Category: History

The Battle of Chalons (Catalaunian Fields)

Stymied by the Great Walls of the Qin and Tang Dynasties in the early first millennium CE, the Huns moved west. They drove entire nations before them, creating a ripple effect that exacerbated the rot inside the Roman Empire and brought about its fall. When the Huns burst into Europe 400 years later in the mid fifth century, Rome had been sacked three times in fifty years, and what remained of the Western Roman Empire was a Romano-Celtic-Germanic conglomeration at the ripples’ end in Gaul (modern France).

In 450 CE, Honoria, the sister of Roman emperor Valentinian III, was unhappy with her betrothal so she sent a message to the Huns’ leader, Attila, for assistance. Attila took the message as a marriage proposal with the Western Roman Empire as a dowry. Valentinian obviously disagreed. Atilla, known as the Scourge of God because Christians believed that he was sent to punish the corrupt Romans, invaded.

In 451, Attila and his army crossed the Rhine and sacked most of Gaul before confronting a combined Romano-Germanic army under Attila’s friend, Flavius Aetius, and the Visigothic King Theodric I, son of the infamous Alaric, who sacked Rome in 410.

The Allied army was typical of the “barbarization” of the Roman military in the final days of the Roman Empire. Ironically, so was Attila’s. Gone were the days of Roman legionary heavy infantry and Hunnic horse archers, though they existed in small numbers in both armies. Each army was mostly Germanic foederati, light spearmen and horsemen, though the Franks allied with Flavius were already known for the quality of their heavy(er) cavalry. On 20 June 451, outside of Chalons on the Catalaunia Fields, the two nearly indistinguishable armies met. In a chaotic battle in both which commanders lost control, they fought each other to a standstill. Theodric was killed, but Attila felt that no chick was worth this and retreated.

The Battle of Chalons was the last gasp of the Western Roman Empire. Attila’s campaign broke the Roman army, destroyed Gaul, shattered the Visigothic Kingdom, and neutered the Hunnic army. None recovered. Into the vacuum stepped the Slavs and various Germanic nations, especially the Franks. In gratitude for their service (and because they were going to take it anyway) Valentinian gave the semi mythical leader of the Franks, Merovech, land around the town of Aachen as his own. Within 50 years the Merovingian Franks would be the masters of west central Europe.

The Death of Mumtaz Mahal

Photograph by Kristian Bertel

In the late 15th and early 16th century, Timurid Prince Babar conquered the Indian subcontinent and established the Mughal Empire (Mughal is the Hindi word for Mongol).

In 1631, the Mughal empire was ruled by Shah Jahan I and his beautiful wife, trusted confidant, and constant companion, Empress Mumtaz Mahal. On 17 June, 1631, the empress died giving birth to their 14th child. Shah Jahan commissioned a 46 acre resting place in Agra for his beloved wife that would take 17 years to complete. The Tomb of Mahal, or Taj Mahal, is the ultimate expression of Islamic art in India.

The Austro-Prussian War

Romanticism was the emotional reaction to the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment and the first Industrial Revolution. By the end of the Romantic Era in the mid nineteenth century, there was no greater zeitgeist in Central Europe than the unification of the German people. Since the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages, the German people have been ruled by dozens of small independent dukes and princes. Other nations had united and formed great empires, such as France, Great Britain, and Russia. Now it was the Germans’ turn. In 1866, it wasn’t a matter of if or when, but who would lead it: the Prussians on the North German Plain or the Austrians of the Austrian Empire.

The multiethnic Austrian Empire wasn’t a melting pot. It was more of a garden salad with each ethnicity separate from the others, but all in the same bowl covered in a bit of Habsburg dressing. In 1866, the empire was wracked and weakened by 30 years of nationalist revolutions. Prussia was almost the exact opposite. He had been at peace with only limited wars since the Age of Napoleon half a century before. Furthermore, Prussia on the vulnerable North German plain had for centuries known that the only defense it had against its enemies was the quick mobilization of his army. The technology in the mid-19th century finally allowed that mindset to become a strategic advantage.

Under the direction Field Marshal Helmuth Von Moltke (the Elder) the Prussian army developed a General Staff dedicated to the operational and logistical details necessary to fighting a modern war. This led to a mobilization plan that was regional and four times as fast as Austria. Furthermore, Prussia had extensive railways and telegraphs which allowed those mobilized troops to concentrate quicker. Finally, the Prussians were equipped with the Dreyse Needle Gun, the world’s first bolt action rifle, which was far superior to the muskets and muzzle loading rifles of the Austrian army. (For comparison, imagine if the entire Union army in the contemporary American Civil War had been equipped with Spencer repeating rifles).

Prussia’s pragmatic chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck, deftly negotiated the European isolation of Austria and then on 16 June 1866, engineered a dispute with Austria over the succession of the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. The resulting Austro-Prussian War of 1866 lasted just seven weeks, and only so because Austria continued well after defeat by the Prussians against Garibaldi and his crusade to unite Italy. As a result, Prussia would unite all of the North German states under its rule. It was the first step to Kaiser Wilhelm I forming the German Second Reich in 1870.

The Bayonet Trench

On 12 June 1916 during the battle of Verdun, two battalions of the French 137th Infantry were caught in exposed trenches by German artillery observers. In the subsequent bombardment the regiment broke and scattered . As the survivors reformed, no members of the 3rd Company were found.

Three years later after the war was over, French burial and UXO teams exploring the battlefield found a precise row of bayonets sticking up from the earth. Digging underneath, they found the members of the 3rd Company locked in a death pose preparing to go over the top. They were all simultaneously killed by concussion and their trench instantly filled by debris from the bombardment.

August Landmesser

Be this guy.

August Landmesser, like many Germans, joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party because of Adolf Hitler’s promise to undo the wrongs perpetrated against the German people in the Treaty of Versailles. However, by 1936, he was concerned with the Nazis demonizing anyone who disagreed with Hitler – he was married to a Jewish girl. However, the population of the country at this point was disarmed, and criticizing the Nazis meant a one way trip to the Dachau concentration camp. Many of his friends agreed with him privately, but were cowed into blindly following Hitler.

On 13 June 1936, August Landmesser attended the launching of the new Kriegsmarine training ship, the Horst Wessel. Surprisingly, Adolf Hitler himself dedicated the ship. When Hitler stepped up to smash the champagne bottle on the bow, the crowd cheered wildly and saluted.

Landmesser couldn’t bring himself to salute a man who demonized his wife and daughter.

August Landmesser was caught in 1937 trying flee to Denmark with his family. They were imprisoned for “dishonoring their race”, and were never seen again.

The Battle of Trois-Rivieres

America’s first invasion of Canada in 1775 started off well. Colonel Benedict Arnold’s surprise attack through the Maine wilderness was a disaster, with troops having to eat their belts, but it fixed Governor Guy Carleton in Quebec, and allowed Brigadier General Richard Montgomery who moved north from Fort Ticonderoga to seize Montreal and besiege Quebec. On New Year’s Eve, a surprise assault in a blinding snowstorm was discovered by an alert sentry mere seconds before the Americans were over the wall. Montgomery was killed and the new commander Brigadier General John Thomas, with the headstrong Arnold (still an ardent patriot at this point in the war) settled in for a siege.

In May 1776, the first British and Hessian troops from Europe under General John Burgoyne arrived to put down the rebellion. With just 2000 men, Thomas couldn’t continue the siege and retreated toward Montreal. But the American governor there so alienated the population of the city that they banded together with a small outlying British garrison, and the Mississauga, Seneca, and Cayuga Indians to throw out the Americans. By this point Brigadier General John Sullivan arrived with reinforcements, saw the futility of trying to hold Montreal with a superior British approaching from Quebec, took command of everyone, and headed quickly back to Ft Ticonderoga.

They would have made it intact if they hadn’t been intentionally led astray by a Canadian guide on 8 June 1776. The treacherous canuck led the American army into a swamp while “looking” for the ford at Trois-Rivieres. By the time they extricated themselves Carleton’s vanguard caught them. In the chaos that followed, 50 Americans were killed and 230 captured. The British had ten casualties.

Sullivan still managed to save the bulk of the men, which prevented Burgoyne from invading the nascent United States in 1776, but America’s first invasion of Canada had failed.

Brusilov’s Offensive: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

In 1915 and 1916 the First World War battles along the solidified trench lines of the Eastern and Western Fronts followed a familiar pattern: the attacker would launch a massive weeks long artillery bombardment to shatter the defenses. At the appointed time, the attacking infantry officers would blow their whistles and they and their men would climb out of their trenches i.e. “go over the top”, into “no man’s land” and get mowed down by machine guns because artillery never kills everyone. But soon the weight of numbers told and the attackers broke through. However the breach was not exploited because the attacker’s reserves and logistical support couldn’t traverse the artillery shattered terrain quick enough. Even if they could, the defensive reserves were already close because the build up and long bombardment gave away the point of attack. The defenders would inevitably counterattack and retake the positions. The defeated attacking commanders would cry lack of artillery and demand more and heavier guns, and more shells. The bloody cycle would continue. Millions died.

In early May 1916, the Imperial Russian government was under intense pressure to launch a general summer offensive in order to draw the Germans away from Verdun where the Germans were erasing a 3000 man infantry regiment from the French order of battle every day. The Russians reluctantly did so but only had enough shells for an adequate pre attack bombardment for one front, and they chose General Ewart’s Western Front. The other fronts would have to make do with enough shells for just a single day’s bombardment, well below the minimum ten days thought necessary to break the standard German or Austro Hungarian triple belt defensive line.

The Southwest Front Commander, General Aleksei Brusilov, protested that the lack of shells would cause excessive casualties. He was told that was his problem and to attack anyway. Brusilov wasn’t a deep thinker but he was a practical and competent cavalrymen who cared deeply for his soldiers. He gathered his staff to figure out a way to break the opposite Austrian lines without murdering entire armies. He and his staff locked themselves in the headquarters for three days and did what Russians do best: drink vodka and figure out new, efficient, and effective ways to kill people.

They did.

After the vodka laden brainstorming and planning session with his staff, Brusilov issued new guidance to make up for the lack of artillery support for the upcoming June offensive. Normally, at least ten days’ worth of shells were needed to break a triple belt trenchline, he had but one. To make up for this weakness, he had to use what he had more efficiently, specifically his infantry. Strong points and key terrain in the Austro-Hungarian line were identified, scale models were created, and picked troops were assigned, specially equipped, trained, and rehearsed in their capture. The rest of his troops dug massive underground bunkers that could house these assault troops close to the front lines without alerting the Austro-Hungarians. They also went back to old siege techniques from 17th and 18th centuries, and dug assault and infiltration trenches into no man’s land, some of which got to within 75m of the enemy forward trenches. Brusilov also used his artillery to directly support the infantry attacks, instead of the indirect blanket support heretofore used so far in the war. He would have just a single hour’s worth of initial bombardment, and its only task was forcing the defenders into their own bunkers. The artillery would then switch to counterbattery and opportunity fire which necessitated an overhaul of the poor fires coordination between the artillery, infantry, and aviation. Finally, he brought up all of his reserves, and more importantly, delegated most of them to his army commanders since he did not see the Austro-Hungarians counterattacking in force the way the Germans would farther north. His army commanders could respond more quickly with them close at hand.

On 4 June, 1916, the entire Russian Army, from Baltic Sea in the north, to the Carpathian Mountains in the south, went over the top. Troops of Ewart’s Western Front facing the Germans were massacred. Brusilov’s Southwestern Front broke through and exploited the breach on the first day.

With no massive telltale artillery stockpiles and troop concentrations, the Austro-Hungarians were completely surprised by the attack. Brusilov’s revolutionary new tactics ensured that most forward Austro-Hungarian units were captured in their bunkers settling in in anticipation of a long bombardment. In most areas, two of the three trench lines were overrun before the defenders put up any resistance. And the third was easily punched through. Since the roads were relatively undamaged by the shelling, the nearby reserves quickly drove into the Austro-Hungarian rear areas.

In a war where offensive gains were measured in yards for the last 20 months, Brusilov’s Southwest Front drove forward fifty miles in 72 hours. Despite the seemingly narrow gains on the map, Germany’s ally crumbled.

By July, the Germans had to withdraw troops from the North and West to finally stop Brusilov’s drive from knocking the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the war. This relieved pressure on the French, but it finally ground the Russian’s wildly successful offensive to a halt. Still Brusilov was the darling of Tsar Nicholas’ II court and the Southwest Front was showered with resources. If Alexei Brusilov could do so much with just a single day’s artillery, imagine what he could do with twenty!… or so the thinking went.

Unfortunately, Brusilov didn’t learn his own lessons.

With the massive support, Brusilov reverted back to the old ways. Four months and one million casualties later, the Russian people were tired of the senseless killing. Revolution was in the air.

The Battle of the Atlantic: the U-boats’ Lifelines Are Severed

The capture of a fully functional five rotor Enigma machine off of U-110 in early May, 1941 allowed Bletchley Park to read the German Kriegsmarine operation’s orders within days, and sometimes hours after they were transmitted.

The first use of the newly available intelligence windfall were the locations of all of the German tankers and supply ships that U-boats used to replenish without going back to port. Between 2 and 5 June 1941, four Norwegian and Danish flagged tankers, and two freighters packed with torpedoes and food were sunk. The lost ships so upset the German rotation that the operation was the equivalent of sinking 30 U-boats. The British let slip to a known German double agent that the ships were identified due to the preponderance of search assets in the Atlantic because of the Bismarck, and a spy in the Kriegsmarine Headquarters.

Operation Rheinübung

Math doesn’t lie. The British Isles required X tonnage of shipping resources to maintain the war effort and the Germans were sinking more tonnage than was being built. Churchill knew it, and if nothing changed the war would be over by the end of the year. For Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Chief of the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy) that was not soon enough. Raeder was a surface man, and he was being outshone by his erstwhile subordinate, Adm Karl Doenitz, the chief of the U-boats. Ton for ton, Raeder’s surface raiders (hehe) were much more effective than the U-boats but there were only so many. Raeder wanted a decisive blow to knock out Great Britain. Fortunately for him, the brand new battleship Bismarck just finished its sea trials in the Baltic. The Bismarck was the most powerful battleship in the seas around Europe, and clearly outclassed anything the British had. In early May 1941, Raeder conceived of Operation Rheinübung (Exercise Rhine) to bring Great Britain to its knees once and for all.

Britain took extraordinary precautions to prevent German capital ships from breaking out into the Atlantic not because they sank many ships (though in some cases they did), but because they sent the convoy system into chaos. This chaos added weeks to transit times in some cases, and scattered some convoys which made the stragglers easy pickings for aux cruisers and U-boats. In March, the cruiser Admiral Hipper nearly shut down the sea lanes along the west coast of Africa, and the Admiralty was still recovering from the damage done by the breakout of the battlecriusers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in April.

Operation Rheinübung was the plan to re-break out the battlecriusers from France, and breakout the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer from Norway along with the Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen from the Baltic, so they could form an unstoppable flotilla in the Atlantic. The British would be forced to mass their fleet of older battleships and battlecruisers to take them on. While the Brits consolidated, the convoys would be at the mercy of the Germans.

In the second week of May 1941, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen took on extra supplies, prize crews for future captured vessels, and the operation’s commander, Vice Admiral Gunter Lutjens. On the night of the 18th, Lutjens quietly slid out of the harbor at Gdynia, Poland.

It was the beginning of Churchill’s worst nightmare.

The Battle of Legnano

When Charlemagne, the “Heir to the Roman Empire”, died in 814 CE he divided the Frankish Empire among his three sons. The eastern third went to Louis the German. Louis and his descendants formed the Holy Roman Empire from parts of modern day Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech, and Northern Italy (which was probably not “Holy”, “Roman”, nor an “Empire”… all are debatable though). 350 years later, in 1176, at the height of the Investiture Controversy, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa invaded Italy to force the Italians to respect his authoritay and force the Pope to stick to spiritual and moral matters, and get out of his secular business. He did this by first sacking Rome.

On his way back, he needed to deal with the Pope’s staunchest allies, the Lombard League of Northern Italian city-states, which supported the Pope because they wanted to appoint their own city magistrates (madness!) something Barbarossa vehemently opposed. After burning down a few towns, his 3000 strong Imperial army of German knights and men at arms approached Milan. Marching to meet them was a mixed force of 3500 Milanese knights, pike armed militia, crossbowmen, professional companies of armsmen, and the Carrocio. The Carrocio was the sacred war wagon of Milan. It was a giant cross and alter draped in the red and white for Milan’s patron St. George, filled with trumpeters, and drawn by three sets of oxen. The Carrocio was guarded by the elite Company of Death, charged by the city to die protecting it.

On 29 May 1176, the knights of the Imperial army scattered the Milanese knights at the first clash outside of the town of Legnano. They then impetuously charged the Carrocio, and were stopped cold by the large shields and long spears of the Company of Death. They attempted to shift their attack to the pike militia but the example set by the Company and the presence of the Carrocio inspired them to hold fast. Fixed by the Company, the phalanx of pikes and the crossbowmen methodically murdered the knights. The arrival of the reformed Milanese knights broke the Imperial Army.

Frederick Barbarossa was presumed dead (he was seen falling from his horse), but surprisingly, he appeared alone at one of his Italian vassal’s castles three days later bloody and bruised. In the end, the Lombard League got their magistrates, the Pope agreed to stay out of temporal affairs and got the Papal States so he could still build his shining city on a hill, and Barbarossa would shift his energies to the Holy Land and the Third Crusade. Finally, pike formations would slowly grow in popularity until they dominated the battlefields of the Renaissance.