Bill Braham Memorial Essay Writing Competition

Helion & Company Ltd shall once again be supporting the Bill Braham Memorial Essay Writing Competition, run by the Pike and Shot Society.

The Pike and Shot Society is an international organisation promoting the study of the military history of the Renaissance and Early Modern world.  For The Pike and Shot Society this period covers the years between 1400 and 1721, a time-span that covers approximately from the introduction of early firearms to the abandonment of the pike as a front-line battlefield weapon – the time of pike and shot.  The society is run entirely by, and for the benefit of, its members.

The society’s coverage includes the Wars of the Roses, the Italian Wars, the Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War and the War of the Spanish Succession. Outside Europe the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Samurai of Japan and the armies of the Persians and Moghul Indians all come within the Society’s ambit, as do naval clashes such as the Spanish Armada, the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Mediterranean conflicts between the Christians and the Ottomans.

As sponsors, Helion and Company will be providing a first prize of £100.00 worth of Helion Publications and the P&SS will provide a one year subscription to the Society.  Second prize will be a one year subscription to the P&SS.

For more details, please read the competition information below

The annual Bill Braham Memorial Essay Writing Competition is run by the Pike and Shot Society (P&SS) in conjunction with Helion and Company, the prominent military history publishing company and sponsors of the competition.

The Pike and Shot Society is an international organisation promoting the study of the military history of the Renaissance and Early Modern world.  For The Pike and Shot Society this period covers the years between 1400 and 1721, a time-span that covers approximately from the introduction of early firearms to the abandonment of the pike as a front-line battlefield weapon – the time of pike and shot.  The society is run entirely by, and for the benefit of, its members.

The society’s coverage includes the Wars of the Roses, the Italian Wars, the Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War and the War of the Spanish Succession. Outside Europe the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Samurai of Japan and the armies of the Persians and Moghul Indians all come within the Society’s ambit, as do naval clashes such as the Spanish Armada, the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Mediterranean conflicts between the Christians and the Ottomans.

As sponsors, Helion and Company will be providing a first prize of £100.00 worth of Helion Publications and the P&SS will provide a one year subscription to the Society.  Second prize will be a one year subscription to the P&SS.

Competition Rules.

  1. All essays should be on a military topic within the defined boundaries of the Society’s research period, which is 1400 to 1721.
  2. Any essays outside this period will be rejected.
  3. The closing date for the essay will be 31 December 2023 and any entries received after this date will be entered into the next year’s competition.
  4. The result will be announced on 1 April 2024.
  5. The essay must be written and submitted on Microsoft Word.
  6. The essay must be written in English.
  7. All essays must be between 2,500 and 3,000 words long excluding references, bibliography, footnotes and notes.  A word count must be provided with each entry, and all pages should be numbered.
  8. Any essay longer than 3,000 words will be rejected for the competition.
  9. Where a quotation is used, or author referenced, it should be marked in the text by a superscript number and these can either be referenced in end page notes or a full set of notes at the end of the essay.  Notes are excluded from the word count.
  10. A list of all reference sources (book, article or online) must be provided at the end of the essay.
  11. Any evidence of plagiarism will result in the essay being disqualified from the competition.
  12. The decision of the judges will be final.
  13. The Judges will not be allowed to submit any essay.
  14. On submitting the essay, the writer automatically gives permission to the Pike and Shot Society to publish the essay in the Society’s magazine (first publication rights only).
  15. On submitting the essay the writer automatically gives permission for their contact details to be passed to Helion and Company.

In judging the competition weight will be given to primary research and originality, but other judging criteria will include a structured approach, good grammar and syntax, as well as fluency and the ability to engage the reader.

Entries must be sent to the following email address: with full contact details of the author.

The 2023 Century of the Soldier Conference

By Charles Singleton

Saturday 15th April saw the 2023 Century of the Soldier Conference. Although we stayed in Worcester this year, we moved venue to the University of Worcester, less than a mile from the Cathedral. The Helion events team arrived early and in no time, we had set up the book stand and had a few moments to get ready before the conference goers and delegates arrived.

This year’s conference theme was ‘Novelty and Change’. The phrase came from the comments on England as it settled down into being a new republic in 1649, and the focus of the conference was an examination of new research and findings that we all might have missed during the disruption caused by the global pandemic.

The venue, the Elgar building of Worcester University was the perfect setting for the conference. The room was sandwiched perfectly between the canteen where lunch and drinks were set up and the entrance.

The doors opened at 9.30 and everyone arrived pretty much on time. Following a short introduction from myself as series editor for Century of the Soldier 1618-1721 we moved straight onto the papers. We had a great variety of papers given this year and what was really nice to see was the exchange of ideas, views and questions between the delegates and those that came to listen to the papers. Further discussion carried on over lunch before we returned to hear the papers in the afternoon session.

Sadly, it was over all too quickly for another year. I’d like to thank the team from Helion who came to support me on the day, the delegates who came to give papers and all who came to hear them.

The date for next years conference will be Saturday 4th of May and Helion will confirm the venue as soon as possible.

The German Peasant’s War

By Doug Miller

My obsession with matters military during the first quarter of the 16th Century has become almost a lifetime’s work. You can read the full story how this came to pass in this flip book (please click on image below to follow link).

The first thing you need to know is that I have been a modeller since my teens and coming across the Landsknecht figures manufactured by the German company Elastolin in the 70’s was a revelation which turned me on to this period of history. Working in Germany during the 450th anniversary of the Peasant’s War I purchased a new edition of Wilhelm Zimmermann’s classic text on the war illustrated by a set of inspiring pen drawings of characters and incidents from the conflict. At the same time the East German designer Franz Karl Mohr was being honoured for his genre defining peasants’ war series of flat figures still held in high esteem today. Having published a couple of books on the Landsknechts and the Peasant War for Osprey I began in the early noughties to create my own series of three-dimensional figures geared towards the creation of dioramas. In 2010 having made the acquaintance of the director of the Mühlhausen museums’ service, I received an invite to attend an annual meeting of the Association of German Peasants’ War museums which led to a series of commissions to recreate specific local events which were germane to each member museum. This was a great honour for me but also a responsibility to make sure as far as possible the depiction in miniature was as accurate as possible. I find this description by Manfred Levec hits the nail on the head in this respect:

The miniature figurine has long since evolved from a collectible item into an academically researched artefact and a diorama now serves as a window on to times past.  A well-made diorama should be like a historical novel in which the historical facts are accurate and the peripheral details are as close as possible to what might have been.

So anyone serious about military modelling has to become a historian. This is how my journey has unfolded as each commission has required study of another facet of this conflict. My association with Mühlhausen spawned a number of other projects the most recent being an exhibition of my peasant war dioramas which ends this month (May). I’m just back from my latest trip there which was to deliver a model from another period entirely. Whilst there I discovered that the city plans to erect a 7-metre-tall monument to the Peasants War based on an original design by Albrecht Dürer. This bronze statue will be funded by public subscription and erected in front of the city museum dedicated to the conflict. I can’t resist the urge to recreate a miniature version of this to hopefully go into the museum shop to assist with fund raising effort. So watch this space…

You can purchase The German Peasants’ War 1524-26 here.

Author at the Muehlhausen exhibition

An American Adventure

Part Two – Fallen Timbers, Franciscans, and Forts

By Andrew Bamford

With the Seven Years War Convention closed down after a successful three days, it was time to see a little more of the country before my flight home. My host, Helion author Alex Burns, was determined to fit in as many historical sites as we could manage in a day-and-a-half, and also wanted to introduce me to his students and colleagues from his day job in academia. First stop, however, after we made an early start from the Convention venue in South Bend, Indiana, for the drive back to Alex’s home in West Virginia, was a Cracker Barrel restaurant for a traditional American breakfast.

In the first portion of this blog I wrote at some length about some of the great food that I got to taste on the trip, but it would be fair to say that this Sunday didn’t get off to the best of starts food-wise. Alex and his wife Noelle had presented me with a bag of American snacks to sample, which I’d been working through during the Convention, and this morning as we set off I decided to try one of the Twinkie cakes that they’d included; unlike most of the other treats, I have to say that this was not an experience that I would recommend. However, it filled a gap until our Cracker Barrel stop which ended up being more a brunch than a breakfast as we needed to get a fair few miles under our belts first. Determined to be authentic, I ordered an old-time American breakfast which came with biscuits and gravy. The biscuits were more akin to a cross between a savoury scone and a dumpling, rather nice if a little bland on their own, but the gravy was a thick whitish goo unlike anything I’d eaten before. It was only after I’d gamely spread mine over the biscuits that I realised that Alex wasn’t eating his and had ordered jam – sorry, jelly – instead! I’d possibly have been as well to have followed his example, but at least I’d tried the real deal even if I have to confess that it would join the Twinkie on the ‘maybe-not-again’ list. Otherwise, though, a perfectly palatable cooked breakfast and just the thing to set us up for a day which, although bright and sunny, was bitterly cold.

Fed and watered, it was back on the road for our first historical stop, the battlefield at Fallen Timbers. Here, on 20 August 1794, a mixed force of regular troops from the Legion of the United States and militia from Kentucky, all under the command of Major General Anthony Wayne, defeated a coalition of Native American forces from the Shawnee, Ottowa, and other peoples, to end the Northwest Indian War and open the Northwest Territory up for white settlement. The battle came three years after the great Native victory over US forces under Arthur St Clair, and not only broke the power of the Native alliance but also thwarted, at least for the time being, British attempts to exert influence over the area (of which more anon, when we get to our next stop).

It is perhaps an indictment of just how successful the campaign was in opening up the Ohio country for settlement that a battlefield that I had imagined as being in the middle of nowhere is in fact on the outskirts of the city of Toledo. We had to drive past light industry and fast-food restaurants to reach it, but the site itself is extensive and well-preserved. A visitor centre was a new addition since Alex’s last visit, but proved to be so new that no exhibits or interpretation had yet been installed. There was, however, a well-marked walking trail with interpretation panels and we set out to walk the first stretch of it. There wouldn’t be time to do the whole circuit, but we walked out to the site of the American right flank so as to at least get a feel for the battlefield. The name Fallen Timbers comes from the fact that at the time of the battle a number of large trees had been downed in a storm, forming a natural abatis; otherwise the field was, and is, lightly wooded. On 2 April it was all fairly open with the trees yet to come into leaf – in August when the battle was fought vision must have been much more restricted and it is easy to see why the fighting, though relatively brief, was also confused. Wayne got the upper hand largely through the loss of many of the opposing leaders, but once his men were clear of the timbers a vigorous pursuit turned defeat into rout and rendered Wayne’s victory decisive. Incidentally, although I’d always known the US commander as ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne, the ‘Mad’ moniker is apparently a Victorian invention and not a contemporary nickname.

View of the Fallen Timbers battlefield from the American right flank.
Historical marker at Fallen Timbers

Pressing on, conscious that we had to return the hire car that afternoon, we headed for Fort Meigs. The satnav unhelpfully took us to the back of the fort, leaving us to work out our own way to the main entrance by what turned out to be quite a convoluted circuit. The fort’s website noted that the site reopened for the season on 1 April, the day before our visit, but we hadn’t counted on shortened Sunday opening hours which would have left us with a two hour wait to get in. Not having that much time to spare, we were forced to restrict ourselves to a walk around the exterior but the fact that the gates were barred to a visitor from Britain was rather apt as they had remained closed back in 1813 too, when the British Army came knocking. Although we missed out on the museum, a stroll around the perimeter still enabled us to see most of the site.

Gates closed in 2023 just as in 1813
Looking along the palisades at Fort Meigs

The fort, a wooden structure covering a 10-acre site, was built in 1813 under the orders of Major General William Henry Harrison, who had fought at Fallen Timbers as a young officer nearly two decades previously and who would go on to become the ninth President of the USA. The site, on the Maumee River at what is now Perrysburg, Ohio, was close to the ruins of Fort Miami from where the British had tried and failed to influence the course of the campaign that ended at Fallen Timbers, indicating that this was and remained a key strategic point. With the War of 1812 heading into its second year, Harrison needed to prevent the British under Major General Proctor and their Native American allies under Tecumseh from reasserting dominance over the area. During May 1813 the fort withstood a siege although an attempted sally ended in disaster with the loss of over 500 men. A second siege in July also ended in British failure, before Harrison went over to the offensive and won a victory at the Thames in October in which Proctor was defeated and Tecumseh killed. The fort as it stands today is a reconstruction dating from the 1960s, built on the site of the original, and is surrounded by markers and monuments to the US forces who fought there – it was impossible not to remark the varied tone of the tributes to various state contingents, with a boastful claim of Kentucky prowess at odds with more sombre monuments to the fallen soldiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Virginia monument at Fort Meigs

Not having had time for a full visit to Fort Meigs did at least mean that we were back to Alex’s home in Weirton, West Virginia, in good time to return the hire car and also take a quick tour of the town’s small military park, officially the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park, which contains examples of more recent military hardware. Exhibits included an experimental 1950s-era T95 tank, A-7 Corsair jet, and an Apache attack helicopter, as well as an artillery piece and various naval relics. Then it was back home for Mexican food and, in my case, packing for the journey home.

Twentieth-century military hardware on display at Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park

Although I needed to be back at the airport for mid-afternoon, Alex nevertheless had a busy morning planned for the last day of my trip. When not writing books or organising wargames conventions, Alex is an Assistant Professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and he had a class scheduled for 8.00 that morning which he asked me to sit in on. Having taught for some years alongside and immediately after my own PhD studies, I was sceptical that students would even turn up so early in the day but the one-hour session was a lively and informed discussion as Alex took his students through their thoughts on that week’s set text in their American History course – E.B Sledge’s With the Old Breed, covering service in the Marine Corps during the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns. I wasn’t familiar with the book, but the class had evidently given it some careful study and came up with some interesting and thoughtful responses. There’s a lot of stereotyping in the UK about the poor quality of US university programmes, and Alex did concede that it might on occasion have a grain of truth to it when applied to the huge state universities, but there was no sign of it here and I’d have given a lot to have had such diligent students in my classes back in the day – then again, though, perhaps Alex is simply a better teacher than I was!

Class concluded, there was time for a brief chat with Alex’s colleagues before we headed off for the final historic site of the trip, Fort Ligonier. Relatively local by US standards, this was still a drive of nearly 90 miles that took us through Pittsburgh – past the site of Fort Duquesne and Pitt, at the Forks of the Ohio – and into the Appalachians. Fort Ligonier was built as part of a second, successful, British campaign against Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War. The first attempt, in 1755, had ended with Braddock’s defeat on the Monongahela; the second attempt, in 1758 under Brigadier General John Forbes with a force including Colonel George Washington and his Virginia Regiment, was a much more methodical affair. Fort Ligonier – named after the British Army’s Huguenot commander-in-chief back in London – was a fortified depot from which the final advance on Duquesne could be made. In fact, though, whilst the French attempted to raid Ligonier and the British to raid Duquesne, neither with any success, it was the collapse of the French positions further north that cut Duquesne off from the rest of New France and forced its abandonment.

Part of the impressive artillery train in the reconstructed Fort Ligonier

Today, the site boasts an impressive reconstruction of the fort – including a recreation of the extensive artillery train that Forbes brought there, some of which is put to good use for re-enactment events – and an even-more-impressive museum with a collection intended to place the story of the fort in the context of a global war that started a few miles away at Jumonville Glen and spread across North America, Europe, and Asia. Thanks to a wealthy benefactor, the museum boasts a collection that includes items from all the major combatants – Russian grenadier caps, a Swedish guidon, Prussian leatherwork, to mention but a few – as well as items found during archaeological work on the site and a fantastic art collection. Matt Gault, the fort’s director of education and a friend of Alex’s, took some time to show us the highlights before leaving us to spend another hour wandering around the site.

Arms and accoutrements of the French Army from the era of the Seven Years War
Part of the amazing art collection at Fort Ligonier

Then, sadly, it was time to head back to Pittsburgh and my flight home. I said my grateful farewells to Alex at the airport – he and his wife Noelle had gone out of their way to make me welcome on my trip – and picked up the connecting flight to JFK and the first leg of my trip home. Coming into New York gave a great view of the classic Manhattan skyline to add another quintessential American experience to the list, and taking off for the final leg back to Heathrow a few hours later gave a repeat of the same but now illuminated. A couple of hours’ sleep was all I could manage on a surprisingly quick flight back to the UK, and then all that remained was the trek across London and train ride back home.

Reflecting on the trip, I managed to pack an awful lot into a bare week. The Seven Years War Convention was a great opportunity to share my own research with a friendly audience, talk to a number of potential authors, spread the word on behalf of Helion, and of course sell books. The rest of the trip not only gave me chance to see a good bit of the country from the ground, but introduced me to some great food into the bargain (Twinkies and biscuit gravy notwithstanding!). Everywhere we went I was met with a genuinely friendly welcome – Alex would insist that that was because we were mostly in his beloved Midwest – and I very much hope to return.

By Force of Arms

By Dr Alexander S. Burns

Helion author Dr Alexander S. Burns, editor of the Festschrift The Changing Face of Old Regime Warfare published in honour of Christopher Duffy, reflects on By Force of Arms, Helion’s latest reprint of the work of the master historian of eighteenth century warfare.

I first encountered By Force of Arms: The Austrian Army in the Seven Years War Volume 2, shortly after its release at the 2009 meeting of the Seven Years War Convention. As a university student who had long been familiar with Christopher Duffy’s body of work, I was excited to see the latest word on the Seven Years War from the master. The book did not disappoint.

Fifteen years on, as the book is put in its second printing by Helion & Co., By Force of Arms remains the definitive operational history of the Central European Seven Years War in English. The book was originally published by Todd Fisher’s The Emperor’s Press, for a second printing Christopher was keen to see it put in the hands of Helion, who he described as ‘a fast-moving newcomer in the publishing world…snapping up some of the best of the new military historical writing’.

As a result of changing trends in academia, it is likely to remain the definitive operational history for some time. In writing By Force of Arms, Christopher thoroughly examined archival holdings throughout Central Europe, and as a result we are treated to a rich range of archival primary sources, from the letters of Austrian commanders to the reports of Swedish military attaches to the Austrian army. This is the crowning achievement of Christopher Duffy’s lifetime of work on the Seven Years War, and Christopher was in his element, as he examined his favourite military force: the Austrians during the reign of Maria Theresa.

The book is a standard chronological account with a few hiccups: there is limited coverage of Prague or Kolin, as a result of Christopher’s planned battle study of that campaign which remained incomplete at the time of his death. It is divided by chapters into different years of the war, and Christopher provides vital coverage of the later, often ignored, campaigns of the conflict. If you need a detailed analysis of smaller actions, a copious collection of operational and battle maps, or information on obscure Austrian officers, this is the book for you. In addition to the operational narrative, there are many helpful appendices which explore topics such as the geography of German Central Europe, the biographies of Austrian commanders (especially the ones you haven’t heard of!), and much more.

It is very much a paired volume with Instrument of War: The Austrian Army in the Seven Years War Volume 1. Instrument of War provides structural analysis on the Austrian Army of the period, By Force of Arms follows that army into battle, seeing how the structure held up in the stress of combat. The result is that the two volumes together are an unparalleled example of Duffy’s skill as a historian. This dual project was very much a labour of love, as Christopher wrote on the army he had been studying since his dissertation research in the early 1960s. Helpfully, Helion & Co. has also issued a reprinting of Instrument of War, and so historians, wargamers, and reenactors can now purchase the volumes together, as Christopher intended.

By Force of Arms needs to be on the shelf of every serious student of the Seven Years War. In so many ways, it is the final word from a scholarly giant on an army he loved. Christopher’s scholarly labours are now done, but his writings have been made available to a new generation of young scholars thanks to the hard work of the editors at Helion.

The stunning cover artwork for this title, courtesy of Peter Dennis, depicts the Austrian commander Maximilian Ulysses von Browne with his staff at the Battle of Lobositz, 1 October 1756. The first major clash between Austria and Prussia in the Seven Years War, the battle made it clear to Friedrich II that the Austrian army was a formidable force and that he could no longer expect the easy victories of the two Silesian Wars a decade earlier. Any passing resemblance between the late Professor Duffy and our depiction of von Browne (subject of Christopher’s biography The Wild Goose and the Eagle, also reprinted by Helion) is not coincidental; consider it a final tribute.

An American Adventure

Part One – The Land of the Free and the Home of the Walleye

By Andrew Bamford

One of the perks of being a Helion series editor is that you get to visit some interesting places on behalf of the company. Conferences and wargames shows in the UK form a regular part of the working year, and in happier pre-Brexit times so did European shows like Crisis in Antwerp and Germany’s Hamburger Tactica. However, when Helion author Dr Alex Burns invited me to attend the Seven Years War Convention in South Bend, Indiana, that seemed like a whole new adventure. The very generous offer was that the Convention organisers would subsidise my travel and in return I would give the annual keynote lecture on the last full day of the event – this meant that I’d be talking about the research that I’ve been doing into British amphibious operations during the Seven Years War, which will one day form a series title when I finally get chance to do some writing of my own again, but which is also a topic that we’ll be revisiting for our own series conference in November. Since the last UK speaker who had flown in was the late great Christopher Duffy, this was quite the honour and of course I immediately said yes. However, since I would be coming all that way and the Convention runs for the best part of three days, Alex also suggested that I might also like to bring a selection of Helion’s books with me which he was sure would meet with a favourable reception from the Convention-goers.

