On September 13, 1759, the British under General James Wolfe (1727-59) achieved a dramatic victory when they scaled the cliffs over the city of Quebec to defeat French forces under Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham (an area named for the farmer who owned the land). During the battle, which lasted less than an hour, Wolfe was fatally wounded. Montcalm also was wounded and died the next day.
The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775. Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) The third war between Austria and a rising Prussia for control over Silesia, the culmination of the long Anglo-French struggle for colonial supremacy, and the last major conflict before the French Revolution to involve all the traditional great powers of Europe. There were three principal theaters of this war. Great Britain helped support Frederick of Prussia in battling Austria, France, and Russia and their allies: British finances helped purchase mercenary troops to augment Prussia’s army. The British navy battled the French navy in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas. Finally, augmented by colonial militia, the British made a determined and ultimately successful effort to destroy French power in North America. When the Seven Years’ War ended, Frederick gained Silesia, though with significant manpower losses; the British gained territory in India and all of French Canada (save for tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon Islands off the Newfoundland coast).
William Pitt’s vision, of global supremacy, seemed within reach. The early course of the Seven Years War was wholly changed by the victories of Frederick of Prussia, the ally of England, who soon acquired a reputation as the Protestant hero of Europe. In November 1757, at Rossbach in Saxony, he defeated the combined armies of France and Austria. A month later, at Leuthen in Bavaria, Frederick defeated a much greater Austrian army and seized Silesia. As if emboldened by these victories another allied commander, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, chased the French out of Hanover and pushed them back across the Rhine. Chesterfield, so doleful before, conceded that ‘the face of affairs is astonishingly mended’.
Pitt was now free to pursue a continental strategy, with his enemy in retreat, but already he had more extensive ambitions. In the spring of 1758 an allied force captured the French fort of St Louis in Senegal; its principal commodity of slaves was now secure for the British Crown. At the end of the year an English force took Gorée, an island off the coast of Dakar, which thirty years later would contain the notorious ‘House of Slaves’. So from the boiling and fever-stricken coastlines of West Africa came slaves and ivory, gum and gold dust, that were packed for the Caribbean or for England and then stored in factories with armed guards supplied by the local chieftains.
News came in this year, also, that Robert Clive had emerged victorious from the battle of Plassey and had taken control of Bengal, with its 30 million inhabitants, in a campaign Clive himself described as a medley of ‘fighting, tricks, chicanery, intrigues, politics and the Lord knows what’. The victory led directly to British domination of South Asia and to the subsequent extension of imperial power. Yet not all welcomed these developments. There was a sense of unease over this meddling with exotic and alien foreign lands. There seemed to be no sure foundations on which to build. Only in the nineteenth century were these doubts resolved.
Within three years the French had been compelled to leave India. Without effective sea power they were destined for disappointment. The East India Company soon had all the trappings of an oriental state, with its own police force and native army. It was the tiger in the jungle, dripping with blood and jewels. India became the cockpit in which it was shown that trade was war carried on under another name. In the poetry of the period, in fact, allusions to Africa and India became commonplace; they had become part of the imagination. Yet there was still no talk of empire.
The West Indies had become the most profitable possession, even if the prize had to be shared with the French, the Spanish and the Dutch. An expedition sailed in the winter of the year and took Guadeloupe, the home of cotton, sugar and molasses; for Pitt the island of sugar was a greater prize than Canada, so much stronger were commercial than territorial ties. It sent forth each year 10,000 tons of sugar and in return required 5,000 slaves. It was considered to be a fair bargain. In the hundred years after 1680 some 2 million slaves were forcibly removed from their homes to the work camps of the West Indies.
The conditions of the enslaved workers were notorious. Another sugar island of the Indies, Jamaica, was described by Edward Ward in Five Travel Scripts (1702) ‘as sickly as an hospital, as dangerous as the plague, as hot at hell, and as wicked as the devil’. The slaves could not breed in these torrid conditions, so even more had to be transported. These were the least of the slaves’ torments. Many of England’s overseas possessions were no more than penal colonies rivalling any of those in Stalinist Russia.
Slaves were simply beasts of burden. They were already suspended on a cross of three points, known as ‘triangular’ trade: they were purchased on the west coast of Africa with the proceeds of cloth or spirits before being transported across the ocean where they were sold to the plantation owner; the merchant seamen then returned with their holds filled with sugar, rum and tobacco. It was simplicity itself. A few local difficulties sometimes marred the smooth running of the enterprise. The slaves were manacled to the inner decks with no space to move, with women and children forced promiscuously among the male prisoners. When a ship was in danger of foundering, many of them were unchained and thrown into the sea; when some of them hit the water they were heard to cry out ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ The putrid and malignant diseases from which they suffered, in close proximity to one another, spread all over the vessel. The ‘middle passage’ across the ocean often created the conditions of a death ship.
Yet the church bells were ringing all over England. Even as the stinking and putrescent slaves were marched onto Jamaican or Bajan soil the new year in England, 1759, was being hailed as an ‘annus mirabilis’. The early capture of Guadeloupe was only the harbinger of overseas victories that guaranteed England’s global supremacy. Horace Walpole remarked that the church bells had been worn thin by ringing in victories, and wrote to Pitt ‘to congratulate you on the lustre you have thrown on this country . . . Sir, do not take this for flattery: there is nothing in your power to give what I would accept; nay there is nothing I could envy, but what you would scarce offer me – your glory.’ That had always been considered the French virtue above all others; gloire and le jour de gloire were later to be immortalized in the second line of ‘La Marseillaise’. But in 1759 they had been snatched away.
After the capture of Guadeloupe, Dominica signed a pact of neutrality with the victors. Canada, or New France as it was then known, was to come. In June General Amherst captured Fort Niagara and, in the following month, Crown Point. These victories were followed by the fall of Quebec in the autumn, when Major-General James Wolfe stole up the Heights of Abraham like a thief in the night. The capital of the French province lay on a precipitous rock at the confluence of the St Lawrence and St Charles rivers. Early assaults had come to nothing against what seemed to be an impregnable position. Wolfe wrote in his dispatches that ‘we have almost the whole force of Canada to oppose’.
Do or die. He planned to land his force on the bank of the St Charles, to scale what seemed to be the insuperable heights, and then to attack Quebec from the relatively undefended rear of the town. Recovering from their surprise at the success of the enterprise the French attacked but were beaten back. The French commander, Montcalm, was shot as he stood; Wolfe received a wound in the head, followed by two other bullets in his breast and his body. Yet in death his was the victory. The beaten and demoralized French army evacuated much of Canada and retired to Montreal; a year later the garrison at Montreal also surrendered, and Canada joined the list of England’s overseas territorial possessions.
The consequences of human actions are incalculable. With the threat of the French removed from the British settlers over the ocean, they began to resent the presence of English soldiers. Who needed the protection of the redcoats now that the enemy was gone? And so from small events great consequences may arise. An action that Voltaire derided as a conflict ‘about a few acres of snow’ gave rise in time to the United States of America.
The events in the European theatre were no less promising. The threat of French invasion was diverted. The reports of an invasion force, complete with flat-bottomed boats for landing, provoked Pitt into calling out the militia to guard the shores. At Quiberon Bay in November 1759, off the coast of southern Brittany, the French navy was caught and for all purposes destroyed. There would be no further threat of a French invasion.
And that, it might seem, was that. England had achieved maritime supremacy and gathered up more territorial possessions than ever before. The economic strain at home was beginning to show, however, with multifarious taxes imposed to bolster the revenues for the war. Yet if there was a sense of war weariness, it was not evident to the first minister. Pitt had been successful in Canada, the East Indies and the West Indies but he was determined to guide the destiny of Europe and confirm the strength of his country’s global trade. The duke of Newcastle wrote to a colleague that ‘Mr Pitt flew into a violent passion at my saying we could not carry on the war another year; [he said] that that was the way to make peace impracticable and to encourage our enemy; that we might have difficulties but he knew we could carry on the war and were one hundred times better able to do it than the French . . . in short, there was no talking to him’. Pitt knew that his colleagues were now in favour of a negotiated peace; negotiation meant, for him, compromise with the French. He would not rest until their most important possessions were in his hands. But the most carefully laid plans do not always come to fruition.
Suddenly all was changed. On 15 October 1760, George II rose early to drink his chocolate; he then felt the need to visit the water closet from which the valet-de-chambre, according to Horace Walpole, who seems to have known the most arcane secrets of the royal family, ‘heard a noise, louder than royal wind, listened, heard something like a groan, ran in’ and found the king on the floor with a gash on his forehead. The king expired shortly afterwards, bequeathing a new king to a not necessarily grateful nation.
While the English were preoccupied with the siege of Meaux and the defence of Lower Normandy, the Dauphinist garrisons of the Oise and the Somme had continued to expand their reach. In spite of the reverses which they had suffered at Mons-en-Vimeu and Saint-Riquier the previous year, Jacques d’Harcourt’s network of garrisoned fortresses now extended east beyond Amiens and south through Vimeu to the River Bresle that marked the limits of English-occupied Normandy. Henry V could not spare the troops to deal with the threat and the Duke of Burgundy had no garrisons in the region. As a result, the Dauphinists encountered no resistance except from the raw levies raised by the towns of Amiens and Abbeville from among their own citizens. At the beginning of March 1422, John of Luxembourg, to whom Philip was increasingly inclined to delegate the conduct of military operations, presided over an assembly of soldiers and officials of Picardy in the castle of Bapaume. They agreed on a concerted effort to push back Harcourt’s forces.
John of Luxembourg invaded the region at the end of March 1422. But his forces were modest. Initially no more than a few hundred strong, at its highest point his army numbered about 2,800 men, including a contingent of men-at-arms and archers from the English garrison of Eu under the command of their captain, Ralph Butler. The campaign opened with the kind of savage demonstration by which commanders now routinely tried to deter resistance. The castle of Quenoy stood over the Roman road from Roye to Amiens. Its Dauphinist garrison held out too long. By the time that they surrendered, their walls were too badly damaged by John of Luxembourg’s artillery to withstand an assault, and there was nothing for them to bargain with. The captain negotiated a safe-conduct for himself and abandoned his forty companions to their fate. They were all hanged, some at the castle gate, the rest from the public gibbet at Amiens. After this incident, the Burgundians rapidly cleared all the garrisons which Jacques d’Harcourt had planted on the banks of the Somme, except for his headquarters at Le Crotoy and the towns of Saint-Valéry and Noyelles on the other side of the bay. Thereafter, resistance stiffened, as John tried to advance into Vimeu.
Vimeu was the region lying south of the lower reaches of the Somme. It was dominated by two large Dauphinist garrisons at Airaines and Gamaches, and a string of satellite positions which their captains had planted along the valley of the Bresle. They put up a strong fight. The network of mutual support which linked the Dauphinist garrisons of the north proved highly resilient. Jacques d’Harcourt brought in reinforcements by sea to Le Crotoy, presumably from Brittany, and harassed the invaders from the west. The garrisons of Compiègne and Guise assembled some 800–1,000 mounted men and entered the region from the east. John of Luxembourg’s position shortly became untenable. He was forced to abandon the siege of Gamaches in order to meet the new threat. But when he confronted them in battle array, they melted away and passed around his back to plant a new garrison at Mortemer near Montdidier. Airaines eventually surrendered on terms on 11 May. But its garrison simply migrated to Gamaches and other Dauphinist strongholds nearby. Dealing with dispersed and nimble enemies like these was like rolling the stone of Sisyphus. In the middle of May, after less than two months in the field, John of Luxembourg’s war treasurers appear to have run out of money. He broke up his army and withdrew.
The surrender of Meaux transformed the situation. It had been the largest and most dangerous Dauphinist garrison in northern France for the past four years. Its conquest, following on the clearance of the valleys of the Seine and the Yonne, freed the approaches to Paris from the east and greatly eased the city’s long-running food crisis. The harsh terms of the capitulation removed hundreds of the Dauphin’s most experienced soldiers from the war. But the indirect effects proved to be even more significant, for the capture of the fortress rapidly unravelled the Dauphin’s once powerful positions north of Paris. With the English now holding all the major river crossings of the Seine and the Marne, the Dauphin’s garrisons in the north were cut off from the main centres of his power in the Loire basin. Help could reach them from outside only by sea through Le Crotoy and Saint-Valéry. The Dauphin’s advisers now discovered the disastrous consequences of their decision not to attempt the relief of Meaux. The other Dauphinist garrisons realised that they were on their own. They had no desire to share the fate of the defenders of the Marché. Without the active support of the prince for whose cause they were fighting, they were inclined to get out while they could.
Compiègne was the first to submit. Its captain, Guillaume de Gamaches, quickly concluded that his garrison was no longer viable. Once the largest garrison of the north, its numbers had declined. Its stores were low. Henry V brutally brought his dilemma to a head. He sent messengers into Compiègne to declare that Guillaume’s brother the Abbot of St Faron of Meaux, then a prisoner in Paris, would be drowned in the Seine unless the place was surrendered promptly. On 16 May 1422, less than a week after the fall of the Marché, Guillaume de Gamaches entered into a conditional surrender agreement without even undergoing a siege. A date, 18 June, was fixed for the submission of the town. The English were to appear with an army before the gates, and unless the Dauphin in person appeared to challenge them the garrison would deliver the town up with all of their prisoners. Three satellite garrisons in the Oise valley were to be surrendered at the same time, in addition to the newly conquered castle of Mortemer in Picardy.
This was the most spectacular example of Henry V’s use of his prisoners as instruments of blackmail. But it was not the only one. Peron de Luppé saved his life by arranging the surrender of his castle at Montaigu, north of Reims, one of the last remaining Dauphinist garrisons of any importance in Champagne, along with two satellite garrisons. His nephew, who had been left in command there, complied without question. Guy de Nesle lord of Offémont went further. Demoralised by his capture and his injuries, he abandoned the Dauphin’s cause altogether and submitted to Henry V. He was released without ransom, confirmed in possession of all his domains and pardoned for his years as the Dauphin’s principal representative in the north. In return, he swore the oath to uphold the treaty of Troyes. As the Duke of Orléans’ lieutenant in the county of Valois he arranged the surrender of all the Duke’s castles under his control. These included Louis of Orléans’ mighty fortress at Pierrefonds, the great thirteenth-century castle at Crépy-en-Valois, Guy de Nesle’s own castle of Offémont, and several other garrisoned places in the upper valley of the Oise. In all of these places, the garrisons were promised their lives and their liberty. But they were not left free to join other Dauphinist garrisons or occupy new places. They were taken under guard across Normandy to rejoin the Dauphin beyond the Seine. Shortly, the only major Dauphinist fortress left in the valley of the Oise was Poton de Saintrailles’ headquarters at Guise. Without the elaborate network of mutual support on which they had previously depended, the smaller garrisons of the Beauvaisis and Champagne withered on the vine. They abandoned their castles, leaving them in flames, and fled with their weapons and their booty to Guise or vanished into the ubiquitous underworld of displaced soldiery. Further west Jacques d’Harcourt, sustained by his lifeline to the sea, still held out at the mouth of the Somme. But he was no longer the force that he had been when he could call on the support of hundreds of mounted men from garrisons across northern France.
The English paused to regroup. The Duke of Bedford had landed with his troops at Harfleur at the beginning of May 1422, accompanied by the Queen. Henry V and his wife entered Paris together in state on 30 May and installed themselves in the Louvre. On 3 June, after the Whitsun celebrations were over, there was a joint session of Henry’s English, French and Norman councils in the Hôtel de Nesle, the Parisian mansion which had belonged to the Duke of Berry. The Dukes of Bedford and Exeter, the Earl of March and Arthur de Richemont were present, as well as a large caucus of officials including the Chancellor of France Jean Le Clerc, the First President of the Parlement Philippe de Morvilliers and Bishop Kemp, who had recently replaced Philip Morgan as Chancellor of Normandy. They resolved to complete the destruction of Jacques d’Harcourt’s garrisons in Picardy before the Dauphinists had time to recover their balance. John of Luxembourg, who would have been the natural leader of this offensive, had been laid low by illness in his Paris mansion, and his army had dispersed beyond recall. So, while Bedford marched up the Oise to accept the surrender of Compiègne, the Earl of Warwick invaded Picardy with the remnants of the army of Meaux and drafts from the garrisons of Upper Normandy, probably between 2,000 and 3,000 men in all.
Free of the threat from Compiègne in his rear, Warwick made rapid progress through Vimeu. Gamaches, which had successfully fought off the Burgundians in April, was abandoned without a fight. Louis de Chambronne, one of Harcourt’s chief allies in the region, negotiated a treaty under which the place was given up in return for a free passage beyond the Seine. A delegation was sent forward to Le Crotoy in the name of the two Kings of England and France to call on Jacques d’Harcourt to surrender his fortresses. It comprised an English herald, the Master of the Royal Archers Hughes de Lannoy, and two French bishops, one of whom was the fiercely anglophile Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon and the other Harcourt’s own brother Jean Bishop of Amiens. Warwick’s demand was eventually rejected, but it is clear that Jacques d’Harcourt was tempted.
At the end of June 1422, the Earl of Warwick laid siege to Saint-Valéry on the south side of the Somme estuary. A fleet of merchantmen requisitioned in the ports of Normandy arrived to seal off the town from the sea. After several days of heavy bombardment, Saint-Valéry’s garrison entered into a conditional surrender agreement. By 7 July, Warwick had crossed the ford at Blanchetaque and begun to besiege Le Crotoy. Apart from Guise in the upper valley of the Oise and the small river port of Noyelles at the head of the Somme estuary, this was all that now remained of the great chain of Dauphinist fortresses that had extended across France from the Channel to Champagne only six months before. At the Dauphin’s court, morale sank to its lowest point. Alain Chartier completed the Quadriloge Invectif in these weeks. ‘Now, in this year 1422,’ he wrote, ‘I have witnessed the King of England, that ancient enemy of this realm, glorying in our shame and humiliation, gorging himself on our spoils, holding all our courage and our great deeds up to ridicule, and drawing the stoutest men of our party to his cause.’
The clearest sign that Henry had effaced the stigma of Baugé was the attitude of the practised trimmers among the princes of France whose main concern was to be on the winning side. The Count of Foix had never confirmed his ambassadors’ agreement with Henry V at Rouen the previous year and had never mounted the promised offensive against the Dauphin’s government in Languedoc. But with the return of the English King to the Île de France in the autumn of 1421, he had reopened negotiations. His ambassadors appeared at Henry’s headquarters at Meaux in the final stages of the siege. On 3 March 1422 they finally swore the oath to uphold the treaty of Troyes on their master’s behalf, and Henry conferred the government of Languedoc on him in the name of Charles VI. In return for a subsidy, a large cash advance and the promise of generous territorial concessions at the expense of the French Crown, the Count’s ambassadors undertook that he would finally launch his offensive in Languedoc on 1 June. The ambassadors travelled personally to Southampton to collect the advance. Three weeks later, at Dijon, the Duke of Lorraine finally swore, in the presence of Philip of Burgundy, to recognise Henry V as the heir to the French crown, after two years of temporising.
The most agonising reappraisal, and the most significant, was that of John Duke of Brittany. In the short time since he had made his agreement with the Dauphin at Sablé, the Bretons had had a considerable impact on the course of the fighting. If the English garrisons on the march of Brittany and Maine were on the back foot, it was largely due to the Breton cohorts of Richard de Montfort. At the height of the Dauphin’s campaign in the Loire valley in the summer of 1421, the duchy had provided more than a third of his army, about the same as the Scots. But as the siege of Meaux wore on with no attempt at relief, John V decided that he had backed the wrong side. He was very candid about his reasons when the Dauphin’s representatives taxed him with it. In the first place, he was still obsessed with the threat from the house of Blois. Olivier de Penthièvre had fled from France with a price on his head after the collapse of his rebellion and was currently sheltering in his family’s domains in Hainaut, where John V’s agents were trying to track him down and capture him. The Duke was furious that the Dauphin had never honoured his promise at Sablé to dismiss the men around him who had supported Olivier’s coup. He drew the understandable conclusion that the Dauphin might yet turn against him. England, with his brother Arthur de Richemont sitting on Henry V’s French council, seemed a more dependable ally. Secondly, John V regarded England as the stronger power. He did not have the money, manpower or munitions to sustain a war against them on the scale of 1421. Indeed, with a large part of Henry V’s forces in Normandy stationed near his borders, he doubted whether he could even defend his duchy if they were ever to invade it.
John initially encountered some opposition on his council and in the Estates of the duchy. Most of his advisers thought that it was too dangerous to repudiate the solemn engagements which he had made only a year before at Sablé. But once the city of Meaux had fallen and the English had begun to close in on the Marché, John resolved to submit to the English King and recognise the treaty of Troyes. He convened the Estates again and obtained their support. There was a pause for reflection and doubt. But the collapse of the Dauphin’s garrisons in the north finally determined him. A large and dignified embassy, comprising no fewer than seventy-six principals and led by his chancellor, was nominated at the end of June and arrived a month later in Paris. They brought with them powers to swear the usual oaths, and promised that the Duke would appear before the King in person as soon as his other preoccupations allowed.
With the tide turning strongly in his favour, Henry V might have been expected to lose interest in a negotiated settlement with the Dauphin. In fact, the summer of 1422 was a time of intense diplomatic activity. Bishop Albergati arrived in France in the middle of May and joined forces with the peacemakers of the Duke of Savoy. In the course of June and July, he covered several hundred miles and met all three principals. Albergati was a discreet man and his reports to the Pope have not survived. We therefore know very little about these exchanges. The Duke of Savoy later complained that Henry been uncooperative. But in fact the King seems to have got on well with the legate. He liked the company of scholars and holy men and was a great patron of the Carthusians. According to the Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini, then living in London in the household of Bishop Beaufort, the two men struck up an immediate rapport. For his part the nuncio reported that Henry was genuinely anxious for peace. How realistic these hopes were is hard to say. It is unlikely that any terms acceptable to Henry V would ever have been agreed by the Dauphin, and there was the Duke of Burgundy to satisfy as well. Albergati seems to have been taken aback by the ferocity of the hatreds dividing the two French camps. His mission was probably doomed before it began, even had Henry V lived.
In fact, he was already ill when he met the nuncio and, although neither of them knew it, he had little time left. The summer of 1422 was extremely hot. The court had fled from Paris, which was in the grip of another epidemic of smallpox. At the end of June Henry experienced the symptoms of dysentery. On 7 July he was moved to Vincennes. The news of his condition quickly got out. Processions were organised for his recovery in the streets of Paris. A specialist was summoned from England.
Henry’s last illness coincided with a severe military crisis. At the end of May 1422, Tanneguy du Châtel had mustered a large army at Beaugency on the Loire and invaded Philip of Burgundy’s county of Nevers, which served as the western bastion of the duchy of Burgundy. The Dauphinist forces comprised about 2,000 French troops and what remained of the army of Scotland, probably between 3,000 and 4,000 men altogether. The Scots had not been paid for some time, and in order to mobilise them Tanneguy was obliged to settle their arrears, 5,415 gold écus in undepreciated coin, out of his own pocket. The Dauphinists’ campaign plans had been in the making for several weeks, and some inkling of them had reached Paris and Dijon. The Burgundian Marshal of France, Antoine de Vergy, had visited the region in the spring to organise its defence. Nevertheless, the offensive caught the government off guard when it came. Tanneguy swept through the Nivernais occupying all the principal castles on his route and encountering no serious opposition. In the third week of June, he laid siege to La Charité, a walled town on the right bank of the Loire which was the site of a famous Benedictine abbey and an important stone bridge over the river. There, he joined forces with the Vicomte of Narbonne, who had come up from Languedoc with another army. Fresh companies were reported to be on their way from Italy and Castile to reinforce them. In spite of its importance, there appears to have been no garrison at La Charité. Negotiations were in hand with the inhabitants to station troops in the town, but nothing had come of them by the time the Dauphinist armies arrived.
The Duke of Burgundy was at Troyes when the news of Tanneguy du Châtel’s offensive reached him. He had planned to march north to join Henry V in a joint campaign against the last remaining Dauphinist garrisons of the north, and he was occupied with the muster of his retainers in Burgundy and Champagne. The threat to La Charité forced an abrupt change of plan. The Duke returned at once with his army to Dijon. There, he ordered the recruitment of more troops throughout his domains and sent urgent appeals for help to Henry V and the Dukes of Savoy and Lorraine. Some 250 men-at-arms were detached from his army at once and sent to defend La Charité. They were too late. On 25 June, the day after the Duke reached Dijon, the town opened its gates to the Dauphinists and the vital bridge over the Loire fell into their hands. Leaving a garrison to hold it, Tanneguy and the Vicomte of Narbonne marched down the Loire and besieged the other major bridge-town of the region fifteen miles away at Cosne. There was a garrison at Cosne. But it was in no position to withstand a long siege. The captain of the town sent a runner to Philip of Burgundy to warn him that he could not hold out for long. Philip replied that help was on its way. But within a few days the garrison was forced to enter into a conditional surrender agreement. A date, 12 August, was fixed for its surrender unless a relief force had reached the town by then, under the command of the Duke of Burgundy in person.
Henry V, sick as he was, seized upon the chance of a pitched battle with the Dauphin’s forces outside Cosne. It offered him the trial by battle that he had been looking for ever since the Dauphin had emerged as his principal opponent in 1419. He agreed with Philip of Burgundy that the challenge should be accepted. The Duke’s heralds were sent to agree with the Dauphin’s on a site for an arranged battle on the right bank of the Loire near Cosne. Meanwhile, the English and Burgundians bent all their efforts to assembling a large enough army in the short time available. The Earl of Warwick abandoned the siege of Le Crotoy which he had only just begun. A screen of troops under Ralph Butler was left to cover Saint-Valéry until the day appointed for its surrender. John of Luxembourg rose from his sickbed in Paris to find troops in Picardy. Hughes de Lannoy raised companies among the nobility of Flanders. All of these contingents reached Paris in the second half of July. The remaining companies, from the Duke’s eastern domains, mustered at the same time in the plain south of Châtillonsur-Seine. The most reliable contemporary estimate puts the strength of the combined force at 12,000 men, of whom about 9,000 were provided by the allies and subjects of the Duke of Burgundy and about 3,000 were English. It was agreed that the entire army would assemble at Auxerre and march together to Cosne. At Vincennes Henry V, racked by fever and gastroenteritis and unable to keep down the medicines that his doctors prescribed for him, refused to submit to his illness. When the army left Paris in the third week of July 1422, he dragged himself from his bed and had himself carried at its head in a litter. It took his cortège several days to reach Corbeil, and by the time it got there, it was obvious that the King could go no further. He summoned his brother the Duke of Bedford and his uncle the Duke of Exeter and ordered them to take over the command. They marched on without him. In Paris, there were daily processions for his recovery, while across all France prayers and masses were said for the fortunes of each side in the battle to come.
The two allied armies met at Vézelay, south of Auxerre, on 4 August 1422, and reached Cosne six days later on the 10th. There, they found that the besiegers had vanished. The siege lines were empty. There was no sign of the Dauphin or his army. On 12 August, the day appointed for the battle, Philip of Burgundy, the Duke of Bedford and John of Luxembourg drew up their army in battle array at the agreed site. They stood in line all day before returning to their encampments in the evening light. No one appeared to fight them. Eight miles away, on the opposite side of the river, the Earl of Buchan was encamped outside the town of Sancerre with part of the Dauphin’s army. Buchan made no attempt to challenge the Anglo-Burgundian force. His sole object was to stop the Anglo-Burgundians crossing into Berry. Small forces had been stationed along the left bank to watch the movements of the English and Burgundians and block the passage of the bridges and fords. On 13 August, John of Luxembourg took part of the Anglo-Burgundian army and raided towards La Charité hoping to find an undefended crossing, but the Dauphinists followed him from the opposite bank until he gave up and returned to Cosne. That evening the Duke of Burgundy and the Duke of Bedford marched away with their men.
The Dauphin’s commanders had given up all thought of fighting a pitched battle at least two weeks before, when they became aware of the scale of the other side’s preparations. The exact strength of their own army is not known, but it was certainly much smaller than their enemy’s. The Anglo-Burgundians claimed the moral high ground, and perhaps they were entitled to it. But the strategic gains were all on the Dauphin’s side. His captains had not gained Cosne. The town received a Burgundian garrison and the hostages which it had given for its surrender were returned. But he had achieved his objectives. La Charité, a major bridgehead into Burgundian territory, remained in his hands, and the plans of Henry and Philip of Burgundy for a summer campaign in the north had been spiked. The Earl of Warwick had been forced to lift the siege of Le Crotoy, and a vital respite had been given to the Dauphin’s last surviving garrison on the Oise, at Guise.
Towards the end of July 1422, after Buchan and Tanneguy du Châtel had decided not to fight at Cosne, they sent the Vicomte of Narbonne with part of the army west to join the Count of Aumale on the march of Maine. They expected to find Lower Normandy denuded of troops to fill the ranks of the Anglo-Burgundian army. They were not disappointed. Not only were all the principal English captains and many of the garrison troops with Bedford in the Nivernais, but a large number of men had just been withdrawn from the garrisons of Lower Normandy and ordered north to be present at the surrender of Saint-Valéry, which was due to open its gates on 4 September. As a result, Aumale and Narbonne were able to do considerable damage with very little opposition. They marched deep into Normandy, penetrating within forty miles of Rouen. Bernay, an unwalled town with no garrison, was sacked. The English commander in the sector, Thomas Lord Scales, came up with a field force of a few hundred men, but they were outnumbered and driven off with heavy losses. As the Dauphinists turned for home, another local captain, Sir Philip Branch, collected a field force from the residues of nearby garrisons, and valiantly tried to block the invaders’ retreat at Mortagne in Perche. On 14 August his men, dismounted in carefully prepared positions and protected by a line of stakes, determined to take on a far stronger enemy. But the odds were too great. They were scattered by a single cavalry charge. Many of them were killed or captured in the pursuit.
The strategic impact of this raid was small, but magnified by report. The Dauphinists claimed an impossibly high tally of casualties. The Italian news network even reported that the Vicomte of Narbonne’s army had entered Paris. For the English it illustrated once more the abiding problems of military occupation. They were everywhere overstretched. Unable to come to grips with their enemy on their own terms, they were compelled to fight an expensive war of static defence in Normandy and debilitating sieges everywhere else. In order to take possession of Saint-Valéry and contribute some 3,000 men to the army of Cosne they had had to reduce their strength in Normandy below the minimum level consistent with effective defence. Even companies that were never involved in a fight were losing men all the time to sickness and desertion. In the four months since the Duke of Bedford had last landed in France, his company had lost nearly a quarter of its strength. For the moment, losses like these were being made good with fresh drafts from England. But for how much longer?
Battle of Crécy between the English and French in the Hundred Years’ War.
Battle of Sluys.
The fourteenth century opened with a series of wars of succession and of territorial aggrandizement. In Scandinavia, the worst situation was in Sweden, where King Birger II (1290–1318) executed two princeling rivals to his throne, thus propelling the kingdom into a civil war that lasted almost throughout the second decade of the century. Contemporaneously, Danes and Poles joined together in 1316 to invade the Brandenburg lands in order to contain German expansionism into their own spheres of influence in the eastern Baltic. A double election, that of Ludwig of Bavaria and Frederick of Austria, to the German imperial throne in 1314 resulted in a decade of destructive war in that already war-weary kingdom. Ultimately, Ludwig emerged the victor, but at the price of arrested economic development, political repression and other forms of civic regression in Germany.
The period was also one of border wars: Anglo-Scottish, Franco-Flemish and Anglo-French. For years the English had claimed a vague overlordship over Scotland, and the Scots at various times resisted. As English interference became more insistent and more brutal, the Scots reacted with ever greater violence and brutality themselves. They were not successful against King Edward I and he was not entirely effective against them, but they delivered what seemed to be a crushing blow to his successor Edward II (1307–27) at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Because the English were unwilling to withdraw their claims or concede territory the Scots believed was rightfully theirs, the aftermath of Bannockburn developed into a prolonged period of guerrilla warfare in the borderlands of the two kingdoms. This, in turn, precipitated an almost total collapse of economic production in the war-ravaged regions during the Great Famine.
The Scots under Robert Bruce and his brother Edward Bruce opened a major second front in the savage war by using the small northern islands as a jumping-off point and invading Ireland. They expected an Irish rebellion against that people’s English overlords, but like Scotland, if not more so, Ireland was suffering from famine, and no great national uprising took place. The English and Scots, besides inflicting harm on each other, harried the Irish, living off the land by plunder and disciplining enemies of their cause by peremptory and barbaric punishments. The situation, though precarious for the invading Scots, still held promise because the native population of southern Wales rebelled against their English overlords at about the same time, in the wake, that is, of the death of the region’s principal English marcher lord at Bannockburn. The power vacuum created by this death and by English commitments against Scotland and in Ireland furnished the Welsh with a unique opportunity. Yet, in the event, the English put down the Welsh rebellion and, helped by a Scottish withdrawal from Ireland, re-established a modicum of control there by 1320. Nevertheless, border raiding and guerrilla warfare, much to English disadvantage, continued in the main theatre of confrontation, the Anglo-Scottish frontier.
The Franco-Flemish situation was just as messy from 1315 until the early 1320s. The issue was the extent of French sovereignty in Flanders: what precisely did it mean to have a tie to the kingdom? How much authority did the feudal dependence of French Flanders give to the royal overlord? What demands, fiscal and otherwise, could the French king legitimately make on the Flemings? Most Flemings thought French pretensions were overweening. The upper class in Flanders was divided as to how much and in what way it should resist, and some elements wanted to reach a compromise settlement. Many nobles, however, were loath to capitulate, and the burghers stubbornly refused to be cowed by the French.
