Thursday, May 29, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Texan War of Independence: Musings on the Alamo

Last year I had the opportunity to re-visit the Alamo in San Antonio. I had been there once before as a child and the visit helped to spark a lifelong love of history. Situated in the heart of heavily built-up San Antonio, the interior of the Alamo is an island of calm. This seems remarkable given that for thirteen days between February 23rd - March 6th 1836 it was subject to a siege followed by a bloody massacre. The Alamo itself has existed since the 1700s. It was originally established as a missionary post by Spanish monks. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Spanish troops occupied it and used it as their base for operations in the area. After the Mexican revolution, Mexican troops took over garrison duties. It was therefore not surprising that the Texan colonists chose to fortify the Alamo in 1835/36 as a key part of the defences of the settlements further north.

Surveying the Alamo now, there is little to suggest that it would have made a good defensive position. Nonetheless, there were good arguments in 1835 for attempting to hold it against the Mexican army. There were two roads that led into the Texan interior from Mexico. The first was the Atascosito Road, stretching northward from Matamoros on the Rio Grande through Goliad and leading straight into the Texan settlements. The second was the Old San Antonio Road and wound north-eastward through San Antonio. Guarding both these roads and simultaneously acting as an early warning system for the colonies, there were forts at Goliad and San Antonio. Initially, General Sam Houston had ordered that the Alamo be razed to the ground and the position abandoned. This was rejected and Colonel James Neil (initially commanding the troops at the Alamo) instructed his engineers to begin constructing fortifications. By February, twenty-one pieces of captured Mexican artillery had been mounted on the walls and concentrated into batteries and a palisade wall had been constructed. Neil is often forgotten in retellings of the story of the Alamo, but it was thanks to his efforts that the Alamo was reconstituted into a defensible fortress.




Plans of the Alamo in 1836







Today the Alamo is garrisoned by an army of tourists and tour guides. And rightly so, the old mission station is well worth a visit by anyone with the any interest in military history or Texas history in general. The site was used again for military purposes during the American Civil War, but was abandoned shortly afterwards. Fortunately, an organisation calling itself 'the daughters of the Republic of Texas' formed and took it upon themselves to maintain and safeguard the Alamo as an historic site for future generations. International visitors to the site might be surprised to learn that the garrison of the Alamo did not consist entirely of Americans led by John Wayne Indeed, the Alamo Museum within the compound shows how diverse the settler population was in Texas during the early nineteenth century. Apart from settlers from across the United States, the defenders of the Alamo consisted of Hispanic 'Texicans', Englishmen, Irishman, Scotsman and Germans.

Surrounded by seven thousand Mexican soldiers, the one-hundred and eighty-seven defenders of the Alamo stayed at their posts. This is not to say that they were suicidal. Indeed, the commanding officer, Colonel Travis sent repeated messages requesting reinforcements throughout the siege. Unfortunately, none were available in time to come to the relief of the Alamo. On the thirteenth day, the Mexican army stormed the bastion and killed every last defender. The women and children were spared and set on their way to report what they had seen as a warning to other potential rebels against Mexico.

Other items of interest on display in the Alamo museum, include a bible owned by Jim Bowie and a rifle said to have belonged to Davy Crockett. The bible is particularly indicative of the kind of life Jim Bowie led prior to his death at the Alamo. Its sole distinguishing feature is the large gash running through its centre. This was apparently the result of an attempted murder by an Indian that Bowie had upset. The Bible sat in Bowie's pocket and took the impact of the knife, thus allowing him to escape and fight another day. Apart from the displays within the surviving buildings of the Alamo compound, there is an excellent film telling the story of the Alamo and the thirteen day siege. To its great credit, the museum emphasis both perspectives from the conflict. The Mexican government had encouraged immigration into Texas from the United States in order to increase the population of the state. The white settlers were primarily interested in Texas because of the land opportunities it offered. However, the large influx of white settlers began to cause the Mexican government concern. They feared that this far-flung Mexican province would become culturally and politically dominated by the settlers. When the Mexican government introduced legislation to limit the numbers of immigrants, tensions began to rise which would eventually culminate in the Texan revolution of 1835.

The centrepiece of any visit to the Alamo is the lecture tour conducted by one of the museum's enthusiastic guides. It is clear how important the Alamo is to many Texans and indeed Americans as a whole. Setting aside historical bias for a moment, the Alamo is far more than an old church-turned-fort. It is considered by many as a shrine to Texas independence. The heroic behaviour of the defenders in refusing to give in epitomizes the Texan ideals of self-determination and love of freedom. As such there is a statue outside the walls to commemorate all those who lost their lives defending the Alamo. The guides and museum are excellent and make the Alamo a ‘must see’ destination for anyone visiting the lone star state.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The French and Indian War: Massacre at Fort William Henry?

