Threatened by British economic dominance among the Indians of the Ohio country, the French secured the lines of communication between their two most prosperous colonies in North America, Quebec and Louisiana. In the 1750s, the French expelled British traders, and constructed a string of forts in the Ohio country, connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River basin. These forts controlled waterways and portage points from Lake Erie south to the Ohio River, and included Fort Presque Isle on the shores of Lake Erie, Fort La Boef, Fort Machault, and most importantly, Fort Duquesne, at the strategic confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which form the headwaters of the Ohio River.
In 1754, Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia attempted to force the French out twice, once with diplomacy, and once with force. Both attempts were carried out by a young Virginia militia officer, George Washington. The French ignored the diplomatic attempt, and the second ended in the disastrous Battle of Great Meadows, in which Washington surrendered Fort Necessity. In the winter of 1755, British planners in Whitehall secretly authorized a “madly ambitious” four pronged assault to throw the French out of North America. Their plan did not take into account North American realities of distance, climate, ecology, logistics, nor had any regard for colonial and Indian culture and politics. In their comfortable London offices, they drew lines on maps over terrain that was nearly impossible to traverse with the troops assigned who for the most part didn’t exist. One prong was given to Major-general Edward Braddock and his two understrength Irish regiments, the 44th and 48th, who sailed for Virginia in the spring of 1755. Among the officers of the 44th, was young Lt Charles Lee.
Edward Braddock was a highly experienced and well placed officer of the Coldstream Guards. Though blunt, uncouth and boorish in polite society, he was a “soldiers’ general” and cared deeply for his men, like his idol, The Duke of Marlborough. The 44th and 48th were garrison units in the Irish Establishment, who had last both seen action in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. With the exception of a few officers, the men of neither regiment had been in battle or even on campaign. Due to their garrison duties, they had never drilled at the regimental level, much less together, and rarely at company level. Spread out in small platoon formation across the countryside, the strict rhythm and monotony of garrison duty in Ireland meant that most junior officers knew nothing of life on campaign, and little of the manual of drill beyond what was needed for daily tasks. For the expedition to America, the two regiments were reinforced by stripping other Irish regiments of “their dregs”. Still far below their authorized strength, the two regiments recruited in Virginia to make up the shortfall.
Braddock’s Expedition was to follow Washington’s trail north, capture all of the recent French forts in the Ohio Country, proceed up Lake Erie, capture Fort Niagara, and head east to link up with another prong sent to clear the French from Montreal. To prepare for this wildly fantastical plan, Braddock demanded support from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and the Carolina’s. After browbeating the governors, assemblies, and the Ohio Company for men and resources at the Alexandria Conference in April, 1755, Braddock’s Expedition grew to an impressive size: 2100 men with siege cannon, field pieces and heavy mortars capable of leveling Fort Duquesne if need be, and all of the support necessary to make the trek across the Appalachian Mountains. 150 wagons were acquired for baggage and supply, mostly at the behest of Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. Hundreds of camp followers accompanied the column. Each regiment, regular and colonial alike was allowed 40 women to accompany them, each inspected by Braddock’s surgeon to make sure they were clean.
Braddock was meticulous and exhausting in every aspect of his preparations for the expedition, and even adapted his men’s equipment to the realities of the Appalachian wilderness, such as leaving behind the NCOs’ halberds, the officers’ short pikes and the mens’ hangers (ceremonial short swords), and even had gaiters crafted for his men, to protect them on the march. Braddock took a direct professional interest in nearly every aspect of the expeditions planning and preparation, except Indian affairs.
Braddock didn’t ignore Indian Affairs, he just delegated it to William Johnson, a trader, friend of the Mohawk, and the Crown’s Indian agent in North America who was one of the most knowledgeable Europeans on the continent in the intricacies of frontier diplomacy. Johnson felt confident that he could bring the powerful Iroquois Six Nations, and thus their nominal vassals, the Ohio Indians, to fight for the British. Furthermore, Dinwiddie promised 400 Catawba and Cherokee warriors, but these refused to join the expedition once they found out the British were negotiating an alliance with their sworn blood enemies, the Iroquois. The Ohio Indians, even without direction from the Iroquois, were more than willing to help expel the French. It was their land that the French and Great Lakes Indians were on. George Croghan, a prominent Ohio country trader and sometime Pennsylvania diplomat was the quintessential “go-between” who lived on the frontier among the Ohio Indians, smoothed over any difficulties, and maintained colonial and tribal relations. Croghan sent wampum belts to arrange a meeting between the Ohio Indian chiefs and Braddock. Six chiefs and their entourages arrived, including from the Shawnee, the Delaware chief Shingas, and Mingo Half King Scaroudy. The French had brought their Indian allies to Fort Duquesne from the Great Lakes, and the Ohio Indians were keen to have them removed. The pretentious and arrogant Braddock alienated the chiefs almost immediately. When queried on the only subject the Ohio Indians cared about, whether the British would allow settlers into the Ohio Valley, Braddock replied absolutely and, “No savage shall inherit the land.” All but seven Mingo warriors departed. Scaroudy still clung to the old notion that the Ohio Country was under the complete influence of the Iroquois. When told of Braddock’s response, most of the Shawnee warriors, and many of the Delaware, joined the French.
In late May, 1755, Braddock’s Expedition departed Fort Cumberland led by Scaroudy, his six Mingo warriors, George Croghan and Braddock’s chief of scouts, Lt John Fraser, who had a trading post on the Monongahela about 12 miles from Fort Duquesne. They followed the path that Fraser usually took to his post, the same one Washington followed the previous year. The trail was completely inadequate for Braddock’s column, and the terrain took herculean efforts to conquer. The trail led through 110 miles of nearly uninhabited wilderness, “with steep rocky mountains and impassable morasses.” The column’s logistician and engineer, the indefatigable and irascible Sir John St. Clair spent months before the expedition arrived in America laying the logistical groundwork just to get Braddock to Fort Cumberland. Now he was building a road ahead of the column to accommodate the baggage wagons and the artillery train of six pound cannon and heavy eight inch mortars. Braddock’s Expedition averaged just two miles a day.
