French Wars of Religion: Battle of Arques, Henry IV attacks his enemies.

Huguenot Gendarmes 1567

The Battle of Ivry was fought on 14 March 1590, during the French Wars of Religion. The battle was a decisive victory for Henry IV of France, leading Huguenot forces against the Catholic League forces led by the Duc de Mayenne. Henry’s forces were victorious and he went on to lay siege to Paris.

Death toll: 3 million

Type: religious conflict

Broad dividing line: Catholics vs. Protestants

Time frame: 1562–98

Major non-state participants: Huguenot League, Catholic League


The late Middle Ages had been good to the Roman Catholic Church, which had become a transnational corporation that could stare down secular monarchs and make them blink. In addition to stirring up crusades, Rome could dodge taxes, force arrogant emperors to kneel penitently in the snow, and send out inquisitors to terrify the locals. They had armies of fighting monks such as the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights. Guilt-riddled noblemen had bribed God with tax-free donations of land, cash, art, and building funds. The details don’t matter here. All you need to know is that by 1500, the Papacy was on top of the world.

With the flood of wealth and power, the Catholic Church had become monumentally corrupted, but it always managed to squash reform movements before they got out of hand. The Czech reformer Jan Hus was captured and burned at the stake in 1415. Although the English reformer John Wyclife died of natural causes in 1384 before the church could get its hooks into him, the church had his corpse dug up and burned a few years later to show its disapproval. Finally, one reformer, Martin Luther, survived its wrath, and the Reformation was launched in 1520.

With the door thrown open, people all across northwest Europe defected from the Catholic Church. Many monarchs took their countries out of the Catholic sphere and established new national churches tailored to local needs; however, the older, more powerful nations—France and Spain especially—had long ago forced the Catholic Church to share its wealth and power with the state. Now, as full partners with a stake in the well-being of the church, these monarchs had no reason to allow the Reformation to undermine its power. In these countries, dissenters had to meet in secret if they wanted to practice the newer varieties of Christianity.

Among the new reformers shouting back and forth across Europe was John Calvin, a Frenchman who was quickly chased out of that country to a safe haven in Geneva. Whereas Lutheranism was Catholicism after the auditors have been through—cleaned up, simplified, and adapted to local needs—Calvinism was Lutheranism squared—austere, populist, and decentralized. Called the Huguenots in France and the Puritans in England, Calvinists believed in the absolute sinfulness of man, which could be redeemed only by God’s mercy. They denounced the frivolity and corruption of the human world and encouraged the godly to live in strict, smug holiness, without compromise.

Wherever Calvinism took root, civil war followed.

France on the Brink

International relations in western Europe at this time were simple: everyone hated his or her neighbor. Spain opposed France, which opposed England, which opposed Scotland. This made alternating countries into allies whose monarchs were occasionally married to each other. King Philip II of Spain was married to Queen Mary Tudor of England, while Prince (soon to be king) Francis of France was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. All of these monarchs were Catholic, although the population of Great Britain was mostly Protestant.

This unusual convergence of ruling queens—especially Catholic queens in countries that God meant to be Protestant—infuriated the Scottish evangelist John Knox into sounding The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women in 1558. France was about to join the regiment.

The current French king, Henry II, hated “Lutheran scum.” Crowned in 1547 at the age of twenty-eight, he had the political strength and will to keep his Protestant minority in line. With a young, healthy king raising four sons and three daughters, the future of Henry’s Valois dynasty looked secure, but then King Henry had his eye socket pierced in a jousting contest in 1559. After lingering in agony for several days, Henry died, leaving France to his fifteen-year-old son, Francis.*

First War

Like so many monarchs, King Francis II depended on his wife’s family to help him maintain power. His queen, Mary Stuart of Scotland, was connected on her mother’s side to the Guise family, powerful French Catholics.

In 1560, French Protestants hatched a scheme to kill as many Guises as they could and kidnap the king in order to force him to shed the remaining Guises. The Huguenots were so proud of their plan that they told everybody about it. When the coup was launched, the Guises were prepared. The conspirators were repelled and then hunted down, hanged, and dismembered, sometimes after a trial. The king and court watched fifty-two rebellious heads chopped off in the castle courtyard.

Never healthy, Francis died in December 1560 after only a year on the throne. His ten-year-old brother, the quiet, melancholy Charles IX, took the crown, but Catherine de Medici, his mother and King Henry’s previously subordinate wife, held the real power as regent. Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici, the cold and cunning ruler of Renaissance Florence to whom Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince; however, she failed to learn from the master. Over the decades of her dominance, she hatched a series of clumsy schemes and weak compromises that steadily made the situation worse. On the plus side, Catherine was a trendsetter who introduced Italian novelties like forks, snuff, broccoli, sidesaddles, handkerchiefs, and ladies’ drawers to the relatively frumpy nation of France.

In order to cultivate support among prominent Protestant families—the Bourbons especially—and to counteract the growing power of the Guise family, Catherine legalized Protestant worship, which annoyed the Catholic majority of France. She kept it on a tight leash, which annoyed the Protestant minority.

The wars began when another Francis, the duke of Guise, was passing through the town of Vassy and stopped at the local church to hear mass. Protestants were praying and singing at a nearby barn, which served as a church because the Crown forbade the Protestants from building real churches. A scuffle broke out between rival parishioners and drew in the duke’s entourage. The fight escalated, and finally the Catholics ended up burning the Protestant barn and killing as many worshippers as they could catch.

Pretty soon Frenchmen of both religions were fortifying their towns and rushing militia into the region. The sectarian armies fought several pitched battles, but eventually, the duke of Guise was assassinated, and the leader of the Huguenots (Louis de Bourbon, prince of Conde) was killed in battle, which left both sides floundering and ready to negotiate. Gaspard de Coligny, an admiral who had served alongside Conde, emerged as the new leader of the Protestants.

Second War (1567–68)

The rivalry between France and Spain had intensified in 1494 when the heir to the Spanish throne married the heir of the house of Burgundy, uniting Spain with all of the territories that had caused the French kings so much trouble during the Hundred Years War (Burgundy, Flanders, the Netherlands). This put Spanish armies all around the edges of France. Then Calvinists in the Netherlands revolted against Spanish rule in 1567, pushing Spain and France toward a common front against Protestantism.

With the Huguenots jumpy, Catherine de Medici picked the wrong time to travel to Bayonne and visit her daughter Elizabeth, who had recently married the widowed King Philip II of Spain. To the Huguenots, this family gathering looked like scheming. It sparked a rumor among the Huguenots that the large new Spanish army that was moving to put down the Dutch Revolt was actually coming to assist the French Catholics in eradicating them.

The Huguenots launched a preemptive attack, trying to steal the king away from the Guises and keep him among the Protestants, but word leaked out, and the court reached safety. Six thousand Huguenot soldiers camped outside Paris—too few men to bring it under siege, but at Saint-Denis they beat 18,000 men of the royal army that came to chase them away. Even so, as the royal forces swelled to 60,000, the Huguenots pulled back and negotiated a cease-fire.

Third War (1568–70)

Within a few months, royal forces tried to sneak up and surprise the Protestant leaders at home, but the Huguenots escaped north where they could connect with their Dutch and English supporters. The Guises made contact with Spain and set out to crush the Protestant strongholds across southern France. Although the Protestants took a beating in the ensuing war, the Crown couldn’t afford to keep at it. Peace broke out in 1570 and the Huguenots were allowed to fortify and garrison four towns as safe havens in case of renewed Catholic aggression.

Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day

Trying to patch things up, Catherine de Medici married her daughter Margaret to the highest-ranking nobleman among the Huguenots, Henry, head of the Bourbon house and king of the small kingdom of Navarre in the Pyrenees. Catherine de Medici also tried to bring Huguenots into the government, which of course infuriated the Catholics.

When everyone gathered in Paris for Margaret’s wedding, someone tried to assassinate the military leader of the Huguenots, Gaspard de Coligny. As Coligny walked down the street, a sniper shot him from a window. No one really knows who planned it, but history has traditionally blamed Catherine. The wound was not serious, and it did nothing more than make the Huguenots angry.

Even though King Charles and his council had nothing to do with the assassination attempt, Catherine explained to them that now the Huguenots would retaliate, making a preemptive strike the only possible survival strategy. On the eve of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, Guise and his men burst into Coligny’s house and murdered him in his sickbed, while other death squads went hunting. In all likelihood, Catherine wanted only to decapitate the Huguenot cause by killing the leaders, but Paris exploded in hatred of the Protestants. Mobs all over Paris chased down any Huguenots they could find, killing anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 of them by whatever means were handy. Adults were hanged, beaten, hacked, and stabbed; children were pitched out windows or into the river. Over the next few weeks, Protestants were massacred in other cities all over France, boosting the body count tenfold, into the neighborhood of 50,000.

The Bourbon leader and bridegroom, Henry of Navarre, survived only by converting to Catholicism on the spot. He was moved into the palace to be closely watched; his movements were restricted.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre horrified Europe. Even Ivan the Terrible in Russia denounced it. It changed the nature of the French Religious Wars from a gang fight to a war of extermination.

Fourth War

When war resumed, the king’s younger brother, Henry, led a Catholic army to break the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle. A fierce siege stretched for months, from 1572 into 1573. Sappers tried to undermine the fortifications and explode barrels of gunpowder, while artillery pounded the walls without effect. It started to look like the army outside the walls would run out of food and ammunition before those inside would. Then Prince Henry was elected king of Poland,* which gave him an excuse to lift the siege without losing face.

Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Wars

King Charles had been haunted by guilt since authorizing the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and his health deteriorated. When he died in 1574 at the age of twenty-three, the throne went to his twenty-two-year-old brother, King Henry of Poland. Henry snuck out of Poland with the Polish national treasury hidden in his baggage train and escaped to Paris to accept his promotion.

The new King Henry III was Catherine de Medici’s favorite and most intelligent son. He was a devout, cross-dressing Catholic who sometimes showed up at official functions in drag. Henry had an entourage of handsome young men called his Darlings (Mignons). He collected little dogs and hid from thunderstorms in the cellar. Catherine unsuccessfully tried to tempt Henry into heterosexuality by offering him naked serving girls at special parties she arranged for his amusement, but that didn’t work.

More dangerous, however, was Henry’s intermittent tendency toward Catholic fanaticism when he sought atonement for his sexual eccentricities. At those times, Henry endangered his health with extreme fasting and mortification. Finally Catherine had the friend (and suspected Spanish agent) who encouraged her son in these rituals murdered in an alley.

In the manner of most leaders facing civil wars all across history, everything King Henry did seemed to backfire. When the king restored freedom of worship for the Huguenots, Henry of Navarre took advantage of this new climate of legal tolerance to flee the court and reconvert to Protestantism once he was safely out of reach. Meanwhile Henry of Guise, angered at the king’s weakness, formed an independent Catholic League with Spanish support.

King Henry III was running out of money, so the king summoned parliament in hopes of a tax hike. Parliament refused to raise taxes, but King Henry scraped up enough soldiers for a few small campaigns around the Loire River.

War of the Three Henrys

Because the current king was so very gay, the next king would probably not be springing from his loins. The succession pointed to the youngest Valois brother, Francis, but in 1584 he died of fever while plotting against Protestants in the Netherlands. With no further males descended from King Henry II, the law backed up to find some other direct male line branching off from an earlier king. When royal genealogists followed the new branch forward to find the senior-most descendant, it turned out that the next in line for the throne of France was the king’s brother-in-law, Henry of Navarre, leader of the Huguenot Bourbon family.

Thus began the War of the Three Henrys, in which King Henry III and Henry of Guise tried to force Henry of Navarre to renounce his right of succession. Because the throne was at stake, the battles were especially bloody. Two thousand Catholics were killed at the Battle of Coutras, another 6,000 at the Battle of Ivry. The Huguenot losses were comparable, and neither side gained an advantage.

By now the endless wars had cut the population of France by 20 percent. In a report home, the Venetian ambassador described the state of France after a generation of fighting: “Everywhere one sees ruin, the livestock for the most part destroyed . . . stretches of good land uncultivated and many peasants forced to leave their homes and to become vagabonds. Everything has risen to exorbitant prices . . . people are no longer loyal and courteous, either because poverty had broken their spirit and brutalized them, or because the factions and bloodshed have made them vicious and ferocious.”

The Catholic League hated King Henry for not crushing the Huguenots. As far as the league was concerned, a moderate Catholic was no better than a Protestant. It agitated the Parisian citizenry, who piled up barricades and drove Henry III from the city. In rural exile, the king was forced into calling parliament for advice on the succession. When parliament suggested an heir who was obviously a puppet of the Guises, King Henry decided to work out his problems with Guise once and for all.

Two days before Christmas, King Henry III invited Henry of Guise to stop by for a chat, but when Guise stepped in the room, the doors were suddenly slammed and bolted shut behind him. Soldiers rushed up; Guise drew his sword and fought gamely, but the king’s soldiers still cut him down. His brother, a Catholic archbishop also visiting the king, was killed the next morning. They were cut apart and shoved into a roaring fireplace. The king then allied with the Bourbons against the Catholic League.

More War

Catherine de Medici died in 1589, and her last son followed shortly thereafter. In July of the same year, a Dominican friar angered by King Henry’s betrayal of Catholicism stabbed him in the stomach. After Henry III’s slow, lingering death from internal bleeding and infection, the Protestant Henry of Navarre became king of France. “I rule with my arse in the saddle and my gun in my fist,” he declared and rode out to take his capital back from the Catholic League.

The siege of Paris that began in May 1590 was brutal. For month after month, the 220,000 residents of the biggest city in Europe were locked inside with dwindling supplies. As time pressed on, dogs, cats, and rats disappeared from the streets. “Little children disguised as meat” showed up in the markets. Before it was over, 40,000 to 50,000 Parisians had starved to death. Navarre bombarded the city with cannon from the high ground, but in the end the city held and the siege was lifted in early September.

The Catholic League then called a parliament in Paris to pick a Catholic king to set up against Henry of Navarre, but when the Spaniards offered up their own princess, daughter of a Valois sister, many Frenchmen were appalled. It started to dawn on them that being French was probably more important than being Catholic. Maybe a Bourbon king was better than allowing France to become a Spanish satellite.

Suddenly, in 1593, Henry of Navarre, who had led the Protestant armies through many hard battles, announced that, well, if it really meant that much to them, he would go ahead and convert to Catholicism. He didn’t want to cause a fuss.

“Paris is worth a mass,” he is rumored to have explained.

This cleared the way for him to be a properly accepted and consecrated king, and before anyone could come up with any new objections, peace broke out. In 1598, King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, declaring toleration for all Christian faiths. His new Bourbon dynasty wanted to start with a blank slate: “The recollection of everything done by one party or the other . . . during all the preceding period of troubles, remain obliterated and forgotten, as if no such things had ever happened.”



Several highly significant events occurred in 1894. Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu’s negotiations with Britain to revise the unequal treaties began to make progress, finally reaching success with the signing of a more equitable commercial agreement that summer. This treaty became the basis for revision of the remaining unequal treaties Japan had had to agree to with other powers, hence excising a humiliation to the national honor.

Meanwhile, a more explosive sequence of events began when the pro Japanese Kim Ok-kyun was assassinated in Shanghai in April. Te Chinese government declined to release the body to Kim’s Japanese friends, instead returning it to Korea, certainly in full knowledge of what was likely to happen and how the Japanese government would react. The corpse was draped in a shroud inscribed “arch rebel and heretic.” On the same ship was the assassin, who received a hero’s welcome when the ship docked. The Korean king then mutilated Kim’s body in a particularly grisly manner, and punished his family members as well. While this treatment was considered appropriate for traitors, which from China’s and Korea’s point of view, Kim certainly was, the Japanese government perceived the manner in which it was carried out to have been designed to humiliate their country.

Japanese public opinion, fanned by angry articles in the nation’s news papers, was infuriated. The Japanese military, already resentful over the more conciliatory policies of the country’s statesmen, determined that it was necessary to intervene. Defeating Li Hongzhang’s well-regarded Beiyang army would free Korea defnitively from the Chinese sphere of influence as well as silence domestic critics who criticized their government’s unwillingness to take action. It might also serve to dissuade the Russian government from trying to establish a sphere of influence on the Korean peninsula, which Japan regarded as vital to its own security. Since the trans-Siberian railway would give Russia a direct conduit to the Pacific Ocean, Japanese statesmen were concerned that its completion would be tantamount to a Russian version of America’s Monroe Doctrine.

When the Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Rebellion broke out in Korea in 1894, the tinderbox of tensions was ignited. The Korean king, on the advice of Li Hongzhang’s representative in Korea, Yuan Shikai, requested that China send troops to help suppress it. In accordance with the Li-Ito Convention, China notified Japan that it was doing so. Ignoring the Korean king’s request that Japan not send troops, Japan immediately dispatched them nonetheless. Although the official explanation was that soldiers were needed to protect Japanese nationals and property, the large number of troops that were sent and their instantaneous dispatch indicated prior preparations. Japanese troops moved into Seoul and captured the king.

Tokyo announced that it would not withdraw the troops until the Korean government had implemented a program of thorough reform. Li Hongzhang, realizing that his troops would be unable to stand up to those of Japan, tried unsuccessfully to persuade foreign powers to mediate. There was considerable feeling among Western powers that the weak, corrupt Korean government was badly in need of reform; perhaps Japanese pressure was what was needed. At the end of July, the ship Kowshing, carrying more than a thousand Chinese troops, was intercepted by Japanese naval vessels and refused the commander’s orders to follow its ships to port. After several hours of negotiations, the commander, Togo Heihachiro, later to become the hero of the Russo-Japanese War, ordered the Kowshing sunk.

On August 1, 1894, each country declared war on the other. Japan’s declaration accused China of interfering in Korea’s domestic affairs, of refusing Japan’s offer to jointly sponsor reforms, and of opening fire on Japanese ships. China’s declaration repeatedly referred to the Japanese as dwarfs, woren, or dwarf pirates, wokou. Adding insult to insult in this face-conscious culture, the Chinese side had the declaration translated into English, accompanied by a note explaining that the word was used in an “opprobrious sense.” In her definitive study of the Sino-Japanese War, S. C. M. Paine characterizes such language as equivalent to repeatedly spitting in the emperor’s face. At frst, foreign observers assumed that Chinese forces would win. Tis was quickly proved wrong, as Japanese forces achieved victory after victory in what could only be considered a humiliating defeat of their larger neighbor. China’s regionally based armies had a tendency to avoid battle, feeling that they did not have a stake in the outcome. Battleships, including some modern vessels whose capabilities exceeded those of the Japanese, were hoarded rather than used. Corruption siphoned money meant for military modernization into luxury items for dishonest officials. A subordinate of China’s most outstanding admiral, Ding Ruchang, disobeyed Ding’s order to put the flagship in a position to fire on the Japanese fleet and instead fired the main guns at the bridge on which Ding was standing. The admiral escaped death, but his leg was crushed, seriously affecting his ability to direct the battle.

Incredibly, the Chinese managed to sustain the attitude of superiority even in the face of defeat. For example, in November 1894, an eminent scholar-official wrote:

The island barbarian Japanese have inscrutable temperaments and petty dispositions. Their hearts are like those of jackals and wolves, and they possess poison like the bees and the scorpions .. They dare to title their emperor as the son of heaven in the land of the rising sun. It look them 48,000 years before they made contact with China, while in 3,600 years they still have not accepted our celestial calendar. . [I]llegitimately assuming the reign title of Meiji [i. e., Enlightened Rule], they in reality abandon themselves all the more to debauchery and indolence. Falsely calling their new administration a reformation, they only defle themselves so much the more. . As for Korea, all the world knows it is a vassal of China. And yet Japan took military action there without reason. Is this not deliberately provocative? . How can we tolerate this willingness to act like the dog of the ancient tyrant Chieh barking at the sage-king Yao? Both the immortals and human kind are angry, the entire world takes offense.

This stoked the anger of Japanese, who were already passionate to become treated as equals if not superiors. The image of China among ordinary Japanese citizens also suffered. When soldiers whose educations had taught them that China was the land of the sages encountered the poverty and illiteracy of the Chinese countryside, and shared these observations through letters and conversations with relatives and acquaintances at home, the once revered land came to be regarded as far inferior to their own.

While some responded with their own disparaging characterizations of the Chinese, generally based on nativist views, others tended to be compassionate once victory had been secured. A case in point is the dialogue between Admiral Ito Yuku and his opposite number Admiral Ding Ruchang after the latter’s defeat at Weihaiwei. Tough fate had made them adversaries, the two had previously had cordial relations. Ito pointed out that the defeat had not been Ding’s fault, but that of a government which preferred to choose its officials on the basis of their literary accomplishments rather than their military expertise. He then invited Ding to come to Japan rather than return to Beijing to accept responsibility for the defeat. Ding responded by committing suicide, thereby earning the highest respect of the Japanese. As commented by a newspaper columnist of the time, enmity is temporary, respect endures forever. Admiral Ito ordered Ding’s body returned to China, with flags flying at half-mast and ships firing a salute as the vessel bearing his body lef port. Knowing that the war was essentially over at this point, Ito also returned Ding’s surviving officers. Ding’s own government did not react as well: his corpse was denied proper burial until 1912, and the emperor ordered his surviving officers beheaded.

A similar exchange of views occurred when Li Hongzhang again met Ito Hirobumi, this time to negotiate the terms of the peace treaty at Shimonoseki. Ito reminded Li that, at Tianjin a decade before, he had spoken with Li about reform, regretted that nothing had actually been reformed, and asked why. Li replied that “affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.”

In a third example, also from the Shimonoseki negotiations, Premier Ito inquired of one of the Chinese translators, the brilliant Luo Fenglu, why China had not learned more from the West. Luo replied, “You see, in our younger days we knew each other as fellow students, and now you are prime minister in your country and I am an interpreter in mine.” As summarized by an astute observer, for years Japanese diplomats had offered the same advice to Chinese diplomats, only to see it ignored. From the Chinese point of view, “They would be damned before they would take advice from `dwarfs.’ And damned they were.”

Even in defeat, the Chinese government refused to treat the victors as equals. Te negotiations were stalled when the Japanese, confronted with a delegation of relatively low-ranking individuals who had arrived without power to make decisions, refused to deal with them. Meanwhile, a group of officials in China who clearly did not comprehend the difficult position that the devastation of their armies and ships had put them in, urged fighting on. A few days afer the envoys’ ship set sail, The Peking Gazette, the official organ of the Chinese government for the publication of memorials and edicts, referred to the Japanese by an even more demeaning term than dwarfs: “dwarf pirates”. After a member of the delegation asked the highly inappropriate question of when he could expect an audience with the emperor, the Japanese sent the delegation back.

Eventually, with the Japanese threatening to advance into Beijing- an action that was easily within their military’s capacity but that civilian statesmen preferred to avoid, fearing Western powers’ reaction-the Chinese dispatched an acceptable delegation. In the resultant Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in 1895, China recognized the full and complete independence and autonomy of Korea, which was henceforth to refrain from paying tribute and performing ceremonies to China that were incompatible with this independence and autonomy. Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the Liaodong peninsula were ceded to Japan. China was to pay an indemnity of 200 million Kuping taels 35 (about 7.5 million kilograms of silver). Four new cities, Shashi, Chongqing, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, were to be opened to Japanese trade, and China granted most favored nation status to Japan.

The mood in Japan was ecstatic; the military had not only assuaged past slights but also brought much honor to the country. However, almost immediately a consortium of three European states-France, Germany, and Russia-intervened. Apprehensive for their own interests in the wake of the Japanese victory, the parties to the Triple Intervention advised Japan to retrocede the Liaodong peninsula. Aware that their military could not withstand the combined forces of the three, Japanese diplomats agreed. A concession that China would have to pay an additional 30 million Kuping, or 1.12 million kilograms, of silver for the retrocession of Liaodong, for a total indemnity of over 9 million kilograms of silver, was scant consolation. An imperial rescript urged the people to “bear the unbearable” and to refrain from rash acts of revenge. Although a number of ritual suicides were reported, citizens in general obeyed the emperor’s command. However, the intervention had other, very serious consequences.

Public opinion was outraged, charging that diplomats had surrendered a valuable prize that had been won through the sacrifices of thousands of valiant young men. The prestige of civilian government fell; that of the military rose. As did support for larger military budgets, so that Japan could never again be humiliated in this fashion, and the desire for revenge. Additionally, the Triple Intervention was interpreted as meaning that the Western powers had not yet accepted Japan as their equal, its impressive reforms not withstanding. In the Japanese view, this attitude extended beyond the three intervening powers: Tokyo had approached other Western powers for help against the consortium, but had been rebuffed. The conclusion was that Western powers understood only military force, and that Japan had best ready itself for such a confrontation. Japanese decision-makers were aware of the so-called Willy-Nicky letters, in which the German kaiser and his cousin, the Russian czar, discussed the dangers of the “yellow peril.”

Afghanistan 1979-89 – What Kind of a War?

Like other counter-insurgency wars, the campaign in Afghanistan was not a war of set-piece battles and great offensives, of victories, defeats, and headlong retreat, and there was no front line. In such a war, there was little scope for generalship in the normal sense of the word. Nor was it a war which lent itself to easy narrative. It was not that the generals were still fighting the Second World War, though there was an element of that too. They had thought long and hard about the conditions of modern warfare, and they believed that they had made the necessary adjustments to fight such a war and win. Their mistake was to assume that if the army was well prepared to fight a major war, it could without too much adaptation successfully fight minor wars as well. The Americans had thought the same at the beginning of the Vietnam War. They had adapted their tactics, but never cracked the problem. Even though they had that example before them, the Soviet commanders had not worked out in advance how to deal with small, lightly equipped, and highly mobile groups of strongly motivated men moving across difficult terrain with which they were intimately acquainted. Until they had gained experience the officers and men of the 40th Army were not very good at this kind of war. And even though many of them adapted well enough, they were in the end no more successful than the Americans at defeating their elusive enemy.

The country in which the 40th Army now found itself could not have been more different from the European plains for which the Soviet army had trained. It might have been specially designed for the conduct of guerrilla warfare, for mountain skirmishes, ambushes along road and tracks, punitive expeditions, occasional massive operations by thousands of Afghan and Soviet soldiers to relieve a beleaguered garrison or smoke out a rebel base, mujahedin raids on Soviet and Afghan government outposts, brief fights around villages or on the outskirts of towns, destruction, retaliation, and great brutality.

The mountains which cover four-fifths of Afghanistan sweep from the Pamirs in the east, where Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, and China join, almost to the frontier with Iran beyond Herat in the west. They divide the country from north to south, and the people into different and often hostile groupings who speak different languages, have different cultures, and for much of history had different religions as well. They are pierced by valleys and defiles, which are negotiable by people on foot: local farmers and shepherds, merchants, smugglers, travellers, tourists, hippies, and guerrilla fighters with their caravans of weapons. Proper roads are a luxury; until the twentieth century there were little more than tracks, passable enough by men and pack animals, but not at all friendly to wheeled traffic.

These mountains are hard enough to fight in at the best of times. The locals know all the paths and tracks, often cutting along the sides of precipitous mountains, easy to ambush, easy to defend, hard to find. But it is worse than that. At sixteen thousand feet, where some of the fighting took place, you can be incapacitated by altitude sickness until you become acclimatised. If you are wounded it can take as many as six of your comrades to get you down to help, often under fire.

Here even quite small numbers of determined men can hold their own against a powerful enemy column. You occupy the overlooking heights, block the front and rear of the column, and then destroy your enemy at leisure. This is what happened to the British ‘Army of the Indus’ in January 1842 on the road east from Kabul through Jalalabad to the Khyber Pass. More than a hundred years later the mujahedin would man the heights overlooking the route of the slow-moving Soviet columns, with their cumbersome lorries and their escorting tanks and personnel carriers. They would knock out the first and last vehicles with a mine or a rocket, and then systematically destroy the remainder.

But if the guerrilla tactic was simple, so was the answer, at least in theory. The British learned to adopt ‘a form of tactics then new to military science in Asia, namely the picketing of flank hills to protect a column on the march through the defiles of a mountainous terrain … [T]he Afridis [Pushtuns] still remember the occasion; it was only when [General] Pollock adopted, as they say, their own tactics, and applied them to the movements of his troops, that he became successful.’ The Russians adopted the same broad tactic as they fought their convoys through the mountain passes and along the desert roads, sending special forces and paratroopers by forced march or by helicopter to occupy the heights before the mujahedin could get there and to block off their line of retreat.

Most Afghans live neither in the mountains nor in the ancient cities, but in kishlaks in the ribbon of low land which fringes the north of the country, swings southward past Herat and then round towards the east, through the desert, until it reaches the mountains again at Kandahar. This sliver of land constitutes about 15 per cent of the total area of the country. But only 6 per cent is actually farmed: livestock, wheat and cotton, fruit, nuts, melons, raisins, and of course poppies.

Patches of lush green punctuate the arid landscape, a ‘flowering, fertile plain’, as the Soviet writer Alexander Prokhanov described it, ‘where settlements built of golden mud bricks spread out among the gardens and vineyards, where cool water filled the hand-made wells, where the young rice showed green in tiny, carefully cultivated fields, where flowering poppy and yellow sunflower flamed and burned’. Two decades later a journalist with the British soldiers in the southern province of Helmand went so far as to say, ‘The narrow strip of fertile meadows, irrigation ditches and mud-bricked compounds lining the Helmand river suggest a tranquillity unmolested by time. It can feel like Tuscany.’

The villages themselves tend to conform to a common pattern. The streets are narrow and the houses have flat roofs, with walls presenting a blank face to the outside world. They are built of mud brick; they age rapidly and it is often hard to tell how old they are. If they collapse, or are destroyed by bombing, the buildings soon melt back into the soil from which they sprang, as if they had never been. If you go there today the ravages of the war are hard to trace.

Alexander Kartsev described a typical village near his guard post: ‘The kishlak was not at all large, about ten fortified buildings and a few others built of mud bricks. The fortified buildings are striking both by their size and by their purpose. For the people of Kalashakhi the fortified buildings are ordinarydwellings, just like any other. They differ from the crowded and dirty Afghan cities completely … Walls up to six metres high, made of mud brick. More than a metre thick. Even a shell from a tank will not always pierce a wall like that. Watchtowers at the corners of the fortification two or three storeys high. On the inner side of the wall one- or two-storey dwellings of unfired brick, usually set out in the form of a [Cyrillic] letter. There are no buildings on the northern side. That is the coldest wall, uneconomic to heat in winter. Fuel is very hard to get here. Only one room has anything like a fireplace. People use kizyaki for fuel – dried and concentrated cow or camel dung. Only the richest can afford to use wood for heating.

‘On the ground floor you usually find the kitchen, and a kind of living room for eating and receiving guests where the floor is covered with matting or sometimes with carpets. A few other rooms are joined to the guest room: people live here in the summer, because the mud brick walls keep out the exhausting heat.

‘On the first floor are the rooms where people sleep and live in the winter. These are usually situated immediately above the kitchen, where there is an open stove for the preparation of food. There is no chimney. Instead a number of small holes in all the internal walls distribute the warm air through the rooms. The houses are like a large and living organism. It is not surprising that the Afghans are so warmly attached to them. In the far corner of the fortress is an enclosure for the cattle. Not far from the kitchen is a large well, called a kyariz … The fortress covers an area of not less than 400 square metres. It is inhabited, usually, by only one family.’

The Soviet soldiers – and the British soldiers who came after them – called the cultivated land around the villages the ‘green zone’, the zelenka in Russian. Despite its beguiling appearance, the green zone was in many ways an even worse place to fight than the mountains. The farmland and vineyards were irrigated with water from springs and rivers, distributed through a delicate and complicated system of surface ditches and underground tunnels punctuated by vertical shafts. Lounging along the roadside there were always men in shirts and long Afghan robes, in turbans and local headgear, armed to the teeth; and there was no way that the soldiers could tell whether they were part of the local self-defence organisation, or mujahedin waiting for a juicy target – or both.

These villages, into which guerrilla fighters could infiltrate, catch their enemies unawares, and then disappear back down the tunnels to evade retaliation, where every house and road might be booby-trapped, where peaceful civilians could suddenly become concealed enemies, were a nightmare for the Russian soldiers. In one incident a reconnaissance battalion incautiously entered a village in the green zone. They emerged two hours later, having lost twenty-five dead and forty-eight wounded. Such incidents were almost always the avoidable result of stupid and undisciplined behaviour.

Although the fighting was messy, piecemeal and confused, the main objective of each side was simple enough: to stifle the supply routes of the other. The Russians brought in all their fuel, their equipment, their ammunition, and much of their food by lorry from the Soviet Union. The mujahedin got most of their weapons, ammunition, and other military supplies over the mountains from Pakistan.

Because it was a battle for roads and tracks and mountain pathways, both the Russians and the rebels used mines in very large numbers and with little discrimination. But in an asymmetrical war mines, booby traps, and roadside bombs are the preferred weapon of the weaker side, and can have a devastating effect on the morale of the stronger, as the Americans discovered in Vietnam. The rebels’ mines came from a wide variety of sources – America, Britain, Italy, China – and they also improvised their own. The largest mines could destroy a tank or an infantry fighting vehicle. The smallest could blow off a foot. The Russians used flail tanks to clear the roads. Sappers used trained dogs, probed for mines by hand – it was no good using a metal detector because the mujahedin often used plastic mines – and defused them, as columns and raiding parties followed at a snail’s pace. As they said, a sapper only ever makes one mistake.

