Battle of Wenzenbach 1504

Battle of Wenzenbach

Behamisch facht (Böhmisches Gefecht) aus dem Weißkunig, Holzschnitt 175. The Bohemians are positioned on top of a hill at the center; tree-covered hills recede into the background at the right. The Bohemian troops’ shields form a protective barrier while they point their spears outward against the cavalry approaching from the right and the foot soldiers from the left. A mass of spears pointing inward from both sides of the composition leads the eye to the doomed soldiers in the middle. On the left behind the advancing forces, Schönberg Castle burns, blasting billows of smoke upward into the sky.

Triumphzug Kaiser Maximilians I. (die Böhmenschlacht und der böhmische Trophäenwagen) von Albrecht Altdorfer (Regensburg um 1512–1515). In this work, begun around 1512, a section of the frieze attributed to Altdorfer himself shows two battles from the War of Succession displayed on banners, one helpfully inscribed `Der Bayrisch krieg’ (showing the Siege of Kufstein) and the other, `Die Behemisch slacht’ (Fig. 13.2). Altdorfer’s miniature faithfully follows Treitzsaurwein’s instructions, as behind the scene of the `Bayrisch krieg’, three men parade on horseback holding banners with the coats-of-arms of the three territories Maximilian claimed for himself at the Kölner Spruch.

Battle of Wenzenbach in Codex Germanicus. Note Emperor Maximillian I’s fall left foreground.

The `Bohemian battle’, also variously referred to as the `Battle of Wenzenbach’ and the `Battle of Schönberg’, took place on September 12, 1504 and was an important battle in the Landshut War of Succession, a conflict that marked the culmination of over a hundred years of territorial squabbling among the four Wittelsbach lines of Bavarian dukes. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the deaths of two dukes without male issue had consolidated the four duchies into two: Bavaria-Landshut and Bavaria-Munich. Lacking an heir, Duke Georg `the Rich’ of Bavaria-Landshut named the Palatine branch of the Wittelsbachs as his beneficiaries in his 1496 will, hoping to keep his territories out of the hands of the Munich line. However, these dynastic machinations were not legally valid, as they expressly went against the stipulations worked out by previous Wittelsbach rulers in their divisional agreement of 1392 (and its subsequent renewal in 1450) that when one line died out the territories would go to the other Bavarian Wittelsbach lines. Georg’s own advisors counseled him that the will could not be upheld. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I agreed and sustained the provision that should Georg die without male issue, the surviving Wittelsbach duke of Bavarian territories-Albrecht IV of Bavaria-Munich- would succeed him. In December 1503, Georg died without having rescinded his will of 1496, and the Landshut War of Succession broke out the next year between the Palatine supporters and the Munich faction with Habsburg and imperial backing. The Battle of Wenzenbach proved to be the largest and bloodiest meeting of troops during the war. Ludwig’s father, Albrecht IV, and his maternal uncle, Maximilian I, achieved a resounding victory over the Palatine forces, which included a huge number of Bohemian mercenaries (hence the battle’s nickname). The battle was not all smooth sailing, however. Maximilian’s horse stumbled and the emperor fell; he was almost trampled to death before being pulled free and helped back into the saddle by Duke Ernst of Braunschweig-Lüneberg. As a result of the Battle of Wenzenbach, the war subsequently fizzled to its eventual conclusion. At the Reichstag in July 1505, the Emperor brought an end to the conflict with the Kölner Spruch (verdict at Cologne), in which he gave rulership of the duchy of Bavaria-Landshut to his brother-in-law, Albrecht, and claimed for himself the three most profitable Bavaria-Landshut territories located in the Alps, in effect a commission for resolving the conflict. The Battle of Wenzenbach proved to have been a critical factor in the war’s eventual outcome.

Georg von Frundsberg

Georg von Frundsberg fought for the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I against the Swiss Confederacy in the Swabian War of 1499, where he had to realize that the era of the heavy armoured knights was well and truly over. In the same year he was among the Imperial troops sent to the aid of Ludovico Sforza, who had been deposed as Duke of Milan by King Louis XII of France. When Maximilian appointed him Tyrolean military captain, he recruited a powerful army of pike square infantry formations following the Swiss example.

Still serving Maximilian, he took part in the 1504 War of the Succession of Landshut, fighting against Count Ruprecht of the Palatinate and his father Elector Palatine Philip. Frundsberg distinguished himself leading a Landsknecht regiment into the decisive Battle of Wenzenbach, whereafter Maximilian I personally bestowed knighthood on him: armed with muskets and culverines, the Frundsberg regiment broke a breach into the wagon-wall of the Bohemian mercenaries (composed 300+ wagons), which were then routed. Convinced of the necessity of a native body of trained infantry, Frundsberg assisted Maximilian in the organization of the Landsknecht troops. One year later, he became the commander of the Landsknechts in the Habsburg Netherlands.

A detailed description of this battle can be found in Friedrich Dörnhöffer, `Ein Cyclus von Federzeichnungen mit Darstellungen von Kriegen und Jagden Maximilians I’, Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses, 18 (1897): 45-46.


Battle of La Rochelle (1372)

Battle of La Rochelle (1372), a Castillian fleet annihilate the English fleet at the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War by Giuseppe Rava.

King Charles’s reconquest had continued. Although the Mayor of Poitiers supported the English, its people opened the gates to du Guesclin in 1372 and the rest of Poitou soon followed its capital. In June the same year, off La Rochelle, a Castilian fleet defeated an English fleet under the Earl of Pembroke—the new Governor of Aquitaine—sending the ship carrying his troops’ pay to the bottom and taking the Earl back to Spain as a prisoner. In consequence the Mayor of La Rochelle overpowered the English garrison and admitted du Guesclin. The Constable also took Usson in the Auvergne, while the whole of the Angoumois and the Saintonge went over to the French. There were not enough English troops to provide adequate garrisons and the enemy seemed to be everywhere. The English strongholds in Normandy and Brittany were falling and even Guernsey was invaded by a French force under Evan of Wales (a member of the former ruling family of Gwynedd).

The Battle

The development of battle tactics are also clearly illustrated in the course of this encounter, which took place in June 1372 at a time when England’s military prowess was on the wane. Edward III was now old and had lost his wife, Philippa, probably to a recurrence of the plague in 1369. Both 1370 and 1371 had seen invasion scares, with the south-coast towns on alert for raiders, and stories circulating widely of large French fleets being gathered for a descent on the English coast. John of Gaunt was actively pursuing his ambitions in Spain and attempting to put together an expedition and a fleet for that purpose. In France itself, English forces in the southwest were under pressure. In these rather unpromising circumstances the young Earl of Pembroke was commissioned in April as royal lieutenant in Aquitaine. He finally left to take up his position in June, leading a small force of probably under twenty ships, mostly small transports, but with three large vessels as escorts. He had with him 224 knights, fifty-five esquires and eighty archers. He also received a large sum of money in gold and silver, about £12,000, so that he could recruit and pay an army of about three thousand men when he reached his destination.

The various chronicle accounts then differ markedly as to what then ensued. Froissart as usual has a stirring tale to tell, which also changed between the different versions of his work. The foremost English chronicles hardly mention the incident. The Anonimalle Chronicle merely states that ‘the young count set out towards Gascony with too few men to the great damage of England’. He encountered enemy ships and was captured along with some of his companions and others were killed.38 A French chronicle, the Chronique des Quatre Premiers Valois, explains that on 22 June the English squadron arrived off La Rochelle and found a force of Castilian galleys already barring their way. The English thought little of the Spanish and were not unduly disturbed. An action ensued with the crossbowmen on the galleys opposing the archers on the English sailing ships. At nightfall this was still inconclusive so the two fleets parted. The chronicle also implies at this point that low tide was around dusk, perhaps around 9pm. This chronicle is then adamant that at dawn the next day after the first attack the English were aground because of the falling tide. The galleys, drawing much less water, were still able to manoeuvre freely and attacked, this time using flaming arrows and pots of grease and oil to set the English ships on fire. Soon most of the English ships were alight, with terrified horses in the holds adding to the confusion and uproar. The earl’s vessel was grappled by no fewer than four galleys and despite fierce fighting on the deck those who remained alive were forced to surrender and were captured. The treasure intended to pay the army in Gascony also fell into enemy hands.

This account of the battle has generally been accepted, although there is some disagreement over whether the English ships went aground. The timing of the crucial tide changes must remain uncertain without precise information but it seems likely that the tide was ebbing from around 2–3am on the morning of 23 June so that at dawn when the Castilian attack went in this would soon be a problem for the English ships if they had anchored not far from the shore. More controversial is the effect of this battle. One historian has called it ‘the greatest defeat ever sustained by the English navy’. Another has claimed that the effect was, ‘to stimulate naval activity’. The most recent writer’s view is that ‘the loss of prestige incurred by this first major English defeat was incalculable.’ For most contemporary English chroniclers the most important matter was the capture of the Earl of Pembroke by the Spanish.

Despite the loss of ships in this disaster and the need to compensate the owners of three of the largest with grants of royal ships, a large fleet was raised later that same summer for an expedition to France, which came to nothing because of a long spell of adverse winds. There is also evidence that the fact that a galley fleet had destroyed one made up of sailing vessels lay behind the decision to set in train the building of more balingers and barges for the Crown. Feelers were also put out to both Genoa and Portugal in the hope that they might be able to provide galleys or oarsmen to power the new balingers. More generally, English military power was receding as Charles V of France reinvigorated his forces both on land and at sea; the era of English success and stunning victories seemed to have ended, as the enormous expense of the wars became more and more apparent to a people who had lost much of their enthusiasm for the whole endeavour.

English Naval Forces

The idea that all ships in the possession of Englishmen and able to go to sea made up the navy of England was deeply rooted in the minds of English monarchs and accepted by English seafarers. However reluctant they might be at times to obey a royal summons to serve the King and defend the realm with their vessels at sea, the existence of this principle was not questioned. English kings from at least the tenth century had at times also owned ships themselves and had used these in a variety of roles. The twists and turns of external circumstances and royal policy ensured that there was little continuity in the royal ownership of ships, or in the way they were financed or maintained. We have seen that some English kings devoted considerable time and energy to the well-being and the proper use of their ships, while others neglected them, or in fact disposed of them entirely. How did the rulers of other states approach the same problem of defending the dwellers on their coasts, their ports and their trade? How did they also attempt to supply the need for ships that could give a good account of themselves in war at sea?


Facing the North Sea and the Atlantic, the kingdom of France possessed, in theory, around 2500 kilometres of coastline, stretching from the estuary of the Zwyn in Flanders to Hendaye on the frontier with Castile. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, only the counties of Ponthieu and Artois on the north coast were ruled directly by the French king; other territories including Flanders, Normandy, Brittany, Poitou and Gascony were fiefs of the French Crown, but were ruled directly by dukes or counts who often followed their own policies. This was particularly the case with the territories which were ruled by the Kings of England as dukes, first of Normandy from the Conquest till c.1204 and from c.1417 to c.1450, and second of Gascony (also known as Aquitaine) from 1152, when the future Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, till 1453. Brittany, under its own duke, also pursued independent policies until the last years of the fifteenth century, when the French king took over the direct rule of the duchy by marrying Anne, the heiress of the last duke in 1491. As a consequence of this situation, kings of France had taken little interest in maritime matters, until the collapse of English rule in northern France in the reign of King John extended their power over most of the Channel coast. The kings of France, initially Philip II Augustus, now had control over a coastline in the north of their kingdom with excellent ports, where maritime trade was on the rise, and where skilled and adventurous seamen could be found in large numbers. They also had the power to demand feudal service at sea from these mariners and their ships in much the same way as the English Crown could rely on its power to conscript ships and crews for royal fleets. As Michel Mollat put it, ‘Philip [II] did not have a fleet but he had ships’. It was a fleet raised in this manner which met with the English at the battle of Dover in 1217.

Sources for French naval forces

There are not, however, many surviving French equivalents of the letters patent, commissions and accounts which allow historians to examine in detail the fleets largely made up of conscripted merchant ships raised by English kings from the thirteenth century onwards. It is easier to find evidence of the measures taken by French kings to defend their coastline by fortifying ports and building castles, for example at Montreuilsur-Mer and Boulogne. After their control also extended by the mid thirteenth century to the coast of Poitou and Saintonge, the fortifications of the major port of La Rochelle were also strengthened, although it was not until 1345–47 that the twin towers which guard the harbour entrance were built. These still exist and the Tour St Nicholas, in particular, is a very imposing structure; the watch tower is more than 35m above sea level. A chain was stretched across the entrance to the harbour between the two towers on which cannon were also mounted. Harfleur had similar towers, while at Honfleur across the estuary of the Seine one tower was built by the French in the mid fourteenth century, and another built c.1430 when the town was ruled by the English.

An Alternative Battle of Austerlitz, 1805

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Galerie des Batailles, Versailles)

Allied (red) and French (blue) deployments at 1800 hours on 1 December 1805

The decisive attacks on the Allied center by St. Hilaire and Vandamme split the Allied army in two and left the French in a golden strategic position to win the battle.

