In 1814, the British East Company invaded the aggressive Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal in order to prevent them from distracting the Company from their expansion into the Kingdom of Marathas. During the hard fought Anglo-Nepalese War, the British recognized that their best irregular troops were the wielders of the distinctive inwardly curved knife, the khukuri, whom were actually deserters from the Gorkha Army.
Impressed by their loyalty, courage, stoicism, resilience, and military efficacy, the British formed the Gorkhas into the First Nusseree Battalion on 24 April 1815. By the end of the war (which was fought to stalemate) there was an entire regiment of Gorkhas and an agreement with the Kingdom of Nepal to continue recruitment in the future. Living up their motto “Kayar Hunu Bhanda Marnu Ramro” (Better to die than live like a coward), the Gorkhas quickly formed the backbone of the East India Company’s, and eventually Great Britain’s, Indian Army.
For the next two hundred years, the Gurkhas served faithfully in every conflict involving the Indian or British Army. They were one of the few indigenous units to remain loyal during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 200,000 served in the First World War, including in the trenches on the Western Front and in the landing at Gallipoli in 1915. At the height of the Second World War, the Gurkhas contributed 250,000 men from their home villages in the Himalayan foothills, which were neither a part of the British Empire nor a protectorate of Great Britain. In 1947, the Gurkha regiments were split between the newly independent Indian Army and the British Army.
Currently 3500 Gurkhas serve in the British Army in the Brigade of Gurkhas. Tens of thousands of young Gurkha men apply during recruitment events in Nepal for the few hundred training slots. They also serve in the armies of India, Brunei and Singapore.
One of my favorite Gurkha stories. From the Second Battle of Monte Cassino:
On the night of 12 February 1944, one of the Gurkha battalions sent out a reconnaissance patrol to identify German positions around the town of Cassino. The small patrol came across six German infantrymen in a house: two awake and alert, and four asleep. The Gurkhas snuck up on the German sentries and slit their throats without waking the others. They then decapitated two of the sleeping soldiers and let the others to slumber so they can find their comrades in the morning.
A friend of mine said of the Gurkhas he worked with in Afghanistan, “They react to contact (with the Taliban) the way my kids react to Christmas morning.”
Jaya Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali! (Glory to the Great Kali! Gorkhas Approach!) –Gurkha war cry, then and now.
After spending a year hunting in Africa, Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit toured Europe in 1910. On 23 April, they arrived in Paris and the former president was asked to speak to a crowd of about two thousand at the University of Sorbonne. He spoke on history, family, war, human rights, property rights, cynics, and most prominently, the responsibilities of being a citizen. The speech was officially titled “Citizenship in a Republic” but is now more commonly known as “The Man in the Arena” speech because of this passage,
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Other great passages:
“Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution—these are the qualities which mark a masterful people.”
“Indeed, it is a sign of marked political weakness in any commonwealth if the people tend to be carried away by mere oratory, if they tend to value words in and for themselves, as divorced from the deeds for which they are supposed to stand.”
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not of superiority but of weakness.”
“But with you and with us the case is different. With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for the heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”
“Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into a fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of the great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and the valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who “but for the vile guns would have been a soldier.”
In 1881, the Sudan was a protectorate of Egypt, which was an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. Citing oppression by “their Turkish overlords”, the Muslim imam Mohammad Ahmad declared himself the “Mahdi” or “Guided One” (The Mahdi is the Islamic term for the messianic herald or redeemer. In Christian terms, he would be John the Baptist. Today, Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq considers himself the Mahdi) and declares Jihad against the Egyptian-Turkish administration of the country. Ahmad’s Mahdism, was a very strict, literal, and fanatical version of Islam that had fallen out of favor in Islamic lands since the height of the Ottoman Empire and the failure to capture Vienna two hundred years before.
As the Mahdists grew in strength, they defeated every army sent by the Egyptians to put down the revolt. With no support from Istanbul, the Egyptians increasingly fell under British influence. Exasperated, the Egyptians decided to let the Mahdists have the Sudan and asked for British assistance extracting their garrisons. The British government sent the popular, competent and aggressive General Charles “Chinese” Gordan (he made a name for himself in the Opium Wars in China). Gordan captured Khartoum in March 1884, but he recognized the danger of Ahmad’s radical version of Islam and determined to force the Mahdists to battle.
