Pacifying the Philippines

Then and thereafter the victory achieved by policies of J. Franklin Bell was controversial. His concentration policy had successfully isolated Malvar’s guerrillas from the noncombatants. During a four-month campaign, four Americans soldiers were killed and nineteen wounded. The insurgents suffered 147 killed, 104 wounded, and 821 captured, and 2,934 surrendered. For many Americans the testimony of Malvar’s brother-in-law, who was also a province commander, vindicated Bell’s strategy: “The means used in reconcentrating the people, I think, were the only ones by which war could be stopped and peace brought about in the province.” However, there was the troubling fact that Bell’s policies also caused the deaths of about 11,000 civilians.

The problem of civilian deaths emerged by mid-January 1902 when it became apparent that civilians concentrated inside the protected zones faced famine. One American station commander reported that 30,000 civilians had been herded into an area that normally supported 5,000. Bell understood that General Order 100 decreed that the occupying army provide for the occupied. Accordingly, Bell issued orders to make the people cultivate crops inside the zones. He ordered the importation of a tremendous quantity of rice to feed civilians. He ordered his subordinates to bring food from outside the zones back to the towns. At the time he worried that these measures “might possibly create in the minds of some an impression that greater leniency in enforcing” past policies was desired. Not so, he hastened to assure his subordinates.

American food distribution efforts failed to stop the dying. Large numbers of people still went hungry because of the confluence of multiple factors: a natural plague had decimated the water buffalo, the draft animal indispensable for agricultural pursuits; American troops had slaughtered surviving water buffalo wherever they found them outside the zones; the imported rice was thiamine-deficient polished rice that compromised people’s immune systems; field commanders found it difficult to transport food from remote mountain hiding places back to the towns and often ignored this part of Bell’s instructions.

People inside the zones did not starve to death. Rather, the lack of food and the poor nutritional value of what food there was weakened them, making them susceptible to the real killers: the anopheles mosquitos. The mosquitos normally preferred water buffalo blood. Deprived of their usual prey, they turned to human targets, which, by virtue of Bell’s concentration policy, they found conveniently herded in dense masses. Malaria killed thousands. In addition, overcrowded conditions and extremely poor sanitation promoted the killing transmission of measles, dysentery, and eventually cholera. Civilian deaths in Batangas were an unintended consequence of Bell’s policy of concentration and food destruction.

On July 4, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, who became president after McKinley’s assassination, declared the Philippine Insurrection over and civil government restored. Roosevelt did make a caveat regarding Moro territory, a handful of southern Philippine islands dominated by an Islamic people, but in the general glow of victory few noticed. He issued a fulsome thanks to the army, noting that they had fought with courage and fortitude in the face of enormous obstacles: “Bound themselves by the laws of war, our soldiers were called upon to meet every device of unscrupulous treachery and to contemplate without reprisal the infliction of barbarous cruelties upon their comrades and friendly natives. They were instructed, while punishing armed resistance, to conciliate the friendship of the peaceful, yet had to do with a population among whom it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe, and who in countless instances used a false appearance of friendship for ambush and assassination.”

Roosevelt’s effusive praise notwithstanding, the brutality of Bell’s campaign along with Smith’s crueler campaign fought on the island of Samar brought a Senate inquiry into army misconduct. On May 23, 1902, a senator read a letter purportedly written by a West Point graduate serving in the Philippines that described a reconcentrado pen with a deadline outside. A “corpse-carcass stench” wafted into the writer’s nostrils as he wrote. “At nightfall clouds of vampire bats softly swirl out on their orgies over the dead.”

Roosevelt pledged a full investigation. His adjutant general established the principle for the investigation: “Great as the provocation had been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder, and torture against our men, nothing can justify . . . the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.” The subsequent investigation provided sensational allegations supported by extensive testimony. It became clear that torture had taken place and everyone knew it. One major candidly wrote a comrade, “You, as well as I, know that in bringing to a successful issue [the war] certain things will take place not intended by the higher authorities.” Numerous witnesses testified to the use of the “water cure.”

The shooting of unarmed men and the execution of wounded and prisoners also proved to be commonplace. A Maine soldier in the Forty-third Infantry wrote to his local newspaper that “eighteen of my company killed seventy-five nigger bolomen and ten of the nigger gunners . . . When we find one that is not dead, we have bayonets.” The official War Department report for 1900 revealed how widespread was the practice of finishing off wounded insurgents. The U.S. Army had killed 14,643 insurgents and wounded a mere 3,297. This ratio was the inverse of military experience dating back to the American Civil War and could only be explained by the slaughter of the wounded. When asked about this during the Senate inquiry, MacArthur blithely explained that it was due to the superior marksmanship of the well-trained U.S. soldiers.

MacArthur, like the other senior commanders in the Philippines, had issued orders and guidelines against coercive behavior while acknowledging that sometimes field conditions required extraordinary behavior. The senators accepted this explanation. In the end, the Senate inquiry documented frequent American excursions outside the bounds of behavior permitted by the laws of war while whitewashing the conduct of the officers in charge. This conclusion satisfied Roosevelt, who had promised to back the army wherever it operated lawfully and legitimately. Thereafter, Roosevelt kept faith with the hard men of the Philippines. During his administration he named Adna Chaffee and later J. Franklin Bell to the army’s highest post, chief of staff of the U.S. Army. For Chaffee it represented an unprecedented climb that began as a Civil War private. For Bell, it represented vindication after the humiliating Senate inquiry.


The collapse of the organized insurgency in the Philippines removed the islands from the forefront of American consciousness. The tactics employed to squash the guerrillas disillusioned Americans and most were happy to forget about the distant islands as soon as possible. Thereafter American history recalled the sinking of the battleship Maine, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and the “Splendid Little War” against Spain. Yet the Spanish-American War had lasted only months, while the Philippine Insurrection officially persisted for more than three years and involved four times as many American soldiers. Regardless, few Americans paid attention to what had transpired in the Philippines until forty years later when a new event, Arthur MacArthur’s son Douglas’s doomed defense of the islands against Japanese invasion, superseded all else. Subsequently, even military historians largely disregarded the Philippine Insurrection until American involvement in Vietnam compelled renewed interest in how to fight Asian guerrillas.

By 1902, officers who served in the Philippines came to a near unanimous conclusion that commitment to a policy of attraction had prolonged the conflict. Colonel Arthur Murray expressed a combat soldier’s view. When he first assumed regimental command, Murray opposed punitive measures because they caused innocent people to suffer and turned potentially friendly people into insurgents. His experience on the ground changed his mind: “If I had my work out there to do over again, I would do possibly a little more killing and considerably more burning than I did.” Most officers concluded that the key to a successful counterinsurgency was decisive military action employing severe policies of chastisement. To their minds, the Filipino insurgents had given up the fight for the same reasons Robert E. Lee surrendered: both were unwilling to endure the pain that continued resistance would bring. As an inhabitant of Batangas explained in an interview decades after the conflict had ended, “When the people realized that they were overpowered they were forced to accept the Americans.”

When the Americans invaded in 1899, victory depended upon the suppression of violent opposition to the United States by replacing the control exercised by the Philippine revolutionary government with American control. The American solution had three components. First was to persuade the Filipinos that they were better off under the American vision of their future. This effort came quite naturally because Americans sincerely believed it. In American minds, the Spanish had exploited the islands. The revolutionary government continued both the exploitation and the entrenched, Spanish-style inefficiency and corruption. The Americans had no particular insight into Filipino “hearts and minds.” Without any extensive thought, they assumed that Filipinos—indeed, all reasonable people—wanted what Americans wanted. So both military officers and civilian administrators worked hard to make real physical improvements to show the Filipinos that their future was brighter under American rule. This notion guided the policy of attraction.

The second component of American pacification emerged when American leaders realized that attraction alone was insufficient. The military had to devise a way to end the insurgent hold on the people. In some areas the Americans were able to exploit ethnic, religious, or class differences to enlist native support. With the help of collaborators, the Americans identified and eliminated insurgent operatives. But in areas where resistance was the fiercest and the fear of insurgent retaliation too high, collaborators did not appear. So the American pacification effort forcibly separated the insurgents from the people by concentrating them in the so-called protected zones.

The third component of American pacification was military field operations. The field operations were essential to prevent guerrillas from massing against isolated American outposts and to deny them opportunities to rest and recover. Naturally most officers preferred such operations because they better represented the war for which they had trained. Likewise, their soldiers, particularly the volunteers who had come seeking adventure and fighting, preferred “chastisement” to attraction. As one lieutenant noted, the American soldier was a poor “peace soldier” but a mighty “war soldier.” Victory in the field came from the skilled practice of recognized military craft: scouting, march security, aggressive small-unit action. The American three-part strategy was like a tripod: without any one of the three legs it would collapse.

On a strategic level, the Philippine Insurrection highlighted the vital role of the civilian population. An insurgency could not be suppressed as long as the insurgents readily blended into a supportive general population. Accordingly, the army used a variety of measures to control the population while destroying the insurgent infrastructure, the shadow government. This destruction could not progress without Filipino assistance. In most areas, the people waited until they saw that the American army could protect them from insurgent terror before they supported the Americans. In southern Luzon, J. Franklin Bell found ways to compel civilian collaboration by extreme force, thereby proving himself to be, in the words of Matt Batson, “the real terror of the Philippines.”

An analysis of how the Americans won must recognize notable weaknesses and blunders committed by the insurgent leadership. Simply stated, the man at the top, Emilio Aguinaldo, was an inept military commander. After losing a conventional war to the Spanish, Aguinaldo and his subordinates adopted the same approach to fight the Americans. The result was an unbroken chain of tactical defeats that wiped out the best insurgent units. Only then did Aguinaldo opt for what always was his best strategic choice, guerrilla warfare.

The ilustrado class chose not to appeal to latent Filipino nationalism because they feared losing their hold on society. Consequently, the revolution of 1898 did not change the lives of most Filipinos. For centuries Filipinos had been forced by the Spanish to accommodate a colonial culture. Before the revolution a local elite had controlled the peasants’ daily life. The transition from Spanish to revolutionary government did not change this essential fact of life. The Americans came and made their own, but hardly new, set of demands. Now both the revolutionary government and the Americans levied taxes, administered justice, and used force as the ultimate suasion. A Filipino, poor or rich, assessed his prospects and either picked a side or tried to stay removed from the fray. The most adroit straddled both sides, portraying themselves as supporters of whichever side presented the most immediate peril. In the words of Glenn May, one of the conflict’s foremost modern historians, for an insurgency “to win any war with lukewarm public support is difficult enough; to win a guerrilla war on one’s own soil under those circumstances is virtually impossible.”

The insurgents suffered from a crippling lack of firearms and ammunition. Although the Filipinos tried to purchase weapons from other countries, they were seldom successful. Geography played a role. The U.S. Navy interdicted most vessels trying to deliver supplies for the insurgents, an operation made easy by the fact that no foreign government became involved in the supply effort. In addition, the navy prevented cooperation among the Filipino leaders on different islands. The Americans also benefited hugely from the fact that their enemy had no secure areas, no sanctuaries that were out of bounds to American intervention.

Throughout the war, the Americans could and did isolate the battlefield and bring overwhelming firepower to bear. This was not the indiscriminate firepower of a B-52 bomber or a battery of 155 mm howitzers. Rather, it was most often the firepower of a foot soldier sighting his Krag-Jorgensen rifle. Against the massive American superiority, the guerrillas could conduct pinprick raids but there was nothing they could do to change the calculus of battle. Their only chance was that the American public might turn against the war. At first the insurgents invested great hope that Bryan would defeat McKinley. While there was a spirited anti-imperialist movement at the turn of the century, it never achieved wide political support among voting Americans.

McKinley’s reelection reduced the anti-imperialists to harassing the administration without being able to change national strategy. It left the insurgents with only the hope that America would grow war-weary and abandon the struggle. American soldiers fighting in the Philippines keenly understood the vital importance of domestic support for the war. Brigadier General Robert P. Hughes, who served as provost marshal of Manila, told the Senate committee that it was the universal opinion of everyone who went to the Philippines “that the main element in pacifying the Philippines is a settled policy in America.”

The Senate Committee in January 1902 asked Taft if a safe and honorable method for withdrawal from the Philippines could be devised. He replied no and elaborated that at the present moment an assessment of the effort to end the insurgency was too bound up in politics. However, “when the facts become known, as they will be known within a decade . . . history will show, and when I say history I mean the accepted judgment of the people . . . that the course we are now pursuing is the only course possible.”


While most American historians cite the campaign in the Philippines as an outstanding counterinsurgency success, little mention is made of what took place after Roosevelt declared the war over on July 4, 1902. Five years after the declaration of peace, 20 percent of the entire U.S. Army still remained in the Philippines. American involvement in the islands was costing American taxpayers millions of dollars a year in an era when $1 million represented an enormous sum.

The U.S. Army handed responsibility for keeping the peace to the Philippine Constabulary, who found that they had their hands very full indeed. In all guerrilla wars, the distinction between insurgents and bandits becomes blurred. In the war’s aftermath, armed men accustomed to preying on the civilian population to obtain their material needs often find it difficult to stop. Jesse James comes to mind. In the Philippines this class of men were known as ladrones, or brigands.

The ladrones had been active before the Americans came; some became notable participants in the fight against the Americans, and many continued to operate after the peace. They imposed their will through intimidation and terror while specializing in rustling, extortion, and robbery. In the province of Albay, on Luzon’s southern tip, armed resistance resumed in the middle of 1902. The Americans insisted on calling them “bandits,” although their numbers peaked at some 1,500 men and they operated according to a military structure. The “bandits” held out for more than a year in the face of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign fought by members of the Philippine Constabulary and Philippine Scouts commanded by American officers. Elsewhere, a former guerrilla proclaimed the “Republic of Katagalugan” with the goal of opposing U.S. sovereignty. He surrendered in July 1906 and was duly executed. As late as 1910, Constabulary agents in Batangas warned that a shadowy organization whose roots stemmed from the fight against the Americans was preparing a new insurrection.

In Samar, late in 1902 armed bands again descended from the mountainous interior to raid coastal villages. They were a mix of ladrones, never-say-die common soldiers, and a bizarre mystical sect. The Constabulary fought a losing battle against them until 1904, at which point the U.S. Army intervened. The subsequent fighting on Samar became so tough that American insurance companies refused policies to junior officers bound for this region. The violence continued until 1911.

Roosevelt’s proclamation of peace had little impact on the Moros, a collection of some ten different ethnic groups who lived among the southern islands and followed the Islamic faith. They constituted about 10 percent of the Philippine population and were not racially different from other Filipinos but had been long separated due to their Islamic beliefs. Their conflict with ruling powers, in particularly Christians and Tagalogs, went back centuries. On Mindanao and Jolo in particular, they battled against the U.S. occupation troops in an effort to establish a separate sovereignty. A three-year campaign involving Captain John J. Pershing among others officially ended the so-called Moro Rebellion. Yet here too fighting continued past the official close of the conflict. Indeed, close-quarter combat convinced the army to introduce the Colt .45 automatic pistol in 1911, a weapon with enough stopping power to drop in his tracks the fanatical Muslim tribesman. Fighting persisted through 1913 but the Moro dream of sovereignty did not die with the advent of peace. This dream again spawned an insurgency in the 1960s, this time directed against the Philippine government. The violence continues to this day as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front struggles with the Philippine government and Al Qaeda–linked groups maintain training centers on the island of Jolo and elsewhere. Thus, the dictates of the worldwide “War on Terror” send U.S. Special Forces to the same areas that witnessed the Moro Rebellion.

While the Philippine insurgency still raged, two insightful men, one a war correspondent, the other an army colonel, contemplated the future for both Americans and Filipinos. The war correspondent, Albert Robinson, respected the Filipinos and deeply believed that they deserved self-rule. But he recognized this would not come easily. He thought that aspiring Filipino politicians lacked balance, a feat achieved in America by virtue of the embedded checks and balances in the Constitution as well as a cultural tradition. In time, he judged, the Filipinos would acquire this balance, but until that time the United States was “morally committed” to protecting “against disorder arising out of struggle for leadership.” This protection required American cultural sensitivity in the form of tact and restraint: “The great danger in American interference in Filipino affairs lies in the idea that American ways are best and right, and regardless of established habit, custom, and belief, these ways must be accepted by any and all people.”

At the end of 1901 a Colonel who had served as military governor of Cebu wrote eloquently about the possibility that the Philippines would one day enjoy the American promise of government for and by the people. Toward that lofty goal it was necessary to work hard to educate the Filipinos about self-government. Such education would take time: “We, and they, will be fortunate if it be secured in a generation.” He warned that many Americans underestimated Filipino mistrust of Americans and misunderstood how Filipino nationalism motivated their opposition to U.S. controls. The colonel observed that “too many Americans are inclined to think the struggle over” and the work of establishing a stable, just government nearly completed. They were wrong, he claimed, and added that guerrilla warfare would persist for years. He asserted that the correct American response was the sincere promotion of justice coupled with patience. This goal required the selection of “Americans of character, learning, experience and integrity” to implement civil government. “The islands are now ours, for better or worse,” he wrote. “Let us make it for the better by looking the future bravely in the face, without for one moment losing interest in our work. Above all, let it be a national and not a party question.”

During the war almost every unit in the United States Army served at one time or another in the Philippines. Here the army enjoyed its greatest counterinsurgency success in its history. Yet then and thereafter the army was not particularly enamored with its victory. Since its birth during the American Revolution, the army had measured itself against conventional European armies. With this mind-set, it viewed the Philippine Insurrection as an exception, something distasteful and outside its true role. Henceforth, it was more than willing to cede responsibility for fighting the nation’s “small wars” to a rival service, the United States Marine Corps. So the hard-earned lessons of a nasty fight against Filipino insurgents were quickly forgotten as army planners refocused on conventional warfare against European foes.

African Wars 1919–1939

Just as Africans were taking their first, tentative steps towards nationhood and independence, Spain and Italy launched what turned out to be the last large-scale wars of conquest on the continent, in Morocco and Abyssinia. Both nations were driven by greed and historic grievances which alleged that their legitimate imperial ambitions had been frustrated or overlooked by the great powers. Jealousy and bruised pride were most strongly felt by right-wing politicians, professional soldiers, moneymen and journalists who lobbied for imperial expansion, promising that it would yield prestige and profit. In Italy, aggressive imperialism and an infatuation with the glories of the Roman Empire were central to the ideology of Mussolini’s Fascist Party which snatched power in 1922. Like Spain, Italy was a relatively poor country with limited capital reserves and industrial resources, deficiencies that were ignored or glossed over by imperial enthusiasts who argued that in the long term imperial wars would pay for themselves.

In 1900 Spain was a nation in eclipse. Over the past hundred years it had been occupied by Napoleon and endured periodic civil wars over the royal succession; it entered the twentieth century riven by violent social and political tensions. Spain’s infirmity was brutally exposed in 1898, when she was defeated by the United States in a short war that ended with the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, all that remained of her vast sixteenth-century empire.

National shame was most deeply felt in the upper reaches of a hierarchical society where the conviction took root that Spain could only redeem and regenerate itself by a colonial venture in Morocco. Support for this enterprise was most passionate among the numerous officers of the Spanish army (there was one for every forty-seven soldiers), who found allies in King Alfonso XIII, the profoundly superstitious and obscurantist Catholic Church and conservatives in the middle and landowning classes. The army had its own newspaper, El Ejército Español, which proclaimed that empire was the ‘birthright’ of all Spaniards, and predicted that ‘weapons’ would ‘plough the virgin soil so that agriculture, industry, and mining might flourish’ in Morocco.

Morocco was Spain’s new El Dorado. In 1904 Spain and France secretly agreed to share Morocco, with the French coming off best with the most fertile regions. Spain’s portion was the littoral of the Mediterranean coast and the inaccessible Atlas Mountains of the Rif, home to the fiercely independent Berbers. The war began in 1909 and jubilant officers, including the young Francisco Franco, looked forward to medals and promotion, while investors touted for mining and agricultural concessions. Optimism dissolved on the battlefield and, within a year, the Spanish army found itself bogged down in a guerrilla war, just as it had in Cuba forty years before. Reinforcements were hastily summoned, but in July 1909 the mobilisation of reservists triggered a popular uprising among the workers of Barcelona. Breadwinners and their families wanted no part in the Moroccan adventure, and henceforward all left-wing parties opposed a war that offered the workers nothing but conscription and death. Resentful draftees had to be stiffened by Moroccan levies (Regulares) and, in 1921, the sinister Spanish Foreign Legion (Tercio de Extranjeros), a band of mostly Spanish desperadoes whose motto was ‘Viva la Muerte!’ These hirelings once appeared at a ceremonial public parade with Berber heads, ears and arms spiked on their bayonets.

Resistance was strongest among the Berbers of the Atlas, who not only defended their mountainous homeland but created their own state, the Rif Republic, in September 1921. Its founder and guiding spirit was a charismatic visionary, Abd el-Krim, a jurist who had once worked for the Spanish, but believed that the future freedom, happiness and prosperity of the Berbers could only be achieved by the creation of a modern, independent nation. It had its own flag, issued banknotes and, under el-Krim’s direction, was embarking on a programme of social and economic regeneration which included efforts to eliminate slavery. The Riffian army was well suited to a partisan war. Its soldiers were chiefly horsemen armed with up-to-date rifles, supported by machineguns and modern artillery. The Riffians also had good luck, for they were pitched against an army with tenuous lines of communications and led by fumbling generals.

General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre y Pantiga

Riffian superiority in the battlefield was spectacularly proved in July 1921, when Spain launched an offensive with 13,000 men designed to penetrate the Atlas foothills and secure a decisive victory. What followed was the most catastrophic defeat ever suffered by a European army in Africa, the Battle of Annual. The Spanish were outmanoeuvred, trapped and trounced with a loss of over 10,000 men in the fighting and ensuing rout. Officers fled in cars, the wounded were abandoned and tortured, and their commander, General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre y Pantiga, shot himself. The circumstances of his death were ironic, insofar as his manly bearing and extended, bushy and painstakingly groomed moustache so closely fitted the European stereotype of the victorious imperial hero. A post-mortem on the Annual debacle revealed Silvestre’s reckless over-confidence, his obsequious desire to satisfy King Alfonso XIII’s wish for a quick victory, ramshackle logistics, a precipitate collapse of morale and the mass desertions of Moroccan Regulares.

Spain responded with more botched offensives, but now the deficiencies of its commanders were offset by the latest military technology. Phosgene and mustard gas bombs dropped from aircraft would bring the Riffians to their knees. This tactic was strongly urged by Alfonso XIII, a Bourbon with all the mental limitations and prejudices of his ancestors. Together, his generals persuaded him that, if unchecked, the Republic of the Rif would trigger ‘a general uprising of the Muslim world at the instigation of Moscow and international Jewry’. Spain was now fighting to save Christian civilisation, just as it had done in the Middle Ages when its armies had driven the Moors from the Iberian peninsula.

The technology for what are now called weapons of mass destruction had to be imported. German scientists supervised the manufacture of the poison gas at two factories, one of which, near Madrid, was named ‘The Alfonso XIII Factory’. Over 100 bombers were purchased from British and French manufacturers, including the massive Farman F.60 Goliath. By November 1923 the preparations had been completed, and one general hoped that the gas offensive would exterminate the Rif tribesmen.

Between 1923 and 1925 the Spanish air force pounded Rif towns and villages with 13,000 bombs filled with phosgene and mustard gas as well as conventional high explosives. Victims suffered sores, boils, blindness and the burning of skin and lungs, livestock were killed and crops and vegetation withered. Residual contamination persisted and was a source of stomach and throat cancers and genetic damage.4 Details of these atrocities remained hidden for seventy years, and in 2007 the Spanish parliament refused to acknowledge them or consider compensation. The Moroccan government disregarded the revelations, for fear that they might add to the grievances of the discontented Berber minority.

Conventional rather than chemical weapons brought down the Rif Republic. Worrying signs that Spain’s war in the Rif might destabilise French Morocco drew France into the conflict in 1925. Over 100,000 French troops, tanks and aircraft were deployed alongside 80,000 Spaniards, and the outnumbered Riffian forces were broken. Newsreel cameramen (a novelty on colonial battlefields) filmed the captive Abd el-Krim as he began the first stage of his journey to exile in Réunion in the Indian Ocean. He was transferred to France in 1947 and was later moved to Cairo where he died in 1963, a revered elder statesman of North African nationalism.


Spain had gained a colony and, unwittingly, a Frankenstein’s monster, the Army of Africa (Cuerpo de Ejército Marroquí). Its cadre of devout, reactionary officers assumed the role of the defenders of traditionalism in a country beset by political turbulence after the abdication of Alfonso in 1931. Politicians of the Right saw the Africanistas (as the officer corps was called) as ideological accomplices in their struggle to contain the trade unions, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists. The Moroccan garrison became a praetorian guard that could be unleashed on the working classes if they ever got out of hand. They did, in October 1934, when the miners’ strike in the Asturias aroused fears of an imminent Red revolution. It was forestalled by application of the terror that had recently been used to subdue Spanish Morocco. Aircraft bombed centres of disaffection and the Foreign Legion and Moroccan troops were summoned to restore order and storm the strikers’ stronghold at Oviedo. Its capture and subsequent mopping-up operations were marked by looting, rape and summary executions by the Legionaries and Regulares. Franco (now a general) presided over the terror. Like his fellow Africanistas, he believed that it was their sacred duty to rescue the old Spain of landowners, priests and the passive and obedient masses from the depredation of godless Communists and Anarchists.

Red revolution seemed to come closer on New Year’s Day 1936 with the emergence of a coalition government which called itself the ‘Popular Front’. It was confirmed in power by a narrow margin in a general election soon afterwards, and the far Left began clamouring for radical reform and wage rises. Strikes, assassinations and violent demonstrations proliferated during the spring and early summer, the Right trembled, acquired arms and covertly sounded out the Africanista generals. Together they contrived a coup whose success depended on the 40,000 soldiers of the Moroccan garrison who made up two-fifths of the Spanish army.

On 17 July 1936 Africa, in the form of Legionary and Regulares units from Morocco, invaded Spain. They were the spearhead of the Nationalist uprising and were soon reinforced by contingents flown across the Mediterranean in aircraft supplied by Hitler. Combined with local anti-Republican troops and right-wing volunteers, the African army quickly secured a power base across much of south-western and northern Spain. From the start, the Nationalists used their African troops to terrorise the Republicans. Speaking on Radio Seville, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano warned his countrymen and women of the promiscuity and sexual prowess of his Moroccan soldiers who, he assured listeners, had already been promised their pick of the women of Madrid.

The colonial troops fulfilled his expectations. There were mass rapes everywhere by Legionaries and Regulares, who also massacred Republican civilians. Later, George Orwell noticed that Moroccan soldiers enjoyed beating up fellow International Brigade prisoners of war, but desisted once their victims uttered exaggerated howls of pain. One wonders whether their brutality was the result of their suppressed loathing of all white men rather than any attachment to Fascism or the Spain of the hidalgo and the cleric. Muslim religious leaders in Morocco had backed the uprising, which was sold to them as a war against atheism. As the Regulares marched into Seville they were given Sacred Heart talismans by pious women, which must have been bewildering.

When the Republicans were finally defeated in the spring of 1939, there were 50,000 Moroccans and 9,000 Legionaries fighting in the Nationalist army along with German and Italian contingents. Although necessity compelled him to concentrate his energies on national reconstruction, Franco, now dictator of Spain, harboured imperial ambitions. The fall of France in June 1940 offered rich pickings and he immediately occupied French Tangier. Shortly afterwards, when he met Hitler, Franco named his price for cooperation with Germany as French Morocco, Oran and, of course, Gibraltar. The Führer was peeved by his temerity and prevaricated. Fascist Spain remained a malevolent neutral; early in 1941 the tiny Spanish coastal colonies of Guinea and Fernando Po were sources of anti-British propaganda and bases for German agents in West Africa.7 Spanish anti-Communist volunteers joined Nazi forces in Russia.


Franco’s demands had been modest compared to those made by Mussolini, for whom the French surrender was a heaven-sent opportunity to implement his long-term plans for a vast Italian empire in Africa. In 1940 he asked the Germans for Corsica, Tunisia, Djibuti and naval bases at Toulon, Ajaccio and Mers-el-Kebir on the Algerian coast, and he was planning to invade the Sudan and British Somaliland. Mussolini’s flights of fancy extended to the annexation of Kenya, Egypt and even, in their giddier moments, Nigeria and Liberia.8 Hitler’s response was frosty, for at that time his Foreign Ministry was preparing a blueprint ‘to rationalise colonial development for the benefit of Europe’. An enlarged Italian empire was not part of this plan.

Fascism had always been about conquest. As a young misfit spitefully living on the margins of society, Mussolini had convinced himself that ‘only blood could turn the bloodstained wheels of history’. This remained his creed: violence was a valid and desirable means for a government to gets its own way at home and abroad. ‘I don’t give a damn!’ was the slogan of Mussolini’s Blackshirt hoodlums, and he applauded it as ‘evidence of a fighting spirit which accepts all the risks’. Violence was essential for Italy to attain both its rightful place in the world and the territorial empire that would uphold its pretensions. Yet Mussolini’s projected empire was not just about accumulating power: he promised that it would, like its Roman predecessor, bring enlightenment to its subjects. Italians were fitted for this noble task for, as the Duce insisted, ‘It is our spirit that has put our civilisation on the by-ways of the world.’

Cinema informed the masses of the ideals and achievements of the new Rome. A propaganda short of 1937 entitled Scipione l’Africano blended past and present glories. There was footage of Mussolini’s recent visit to Libya, where he is seen watching a spectacular enactment of Scipio’s victory over Carthage with elephants and Italian soldiers dressed as Roman legionaries. It was followed by scenes of a mock Roman triumph alternated with shots of the new Caesar, Mussolini, inspecting his troops. There are also images of babies and mothers surrounded by children as a reminder of the Duce’s campaign to raise the birth rate, which would, among other things, provide a million colonists for an enlarged African empire.

Fascism’s civilising mission was graphically portrayed in the opening sequence of the 1935 propaganda film Ti Saluto, Vado in Abissinia, produced by the Fascist Colonial Institute. Against a soundtrack of discordant music there is grisly footage of shackled slaves, a baby crying as its cheeks are scored with tribal marks, a leper, dancing women, an Abyssinian ras (prince) in his exotic regalia, the Emperor Haile Selassie on horseback inspecting modern infantrymen and, to please male cinemagoers, close-ups of naked girls dancing. Darkness and grotesque images give way to light with the first bars of the jaunty popular song of the film’s title, and there follows a sequence of young, cheerful soldiers in tropical kit boarding a troopship on the first stage of their journey to claim this benighted land for civilisation. Newsreels celebrated the triumphs of ‘progress’: one showed a Somali village ‘where the machinery imported by our farmers helps the natives to till the fertile soil’, and in another King Victor Emmanuel inspects hospitals and waterworks in Libya. In the press, Fascist hacks flattered Italy as ‘the mother of civilisation’ and ‘the most intelligent of nations’.


Progress required Fascist order. Within a year of Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922, operations began to secure Libya completely, in particular the south-western desert region of Fezzan. Progress was slow, despite aircraft, armoured cars and tanks, and so in 1927 Italy, like Spain, reached for phosgene and mustard gas. Under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Italian forces pressed inland across the Sahara, herded rebels and their families into internment camps and hanged captured insurgents. The fighting dragged on for a further four years, and ended with the capture, trial and public execution in 1931 of the capable and daring partisan leader, Omar el-Mukhtar. Like Abd el-Krim, he became a hero to later generations of North African nationalists: there are streets named after him in Cairo and Gaza.

Somalia too got a stiff dose of Fascist discipline. Indirect rule was abandoned, and the client chiefs who had effectively controlled a third of the colony were brought to heel by a war waged between 1923 and 1927. The bill swelled Somalia’s debts, which were slightly reduced by a programme of investment in irrigation and cash crops, all of which were subsidised by Rome. Italians were compelled to buy Somalian bananas, but their consumption merely staved off insolvency. The flow of immigrants was disappointingly small: in 1940 there were 854 Italian families tilling the Libyan soil and 1,500 settlers in Somalia.

Having tightened Italy’s grip over Libya and Somalia, Mussolini turned to what was, for all patriots, the unfinished business of Abyssinia, where an Italian army had suffered an infamous defeat at Adwa in 1896. Fascism would restore national honour and add a potentially rich colony to the new Roman Empire, which would soon be filled by settlers.

Known as Ethiopia by its Emperor and his subjects, Abyssinia was one of the largest states in Africa, covering 472,000 square miles, and it had been independent for over a thousand years. It was ruled by Haile Selassie, ‘Lion of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia’, a benevolent absolutist who traced his descent to Solomon and Sheba. His autocracy had the spiritual support of the Coptic Church, which preached the virtues of submission to the Emperor and the aristocracy. One nobleman, Ras Gugsa Wale, summed up the political philosophy of his caste: ‘It is best for Ethiopia to live according to ancient custom as of old and it would not profit her to follow European civilisation.’

Nevertheless, that civilisation was encroaching on Abyssinia and would continue to do so. In 1917 the railway between French Djibuti and Addis Ababa had been opened; among other goods transported were consignments of modern weaponry for Haile Selassie’s army and embryonic air force (it had four planes in 1935), and European businessmen in search of concessions. The Emperor was a hesitantly progressive ruler who hoped to achieve a balance between tradition and what he called ‘acts of civilisation’.

Frontier disputes provided Mussolini with the pretext for a war, but he had first to overcome the hurdle of outside intervention orchestrated by the League of Nations. Abyssinia was a member of that body which, in theory, existed to prevent wars through arbitration and, again in theory, had the authority to call on members to impose sanctions on aggressors. The League was a paper tiger: it had failed to stop the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931, and economic sanctions against Italy required the active cooperation of the British and French navies. This was not forthcoming, for neither power had the will for a blockade that could escalate into a war against Italy whose army, navy and air force were grossly overestimated by the British and French intelligence services. Moreover, both powers were becoming increasingly uneasy about Hitler’s territorial ambitions and hoped, vainly as it turned out, to enlist the goodwill of Mussolini. An Anglo-French attempt to appease Mussolini by offering him a chunk of Abyssinia (the Hoare-Laval Pact) failed either to deter him or win his favour. Interestingly, this resort to the cynical diplomacy of Africa’s early partition provoked outrage in Britain and France.

Neither nation was prepared to strangle Italy’s seaborne trade to preserve Abyssinian integrity, and so Mussolini’s gamble paid off. The fighting began in October 1935, with 100,000 Italian troops backed by tanks and bombers invading from Eritrea in the north and Somalia in the south. Ranged against them was the small professional Abyssinian army armed with machine-guns and artillery and far larger tribal levies raised by the rases and equipped with all kinds of weapons, from spears and swords to modern rifles.

The course of the war has been admirably charted by Anthony Mockler, who reminds us that, despite the disparity between the equipment of the two armies, the conquest of Abyssinia was never the walkover the Italians had hoped for. In December a column backed by ten tanks was ambushed in the Takazze valley. One, sent on a reconnaissance, was captured by a warrior who stole up behind the vehicle, jumped on it and knocked on the turret. It was opened and he killed the crew with his sword. Surrounded, the Italians attempted to rally around their tanks and were overrun. Another tank crew were slain after they had opened their turret; others were overturned and set alight, and two were captured. Nearly all their crews were killed in the rout that followed and fifty machine-guns captured. The local commander, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, was shaken by this reverse and struck back with, aircraft which attacked the Abyssinians with mustard-gas bombs.

As in Morocco, gas (as well as conventional bombs) compensated for slipshod command and panicky troops, although the Italians excused its use as revenge for the beheading in Daggahur of a captured Italian pilot after he had just bombed and strafed the town. Denials rather than excuses were offered when bombs were dropped on hospitals marked with red crosses.

Intensive aerial bombardment and gas swung the war in Italy’s favour. In May 1936 Addis Ababa was captured and, soon after, Haile Selassie went into exile. He was jeered by Italian delegates when he addressed the League of Nations in Geneva, and was cheered by Londoners when he arrived at Waterloo. He remained in England for the next four years, sometimes in Bath, where his kindness and charm were long remembered. In Rome an image of the Lion of Judah was placed on the war memorial to the dead of the 1896 war; Adwa had been avenged. Mussolini’s bombast rose to the occasion with declarations that Abyssinia had been ‘liberated’ from its age-old backwardness and miseries. Liberty took odd forms, for the Duce decreed that henceforward it was a crime for Italians to cohabit with native women, which he thought an affront to Italian manhood, and he forbade Italians to be employed by Abyssinians.

In Abyssinia Italians assumed the role of master race with a hideous relish. Efforts were made to exterminate the Abyssinian intellectual elite, including all primary school teachers. In February 1937 an attempt to assassinate the Viceroy Graziani prompted an official pogrom in which Abyssinians were randomly murdered in the streets. Blackshirts armed with daggers and shouting, ‘Duce! Duce!’ led the way. The killings spread to the countryside after Graziani ordered the Governor of Harar to ‘Shoot all – I say all – rebels, notables, chiefs’ and anyone ‘thought guilty of bad faith or of being guilty of helping the rebels’. Thousands were slaughtered during the next three months.

The subjugation of Abyssinia proved as difficult as its conquest. Over 200,000 troops were deployed fighting a guerrilla war of pacification. Italy’s new colony was turning into an expensive luxury: between 1936 and 1938 its military expenses totalled 26,500 million lire. In the event of a European war, this huge army would deter an Anglo – French invasion and, as Mussolini hoped, invade the Sudan, Djibuti and perhaps Kenya, while forces based in Libya attacked Egypt. Viceroy Graziani felt certain that Britain was secretly helping Abyssinian resistance and Mussolini agreed, although he wondered whether the Comintern might also have been involved.

By 1938, his own secret service was disseminating anti-British propaganda to Egypt and Palestine via Radio Bari. In April 1939, alarmed by the flow of reinforcements to Italian garrisons in Libya and Abyssinia, the British made secret preparations for undercover operations to foment native uprisings in both colonies. At the same time, parties of young Italians, ostensibly on cycling holidays, spread the Fascist message in Tunisia and Morocco, and Jewish pupils were banned from Italian schools in Tunis, Rabat and Tangier. Africa was already becoming embroiled in Europe’s political conflicts.


Outside Germany and Italy, European opinion about the Abyssinian War was sharply divided: anti-Fascists of all kinds were against Mussolini, while right-wingers tended to support him on racial grounds. Sir Oswald Mosley, whose British Union of Fascists was secretly underwritten by Mussolini, dismissed Abyssinia as a ‘black and barbarous conglomeration of tribes with not one Christian principle’. Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, urged his readers to back Italy and ‘the cause of the white race’ whose defeat in Abyssinia would set a frightening example to Africans and Asians. Evelyn Waugh, who was commissioned by Rothermere to cover the war, confided to a friend his hopes that the Abyssinians would be ‘gassed to buggery’.

Such reactions, and the moral insouciance of Britain and France, shocked educated Africans in West Africa. The Abyssinian episode had tarnished the notion of benevolent imperialism cherished in both nations, and seemed to condone views of Africans as a primitive people, beyond the pale of humanity as well as civilisation. In the words of William Du Bois, an American black academic and champion of black rights, the Abyssinian War had shattered the black man’s ‘faith in white justice’. Harlem blacks had volunteered to fight, but had been refused visas by the American government. Du Bois believed that their instincts had been right, for in the future, ‘The only path to freedom and equality is force, and force to the uttermost.’

Wars Involving Landsknechts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Italian War of 1521–1526

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Italian War of 1542–1546

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

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

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

   On the French side

   • 4,000—Swiss troops

   • 4,000—Gascon infantrymen

   • 3,000—French infantry recruits

   • 2,000—Italian infantrymen

   On the Spanish-Imperial side

   • 7,000—Landsknechts

   • 6,000—Italian infantrymen

   • 5,000—Spanish and German infantrymen

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

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

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

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

The Italian War of 1551–1559

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

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

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

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

Wars in Nigeria

Government of Nigeria Troops
Biafran Troops
Map of the secessionist state of the Republic of Biafra (1967 – 1970) as in May 1967.
Note: The western boundary may not be accurate due to the low precision of the reference maps used which are also contradictory.


The state of Nigeria was an artificial British imperial creation whose major ethnic groups—the Hausa-Fulani of the north, the Yoruba of the west, and the Ibo of the east—were each larger in population than most individual African states. Great Britain fostered strong regional governments and, moreover, encouraged a sense of regional rivalry, maintaining the balance between the three great regions from the center. There was no historical basis for the unity of these three regions and their different ethnic groups except British imperial convenience. At independence, therefore, the new Nigeria inherited three powerful regions whose interests tended to draw them away from central authority and, once the British had departed, there was intense rivalry as to who should control the center. (However, about two million Ibos from the Eastern Region were dispersed in other parts of Nigeria, many holding jobs in the more conservative Islamic north where they were often resented.) This situation led to increasingly divisive strains once the British had departed and efforts to balance the claims and counterclaims of the three regions failed to satisfy the aspirations of any of them, so that the political structure inherited from the British rapidly broke down over the period 1960–1966.

The 1966 Coup: Military Rule

On 15 January 1966, part of the army, which had been coordinated by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu from Kaduna, attempted to overthrow the federal system. In the north the premier, Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, was murdered. The army proclaimed its aims over Kaduna radio—“a free country, devoid of corruption, nepotism, tribalism and regionalism.” In the west another leading politician, Chief Akintola, was killed. In Lagos the federal prime minister, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the federal finance minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, were killed. In addition, nine senior army officers were killed. This first coup, which eliminated these major political figures was, nonetheless, aborted when troops loyal to the government under Major-General J. T. Aguiyi-lronsi, General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, restored federal control. The acting president, Dr. Nwafor Orizu (President Azikiwe was then out of the country), announced that the Council of Ministers had decided to hand over power to the military and General Ironsi assumed authority as head of a Federal Military Government (FMG), as well as becoming supreme commander of the Armed Forces. The coup had solved nothing and the regional differences, which threatened Nigerian unity, remained in place. It had, however, brought to an end the first republic and removed a number of leading political figures who were seen to be synonymous with a discredited system. General Ironsi abolished the federal form of government and the regions, unified the top five grades of the civil service, and introduced provincial administrators. He then turned the FMG into a National Military Government (NMG).

The Second Coup

On 29 May 1966, violent anti-Ibo demonstrations took place in the north of Nigeria, many Ibos were attacked and killed and their property destroyed. Two months later, on 29 July, General Ironsi, who was on a tour of reconciliation, and Lt. Col. Fajuyi (the military governor of Western Province) were kidnapped and killed in Ibadan. The death of Ironsi sparked off the second military coup attempt, in which some 200 eastern (Ibo) officers were killed. The north then talked of secession. Following a three-day interregnum Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, chief of staff, became military head of state on 1 August. At this point, the country was on the verge of disintegration. Gowon granted amnesty to a number of prominent figures who had been detained by the army since the previous January; these included Chief Awolowo, Dr. Michael Okpara (a former Eastern Region premier), and others. On 31 August, Gowon restored the regions which Ironsi had abolished, and conferences of reconciliation were held.

But Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the regional commander of the Eastern Region (homeland of the Ibos), would not be reconciled. New anti-Ibo demonstrations took place in the north and between 10,000 and 30,000 Ibos were killed during September, resulting in an exodus of Ibos from the north (where there were one million), the west (400,000), and Lagos (100,000) back to the Eastern Region. The federal government and Ojukwu, who had emerged as the spokesman of the Ibos, failed to find any common ground, and once the Ibos had returned to the Eastern Region from the other parts of Nigeria, demands for secession became much more insistent.

In January 1967, a conference was held under the chairmanship of Ghana’s General Joseph Ankrah at Aburi in Ghana in an attempt to prevent a breakdown, but after the event, neither side could agree on what had been decided. On 26 May 1967, in an effort to break the deadlock, Gowon replaced the old regions by dividing Nigeria into 12 states, although the immediate result was to precipitate the civil war with the Eastern Region. The government in Lagos, with the support of most of Africa, was determined to preserve a single Nigeria. Ojukwu called an emergency meeting of the Eastern Nigeria Consultative Assembly to consider the new division of Nigeria. On 27 May, Gowon broadcast to confirm the division into 12 states—six in the north, three in the east, one in the west, one in the midwest, and Lagos. He also proclaimed a state of emergency. The Eastern Nigeria Consultative Assembly rejected the 12 states arrangement and empowered Ojukwu to declare an independent state and, on 30 May 1967, Ojukwu announced the creation of an independent state of Biafra, which covered the Eastern Region; the majority of its people were Ibos. Gowon at once dismissed Ojukwu from the army and as governor of the Eastern Region. The federal government then announced that it would take “clinical police action” to end the secession and the first military move was made on 6 July.

The Civil War

In July 1966, the strength of the Federal army had been a mere 9,000 men but rapid reorganization and recruitment during the succeeding year as the crisis developed (with Ibo troops withdrawing to the Eastern Region) had raised its strength to 40,000 by July 1967. At the beginning of the war the federal government assumed that Biafra would collapse in a matter of weeks. In fact a new Biafran army was created round the nucleus of 2,000 officers and men who had withdrawn from the federal army, and by July 1967 this army was approximately 25,000 strong. When eight battalions of the federal army advanced on Biafra from the north in July, they met stiff resistance from well-prepared Biafran troops. Then, on 9 August 1967, in a provocative challenge to the federal government, the Biafran army mounted an offensive in the west and crossed the Niger to occupy Benin City and the ports of Sapele and Ughelli.

Nigeria’s size and economic potential (the country’s oil wealth was then becoming apparent) ensured a high level of international interest in the war as well as a readiness on the part of outside powers to intervene. Britain, the former colonial power, had substantial investments in Nigeria which it was determined to defend and the two giant oil companies, British Petroleum and Shell, were heavily involved in the exploitation of the country’s oil. At the beginning of the war, Britain tried to sit on the fence but then came down firmly on the side of the federal government and was to be its principal source of light arms throughout the war. France, in pursuit of its own geopolitical interests in the region and the hope of increasing its influence generally in western Africa, supported breakaway Biafra which it aided with arms and other assistance through its proxies Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which was ideologically opposed to the breakup of a federation, supported the Lagos government; Moscow saw providing assistance to Nigeria as a way of obtaining influence in a region in which, up to that time, it had had little impact, and during the course of the war it supplied about 30 percent of the arms imported by the federal side including MiG fighters and Ilyushin bombers. The United States signaled its intention of remaining outside the conflict, although the U.S. secretary of state, Dean Rusk, infuriated the Nigerians by saying at a press conference that “we regard Nigeria as part of Britain’s sphere of influence.” Both Portugal and South Africa, which were facing growing problems justifying white minority rule to an increasingly hostile world, supported breakaway Biafra on the general grounds of prolonging a war (and chaos) in the largest independent black African state, so as to bolster their claims on behalf of white minority rule in the south of the continent.

The westward offensive across the Niger mounted by Biafra on 9 August 1967 threatened the whole structure of Nigeria and signaled the beginning of a full-scale civil war. By 17 August, the Biafran forces had crossed the Ofusu River to reach Ore in the Western Region, from where they could threaten both Lagos and Ibadan. On 29 September the Biafran administrator of the newly overrun midwest, Major Albert Okonkwo, proclaimed an “independent and sovereign Republic of Benin.” In response to this threat, General Gowon announced: “From now on we shall wage total war.” Federal superiority in both numbers and arms soon began to tilt the balance back in favor of the federal government and on 22 September, the federal counter-offensive led to the rapid reoccupation of the midwest. Then, on 4 October 1967, federal forces occupied Enugu, the Biafran capital, and by the end of the year had captured Calabar, Biafra’s second port.

Early in 1968, in quick succession, the federal forces captured Onitsha (a port and commercial center) and then three major towns—Aba, Owerri, and Umuahia. In May 1968 Port Harcourt, Biafra’s principal (and last) port, fell to the federal forces. At this juncture in the war (May 1968), when all the major Biafran towns and ports had been lost and it was hemmed in on three sides (north, west, and south), the possibility of Biafran independence had been lost and the sensible course would have been for Ojukwu to make terms with Lagos. Civil wars do not work in such a fashion, however, and the war continued for another year and a half and produced enormous unnecessary suffering.

The federal strategy was to employ siege tactics, which led to starvation of the Ibos because from this point onward, Biafra could only obtain supplies by air. One year after declaring its independence Biafra had been reduced to a tenth of its original size, and for the rest of the war the civilian population was to suffer from growing starvation. Even so, the Biafran forces mounted a successful counterattack in 1969 to retake Owerri for a short time; their forces also re-crossed the Niger, but they did not have sufficient resources to sustain these successes and slow military strangulation by the federal forces took place. Peace efforts were made during December 1969 as the federal forces harried the Biafran government, which was obliged to move from one place to another.

International Support for Biafra

International assistance for Biafra came from a number of sources and for a variety of reasons. These included humanitarian agencies, a handful of African countries (including Rhodesia, which had then embarked upon its Unilateral Declaration of Independence [UDI] under Ian Smith), and Haiti. There was considerable international sympathy for Biafra as a “small loser” and criticisms of the federal government included the charge that it could have made greater efforts to achieve a peace sooner.

Four African countries recognized Biafra: Tanzania (13 April 1968), Gabon (5 May 1968), Côte d’Ivoire (14 May 1968), and Zambia (20 May 1968). Haiti recognized Biafra on 23 March 1969, though its reasons for doing so were not obvious. France supplied weapons for Biafra, channeling them through Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon; Portugal supplied arms through Guinea-Bissau. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Joint Church Aid, and Caritas provided relief supplies. Biafra obtained a number of old DC-class airplanes from Rhodesia; on the other hand, the federal government, which had no planes, approached the West which, however, refused to supply any on the grounds that to do so would escalate the war. Lagos, therefore, was obliged to turn to the USSR for airplanes, which it then obtained. As early as 6 September 1968, most of the oil-producing areas of Biafra had been taken by federal forces, so that Biafra did not even have oil as a bargaining counter. Even when it was clear that Biafra must lose the war, the Ibos continued to show remarkable faith in Ojukwu. Biafra projected an upbeat propaganda image, both to reassure its own people, and to obtain foreign support. Another aspect of international involvement in the war was the presence of mercenaries on both sides; they contributed an especially unwelcome complication. On the federal side they were used as pilots, on the Biafran side as ground troops and trainers as well as pilots.

The basic strategy of the federal army, which in any case enjoyed huge superiority of numbers and arms, was to blockade the shrinking enclave of Biafra and bring about its surrender by starvation. In the end, Biafra was confined to a small enclave of territory that was served by a single airstrip to which supplies were brought in by mercenaries. During December 1969 and early January 1970, the federal army deployed 120,000 troops for its final assault and Owerri (the last town) and Ulli (the solitary airstrip) fell to the federal army over 9–10 January 1970, and the war was over.

The Aftermath

By the end of the war, the federal army had been increased in size to 200,000 troops. Biafra, despite its handicaps, had demonstrated astonishing resilience, even in its darkest days. Biafra’s propaganda machine had also fostered the idea that surrender meant genocide, a line that served the dual purpose of persuading its people to fight to the end (or near end) and engendering a good deal of international sympathy for its cause. On 10 January 1970, Ojukwu handed over power to Major General Philip Effiong, his chief of staff, and fled (11 January) to Côte d’Ivoire, where he was given political asylum.

In the course of the war, a number of attempts at mediation had been made by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Vatican, and the Commonwealth, though they had little impact. In the case of the OAU, its insistence that any peace had to be in the context of “one Nigeria,” ensured that its efforts were rejected by Biafra. The interests of Africa as a whole, whose leaders were wary of any moves that might signal the breakup of states as they had been at independence, ensured that the OAU took this line. Arms for the combatants came from a variety of sources: the main suppliers for the federal side were Britain and the USSR, and for Biafra, France and Portugal. The United States, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Belgium refused to supply arms to either side.

The war was prolonged unnecessarily by two factors: the Ibo belief, cultivated by its own propaganda, that they were fighting for survival and faced genocide; and because international charities, aided by mercenary airlifts of supplies, provided relief when otherwise Biafra would have been forced to surrender. The war became a cause for various charities whose propaganda “to feed the starving Biafrans,” however well-intentioned, in fact prolonged the war and the suffering.

Estimated casualties were 100,000 military (on both sides) and between 500,000 and two million civilians, mainly the result of starvation, while 4.6 million Biafrans became refugees. In the end, 900 days of war had not destroyed Africa’s largest black state, while Biafra’s bid for secession and independence had failed. In the post-war years, Gowon’s greatest achievement was to preside successfully over the reintegration of the defeated Ibos into the mainstream of Nigerian life.

Nigeria’s recovery after the war was greatly assisted by the OPEC revolution of 1973; the huge increase in the price of oil enabled Nigeria to launch its giant Third Development Plan in 1975. Through the 1970s, and assisted by its new oil wealth, Nigeria was to enjoy a period of major influence in Africa as a whole. On the other hand, the success of the military in the war had given it a taste for permanent rule in peacetime and, regrettably, by 1998 Nigeria had only enjoyed 10 years of civilian rule since independence, as opposed to 28 years of military rule. However, it returned to civilian rule at the end of the century.

Map of Nigeria numerically showing states typically considered part of the Niger Delta region: 1. Abia, 2. Akwa Ibom, 3. Bayelsa, 4. Cross River, 5. Delta, 6. Edo, 7.Imo, 8. Ondo, 9. Rivers


The Niger Delta is Africa’s largest floodplain. It consists of dense rainforest, sand ridges, mangrove forests, and swamps and is criss-crossed by tidal channels, streams, rivers, and creaks. It is rich in resources consisting of timber, coal, palm oil and, above all, natural gas and oil (an estimated 35 billion barrels of oil). It is densely populated and as one of the largest wetlands in the world, it is almost impossible to patrol with any success. Crime and violence in the Delta region are financed by between 30,000 and 100,000 barrels of oil that are stolen every day. The money from this illegally tapped oil is used to purchase arms for the militias or to enrich Nigerian and foreign business people who are only too ready to profit from the chaos in the region, and to finance political ambitions. Despite the huge energy reserves of the Delta, some 70 percent of the 27 million people who live there exist in a state of extreme poverty.

One fifth of U.S. oil imports come from the Delta (2006) and Great Britain expects to obtain 10 percent of its gas requirements from the region in the near future. However, such exports are coming under increasing threats of disruption from the local people who have come to see these exports as the theft of their natural resources. The demand for social justice dates spectacularly from the execution of the Ogoni campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa by the government of President Sani-Abacha in 1995, which was met with universal condemnation. Saro-Wiwa had launched a campaign for social and ecological justice in the Delta in the 1980s. The complications of this war are considerable and include tribalism, gang warfare for control of oil resources, government neglect of the region, corruption, and the activities of the international oil companies. Three ethnic groups compete for control of the region and fight each other: these are the Itshekiri, the Urhobo, and the Ijaw. Warri, a major town in the center of the Delta, is awash with money and attracts people like a frontier town. Described as the “heart and lungs” of Nigeria, Delta oil has provided the Nigerian government with $300 billion income since oil was discovered in 1956. At independence in 1960, each of Nigeria’s three regions was allowed 50 percent of the revenues from minerals found within it, while the balance went to the federal government. Too often, however, the regions have received much less. Agitation for a greater share of its oil wealth has had a long history and in 1966, for example, an Ijaw army officer, Isaac Boro, declared a Federal Republic of Niger Delta, though this only lasted for 12 days.

As the violence has escalated in the early years of the present century, more and more people have moved into the safety of Warri. Foreigners employ armed guards and there has grown up an informal network of armed youths who claim to be fighting for the emancipation of the Niger Delta. The size of these youth groups and the scope of their activities are hard to gauge. Official estimates suggest that Nigeria loses 100,000 barrels of oil a day through “bunkering”—the term covering the illegal siphoning off of oil—and it is believed that the activity depends upon the complicity of oil company employees and highly placed government officials as well as soldiers and the militias. According to Human Rights Watch, oil bunkering fuels gang-related violence in the Delta that, for example, killed 1,000 people in 2004.

Asari Dokubo, leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), came to prominence when he threatened to blow up all oil facilities in the Delta, a threat that sent the oil price above $50 a barrel. He was arrested in September 2005 and charged with treason at a time when he claimed to have 10,000 followers ready to reclaim control of the Delta’s resources on behalf of its people. He later did a deal with the government—an arms swap for cash—which led a faction of the NDPVF breaking away to form the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). However, MEND subsequently campaigned for the release of Dokubo so it seemed probable that the two factions were working together. A task force created by President Olusegun Obasanjo to cut off the supply of oil, arms, and money to the militias—Joint (Military) Task Force (JTF)—created resentment rather than solving anything and itself became involved in oil bunkering.

During 2006 MEND militants began to seize hostages. In January, they stormed a Shell oil vessel and took four foreigners hostage. They issued three demands: that the government release Asari Dokubo; that the impeached governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alemieyeseigha, who was on trial for money-laundering, should be released; and that $1.5 billion approved by the Senate as compensation to communities affected by oil spills should be paid by Shell. Four days later MEND attacked two houseboats and killed 15 JTF soldiers. Two weeks later it released the hostages it had taken on humanitarian grounds. However, apparently in retaliation, three communities were attacked by a JTF helicopter gunship. By April 2006, MEND had waged a four-month campaign of sabotage and kidnap against the oil producers, forcing the companies to cut production by 550,000 barrels a day.

Poverty and neglect are the root causes of this growing violence. Shell, the largest operator, has been forced to evacuate staff and scale back its operations and, though the federal government has often promised to help the Delta region, little has been done. In April 2006, the government announced plans to construct a $1.8 billion highway through the region and create 20,000 new jobs in the military, police, and state oil companies. However, the sense of neglect continues and since the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) controls all the seats in state and local government so that there is no effective political opposition, this allows the militias to speak on behalf of the aggrieved majority of people in the Delta region. Even if no full scale war develops, the escalating violence could force the oil companies to close down more of their land-based operations and concentrate only on their offshore activities at a time when acute demands for oil are everywhere increasing.

Mayhem and Massacre In Macedonia

The Entente in Macedonia. From left to right: a soldier from Indochina, a Frenchman, a Senegalese, an Englishman, a Russian, an Italian, a Serb, a Greek and an Indian.

THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN, 1915-1918 (Q 36153) The 67th Field Ambulance at Asagi Mahale behind the Doiran Front, Macedonia. Note a motor ambulance presented by Queenswood School. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
Serbian artillery in action on the Salonika front in December of 1917.

Serbia, as a belligerent power, was out of the war, but the war was not out of Serbia. After the country was completely occupied, civilian deaths rose sharply in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Prominent civilians, politicians, thinkers and teachers were rounded up and force-marched into the east of the country, occupied by Bulgarian forces. Many ended up at the town of Surdulica, a day’s walk from the Bulgarian frontier, where mass executions took place every day, claiming an unverifiable 9,000 civilian lives in that place alone. The few eyewitnesses who survived testified that killing was at first by shooting, then by bayonet to conserve ammunition, and finally by clubbing with blunt objects and rifle butts. Rape was commonplace. Serbian villages and towns were looted and burned to the ground, livestock driven off, orchards cut down and wells poisoned, to discourage any survivors from returning. Adult males not killed in the massacres were forcibly drafted into the Bulgarian army in blatant contravention of the Rules of War as laid out in the 1899 Hague Convention, to which both Serbia and Bulgaria were signatories. It stipulated that POWs should be removed from danger and not be required to contribute to their captors’ war effort.

Winston Churchill, who had briefly been a prisoner during the Boer War, once defined a POW as ‘a man who asks you not to kill him just after he has failed to kill you’, and it is to be expected that some one-on-one violence occurs in that situation. However the systematic maltreatment of POWs in this campaign was revenge for well-documented Serbian atrocities in the Balkan wars of 1912–13, when whole villages of Albanians and Bulgarians were exterminated, with male inhabitants driven into prepared killing zones at night and there clubbed to death in order not to alarm their families with the noise of rifle shots, after which the houses were fired, to flush out the women and children, who were bayonetted and bludgeoned to death. Soldiers refusing to take part in the massacres were threatened with court martial. The Austro-Hungarian minister in Belgrade commented at the time in an internal memorandum that Serbia was a state where ‘murder and killing have been raised to a system’.

The New Year of 1916 saw the Salonika enclave reinforced with four more Allied divisions, additional Serbian and Italian units and two brigades of the Russian Expeditionary Force – of which, more later. Many of the Tommies and their comrades-in-arms were unclear whether the 90-mile-long wired perimeter was to protect them from the Bulgarians or the anti-Allied Greeks on the other side of the wire. It was, of course, useless against the next threat which literally hung over them at the end of January. A dark-painted Zeppelin based 400 miles away in Hungary – a long journey at roughly 70mph – flew over the Allied base on the last night of the month, dropping several tonnes of bombs on the town of Salonika. Retiring unscathed, it returned on 17 March with equal success. A dawn air raid by several enemy aircraft in March was driven off after three of them4 had been shot down. On the night of 4–5 May, after being awoken by the sound of bombs falling, Lieutenant George Collen wrote down a record5 of the Zepp’s third sortie. He and other officers left their tents to see it coned by searchlights in the night sky. An immense flash that briefly lit up their camp 15 miles inland marked its end after crash-landing on the foreshore. Several units claimed the credit for bringing down the monster, although the crash of the airship is usually attributed to the guns of HMS Agamemnon, moored in the harbour. The eleven-man Zeppelin crew survived the crash-landing and set fire to their highly flammable dirigible before being taken prisoner by French and Serbian cavalry while half-naked after stripping off their soaking uniforms in an attempt to dry off in the feeble sunshine.

On 12 March hundreds of Allied guns opened fire on the Bulgarian positions on high ground along the west of the line. In twenty-four hours more than 200,000 shells were fired at the enemy trenches and fortifications in Sarrail’s bid to ‘break the line’. However, enemy casualties were low because the defenders took shelter in deep concrete bunkers constructed on the reverse slopes of the mountains, where they were hidden from the Allied gunners. On 14 March there began a six-day struggle for the heights dominating the city of Monastir (modern Bitola), where Sarrail’s men suffered heavy casualties. At the mountain called Chervenata Stena or Red Wall five French divisions took ground and were repulsed several times in a slaughter that alternated heavy artillery bombardments with bayonet attacks into machine gun fire so sustained that the Bulgarian defenders ran out of ammunition and took to rolling tree trunks and throwing rocks down on the French soldiers scrambling uphill towards them. Even transport up to the lines was difficult, with the spring rains turning flat land into seas of mud, through which everything had to be pulled by draught mules and oxen, with sledges more practical than wheeled vehicles in the malarial swamps of the Struma valley, where wheels sank into the morass.

Not until early May was the peak finally taken, after the Bulgarians withdrew to neighbouring high ground. On 18 May a new Bulgarian offensive equipped with German hand grenades and flamethrowers – newly introduced to this theatre – and supported by well-sited artillery, caused casualties as high as 75 per cent in the two French regiments on Red Wall, whose survivors made no further move against the enemy. Not until 19 November was a mixed Franco-Serbian force able to capture Monastir, the Serbs having suffered 27,000 casualties, representing one-fifth of their total force. Although Sarrail claimed the ‘liberation’ of the city as a victory, and assigned French, Serbian and other troops to occupy sectors of it, the city was overlooked by Bulgarian artillery on Mount Baba, which bombarded it daily for the rest of the war. Together with damage by bombs dropped from aircraft, this progressively destroyed just about every building until Monastir, once an important Ottoman administrative centre, was flattened. Among the incoming rounds were incendiary shells that set whole streets on fire. According to Swiss investigator Rodolphe Reiss, civilian casualties exceeded 1,500 and the 20,000-plus surviving civilians took shelter in the cellars, which, being below the level of the much damaged sewerage system, swiftly became foul and insanitary, leading in turn to the rapid propagation of infectious diseases including tuberculosis.6 Knowing the inhabitants were spending the nights in the cellars, the Bulgarians took to bombarding the city with gas shells during the night. The gas, being heavier than air, sank into the cellars, causing death after up to half an hour of suffering.

Another enemy was also causing casualties among the Allied troops – and presumably the Germans and Bulgarians on the other side of the lines. If not actually killing many, it certainly put hundreds of men hors de combat. The Allied front in Macedonia included some of the worst malarial land in Europe. To combat the pestilential mosquito, daytime patrols during periods of low activity became fatigue parties, hacking down undergrowth and long grass and pouring diluted creosote into puddles and ponds to kill the larvae. Before going out on a night patrol, each man had to smear his face and neck with mosquito repellent that smelled like almonds and looked like boot polish – and wrap a muslin veil around his head with the ends tucked into his collar.

The major engagement of British troops on the right of the line in 1916 was the first Battle of Lake Dojran at the beginning of August, theoretically in support of General Sarrail’s attempt to break the enemy line west of the River Vardar – a major watercourse that roughly bisects Macedonia north-west to south-east. Various stretches of the river are known by its Greek name of Axios and a Slavonic name, Cerna – meaning black, from the colour of its waters. East of the river at Lake Dojran, which straddled the Greek-Bulgarian border in the centre of the British line, one British division and three French, totalling 45,000 men with 400 artillery pieces in support, launched an offensive against the excellently prepared Bulgarian fortifications around the lake, which were occupied by the 2nd Thracian Infantry Division. The attack went in on 9 August with a heavy artillery barrage, but was repulsed, with heavy losses. Four more attacks on this very hostile rocky terrain, where all the advantages lay with the defenders, followed on 10, 15, 16 and 18 August. All were repulsed by the Bulgarians, who drove the surviving Allied forces back to their start lines, causing a total of 5,024 pointless casualties. Many small wounds were caused by the shirtsleeve order and baggy shorts necessitated by the heat, with steel helmets replaced by soft felt hats, the wide brim turned up at one side.

At the inter-Allied strategy conference held at Chantilly, France, in November 1916 it was agreed that offensives planned for spring of the following year should include an attempt to knock Bulgaria right out of the war using the hotch-potch collection of British, French, Italian, Romanian, Russian and Greek forces in the Salonika enclave. The Allied plan called for attacks to be concerted right along the Macedonian front as soon as the winter weather abated. In anticipation of an Allied attack in the spring, the Bulgarian high command requested six further German divisions, so that it could go over to the offensive in Macedonia, but this request was refused by OHL and the joint German-Bulgarian defenders therefore settled in and consolidated their positions.

The main enemy for the Tommies on the right of the line that winter was the damp and cold. Pte Christopher Hennessy of 2/15th Londons wrote home:

As the bivvies (tents) were open-ended, there was no protection from the Arctic blast. The state of the weather was such that men began volunteering for guard duty. The reason for this was that the guard kept a big fire going all night. On the whole it was a pleasant way to spend a cold night, except that the heat stirred the lice into a frenzy of activity.

In between the few actual battles, men of the BSF came to appreciate the live-and-let-live attitude of ‘Johnny Bulgar’ in the line opposite their positions, who celebrated the Orthodox Christmas on 7 January. Since he had left the British alone on 25 December, the BSF reciprocated on that day. They were still there twelve months later, when King George V sent them a message with the usual ‘hearty good wishes’ and wished them ‘a restful Christmastide and brighter days to come’.

Sarrail’s plan for 1917 looked good on paper, but failed to take into account the fractured command chain and disparate qualities of his heterogeneous forces. It called for Serbian 2nd Army, such as it now was, to attack west of the River Vardar at the same time as British troops advanced east of the river, while a mixed French-Italian force moved against a loop in the river known as the Cerna Bend and a French-Greek force also attacked west of the river. General Milne still regarded the role of the Allied forces in Macedonia as being to hold the German and Bulgarian forces so that they could not be transferred elsewhere, but Sarrail pulled rank and ‘borrowed’ some British units. After many postponements because this or that national contingent was not ready, the British launched the Second Battle of Dojran on 24 April, to find that the defenders had not been idle during the winter, but had improved their positions considerably.

After seven days and nights of pointless losses, it became obvious to Milne that, since none of the other Allied attacks in this theatre was ready, the advantage of simultaneity had been lost. At the Cerna Bend the French-Italian force, whose commanders thought Sarrail’s plan totally unworkable, were strengthened by the arrival of a Russian infantry brigade. What Sarrail thought they would achieve, except being able to exchange intelligible insults with the Bulgarians opposing them, is unknown. The 11th German-Bulgarian army, under German command, had prepared its defensive positions here well, with its best troops in the forward lines and adequate reserves in the rear to deal with any Allied breakthrough. Although out-gunned and out-manned by the Allies opposing them, they had the advantage of the terrain.

The Bulgarian front line consisted of concrete strongpoints and a complicated system of trenches and dugouts for the infantry, protected by wire entanglements up to 15m deep. Allied forces confronting them included sixty-nine Serbian, Italian, French colonial and Russian battalions with more than 500 machine guns and 412 artillery pieces. On 5 May, in the Second Battle of Lake Dojran, ninety-one Italian and French batteries blasted everything in sight opposite them, causing casualties among the Bulgarians occupying the flat terrain, but little damage to the German gunners on the strategically important hills overlooking the plain. The barrage was interrupted by the arrival of German fighter aircraft and the approach of dusk saw firing die down, which enabled the defenders to evacuate casualties and make good breaks in the wire entanglements. The following day was much the same, except that counter-battery fire from the German positions grew more effective thanks to aerial reconnaissance and probing attacks by Allied troops were repulsed without difficulty. On Day 3 of the offensive, the Allied barrage was renewed with thousands of shells raining down on the Bulgarian lines. They responded to probing attacks with probes of their own to ascertain the imminence of the main Allied move.

In fact, the main attack had been put on hold until 9 May because so little had been achieved by all the thousands of shells expended. The use of four observers in baskets slung beneath tethered balloons increased somewhat the accuracy of the fourth day’s Allied barrage but damage to enemy artillery positions was still negligible, with only ten gunners killed or wounded and few guns put out of action. In addition, the enemy was able, by analysing the varying intensity of the Allied barrage along the 23km line to make a very fair guess where the main attack would be coming in.

The attack on an 11km front, involving French, Italian and Russian infantry, went in at 0630hrs on 9 May. The Italians took a stretch of the Bulgarian front lines whose coordinates were well known to the German gunners on the heights, who laid down a barrage that pushed the Italians back to their start lines. A similar story was enacted elsewhere, with heavy losses for the attackers, in several cases because troops of another contingent failed to secure the flanks – and this despite the expenditure of 32,000 shells on that day alone. A desultory series of attacks continued throughout the afternoon. The only significantly successful attack of the day was by the Russian 4th Infantry Regiment at Dabica, where prisoners included four German officers and seventy-plus other ranks. Even this gain could not be held, however. The Russians were pushed back by mid-evening, at which time no Allied gains had been made, for a reported loss of 5,450 casualties, counting dead and wounded, against 1,626 casualties among the Bulgarians and an unknown number of losses among the German troops. Sarrail was a never-give-up type, who followed up with fresh attacks in this sector on 11 and 17 May – all to no avail. On 21 May even he had to admit there was no point in further losses.

The year had seen long periods of boredom for the BSF, which had lost over 5,000 casualties to little gain. As the front sank into stalemate, increasing numbers of BSF were posted to Mesopotamia for General Allenby’s drive against another Johnny – Johnny Turk. Their depleted numbers were made up by local troops, Greece having declared for the Allies on 29 June.

Officers could sometimes get into Salonika and see women in the streets but the men in the depopulated battle zone lived in an all-male world of desolation and discomfort, except for the wounded, who were treated in the base area by Canadian and Australian female nurses and male orderlies. The nurses could on exceptional occasions be enticed to dinner at an officers’ mess, as at Christmas 1917 when Captain Alfred Bundy of Middlesex Regt described in a letter home how he and his brother officers entertained in their mess some of them from the Australian hospital. Rather ungallantly, he described the ladies as so unattractive that only an officer who had had too much to drink would have been likely to make any improper advances. Nursing uniform of ankle-length skirt, long jacket, collar and tie, with leather gloves when off-duty, did little for a girl’s looks. All the same, Bundy had to admit that the female company added to the gaiety of the meal. When a space was cleared for dancing, some officers did their duty while others flirted surreptitiously under the beady eye of the matron, who was chaperoning her girls. It was all very well for him to be picky, but the officers’ entertainment contrasts with the Christmas of the men on the front line around Lake Dorjan, whose only relaxation was taking turns to visit an improvised concert party pantomime in Kalinova, where Robinsoe Crusoe was stranded in Muckidonia with Mrs Crusoe, played for laughs by a most unfeminine soldier in drag.

The memorable event of 1918 – indeed the last memory for many Tommies – was the Third Battle of Lake Dojran, which pitted British 12th Corps, supported by the Seres Division of the Greek army and some of Sarrail’s colonial forces from North Africa, against the Bulgarian 9th Pleven Division that had used its time well to dig in and fortify the opposite bank of the lake under German instructors. During fierce fighting that peaked on 18 and 19 September 1918, every available weapon was employed by both sides, from spotter planes and observation balloons to artillery firing gas shells. On the ground, the dug-in improved Vickers-Maxim machine guns were attacked by men wielding bayonets, sharpened spades and cudgels, useful at close quarters if one survived the approach. A rolling barrage using British 8in howitzers did not greatly facilitate the attackers’ task because they had to advance uphill over broken ground against the enemy positions, scrambling from cover to cover into a hail of fire from German-manufactured Spandau machine guns while wearing cumbersome, primitive respirators – or else risk succumbing to the heavier-than-air gas, probably from British shells, that lingered in the hollows and ravines.

Sweating under a pitiless sun, trying to see the terrain ahead through misted-up goggles, never mind spot the well dug-in enemy machine gun positions, the men were also cut down from above by shrapnel shells fired by more than 100 enemy guns. Above them circled Allied aircraft whose observers, tasked with correcting artillery fire, were unable to make out the situation on the ground through the heat-haze, the gun-smoke and the dust from explosions, or to drop orders to men cut off in the confusion of rocks and ravines below. There were some 200 Allied spotter planes and bombers deployed in the theatre, compared with only thirty or so Taube and Fokker aircraft on the other side.

The Bulgarian front line was overrun and some Greeks reached the second line before being driven back with heavy casualties. The 7th South Wales Borderers were especially hard hit. By the end of the morning, most of the attacking force lay dead or wounded on the slopes, as did its officers, including both colonels. The 12th Cheshire Regiment, 9th South Lancs Regiment and 8th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry lost up to 67 per cent of officers and men after being ordered to advance into interlocking fields of machine gun fire. No Allied gains had been made by the end of the day. Tormented by thirst and wounds, the fallen of both sides wept and called throughout that night for help which did not come.

On Day 2, artillery support was ill coordinated as the Cretans advanced in a dawn attack and took some Bulgarian trenches before being repulsed with heavy losses. Fresh British units and some French colonials again suffered about 50 per cent casualties with no territorial gains in the hopeless assault, echoing the senseless slaughter on the Western Front. Of the British troops, Scots fusiliers and Highlanders of the 77th Brigade advanced with the same difficulty as the Welshmen who lay in their path, dead or dying from the first day’s fighting. The Scots, in turn, left half their number dead or wounded in the futile engagement. By the end of the second day’s fighting, Allied losses were estimated at nearly 8,000 men against less than 3,000 Bulgarian casualties.

All that to occupy a few Bulgarian trenches and the strategically useless ruins of Dojran town, but Milne was hailed as a victorious commander on the grounds that the Dojran action had tied down the Bulgarian reserves and allowed the French–Italian attack to the west of the Vardar to break through the enemy line. Some days later, probing patrols reported a strange silence in the Bulgarian positions around Lake Dojran and found them abandoned. To avoid being taken in the rear by the Allied breakthrough west of the river, the defenders had retreated in good order, leaving rearguards to delay any pursuit.

One hostilities-only officer on the staff of British 28th Division described chasing the enemy up through the Rupell Pass and into Serbia. The way was strewn with cast-off clothing, dead horses, wrecked machine guns, discarded ammunition, deliberately damaged rifles and bayonets with the locking ring torn off. The British were impressed by the way that the German officers had planted gardens to grow chilli and tomatoes in front of Swiss-style chalets they had built along the ravines. Most impressive was a bath-house constructed over a natural hot spring, where officers and men enjoyed a swim in the mineral waters. He considered that the conduct of the Tommies was exemplary, compared with that of the Serbian soldiery who had arrived first, as witness ‘the grim evidence … in the shape of blackened Bulgar corpses at an abandoned hospital … sitting up in their beds and rotting.’ Back in Macedonia, living in tents beside the muddy mule lines, they heard and saw on the night of 10–11 November rockets and flares sent up the Greeks camped nearby. A bugle sounded a call none of the enlisted men recognised, until an old sweat, walking back from a boozy evening in the sergeants’ mess, said, ‘Don’t you know the Cease Fire when you hear it?’

As the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian occupation forces withdrew from Serbian soil in the last months of 1918, what remained of the Serbian army, supported by British and French troops, pushed into the power vacuum and reached their old borders two weeks before the Armistice. Serbian deaths in combat alone were the highest of all the Allied belligerents, at around 26 per cent of all men mobilised.

The total cost of the war to ‘poor little Serbia’? Although awarded some reparations and a little formerly Bulgarian territory under the Treaty of Neuilly in November 1919, and temporarily occupying territory as far north as Pecs in Hungary and Timisoara in Romania, this did little to compensate the material damage to tens of thousands of homes, factories, schools and hospitals which, in today’s terms, would amount to many billions of dollars. And how could this landlocked country get back on its feet with more than half its adult males killed in combat, massacred or dead from disease? In addition, by the end of hostilities, war-crippled Serbia had 114,000 disabled veterans to care for and a half-million orphaned children to support.

The unification of the region by the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which in 1929 became Yugoslavia – or land of the southern Slavs – did nothing to eradicate the legacy of hatred from the events of 1912–13 and 1914–18 that was to spawn another round of genocide during the Second World War and yet again after the break-up of Tito’s Yugoslav Federation following his death in 1980 – conflicting accounts of which still echo in hearings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

It was, of course, impossible for the repatriation and demobilisation of all the Allied forces on the eastern fronts to follow swiftly on the Armistice of 11 November. Most of the officers and virtually all the ‘other ranks’ were still there at Christmas, when General Allenby’s Order of the Day dated seven weeks after the Armistice ordered the men restlessly awaiting return to civilian life to resist the temptations of wine and women! Back home, there were mutinies in Calais and Folkestone and 3,000 soldiers marched through London in protest at their delayed demobilisation. The mood was similar in Macedonia, where Captain Bundy was confronted with a complete breakdown of military discipline among men quite rightly angry that they had been given no indication of when they would be sent home:

I had to talk to a whole company that were disgracefully abusive to their officers. I realised that any show of military authority would be fatal, so I reasoned with them. My remarks were greeted by catcalls and rude noises, but I knew the men were anxious to return to England, so I announced that if there was (insubordination) I should have the offenders arrested and kept back till last.

Some of the BSF boarded ships thinking they were homeward-bound, but ended up at Baku in Azerbaijan, where half the world’s petroleum had been produced before the war from wells owned by the Nobel brothers, better known for smokeless gunpowder and the annual awards. Since Russia’s exit from the war after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, all was not ‘peace on earth and goodwill towards men’ on Christmas Day 1918 there, either. The ‘other ranks’ were confined inside barracks doubly guarded, to avoid clashes with armed patrols of Red Guards who had cut off the power supply. Even the wounded in hospital who were fit enough to use a rifle were placed on standby. A task force of Royal Engineers, protected by armoured cars, managed to get the power station running again on the day after Boxing Day, but a Bolshevik attack was expected at any moment. Some men were also posted to Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula and stationed in what had been the tsarist navy’s barracks. Even there, the Allied command imposed a curfew and provost patrols shot on sight anyone found in the streets after 9 p.m.

It was not just the ‘other ranks’ who resented the long wait to go home. There is a telling photograph taken at Christmas 1918 of four officers clustered around a stove in the tented mess of 95th Russel’s Infantry in Macedonia, looking distinctly glum and miserably cold in their foul weather clothing. Officers and men alike resented the apparently random early selection of men for demob, which was theoretically based on their usefulness in re-starting commerce and industry back home. It took the appointment of Winston Churchill as Secretary of State for War in January 1919 to institute a demob programme based on the principle of first-in, first-out that rewarded a man’s age, length of service and wounds suffered. Ich hatt’ einen Kamerad / ’nen bessern findst Du nicht, the German soldiers sang: I had a comrade, as good as you can find. Soldiers’ songs were never so important for the British armed forces as they were in European armies, inured to marching long distances in Continental conflicts, but something of the same hopeless sadness must have been in the minds of the Tommies who eventually packed up to leave Salonika in 1919, thinking of all their comrades who lay in the extensive war cemeteries all over Macedonia. There were even three men who had been executed by firing squad for unspecified offences, and another executed in Serbia.15 Generals, who can afford to take the strategic view, would say that they had successfully tied down Central Powers’ forces which could have been used elsewhere, but it would be impossible to justify all the British and other Allied deaths in Macedonia by any in-theatre gains.             


The initial Austrian manoeuvre took the Prussians by surprise. But Neipperg, rather than precipitate an attack with troops wearied from their march, chose to take up a defensive position around Mollwitz. Neipperg was not expecting an attack when late on the morning of 10 April he was informed that the Prussian columns were ‘uncoiling’ over the snowy fields. General-Leutnant Roemer, one of Neipperg’s more resourceful commanders immediately perceived the need to screen the Austrian infantry as it came into position and swiftly brought six regiments of cuirassiers forward where they shielded the main part of Neipperg’s force. At this stage the Prussian artillery opened fire on the stationary cavalry who, after receiving casualties, were ordered by Roemer to charge the right wing of the Prussian cavalry that had just come into view. The Prussian horsemen proved no match for the Imperial cuirassiers. An Austrian officer later recalled:

The Prussians fought on their horses stationary and so they got the worst of every clash. The extraordinary size of their horses did them no good at all – our cavalry always directed their first sword cut at the head of the enemy horse; the horse fell, throwing its rider to the ground who would then be cut down from behind. The Prussian troopers have iron crosses set inside their hats. These were splintered by our swords which made the cuts deadlier still. I might add that we had been ordered to sharpen most of our swords before the action and now their edges looked like saws.

The exposed right wing of Frederick’s army began to crumble as Roemer’s men charged home. It was at this moment that Frederick, seized by panic as the Imperial cavalry penetrated his artillery park, decided to flee the conflict, leaving Schwerin to take charge. Schwerin acted swiftly to restore order on his right flank and hastily moved up three battalions, which in perfect drill formed a line and began to volley the disordered Austrian cavalry. Three times Roemer charged this Prussian line and each time his horsemen were repulsed, the last charge killing their commander. Unsupported by the Austrian infantry who were demoralised by the firepower of the Prussians, the Austrian cavalry fell back. Frederick’s infantry, though he was not there to see it, had not let their sovereign down. The Austrians, including Neipperg, had seen nothing like it. For every one volley the Austrian infantry loosed, the Prussians returned five. The effect was, after an hour, decisive.

‘Our infantry kept up a continuous fire,’ wrote an Austrian eyewitness, ‘but could not be made to advance a step. The battalions sank into disorder, and it was pathetic to see how the poor recruits tried to hide behind one another so that the battalions ended up thirty or forty men deep, and the intervals became so great that whole regiments of cavalry could have penetrated between, even though the whole of the second line had been brought forward into the first.’

Neipperg withdrew, his confidence in his troops almost as shattered as the morale of his men. The casualties for both sides together amounted to over 9,000, a figure regarded as considerable. Mollwitz had proved no simple victory for the Prussians and strategically it achieved little immediately. Frederick was unwilling to risk a second battle. Its effect on the Habsburg forces was nonetheless crushing.

Accounts of the weak showing of the Austrian infantry could not be entirely attributed to their being ‘made up of recruits, peasants and other poor material’. Maria Theresa would later write:

You would hardly believe it but not the slightest attempt had been made to establish uniformity among our troops. Each regiment went about marching and drilling in its own fashion. One unit would close formation by a rapid movement and the next by a slow one. The same words and orders were expressed by the regiments in quite different styles. Can you wonder that we were invariably beaten in the ten years before my accession? As for the condition in which I found the army, I cannot begin to describe it.

But though Mollwitz had hardly ‘cleared’ Silesia for the Prussians, news of the Prussian victory travelled across Europe, further encouraging various courts to deny the basis of the Pragmatic Sanction. In fact had Prussia lost Mollwitz the war and the bloodshed of the next two decades would have ended there and then; but fate decreed otherwise. While the Saxon army prepared to invade Bohemia, the French and the Bavarians advanced into Upper Austria. The dismemberment of the once ‘indivisible realms’ appeared inevitable.

Maria Theresa refuses to yield: the ‘King’ of Hungary

Calm resignation reigned at court. Somehow, under new rulers, the estates of the high aristocracy would survive. Life would go on and Maria Theresa would surely come to terms with just remaining an important Archduchess. Outside her domains no one preached appeasement more vigorously than England. A certain Mr Robinson was instructed by London to represent the dangers of failing to settle with Frederick. He was urged by the British government to ‘expiate on the dangerous designs of France … of the powerful combination against Austria’. But Mollwitz notwithstanding, Maria Theresa refused to yield. She listened patiently to Robinson but dismissed him with the words: ‘not only for political reasons but from conscience and honour I will not consent’.

It was only with the greatest of difficulty that Maria Theresa found advisers of backbone prepared to share her defiance. The news in June that Frederick had signed a treaty with France only made them rarer. Nevertheless, a handful stepped forward in the moment of crisis. Unsurprisingly we encounter yet again the name of Starhemberg but also Bartenstein and Khevenhueller, the grandson of Montecuccoli. In the moment of supreme trial the families that had had some connection with the Great Siege of Vienna in another moment of danger for the House of Austria two generations earlier once more stepped forward. But there were others, notably Count Emanuel Silva-Tarouca, a Portuguese aristocrat who never learnt German but became a kind of personal ‘coach’ to the Empress, advising her on every detail of her actions.

Another of these was an elderly shrewd Magyar by the name of Johann Pálffy, the Judex Curiae (Judge Royal) and the man whose moral authority in Hungary would prove Maria Theresa’s greatest support in this troubled year of 1741. Pálffy combined the qualities of statesmanship with the personal courage of a more martial calling. He too, like Starhemberg, had a name interwoven with battle honours, including the Great Siege of Vienna. He had taken part in most of the wars the Habsburgs had fought since then and had been wounded many times. He had also shown himself a keen diviner of the mysteries of the Hungarian temperament, negotiating the Peace of Szatmár with the insurgent Ráckóczi. At the same time, as a former Ban (viceroy) of Croatia, no one knew the mentality of that warlike people better than Pálffy.

Pálffy, like Khevenhueller was in the ‘sunset’ phase of his life in his late seventies – he would die in 1751. Nevertheless, he was deeply impressed by the young woman he served and saw that an approach to the Hungarian nobility was one of the keys to strengthening her position. It would also enable the Magyars to cement their own position advantageously vis-à-vis the Imperial house.

In accordance with Hungarian tradition, Maria Theresa would have to be crowned ‘King’ of Hungary (the Hungarian Constitution did not recognise a queen). The same tradition required then, as it would for nearly two more centuries, that the monarch mount a horse and ascend the ‘Royal Mount’ of Pressburg, some miles east of Vienna. Wearing the historic robes of St Stephen and the famous crown with its crooked cross, the sovereign was expected to take the slope at a brisk canter and, with the ancient drawn sabre of the Hungarian kings, point in turn to the four points of the compass, swearing to defend the Hungarian lands.

The story of the events of that 25 June in Pressburg and later in September have been much embroidered but we have, thanks to the hapless Mr Robinson – returned from his fruitless task to help Maria Theresa find a compromise with Frederick – a vivid eyewitness account of that day which gives us something of the flavour:

The coronation was magnificent. The Queen was all charm; she rode gallantly up the royal mount and defied the four corners of the world with the drawn sabre in a manner to show she had no occasion for that weapon to conquer all who saw her. The antiquated crown received new graces from her head and the old tattered robe of St Stephen became her as well as her own rich habit.

It was a good beginning to the eternally delicate Habsburg–Magyar relationship. Later that day as she sat down to dine in public without the crown, her looks, invested as they were with what one writer called ‘an air of delicacy occasioned by her recent confinement’, became ‘most attractive, the fatigue of the ceremony diffused an animated glow over her countenance while her beautiful hair flowed in ringlets over her shoulders’.

A little later on 11 September, having summoned the states of the Magyar diet to a formal assembly and once again wearing the crown, she appealed in Latin, the language of aristocratic Hungary at that time, to her audience, proclaiming in the language of the Roman Emperors, her speech:

The disastrous situation of our affairs has moved us to lay before our most dear and faithful states of Hungary the recent violation of Austria. I lay before you the mortal danger now impending over this kingdom and I beg to propose to you the consideration of a remedy. The very existence of the Kingdom of Hungary, of our own person, of our children and our crown are now at stake! We have been forsaken by all! We therefore place our sole resource in the fidelity, the arms and the long tried immemorial valour of the Hungarians.

The original of this speech exists and it is without doubt one of the most fascinating documents in eighteenth-century Central European history. It shows everywhere the young Queen’s hand over-working (in Latin!) the text of the original much less emotional speech prepared by her advisers. The word ‘poor’ for example is scratched out and replaced with the word ‘disastrous’. In almost every paragraph this girl, barely out of her teens, crosses out some anodyne formulation, replacing it with a more stirring phrase or word. Like a composer carefully judging structure and climax she transformed by a series of amendments a good speech into a brilliant one. As was to be so often the case, her instincts did not let her down.

What happened next is immortalised in countless paintings. Moved by the pleas of this young, helpless woman, the Hungarian nobles drew their sabres and pointing them into the sky cried: ‘Vitam nostrum et sanguinem pro Rege nostro consecramus’ (‘Our Life and Blood we dedicate to our King!’).

The drawing of swords was part of the ceremonial though clearly on this occasion injected with great passion. Who could resist the call of chivalry when articulated with such grace, and with feminine distress? Within a month Hungary had declared the ‘comprehensive insurrection’, pledging to take up arms to enter the war.

Even today we can sense the pulling of male emotional heart strings at which Maria Theresa so excelled in a letter to Khevenhueller penned around this time and sent with an accompanying portrait of herself and her son: ‘Here you have before your eyes a Queen and her son deserted by the whole world. What do you think will become of this child?’ In the first spontaneous response to this passionate outpouring of emotion on the part of the Magyars, it was estimated that perhaps as many as 100,000 men would flock to the cause. In the event it was to be a much more modest contribution, but significant nonetheless. Three new regiments of Hussars were raised, the first clad in exquisite chalk blue and gold, in the name and ownership of Prince Paul Eszterhazy.

Banalist and Pandour from the Corps of Colonel Trenck: Battle of Soor 30th September 1745 in the Second Silesian War: Picture by David Morier

Habsburg irregulars: the Pandours

In addition, six regiments of infantry were raised. As well as the Hungarians there came another group of volunteers: the Pandours. These brigands, often the natives of the ‘wrong side’ of the Military Frontier, followed their leader, the gifted Baron Trenck. This Trenck is not to be confused with his kinsman who was initially in the Prussian service and whose memoirs were widely read in the eighteenth century. The Austrian Trenck pledged a unit of irregulars, a Freikorps (Free Corps) numbering about 1,000 to Maria Theresa’s aid.

These irregulars were welcomed into the Imperial service even though they possessed no conventional officer corps but a system whereby each unit of fifty men obeyed a ‘Harumbascha’. All the Pandours, Harumbaschas included, were paid 6 kreutzer a day out of Trenck’s own estates, a pitiful sum. This was certainly not enough for any semblance of a uniform and their appearance was highly exotic. When they appeared in Vienna at the end of May 1741, the ‘Wienerische Diarium’ could write:

Two Battalions of regular infantry lined up to parade as the Pandours entered the city. The Irregulars greeted the regulars with long drum rolls on long Turkish drums. They bore no colours but were attired in picturesque oriental garments from which protruded pistols, knives and other weapons. The Empress ordered twelve of the tallest to be invited with their officer to her Ante-Room where they were paraded in front of the dowager Empress Christina.

Neipperg found the Pandours rather raw meat. He was unused to the ways of the Military Frontier. On several occasions while campaigning he had to remind them that they were ‘here to kill the enemy not to plunder the civilian population’. The Pandour excesses soon provoked Neipperg into attempting to replace Trenck. The man chosen for this daunting task was a Major Mentzel who had seen service in Russia and was therefore deemed to be familiar with the ‘barbaric’ ways of the Pandours. Unfortunately, some Pandours fell upon Mentzel as soon as news of his appointment was announced and the hapless Major only escaped with his life after the intervention of several senior Harumbaschas and Austrian officers.

Mentzel, notwithstanding this indignity, was formally proclaimed commander of the Pandours, whereupon a mutiny took place which only Khevenhueller, a man of the Austrian south and therefore familiar with Slavic methods, could stem by reinstating Trenck under his personal command. At both Steyr and Linz, the Pandours in their colourful dress decorated with heart-shaped badges and Turkic headdresses would distinguish themselves against the Bavarians. Indeed, by the middle of 1742 the mention of their name alone was enough to clear the terrain of faint-hearted opponents. Within five years they would be incorporated into the regular army though with an order of precedence on Maria Theresa’s specific instruction ‘naturally after that of my Regular infantry regiments’. At Budweis (Budejovice) they captured ten Prussian standards and four guns.

The crisis was far from over. While Khevenhueller prepared a force to defend Vienna, the Bavarians gave the Austrian capital some respite by turning north from Upper Austria and invading Bohemia. By November, joined by French and Saxon troops, this force surprised the Prague garrison of some 3,000 men under General Ogilvy and stormed into the city largely unopposed on the night of 25 November. To deal with these new threats, Maria Theresa using Neipperg as her plenipotentiary had signed an armistice with Frederick at Klein Schnellendorf. She realised that her armies were in no condition to fight Bavarians, Saxons, French and Prussians simultaneously.

Maria Theresa received the news of Prague’s surrender with redoubled determination. In a letter to Kinsky, her Bohemian Chancellor she insisted: ‘I must have Grund and Boden and to this end I shall have all my armies, all my Hungarians killed off before I cede so much as an inch of ground.’

Charles Albert the Elector of Bavaria rubbed salt into the wounds by crowning himself King of Bohemia and thus eligible to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. The dismemberment of the Habsburg Empire was entering a new and deadly phase. Maria Theresa was now only Archduchess of Austria and ‘King’ of Hungary.

The election of a non-Habsburg ‘Emperor’ immediately provided a practical challenge for the Habsburg forces on the battlefield. Their opponents were swift to put the famous twin-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire on their standards. To avoid confusion Maria Theresa ordered its ‘temporary’ removal from her own army’s standards. The Imperial eagle with its two heads vanished from the standards of Maria Theresa’s infantry to be replaced on both sides of the flag with a bold image of the Madonna, an inspired choice, uniting as it did the Mother of Austria with the Mother of Christ and so investing the ‘Mater Castrorum’ with all the divine prestige and purity of motive of the Virgin Mary.

Another development followed: because Maria Theresa’s forces could no longer be designated ‘Imperial’ there emerged the concept of a royal Bohemian and Hungarian army which became increasingly referred to for simplicity’s sake as ‘Austrian’. The name would stick. When less than five years later Maria Theresa’s husband was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Europe had become accustomed to referring to the Habsburg armies as the Austrians.

A glimmer of hope appeared as Khevenhueller cleared Upper Austria of the Bavarians and French. He blockaded Linz, which was held by 10,000 French troops under Ségur. And by seizing Scharding on the Inn he deprived the unfortunate French garrison of all chance of relief from Bavaria. The Tyroleans showed their skill at mountain warfare and ambushed one Bavarian force after another, inflicting fearful casualties. On the day that Charles Albert of Bavaria was elected Holy Roman Emperor, Khevenhueller sent the Bavarian upstart an unequivocal message: he occupied his home city of Munich and torched his palace.

Charles of Lorraine assumes command

Prince Charles of Lorraine, Francis Stephen’s brother and the descendant of the Charles of Lorraine who had played such an important part in raising the great Siege of Vienna, took command of the main Austrian force, hitherto under Neipperg. It was his first independent command and the fun-loving Prince, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, was uncouth, loud and a poor judge of character. It was quickly revealed that he was far from competent as a military commander. To Lorraine’s surprise and in breach of the treaty he had just signed at Klein Schellendorf, Frederick moved into Moravia, launching a full invasion of that picturesque province in February and linking arms with the French and Saxons in southern Bohemia. By the 19th he was at Znaim (Znojmo) barely a day and half’s march from Vienna.

Several thousand light cavalry were sent towards Vienna to scout and pillage. The panic in the Austrian capital was immense. Once again several prominent families contemplated flight but wiser counsels prevailed. Austria’s enemies could not agree on their shares of the spoils and Frederick, aware that he was overstretched, withdrew to a strong position in northern Bohemia. Here, eventually, Lorraine, after much prodding from Vienna, attacked at a village called Chotusitz. Once again the Austrian cavalry fought magnificently, overwhelming the opposing horse and driving it from the field. As the Austrian cavalry plundered the Prussian camp all was set for significant victory if the Austrian infantry could behave with cool discipline and attack. Unfortunately a certain over-zealous Colonel Livingstein had the idea of setting fire to Chotusitz, oblivious to the fact that the flames and smoke would effectively bring any attack to a halt and give the Prussian defence time to reform and hold their ground.

After four hours of heavy fighting Charles ordered his troops to withdraw. This they did in good order, having captured fourteen standards. The Prussians remained masters of the battlefield but their casualties were, at 7,000, no fewer than the Austrians’. The Prussian cavalry had been so severely handled that it was no longer an effective fighting force. This was not the crushing victory Frederick, who had finally distinguished himself during the battle by his courage and quick reactions, had wanted to support his demands for northern Bohemia.

The Prussians had been saved by the inability of their opponents to take advantage of at least three opportunities to crush them. Once again the Austrians for all the indifference of their leadership and discipline had proved themselves to be no easy enemy. Moreover the severity of the Prussian losses highlighted the asymmetry in manpower upon which both armies relied. The Austrians could draw on far greater numbers for recruitment and Chotusitz illustrated vividly Frederick’s dilemma were he to continue hostilities. As Count Podewils, Frederick’s courtier elegantly noted with regard to Austria, only ‘some lovely feathers had been torn from its wings’. The bird was ‘still capable of flying quite high’.

The situation in Bohemia was moving rapidly in Austria’s favour. The moment for rapprochement had arrived. Podewils signed the preliminaries at Breslau and Prussia gained Upper and Lower Silesia together with Glatz. The later Treaty of Berlin confirmed that only a sliver of Silesia around Troppau and Jaegersdorf was kept by Austria but Bohemia was secured and the Habsburg armies could now turn their full weight against their other enemies, notably the French.

These under Broglio had already retreated from Frauenberg, their baggage falling into the hands of Lobkowitz’s light cavalry. Seeking shelter in Písek, a French corps was compelled to surrender when a detachment of Nadasti’s Hussars, mostly Croats, swam across the river with sabres in their mouths and climbing on each other’s shoulders scaled the walls and first surprised and then began massacring the garrison.

Broglio sought to bring his harassed forces to Prague but here the condition of the French garrison was pitiable. Meanwhile, the coalition against Maria Theresa was breaking up. The Saxons no longer wished to be involved and the French and Bavarians had been outmanoeuvred on the Danube by Khevenhueller. Opinion in London and other parts of Europe was belatedly but finally rallying to Austria. The success of her armies and the character of her defiance added to the diplomatic awareness that only the House of Austria could check the ambitions of the House of Bourbon. With the removal of Walpole, the Austrian party once again was in the ascendant in London and large supplies of men and money were voted in parliament to support Maria Theresa. In Russia a new government watched how Prussia was developing with increasing scepticism.

At the same time in Italy, where both French and Spanish forces threatened Maria Theresa’s inheritance, a significant Austrian army assisted by the Royal Navy and the fine troops of the King of Sardinia drove their opponents out of Savoy, Parma and Modena. The Austrians here were commanded by Count Abensburg-Traun, governor of Lombardy and one of the more elderly of Maria Theresa’s generals. But though not in his prime, Traun was an able tactician and even Frederick admitted that the ‘only reason Traun has not defeated me is because he has not faced me on the battlefield’.

Traun had served as adjutant to Guido Starhemberg and as Khevenhueller noted:

From this experience he learnt how to conduct marches and plant camps with foresight and acquired the art of holding the defensive with inferior forces. Defensive operations were in fact his forte and he had few rivals in this respect. … The soldiers were very fond of him because he cared for their welfare and they invariably called him their ‘Father’. So generous was he towards his officers and the men that in later years he had almost nothing to live on and was virtually compelled to contract his second marriage so as to obtain a housekeeper and nurse.

All these successes offered the chance to conclude peace but Maria Theresa rejected all the overtures of the French. In front of the entire court she answered the French proposals with fighting words:

I will grant no capitulation to the French Army; I will receive no proposition or project. Let them address my allies!

When one of her courtiers had the temerity to refer to the conciliatory tone of the French General Belle-Isle, she exclaimed:

I am astonished that he should make any advances; he who by money and promises excited almost all the princes of Germany to crush me. … I can prove by documents in my possession that the French endeavoured to excite sedition even in the heart of my dominions; that they attempted to overturn the fundamental laws of the empire and to set fire to the four corners of Germany; and I will transmit these proofs to posterity as a warning to the empire.

The Siege of Prague continued and the French troops bottled up in the city became more and more desperate. Broglio escaped in disguise and Belle-Isle was left to effect the retreat. This he accomplished largely because of the incompetence of Prince Lobkowitz who, taking up a position with his army beyond the Moldau river, left only a small detachment of hussars to observe the French. Belle-Isle took full advantage of Lobkowitz’s complacency and stole away leaving only the sick and wounded. Eleven thousand infantry and 3,000 cavalry were thus extricated and passed some thirty miles through open country without receiving the slightest check.

In Prague even the wounded, amounting to some 6,000, rejected Lobkowitz’s furious demand for unconditional surrender. Their enterprising leader Chevert warned he would set fire to the city if he was not granted the full honours of war and Lobkowitz to his credit yielded, encouraged perhaps by the fact that his own magnificent palace with its priceless treasures would be the first to go up in flames.

But Belle-Isle had entered Germany at the head of 40,000 men and he returned to France with only 8,000, humiliated and a fugitive, a sorry outcome when an easy conquest had been anticipated.


Henri-Paul Motte – Le Cardinal de Richelieu au siège de La Rochelle (1881)
Siege of Stralsund (1628)
Siege and capture of Casale Monferrato by French troops, 1630.
The defeated Spanish garrison leaving ‘s-Hertogenbosch, 17 September 1629
by Pauwels van Hillegaert 1635. Oil on Canvas.

In the years 1627–30 military sieges took place hundreds of miles apart and in different theatres of war. At Stralsund (May–Aug. 1628), Casale (spring 1628–March 1629), La Rochelle (Sep. 1627–Oct. 1628), ’s-Hertogenbosch (April–Sep. 1629), Casale again (Sep. 1629–Oct. 1630) and Mantua (Nov. 1629–July 1630), they were part of the attritional war taking place across Europe. Their course was as unpredictable as the political and strategic consequences of their outcomes were imponderable.

By negotiating an end to the siege of Stralsund, Wallenstein wanted to avoid ‘the inevitable bloodbath’ (as he put it) of storming it, damaging relations with Hamburg and Lübeck and compromising imperialist plans. That allowed the city to sign a twenty-year alliance with Gustav Adolf, creating the Swedish bridgehead into North Germany two years later. As Cardinal Richelieu’s siege of La Rochelle ended, the aggrieved lieutenant who had assassinated Charles I’s favourite, the duke of Buckingham, was executed at Tyburn. Owed £80 in back-pay, wounded in the failed English expedition to the Île de Ré to succour French Protestants in 1626, John Felton had carried out the deed in Portsmouth on 23 August 1628, declaring (in a letter sewn into his hat, one version of which read): ‘that man is cowardly base and deserveth not the name of gentleman and soldier that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honour of his God, his King and his country’. The public outbreak of rejoicing at Buckingham’s death and the distrust which lay behind it wrecked Charles’s hopes of negotiating with the English Parliament of 1628. The Anglo-French war (1627–9), with its two failed attempts to relieve the La Rochelle siege, came ignominiously to a close. England adopted benevolent neutrality in the Thirty Years War – which meant closet support for the Spanish, the last thing Richelieu wanted. The siege equally strained France’s alliance with the Dutch (Treaty of Compiègne, 1624) strengthening fears in the Netherlands that the French were unreliable allies.

The Dutch capture of ’s-Hertogenbosch ended peace-feelers between Spain and the Netherlands. In addition to the fortress, the city was the seat of the bishopric in North Brabant and the gateway to the Maas. The population of mainly Catholic Meierij from the surrounding region were now Dutch. From that moment on (even more so when the Dutch took Maastricht in 1632) the Dutch Republic had a fringe Catholic minority whose religion and interests the Spanish were determined to protect. Madrid argued that the region’s civil jurisdiction still lay in Brussels. Catholic spiritual jurisdiction was not theirs to assign to someone else. And whatever happened to Church property would have to be discussed alongside the ecclesiastical territories in the Reich. The fall of ’s-Hertogenbosch pushed peace further away.

The failed sieges in northern Italy also complicated the European chequerboard. Olivares recognized that Spain’s Mantuan war was a gamble: 1627, he wrote, ‘will decide the fate of this Monarchy’. The emperor had secured North Germany. Spain had seized the offensive in the Netherlands. France was in open war with its Protestants and had made peace with Spain (Treaty of Monzón, 5 March 1626), ending their differences in the Valtelline. By 1630, however, the pieces were stacked against Spain. The withdrawal of troops from General Spínola’s army to northern Italy crippled the anti-Dutch offensive. Dutch capture of the Spanish treasure fleet in 1628 caused fears of another Spanish bankruptcy. Casale and Mantua diverted imperial forces from northern Germany, enabling the Swedes to secure their bridgehead in 1630. The French intervention in northern Italy rendered war between France and both the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs all but inevitable. Attritional warfare depended for its success on one side acquiring a strategic advantage such that the other would be forced to sue for peace. Its logic, however, was defeated by the war of unintended consequences.

These dominated the period from 1630 to 1648, the year negotiations in Westphalia ended war in Germany and the Netherlands. Sweden’s military intervention with French financial and diplomatic backing in Germany in July 1630 complicated one set of diplomatic, military and political equations. France’s declaration of war on the Spanish Habsburgs in May 1635 – followed by a similar declaration against the Austrian Habsburgs a year later – aggravated another. In Sweden’s case, the issues were how to secure stable allies among North German territories and in Europe at large such that they could impose their will upon the emperor and secure a peace in which the liberties of the empire were restored but Sweden had ‘satisfaction’ for the debts which its intervention generated. France was forced to fight attritional warfare on several fronts at once, making common cause with anti-Habsburg sentiments wherever they surfaced. French diplomats took over from the Swedes the notion of a new international order in which the liberties of individual states in Germany would be preserved by a self-sustaining state system. Cardinal Richelieu’s difficulty (and Mazarin’s after him) was to persuade others that the objective of this new order was not to dismantle Habsburg hegemony and replace it with a French one.

A decade of warfare in central Europe created an army of exiled and dispossessed, mostly Protestants and dispersed in northern Germany, southern Poland and the Netherlands. The reassignment of their assets to others stacked up contrary and disputed interests among various parties. The scale of military operations created armaments, munitions and equipment suppliers with a stake in the continuing conflict. Enterprisers built up regiments of seasoned soldiers with credit- and supply-lines which would all need to be satisfied in any final reckoning. Military machines whose operations depended principally on living off their enemies had the problem of keeping their operations at a scale that was appropriate to the demands of attritional warfare without exceeding the resources to keep them in the field, while guaranteeing that their interests would be met in any final settlement. Military machines whose resource-chains led back to the states in whose name they operated created logistic and fiscal pressures which generated revolt and revolution back home. The costs of war in central Europe kept rising in the 1630s and 40s.

The more complex the political, military and diplomatic equations became, the less the conflicts were about any one issue. The political impasse created by the Edict of Restitution in the empire, the naked pursuit of Habsburg imperial and Spanish interests, then France’s bid for hegemony, and the accumulating material destruction, all gave the lie to its being about the survival of Christendom. Spanish commentators openly despised France for its cynicism. The French king was in the clutches of wicked cardinals who wanted to ally him with the Ottomans, the Dutch, the Swiss, ‘the enemies of Faith, of Christian people, of kings and the Catholic Church’. Its mooted new international order ignored the significance of the ‘German nation’ and masked French expansionism. When, after 1640, France supported the Catalan and Portuguese rebellions, the propagandist Francesco Quevedo lamented that France was waging unjust war ‘on the whole of Christendom … by sowing discord’. Philip IV declared Mazarin to be the ‘author of the calamities of Christendom’.

A confessional outlook resurfaced in the international politics of the 1620s but it did not last. By the 1630s it was difficult to interpret the conflicts as between two versions of Christianity. The divisions among Protestants were clear, many Lutherans being just as suspicious of Calvinist activists as they were of more interventionist Catholics. The emperor had relied on the neutrality (even active support) of Protestant princes such as the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, the Elector of Brandenburg and the Elector of Saxony. Equally, not all Catholics were committed to a struggle against Protestantism. Duke Maximilian of Bavaria pursued his own dynastic and territorial imperatives, which converged in the 1620s with the emperor’s, only to diverge again in the 40s. The Jesuits, whom Protestant propaganda epitomized as a secret but united force working for their overthrow, were as divided as the world they ministered to.

The successors to the princely confessors in Munich and Vienna who advised Emperor Ferdinand and Duke Maximilian (Wilhelm Lamormaini and Adam Contzen respectively) advocated accommodation with the Protestants and the abandonment of any sense of providential destiny. Even Emperor Ferdinand II (whose letters sometimes imply that he was fighting a Crusade in the empire) urged his Generalissimo Wallenstein to use the ‘pretext of religion’ (praetextum der Religion) in his public pronouncements just as his enemies did. In 1632, Axel Oxenstierna reminded the Swedish Council of State that their involvement in the war had been ‘not so much a matter of religion, but rather of saving the public state [status publicus] wherein religion is also comprehended’. Jesuits Johannes Gans in Vienna and Johannes Vervaux in Munich had, along with their Superior General, Muzio Vitelleschi, learned the lessons of what happened when the order became too closely identified with a particular prince’s policies, or critical of them. Jean Suffren and Nicolas Caussin, Jesuits in Paris, were left in no doubt by Richelieu that they were there to support the policies of the government, while Olivares’s confessor (Francisco Aguado) regarded Spain’s war as a spiritual test in which French Catholics were as much the tempters as Dutch Protestants. The military machines on both sides were sustained by credit- and supply-lines that crossed religious boundaries. Religion had become a reason of state, used in public declarations, emphasized in propaganda, legitimizing conflict but increasingly problematic.

The international political equations as well as the complex interests of the parties made it more difficult to imagine how peace was going to be negotiated, and in what forum. Christendom’s international order no longer existed. The mediation of the papacy was rejected by the Dutch and other Protestant powers. The Reich’s Diet was in desuetude along with its other institutions. The emperor was disinclined to bring the parties of the empire together. At the Regensburg assembly of Catholic Electors in June 1630, the first item on the agenda was ‘general peace’ but it was never discussed. In 1632, Antoine Wolfath, bishop of Vienna and imperial councillor, suggested that all Catholic states send delegates to a congress to be convened in a neutral town. The emperor was lukewarm, preferring to pursue the option of separate ‘compositions’ with individual powers in the empire. In the early months of 1635, Richelieu announced Louis XIII’s intention of appointing French envoys for the negotiations so long as Philip IV participated too. But France’s declaration of war on Spain was only months away and the proposal made no headway. In 1636, the papacy offered to mediate between the parties in Cologne but it never happened. The strategic calculations led each side to think they could gain more from continuing the war.

Only when the balance changed and when the internal pressures created by attritional warfare became too strong to be ignored, did imperial, Swedish and French diplomats agree on the framework of a peace conference. The Treaty of Hamburg of December 1641 laid down its parameters. It was to be held in Catholic Münster and denominationally mixed Osnabrück, with the papacy and Venice providing the convenors. The two cities and their connecting roads were to be made neutral – both being formally exempt from their oath of allegiance to the emperor for the duration of the talks. Food supplies were protected, security arrangements put in place and the imperial postal service extended to cover both locations. Everyone understood that it would be a long process, and it was. Almost seven years later, the Peace of Westphalia was signed in September 1648.


In 1641, the Bohemian engraver Wenceslaus Hollar illustrated the broadsheet entitled The World is Ruled & Governed by Opinion. He depicted a conversation between ‘Opinion’ (a fickle woman, seated in a tree with a tower of Babel on her head and a globe in her lap) and ‘Viator’, a cavalier. A travelling jester pours ink on the roots of the tree, which is ripe with broadsheets that fall like leaves all around. It was a satire on the destabilizing impact of news-sheets and pamphlets in the febrile atmosphere of the eve of the English Civil War, when the Stationers’ Company monopoly and royal oversight of publications were breaking down. Newsprint magnified, polarized and distorted Europe’s conflicts. One of the reasons why it was harder to disentangle the motives and achievements of those involved was because they were obliged to engage in wars of words as well as weapons, opening up the gap between what it was expedient to present as motives for actions and the underlying reality. Blaise Pascal, whose anti-Jesuit controversy made him an aficionado of polemic, had an answer to Hollar’s work: ‘Power,’ he wrote in his Pensées, ‘rules the world, not opinion, but it is opinion that exploits power.’

That exploitation was augmented by the appearance of regular printed gazettes in the early seventeenth century. They already existed in Strasbourg, Frankfurt and several other cities by 1618. The Thirty Years War expanded their circulation so that, by 1648, there were thirty weekly papers in Europe with an estimated overall distribution of 15,000 copies. They mostly consisted of digests of diplomatic, military and political events, filtering out the strange portents and prodigies which were the pamphleteers’ stock-in-trade. Newspapers sold on their capacity to provide up-to-the-minute news across a European spectrum to a reading public who needed to make sense of complex events occurring around them. Generals supplemented their own private sources of information with what the gazettes told them. Ambassadors compiled digests of what they reported. The more newspapers spread, the more they syndicated the information which they published, enabling their coverage to be greater. Contemporaries were able to understand events in a broader context. War was at large in the newspapers; so too was the emerging sense of a general European paroxysm in the 1640s as the news of uprisings and rebellions filled their columns.

It was impossible to distinguish, however, between gazettes and other ‘libels’ and ‘pamphlets’. Newspapers were complemented by newsletters, the latter often produced by the same editors. Zeitung, Aviso and Relation were titles indicating the nature of a publication without distinguishing it from regular newspapers. The Theatrum Europaeum, produced by the Strasbourg publisher Johann Philipp Abelin for the first time in 1633 published an overview of events which went back to the Edict of Restitution of 1629. A news encyclopaedia, it was marketed on a subscription basis with engravings by Matthäus Merian. The events of the Thirty Years War created endless possibilities for traditional pamphleteers. Nobles lost their heads and their lands. Heroes were defeated. The unexpected occurred. Armies devastated territories and cities were destroyed. All this was saleable news and, with a crisis in the scholarly market, pamphlets provided complementary publishing opportunities which merged with the demands for political propaganda. Over 200 pamphlets describing the sack of Magdeburg in 1631 inscribed it in collective memory. At their most effective, pamphlet broadsheets contributed to the war-effort by undermining the credibility of an opponent. Advisers and generals (Spínola, Wallenstein and others) were the targets of criticism, not the rulers themselves – the vilification of Frederick V, once he had been expelled from the Palatinate and no longer a prince, being the exception which proved the rule.

As Pascal implied, those in power exploited the press. Rulers swallowed their distaste at placing the secrets of state at the disposal of a wider public while their opponents lost no opportunity to publicize their own declarations. The Bohemian Confederate Apologia was printed and circulated to an international audience in 1618. Gustav Adolf’s 1630 Manifesto appeared in twenty-three editions in five languages. Marie de Médicis had a devoted retinue of publicists to advertise her grievances against her son Louis XIII. She put them to work especially after the ‘Day of Dupes’ (November 1630) when, attempting to reassert her authority over her son, she demanded (and believed for twenty-four hours that she had achieved) Cardinal Richelieu’s disgrace. Aristocrats and princes of the blood (among them Montmorency and Gaston d’Orléans) made sure that their reasons for revolting against Richelieu’s regime were well advertised, just as Richelieu himself employed talented publicists to articulate the reasons of state justifying his ministry. Théophraste Renaudot, who owed his monopoly on newspaper production in Paris to the cardinal, proclaimed the Gazette de France an independent voice. In reality, materials from the cardinal and the king himself appeared in its pages. The Gazette became essential reading to members of literary salons. Provincial nobles scanned its pages to find the regiments of their offspring mentioned in its pages. By the end of the Thirty Years War, newspapers had an established place in public life. Twenty-two thousand titles of printed sermons, pamphlets and newspaper issues survive from England for the period of the Civil Wars, 5,000 ‘Mazarinades’ from the Frondes (1648–52), each side using the press as an instrument not of opinion but of action.

Leipzig: Battle of the Nations

Johann Peter Krafft (1780-1856)-‘victory declaration after the battle of Leipzig, 1813’-oil on canvas-1813   Berlin-Deutsches Historiches Museum. The Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations, was fought between Napoleon and the three Allied armies that had been approaching the city for several days: the Army of Bohemia (Feldmarschall Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg), the Army of Silesia (General Gebhard Lebrecht von Blücher), and the Army of the North (former French marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, now Crown Prince of Sweden). Napoleon suffered a major defeat, which decided the campaign in Germany. He then fell back from Saxony to France.

Battle of Leipzig, October 16 actions.

Battle of Leipzig, 18 October actions.

The prospect of the coming campaign in Russia had ‘cast a gloom over society in general’, wrote Laure Junot, the frivolous Duchess of Abrantès, in her Mémoires.

It was in vain that the emperor ordered balls, fêtes and quadrilles. Marie Louise was surrounded by young and beautiful women who were commanded by Napoleon to exert every nerve to render her gay; but these ladies had brothers, fathers, husbands and lovers, so that the joys of the court were forced pleasures, and not joys springing from the heart.…

As the campaign got under way, Paris had:

presented a curious but melancholy spectacle. Husbands, sons, brothers and lovers were departing to join the army; while wives, mothers, sisters and mistresses, either remained at home to weep, or sought amusement in Italy, Switzerland or the various watering-places of France.

Laure herself had taken off to Aix-en-Savoie, with her four-year-old son (christened Napoleon), to be diverted by boating with Talma on Lac Bourget, by listening to the great actor recite from The Tempest in the midst of a storm, drenched with water, then by embarking on an affair with the Marquis de Balincourt as her husband struggled with the Russians and increasing madness. On 20 December 1812, she recalled, ‘the cannon of the Invalides announced to the city of Paris that the Emperor had returned’. Three days later, lovesick and now abandoned by Balincourt, she tried to take an overdose of laudanum. In January, Junot returned; instead of the dashing, handsome young Governor of Paris who had left her a few months previously, ‘there appeared a coarsened, aged man, walking with difficulty, bent and supported by a stick, dressed carelessly in a shabby greatcoat’. He was ‘in a strange state,’ Laure found; ‘often in a condition of somnolence during the day, the night brought him no sleep. He so strong, so much master of himself, wept like a child.’

During the brief time he spent in Paris that grim winter, one colonel found his family and friends:

in general terror-stricken. The famous 29th Bulletin had informed France abruptly that the Grande Armée had been destroyed. The Emperor was invincible no longer. The campaign of 1813 was about to open.… people were shocked to see the Emperor entertaining at the Tuileries. It was an insult to public grief and revealed a cruel sensitivity to the victims. I shall always remember one of those dismal balls, at which I felt as if I were dancing on graves.

It spoke volumes for the mood in Paris, in the army and in France as a whole as the full horror of the Russian débâcle was brought home by survivors like Junot. One is reminded, in a different context, of the mood of Berlin as the Soviet colossus began to close in on the city in 1944. In the words of Mademoiselle Avrillon, who was in charge of the Empress’s jewellery, ‘we were all the more terrified … because for 20 years so many uninterrupted successes made us think reverses impossible’. The consternation produced by Napoleon’s Bulletin reporting the destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia was ‘impossible to describe’.3 Constant recorded that it was:

The first time that Paris saw him come back from a campaign without bringing with him a fresh peace which the glory of his arms had won. On this occasion, all those persons who looked upon Josephine as the Emperor’s talisman and the guardian of his fortunes, did not fail to note that the Russian campaign was the first which had been undertaken by the Emperor since his marriage with Marie Louise.

There was a strong, unvoiced sense that Moscow heralded, as Talleyrand expressed it, ‘the beginning of the end, and … the end itself could not be far distant’. As soon as Napoleon showed himself in Paris, however, in the words of Duff Cooper, ‘Once more and for the last time treason hung its head, criticism sank to a whisper, and conspiracy crept underground.’ In despair, Napoleon called on Talleyrand yet again. Coldly, he was rejected with the words, ‘I am not acquainted with your affairs.’ Enraged, Napoleon threatened to have him shot, or hanged. Talleyrand riposted in his usual restrained, whimsical manner, ‘The Emperor is charming this morning.’ Then he despatched a secret letter to Louis XVIII, who was waiting patiently in the wings in England for the summons that seemed bound to come, now sooner rather than later.

Napoleon deliberately took to appearing more and more frequently in public, taking part in shoots even more often than before. To Duroc he remarked,

It behoves me to bestir myself and show myself everywhere. So that the papers may mention this, since those stupid English newspapers say every day that I am ill and can’t move.… Wait a bit! I will soon show them that I am as sound in body as I am in mind.

Despite his grave occupations, he never lost sight of his dream to make Paris the handsomest city in the world. Now he talked about building an embassy for the Italian Minister and a palace for the infant King of Rome on the Heights of Chaillot. In one of his few political successes, he began 1813 by attempting to make peace with the Pope with a new Concordat.

The balance sheet that confronted the Emperor as 1813 began could hardly have been more discouraging. He had inflicted an estimated 250,000 casualties on the Russians; but, out of the more than 600,000 troops that had crossed the Niemen in June 1812, only a broken 93,000 straggled home; out of 1,300 cannon, only 250 had returned. Even more serious, and irreplaceable in the long run, was his loss of some 180,000 horses. They provided the eyes and ears of his intelligence, the superb cutting edge of his heavy cavalry – as well as the prime movers of his artillery and supplies. In this one disastrous campaign, seven years of efforts since the joint triumphs of Austerlitz and Jena had been thrown away. The limits of the French Empire returned to what they had been before Tilsit. And now the Russian success was emboldening vanquished nations like Austria and Prussia (nominal, but unwilling, allies of Napoleon during the Russian Campaign) to raise their heads above the parapet once again. Already, under leaders like Yorck, Blücher, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, Prussia had undergone a miraculous, and historic, transformation, of its army and of its whole society, which in the ensuing century the world at large would come to rue. Other more or less unwilling allies like Bavaria and Saxony, and neutrals like Sweden, were just waiting for the right moment to align themselves against France.

Many historians have analysed the causes of Napoleon’s decisive defeat in Russia: he should never have left the war in Spain unsettled at his rear (as Hitler, in 1941, had turned his back on an undefeated Britain); he had not prepared for a winter campaign (but it was the summer heat as much as the winter cold that had defeated him); and of course he should never have gone to Moscow. As Hitler in his turn found out, the unending spaces of Russia were just too great for one man to exercise control over the massive armies involved – even with the vastly more sophisticated communications of the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Napoleon’s conduct of the campaign, the indecisions and procrastinations, the retreat from reality, suggested that he was no longer the man of Austerlitz and Jena, or even of Wagram. Almost certainly he had been saved by the ineptitude and the lethargy of the Russian commanders.

By early spring of 1813, the Russian juggernaut in the east had moved steadily westwards until it was approaching Prussian territory and menacing the German provinces allied to France. The Duchy of Warsaw, the tragic dream of a free Poland for which Marie Walewska and so many heroic Polish soldiers had given themselves since 1806, disappeared once again into the Tsarist maw – not to reappear for more than a century. Marie herself once again took the road to Paris. During the Russian Campaign, Prussia’s Frederick William III had been bullied into supplying a corps of 20,000 men to join the Grande Armée; barely two-thirds of them survived. In the last days of 1812 General Yorck had signed a secret treaty with Russia, the famous (or infamous, from Napoleon’s point of view) Convention of Tauroggen, whereby the Prussian forces moved from a state of nominal alliance with France to one of hostile neutrality – which would soon enough lead to war. The weak Prussian King, whom Napoleon had so humiliated at Tilsit in 1807, hesitated before plunging his country into another contest with Napoleon. But he was carried away by the groundswell of nationalism among young Germans, who, fired by secret societies like the Tugendbund (literally the ‘League of Virtue’), were sick of being overrun by the French, as the German states had been since the wars of Louis XIV. Frederick William was further galvanized by his hawkish Queen, and by Generals Yorck, Bülow and Blücher (now recovered from the mental breakdown that had afflicted him six years previously). On the edge of revolt, in late February of 1813 Prussia in secrecy signed the Convention of Kalitsch with Russia, promising to enter the war, and being promised in return the restoration of her 1806 frontiers. For the forthcoming campaign, the Russians guaranteed to deploy a force 150,000 strong. Although, after Jena, Prussia had agreed to limit her forces to only 42,000 men, the work of secret rearmament in fact enabled her eventually to send 80,000 to join the Allies in 1813.

Tauroggen was to herald the German War of Liberation, otherwise known as the Battle of the Nations, which by the end of 1813 would inflict decisive defeat on Napoleon, as well as letting out of the bottle the genie of German nationalism. (Yet, without those liberated Prussians at Waterloo, Wellington would never have won.)

As the New Year dawned, about all that stood in the way of the resurgent Allied forces were a few scattered French-held fortresses like Danzig, Stettin and Glogau-on-the-Oder and a miscellany of fewer than 50,000 troops under Eugène de Beauharnais, the admirable son of Josephine, and Napoleon’s stepson, who had taken over command from his rather less admirable brother-in-law, Murat. (Murat had hastened back to the pleasanter climate of his Neapolitan kingdom as soon as he decently could after the retreat from Moscow.) Nevertheless, reworking the miracle which only he could achieve, Napoleon somehow managed to create a brilliant new army out of the wreckage of 1812, and a new strategy. In fact, three more times, in each successive year and after each major defeat, Napoleon would repeat that miracle. Only he, backed by the residual fervour of France’s revolutionary mystique, could have done it. Setting himself a staggering target of 656,000 men, he mustered 120,000 half-trained conscripts, drew 80,000 from the National Guard and called up 100,000 more who had escaped service between 1809 and 1812. Troops were pulled out of Spain (although the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ still continued to eat up over 175,000 of his most seasoned troops in a losing struggle). ‘France is one vast workship,’ recorded Caulaincourt.

The entire French nation overlooked his reverses and vied with one another in displaying zeal and devotion … It was a personal triumph for the Emperor, who with amazing energy directed all the resources of which his genius was capable into organizing the great national endeavour. Things seemed to come into existence as if by magic.…

What a man!

Where his enemies (Britain in particular) erred in their failure to standardize, Napoleon’s achievement in the earlier years of settling on standard calibres of field gun had greatly aided him. By mid-August, he would be able to count on the support of no fewer than 1,300 cannon, replenishing the losses of the Russian Campaign. Yet it could never be the same Grande Armée. It was gravely deficient in trained officers; even more seriously, the cavalry would never recover from its shortage of horses.


The allied plan for 1813 was to advance on a broad front, with widely separated columns, clearing Prussia of the French and striking for Dresden, the capital of Napoleon’s principal remaining German ally, Saxony. In the north, an embittered Bernadotte – never forgetting his public humiliation by Napoleon at Wagram – had thrown in his lot with the Allies, and was building up a force in Swedish Pomerania, preparing (cautiously, as always) to move southwards. Meanwhile false threats of a British landing lured the French into abandoning the useful port of Hamburg. With his forces concentrating in the Magdeburg area, Napoleon’s plan – grandiose and highly ambitious – was to push the Allies back over the Elbe and strike for Berlin, then to relieve his beleaguered fortresses still holding out east of the Oder and on the Vistula. In his aim of seizing an enemy capital and dividing the Allied armies before they could concentrate, there were echoes of Austerlitz. Once again, Napoleon showed himself capable of moving with astonishing speed; once again, he was aided by procrastinatory squabbles among the Allies. (Old Kutuzov, too, demoted from supreme command but still at the head of the main Russian army directed on Dresden, was a dying man.) He was in any case sorely limited by his lack of effectives. By April they were still far below the figure of 300,000, the minimum he reckoned essential to carrying out his objectives. In cavalry, he could muster only 8,000 against the Allies’ 24,000. He was also to prove over-optimistic in his reliance on his Saxon and Bavarian allies.

Characteristically, however, he decided to press an attack in mid-April before the Allies could concentrate on the Elbe. At 4 a.m. on 15 April 1813, he left St Cloud; the next day, at midnight, he was at Mainz on the other side of the Rhine. Disagreements over command in the Allied camp after the death of Kutuzov (he had died three weeks before) were offset by the handicap inflicted on Napoleon by virtue of the tactical intelligence denied him by his acute shortage of light cavalry. Nevertheless, at Lützen near Leipzig, west of the Elbe, he won a costly minor victory on 2 May – a Wagram rather than an Austerlitz. To his deep sorrow, there he lost Marshal Bessières, the son of a surgeon, who had been with him ever since Rivoli in 1796, the genius of the Guard who had led the famous charge at Austerlitz, and who had proved both one of his most dependable supporters and one of his few genuine friends. ‘Bessières lived like Bayard; he died like Turenne,’ pronounced Napoleon. According to Marmont, ‘This was probably the day, of his whole career, on which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.… He exposed himself constantly, leading the defeated men of [Ney’s] III Corps back to the charge.’ Both sides lost about 20,000 men; on the Allied side, Blücher’s Chief-of-Staff, Scharnhorst – the reformer of the Prussian Army, and often regarded as the epitome of German nationalism – was mortally wounded; Blücher himself was wounded, and the less tenacious Yorck took over the Prussian forces. The ferocity of the fighting at Lützen caused Napoleon to remark gloomily, ‘These animals have learnt something.’ The most valuable thing they had learnt was not to be taken by surprise by Napoleonic tactics.

Given Napoleon’s crippling shortage of cavalry, there could be no serious pursuit of the defeated enemy. This was unfortunate for Napoleon; the squabbling Allies were in far worse disarray than he could see, the Prussians wanting to withdraw northwards, to cover Berlin, the Russians eastwards towards Breslau and Warsaw. Tsar Alexander had nominated Wittgenstein to succeed Kutuzov as supreme commander. Aged forty-four, he was the youngest of the Allied commanders – and not 100 per cent Russian. Blücher, the Prussian, had agreed to his appointment, but the Russian, Miloradevich, the veteran of Austerlitz and the 1812 campaign, objected. As a result Alexander himself assumed nominal command, with disastrous results.

Napoleon advanced across the Elbe, on 21 May winning at Bautzen, east of Dresden, another battle of furious intensity. By this time he had managed to concentrate 115,000 men to Wittgenstein’s 96,000. Soult was charged with attempting a repeat of his historic success at Austerlitz’s Pratzen Heights, breaking through the enemy centre while Ney enveloped them from the left. Ney, however, partly as a result of confusing orders from Napoleon, made a dismal mess of things, robbing the French of what might otherwise have been a copybook Napoleonic victory. Again, each side lost approximately 20,000 men, Napoleon’s only trophies a few wrecked cannon and wounded prisoners. As well as the shortage of cavalry (Ney’s excuse for failing to pursue), defeat at Bautzen reflected sorely the absence of his better commanders – especially Lannes, killed at Aspern–Essling in 1809; Davout, who had been sent off on a worthless diversion towards Hamburg; and Masséna, battling Wellington in Spain.

Napoleon had suffered another particularly grievous personal loss. Duroc – who had recently predicted his own end – died in agony in his Emperor’s arms, after being disembowelled by a cannon-ball. Napoleon had rushed to his bedside, afterwards sitting for an hour with his head bowed in misery. ‘Poor fellow!’ an old Guardsman was heard to remark; ‘he’s lost one of his children.’ For a while, demoralizing rumours were rife that it was the Emperor, not Duroc, transported in the coffin.

What might have resulted in a decisive victory, which would deter Austria from entering the war, ended yet again in only a modest one, bringing the spring campaign to a close with both sides in a state of exhaustion. With 90,000 of his men – in addition to battle casualties – listed sick, time was now emphatically not on Napoleon’s side. He had outrun his supply system, and his lines of communication were constantly menaced by Cossacks and German partisans. On 2 June, he was forced to agree to an armistice – explaining it in terms of ‘my shortage of cavalry, which prevents me from striking great blows, and the hostile attitude of Austria’. On 15 June, the British paymaster gave Russia and Prussia £2 million to carry on the war, and Austria £500,000 to join it. Six days later came news of Wellington’s victory at Vitoria in Spain. It brought to an end brother Joseph’s kingship and took the British uncomfortably close to France’s own back-door at Bayonne – less than a hundred miles’ distant. On 7 July, Bernadotte finally came off his fence and began moving with 100,000 men towards Berlin. Playing for time in a cunning game of diplomacy, and exploiting France’s growing urge for peace, the wily Metternich offered Napoleon peace terms that he would be quite unable to accept. According to Metternich, this provoked ‘a series of professions of friendship alternating with the most violent of outbursts’. A furious Napoleon declared, ‘You want nothing else but the dismemberment of the French Empire,’ refusing – as Hitler was to do once forced on to the defensive – to cede ‘an inch of land’.

Meanwhile, lapsing into his final bout of madness, Junot died, clamouring for peace. His death seemed somehow symbolic of how time was running out. Now, during the seven weeks’ armistice, Austria was assembling an army, the Army of Bohemia, under Prince Schwarzenberg, some 200,000 strong, marching northwards from Prague to join the Allies. In vain, and mistakenly, had Napoleon hoped that his dynastic marriage to the Austrian Marie Louise might have neutralized his new father-in-law. On 12 August a self-righteous Austria declared war. By mid-August a terrifying, and unprecedented grand total of 800,000 Allied troops faced Napoleon far from his base, on the upper reaches of the Elbe. By scraping every depot for reserves, the French Emperor was able astonishingly to confront this massive force with 700,000 of his own, though many were conscripts of poor quality.

Now, for the first time, Napoleon had to fight simultaneously the armies of Russia, Austria and Prussia – and the Swedish forces of the renegade Bernadotte, with Wellington closing in on the Pyrenees. Still unable to agree on any joint strategy, the Allies – respectful of Napoleon’s menace in a pitched battle – fell back on the next best thing: the ‘Trachtenberg Plan’, whereby any army attacked by Napoleon would retire, refusing battle, while the others closed in on his flank and communications, like a pack of hounds bringing down a powerful stag. This was designed to prevent any army being destroyed in detail. As always, however, Napoleon moved his formations so fast as to threaten to negate the Trachtenberg compact; yet it was a form of attrition which, at last, was to prove successful.

Trying to retrieve his original blueprint of April, Napoleon’s plan was to strike for Berlin, capture the Prussian capital and head off Bernadotte’s approaching army before it could link up with the Allies in the south. But logistics and the political considerations of keeping in the fight his chief surviving German ally, war-ravaged Saxony, forced him into an essentially defensive battle, with his main force fortifying an armed camp around the old and beautiful Saxon capital of Dresden. His marshals were increasingly restive about his scheme to advance on Berlin. At about this time, he suffered yet another personal blow in the defection of the brilliant Swiss strategist and (later) military historian, Baron Jomini – the éminence grise of Ney, who was often rash when left on his own. Reputedly the last officer to leave Russian soil, for his heroic conduct during the retreat from Moscow the previous year Ney had received from Napoleon the sobriquet ‘the bravest of the brave’ and had been proclaimed Prince of Moscow. But the strains of the Russian campaign, and wounds both there and at Lützen – followed by the defection of Jomini – progressively told on him. His battle conduct would henceforth suffer greatly (notably at Waterloo), and within a matter of days he would blunder clumsily, and foolishly, into a trap laid for him by his former colleague, Bernadotte.

At Dresden, on 26 and 27 August, though prey to an unusual degree of vacillation, Napoleon won yet another victory – this time at the expense of Schwarzenberg. He was aided by a fortuitous cannon-ball, which narrowly missed the Tsar but mortally wounded another renegade French General, Jean-Victor Moreau, standing at his side. The French camp took heart from this, as a sign of divine retribution; the Allies were discouraged in proportion. During the battle, the valet, Constant, found Napoleon ‘in a most deplorable state. He had been in the saddle since 6 that morning. It had rained incessantly and he was drenched through. Even his top boots were full of water, which must have dripped off his great coat.…’ But, once again, in the thick of the battle he seemed to be untouchable. Murat, back from Naples, struck a brilliant cavalry blow at the Austrians, but was not strong enough to pursue and trap them in retreat. In fact, by overreaching themselves the French suffered an unprecedented disaster. On 30 August, Vandamme, a bold commander keen to win his marshal’s baton, allowed himself to be cut off unexpectedly at Kulm, twenty-five miles south of Dresden, by the Prussian Kleist, who suddenly appeared out of the hills behind him. After a fierce fight, Vandamme, outnumbered in a proportion of 3:5, was forced to surrender together with 13,000 men. In the north, Macdonald of Wagram fame, through mishandling of his corps, had been badly mauled by Blücher.

With only 120,000 French facing 170,000 of the enemy, Napoleon had triumphed at Dresden with losses (apart from Vandamme) of barely 10,000 to the Allies’ 38,000. His handling of the battle showed him at the top of his old form, but he was, disquietingly, let down badly by the failure of his subordinates (such as Vandamme) elsewhere. Here the Trachtenberg compact had borne fruit. Thus Dresden, observes David Chandler, ‘joined Lützen and Bautzen on the growing list of practically valueless French victories’.9 Now the big test, the Allies’ great opportunity, was about to come.


Dresden had gone some way to re-establishing the myth of Napoleonic invincibility, but the surrender of Vandamme gave the Allies a much needed emotional uplift. Shortage of supplies was rapidly reducing the French forces to starvation level, with the basic bread ration cut from twenty-eight ounces to eight, as the ravages of war in Saxony (once the richest of the German states) rendered foraging unprofitable, if not impossible. By the beginning of September, Napoleon could count on no more than 260,000 tired and hungry men, and about half the number of cannon he had at the beginning of the campaign in the spring. His plan to drive on Berlin was once more aborted, this time by the hole in his ranks caused by Vandamme’s and Macdonald’s débâcles and by the general reluctance of his commanders. Instead, in breach of his fundamental principle of concentration, he despatched Ney towards Berlin with an under-strength detachment of 60,000 men, while keeping his main force at Dresden. On 6 September, Ney suffering from the loss of his genius, Jomini, and from the shortage of cavalry intelligence that now increasingly beset the whole Grande Armée, blundered foolishly into a trap laid for him by Bernadotte, at Dennewitz, less than fifty miles south-west of Berlin. He suffered 10,000 casualties, to 7,000 of the former fellow general whom he had never held in high esteem.

Meanwhile, at Dresden Napoleon was in a serious dilemma. To stay there, with the Allied armies converging, would place him in great jeopardy, but to quit the city would almost certainly mean the defection of his last remaining German ally, the King of Saxony. Weighing up the military against the political, he dithered disastrously for several days. With Blücher continuing to evade all attempts to bring him to battle, on 7 October Napoleon set off north-westwards for what he considered to be the safer stronghold of Leipzig, leaving behind in Dresden two of his best corps, under St Cyr and Lobau. It was a decision that has been rated ‘probably the most fateful one of the entire campaign’. His attempts to threaten the enemy capital, Berlin, and to manoeuvre against his rear, had both failed. On 13 October, Blücher, the stubborn old Prussian who detested retreat, Napoleon and Bernadotte in about equal measure, wrote to the Tsar that the three armies were now so close together ‘that a simultaneous attack, against the point where the enemy has concentrated its forces, might be undertaken’.

Three days later, in the greatest concentration of force ever seen in the Napoleonic Wars, the Allies – moving in from every direction, the Russians from the south-east, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians from the south-west and Blücher’s Prussians (plus, more slowly, Bernadotte’s Swedes) from the north – finally cornered Napoleon outside the city of Leipzig. It was barely a day’s march from the battlefield of Jena, where the French Emperor had scored his crushing victory over the Prussians just seven years previously to the day. Later, with hindsight, Marmont described the French position as being ‘at the bottom of a funnel’. In what justly came to be called the Battle of the Nations, 200,000 hungry and battle-weary French with 900 cannon faced well over 300,000 Allied troops and 1,500 guns. Such numbers had never been seen before on a European battlefield. There ensued two days of a grim slogging battle, of an unprecedented intensity. At one point on the first day Murat’s heavy cavalry broke through, all but reaching the Tsar’s command post – which could have won the day for Napoleon. But, without the reserves to follow up, the exhausted cuirassiers were driven off by the Tsar’s ‘heavies’.

The battle ended roughly in a draw, with Napoleon having sustained some 25,000 casualties to approximately 30,000 of the Allies. But, as more and more Allied reinforcements approached, the odds became heavily loaded against the French. Instead of beating an orderly retreat from Leipzig on 17 October, whereby he could have saved at least part of his army, Napoleon, hoping for some heaven-sent miracle such as had bailed him out so often in the past, made the fatal mistake of delaying to the 18th. On the 17th, the allies moved in in what the American historians Esposito and Elting have described as ‘a heads-down, go-and-get-killed, concentric attack’. By nightfall, total, irretrievable defeat faced Napoleon. The only thing which was to save him from annihilation was the leisurely performance of Bernadotte, anxious to spare his own raw Swedes and behaving much as he had when fighting for Napoleon.

At this last, and finally decisive, battle of the brutal 1813 campaign, the French artillery fired off some 200,000 rounds; the Allies lost probably as many as 54,000 killed and wounded, while French battle casualties approached 40,000, with a further 30,000 captured during the retreat on the 19th. Many were drowned when panicky engineers prematurely blew a bridge, crowded with troops, over the River Elster. Among those tragically lost was the brave Prince Poniatowski. He and his fellow Poles had fought magnificently during the battle, and he had just been made a marshal, the first of his countrymen to receive his baton. He tried to swim the river on his horse, but, exhausted from four wounds, he failed to make it.

The death of the much loved Poniatowski marked the end of Poland’s brave hopes in Napoleon. Leipzig equally marked the end of Napoleon’s empire east of the Rhine. The Bavarians had already changed sides, and were supplying the victorious Allies with a force under General Wrede (who had fought alongside Napoleon at Wagram). Now the Saxons, deserted by Napoleon, their country ravaged by war, left his camp; not much more than half-a-century later, in a war of revenge for all the humiliations inflicted by the French, they would be invading France hand in hand with the Prussians, whose triumph at Leipzig would herald their emergence as the leading power in Germany.

In this second bitter winter of defeat, the French retreat across Germany was hardly less grim than that of 1812. ‘The numbers of corpses and dead horses increased every day,’ recorded an Allied observer:

Thousands of soldiers, sinking from hunger and fatigue, remained behind, unable to reach a hospital. The woods for several miles round were full of stragglers and worn-out and sick soldiers. Guns, wagons were found everywhere.…

It could have been an account of the German retreat from the Falaise Gap in August 1944. Almost 400,000 of Napoleon’s troops had been lost, or cut off in isolated garrisons from Danzig to Dresden; only about 80,000 effectives, plus some 40,000 stragglers, limped back across the Rhine. That Napoleon escaped at all was probably thanks to Bernadotte’s dismal failure to reach Leipzig in time, and to the Allies’ own exhaustion. By November, Schwarzenberg’s command was reduced to only 150,000 men – ‘ragged, worn out, wracked by typhus and dysentery’ – their lines of communication impossibly extended. Only their enfeeblement staved off an immediate invasion of France.

Less than three weeks after the catastrophe at Leipzig, Napoleon was back at St Cloud, once again leaving his defeated troops behind, to ask for fresh armies. He had been absent from Paris 209 days, compared with 224 in 1812, and only 124 for the Ulm–Austerlitz Campaign of 1905. If it had not been plain after Moscow, the writing on the wall should have been crystal clear after Leipzig. From the capture of Allied correspondence just before the battle was engaged, Napoleon had learnt enough about enemy intentions to realize that only a decisive military victory could save him. Yet France, after twenty-five years of almost constant war, was physically, financially and emotionally drained. Back in Paris, hatred for Napoleon was spreading, as many subversive groups – Royalists, Jacobins and ‘liberals’ – conspired with increasing impunity. The 1813 campaign had revealed that many of the leading marshals (not unlike Hermann Goering after 1940) had grown soft after being showered with titles and riches; Clarke, the Minister of War, had made such a muddle as to suggest something worse than mere incompetence; Berthier, the once indispensable ‘Emperor’s wife’, was very sick; in a grave waste of talent, Davout had been left behind, out of the Battle of the Nations, and stuck in Hamburg. Repeated failures in 1813 proved that the cavalry, the key to so many past battles and campaigns, had still not recovered from its losses in Russia – indeed, it would barely do so by Waterloo. Though only the inefficiency of the Allies had saved Napoleon in 1813, and would come close to doing so in 1814, he failed to understand that the driving impulse of nationalism was now no longer an exclusively French asset. In the words of General J. F. C. Fuller, for Napoleon the battle of Leipzig had been ‘a second Trafalgar, this time on land; his initiative had gone’.