Book: The Cross in the Sky

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The Life and Adventures of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton
Soldier – Pioneer Aviator – Pathfinder for Global Peacekeeping.

by Charles Stuart Eaton

Foreword by Dick Smith AO
In Retrospect Air Commodore Dr Mark Lax OAM, CSM

The Cross in the Sky is the remarkable story of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton. As a soldier, pioneer aviator and pathfinder for global peacekeeping, Charles emerges as a trail-blazer in many realms. His story is intertwined with tectonic world events and a 65-year romance with Beatrice Rose Godfrey.

Eaton served every day of both world wars, starting with the Royal West Surreys and finishing with the Royal Australian Air Force. He was a prisoner of war and twice court-martialled by the German Army. After the Armistice, he ferried delegates to the Paris Peace Conference. In 1920 he flew in the first aerial survey of India, after which he lived amongst the Khond people of Orissa.

In Central Australia, following the disappearances of Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross and Lasseter’s Golden Quest, he led rescue missions into the Tanami and Great Sandy deserts before establishing and then participating in the air defences of north-west Australia and West Papua during World War Two. As the Australian Consul in East Timor, he assisted the post-war reconstruction of that war-torn land.

In the midst of the Indonesian War of Independence, his life-long experience culminated in initiatives that led to the first United Nations venture to monitor conflict resolution. As Australia’s first diplomatic representative to the new nation of Indonesia, Charles Eaton laid the foundations of Australian–Indonesian bi-lateral relations.

The Cross in the Sky is the story of an extraordinary man, told by his younger son—and witness to some of these events—Charles Stuart Eaton.

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European matchlock musketeers of the Elizabethan period.

By the early 1570s the Puritans had grown significantly in numbers and in economic and political clout. They were not only unsatisfied, however, but increasingly discontented. At the same time that they were trying and failing to pressure the government into killing Mary Stuart, some of the more adventurous among them surreptitiously printed and distributed a First and then a Second Admonition to Parliament. These were bold, even treasonous complaints about how far the church had, under the Elizabethan settlement, departed from the gospel and from true religion. They reflected John Calvin’s absolute rejection of everything that the English reformers had retained from the time before Luther’s revolt, and they expressed the conviction that even the office of bishop was an abomination little less repulsive than the papacy itself. The authors of the Admonitions declared that in the pure first years of the Christian era the communities of the faithful had been led by deacons and elders, not by bishops, and that fidelity to Scripture and to Christ himself required a return to that aboriginal system. This was, in England, the genesis of Presbyterianism. Because it challenged the legitimacy of the church that Elizabeth had established upon becoming queen, it was taken as a challenge to Elizabeth herself. Her reaction should have surprised no one. Those responsible for publication of the Admonitions became hunted men, finally having to flee to the continent. They continued, from exile, to produce pamphlets condemning the Rome-ish corruptions of the Elizabethan church. That church became a dangerous environment for clergy of Calvinist-Presbyterian inclination, but their beliefs continued to spread.

Meanwhile the government’s program of killing Roman Catholicism through a slow process of discouragement, through harassment and disdain rather than murderous persecution, was not working out as hoped. The lifeblood of Catholic practice was the sacraments, and that loftiest of sacraments, the Eucharist, was not possible in the absence of a priest empowered to consecrate the bread and wine. Elizabeth and Cecil were not being foolish in expecting that, deprived of its priests, the Catholic community would atrophy, especially if at the same time it were punished in large ways and small and repeatedly accused of being disloyal to England and the queen. But eliminating the priesthood turned out to be considerably more difficult than it must at first have seemed. Among the Catholics purged from the English universities after Elizabeth ascended the throne was Oxford’s proctor William Allen, already well known as a scholar and administrator though not yet quite thirty years old. Like many of his academic coreligionists Allen drifted back and forth between England and the continent in the early 1560s, eventually deciding to become a priest and fixing his attention on the large numbers of onetime Oxford and Cambridge teachers and students who were now as adrift as he was. Many of these men had been drawn to the Catholic Low Countries, particularly to the universities at Louvain and Douai. It was at the latter that, in 1568, Allen found the financial support to start Douai College, a seminary where the faculty and all the candidates for the priesthood were English.

It is not clear that Allen began with the idea of developing a cadre of missionary priests to be sent back into England. His goal, rather, seems to have been to keep the intellectual life of the English Catholic community intact in preparation for a time when it would once again be welcome at home, and to engage the Protestant establishment in disputation while preparing a Catholic translation of the Bible. His college, in any case, attracted so many exiles that soon it was filled beyond capacity, and other seminaries were established elsewhere, most notably in Rome. As the students completed their studies and were ordained, some naturally yearned to return home and minister to the priest-starved Catholics of England. Such requests were granted, and the first of the young “seminary priests” slipped quietly across the Channel in 1574. As soon as the authorities became aware of their presence, the hunt was on. Inevitably the likes of Cecil and Dudley and Walsingham saw the products of Allen’s school as spies and instruments of subversion and wanted the queen to see them in the same way. Certainly the priests were a threat to the policy of trying to bleed English Catholicism dry with a thousand tiny cuts; almost from the moment of their arrival they infused fresh vitality into a community that was supposed to be dying. The first to be caught, Cuthbert Mayne, was a Devon farmer’s son who had taken two degrees at Oxford and become a Church of England chaplain before converting to Rome. He had then departed for Douai, where, in his early thirties, he enrolled in Allen’s seminary. Within months of his ordination he was back in the west of England and, under the patronage of a wealthy Catholic landowner, taking on the public role of steward in order to travel the countryside and deliver the sacraments. Captured inside his patron’s house by a posse of more than a hundred men, he was charged with six counts of treason, convicted, and offered a pardon in return for acknowledging the queen’s supremacy. Upon refusing, he was made an object lesson in how religion was once again a matter of life and death in England. He was hanged, cut down alive, and thrown to the ground so violently that one of his eyes was put out. He was then disemboweled, castrated, and quartered. By hanging him as a traitor rather than burning him as a heretic, the government was able to deny that it was returning to the Marian persecutions. In Mayne’s case as with the hundreds of priests who would follow him to the scaffold, the queen and her council maintained the fiction that they were killing Englishmen not for their beliefs but for seeking to deliver their homeland into the hands of foreign enemies.

As the suppression of Catholics entered a new, more desperate phase, so, too, and almost simultaneously, did the conflict with the Puritans. By the mid-1570s the queen had run out of patience with the practice known as “prophesying,” which was not a matter of making predictions but simply of preaching with a pronouncedly evangelical slant rather than staying within the boundaries prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. Somewhat oddly for a Protestant of her time, Elizabeth throughout her reign displayed a strong distaste for preaching and a determination to retain many of the trappings—clerical vestments, for example, and crucifixes—that growing numbers of her subjects were coming to regard as insufferable carryovers from the age of superstition. Such issues generated more and more heat as the 1570s advanced, until finally Edmund Grindal, the archbishop of Canterbury, was suspended for refusing to suppress prophesyings as the queen ordered. Canterbury remained an unoccupied see for years, and at times it must have appeared that Elizabeth was the head of a church of which she herself was almost the sole completely faithful member. It was her good fortune to have two sets of adversaries, the Puritans on one side and the Catholics on the other, who feared and despised each other far too much ever to combine against her. (Grindal, for example, had pleaded with the queen to stiffen the penalties for attending mass.) It also continued to be her good fortune to have the Queen of Scots as her most likely successor. So long as Mary Stuart drew breath, not even the most radical Protestant could possibly wish Elizabeth harm. The church that had taken shape under her direction was a peculiar and even improbable concoction of rather uncertain identity, no more Lutheran than Calvinist or Catholic. For the time being it was able to hang in a state of suspension easily mistaken for stability between the other contending parties.

In order to sell the story that the priests coming into England were the agents of a foreign enemy, England needed to have such an enemy. Though the pope would always be the ideal all-purpose bogeyman, no one could take him seriously as a military threat. The same was true of the Holy Roman Empire now that it was detached from Spain, run by a separate branch of the Hapsburgs, and fully occupied by intractable internal problems and external enemies as potent as the Turks. That left France and Spain, and so many factors made Spain the more compelling choice that not even the memory of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre could neutralize them for long. After the massacre, the Valois regime nominally headed by Charles IX made an effort to capture the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle and, upon failing, sensibly gave up on anti-Protestantism as the cornerstone of its domestic policy. Like England, it turned its attention to the most significant thing then happening in northern Europe: the ongoing revolt of the Dutch against Spanish rule, and Spain’s difficulty in bringing that revolt to an end. England and France alike were eager to contribute what they could to exacerbating Spain’s troubles. And England had a good story to tell in explaining its involvement: it could claim to be protecting the Dutch from the Roman Church (the Spanish Roman Church, specifically) and its Inquisition. England and France were also drawn together by the simple realization that it could be disastrous for either of them if the other became an ally of Spain’s. The 1574 death of King Charles at twenty-four did nothing to change the dynamics of the situation. He was succeeded by his nearest brother, the flamboyant Duke of Anjou, who as Henry II became the third of Catherine de’ Medici’s sons to inherit the throne. There remained one more brother, the young Duke of Alençon, who now assumed the Anjou title but is usually referred to as Alençon to keep him distinct from his brother. There was resumed talk, not particularly serious on either side, of marrying the young duke, disfigured by smallpox and bent by a spinal deformation but nearly twenty years old now, to the forty-one-year-old Elizabeth. Each side played the game in the faint hope that the other might attach more importance to it than it deserved.

Philip, meanwhile, was sinking deeper into the quagmire created by his rebellious Dutch subjects, and England and France were being drawn in with him. Philip had received from his father Charles V, thanks to the fifteenth-century marriage of Charles’s Hapsburg grandfather to the only daughter of the last Duke of Burgundy, a region of seventeen provinces, much of it reclaimed tidal plain, known for obvious topographical reasons as the Low Countries or—what means the same thing—the Netherlands. The rebellion had started in response to Philip’s efforts to impose a Spanish-style autocracy on the northernmost provinces, an almost fantastically prosperous center of trade and manufacturing where the Reformation had taken a strong hold and provided particular reason for resentment of Spanish interference. It had then spread southward as a newly appointed governor, the Duke of Alba, clamped down not only with harsh new taxes but with a reign of terror in which thousands of people, Protestants and Catholics alike, were brutally put to death. Militarily Alba was successful, bringing all but two of the provinces under control in years of hard fighting, but the savagery of his methods made reconciliation impossible. His successor Requesens tried to negotiate with the leader of the rebels, William of Orange, but resumed military operations after his overtures were spurned. In spite of crippling financial problems—Philip’s government was essentially bankrupt—Requesens, too, began to have some success, but he died in 1576 with the job of reconquest still incomplete. Much of what he had achieved was thereupon undone when his troops, finding themselves unpaid, went on a rampage of looting and vandalism. Their targets, necessarily, were the only provinces accessible to them: the ones still loyal to, or at least under the control of, Spain. Thus even the most Catholic sectors of the Netherlands were given good reason to hate the outsiders.

At this juncture, with his position in the Low Countries seemingly almost lost, Philip was rescued by the fact that his father, the emperor, had, in the course of his long career, produced illegitimate branches of the Hapsburg family tree on which grew a pair of genuinely brilliant figures. First among them was Philip’s younger (and illegitimate) half-brother Juan, known to history as Don John of Austria, a charismatic, even heroic character who in his youth had run off to pursue a military career in spite of being steered toward the church by both Charles and Philip. When he became governor-general of the Netherlands in 1576, Don John was almost thirty and not only a seasoned veteran of the Turkish conflict but the victor of the great Battle of Lepanto. He didn’t want the Dutch assignment but accepted it with the thought that it might give rise to an opportunity to fulfill an old romantic fantasy: that of invading England and liberating Mary, Queen of Scots. The situation he found himself in was very nearly unmanageable, but after two years he was making such good progress that William of Orange, in desperate straits and without hope of getting assistance from England, invited the Duke of Alençon, still under consideration as a possible spouse for Elizabeth, to become leader of the rebellion and, by implication, ruler of the Netherlands. Alençon was utterly unqualified to take command of anything, but he was eager to make a place for himself in the world and attracted by the possibility of carving a kingdom out of the Netherlands. The Dutch of course had no real wish to accept such an unprepossessing specimen as their chief but as brother and heir to the king of France he carried with him the implicit promise of substantial help. He eagerly accepted Orange’s invitation, discovered that there was no serious chance of getting meaningful assistance from his brother the king, and leaped to the conclusion that nothing could satisfy his needs more quickly and completely than a successful courtship of the English queen. Discussion soon resumed through diplomatic channels, and when word came from England that Elizabeth would never consent to marry a man she had not seen, Alençon made preparations to cross the Channel.

