Category: History

The Battle of Sekigahara

In the 16th century, former peasant Toyotomi Hideyoshi united the warring factions of Japan, and invaded Korea and China, which kept the warrior nobility, the samurai, occupied. But upon his death, his heir, Hideyori, was too young to rule. To appease the noble families, five separate regents were appointed to rule in his stead.

By 1600, these disparate regents and the families had divided themselves into two factions vying for the shogunate, a position Hideyori could not hold due to his father’s low birth. The first faction, which had a power base in Western Japan was led by Ishida Mitsunari, a renowned politician but one with little military skill. He based his claim for the shogunate on his support for Hideyori. The second was led by Tokogawa Ieyasu, a general of great renown who was a warlord in the service of Hideyoshi’s chief rival, so had no great love for his son Hideyori.

In the heavy mist on the morning of 21 October, 1600, Ishida’s Army of the West met Tokgawa’s Army of the East at the pass at Sekigahara for control of the shogunate. Tokogawa immediately attacked hoping to catch his opponent unaware but the confusion of the fog and the smoke from the matchlock muskets devolved the battle into one of attrition. This suited Ishida because he outnumbered Tokagawa, and eventually the battle swung into his favor. As the sun burned away the mist he signaled Kobayakawa Hideyoki, whose forces were still uncommitted, to fall upon Tokogawa for a coup de grace.

But he didn’t. Kobayakawa’s forces charged not into the Army of the East, but into the flank of a completely surprised Army of the West. Tokogawa was more the politician than Ishida gave him credit for, and Kobayakawa betrayed Ishida. Ishida’s army attempted to fight on, particularly the Otani clan, whose valour was praised by all participants, but soon three more clans turned sides. Ishida’s army broke, and Ishida himself was captured and executed.

Tokogawa Ieyasu became shogun and the Tokogawa Shogunate ruled Japan for nearly three centuries until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

The Battle of Trafalgar

The weather took a turn for the worse in late summer of 1805, and the French Navy could not out maneuver the Royal Navy in order to allow the Napoleon’s invasion of England. When the War of the Third Coalition expanded, Napoleon’s Grande Armée marched east to defeat Russia and Austria. Nonetheless, the French fleet, under Admiral Pierre Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve, still needed to break Britain’s control of the seas. After Napoleon departed, Villeneuve sailed south to Cadiz, where his fleet combined with the Spanish ships of the line, then France’s ally. With the Franco/Spanish fleet, Villeneuve finally had the numbers to challenge the British who, pursuing Villeneuve, were conveniently awaiting them just over the horizon.

That fleet was led by one armed one eyed Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, already a household name in the British Empire for his victories against the French, Spanish, and Danes over the past 25 years. In the morning of 21 October 1805, Villeneuve sailed out of the Cadiz harbor with a favorable wind (relatively) to engage the British off of Cape Trafalgar. Upon sighting the 44 ships of the combined French and Spanish navies, Nelson sent off one last message to his fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty” and then immediately attacked. His 33 ships sailed straight at the French and Spanish line in two columns, with his own ship, the 100 gun HMS Victory, leading the charge.

Villeneuve couldn’t believe what he saw and vowed to make Nelson pay for his audacity. The Holy Grail of fleet actions in the Age of Sail was to “cross the T” of an enemy fleet, i.e. to maneuver to a position where your ships could fire broadsides at a closing enemy who could only fire their bow, or forward, guns. The discrepancy in firepower inevitably led to the defeat of the fleet whose “T” was crossed. Moreover, a cannonball that penetrates the side of the ship usually only affects a few crew or guns, depending on the width of the ship. A cannonball that penetrates the bow (or stern) of a ship, causes great destruction along the entire length of the ship, affecting many more crew and guns in the process. The understrength British, outnumbered by a third, were exposing themselves to just such punishment by sailing directly at the broadsides of the combined Franco/Spanish fleet. The British were effectively crossing their own “T” against a numerically superior force. It was madness.

But crossing his own T was Nelson’s plan. He was gambling that the training and seamanship of the British sailors were superior to the gunnery of the French and Spanish sailors. Nelson believed his ships would not be exposed for too long before his men could bring their own broadsides to bear, and close with and board the French.