As a schoolboy I remember watching 'Last of the Mohicans' with great enthusiasm. The 1992 film was a remake of an older film version based upon the original novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Both the film and book are set in 1757 against the backdrop of the French and Indian war. The film portrays the historical siege of Fort William Henry defended by the British. The British are forced to surrender and agree honourable surrender terms. As they march away from the fort, the Anglo-American soldiers and colonists are subjected to a horrendous ambush by hundreds of tomahawk welding homicidal Indians. The British regulars form up and fire volleys into the forest, only to find themselves on the receiving end of a scalping. And so it goes on.

Sixteen years later I decided to try and find out how much of this was actually based upon reality. Fort William Henry was indeed a real place and still exists as a reconstruction on the shore of Lake George. In 1757 it guarded the main approach to the upper Hudson valley at the south end of the lake. It was therefore an important strategic position for both the British and the French.




A plan of Fort William Henry







In the spring of 1757, Lieutenant Colonel George Monro brought five companies of the 35th Foot to the Fort in order to relieve the winter garrison. Together with two New York independent companies and nearly eight-hundred provincial troops from New Jersey and New Hampshire, Monro commanded a force of 1500 men. In late June, two escaped English former prisoners of war reached the Fort warning that the French General Montcalm was preparing an invasion force at Fort Carrillon on the other side of the Lake. By the end of July, Montcalm had been able to supplement his army of 6000 regulars with an additional 2000 Indian allies. He intended to take the Fort and use it as a platform for an invasion of British North America.

On the 23rd July, Monro cautiously dispatched several ranger patrols on reconnaissance missions to obtain more information about the French assault force. When these patrols failed to return, he ordered Colonel John Parker to led five companies of New Jersey provincials in a raid to destroy the sawmills at the foot of the lake and seize as many enemy prisoners as possible. Three-quarters of the expedition were killed or captured. Five-hundred Ottawas, Ojibwis, Potawatomis, Menominees and Canadians had been waiting for them. General Webb had been visiting Fort William Henry when survivors of Parker's force returned. He promised to send urgent reinforcements. Despite these promises, Webb was afraid of stripping the defences of his own post, Fort Edward. As such he sent only two hundred regulars of the Royal American 60th regiment and eight-hundred provincials under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Frye. They arrived just in time for the start of the siege on August 2nd.

The Siege

Despite being massively outnumbered, Colonel Monro commanded a well-equipped post. The Fort's artillery batteries consisted of eighteen heavy cannon, thirteen light swivels, two mortars and a howitzer. The Fort's magazines also held an adequate supply of ammunition and provisions. Once Monro had ordered all flammable roof shingle to be thrown into the lake, the most serious threat to the Fort was that of the wall collapsing under sustained bombardment. If the wall did collapse, the attacking French would be able to overwhelm the British through sheer force of numbers. Alternatively, even if the wall held up, provisions would not last indefinitely. Over the long term the garrison could be starved into submission.

Monro quickly deduced that the only chance of saving the Fort would be if Webb dispatched a relief expedition before Montcalm had the chance to organise his own camp's defences. By the 7th August, Monro had received word from Webb that reinforcements would not arrive at Fort William Henry until he himself had been reinforced by militia from New England and New York. By the evening of the 8th, the relentless French bombardment had seriously reduced the morale of the British garrison. With the constant firing of artillery, as well as the stress of shrapnel raining down upon the defenders, many had not slept for five nights in a row. With no reinforcements coming, Monro ordered his engineers to survey the Fort and assess its continued ability to resist. The top three feet of the bastions most exposed to French guns had been completely shot away. Only five of the Fort's cannon were still operational and stocks of ammunition had dwindled to almost nothing. The next morning, Monro agreed to discuss terms of surrender.

The Surrender

By one o'clock in the afternoon on the 9th August, the terms of surrender had been agreed. They were extremely generous given the predicament in which the British and Colonials found themselves. In return for agreeing to remain non-combatants for eighteen months, the entire garrison would be granted safe passage to Fort Edward under French escort. They would be allowed to keep their small arms, colours and a symbolic brass field piece. The sick and wounded would be cared for by the French and then repatriated when they had recovered. In return, Montcalm asked only that all French military and civilian prisoners be repatriated and returned to Fort Carillion by November and that the cannon and supplies within the Fort be surrendered. Unfortunately, Montcalm had not bothered to consult his Indian allies before agreeing to these terms. The idea of honourable surrender with the terms granted by Montcalm were totally alien to his Indian allies. They had expected greater rewards for their participation. To have defeated their enemy and then return home without prisoners, loot or scalps left them feeling betrayed and confused as to the purpose of fighting in the first place. Therefore, after Montcalm explained the surrender terms to them, many of the warriors decided they would simply take what they came for and then leave.

