Although I’m not likely to make history a career, I strive to learn as much as I can from those remarkable people who came before us. To see lost worlds through their eyes. They have many stories to tell, and lessons to teach. But we first have to be listening! A firm grasp of historical events is an important skill that even non-historians should cultivate.
Like the Medieval scholars, today’s intellectuals are narrowing the field of inquiry. The “frantic energy to know more and more about less and less,” identified by Russian sociologist Pitirim Sorokin a half century ago, has made academic life increasingly irrelevant to most people.
In the summer of 1779, both Henry Clinton and George Washington needed a battle.
With the entrance of France and most recently Spain into the war against Great Britain, regiments that Clinton needed to decisively crush the Continental Army were fighting in India, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. Without those troops, Clinton, bottled up in New York, had to force Washington to make a mistake and expose the Continental Army. To that end, he planned devastating raids into the countryside. Washington didn’t take the bait.
Washington also needed a battle, but on his own terms. The fortress at West Point, which prevented the British from sailing up the Hudson River and isolating New England, and arguably the most important piece of ground in the Thirteen Colonies, was an ideal defensive position to which Washington could withdraw when Clinton attacked. But it was too strong of a position, so frustratingly, Clinton also wasn’t taking the bait.
Washington’s need for a victory was nearly as great as it was two and a half years ago at Trenton. The Continental Army seemed about to disintegrate. Morale was rock bottom. Its supply situation was abysmal. The raids and constant skirmishing with loyalists were eating up gunpowder at a prodigious rate. Even worse, food was scarce. The winter of 1778/79 was the worst in a hundred years, worse than even the previous one at Valley Forge. It was so bad that New York Harbor froze solid. Spring was late in coming and the results of the first harvests were meagre at best.
What food there was couldn’t be bought anyway. Runaway inflation made Continental script virtually worthless. No amount of financial wizardry by Robert Morris and organizational leadership by Nathaniel Greene was sufficient to overcome the difficulties suffered by the Army Commissariat. (The crisis came to a head in 1780 when the Congress abdicated its responsibility to supply the army completely and delegated it to the states.) Furthermore, Iroquois warriors, Canadian militia, and loyalist Rangers had set the Colonies’ frontier on fire killing and enslaving its inhabitants. The fertile western valleys of New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were barely able to provide for their own regiments much less the rest of the Continental Army. Von Steuben, DeKalb, Lafayette and others worked hard to professionalize the Continental Army, and that was being threatened by its logistical problems. Only a victory would take the soldiers minds off their empty stomachs.
The professionalization of the Continental Army continued after Valley Forge and its regular units were more than a match for the British regulars and their Hessian mercenaries. By the spring of 1779, the trainers whom Von Steuben drilled at Valley Forge had successfully imparted their knowledge. The best of these trainers established the regimental light infantry companies during 1778 reorganization. On 12 June 1779, Washington’s Corps of Light Infantry, based on the British model since 1777, was expanded. In addition to the regimental light infantry companies, the best of these light infantrymen were formed into the “Light Infantry Brigade” of four regiments. The Light Infantry Brigade was the Continental Army’s first elite unit. Its regiments had no state designator as the brigade was comprised of men from throughout the Thirteen Colonies. If you don’t count Washington’s Headquarter’s guard, the 1779 Light Infantry Brigade was America’s first “All American” unit, and established the nearly unique American concept of dual use light/heavy infantry, which we still use today. Unlike British elite units, such as the Grenadiers and Guards, the Light Infantry Brigade was tailored to the American way of war on the frontier and trained to screen, patrol, raid, skirmish, and conduct reconnaissance, not unlike the Robert Roger’s rangers. But like the British elite, they were trained as disciplined and resilient assault troops and drilled relentlessly in the use of the bayonet, so much so that Von Steuben specifically referred to the Brigade as “his lads”.
Von Steuben’s lads were given to the Washington’s most aggressive commander, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the commander of the Pennsylvania Line. Wayne’s first task was capturing Stony Point, 14 miles south of West Point on the west bank of the Hudson. According to legend, Wayne said, “General, if you plan it, I’ll storm Hell.” Washington supposedly replied, “Perhaps we had better try Stoney Point first.”