Ahmad immediately surrounded Gordan’s 8000 British and Egyptian troops, and besieged Khartoum. Gordan planned to use the relief column as the hammer to his anvil to destroy the Mahdists. However, the British government refused for six months to send a relief column and only did so at Queen Victoria’s insistence. In January of 1885, Sir Herbert Stewart’s Desert Column of mostly camel bound troops, entered the Sudan.
The Mahdi sent his own column to intercept and on 16 January 1885 they met at the oasis at Abu Klea. Stewart’s 1400 soldiers, eight cannon and one machine gun formed a square, and the Ahmad’s 13,000 warriors attacked. With the development of the rifle and horse artillery, most Western armies had abandoned the square formation, but Britain continued to use it because of its effectiveness against indigenous armies. (Six years before, the Zulus, easily the best indigenous army in Africa, accomplished the rare feat of breaking a British square at Isandlwana, but they had 4000 killed in the process, and did so only after the British ran out of ammunition.)
The “dervishes” as the British mistakenly called them, couldn’t withstand the massed firepower of the square, even after the machine gun jammed due to sand. The Mahdists took over a thousand killed and wounded, and the Battle of Abu Klea was over in fifteen minutes. Stewart had less than 200 casualties.
Unfortunately, Stewart was too late to relieve Khartoum. On 25 January, the Mahdists stormed the city, and Gordan’s troops, weakened by disease and starvation were overrun. Gordan and all 8000 of his British and Egyptian soldiers were massacred, along with 4000 residents of the city. Many thousands more were sold into slavery. Stewart’s Desert Column arrived just two days later on 27 January, and seeing that the city fell, quickly returned to Egypt.
Ahmad ruled Sudan as a fundamentalist Islamic state for the next 13 years. Although the Mahdists only ruled Sudan for a short time, it proved an incubator for radical Islam, particularly the aggressive and expansionist Wahhabist sect. The Mahdists would provide inspiration to a young Wahhabi, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1902.
In 1850, General Charles Napier was the British Commander in Chief of India. On 17 February 1850, Napier met with several influential Hindu priests who complained about the British prohibition of Sati, or the Hindu tradition of burning a widow alive on the pyre of the dead husband. The Hindu priests said the custom was an integral part of their culture.
Napier replied, “Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
The practice of Sati all but disappeared on the Indian subcontinent.
In the early part of the Victorian Age, and about six years before the American Civil War, Great Britain and France fought the Crimean War against Russia. In October of 1854, they were besieging the Crimean city of Sebastopol. On the 25th, the Russians reinforcements arrived and attacked the Allies’ main port of supply, Balaclava. Although the battle lasted until sundown, it didn’t affect the outcome of the Crimean War in any way. The Battle of Balaclava is mostly remembered for three separate engagements.
In the South Valley, Russian Prince Ryhozv’s cavalry advanced in two columns. The first column, 3000 strong, came over the Great Causeway and surprised the British. The nearest British unit was General James Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade of cavalry. The 900 troopers of the Heavy Brigade charged the Russian column, and in four minutes routed them thoroughly. The Charge of the Heavy Brigade was an outstanding success.
Ryhozv’s other cavalry column, a thousand strong, came upon the 93rd Regiment of Highlanders. With only the Black Sea and the supply depot behind them, the Highlanders could not retreat. The 93rd, with their red jackets, green kilts and tall bearskin hats, formed up only two deep to extend their line so they could not outflanked. The “Thin Red Line Tipped in Steel” held strong and defeated the Russian charges. The newspapers back in Britain eventually shortened it to “The Thin Red Line” for consumption back home.