The weather had turned bitterly cold and the news of the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar had further dampened French morale. The astonishing victory at Ulm, where the Austrian General Mack’s advance army had been surrounded and compelled to capitulate, though just two months earlier, seemed a distant memory. Even after the surrender of 60,000 Austrian troops and the occupation of Vienna, the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, refused to come to terms with the Emperor of the French. The reason for this was the belated arrival of the Russian army, the other major participant in the Third Coalition of countries opposed to France along with Great Britain. Tsar Alexander’s men gave the Coalition force a decided numerical advantage, and Francis insisted in fighting on.

For his part, Napoleon needed a rapid resolution to the conflict. He was 700 miles from home and outnumbered. Back in France, the departure of the Grande Armée, and Nelson’s victory off the Spanish coast, had encouraged the supporters of the deposed Bourbon monarchy to rebel once again. There was also the possibility that Prussia, which was known to be mobilising its forces, would join the Coalition. Somehow Napoleon had to draw the Austrians and Russians into a battle on ground and under circumstances of his own choosing – and quickly. But how?

The combined enemy force, some 90,000 strong, was positioned towards Olmütz on the Morava River, in the present day Czech Republic, but then in the eastern regions of Francis’ empire. The Austro-Russian army had secured communications running back through Poland and Silesia. If Napoleon tried to attack the allied army, it could quite easily fall back on its lines of communication, and in doing so, further elongate the Grande Armée’s already severely over-stretched supply chain. Indeed, the French army was in poor shape, with their weapons, equipment, clothing and shoes all showing the signs of excessive wear. If the allied army did withdraw, the French were in no position to follow and if Prussia did declare war on France, Napoleon might well find his armies cut off from France and surrounded by enemies. Rarely had Europe’s finest general found himself in such a predicament.

The Field of Battle

The principle Austro-Russian force was concentrating at around Olmütz, some thirty miles to the northeast of Brünn (today’s Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city) and it was the area in the region of Moravia’s historic capital that Napoleon scouted to gain an appreciation of the ground to see if it could offer him any advantage. It was following one such reconnaissance that the soldier-historian Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, famously described an incident on the journey back from Wischau: ‘ turning off towards the south he entered a high plain contained between two embanked streams running from the north to the southwest.

‘The Emperor slowly and silently went over this newly discovered ground, stopping several times on its most elevated points, looking principally towards Pratzen. He carefully examined all its characteristics and during this survey turned towards us saying, “Gentlemen, examine this ground carefully, it is going to be a battlefield; you will have a part to play in it.” This plain was indeed to be within a few days the field of the Battle of Austerlitz.’

Having chosen his battleground, Napoleon had to bring on the action that he sought, and induce the Tsar and Francis to commit their troops to battle. He proposed to do this by pretending to be weak and worried, hoping that the prospect of defeating the great Napoleon would prove too tempting an opportunity to dismiss. Consequently, he planned to place a proportion of his army close to the main Austro-Russian force. This small, but significant French body, would give all the appearance of being isolated and within striking distance of the allied force. Hopefully, this would tempt the Tsar to attack and, once committed, Napoleon would then spring his trap, with the rest of Grande Armée suddenly appearing, to pounce on the unsuspecting enemy. It would a highly dangerous operation which would require perfect arrangement and impeccable timing.

Corps de Armée

Such an operation was only made possible because of the manner in which Napoleon had organised his army. It was divided into seven corps, whilst varying in size depending on the talents of its commander or the assignment it had been tasked with, each of which was a force of all arms capable of holding off an enemy of similar or larger numbers for at least a full day until reinforced. This meant that the corps in front of the Austro-Russian army could hold their own until the other corps marched to deliver the decisive blow. Added to this was the creation of a cavalry reserve of such a size that it could crash through the enemy’s line at the critical moment in a battle. This reserve totalled around 22,000 men including two full divisions of heavy cuirassiers.

Everything, though, would depend upon Napoleon’s brilliant chief of staff, Marshal Berthier, to bring all the Grande Armée’s corps together at the right moment. A corps of 30,000 men on the march took up five miles of good road, sixty guns with their caissons required two and a half miles, and 6,000 cavalry, riding four abreast, extended for about four miles. The length of such a column made it necessary for the corps to move along several parallel roads, keeping in mind the need for lateral communications if the situation required a sudden change of plan.

A Weak Front

The corps of Murat (Cavalry Reserve), Lannes (V Corps) and Soult (IV Corps) were to advance towards Wischau and Olmütz (present-day Olomouc) and occupy Austerlitz and the adjacent Pratzen Heights, with one cavalry brigade pushed towards Olmütz. This move would give all the appearance of an aggressive approach by Napoleon, indicating that he was still on the offensive. This was an obvious double-bluff. It would appear that Napoleon was putting a bold face on a rapidly deteriorating situation in the hope this would frighten the allies into remaining cautiously on the defensive. The Tsar, whose army constituted by far the bulk of the allied force and therefore who dictated strategy, would see through this and attack this comparatively small body of French troops which amounted to no more than 53,000 men. By 25 November, the move forward by this detached force was completed and Napoleon now had to wait to see if Tsar Alexander would take the bait.

Command of the Austro-Russian army was nominally under the command of Field Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, though he had to take orders from Alexander. The Tsar saw what he thought was a golden opportunity and wanted to attack immediately, as did many of the Austrian and Russian generals. Kutuzov saw no need for such action and the Emperor Francis, on whose territory this was all taking place, urged caution. If the allies were defeated, the Russians could simply abandon the expedition and return to Russia, whereas Francis would be forced into a humiliating capitulation. Francis, therefore, had the most to lose.

With all this in mind, an allied delegation was sent to Napoleon to discuss the possibility of an armistice, but in reality to get a closer look at the state of the French army. Napoleon played his part to perfection, being charming and accommodating and indicating that he was only too happy to consider discussing terms.

This did the trick. It seemed clear that Napoleon was in some trouble and would happily accept a negotiated way out of the difficulties he was in. Never had there been a better chance for any of France’s enemies, in ten years of almost continual warfare, to strike such a blow. The Tsar had indeed sniffed the bait, and was about to swallow it.

The Eve of Doom

On 28 November, Austro-Russian troops attacked Murat’s outposts and pushed them back towards Soult’s corps. This was attended by impossibly high armistice demands from the Tsar and the Emperor. With this Napoleon knew the allies were going to fall into his trap and urgent messages were sent to the other corps commanders to march for Brünn with all speed. Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps and Marshal Davout’s III Corps were soon on the road, with a thick cavalry screen ahead of them to conceal their movements from the enemy. Napoleon would still be outnumbered, but only slightly so, and he would have surprise on his side.

Before committing his troops to battle, the Tsar wanted confirmation that he was doing the right thing, and to allay the fears of those around him that doubted the wisdom of attacking Napoleon. So another delegation was sent to the French camp. Once again, Napoleon put on a display which made the returning Count Dologorouki tell the Tsar that ‘the French army was on the eve of its doom’.

Believing that he had convinced the enemy, Napoleon started the moves that would draw the enemy into his clutches, by ordering Soult to abandon Austerlitz and the Pratzen Heights, and in doing so to give all the appearance of near-panic. Kutusov was quick to take advantage of the French withdrawal and occupy the Heights.

No-one would relinquish the high ground if they were intent upon attacking, or even holding a defensive stance. The French, it seemed, knew the game was up and that they had better withdraw or be annihilated. To confirm this, the rest of the French cavalry pulled back from Wishau, again in an apparent state of disorder, followed now by the slow but increasingly confident Austro-Russian army. But as the Tsar’s men lumbered towards Austerlitz, Bernadotte’s I Corps arrived secretly behind Napoleon’s front, on 30 November, with Davout and the III Corps just a day’s march away. The following day was spent by Napoleon inspecting his troops and ensuring that everything was in place for the battle on the morrow.

He also issued an Order of the Day, which, rather than just appealing to the soldiers’ patriotism and sense of honour as such addresses usually did, actually explained an element of his plans for the battle:

‘SOLDIERS – The Russian army is before you, come to avenge the Austrian army of Ulm …

‘The positions which we occupy are formidable, and while the Russians march upon our batteries I shall attack their flanks.

‘Soldiers, I shall in person direct all your battalions; I shall keep out of range if, with your accustomed bravery, you carry disorder and confusion into the ranks of the enemy. But if victory is for a moment uncertain, you shall see your Emperor expose himself the foremost to danger; because victory must not hesitate an instant today, when, above all, the honour of the French infantry is concerned, which bears with it the honour of the whole nation.

‘Note that no man shall leave the ranks under the pretext of carrying off the wounded. Let everyman be filled with the thought that it is vitally necessary to conqueror these paid lackeys of England who so strongly hate our nation.’

As well as taking them into his confidence regards his plans, Napoleon was using clever psychology here, in that if the men did not see Napoleon at their head, they knew they were on course for victory and would keep on fighting, believing they were succeeding.

That evening Napoleon slept until 22.00 hours and then rode around part of the battlefield with twenty men of the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Impériale, narrowly being captured by a party of Cossacks. He returned through the French camp. It was a foggy, moonless night and the Chasseurs lit torches of fir and straw to light the Emperor’s passage. ‘Seeing in the light of their torches a group of mounted officers approaching them, the soldiers quickly recognised the Imperial party, and many torches were lit,’ recalled Pierre Daumesil, ‘Soon the entire French line was ablaze, and repeated shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!” echoed across the Goldbach stream to the Russian lines. Regimental bands added their music to the exhilaration of the moment.’ Napoleon was moved by the scene, and as he later settled back in his tent, he was heard to murmur: ‘This has been the finest evening of my life.’ The following day would be remembered as the worst of his thirty-five years.

The Fog of Austerlitz

The field of battle for 2 December 1805, stretched from the villages of Welatiz and Bosenitz, just to the north of the road from Brünn to Austerlitz in the north, to the lake of Satschan, about six miles to the south. From east to west it spread from the Goldbach stream to the town of Austerlitz itself. The ground is slightly hilly but fairly open, dominated by the Pratzen plateau, with a wide, swampy region running northeast from the Satschan lake, along the River Littawa, on the eastern base of the plateau towards Austerlitz. On the day, the Austro-Russian army amounted to something between a little more than 85,000 to almost 88,000, compared to the 73,000 which Napoleon would eventually have under his command.

The fog of the night had not lifted when dawn broke on 2 December which hindered the assembly of the Austro-Russian formations. The allied plan, devised by the Austrian General Franz von Weyrother, was to direct the main effort against the seemingly weak French right, which was held by Soult. This would cut Napoleon’s line of retreat back to Vienna. As the French flank was being turned, another strong body would attack along the Olmütz-to-Brünn road on the French left, which also appeared to be held by a single corps, that of V Corps. What von Weyrother did not know was that already Bernadotte had joined Lannes, and Davout was closing in upon Soult. Von Weyrother’s plan also called for other columns to move from the Pratzen Heights as the French reeled under the blows of the two flanking columns to strike at the French centre to complete the victory. There were two complimentary flaws in this plan. The concentration of effort on the two flanks meant that the allied centre was very weak, and the Pratzen Heights – the high ground that dominated the battlefield – would be abandoned. Apparently General Langeron pointed out these dangers but his concerns were ignored. Napoleon, it was argued, was looking for a way out of the dangerous position he was in and he would never dream of sending troops to actually attack. This, though, was exactly what Napoleon hoped would happen.

Once the Russians and Austrians were on the move, a mass of 65,000 men would erupt from behind the Santon stream at its confluence with the Goldbach to confront the allied main force, whilst the divisions of Vandame and Saint-Hilaire (16,000 men and two batteries of artillery), would seize the Pratzen Heights. This would split the allied army in two, and whilst the enemy’s right flanking move was held by Lannes corps, the main French force would wheel round to the south and crush the left half of Kutuzov’s army. It was a brilliant and ambitious plan but, if the Russians abandoned the Heights, it could hardly fail.

First Moves

Tsar Alexander was anxious for the start of the great victory he visualized and, as the minutes ticked by he finally voiced his growing frustration. He addressed his commander in chief: ‘Mikhail Illarionovich why haven’t you begun your advance?’ Kutusov replied ‘I am waiting for all the columns of the army to get into position.’

‘But we are not on the Empress’s Meadows [a parade ground near St Petersburg], where we do not begin a parade until all the regiments are formed up!’

‘Your Highness, if I have not begun it is because we are not on parade, and not on the Empress’s Meadow. However, if such be Your Highness’s order …’

Ready or not, the Austro-Hungarian divisions moved off, and by 06.00 hours most of the attacking formations were on the move. General Buxhwden was in overall command of the main striking force which would crush the French right, and it was the five battalions of General Kienmayer’s 1st Infantry Brigade of his Advance Guard, leading the way, which first came into contact with the French as the Austrians approached the village of Telnitz on the banks of the Goldbach. The Austrians, anxious to show the Russians that they could fight as well as themselves, assaulted the village ‘with great resolution’. The ground, though, was difficult as the Goldbach at this point ran in ditches, behind which was a low height covered with vineyards and houses. Telnitz was held by a battalion of line infantry, the 3rd, as well as the Légion Corse. ‘Covered behind the inequalities of the ground,’ wrote the nineteenth century historian, Adolph Theirs, ‘these clever tirailleurs, taking cool aim at the hussars that had been sent forward in advance, brought down a great number of them … The Austrians, tired of a murderous conflict productive of no result, assaulted the village of Telnitz in a body of five united battalions which did not succeed in penetrating into it owing to the firmness of the 3rd of the line, which received them with the courage of well-tried troops.’

The other columns of Buxhwden’s force (First Column, Lieutenant General D. Doctorov; Second Column Lieutenant General A. Langeron; Third Column Lieutenant General I. Przbyswski; Fourth Column, lieutenant generals M. Miloradovich and J. Kollowrath) followed but not in the coordinated fashion that Von Weyrother would have hoped, but Kutuzov had predicted. Eventually, though, the allied main force overpowered the French left wing and Davout’s corps had still not reached the battlefield.

This was a critical moment in the battle. All Napoleon’s calculations were based on being able to hold back Buxhwden until he had taken the Pratzen Heights and broken through the Russian centre. Fortunately, Berthier’s arrangements proved to be satisfactory as usual, and the first until of III Corps finally marched into view. Corporal Blaise was with Heudelet’s division which was ordered to counter-attack: ‘General Heudelet put himself at our head and we marched boldly forward in battle order until we were halted by a ditch which was too large for us to cross. General Heudelet thereupon ordered our colonel to move us over a bridge away to our left. This necessary movement was the cause of our undoing, for the soldiers were so eager to come to grips with the vaunted enemy infantry that they disordered their ranks … and when we tried to reform our battle order under heavy fire, some Austrian hussars … in the thick smoke and fog which was a feature of the day, wounded a great many of us and captured 160 man including 4 officers.’

Despite such setbacks, Davout’s men helped recover Telnitz, only for a renewed assault by General Doctorov’s column to succeed in recapturing the village. Though the allies had the upper hand in the south, the easy breakthrough which had been anticipated by von Weyrother, upon which the whole of his plan depended, had not yet happened. This was in part because the Russian Second Column had become involved in what has been described as a massive traffic jam caused by the decision from the Russian staff on the Pratzen Heights to move the Fifth (Cavalry) Column across the front of Langeron’s men, causing a delay of almost an hour. All this meant that the French right was holding, just as Napoleon hoped it would, and the battle was developing exactly as Napoleon and anticipated.

Crossing the Goldbach

Eventually, though far later than had been planned, Langeron arrived on Doctorov’s right followed by Przbyswski’s Third Column on the right. Telnitz was retaken and the allies began to cross the Goldbach. It seemed that by sheer weight of numbers that the allies were overcoming the French. Then, as they crossed the stream, they were attacked by General Bouchier with six regiments of dragoons, followed by the rest of Heudelet’s infantry, and the Russians were thrown back in disorder. Davout’s men continued to push forward, taking advantage of the confusion in the Russian ranks. Astonishingly, a total of only 10,500 Frenchmen had not only stopped, but driven back, more than 50,000 Russians and Austrians. Often in history smaller, well disciplined and organised, bodies of troops, have defeated much larger enemy forces which are much harder to control and manoeuvre. Such was the case on the morning of 2 December on the banks of the Goldbach stream.

‘It was not yet eight o’clock,’ wrote Captain Segur, one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp, ‘and silence and darkness were still reigning over the rest of the line, when, beginning with the heights, the sun suddenly breaking through the thick fog disclosed to our sight the plateau of Pratzen growing empty of troops from the flank march of the enemy columns. As for us who had remained in the ravine which defines the foot of the plateau, the smoke of the bivouacs and the vapours which, heavier on this point than elsewhere, still hung around, concealed from the Russians our centre deployed in columns and ready for the attack.’

Napoleon turned to Soult, who was to lead the assault upon the Pratzen, and asked him, ‘How long will it take to move your divisions to the top of the Pratzen Heights?’ The marshal replied, ‘Less than twenty minutes, Sire, for my troops are hidden at the foot of the valley, concealed by fog and campfire smoke.’ Napoleon hesitated for a moment, and then said, ‘In that case we will wait another quarter of an hour.’ Napoleon wanted the last of the allied columns to leave the heights before delivering the blow that would decide the battle, and end the Third Coalition.

But the sun which shone on the Pratzen Heights suddenly penetrated the mist that had concealed Soult’s division. The wary Kutusov, who had been opposed to the entire idea of attacking the French at all, immediately understood what he saw – a large body of French infantry that had not been engaged which was poised to cut right through the Austro-Russian line. The normally lethargic Russian general was a bustle of activity. The troops still on the Heights preparing to march down the slope were halted and orders were sent recalling Kollowrath’s Austrians and Miloradovitch’s twenty-five Russian battalions which were descending on the left towards Sokolnitz.

Napoleon had waited too long. For many years afterwards, Russians and Austrians who had been at the battle, would talk of the ‘sun of Austerlitz’, which had shed its light on the French, and shone its glory upon the Tzar and the Emperor of Austria.

Another few minutes and Miloradovitch would have been engaged and unable to extract his troops in time. But Kutusov’s urgent appeal reached the Russian general in time, and he wheeled his battalions round and headed back up the slope before Soult could begin his advance.

It was a race for the top of the Heights, but, despite the speed of the French columns, it was a race the Russians were always going to win. As Soult neared to within 200 yards of the summit, he saw the dense line of green-jacketed infantry stretched across the skyline.

To loud cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ Thiébault’s and Saint-Hilare’s divisions attacked with their usual impetuosity. But the Russians were stern opponents, and after a single volley, the men of the Novgorod, Apsheron, Little Russia and Smolensk regiment strode out purposefully, bayonets levelled.

The clash of arms was a terrible one, but weight of numbers and gravity was in the favour of allies. As the French were slowly pushed back, two brigades of von Lichtenstein’s cavalry, which had also been summoned by Kutusov, crashed into rear of Soult’s isolated regiments.


Witnessing the confused scene on the slopes above, Napoleon knew that the battle hung in the balance. True to his word, he galloped up the Heights to show his men that the result was in doubt. But when the French troops saw their Emperor, it only served to confirm what they knew – they were in trouble. Instead of galvanizing them into greater efforts, it had the opposite effect. It was clearly a case of every man for himself.

The French soldiers had never known defeat under Napoleon. They had supreme confidence in him, believing he would never fail. All that was shattered in moments. Napoleon watched the Grande Armée dissolve in front of him. It was the end of the dream.

The news of the French defeat soon reached Berlin and King Frederick William responded quickly, ordering those regiments that were fully mobilzed to take advantage of the situation, cutting off a large part of the retreating French infantry divisions. The Grande Armée was destroyed. So sluggish had been Kutusov’s pursuit, Napoleon could well have rallied his men and, with the help of reinforcements from France, held the allies on the Rhine, but the intervention of the Prussians proved fatal to what was to prove to be Napoleon’s weak grip on his adoptive country.

Though there was still a strong army in the south fighting the Austrians in Italy, there was little hope for France. Whilst Napoleon dreamt up ambitious schemes to attack the approaching enemy columns, his marshals knew that the only way to avoid France being overrun was to remove Napoleon. So it was, that on Christmas Eve, 1805, Louis XIII returned to Paris and was installed in his capital. Napoleon, however, was granted generous terms by the allies and he was permitted to retire with dignity to Corsica, the island of his birth. His had been a great adventure – until it came to an end on a low range of hills to the north of Vienna.


The Battle of Austerlitz was probably Napoleon’s greatest victory, which resulted in the destruction of the allied army. Around 27,000 Austrians and Russians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, amounting to more than thirty per cent of the total allied force. This happen because Tsar Alexander had taken over command of the allied army from Kutusov, who had shown nothing but distain for von Weyrother’s plan and had argued against attacking Napoleon in the first place. Once Napoleon saw the Russians moving off the Pratzen, he send Soult’s IV Corps up the slope to push through the now extremely thin allied centre, cutting Kutusov’s army in two. Supported by Bernadotte’s corps and the Imperial Guard, Soult then swung round to the south, trapping Buxhwden’s force against the Satschan lakes. The allied troops tried to escape across the frozen lakes, and seeing this, Napoleon ordered up twenty-five cannon to fire upon the ice. The effect of the cannon balls, crashing onto the ice which was already under severe strain from the thousands of fleeing soldiers and the heavy artillery teams, began to crack. Though the number of men drowned in the freezing water was thought to have been many thousands, when the lakes were drained shortly after the battle only a few corpses were recovered. What the breaking of the ice did was block the allies only line of retreat, which why as many as 12,000 became prisoners.

The day after the battle the Emperor Francis sought an armistice, whilst the remnants of the Russian army retreated to the east. When news of the scale of the Austro-Russian defeat reached London, Prime Minister William Pitt is reported to have said, in reference to a map of Europe, ‘Roll up that map; it will not be wanted these ten years.’ He was proven, at least partially, correct. The Third Coalition was brought to a speedy end and the map of Europe was redrawn. The principle effects of this was that Napoleon created a grouping of the western German states, called the Confederation of the Rhine, to act as a buffer between France and Prussia. These states were formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire. Robbed, therefore of much of his authority Francis relinquished his title and the Holy Roman Empire, which had stood for almost 900 years, ceased to exist. Its demise was unquestionably one of the factors that enabled Prussia to become the dominant Germanic country which, in 1871, absorbed the smaller German states to form the German nation that we know today.


Doihara in a press photo in Tokyo during 1936, by then a Lt. General

With the Japanese samurai all means are permissible as long as they lead to the end in view. To them it is smart to lie, to cheat, to deceive, to intrigue, to be double-faced, hypocritical, provided it pays or brings power. It is in their nature to be false.

Amleto Vespa – former secret agent for Japan

In 1853 the United States sent four warships under Commodore Matthew Perry to barge open trade relations with Japan. The Japanese stalled and so Perry returned to Tokyo Bay a year later with more ships and hinted at war if an agreement was not reached. For centuries Japan had isolated itself from the world and until the coming of Perry it existed in an introspective, feudal cocoon. No one was allowed to leave Japan and no one could visit, with few exceptions. Perry’s arrival changed everything and Japan soon embraced the modern, industrial era, with Western experts advising on everything from postal systems to army reform.

The arrival of so many foreigners caused a schism in Japanese society that affected political life. Although Japan was nominally ruled by an emperor, since the 1600s military dictators known as shoguns had run the country. After several revolts, in 1868 imperial power was restored to the young Emperor Meiji (1852–1912), who passed a series of laws heralding a policy of Westernization and tolerance to foreigners.

While Japan eagerly embraced everything the West had to offer, few Westerners realized the bitterness felt by many Japanese toward foreigners. A philosophy known as Hakko Ichiu (Eight Corners of the World under One Rule) took hold of Japan, which preached a doctrine of racial superiority and the divine right of the Japanese people to do pretty much as they pleased. Japan was said to be at the centre of the world and the tenno (emperor) was a divine being directly descended from the Goddess of the Sun. The Japanese people, furthermore, were protected by their gods and were thus superior to all others. The Hakko Ichiu also had a profound impact on foreign policy, Japan having been given a divine mission to bring all nations under the beneficial rule of the tenno.

To realize these divinely inspired ambitions, Japan needed a modern espionage system. Adopting the German model, Japanese officials were sent to study under Wilhelm Stieber in the mid-1870s. Over the next decade Japan built up separate army and naval intelligence services, each with an accompanying branch of secret military police (Kempeitai for the army and Tokeitai for the navy). These latter organizations also provided an excellent counter-espionage service. However, where the Japanese were unique was in the use of spies belonging to unofficial secret societies working alongside or independently of the official intelligence agencies. These shadowy institutions were ultra-nationalist by nature, drawing their membership from a cross-section of Japanese society, including the military, politics, industry and Yakuza underworld. Under ruthless leadership, their henchmen would spy on, subvert and corrupt Japan’s Far East neighbours.

Perhaps the biggest losers in the Meiji Restoration were samurai warriors – the knights of the shogunate era. As Japan modernized and built an army based on universal conscription, the samurai found themselves an unwanted anachronism – even banned from publicly carrying their swords. Known as ronin, masterless samurai gravitated towards new urban centres where, unwilling to give up their martial way of life, they turned to crime. Realizing their potential, gang leader Mitsuru Toyama (1855–1944) organized the ronin into an effective force of hired muscle specializing in strikebreaking and assassination. Demand for Toyama’s services saw doors opened for him to the highest levels of society. Soon he was one of the most influential figures in the ultra-nationalist underworld, known to many by the sinister appellation ‘Darkside Emperor’ or ‘Shadow Shogun’.

An exponent of Japanese expansion, Toyama became the guiding hand of the Genyosha or Dark Ocean Society formed in 1881 by Kotaro Hiraoka – a rich samurai mine owner with an eye on business opportunities in Manchuria. To collect intelligence on the region and its Triad gangs, Toyama dispatched a hundred Genyosha agents to China. The most effective front for their espionage operations came through activities in the vice trade, with the Genyosha setting up bordellos in Hankow, Shanghai, Tientsin, Pusan and Russian-controlled Central Asia. The most noted of these was the ‘Hall of Pleasurable Delights’ at Hankow. Based on Stieber’s ‘The Green House’, this brothel was extremely popular among Chinese politicians and Triad bosses. While providing a safe house for Japanese spies, it brought in funds for the Genyosha’s clandestine activities and provided ample means to blackmail clients or find potential allies among the growing number of Chinese revolutionaries.

The name ‘Dark Ocean’ referred to the genkai nada – the stretch of water between Japan and Korea, hinting at the location of the group’s first major operation. The close proximity of the Korean peninsula to the Japanese islands gave it considerable strategic value as a springboard into East Asia and as a defensive buffer against China and Russia. At the behest of the minister of war, Soroku Kawakami, Toyama and another leading Genyosha member, Ryohei Uchida, set up the Tenyukyo, a group of 15 hand-picked agent provocateurs sent into Korea as agitators.

Once inside the country the Tenyukyo established contact with the Tonghaks, a radical Korean terrorist group. Together they waged such a campaign of terror that the Korean emperor was compelled to ask China for help. As obliging Chinese troops gathered on the border, Japanese hawks were presented with the excuse they had been hoping for. After condemnation of China’s ‘aggressive’ intervention (the Chinese had not actually entered Korea yet), Japanese troops were landed and, claiming to be acting in defence of Korean sovereignty, they seized the royal palace in Seoul on 23 July 1894. The ensuing conflict, which was declared a few days later on 1 August, saw a quick succession of Japanese victories against the Chinese on land and sea, leaving part of Manchuria and the island of Formosa (Taiwan) in Japanese hands.

Despite the victory, war had stretched Japan’s resources to the limit and rival nations were quick to detect the scent of vulnerability. Pressure from France, Germany and in particular Russia obliged Japan to give up its mainland gains in China. Russia formed an alliance with China against Japan in 1896, which gave it important strategic gains including the lease of Port Arthur (1898) and rights to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Manchuria to the Russian seaport of Vladivostok.

It was clear to the Genyosha leadership that this growing Russian influence would have to be checked. However, after the Korean episode, the society’s activities had come to the attention of headline writers. The unwanted publicity increased after Toyama’s disciples assassinated the Korean princess Bin and terrorized the Korean emperor into seeking refuge in Russia. Its high profile made the Genyosha unsuitable for conducting further secret operations, so in 1898 the group dissolved. Toyama instead formed the East Asia One Culture Society, a pan-Asian group with the ambition of formulating a common system of writing in the region. To help accomplish this, the group formed the Tung Wen College in Shanghai. Still operational in 1945, the Tung Wen College had thousands of graduates working from India to the Philippines. Of course the whole project was a sham front for espionage operations – the Chinese always referred to the Tung Wen as ‘the Japanese Spy School’.

In 1901, under Toyama’s direction, his Black Ocean comrade Ryohei Uchida formed the Kokuryu-kai, or Black Dragon Society. Like the Genyosha before it, the clue to the group’s ambitions lay in its name, which really implied ‘Beyond the Amur River’, the river separating northern Manchuria and Siberia. In Chinese the Amur translates to Black Dragon River, hence the origin of the society’s most common name.

Initially the group recruited its soshi (lit. brave knights) from patriotic ronin and avoided the criminal types increasingly predominant in the Genyosha. As word of their activities spread, other crusaders for the Japanese imperial cause sought membership. Although the society quickly boasted members in upper governmental and military circles, the group was not always in line with government policy, nor did it receive official sanction.

As war with Russia approached, the group successfully lobbied for the appointment of Colonel Motojiro Akashi as military attaché to St Petersburg. Akashi was an excellent intelligence officer sympathetic to the Black Dragons’ aims. He had previously served as military attaché at Japanese embassies in Sweden, France and Switzerland. In these posts he established that Western Europe would not come to the aid of tsarist Russia if it were attacked by Japan.

While fulfilling his duties, Akashi made secret contact with anti-tsarist revolutionary cells inside Russia and around Europe. In return for financial aid, these groups provided Akashi with intelligence on the Russian military and secret services. He also made contact with Abdur Rashid Ibrahim, a Tartar Muslim who provided important information on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. More intelligence came out of Port Arthur from the British agent Sidney Reilly who had met Akashi in St Petersburg. Reilly had set up a sham company in Port Arthur to provide him with a cover story while he spied on Russian defences for Akashi.

In addition to Akashi’s work, Japanese spies posing as coolies and dockworkers infiltrated Russian bases in Manchuria. The Black Dragons were at the forefront of these actions. They sent agents into Manchuria and Siberia – and even opened a ju-jitsu school in Vladivostok to provide a front for their operations against the Russians. They observed troop and naval movements, building up detailed information on the Russian order of battle and logistics. They also had an agent in the north of Manchuria, Hajime Hamamoto, who ran a general store near to a Russian army base. By seducing wives of Russian officers, Hamamoto was able to glean important information from them, which was passed on to Military Intelligence in Japan via an agent in Vladivostok.

These secret operations gave Japan a major advantage in the war, which began on 8 February 1904 with a Japanese surprise attack on Port Arthur, two days before a formal declaration of war was made. Moving to Stockholm, Akashi stretched Russian resources, stirring up Russian and Finnish revolutionaries. On a more practical level, Black Dragon agents acted as interpreters and guides for the Japanese army, organizing guerrilla operations with allied Manchurian warlords such as Marshal Chang Tso-lin.

Japan slowly wore down the Russian opposition, capturing Port Arthur and Mukden (now Shenyang). The Russians were finally forced to agree terms with Japan after its fleet was smashed at the battle of Tsushima (27–29 May 1905). A conference was held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, resulting in Japan gaining control of Port Arthur and the South Manchurian railroad. Russia evacuated southern Manchuria, which was restored to China, and Japan’s dominance of Korea was recognized.

With Russia out of the way, the Black Dragons turned their focus to China. Having met the revolutionaries Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) and Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) in Tokyo during 1905, the Black Dragons subsidized the 1911 overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty, which made China a republic. However, this assistance was given only to destabilize China and facilitate Japan’s seizure of Manchuria – a long-term ambition of the Black Dragons.

The hunt began for a stooge in whose name the seizure of Manchuria would be justified and world opinion placated. One candidate had been identified by the Black Dragon Naniwa Kawashima, an old samurai and veteran of the Russo-Japanese war. After the war Kawashima found himself chief of police in the Japanese section of Peking. In the course of his duties he befriended his opposite number, Prince Su Chin Wang, head of Peking’s Chinese police force. Prince Su was one of eight princes of the Iron Helmet, traditionally the emperor’s closest companions, which in Kawashima’s opinion gave him the right pedigree. Prince Su agreed to the plan, but it did not receive support from the Japanese government and floundered, much to the Black Dragons’ disappointment. Su went on to form an anti-Republican army in the northeast together with the Mongol general Babojab. When this army was defeated, Su retired to Port Arthur where he died in April 1922. The search for a suitable puppet shifted from Su to the deposed Chinese emperor.

Pu Yi (1906–67), the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, had ascended to the throne in 1908 before his third birthday. Since 1925 Pu Yi had lived in a villa – the Chang, or Quiet, Garden – inside the Japanese concession of Tientsin, where he enjoyed a playboy lifestyle with his increasingly opium-addicted wife ‘Elizabeth’ Wan Jung. Faced with the crippling cost of maintaining his royal trappings, Pu Yi was desperate to regain the throne and hoped he might find support among the Black Dragons. He was well informed of their activities, recording in his memoirs how the society had taken hold in China:

[It] started out with bases in Foochow, Yentai (Chefoo) and Shanghai and operated under such covers as consulates, schools and photographers … its membership was said to have reached several hundred thousand with correspondingly huge funds. Toyama Mitsuru was the most famous of its leaders and under his direction its members had penetrated every stratum of Chinese society. At the side of Ching nobles and high officials and among peddlers and servants, including the attendants in the Chang Garden. Many Japanese personalities were disciples of Toyama’s.

Pu Yi agreed to discuss his restoration with a Black Dragon agent named Tsukuda Nobuo. However, because the Black Dragons’ policy was not shared by the Japanese government, when Nobuo learned the local Japanese consul had also been invited to the interview, he pulled out and promptly disappeared. Puzzled at the agent’s behaviour, Pu Yi sent his advisor and tutor, Chang Hsiao-hsu, to Japan to make contact with the Black Dragons directly.

In the meantime, plans were set to seize Manchuria and its vast, unexploited resources. Since the war with Russia, Japan controlled the South Manchurian Railway, which it protected with a body of troops known as the Kwantung Army based in the Japanese concession at Mukden. Before Manchuria could be seized the powerful Manchurian warlord Marshal Chang Tso-lin had to be eliminated. A former Japanese ally in the war against Russia, the marshal opposed the growing Japanese influence in the region. In 1928 the Japanese assassinated the marshal by bombing his train, leaving Manchuria ripe for the taking. The following year intelligence specialist Colonel Seishiro Itagaki was posted to the Kwantung Army to make the final plans for the seizure of Manchuria. His plan was a masterpiece of ruse and treachery.

On the evening of 18 September 1931, Japanese sappers secretly planted explosives near to the track of the South Manchurian Railway. The objective was not to destroy the tracks, but to give the impression that Chinese saboteurs had attempted to derail a passing train. The Japanese quickly condemned the ‘attack’ and launched a ‘retaliatory’ attack against the Chinese in Mukden. To ensure a successful outcome, two heavy-calibre guns had been hidden in a ‘swimming pool’ constructed at the Japanese officers’ club. One gun was trained on the Chinese constabulary barracks, the other at the air force base at Mukden airport. When news of the ‘attack’ on the railway reached the Japanese garrison, the guns opened fire on the sleeping Chinese. It was a massacre.

News of the ‘battle’ quickly travelled to Port Arthur, where Lieutenant-General Honjo ordered an all-out attack by the 20,000-strong Kwantung Army. In a feat of unparalleled military efficiency, Honjo’s men were already mobilized before his orders arrived. The rival Chinese troops were caught on the back foot and, under general orders not to engage Japanese forces, were pushed back to the Sungari River. This attack left most of southern Manchuria in Japanese hands for the loss of just two men.

The outside world condemned the ‘Mukden Incident’ as a blatant case of Japanese aggression. However, Pu Yi saw it as an opportunity to take up the throne of his native Manchuria. Eight days after the incident, Colonel Itagaki arrived in Tientsin and offered Pu Yi the throne. To his surprise, the former emperor’s advisors urged caution, suspicious that a ‘mere colonel’ was making the offer rather than Japanese politicians. Pausing for thought, Pu Yi wrote to Toyama asking him to clarify the situation.

Three weeks later, Pu Yi was introduced to a senior member of the Kwantung Army, Colonel Kenji Doihara (1883–1948). Another of Toyama’s acolytes, Doihara was an intelligence officer and had been active in northern China and Siberia for some considerable time. Even among the pantheon of villains that were his contemporaries, Doihara stands out as a particularly loathsome individual. His rise to infamy began with tricking his 15-year-old sister into posing nude for some photographs. Armed with the developed pictures, the loving brother touted them to a Japanese imperial prince who was so impressed he made her his number one concubine. In return for this favour, Doihara was posted as an assistant to General Honjo, military attaché to Peking.

Doihara must not be dismissed as a simple thug. He had a deserved reputation as a linguist, claiming to speak nine European languages and four Chinese dialects faultlessly. He enjoyed the attention of Western journalists who dubbed him the ‘Lawrence of the East’ for the way he adopted Chinese costume on his many travels round the country recruiting spies and seeking out potential allies. In 1928 he became military advisor to Marshal Chang and was almost certainly involved in his assassination, after which he was promoted to colonel. In 1931 Doihara was head of the Japanese Special Service Organ in Mukden and was declared mayor of the city after the attack on 19 September.

Doihara arrived at the Quiet Garden villa and offered Pu Yi the throne of Manchuria. Pu Yi knew that Doihara was a ‘disciple’ of Toyama and recorded his opinion of the colonel in his memoirs. Although at first taken in by him, Pu Yi came to realize – too late – the full depth of Doihara’s mendacity:

Because of the mysterious stories that were told about him the Western press described him as the ‘Lawrence of the East’ and the Chinese papers said that he usually wore Chinese clothes and was fluent in several Chinese dialects. But it seems to me that if all his activities were like persuading me to go to the Northeast [Manchuria] he would have had no need for the cunning and ingenuity of a Lawrence: the gambler’s ability to keep a straight face while lying would have been enough.

Doihara asked Pu Yi to travel to Mukden from where he would be placed on the Manchu throne. His sovereignty would be guaranteed by the Kwantung Army, which of course said it had no territorial ambitions in Manchuria. Eager for power, Pu Yi agreed in principle, but sought assurances from Doihara that he would not be merely a Japanese puppet. Doihara assured, but still Pu Yi dithered. It appeared that the empress did not trust the Japanese and would not agree to leave Tientsin. Frustrated, Doihara needed help and so called on Itagaki for advice. The author of the Mukden Incident answered Doihara’s call by playing the joker in the Japanese pack – the Manchu-born agent known as ‘Eastern Jewel’.

The daughter of the pro-Japanese prince Su Chin Wang, Eastern Jewel was born in 1907. In 1913 she was given to the Black Dragon Naniwa Kawashima for adoption as a mark of friendship between the two men. Arriving in Japan, she was renamed Yoshiko Kawashima and educated at the Matsumato school for girls. She was a thrill seeker and tomboy, with a voracious sexual appetite which she claimed was awakened by her adoptive grandfather at 15. After a string of affairs, an arranged marriage was set up for the 21-year-old Eastern Jewel with the Mongol prince Kanjurjab, son of her biological father’s ally, General Babob.

The marriage – which took place in Port Arthur during November of 1927 – was seen as a means of cementing influence in Mongolia, where Japan held territorial ambitions. However, Eastern Jewel claimed that the marriage was never consummated and she quickly ditched the prince. She plunged headlong into the depths of Tokyo’s wild, bohemian underbelly. Outgrowing her adopted land, she travelled widely and even turned up as a houseguest of Pu Yi and the empress at Tientsin in 1928. With similar family backgrounds, Elizabeth and Eastern Jewel struck up an improbable relationship, the closeted empress in turns captivated by and envious of Eastern Jewel’s lurid and exotic exploits.

Eastern Jewel was in seedy Shanghai, having just walked out on a Japanese politician who had run out of money. On the prowl for a new sponsor she daringly set her sights on Major Tanaka, the head of the Shanghai secret service – or Special Service Organ. Attending a New Year party she ushered Tanaka to a discreet location and attempted to seduce him. Tanaka resisted the advances of the Manchu princess, explaining that it would be disrespectful for him – a commoner – to take her to bed. Eastern Jewel was not so easily deterred and dishonoured herself by borrowing money from Tanaka, finally breaking his resistance through a shared fetish for leather boots. Tanaka was impressed by Eastern Jewel’s forward manner and put her on the secret service payroll to fund her whims. Tanaka also paid for her English lessons, believing she might one day prove useful as a spy.

Returning to the matter of Pu Yi and the throne, Itagaki sent a telegram to Shanghai ordering Tanaka to report to Mukden. Fearful of being disgraced for lavishing official funds on his mistress, Tanaka left for Mukden on 1 October 1931. At the subsequent interview Itagaki revealed Doihara had been sent to get Pu Yi and that the Japanese forces were planning the next stage of their advance into Manchuria with the capture of Harbin. Tanaka was charged with keeping the League of Nations’ attention fixed away from Manchuria by provoking a disturbance in Shanghai. Tanaka told Itagaki he had the perfect agent in mind and was surprised – not to mention worried – when Itagaki said he knew all about Eastern Jewel. He then revealed the trouble Doihara was having with the implacable Elizabeth and mentioned he might need to borrow Eastern Jewel. Itagaki gave Tanaka $10,000, which he used to clear Eastern Jewel’s debts and begin the preparations for his Shanghai diversion.

Subsequent to this interview, Doihara wired Shanghai for Eastern Jewel. Calling in a favour from a pilot boyfriend, she flew to Tientsin that same evening. Anxious to make a lasting first impression on Doihara, Eastern Jewel disguised herself in the robes of a Chinese gentleman. She arrived and immediately caused a stir by refusing to divulge her name to the desk sergeant at Doihara’s headquarters. Suspecting treachery was afoot, Doihara placed a revolver on his desk and opened the inquisition.

‘Your name, please?’ he asked. ‘My name is of no importance,’ replied Eastern Jewel, ‘I have come to help you.’ ‘You speak like a eunuch,’ Doihara retorted. ‘Are you one of Pu Yi’s men?’ Eastern Jewel simply laughed in reply. Doihara grabbed his samurai sword. ‘Very well then, if you won’t tell me who you are, let us see what you are.’ Drawing the sword, he began to away cut the ties to her robe. Eastern Jewel did not move, but continued to stare at Doihara provocatively. Doihara flicked open the robe and ‘with a guttural samurai yell’ cut open the silk scarf she bound her breasts with. ‘I saw that she was a woman’ Doihara later confessed, ‘so I conducted a thorough investigation and determined that I had not put even the smallest scratch on any part of her white skin.’

Next day, Eastern Jewel visited the Quiet Garden and heard Elizabeth’s views on the proposed move to Mukden. She was able to report to Doihara that the empress was implacably opposed to any move to Mukden and it would take extreme measures to convince Pu Yi to travel alone. Growing impatient, Doihara resorted to terror tactics. He told Pu Yi that a price had been put on his head by Chang Hsueh-liang, the son of the murdered Marshal Chang. To lend credence to Doihara’s warnings, Eastern Jewel placed some snakes in Pu Yi’s bed. On 8 November bombs were hidden in a basket of fruit delivered anonymously to the Quiet Garden. Pu Yi recalled: ‘an assistant came running into the room shouting “bombs, two bombs”. I was sitting in an armchair and this news gave me such a fright that I was incapable of standing up.’ Eastern Jewel called the Japanese guards who came rushing in led by one of Doihara’s henchmen. He took the bombs away and then later revealed they had been manufactured by stooges of the late marshal’s son.

More was to follow. Along with warning letters, Pu Yi received a telephoned tip-off from ‘a waiter’ at his favourite Victoria Café that men with concealed weapons had been enquiring after him. Doihara then arranged for a crowd of Chinese agents to make trouble in the Chinese-administered part of the city. On 10 November martial law was declared and Japanese armoured cars surrounded the Quiet Garden to defend Pu Yi, whose nerve began to crack. Scared out of his wits, Pu Yi at last agreed to go to Mukden, travelling without the empress on Eastern Jewel’s advice. After dark he was bundled into the trunk of a car and driven to the docks by his Japanese interpreter. Elizabeth, meanwhile, was comforted by a heady mix of Eastern Jewel and opium until reunited with Pu Yi in Port Arthur six weeks later.

Eastern Jewel returned to Shanghai and began preparations with Tanaka for what became known as the Fake War. She hired gangs of Chinese street thugs and provided them with lists of Japanese business and residential addresses to attack. After the attacks began on 18 January 1932, Tanaka stoked up indignation in the Japanese community. Outraged by two more days of attacks, an ultimatum was delivered by the Japanese consul general to the Chinese mayor to stop them. However, with Eastern Jewel controlling the thugs, the Chinese mayor had little chance of success. In the face of Chinese impotence Admiral Shiozawa felt justified in landing his Imperial Marines to protect Japanese nationals. Tanaka’s mission was accomplished.

While engineering the arrival of the Japanese troops, Eastern Jewel had been busy in her now familiar role of seductress extraordinaire. The son of the Chinese republican Sun Yat-sen happened to be in town and soon fell victim to Eastern Jewel, confiding in her the rivalries in the Chinese camp. She also acted as a weathervane on international reaction to the Japanese actions. Putting her English lessons to good use, she took a British military attaché as a lover. From his pillow talk she was able to tell Tanaka that the West was unlikely to back its vigorous condemnations with any real action.

After the Shanghai incident, Eastern Jewel took up with a string of lovers. Her extravagance became so great that Tanaka offloaded her to Pu Yi’s chief military advisor, Major-General Hayao Tada. She was also indulged with the command of 5,000 Manchu ‘rough riders’, the captains of which she selected personally to her own exacting criteria of manhood. During the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937, Eastern Jewel caused outrage among the Chinese when she was seen walking through the ruined streets laughing with Japanese officers. It was rumoured she had even flown over the city in a bomber. When Peking fell to the Japanese in 1937, Eastern Jewel formed part of the administration. She abused her power by blackmailing wealthy Chinese with false accusations of assisting the enemy. Once noted for her beauty, Eastern Jewel’s debauched lifestyle began to weather her looks, although her libido remained undiminished. She found it increasingly harder to attract men and had an actor arrested on trumped-up charges of theft because he spurned her advances. Instead she increasingly began to explore her fantasies with local sing-song girls. Even Tanaka was moved to describe her later conduct as ‘beyond common sense’. At the end of the war Eastern Jewel declined an offer to return to Japan and went into hiding. Acting on a tip-off, Chiang Kai-shek’s counter-intelligence officers picked her up in November 1945. On 25 March 1948 Eastern Jewel was led to a wooden block and decapitated by a swordsman.

After the Pu Yi drama, Doihara began recruiting agents in the newly conquered territories. He broadened the Special Service Organ’s network of spies throughout southern Manchuria, utilizing large numbers of Russian refugees who had fled the Soviet Union. Desperate for employment, the men worked for Doihara as hired thugs, while women filled the brothels. European women were much in demand and acted as opium peddlers, receiving a free pipe for every six they sold.

One of Doihara’s converts was Italian-born spy Amleto Vespa, a one-time agent of Marshal Chang who had since managed a cinema. A fascist sympathizer and former member of the Mexican Revolutionary Army, Vespa had travelled extensively, coming to work with Marshal Chang Tso-lin in 1920. To avoid trouble with the Italian authorities, Vespa had obtained Chinese citizenship. Because of this, after the Mukden Incident Vespa found himself under the Japanese yoke without the usual protection afforded to Westerners. He was forced to work for the Japanese, running the spy service in Harbin until 1936 when he managed to get out of China with his family. Vespa wrote a remarkable book detailing Japan’s brutal clandestine activities in Manchuria. He was taken to meet Doihara on 14 February 1932, an encounter described in his book. Vespa disliked the man intensely:

Foreign journalists had referred to colonel Doihara as the Japanese ‘Lawrence of Manchuria’. I suspect, however, that if his sister had not been concubine of a Japanese Imperial Prince most of his success would have been still in his imagination.

Doihara left Vespa under no illusions about where his future loyalties belonged. If Vespa disobeyed, Doihara would shoot him. Vespa was told to return the following day and be introduced to the chief of the Japanese secret service in Manchuria. Vespa never discovered the true identity of this man, but many believe he must have been a Japanese prince close to Emperor Hirohito. The ensuing interview revealed the true extent of Japanese secret operations in Manchuria. In perfect English the mysterious chief told Vespa:

‘If Colonel Doihara has told you anything unpleasant, please pay no attention to it. Since, in other countries, they call him the Japanese Lawrence, he delights in showing his greatness by his hectoring manner. He has worked under me for many years, however, and I have no hesitation in saying he is much less of a Lawrence than he thinks he is.’

With remarkable candour, the chief explained how it was Japanese policy to make colonies pay for themselves. The Japanese system was to secretly grant certain monopolies to trusted individuals. Naturally the monopolies changed hands for enormous sums, in return for which the holder gained Japanese protection. The principal monopolies were the free transportation of goods by railway under the guise of Japanese military supplies; the monopoly of opium smoking dens, the sale of narcotics, poppy cultivation, the running of gambling houses and the importation of Japanese prostitutes – 70,000 Korean and Japanese prostitutes were shipped to Manchuria in the year after the Mukden Incident.

Although very strict on drug abuse at home, the Japanese flooded Manchuria with narcotics. Throughout the 1930s Manchurian streets were littered with wasted addicts and the corpses of emaciated overdose victims. To meet the demand, soya-bean farms were turned over to poppy production and drug-processing plants were set up along with ‘shooting-galleries’ for those too poor to enjoy the comforts of an opium den. Vespa revealed:

In Mukden, in Harbin, in Kirin etc., one cannot find a street where there are no opium-smoking dens or narcotic shops. In many streets the Japanese and Korean dealers have established a very simple and effective system. The morphine, cocaine or heroin addict does not have to enter the place if he is poor. He simply knocks at the door, a small peep-hole opens, though which he thrusts his bare arm and hand with 20 cents in it. The owner of the joint takes the money and gives the victim a shot in the arm.

The Japanese didn’t need bullets to kill Chinese; the drugs would do it for them – and at a profit.

By 1938 Doihara was the commander of the Kwantung Army. Based in Shanghai he successfully penetrated Chang Kai-shek’s headquarters with spies. Operating under the pseudonym of ‘Ito Soma’ and posing as a Japanese financier, Doihara managed to befriend the republican leader’s personal assistant, Huang-sen. His hook, improbable as it may sound, was a shared passion for goldfish, Doihara being an authority on the subject. In return for information and the procurement of rare goldfish, Huang-sen spied for Doihara. His information was used to foil a Chinese plan to attack Japanese shipping in the Yangtse River. The failure of the plan led to an investigation, after which Huang-sen was exposed and executed by the republicans. A follow-up investigation led in 1938 to the execution of eight Chinese divisional commanders, all of whom were found working for Doihara.

Later, as an air force major-general, Doihara sat on Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s Supreme War Council. Doihara was present at the session of 4 November 1941 when the attack on Pearl Harbor was decided. He went on to command the army in Singapore (1944–45) and ran brutal POW and internee camps in Malaya, Sumatra, Java and Borneo. Doihara was tried at the Tokyo war crimes trial and executed on 23 December 1948 by hanging. He was joined by Seishiro Itagaki, the author of the Mukden Incident, and Prime Minister Tojo, the former Kwantung Army leader. Eastern Jewel’s case officer, Tanaka, was more fortunate, surviving to tell the tale. Having opposed the decision to attack America, he retired in 1942. After the war he was an aide to the tribunal’s chief American prosecutor, Joseph Keenan. Tanaka claimed he even procured girls for the American.

As for the Black Dragons, their reputation as sinister arch-plotters meant that they were not ignored in the round-up of war criminals in 1945. General MacArthur banned the group on 13 September 1945 and ordered the arrest of seven leadership figures. He need not have bothered. Of the seven, two had never been members, a third had died of old age in 1938, while a fourth had committed suicide in 1943. The other three suspects had once been members but had renounced their membership long before.

In truth the Black Dragons had long since fallen out of favour and had ceased to be a force in Japan. Their last public meeting was held in October 1935 when Toyama protested at Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia – another episode of white aggression against men of colour, as he saw it. The Japanese police used the meeting as a pretext for a crackdown on the Black Dragons and thereafter the society dwindled to a handful of forgotten diehards working out of a dingy, backstreet Tokyo office.

While Toyama and his disciples continued to view Russia as the main enemy, a new group rose to prominence – the Strike South faction. This group called for expansion into Southeast Asia and Indonesia, rich areas abundant in the resources Japan was lacking. After an undeclared border war with Russia, which culminated in Japan’s defeat at the battle of Khalkhin Gol in August 1939, Tokyo began to favour the new option. There was just a one slight problem with their plan. If a strike south occurred, Japan would inevitably clash with Western interests, particularly those of the British Empire and the United States of America.

The Centurion in Combat

Photographed in the Valley of Tears in the Northern Golan Heights, this 105mm L7-equipped Sho’t Kal Centurion of the Israeli 7th Armoured Brigade provides a memorial to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. During this action 150 Israeli tanks faced more than 1,400 Syrian tanks across the Golan Heights. Although the Centurions fought well, this was to be their last combat before being replaced by the Israeli-designed Merkava

The Centurion entered regular service with the British Army in December 1946, when a small number of Mk 1s and 2s were delivered to the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 7th Armoured Brigade, which at the time was based at Hamm in Germany. By the end of 1948 the new tank was also in the hands of the other two regiments of 7th Armoured Brigade, the 1st Royal Tank Regiment and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. Ultimately, as well as being based in Britain, there were Centurions with British armoured regiments in Aden, Hong Kong and West Germany. An armoured regiment of the day was generally equipped with forty-eight Centurions in three squadrons of fifteen, with the remaining three assigned to the headquarters; a squadron consisted of four tank troops and a headquarters, each with three tanks, and each squadron also normally included a ‘dozer tank in its complement. From the mid-1950s, in West Germany, six of the Centurions were replaced by Conquerors.

In the gun tank role, the Centurion enjoyed a more than twenty-year career with the British Army, but by the early 1970s most had been replaced in service by the new Chieftain, albeit some Centurions were retained for driver training. It was not quite the same story for the engineer variants, and both ARVs and BARVs, as well as ‘dozer tanks, AVREs, bridgelayers and ARKs, remained in service into the 1970s and, in some cases, well beyond … astonishingly, a small number of AVREs actually saw active service in the Gulf War in 1990.

The Centurion arrived too late to see action during the Second World War but nevertheless many of the tanks still spent their working lives in Germany, where they were assigned to the 1st, 3rd and 4th Armoured Divisions of BAOR until their replacement by Chieftains, a process which began in November 1966. Fortunately, there was no live action in Europe, and instead the tanks of BAOR spent their working lives endlessly training for a Soviet invasion that never came; the first significant BAOR exercises in which Centurions were involved were Operation Broadside 1 and Operation Broadside 2. Involving 7th Armoured Division and 2nd Infantry Division, the exercises were carried out in late September 1950, and were intended to ‘practise movement and concentration in the face of enemy air superiority, and to carry out operations on wider fronts entailing movement laterally and from front to rear, and quick concentration for attack and dispersion afterwards’. Little was said of the performance of the Centurions, but it was stated that the length of the barrel made the tank difficult to conceal.

The tank saw its first combat during the Korean War, with a number of Mk 3s, originally destined for Australia, being diverted to the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars – generally simply described as the 8th Hussars – towards the end of 1950, where they joined US Army M26 Pershings facing the Chinese and the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) at New Year 1951. Centurions went into action at the Battle of Imjin River in April of that year, where they were famously used to provide cover for the withdrawing infantry of the 29th Brigade. By May 1951 the British Army had sixty-four Centurions in Korea and by the end of the year, when the Hussars were relieved by the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, the Centurions were dug in amongst infantry positions on high ground facing the enemy. There was little movement as the British Centurions and the Chinese and North Korean T-34/85s exchanged fire across no-man’s-land. During the following year the tanks were involved in limited armoured raids across the unfavourable terrain, some of which took place in sub-zero temperatures. In late 1952, with the war grinding on and neither side able to gain the upper hand, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were relieved by the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, and the Centurions played a significant role in repelling Chinese forces during the second Battle of the Hook in 1953. During one night’s action 504 high-explosive (HE) 20-pounder rounds were rained down on the enemy.

Centurion ARVs were also first deployed in Korea, replacing older vehicles based on the Churchill infantry tank. Their performance was described as ‘excellent’.

The Centurion was highly praised for its all-round performance, and particularly for its apparent ability to go anywhere, while the minimum elevation (-10 degrees) of the main gun allowed the Centurion to operate almost completely concealed in a ‘hull down’ position. Its lack of vulnerability under fire provided a real boost to the morale of the fighting men … one official report specifically singled out the lack of internal effect from a hollow charge from a 3.7in Russian bazooka or a captured US Army recoilless rifle which created a 3in deep hole in the back of the turret but failed to penetrate. Several tanks also received multiple direct hits that caused little damage to the tanks and no injuries to the crews … there is a story of two Centurions that had to be abandoned in Korea, with unsuccessful attempts being made to destroy them using 20-pounder armour-piercing shot to prevent them falling into enemy hands; undestroyed, they were eventually recovered, more or less intact. Another story described a Centurion in the 29th Brigade’s sector during March 1952, sliding sideways from the top of a razor-edged ridge, gathering speed down the slope as the tracks failed to grip the frozen ground. Eventually the tank somersaulted three times, landing in a minefield, in which it caused considerable mayhem, before arriving at the bottom, on its tracks, but with the gun barrel severely bent and the turret off its ring – indeed, as the contemporary report put it, the ‘tank generally was in considerable confusion’. All of this happened in full view of the enemy! The crew was shaken and embarrassed but generally uninjured and the tank was abandoned. However this wasn’t the end of the sorry saga and it was decided that recovery was impractical since it would require two ARVs, one of which would have to be lowered down by the other The Royal Engineers were asked to destroy the gun-stabiliser equipment to prevent it falling into enemy hands but, overestimating the size of charge required, managed to ‘set everything off’. The report of the incident ended by stating that the ‘tank will be of no value to the enemy’!

Hostilities in Korea came to an end on 27 July 1953 with no proper resolution of the conflict. All things considered, the Centurion was an extremely capable machine, able to fire accurately even at its maximum range, and able to traverse the most rugged and challenging terrain … even in the stickiest mud, the tracks never sank more than 12in into the ground and cross-country performance was always considered to be excellent. The extreme cold of the Korean winter sometimes caused problems with tracks failing to gain traction on the frozen ground and, on occasions, the track brakes, which were entirely mechanical, became inoperative due to icing leading to at least one runaway. However, the Centurions had proved themselves to be worthy opponents.

Little more than three years later, British Army Centurions of the 1st and 6th Royal Tank Regiments were deployed to Egypt in November 1956, as part of the joint Anglo-French-Israeli operation intended to wrest back control of the Suez Canal Zone out of the hands of President Nasser. Despite a shortage of landing craft, which restricted the number of vehicles available to ninety-three, Centurions were successfully landed and fought alongside the French AMX-13 light tanks, capturing Port Said in November, before the governments involved finally bowed to UN pressure and withdrew the troops on 23 December.

In September 1960, along with 80,000 soldiers from four nations, Centurions took part in the largest land, sea and air exercise staged in the northern Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) during the Cold War era. Dubbed Operation Holdfast, the exercise was designed to test the effectiveness of NATO defences in the Jutland peninsula. Tanks of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were put ashore from German and British landing craft in Eckenforde Bay in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, while others were brought up by transporter to a holding area south of the Hamburg Lubbeck autobahn. The defenders made mock nuclear strikes against the attacking troops but British armour, forming part of the attacking force, pushed inland to reach within 2 miles of the crucial Kiel Canal. At the end of the nine-day exercise the conclusion was that NATO was well prepared to withstand such an assault from the joint forces of the Warsaw Pact … and the Centurion was seen as a valuable element of the exercise.

Centurions of the Royal Scots Greys were also deployed in Aden (Radfan) during the 1963/64 uprising against British control.

Although most of the Centurion gun tanks had been replaced within twenty years, it was not quite the same for the engineer variants and both ARVs and BARVs, as well as ‘dozer tanks, AVREs, bridgelayers and ARKs, remained in service into the 1970s and beyond. In July 1972 four Centurion AVREs of 26 Armoured Engineer Regiment were deployed to Northern Ireland aboard HMS Fearless and were used to clear Republican roadblocks that had been erected around the Rossville Flats on the Creggan Estate in Derry-Londonderry. The roadblocks were believed to be booby-trapped. Described as Operation Motorman, the exercise was considered to be extremely sensitive for obvious reasons and was conducted during the early hours of the morning; in order to minimise the danger of sensationalist headlines, the tanks were operated with the guns covered and traversed to the rear.

In 1982 a pair of surviving Centurion BARVs were operated from the two LPD (‘landing platform, dock’) vessels HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid during the Falklands War. One broke a drive chain and remained unused for most of the conflict. More recently, both of these BARVs were also deployed to Iraq, fighting in both Gulf Wars before being retired from service in 2002; at least one has survived in private hands.

Astonishingly, a small number of ARVs and AVREs, fitted with additional passive and explosive reactive armour (ERA), saw active service during Operation Granby, the British contribution to the liberation of Kuwait during 1990/91. Despite the Ministry of Defence (MoD) having lost a large percentage of the remaining Centurion spares in a fire at the Donnington stores in 1988, AVREs of 32 Armoured Engineer Regiment played their part in helping to move some 850,000 tons of earth, and in blasting through Iraqi defences. Some spares support was drawn from Aviation Jersey Ltd, who had acquired the entire stock of Centurion parts from the Netherlands in 1990.

In 1968 and 1969 Royal Australian Armoured Corps Centurions, including tank ‘dozer variants, saw action in Vietnam, where most were equipped with 100-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks attached to the rear of the hull, giving the designation Centurion Mk 5/1 (Aust). The decision to send Australian Centurions, consisting of more than twenty gun tanks, two bridgelayers, two ‘dozers and two armoured recovery vehicles, had been taken in October 1967 as part of Australia’s increasing involvement in this ugly conflict. Operating under US command, the Centurions were involved in the Tet Offensive in January 1968, and during their service in south-east Asia they acquitted themselves well in the difficult terrain, including rice paddy and jungle. The Centurions were returned to Australia at the end of 1971.

Australian Centurions were never involved in combat elsewhere. However; back in October 1953 the British and Australian armies had exposed what has been described as a ‘near brand-new’ Leeds-built Centurion Mk 3 of the Australian 1st Armoured Regiment (06BA16, Australian Army number 169041) to a nuclear blast test at Emu Field as part of Operation Totem One. The tank was parked less than 500 yards from the epicentre of the blast, with its engine running. Although it had run out of fuel by the time the test was concluded, and had sustained minor damage, for example to antenna and stowage bins, once it had been decontaminated it was capable of being driven from the site. The tank was subsequently repaired and used in the Vietnam War; in May 1969, during a fierce engagement with the enemy, it was penetrated by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that wounded all of the crew in the turret. The RPG entered the lower left side of the fighting compartment, travelled diagonally across the floor and came to rest in the rear right corner. 169041 was given its third base overhaul in 1970, spending some time in storage before being reissued to the 1st Armoured Regiment. By 1976 Centurions had been phased out of Australian service, having been replaced by the West German Leopard, but 169041 survived and is currently located at Robertson Barracks in Australia’s Northern Territory, where it has been restored to running condition. Nicknamed ‘the atomic tank’, it is occasionally brought out for ceremonial duties.

Three more Centurions were involved in nuclear testing in Australia during the British government’s Operation Buffalo tests held at Maralinga in September/October 1956. The operation involved the detonation of four separate nuclear devices, code-named One Tree, Marcoo, Kite and Breakaway two of which (One Tree, with a yield of 12.9 kilotons, and Breakaway at 10.8 kilotons) were Red Beard tactical bombs exploded from towers, while Marcoo (1.4 kilotons) and Kite (2.9 kilotons) were Blue Danube bombs, the first exploded at ground level, and the second released by an RAF Valiant bomber from a height of 35,000ft. This was the first aircraft launching of a British atomic weapon. During one of these trials the three Centurion Mk 3s were placed at roughly 440 yards, 880 yards and 1760 yards from ground zero. Even at 440 yards the blast damage was only superficial, being largely confined to the external sheet metal, and was not sufficiently serious to have prevented the vehicles fighting again. The report of the trial stated that the Centurion ‘was capable of taking heavy punishment at the range, and with the weight of bomb used, without being disabled to a non-fighting state’. One vehicle (05BA60) was quickly made serviceable and drove some 80 miles after the blast; the gun was also test fired with no recorded loss of accuracy. The fate that might have befallen the luckless crew had this not been an exercise was not recorded.

Egyptian Centurions saw action during the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, with most being captured by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Ironically, the Egyptian Army captured a similar number of 105mm-equipped Centurions from the IDF during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, although by this time Egypt was operating predominantly with Soviet tanks and equipment.

In India Centurions were deployed during both of the border wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. The 1965 war lasted five weeks and is considered by many to include the largest tank battle in military history since the Second World War. A total of 186 Indian Centurions fought alongside some 340 ageing M4 Sherman tanks of the Indian Army, with both Shermans and M47 and M48 Patton tanks of American origin opposing them on the Pakistani side. The Centurions proved themselves to be superior in most respects to the more modern (and more complex) American tanks, and were able to withstand 90mm armour-piercing shells fired from the powerful M63 guns of the Pattons.

Jordanian Centurions went into action in 1970 to counter Syrian border incursions during the conflict with the Palestinian guerrilla organization Black September that ended in July 1971 with the expulsion of the PLO to Lebanon. In 1973 Jordanian Centurions were in action again in the Golan Heights.

South African Centurion-based Semel tanks were deployed in Namibia (South West Africa) against the military wing of SWAPO (South-West Africa Peoples Organisation) during the fight for independence that endured between 1966 and 1988. The more heavily modified Olifants were deployed against Angolan forces during the Angolan civil war in 1987, where they were fighting against Soviet-built T-34/85s and T-55s.

Outside of Britain, Israel was not only the largest user of Centurions, but was also the nation with the most experience of using the tank in combat. Although only around 250 Centurions were supplied new to Israel, many more were acquired as surplus or were captured during various campaigns with Israel’s neighbours: during the 1967 Six Day War, for example, Israel captured thirty Centurion tanks from Jordan. At one time the IDF was able to deploy a total of around 1,000 Centurions, some 25 per cent of the total production figure, all of which were eventually equipped with the 105mm L7 gun. Poor maintenance and abuse of the tanks in the Israeli deserts by the largely conscripted crews initially gave the Centurion a poor reputation. A company of Israeli Centurions was fired on by Syrian T-55 and T-62 tanks at Nukheila in 1964; despite firing some eighty-nine rounds of 105mm ammunition in an exchange that lasted ninety minutes, not one Syrian tank was hit. Things began to improve when General Israel Tal took command of the Israeli armoured corps towards the end of 1964, and standards of training, maintenance and discipline rose significantly. In a second border incident at Nukheila one Israeli Centurion destroyed two Syrian Panzer IVs. A year later Israeli Centurions destroyed Syrian earth-moving equipment that was being used to divert the Jordan River. Centurions were among some 800 Israeli tanks successfully deployed against assembled Arab forces in the Six Day War of 1967, the tanks being called upon to fight again in the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War, where they were exploited to advantage in a hull-down position against the largely Soviet tanks of the opposing Arab forces. Although no longer deployed as gun tanks, small numbers of Israeli Centurions continue to survive, re-equipped as heavily armoured armoured engineers’ vehicles, designated Puma, NagmaSho’t, Nakpadon and Nagmachon.

Many of the Centurions sold to customers around the world saw no active service with their original owners, including those vehicles supplied to the Danish, Netherlands, Swedish and Swiss Armies. However, a few Centurions certainly remained in service into the 1990s, and many, including some British AVREs, were able to be maintained by virtue of the large strategic reserve of parts that had been purchased from the Netherlands government by Aviation Jersey Ltd on behalf of the NATO powers. In a huge operation, every case of parts was opened, quickly examined and then marked as fit for keeping or to be scrapped before being moved to the island of Jersey, where they were held for redistribution within NATO as required.

However, it is impossible to hold back the march of time indefinitely, and improvements in automotive performance, tank guns, and target acquisition and sighting equipment inevitably meant that the Centurion was effectively obsolete. No longer suitable for front-line service, those British Army Centurions that were not scrapped would have certainly suffered the ignominious fate of being used as range hard targets or being sold to more impecunious nations. It was the same story elsewhere, with many similarly superseded by more modern equipment and surplus vehicles sold to other nations. The situation in Denmark was typical. Many of the nation’s 216 Centurions remained in service into the 1990s, serving alongside 120 Leopard IA3 main battle tanks that had started to enter service in February 1976, but the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), signed in 1990 by NATO members and the Warsaw Pact nations, restricted Denmark to 300 main battle tanks and some 146 remaining Centurions were destroyed or taken out of commission between 1993 and 1995.

However, a handful of Centurions have survived in museums around the world, and the relatively low cost of surplus Centurions in the 1990s means that there are also more than a few in private hands.

Lakshmi Bai (1828–1858)

The belief that giving birth brings with it a biological imperative to protect also fuels the widely held idea that mothers of all species—sparrows, bears, and tigers, as well as humans—will fight to protect their children against external threats. Taken to its logical extreme, the idea that a mother will fight against all odds to protect her children leads us from a mother who fights to defend her children from a threatening individual to one who fights to defend her children against a threatening army. Not surprisingly, most stories about women who fought for home and children center on defense. Historically, mothers who fought to protect their children in time of war typically did so from a defensive position—often literally a last-ditch effort. Women guarded the wagons in an army’s baggage train. They dug trenches, rebuilt fortifications, and carried weapons and water to those who fought. They formed home guard defense units, training alongside men too old and boys too young to join the regular army. When necessary, they stood on the walls of besieged cities or fortresses and repelled invaders with rocks, boiling oil, gunfire, and defiant words.

The story takes a different turn when Mom goes to war at the head of an army, as we see when we look at the cases of three female rulers of small kingdoms who took on the greatest empires of their times in order to protect or avenge their children.

Lakshmi Bai (1828–1858), the Rani of Jhansi, joined the rebellion against British rule—variously known as the Indian Mutiny, the Sepoy Rebellion, or the First Indian War of Independence—only when she had no options left.

Like the Romans before them, the British in India established relationships with client-kings. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, Indian rulers negotiated with the British East India Company for military support against other Indian rulers. By 1857, what had once been protection had become a protection racket. Rulers of the “princely states” enjoyed personal luxury and titular authority, but British political agents held the real power in their kingdoms through a combination of fiscal control and military threat. East India Company troops, made up of Indian soldiers with British officers and British weapons, were stationed in the princely states. These troops were officially a royal prerogative but they were also a sword over the royal head. Only the most powerful and/or lucky Indian states managed to retain their sovereignty in real terms.

Lakshmi Bai was the widow of Raja Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, the ruler of the kingdom of Jhansi, which had been a British client state since 1803. Several months before his death, the childless raja adopted a distant cousin named Damodar Rao as his son and made a will naming the five-year-old boy as his heir, with Lakshmi Bai as regent. He made sure he took all the steps needed to make the adoption legal.

Adopted heirs were an accepted practice in Indian kingdoms—both Gangadhar Rao and his predecessor had been adopted. Unfortunately for Lakshmi Bai and her son, a new governor-general was in control and making changes. James Andrew Broun Ramsay, Lord Dalhousie, instituted an aggressive policy of annexing Indian states on what now (and to many Indians then) seem flimsy excuses, most notably the doctrine of lapse. The British already exercised the right to “recognize” (i.e., control) succession in the princely states with which they had client relationships. Dalhousie now declared that if the British government in India did not ratify the adoption of an heir to the throne, the state would pass “by lapse” to the British. Few adopted heirs were ratified. (Does this surprise anyone?)

When the raja died in 1853, Dalhousie refused to acknowledge Damodar Rao as the legal heir to the throne and seized control of Jhansi, replacing the raja with a British bureaucrat. Lakshmi Bai did not initially oppose the British takeover with violence. Instead she contested the decision in the British courts, with the support of the prior British political agent at Jhansi and the advice of British counsel. She continued to submit petitions arguing her case until early 1856. All her appeals were rejected.

Meanwhile, discontent was building among the Indian soldiers who made up the vast majority of the British East India Company’s army. The British made a number of policy decisions that many Indians perceived as an organized attack on the religious beliefs of both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The final straw came when the company handed its Indian troops the hottest new weapon in the British arsenal: the Enfield rifle. Rumors spread that cartridges for the Enfield were greased with a combination of beef and pork fat. Since the cartridges had to be bitten open, such grease would make them abominations for both Hindus and Muslims. British officers, each certain that the troops under his command were too loyal to believe anything so foolish, were slow to respond to the rumors. By the time they assured their men that the cartridges were greased with beeswax and vegetable oils, the damage was done.

In May 1857, discontent turned to mutiny. Eighty-five sepoys at the army garrison of Meerut refused to use the new rifles. They were court-martialed and put in irons. The next day, the regiments stationed at Meerut stormed the jail, killed the British officers and their families, and marched toward Delhi, where the last Mogul emperor ruled, at least in name.

The mutiny at Meerut was the spark needed to set off a revolt that was already loaded, primed, and ready to fire. Thousands of Indians outside the army had their own grievances against the British. Reforms regarding child marriage and the protection of widows were seen as attacks on Hindu religious law. Land reform in Bengal had displaced many landholders. Members of the traditional nobility resented the forcible annexation of Indian states and wondered whether theirs would be the next to go. Leaders whose power had been threatened rose up, transforming what had begun as a mutiny into a many-headed resistance movement. Violence spread across northern India.

On June 6, the East India Company troops stationed in Jhansi mutinied. Two days later, they massacred the British population of the city and marched out to join their counterparts in Delhi. Given Lakshmi Bai’s conflicts with their government, the British were quick to blame her for the uprising in Jhansi, though there is no evidence for her initial involvement. In fact, she wrote to the nearest British authority, Major Walter Erskine, on June 12, giving her account of the mutiny and asking for instructions. Erskine forwarded her letter to Calcutta, with a note saying it agreed with what he knew from other sources. He authorized the rani to manage the district until he could send soldiers to help her restore order.

With the region in chaos, Lakshmi Bai soon found herself under attack by two neighboring princes and a distant claimant to the throne of Jhansi, all of whom saw the crisis as an opportunity to do a little empire-building of their own. In order to defend her kingdom, she recruited an army, strengthened the city’s defenses, and formed protective alliances with the rajas of nearby Banpur and Shergarh. As late as February 1858, she told her advisors she would turn the district over to the British when they arrived.

Erskine’s positive assessment of the rani’s actions was not enough. The central government in Calcutta still believed Lakshmi Bai was responsible for the Jhansi mutiny and subsequent massacre. Her efforts to defend Jhansi only confirmed that belief.

On March 25, Major General Sir Hugh Rose and his forces arrived at Jhansi and besieged the city. Threatened with execution as a rebel if captured by the British, Lakshmi Bai resisted. In spite of a vigorous defense, by March 30 most of the rani’s guns had been disabled and the fort’s walls breached. On April 3, the British broke into the city, took the palace, and stormed the fort.

The night before the final British assault, Lakshmi Bai escaped from the fortress with her ten-year-old son and four companions. The next day, the rani and her small retinue reached the fortress of Kalpi. She was now an official rebel and threw herself into the fight.

Defeated again and again through May and into early June, Lakshmi Bai and the rebel forces retreated before the British. On June 16, Rose’s forces closed in. The rani led the remnants of her army into battle. On the second day of fighting, she was shot from her horse and killed.

Roman historians demonized Boudica. The British response to the Rani of Jhansi was more complicated. British newspapers denounced Lakshmi Bai as the “Jezebel of India.” But Rose compared his fallen adversary to Joan of Arc. Reporting her death to his commanding officer, he said: “The Rani was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders. Although she was a lady, she was the bravest and best military leader of the rebels. A man among the mutineers.”

Despite the praise of her enemies, Lakshmi Bai failed to obtain the only thing she wanted from the British: her adopted son received a pension, but was never recognized as the ruler of Jhansi, which was absorbed into British India.

The Indian independence movement adopted the Rani of Jhansi as a nationalist icon in the early twentieth century.

The Start of the Great Northern War

Crossing of the Düna 1701 by Daniel Stawert

Charles XII is crossing the Düna

Swedish floating battery, similar used at Düna

The outbreak of war

In the hands of his gifted son, Charles XI’s army was to prove a formidable force. It was, however, an army built for peace, not for war, designed to provide a powerful deterrent sustained by Sweden’s own resources, thus avoiding the need for foreign subsidy which had proved so disastrous in the 1670s. After 1680 Charles sought peace. He married Christian V’s daughter Ulrika Eleanora in 1680, hoping to promote rapprochement with Denmark, and if Swedish contingents did fight against Louis XIV in the Nine Years War, Charles was careful to keep Sweden out of direct involvement in the quarrels of western Europe.

The stormclouds were already gathering, however, when Charles died prematurely in April 1697. The treaties of the 1660s had left much unsettled, while the Scanian War had revealed Sweden’s vulnerability. The long period of peace was more due to the distraction of Poland-Lithuania and Russia by Turk and Tatar than the emergence of stability in northeastern Europe. Denmark was smarting from losing control of the Sound, and the English were mounting a serious challenge to Dutch commercial hegemony in the Baltic. Brandenburg-Prussia and Russia were increasingly concerned about their lack of a major Baltic port, especially since Sweden’s endemic financial weakness ensured that it sought to maximise its income from customs duties. Despite Charles’s reconstruction of the army and navy – restored to 34 ships of the line and 11 frigates by 1697 – Sweden’s grip on its empire remained fragile.

An age was passing. Charles XI’s death was one of a series which saw the departure from the scene of a generation of monarchs who had experienced the last round of the Northern Wars. The first to go, in June 1696, was John Sobieski, who was followed into the grave by Christian V in August 1699. Alexis was long dead, but two decades of uncertainty in Russian politics were ended by the death of his invalid son Ivan V in February 1696, which left Ivan’s energetic half-brother Peter (1682–1725) in sole charge of a state whose new military potential was demonstrated by the capture of Azov from the Turks in July of that year. Charles was succeeded by his precocious fourteen-year-old son, Charles XII, whose military talents were to prove greatly superior to those of Frederik IV of Denmark (1699–1730) and the new king of Poland-Lithuania, Frederick Augustus, elector of Saxony, who took the name Augustus II on his election in 1697. Finally, Frederick William’s successor in Brandenburg, Frederick III (1688–1713) transformed his status in 1701 by securing Leopold I’s permission for his coronation as Frederick I, king in Prussia.

European politics had changed substantially since 1667. Statesmen in western Europe were increasingly obsessed with Spain as the childless Carlos II shuffled towards his grave. It also affected eastern Europe, where the long series of Turkish wars was winding down as Leopold I prepared to contest the Spanish succession with Louis XIV. The ageing Sobieski had lost the fire which had animated him during the 1683 Vienna campaign and his subjects forced him to withdraw from the Holy League in 1696. Augustus, who had led the imperial forces against the Turks in 1695–6, was keen enough, but the Commonwealth hastened to make peace. Only Peter was still enthusiastic, planning to extend Russian power along the shores of the Black and Caspian seas. His diplomacy on his famous embassy to western Europe in 1697–8 was largely devoted to reviving the anti-Turkish coalition, but he was unwilling to fight alone. When Austria, Poland-Lithuania and Venice settled with the Ottomans at Carlowitz (January 1699), Peter opened negotiations, securing a twenty-year truce in June 1700.

A new Northern War had already begun. For Sweden’s perceived weakness under its adolescent monarch had roused those with scores to settle. Chief among these was Denmark. Despite Charles XI’s efforts at détente, neither Christian nor Frederik accepted the losses of 1645–60. Moreover, despite Ulrika Eleanora’s mollifying presence at court, the Holstein-Gottorp party remained strong, led by Hedvig Eleanora, Charles X’s widow. The principal bone of contention remained the question of whether the duchy’s sovereign rights, confirmed in all Swedish-Danish treaties after 1645, included the jus armorum, which for Denmark represented a permanent provocation, since the duchies provided easy access to its vulnerable southern frontier. Ulrika Eleanora died in 1693, and although the dying Charles XI seems to have recommended that his son marry Christian’s daughter Sophia, Hedvig Eleanora and Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp scotched the plan. Barely a month after Charles’s death, Denmark exploited the annoyance of the Maritime Powers with Sweden on account of its neutral stance in the Nine Years War by razing the fortresses built by Holstein-Gottorp in Schleswig in breach of the 1689 Altona agreement, in which the Maritime Powers upheld the rights of Holstein-Gottorp in the hope of securing Swedish support against Louis XIV.

This was merely a shot across the bows; past experience had shown the folly of attacking Sweden without international support. The Maritime Powers had long sought to maintain the balance between the Scandinavian kingdoms and, as the Spanish succession crisis built up, opposed any war in the north which might interrupt the flow of naval supplies from the Baltic and prevent Sweden or Denmark joining an anti-French alliance. Christian therefore looked east for allies. The first to respond was Augustus, who sought to strengthen his position in the Commonwealth through an active foreign policy, coveting Livonia, which he saw as a potential hereditary duchy for the Wettin dynasty that would improve its prospects of retaining the Polish throne.

In March 1698 the Danes and Saxons signed a defensive alliance. Five months later Augustus met Peter at Rawa near Lwów where, between colossal drinking bouts, they held private discussions at which an anti-Swedish alliance was discussed. It is unlikely that any concrete plans were made; for Augustus, Livonia was still only one of a number of possible hereditary principalities he coveted, including Moldavia, Wallachia and Ducal Prussia: indeed, the seizure of Elbing by Frederick III in November 1698 on the pretext of the Commonwealth’s failure to pay its debts to Brandenburg after the Second Northern War provoked outrage in Poland which might stimulate support for a war. Gradually, however, an anti-Swedish alliance formed: in April 1699, Peter signed a defensive agreement with Denmark, to come into effect after Russia had made peace with Turkey; in September, he put flesh on the bones of his informal pact with Augustus by signing an agreement at Preobrazhenskoe committing Russia to an attack on Ingria in 1700. Danish enthusiasm was not dulled by Frederik IV’s accession in August: four days after the Preobrazhenskoe treaty a new Saxon-Danish defensive-offensive treaty was signed in Dresden. The coalition was complete.

By the time the Russo-Ottoman peace was signed in June, the war was well under way. The Danish army moved into Schleswig and Holstein in late 1699 to await Augustus’s attack on Livonia. After an attempt to take Riga by surprise in December was thwarted, a Saxon force of three infantry and four dragoon regiments – 5,000 men – crossed the Dvina in February, and seized Dünamunde (23 March), as Frederik moved into Holstein-Gottorp to besiege Tønning. In late August, within days of hearing of the peace with Turkey, Peter’s armies were on the move. For Sweden, the nightmare of a three-front war had become reality.

A surprise beginning

The allies did not expect a long war. The military odds seemed entirely in their favour, while they hoped to exploit anti-Swedish feelings in the Baltic provinces. For if the reduktion succeeded in Sweden without provoking major opposition, it was a different story across the Gulf of Finland. Livonia’s tangled history made it extremely difficult to determine just what should be regarded as royal land, and the reduktion in Livonia, after a comprehensive land-survey, affected 80.8 per cent of the land and 74.2 per cent of peasant households, leaving the Crown with 72.3 per cent of the land, compared with only 1.25 per cent in 1680. The situation was slightly better in Estonia; nevertheless, 53 per cent of estates were affected.5 Although efforts were made to compromise with the lesser nobility, opposition was fierce. Two delegations led by the choleric Johann Reinhold von Patkul to Stockholm attacked the reduktion; by late 1694, it was largely complete, but talks had reached deadlock, which the government sought to break by trying Patkul for lèse majesté. After delivering a passionate defence of Livonian liberties, he slipped into exile, where he fomented anti-Swedish feeling, assuring all who would listen that the Baltic nobility was on the point of rebellion. All was apparently set fair for a rapid victory

Nobody expected what followed. By the time Peter declared war on 9/20 August as the Saxons began the siege of Riga in earnest following the arrival of their artillery, Denmark was already out of the war. Sweden, having promised in January to back the Maritime Powers in upholding the treaty of Rijswick against Louis XIV, was able to call on their support as guarantors of the Altona agreement. On 13–14 July (OS), the Swedish fleet evaded a slightly larger Danish force with a daring manoeuvre along the Swedish coast, and joined up with an Anglo-Dutch fleet before landing a 10,000-strong army on Zealand and marching on Copenhagen. Faced by a blockade of his capital and under pressure from the Maritime Powers, Frederik caved in, signing the treaty of Travendal on 7/18 August. By the time the Russian army left Moscow, the last Swedish troops had left Danish soil.

Travendal was a serious blow. Livonia was still recovering from the devastating effects of the great famine of 1695–6, in which some 50,000 had died, and despite Patkul’s promises, the Livonian nobility showed little enthusiasm for the Saxons. Augustus’s siege of Riga was chaotic; without naval support he had no means of cutting off supply from the sea, and an administrative oversight meant that the Saxon ammunition was mostly of the wrong calibre for the heavy siege guns.6 Having achieved nothing but the capture of Dünamünde, optimistically rechristened Augustusburg, he raised the siege on 29 September. By the time that the Russian army, at least 35,000-strong, began its bombardment of Narva on 31 October, the Saxons were entering winter quarters south of the Dvina. As the Russians laboriously constructed their elaborate siegeworks, Charles was already heading for Estonia. In the battle of Narva (19/30 November), the Swedes hurled themselves at the Russian defences under cover of a fortuitous snowstorm. Outnumbered nearly three to one, they broke through at two points, smashing the Russian line into three parts before rolling it up. The Russians were routed; including those drowned in a desperate stampede across the river they lost 8,000 men and 145 guns. The Swedish empire was not as vulnerable as it looked.

Far from it: for the next six years, Charles swept all before him. He first attacked Augustus. Deterred from invading Saxony by the Maritime Powers, who wished to prevent diversions in Germany which Louis XTV might exploit, Charles forced his way across the Dvina into Courland in July 1701 then invaded Lithuania in January 1702, before destroying a Saxon-Polish army at Kliszów (July 1702). Warsaw, Cracow, Poznań, Thorn and Elbing were occupied and in July 1704 Charles presided over the election of his own candidate, Stanisław Leszczyński, as king of Poland-Lithuania. Two years later, following a crushing victory by Karl Gustaf Rehnskiöld over a Saxon-Russian army at Fraustadt (February 1706), Charles invaded Saxony where, in Augustus’s absence, he forced the treaty of Altranstädt (September 1706) on the Saxon Estates, by which Augustus was to abdicate his Polish throne. Augustus – who had already secretly ratified the treaty – led a Saxon-Russian army to victory at Kalisz a month later, but Charles’s publication of Altranstädt exposed his duplicity and forced his compliance: in November he returned to Saxony.

Charles’s long sojourn in the Commonwealth, however, left the Baltic provinces open. In 1703 Peter seized Ingria, where he began to build his new capital of St Petersburg; in 1704, he took Dorpat, Narva and Ivangorod, while Russian troops streamed into the Commonwealth to support the anti-Swedish forces who were not reconciled to Leszczyński by Augustus’s abdication. In 1707, with three of his enemies out of the war, Charles turned east for the showdown with Peter. With his army rested and replenished, he rejected Peter’s offer of peace in return for the cession of Ingria, and marched east. Peter, however, had prepared his strategy well: his armies withdrew into Russia, devastating the country as they went. For most of the summer of 1708, Charles sat in Lithuania waiting for Adam Ludvig Lewenhaupt to gather supplies for the attack on Russia. In September, without waiting for Lewenhaupt, Charles decided to turn south to winter in the Ukraine, where he hoped for support from the rebel Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa. The risky strategy proved disastrous. Peter pounced on Lewenhaupt at Lesnaia (28 September 1708 OS), defeating him and seizing the supply train. Lewenhaupt joined Charles in October, but the Swedish army suffered dreadfully in the bitter winter of 1709: constantly harried by the Russians, soldiers died in their thousands from cold and disease. With Polish and Russian forces blocking Leszczyński from coming to his aid, Charles was trapped. By the time Peter was ready to give battle outside Poltava, which Charles had been besieging since early April, the Swedes were running low on ammunition and morale. On 27 June 1709 OS, the army built by Charles XI and perfected by his son was shattered on the narrow plain north of Poltava. Three days later, as Charles crossed the Dnieper into Turkish exile, 17,000 demoralised Swedes surrendered at Perevolochna. The war was to last another twelve years, but the Stormaktstid was over.