The Battle of Berestechko

In 1648, the Zaporozhian Cossacks under Hetman Bohdan Khemelnytsky revolted against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under King Wladyslaw Vasa. The Cossacks were descendants of the original multiethnic settlers that settled the Ruthenian (Ukrainian) steppe after the fracturing of the Golden Horde in the 14th and 15th Centuries. They formed the border marches against the Tartars in the Crimea and the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. The Orthodox Cossacks were normally very loyal to the Catholic Commonwealth, but the Counter-Reformation after the destructive Thirty Years War and rise of the magnates, the real power in the Commonwealth, changed that.

The Commonwealth was supposedly ruled by a king elected by a large gentry and nobility that made up the upper and middle classes. But in reality, it was ruled by about thirty ultra-rich landowners called magnates. The King had no real authority and ruled through the Parliament. However, most legislation was defeated due to a parliamentary device known as the “Liberum Veto”, where any noble could single handedly veto a bill. With perpetual gridlock, the magnates ruled vast estates virtually autonomously. In 1648, one magnate, Daniel Czaplinski, attempted to confiscate the technically free land of the Cossacks, including Khemelnytsky’s. Khemelnytsky appealed to King Wladyslaw Vasa, but the powerless king could do nothing. So Khemelnytsky revolted, and brought the entire Zaporozhian Sech with him. Additionally, Khemelnytsky acquired the help of the Tartar Horde under the ruthless Khan Tugar-Bey, and together they drove the Poles and Lithuanians from the Steppe.

After three years of brutal fighting which ravaged the eastern provinces (It was said that a good Polish or Ruthenian slave could be bought for just five piastres in the markets of Istanbul or Crimea), the new king, Jan II Casimir, managed to convince the Parliament to call a levee en masse of the Szalchta, or gentry, and with the personal armies of several magnates met the Zaporozhian Host and the Tartar Horde outside of the town of Berestechko in the Volhynia on 28 June 1651.

For three days, 300,000 soldiers and warriors of the two armies clashed in the largest land battle of the 17th century. The winged Polish husaria, mailed panzerini, and saber wielding szalchta of the Polish and Lithuanian Hetmans (warlords) met the Tartar arrows and scimitars, and the muskets and lances of the Cossacks in a freewheeling frenzy that more resembled a massive brawl than any organized battle. Both sides would win the field at times only to be stopped at the massive circled wagon-forts of the camps which allowed each side to regroup and counterattack.

On the third day, Togar-Bey was killed and the Tartars deserted away from the camp. Seeing the Tartars fleeing, many Cossacks followed suit. The Cossack wagon-fort fell when the only professional infantry that the King had, German mercenary musketeers, stormed the weakly defended camp. Khemelnytsky was captured but was pardoned on his word to bring the Cossacks back into the fold after some reforms by the Poles. But Khemelnytsky knew the king couldn’t keep his word due to the liberum veto.

Casualties were high on both sides due to the battle, but Cossacks’ were much higher, so much so that Khemelnytsky sought assistance from the Russian Tsar when he revolted again in 1654. The Russians would eventually subsume the Cossacks and invade the Commonwealth proper. While occupied with Russia, Sweden would also invade in 1655, followed by Brandenburg Prussia in 1656, and Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldova (read: Ottomans) in 1657.

Poland-Lithuania would eventually prevail in what is now known as “The Deluge”, but the country was devastated, and the eastward expansion into Siberia would not be made by the Poles and Lithuanians, but the Russians.

The Battle of Sullivan’s Island

While the British regulars were locked up in Boston throughout late 1775 and early 1776, Americans in the remaining colonies threw out most of the British and loyalist officials. When Howe evacuated Boston, two large expeditionary forces were made available to Howe: one under Gen. John Burgoyne that went to lift the siege of Quebec, and another under Gen. Henry Clinton, which sailed south.

In June 1776, Britain’s only friendly harbor north of the Caribbean was in Nova Scotia. And another was needed to effectively subdue the colonies. With only 4000 men New York and Virginia were out of the question, so Clinton headed south to the supposedly friendlier Carolinas and Georgia.

Clinton sought to link up with Scottish loyalists from the backwoods of North Carolina. However, when he arrived off of Cape Fear, he found out that the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Moore’s Bridge two weeks before so he headed further south to Charleston, South Carolina.

In colonies that were prepared to fight against the Crown, South Carolina was close to the top of the list. Charleston was the third largest city in the colonies, the center of patriot resistance in the south, and home to most of the arms manufacturers in the Southern colonies. Thousands of Scots-Irish patriot militia poured into the city from the backwoods, and fortifications defending the city were started in late March 1776. Unfortunately, they were not completed when Adm Peter Parker’s flotilla of eight warships appeared off the coast in June with Clinton’s men. The northern entrance to Charleston Harbor was guarded by a half finished fort on Sullivan’s Island commanded by COL William Moultrie with 500 men and thirty pieces of artillery. Only two walls of the “fort” we’re started. But they were thick and consisted of palmetto log retaining walls filled in with sand, and had firing platforms for the guns.

On 28 June 1776, Clinton’s men attempted to march on the rear of the fort by fording from nearby Long Island while Parker destroyed the it with cannon fire and landed marines. But the ford was chest deep, and a small blocking force prevented Clinton from ferrying across. Nonetheless, Parker was confident he could complete the task himself.

Parker opened fire and Moultrie responded in kind. To make up for a relative lack of gunpowder, Moultrie’s gunners made every shot count, greatly damaging the fleet. Parker’s fire was continuos and heavy but the spongy palmetto logs absorbed the shot. Most accounts of the battle note the logs of the fort “quivered” when hit instead of splintering. But that didn’t help the men on the platforms whom took a terrible pounding. The high watermark of the fight came just before dusk when the flag Moultrie designed was struck down fell outside the walls. SGT William Jasper yelled “We shall not fight without our flag!” and ran through the fire to grab it. He fastened it to a cannon swab so the city could see it since the flag staff was broken. The act inspired the defenders and they increased the rate of fire, so much so that when dusk fell, Parker decided that any further bombardment would just get his barely floating ships sunk.

Unable to force the narrows, Clinton’s men reboarded. Parker returned to the bigger Long Island to join with Howe’s substantially larger invasion of New York later in July.

The Battle of the Somme: Artillery Preparation

On 24 June 1916, at exactly 0900, 427 British and French heavy field guns and howitzers, and 1010 pieces of field artillery opened up on at a 23 km section of the German trench lines just north of the Somme River. (That’s one gun firing for every 16 meters of trench.) They would fire ceaselessly for next week, stopping only when the gun barrels overheated. Once they cooled off, they continued firing. They were tasked to destroy the German trenches and strongpoints, and cut the wire in no man’s land.

As it began, General Sir Henry Rawlinson commented, “Nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it“

Operation Barbarossa: the Invasion of the Soviet Union

On 22 June 1941, the largest, costliest, and most bitter, brutal and destructive military campaign in recorded history began when four million mostly German troops stepped off along a thousand mile front in their long march to destroy the Red Army.

Most Red Army units were taken completely by surprise. Up until 21 June, Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union were defacto allies. Furthermore, Stalin’s purges had eviscerated the Red Army, and even the limited reforms brought on by Marshal Georgy Zhukov after the near defeat in Finland the year before couldn’t change the fact that the quickest way to get shot or sent to Siberia was showing any capacity for independent thought. The new T-34 and KV-1 tanks, which were far superior to anything the Germans had, were the Soviets’ only tactical advantage, though the lack of any competent supporting leadership or logistics and communications systems rendered them mostly ineffectual.

But what the Soviets lacked tactically was more than compensated for in the long run by the Germans’ flawed strategic thinking. “Blitzkrieg” was an operational concept not a strategy, but Hitler was using it as one. Blitzkrieg finally had its bugs worked out after poor showings (in professional warfighters’ eyes at least) in Poland, France and the Low Countries, but finally came into its own in the Balkans, even if the still mostly foot bound and horse drawn Wehrmacht was not equipped to properly exploit it. In any case, Blitzkrieg was enemy focused, not terrain focused and its ultimate objective was always the destruction of the enemy army. Hitler believed that a quick campaign to destroy the Red Army would cause the “whole rotten house to crumble down”. He could not have been more wrong.

Hitler underestimated Stalin’s control of the population and willingness to sacrifice it to slow the invasion. The German General Staff estimated that the Red Army had 350 divisions. By August the German Army killed or captured more than 2 million Soviet soldiers and identified more than 600 divisions. The stunning advances and destruction of entire Soviet fronts in July and August turned into the realization in September and October that the Red Army didn’t matter. In the vast wilderness of the Russian hinterlands, only the Communist regime in Moscow mattered. But by then it was too late: the weather turned and the Eastern Front had turned into an apocalyptic battle of attrition.

Upon hearing of Barbarossa, Churchill was asked if he would support Stalin despite him standing for everything Churchill opposed. He replied, “If Hitler invaded Hell, I’d at least make a favorable reference to the Devil”.

The first phase of the Second World War was over; it’s most destructive phase had begun.

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.