Nearly three weeks later, the expedition had travelled just 36 miles. At Little Meadows, the exasperated Braddock formed a “flying column” of about 1400. The flying column would have only five cannon and a few dozen of the lighter and studier wagons. The flying column didn’t have to cut as substantial a road, which made the rough going faster. The “supply column” left behind under the 48th’s commander, Colonel Thomas Dunbar, enlarged the road for the heavier wagons and artillery train. Braddock’s flying column averaged six miles a day, and soon left the supply column far behind.
Just behind the scouts in the flying column was a formation of 200 light infantry and grenadiers under a young Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage. Behind Gage was an independent militia company form New York commanded by Captain Horatio Gates. Gates was tasked with securing St. Clair’s 250 or so pioneers, with six tool laden wagons, who widened the road. The main body followed the pioneers, and consisted of the wagons, artillery, cattle, camp followers, and more workmen, flanked in the trees by two columns of 250 regulars. Braddock and his staff, including a dysentery wracked Washington who volunteered as Braddock’s aide, accompanied the main body. Small parties of flankers watched for French scouts. 100 Virginia rangers, most of whom were at Fort Necessity with Washington, brought up the rear of the column.
On 8 July 1755, the column reached the ford at the junction of Turtle Creek and the Monongahela River. The next morning of 9 July, Braddock crossed the Monongahela and expected to make camp that night about halfway between the ford and Shannopin’s Town, about four miles north of Fort Duquesne on the Allegheny River. There he would cross the Allegheny with half his column and travel down both sides of the river, and invest Fort Duquesne from the north and east, effectively isolating it from any outside assistance.
Across the ford was Fraser’s trading post which was at the limit of the wilderness. The Ohio Indians’ hunting grounds began at the now burnt out ruins of Fraser’s cabin. Unlike the dense terrain Braddock’s Expedition had spent the last month hacking through, the hunting grounds were relatively open and easy to traverse. The Ohio Indians managed their hunting grounds. There was little ground foliage because the Indian hunters burned the undergrowth annually. This improved animal fodder, removed cover for their prey, and allowed the hunters ease of movement. Whereas the column could see no more than twenty meters ahead before, the scouts could see 200 or even three hundred meters in all directions.
Surprisingly, the crossing of the ford was unhindered, though not unobserved. If the French were going to ambush, they would have done it in the wilderness, or at the ford. The British were jubilant, and believed that the worst part of the campaign were over. Most of Braddock’s column fully expected to hear the explosions of the French demolishing the works as they withdrew ahead of the far superior force. Fort Duquesne was just ahead, and the French had failed to respond.
The French didn’t respond to their scouts reports of Braddock’s progress because they were awaiting reinforcements from Quebec, and Braddock’s original progress was slow enough to allow reaction time. The reinforcements arrived in the first week of July, but Braddock’s relatively rapid progress in the last few days took the French commander Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecœur by surprise. He had 1600 French marines, Canadian militia, and Indian warriors. However, Fort Duquesne could only house 200, and he knew his Indian allies would disperse if he allowed the British to begin the siege. Also, Contrecœur’s Indian allies held a conference on 7 July to determine if it was more beneficial to abandon the post against such an intimidating force. The stubbornness of the Potawatomis caused the conference to go another day. Only when Contrecœur opened his stores up to the Indians to take what they wished, did they agree to attack. Thankful for the war chiefs’ renewed pledges, Contrecœur gave half his men to Canadian militia Captain Daniel Liénard de Beaujeu, about seventy marines, 150 militia, and 650 Ottawas, Chippewa, Huron, Shawnee, and Potawatomis warriors, to ambush Braddock. They never got into position.
On the afternoon of 9 July 1755, Beaujeu’s force was spotted cresting the ridge about 200 meters from the advanced guard. Gage formed his men into a line and opened fire, even though the range was more than twice what the Brown Bess musket was normally accurate at. Gage hoped to surprise the French and let them know they were dealing with disciplined professionals. But Beaujeu was also a seasoned professional, experienced in the ways of warfare on the frontier and working with Indian allies.
Beaujeu knew from the morning reports from the scouts that the British crossed the river and the delay had cost the French and Indians the good ambush sites. Instead he conducted a hasty attack after making contact, and planned to do so beforehand. Every one of his officers had years and sometimes decades living among the tribes, and fighting and trading on the frontier. Many dressed and looked so similar to the Indian warriors that they could only be distinguished by their gorgets. He attached one to each of the Indian small war parties that made up the bulk of his force. As Beujeau fixed Braddock’s vanguard, his officers would advise the small bands to envelop Braddock’s mile long column, destroy the flank guards, and prevent Braddock from creating a cohesive defense. The wagons at the rear was all the incentive the warriors needed to continue moving down the column.
Gage’s plan inadvertently worked on the Canadian militia, and Beajeu’s attack was seemingly aborted before it could get started. One of the first shots Gage’s men fired struck Beaujeu and killed him instantly. Seeing their leader go down, and unwilling to get closer and weather the fire, particularly from the two cannons, the Canadian militia and many Indians broke and ran back to Fort Duquesne to report the battle lost.
The death of their commander did not dissuade the French and Indians. Beaujeu’s officers knew his intent and they had discussed the battle plan ahead of time. His officers and cadets rallied many of the fleeing Indians, while those who did not flee continued enveloping the column. Beaujeu’s second, Captain Jean-Daniel Dumas and French Canadian Ottawa war chief Charles de Langlade rallied the marines and remaining militia and followed the Indian warriors into the attack. The open spaces of the Indian hunting ground were punctuated by stout old growth trees, fallen timbers, and tall shrubberies, essentially natural breastworks. The terrain was perfect for the Indians’ bounding advances. Instead of hunting game, they hunted soldiers in bright red coats clustered in small groups. In less than ten minutes, nearly all of Gage’s officers were killed or incapacitated. And dozens of his men were wounded on the ground, many more than were standing. The war whoops, and the Indians seen behind them unnerved those who remained. Gage ordered a retreat toward the main body before he was cut off and destroyed.
