In 1791, the nervous monarchies of Europe finally declared war on the Revolutionary France to restore the Bourbon monarchy and prevent the spread of liberte, egalite, and fraternite (liberty, equality, and brotherhood) to their lands. The War of the First Coalition started well for the monarchies, as a large mixed army of Austrians, Prussians, Hessians, and French emigres under the Duke of Brunswick seized several French fortresses and brushed aside any French revolutionary resistance.
By the end of the summer 1792, Brunswick was deep into French territory and advanced on Paris through the Argonne Forest. Brunswick was shadowed by the French Army of the Center under Francois Kellermann. At the time, Revolutionary France’s Army of the North under Charles Dumouriez was invading Austrian Netherlands. But with the threat to Paris, Dumouriez turned south and joined Kellermann. Dumouriez and Kellerman appeared behind Brusnwick and along his lines of communication eastward back to Prussia. Though the French were outnumbered 54,000 to 84,000, morale was high, a good portion of the army were professionals from the old Royal Army, and even though Paris was exposed, the cautious Brunswick would never leave an enemy army to his rear. They were right.
The Napoleonic idea and practice of advancing forward to the objective while foraging off the land was still a decade in future, and Brusnwick’s Army was tied to its depots in the German states. Brunswick could have easily seized Paris but instead turned his army east and attacked the French at Valmy.
In the driving rain, the two armies lined up at opposite ends of the field of battle and commenced an artillery duel. Unlike the bulk of the infantry in the French Army, which were made up of raw but passionate volunteers, the artillery still consisted of the professional gunners from the old Royal Army. For decades, the French artillery was considered the best in Europe. Unlike Brusnwick’s gunners, they kept their powder dry, and a steady stream of accurate fire pounded Brunswick’s lines. Furthermore, Brunswick’s artillery got the worst of the exchange, which demoralized the rest of the army, who would soon have to advance into the teeth of the French cannon. As Brunswick’s Army began to advance, the infantry assault was checked by French fire. And though there was a brief panic after a French ammunition wagon exploded, Kellermann was quickly on the spot, and cried out “Vive’ le Nation!”, which spurred the volunteers to break out into loud and enthusiastic renditions of “Ca Ira” and “La Marseillaise”. Brunswick couldn’t exploit the brief opportunity and broke off the assault completely because he felt the position was too strong and he could fight elsewhere. His army withdrew east away from Paris, never to return.
German poet Wolfgang von Goethe who was present at the battle, told his retreating comrades, “Here and today, a new epoch in the history of the world has begun, and you can boast you were present at its birth.”
Valmy provided a much needed boost to the French Revolution. In 1792, the French Revolution was beginning to collapse as increasing amounts of control was taken by radical elements, which alienated many French citizens (Lafayette being the most famous). Upon the news of the victory at Valmy, the French Legislative assembly formally abolished the monarchy and formed the National Assembly. The French Republic was born. The Battle of Valmy was the best chance the monarchies of Europe had to snuff out the French Revolution. It would take more than two decades, six more “Wars of the Coalition”, and Napoleon’s defeat, for the monarchies of Europe to get that close to Paris again.
Throughout early September, 1942, the Japanese 17th Army at Rabaul ferried thousands of troops down New Georgia Sound, better known as “The Slot”, to Guadalcanal in a nightly ritual the Marines referred to as “The Tokyo Express”. Because of the aircraft on Henderson Field and the carriers USS Hornet and Wasp, the Tokyo Express would speed down the Slot at night, unload troops and cargo on Guadalcanal’s north tip, shell Henderson Field, and depart before they could be sunk by Allied aircraft in the morning.
By the second week of September, the Japanese were ready to attack. On the evening of 11 September, 6000 men of MG Harukichi Kawaguchi’s reinforced 35th Brigade (of which Ichiki’s Regiment was the vanguard) began the 17 mile approach march through the jungle to Henderson Field. At dawn on the 12th, they attacked the Marine perimeter.
LtCol Merritt Edson, commanding 900 Marines of the 1st Marine Raider battalion and the remnant of the 1st Marine Parachute Battalion, fought off Kawaguchi’s relentless assaults over the next two days. The Japanese launched waves of banzai charges and the Marines engaged in brutal hand to hand combat to stop them. Nonetheless, Edson’s men were forced back along the length of “Bloody Ridge”. In several instances the Japanese broke through to Henderson Field’s flight line where support personnel had to throw them back, or were turned back by Marine gunners firing over open sights at the charging Japanese. In the end though, the Battle of Edson’s Ridge shattered Kawaguchi’s brigade.