Finally in the North Valley, the commander of the British, Lord Raglan, ordered the Light Brigade to secure some guns about to be overrun by the Russians. When the Light Brigade’s commander, Lord Cardigan (he invented the cardigan sweater: it was cold in the Crimea) received the order, he couldn’t see the guns that he needed to secure. But he did see Russian cannon a mile away at the other end of the valley. He mistakenly thought that was what he needed to secure. He was about to question the order but decided not to: no one was going to call him a coward. So
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
First at a walk, then a trot, then a gallop, and finally at a charge, the Light Brigade, with Lord Cardigan in the van, attacked down the valley with Russian cannon firing at them from three sides. The rest of the Allied army watched in horror. Against all odds, they seized and spiked the Russian guns, routed the defenders, and fought off several Russian counterattacks before Cardigan ordered a retreat once it was clear no one was coming in support. 2/3rds of the Light Brigade was killed or wounded, and Lord Cardigan, a martinet of such stature that only Victorian High Society could produce, rode straight from the charge back to his private luxury yacht, so he wasn’t late for his champagne dinner.
The Charge of the Light Brigade was the subject of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem of the same name and became the embodiment of foolhardy courage for no reason.
A French officer who witnessed the charge, Gen Pierre Bosquet, said “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie.”
“It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness”.
On 11 January 1879, a British army under Lord Chelmsford invaded the Zululand after King Cetshwayo refused a humiliating ultimatum from Sir Henry Frere, the High Commissioner of South Africa. Frere was looking for a war because he and Chelmsford assumed the spear and shield wielding warriors were no match for a disciplined modern army equipped with rifles and artillery. Chelmsford attacked, from the recently annexed Boer Republic of Natalia, with three columns of about 16,000 British regulars and troops of the Natal Native Contingent. The Zulus were a warrior culture whose males could not marry until a man “washed his spear (in blood)”, Cetshwayo assembled 24,000 warriors at his main kraal (settlement with a corral for cattle and buffalo) at Ulundi. He launched the Zulu impis (roughly “battlegroups”) at Chelmsford with the guidance, “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”
The Zulu army was unlike other indigenous force the British had encountered in Africa. For all of its history to that time, Africa had more land than people. People were the resource that enabled the expansion of a kingdom, not land as in the Western mind. As a consequence, warfare between nations was a relatively bloodless affair focused on attacking at range with thrown weapons (because it was safer) and capturing prisoners (for slave labor). In the early 19th Century, Shaka Zulu instituted reforms that changed the nature of Zulu warfare from protecting the force to the destruction of its enemies, which was much more in line with how European armies fought and much more effective (Land was relatively scarce in Europe compared to Africa. In general, European warfare focused on winning the battle at any cost because the loser couldn’t just move somewhere else). Shaka Zulu’s reforms centered on annihilating the enemy army through close quarters combat, with warriors armed with a short stabbing spear and hide shield. The spear, called an “iklwa” for the sound it made when a warrior pulled it from a dead opponents chest, was horrifying and brutally effective against ranged warriors not used to melee combat. The Zulu braves would weather the one or two volleys of thrown weapons to quickly close with and destroy their enemies. The preferred tactic was called “the horns of the beast”. The impi was divided into four groups: the chest, two horns, and loins. The chest, or center of the line, engaged the enemy, while the horns on its left and right would encircle the force occupied by the chest. The loins, or reserve, administered the coup d’grace, chased down routed enemies, or reacted to unexpected developments. Individual warriors used roughly the same tactics: one would fix an enemy to his front while a trusted comrade would kill from the side. Shaka Zulu revolutionized indigenous warfare in southern Africa and quickly carved out a large empire from his stunned neighbors, whose fertile lands the Zulu nation occupied.
On 18 January 1879, Shaka’s half nephew Cetshwayo was determined to attack and destroy Chelmsford’s columns in detail. He dispatched 4000 braves to fix Chelmsford’s southern column and prevent it from reinforcing his main body in the middle. On 20 January, Chelmsford’s 7800 men encamped in the shadow of a large “sphinx shaped” mountain named Isandlwana. No defensive preparations were made because the British arrogantly assumed that rifle and cannon firepower alone could hold the ground against the charging Zulus. On the 21st, the Zulu commander, Prince Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, encamped in Ngwbeni Valley about ten miles away.