Gage’s men slammed into Gates’ who had hurried forward when they heard shots fired. Crude platoons formed and blazed away at the brush, while the Indians sniped the officers, or rushed in while the British were reloading. The Indians continued to envelop the British and colonials. The flank guards were isolated and destroyed. The British regulars had no idea how to fight in the wilderness, and their bayonets unwieldy against the tomahawk and war club. Soon the main body devolved into individual clusters of regulars doing the only thing they knew how to do in tough situations: reload and fire.
The pioneers and militia however did know how to fight on the frontier. Gates’ New Yorkers immediately took to the trees. They hid in the trees and brush and fought the Indians in the same way. Unfortunately, many British regulars mistook the colonials fighting in the trees for Canadian militia and fired on them. Many flank guards fell back to the column avoid fire from the main body. French marines pushed down the road and forced the main body back into the wagon train. Many of the wagon drivers joined in, such as Daniel Morgan, but many fled, such as Morgan’s cousin, Daniel Boone. The three cannon in the train kept the Indians at bay for most of the battle: until there was no more crew to reload.
Braddock rode forward and found most of his officers dead or wounded. He ordered the regulars near the baggage to reinforce the main body, but when they arrived, all they did was add to the confusion. For the next three hours, Braddock single handedly kept the main body in the fight, relying on British discipline and firepower to defeat the French and Indian attacks. Braddock had three horses shot out from under him. Nevertheless, he reformed ranks, while the British regulars loaded and fired like clockwork, defiantly taking the punishment from unknown sources. In the confusion, several groups of regulars fired upon each other. Braddock ordered several counter attacks to retrieve the cannon in the advanced guard and some high ground further up the slope to the right. Each attack was defeated by murderously accurate Indian fire as the Indians isolated then overran the attackers.
With the death of most of the British regular officers, the American provincials took to the trees to fight, the most effective being the Virginia rangers, and the South Carolina and New York independent companies. The Virginia rangers also attempted to take the high ground on the right, but were massacred when the main body on the road mistook them for Indians and put several volleys into them from behind.
Shrouded in smoke, the remnants of the column continued firing blindly, becoming even more unnerved by the Indian war cries and the prospect of a warrior appearing out of the smoke with a tomahawk and scalping knife. At Washington’s constant urging, Braddock finally saw the utility of fighting in the trees. Washington continually pointed out that Braddock’s most effective units were not the regulars in the open, but the provincials he readily dismissed fighting in the trees. But by then it was too late, there weren’t enough officers to effect the change, and the regulars were bunched together in the open seeking safety in numbers, oblivious to hell around them. Many were terrified, and few were still shooting since many of their muskets were fowled, and they were desperately attempting to clear them.
Shortly thereafter, Braddock was shot in the arm, possibly by his own men, whose ball penetrated into his lungs. When Braddock fell from his horse, the defense collapsed with him. The French marines pushed the assault. By ones and twos, and then by whole groups the expedition fell back to the ford over the Monongahela. No one wanted to be the last one on this side of the ford. Braddock’s staff carried him across the river. A silence descended on the battlefield, punctuated only by the screams and moans of the wounded. The French and Indians were reorganizing for the final attack. As one, the Indians resumed their war cries. At the ford, the victorious war whoops of the Indians broke what remained of British cohesion, as the men assumed they were going to be massacred.
Though he had no official position in the expedition Washington took command at the ford and formed a rear guard. After a brief fight the Indians quit the pursuit. There was no reason to continue the fight. Why get killed so late in the battle when back up the hill there were captives to round up, wounded and dead to scalp, and bodies to mutilate and loot? Braddock’s Expedition had 467 killed and another 450 wounded. The several dozen men who were captured were taken back to Fort Duquesne where they were ritually tortured and burned at the stake. The cattle provided the meat for the victory feast. Of the 50 or so female camp followers who accompanied the flying column as maids and cook, only four returned. The rest taken as slaves and assimilated into the various tribes.
At the previous camp Gage, as the senior surviving regular took command and reorganized the defenders. He sent Washington, who was sick with dysentery and had just fought a battle, to ride the sixty miles back to Dunbar, and return with all of the remaining troops. Washington did so, and eventually the reorganized column withdrew back to Dunbar. Fearing the French and Indians were pursuing after their orgy of victory, Dunbar, now in command, had the men set fire to 150 wagons and headed back to Fort Cumberland. Braddock finally succumbed to his wound on 13 July. To prevent his body from being taken as a trophy by the Indians, Washington and Dunbar had him buried in the road, and the entire expedition marched over it to conceal the grave.
Many junior officers, militiamen, and soldiers, including Fraser, Gates, Boone, Gage, and Morgan blamed Braddock for the defeat and not preparing his army to fight on the frontier. While his arrogance was certainly a factor, particularly with his potential Indian allies, Braddock went to war with the army he had, not the army they wished he had in hindsight. The Battle of the Monongahela would go down in history as the defeat of a regular army which refused to learn how to fight on the frontier. Washington learned the same, but also different lessons. He saw Braddock courageously rally his men who fought on for three hours, despite the French and Indians having every advantage. The disciplined British regulars broke because of a dearth of training and leadership. Washington knew how to fight on the frontier, but he would not forget what he saw Braddock accomplish with regulars. For the rest of his life, Washington would not disparage Braddock’s memory.
For the French, the Battle of the Monongahela was a massive logistics, intelligence, and propaganda victory. The French spent the weeks collecting equipment and stores form the battlefield. There was so much that Contrecœur had to build another large building outside of Fort Duquesne to store it. After some deserters informed him, Contrecœur did the same to Dunbar’s camp. Braddock’s artillery would be used by the French through the remainder of the French and Indian War. Braddock’s captured stores fueled the French offensive in New York. The greatest find, however, was Braddock’s own papers, which detailed the British plan to remove the French from North America, leading to the thwarting of the British thrusts in other areas. The papers were partially responsible for the British loss of Forts Bull, Oswego, and William Henry, and the failed expedition to capture Louisburg. Moreover, since the two empires were still not technically at war, the papers were proof that while the British crown and parliament preached peace with France, they were secretly planning for war. Braddock’s translated papers were published across Europe and were one of the catalysts of the Seven Years War.
