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Thursday, 31 December 2015

The end of the Siege of Vienna, 1683



Although 12th September 1683 was an important day in the history of Europe, it also had two unexpected consequences, both of which could easily be within arm’s reach as you as read this article!

The ending of the siege of Vienna

By 12th September 1683 the Ottoman Turks had been besieging Vienna for two months and the signs were not good for the inhabitants. An army of 250,000 men was camped around the walls, against which cannonballs thudded with monotonous regularity. The outer defences were already under Turkish control and tunnels were being dug to undermine the inner walls.

However, help was on the way. The Pope, Alexander VIII, was so concerned that the forces of Islam could make such inroads into Christian Europe that he paid a large sum of money to the King of Poland, John Sobieski, to come to the Austrians’ aid.

A combined Polish and Austrian army of some 80,000 men attacked the Turks at first light on 12th September and took them completely by surprise. Although the battle was to rage on for fifteen hours, by the end of the day the siege had been lifted and the Turks had fled, leaving most of their supplies, and thousands of dead bodies, behind. King John sent a message to the Pope that misquoted Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, God conquered”.

A celebration bake

The celebrations were, as might have been expected, long and joyous. The bakers of Vienna, for example, devised a new bread product which they called a “kipfel”, which is German for “crescent”. They took the shape from the crescent on the Turkish flag, which every Viennese citizen had become heartily sick of seeing whenever they peeped over the city walls. Eating the crescent was therefore a way of revenging oneself on the defeated enemy.

Nearly a century later the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette became the wife of the French King Louis XVI. She took the secret of the kipfel with her and it became highly popular in France under the name we still use today, the “croissant”.

Sweetened coffee

As mentioned above, the Turks left a large amount of supplies behind, and this included a huge store of coffee. The Austrians found Turkish coffee to be too bitter to their taste, so they added milk and honey to sweeten it. One legend has it that the new drink was invented by a friar named Marco d’Aviano, a Capuchin monk who had arrived in Vienna as the Pope’s emissary. The drinkable coffee was the same colour as his robes, which is why it was named Cappuccino in his honour.

So, if you want to celebrate the anniversary of the freeing of Vienna in true style, having a croissant and a cappuccino would be the most appropriate way of so doing!


© John Welford

Adolf Hitler's Anschluss of Austria



On 12th March 1938 Adolf Hitler led a motorcade across the river that marked the border between Germany and Austria to begin the final stage of the “Anschluss”, or the forced union of the two countries.

Hitler had been born in 1889 in the border town of Braunau in Upper Austria, and it was therefore symbolic that he chose this spot to make his return, having left Austria with his family before his third birthday.  It had long been his dream to unite the two major German-speaking countries of Europe, the Nazi slogan being: “One people; one state; one leader”.

Austria had been reduced to a rump state after the First World War, with most of its former empire stripped away to leave the mainly German-speaking part behind. It was poorly governed as a republic and many of its people regarded Hitler as a potential saviour.

However, it had taken Hitler five years to reach the stage of the final advance, and he had needed to use all sorts of underhand methods to prepare the ground, including intimidation, subversion and political assassination.

Three weeks previously the Austrian chancellor had been pummelled into agreeing a political union with Germany, but he then changed his mind and announced that a plebiscite would be held so that the people could decide. Hitler could not run the risk of rejection, so Austrian Nazis organised riots in several Austrian cities so that Hitler would have an excuse to invade the country with a view to restoring law and order.

Two days later Adolf Hitler was able to address a massive crowd in Vienna (see photo) and announce the creation of the German Reich. He then flew back to Berlin with his mission accomplished and in a position to start making plans for his next conquest, namely that of Czechoslovakia.


© John Welford

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Battle of Zenta, 1697



Of course, the date of 11th September has a significance that will never be lost to anyone who was alive and aware on that date in 2001, but this article concerns an event that took place centuries earlier, namely in 1697. This was the Battle of Zenta, fought between the army of the Austrian Empire and the Ottoman Turks who were making inroads far into central Europe.

Ottoman expansion

The expansion of the Ottoman Empire had been a matter of grave concern to the European powers for many years, and would continue to be so for a long time to come. In 1683 the Turks had been beaten back from the walls of Vienna and had retreated into the Balkans (where there is a strong Muslim presence down to the present day), but they were now threatening a fresh assault.

Prince Eugene of Savoy

The task of keeping the Turks in check was entrusted to a young French-born general, Prince Eugene of Savoy. Born in 1663, Eugene had hoped to serve King Louis XIV in a military capacity but was rejected out of hand, due mainly to the fact that Eugene’s mother had fallen out of favour with the king, with whom she had been having an affair, and Louis would have nothing to do with any of her family.

Eugene therefore offered his services to the Hapsburgs of Austria. The occasion for doing this was the death of Eugene’s brother Louis, who was killed in 1683 when fighting for the Austrians against the Turks in the action at Vienna mentioned above. Eugene offered to take Louis’s place as a commander in the Austrian army, and was accepted.

By 1697 Eugene had been involved in a number of campaigns, both against the Turks and in the Nine Years War against the French, rising to the rank of Major-General at the age of 22 and Field-Marshal at 30. It was therefore not surprising that he should be offered supreme command of the Austrian forces when the Ottoman threat reappeared.

The Battle of Zenta

Eugene was ordered to attack the Turks so as to remove the threat of any further advances on the Austrian Empire. He therefore pursued the army of Sultan Mustafa II and caught up with them at Zenta, at the confluence of the rivers Tisza and Danube in modern-day Serbia.

The Turkish army was much larger than his own, but when he arrived Eugene noted that the Turks had started to cross the Tisza, sending their heavy artillery first. This meant that the infantry were still on the near side of the river but the artillery was on the other side and unable to take part in any action. Eugene seized the moment and attacked.

The result was a rout of the Turkish forces, which were completely unprepared for battle. They panicked, and up to 10,000 men were drowned as they tried to escape across the river. Another 20,000 were killed in the fighting. Part of the Turkish army consisted of Christian conscripts known as Janissaries; they mutinied during the battle and killed their own general.

Eugene’s losses were limited to 300 men, which is a measure of just how complete the Austrian victory was. The Turks had to concede vast tracts of land to the Austrians as a result of their defeat, which in turn shifted the balance of power very much in Austria’s favour.

This victory was Eugene’s first as overall commander of the Austrian army, but it would not be his last. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest military figures of his age.

Another victory

As it happened, 11th September was also the date of another victory by Eugene of Savoy. This was in 1709 at the Battle of Malplaquet, where Eugene fought alongside the English general the Duke of Marlborough against the French during the War of the Spanish Succession. Although this later battle was a victory, in that the French were forced to retreat, the result was nothing like as clear-cut as at Zenta. The allies lost 22,000 casualties against the French 12,000, which therefore qualifies the battle as a “Pyrrhic victory”.