The Convention took place 30 March to 1 April, so with the invitation arriving towards the end of 2022 there wasn’t long to get everything in place. Our local travel agent sorted out my flights to Pittsburgh, where Alex would meet me, and Casemate US – Helion’s North American distributor – made arrangements to ship a selection of books to Alex so that he could deliver them – and me – to the Convention. This would be my first trip to the US, although I’d visited Canada a couple of times so transatlantic travel was not an entirely new experience. Still, there were a few nerves as I made my bleary-eyed way to Heathrow very early on a Wednesday morning, from where I would catch my flight to Boston and thence – assuming that US immigration were happy to let me in – on by connecting flight to Pittsburgh. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried and everything went smoothly, so much so that I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport somewhat ahead of schedule. To kill time I went hunting for a mannequin that Alex had told me to look out for as part of a display on Pittsburgh’s history, depicting George Washington. He was shown not as president but in the uniform of the Virginia Provincial Regiment when he was still a soldier of George II and trying to capture Fort Duquesne, on the site of which was later built Fort Pitt from which grew the city of Pittsburgh.

Colonel George Washington of the Virginia Regiment, at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Pittsburgh sits on the Ohio River, on the dividing line between the Midwest and Appalachia. Alex is a Midwesterner, but his wife Noelle is from the mountains and, as part of a declared intent to expose me to as much American food culture as possible on my trip, they whisked me from the airport to a diner serving the local speciality sandwiches, stacked high with fillings – pastrami, cheese, and sauerkraut in my case – and with a portion of fries on top of that inside the sandwich. British jokes about American portion sizes clearly have some grounding in reality, but it was undeniably delicious. Then it was back home, and an early night ahead of an early start for the long drive to the Convention the following day.

Pastrami sandwich, Pittsburgh style.

Although Pittsburgh is in in Pennsylvania, it is at the far south-western corner of the state and Alex and Noelle live just across the state line in West Virginia. Within minutes of setting off the following morning Alex and I had crossed the river into Ohio, which, counting my time on the ground in Boston to change planes, made this my fourth state of the trip less than 24 hours after touching down on US soil. We would first head north-west, almost as far as is possible without getting wet feet, and then turn west on the Ohio Turnpike to cross the full width of the state and into Indiana, my fifth state of the trip. Six or seven hours on the road and around 380 miles to cover; akin to driving from London to the Scottish Borders, but a typical drive for a Midwesterner according to Alex, who was keen to show me the vast open country that he grew up in. We needed to get to the Convention in good time to set up, so there wasn’t much time to stop but since we were so close to Lake Erie Alex made a quick detour so that I could see one of the Great Lakes for myself: smoke from a distant factory, I was told, indicated the approximate site of the naval battle of 10 September 1813 where Perry’s US squadron defeated their British opponents to bring the lake under American control during the War of 1812. Then it was back on the road again, to reach South Bend and the Convention venue in the early afternoon.

On the shores of Lake Erie.

Although the Seven Years War Convention has been held in South Bend for a number of years, this was the first time that it had taken place in the venue that we were using so it took a little time to find our way there. Once on site, however, everything was in one place with the convention centre linked by an overhead skywalk to the hotel that we were staying in. This, the residential element, was the first obvious difference between the Convention and the UK shows that I had been used to. As Alex explained, the size of the country means that, outside of large cities, local club gaming as we know it largely doesn’t exist. A lucky gamer might have one or two local friends to meet up with for a game at someone’s house, but otherwise multi-day conventions are the best way to get in some serious gaming and the Convention hall would be open until 11.00 pm each night and from 9.00 am on the Friday and Saturday mornings.

All set up and open for business.

Another surprise was the lack of a major trade presence, certainly in comparison with shows in the UK. Other than me with the Helion stand there was George Nafziger with his eponymous range of translations, David Ensteness of The Wargaming Company with books and figures, and Jude Becker of Venture Miniatures with a range that included the figures originally sculpted by From Reason to Revolution author David ‘Jacdaw’ Wilson. Otherwise, apart from one dealer in second-hand books, the stalls around the edge of the hall were personal affairs with convention-goers selling off books, terrain, and figures for which they had no further use – the sort of things that in the UK one might expect to see in the bring-and-buy section but here making up the majority. Otherwise, the whole hall was devoted to gaming tables; some allocated to specific games – coordinated by Alex as Games-Master for the weekend – that anyone could sign up to take part in, others left free for informal games or board-gaming. The total attendance was 110 people over the course of the three days that the Convention was running, although we never saw all of those at the same time as people drifted in and out. Most attendees were from the Midwest, but a few had come from further afield; one, having come in from California, had spent nearly as long getting there as I had.

A lovely tribute to the late Christopher Duffy, for many years a loyal supporter of the Convention.

With what seemed by UK standards to be a tiny gate compared with the thousands that one would expect to see at the likes of Partizan or Salute, it might have been expected that sales of our books would be disappointing. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth: I was already selling titles before I’d finished setting up, and by Saturday morning the stall was looking decidedly thinly stocked. Although the event is named as the Seven Years War Convention, the actual coverage of the games was more widely spread across the eighteenth century, with scenarios based on the War of the Austrian Succession, 1745 Jacobite Rising, and the American War of Independence as well as the Seven Years War in both its European and colonial guises. This was reflected in the wider interest in the books that we’d brought, and, had I known, we could have sold plenty more titles extending forward into the Napoleonic era and back at least as far as the Thirty Years War.

Being busy with the stall, I didn’t get much chance to do any gaming myself but was directly opposite the table on which Alex was running games based on his ‘big-battalions’ rules with a 1:4 figure scale and players commanding individual battalions or regiments under a brigadier as over-all commander. This innovative approach seemed popular and all three games were well-attended. Elsewhere more traditional rules were being played, and it was nice also to see Helion’s paper soldiers by Peter Dennis in action in a game using the figures from the Jacobite ’45 book.

My host, and Helion author, Dr Alex Burns gets ready to run one of his games.
Alex’s big battalions in action, fighting for control of a village.
Helion paper soldiers in action, in a refight of Clifton Moor 1745.

As well as my keynote talk on the Saturday, there was a talk on Friday by one of the other attendees, Native American historian Patrick Le Beau who spoke about the culture – actual and material – of indigenous warfare in what is now Indiana and Michigan. Pat got a great reception, helped by having some original artefacts for us to handle, and I felt that I had a hard act to follow. Before that, however, there was the Convention Dinner on the Friday night. Other meals had been in the hotel restaurant or a very pleasant Irish bar across the road (South Bend is the home of Notre Dame University and its ‘Fighting Irish’ sports teams, so the city has a strong Celtic flavour), but this was in a rather grander restaurant and it was here that I got my favourite food experience of the trip (and a Midwest speciality too, much to Alex’s delight). This was a Great Lakes fish called a walleye, served here as a pan-fried fillet with a light sauce: with an octopus starter and a chocolate desert, the whole meal was delicious and very far removed from the British stereotype of American food.

It helps to keep an audience engaged when you have artefacts like this. A war club from Patrick Le Beau’s collection.

Mindful of my talk the following day, I turned in fairly early on the Friday, noting as I did that it seemed to be getting a bit breezy. Later that night, as I discovered the following morning, South Bend received a tornado warning, which, thankfully, I slept through and knew nothing about until it had safely passed. Saturday was back to the centre for the last day of the Convention, with my talk taking place just after lunch. It all seemed to be received well – people laughed in the right places, and asked interesting questions afterwards – and one of the attendees said that he thought that Christopher Duffy would have been proud of my performance: praise indeed!

Talk out of the way, I finally found time to take part in a game myself as the Convention wound down, taking command of a Hessian brigade in an American War of Independence scenario umpired by Jude Becker using a set of rules of his own devising that are intended to reflect the most recent research into the tactics of this conflict by Matthew Spring and others. It was a case of publishers versus the rest, as my C-in-C, and commander of the two British brigades in the game, was Todd Fisher of the Emperor’s Press, but between us we managed some of the worse dice-throwing I have seen for a long time and the rebellious colonials carried the day. Still, it would have been discourteous to have defeated the armed forces of my host nation. The game concluded, it was time to start packing down, although sales had been so good that whereas we’d brought six boxes of books the unsold residue needed only a single box to pack away. Then, again, it was time for an early night so that we could be on the road first thing in the morning: Alex needed to return the rental car we were using, but I was promised the first of two days of historical sight-seeing to round off my trip, all of which will be covered in the second part of this blog.

My Hessians prepare to attack the stone wall, supported by the British Guards. 47th Foot already taking heavy losses on our right.

Assietta 1747. A methodology to study battles and the Italian Way of War

By Giovanni Cerino Badone

On the watershed between Val Chisone and Val di Susa, at a plateau called Assietta/Assiette – in French Assiette means flat – on the afternoon of 19 July 1747 a combined Austro-Sardinian force of 6,000 soldiers, under the orders of Lieutenant General Cacherano di Bricherasio, faced a French army of about 16,000 men commanded by the Chevalier de Belle-Isle. At nine o’clock in the evening, the French Army was in full retreat after losing a quarter of their troops. The military history of Piedmont, and later that of Italy, is all wrapped up in the unfolding of this battle, in both its positive and negative aspects. The victory was mythologized, emphasized, and it became a dogma. But no serious analysis was attempted, and even today the operational aspects remain in the background. We know little about the wars fought by the Sardinian Army in the 18th century and even less about how this army faced the battle, what were its operational and tactical doctrines, the logistic system, in short what the Sardinian way of warfare was.

I wrote the book You Have to Die in Piedmont!: The Battle of Assietta, 19 July 1747. The War of the Austrian Succession in the Alps for Helion & Company with these intentions:

  • To tell the story of the greatest modern-day battle in the Alps
  • To find a new methodology on how to tell a battle
  • To present the origins of the Italian way to war

I refer you to reading the book for the description of the battle in all its details; here we will look at the methodological approach and the introduction to the Italian Way of War.

Charles-Louis-Auguste Fouquet, Duke of Belle-Isle (1684-1761). The Duke of Belle-Isle, Marshal of France from 1741, was one of the main protagonists of the War of the Succession of Austria. In 1747 he was the real architect of the Alpine campaign against Piedmont. [Engraving by Carlo Domenico Melini after a portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour from 1748, author collection].

The Battle through the Combat Functions

Battle is the goal of an army, and it can win and lose the battle it is fighting. The historian often finds himself having to close his narrative by describing the final state of the battle, who won and who lost. At one time, the victorious army was the one that camped on the battlefield. But this parameter is not useful for us to make a final analysis of a battle and the forces that took part in it. In this occasion the Combat Function comes to the rescue the military history. Present in the NATO doctrinal publication AJP 3.2 Allied Joint Doctrine for Land Operation of March 2016, they are conceptual tools available to commanders and their staffs to understand, visualize and describe combat situations in a functional manner. The analysis using Combat Functions visualizes and it helps to better understand how combat was planned and managed by the two armies. According to NATO doctrine, there are six Combat Functions in total: command and control, manoeuvre, fire, intelligence, logistics and protection.

Command. This Combat Function encompasses all the related elements (information, activities, actions, processes, tasks, systems, people, organizations, units, and capabilities) that make it possible for the commander to exercise command and control. The command-and-control system of eighteenth-century armies forced high commands to give their subordinates a great deal of freedom of action. However, some of these were educated and prepared to act independently, others less so. The Sardinians, as well as to some extent the Austrians, were not educated according to principles like the future German system of command, called Auftragstaktik or ‘mission tactics’. Sardinian and Austrian officers, faithful to their war of position, the Stellungkrieg, received detailed written orders, from which they deviated little, failing to take advantage of advantageous tactical situations when they arose.

A battalion of the Swiss Salis Infantry Regiment in exercise. The combat tactics of a Sardinian infantry battalion deployed three ranks in an open field or two for the defence under the cover of field fortifications, as depicted in this drawing. [Private collection, c.1750].

The French, for their part, were always more aggressive and dynamic than their adversaries. Courage, initiative, and manoeuvring ability – see for example the approach march to the Assietta plateau, the events of the D’Estres’ column and de Villemur’s manoeuvre on the Gran Serin – were certainly not lacking in the commanders of the Armée Royal.

The Austro-Sardinian tactical disposition was on the 19 July 1747, at the beginning of the battle. The allied planning was dedicated to stop an enemy thrust from the western ridge, and to pre-event the conquest of the Gran Serin, the key position of the whole camp. Quite obviously the Austro-Sardinian HQ was sited here.

Manoeuvre. This Combat Function encompasses all those elements that make possible the movement and employment of forces to reach positions of constant relative advantage over the enemy or the adversary. The Austro-Sardinians, strengthened by a road network at high altitudes that had been prepared time before and constantly maintained, were able to bring to the Assietta camp the units necessary for its defence with perfect timing, without overloading the logistic arm and causing excessive fatigue to the units in transit. Once in the camp the manoeuvring of the units was minimal, and the greatest difficulty was in managing the meagre reserves available to the Count of Bricherasio.

The task organisation of the forces available to the Count of Bricherasio for the 1747 Alpine campaign. Note how the militia units, essential for gathering information in the field, depended directly on the commander in chief, while the logistic support depended on the governor of the stronghold of Fenestrelle.

The French forces were able to manoeuvre effectively throughout the campaign, despite the difficult mountain environment and adverse weather conditions, and they were able to reach the Assietta ridge with good timing, and to attack the opposing camp in a coordinated manner. The alleged delays in De Villemur’s march were dictated by the need to coordinate the movement of thousands of men in confined spaces and on rather steep slopes. If the plan had worked properly, the French would have attacked at the Gran Serin at a time when the Austro-Sardinian forces were in full retreat and pressed by two French corps, De Mailly’s and D’Arnaud’s ones.

The progression of the De Mailly and D’Arnaud columns during the battle. This illustration highlights the tactical choice of Lieutenant General Alciati to place a line of selected infantry companies in front of the main line of defence. This device worked very well along the southern flank on the Val Chisone side, but almost cost the Regiment Meyer‘s mixed elite company (3/3).
The advance of the De Villemur column as seen from the south.

Intelligence. Military Intelligence includes all the related elements that allow an understanding of the mission variables inherent in the terrain, weather conditions and the situation of the opposing forces. The Sardinians had carried out an accurate study of the terrain, the choice of building an entrenched camp at Assietta is proof of this, correctly assessing which were the key points on the battlefield itself. The Gran Serin was for the Count of Bricherasio, throughout the battle, the key topographic point to be defended at all costs. In addition, the weather conditions of the period, in particular the need on the French side to close the war campaign before the arrival of autumn, was another element that was positively exploited by the Austro-Sardinian side. For the rest, the French incursion into the upper Susa Valley, although foreseen, was initially a surprise for the Sardinian commanders, who were expecting an attack in force further south in the Stura di Demonte Valley, also due to the deception plan implemented by the enemy.

Thanks to the planning work by Colonel de Bourcet, and the direct experience of a number of senior officers who were already familiar with the operational area, the French had a very good knowledge of the terrain, and in fact they never groped blindly. Relations with the local population, who voluntarily or involuntarily provided good information to the Chevalier de Belle-Isle and his men, allowed them to obtain a precise picture of the situation on the battlefield. It was known that the enemy was entrenched, and in fact the knight wanted to have the heavy field artillery with him at all costs; the critical element, which played a fundamental part in the management of the battle, was the bad information regarding the timing of the arrival of reinforcements for the small Austro-Sardinian army stationed on the ridge. The reinforcements were due to arrive within days, but the French were now convinced that they were only a few hours’ march away. Hence the decision to attack without waiting for the precious artillery delayed by the lack of sufficiently wide roads.

The task organisation of the forces of the Army of the Dauphiné under the command of the Chevalier de Belle-Isle. Note how the Chevalier had placed the 4-pounder field artillery battery under his direct orders, a clear sign of the tactical importance attached to these weapons.

Protection. This includes all those functions related to safeguarding and maintaining the Combat Power of the forces. The Assietta entrenched camp worked to perfection that day. The unfortunate choice of the French to attack à la Folard and their lack of field artillery allowed the defenders to contain any attack, allowing a small force to defend itself all round. This solution was particularly advantageous on the Western Alps front, along the watershed lines. Having to face an enemy capable of outflanking their positions and attempting an attack at the throat of their works, this appeared to be the best possible solution.

Two French battalions lined up for an attack à la Folard. The troops are actually massed in a heavy column, only partially supported by grenadier companies on the sides of the formation. During the War of Austrian Succession it was quite common to see grenadiers deployed at the front of the column. [Le Blonde, Élémens de Tactique, Paris 1758, Table XVIII]

Fires. This Combat Function encompasses all the elements involved in supporting indirect and, if included, inter-force fire. Indecision about the real intentions of the adversary meant that no artillery pieces were transported within the Assietta entrenched camp, although this action was in fact planned and even mountain pieces could be recovered in the Piedmont arsenals. The Sardinian firing tactics worked perfectly; designed for the close defence of the field fortifications, the Austro-Sardinian fire action blocked any attempt by the French to break through the defensive perimeter. The fire was so effective that the attackers, except in one sector such as the Testa dell’Assietta, could not even approach the entrenchments.

The Testa dell’Assietta seen from the tactical command post of the Chevalier de Belle-Isle. The French column advanced from left to right up the slope, only to be stopped by the field fortifications and the firepower of the adversary.

The French paid dearly for choosing an attack à la Folard, i.e., an attack in a company column trying to engage the enemy in a close combat fight. Without field artillery, which would undoubtedly have caused serious losses to the defenders and opened dangerous gaps in their fortifications, these assaults were destined to fail, regardless of the commanders’ manoeuvring skills. With no possibility of retaliating to the enemy fire, channelled into the Austro-Sardinian kill zones, the French columns were ground down one after the other.

Field fortifications manned and troops ready to open fire. In this context, the works were manned by no less than four battalions, identifiable by their flags, deployed in two ranks. This tactical arrangement ensured the coverage of as large a front as possible and the exploitation of all available firepower. On the right a battalion was placed in the second line, as a reserve. In case of need it would go to support the unit on the front line. [J.P. Verdussen, The Battle of Casteldelfino, private collection, detail]

Support. This Combat Function encompasses all the related elements that generate and maintain the conditions for conducting operations until the mission is accomplished. The Assietta camp, and other nearby encampments, had a fair amount of Class I supplies, i.e. food and water, within it. The Class V supplies, ammunition, were not stocked in large quantities and some of the forces deployed ran out of ammunition during the fight. Only a convoy organized during the day of 19 July from Fenestrelle allowed the Austro-Sardinians to supply their soldiers with ammunition and be ready to resume battle the following day. The collection of the wounded was the most critical aspect: unable to recover them within the camp, they had to be transported to collection centres in the valley bottom.

The French were setting up a large logistics centre at Sauze d’Oulx, and during the battle they had no shortage of supplies. There was no plan to transport the most seriously wounded, who were left to the mercy of the enemy.

Lessons learned.

Put on the foot of peace, Charles Emmanuel III’s Army, though tried by the struggle, had in fact gained a considerable reputation among the Italian armies. The years following the conclusion of the conflict were of frenetic activity. The reforms of 1750-1751 took account of the experience gained, tactical formations, precise orders and regulations common to all units were established, and armaments and equipment were finally standardized. Only the artillery did not benefit. At the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, the Sardinian army clearly outclassed the French one, and at least in terms of infantry and cavalry it could qualitatively hold its own against the forces of the Austrian Empire, but it was clearly inferior in terms of artillery equipment, which remained the same as in the first half of the 18th century. The victories achieved during the War of the Austrian Succession, and the Assietta in particular, aroused curiosity and admiration throughout Europe, and some wanted to come and see the Sardinian military machine for themselves. The Prussian historian Johann Wilhelm Daniel von Archenholz visited Piedmont during his trip to Italy in 1780. A veteran of the Seven Years War, he considered the fame earned by the Piedmont’s forces to be out of all proportion to its real substance: «I have not undervalued the army of the king of Sardinia, which however regular, is at present unaccustomed to war, and in many respects deficient in military accomplishments. Notwithstanding, this monarch is a considerable ally for any prince who is engaged in war in northern parts of Italy; in spite of the smallness of his army, he is not easy to be overcome, on account of the great number of fortresses in the country, which will often frustrate, to a conqueror, all the advantages he may have gained in the open field; it is these fortresses which render the king of Sardinia the most formidable prince in Italy, but this is nothing in the balance of political Europe». Von Archenholz may have been unsympathetic in his harsh judgment, but he had a point. The battle of Assietta became the battle par excellence for the Sardinian army. The use of field fortifications to support static combat tactics and the geostrategic need to maintain the concept of the Army in Being made the events of 19 July 1747 the ideal battle model for the Sardinian army. This approach to warfare remained in place throughout the 18th century and beyond, regardless of the theaters of operation involved. The tactical regulations of the Sardinian army therefore remained strongly tied to the annihilation of the adversary by direct musket and artillery fire and the construction of elaborate entrenched camps designed to protect their forces involved in combat. The result was, from a tactical and operational point of view, an outdated army yet in the second half of the XVIII century. In the 1770s, when a war against the Austrian Empire seemed likely, the war plans in eastern Piedmont and in the south-western Lombardy also included this passive operational and tactical attitude. If the enemy decided to fight according to the old rules, that is, to attack the entrenched camps of the Sardinian army head on, then spectacular and unexpected victories could still be obtained, such as the Authion in the Maritime Alps, fought between 8 and 12 June 1793 against the French Republic.

His Majesty the King of Sardinia, Charles Emmanuel III (1701-1773), in the uniform of a general commanding the Sardinian troops. During the War of Austrian Succession he was present in no less than four battles, three of which were defeats. From 1744 onwards, the strategic and operational management of the conflict fell increasingly into the hands of the Minister of War, Count Bogino. [Portrait of Charles Emmanuel III, painting by Giovanni Duprà, courtesly by Centro Studi e Ricerche storiche sull’Architettura Militare del Piemonte CeSRAMP]

After thousands of killed in action, the French began to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of Folard’s columns. While training soldiers to fight with such tactics provided significant savings in terms of time and gunpowder, merciless battlefield experience suggested that such columns needed at least a rethink. While the war was still going on, mindful of the clash at Fontenoy on 11 May 1745, Maurice of Saxony wrote to the knight of Folard to abandon both the pikes and the tactics of the Roman legions altogether, and «to leave there (on the fields of Fontenoy) Epaminondas ‘column and all the columns in the world». Twelve years later, during the Seven Years’ War at Rossbach on 5 November 1757, three regiments of the French army (Piemont, Poitou and Mailly) found themselves in the tactical situation of having to attack the Prussian line à la Folard. The result was disastrous: the 4 battalions of the Regiment Piemont alone suffered over 1,000 men wounded or killed, 34.7% of the total force. In a report sent to the Viennese court it was written that «if Knight Folard could know how things went, he would curse his sacred columns». At the same time, however, some of the surviving officers of the Battle of Assietta were able to put into practice the same tactics used by the Austro-Sardinians; in the distant colonies of Nouvelle France, today Canada, on 8 July 1757 Brigadier General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm entrenched his 3,600 men on the heights of Fort Carillon who were able to repel a British force of 6,000 regular soldiers and 12,000 Indian militiamen and auxiliaries. The alternative, and this was the route taken towards the end of the century, was to ensure that the columns had sufficient firepower and a dense frontal coverage of light troops. The experience of the battlefield, the varying quality of the troops and the ideas of the commanders led to the creation of a new tactic called Ordre Mixte codified by 1796. Depending on the terrain, the quality of the opponent, the tactical needs of the moment and the mission to be accomplished, a unit could be deployed in random order and operate as light infantry, in line to make the best use of its firepower or in column to move as fast as possible, exploit a gap in the enemy front or close a gap in its own lines. A demi-brigade, the French new version of regiment, consisting of three battalions was theoretically capable of simultaneously securing a light infantry veil, a line front and a column ready for a bayonet attack. The adversary was subjected to artillery fire, now equipped with the excellent pieces of the Gribeauval system, and assaulted by swarms of light infantry, able to absorb retaliatory fire in the best possible way. The combined firepower of the cannon and guns would inflict such severe damage that a final assault in column would send the survivors fleeing and mark the collapse of the enemy front. Between 1804 and 1805, while the last veterans of the Assietta were dying off in the barracks of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, under the eyes of Napoleon Bonaparte, at the Boulogne camp, these tactics were tried and tested until they were brought to perfection. The units were brought up to full strength with the arrival of conscripts who underwent an intense cycle of exercises, forming what was to become the Grande Armée.

Scheme of manoeuvre of an attack à la Folard carried out with two infantry battalions. It is clear that impact was considered the winning element to the detriment of firepower. [Le Blonde, Élémens de Tactique, Paris 1758, Table XVIII]

The Austrians had fought with valour at Assietta and had made an important contribution to the final victory on 19 July. The Austrian Stellungtaktik, however, developed differently from the Sardinian one. Whereas in Piedmont it was decided to rely on large entrenched camps, the Austrians did not always have this option. Their opponents, in particular the Prussians, were more mobile than the French. Therefore, although they themselves were very skilled at building entrenched camps, they preferred to rely on exploiting any tactical foothold the terrain could offer, such as a hill, a river, a forest. The steep hills of northern Bohemia during the War of Polish Succession (1774-1774) provided Austrian commanders with excellent positions on which to entrench their men while waiting for the enemy. Frederick II of Prussia examined these defences and noted that the Austrian army was arranged in three lines, surrounded and supported by its immense artillery. The first line is formed at the base of the hills, on low ground but with enough slope to form a natural rampart on the side where the enemy can reach. This is an intelligent method: it is the result of experience that shows that raging fire is better than shooting from above. Moreover, the soldiers on the crest of the rampart have all the advantages that a dominant position can offer, without any disadvantages. An attempt was made to give the front a concave, amphitheatre-like shape, where every salient or rise was transformed into a fortified battery in order to best crossfire in the Kill Zone. The concentration of cannons was impressive and the enemy front was «furnished with artillery like a citadel. The result was to storm a fortress.

General view of the three attacks planned by the French on the morning of 19 July 1747 with the progression of their columns seen from the west. In the foreground on the right the battery of 4-pounder mountain guns was deployed in support of Arnaud’s column.

The Concept of the Army and the Italian Way to War

The concept of the Army in Being, for the Kingdom of Sardinia, did not end with the end of the 18th century. The Sardinian state, restored during the Congress of Vienna as an Austrian client state on the border with Lombardy-Veneto, promptly recycled the concept in 1815. The army was to be spared major field combat. but this made the army an Army in being. In its basics this strategy envisaged that, despite military defeat, the army was still virtually intact, at least it was still a credible force to contend with. It would take a long and arduous campaign, if not two, and bloody and uncertain fighting against fortified positions, before finally annihilating the Sardinian army, which was backed by a screen of powerful fortresses and complex entrenched camps. Unable to destroy it, Turin’s adversaries needed to have the Sardinian army allied or, at least, neutral, to guarantee themselves a decisive advantage in the Italian campaign. Thus the Sardinian king’s army always remained an important card to play in diplomatic negotiations. Leaving this order of ideas and inaugurating a strategy linked to great offensive operations, without having effectively prepared the army, risked having disastrous consequences, as in fact the war of 1848-1849 against Austria did. The war of 1859 was prepared in a defensive manner, with the Sardinian army deployed in a defensive position behind the entrenched camps of eastern Piedmont awaiting the arrival of the French forces, on which the main part of the war effort fell. The highly idealized interpretation of the battle of Solferino, and that of San Martino in particular, and the Mezzogiorno campaigns of 1860 deluded many into thinking that the new Italian armed forces were also ready to support an aggressive strategy for their country. The disasters of 1866, including Garibaldi’s empasse in the Trentino, were a cold shower for many and the demonstration that an upgraded Italian Army was needed. Once the Italian leadership had regained confidence in their own means, the Triple Alliance was stipulated with the Austro-Hungarian and German empires, and the first colonial actions launched; in 1889 the Ethiopian empire came to be considered de jure an Italian protectorate, while in 1890 Eritrea was officially declared a colony. This good moment let the Chief of Staff Enrico Cosenz (1820-1898) to plan offensive actions against the potential adversary of the moment, France, going so far as to draw up plans for landings in Provence and large-scale offensive actions between the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian coast. The defeat at Adwa in 1896 and the manifest lack of the armed forces’ ability to mount a major offensive against their adversaries brought the army’s leadership back down to earth. In the early years of the 20th century the General Staff leadership was no longer able to guarantee the success of an offensive against France: first the fear of possible French landing on the beaches of Lazio, then the exhaustion of the forces employed in Libya. These elements had led to an overall weakening of the army to such an extent that the Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Alberto Pollio (1852-1914), had to renounce major offensives in enemy territory and return to a strategy of defending the Italian peninsula very similar to that planned in the seventies of the XIX Century. Plans for general or partial permanent fortification of the territory, functional to mobilization (planned for 23 days in 1914), occupied a considerable part of the armed forces’ budget for at least thirty years, while elite mountain troops were created and strengthened, such as the Alpini, who had a decidedly defensive vocation since their foundation in 1872.

The Italian peninsula in 1747. The map suggests the strategic importance of the Kingdom of Sardinia for the control of the Western Alps. For the French and Spanish side was the main strategic goal of the 1747 campaign to have the Republic of Genoa in safe and the Kingdom of Sardinia out of the arena of the struggle in Italy.

This choice of strategic direction would have worked, despite the technical limitations of the permanent Italian fortifications of the period, with a certain effectiveness in the case of maintaining a defensive strategy regardless. But the subsequent adoption of a plan of attack against the Austrians made it clear in retrospect how much better it would have been to direct expenditure towards strengthening the railway lines, the field and siege artillery, the cavalry and the infantry companies themselves, chronically under numbered and commanded by elderly captains. In 1913, Austrian ‘inattention’ to the Italian ally – see Conrad’s plan for an attack to the south following the Messina earthquake – and the victorious conclusion of the Libyan conflict, prompted Pollio to change his war plans, which now included a conflict against Austria-Hungary. In December 1913 the Chief of the General Staff modified the muster plan envisaged in 1904, and reconfirmed in 1909, moving forward astride the Tagliamento three army corps previously massed with twelve others on both sides of the middle and lower Piave.

The new Chief of Staff, Luigi Cadorna (1850-1928), was the commander who drew up the most aggressive plans. He immediately envisaged an offensive brusquée in August 1914, insisting on Italy’s immediate entry into the war. This insistence was later tempered by the realization of the country’s warlike unpreparedness or, if you like, its purely defensive vocation. In the end he prepared plans for a great offensive, with two armies that, having reached the Tagliamento a day before the end of the mobilization, would have aimed from the Isonzo at Ljubljana and Krainburg, objectives that were to be reached within 45 days from the start of hostilities and after two battles of great proportions. Apart from the fact that the events of 1914 – the Marne for strategic planning and Tannenberg for the validity of Russian aid – should at least have suggested a less aggressive approach to enemy defenses, the basic problem with Italian strategy on the eve of the First World War lay in the mentality of those who planned it. Trained in the writings of Jomini, with little or no knowledge of Clausewitz, Cadorna gave priority to geographical objectives, rather than prioritizing the destruction of the enemy’s will to fight. This approach definitely closed the door to other strategic actions that were probably more promising for Italy’s 1915 deployment on the side of the Entente: an operation in the style of the Dardanelles along the Dalmatian coast, or in the Balkans. But the ghost of Assietta continued to haunt the Italian army, and the memory of that victory in 1915 was very much alive in everyone’s mind, especially those who wore the uniform. On entering the Turin Military Academy, cadet officer Paolo Caccia Dominioni was immediately captivated by it: «I had not imagined how grand that ancient tradition of the” vieux Piémont” was: sculpted bronze shafts, baroque architecture, the battle of Assietta, the Royal Armory, Emanuele Filiberto and Carlo Amedeo, Pietro Micca, genius like us and Camillo Benso Count of Cavour already a cadet in the same building. Even though we were trainee officers, we immediately entered into that high style, so different from my previous military experience». And the long shadow of the Assietta stood out until 8th February 1934, when the concepts of “war of rapid progress” began to be outlined, of which the Chief of Staff Alberto Pariani was the spokesman in Italy, it was decided that the XXVI Infantry Brigade would take the name of Assietta Military Division, the 26th of the Royal Italian Army.

The operational disposition of the Sardinian forces on the western front in 1747. The main body of the Sardinian forces were deployed in the south, along the Ligurian eastern front under the orders of general baron Leutrum. Two smaller bodies of the size of a brigade were in the Alps. The force in the south had to cover the fortresses of Cuneo and Demonte, while a the other had to cover the fortresses of Fenestrelle in Chisone Valley, and Exilles and Brunetta in the Susa Valley. A smaller body of troops, of the size of a regiment, were deployed in the Aosta Valley.

In various lectures given at the Scuola di Application in Turin, not far from the places frequented by the young Caccia Dominioni, I have often asked the following question: what are the victories par excellence of the Italian Army?

There are three examples of victories ‘par excellence’. The first two can be taken for granted and are the Battle of the Solstice and the Battle of Vittorio Veneto in 1918. Thanks to these two gigantic battles, Italy ended the First World War victoriously. The first was a battle that saw Italian forces lined up on the defensive along the river Piave confront, contain and then repel the last major Austrian offensive on the Italian front. At Vittorio Veneto it was the Italian army that attacked, but as brilliant as they had been in planning and conducting defensive operations on the Piave, on this occasion they demonstrated all their tactical shortcomings. Fortunately for us, the British contingent at Greve di Papadopoli, an island in the middle of the river, specifically the 7th and 23rd Divisions of the XIV British Corps under General James Babington, demonstrated their superior tactics and training to their allies and enemies, breaking through the front and creating a bridgehead that was promptly exploited in the following days.

The third battle was that of Gazala, fought between 26 May and 21 June 1942, to all intents and purposes the greatest Italian victory of the Second World War, although the laurels must be shared with the German ally. At the end of the battle, very hard and uncertain until almost the final two phases, the Axis forces were able to inflict a very hard defeat to the British forces, a success that turned into the conquest of the port of Tobruk in Cyrenaica. The Italian units, those belonging to the 132nd Armoured Division Ariete, were able first to contain the British attack, led by four brigades – three infantry and one armored – to repel it and, in the end, to annihilate two of the adversary’s great units with the German assistance.

The Battle of the Solstice, Vittorio Veneto and Gazala, although they belong to two different conflicts, and even though the first two were decisive for our final victory while the third was not, were battles that allow us to understand one fundamental thing: the Italian armed forces have always expressed the best fighting qualities during defensive operations.

Every army has an original core, a ‘father’, who passes on its ‘genes’, ie traditions, doctrines, tactics, strengths and weaknesses. Often these elements have not been erased but, on the contrary, have survived and are still recognizable within each armed force today. British and American military historians became aware of this around the 1980s and began to investigate the phenomenon carefully. Several monographs were published that had as their basic root the title The [any country] way of war. This led to The Russian Way of War by Richard W. Harrison, followed by The German Way of War by Robert Citino. Lastly The British Way of War in Northwest Europe 1944-5 by Louis Paul Devigne was added to the list. And what about Italy?

Just look at the uniforms during important occasions such as parades and ceremonies, where the blue scarf immediately gives us the answer we are looking for. The Army of the Italian Republic is nothing more than the evolution or, if you like, the nationwide transposition of the “Armata Sarda”. Yes, it is still the army of the War of Succession of Austria and the Assietta, the War of the Alps and the Authion, the two Wars of the Risorgimento. The Assietta, like it or not, is what the Americans call Gettysburg, and the Russians call Borodino.

This is the Italian Way of War.

Chasing the Soft Underbelly

By Dave Watson

Given the thousands of books written about the Second World War, you might think nothing is left to write about. However, each year there are retellings of campaign stories, reinterpretations of events and new research that sheds light on a conflict that was vast in scale and touched so many lives.

What is new about my book, Chasing the Soft Underbelly: Turkey and the Second World War, is that it is the first military history about Turkey’s role in the conflict. It was when researching other aspects of the Balkans that I decided to write the book. Turkey was often referenced in operational plans, campaigns on its borders and in resistance and intelligence operations. This led me to a deep dive into the subject; the book is the outcome of that research.

I am often asked, ‘was Turkey in the Second World War?’ The answer is yes, but it didn’t declare war until February 1945, too late to take part in the fighting. Two divisions were being prepared to participate in the Italian campaign, but the war ended before they could be shipped there. The absence of action didn’t mean the conflict had no impact on Turkey. The country was on a war footing from 1940 onwards with more than a million men in the armed forces by 1942 out of a total population of 17.8 million. This affected the economy, with military expenditure taking up more than half the total government budget. Real wages dropped by 40 per cent, and bread rations were cut by half in May 1942. Troops also died in training accidents, and several thousand conscripted coal miners were killed or injured in the Zonguldak Basin.

The Turkish Air Force Cemetery includes many graves of pilots who lost their lives during the war (Picture, Onur Buyuran)

Turkey sought a non-belligerent approach seeking freedom of movement and avoiding alignment with power blocs, ‘Peace at home and peace abroad’ was the slogan. Turkey did avoid its treaty obligations to Britain and France, as well as other Balkan countries, by not entering the war earlier. However, I argue that the Turkish leadership cannot be blamed for insulating their people. Even if, for a country at a pivotal world crossroads, that would be a challenge.

The book focuses on British efforts to encourage Turkey to enter the war. This was an almost exclusively British project. The Soviets blew hot and cold on the project; the Americans were sceptical and, at best, went along with the British position. Even amongst the British leadership, there was considerable scepticism, which left Churchill as the most consistent advocate of the project throughout the war. Even at some personal risk when he flew to meet the Turkish President, Ismet İnönü, at Adana in January 1943.

The Turkish Armed Forces were ill-equipped to participate in the Second World War. They had a large army, but its equipment, tactics and doctrine had not moved on from the First World War and the subsequent War of Independence. The British supplied substantial equipment from their Middle East stocks under Operation Hardihood to rectify this. Infantry divisions received almost 100,000 items of small arms, including Lee-Enfield rifles, Sten and Thompson sub-machine guns, 81mm mortars, and PIAT anti-tank launchers. Artillery included 40mm Bofors AA guns, 3.7inch AA guns, 6-pdr ATGs, plus British and American trucks and jeeps. Armoured vehicles included 230 Valentine tanks, 222 Stuart light tanks, 25 Sherman medium tanks, 150 Dingo scout cars, 59 Bren carriers and 48 Bishop self-propelled guns. The Turkish Air Force was also reequipped with P40 and Hurricane ground attack fighters, around 200 Spitfires and a fleet of bombers. The Turkish Navy was the poor relation of this bounty, with a handful of destroyers, submarines and motor torpedo boats.

One of the 6-pdr ATGs supplied to Turkey. (Photo by Author, Istanbul Military Museum)

The Germans were also wooing the Turks. There were long-standing economic links between Turkey and Germany, which continued throughout the war with the supply of chromite and other minerals. Many senior Turkish officers had been trained in Germany, and others retained links from the First World War. German loans bought 34 Pkw IIIJ and 37 Pkw IVH tanks, among other military supplies. These were known as T3 and T4 in Turkish service and equipped the 6th Tank Regiment, held in reserve at Ankara. They also supplied 72 Fw-190A-3 fighter aircraft, an astonishing sale of advanced fighter aircraft given the growing pressure on German industrial production from Allied bombing.

All this meant that the Turkish Armed Forces had one of the more eclectic equipment mixes. This is reflected in over twenty colour plates in the book, which will also appeal to modellers and wargamers looking for a new challenge.

Of course, having modern equipment doesn’t automatically make an effective military force. The British provided military instructors who reported that only 20 per cent of the training had been usefully absorbed. Colonel Sleeman writing in June 1943 was particularly critical of Turkish officers;

This training will not be carried out without leadership and enthusiasm, both of which are totally lacking in the superior hierarchy of the Turkish army … Turkish senior officers, who do not want or try to understand. They are conceited, they continue to live in the glories of the War of Independence, give blind obedience to the Marshal and demand it of the army. They fear modern training methods, have so far proved incapable of being trained and have not admitted the need for training.

If this sounds like an outburst of British exceptionalism, he wasn’t the only critic. Turkish officers confirmed the pessimistic reports of Allied and Axis officers, as did the Chief of the General Staff in his warnings to the government that the armed forces were not ready for war.

In the final analysis, no amount of equipment or even Allied fighting units would convince the Turks that they could defend against a German invasion. Particularly an air attack against Istanbul, with its largely wooden houses. President İnönü recognised the risks of war and the need to allow Turkey to rebuild its economy after the wars of the early years of the century. Nonetheless, while hoping for peace, he did prepare the country for war.

The Sergeants and the Gun

Sander Peeters author of LatinAmerica@War Tropic Thunder in Suriname Volume 1 talks about 43 years of „Ingreep“ in Suriname.

This year marks the 43th Anniversary of the 25 February Coup in Suriname. The coup has had different names. Very soon after it took place, the events of 25 February 1980 were dubbed the “ingreep” (intervention). A year or so later, these were dubbed a Revolution (or the “Revo” in Suriname), when the military authority governing the country adopted a left-leaning socialist policy and gained a close relationship with other leftist governments in Latin America such as Cuba, Grenada and Nicaragua. But one of the names that stuck most was the Sergeantencoup (the coup of the Sergeants).

Suriname, located on the northeastern coast of the continent of South America, used to be a colony of the Netherlands from 1667 until 1975. After independence Dutch colonial forces, known as the TRIS (TRoepenmacht in Suriname) left the country. The Surinamese government formed the armed forces, known as the SKM, who would be responsible for the nation’s defence. The SKM had taken over all the equipment and infrastructure left behind by the outgoing TRIS, most of which was not the most modern, although it was functional. The personnel of the armed forces consisted of conscripts and a cadre of NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) and Officers. 

Surinamese platoon, 1 April 1975

Photo: Verhoeff, Bert, Nationaal Archief / Anefo Collectie

Many of the officers and NCOs had been trained in the Netherlands and had often served in the TRIS. However, before independence, a large group of NCOs of Surinamese descent serving the Royal Dutch Army were asked to join the fledgling SKM. These men were promised a supplementary income with Dutch benefits and career opportunities, in order to make it attractive for them to exchange Europe for Suriname. About 40 NCOs made the switch, including the current President of Suriname Desi Bouterse.

As the TRIS was basically an enlarged infantry battalion, the Suriname government wanted to extend the duties of the SKM with coastal and sea patrols. For this purpose, the Surinamese government had recently purchased ten patrol boats of which the most capable were the high-seas patrol boats designed by the Dutch engineering firm De Roos and built by the De Vries Shipbuilding company at the wharf “De Vlijt” in Aalsmeer.

The Group of Sixteen, the coupplotters of the 25 Feb 1980 Ingreep. Staged photo post-coup. Source: Jozef Slagveer, Nacht van de Revolutie

Depending on sources, these boats had the following specifications:

  • Length: 32m
  • Beam: 6.5m
  • Draft: 1.7m
  • Displacement: 127 tons (metric)
  • Engines: 2x 1020 HP Paxman 12YHCM diesel engines
  • Max. Speed: 20kts
  • Range: 1,200km @ 13.5 kts
  • Complement: 15

The boats (named S401, S402 and S403) were delivered without weapons and the Surinamese government chose to arm these vessels with two SAK-40/L70-315 40mm cannons, built by the Swedish armaments firm Bofors. Seven of these cannons were ordered and five members of the SKM were sent to Sweden to be trained on operating the “Bofors” cannons (often misnamed Beaufort in publications) and handling their ammunition. By the end of 1978, all boats were delivered and armed. The Bofors were the most powerful weapons in the Surinamese army at the time. Although several artillery cannons were available, these old QF-25s (towed 88mm cannons) were only used for ceremonial purposes.

S401 during test sail before delivery to Suriname (note Dutch flag) and before installation of armament in Suriname. Source:

In the years between 1975 and 1980, Suriname struggled with its newfound independence. The government received about a billion Dutch Guilders (valued at about 1.25 billion Euros today), which was mostly spent on infrastructural projects in the western part of the country. That money did not end up benefitting the average Surinamer. 

Due to a lack of maintenance, civil infrastructure went into decline. Concurrently unemployment increased. Many Surinamers left for the Netherlands in search of a better future, creating a drain of know-how and capital. In addition, the parliament was in a deadlock and no measures were taken to improve the economy, preferring to wait for new elections in March 1980.

In the SKM, the situation was not much better. The cadre of NCOs had formed a trade union to voice their grievances about the poor state of the army, the lack of clear purpose and the lack of promotions. The military high command and the government largely ignored the union and refused to acknowledge them. Thus, the union members went on strike.

On 30 January 1980, the police drove out the union members from the barracks. When three union council members were arrested, they were put on trial. When it was announced that the three would receive their sentencing on 26 February, a group of sixteen sergeants, decided to put a previously set up plan into action.

A Bofors SAK-40/L70-315 40mm cannon. This is the one supposedly used to fire at the police HQ. Source: Josef Slagveer – Nacht van de Revolutie

On the early morning of 25 February, fifteen NCOs snuck into the naval base in Paramaribo and managed to capture it, overpowering the guards. After bringing in some additional personnel, three NCOs from the group (Roy Tolud, Benny Brondenstein and Gefferie Ernst) got S402 armed and working, and took off with seven other SKM members, while the other revolting sergeants set off to capture the barracks and munitions depot in the city. 

Roy Tolud, commanded the S402 during the actions of 25 Feb. Source: Josef Slagveer - Nacht van de Revolutie
Benny Brondenstein, one of the Groep van Zestien members that was onboard the S402. Source: Josef Slagveer - Nacht van de Revolutie
Ernst Gefferie, one of the Groep van Zestien member on board the S402. Supposedly motivated one of the Corporals to open fire on the police HQ.
Source: Josef Slagveer - Nacht van de Revolutie

At four o’clock in the morning, S402 opened first with its rear Bofors cannon on the police headquarters in the city and ceased fire after two shots, waking up part of the city. The roof of the building had been hit. When members of the group signalled that the boat should continue firing, the boat did not reopen fire until seven.

The corporal who was assigned to firing the gun on the S402, was concerned that his brother, a police officer, was also present at the headquarters. He was persuaded to open fire on top of the building to allow the police to escape. After firing the first two shots, he had a nervous breakdown and was thinking of jumping overboard. He thus had to be locked up. This left the boat without an experienced gunner, and thus they had to make do with the men that they had.

In the meantime, the army barrack and munitions depot in the city had been captured. The conspirators brought in an armoured personnel carrier and opened fire on the police station around seven. By that time, S402 also resumed firing on the police station. By eight o’clock the police surrendered and shortly after leaving the police headquarters a high explosive incendiary shell hit the top of the building and started a fire that burned the police station down. 

This act marked the final military action of the day. As police were rounded up and incarcerated, the NCOs formed a military council that would take govern the country at least until a civilian government was installed as was claimed at the time. Suriname would be under military rule until 1987 when free elections were held. 

The high-seas patrol boats were involved in another coup and a civil war. Today, these boats are no longer in service. And the Bofors gun that started it all? That is currently on display in het Surinaamse Leger Museum located at the Memre Boekoe Barracks in Paramaribo.

The remains of the police HQ are now a monument for the Revolution. The location is now dubbed “Revo square”. Source: Waterkant website
Slagveer, Josef – Nacht van de Revolutie
Boom, Henk – Staatsgreep in Suriname
Klinkers, Ellen – De Troepenmacht in Suriname

Newspaper articles:
De Vrije Stem – 12 Juni 1978 – Patrouille Boten nog zonder kannonen
Amigoe – 1 July 1988 – Surinaamse Revolutie verslindt Sergeanten

Patrouilleboten voor Suriname 1977 – 1978

Fit to Command

Steve Brown, author of From Reason to Revolution 1721-1815 title Fit to Command: British Regimental Leadership in the Revolutionary & Napoleonic Wars, talks to renowned Napoleonic author Bob Burnham, former editor of the Napoleon Series website, about the work that went into his book.

BB: A great idea for a long overdue book! So does your book consist of short biographies of field grade

SB: There is a fair amount of biographical information in there, but that is not the main purpose of the book. The primary focus is – who were the men who became COs (commanding officers) of British army units between 1793 and 1815? What was their social backgrounds? How much experience did they have? How old were they? How much training and preparation for the role did they have? And for those that survived by 1815, what rewards were in store.

BB: What inspired you to write the book?

SB: I read William Westerman’s Soldiers and Gentlemen: Australian Battalion Commanders in the Great War 1914-1918 a couple of years ago and then followed it up by reading Peter Eric Hodgkinson’s exhaustive thesis, British Infantry Battalion Commanders in the First World War. It set me to thinking about doing something similar for British battalion and regimental commanders for the period 1793- 1815, given the historiography for this particular cadre of the British Army seems to be in somewhat of a vacuum. Nineteenth-century histories tending to be written from the top-down, such that the decisions of the commanding generals took primacy; the battalion commanders existed at the very bottom of that chain and so were infrequently seen. In contrast, contemporary works have concentrated on a bottom-
up view of history, placing the memoirs of the rank & file and junior officers as central to the action, and for these writers the battalion commanders generally existed at the rarely-seen outer edge of their regimental experience.
We are left with a documentary vacuum at field officer levels. Yet within this vacuum, battalion commanders – lieutenant-colonels and majors – were undertaking a very difficult task for which the British Army frequently failed to equip them for, intellectually or physically. Not only did they have to administer an organisation of maybe 1,000 men or more but were also responsible for directing small-unit tactics on the battlefield, as well as providing inspiring leadership to their men. Most commanders had to learn their craft on-the-job. There have been other books covering the general workings of the British Army of the era, but never one purely concentrated on field officers, and their contribution to unit leadership.

BB: How predominant were aristocrats at the field grade level?

SB: This varied enormously between regiments. The Foot Guards regiments had a high percentage, as we would expect. But the more, dare we say, ‘unfashionable’ regiments – especially the higher-numbered infantry regiments – had none.
The expeditionary force that the Duke of York took to Flanders in 1793 had none, but the supporting regiments that arrived in 1794 had plenty – men such as Lords Craven and Newark, Wellesley, Fox, Leveson-Gower, Bligh, Cathcart, and the Pagets. Lord Craven joined the army in September 1793 and purchased his way up to lieutenant colonel six months later at the age of twenty-three. Edward Paget took slightly over two years to do the same thing and was a lieutenant colonel commanding the 28th Foot at the age of eighteen. Leveson-Gower the same, the CO of the 63rd Foot at the age of twenty. It was such abuses of the system that gave purchase a bad name, and the Duke of York’s army such a poor reputation (although the same system gave us Wellesley and the Pagets in high command at an early age, so it was not all bad).

In 1808 the British Army contained 158 officers below the rank of colonel bearing hereditary or courtesy titles, rising to 195 in 1813. The 1808 figure represents just over one percent of the total officer corps. Compare this with the army of the Habsburg empire, which in 1809 counted seven aristocrats among the army’s nine corps commanders.

A study of 40 COs in the Waterloo campaign shows that only 10% were from the aristocracy, while 41% were from the landholding (esquire) classes, 18% were the sons of former officers, 8% were the sons of clergymen, and over 20% came from other sources – one was the son of an NCO. In the years from 1815 to the Crimea in 1854, the percentage of aristocrats actually went up, as did the percentage of sons of former officers (many of whom had acquired aristocratic status through service). We could say that the British army of 1815 was more meritocratic than it would be for another century.

BB: Purchasing rank… I have heard that it was a myth that most officers purchased their rank,
especially at the field grade level. Is this true?

SB: This varied quite a bit between eras and campaigns. The expeditionary force that landed with the Duke of York in the Netherlands in 1793 contained battalions in which one-third of the COs had purchased their current rank, whilst all the others had gained their current rank by brevet. Fast-forward to Egypt in 1801 and only one in five of the COs present had purchased their rank, with about a quarter gaining their rank by brevet and more than half being promoted to their rank without purchase, some through patronage.

Purchase amongst the brigadier and CO cohort was not even a presence in the expeditionary forces that landed on the east coast of Spain in 1813 or New Orleans in 1815; all the COs in those forces had been promoted without purchase. At Waterloo in 1815, about one in seven COs had purchased their rank, with almost half promoted without purchase, and the rest breveted. Of course, in the Ordnance no ranks were purchased – it was strictly seniority, all the way. An artillery officer might expect to be a lieutenant colonel at 55, rather than at 38 as in the infantry; so it is sobering to reflect this is what the entire army might have looked like without purchase and patronage.

BB: How much did patronage play a role in the promotions to substantive rank?

SB: Some – although we cannot over-state the influence of patronage, since the Duke of York was a busy man, and loath to bestow it unless absolutely necessary. The one exception he did make was to insist on making appointments to replace COs who had been dismissed from the service due to disciplinary action. It was, in a sense, the ultimate ‘big stick’ – to have one’s name featured in a negative report that passed under the Duke of York’s eye was to have one’s chances of advancement through patronage
squashed flat.

BB: What percent of the officers who later commanded battalion and regiments served in the West
Indies? The Low Countries in the 1790s?

SB: The ‘average’ CO at Waterloo had been in the army for nineteen years (i.e., commenced his career in 1796) and the ‘average’ brigadier for twenty-seven years (commenced in 1788). Therefore, in Flanders in 1793-1795 or the West indies in 1794-1796, most brigadiers of 1815 would have been subalterns or captains; and most 1815 CO’s probably started their combat careers at Helder in 1799 or Egypt in 1801. Of the eighty-seven British and KGL COs and brigadiers in the Waterloo campaign, fourteen had served in Flanders in 1793-1794, ten in the West Indies, eleven at Den Helder, ten in Egypt, and sixty-eight in the Peninsula.

The problem with the West Indies – especially in the period 1794 to about 1799 – was mortality due to fevers. Sir Charles Grey’s expeditionary force to capture Martinique landed with twenty-four brigadiers and COs, and by November only three were fit for service. Eleven had died or been taken POW, and the rest were too sick to serve.

BB: Let’s talk about military background. Modern officers are sent to schools to prepare them to be an
officer and then command. Was there any formal education system for junior officers? Did it make a
difference towards their success as a commander?

SB: The vast majority of subalterns learned their craft on-the-job, usually with the aid of the adjutant and the serjeant major. And dare I say it, the CO cohort of 1793-1815 was an under-educated lot. Very few went to military colleges prior to the establishment of the Royal Military College (RMC); and I have only been able to find four COs who received degrees from Oxford, and six from Cambridge. There was simply no culture of education for army officers.

This changed to some degree in 1799 with the establishment of the RMC (Junior Department at Great Marlow, and Senior Department at High Wycombe) but it was a process of baby steps. The Senior Department graduated somewhere between ten and thirty serving officers per year back to their regiments, and such men were invariably snapped up for staff positions in all campaigns from 1801 onwards. Therefore, their utility at regimental level was negligible; they were invariably absent doing staff duties. The Junior Department graduated a hundred or so entry-level officers to the army each year, but these subalterns were too junior to have made much of an impact at leadership level by 1815. However, Waterloo provided a first glimpse of the usefulness of RMC – of the 168 Junior Department graduates present in the campaign, 47 served in the Foot Guards, and another 15 in Adam’s Light Brigade; and RMC graduates made up one-fifth of Wellington’s staff.

This is all quite apart from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which provided an excellent technical education for all Ordnance officers, even if the branch itself offered a tediously slow career advancement path.

BB: What percent had combat experience prior to assuming battalion/regimental command?

SB: The simple answer is very few in 1793, but the vast majority by 1815. Of the fifteen brigadiers and COs present in Flanders in May 1793, only seven had seen active service, one (Abercromby) as far back as the Seven Years’ War. By 1801 in Egypt, only nine out of fifty-six brigadiers and COs had not seen combat, and four (Samuel Graham, Ross, Moore and Dalhousie) had served in four campaigns. By Salamanca in 1812 the average CO was thirty-eight years of age and had been in the army for twenty years; the average brigadier was forty-three years old and had been in the army for twenty-five years.

Most had been in the Peninsula for some time, and many had served in two or three campaigns prior to Spain. Two (Stirling and de Bernewitz) had served in the American War of Independence! The outlier for the era was Graham’s expedition to the Netherlands in 1813-1814, where only sixteen of the twenty-five brigadiers and COs present (in January 1814) had combat experience, and of those who had participated in more than one campaign, most were concentrated in the units comprising Gibb’s Light Brigade.

BB: On a side note, did being a Freemason help?

SB: Great question! Almost worthy of a book on the subject. We know that the Duke of York, Duke of Kent, Duke of Wellington, John Moore, Ralph Abercrombie, David Baird, Lord Lake, Eyre Coote, John Hely-Hutchinson, John Doyle, Lord Moira, Lord Cathcart, Sir John Stuart, Robert Rollo Gillespie, Lord Dalhousie, Stapleton Cotton, Charles Colville, John Byng, James Kempt, Benjamin D’Urban and Charles Napier were all Freemasons – acknowledging that Wellington was inducted but seemingly not at all active. The Royals (1st Foot) was a hotbed of Masonic activity, their regimental colonel the Duke of Kent being the Grand Master of England. Likewise, the 27th Inniskillings was an epicentre of Orange Lodges; their colonel, Lord Moira, was Grand Master of the premier Grand Lodge of England from 1790 to 1813.

But as to how deeply the influences ran – such as determining whether a certain officer received preferential treatment – is a topic for another day.

BB: Tell me about the Irish Mafia… is there any truth in the story that the Irish tended to get more
commands under Wellington than others?

SB: Did not Wellington deny his Irishness by saying that being born in a stable did not make a man a
horse! In fact, for the period 1806-1815, which we could loosely term the ‘Wellingtonian’ era, I studied fifteen actions and determined that about 37% of all brigadiers and COs were English, 24% Scots, 19% Irish and 13% Hanoverian. If we go back to the period 1793-1801 (in which I studied seven actions) the proportion becomes 40% Scots, 39% English, and 18% Irish. So, the Irish contribution remained about the same, the Scots influence reduced after 1801, and the difference was made up by King’s German Legion officers.
So – no truth to the rumour!

BB: If an officer from outside a regiment purchased his majority or lieutenant colonel into the
regiment, was he more likely to succeed?

SB: In my view this entirely depends upon the officer. Regiment-hopping to acquire promotions as vacancies arose was extremely common, so the premise stated is in fact more likely to have been the rule rather than the exception. In the lower ranks it was common practice to rotate a soldier promoted to serjeant to another company, so that he was not suddenly having to exert authority over his mess-mates. Taking this one step further, and given that the British Army at the time was really a collection of regimental fiefdoms rather than a singular whole, the practice of regiment-hopping was no bad thing; since it provided opportunities to shake up the culture of the new regiment, to spread the experience pool far and wide, homogenising the army in total.

The other side of the coin being that the new man might be seen as being ‘not one of us’, the process required the incoming CO to exert their executive and morale authority as early as possible. And if he found the new regiment a hostile environment – well, he was free to exchange to another unit. Army Lists for the era are full of officers who came into a regiment and left for another a couple of months later. Many did this to take advantage of a new vacancy in a ‘better‘ regiment, but undoubtedly quite a few jumped after finding the grass was not as green as they had hoped.

BB: Who do you think was the best battalion commander?

SB: An awfully difficult question this – what constitutes best? Feared martinets who made their battalion the best disciplined in the army? Or the benevolent types who died beloved by their men, but habitually turned a (semi-)blind eye to infractions?

I think John Moore learned to be the exemplary trainer he later became as a regimental officer, and there is much anecdotal evidence to support this. Napier considered Kenneth Mackenzie the best commanding officer in the army, and John Colborne – a disciple of the former two – proved his talent at the decisive moment of Waterloo. Of others, I rate both John Camerons (9th and 92nd), Kempt, Pack, Barnard, Belson, Wallace, Sleigh, William Williams, Frederick Ponsonby, Gough, Ross and Barnes. Equally, Wellingtonian displeasure should not obscure the fact that ‘Black Jack’ Slade and Robert Ballard Long were excellent cavalry regimental officers. Even poor old William Keith Elphinstone, unfairly derided for the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842, was noticed as an exceptionally good CO of the 33rd Foot in 1815.

BB: And who was the worst?

SB: The dismissal of Nathaniel Levett Peacocke for cowardice in early 1814 certainly brings his name to the fore as a particularly bad example, and his incapacity for command was highlighted a year earlier when an observer recorded him cluelessly drilling his men to confusion at Shorncliffe. Any CO incapable of controlling his officer corps deserved a bad rap, and Henry Cuyler of the 85th was a shining example – things were so bad that the Duke of York sacked the 85th’s entire officer corps (except one) and replaced them with officers of his own choosing.

And having studied records of courts martial, I think particularly odious were the field officers of various West Indies regiments who were baled up for diddling their men out of ‘necessaries’ for profit, including one who was cashiered for selling them to his own men at exorbitant prices. These units also had the worst record of officer insubordination in the army – officers were three times more like to appear at courts-martial than the men. Knowing that these regiments had a high officer turnover rate, were usually widely dispersed across islands, and far away from the intense gaze of Horse Guards, ultimately the army is to blame for their lack of officer good conduct.

We should not forget that regimental colonels had a part to play in all this. Francis Dundas, as colonel of the 71st, should have seen that Peacocke was inadequate as a CO and sought to keep him out of action, but that is perhaps easy to say in hindsight. Peacocke was a baronet; and as well-connected as Dundas was, he had no title, so was considered socially inferior, and therefore perhaps unwilling to ‘cause a fuss’. The active and engaged regimental colonels – Moore, James Steuart, William Stewart, Thomas Graham as examples – did not hesitate to rid themselves of officers who did not meet their standards.

BB: Final question – was it difficult finding this information? What kind of sources did you use?

SB: I have been storing up a lot of information about the field officers of the period from my work on the British Regiments & The Men Who Led Them series, much of which has informed the work. I found inspection reports perhaps the single most revealing source of information, since they were a third-party examination of the state of a regiment and its officers, and, if the inspecting general was being diligent and honest, faults in leadership ought to have been pointed out. Times being as they were, direct language was usually avoided, so some were ‘damned with faint praise’! Insofar as finding about more about the individual officers, I have been a keen family historian for over forty years, so tracing individuals is something for which I have had years of practice. The book contains many references to who commanded regiments at individual actions, as well as biographical and experiential background information, all of which helped the data sets used to categorise the CO cohorts throughout the era. If you want to understand the social backgrounds, ages and years of experience for the British Army’s campaigns during the Revolutionary wars, this is the book for you.

You can purchase Steve’s book at: