Guadalcanal was declared secured on 9 February 1943, but the Japanese continued air raids on the island for several months afterwards. The Japanese raids were staged out of their main air bases at Rabaul on New Britain, and used the smaller airfield at Munda Point on New Georgia further down the Solomon chain as a convenient refueling point to and from Guadalcanal. The airfield made New Georgia the painfully obvious next major target for Adm Halsey’s South Pacific command.
The Japanese pulled all of its remaining troops in the southern and central Solomons back to New Georgia, and the smaller nearby Rendova and Kolombangara islands, in anticipation of the American assault. The American invasions of the evacuated islands in the Central Solomons were unopposed, and in one case, was met by the local Australian coastwatcher with tea in celebration. Nevertheless, the Japanese troops were much more effective concentrated in the New Georgia archipelago. The defense of New Georgia was one of the few instances where the extreme rivalry between the Japanese Army and Navy did not affect combat operations. New Georgia was initially defended by Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces (marines) and reinforced significantly with Japanese troops of the 38th and 51st Divisions. Guadalcanal was the template, and the Tokyo Express began running supplies and troops to the island in anticipation of the American invasion.
Since the capture of Guadalcanal in February, the Munda airfield on New Georgia was subject to increased American air attack and naval bombardment in sort of a reverse to what the Japanese did to Guadalcanal. And with the same results: Munda Airfield wasn’t going to permanently cease operations because of bombardment any more than Henderson did ten months before. The invasion was so obvious the Japanese targeted the invasion fleet off Guadalcanal several times with air attack but took heavy losses in the process, with negligible effect on the fleet.
The initial landings in the New Georgia archipelago by US Marine Raiders occurred at the end of June 1943, and were tasked to capture an airfield at Segi, or survey a suitable location for one. The Raiders ended up coming to the assistance of a local coastwatcher, Donald Kennedy, whose exploits as an insurgent were legendary, if controversial, and it was his men who gave early warning of every Japanese air attack on Guadalcanal from Rabaul during the previous ten months. A Japanese battalion was ordered to shut him down once he was isolated on Segi Point.
The main landings for “Operation Toenails” occurred on 30 June. The invasion force was built around a composite force centered on the US Army 43rd Division and included US Marines, Marine Raiders, and the 1st Commando Fiji Guerrillas, an elite unit of volunteer Fijians under picked New Zealanders. The initial landings, on the island of Rendova, Wickham Anchorage, and Viru Harbor in preparation for the main landings on 3 July, were chaotic to say the least. The highly trained “Barracuda Scouts” of the US 172nd “Blackhawk” Infantry Regiment, the regiment tasked with seizing Rendova, landed on the wrong island. The main body landed in the correct spot and expected no resistance based on the information the scouts gave them the night before. Fortunately, there were only 250 Japanese defenders on the island and the 172nd overwhelmed them. It set a costly precedent for the 43rd that led them to underestimate the Japanese to their front, at great cost, for the rest of the battle. At Viru, the landing depended on a column of Marine Raiders from Segi to march overland and attack the Japanese from behind during the landings. However, the Marines grossly underestimated the amount of time they’d need to make the march through the thick broken jungle and didn’t arrive until the 2nd. All three of the initial objectives were eventually secured, but the terrain rendered them ineffective for their proposed roles in future operations. They were simply too far away, not in distance, but in time necessary to traverse the unforgiving jungle to the main objective of Munda Point. Miscalculating the effects of the terrain would prove to be the defining feature of the Battle for New Georgia.
The two other regiments landed in the south coast of New Georgia Island on 3 July and in the north on 5 July. The two landings were not mutually supporting and were intended to surprise and overwhelm the Japanese. Moreover, the southern landing didn’t land at the beach closest to Munda, Lainana beach, again in an attempt to surprise the Japanese, but at Zanana beach three miles further away from Munda. The two beachheads were expected to link up on 7 July for an assault on Munda airfield on the 8th, but the Japanese isolated both beachheads. Furthermore, the farther the Americans got from the invasion beaches, the more difficult the logistics situation became due to the near impossibility of hauling the supplies over the rough and narrow jungle track. The three miles to Lainana beach took almost ten days and nearly depleted the division.
On the night of 6 July, the northern invasion force bumbled into the Tokyo Express bringing Japanese reinforcements to New Georgia in the Kula Gulf. Both sides managed to land their troops, the Americans just before the contact and the Japanese just after. However, the American task force was savaged by a spread of Japanese “Long Lance” torpedoes, about the only remaining asymmetric advantage that the Japanese retained after the crucible that were the surface actions off Guadalcanal the autumn before. For the next two weeks, both invasion forces were isolated and attritted through a skillful Japanese defense. On 13 July the southern force captured Lainana beach which considerably shortened their supply line, but by then the damage was done.
The Tokyo Express continued to pour troops on to Kolombangara and New Georgia nightly and there was a very real threat that the American would be defeated in detail and thrown back into the sea. The Americans dug in but the Japanese seemed to be everywhere, with Japanese patrols attacking the lines and trail at will. The fresh Japanese troops would silently sneak into the exhausted American foxholes at night and slit the occupants’ throats. They called out individual commanders and reminded them they “weren’t in Louisiana anymore”, a reference to the training validation exercise the year before. The Japanese even managed to overrun the 43rd’s headquarters at Zanana beach.
The 43rd’s reports were bad but did not indicate disaster. They were reinforced by the 37th Infantry Division and only on a visit by the XIV Corps commander did the true situation emerge. Halsey’s Army Air Force commander happened to visit the island also, and being the ranking three star on the island immediately ordered the corps commander to stay and take charge. The he told Halsey that they’d need “at least another division”. Halsey sent three.
It wouldn’t have mattered had the Allied navies not secured the narrow waters and isolated New Georgia and Kolombangara. The US Navy again came off worse at the Battle off Kolombangara on 12 July, and it was up to air power and PT boats to stop the Tokyo Express for the next several weeks. The PT boats especially took serious casualties, including one boat cut in half by a Japanese destroyer – Its skipper was Lieutenant (junior grade) John F. Kennedy.
By early August, the tables were turned on the Japanese, and they were exhausted and weren’t getting the support they needed to continue. The US Navy finally caught the Tokyo Express by surprise in Vella Gulf on the night of 6-7 August which ended any hope of the Japanese continuing the fight for much longer. About the same time, the overwhelming number of Army and Marines on the island had slowly and painfully squeezed the Japanese Munda pocket. Sensing the inevitable, the Japanese evacuated New Georgia for Kolombangara on 20 August. The Americans would let them rot, and bypassed the island in September with the invasion of Vella LaVella. The Japanese stealthily evacuated Kolombangara in October.
Historian Samuel Elliot Morrison called the operations on New Georgia “the most unintelligently waged land campaign of the Pacific war”.
On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence. The vote to break with the Kingdom of Great Britain and its Empire actually occurred two days before on 2 July 1776 when the Second Continental Congress unanimously approved the independence clauses of the Lee Resolution. That day, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America”.
The vote on the Lee Resolution had been postponed for nearly a month since it was submitted on 13 June. The decision for independence needed to be unanimous and that wasn’t going to happen until the colonies formally approved. Most colonial legislatures had already approved of independence (North Carolina was first on 12 April 1776) and had directed their delegates in the Continental Congress to do the same. The only holdouts were New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. New York and Rhode Island were the most loyal of the North American colonies contemplating Independence, and Pennsylvania’s Quakers didn’t want to make a complete break with Britain. However, as the “keystone” of the twelve colonies (Delaware was still technically part of Pennsylvania), Pennsylvania had the most to lose from independence but also the most to gain. If Pennsylvania could be convinced then the other two would follow its lead. The Double Benjamins of Colonial America, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, dedicated their very considerable talents of diplomacy to bringing around the pro rebellion, but anti independence Quaker delegates in the Pennsylvania Upper House.
Franklin and Rush had a cunning plan to sway their fellow Pennsylvania delegates. First Franklin convinced Delaware to formally secede from Pennsylvania. It didn’t take much because the Delawarians (?) were tired of waiting for the delegates from Pennsylvania’s upper counties to make a decision and were unwilling to wait on Franklin and Rush to persuade the anti independence Penn family Old Guard. So on 15 June 1776, the Assembly of the Lower Counties of Pennsylvania declared itself independent of Great Britain AND Pennsylvania, and became the Thirteenth Colony: Delaware.
Then Rush seized the moment and implemented Phase Two: He formed the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference consisting of the more pro independence elements of the Assembly of Upper Counties of Pennsylvania. They were almost exclusively from Philadelphia, the largest and most prosperous city in the now Thirteen Colonies. Rush floated the idea of a Fourteenth colony, Philadelphia. After letting the idea marinate for a few days, Franklin landed the coup de grâce: He addressed the staunchly Quaker and anti violence Penn family delegates to the effect of: nice province we have here, it would be a shame if we lost any more of it…
The Assembly for the Upper Counties of Pennsylvania voted for independence from Great Britain on 23 June 1776.
While Benjamins’ worked over the Quakers, the Second Continental Congress appointed a five person committee to draft a declaration to publicly release once the independence clauses in the Lee Resolution passed. “The Committee of Five” consisted of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.
For the next several weeks, the Committee of Five debated the exact wording of the declaration. However, the tedious job of physically writing it out went to the youngest member of the committee, 33 year old Thomas Jefferson, after the rest of the committee refused. The declaration went through several revisions and the last edits were completed on the morning of 2 July, 1776, just before the vote on the Lee Resolution. When the independence clauses of the Lee Resolution were approved by a unanimous vote (though New York abstained), the actual Declaration of Independence document that was releasable to the public still had notes in the margins.
The next day, Jefferson rewrote the entire document. This final draft was then circulated among the committee and members of Congress for approval on the evening of the 3rd and all morning on the 4th of July. That afternoon the Second Continental Congress approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence. But it wasn’t announced yet, as Congress wanted the Declaration of Independence read simultaneously across the Thirteen Colonies. Copies were made of the written, but unsigned, Declaration and sent by fast dispatch rider to each of the Thirteen Colonies.
But the word was out and that wasn’t going to happen. On 8 July 1776, COL John Dixon, commander of the Philadelphia militia regiment, “The Associators”, publicly read the Declaration of Independence for the first time from the steps of the Pennsylvania State House. The next day, Washington had the Declaration read to the Continental Army and citizens of New York, while British troops and Hessian mercenaries were landing on Staten Island in full view of the audience. When the Declaration was read to the local 4th New York Regiment, the inspired residents of the city marched over to Bowling Green Park, and pulled down the statue of King George III at its center. The statue ended up at the house of General Oliver Wolcott, where it was broken up (Loyalists stole more than a few pieces, including the head). As a local blacksmith had the king melted down for musket balls, the delegates from New York formally approved the Declaration of Independence, even though they never actually approved the independence clauses of the Lee Resolution. Nonetheless, from that point on all Thirteen Colonies were united in their war for independence from Great Britain.
It would take seven more years of war to make American Independence a reality.
Roman settlements in Britain were sparse near Hadrian’s Wall as the area was subject to continuous raids from Scots and Picts. When the Romans departed, the invading Germanic Angles and Saxons conquered the Celtic kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, and established the Kingdom of Northumbria. In the early 7th century CE, King Oswald of Northumbria invited Irish monks from Iona to Christianize his people and the troublesome Scots and Picts. Saint Aiden established a priory off the coast on a small windswept tidal island in the North Sea named Lindisfarne.
