Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Military History and Warfare: The purchase of Commissions in the British army

Up until the ‘Cardwell reforms’ of 1871, it was common practice for officers in the British army to buy and sell their commissions. The origins of this system are uncertain. However, throughout Europe during the late medieval/early modern period mercenaries were raised on the expectation of profit (rather than wages). Therefore it was expected that those involved should purchase a share in the undertaking guaranteeing them a portion of the booty. Since profits were shared out according to rank, it became customary to charge different amounts depending on the seniority of the rank. Hence the term mercenary ‘company’.

Although the buying and selling of commissions was common practice throughout most European armies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was during the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England that began the widespread practice in the British army. After the experience of the English Civil War, the idea of maintaining a standing army was considered to be dangerous to the liberty of the country. Given that the King was dependent upon Parliament for funds, he had great difficulties maintaining a sizeable force. By offering commissions to those willing to pay, the monarch was able to maintain a standing army without recourse to the public purse. Since Colonels were expected to clothe and fed their regiment, a peacetime army was relatively inexpensive. It is during wartime in the supply and maintenance of a campaigning force that armies become expensive (although Gustavus Adolphus tried to solve this problem by ensuring that his forces attacked and sustained themselves from enemy territory).

The system remained relatively informal in the early part of the eighteenth century. However, in 1719 King George I issued a royal warrant establishing a fixed tariff of prices for each regiment. Further regulations from the Crown in 1720 formally acknowledged purchase as a viable means of promotion within the army, but ensured that the sale and collection of monies remained firmly with the Crown.

As the system continued to develop in the British army, aspiring officers were able to purchase an annuity which would be redeemed upon retirement. If the officer wished for a higher rank, he had merely to pay the difference between his current rank and the rank he wished to attain. As a result, officers frequently moved regiments when vacancies became available in more senior positions. The system also meant that only the very rich could aspire to key positions of command within a regiment. Having a successful military career and being an effective commander were therefore not always synonymous. For less financially well-off junior officers, promotion could only come through active service. If an officer died whilst on active service, their commission would automatically be forfeit to the Crown. However, to enable the army to continue to function on campaign, the next most senior officer was promoted in his place without having to pay money. This would then result in another vacancy emerging lower down the ranks until all had been promoted on the basis of seniority.

Like any system of trading, agents were required to carry out the business of trading. Many of the purchases of ranks were carried out by agents based in London who acted as middlemen between the Crown (who sold the commissions) and the officers who bought them. Unlike the lower officer ranks, Generals could not purchase their positions. They were appointed personally by the Crown. This probably started out as a means by which the monarch could ensure the loyalty of the most senior commanders in his army.

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, there was growing criticism of the buying and selling of commissions. Although the system had enabled highly successful commanders like the Duke of Wellington to emerge, he cast a long shadow across the nineteenth century. Defenders of the system (of which the Duke was one) pointed out that the British army had been hugely successful as an institution. However, Wellington’s success disguised the face that many considerably less successful commanders owed their position entirely to personal wealth rather than talent for war. The poor handling of the Crimean War exposed many of these failings in the British army.

In 1856, a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the ‘System of Purchase and Sale of Commissions in the Army’. Unfortunately few of the recommendations of the Commission were taken up and the debate over the merits of the system continued during the 1860s. House of Lords opposition to the banning of the practice resulted in a Royal Warrant 1871, heralding the Cardwell reforms and a new era of army officer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Military History and Warfare: The American Civil War: Could the South have survived the war with the North?

In a previous article, I outlined the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides in the US civil war. In this article, I shall consider whether the South, despite its inherent economic, manpower and political weaknesses could have stayed off defeat in 1865 and held out for longer against the North. Throughout history there are examples of nations or peoples, after having lost command of the open battlefield, continuing to fight long drawn out campaigns, which gradually sapped the strength and will of an apparently superior enemy. Modern examples include Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the growth of partisan movements against the German occupiers of Yugoslavia, Greece and the western provinces of the USSR during the Second World War.