The Battle of the Monongahela was the worst British defeat at the hands of an indigenous enemy until the Battle of Isandlwana, 124 years later. The British however, did not have to worry about the French or Indians in its immediate aftermath. The Indians broke into the 500 gallons of rum in the baggage, and many Indians got drunk. Between the booze, loot and captives, teh French would not be able to convince the Indians to \complete the destruction. France’s Indian allies started departing Fort Duquesne the day after the battle. Laden with scalps, loot, and captives, many Indians only wished to triumphantly return home. By August, Contrecœur reported that he had only 260 French Canadian marines and militia remaining, and just two Abenaki Indian warriors.
The warriors’ returned to their lands with tales of victory and loot. The Battle of the Monongahela was the “most glorious in which Indians were involved.” British loot decorated Great Lakes and Ohio Indian villages for decades. The battle became the standard by which Indian warriors came to judge all future successful battlefield encounters. Hundreds more Indian warriors flocked to the French. Ohio Indian tribes attempting to sit on the fence for economic reasons suddenly began attacking the colonial settlements on the frontier. The lack of British traders was made up by pillaging colonial homesteads. The Great Lakes and Ohio Indians sent wampum belts to the Iroquois and Cherokee, urging them to “drive the colonials into the salt water”. The frontiers of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia were set aflame, and the colonies brought to their knees. The frontier was rolled back behind the Appalachian Mountains once again.
For the colonists, the Battle of the Monongahela was a great awakening. The myth of invincibility enjoyed by British regulars was shattered. They fought “la guerre terra”, large war, and were defeated by “la guerre petit”, or small war. The most effective units in Braddock’s army were American, fighting as the Indians la guerre petit. The colonials took great pride in their culture that allowed them to adapt. Furthermore, after the battle the British regular army abandoned the Middle Colonies, leaving then to fend for themselves against the Indians’ “la guerre sauvage”, the total war on the colonists. The Americans were on their own, at least in the short term. Consequently, the term “American” came into more common usage to distinguish British colonials in North America from citizens of the British Isles.
When Washington was given command of the Virginia Regiment later that year to protect the frontier, he made sure it was trained in both la guerre terra and la guerre petit. They could fight in closed or open order on command. His Virginians fought jointly with the Cherokee who turned down The Great Lakes and Ohio Indian request to drive the Americans into the sea. Ranger companies formed in the colonies to protect the frontier.
The Battle of the Monongahela had more lasting effects on the French and Indian War, and even on the future United States of America. When Major-general John Forbes and Royal American regimental commander Colonel Henri Bouquet were tasked to take Fort Duquesne three year later in 1758, they did so with an army that could fight both conventionally and against the Indians on equal terms. Even more, Forbes made sure he didn’t have to fight the Indians at all, whom abandoned the French after they signed the Treaty of Easton. Most importantly though, they chose not to take Braddock’s Road from Fort Cumberland to the Forks of the Ohio. Two expeditions had departed Virginia via that route to seize Fort Duquesne, and both had failed. A new route, one not tainted in defeat was needed. Against the protestations of Washington, Forbe’s expedition set out from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and they cut a new road, Forbe’s Road, across the Appalachian Mountains. Their successful capture of Fort Duquesne, and subsequent construction of Fort Pitt, meant that the future of the Ohio Country lay with Pennsylvania and not Virginia.
Braddock’s Road wasn’t abandoned though. After the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War in 1763, Braddock’s Road became a high speed conduit for settlers from Virginia to enter the Ohio Country. One such was Daniel Boone. While in Braddock’s Expedition he became great friends John Findley, an associate of George Croghan, who described to Boone the wonders of the Ohio Country. 12 years after the battle, Findley took Boone on his first hunting trip to a place called “Kentucky.”
Boone was one of tens of thousands. What Braddock’s Expedition couldn’t do to the French and Indians of the Ohio Country, Braddock’s Road did
At 0700, on 5 July 1950, TF Smith, the farthest forward US unit on the Korean peninsula, engaged attacking elements of the Communist (North) Korean People’s Army in an attempt to delay their advance so General McArthur’s United Nations Command could establish a perimeter around the critical Korean port city of Pusan.
TF Smith was a 540 man battalion sized task force led by Lieutenant Colonel Brad Smith, the commander of 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, of the 24th Infantry Division. TF Smith was the first American unit to engage communist North Korean troops, who had invaded South Korea two weeks before on 25 June. TF Smith consisted of just two rifle companies and one artillery battery of six guns. Although World War Two ended less than five years before, only 1/6th of the unit had combat experience. Though they were highly trained, TF Smith was organized and equipped as a constabulary for the occupation of Japan. They were still equipped with the obsolete (even by WW2 standards) bazooka, and had no anti-tank guns or tanks. The hard lessons of combined arms warfare learned through the bloody crucible of the Second World War were lost or disregarded by petty bureaucrats who looked to make the peacetime army more efficient and cost effective. Consequently, TF Smith had no engineer or air support, and they lacked land mines, barbed wire, and had almost no time to dig in before they were attacked by a force that just days prior couldn’t be stopped by four entire South Korean divisions.
Despite given a mission that a fully equipped 3000 man regimental combat team would be hard pressed to execute, TF Smith held the line at Osan for three hours against two North Korean divisions, one infantry and one armored. By 1000, on 5 July 1950, they were out of ammunition and began an orderly withdrawal. However, in the process TF Smith was assaulted in the flank by about 40 communist tanks. LTC Smith’s men simply had no capability remaining (if it had any to begin with) to stop the Soviet produced T-34/85 tanks, the best Soviet tank of Second World War. TF Smith’s withdrawal immediately turned into a rout and only about half of TF Smith made it back to the Pusan perimeter.
TF Smith has since become a metaphor for ill preparedness though this was no fault of LTC Brad Smith or his men.
Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was comprised of three groups and at the time of Waterloo, nearly 22,000 strong counting the Guard Cavalry (with Ney) and Guard Artillery (in the Grand Battery). They were the Young Guard, the Middle (Aged) Guard and the Old Guard. (The Old Guard are who most people are familiar with). The Young Guard were the pick of the litter of the 1810-1815 campaigns and draft classes, and those not good enough for the Middle Guard. The Middle Guard were the best veterans from Napoleon’s 1805 to 1809 campaigns. The Old Guard consisted of the best soldiers in Europe, and were veterans of most of Napoleon’s campaigns, from as far back as the Italian campaign in 1790s. The Imperial Guard, particularly the Old Guard, had better pay, better rations, and the most senior were permitted to fight in their dress uniforms (back when awards actually meant something). They never retreated and they never surrendered. Napoleon knew each guardsman by name. They were the only soldiers outside of the Marshals permitted to disagree with or even complain in front of Napoleon, thus earning them the nickname “Les Grognards”, “The Grumblers.”
Thirty minutes after Ney’s request for the Guard, and a personal inspection by Napoleon himself, the remainder of the Imperial Guard, the last uncommitted French troops, stepped off into the attack at 1930. But that thirty minutes proved fatal. In that time, Wellington was able to reorganize his lines and bring over troops from the now inconsequential fight at Hougamont, or units pinched out of the fight by the Prussian advance near Pappelote. Nonetheless, the Old Guard had never been committed unless victory was assured. When the other French troops saw them in the attack, a great hurrah echoed across the battlefield, and any troops not engaged at Hougamont or Plancenoit, surged forward. Stragglers, wounded, staff, the lost, and the remnants of shattered formations joined in the attack. Everyone wanted to be a part of the last glorious charge of the battle; the Old Guard was in the van.
The final assault by the Imperial Guard was not enough. The Guard were too few, and the reorganized Allied firepower and numbers too great. One Middle Guard battalion took 20% casualties from a single volley from a British line that popped up 25 feet in front of them. The second volley caused even more damage. The same resulted wherever the Guard met the line, but still they came on or engaged in furious point blank musketry exchanges.
In a curious historical irony, it wasn’t the renowned disciplined firepower of the British that first broke the Guard, but a Dutch brigade led by Gen David Henrik Chasse. Chasse had fought against Wellington at Talavera in 1809 as a subordinate of D’Erlon. Chasse’s troops did not exchange fire with the Guard like the British but crashed into them with their bayonets, and overwhelmed the Imperial Guard with superior numbers. Chasse’s target was the unit whom a French soldier said of, “La garde recule ! Sauve qui peut!” or “The Guard retreats, save yourself!” Within minutes the rest of the Middle Guard broke. Other French units watched in horror as the unthinkable happened: the Guard fell back. With the Guard and consequently the French morale broken, individual British, Belgian, Dutch and German units advanced, just as the Prussians emerged from Planceoit. Wellington, sensing the battle won and ever the politician, raised his hat and signaled the general attack, lest Blucher get the credit for the victory.
By 2050, the only French units not destroyed or in full rout were the two of the four most senior Old Guard regiments, the 1st and 2nd Chasseurs. They escorted Napoleon from the field and when he was safely on a carriage to Paris, they turned and fought. First in a line, and when they were out-flanked, a square. When casualties were so high they couldn’t maintain a square, they formed a triangle. Finally the Allies brought up cannon and threatened to finish them with a bayonet charge. Before they fired, a young German Osnabrucker, Sgt Conrad Fuerhing, asked their commander, Gen Pierre Cambronne, if he wanted to surrender. Victor Hugo wrote that he replied, “La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!” or “The Guard dies, it does not surrender!” But what the hard drinking, hard fighting, tough as nails, soldiers’ general actually said was,
In literal English, “s**t”. In the figurative,
The reply was an apt end to the Napoleonic Era.
Wellington got his wish, though while he was stuck in a square fending off Ney’s cavalry, he didn’t know it. Blucher kept his promise from the night before. Von Bulow’s IV Corps slammed into Lobau’s understrength corps at Plancenoit and D’Erlon was forced to commit much needed units to keep Zeiten’s I Corps from rolling up his flank. Furthermore, Napoleon had to commit part of his reserve just to stabilize the situation, the least senior battalions of his Imperial Guard, the Young Guard.
The Young Guard was part of Napoleon’s personal command, the Imperial Guard, and could only be committed by his own words. Despite their lack of seniority, the Young Guard were some of the best troops in Europe and temporarily checked the Prussians, but the fighting in Plancenoit was fierce. It was the reverse of Hougamont and La Haye Sainte with the French barricaded in the buildings and courtyards and is considered by most historians as the worst urban fighting of the Napoleonic Era. Just after 1800, Blucher paused his attack and began to reorganize for a final push.
At 1830, Maj Baring could no longer defend La Haye Sainte: his troops were out of ammunition. They had fired everything they brought, everything they were given, and everything they could scrounge. D’Erlon finally threw them out. At 1850, the nimble horse artillery batteries began to pound Wellington’s vulnerable squares from near point blank range and soon they were joined by the big guns from the Grand Battery. It was at this point the mounted Earl of Uxbridge approached the Duke of Wellington and just that moment a cannon ball took his leg. Completely unperturbed, he said,
“By God, Sir, I’ve lost my leg.”
The Duke coolly replied, “By God, sir, so you have.”
Despite the pounding the Allies were receiving, the Prussian attack, Baring’s defense, and six hours of near constant fighting severely depleted D’Erlon’s Corps. Moreover, a reformed Dutch brigade attempted to retake La Haye Sainte. Even worse Wellington reformed most of his men back into lines. D’Erlon would need more men to even attempt to break through. And he needed them ricky tick: the Prussians renewed their attack on Plancenoit at 1900 with the near assurance of quick victory, and the French artillery was almost out of ammunition.
After a personal inspection by Napoleon himself, the remainder of the Imperial Guard, the last uncommitted French troops, stepped off into the attack at 1930, 18 June, 1815.
By 1500, Lobau confirmed that the Prussians were only five miles away and would be in a position to attack in less than two hours. Napoleon was now on the clock. A Prussian appearance would destroy morale, so he quietly started the rumor that the troops to the east were Grouchy’s. This bit of “command disinformation” had to hold up until Grouchy did show up, or Ney broke Wellington’s weak point, his center, and La Haye Sainte was its key.
Around 1530, D’Erlon threw the full weight of his reformed corps at the tiny farm compound, but the French numbers worked against them and Major Baring’s troops held out. Again trying to make up for his previous failure, Ney had assembled 12,000 (one, two, plus three zeroes) French cavalry to support him once he struck the ridge. Ney was expecting D’Erlon to steamroll the farm. Meanwhile, the Grand Battery continued to pound the remainder of Wellington’s line, then completely exposed on the forward slope after the counterattack.
By 1600, the Grand Battery was inflicting serious damage on the Allied troops, so Wellington pulled everyone not engaged around La Haye Sainte back to the reverse slope. Cavalrymen in the best of times are an impatient lot, and the fiery Ney with thousands of his brothers were no exception. To the great mass of cavalrymen, it looked as if the Allies were retreating. A great cry went up, and unwilling to wait any further on D’Erlon, Ney ordered the charge. Napoleon was furious but could do nothing to stop the impetuous Ney. The cavalry surged forward and easily overran Wellington’s cannon. But as they crested the ridge they ran not into retreating columns, but dozens of hollow infantry squares.
The infantry square is a formation that provided all around protection against a cavalry attack and relies on simple animal instinct: a horse will not throw itself against a wall of sharp objects, in this case bayonets. All the cavalrymen could do was ride up or around and whack the bayonets with their sabres, or shoot the Allies with their carbines and pistols. The square is horribly vulnerable to cannon shot and infantry attack, but with D’Erlon occupied with the fight on the reverse slope, no square would be broken that day.
But that didn’t stop Ney from trying and he personally led many of the attacks. While rallying a group of cuirassiers, he yelled, “Come and see how a Marshal of France can die!” He had five horses shot out from underneath him but he survived. Still, Ney wouldn’t stop and the Allies were hard pressed. If La Haye Sainte or Hougamont fell, and that infantry came to Ney’s aid, the game was over.
Around 1730, Wellington, stuck in a square and oblivious to anything beyond it, kept looking at his watch and saying, “Give me night, or give me Blucher.”
At 1300, Napoleon’s artillery was finally in position, and the 80 guns of the “Grand Battery” opened on Wellington’s line. Napoleon, a former artillery officer (imagine that), had made a career of smashing a portion of an adversary’s line with cannon and then following the through the rupture with dense columns of infantry acting as a human battering ram. Wellington knew this and placed the majority of his troops on the reverse slope of the Mont St Jean ridge, which protected them from the worst, but not all, of the cannon fire. The casualties began to mount.
At 1320, D’Erlon’s I Corps stepped off on the long march through the wet wheat fields, and finally Wellington’s artillery returned fire. For the next 30 minutes, the Allied troops stoically stood in formation and took it, while the French slowly marched forward and took it. On both sides, whenever holes appeared in the line, men from the rear ranks stepped into them. About 1345 pm, Wellington, fully within range of Napoleon’s guns (most of his staff would be casualties by the end of the day), commented,
“Hard pounding, gentlemen. Let’s see who pounds the longest.”
D’Erlon’s Corps first encountered the walled farm at La Haye Sainte and detached 7000 troops to assault it, as the rest continued on. The farm was held by 700 line infantry of the King’s German Legion. King George III of Britain (yes, that one) was not actually English, but German; his other title was King George of Hannover. The King’s German Legion were soldiers who fled Hannover to Britain when Napoleon conquered it in 1803 and they formed some of Wellington’s best troops. Major Georg Baring and his battalion proved a thorn in D’Erlon’s side for the next six hours.
Weathering round shot, canister shot, double canister, rifle fire, and finally the renowned disciplined musket fusillade from British infantry, D’Erlon’s 17,000 strong columns struck the British lines at 1400. D’Erlon knew his enemy though, and he concentrated his heaviest attacks on the least reliable of Wellington’s troops, the Belgians and Dutch. Wellington acknowledged this weakness and interspersed British and German units to stiffen their lines (just as he had done on the peninsula with the Portuguese and Spanish). However, the Dutch were hastily mobilized for this campaign and many of the Belgians fought for Napoleon previously, some for over ten years. After just 15 minutes, their lines cracked and then broke.
The rout of Wellington’s Belgians and Dutch in the center was Napoleon’s high watermark of the battle. Had D’Erlon had more troops, from any source, to secure the breach and prepare for the inevitable counterattack, the battle would almost certainly have been over. But after the long march under fire and the furious fight on the ridge, D’Erlon’s men by themselves couldn’t withstand a determined counter attack. Around 1430, the top hat and great coat clad Sir Thomas Picton led the 5th Division in a counterattack. Soon after, the British heavy cavalry moved forward to exploit the highlanders’ assault. Just after Picton unleashed his highlanders, the Earl of Uxbridge released the Household Brigade and the Union Brigade against the French. With La Haye Saint Sainte still under Allied control, the French had nowhere to rally, and the British cavalry swept the D’Erlon’s men from the field. The British cavalry was only stopped by French lancers and cuirassiers in a countercharge. Some of the British horsemen made it all the way to the Grand Battery.
D’Erlon was furious. His first attack nearly successful, and he inquired Ney as to why he wasn’t supported. His men would be forced to make the same attack again. Their ordeal was for nothing. Where was the cavalry? Bad staff work had them too far from the breakthrough. Where was the Imperial Guard? Napoleon jealously guarded their use. Where was Lobau and VI Corps? They were investigating a body of troops spotted six miles to the east.
The east? Blucher had arrived.
On 18 June, 1815 Emperor Napoleon I of the French faced Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and his Anglo-Dutch-Belgian-German Army just south of the town of Mont St. Jean. Napoleon planned on attacking the Duke at 9 am, but heavy rains the night before prevented his artillery from getting into position in time and, in any case, the soggy ground would greatly reduce their effectiveness. So Napoleon issued his orders and waited for the ground to dry. As he waited, the very sick Napoleon took a nap. At 1130, Marshal Michel Ney, Napoleon’s commander on the ground, wanted to make up for his failure to be aggressive at Quatra Bras and grew impatient. He gave the order for General Reille’s II Corps to begin their attack on the walled chateaux of Hougamont in order to draw away some of Wellington’s reserves in preparation for the main attack on the center of the British line.