The Priory of Lindisfarne quickly became the center of Christian evangelism in the north of England and present day Scotland. After a long and fulfilling life spreading Chrisianity, Lindisfarne’s greatest bishop, Saint Cuthbert, became the patron saint of Northumbria. Linidisfarne soon was known as the “Holy Island of Lindisfarne” and its greatest treasure was the “Gospels of Linidisfarne”, an immaculate illuminated manuscript of the four canonical gospels of the Christian New Testament. The Christian settlements of the north of England lived in peace and prosperity for decades. The isolated farmsteads and river communities lived far from the cutthroat politics of the Anglo, Saxon, and Jute rulers further south in the much more populated southern portion of Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. That all changed at the end of the 8th century, when the first invaders from Scandinavia appeared on English soil: the Norse.
The Norse, known colloquially as Northmen or “Vikings” (from the Old English word “wicing” or “pirate”) had first appeared on English shores in 789 CE in Wessex where they killed a sheriff who was sent to bring the newcomers to the local magistrate. The Wessex killing wasn’t officially a raid, as the Norse ships from Norway were a trade expedition blown off course. The first raid occurred four years later in Northumbria.
Three Viking longboats appeared in the spring of 793 in the river valleys of the northern Northumbria where they found wealthy, prosperous, and most importantly, unarmed inhabitants. The surprised Angle farmers and townsmen quickly informed the equally surprised raiders that the most lucrative and undefended settlement was an island inhabited mostly by peaceful monks, Lindisfarne.
On 8 June 793 CE, the three Viking longships descended upon the island. The “ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne”. They “came to the church at Lindisfarne, laid everything to waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasure of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea…” A contemporary Northumbrian scholar wrote, “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.” The Viking raiders had destroyed “a place more sacred than any in Britain”.
The Christian world was shocked; the Viking Age had begun.
The commander of the Continental Army, Lieut Gen George Washington, wanted a professional army. He needed one to defeat the British. The militia, and the irregulars harassing the British Army, would not accomplish this feat. Only a professional army that could meet the British on equal terms could end the American War of Independence. Valley Forge provided the perfect crucible: professional volunteers, notably Von Steuben, DeKalb, and the young Marquis de Lafayette, turned the inexperienced but dedicated Continental Line into a rival to the best Europe had to offer.
During the winter of 1777/78, America’s rebellion against Britain became a world war after France declared. King George III had to worry about the entirety of his empire, no longer just about America. The expansion of the war meant that the British did not have the troops to isolate New England from the rest of the Thirteen Colonies and the “Grand Plan” was in tatters. After their loss at Saratoga, Lord Howe was recalled and General Sir Henry Clinton was given command of British troops in North America. In Philadelphia, Clinton was ordered to withdrawal from the former rebel capital and consolidate in the loyalist enclave of New York City, and if necessary withdraw further to Nova Scotia. The British abandonment of Philadelphia was the perfect opportunity for Washington to showcase the newfound professionalization of his army and test its mettle, and bloody the remaining British in America in the process. The British column that left Philadelphia was nearly 15 kms long, with the majority being loyalist civilians and wagons of loot from the thoroughly plundered city. Washington ordered the Continental Army to give chase.
Unfortunately, Washington had a problem: he was forced to give command of the vanguard to arguably his weakest senior officer: Charles Lee, his own second-in-command. Charles Lee was a former British regular officer and in 1775, Washington’s chief competition for Commander in chief of the Continental Army. When Washington was chosen, the arrogant and proud Lee was furious, and said Washington “wasn’t fit to lead a sergeant’s guard.” Lee’s hatred of Washington caused considerable political trouble in the Army and in Congress. That trouble subsided somewhat when Lee was captured in his night gown by British cavalry after a night of drinking with his staff in a tavern about three miles away from his command in December 1776. (This act probably saved the rebellion. If Lee hadn’t been comfortably having dinner with his captors during Washington’s disastrous year of 1777, his incessant politicking would have almost certainly gotten Washington replaced, with himself of course.) However, Lee was recently exchanged for a captured British general, and had only just arrived in camp. Washington really had no choice but to give Lee the command of the initial attack to force the British to battle, even though he had a number of impressive, and now experienced, commanders, such as Stirling, Greene, Wayne, and the very deserving aforementioned trainers at Valley Forge.
The experienced and tactically capable, but plodding and indecisive, Lee caught up to the British rear guard as it decamped near the Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey on 28 June 1778. However, as the Continentals slowly formed (due to confusing and contradictory orders from Lee) the British rear guard under Lord Cornwallis quickly seized the initiative and attacked. The sight of British bayonets didn’t unnerve the Continentals, but it did unnerve their commander. Lee had missed Valley Forge and his last experience commanding troops was the woeful New York campaign where American militia routinely broke at the sight of a British bayonet, and the Continental Line consistently overwhelmed by disciplined and steady British firepower. The panicked Lee immediately ordered his men to retreat, which they did in good order.
Cornwallis, sensing weakness and an opportunity to destroy a part of the Continental Army, pressed the attack. Only the actions of Lafayette, who knew the worth of the troops he helped train at Valley Forge, prevented Lee’s division from being annihilated. Nonetheless, Lee’s retreat quickly became disorganized and the men streamed westward back toward Washington and the main body. Washington, hearing the fighting to his front, thought all was well. That is until a babbling fifer appeared and told of absolute disaster. Soon entire formations were flowing past. The surprised Washington queried the retreating troops as to who ordered the withdrawal. Upon learning it was Lee, Washington grew apoplectic, “Damn him!”, and galloped forward searching for his wayward subordinate. In the scorching heat and humidity, Washington literally rode his horse to death looking for Lee. When he found him, Washington had one of his rare public displays of anger and admonished Lee right on the road. The two had words, and Washington had Lee arrested and sent to the rear.
Washington rallied the two remaining regiments of Lee’s rear guard, both of whose commanders were out of action. One was mortally wounded rallying his men when he saw Washington. The other was captured: In the confusion of the fighting retreat, Lt Col Nathaniel Ramsay of the 13th Maryland calmly sidestepped a charging dragoon, killed him with his saber, and in the same motion swung into the saddle as the dead dragoon fell off. Ramsay then rode between the lines hurling insults and challenges to Cornwallis’ entire astonished army. A dozen dragoons took up his gauntlet and subdued the bold American. (Clinton, who had finally arrived on the field, was so taken with the daring display, he later pardoned Ramsay).
The day seemed to require great personal sacrifice among the American commanders and Washington was no exception. He also placed himself in full view of the British lines to inspire the wavering regiments of Lee’s rear guard. Hundreds of Brown Bess muskets took aim and fired at the towering figure of Washington prancing, now mounted on a chestnut mare borrowed from one of his staff, in front of the lines yelling to his men. But none hit. Washington’s stand delayed Cornwallis just long enough for the rest of the army to deploy.
“Mad” Anthony Wayne had taken control of part of Lee’s former command and with his own men held Cornwallis along the West Ravine just south of the Freemont Meeting House. Greene deployed his division to Wayne’s right and Stirling on the left. Lafayette was formally given Lee’s division and he rallied its remains as the reserve.
Cornwallis was undeterred by the determined and professional looking troops to his front. He had the best the British army had to offer. Cornwallis’ men included some of the most storied and professional regiments in the service, the Black Watch and the Coldstream Guards to name just two. Cornwallis hurled them at the American lines.
For five brutal hours, the two armies locked horns under the pitiless sun on the cloudless New Jersey summer day. Temperatures soared above a hundred degrees and sunstroke killed as many as gunpowder and cold steel. Camp followers, wives and daughters of the men on the field, known as “Molly Pitchers” brought water to the parched men at great danger to themselves. One cannoneer’s wife, Mary Hays McCauley, took her fallen husband’s place on the crew, calmly ramming home the rounds, as shot and shells rained thick among the dueling cannon.
Each British assault was thrown back, and British officers were surprised to find they were followed quickly American bayonet assaults, a rarity so far in the war. Cornwallis attempted to outflank Stirling but again Lafayette was in the right place at the right time and stymied the assault. The fighting was so close, that each side’s officers could hear the orders of their opponents through the din. One British Lieut Col, Henry Monckton, was reported by Anthony Wayne as having said, “Forward to the charge, my brave Grenadiers!” to which Wayne, 40 yards away, calmly told his own men, “Steady! Steady! Wait for the word — then pick out the king birds”.
The bitter stalemate continued. As evening began, Greene’s division occupied Comb’s Hill on Cornwallis’ left. Greene managed to get a battery on the hill which enfiladed Clinton’s line, and Washington planned to assault both of Clinton’s flanks. But darkness and exhaustion prevented the attack from beginning. Washington’s coup d’grace would have to wait until morning.
When darkness fell on the night of 28 June 1778, both sides still held the field, though Clinton pulled his men back behind the Middle Ravine to prevent the Americans from hearing his withdrawal. Clinton was in command of the only significant British force in North America, and he knew if stuck around to face Washington in the morning, he would lose the war the next day. Taking a page from Washington’s own playbook, Clinton gave his men a few hours rest then escaped in the darkness. When the sun rose, the British were gone.
Despite Lee’s bumbling, the Battle of Monmouth was the first time during the American Revolution that the Continental Army stood its ground on even terms with the British Army. The excruciatingly painful experience at Valley Forge had paid off. The actions of the American commanders, especially Washington, Stirling, Wayne, and the young Lafayette endeared them to their men, and they vowed to “follow them to Hell.” There was no more talk of Washington being replaced.
The Continental Army had come of age.
In 1668, French King Louis XIV overran Spanish Netherlands (today’s Belgium) and Franche-Comté (Burgundy) in the War of Devolution but was shamefully forced to cede his conquests when the Triple Alliance of England, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden came to Spain’s aid. Louis XIV never forgave them and in 1672 invaded the Dutch Republic to chastise the merchant republic for interfering in the business of their betters. The Royal French Army, personally led by the king, reinvaded the Spanish Netherlands and on 13 June 1673, invested the fortress city of Maastricht. Maastricht was on the road from Liege to Cologne and critical to prevent disruption of his supply lines stretching back to France. Though Louis held overall command the architect of the siege was the 40 year old 17th century engineering genius, Sebastian Vauban.
By 40, Vauban had already had a long and glorious military career. The orphaned son of penniless minor nobility, Vauban was raised by his own peasants and fought with distinction against the king during the Fronde. Eventually captured, Vauban’s competence in military matters won him a commission and the eye of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV chief advisor. Due to Mazarin’s benevolence, Vauban became a devoted soldier of the king. He rose through the ranks and his solid early childhood education in mathematics and geometry propelled him into the world of the royal engineers. Vauban had an uncanny knack for building fortifications, and even more so for bringing them down. Maastricht was his first command of a siege of a major city. It would not be his last.
Vauban’s mathematically precise and rational approach to sieges revolutionized siege warfare and its implementation for the next 200 years. “More gunpowder, less blood”, and dare I say, “more digging”, was his mantra. Once Vauban began, the reduction of the fortress was inevitable, unless of course they based on Vauban’s own designs. Maastricht was not so. Vauban ordered a series of parallel trenches dug connected by zig zagging communications trenches that prevented defenders from having a clear shot at the attackers. Once the trenches were close enough, mines could be dug and heavy mortars brought forward to reduce the city. In Maastricht’s case, this happened on 25 June 1673, and the assault on the Maastricht’s Tongere Gate was set for the next day.
The French assault was led by another of Mazarin’s protégés, Charles de Batz de Castelmore, the comte d’Artagnan. D’Artagnan was also a penniless minor noble. He arrived in Paris in 1630 to make a name for himself. Mazarin, who had a gift for talent management, took the young Gascon under his wing. D’Artagnan received a commission in the French Guards regiment, following quickly by a command in the king’s personal bodyguard, the King’s Musketeers. During and after the Fronde, d’Artagnan undertook many daring and successful covert and clandestine missions for the teenage Louis XIV, and the king never forgot. D’Artagnan was Louis’ most dedicated and loyal soldier. He rose to command the Musketeers and was easily identified across Paris by his burgundy, white and black livery, distinct from the blue and black of his men. D’Artagnan became one of Louis most trusted tactical commanders and assigned the most difficult missions. He rose to the rank of brigadier in command of several of the king’s most prestigious regiments. As the military governor of Lille, d’Artagnan longed to return to his men. The night Vauban announced that his trenches were complete, the 63ish year old veteran d’Artagnan volunteered to lead the assault.
The offer wasn’t vainglorious. Louis’ own Musketeers were to vanguard the assault. He trained those men and every one was like a brother or son. D’Artagnan wanted the assault to be the final crowning achievement of his career in the service of Louis XIV. It was.
On 25 June 1673, Charles de Batz de Castelmore, the comte d’Artagnan was shot through the throat leading the assault on Maastricht’s fortifications. He died later in the day. Louis XIV, deeply affected by the loss, arranged for a funeral mass to be held in his private chapel. The renowned French poet Saint-Blaize wrote a poem in honor of the old musketeer, the last lines of which were “d’Artagnan and glory share the same coffin.”
In less than a week, Maastricht surrendered to Louis XIV. On the battle he commented, “I lost d’Artagnan whom I trusted most completely and who was good to everyone.”
A few years later d’Artagnan’s life was fictionalized in Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras’ novel “Les mémoires de M. d’Artagnan”. 150 years later in the 19th century, that novel was read by a young French author, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas would further fictionalize d’Artagnan’s life in a newspaper serial. That serial was compiled and eventually became the novel, “The Three Musketeers”.
The Eastern Roman Empire, named so since its capital, Constantinople, sat on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, had survived for a thousand years after the fall of Rome to the Goths in the 5th century CE. Beset on all sides, the Byzantine Empire’s resilience was rooted in its flexible and efficient multi-layered defense system. The system began with a superior intelligence and diplomatic organization managed from the “Office of Barbarians”. Should an invader actually attack, they first met the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which provided time for a series of well stocked and provisioned border fortresses to be manned. These strongpoints fixed invaders so they could be defeated by the free peasants of the “themes” or provinces, and the semi-autonomous regional professional armies or tagmata. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.
This system ended with the catastrophic defeat of the cream of the Empire’s troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine system was amazingly effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In an attempt to expand and recover land lost to the spread of Islam, the emperors during the prosperous 11th century undermined their own defense by making the system so efficient it was no longer effective . Moreover they imposed crushing taxes on the thematic troops, and tried directly controlling the buffer states, namely Armenia, the bulwark of the eastern approaches. In the confusion of the Armenian War, the Seljuk Turks broke into Anatolia and crushed the Byzantine Army sent to expel them. The Byzantines would never recover. No longer would Asia Minor be solely Byzantine: a patchwork of Turkic tribes occupied central and eastern Anatolia.
Over the next 400 years, one tribe would reign supreme and unite the others – the Ottomans. Under a historically uncommon string of energetic, confident and piousleaders, the Ottomans developed their own effective system of offensive jihad. They expanded over Asia Minor and into the Balkans, leaving the Byzantine Empire with just the Peloponnese, Thrace, and the capital, Constantinople.
Constantinople was the Byzantine trump card. If all else failed, the walls of Constantinople had held. They had never been forcibly breached (They had been penetrated by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, but only because a guard left a sally port open). The first ring of the city’s defensive walls was built by Emperor Constantine when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city. The second and third rings were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. Over a thousand years, the Theodosian Walls had withstood twelve separate major sieges by the Rus, Arabs, Sassanids, Avars, Bulgars, Byzantine usurpers, and even the Ottomans.
The Theodosian Walls protected the landside approaches to the city and were 6.5 km long from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. To breach the walls attackers first had to cross a 20m wide and 7m deep moat that could be flooded on command by a series of dams controlled inside the city. The first wall oversaw the moat and the second wall had firing platforms to cover both the moat and first wall. Behind that was the massive third wall which covered the first and second walls. The third wall was 5m thick and 12m high, with 96 towers, one every 70m, providing interlocking fields of fire. The walls and food stores were maintained by the cities’ various factions in an ingenious imperial competition that saw complete obliteration of the faction if the quotas and required work weren’t met. The seaward side of Constantinople was defended by the Imperial fleet which had a secure anchorage behind a massive chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Any assault from the sea was met by the fleet which was equipped with the infamous “Greek Fire”, a flammable concoction that produced a fire that couldn’t be put out with water, and only burned hotter the more you tried to smother it. Modern chemists have not been able to reproduce Greek fire.
However, unlike prior assailants, the Ottoman host in 1453 had several previously unknown advantages. First, Ottoman possessions in both the Balkans and Anatolia isolated Constantinople from assistance by land. The final Crusade called by the Pope ended in disaster in 1444 when Polish, Hungarian and Wallachian crusaders were defeated by Ottoman Sultan Murad II at the Battle of Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The only way to relive a besieged Constantinople was by sea, and by 1452, two massive fortresses closed the Bosporus to Christian ships. Moreover, despite Pope Nicholas V’s pleas, Christendom was not prepared to send assistance: France and England were war weary from the Hundred Years War, which would finally end that autumn. The Germans were busy fighting among themselves. The Eastern Europeans were still trying to hold back the Muslim tide in the Balkans in the wake of Varna. And Spain was in the final stages of the Reconquista. Only the Italian city states could send aid, and those that ran the blockade were woefully inadequate. Finally, Sultan Mehmed II had something that no previous besieger possessed: cannon.
In 1452, a German iron founder and engineer from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) named Orban was showered with funds by Mehmed to build the new German bombards that were revolutionizing siege warfare across Europe. Orban’s largest bombard was nearly 9m long and could hurl a 275kg cannon ball nearly a kilometer and a half (Almost a mile). It was crewed by 400 men and had to be dragged by 60 oxen. Orban’s great bombard was just one of 70 cannon at Mehmed’s disposal for the siege.
On Easter Sunday, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II arrived outside the walls of Constantinople with nearly 100,000 troops, 10,000 of whom were elite Janisaaries, 70 cannon, and 125 ships. Emperor Constantine XI and his commander Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa had just 11,000 men of which 2000 were Venetian and Genoese and 600 renegade Turks, and 26 ships safely locked behind the great chain in Golden Horn. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Mehemd II immediately, but arrogantly, launched a series of frontal assaults with predictable results. The Byzantine defenders stood firm along the Theodosian Walls just as they had for a thousand years. Constantine XI tried to buy off Mehmed II, but the Sultan wanted the city for his new capital and he knew there would be no better chance to seize it than at that moment. The sultan unleashed Orban’s bombards which over the next six weeks systematically reduced the Theodosian Walls to rubble. To further spread out the Byzantine troops, Mehmed ordered his fleet painstakingly dragged overland and launched into the Golden Horn, bypassing the great chain. On 22 April, the Byzantines attempted to destroy the Ottoman fleet with fire ships, but a deserter warned of the impending assault and the Venetian ships were sunk before they could do damage. The surviving Venetian sailors were impaled on the north shore. In response, Constantine XI ordered the execution of all Ottoman captives, one at a time and in full view of the Ottoman army. The Ottoman fleet built massive floating firing platforms in the Golden Horn which forced the Byzantines to man the sea walls, spreading their few troops dangerously thin.
At night the Byzantines repaired the damage to the walls as best as they could and during the day they countermined. As the Ottomans pounded the walls from above, German and Serbians mercenary sappers undermined the walls from below. Throughout May 1453, dozens of small vicious battles occurred below ground as mines and countermines intersected. In the flickering torchlight, groups of nearly naked men fought with picks, shovels, knives, and fists against foes identified only by the language they screamed in the darkness. After capturing two Turkish officers, the Byzantines knew the locations of all the mines and successfully shut down the Ottoman mining operations. But it was just delaying the inevitable: the Theodosian Walls were breached in more than few places, and Constantine and Giustiniani simply didn’t have enough men to plug the gaps effectively. And no relief force was enroute. The Byzantines were doomed.
On 28 May, as the Ottomans were openly preparing for their final assault, the Byzantines and Italians held religious parades culminating with a co-denominational mass in the Hagia Sophia with both the Italian and Byzantine nobility in attendance. That mass was the first time Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated mass together since the Great Schism of the 11th century and was the last Christian mass in the Hagia Sophia to this day.
On the morning of Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, as the moon waned in the sky, three great Turkish waves crashed against the Theodosian Walls and the sea walls along the Golden Horn. The first two were comprised of irregulars, Serbians, and Anatolian troops and were driven off with great loss by the Byzantines. They did however serve their purpose, they sufficiently weakened and disorganized the defense which was promptly exploited by the Janissaries. In short order, Giustiniani was mortally wounded, and his evacuation from the walls caused the Italians to collapse. Doffing his imperial regalia, Constantine was last seen leading a final futile charge against the Janissaries occupying the Kerkaporta gate. His body was never recovered. The remaining Byzantine soldiers fled home to protect their families while the Venetians and remaining Genoese fled to the harbor to escape.
That evening, Mehmed II rewarded his army with three days of loot, arson, murder, and rape in the city. Battles among the Turks erupted over the slaves and spoils. At the end of the three days, 20,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants of Constantinople were massacred, and the rest were sold into slavery. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Byzantine Empire was destroyed and the Greek world would never recover. Ancient Rome’s legacy would live on for another thirty years in the Byzantine rump states of Trebizond and Morea. And with rare exceptions, the Ottoman Empire would go on to nearly unchecked expansion for another 220 years.
In the Greek world, Tuesday is known as a day of bad luck. And Turkey is the only Islamic state whose national flag features not a crescent, but a waning moon.
“The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”
When the Germans started the Kaiserschlacht, the 1918 Spring Offensive with the troops released by victory against the Russians on the eastern front, Gen Pershing was under immense pressure by the British and French to get American troops into the trenches in number. The British wanted the Americans as replacements for Allied casualties. The Commonwealth commanders wanted smaller American formations i.e. battalions and brigades, to augment British and French divisions, just as they were doing. The French just wanted the Americans to enter the lines in any form whatsoever despite any deficiencies in training, though they supported Pershing’s views. As commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Pershing was under explicit instructions from President Wilson that Americans would fight under their own flag and in their own formations, and not as part of another national army. To this end, Pershing told the French that the Americans wouldn’t be ready to assume a portion of the front until late 1918, or more probably 1919.
In mid-April 1918, only five American divisions were trained to the point where they would be effective in the trenches, despite hundreds of thousands of Americans arriving in France each month. Under pressure from the French, Pershing relented and the American troops were placed at the seam between the British and French armies just south of Amiens and just north of Paris. Previously in the war, whenever the inexperienced American troops took over part of the line, they were specifically targeted by the Germans, with predictable results. With rare exceptions, the Germans had their way with the novice doughboys, and the British and Canadians had no respect for the soldierly prowess of American troops. According to many a British officer, American soldiers may have been good at subjugating Indian tribes, but they were a detriment to the continuity and contiguousness of the front on a modern battlefield.
The French recommended a small American counterattack to exhibit the battle prowess and state of American training. The attack would take some pressure off the British, who were suffering from the bulk of the Spring Offensive, and announce to the world that the Americans were finally capable of offensive operations. Of the five available divisions, Pershing chose his favorite, the 1st, to make the assault. The selected objective was a small German salient around the town of Cantigny, which sat on high ground that offered the Germans excellent observation of the surrounding area.
The commander of the 1st US Infantry Division, Maj Gen Robert Bullard, chose the 28th Infantry Regiment supported by two companies of the 18th, with machine guns, artillery and engineers from the division troops to conduct the attack. Lieutenant Colonel George Marshal (you might have heard of him) wrote the 34 page operations order detailing the movement and rolling barrage schedule and the general scheme of maneuver. The Americans rehearsed the attack for three weeks prior. The Germans spotted the two American companies that arrived in the trenches a day early. They pounded them with artillery. Nevertheless, the 28th went “over the top” at dawn on 28 May 1918.
The French were wedded to a successful American assault. They didn’t want to squander the immense advantage that America gave the Allies in men and material if the British were knocked out of the war, which was the aim of the Spring Offensive, and would result in the Americans taking over their portion of the front. A successful American attack would put them in the line that much faster, and most importantly, where the French wanted. So the French supported Bullard’s assault on Cantigny with prodigious amounts of artillery and transport. With the copious amounts of French support, the 28th secured their assigned trenches and dugouts, and cleared the cellars of Cantigny of Germans. That night there was a great celebration in Pershing’s headquarters.
The German artillery wasn’t to disrupt the American attack, it was to presage Operation Blücher–Yorck, the third phase of the Kaiserschlacht. The German operation aimed straight at Paris in order to pull Allied troops away from assisting the British farther north. All along the front, French units demanded support. The French artillery and the dedicated resources to the 1st US Infantry Division disappeared on the night of 28/29 May. Overnight, Cantigny became solely an American operation.
The German counterattack started shortly thereafter, and the 28th screamed for more support. Several requests to pull back to the original 27 May start lines were sent. All were refused: American national pride and the fate of the American Expeditionary Force was on the line with this single battle. The 28th had to hold, and Pershing needed to assure that that happened with just American resources. The Americans had relied on French support since they landed in the country 11 months before. No more – the Americans were on their own.
For two days and nights the novice 1st US Infantry Division slugged it out at Cantigny with waves of German attackers. The final German assault came at dusk on 30 May. The next morning, Cantigny was still in American hands, albeit tenuously. Nonetheless, the amateur Americans proved they had what it took to fight, and prevail, on the Western Front. There would be no more talk of amalgamating the American troops into the French or British armies. They had received their baptism of fire. The 1st US Infantry Division, soon to be known as “The Big Red One” from their distinctive shoulder patch, proved they could stand their ground in the face of the best the veteran Germans could throw at them. The Americans had finally entered the First World War in earnest.
With a few limited exceptions, the Allied offensives on the Western Front were all failures. The naïve, but enthusiastic, American army inoculated with the bloody and hard won experience of the Allied failed efforts, would soon go on the offensive… and surprise the hell out of the Germans.
“History is not just about which battle took place on what day. On top of what happened, it also seeks to understand why these events unfolded as they did. On top of collecting historical data, it involves explaining the past.
To do so, it investigates why certain deeds had the consequences that they had. And this — the study of the results of different decisions in different contexts— places the study of history in the very center of our daily lives. For, if there is one thing we all have reasons to be interested in, it is why our acts give rise to the sequence of follow-up reactions that they cause.
Understanding the motivations and upshot of human behavior is no easy task…
we need to think about how larger contexts impinge on the impact of behavior.
Doing so will improve our understanding of why things happen as they do, without having to undergo the events ourselves. We gain practical knowledge, ‘for free’.
Studying history, then, helps in acquiring a solid trunk for our knowledge-tree of life…”
In 1643, the Thirty Years War raged across continental Europe for the past 25 years. In 1635, Catholic France joined with the Protestant Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians against their political rivals the Catholic Hapsburgs of Austria and Spain. The indomitable Cardinal Richelieu of France had been bankrolling Sweden and the Protestants for years, but after the disastrous Swedish defeat at Nordlingen, entered France into the war directly to prevent Hapsburg hegemony in all of its surrounding lands on the continent. In 1640, Richelieu started war against Spain “by diversion”, funding Catalan, Basque, Portuguese, and Dutch insurgents which he hoped would force Spain to sue for peace. By 1643, the plan was working.
Spain needed to defeat France quickly. Moreover, Cardinal Richelieu died that winter and Louis XIII fell horribly ill. So in the spring, a combined Spanish, German, Italian, and Walloon army marched on France through the Ardennes Forest to avoid the main French armies in Flanders, (I wonder if that would ever happen again…) and capitalize on the political confusion associated with the transfer of power and royal succession in Paris. The Spanish Army of Flanders under Francisco de Melo had invaded France through the Ardennes before and defeated the French at the Battle of Honnecourt in 1642. However, Melo decided not to proceed to Paris due to the training and suspect loyalties of his Walloon cavalry. He vowed not to make the same mistake again.