On 15 September 1942, LTG Harukichi Hyakutake, commander of the Japanese 17th Army, received the news of the defeat and after receiving concurrence from Yamamoto and the Imperial General Staff, suspended all other offensive operations in order to reinforce Guadalcanal. Yamamoto was seeking the “Kantai Kessen” or decisive battle, with the Americans specifically the US Navy. Yamamoto felt that the battle for Guadalcanal would draw the US Navy into the open where it could be destroyed in a single epic confrontation. Once the bulk of its navy was sunk, America would surely sue for peace, just as the Russians did after Tsushima 40 years before. Japanese operations in the Pacific for rest of the war can be characterized as the search for the Kantai Kessen with the US Navy.
1500 miles away, the Japanese on New Guinea were within sight of Port Moresby (and almost certain capture of the island), when Yamamoto’s order gave the Australians some very much needed time to reorganize. The Japanese would never threaten Port Moresby and the Australian mainland, again.
With America’s entry into the war, Admiral Doenitz’ sent all of his available long range Type IX U-boats to sink merchantmen along the unprepared and nearly undefended East Atlantic coast. The British knew this was happening through the Ultra intercepts, but the Americans ignored them. So began the “Second Happy Time”, as U-boat captains sank ships off the American coast and in the Caribbean Sea with impunity.
The German Kriegsmarine’s (Navy) Happy Time of the first eight months of 1942 wasn’t necessarily destined to be so happy just because of American arrogance and laxity; the Battle of the Atlantic got exponentially more difficult for the Allies on 1 February 1942. On that day, the Kriegsmarine switched from a three rotor to a much more secure four rotor Enigma machine for their U-boats’ operational communications. When Alan Turing and the boys and girls of Hut 8 at Bletchley Park woke that morning, they found they could no longer read the Germans’ mail. Undetected U-boats went about slaughtering the vital merchantmen needed to keep Britain in the war.
Turing needed a four rotor Enigma machine, or at least as much German cryptographic material as possible, such as code books or old messages (these were a source of “cribs” or known plaintexts with their corresponding ciphertext, that dramatically reduced the time needed to decode messages) if Britain and America were going to go back to evading the U-boats and attacking them, instead of chasing them around by following the trail of sunken ships they left behind.
The task to “pinch” i.e. steal, a four rotor Enigma machine fell to the commandos of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters. Mountbatten’s normal targets for enemy cipher material were German weather trawlers in the North Atlantic, but they dried up when the Germans established their secret weather stations in Spitsbergen Islands in the Arctic Ocean. The commandos came to rely on sensitive material they captured on various raids to fill the void, such as the Loften and Vargas Islands in Norway, and St Nazaire in France, but none produced what Turing needed, including several other operations planned specifically to pinch a machine but were aborted for various reasons.
In early April 1942, Britain’s clandestine secret service, MI6, and its research arm, the blandly named Inter Service Topographical Department (ISTD) identified a four rotor machine and a veritable treasure trove of cipher material in the Moderne Hotel at the French port of Dieppe. The Moderne housed a Kriegsmarine port headquarters, a headquarters for a squadron of minelayers, and most importantly, a detachment from the Kriegsmarine Special Purpose Signals Regiment 618. MI6 even pinpointed the location of the Enigma machine: locked in a safe in a storage room in the basement.
Mountbatten gave the operation to raid the Moderne Hotel at Dieppe to the “Authorized Looters of the Admiralty”, Ian Fleming’s (author of the James Bond novels) 30 Intelligence Assault Unit. 30AU was a covert intelligence gathering formation that “cleaned up” after, or during, regular and commando operations, and then went out of their way to hide the fact that they did so, so as to preserve the integrity of the information they acquired. Combined Operations planned Operation Sutter using 30AU supported by 40 Royal Marine Commando for June. But several attempts in June and July failed due to bad weather. Sutter was scrapped, and Mountbatten was told to pinch another machine somewhere else.
However, the plan was resurrected in late July by Winston Churchill. Mountbatten considered Churchill his direct superior, much to the General Staff’s dismay. Churchill was fascinated by commandos, cryptanalysis, cloak and dagger stuff in general, and even by Mountbatten, whom he considered a younger version of himself. Operation Sutter was the combination of all of these and Churchill couldn’t resist. Furthermore, Mountbatten was “growing his empire” with the Prime Minister’s support and his operations were getting progressively larger. He still wanted, and needed, to execute Sutter, but the security risks caused by aborted attempts meant that it had to change. So instead of just 30AU and 40 RM Commando, he’d use a whole division. Mountbatten wanted to “crack a nut with a steam hammer” to cover up the true objective in the Moderne Hotel.
Mountbatten wanted the Royal Marine Division but Churchill was under intense political pressure to get the 2nd Canadian Division into the fight. They arrived in Britain just after the evacuation at Dunkirk and had been training for almost two years and had not seen any action. Operation Sutter was renamed Operation Jubilee and the 2nd Canadian Division would provide the steam hammer.
Operation Jubilee was the first Allied large scale division-sized amphibious operation in the European theater. As the US Marines were finding out at that moment in the Solomons, it was much more difficult and complicated than at first realized, especially since the Canadians and commandos weren’t assaulting mostly unoccupied beaches, but a heavily fortified port. The plan called for independent commandos to first clear heavy gun emplacements on the flanks of Dieppe. The next wave of Canadian infantry was to clear machine gun nests and pillboxes overlooking the main assault beaches. The Canadian main body would follow on with a frontal assault supported by tanks on Dieppe itself. While the engineers accompanying the main assault were wrecking the port facilities (the stated cover objective for the raid) 30AU and 40 RM Commando was supposed to secure the hotel and seize the Enigma machine. For the job, 30AU even recruited a former cat burglar and safecracker, given amnesty for his previous crimes, specifically for the mission. In addition to an entire division, this single individual was supposed to be supported by copious amounts of naval gunfire and RAF bombers. However, the bombers were called off as they were too inaccurate and they couldn’t risk damaging the hotel. The supporting battleships and cruisers were also called off in the name of security: the Germans would certainly wonder what they were doing when they entered the English Channel.
At 3 am on 19 August 1942, the invasion force left the south of England to raid Dieppe to “help relieve the pressure on the Soviets and open the second front against the Germans in the West”, which we know now was complete bullshit. Unfortunately, the invasion force didn’t even get across the English Channel before things started to go wrong.
The landing craft of No 3 Commando, charged with silencing the coastal battery at Berneval to the east of the main landings, ran into a small German coastal convoy, whose armed trawler sank or scattered most of their landing craft. However, a handful of the indefatigable commandos managed to land and prevent the guns from firing by sniping at gunners. They accomplished their mission but it was an inauspicious start to the operation.
Further west was the only bright spot of Jubilee. No 4 Commando under the indomitable Lord Lovat, and accompanied by 40 Americans of the newly formed US Army Rangers, “in a classic operation of war” seized and neutralized the battery at Varangeville. The rest of the operation was a disaster.
When the next wave of Canadians came ashore to clear the German positions covering the main assault beaches, the Germans were already alerted and waiting for them in previously unidentified caves and firing positions. The Canadians were massacred and accomplished none of their objectives. Shortly thereafter the main assault landed directly into the teeth of the German defenses. Naval gunfire by destroyers off shore and air support by fighters and fighter bombers was completely inadequate. The few tanks that made it to shore were either stuck in the sand or stopped by roadblocks from getting into town. The engineers needed to blow the barriers were easy targets for German machine gunners. Few Canadians reached the town, much less the hotel. Maj Gen John Roberts, the commander of the 2nd Canadian Division, ordered in his reserve and then 30AU and 40 Commando to force their way in. But after three unsuccessful and very costly assaults, the order went out to evacuate.
Of the 5000 men, mostly Canadians, that took part on the Raid of Dieppe, 900 were killed, 600 wounded, and almost 2000 were captured. Dieppe was a national disaster for Canada. The Germans were genuinely confused about why the Allies would try to force a division sized landing against two full regiments in a fortified city, or even conduct an operation that was “too large for a raid and two small for an invasion”.
They wouldn’t know the answer for seven decades until a curious Canadian historian came across a single recently declassified signals intelligence document from the ISTD that simply stated, “Dieppe Objective Not Realized”, and then unraveled from there.
Mountbatten and Churchill would both maintain the fiction til the day they died that the Raid on Dieppe was a large scale rehearsal for the future amphibious invasion of France. To that end, Dieppe did provide plenty of lessons learned in large scale amphibious operations, in particular naval and air fire support, beach composition and reconnaissance, simplicity of concept and simultaneity of concurrent objectives, among many others. These lessons would be directly incorporated into and instrumental in the success of the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November of 1942. But the cost for those lessons, and that fiction, was high: in addition to the casualties, Roberts would be made a scapegoat, and the Germans would bask propaganda value of the Allied defeat for months.
As for the original objective of the Dieppe Raid, the four rotor Enigma machine? Turing would have to wait another two months when one fell into the figurative Allied lap after a chance capture of sinking U-boat off Egypt in October.