The 'Massacre'

After the official surrender, the British made their way to an entrenched camp where the soldiers and civilians were to remain until they marched to Fort Edward the following day. As the last British detachments left, Indians entered the fort in search of booty. They found only seventy sick and wounded who had been left to be cared for by the French. Fortunately the prompt intervention of French guards and missionaries saved the lives of many of the the wounded. Through the rest of the afternoon, Indians roamed the entrenched camp plundering its inhabitants. When French guards managed to clear them out of the camp they continued to hang about its perimeter menacingly. At dawn, as the regulars prepared to lead the column to Fort Edward, hundreds of Indian warriors armed with knives, tomahawks and muskets began to crowd around demanding that they they surrender arms, equipment and clothing. The Indians were clearly not satisfied. At 5 am the column set off with French guards escorting the British regulars at the front. The regulars were thus spared the worst of the violence which was to follow. By contrast, the rear of the column consisted entirely of militia and civilians. Suddenly the rear of the column found itself beset on every side. Within minutes, Indians had seized, killed and scalped the wounded from the provincial companies and robbed others of their clothing and possessions. As confusion mounted, all discipline broke down. A whoop was heard from the direction of the Indians (this was later assumed to be a signal) and dozens of warriors began to tomahawk the most exposed groups. Although the killing lasted only a few minutes, panic had set in. Frye's provincial regiment disappeared in every direction. When Montcalm and his officers realised what was happening, they ran up to try and halt the killing. Unfortunately they found that in many instances, the warriors preferred to kill their captives and take a scalping rather than surrender them. By the time the French had manage to restore order, some 185 soldiers and camp followers had been killed and between 300-500 taken captive. The rest of the column had either fled down the road or escaped into the woods and eventually made their way to Fort Edward.

Aftermath

Refugees continued to straggle in to Fort Edward from the woods for more than a week. On the 15th August, Colonel Monro arrived with a contingent of five-hundred survivors and the the brass six-pounder that they had been allowed to bring with them. Monro and his men had been brought under French escort to Half-way brook and handed over to a British guard. Montcalm assured the British that the rest of the garrison would be returned as soon as its members had been retrieved from the Indians. Thanks to the combined efforts of Montcalm and the French Governor-General Vaudreuill, at least two-hundred prisoners were recovered by the end of August. The prisoners were returned at an average cost to the French crown of 130 livres and thirty bottles of brandy each. Only about two-hundred captives would fail to return to the British colonies by 1763. The Indians themselves also adopted forty of the captives into their tribes. However, the events at Fort William Henry were a disaster for future French recruitment efforts of Indians to the war effort. The capture of prisoners at the Fort exposed the Indians to a small pox epidemic which made them extremely unwilling to join any future French expeditions.

Describing the events at Fort William Henry following the surrender as a 'massacre' is perhaps too extreme. Nevertheless, many people were killed or taken prisoner and it was no doubt extremely traumatic for those that lived through it.

If you are interested in reading more about Fort William Henry and the French and Indian war, have a look at these books below;

Fred Anderson, 'Crucible of War' (London, 2000)

Ian K.Steele, 'Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the "Massacre" (New York, 1990)

'Empire Collide: The French and Indian War 1754-63', ed. Ruth Sheppard (Oxford, 2006)

David R. Starbuck, 'Massacre at Fort William Henry' (Hanover, 2002)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Military History and Warfare: World War II: Leningrad’s ‘Road of Life’ 1941

The siege of Leningrad was a deliberate attempt by the German army to eradicate the city’s population by starving the people to death. In early September 1941, German forces cut the last roads leading into the city. For the next 872 days (8th September to 27th January 1944) the people of Leningrad were subjected to a blockade designed to slowly strangle the city. With a pre-war population of 2.5 million to feed, mass starvation became a very real possibility during the siege. For five weeks during the winter of 1941, many Leningrader’s daily ration of bread had been reduced to a mere 125 grams. Even this was adulterated with cottonseed, flax cake and mouldy grain. For those fighting on the front line and involved in vital war work, rations were slightly higher, but never beyond the most bare subsistence.

Despite appalling conditions, the city survived the winter of 1941 and continued to resist for the next three years before the Germans were finally pushed back. This would not have been possible without the determined efforts of the Russians to keep Leningrad supplied with basic food and fuel necessities needed to keep the city alive. The supply route that was hacked out over the snow and ice became a symbol for Russia’s determination to survive.

The two supply roads became known as route 101 and route 102. Since Leningrad had been cut off from land supply routes, the Russians were forced to construct a route over the ice. The plan for the ice road had begun to take shape in October of 1941. On the 29th October, Soviet ships had laid an underwater signals cable at the bottom of the Lake Ladoga to link with the encircled area. From the 8th November, Soviet reconnaissance aircraft began to fly over the lake looking for signs of ice formation. The northern part of the lake had frozen over nicely, but the middle was still unsafe. However, on the 15th November a north wind started the big freeze and the ice rapidly reached the thickness required to carry vehicles. By early December some sixty ice roads were formed across the frozen lake.

Constructing the ice road was a large and dangerous undertaking. It was built under terrible conditions, over cracks and fissures on the lake’s surface and through frequent snow storms. Workers were under constant German artillery fire and air attack from the Luftwaffe. Once completed, the road ran from the rail and loading depots on the Soviet shore of the lake, across a twenty-mile stretch of ice which ran parallel to the German siege positions. The ice road led to the small port of Osinovets on the western shore of Lake Ladoga. Here the cargo was unloaded and transported by rail and truck into the city. The road became Leningrad’s only link to the rest of mainland Russia. It therefore held a powerful symbolic importance to the Russian defenders and was later given the name, the ‘Road of Life’.



Lorries transporting food and supplies across the ice.



Indeed it was the ‘Road of Life’. Leningrad needed an absolute minimum of 100 tonnes a day to keep the city alive. The first large-scale scheduled convoy of sixty trucks set off on the 22nd November carrying 33 tonnes of flour. Driving all night through a snowstorm, the convoy reached the city on the 23rd November. Despite this success, the ice road was extremely dangerous. One-hundred and fifty-seven trucks were lost during the first crossing. Many divers kept their doors open to enable them to jump to safety, should a crack in the ice suddenly appear in front of their vehicle. Throughout the winter of 1941, the enemy put the supply route under heavy air and artillery attack, but were unable to halt the flow of traffic. Soviet fighter pilots flew overhead to protect the convoys from German air attack. By December 1941 over 4000 trucks and transport vehicles were bringing more than 700 tons of supplies into Leningrad on a daily basis.

As the road network developed, a support infrastructure had to be rapidly constituted. Tents were set up on the ice where people could warm up. In order to maintain traffic, twenty control points were also set up between 300 and 400 metres apart. By January 1942, there were seventy-five such points.

In response to the massive Soviet effort, the Germans dispatched ski patrols to try and ambush the Soviet supply columns. The Russians soon developed an effective remedy in the form of pillboxes made from ice, which they turned rock-hard by pouring water on them. With no protective cover, the ski patrols were shot down without difficulty. In addition to these defences, the Russians established 350 anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, supported by 200 searchlights to deter the Luftwaffe from strafing convoys. The crews were accommodated in igloos also on the ice.

Despite these supply routes, thousands of people in Leningrad starved over the winter. In December 1941, the city’s population was estimated at 2,280,000. By April 1942, it had fallen to 1,100,000. Whilst 440,000 of these people can be accounted for as having been evacuated, this still meant that over half a million people had starved by spring. Yet the city continued to withstand the siege. The lessons learnt in the winter of 1941 enabled the Russians to construct even better ice-roads in the winter of 1942. Without these ice roads, it is likely that the entire city would have starved to death. Their construction and maintenance was a powerful reminder of the Russian ability to innovate and use the hostile climate to their advantage over the German invader.

If you are interested in finding out more about the siege of Leningrad, have at look at these books;


Michael Jones, ‘Leningrad: State of Siege’ (London, 2008)

Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (London, 2007)

Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: a new history (London, 2001)

Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (Phoenix, 2000)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The French and Indian War: Wolfe’s capture of Quebec 1759

In 1759 thirty-two year English General James Wolfe successfully defeated the French General Montcalm. Quebec, France’s chief city in Canada was taken, radically altering the balance of power in North America. With the Seven Year’s war raging in Europe (known as the French and Indian war in the American colonies) and British command of the oceans, French possessions were vulnerable to British attack. Quebec itself sits on a rocky headland that rises hundreds of feet above the confluence of the St.Lawrence and St.Charles rivers. These formidable natural defences combined with a French garrison of 14,000 troops and 106 guns made the city one of the strongest fortified positions on the entire continent.

In February 1759, Wolfe returned from sick leave in England to command the attack on Quebec and St. Lawrence. He assembled his army at Louisburg, Nova Scotia. By May the British had collected a fleet of twenty-two ships-of-the-line, fourteen frigates and an expeditionary army of 14,000 troops. It was crucial that the British complete the conquest before the freezing up of the St.Lawrence River. The French unleashed fire ships down the river into the advancing British fleet, but ignited them early so they were easily fended off. By July, Wolfe had occupied the Ile d’Orleans with 8,500 on the south of the river opposite Quebec. Montcalm believed that any attack would have to come from the east because the French navy maintained that the St.Lawrence river was not navigable beyond Quebec. He therefore constructed the majority of his defences in the east, digging trenches and building gun emplacements.

On the 31st July Wolfe attempted a direct assault across the river. This was repulsed with 500 casualties. Montcalm now feared the British would attempt a landing to the west of the city. He therefore despatched on of his commanders Bougainville, to patrol the area. In the meantime, Wolfe decided that his best chance of defeating the French and avoiding a lengthy siege, would be by drawing them out of the city and defeating them on an open battlefield. He decided to attempt a surprise night attack from the rear or upstream from the French defences. In the darkness of the night of 12th September Wolfe’s troops were carried by long boat past the besieged city. A French sentry noticed the dark shapes of the boats moving up the river and cried out:
“Que vive?” One Captain Donald Macdonald answered in faultless French, ‘La France’. Further bluffing by using the name of one of the French regiments stationed at Quebec, the sentry allowed the British boats to continue upstream.




The landing above Quebec, 13th September 1759





The British boats landed in a small bay called Anse de Foulon. This was the sole point at which the British could have gained access to the path that led to the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec. Montcalm had been aware of this Achilles heal and had stationed forty troops to protect the bay. Unfortunately, their commander had been so confident that the British would not land, that he had sent the men to help collect the harvest. By 4:00 am on September 13, the British had scaled the 175 foot cliffs, overcome minor resistance and assembled 4,500 British and American troops on the cliff top.

Upon seeing the enemy battalions, Montcalm decided to strike before the British had time to land additional troops and artillery needed to begin a formal siege. He marched 5000 men out of Quebec to give battle. Fearful of weakening the city’s defences, the governor of Quebec only allowed Montcalm to take three of the guns from the city’s ramparts. The British themselves had only been able to drag a light cannon up the cliffs. This battle would be decided purely by infantry. It was in this regard, that the British had a huge superiority in quality over the available French forces. Wolfe’s army consisted entirely of professionals. The redcoats were tough, disciplined and drilled to perfection. By contrast, Montcalm’s army was a mixture of regular troops and brigades of militiamen and Indian warriors. Although the core of Montcalm’s army at Quebec was a force of eight regular infantry battalions they had been badly worn down by constant campaigning and through being milked of men to serve in various garrisons.

Yet even the regular battalions available were diverse in quality. Before the start of the campaign, 600 French Canadian militiaman had been drafted into regular units in an attempt to bolster numbers and forge links between the French metropolitan troops and the Canadians. The Canadians had spent just three months with their units. This was inadequate time in which to master the parade ground drill and discipline required to stand steady amidst the close-quarter chaos of a infantry fire fight. Worse still, the best soldiers of the battalions – the grenadiers (who traditionally spearheaded attacks) were still off with Bougainville.

The battle began on the British left flank with a sharp shooting contest between the French skirmishers and British light infantry. The three French guns opened fire on the British centre and the French battalions began to advance. However, Montcalm’s regulars soon began to lose cohesion. The confusion increased as groups of skirmishers, who had been firing at Wolfe’s army for hours, attempted to fall back through the advancing units. More seriously, the Canadians recently incorporated into the regulars swiftly lost discipline. After firing, instead of maintaining formation and reloading their muskets, they threw themselves on the ground and refused to advance. The British withheld their fire until the French were within thirty-five yards. Then they fired one murderous volley, downing the first line of French. A second volley destroyed the French line and the British began to advance. The volleys continued as the British battalions moved steadily forward over the battlefield. Sustained musket fire had only lasted for six or seven minutes. When the fog began to clear, the French regulars could be seen retreating in panic. The redcoats fixed their bayonets and advanced.

Montcalm’s attack had been broken in a matter of minutes. Although the French regulars were shattered beyond rallying, the Canadian militia continued to fight. They staged a stubborn rearguard action, fighting with enough determination to halt the advance of the redcoats until reinforcements from the 58th Foot and Royal Americans forced them to withdraw. On the rightwing, Wolfe had led the Louisburg Grenadiers and 28th Foot. This was dangerously close to the Canadian marksman crouching in the bushes above the St.Lawrence. Early on in the action, Wolfe had been shot through the right wrist. He bound it up and continued. Soon afterwards he was struck again by a musket ball that the skinned the rim of his belly. He ignored the wound and continued to lead his men. The third wound was much more serious. Wolfe was struck simultaneously by two balls into his left breast. He fell out of the line and was carried back, dying shortly afterwards in the knowledge that he had won the battle. His opponent, Montcalm suffered a similar fate. He too was wounded and taken back to Quebec where he soon died. He was buried the next day in a hole in the earth dug by British shelling.



A highly dramatised portrait of Wolfe's death.
(Benjamin West)




After Wolfe was killed, his deputy Brigadier Townsend took command. He defeated an attack by Bougainville to his rear and by the afternoon of the 17th the Union Jack flew over Quebec. The remaining French forces surrendered the next day. In total, the British had lost 630 men to the French 830. The conquest of Canada assured British domination over the French in North America and brought British victory in sight in the French and Indian war. The battle on the Plains of Abraham demonstrated the importance of drill and parade ground discipline in contributing to victory on an eighteenth century battlefield.

If you are interested in reading further about the conquest of Canada, have a look at the books below.



Nigel Cawthorne, ‘History’s Greatest Battles’ (London, 2005)

Holger Herwig, Christian Archer, Timothy Travers, John Ferris, ‘Cassell’s World History of Warfare’ (London, 2003)

Stephen Brumwell, ‘Paths of Glory: the life and death of General James Wolfe (London, 2006)

‘Empires Collide: The French and Indian War 1754-63’ ed. Ruth Shepperd (Oxford, 2006)

Brendan Simms, ‘Three Victories and a Defeat: the rise and fall of the British Empire 1714-1783’ (London, 2007)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Zulu War 1879: The Battle of Isandlwana

“I can’t understand it, I left a thousand men here” Lord Chelmsford, returning to Isandlwana following the battle.


The battle of Isandlwana is remembered as a classic example of the consequences of a well-armed European army underestimating its non-European opponents. In 1879, British Imperial forces under Lord Chelmsford crossed the border of the British colony at Natal into Zululand. Chelmsford’s advance did not proceed as quickly as he had hoped. Heavy rain had turned dirt tracks into mud and slowed down the advance of his columns. It was not until the 20th January, that he reached the forward slopes of the rocky outcrop known as Isandlwana. Immediately, patrols were sent out looking for the next viable campground. The British did not intend to stay long in the area and no attempts had been made to fortify any of the British camps. The absence of any serious opposition so far in the campaign encouraged a complacency amongst senior officers and soldiers alike.

By the time Chelmsford reached Isandlwana, he was anticipating a confrontation, but the prospect did not concern him. His greatest fear was that the Zulus would refuse to give battle directly, slip round his flank and attack Natal. Chelmsford therefore decided to seek out the enemy. He sent a strong patrol into the hills towards oNdini on 21st January. Part of the force ran into a group of Zulus, who fell back using the terrain and bush to prevent the British getting a good impression of their strength. Believing this to be the main Zulu army, Chelmsford ordered roughly half his force to march out from Isandlwana before dawn the next day to confront them. He left approximately 1,700 British troops and their African allies to guard the camp. Little did he realise that the force he had encountered were only stragglers. The main Zulu army had already moved across Chelmsford’s front, using the hills to avoid detection. While he spent the morning of 22nd January 12 miles away searching for the enemy, scouts from the Isandlwana camp stumbled across the main Zulu army of 20,000 concealed in a valley only five miles from the British camp. The encounter provoked the Zulus, who rose up and advanced rapidly towards the British position. The battle of Isandlwana had begun.

The Zulu kingdom had been built upon the conquests of their great King Shaka early in the nineteenth century. The army used sophisticated tactics and an advanced command system. Moving barefoot across country without the burden of supplies, Zulu forces were trained to forage for food. Their army was usually preceded by scouts and skirmishers who provided intelligence and masked their movements. Their traditional attack formation consisted of an encircling movement from both flanks, ‘the horns of the bull’. The ‘chest’ directly confronted the enemy centre, and a reserve force was kept in the rear. Warriors advanced towards the enemy at a steady pace, using any cover they could find. Once within range, they would loose their throwing spears or volley from their firearms and then charge the enemy position using their stabbing spears and shields. The Zulus did not take prisoners.




King Cetshwayo of the Zulus. Cetshwayo led his people through the British invasion and ruled from 1873-1879.






It was this highly trained force of Zulu 'impis' that the British encountered on the 22nd January 1879. Once again, misjudging the situation, the British believed they were facing nothing more than a local force and deployed their men in open order some distance from the camp. It was not until the entire Zulu army cam into view, cresting the entire range of the hills overlooking the camp, that the British realised how badly they had underestimated their opponent. Chelmsford had left Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine of the 1/24th in command of the camp. In addition to the 1700 men armed with the new Martini-Henry rifle, the British also had two 7-pound artillery cannons and reserves of one million rounds of rifle ammunition.

At the early stage of the battle the three Zulu regiments making up the main body, suffered from serious losses from the defenders’ sustained rifle fire. The officers and NCOs in the centre of the British front line controlled their men’s volley fire to the extent that the main Zulu attack faltered. However, on the left flank troops and artillery were being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Commanding the left flank, Colonel Dunford realised that his men were running out of ammunition and sent several riders back to the camp with urgent requests for supplies. They were unable to locate their allocated supplies and returned empty handed. As ammunition was not forthcoming, Dunford requested a volunteer to warn Pulleine of the situation. With no volunteers forthcoming, Dunford had not choice but to withdraw back to the main camp. As Dunford ordered his men to retreat, G company’s position was left exposed. The company was swiftly overwhelmed by several thousand Zulus.

Right across the British line the defenders were beginning to run low on ammunition. Each infantryman at the start of the battle had been equipped with four packets of ten bullets each and a further thirty rounds loose in their canvas expense bags. Although supply commissars had been attempting to maintain sufficient supplies, after half an hour many soldiers began to yell for more ammunition. The ammunition boxes had a sliding lid that was secured by a single two inch screw. As screw-drivers were in short supply, lids were smashed open with rifle butt and rocks. However, this trickle of ammunition was not sufficient to meet the ever increasing demands that were now flooding in from all sections of the British line.

Meanwhile the Zulu attack in front of the camp had faltered. The Zulu commanders dispatched Chief Mkosona of the Ukhandempemuu regiment. His intervention got the attack moving again before he too was shot dead. Encouraged by his example, the entire Zulu centre suddenly rushed the thin line of British infantry. Even sustained volley fire could not stop such numbers of charging men. The Zulu left and right horns now joined up behind the British causing the column’s terrified cattle to rush through the wagon park and into the rear of the camp. British survivors from the centre fought their way back through to the wagon camp where they tried to form a defensive square. Very quickly, the camp transformed itself from a scene of peaceful activity to one of noise, gunfire, terror and confusion. The chaos was made worse by the lack of visibility. Isandlwana sits in a wide bowl surrounded by hills. Volley-fire would have created a thick hanging smokescreen between the British and the advancing Zulus.

Several groups of red-coated British soldiers fought their way out of the camp, but were soon caught and overwhelmed. Lieutenants Coghill and Melville of 1/24th are credited with the attempt to save the regimental colours. Both tried to cross the river at the same point, but Melville was thrown off his horse. Coghill went back to help him. They were then caught and killed by Zulus. Both men were honoured with posthumous VCs 28 years later in 1907.

In less than one hour, the battle of Isandlwana was over. The number of Zulu killed are unknown, but probably in the region of 3000. The Zulu plan had been brilliantly executed through rugged and harsh terrain. The British had seriously underestimated the Zulu ability to plan and coordinate a major attack. As a result they were annihilated. Beneath Isandlwana lay 52 officers, 810 white troops and 500 black troops of the British column. Less than 60 white troops escaped the slaughter. The failure to prepare adequate defences and overstretched and inadequate supply lines had all contributed to the British defeat. Although the British army was able to redeem itself shortly afterwards at Rorke’s Drift, the final invasion of Zululand was delayed for several months.


Saul David, Zulu: the Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (London, 2004)

David Rattray’s Guidebook to the Anglo-Zulu War Battlefields, ed. Dr. Adrian Greaves (Barnsley, 2003)

Ian Knight, Rorke’s Drift 1879 (Oxford, 1996)

Adrian Greaves, Crossing the Buffalo: the Zulu war of 1879 (London, 2005)

Adrian Greaves, Rorke’s Drift (London 2002)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Byzantium: The Varangian Guard of Constantinople


The Byzantine Empire employed mercenaries throughout its long history. Perhaps the most famous of these mercenary units were the elite Varangian Guard. Armed with double edged swords and battleaxes, these fearsome Nordic warriors served as the Emperor’s personal bodyguard from the tenth century onwards. Many different ethnic groups sought temporary employment in the empire and worked for the imperial administration or court in particular capacities. As the Empire’s reach expanded from the tenth century onwards, a larger orbit of regions and cultures became linked to it. Eventually, this would come to include Scandinavia and reach as far as Iceland.

The term ‘Varangian’ comes from an old Norse word meaning ‘plighted faith’ and was given to those Russianised Vikings whose forefathers had sailed across the Baltic and up the rivers of northern Russia, dominating the slav tribes of the interior as they advanced. They first appeared in Constantinople as a fighting unit sometime in 989 AD. The emperor Basil II was at war with the pretender Bardas Phocas. After inflicting a series of military defeats upon Basil, Bardas’ rebellion was seriously threatening Basil’s future as ruler. By 988, the rebel army lay encamped on the coast of the Bosphorous opposite Constantinople. Only constant active patrolling by the Imperial navy prevented Bardas from crossing the straits and finishing off the remnants of Basil’s army. Desperate for any kind of military assistance, Basil turned to Vladimir, Prince of Kiev. Vladimir agreed to dispatch a force of six thousand fully-equipped Varangian Vikings to assist Basil. In exchange he asked only for the hand of Emperor’s sister. Basil had no choice but to agree. This incident marked a major turning point both in Byzantine and Russian history. Never before had a full princess of the blood been sent off to marry a ‘barbarian’. Even more significantly, Anna’s arrival in Kiev marked the beginning of the conversion of Russia to Christianity.

In early 989 AD a Viking fleet arrived with the promised 6000 Norseman. A few weeks later they crossed the straits of the Golden Horn under the cover of darkness and took up positions a few hundred yards from the rebel camp. At first light they attacked, while a squadron of imperial flame-throwers sprayed the shore with Greek fire. Phocas’s men awoke to the terrifying sight of the Varangians swinging their swords and battleaxes. The result was a massacre. Basil with the aid of the Varangians soon crushed the rebellion entirely.

After the rebellion, the Varangians were immediately established as the emperor’s personal bodyguards. Anna Komnena writing in ‘the Alexiad’ claimed that the Guard were far more reliable and trustworthy as bodyguards than native Byzantine troops.

“They regard loyalty to the Emperors and the protection of their persons as a family tradition, a kind of sacred trust and inheritance handed down from generation to generation; this allegiance they preserve inviolate and never brook the slightest hint of betrayal”

Anna Komnena, a princess of their blood herself, knew the workings of the imperial household intimately. It is clear that she held the Guard in particularly high esteem.

Nevertheless, the Varangians were not always so infallible in their duties. In 1079, a drunken band of guardsman on duty in the palace attacked the Emperor Nikephoros III Botaniates. In 1204, when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were besieging the city, the Varangians agreed to fight for the new Emperor only on the condition that he paid them at an exorbitant rate.
The salary of the Varangians was in fact considerably higher than that of other mercenary troops. They seem to have received as much as ten to fifteen nomismata per month (one and two-thirds to two and a half pounds of gold per annum) as well as special gratuities and a large share of the booty taken on campaigns. These privileges reflect the importance that the emperors placed in having a reliable body of troops that he could always rely upon to guard his person. On many occasions it was the Varangians who proved the most reliable in battle.



an illumination of the Varangian Guard from the Chronicle of John Skylitzis in the eleventh century





At Manzikert in 1071, even after the left and right flanks of the Byzantine army had broken in disorder, the centre remained firm with the Varangians crowded around the emperor. In 1081, Alexius I used the Varangians as the core of his newly reconstituted Byzantine army. Finally in 1204, it was the axe-swinging Englishmen and Danes of the Varangian guards (rather than native troops) who beat back the first few waves of attacking crusaders, before being overwhelmed themselves.

One of the most famous Varangians was Harold Sigurthorson (also known as Hardrada). After leaving Norway in 1030 following the Battle of Sticklestand, where his brother King Olaf was killed, Harold found himself wondering in Russia. He eventually headed for Constantinople and enlisted with his followers in the Varangian guard. Harold took part in Byzantine campaigns in the Aegean, in Bulgaria and in Sicily. In recognition of his achievements, he was made a senior commander in the guard and invested by the emperor with the title of ‘Spathorokandidates’. By the time he left Constantinople in 1044, he had become a wealthy man. He eventually reclaimed his throne in Norway and died in 1066 Stanford Bridge leading an invasion of England.

The commander of the Guard was sometimes called the ‘the leader of the axe-bearing Guard’, but his official title was ‘Akolouthos’ or the Acolyte. This clearly illustrates the high regard and level of responsibility that the emperor placed in his senior Guards officers. After completing their period of service as guardsman, most went home with Byzantine arms, silks, weapons and distinctive clothing. According to the Laxdaela Saga, Bolli Bollason came back dressed in a gold embroidered costume with a purple cloak. As a result of these cross-cultural exchanges, Byzantine influence in Church architecture, manuscript illumination and ivory carving became widespread throughout Scandinavia. Runic stones were raised in memory of those who had travelled to Byzantium as merchants, pilgrims or mercenaries and their exploits are commemorated in Icelandic and Scandinavia sagas.

Towards the end of the eleventh century, the composition of the Guard began to change. In the first few decades following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a steady stream of Anglo-Saxon émigrés began to take service under the emperors of Constantinople. By 1204, it appears that many of the Guardsman were from England and Denmark. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the Varangian Guard unit continued after the first fall of Constantinople in 1204. For over two-hundred years, this unique and well-trained battle unit had served the Byzantine emperors and the Empire well. The recruitment of the Varangians, who often travelled great distances to join, is proof of the cosmopolitan nature of Constantinople during the early to mid medieval period.


John Jules Norwich, Byzantium: The Apogee (London, 2003)

John Jules Norwich, Byzantium: the Decline and Fall (London, 1996)

Ian Heath, Byzantine Armies 886-1118 (Oxford, 1979)

Jonathan Harris, Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium (London, 2007)

Judith Herrin, Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire (London, 2007)

Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford, 1997)

Anna Komnena, The Alexiad (available from Penguin Publishers)