Charles Older

The focus of action then shifted to Burma, where the Hell’s Angels were operating in defence of Rangoon. On 23 December a force of some 70 JAAF aircraft, Ki 21 bombers escorted by Nakajima Ki 27 Nate and Nakajima Ki 43 Oscar fighters, raided Rangoon from their bases in Thailand. The AVG P-40s scrambled with the RAF’s Buffaloes to intercept but were too late to prevent the bombing. However, the AVG pilots claimed six bombers and four fighters destroyed (although only six of these could be confirmed), in return for the loss of three P-40s and two pilots. Charles Older, a former Marine Corps pilot, claimed two victories in this fight.

Like many soldiers from World War II, pilot Charles Older seemed to be born under a lucky star of prominence. You might not know his name, but I am sure you have seen his aircraft as it is one of the most recognized and reproduced aircraft markings of WWII.

Older was a veteran of the Chinese based American Volunteer Group during the opening days of World War II, which predated America’s official entry into WWII. AVG pilots were given America’s modern front line fighter, the Curtiss P-40B, to engage the occupying Imperial Japanese Army in China. The pointy nose of the early P-40 “B” model lent AVG pilots to paint shark mouths on their aircraft. Older’s P-40B is usually the aircraft mostly produced by tattoo artists, aircraft restorers and modelers alike as it also includes the Hells Angels motif of 3rd Pursuit Squadron and an original cartoon tiger artwork designed and drawn by a Walt Disney artist. With the Hell’s Angels logo, original Walt Disney art and leering shark mouth markings, Older’s aircraft has endeared, endured and embedded itself in our subconscious and pop culture for young and old alike. He is credited with 10 victories, making him a double ace.

American Volunteer Group (AVG).

During the early months of the war in the Pacific, American and Allied fighter pilots found themselves completely outclassed by the exceptionally maneuverable and well flown fighters of the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) and Japanese Navy Air Force (JNAF). As a consequence, they suffered serious defeats, and the myth of Japanese invincibility in the air was established. One of the first Allied fighter units to demonstrate that the Japanese fighters had weaknesses that could be exploited by skillful tactics were the pilots of the American Volunteer Group (AVG). nicknamed the ‘Flying Tigers’, who flew with the Chinese Nationalist Air Force (CNAF). During some 30 weeks of combat in 1941 and 1942, the AVG was credited with 297 confirmed victories for the loss of 80 fighters and 25 pilots killed or made prisoner of war. These considerable successes were largely due to the effective leadership and tactical skills of Colonel Claire L. Chennault, the AVG’s commander.

Shortly after leaving the United States Army Air Corps in 1937, Chennault was invited to China as air adviser to the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. On arriving, he found the CNAF in a poor state, with fewer than 100 effective combat aircraft out of a nominal strength of 500, and an inadequate number of trained pilots. Therefore, when the Japanese engineered Marco Polo Bridge Incident precipitated a full-scale Sino Japanese War in July 1937, the CNAF was unable to put up anything more than a token defence against the invaders.

In the short term, China was able to negotiate a Non Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union in August 1937, which resulted m an infusion of Soviet combat aircraft and ‘volunteer’ airmen. For the following three years this was sufficient to stave off the complete collapse of Chinese air power, but by the end of 1940 Soviet aid had dried up and the Japanese air Forces were operating virtually at will over China. It was under these circumstances that Chennault accompanied a CNAF mission to the United States in order to acquire a force of modern fighters and recruit American pilots to fly them.

Operating under the cover of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (CAMCO), Chennault succeeded in obtaining 100 Curtiss Tomahawk Mk II fighters (generally referred to as P-40s by the AVG). These Tomahawks had been ordered by the RAF before the Battle of Britain, but, as the pressure on the British air defences had eased by early 1941, the fighters were released to China. Recruiting suitably qualified pilots was a more difficult matter and it was necessary to obtain President Roosevelt’s permission to seek volunteers from the US armed forces.

Eventually, a total of 109 pilots was signed up by CAMCO, about half of them coming from the US Navy and Marine Corps, a third from the Army Air Corps and the remainder from civilian flying organisations. Their one year contracts provided a monthly pay 600 US dollars for pilots, 675 dollars for flight leaders and 750 dollars for squadron commanders A further Incentive to recruitment was the Chinese government merit’s offer of a 500 dollar bonus for every Japanese aircraft confirmed as destroyed The ground-crews numbering about 150 men, were mostly recruited from the United States forces and were paid between 150 and 400 dollars a month. Pay was an important factor in attracting personnel to the AVG, but the spirit of adventure   a wish to see active military service and to escape from the constraints of a peacetime routine was an equally strong attraction.

The aircraft and their pilots were dispatched by sea to Rangoon in Burma, where they assembled in late July 1941. After the P-40s had been uncrated and assembled, training began at the airfield at Kyedaw, near Toungoo. This had been made available to the AVG by the RAF authorities, as the Flying Tigers’ main base at Kunming in western China was still under construction.

Chennault set to work training AVG pilots according to his tactical doctrines. A network of ground observers had already been established in China at his suggestion and so the chances of receiving sufficient early warning of an incoming raid were good. However, Chennault realised from his study of Japanese aircraft and tactics that special procedures would be needed to deal with the enemy’s fighters. The manoeuvrable Japanese aircraft would win a traditional turning dogfight every time and Chennault stressed that this type of combat had to be avoided at all costs, He proposed that the P-40’s high diving speed and comparatively heavy firepower should be exploited:

‘You must use your superior speed to climb above them before you commit yourselves. And you then can use your greater diving speed to make a pass at them. Get in short bursts and get away. Break off and climb back for the advantage of altitude after you have gotten away safely. In such combat, and only in that kind, you have the edge.’

Once the AVG fighters had achieved an advantageous firing position, accurate gunnery was sure to achieve good results. The Japanese aircraft were both lightly constructed and poorly armoured and tended to burn or break up easily.

By the time that the Flying Tigers had completed their training in December 1941, the United States was at war with Japan. Nonetheless, the AVG retained its volunteer status. The group was organised into three squadrons, each made up of three flights of six fighters. The 1st Pursuit Squadron adopted an ‘Adam and Eve’ insignia as a pun on then designation. The squadron was commanded by Robert J. Sandell until he was killed in a flying accident on 7 February 1942, and then Robert H. Neale took over. The 2nd Pursuit Squadron, the ‘Panda Bears’, was led by John V. Newkirk and the 3rd Pursuit Squadron, the ‘Hell’s Angels’, by Arvid Olsen. Apart from their individual squadron insignia, the AVG P-40s were painted with a distinctive shark mouth marking, copied from No. 112 Squadron RAF which flew similarly decorated Tomahawks in North Africa, and this embellishment became as much the group’s identifying marking as the Chinese national insignia on the wings. Some aircraft also carried the Flying Tiger emblem designed for the AVG by the Walt Disney studios.

Deploying for Combat

By the second week of December the Flying Tigers were deploying for combat. The 1st and 2nd Squadrons deployed to Kunming, while the Hell’s Angels moved to Mingaladon, joining the Brewster Buffaloes of No. 67 Squadron RAF in the air defence of Burma The Kunming squadrons were the first to see action. On 20 December an unescorted formation of 10 JAAF Mitsubishi Ki 21 Sally bombers was picked up by the raid reporting network en route from Hanoi to Kunming. Chennault scrambled four P-40s of the Panda Bear Squadron, led by Newkirk, to intercept. A further sir, of the squadron’s fighters were reserved to cover Kunming, while Sandell’s 1st Pursuit Squadron flew to an auxiliary airfield to the southeast, from where they later scrambled to cut off the bombers’ retreat.

Newkirk’s section met the Japanese bombers some 30 miles short of Kunming and in their initial attack Ed Rector gained his first victory. However, Newkirk’s P-40 then suffered a gun and radio failure and was forced to break off the combat. He was followed by the other three pilots, who in the absence of any instructions from their leader, were reluctant to contravene the AVG’s strict formation discipline. The Adam and Eve Squadron then intervened, forcing the Ki 21s to jettison their bombs and turn away from their target. The most successful pilot during this combat was former US Navy dive-bomber pilot Fritz Wolf, who reported.

I attacked the outside bomber in the Vee. Diving down below him, I came up underneath, guns ready for the minute I could get in range. At 500yds I let go with a quick burst from all my guns. I could see my bullets rip into the rear gunner. My plane bore in closer. At 100yds I let go with a long burst that tore into the bomber’s gas tanks and engine. A wing folded and the motor tore loose. Then the bomber exploded. I yanked back on the stick to get out of the way and went upstairs.

‘There, I went after the inside man of the Japanese bomber formation. I came out of a dive and pulled up level with the bomber, just behind his tail. I could see the rear gunner blazing away at me, but none of his bullets were hitting my plane At 50yds I let go with a long burst, concentrating on one motor The same thing happened and I got number two. The bomber burned and then blew up.’

In all, six bombers were confirmed as destroyed and the Flying Tigers lost only Ed Rector’s P-40, which force landed after running out of fuel.

Defence of Rangoon

The focus of action then shifted to Burma, where the Hell’s Angels were operating in defence of Rangoon. On 23 December a force of some 70 JAAF aircraft, Ki 21 bombers escorted by Nakajima Ki 27 Nate and Nakajima Ki 43 Oscar fighters, raided Rangoon from their bases in Thailand. The AVG P-40s scrambled with the RAF’s Buffaloes to intercept but were too late to prevent the bombing. However, the AVG pilots claimed six bombers and four fighters destroyed (although only six of these could be confirmed), in return for the loss of three P-40s and two pilots. Charles Older, a former Marine Corps pilot, claimed two victories in this fight.

Two days later the JAAF returned in even greater force, and 12 AVG P-40s and 18 RAF Buffaloes were scrambled to meet a force of over 100 enemy aircraft. The Allied fighters made their interception over the Gulf of Martaban and, with the advantage of superior altitude, tore into the Japanese formation. The outcome was a complete vindication of Chennault’s tactical theories. For the loss of two P-40s, the Flying Tigers had downed 28 enemy aircraft Japanese tactics were equal to the challenge. However, on 28 December the Hell’s Angels were decoyed into pursuing a small formation of JAAF aircraft and, when on the ground refuelling after this mission, were attacked by a second JAAF formation. Only four P-40s were scrambled to meet the attack and they were unable to prevent Mingaladon from being heavily bombed.

Relief for the hard pressed Hell’s Angels came on 30 December, when Newkirk’s Panda Bears flew in from Kunming to relieve them The new unit soon took the fight to the enemy’s camp On 3 January 1942 Newkirk led a strafing attack by three P-40s on the Japanese airfield at Meshed in Thailand, claiming five enemy aircraft destroyed or. the ground and a further three in air combat. Japanese retribution was swift on 4 January six P-40s on patrol were bounced by about 30 Ki 27s and became ensnared in just such a turning dogfight which Chennault had counselled his pilots to avoid. Three kills were claimed, but for the loss of three AVG P-40s and the combat led one pilot, Gregory Boyington, wryly to reflect that the peacetime training which the Marine Corps gave its fighter pilots was completely worthless as a preparation for fighting the Japanese

Heavy fighting in January took its toll of the AVG’s P-40s, and early in February the 1st Pursuit Squadron relieved the Panda Bears in Burma By the end of that month, the Japanese advance forced the evacuation of Mingaladon During 10 weeks of combat in defence of Rangoon, the AVG and RAF fighters had claimed a total of 291 enemy aircraft destroyed.

The fight was continued from Magwe, 200 miles to the north of Mingaladon. Before Japanese air attacks forced this base to be evacuated late in March, two AVG pilots carried out a highly successful strafing attack on a newly occupied Japanese airstrip near Moulmein Bill Reed and Ken Jernstedt were flying an armed reconnaissance mission in the area on 19 March, when they spotted a lineup of Japanese Ki 27 fighters on the ground and destroyed 15 of them in a series of firing passes.

The AVG then withdrew to Loiwing across the Chinese border but remained within range of Japanese forces. On 24 March Robert Neale led a six aircraft strafing mission against the JAAF airfield at Chieng mai in Thailand, leaving more than two score Ki 27 and Ki 43 fighters as blazing wrecks. Yet whatever successes were gained in the air, the advance of the Japanese armies was inexorable and on 1 May the AVG was forced to evacuate Loiwing, destroying 22 unserviceable P-40s.

Western China

With the approach of the monsoon season on the Burma front. Chennault’s attention shifted to the defence of the cities of western China from bombing attack. This necessitated the dispersal of his slender resources, the depleted Hell’s Angels providing cover for the AVG’s main base at Kunming, the Panda Bears defending Chunking and Hengyang, and the Adam and Eves protecting Kweilin. The latter squadron was first to see action, intercepting a force of 20 JAAF aircraft over Kweilm on 13 June, accounting for 11 of them for the loss of only two P-40s and no pilot casualties.

Poor weather then enforced a lull in operations, and during this period the AVG was transformed from a volunteer unit of the CNAF into the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). However, the transition was mishandled by regular USAAF officers responsible, with the result that only five pilots agreed to transfer to the new unit. Urgent entreaties from Chennault, who had been given command of the USAAF’s new China Air Task Force with the rank of Brigadier-General, persuaded a further 19 pilots to stay on for a further two weeks after the AVG’s official disbandment. This led to the curious anomaly that ex-Navy pilot Neale (the AVG’s top scoring pilot), who was then technically a civilian, often led the USAAF’s 23rd Fighter Group during its first two weeks of existence. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that the 23rd Fighter Group was but a poor shadow of its predecessor. Indeed, the new unit’s pilots were able to carry on the traditions of the Flying Tiger with distinction. Foremost among them was the group’s new CO, Colonel Robert L. Scott, who led his new command in the interception of JAAF raiders over Kweilin. With the advantage of superior altitude, the P-40s dived onto the enemy formation Scott recalled:

‘Their formation was so perfect and so close we couldn’t miss. Even the new kids remembered not to shoot at the whole formation but to concentrate on one ship at a time, with short bursts, then skid to another. Hang on, aim, then fire – always short bursts. They didn’t see us until it was too late. Twenty or more of them were already going down and those we didn’t burn on the first pass broke and ran m all directions. After the first dive, when we’d climbed back into the sun for altitude, we broke, too, and took out after the stragglers. I followed one with my wingman all the way to Canton, 200 miles southeastward, and shot it down when the pilot lowered his landing gear preparatory to landing,’

After the results of this combat had been properly assessed, the American pilots were credited with 13 enemy aircraft destroyed for no loss to themselves. It was an auspicious start for the new Flying Tigers of the 23rd Fighter Group.

A particularly noteworthy combat was fought later that month, when, early to the morning of 30 July, Major John R Alison and Major A. J. ‘Ajax’ Baumler intercepted six JAAF night bombers over Hengyana and destroyed four of them. Alison ended the war with 10 victories and Baumler, who had gamed eight kills flying with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, added a further five to his score in China. Another distinguished newcomer to the Flying Tigers was Scott’s successor as commanding officer, Colonel Bruce K Holloway, who finished the war with 13 victories and went on to become general commanding the USAF’s Strategic Air Command. Three of the original Flying Tigers later returned to the 23rd Fighter Group, Colonel David L. ‘Tex’ Hill and Colonel Edward F. Rector as commanding officers, and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Older as a squadron commander.

The 23rd Fighter Group remained in China until the end of the war against Japan, latterly replacing its P-40s with North American P 51 Mustangs. From its formation on 4 July 1942 until the end of the fighting, the group was credited with 621 enemy aircraft shot down plus a further 320 destroyed on the ground.

Stalin in the Russian Civil War

On May 17, 1919, Stalin arrived in Petrograd with full powers to organize the defenses of the region against attack by General N. N. Yudenich’s army, which was advancing from the northwest. Remaining in Moscow, Lenin maintained control over the Revolutionary War Council and had direct contact with all the fronts. To Stalin in Petrograd, he sent a stream of telegrams, harrying, advising, demanding information. In a telegram on May 20, he expressed the hope “that the general mobilization of Petersburgers will result in offensive operations and not just sitting about in barracks.”

Lenin was disturbed by the speed of Yudenich’s advance. He mistrusted the commanders and the troops of the Red Army in the region. On May 27, he warned Stalin to assume treachery, and as an explanation of defeat or other failure, treachery was to become a phobia in the party. Stalin responded promptly. The Cheka was unleashed and soon claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy among employees of the Swiss, Italian, and Danish consulates. Stalin reported to Lenin that a counterrevolutionary plot in support of the Whites had been crushed and that the Cheka was investigating further. In a message to Lenin, dated June 4, 1919, he wrote: “I am sending you a document from the Swiss. It is evident from the document that not only the chief of staff of the Seventh Army works for the Whites . . . but also the entire staff of the Revolutionary Council of War of the Republic. . . . It is now up to the Central Committee to draw the necessary inferences. Will it have the courage to do it?”

Stalin himself did not escape criticism. An old Bolshevik hostile to the Tsaritsyn group, A. I. Okulov, who was the political member of the West Front Military Council, complained to the Central Committee that due to Stalin’s actions the Seventh Army was being detached from the West Front, which was under the command of D. N. Nadezhny, a former tsarist corps commander, and that it should be restored to his command. Lenin asked Stalin to comment. “My profound conviction,” he replied, “is: 1, Nadezhny is not a commander. He is incapable of commanding. He will end up by losing the Western Front; 2, workers like Okulov who incite the specialists against our kommissars, who are sufficiently discouraged anyway, are harmful, because they debilitate the vital core of our army.” Okulov was removed from his post.

Following the repulse of the White advance on Petrograd in June, Stalin was appointed to be the political member of the Military Council of the West Front, and a new commander replaced Nadezhny.

On the East Front, disagreements erupted between Vatsetis, the commander in chief, and S. S. Kamenev, the commander of the front. Trotsky supported Vatsetis, whom he had appointed, and he showed hostility toward Kamenev. On one occasion in Simbirsk, Trotsky, dressed in black leather uniform, like his personal escort, and armed with a pistol, burst into Kamenev’s office and excitedly threatened him. Later, at the instigation of Vatsetis, Trotsky summarily dismissed him.

Kamenev was liked and respected. The Military Council of the East Front formally protested to Lenin. Kamenev himself went to Moscow to put his case. On May 15, 1919, he was interviewed by Lenin, who was impressed and told him to return to his command. Lenin was usually careful and diplomatic in his dealings with his closest associates, and in overruling Trotsky publicly, he was expressing his strongest disapproval. He had been losing confidence in Trotsky’s judgment and was increasingly impatient of his bombastic behavior. He also had no high opinion of Vatsetis, who, like Trotsky, had antagonized military as well as political workers.

The climax came in July 1919. Kamenev had worked out a plan for a further advance eastward into Siberia. Vatsetis vetoed the plan. The East Front Military Council again protested to Lenin. Two meetings of the Central Committee considered the evidence and decided against Vatsetis. At a meeting on July 3, the committee reviewed and endorsed its decision. Trotsky in a fury, his pride affronted, declared that he would resign all his offices, but the committee rejected his resignation. It was decided further that Kamenev should be appointed commander in chief. Vatsetis was arrested, investigated for suspected treason, released, and subsequently given an appointment as a military instructor.

The Central Committee also reorganized the Revolutionary War Council, limiting its membership to six. Trotsky was included, but the other five members were not his supporters. He could no longer dominate the council and get his way. Deeply offended, Trotsky remained at the South Front for the rest of the summer. The Revolutionary War Council functioned directly under Lenin’s control, and more harmoniously.

Trotsky subsequently held Stalin responsible for this major reverse in his military standing. He maintained that Stalin’s antagonism toward Vatsetis was well known and that he had supported the East Front Military Council as a means of striking at Trotsky himself. It was a reflection of Trotsky’s egocentricity that he had to interpret Stalin’s actions in terms of hostility toward himself. In this conflict, however, Stalin’s views were those of Lenin and the other members of the Central Committee, and his overriding concern was the victory of the Red Army.

By the end of June 1919, A. Denikin controlled the whole of the Don region and his army continued its rapid advance. His forces had first spread across the Ukraine and south Russia and then they had pressed northward. In Moscow, Lenin became increasingly anxious about the defense of the city. Kamenev, the commander in chief, had prepared a plan, concentrating strong Red forces to make a flank attack from the east. A second plan, prepared earlier by Vatsetis, and which Trotsky subsequently claimed as his own work, proposed that the armies of the South Front strike due south against Denikin’s forces. The Central Committee had approved Kamenev’s plan.

The Red Army’s flank attack failed completely to halt the White advance. Disturbed by this failure, Kamenev reviewed his strategy and recommended that, while maintaining pressure on the enemy from the east, strong forces of reserves should be concentrated south of Moscow. The response of Lenin and the Central Committee was a striking expression of their confidence in Kamenev. He was told “not to consider himself bound by his former recommendations or by any previous decisions of the Central Committee” and that he had “full powers as a military specialist to take whatever measures he thought fit.”

On September 27, 1919, the Central Committee approved the plan to post strong reserves south of Moscow. It decided also to send Stalin to take charge of the South Front. This was a severe rebuff to Trotsky, who had been there during the months of disaster. For a short period, Stalin and Trotsky were both at the headquarters of the South Front, but apparently, they did not quarrel openly.

On October 11, 1919, Yudenich launched a surprise attack on Petrograd, and the Red Army began to fall back in disorder. Lenin considered that the city should be abandoned, for he would allow nothing to weaken the defenses of Moscow. On October 15, however, the Politburo sent Trotsky to take charge of the defenses of Petrograd. He rallied the troops and reorganized the defenses of the city, and Petrograd did not fall. Later he was to complain bitterly that in official records, Stalin had merged the first and second campaigns of Yudenich into one and “the famous defence of Petrograd is represented as Stalin’s handiwork.”

Soon after arriving at the South Front headquarters, Stalin reported to Lenin and set out the action he proposed. He criticized Kamenev for holding to his original strategy. He argued that they must “change this plan, already discredited in practice, replacing it with a major attack on Rostov from the Voronezh area by way of Kharkov and the Donets Basin.” He set out cogently his reasons and closed his report with the comment that “without this change in strategy, my work . . . will be senseless, criminal, and superfluous, giving me the right, indeed obliging me, to go off anywhere, even to the devil, but not to stay at the South Front.”

During the six months from October 1919 to March 1920, while Stalin was at the South Front headquarters and, as he boasted later, “without the presence of Comrade Trotsky,” the Red Army succeeded in crushing the White forces. Denikin had advanced headlong, exhausting his men, and leaving himself exposed to attack in the rear. His troops were driven from Orel on October 20, 1919, and from Voronezh four days later; the morale of his force collapsed. He himself lost the confidence of his officers and the support of his Cossack allies. Early in April 1920, after nominating General Peter Wrangel as his successor, he escaped into Turkey.

In the advance of the South Front’s armies against Denikin’s armies, Budënny played a conspicuous role. He was a swaggering cavalryman, brave and energetic, but limited in ability. He was tireless in pressing for the formation of a cavalry army under his command. Stalin welcomed the idea of massed Red Cavalry, but Trotsky at first opposed it. He mistrusted the Cossacks, who would be the main source of cavalrymen and who were more in sympathy with the White than the Red cause. With Stalin’s support, Budënny’s proposal was adopted, at least nominally. Trotsky changed his mind about massed cavalry and issued his proclamation “Proletarians to Horse!” Budënny and his Red Cavalry became one of the romantic legends of the Civil War.

By early January 1920, Budënny had led his cavalry to the shores of the Sea of Azov. The South Front was then divided into the Southwest Front, under Egorov’s command operating against the Whites in the Crimea, and the Southeast Front, commanded by V. I. Shorin and including Budënny’s Cavalry Army, which was renamed the Caucasian Front.

Shorin had been an officer in the tsarist army, but although nearly fifty years old at the time of the Revolution, he had never risen above the rank of captain. High command had come to him as to many others, because no one else was available in the revolutionary camp at the time. He was disliked by Budënny and Voroshilov, who schemed to have him dismissed. Stalin supported them, and was said by Budënny to have told Ordzhonikidze, recently appointed the political member of the Caucasian Front, that Shorin was to be dismissed “for adopting an attitude of mistrust and enmity toward the cavalry army.” M. N. Tukhachevsky, a former second lieutenant of the Semenovsky Guards Regiment, then in his twenties, who was later designated to succeed Shorin, was to find that Budënny and Voroshilov were unruly and undisciplined but to be handled with care because they had influential protection.

Early in February 1920, Budënny’s Red Cavalry suffered a severe defeat by the Cossacks. This reverse, indicating lack of discipline and poor leadership, disturbed Lenin. He at once sent a telegram to Stalin, signed by Trotsky, too, appointing him to the Caucasian Front to resolve whatever problems had led to the defeat. The telegram also directed him to make a journey to front headquarters to concert further action with Shorin and to transfer troops from the Southwest Front to his command.

Stalin was evidently tired and unwell. His reply was cantankerous. He stated that visits by individuals were in his view wholly unnecessary, adding that “I am not entirely well and ask the Central Committee not to insist on the journey.” He commented further that “Budënny and Ordzhonikidze consider. . . Shorin to be the reason for our failures.” He prevaricated over the transfer of troops to the Caucasian Front. When Lenin sent him instructions to effect the transfer without further delay, he replied crossly that it was a matter for the High Command to ensure the reinforcement of the front. Unlike the staff of the High Command, who were all in good health, he was ill and overburdened. Apparently, he felt that he had been in the south long enough and that he had completed his task there. Finally, on March 23, 1920, he returned to Moscow.

Stalin was allowed only a short respite. On May 26, 1920, he was ordered to join the Southwest Front. He was in Kharkov on the following day. The Red Army’s position in the south had become critical. Wrangel, who had succeeded Denikin, had restored morale and discipline among the White forces in the Crimea. He was building up the Volunteer Army to a strength of 20,000 men, supported by 10,000 Cossacks. His forces presented a severe challenge from the south.

At this time, the Poles attacked from the west, seizing Kiev and storming over the Dnieper. Their objective was to conquer Belorussia and western Ukraine, vast territories which they had lost to Moscow in the seventeenth century. The Poles were, however, wary of any alliance with the Whites, recognizing that they would hardly accept such a loss of territory to Russia’s traditional Polish enemy. The Poles were also on guard against the Soviet regime. Trotsky had publicly threatened to invade Poland as soon as the Whites had been defeated in the south.

Attacked in the south, where Wrangel made early gains, and in the west, the Red Army found itself under severe pressure. The Central Committee approved the High Command’s plan that the West Front, now commanded by Tukhachevsky, should attack in northern Belorussia to compel the Poles to move troops away from the Southwest Front. It meant giving priority to the expulsion of the Poles. Egorov, commanding the Southwest Front, and his officers disagreed with this strategy. It was for this reason that Stalin was hurriedly dispatched to his headquarters.

Within a few days of his arrival, Stalin had visited the Crimean Front and reported to Lenin. The situation gave rise to great anxiety. He had replaced the commander of the Thirteenth Army. He requested two divisions to reinforce the Southwest Front, for Egorov’s initial offensive against the Poles had failed. Lenin in his reply firmly reminded him to copy all communications on military matters to Trotsky, the kommissar for War. He also repeated the Central Committee decision that the Southwest Front should not yet embark on any offensive in the Crimea. Stalin at once protested against the refusal to send two further divisions and stressed the danger posed by Wrangel to the south. Lenin was not to be moved, however, and he confirmed the original plan.

Kamenev’s order on June 2, 1920, was that the Cavalry Army should attack the Polish positions and seek to outflank them south of Kiev. Egorov and Stalin apparently amended the line of attack in passing the order to Budënny. The effect of this change cannot be judged. The Red Cavalry attacked, forcing the Polish forces south of the Pripet Marshes to retreat hurriedly. To the north Tukhachevsky’s West Front opened its offensive early in July 1920, again compelling the Poles to fall back. By the end of the month, the Red Army had advanced across the frontier into northern Poland. A provisional Polish government was set up under the chairmanship of Dzerzhinsky. Tukhachevsky’s four armies were drawn up on the Vistula, and the capture of Warsaw seemed imminent.

Lenin was carried away by the vision of the Red Army in Warsaw and of a communist Poland giving its full support to the revolutionary movement. He felt acutely the isolation of Russia, which with all its internal problems was bearing the socialist banner alone. This vision was shared by many within the party and gave rise to a wave of enthusiasm, as members rallied to the cry “Onwards to Warsaw!” But there were realists, Stalin foremost among them, who saw the dangers of this policy. In June 1920, he wrote that “the rear of the Polish forces is homogeneous and nationally united. Its dominant mood is ‘the feeling for their native land.’ . . . The class conflicts have not reached the strength needed to break through the sense of national unity.” It was a clear warning against accepting Lenin’s facile belief that the Polish proletariat was ready for revolution.

The Politburo had, however, decided on its policy of conquering Poland in spite of the opposition expressed by Stalin and others. Stalin had hurriedly rejoined the Southwest Front which covered the southern part of the Polish lines and was at the same time on guard against Wrangel in the south. The Politburo now decided to form a special front against Wrangel under Stalin’s direction. A major part of the forces of the Southwest Front would be transferred to Tukhachevsky’s Western Front for the advance on Warsaw, and the remaining forces would form Stalin’s special front. Angered by these instructions from the Politburo, Stalin replied churlishly that the Politburo should not be concerning itself with such details. Lenin was taken aback and asked for an explanation of his opposition. In his reply, Stalin set out the organizational difficulties which the instructions entailed. Lenin was impressed by his appreciation of the situation and allowed the Southwest Front to retain its previous commitments; only three of its armies were to be transferred to the Western Front.

The basic problem was that Tukhachevsky’s Western Front was separated by more than 300 miles of the Pripet Marshes from the Southwest Front. Communications and the prompt transfer of forces over such distances were further complicated by the absence of a strong central command. Trotsky and the Supreme War Council were ignored. Kamenev, the commander in chief, issued directives but could not enforce them. The Politburo and, in particular, Lenin, acting independently, tried to resolve conflicts, but could not be sure that their instructions would be observed. Moreover, Lenin’s instructions conflicted on occasions with plans of the commander in chief. Thus Kamenev confirmed that Tukhachevsky should outflank Warsaw from the north and west and take the city by August 12, 1920. This left the large Lublin gap unprotected between the Russian forces and the Pripet Marshes. At this time, Wrangel was moving with some success, posing a threat that alarmed Lenin. On August 11, he instructed Stalin to break off operations against the Poles at Lvov and to embark on an immediate offensive to destroy Wrangel’s army and seize the Crimea. On the same day, Kamenev ordered the Southwest Front to send “as large a force as possible toward Lublin to assist Tukhachevsky’s left flank.”

At this time, it was believed that the Red Army had already won the battle for Warsaw. Stalin and Egorov were planning to send their cavalry not to Lublin, but to the Crimea, and they ignored Kamenev’s instructions. On August 13, Kamenev sent orders that both the Twelfth and First Cavalry armies would be transferred to the command of the Western Front on the following day. Egorov felt he had to comply. But Stalin refused to sign the order and sent a telegram angrily reproaching the commander in chief for trying to destroy the Southwest Front.

Tukhachevsky’s advance had been progressing slowly. But on August 16, the Poles counterattacked, concentrating on the Lublin gap, and within a few days, they had shattered the West Front. On August 19, the Politburo, including Stalin, met in Moscow, still unaware that the Poles were on the point of routing Tukhachevsky’s armies. The Politburo, “having heard the military reports of Comrades Trotsky and Stalin,” decided that the main concentration of forces should now be directed to the recovery of the Crimea.

Responsibility for the disaster was angrily debated then and later. Lenin abstained from blaming anyone, but it is clear that he himself and all the participants bore part of the blame. Lenin had been carried away by hopes of a Polish revolution and seriously miscalculated the strength of Polish resistance. Kamenev and Tukhachevsky must bear the military responsibility since they neglected to ensure protection of their flanks before advancing. Moreover, even if Stalin and Egorov had responded promptly to orders to transfer troops from their front to fill the Lublin gap, it is doubtful whether such troops could have arrived in time and in fighting condition to have withstood the Polish onslaught.

Stalin’s concern to maintain the strength of the Southwest Front was understandable. It was facing the Polish forces at Lvov, Wrangel’s army to the south, and the possibility of Romanian intervention. All were serious threats, which were causing Lenin and the Politburo anxiety, and the wisdom of detaching any of its armies to reinforce the Western Front was questionable. Rightly or wrongly, however, Stalin was undoubtedly guilty of insubordination, as on other occasions in the Civil War when he was sure that he was right. But there was also an inevitability in the defeat of the Red Army. The troops were near exhaustion. They had fought heroically on Russian soil. Now they encountered the Poles, who were defending their capital and homeland against their traditional Russian enemy, and they fought with desperate bravery.

By the close of 1920, the Civil War had ended. Wrangel, his volunteer army greatly outnumbered by the Red forces in the south, suffered a disastrous defeat. His army disintegrated, as had Kolchak’s army in Siberia some months earlier. But the Whites had been doomed to failure from the start.

Lenin and his government had been able to raise the Red Army to a strength of more than 5 million men and to ensure the supply of basic munitions. There had been failures of organization, conflicts between commanders and kommissars, and frequent confusion among the headquarters of the fronts, the High Command, and the party Central Committee in Moscow. The new Soviet leaders and the Red Army were able to rise above these obstacles, and united and fired by revolutionary zeal, they triumphed.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate the endemic confusion of the Red Army’s operations in this period and the miasma of suspicions, vicious antagonisms, and conflicting claims – many of them made later – in order to evaluate the contribution of the individual Soviet leaders to the triumph. Lenin had been in command throughout the war. He had closely followed each operation and had sent out orders, usually in the name of the Central Committee, but they were his orders. He had handled troublesome personalities, especially Stalin and Trotsky, with tact and firmness. All had accepted his supreme leadership. It was, indeed, during the years after the Revolution, and particularly during the Civil War, that he revealed greatness as a leader.

Trotsky’s prestige had greatly diminished by the end of the war. The failure of his negotiations with the Germans and the forced acceptance of the disastrous terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had damaged his reputation. He had resigned as kommissar for Foreign Affairs and become kommissar for War. In the early months of the Civil War, he had blazed across the sky like a comet. He had laid the foundations of the Red Army. A small vibrant figure in black leather uniform, he was gallant and ludicrous at the same time. At every opportunity, he harangued the troops. He was a fine orator, and very conscious of this talent. Often, as in Sviyazhsk in August 1918, his dramatic words and presence raised the morale of disheartened men, just as his ruthless punishments restored discipline. But he greatly overrated the power of his theatrical performances. Budënny wrote that to ordinary, often illiterate, soldiers he could be a strange figure with his waving arms and spate of words, most of which they did not understand. At times, his exhortations stirred them to anger. Moreover, as Lenin came to recognize, he was readily carried away by his own words, losing touch with the realities of the situation. He was also unsound in his appointments to positions of command. His stubborn support for Vatsetis had been an example. At the start of the war, Trotsky had exercised wide independent authority; by the time of the Polish War, he was to be found in Moscow and directly under Lenin’s control.

Increasingly, Lenin had come to rely on Stalin, who was in most things the antithesis of Trotsky. He rarely addressed the troops or meetings of any kind, but when he did, he spoke in simple terms. He was the realist, who coldly assessed men and situations, and was usually sound in his conclusions. He remained calm and self-possessed. He was difficult only in his antagonisms toward certain people and when his advice was rejected. While demanding that others obey orders, he himself did not hesitate on occasions to be insubordinate, for he readily set his judgment above that of others. But he learned, too, that in war, a supreme commander, exercising unquestioned authority, was essential to victory. He never forgot this lesson.

In November 1919, Trotsky and Stalin were awarded the new Order of the Red Banner. The award to Stalin was “for his services in the defense of Petrograd and for his self-sacrificing work at the South Front.” The two awards were an indication that at the time, Lenin and the Central Committee considered both men equally valuable.

In later years, when seeking every pretext to denigrate Stalin, Trotsky wrote contemptuously of his role in the Civil War. It is clear, however, from contemporary sources, including Trotsky’s papers, that he had then rated Stalin high as a military organizer. In times of crisis when party interests and the revolutionary cause transcended personal rivalries, he turned to him. During the Polish War, for example, when anxious about an attack by Wrangel from the Crimea, Trotsky recommended that “Comrade Stalin should be charged with forming a new military council with Egorov or Frunze as commander by agreement between the Commander-in-Chief and Comrade Stalin.” On other occasions, he made or supported similar proposals to send Stalin to resolve crucial problems at the fronts. Like Lenin and other members of the Central Committee, he had come to value Stalin’s abilities.

Stalin emerged from the Civil War and the Polish War with a greatly enhanced reputation. He had made mistakes but so, too, had others. To the people generally, he was still not well known. He was rarely in the public eye and, unlike Trotsky, he did not court publicity. Within the party, he was known as the quiet and incisive man of action, a leader of decision and authority. In the immense task facing the government, of reorganizing the country after the years of war and revolution, he was clearly a man who would bear special responsibilities.

The experience of the Civil War made a profound impact on Stalin. It broadened his knowledge of himself and his abilities. For the first time, he had responsibility on a vast scale, and he found that he could carry it and, indeed, was stimulated by it. But this self-knowledge came in conditions of complete brutalization. He had witnessed the bread war when villages and whole towns were wiped out in the struggle to ensure grain deliveries to the north. He had been schooled in the principle that the party’s purposes must be pursued, no matter what the cost in human lives. Now he had seen people massacred in thousands in the struggle for the survival of the party and its government. The experience implanted more deeply in him that inhumanity which was to mark his exercise of power.

Wars Involving Landsknechts

Swiss mercenaries and landsknechte engaged in a push of pike (engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger, early 16th century)

The War of the League of Cambrai (1508–1516)

The War of the League of Cambrai, also known as the War of the Holy League and by other names, too, was a major conflict during the Italian Wars. The chief participants were at varying times: France; the Papal States; the Republic of Venice; Spain; the Holy Roman Empire; England; Scotland; the Duchy of Milan; Florence; the Duchy of Ferrara; and, last but by no means least, the redoubtable Swiss mercenaries. The final victors were the French and Venetians.

Pope Julius II had wanted to curb the territorial ambitions of the Republic of Venice, so in 1508 he formed the League of Cambrai for this purpose. By focusing only on the role of mercenaries, one can note that in 1509 Louis XII of France left Milan at the head of a French army and invaded Venetian territory. To oppose him, Venice hired a mercenary army under two cousins—Bartolomeo d’Alviano and Nicolo di Pitigaliano. Unfortunately, however, they could not agree how to oppose the French.

As a result, when Louis XII crossed the Adda River, Bartolomeo advanced to attack him. Nicolo, on the other hand, saw no virtue in a pitched battle, so he moved away to the south. When Bartolomeo fought the French at the battle of Agnandello, he found that he was outnumbered and he urgently asked his cousin to send him reinforcements. Nicolo, however, simply ordered Bartolomeo to break off the battle and he then continued on his own way. Bartolomeo, disregarding these orders, kept on fighting until his army was surrounded and was destroyed. Nicolo, for his part, managed to steer clear of the victorious French forces but when his mercenary troops heard of Bartolomeo’s defeat, they deserted in large numbers, forcing Nicolo to retreat with the remnants of his army. The Venetian collapse was complete but Nicolo soldiered on.

In 1509 the citizens of Padua, aided by detachments of Venetian cavalry under the command of the “proveditor” Andrea Gritti, revolted. (A proveditor was a civilian official charged with overseeing the actions of the mercenary captains hired by the Republic of Venice.) Padua was guarded by some Landsknechts but they were too few in number to resist the revolt effectively, so Padua reverted to Venetian control. Relief forces were sent toward Padua but Nicolo had enough time to concentrate his remaining troops there. At the siege of Padua, although enemy artillery fire breached the city’s walls, Nicolo and his men were able to stand fast: the city did not fall. When Nicolo died of natural causes in 1510, Andrea Gritti took his place as proveditor.

Pope Julius II was increasingly worried by the growing French military presence in Italy, so he hired an army of Swiss mercenaries to attack the French in Milan and he formed an alliance with the Venetians, who also feared the French invaders.

The Italian War of 1521–1526

Francis I of France had wanted to become Holy Roman Emperor. When Charles V of Spain got the job instead, this gave Francis the pretext to start a general war. The war, fought in Italy, France, and Spain, pitted Francis and the Republic of Venice against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Henry VIII of England, and the Papal States. The result was a Spanish and Imperial (Holy Roman Empire) victory. From what might be called a ”pro-mercenary” point of view (in the sense that many of the advantages of mercenaries, at least as seen by their employers, have been recounted), the most interesting action of this war was the rout of Swiss mercenaries at the battle of Bicocca in 1522.

In this battle, a combined French and Venetian force, led by Odet de Foix, the Vicomte de Lautrec, was decisively defeated, north of Milan, by a Spanish-Imperial and Papal army commanded by Prospero Colonna. Lautrec had wanted to attack Colonna’s lines of communication but his (Lautrec’s) Swiss mercenaries complained that they had not been paid since their arrival in Lombardy. They demanded an immediate battle, threatening to abandon the French and return to their cantons if Lautrec refused to attack. Their demand forced him, against his will, to assault Colonna’s well-fortified position. Lautrec’s Swiss pikemen moved forward over open fields under a fierce artillery bombardment, suffering heavy losses, and had to stop at a sunken road backed up by earthworks. There they encountered the concentrated fire of Spanish arquebusiers and were forced to retreat. Their total losses were more than 3,000 dead.

The net result was that, a few days later, the Swiss mercenaries marched back to their cantons, while Lautrec had to retreat into Venetian territory with the remnants of his army. The significance of this battle is three-fold: it marked the end of Swiss pike-dominance among the infantry units of the Italian Wars; it forced the Swiss to change their policy of attacking with only massed columns of pikemen, i.e., without the support of other troops; and it was one of the first engagements where firearms played a decisive role in the outcome. The Italian historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) remarked on how this battle changed the military attitude of the Swiss. He wrote:

They went back to their mountains diminished in numbers, but more diminished in audacity; for it is certain that the losses which they suffered at Bicocca so affected them in coming years that they no longer displayed their wonted vigour.

The really decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521–1526, however, was the battle of Pavia (1525), in which a Spanish-Imperial army under Charles de Lannoy, working together with a garrison of Pavia under Antonio de Leyva, attacked the French army, which was under the personal command of Francis I of France.3 The end result was that the French army was soundly defeated: in fact, Francis himself was captured by Spanish troops when his horse was killed from under him by Caesare Herocolani, an Italian mercenary. Francis was then imprisoned by Charles V and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid.

Mercenaries played significant roles in the battle of Pavia but rather than trying to recount their exploits here in exhaustive detail, it is better to look briefly at a few of the highlights. Examples include the following:

• A mass of French troops arrived at Pavia in October 1524 to besiege the city. Inside the city were about 9,000 men, mainly mercenaries, whom the Spanish commander Antonio de Leyva was able to pay only by melting down the gold and silver plate of the local churches.

• Confusingly, two different mercenary Black Bands were involved at the battle of Pavia. One, headed by Giovanni de’ Medici, consisted of Italian mercenary arquebusiers who had just entered French service. The other, led by François de Lorraine, consisted of renegade Landsknecht pikemen.

• Antonio de Leyva overran 3,000 Swiss mercenaries who had been manning the siege lines. Survivors tried to flee across a river but suffered massive causalities as they did so.

After his decisive defeat in the battle of Pavia, Francis wrote these famous lines in a letter to his mother, Louise of Savoy:

To inform you of how my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honour and life, which remain safe….

The Italian War of 1542–1546

This ruinously expensive war—basically a contest pitting Francis I of France and Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire, on the one hand, against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VII of England, on the other—was inconclusive. All the players used mercenaries at one time or another: at the battle of Serravalle in 1544, for example, the troops of Alfonso d’Avalos, fighting on behalf of Charles V and his allies, defeated an Italian mercenary army in French service.

A battle worth looking at here is the battle of Ceresole (1544), which took place near Turin, Italy and which is remembered by military historians as “the great slaughter” because of the heavy losses which occurred when columns of arquebusiers and pikemen clashed in the middle of the battlefield.

The belligerents were France, whose forces were led by the Count of Enghien, and the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain) under Charles V, whose troops were commanded by Alfonso d’Avalos. On the ground, a wide range of forces of differing backgrounds, i.e., both mercenary and regular, were engaged in this battle. The major combat units were:

   On the French side

   • 4,000—Swiss troops

   • 4,000—Gascon infantrymen

   • 3,000—French infantry recruits

   • 2,000—Italian infantrymen

   On the Spanish-Imperial side

   • 7,000—Landsknechts

   • 6,000—Italian infantrymen

   • 5,000—Spanish and German infantrymen

What made this particular battle so horrific (the French lost up to 2,000 men dead and wounded; the Holy Roman Empire, up to 6,000 dead or wounded, with more than 3,000 other men captured) was that the columns of each side contained both men with firearms and men with pikes, arranged in a new type of formation. A French nobleman, Blaise de Lasseran-Massencôme, the lord of Montluc, took credit for devising this novel strategy. His idea was to put his firearms men very far forward and in a row, i.e., in the second rank of a column, just behind the leading row of pikemen. Presumably on command, the first row of pikemen would kneel down and would place the butts of their pikes in the earth with the points facing the enemy. The firearms men would then fire over the tops of the pikemens’ heads.

Blaise candidly tells what happened when this system was actually tried at Ceresole. He had confidently expected that

in this way we should kill all their captains in the front rank. But we found that they were as ingenious as ourselves, for behind their first line of pikes they had put pistoleers [i.e., men armed with handguns: long-barreled arquebuses would have been too unwieldy at such close quarters]. Neither side fired till we were touching—and then there was a wholesale slaughter: every shot told; the whole front rank on each side went down.

The losses in this battle were so heavy that the ill-fated concept of alternating rows of firearms men and pikemen was never tried again. Instead, in later battles when firearms (generally arquebuses) were used, they were not fired at point-blank range but only from the relatively greater safety of the flanks of large formations of pikemen or they were used for skirmishing.

The Italian War of 1551–1559

In 1551, Henry II of France declared war on Charles V with the twin goals of recapturing Italy and of establishing French domination of European affairs. However, to make a long and complex story very short, the French failed to change the balance of power in Italy or to break Habsburg control. In terms of mercenary involvement, the most interesting aspect of this war was the battle of Marciana (also known as the battle of Scannagallo), which took place in Tuscany in 1554 and was a decisive Florentine and Spanish-Imperial victory.

Here the belligerents were the Duchy of Florence, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, on one side, and the Republic of Siena and France, on the other. Large numbers of troops were involved: 17,000 infantrymen and 1,500 cavalrymen for the Duchy of Florence and its allies; and 14,000, infantrymen and 1,000 cavalrymen for Siena and France. Many of the fighters were mercenaries. For example, the mercenary chieftain Ascanio della Cornia provided 6,000 infantrymen and 300 cavalrymen; Landsknechts were much in evidence; and at one point a corps of 1,300 hungry mercenaries was killed when trying to collect food to eat. As a result of this battle, Siena lost its independence and was absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The modern scholar Michael Mallett summarized the Italian Wars in these words:

It was the scale of the Italian Wars which created their enormous impact on European warfare. The emphasis on size and permanence of armies produced not only more disciplined and extensive use of known weapons and techniques, but also placed a premium on co-ordination between arms. The day had passed when a single arm—whether it was the French heavy cavalry or the Swiss pikes—could dominate the battlefield…. The Italian Wars were a vast melting pot; the heat and flames were new; the ingredients were not. Italy had contributed significantly to these ingredients even though she herself was to be consumed in the flames.

Aleksander Rodimstev

General Rodimtsev pictured with soldiers from his division. Stalingrad, September 26, 1942.

Soviet general Alexander Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division held a shrinking promontory of land in central Stalingrad, and as the Germans pushed along the Volga its position began to splinter. Wehrmacht troops flooded Rodimtsev’s HQ, located in a conduit pipe in the Volga embankment, and brought up their machine gunners to finish him off But Rodimtsev rallied his troops and repulsed the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting. At the end of the day, the 13th Guards were still holding on to the river embankment.

The Red Army had sustained massive casualties. Its losses on the entire Stalingrad front from July to November 1942- those classified as killed, taken prisoner or missing in action – amounted to 324,000 out of a total of 547,000 soldiers. The rate of attrition within the city was even worse. General Alexander Rodimtsev’s 10,000-strong 13th Guards Division suffered 30 per cent casualties in its first day of combat and 80 per cent by the end of its first week in Stalingrad. At the conclusion of the battle only 320 men were left. Yet the survivors found the will to carry on resisting – and fought with stupendous power.

‘All of us were on the same level,’ said Mark Slavin. ‘The commanders mingled with their men, ate with them, swapped jokes and even chopped wood with them. Everyone counted. We had no space to manoeuvre and the German bombardment was relentless, but we were determined to hold on to that narrow strip of land.’

When the battle of Stalingrad began, Vasily Chuikov had yet to make a name for himself. This was in contrast to the lower-ranking and five-year-younger Alexander Rodimtsev, who was already a highly decorated war hero. Like Chuikov, Rodimtsev stemmed from a peasant family and a childhood shaped by poverty before entering the Red Army at the age of twenty-two and joining the party two years later. Rodimtsev followed an officer’s career path and rose quickly through the ranks. In 1936 he was sent to train the International Brigades in Spain. Under his command, the troops scored multiple victories over fascist forces, though he was unable to prevent the collapse of the Spanish Republic and the rise of Franco. On returning from Spain, Rodimtsev received the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest distinction in the Soviet Union.

In 1939 Rodimtsev delivered the welcoming address at the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist party. (That a thirty-four-year-old colonel was selected to give this talk testifies to the large swath that Stalin’s purges had cleared among the generals in the previous two years.) In September 1939 Rodimtsev took part in the Soviet invasion of Poland and then in the Winter War in Finland. In the war against Germany he commanded an airborne brigade that broke free from a Wehrmacht encirclement near Kiev. In November 1941 the brigade was expanded into the 87th Rifle Division and received Guards status in January 1942, becoming the 13th Guards Rifle Division.

On September 9, 1942, the division was removed from reserve status and arrived at the Stalingrad Front on September 14. The first battalions of the 10,000-man division crossed the Volga late on the 14th and early on the 15th. They became embroiled in fighting with the Germans as soon as they reached the western banks. By the end of the next week Vasily Grossman had written an article on the 13th Guards Division in Stalingrad. The battle would decide “the fate of the world” and answer the “question of all questions.” Grossman portrayed Rodimtsev, since promoted to major general, as the battle’s linchpin: “Temperament, strong will, composure, quick reaction, the ability to advance when no one else would even dream of an attack, tactical experience and caution combined with tactical and personal fearlessness-these are the traits of a young general’s military character. And the general’s character became the char- acter of his division.” Grossman asked Rodimtsev whether “he was exhausted by the round-the-clock tension of combat, the round-the-clock thunder of the hundreds of German attacks that had taken place last day, last night, and would continue tomorrow. `I am calm,’ he said, `this is the way it has to be. I have probably seen it all: how my command post was pounded by a German tank and then a German machine gunner threw in a grenade just to be sure. I threw it out. So here I am, fighting, and will go on fighting till the last hour of the war.’ He said it calmly, in a low voice. Then he began asking about Moscow. We actually talked about the current theater season.”

Just as Grossman described him, Rodimtsev shows restraint in his interview with the Moscow historians (unlike the hot-tempered Chuikov). He talks cautiously and primarily keeps to the events of the battle, spending most of his time on the September attempt to take Mamayev Kurgan and the storming of the German-fortified “L-shaped house” in early December. Rodimtsev emphasizes the importance of the careful planning and coordination between his regiments for their success and stresses his own military skill. He makes no secret of the heavy losses sustained by his division. By early October, over four thousand men were dead or injured. He mentions that when he ordered the storming of the L-shaped house some of his soldiers-all Uzbeks, he notes-remained on the ground and afterward were shot for their cowardice.

Rodimtsev does not address the defense of the so-called Pavlov House. Only years later did Soviet politicians hype this episode as a grand story of the spirit of Soviet internationalism. Led by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov and Lieutenant Ivan Afanassyev, two dozen Red Army soldiers entrenched themselves in a four-story residential building set off from the street. The soldiers represented up to eleven different Soviet ethnic groups (the ac- counts vary)-Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Kalmyks, and others. For almost two months they staved off the German onslaught before troops from the Soviet counteroffensive came to their aid on November 24. In his memoir, published in 1969, Rodimtsev devoted an entire chapter to the Pavlov House; the storming of the L-shaped house received only two pages. The memoir vaunts the soldiers’ heroism and the harmonious relations and omits the violence among the ranks and the losses they sustained in combat.