The leaders of the Confederacy would have had the successful example of the American Revolution, some eighty years earlier to drawn upon. The British army, despite having won the majority of conventional pitched battles against the American rebels, was unable to end the insurgency and defeat the revolutionaries. The American armies under Washington continued to retreat and avoid destruction. Eventually, foreign powers came to the aid of the Americans and defeated the British.

To some extent, this had been the strategy of the Confederacy from the start of the war. The leaders of the Confederacy were convinced that the industrialised nations of Europe (Britain and France) who relied upon cotton imports would be forced to recognize the South and intervene on the side of the Confederacy. Had Britain intervened in the war, the North could have found itself fighting a two front war, with British troops poised to strike from Canada, just as they had done in the war of 1812.

Intervention from Britain and France would also have nullified the North’s strong industrial and financial advantages against the South. The Federal government recognised the dangers of European involvement. Nevertheless, the South had overestimated the importance of its cotton exports. There were other sources of cotton available in the world. Whilst importing cotton from India was probably less commercially advantageous than the simpler Atlantic route with America, the Union naval blockade of the South had helped to push up the price of cotton. The decline of the South’s cotton trade therefore helped to fuel the growth of imported cotton from British India. Ultimately, Britain and France did not consider it to be advantageous enough for them to intervene and help the Confederacy.

Without the aid of foreign powers, the Confederacy was progressively weakened materially through the stranglehold of the Union blockade. The South’s limited industrial base made it necessary to import rifles, guns and many other essential materials of war. The South’s lack of a sizeable navy allowed the Union to land troops and take possession of many of the South’s ports and coastal waters. By April 1862, the whole Atlantic coast of the Confederacy was under Union control, with the exceptions of Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. The early seizure of the South’s largest port, New Orleans in 1861 and General Grant’s western campaign of 1863, effectively turned the Mississippi into a Union river cutting the Confederacy in half. With the defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederate armies were unable to launch further large-scale offensives against the North.

Despite the progressive decapitation of the South between 1864-1865, the armies of the Confederacy continued to check and inflict reverses upon the Union armies. Notably at Cold Harbour in July 1864, where 50,000 Union troops took part in the largest frontal assault of the war, suffering 7,000 casualties within half an hour. The key point is that whilst the Union could invade and destroy the economy and infrastructure of the South, as long as the Confederate armies could exist, the Confederacy could exist. If they could hold out long enough and force the North into a degree of war weariness the North might just sue for peace. Equally, Grant and other military leaders in the Union army realised that in order to defeat the Confederacy they could not just rely upon slow economic strangulation. They would need to launch an all out invasion of the South and its people. In the final phase of the war, this is precisely what the Union armies did. The objective of the Union campaign now was to destroy the fighting force of the South and its fighting will. General Sherman’s famous march through Georgia in November-December 1864 is remembered as being particularly brutal on the civilian population. Thousands of slaves were freed and plantations and homes looted and burnt. It was this kind of warfare that ground down the social fabric of the South whilst its armies fought on against ever increasing odds.

After Richmond fell on 5th April 1865, Robert E Lee’s army escaped. Apart from his own, there were two remaining Confederate armies, both in full retreat in the face of superior Union numbers. At Appomattox Lee was cut off. There now emerged a dangerous mixture of no supplies, desertion, and the almost incalculable oversupply of the Union forces now roaming the South. He was grossly outnumbered and finally had to send a note to Grant requesting terms of surrender. With Union armies now under effective control over much of the deep South and the principal formations of the Confederate army having either been defeated or surrendered, the Confederacy had ceased to exist as a sovereign political state (or rather a collection of states). This is perhaps why the South did not and could not continue the war as an insurgency. Tens of thousands of Southern boys had been killed or maimed, the slaves had been freed and the economy was in ruins. The war did not continue as an insurgency because it had always been an insurgency. Albeit, one of a larger scale than we might commonly associate with an uprising. The political questions of 1860-1 had been decided by force of arms and thus the war ended.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Military History and Warfare: World War I: The French Mutinies of 1917

