appropriate period of preparation, an amphibious landing could have hit England’s shores in 1941 or even 1942. With Britain knocked out of the war, Germany could have finally headed east into the Soviet Union unencumbered.

Had Sea Lion succeeded, a likely scenario would have seen the British government and monarchy flee to Canada. From there, working with the Americans, the Allies could have planned for an invasion of Africa, which in turn might have led to incursions in Italy and the Balkans. What’s certain, however, is that it wouldn’t have been easy — especially if Germany’s subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union had gone Hitler’s way.

2. Japan Reconsiders Attacking Pearl Harbor

The isolationist movement in the United States was alive and well in 1941. Certainly American voters were divided on war. But with Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt was free to initiate hostilities against the Axis.

Japan’s fateful decision to confront the United States stemmed from its need to secure oil and rubber reserves from the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia. Had the empire not attacked Hawaii, Tokyo’s expansionist policies would have likely crossed United States eventually, say, after an invasion of the Phillipines. Japan needed to hobble the mighty American Pacific fleet before it could snatch up territory.

But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that Japan didn’t bomb Hawaii and the U.S. were never given a reason to declare war. In such a scenario, Britain and her colonial allies would have been isolated. America’s support for both the U.K. and the U.S.S.R. would have been limited. The Churchill would have struggled in Africa, likely never gaining the opportunity to invade Sicily or Italy. No Western Front would have emerged. The Soviet Union would have probably still defeated Germany, but it would have taken considerably longer. And under those conditions, Stalin just might have claimed all of Europe for himself after crushing the Nazis.

3. The Germans Take Moscow in 1941

A longstanding debate among historians is whether or not Operation Barbarossa could have actually succeeded. The Nazis certainly committed a number of fatal mistakes during the invasion, including a 38-day delay in starting the attack — time that would have certainly come in handy at the onset of winter. And then there was Hitler’s catastrophic decision to divert the main thrust away from Moscow southwards to help Army Group South capture Ukraine. By the time Army Group Centre reached the outskirts of the Soviet capital in early December 1941 — a teasingly close distance of 15 miles (German soldiers could actually see the spires of the Kremlin) — winter had arrived with a vengeance, literally freezing Hitler’s plans to take the Russian nerve centre.

This was perhaps the deciding moment of the Second World War. The struggle certainly would have turned out quite differently had the Soviet Union fallen. First, it would have knocked a significant military power out of the fight. And once armed with Russia’s vast resources (including the oil regions to the south and the breadbasket regions of Ukraine), the Third Reich would have converted into the autarchy of Hitler’s fantasies. Nazi Germany would have become the global superpower, eventually defeating Britain, claiming all of the Middle East and quite possibly even linking up with Japanese forces in Asia. Berlin would have certainly developed nuclear capabilities, perhaps kindling a Cold War with the United States.

Frighteningly, the Nazis would have succeeding in murdering all the Jews and Romani of Europe. And through the diabolical Hunger Plan, they would have also starved tens of millions of Slavs to death, “cleansing” the occupied territories of its inhabitants. It would have been a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order, possibility setting the stage for a totalitarian dark age.

4. Russia and Germany Make a Separate Peace

Imagine a scenario in which both Hitler and Stalin came to a mutual agreement to cease hostilities on the Eastern Front. With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact restored, Germany could focus all its efforts on defeating Britain. This one’s a bit of a stretch for at least two reasons. First, Germany desperately needed Russia’s oil reserves to continue its war effort. Second, Stalin would have been hesitant to allow Germany to continue running roughshod around Europe; the Third Reich would continue to pose a serious existential threat to the U.S.S.R. Still, the possibility that this could’ve happened is quite frightening.

5. The Nazis Develop the Bomb Before the Allies

Given Hitler’s penchant for so-called “wonder weapons,” there’s little doubt he would have used the atomic bomb if he had it. This is the same regime, after all, that developed a precursor to the intercontinental ballistic missile. The Nazis even used mosquitoes as biological weapons.

It very well might have been lights-out for the Allies had Germany come up with the nuclear weapons first. It could have resulted in victory for Germany on all fronts. Mercifully, the Nazis never appreciated the potential for a weapon that was so closely associated with “Jewish science.”

6. No Western Front

Had it been up to Winston Churchill, there would have been no Western Front opened. With memories of the bloodbath in Flanders still haunting him, the British prime minister was resistant to launch an amphibious attack on France, preferring instead his “soft underbelly” strategy of attacking Axis powers through Italy and the Balkans. But with the United States asserting itself, Churchill and the British military had to take a back seat to American planners. Hence the attack on Normandy in June 1944.

Of course, Stalin also demanded a Western Front — not only to offset the terrible losses being incurred by the Red Army (Stalin would later say, “You paid with your steel, we paid with our blood”), but to also prevent rival Allied forces from establishing a foothold in Eastern and Central Europe. He was already looking ahead to the post-war world and the creation of a communist bloc.

But had Churchill gotten his way, it’s likely that an exceptionally strong Allied invasion of both Italy and the Balkans would have occurred. Alternately (or in supplemental fashion), an invasion force could have come through Norway, which is why Hitler insisted on stationing over 400,000 troops there over the course of the entire war (even as Berlin burned). The complexion of the war would have been vastly different, with the bulk of anti-Axis forces coming from the east and south. It’s difficult to predict what might have happened next, but a German defeat could have still been likely. Though it’s interesting to think about France’s fate given such a scenario.

7. The July 1944 Plot to Assassinate Hitler Succeeds

The 20 July, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler resulted in tragedy on multiple levels. Not only did it fail in its primary objective, but it led to the capture of 7,000 people, of which 4,980 were executed. Worse, it retrenched and further radicalized Nazi party. Called Operation Valkyrie, the conspiracy was organized by Wehrmacht officers who wanted Hitler out of the picture so Germany could negotiate a separate peace with the western Allies and continue the war against the U.S.S.R. It’s highly unlikely, however, that Washington and London would have gone for it (recalling Roosevelt’s infamous “unconditional surrender” speech — and the fact that the Big Three already had an agreement ruling out a separate peace under any circumstances).

There’s been much debate over what might have happened had Hitler been killed in the war’s final year. It’s unlikely that his death would have resulted in the collapse of the Nazi party or the Axis war effort. Even Claus von Stauffenberg, a leading member of the Valkyrie plot, accepted that he would “go down in German history as a traitor.” Indeed, despite the sorry state of the war, the cult of personality surrounding the Fuhrer was surprisingly resilient.

Had the plot been successful, however, a likely scenario would have seen either Hermann Göring or the fanatical Heinrich Himmler ascend to the lead Germany. Both would have had the plotters captured and executed and the Nazis would have probably continued the war. A Third Reich under new management might have surrendered earlier, sparing Germany the cataclysm that was to befall it in 1945.

Another possible scenario is that the death of Hitler could have kick-started a more vociferous internal resistance movement — one that might have led to civil war. But owing to widespread German patriotism, this scenario is quite improbable.

8. Stalin’s Red Army Continues West After Taking Berlin

By the time the Battle of Stalingrad had ended in 1943, the eventual outcome of the war was no longer in doubt: Germany was finished. Stalin’s Red Army persistently pushed the Wehrmacht back towards Germany, gobbling up territories that would later form the Iron Curtain. But as historian Anthony Beevor noted, Stalin —for a brief time — seriously considered taking all of Europe for himself. And he might have been able to do it, despite the fact that Russia was importing copious amounts of material and equipment from the U.S. (Russian soldiers were eating American canned food and driving in Jeeps and Studebaker trucks). After the fall of Berlin, the Red Army consisted of 12 million men spread across an astounding 300 divisions. Meanwhile, the western Allies had barely 4 million men making up only 85 divisions. By V-E Day, the Americans were still several months away from developing the bomb — enough time for the Soviets to push the Allies back to the English Channel. What would have happened after that, with the advent of the bomb, is anyone’s guess.

9. Churchill Immediately Starts World War III

On the flip side of this alt-history coin, we also seriously need to consider Churchill’s Operation Unthinkable — the plan for the start of a new war against the Soviet Union after the fall of Nazi Germany. Like Stalin, Churchill had anticipated hostilities after a European victory and wondered if there was no better time to wage World War III than the present. But cooler heads prevailed. The Red Army stopped at Berlin and Eisenhower never considered taking on the Reds (unlike his compatriate, George Patton).

10. The Allies Invade Japan Instead of Dropping the Bomb

The bombs were dropped on Japan because military experts presented President Truman with projections showing millions of U.S. casualties by the time Tokyo surrendered (the figures were based on casualties incurred during the fight for Okinawa). Had Truman refused to drop the bomb, Operation Downfall would have been put into effect — the largest amphibious campaign in human history.

The two-part invasion was set to commence in October of 1945. Operation Olympic would have seen the capture of the lower third of the southernmost main Japanese island, Kyushu. Then, in spring 1946, Operation Coronet would hit the Kanto Plain, near Tokyo. Airbases on Kyushu captured in Operation Olympic would have allowed land-based air support for this second phase of the attack. In total, 30 divisions would have been required. In response, the Japanese were preparing for an all-out defense of Kyushu. Had it gone down, it would have been a bloody mess.


George Dvorsky is a Canadian based bioethicist and the producer of the podcast Sentient Developments. He penned this piece for the futurist daily news site i09. would like to thank Mr. Dvorsky for granting us permission to reprint it. Follow him on twitter @dvorsky.