What is often depicted as the apotheosis of the Elizabethan Age, the turning point at which the wisdom of everything the queen had done was made manifest and the way was cleared for England’s emergence as the greatest of world powers, came in the third week of July 1588. It was then that Philip’s mighty Armada came plowing up the Channel into England’s home waters, found Drake and Elizabeth’s other sea dogs waiting, and was put to flight. It was indeed an escape for England, even a victory, though it was accomplished as much by weather and Spanish mistakes as by weapons.

Don John, though continuing to progress inch by painful inch closer toward the defeat of the rebellion, was physically and mentally exhausted by the struggle and chronically short of essential resources. When in October he contracted typhus and died, his loss must have seemed another lethal setback for the Spanish cause. But before expiring he had nominated as his successor yet another product of Charles V’s extramarital adventures. This was Alessandro Farnese, a son of Charles’s bastard daughter, great-grandson of his namesake Pope Paul III. Farnese was almost exactly Don John’s age, had been raised and educated with him as well as with King Philip’s son Don Carlos, and had been second in command both at Lepanto and in the Netherlands. Usually remembered as the Duke of Parma, a title he would not inherit from his father until ten years after becoming governor-general in the Netherlands, he was no less gifted a soldier than Don John and a canny diplomat as well. Building on what Don John had accomplished, he began to coax the southern and central provinces (which would remain Catholic and evolve long afterward into Belgium, Luxembourg, and France’s Nord-Pas-deCalais) back into the Spanish camp. The seven northern provinces—the future Holland—proved however to be too strong and too determined for Farnese to overpower them. And so the war went bitterly on, poisoning northern Europe.

Influential members of Elizabeth’s council, Robert Dudley among them, were not satisfied with merely assisting the Dutch rebels financially and leaving the military glory to Orange and his countrymen. Elizabeth, however, was still as wary of continental wars as she had been since the Le Havre debacle of a decade and a half before. She was sensitive to the costs of such wars and the unpredictability of the results. She had learned how difficult it was to manage seekers after glory, men convinced that where war was concerned it was absurd to take orders from any woman, even a queen. She sent money to Orange, but only in amounts calculated to keep him from putting himself completely under French domination. A strong French presence in the Low Countries, with their proximity to England across the narrowest part of the Channel, was less unattractive than Spanish dominance there, but not by a wide margin.

From this point forward the Dutch revolt, the religious divisions of France and England, and nagging uncertainty about the English succession all became impenetrably intertwined. The elfin little Duke of Alençon arrived in England, and to the amazement of her court, Elizabeth gave every appearance of being smitten with him. She was easily old enough to be his mother, and there was something pathetic in her infatuation with this youth whom she playfully called her “frog.” As it dawned on people that marriage was not out of the question, council and court separated into factions. Elizabeth meanwhile made clear that this time she regarded her choice of a husband as no one’s business but her own. When a loyal subject named John Stubbs published a statement of opposition to the much-talked-of marriage, both he and his printer had their right hands chopped off.

Robert Dudley was opposed, too, and probably for a multitude of reasons. He wanted to make war in the Netherlands, but he was sure that he and not the absurd Alençon should be the commander. To this wish were added his evangelical leanings, and a consequent dislike of the idea of a Catholic consort for the queen. But Dudley had kept his antipathy for Catholics within bounds when other possible husbands were under discussion, and this time more personal factors undoubtedly were in play. In 1578, after years of widowhood during which he had lived at the queen’s beck and call and lamented the fact that because neither he nor his brother Ambrose had children the Dudley line seemed doomed to end with them, he had impregnated the beautiful Lettice Knollys, daughter of the veteran privy councilor Sir Francis Knollys and widow of the Earl of Essex. The two were secretly married—secretly because Dudley knew what the queen’s reaction would be—and when Elizabeth learned she was angry and hurt. She arranged to complicate Dudley’s life financially by withdrawing certain remunerative favors, but he was allowed to remain at court and soon was restored to his old place as favorite. His bride, already the mother of several children by her first husband, gave birth to a son who was christened Robert. But she was forbidden to appear at court. (The boy, Lord Denbigh, would be the last child born legitimately into the Dudley family and would die at age three.) All this could well have injected an element of spite into Dudley’s reaction to the queen’s marriage plans.

By the early 1580s Elizabeth’s uncertainties, hesitations, and ambiguous policies had enmeshed her in a tangle of political, military, and religious conflict. In 1585 it all finally blossomed into a war that would consume the last eighteen years of what increasingly looked like an overlong reign. Much of the trouble grew out of the determination of the government’s most influential and militant Protestants—Cecil certainly, but even more his protégé Francis Walsingham—to make the queen believe that the survival of Catholicism in England posed a threat not only to domestic peace but to her very life. As early as 1581 Walsingham was asking Lord Hunsdon, Elizabeth’s cousin and one of the men to whom she had entrusted the management of the north after the revolt of the earls, to amend his reports so as to give a darker—and to the queen more alarming—appraisal of the loyalty of the region’s still-numerous Catholics. In that same year Parliament, with Cecil ennobled as Baron Burghley and dominating the House of Lords while continuing to control the Commons through his agents, passed bills making it high treason for a priest to say mass and condemning anyone attending mass to life imprisonment and confiscation of property.

This was more than Elizabeth was prepared to approve, and the penalty for “recusancy” was reduced to a fine of £20 per month—a sum so impossible for most subjects as to be no different from confiscation. The queen’s efforts to find a middle ground, to avoid being so soft on the old religion as to outrage the evangelicals or persecuting the Catholics so savagely as to leave them with nothing to lose, resulted in a policy that sometimes seemed incoherent. An innovation called “compounding,” which permitted Catholics to elude the statutory penalties by purchasing what amounted to a license to practice their faith, was soon followed by a royal proclamation declaring all the priests entering England to be traitors regardless of what they did or refrained from doing. Life became increasingly difficult for Catholics, but the Puritans complained that it was not being made nearly difficult enough. As the queen refused to approve the most draconian of Parliament’s anti-Catholic measures, the conflict between her church and her growing numbers of Puritan subjects became chronic and deeply bitter. When the archbishop of Canterbury whom she had suspended years earlier died in 1583, Elizabeth was able at last to appoint a primate, John Whitgift, whose views accorded with her own. He soon began a program aimed at purging the clergy of Puritans and suppressing Puritan practices. The Elizabethan church, therefore, was soon waging religious war in one direction while Elizabeth’s government did so in another.

And the fighting in the Netherlands dragged wearily on. Philip II’s financial problems had eased in 1580 when the king of Portugal died without an heir and he, as the son and onetime husband of Portuguese princesses, successfully laid claim to that crown. This gave him control of the Portuguese fleet and the vast overseas empire that went with it. The following year, when the so-called United Provinces under William of Orange formally repudiated Spanish rule, Philip had the wherewithal to respond by putting more resources into the capable hands of his governor-general and nephew Farnese. The result was a sequence of successes for the Spanish army and calamities for the rebellion, all of it deepening the difficulties of the English. The little Duke of Alençon, whose dalliance with England’s queen had advanced to the point where a betrothal was announced by both parties only to founder on the old religious obstacles (how could even the queen’s husband be allowed to hear mass at the Elizabethan court?), went off to try his hand as leader of the rebellion. He showed himself to be even more inept than his worst critics had expected, and died of a lung ailment not long after returning to France a thoroughly discredited figure.

In that same year, 1584, William of Orange was assassinated by an apprentice cabinetmaker eager to strike a blow for the Catholic faith, the Guises allied their Catholic League with Spain, Farnese took the city of Antwerp from the rebels, and English policy lay in ruins. Philip meanwhile was repeatedly being goaded by the raids of Francis Drake and other English pirates—if pirates is the right word for thieves who found financing at the English court and were welcomed as heroes when they returned from their raids—on ports and treasure fleets from the coast of Spain to the New World. Now he appeared to be near victory in the Low Countries, and if he achieved his aims there the English had given him an abundance of reasons to turn his army and navy on them. When Drake, on a 1585 West Indies voyage financed by Elizabeth and Robert Dudley and others, burned and looted Cartagena and Santo Domingo and other Spanish ports and brought his ships home loaded with booty, it was the last straw for Philip. He ordered work to begin on the assembly of a great fleet and the planning of an invasion of England.

For Elizabeth and her council it was a nightmare scenario, though undeniably they had brought it on themselves. They had provoked the Spanish king’s open enmity at last, and had done so in such a penny-pinching way as to leave their rebel clients virtually at his mercy. The prospect that Philip might soon subdue the Low Countries was, under these circumstances, vastly more frightening than it had been when the revolt began. And so at last there seemed no alternative except to do exactly what Elizabeth had never wanted to do: send troops. Robert Dudley was delighted, especially when he was ordered to take command. He was well into his fifties by now, however, and his experience of war was decades in the past and not really extensive. But his enthusiasm was such that he took on a ruinous load of personal debt to cover his expenses—Elizabeth was not going to pay a penny more than she was forced to—and once in the field he found that he was neither receiving satisfactory support from home nor able to outwit or outfight his seasoned Spanish adversaries. The arrival of English troops was sufficient to avert the collapse of the rebellion but not sufficient to produce victory; the result was the further prolongation, at greatly increased cost, of a conflict that offered vanishingly little hope of a truly satisfactory outcome. England’s intervention had persuaded Philip, meanwhile, that he could never recover his lost provinces—might never again know peace within his own domains—unless England was humbled. The invasion that he had in preparation began to seem not just feasible but imperative.

Overt war with Spain provided a new basis for portraying England’s Catholics as agents of a foreign enemy and therefore as traitors. Suppression, along with the hunting down and execution of missionary priests, intensified. Inevitably, persecution further eroded the number of practicing Catholics, but at the same time, it gave rise to a cadre of young fanatics desperate enough to plot against the queen’s life. This development—like Philip’s anger a direct outgrowth of the government’s actions—was the best possible news for Francis Walsingham with his network of spies, torturers, and agents provocateurs. It gave him new evidence to draw on in making Elizabeth believe that it was necessary to do more to exterminate the old religion. None of the most notorious and supposedly dangerous plots against Elizabeth had the slimmest chance of success, and Walsingham himself probably actively encouraged at least one of them in order to entrap gullible young true believers. He may even have concocted the last of the conspiracies (the so-called Babington Plot, which led to Mary Stuart’s confessing to planning an escape and being accused, but not really proved guilty, of assenting to Elizabeth’s assassination) in order to get a deeply reluctant Elizabeth to approve Mary’s execution. Historians have often argued that the need to eliminate the Queen of Scots is demonstrated by the fact that after she was beheaded in February 1587 there were no more plots against the queen’s life. But it is possible that, once Mary was dead, Cecil and Walsingham no longer saw any need to put such plots in motion, nurse along the ones that they discovered, or exploit their propaganda value when the time was ripe for exposure.

What is often depicted as the apotheosis of the Elizabethan Age, the turning point at which the wisdom of everything the queen had done was made manifest and the way was cleared for England’s emergence as the greatest of world powers, came in the third week of July 1588. It was then that Philip’s mighty Armada came plowing up the Channel into England’s home waters, found Drake and Elizabeth’s other sea dogs waiting, and was put to flight. It was indeed an escape for England, even a victory, though it was accomplished as much by weather and Spanish mistakes as by weapons. But it changed very little and settled nothing. It was less a culmination than a bright interlude, and it led only to the fifteen years of trouble and decline that would be the long final third of Elizabeth’s reign.

Augustus II of Poland.

17th Centruy Polish Dragoons

By the last quarter of the seventeenth century it was becoming obvious to all that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a very different kind of political unit from all the surrounding states, and that it did not lend itself to the conduct of the kind of policies they were pursuing. Commentators referred to it as ‘the Polish Anarchy’. It was also evident that this curious polity was an expression of a culture which was growing increasingly alien to that of the rest of Europe.

At one level, Polish society differed little from that of other countries, and fed on the same literary and cultural canon. There was nothing particularly exotic about magnates such as the Treasurer of the Crown Jan Andrzej Morsztyn (1620-93). A gifted writer, he effortlessly wrote short erotic poems and aphorisms, religious and lyrical verse, and made fine translations of Corneille and Tasso. Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski (1642-1702), son of the rebellious Marshal Jerzy Lubomirski, spent two years on a grand tour before starting on a political career which was to culminate in his appointment to the office of Marshal by Jan III in 1676. He was a brave soldier and a discriminating patron of the arts, and in 1668 he married Zofia Opalińska, a bluestocking with a passion for music and mathematics: together they covered every conceivable interest from engineering to astrology. He wrote Italianate comedies as well as some of the best seventeenth-century religious verse in Polish, dissertations on current affairs and a treatise on literary taste, and translated a number of foreign works.

These and other magnates patronised the arts and studded the towns and the countryside with palaces and churches in a synthesis of the Baroque style that owed much not only to Italy and Austria but also to France and the Netherlands.

If Renaissance architecture suited the style and thought of the Poles of the sixteenth century, the Baroque might have been invented for those of the seventeenth. It awakened a degree of sensual appreciation of form, ornament and luxury which found immediate satisfaction in and complemented the increasing contact with the East. This fed on war just as well as on peacetime trade. Ottoman armies believed in comfort and splendour, and as a result the booty could be spectacular. ‘The tents and all the wagons have fallen into my hands, et mille autres galanteries fort jolies et fort riches, mais fort riches, and I haven’t looked through all of it yet,’ wrote a triumphant Jan III to his wife from the Turkish camp outside Vienna a few hours after the battle.

By the early 1600s the Polish cavalry had adopted most of the weapons used by the Turks as well as many of their tactics. The hetmans used the Turkish baton of command, and the horse-tails which denoted rank among the Turks were borne aloft behind them too. The Poles also dressed more and more like their foe, and even the Tatar habit of shaving the head was widely practised on campaign. So much so that on the eve of the Battle of Vienna the King had to order all Polish troops to wear a straw cockade so that their European allies should not take them for Turks, from whom they were all but indistinguishable. With Sobieski’s accession to the throne, military fashion invaded the court and became institutionalised. This ‘Sarmatian’ costume became a symbol of healthy, straightforward patriotic Polishness, while French or German clothes were equated with foreign intrigue.

The Poles also had a feeling for the beauty of Islamic art, which was not generally appreciated in western Europe. Eastern hangings replaced Flemish tapestries and arms joined pictures on the walls of manor houses. At the Battle of Chocim, Jan Sobieski captured a silk embroidery studded with ‘two thousand emeralds and rubies’ from Hussein Pasha which he thought so beautiful that he wore it as a horsecloth for his coronation. A few years later he gave it as the richest gift he could think of to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who put it away and wrote it down in his inventory as ‘una cosa del barbaro lusso’.

Turkish clothes suited Baroque architecture, and servants were dressed up accordingly. Wealthy szlachta often kept captive Tatars or janissaries at their courts, but they also dressed their Polish pages as Arabs and their bodyguards as Circassian warriors. This taste was carried so far that religious music was provided in Karol Radziwiłł’s Baroque chapel at NieświeŻ by a Jewish orchestra dressed as janissaries.

There had never been any sumptuary laws in Poland and the tendency to show off was unrestrained. Money still had no investment role in the minds of most Poles, and all surplus went into movable property of the most demonstrable kind. Inventories made on the death of members of the szlachta are illuminating. A poor gentleman would be found to possess a horse or two, fine caparisons and horsecloths, saddles, arms and armour, a small number of rich clothes, jewellery, perhaps some personal table-silver, a few furs and lengths of cloth, and little in the way of money. Inventories of country houses and castles reveal the same pattern. Jewellery, clothes, silver, saddlery, arms and armour, cannon, uniforms for the castle guard, furs, lengths of cloth, Turkish, Persian and Chinese hangings, banners, tents, horsecloths and rugs, Flemish tapestries and pictures are listed. Furniture hardly figures, except where it is made of silver.

The Polish magnate’s coat was a tradable item, so stiff was it with gold thread. Every button was a jewel, the clasp at his throat and the aigrette on his fur cap were works of art. The French traveller Verdum noted that Jan III wore 200,000 thalers’ worth of jewels on a normal day, and that on a great occasion his attire would be worth a considerable proportion of his (by no means negligible) weight in gold. Urszula Sieniawska, whose inheritance was being disputed by a number of relatives in 1640, left no fewer than 5,000 diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires in her jewel case. Maryanna Stadnicka, wife of the Palatine of BeŁz, left 8,760 pearls. In 1655, when they looted the Lubomirskis’ Wiśnicz, the Swedes required no fewer than 150 carts to carry away the booty. Many collections were so vast that the looting made only a slight impression. The inventory of żółkiew, one of the Sobieski family seats, drawn up after Peter the Great had personally looted it in 1707, still lists upwards of seven hundred oil paintings in the castle.

These castles were also full of people, on the principle that the more there were surrounding a man, the more important he was. Poor relatives and landless friends, the sons of less wealthy henchmen and clients of one sort or another would form a court around a magnate. On top of this, he would employ teachers for his children, musicians, whole corps de ballet, jesters and dwarfs, chaplains, secretaries, managers and other officers. After that came servants, stable staff, kitchen staff, falconers, huntsmen, organists, castrati, trumpeters, units of cavalry, infantry and artillery. The fashion for show attendants meant that there were dozens of hajduks, wearing Hungarian dress, pajuks, in Turkish janissary costume, and laufers in what looked like something out of Italian opera, covered in ostrich feathers. These attendants had no purpose beyond standing about or running before the master when he rode out. The numbers were impressive. When Rafał Leszczyński’s wife died in 1635, he had to provide mourning dress for just over 2,000 servants—and neither cooks nor kitchenmaids were included, as they were not seen. Karol Radziwiłł’s army alone amounted to 6,000 regular troops.

The heads of great houses took themselves seriously, and much of this splendour was dictated by a feeling of self-importance. When Karol Radziwiłł’s intendant commented that he lived better than the King, the characteristic reply was: ‘I live like a Radziwiłł—the King can do as he likes.’ Every major event in the life of the family was treated with pomp, and ceremonies were constructed round it. When a child was born, the artillery fired salutes and occasional operas were staged. When the master returned from the wars, triumphal arches were erected and fireworks let off.

It was more than mere show—it was a style of behaviour which introduced ritual into every action and translated its significance into visible activity. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the practice of religion as it developed in the seventeenth century, partly under the influence of the taste of the faithful, partly as a result of the Church’s continuing policy of bringing every aspect of the life of the Commonwealth within its own ambit, if not actually under its control.

Control was not something that could be effectively exerted over the likes of Karol Radziwiłł, who summed up his attitude in a letter to Anna Jabłonowska in 1764: ‘I praise the Lord, believe not in the Devil, respect the law, know no king, because I am a nobleman with a free voice.’ A man whose ideal was the cult of unbounded liberty did not take easily to having, for instance, his sexual freedom restricted by laws even more nebulous than those of the Commonwealth. The hold on society which the Church did have was based on a juxtaposition of life and ritual which succeeded in making religion into an integral part of every person’s regular activities. The leaders of the Counter-Reformation insisted on the inseparability of the Church as an institution from the Commonwealth as an institution, of piety from patriotism. They were largely successful in that they bred the notion in the average Pole that the Catholic Church ‘belonged’ to him in much the same way as the Commonwealth did. Churches were used for sejmiks and for the sessions of local tribunals. National commemorations and holidays were fused with religious feasts. The priesthood became for the poorer nobility much what the civil service or army were in other countries—the only noble profession and a refuge for upper-class mediocrity.

Outward signs of the faith were encouraged in every way. The cult of the Virgin and of the saints, which had died away during the Reformation, made a triumphant comeback. Every town, village, institution, guild and confraternity was provided with a patron. Pictures of the Virgin before which miracles allegedly took place were ‘crowned’ and declared to be miraculous. The solemn coronation of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa took place on 8 September 1717 before 150,000 faithful. By 1772 there were a staggering four hundred officially designated miraculous pictures of the Virgin, each one a centre of pilgrimage and a recipient of votive offerings of jewellery, money, tablets and symbolic limbs.

From the purely religious sphere, the ritual spread into every other. When a man of substance died, a huge architectural folly, a castrum doloris, would be erected in the church as a canopy for his coffin, and this would be decorated with symbols of his office and wealth, his portrait and coat of arms, and with elaborate inscriptions in his honour. The ritual included the old Polish custom of breaking up the dead man’s symbols of office and, if he were the last of his family, shattering his coat of arms. Neighbours, friends, family, servants and soldiers would pay their last respects in more or less theatrical ways, while congregations of monks and nuns sang dirges and recited litanies. The funeral of Hetman Józef Potocki in 1751 took two weeks, for six days of which 120 pieces of cannon saluted continuously (using up a total of 4,700 measures of powder). Over a dozen senators, hundreds of relatives and entire regiments congregated in Stanisławów to pay their last respects in the church which was entirely draped in black damask, before a huge catafalque of crimson velvet dripping with gold tassels, decorated with lamps, candelabra, Potocki’s portrait, captured standards, pyramids of weapons and other symbols of his office and achievements.

This Sarmatian lifestyle was a unique growth, produced by cross-pollenation between Catholic high Baroque and Ottoman culture. Everything about it was theatrical, declamatory and buxom. It was inimical to the bourgeois ethic of thrift, investment, self-improvement and discipline which was beginning to dominate western Europe, and as a result it was condemned, even by Poles of later centuries. At its worst, sarmatism was absurd and destructive, encouraging as it did outrageous behaviour and an attitude that bred delusion. But it did permit what was possibly an irreconcilable collection of people to reach a kind of harmony. As Jan III’s English physician Bernard Connor commented: ‘It is certain had we in England but the third part of their liberty, we could not live together without cutting one another’s throats.’

And it helps explain how the Commonwealth was able to go on functioning, in a kind of parallel world, along lines that defied logic. The delusional condition it created was an essential ingredient in the survival of a polity whose constitution had broken down and which should have imploded or been conquered by one of its increasingly powerful neighbours.

The election that followed the death of Jan III in 1696 was a fiasco. The principal candidates were the King’s son Jakub; François Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conti; and Frederick Augustus Wettin, Elector of Saxony. Jakub Sobieski was rapidly eliminated from the contest by the intervention of Saxon troops. On 27 June 1697 the szlachta assembled on the election field voted overwhelmingly for the Prince de Conti, and the Primate proclaimed him king. On the same evening a small group of malcontents elected Frederick Augustus, who marched into Poland at the head of a Saxon army. On 15 September, while the Prince de Conti was sailing into the Baltic, Frederick Augustus was crowned in Kraków by the Bishop of Kujavia, as Augustus II of Poland. At the end of the month the Prince de Conti came ashore only to discover that he had been pipped at the post. His supporters were not keen to start a civil war, so he re-embarked and sailed back to France. It was the first time that a deceased monarch’s son had not been elected to succeed him; that the successful candidate had been debarred from the throne by military force; and that the new incumbent was also the ruler of another state.

The twenty-seven-year-old Augustus was nothing if not picturesque. Universally known as Augustus the Strong and described by one of his subjects as ‘half bull, half cock’, he could break horseshoes with one hand, shoot with astonishing accuracy, drink almost anyone under the table, and fornicate on a scale which would be unbelievable if he had not left platoons of bastards to prove it. He was not a stupid man, and he intended to turn the Commonwealth into a centralised monarchical state. Like Jan III, he saw war as the surest way to gain prestige and a free hand to carry out his plans.

In 1698 the Livonian nobleman Johann Patkul, who had been forced to flee his province by the occupying Swedes, turned up at the court of Augustus II with an appeal for help from the Livonian nobility. Although they wished to rejoin the Commonwealth, Augustus saw an opportunity of acquiring the province for himself. Soon after, he met Tsar Peter I (later known as Peter the Great), who was on his way back to Russia from western Europe, and in the course of an all-night drinking bout the two men planned a joint war against Sweden. Augustus suggested to his uncle King Christian V of Denmark that he join them and take Bremen and Werden from Sweden as a reward. In 1699 an agreement was signed between Peter I, Frederick IV of Denmark (who had succeeded his father Christian V) and Augustus II. Augustus was not allowed to enter into such treaties as King of Poland. It was therefore an alliance of Muscovy, Saxony and Denmark that went to war on Sweden the following year.

The allies had made a mistake in thinking that they could easily defeat the eighteen-year-old Swedish king, Charles XII. This callow youth was endowed with inhuman energy, reckless bravery and a faith in his own destiny that was soon echoed in the popular myth that he was invulnerable. He made short shrift of the Danes, beat off the Saxon army attempting to take Riga, and then turned on the Russians, whom he drubbed at the Battle of Narva. Augustus decided it was time to sue for peace.

Charles XII would have none of it and demanded that the Poles dethrone Augustus if they did not wish to be invaded. The Commonwealth was not technically at war with anyone, and the problem of how to deal with the situation was aggravated by profound internal divisions. In 1702 the Sapieha family placed Lithuania under Swedish protection, and in April Charles XII entered Wilno. The Lithuanian rivals of the Sapieha appealed to the Tsar, and Muscovite troops moved into the Grand Duchy in support. But Charles XII had already moved into Poland in pursuit of Augustus. Incensed by this invasion, the szlachta who assembled in a rump Sejm at Lublin in 1703 called for war with Sweden. The following year those loyal to Augustus II voted to ally with Muscovy against Sweden. At this point Charles XII met Stanisław Leszczyński, Palatine of Poznań, an intelligent man of twenty-seven for whom he developed a great esteem, and arranged for him to be elected king by some eight hundred szlachta assembled for the purpose. There were now two kings of Poland, neither of them with much of a following or an army, and they were being swept along by Peter I and Charles XII respectively in a contredanse which took them twin-stepping around the Commonwealth, until Charles had the idea of invading Saxony. There he finally pinned down Augustus and extorted his abdication of the Polish throne. Stanisław I was king.

Charles decided that the time had now come to take on Peter I. He laid his plans with Stanisław and with Ivan Mazepa (originally Jan Kolodyński), a former page to Jan Kazimierz who had served Peter I loyally as Ataman of the Cossacks on the Russian side of the Dnieper. Their independence was being eroded by Muscovite rule and they dreamt of reuniting Ukraine. An alliance against Russia was formed, on the basis of an independent future for Ukraine in alliance with Poland. But on 8 July 1709 Charles XII and Mazepa were routed by Peter at Poltava.

The war was over, and Augustus II re-ascended the Polish throne, a little wiser but incomparably worse off for the events of the last ten years. When he and Peter had planned the Northern War on that night in 1698, he had been the stronger partner. After ten years of bungling he was little more than the Tsar’s client, dependent on his support and protection. There was no clear way out of the predicament for him or for the Commonwealth, as the power balance in eastern Europe had altered dramatically during those ten years.

Polish army throughout the 18th century, by Karol Linder.

Sweden had been wiped out as a significant power by the débâcle of Poltava. Turkey was decisively defeated (Hetman Feliks Potocki’s victory at Podhajce in 1697 was the last Polish-Tatar battle), and by the Treaty of Karlowitz in January 1699 the Commonwealth regained Kamieniec and the whole of left-bank Ukraine. France, despairing of its potential allies in the east—Turkey, Sweden and Poland—shifted its theatre of confrontation with the Habsburgs to Spain and Italy. Distracted by the War of the Spanish Succession, the Habsburgs had failed to take advantage of the recent Northern War.

Prussia on the other hand had taken full advantage of the opportunities on offer to strengthen its military and diplomatic standing. On 18 January 1701 Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, had dubbed himself ‘Frederick I, King in Prussia’: he could not call himself King of Prussia, since Prussia was not a kingdom, or King of Brandenburg, since that was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The subterfuge caused much mirth in the courts of Europe.

In similar vein, in 1721 Peter I of Muscovy took the title of Emperor of All the Russias. Nobody laughed at this. The recent wars had shown that Russia was not only a growing power, but also that it was strategically unassailable. And Peter had made it clear that he would be playing an active part in the affairs of Europe by extending his sphere of influence westward, into Poland.

The Sejm of 1712 had reached deadlock on reforms proposed by Augustus II, whereupon he brought in troops from Saxony. This rallied the opposition, which in 1715 formed a confederation to resist him. Peter I offered to mediate. With some reluctance, the offer was accepted, and a Russian envoy arrived in Warsaw—accompanied by 18,000 troops who were to keep order. The ensuing Sejm of 1717 was known as the Dumb Sejm. It sat in a chamber surrounded by Russian soldiers, the deputies were forbidden to speak, and the Russian mediator forced his solution on it, couched in the Treaty of Warsaw.

This laid down, amongst other things, that Augustus II could keep no more than 1,200 Saxon Guards in Poland. The Polish army was fixed at a maximum of 18,000 men and the Lithuanian at 6,000, which was deemed sufficient since Moscow arrogated to itself the role of protector, and promised to leave a Russian force in the Commonwealth. Augustus II, who wanted these troops out at any cost, secretly offered to cede Peter some border provinces in exchange for a withdrawal. A lesser man might have accepted, but Peter refused and went on to publish Augustus’s proposals with the degree of indignation befitting the protector of the Commonwealth’s territorial integrity.

On 1 February 1733 Augustus II died of alcohol poisoning in Warsaw. His last words were: ‘My whole life has been one un—interrupted sin. God have mercy on me.’ He had hoped to ensure the succession of his son Augustus to the Polish throne, but this seemed unlikely since Stanisław Leszczyński, whose daughter had married Louis XV of France, was expected to stand for election and to win easily. Russia, Prussia and Austria signed an agreement to throw their combined strength behind the young Saxon, who had already promised to cede Livonia to Russia if elected.

The 13,000 who assembled for the election voted unanimously for Leszczyński, who had travelled to Warsaw incognito. In Paris Voltaire composed an ode of joy, but Russian troops were already on the move. On 5 October 20,000 of them assembled 1,000 szlachta outside Warsaw and forced them to elect Augustus of Saxony. Five days later France declared war on Austria and started the War of the Polish Succession. King Stanisław’s supporters gathered in confederations all over the country and the city of Gdańsk raised a sizeable army on his behalf. Two years of sporadic fighting ensued, but France made peace, having got what she wanted from Austria in Italy. Stanisław was given the Duchy of Lorraine as a consolation prize by his son-in-law, and Augustus III ascended the Polish throne.

The Commonwealth had effectively ceased being a sovereign state in 1718 with the imposition of the Russian ‘protectorate’. It had also virtually ceased to function as a political organism. The Sejm was not summoned between 1703 and 1710, the years of the Northern War, which meant that no legislation was passed and no state taxes could be levied. When the Sejm did sit again, it was hardly more effective. Of the eighteen sessions called under Augustus II, ten were broken up by the use of the veto. The King had tried to impose stronger government, but his policies were poorly thought out. He had an unfortunate conviction that a show of strength by the Saxon army was a necessary prelude to any change, and this had the effect of provoking resistance even in those who would otherwise have agreed with him. In the last years of his reign he did manage to gain the support of a group of magnates and szlachta, but their programme for reform was cut short by his death in 1733.

His son Augustus, Poland’s new monarch, was obese and indolent: he would spend his days cutting out bits of paper with a pair of scissors or else sitting by the window taking potshots at stray dogs with a pistol. He also drank like a fish. Augustus III reigned for thirty years. He spent only twenty-four months of that time in Poland, feeling more at home in Saxony. Yet he was not as unpopular with the szlachta as might have been expected—he never made the slightest attempt to curtail their prerogatives and increase his own. Only one Sejm completed its session under his rule, the army dwindled to half its theoretical size, and all visible signs of nationwide administration disappeared.

This state of affairs favoured the magnates, or rather the dozen or so men who stood at the pinnacle of wealth and power, who had turned into something approaching sovereign princes. It was to the courts of the leading families and not to the royal court at Warsaw or Dresden that foreign powers sent envoys and money. The Potocki, Radziwiłł and similar families involved half of Europe in their affairs and their activities were monitored at Versailles and Potsdam, at Petersburg and Caserta. The marital intentions of the young Zofia Sieniawska were a case in point.

The only daughter of Adam Mikołaj Sieniawski, Hetman and Castellan of Kraków, and of ElŻbieta Lubomirska, Zofia was a formidable heiress. In 1724 she married Stanisław Doenhoff, Palatine of Polotsk, no pauper and also the last of his line, who died four years later. Every family in Poland produced a suitor in the hope of coffering her fortune. Louis XV was quick to realise what was at stake, and the young widow was invited to Versailles, where she might be married to the Comte de Charolais, a Bourbon in search of a throne; Augustus II tried to monitor her suitors; the Duke of Holstein wanted her for himself; the Habsburgs threw their influence behind the Duke of Braganza, for whom they had royal ambitions; and St Petersburg sent ambassadors and money to influence her choice. The interest in the widow was well-founded. In 1731 she settled for the poorest of all her suitors, Prince August Czartoryski, turning his family into the most powerful in Poland over the next hundred years.

The power of these families rested on a combination of wealth and control of their lesser peers, and reflected a growing disparity between rich and poor. The figures for the Palatinate of Lublin provide an example of the dramatic change in the distribution of land over the previous two hundred years. In the 1550s, 54 per cent of all land owned by the szlachta was in holdings of under 1,500 hectares, but by the 1750s only 10 per cent was in such medium holdings. In the 1550s only 16 per cent was in estates of over 7,500 hectares, but by the 1750s over 50 per cent was accounted for by these. The large estates grew larger, the small ones smaller, with the result that by the mid-eighteenth century about a dozen families owned huge tracts of land, another three hundred or so possessed lands equivalent to those of the greatest English or German landlords, and as many as 120,000 szlachta families owned no land at all. The remainder owned small estates which provided little more than subsistence for the family and its dependants.

The ravages of war, outdated methods, lack of investment and the continuous downward trend in agricultural prices condemned these to a vicious circle. Between 1500 and 1800 average yields increased by 200 per cent in England and the Netherlands, by 100 per cent in France, and by only 25 per cent in Poland. Inventories dating from this period show that even in such well-ordered areas as Wielkopolska small estates were in a condition of decrepitude, with buildings falling down, implements worn out and livestock depleted.

The underlying problem was not limited to Poland, and affected the whole of Central Europe, where the old property relationship between landowning lords and tenant peasants proved a formidable obstacle to the adoption of more profitable capitalist solutions. This would have entailed emancipating and at the same time expropriating the peasants, who would then have been in a position to enter into regular contractual relations with the landowners. But the upheaval involved would have been ruinous to both parties. As a result, the only means open to the landowner of intensifying production was to exploit his tenants to the limit, and their only option was a passive participation in this process of their own enserfment.

There was technically no such thing as a serf in the Commonwealth. No peasant belonged to anyone; he was his master’s subject only insofar as he had contracted to be in return for a house and/or rent-free land. Every peasant, however abject, was an independent entity enjoying the right to enter into any legal transaction. Since, however, the relevant organs of justice were controlled by the land—owners, his rights often turned out to be academic. By the seventeenth century the landowners in effect exercised almost unlimited power over their tenantry. How far they were inclined or able to abuse this power varied greatly from area to area, depending on the morality of the master rather less than on the level of education and determination of the peasant. Unlike in Germany, Hungary and almost everywhere else in Europe, let alone Russia, there were no peasant revolts in Poland after the Middle Ages, and no organis—ation to track fugitives. Confrontation with the landlord took place in the courts, such as they were. But the peasant of the 1700s was caught in a poverty trap which impaired his ability to stand up for whatever theoretical rights he had, and he was a poor successor to his forebears.

The most pauperised segment of the population were the Jews, who had been profoundly traumatised by the massacres perpetrated by the Cossacks in 1648 and the Russians in the 1650s. Jewish communities found it difficult to revive economically in a climate of mercantile stagnation which also exacerbated conflicts with Christian merchants, while their institutions ceased to function properly. The palatines who supervised the finances of the kahals in their provinces had done so only sporadically during the decades of war and unrest, with the result that venality and nepotism became characteristic features of their affairs. When a royal commission did eventually look into the kahal finances, it was discovered that most of the communities were on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of massive embezzlement and eccentric banking operations with the Jesuits. The whole Jewish state within the state had to be wound up in 1764 as a result.

The overwhelmingly destitute masses of Polish Jewry lived in an increasingly hostile environment, and it was out of this that Hasidism was born. This was a mystical ecstatic cult, rejecting painful realities and offering a spiritual palliative that attracted vast numbers of the poorest Jews in the teeming provincial shtetls of the Commonwealth. It was founded in Podolia by Izrael ben Eliezer (1700-60), also known as Baal Shem Tov, a charismatic who preached that since God was everywhere He should be worshipped in every thing and every action, even in eating, drinking and dancing. The joyful ceremonies he encouraged appealed to the poorest Jews but drew the ire of orthodox rabbis. They had also had to contend with the heresy of Shabbetai Zevi, who had proclaimed himself Messiah in the 1660s, and acquired a sizeable following. It was the son of one of his disciples who caused the greatest ructions in the Jewish community. Jakub Frank (1726-91) in turn proclaimed himself Messiah and decreed that Poland was the Promised Land. His following grew rapidly. Orthodox rabbis invoked the law to curb the heresy, which turned it into a public issue. The Bishop of Lwów staged a public debate between Talmudic experts and the Frankists, with the Jesuits as adjudicators. To the delight of the Jesuits, Frank succeeded in confounding his accusers and then announced that he and his sect would convert to Catholicism. Frank was baptised in 1759 with the King himself standing godfather, and all the converts were ennobled.

These outbursts of fervour stemmed from the psychological and material Babylon from which there seemed to be no possibility of escape. The depressed shtetls and the stinking Jewish slums of the larger towns were an eyesore which struck all foreign travellers. Yet they were only the darkest spots on a grim landscape of decrepitude and poverty, a poverty made all the more stark by the occasional evidence of fabulous wealth, and by the quantity of new building on a spectacular scale.

A new kind of grand country residence came into existence, no longer defensive but outward-looking and palatial, often modelled on Versailles or one of the great residences of minor German sovereigns. Craftsmen such as Boule, Meissonier, Caffiéri and Riesener in Paris were flooded with orders from Poland. But this magnificence and patronage did not correspond to any deeper artistic or intellectual revival. These buildings were an incidental excrescence, not connected to any informed taste or vision. The Branicki Palace at Białystok contained a theatre with four hundred seats, equipped with one Polish and one French troupe of actors and a corps de ballet, but while the stables held two hundred horses, the library boasted no more than 170 books. Hetman Branicki was not the man to repair the constitution.

The szlachta still believed wholeheartedly in the principles on which the Polish constitution had been founded: personal freedom, representation, accountability, independence of the judiciary, and so on. They knew that the constitution was malfunctioning, but believed that, with some justification, to be the fault of the magnates and of high-handed behaviour by successive kings, who naturally tended to try to turn the Commonwealth into a centralised monarchy. All attempts at reform which issued from the crown or the Senatus Consulta included some measure that would strengthen the central authority, and that ensured their rejection by the szlachta. They had developed an almost obsessive fear of absolutism and an attendant defensiveness with respect to their gloried prerogatives. In the last decade of the seventeenth century and the first of the eighteenth, they had mooted the idea of holding a ‘mounted Sejm’, that is to say appearing at Warsaw in the ranks of the levée en masse in order to challenge the magnates of the Senate on a more equal footing, but this proved too difficult to arrange. Faced with even the slimmest threat to their rights and immunities, they wielded their weapon of last resort, the veto.

The single deputy’s power to block the will of the Sejm by registering his objection derived from the principle that consensus must be reached for legislation to have real force. Its use to invalidate decisions reached by a majority was technically legal though contrary to the spirit of the law. It was first used in 1652, but was not invoked again for seventeen years, and not for another ten after that. It was not until the period between 1696 and 1733 that it became endemic to parliamentary life, and that was a feature of the level to which this had sunk.

Those who made use of the veto tended to be obscure deputies from Lithuania or Ukraine, usually acting on behalf of a local magnate or a foreign power. The device was so convenient to these that in 1667 Brandenburg and Sweden agreed to go to war if necessary ‘in defence of Polish freedoms’ (i.e. to stop the Poles from abolishing the veto), and over the next hundred years the same clause was contained in virtually every treaty made between the Commonwealth’s neighbours.

While many lamented the abuse of the right of veto, they stood by the right of their fellows to exercise it, just as during the Reformation ardent Catholics had refused to allow the persecution of people guilty of sacrilege. It was first and foremost a question of liberty. The phenomenon of the veto, normally viewed as a baffling aberration and the ultimate symbol of the Commonwealth’s political impotence, did serve a specific purpose, that of preventing it from becoming an absolutist monarchy, which it could easily have done in the period of instability and war at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. As far as the szlachta was concerned, absence of government was preferable to arbitrary government. And many had come to see government as unnecessary anyway.

When the Commonwealth had imploded under the combined assault of the Cossacks, Tatars, Swedes, Brandenburgers and Muscovites in the 1650s, the szlachta had held regional sejmiks to deal with essential local issues. This form of administration turned out to be not only more efficient, but also more accountable and less costly than central government. As a result, local land sejmiks, sejmiki ziemskie, and law and order sejmiks, sejmiki boni ordinis, became favoured instruments of local administration, responsible for electing judges, officers of the law and commanders of the militia; collecting taxes, raising troops and nominating functionaries.

Since life could go on normally without a national Sejm, the szlachta felt justified in proclaiming its dispensability. People began to believe that anarchy, in its literal sense of ‘no government’, was something of an ideal state, particularly as it denied the crown and the magnates the instruments through which to pursue their sinister aim of curtailing the szlachta’s liberties. This was particularly relevant in times of war and instability such as the first decades of the eighteenth century, when a central Sejm might invoke national emergency to bring in pernicious legislation.

The Commonwealth therefore continued in a state of suspended animation, with no central administration beyond that which could be paid for from the king’s personal revenue, and no organ of government other than the Senatus Consulta, which had no writ. Its internal and external affairs were as much the business of Russia, and to a lesser extent of Prussia and Austria, as its own. The three powers looked on its territory more and more as a sort of noman’s-land. Russia moved her troops about it as though it were a training ground, while Prussian and Austrian armies took short cuts through it, in times of war even setting up depots and garrisons in convenient Polish towns.

The Gordon Highlanders storming Dargai Heights during the Tirah campaign in 1897. It was here that Piper Findlater won his VC. He was wounded and unable to walk and exposed to enemy fire. Despite this and his exposed position he continued playing, to encourage the Highlanders in their assault on the heights.

For a century the tangled mountains of the North-West Frontier of India provided the British and Indian Armies with a school for soldiers, a hard, unforgiving school in which mistakes cost lives and, above all, a school in which the only certainly was the unexpected. Prominent among the frontier tribes were the Afridi, of whom it was said that robbery, murder, treachery and merciless blood feuds were the very breath of life. The same, to varying degrees, might have been said of all the tribes along the frontier, the Wazirs, Mahsuds, Orakzai, Mohmands and Yusufzai. Masters of the ambush and guerrilla war, they fought constantly among themselves and regularly against the British, who could provide much dangerous sport when there was nothing more pressing to occupy their minds. Sometimes a serious incident would require the despatch of a punitive expedition which would fight its way into the tribal territory and destroy the offending villages. In due course, after they had had enough of fighting, the tribesmen would let it be known that they were willing to submit. A ‘jirga’ or council would be held, attended by the tribal headmen and the senior British military and political officers. A fine would be imposed, the troops would leave and all would remain quiet for a while. Then, in a few years’ time, the whole process would be repeated. Such events, however, tended to be local in character and it was unusual for large areas of the Frontier to be affected simultaneously.

Yet, the frontier tribes had another side to their character. Hospitality, for example, was regarded as a sacred trust. Devious with each other, they would react honestly if dealt with the same way. It could take years to win their trust, but once earned it could result in friendship for life. Many enlisted in regiments of the Indian Army and, having served their time loyally, would return home with their pensions and a mellower impression of the British Raj. Against this, the tribes were to a man devout Muslims to whom the killing of infidel Christians and Hindus was entirely impersonal and certainly no matter for conscience searching.

At the beginning of 1897, while those at home were preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Frontier was quiet, although the term was relative, and seemed likely to remain so. In July, however, it suddenly exploded in revolt along its entire length, presenting the authorities with the most formidable challenge they had ever faced, or were likely to again.

There was only one cause capable of uniting tribes normally at each other’s throats, and that was militant Islamic fundamentalism. Fanatical clergy were at work, notably the Mullah of Haddah among the Mohmands, the Mullah Powindah in Waziristan, the Mullah Sayid Akhbar in the Khyber region, and especially the Mullah Sadullah of Swat, known to the British as the Mad Fakir. Eyes blazing with fervour, Sadullah travelled from village to village preaching ‘jihad’ (holy war) against the infidel, accompanied by a thirteen-year-old boy whom he claimed was the last surviving heir of the Great Moghuls and would soon ascend the throne of his ancestors in Delhi. The situation was aggravated by Abdur Rahman, King of Afghanistan, who had recently produced a tract praising the concept of jihad and, displeased with the results of a recent frontier demarkation, urged the mullahs to drive the infidels from their land, although he had no intention of taking the field himself. Perhaps these factors would not on their own have been sufficient to provoke a general rising, but also present on the Frontier were agents of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey, determined to make trouble for the British in revenge for a humiliating diplomatic snub he had received at their hands. The line taken by these agents was to hint that Great Britain had been seriously weakened by its quarrel with the Sultan, and since the truth of this would not suffice, lies would do just as well. The Suez Canal and Aden were now in Turkish hands, they claimed, so that whereas reinforcements from the United Kingdom would normally take three weeks to reach India, they would now take six months; and, that being the case, the jihad would be over long before they could arrive. Being simple people with a limited knowledge of geography and no means of verifying the truth, the tribesmen accepted what they were told and were much encouraged.

The fuze which actually detonated the explosion had been in place since the previous year when a government clerk, a Hindu, was murdered in northern Waziristan. As the culprit was never brought to justice a fine of 2,000 rupees was imposed on the area. One village, Maizar, refused to pay its share and on 10 May 1897 the political agent, Mr Gee, arrived there to settle the dispute, accompanied by a military escort of some 300 men. The troops were offered hospitality to lull them into a false sense of security, then were treacherously attacked by over 1,000 tribesmen. After all three British officers had received mortal wounds the Indian officers took charge and embarked on a difficult fighting withdrawal from the village, despatching several cavalrymen to summon reinforcements. These reached the force during the evening, having covered nine miles in 90 minutes, and enabled it to break contact. Losses among the Indian soldiers amounted to 23 officers and men killed, and a large number of wounded; it was estimated that about 100 of their attackers were killed.

During the weeks that followed the rising spread like wildfire along the Frontier, the garrisons of fortified posts having to fight desperately for their lives against an enemy who, inflamed with religious fervour, launched repeated attacks regardless of losses. At the end of August disaster struck. The forts guarding the Khyber Pass were held by an irregular and locally raised unit known as the Khyber Rifles, officered entirely by Afridis. Raised after the Second Afghan War, they had given good service in the past but had become seriously unsettled by the mullahs’ propaganda. On 23 August the rebels closed in around the forts. That at Ali Musjid was simply abandoned, while the garrison at Fort Maude offered only a token resistance before falling back on a relief column from Fort Jamrud. Next day it was the turn of Landi Kotal, which resisted successfully for 24 hours before treacherous elements opened the gates; some of the garrison joined the rebels, some were allowed to leave after handing over their weapons, but others, remaining true to their salt, managed to fight their way through to Jamrud. Control of the pass, the vital communications route between India and Afghanistan, was not regained until December. Such was the fury of the tribal assault that those holding the smaller posts stood little or no chance of survival.

On 12 September the heliograph station at Saragarhi, midway between Forts Gulistan and Lockhart, covering the important Samana Ridge to the south of the Khyber and held by the 36th Sikhs, was attacked overwhelming strength. The garrison, consisting of twenty men under Havildar Ishan Singh, beat off two frenzied attacks during the morning, strewing the surrounding rocks with bodies. However, some of the Afridis, taking advantage of an area of dead ground, began picking away at the brick wall until part of it collapsed, creating a breach. The Sikhs ran from their fire positions to repel the renewed assault but were too few in number and in ferocious hand to hand fighting were forced back into their barrack block, where they fought to the last man. One sepoy, barricading himself in the guard room, shot down or bayoneted twenty of his assailants before perishing in the flames of the burning building; another, one of the post’s signallers, remained in heliograph contact with Fort Lockhart until the end. Jubilant, the Afridis swarmed to join their comrades who had invested Fort Gulistan that morning. Held in much greater strength, this proved to be a tougher nut to crack and, despite casualties, was still holding three days later when the tribesmen, flayed by the shellfire of a relief column advancing from Fort Lockhart, abandoned the siege and dispersed into the hills. Thanks to the 36th Sikhs, the Samana Ridge forts remained in British hands and in recognition of the fact the regiment was awarded the unique battle honour ‘Samana’.

Such desperate actions as these marked the high water mark of the rising, although months of fierce fighting lay ahead before the Frontier was pacified. The government of India had been taken aback by the sheer scale and ferocity of the revolt but reacted by despatching strong punitive columns to Malakand and against the Wazirs, Mohmands, Afridis and Orakzais. Considerations of space inhibit describing even the more important actions save one, that fought by the 1st Gordon Highlanders at Dargai, which has passed into the legends of Frontier warfare.

A contemporary general inspection report describes the battalion as being ‘A particularly fine one. The officers as a body are an exceptionally nice set; the warrant officers and NCOs seem to be very efficient, and the privates have an admirable physique.’ Like every good unit, the Gordons reflected the personality of their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. Mathias, whose bullet head, determined jaw, bristling moustache and level blue eyes indicated a no-nonsense, instinctive fighter. In many ways Mathias was a commander well ahead of his time, paying attention not only to the more obvious aspects of his profession but also to the physical condition of his men and their morale. In 1896 the battalion won the Queen’s Cup for shooting and it was regarded as having the best signallers of any British regiment in India. Field exercises took place regularly, one advanced feature being the instruction of NCOs in military sketching, in those days an essential element in reconnaissance, usually taught only to officers. Mathias kept his men fit with a programme of athletics, hill-racing and football, contests being held between companies and against neighbouring units. There were also regimental concert parties and other activities to combat the boredom of cantonment life. The impression given is that the 1st Gordon Highlanders was a highly trained, efficient battalion, entirely at ease with itself and held in high regard; it was, too, an experienced battalion, having taken part in the Chitral Expedition of 1895.

In April 1897 the Gordons, based at Rawalpindi on the Punjab side of the North-West Frontier Province boundary, moved up to their hot weather station in the Murree Hills, expecting to remain there throughout the summer. At the beginning of August, however, in response to the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Frontier, it returned to Rawalpindi whence it was immediately despatched to Jamrud. Here it formed part of a force that prevented the rebels advancing further along the Khyber.

By October the British counter-measures had begun to take effect. Nevertheless, it was appreciated that the tribes would not submit until the war was carried onto their own territory and it was decided to advance deep into the Tirah region. In this area it was estimated that together the Afridis and Orakzais could field between 40-50,000 men and for this reason the Tirah Field Force, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir William Lockhart, was the largest punitive expedition ever assembled on the Frontier. It consisted of two divisions (the 1st under Major-General W. P. Symons and the 2nd under Major-General A. G. Yeatman-Biggs), two flanking columns, a strong lines of communication element and a reserve brigade. Altogether, 11,892 British and 22,614 Indian troops were involved, accompanied by almost 20,000 followers who performed menial but essential tasks; there were also 8,000 horses, 1,440 ponies for the sick and wounded, over 18,000 mules and an enormous number of camels, carts and baggage ponies. Lockhart’s plan was to concentrate at Kohat and enter Tirah from the south by crossing the Samana Ridge at a pass west of Fort Gulistan. He would then force two more passes which would bring him to his ultimate objective, the Tirah Maidan, a wide fertile valley upon which the surrounding tribes relied for subsistence, rarely if ever visited by Europeans before.

Together with the 1st Dorsetshire Regiment, the 15th Sikhs and the lst/2nd Gurkhas, the Gordons constituted Brigadier-General F. J. Kempster’s 3rd Brigade, which formed part of the 2nd Division. The Tirah Field Force left Kohat on 7 October, its route taking it past the now deserted ruins of Saragarhi signal station. By 15 October, marching by easy stages, it had reached Shinawari, but beyond this point progress across the Samana Ridge was blocked by a substantial force of tribesmen holding the village of Dargai, located at the summit of a towering spur that dominated the only road. The crest was lined with sangars, while the rocks themselves contained numerous fissures that provided natural rifle pits. Immediately below the village were precipitous cliffs, broken here and there by goat paths, and below these was a steeply sloping open space several hundred yards wide, forming a glacis that could be swept by fire from above. An attacker who succeeded in crossing this would then find his further upward progress restricted to goat paths or funnelled into the narrowing approach to the village itself, where he could be picked off with ease. Nature, therefore, had endowed Dargai with better defences than many a purpose-built fortress.

Lockhart had only the 2nd Division in hand, the 1st Division still being on the march some sixteen miles short of Shinawari. He nonetheless decided that the former would take Dargai at once, conduct of the operation being entrusted to Lieutenant-General Sir Power Palmer, normally responsible for the force’s lines of communication, as Yeatman-Biggs was ill. Palmer’s plan was for Brigadier R. Westmacott’s 4th Brigade to mount a frontal attack on the village, covered by two mountain batteries, while Kempster’s 3rd Brigade made a wide detour to the west, threatening the defenders’ right flank and rear.

The troops moved off during the early hours of 18 October. The route of Kempster’s brigade, which Palmer accompanied, took it up a dry watercourse that had its source near the western summit of the spur. The higher they climbed, the rougher became the going, the narrower the stream bed, the larger the boulders and the steeper the slope. After five miles had been covered the Gurkhas, in the lead, gave the appearance of flies walking up a wall. A point had now been reached at which the mules were unable to cope with the precipitous going and Palmer decided to send back his guns and the field hospital, escorted by the Dorsets and part of the 15th Sikhs. The Gordons, bringing up the rear, had perforce to halt and let them through. From about 09:00 onwards the steady thumping of guns indicated that the mountain batteries were engaged in their preliminary bombardment of Dargai.

At about 11:00 heliograph contact was established with Westmacott’s brigade, which was making slow but steady progress, often in single file, up the direct route towards the village. By noon the Gordons, after a stiff two-hour scramble, had joined lst/2nd Gurkhas and 15th Sikhs on the slopes above the source of the watercourse, attracting sporadic long range fire. The coordination between the two brigades had been excellent, for Westmacott’s battalions were now in position to launch their assault. Under a hail of fire from above, the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers and lst/3rd Gurkhas swarmed across the open slope and up the goat tracks to the village. The tribesmen hastily abandoned their positions and fled, sped on their way by a few long range volleys from Kempster’s men. The capture of Dargai had been a model operation, costing the Borderers only six casualties and the Gurkhas thirteen. Undoubtedly, the enemy’s resistance would have been far stiffer had not Kempster’s brigade threatened their rear, always a sensitive area in tribal warfare.

By mid-afternoon both brigades had been concentrated at Dargai. For the reasons quoted below, Palmer decided to abandon the position, despite the fact that two large groups of tribesmen, one estimated to be over 4,000 strong, could be seen converging on the spur from their camps in the Khanki Valley. Westmacott’s brigade, less two companies of Borderers, led off first. Between 16:00 and 17:00, with the sun falling towards the western skyline, Kempster’s brigade prepared to follow, covered initially by the 15th Sikhs. They, in turn, were covered by the Gordons and the two Borderer companies as they disengaged and passed through. By now the tribesmen, having reoccupied the sangars along the crest, were directing an increasingly heavy fire at those on the open slope below the cliffs, making the officers their special target. Major Jennings Bramly was killed and Lieutenant Pears was wounded; Second Lieutenant Young had his helmet shot off; and Lieutenant Dalrymple Hay, feeling blood running down his cheek, discovered that it had been grazed by a bullet.

When the moment came, Colonel Mathias released the Borderers then ordered three of his own five companies back into fresh fire positions from which they could support the withdrawal of the remaining two. One of the latter had succeeded in disengaging, as had half of Captain F. W. Kerr’s company, when a body of the enemy broke cover some 30 yards distant, fired a ragged volley and charged the small group remaining. Six of them were dropped almost at bayonet point, four of them falling to Private W. Rennie, and the rest made off when they were engaged by Captain Miller Wallnutt’s company from its new fire position. While this was taking place Lieutenant Young, Surgeon-Captain Gerrard and Colour Sergeant Craib, went out and rescued a wounded man who was in immediate danger of being hacked to death.

Storming the Dargai Heights.

Darkness put an end to the fighting. In addition to the casualties mentioned above, the Gordons had sustained another man killed and seven wounded. Dead and wounded alike were carried down the rough two-mile track to the road, on reaching which the battalion formed up and marched the six miles back to the camp at Shinawari.

The reasons given by Palmer for abandoning Dargai include the following:

  1. The 2nd Division was not strong enough to hold the position, guard Shinawari camp and maintain communications between the two.
  2. There was no water supply between Dargai and Shinawari, and no supply of firewood at Dargai.
  3. The continued occupation of Dargai would have revealed the proposed axis of advance into tribal territory, which was not desirable.
  4. The 1st Division was still a day’s march short of Shinawari.

The reader might agree that some of these look extremely thin, while others might be regarded as excellent reasons for not having mounted the operation in the first place. As it was, the Orakzais could claim to have repulsed a British attempt to capture the position, and at this stage of the revolt the mere suggestion of a tribal victory was the last thing that was wanted. Nevertheless, for the better part of the next day Lockhart, lulled into a false sense of security by the arrival of the 1st Division, refused to accept the reality of the situation, expressing the opinion that the continued work of improvement on the road, protected as it was by strong covering parties, would in itself deter the enemy from re-occupying Dargai. However, when he was informed that evening that Dargai Heights were now held by an estimated 12,000 Afridi and Orakzai, he reacted with commendable speed. Because it knew the ground, the 2nd Division, reinforced by elements of the 1st Division, would again clear the spur. This time, there would be no subtlety of manoeuvre against the enemy’s flank and rear; what he intended was a straightforward frontal attack in strength, supported by the fire of the divisional artillery, supplemented by an additional battery. At this point personalities began to have a bearing on subsequent events. Lockhart detested Westmacott, and decided that Kempster, whom he merely disliked, would deliver the assault, under the control of Yeatman-Biggs, who had returned to duty.

When the troops, having been briefed on the operation, marched out of camp at 04:30 on 20 October, their muttered opinion of the generals was ripe, to say the least. No doubt Kempster,1 whom they loathed, received the lion’s share of the blame, which in this case was a little unfair as the decisions had not been his.

By 10:00 the guns were pounding the summit, which the Gordons also brought under long range rifle fire. The enemy, secure in their sangars and rocky clefts, were little affected by this; they had, moreover, strengthened their defences and from one point they were also able to direct a crossfire across the all-important open slope below the cliff. Thus, when the lst/2nd Gurkhas rose to attack, the entire summit erupted in a wild storm of fire. Under the impact of thousands of bullets the dusty surface of the slope was churned into a dust cloud in which it seemed nothing could live. Gurkhas could be seen falling and their casualties strewed the ground. Despite this, three companies reached the cover of a rocky shelf approximately halfway across, but further progress was impossible. Worse still, every attempt by their comrades to reach them resulted in more men shot down. Jubilant, the tribesmen began waving their flags, beating drums and shouting defiance.

Kempster ordered the 1st Dorsets to make the attempt. A few managed to sprint across the fatal 150 yards to the safety of the ledge, but as a whole the battalion was stopped in its tracks. It was then the turn of the 2nd Derbyshire Regiment,2 but they fared no better. As each attack failed the frenzy of the tribesmen reached higher levels of exultation.

It was now mid-afternoon and, despite the carpet of dead, dying and wounded covering the lower half of the slope, Dargai Heights still remained firmly in enemy hands. The crisis of the battle having been reached, Yeatman-Biggs ordered Kempster to commit the Gordons and the 3rd Sikhs, his last reserves. The latter were providing an escort for the guns on a lower spur and had to await relief by a Jhind state infantry battalion, but the Gordons moved off at once.

As they clambered up the narrow path they were not encouraged by the steady stream of dead and wounded being carried past in the opposite direction. At length they formed up in dead ground screened by some low scrub at the lower edge of the slope. Nearby, grim-faced Derbys, Dorsets and Gurkhas lay firing at the enemy, now capering among the rocks and yelling derisive insults.

It is a matter of record that Highland infantry, heirs to a long and violent history in which the carrying of arms and settlement of disputes by force was usual, have always launched their attacks with a unique speed and a berserk ferocity that was very difficult and often impossible to stop. Colonel Mathias knew how best to awaken these qualities in his men and, having been told that his assault would be preceded by three minutes’

concentrated artillery fire on the summit, he used the interval to address them very briefly, his voice cutting like a whiplash through the sounds of gunfire, musketry, savage drumming and yells:

The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it!’

There was a moment’s silence. The men knew the terrible risks involved, but the Colonel had given his word on their behalf and not one of them would let him down.

‘Aye!’ It was a spontaneous roar from 600 throats.

‘Officers and pipers to the fore!’

It was now, as the sun glinted on the officers’ drawn broadswords and the Pipe Major took his place, throwing his plaid and drones across his shoulder with infinite swagger, that the inherited instincts of countless bloody if long-forgotten clan battles began to surface, causing the scalp to crawl and the hackles to rise. Like their forebears of old, they, led by their chief men and pipers, were going out to meet the enemy, steel to steel. Suddenly, the supporting gunfire ceased.

‘Bugler – sound Advance!’

Like a tidal wave the Gordons poured out of cover and onto the deadly open slopes. The pipers struck up the regimental march, The Cock o’ the North,3 a fine ranting tune that skirled across the hillside, evoking a response from every man present. Yelling, the entire battalion swept upwards. Mathias, still up with the leaders, had unleashed the full fury of his Gordons and knew that they would give the shortest shrift to anyone who got in their way.

Perhaps the sudden appearance of the battalion caught the enemy unawares. If so, the respite was only of seconds’ duration. Once again, the crest blazed with fire and, once again, the dust was stirred into a fine mist by the pelting hail of bullets. And now the Gordons began to go down. Lieutenant Lamont was killed outright at the head of his men. Major Macbean, shot through the thigh, crawled to a boulder and continued to cheer on the assault. Lieutenant Dingwall, hit in four places and unable to move, was carried to safety by Private Lawson, who then returned to bring in the wounded Private Macmillan, being hit twice while doing so. The pipers, who could neither run nor take cover and still play, continued to walk upright and thus became a special target for the enemy. Lance-Corporal Milne, among the first to set foot on the slope, continued to march upwards until shot through the chest. Piper George Findlater suddenly felt his feet knocked from under him by a sharp blow. Sitting up, he discovered that he had been shot through both ankles but, disregarding alike the enemy’s fire, the pain and the fear that he might never walk normally again, he continued to play his comrades into action. Mathias was hit but kept moving. Major Downman got a bullet through his helmet. Other men felt rounds twitching at their kilts and tunics. Major Macbean, reaching for his water bottle after the assault had passed by, found it empty save for the bullet responsible for draining the contents.

It took less than two minutes for the leading companies to reach the ledge where the Gurkhas were sheltering, although it seemed far longer. There they paused briefly to get their breath back while the others closed up. Then, with a wave of the broadsword and a sharp shout of ‘Come!’ the officers led a second rush across the ledge to the foot of the escarpment. This time the Gordons were accompanied by kukri-wielding Gurkhas, keen to exact payment for the long hours they had spent pinned down. Another pause, and then the Gordons were scrambling up the goat paths towards the summit. Already the enemy’s triumphant drumming had stopped and his firing become ragged. Instinctively the tribesmen understood that the green-kilted soldiers could not be stopped and, recognising the murder in their attackers’ eyes, they began shredding away. Those with a mind to stay quickly changed it when, far below, they saw the 3rd Sikhs crossing the open slope, big, bearded, turbaned men coming steadily on behind a line of levelled bayonets. There were, too, large numbers of Dorsets, Derbys and Gurkhas who, inspired by the Gordons’ assault, were rushing forward to join in the attack.

Thus, when the Gordons finally reached the summit, they found the sangars contained only a handful of dead and wounded. The reverse slopes of the spur, however, were black with the running figures of thousands of tribesmen, into whom a rapid fire was opened, sending many tumbling among the rocks.

Mathias, out of breath and bleeding, reached the summit alongside Colour Sergeant Mackie.

‘Stiff climb, eh, Mackie?’ he remarked. ‘I’m not quite so young as I was, you know.’

‘Och, never you mind, sir,’ replied the colour sergeant, slapping his commanding officer on the back with a familiarity justified by events, ‘Ye were goin’ verra strong for an auld man!’ If the compliment was unintentionally back-handed, the admiration was genuine, as Mathias found when his Gordons, now laughing and joking, gathered round to give him three cheers.

Yeatman-Biggs was determined that the tribesmen would not be given a second chance to reoccupy the heights and detailed the Gurkhas and the Dorsets to hold them. The Gordons volunteered to carry down their wounded, an act of kindness that was greatly appreciated. Afterwards, as they marched to their own bivouac, each regiment they passed broke into spontaneous cheering, officers and men pressing forward to shake their hands and offer their water bottles, a small gesture but a very generous one considering that no further supplies could be obtained until the following day.

As the Widow of Windsor’s parties went, the second capture of Dargai Heights was small in scale but it was as bitterly contested as any. The cost was three officers and 33 other ranks killed and twelve officers and 147 other ranks wounded, the majority of these casualties being incurred on the lowest 150 yards of the open slope. The Gordons’ share amounted to one officer and six other ranks killed and six officers and 31 other ranks wounded. In the circumstances this was little short of astonishing but can be attributed to the speed with which the attack was delivered across the most exposed portion of the open slope, this being cited in later tactical manuals.

Mathias was to receive many congratulatory telegrams on behalf of his battalion; from the Queen and from the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, from the Gordons’ 2nd Battalion, from the regiment’s friendly rivals the Black Watch, and from Caledonian societies all over the world, including the United States.

Yeatman-Biggs recommended that the Victoria Cross be awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel Mathias, Piper Findlater and Private Lawson. In Mathias’ case the supreme award was denied, thanks to an incredibly priggish decision by the War Office that neither general officers nor battalion commanders were eligible for the Cross, presumably because they were doing nothing less than their duty.4 Queen Victoria made her own feelings known in no uncertain manner by promptly appointing him as one of her aides de camp with the rank of colonel, although he continued to command the battalion until its return to Scotland the following year. Piper Findlater5 and Private Lawson received the award in the field. In addition, Colour Sergeants J. Mackie and T. Craib, Sergeants F. Ritchie, D. Mathers, J. Donaldson and J. Mackay, and Lance-Corporal (Piper) G. Milne were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the last mentioned being decorated personally by the Queen when he was invalided home.6

The Tirah Field Force fought many more battles as it penetrated deeper into tribal territory, but none was as fiercely contested or as critical as Dargai. Early in November it reached its objective, the Tirah Maidan, a beautiful, fertile valley one hundred square miles in extent, flanked by pine-clad slopes and dotted with copses. There were numerous houses, each of which, significantly, was fortified against its neighbours. In the storerooms were piled high the fruits of the recent harvest – Indian corn, beans, barley, honey, potatoes, walnuts and onions. The entire valley was deserted, the inhabitants having taken their families with them into the hills. Lockhart despatched columns into every corner of the Tirah, where the resistance encountered clearly indicated that the tribes had no intention of submitting. Reluctantly, he decided that if they would not talk he would begin laying waste the valley. The troops, many of whom came from farming stock, did not enjoy the work, but the sight of groves being felled and columns of smoke rising from burning buildings produced the desired result. With the exception of the ungovernable Zakha Khel, who did not submit until the following April, the tribes sent in their leaders to a jirga where they accepted their punishment: they would give up 800 serviceable rifles, pay a fine of 50,000 rupees and return all the property they had stolen during the rising. On 7 December, with the worst of the winter snows approaching, the evacuation of the Tirah Maidan began. The withdrawal of the 1st Division was comparatively uneventful, but that of the 2nd Division was subject to constant ambushes and attacks that inflicted 164 casualties and were obviously not the work of the Zakha Khel alone. Nevertheless, so thoroughly had the rising been put down that during the next twenty years only five major punitive expeditions were required to police troublesome areas, and never again was fighting so widespread along the Frontier.

It would be absurd to suggest that any love was lost between the British and the tribes, but there was a great deal of mutual respect and during both World Wars thousands of the latter volunteered for service with the Crown. There was even a sense of loss when the British left India, for now no one remained for their young men to prove themselves against, even their hereditary Hindu enemies having been removed far to the south of them by the creation of the Islamic state of Pakistan. Yet the world was to hear of them again, for when the Soviet Union launched its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 the Frontier again became an arsenal and huge numbers crossed to fight alongside their co-religious kindred in the Mujahideen. For all its size, the Soviet Army was unable to cope. In the end, therefore, the mullahs’ promise of a successful jihad had been fulfilled, albeit a century after it was made and against a very different kind of infidel.

 

Notes

  1. Kempster had an unfortunate personality and was so unpopular throughout the Tirah Field Force that its members coined the verb ‘to be kempstered,’ that is, generally mucked about. For all that, he was a capable enough officer in action.
  2. Later the Sherwoood Foresters.
  3. The Cock o’ the North was the nickname of the Duke of Gordon who had raised the regiment 104 years earlier.
  4. At the time the Victoria Cross warrant also incorporated a clause to the effect that in the event of subsequent ‘scandalous conduct’ the award would be forfeit. This rarely happened but when it did there was an understandable public outcry in protest. King Edward VII put an end to this sort of sanctimonious humbug.
  5. To quote from a footnote in Chapter 26 of the Gordon Highlanders’ regimental history, The Life of a Regiment: The incident of the wounded piper continuing to play, being telegraphed home, took the British public by storm, and when Findlater arrived in England he found himself famous. Reporters rushed to interview him; managers offered him fabulous sums to play at their theatres; the streets of London and all the country towns were placarded with his portrait; when, after his discharge, he was brought to play at the Military Tournament, royal personages and distinguished generals shook him by the hand; his photograph was sold by thousands; the Scotsmen in London would have let him swim in champagne, and the daily cheers of the multitude were enough to turn an older head than that of this young soldier. A handsome pension enabled Findlater to rest on his laurels and turn his sword into a ploughshare on a farm near Turriff. He re-enlisted for the Great War, though not fit for foreign service.’
  6. Throughout their subsequent history the Gordon Highlanders celebrated the anniversary of Dargai wherever they were stationed. Thanks to government economies that have reduced the Army’s strength to the lowest level for 300 years, the regiment no longer has an independent existence, having merged with the Queen’s Own Highlanders to form a new regiment, The Highlanders (Seaforth, Gordons and Camerons). This will, however, continue to celebrate the anniversary of the action.

Marble bust of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. Roman copy from 1st century AD of a Greek original from 3rd century BC.

The grail was his: Demetrius was king of Macedon. Immediately after the murder of Alexander V, the nobles present—members of Alexander’s court, now surrounded by Demetrius’s forces—agreed to his kingship, and he was duly acclaimed by the assembled army. But there were still hearts and minds to be won in Macedon itself, and Demetrius went about this by the traditional combination of action and words. He quelled an uprising in Thessaly and took steps to improve the security of central Greece, where the alliance between the Boeotians and Aetolians had been renewed in response to Demetrius’s and his son’s conquests in the south. In the Peloponnese, only the Spartans now held out against him, and they were no more than a nuisance.

At home, he played all the cards that supported his claim to the throne. He stressed his father’s loyal service to the Argeads and the illegitimacy of the Antipatrid regime, and missed no opportunity to recall Cassander’s murder of Alexander IV. His long marriage to Phila helped as well; as Cassander’s sister, she provided an appearance of continuity, now that Cassander had no surviving descendants. Ironically, through Phila, Demetrius was the heir of those to whose ruin he and his father had devoted so much time and energy.

In order to help secure Thessaly, and to give himself another port, one of Demetrius’s early acts as king was to found the city of Demetrias. The site, at the head of the Gulf of Pagasae (near modern Volos), was well chosen. The city was hard to assault, and served successive Macedonian kings for decades as one of the “Fetters of Greece”: as long as they controlled the heavily fortified ports of Demetrias, Chalcis, and Corinth (Piraeus was desirable too), they could move troops at will around the Greek mainland and restrict other shipping. And most commercial traffic in those days was seaborne.

A sign of how critical all this was for him was that he ignored what was going on elsewhere in the world—or maybe he just did not have the forces to cope. He had already, I think, effectively ceded the Asiatic Greek cities, and Lysimachus completed his takeover there by the end of 294. In the same year, Ptolemy, to his huge relief, regained Cyprus. The defense of the island had been in the hands of Phila, but in the end she was pinned in Salamis and forced to surrender. Ptolemy courteously allowed all members of Demetrius’s family safe conduct off the island and back to Macedon, laden with gifts and honors. The Ptolemies would now retain Cyprus until the Roman conquest of the island two hundred and fifty years later.

Lysimachus, as already mentioned, was chiefly occupied with a war against the Getae in northern Thrace, around the Danube. In 297 the warlike Getae had taken advantage of the fact that Lysimachus’s attention was focused on Asia Minor to go to war. Lysimachus sent his son Agathocles to deal with the Getae, but it had not gone well: Agathocles had been captured, and Lysimachus had been forced to come to terms, which included marrying one of his daughters to the Getan king and returning territory he had occupied. But in 293, once he had more or less settled his affairs in Asia Minor, Lysimachus took to the field to recover the territory he had been forced to give up. Again, the war went badly; we know no details, but it is surely to the credit of the Getan king Dromichaetes that he was able twice to defeat as brilliant a general as Lysimachus. This time, it was Lysimachus himself who was taken prisoner. He was held at their capital, Helis (perhaps modern Sveshtari, where a tomb has been discovered which might be that of Dromichaetes and Lysimachus’s nameless daughter). It was the best part of a year before his captors were induced to let him go, and again Lysimachus lost territory to them, and had to leave hostages to ensure that he would not attack again. It was the last of his attempts to gain control of inner Thrace.

In 292, while Lysimachus was tied up, Demetrius, short on gratitude to the man who had so rapidly recognized his rulership of Macedon, took an expeditionary force into Asia Minor and Thrace. It was a sign of his future intentions, a declaration of war. Fortunately for Lysimachus, a united uprising by the central Greek leagues, backed by his friends Pyrrhus and Ptolemy, recalled Demetrius to Greece. As it happened, before he got back his son Antigonus Gonatas had succeeded in defeating the Boeotians and putting Thebes under siege (it fell the following year). But Demetrius was unable to return to his abandoned campaign, because Pyrrhus chose this moment to invade Thessaly. Demetrius advanced against him in strength; Pyrrhus, his work done, withdrew.

Pyrrhus’s retreat was tactical; he had no intention of giving up his attempt to expand the frontiers of Epirus at Demetrius’s expense. Two years later, in 290, he inflicted a serious defeat on Demetrius’s forces in Aetolia (the victory was so spectacular that he was hailed as a second Alexander), but lost the island of Corcyra (Corfu). The island was betrayed to Demetrius by Pyrrhus’s ex-wife Lanassa (whose domain it was), allegedly because she was irritated at being ignored by her husband. She married Demetrius instead. In 288, while Demetrius was laid low by illness, Pyrrhus seized the opportunity to invade Thessaly and Macedon. Demetrius hauled himself out of bed and drove Pyrrhus out.

The two kings had pummeled each other to exhaustion, and they made a peace which recognized the status quo in respect of Demetrius’s possession of Corcyra and Pyrrhus’s of the Macedonian dependencies given him by Alexander V in his hour of desperation. Demetrius was left in a powerful position. Macedon, though slimmer, was united under his rule; there was a treaty in place with his most formidable enemy; in central Greece, only the perennial hostility of the Aetolians remained; and he had done enough to secure the Peloponnese for the time being. He had the best fleet, and could call up a massive army. It was quite a turnaround for the Besieger, and he began to dream his father’s dreams. Perhaps Demetrius was his own worst enemy.

DEMETRIUS’S PRIDE

The style of Demetrius’s kingship was typically flamboyant, and he demanded obsequiousness from his subjects. An incident from 290 is particularly revealing. It was the year of the Pythian Games—the quadrennial festival and athletic games held at Delphi, second only to the Olympics in prestige. But the Aetolians controlled Delphi, and restricted access to the festival to their friends. A few weeks later, then, Demetrius came south to host alternate games in Athens.

He and Lanassa entered the city in a style that reminded many of Demetrius’s outrageous behavior a dozen or so years earlier, when he had made the Parthenon his home and that of his concubines. They came, bringing grain for ever-hungry Athens, as Demetrius, the aptly named savior god, and his consort Demeter, the grain goddess. They were welcomed not only with incense and garlands and libations, but with an astonishing hymn that included the words: “While other gods are far away, or lack ears, or do not exist, or pay no attention to us, we see you present here, not in wood or stone, but in reality.” Obsequiousness indeed, but the point became clearer as the hymn went on to request of the king that he crush the Aetolian menace.

Many Athenians regretted such excesses, and all over the Greek world resentment built up against the new ruler. It was impossible for Demetrius to present himself as the leader the Greeks had been waiting for when he had to crack down hard on incipient rebellion and tax his subjects hard to pay for yet more war. Talk of the freedom of the Greek cities faded away, and between 291 and 285 Ptolemy deprived Demetrius of the Cycladic islands and the rest of his Aegean possessions, thus regaining the control over the entrance to the Aegean that he had lost in 306 and furthering his aim to control as much of the Aegean seaboard as he could. The promise of relief from taxes and a measure of respect for local councils was just as important in this enterprise as military muscle. Dominance in the Aegean was to serve successive Ptolemies well, both strategically and commercially.

Ptolemy also confirmed his control of Phoenicia by finally evicting Demetrius’s garrisons from Sidon and Tyre. But these were pretty much Ptolemy’s last actions; in 285, feeling the burden of his seventy-plus years, he stood down from the Egyptian throne in favor of Ptolemy II. Maybe he had a terminal illness, because only two years later he died—in his bed, remarkably enough for a Successor. But then “safety first” had been his motto, for most of his time as ruler of Egypt.

Despite these losses, Demetrius might have hung on in Macedon. But he was a natural autocrat, and that was not the Macedonian way. Demetrius never managed the kingly art of finding a balance between being loved and being hated, or at least feared. His subjects came to resent his luxurious ways and his unapproachability. Macedonian kings were supposed to make themselves available to petitions from their subjects, yet Demetrius was rumored on one occasion to have thrown a whole bundle of them into a river—or at least to be the sort of person who might. This kind of talk, charging him with eastern-style monarchy, did his reputation no good. Nor did the fact that he wore a double crown, indicating rulership of Asia as well as Europe.

Ignoring the rumbles of discontent, Demetrius began to prepare for a massive invasion of Asia. But the proud Macedonian barons resented their country’s being thought of as no more than a launching point for eastern invasion; they did not want to be on the periphery of some vast Asian kingdom. It was all right when Philip and Alexander had done it, because that was for the greater glory of Macedon. But this war would be fought against fellow Macedonians, for the greater glory of an unpopular king. The idea of taking thousands more Macedonians east, following the tens of thousands who had already gone, did not go down well either, since the country was already somewhat depopulated.

But Demetrius was no Cassander, content with Macedon alone; he was as addicted to warfare as Alexander the Great. Just as Alexander had set out from Macedon and seized all Asia from the Persian king, so Demetrius intended at least to deprive Lysimachus of Asia Minor. But whereas Alexander had invaded Asia with about thirty-seven thousand men and no fleet to speak of, Demetrius was amassing a vast army, over a hundred thousand strong, while a fleet of five hundred warships was being prepared in the shipyards of Macedon and Greece. In typical Besieger style, some of these ships were larger than any vessel that had ever been built before, and he used the best naval architects available. The precise design of these ships is a matter of intelligent guesswork, but it will give some idea of their scale to say that, whereas a normal warship had three banks of rowers in some arrangement (hence its name, “trireme”), Demetrius was having a “ fifteen” and a “sixteen” built.

Naturally, Demetrius’s preparations involved propaganda as well. Above all, he wielded the old, potent slogan of Greek freedom against Lysimachus. At a local level, a prominent public building in Pella displayed symbolic paintings, copies of which formed the wall paintings of a later Roman villa.10 One of the panels of the painting depicted Demetrius’s parents as king and queen of Asia, the idea being that he had inherited a natural claim, while other panels showed Macedon as the ruler of Asia by right of conquest. But history is littered with failed promises of manifest destiny.

Blackadder Goes Forth is the fourth and final series of the BBC sitcom Blackadder, written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, which aired from 28 September to 2 November 1989 on BBC One. The series placed the recurring characters of Blackadder, Baldrick and George in a trench in Flanders during World War I, and followed their various doomed attempts to escape from the trenches to avoid certain death under the misguided command of General Melchett. The series is particularly noted for its criticism of the British Army leadership during the campaign, and also refers to a number of famous figures of the age. In addition, the series is remembered for the poignant ending of the final episode.

By Dr Gary Sheffield

The scale of human devastation during World War One has often been blamed on incompetent leadership. Dr Gary Sheffield offers an alternative view.

The generals

Douglas Haig was ‘brilliant to the top of his Army boots’. David Lloyd George’s view sums up the attitude of many people towards Haig and other British generals of World War One. They were, supposedly, ‘donkeys’: moustachioed incompetents who sent the ‘lions’ of the Poor Bloody Infantry to their deaths in futile battles. Many popular books, films and television programmes echo this belief. The casualty list – one million British Empire dead – and the bloody stalemate of the Western Front seem to add credence to this version of events. But there is another interpretation. One undeniable fact is that Britain and its allies, not Germany, won the First World War. Moreover, Haig’s army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured, the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 ‘Hundred Days’ campaign rates as the greatest series of victories in British history.

Even the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917), battles that have become by-words for murderous futility, not only had sensible strategic rationales but qualified as British strategic successes, not least in the amount of attritional damage they inflicted on the Germans. No one denies that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had a bloody learning curve, or that generals made mistakes that had catastrophic consequences. However, before dismissing the generals as mere incompetent buffoons, we must establish the context.

Haig and the Allies

From 1915 to 1918 the BEF learned, in the hardest possible way, how to fight a modern high-intensity war against an extremely tough opponent. Before 1914, the British army had been primarily a colonial police force, small but efficient. By 1916 it had expanded enormously, taking in a mass of inexperienced civilian volunteers. Later still, it relied on conscripts. Either way, it was a citizen army rather than a professional force.

The generals, used to handling small-scale forces in colonial warfare, had just as much to learn about a type of war for which they were almost entirely unprepared. It is not surprising that in the course of its apprenticeship the BEF had a number of bloody setbacks. What was extraordinary was that, despite this unpromising beginning, by 1918 this army of bank clerks and shop assistants, businessmen and miners should have emerged as a formidable fighting force.

An inescapable fact of life for Haig and his predecessor as commander-in-chief, Sir John French, was that Britain was the junior partner in a coalition with France. Naturally, the French tended to call the shots, even though the British C-in-C was an independent commander. Thus in July 1916 Haig fought on the Somme largely at the behest of the French, although he would have preferred to attack, somewhat later, in the Ypres salient where there were more important strategic objectives. At this time the French army was under heavy pressure from German attacks at Verdun. This reality of coalition warfare also helps to explain why Haig never contemplated halting the Battle of the Somme after the disastrous first day.

The one real achievement of the Anglo-French armies on 1 July 1916 was to relieve pressure on Verdun, as the Germans rushed troops and guns north to the Somme to counter the new threat. If Haig had called off the offensive on 2 July, he would have thrown away this advantage. Sitting back and letting Britain’s principal ally’s army be mauled was simply not an option for Haig. The alliance between France and Britain was always a somewhat uneasy one. Lack of co-operation, let alone British inaction in 1916, might well have caused the coalition to fall apart.

Techniques and strategies

In 1914-17 the defensive had a temporary dominance over the offensive. A combination of ‘high tech’ weapons (quick-firing artillery and machine guns) and ‘low tech’ defences (trenches and barbed wire) made the attacker’s job formidably difficult. Communications were poor. Armies were too big and dispersed to be commanded by a general in person, as Wellington had at Waterloo a century before, and radio was in its infancy. Even if the infantry and artillery did manage to punch a hole in the enemy position, generals lacked a fast-moving force to exploit the situation, to get among the enemy and turn a retreat into a rout.

In previous wars, horsed cavalry had performed such a role, but cavalry were generally of little use in the trenches of the Western Front. In World War Two, armoured vehicles were used for this purpose, but the tanks of Great War vintage were simply not up to the job. With commanders mute and an instrument of exploitation lacking, World War One generals were faced with a tactical dilemma unique in military history.

It is not true, as some think, that British generals and troops simply stared uncomprehendingly at the barbed wire and trenches, incapable of anything more imaginative than repeating the failed formula of frontal assaults by infantry. In reality, the Western Front was a hotbed of innovation as the British and their allies and enemies experimented with new approaches. Even on the notorious first day on the Somme, the French and 13th British Corps succeeded in capturing all of their objectives through the use of effective artillery and infantry tactics; the absence of such methods helps to explain the disaster along much of the rest of the British position.

Breakthrough battle

The problem was that in 1914 tactics had yet to catch up with the range and effectiveness of modern artillery and machine guns. Warfare still looked back to the age of Napoleon. By 1918, much had changed. At the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, the BEF put into practice the lessons learned, so painfully and at such a heavy cost, over the previous four years. In a surprise attack, massed artillery opened up in a brief but devastating bombardment, targeting German gun batteries and other key positions. The accuracy of the shelling, and the fact that the guns had not had to give the game away by firing some preliminary shots to test the range, was testimony to the startling advances in technique which had turned gunnery from a rule of thumb affair into a highly scientific business.

Then, behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of shells, perfected since its introduction in late 1915, British, French, Canadian and Australian infantry advanced in support of 552 tanks. The tank was a British invention which had made its debut on the Somme in September 1916. Overhead flew the aeroplanes of the Royal Air Force, created in April 1918 from the old Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. The aeroplane had come a long way from its 1914 incarnation as an extremely primitive assemblage of struts and canvas, its task confined to reconnaissance.

By Amiens, aeroplanes were considerably more sophisticated than their predecessors of 1914. The RAF carried out virtually every role fulfilled by modern aircraft: ground attack, artillery spotting, interdiction of enemy lines of communication, strategic bombing. This air-land ‘weapons system’ was bound together by wireless (radio) communications. These were primitive, but still a significant advance on those available two years earlier on the Somme.

Military revolution

The German defenders at Amiens had no response to the Allied onslaught. By the end of the battle, the attackers had advanced 13km (eight miles) – a phenomenal distance by Great War standards. The Germans lost 27,000 men, including 15,000 prisoners and 400 guns. It was, the German commander Ludendorff admitted, the ‘Black Day of the German Army’. From this point onward, the result of the war was never in doubt. Amiens demonstrated the extent of the military revolution that occurred on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. It was a modern battle, the prototype of combats familiar to armies of our own times.

One cannot ignore the appalling waste of human life in World War One. Some of these losses were undoubtedly caused by incompetence. Many more were the result of decisions made by men who, although not incompetent, were like any other human being prone to making mistakes. Haig’s decision to continue with the fighting at Passchendaele in 1917 after the opportunity for real gains had passed comes into this category. In some ways the British and other armies might have grasped the potential of technology earlier than they did. During the Somme, Haig and Rawlinson failed to understand the best way of using artillery.

Haig, however, was no technophobe. He encouraged the development of advanced weaponry such as tanks, machine guns and aircraft. He, like Rawlinson and a host of other commanders at all levels in the BEF, learned from experience. The result was that by 1918 the British army was second to none in its modernity and military ability. It was led by men who, if not military geniuses, were at least thoroughly competent commanders. The victory in 1918 was the payoff. The ‘lions led by donkeys’ tag should be dismissed for what it is – a misleading caricature.

Books

Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield (Headline, 2001)

British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One by John Laffin (Sutton, 1988)

Western Front by Richard Holmes (BBC, 1999)

The Evolution of Victory by Andy Simpson (Tom Donovan, 1995)

About the author Dr Gary Sheffield is Senior Lecturer in the War Studies Group at King’s College London, and Land Warfare Historian at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham.

LINK

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