All throughout the 21st, the British skirmished with Zulu reconnaissance and screening parties. On the morning of the 22nd Chelmsford dispatched two battalions of the NNC to push through the screen and find Ntshingwayo’s army. Chelmsford was worried that the Zulus would refuse battle and not that he was walking into a trap. Ntshingwayo wanted to rest his warriors and only planned to attack Chelmsford on the 23rd but the two NNC battalions stumbled upon his army and forced his hand. The young Zulu warriors finally had their chance to close with enemy and attacked. Ntshingwayo used the chance encounter to draw Chelmsford away from his camp at Isandlwana, which he would destroy. Once cut off from their supplies, the Zulu army would surround and annihilate the British main body which would then have only the food, water and ammunition they carried with them. Chelmsford took the bait.
Once he received reports of the Zulu army at Ngwbeni, Chelmsofrd divided his force and took over half of his infantry and most of his artillery to reinforce the two advance guard NNC battalions, exactly what Ntshingwayo wanted him to do. Once Chelmsford was committed to Ngwbeni, the Zulu horn and loin formations rapidly moved around the powerful British force and fell upon the British camp at Isandlwana. Chelmsford was outmaneuvered and didn’t even know it.
Brevet Lt-Col Henry Pulliene commanded the defense of the camp which consisted of 3companies of his battalion, the 1st Bn of the 24th Foot, one company of the second battalion, four companies of the NNC, two cannon, and about 100 other Natal carbineers (there’s a great word I don’t get use very often), mounted troops, police, and border guards. Later that morning he was reinforced by Bvt Col Anthony Durnford and five troops Natal Native Horse and two more companies of NNC. All told, there were about 2000 British and Natal troops and civilians at Isandlwana when Ntshingwayo’s 12,000 arrived just after noon on the 22nd.
4000 warriors appeared to the north, and Pulleine and Durnford assumed they were part of a “horn” formation intent on attacking Chelmsford’s rear at Ngwebeni. They were technically right that it was a horn formation but tactically wrong because it was Ntshingwayo’s chest formation to fix the defenders at Isandlwana. The fatal beauty of the Zulu tactics was their simplicity: they were understood by all warriors to the youngest brave who used a form of “the horns of the beast” in their individual combat of fixing an opponent so a comrade could strike the killing blow from the side. Ntshingwayo’s impi formed new horn, chest, and loin formations on the move from Ngwebeni like the instinctive battle drill it was.
Pulleine made the same mistake Chelmsford did by advancing towards the chest of Zulu army and separating his troops from the camp.
Initially, British firepower did prevent the charging Zulus from overwhelming the disciplined Englishmen and Welshmen of the 24th Foot (The 24th Foot was a Warwickshire regiment but had a disproportionate amount of Welsh enlistees and wouldn’t be known as the “South Wales Borderers” until 1881) and the Boer, Basuto and Mponso of the NNC. Equipped with the quick firing Martini-Henry breech loading rifle, the British troops could fire 16-20 rounds a minute if necessary. The ibutho (a Zulu regiment based not on tribe but age) of Ntshingwayo’s chest formations took horrendous casualties until his horn formations made their way around Pulleine’s line. The left horn routed Durnford’s cavalry on the British right which had run low on ammunition and as cavalry couldn’t hold ground as well as infantry. The right horn made its way around the Isandlwana mountain and fell upon the camp from the rear. Pulleine attempted to extend his line to block the flanking attacks but the Zulus just continued father around.
After Durnford’s defeat, Pulleine deliberately withdrew back towards the camp but by then the damage was already done. The maneuver forward expanded the distance that supply runners had to travel to resupply the line with ammunition. Furthermore, myopic supply officers reportedly were under orders to save the ammunition for Chelmsford column and required the runners to sign forms before they could open the crates, which were screwed shut. Despite these self-inflicted difficulties, adequate ammunition made it to most of the line, except Durnford’s men who were the farthest from the camp and had fought the longest.
For a long hour, Pulleine’s soldiers fought the Zulu warriors with volley, rifle butt and bayonet. But when attacked from all sides the line eventually broke as companies formed squares, and individual soldiers fought in small groups and even back to back. The encirclement wasn’t complete and several hundred of Pulleine’s troops and civilians escaped back across the Buffalo River at a ford now known as “Fugitive’s Drift.” But not many escaped and fought to death when ammunition ran out. What remained of the line was 150 man square whose bodies were found the next day. Zulu accounts placed great emphasis on soldiers who defended their flags, including a big Irishman who held Pulleine’s tent where Union Jack flew, and two lieutenants who fled with the battalion colours but were killed at Fugitive’s Drift. The final soldier to die was a young Welshman who held the mouth a cave at the base Isandlwana with his bayonet until he was shot by a musket wielding Zulu.
At 2:30 pm a solar eclipse occurred, and a British officer with Chelmsford’s column reported that firing from Isandlwana ceased after that. Pulleine and Durnford repeatedly informed Chelmsford of the increasingly desperate fighting at Isandlwana, but Chelmsford refused to come to their aid. He assumed he was still engaged with the elusive Zulu main body and even recalled troops that started towards the camp at their own accord. When informed of the Zulu victory, the stunned Chelmsfod muttered, “But I left a thousand men to guard the camp…”
1300 British and Natal troops were killed, including Durnford and Pulleine. The Battle of Isandlwana was worst defeat ever experienced by a colonial army against indigenous forces and coming only 2 ½ Years after Custer’s Last Stand increased the effect. However, the Battle of Isandlwana was pyric victory for the Zulu nation. Ntshingwayo lost almost 3000 warriors killed and another 2000 or so wounded of his original 12,000. And unlike the vast British Empire, there were no more Zulu warriors to recruit, the entire nation was mobilized.
After the battle was finished, the four thousand warriors of Ntshingwayo’s loin formation were upset that they did not get to participate in the battle. Their commander, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande, set his sights on the small British Force at “kwaJimu”. “KwaJimu” was the Zulu name for “Jim’s land”, named for the Irish merchant James Rorke who had a small trading post and mission at the ford over the Buffalo River. Rorke’s Drift was twenty miles away and Dabulamanzi meant for his warriors to wash their spears in its defenders.
The Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon undid any social and political reforms in Europe brought about by the American, Polish and French Revolutions, and even Napoleon’s reforms such as the Napoleonic Code. The Council of Vienna cemented political and social control in the absolutist regimes of Europe in the name of stability and “Balance of Power”. It was as if the revolutions of the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Eras had never happened.
But no matter how hard someone tries, you can’t kill an idea with centralized power. The autocracies of the Hapsburgs in Austria, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia, the Bourbons of France, and the Romanovs of Russia held iron grips on their people. But the shining examples of America which was founded on Enlightenment principles and Britain whose constitutional monarchy enacted sweeping political and social reforms caused by its early embrace of the Industrial Revolution could not be kept from increasingly literate populations of the Ancien Regimes. The world shrank with rapidly expanding communications technologies such as steam power and the telegraph. Thirty years after the Congress of Vienna, Liberalism and Nationalism, with a heavy dash of Romanticism, swept Europe.
Romanticism was a direct reaction to the Industrial Revolution, as romantics pined for long lost good old days, the glories of the past, its upswelling of emotion, and the beauty of nature’s perfect moment. Romanticism’s devotion to the emotions of the individual dovetailed nicely with the Liberalism of the Enlightenment, part of those supposedly long lost good old days. Liberalism in the 19th Century has nothing to do with contemporary or postmodern Liberalism. “Big L” Liberalism of today focuses on collectivism and Greater Good at any cost, whereas Liberalism of the 19th Century, known as “Classical Liberalism” today, concerns the expansion of individual rights and protections from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, the concept of Nationalism evolved, though not to such an extreme as the term Liberalism. Unlike today, Enlightenment Nationalism has little to do with shared race and ethnicity, and everything to do with shared culture, though on occasion they were one and the same. Like Bushido in Japan, the word “Nationalism” in the 20th century was perverted by National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy, and today is used to invoke Godwin’s Law without actually saying “Hitler”. But in the early and mid-19th century (and to most academics today), Nationalism was, and is, a concept linked to shared culture, history, and geography. For example in 19th cent France, Normans, Bretons, Gascons, and Burgundians were ethnically different, but culturally “French”, same as “British” with the Welsh, English and Scots of the British Isles. America was founded on that very principle: taking the best of each ethnicity and subsuming it in American culture, we just know it today as “the Melting Pot”. As nationalist feelings swept Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, it was no surprise that the first revolutions of 1848 began in Italy, then under the domination of the Austrian Hapsburgs.
But no Roman shopkeeper, Venetian sailor, Neapolitan factory worker or Sicilian farmer just woke up and said, “I am going to revolt against my Hapsburg or Bourbon overseers because of Liberalism, Nationalism, and Romanticism”. Catalysts were needed, and 1848 saw the culmination of several. In 1845, a series of catastrophic famines began across Europe, the Great Irish Potato Famine being the most famous. Also, across Europe the effects of the Industrial Revolution exacerbated the political and social issues of absolutism and autocracy. The blights and mechanization in the fields pushed the peasants to the cities to find work in the factories which replaced the guilded artisans. Populations grew, urbanization increased (Berlin’s population tripled in 30 years) and unemployment skyrocketed as societal systems attempted, and failed, to adapt to the pressures. The poor were hungry, the middle class unemployed, and the upper classes disenfranchised with the ruling elite. The nobles of the conquered territories were first to look at their situations and determine that they could do a better job than their foreign overlords, especially those that had states prior to Congress of Vienna in 1815.
The first revolution based on these ideals and conditions actually occurred in Prussian occupied Greater Poland in 1846 where the Polish population opposed the Germanification of their lands. The revolt was swiftly crushed and the trial for the ringleaders ended in December of 1847 with eight sentenced to death and over a hundred to prison. The news spread across Europe and inflamed the passions of many who saw themselves in the same predicament as the stateless Poles. The winter was cold in most of Europe, which made revolutionizing not particularly attractive, but not in the temperate Mediterranean clime of Sicily. The first actual Revolution in 1848 occurred in Palermo, then in the Bourbon controlled Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
With winter foodstocks nearly depleted and the harvest a long ways off, on 12 January 1848 the people of Palermo overthrew the Bourbons, revived the Constitution of 1812 and established the Republic of Sicily, conquering the entire island except the town of Messina. Revolution quickly spread throughout Italy, most notably to Milan, Rome and Venice, and the news electrified the continent. And as the weather warmed, the Italian revolutions against the Hapsburgs and Bourbons spread to the center of the 19th century European universe – Paris.
France’s King Louis Phillipe outlawed the right to peacefully assemble, so as usual the people of Paris just figured out another way. In this case, the Parisians held “banquets” when they wanted to discuss politics. These banquets were just hours’ long assemblies where food was served, many involving hundreds of people. Speeches were given during the meal, and if you were important, between courses. On 22 February 1848, the banquets were outlawed. The barricades went up the next day. French soldiers accidentally, then intentionally, fired on protesters and revolution quickly spread throughout France. King Louis Phillipe abdicated on the 24th and France’s reformers created the Second French Republic.
Austria’s chancellor, Prince Klemens von Metternich, once said, “When France sneezes, all of Europe gets a cold.” Metternich was Europe’s arch diplomat, the architect of the Council of Vienna and the personification of the neo-Ancien Regimes of the early 19th century. And so it was with the Revolutions of 1848, soon to be known as the “Spring of Nations”. News of France and Italy’s revolutions spread like wildfire along Europe’s roads, rails, and telegraph lines. By March, Belgium, the Netherlands, the German states, Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Serbia, Sweden, Poland, Switzerland, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Ireland were all in the midst of their own revolutions. Only Britain, whose previous reforms hamstrung support for revolution, and Russia which had no middle class to speak of, were spared.
However, by the end of the year, every revolution had failed.
The Springtime of Nations was not meant to be in 1848. One of the many rights people in 1848 were fighting for was the right to bear arms and form citizen militias to oppose the national armies of the ruling elite. The ruling authorities of each country had a monopoly on force and used their armies and police to bloodily put down each revolt. Furthermore, the regimes controlled the press, and the ability to assemble. Thus the revolts were neither organized nor coordinated, even among themselves. The revolutionaries were fighting for different things and they soon descended into class warfare. No faction could unite with another and the regimes took advantage. They soon divided the lower classes from the middle classes, the workers from the peasants, and isolated and suppressed each in turn. Millions fled the violence and famine, particularly to the Americas. By early next year, the Spring of Nations was over.
But like I mentioned before, it’s easy to kill a person, it is much harder to kill an idea. The people of Europe got a taste of freedom and they could no longer be ignored. The rulers of Europe noted that they couldn’t effectively govern without some consent of the people. The public and private spheres were inextricably linked. Many reforms were put into place in 1848 that would lead to great changes in the coming years. Austria and Prussia banned feudalism. Serfdom and slavery were banned across Europe, leaving Russia and the United States as the only countries with official systems of slavery. In many cases, absolute monarchy was replaced with constitutional monarchy. The petty states of central and southern Europe would gain a new national consciousness of shared sacrifice, and would lack only a unifying leader. Just a decade or so later Italy would get its leader in Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in Germany Otto von Bismarck.
In France, the Second French Republic elected Louis Napoleon the first President of France in December of 1848. Louis Napoleon was the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I, and dreamt of following in his namesake’s grandiose footsteps. In 1851, Louis Napoleon castigated the new constitution and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. His ascension to the throne of the Second French Empire would lead directly to the Crimean War, the reunification of Italy, the reunification of Germany, and the First World War.
“A cold” indeed.
In the mid nineteenth century, Germany was still fractured in a loose confederation of almost 40 states, with Bavaria, Austria, and Prussia vying for leadership. In the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, Germany attempted to unite under Austria. However, “The Greater or Lesser Germany Question”, that is whether Austria would enter the union with Hungary and its empire, was very divisive. Most German states wanted a union with Austria, but not its multicultural empire in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And Austria refused anything less than complete integration. Neither side could come to a compromise and the Frankfurt Parliament dissolved.
A decade later, Otto von Bismarck determined that the only way Germany would unite was by force of arms. However, in the summer of 1862, the Prussian parliament balked at Kaiser Wilhelm’s request for a significant spending increase for the Prussian Army. On 20 September, 1862, Bismarck, the newly appointed Prussian chancellor, spoke before the parliament. He concluded with,
“Germany is not looking to Prussia’s liberalism, but to its power; Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden may indulge liberalism, and for that reason no one will assign them Prussia’s role; Prussia has to coalesce and concentrate its power for the opportune moment, which has already been missed several times; Prussia’s borders according to the Vienna Treaties [of 1814-15] are not favorable for a healthy, vital state; it is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided – that was the big mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”
The parliament passed the Kaiser’s budget, and over the next eight years, Bismarck, now known as “The Iron Chancellor”, united Germany.
In 1862, the French Army, which invaded under the pretext of collecting on Mexico’s defaulted external debt (but actually to fulfill Napoleon III’s dreams of empire) was defeated by a much smaller Mexican army led by 33 year old General Ignacio Zaragoza at the Battle of Puebla. The large, professional, and well equipped French force arrogantly attacked strong Mexican fortifications, anchored by the twin forts of Fort Loreto and Fort Guadalupe on the approaches to the town of Puebla. The French were repulsed multiple times, despite a significant advantage in artillery and a two to one advantage in troops. During their retreat, Mexican cavalry pursued and inflicted debilitating casualties. The survivors retreated back to Vera Cruz, where they held against the victorious Mexican pursuers.
The defeat prompted Napoleon III to send massive reinforcements, who eventually took Puebla and Mexico City. However, the Mexican victory at Puebla provided a morale boost to the Mexican people and united, at least temporarily, the various factions that had fought each other so bitterly just the year before in the Reform War. The Mexicans would fiercely continue their fight against Napoleon III’s puppet, the Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian’s Second Mexican Empire, until 1867 when the United States began enforcing the Monroe Doctrine after the end of the US Civil War. With America’s support, the Mexicans drove the French and the Imperialists out of Mexico and established the Mexican Republic.
The Mexican victory at Puebla, which happened on 5th of May, is today celebrated as Cinco De Mayo in the Mexican State of Puebla and more generally in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage.