Ottoman Redoubts at Balaclava, 25 October 1854


True Heroes of Balaklava

A4, 20pp., illustrated, published by the Crimean War Research Society, 1996.

A review of the role of the Turkish forces at the Battle of Balaklava. Treated as cowards at the time, and blamed for many of the reverses of the battle, this work re-evaluates the contribution of the Turkish troops and concludes that their stubborn defence of the redoubts along the Causeway Heights, no less than their often-ignored contribution to the Thin Red Line, makes the Turks the true heroes of Balaklava.
“a reasoned attempt to revise and sharpen our perceptions of the Turks and their conduct at the battle [of Balaklava]… well-illustrated with diagrams and maps… a valuable reassessment.” – Andrew Sewell in the War Correspondent.


Battle of Balaclava. Ryzhov‘s cavalry attacks over the Causeway Heights at approximately 09:15. Both branches of the attack happened almost simultaneously.

The Ottoman guns from No.1 redoubt on Canrobert’s hill fired on the Russians at around 06:00 – the Battle of Balaclava had begun. Lucan despatched Captain Charteris to inform Raglan that the redoubts were under attack. Charteris arrived at around 07:00, but those at the British headquarters had already heard the sound of the guns. Lucan himself rode quickly back towards Kadikoi to confer with Colin Campbell, commander of the Balaclava defences. The two men agreed that this was not another Russian feint, but an attack in force with the intention of taking the British base. Campbell prepared his 93rd Highlanders to meet the enemy, whilst Lucan returned to the cavalry. Leaving the Light Brigade where it stood, Lucan led the Heavy Brigade towards the redoubts, hoping his presence might discourage any further Russian advance on Balaclava. Realizing his show of strength had little impact, however, Lucan led the Heavies back to their original position alongside the Light Brigade. The Ottoman forces were left to face the full force of the Russian assault almost alone.

Whilst Gribbe’s artillery continued to shell No.1 redoubt, the Russian columns under Levutsky, Semyakin, and Skyuderi began to move into the North Valley. Although the Heavy Brigade had pulled back, the British did send forward their available artillery to assist the Ottoman forces on the Causeway Heights. Captain George Maude’s troop of horse artillery, I Troop, unlimbered its four 6-pounder and two 12-pounder guns between redoubts 2 and 3, whilst Captain Barker’s battery, W Battery, of the Royal Artillery, moved out of Balaclava and took its position on Maude’s left. However, the artillery duel was a very one sided affair. The heavier Russian guns (some 18-pounders), particularly No.4 battery under Lieutenant Postikov, together with the riflemen of the Ukraine regiment, took their toll on both men and ordinance. Running short of ammunition and taking hits, Maude’s troop was forced to retire, their place taken by two guns from Barker’s battery (Maude himself was severely wounded). As the British artillery fire slackened, Semyakin prepared to storm No. 1 redoubt, personally leading the assault together with three battalions of the Azovsky Regiment under Colonel Krudener. “I waved my hat on both sides.” Recalled Semyakin, “Everybody rushed after me and I was protected by the stern Azovs.” The Ottoman forces on Canrobert’s Hill resisted stubbornly. Although the attack had begun at 06:00, it was not until 07:30 when No.1 redoubt fell. During that time the 600 Ottoman defenders had suffered from the heavy artillery bombardment; in the ensuing fight in the redoubt and subsequent pursuit by the Cossacks, an estimated 170 Ottomans were killed. In his first report of the action for The Times, William Russell wrote that the Turks ‘received a few shots and then bolted’, but afterwards admitted that he had not been a witness to the start of the battle, confessing, ‘Our treatment of the Turks was unfair … ignorant as we were that the Turkish in No.1 redoubt lost more than a fourth of their number ere they abandoned it to the enemy’. Later Lucan and Campbell too acknowledged the firmness with which the assault on No 1 redoubt, which was not visible from their vantage point, had been resisted; it was not until this had been overwhelmed did the defenders abandon redoubts 2, 3 and 4. Of the estimated 2,500 Russians who took part in the assault the Azovsky Regiment lost two officers and 149 men killed.

The remaining redoubts were now in danger of falling into the hands of the oncoming Russians. The battalions of the Ukraine Regiment under Colonel Dudnitsky-Lishin, attacked redoubts Nos.2 and 3, whilst the Odessa Regiment under Skyuderi, advanced on redoubt No.4. The Ottoman forces in these positions, having already watched their compatriots flee the first redoubt and realizing that the British were not coming to their aid, retreated back towards Balaclava, pursued by the Cossacks who had little trouble dispatching any stray or isolated men; the few British NCOs could do nothing but spike the guns, rendering them unusable. The Ottoman forces had gained some time for the Allies. Nevertheless, by 08:00 the Russians were occupying redoubts 1, 2 and 3, and, considering it too close to the enemy, had razed redoubt No.4.


The role of the Ottoman division during the initial stage of the siege is not clear. Most probably it also took part in the costly French attack. Additionally, thanks to the miscalculation and neglect of allied quartermasters, it suffered further casualties because of poor diet and lack of provisions. But, its role in the Balaclava (Balýklýova) battle is well known, albeit not with glory. The Russian main army group attacked the relatively weakly defended allied security perimeter around Voronzov Ridge. At least four Ottoman battalions reinforced with artillery gunners, some 2,000 men (more or less) manned five poorly fortified redoubts that established the forward defensive line. What happened at these redoubts during the early morning of October 25 is still shrouded in mystery. According to the commonly accepted version, the Ottoman soldiers cowardly fled when the first Russian shells began to land, leaving their cannons behind. The day was saved thanks to the British Heavy Cavalry Brigade and the famous ‘‘thin red line’’ of the 93rd Highlander Regiment. The alleged cowardly behavior then became so established in the minds of the allied commanders that Lord Raglan refused to assign Ottoman troops to reinforce his weak defensive forces at Inkerman Ridge just before the battle of the same name.

Recent research, however, including battlefield archeology, provides a completely different story and corresponds to the version of events contained in the modern official Turkish military history. According to these recent findings, the Ottoman battalions in the redoubts, especially the ones in Redoubt One, defended their positions and stopped the massive Russian assault for more than two hours with only their rifles; the British 12 pounder iron cannons located there could not be used without help. Their efforts gained valuable time for the British to react effectively. The battalion in Redoubt One was literally annihilated and the others, after suffering heavy casualties, were forced to retreat. They did not flee, because we know that some of them regrouped with the 93rd Highland Regiment and manned the famous ‘‘thin red line.’’ It is evident that Ottoman soldiers were also heroes at Balaclava. However, because of factors including racial xenophobia, language barriers, and lack of representation at the war council in Crimea, their valor was tarnished, and they were chosen as scapegoats and blamed for many of the blunders that occurred during the battle.


Who Is to Have Berlin? I

“This is the brass that did it. Seated are Simpson, Patton (as if you didn’t know), Spaatz, Ike himself, Bradley, Hodges and Gerow. Standing are Stearley, Vandenberg, Smith, Weyland and Nugent.” Ca. 1945. Army. (OWI)
Exact Date Shot Unknown
NARA FILE #: 208-YE-182

One of the attributes most valued in a military commander is calm. It was not one in which Hitler excelled. Rather the contrary, as was illustrated by a Führer Conference in the Berlin Chancellory on 13 February 1945. Before we see what happened there, it should be understood that by January, one month earlier, the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht had so disposed his armies that the most vulnerable front of all, both militarily and politically, the front in Poland and East Prussia, was in comparative terms the most weakly held, the one least likely to be capable of withstanding the knock it was about to receive. In the west were 76 divisions, in Italy 24, 10 were in Yugoslavia, 17 in Scandinavia – in short, 127 divisions were deployed elsewhere than on the Eastern Front; only a few more, 133, were in the east. In the same month of January 300 divisions and twenty-five tank armies of the Red Army were getting ready to end the war; in the north two groups of armies under Chernyakhovsky and Rokossovsky were to converge on East Prussia; Zhukov’s and Konev’s groups in the centre would aim at Berlin and Upper Silesia; further south two more groups would clear Slovakia, take Budapest and Vienna; finally, Petrov was to reoccupy the Northern Carpathians.

Whereas the Russians with their seemingly limitless resources of men and material could afford to operate over such broad fronts, the number of German divisions facing them was quite inadequate to constitute an effective defence. The vital central area of East Prussia and Poland was some 600 miles wide and here only seventy-five German divisions were deployed. Against them Stalin launched 180 divisions, including four tank armies each of which contained 1,200 tanks, so that it was hardly surprising when Konev’s Army Group rapidly broke out of its bridgehead on the Upper Vistula and heralded a series of disasters which engulfed the Eastern Front. Guderian had warned the Führer that this front was like a house of cards and that if it were broken anywhere it would collapse everywhere. Even so, Guderian, never one to despair, set to work in forming a new Army Group Vistula to stem the Russian advance. Its front would stretch from Poznan to Graudenz, and Guderian intended to give this Army Group all the reserves he was mustering from the west, including Sepp Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army. Intending to direct its operations himself – and it would have been difficult to find any general more qualified or more able to make telling used of it – Guderian proposed von Weichs as a nominal Army Group Commander. But Hitler was so disillusioned by the professional soldiers’ handling of affairs, a disillusionment brought about by virtue of his own unrealistic mishandling of them, that he appointed Himmler, who had never commanded armies in the field and was already contemplating treachery against his master.

Guderian was so appalled by this appointment that on 26 January he suggested to von Ribbentrop1 that the two of them should speak to the Führer and seek his agreement to securing an armistice on one front or the other. Von Ribbentrop lacked either the character or the courage to stand up to Hitler and refused, but was himself aghast when Guderian asked how he would feel when he found that the Russians had reached Berlin in a few weeks’ time. Von Ribbentrop then asked Guderian if he really believed such a thing was possible, and was hardly comforted by the reply that because of Hitler’s leadership it was not just possible, but certain. The conversation was duly reported to Hitler, who in Guderian’s presence referred to it as treason, but the great Panzer Leader never lacked the courage of his convictions and tried to argue the strategic issues there and then. Hitler refused to discuss the matter.

As the first two weeks of February went by, the disagreements between Guderian, still Chief of the Army General Staff, and the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht concerning the conduct of the war in general and the campaign on the Eastern Front in particular grew ever more bitter and violent. At one point when Guderian counselled withdrawal and Hitler refused to give up an inch of territory, the Führer’s rage and vituperation reached an absolute crescendo. Guderian’s assertion that he was not being obstinate but simply thinking of Germany precipitated a furious bellow from Hitler that his whole life had been a struggle for Germany. It was all he had been fighting for. Guderian’s adjutant was so alarmed by Hitler’s shaking fists that he took hold of his General’s tunic and pulled him back out of range. The whole sorry scene was re-enacted at the 13 February Führer Conference. This time the principal issue concerned the conduct of a counter-attack by Army Group Vistula against Zhukov’s extended and vulnerable right flank. Those present included Hitler himself, Keitel, Jodl, Himmler, still in command of the Army Group, Sepp Dietrich and Wenck, whom Guderian had brought with him. Guderian was insisting that the counter-attack should be launched at once, before the Russians had time to bring up their reserves, and moreover that command should be entrusted to Wenck, not to Himmler. Hitler contested every point made by Guderian, who just as steadily contradicted him and who later recorded what occurred:

And so it went on for two hours. His fists raised, his cheeks flushed with rage, his whole body trembling, the man stood there in front of me, beside himself with fury and having lost all self-control. After each outburst of rage Hitler would stride up and down the carpet edge, then suddenly stop immediately before me and hurl his next accusation in my face. He was almost screaming, his eyes seemed about to pop out of his head and the veins stood out on his temples.

Military decisions are best taken after calmly reviewing the circumstances, weighing the odds, determining the likely enemy action, keeping an eye firmly on the immediate objective and the consequences of attaining it, and then ensuring that the second great strategic rule – that of so disposing resources as to maximize the chances of success – is adhered to. Shrieking, shouting matches between senior commanders, decisions flawed by intrigue, lack of men and material, in short thoroughly bad leadership, were improbable preliminaries to taking the path of glory. They were much more likely to lead to the grave. Despite Hitler’s ravings on 13 February Guderian gained his point. With his most charming smile, the Führer announced that the General Staff had won a battle that day. Guderian’s subsequent comment was that it was the last battle he was to win and that in any case it came too late. The counter-attack, last of all offensives waged by the German army, petered out in failure after a few days. But was Guderian right in predicting to von Ribbentrop that the Russians would reach Berlin in a few weeks’ time? Could the British and American armies have got there first? The answer is almost certainly yes, but for the procrastination of one man – Eisenhower. For it was he who followed the example of so many military commanders before him. He changed his mind.

On 15 September 1944, after the great victory in Normandy, he had sent a letter to his two Army Group commanders, Bradley and Montgomery, in which he outlined his views as to future operations and asked for theirs. At this time it was clear from his letter that he regarded Berlin as a primary objective. Having assumed that the Ruhr, the Saar and Frankfurt would before long be in Allied hands, he then designated Berlin as the main prize. ‘There is no doubt whatsoever, in my mind, that we should concentrate on a rapid thrust to Berlin.’ There would, of course, have to be some coordination with the Russians, but precise objectives could not be selected until later.

At this point, therefore, it was clear that Berlin was the goal. In his reply to Eisenhower Montgomery urged the Supreme Commander to decide there and then what forces were necessary to go to Berlin, and so reach agreement as to both the plan and the objectives. Moreover, these matters had to be agreed at once, not decided on later. Montgomery also stressed that all other considerations must be secondary to the main aim and objective. The trouble was that there was no absolutely clear and clearly understood policy as to what Eisenhower was required to do after crossing the Rhine. Indeed, in spite of his reference to Berlin, Eisenhower’s strategy had consistently been to advance on a broad front with primary and secondary thrusts, and then, having linked up the two advancing forces in the general area of Kassel, make one great thrust to the eastward. But where to? Lack of decision here meant that on crossing the Rhine and moving eastward, the aim of the Allied armies was far from clear.

One of the ironies of the situation was that whatever objectives the Western Allies might care to choose, they were almost certainly attainable, for the German forces in the west – now under Field-Marshal Kesselring – could no longer fight a coordinated defensive battle, however determined individual pockets of resistance might be. Although on paper there were still sixty-five German divisions on the Western Front, for practicable purposes they were only small battle groups and a few headquarter staffs, dispersed and without either proper communications or logistic support. Such penny packets would not be able to resist a firm Allied drive. Eisenhower’s plan, such as it was, laid down that the Ruhr would be encircled by Montgomery’s 21st Army Group plus US 9th Army to the north, while Bradley’s 12th Army Group would break out from the Remagen bridgehead and link up with Montgomery. The whole area east of the Rhine would be occupied and a further advance into Germany would proceed. Montgomery’s orders were for his forces to advance with all speed to the Elbe from Hamburg to Magdeburg, with great emphasis on ‘getting the whips out’ so that fast-moving armoured spearheads could capture airfields to ensure continuous close air support. These orders were given on 27 March, but the following day everything was changed. Eisenhower did an absolute volte-face, abandoned the idea of going for Berlin, and communicated directly with Stalin in order to coordinate his operations with those of the Red Army. Having informed Stalin of his intention to encircle the Ruhr and mop up the enemy there, Eisenhower went on to define his next task as ‘joining hands with your forces’ and suggesting that the junction should be Erfurt–Leipzig–Dresden. Nothing could have been more acceptable to Stalin or unacceptable to Churchill and Montgomery. Indeed, Eisenhower had signalled to Montgomery that the US 9th Army would be removed from him after his joining hands with Bradley in the Kassel–Paderborn area, and that the main Allied thrust would be not to Berlin, but to Leipzig and Dresden. Montgomery’s appeal not to change either the plan or the command arrangements was not heeded. Eisenhower reiterated his intention to divide and destroy the enemy forces and to join hands with the Russian army. He added significantly:

You will see that in none of this do I mention Berlin. So far as I am concerned, that place has become nothing but a geographical location; I have never been interested in those. My purpose is to destroy the enemy forces and his power to resist.

Why did Eisenhower change his mind? Previously he had emphasized that Berlin was the main prize, and that the Allies should concentrate everything on a rapid thrust there no matter how this was to be done. He had repeated that all his plans ultimately boiled down to exactly this – ‘to move on Berlin by the most direct and expeditious route’. Now he was dismissing the city as a mere geographical location. Why? Was it that he regarded its capture as no longer feasible in that whereas 21st Army Group was still 300 miles from Berlin, the Russians on the Oder were a mere forty miles away? Was it that he was fearful that Model’s Army Group in the Ruhr might even now form some formidable defensive front or that the stories about Hitler’s retiring to a National Redoubt in the Bavarian and Austrian mountains, there to conduct some desperate last stand, might have some foundation and involve some further great effort? Doubts of this sort may be comprehended. What is not easy to understand in view of Eisenhower’s insistence on the whole purpose of military operations being in pursuit of political aims, and the undisputed importance of Berlin as a political objective, is that he should suddenly have turned fully 180 degrees about and pronounced it to be of no significance. And the supreme irony of it all in view of Eisenhower’s reiteration that what he was after was the destruction of the enemy’s will to resist is that up to the very last Berlin, leaving aside its weight in the political game, contained the one military objective without whose seizure or demise the enemy’s will to resist would never be broken and the war itself would never end – the person of Adolf Hitler himself. Nor is it easy to understand why Eisenhower should have chucked away the possibility of taking Berlin with his own armies before it had become plain that he could not do it. Subsequent events were to show that he could.

The reaction in Moscow to Eisenhower’s change of plan could hardly have differed more from that in London. Stalin agreed with what Eisenhower had proposed and in his reply made four points: first, he confirmed the Erfurt–Leipzig–Dresden juncture for the two converging armies; second, he maintained that only secondary Soviet forces would be directed on Berlin, which had lost its former strategic importance (Churchill’s comment on this point was that it was not borne out by events); third, that the main Soviet attack would begin in the second half of May (it actually began a month earlier, on 16 April, which had a strong bearing on whether or not the Western Allies could have got to Berlin first); fourth, that the Germans were further reinforcing the Eastern Front. As a result of Stalin’s positive response, Eisenhower issued orders to execute his plan.

In London, Churchill took a very different view of things. As was customary with him, when it came to the big issues, his strategic instinct did not forsake him. In this case it concerned not only the final stages of one great struggle, but the seeds of another. The Russians’ behaviour at Yalta had given him pause when weighing up the likely course of Soviet policy. He was anxious that the Allied armies should do all they could to put the West in the best possible position for subsequent confrontation with the Russians if such circumstances should come about. Churchill signalled to Roosevelt that he was in no doubt that the rapid advance by their armies had both surprised and displeased the Russian leaders, that their joint armies should meet the Russian armies as far east as possible, and that they should enter Berlin. But Roosevelt was a dying man and the American military hierarchy fully supported Eisenhower. There was then a further exchange of messages, Eisenhower attempting to justify his action to Churchill, and Churchill summarizing his misgivings to Roosevelt. Churchill deplored the switch of axis from that which aimed at Berlin to one further south, and also the decision to rob 21st Army Group of the 9th US Army, thus restricting its ability to push beyond the Elbe. Berlin was still of high strategic importance. ‘Nothing will exert a psychological effect of despair upon all German forces or resistance equal to that of the fall of Berlin.’ The Russians would get Vienna in any case. Were they to be allowed to have Berlin too? If Berlin were within the Western armies’ grasp, Churchill concluded, they should take it.

Was it within their grasp in April 1945? Before answering the question we may perhaps take a look at the one obstacle to making peace there and then, a peace which so many of the senior Wehrmacht commanders and even the Führer’s henchmen, like Albert Speer, who repeatedly told his master that the war was lost, ardently desired. In other words, we should look at the Supreme War Lord of the Third Reich, which he had both created and destroyed, at genius in the Bunker. On 6 April 1945, a few weeks before the end, Hitler sent for General Wenck and appointed him to command the 12th Army. The various tasks that Wenck was given underlined the absolute absurdity to which Hitler’s conduct of war had deteriorated. First of all Wenck, with just one army, and little more than a phantom army at that, was required to restore the Wehrmacht’s fortunes on the Western Front, which was being overwhelmed by three Allied Army Groups. Then later he was to reverse the inevitable on the Eastern Front and relieve Berlin.

It was clear from the very outset that the first task alone was totally beyond him. His forces were inadequate in every way – in numbers, preparation, cohesion, training, concentration. The divisions theoretically under his command simply did not exist. He had no tanks, no self-propelled assault guns, no anti-aircraft artillery. And with this skeleton of an army Wenck was supposed to do what von Rundstedt and Model had already failed to do with far larger forces – stop the Western Allies from advancing. The whole thing was a non-starter. None the less, Wenck did made a start and tried to slow down the advancing American forces. Except for one small pocket in the Halle–Leipzig area, his army never got west of the Mulde–Elbe line, but by mid-April something became plain to Wenck, something so significant that it made him think again about how to employ his troops. This was that the Americans seemed to be consolidating their positions on the Elbe, without any clear intention of pushing further east. This discovery, together with the Red Army’s attack across the Oder, made up his mind. He would use the 12th Army to assist on the Eastern Front. His decision to do so was powerfully supported by a visit from Field-Marshal Keitel, during one of his extremely rare absences from Hitler’s side, who gave Wenck some dramatic instructions: ‘Free Berlin. Turn and advance with all available strength. Link up with the 9th Army. Rescue the Führer. His fate is Germany’s fate. You, Wenck, have it in your power to save Germany.’ Good stirring stuff, which was almost at once confirmed and reinforced by a message from the Führer himself, calling upon the soldiers of Wenck’s army to turn east and defeat the Bolsheviks in their battle for the German capital, whose defenders had taken heart from the news of Wenck’s fast approach and were fighting doggedly in the belief that the thunder of his guns would soon be heard. ‘The Führer has called you. You have, as in old times, started on the road to victory. Berlin waits for you. Berlin yearns for you here, with warm hearts.’


Who Is to Have Berlin? II

There were not many warm hearts in the Bunker on 20 April when Hitler celebrated his fifty-sixth birthday. To those who attended he presented a picture of a man in the last stages of bodily and mental decay. While the will-power which had exercised so great and enduring an influence on those about him could still be summoned up, while the dull grey-blue eyes, which often now were glazed over with a film of sheer exhaustion, still seemed able to hypnotize, fascinate and compel, the actual physical state of the man was more an object of pity than of fear. The Führer’s shuffling steps, weak handshake, wobbling head, trembling hands and slack left arm were the movements and appearance of a man prematurely senile. Yet his hesitancy and indecisiveness while confirming the completeness of his disintegration were still at odds with the ‘indescribable, flickering glow in his eyes, creating a fearsome and wholly unnatural effect’.

On the following day, 21 April, Hitler was giving orders for making a last stand in Berlin. There was not much time left for, by then, Marshal Zhukov’s armies had got as far as Berlin’s eastern suburbs, while his fellow Marshal, Konev, was nearing Dresden. Nevertheless the Supreme Commander was detailing to Göring’s Chief of Staff, General Koller, an elderly, scrupulous fusspot, exactly which troops would be withdrawn from the north of the city to counter-attack the Russians in the southern suburbs. Every tank, every aircraft that could be mustered, everything and everybody would make an all-out, final, desperate effort to throw back the enemy. Obergruppenführer Steiner of the SS would command the attack. Any commanding officer who did not thrust home would answer for it with his head. It was all in vain. The attack never came off, did not even get under way; withdrawal of units from the north simply allowed the Russians to surge through there and sweep on to the city’s centre. It hardly seemed possible that the military situation could worsen, yet it was just such cold comfort that Hitler was obliged to stomach.

He did not do so lightly. At the military conference the following day, when the facts were presented to him, he completely lost control of himself. One more shrieking, shouting match – a wholly one-sided affair – was duly played out. The Generals and the Staff were then treated to three hours of denunciation. Hitler had been betrayed and deserted. The army had failed him. There was nothing but lies, deceit, cowardly incompetence. It was the end. His great mission, the Third Reich itself, had come to nothing, and indeed nothing was left but for him to stay in Berlin and die. This conference, if conference it could be called, may have left his listeners bewildered and exhausted, yet its effect on Hitler himself was quite different. Decision calmed him. He seemed able to face the future, however limited it might be, serenely. Yet at the very moment of resigning himself to failure and death, he took the unwarranted, unforgivable step of resigning too from that great position which he had so long coveted and relished – command of the German army. He refused to delegate. He gave no orders to his principal military assistants, Field-Marshal Keitel and General Jodl. He simply abdicated all responsibility. From the former position of directing the entire war machine, personally, continuously and arbitrarily, he swung fully about and would have nothing more to do with it. He declared that he would stay in Berlin, lead its defence and then at the last moment shoot himself. His physical state did not allow him to take part in the fight personally and in any case he could not risk falling into enemy hands. It was not until 30 April that Hitler actually shot himself, and by then the Russians were only a few streets away from the Berlin Chancellory and the Bunker. What would have happened if the Western armies had got there first?

On 1 April 1945 Stalin was conferring in Moscow with some of his most senior commanders – Zhukov and Konev, respectively commanding the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukraine fronts, and Antonov and Shtemenko, both of the General Staff. A telegram was read out with the unexpected information that the Anglo-American command was preparing to launch a drive to capture Berlin, the principal spearhead under Montgomery’s direction. The axis would be north of the Ruhr, the shortest route, and the telegram ended by saying that Allied plans were such that they would certainly reach Berlin before the Red Army. It must be assumed that Stalin had fabricated this telegram or that it was a thoroughly bad piece of intelligence. When the Soviet leader then asked his commanders, ‘Who is going to take Berlin, we or the Allies?’ there was unanimous agreement that it would be themselves. The only question was whether Zhukov’s or Konev’s front would be charged with the task. Stalin then instructed the two commanders to prepare their ideas and two days later gave orders that whichever of the two reached a certain line between the river Neisse and the river Spree first would go on to take Berlin.

During the first week of April 1945, therefore, we have the spectacle of two Russian Army Group commanders planning how they would take Berlin, while on the Allied side Eisenhower is being pressed by the British to do so and resisting this pressure with the aid of his own countrymen. Bradley, for example, always hostile to and a rival of Montgomery, made the extraordinary estimate, quite unsupported by military considerations, that an advance from the Elbe to Berlin would cost them 100,000 men, which he regarded as too high a price to pay for a ‘prestige objective’. He could not have been unaware that any such drive would be conducted by Montgomery’s Army Group rather than his own, purely because of their respective deployment. He echoed Eisenhower by declaiming that postwar political alignments were less important than destroying what remained of the German army. He eschewed the idea of complicating matters with political foresight and what he called non-military objectives. Yet what are military operations for but to determine political circumstances? And it has always to be borne in mind that the German army and indeed the German people as a whole, given the option, would have infinitely preferred occupation of their country by the Anglo-American armies than the Russians.

Yet Eisenhower received further support from the US Chiefs of Staff. Speaking on their behalf, General Marshall reiterated Bradley’s contention that any political or psychological advantages resulting from the capture of Berlin ahead of the Russians should not override the imperative military consideration of the dismemberment of Germany’s armed forces. In reply Eisenhower, while adhering to the orders he had already given, and insisting that there would be no drive on Berlin until he had joined forces with the Russians, as already agreed, none the less commented:

I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs military considerations in this theatre, I would cheerfully readjust my plans.

This signal to Marshall was dated 7 April. If the Combined Chiefs of Staff had decided to order Eisenhower to go full steam ahead for Berlin there and then, could he have got there first? On the very next day, 8 April, we find Eisenhower telling Montgomery: ‘If I get an opportunity to capture Berlin cheaply, I will take it.’ He was hardly as good as his word. Even Bradley, finding three days later that his armies had secured a bridgehead over the Elbe at Magdeburg and were only fifty miles from Berlin, admitted: ‘At that time we could probably have pushed on to Berlin had we been willing to take the casualties Berlin would have cost us. Zhukov had not yet crossed the Oder and Berlin now lay about midway between our forces.’

Chester Wilmot was in no doubt. He pointed out that there were no prepared defences to prevent Eisenhower reaching Berlin first, no serious obstacles, ‘nor any resistance that could not be brusquely swept aside by the 60 divisions available for his next offensive’. What is more, there were no logistic objections.

Politically, too, the way was clear for, though the German capital lay in the centre of that area which was to be occupied by the Soviet Union after the war, it had never been suggested that the military forces of one power should not enter the occupation zone of another in pursuit of the common enemy.

Indeed, there had been no discussion between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, still less an agreement, as to who was to take Berlin. At Yalta the question did not arise. Certainly there was no understanding that the city was to be reserved for the Red Army. Since Yalta the relative freedom of movement by the two converging armies had changed dramatically. Formerly the Allies had been bogged down, the Russians advancing everywhere. Now, in April 1945, the position was reversed: the Red Army halted, Eisenhower’s armies free to advance. Leaving aside for a moment whether these latter armies could have reached Berlin first, if they had attempted to do so from mid-April onwards, would the German commanders in the field – notwithstanding anything the Führer or OKW might have had to say, for their orders were negligible – have allowed the Western armies to have made their way to the capital virtually unopposed? There might have been fanatical and scattered resistance from ill-organized groups, but if a decision of this sort had been left to such men as Guderian, Wenck, Busse, Kesselring, Manteuffel, Speer, Dönitz – even Himmler – the answer would in all likelihood have been yes.

Bearing in mind now that the Russian offensive across the Oder did not start until 16 April and that five days later the armies of Zhukov’s front reached the outskirts of the city, any Allied attempt to take Berlin would have had to succeed before this. Given that Montgomery’s Army Group, having reached the Elbe during the first weeks of April was then charged with so many tasks – to clear Schleswig-Holstein, take Wismar, Lübeck, Emden, Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Bremen – that it had to be reinforced by a US Airborne Corps, it would have been impossible for Montgomery’s forces to have got to Berlin before the Russians. On Bradley’s front, however, it was a different story. His elimination of Model’s group of armies in the Ruhr encirclement had been so successful that by 10 April the German soldiers were surrendering en masse. A total of 320,000 were captured with all their weapons and equipment, a significant pointer to what might have happened on the road to Berlin. Bradley had been instructed to seize bridgeheads over the Elbe and be prepared to continue the advance. On 11 April Simpson’s 9th US Army reached the Elbe astride Magdeburg and was across it the following day. On the same day, 12 April, it reached Tangemünde, just over fifty miles from Berlin. Everywhere the US armies were advancing rapidly, and by 15 April Hodges’ 1st Army reached the Mulde and Patton’s 3rd Army had got to Plauen, Hof and Bayreuth. On that very day Simpson proposed to Bradley that his army should expand its Elbe bridgehead and push on in force and with all speed to Berlin: this, it must be noted, on the day before the Red Army’s attack began.

Eisenhower vetoed the suggestion. We may hazard a guess that had Patton been there instead of Simpson he would have pushed on anyway and asked for permission later. That Simpson could have got on seems more or less certain for in the whole of his advance up to the Elbe, his army had suffered very few casualties. Indeed, all that had opposed him – ill-equipped and unpractised divisions of Wenck’s 12th Army, which had no air support at all – had been scattered. Wenck’s own comment on it all was: ‘If the Americans launch a major attack they’ll crack our positions with ease. After all what’s to stop them? There’s nothing between here and Berlin.’ If we assume therefore that on 15 April Simpson had despatched powerful armoured columns down the Autobahn to Berlin, with motorized infantry, artillery and engineers in support, and the Allies’ unchallenged air supremacy to deal with any pockets of resistance, we may suppose that the American armies could have reached and occupied Berlin on 15 and 16 April, so anticipating the arrival of the Russians by several days. Of one thing we may be sure. They would have been welcomed by the Berliners with the most profound relief.

What about Hitler himself? Would he still have committed suicide when the information was brought to him that the American forces were in Berlin? There could presumably be no surrender, conditional or unconditional, while he still lived. Would he still have married Eva Braun, who arrived in the Bunker on 15 April? There would just have been time. Whom would the Führer have nominated as his successor? Would it still have been Dönitz? There are innumerable questions of this sort. But having assumed that Simpson’s 9th Army, rapidly reinforced by elements from the US 1st, 3rd and 15th Armies, did reach, occupy and even extend eastwards beyond Berlin, we may allow ourselves further speculation. Once it was known that Hitler was dead, his nominated successor, provided it were someone like Dönitz, and not Göring, Himmler, Goebbels or Keitel, would have initiated some approach to the Western Allies to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. In view of the proximity of the Red Army, the Western negotiators would have insisted that the Soviet Union be involved in the surrender conditions. There would have to be a newly agreed junction between the two converging armies, possibly the arterial roads to the east of Berlin or the broadly defined eastern outskirts of the city. It must be assumed here too that the Red Army has been ordered not to contest occupation of Berlin.

Who would have been the principal negotiator on behalf of the Western Allies? Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander, might have been a candidate, provided he were furnished with the necessary political guidance from Truman and Churchill. But such delegated authority would have been limited to surrender terms, and would not have changed what had been agreed at Yalta in February. We may be sure that at least three men would have wanted to make their presence known when it came to detailed discussions with Stalin: Truman, Churchill and de Gaulle. One other man would somehow or other have contrived not only to be involved himself, but to ensure a substantial role for the soldiers he commanded: Field-Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. How he would have longed to organize some sort of victory parade or celebration in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium! If Churchill had been given the chance, he would no doubt have arranged for his quarters to have been at Frederick the Great’s Potsdam palace, Sans Souci, and indeed had there been a Potsdam conference in April 1945, instead of July, with the Western Allies in a far more powerful bargaining position than was in reality the case, Churchill might never have experienced his subsequent disappointment and dismay as to what actually emerged in July, when he was out of power:

The line of the Oder and the Eastern Neisse had already been recognized as the Polish compensation for retiring to the Curzon Line, but the overrunning by the Russian armies of the territory up to and even beyond the Western Neisse was never and never would have been agreed to by any Government of which I was the head . . .

The real time to deal with these issues was . . . when the fronts of the mighty Allies faced each other in the field, and before the Americans, and to a lesser extent, the British, made their vast retirement on a 400-mile front to a depth in some places of 120 miles, thus giving the heart and a great mass of Germany over to the Russians . . .

The heart: what if Churchill had had his way earlier and the Western armies had met the Russians not on the line of the Elbe–Mulde rivers, but on the Oder–Neisse line, with Berlin in their own hands? What then? How different a Potsdam conference might have been. Churchill’s fundamental antipathy towards allowing the Russians to occupy great chunks of Central Europe was that he could see no future for these areas unless it was acceptable to – that is, controlled by – the Soviet Government. And that to him was no future at all. Yet all this apart, the American view, at a time when American counsels carried great weight, was that the Western Allies were committed to a definite line of occupation and that this commitment must be honoured. Churchill, too, was in favour of honouring commitments provided all of them were equally honoured, in other words, provided the Western Allies could be satisfied that the entire European future was being properly settled. At Potsdam in July 1945 American support for such a notion was not to hand. Would the situation have differed if Potsdam had instead taken place in April, with Berlin occupied by American and British forces and the Red Army still some way off to the east? We may be sure that Churchill, still at that point wielding much influence and power, would have moved mountains to reach a satisfactory solution.

As for Berlin itself, there would still have been quadripartite control of the city, but how different might have been its initial occupation. We have to recall that in April 1945 Berlin was kaputt, a bombed ruin of a city, as described by a correspondent of the Red Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Troyanovsky, who saw for himself what happened between 21 and 25 April as the battle raged:

From one end of the horizon to the other stretched houses, gardens, factory buildings, and many churches. Volumes of smoke arose from all quarters and hung like a pall over the city. The German capital was burning. The thunder of the artillery bombardment shook the air, the houses and the ground. And Berlin replied with thousands of shells and bombs. It seemed as though we were confronted not by a town, but by a nightmare of fire and steel. Every house appeared to have been converted into a fortress. There were no squares, but only gun positions for artillery and mine throwers. From house to house and street to street, from one district to another, mowing their way through gun fire and hot steel, went our infantrymen, artillery, sappers and tanks. On 25 April the German capital was completely encircled and cut off from the rest of the country. At the height of the street fighting Berlin was without water, without light, without landing fields, without radio stations. The city ceased to resemble Berlin.

‘How pitiful is their Berlin!’ observed Zhukov.

How pitiful too was the plight of the Berliners, particularly the women. The Red Army ran riot. Rape, looting, burning and murder were rife. Hitler’s very last War Directive of 15 April had made it clear what fate threatened a defeated Germany: ‘While the old men and children will be murdered, the women and girls will be reduced to barrack-room whores.’ Antony Beevor, while doing his research into the fall of Berlin, was shocked by what he discovered about the depravity of the Russian soldiers. This research, says a newspaper report, ‘revealed that the Russians raped hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Germans; the troops even raped the Russian and Polish women prisoners they freed from German camps. In some towns every female, young and old, was violated.’

The British and Americans would have behaved better. There might have been seduction, even barter, for cigarettes were treasured currency then, but rape would have been rare. When the British did enter Berlin later, they were greeted as liberators rather than conquerors. What must have been the consequence if Berlin had initially been wholly occupied by the Western armies, before its division into the four sectors, British, American, French and Russian? Is it not possible that as soon as the boundaries were made known and before the barriers and barbed wire went up, every Berliner able to do so would have quitted the Russian zone to find refuge in one of the other three? Even as things were, Germans who found themselves in the Soviet-controlled part of the former Third Reich and in East Berlin flocked to the west in their thousands until the Berlin Wall and the boundary minefields deterred such abundant emigration and denied those seeking refuge from the oppressor’s wrong, the whips and scorns of uniformed bullies, the spurns of the unworthy, the insolence of jack-booted officials, the chance to do so.

It had all been brought about by one man, whom Speer called ‘a demonic figure’, whose ‘person determined the fate of a nation. He alone placed it, and kept it, upon the path which has led to this dreadful ending. The nation was spellbound by him as a people has rarely been in the whole of history.’ Was it all by chance?


Execution of Conradin in 1268.

Battle of Benevento

In the time of Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, northern Italy was divided between factions loyal to Frederick and the supporters of the Church. The Ghibellines, Frederick’s partisans, take their label from an Italianate version of the word ‘Waiblingen’, the name of a Hohenstaufen castle. Guelphs, partisans of the Church, are so-called from the German ‘Welf’, the lineage and war cry of the Bavarian dukes. This simple dichotomy hardly scratches the surface of the complex political situation in northern Italy. There were any number of freebooters faithful to no one but themselves, and even Guelphs could become Ghibellines and Ghibellines Guelphs in certain circumstances. One of the greatest works of literature of all time, Dante’s Divine Comedy, written in Italian, may be read in part as a commentary on the political strife of the period. The writer’s avowedly prescriptive works, like his Latin De Monarchia, are explicitly concerned with the overarching political problems and how to correct them – in Dante’s view by the restoration of strong imperial authority.

It should be recalled that life was not everywhere and always lived according to political labels, no matter how fierce the strife was and how compelling the loyalties to particular political factions. Reading the Divine Comedy as a political commentary is possible, but perhaps not recommended, for it would turn a rich and provocative poem into a flattened and tedious screed. Similarly, while violence and factionalism played themselves out in the Italian cities and to some extent characterized urban life, though not to the point of undermining economic growth, the thirteenth century also saw the expansion of the mendicants (especially Franciscans) into every town, bringing with them their concerns for the poor, for right belief, for the conversion and reform of prostitutes and Jews, indeed for nothing less than a call for total religious renewal. Something of the sort seems to have occurred as early as 1233, that is, even before the mendicants had achieved their evangelical hegemony. The so-called ‘Great Alleluia’ swept the region of the lower Po in that year; it seared the land like pietists’ exuberance in eighteenth-century Germany or the Great Protestant Awakenings of nineteenth-century America.

As far as political stability goes, though, southern Italy and Sicily were in better shape than the north. Frederick II, besides spending a great deal of time on the island in particular, maintained a gifted group of administrators to deal with governmental problems. The institutions within which they worked were remarkably stable and efficient.

The principal political challenge for the Church was how to control Frederick, how to induce him to act as the popes thought a Christian emperor should act. But Frederick, the ‘Wonder of the World’ (Stupor Mundi), was not a man to accept control by anyone, even the pope. Recognizing that the Church would never be successful in inducing Frederick by peaceful or diplomatic means to modify his policies in conformity with its political agenda, Pope Innocent IV decided to try to remove Frederick from the political scene. Formally deposed in 1245, Frederick nevertheless defied his opposition, retained enormous power and continued to threaten what many churchmen regarded as the liberty of the Church.

It was the emperor’s death in 1250 that seemed to provide the papacy with the opportunity to redistribute power in such a way that no single man could ever command at once the resources of Germany, northern Italy, southern Italy and Sicily. Moreover, the desired corollary, so far as the Church regarded it, was that no Hohenstaufen in particular should possess authority in any of these territories ever again. The alternative, again from the papacy’s perspective, would provide for the frightening possibility of the revival of Hohenstaufen claims to all of the territories sometime in the future.

The evident reluctance of Frederick II’s offspring to accept disinheritance motivated the popes to support various non-Hohenstaufen claimants to the German throne, which, being technically elective anyway, did not de jure threaten the inheritance rights of Frederick’s children. Sicily was different. Frederick held it by blood right and presumably could pass it on by blood right. The popes needed in this case not a candidate willing to stand for election but a designated warrior determined to destroy the last vestige of Hohenstaufen claims.

They cast about far and wide for a champion and after many false starts found an effective one in Charles of Anjou, the brother of the French king, Louis IX. Charles had his brother’s grudging support; Louis preferred a political settlement but none was forthcoming. Charles was wealthy. He possessed the income from two great fiefs in France, Anjou and Maine, as well as the income of the county of Provence, which he came into through his wife, Beatrice of Provence. And he had the ambition.

In a series of military engagements, culminating in the battles of Benevento in 1266 and Tagliacozzo in 1268, Charles routed Hohenstaufen forces. Hohenstaufen claims appeared to expire with the deaths of the last direct male Hohenstaufen claimants, one in battle (Manfred, Frederick’s illegitimate son) in 1266, the other by judicial execution (Conradin, the great emperor’s grandson) in 1268. In Constance of Hohenstaufen, however, Manfred’s daughter, there remained the possibility of the resurrection of Hohenstaufen pretensions. This Constance married Peter, the son of James I the Conqueror, of Aragon, who came to the Aragonese throne on the death of his father in 1276. What was needed for Charles of Anjou, since 1266 King Charles of Sicily, was time, enough time for memory of the Hohenstaufen era to fade and for loyalties to the family in Germany, Italy and Sicily to ebb away.

For a while, it seemed as though time was on Charles’s side. But his initial successes were compromised by a style of rulership that dismayed even subjects disposed to be loyal. Charles spent little time in Anjou and Maine; they were administered like other royal provinces of France, although he rather than the Crown received the surplus income from the counties. The centre of his ambitions and concerns was the Mediterranean. Where he suspected resistance to his rule he was brutal. His treatment of Marseilles, the greatest city in his Provençal domains, reduced the port and its government to abject dependency in the 1250s and 1260s. The intense economic exploitation of Sicily and southern Italy led to widespread dissatisfaction, and the tensions between the Angevin military forces that now dominated Sicily and the local inhabitants were rarely far from exploding point. Added to this was the papacy’s apparent distress over some of Charles’s actions, particularly his penchant for picking up titles, like senator of Rome, overlord of Albania, suzerain of Tunisia and King of Jerusalem.

Some of the titles had more of show than substance in them. Charles purchased the title King of Jerusalem from one of the many claimants to the throne of that truncated kingdom, and by doing so he became king in (contested) name only. His senatorship was a particular sticking point in his relations with the papacy, and he wisely abandoned it. The overlordship of Albania did give him some leverage in the Adriatic, but it was inevitable that the great maritime power, Venice, would act if it thought its interests were being threatened.

Charles’s suzerainty over Tunisia came about as a result of his brother’s last crusade (1270). That crusade had been planned under the misapprehension that the Bey of Tunisia would convert if threatened by a major crusading army. The submission of Tunisia would then provide a secure north African staging point for continued Christian expeditions into Muslim lands. In fact, the Bey had not converted and Charles, who arrived at the siege of Tunis just after his brother died from disease, persuaded the army commanders, including his nephew, the new king of France, to abandon the siege and return to France with the pestilence-stricken army. The Bey was willing to make formal obeisance to Charles to expedite the raising of the siege. In the short run this gave Charles and Mediterranean Christians some commercial advantages and religious privileges in Tunisia.

Shallow, temporary and problematic as some of Charles’s claims and titles were, his determined rulership in Provence, southern Italy and Sicily, as well as his extraordinary wealth, raised the spectre that he might some day make the claims and titles meaningful. He thought he had found the way to do so by redeeming French arms in Greece. Following the crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople in 1204, Franks, specifically a cadet branch of the French royal family, ruled the Byzantine Empire. Their rule was never very stable, however, because hostile Greek forces continued to operate in many of the provinces, and under Michael Paleologus would retake what was left of the much weakened empire in 1261.

By the time Charles became active in the central Mediterranean the Greeks had had what was left of their empire back for almost a decade, but they feared a counter-attack from the West, and this at a time when Muslim forces in Anatolia were also attacking the outposts of the resource-depleted Byzantines. One way to keep the Latins at bay was to reassure the papacy that despite the Greek military reconquest from the Catholic French, Michael Paleologus’s intention was to preserve or re-initiate the union of the Churches along the lines of that achieved in the years 1204–61.

Many Greek prelates were vehemently opposed to their emperor’s policies, and he felt compelled on occasion to silence them. Islam seemed on the verge of wiping out the Crusader States. If and when that was achieved, the full force of Islamic retaliation would fall on a truncated Byzantium. The abatement of military hostility from western – Roman Catholic – Christendom was absolutely essential for survival. Anything more than this from the Latins could hardly be expected, but it was better than nothing, and the alternative, a war on two fronts, was too awful to contemplate. Was union with the papal church too high a price to pay for the survival of the empire? Those Greeks who continued publicly and stridently to say ‘yes’ were made to suffer for it.

To the popes, however, Michael Paleologus seemed worth listening to, and in the circumstances Charles of Anjou could scarcely have got the kind of full backing he wanted for an invasion of Greece to reestablish the Latin empire. His dream seemed all the more hopeless in 1274, when Greek prelates sent by Emperor Michael Paleologus to the Second Council of Lyons were ordered to subscribe to the plan that was to be presented there for the union of the Churches. Events in the years after 1274 kept Charles’s hopes alive, though. Greek ecclesiastical and popular resistance to union increased in intensity. The emperor resorted to draconian measures, like cutting out the tongues of dissidents who were undermining the process of reunion. Yet the papacy grew restless and suspicious of what it regarded as the Greek emperor’s feeble efforts to enforce the union.

With papal support Charles, therefore, began to make secret preparations to invade the Byzantine empire. He would justify himself morally by the need to avenge the expulsion of the French from Constantinople in 1261; he would justify himself legally by the Paleologoi’s failure to carry out the agreed-upon protocols of Lyons II. But his preparations were less secret than he wished. A network of spies inhabited Mediterranean political, military and naval circles. Even while Michael Paleologus was pleading his sincerity through emissaries to the Holy See, he was trying to destabilize Sicily through spies and agents provocateurs.

Coincidentally, Charles’s exploitative rule in Sicily, and the behaviour of the Angevin forces that were being built up there for the invasion of Greece, were bringing native resentment to the flashpoint. Other interests operating commercially in the Mediterranean, like Aragonese merchants, were also finding Angevin pretensions and interference in their activities distressing. Moreover, in Aragon it became clear, largely through ambassadorial accounts and spies’ reports, that conditions might soon be ripe for raising the matter of Queen Constance’s claim to Sicily. The French king, fully supporting the family interests of his uncle Charles of Anjou, became suspicious of Aragonese actions, including what seemed to be military preparations. Most historians credit the claim that the Aragonese would certainly have intervened in Sicily sooner or later.

It was sooner, for a native uprising began in Palermo on Easter Monday, 30 March 1282, known as the Sicilian Vespers. The trigger was an Angevin soldier’s insult to a Sicilian woman. Bells rang out the rebellion. Angevin troops were killed in numbers, and Charles’s forces had to deal with the insurgents, while at the same time trying, more or less successfully, to preserve rule in the other cities of Sicily and confine the rebellion to the island. The papacy saw its hopes of a re-establishment of Latin hegemony in Greece and the vigorous reunion of the churches temporarily suspended. Michael Paleologus died in 1282, without knowing the outcome of these unexpected events.

At this moment, Aragon intervened, ostensibly in the name of the Sicilian people and the Aragonese claim to the Hohenstaufen inheritance. Now, Charles had to fight ill-organized but determined rebels as well as the considerable land and naval forces of the Crown of Aragon. The pope denounced Aragon; the French king fulminated and brought pressure on the pontiff to excommunicate and depose the Aragonese king, in favour of the French king’s younger son. Preparations began in northern France to raise an army to invade Aragon in a war that would come to have the status of a crusade against the Christian Iberian kingdom.

Efforts were made to prevent the bloodshed. A plan to have the king of Aragon, Peter III, and Charles of Anjou meet in single combat fell through in a farcical (deliberate?) mix-up of dates. In France the failure to find a way to prevent war was especially exasperating for the royal heir. He, the future Philip IV the Fair, opposed the war. In the days of St Louis his father had married an Aragonese princess, to symbolize the end of tensions between France and Aragon that had been brought about by Louis and James the Conqueror. Philip worshipped the memory of his Aragonese mother and despised his stepmother, a Brabantine, and her entourage, all of whom supported the war. The boy also found solace in the fact that his grandmother, St Louis’s widow, despised Charles of Anjou and bemoaned the war against Aragon.

These matters are important because both at sea and overland the French invasion forces were routed in 1285. The French king died on the retreat from the Pyrenees, and Philip IV came to the throne nurturing an abiding dislike for the papacy’s propensity to shape French foreign policy, an attitude that would have long-term implications for papal-French relations in the later thirteenth century and beyond. The crusade against Aragon was succeeded by the status quo ante on the continent, with drawn-out negotiations meant to save the face of the various contending parties (Philip the Fair’s younger brother eventually gave up his claim to Aragon). To a degree, the negotiations were eased by the deaths of so many interested parties in 1285: besides the French king, who perished in the military campaign, others who died that year included King Peter III of Aragon, Pope Martin IV, who had authorized the campaign, and Charles of Anjou himself.


Tenochtitlán, June 30, 1521

One of the central episodes of the 1520s was, of course, the taking of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán—today’s Mexico City—by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés. The question most asked is how so few men could topple an entire kingdom. One answer is that the Spanish force, perhaps 900 men in all, was joined by nearly 100,000 Indian allies, all eager to destroy their hated Aztec oppressors. Disease has never been a respecter of historical odds. Smallpox, which the Spanish brought with them, killed off 40 percent of the population of Mexico in a year, including one Aztec king. But Cortés, who was undoubtedly a remarkable soldier and a born opportunist, was also extraordinarily lucky. As Ross Hassig points out, “There are no shortage of plausible turning points for the Conquest.” Several times the Spanish could have been stopped or annihilated in battle. Like Alexander the Great, Cortés himself missed death only because of the intervention of one of his men—who was killed as he managed to save his leader. Had Cortés been captured, he would have been sacrificed soon after, and the conquest would have crumbled. Once again we are reminded of the heavy-handed role of time and chance.

The question that is almost never asked is: What would have happened if Cortés had been killed or if his expedition had failed? Would the Spanish, as Theodore K. Rabb suggested in the previous chapter, have turned their acquisitive instincts elsewhere—North Africa, for instance? Would another attempt at conquest have been more successful? Would Christianity have been able to make inroads, even if the soldiers of Spain could not? What about the practice of human sacrifice? What sort of nation would have evolved from the Aztec Kingdom? And down the road, what effect would a large and totally Native American nation have had on the growth of the United States?

Cortés and his men leapt across the breach in the causeway to pursue the fleeing Aztecs, only to see them turn and attack. Drawn into the trap, Cortés and sixty-eight other Spaniards were captured and dragged off, leaving scores of others dead on the road. Ten captives were killed immediately and their severed heads were thrown back over the front lines, sowing consternation among the disheartened Spaniards. The remaining fifty-eight were taken to the towering Great Temple, which could plainly be seen from the Spaniards’ camps, made to dance before the statue of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, and then, one by one, they were sacrificed. Their hearts were torn out and their faces and hands flayed so they could be tanned and sent among the wavering towns as a warning. Cortés escaped this fate only through the intervention of Cristóbal de Olea, who sprang to his defense, killed the four Aztecs who were dragging him off, and freed his leader at the cost of his own life. The very conquest of Mexico hung on this single act.

The final military event in the conquest of Mexico was the Aztec surrender on August 13, 1521, after the Spaniards broke through the last defenses and fought their way into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. The city lay in ruins and, for four days, the Spaniards’ Indian allies continued to attack the defeated Aztecs, looting the houses and killing thousands. But the events of the Spanish conquest did not have to unfold as they did. There were many points when decisive actions by various individuals, misadventure, or poor decisions could have drastically altered the outcome of the conquest as we know it.

Mesoamerica was discovered by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who landed in Yucatan in 1517, where he clashed with the Maya and was ultimately repulsed with devastating losses. This expedition was followed by a second in 1518, under Juan de Grijalva, who also clashed with the Maya but who sailed beyond Yucatan and up the gulf coast to central Veracruz, where he encountered the Aztecs. Even before Grijalva’s return, Governor Velázquez of Cuba authorized a third expedition under Hernán Cortés, but when he later tried to relieve him, Cortés abruptly set sail and reached Yucatan in early 1519 with as many as 450 men. If Governor Velázquez had succeeded in removing Cortés from command before the expedition’s departure, the conquest would have been stillborn.

But having slipped out of Velázquez’s grasp, Cortés followed the route of the first two expeditions until he reached Grijalva’s anchorage on the central Veracruz coast. There, Cortés was greeted by Aztec officials bearing food and gifts, but when the Spaniards refused to accede to Aztec requests to move their camp, the emissaries left. Had the Aztecs met the Spaniards with massive force, again the conquest would have been aborted or forestalled. But they did not, and once they abandoned the Spaniards on the coast, the local tribe, called the Totonacs, established contact and eventually allied with them. The Totonac king could do this because the Aztec empire relied on conquest or intimidation to subdue opponents, and left the local rulers in place. No imperial offices or officeholders were imposed to hold the system together, so this system was also vulnerable to shifts in the local power balance that could quickly and easily alter allegiances. The Spanish arrival was such a change and the Totonacs seized on it.

Having achieved the goals of exploration, contact, and trade, as authorized by Governor Velázquez, many of Cortés’s men wanted to return to Cuba. Had they left, Cortés would have had too few men to continue and, once again, the conquest would have failed. However, Cortés founded the town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz a few miles north of present-day Veracruz, appointed a city council under the claimed authority of King Charles V of Spain, which then declared that Velázquez’s authority had lapsed, and elected Cortés as captain directly under the king; he was now free from the governor’s constraints. To gain royal support, Cortés dispatched a ship to Spain with all the gold they had gathered thus far as a gift to the king. To keep his men from deserting, he scuttled the ten remaining ships, giving his men little option but to follow him. Leaving 60 to 150 men in the fort at Vera Cruz, Cortés marched inland with 300 Spanish soldiers, 40 to 50 Totonacs, and 200 porters.

En route to Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards neared the province of Tlaxcallan (Tlaxcala), where they advanced to capture a small party of armed Indians. But they were drawn into an ambush and were saved only by their superior firepower. Attacked repeatedly in the days that followed, the Spaniards suffered many wounded; their supplies were running low. Recognizing that he faced an overwhelming hostile force, Cortés sent repeated peace entreaties to the Tlaxcaltecs. The two sides eventually forged an alliance. The Tlaxcaltecs could have defeated the Spaniards, and had they continued the battle, as their commander wanted, Cortés’s adventure would have ended. But the Tlaxcaltecs had their own reasons for allying with the Spaniards. They had been engaged in a long-term war with the Aztecs and, completely encircled and cut off, their defeat was only a matter of time. The coming of the Spanish offered them an unforeseen way to win. A major tactic in Mesoamerican battles was to breach the opposing lines and turn the enemies’ flanks, which was very difficult to do. But Spanish cannons, the matchlock muskets called harquebuses, crossbows, and horsemen could disrupt enemy lines and, though the Spaniards were too few to exploit these breaches, the Tlaxcaltecs were not. Spanish arms greatly multiplied the effectiveness of the Tlaxcaltec army.

The Spaniards stayed in Tlaxcallan for seventeen days before marching to the province of Cholollan (Cholula). Though welcomed by the Chololtecs, Cortés claimed he learned of a plot to attack him with Aztec help: He assembled the nobles in the main courtyard and massacred them. His reason does not ring true. Cholollan had recently switched their allegiance from Tlaxcallan to the Aztecs, so a Spanish attack was a way to resolve a political problem. A new king was chosen and Cholollan re-allied with Tlaxcallan. Two weeks later, Cortés marched into the Valley of Mexico and reached Tenochtitlán on November 8. He was greeted by Moteuczoma (Montezuma) and housed in the palace of his deceased father, Axayacatl, who had been the king from 1468 to 1481.

An enormous island-city of at least 200,000, Tenochtitlán was connected to the mainland by three major causeways that could be quickly severed. Recognizing the precariousness of his position, Cortés seized Moteuczoma within a week of his arrival, held him captive, and ruled through him for the next eight months.

When Governor Velázquez learned of Cortés’s perfidy, he dispatched Pánfilo de Narváez with a fleet of nineteen ships and over eight hundred soldiers to Vera Cruz to capture him. But on learning of his arrival, Cortés marched to the coast with 266 men in late May and, aided by duplicity and judicious bribery, defeated Narváez.

Meanwhile, Pedro de Alvarado, who had been left in Tenochtitlán with eighty soldiers, claimed he had learned of an Aztec plot to attack them, placed artillery at the four entrances of the walled courtyard of the Great Temple, and then massacred an estimated eight to ten thousand unarmed Aztec nobles trapped inside. Word of the massacre spread throughout the city, the populace attacked, killed seven Spaniards, wounded many others, and besieged them in their quarters. When Cortés learned of the uprising, he began the return march with a force now numbering over 1,300 Spaniards and 2,000 Tlaxcaltecs, and reached Tenochtitlán on June 24.

Once he was inside the city, the Aztecs raised the causeway bridges and the Spaniards were apparently trapped. With their supplies dwindling and unable to fight or negotiate their way out, Cortés took Moteuczoma onto the roof to order his people to stop the attack, but to no avail, and the king was ultimately killed, either by stones thrown from the Indian throng or by his Spanish captors.

Cortés ordered portable wooden spans built to bridge the gaps in the causeways and, during a heavy rainstorm just before midnight on June 30, the Spaniards began their escape. They were quickly discovered, and only a third of the force got away. Cortés reached Tlaxcallan, but not until he had lost over 865 Spaniards and more than a thousand Tlaxcaltecs. Had the Aztecs assailed the fleeing Spaniards immediately and continuously, few if any would have survived. The 440 surviving Spaniards rested for three weeks and then, in early August, marched again and conquered nearby Aztec tributary cities.

The Indians now faced a new, nonmilitary threat. Smallpox arrived with Narváez’s expedition and swept though central Mexico, killing some 40 percent of the population of Mexico in a year, including Moteuczoma’s successor, King Cuitlahua, who ruled for only eighty days. Because the epidemic devastated both the Aztecs and their Indian opponents, depopulation does not, of itself, account for the conquest. But it did produce political disruption: The death of Cuitlahua meant that with the accession of his successor, Cuauhtemoc, the Aztecs had three kings in less than six months.

The first time Cortés entered Tenochtitlán, he had been trapped inside; now he sought to reverse that situation and ordered the construction of thirteen brigantines in Tlaxcallan, using the rigging salvaged from the ships he sank at Vera Cruz. There was an intermittent influx of arrivals from the coast throughout the conquest, and Cortés’s forces had grown to 40 horsemen and 550 Spanish foot soldiers. Accompanied by 10,000 Tlaxcaltec soldiers, Cortés began his return march to the Valley of Mexico.

But Cortés’s first major victory there was political. Since 1515, Tetzcoco, the second most important city of the empire, had been politically divided over who should succeed to the throne. Cacama took the throne with strong Aztec support, but another contender, Ixtlilxochitl, fought a civil war, conquered the area north of Tetzcoco, which he then ruled in an uneasy accommodation with Tenochtitlán. When Cortés entered the valley, Ixtlilxochitl seized the opportunity to ally with him, and the reigning king of Tetzcoco fled. Ixtlilxochitl’s support gave the Spaniards a strong foothold for their attack and provided a secure logistical base. Cortés won the allegiance of disaffected cities in the valley and fought a series of battles with the Aztecs. But since Tenochtitlán was supplied by canoe, Cortés had to control the lake. When the timbers being cut in Tlaxcallan reached Tetzcoco around the first of February, the Spaniards began assembling the brigantines. On April 28, 1521, Cortés launched his ships—each over forty feet long, with twelve oarsmen, twelve crossbowmen or harquebusiers, a captain, and an artilleryman for its bow-mounted cannon. Supported by thousands of Indian canoes, they barricaded Tenochtitlán and cut off its flow of food and water.

The Spaniards now numbered just over 900, and those not on the brigantines were divided into three armies of fewer than 200 Spaniards each and “supported” by 20,000 to 30,000 Indian troops each. On May 22, Pedro de Alvarado led one army to Tlacopan, while Cristóbal de Olid marched to Coyohuacan, and Gonzalo de Sandoval went to Ixtlapalapan. Cutting off three of the major routes into Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards attacked along the causeways, whose narrowness allowed them to concentrate their firepower. The Aztecs responded by building barricades and assaulting the Spaniards on both sides from canoes. But Cortés then breached the causeways, sailed his ships through, and drove off the enemy canoes. In response, the Aztecs limited the ships’ movements by planting sharpened stakes in the lake floor to impale them.

There is no shortage of plausible turning points for the conquest and the examples are far from exhausted by those already suggested. But the likeliest such point, involving the fewest alterations in historical events, took place on June 30, 1521. The Spaniards and their Indian allies had been assaulting the causeways that linked Tenochtitlán to the shore for more than a month. The battles were back-and-forth struggles during which the Aztecs built barricades, removed bridge spans, and destroyed portions of the causeway, both to delay the Spanish advance and as tactical ploys. When the Spaniards crossed these breaches, the Aztecs often redoubled their efforts and trapped them when they could neither easily retreat nor be reinforced. To avoid this, Cortés ordered that no breaches were to be crossed until they had been filled. But, on June 30, when the Aztec defenses seemed to crumble in the heat of battle, the Spaniards crossed an unfilled breech on the Tlacopan causeway. Their ploy having succeeded, the Aztecs turned, trapped the attackers against the breach, took sixty-eight Spaniards captive and killed many more. The captives were all sacrificed and, fearing a shift in the tide of war, most of Cortés’s allies left. Though the Spaniards ultimately survived this reversal and their allies eventually returned, it could easily have been otherwise.


Had Cristóbal de Olea not sacrificed his own life to save Cortés, he too would have been taken and sacrificed, and the defection of his Indian allies would likely have been permanent. The Spanish leader had three lieutenants but there was no clear second in command. Moreover, the Spaniards were never completely united, even behind Cortés. Repeatedly, he threatened and cajoled them and twice ordered Spaniards hanged for plotting to desert. And now with Cortés gone, Spanish unity would have disintegrated. The conquest would have been lost. What, then, would the Spaniards have done?

Exposed on the western shore of the lake without allies, the Spaniards alone could not long hold out against the Aztec assaults. And the factionalism that seethed just below the surface could not have been suppressed without Cortés since there was no single leader of equal determination and ruthlessness. Without overwhelming Indian support, there was no hope for the Spaniards and they faced three plausible choices. They could have continued the battle, but that offered only annihilation. They could have surrendered en masse but that meant death for most, if not all, of them, though isolated individuals might have slipped away with their erstwhile allies, perhaps to be hidden until the Aztecs spent their fury. Or they could have attempted an orderly withdrawal. But to where? They had been allowed to slip away during the flight from Tenochtitlán a year earlier and the Aztecs were unlikely to permit a repeat of that mistake. Moreover, then they had an ally in Tlaxcallan—who would now have abandoned them. So their only recourse was to abandon their heavy equipment and begin a 200-mile withdrawal to the gulf coast through hostile territory, a journey most were unlikely to complete. But given their fragmented loyalties and divided command, the Spaniards would probably have fallen apart and, the weakened remainder would have been vulnerable to the inevitable Aztec counterattack. The only question was how many Spaniards would have survived. Some may have reached the gulf coast and then sailed to Cuba, but most would have died in battles en route—though a lucky few may have survived capture or have been sheltered by former allies. The conquest would be over.

What would have been the probable Spanish response to this defeat? What the surviving Spaniards in Mexico thought is not of concern here, but the opinions of the Spaniards in the Indies and Spain is. Given the seasonal pattern of transatlantic sailings, word of Cortés’s defeat would probably not have reached Spain until late summer or fall of 1522 at the earliest, with any response arriving in the Indies no sooner than the following summer. New World conquests and colonization were backed by the Crown, but it was not a governmental enterprise underwritten by a national army, so a concerted military response was unlikely. Cortés’s death and the disaster that beset his men, however, would have made the repudiation of his expedition politically easy. Since Cortés had violated Governor Velázquez’s orders and authorization, he had also effectively gone against the king and, in light of his failure, royal support would now be solidly behind the governor.

Awareness of Mexican civilizations, lands, and wealth was too widespread in both Spain and the Indies to be ignored. But in light of the Crown’s support for Velázquez, its most likely response would be to adopt the governor’s original plan for trade rather than colonization. To justify his original plans and current political position, Velázquez would probably have tried to enforce his approach rigorously and with royal backing. Some degree of quarantine would be likely, with the probable emergence of a single trading center on the coast, much as Macao served Portuguese trade interests in China and Japan in the sixteenth century. It is doubtful that the Spaniards could long be held to commerce alone and the continuation of such a trading relationship may not have survived Velázquez’s death in 1524 unless some other strong patron managed to secure the Crown’s approval for a monopoly. But if there was to be another attempt to conquer Mexico, it would probably be some years off: Exploration elsewhere in the Caribbean was absorbing all available men and material. And the surviving Spanish adult male population of the Indies would require time to recover from the loss of some 2,000 men in Cortés’s ill-fated scheme. Moreover, the increased Spanish migration that actually followed the conquest of Mexico would probably not have materialized without increased opportunities in the New World. Thus, the Spaniards of the Indies were distracted, politically constrained, and militarily weakened. Perhaps their energies would have been absorbed by the conquest of the Incas that began in the late 1520s, where the way had been smoothed by an Inca civil war and by the devastating spread of smallpox into the Andes from Spanish settlements in Panama. Instead of Mexico, a conquered Peru would have drawn Spanish migrants, but the riches thus seized would doubtless have tempted the Spaniards to make another bid for the wealth of Mexico.

A Spanish reconquest was probably delayed rather than deterred, but the issue of the Aztec response to their victory over the Spaniards would have remained. Would they have simply lapsed back to the status quo? Not likely. Even with an Aztec victory, Mexico would have been profoundly changed by the Spanish presence. The smallpox epidemic of 1519 to 1520 had been devastating, but the deadly typhus epidemics of 1545 to 1548 and 1576 to 1581 would not have occurred without a major Spanish presence, or at least not that soon. The Aztec political landscape was significantly altered, not in the offices themselves, but in the personalities of those who replaced leaders lost to war or disease. The political infrastructure of neighboring cities and of the empire would have continued intact, but the way many rulers had switched sides during the conquest would certainly have led to retribution.

The political future of rulers in various cities who had taken their thrones with Spanish/Tlaxcaltec support was bleak and some would now be displaced as Aztec loyalists or political opportunists took advantage of the shift in power. Cities allied with Tlaxcallan would likely have defected to the Aztec side. Meanwhile, Tlaxcaltec factionalism would probably have led to the pro-Spanish ruler being deposed; his replacement would have allied with the Aztecs in an effort to forestall their own conquest. Thereafter, other defectors would have been dealt with easily, swiftly, and terminally. The Aztecs were smaller in population and weaker than before, but politically, they were stronger, having replaced rulers of dubious loyalties.

What would this have meant for a new Spanish invasion? During the first one, Cortés exploited the poorly integrated nature of the Aztec empire and the presence of a major enemy—Tlaxcallan—to secure allies. With Tlaxcallan no longer hostile, could the Aztecs cement their alliances to eliminate the rivalries Cortés had exploited? The Aztec empire was only loosely bound together. Roads and a system of porters were better developed within it than elsewhere, both basic and exotic goods flowed among its many markets, but no rigidly enforced political hierarchy bound it together. Instead, local rulers were left in power, which meant that as soon as the Aztecs showed weakness or incompetence, they might defect. Moreover, while general Mexican cultural practices were widely shared, there was no unifying religion or ideology. Intermarriage among rulers created some cross-cutting loyalties, but these took many years to form and, in the absence of an alternative way to integrate the empire more tightly, the Aztecs could not create a solid front that would be impenetrable to the returning Spaniards.

If they could not reorganize their empire, the Aztecs nevertheless had two major options open to them—they could take the offensive or they could adopt new military weapons and tactics. Since the Spaniards had built and sailed ships in the Valley of Mexico and may well have abandoned some at Vera Cruz in their flight, it is possible that the Aztecs could have launched a counteroffensive into the Indies. Though used on the Pacific coast of South America, sails were unknown in Mexico, and the Aztecs were generally ignorant of the existence or location of the Indies. So as appealing as the image is of Aztec soldiers storming Havana, it is improbable. Alternative routes for a return attack by the Spaniards were blocked from the south by other native states that were too small and too far away to materially assist them and from the north by an inhospitable desert that offered few allies, little food, and great dangers. So an Aztec offensive stance, at best, would have meant patrolling the gulf coast and waiting for a Spanish return before trying to push them back into the sea, though this costly effort would probably have flagged as the years passed uneventfully.

But Cortés’s attempt to conquer them unquestionably would have affected Aztec tactics. The primary Spanish technological introductions were horses (and mounted lancers), cannons, harquebuses, and crossbows. As they had done during their first flight from Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards probably abandoned their cannons, but this time the Aztecs might not have destroyed them as they did earlier. Some of the other weapons likely to have fallen into Aztec hands included swords, armor, crossbows, perhaps harquebuses, and maybe even horses. But what would any of this have meant to the Aztecs? They had used captured swords—some attached to poles as scythes against horses—and a cross-bow against Cortés, so even though the Aztecs did not work iron and so could neither repair nor replicate these arms, those they recovered could easily be integrated into their own forces. After all, the Aztecs already had their own broadswords, spears, bows, and armor. Indeed, since the Indians who had allied with Cortés had been taught to make excellent copper-headed bolts, there was a potentially inexhaustible supply of ammunition for the crossbows. Cannons and harquebuses required gunpowder, and while all of the ingredients were locally available, its concoction was unknown to the Aztecs, but horses might be mastered, offering the tantalizing possibility of Aztec cavalry such as Americans later encountered on the Great Plains. And if the Spaniards actually established a trade center at Vera Cruz, bladed weapons and perhaps even firearms would have flowed into Aztec hands, whether officially sanctioned or not. To make the most of these arms, however, actual instruction would be needed and, for that, there were probably surviving Spaniards.

Changing sides was not unprecedented. Gonzalo Guerrero, who had been shipwrecked off Yucatan in 1511, had risen to the rank of military leader among the Maya, led one of their attacks on Córdoba, and refused to rejoin the Spaniards despite Cortés’s entreaty. Moreover, Spain was a newly emerging entity whose king, Charles V, though the son of the rulers of Castile and Aragon, was raised in the Netherlands and was effectively a foreigner. Many Spaniards owed whatever loyalties they had to their cities or provinces rather than to “Spain” and some who participated in the conquest were Portuguese or Italian, so shifting loyalties from Cortés to Cuauhtemoc was imaginable, probable, and, in fact, indispensable if they did not wish to be sacrificed to the Aztec gods. But what could the Spaniards teach the Aztecs that they had not already learned in combat? Weapons use, certainly. For instance, Spanish swords were made of steel with both cutting edge and point and so could thrust as well as slash, whereas the Aztecs’ were oak broadswords edged with obsidian blades and could be used only to slash. And perhaps the Aztecs could even make gunpowder, since the three necessary ingredients were available in the Valley of Mexico, though whether they could use explosives is questionable. But new weapons aside, battle strategies and combat practices could certainly be improved as the Aztecs learned the full capabilities and limitations of the Spanish weapons and tactics.

Most of what the captured Spaniards could teach the Aztecs was refinement. They already understood the basics. And what was important was less how it affected their battlefield tactics than the political environment. The Tlaxcaltecs initially allied with the Spaniards because they recognized that those few soldiers could serve as shock troops to punch through and disrupt opposing formations in a way their own weapons and tactics could not. It had not been the presence of the Spaniards per se that had been important, but the decisive advantage they conveyed on the Tlaxcaltec army. With the surviving Spanish arms, however, this advantage was now also held by the Aztecs.

If and when the second conquest came, the various Aztec tributaries and allies would probably have been only marginally more tightly bound to the empire than before; yet even with cannons and harquebuses, the Spaniards were no longer offered the golden opportunity they had the first time. Yes, they could still perform a shock function, but any Indian group that might consider allying with them could not fully exploit it because the Aztecs, even with a limited number of Spanish arms, could also now employ shock tactics and disrupt their formations, and coupled with vastly larger armies, an Aztec victory was ultimately assured.

So, by the time the Spaniards subjugated the peoples of the Andes, leaving them crippled with deadly disease and exploitation, and they finally turned their attention back to Mexico, in the mid to late 1530s, their opportunity had passed. The allies of a returning Spanish force would have been few, their victories ephemeral, and the lucky ones would have been pushed back into the sea—the heads of the rest would have adorned the skullracks of Tenochtitlán. Any reconquest would have to await far larger numbers, more artillery, and more horses than were available in the Indies.

Time changed the situation on both sides. While there was no pan-Mexican ideology to unify the various groups, word of the inhabitants’ fate in the Indies and South America slowly made its way to Tenochtitlán and a sense of Indianness that had heretofore been absent emerged in opposition to the Spaniards and expressed itself militarily as well as politically.

Limited as the Spaniards were to more passive exploitation by trade and conversion, gold and silver still flowed into Spanish coffers made wealthy by the pillage of Peru, but Spanish innovations in tools and animals were rapidly adopted by the Aztec elite, and percolated down into the commoner ranks, establishing indigenous livestock and craft industries. Instead of becoming the center of Spanish industry, with lesser benefits falling to the Indians, these innovations were adopted by the natives, even if the nobility dominated, if not monopolized, major herding activities, but with benefits that flowed throughout their society. For instance, wool would have been quickly adopted by their thriving weaving industry, just as bronze and iron would have been added to the range of goods produced and repaired by native metalworkers. Moreover, the development of the native economy made possible by these innovations strengthened indigenous rulers and filled the vacuum into which Spanish colonists would otherwise have flowed.

Spanish intrusions would have been blunted, though not eliminated, and religious orders, obeying their missionizing imperative, would have gradually infiltrated the country ahead of potential settlers. But now, confronting a vigorous indigenous priesthood that enjoyed state support and a flourishing school system, conversion was far slower. The Spanish priests also brought literacy with the Latin alphabet to Mexico and if this spread to all classes, social turmoil would likely follow, so the indigenous elite would doubtless monopolize this knowledge to increase their political and administrative hold. But a more Christianized indigenous tradition would likely have emerged. Without the sword to force conversion, persuasion and example alone were available, resulting in some Christianization and, most likely, a cessation of human sacrifice. But continued personal religious bloodletting may have been reconceived, if not toward a monotheistic end, then toward one that blended the Christian God with one or more of the more important native gods in an elevated, if not exclusive, position above the native ones.

With the gradual emergence of a far stronger indigenous economy and the development of at least a tolerable approximation of Christianity, Mexico would have been far more difficult to conquer. Mexico could have continued as a regional power and survived the expansion of the European colonies in Central and North America, if their more limited exposure to Europeans dispersed the demographic shock of introduced diseases and they prevented Europeans from exploiting it. The nation that emerged may have been much like the Mexico of today, though perhaps limited to central Mexico, organized on strong indigenous lines, yet having undergone modern development from empire to constitutional monarchy. Had this been so, American expansion toward the West may have been halted far earlier than it was—perhaps at the Mississippi, for France, which sold the United States its rights, would have had no claim on the land to the West, and Mexico, whether freely or as the better of limited options, may have left the United States of today far smaller and bordering a nation of truly indigenous Americans.


On the Franco-Burgundian frontier, Calais was both a listening post for spies and a halfway house to the courts of the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy. A network of secret agents operated from the port, paid by the indefatigable Lord Hastings. In January 1473 he led yet another embassy to Duke Charles the Bold, who received them at Ghent. The English hoped to persuade him to help them reconquer France, but for the time being little progress was made. The negotiations were to be reopened by Dr Morton.

In March 1472 John Morton had been made Master of the Rolls, the third most important member of the judicature, second only to the Lord Chancellor in the Court of Chancery. He also became a privy counsellor, which in the fifteenth century was not the empty dignity it is today. Normally the royal council met in the Star Chamber at Westminster Palace, its function being not unlike that of a modern cabinet. (It must not be confused with the Great Council, to which every important personality in the realm, including all peers, was summoned.) The King’s ‘secret council’ was the institution which, under King Edward, really governed the country. Here in the Star Chamber, as one of the most powerful men in England, Dr Morton would often have met and worked with Lord Hastings.

He was closely involved in Edward IV’s foreign policy. The King hoped to revive the Hundred Years’ War and recover the lost lands across the Channel. Not only did he call himself King of France, but he had been born in Rouen when it was an English city. He was only too well aware that one of the reasons for the ruin of the House of Lancaster had been losing Normandy and Bordeaux. But a war of reconquest was only possible in alliance with Burgundy and with sufficient funds to pay an army.

Before a firm Anglo-Burgundian pact against France came into being, an extraordinarily complex series of negotiations took place between England, France and Burgundy, with truces and counter-truces. Dr Morton played a crucial role in this diplomatic offensive. He and Lord Duras spent January to June 1474 negotiating with the Duke, finally returning with a treaty of alliance in which Charles agreed that Edward should be crowned King of France at Rheims. In December, together with Sir Thomas Montgomery and William Hatclyf (the King’s physician), he went on a further embassy, dancing attendance on the Duke, who was besieging Neuss in the course of his war with the Swiss. The negotiations were not only about an offensive against France; a staple in Burgundy for Newcastle wool was proposed and there were also discussions about the Anglo-Burgundian exchange rate. They also tried, and failed, to secure a treaty with the Emperor Frederick III against France.

We catch glimpses of the little doctor in the Paston Letters; on 5 February 1475 Sir John Paston ends a missive from Calais with: ‘As for tidings here, my masters th’ambassadors Sir T Montgomery and the Master of the Rolls come straight from the duke [of Burgundy] at his siege of Neuss, which will not yet be won.’ By now, ‘Our well beloved clerk Mr John Morton, Keeper of our Rolls in Chancery’, was once again very much of a figure in English public life.


Raising money to pay for the war was far harder. Early in 1475 Paliament heard how some collectors were not levying taxes properly or else were pocketing them. The King therefore resorted to ‘benevolences’. As many rich men as possible were summoned to audiences, each one being interviewed personally by Edward. A Milanese observer noted with amusement that he welcomed every victim as if he had known him all his life, and then asked just how much he was prepared to pay towards the French war. A notary stood by to write down the amount. However much the wretched man might offer, the King would then mention that someone far poorer had given a great deal more. Few dared resist his scowl. He also kissed the victims’ wives. Edward went on progress through all England on a fund-raising tour of this sort, besides enlisting the help of mayors and sheriffs.

A glib royal spokesman told the House of Commons that war with France would reduce crime by shipping unruly elements abroad. He gave a fascinating glimpse not only of the impact of the Wars of the Roses on his hearers – ‘every man of this land that is of reasonable age hath known what trouble this realm hath suffered . . . none hath escaped’ – but on the country as a whole. Despite King Edward’s happy victory, ‘yet is there many a great sore, many a perilous wound left unhealed, the multitude of riotous people which have at all times kindled the fire of this great division is so spread over all and every coast of this realm, committing extortions, oppressions, robberies and other great mischiefs’. What he tactfully omitted from his speech was the fact that some of the great mischiefs were due to the King’s failure to control his magnates’ affinities.

Margaret Paston gave vent to a taxpayer’s exasperation in a letter to her son Sir John – ‘the king goeth so near us in this country, both to poor and rich, that I wot not how we shall live but if the world amend,’ she writes. She claims that the benevolences have impoverished all East Anglia.

An English invasion force of 11,500 men assembled in June 1475, much larger than any army commanded by Henry V. Yet though it included twenty-five peers, their troops were not of the highest quality. There were too many archers (even if a large number were mounted) and too few men-at-arms – where the ratio should have been one man-at-arms to every three bowmen, it was one to every seven. The ratio was still worse in Lord Hastings’ contingent, though he brought forty men-at-arms and 300 archers, more than any other peer save the Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Northumberland. He was supported by John Donne and two other knights with 104 archers. Very few of these troops had had experience of warfare overseas. However, there was an impressive artillery train, said to be larger than the Duke of Burgundy’s, while the King had brought a wagon-train of food in case the French should adopt scorched-earth tactics.

The army began embarking in June. As Captain of Calais, Hastings – assisted by his lieutenant, Lord Howard – was responsible for problems of billeting, besides having to liaise with the Burgundians. King Edward crossed from Dover on 4 July, Dr Morton accompanying him. They found a good deal to dishearten them. The weather was atrocious, with heavy rain, and already it was almost too late in the year to begin a campaign. Moreover, a commander as experienced as Edward realized that his troops were not entirely satisfactory.

Commynes, who watched them, comments, ‘I don’t exaggerate when I say that Edward’s men seemed very inexperienced and unused to active service, since they rode in such ragged order.’ No doubt at home they were accustomed to dismounting and fighting on foot rather than on horseback. Even so, however fiercely they may have fought each other, the armies of late-fifteenth-century England were always amateurish and unprofessional. They must have been very difficult to command, not least the haughty, quarrelsome gentlemen who officered them.

Their leader had by now grown a little too fond of his comforts, while he was scarcely encouraged by the Duke of Burgundy’s arrival at Calais without an army – the Burgundian troops were busy campaigning elsewhere.

Nevertheless, King Louis was terrified out of his wits, as though Henry V had risen from the grave. If possible, he was determined to buy off the English. He had sent flattering letters to Lord Hastings at Calais, together with what Commynes calls ‘a very big and handsome present’ (presumably money), though in reply he had received only a polite letter of acknowledgement. But soon it became obvious that the campaign was not going very well for the English – at St Quentin their advance guard was routed by cannon-fire from the town walls, some men being killed or taken prisoner. Louis sent a message into Edward’s camp. If the King of England wanted peace, then he would do his best to satisfy him. He apologized for having helped the Earl of Warwick, and emphasized how bad the weather was for July ‘when winter was already approaching’.

King Edward held a council, attended by both Lord Hastings and Dr Morton. It decided to offer Louis terms; basically these would amount to an indemnity. On 13 August Lord Howard, Thomas St Leger, William Dudley and John Morton went to negotiate with the French at a village near Amiens – a few days later they saw Louis himself.

The terms were agreed. In return for leaving France, Edward was to receive a down payment of 75,000 crowns, together with a pension of 50,000 crowns to be paid yearly. In addition, the Dauphin was to marry one of the English King’s daughters and there would be advantageous commercial clauses.

However, an agreement had not yet been signed, and Louis was anxious that the English should not change their minds. To make the settlement popular with everyone, he invited the entire English army to be his guests in the city of Amiens. If Philippe de Commynes is to be believed, what followed was the funniest episode in the whole history of Anglo–French relations.

The French King ordered two long tables to be placed on each side of the street that led into the city from its main gate. These were laden with all sorts of good dishes to accompany the wine, of which there was a very great deal and the best that France could produce. ‘At both tables the king had sat five or six boon companions, fat and sleek noblemen, to welcome any Englishman who felt like having a cheerful glass . . . nine or ten taverns were generously supplied with anything they wanted, where they could have whatever they ordered without paying for it, by command of the king of France who paid the entire cost of the entertainment which went on for three or four days.’ At one tavern that Commynes entered, 111 bills had already been run up, though it was not yet nine o’clock in the morning. The house was crowded with Englishmen, ‘some of whom were singing, others asleep and all of them very drunk’. King Edward was ashamed of his troops’ behaviour, and had large numbers of them thrown out of the city.

Louis XI had thought of everything. He even seems to have provided whores, who took their own special revenge on the invaders. ‘Many a man was lost that fell to the lust of women, who were burnt by them; and their members rotted away and they died,’ claims one doleful English chronicler.

The two kings met on a bridge at Picquigny on 29 August 1475. Among those who accompanied Edward was William Hastings. ‘The king of England wore a black velvet cap on his head, decorated with a large fleur-de-lys of precious stones,’ Commynes recalls. ‘He was a prince of noble and majestic appearance but somewhat running to fat.’ Commynes adds that Edward did not look so handsome as when he had last seen him, during his flight from Warwick in 1471, but that he spoke to Louis in good French.

They had no hesitation in signing the treaty. To make certain that Edward’s councellors would support it, Louis bribed them. Hastings got most, an annual pension of 2,000 gold crowns – to be supplemented over the next two years by 24,000 more in money and plate, including two dozen silver gilt bowls worth over £600. The French King was fully aware of the power and influence of the chamberlain, whom Commynes summed up as ‘a man of sound sense, courage and authority’.

Commynes says it was not easy to persuade Hastings to accept the pension, as a loyal friend of the Burgundians who were already paying him a thousand crowns a year. King Louis sent an agent, Pierre Clairet, to England with the pensions and orders to obtain receipts so that the King could prove that Hastings and all the others were being paid by him. However, ‘at a private conversation alone with the chamberlain in his room in London’, William refused to sign for the money.

‘I didn’t ask for it,’ he told Clairet. ‘If you wish me to take it, then you can slip it in my pocket, but you’re never going to get a letter of thanks or a receipt out of me. I don’t want everybody saying “The lord chamberlain of England is in the king of France’s pay.” ’

Commynes adds that Louis was so impressed by Lord Hastings’ shrewdness that he went on paying the pension without asking for receipts, and felt more respect for him than for all the rest of Edward’s counsellors put together.

Dr Morton was also recognized by King Louis as a man of power and influence. He received a pension of 600 crowns, though we do not know if he signed receipts for it.

Some people in England grumbled at the Treaty of Picquigny. After being told for three years that they were in honour bound to pay for waging war on ‘our ancient enemies of France’, besides suffering from ‘benevolences’, their king had returned ingloriously without conquering a foot of French soil; all the bright hopes of recovering Normandy and Bordeaux had vanished into thin air. Yet for Edward IV the settlement was a triumph of realism. He had seen that his brother-in-law of Burgundy could not be relied on, while he recognized that he himself was in no condition to undertake those exhausting campaigns of conquest that had destroyed Henry V’s health. France was no longer the divided land of fifty years ago but ruled by one of her greatest kings. Instead of fighting a risky and ruinously expensive war, Edward had come home with a new source of income.

The King took the opportunity to attend to minor nuisances. Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, did not come home. After the Lancastrian defeat at Barnet, Exeter had spent some time in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey before being moved to the Tower, where he had stayed until he either volunteered or was ordered to join the expedition. His wife Anne, King Edward’s sister, had secured an annulment so that she could marry her lover, Sir Thomas St Leger – one of her brother’s squires of the Body – with whom she was living on the Duke’s former revenues. There was no place for the haughty Exeter in a Yorkist world. On the return voyage he drowned between Calais and Dover, ‘but how he drowned, the certainty is not known’, says Fabyan. However, Giovanni Pannicharola, the Milanese envoy to the Burgundian court, was told by Duke Charles that the King of England had given specific orders for the sailors to throw his former brother-in-law overboard. It would not be the last of King Edward’s convenient drownings.

According to the same Milanese source, Duke Charles was so enraged when he heard the news of Picquigny that he ate his Garter, or at least tore it with his teeth. He had every reason to be angry, even though his lack of co-operation was partly responsible for the treaty. It weakened Burgundy enormously against France, in both military and diplomatic terms. There was no more hope of armed assistance on a really large scale from across the sea. Indeed, although English sovereigns might continue to call themselves ‘Kings of France’ until the nineteenth century, it was the end of the Hundred Years’ War. Louis had won a great, bloodless victory. He boasted to Commynes: ‘I kicked the English out of France much more easily than my father did – he had to do it by force of arms but I used venison pies and good wine.’