Warfare in the 17th and 18th centuries I

By the middle of the seventeenth century it was becoming obvious that, as far as Europe was concerned, a new world economic order had come into being. The conquest of the Americas and the exploitation of their resources created a trading zone across the Atlantic and stimulated economic and commercial growth. The great sailing ships with their heavy broadsides of cannon had reached beyond Islam, so that the new wealth derived from the Americas could be traded for the traditional commodities of the East – silks, jewellery, spices, fine pottery and, later, porcelain. The Mediterranean was no longer the centre of the European world. England set up the Honourable East India Company in 1600, Holland sponsored the United East Indies Company and France quickly followed. Islamic merchants had long monopolised the trade in West African slaves, and they continued to be important. However, Europeans now competed for this human trade to feed labour into the sugar industries of the West Indies and South America, and the plantations of the Carolinas, generating enormous profits. Industrial growth and new inventions multiplied, while improved agricultural techniques enhanced food supply dramatically. By the end of the seventeenth century steam engines were in use in England, and in 1712 the efficient Newcomen model was introduced.

Not all of this was peculiarly European. The Ottomans encouraged their own traders. Chinese products were sought after the world over, while both they and the Indians had trading companies to match anything in Europe. But in some of the states of Western Europe the intensification of economic production, mercantile, industrial and agricultural, was remarkable. This prosperity extended to states which were not directly involved in the Atlantic trade: Scandinavia, for example, supplied France, Holland and England with timber for their growing fleets while Germany traded intensely with the lands of the Atlantic littoral. Peter the Great (1682–1725) imitated western development in order to modernise the economy of Russia. This new wealth enabled relatively small states to create military power to rival great empires.

The European expansion was as violent and competitive as that of other empires. The ruthlessness that in the ancient world produced the smoking ruins of cities and the enslavement of entire populations now applied itself to the exploitation of the native peoples of the Caribbean and North and South America. Successful trading nations tried to exclude others by force from the benefits of ‘their’ trade or tried to take over their trade. The Portuguese had been the first to break into the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century, but they were elbowed aside by the Dutch and later the French and English, all of whom were firmly established in the area by the late seventeenth century. Spain and Portugal seized the New World in the sixteenth century, but despite their resistance Holland, France and England had forced their way into the Caribbean by the end of the seventeenth century. In North America, England and France profited from the divisions of the native tribes to establish colonies and then fought one another for supremacy. But as long as the empires of the Ottomans, the Mughals and the Qing remained strong, the European predators were peripheral in Asia.

The overseas ambitions of some European states complicated the intense rivalries of a deeply divided continent which focused on a shifting galaxy of powers. In the seventeenth century Austria, France, England, Holland, Spain, Poland, Sweden and Prussia were all important. In the eighteenth century Russia under Peter the Great established an autocratic bureaucracy to make Russia into a great military power, displacing Sweden in northern Europe. By the mid-century Spain, Holland and Sweden occupied secondary positions while at its end Poland had ceased to exist altogether, partitioned by Russia, Austria and Prussia.

The new wealth had significant political and military consequences. Holland was a merchant republic and her entire policy was dedicated to the interests of trade. The commercial skill of the Dutch created a new means of war finance which enabled a very small country to defy bigger powers like France, while continuing to expand abroad. Holland had a population of less than two million in 1700, but it supported the double burden of a great fleet to protect its trade and an army to hold its frontiers. Like any other state it was driven to borrow, but Dutch merchants understood the need to guarantee payment in order to safeguard future credit, and out of this they developed deficit finance. In England landed aristocrats dominated political affairs, but they recognised the value of its growing mercantile and colonial power. England copied Dutch financial methods with the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 and the institution of the National Debt, a kind of permanent state deficit which paid a fairly low rate of interest to lenders who were confident of their income. This provided a highly flexible instrument for war finance, because borrowing could be stepped up at need and the costs spread over long periods.

France was an aristocratic state whose leaders saw the need to foster economic development, but without ever acquiring real understanding of how it worked, and this was crucially important for war finance. France failed to develop deficit financing because aristocratic participation and quiescence in the state were much more important in a crisis than satisfying creditors. In this way the needs of 260,000 tax-exempt nobles dominated a population of 19 million. War threw the finances of Louis XIV (1643–1715) into crisis and this influenced military activity. In 1695 Louis wrote to Catinat, his commander in Italy:

the only difficulty that presents itself for pursuing offensive war is the considerable sum of money it requires … and after having examined the state of my finances … I have, despite myself, been obliged to resolve to pursue only defensive war during the coming year.

Denain, July 1712; defeat ended Austrian and Dutch hopes of a breakthrough in Northern France

After 1709 during the War of Spanish Succession (1701–14) the French suspended virtually all offensives to save money. More subtly, throughout this long war much French activity was limited to occupying land outside France, upon which they then levied ‘contributions’ offsetting as much as 25 per cent of military costs. In 1789 war finance precipitated the French Revolution.

The effect of new groups sharing in power or, in the case of some traditional monarchies, being catered for by those in power, was to extend the sense of belonging to the state and having a vested interest in its military success. We speak of ‘France’ as if it were a monolith, but communications were poor and the reach of government machinery limited, so for many the state was very remote, and some subjects did not even speak French. Further, the military and those who served in it had always been the instruments of the elite, and soldiers were usually separate from the mass of the population and often entirely foreign. The great achievement of the major European regimes between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was to create standing armies, establishing a state monopoly on violence. Such ‘nationalised’ armies were, if not popular, at least bearable and even at times a matter of pride.

The new armies sprang from the security needs of monarchs. The mercenary armies of the early seventeenth century were dangerously independent. The Swedish model of the ‘state commission army’, a standing force recruited from native peoples and tied to state authority by an articulated command structure, showed the way ahead. Instead of being intermediaries, aristocrats could be drawn into service as officers dependent on royal patronage, while those who remained defiant could be intimidated. These fundamental political developments underpinned the new regular armies. The French monarchy set the pace. It was a dynastic state, but it had always been centralised, so that the creation of a military bureaucracy to control and support its new model army was practicable. The key figures were the intendants who supervised military administration and travelled with the armies, controlling all aspects of military infrastructure. There were limits to what the state could do and the intendants had to supervise the private contractors, munitionnaires, who provided food and dealt with others such as those who managed the artillery.

Monarchs had to compromise with the practices of the old armies. Captains and colonels continued to profit from ‘their’ companies and regiments so it was necessary to ensure that they were supplying uniforms, or cash allowances in lieu, for the troops. There was undoubtedly much peculation: soldiers were convinced suppliers cheated on both quantity and quality, while there was an obvious temptation for officers to claim to have more men than were actually in the ranks. By modern standards this was a complex and messy system of support, but it was an enormous improvement on what had gone before. Soldiers seem to have been relatively well fed and this motivated them to fight. Monarchs replaced civilian contractors with specialist corps of gunners, engineers and pioneers who were vital in sieges and in the preparation of camps and bridges. Across Western Europe, in response to the needs of trade and industry, roads were improved and bridges were built, thus speeding the movement of troops. Improved supply and well-organised support had tactical and even strategic implications. Under Louis XIV French armies built up stockpiles of food and equipment over the winter in frontier fortresses, enabling them to take the field earlier than their enemies. Gradually European armies were catching up with the Ottomans.

The most obvious military consequence of the new wealth was an increase in the number and size of forces. Every petty German ruler now had his miniature army. Under Louis XIV France was a superpower with a peacetime army of 150,000, expanded to 279,000 during the Dutch War of 1672–8 and reaching a peak of 420,000 in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Austrian regular force in 1699 stood at 59,000 but under the pressure of war had reached 135,000 by 1705: in 1761 it numbered over 200,000 and by the French Revolution about 300,000. Under the Great Elector in the late seventeenth century, the Prussian army numbered 30,000, rising to 40,000 under his immediate successors, but Frederick the Great (1740–86) had an army of 83,000 at the start of his reign. These are paper figures, but the scale of battles reflects the overall rise: at Breitenfeld in 1631, 40,000 Swedes confronted the same number of imperial troops; at Neerwinden (Landen) in 1693, 80,000 French fought 50,000 Dutch; at Malplaquet, Marlborough’s 86,000 defeated 75,000 French.

Armies were still reduced in peacetime, but only on a partial basis: the half-pay officer kicking his heels and hoping for a war which would recall him to the colours is a cliché of eighteenth-century literature. Ordinary soldiers were still paid off in large numbers as quickly as possible, and some of those retained acted as part-time farmers. However, it is very impressive that France could afford a peacetime establishment of 150,000. Of course such numbers never came together in a single force. Many were needed to garrison fortresses and protect roads. But the chief limitation on numbers in armies was different.

Logistics imposed a limit on the size of individual armies. Away from its base, no army could carry all the supplies it needed so ‘contributions’ were vital. This was increasingly a bureaucratic and orderly process because pillage threatened the discipline upon which all armies depended, and ravaging could drive peasant populations from the land and even convert them into guerrillas. ‘Contributions’ left the countryside stable, if impoverished. Moreover, armies usually offered credit payment, and generally this produced some compensation in the end. It is difficult to see how else armies could have been supplied with food. Ammunition and guns had to be transported, and officers were permitted to bring lavish amounts of baggage, as befitted their aristocratic status. To carry more than a few days’ supplies of food on top of this would have compromised an army’s mobility. Forage for horses was so bulky that under almost any circumstances it had to be found locally. On the move an army could feed itself, at least in the prosperous farming communities of Western Europe, though extorting ‘contributions’ took time and effort, so it was usual to pause to stockpile food in magazines which could then supply the army for the first part of its next advance. An army besieging could not forage, so lines of communication had to be established and guarded. A major siege was labour-intensive and armies were relatively small, so that it would demand all the efforts of a realm for a fighting season, but it was the only way to secure conquest. For example, at the siege of Lille, August to 22 October 1708, Marlborough needed 3,000 horses to drag a siege-train of 80 heavy cannon and 20 mortars, escorted by 2,500 cavalry and 5,000 foot. Half his army was retained to keep open lines of communication.

On the 1st August 1759, the 37th Foot fought at The Battle of Minden, during the Seven Years’ War.

The pattern of European war which emerged by the end of the seventeenth century and which would endure well into the nineteenth was remarkably like that which had dominated warfare since ancient times: infantry stood in close order and engaged their enemy at very close quarters when, unless one side gave way, the fight with edged weapons became decisive. This at first seems rather surprising after four centuries of gunpowder weapons. However, it was based on the possibilities and limitations of the 6-foot-long, 11-pound smoothbore flintlock musket with its lug bayonet. This was very inaccurate because the ball was smaller in diameter than the bore and so bounced, producing an erratic flight. At 150 metres, in ideal conditions, a carefully aimed weapon would hit a target equivalent to three men six foot tall only five times out of ten shots. But conditions were rarely ideal in the frightening surge of battle, so that soldiers preferred to fire as close as 50 metres. Loading was so slow that a surviving attacker could charge across this distance long before a soldier could prepare his weapon for a second shot, and, of course, a man on horseback could do this even more quickly. The individual infantryman was, therefore, very vulnerable, and needed the shelter of his comrades with their ‘porcupine’ of bayonets. But at 50 metres volley-fire could inflict appalling casualties on a close-packed enemy. Linear formations two or three ranks deep could bring most fire to bear upon an approaching enemy, so that units formed themselves into line as a prelude to battle, which is why we still speak of ‘infantry of the line’.

In attack, infantry formations were usually preceded by light-3 pounder cannon firing canister, a can of small shot which burst as it emerged from the muzzle, spreading a dense and lethal spray effective up to 400 yards. The infantry fired as close to the enemy as possible before charging in with the bayonet. The consequences of such close-quarter encounters could be ghastly. At Malplaquet in 1709 Marlborough with an army of 86,000 attacked 75,000 French: casualties were 21,000 and 12,000 respectively. To deliver volley-fire like this demanded close control. The characteristic unit of the infantry in this age was the regiment of around 2,000–3,000 men, broken down into battalions, ranging in numbers from 500 to 1,000, which formed the basic tactical unit. These were subdivided into companies of about 200 controlled by officers, with sections under the command of NCOs. Discipline was the key to making men stand and fight – the blast of a close-quarter volley could decimate a battalion. It was widely observed that the unit which fired last usually won any encounter. At the battle of Fontenoy in 1745 a French officer called to his English opposite number: ‘Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers!’ The assumption underlying this invitation was that his own men were so regimented that they would absorb the shock and casualties of a volley, and then be in a position to deliver their own – all because they were so tightly disciplined. And beyond the volley lay the encounter with edged weapons.

Maurice de Saxe (1696–1750) was a progressive and experienced soldier of German birth who had fought in the armies of Austria, Russia and France, in the last rising to the rank of marshal. He thought that in the clash of battalions, the last to fire would be the victor, and urged attacking units to endure defending fire, to deliver their own volley at point-blank range, and to charge in with the bayonet. To the end of his life he believed that pikemen had their place on the battlefield. In this he was not alone. In 1702 a British soldier of Marlborough’s army complained that

My size made me a pikeman against my will, though indeed I liked that service, and thought it the most becoming and manly of all. There was an encouragement [to induce a brisk and smart motion in charging] of half a crown to everyone that should break a pike in that motion, and I had the good fortune to break two before I left the regiment.

Frederick the Great of Prussia was dismissive of firepower and urged his infantry to move swiftly to close quarters. There was plenty of pragmatic evidence that man-to-man battle at close quarters, or at least its prospect, was the ultimate physical and psychological weapon which broke defenders. In 1745 ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, the Stuart pretender to the English throne, won an extraordinary success at the battle of Prestonpans when his Highland swordsmen overran English regulars who were unnerved by their wild charge. As late as the battle of Busaco in 1809, an ensign with the British Guards reported the repulse of a French attack: ‘In the centre where at last the enemy made his grand push, we charged when he was within 100 yards, and our fire was reserved until they were flying.‘

Infantry were the backbone of eighteenth-century armies, but cavalry usually accounted for about 30 per cent of fighting men, a rather higher percentage than in the Middle Ages when ratios of 1:5 were common. They became increasingly specialised. Light cavalry were used for reconnaissance, to screen the movements of troops and in the business of plundering enemy territory. Heavy cavalry, often still equipped with the breastplate, hovered close to the infantry battalions, ready to use their speed to charge home if gaps opened in the enemy line. At Landen in July 1693 it was a cavalry charge which brought the French victory. In 1745 at Hohenfriedberg a chance charge by the Bayreuth dragoons saved the day for the Prussian army which was hard pressed by the Austrians. Cavalry regiments varied in size but quite normally numbered about 1,000 horsemen, divided into ten companies which were combined into squadrons.

Discipline was the means by which European armies overcame the limitations of their gunpowder weapons and maximised their power. In the eighteenth century armies still fought in phalanxes, but they enjoyed the enhanced killing range of gunpowder weapons which acted as a kind of longsword. But this could only be successful if it was accompanied by sensible organisation and enforced, and this is why corps of officers became vital. France had a numerous petty and often impoverished aristocracy whose cultural inheritance was contempt for labour and even trade. For such young men, commissions in the forces offered what they considered an honourable way of making a living. Pay was not good and often irregular, but officers were provided with servants from the other ranks and enjoyed considerable status in society. Moreover, if a man was promoted to company commander he could expect to make money, taking a cut from the administration of supplies and even charging for promotions. In the messes of regiments these young officers cultivated a warrior ethic centred around the notion of honour and its consequence – the duel. Rising young soldiers became clients of great men at court through whose influence they might hope to buy commissions and become colonels, with far greater hopes of profit from control of a whole regiment. Such patrons often inserted men of birth into these positions, and their wealth supported the troops, thus offsetting some of the crown’s costs.

Austrian and Prussian cuirassiers at the Battle of Lobositz on 1st October 1756

By contrast, the Hapsburg monarchy was a personal union of diverse and separate lands centred on Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, whose rulers had established a claim to the throne of the loose agglomeration of Germanic principalities, lordships and free cities known as the Holy Roman Empire. It did not form a coherent and centralised state like France, but a dynastic dominion, and in each of its lands the Estates, essentially representative of the nobility and Church, were anxious to preserve their own privileges. Service in the regular army never enjoyed great cachet amongst the nobles of the Hapsburg lands, especially those of Austria and Bohemia, partly because they could enjoy careers in local administration under the Estates, which they dominated.

However, the higher nobility controlled all senior commands because they could purchase commissions, and especially colonelcies, for their younger sons, and thus had an enormous advantage in the promotion race. But the lower-level officers were mainly commoners, often drawn from the peoples of the Ottoman frontier for whom war was a way of life. Moreover, Austria was prepared to recruit from all over Europe, as exemplified by its most famous soldier, Prince Eugene (1663–1736), born in Paris and rejected by the French army before moving on to the Hapsburgs. Even in the late eighteenth century foreigners sometimes raised entire regiments for the monarchy. The result was a less homogeneous and coherent officer corps than the French.

The Hohenzollern dynasty of Prussia, like the Hapsburgs, had scattered lands. East Prussia was separated by Polish territory from the family inheritance of Brandenburg, while Cleves and Julich lay far to the west on the Rhine. Frederick the Great Elector (1740–88) was conscious of being surrounded by hostile neighbours. He decided that he needed a standing army to fight off potential challenges and to grasp swiftly any opportunities for expansion which might present themselves. He therefore took steps to centralise government and, because his lands lacked great aristocrats, broke the power of local assemblies and drew in the aristocracy by making them officers. The despotism of Peter the Great similarly drove Russian aristocrats into the army.

The other ranks were filled by the poorest and least educated of the European population, inducted by a number of mechanisms. Service in the French army was voluntary, often stimulated by recruitment bonuses. But this was inadequate for the major expansion during the War of the Spanish Succession, so Louis XIV reinforced his standing army by resurrecting the ancient right of the king to call all free men to arms, creating a reserve force drawn from unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 40 selected by lot. In practice, middle-class people and substantial peasants could easily get exemptions, so most soldiers came from among the poorest in society. During this war the system provided about half the levies to Louis’s armies. It was, however, very unpopular, so in more normal times the state tempted volunteers by offering recruitment bonuses. The legal maximum of 60 livres was often exceeded and might, in time of war, reach 500 livres, five or six times an annual agricultural wage. But armies were rarely homogeneous. The French royal guard was Swiss, and many regiments recruited heavily from the German principalities.

Prussia, after the reforms of 1733, had a very systematic form of conscription. The whole realm was divided into districts rated by the number of hearths in each. Every regiment drew its soldiers from the district in which it was based, and each company recruited from an allocated subdivision or canton. In principle, every able-bodied man was eligible but conscription on such a scale would have bankrupted the state. As a result, the system was very selective. Exemptions were granted to the economically active and important; in short, the middle class. Since the system was supervised by landlords, in practice they decided which of the peasants were called to war.

The Prussian cantonal model produced highly disciplined soldiers whose service life was spent in groups who had known one another from birth, under the supervision of officers drawn from the landlord families who ruled their families in civilian life. Once they were trained, soldiers were often sent home to support themselves on the land, so relieving the state of the costs of their upkeep. Soldiers enjoyed enhanced status in the community for which they could sometimes speak, and this mitigated the harshness of the system and inculcated a degree of pride in it. This integration of home and service life created a highly disciplined force. But Prussia had a small population, and in time of war recruited soldiers from all over Germany and Central Europe. In 1729 Hanover came near to war with Prussia over the activities of aggressive recruiting officers. More than a third of the Prussian army were foreigners, though such men were retained only as long as war lasted, then dismissed to save money. Prisoners of war were routinely incorporated into victorious armies. In 1760–61 the Prussians were so desperate for men that they inducted prisoners at the point of capture. The regiments of the Russian army were conscripted, theoretically for life, from amongst the serfs. In practice landlords oversaw this process and the result was, as elsewhere, an arbitrary form of selective conscription.