© John Welford

The final morning of World War I



At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, World War I finally came to an end in 1918, four years, three months and nine days after it had started. The photograph is of the train carriage in which the Armistice was signed.

The result of the war had not been in doubt for some time, with Germany’s allies having been defeated or deserting the cause, the fleet having mutinied, and revolution hanging in the air in the streets of Berlin.

However, that did not stop the fighting from continuing literally to the last minute. The armistice was signed at 5.00 am, with the six-hour gap to 11.00 am being intentional so that the news could be sent to all parts of the front in time for it to take effect. On that last morning some 11,000 men died, some of them ordered to fight by generals who knew that the armistice had already been signed. This number of casualties was greater than the allied forces would suffer on the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944.

The senseless fighting on that final day led the French authorities to backdate their memorials to those who died, so that they read “10-11-18”. This was done out of shame that men were being forced to fight for no reason on that morning.

The very last soldier to be killed in action was Private Henry Gunther, an American, who was shot dead at 10.59 am by Germans who were taken by surprise as they waited for the clock to tick over that last minute.

Of course, none of these horrors were known about on the home front, where celebrations began on the stroke of 11.00 am. In central London, the streets filled with cheering crowds between the first and last strokes of Big Ben as it chimed the hour. In New York a million people thronged Broadway.

And at a house in Oswestry, on the English-Welsh border, a telegram arrived to announce that Mr and Mrs Owen’s son, the poet Wilfred Owen, had been killed just a week previously when leading a charge across a canal in northern France.


© John Welford

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The murder of John the Fearless, 1419



On the 10th of September 1419 the Duke of Burgundy was murdered on a bridge at Montereau, about 40 miles upriver from Paris.

France was in turmoil. The king, Charles VI, was known as “Charles the Mad” for good reason. Being unable to provide firm rule, he was largely under the control of the powerful House of Burgundy, but opposing this influence was the equally powerful House of Armagnac. The two families controlled huge resources in terms of wealth, land and armed men, and fought what amounted to a civil war that continued, with varying degrees of animosity, from 1407 to 1435.

While all this in-fighting was going on, the English were able to take advantage by capturing large swathes of northern France. King Henry V had achieved an overwhelming victory at Agincourt in 1415 and was ready and willing to make further gains.

The Duke of Burgundy was known as John the Fearless for his bravery. He had captured Paris in 1418 and was therefore the virtual overlord of King Charles. However, the King’s son and heir (known in French parlance as the Dauphin) had escaped and was in the hands of the Armagnacs.

There were therefore three powerful forces at large in France, the Burgundians, the Armagnacs and the English. The English could only be kept at bay if the Burgundians and Armagnacs could make common cause, and it was to that end that a meeting was arranged on the bridge at Montereau.

The Dauphin, with his Armagnac bodyguards, was already on the bridge when Duke John arrived. He knelt to show respect to the 16-year-old Dauphin, but as he rose his hand touched the hilt of his sword in a way that alarmed one of the bodyguards, in that it appeared as though the Duke was about to draw his sword. He said to the Duke: “Would you put your hand on your sword in the presence of the Dauphin of France?”

It is almost certain that nothing was further from the Duke’s mind, and the touch of his hand on the sword was purely accidental, but that did not stop another of the Armagnacs, named Tanneguy, from lunging forward and hitting the Duke in the face with an axe, thus killing him.

The murder served nobody’s purpose apart from the English. As their revenge, the Burgundians signed an alliance with King Henry which was the forerunner to the 1420 Treaty of Troyes by which the French throne was to be ceded to Henry on the death of King Charles, with the Dauphin being disinherited. Henry was also given Charles’s daughter, Catherine, as his wife and queen. The only reason why Henry V did not become the King of France was that he died in August 1422, two months before Charles. Henry’s son, who was only nine months old when his father died, therefore became the infant King of France before his first birthday.

A prior from Dijon summed up the situation well when he said that “The English entered France through the hole in the Duke of Burgundy’s head”.


© John Welford

The Battle of Tours, 732


10th October 732 was the day on which Charles Martel, leader of the Franks, earned his nickname of Charles the Hammer, by virtue of his decisive victory over the Moors at the Battle of Tours.

The Moors had crossed from North Africa into Spain in 711 to begin their occupation that would last for nearly 800 years. However, they had ambitions to cross the Pyrenees into what is now France, in a bid to conquer the whole of Europe if at all possible. They were led by the governor of Spain, Abd ar-Rahman.

Their first victory was at Bordeaux where they easily defeated Eudo, the Duke of Aquitaine, before heading north towards Tours which they had heard was full of treasure just waiting to be plundered.

Eudo fled hot-foot to Paris where he urgently sought help from Charles Martel. The two had hardly been best buddies in the past, so Charles only agreed to help if Eudo would swear to be Charles’s vassal in future. Eudo had little choice, so the two leaders assembled an army of 30,000 men, divided between infantry and cavalry.

They met the Moorish army somewhere between Tours and Poitiers (the battle is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Poitiers). The Moors had an army that was about 80,000 strong, composed entirely of cavalry, the men being lightly armoured and armed with scimitars and lances.

The two armies spent the next six or seven days watching each other warily and manoeuvring for position, with the occasional skirmish. The Moors were particularly keen to protect the booty that they had already plundered during their advance from Spain.

One advantage that Charles had was that the Franks had been fighting against the Moors for about twenty years and therefore knew a great deal about their preferred battle tactics, which consisted primarily of mounting massive cavalry charges and sweeping all before them. Charles knew that he had to defend against such an approach, and that was the secret of his success in this instance.

The Moors mounted charge after charge but could not break the defensive wall that Charles had set up, formed into squares in a manner used to great success more than a thousand years later by the British army during the Napoleonic wars. The Franks, their cavalry dismounted, threw javelins and axes at the Moors when they got within range and the latter’s casualty rate grew alarmingly.

A rumour then got around that the wagons containing the Moors’ booty were under attack. They had to be defended at all costs, so the horsemen turned away from attacking the Franks to the more important task of defending their treasure. However, the rumour turned out to be false. Whether it had been planted by the Franks as a psychological ploy is open to debate, but it would have been a good tactic to use.

However, when the Moors returned to their camp they realised that another rumour was entirely true, namely that Abd ar-Rahman had been killed. There was nothing for it but to abandon their mission and head back to Spain, leaving all their booty behind.

The Muslim threat to western Europe was thus averted for the foreseeable future, with the next major advance coming from the direction of Turkey in the 16th century.

Charles the Hammer was able to assert his dominance by taking over Aquitaine after Eudo died two years later, and to lay the foundations for the even greater empire that would be created by his grandson, Charlemagne, in the 9th century.


© John Welford

The founding of the US Marine Corps



10th November 1775 was the day on which the Continental Congress authorised the establishment of the Continental Marines, with a view to creating a fighting force that was skilled in mounting attacks on land that originated at sea. This was only six months into the American War of Independence, and it had already become clear that the British forces, which already included an amphibious element, had a degree of flexibility that the American revolutionaries needed to match.

The first successful assault by a Marines unit was in 1776 when a British-held island in the Bahamas was taken. However the unit was retired at the end of the war in 1783 and the Marine Corps, as it became, did not reappear for another 15 years.

Since that date, US Marines have carried out more than 300 amphibious landings in wars across the world, often being the first troops to see action. Marines have played important roles in every major conflict in which the United States has been involved, although they have not always been used in a purely amphibious capacity.

The Marine Corps motto is “Semper Fidelis” (Always Faithful) which is often abbreviated to “Semper Fi”. However, it was the Marines of World War Two who came up with a term that has entered the English language in other contexts. This is “snafu”, which stands for “situation normal, all f***** up”.


© John Welford

The French Foreign Legion



10th March 1831 was the day on which the French Foreign Legion was founded by King Louis-Philippe of France. It proved to be one of the world’s most iconic fighting forces, and it is still in existence today.

The Legion was originally recruited for the purpose of fighting a revolt in Algeria, and it was stated at the outset that it would never be used on home soil. Throughout its history it has played a major role in fighting France’s colonial wars, particularly in Africa but also in other parts of the world including Mexico and Vietnam.

The structure of the Legion, which it has always maintained, is that the officers are French but the junior ranks are from other countries. The original officers were remnants from Napoleon’s Army who had been doing very little since Waterloo, while the men were drawn from all over Europe.

The reputation of the French Foreign Legion for being a bolt-hole for wanted men was well deserved. Many criminals from all over the world soon found that they could escape from justice by enlisting in the Foreign Legion, where they would gain not only anonymity but considerable respect as a member of an elite fighting brigade. There was, of course, the danger of getting killed in the process, but for some recruits this merely transformed a probability of dying on the gallows into a mere possibility of being killed in battle.

Today, the French Foreign Legion is about 9,000 strong, with around 100 countries represented in its ranks. However, any ne’er-do-well who thinks that a career in the Legion is there for the asking might be in for a shock. Every year there are around 500 applications to join, but only 10% are successful. It must also be stressed that the vast majority of the Legion’s members are professional soldiers with not the slightest trace of a criminal past!


©John Welford

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Gallipoli Campaign, 1915-16



On 9th January 1916 the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I came to an end when the final batch of 200 British troops was withdrawn from a venture that had promised much but delivered nothing other than the loss of more than 100,000 lives.

The idea had sounded good enough at the outset in April 1915. The aim was to take Turkey, Germany’s ally, out of the war and force a passage through the Dardanelles Straits into the Black Sea. This would have supplied a means of getting supplies to Russia and also opened a front in eastern Europe from which to attack Austria-Hungary along the Danube valley.

Had the campaign succeeded it could have shortened the war by three years. Instead, there was no alternative to the stalemate of trench warfare on the western front with all the misery and carnage that that involved.

The Gallipoli peninsula is part of European Turkey, stretching as a narrow finger of land for more than 50 miles and forming the northern coast of the Dardanelles. The peninsula was heavily fortified and the campaign therefore involved action from land and sea to capture the forts and open the Dardanelles to allied shipping.

However, the task proved to be much harder than anticipated, despite the concerted efforts of troops from several parts of the Empire, most notably the “Anzacs” from Australia and New Zealand. After ten months of intense and bloody fighting very little progress had been made and the decision was made in London to admit defeat and withdraw.

The person who took most of the blame was Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who had been particularly keen on the enterprise and was involved in its planning. He later rejoined the army to lead a battalion on the western front, with a view to repairing his reputation by being seen to take personal risks – his personal courage was never in doubt at any stage of his life.

Churchill always maintained that the Gallipoli Campaign could have succeeded had it been given sufficient support. He was quoted as saying:

“The ill-supported armies struggling on the Gallipoli peninsula, whose efforts are now viewed with so much prejudice and repugnance, were in fact within an ace of succeeding in an enterprise which would have abridged the miseries of the World”.


© John Welford

Saturday, 26 December 2015

The Battle of New Orleans, 1815



The final battle of the war of 1812-14 between Great Britain and the United States was actually fought on 8th January 1815, some two weeks after the combatants had a signed a peace treaty to end the war. This was the Battle of New Orleans.

The War of 1812-14

One might argue that most wars are ultimately pointless, but that of 1812-14 must come high up the list of conflicts that should never have taken place. The American President James Madison had declared war on Britain in June 1812 in protest at British naval actions that had blockaded American ships in French ports – Britain was at war with Napoleonic France – and the hostilities had dragged on for more than two years, with the most significant action being the British burning of Washington in August 1814 that resulted in the presidential residence having to be painted white to cover the scorch marks. Both sides were therefore content to call an end to the war by the time December came along.

The Battle of New Orleans

A peace treaty was signed on 24th December, but the news that the war was over had not reached the combatants at New Orleans before the turn of the year.

Although there was little desire on most people’s part to carry on fighting, one exception was the British General Sir Edward Pakenham, who was the Duke of Wellington’s brother-in-law. He reckoned that the city of New Orleans would be an easy capture in that his troops outnumbered those of the city’s defenders, led by Andrew Jackson, by three to one.

Pakenham sent Jackson an insulting message that ended with the threat that he (Pakenham) would be eating breakfast in New Orleans on Sunday morning. Jackson replied by saying that Pakenham would be eating supper in Hell on Sunday night.

When the British attacked they faced withering fire from the defenders, who sheltered behind bales of cotton. The fire included grapeshot from cannons that had a devastating effect on the attackers, who lost 2,000 men within the half-hour that the battle lasted, these casualties including General Pakenham. On the other side, the losses were seven dead and six wounded.

If ever there was an unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war, this was it. The only positive result was that it boosted the reputation of the defending commander, who gained a hero status that would eventually take him all the way to the Presidency, which he won in 1829.


© John Welford

Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Battle of Borodino, 1812



7th September is the anniversary of the Battle of Borodino in 1812, which marked the beginning of the end of the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte as the most powerful man in Europe.

Napoleon had marched east into Russia at the head of an army of 530,000 men, but by the time he was within a day’s march of Moscow that number had been reduced to 130,000. The Russians refused to face him in battle until he reached the village of Borodino, to the west of Moscow.

The battle lasted all day, by the end of which the Russians had lost 45,000 of their original force of 120,000, but these were numbers that could always be replaced. On the other hand, the French losses of 30,000 were irreplaceable, as they were 1,500 miles from where they started.

The Russians retreated, but this was a French victory only on paper. Moscow had been evacuated and largely destroyed by the Russians, so there was nothing left for the French to capture and no supplies to be looted. There was nothing for it but to head for home.

The retreat from Moscow, through countryside that had been laid waste so as to offer nothing to the French, and in the depths of winter, made clear to Napoleon that Borodino was his greatest defeat. 

Out of more than half a million men that set out on this venture, no more than 10,000 returned.

7th September is therefore a very important date in European history.


© John Welford

England loses Calais,1558



On 7th January 1558 England lost her final piece of French territory, namely the port of Calais.

When Duke William conquered England in 1066 he simply added that country to what he held already, notably the Duchy of Normandy.

When Henry II became king in 1154 he was already Count of Anjou and his wife Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine. Henry’s empire eventually stretched from the north of England to the Spanish border.

However, much of this territory was lost in the following centuries, and it would all have been in French hands by 1558 had it not been for the action in 1346 by King Edward III to besiege and capture Calais. This toehold on the continent of Europe remained in English hands until the French King Henri II laid siege to it at the beginning of January 1558.

The successful general was François de Lorraine, duc de Guise, who was the original “Scarface”. He acquired this nickname following a battle wound earlier in his career.

It only took Guise six days to overcome the resistance of the English garrison station in Calais. The area around the town became known in France as “the reconquered country” but the loss was felt deeply in England.

Queen Mary I had not had a happy reign. She was unpopular for having married the king of Spain and for her aggressive promotion of Catholicism in England. A series of poor harvests had not helped matters, so the loss of Calais was “the final straw”. Mary had failed to produce an heir and she was probably already suffering from the ovarian cancer that would lead to her death in November of that year. She probably knew that her life was in its closing stages, despite being aged only 41, when she uttered the famous words: “When I am dead and opened, you shall find 'Calais' written on my heart”.


© John Welford

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Chateau Gaillard is captured, 1204



On 6th March 1204 King Philip Augustus of France finally captured Château Gaillard, a massive fortification at Les Andelys, 55 miles north-west of Paris, that had been built by England’s late King Richard the Lionheart.

Richard built the castle in 1196 to defend the territories in northern and western France that he had inherited from his father King Henry II. The castle boasted walls that were eight feet thick, 17 towers, and a moat that was 45 feet deep. It looked impregnable, but Philip Augustus swore to take it, saying that he would do so even if the walls had been made from steel. Richard replied that he would defend it even if the walls had been made from butter.

Richard died in 1199 and was succeeded by his far less competent brother John. In 1203 Philip Augustus decided that the time was right for capturing the castle and so laid siege to it. This became a protracted affair, partly because John was so worried about his position on the home front that he did not dare to try to raise an army to lift the siege, and partly because the castle had enough supplies to withstand a siege of at least a year’s duration.

Philip Augustus therefore had no choice but to mount an assault on Château Gaillard. His soldiers began by filling in part of the moat so that they could reach one of the walls and literally “undermine” it, which caused a partial collapse.

However, this was not enough, so a party of soldiers was given the unenviable task of crawling up one of the castle’s latrines and lowering the drawbridge to allow the French troops to get inside the walls. The garrison surrendered on 6th March 1204, which was the start of the dismantling of England’s empire in France.


© John Welford

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Napoleon Bonaparte's whiff of grapeshot, 1795



On 5th October 1795 an ambitious young man named Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a massacre that would start his rise to fame as one of the dominant figures of European history.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s early service to France

Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in 1769 on the French island of Corsica, had distinguished himself from a young age as a military commander by defending the French Revolutionary government against internal and external threats. In particular, in 1793 Colonel Bonaparte successfully lifted the siege of the port of Toulon by the British Navy. For this service he was promoted to Brigadier General.

The National Convention

From 20th September 1792 the government of France was in the hands of the National Convention, which was an assembly elected by universal male suffrage. This body underwent a number of changes during its three-year existence and a major change was proposed in 1795 that would create a second chamber and a system of checks and balances.

A rule was proposed which meant that two-thirds of the current deputies must be returned to the new assembly. This was presumably to ensure a degree of continuity in that the new Convention would contain a good number of experienced people who knew how to get things done. However, the move did not prove popular in Paris, where an unlikely assemblage of hard-line monarchists and equally hard-line left-wing revolutionaries formed a mob of around 30,000 people who threatened to march on the Tuileries, the former royal palace that was now the home of the Convention.

Bonaparte to the rescue

The commander of the Army of the Interior and the police was Paul Barras, who was responsible for the security of the Convention. He called upon Napoleon Bonaparte, who was otherwise unemployed, to organise a military defence. Bonaparte’s strength was in artillery, so he ordered Major Joachim Murat to gather 40 cannon and spread them around the outside of the building.

The rabble approached the Tuileries on the afternoon of 5th October (or 13th Vendemaire, Year 4, according to the new Revolutionary calendar). When the crowd was within close range Bonaparte announced “We’ll give them a whiff of grapeshot” and ordered the cannons to fire. More than 200 protestors were killed and twice as many were injured.

The aftermath

There were no more such threats to the Convention, although it did not last much longer. After a period known as the “Directory” during which real power was held by five men, a coup d’etat in 1799 resulted in ultimate power belonging to just one man, a certain Napoleon Bonaparte.

The whiff of grapeshot produced some other interesting consequences. Paul Barras, who brought Bonaparte to the fore and invited him to his home, had a mistress named Josephine de Beauharnais who was to become Bonaparte’s wife within a year, and Barras, as the leading Director, would eventually be sent into exile by Bonaparte.

However, better fortune befell Major Murat who would become one of Bonaparte’s greatest generals and eventually acquire the title of King of Naples.


© John Welford

The Gunpowder Plot, 1605



“Remember, remember, the 5th of November – gunpowder, treason and plot”. This was the day on which the opening of Parliament in 1605, attended by King James I and all the members of the Houses of Lords and Commons, would have been sabotaged by a massive explosion, had the plot succeeded. The plotters hoped thereby to start a revolution that would have resulted in the restoration of a Catholic regime in Great Britain, following years of repression of Catholics under Queen Elizabeth I and now her successor James, despite him being the son of a Catholic mother, namely Mary Queen of Scots.

There were fourteen people in the plot, which was led by a Catholic nobleman named Robert Catesby. The plan was to take advantage of the complex geometry of the old Parliament buildings, which were eventually burned down in 1834 although not as the result of any plot. The buildings had been built piecemeal over hundreds of years, and one anomaly was that cellars belonging to adjoining private houses ran underground beneath the chambers of Parliament.

Catesby and the plotters had rented one of these houses earlier in the year, because they knew that its cellar ran underneath the House of Lords, where the Opening ceremony would take place on 5th November.  They spent the intervening months storing barrels of gunpowder in the cellar, just one or two at a time so as not to attract attention. When the night of 4th/5th November arrived, there were 36 such barrels in the cellar, each containing about 100 pounds of gunpowder.

There has long been a question mark over whether the plot would actually have worked, given the age of some of the gunpowder and the fact that it was being stored in an underground cellar close to the River Thames, which must surely have been subject to damp. There is always the possibility that only a few of the barrels would have exploded, if any, and the result would not have been as spectacular as the plotters hoped.

However, the viability of the plot was never put to the test, due to the humanitarian feelings of one of the plotters. Somebody (it has never been established who) sent a letter to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, that advised him to think up an excuse for not attending the Opening  ceremony “as you tender your life”. The letter contained the words “I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament”. Monteagle rapidly passed the latter up the chain of command until it reached the king, who seized on the word “blow” as having something to do with gunpowder.

Catesby and the conspirators got to know about the existence of the letter, and there was some debate among them whether or not to abandon the whole idea. However, the conclusion was that the risk should be taken to proceed, seeing as they had come so far.

Thus, on the night of 4th November, a thorough search was made of the cellars beneath Parliament and the cache of gunpowder was found, guarded by one of the plotters, a certain Guido Fawkes. His job would have been to light an 8-hour fuse and make his escape long before the explosion would have happened.

Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London where he was interrogated, firstly by King James in person. Under torture, he revealed the whereabouts of the “safe house” in Warwickshire to which most of the others fled after hearing of Fawkes’s arrest. Catesby and his companions were therefore followed to the house by soldiers and killed after a brief shoot-out.

The other conspirators were soon rounded up and sent to the Tower where, along with Fawkes, they suffered the traitors’ death of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

The traditional British ceremony of Bonfire Night, with the burning of a “guy” and the setting off of fireworks, has always been held to be the result of a spontaneous outpouring of relief on the part of the country’s largely Protestant population at being saved from a dastardly Catholic plot. However, there is little evidence to show that such celebrations were held until after 1689, when William of Orange became King William III by deposing King James II.

William chose the date of 5th November on which to land in England in 1688. He appreciated the significance of that date, given that he was a Protestant prince who was ousting a Catholic king, and it may well be that it was the second “5th of November” that is really being remembered today.

© John Welford

Boston falls to the rebels, 1776



On 5th March 1776 the American rebels made a move that forced the British to surrender Boston to them. This was when they mounted cannons on Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston Harbour and the city, in such a way that the British could not fire back should they be discharged.

One irony of the situation was that the artillery pieces had been in British hands the year before, but had been captured by the rebels at Fort Ticonderoga. During the winter they had been hauled on ox-drawn sledges for 300 miles until they could be arrayed on Dorchester Heights, much to the surprise of the British general, Sir William Howe.

The brilliance of the move was that it was impossible for the British to raise their own cannon to a high enough angle to respond. Their only hope was to capture the cannon on the Heights via a night-time assault, but this proved impossible when the weather intervened with a heavy rainstorm that prevented troop movements.

Instead, on the following day Sir William offered to leave Boston, having promised that he would not burn the city before he did so, as long as his withdrawal was allowed to proceed without hindrance. This was agreed and the British sailed away ten days later.

New England was now in rebel hands, but the Revolutionary War was far from over, with six years of fierce combat still to come.

© John Welford

Monday, 21 December 2015

The Crimean War, 1853-5



On 4th October 1853 Turkey declared war on Russia, thus setting in train the events that would lead to the Crimean War. By its end, a quarter of a million men would have died, many of them in appalling conditions from cold and disease, as opposed to being direct battle casualties.

The causes of the Crimean War

The roots of the war lay in Russian ambitions to take advantage of the rapid decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which Tsar Nicholas I had declared to be “the sick man of Europe”. Nicholas believed that the western powers of Britain and France would not intervene if he nibbled away at the borders of Turkish Europe, but this proved to be a forlorn hope.

One seemingly petty cause of the war was a squabble between Russia and France over who should be the protector of Christian communities in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. France was particularly keen to secure the rights of Catholics to guard the “Holy Places” whereas Russia wanted Orthodox Christians to have this role.

Britain, meanwhile, wished to maintain the balance of power in eastern Europe and therefore had every reason to suspect Russian ambitions in the region, being especially wary of any action that would enable Russia to gain access to the Mediterranean through the Turkish straits of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.

For these reasons, Britain and France were able to put aside their traditional rivalries and send a joint fleet to Constantinople in support of the Turks.

War is declared

It was the Russian movement of troops into Turkish Europe (modern-day Romania and Bulgaria) that prompted Turkey’s declaration of war, this being followed by initial Turkish success in driving them back. However, when a Turkish flotilla was destroyed on 30th November the British and French felt compelled to sail into the Black Sea to protect Turkey from further aggression.

Britain and France declared war on Russia on 28th March 1854, with the focus of war only moving to the Crimean Peninsula, on the north side of the Black Sea, in September of that year. It was therefore nearly a year after the initial declaration of war by Turkey that the war became the Crimean War.

A badly run war

As the conflict dragged on it became apparent that a great deal was wrong with the British war machine, in which the commanders were appointed on grounds of family history, aristocratic background and the purchasing of commissions, rather than any ability to lead armies into battle.

The original idea of landing an army on the Crimea to take control of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol was crazy from the outset; for example, it was only when the invasion fleet reached the coast that anyone started thinking about where they would actually disembark.

The war became known for disasters on the battlefield and important reforms off it. The notorious “Charge of the Light Brigade” during the Battle of Balaklava in October 1854 was typical of the military ineptitude of Britain’s commanders. On the other hand, the heroic actions of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole saved many lives and led the way towards a complete re-assessment of medical and support facilities for serving soldiers.

All in all, the Crimean War was one that should never have taken place, and it should certainly never have been conducted in the way it was. However, by bringing the inadequacies of the military establishment into full focus (aided by the pioneering war reporting of William Russell of The Times and the photography of Roger Fenton) the reforms that followed did much to make the British army better suited to face the conflicts that were to come.

© John Welford

Victory at El Alamein and its consequences



On 4th November 1942 the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery achieved victory at El Alamein in Egypt after a two-week battle against the Afrika Corps led by General Irwin Rommel.  The consequences of this event were somewhat mixed.

Positive consequences

The victory was significant in a number of ways. The immediate consequence was that the German advance through the Western  Desert was halted, which meant that Egypt was secured and with it the all-important Suez Canal.

The effect of the victory on morale in Britain and elsewhere was immense. Winston Churchill was to say after the war that “Before Alamein we never had a victory; after Alamein we never had a defeat”. This was not factually accurate, but it is understandable that he would have felt that way. He was closer to the mark when he said at the time: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. It is certainly true that the mood in Britain changed from one of fearing defeat to hoping for victory, and the hope turned gradually to expectation as the months and years passed.

Negative consequences

One less fortunate consequence of the victory was that it made General Montgomery extremely big-headed. He seemed to get the impression that he could now win the war virtually singled-handed, which was to result in less happy circumstances as the war progressed. Above all, “Monty” could not stand playing second fiddle to the late-arriving Americans led by General Eisenhower, and their mutual distrust was to cost thousands of lives, such as at Arnhem where an ill-advised plan of Monty’s went disastrously wrong.

Had it not been for the victory at El Alamein, it has to be questioned whether Montgomery would have been allowed so much influence on the future course of the War, which included a number of serious errors on the part of the Allies that stemmed in large part from the distrust mentioned above. As long as Montgomery continued to think that it was “his” war, and that no mere American could have a clue about fighting a war in Europe, then mistakes would continue to be made.

This attitude was not helped by Montgomery’s own character failings, namely tactlessness and lack of diplomacy, which led him to put personal considerations above those of the wider cause. Even his fellow British generals found him almost impossible to work with, but the victor of El Alamein could always boast that he had saved the day and would continue to do so.

One American who saw through Monty’s posturing was the writer Ernest Hemingway who, some years later, invented the “Montgomery Cocktail” at Harry’s Bar in Venice. This was a martini made with 15 parts of gin to one of vermouth; according to Hemingway, this was the proportion of his own troops to the enemy’s that Montgomery needed before he would consider an attack. 

© John Welford

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The massacre at Cesena, 1377

If a Westerner gets the impression that it is only “foreign” religions that are capable of barbarism and savagery in the name of their deity, he or she might like to bear the date of 3rd February 1377 in mind. This was the day on which a cardinal of the church, and a future pope, unleashed a terrifying slaughter on the citizens of Cesena, an Italian city which had dared to exhibit an independent streak.

An angry pope



The papacy had been moved from Rome to Avignon in France to 1308 by a French pope (Clement V), and one effect of this had been to weaken papal control over the territories that the papacy ruled in Italy in both political and spiritual terms. In Florence, the Guelph faction led a revolt that threatened to destabilise much of northern Italy.

In 1377 Pope Gregory XI (see picture) decided to do something to impose his will on the wavering Italian city-states and he commissioned one of his cardinals, Robert of Geneva, to be his “attack dog” in this matter.

Robert hired a band of mercenaries led by an English adventurer named Sir John Hawkwood who was notorious for switching sides to whoever would pay him the most. Their efforts at attacking city-states were unsuccessful until they reached the city of Cesena which is close to the Adriatic coast near Rimini.

A massacre at Cesena



Cardinal Robert promised, by swearing a binding oath, to be lenient to the people of Cesena if they would open their gates, which they duly did. However, once inside the city he broke his oath and ordered his mercenaries to kill as many people as possible. An orgy of rape and slaughter began on 3rd February and lasted for three days and nights. Many of the 5,000 deaths were caused by people drowning in the city moat as they tried to escape.

The following year Cardinal Robert was rewarded for his services by being elected as Pope Clement VII – a bizarre and frankly revolting name to assume given the man’s total lack of clemency towards his victims at Cesena.

 Popes and anti-popes



However, the people and clergy of Rome had demanded that the next pope after Gregory, who was French, should be an Italian and should be based in Rome. They therefore elected Urban VI as pope, which meant that Clement VII (see picture) would rule from Avignon as the first of a string of “antipopes” – a situation that would split the church for the next 71 years.

Something to bear in mind?

It has often struck me that some Christians tend to get “high and mighty” when they criticise Islam, or certain sections of it, for encouraging barbaric behaviour. However, perhaps it should be remembered that Islam is a religion that that was founded in about the year 600, which means that it is now around 1,350 years old. It might be worth bearing in mind that Christianity, when roughly the same age, was behaving in ways that were no better – indeed, often considerably worse – than are complained by those critical Christians on the part of today’s more extreme Muslims.

Saladin's conquest of Jerusalem, 1187




On the 2nd of October 1187 the city of Jerusalem fell to the Muslims under Sultan Saladin, having been in Christian hands since its capture by European Crusaders nearly a century before.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was established after the Crusader victory in 1099, and the king who died in the Spring of 1185 was Baldwin IV, who had been suffering from leprosy for years. His official successor was Baldwin’s very young nephew, also called Baldwin, but Baldwin senior’s sister, Sibylla, seized the crown for herself and her husband, Guy de Lusignan.

Sibylla and Guy proved to be poorly suited for the role and were no match for Saladin, who routed the Christians at Hattin in July 1187, inflicting very heavy casualties, and subsequently captured Jerusalem after a short siege.

The Christians living in Jerusalem had been extremely fearful of what would happen to them should Saladin seize the city. In 1099 the Crusaders had brutally massacred the Muslim and Jewish populations when they finally overcame the city’s defences, and the expectation of the current Christian inhabitants was that they would suffer a similar fate. However, Saladin proved to be far more civilized than his Crusader predecessors and the civilians were treated with respect and kindness.

The date of the conquest had a special significance for the Muslims, because it was on the 2nd of October that the Prophet Mohammed was reputed to have ascended to Heaven (and then returned) from the site of the Temple at Jerusalem that is marked by the Dome of the Rock.

© John Welford




Friday, 18 December 2015

The death of General Gordon, 1885



26th January 1885 was the day of which General Charles Gordon died when fighting the “mad Mahdi” in Khartoum, Sudan.

Gordon was a complex man who combined soldiering with a very strong Christian belief that inspired him to help orphaned children when he was not on campaign. His habit of meditating and reading the Bible for three hours every day led Queen Victoria’s secretary to refer to him as “that Christian lunatic”.

He had acquired the nickname of “Chinese Gordon” for his sterling service in helping to put down the Taiping rebellion in China in the 1860s.

Gordon was sent to Sudan in 1884 to deal with threats being made to British interests in the area by a fanatical Muslim leader known as the Mahdi. Gordon established his base in the city of Khartoum where he began to organise the defences. However, it soon became clear that the forces at the disposal of the Mahdi were considerably greater than those that Gordon could muster, even with the use of Sudanese and Egyptian soldiers. Gordon had no choice but to do his best to withstand a determined siege, which he did for ten months.

Help was sought from the British government under Prime Minister W E Gladstone, but all sorts of delays and bureaucracy got in the way with the result that by the time a relief column had been organised it was too late to prevent the Mahdi’s army from breaking through Gordon’s defences.

Gordon’s force stood no chance and was slaughtered to a man. Gordon himself was hit by spears as he stood of the steps of the royal palace. The relief column arrived two days later.

Gordon’s body was never recovered but an effigy of him was placed in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

The current writer’s middle name is Gordon, which was also my father’s name (he was born 21 years after the death of General Gordon). The name Gordon was chosen by many parents in the late 19th and early 20th century in General Gordon’s honour, although in our family’s case there is another reason in that my father’s mother was a member of the Gordon family, her own mother being related to Charles Gordon.

© John Welford

The Battle of Agincourt, 1415



25th October 1415 is one of the great dates in English history, because it was on this day that King Henry V defeated a much larger French army at Agincourt and gave inspiration (albeit some 180 years later) to William Shakespeare to write some of his greatest speeches to put into the mouth of King Henry (“Once more unto the breach” and so on).

The Battle of Agincourt

Henry V (reigned 1413-22) laid claim to parts of what is now France, as a result of his Angevin ancestry. He saw an opportunity soon after coming to the throne, due to France being in a very weak state under the rule of King Charles VI, whose mental state was always “delicate” to put it mildly. In what might be regarded as a reversal of the Norman invasion of 1066 (which was also in support of a dubious territorial claim) Henry landed in France in August 1415 and soon captured the fortress at Harfleur (near present day Le Havre).

However, his army had been reduced to around 6,000 men due to battle casualties and disease, and Henry decided that, rather than advance further into France, his best bet would be to proceed along the French coast towards Calais, which had long been in English hands.

The French response was to send an army of between 20,000 and 30,000 men to intercept Henry’s troops. They met at Agincourt, a village (spelled Azincourt today) about halfway between Boulognes-sur-Mer and Arras.

The English defended a narrow front, only about 1,000 yards wide, between two areas of thick forest. This meant that the French could not bring their full force to bear on the English and neither could their knights mount a cavalry charge. Instead, the knights fought on foot in full armour on land that soon became a mud-bath.

The English archers and light infantry soon gained the upper hand and the battle was all over in half an hour as the French retreated, having lost many of their best fighting men and leading noblemen.

Henry’s actions after the battle were nothing like as noble as Shakespeare might lead one to believe, in that he ordered the killing of all the French prisoners taken during the battle. The massacre had to be done by members of Henry’s personal guard because the ordinary soldiers refused to obey the order.

Henry’s activities in France led to a treaty being signed (the Treaty of Troyes) by which he would inherit the French throne on the death of King Charles. However, Henry made the mistake of dying two months before Charles so his dream was never realised.

© John Welford

The Congress of Vienna, 1814



15th September 1814 was the opening day of the Congress of Vienna, an assembly of many of the crowned heads of Europe, together with politicians from many others, with the aim of sorting Europe out after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

At least, that was the intention. Napoleon had been forced to abdicate at the palace of Fontainebleau on 11th April, after which he was exiled to the island of Elba, off the coast of northern Italy. The surrender of France was officially recognised in the Treaty of Paris on 30th May 1814.

However, he escaped from Elba on 26th February 1815, raised a fresh army, and enjoyed his “hundred days” of renewed power until his final defeat at Waterloo, near Brussels, on 18th June 1815.

Despite these events, the Congress of Vienna carried on redrawing the map of Europe, on the assumption that Napoleon would eventually be defeated a second time. Indeed, the “Final Act” of the Congress was only signed on 9th June, several days before the Battle of Waterloo took place. Had that battle had a different conclusion, a lot of time and effort, not to mention expense, would have been wasted.

The Congress was both a diplomatic conference and a celebration. With all those royals and dignitaries descending on the most glamorous city in Europe, it was to be expected that they would enjoy themselves at the same time as restoring the balance of power. There were therefore balls, concerts and banquets a-plenty during the months of the Congress, with the immense wealth of the hosts and their guests being on display and each delegation seeking to impress the rest. A notable event was a concert conducted by Ludwig van Beethoven that included his 7th Symphony.

Despite all the partying, the Congress did succeed in creating a Europe that worked, although the “great powers” of Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia came out of it considerably strengthened, often at the expense of lesser powers. It cannot be said that Europe during the 19th century was entirely peaceful, but at least the boundaries established at Vienna were largely those that existed at the outbreak of World War I, almost exactly a century later.

© John Welford

The bombing of Dresden, 1945



On 13th February 1945 Great Britain committed one of the worst war crimes ever perpetrated, namely the senseless and unnecessary bombing of Dresden that killed more than 130,000 people and destroyed one of the most beautiful and historic cities of Europe.

Dresden lies about 100 miles south of Berlin in Germany. It had been the capital of Saxony in the 17th and 18th centuries and was stuffed full of exquisite buildings and priceless art treasures, as well as being home to about 650,000 people. It is possible that the population at the time was more than one million, due to the number of refugees who had flocked there as the Russians advanced from the east.

The raid that caused all the destruction was mounted by more than 750 Lancaster bombers which dropped 2,500 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs. The firestorm that ensued destroyed more than 90% of the inner city, including 22 hospitals.

Dresden was an easy target because it had no strategic importance and no major industries, and was therefore not protected by anti-aircraft guns.

The blame for this tragedy lies squarely at the door of the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Marshall Arthur Harris. His policy had been to undermine civilian morale, thus overlooking the fact that the effect of German bombing on British cities had been precisely the opposite – people became even more determined to fight on in response to the bombing of London and Coventry.

Harris was therefore a terrorist, in that he sought to use terror as a weapon of war against defenceless civilians.

However, the bombing of Dresden was even worse than that, because the war was as good as won by this stage, with allied forces well on their way towards German territory in the west and the Russians advancing rapidly from the east. The bombing therefore played no part whatever in helping to shorten the war.

The prime motive would appear to have been pure revenge for the bombing of Coventry much earlier in the war, when a similarly historic city centre was obliterated with the loss of some 600 lives. However, Coventry was also an important centre for armaments manufacture and was therefore a legitimate target in terms of waging a war. Harris may also have had in mind the “Baedeker” raids that Germany had launched against historic English cities such as Exeter, Norwich and York in 1942.
Even if the Dresden bombing could be justified in terms of revenge for past German misdeeds, the result was overkill to an amazing degree. The 130,000 civilian deaths at Dresden need to be seen alongside the 70,000 victims at Hiroshima and the figure of 51,500 that represents the total number of British civilian deaths caused by all German air raids throughout the war.

The role played by Winston Churchill in the decision to bomb Dresden is far from clear – certainly Arthur Harris thought that he had the Prime Minister’s backing. However, it is noticeable that Harris was alone among Britain’s war leaders not to be honoured with a peerage after the war ended. Harris moved to South Africa to escape the torrent of criticism that came his way once all the facts were known. He eventually returned to Britain in 1953 and was given a baronetcy. He died in 1984 at the age of 91.

There has been much debate in the years since the war over whether Bomber Harris should be honoured with a statue in view of his undoubted contribution to winning the war in the years leading up to the Dresden raid, when the targets were strategically important cities such as Hamburg and Cologne. A statue was eventually erected in London in 1992, being unveiled by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Even so, the event led to many complaints, including from the German government, because of the Dresden raid.

© John Welford

John Brown leaves his body to folklore, 1859

2nd December 1859 was the day on which John Brown was hanged and his body consigned to the grave, “but his soul goes marching on”.

John Brown was a drifter who tried his hand at various occupations but failed in everything apart from producing a large family who followed him across several American states as he sought work to support them.

One thing that John Brown was passionate about was his opposition to slavery, and he had few reservations about using violence to promote his cause. In the Kansas Territory he led a night raid against a slave-holding community in which five men were beaten to death.

The culmination of Brown’s campaign was an armed raid, by a band of sixteen white and five black men, on the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. After an initial exchange of fire in which two non-combatants were killed, Brown’s men took about 60 hostages and waited in the armoury for what they hoped would be a slave uprising.

However, all that happened was that first the state militia and then the US Marines (led by Colonel Robert E Lee) stormed the armoury, killed ten of Brown’s troops including two of his sons and captured John Brown himself.




Not surprisingly, John Brown was sentenced to death for offences including treason and murder, and he was hanged at Charleston before a crowd of around 1,000 people. He was aged 59 at the time of his death.

The cause that John Brown had supported in his own brutal and unsuccessful fashion was not a lost one, and within 18 months of his death the American Civil War had broken out between the “slave” and “free” states. People in the northern states chose to ignore the methods that Brown had used and instead elevated him to the status of folk hero, hence the composition of the famous song to which Northern troops were happy to march.

© John Welford


The Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC

Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, had his greatest military victory on 1st October 331 BC. This was his defeat of the Persians, under King Darius III, at Gaugamela (the battle is also referred to as the Battle of Arbela.

Alexander versus Darius

Alexander began his campaign against the Persian Empire in 334 BC and had a number of victories as he moved steadily eastwards, most notably at Issus in 333 BC. This defeat for Darius had destroyed the Persian army’s best infantry division and forced him to place much greater reliance on his cavalry, chariots and elephants.

Darius had tried to buy Alexander off with massive bribes, plus the hand of his daughter in marriage, but Alexander was determined to fight and gain  the whole of Darius’s kingdom rather than the half that he was being offered.

The Battle of Gaugamela



Knowing that he could not avoid a battle, Darius arrayed his army of 200,000 men in two lines, one behind the other, on a broad plain near Gaugamela in what is now northern Iraq. He knew that his force was considerably larger than Alexander’s (about 47,000 strong), so he had some trees felled in order to give his chariots room to outflank the Macedonians.

Alexander was a master of tactics, and he showed this now by giving the Persians every indication that he was going to mount an immediate night attack but not actually doing so. This meant that he could rest his troops and allow them a good night’s sleep, whereas Darius’s men had to maintain their positions throughout the night and were therefore exhausted from lack of sleep when Alexander eventually made his move.

Alexander sent a cavalry charge towards the centre of the Persian front line, thus appearing to play right into Darius’s hands, but then drifted off to the right. This encouraged the Persian chariots to drift correspondingly to their left, but this then created a gap in the line that Alexander’s second wave was able to exploit. Alexander had ensured that his flanks were protected by a force of light horse and infantry, and these were able to fight off the expected encircling moves of the Persians.

Alexander was thus able to force his way straight through the gap in the Persian line and head for the position held by Darius himself. The Persian king promptly turned tail and fled, thus enabling Alexander to turn back and attack the rear of the Persian force that was now attacking the Macedonian reserve force.

The aftermath

With the whole remaining Persian army in disarray, the Macedonians were able to chase them off the field. Persian losses were probably around 50,000 whereas Alexander only lost around 500 dead and 3,000 wounded. He was thus able to enter Babylon without opposition and then march into the heart of the Persian Empire, taking only 60 men with him in the final hunt for Darius. This ended when the Persian king was murdered by his own nobles, although Alexander also pursued the assassins and despatched them as well.

Alexander was thus the unquestioned ruler of the Persian Empire, having defeated an enemy that had been a threat to the Greek world for centuries.

© John Welford


Thursday, 17 December 2015

The sinking of USS Maine, 1898




On 15th February 1898 the battleship USS Maine exploded and sank off the coast of Cuba, thus precipitating the Spanish-American War. However, the facts seem to suggest that this event was just the excuse that a bellicose American government needed to launch hostilities that would bring it new colonies at a time when the world’s great powers all seemed to be intent on grabbing what they could.

Cuba was a Spanish colony but it was undergoing considerable unrest at the time with native Cubans rebelling against their lamentable conditions. There was also a sizable American population living there, and it was in order to reassure them that President McKinley sent the Maine to lie off Havana and show the Spanish that any aggression against American citizens would not be tolerated.

During the evening of 15th February a massive explosion ripped through the front half of the ship which then sank to the bottom of the harbour, leaving only the bridge and stern above water. Of the ship’s complement of 350 men, 260 died.

Blame for the explosion was immediately assigned to the Spanish, not least by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. With absolutely no evidence to support his claim, he lambasted the Spanish colonisers for their act of war against the United States, even publishing artists’ impressions in his newspaper, the New York Journal, that showed Spanish saboteurs placing mines on the hull of the Maine.

Hearst sent reporters and a war artist to Cuba to report on the war then taking place between the colonisers and the Cuban rebels, despite the fact that there was no such war. When the artist told Hearst that this was the case, his reply was, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war”.

Hearst soon persuaded the vast majority of the American people that the Maine had been blown up by Spanish terrorists out of contempt for the United States, and Congress duly demanded that Spain withdraw from Cuba. When this did not happen, war was declared in April 1898.

The hostilities were very one-sided and Spain was forced into a humiliating peace treaty within eight months. As a result, the United States gained control of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

Behind it all lay the ominous figure of William Randolph Hearst, who had engineered a war that cost tens of thousands of lives, most of them from disease rather than actual combat. Hearst’s motive, although cloaked in patriotism, was simple naked greed – he merely wanted to increase the circulation of his newspapers. Hearst’s way of doing business would become a byword for the criminal manipulation of world affairs by corrupt and immoral capitalists.

Hearst’s methods were satirised very competently by the British novelist Evelyn Waugh in his 1938 novel Scoop, although it was British newspaper owners such as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook that were his principal targets. However, the idea that powerful press barons could turn fiction into reality by telling downright lies and persuading gullible people to believe them, to the extent of world history being changed, surely owes its origin to Hearst.

As for the USS Maine, the most likely explanation for its demise was an accidental detonation in a coal bunker, caused by an oversight on the part of a crew member. One simple mistake was to lead to devastating and far-reaching consequences.

© John Welford