But this year the French were prepared. Melo stopped and invested the French fortified town of Rocroi to secure his line of communication back to Flanders. The garrison sent frantic messages that they could withstand the siege for but two days. Fortunately, the French army was at Amiens under the young 21 year old Louis II Duc d’Enghien and Prince de Conde, placed just so to stop any future penetration of the Ardennes (…). D’Enghien rushed to Rocroi to break the siege before a reinforcing column of Spanish arrived. During the march, D’Enghien learned via secret courier that the King died that evening, and the throne passed to four year old King Louis XIV and his regent, the Queen-mother Anne of Austria. He wisely kept the news from his men: the death of the king would shatter the morale of his army and a loss at Rocroi would send France into chaos.
On the evening of 18 May, both armies lined up opposite each other outside of Rocroi. That night, Melo infiltrated a thousand arquebusiers under his most trusted subordinate, General Baltasar de Mercader, to ambush the French when they inevitably attacked in the morning. However, D’Enghien might have been young, but he was not inexperienced. The Princes of Condé campaigned for the Bourbons since the day they could keep themselves in the saddle. D’Enghien encouraged deserters and exploited his coreligionist Spain’s use of Catholic Walloons, Germans, and Flemings in invading France, instead of fighting Protestants. The French were neighbors, the distant Spanish were not; one of the first signs of the rise of nation-state codified five years later in the Treaty of Westphalia. Deserters from Spain’s allies were rampant, and Melo’s ambush was discovered and annihilated before dawn. Those troops, and more consequently Mercader, Melo’s best infantry commander, were sorely missed the next day.
At dawn, the battle was joined. D’Enghien attacked with his pikemen, musketeers, and arquebusiers in the center, and with his cavalry on the right. The cavalry on his left he held back due to the marshy terrain. The infantry fight in the center devolved into a stalemate that favored the Spanish tercios. The Spanish tercios were the scourge of Europe for the last 150 years, virtually unbeatable on the battlefield in a head to head melee.
A tercio was a Spanish infantry formation that combined the defensive power of a phalanx of pikes with the offensive power of sword and buckler men and the firepower of protected arquebusiers. But the tercio required professional or highly trained troops to operate effectively, especially on the offense. After 25 years of constant warfare, the Spanish no longer had enough veterans, and had to rely on less disciplined and trained proxies to fill out their formations. This was compounded by technical advances in arquebuses, cannon, and the recent introduction of rifled barrels and early flintlock muskets.
The tercios’ density gave it an unquestionable resilience on the defensive, but that same density limited the amount of troops able to engage the enemy. In contrast, the French, Dutch, and most famously the Swedes, experimented with line and block formations: lines of musketeers supported by blocks of pikemen. The line and block formations were relatively easy to control, and allowed a much greater percentage of the formation to engage, albeit at the expense of depth. The French flexibility and firepower offset the Spanish durability. Unfortunately for the Spanish, the proud commander of the center, Paul-Bernard de Fontaines was bed ridden and had to be carried on a litter. Without an aggressive commander to push them forward, the fight in the center stalemated, something that rarely happened to the tercios. The question became, who would break first?
On the left, the impetuous French cuirassiers attacked without orders through the marsh, became disordered and were smashed by a counter charge of German cavalry. However, the commander of the Spanish right wheeled his men to attack the French center, and exposed his own flank in the process. D’Enghien promptly dispatched his reserve and stabilized his left.
On the right, the French cavalry was under command of Louis XIII’s most experienced, energetic, and finest cavalry tactician, and mentor and kindred spirit to D’Enghien, Jean de Gassion. Gaisson crushed the suspect Walloon horse of the Spanish left. But instead of wheeling to attack the center as the Spanish had, Gaisson and D’Enghien led the superior French cavalry and charged the weak and novice German and Italian tercios of Melo’s reserve. The inexperienced tercios promptly routed and Gaisson seized all of Melo’s cannon. The Spanish center was surrounded.
Melo, rushing hither and yon about the battlefield trying to rally his broken cavalry, had to seek refuge among his tercios lest he be captured by the marauding French cavalry, who had free rein of the battlefield beyond the thrust of a pike around the Spanish center. Melo joined an Italian tercio, where he vowed to “die with the Italian gentlemen.” However, before they broke and he died, he led them away in a fighting retreat, and escaped.
Fontaines and the Spanish center was attacked on all sides by the French and was down to just one Burgundian and four Spanish tercios. Despite the merciless pounding they received from the French musketeers, Fontaines decided to stay and fight. His remaining men were the hard core of the Spanish Army of Flanders and they would die before breaking. Fontaine would fight it out and wait for the reinforcing column. The 6000 fresh troops would break D’Enghien’s weary men and rescue Fontaines. However, the reinforcing column stopped just three miles from the battlefield when it was met by the routed Germans and Walloons who told the commander the day was lost. Instead of confirming the information, the commander withdrew, leaving Fontaines to his fate.
An hour or so later D’Enghien brought forward all of the French and captured Spanish cannon and turned them on the remaining tercios. They pounded the unflinching Spaniards and Bugundians. Fontaines was shot and killed soon thereafter. The senior Spanish colonel offered D’Enghien terms to surrender, but when D’Enghien came forward under a flag of truce to negotiate, he was accidentally fired upon. This enraged the proud French whom massacred the offending tercio to a man. The remaining Spanish and Burgundians quickly surrendered to avoid the same fate.
The Battle of Rocroi signaled the beginning of the end of the Thirty Years War, and the weary belligerents signed the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. More importantly, the battle heralded French dominance in continental European affairs that ended only with Germany’s rise two century’s later. The Battle of Rocroi was seen as a good omen for the new king, the four year old Louis XIV whose ascendance to the throne was announced simultaneously with the victory by Richelieu’s replacement and protégé, Cardinal Mazarin. Fears of the Queen-mother, Anne of Austria being a Hapsburg puppet were ill founded. She was as dedicated to France as she was to her son, the future “Sun King”. Louis XIV would reign over France’s Golden Age. D’Enghien, soon named the “Grand Conde”, was one of his greatest commanders.