Stony Point was the gateway to the Hudson Highlands and dominated the river crossing at Kings Ferry where Clinton hoped to lure Washington into an engagement. Stony Point was seized by the British in May and the rocky and marshy 150 ft high shallow peninsula was heavily fortified over the next two months. Earthworks were constructed, trenches dug, and the marsh trees felled so they formed a double row of abatis. Lt. Col. Henry Johnston, whose 17th Regiment of Foot reinforced with a company each of grenadiers and loyalist regulars formed the garrison, deemed Stony Point impregnable and Clinton referred to the position as “Lil Gibraltar”. Johnston knew that the difficult terrain limited the amount of troops that could be deployed against him at any one time, and even if Washington assaulted the position with the entire Continental Army, his 750 men and fifteen cannon could easily hold until reinforcements were ferried from across the river.
Unfortunately for Johnston, Washington’s spies noted that the defense of Stony Point had a fatal flaw. At high tide the abatis covered the entire length of the position correctly rendering the position seemingly impregnable. At low tide, however, disciplined troops could wade the four feet of water on the southern edge and move around the obstacles to a small uncovered beach farther out on the river. The beach could be observed by two Royal Navy ships off shore, but if the attackers were undiscovered they could get off the beach and into the earthworks before the ships could fire.
On the afternoon of 15 July 1779, the 1150 strong Light Infantry Brigade infiltrated the ten miles over Dunderburg Mountain through the loyalist riddled countryside to Stony Point. They arrived just out of sight of the British at 8 pm. The plan was for one regiment to demonstrate to the front of the British position, while another feint to the north fixed the British eyes in that direction. The main assault would come from the south led by Wayne himself. The demonstration to the front had the only American troops with loaded weapons. Both the northern and southern attacks were with bayonets fixed on unloaded muskets to prevent accidental discharges on the approach march, which would alert the garrison. Each assault column was led by a 20 man volunteer “forlorn hope” armed with axes and picks to clear the abatis. Each forlorn hope was supported by a picked 150 man assault element to exploit the breaches. The rest of the regiments would follow and assume the assault. Wayne relied on surprise and aggressiveness to make up for the limited amount of men available in the initial assaults. He promised $500 to the first man inside the British position, $400 to the second, etc, down to $100 for the fifth. After a final ration of rum at midnight, the columns stepped out of their assault positions into the darkness.
Wayne’s southern column took a bit longer to infiltrate through the marsh and chest deep river water, but they were unspotted in the cloud covered darkness until after Major Hardy Murfree’s diversion had the full attention of the British. Lt Col. Johnston personally led a bayonet charge to clear the rebel scum, which was promptly surrounded and captured due mostly to Murfree’s quick reactions to the counterattack. In the first minutes of the battle the British lost their commander and 1/3 of the garrison. Murfree’s men were the only Americans to fire their weapons that night.
As soon as they were close enough, the forlorn hopes launched themselves at the abatis with a fury, hacking away and digging up the trees, through withering fire, to clear large enough paths through the obstacles for the regiments to pass. Most of the American casualties were from the two forlorn hopes, and the southern one, reduced to three men at the end of the battle, distracted the British further from the soaked men charging up the uncovered beach. Lt Col Francois Teisseydre, the Marquis de Fleury, commander of the 1st Regiment was the first into the British entrenchments, and personally tore down the British colours.
Back in the water, Wayne was shot in the head leading the southern assault group, and admonished his men to carry him into the impregnable fortress, where he hoped “to die at the head of the column”. Both the northern and southern pincers penetrated into the fortification and the remaining British and loyalists were overwhelmed at bayonet point. 472 surrendered. Wayne’s three pronged assault on Stony Point was the last major action of the war against Clinton’s army in the north.
The Light Infantry Brigade suffered 15 killed and 83 wounded, including Wayne, for killing or capturing Johnston’s entire force. Wayne’s wound was bloody and painful, and left a scar that reminded him of the battle for his remaining years, but it was not fatal. He sent off a message to Washington which read in full,
The fort and garrison, with Colonel Johnston, are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.”
Yours most sincerely,
Washington was ecstatic at the news. He and Von Steuben rode down from West Point the next morning to the sound of Johnston’s guns manned by American crews firing on the British across the river. They both literally shook the hand of every survivor in the brigade. Furthermore, Washington forced Congress to honor Wayne’s pledges to the first men to enter the British fortifications. Fleury received $500 which he gave to his men. Lt George Knox, commander of the southern forlorn hope, received $400 followed by Sergeants Baker and Spencer of the Virginia Line, and Sgt Dunlop of the Pennsylvania Line. Their names were recorded in the minutes of the next session Continental Congress. The Battle of Stony Point was a massive morale boost for Americans who were frustrated with the hardships and static nature of the war in 1778 and 1779. Congress assessed that Wayne captured $150,000 worth of stores and cannon and awarded the Light Infantry Brigade prize money as if they were privateers.