Wellington knew the importance of Hougamont, and sent his best unit to hold it: the Brigade of Guards, backed by the best of the King’s German Legion: the Nassau and Hannoverian jaegers (German for “hunters”), light infantry whose accurate rifles made every tree precious. But Reille threw almost the entire veteran 6th Infantry Division, led by Gen Jerome Napoleon, the Emperor’s little brother, along with the 9th Infantry Div, at Hougamont. After fierce fighting on the approach, the French reached the gates and walls of the compound. But the chateaux and courtyard itself were held by the senior regiment in the British Army, the Coldstream Guards, led by the indefatigable Lieutenant Colonel James MacDonald, and there was an impasse. But make no mistake – the brawl for Hougamont was a still bitterly contested swirling maelstrom of a melee, in which no side had an advantage.
That is until 1230, when a monster-of-a-man, Sous-Lieutenant Legros, of the 1st Legre of the 6th Division, physically hacked through the northwest gate at Hougamont with an axe he found in the orchard. Thirty Frenchmen managed to storm through, and the entire battle hung in the balance. But LieutCol MacDonald personally led a counterattack during which Captain Henry Wyndam and Corporal James Graham managed to shut the gate. The thirty Frenchmen were all bayoneted, including Lieut Legros. The only survivor was a young unnamed drummer boy, whom was saved by Pvt Mathew Clay, and escorted to the chapel.
Though he didn’t know it, Wellington’s first crisis had passed.
Although the fighting around Hougamont raged all day, Jerome and Reille would get no closer to capturing it than they did at 1230. In an ironic twist, the fight for the chateaux and orchard would occupy almost a quarter of Napoleon’s Army. Like the campaign in Spain, the supposed feint at Hougamont, was a bleeding ulcer for Napoleon that consumed men and leadership, much needed elsewhere on the battlefield at Waterloo.
Today on the “bicentennial plus five” of one of the most famous battles in history, I am hoping to lay this one out for you like TA-50. Before we begin our journey, there is something you must understand first that is kind of a pet peeve of mine: the loss of context within the narrative. And the writers about the Battle of Waterloo are the worst at it.
The vast majority of non-scholarly work on the battle break it up into “The Five Great Acts of Waterloo”. They are:
-The Assault on Hougamont
-The French Attack in the Center
-Ney’s Cavalry Charge
-The Fall of La Haye Sainte and the Prussian Attack
-The Final Assault by the Imperial Guard
It is a readymade narrative that makes a great story. But it loses a bit of the scope of what was happening in those few square miles of fields, forests and buildings, between the Inn at LaBelle Alliance, Napoleon’s headquarters, and the “Butte du Lion”, “The Mound of the Lion”, the immortalized position where Wellington spent most of the battle. Many authors and film makers portray them sequentially, and I will be no different since I’m confined to my self-imposed limits of a blog post.
But they weren’t just sequential, they were sequential and then simultaneous. Think of a wave hitting a beach. The wave doesn’t actually hit the beach all at one time; it crests and rolls down the beach, as other waves follow behind it and strike where the first wave (and then second and then third…) had already subsided.
The Battle of Waterloo acts in the same way: Each act happened sequentially but each continued on throughout the day. The battle began with the assault on Hougamont, and after its initial failure the French began the attack on the center. But that doesn’t mean that the French gave up on Hougamont, the battle for the chateau and orchard continued all day, likewise with the attack in the center. This continued in a rising crescendo for more than eight hours until the climax of the battle, the final assault by the Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. It would be a disservice to everyone if you, gentle reader, thought that any single event was the only thing happening on the battlefield. Eight hours after the battle started, as Napoleon’s grenadiers were rockin their kickass bearskin caps forward, D’Erlon was still pushing from La Haye Sainte into Wellington’s center, Lobau was in the fight of his life against the Prussians at Plancenoit, Ney’s cavalry was still attempting to break squares, and poor Jerome was still feeding the meat grinder that was Hougamont.
On 13 June 1775, Rebel spies learned of a British plan to sortie out of Boston and break the American siege. Newly named Continental Brigadier General William Prescott devised a plan to fortify the Charlestown peninsula, the only logical place that the British could land.
On the night 16 June, Prescott, and another newly minted brigadier general, Israel Putnam, along with Colonel John Stark, and Dr. Joseph Warren (who should have had command but fought as a private out of respect for the Continental Congress’ 14 June decision) led 1400 men to fortify Bunker Hill, just past the Charlestown Neck. Whether by design or error, the Patriots fortified Breed’s Hill further down the peninsula, and then did not inform anyone at the Cambridge camp of the change. The decision would have grave consequences on the future battle.
The British were surprised (and would continue to be throughout the war) at the American ability to heavily fortify a position overnight, but it didn’t matter. With the Americans on Breed’s Hill, all the British had to do was land near Bunker Hill to win the battle. If the British occupied Bunker Hill, they would cut off Prescott’s force from the American siege lines, and then all they had to do was wait for them to run out of food and water and the Americans would surrender. British Major general Henry Clinton, actually proposed this course of action but was overruled by his peers. Major general William Howe, the new British commander who had just recently replaced General Gage, wanted nothing to do with an American surrender: He wanted to use the might of the British Empire of the to crush the rebels. He didn’t just want to defeat the Americans, he wanted to send a message about the futility of resistance. Fear was to keep the rebels in line – fear of the British Army and Royal Navy.
On the morning of 17 June 1775, Howe landed 3,000 men on the peninsula while the Royal Navy bombarded the Americans. The British initially didn’t attack, they sat on the beach and drank tea waiting for reinforcements. This gave time for Prescott to notice another flaw in his defense, Breed’s Hill could be outflanked to the north, and the entire Rebel position turned. Fortunately, Howe’s dithering allowed John Stark and New Hampshiremen to quickly scrape out a trench along a rail fence which blocked any movement north of Breed’s Hill. When Howe finally did attack, he sent a feint against Breed’s Hill and his main effort slammed into Stark, and was promptly defeated. Howe’s attack would have been successful had it occurred an hour earlier during morning tea time. In any case, when the British advanced up the hill Israel Putnam gave the famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, a common order in the age of the musket, while John Stark used a more practical series of painted stakes in the ground 100 paces out.
The American’s inflicted heavy casualties on the initial British attack and they retreated back to landing area, much to the jubilation of the defending American militiamen. Howe tried again, this time reversing the attacks, with the main attack on Breed’s Hill and the feint against Stark, but with the same result. The defeated British streamed back to the landing area, leaving their dead and screaming wounded littering the hill. After the second attack, the Battle of Breed’s Hill was a resounding American victory. Had the battle not occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, the names “John Prescott”, “Israel Putnam” and “John Stark” would be household names in America.
The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, and that fact was the reason the British could reform for another attack. Howe refused to allow the boats to transport his defeated troops back to Boston. Stuck on the beach with nowhere to go, Howe and his staff and subordinate general officers rallied the British troops. They reorganized the formations, their staffs filled in for the fallen officer the Americans deliberately targeted, and Howe personally led the third attack.
As the situation stood the Americans couldn’t defeat a third attack. They impotently watched the British reform on the beach. Prescott couldn’t attack due to the untrained nature of his militia, but more importantly the American were running out of ammunition. The main army at Cambridge was continuously feeding troops and supplies onto the Charlestown peninsula, but the situation to the west of Breed’s Hill was chaotic, to say the least. Many American troops and most of the powder and shot stayed on Bunker Hill, and never made it to Prescott. When He departed the night before, Prescott said he was going to defend bunker Hill, so that’s where his supplies and reinforcements stayed. Few American officers marched their men to the sound of the guns, and only went where they were told. Furthermore, Prescott left no one on Bunker Hill to coordinate the reinforcements and desperately needed supplies. Finally, the Royal Navy was shelling the Charlestown Neck and Bunker Hill to isolate Breed’s Hill. Many American militiamen got their first taste of cannon fire there, and wanted no more of it. Hundreds turned around and went home.
The Americans had few casualties so far in the battle and if Prescott had the men, powder, and shot sitting on Bunker Hill, he could have defeated Howe’s third attack. But he didn’t, the Howe’s third assault carried the earthworks at bayonet point. The Americans just couldn’t stand against the British bayonet (…yet). They retreated off the peninsula. The retreat was disorganized, but several units surprised the British with their dogged and orderly fighting withdrawal, especially John Stark’s New Hampshire regiments. Many British officers were impressed with the fighting quality of the Americans when they were obviously properly trained. Nonetheless, most of the American casualties were during the retreat, including both William Prescott and Dr. Warren, whose deaths were a grievous blow to the American cause.
All was not lost though. Howe refused to follow up his victory, and continue the attack into the disorganized and defeated Americans. The newly coined Continental Army was shaken by the losses at Bunker Hill and its defeated defenders streaming back into camp. In any case, it did not have the powder for another battle. The vast majority of the Continental Army’s powder was used up or lost at the Battle for Bunker Hill. Had Howe pushed, the entire Continental Army may have broken up.
Fortunately for the Americans, Howe didn’t, and he settled the Pyrrhic victory at Breed’s and Bunker Hills. Howe had defeated the Americans, but he had so many casualties, Howe would not be able to lift the siege anytime soon. Clinton remarked in his diary, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” The Battle of Bunker Hill was a propaganda victory for the Americans. The amateur Americans had stood up to the mightiest army in the world and threw it back twice with horrendous casualties. The British recognized that Americans were serious, and capable. The defeat at Bunker Hill had far reaching repercussions on American operations. For the next three years, American planning would be dominated by “Trying to create another Bunker Hill.”
Rumors about the extent and horrors of German concentration camps had been circling among the Allies for about two weeks, mostly from news stories about the Soviet discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp system, and the American liberation of the camp at Buchenwald on 4 April. On 15 April 1945, the British 11th Armored Division became the next initiates into the horrific and insanity inducing fraternity of soldiers who first discovered a National Socialist concentration and extermination camp when they liberated the camps at Bergen-Belsen.
The camp at Bergen-Belsen was originally a Wehrmacht prisoner of war camp, and an exchange camp where Jewish civilians were held so they could be traded for German prisoners of war captured by the Allies. About 50,000 Jews, Polish and Russian pows died in the overcrowded camps before Bergen-Belsen was turned over to the SS in 1943. After the Wannasee Conference, Bergen-Belsen was expanded into concentration and extermination camps. Jews from across the Third Reich were sent Bergen-Belsen based on their potential ransom. The Jews were either exchanged for prisoners or sold to Allied and neutral nations for hard currency. Jews that didn’t sell quickly enough or got sick were shot. As the Russian armies closed in from the east, prisoners from the camps in Poland were sent west and many ended up in Bergen-Belsen.
By 1945 disease was rampant. Typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged the overcrowded camps. Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in February 1945. On 11 April the typhus outbreak was so bad the SS created an exclusion zone around the camps and handed them over to British without a fight. Unfortunately, the peaceful transfer of the camps enabled time for the National Socialists to destroy the very meticulous records of their atrocities.
When the Brits arrived on 15 April 1945, they found 64,000 half starved and sick prisoners in camps designed to hold 10,000. They also found 19,000 unburied corpses. The captives had not eaten for days and madness and chaos engulfed the camps. The British troops restored order and trucked in food, water, and medical supplies and personnel to deal with the survivors. Medical specialists were flown in from Britain to assist. Despite their best efforts, about 500 prisoners died everyday for next the few months, mostly from disease. One of the last Luftwaffe attacks of the war occurred at Bergen-Belsen on 20 April which killed three British medical orderlies and several dozen prisoners.
The British forced the camp staff and civilians from nearby Celle to bury the dead. Correctly assuming that future generations would deny the Holocaust and National Socialist atrocities, the British command documented the Bergen-Belsen camps. No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit (like todays combat camera detachments) thoroughly covered Bergen-Belsen and interviewed as many survivors and liberators as possible.
The madness inducing pictures and recordings are available on the Imperial War Museum’s website.
The camps at Bergen-Belsen were so thoroughly riddled with disease that the camps were completely evacuated in August and burnt to the ground to prevent further spread. In the end, about 100,000 prisoners died at Bergen-Belsen from torture, medical experiments, disease, malnutrition, or execution, including about 14,000 after it was liberated, most to disease or complications in feeding.