For their part the Russians set mines in a protective belt round their own positions, and along routes and mountain tracks used by the rebels. In principle they kept proper maps of the places where they had sown their mines. In practice maps were inaccurate, got lost, or were never made in the first place, and so the Russians were sometimes blown up on their own mines. The rebels did not bother to make maps.

It was not for nothing that the Russians called it a ‘war of mines’: Afghanistan remains littered with mines sown by all parties both to the Soviet war and to the civil war which followed. There are still casualties as old mines are set off by children playing and by peasants working their fields.

The mujahedin avoided pitched battles and struck from ambush where they had the advantage. Occasionally they went further, attacked garrisons and airbases, and tried towards the end of the war to capture towns. But the Soviet convoys went on running, the main roads remained open, and no town of any consequence fell to the mujahedin while the Russians were still in Afghanistan.

For their part the Russians raided villages suspected of harbouring rebels, struck into the mountains to destroy their bases and disperse their men, mounted counter-ambushes, and mined the routes along which the mujahedin moved. Their operations were supported by transport and battle helicopters, by artillery, by fighter bombers under the command of the 40th Army, and by long-range bombers from the Soviet Union. Quite junior officers – lieutenants and captains in charge of guard posts – could call down artillery support if they needed it. The inevitable result was a heavy loss of life and property among the civilian population.

But to confront the mujahedin and their unorthodox methods of fighting effectively, special skills and special tactics and special troops were needed, troops that could operate in the mountains to ambush and counter-ambush the guerrilla bands, and to cut the routes taken by their caravans. Although the ordinary motor-rifle units took regular part in such operations, the main brunt of the fighting inevitably fell on the elite special and parachute units, and on the reconnaissance battalions and companies in the motor-rifle divisions and regiments. These troops fought very effectively, both in the high mountains and in the green zone. They made up some 20 per cent of the total strength of the 40th Army: according to some calculations, of the 133 battalions in the 40th Army, only fifty-one took part regularly in operations. The rest spent much of their time in their garrisons or escorting convoys.

In addition to these regular army units there were a number of special forces teams set up by the GRU, the KGB, and the Ministry of the Interior. Of these the GRU special forces teams were the most substantial. A ‘special forces group’ was set up in 1985 which eventually consisted of two brigades, each of eight battalions, an independent company, an independent reconnaissance battalion, four regimental reconnaissance companies, nine reconnaissance platoons, and thirteen other units, a total of three thousand men in all. The 15th Brigade was stationed in Jalalabad and the 22nd Brigade in Asadabad in Kunar province on the Pakistani border. The 22nd Brigade was pulled out in the summer of 1988 as the 40th Army began its withdrawal. The 15th Brigade remained behind to cover the final stage of the withdrawal in February 1989.

The main purpose of the GRU special forces units was to block the supply routes of the mujahedin through the mountains. They acquired a formidable reputation as they became increasingly well trained and equipped to fight their elusive enemy. Enduring extreme heat and cold in the harsh Afghan climate, suffering from altitude sickness in the high mountains, backed by helicopters and attack aircraft, they ambushed the guerrillas or were ambushed in their turn, and they did what they could to stop the caravans with military supplies streaming in from CIA and Pakistani bases across the frontier. They achieved some impressive results: in one action in May 1987 they destroyed a large caravan, killed 187 mujahedin, and captured a considerable amount of equipment and ammunition. But in spite of all their efforts, and those of the other elite troops, they succeeded in intercepting barely 15–20 per cent of the mujahedin caravans. No more than the mujahedin did they succeed in their prime purpose: to block their enemies’ supply routes.


Communist military advisors with MPLA troops in Angola, 1983.

Cuban soldiers, veterans of Cuito Cuanavale.

The MPLA government and Cuban troops had control over all southern cities by 1977, but roads in the south faced repeated UNITA attacks. Savimbi expressed his willingness for rapprochement with the MPLA and the formation of a unity, socialist government, but he insisted on Cuban withdrawal first. “The real enemy is Cuban colonialism,” Savimbi told reporters, warning, “The Cubans have taken over the country, but sooner or later they will suffer their own Vietnam in Angola.” MPLA and Cuban troops used flame throwers, bulldozers, and planes with napalm to destroy villages in a 2.6-kilometre-wide (1.6 mi) area along the Angola-Namibia border. Only women and children passed through this area, “Castro Corridor,” because MPLA troops had shot all males ten years of age or older to prevent them from joining the UNITA. The napalm killed cattle to feed government troops and to retaliate against UNITA sympathizers. A number of civilians fled from their homes; 10,000 going south to Namibia and 16,000 east to Zambia, where they lived in refugee camps.

Angola suffered from a prolonged civil war in the years following its independence in 1975. The seeds of this conflict, which would devastate much of the country, were sown during the independence struggle, which had been launched against the Portuguese in 1961. In 1956, various radical groups including the communists, had formed the Movimento Popular para a Libertação de Angola (MPLA)/Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola under the leadership of Agostinho Neto. In 1966, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA)/National Union for the Total Independence of Angola was formed under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi. These two movements were to become rivals for power during the struggle against the Portuguese and after independence in 1975.

The Portuguese

In January 1961, the Portuguese army in Angola embarked upon maneuvers to overawe part of the rural population, which was becoming restless; the army said that only a few people had been killed, although the nationalists claimed that 10,000 met their deaths. The MPLA dated the beginning of the struggle against the Portuguese from 4 February 1961, when violence erupted in Luanda, and by April of that year the struggle in Angola had become an issue at the United Nations. During the 15 years of warfare that followed, many thousands of Angolans were killed or maimed as the Portuguese fought to hold onto their richest African possession. By 1974, however, they were losing their African wars and following the April Revolution in Lisbon which overthrew the Caetano government and brought General Antonio de Spinola to power, the decision was made to withdraw from Africa and to stop fighting wars, which by then, Portugal knew it could not win. As the Portuguese prepared to withdraw, the bitter rivalries which existed between the liberation movements, based partly on ethnic and geographic divisions, partly on ideology, and partly on leadership ambitions, came to the fore and threatened to plunge Angola into a post-independence civil war. A third movement, apart from Neto’s MPLA and Savimbi’s UNITA, was Holden Roberto’s Frente Nacional da Libertação de Angola (FNLA)/National Front for the Liberation of Angola, but this was soon to collapse and disintegrate.

A sort of unity was achieved in January 1975 after the three movements had met in Nairobi in the hope of presenting a united front to the departing Portuguese. But though a transitional government was formed at the end of January, it soon fell apart and by June 1975, fighting between the three movements had spread to the capital, Luanda. By August there was fighting in most parts of the country. When, on 19 September 1975, Portugal announced that it would withdraw all its troops by 11 November, UNITA and the FNLA announced they would establish a common government in Huambo until they had driven the MPLA from Luanda. On 11 November 1975, the MPLA proclaimed the People’s Republic of Angola with Neto as president, while at Ambriz the FNLA and UNITA proclaimed the Popular and Democratic Republic of Angola with Roberto as president.

Even at this stage, as the year drew to its close and the Portuguese departed, the coming civil war was overshadowed by foreign interventions and Cold War considerations. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) hastened to provide the MPLA with military equipment and airlifted 16,000 Cuban troops into the country to support the MPLA government, which at this time controlled 12 of 15 provinces. France supported UNITA, which was assisting the Frente da Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda (FLEC)/Liberation Front for the Cabinda Enclave, since Cabinda was sandwiched between the two French-speaking countries of Congo (Brazzaville) and Zaire. South Africa was preparing to invade Angola from Namibia in the south to oppose a Marxist regime. Meanwhile, the Portuguese settlers saw no future for themselves in Angola and left in large numbers, crippling the workings of the economy in the process. The disagreements between the liberation movements were a mixture: opposition to the Marxism of the MPLA by the FNLA and UNITA, and also differences arising out of regional ethnic loyalties. But primarily they were factional—about post-independence power and who was to wield it. The civil war, which got under way, was to be both prolonged and complicated by external support for the different factions. Part of this support was motivated by the regional considerations of Angola’s neighbors (Zaire, Zambia, and South Africa through Namibia) and part by Cold War considerations, which would involve the People’s Republic of China (briefly), the United States, the USSR, and Cuba. President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu of Zaire began by supporting the FNLA, and when it disintegrated he transferred his support to UNITA. The MPLA relied upon Soviet and Cuban support. UNITA was to receive support from the United States, channeled through Zaire by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and South Africa, whose main aim was to destabilize a potentially powerful socialist or Marxist state to the north of Namibia, which it then controlled. The Ford Foundation lobbied Congress to provide $81 million in aid to Zaire, part of it to be used to fund mercenaries to fight against the MPLA, while the departing Portuguese provided $60 million in 1975 for the anti-MPLA factions. As a result of these interventions, what might otherwise have been a more limited civil war for post-independence power became instead inextricably bound up with the Cold War.

Civil War: First Phase (1975–80)

While the newly proclaimed MPLA government was recognized by the Communists, the Huambo (FNLA-UNITA) government received only assistance from the United States, South Africa, Zaire, and Zambia but not recognition. In December 1975, the fragile alliance between the FNLA and UNITA collapsed and after heavy fighting the FNLA was driven from Huambo and then from other strongholds by UNITA. In October 1975, as violence in Angola escalated, South Africa sent troops in support of the FNLA and UNITA. A column of 1,500 to 2,000 South African troops moved up the Angolan coast and, by 26 October, had driven the MPLA from Lubango; by the first week of November it had occupied Lobito and then, on 12 November, it took Novo Redondo, which was 160 kilometers north of Lobito. The USSR responded to this South African advance with a massive arms buildup for the MPLA, sending 27 shiploads of arms and between 30 and 40 cargo planes to Luanda to provide T54 and T34 tanks and 12 MiG-21s. By then Cuban troops had also been flown into Angola. The South African advance into Angola persuaded important African states such as Nigeria and Tanzania to recognize the MPLA government. Even so, the special Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit of January 1976 was split with 22 states recognizing the MPLA government, 22 arguing for a government of national unity and two—Ethiopia and Uganda—abstaining. South Africa failed to obtain western (meaning U.S.) support for its intervention and on 4 February 1976 pulled its forces back, although retaining positions 80 kilometers inside Angola to establish a cordon north of the Namibian border. This debacle for South Africa was largely caused by the prevalent mood in the United States, since Washington, in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, was not prepared to become involved in a war in Africa with its own troops on the ground.

The position of the MPLA government was greatly strengthened when, on 2 February, 25 African states had recognized it (a simple majority) and it was able to take its seat in the OAU. By late February, 70 states had recognized the MPLA government. Meanwhile, the government in Luanda had launched its own offensive against the FNLA and by mid-February 1976 had overrun most of the FNLA positions in the north of the country. It also launched a second campaign against UNITA strongholds in the south of the country and these too were overrun. The FNLA and UNITA then turned to guerrilla tactics. President Neto and the MPLA now appeared to have won the post-independence succession struggle although he retained the services of the Cuban troops, who would remain in the country until 1991. In June 1976, the government put on a show trial of captured western mercenaries of whom nine were Britons, three Americans, and one Irish: four were executed and the rest sentenced to long prison terms. In March 1976, the South Africans withdrew completely from Angola following mediation by Andrei Gromyko of the USSR and James Callaghan of Great Britain.

UNITA now began to turn itself into an effective guerrilla force and, for example, mounted attacks upon the Benguela Railway. Fighting between government forces and UNITA became severe during the last months of 1976. Luso, a focus of fighting, was reduced to a ghost town. Despite retreating from Angola in 1976, South Africa’s policy for the next decade would be to support UNITA as part of its general destabilization of independent black states on its borders. By the end of 1976, there were an estimated 18,000 Cuban troops in Angola and Neto had increased the size of the MPLA army to 50,000. During 1977, with the collapse of the FNLA, UNITA became the principal opponent of the Luanda government while, to oblige its new South African ally, it declared war on the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which operated from bases in southern Angola. By 1979, the MPLA army had greatly improved its efficiency with Soviet arms and the support on the ground of the Cuban troops. During the years 1977 to 1980, UNITA was on the defensive, with Zaire temporarily refusing it base facilities and South Africa reducing the level of its support.

Civil War: Second Phase (1980–90)

UNITA began to achieve a comeback in the 1980s; in August 1980 it sabotaged oil storage tanks at Lobito. In 1981, South Africa increased its raids into southern Angola, ostensibly in pursuit of SWAPO, but in fact and more often to do damage to the MPLA position. The United States declared it would not recognize the MPLA government and the Senate then repealed its ban on providing aid to UNITA. From this time on, UNITA was to receive varying amounts of U.S. aid through Zaire. Savimbi was now able to claim that UNITA was receiving aid from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire. Late in 1981, Savimbi visited Washington and in 1982, he achieved a diplomatic breakthrough when he persuaded the United States to tie any agreement with the MPLA to the withdrawal of Cuban troops, a line that suited both Washington and Pretoria. Fidel Castro, however, announced that Cuban troops would remain in Angola until South Africa ceased its attacks and had withdrawn from Namibia. By this time South Africa was occupying 125,000 square kilometers of Angolan territory, while its incursions into Angola had become a regular activity for the South African Defence Force (SADF).

The war intensified during 1983, with South African forces damaging the Lomaum Dam on the Benguela to cause intensive flooding in three provinces. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos (who had succeeded Neto on his death in 1979) visited Moscow in 1983 to be assured by the new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, that Soviet support for his government would continue. During 1984, Savimbi called for a government of national unity and threatened to attack cities if he was ignored (which he was). In July 1984, UNITA cut an oil pipeline in Cabinda and took European hostages including a Briton, in the hope of forcing London to deal directly with UNITA. About 100,000 people were displaced during the year as a result of the UNITA offensive. By 1985, two wars had become intertwined: that of the MPLA government against UNITA, and that of SWAPO against South Africa, which also assisted Savimbi in his fight against the government. When in January 1986, Savimbi again visited Washington, he was received by the State Department as an important political figure. In May the Angolan government launched a massive campaign against UNITA resulting in thousands of refugees flooding into Zambia and devastation in central Angola. In September 1986, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 229 to 189 to provide UNITA with $15 million to help stem Soviet expansion in Africa. In 1987, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker began his long period of mediation to bring an end to the Angola/Namibia crisis, for by that time South Africa no longer denied that its forces were in Angola to help UNITA. In mid-November 1987, South Africa’s General Jannie Geldehuys admitted that South African forces had intervened on the side of UNITA in a developing battle near the southeastern town of Cuito Cuanavale while Soviet advisers and Cuban troops were supporting the MPLA forces.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale (1987–88) was to prove a turning point: it was a large-scale conventional battle fought for control of the strategic town which dominated the southeastern part of the country (rather than guerrilla warfare), and Angolan airpower with Cuban help became a real threat to South African air superiority for the first time. Both sides made big claims about casualties inflicted upon the enemy, but what did become clear was the extent of South Africa’s involvement and the fact that it was unable to turn the tide of battle in favor of UNITA. The battle attracted increasing international attention, and Nigeria and other African countries offered to send peacekeeping forces to Angola. On 15 November 1987, President dos Santos claimed that there were 3,000 South African troops and 70 armored vehicles in Angola as well as a further 30,000 South African troops along the Namibian border. By mid-January 1988, the South African force had been increased to 6,000 men, with artillery and armored vehicles taking part in the siege of Cuito Cuanavale. Most of the population of 6,500 had been evacuated and MPLA planes were making daily sorties against the encircling troops. Cuito Cuanavale formed part of a line of towns from Namibe on the coast to Lumbala near Zambia, which controlled the Soviet radar system that monitored South African air activity. It was also the government’s most southerly base and essential for mounting air attacks upon UNITA headquarters at Jambe. Heavy casualties were sustained on both sides and the government forces, backed by an estimated 40,000 Cubans by then, were showing new confidence in facing the South Africans. By mid-February 1988, the South African forces had been increased to 7,000. At the same time, the South African air force was suffering losses and no longer enjoyed air superiority; the Soviet air defense system (radar) had altered the balance. By the end of the month, Cuito Cuanavale had become one of the largest set-piece battles in Africa since World War II. Its importance was as much psychological as military since it demonstrated, at last, that South Africa was not invincible and that years of warfare had created some extremely tough soldiers able to stand up to the South African military juggernaut. By March the MPLA armed forces, Forcas Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola (FAPLA), contained 8,000 South African troops and claimed to have shot down 40 South African planes. By June 1988, it was clear that the South African effort to take Cuito Cuanavale had failed while the presence of Cuban forces along the Namibian border demonstrated South Africa’s increasing vulnerability. In addition, Pretoria was fearful of the political effect at home of some 60 white deaths in the Angolan war. Even so, Savimbi visited Washington in June and met President Ronald Reagan who promised his continued backing for UNITA. The stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale and Pretoria’s fear that its forces would be trapped and defeated there undoubtedly helped the Chester Crocker peace process.


Decommissioned UNITA BMP-1 and BM-21 Grads at an assembly point.

Map of SWAPO and South African operations, 1981–1984.

The Peace Process (1988–90)

Angola was finally ready to accept linkage (the term applied to the U.S. policy of linking independence for Namibia to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola) and proposed a timed withdrawal of its Cuban allies in return for independence for Namibia, a withdrawal of South African forces from Angola, and an end to South African and U.S. support for UNITA. Cuba and the USSR now accepted linkage and George Shultz, the U.S. secretary of state, and Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, agreed to work together. A series of peace meetings was held throughout 1988 in different venues including London, Brazzaville, Lisbon, Moscow, Cairo, New York, and then Brazzaville again, where an agreement was finally reached at the end of the year. The terms of the December 1988 Brazzaville Protocols were as follows: Cuba would withdraw its (by then) 50,000 troops over 27 months; South Africa would implement UN Resolution 435 in Namibia during 1989 to lead to independence in 1990; a commission composed of representatives from the United States, the USSR, Cuba, Angola, and South Africa would arbitrate complaints over implementation; and the African National Congress (ANC) would withdraw its estimated 10,000 cadres from Angola. The final signing of the agreement took place in New York on 22 December 1988. The Namibian peace process began on 1 April 1989, and Namibia became independent on 21 March 1990; all the Cuban troops had been withdrawn as agreed by July 1991.

However, the deal did not also bring an end to the war between the Angolan government and UNITA, and the United States insisted that its continuing aid to UNITA was a separate issue. In 1989, following the Brazzaville agreement, the MPLA government offered an amnesty to UNITA members, although few took advantage of it. President dos Santos also suggested that the United States should recognize his government, but Washington linked recognition to a settlement between the MPLA and UNITA. The war continued throughout 1989, but though UNITA controlled more territory than the government, this did not include any towns. It was then estimated that UNITA had 40,000 trained guerrillas and 30,000 irregulars. The government, on the other hand, had 160 MiGs, helicopter gunships, and an army of 50,000 as well as 50,000 reservists; it also controlled the Cabinda enclave and therefore the oil industry, which yielded an income of $2 billion a year. Various attempts were made by African governments to bring the two sides together and end the war, but these efforts were hardly helped when the United States increased its aid to UNITA in 1990 to $80 million.

Results of the Civil War to 1990

By 1990, after 15 years of civil war, which had been preceded by 15 years of struggle against the Portuguese, Angola had been devastated: towns and infrastructure had been destroyed and revenues were reduced to a trickle while almost no economic development had taken place. In 1986 it was estimated that 600,000 Angolans had been displaced out of a population of 8.5 million, and three years later a further 400,000 had become refugees outside Angola. A country which has the capacity to be a substantial food exporter was importing 50 percent of its requirements and needed UN food aid. About 20,000 people had lost limbs, mainly through land mines, which was the highest ratio to population in the world. External interventions had ensured that the civil war was both more prolonged and more devastating than it would otherwise have been, as UNITA could not have survived as a fighting force without the backing of the United States and South Africa. The MPLA government had received massive military assistance (possibly worth $2 billion over two years) from the USSR, with up to 1,000 Soviet advisers and 50,000 Cuban troops in the country at the end of the 1980s. U.S. assistance to UNITA was at the rate of $45 million in 1989 and $80 million in 1990 and South African assistance over the 1980s was reckoned at $160 million. The Cubans may have suffered as many as 10,000 dead over the years 1975–1990, though they did not publish any figures. By September 1989, possibly 300,000 Angolans had been killed in the conflict, while $12 billion worth of destruction had been inflicted on the country.

The Conflict Continues (1992–2002)

A tentative peace was negotiated between the two sides in December 1990 and this was followed by talks in Portugal in February and April 1991, leading to the initialing of an agreement on 1 May. This peace accord was signed on 31 May in Lisbon. The ceremony was attended by the U.S. secretary of state, Jam Baker, and the Soviet foreign minister, Aleksander Bessmertmykh, and it was agreed that the United States, the USSR, and the United Nations should monitor the cease-fire and that elections would be held late in 1992. The UN, thereupon, established the United Nations Angola Verification Mission (UNAVEM) to monitor the cease-fire until after the elections. Registration for the elections took place between May and August 1992; the new Assembly was to have 223 seats and the country would be renamed the Republic of Angola. The elections were held over 29–30 September 1992, with the MPLA winning 128 seats and UNITA 71. Neither dos Santos nor Savimbi received 50 percent of the presidential vote, so a runoff was needed. However, Savimbi claimed that the elections were fraudulent and returned to the bush to resume the war, which he did on 30 October, and by the end of November, his forces controlled two-thirds of the country. When the new Assembly convened, the UNITA members did not take their seats.

In January 1993, government forces launched an offensive to drive UNITA out of the towns it had seized; the UN representative in Angola, Margaret Anstee, said that there was “full-scale civil war” again and that the UN mandate was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The renewed fighting, if anything, was more savage than previously, and though the government had some early successes, UNITA then counterattacked and captured Soyo, the northern oil town, and managed to cut Luanda’s water supply. However, UNITA had done itself great damage by returning to the bush and refusing to accept the election results, for Washington finally abandoned its long-standing support for UNITA and said its resumption of the use of force was unacceptable. Portugal, the United States, and Russia each claimed that the 1992 elections had been free and fair and on 12 March 1993, the UN Security Council passed a resolution placing full responsibility upon UNITA for the renewed fighting. The Council insisted that UNITA return to the peace process by 30 April. On 25 March, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed a joint resolution condemning UNITA and calling for U.S. recognition of the Angolan (MPLA) government. Yet, despite mounting international pressure and the vital change of U.S. policy, UNITA continued the war. On 2 June 1993, the United Nations extended the UNAVEM II mandate for Angola; by that time an estimated two million Angolans were suffering from hunger, drought, or disease. On 21 June, the United States and Angola established full diplomatic relations. In July 1993, the UN representative Alioune Blondin Beye claimed that more than 1,000 people a day were dying from the direct and indirect results of the war. On 9 August, Britain lifted the arms embargo, which it had enforced against Angola since 1975, on the grounds that the government had a “legitimate right to self-defence,” and in September, the United Nations implemented a mandatory oil and arms embargo against UNITA. Finally, on 6 October 1993, in response to these pressures, UNITA said it would accept the election results of 1992, and talks between UNITA and UNAVEM, with Portugal, Russia, and the United States in attendance as observers, began in Lusaka. During this “second” war from October 1992 to October 1993, an estimated 100,000 Angolans had perished. On 9 November 1993, Angola’s deputy foreign minister, Joao Bernardo Miranda, claimed that the daily death toll that year had reached 2,000, while in February 1994 the United Nations claimed that three million Angolans were in urgent need of assistance.

Half a Peace

Peace talks were held during December 1993 and January 1994, while the United Nations extended its mandate to March 1994. On 17 February 1994, the two sides signed a document that listed five principles of reconciliation, and UNITA reaffirmed its acceptance of the September 1992 election results. Essentially 1994 became a year of bargaining—about new presidential elections and what ministerial jobs would be offered to UNITA, which claimed the three key ministries of Defense, Finance, and the Interior. The government refused adamantly to cede control of Huambo province to UNITA, which claimed it as the heartland of the Ovimbundu people from whom came its main support. Although a treaty was signed on 20 November 1994, fighting continued in various regions and the existing antagonisms appeared as great as ever. Given this state of affairs, foreign donors were reluctant to provide much needed funds for rehabilitation, and less than half the $227 million requested for this purpose by the United Nations was forthcoming. Hopes of a lasting peace were set back throughout the year as UNITA forces repeatedly resumed fighting. During 1995 this state of “on-off” peace continued, with both sides accusing the other of bad faith. Presidents Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe urged dos Santos not to pursue his military successes against UNITA; at the same time, the guarantee of a role in the country’s government persuaded UNITA to be more cooperative.

The country as a whole, meanwhile, faced formidable problems. In 1995, the World Food Programme (WFP) earmarked $65 million of aid for 1.2 million displaced persons, such as, refugees and demobbed soldiers. On 8 February 1995, the UN Security Council resolved to send a peacekeeping force of 3,000 to Angola. One of the worst problems facing the country was the need to find and destroy an estimated 26 million land mines. Savimbi finally agreed to meet dos Santos and was supported in his decision by the eighth ordinary Congress of UNITA, which also endorsed the peace of November 1994. The National Assembly created two vice-presidential posts, one of which would be filled by Savimbi, once he had demobilized his army. It was agreed that UNITA should now simply become a political party. Savimbi accepted these terms, including one of the vice presidencies, and the peacekeeping force was then deployed. However, UNITA remained deeply suspicious of the government’s intentions and called upon the international community not to supply the government with any more arms. It also claimed that the new army (supposedly an amalgam of the two fighting forces) was behaving arrogantly in areas which had formerly been controlled by UNITA. During 1997, the formation of a government of national unity was repeatedly delayed and the main stumbling block, as always, appeared to be Savimbi. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, called for flexibility on both sides; part of the problem lay in the reluctance of UNITA to demobilize its troops, while the UNITA members who had been elected to the National Assembly did not appear to take their seats. The government of national unity and reconciliation had yet to be inaugurated at the end of March 1997 and most of the delay was attributed to Savimbi who insisted that a joint government program be defined before any inauguration took place. The minister of national defense, General Pedro Sebastiao, complained at the quality of the weapons being surrendered by UNITA under the peace terms and the fact that only 6,000 former UNITA guerrillas had been integrated into the Angolan Armed Forces (although 26,000 had been stipulated in the peace agreement).

The Unity and National Reconciliation Government was finally inaugurated on 11 April 1997; it consisted of members of the MPLA-Partido do Trabalho and UNITA, with portfolios allocated according to the November 1994 agreement in Lusaka. Fernando Jose da Franca van Dunem became prime minister. The inauguration ceremony was attended by a number of African leaders including Presidents Frederick Chiluba of Zambia and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, both of whom had assisted in the peace process. But Savimbi refused to attend, claiming that his safety had not been guaranteed. At a sitting of the National Assembly on 9 April, which now included the 70 UNITA members, legislation was passed which granted Savimbi special status as leader of the largest opposition party. On 16 April, the UN Security Council called for the peace process to be completed without delay, including the incorporation of UNITA’s fighters in the Angolan Armed Forces and the normalization of state administration throughout the country. The Security Council once more extended the UNAVEM III mandate to 30 June, but wanted to transform its functions into those of an observer mission as soon as possible. In both May and June 1997, the government moved its forces into largely UNITA-controlled areas, especially Lunda Norte, the diamond producing region, which had produced an income of $600 million a year for UNITA, with the diamonds being smuggled out through Zaire. The new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) Laurent Kabila, however, was not friendly to UNITA, while the MPLA government seemed bent on a new drive to destroy UNITA as a guerrilla force. During the second half of June, UNAVEM III called upon the government to suspend the fighting as it was endangering the peace process.

In July fighting again increased and, according to the government defense minister, General Pedro Sebastiao, UNITA still had 44,000 troops under its command; many of these had deserted their assembly areas while only 11,764 UNITA troops had been integrated into the Angolan Armed Forces. The Assembly condemned UNITA for returning to violence and concealing arms and troops in contravention of the 1994 Lusaka Accord. On 30 June, the mandate of UNAVEM III came to an end; it was replaced by a UN Observer Mission in Angola (UNOMA). On 28 August, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to impose further sanctions on UNITA, unless by 30 September the secretary-general was able to certify that UNITA was moving satisfactorily toward compliance with the Lusaka Accord. On 1 September, a UNITA official confirmed that the party would return to government control all territory still in UNITA hands. On 5 September, on Portuguese Radio, Savimbi said he would demobilize UNITA’s remaining forces and comply with the other outstanding terms of the Lusaka Accord. Reports through September indicated that large quantities of arms were being handed over to the government and that numbers of UNITA troops were handing in their weapons, with the result that, on 30 September, the Security Council delayed the imposition of new sanctions until 31 October. When this date was reached and UNITA had clearly failed to meet the conditions of the Lusaka Protocol, the UN imposed sanctions upon it. The result was a savage renewal of the war by Savimbi and his UNITA forces: this came to be called Angola’s “fourth war.”

On 30 March 1998, the government sent an open letter to the UN claiming that UNITA, with 8,000 well-equipped troops (a figure that was later revised upward of 25,000) was preparing for war. The government blamed UNOMA for its failure to prevent UNITA building up its weapons supply. In June, President dos Santos made a number of trips to gather international support: he concluded an arms deal with Russia, attended the Lusophone summit in Cape Verde to strengthen ties with Portugal and other Lusophone states, and obtained promises of support from members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which at a summit in Luanda on 1 October, called for “a swift and rapid campaign to rid the region of UNITA.” The violence and successful hit and run attacks mounted by UNITA escalated during the second half of 1998. In December the Angolan army launched an all-out attack on UNITA’s principal base of Bailundo, effectively declaring war on UNITA by so doing.

On 17 January 1999, UN Secretary-General Annan told the Security Council that Angola was on the verge of breakdown yet, on 20 February, the Security Council voted unanimously to withdraw the 1,000 strong UNOMA force. UNITA managed to beat off two further attacks upon Bailundo while the UN and other aid agencies were flying in food for the populations of towns, such as, Huambo and Cuito, that were virtually besieged by UNITA and had swollen refugee populations. Renewed heavy fighting by government forces took place in September to capture Bailundo and Andulo; Bailundo finally fell to government forces in mid-October and Andulo in November and on 15 November the MPLA Army Commander claimed that 80 per cent of UNITA’s “conventional” capacity had been disrupted and 15,000 tons of weapons had been seized. On 31 December, President dos Santos broadcast: “The somber circumstances and despair resulting from successive wars and persistent economic decline are changing. The Angolan people are on the brink of a new era of hope.” This statement proved to be more of a hope than a reality for the war went on throughout 2000 and by the end of the year 3.8 million people had been displaced as refugees. UNITA appeared to make a comeback during 2000. There were many allegations of government violence against civilians, including a scorched earth policy in Cuando Cubango and Luanda Sul provinces. In May, the UN Sanctions Committee produced a 54-page report in which it accused President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and President Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso of supporting UNITA. It also pinpointed Rwanda as an important location for gun-running and diamond trading and Libreville in Gabon as a refueling center for planes supplying UNITA and breaking sanctions. The war continued throughout 2001 and both the Angolan government and SADC branded Savimbi a war criminal. Sanctions appeared to be largely ineffective in preventing UNITA obtaining the supplies it needed to carry on the war. From May onward, UNITA was carrying out attacks close to the capital and on civilian targets. In late 2001, there was heavy fighting in the central province of Bie while numbers of refugees were crossing into Zambia and Namibia to escape the fighting.

Jonas Savimbi

The Death of Savimbi

The death of Jonas Savimbi on 22 February 2002 effectively brought the war to an end. He had led UNITA forces against the government from 1975 to 1992; then, on losing the election of the latter year, he had returned the country to warfare in his determination to become head of state. His most likely successor, General Antonio Dembo, was also killed. The government then offered an amnesty to the rebel fighters. A cease-fire was signed in Luanda on 4 April and UNITA soldiers were offered assistance in returning to civilian life. Thereafter, some 50,000 UNITA troops with up to 300,000 family members moved into government-run assembly areas. However, many of these assembly areas lacked sanitation, clean water, food, and medicines, and UNITA claimed that numbers died because of these poor conditions and about 30,000 were estimated to have left the camps and returned to their homes. The death of Savimbi was the key to achieving a peace. Few other wars in Africa had been so dependent upon and driven by the ambitions of one individual. The government then faced the immense task of rebuilding the nation. The infrastructure was devastated, the country was covered with millions of anti-personnel mines, agricultural production had all but ceased in large areas, and four million people had been displaced as a result of the fighting.

Lee’s Last Command I

Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Generals

When Gen. Robert E. Lee established a stalemate in Virginia with the siege of Petersburg, and the indirect siege of Richmond, the heartland of the older south presented the appearance of a continuing existence as the Confederacy. There was an obvious recession from its vast military front of the year before, when the nation had armies in the field from Pennsylvania to the lower Mississippi. But there were no serious indentations on its thousand miles of Atlantic coastline, nor penetrations in its productive access from the ocean to west of the Alleghenies. West of the mountains, the army under Sherman presented the only serious threat from Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico, including stretches in Alabama and Mississippi westward along the Gulf. Though isolated across the Mississippi River a separate domain existed in Texas (ingeniously supplied by trading through Matamoras) and armies operated in the lost lands of Arkansas and Missouri.

In western Georgia, the railroad junction city of Atlanta occupied on its front the equivalent position of Richmond in the East. No armies had previously approached this center, where strong outlying works were built and where Governor Brown promised he could field the thousands of state militia whose votes had saved them from conscription, Military actions of various size radiating out from the Atlanta area gave an impression of military stability to the Confederate West. A brilliant victory by Forrest at Brice’s Crossroads gave Old Bedford in his sphere the quality of invincibility which Lee sustained in his.

This appearance of stability was illusory. In the West there was no general with the prestige nor the diplomacy of Lee, who could gain compromises with the commander in chief and, in extreme emergency, break the barriers of the departmental system. As in Virginia even Lee had been able to circumvent the system only to the extent of fending off disaster and gaining a stalemate, in the West, where the commander in chief ruled supreme, nothing could save the Southern armed forces from the consequences of departmentalization.

This is not to imply that Jefferson Davis’s control of the military establishment and its policy caused the collapse of the extemporized agrarian Confederacy before the might of an industrialized nation four times its size. Libraries are crowded with volumes explaining the reasons why the quickly formed confederation was unable to maintain itself against physical force long enough to be granted its independence. Yet, exhibiting an heroic quality of the spirit to endure physically weakening and mentally discouraging hardships, along with a remarkable ingenuity and inventiveness, its soldiers and citizenry maintained armies in protection of its vital areas in June, 1864. It was in relation to those armies and the remaining key positions that Davis’s operation of his system doomed the Western Confederacy, regardless of what other forces may have been at work.

With the example of the Richmond-Petersburg front before his daily gaze, the obsessed President effected a faithful reproduction of the arrangement at Atlanta. Only minor details were changed, according to the different personalities. Atlanta’s department was sealed off from departments to the east and to the southwest, and Joe Johnston, the commander of the main army, could not obtain troops from adjoining departments to concentrate against the enemy’s main objective.

Within this standard procedure, the irrational element was Davis’s sudden turn to offense for defense-minded Joe Johnston, outnumbered two to one. As Joe Johnston’s reasonable protests were regarded merely as a subordinate’s efforts to thwart the authority of his superior, the General’s request for the one solution to his problem was dismissed as an excuse. But Johnston requested the one move feared by Sherman: Forrest turned loose on the Federal line of supplies.

It happened that the commander of the department to the southwest of Atlanta did not wish to relinquish Forrest. The great cavalry raider could serve better by guarding property in Alabama and Mississippi. Though it was natural for Davis to give departmental stability preference over a strategic objective, the case involving the Department of Alabama and Mississippi was special.

Civilian authorities and newspaper editors joined General Johnston’s appeal for Forrest to operate on Sherman’s communication, and Davis’s back stiffened at the suggestion that those persons knew more than he did. Also the department commander, Major General Dabney Maury, a regulation-style West Pointer, was a gentleman both by birth and act of Congress, while Bedford Forrest, an unlettered ex-slave dealer, was a rough customer who made up his own rules of war as he went along.

It was not, as it has sometimes been made to appear, that Davis missed the native genius for warfare uniquely possessed by Forrest. Davis showed no appreciation of any of the “originals” in the Confederacy, and little interest in accomplishments which did not fit into the system under his control.

Stonewall Jackson was a discovery of Lee, who personally gave that unexpected genius his chance while the commander in chief was preoccupied with Joe Johnston in their 1862 misunderstanding. Outside Davis’s area of concern, semi-autonomous domains were operated by Gorgas in ordnance, General Anderson in the cannon-producing Tredegar Iron Works, and young Dr. McCaw at Chimborazo Hospital, then the world’s largest military hospital and the most advanced of any kind. (The President’s bureaucratic medical director, Dr. Moore, reproached McCaw for negligence in his morning reports during the period when Chimborazo Hospital was achieving the lowest mortality rates in medical history until the sulfa drugs of World War II.)

Almost forgotten in the Navy Department, Secretary Mallory and Matthew Fontaine Maury, the oceanographer, were very imaginative in concepts and inventive in technology. The Confederate naval forces introduced the first ironclad warship, the first combat submarine, were extremely advanced in the use of underwater torpedoes and highly original in the production of the ram (notably the Arkansas and the Albemarle), designed to nullify the superior numbers and equipment of the United States naval forces.

This type of man, who recognized the need of new concepts and new methods adapted to the Confederacy’s specific circumstances, appeared in numbers and in a diversity of fields surprising in an essentially agricultural people fighting for an anachronistic culture. As their achievements were not interrelated in a single policy, the special gifts of these men were as wasted in their areas as was Forrest’s in the West. The misuse of Old Bedford was more dramatic because it was a focus of attention during a decisive campaign.

Jefferson Davis was acting according to form in restricting the Confederacy’s greatest raiding force to fending off enemy cavalry dispatched specifically for the purpose of keeping Forrest from Sherman’s lines of communication; and he merely repeated his pattern in Virginia when he refused to recognize a cause-and-effect strategy. The effect in Georgia was to permit Sherman to proceed to Atlanta untroubled by disruption to his supplies.

Since even Sherman, with his physical superiority, could not successfully attack dug-in troops at that stage of defensive warfare, Johnston executed an extremely skillful retreat and held the cautious enemy to a snail’s pace. However, by the time he reached the environs of Atlanta without striking an offensive blow, he was ruined with the President.

It is true that Johnston was secretive and evasive with his superior. Though Johnston talked then and later vaguely of his “plans,” he could only give ground, conserve his army, and hope for an opening in which he could deliver a counterstroke. The mutuality of the loathing between the two former West Point college mates made it impossible for Johnston to confide this to the President.

Someone should have told Davis that this was not the time to try to make up for all the lost opportunities of the past. A small army had been diverted from operations in the Lower South to help Sheridan drive Jubal Early out of the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. This not only helped stabilize the military situation in the Lower South but reduced Sherman’s supply of the replacements for losses which Grant had drawn upon. Of all times to hold on, this was it.

But Davis had seized upon the idea of an offensive as the one cure, and to get to the bottom of the matter with the recalcitrant Johnston, he sent Braxton Bragg to Atlanta. Bragg, of course, told the President what he wanted to hear, and General Joseph E. Johnston joined Harvey Hill in the growing legion of generals without commands.

Against Lee’s advice, Davis then appointed combative John Hood, whose skill at maneuvering for personal advancement exceeded both his military abilities and good judgment. Hood was a fine fighter of troops and a better soldier than his disastrous career as army commander would indicate. However, having won the position of army commander on the understanding that Davis’s offensive would be mounted, Hood was precommitted to attack a superior force.

It was not that Hood’s offensive around Atlanta was poorly conceived. As even Grant’s mighty hosts showed in Virginia, the times in the war were unfavorable for offense against an alert, determined enemy. Ten days after Hood’s appointment on July 18th, the poor, doomed men of the Army of Tennessee had attacked themselves out of Sherman’s path to Atlanta. The siege lasted little more than one month, and on September 2nd Sherman’s triumphant army marched into the half-wrecked city.

The illusory stability in the Lower South was immediately exposed. With the fall of Atlanta the bottom dropped out of the Confederate West. What had seemed in early July to be a broad front of Confederate resistance was suddenly reduced to the single hold-out of Lee.

To the North, the good news of Atlanta’s fall in early September obliterated the already dimming memory of Grant’s catastrophic losses back in June. Within three weeks more, before the end of September, the army collected under Sheridan in the Valley finally overran Jubal Early’s little force.

All the enemies accumulated by bitter Old Jube blamed him for the debacle. With a simple devotion not suggested by his harshness to others, Early accepted the calumny rather than excuse himself on the grounds of the disparity between his force and the enemy’s. After carrying the war to the enemy for three months, at the end he had little more than ten thousand men of all arms against close to fifty thousand under Sheridan.

Such personal details, unknown to either side, had no relation to the effect of the loss of the Shenandoah Valley. Though the South tried to explain away the disaster by making Jubal Early the goat, none could escape the costly loss of the supply center nor the moral effect of this defeat in the region associated with Stonewall Jackson’s great days. In the North, the sweeping aside of Early’s remnants redounded to the glory of Sheridan, who was finally able to enjoy an uninterrupted spree in the destruction of personal property. By then, with the war suddenly, or so it seemed, contracted to a single siege, obviously no Democratic peace party had a chance in the November elections. The Lincoln Administration would be supported to the finish, and the end did not come mercifully.

With Sherman in Atlanta and the Confederate forces outside, Hood occupied the Federals until mid-November. Then a concentration of Federal forces formed an army to contain Hood’s troops, while Sherman, after burning Atlanta, turned loose his soldiers on a march of pillage and destruction across Georgia to the port of Savannah. Hogs, chickens, milk cows were slaughtered, horses taken and barns burned. Family stores of bacon and corn meal were rooted out of hiding places and, if the women protested or the officer in charge of the raiding felt porky, the house was burned. By Christmas, when Savannah was occupied, Hood had wrecked the Army of Tennessee at Nashville, and the ragged, starving survivors were retreating into Mississippi.

In February, 1865, Sherman’s army, with the men then hardened by vandalism into a mob, started northward through South Carolina with the self-declared purpose of vengeance on the breeding ground of secession. The soldiers were allowed full license to loot, and they raged like hoodlums through private homes, taking jewelry, silver, whatever struck their fancy. Home-burnings became more commonplace until the state capital at Columbia was reached, on February 17th, and this city was, according to Sherman, “totally burned.” On the same day the ante-bellum, cosmopolitan planters’ paradise of Charleston was entered, bringing to an end its four-year-siege from the harbor.

The month before, Fort Fisher, guarding the approach to Wilmington, North Carolina, had fallen to an amphibious attack. Whiting, who had failed in the field with Beauregard at Petersburg, gave his life in leading an inspired defense of the fort strengthened by his engineering skill. Braxton Bragg, with no functions left as Military Advisor to the President, was officially in command of the department, with headquarters at Wilmington. On February 22nd, five days after Charleston was occupied, Wilmington was entered, and the last port on the Atlantic was closed. The Confederacy was isolated from the world.

After that, the pace to the finish was accelerated. On land Sherman started northward again, entering North Carolina. Another army started eastward from the coast. Cavalry raiders struck in from the West, terrorizing isolated families and running off stock. Joe Johnston was plucked from exile and given command of a heterogeneous collection of troops, including remnants of Hood’s army, assembled in North Carolina in Sherman’s fiery path. This force “melted away,” Johnston said, before his eyes. At every nightfall men simply walked off, the artillerists taking their personally owned mounts, to get home and look after their families.

Scattered fighting continued in stretches of the Lower South, and the small empire in Texas held on to its lonely existence. But the core of the Confederacy, as it existed in mid-June when Lee set his army to withstand the siege, had shrunk to the two hundred inland miles between Grant’s and Sherman’s armies.

By March, the Richmond-Petersburg fort had become an island, with its lines extended to more than thirty miles. Finally the lines were stretched too far for the declining army to man the works. The masses of the enemy poured over in waves and at last, eleven months after the campaign had begun, Lee was forced into the open.

He had nowhere to go and nothing to go with. When his survivors escaped from the overrun lines, Richmond was uncovered. Troops of Weitzel’s command, established in a permanent fine north of the James River, marched into the burning city, with the bands of a Negro division playing “The Year of Jubilee.”

The evacuation of Richmond removed the last conceivable justification for Lee’s army to remain in the field. Davis, however, fled the capital into some private world of his own, where he intended to carry on the resistance indefinitely.

The Civil War Trust

Vietnam: The 1972 Easter Offensive

The Nguyen Hue Offensive of 1972

Before the Communist offensive in 1975, the ARVN, with a total of about 1 million men, consisted of 11 infantry divisions, one airborne division, one marine division, 15 Ranger groups, 66 artillery battalions, four armored brigades, and various combat support units. The Air Force had four air divisions with 1,000 aircraft and 800 helicopters, totaling 40,000 men. The Navy had 39,000 men and was equipped with 1,600 vessels of all sizes organized into one Sea Task Force and numerous riverine squadrons.

After the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which the VC suffered heavy losses, the North Vietnamese Army brought troops from the North to replenish the depleted VC units or to replace them entirely. By 1972, it was estimated that 75 percent of the soldiers in VC units came from North Vietnam. At that time, the NVA/VC forces in the South amounted to approximately 300,000 men, consisting of 200,000 regular troops and 100,000 local forces. The main regular force consisted of 20 infantry divisions plus various combat support units.

Thus, after the withdrawal of US and allied (South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand) forces under the Vietnamization program beginning in 1971, the ARVN faced the NVA from a presumed position of strength – outnumbering Communist forces roughly three to one. However, in reality the situation was much more precarious, for accepted wisdom contends that government forces must achieve at least a ten-to-one ratio to be able to defeat an insurgency. This is because the greatest portion of that force could not be used to face the insurgents, but instead would be used to protect the populated areas and to safeguard key logistical installations, airports, bridges, and lines of communication.

It is remarkable that the ARVN, under heavy odds, had almost won the war toward the end of 1971. After having destroyed, in tandem with their American allies, more than half of the VC’s regular forces during the Tet Offensive, the ARVN rooted out the VC’s political and administrative infrastructure in the hamlets and villages of South Vietnam. It is more remarkable that this same army, with pivotal American air support, held its ground and defeated the NVA’s multi-division Easter Offensive in 1972, achieving perhaps the biggest single victory of either the Indochina War or the Vietnam War.

It was indeed the 1972 Easter Offensive that served as the best indicator of the ARVN’s potential and the way forward to victory in the Vietnam War. The conflict had changed fundamentally since the beginning of Vietnamization. American combat forces were, in the main, gone from the conflict, leaving the ARVN to face both the irregular war in the countryside and the big-unit war of the North Vietnamese. Though American troops were leaving, their massive air support remained behind to work in tandem with their South Vietnamese allies. It was to be a fruitful partnership, American firepower and economic support and South Vietnamese manpower, a partnership that would prove well nigh unstoppable.

For their part, the NVA/VC would no longer choose to run and hide in their cross-border sanctuaries. Instead, Hanoi decided to launch the 1972 Great Offensive to capture SVN by force. In lieu of continuing the traditional Communist strategy of guerrilla warfare culminating in a combination of conventional warfare and popular uprising to overthrow the South Vietnamese government, NVN decided to literally “burn the stage” (đốt giai đoạn in Vietnamese) by simultaneously launching multidivisional assaults on three fronts: Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces in MRI, Kontum province in MRII, and Binh Long province in MRIII. According to the Communists’ plans, if these offensives proved successful, Hanoi would use these new bases as a springboard for the final conquest of SVN.

On the northern front, the attack began on March 30, 1972. After heavy artillery preparations on the ARVN’s 3rd Division’s positions, the NVA’s crack divisions, 304, 308, and 324B, supported by one artillery division and two armored regiments, crossed the Ben Hai River, which separated the two Vietnams under the 1954 Geneva Accords. This major offensive coincided with the arrival of the first seasonal monsoon storm, which prevented tactical air support to the defending units.

At the time of the attack, the ARVN’s regular forces in Quang Tri province consisted of the 3rd Infantry Division reinforced with the 147th Marine Brigade, the 5th Ranger Group, and the 1st Armored Brigade. The 3rd Division was the ARVN’s youngest division. The majority of its soldiers were deserters, draft dodgers, and other undesirable elements who had been sent to the northernmost province of SVN as a punishment. It was the fate of this division to receive the brunt of the NVA’s bloodiest offensive of both the Indochina and the Vietnam wars.

Under heavy pressure, the 3rd Division, outgunned and outnumbered, had to fall back, first to Dong Ha and then to the next line of defense south of the My Chanh River. This was defended by the Airborne Division (minus one brigade) and one Marine brigade.

During the month of May, the situation was stabilized along the My Chanh River. NVA/VC troops had to stop to await resupply. The weather had improved, and tactical air support and B-52 sorties had taken a heavy toll. In early July, the Airborne and Marine divisions, refurbished and re-equipped, crossed the My Chanh River abreast, to launch the counterattack to recapture the city of Quang Tri. Although heavily outnumbered – by that time, the NVA’s order of battle consisted of the 304th, 308th, 312th, 320th, and 325th divisions – the Airborne on the west of RN1 and the Marine Division on the east, supported by US airpower, had caught the North Vietnamese off balance and quickly regained some strategic terrain north of My Chanh.

Differing from many actions earlier in the war, in 1972 the NVA chose to fight hard to retain their gains and resisted tenaciously. On the night of September 14, the 3rd Marine Battalion of the 147th Brigade blew a hole in the southeastern corner of the Quang Tri Citadel. During the night, the Marines fought block by block, and used hand grenades to destroy the last NVA/VC pockets of resistance. Finally, on September 15, after 48 days of uninterrupted fighting, the Vietnamese Marines, like their US counterparts in World War II on Iwo Jima, raised the national flag on the main headquarters of the Citadel and on its surrounding walls.

Concurrently with the offensive in Quang Tri, the NVA launched a powerful attack on Kontum province in MRII, using the NVA’s 2nd and 10th divisions as the main attacking force. Meanwhile, the 3rd Division made a diversionary attack in Binh Dinh coastal province. Brigadier General Ly Tong Ba, the ARVN’s 23rd Division commander, skillfully used his armored reserve task force to destroy the NVA’s attacking forces and evict them from the city of Kontum after hard-fought street combats.

While the “Tri-Thien” (Quang Tri-Thua Thien) theater was directly controlled by Hanoi’s High Command and the offensive in the Central Highlands by the commander of VC’s Military Region V, the attack on Loc Ninh and An Loc in MRIII was directed by nothing less than the Central Office of South Vietnam, Hanoi’s highest political organ in the South.

After the fall of the district town of Loc Ninh (20 kilometers north of the city of An Loc) on April 7, 1972, the ARVN’s Joint General Staff decided to defend An Loc at all costs. If An Loc fell, nothing could stop the NVA’s march into the capital of South Vietnam.

ARVN forces in An Loc originally consisted of the understrength 5th Division, the 3rd Ranger Group, and Binh Long provincial forces. They were later reinforced with the 1st Airborne Brigade and the 81st Airborne Commando Group. These two units were heliborne into an area approximately three kilometers southeast of An Loc, and had to fight off numerous NVA/VC attacks before linking up with the embattled garrison. Total strength of the troops defending An Loc was 6,350 men.

The NVA order of battle consisted of three divisions: the 5th, 7th, and the 9th. These divisions were supported by the 75th Artillery Division, with three artillery and one antiaircraft regiments. Additional combat support units consisted of three tank battalions. The attacking force totaled about 18,000 troops. The 5th and 9th divisions were to take part in the attack of An Loc, while the 7th Division was to destroy the ARVN’s reinforcement units trying to link up with the besieged garrison from the South.

The first attack on An Loc began on April 13. (In Paris that same day, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the chief of the VC delegation at the peace talks, declared that “within the next ten days, An Loc will be proclaimed the capital of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam.” The attack was launched by the 9th Division, supported by elements of a tank battalion. As usual, the assault was preceded by intense artillery preparation. The attacking forces quickly overran the Dong Long Hill and the airstrip located on the northern outskirts of the city, and forced the 8th Regiment and the 3rd Ranger Group to withdraw toward the center of the city. The NVA infantry, however, was stopped by AC-130s (transport aircraft equipped with fast-firing machine-guns) and helicopter gunships. Due to poor coordination between their armored and infantry units, NVA tanks continued to advance into the city without protection.

The first NVA tank was destroyed at the junction of Dinh Tien Hoang and Hung Vuong streets by three young members of the Self-Defense Forces. A PT-16 tank was set on fire in front of the underground bunker of Brigadier General Le Van Hung, 5th Division commander. A total of seven tanks were destroyed during the first attack.

On April 15, the NVA’s 9th Division renewed its attack on An Loc, with the 272nd Regiment in the north and the 271st Regiment in the west. Each of these attacking forces was supported by a tank company. Like the first attack, NVA tanks penetrated deeper into the ARVN’s positions without infantry protection. Five tanks were destroyed inside the city; the attack on the west was blunted before it began. As the 271st Regiment entered Xa Cat plantation, four kilometers west of An Loc, and began to deploy in formation for the final assault, the regiment headquarters and one battalion were hit by a direct B-52 strike. The attack on the western wing was cancelled entirely.

The NVA launched their biggest offensive on An Loc on May 11. The 5th Division conducted the main assault directed to the north and northeast, while the 9th Division attacked the west and south sectors of the garrison. The attack was preceded by an intensive artillery preparation, which lasted three hours.

Despite heavy air support, the situation had become critical by 10:00 am. In the northeast, the NVA reached a point only 500/m from the ARVN’s 5th Division Headquarters. In the west, elements of the 9th Division were stopped 300/m short of the 5th Division Headquarters.

At that time, General Hung ordered the 1st Airborne Brigade to counterattack to stop and destroy the two converging columns, which were dangerously closing in on his command post. The street combats raged all day long, and by nightfall the outcome of this seesaw battle remained uncertain.

The next day, the NVA tried to exploit their successes and widen their gaps by launching a new pincer attack, employing the 272nd Regiment of the 9th Division in the west and the 174th Regiment, 5th Division in the northeast. Both of these columns were supported by elements of a tank company.

With efficient tactical air support, the garrison held its ground and repulsed the NVA assaults. By nightfall, it became apparent that the offensive had lost its momentum and that, like the first two attacks, this one had also failed.

Toward the end of May, most of the North Vietnamese antiaircraft defense system had been destroyed by airpower. By early June, helicopters were able to land in An Loc for resupply and medevac. On June 9, the ARVN’s 21st Division, reinforced with the 15th Regiment, 9th Division, and supported by the 9th Armored Cavalry Regiment, finally linked up with the garrison of An Loc, after two months of uninterrupted murderous combat with the NVA’s 7th Division along Highway 13.

General Paul Vanuxem, a French veteran of the Indochina War, called An Loc the “Verdun of Vietnam.” Sir Robert Thompson, advisor to President Nixon, considered An Loc the biggest victory of the Free World in the post-World War II era. Douglas Pike described An Loc as “the single most important battle in the war.” Critics of the Vietnam War attributed the success of An Loc to US airpower. But General Abrams, the commander of US forces in Vietnam, had a ready answer: “I doubt the fabric of this thing could have been held together without US air,” he told his commanders, “but the thing that had to happen before that is the Vietnamese, some numbers of them, had to stand and fight. If they do not do that, ten times the air we’ve got wouldn’t have stopped them.” The South Vietnamese Army and its people did stand and fight.

In the furious battles of 1972, too often ignored by Western historiography, the ARVN showed what it was capable of when backed by US firepower and economic support.