After Stalingrad the 13th Guards Division fought ceaselessly. As before, the division had the task of building bridgeheads, first crossing the Dnieper, then the Vistula, the Oder, and the Neisse. After traversing the Oder in January 1945, Rodimtsev (by then a lieutenant general) was honored as Hero of the Soviet Union for the second time. After the war he worked as a general inspector of Soviet forces and was elected deputy of the Supreme Soviet. Rodimtsev died in Moscow in 1977. Today his daughter Natalya directs a school museum in Moscow devoted to the Great Patriotic War.

Combat in the American Civil War I

In purely military terms, the War between the States had one foot in the past and one in the future: part Napoleonic and part World War I. It was a war that for the first three years of its four-year course was rooted in the tactical tradition of the black-powder warfare of the previous 150 years or so. And yet, the sheer scale on which it was fought and the advances in weapons technology it utilized—rifled muskets, conoidal bullets, repeating guns, breech-loading rifles, and rifled artillery—would shape the wars that followed.

The increase in the rifled musket’s range and accuracy compared to its predecessor, the smoothbore musket, brought death more surely to more men than ever before. Or so the standard argument goes. In fact, such innovations did not make as much difference to the experience of combat as might at first be thought. The innovation of greater importance was the application of the power and skills of an already powerful (and soon to be preeminent) industrial state to the business of war—with all the prerequisites of business: capital, organization, manpower, and natural resources. It was this that predetermined victory, however hard fought and close run it was to be at times.

On one level the Civil War was acted out on the thrilling stage of heroic and bloody theater; on the other, its outcome was determined by the victory of the industrial over the agrarian. Renewable resources of treasure and men, as well as courage and determination, predisposed the outcome. The North, even though hampered by shoddy military leadership during the earlier part of the war, could afford much higher losses of manpower and matériel—in absolute and proportional terms—than could the South, with its smaller population and underdeveloped manufacturing capacity. Even though in many battles fewer Confederate soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds than Federals, those who did represented a higher proportion of the fighting force. It was an actuarial reality that smashed the heart of the Confederate cause as mercilessly as a bullet or shell fragment. The South was forced into a war of attrition that eventually and inevitably ran it into the ground. And it is this aspect of the Civil War that foreshadowed the strategic architecture of the world wars of the following century. Resources provide the stage on which warriors with courage and fortitude, sacrifice and determination, play out their drama. The South had no shortage of all these martial virtues, but it was bled to death. It would lose about one-third more men killed as a proportion of those engaged than the North. And this was the bloody arithmetic that Grant understood when he sacrificed his own warriors at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor during the endgame of the war.

Numbers, recorded quantities of the dead, estimates of expenditure, the ledger book of life expended and advantage gained: These were the mark of the age. But even in an era that had begun to revel in the mechanisms and skills of bureaucracy, record keeping (especially in the Confederacy) could be a little inexact, to put it mildly. In addition, toward the end of the war swathes of records of the South’s fighting units were destroyed. Numbers were also manipulated. Robert E. Lee became alarmed at the willingness—the almost masochistic relish, even—with which some of his commanders advertised the high casualties they sustained as though they were badges of honor. Lee was forced to issue a General Order in May 1863 discouraging such displays, for fear they gave heart to the enemy, and after the devastating losses at Gettysburg he “seems to have quite systematically and intentionally undercounted his casualties.” The manipulation of “body count” was not something invented in the Vietnam War. Ambrose Bierce, who fought on the Union side and wrote Gothic spooky stories about it, describes the aftermath of a battle in his story “The Coup de Grace”: “The names of the victorious dead were known and listed. The enemy’s fallen had to be content with counting. But of that they got enough; many of them were counted several times, and the total, as given afterward in the official report of the victorious commander, denoted rather a hope than a result.”

In the North, tallying was better, reflecting the organizational strengths of an industrializing society, strengths that would, in their own prosaic but important ways, help win the war. Even so, William F. Fox, a Union officer (who would later compile one of the great statistical books about the war, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1888), remembered the waywardness of record keeping on campaign: “After a hard-fought battle the regimental commander would, perhaps, write a letter to his wife detailing the operations of his regiment, and some of his men would send their village paper an account of the fight, but no report would be forwarded officially to head quarters. Many colonels regarded the report as an irksome and unnecessary task.” (Ironically, even record keeping could prove fatal. In 1893, twenty-two clerks were crushed to death when the floors of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, which was being used to store Civil War records, collapsed.)

Disease, as in all previous wars, was a greater killer of soldiers than combat (it accounted for 66 percent of all fatalities in the Civil War). Of the approximately 2,100,000 men who took up arms for the North, 360,000 died (17 percent of all who served), of whom about 110,000 (5.2 percent) were either killed outright in battle (67,058) or died from wounds (43,012). Although the high rate of death from disease is shocking, it was an improvement on the Mexican War of 1846–48, in which seven men died of disease for every one killed in battle. Of the approximately 880,000 Confederates who served, about 250,000 (28 percent) died from all causes. Of these Fox estimates that 94,000 (10.6 percent) were killed or mortally wounded. Thomas L. Livermore, reviewing the statistical evidence in his classic study, Numbers & Losses in the Civil War in America, printed in 1900, concludes that “any summing-up of the casualties from [the Confederate] reports must necessarily be incomplete, and the number … arrived at by Colonel Fox can be accepted only as a minimum.” The numbers may be merely indicative, but they suggest that the South lost about 11 percent of its soldiers killed outright or died of wounds, compared with just over 7 percent for the North—a 30 percent greater killed rate for Confederate warriors.

It needs also to be borne in mind that the numbers of men killed outright or who died of wounds expressed as a percentage of those “who took up arms” needs to be tempered by the fact that not all who wore butternut or blue were involved in combat. Obviously, the death toll rises considerably when viewed as a percentage of combatants only: a computation of quite daunting complexity.

There is often an ambiguous attitude to the number of men killed in war. On the one hand, we are saddened, horrified even, at the price paid. But on the other, the sacrifice is intimately involved with our national mythology. It makes us intensely proud. They underwrite our sense of national worth with their blood. A great mortality is a badge of honor, as Fox puts it, “amply heroic.”

Some historians of the Civil War point to its “unprecedented” mortality. “Numbers seemed the only way to capture what was dramatically new about this war: the very size of the cataclysm and its human cost.” Fox states categorically that casualties were “unsurpassed in the annals of war.”

Having complained that too many commanders in the Civil War “claimed losses for their regiments which are sadly at variance with the records [of the muster rolls of the regiments],” Fox goes on to say that to “the thoughtful, the truth will be sensational enough: the correct figures are amply heroic.” As comparison Fox cites the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, in which the “Germans took 797,950 men into France. Of this number, 28,277 were killed, or died of wounds—a loss of 3.1 per cent. In the Crimean War, the allied armies lost 3.2 per cent in killed, or deaths from wounds. In the war of 1866, the Austrian army lost 2.6 per cent from the same causes. There are no figures on record to show that, even in the Napoleonic wars, there was ever a greater percentage loss in killed.”

At Borodino in 1812 (“the bloodiest battle since the introduction of gunpowder”), Fox reckons that of 133,000 French troops engaged, 28,085 became casualties; of 132,000 Russians, “there is nothing to show that its loss was greater than that of its antagonist. Although the number of killed and wounded at Borodino was greater, numerically, than at Waterloo and Gettysburg, the percentage of loss was very much less.” It is as though Fox is determined to raise a homegrown American red badge of courage that will stand up proudly in comparison to the Old World.

The point Fox makes, though, is a valid one. It is battle deaths as a percentage of men engaged that defines the intensity of combat and thus the lethal risk to individual soldiers. Looking at the history of warfare generally (and particularly over the period of nation-state rather than dynastic conflict), we see that the sharp end (those who actually experience combat) tends to get smaller as a proportion of the total number of men involved. The administrative, supply-and-support “tail,” on the other hand, becomes larger. (This “progress,” ironically, increases the risk to the combat soldier of becoming a casualty.)

Obviously, averages do not reflect what we might call “localized risk” where certain units took massive casualties. The infantry could expect to take about 14 percent casualties (an average taken over twenty-five major battles), compared with 5–10 percent for artillerymen. But it was not unusual for an infantry unit involved in the front of an attack to take 50–60 percent casualties.

For example, on day two of Gettysburg the First Minnesota was ordered to make a suicidal counterattack against the Confederates after they had broken the Union line around the Peach Orchard area. In some accounts, 262 Minnesotans started off to attack the 1,600 Alabamians under General Cadmus Wilcox, and 225 Federals became casualties (85.8 percent)—“the highest percentage of casualties suffered by any Union regiment in a single engagement in the entire war,” according to a historian of the regiment. He adds that the “annals of war contain no parallel to this charge. In its desperate valor, complete execution, successful result [the rupture in the Union line was plugged], and in its sacrifice of men in proportion to the number engaged, authentic history has no record with which it can be compared.”

Other Union units also suffered horrifically. The Irish Brigade attacking Marye’s Heights at the battle of Fredericksburg had 1,150 men hit out of a total of 1,400 (82 percent). The First Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment, being used as attack infantry against the Petersburg defenses, lost 632 out of 900 (70.2 percent). The Fifth New Hampshire sustained more killed in action than any other Union regiment during the whole war—295 men—and, says Fox, they “occurred entirely in aggressive, hard, stand-up fighting; none of it happened in routs or through blunders.”

On the Confederate side, the First Texas took 82 percent casualties at Antietam (Sharpsburg) and had the highest percentage of killed to men engaged (20 percent) of any Confederate regiment in a single battle during the whole war; the Twenty-First Georgia lost 198 out of its 242 effectives at the second battle of Bull Run (Manassas)—just shy of 82 percent—and with 16 percent of its effectives killed in that battle was the second in the mortuarial league table for Confederate regiments in a single battle.

Books have been written about what might be called the addiction of Confederate soldiers to the attack, as though lemminglike, they looked for a tactical cliff over which they could throw themselves in some death-embracing ecstasy, responding, so the argument goes, to a Berserker gene passed down from their ancient Celtic forebears. It is a theory that has been much derided (the North, too, after all, did not shy away from taking extraordinary casualties in frontal assaults, as Marye’s Heights, Kennesaw Mountain, Cold Harbor, and many others attest. Nor was there a shortage of men of Celtic origin dressed in blue), but there is an interesting idea at its root: that soldiers may be swept to their deaths by the powerful undercurrents of cultural heritage. The frontal attack becomes not only a tactical option but also one driven by expectations of manly valor and national pride. General D. H. Hill remarked on Confederate tactics in the earlier phases of the war: “We were very lavish of blood in those days, and it was thought to be a great thing to charge a battery of artillery or an earth-work lined with infantry … the kind of grandeur the South could not afford.”

The addiction to the frontal attack had long antecedents, but for the officer class of the American Civil War its most recent and nurturing wellspring was revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Officers who would become influential in both the Confederacy and the Union had attended West Point, where Francophile sentiment was strong, and many had been influenced by the writings of such military theorists as Henri Jomini (a Swiss who fought in the French army attached to Ney’s and Napoleon’s staffs) and others like him, who placed great emphasis on the moral virtue (courage, obedience, patriotic self-sacrifice) as well as the tactical benefit (covering the killing zone quickly and ejecting the enemy at the point of the bayonet) of the swift and determined frontal attack. Implicit in this philosophy was a rejection of the fancy footwork of the limited warfare of the earlier eighteenth century and an embrace of concentrated force and confrontation: an embodiment of what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the Western way of war.”

It was a philosophy that looked back to the heroic tradition of the ancient Romans, with its emphasis on sacrificial courage in the service of the state. It embraced a way of fighting total war, furiously energetic and uncompromising, in the service of an ideological cause, be that revolutionary or imperial France. Although it drew its inspiration from the past, it would also inspire soldiers of the future, be they Confederate, Union, or, in a much more terrible incarnation, military theorists and generals (particularly the French) of World War I.

It is worth remembering, however, that tactical orthodoxy has to be based, to some extent, on the successes of experience. Not all frontal attacks ended up like the Confederate attack at Malvern Hill in 1862, or Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, or the Irish Brigade at Marye’s Heights. There were also many successes, such as Jackson’s bayonet charge at the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and the Union assault on Missionary Ridge in 1863, as well as the Confederate attack on the first day of Shiloh.

To a large extent the emphasis on the frontal attack was a reflection, as it always had been, of the inadequacies of weapons to inflict battle-winning casualties at long distance. The battle could only be won, it was firmly believed, by literally driving the enemy off the field. The killing had to be done close up. But conventional wisdom has it that the “unprecedentedly high” casualties of the Civil War were due to innovations in weapons technology, particularly the rifled musket, which increased the range of lethality, bringing death to the advancing attackers at much greater distance than hitherto—Napoleonic tactics smacking up against modern weaponry. And yet there is plenty of evidence that the lethality of the rifled musket was less impressive than its specifications might have us believe.

Both armies had British-produced Enfield or American-produced Springfield rifle-bored muzzle-loading muskets (although it was not until 1863 that the Confederacy could claim to have comprehensively rid itself of old smoothbores and, in fact, at the start of the war even the Union relied heavily on smoothbores as rifled muskets tended to be the preserve of regular soldiers). The South had a preponderance of Enfields (it bought three hundred thousand from Britain) because its relatively weak manufacturing capacity made it more reliant on imports. The caliber was a little smaller than that of the Springfield, and the gun was a little lighter, but to all intents and purposes the weapons were pretty evenly matched.

Compared with the smoothbore, the rifled musket was a great improvement. A trained rifleman, firing a conoidal slug under controlled conditions, had a fifty-fifty chance of hitting a man-sized target at 500 yards. If sighted at 300 yards, the bullet of a rifled musket described an arc, within which were two killing zones. The first was the initial 75 yards in which the bullet was on its upward trajectory and could be expected to hit a man of average height. Between 75 and 250 yards its arc took it above head height. Between 250 and 350 yards it descended into its second killing zone, capable of hitting a soldier’s head at 250 yards, his torso at 300, and a lower limb at 350.

Battle conditions alter pretty much everything about shooting. Men under pressure, even if well-trained, cannot achieve the accuracy or rate of fire of the firing range. In the Civil War, “many recruits went into battle without having fired a single practice round.… Whether firing a Model 1863 muzzle-loader or a gas-operated M1, the average citizen cannot hit the proverbial bull in the behind with a bass fiddle.” A sentimental notion persists, however, as it does among some historians of the War of Independence, that Americans had a natural familiarity with muskets because, unlike their European counterparts, they were raised as hunters and would already have had a great facility with firearms. It is true that the South was largely rural and that the single largest group in the army of the North was of farming background (about 48 percent) and therefore might be expected to be familiar with hunting guns. But even for those with some hunting experience the chaos and psychological pressure of battle makes it difficult to translate those skills into combat effectiveness. “The huntsman who loads carefully and then stalks his inoffensive prey is surely in a very different state of mind from the soldier who has to fire off forty rounds in double-quick time against an enemy regiment which is busy returning the compliment. The assumptions of the close-order firefight … are surely located in a quite different universe from the genteel expectations of game shooting.”

The physical exertion of repeated firing, the vicious recoil, the relative intricacy of reloading procedures, and lack of training all tended to lower the lethality of the rifled musket. A soldier of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina Regiment on the first day of Gettysburg described a specific difficulty of fighting with a rifled muzzle loader: “[The] men had difficulty in ramming down their cartridges, so slick was the iron ramrod in hands thoroughly wet with perspiration. All expedients were resorted to, but mainly jabbing the ram-rods against the ground and rocks.” During the battle of Shiloh in 1862, the Englishman Henry M. Stanley, fighting as a gentleman volunteer in the Dixie Grays (and in later life to become famous as a journalist and explorer), described the “impossibility” of advancing and firing accurately, “owing to our labouring hearts, and the jarring and excitement.” The surgeon of the Second Maryland observed that men in battle “drop their cartridges. They load and forget to cap their pieces and get half a dozen rounds into their muskets thinking they have fired them off. Most of them just load and fire without any consciousness of shooting at anything in particular.”

Some military theorists before the war predicted a revolution in infantry tactics because of the theoretical extension of range and accuracy over the old smoothbores. Battles would start sooner and would cover a larger area—a prediction of the “empty” battlefield of the twentieth century—but despite the technical possibility of accuracy up to 1,000 yards and “irresistible” fire at 600, the rifled musket was used, as the smoothbore musket in an earlier era had been, at fairly close range. “What is much less clear is whether or not the average soldier in combat actually obtained very much benefit from these improvements, since many of the same factors which had limited range and accuracy in Napoleonic times continued to apply throughout the Civil War. Fields of fire were often very short, the soldiers unskilled in the use of their weapons, and the officers were anxious not to engage in indecisive long range fire … tactical theory still rested upon the idea of massed fire at close range.”

Of a sample of 113 actions in which range was mentioned by eyewitnesses, 62 percent were at 100 yards or less, and none took place at more than 500 yards. In short, infantrymen were more likely to be killed by musket fire not because the rifled musket was more accurate at longer range but because they were in a confined killing zone close to their adversary. At New Hope Church on May 27, 1864, for example, Sherman sent in Hazen’s brigade against a well-established Confederate defensive line. A firefight ensued across a narrow killing zone that, try as they might, the Federals could not penetrate. They left about a third of their men dead or wounded in that zone not more than 15 feet from the rebel line; no one got closer than 10 feet.

If the enhanced range of a rifled musket was not a deciding factor, what about the rate of fire? Compared to the smoothbore, the rifled musket could not deliver lead as speedily. It took longer to ram the ball down against the groove of the rifling. An experienced soldier armed with a smoothbore could get off about four shots a minute in battle conditions, whereas his counterpart with the rifle might manage three. Breechloaders such as the Sharps could increase that rate by about three times, and repeating rifles even more: twenty rounds per minute for the Spencer and about fifty for the Henry. However, these faster-firing rifles, although enormously significant for the future of warfare, had only a limited impact on the general equation of Civil War combat. The South had few of them (and those were captured rather than manufactured), and the North mainly deployed them in their cavalry arm, where they could be highly effective in dismounted action, as Buford’s cavalrymen proved in the opening phase of Gettysburg.

In any event, one of the military establishment’s main objections to fast-firing rifles was that they promoted the wasteful expenditure of ammunition, which was, after all, a major problem even with single-shot muzzle loaders. The gun maker Oliver Winchester put up a self-serving but prescient defense of repeating rifles that became a tactical given for all future wars in which America was involved—“the greater the expenditure of ammunition the happier the soldier.”

If, as we think, it is a consciousness of power that makes men brave, and a sense of imminent peril that makes “cowards of us all” … it is not unreasonable to suppose that such a weapon would give a soldier the courage and coolness needed to send each of his fifteen shots with more unerring certainty than his trembling opponent could send with his single shot? If to save ammunition, it is essential that every soldier should remain for sixty seconds while reloading, a helpless target, to receive his opponent’s fire from one to fifteen shots, why not reverse the order of progress and turn the ingenuity of inventors to the production of a gun that will require twice the length of time or more to reload, and thus double the saving of ammunition? Saving of life does not appear an element worthy of consideration in this connection. Yet this is West Point opinion.

The task of the field commander was often, ironically, to prevent men from firing, at least until they were at close range. The Confederate attack at Gaines’s Mill in 1862 was a classic example. A high-risk, high-casualty attack was ordered and the men were to charge “in double-quick time, with trailed arms [the weapon carried horizontally, i.e., not in firing position] and without firing. Had these orders not been strictly obeyed the assault would have been a failure.” The oncoming lines took a beating (one thousand casualties), but no one stopped to return fire, “and not a step faltered … the pace became more rapid every moment; when the men were within thirty yards … a wild yell answered the roar of the Federal musketry and they rushed for the works.” Speed is a cornerstone of assault tactics, whether it is Gaines’s Mill or Passchendaele or Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. The massed frontal attack will result in many men being killed; but if done at speed, there will be fewer killed than if the attackers stopped en route to engage in a firefight. Stopping midway simply increases the time the attacker is in the killing zone, and no matter how seductive a protective shelter might be, it could be fatal, as Henry Stanley discovered during the attack of the Dixie Grays at Shiloh:

Continuing our advance, we … were met by a furious storm of bullets, poured on us from the long line of bluecoats.… After being exposed for a few seconds to this fearful downpour, we heard the order to “Lie down, men, and continue your firing!” Before me was a prostrate tree, about fifteen inches in diameter, with a narrow strip of light between it and the ground. Behind this shelter a dozen of us flung ourselves. The security it appeared to offer restored me to my individuality. We could fight, and think, and observe, better than out in the open. But it was a terrible period! How the cannon bellowed, and their shells plunged and bounded, and flew with screeching hisses over us! … I marveled, as I heard the unintermitting patter, snip, thud, and hum of the bullets, how anyone could live under this raining death. I could hear the balls beating a merciless tattoo on the outer surface of the log.… One here and there, found its way under the log, and buried itself in a comrade’s body. One man raised his chest, as if to yawn, and jostled me. I turned to him, and saw that a bullet had gored his whole face, and penetrated into his chest. Another ball struck a man a deadly rap on the head, and he turned on his back and showed his ghastly white face to the sky.

“It is getting too warm boys!” cried a soldier, and he uttered a vehement curse upon keeping soldiers hugging the ground until every ounce of courage was chilled. He lifted his head a little too high, and a bullet skimmed over the top of the log and hit him fairly in the centre of his forehead, and he fell heavily on his face. But his thought had been instantaneously general; and the officers, with one voice, ordered the charge; and cries of “Forward, forward!” raised us … and changed the complexion of our feelings. The pulse of action beat feverishly once more; and, though overhead was crowded with peril, we were unable to give it so much attention as when we lay stretched on the ground.

Combat in the American Civil War II

The frontal charge is a desperate thing; and running through so many Civil War battles is a melancholy acceptance of inevitable death: “Every man vieing with his fellowman, in steadiness of step and correct alignment, the officers giving low and cautionary commands, many knowing that it was their last hour on earth, but without hesitating moved forward to their inevitable doom and defeat,” comments Lieutenant L. D. Young, Fourth Kentucky, on being sent into a suicidal attack by General Braxton Bragg at Murfreesboro (Stones River), on December 31, 1862. And surely there is no more heartbreaking image of this stoicism than the veterans of the Twentieth Maine at the Wilderness watching the “spurts of dust … like the big drops of a coming shower along a dusty road” that were erupting all over the field, and then pulling down their caps over their eyes as though this shielding would in some magical way protect them from the murderous storm into which they were about to advance. Or the Irish Brigade advancing up toward Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, heads bowed into the fury.

There was also a fatally self-reinforcing element to the linear attack with men moving “elbow-to-elbow”—something that, after all, increased their chances of being hit. Men packed together and highly influenced by their peer group become more controllable and less able to make individual decisions about their own fates: “Not to put too fine a point on it, you could ensure that men stood and fought—and died—if you had them all enclosed in serried ranks.” William A. Ketcham of the Thirteenth Indiana describes how the influence of his comrades’ opinions channeled him toward the acceptance of death in combat:

After I had got used to fighting and could appreciate my surroundings free from the tremendous excitement in the blood, of the smell of battle, I knew perfectly well all the time that if a cannon ball struck in the right place it would kill or maim.… I knew it was always liable to strike me, but I always went where I was ordered to go and the others went, and when I was ordered to run and the others ran, I ran. I had a greater fear of being supposed to be as afraid as I was than I had of being seriously hurt and that is a great deal of sustaining power in an emergency.

Confederate general John Gordon describes how the enemy was allowed to come “within a few rods (a rod equals 16.5 feet)” and then “my rifle flamed and roared in the Federals’ faces … the effect was appalling. The entire front line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast.” At Antietam, Frank Holsinger recalled how the Sixth Georgia rose up from behind a fence and poured a volley “within thirty feet” that decimated our ranks fully one-half; the regiment was demoralized.”

Close-order firing also had a devastating effect on men in column, especially when delivered by an adversary arrayed in line. A young company commander of the Sixty-Third Ohio Volunteers describes an action on the second day of the battle of Corinth, October 4, 1862:

The enemy had to come over a bluffish bank a few yards in front of me and as soon as I saw their heads, still coming slowly, I jumped up and said: “Company H, get up.” The column was then in full view and only about thirty yards distant.… Just in front of me was a bush three or four feet high with sear leaves on it. Hitting this with my sword, I said: “Boys, give them a volley just over this. Ready! Aim! (and jumping around my company to get from the front of their guns) Fire!” In a few seconds the fire was continued along the whole line.

It seems to me that the fire of my company had cut down the head of the column that struck us as deep back as my company was long. As the smoke cleared away, there was apparently ten yards square of a mass of struggling bodies and butternut clothes. Their column appeared to reel like a rope shaken at the end.

In fact the tactical orthodoxy, as expressed by the leading West Point theorist of the day, Dennis Hart Mahan, writing in 1836, deplored the use of column because it offered a more concentrated target than attack in line: “In a very deep order, the troops readily become huddled by an inequality of motion; the head alone fights … and a fire of artillery on it causes the most frightful ravages.” Its other disadvantage, as French columns during the Napoleonic Wars discovered, was that it could only present a small “face” of muskets as most men were unable to present and fire because they were boxed in.

And yet the suicidal bloodletting of frontal attacks in great sweeping sacrificial lines has to be set against the merciful ineptitude of most soldiers. It takes a lot of lead to kill a man. There was a natural temptation among the inexperienced soldiers who made up the majority on both sides to fire off their muskets with profligate disregard for any tangible result. Captain Frank Holsinger of the Nineteenth US Colored Infantry observed:

How natural it is for a man to suppose that if a gun is discharged, he or someone is sure to be hit. He soon finds, however, that the only damage done, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the only thing killed is the powder! It is not infrequently that a whole line of battle (this among raw troops) will fire upon an advancing line, and no perceptible damage ensue. They wonder how men can stand such treatment, when really they have done no damage save the terrific noise incident to the discharge. To undertake to say how many discharges are necessary to the death of a soldier in a battle would be presumptuous, but I have frequently heard the remark that it took a man’s weight in lead to kill him.

Captain W. F. Hinman, a Union officer at Murfreesboro (1862) described an encounter at long distance:

Within half an hour we stirred up the enemy’s cavalry. Firing began at once, and continued throughout the day. The companies on the skirmish line were kept busy, but as scarcely anybody got hurt they thought it was a good sport.… The shooting made a great deal of noise, although it was about as harmless as a Fourth of July fusillade. But our skirmishers blazed away incessantly. We marched over the body of one rebel who had been killed. Shots enough were fired that day to destroy half of Bragg’s army.

A Confederate officer, I. Herman, observed that most infantrymen went through their allocation of cartridges during an engagement of any length. Five thousand men might easily expend 200,000 rounds in a few hours (an average of 40 rounds per man), and in his experience it took 400 rounds for every enemy killed. General Rosencrans at Murfreesboro estimated 145 shots to inflict one casualty (and not necessarily a fatality). No wonder General James Longstreet could inform his less experienced troops that though “the fiery noise of battle is indeed most terrifying, and seems to threaten universal ruin it is not so destructive as it seems, and few soldiers after all are slain.… Let officers and men, even under the most formidable fire, preserve a quiet demeanor and self-possessed temper.”

George Neese, a rebel gunner, found it “astonishing and wholly incomprehensible” that so many could come through the storm unscathed—“how men standing in line, firing at each other incessantly for hours like they did today, can escape with so few killed and wounded, for when Jackson’s infantry emerged from the sulphurous bank of battle smoke that hung along the line the regiment appeared as complete as they were before the fight.”

Looking at casualties through the rose-colored lens of the telescope, we see that at Gettysburg, the bloodiest Civil War battle in terms of the total number of casualties, 81 percent of Union and 76 percent of Confederate soldiers came through the three days unhurt. But through the other more sanguine lens we see that one in five Federals and one in four Confederates engaged in the battle became casualties and one in thirty Federals and one in fifteen Confederates were killed.

Although musketry may have been wayward, it was overwhelmingly the main source of death in a Civil War battle. Union field surgeon Charles Johnson declared, “I think wounds from bullets were five times as frequent as those from all other sources. Shell wounds were next in frequency, and then came those from grape and canister. I never saw a wound from a bayonet thrust and but one made by a sword in the hands of an enemy.”The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, published in six volumes between 1870 and 1888 under the auspices of the surgeon general of the US Army, covers Union and Confederate experience. Of the 246,712 wounds from weapons that were treated during the war, the vast majority (just over 231,000) were from small arms. Next came artillery-induced wounds (13,518), followed by a very small number (922) of bayonet wounds. Obviously, if the wounds were treated the soldier had not been killed outright, but the proportion is at least an indicator of the most likely causes of death. The sites of the wounds also tell a story. Most of the wounds (over 70 percent) recorded in the Medical and Surgical History were to the arms and legs, which is understandable because they would have been the more survivable and therefore recorded in wound statistics, although amputation might well claim a life later. In one group of 54 amputees, 32 (60 percent) subsequently died.

It is not surprising that a smaller percentage of wounds were to the face, head, and neck (10.7 percent) and 18.4 percent to the torso because men hit in these areas tended to be killed outright and therefore not become a wounded statistic. As Charles Johnson observed:

When a minie ball struck a bone it almost never failed to fracture and shatter the contiguous bony structure, and it was rarely that only a round perforation, the size of the bullet, resulted. When a joint was the part the bullet struck, the results were especially serious.… Of course, the same was true of wounds of the abdomen and head, though to a much greater degree. Indeed, recovery from wounds of the abdomen and brain almost never occurred. One of the prime objects of the Civil War surgeon was to remove the missile, and, in doing this, he practically never failed to infect the part with his dirty hands and instrument.

When Captain William M. Colby of my company was brought from the firing-line to our Division Hospital he was in a comatose state from a bullet that had penetrated his brain through the upper portion of the occipital bone [the base of the skull]. The first thing our surgeon did was to run his index finger its full length into the wound; and this without even ordinary washing. Next he introduced a dirty bullet probe. The patient died a day or two later.

Some, though, lived to disprove the rule. Corporal Edson D. Bemis of the Twelfth Massachusetts Infantry was shot in the left elbow at Antietam, gut-shot at the Wilderness, and then, almost at the war’s end, shot through the left temple by the ear so that when he arrived at the hospital, brain matter was oozing from the wound. After the ball had been removed, the patient began to recover and by 1870 could write with splendid equanimity, “I am still in the land of the living.… My memory is affected, and I cannot hear as well as I could before I was wounded.”

A head shot was usually fatal, but a body wound might feel surprisingly innocuous. US Seventh Michigan cavalryman A. B. Isham reports that the “first sensation of a gunshot wound is not one of pain. The feeling is simply one of shock, without discomfort, accompanied by a peculiar tingling, as though a slight electric current was playing about the site of injury. Quickly ensues a marked sense of numbness, involving a considerable area around the wounded part.” Another soldier remembers “no acute sensation of pain, not even any distinct shock, only an instantaneous consciousness of having been struck; then my breath came hard and labored, with a croup-like sound.” A truly terrible experience, though, was to see the look on the face of a mortally hit comrade—“a stare of woeful amazement,” recalls one soldier, while another describes a comrade who had been hit in the head, “gasping in that peculiar, almost indescribable way that a mortally wounded man has. I shall never forget the pleading expression, speechless yet imploring.”

Troops and their field officers were caught, as they have been throughout history, in an awful dilemma: on the one hand, having to obey the iron dictates of grand tactics (particularly frontal assaults against well-prepared defenses) that would, in all likelihood, result in many deaths; and on the other, improvising localized tactics that might save their lives but must not be seen, by their lords and masters, to compromise the mission. The terrible experience of the frontal attack led to compensatory tactics that would be repeated in the First World War. Entrenchment was an obvious one, but there was also a movement away from mass to more fluid, fragmented attacking units, which also became a characteristic of World War I combat as the war progressed. More sustained skirmishing as well as attacking in rushes became more frequent. At Spotsylvania in May 1864 the Twelfth New Hampshire took 338 casualties (of whom a staggering 30 percent were killed) out of a starting complement of 549 men; an observer notes that “the terrible experience of the last hour and a half has taught them a lesson that each one is now practicing; for every man has his tree behind which he is fighting.” Charles W. Bardeen, a Union soldier at the battle, illustrated the tactical issue: “[A] heavy artillery brigade that had come into active service for the first time was ordered to recapture a baggage train. The general actually formed his men in solid front and charged through the woods.… Every confederate bullet was sure of its man, and the dead lay thick; I helped bury … more than a hundred. It even failed with its five thousand men to capture the train, and then our poor little brigade, hardly twelve hundred altogether, was sent in, and advanced rapidly, every man keeping under cover in the thick woods and brought in the train, hardly losing a man.”

Confederate tactics, too, cannot be seen only in terms of heroic but suicidal frontal attacks. Left to their own devices, men will adapt if it increases their chances of survival, especially if it happens also to decrease their opponent’s chances. Captain John W. DeForest, in a faithful though fictionalized account, described how his rebel opponents “aimed better than our men; they covered themselves (in case of need) more carefully and effectively; they could move in a swarm, without much care for alignment or touch of elbows [“touch of elbows” was the standard tightly formed advance prescribed for bayonet attacks]. In short, they fought more like redskins, or like hunters, than we.”

There was a parasitical relationship between Civil War artillery and its primary victim, the infantry. Although there had been many innovations in the science of gunnery, particularly in the form of rifled guns and exploding shells, the main source of death was still, as it had been throughout the black-powder era, solid shot delivered either in multiple doses via canister or in one megadose via cannonball. For the artillery to be effective, the infantry had to play along. The guns feasted on men who, through tactical convention, were all too often presented in tight, massed formations, elbow-to-elbow in frontal assault, and artillery fed heartily at close range. Charles Cheney of the Second Wisconsin Infantry at first Bull Run (Manassas) tried to describe what it was like to be under close artillery fire: “None but those who saw it know anything about it.… There were hundreds shot down right in my sight; some had their heads shot off from their shoulders by cannon balls, others were shot in two … and others shot through the legs and arms.… Cannon balls were flying like hail.”

“Death from the bullet is ghastly,” writes a soldier of the Fourteenth Indiana, “but to see a man’s brains dashed out at your side by a grape shot and another body severed by a screeching cannon ball is truly appalling.” The smaller balls of canister shot certainly accounted for many more deaths than solid shot or exploding shell, but they lacked the horrific grandeur of a cannonball: “It is a pitiful sight to see man or beast struck with one of those terrible things.” The “shock-and-awe” factor was reinforced by the thunderous boom of solid shot, and demoralization was almost as important as lethality: “Dead men did not run to the rear spreading panic and demoralization.”

Most artillery on both sides was old-style smoothbore, the aptly named 12-pound Napoleon, 1857 model, firing a 4.62-inch-diameter ball, being the workhorse. The North had many more rifled pieces, such as the Parrott, which gave it something of an advantage in terms of counterbattery actions because of its superior accuracy. On one occasion, in a spectacular example of artillery sniping, Confederate general Leonidas Polk was practically cut in two by a carefully aimed shell from a Hotchkiss rifled artillery piece at Pine Mountain on June 14, 1864. Like musketry, gunnery lethality had more to do with quantity and proximity than with accuracy. It was the uncomplicated and unfussy smoothbore cannon that was the omnivore of the Civil War battlefield. It could be loaded faster than a rifled piece and be switched from solid shot to canister with deadly fluency.

For attacking infantry there were three distinct artillery killing zones to be traversed.

Zone 1: If their starting point was 1,500 yards out from the enemy cannon (a not uncommon jumping-off point), there would first have been approximately 850 yards to traverse (taking about ten minutes at regular pace), within which they might be hit by both percussion-fused shells that exploded on the ground (or not, depending on the reliability of the fuse and the softness of the ground) and shrapnel-like spherical shot that exploded above the attacking troops and scattered pieces of the shell casing as well as the seventy-plus iron balls it contained. During this time each piece of the opposing artillery might get off fifteen to twenty rounds, and the first casualties would begin to fall, although not yet in significant numbers. The problem for the artillerist was that the fuses for the spherical case were crude and the explosion could not always be accurately predicted, a technical difficulty that was compounded when the target was moving rapidly forward. For maximum lethality, spherical shot needed to explode about 75 yards in front and 15–20 feet above the target, which was a challenge for the technology of the time.

Zone 2: The next 300 yards would be taken at the quick step, and during those approximately three and a half minutes, each of the defending cannon would have time to send seven balls plowing their furrows through the oncoming rank and file. With the attackers now at 350 yards away, the gunners would quickly switch to canister. Over the next 250 yards the attackers, now moving at the double-quick step, would have to endure about nine blasts from each gun (for solid shot and shell, two rounds a minute was considered reasonable, compared with three a minute for canister).

Zone 3: For those attackers who had stayed on their feet, there would be an appalling last 100 yards taken at the full-out charge and lasting about thirty seconds, during which time the cannoneers could get off one round of canister at point-blank range. If the situation had become especially tricky for the defenders, the cannon might be “double-shotted”—two cans fired at the same time.

A Civil War soldier, if killed by artillery, would most likely be hit at close range—cut down by canister. Longer-range gunnery tended to be much less lethal, although the Union shells fired at those Confederate troops massing for the attack on the Union center on the third day of Gettysburg caused a considerable number of casualties. A British observer, Arthur Fremantle, embedded with Lee’s army, noted the large number of men who had been hit while in the woods on Seminary Ridge about a mile from the Union guns on Cemetery Ridge. “I rode on through the woods.… The further I got, the greater became the number of the wounded. At last I came to a perfect stream of them … in numbers as great as a crowd in Oxford Street in the middle of the day.” In contrast, the Confederate preattack bombardment on the Union center on the third day of Gettysburg, although delivered by more than 150 guns, was a failure. It had an insignificant impact on the Union infantry, who were sheltered by the wall and topography atop Cemetery Ridge. And partly due to some deft maneuvering of the Union artillery, the bombardment also failed to interdict the Federal cannon, which would reassemble and inflict terrible casualties on the attackers. A Federal artilleryman scorned the Confederate bombardment: “Viewed as a display of fireworks, the rebel practice was entirely successful, but as a military demonstration it was the biggest humbug of the season.”

In some ways the progression of the fighting on the third day of Gettysburg was a chilling preview of many a First World War battle: the artillery barrage that was meant, but failed, to soften up the defenders; the massed attackers moving at an ordered pace across the deep killing ground of no-man’s-land, where they were vulnerable to shrapnel; and the intense defensive firepower at close quarters that destroyed them. An eyewitness on the Federal side describes how the attackers were pulled into a vortex of destruction: “Our skirmishers open a sputtering fire along the front, and, fighting, retire upon the main line.… Then the thunders of our guns, first Arnold’s, then Cushing’s and Woodruff’s and the rest, shake and reverberate again through the air, and their sounding shells smite the enemy.… All our valuable guns are now active, and from the fire of shells, as the range grows shorter and shorter, they change to shrapnel, and from shrapnel to canister, without wavering or halt, the hardy lines of the enemy move on.” A private of the Eighth Virginia remembered from halfway across the valley between the ridges the terrific intensity of the artillery response: “When half the valley had been traversed by the leading column there came such a storm of grape and canister as seemed to take away the breath, causing whole regiments to stoop like men running in a violent sleet.” Captain Andrew Cowan of the First New York Independent Battery describes hitting the Confederates with canister at 20 yards: “My last charge (a double header) literally swept the enemy from my front.”

It is perhaps indicative of the overall picture of officer mortality in the Civil War that the first and last general officers to be killed (Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett, hit by a minié ball at Corrick’s Ford, on July 13, 1861, and Brigadier General Robert C. Tyler, killed by a sharpshooter on April 16, 1865, at Fort Tyler, Georgia) were both fighting for the South. Where more ordinary Confederate soldiers were killed in proportion to their Union counterparts, so too were Confederate officers. One explanation is that there were simply more Confederate officers in proportion to the men they led, compared with the North. In forty-eight battles analyzed by Thomas Livermore, the officer percentage of the Confederate troops was between 6.5 and 11 percent; on the Union side it ran between 4 and 7 percent.

Other explanations hark back to cultural differences between South and North. For the officer class of the South a few cultural streams flowed together. There was the “knightly” ethos of the southern gentleman-officer inspired, for example, by the medieval romances of Sir Walter Scott, which enjoyed a particular popularity. Young blades from the South embraced a cavalier swagger, quick to take offense and unhesitatingly willing to put their lives on the line or to take a life should honor demand it. A traveler in the South noted that the “barbarous baseness and cruelty of public opinion [that] dooms young men, when challenged, to fight. They must fight, kill or be killed, and that for some petty offence beneath the notice of the law.”

Northern officers, by contrast, were seen by the South as percentage players, businessmen at war. As a Confederate diarist puts it: “The war is one between the Puritan & Cavalier”—the flamboyant Celt versus the dull Anglo-Saxon. Although most of this is utter tosh, for Southern nostalgists past and present, heady with Dixiephilia, it can be intoxicating tosh. In any event, such arguments are meant to explain the higher mortality among Confederate officers.

The underlying truth was that officers of both North and South shared a common code that held them to a very high level of commitment and risk. In the Union army the ratio of officers to men was 1 to 28, but the ratio of officers to men killed in battle was 1 to 17. At Shiloh, 21.3 percent of Union officers became casualties, compared with 17.9 percent of men, and at Gettysburg the proportion was 27 percent to 21 percent.

None, not even the most senior, exempted themselves from the danger of being killed—and an extraordinarily large number of general officers were killed in battle on both sides. Sixty-seven Union general officers (including 11 major generals) were killed outright or died of wounds. Fifty-five percent (235 out of 425) of Confederate general officers became casualties, and of those 73* were killed, including 3 lieutenant generals, 6 major generals, and 1 Army commander—A. S. Johnston, killed at Shiloh. Fifty-four (70 percent) died leading their men in attacks. In one battle alone—Franklin, Tennessee, in April 1863—5 Confederate general officers were killed on the field and 1 later died of wounds. At Gettysburg, 7 Union general officers (including those brevetted) and 5 Confederates were killed or died from wounds received in the battle.

It does not do justice to the bravery of the officers of the North, however, to suggest that such sacrifice was in some way characteristic only of the Confederate officer corps, as in “The Confederacy’s code of loyalty, like that of earlier Celts, required officers to lead their men into battle.… Confederate Colonel George Grenfell told a foreigner that ‘the only way in which an officer could acquire influence over the Confederate soldier was by his personal conduct under fire. They hold a man in great esteem who in action sets them an example of contempt for danger.’ ” Exactly the same sentiments were applicable to the North.

Combat in the American Civil War III

An insouciant attitude toward death was highly esteemed among the officer class of both sides, and there are many examples of sangfroid in the face of extreme danger. Indeed some, such as George Custer, relished testing their staff officers in “an almost sadistic imposition of the leader’s courage on others,” by leading staff parades that exposed them to fire. Any who flinched were subjected to his withering scorn. Union cavalry general Alfred Torbert also insisted on dragging his staff on tours of the front line (his chief medical officer was killed on one such outing), and on the Confederate side, D. H. Hill liked to “treat” his staff to enemy attention. Grant (without any of the theatrics of a Custer, Torbert, or Hill) also displayed conspicuous coolness when he and his staff came under fire at Shiloh. Leander Stillwell saw him, “on horseback, of course, accompanied by his staff, and was evidently making a personal examination of his lines. He went by us in a gallop, riding between us and the battery, at the head of his staff. The battery was then broadly engaged, shot and shell were whizzing overhead, and cutting off the limbs of trees, but Grant rode through the storm with perfect indifference, seemingly paying no more attention to the missiles than if they had been paper wads.”

Although occasionally tarnished by ego and showing off, these displays also had a practical purpose—to get men to fight, either by encouraging them into willing emulation or shaming them into begrudging imitation. Confederate major general Richard Taylor (president Zachary Taylor’s son and a very gifted tactician), commanding raw troops who were being hammered by shot and shell as they cowered within their breastworks during an attempted relief of the siege of Vicksburg, realized that it was “absolutely necessary to give the men some morale; and, mounting the breastwork, I made a cigarette, struck fire with my briquet [cigarette lighter] and walked up and down, smoking. Near the line was a low tree with spreading branches, which a young officer, Bradford by name, proposed to climb, as to have a better view. I gave him my field glass, and this plucky youngster sat in his tree as quietly as in a chimney corner, though the branches were cut away [by bullets]. These examples … gave confidence to the men, who began to expose themselves.”

But there was often a price to pay. A Union officer, desperately trying to halt the retreat after the defeat at Chickamauga, “would walk deliberately up to the rail pile and stand erect and exposed till his men rallied to him. For hours he did this,” until he was killed. And with a higher chance of being killed compared with that which his men faced, an officer had to come to terms with it—one way or another. Fatalism helped. Hilary A. Herbert, colonel of the Eighth Alabama (wounded at the Wilderness and after the war, secretary of the navy), was asked if he dwelled much on the shortened odds of being killed due to his prominence on the field:

Yes, very frequently. But why do you ask?

Well, I thought from [the] fact that you never say anything about it, and then for the manner in which you expose yourself … recklessly, that you had an idea that you were in no danger of being killed.

O, no … I know that the probabilities are that a colonel of an infantry regiment … who does his duty, will in all probability be either killed or seriously wounded. I have … simply made up my mind that I must take my chances.… That is all there is to it.

Another motivation was of a very different order: simple ambition. Throughout the history of warfare the god of battle has flipped his coin: death on the tail, promotion on the face. During the terrible fighting for the “Bloody Angle” of the Mule Shoe salient during the battle of Spotsylvania, Brigadier General Abner M. Perrin of Jubal Early’s corps roundly declared, “I shall come out of this fight a live major general or a dead brigadier.” He was killed in a hail of bullets. Style was important. There are many accounts of what might be called a rhetorical flourish in the face of death, like that of a Louisiana captain: artilleryman Robert Stiles described how the officer, whose left arm was taken off at the shoulder by a shell, swung his horse around in order to spare his men the sight of the ghastly wound, and called out jauntily, “Keep it up boys, I’ll be back in a moment.” He then, considerately, fell dead from his horse when out of sight.

But for some, neither stoicism nor ambition nor the obligations of rank could overcome the fear of death. At Spotsylvania a Union officer was spotted lurking behind a log. He “took a cartridge out of his vest pocket, tore the paper with his strong white teeth, spilled the powder into his right palm, spat on it, and then, first casting a quick glance around to see if he was observed, he rubbed the moistened powder on his face and hands and then dust-coated the war paint. Instantly he was transformed from a trembling coward who lurked behind a tree into an exhausted brave taking a little well-earned repose.”

“Men go to war to kill or to get killed … and should expect no tenderness,” declared General William Tecumseh Sherman. For senior officers there was another intimacy with death in battle—they were responsible for unleashing it. Some were utterly hardened (at least superficially) to the carnage for which they were responsible. Sherman, for example, could recognize, in a detached way, the horror of battle. After the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas), he said, “For the first time I saw the carnage of battle, men lying in every conceivable shape, and mangled in a horrible way; but this did not make a particular impression on me,” for he knew that the “very object of war is to produce results by death and slaughter.” During the Atlanta campaign he even affected a jaunty callousness, saying: “I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple of thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash.”

Ulysses Grant was not insensitive to the death he orchestrated but suppressed the pity, perhaps out of self-preservation. After the bloody battle of Champion’s Hill (1863) during the Vicksburg campaign, he recorded: “While a battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand, with great composure; but after the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend.” But he had to harden his heart, recognizing that the side “that never counted its dead” would achieve the ultimate victory. On the Confederate side, Lee could be deeply affected by the death he visited on his men, as shown by his anguished reaction after the failure of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimball assault on the third day of Gettysburg. On the other hand, Stonewall Jackson adopted a Cromwellian sternness as far as the deaths of his own men were concerned. He was doing God’s work, and that absolved him from all responsibility: “He places no value on human life,” George Pickett wrote of Jackson, “caring for nothing so much as fighting, unless it be praying.” Jackson once looked upon a line of his own dead as unaffected as if he were at a review. “Not a muscle quivered,” Confederate artillerist Robert Stiles records. “He was the ideal of concentration—imperturbable, resistless.” To an officer who had protested that the attack Jackson had just ordered was suicidal and “my regiment would be exterminated,” Jackson snapped back: “Colonel, do your duty. I have made every arrangement to care for the wounded and bury the dead.”

Other generals were undone by their tender hearts. George McClellan suffered the tortures of the damned: “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses and poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me while purchased at such cost. I shall be only too glad when all is over.” And on another occasion: “Every poor fellow that is killed or wounded almost haunts me! … I have honestly done my best to save as many lives as possible.” His concern for minimizing casualties endeared him to his men, if not to his political masters, who had a war to win and needed sterner stuff with which to do it.

And how did ordinary soldiers view death on the battlefield? Two concepts fought with each other. On the one hand was the idea of death as noble, heroic, and redeemed by sacrifice, with the body itself lying, as though as evidence, in peaceful repose. On the other hand, there was the irredeemable and meaningless waste, the bodies mutilated beyond any possibility of sentimental embalming. It was, of course, a religious age, perhaps more fundamentally in the South (whose army was periodically swept with fervent bouts of revivalism) than the North. For both sides, religion provided most, though by no means all, the solace that acted as an inoculation against the horror. (Many others found that booze did more to reconcile them to mortality than religion ever could.)

The first contact with violent death was like a smack across the face. On the second day’s fighting at Shiloh, a Union soldier recorded the shock:

The first dead soldier we saw had fallen in the road; our artillery had crushed and mangled his limbs, and ground him into the mire. He lay a bloody, loathsome mass, the scraps of his blue uniform furnishing the only distinguishable evidence that a hero there had died. At this sight I saw many a manly fellow gulp down his heart.… Near him lay a slender rebel boy—his face in the mud, his brown hair floating in a muddy pool. Soon a dead Major, then a Colonel, then the lamented Wallace [General W. H. L. Wallace, who died from his wounds three days later], yet alive, were passed in quick and sickening succession. The gray gloaming of the misty morning gave a ghostly pallor to the faces of the dead. The disordered hair, dripping from the night’s rain, the distorted and passion-marked faces, the stony, glaring eyes, the blue lips, the glistening teeth.… Never, perhaps, did raw men go into battle under such discouraging auspices as did this division. There was everything to depress, nothing to inspirit, and yet determination was written upon their pale faces.

Death could come with stunning swiftness. Leander Stillwell would never forget “how awfully I felt on seeing for the first time a man killed in battle … I stared at his body, perfectly horrified! Only a few seconds ago that man was alive and well, and now he was lying on the ground, done for, forever!” Stillwell was transfixed by how swiftly the human could be transformed into a mere object. The writer William Dean Howells also describes the existential shock of what might be called the “absoluteness” of the battlefield dead. It was a spiritual gutting: “At the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of his lifetime, that never came back again: the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it.” Union cavalryman Charles Weller reflected on the battle of Chickamauga with despair: “What at the present time is a man’s life worth! Comparatively nothing[;] he falls and is forgotten except by his immediate friends.” A soldier of the Sixth Iowa mirrored Weller’s sentiment; war forced him to “estimate life at its true value—nothing.”

There were two main ways of combating this emptiness. One was to invest death with religious and patriotic significance; it was transformed from something final or meaningless into an act consecrated by patriotic nobility and Christian sacrifice. The dead passed over to a better world, not only released from the tawdriness of temporal existence but blessedly rewarded in the afterlife. Stonewall Jackson’s last words are a lyrical evocation of that premise: “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” A devout Confederate at Gettysburg was hit during the last gasp of the battle, and one of his comrades describes how “a terrific fire burst, thundering, flashing, crashing [and] there lay our noble comrade … limb thrice broken, the body gashed with wounds, the top of the skull blown off and the brain actually fallen out.” But no matter how appalling this was, it could be redeemed because a “chariot and horses of fire had caught [him] up into Heaven.” A nurse wrote to the mother of a deceased soldier that he “had been conscious of his death and … not afraid but willing to die … he is better off.” The age revered the cult of dying well—the ars moriendi. Much popular literature and art was devoted to it, and inevitably a good deal was of the maudlin tie-a-yellow-ribbon variety. Joseph Hopkins Twichell, a Union soldier, was no stay-at-home bleeding heart. He had seen “a hideous nightmare … too piteous for speech … as if the universe would stop with the horror of it,” during the Peninsular campaign of 1862, but turned to the plangent sentimentality of the period to deal with it:

They’re left behind!

Our steps are turned away:

We forward march, but these forever stay

Halted, till trumpets wake the final day:—

   Good-bye! Good-bye!

They’re left behind!

The young and strong and brave:

The sighing pines mourn sweetly o’er their grave;

Mute, moving grief the summer branches wave,

   Good-bye dear friends!

They’re left behind!

Comfort!—our heavy souls!

Their battle shout forever onward rolls

Till God’s own freedom gathers in the poles!

   Good-bye! Farewell!

The other way to deal with death in battle was to embrace and revel in the nihilism, disarming death by a rebellious refusal to sanctify it. Cynicism born of experience became a way of flipping the bird at the fates. Charles Wainwright, a Union colonel, reported that when a mortally wounded man fell against him, he had “no more feeling for him, than if he had tripped over a stump and fallen; nor do I think it would have been different had he been my brother.” A Confederate soldier described how “we cook and eat, talk and laugh with the enemy’s dead lying all about us as though they were so many hogs.” A Federal soldier echoed the sentiment: “We dont mind the sight of dead men no more than if they was dead Hogs.… The rebels was laying over the field bloated up as big as a horse and as black as a negro and the boys run over them and serch their pockets … unconcerned.… I run acros a big graback as black as the ase of spade it startled me a little at first but I stopt to see what he had but he had been tended too so I past on my way rejoicing.” Men’s souls became annealed by repeated exposure to death: “By being accustomed to sights which would make other men’s hearts sick to behold, our men soon became heart-hardened, and sometimes scarcely gave a pitying thought to those who were unfortunate enough to get hit. Men can get accustomed to everything; and the daily sight of blood and mangled bodies so blunted their finer sensibilities as almost to blot out all love, all sympathy from the heart.”

For many “heart-hardened” soldiers, chaplains were despised as thinly disguised agents of army authority whose job it was to sell the men on the nobility of death in battle. Abner Small describes how before the battle of Chancellorsville the Union chaplains “were eloquent in their appeals to patriotism, and pictured in glowing colors the glory that would crown the dead and the blazons of promotion that would decorate the surviving heroes.” Suddenly, enemy shells start to explode: “The screams of horses, and the shouted commands of officers were almost drowned out by the yells and laughter of the men as the brave chaplains, hatless and bookless, their coat-tails streaming in the wind, fled madly to the rear over stone walls, and hedges and ditches, followed by gleefully shouted counsel: ‘Stand firm; put your trust in the Lord!’ ”107 And to those flag wavers back in the safety of the civilian world, battle-hardened soldiers were only too willing to prick their patriotic bubble: “We ain’t doing much just now,” writes Francis Amasa Walker, a Federal soldier anticipating the next attack, “but hope in a few more days to satisfy the public taste with our usual Fall Spectacle—forty percent of us knocked over.”

The ever-present possibility of being killed inevitably unhinged some men, who in their desperation looked to a different kind of magic for protection by investing some mundane object with totemic powers. Colonel C. Irvine Walker recounts how a Confederate private who had previously shown signs of cowardice and had been reprimanded for it took his place in the battle line, “his rifle on his shoulder, and holding up in front of him a frying pan.” He moved forward, from frying pan to fire as it were, and was killed.

But for others it enhanced life, making it sharper, more intense. Fear was replaced with an adrenaline surge of exaltation. Rice C. Bull, a Union infantryman at Chancellorsville, describes just such a transformation when the Confederate attackers finally came within range: “Most of us … held our fire until we saw the line of smoke that showed that they were on the ridge; then every gun was fired. It was then load and fire at will as fast as we could. Soon the nervousness and fear we had when we began to fight passed away and a feeling of fearlessness and rage took its place.” At Antietam (Sharpsburg), Captain Frank Holsinger felt a similar elation: “We now rush forward. We cheer; we are in ecstasies. While shells and canister are still resonant and minnies [minié balls] sizzling spitefully, yet I think this one of the supreme moments of my existence.” Major James A. Connolly described the sheer elation of death defied. Following a successful assault on a Confederate fortification during the battle of Jonesboro, the last such during the 1864 Atlanta campaign: “I could have lain down on that blood stained grass, amid the dying and the dead and wept with excess of joy. I have no language to express the rapture one feels in the moment of victory, but I do know that at such a moment one feels as if the joy were worth risking a hundred lives to attain it. Men at home will read of that battle and be glad of our success, but they can never feel as we felt, standing there quivering with excitement, amid the smoke and blood, and fresh horrors and grand trophies of that battle field.”

Taking sensual pleasure—eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping—among the carnage was, however bizarre it may appear, a gesture of affirmation of life. After Antietam (Sharpsburg), Union troops bivouacked among the dead Confederates. “Many were black as Negroes,” notes David Hunter Strother, “heads and faces hideously swelled, covered with dust until they looked like clods. Killed during the charge and flight, their attitudes were wild and frightful.… Among these loathsome earthsoiled vestiges of humanity … in the midst of all this carrion our troops sat cooking, eating, jabbering, and smoking; sleeping among the corpses so that but for the color of the skin it was difficult to distinguish the living from the dead.”

For some, killing was another dimension of joy, as though by taking a life the killer replenished his own. Byrd Willis, a Confederate, saw a comrade “jumping about, as if in great agony. I immediately ran up to him to ascertain when he was hurt & if I could do any thing of him—but upon reaching him I found that he was not hurt but was executing a species of Indian War Dance around a Poor Yankee (who lay on his back in the last agonies of death) exclaiming I killed him! I killed him! Evidently carried away with excitement and delight.”

Captured black soldiers and their white officers ran a considerable risk of being summarily executed. At the infamous Fort Pillow massacre of April 1864, the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest oversaw a systematic killing of black soldiers and some of their white officers, after their surrender. Texan George Gautier described his regiment’s actions after it had defeated black troops at Monroe, Louisiana: “I never saw so many dead negroes in my life. We took no prisoners, except the white officers, fourteen in number; these were lined up and shot after the negroes were finished. Next day they were thrown into a wagon, hauled to the Ouchita river and thrown in. Some were hardly dead—that made no difference—in they went.”

The defeated whites of both sides would be extremely unlucky to be put to death summarily. However, Confederates who had been involved in the Fort Pillow incident were killed. Although many white Union soldiers shared the racial prejudice of their Southern counterparts, Fort Pillow was an insult to the cause that would have to be paid for in blood: “At the battle of Resaca in May 1864, the 105th Illinois captured a Confederate battery. From underneath one of the gun carriages a big, red-haired man with no shirt fearfully emerged. He wore a tattoo on one arm that read ‘Fort Pillow.’ His captors read it. He was bayoneted and shot instantly. Another regiment in Sherman’s army was reported to have killed twenty-three rebel prisoners, first asking them if they remembered Fort Pillow. The Wisconsin soldier who recorded this incident claimed flatly, ‘When there is no officer with us, we take no prisoners.’ ”

On the obverse side of the coin, the fellowship of warriors, no matter which side they were on, could save the life of a captured soldier. Rice C. Bull of the 123rd New York was captured at Chancellorsville, and when a civilian threatened him and his fellow captors with harm, a Confederate soldier stepped in to remind the civilian that “these are wounded men. You have no right or business to insult them.” The point was that soldiers inhabited the world of soldiers, and only they could arbitrate its rules; no others had the right to intercede. The rules were, more often than not, respectful and compassionate. A Union soldier noted that Confederates captured at Port Hudson in July 1863 were brave fighters and “in the twinkling of an eye we were together.… The Rebs are mostly large, fine-looking men. They are about as hard up for clothes as we are.… They have treated the prisoners [Union soldiers captured earlier] as well as they could, giving them the same sort of food they ate themselves.”

Union soldier William Aspinall of the Forty-Seventh Indiana was wounded at Champion Hill near Vicksburg on May 16, 1863:

In the evening some of my comrades brought me blankets, doing without themselves, and made me a bed in a fence corner outside of the hospital. In a little while a Confederate soldier came along. He had been shot somewhere in the bowels and was in great pain. I said—“here partner, I will share my bed with you”—and he laid down beside me. He told me that he was from Savannah, Georgia, and that he could not get well. He wanted me to write to his wife and children and gave me a card with their address. I was to tell them that I had seen him and what had become of their beloved husband and father. Being weak and exhausted from the loss of blood, I dozed off to sleep and left him talking to me. In a little while I awoke and spoke to him two or three times, but he did not answer. I put my hand over on his face; he was cold in death. My foe and friend had crossed the river.

The problem was the marginals, the pathetic bar-stool warriors, who found themselves for a moment enjoying power beyond their expectations: “Whenever we fell into the hands of veteran soldiers who had fought us bravely on the battlefield, we received all of the kind and considerate attention due a prisoner of war, but whenever we were in charge of militia or that class of persons who, too cowardly to take the field, enlist in the home guard, we were treated in the most outrageous manner.”

The distinction between honorable and dishonorable extended to categories of killing. Killing pickets (sentries), for example, was considered a kind of assassination, perhaps because their role was essentially passive and they were too easy a target. There was an understanding on both sides that familiarity with each other’s pickets afforded protection, and killing them when no other general action was going on was denounced as “a miserable and useless kind of murder.” A Southerner who knew he was within range of the enemy felt safe because “we were now real soldiers on both sides and well knew that mere picket shooting helped neither side and was only murder.”

Sniping was also considered “dishonorable” and denounced as “murderous villainy,” but it was a villainy indulged in by both sides. As a Union private fulminated:

Sharpshooting at North Anna [in 1864] was exceedingly severe and murderous. We were greatly annoyed by it, as a campaign cannot be decided by killing a few hundred enlisted men—killing them most unfairly and when they were of necessity exposed.… Our sharpshooters were as bad as the Confederates.… They could sneak around trees or lurk behind stumps, or cower in wells or in cellars, and from the safety of their lairs murder a few men. Put the sharpshooters in battle-line and they were no better, no more effective, than the infantry of the line, and they were not half as decent. There was an unwritten code of honor among the infantry that forbade the shooting of men while attending to the imperative calls of nature, and these sharp-shooting brutes were constantly violating that rule. I hated sharpshooters, both Confederate and Union, in those days, and was always glad to see them killed.

As will be seen in the two world wars, “attending to the imperative calls of nature” could be one of the riskiest things a soldier could do.

The dead were able to offer very tangible benefits to the living. Joshua Chamberlain, later to become the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, found himself pinned among the corpses of the attack on Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862, at Fredericksburg: “The night chill had now woven a misty veil over the field.… At last, outwearied and depressed with the desolate scene, my own strength sunk … I moved two dead men a little and lay down between them, making a pillow of the breast of a third. The skirt of his overcoat drawn over my face helped also to shield me from the bleak winds. There was some comfort even in this companionship.”

There was, of course, as there always has been, the stripping of corpses—the “peeling,” as they called it. And sometimes the dead continued their beneficence long after their demise. A Confederate, R. H. Peck, happened to pass over the ground of a particularly hard-fought engagement of nine months earlier: “He would always remember crossing a field where the Yankees had delivered a determined charge. It was only with difficulty that he could keep from stepping on bones still wrapped in torn bits of blue uniform.… While crossing the ghastly little field, Peck noticed a man from his regiment who had been a dentist before the war. Busy examining the skulls to see if they contained any gold fillings, he had already extracted quite a number and had his haversack completely full of teeth.”

In other ways, too, the ripple of economic benefit radiated from the killed. They provided a rich feeding ground for energetic entrepreneurs. There were search agencies like the official-sounding U.S. Army Agency (in fact a private company located on Bleecker Street in Manhattan) that for a share of the deceased’s back pay or the widow’s pension would locate the body of a loved one. Embalmers such as Thomas Holmes (who processed four thousand bodies at one hundred dollars each during the war), and the manufacturers of metallic coffins—“Warranted Air-Tight”—that could “be placed in the Parlour without fear of any odor escaping therefrom” (fifty dollars each), literally and metaphorically cleaned up.

Bodies were utilized in other, less physical ways: as agents of propaganda. Confederate surgeon John Wyeth describes how after Chickamauga, “most of the Confederate dead had been gathered in long trenches and buried; but the Union dead were still lying where they fell. For its effect on the survivors it was the policy of the victor to hide his own losses and let those of the other side be seen.” A Union soldier, Daniel Crotty, describes how one could “read” the facial expressions of the dead as justification of the righteousness of the cause: “The dead of both friend and foe lie side by side, but it is remarked by all that the pleasant smile on the patriot’s face contrasts strangely with the horrid stare of the rebel dead.” However, another Union soldier, Frank Wilkeson, dismissed the whole fanciful and self-serving notion: “I do not believe that the face of a dead soldier, lying on a battle-field, ever truthfully indicates the mental or physical anguish, or peacefulness of mind, which he suffered or enjoyed before his death.” Wilkeson concludes bluntly, “It goes for nothing. One death was as painless as the other.”

And long after the war, the “glorious dead” served yet another profitable function. The grim reality of their deaths was replaced by something altogether more palatable, more stirring … more suitable as a motivation for the next generation of warriors. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who after the war ascended to the Supreme Court, dramatically represents this transition. As a young officer he had been grievously wounded and almost died. He had been through the grinder and, in the process, lost his appetite for the rhetoric of patriotism: “He had grown weary of such words as ‘cowardice,’ ‘gallantry,’ and ‘chivalry.’ ” Disillusioned, he eventually resigned his commission. But by 1885 a complete transformation had taken place. Like some American samurai, he discovered a fervent belief in the mystical importance of a warrior’s unquestioning obedience unto death: “In the midst of doubt, the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt … and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he had no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.… It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine … our hearts were touched with fire.”

Foglore Division

In 1940 a tiny British army had defeated a far larger Italian one and from 1941 to 1942, an outnumbered and under-resourced Italo-German one had fairly consistently got the better of a British one. How had this happened?

The answers in each case were: equipment; the tactics and training of the armies; their acquisition and use of information; and generalship.

In the winter of 1940–41, O’Connor’s Western Desert Force took 58 days to clear Cyrenaica and wipe out the eight divisions of the Italian Tenth Army, capturing 130,000 men and 845 guns and destroying 380 tanks. Though not in the end decisive, it was one of the British Army’s biggest victories of the war. Its later victories over the Germans were gained as part of an Allied army in which the American contribution was larger. In 1944, British Commonwealth forces gained a more important victory against the Japanese in Burma, but the losses inflicted on the enemy were smaller. O’Connor’s was a remarkable achievement, but it was not a miracle.

In the 1930s, Italy was a poor country still in the process of industrialization. In 1940, with a population of similar size to Britain’s, Italy had only 25 per cent of its gross domestic product. Half of its population still worked on the land and about a third were illiterate or semi-literate. They were poorly adapted to fighting a technological war – it was hard even to find enough men who could drive trucks – and its industry was barely capable of equipping it to do so. Graziani’s whole army only had 5,140 vehicles and 2,000 of them were in repair shops, leaving them with fewer than the standard complement of a British division. The bulk of his forces were marching infantry, whereas the Western Desert Force was fully motorized. During the 1930s, the Italian Army affirmed the primacy of numbers over mobility, summed up in the comment of one of their leading armoured warfare experts that ‘the tank is a powerful tool, but let us not idolize it; let us reserve our reverence for the infantryman and the mule’. The Italian infantry had a problem with their small arms. The Army was in the process of introducing a new rifle, and as a result there were two incompatible sets of ammunition, which led to confusion and shortages. Graziani had plenty of guns, but most of them were designed before World War I, many captured from the Austro-Hungarians in 1918. The result of this armaments disaster was that Italian divisions, which were in any case far smaller than those of most armies, lacked not only mobility but also firepower – the two cardinal factors in mechanized warfare.

The Italians’ biggest hardware problem of all was tanks. A lot of the vehicles classified as tanks were in fact lighter than British reconnaissance vehicles. The most numerous tank, the M11, was a death trap which has been described as ‘about the worst design of the period’. All the British tanks were better armed, but the Matilda infantry tank, a machine which had caused great consternation to Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division during the French campaign when it suddenly appeared at Arras in May 1940, was also invulnerable to Italian guns. When it first appeared in the desert on 9 December 1940, the Italian artillerymen facing it fought with great tenacity and died on their guns. But dying in their path did not stop the Matildas, as was observed by some of the survivors, and from then on the Matilda had a potent effect on Italian morale.

Poor equipment was not the end of it. Italian training, particularly of the infantry, was wretched. The generals did not believe in it. In 1937, one senior commander was sent off to Libya with the admonition not to do ‘too much training’. There was a widespread belief, congenial to Mussolini, that intuition and valour were more important in battle. What little there was consisted mainly of drill, with little live firing and almost no combined arms training. There was a gulf between officers and men, rations were poor and even proper uniforms were in short supply. By contrast, the units of the Western Desert Force had trained in desert conditions and 7th Armoured Division, which had been formed by the brilliant if eccentric tankman Percy Hobart, was probably the best trained in the British Army. O’Connor took things further by rehearsing his tactics in desert exercises before putting them into action.

Folgore Parachute Division

During the 1940 campaign and thereafter, Italian troops often displayed bravery and determination. The few effective units they had, like the Folgore Parachute Division which had trained hard for eighteen months before entering the line at Alamein in 1942, earned the respect of the Germans and British alike. After all, the performance of their predecessors in World War I had been comparable to that of the other major European powers. They gave their Austro-Hungarian opponents such a hard time that the Germans were forced to send the 14th Army to help, which included one Oberleutnant Erwin Rommel, who won the highest German decoration, the Pour le Mérite, for his bold action at the bloody and hard fought battle of Caporetto in 1917. But between then and 1940, the Italian Army changed hardly at all. In modern battle, units which are poorly equipped and poorly trained usually disintegrate. Given its training and equipment, the Italian Army was bound to be ineffective in comparison both with its opponents and its allies. When he followed O’Connor’s victorious men into the fort of Nibeiwa, the journalist Alan Moorehead found a letter written home by an Italian officer which read: ‘We are trying to fight this war as though it is a colonial war in Africa. But it is a European war in Africa fought with European weapons against a European enemy.’ Most of the soldiers did not understand why they were at war, and were ill-prepared for modern battle conditions. Time had passed them by. A report from an Italian Air Force officer in November 1940 stated that troops exaggerated enemy strength and called for air support if they saw one tank. Graziani panicked at the prospect of air attack. He ordered Benghazi to be evacuated after two minor raids.

The great mass of hapless Italian foot-sloggers were inevitably out­manoeuvred by the mechanized units of the Western Desert Force. Once cut off, they could either surrender or starve, so they surrendered. But O’Connor rang rings round their leaders as well. He launched his first attack on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa, some twelve miles south of Sidi Barrani, just before dawn, and achieved total surprise. 4th Indian Division and 57 Matildas emerged out of the desert behind the Italian position, and caught them still half asleep. O’Connor consistently used speed and surprise, and exploited unexpected opportunities. He was prepared to use bluff, and had his enemies convinced that they were hopelessly outnumbered.

The command style of the Italian Army was designed for buck-passing. Responsibility was passed down as far as possible, with evidence collected on the way so that junior officers could be blamed in case of failure, which was the norm. However, junior officers were not trusted, so orders were very detailed and there was an inordinate amount of supervision. Showing initiative was positively dangerous. O’Connor – unlike a lot of his colleagues – explained his intentions to his subordinates and then delegated authority to them. They could therefore make rapid decisions without referring back whilst at the same time being confident that it would all add up to what O’Connor wanted. He led from the front, which was also his downfall, for it allowed him to be captured in April 1941 by German troops whose commander was to exhibit precisely the same characteristics over the next 24 months. They served him and his cause as well as they had served O’Connor.

During the course of 1941, the Italians improved the quality of their desert forces enormously, introducing two armoured and two motorized divisions which put them more on a par with their opponents. The M13 tank, which mounted a more effective gun than the M11, appeared in greater numbers. Even so, it was still easily the worst tank in the desert in 1942, slow and unreliable, and both the British and the Germans referred to them as ‘steel coffins’. Going to war in them required considerable courage in itself. The Italians consistently fielded the larger part of the force which was to cause the British so many headaches over the following months. However, the most important factor in explaining the Axis successes was the arrival of the Afrika Korps.


Folgore Parachute Division was officially formed in September 1st 1941. The Division was supposed to take part in the planned “C3” plan, the invasion of Malta, thus the Folgore was sent in southern Italy to begin the training for such an operation.

The Folgore parachute division was intended to have a heavy concentration of automatic firepower. Each small parachute battalion (326 men) was supposed to have 54 Breda M30 light machineguns (18 in each of the three rifle companies, which had 95 officers and men at full strength). Furthermore, all officers, noncoms, and weapons crew members (including the number two on each light machinegun) were to be armed with Beretta submachineguns. However, when the division deployed to North Africa in summer 1942, in many sub-units only officers and sergeants were actually furnished with the submachineguns, the others intended to have the Beretta (of which there were never enough to meet demand) being equipped with the M91 bolt-action carbine instead. It had also originally been planned to equip all the riflemen in the parachute battalions with semi-automatic rifles. Breda introduced its PG semi-automatic rifle in 1935, a rather advanced weapon with a curved 20-shot clip, but despite the excitement generated by early tests only 850 were made, and 200 of these (in 7mm caliber instead of the normal 6.5mm) were for sale to Costa Rica. The Armaguerra M39 semi-automatic rifle (designed by Revelli) was a 6.5mm weapon that used the same 6-shot charger clips employed by the Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifles and carbines (including later derivatives like the M38 short rifle, the official rifle of the Italian forces). There had been concerns about the complexity of the Breda PG and its reliability in field conditions, but the Armaguerra appears to have been a generally satisfactory weapon. The Italian Army ordered 10,000, intending to issue them not only to paratroopers but also to officers, sergeants, and one designated sniper in each infantry squad. However, only about 500 were actually produced, and few if any of these saw service before the Italian surrender. Thus riflemen in the Folgore also got the little M91 carbines as a substitute.

The Folgore also had a fairly large complement of 47mm antitank guns, in part because the divisional artillery was entirely equipped with this little piece, due to its light weight and portability. Lacking a shield, the 47/32 gun was very easy to move, weighing only 482 pounds, and breaking down into six parts for pack animal transport. The lack of a shield also made it easier to conceal, but it did expose the gunners to small arms fire and shell fragments, thus the Italians preferred to dig these weapons in or shelter them within emplacements. The 47mm 47/32 was roughly comparable to the British 40mm two-pounder antitank gun in 1940. The Italian gun performed better at longer ranges (half a mile or more, although more common combat range was about a quarter mile), but the higher-velocity two-pounder penetrated more armor (up to 54mm) at a quarter mile or less. The two-pounder was far heavier and more difficult to move than the Italian gun, although part of the reason was that it featured a novel mount allowing 360-degree traverse. However, by 1942 the little 47mm was completely outclassed by new, more heavily-armored tanks. While more powerful antitank guns like the British six-pounder

(57mm) and the German 50mm PAK 38 were being introduced in quantity by mid-1942 (if not before), the Italians were stuck with the Breda 47mm gun throughout the war, and were still using it in 1943. For this reason one reads, for instance, of Trieste Division gunners at Second Alamein holding their fire until British Shermans were within 20 yards, the only way to hope for penetration with the 47mm. Folgore Division received the 47/32 instead of conventional artillery because the 47mm gun could be air-dropped, fitted on a special pallet with a parachute. Since the weapon was originally intended not only for antitank use, but also as a light cannon for direct infantry fire support, the Folgore’s artillery component consisted of two groups of eight 47mm guns each.

Additional heavy weapons of all sorts were attached to the Folgore? s individual parachute battalions at Alamein. For example, the 5th Battalion included a mortar platoon with three 81mm mortars, an antitank platoon with three 47mm guns, and an attached pair of tripod-mounted machineguns. Even individual rifle companies often had substantial firepower. The 6th Company had a tripod-mounted machinegun and four 47mm antitank guns within its positions. The 13th Company had three 81mm mortars dug in with it, as well as four 47mm antitank guns positioned to cover both it and the neighboring 14th Company. By October all Folgore’s positions had the additional advantage of being shielded by extensive minefields. Furthermore, at Alamein the Folgore was backed by heavier artillery detached from the Ariete and Pavia Divisions, including 75mm field guns, 100mm (100/17) howitzers, plus 90mm and Italian-manned 88mm guns.

When the Folgore troopers fought their first real battle – in the predawn hours of September 4, 1942 they did indeed demonstrate enhanced firepower. The New Zealand command overseeing the operation on the Allied side expressed surprise at the effectiveness of the paratrooper? s defensive fire, which, in the words of one official history, caused some units to disintegrate. The entire engagement took both sides by surprise, as often happened in desert warfare (for instance, in the opening hours of the Gazala battle, when Ariete Division drove right into an Indian defensive box whose existence had not been suspected). In the final stages of the Alam Halfa defensive battle, Montgomery authorized a series of probing attacks on the Axis southern flank. The British 132nd (Royal West Kent) Brigade, not yet acclimated to desert conditions and navigation, ran straight into the Folgore positions at night, by accident. Neither side realized the other was in the vicinity until the two forces were at virtually point-blank range. In the confused melee that followed, opponents were shooting at each other at ranges as short as ten yards, and seldom more than 100. The Folgore, aided by a neighboring detachment of the German Ramcke parachute brigade, inflicted 700 casualties on their unwitting attackers (including 200 prisoners taken), and one of those casualties was Brigadier Robertson, commander of the British force, seriously wounded by Italian fire while moving between his sub-units. The Folgore also suffered painful losses, including Major Aurelio Rossi, commander of the 9th Battalion, who was killed in action. In addition, several of the enemy? s light vehicles (Bren gun carriers and trucks) had been knocked out, while one of the Folgore’s 47mm antitank guns took a direct hit from a 25-pounder. A fortuitous coup formed a sequel to the battle, as just before dawn the New Zealand Brigadier-General Clifton, whose troops had not even been involved in this particular fight, drove in his jeep straight into the Folgore positions in a case of mistaken identity, and was captured with his whole party.

When they realized their mistake, the General’s adjutant quickly rubbed out the markings on his map. A Folgore trooper smashed the jeep? s radio with his rifle butt when they tried to send a message about their plight. Folgore’s actual combat debut had come on August 30, 1942, when two New Zealand battalions tested the newly-arrived unit with a well-executed surprise trench raid that killed five paratroopers and took some prisoners. The following day three British light trucks sniffing around the perimeter were taken under fire by some of Folgore’s 81mm mortars, two vehicles being knocked out. The 81mm Brandt was another reasonably capable Italian weapon, similar to the model used by the US and Japan.

At Second Alamein, Folgore had enough weaponry at its disposal to withstand the first furious British assaults, albeit just barely. On one night during the Alamein battle, the 6th Company was attacked by 30 British tanks followed closely by infantry, the armor led by a special mine-clearing flail tank. In the gruesome combat that followed, seven paratroopers died and 11 were wounded in keeping 6th Company’s lone tripod-mounted machinegun firing until literally its last 20-shot tray, and the battery of four 47mm antitank guns suffered ten dead and twice as many wounded. Sergeant-major Bilo knocked out a British tank with a Molotov cocktail,? but had to leave his hole and set down his Beretta submachinegun to do so. With no weapon in his hands, he suddenly found himself virtually surrounded by British soldiers, barely 15 feet away, several of whom began shooting at him. By some miracle, Bilo regained both his weapon and the shelter of his hole with his skin intact. Others were not so lucky, and one of the hardest things the paratroopers had to endure was the screams of wounded men crushed under the enemy tanks in the night. Corporal Maiolatesi, his right arm wounded so badly that it was later amputated, kept firing his machinegun until out of ammunition, and then threw grenades with his left hand! The 6th Company held its positions, but was nearly wiped out in the process.

After the success earned during the Gazala battle, the OKW and Comando Supremo thought that the “C3” operation was no longer necessary; they thought that the forces freed up dropping the operation would have been much more useful in the final attempt to reach Alexandria, so Folgore division was sent to North Africa between July and August 1942.

The division itself saw his baptism of fire during the battle for Alam-el-Halfa, which the Italians call “corsa dei sei giorni” or “six days run”. Placed under the XX Corps, Folgore division, with Brescia and Pavia divisions, was ordered to advance in the center of the offensive, as the left flank of the armoured units of the Italian-German Tank Army who were though to break through the southern defence of the British Army, in the same manner as they did during the Gazala battle.

As soon as the attack has begun on 30th August 1942, the Italian and German forces where caught by intense RAF bombings and saw themselves slowed down by an intense mine netting, also the British defence mounted up as the axis forces advanced. After two days of fighting, on 1st September 1942, Rommel called off the attack and ordered his units to return to the starting positions.

As the attack ceased the British forces begun operation Beresford, their counter attack on 4th September 1942,  focusing their efforts in the southern sector, where Folgore took built a bulge in the British defensive assets. The attack, begun by the VI NZ brigade and by the CXXXII British brigade, was repulsed with heavy casualties by IX and X battalions, with the latter being incorporated in the IX after the battle because of the losses, which comprised the BtG commander, Aurelio Rossi, fell in the counter attack. It was in this battle that Clifton was captured by the men of the IX BtG!

Forming Raggruppamento Ruspoli

After Alam-el-Halfa the two armies took time for rest. In this period the Axis forces dug in, reinforcing their position in order to resist to the incoming British offensive. El Cairo and Alexandria being so far right now.

Folgore division was assigned to the extreme southern sector of the army, within the X corps. Her deployment lay between Haret-el-Himeimat and Deir-el-Munassib.

The central portion of the division was held by “Raggruppamento Ruspoli” ( Ruspoli Group), which comprised the VII/186° and VIII Btg, with the II/28th from Pavia division. The raggruppamento had various artillery group taken from other divisions, which comprised some 88/56, 90/53, 100/17 and 75/27.

The Battle

October the 23rd, 1942, at 21:40 the British begun their attack on the Italian line. Raggruppamento Ruspoli was one of the main objectives of Monty’s assault, as he began his initial assaults in order to find a weak spot in the axis defences.

The attack begun with a heavy shelling from British artillery which lasted until 23:30, after that the Infantry of the 51th HD and the tanks of the 7th AD attacked the Folgore front.

The first night saw fierce combat, with the 6/II company being surrounded and destroyed, the 19/VII having only 16 survivors. The VIII battalion is one that suffered the heaviest losses of the Raggruppamento, with his 24th company being the only formation emerging almost intact from the bitter fight.

Despite these heavy losses the British attack was repulsed, with the exception of some position in the sector of 20/VII. By 2:30 AM the fighting ceased, the raggruppamento having lost also a mortar platoon and 6 AT guns.

On the second day of the offensive Ruspoli counterattacked, sending forward his 20/VII company supported by some three semoventi da 75/18 and a number of German Panzers. The counter attack begun at 16:00, with the fighting ceasing by 16:30, with the company having reconquered all the ground lost.

Between the 25th and 26th October the British resumed their efforts, advancing in the sector of the 20/VII and 21/VII companies. Their offensive spirit being again frustrated by the bitter defence opposed by the paratroopers, with many local assaults and counterassaults. The British gained a foot hold tough, with their forces threatening now the flank of the raggruppamento.

Seeing the danger of an outflanking manoeuvre Ruspoli ordered his VII Btg to counterattack the British foot hold. The btg was support directly by the 100/17 guns, taken into the front line in order to shoot on tanks with open sights, the assault was so ferocious that the British forces retired back to their starting line, capturing half battalion in the process!

The 28th October, 20th anniversary of the march upon Rome, the British forces retired to their starting line, 500 m back from Folgore positions. The operation took two days. The men from Folgore division couldn’t rest tough, as the British resumed their attack the 31st upon the position of the 21/VII company, threatening the position of the battalion commander, they were repulsed, but during the night they mounted up another assault upon the 20/VII that lasted until dawn, when the British retired. By this time it was destroyed the 100th Tank in front of the Raggruppamento.

Despite their heroic resistance the division was ordered to withdraw in the night between 2 and 3 November 1942, they had to retreat 15km back from the line while destroying everything that wasn’t transportable. The orders looked grimmer as the hours passed, by the 4th November the division was supposed to fall back to Fuka, without any kind of motor transport, with all the ammunition stocks being depleted, without water nor food while British armoured car squadrons harassed the exhausted paratroopers, which returned fire with their last 47/32 while refusing the British proposal to surrender.

The 6th November the survivors of the divisions surrendered to the British forces at the gates of Fuka, receiving the honour to keep their personal weapons (onore delle armi in italian, honour of arms/weapons?). The division destroyed some 120 enemy tanks, while inflicting heavy losses to 51st HD, 7th AD, the Free French brigade and the Greek brigade.

Raggruppameno Ruspoli OOB

Along the first mine layer from north to south:

– 6/II company, capitano Paolo Emilio Marenco with a 2km front

– 1/I company, tenente Carlo Massoni with 4 47/32 ATGs

these two companies had support from two mortar platoons

– 19/VII company, capitano Alfonso Salerno with some battalion ATGs with the 16/VII to his south

Behind the first mine layer, behind 6/II:

– 22/VIII “Guastatori Paracadutisti” company, tenente Stelio Silleni supported by the 1/II artillery section with two 47/32 ATGs

Behind the second mine layer (resistance mine line, fascia minata di resistenza), directly behind the 22/VIII, Northern Sector:

– 20/VII company, capitano Carlo Lombardini

– 24/VIII “Guastatori Paracadutisti” company, capitano Scalettaris

Behind this position stands the command post of the VIII BtG “Guastatori Paracadutisti”, maggiore Giulio Burzi, to the right behind the 24/VIII

Southern Sector:

– 21/VII company, capitano Gino Bianchini, with one of his platoons deployed in front of the main line of resistance

– 16/VI company between the first mine layer and the main line of resistance

Between 20/VII and 21/VII stands the command post of the VII btg of capitano Carlo Mautino with two mortar platoons (one with captured 3″ mortars).

Between the 24/VIII and 20/VII are deployed the reserve, formed by the II/28 “Pavia” of maggiore Priano, with only three under strength companies. Among the reserves, on their right flank, stood the command post of the Raggruppamento, commanded by tenente colonnello Marescotti Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the command post of the I ATG group of capitano Giovanni Curti.

The artillery count:

– I/21st “Trieste” battery, with 100/17 howitzers

– II/27th “Pavia” battery, with 75/27 and 100/17

– IV/26th “Pavia” with 75/27 and 100/17

– “German mixed heavy group” from 21st panzer, with 210mm howitzers and 25pdr cannons.

( This is the artillery assigned to the raggruppamento, the division had some more pieces)

The raggruppamento counted about 1300 men.


The El Alamein offensive by the British Eighth Army, Operation LIGHTFOOT, begins on the 23rd October 1942, at 2140 hours local with an artillery barrage by 1,000+ guns aimed at Axis batteries; at 2200 hours, the barrage switches to the forward positions as British troops move forward; heavy fighting continues during the night of 23/24 October with XXX Corps on the north making the main effort and XIII Corps conducting diversionary actions on the south. The 12 Italian and German divisions amount to 80,000 men (53,000 of which are Italian). The Commonwealth forces amount to 230,000 men divided among ten divisions. As far as the tanks are concerned, only the German Panzer IV (35 total) are equal to the Commonwealth’s American M4 Sherman (252 total) and M3 Grant (170 total) tanks. The British attack the sector defended by the Italian Folgore Parachute Division. The Italian forces include 3,500 paratroopers, 1,000 Guastatori d’Africa, 80 artillery pieces and five tanks of German origin.

The Folgore prepare their defenses among a 15 kilometer (9.3 mile) barrier and realize they are the last defense before the rear of the Italo-German Army. The fighting lasted for one week and constituted four separate battles; the central sector on the 23rd, the northern sector near Naqb Rala on the 24th, the central sector again on the 24th and 25th, and the southern sector on the 25th, 26th and 29th. The British are thrown back after every attempt with a considerable loss of life and are ordered a stop any further initiatives on that front. Total dead, wounded or missing amount to 1,100 for the Folgore. Eventually General Montgomery’s forces claim victory over the Axis forces in El Alamein and Rommel orders the Folgore to withdraw on the 2nd of November, leaving their defenses still intact. Eventually, the remaining Folgore forces thin out during the difficult withdrawal through the desert.