The archives relating to the French army mutinies of 1917 will remain closed until 2017. At the time secrecy was maintained for fear of the adverse effects news of the mutiny might have had on both the domestic front and the British forces serving in France. Worn down by the failed Nivelle offensives of April 1917 on the Aisne and Champagne, the morale of the French army was at an all time low. The mutinies began on 17 April 1917 with peaks in late May and early June. A total of sixty-eight divisions were affected in some way, ranging from serious to minor disturbances.

Although there were reports of red flags appearing amongst certain mutineering units, a study carried out by the French military historian Guy Pedroncini has shown that the majority of mutineers were simply protesting against being used as cannon fodder. Better conditions were demanded with increased food, rest periods and regular leave. Angry demonstrations were mounted in the rear lines of the French army. Frequently, these protests were carried out by resting units which had been ordered back into the frontline for an attack. However, there are few, if any reported cases of discipline breaking down in the front lines themselves. It is clear that whatever the French infantrymen thought of their commanders, they remained willing to defend France against German attacks. Interestingly, the vast majority of mutineers were in the infantry. There were few reports of artillerymen joining the protests and no reports of cavalrymen. This is perhaps an indication of the varying degrees of comfort experienced (or suffered) by the different branches of the French army. Typically, the infantry bore the brunt of the casualties and deprivations associated with trench warfare. Consequently, it was they who were the most likely to complain about their conditions when the mutinies erupted in 1917.

Although the catalyst for the mutinies had been the failed Aisne offensive, the symptoms of declining morale could be seen earlier. In the last months of 1916, the average monthly desertion rate had been in the region of 470. Between the new year of 1917 and the start of the Aisne offensive, the rate had increased to 618. However, in May this figure rose rapidly to 1,291 eventually peaking at 1,619 in June. The reaction of senior officers varied significantly. Some took a hard line and laid the blame on the dissemination of pacifist or communist ideas from Paris or Russia. In some cases regimental commanders ordered men to fire on mutineers or arranged for court-martials and executions of ringleaders. In most cases, officers played a mediating role. The new commander in chief, Philippe Petain ordered that the mutinies be dealt with firmly but with moderation. Of those arrested and convicted by court-martial between 16 April 1917 and 31 January 1918, 499 men were sentences to death. However, only twenty-seven were actually shot. The remainder received a presidential clemency. 179 others received sentences of forced labour ranging from three years to life. 1438 were sentences to communal public labour for periods ranging between one year and two years. Others received prison sentences.

By June, discipline had been largely restored within the French army. They had not been entirely in vain. Petain engaged in a widely-felt public relations campaign amongst his troops. He visited ninety divisions, spoke to soldiers of all ranks and made it clear that there would be no more large-scale offensives until the Americans arrived. He initiated reforms to improve conditions for front-line troops. Barracks were refurbished and fresh green vegetables were brought into field kitchens. Small things in civilian life, but crucial for soldiers in the trenches. Soldiers were given the regular leave for seven to ten days every four months, with a right of appeal should it be refused. Better clean-up facilities were provided. Petain even went so far as to organise an appeal to the American Red Cross for families of soldiers rendered impoverished by the war. These measures, taken as a whole were crucial to restoring and maintaining army confidence in the leadership of its command staff. Crucially, the episode demonstrated to French high command, the importance of factoring in morale in future attacks.