Thus, it was on the battlefields of Flanders that issues were resolved. The French nobility found itself engaged against determined burgher militias and knights of Flanders in a particularly ferocious series of battles, which went very badly for the French in the early phase. The battle of Courtrai, also known as the battle of the Golden Spurs, took place on 11 July 1302. The huge but somewhat ragtag Flemish army, mostly foot soldiers, met and humiliated the cream of French chivalry, taking no prisoners, but slaughtering at least sixty-eight great nobles and, according to one count, 1,100 knights. Their golden spurs, 700 in number, were retrieved from the battlefield corpses and displayed as trophies in a church in Courtrai.
Such savagery (far from the only example on either side) provoked a grim determination among the combatants. The fighting went on intermittently, but always with brutality, for years. The French seemed to achieve the upper hand by 1312 and went so far as to incorporate a territorial swathe of French-speaking Flanders, including Lille and Douai, into the kingdom. But the attempt met vigorous opposition, and more fighting ensued, at least whenever the weather permitted. Some of the more dramatic descriptions of later campaigns describe the contending armies mired in mud while the rains of the famine period incessantly pelted northern Europe. The rains were more helpful to the Flemings precisely because they undermined the French advantage in cavalry. In the end, however, the rain stopped, and though it took considerable time, the vastly superior resources of the French kingdom allowed it to prevail over the burghers and their Flemish baronial supporters. Lille and Douai are still French.
While the English were engaged with the Scots and while the French slaughtered Flemings or got slaughtered by them, the two great kingdoms went to war against each other in 1294. Again, this Anglo-French war was ostensibly a border conflict, since the clash arose out of disputes about jurisdiction in the English-controlled part of south-western France, Gascony. Fortunately for the local population, the warfare was, on the whole, less intense than elsewhere. Although the formal peace treaty was not ratified until 1313, the period of hot war lasted only from 1294 to 1297. In the uneasy truce that followed, each side fought the other indirectly with surrogates, the French by showing amity to the Scots, the English by doing the same with the Flemings, the purchasers of so much of their raw wool in peaceful times.
The war of 1294–7, though of little interest in its military aspects, had two enormous repercussions. First, it caused a dreadful rift in relations between the papacy and the kings of England and France. English anger with the pope, Boniface VIII, who denounced Edward’s taxation of the Church without the pontiff’s prior consent as an infringement on the liberty of the Church, was relatively short-lived. Eventually, following an enormous amount of diplomatic manoeuvring, the pope conceded that in evident necessity or in an emergency the king did not have to seek papal permission before he levied the tax. Kings protected their subjects – in just wars, they alleged – and they protected the Church. It was inane, perhaps insane, Edward’s diplomats argued, to limit their king’s prerogatives and his capacity to safeguard the Church in England when the defence of the realm required swift and decisive military action.
Philip the Fair had done the same thing, taxing the clergy without prior papal permission, and Boniface rebuked him in the same way. The outcome was the same – papal capitulation to the royal arguments – but the French king, never particularly solicitous of papal policies since the days of the crusade against Aragon (see chapter 18), looked upon the papacy’s diplomatic counter-attacks in the course of the dispute, and the theory of superiority that the pontiff’s men articulated early in the struggle, as a calculated attempt to humiliate the Crown of France. Even Philip’s victory in the dispute and the pope’s generous gesture of canonizing Philip’s grandfather, Louis IX, were insufficient to erase the bad memory which the conflict left in the consciousness of the French ruler.
A second consequence of the little war of 1294–7 arose out of attempts to cement the truce. In the period immediately following the cessation of active hostilities a move was made towards permanent peace by arranging a marriage between King Edward I’s son and King Philip the Fair’s daughter. As it turned out, the marriage of Isabelle, the daughter, to the future Edward II was a disaster. Isabelle did her part and produced potential heirs, but afterwards the royal couple went their own ways, she to a liaison with one Roger Mortimer, a great marcher lord, her husband to the bed of his male lovers or perhaps to some sort of intense but chaste male friendship that has been misconstrued by contemporaries and scholars alike.
Edward II’s reign (1307–27), like his marriage, was a catastrophe. Because he rewarded his favourites, was arbitrary and rather limited in his largesse to his ‘natural allies’ in the high nobility, and was a colossal failure in war (recall the disaster at Bannockburn), he was periodically confronted with baronial conspiracies designed either to wrest control of the government from him, retaining him solely as a figurehead, or to displace him entirely in favour of his eldest son.
Edward II was not a fool, and at times he showed his mettle. Drawing on the deep well of popular respect for their kings that the English of all classes manifested, he articulated a powerful theory of traditional royal authority in the Statute of York issued in Parliament in 1322. Coming at a time when the political nation at large was disgusted by in-fighting among the barons, who had seized power in 1311, Edward’s bid for political ascendancy was successful; the circumstances also allowed him the opportunity to execute retribution on those barons who had had the temerity to execute his male lover/dear friend, Piers Gaveston. But the king did not maintain close and effective control of the government thereafter and came again to depend heavily on favourites, who failed to create a strong royal party to sustain their position. That his queen joined one of the factions and plotted to overthrow her husband is indicative of the state of affairs in England. The king’s reputation was not helped by being a cuckold or by the awful visitation of the Great Famine of 1315–22.
In 1327, the queen, with her paramour, Roger Mortimer, seized power and forced Edward II to abdicate. He was dispatched in a gruesome murder late in the year. Roger and Isabelle technically ruled in the name of her adolescent son by Edward II, Edward III. The boy, however, despised Roger Mortimer for defiling his father’s bed with his mother, for laying violent hands on an anointed king, and for creating the circumstances for his father’s murder. In his own coup d’état of 1330 the young Edward seized power. Roger Mortimer was executed; Isabelle was eventually shunted off to a convent of Poor Clares.
With hindsight, then, the marriage of Edward and Isabelle, which had been intended to seal a truce, instead created innumerable problems in England while Edward was alive. Isabelle’s father, Philip the Fair, lived until 1314. When he died, he was survived by three sons and Isabelle, by then queen of England. One after the other the sons ruled and died prematurely: Louis X (1314–16), Philip V (1316–22), Charles IV (1322–8). None of them left legitimate heirs except Louis X, but his son, born posthumously, died uncrowned after a few weeks.
The French High Court of Parlement chose the son of Philip the Fair’s brother to be king in 1328 as Philip VI. There was no formal protest from Isabelle at the time. She counted on support from France to consolidate her own and Roger Mortimer’s position in England after their coup d’état against Edward II. In fact, the right to the throne of France should have passed to her and through her to her son. It is true that the French had never been ruled by a queen regnant, though queens or queen dowagers had sometimes exercised temporary regencies during a minority or in the absence of a ruler, say, on crusade. And it is certainly true, too, that male aristocrats had no desire to be ruled by a woman. But it was only ex post facto that jurists concocted the notion that it was part of the fundamental or constitutional law of France, inherited from the Salian Franks of the early Middle Ages, that no woman could rule in France or even transmit her rights to rule. To enforce this argument the jurists had to extrapolate from inheritance practices prescribed in the completely obsolete laws of the Salian Franks.
After Edward III came into his own, it became clear that the matter of the French succession was still regarded as an open question in England, and in the absence of real amity between the two countries, it was probable that Edward would some day use his claim as a weapon in disputes with France. Indeed, in 1337 he publicly declared his right to succeed in France. The attempt to enforce his claim was the opening act of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). No attempt can be made here to go into the details of that long war. In a struggle intended to unite the Crowns of France and England, one sees paradoxically the strong stirrings of nationalism. The truces especially contributed to the emerging national hatred between the French and English. The truces were more injurious than the most famous pitched battles, because unpaid or partly paid troops recently discharged took out their frustration and remunerated themselves materially and psychically by oppressing villagers and townsfolk in France, where the war was fought. Some of the English troops were criminals allowed to substitute military service in France for their judicial sentences; they had little chivalry in their ideology. When peasants grew weary of the maltreatment they received, they took savage revenge on the English, but also on their militarily pressured native oppressors, who were also stealing their goods and humiliating their persons.
Still, the worst consequences of the seemingly interminable war did not manifest themselves before the mid-fourteenth century. It was heavy, almost incessant taxation that weighed both countries down in a period that was already showing signs of a severe economic recession. To be sure, the differential impact of the war on the two countries needs to be stressed. Taxation inhibited some aspects of economic growth in England, even if the expenditure of taxes was a stimulus to specifically military industries and military suppliers. But in France, even stimulation of the war-focused industries paled before the destruction wrought by the contending armies and the wandering demobilized troops of the periods of truce. Yet those who mandated that the war be fought thought the price in human and material loss was worth it. Both sides believed their cause to be just.
Hundred Years’ War
The Hundred Years’ War was not given that name until the nineteenth century, and in fact, these wars lasted one hundred sixteen years. But it is an appropriate enough title for the long-drawn-out series of conflicts that took place between France and England from 1337 to 1453. The war was fought essentially for dynastic reasons: to determine which royal family would control France. Ever since the Norman Conquest, the English royals had retained extensive lands in France and increasingly this became a bone of contention. When the French King Charles IV died in 1328, the English King Edward IV, grandson of former French King Philip IV and ruler of the duchy of Guyenne—in the region of Aquitaine in southwestern France—laid claim to the French throne. However, a French assembly gave the crown to the rival French claimant, Philip, Count of Valois. Subsequently crowned Philip VI, he declared Guyenne confiscate in 1337, triggering hostilities.
Historians traditionally divide the war into four phases. In the first phase (1337—60), the English were surprisingly successful, given that their country was poorer and less populous than France, they were fighting abroad, and their forces were smaller than their enemy’s. In part, this success was due to the English men-at-arms, who were particularly well disciplined and were accompanied by longbowmen, whose fearsome fire-power helped make up for their army’s lack of numbers.
France also had a larger navy, but at sea, too, the English triumphed initially, winning a great naval victory at Sluys in 1340 that neutralized the French fleet for the remainder of the war. In 1346, Edward scored another major victory at the battle of Crécy, and in 1347 he captured the port of Calais. At this point, a truce was arranged with the help of the pope, both armies by then war-weary and affected by bubonic plague. Three years later, however, Philip died, to be succeeded by John II. In 1356, Edward’s son, Edward Woodstock, known to history as the Black Prince launched an attack on France, reigniting the conflict. Within the year, he defeated King John II at Poitiers and took him hostage, forcing the French to sue for peace. The Treaty of Brétigny of 1360 obliged the French to pay three million gold crowns to the English—John II’s ransom—and gave England control of nearly half of France. In return, Edward renounced his claim to the French throne.
However, John died in captivity before the terms of the treaty were fulfilled, and his son and successor Charles V soon reopened hostilities, beginning the second phase of the war (1369— 99). At last providing France with effective leadership, Charles first invaded Aquitaine, whose inhabitants were being heavily taxed by the Black Prince. Then, under the brilliant general Bertrand du Guesclin, the French took Poitiers, Poitou, and La Rochelle by 1372, and Aquitaine and Brittany by 1374, thus regaining all of the land ceded under the Treaty of Brétigny and leaving England with only Gascony and Calais. The Black Prince died in 1376, Edward III in the following year, and the second phase of the war became almost entirely a French victory. But then Charles died of a heart attack in 1380 and the conflict petered out. The Truce of Leulinghen of 1389 allowed the two sides to recover and regroup.
WWI Italian postcard represents Serbia fighting with Austria and Germany, while Bulgaria tries to kill Serbia with a knife and Greece watches from the sideline.
When the fourth invasion of Serbia began in October of 1915, individuals and groups within the Entente nations were still arguing and vacillating over what strategy, if any, to pursue in the Balkans. In general, the Easterners wanted to energetically support the Serbs, bring all the local neutrals into the War on their side, and break the isolation of Russia. Westerners would have discontinued the operations against the Ottoman Empire, rejected all annoying thoughts about helping the Serbs and concentrated all means on the Western Front as the best way to support Russia. As late as early October, when they were virtually certain of Bulgaria’s hostility, few leaders in France or Britain could agree on what sort of response to initiate in Southeast Europe, though they were more and more convinced that the Dardanelles Operation was not going to achieve its purpose. A furious Lloyd George prepared a memorandum for his colleagues and distributed it on October 12th. In it, he criticized the inaction of the Entente, writing that the failure “to save from destruction one little country after another that relied on their [four Great Powers] protection is one of the most pitiable spectacles of this War.” Kitchener, normally insensitive to an indirect slight as such, decided to replace Hamilton with Sir Charles Monro, the erstwhile commander of the Third Army in France. Hamilton was notified of his ‘imminent replacement’ on the 16th; some measure of his level of enthusiasm for his command may be evidenced by the fact that he immediately turned over his authority to Birdwood, and departed for Britain the very next day, eleven days before Monro would arrive on the scene.
By contrast, the Alliance Nations knew exactly what they needed to accomplish in the Balkans, and had allocated the forces necessary to achieve it. Austria-Hungary could not sustain a war on three fronts; at least one would have to be eliminated. Turkey needed to receive large amounts of war material to defend her four fronts; a direct railroad linkup was imperative. The rather elementary conclusion was to knock Serbia out of the War, to utterly defeat her and her weak sister Montenegro. By enlisting Bulgaria to the cause of furthering her self-interest, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion.
Surprisingly, the Serbs were still confident of their ability to defend themselves until they learned of Bulgaria’s hostility. After all, they had already rather handily defeated three enemy invasions during the prior year and optimistically believed that they could do so again. What they failed to take into account, however, was the fact that their Army of 1914 was a veteran force of the Balkan Wars, while the Austro-Hungarian Army had not been in battle since 1866. With a year of experience now under their belts, the Habsburg troops might reasonably be expected to perform much better in 1915 than they as green soldiers had done during the autumn of 1914.
As we have seen, the big guns had long been firing along the three rivers which delineated Serbia’s northern and western frontier. On October 5th, the bombardment intensified and included incendiary shells which promptly engulfed portions of Belgrade in a sea of flames. The Serbian side of the streams shook and heaved under the ceaseless staccato of explosions, the effects of which sounded like multiple drum-rolls from several kilometers distant. Gallwitz’s Eleventh Army used the cover of the avalanche of steel to bring up its boats, several of which were former yachts and pleasure-craft which had been lightly armored and fitted with artillery and machine guns. Masses of soldiers assembled at Smederovo and Ram on the Danube, and a subsidiary force planned to cross near the Iron Gate at the Romanian border. Kövess targeted Obrenovac near the mouth of the Kolubara on east to Belgrade, while leaving the forcing of the Drina to an independent Corps on his right. There would be no repeat of the 1914 campaigns.
To ensure success of the operation, the German High Command insisted on giving overall direction to one of its own, much to the annoyance of Hötzendorf, who felt that Serbia and the Balkans were very much within Austro-Hungarian spheres of influence. Selected for the assignment was August von Mackensen a veteran leader and hero of the Russian Campaign, who had recently been promoted to Field Marshal. He had worked with both Gallwitz and Kövess on the Eastern Front.
Using the thunderous barrage as cover, and assisted by the small fleet of river gunboats, German troops crossed the Danube at Smederovo and Dubravica, on both sides of the mouth of the Morava, the valley of which was the gateway to points south. Smaller-scale passages were also forced at Ram, Gradiste and Orsova to the east, that same day of October 7th. Bridging operations were much facilitated by the presence of large islands dividing the massive stream at the main crossing-points. The Austrians used similar topographic advantages to negotiate the waters before Belgrade, where they hopped both the Save and the larger river. Upstream Obrenovac was assaulted, as was Skela, Sabac and Lesnica on the Drina. Much smaller secondary units threatened the Serb left flank in the mountains around Visegrad, as well as the Montenegrin frontier.
Serbia’s Armies were ill-positioned to meet the new invasion, but Putnik was hardly to blame; Bulgaria’s attitude had forced him to deploy something like 40% of his strength in the east, leaving only First Army to cover the Drina and part of the Save, Third Army opposite the Germans, and the so-called ‘Belgrade Group’ to defend the gap between the two. It was not enough. Late on the 8th, Hungarian troops fought their way into the old forts of Belgrade, and the city was ordered evacuated. Of the French, British and Russian heavy artillery contingents sent to reinforce the defense, some were destroyed by bombardment, some were overrun and a few were withdrawn at the last moment. All night the battle for Belgrade raged in the streets; it often assumed a hand-to-hand character in which even civilians were reported to have taken part. When the Austrians announced the capture of the ex-capitol on the 9th, they could boast of only 35 guns taken, and roughly 600 mostly wounded prisoners.
Efficient work by the Austrian engineers had completed two pontoon bridges over the Save by October 10th. Now Kövess’ machine could begin to roll. That same day Serb troops reported the use of gas by the enemy at Zabre, but also claimed that they met the attack protected by gas masks, and the latter assertion is almost certainly untrue, unless some primitive measure to deal with the asphyxiates could be considered ‘masks’. The Serbs did, however, enjoy considerably more success in delaying the invasion on their left, where First Army soldiers fought off enemy attacks near many of the battlefields of the previous year’s fighting.
Gallwitz, meanwhile, had achieved all of his initial objectives when Smederovo was captured on the 11th. German troops were now on the south bank of the Danube in four locations, with bridging projects either complete or in the final stages of readiness. The big story of October 11th, however, was not the Austrian or German gains, but the entry of their Bulgarian allies into the campaign. Having massed his First Army around the northwestern town of Belogradcik, General Kliment Boyadshiev loosed one division at Zajecar and the other at Knjazevac, two Serbian centers on the banks of the river Timok, just over the common frontier. Although the Entente nations were not surprised by the Bulgarian gamble, the shock of reality at the thought of a new official enemy was nonetheless considerable. No worthwhile force stood between the German left at Orsova and Boyadshiev’s right on the Timok, and it seemed inevitable that the two should want to close the gap.
Two decent roads lead from Bulgaria’s Struma Valley into that of the Vardar in Macedonia, one from Kjustendil to Kumanovo, the second from Blagojevgrad to Veles; these were the routes chosen by General Todorov for use by his Second Army. If either of the Serbian towns could be captured, the railroad from Salonika to Nish and Belgrade would be cut and the Serbs isolated from foreign assistance, except the trickle coming through Antivari and San Giovanni di Medua. The French and British were well aware of the danger, but London had not yet authorized its troops to move beyond the Greek frontier in the absence of any Bulgarian Declaration of War. Paris, on the other hand, had become increasingly disillusioned over Gallipoli, and tired of its divisions there having to serve under British overall command. Salonika and Serbia offered new possibilities. Even before the enemy invasion had commenced, it had been decided to send a Western Front General to Salonika to take charge of an enlarging French force there which would be entirely independent of the British.
Few persons would have wanted such a command and even fewer would have accepted one. But the Westerners had a perfect candidate in Maurice Sarrail, an Army boss well known as a non-conformist. A one-time supporter of the persecuted Dreyfus at the end of the previous Century, Sarrail was considered a ‘radical’, a Freemason whose politically-incorrect ways were shunned by most of his contemporaries. Sending him to Salonika was to be rid of him in the West, while not seeming to punish or demote him. Had they done so sooner, the Serbian Campaign may have had a somewhat different outcome. As it was, he did not arrive at Salonika until October 12th, by which time Todorov’s Bulgarians were bearing down on the railroad.
Sarrail was not a man to waste any time. Although the Entente had delivered 20,000 troops to Salonika, he could speak only for the French, ordering them to move northward at once. At almost the same moment, the Serbs and Bulgarians declared war on each other, finally confirming the existence of the Quadruple Alliance. Next day Montenegro and Britain declared against Sofia; it took the French yet another day to do likewise (October 16th). The General was not waiting; his advance guard clashed with a small group of Bulgarians from nearby Strumitza at Valandovo on the 15th, driving them off.
Britain’s initial response was more political than military. A blockade of Bulgaria’s Aegean Coast was announced on October 16th, and a new offer forwarded to Athens. London offered to cede Cyprus to Greece in exchange for Greek participation in the Entente. Predictably, the Zaimis Government declined.
Off to the north, the Alliance invasion was rolling on. Mackensen had enough troops on Serbian soil by mid-month to order his armies into full-scale attack. Pozarevac (Passarowitz), site of the Austrian-Ottoman Treaty of 1718, fell on October 14th. Vranje, on the Salonika railroad south of Nish, was captured by Bulgarian Cavalry on the 16th, while Second Army infantry took Kriva Palanka, Katshana and Sultan Tepe on the 17th. First Army also advanced, occupying Zajecar and crossing the lower Timok. Kövess, after heavy battles lasting several days, was at last able to announce the capture of Obrenovac on the 18th, though his men still faced a stubborn defense on the heights east of the Kolubara.
Russia and Italy, though not involved in the ongoing campaign, showed solidarity with their allies by declaring war on Bulgaria on the 19th. French troops moved into Strumitza Station (on the railroad west of the town of that name) that day, but within 24 hours had received the depressing information that the enemy had reached Veles, the first major town to the north. Pushing ahead, they took Robovo two days later, but were attacked by approaching Bulgarian troops. Spirits were temporarily lifted on the 22nd by a Serbian counterattack which recaptured Veles, and by the first northward movement of the British, who had just been authorized to fight the war they were caught up in. Off the Aegean coast, British warships opened fire on the Bulgarian port of Dedeagach, savaging the already flimsy docking facilities there. For awhile, it seemed the Entente was serious about a Balkan Campaign; but any such hopes were soon dashed. Having advanced only as far as Lake Doiran on the Greek/Serb frontier, the British were stopped by fresh Bulgarian forces on the 24th. The French, who had gone as far as Veles on the railroad, were heavily countered, and fearing isolation from his allies, Sarrail decided to go no farther.
In the event, it was a wise decision. Bulgarian troops had secured Kumanovo on the 21st and raced ahead to claim the prize and largest city of all Macedonia, Skopje (Uskub). It was firmly in Todorov’s hands by the morning of the 23rd.
Meanwhile, Kövess was 50 kilometers south by southwest of Belgrade by the time Sabac was taken, an event that seemed only a footnote to the campaign, unlike its importance to earlier ones. Before darkness fell two days later on the 23rd, the Austrians were on the outskirts of Palanka and Petrovac. On the far right, supporting troops advanced into Serbia from the Visegrad area; others stamped out pockets of Serb resistance east of the lower Drina. The Montenegrins did their best to draw off some Austrian strength by engaging their enemies at Foca, Klobuk, and Kalinovik in a series of small but bloody battles. During these actions, an Austrian reconnaissance airplane developed engine problems, and the pilot was forced to land within the Montenegrin lines where he was promptly taken prisoner. His name was Julius Arigi; he would eventually become the second-highest scoring ace of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
During the early-morning hours of October 23rd, the Austrians lost their best river gunboat to a mine in the Save, along with 35 crewmen. This was nothing compared to the loss by the French of the troopship Marquette on the same day, as it was transporting soldiers to Salonika. Submarine U-35 had done the deed; the German Command had also directed U-33 and U-39 to the region to stalk enemy shipping supplying the Greek port.
Neither Gallwitz nor Boyadshiev was able to penetrate deep into Serb territory, at least at first. This was due to the extremely poor roads in their sectors, but also to praiseworthy Serb resistance. The German took Malakrsna on the 18th, only to be swiftly ejected by a Serbian counter-attack. It was only a week after this that 11th Army’s center was able to push beyond Petrovac, itself less than halfway to the Bulgarians at Zajecar. That same day Boyadshiev’s men were only two kilometers past the lower Timok. Towards the Romanian border, however, events moved quickly once the first stubborn dominos were toppled. Once the Serb strong-points of Negotin and Prahovo were forced to surrender—on October 24th—only two more days were needed for the Germans rushing down from Orsova to meet First Army Bulgarians moving north from Prahovo. These allies linked up at Lyubicevac. From that moment, all four Alliance Powers were physically joined. Next day Zajecar passed to the invaders, and the entire Timok line crumbled, its erstwhile defenders desperately seeking salvation across the wooded hills to the southwest. Knjazevac was abandoned on the 27th, along with 1,400 prisoners; the road to Nish was wide open, and Pasic sent out a last desperate appeal for help from his faltering allies. When Pirot fell to the Bulgarians on the 28th, the War Capitol was evacuated of all Serbian Government attachments, these being transferred to Kraljevo, well to the west. But Kraljevo was by no means safe; Kövess had begun a battle on the northern approaches of Kragujevac by the time the Serb officials reached their new ‘capitol’, and it was only two mountain ridges distant. Kragujevac was the site of the country’s only arsenal, and not likely to be surrendered lightly. Nevertheless, so unhinged had the front become at this time that Putnik was obliged to concede that the town could not be held for any length of time, and subsequently gave orders for the demolition of the arsenal. The structure disappeared in a cloud of smoke and dust on October 29th, the Serb rearguards retiring in the direction of Kraljevo. A cautious enemy entered the place the following day.
For the Serbs, the situation was no better in the south. Having brought forward more units near Veles, Todorov’s Second Army launched a strong counterattack upon the French and Serb forces there, forcing them to retreat; the French retired down the Vardar toward Krivolak, the Serbs, their withdrawal to the north cut off by the fall of Skopje, decided to make for Prilep, a Macedonian town to the southwest. The road to their destination led over a narrow and deep defile through the mountains known as the Babuna Pass, and it was here that the local commander Colonel Vasic ordered a stand be made. He was confident that his 5,000 man force could hold the Pass against a much more numerous attack force. North of Skopje the right wing of Second Army was held up in a similar feature, the Kacanik Pass, at the eastern end of the Sar Ridge. The difference was that the Kacanik units were in touch with the main Serb Field Armies, or what was left of them, while Vasic’s men were isolated in the cul-de-sac of southwest Macedonia.
Although the center of gravity of fighting in the Balkans had obviously shifted to Serbia that autumn, men were still suffering and dying on Gallipoli. There had been little activity on the Peninsula since October 8th, when a powerful storm damaged some piers and made life even more miserable for the soldiers. Thereafter came the lull with the dismissal of Hamilton and the wait for his successor. The politicking, of course, continued unabated. On October 20th, Churchill circulated a memorandum in which he claimed that the enemy had sent large quantities of poison gas to the Turkish capitol, and advocated outfitting all British troops employed against Turkey with gas masks. He went on to suggest the Entente use the same weapon at the Strait. To that point only one member of the British Cabinet—Attorney General Carson—had resigned over the Governments’ failure to properly respond to the crisis in Serbia. Such was not the case in France, where the Viviani Government fell over continuing failures on the Western Front and was replaced by one headed by Aristide Briand, a man friendly to a Balkan venture. Soon, the French were insisting on reinforcing the troops at Salonika, at the expense of Gallipoli, if necessary.
The British were not prepared to quarrel with their most important ally. On October 30th, they agreed to “cooperate energetically” with Sarrail’s men at Salonika, though privately most were not happy with this outcome. At the same time, Sir Charles Monro arrived at the Straits. His first communication to London was a request for winter clothing for the troops (October 28th); he then proceeded to inspect the men and positions of his new command, questioning carefully all he was inclined to. Within two days, he had come to a conclusion: Gallipoli should be evacuated, even if the cost in casualties was high. On the 31st, stunned officials in London read his message. After six months of furious fighting, so many men, animals, machines and ships lost, the boss on the spot believed it had all been for nothing. It is perhaps needless to relate that Monro was a Westerner. Even so, the Committee did not immediately accept his conclusions; another opinion was to be considered.
On the ground, the shelling and sniping continued, taking a reduced, but steady toll of lives. One Turk who kept a diary wrote often of discomforts caused by artillery and by lice. On October 18th he noticed enemy ranks “being thinned out and replaced by firepower”. He was on to something; both the French 156th and the British 10th Divisions had departed for Salonika by that time. The next unit to be withdrawn was the 2nd Mounted Division, which left in November for Egypt.
On the waves, the losses also mounted. A transport, the Hythe, was sunk off Gallipoli on October 28th, and France’s submarine Turquoise became a victim in the Dardanelles on November 1st, to Turkish shellfire. Twelve days later it was a British sub, the E-20 that met the same fate in the Sea of Marmora. At Suvla Bay on November 1st, the Destroyer Louis was blown ashore in a fierce gale and wrecked.
Despite the ongoing difficulties, Lord Kitchener expressed dissatisfaction with Monro’s conclusions on November 3rd. He decided to travel to Turkey and have a look for himself. By the 9th, he had reached Mudros; two days later he was surveying the trenches of Gallipoli. He would draw no hasty conclusions, preferring to remain in the theatre for another ten days, filing several reports and witnessing the desultory shelling and worsening weather. On the 17th, docking facilities at both beachheads on Gallipoli were smashed by the heavy, storm-driven sea.
In Serbia, the advent of November brought no relief to soldier or civilian alike. By scraping the absolute bottom of the manpower barrel, and recruiting old men and young boys, the Serbs were able to raise two new divisions for a desperate, last-ditch defense. These were the Bregalnica and Vardar Divisions, and their existence technically increased the nation’s order of battle to fourteen. In truth, anyone who could hold a rifle was considered a ‘soldier’ by now, greatly reducing the quality of Putnik’s remaining forces, which were further hampered by hordes of civilians clogging the roads as they tried to flee the enemy invasion. Those who stayed behind were traumatized by the memories of the atrocity stories of the prior year, and no one wanted to remain in a devastated land completely devoid of all means of subsistence. Still, many had no choice and were overrun by the invaders. An Austrian soldier remembered, years later, an instance of a Serb girl offering sex for a piece of bread; four soldiers responded, and all were infected with a venereal disease. Sometimes, it was the troops who infected the civilians. One Croat in Habsburg service recounted an incident in which he and five others forced themselves on two daughters of an innkeeper, transmitting disease to the helpless, unfortunate women. Looting was also in order; a German wrote of his men relieving a house of its “wine, cheese, chicken, pork and mutton” as they moved through a small town. Mostly, though, civilians suffered from the loss of their shelter and their animals, without each of which they possessed no means to survive the coming winter.
Svrlig is a small town a few kilometers northeast of Nish, and it was there that the battle for the city began on November 2nd. For three days the Serbs acquitted themselves well, but as neither casualties nor ammunition could be replaced, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. On November 5th, Bulgarian First Army units marched into Nish at the same time Kövess’ men took Kraljevo, which the Serb Government had abandoned two days earlier, when it fled to Raska. Not to be outdone, the Germans pushed out both of their flanks and joined with the Bulgarians to their left at Krivi Vir on the 5th, and with the Austrians to their right at Krusevac on the 7th. These movements, coupled with the seizure of Uzice on the 4th, meant that Serbia had lost the valleys of both the Eastern and Western Morava Rivers, depriving her of most of her infrastructure. Only the rugged, often trackless mountains of the southwest contiguous to Montenegro remained.
In Macedonia, the picture was no brighter. The French still held the Vardar Valley up to the mouth of the Cerna and had advanced up the latter stream to an obscure crossing known as Vozarci, when problems of supply dictated their halt. At this point, only the ruggedness of the terrain separated them from the Serbs at Babuna Pass, some 16 kilometers (10 miles) distant. A few days later on November 8th, they took their first Bulgarian prisoners. An advance to gain all the high ground was undertaken; this precipitated a week-long struggle against both the oncoming enemy and rain and sleet. Sarrail claimed to capture an obscure village known as Sirkovo on the 10th, and subsequently proclaimed victory in the so-called ‘Battle of the Mountain Ridges’. The fighting ended on the 14th, when the precipitation turned to heavy snow. On the same day the Serb defenders of Babuna Pass, discouraged by the enemy, the elements, and an absence of contact with the French, retired from the inhospitable and treacherous ravines and fell back on Prilep, which they reached two days later.
Yet again, Putnik was obliged to move his temporary capitol; this time they abandoned Raska for Mitrovica, near the legendary Field of the Blackbirds. If any place could be symbolic of Serbia’s continuing will to resist, this was surely it. One day after the evacuation, the Austrians took Raska (November 13th). Todorov, meanwhile, forced the defenders of Kacanik Pass to retreat towards Prizen, on the 15th. The Serbs were slowly but inexorably being shoved back upon the Albanian and Montenegrin frontiers, and no one could help them. The French were too few and the British were heavily engaged with fresh Bulgarian units of the newly-active Third Army and could not gain ground. For the Entente it was indeed a case of too little applied too late.
Disinterest on the part of the Entente coupled with the sluggishness of its reactions to enemy moves, nearly cost it the entire Balkans at this time. German engineers were already hard at work to repair the railroad across Serbia to Bulgaria, and in the meantime supplies bound for Turkey were shipped via the Danube to Lom, to which a spur line ran. The first of many such shipments arrived there on October 30th; soon von Sanders at the Straits was happy to receive ammunition and other support from Germany and Austria. He wrote of a 24cm mortar battery with crew coming in on November 15th, and another of 15cm following in December. A Turkish Lieutenant who kept a diary recorded “three hundred railway wagons of ammunition have arrived, as well as 21 and 24cm guns and 15cm howitzers” in his entry for November 9th.
A yawning British Cabinet met on the 19th, and decided to order three more divisions sent to Salonika, the 22nd, 26th and 27th, none of which, surprisingly, were to come from Gallipoli. Had they waited three more days—which under the circumstances would not have mattered to the Serbs—they would have had Kitchener’s initial report to help them make their decisions. His recommendation: evacuate Suvla/ANZAC but not Hellas, a classic case of the senseless half-measure.
No one need have worried. By the time Kitchener returned to Britain at the end of the month he had changed his mind again; this time he was for the complete evacuation of Gallipoli and was sour on Salonika as well. Perhaps his change of heart was at least partially due to reports that reached him en route. Beginning on the 26th, torrential rains had soaked everyone in the Aegean; after two days the downpour turned to snow and accumulated to 12 to 18 inches on the Peninsula by the 29th. Practically overnight, 16,000 cases of frostbite and exposure as well as 280 deaths thinned the British ranks.
The Turks, of course, were suffering as well. The same officer who was so thankful for reinforcement on the 9th of November was complaining about the rain and mud on the 17th. A week later, he wrote despairingly of the human sacrifice, describing a pool of dried blood with “bits of brain, bone and flesh mixed in.” On the 27th, morale was so poor that Turkish troops, when ordered to attack “refused to leave the trench and started crying….The entire unit is demoralized.” Little did they realize that time was now very much on their side.
Matters were also coming to a head in Greece, a nation ever torn between the Alliance, the Entente and Neutrality. Its neutral status having already been violated by the French and British in early October, the Germans sent a Zeppelin over Salonika in the first days of November to drop a load of bombs. If their ground was going to be fought over, most Greeks would have preferred to enter the War, but they could not agree on which side to make common cause with. On the 4th, the Zaimis Government fell in the turmoil, and Skouloudis emerged as Premier; he was a man the Entente felt they could intimidate. A ‘Pacific Blockade’ of Greece was announced on the 19th, though no one knew what that meant. They would soon learn. Essentially the Entente had decided to control not only the imports and exports of the nation, but also the use of its Navy as well. Furthermore the Greeks meekly accepted a Proclamation issued on the 25th which stated that ‘cordial relations’ between Greece and the Entente had been established. It is doubtful that King Constantine was feeling any too ‘cordial’ towards his overbearing ‘friends’.
Just before the atrocious weather of late November set in, the Ottoman Air Force was beginning to be a factor in the skies over the Straits. It was still a small, relatively inexperienced service, under the watchful eye of German Major Erich Sarno. Seaplanes began to fly over the Dardanelles Front as of summer 1915, on a fairly regular basis, and by the autumn air combat was not unknown. Two Turkish aviators flying a German Albatross CI scored the first known air victory for their country on November 30th, by downing a French Farman. For their part, the British delivered a bombing raid on the Dedeagach-Constantinople railroad on the 25th. Just how this action was supposed to injure the enemy is unclear, since the Bulgarian coast was already blockaded, and the main rail line from the interior ran from Adrianople to Constantinople, and thus was out of the seaplane’s range, except in a few places where it could easily be repaired.
Field Marshal von Mackensen was veteran enough to know when he had won a campaign, and even before the middle of November he was looking to General Headquarters for direction of further operations once the Serbs had surrendered. Hoping to spare his men the rigors of a winter sojourn around the primitive Balkan countryside, he offered his enemy peace on the 12th. For two entire weeks, there was no reply while Pasic exhausted every option in a desperate attempt to stave off defeat. Finally, on the 26th, the Serbs received a telegram from the Russian Czar, promising that his forces would soon appear in the region and save the Serbs from disaster. Thus far, Russia’s only contribution to the War in the Balkans had been a bombardment of the Ottoman capitol, but for some reason, possibly but not likely coincidence, Pasic rejected the German peace offer that very day.
The Alliance was not waiting, however, while the Serbs stalled. Its Armies had been constantly advancing toward the broken, sparsely-populated terrain of southwest Serbia. Bulgarian First Army elements entered Prokuplje on November 16th and began a five day long battle for mountainous ground separating the Morava and Ibar watersheds. The Serbs fought well in these engagements, but were outflanked by Germans driving south from Krusevac. Prepolac fell to the latter on the 21st; Tenedol Pass (Tenes Do) was approached a day later. Mackensen’s men were now perilously close to Pristina, itself only slightly east of the hallowed Field of the Blackbirds. At about the same time Austrian troops captured Novi Bazar, seat of the old Sanjak, and Novi Varos, somewhat farther west.
Yet again the Serb Government was forced to migrate, this time from Mitrovica. There were few locations in Serbia remaining to which to flee, so at length it was decided to make for Skutari in Albania, a location which had the advantage of being close to the sea. No good roads led over the trackless mountains in between, however, so the roundabout trek took several days to complete. On November 30th, the Ministers had established themselves in the foreign city, which was then under occupation by Montenegrins. Even there, the Serb officials could not have felt safe; one week earlier two Austrian cruisers, patrolling off the nearby coast had sunk a couple of small Italian vessels.
On November 23rd a major strategic decision could no longer be delayed. Serbia’s only remaining options were surrender, a fight to the death where her battered formations stood, or an attempt to escape the enemy by the sea. None were attractive, but Putnik would not surrender, and a suicidal last stand would only favor the Alliance, so reluctantly, the third option was chosen. Everyone knew it would be a terrible ordeal. The Serb troops were already exhausted, short of ammunition and low on all sorts of supplies. They would have to pass through the most bleak and rugged landscape in all the Balkans; many of the rocky, jagged ridges were devoid even of trees for firewood, a necessity in the worsening weather. And even should they reach the Adriatic, it would be in the territory of a neighboring people who were already sick and tired of being invaded by Serbs and Montenegrins. The Entente fleet might be salvation for them, but who could guarantee it would come to their aid?
Despite all the misgivings to and disadvantages of an Exodus in wintertime, the orders went out to begin it. That very day and the next (November 24th) German troops entered Mitrovica, Pristina, and occupied all of the Kosovo Plain. A last rearguard action took place at Prizen on the 27th; the defenders subsequently withdrawing down the Drin River Valley and over the Albanian frontier. Mackensen elected to not follow them. When all the prisoners from the battle at Prizen had been counted, the Germans found they had another 17,000 mouths to feed. Berlin declared the campaign over on the 28th. All of old Serbia had been overrun, and after only three years, Kosovo was once more in the grip of an invader
In Macedonia, the campaign was winding down as well. Once the Kacanik Pass force had retired to Prizen, only Vasic and his 5,000 Serbian troops remained, besides the French, to oppose the Bulgarians. When the latter reached Kruchevo on November 20th, Vasic feared for his rear and decided to fall back on Monastir, the last location of any importance in the province as yet unoccupied by the enemy. Joined there by two bedraggled regiments withdrawing from the north, the Serbs fell back to the west, towards Lakes Prespa and Ohrid and the Albanian frontier. When they had reached Resen, north of Prespa, the little army turned on its pursuers and fought a last action of the campaign. Then for reasons still unclear, they turned abruptly south, retreating along the eastern shore of the lake and into Greek territory (They were closer to the border when back in Monastir).
For their part, the French held on to their advanced and exposed positions on the middle Vardar for as long as they dared. As late as November 23rd, they were still holding their own against Bulgarian attacks, but once their Serb allies were driven off to the west, Sarrail’s men were left as too exposed on their flanks. Hoping against hope, they clung to Vozarci until the 27th, when all prospect of victory had vanished; they then evacuated their advanced positions and fell back down the Vardar, closely followed by the Bulgarians. French aviators covered the withdrawal, bombing enemy communications at Skopje, Istip and Strumitza. By the first week of December, the retreat was conducted in much more haste.
Having metaphorically burned all of their bridges to any accommodation with the Alliance, the Serbs now had no choice but to flee for their lives through the barren and inhospitable mountains of Montenegro and northern Albania. There were still roughly 200,000 of them, counting the numerous civilians who had clung to the ragged remnants of Serb military units in a desperate bid for salvation from the hated foe. Without gasoline or parts for their few motor vehicles or shells for the artillery pieces that had been saved, these were destroyed in a last-minute orgy of demolition and fire. Then, the demoralized host began its march to Skutari through the mud and snow. Four columns were formed, each of which would follow a different route along existing paths, streams and trails; there were no good roads. The remnants of the force from Prizen could at least cling to the course of the river Drin, though it wound through difficult gorges and much treeless country, where the Serbs were subjected to guerilla attacks by hostile Albanian bands. Soldiers stranded in the Jakovik (Dakovica) area first needed to scale a precipitous mountain ridge, and then descend steep, rocky defiles before reaching the Lumi Valbones, a narrow, swift-running tributary of the Drin. Those who began the journey from the Ipek (Pec) region could not hope to cross the impossible heights to the southwest, so they first moved west until they could ascend the upper Lim Valley, then stumble across the remote frontier area and down to the Moraca, which led to Lake Skutari. This roundabout route was twice the distance to the new capitol as it appeared on a map, but again, negotiating the North Albanian Alps in winter was not an option. The fourth column was the smallest. It retreated from the Bjelo Polje position on the Lim, and crawled over the ridge to the upper Tara, then to the Moraca. By December 1st, the movements resembled four lines of ants, marching inexorably toward a pre-determined destination.
Across a normally gorgeous winter landscape the Exodus struggled, battling hunger, exhaustion, privation and disease. Incredibly, it brought with it an estimated 24,000 Austrian prisoners of war, many of the bodies of whom marked the trail, along with countless Serbs, horses and oxen. “The snow covered up their misery for ever.” Wrote a British nurse serving with a Serb Relief Unit. She remembered crossing high passes with only a “2 foot track” to walk on. “On the right were snow-covered cliffs, on the left a sheer drop to the river 1,000 feet below.” Another British woman, a writer, suggested that Christ’s death by crucifixion was “gentle” compared to some of those she had witnessed. Perhaps she was right; the Good Book itself had for centuries warned against such an undertaking as the Serbs were now involved in. “Pray that your flight may not be in winter”, it admonished. Other witnesses were horrified to encounter filthy, emaciated soldiers and civilians in rags, often without boots or even shoes, surviving on raw cabbage and a few loose kernels of maize. A French correspondent claimed that between 1,000 and 1,500 of these hapless people were “lost in Albania by savage native attacks”.
Nevertheless, through all the incredible misery of the winter march, no one suggested that the majority of Serbs had lost their will to live or even to fight. Old and ill King Peter was carried by his soldiers, four at a time, in a sedan-chair complete with top and side protection from the elements; Putnik and a few other elderly, frail, high-ranking officers were afforded similar treatment. By a combination of self-sacrifice, perseverance and fierce determination to succeed, the columns of struggling human beings eventually reached their destinations, Skutari and the Adriatic Sea. It was a great accomplishment, but the price was high. The first of about 135,000 survivors began appearing in Skutari during the second week of December. The remainder had emerged from the snowy hills before the winter solstice; all others were presumed lost, and most would never be seen again, with even their final resting-places unmarked and unrecorded. It was a catastrophe of the first magnitude; however, the nucleus of a future Serb fighting force had been salvaged.
For the Alliance, only Montenegro remained to be overrun. With German support fading and being withdrawn, the task was pretty much left to the Austrians. Four German Divisions departed in late November; two more left the Balkans in December, leaving but five in Serbia. In the early days of the new month, Austro-German troops collaborated in the so-called Battle of the White Drin near Jakovik, annihilating a Serb rear-guard and taking much war material as spoils, but few prisoners. The nearby town fell on December 3rd. Ipek was captured by Austrian units three days later. The main Habsburg attack on Montenegro, however, came from the west, a two pronged blow aimed at the capitol and at Niksic, forcing the contingents defending Foca, Bjelo Polje and Berane to fall back toward the seacoast. Poor weather and the absence of good roads hampered all movement; Austrian progress was so slow that it was not until the 23rd that the capture of Berane was announced. Nikola’s soldiers were still fighting well as late as the final day of the year, when a clash with the enemy at Rozaj was hailed as a ‘repulse’ of the invaders.
As of early December 1915, all of Serbia save the southernmost reaches of Macedonia had been occupied by Alliance troops. The German Command warned the Bulgarians not to advance beyond the Greek frontier, but the latter had not yet reached any stretch of it to the west of Strumitza. On the second day of the month, French forces in the Vardar Valley began to withdraw down the Salonika railroad, with their enemies in hot pursuit. When Sarrail paused at Demir Kapu on the 5th, his men were attacked; at the same moment another Bulgarian Division was trying to cut the railroad near Strumitza Station, while simultaneously striking at the British holding a line west of Lake Doiran. In several days of fighting in dreary weather, the Entente troops were able to prevent themselves being encircled, though the British were driven from the Lake region to the railroad along the Vardar, losing 1,300 men and eight guns in the process.
Sarrail conducted himself well during the retreat, pausing to destroy bridges and even a tunnel on the rail line, a textbook withdrawal, but somewhat slower than what it should have been. Catching him again on December 8th, at Gradek, Todorov’s Bulgarians initiated a two-day battle the result of which was another French retreat in haste. On the 10th, the little Bojimia River, a minor tributary of the Vardar, had become the front line; next day Sarrail’s men linked with the British. Both contingents began to slip over the border back into Greece, ripping up the rails and firing the villages as they went. Gevgelija, the last settlement north of the frontier, was almost completely destroyed. All Entente soldiers who were not casualties were back on Greek soil by the 12th. The French had lost 3,500 men in their retrograde movement from Macedonia. Although they were tempted to do so, the Bulgarians did not cross into Greece. They did, of course, complete the occupation of Macedonia, the main prize for which they had gone to war. Monastir and the road south to the frontier were secured by December 5th. Other formations pushed hard to the west to try to fall upon the rear of fleeing Serbs, but few were ever encountered, and the westernmost settlement of the province—Debar—fell after scarcely a skirmish. With no further enemies north of Lake Ohrid to be rounded up, one Bulgarian column entered Albanian soil on the night of the 14th/15th, passing between Ohrid and Lake Prespa, presumably looking for the Serb force from Resen, which had marched east of Prespa to parts unknown. They found no Serbs but did run into a Greek regiment at Korca, where some hostile shots were exchanged before cooler heads prevailed. Probably prompted by this incident, the Greek Premier Skouloudis warned the Bulgarians, on the 17th, not to violate Greek territory. It was an outrageous stance, considering that Bulgaria’s enemies were violating Greek territory unimpeded, but without Austro-German support, Ferdinand’s government could only bide its time.
It did so, believing that once its allies had finished up with the Montenegrins and the obviously foundering enemy foothold on Gallipoli, they would surely want to drive in the Entente lines along Greece’s northern border. After all, the latest Serbian Campaign had been all about eliminating a front for Austria-Hungary and making contact with the Turks. Now that these goals had been accomplished, why would their Alliance partners want to leave them holding the bag in Greece when Romania remained to be intimidated? It was a question that not only many in Sofia were asking, but also many in Paris and London as well. None could have known that the Germans were already preparing for a mighty offensive at Verdun, on the Western Front. For the moment, all attention in the Balkans would re-focus on Montenegro, Albania and Gallipoli, where the ongoing dramas needed one final act.
Briefly then, the French took the field first. In September 1757 the first reinforcements to reach India since the outbreak of war had been landed at Pondicherry. Because of the imminent monsoon, the fleet which brought them immediately scurried back to Mauritius. Without a fleet, the French held their offensive. In February Pocock’s fleet arrived on The Coast from Bengal and in April a second French fleet under the Comte d’Ache made its way up to Pondicherry. Pocock managed to intercept and just about came off best in a very untidy encounter. He failed, though, to disable the French vessels which duly landed a second regiment, a train of artillery, and the Comte de Lally as Commander-in-Chief and President of all the French settlements.
With d’Ache remaining on The Coast to distract Pocock, de Lally immediately took the offensive. His now formidable army crossed the dunes to Fort St David, quickly drove the garrison from straggling Cuddalore, and began the laborious ritual of constructing breaching batteries to pound the Fort. The British held out for less than a month. It was a great disappointment considering the supposed strength of the place and, true to form, the directors blamed their servants; ‘the whole siege was one scene of disorder, confusion, mismanagement, and total inattention to every branch’.
Such bluster carries little conviction. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and quickly deserted by most of their native troops, the Fort St David councillors had little chance. They had counted on Pocock coming to their rescue but adverse winds prevented his approach. With four batteries trained on their walls and with insufficient troops to mount a foray, they wisely capitulated. De Lally razed the place, then took Devikottai, and finally staged a triumphal march through Pondicherry. Apart from some insignificant garrisons at places like Trichy and Arcot, all that now hindered a continuation of his triumphal progress north to Hyderabad, de Bussy and Bengal was Fort St George.
De Lally favoured an immediate advance and had this been possible, Madras might well have fallen. But no siege could be effective with Pocock’s squadron still in the offing. De Lally therefore ordered d’Ache to engage it. D’Ache refused, probably because he preferred to cruise in search of the year’s fleet of Indiamen. This meant a four-month delay until the October monsoon would oblige Pocock to desert his station. De Lally passed the time with an attack on the still independent ‘Tanjoreens’, a traditional expedient for raising funds; Madras readied itself for action.
Thus far the British had not been wholly passive observers of French progress. Trichy had seen yet more manoeuvres as a French force invested the fort and was then drawn off by a largely sepoy army under Captain John Caillaud of the Company. Meanwhile Fort St George itself was being ringed with the whole Vaubanesque vocabulary of ravelins and lunettes, glacis and bastions. The vulnerable west front was said now to be ‘pretty well secured’ (Ives) with more angles and faces than the much-cut Pitt diamond. Partly overgrown and partly over-built, they are yet visible in today’s Fort St George, the most impressive relic of the Company (as opposed to the Raj) in India. But as well as an acute shortage of troops thanks to Clive’s absence in Bengal, Madras was hamstrung by an incompetent commander in the bumbling person of Colonel John Aldercron of the 39th. This was the regiment brought to Madras by Watson in 1756, the first Royal regiment to serve in India. Its artillery had been siphoned off to Bengal by Clive and for the next three years the efforts of the Madras Council ‘were directed to getting the use of Aldercron’s troops without Aldercron’ (Biddulph). They succeeded when in 1758, as the entire regiment was recalled to England, half its members signed up in the Company’s forces. At about the same time the first detachments of a new regiment, His Majesty’s 64th under the able Colonel Draper, landed at Madras. With Stringer Lawrence still at the head of the Company’s troops and Draper leading the royal troops, Madras awaited de Lally’s army of 6000 with a garrison of 4000, ten times that of 1746.
Meanwhile Pocock had at last cornered the reluctant d’Ache. Off Negapatnam – where else? – the British won a victory which, if not exactly resounding, confirmed d’Ache’s anxieties. Taking this engagement with the previous one, he had suffered 900 dead and wounded to Pocock’s 300 while his ships, though still afloat, stood badly in need of repairs. Nothing would now stop him, not even a Council of War, from withdrawing to Mauritius. He limped away in September. In so far as Pocock was also obliged to withdraw ahead of the monsoon, it did not materially affect the balance of power.
But it did mean that de Lally, unlike La Bourdonnais, had to reach Madras overland. It was not Lawrence’s intention to contest this advance but with seventy miles between the French capital and the English, it was obvious that their supply line would be vulnerable. Accordingly a small British force was left to hold Chingleput, a strategic fort twenty miles south of Madras. De Lally debated whether to take it but decided that he could afford neither the men nor the time. The monsoon was slowing his progress and, even without fighting, it was 12 December 1758 before he finally entered Madras’s Black Town.
The siege now began in earnest – but with a British offensive. Learning that the French troops had discovered Black Town’s main distillery, Draper deemed the moment ripe for action. Six hundred men with a couple of guns charged out of one of the fort’s gates and, having terrorized the township with a militarily pointless but psychologically useful manoeuvre, charged back through another. They lost both their guns and sustained heavy losses; but so did the French.
In the event this puzzling action proved to be the only serious engagement of the entire siege. De Lally’s batteries opened fire in January but the new defences stood up well to the heavy bombardment. Even when a breach was made, so properly contrived and so hotly defended were those ravelins and lunettes that no escalade was deemed possible. Siege warfare, like the art of fortification, depended heavily on convention. Each side knew what to expect of the other and, as the shot and shell whistled overhead, each was busy underground digging mines and counter-mines. Certain actions were, however, taboo. In the midst of hostilities de Lally had occasion to complain to Pigot, the Fort St George President, that someone had presumed to fire on his headquarters. It was, of course, a terrible mistake. Pigot had been under the impression that de Lally had based himself in the Capuchin church. Obviously he was wrong. ‘If you will do the honour to inform me at which pagoda [place of worship] you fix your headquarters, all due respect will be paid them.’ After all, ‘in war mutual civilities and mutual severities may be expected’.
De Lally, a stickler for the civilities if not the severities, had convinced himself that under the rules of engagement the British ought to have handed over Chingleput. In fact they had reinforced it. By February Caillaud (a Company officer in spite of his name) and the sepoys from Trichy had joined the Chingleput garrison and had advanced almost to San Thomé on the outskirts of Madras. A determined French assault failed to dislodge them; equally Caillaud was incapable of breaking through the French cordon. But once again the besiegers were beginning to feel like the besieged.
This impression was reinforced by news from further afield. Although Clive still declined to desert Bengal’s rich political and commercial pickings, he had at last dispatched a considerable force by sea to the Northern Circars. These were the coastal districts of Hyderabad north of Masulipatnam which had been ceded to de Bussy by the Nizam. The expedition, under Colonel Francis Forde, was intended as a diversionary tactic to prevent French troops being moved down to the Carnatic.
In the event Forde quickly exceeded these modest expectations. De Lally had obligingly recalled de Bussy to assist in operations against Madras. The ablest of French generals thus became a disenchanted and obstructive subordinate while his conquests were squandered by the less experienced Marquis de Conflans. In early December, as de Lally came in sight of Madras, a pitched battle was being fought near Rajahmundry in which the British and their local ally won a decisive victory. Three months later Forde would take Masulipatnam and sign a treaty with the Nizam for the expulsion of all French troops and the cession of the Northern Circars to the Company.
For the hard-pressed garrison of Fort St George still more cheering news arrived from Anjengo in late January. Pocock, who had been in Bombay, had met up with the fleet of Indiamen conveying the rest of Draper’s regiment from England and was now rounding Sri Lanka. Within a week the first vessel arrived off Madras with ammunition and treasure; and on the evening of 6 February six more ships were ‘descried in the north-east standing towards the road’. They anchored off the fort that night. Next day the garrison woke to the sight of de Lally’s entire army decamping towards the west.
‘Joy and curiosity carried out everyone to view and contemplate the works from which they had received so much molestation for…42 days,’ writes Orme. With that remorseless concern for detail that distinguishes his work, Orme claims that the fort had fired 26,554 rounds from its cannon and 7,502 shells from its mortars. 1,990 hand grenades had been heaved from the battlements, 200,000 cartridges fired from the muskets. His casualty count gives 934 as the dead and wounded amongst the British but ‘the loss of men sustained by the French army is no where acquired’. ‘Thus ended this siege, without doubt the most strenuous and regular that had ever been carried on in India.’ Orme, who had devoted seventy strenuous and regular pages to it, heaved a sigh of satisfaction. ‘We have detailed it, in the hopes that it may remain an example and incitement.’
Although the tide had turned, the British were slow to take advantage. Before moving against Pondicherry they needed more troops – the new arrivals barely offset those lost during the siege – and undisputed command of the sea. In September d’Ache and his fleet reappeared on The Coast. Pocock, for the third and last time, moved to attack. The result was much as before only more so. D’Ache limped into Pondicherry and two weeks later sailed back to Mauritius never to visit The Coast again. In the following month Eyre Coote, Clive’s second in command at Plassey, arrived with a new battalion from home.
With de Lally’s unpopularity and Pondicherry’s insolvency provoking open mutiny amongst the French troops, Coote moved rapidly to the kill. In January 1760 he routed the enemy at the battle of Wandiwash, half way to Pondicherry, and by May had reduced all the outlying French garrisons and had begun the blockade of Pondicherry. In desperation de Lally looked for allies among the native powers. His best hope, a formidable army under the adventurer Hyder Ali from Mysore, abandoned him in August. In the same month Coote also received reinforcements but of a more reliable nature. Among the new batch of recruits sent from home was ‘part of a Highland regiment supplied by the government’. Evidently excited by these first Highlanders ever to serve in India, Orme was moved to record the event in a sentence of such puzzling obscurity that only unedited quotation can do it justice.
These mighty aids [the Highlanders] witnessed in this quarter of the globe, as equal efforts, wheresoever necessary, in every other, the superior energy of that mind, who possessing equally the confidence of his sovereign and the nation, conducted the arduous and extensive war in which they were engaged against their great and only rival.
The Highlanders had little opportunity to exercise ‘the superior energy of mind’ because Pondicherry, unlike Madras, was to succumb more to starvation than bombardment. The blockade depended heavily on the British fleet which made only the briefest of monsoon excursions to Trinconomalee and was back off the city by December. There, like La Bourdonnais before Madras, it was overtaken by a cyclone; several ships were sunk, many more dismasted. De Lally hailed the event as his deliverance and, had d’Ache reappeared, the blockade must have collapsed. But d’Ache was still in Mauritius and, as Pocock’s scattered men-of-war returned to their station, French hopes evaporated. On 16 January 1761 the emaciated garrison finally surrendered. Not a cat, not a rat, not a crow had survived the ravenous attentions of the besieged. They marched out from a ghost town and the British engineers moved in to destroy its fortifications once and for all. Although peace in Europe would eventually restore both Pondicherry and Chandernagar to their rightful owners, they would never again constitute a threat to British supremacy.
Begun with a pre-emptive snip in Burma, the process of clearing France’s exuberant growth in Indian waters had continued with a lop in Bengal and a veritable felling programme in the Circars and the Carnatic. It ended with a cosmetic flourish when Mahé, the only French establishment on the Malabar Coast, was overwhelmed by an expedition from neighbouring Tellicherry.
But the British were not to have it all their own way. Britannia, in the words of the song written by Thomas Arne a few years earlier and now lustily sung by every Tilbury tar, ‘ruled the waves’ but only around India; elsewhere Britons were all too easily ‘made slaves’. In 1760 Benkulen and its satellite trading posts on Sumatra’s west coast were ‘shamelessly’ surrendered to a French flotilla; and in the same year the Company’s men were driven from their unhappy home at Gombroon in the Persian Gulf.
Even the trade with China was at risk to French warships lurking in the Straits of Malacca. Taken along with the withdrawal from Burma, the temporary loss of Benkulen highlighted the Company’s weakness east of India. Henceforth the protection of the immensely valuable China trade would become something of an obsession occasioning a significant reawakening of interest in almost every shoreline in south-east Asia. Many and often bizarre would be the solutions propounded. But few were quite as improbable and sensational as the first, a major offensive against the Philippines in 1762. It was launched, like so many of the later eastern initiatives, from Madras.
British naval squadron in the 1760s: Capture of Manila 6th October 1762 in the Seven Years War: picture by Dominic Serres
The Philippines still belonged to Spain, her consolation prize for losing out to Portugal in the spice race, and Spain had thus far stood neutral in the Seven Years War. But when, in 1761, after the breakdown of Anglo-French peace talks, the Bourbons renewed their Family Compact, Whitehall detected a hostile alliance and formally declared war on Madrid. Indeed, plans for an offensive had been hatched well ahead of the actual declaration and predictably they were directed at Madrid’s colonial empire. In a two-pronged attack Pocock, lately returned to England from his tussles with d’Ache, was to storm Havana while on the other side of the world Draper, who had left Madras immediately after the siege, was to lead an assault on Manila.
The Philippines expedition seems to have been the brainchild of Lord Anson, now First Lord of the Admiralty. Twenty years previously, in the War of Jenkins’s Ear, Anson had rounded Cape Horn, attacked Spanish possessions in Peru, and then crossing the Pacific had taken a Spanish galleon laden with Mexican silver off the coast of Luzon (the Philippines). One or two such galleons reached Manila every year giving the mother country an access to the trade of China, India, and the archipelago which, though small by comparison with the turnover of the English Company, was nevertheless immensely profitable. Anson’s idea was to close this Spanish trapdoor into ‘the eastern treasure house’ by occupying Manila.
To that extent the whole scheme was a product of Whitehall’s global strategy and not of the Company’s ambitions – a distinction that becomes increasingly relevant in the late eighteenth century. The first that the directors heard of it was when Anson divulged the plan to Sulivan, the Company’s chairman, in December 1761. The declaration of war came a week later and just seven weeks after that Draper and the British contingent sailed from Plymouth. If the idea was to take Manila by surprise, the effect was also to take the Company by surprise. The Philippines undoubtedly lay within the area covered by the Company’s trading monopoly and since the Company had come to rely on the British government for military assistance in India, the government argued that it had a right to reciprocal assistance for any national schemes within that monopoly area. Thus Draper was not only to find ships and troops from among the Royal forces in India but also to enlist Company troops, artillery and transports.
Time did not permit of an exploration of this novel argument but, by way of sugaring the pill, it was emphasized that Manila, once taken, would be handed over to the Company. The capture of Pondicherry, like the recapture of Calcutta, had occasioned an unseemly row between Royal and Company officers. It was important to reassure the Company on this score and, lest Manila should be handed back to Spain at the end of the war, there was also mention of a second base, ideally on the southern island of Mindanao, as an alternative settlement.
The directors, though, remained distinctly cool. As will appear, they had reason to believe that they already had an option on a settlement in the vicinity of the Philippines. But informed that their co-operation would be an ‘acceptable testimony of their due sense of the King’s most gracious attention to their interests’ during the struggle with de Lally, they could hardly refuse. They did voice serious doubts, particularly about depleting either their forces or their shipping in India; and they also made it clear that, whatever the commercial compensations Manila might or might not afford, they expected their assistance to be paid for.
General William Draper, British army commander at the Capture of Manila 6th October 1762 in the Seven Years War
These reservations were shared by President Pigot and Colonel Lawrence when Draper reached Madras in July 1762. Although such worries were genuine enough, a further concern that weighed heavily with the Madras Council was the likely effect of the expedition on Madras’s private trade with Manila. As with Burma so with the Philippines; English trade in a variety of guises had been reaching Manila ever since the middle of the seventeenth century. By Governor Pitt’s time one or two private vessels had been sailing for the Philippines every year with Indian piece goods and returning to Madras with Mexican silver. This invaluable source of silver must dry up if the Spanish were ousted from Manila. It was not obvious that the indigenous produce of the Philippines would ever sustain a like trade, nor that whatever security a British Manila might afford to the China trade would offset this loss.
Even now, as Draper frantically assembled his armada in Madras, most of the local councillors, his erstwhile comrades-in-arms from the days of the siege, were more concerned for a vessel that had just left for Manila. On board her was £70,000 worth of their private trade and, according to Draper, ‘they were afraid that the venture would suffer by the loss of Manila and took any method in their power to discourage the attempt’.
Faced with what he chose to construe as wilful sabotage, Draper was able to obtain from the Company only three small transports, 600 sepoys, and 300 European troops most of whom were deserters from the ranks of de Lally’s army. ‘Such banditti had never been seen since the time of Spartacus’, he observed. The Company did, however, provide him with a sufficient complement of civilians to form a Manila council and take over the administration and commerce of the place. They included Henry Brooke, lately of Negrais, presumably because of his experience of pioneering. Draper preferred to rely on the officers of his own (Royal) regiment, which seems now to have included some of those recently tamed Highlanders. They would be the backbone of the expedition and when he sailed from Madras at the end of July, he was still quietly optimistic. ‘Tho’ we cannot do all we wish,’ he wrote by way of valedictory, ‘we are determined to do all we can and try we will.’
Six months later he was back, en route to England, with news of a wholly satisfactory outcome. Word of the war having been slow to reach the extremities of the Hispanic world, the fleet had sailed into Manila Bay unopposed. Unopposed the British troops had been landed at Ermita, just a mile from the fort (and today the heart of Manila’s nightlife), and against only token resistance the first battery had been set up. A week later the first breach was successfully stormed. British and Indian losses had been ‘trifling’ – barely thirty fatalities – and under the terms of surrender the Spanish were to pay an indemnity of £1 million. In addition, one of the Acapulco galleons, a gigantic vessel of some 2000 tons, had been taken. And finally Manila had reluctantly been handed over to the Company. ‘In short’, announced the jubilant Draper, ‘it is a lucky business.’
Unfortunately the luck ran out with Draper’s early departure. The Company would hold Manila and claim sovereignty over the Philippines for only eighteen months. But that was long enough for some of the troops to mutiny, long enough for the Governor to fall out with his own council, with the military and the navy, and long enough for a Spanish-Filipino resistance so to harry the British that they scarcely dared venture outside the fort. It was with a sense of relief that in April 1764 the place was finally handed back to Spain in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Paris. All along the Company had been developing its own ideas about how best to support the China trade and re-establish its interests in the south-east Asian archipelago. They did not include the occupation of Manila and it was entirely appropriate that the man who eventually stepped in, when the Company’s governor had resigned in disgust, to hand back Manila was also the moving spirit behind these other initiatives. His name was Alexander Dalrymple.
After the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro turned to Moscow for aid and assistance of all kinds. One key aspect of Russian support for the new Cuban communist state was to provide weapons, training, and all other forms of military aid, all of which the Cuban armed forces readily embraced. Cuban officers and pilots received extensive instruction from Soviet advisers, and many underwent training in the USSR. Cuban forces strictly employed Soviet tactics and doctrine in all types of conventional military operations. As a result, the Cuban military relied heavily on a Soviet-style of operations, as much as the North Koreans in the 1950s, and to a greater extent than any of the Arab states.
By late 1975, the Angolan revolution was in trouble. The communist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had seized the capital of Luanda after the Portuguese pulled out earlier in the year, but by autumn, they faced multiple challenges. In the south, South Africa had invaded Angola from Namibia in support of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). In the east, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was mounting its own offensive from Zaire bolstered by Portuguese special forces, Zairian regulars, and Western mercenaries. Finally, in the north, the secessionist Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) was fighting the MPLA for control of Cabinda province, also with Zaire’s backing. In July, the Cubans sent 50 weapons specialists to aid the MPLA’s army, the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA), then added 480 combat advisors and trainers in September. But in October, the South African Defense Force (SADF) launched its invasion of Angola (Operation SAVANNAH) and made rapid gains. One prong of the SADF’s offensive drove 3,100 kilometers in 33 days, defeated FAPLA forces in several dozen engagements, and was only a few hundred kilometers south of Luanda by early November.
So, on November 4, Castro acceded to an Angolan request and sent 36,000 Cuban combat troops and 300 tanks to Angola to save the MPLA regime. A huge airlift (eventually with Soviet aid but initially all Cuban) began pouring Cuban forces into the country, and by the second half of November, 4,000 Cuban soldiers were fighting on all fronts.
By then, the Cuban advisors had already taken control of the war effort. In late October, the Cubans put together a plan to defend Luanda against the SADF/UNITA force threatening the capital from the south. At Catengue on November 2, a Cuban-led FAPLA battalion (with 50 Cuban advisors fighting alongside them) surprised an SADF/UNITA task force, which the South African commander commented provided the “best organized and heaviest FAPLA opposition to date.” But the South Africans were still the better army, and the Cuban/FAPLA force was eventually beaten and sent reeling.
Nevertheless, Cuban intervention turned the tide of the Angolan Civil War. On November 10, 1,000 Cuban and FAPLA troops backed by Cuban BM-21 multiple-rocket launchers (MRLs) met a combined force of 2,000 FNLA, 1,200 Zairians, and 120 Portuguese Mercenaries with armored cars and South African artillery support at Quifangondo on the Bengo River. The Cubans turned back several crossing efforts by the FNLA and their allies and then lured them into a prepared kill zone where the BM-21s hammered them. The battle stopped the FNLA offensive cold. From November 10 to November 14, other Cuban and FAPLA units defeated in succession four converging offensives by the FLEC and Zaire against Cabinda, nailing down Luanda’s control of its disconnected province.
Inevitably, the fighting in the south against the South Africans was the hardest. The South Africans had adopted Israeli military doctrine, Israeli officers trained many South African troops, and a large number of SADF officers had studied in Israel. The South Africans had learned well, and they moved and maneuvered in ways that must have made their mentors proud.
The first Cuban combat units arrived at the Queve River (about two hours’ march time from Luanda) on November 13. They threw a screening force across the river to hold back the SADF and then blew all three bridges, which gave them time to bring up additional forces and build a formidable defensive line along the river. The SADF shifted its primary axis of advance eastward, and attempted to flank the Cuban/FAPLA line by crossing the Nhia River. But on November 23rd, Cuban forces caught the SADF’s vanguard in an ambush at Ebo, and destroyed 60 percent of the South African armored vehicles. The South Africans would have their revenge in December, when another SADF formation smashed an inexperienced Cuban/FAPLA force of about brigade size in the Battle of Bridge 14. Still, the Cubans responded quickly, dispatching armor and motorized infantry reserves, which established a new defense line that the South Africans did not relish having to breach based on their recent experiences with the Cubans.
In January 1976, the Cubans and FAPLA went on the offensive in a series of Cuban-designed and -led offensives. They launched multiple attacks against the South African and UNITA positions in the Medunda hills south of Luanda. In ferocious fighting, Cuban infantry backed by the fearsome BM-21s pushed the SADF and UNITA out of these positions. This defeat convinced Pretoria that its bid to install a friendly government in Luanda had failed, and so the SADF pulled back to Namibia.
The Cubans quickly recognized that the South African withdrawal created an opportunity to smash UNITA and they sent armored columns south as fast as they could. These forces repeatedly demonstrated good combined arms, good use of tactical maneuver, a good ability to improvise solutions to tactical problems, and excellent speed of advance overall. The offensive covered 400 miles in a little over three weeks and crippled UNITA’s conventional military capability, forcing it to make the painful decision to revert back to guerrilla operations.
With the South Africans and UNITA tamed, the Cubans and Angolans turned back north to deal with the FNLA and their Zairian allies. This too was a highly impressive campaign led by a Cuban commander, Brigadier Víctor Schueg Colás. FAPLA units built around Cuban armored formations launched a sudden offensive that overran the main FNLA air bases at Negage and Camabatela and a day later the FNLA’s “capital” at Carmona. They then developed a pincer attack that captured the FNLA’s last major base at Sao Salvador. In addition to these tactical maneuvers, the entire campaign was a wide, operational-level envelopment of the FNLA defensive network, looping around broadly to the east, driving north, and then heading west to outflank the extensive FNLA defensive positions up the West African coast. So complete was the Cuban/FAPLA victory that the FNLA was never again able to pose a significant threat to the MPLA regime. By the end of March 1976, thanks largely to the Cubans, Angola was back in MPLA hands, the FNLA had been virtually destroyed, and UNITA was so badly battered that it took several years before it could even take up the fight again as a guerrilla force.
Cuban Operations in Ethiopia, 1977–1978
The Cubans barely had time to enjoy their victory in southern Africa before they were pulled northeast. In 1974, the pro-Western emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was toppled by a Marxist revolution. But the revolution threw Ethiopia into a state of semi-chaos with multiple insurgencies attempting to bring down the Derg, the revolutionary leadership in Addis Ababa. Inevitably, the countries of the Soviet bloc welcomed the new Marxist regime—all but one that is. The Marxist government of neighboring Somalia invaded Ethiopia in July 1977, believing that revolution and civil war had so weakened the Ethiopian military that Somalia could regain the disputed Ogaden region.
The Somali armed forces in 1977 were among the best-armed and most capable in sub-Saharan Africa, having themselves benefited from years of diligent Soviet mentorship. Mogadishu’s army boasted 35,000 troops with 250 tanks, 300 armored personnel carriers, and 66 aircraft including 40 MiG-21s. At Russian urging, the Somalis had largely motorized their infantry, enabling them to wage the kind of high-speed, maneuver war the Soviets preached. The Somalis also benefited from extensive intelligence on Ethiopian military positions and readiness provided by Somali guerrillas that Mogadishu had supported in the Ogaden for over a year.
Meanwhile, the US-trained Ethiopian military was in shambles from the revolution. On paper, Ethiopia had more men under arms (47,000), but fewer arms: no more than 100 tanks, about 100 APCs, no SAMs, and only about 36 aircraft (mostly F-5s and F-86s). The usual revolutionary purges had killed or ousted large numbers of officers, who were replaced by more junior men who lacked the experience or training of their predecessors. As the great historian of the Ogaden War, Gebru Tareke, has written, “the new government in Addis Ababa was beset by murderous power struggles at the center and multiple revolts on the periphery. . . . Insurgents had captured most of Eritrea, while Afar, Oromo, and Tigrayan rebels were causing havoc in their respective areas and beyond.” As a further complication, the United States had cut off arms sales and other military support after the revolution. The other superpower also added to Ethiopia’s woes: the Soviets (who still had large numbers of advisors in Somalia) assured their new Ethiopian comrades that Mogadishu would not invade, convincing Addis to leave few forces in the Ogaden.
To the chagrin of their Soviet allies, the Somalis invaded on July 13, 1977. It was the highly mobile Somalis who first displayed their mastery of Soviet military operations and put it to excellent effect. Somali armor and mechanized formations, employing Soviet tactics and doctrine, smashed the meager Ethiopian forces garrisoning the Ogaden. The Somali units exhibited good combined arms, and they used speed and maneuver to hit Ethiopian positions from multiple directions and so quickly overcame Ethiopian resistance. By early August, the Somalis had penetrated 700 kilometers into Ethiopia and seized 350,000 square kilometers.
The fighting got harder after that. The Somalis had conquered mostly open desert and now found themselves pushing into the more mountainous terrain of central Ethiopia to try to take the main population centers of the Ogaden. In mid-August, they assaulted the town of Dire Dawa, but their mechanized forces were stopped cold by aggressive Ethiopian counterattacks and a punishing air campaign from the Ethiopian air force, which had largely won air superiority thanks to its superior (Western) tactics and American-made AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
The Somalis did better at Jijiga in early September. The fighting was vicious and control of the town changed hands several times, but in the end the Somalis concentrated their armor behind massive support from their artillery and MRLs and broke through the Ethiopian lines to not only take the town but overrun the strategically vital Kara Marda Pass beyond it. The Somalis then launched a pincer attack against the City of Harar, the fall of which would have solidified Somali control over all of eastern Ethiopia.
The battle for Harar would rage for four months, during which time the Somali government of Siad Barre broke its treaty with the USSR and tossed out all of its Soviet advisors. Siad Barre appears to have hoped that the Americans would step in to replace the Russians—and would be far more generous with their aid because they would not share Moscow’s divided loyalties between the two warring Marxist regimes. This combination of factors convinced both the Soviets and the Cubans that they had to act decisively to buck up the Ethiopian revolution and ensure that it was not undermined by the loss of so much territory. So in the late fall of 1977, Ethiopia began to receive Soviet military equipment, Cuban combat troops, and a large contingent of Soviet advisors—many of them former advisors to Somalia who went directly from Mogadishu to Addis Ababa, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge about the Somali military. By January, 3,000 Cuban combat troops were operating with the Ethiopians. A month later the force had grown to 18,000, complete with T-62 tanks, and General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez, who had commanded the final Cuban campaign in Angola in 1975–1976.
The Cubans first saw battle in late January, when the Somalis launched one last assault to take Harar, another pincer move to surround the city before reducing its defenses. This time they ran into the new Ethiopian 11th Division, built around the hard core of a Cuban armored brigade. The defenders blocked both Somali prongs and held them in place for several days, which allowed the Ethiopian Air Force to work them over. Then, on January 23, a pair of Cuban armored brigades led a counterattack that outmaneuvered and routed the Somali forces, inflicting the worst losses the Somalis had ever taken in a single action since the start of the war.
In February, the Ethiopians and Cubans launched a broad counteroffensive to expel the Somalis altogether. The operation was conducted by a half-dozen Ethiopian divisions, each built around one or more Cuban armored brigades that served as both the division’s offensive spearhead and operational reserve. On February 1, they launched a diversionary attack against Hawale, south of Dire Dawa, using artillery and a fixing attack by the Ethiopian 9th Division to convince the Somalis that the attack would come from one direction while Cuban armor and artillery outflanked their lines at Harewa to the north and rolled them up from the rear. At Jeldsea, barely a week later, they repeated the same performance.
The Cubans and Ethiopians then employed the same approach at an operational level, sending the Ethiopian 10th Division and the Cuban 102nd Armored Brigade to outflank the Kara Marda Pass altogether, while another Ethiopian division with another Cuban armored brigade pushed into the pass itself, again routing the Somali defenders. Freeing the Kara Marda Pass enabled an assault to retake Jijiga, where the Somalis counterattacked fiercely with armor and artillery of their own. The Cubans deftly parried each of these Somali thrusts, then employed a vertical envelopment, using Mi-8 helicopters to airlift a Cuban battalion behind the Somali lines. Jijiga was retaken and the Somalis lost roughly 150 tanks and almost 3,000 of their 6,000 troops.
Thereafter, the Ethiopian and Cuban forces routed the demoralized, scattered, and undersupplied Somali forces holding the southern Ogaden. In a series of rapid encircling maneuvers, Cuban mechanized brigades again led Ethiopian formations in obliterating the remaining Somali forces. When Somalia committed its strategic reserve (a mechanized brigade task force) Cuban pilots flying Ethiopia’s new MiGs and Sukhois busted up the Somali columns and sent them fleeing across the border. By the end of March 1978 the Ogaden was back in Ethiopian hands while the Somalis had suffered 8,000 dead and lost over 200 tanks and 25–30 combat aircraft.
Cuban Operations in Angola, 1987–1988
Back to Angola, 1976–1986.
Whatever one may think of Fidel Castro, he repeatedly proved himself a canny general. After his troops saved the Angolan revolution he hoped to bring most of them home. He recognized (before either the Angolan communists or the Soviets) that Angola’s war against UNITA had now degenerated into a counterinsurgency (COIN), and he wanted no part of it. He began withdrawing his forces but had only removed about 2,000 when he was forced to stop. Victory (albeit temporary) in the civil war provoked vicious infighting among the MPLA leaders, along with a decision to support Namibian insurgents of the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) against the South African occupation. Pretoria responded with regular preemptive raids into Angola to prevent SWAPO from launching operations of its own. The first came at Cassinga in May 1978, and led to a brief firefight between a Cuban mechanized reserve that counterattacked the SADF force as it cleaned out a SWAPO base. The Cubans (fighting with nothing but old T-34s and BTR-152s) got the worst of it, but the battle convinced Castro that if he withdrew significant numbers of troops, the South Africans would have their way in Angola, and that would jeopardize the political hold of the MPLA in Luanda.
So the Cubans stayed. But they left the COIN war to the Angolans and instead focused on protecting the regime from a South African invasion. This left southern Africa a battleground among the alphabet soup of FAPLA, SWAPO, UNITA, and the SADF, with Cuban units only occasionally becoming involved. Over the next 10 years, South African forces mounted incursions into Angola over a dozen times, and in May 1981, the SADF took over the southern part of Angola’s Cunene province—both as a forward base to operate against SWAPO and a buffer zone to block SWAPO operations into Namibia.
In December 1985, with the war dragging on, the Soviets upgraded their advisory mission in Luanda and took control of the fight. They sent a senior Soviet general along with roughly 1,000 field grade officers—many of them veterans of Afghanistan—to serve as advisors, and charged them with bringing Angola’s debilitating war to an end. Despite their Afghan experience, the Russians believed that large-scale conventional operations to destroy the UNITA bases in southern Angola were the only way to end the insurgency. The Cubans knew better and argued against this strategy, but in 1986 Moscow got its way. With Soviet advisors attached down to company level, an army of 20,000 FAPLA troops with 150 tanks and a number of Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, plus 7,000 SWAPO guerrillas, launched a massive offensive against UNITA. But UNITA was now being armed with American Stingers and TOWs, and a 3,000-man SADF force came to its aid. Not surprisingly, the offensive was a complete failure and the FAPLA troops were given a drubbing. Still, the Russian generals clung to their strategy.
The next time, the Soviet generals amassed a somewhat smaller, but better armed and trained force to succeed where the previous year’s offensive had failed. They concentrated 10,000 FAPLA troops with 150 T-55 and T-62 tanks, several dozen Mi-24s, as well as a large artillery park made up of D-30 and long-range M-46 guns. The offensive would be launched from the FAPLA base at Cuito Cuanavale, a town at the confluence of the eponymous Cuito and Cuanavale rivers. Four FAPLA brigades with 6,000 troops and 80 tanks would lead the attack by mounting a double envelopment of UNITA/SADF positions along the Lomba River west of the UNITA staging base at Mavinga. Once those forces were eliminated, the FAPLA brigades would turn east and overrun Mavinga from the flank, before developing a second-stage offensive against UNITA’s capital farther south at Jamba.
Once again, the offensive was a disaster. The attack kicked off in mid-August 1987, but the Angolans used the same tactics and even the same routes of march as they had the prior year. Although initial UNITA resistance was relatively light, the Lomba River line was held by a South African force 3,000 strong with 30 Olifant (modified Centurion) tanks, dozens of Ratel armored fighting vehicles, and several batteries of deadly G-5 howitzers. FAPLA units had poor unit cohesion and erratic command and control—with orders to attack followed by long stretches without any orders at all. Moreover, the South Africans performed extremely well, darting around the heavy bush such that FAPLA’s Russian tanks really could not bring their firepower to bear, whereas the South African artillery was positively lethal. On several occasions when SADF guns caught Angolan troops pinned along the river banks, their fire was devastating. By the first week of October, the FAPLA offensive was broken, with two of its four brigades crippled, 2,000–3,000 casualties, as many as 60 tanks and over 100 other AFVs lost, and the remainder of the assault force demoralized and beaten back to Cuito Cuanavale.
With FAPLA’s best formations battered and retreating helter-skelter, Pretoria decided to press its advantage. At the very least, the South Africans wanted to clear all FAPLA and allied forces east of the Cuito River, leaving UNITA an expanded base of operations and new pathways into the Angolan interior. However, some sources suggest that Pretoria envisioned taking Cuito Cuanavale as the gateway to the big Cuban air base at Menongue, and beyond it to Luanda itself, to achieve what Operation SAVANNAH had failed to do in 1975.
Defeat at the Battle of the Lomba River again panicked the MPLA leadership, which sidelined its Soviet advisors and appealed directly to Cuba for aid. Castro reluctantly agreed, but having made the decision to recommit to Angola he also decided that this time, he needed not only to halt the South African invasion, but to force the SADF out of Angola altogether and create the diplomatic circumstances in which the MPLA could deal with UNITA on its own. Consequently, on November 15, 1987, Castro ordered a massive air- and sealift—facilitated by Soviet air assets—that rapidly increased the Cuban presence in Angola from about 15,000 to over 50,000 in early 1988. As part of this deployment, Castro sent his elite 50th Division, the formation that normally held the perimeter around the American military base at Guantanamo Bay, along with some of his best fighter squadrons.
Finally, Castro also dispatched General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez to take command at the scene. However, demonstrating the importance of this operation, Castro exercised a high degree of control over operations directly, spending hours at the Cuban general staff headquarters in Havana, receiving a stream of endless reports, situation updates, and force laydowns from a swarm of aides he sent to Angola to perform this function. Ultimately, it was Castro himself who planned the defense of Cuito Cuanavale and ordered many of the key operational moves of FAPLA and Cuban forces during the battle. Indeed, Castro’s direct exercise of command infuriated Ochoa, leading Castro to increasingly sideline him in favor of General Leopoldo Cintra Frías (known as “Polo”).
Although he may have been 6,000 miles away, Castro’s generalship at Cuito Cuanavale proved critical. He ordered that all of the FAPLA brigades pull back to a narrow, triangular bridgehead on the east side of the Cuito River, literally where the bridge crosses into Cuito Cuanavale on the west bank. The position was protected by tributary rivers and heavy bush to both the north and south. Castro had Cuban engineers build extensive trenches and minefields in depth around the perimeter of what was called the Tumpo bridgehead. He deployed five FAPLA brigades in a tight, two-tiered defense within the bridgehead, each brigade paired with a battalion or company of Cuban regulars to stiffen their spines. He dug-in another FAPLA brigade on the west bank to hold the Cuito bridge along with a Cuban armored brigade as an operational reserve for the whole force, and placed four battalions of Cuban artillery and MRLs on high ground on the west bank where they could range the entire battlefield and even use direct fire across the river if the South Africans got that close.
Between February 14 and March 23, 1988, the SADF mounted at least four deliberate attacks against the Tumpo bridgehead. Each was a ferocious struggle, the SADF mustering a mechanized force of 2,000–3,000 men, with roughly 30 tanks, and several dozen Ratels and other armored vehicles backed by a dozen or more artillery pieces including the outstanding G-5s and G-6s. Typically, several thousand UNITA fighters also participated, although South African accounts often ignore their role altogether. In some of the early battles, the South Africans made progress against the outer line of Cuban-backed FAPLA positions, prompting Castro to decide in early February—against Ochoa’s advice and prompting his replacement by Polo—to pull all of his units back to the west bank except the FAPLA 25th Brigade and a task force organized around the Cuban 3rd Tank Battalion. He ordered Cuban and FAPLA sappers to build additional bunkers, trenches, antitank obstacles, and minefields, and concentrated all of the Cuban and Angolan artillery directly behind these positions, along with additional Cuban tanks in hull-down positions along the west bank of the river.
Castro’s moves ultimately won the battle. In each subsequent attack, the SADF would spend hours trying to punch through a forward defensive line, all the while under heavy fire, only to find the forward trenches abandoned—a tactic the Germans had first pioneered. When the South Africans attempted to push forward, they would then (repeatedly) blunder into skillfully laid secondary minefields and defensive lines, where they would get hammered even harder by Cuban artillery and armor, and then would typically find themselves counterattacked by Cuban armor leading to harrowing firefights. “The fighting was chaotic, and the Cuban tanks impressed the Olifant commanders with their aggressive (and often suicidal) sallies into the midst of the South African squadron in search of targets.” In addition, Cuban MiGs won air superiority over the battlefield and constantly harassed South African units, greatly impeding their movements and silencing the G-5 and G-6 artillery pieces that previously had dominated the fighting. Although SADF losses were typically much lighter than Cuban and FAPLA casualties in each of these battles, UNITA lost heavily, and ultimately, the South Africans simply could not withstand Cuban firepower while simultaneously trying to clear the thick defenses and fend off determined Cuban armored counterattacks. The SADF’s attacks on the Cuito Cuanavale defenses in February and March began to cost them painfully without accomplishing any of their goals. Pretoria could not afford to continue the fruitless assaults, and so it ordered the SADF to fall back to Namibia.
Then Castro went on the offensive. He understood that humiliating the SADF at Cuito Cuanavale wasn’t enough to achieve the political settlement he wanted. He needed to threaten Pretoria’s buffer zone in Cunene Province. To do so he mounted what is now called his “Western Offensive.” He dispatched the elite 50th Division, his 40th Armored Brigade (with T-62 tanks), air defense radars, additional anti-aircraft artillery and 150 SA-8 launchers to Cunene, along with two of his best MiG-23 squadrons. Eventually, the Cuban forces in Cunene would amount to two full divisions, over 200 tanks, and hundreds of SA-2/3/6/8/9 launchers all netted together with MiGs, AAA, and radars in a daunting integrated air defense system (IADS).
Then, at the end of June, the Cubans launched a two-pronged offensive, with one force advancing from Xangongo to capture Cuamoto and the second moving from Techipa to Calueque. The first, western Cuban column ran into a South African blocking position, and although the Cubans gave better than they received, the force still pulled back. The second, eastern Cuban column, however, caught a South African force in an ambush on June 27 and began to hammer the SADF in a fierce fight. The SADF sent up a force of Olifants to rescue the situation but the Cubans counterattacked with a battalion of T-55s in a flanking maneuver that forced the South Africans to withdraw all the way back to Namibia, harassed by Cuban MiGs the whole way. That same day, Cuban MiGs struck the Calueque dam and hydroelectric plant, which was critical to powering South African–controlled Namibia. The attack was extremely accurate and effective, severely damaging the bridge and nearby sluicegates, as well as the power plant, engine rooms, and an important freshwater pipeline. The Cuban mechanized forces then began patrolling aggressively and in force preparatory to resuming their ground advance—which Pretoria worried would not only drive the last South Africans from Angola, but would press on into Namibia. Between their heavy casualties (by South African standards), the humiliating loss of territory, and the fear of the war shifting to Namibia, the South African government decided finally to negotiate an end to the war.
Patterns of Cuban Military Effectiveness.
During their various campaigns in Africa between 1975 and 1988 Cuban forces consistently performed well in most aspects of combat operations, although they did perform poorly in some. Not only did the Cubans perform notably better than Arab armies overall, there was little overlap between the Cuban patterns of performance and Arab patterns.
Of greatest importance, Cuban tactical leadership was generally quite good. Cuban commanders from brigade-level down were flexible and creative in their approach to combat situations. They were very aggressive and rarely could be faulted for failing to seize the initiative or take advantage of opportunities arising in the chaos of battle. The South Africans felt that Cuban mechanized formations were aggressive to the point of being almost suicidal. Cuban tactical units made excellent use of tactical maneuver. They repeatedly confounded SADF units with flanking counterattacks in the battles at Cuito Cuanavale, Cuamato, and Techipa in 1988. In the Ogaden, the Cubans made superb use of maneuver, regularly outflanking and enveloping the defending Somali forces. The pace of operations and dramatic victories won by Cuban forces in these fluid maneuver battles was only possible because Cuban tactical commanders were willing to improvise and take the initiative when opportunities presented themselves.
Cuban forces demonstrated superb cooperation both within units and among units (and armed services). Cuban formations of all sizes generally evinced thorough integration of all combat elements into effective combined arms teams. In Ethiopia and again in Angola, Cuban armor, mechanized infantry, infantry, engineers, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft worked extremely well together. In Angola in particular, the thick vegetation of the bush made it essential for dismounted infantry to work together with armor to take advantage of the strengths and cover the weaknesses of each arm. Cuban units also did a good job working together and supporting each other in combat. In particular, the success of the large-scale Cuban maneuvers in all of their wars were possible only because of the ability of geographically distant Cuban units to coordinate their actions in pursuit of broader objectives. Finally, the Cuban Air Force (DAAFAR) did a good job supporting Cuban ground forces. This was especially evident in Angola in 1987–1988 when ubiquitous Cuban close air support and battlefield air interdiction missions made it difficult for SADF units to maneuver or artillery to provide fire support.
Individually, the performance of the various Cuban combat arms was more mixed, but never poor. Cuban tankers were mediocre marksmen but consistently attempted to “stalk” South African armor in the bush of Angola and otherwise maneuvered to gain advantageous positions over their adversaries. Likewise, Cuban antitank teams relentlessly hunted SADF tanks, forcing the South African armored units to fall back several times or risk heavy losses. Cuban artillery units were accurate and could shift fire well. Although often outdueled by South Africa’s outstanding G-5s and G-6s, in 1987–1988 when Cuban MiGs eventually shut down the SADF artillery units, Cuban M-46, D-30, and (especially) BM-21 batteries displayed an impressive ability to chase South African formations around the battlefield and quickly shift fire to cover the operations of their own maneuver units.
Cuban tactical commanders also paid excellent attention to reconnaissance and other forms of intelligence gathering. Throughout the campaigns at Cuito Cuanavale and Cunene in 1988, Cuban units relied on constant patrolling to deprive SADF units of the element of surprise, on rapid counterattacks by mobile reserves, and on aggressive maneuvers against the SADF’s flanks to halt and ultimately drive back the South Africans.
The ultimate success of all three major Cuban military campaigns derived from these tactical skills. After their third attack on Cuban positions in the Tumpo bridgehead failed on February 29, 1988, one of the South African task force commanders famously explained their defeat by remarking that “the enemy is strong and clever.” Even the South African author Helmoed-Römer Heitman grudgingly said of the Cuban-FAPLA units defending Cuito Cuanavale that they had “once again demonstrated their ability to conduct an effective and imaginative defence, and competent control of their artillery.”
When the Cubans were allowed to command, their strategic leadership was also very good. In the Ogaden War—and disastrously at the Battle of the Lomba River—Soviet generals were ultimately in charge. However, in Angola, both during Operation CARLOTA in 1975–1976, and again at Cuito Cuanavale and Cunene in 1987–1988, the Cubans ran things the way they wanted. In particular, Fidel Castro proved to be a gifted commander, contributing considerably to CARLOTA and saving the day at Cuito Cuanavale. Leopold Scholtz has written the best account of the fighting in Angola from the South African perspective, and he grudgingly concluded about Castro that “Whatever one may think of his politics, he was a very good tactician and strategist.”
In the air war, DAAFAR performed well in both ground-to-air and air-to-air operations. Cuban MiGs and SAMs quickly established air superiority over Ethiopia in 1978 and Angola in 1987–1988. There were only a handful of air-to-air engagements between Cuban and South African pilots, and they tote up to a draw in numeric terms. In these very limited engagements, South African pilots nonetheless concluded that their Cuban counterparts were very “aggressive and clever,” and concede that they lost several of the handful of engagements that took place. And this despite the fact that the Cubans flew according to Soviet doctrine and so were somewhat reliant on GCI.
While South African accounts swear up and down that they were not afraid of the Cuban air force, the bottom line is unmistakable: between the MiGs; the heavy, integrated SAM network; and the long distances that SAAF fighters had to fly, they effectively ceded the skies to DAAFAR. The South Africans were so worried by Cuban air power in 1987–1988 that they restructured their operations to mitigate DAAFAR’s impact on the fighting. They tried to mount their various assaults on the Cuito Cuanavale defenses in periods of bad weather when the Cubans could not fly. Worse still, the SAAF itself was reduced to toss-bombing* to avoid the Cuban fighters and SAMs.82 This method of air strike is so inaccurate that it effectively prevented the SAAF from conducting either CAS or dynamic interdiction missions, and limited South African pilots to deliberate strikes against Cuban/Angolan positions. It really meant that the SAAF just could not target Cuban/FAPLA tactical forces.
The Cuban record in air-to-ground operations was more mixed. The accuracy of Cuban air strikes varied. As in most air forces, Cuban pilots did better when attacking stationary targets—such as the Calueque dam—and ground forces deployed in open terrain—as in the Ogaden—but did not fare as well against ground forces moving quickly or in heavy vegetation, such as the thick Angolan bush. Nevertheless, even against the South Africans in Angola, Cuban air-to-ground operations were paralyzing. The SADF constantly had to invent schemes to divert or confuse the Cuban MiGs to allow them to conduct ground operations without interference, but these ploys rarely worked. Ultimately, an important factor that prompted the South Africans to call off their attack on Cuito Cuanavale was that Cuban aircraft began to pound South African supply lines and bases, threatening the SADF’s logistical lifeline. The Cuban MiGs effectively suppressed the deadly South African G-5 and G-6 artillery pieces, even though they never destroyed a single gun. Although Heitman maintains that Cuban and Angolan MiGs did little actual damage, he acknowledges that “What they did achieve was to hamper South African operations quite considerably. It would not be going too far to say that on several occasions it was only the timely arrival of [Cuban] MiGs over a battlefield that prevented the complete destruction of a FAPLA brigade.”
Cuban unit cohesion was good but not great. In Angola in 1975 the first real impact of Cuban forces was to stiffen FAPLA resolve and demonstrate to the South Africans that Angola would not be a walkover. FAPLA units regularly disintegrated under any real pressure from either the SADF or the FNLA; however, while the first small Cuban contingents were repeatedly outflanked and forced to retreat, they never broke and ran. Moreover, in all three campaigns, there are no recorded instances of Cuban units falling apart under pressure, even in the bleakest moments along the Queve River in 1975, at Harar in 1977, or at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. By and large, Cuban mechanized formations fought exceptionally hard, taking risks to carry out their missions that earned the respect of the South Africans. At other times and in other places, Cuban units preferred to give up a position and retreat rather than sacrifice themselves defending it.85 This is not necessarily an indictment of Cuban courage, and may well reflect the perceptiveness, initiative, and quick-thinking of Cuban junior officers who recognized when a position was untenable and preferred to pull their troops out rather than have them needlessly killed or captured.
Cuban forces also did reasonably well at logistics. Cuban units never suffered from a lack of supplies, even when conducting fast-paced operations over great distances, such as in Ethiopia, or in extremely difficult terrain, as in Angola.86 Lt. General Bernard Trainor, who observed Cuban operations in Angola in 1987–1988 as a war correspondent, commented that Cuban logistics operations were very impressive, and in some ways even rivaled US logistical feats during the Persian Gulf War. In particular, Trainor noted that Cuban quartermasters reflected the aggressiveness and daring of their operational counterparts by establishing forward supply points to facilitate their rapid mechanized advances. In addition, the Cubans demonstrated real imagination and determination in moving forces over long distances when the need arose. The redeployments to Angola in 1975, Ethiopia in 1977, and southeastern Angola in 1987 were quite remarkable, moving tens of thousands of Cuban troops and their equipment over thousands of miles in very short periods of time. Although the Soviets often provided help for these redeployments, the initial deployment to Angola was a wholly Cuban enterprise, and Havana pressed into service warships, merchant ships, fishing boats, and an assortment of private craft as well as ancient Bristol Britannia transport aircraft, which had to land to refuel three times to make the trip across the Atlantic.
Maintenance and repair appears to have been a particular strength of Cuban forces. In the 1970s when Cuba had only small numbers of heavy weapons, Havana made a major effort to keep this equipment operational and so imposed high maintenance standards on its troops. These standards continued to hold even into the late 1980s after the Cuban arsenal had expanded considerably. In 1979, the US Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Cuban forces were fully capable of all major repair and overhaul on all but their most sophisticated equipment, such as the latest Soviet electronic warfare gear. At least two additional pieces of evidence suggest the Cubans were quite good in this area. First, in 1987–1988, Cuban and Angolan MiGs, which were maintained and repaired by Cuban technicians, flew tremendous numbers of sorties. Heitman remarks that the MiGs were “constantly in the air,” and Scholtz states that the Cubans flew 1,283 sorties in about 60 days in January–March 1987 at Cuito Cuanavale (or roughly a sortie per day per aircraft).90 This level of sustained activity in combat in the inhospitable environment of the Angolan bush suggests an impressive repair and maintenance capability. Second, Cuban technicians and technical advisers were employed by numerous Third World allies of the USSR, including many of the Arab states. In particular, before the 1973 October War, the Syrians found themselves incapable of maintaining some of their new Soviet hardware, such as T-62 tanks, and so Cuban technicians were brought in to man the Syrian repair and maintenance depots. Clearly then, Cuban technicians were at least considered significantly more capable than Arab technicians.
Of course, Cuban forces were hardly perfect. They had areas of weakness too. Cuban soldiers and weapon crews do not seem to have been terribly good shots. In Angola in 1987–1988, this failing was particularly evident as Cuban units fired tremendous amounts of ordnance at close ranges and often into the flanks or rear of SADF units and yet scored few hits. In part this can be excused by the difficult terrain, and in part by the inferior equipment of the Cubans, but ultimately these are only partial explanations. It is still the case that South African units regularly outshot Cuban units, even when the Cubans had gained an advantage through maneuver or positioning.
As a final note, the South Africans themselves came away with a healthy respect for their Cuban enemies—a respect that no Arab army has ever earned from either ally or adversary. Leopold Scholtz conceded that “Tactically, the Cuban and South African armies measured up well against each other. The Cubans were surprisingly aggressive and at times even rash, although the battle-hardened SADF probably had the edge because of its superior doctrine, experience and training.” Likewise, South African combat veteran Ross Mardon told another author that the SADF was “definitely by far outgunned, out-maneuvered, out-fought, out-tacticed [sic], out-everything you want to say,” by the Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale.
When a plane “toss bombs” it flies very low to its target to avoid detection by enemy air defenses. Then, as far from the target as possible, the plane suddenly climbs (which makes it more likely to be detected by enemy radar) and releases its (unguided) weapons during this sudden ascent. The plane then turns and drops back down to the deck and screams back to its base and safety. Meanwhile, its bombs, having been “thrown” from the plane while it was climbing, follow a ballistic trajectory that allows them to cover a considerable distance before striking the ground. This allows the plane to make its escape long before it gets close to the target, thereby minimizing its exposure to enemy air defenses and maximizing its chances of survival. The problem is that toss-bombing is very inaccurate, relying on a pilot to release while flying at high speed, while still far from the target, and while ascending (which means flying away from the target on the ground, as opposed to the preferred approach of flying toward the target). It is not a precision method of bombing, and it is useless for striking small moving targets such as tanks or trucks, although it can work when striking large stationary targets such as airfields.