In mid August, 1777, British General John Burgoyne’s plan to capture Albany and the Hudson River valley, which would separate New England from the Middle and Southern colonies, was beginning to suffer from logistical problems. In addition to gunpowder and food, his army was in desperate need of horses. To remedy this, he dispatched LieutCol Frederich Baum and 800 Hessians, mostly dismounted dragoons, to the town of Bennington, Vermont which he expected to be defended by no more than the remnants of Seth Warner’s brigade of Green Mountain Boys, at most 400 men.
Unfortunately for the Hessians, John Stark was commissioned by the state of New Hampshire to raise a force of militia to protect the area. John Stark was a former Lieutenant in Roger’s Rangers, a former Continental Army Colonel (he resigned and returned to New Hampshire after being passed over for Brigadier General), and Hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, where his men defeated a flanking attack across the Mystic River beach (which forced the costly frontal attacks) and then led the rear guard as the Americans withdrew. Stark had an uncanny ability to predict his foe’s maneuvers. He would do the same again against Baum.
Stark had twice as many men as Baum, nearly 1600, and moved on the Hessian column upon discovering it. Both sides received militia and Indian reinforcements but Baum didn’t know the area and moved into a defensive position on a hill to await more reinforcements from Burgoyne. Stark’s militia immediately surrounded the position.
On the morning of 16 August 1777, John Stark addressed his troops, “Yonder are the Hessians. They were bought for seven pounds and tenpence a man. Are you worth more? Prove it. Tonight the American flag floats from yonder hill or Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”
Molly Stark did not sleep a widow that night.
Unlike American militia in most Revolutionary War battles, Stark’s men from Vermont and New Hampshire fought as well as any regular from the Continental Line, and engaged the Hessians, Loyalists, and Indians at bayonet and saber point all afternoon. Just after the mortally wounded Baum surrendered, Hessian reinforcements from Burgoyne arrived, and they too were savaged, escaping only because night fell.
At Bennington, Burgoyne lost over a thousand men. Even worse, the remainder of his expedition was cut off from any forage and isolated in the wilderness of Northern New York. Burgoyne had no choice but to move on Albany as fast as possible, lest his men starve, or freeze to death later in the year from a lack of winter quarters.
In 1776 and early 1777, the US Ambassador to France, Silas Deane, was handing out promises of commission to any man with military experience who was willing to travel to America to join Washington’s Continental Army, which was in desperate need of trained and experienced officers. Unfortunately, most were long on resume and short on actual experience. However, in April 1777, two officers ran the British blockade in a private ship and arrived in Charlestown, South Carolina in late June.
The first was a giant bear of a man, the 56 year old Johann von Robais de Kalb, better known as Baron DeKalb. DeKalb was the son of a Bavarian shoemaker and a career soldier. At 16, he left home to join a German regiment in the French Army and served with distinction in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and made a noble for his exploits. After 30 years of service, he retired in 1764, but found that civilian life in a small estate outside Versailles with his rich French wife didn’t suit him. In 1767, he traveled to America as part of a clandestine French mission to assess the possibility of the thirteen North American colonies rebelling against Great Britain. He was so impressed with the American people that he decided he would join their inevitable revolution. He got his chance in 1777, when he met a young man of similar ambitions — Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.Lafayette was DeKalb’s opposite in every way. The slight Lafayette was just 18 in 1777. At the age of 14, just four years previously, he married a relative of the King of France, and was commissioned a sous-lieutenant in the King’s Musketeers, and soon a lieutenant in the dragoons. He was as deficient in military matters as DeKalb was experienced. But he was as dedicated to the American cause as DeKalb after a dinner party in which the disgruntled Duke of Gloucester, King George III’s brother, expressed support for the rebellion. However France was actively trying to stay out of the American Revolution and as a relative of the French king was forbidden to depart. So the extraordinarily wealthy teenage Lafayette just went to Spain with DeKalb and several other officers destined for service in America, and bought a ship.
The “Victorie” took the men across the Atlantic and Lafayette bought coaches to take them to Philadelphia, where they planned to collect Silas’ promised commissions as major generals. But Washington had been burned by adventurers with imaginary exploits who convinced Deane they were something they weren’t, and Continental Congress couldn’t afford to pay a general’s salary to someone who wasn’t. They refused to honor Deane’s promises.
The rich Lafayette offered to serve for no pay. This, and the timely intercession of Ben Franklin by correspondence, won over the Continental Congress, who was still debating the merits of turning away so well connected a Frenchman. On 31 July 1777, the 19 year old Marquis de Lafayette became the youngest major general in the history of the US Army, an accomplishment that still holds today. He received his commission exactly 18 years after his father, a colonel of grenadiers, was killed at the Battle of Minden fighting the Prussians in the Seven Years War. Lafayette departed to assume a position on Washington’s staff shortly thereafter.
Lafayette’s commission infuriated DeKalb. The proud and quiet, but equally competent German was much more qualified for a commission as a major general than the young Lafayette (and all of the Continental generals, and even Washington for that matter…) He had grown fond of the Frenchman, who looked to DeKalb as a mentor and great friend, but the slight couldn’t stand. He lobbied for a commission for a month before the large and thoroughly exasperated German burst into Congress and demanded his commission, laying out his extensive military career to the aghast assembly. Still they refused. The resigned DeKalb finally requested payment to return to France, which he implied was the least bit of recompense for a breach of trust between himself and the fledgling nation. On 17 September 1777, the ashamed Congress relented, and the next day, DeKalb left for Washington’s staff to eventually take command of two Massachusetts’ brigades on the left of the Continental Line.
MG DeKalb added much needed professionalism to the Continental Army. When Washington ordered the army into winter quarters at Valley Forge later that year, DeKalb was instrumental in the training and discipline of the Continental Army. Unfortunately, history would award his fellow German, Baron Von Steuben, the lion’s share of the credit for the professionalization of the Continental Army at Valley Forge, but it couldn’t have been done without DeKalb.
For the next two years DeKalb would be Washington’s most trusted and stalwart division commander, and always in the thick of the fighting. DeKalb was tragically killed during the disaster at Camden in 1780, fighting to the last with his regulars, as Horacio Gates’ militia fled the British and Tory bayonets.
MG Lafayette would follow a different course. Lafayette had come to America “not to teach, but to learn” and this greatly impressed Washington. He inserted himself wherever he was needed. The young man would become the son Washington never had. Despite his youth, Washington trusted Lafayette with his most difficult and sensitive commands and missions. For example, Washington entrusted the young 19 year old with an invasion of Canada in 1778, which was cancelled at Lafayette’s request due to lack of supplies and men. However, “The Fearsome Horseman” as he was known among the native tribes, brought the Oneida nation over to the American cause, whose support would be much needed in Sullivan’s Iroquois campaign the next year. Lafayette would be hugely influential in the delicate negotiations with France to coordinate a common strategy after France’s entry into the war. Lafayette would fight for America wherever and whenever needed for the rest of the war, and it was his independent command that maneuvered Cornwallis into a box at Yorktown.
After the war, Lafayette would return to France and continue his service in the name of Liberty. He would be one of the few nobles not exiled, or executed by the guillotine during the French Revolution. He stood firm for a representative government in France, and was one of Napoleon’s few political enemies after his rise to emperor. Lafayette continued his quest after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. It was a 70 year old Lafayette at the barricades as head of the National Guard during the Revolution of 1830. Afterwards, he turned down an offer as dictator after the royalist troops were routed.
Lafayette died in 1834 a hero to both America and France. He was buried in a French cemetery, but underneath soil taken by his son, Georges Washington, from Bunker Hill, whose memorial Lafayette dedicated.
At a eulogy in America, former president John Quincy Adams said of Lafayette, he was, “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”
By early 1942, Germany had used up its oil reserves and was suffering significant oil shortages. Despite extensive interwar investment into synthetic oil plants, 75% of Germany’s oil was supplied by the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. In March of 1942, Romania ministers informed Hitler that they could not meet Germany’s planned oil needs for 1942. On 4 April 1942, Hitler signed Fuehrer Directive 41 which made seizing the Caucasus oil fields a priority. This would also have the added benefit of denying the oil to the Soviets, and was desperately needed by the German economy.
Despite being at war for almost three years, and engaged in hostilities with Great Britain, the Soviet Union and now America, the German economy was still not on a war footing. Furthermore, the larger amount of territory that needed defended combined with the losses of men and material in the past year, especially during the nearly incessant Soviet winter counterattacks, reduced the capacity of Germany military to conduct offensive operations. Unlike Operation Barbarossa the year before, the Wehrmacht could no longer launch a general offensive in the East on three axes. Therefore, Fall Blau (Case Blue in German), the German offensive in 1942 would focus on Army Group South at the expense of the center and north. Army Group North would continue its limited attacks on Leningrad, while Army Group Center stood fast in front of Moscow.
Due to extensive German deception operations, Stalin had expected the Germans to continue on towards Moscow and was taken completely by surprise by the German advance south east across the Ukrainian and Russian Steppe. After defeating several wasteful Russian spoiling attacks, on 28 June 1942, Fall Blau launched 1.3 million German, Romanian, Italian, and Hungarian troops towards the Caucasus Mountains and the Volga River. Four armies supported by eleven panzer divisions of Army Group South assaulted southeast with the final objective of seizing the oil fields at Maykop, Grozny, and Baku in the Caucasus Mountains and around the Caspian Sea. They did so with three axes of advance. The first was clearing the Crimean peninsula and capturing Sevastopol which had been under siege for many months. The second and main effort would be the strike towards the Caucasus for the oil fields. And the third axis was an advance on the Volga River in a supporting effort to protect the flank of the Caucuses.
The initial advance was wildly successful, especially so in areas supported by the Luftwaffe.
In the confused French dynastic struggles after the Hundred Years War, Charles the Bold, who was the Duke of Burgundy and brother in law to both the King of England and King of France, was more powerful than his liege lord, Louis XI of France. The Duchy of Burgundy at the time consisted of most of modern Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and significant parts of France. At the conclusion of the truce made with Louis at Peronne in 1468, Charles seized some towns on the Somme, and in 1471 Louis declared him treasonous. The hot tempered Charles, who at this point saw no reason why Burgundy shouldn’t be an independent kingdom like France, England, or Austria, invaded. His intent was to unite with another rebellious vassal of Louis’, the Duke of Britanny. Their combined might could easily defeat the French king’s army.
The Burgundian army of Charles the Bold was the most modern fighting force of its time. Charles’ father Philip the Good learned the hard lessons of the Hundred Years War, when armies with small cores of disciplined full time professionals consistently out maneuvered and outfought much larger feudal levies. The Burgundian system was still based on feudal levies, but Charles demanded a large measure of discipline, training, and equipment from the men mobilized by his vassals. They were more recruited than conscripted. Those nobles whose men didn’t meet the standard faced fines, censure, and even confiscation of territory. Furthermore, he also reorganized his army into a combined arms formation of traditional, if updated and codified, medieval lances (a knight, squire, a sergeant at arms, all mounted, and three mounted archers, supported by a page and three foot soldiers: a handgunner, a crossbowman, and pikeman), professional mercenary halberdiers and pikemen (mostly Germans), and professional bowmen and crossbowmen (usually Welsh, or English, with Italian crossbowmen). Most importantly though, his army was integrally supported by cannon, which were relatively mobile for the time. Battles in the Middle Ages were rare; sieges were not. Charles’ inclusion of gunpowder units separated him from Louis XI’s similar reforms. The Burgundian army therefore looked more like a large and well drilled condottieri company that specialized in seizing fortified towns, than a traditional feudal army.
After crossing the frontier, Charles captured several French towns, and those that resisted paid the price. On 27 June 1472, Charles’ vanguard reached the town Beauvais and expected it to promptly surrender, based on his reputation alone. But the town resolve was stiffened by a tiny force sent by Louis, and by the remaining defenders of Roye, the town Charles sacked just two weeks before. Beauvais was heavily fortified, but the garrison was small and lacked cannon.
The competent and able commander of Charles’ vanguard immediately recognized that he had to storm the town quickly or Louis would be able to mass on the area and the Burgundian advance would be halted. He unleashed his cannon, created several breaches, and smashed one of the town’s gates, before he ran out of ammunition. That the Burgundian vanguard even had cannon surprised the defenders. The professional Burgundians rushed into the gaps.
The small French garrison could not hope to repel the attackers, but they received help from an unexpected quarter, the townspeople of Beauvais. They had heard what had happened to Roye and the other towns, and they were determined not to share the same fate. The men joined the French soldiers in the breaches and at the gate, though not on the walls because the Burgundian ladders were just a bit too short, a grievous oversight.
With the hand to hand fighting concentrated in the breaches and gate, the French archers and crossbowmen had free reign on the walls. They were supplied with a steady stream of arrows and bolts by the town’s women and children, who quickly joined in, throwing whatever was at hand: stones, boiling water, logs, and especially torches. They threw so many torches at the Burgundians that they caught the suburbs of the town and the remains of the gate on fire. This created an inferno through which Charles’ army had to pass. Nevertheless, the Burgundians continued the assault.
In the afternoon, it seemed Beauvais was lost, despite the efforts of the courageous townsfolk. The Burgundians seized a breach and began spilling onto the walls and into the town. However, the women and children threw themselves at the invaders with whatever they had: axes, knives, sticks, and torches. They kept the line from breaking, but the French were slowly pushed back. Just when it seemed the people of Beauvais would break, they looked up and saw an amazing sight: a young woman hacking her way across the wall.
A soldier was attempting to place the Burgundian flag on the wall above the breach to signify a breakthrough, and Jeanne Laisné, the daughter of a local peasant, attacked him with her father’s hatchet. She wounded the flag bearer and fought with such ferocity that he fell off the wall into the moat below. The sight of the French woman flinging a heavily armored man at arms into the moat and capturing the ducal banner of Burgundy electrified the resistance. The French defenders held on just long enough for two hundred lances sent by Louis to arrive in time push the Burgundians back out of the town. That night and the next day Louis’ army converged on Beauvais and the townpeople began the laborious process of repairing the breaches. They couldn’t repair the gate, so they tore houses down and turned the gatehouse into a bonfire. The Fires of Beuvais burned so hot that the gate was impenetrable to the Burgundians for nearly a week.
More French troops arrived and managed to enter the Beauvais before Charles could properly invest the town. The furious duke attempted to bombard the town into submission, but the French continued to valiantly fight on. The charred suburbs turned into a no man’s land where Burgundians were ambushed, assaults were disrupted, and skirmishes killed and wounded Burgundian troops that Charles’ could ill afford to lose. Every man he lost at Beauvais was one more that couldn’t fight against Louis’ main army then in Brittany.
By the end of July, Charles had 120 dead, including 20 lords killed leading charges, and more than three thousand wounded, many of whom eventually died. Heavy rains flooded his camp, and the moves to dryer ground made the encampment susceptible to raids by the people of Beauvais, killing and wounding even more. On 20 July 1472, Charles decamped and moved into Normandy.
Charles the Bold would never link with the Duke of Brittany and eventually returned to Burgundy after looting and pillaging his way across Normandy. His bid to establish the Kingdom of Burgundy at France’s expense came to nothing.
In contrast, Louis XI consolidated his power. In gratitude, he rewarded the town of Beauvais for its heroic stand. He exempted the town from many of his taxes, and relaxed many of the rules his nobles had placed. Louis inaugurated an annual parade through the town to honor the defenders, one in which the women and children march ahead of the men in honor of their ingenuity and sacrifices; a tradition that continues to this day. In particular, he rewarded Jeanne Laisné whom he christened Jeanne Hachette for her bravery, and exempted her family and her descendants from taxes for eternity.
In 1756, the 20 year old Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, did not share his grandfather’s fondness and welcoming of the British East India Company traders. He accused them increasing their fortifications in the area and of meddling in internal politics with some justification. This caused him great difficulties and distractions from his wars against the Afghan tribes and Mahratta raiders to his north. Siraj-ud-Daulah mobilized his levies, sought support from the French East India Company, and moved against Fort William, the British East India Company’s outpost near Calcutta. The British for the most part evacuated, but left a small force of soldiers, sepoys (native troops equipped and trained in the tactics and techniques of European warfare) to garrison Fort William including civilian administrators and family members.
The fort surrendered after a brief siege. Unbeknownst to Siraj-ud-Daulah, the 146 garrison survivors were placed in a 14’ by 21’ foot cell. When morning came, 123 died of suffocation, dehydration, madness, or were crushed to death in what became known the “Black Hole of Calcutta”. (The exact details are still in dispute, such as the number in the cell. What isn’t in dispute is that 123 died that night of the 146 that surrendered that evening.) The British East India Company ordered Col Robert Clive with a small force at Madras to sail for Calcutta to exact retribution. He defeated Siraj with an aggressive night attack on the Nawab’s camp in February 1757, and secured a treaty which restored the British East India Company’s former privileges in Bengal.
So would have ended the Third Carnatic War, had Great Britain and France not been fighting the Seven Years War at the same time in Europe (and in America as the French and Indian War). At the time, the French, Dutch, and British trading outposts were under the Nawab’s protection by treaty (the violation of which was the official pretext of Clive’s expedition in the first place, well, second, since Siraj argued that the British violated it first with their meddling). Clive saw an opportunity to replace Siraj with one of his more pliable generals, Mir Jafar. But he had to work fast because he was going to be recalled to fight the French at Ponicherry near Madras.
After quickly laying the proper political groundwork, Clive advanced on the French outpost at Chandranagar and burned it to the ground. Siraj sent troops to intervene but anticipating this Clive bribed the Bengali general beforehand. Correctly guessing that Clive was trying to have him replaced, Siraj again massed his feudal levies and headed south, this time to crush the British force.
Clive was vastly outnumbered but had a clear quality advantage. However, that wouldn’t last as he heard a French force was approaching the area from the west. The French force was small like his, but it would provide the necessary backbone for Siraj’s men. Furthermore, many in Clive’s force were Frenchmen, either captives fighting instead of going to prison, or just isolated French merchants and adventurers who chose to join the expedition. Clive was worried that they would defect if an actual French army was in the area. So Clive confronted Siraj in the mango groves outside the village of Palashi 93 miles north of Calcutta. The village is better known by its Anglicized name of Plassey.
Siraj had 19,000 cavalry, 42,000 infantry, and 50 large field cannon, including a number of war elephants and 200 Frenchmen who mostly supervised the guns, and even crewed a few. Clive had a mixed European force of 800 professional infantry, 2100 Indian sepoys, and eight cannon crewed by about 200 gunners and sailors. Although Siraj vastly outnumbered Clive, Clive’s men were much more disciplined for the most part, and all had modern firearms. Siraj’s men mostly had swords and spears, but did have a significant number of old firelock muskets.
On 23 June 1757, Clive and Siraj’s respective troops lined up against each other and the battle began with a thunderous barrage on both sides. The professional British gunners managed a rate of fire of two or three rounds a minute, while the Bengali’s, under French tutelage, managed just one round every fifteen minutes. Fortunately for Siraj, a thunderstorm broke out which ceased the firing on both sides.
When the storm subsided, Siraj decided to attack since his guns and gunpowder were soaked, and assumed Clive’s were the same. However, Clive’s gunners covered their guns and powder with tarps, and unleashed devastating volleys into the Bengali masses as they approached. The Bengali’s retreated.
Siraj by this time was clearly unsure of what to do and sought counsel. He spoke to his astrologer (who was bribed by Clive) and the seer predicted his death if he stayed. Also, Mir Jafar, one of Siraj’s division commanders, also counseled retreat. Siraj did not know that Clive had secured Mir’s assistance. As Siraj was discussing his options with his advisers, Clive attacked. The Nawab of Begali quickly got on his camel and sped out of camp. With their leader gone, the army broke and Mir Jafar and his men defected. Siraj was eventually killed by his own people, and Mir Jafar replaced him as Nawab of Bengal.
The Battle of Plassey removed the French presence from Bengal and brought the area under control of the British East India Company. It was the first step in the British quest for domination of South Asia. Over the next one hundred years, the British would go on to conquer the rest of the Indian subcontinent. By the time of Queen Victoria in the late 19th century, India was known as the Crown Jewel of the British Empire.
During the night of 19-20 June 1942 Rommel discontinued his feigned pursuit of the retreating British and masterfully turned around his four best divisions, the veterans of the old Deutches Afrika Korps: the 90th Light, 15th and 21st Panzer, and the Italian armored division Ariete. That night they moved from an all-out pursuit and prepared to assault Tobruk. At 5:30 am 20 June, every Luftwaffe bomber in the Eastern Mediterranean struck the south east corner of Tobruk perimeter and the defending unit, the 11th Indian Brigade, broke under the combined arms assault by Italian infantry and artillery with German tanks and planes. Confusion in the British headquarters would not allow the numerically superior South Africans to reposition forces from uselessly defending against an amphibious assault, or from the south and west to counter the threat. By nightfall on the 20th, the Germans secured the port.
The next day, the British surrendered. 30,000 Commonwealth troops marched into captivity and it was the second largest surrender in British history after the fall of Singapore some months earlier. In the last six months, the Japanese captured Malaya and Singapore despite being significantly outnumbered, and ignobly ran the British out of Burma with barely better odds. Operation Crusader had six months of dedicated support and priority within the entire British Empire and Rommel erased those painstaking gains in a matter of weeks: first in January, and then in June. The Australians and Poles held Tobruk against all odds for nearly nine months; The British Army gave it away in two days. Any reputation for competence and fighting prowess held by the British Army was gone.
Rommel would tell the captured officers, “Gentlemen, you have fought like lions and been led by donkeys.” He was promoted to Field Marshal shortly thereafter; Rommel was a lieutenant colonel just four years before.
Winston Churchill, in Washington DC meeting with President Roosevelt, called the Fall of Tobruk “a shattering and grievous loss”. He would say to Roosevelt that “I am the most miserable Englishman in America since Burgoyne” (the British general who surrendered at Saratoga during the American Revolution).
Churchill commented in his memoirs that 21 June 1942 was the worst day of World War II.