The training of soldiers, necessarily in view of the poor quality and unwillingness of many of those inducted, focused on discipline. The tactics of the age required soldiers to march in column and then, when battle threatened, to deploy into line, a relatively complex manoeuvre. The business of loading and firing in frightening and distracting conditions was dinned into men, and they learned to respond to sudden changes in orders coming from their officers. Drill conditioned soldiers to perform their functions and to obey their commanders. Discipline mattered much more than skill: few infantrymen would have fired more than five live shots from their muskets before going into action. Draconian punishments were the order of the day. Frederick the Great ordered that NCOs should kill any man who turned in flight. Flogging continued in the British army throughout the nineteenth century, and ‘Field Punishment No. 1’ by which men were shackled to a wheel, into the twentieth. Even so, all armies suffered from appalling levels of desertion, which was in fact so prevalent that it was generally treated very mildly.

Infantry of the line, backed up by cavalry and artillery, were at the core of eighteenth-century armies, but it must not be thought that military development was everywhere the same even within Europe. Russia converted its army to a western model in order to fight the Swedes and others, but on the Black Sea steppe, where it confronted the Crimean Tatars, the Ottomans and other Mongol successor states, cavalry, especially the Don Cossacks, remained very important, supported by military settlements along the frontier. Similar methods underpinned the Russian expansion beyond the Urals and across Siberia, because they were well suited to the task of driving outward the frontiers in the forest-steppe. In Austria the Ottoman frontier was held by fortresses supported by military settlements. Mounted raiding was a way of life for both sides, and as a result Austrian cavalry was good, both on the battlefield and in harassing, and indeed the European vogue for hussars was copied from the huszár, a particular kind of Hungarian light cavalry. Frederick the Great of Prussia came to dread the ‘Croatians’, the generic name for Christians settled along the Ottoman border by the Hapsburgs. They made excellent light infantry who, in broken countryside, could inflict major damage on their enemies. During the eighteenth century skirmishing forces like these became increasingly important.

The British military structure was another variant. British elites were deeply suspicious of a large standing army because they feared the monarchy might use it to deprive them of their privileges and liberties. Accordingly they preferred to pay continental powers, like Austria, to fight against France, whose imperial ambitions conflicted with British interests all over the globe. But others were not always willing to fight Britain’s battles, and recipients tended to take the money and use it for their own ends, so that it became important to put armies in the field to influence events. The British filled their ranks with mercenaries, and Hanover, where their royal family originated, was a useful recruiting base. During the American Revolution men were raised from neighbouring lands in Germany; these ‘Hessians’ were much reviled by the American insurgents, but they were good soldiers. The purely British army was made up of volunteers, but the term voluntary is a relative one, and contemporaries had few illusions about the methods of recruiting officers, as satirised in Farquhar’s famous play, The Recruiting Officer (1706). Moreover, impressing men from the jails was not uncommon. The duke of Wellington was essentially correct, though perhaps harsh, when he described the British army: ‘People talk of their enlistment from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink.‘ British officers were recruited from the younger sons of the nobility and from the gentry; great aristocrats preferred other careers. But officers had to purchase their commissions or find a patron wealthy enough to do so, maintaining a certain social exclusivity. It is notable that most of the military figures of the eighteenth century came from the gentry or impoverished noble families.

British military expenditure focused on its fleet. The rise of the big-gun ship in the sixteenth century meant that temporary use of converted merchantmen was not viable. So, just as standing armies were becoming fashionable across Europe, permanent directly controlled fleets came into being. The ship-of-the-line, which would dominate warfare until the mid-nineteenth century, was a multi-decked wooden box constructed in such a way as to carry the maximum number of cannon while retaining manoeuvrability. By the late eighteenth century, the two-deck ‘74’, named for the number of guns, was the staple of the line of battle. By sailing in line and delivering their broadsides, fleets of this kind could drive an enemy from the seas, exposing his commerce to attack and isolated outposts and colonies to annexation. In many ways the ships-of-the-line and the infantry of the line were parallels, units designed to work together to deliver savage close-range volley-fire against their enemies. And after the cannonade boarding parties armed with edged weapons were vital to seize enemy ships. Lighter ships had their uses, preying upon or protecting trade, but naval domination depended on the ships-of-the-line.

The British, because of their geographic location, quickly appreciated the connection between commerce, industry and naval supremacy, and grasped the notion that force could exclude rivals from these important sources of wealth. An elaborate structure mobilised and sustained maritime power. The Board of Admiralty coordinated the work of many specialist boards like the Navy Board which was primarily in charge of dockyards, the Board of Victualling, the Ordnance Board and the Commission of Sick and Wounded. The fleet was hideously expensive. In 1664 parliament voted £2.5 million for the Dutch War, the largest single tax before the eighteenth century, but even so by 1666 the Admiralty had spent £3,200,516. This debt, and the lack of success, persuaded Charles II (1649–85) to negotiate for peace and to lay up the fleet, but before negotiations were finished the Dutch admiral, De Witt, made a great raid on the Medway ports, burning a number of ships-of-the-line and towing away the flagship, the Royal Charles. This disaster triggered a parliamentary inquiry, but essentially cemented the consensus of support in parliament which continued to vote money for the fleet.

HMS “Royal George” (3), 100-guns first rate ship of the line launch at Woolwich in 1756

Between 1688 and 1715 the number of cruisers designed to protect commerce rose from eight to sixty-six and ships-of-the-line from 100 to 131. At a time when most armies had only one cannon per 500 men, the greatest of these ships carried eighty. The 3,000 oaks needed for a man-of-war had to come from inland forests, and road transport more than doubled costs. Masts were imported from New England, spars and pitch from the Baltic and hemp from far overseas. When the French wars prevented the import of the best sails from Brittany, a competition, eventually successful, was held to provide substitutes of good quality. To accommodate and service such ships, stone docks had to be built and protected with great forts. The new Plymouth Yard, completed in 1700, cost £67,000 and by 1711 the royal dockyards were employing 6,488 officers and men. The navy was by far the greatest single enterprise in the British Isles.

Manning was a major problem because in peacetime many ships were mothballed and men paid off – there were limits to the peacetime navy just as there were to peacetime armies. Ships were relatively complex weapons systems and navigation was a delicate art, so that officers had to be educated. For the younger sons of petty gentry and bourgeoisie the navy offered good training and an honourable career, but one that, unlike the army, did not involve heavy investment in the purchase of a commission. And unlike the Church, the law and the academic life, a long and expensive education and a predisposition to scholarly activity were not required. For families, the prospect of unloading a young son at the age of 12 to be a petty officer was attractive. Moreover, such was the demand for special skills that non-commissioned officers and merchant sailors could earn commissions. The distinguished explorer Captain James Cook (1728–79), a farm manager’s son, served on Whitby coal ships before entering the Royal Navy in 1755 and, indeed, his famous ship, the Endeavour, was a converted collier. Officers were usually paid in arrears but with reasonable regularity, and the commander of a major ship-of-the-line could expect 20 shillings per day. Prize money from captured enemy shipping offered prospects of real wealth. In 1758 Captain Elliot took a French privateer, receiving £2,000 as his share. As against this, periods of half-pay were common when ships were decommissioned after wars.

But recruiting the ‘other ranks’ was a major problem, because ships ran on human expertise which took time to develop: native skills had always been a brake on military development. In peace, demand for manpower was fairly stable and time could be taken to train, but when war came ships had to be commissioned and men found quickly. The obvious source was the merchant marine, but in time of war this competed with the navy for trained seamen. There was a limit to what the government could afford to pay. As a consequence, conscription was introduced in the form of the ‘press-gang’ which operated in the streets of ports or at sea by boarding. Its prey was not just anybody – the law allowed ‘pressing’ only of sailors and the navy wanted skilled men. In a sense ‘the press’ was a tax on the huge success of British shipping which had been promoted by legislation such as the Navigation Acts of 1660 and 1663. Manning the navy was a perennial problem, but so it was for the main enemies, France and Holland. A substantial navy was bound to be expensive. In the second half of the seventeenth century France poured enormous resources into building a fleet. French ships in the eighteenth century were highly regarded and often used as models by the British, but their fine design gave relatively few additional advantages compared with the brute English drive to build and keep at sea numerous warships.


The Medieval Art of War I

“What is the function of orderly knighthood?” wrote the twelfth-century English philosopher John of Salisbury. “To protect the Church, to fight against treachery, to reverence the priesthood, to fend off injustice from the poor, to make peace in your own province, to shed blood for your brethren, and if needs must, to lay down your life.” This was a splendid ideal, often put into practice during the Middle Ages. It lingers still in the army-officer tradition of France and Germany, in the public-school tradition of England. To medieval men, knighthood was more than a career; it was a spiritual and emotional substructure for an entire way of life.

The knight, the chevalier, was a man who owned a cheval, who served in the cavalry, and who guided his life by chivalry. His duty was to fight the enemies of his feudal lord. Said the fourteenth-century French chronicler Jean Froissart: “Gentle knights were born to fight, and war ennobles all who engage in it without fear or cowardice.

Fighting was the gentleman’s trade. He had been bred to it from babyhood, with all his education directed toward toughening his body and spirit. His school was a guardroom in a military post; his home a castle, perpetually prepared against assault. As a vassal he was frequently summoned to wars of lord against lord, to be paid for his services with booty taken in the capture of an enemy castle or with goods plundered from merchants on the roads. Or he might receive a summons from his king, who found profit in making war. “Only a successful war could temporarily fill royal coffers and re-endow the king with fresh territory,” writes the scholar Denys Hay. “Every spring an efficient king tried to lead his warriors on aggressive expeditions. With peace came poverty.”

War was also the gentleman’s joy. Peacetime life in a grim castle could be very dull, for the typical noble had almost no cultural resources and few diversions besides hunting. Battle was the climax of his career as it was often the end. The noble troubadour Bertrand de Born speaks for his class: “I tell you that I have no such joy in eating, drinking, or sleeping as when I hear the cry from both sides: ‘Up and at ‘em!’, or as when I hear riderless horses whinny under the trees, and groans of ‘Help me! Help me!’, and when I see both great and small fall in the ditches and on the grass, and see the dead transfixed by spear-shafts! Barons, mortgage your castles, domains, cities, but never give up war!” (It is true that Dante, in the Inferno, saw the bellicose Bertrand de Born in hell, carrying his severed head before him as a lantern.)

As Europe became more stable, central governments more efficient, and the interests of commerce more powerful, the warlike ideal faded. The military organization of society yielded to a civil structure based on legality. In the late Middle Ages, knights found themselves out-of-date; war fell more and more into the hands of base ruffian mercenaries, sappers and miners, and artillerymen. The military traditions of the noble knight remained, but were transformed into the pageantry of which we read in Froissart. Commercialism altered the noble caste; around 1300, Philip the Fair of France openly sold knighthoods to rich burghers, who thereby gained exemption from taxes as well as social elevation. In our time, the chevalier has become a Knight of Pythias, or Columbus, or the Temple, who solemnly girds on sword and armor to march past his own drugstore.

The knight was originally the companion of his lord or king, formally admitted to fellowship with him. Around the year 1200, the church took over the dubbing of the knight and imposed its ritual and obligations on the ceremony, making it almost a sacrament. The candidate took a symbolic bath, donned clean white clothes and a red robe, and stood or knelt for ten hours in nightlong silence before the altar, on which his weapons and armor lay. At dawn, mass was said in front of an audience of knights and ladies. His sponsors presented him to his feudal lord and gave him his arms, with a prayer and a blessing said over each piece of equipment. An essential part of the ceremony was the fastening of the spurs; our phrase “he has won his spurs” preserves a memory of the moment. An elder knight struck the candidate’s neck or cheek a hard blow with the flat of the hand or the side of his sword. This was the only blow a knight must always endure and never return. The initiate took an oath to devote his sword to good causes, to defend the church against its enemies, to protect widows, orphans, and the poor, and to pursue evildoers. The ceremony ended with a display of horsemanship, martial games, and mock duels. It was all very impressive; the more earnest knights never forgot their vigils or belied their vows. It was also a very expensive undertaking, so much so that by the fourteenth century, many eligible gentlemen preferred to remain squires.

The knight was bound to serve his master in his wars, though in the early period of feudalism for only forty days a year. Wars were, then, necessarily brief – raids rather than actual wars. Few pitched battles occurred unless one party sent a challenge to fight at a set time and place. The commander’s purpose was not to defeat the enemy but rather to harm him by burning his villages, massacring his peasants, destroying his source of income, while he raged impotently but securely in his castle. “When two nobles quarrel,” wrote a contemporary, “the poor man’s thatch goes up in flames.” A chanson de geste of the period happily describes such an invasion: “They start to march. The scouts and the incendiaries lead; after them come the foragers who are to gather the spoils and carry them in the great baggage train. The tumult begins. The peasants, having just come out to the fields, turn back, uttering loud cries; the shepherds gather their flocks and drive them toward the neighboring woods in the hope of saving them. The incendiaries set the villages on fire, and the foragers visit and sack them. The distracted inhabitants are burnt or led apart with their hands tied to be held for ransom. Everywhere alarm bells ring, fear spreads from side to side and becomes general. On all sides one sees helmets shining, pennons floating, and horsemen covering the plain. Here hands are laid on money; there cattle, donkeys, and flocks are seized. The smoke spreads, the flames rise, the peasants and the shepherds in consternation flee in all directions . . . In the cities, in the towns, and on the small farms, wind-mills no longer turn, chimneys no longer smoke, the cocks have ceased their crowing and the dogs their barking. Grass grows in the houses and between the flag-stones of the churches, for the priests have abandoned the services of God, and the crucifixes lie broken on the ground. The pilgrim might go six days without finding anyone to give him a loaf of bread or a drop of wine. Freemen have no more business with their neighbors; briars and thorns grow where villages stood of old.”

With the coming of large-scale wars, such as William’s conquest of England, and with the crusades, the rudiments of strategy began. Military thinkers reflected on the role of cavalry and infantry, the choice of terrain, the use of archers, and the handling of reserve units.

The supreme cavalry tactic was the charge at full gallop against a defensive position. Terrified peasants would break and run before the oncoming menace of iron men on wild beasts. Nevertheless, the charge had its dangers for the attackers; in broken or swampy terrain it was ineffective, and a concealed ditch could bring it to naught. Stouthearted defenders could protect their position with rows of sharpened stakes planted at an angle between them and the enemy. In the face of such an obstacle, the most intrepid steed will refuse. If the defense possessed a well-drilled corps of bowmen, these would greet the charging knights with a hail of arrows or bolts. But they had only a few moments. The effective limit of an arrow was only about 150 yards, and good armor would deflect all but direct hits. A sensible archer aimed at the horse, for a knight once dismounted was at a serious disadvantage.

Once the cavalry charge was over, the battle became a series of hand-to-hand engagements. As the armies engaged, the archers retired, leaving the battle to the knights. The issue was decided by the number killed and wounded on either side; the side with fewer casualties held the field. The number of knights killed in battle was remarkably small, however; prisoners of distinction were held for ransom. There was even a curious traffic in captives, who were bought and sold by merchants on speculation. Non-ransomable prisoners were stripped of their precious armor, and then they were often finished off with a dagger to save the cost of maintaining them.

The medieval army, until the thirteenth century, consisted almost entirely of combatants, with very few of its men concerned with the auxiliary services and supplies. Medical services hardly existed, and soldiers had to forage for themselves, for the army was expected to live off the country. Usually about a third of the troops were mounted knights, although the proportion varied greatly with circumstances. Some of the infantry were professional soldiers, but most were peasants impressed for the campaign. They wore whatever armor they could provide, usually heavy leather jerkins reinforced with iron rings, and they carried shields, bows and arrows, swords, spears, axes, or clubs.

The knight’s equipment represented a compromise between offensive and defensive demands, or between the need for mobility and the need for self-protection. For offensive purposes, the queen of weapons was the sword. The knight, who had received it from the altar after a night of prayer, could regard it with holy awe as the symbol of his own life and honor. Certain swords are celebrated in legend, Arthur’s Excalibur, Roland’s Durendal. The pommel of the sword was often hollowed, to contain relics; to take an oath one clasped one’s hand on the sword hilt, and heaven took note. To suit individual tastes, there was much variation in the sword blade, grip, and guard. The most popular model had a tapering blade three inches wide at the hilt and thirty-two or thirty-three inches long. It was equally effective for cutting or thrusting. The steel blades were made of layered strips of iron, laboriously forged and tempered. Much learned discussion dealt with the relative merits of blades from Toledo, Saragossa, Damascus, Solingen, and Milan. Two-handed swords had their vogue, but the soldier who used one had to be very strong. Since neither arm was free to carry a shield, he was likely to be undone by an agile adversary while he was preparing his blow. These swords were best used for judicial beheading.

The lance or spear was the traditional weapon of the horseman, and it lingers to our own times as a symbol of the mounted knight. In 1939, the Polish cavalry, with ridiculous gallantry, carried lances into battle against German tanks. With a ten-foot steel-pointed spear, a charging knight could overthrow a mounted enemy or reach over a shield wall and pin his victim. But his spear was nearly useless after the first clash; the knight had to throw it away and take to the sword or battle-axe, which could deal cruel blows even through armor, often driving the links of chain mail into the wound, where they would fester and cause gangrene. Some knights carried a mace, or club, the most primitive of weapons, made all the more fearsome by the addition of deadly spikes. The mace was the badge in battle of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and it was also, as the scholar William Stearns Davis points out, “the favorite of martial bishops, abbots, and other churchmen, who thus evaded the letter of the canon forbidding clerics to ‘smite with the edge of the sword,’ or to ‘shed blood.’ The mace merely smote your foe senseless or dashed out his brains, without piercing his lungs or breast!” By one of history’s pretty ironies, the mace survives as a sanctified relic, borne before the president at college commencements by the most ornate member of the faculty.

Arming a knight was a slow process. In time, as the weight and complexity of armor increased, the chevalier was unable to prepare himself for conflict unaided. He had to sit down while a squire or squires pulled on his steel-mailed hose, and stand while they fitted the various pieces, fastening them with a multitude of straps and buckles. First came an undershirt, made of felted hair or quilted cotton, to bear the coat of mail, or hauberk. This was an actual shirt, usually extending to mid-thigh or even below the knee and composed of steel links riveted together. If well made, it could be very pliable and springy and could even be cut and tailored like cloth. A superb hauberk in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is composed of over 200,000 links and weighs only about nineteen pounds. Cruder coats of mail could weigh two or three times as much. Despite its strength, the hauberk did not fully protect the wearer against a mighty blow. It was also subject to rust; as a result very few early hauberks have survived to our own time. One method of derusting was to put the coat of mail with sand and vinegar into a leather bag and then toss it about. Our museums have adapted this technique for cleaning hauberks by making powered tumbling boxes.

Defensive armor steadily became more elaborate, with coifs to cover the neck and head, elbow pieces, knee guards, and greaves. Because the face remained vulnerable, helmets increased in weight and covered more and more of the face until they came to resemble cylindrical pots with slits for the eyes. As usual, security was gained at a cost. The knight had to bandage his head, for if he took a fall, he might easily sustain a brain concussion. William Marshal, a famous English champion who lived at the end of the twelfth century, won a tournament, and afterward could not be found to receive the prize. He was finally discovered at a blacksmith’s, with his head on the anvil and the smith hammering his battered helmet in an effort to remove it without killing the wearer. In a hot fight on a hot day, the sun beat down on the helmet; perspiration could not be wiped away, one could not hear orders or messages or utter comprehensible commands, and if the helmet was knocked askew, one was blind. There are many examples of death from heat stroke or from drowning after a fall into even a little stream. At Agincourt, many French knights fell into the deep trampled mud and suffocated. Moreover, the pot helmet concealed one’s identity; hence knights painted bearings on their helmets and shields. Thus, heraldry began.

In the fourteenth century, the hauberk yielded to plate armor, which was fitted to the figure and often magnificently decorated. A full suit of plate armor weighs sixty pounds or more. Just the helmet and cuirass of one French knight at Agincourt weighed ninety pounds. If properly articulated and well oiled, plate armor permitted much freedom of movement. A famous fifteenth-century French athlete could turn a somersault wearing all his armor but his helmet and could climb the under side of a scaling ladder using only his hands. But no matter how well equipped, the armored knight was still vulnerable. A base villein could stab his horse, a pikeman could hook him in the armpit and bring him down, and once dismounted, he was in a sorry state. He moved clumsily. His buttocks and crotch were unprotected to permit him to hold his seat in the saddle. If he fell on his back, he had to struggle like a turtle to right himself. A light-footed adversary could readily lift his visor, stab him in the eyes, and finish him off.

The shield was generally made of stout wooden boards, nailed together, bound by casein glue, and covered with heavy hide surrounded by a metal rim. Often it had a metal boss in the center to deflect the opponent’s sword blade. Foot soldiers carried round shields, but knights usually bore kite-shaped shields, which protected the legs.

To carry the steel-clad knight into battle or tourney, a heavy, powerful horse was needed. Such chargers were rare and costly in days when fodder was scarce and animals usually thin and small. Horse farmers bred them deliberately for size and strength. The Arabian strain was popular, and a white stallion was the most prized of all. Riding a mare was considered unknightly. To sustain the clash of battle, the horse needed long and careful training. His rider, cumbered with sword, shield, and spear, usually dropped the reins and guided his mount by spurring, leg pressures, and weight shifting.

The great weapon of infantry – and of Mongol and Turkish cavalry – was the bow and arrow. The short bow is very ancient, the property of most primitive peoples the world over. As we see in the Bayeux tapestry, it was drawn to the breast, not the ear; at short range it could be lethal. The six-foot longbow, shooting a three-foot “clothyard” shaft, was apparently a Welsh invention of the twelfth century; it became the favorite weapon of the English. Only a tall, strong man with long training could use it effectively. There is a knack: The bow-string is kept steady with the right hand and the body’s weight is pressed against the bow, held in the left hand one pushes instead of pulling, using the strength of the body more than that of the arm. At short range, the steel-headed arrow could penetrate any ordinary armor. A good archer could aim and deliver five shots a minute.

At the end of the twelfth century, with the general adoption of the crossbow as a weapon, the age of mechanized warfare began. The crossbow is a short instrument of steel or laminated wood, mounted on a stock. One draws it usually by setting its head upon the ground and turning a crank against a ratchet. A catch holds the drawn bow until one is ready to trigger the short, thick arrow, called the bolt or quarrel, which has great penetration at short range. The church deplored the use of this inhuman weapon, and many considered it to be unknightly. While a good longbowman could beat a crossbowman in range and rapidity of fire, with the new weapon the half-trained weakling could be almost the equal of the mighty archer.

The medieval art of war was centered upon the castle or stronghold, the nucleus for the control and administration of surrounding territory as well as the base for offensive operation. Within its walls, a little army could assemble and prepare for a little war. It was designed to repel the attacks of any enemy and to shelter the neighboring peasants fleeing with their flocks and herds before a marauder. The earliest castles of medieval times – such as those William the Conqueror built in England – were of the motte-and-bailey type. They were mere wooden structures with a watchtower, set on a mound, or motte, and surrounded by a ditch and palisade. Below the mound was a court, or bailey, within its own ditch and stockade, spacious enough to provide shelter for the domain’s staff of smiths, bakers, and other workers, and refuge for peasants in time of alarm. The motte-and-bailey castles were replaced by stone structures, many of which we still visit. The first datable stone donjon, or keep, was built in France at Langeais, overlooking the Loire, in 994. Stone construction had to await the progress of technology, effective stonecutting tools, hoisting devices, and winches. Once the techniques were mastered, castle building spread fast and far. A census taken in 1904 lists more than 10,000 castles still visible in France.

One could see the castle from afar on its commanding hill, or if it was in flat country, perched on an artificial mound. Sometimes the building gleamed with whitewash. The visitor passed a cleared space to the barbican, or gatehouse, which protected the entrance. Receiving permission to enter, he surrendered his weapon to the porter and crossed the drawbridge over the dank, scummy moat, the home of frogs and mosquitoes. Beyond the drawbridge hung the portcullis, a massive iron grating that could be dropped in a flash. Such a portcullis was discovered at Angers. Although it had not been used for 500 years, its chains and pulleys, when cleaned and oiled, still functioned. The castle’s entrance passages were angled to slow attackers and were commanded by arrow slits, or “murder holes,” in the walls above. At Caernarvon Castle in Wales the visitor has to cross a first drawbridge, then pass five doors and six portcullises, make a right-angled turn and cross a second drawbridge.

One traversed the enormous walls, sometimes fifteen or twenty feet thick, to reach the inner bailey. The walls were topped by runways, with crenelated battlements to protect defending archers and with machicolations, or projections with open bottoms through which missiles or boiling liquids could be dropped. At intervals, the wall swelled out into bastions, which commanded the castle’s whole exterior. If by some unlikely chance an attacker succeeded in penetrating the interior, he could not be sure of victory. The different sections of the parapets were separated by wooden bridges, which could be destroyed in a moment to isolate the enemy. In the winding stairways within the walls, there were occasional wooden stairs instead of stone ones; these could be removed, so that an unwary assailant, hurrying in the gloom, would drop suddenly into a dungeon.

The heart of the defensive system was the keep, a tower sometimes 200 feet high and with walls twelve feet thick. Underground, beneath the keep, were the oubliettes, dungeons opening only at the top and used for prisons or for storing siege provisions, and enclosing, if possible, a well. Above were living quarters for the noble and his guardsmen, and at the top, a watchtower with a heraldic banner flying from it.

The stoutness of the castles is made evident by their survival on many hilltops of Europe and Syria. During World War II, some sustained direct hits by high-explosive and incendiary bombs, with little effect. At Norwich and Southampton, the medieval walls were hardly harmed by bombardment, whereas most of the houses built against them were destroyed.

But the castles were not impregnable. Remarkable siege engines were invented, especially by the Byzantines – battering rams, catapults that hurled stone balls weighing as much as 150 pounds, arbalests, or gigantic crossbows. Miners would patiently and dangerously dig a tunnel under the moat, under the very walls. The tunnel was propped with heavy timbers and filled with combustibles. These were ignited, the props were consumed, and with luck, a section of the wall would fall into the moat. At the same time, archers drove the defenders from the battlements. Soldiers ran forward with bales of hay, baskets of earth, or other material, to fill the moat. Others followed them across this causeway and hung scaling ladders against the walls, with shields held over their heads to deflect missiles. To climb a ladder holding the shield on one arm and keeping a hand ready to grasp the dangling sword is no small achievement. An alternative method of attack was to construct a wheeled wooden siege tower as high as the wall, with a commando party concealed on the top story. The tower was pushed up to the wall, and a drawbridge dropped, on which the gallant band of assailants crossed to the battlements. It was in this manner that the crusaders took Jerusalem.

The casualties in storming a castle were usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable. There are many examples of successful attacks on supposedly impregnable castles and towns. Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre with his siege machines in 1191. Edward, Prince of Wales, “the Black Prince,” took Limoges in 1370 by mining and direct assault. Irritated by the resistance, he commanded that more than 300 men, women, and children be beheaded. “It was great pity to see them kneeling before the prince, begging for mercy; but he took no heed of them,” says Froissart, with hardly a hint of reprobation. In general, however, the defense of castles and walled towns was stronger than the offense. By far the best way to reduce a stronghold was to find a traitor within the walls, and if one could not be discovered, then to starve out the garrison. But a prudent castellan kept his fort well stocked with a year’s supply of food, drink, and fuel. Hence, sieges could often be very long, lasting as much as two years, and were almost as exhausting to the besiegers as to the besieged.

The dwindling of feudalism and of the nobles’ independence and the introduction of gunpowder and siege cannons in the fourteenth century made the castle obsolete. Gentlemen abandoned the discomforts of life in an isolated stone prison without regret. They much preferred a spacious manor house or a residence in town among their own kind.

War was waged on the high seas as well as on land. In time of need, the monarch would simply commandeer his nation’s merchant vessels. These might displace 200 tons or more; by the fifteenth century, we find even 1,000-tonners. A crusader’s ship could transport 1,000 soldiers with their horses and equipment. The ingenious Frederick II built for his crusade fifty vessels, similar to modern landing craft, with doors at the waterline, so that knights could disembark on horseback. In the Mediterranean, the Byzantines, Venetians, and Genoese favored long, narrow galleys, very maneuverable and with formidable beaks for ramming the enemy.

The admiral built on his merchant ships a forecastle and a sterncastle, from which his archers could fire down on the enemy’s decks. His purpose was to sink his opponent by ramming, or if that did not work, to grapple and disable him by cutting his rigging and then boarding. For hand-to-hand combat, he was likely to carry quicklime to blind the defenders, and soft soap mixed with sharp bits of iron to render their footing precarious. The Byzantines mounted catapults on their ships; they also introduced the West to Greek Fire, apparently a mixture of petroleum, quicklime, and sulphur. The quicklime in contact with water ignited the bomb, a primitive napalm.

The medieval art of war found its great exemplification in the crusades. The organization of an expeditionary force calls into question familiar logistics; the prosecution of a distant war demands new strategies and tactics; out of battles with strange foes in far lands emerge new weapons, new techniques of warfare. The crusaders learned much from the Byzantines’ well-drilled, professional infantry, from their advanced weaponry and engineering. The crusaders’ vast castles in the Levant were constructed according to traditional Byzantine principles of fortification.

The crusades were a great historical novelty; they were the first wars fought for an ideal. Naturally the ideal was promptly corrupted and falsified. But the fact remains that the crusades were conceived as a service to the Christian God, and the crusaders thought themselves, at least intermittently, the consecrated servants of holy purpose. The crusades were many things, but originally they were a beautiful, noble idea.

The idea of a crusade owes something to the Old Testament, something to the Muslim example of a jihad, or holy war. It owes something, too, to the inflammatory preaching of illuminate monks, and a great deal to the beginning of the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors; this combined the triumph of the faith with the acquisition of rich properties. But the chief stimulation of the idea came in news from the East.

By the end of the first millennium, the Near East had attained a kind of stability, with the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs holding each other at a standstill. The pilgrim route to Jerusalem was kept open and secure, and the Holy City, itself in Muslim hands, was operated as a sanctified tourist attraction for both Muslims and Christians. The comfortable balance was upset by the Seljuk Turks, who captured Jerusalem, defeated the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor in 1071, and harassed the Christian pilgrims. Hard pressed by the Turks, the Eastern emperor, Alexius Comnenus, at length appealed to the pope and to the West for military aid against the pagan foe. He asked for a mercenary army that would recapture his territories in Asia Minor and pay itself from the proceeds. He was not much interested in the Holy Land.

The pope who launched the crusade was Urban II, a French noble who had humbled himself to become a Cluniac monk and then had been exalted to the papal throne. He was a vessel of holy zeal, wise in men’s ways. Emperor Alexius’s appeal stirred in him a vision of a gigantic effort by Western Christendom to regain the Holy Sepulcher. The union of military resources under the pope’s control would end the wars of Europe’s princes, would bring peace in the West, and in the East, Christian unity in spiritual purpose; it might even link – under papal leadership – Eastern and Western churches, long painfully at odds. The times were propitious for the realization of such a dream. Faith was ardent and uncritical. Europe’s population was increasing, men were restless, looking for new lands, new outlets of energy. They seemed to be begging for a worthy use for their idle swords.

At the Council of Clermont in south central France in November 1095, Pope Urban, tall, handsome, bearded, made one of the most potent speeches in all history. He summoned the French people to wrest the Holy Sepulcher from the foul hands of the Turks. France, he said, was already overcrowded. It could barely support its sons, whereas Canaan was, in God’s own words, a land flowing with milk and honey. Hark to Jerusalem’s pitiful appeal! Frenchmen, cease your abject quarrels and turn your swords to God’s own service! Be sure that you will have a rich reward on earth and everlasting glory in heaven! The pope bowed his head, and the whole assembly resounded with acclaim: “Dieu le veult!” – “God wills it!” Snippets of red cloth were crossed and pinned on the breasts of the many who on the spot fervently vowed to “take the cross.” It was a spectacle to rejoice the heart of any revivalist. Astutely, Pope Urban had roused men’s emotional ardor for the faith, and as if unaware, had tickled their cupidity. All his hearers had been bred on Bible stories of the rich fields and flocks and blooming meadows of Canaan; they confused the actual city of Jerusalem with the Heavenly City, walled in pearl, lighted by God’s effulgence, with living water flowing down its silver streets. A poor crusader might find himself tempted by a fief of holy land; and if he should fall, he was assured, by papal promise, of a seat in heaven. The pope also offered every crusader an indulgence, or remission of many years in purgatory after death. Urban appealed, finally, to the strong sporting sense of the nobles. Here was a new war game against monstrous foes, giants and dragons; it was “a tournament of heaven and hell.” In short, says the historian Friedrich Heer, the crusades were promoted with all the devices of the propagandist – atrocity stories, oversimplification, lies, inflammatory speeches.

The Medieval Art of War II

The pope was taken aback by the success of his proposal. No plans had been made for the prosecution of the crusade. Several important kings of Christendom happened to be excommunicated at the time. Urban placed the bishop of Le Puy in charge of the undertaking, and French nobles assumed military control. The church’s entire organization was set to the task of obtaining recruits, money, supplies, and transportation. In some regions, under the spell of compelling voices, enthusiasm was extreme. Reports the chronicler William of Malmesbury: “The Welshman left his hunting, the Scot his fellowship with vermin, the Dane his drinking party, the Norwegian his raw fish. Lands were deserted of their husbandmen, houses of their inhabitants; even whole cities migrated.” Proudly the dedicated wore their red crosses or exhibited scars in the form of the cross on their breasts.

The crusades began with grotesqueries, comic and horrible. A band of Germans followed a goose they held to be God-inspired. Peter the Hermit, a fanatic, filthy, barefoot French monk, short and swarthy, with a long, lean face that strangely resembled that of his own donkey, preached a private crusade – known as the Peasants’ Crusade – and promised his followers that God would guide them to the Holy City. In Germany, Walter the Penniless emulated Peter. Motley hordes of enthusiasts – having plucked Peter’s poor donkey totally hairless in their quest for souvenirs – marched through Germany and the Balkan lands, killing Jews by the thousands on their way, plundering and destroying. The Byzantine Emperor Alexius sent them with all haste into Asia Minor, where they supported themselves briefly by robbing Christian villagers. They were caught in two batches by the Turks, who gave the first group the choice of conversion to Islam or death and massacred the second group. Peter the Hermit, who was in Constantinople on business, was one of the few to escape the general doom.

The first proper crusade got under way in the autumn of 1096. Its armies followed several courses, by sea and land, to a rendezvous in Constantinople. The crusaders’ numbers are very uncertain; the total may have been as low as 30,000 or as high as 100,000. At any rate, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius was surprised by the multitude and was hard put to find food for them. He was also displeased by their character. He had asked for trained soldiers, but he received a vast and miscellaneous throng of undisciplined enthusiasts that included clergy, women, and children. Only the mounted knights made a good military show, and even they behaved with Frankish arrogance. One sat down comically on the emperor’s own throne. Alexius, swallowing his anger, offered money, food, and troops to escort the expedition across Asia Minor. In return, he asked an oath of allegiance for Byzantine territories the crusaders might recapture. This was given more than grudgingly. Mutual ill will and scorn were rife. Many high-hearted Franks vowed that the Byzantine allies were as much their enemies as were the Turks.

In the spring of 1097, Alexius hustled his troublesome guests out of the capital on their way through Asia Minor toward the Promised Land. It was a dreadful journey. The Asian uplands were dry and barren; the few local peasants fled before the invader, carrying with them their goats and sheep and tiny stocks of grain. Hunger and thirst assailed the marchers. Accustomed to the abundant water supply of their homelands, many had not even provided themselves with water canteens. Knights marched on foot, discarding armor; horses died of thirst, lack of forage, and disease; sheep, goats, and dogs were collected to pull the baggage train. A part of the army crossed the Anti-Taurus range in a flood of rain on a muddy path skirting precipices. Horses and pack animals, roped together, fell into the abyss. Continually the Turks attacked the column. Their bowmen, mounted on fast little horses, discharged a hail of arrows at a gallop and fled before a counterattack could be organized. Their devices were ambush, feigned retreat, and the annihilation of the enemy’s foraging parties. Such hit-and-run tactics, new to the Westerners, shocked their sense of military propriety.

The survivors came down to the Mediterranean at its northeastern corner and found some reinforcements that had come by ship. The fainthearts and the greedy revealed themselves. Stephen of Blois, brother-in-law of one English king and father of another, deserted; but when he got home, he was sent back, reportedly by his high-spirited wife. Peter the Hermit, who had joined up, fled for good. Baldwin of Boulogne managed to establish himself as ruler of the county of Edessa and was lost for a time to the great enterprise.

The main body camped before the enormous stronghold of Antioch, which barred all progress south toward Jerusalem. An epic eight-month-long siege ensued, enlivened by such bizarre interludes as the appearance of the Byzantine patriarch hanging from the battlements in a cage. Because of treachery within the walls, Antioch was finally taken in June 1098. The Christian army then moved cautiously toward Jerusalem. By any modern standards, it was a tiny force, numbering by then perhaps 12,000, including 1,200 or 1,300 cavalry. The invaders were shocked to find Canaan a stony, barren land. There is an old Eastern story that at the Creation the angels were transporting the entire world’s supply of stones in a sack, which burst as they flew over Palestine. No milk and honey flowed in the gray gullies, not even water. The blazing summer sun on the treeless plain came as a surprise. Men and horses suffered grievously from the lack of shade. The sun smote down on steel helmets, seeming to roast the soldiers’ dancing brains. Coats of mail blistered incautious fingers until the crusaders learned to cover them with a linen surcoat. Within the armor, complaining bodies longed to sweat, but in vain, for there was no water to produce sweat. The soldiers were afflicted with inaccessible itchings, with the abrasions of armor, with greedy flies and intimate insects.

By the best of luck or by divine direction, the Turks were at odds with the Arab caliphate in Baghdad, and the country was ill defended. The crusaders made their way south by valor and by threat and bribes to the Muslim garrisons. Finally on June 7, 1099, the army camped before the beetling walls of Jerusalem.

Eyewitness, Foucher de Chartres tells the story of the assault. “Engineers were ordered to build machines that could be moved up to the walls and, with God’s help, thus achieve the result of their hopes. . . . Once the engines were ready, that is the battering rams and the mining devices, they prepared for the assault. Among other contrivances, they fastened together a tower made of small pieces of wood, because large timber was lacking. At night, at a given order, they carried it piece by piece to the most favorable point of the city. And so, in the morning, after preparing the catapults and other contraptions, they very quickly set it up, fitted together, not far from the wall. Then a few daring soldiers at the sound of the trumpet mounted it, and from that position they immediately began to launch stones and arrows. In retaliation against them the Saracens proceeded to defend themselves similarly and with their slings hurled flaming brands soaked in oil and fat and fitted with small torches on the previously mentioned tower and the soldiers on it. Many therefore fighting in this manner on either side met ever-present death. . . . [The next day] the Franks entered the city at midday, on the day dedicated to Venus, with bugles blowing and all in an uproar and manfully attacking and crying ‘Help us, God!’ . . .”

Once the crusaders had taken control of the city, they began to massacre the inhabitants. “Some of our men,” wrote the twelfth-century chronicler Raymond of Agiles, “cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.

“Now that the city was taken it was worth all our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang the ninth chant to the Lord. It was the ninth day . . . The ninth sermon, the ninth chant was demanded by all. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity and the humiliation of paganism; our faith was renewed. The Lord made this day, and we rejoiced and exulted in it, for on this day the Lord revealed Himself to His people and blessed them.”

Soon after the capture, most of the army went home, having fulfilled their vows. Godfrey of Bouillon, who had been chosen ruler of Jerusalem, was left with only 1,000 or 2,000 infantrymen and a few hundred knights to control a hostile land populated by Arabs, Jews, heretical Christians, and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to the great historian of the crusades Stephen Runciman, the massacre at Jerusalem is unforgotten. “It was this bloodthirsty proof of Christian fanaticism that re-created the fanaticism of Islam.”

The crusaders set about strengthening their hold on the country, constructing those gigantic, practically impregnable castles that still fill us with awe. Little by little they acclimated themselves, learning Arabic, adopting the sensible Oriental dress – burnoose and turban – and such congenial local institutions as the harem. They married Armenian and other local Christian women. Their children were brought up by Arab nurses and tutors. In Jerusalem and the coastal cities nobles and merchants lived in fine houses, with carpets, damask hangings, carved inlaid tables, dinner services of gold and silver. Their ladies were veiled against the enemy sun; they painted their faces and walked with a mincing gait. Before long a social class developed of the native-born, the Old Settlers, at home in the East. They had their good friends among the native gentry and would hunt, joust, and feast with them. They took their religion easily, with a tolerant smile for the excessive devotions of other Christians newly arrived in the East. They set aside chapels in their churches for Muslim worship, and the Muslims reciprocated by installing Christian chapels in their mosques. After all, when one can see the Holy Places any day, one gets used to them.

To swell the ranks of the crusaders, mostly pious fighting men of gentle birth, newcomers kept arriving from Europe. A young gentleman, inspired for whatever motive to take the cross, had first to raise his passage money, often by mortgaging his land or by ceding some feudal rights. He heard a farewell sermon in his village church and kissed his friends and kinsmen good-by, very likely for ever. Since the road across Asia Minor had become increasingly unsafe, he rode to Marseilles or Genoa and took passage with a shipmaster. He was assigned a space fixed at two feet by five in the ‘tween decks; his head was to lie between the feet of another pilgrim. He bargained for some of his food with the cargador, or chief steward, but he was advised to carry provisions of his own – salt meat, cheese, biscuit, dried fruits, and syrup of roses to check diarrhea.

For the devout young warrior willing to accept celibacy, a career opened in the military orders, which were the kingdom’s main defenders against the Saracens. The Knights Hospitalers had already been established before the conquest as an order of volunteers caring for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem. They took monastic vows and followed the Benedictine Rule, adopting as their symbol the white Maltese cross. After the conquest, they became the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, owing obedience to the pope alone. Their hostel in Jerusalem could lodge 1,000 pilgrims. Because they policed the pilgrim routes, their interests became more and more military. In later centuries, they transferred the site of their operation and were known as the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights of Malta. Today their successors constitute a powerful Roman Catholic order of distinguished key men, and in England, a Protestant offshoot, which still maintains a hospital in Jerusalem.

The Knights Templars, the valiant red-cross knights, were established in 1118, with their headquarters in the Dome of the Rock, which the crusaders believed to be Solomon’s Temple. Their first duty was to protect the road to Jerusalem. Soon both Hospitalers and Templars were involved in almost every fray between the crusaders and the Saracens, acting as a kind of volunteer police. The rulers of the Christian states had no control over them; they had their own castles, made their own policy, even signed their own treaties. Often they were as much at odds with other Christians as with the Muslims. Some went over to Islam, and others were influenced by Muslim mystical practices. The order in France was all but destroyed in the fourteenth century by Philip IV, eager to confiscate the Templars’ wealth. Today the Freemasons have inherited their name and ancient mysteries.

Another fighting monastic order was the Teutonic Knights, whose membership was restricted to Germans of noble birth. They abandoned the Holy Land in 1291 and transferred their activities to the lands of the eastern Baltic. There they spread the Gospel largely by exterminating the heathen Slavs and by replacing them with God-fearing Germans.

The active period of Christian conquest ended in 1144 with the recapture by the Turks of the Christian county of Edessa. Thereafter, the Westerners were generally on the defensive. The news of the fall of Edessa shocked Europe. The great Saint Bernard of Clairvaux quickly promoted a new crusade – the second. At Easter in 1146, a host of pilgrims gathered at Vézelay to hear Bernard preach. Half the crowd took the crusader’s vow; as material for making crosses gave out, the saint offered up his own gown and cowl to be cut to provide more material.

Inspired by Bernard, the French King Louis VII decided to lead his army to the Holy Land, and Louis’s mettlesome queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, determined to go along. Bernard went to Germany to recruit King Conrad III for the expedition. On their way to Constantinople, both the French and the German expeditions found themselves as welcome as a plague of locusts. The cities along the route closed their gates and would supply food only by letting it down from the walls in baskets, after cash payment. Therefore the crusaders – especially the Germans – burned and pillaged defenseless farms and villages, and even attacked a monastery. In Constantinople, the Germans were received more than coolly by the emperor, who had come to the conclusion that the crusades were a mere trick of Western imperialism.

Somehow the crusaders made their way across Asia Minor, suffering heavy losses on the way. Although the armies and their monarchs were bitterly hostile to each other, they united to attack Damascus; but the attack was unsuccessful, and in their retreat, the crusading armies were largely destroyed. The kings left the Holy Land in disgust, acknowledging that the crusade was a total fiasco. Only Queen Eleanor had made the best of things during the journey, carrying on a notorious affair with her youthful uncle, Raymond II, prince of Antioch.

The Muslims continued nibbling at the Christian holdings, and in 1187, they captured Jerusalem. Their great general, Saladin, refused to follow the Christian precedent of massacring the city’s inhabitants. He offered his captives for ransom, guaranteeing them safe passage to their own lines. The news of Jerusalem’s fall inspired yet a third crusade, led by Philip Augustus of France, Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, who was drowned on his way to the East.

Warring nations often have a pet enemy – in the First World War, Count von Luckner, in the second, General Rommel. To the crusaders, Saladin was such a gallant foe. When he attacked the castle of Kerak during the wedding feast of the heir to Transjordania, the groom’s mother sent out to him some dainties from the feast, with the reminder that he had carried her, as a child, in his arms. Saladin inquired in which tower the happy couple would lodge, and this he graciously spared while attacking the rest of the castle. He was fond of a joke. He planted a piece of the True Cross at the threshold of his tent, where everyone who came to see him must tread on it. He got some pilgrim monks drunk and put them to bed with wanton Muslim women, thus robbing them of all spiritual reward for their lifetime toils and trials. In a battle with Richard the Lion-Hearted, Saladin saw Richard’s horse fall, generously sent him a groom with two fresh horses – and lost the battle. And when Richard came down with fever, Saladin sent him peaches, pears, and snow from Mt. Hermon. Richard, not to be outdone in courtesy, proposed that his sister should marry Saladin’s brother, and that the pair should receive the city of Jerusalem as a wedding present. It would have been a happy solution.

Though Richard captured Acre in 1191 (with the aid of a great catapult known as Bad Neighbor, a stone thrower, God’s Own Sling, and a grappling ladder, The Cat), he could not regain Jerusalem. He had to be content with negotiating an agreement that opened the way to the Holy City to Christian pilgrims. The third crusade marked, on the whole, a moral failure. It ended in compromise with the Muslims and in dissension among the Christians. The popes lost control of their enterprise; they could not even save their champion, Richard the Lion-Hearted, from imprisonment when he was taken captive by the duke of Austria, who resented an insult he had received from Richard during the crusade. Idealism and self-sacrifice for a holy cause became less common, and most recruits who went to the Holy Land were primarily looking for quick returns. People accused the men collecting taxes to pay for a new crusade and even the pope himself of diverting the money to other purposes.

In 1198, the great Innocent III acceded to the papacy and promoted another expedition, the lamentable fourth crusade. Its agents made a contract with the Venetians for the transport to the Holy Land of about 30,000 men and 4,500 horses. However, by embarkation day, the expeditionaries had raised only about half the passage money. The Venetians, always businessmen, offered the crusaders an arrangement: If they would capture for Venice the rival commercial city of Zara in Dalmatia, which the Venetians described as a nest of pirates, they would be transported at a cheaper rate. Zara was efficiently taken, to the horror of Pope Innocent, for Zara was a Catholic city, and its Hungarian overlord was a vassal of the Apostolic See. Now that the precedent of a crusade against Christians was set, the leaders, at Venetian urging, espoused the cause of a deposed, imprisoned, blinded Byzantine emperor, Isaac Angelus. By restoring him to his throne, they would right a great wrong, return the East to communion with the Roman church, and receive from their Byzantine protégé men and money for a later conquest of Egypt. The pope was persuaded to look on the project with favor, and the ships of the fourth crusade set sail for Constantinople.

The noble city was taken by storm on April 12, 1204. The three-day spree that followed is memorable in the history of looting. The French and Flemish crusaders, drunk with powerful Greek wines, destroyed more than they carried off. They did not spare monasteries, churches, libraries. In Santa Sophia, they drank from the altar vessels while a prostitute sat on the patriarch’s throne and sang ribald French soldiers’ songs. The emperor, regarded as a wicked usurper, was taken to the top of a high marble column and pushed off, “because it was fitting that such a signal act of justice should be seen by everyone.”

Then the real booty, the Eastern Empire, was divided. Venice somehow received all the best morsels: certain islands of the Aegean and seaports on the Greek and

Asian mainlands. The Franks became dukes and princes of wide lands in Greece and in Macedonia, where one still sees the massive stumps of their castles. The papal legate accompanying the troops absolved all who had taken the cross from continuing on to the Holy Land to fulfill their vows. The fourth crusade brought no succor to Christian Palestine. On the contrary, a good many knights left the Holy Land for Constantinople, to share in the distribution of land and honors.

“There was never a greater crime against humanity than the fourth crusade,” says Stephen Runciman. It destroyed the treasures of the past and broke down the most advanced culture of Europe. Far from uniting Eastern and Western Christendom, it implanted in the Greeks a hostility toward the West that has never entirely disappeared, and it weakened the Byzantine defenses against the rising power of the Ottoman Turks, to whom they eventually succumbed.

A few years later, the crusading spirit staged a travesty upon itself. Two twelve-year-old boys, Stephen in France and Nicholas in Germany, preached a children’s crusade, promising their followers that angels would guide them and that the seas would divide before them. Thousands of boy and girls joined the crusade, along with clerics, vagabonds, and prostitutes. Miracle stories allege that flocks of birds and swarms of butterflies accompanied the group as it headed southward over the mountains to the sea, which, however, did not divide to let them pass. Innocent III told a delegation to go home and grow up. A few of the Germans managed to reach Palestine, where they disappeared. The French party fell into the hands not of angels but of two of the worst scoundrels in history, Hugh the Iron and William of Posquères, Marseilles shipowners, who offered the young crusaders free transport to the Holy Land, but carried them instead to Bougie in North Africa and sold them as slaves to Arab dealers.

The melancholy tale of the later crusades can be briefly told. Unable to recapture Jerusalem, the strategists tried to seize Egypt, one of the great bases of Muslim power. In 1219, after a siege of a year and a half, an expedition took Damietta, on one of the mouths of the Nile. But the Christians were able to hold on to the city for only a few years. Again in 1249, Saint Louis invaded Egypt, hoping to retake it, but he was unsuccessful.

There were numerous attempts to recapture Jerusalem after it had fallen to the Saracens. The Emperor Frederick II’s rather comic expedition of 1228 resembled a goodwill tour rather than a crusade. The mood of the times had changed. It now suited almost everybody to maintain the status quo. The Muslims were threatened from the east by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his equally formidable successors; they wanted no little wars in Palestine. The Christian Old Settlers had developed a thriving import-export trade in Oriental goods, with merchandise brought by camel caravan to the coastal cities to be shipped to Europe. They had enough of visiting zealots, who were eager to plunge into furious battle, commit a few atrocities, break the precarious peace, and then go home, leaving the Old Settlers holding the bag.

With want of enthusiasm, want of new recruits, want, indeed, of stout purpose, the remaining Christian principalities gradually crumbled. Antioch fell in 1268, the Hospitaler fortress of Krak des Chevaliers in 1271. In 1291, with the capture of the last great stronghold, Acre, the Muslims had regained all their possessions, and the great crusades ended, in failure.

Why? What went wrong? There was a failure of morale, clearly; there was also a failure in military organization and direction. The popes were no commanders in chief; the various allied armies were riven by dissension; there was no unity of command or strategy in the rival principalities of Palestine and Syria. The military means available were insufficient to maintain the conquest; with the distance from European bases so great, supply problems were insuperable. The armies were over-officered , for the crusades were regarded as a gentleman’s game, and poor men soon ceased to volunteer. And always there was the wastage caused by malaria, dysentery, and mysterious Oriental diseases.

As the historian Henri Pirenne has pointed out, the crusades did not correspond to any temporal aim. Europe had no need for Jerusalem and Syria. It needed, rather, a strong Eastern Empire to be a bulwark against the agressive Turks and Mongols; and this empire the crusaders destroyed with their own swords. In Spain, on the other hand, the crusading spirit was successful because it matched a political need.

It is easy enough for us to see that the early enthusiasm of the crusaders was based on illusion. Long before the forms and phraseology of the crusades were abandoned, disillusionment had set in. The character of the later recruits changed. Many went out to the East to escape paying their debts; judges gave criminals their choice of jail or taking the cross. After the defeat of Saint Louis in 1250, preachers of a crusade were publicly insulted. When mendicant monks asked alms, people would summon a beggar and give him a coin, not in the name of Christ, who did not protect his own, but in that of Mohammed, who had proved to be stronger. Around 1270, a former master general of the Dominican order wrote that few still believed in the spiritual merit promised by the crusades. A French monk addressed God directly: “He is a fool who follows you into battle.” The troubadours and the minnesingers mocked the church, and Walther von der Vogelweide called the pope the new Judas. There were counter-crusades in France and Germany. The dean and chapter of the cathedral at Passau preached a crusade against the papal legate; in Regensburg, anyone found wearing a crusader’s cross was condemned to death. A pacifist party arose, led by the Spiritual Franciscans. “Don’t kill the heathen; convert them!” was their cry. At first the crusades had strengthened the church, but eventually the papacy’s sponsorship of warfare came to undermine its spiritual authority.

The effects of the crusades on the lay world were mixed. Troublesome younger sons were packed off to the Holy Land so they could not disturb the peace at home. The rising middle class benefited by lending money to the crusaders and selling them supplies. Many a peasant and serf bought his freedom from his master, who needed cash for travel expenses, and discovered a new trade in the swelling cities.

The crusades coincided more or less with the West’s rediscovery of the East. Traders, of whom the best known is Marco Polo, found their way to the Mongol Empire in the Far East and organized a great international business, both overland and seaborne. Eastern products became common in the West – rice, sugar, sesame, lemons, melons, apricots, spinach, and artichokes. The spice trade boomed; the West learned to appreciate cloves and ginger and to delight in exotic perfumes. Eastern materials had a mighty vogue – muslins, cottons, satins, damasks, rugs, and tapestries; and new colors and dyes – indigo, carmine, and lilac. The West adopted Arabic numerals in place of the impossible Roman system. Even the rosary is said to have come to Christian Europe by way of Syria.

The crusades stimulated Europe’s economy. Trade became big business as the new devices of banking and credit, developed during the period, came into common use. Europe’s imagination was also stimulated, for the crusaders gave rise to a rich vernacular literature, epic poems, histories, memoirs. And the heroic ideal, however abused, possessed the Western imagination and still lives there as the great example of self-sacrifice for a holy cause.

‘Valkyrie’- 20 July 1944 Part I

1. Office and barracks of Hitler’s bodyguard

2. RSD command centre

3. Emergency generator

4. Bunker

5. Office of Otto Dietrich, Hitler’s press secretary

6. Conference room, site 20 July 1944 assassination attempt

7. RSD command post

8. Guest bunker and air-raid shelter

9. RSD command post

10. Secretariat under Philipp Bouhler

11. Headquarters of Johann Rattenhuber, SS chief of Hitler’s security department, and Post Office

12. Radio and telex buildings

13. Vehicle garages

14. Railway siding for Hitler’s Train

15. Cinema

16. Generator buildings

17. Quarters of Morell, Bodenschatz, Hewel, Voß, Wolff and Fegelein

18. Stores

19. Residence of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary

20. Bormann’s personal air-raid shelter for himself and staff

21. Office of Hitler’s adjutant and the Wehrmacht’s personnel office

22. Military and staff mess II

23. Quarters of General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations of OKW

24. Firefighting pond

25. Office of the Foreign Ministry

26. Quarters of Fritz Todt, then after his death Albert Speer

27. RSD command post

28. Air-raid shelter with Flak and MG units on the roof

29. Hitler’s bunker and air-raid shelter

30. New tearoom

31. Residence of General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, supreme commander of OKW

32. Old Teahouse

33. Residence of Reich Marshal Hermann Göring

34. Göring’s personal air-raid shelter for himself and staff, with Flak and MG on the roof

35. Offices of the High Command of the Air Force

36. Offices of the High command of the Navy

37. Bunker with Flak

38. Ketrzyn railway line

Colonel-General Friedrich Fromm was still an unknown quantity. He would not join the Resistance, but he did not oppose or betray it either. He does not emerge with great credit from this story; like so many of his colleagues, he was a man who wanted to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. His appointment of Stauffenberg as his Chief of Staff was a purely military matter. He had had his eye on the young officer for some time, and at his request Stauffenberg had written a report on the possible conduct of the Reserve Army in Total War which had so impressed Fromm that he had passed it on to Hitler, who remarked, `Finally, a General Staff Officer with imagination and integrity!’ In many ways, Stauffenberg was Hitler’s ideal. Though not obviously `Nordic’, he was handsome, young, and, above all, had been badly (and in Hitler’s eyes, romantically) wounded for the good of the cause. It is difficult to say whether the appointment to Fromm finalised Stauffenberg’s decision to attempt the assassination of the Führer, or whether he went after the posting as a means to that end. In any case, the effect was the same.

Stauffenberg’s first meeting with Hitler was at the Berghof on 7 June – the day after D-Day. He travelled there from Bamberg where he had been spending a week’s leave with his family prior to taking up his appointment with Fromm. At the meeting were Himmler, Göring and Speer: it is a pity the bomb could not have been planted then and there. He noted that, contrary to rumours, it was perfectly possible to get close to Hitler. It would not have been a problem to draw one’s pistol and shoot the Führer. The argument against such action was the strong rumour that Hitler wore body armour. Hitler, who habitually retired late and rose late, had not been told of the Normandy landings until he had woken, but the military situation was in any case quite hopeless. Supplies were all but used up, and factories were either bombed out or operating only partially. The German divisions were spread too thinly across all fronts and many were unfit for full combat. It is a testament to an insane courage that their forces held out against the enemy for so long. The paratroop regiments and the Waffen-SS divisions showed particular resilience.

Stauffenberg returned to Berlin after another brief stay at Bamberg, taking with him Forester’s Hornblower novel The Happy Return to read on the train. A few days later, he was persuading his cousin Yorck von Wartenburg of the Kreisau Circle to enter into active Resistance. By mid-June, Goerdeler was drawing up another of his potential Cabinet lists, and Wilhelm Leuschner was defining the hierarchy of a new trade union movement. Hopes, at least, were high. But on 16 June there was an unhappy meeting of the civilian Resistance at the Hotel Esplanade in Berlin. Leber, who had turned down Stauffenberg’s proposal that he be Chancellor in place of Goerdeler, and who was now in line for Interior Minister, attacked Goerdeler for his unrealistic foreign policy ideas – which still embraced a demand for Germany to retain her 1914 frontiers. Leber thought that East Prussia, the Sudetenland and Elsass-Lohringen (Alsace-Lorraine) would have to go. His homeland was Alsace, and there was no question of his patriotism, but he was still shouted down by the others.

Shortly afterwards, the Resistance was to suffer another cruel blow. Julius Leber and his close associate, Adolf Reichwein, had entered into negotiations with a view to Resistance and postwar co-operation with a Communist group led by three veteran freedom fighters, Bernhard Bästlein, Franz Jakob and Anton Saefkow. Leber knew the first two personally, having spent five years in the concentration camps with them before the outbreak of war. A series of exploratory meetings followed, but the Gestapo already had the group under observation, and Bastlein had been arrested on 30 May. Now the net closed, and early in July the Security Service raided a meeting at which the others were seized. Stauffenberg was appalled when he heard the news, and promised Leber’s wife Annedore that they would get her husband out of prison, whatever else happened.

One should remember that during these preparations, Berlin was being subjected to merciless air raids day and night. The battering had the effect of stiffening the resolve of the fanatical Nazis, who were in any case fighting to protect their own backs now. That such a man as Roland Freisler could continue to conduct trials in the name of a `law’ that had no value and had even lost the backing of power is evidence of this, and invites interesting psychological reflection. The members of the Resistance themselves knew that they had at the very most a 50 per cent chance of success, but the profound sense of Tresckow’s advice to fight for it whatever the cost went home to all of them. As late as the end of June, Adam von Trott zu Solz embarked on yet another journey to Sweden, in the faint hope of renewing contact with the British. In fact there was no hope at all.

Organisation was always a great problem for the Resistance. The arrangement of meetings was a matter of difficulty, since neither the telephone nor the post could be used. Fixed meetings often had to be aborted because of air raids and the resulting disruption of transport in Berlin. Often the conspirators used the Grünewald – the vast park in the west of the city – to meet, as houses were not always considered secure. Plans, too, had to be changed continually to keep up with the progress of the war. Schulenburg commented drily, `We’d have got further if Stauffenberg had made up his mind sooner.’

At the end of June, Kurt Zeitzler, the Chief of Staff, had a nervous breakdown. He was replaced by Heinz Guderian. By now, Stauffenberg had taken up residence in his office near Fromm’s in the Bendlerblock on Bendlerstrasse, the massive building – the size of a small estate – which housed Armed Forces administration. Fromm was astonished at the number of unfamiliar officers he saw coming and going, but he did not ask what they were doing, contenting himself with passing the remark to Count Helldorf, still chief of the Berlin police, that `it’d be best if Hitler committed suicide’. Like many officers, he would doubtless have considered himself released from the Oath of Loyalty by Hitler’s death, which he hoped for, without wishing to work for it actively.

Early in July Trott returned empty-handed from Stockholm, but with news of the efforts of the National Committee for Free Germany. Stauffenberg was chary of this. `I don’t think much of proclamations made from behind barbed wire,’ he remarked.

Meanwhile, complicated arrangements were in train to obtain the correct English explosives and fuses for the attempt on Hitler. Once again, Stieff was in the forefront of this dangerous undertaking. At the same time, arrangements were being made for the takeover of power. For a time Rommel, a very popular general at home who had also earned the respect of the Allies, was considered for the position of head of state. Rommel, however, was never more than on the fringes of the conspiracy. Although he was sympathetic, he was put out of action when his heavy unmanoeuvrable open-topped Horch staff car was strafed by British fighters on 17 July and he was seriously wounded. After the 20 July attempt, however, the ever-suspicious Hitler obliged this best of his generals to commit suicide in order to spare his family the concentration camps and himself disgrace. The Führer then gave him a state funeral, but everyone knew what had really happened.

The position of post-Nazi President, therefore, reverted to Beck. Goerdeler would be Chancellor. Erwin von Witzleben would take over the Army and Erich Hoepner the Reserve Army. Wherever possible conspirators would be placed in the various Army districts around Germany and in the occupied territories, but otherwise commands from Berlin would have to have the authority of Fromm’s signature initially to implement `Valkyrie’. If Fromm would not agree at the eleventh hour, Hoepner would have to announce that he had taken over and issue the orders, hoping that the regional commanders would still obey. SS divisions and units would have to be neutralised and then subsumed within the Army. In co-ordination with `Valkyrie’, Helldorf, Nebe and Gisevius (who travelled to Berlin from Zurich for the coup) would use the regular police to take over the Security Service and seize its files. They would also arrest all Nazi leaders then in Berlin, such as Josef Goebbels and Robert Ley. There were plans to take over all radio stations, for a broadcast to the nation would have to be made immediately after the coup to establish the bona fides of the conspirators. Also, telecommunications at the Wolf’s Lair would have to be neutralised for as long as possible. This daunting task was entrusted to the Army head of Signals, General Erich Fellgiebel.

The Resistance had not yet given up all hope of making peace with the West first in order at least to stall Stalin in the East, and they were especially well prepared in France. The weak Günther von Kluge had taken over general command in the West on 2 July, and he might still be swayed. The military commander was General Karl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel, a veteran of the Resistance, and he was backed up by other convinced conspirators like Lieutenant-General Hans Speidel. A reminiscence of Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager is an indication of the almost surreal circumstances of the time. Shortly before the 20 July attempt, Tresckow sent Philipp’s brother Georg (of the old `Boeselager Brigade’) to Paris with a message for Kluge. But Georg needed an excuse for the journey. Fortunately a good one presented itself: the Boeselagers owned a racehorse, Lord Wagram, due to run at Longchamps. Accompanying it provided the perfect cover; but, as Philipp remarks, it is astonishing that such things were still possible in mid-1944!

The whole plan was rickety and riddled with risk, but it offered the only possibility, and time was running out fast for a coup of any sort to be effected.

Stauffenberg attended a further meeting at Berchtesgaden on 6 July, and another on the 11th. On this second occasion, when he travelled with his adjutant and confidant Captain Friedrich Karl Klausing, he was prepared to make the attempt, the explosives packed in a briefcase, and equipped with a pair of pliers to set the fuse whose handles had been specially adapted so that he could manipulate them with his remaining crippled hand. However, Himmler was not present at the meeting and so, after a telephone call to Olbricht, Stauffenberg decided to abort the attempt. As no plans seem to have been laid to set `Valkyrie’ in motion on this occasion one wonders if he did indeed intend to make the attempt. It may have been a full dress rehearsal. Stauffenberg must have been aware that he would have several opportunities in the next few days to attend meetings with Hitler. Nevertheless, to take such a risk without intending action seems hard to believe.

On 15 July, Stauffenberg accompanied Fromm to another meeting with the Führer, this time at the Wolf’s Lair near Rastenburg. They had received the summons at midday on the 14th, so there was just time to activate `Valkyrie’. This was to be it. Everyone was on edge. Berthold Stauffenberg commented, `Worst of all is to know that we’ll fail; and yet we must go ahead, for the sake of our country and our children.’ In the West, the SS division generals Sepp Dietrich and Hausser put themselves fully under Rommel’s orders. Very few people indeed seemed to have any faith in Hitler’s new wonder weapons, the Vbomb rockets.

The Wolf’s Lair was a complex of compounds and buildings, admission to which involved various degrees of security check. At that time it was in a state of rebuilding. At least Stauffenberg had the opportunity to take this in, for there was no chance to use the bomb. Once again a last-minute change of plan by Hitler saved him. Fortunately, although Valkyrie’s initial stages had been set in motion in anticipation of Stauffenberg’s action, the conspirators managed to pass these off as an exercise.

Stauffenberg was deeply depressed by this setback, and those who saw him at that time recall his state of nervous exhaustion. On the 16th, he telephoned his wife in Bamberg to ask her to postpone a family visit she intended to make with the children to Lautlingen. She objected that she had already bought the railway tickets, and he did not press her. It was their last conversation. The same day, Rommel transmitted a message to Hitler via Kluge that the maximum time the West Front could continue to hold out was twenty-one days. That evening there was a meeting of `the young counts’, as Goerdeler called them, at the Stauffenberg brothers’ flat in Wannsee. Mertz von Quirnheim, Claus’s successor as Chief of Staff to Olbricht, was there, together with Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, Adam von Trott zu Solz, Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, Cäsar von Hofacker, the contact man with the Army in France, Georg Hansen, who had taken over from Canaris at the Abwehr, and Schwerin von Schwanenfeld. They decided that the only way to save Germany now would be to kill Hitler at the very first opportunity and immediately thereafter enter peace negotiations with the USSR and the Western Allies simultaneously. They had no idea that Germany had already been divided up and parcelled out. Events had long since overtaken them and they did not know.

‘Valkyrie’ – 20 July 1944 Part II

1. Adolf Hitler

2. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel

3. Gen Alfred von Jodl

4. Gen Walter Warlimont

5. Franz von Sonnleithner

6. Maj Herbert Buchs

7. Stenographer Heinz Buchholz

8. Lt Gen Hermann Fegelein

9. Col Nikolaus von Below

10. Rear Adm Hans-Erich Voss

11. Otto Günsche, Hitler’s adjutant

12. Gen Walter Scherff (injured)

13. Gen Ernst John von Freyend

14. Capt Heinz Assman (injured)

15. Stenographer Heinrich Berger (killed)

16. Rear Adm Karl-Jesco von Puttkamer (injured)

17. Gen Walther Buhle (injured)

18. Lt Col Heinrich Borgmann (injured)

19. Gen Rudolf Schmundt (killed)

20. Lt Col Heinz Waizenegger

21. Gen Karl Bodenschatz (injured)

22. Col Heinz Brandt (killed)

23. Gen Günther Korten (killed)

24. Col Claus von Stauffenberg

25. Gen Adolf Heusinger (injured)

The following day, the day Rommel was shot up, the Security Service issued a warrant for Goerdeler’s arrest. Goerdeler was in Leipzig at the time, but immediately left for Berlin, where he went underground.

Soon after, orders came for Stauffenberg to attend a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair on 20 July to report on the recruitment of new People’s Grenadier Divisions – a kind of last-minute Home Guard. He was calm, at least outwardly, but possibly inwardly too, all day on the 19th. He smoked neither more nor fewer cigarettes than usual, and he fulfilled his desk duties at the Bendlerblock with his habitual punctiliousness. At 8p.m. he left the office for home, but stopped off on the way to attend Mass. Once back at Tristanstrasse, he packed the explosives in a case, concealing them under a clean shirt. His thoughts must have turned to Nina, now three months pregnant with their fifth child. He spent the evening quietly with Berthold.

Stauffenberg left the apartment at 6a.m. the following morning and drove with his brother to Rangsdorf airfield, south of Berlin. There he met his ADC, Werner von Haeften, and General Stieff, who was returning to Mauerwald. The courier aircraft, a Junkers JU 52, left at 8a. m., an hour late, for the 400-mile journey. They arrived at Rastenburg aerodrome at about 10.15a.m. where Stauffenberg parted company with Haeften until noon. The meeting with Hitler was due to take place at 1p. m. Haeften took charge of the briefcase with its two 2-kilogram packages of hexogen plastic explosive.

At 11.30 Stauffenberg had a meeting at the Wolfs Lair with Keitel, who told him that the meeting with Hitler had been brought forward to 12.30. Hitler had done this in order to make room for a meeting with Mussolini at 2.30p. m. The Italian dictator had been sprung from prison in a daring raid led by SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny and was now a guest of the Führer. Haeften arrived from Mauerwald half an hour later, on schedule, but now they had only half an hour to get ready. Stauffenberg asked for a room to freshen up in before the meeting, and there, aided by Haeften, he began to repack the two bombs in his own briefcase. Before they could finish the job, however, they were interrupted by an NCO with a message from General Fellgiebel. The message turned out not to be urgent, but Stauffenberg had no time now to pack the second bomb. Nevertheless, he was confident that one would be adequate for the purpose of blowing Hitler up in a confined space.

There was, however, another problem about which he could do nothing. Owing to the building works at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters, the meeting was not to be held in the usual concrete bunker (Hitler by now was very much concerned by enemy air attacks), but in a large wooden hut, where the shock waves on which the bomb depended for its main effect would have considerably less effect, since they would not be contained and reflected by unyielding walls. Still Stauffenberg thought he could bring the plan off, if he could place the bomb close enough to Hitler. Neither Göring nor Himmler was to be at the meeting, which was unfortunate, but there could be no question of deferring the attempt any more.

Punctually at 12.30, the meeting began. The room was dominated by a huge map table on two heavy oak supports. Twenty-four senior officers were in attendance, including Hitler and Keitel. Stauffenberg managed to get a place at the table very close to the Führer. He had set the ten-minute silent fuse and shoved the briefcase under the table next to Hitler, against one of the oak supports. On the excuse of making a telephone call, he left the meeting a few minutes later, leaving his cap and belt in the antechamber deliberately to indicate that he would be returning. In the meantime, Haeften had ordered a car. The two men departed at 12.42, at about the same time as the explosion. That the game was now being played for all or nothing is indicated by the fact that Haeften got rid of the redundant packet of explosive by merely throwing it from the car as they drove to the airfield. It was discovered later by Gestapo investigators.

There was total chaos in the wrecked hut, but the windows had been blown out, taking the force of the blast with them, and as the smoke cleared they found that the damage was not as great as it might have been. Neither Keitel nor Hitler was seriously wounded. Keitel embraced Hitler with the words, `My Führer! You’re alive! You’re alive!’ Among the severely wounded were Rudolf Schmundt, who had been so suspicious of Gersdorff s attempt, and Heinz Brandt, who had innocently carried the `Cointreau bomb’ for Operation Flash. Both died within days. Everyone present except Hitler and Keitel suffered burst eardrums. Hitler had been protected by the massive table support.

By now, Stauffenberg and Haeften were speeding towards the Rastenburg aerodrome, where a Heinkel HE 111, organised by General Eduard Wagner, was waiting to take them back to Berlin. At 12.55, five minutes after they had taken off, General Fellgiebel contacted his Chief of Staff at nearby Mauerwald: `Something terrible has happened. The Führer’s alive!’ Kurt Hahn, the Chief of Staff, and also a conspirator, promised to pass the message on to the Bendlerstrasse. Fellgiebel did what he could to block telecommunications, but quickly headquarters security ordered the main switchboard to stop all outgoing calls except for those from Hitler, Keitel and Jodl. Hitler himself, who had escaped with minor cuts and burns, was euphoric with relief. His trousers had been shredded by the blast, but otherwise even his dignity was intact. While his loyal signals officers hastened to put matters back in order, he took his scheduled tea with Mussolini after only a slight delay, having shown the Duce the wreckage of the hut. Göring and Ribbentrop were in attendance.

By 1.30, just before the clampdown on communications, both Hahn and Fellgiebel managed to relay a message to Berlin about the failure of the assassination attempt. The call was received at the Bendlerblock by Signals officer Lieutenant-General Fritz Thiele. Thiele told Olbricht, but they took no action. Fellgiebel’s message had lacked detail. They decided that they could not risk unleashing `Valkyrie’ again until they knew more. If they did, and the whole thing had aborted, they could not pass the `Valkyrie’ order off as an exercise a second time. Precipitate action now might jeopardise any future chance for the conspiracy. Their decision was based on sound reasoning; but it was a fatal error.

At 3.30p. m., Stauffenberg arrived back in Berlin, to find that no action had been taken, and `Valkyrie’ had not been set in motion. Instead, he was met by confusion and doubt at the Bendlerstrasse. Grimly insisting that Hitler was indeed dead, he took over, galvanising his fellow conspirators into action. Three crucial hours had been lost, during which the conspirators could have seized the initiative irrespective of whether Hitler was dead or not.

At 6.20p. m. Fellgiebel managed to get a frantic call through to Berlin: `What are you up to over there? Are you all crazy? The Führer is now with the Duce in the tea room. What’s more, there will be a radio communiqué soon.’ But a mark of the chaos was that conspirators were by now being obliged through the nature of their official functions to operate against the coup in order not to give themselves away. Men like Hahn and Thiele had to help the telecommunications clampdown, and Artur Nebe, the brilliant detective, was summoned to Hitler’s headquarters to investigate the assassination attempt.

Nevertheless, as soon as Stauffenberg arrived at the Bendlerblock, coded `Valkyrie’ orders were set in train and soon telephone lines and teleprinters were humming in Berlin. Mertz von Quirnheim, who had been straining at the leash since early afternoon, rushed into action. Meanwhile Fromm, still in his own office in the Bendlerblock, would not participate. At about 4p.m. he telephoned Keitel who confirmed his suspicion that the Führer was alive. From then on, Fromm refused to co-operate with the conspirators, despite anything Stauffenberg said. In a stormy scene, Fromm declared that all the conspirators were under arrest, whereupon Stauffenberg retorted that, on the contrary, they were in control and he was under arrest. He was relieved of his pistol and kept under guard. The conspirators constantly showed a remarkable degree of mercy to their prisoners. They would have been better advised to have shot Fromm out of hand, but such action would not have occurred to them.

In the course of the afternoon, both Hoepner and Beck arrived in civilian clothes, and so, later on, did Witzleben, who was scathing about the muddle. A group of junior officers involved in the conspiracy, Ludwig von Hammerstein, Ewald Heinrich von Kleist, Georg von Oppen and Hans Fritzsche, were summoned by Karl Klausing from the Hotel Esplanade where they were awaiting orders. Not all the conspirators knew each other, and they were operating in a vast building where there were many staff officers who had nothing to do with the coup, so the confusion continued to be great. Fritzsche mistakenly helped Hoepner on with a uniform jacket destined for Beck – an unimportant detail, but an indication of the problems the conspirators were faced with. When General Joachim von Kortzfleisch, the commander of the Berlin district, arrived in response to a summons from Olbricht, and refused to join in the conspiracy by putting his troops at their disposal, he too was arrested. He ran off, but was detained by Kleist and turned over to Hammerstein, who guarded him in an empty office. He ranted and raved for some time, but then subsided and as the hours passed wondered what they were going to do with him overnight. Hammerstein asked Beck’s advice, who said bitterly, `He can stay where he is. He’s the least of our worries.’ Kortzfleisch said pathetically that as far as he was concerned he would rather go home and do a bit of weeding in his garden. But by then it was clear to Hammerstein that things had gone seriously wrong.

Later in the evening, a senior SS officer, Humbert Achamer-Pifrader, arrived with an adjutant to invite Stauffenberg to accompany them to Gestapo Headquarters for an interview. News of the attempted coup had been telephoned to Berlin from Rastenburg but the Berlin Gestapo clearly had no idea of the number of men involved at the Bendlerblock. Himmler was flying from Rastenburg to Berlin to liaise with Goebbels. Pifrader and his aide were arrested but time was running out for the conspirators. Already orders countermanding those sent out to the various military districts from Berlin were being issued from the Wolfs Lair. Such was the confusion that some of these counter-orders arrived at their destination before the Berlin commands!

Meanwhile in the city, the commandant, General von Hase, had failed to take control on behalf of the Resistance. The Guard Battalion under a relatively junior officer, Major Ernst Remer, had started to carry out its orders to cordon off the government quarter, but unfortunately Remer was in personal contact with a Nazi lieutenant who worked in Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, Hans Hagen. Hagen deduced from the troop movements in the city that a coup was in train, and persuaded Remer to accompany him to see Goebbels. Goebbels had already spoken to Hitler on the telephone and knew what was afoot. When Remer appeared, overawed but still suspicious about what precisely was going on, the Propaganda Minister saw his chance to turn the tables on the conspiracy. Having assured himself that Remer was a `good National Socialist’, he put through another call to Hitler. Remer spoke to the Führer in person, recognised his voice, and stood to attention at the telephone. Hitler told him that the future of the Third Reich was in his hands. He was directly responsible for security in Berlin until Himmler arrived, with orders to take over the Reserve Army. Remer was won over, and the coup was doomed. It was about 7p.m.

Soon the Bendlerblock was sealed off by troops who now knew that Hitler was still alive and that the orders they had been given were unauthorised. The news spread and within the building itself several officers not involved in the conspiracy began to ask awkward questions about what was going on. Stauffenberg was exhausted. He had spent hours driving the others along by the sheer force of his will, but now he knew he had not carried the day. He took off the black patch he habitually wore over his dead eye – a sign with him of fatigue and irritation.

Ludwig von Hammerstein was making his way back to the office where General Kortzfleisch was locked when he heard the first shots. He drew his own pistol but a plump staff officer who had appeared in the corridor next to him said, `Put it away, there’s no point.’ Hammerstein did not know whose side the plump officer was on, or what was happening, though he noticed that the officer wore `brain reins’ on his cap – a silver chain issued as a service award by the regime.

In the event there had been a shoot-out in which Stauffenberg had been wounded. Hammerstein had taken the precaution on the advice of Kleist of removing the Infantry Regiment 9 badges from his lapels, since they would be an indication of whose side he was on. He managed to escape through back corridors and staircases. He knew the building intimately since, as the son of Kurt von Hammerstein, he had lived in his father’s service flat there when Hammerstein senior had been Commander-in-Chief. But he was lucky that the counter-coup officers did not know him; had the coup succeeded, he would have become Beck’s ADC. Nevertheless, he had to go underground; he had had to abandon a briefcase containing incriminating papers with his name on them and his .08 service pistol in Olbricht’s office. Much later, after Berlin had been occupied by the Russians, he had to throw away the gun he had with him – `it was a lovely little thing, a 7.65 automatic my father had given me which I’d had throughout the war.’ But to have been caught by the Russians in civilian clothes with a gun could have meant instant death.

Meanwhile, Fromm had been released and had taken control. He conducted a summary court martial at which he sentenced Stauffenberg, Mertz von Quirnheim, Olbricht and Werner von Haeften to death. Hoepner, an old friend, he spared to stand further trial. Beck, also condemned, asked permission to commit suicide, and this was granted him, but he had to do it immediately while the others waited in the same room. According to Hoepner’s later testimony, Beck used his own Parabellum (Luger) pistol first, but only managed to give himself a slight head wound. In a state of extreme stress, Beck asked for another gun, and an attendant staff officer offered him a Mauser. But the second shot also failed to kill him, and a sergeant then gave Beck the coup de grace. He was given Beck’s leather overcoat as a reward.

The others were conducted into the vast grey courtyard of the Bendlerblock and shot dead. Haeften threw himself in front of Stauffenberg as the rifles thundered. Stauffenberg cried out `Long live Germany!’ as he died.

It was about midnight.

VIENNA 27 September–14 October 1529

An Ottoman depiction of the siege from the 16th century, housed in the Istanbul Hachette Art Museum

Forces Engaged

Austrian: 16,000 troops and 72 guns. Commander: Philip, count palatine of Austria

Ottoman: c. 120,000–125,000 (some sources claiming 300,000) Commander: Sultan Suleiman.


Turkish defeat at Vienna was the high-water mark of Ottoman expansion in Europe, signaling the beginning of a long decline in Ottoman power.

Historical Setting

Europe in the 1520s presented to a potential outside aggressor a wonderful opportunity, just as the weakened condition caused by Byzantine-Persian hostility had opened the door for Islam to break out of Arabia in the seventh century. More than weakness, however, it was political rivalry in Europe that made the continent vulnerable. Politically, King Francis I of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, argued and fought over land that today is the Franco-German frontier, as well as control over northern Italy. France had a powerful military based on artillery and heavy cavalry, with which it won a number of victories. Charles, as head of the Hapsburg family, controlled not only the Holy Roman Empire (which consisted of Austria and parts of whatever countries bordered it) but also Spain, whose military power was based on the tercio, a phalanx of pikemen supported by smaller contingents of soldiers, each armed with the harquebus, a matchlock musket. Against these formations, cavalry made no impression, and, when the two armies met at Pavia in northern Italy in 1525, France came up the loser. Ferdinand not only was defeated, he was taken prisoner. During and after his captivity, he plotted revenge and pondered on possible allies.

Although Charles was enjoying this military success, he was bothered by Pope Clement VII in Rome. Although technically the Holy Roman Empire was supposed to be the defender of the Catholic Church, just which was the senior partner in the equation had been a point of difficulty since Charlemagne took on the job in 800. Clement resented Charles for controlling so much of Italy because, before his accession to the papacy, Clement had been Giulio de Medici, a wealthy and powerful figure in his own right. Thus, Clement’s attitude toward Charles meant not only a lack of political support but also a lack of religious support in dealing with the rise of the Protestant Reformation and the increasingly political activities of Martin Luther in Germany. Thus, Charles had his hands full with rivals in Rome, France, and central Europe.

Sultan Suleiman in Constantinople was not slow to see this. He was the ninth sultan of the Ottoman Empire, successor to a long line of able, resourceful, daring, and strongly religious rulers. He inherited an empire that stretched from the Persian frontier in the east to Morocco in the west, as well as much of the Balkans. He also inherited a military that in its own way was as impressive as anything Charles or Francis could put in the field. The pride of the Ottoman army lay in two arms: the heavy infantry and the artillery. Since the days of the second sultan, Ala ed-Din, the Ottoman government had accepted for taxes payment in kind in the form of male children of Christian families. They became slaves, were raised as Moslems, and from their youth trained as soldiers. They developed into a fearsome unit called the Janissaries, completely dedicated to their faith and their sultan and, in the service of both, ready to go anywhere and fight any enemy. The Ottoman Turks had also learned from western Europe the craft of casting artillery, and they had far outstripped their teachers. The Ottomans produced the largest guns of their day, and with them they captured Constantinople in 1453 after it had stood unconquered for more than a thousand years. Heavy siege guns were the Turks’ specialty, and many cities became Ottoman possessions because of those weapons, just as many armies fell before the talent and élan of the Janissaries.

Although Suleiman was an open-minded and interesting political ruler whom the Europeans viewed as a man with whom they could do business, he was also caliph of all Islam, thanks to the recent acquisition of Egypt and deposition of the last spiritual leader. Suleiman was therefore bound by the tenets of his faith to spread Islam and convert the unbelievers or exact tribute from them. As such, he conducted campaigns against the Persians, and he also looked to extend his political and religious dominion into Europe. He was also contacted by the vengeful King Francis, who encouraged an invasion to threaten Charles’s eastern front and correspondingly weaken his French frontier.

Suleiman’s venture into Europe began in the summer of 1526 when he captured Buda and placed Hungary under his sway, promoting John Zapolya, governor of Transylvania, to the Hungarian throne as his tributary monarch. That throne was contested, however, by Ferdinand, archduke of Austria and king of Bohemia. While Suleiman was campaigning in Persia in 1528, a rebellion broke out in Hungary. Some of the rebellious factions claimed to be fighting for Ferdinand’s cause. Once his Persian problems were settled—at least temporarily—Suleiman made ready to march on Ferdinand’s home city of Vienna and add Austria and the Holy Roman Empire to his own Ottoman Empire.

The Battle

Suleiman led his army out of Constantinople on 10 April 1529. When Ferdinand heard of this, he called a council in Bohemia to gather an army. For the most part, his requests went unanswered. Lots of promises were made by Austria and Bohemia and the empire, but few troops actually arrived. Charles was busy with trouble in Italy and had to keep an eye on both Francis and Clement. In Vienna, meanwhile, the 250-year-old city walls, no more than 5 feet thick, were in many places badly in need of repair. They could not be mended with masonry, as there was no time, so for the most part dirt and the debris of the suburbs were used because the outlying houses were razed to open up a field of fire before the city walls. The official in charge in Vienna was Philip, count palatine of Austria. He was assisted in his job by two talented men, Graf Nicholas zu Salm-Reifferscheidt and William von Roggendorff. Graf Nicholas oversaw the wall repairs, gathered in as much food and ammunition as he could, and expelled from the city as many women and children as he could to ease the supply burden. During the siege itself, he oversaw the placement of the artillery, seventy-two guns of widely varying size and caliber. When the siege began, the city was defended by a garrison of 22,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Between the garrisons that Suleiman had absorbed along his line of march, reinforcements commanded by his lackey King John Zapolya, and innumerable camp followers, the Ottoman force that stood before Vienna on 26 September 1529 was possibly as large as 150,000 people[including camp followers], although it included probably 80,000 Turkish soldiers and another 6,000 Hungarians.

The Ottoman advance had been a wonder to behold. Many of the Janissaries advanced up the Danube in boats, stopping with Suleiman for 5 days at Buda to recapture the city and massacre the defenders. News of that action, as well as the activities of some 20,000 akinji (ransackers) that were devastating the countryside all along the line of march, motivated the defenders in Vienna to fix their walls as best they could. The first contingent of Turks arrived in sight of Vienna on 23 September and skirmished with the Viennese cavalry. By 27 September, the city was surrounded, and Suleiman sent a delegation to demand its surrender. The delegation was comprised of four captured cavalrymen, fabulously dressed in Turkish clothing. The sultan stated that an immediate surrender would end in no occupation of the city but for a few functionaries, and he would have breakfast there on the morning of 29 September. Resist, and the city would be destroyed so thoroughly that no one would ever again find a trace of it. Graf Nicholas, de facto commander, sent back four richly dressed Turkish prisoners; they carried no answer at all, which was answer enough.

The fate of Vienna in reality lay neither in the city walls nor the attacking army, but in the weather. The summer of 1529 was the wettest anyone in southeastern Europe could remember, and the supply wagons, vital to supporting the immense force before Vienna, lagged far behind. Worse still for the Ottoman cause, the massive siege artillery also could not be moved along the muddy roads. The artillery that Suleiman had with him were 300 small pieces that lacked the destructive power necessary to break down even these old walls.

Suleiman’s only alternative was to mine the city walls. This involves digging a tunnel from one’s own protected trenches under the walls of the enemy and then filling the tunnel with gunpowder and exploding it. The collapsing tunnel would then collapse a section of wall. Such operations began immediately, but the defenders were lucky enough to learn the placement of the mines from a deserter. They quickly countermined, either digging their own tunnels under those being dug by the Turks in order to collapse them or digging at the same level, which resulted in underground battles, in which the defenders tended to be the more victorious. Not all of the mines could be discovered, however, and some of them worked. The breaches, which were occasionally large enough to ride several horses through abreast, could not be exploited. Behind the walls, the defenders had dug trenches and built wooden palisades from which they beat back the attackers. The breaches were held by the same stolid pikemen that had won the battles of western Europe, and the swords of the Janissaries were of little use in the cramped confines of the battle. A major battle in one breach on 12 October resulted in the Janissaries leaving behind 1,200 dead.

On the night of 12 October, Suleiman held a council of war. The supply wagons had not arrived, and the countryside was not providing nearly enough food to support his army. The city was proving unexpectedly tough. Winter was approaching. The defenders had won every encounter in the breaches that had been created, and the attackers’ death toll was between 14,000 and 20,000, primarily Janissaries and aristocratic cavalry. For the first time in their history, the Janissaries complained that they were being sacrificed. To do just that had been their duty and indeed their entire life for nearly two centuries. Suleiman offered them a huge bonus for one more attack. On 14 October, another mine blew up, but the collapsing wall fell outward, creating such a pile of rubble that it was impossible for the attackers to rush the breach. The pikemen once again stood firm in the face of the Janissary onslaught, and once again they turned the attackers away.

That night, the Ottoman army struck its tents, which had covered the plain outside Vienna for as far as the eye could see. In massive bonfires, they burned everything that they could not carry and then threw their prisoners in the flames as well. The army marched away the next morning as it snowed.

A relative handful of men saved western Europe from Ottoman invasion. At first it seemed that little had changed, however. John Zapolya still ruled in Suleiman’s name in Buda, and Hungary was part of the Ottoman domain. Although Suleiman returned 3 years later to finish the job he had started, a spirited resistance at the town of Guns (modern Koszeg, Austria)

and a major deployment of European troops under Charles V once again convinced him to return home. Another uprising in Persia diverted Suleiman’s attention, so he made peace with Ferdinand and turned his armies eastward. He returned to Europe in 1541 to recapture Hungary from Ferdinand’s invasion, but he went no farther.

Suleiman presided over the Ottoman Empire at its zenith, both in power and territory. After him, the long line of talented sultans ended. His son, Selim (called “the Sot”), had none of his father’s talents. From Selim’s rule forward the Ottoman Empire began a long decline until by the nineteenth century it was regarded by the world as “the sick man of Europe.” Had Suleiman captured Vienna, he could have wintered there and proceeded the following season to invade Germany. Any sort of cooperative moves by France would have placed the Holy Roman Empire in a vise. That would have served Francis’s aims in the short term, but he certainly overestimated his influence on the sultan. Islam could well have triumphed against a divided enemy.

Within the Ottoman military, the zenith passed as well. Vienna marked the beginning of the end for the Janissaries, for their once invincible front had been shattered. They could be beaten, and not only did their enemies know it, but so did the soldiers themselves. The bribe they were offered for that final attack was proof that their élan was no more. “The Janissaries themselves degenerated from the mighty force they had been. They used their power to improve their personal lives, at the expense of the state” (McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks, p. 164). “The Janissaries were to turn into unruly Praetorian guards, who made and unmade sultans, and this was perhaps inevitable. But even determinism must admit that Vienna started them down the long slide” (Pratt, The Battles That Changed History, p. 149). The elite force that had been the instrument of Ottoman expansion became the instrument of internal instability.

The decline in quality leadership after Suleiman was compounded by the success of the previous Ottoman line. The empire by the middle of the sixteenth century was too large to be efficiently governed by the overly centralized authority in Constantinople. Although the limits of the empire were (for the most part) as far as an army could march from Constantinople in one campaign season, that was still too large for the nature of imperial rule. Because their primary enemies at that time were the Holy Roman Empire and Persia, only two complete armies could maintain authority. To create them would mean an increase in cost and a corresponding decrease in quality, especially with the decline of the Janissaries. Thus, the Ottoman Empire could not expand its borders any farther. Conquest and booty had always been a major contributor to the economy. Over the following century, the Turks began to experience a rise in unemployment and banditry, which the weakening government could not successfully address. Unfortunately for the Ottoman Empire, Vienna spelled a change of fortune: just when a strong and visionary ruler was vital to maintain or expand the empire, the talent pool dried up.

References: Barber, Noel. The Sultans. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973; Clot, Andre. Suleiman the Magnificent: The Man, His Life, His Epoch. Translated by Matthew J. Reisz. London: Saqui Books, 1989; McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks. New York: Longman, 1997; Parry, V. J. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976; Pratt, Fletcher. The Battles That Changed History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.

SÜLEYMAN I (1495–1566).

Ottoman sultan during whose reign Ottoman power reached its apex. Also called Süleyman the Lawgiver (Kanûnî) or Süleyman the Magnificent. The son of Selim I, he ascended to the throne on the death of his father (1520).

His earliest acts included the rehabilitation of prisoners, exiles, and those who suffered under the harsh rule of his father. Süleyman I issued laws protecting life, property, and honor and promoting lawful administration. The principle of merit was reinforced in promotions and in appointments to administrative positions. Administrators who acted arbitrarily during the rule of his father were tried. Measures were taken to prevent injustice in the collection of taxes.

In the reign of Süleyman I, Ottoman territorial expansion reached Vienna in Central Europe and the Indian Ocean in Asia. The period was also rich in political events. The first serious incident was the rebellion of the beglerbegi of Damascus, Canberdi Ghazali, who declared the independence of Syria (1521). This rebellion was suppressed quickly. When the Hungarians refused to continue the payment of the annual tribute, Süleyman launched a military campaign against the kingdom; in August 1521, Belgrade was conquered. The next move was to the Aegean island of Rhodes, which was governed by the Knights of St. John. Conquest of this island in December 1522 secured the sea connection between İstanbul and Egypt.

Süleyman I became closely involved in European politics when the mother of the French king Francis I—who had been captured by the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, at the Battle of Pavia (1525)—sent a letter to İstanbul asking for help in the release of her son. The Ottomans, considering an alliance with France a means of preventing Habsburg domination in Europe, attacked and defeated Hungary (Battle of Mohács, August 1526) and appointed Janos Szapolyai as a vassal king. Thus Süleyman I became able to exert direct pressure on the Habsburgs. When Charles V’s brother, Archduke Ferdinand, ruler of Austria, claiming to be the king of Hungary, occupied Buda and expelled Szapolyai, the Ottomans responded in force and reestablished him (September 1529). Süleyman, in order to discourage Ferdinand’s ambitions in Hungary, laid siege to Vienna (October 1529). The issue of Hungary led to a new war with the Habsburgs, in which Güns and Graz were besieged (1531–33).

A formal military alliance between the Ottoman Empire and France was concluded in 1536, and capitulations were granted to French merchants. As part of a joint plan to attack Charles V, French forces entered northern Italy while Ottoman forces attacked Venetian ports in the south (1537–40). A naval campaign resulted in Ottoman victory at the Battle of Preveza (1538). This gave the Ottomans the upper hand in the Mediterranean until their defeat at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

When Szapolyai died in 1541, Ferdinand besieged Buda, and Süleyman was again forced to move against the Habsburgs. After the Austrians were pushed out, Hungary became a beglerbegilik, administered from İstanbul. During the Ottoman-Habsburg war of 1541–47, the towns of Esztergom and Stuhlweissenburg (Istolni Belgrad) were conquered (1543). Meanwhile the Ottoman navy, headed by Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, occupied the Habsburg fortresses of Messina, Reggio, and Nice (1543). The Ottoman-Habsburg peace of 1547 stipulated the payment of an annual tribute by the Holy Roman Empire to İstanbul.

The peace of 1547 was terminated by Habsburg attempts to take control of Transylvania (1550). This move was repulsed, and the Ottomans attacked the Habsburg strongholds of Eger, Malta, and Tripolitany, conquering only the last (August 1551). At the same time, Süleyman I approached the Protestant princes of Germany and urged them to cooperate with France against the Catholic Habsburgs. By this he aimed to increase disunity among the Christians. Though a peace agreement was signed in 1562, renewed hostilities led to an (unsuccessful) Ottoman naval expedition to Malta (May–September 1565). When the Habsburgs refused to pay the annual tribute or evacuate the Transylvanian towns of Tokaj and Serencz, Süleyman I launched his last military campaign. He died during the siege of the fortress of Szigetvar (September 1566).

Ottoman engagements in the East during the reign of Süleyman I aimed at preventing the extension of the Shia influence of Safavid Iran in Anatolia and at expanding Ottoman domination over Islamic countries. A military campaign against Iran of 1533–35 resulted in the conquests of Tabriz (Azerbaijan) and Baghdad (Iraq). When the brother of the Safavid Shah Tahmasb I, Elkas Mirza, revolted against Iran and took refuge with the Ottomans, Süleyman used this opportunity to begin a second campaign against the Safavids (1548–55). During this war, Van (eastern Anatolia) and Azerbaijan were reconquered, and Georgia was annexed. These acquisitions were ratified by the Ottoman-Iranian peace Treaty of Amasya (May 1555).

Süleyman I’s reign witnessed the extension of an Ottoman naval presence from the western Mediterranean to eastern Africa and the western coasts of India. When Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha left Algiers to Ottoman rule (1533), the western Mediterranean entered the Ottoman area of naval activity. The governor of Egypt, Hadım Süleyman Pasha, led the Ottoman Red Sea fleet toward the south and conquered Aden (Yemen) but was unable to take the fortress of Diu (Gujarat, India) from the Portuguese (1538). After Basra (in Iraq) came under Ottoman rule (1538), Suez and Basra became the main Ottoman naval bases for operations in the Indian Ocean.

During the rule of Süleyman I, Ottoman civilization produced its major classics in art and literature. Poets like Bâkî and Fuzulî; prose authors like Celâlzâde Mustafa Çelebi, Kınalızâde Ali Çelebi, Latifî, Lutfî Pasha, Sehî Bey, and Taşköprülüzâde İsameddin Ahmed; jurists like Ebussuud Efendi; and architects like Mimar Sinan produced their works in these decades. At the same time, signs of institutional decline were to be observed toward the end of Süleyman’s life.


Contacts between the Germans, in the general sense, and the Ottomans dates back probably to the battle of Nikopolis (1396). The Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans, as neighboring powers, confronted each other following the Ottoman occupation of Hungary (1526). Janos Szapolyai, who was appointed by Süleyman I as the new king of Hungary, was attacked and expelled by Ferdinand I. This development triggered an Ottoman expedition in 1529 against the Habsburgs to restore Szapolyai; Vienna was besieged for the first time. In 1533 a peace was made, by which Ferdinand I acknowledged Ottoman suzerainty. Warfare continued between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans, in which the latter were dominant until the wars between 1593 and 1606. The Treaty of Zsitvatorok (1606) terminated the Austrian vassalage.

The new military superiority of the Habsburg Empire over the Ottomans was marked by the period following the second Siege of Vienna (1683). The warfare between the Holy League and the Ottomans between 1683 and 1699 proved to be disastrous for the latter. By the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) the Ottomans had to abandon Hungary, Croatia, and their suzerainty over Transylvania to the Habsburgs. After 1699 the Ottomans entered into a state of constant defensive warfare against the Austrians. The Habsburg Empire, collaborating with Russia and Venice, tried to penetrate deeper into the Balkans. The result of the war of 1714–18 was the loss of northern Serbia, including Belgrade, and Temesvar, to Austria (Treaty of Passarowitz, 1718). The Ottomans were able to regain Belgrade and Temesvar during another war, 1736–39 (Treaty of Belgrade, 1739). The last major war between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans took place between 1788 and 1791; the ensuing Peace of Sistova (Ziştovi) did not alter the borders.

During the 19th century the Habsburg Empire continued to increase its political influence in the Ottoman Empire, with a view to domination in the Balkans. In order to attain this goal, Austria presented itself as the protector of the interests of the Balkan Catholics—that is, Albanian Catholics. The increasing rivalry between the Habsburg Empire and Russia in the Balkans and the interest of the latter in the Balkan Slavic nationalist movements led the Austrians to support Albanian nationalism. The Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–1878 and the Congress of Berlin secured the Austrian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, formally annexed in 1908. During World War I the Habsburg Empire and the Ottomans were allied.

The Wehrmacht into the Mediterranean Theatre

Concentration of force and effort were not dominant characteristics of Hitler’s Reich. The Führer had initially reacted to Italy’s debacle in North Africa and its frustrated invasion of Greece with the amused malice the Germans call Schadenfreude. His interests in the Mediterranean involved encouraging support for Germany’s Atlantic ambitions on the part of Vichy France and Falangist Spain, and attracting Balkan support for the developing attack on the Soviet Union. Neither end was best served by Italian-initiated upheavals that challenged the status quo by open-ended claims to enlarged spheres of influence. They were served even worse, however, by open-ended military catastrophe.

The Italian defeat in Greece created opportunities for Britain to negotiate a Balkan front of its own, supporting it by stationing planes on Greek bases. The oil fields of Romania were only the most obvious potential target. If the Italians were driven from North Africa, the stresses on British shipping would be reduced by the reopening of the Mediterranean. The French North African colonies might reconsider their allegiance to Vichy. An Italy subject to air and naval strikes would face the consequences of a loss of prestige that could potentially lead to the collapse of the Fascist system itself.

Hitler grew correspondingly determined to take action. As early as July 1940, the High Command had suggested dispatching a panzer division to North Africa. Spanish veteran Wilhelm von Thoma, sent to evaluate the situation, reported any serious mobile operations would require at least four divisions for an indefinite basis. In the run-up to Barbarossa, that proposal had no chance. As the Italian situation continued to deteriorate, the commitment of ground forces in the Mediterranean basin nevertheless seemed necessary.

The General Staff responded by projecting a large-scale mechanized offensive in the Balkans, to be mounted in the spring of 1941—quick in, quick out. Hitler entertained hopes that its threat would be sufficient: that the Greek government would reject British support and Yugoslavia would align itself with the Axis. Hitler sweetened the latter prospect by offering to exchange Yugoslavia’s copper, zinc, and lead for modern weapons. The former prospect grew increasingly remote, particularly as Greece observed the steady movement of German planning missions and combat aircraft—specifically the ground-support specialists of VIII Air Corps—into Bulgaria and Romania. When Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia formally joined the Axis in November 1940, allowing German troops transit rights across their territory, the question regarding war became not if but when. Even then it was not until the first arrival of British ground troops in Greece on March 7 that the German redeployment began in earnest.

From the beginning, the Balkan operation had been planned around the panzers. This flew in the face of Great War experience, of unpromising terrain, limited road networks, undeveloped infrastructures, and just about every other common-sense reservation that prudent staff officers could conceive. In another context, however, the projected force structure reflected, more clearly than at any time since the occupation of Austria, Hitler’s conception of the ideal relationship between diplomacy and force. He sought to expand the basis for war in the eastern Mediterranean, to secure the southern flank of his forthcoming attack on the USSR, and to sequester Balkan economic resources for German use. None of those ends was best achieved by the use of force as a first option, and Hitler was correspondingly willing to keep talking. But time was an enemy when wasted. Even at the last minute, the panzer divisions could be turned loose to crush both local opposition and the burgeoning British presence in Greece—immediately and unmistakably, not least to discourage intervention by the Soviet Union, perhaps Turkey as well.

The actual deployment underwent a series of changes that both illustrated German skill in operational planning and reinforced confidence in the skill’s applicability to the wider Russian stage. The final dispositions put a worked-in command and staff team on the Greek frontier: List’s 12th Army and Kleist’s renamed Panzer Group 1. With three panzer divisions and two motorized ones plus Grossdeutschland and two similarly configured claimants to elite status, the SS Leibstandarte and the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Brigade, Kleist was expected to overrun Greece from a standing start.

On March 27 the situation changed utterly. A coup deposed the Yugoslav government. Hitler responded with Operation Punishment: the destruction of Yugoslavia with “merciless harshness.” Kleist swung his group 90 degrees and, beginning on April 8 as the Luftwaffe eviscerated Belgrade, drove into Yugoslavia’s side with the force of a knife thrust. Breaking through initially stubborn resistance and scattering two Yugoslav armies, the group drove north as another panzer corps came south from Hungary into Croatia. Belgrade was the objective. What remained of it capitulated on April 12. The Yugoslav army, its morale shaken by recent political events, divided along ethnic lines. Lacking modern equipment, it never had much of a chance. In a week the panzers had shattered its fighting spirit and its fighting power alike by speed and shock, in terrain regarded as less suitable even than the Ardennes for mobile warfare, and without breaking a military sweat. The major challenge to the rear echelons was coping with the thousands of Yugoslavs trying to surrender. On April 14 the Yugoslav government called for terms.

A country was dismembered; a stage was set for more than a half century of civil war; and the panzers were responsible. Kleist’s divisions were pulled into reserve as quickly as possible for redeployment to the Russian frontier, with a collective sense of a job well done that suggested favorable prospects for the future. The new divisions and the new commanders had performed well compared to the standards of 1940. A continuing tendency to outrun the infantry had no significant tactical consequences; the tanks alone spread demoralization wherever they went. Logistics posed occasional problems, but the fighting ended before they metastasized. Total German casualties were 150 dead, 400 wounded, and 15 missing. Nothing emerging from Yugoslavia, in short, inspired any last-minute second thoughts about another operation against a Slavic army and culture.

Kleist’s turn to Yugoslavia left a suddenly diminished 12th Army the task of dealing with Greece. The initial German commitment to a Balkan blitz is indicated by an order of battle that even without the panzer group included a motorized corps headquarters, the first-rate 2nd and 9th Panzer Divisions, and the Leibstandarte motorized brigade of the Waffen SS—with Richthofen’s Stukas flying close support. The Viennese tankers overran a Greek motorized division, seized Salonika, and took 60,000 prisoners, all in four days. The 9th Panzer Division, the Leibstandarte, and the Stukas on the Germans’ other flank scattered an entire Yugoslav army, and then turned south into the plains of Thessaly. It took until April 12 to break through Greek, Australian, and New Zealand resistance and the British 1st Armored Brigade and cut off the strong Greek forces reluctant to retreat from Albania. But yet again, once through the forward defenses, the panzers set the pace. Never out-fought, the Greek army was increasingly overmatched. On April 21 the British decided to evacuate.

From the perspective of the Anzacs and the tankers, the rest of the campaign was a long fighting retreat, enduring constant air attack and bloodying the Germans where they could. For the panzers it was more of a mop-up, with the lead role played by 5th Panzer Division. Transferred from Kleist’s group after the fall of Yugoslavia, it was bloodied at Thermopylae where a rear guard knocked out 20 of its tanks as they moved through the still- narrow pass. Recovering, the division pursued the British south, crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, and took more than 7,000 prisoners on the beaches of Kalamata, men left behind when the ships were withdrawn.

The Balkan Operation also laid the groundwork for a legend. On February 12, 1941, Erwin Rommel was appointed commander in chief of German troops in Libya. It was a fancy title for a force composing only one of the new panzer divisions, the still-organizing 15th, a scratch brigade grandiloquently titled 5th Light Division (later upgraded as the 21st Panzer Division), and another mixed bag that became the 90th Light Division. Renamed the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrika Korps) it would make two years of history.

Hitler seems initially to have made his choice of commander as much on grounds of Rommel’s availability as from any intuitive sense that he was giving a wider stage to a budding genius. German intervention in North Africa was originally intended as a minimum-scale holding operation. No senior panzer general suggested Rommel might be more useful against Russia; no one requested him as a corps commander in a mobile force needing a half dozen new ones. Instead he was dispatched to a sideshow that he would move to history’s center stage by a spectacular succession of battlefield victories—the first of them enabled by the drawdown of British forces in the desert in favor of the campaign in Greece.

There are fashions in generalship as there are in clothing. For a quarter century after World War II, Rommel was considered a paragon of mobile war at the tactical and operational levels. In the next quarter century, military historians and professional soldiers have judged him with a sharper pencil. Nevertheless there remains an Erwin Rommel for every military writer’s taste. There is the muddy-boots general leading from the front, inspiring his men by sharing their hardships as he led them to victory. There is the brilliant opportunist, master of forcing mistakes and exploiting them, dancing rings around British generals with courage and character but no imagination. There is the master of war on a shoestring, using Germany’s military leftovers to frustrate and challenge the major land effort of a global empire. There is the soldier, making war by the rules, upholding the army’s honor albeit serving a criminal regime. And there is the maverick, defying his superiors, his allies, and the Führer himself to fight and win his way.

In Britain these images ameliorate two years of humiliation. In the United States they play into idealized concepts of what a real general should be. There is, however, another side to the scale. That one depicts a general whose leadership style generated as much confusion as success. It presents a commander consistently overreaching his operational capacities, and correspondingly indifferent to issues of logistics and sustainability. It highlights an extensive, long-term network of connections between Rommel and Hitler—not least a publicity machine that critics describe as creating a myth from lucky breaks and obliging enemies. What emerges is a good corps commander, challenged beyond his talent by the problems of war-making at higher levels.

The desert war’s principal contribution to the panzer mystique is its status, affirmed alike by Rommel’s critics and supporters, as a “clean” war. Explanations include the absence of civilians and the relative absence of Nazis; the nature of the environment, which conveyed a “moral simplicity and transparency”; and command exercised on both sides by prewar professionals, encouraging a British tendency to depict war in the imagery of a game and a corresponding German pattern of seeing it as a test of skill and a proof of virtue.

The nature of the fighting also diminished the close-quarter actions that are primary nurturers of mutual bitterness. Last stands, as opposed to stubborn defenses, were uncommon. Usually a successful German attack ended with a compound breakthrough. With tanks seeming to appear everywhere on the position, with no effective means of close defense, capitulation was an acceptable option. The large numbers of troops usually involved also inhibited both on-the-spot killings and post-action massacres. Hard war did not necessarily mean cold murder. Surrender offered and accepted correspondingly became part of the common law of the desert.

Creating preconditions for surrender was another problem. The two-year seesaw conflict across North Africa has been so often described in so much detail that it is easy to exaggerate its actual impact on Hitler’s panzers. The campaign involved only three mobile divisions and never more than around 300 tanks at any one time. Technically the Germans maintained a consistent, though not overwhelming, superiority—reflecting as much the flaws in British tank design as the qualities of the German vehicles. The Panzer III, especially the L version with the 50mm/62-caliber gun, was the backbone of Rommel’s armor, admirably complemented by the Panzer IV, whose 75mm shells were highly effective against both unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicles and unsupported infantry, even when dug in.

Not until the arrival in autumn 1942 of the US M3 medium did the balance begin to shift. With a 37mm high-velocity gun in its turret and a sponson-mounted 75mm, the M3 was a poor man’s Char B without the armor of its French counterpart, with a high silhouette that made it difficult to conceal, and with a gasoline engine that caught fire easily. But there were a lot of them, and their reinforcement in time for El Alamein by more than 300 Shermans definitively tipped the armor balance in Allied favor. The Sherman’s mid-velocity 75mm gun, able to fire both armor piercing and high-explosive rounds, made it the best tank in North Africa—except possibly for the later marks of Panzer IV, who brought their even higher velocity 75mm gun on line in numbers too small—never more than three dozen—to make a difference.

Nor was the Afrika Korps a chosen force, the best of the best. Its medical preparation consisted of cholera and typhus inoculations. Its equipment was Wehrmacht standard, with the addition of a few hundred sun helmets—most of them soon discarded in favor of field caps—and a few thousand gallons of camouflage paint in varying shades of brown. But the Germans had confidence in themselves and their officers, in their training and in their doctrine. Their divisions were teams of specialist experts trained to fight together, combining and recombining as the situation changed. Assembling them was like working with a child’s set of Legos: individual pieces, once fastened together, would hold even if the construction seemed awkward.

That flexibility proved vital. German doctrine based on avoiding tank-on-tank combat meant that when it occurred it was likely to be a close-quarters melee. German gunnery training after the 1940 campaign stressed snap shooting and rapid fire—not least because of the limited effect of single hits on French armor plate. The British for their part during much of the campaign remained committed to destroying German armor by direct action, and their tanks were usually fast enough to counter the tactical maneuvering effective in 1940.

Rommel and his subordinates in consequence recast the section of the panzer-war handbook that addressed antitank operations. In their developed and ideal form, German positions were structured by interlocking antitank-gun positions supported by infantry, the panzers deployed behind them. Contrary to belief at the time, which eventually acquired the status of myth, the 88mm gun was not a standard element of German antitank defense in the desert. Its high silhouette made it vulnerable; its limited numbers made it an emergency alternative. The backbone of German defenses was the 50mm gun, able to knock out any British tank that could move well enough to survive in desert conditions. By 1942 these were being supplemented and replaced in turn by 75mm pieces, heavy and difficult to move but effective even against the new American Grants and Shermans. Eventually the 90th Light Division would be configured as a virtual antitank formation, with 75mm Pak 40s assigned at rifle company level.

British tanks repeatedly and obligingly impaled themselves on the German guns. Robert Crisp, a South African-born officer serving with the Royal Tank Regiment, observed that British tank design and British tactical doctrines reflected a mentality that wanted to make a tank that was as much like a horse as possible, then use it as horses had been used in the Charge of the Light Brigade. As Rommel once asked a captured British officer, “What does it matter if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?”

British armor enmeshed and worn down by the antitank guns was disproportionately vulnerable to counterattacks from flank and rear by panzer forces numerically inferior but with the advantage of surprise—an advantage enhanced by the ubiquitous clouds of dust obscuring desert battlefields as powder smoke had done in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Superior numbers were unnecessary. Properly timed, a single hard tap could shatter an already-confused British armored brigade like glass. Success depended on timing, and for that the excellent German radios were important. But even more important were situational awareness, initiative, and mutual confidence—the infantrymen and antitank crews knowing they were not being sacrificed; the artillery concentrated to provide fire support; the tankers confident the screening forces would hold while they moved into position. Time and again, from Operation Battleaxe in 1941 through Operation Crusader in November 1941 to the Battle of Gazala in May-June 1942, the technique worked—and set up the attacks that became Rommel’s signature.

The panzers’ offensive tactics in the desert followed and extended patterns established in Europe. Speed, shock, and flexibility repeatedly proved devastating against a British opponent whose reaction times were sluggish, whose tactics were uninspired, and whose coordination was so limited that desert humor described it as existing only when the commanding officers involved had slept with each others’ wives before the war—a significant handicap, one might think, to multiunit operations.

Encirclement was, however, likely to prove chimerical. There were no obvious terrain features or cultural sites with deep meaning to encourage last stands. Even Cairo was not Verdun. The wide-open terrain and the Germans’ always limited “desert sense” facilitated breakouts, the most familiar examples being the French at Bir Hacheim and 201 Guards Brigade at Knightsbridge. The British were even more completely motorized than the Germans, and correspondingly able to outrun them. The “Gazala gallop” of May 1942 may not have been heroic, but it did preserve much of 8th Army to fight again at El Alamein.

British defense systems were also far more formidable than anything encountered even in France during Case Red. The often-derided “boxes” developed as fixed position at mid-campaign usually featured elaborate minefields to disable vehicles, complex barbed wire systems to frustrate infantry, and defenders ready to fight to the limit, like 5th South African Brigade at Sidi Rezegh and 150th Brigade’s stand in the Cauldron during Gazala. Losses in both men and vehicles incurred while overrunning these positions were likely to be high and, given the theater’s low priority for replacements, permanent.

If the Afrika Korps did not want to conquer itself to death, an alternate approach must be developed. Rommel would respond by taking flexible movement to the operational level. His first major offensive, in April 1941, was undertaken despite a direct order to the contrary. Once the vulnerability of the thinly manned British positions was exposed, the battle became an exercise in deep penetration on a level not seen even in France. Columns became lost in broken, poorly mapped terrain, or were deceived by mirages. Engines overheated in 120-degree temperatures. Sandstorms slowed rates of march. But the German tanks, artillery, antitank guns, and motorized infantry wove tactical tapestries that baffled their counterparts.

Rommel seemed to appear everywhere he was needed, driving and inspiring. Benghazi fell on April 3. With the British reeling backward and the fortress of Tobruk besieged, Rommel set the next objective as the Suez Canal. His spearheads reached the Egyptian frontier. When the massive counterattack of Operation Crusader rolled the Germans back in turn, Rommel checked the drive, and then swung completely behind the British. This “dash to the wire” overextended his forces so badly that his own staff called it off while Rommel was out of touch at the front.

This time the pendulum swung all the way back to Rommel’s original starting point around El Agheila. Two weeks later he counterattacked, taking the British by surprise and forcing them back 350 miles to the partially prepared Gazala line. Both sides reinforced as best they could, but again it was Rommel who struck first. On May 26, 1942 his last great offensive began. A month later the port of Tobruk and its 30,000 man garrison were in German hands. Eighth Army, what was left of it, had retreated to the El Alamein line. In Cairo, rear-echelon commandos were burning documents. In London, Churchill faced—albeit briefly—a vote of no confidence on the House of Commons.

Gazala was by any standards a striking victory. But by most standards the Axis troops were fought out. Men and equipment were worn to breaking points, depending on captured fuel and supplies for momentum. Down to fifty tanks at the sharp end, Luftwaffe support left behind in the wake of the ground advance, Rommel was nevertheless convinced that only by attacking could his force sustain the initiative. To halt was to be attacked by massively superior forces, and another backward swing of the desert pendulum might well be the final one. Better to try ending the process altogether: roll the dice, take the British off balance, and regroup in Cairo.

“Attack” had worked for Rommel in North Africa as it had in France. It had been the armored force’s mantra since the beginning. It was a keystone of the German approach to war-making. This time under a new commander, Bernard Law Montgomery, 8th Army held. At Ruweisat Ridge on July 1, the panzers broke in. For the first time in the desert, they failed to break through. An end run was stopped cold at Alam Halfa by a mixture the Germans had patented: combined-arms tactics in a context of air supremacy. By this time Rommel’s health had declined sufficiently that he returned to Germany, partly to recover and partly to lobby for more of everything. Rommel informed his doctor, “Either the army in Russia succeeds in getting through . . . and we in Africa manage to reach the Suez Canal, or . . .” He accompanied his unfinished sentence with a dismissive gesture suggesting defeat.

The stalemate at El Alamein is frequently described as the final, fatal consequence of either Rommel’s fundamental ignorance of logistics or his culpable carelessness in supervising them. He thus epitomizes a senior officer corps whose tactical and operational proficiency manifested tunnel vision, with caste pride, misunderstood professionalism, or exaggerated vitalism relegating administration to those unsuited to command troops in combat.

When Halder asked Rommel what he would need to conquer Egypt and the Suez Canal, Rommel replied that another two panzer corps should do. When Halder asked how Rommel proposed to supply that force, Rommel replied that was Halder’s problem. Rommel was being neither arrogant nor insouciant. He was expressing the mentality of the German army as reorganized after 1933. Even Halder declared after the war that quartermasters must never hamper the operational concept. Rapid expansion encouraged a more pragmatic, hands-on ethic than had been the case prior to the Great War. The pace Hitler demanded encouraged focusing on the operational level of war. Planning in turn revolved more than ever around operational considerations; the logisti cians were called in afterward.

Rommel saw as well as anyone on either side of the war that victory in the desert depended on supply. He also understood that he had relatively little control of his logistics. Germany was a guest in the Mediterranean, depending on Italian goodwill and Italian abilities to sustain a small expeditionary force. From his arrival, Rommel successfully cultivated Italian senior officers and gained the confidence of Italian fighting formations. The Ariete Armored Division was close enough in effectiveness to its German stablemates to be virtually the Afrika Korps’ third panzer division for much of the campaign. Italian infantry, artillery, and engineers time and again were the fulcrum on which the lever of Rommel’s mobile operations depended.

The Italian army was not as retrograde in its understanding of mobile war in tactical and operational contexts as is frequently assumed. By 1940, Italian theorists had studied German successes in Poland and France and developed a doctrine of guerra di rapido corso (fast-moving war). Strategically, however, their generals considered Rommel’s focus on Cairo and the Suez Canal as culpable overextension. The Wehrmacht High Command understood the Mediterranean theater’s strategic function was to cover the German southern flank during the decisive struggle in Russia. North Africa was an outpost, best secured by a flexible defense.

On the other hand, Hitler had been reappraising Germany’s strategic prospects ever since Pearl Harbor. The German navy was calling for systematic cooperation with Japan in a campaign designed to produce a junction in the Indian Ocean that would bring about the final collapse of the British Empire. For Hitler, the war’s globalization only confirmed his decision for a 1942 campaign against the Caucasian oil fields. Hitler saw the Japanese conquests in Asia as weakening Britain’s imperial position sufficiently that the presence of Axis troops in the southern foothills of the Caucasus would convince Britain to negotiate, and leave Russia to be finished off before the industrial potential of the United States, which Hitler admitted he had no idea how to defeat, could be developed and deployed.

If America’s entry into the war threatened the Reich with grand-strategic encirclement, the military situation provided a window of opportunity—six to eight months, perhaps—for consolidating Germany’s position in a continental redoubt of the kind depicted by geopoliticians like Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. Mastery of what they called the “Heartland”—the Eurasian landmass—would set the stage for eventual mastery of the world.

Rommel had a complementary strategic vision. He believed, especially given the growing imbalance in material resources between Germany and its opponents, the best approach in North Africa involved maintaining the offensive at operational levels, taking advantage of German leadership and fighting power to demoralize the British, keep them off balance, and eventually create the opportunity for a decisive blow. That was a common mind-set among Germany’s panzer generals as the war reached its middle stages. Rommel, though anything but an “educated soldier” in the traditions of the German General Staff, took the concept one level higher. He realized British strength would continue to be renewed as long as North Africa remained the primary theater where Britain could deploy modern ground forces. Yet he was also convinced that through operational art he could conquer Egypt and eventually move northeast toward the Caucasus, providing the southern pincer of a strategic double envelopment that would secure the oil fields of south Russia and drive across Iraq and Persia, breaking permanently Britain’s power in the Middle East.

The prospect of Rommel at the head of a full-blooded Axis drive into the Middle East continues to engage counterfactual historians. It is a staple chapter in the alternative histories that show Germany winning World War II. But a crucial prerequisite for large-scale offensive operations in the Middle East was Axis maritime superiority in the Mediterranean. The Germans could make no significant contributions. The Italian navy had suffered heavy losses that its construction and repair facilities could not replace. Air power was no less vital, and here too the burden would have fallen on an Italian air force whose effectiveness was steadily declining. Obsolescent aircraft, lack of fuel, and indifference at senior levels proved a fatal trifecta. As for the Luftwaffe, those human and material resources not deployed to Russia were increasingly being reassigned to home defense.

Any Middle East offensive mounted from the Mediterranean would require a port. Alexandria, even if captured relatively undamaged, would be no more than the starting point for an increasingly long line of communication over terrain even more formidable, and less developed, than Russia. The survivability of German and Italian trucks in the mountains of Syria and the deserts of Iraq was likely to be less than on the Rollbahns of the Soviet Union. The Middle East lacked anything like a comprehensive, developed railway network. The problem of securing a thousand miles and more of natural guerilla/bandit country would have daunted the most brutal Nazi specialists in genocide.

The final damping factor of a Middle East campaign was its dependence on a successful drive through southern Russia to the Caucasus. Should Rommel’s panzer strength be doubled, without regard for the demands of the Russian front, or for how the additional tanks and trucks would be supplied, the offensive through Egypt would nevertheless remain a secondary operation. If German tanks did not appear in the southern passages of the Caucasus by early winter, any successes Rommel might achieve were likely to prove all too ephemeral. And yet the question remains: What might Rommel have achieved with a couple of additional panzer divisions, a little more gasoline . . . ?

Portuguese Empire

The map shows those places and coasts explored by Portuguese pioneers, sometimes overland but generally by sea. These journeys are referred to in history as the Discoveries – meaning, of course, that the relevant places were then discovered/revealed to western Europeans. The importance of the discoveries lay in the establishment of a world-wide network of connections, and in the initiation of that extraordinary expansion of European influence which has marked history since the late 15th century. □ Maps showing the extent of Portuguese discoveries quite often vary in detail, for new evidence still surfaces and historians assess the old evidence differently. For early explorations could not be confidently registered in some international court, able to adjudicate between rivals. Besides, the finding of yet more land was not in itself of particular importance: what mattered was whether it yielded something valuable at once (such as gold) or likely to be valuable soon (by way of trade). The Portuguese regarded their discoveries as trade secrets: the first port of call for returning navigators was the Casa da Índia where log-books and charts were deposited under a seal of security. There too a secret ‘planisphere’/world map was maintained, constantly adjusted by a team of map-makers and cosmographical experts. The Casa da Índia, a part of the royal palace, was on the bank of the Tagus in Lisbon. It was destroyed, with all its priceless records, by the Great Earthquake of 1755 – the collapse of the building, the devastating fires, the tidal waves. The loss of the primary, direct evidence of the journeys of the Portuguese pioneers means that historians have had to rely on oblique references and pirated documents. Thus, a voyage to Greenland and probably Northern Canada (Barcelos and Lavrador 1492–5) is known to have occurred – not from log-books but from the records of a law-suit in 1506. Don Antonio Lombardo, sailing round the world with Magellan, wrote in his diary in 1520 about the intricate passage through the Straits of Magellan: ‘Had it not been for the Captain General, we would not have found the strait, and we all thought and said it was closed on all sides. But he himself knew full well where to sail to find the well-hidden strait, which he had seen depicted on a map in the Treasury of the King of Portugal, which was made by that excellent man, Martin Behaim.’ Had someone, one wonders, indeed ventured so far south and previously reported the position of the strait to the Casa da Índia? A planisphere by Behaim still exists; embodying some Portuguese discoveries; it was made in 1492 on commission for the merchants of Nuremberg. Such pirating of Portuguese maps (theoretically punishable by death) was a considerable business. Bartolomeo Columbus, who worked in the Lisbon royal map workshop, joined his brother Christopher in Spain before 1489, bringing a copy of the secret world map, smuggled out on eleven sheets of paper, which he then sold in Italy to raise funds. Alberto Cantino, sent by Duke Ercole d’Este of Ferrara and posing as a purchaser of pure bred horses, obtained a copy of the secret Lisbon world map, by bribery, in 1502. His version surfaced in an Italian library – but only 450 years later. Even in the 1990s, Australian historians re-examining the ‘Dieppe’ maps (made by a school of copyists producing French versions of smuggled Portuguese originals) concluded that the Portuguese had explored at any rate the north-west coast of Australia (and some evidence points to the north-east and south-west coast as well) early in the 16th century.

This map shows routes between Portugal and India and some factors which determined them. □ Vasco da Gama’s long and dangerous voyage to the Indies and back – three times longer and much more intricate than the journey across the Atlantic – was a technical triumph of seamanship. Sailing vessels, powered solely by natural forces, are subject still to hazards of wind and sea; in addition, reefs, island outcrops and coastal obtrusions, now thoroughly mapped, were then little known; patterns of dominant currents and prevailing winds – shifting radically in the course of the year – had still to be established; longitude could not be fixed with much accuracy, and latitude only by the painstaking compilation of tables of the sun’s declination, seasonally, at different points on the globe; the movement of stars in unfamiliar southern skies had still to be plotted… and so on. The reduction of some of these hazards occupied Portuguese nautical science in the ten years between Dias finding open sea beyond the Cape and da Gama sailing for the Indies. In that period also the Portuguese, who had used tiny, manoeuvrable caravels for their early explorations, developed the nau, a much larger, well-armed vessel, suited to carrying substantial trade cargoes over long distances. Once da Gama had shown the way, a regular annual trading fleet – the Carreira da Índia – sailed from Lisbon to India on a two-year round trip. Additional trading posts were rapidly established down India’s Malabar and Cochin coasts and the Portuguese swarmed throughout the East, within thirty years reaching China. □ Of these Asian developments, Adam Smith wrote, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776): ‘The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind… the empires of China, Indostan, Japan, as well as several others in the East Indies, without having richer mines of gold or silver, were in every respect much richer, better cultivated and more advanced in all arts and manufactures than either Mexico or Peru… rich and civilized nations can always exchange to a much greater value with one another, than with savages and barbarians.’ The influence of the East in the development of the West was varied and great: in civility and thought, in the introduction of economic and decorative plants, in medicine, in craftsmanship; above all, in the creation of numerous trade goods – spices, fine cloth, jewels, porcelain… which triggered that rapid growth in the wealth of the West, and that sense of new horizons, and new opportunities, which sparked the High Renaissance.

Portugal’s first empire in Asia was based on control of trade: territorial occupation was generally limited to the seizure of key emporiums and entrepôts, such as Mombasa and Malacca, and the fortification of strategic towns, such as Goa and Hormuz. From these secure places, Portuguese armed ships patrolled the established sea lanes used by oriental merchants (in some places even issuing licences for a fee), attacking pirates (a serious, widespread, hazard to trade) and extending a protective arm over numerous Portuguese ‘factories’ – communities of merchants – settled in the countries of the East. Portuguese became the lingua franca among traders of all races throughout the region, as widespread linguistic traces of Portuguese words testify to this day. This map  shows the principal Portuguese forts and trading settlements and the main commodities handled by the Portuguese in Ásia Portuguesa. In the 16th century, Portugal’s superiority in ships, guns and navigational technique, the success of her soldiers and her merchants, enabled the Portuguese to dominate trade both within the region (for example, between distant China and Japan) and also between the region and Europe.

Oriental spices, of inflated economic value, had many uses: as condiments, in preserving food, in the preparation of medicines, perfumes, glues, lacquers, varnishes, dyes, in the processes of tanning, and many others. These spices reached Europe by a variety of routes, such as via the Red Sea or Persian Gulf to Alexandria, where Venetian traders would take over distribution throughout Europe. The new maritime route via the Cape, obviating caravans and a host of intermediaries, allowed the Portuguese to sell the spices at a much lower price.

A second expedition – military as much as mercantile – composed of no less than thirteen vessels, heavily armed with artillery, was set in motion, commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, of noble lineage, no mere squire. Instead of following the course of da Gama, it sailed further into the Atlantic, sighting Brazil. It is still being argued whether the discovery was premeditated or accidental. It is possible that the landfall was unforeseen, but there is convincing evidence that by that date the Portuguese knew of the existence of the continent.

From then on, in the spring of each year, a fleet would sail to India, with a complement of soldiers, adventurers and missionaries; and with merchandise to be bartered – for pepper on the Malabar coast, for example. In spite of the frightful rate of mortality en route, which might reach over 50 per cent, the numbers hankering to join increased every year. India seemed to be the answer to every problem. For the king, it provided what grew to be his main source of revenue; nobles and administrators hoped to grow fat on the profits of office; and for the others it was at least employment, for at home economic activity was stagnant.

Eastern trade involved unusual difficulties, for the traffic had long been dominated by Muslims, who, not unnaturally, sought to exclude competition, and to this end would go to any lengths. At first they stirred up trouble with the Indian princes, and later solicited the support of Turkish squadrons in an attempt to chase the Portuguese intruders from their patch – the Indian Ocean. Pedro Álvares Cabral had bombarded Calicut as early as 1500 for refusing to sell him spices; but this was only the opening salvo in hostilities which were to drag on for a century and a half. The Portuguese had to counter not only local Indian forces but the Turks, and later the Dutch and English. Finally, by the mid-seventeenth century England and Holland had taken over the Portuguese position of supremacy in trading with the Orient.

A prominent figure in the early years of the struggle was Afonso de Albuquerque, who devised an ambitious plan to occupy those ports controlling trade routes to the East. His strategic plans were largely achieved: Ormuz, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, was taken in 1507, and Malacca, commanding the shipping route east towards the Pacific, was captured in 1511. But all attempts to close the Red Sea to the Turks by seizing Aden failed, and for years the Turks continued to harry Portuguese traders both at sea and on land. The Portuguese occupied several other positions of vital importance to trade, among them Colombo, on the island of Ceylon; Pacém, on Sumatra; Ternate, in the Moluccas; and Maçaim, Damão and Diu on the western coast of the Indian peninsula.

The Portuguese in India

‘India’ was the topographical name at first used by the Portuguese to describe Asia and the Orient in general, from the East Africa coast to Japan. Throughout this vast area the Portuguese established settlements: these might be forts, or factories (the name applied to a trading station), or ports with which they traded and where they then chose to put down roots. The most impressive document describing the spontaneous proliferation of settlements beyond any official pattern is the Peregrinação of Fernão Mendes Pinto, a fascinating volume composed by an adventurer who acted out the roles of pirate, diplomat and missionary, and who was several times shipwrecked or taken prisoner.

The main seat of Portuguese power in Asia was Goa, taken by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510, which was to remain in Portuguese hands until 1960, when it was invaded by the Indian army. The Portuguese laid out an emporium on a European plan, with renaissance churches, of which imposing remains survive. Miscegenation between the Portuguese rank-and-file and the local women was encouraged, which rapidly generated a Catholic Indo-Portuguese population; and by the middle of the sixteenth century it was even considered the second city of Portugal, on account of its size and splendid buildings. The Jesuits made it their base for missionary activity in the Orient, erecting seminaries attended not only by Portuguese but by the natives of numerous Asian states. In 1584 an inaugural lecture was given in sixteen languages – from so many nations came the priests who taught there. An Italian Jesuit from Goa was to translate Euclid’s system of geometry into Chinese; a German Jesuit was responsible for reforming the Chinese calendar… such are merely two examples of the way aspects of European culture or science were disseminated in the East as well as Catholicism.

Commercial relations with China began at an early date. Already, by 1514, Tomé Pires, a Portuguese pharmacist, had compiled a book describing China, as well as other areas such as Malaysia, Java and Sumatra; it was translated into Italian and published in 1550. In 1515 Dom Manuel dispatched an embassy to the Chinese emperor, and its delegates, after great difficulty, achieved at last an audience at Peking. Soon, however, China reverted to what became its traditionally vigilant attitude by closing all gates to the outside world and excluding all foreigners from her shores.

But by then there were numerous independent Portuguese merchants trading in the China Sea. Defying such bans, they had established clandestine contacts between the Chinese ports and those of Japan, Manilla, Siam, Malacca, India, as well as back to Europe. In spite of imperial prohibitions, virtually all foreign trade with China passed into Portuguese hands, and the Chinese themselves soon came to appreciate the arrangement. In 1557 the astute mandarin of Canton found an ingenious way to circumvent the regulations by allocating to the Portuguese a small peninsula separated from the mainland by a narrow strait: Macao. Not being physically attached to China, it could carry on activities forbidden to the Chinese; what was once a small fishing-village rapidly expanded into a highly populated emporium which, until 1675, was the only ‘Chinese’ trading-post. From that date until the Opium War of 1839–44, the cosmopolitan port continued to play a vital role in Oriental trading with Europe. To this day Macao remains under Portuguese administration, its principal organ of government, the ‘Senado da Câmara’ having been established by the merchants in 1583.

The activities of merchants were closely linked to those of missionaries. In a document of 1586 Macao is referred to as ‘Porto do Nome de Deus na China’ – the Harbour of God’s Name in China. It served not only as the centre of trade but also as the back door by which the Jesuits infiltrated China and various Pacific communities.

As with China, commercial relations with Japan were for some time a Portuguese monopoly. Portuguese adventurers had settled on the Japanese archipelago in 1540, with their principal base at Nagasaki, where the landscape, with the town facing the sea, reminded them of Lisbon. Nagasaki was also a centre of Jesuit activity. Fernão Mendes Pinto (referred to above), one of the first Portuguese engaged in the Japan trade, gave money to St Francis Xavier to build a church, the first in Japan. Missionary influence there was so great that historians have even referred to the period 1540 to 1630 as ‘The Christian Century in Japan’. However, Nagasaki was destined to become known for another reason: in 1945, by an irony of history, an American plane was diverted from its original target by bad weather and dropped the last and largest atomic bomb on Nagasaki – the traditional centre of Christianity and Western influence in Japan.

Portuguese served as the international language of commerce throughout the Orient during the seventeenth century, leaving traces in many Asian languages. At this time there were numerous Portuguese traders in Africa, and Brazil had begun its astounding growth through Amazonia and to the Andes. The Portuguese language was acquiring a global spread. Today, as the official language of some 200 million users world-wide, it ranks third numerically, after English and Spanish, among European languages.

The economic consequences of expansion

This widespread dispersion of the Portuguese – throughout the Atlantic islands, Brazil, in the area of Guiné, and around the Orient – had marked consequences on both their economy and attitude to life. Garcia de Resende, a secretary to Dom João II, described in his Miscellany the astonishing events to which he was witness. What had been a comparatively small provincial court at Lisbon had become one of the largest in Christendom (Dom Manuel provided for some 4,000 retainers). It was the honey-pot to which all flocked in the hope of obtaining advancement. Everything depended on the king; nothing could be gained without his approval. All appointments to high office among the clergy were made by him (two of Dom João II’s brothers were nominated cardinals, one at seven years of age), and all grants of land and honours to the nobility were his to distribute. Royal consent was indispensable before any commercial operation abroad was undertaken. In this way the court ceased to be merely the seat of the country’s government, and became the focus of every sort of activity.

With such wealth entering the country, the king was dependent no longer on taxes and services provided by the populace, who thus lost all political influence. Legal reforms put an end to the independence of councils, and provided for the centralization of administration and the standardization of all excise. The Cortes did not meet for twenty-three years (1502–25) in spite of petitions that they should do so every decade at least. The populace also denounced the parasitical court, the excessive bureaucracy, the impoverishment of the countryside, and vociferously protested their own penury.

By the mid-century the population of Lisbon had expanded to 100,000, including some 800 wealthy entrepreneurs, and 5,000 modest artisans and tradesmen; but the rest were functionaries, clerics, squires and other retainers and hangers-on of the nobility, job-hunters, and vagrants, which created a serious imbalance between producers and consumers. The active middle class suffered in consequence, being unable to keep up in the race against an illusory middle class without any economic role, surviving on appearances and hot air. With the exodus from the productive land to the sterile cities, the situation worsened, in 1521 approaching the point of actual famine, with migrating peasants dying by the roadside, while landowners attempted to put even further pressure on the farmers to make up for their falling profits. Many people were driven to take part in risky voyages of trade overseas or in outright emigration. From this period dates the maxim: ‘Those wishing to remain afloat, must choose Church, Court, or Boat.’

Oriental spices had to be paid for with the local legal tender or bartered for silver, copper, lead, fine fabrics, and so on, but these materials did not originate in Portugal, and had to be imported from northern Europe via the Portuguese factory in Flanders. Lisbon could only remain the hub of Oriental trade as long as it held the monopoly of both the trade itself and the transport of goods by sea from India, which enabled costs to be kept low. But by the middle of the sixteenth century, with the re-establishment of direct trading by the city states of Italy, prices in Portugal fell substantially. Even the Flanders factory had to be closed down and, added to this disaster, the public debt showed another dramatic increase. The State, having the monopoly of the trade in spices, sold in bulk to the great capitalists, mostly foreigners, for few Portuguese could afford to enter the market. Not only had all the luxury goods in which Lisbon indulged to be imported, but also arms, gunpowder and naval tackle were bought in – indeed, entire ships. Loans and foreign letters of credit proliferated, and by the mid-century foreign debts exceeded the annual revenue, and the interest payable equalled the value of a year’s income from the spice trade. The foreign debt became four times the internal debt, and the interest to be paid abroad reached 400,000 cruzados, while that paid to holders of government securities accounted for only 100,000. The deficit in the balance of trade continued to widen, although disguised by the re-export of foreign goods. Even if local manufacturers maintained their output, they showed no increase in production. An emergency economy set in, with the State focusing its attention on wealth originating overseas, and distancing itself from domestic problems. In the countryside the rural community found itself increasingly cut off, with its standard of living falling. Things had little changed, when in 1580, two Venetians visiting Portugal described the lower orders as surviving on a scanty fare of salty sardines, brown bread, and very little else.