He was right.

As Villeneuve sailed north, Nelson’s ships sailed through the French fire, and though they took some damage without being able to reply in kind, they bisected and then isolated the southern half of the French fleet. Despite the French broadsides, he effectively crossed the French “T” but in this instance a lowercase “t”. Once the British were among the French and Spanish line, the British broadsides fell upon the sterns of the northern half of the combined fleet and the bows of the southern half. Furthermore, with this one bold stroke, the northern half was effectively taken out of the battle, as they had to fight the wind to turn around, and the southern half sailed directly into the teeth of the British cannon. This also effectively forced the southern half of Villeneuve’s fleet to sail directly into the British line where they could to be boarded by the British once they closed the distance.

As the northern half of the Franco/Spanish fleet sailed out of range, the British savaged the southern half. It took three hours of hard fighting but the issue was never in doubt. However, Nelson, being Nelson, was at the forefront of the battle. Around noon, his Victory was locked in a mortal struggle with the French ship Redoubtable. At 1:15pm while walking on the quarterdeck directing fire, he was shot by a French marine in Redoubtable’s rigging. He would live just long enough to learn of the confirmation of his decisive victory.

The British Isles were safe from invasion and the Royal Navy would be the undisputed master of the world’s oceans for the next one hundred years.

The War of the Stray Dog

Since the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century, Bulgaria and Greece feuded over Thrace and Macedonia. Both countries considered them national territory. On 19 October 1925, near the border town of Petrich in the Demir Kapou Pass, a Greek captain chased his stray dog into Bulgaria and Bulgarian border guards shot him. The Bulgarian government attempted to apologize and asked for a joint Greek-Bulgarian commission to investigate the incident. However, the Greek dictator General Theodoros Pangalos saw an opportunity to forcefully chastise his adversary with a show of strength.

Pangalos ordered the Greek army to invade Bulgaria in order to extract compensation for the dead captain’s family. The invasion was also a cover to to strike at pockets of Macedonian dissidents who sought refuge in Bulgaria. The Greek Army seized Petrich, looted the town, and in the process killed 40 civilians. After it was found out that Greece sought assistance from Serbia, and was rebuffed, Bulgaria sought assistance from the League of Nations.

The “war” ended ten days later when the League of Nations imposed a $100,000 fine on Greece, and the Greek troops withdrew under the threat of military action by the League. The censure by the League and the quick withdrawal from Bulgaria destroyed Pangalos’ reputation in the eyes of his supporters. The same cabal that had installed him to power removed him from power the next summer.

The Burning of Falmouth

In the summer and early autumn of 1775, General William Howe, the commander of the British Army in Boston, could not feed his troops. Besieged by the nascent Continental Army under General George Washington since April, Howe could not purchase or even forage from the prosperous farms of the Massachusetts’ countryside around the city. The task of supplying the Redcoats and the loyalist population of Boston fell to Vice Admiral Samuel Graves of the Royal Navy, whose squadron’s guns provided vital fire support for Howe.

Graves sent ships to American ports along the Atlantic seaboard to purchase the food and supplies necessary for Howe to maintain the garrison in Boston. However, many towns refused to do business with the British, and a few were openly hostile: several ships were captured by the Americans and many more were driven off. One of these was the HMS Canceaux, a sixteen gun sloop under the command of Lieutenant Henry Mowat. In May, 1775, Mowat was captured in Falmouth, Massachusetts (present day Portland, Maine) by Patriot militia while he attended church services ashore. Mowat was released, but when the 600 Patriot militia threatened to storm the Canceaux, Mowat set sail, to the cheers of the militia. He never forgave the citizens of Falmouth for his ignoble departure.

Incidents against Graves’ ships and crews occurred up and down the New England coast all summer. The HMS Margaretta was seized by the citizens of Machias, Massachusetts in June, and battle was had between the HMS Falcon and militia of Gloucester in August. In early October, the HMS Rose was forced to fire on Bristol, Rhode Island, to convince the townspeople to surrender 40 sheep. Even worse, reports suggested that rebel pirates were starting to operate out of these small ports. Graves decided to cow the Americans with fire and sword, and destroy the wretched hives of scum and villainy whom dared defy the authority of the British Crown. And he knew just the man to do it.

On 6 October 1775, Graves gave command of a squadron of five small ships to Lieutenant Mowat with the Canceaux as his flagship. Mowat’s orders were to “lay waste, burn and destroy such Sea Port towns as are accessible to His Majesty’s ships.” Mowat sailed directly to Falmouth. On 17 October, he anchored his flotilla in Falmouth Bay. The next morning, Mowat sent one of his officers ashore to address the townspeople. The officer proclaimed they had two hours to evacuate the town before the British ships opened fire. The citizens pleaded for mercy and Mowat offered amnesty if they took an oath of allegiance to the Crown. None did, and the townspeople fled Falmouth.

At 0930 on 18 October, 1775, Mowat’s flotilla opened fire on Falmouth. The ships continued to bombard the town until the sun began to set that evening. In the growing twilight, British shore parties landed by torchlight to fire any buildings that remained standing after the bombardment. They were met by Patriot militia. Lacking cannon to come to grips with the British ships, they sat impotently and watched the destruction of their town. Heavily reinforced by the furious townspeople, the militia unleased their rage on the Redcoats who came to finish the job. The landing parties managed to set fire to several more houses, whose conflagration spread throughout the town, but at the cost of several killed and wounded, as they battled the militia in the streets of Falmouth on their way back to the ships and safety.

Satisfied with the destruction of Falmouth, Mowat attempted to continue the punitive expedition, but his small ships were not sturdy enough to repeat the bombardment. Many of his cannon broke off their mounts and though the Americans didn’t fire on his ships, they were nonetheless damaged by the shock of nearly eight hours of continuous cannon fire. With the weather worsening, Mowat raided some farms further up the coast and then returned to Boston.

Mowat left one thousand Americans homeless out of Falmouth’s 2500 inhabitants, including about 160 families. 15 ships were either captured or sunk in the harbor, and nearly 400 buildings were damaged or destroyed by the bombardment and subsequent fire. Massachusetts rallied to help the citizens of Falmouth, and both Patriots and former Loyalists pitched in to rebuild the town. The Continental Congress authorized the issue of letters of marque turning New England’s pirates into privateers which eventually expanded the war onto the Seven Seas. The Burning of Falmouth shocked and outraged the Thirteen Colonies. It brought many fence sitters over to the American cause and greatly troubled many Loyalists for the indiscriminate nature of the destruction. For many Americans, there was now no possibility of reconciliation with British Crown. Even members of the British Parliament abhorred the raid – Graves was eventually fired, and Mowat was ostracized for the rest of his career.

When news of the Burning of Falmouth reached Europe it was initially dismissed as rebel propaganda. After the events were confirmed, Europeans recoiled at Britain’s barbarity and brutality. The French Foreign Minister, Count De Vergennes, commented, “I can hardly believe this absurd as well as barbaric procedure on the part of an enlightened and civilized nation.”

After conferring with King Louis XVI, Vergennes began exploring options about how to send covert aid to the American patriots. He dispatched a secret envoy to the American Continental Congress, who arrived in December, and lifted the boycott on France’s Caribbean colonies from selling gunpowder to the Americans in rebellion to the British Crown. More immediately, he quietly reversed a recent order preventing American ships from loading war material in French ports

Les Corps d’Armee est Victorieux: The Ulm Campaign

In 1805 the recently crowned Emperor Napoleon ended the Peace of Amiens and began the War of the Third Coalition against Great Britain and Sweden. He had amassed his army at Boulogne for an invasion but the French Navy couldn’t guarantee a safe crossing of the English Channel and the weather was turning steadily worse (sounds familiar). In September, Austria and Russia entered the Coalition, and this would lead to a serious and overwhelming threat from the east if the Austrian and Russian armies ever linked up. So Napoleon struck first. He secured an alliance with Bavaria and then moved to invade Austria before Russian troops could arrive. Austria mobilized and invaded Bavaria, but Napoleon’s La Grande Armee moved much quicker, due to its use of the highly effective Corps System.

Napoleon’s corps were just larger versions of the combined arms divisions he pioneered in his earlier Italian campaigns. He found his flexible combined arms infantry divisions, consisting of infantry battalions supported by two cavalry squadrons and four or five artillery batteries under the direct command of the division commander, routinely outfought Austrian and Italian pure infantry formations that lacked supporting arms. Napoleon’s corps were the next logical step.

Napoleon’s corps were standardized, self-sufficient, combined arms formations about the same size as an army in Frederick the Great’s time, fifty years before. Revolutionary zeal and increased conscription brought about by Imperial France’s “nation in arms” allowed Napoleon to field several corps at the same time. In October 1805, Napoleon had eight corps committed against Austria in the War of the Third Coalition: seven infantry and one cavalry. The cavalry corps was tasked specifically for reconnaissance, security, pursuit, and exploitation. Each infantry corps was comprised of about 25,000 men consisting of the aforementioned infantry divisions, and cavalry and artillery pure brigades, with supporting specialists such as engineers, pontoon bridges, and supply trains, all under a trusted subordinate capable of independent command.

These corps’ commanders were Napoleon’s chosen ones: the Marshals of France, and they were promoted strictly on merit and military efficacy. Generals could be political appointees or promoted because of birth, such as Napoleon’s brother Jerome, but never a marshal. The 26 men chosen over the years by Napoleon to be Marshals of France came from all walks of life, and were a collection of talent and ability rarely seen in history. Only the Diadochi, Jesus’ Apostles, the Genghis Khan’s generals, the viziers of Suleiman, the Sun King’s advisors, and America’s Founding Fathers occupy the same historical pedestal. Napoleon trusted his marshals implicitly to carry out his mission orders and did not micromanage them with directives. With the self-sufficiency and inherent initiative of the corps system, and without the burden of a supply tail due to the French Army’s liberal use of foraging, the Marshals and their corps maneuvered much more quickly and with greater agility than France’s enemies.

Austria, like the rest of Europe, still maintained the army-level unit, an unwieldy formation of about 100,000 men, as the lowest level of synchronization and integration between combined arms. Furthermore, the Austrian commander, General Mack, had no equivalent to Napoleon’s Marshals. Unlike Napoleon whom issued orders just to his corps (eight in the Ulm campaign), Mack’s headquarters had to issue orders to each and every regiment, which was more than a hundred, with each order handwritten and delivered beforehand. Finally, the Austrians were still tied to fixed supply lines, according to the rules of European limited warfare of the eighteenth century which sought to shield civilians from the effects of war. Needless to say, the Austrians simply couldn’t respond to the speed and agility of Napoleon’s corps.

Napoleon’s La Grande Armee marched 500 miles in 40 days. In the first weeks October 1805, Mack managed to only make it to Ulm, on the Danube in the Black Forest just northwest of Munich before he was surrounded by Napoleon’s marshals. He was out maneuvered to the north and to the south, and anytime he attempted to riposte, his detachments were thoroughly beaten by the brilliantly led use of synchronized combined arms inherent in the individual French corps. On 14 October 1805, French Marshal Michel Ney routed the Austrians at the Battle of Elchingen, which completed the trap. After a few small battles against the disorganized Austrians, Mack surrendered his remaining troops on 20 October. Only Prince Schwarzenberg, Napoleon’s future brother in law, managed to break out of the encirclement and join the Russians. The Austrians lost more than 60,000 men, Napoleon, but 2,000.

Napoleon said of Ulm, “I have destroyed the Austrian army by simply marching.”

The road to Vienna was open. The heart of Central Europe, the Austrian Empire, the German Confederation, and the Holy Roman Empire, created by Charlemagne a thousand years before, lay within Napoleon’s grasp.

The Battle of Britain: Hitler Moves On

On 13 October, 1940, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain, until the spring of 1941. By October it became obvious that the Luftwaffe grossly underestimated the Royal Air Force’s fighter capacity, and capability to contest the air over Southern England, control of which was necessary for any German invasion to take place. The Luftwaffe pilots’ morale was almost bottomed out after being repeatedly told that RAF Fighter Command was on its last legs, only to find them waiting over London or some other city. However, the terror bombings, or what the British people referred to as “The Blitz”, continued for another year, mostly at night.

Hitler’s postponement of Operation Sea Lion until the spring of 1941 was only a ruse though: he wanted to convince Communist spies that his focus was still on Britain. In actuality, Hitler postponed Sea Lion indefinitely, and began moving the troops east. The planning for his next big operation was well under way, and the battle in the west was indecisive in his eyes.

Two weeks before on 27 September, Hitler signed the Tripartite Pact with Japan and Italy which formed the Axis against Great Britain and the Commonwealth. The next day, the Pact was extended to Germany’s de facto ally, the Soviet Union. Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (of Molotov Cocktail fame) took the offer back to Moscow to work on the economic details of the alliance. Stalin welcomed the alliance, but felt that more economic concessions could be wrung from the Germans, who were in desperate need of the Soviet Union’s raw materials.

But neither Hitler nor Stalin had any intention of honoring a “Quadpartite Pact”. Stalin knew that any form of Socialism requires an enemy and when Hitler was done with Britain, he was the only remaining option in Europe. Stalin needed time to rebuild the Red Army after the purges of 1937/38, and the disastrous, if victorious, Winter War with Finland. A formal alliance with Germany could buy him that time.

Hitler had no intention of even that much, despite accepting Molotov’s economic counterproposals in November. He was just stallin’ (Ha!). Hitler would string the talks out about formal military alliance with Stalin until the spring, when he planned to launch, not Operation Sea Lion, but Operation Barbarossa — the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Though Churchill and the British people didn’t know it, the Battle of Britain was over. Hitler had moved on.

The Battle of Cape Passero

In December 1939, the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Ajax became famous as part of the small squadron that took on the German pocket battleship and commerce raider, Admiral Graf Spee, in the Battle of the River Platte, and forced her crew to scuttle her (Britain’s first real victory of the Second World War). In October 1940 the Ajax was screening a convoy in the Mediterranean to resupply Malta.

On the night of 11-12 October, 1940, the Ajax was just southeast of Sicily on the last leg of the journey to the small fortress island. Around 0030, an Italian patrol boat spotted the lone light cruiser, and the ships of the Regina Marina (Italian Royal Navy) were alerted for what they thought would be an easy kill before descending upon the convoy. An hour later, the Ajax made contact with an Italian destroyer squadron of three torpedo boats and four destroyers, supported by a slow moving heavy cruiser. The battle should have been no contest: the Ajax was out maneuvered, out gunned, and outnumbered by her nimbler, more modern, and heavier hitting Italian foes.

30 minutes after first contact, the Italians broke off the engagement, thoroughly humiliated. Two torpedo boats and two destroyers were sunk, and the rest of the Italian flotilla was damaged in some way. The heavy cruiser turned around without firing a shot. The Italians fought valiantly but only landed two hits on their lone adversary, whereas every shell fired from the Ajax seemed to hit its mark. The mighty Ajax was waiting seemingly in ambush at every instance she was spotted, when she was seen at all, usually only by her gun flashes.

The Italians attributed the lopsided British victory to excellent gunnery skills and superb use of star-shells. They were only partly correct. The Ajax had an asymmetric advantage unknown to the Italians. The Ajax was retrofitted with radar after the Battle of the River Platte, and the Battle of Cape Passero was the first use of radar in a naval engagement in history.

The First Oktoberfest

In the last decade of the eighteenth century and first decade of the nineteenth, the German state of Bavaria had prospered in its alliance with first Revolutionary, and then Napoleonic France, while being one of the few states of the Confederation of the Rhine to maintain its effective independence. In 1808, constitutional reforms were introduced which freed the serfs and swept away the last vestiges of the medieval Holy Roman Empire. In this happy and prosperous time, during which the internal inconsistencies of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras had yet to manifest themselves, Bavaria acquired some smaller German states as part of peace negotiations with Austria. At the Treaty of Schönbrunn after Napoleon’s victory in the War of the Fifth Coaltion, Bavaria was required to cement an alliance with the least reliable of Napoleon’s Confederation allies, Saxony.

On 10 October, 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (the grandfather of the future “Mad King Ludwig”) wedded Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, in Bavaria’s largest city, Munich. The Crown Prince invited the citizens of the city to the wedding festivities held in the fields in front of the city’s gate. Thousands showed up and the citizens named them “Therese’s Fields”. With beer and wine tastings, 40,000 spectators watched horse races from the side of a hill leading to the city, and by the end of the day the festival was recognized as a celebration of all things Bavarian.

The festival was such a rockin good time that it naturally occurred again the next year, and annually thereafter. We know it today as Oktoberfest.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

On 9 October 1600, a play by William Shakespeare, “a mydsommer nightes Dreame’”, was registered with the Stationers’ Company at Thomas Fisher’s Bookshop on Fleet Street in London. The first draft was typecast and printed from Shakespeare’s own handwritten copy and was published for Lord Chamberlin’s Men, an acting troupe of whom Shakespeare was a member. However, it would be another four years before A Midsummer Night’s Dream reached the stage of The Globe Theatre with Shakespeare himself playing Duke Theseus.

“Lord, what fools these mortals be”. – Puck.

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream.” – Nick Bottom

The Battle of Longue Pointe

If the Battles of Lexington and Concord were “The Shot Heard Round the World”, then the Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga in the summer of 1775 was the shock wave that shook the world. With its fall, Britain’s enemies: the Dutch, French and Spanish, all began to take the rebelling colonies seriously. The news caused King George III and the British Parliament to officially declare the Thirteen North American colonies “In Rebellion against The Crown”. Fort Ticonderoga was the gateway to Canada its capture left Canada open to invasion. Even worse, Canada was filled with mostly French speaking settlers and Indians who were hostile to the British Crown just ten years before. Moreover, the entire province of Quebec had but 800 English defenders. Most were at Fort St Jean, south of Montreal, with small 30-40 man garrisons at Trois-Rivieres, Montreal City, and Quebec City.

Lieutenant General George Washington wasted no time in exploiting this weakness and ordered Brigadier General Richard Montgomery to assemble a force to invade Canada. In August 1775, Montgomery did so with 2,000 New York and Connecticut militiamen, several hundred Canadian militia who wanted to make Canada a 14th rebellious colony, and Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, one of the victors at Ticonderoga, felt slighted that he wasn’t given command of the invasion so he left for Maine, then part of Massachusetts, to start his own invasion of Quebec (We will hear more of him later). Montgomery’s force entered Canada and began the Siege of Fort St Jean on 5 September, 1775. On 20 September, the impetuous Ethan Allen took fifty of his Green Mountain Boys and sixty Canadian militia to bypass the fort and seize Montreal in a surprise attack, then defended only by 30 British regulars. On 24 September, 1775, they landed at Longue Pointe on Montreal Island.

Unfortunately, Montreal was warned of Allen’s approach, and due to his rough reputation, its inhabitants thought that he had come to burn the city to the ground. The 30 British regulars were joined by 40 British Indian agents and Indians, and more than 200 Montreal militia determined to defend their homes from the Barbarian of Vermont. They attacked Allen’s small force the next morning and overwhelmed them. Pinned against the shore line and unable to escape, Ethan Allen was captured and would spend the next few years on prison ships in Great Britain. In an ironic twist of fate, it was his reputation that saved him from hanging: the British didn’t want to make him the first American martyr. Nonetheless, America lost one of its most competent and aggressive commanders in the early days of the War for Independence.

Whether or not the inhabitants of Montreal would have defended themselves with such fervor and in such numbers had another American commander been in charge is subject to much debate. The answer to that academic debate stopped mattering as soon as the first shot was fired: Ethan Allen’s defeat was the first time English and French speaking Canadians fought together against a common foe, and the shared pride in victory laid the seeds of Canadian nationalism, distinct from the American nationalism in the Thirteen British colonies to the south. The opportunity to bring Quebec into the American Revolution against the Crown was rapidly slipping away, and the Battle of Longue Point made that task exponentially harder.