The protests and mutiny of the French army in 1917 can be contrasted with that of the German forces in 1918. Whereas the French army suffered from sporadic outbursts from individual units or groups of soldiers, the German case was much more serious. In France morale in the towns and cities had held up for much of the war. This is perhaps why the French government were so keen to keep the mutinies secret, for fear of shattering a fragile domestic front. By contrast, in the German army of 1918 the failure of the Ludendorff offensives, the success of the Allies counterattack in the summer and autumn of 1918, and the growing realisation that the war was unwinnable lead to a rapid collapse in confidence that spread throughout Germany. The mutiny episodes in both armies demonstrate how much the First World War became a war of not only physical attrition, but spiritual.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Military History and Warfare: World War II: A few thoughts on the co-operation of the minor Axis powers with Germany


Students (and incidentally participants) of the Second World War will remember that Germany did not fight the Second World War alone. Famously, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany signed a 10-year pact in 1940. This would later result in Germany declaring war upon the United States shortly after the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbour. Given the geographical distances between their territories, more practical day-to-day co-operation between Germany and Japan was extremely difficult, if not impossible. This was obviously not the case with Germany and Italy. German forces under Rommel were sent into North Africa to prop up the failing Italian army. German and Italian troops occupied parts of Greece together and a military expedition of 200,000 (with the rather grandiose designation as the Italian 8th army) was sent by Mussolini to join German forces in Russia.

Whilst Germany, Italy and Japan were the major partners of the Axis, it is also important to remember the manpower and material contributions of the minor Axis powers. These included Finland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia. However, unlike the Western Allies, the Axis powers failed to achieve the same degree of co-operation, often with disastrous results.


Finland had been fighting Soviet Russia since before Operation Barbarossa. During the Winter War of 1939-40, Finland had fought bravely against superior Russian forces. Despite tactically outmanoeuvring the Russians, Finland had eventually been forced to capitulate under the sheer weight of numbers of the forces arrayed against them. An alliance with Nazi Germany in 1941 was necessary in order for Finland to recover its lost territories and prevent future Russian aggression.

Finnish-German co-operation took many forms. The Finnish army was well trained and had proved its fighting capabilities during the Winter War. In September 1941, the German High Command approached the Finnish military with the proposal of the establishment of creating a school to instruct German officers in winter warfare. The proposal was readily accepted with the first classes beginning in December of that year. In the summer of 1942, the Finns continued to instruct the Germans in fighting techniques for heavily forested areas. The school was considered to be a success by both parties.

During the invasion of Russia, Finnish forces pushed southeast helping to secure the cordon around Leningrad, allowing the Germans to place the city under siege. All in all, Finland’s forces were considered to be reliable and perhaps the equal of the Wehrmacht. This was certainly not the attitude of the Germans towards their other Eastern front allies. Despite this relatively high degree of co-operation, after the winter of 1941 the Germans failed to gain very much more from their Finnish allies. Once the old borders of Finland had been secured in August 1941, Finnish forces stood down from the majority of active operations. The Finnish government clearly saw the Russian war as a war of containment rather than the anti-Bolshevik crusade that Hitler had envisaged.


The Romanian contribution to the Axis effort has received a great deal of bad press from military historians. Much of this is due to the collapse of the Romanian forces on the steppe outside of Stalingrad during ‘Operation Uranus’. It is argued that the failure of the Romanian army to stand its ground resulted in the encirclement and eventual destruction of the German Sixth Army. Whilst there are elements of truth in this account, the reality is more complicated. Crucial to the Romanian (and Italian) failure outside of Stalingrad was the shortage of antitank weaponry. In October 1942, the Romanian Third Army had to defend a front of 75 miles with a total of only sixty anti-tank guns of 50mm calibre or higher. Recognising the crucial shortages of such weapons amongst their allies, the Germans had promised to assist them with additional supplies of modern anti-tank guns. However, with the German war industry now under constant air attack, the Germans were by now facing difficulties keeping their own forces adequately equipped. Consequently, many of these weapon deliveries fell far short of what had initially been promised.

This widespread lack of equipment was not helped by the often contemptuous attitude of many German officers towards their allies. During the difficult latter part of 1942, Romanian horses were supplied with 1 kg of fodder a day compared the Germans 5 or even 6 kg. Subsequently the Romanians were left with fewer horses for transport. Wounded Romanian soldiers complained of being given less rations than their counterparts in German hospitals. All of this was significant because it was usually the Germans who decided where supplies were allocated.

Another major problem with Axis alliance was the political relationship between the smaller powers. Romania and Hungary were in dispute over several regions within their own borders. Each looked to German to favour one over the other. Subsequently, Antonescu of Romania and Admiral Horthy of Hungary were both willing to escalate their troop commitments to the eastern front. However, German commanders had be careful not to place these ‘allied’ units adjacent to each other on the battlefield, for fear that they might start fighting each other. Even as late as 1944, American diplomats claimed that the only army the Hungarians really wanted to fight was the Romanian.


It is interesting to note that of all the Axis armies deployed on the eastern front, only the Germans had a strong ideological component to their training. Subsequently, German forces were much more highly motivated when compared to the Romanian, Hungarian and Italian armies. German reports from the period are filled with stories illustrating the widespread lack of enthusiasm for the war amongst their allies.

Added to this was the widespread problem of lack of modern equipment and transport, which immediately put the minor Axis, powers forces at a major disadvantage in a war that was becoming increasingly technologically sophisticated. For example, much of the artillery of the Hungarian army were World War I remnants from the old Austria-Hungarian army. Germany tried to elevate these problems by supplying captured enemy tanks and equipment. However, this solution could never be more than a stopgap.

It is also important not to underestimate the importance of language barriers as a practical obstacle that could often lead to hostility and misunderstanding.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Military History and Warfare: Alamo Village, Brackettville: Texan War of Independence

I apologise for not adding new material to this site for over a month. However, the good news is that having been away travelling over December and January, I have now accumulated lots of new material for 2009.

This week we will be having a look at the Alamo Village, located some 130 miles from the site of the real Alamo in San Antonio. Somewhat 'off the beaten track', the Alamo village was originally constructed for the 1960 John Wayne epic 'The Alamo'. The village consists of the full-scale film set used for the film, including a full-scale replica of both San Antonio and the Alamo compound circa. 1836. The village is unique in that its building have no false fronts. All are fully functional, thus allowing Brackettville to boast Texas' first permanant outdoor movie set. Since 1960, the set has been in some 200 different productions.

For the military historian, the Alamo village also presents the opportunity to look at (and run around in) a recreation of one of the most famous battles in history. Of course, the value of any such exercise is entirely dependent upon the accuracy of the recreation. Whilst it is impossible to judge with any certainty as the accuracy of the set it can be said that the carpenters and set designers were working from a map which is widely believed to accurately represent the true state of affairs at the mission in 1836. At the very least, the set gives us an appreciation of some of the challenges facing the Texian defenders as well as their Mexican attackers.

The Alamo garrison had access to at least eighteen pieces of artillery (and possibly twenty-one according to some sources). In order to equip each one with a full firing team, half of the garrison would have to have been deployed manning cannons. Assuming that each gun team was therefore under strength, this still leaves very few men for protecting the compound perimeter. The complex itself sprawled over 3 acres with almost 1,320 feet of perimeter to defend. With fewer than two-hundred men, the Alamo desperately needed reinforcements.

The final Mexican assault occured on March 6 and consisted of four columns. Despite their advantage in numbers, the advancing Mexicans were extremely vulnerable to cannon shot. Only the first few ranks of soldiers were able to fire without hitting the men in front. The cannons of the defenders were therefore able to tear holes through the tightly packed columns of attacking infantry. However, once over the wall, the Mexicans were able to use their weight in numbers to overwhelm individual groups of defenders. As the photos demonstrate, once the walls had been breached, the inner compound was simply too large to prevent the defenders from being overwhelmed.

Section of the wall defended by Crockett.

Front gate

Cross section of the southern defences.