In the entirety of the American Revolutionary War, Continental Congress only awarded eleven “congressional medals”. Of that small number, three were awarded to participants in the Battle of Stony Point: General Anthony Wayne commander, Lt Col John Stewart the commander of the northern feint which wasn’t supposed to break through the British defenses but did so anyway, and Lt Col Fleury, the first man through the breach.
The battle thoroughly depressed Clinton and the British and loyalists. Descriptions of the disciplined three pronged night bayonet assault surprised members of Parliament and belied the false descriptions they were told of the Continental Army. This was magnified by Wayne’s treatment of his prisoners, a clemency that was not extended to his troops massacred at Paoli the year prior. After Stony Point the Continental Army was a given a respect that had eluded it so far in the war. The British would no longer look at Washington’s army the same way again.
The landings on 6 June at Normandy were a complete operational surprise, and the deception plan was so effective that the Germans continued to believe the main invasion would come at Pas De Calais, even well into July. But the ruse wouldn’t last much longer, and most of the German’s reserves were already committed to containing the Allied lodgement.
In the east, Montgomery failed to take Caen on the first day for a variety of reasons, most of which weren’t his fault. The British troops faced the only panzer counterattack on D-Day, and that by their desert nemesis, the 21st Panzer Division. The terrain around Caen is all open fields and river valleys, and this made the counterattack particularly difficult, and Montgomery stopped the 21st Panzer from reaching the beachheads. Unfortunately, the reverse was also true, and Montgomery would launch no less than 6 separate army level offensives to try and take Caen over the next 6 weeks. To counter this, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt committed the bulk of the panzer reserves in the West to face them, including three of the best panzer divisions in the German military: the Panzer-Lehr, the veteran 2nd Panzer Division, and the fanatical 12th SS “Hitlerjugend” Panzer Division made up of Hitler Youth. The British Sherman, Churchill, and Cromwell tanks did not fare well against the Tiger, Panther, and Pzkfw IVs of the panzer divisions. Only British stubbornness and overwhelming material and airpower superiority allowed Monty to capture Caen on 10 July 1944, over a month later than planned.
Monty’s material superiority came at a cost to the other areas of the front because Mother Nature had a say-so. Just after D-Day, the great storm that Group Captain Stagg feared had finally arrived. On 9 June, “The Great Gale of 1944” did damage to the invasion force that the Luftwaffe could only dream of. Several ships were sunk, dozens were beached, all were damaged, and one of the two vital “Mulberry” artificial harbors was destroyed. This created a massive supply shortage for weeks in Normandy, and what supplies were on hand went to either Monty trying to take Caen, or to the Americans trying to capture Cherbourg: a deep water port on the Cotentin peninsula which could do much to alleviate the Allies supply problems. The US VII Corps captured Cherbourg on 26 June, but the Germans did “masterful” work wrecking the harbor. They did such a good job emplacing mines and boobie traps, destroying facilities, sinking ships in the channel, and ruining the docks that it would take three weeks for small ships to get through and eight weeks before it was safe enough for larger ships to unload. There would be no influx of supplies from Cherbourg and what supplies that did come through the one working Mulberry would go to Monty. This was unfortunate because the Americans in the center of the landing zone were facing something unexpected and ancient, and used to deadly effect by the Germans: the bocage, or Norman hedgerows.
Bocage was the French term for the hedge/tree walls that surrounded Norman fields. In the 9th century, Danish and Norwegian Vikings raided the area, and with the collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire, settled it. The better off Vikings established themselves at the mouths of the rivers, such as the Orne and the Seine, primarily in the east. They intermarried with the local population and the Franks named the area “Normandy”, or “Land of the Northmen”. West Normandy was settled by Viking farmers. However, this did not stop future generations of Danish and Norwegian Vikings from continuing to raid just because their forebears settled the area. The Vikings could no longer sail up the rivers to raid the French because of the Norman fortress towns such as Caen, Carentan, and Harfleur. So they beached on the coast and traveled overland to get around the Normans at the mouths of the rivers, frequently by raiding isolated farmsteads in the west and stealing horses and food. The Norman farmers, former Vikings themselves, knew this and combatted it by planting trees around their fields with thick thorny bushes at their bases. This forced the raiding Vikings onto predictable paths where they could be watched and ambushed. Over the centuries, the Norman farmers continued the practice. By the twentieth century, erosion, sunken roads, and a dropping water table exposed the roots of these hedgerows. This formed a four or five foot high impenetrable wall of packed earth and gnarled roots, covered with thorny bushes and topped with a line of thick trees. They couldn’t be climbed over, much less pushed through or seen through.
The bocage itself wasn’t deadly but the Germans used the hedgerows to great effect. They would ambush the Americans on the roads, just as the Normans did to the Vikings, and force them to breach the hedgerows to get around. Once the Americans went through the lengthy and difficult process of breaching the hedgerow walls, they would be met by another German ambush on the other side, usually machine guns and anti tank guns dug into the hedgerow in an opposite corner of the field. They easily covered the beautiful fields of fire that were the enclosed Norman farms. It would take Gen Omar Bradley and US First Army until 25 July, seven weeks after D-Day, to break out of the Norman Hedgerow country.
The Red Army on the Eastern Front was not obliging the Wehrmacht in 1944. The Red Army usually did limited operations during the winter snows and spring mud, and this gave the Germans time to dig in and reorganize. But the winter and spring of 1944 were different, very different, particularly for Army Groups North and South.
In the previous six months, Army Group North was forced to lift the two year long siege of Leningrad and was driven back to the Baltic States. And Von Manstein’s Army Group South was chased almost all the way out of the Ukraine in a series of surprisingly effective and overwhelming Soviet offensives. Only the intervention of panzer formations from Army Group Center stabilized the front. The Abwehr, or German Intelligence, thought that the Soviets would continue in the south, so the panzers stayed there. The Abwehr and German High Command were distracted by Soviet deception operations, and the Allied landings in France which were just 1000 miles from Berlin. The nearest Soviets were 1200 miles away and they were opposite Army Group Center, in the very defensible terrain of the trackless forests and swamps of Byelorussia.
But this was only defensible against the Red Army of 1941, 1942, or even 1943. The Red Army of 1944 was a new animal. It finally had the equipment, staff proficiency, specialized training, and mobile logistics to put their “Deep Operations” doctrine into practice. Of which, Von Manstein in the Ukraine was the full dress rehearsal.
Deep Operations was the standard Soviet Doctrine since the mid-30s, but Stalin’s purge of 90% of the officer corps in 1937, the calamitous losses in Finland in 1940 and the German invasion in 1941/42 meant that they had to resort to massed tank and human wave attacks to make up for the lack of leadership and trained manpower. It took three years for the talented survivors, such as Zhukov, Konev, Rokossovsky, Vasilevsky and others to rebuild. By 1944, that situation was rectified.
Deep Operations was the logical end state of JFC Fuller’s influential “Breakthrough” theory during the interwar period. DO relies on specialized troops, with massed rifle and artillery breaking through a defensive line, followed by local heavy tank formations to confirm the penetration. Then this penetration was exploited by huge tank, mechanized, cavalry, or elite Guards armies (mounted in American Lend Lease trucks) who attacked deep operational objectives to cut off and encircle German forces. German pockets of resistance were bypassed. Deep Operations has been likened to a Russian matryoshka doll where a small encirclement is then encircled by a larger one, and then a larger one, and so on, until the offensive culminated. (Glantz, “When Titans Clashed”) The Soviet summer offensive in Byelorussia was the ultimate expression of Deep Operations.
Marshall Zhukov launched Operation Bagration on 22 June 1944, and fell upon an unsuspecting Army Group Center. The penetrations were immediate. Although some panzer formations from the South attempted counterattacks that resulted in apocalyptic tank battles, the Germans never recovered. Hitler declared every city in the area a fortress to be defended to the last man, so the retreating German commanders just avoided them in their quest to escape the overlapping layers of encirclement.
It didn’t help. By August the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw and German East Prussia, Army Group North was cut off in Courland, Army Group South was cut off in the Ukraine, and Army Group Center ceased to exist. The German army lost 500,000 men and 4000 tanks and assault guns that could not be replaced. 57,000 German prisoners were marched through Red Square, and then the Soviets made a point to wash the streets afterwards.
The Soviets were now much closer to Berlin than the Allies were.
The Imperial Japanese High Command was desperate for a decisive victory over the Allies. After their retreat to the inner circle in late 1943, they looked for an opportunity for the “Kantai Kessen”, or the decisive victory that would end the war. Historically, the Japanese won their wars through a single titanic decisive battle that irrevocably smashed their enemies ability to fight. There was a Kantai Kessen that defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century, one that brought the Tokugawa Shogunate to power in the 17th, and one that defeated the Russians in the early 20th. Admiral Spruance’s 5th Fleet off of Saipan would provide the opportunity to similarly defeat the Americans. The Japanese hoped that destroying the US Navy in the Philippines Sea would be the Pacific War’s Kantai Kessen.
If the Japanese wanted a final showdown with the Allies’ strongest force, they couldn’t have chosen a better target. Their objective was the innocuously named Task Force 58, the carrier task force of the 5th Fleet, led by Vice Admiral Marc Mitsher. TF 58 was the largest and most powerful independent naval strike force in the history of mankind. Mitsher commanded seven big fleet aircraft carriers, eight light carriers, seven fast battleships, 900 aircraft, and dozens of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Against this, Vice Admiral Ozama had only five fleet carriers, four light carriers, 400 carrier based aircraft, and five battleships, but two of those were the Yamato and Musashi, the largest battle ships in existence, and he also had 300 land based planes on Guam.
But it wasn’t the numbers that defeated the Japanese, it was the Japanese that defeated the Japanese. By 1944, they were being out produced and out innovated by a wide margin. All but one of Ozawa’s capital ships were commissioned before Pearl Harbor, while virtually none of Mitcher’s were. Ozawa’s ships were 1930’s designs, while Mitcher’s ships reflected the hard lessons learned over the past two years, and his planes even more so. The Japanese A6M Zero was the terror of the skies in 1941 and 42, but by 1944 it was obsolete. The US Navy F6F Hellcat and the US Marines’ distinctive gull winged F4F Corsair had more power, more armor, and more guns. The Zero was still more maneuverable but to take advantage of that, you needed experienced pilots.
Bushido, or at least the perverted version of Bushido pushed by Imperial Japan in the Second World War, destroyed the once vaunted Japanese naval air arm well before the Battle of the Philippines Sea. Specifically the “No Retreat” rule. Fear of being shamed, Japanese aircrews would not come off the line to train the next generation of airmen. The victors of Pearl Harbor fought until they died. The Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and the Solomon’s saw thousands of irreplaceable aircrews shot down, and there was no one to train the replacements. Furthermore, Allied submarines created an oil shortage, so very little fuel was allocated for training. What fuel there was available was wasted by bad instructors, whom were usually the worst flyer of the previous class who was left behind to train the next class. There was no honor in training new flyers, only in engaging the enemy and dying for the emperor. Most Japanese airmen in 1944 had fewer than 60 hours in the air, were poorly trained, and had no combat experience.
When the Japanese attacked TF 58 on 19 June 1944, the outcome of the largest carrier air battle in history was already a foregone conclusion. The Americans did lose over one hundred aircraft but the majority of them were due to empty fuel tanks, not Japanese bullets. It would have been more, but Mitcher ordered his whole task force to turn on their lights during the night of the 19th, defying every, risk management worksheet, safety officer, and OPSEC notice on his wardroom bulletin boards, in order to bring his flyers back home in the dark. Ozawa lost two carriers, but more importantly, he lost 700 pilots, never to be replaced. An American anti air gunner on a destroyer said, “It was like shooting fish in a barrel”, but it was a Hellcat pilot’s quote that would stick; he said,
“It was like going to a turkey shoot back home.”
Admiral Nimitz’ Central Pacific Fleet was like a spear driving straight into gut of the Japanese Empire. While MacArthur aimed at the Philippines for his return, Nimitz was cutting across the axis. His next targets were the critical Marianna’s Islands, which included Guam, Tinian and Saipan. These were the first islands in the Japanese “Inner Defense Ring” and the Japanese planned to make a fight of it. The Americans had to be stopped.
On 15 June, 1944 Lieutenant General Howland “Howling Mad” Smith’s 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and US Army 27th Infantry Dvision, stormed ashore on Saipan, through lanes cleared of obstacles by the first use of UDTs or Underwater Demolitions Teams (forerunners of the SEALS), and met three times as many Japanese as Naval Intelligence predicted. And they also met everything left in the Japanese navy that could float or fly.
The Americans knew the Marianna’s were important, but only the Japanese truly knew how critical they were. First, they both knew Allied planes flying from the Marianna’s would effectively cut off all Japanese possessions to the west and south: Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Java, Borneo, Malaysia, and New Guinea. Supplies would not get south, and raw materials would not go north. Allied wolfpacks were already wreaking havoc with Japanese shipping, if they were directed by reconnaissance planes from Saipan, they would be devastating. Also, they both knew American bombers from the Marianna’s would be in range to bomb the Japanese home islands. This would be even more alarming once the Japanese discovered a new Allied weapon, first used on Saipan, which would be catastrophic to Japan’s wooden cities: napalm. Finally, most importantly and unbeknownst to the Americans, the Imperial Japanese High Command had been lying to the people for years regarding the conduct of the war. The people and most of the government of Japan thought the war was being won. Their propaganda machine would not be able to hide the loss of Saipan, a prewar Japanese territory, nor the clouds of B-29s that were sure follow. They would have to admit they were losing the war.
The Marianna’s Islands were extensively reinforced, particularly Saipan. The Japanese planned on fighting for the whole island from the surf to the last dug in bunker, effectively combining the old and new defensive techniques. Also, two of the Japanese’ best commanders were in charge of the island, through under different circumstances. Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito was one of the army’s best and was hand-picked to lead the defense of the first prewar Japanese territory to see invasion. His navy counterpart, Vice Admiral Nagumo, the victor of Pearl Harbor and easily the Japanese’ best carrier admiral, was there in disgrace, commanding the island’s cruiser and destroyer defense flotilla for losing the battle of Midway. (He influenced the battle on land but had no effect on the wider naval battle in the Marianna’s, although he was sorely needed.) Finally, the cream of what was left of the Japanese Navy was committed to the defense of the islands.
For the next three weeks, the fighting on Saipan was fierce but the issue was never in doubt. The inter-service political battles between the US Army and the US Marines that erupted because of the fighting would eventually garner more attention. The Japanese finally got their Kantai Kessen, decisive battle, with the US Navy in the Philippine Sea, but were soundly annihilated by Allied quality, quantity and professionalism. By the beginning of July, Japanese naval airpower was destroyed, never to return. The first recon planes were spotting for the submarines before the fighting was completed, and the first B-29s arrived soon after. In a glimpse of what was to come, most of the Japanese civilians on the island committed suicide by jumping off the southern cliffs, to the horror of the watching US soldiers and marines.
With the loss of Saipan, the Japanese government began preparing the Japanese people for the worst: the invasion of the Home Islands. To the Americans the turning point of the War in the Pacific was Midway and Guadalcanal. To the Japanese, it was Saipan.
On 12 June 1942, a young Dutch girl received a red and white plaid covered diary from her father for her 13th birthday.
She would start recording her thoughts in it a week or so later. Her father picked the diary out based on her pointing it out on one of their walks along the streets of Amsterdam. That walk would be one of their last.
Otto Frank and his daughter, Anne, were Jews. In July 1942, the Netherlands’ German National Socialist conquerers and their Dutch collaborators would place great restrictions on them in preparation for the implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish population in the country.
The plight of the Dutch Jews was a difficult one. Unlike other countries, the huge population density of the Netherlands meant there were few places to escape to. There were no vast forests for refuge as there were in Eastern Europe. Also, the advanced Dutch civil bureaucracy had records on the entire Jewish population of the country and the Germans quickly identified and located them all. Moreover, although the Dutch people were sympathetic to the Jewish plight under Nazi domination, the Dutch government was unwilling to publicly intervene on their behalf, even passively. Unlike in other countries, the Dutch administration did the bidding of their National Socialist overseers with cold efficiency. In exchange for continued employment, pay, and benefits, the supposedly apolitical Dutch civil service ushered the Jewish population to its death. Few Dutch Jews were detained by Germans: they were identified by Dutch census data, rounded up by Dutch police who went directly to their homes based on Dutch tax files, held in Dutch camps run by the Dutch civil servants and held there by Dutch guards, and sent East to the death camps on Dutch trains run by Dutch engineers and Dutch rail crews.
Anne Frank and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis and their own countrymen. They hid in a small three story room concealed behind a bookshelf in her father’s workplace. They were taken care of by several of her father’s sympathetic coworkers who visited once a day to deliver food and stay for a visit.
Anne chronicled each day in the cramped space in her diary. Her diary was her escape. She wrote of the dreams of a teenage girl, the boredom and difficulties of their existence, her love for and exasperation with her family, the terror of the listening to German soldiers and Dutch police searching the premises, her budding romance with the son of another family in hiding, and most importantly the hopes of survival in one of the darkest periods in human history.
The Frank family survived in hiding for more than two years, almost each day chronicled by Anne. They were arrested by the Gestapo after being betrayed in August 1944, by whom is unknown and subject to much debate. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where she was separated from her father, but was not sent to the gas chamber with the rest of the children because she just turned 15 two months before. Nevertheless, Anne and her sister were transferred to Bergen Belsen Concentration camp to be worked to death. They both died of typhus in March 1945.
Anne Frank’s diary was saved by one of her family’s helpers after their arrest and recovered by her father who survived after being separated from his family. Anne Frank’s unedited record of her family’s existence behind the bookcase was published in 1947 as “The Diary of a Young Girl”.
The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most poignant documents of the Holocaust, and Required Reading for Humanity.
So I was writing the Waterloo posts, and I found myself explaining the same concept over and over. And only because the narrative style, especially my amateurish campfire version of it, doesn’t accurately convey the story. Or for the purposes of this post, how close the story came to being significantly different, at all levels: tactically, operationally, and strategically. And I was saying the same thing every time one of the events happened that shouldn’t have, but did anyway. And it breaks up the story when I have to stop and explain every time that the world would be a different place when someone didn’t do something that they would normally do and moreover, didn’t really have a good reason why they didn’t do it. It’s one of the many reasons the Battle of Waterloo is so interesting because it simply has so many WTF moments.
If the Waterloo campaign was written as historical fiction, it would be unbelievable, and critics and readers would have savaged the author for massive, implausible, and unexplained plot holes.
So I’m going to break with tradition and lay my thesis statement out now and build toward it later: The Waterloo Campaign, including the battles of Quatre-Bra and Ligny, was one of those inexplicable flukes of history, and only through uncharacteristic human error and poor command climate did it actually happen, and then happen in a way that is directly responsible for how Western Civilization evolved (for better or worse).
Anyway, just after the battle, Wellington said it was,”the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. That was more accurate than he actually knew at the time. The Battle of Waterloo is a massive case study for the effects of bad staff work, poor command climate, general indecisiveness, or not following commander’s intent, and almost all on the French side.
For context, In May, 1815, four Allied armies were sent to defeat Napoleon. In June two were in Belgium, the British and Prussian, and two were in Bavaria, Russian and Austrian. Napoleon’s army was large enough to defeat any single Allied army in battle, easily. 50/50 with two. It was just mathematically impossible for him to lose against any single one. Therefore he couldn’t let them consolidate, so his plan was divide and conquer. Napoleon launched a surprise invasion of Belgium on the night of 14 June to keep Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch-Belgian Army and Blucher’s Prussians separate. He had complete surprise and on 16 June fought the Battle of Quatre Bra against the British and won, and the Battle of Ligny against the Prussians and won. Unfortunately for him, they weren’t followed up and failed to isolate either army. This directly resulted in the Battle of Waterloo, which Napoleon lost on 18 June 1815.
During these critical four days, there were quite a few events that are simply inexplicable, but are also absolute necessities for Waterloo to occur and have had the effect that it had. Furthermore, they occurred and there was NOTHING Wellington or Blucher did to influence them: they simply benefitted. Most importantly, if any ONE was different, the world we live in would be a different place and two of these four outcomes would have been reality:
- The Battle of Waterloo would not have happened or
- Wellington and Blucher would have lost the battle, and
- The Russians and Austrians would have had to defeat Napoleon (thereby gaining prestige which would have grave repercussions on the 19th Century). or
- The Russians and Austrians do not continue the fight, since Blucher held the alliance together. (Wellington leaves the continent, and Napoleon resurrects the French Empire)
So as I go through the narrative, these are the “anti-seminal” events of 15-18 June 1815 to look for. During that time, these are the critical and inexplicable French missed opportunities in chronological order:
-Ney fails to capture the crossroads at Quatre Bra on the night 15 June when it was held only by 4000 inexperienced Dutch troops. He had 55,000 veterans. (No clue why he didn’t and Ney was shot before he could explain. Capturing it would have inexorably separated the Allies. Prevailing theories are he was waiting for Wellington to attack or was intimidated by Wellington’s reputation. Both are uncharacteristic of Ney, the “Bravest of the Brave”. See 1, 3 or 4 above)
-Ney fails capture the crossroads at Quatre Bra on the morning of 16 June when Wellington had less than 15,000 troops there. (Same as previous)
-D’Erlon’s Corps fails to outflank either the British at Quatre Bra, or the Prussians at Ligny on the afternoon of 16 June (bad staff work caused them to march and countermarch, missing both battles 1, 3 or 4).
-The French fail to attack anyone of 17 June. (The French took the day off. No good explanation. 1, 4)
-Grouchy fails to gain and maintain contact with the defeated Prussians on 16, 17, or even early 18 June. (No good explanation 1, 2, 3, 4)
-Grouchy fails to march to the sound of the guns of the Battle at Waterloo on 18 June. (No good explanation 2, 3)
-The French fail to take Hougamount on the morning 18 June. (Napoleon for some unknown reason left the attack to his notoriously fickle little brother Jerome, then took a nap 2, 3)
-D’Erlon fails to consolidate and prepare for a counter attack after breaking the Allied center on the morning of 18 June. (Completely out of character for D’Erlon, no good explanation 2, 3)
I just want to reiterate that any one of these would have completely changed history. Not “could” – “would”. Now, I also want point out that after these, the French could still have won but Wellington or Blucher would have needed to make some mistakes. Also, there were many little episodes which would have greatly improved the chances of French victory, or placed the possibility of a French victory in Wellington’s or Blucher’s hands, but I’ll cover those in the narrative. But these were “no-brainers” that in hindsight, should have happened, had every reason to happen, were expected to happen, but for some reason lost to history, didn’t.
Truly the “nearest run thing”.
Finally, many people and even some great historians have put a silly amount of time and ink into saying that Waterloo didn’t matter, that even if Wellington lost the Austrians or Russians would have finished the job. That’s an argument for the comments. But I will point out some undeniable facts: the two big winners of the 19th Century, and the two decision makers of the first forty years of the 20th Century, were Great Britain and Germany (Prussia).
Their ascendancy began on 18 June 1815.
On 7 June, 1654, Louis the XIV was crowned King of France. Louis the Great would go on to rule France for 70 years, the longest of any European monarch. More importantly, he would have an assemblage of advisors and subordinates of such remarkable economic, military, and political ability and talent that it is only seen so very rarely in history. (Only the Diadochi, Genghis Khan’s generals, the Founding Fathers, and Napoleon’s Marshals come to mind.) His advisors included Cardinal Richelieu’s protégé Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the engineering mastermind Vauban, two of the best commanders of the 17th century the Great Conde and Marshal Turenne, the Queen-Mother Anne of Austria, and the diplomatic and financial geniuses of the Colbert brothers, Jean-Baptist and Charles. Led by Louis, they ruled France through her Golden Age. “French” would become the first “lingua franca” of Europe.
In the first half of the 17th Century, great changes were happening in Europe and the people wanted more say in how they were governed. In both England and France horrible civil wars occurred between those who supported royal power and those who supported parliamentarian power. In the English Civil War the Parliamentarians won and left a legacy of self-rule. But in France, the Fronde, as their civil war was called, the parliamentarians and their noble allies were crushed in 1653. A young Louis did not forget its lessons. He would be crowned king the next year.
Louis and his inordinately talented advisors spent the entirety of his reign expanding the power of the monarch. He blamed the Parliament of Paris for the Fronde and limited its power every chance he could, until he could abolish it permanently. He couldn’t do the same with the nobility so he neutralized them. He built the magnificent palace of Versailles, and then forced all of the heads of the noble families to live there. This effectively separated them from their lands and power, and prevented them from expanding any further. The competent ones he used to form Europe’s first bureaucracy, and the others he gave titles and duties, such as “The Royal Glovebearer” or “the Royal Cupbearer”. Louis kept the historically troublesome nobles close by, out of trouble, and carefully watched.
Louis the Great’s transition to absolute monarchy only succeeded because of his and his advisors complete dedication to France. He “gleamed like the Sun” through France’s Golden Age, but also sowed the seeds of its destruction. The Sun King slowed the development of parliamentary rule in Great Britain, and Louis’ dedication to France was not shared by his successors. The inevitable corruption and incompetence that results from absolute rule eventually brought about the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars.