The Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part I

By John Marsden

It was whilst researching the story of the Marqués de la Romana´s Denmark expedition that I came across the interesting but little–known story of army surgeon, Henry Milburne, who, due to a particular set of circumstances, came to be in the Spanish city of Astorga in December 1808 when the British, Spanish, and French armies descended upon it.

Once La Romana’s force had been returned to Spain in the autumn of 1808, it was thrust into the battles then raging in the north–east of the country as Napoleon’s grand counter offensive gathered speed. Marching towards the oncoming French divisions was the British expeditionary force led by Sir John Moore, hoping to be able to block the enemy advance alongside their Spanish allies. Unfortunately, such a prospect began to fade from their vision before they had an opportunity to come to grips with their adversary, as they learned that the Spanish armies in their front had simply melted away as the various French army corps overran them. Reluctant to throw in the towel at such an early stage of his Spanish adventure, Moore decided to launch a strike at the lengthening lines of French communications, but, once warned by La Romana of Napoleon’s plan to entrap him, the British commander in chief was forced to join the general withdrawal of the Spanish armies.

As he retreated across northern Spain, Moore realised that he was going to require unfettered access to the royal highway leading to Corunna, so he asked La Romana to keep his army away from it, expecting him to remain to the north of his British allies as they each retreated towards Galicia. Pressed closely by the French, the Spaniards failed to comply with Moore’s somewhat haughty request as the worsening winter conditions forced them to make for the little walled city of Astorga, which lay directly in the path of Moore’s army. It was there during the last few days of 1808 that the two armies met. By chance, Henry Milburne, who had earlier relinquished his commission as an army surgeon, was at Astorga as the British and Spanish approached, and we may now examine the story of this somewhat enigmatic character which, like the story of La Romana’s Denmark expedition itself, is little known; both examples highlighting the possibility of the existence of other hidden tales lying forgotten or as yet undiscovered amongst the archives of the Peninsular War. 

It would seem that Henry Milburne began his medical career as a humble assistant surgeon, whilst serving with the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot, and there is an entry recording his commission in Colonel William Johnstone’s List of commissioned officers who served in the medical services of the British army: ‘2407 Henry Milburne, A. S. (Assistant Surgeon) 52F [52nd regt. of foot] 4th Aug. 1804 [date of commission]’. The 52nd raised a second battalion in that year, which might explain their need for a new assistant surgeon at the time. Intriguingly, there is also an entry for Milburne in Drew’s Roll, a list of army officers who served with the British army medical corps during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it reads: ‘2407 Henry Milburne. A.S. 52F 4 Aug. 1804. Res[igned] before 14 Mar. 1805. H. M. [Hospital Mate] previous to being commissioned’. Despite his apparent resignation, it would seem that at some time between 1804 and 1808, Milburne may have transferred to the York Rangers, as Johnstone’s List contains a further entry for him as follows: ‘3869 Henry Milburne. A.S. Royal York Rangers. 28th July 1808. Superseded 1808’, indicating that he was commissioned in the York Rangers on 28 July 1808. (Note, the entry number, 3869, seems to be a mis-type for the intended 2869).

Whatever the early details may show, it was during his army service that Milburne developed an interest in the diseases typically contracted by soldiers in the course of their service, as well as the gunshot wounds they suffered when confronting an enemy on the battlefield. Perhaps it was his interest in the former subject that caused him to seek service with a regiment designated to serve in the tropics, such as the York Rangers. However, there is the faint possibility that there were two people with the name of Henry Milburne serving as an army medic in the early 19th century, one with the 52nd, the other with the York Rangers. If indeed they refer to the same person, then the record suggests there was a gap of over three years in his time as an army medic, between leaving the 52nd and joining the York Rangers, unless, that is, he spent some or most of that time with the York Rangers as a hospital mate, as suggested in Drew’s roll.

Britain’s first expeditionary force to the Iberian Peninsula disembarked in Portugal during August 1808, and it would seem that, whilst at home in England or in Africa with the York Rangers, Milburne became a supporter of the Spanish cause, and felt that the possibility of gaining some field experience in the Iberian Peninsula might allow him the opportunity for acquiring some first-hand knowledge of the subjects mentioned above.

The 1/52nd and the 2/52nd were two of the units making up Wellington’s force in 1808, so if Milburne was an assistant surgeon with the regiment he should have gone to Portugal with it; obviously he did not, as our story will show. This fact may confirm that he had left the 52nd by then – to join the York Rangers perhaps? Whatever the case, eager for adventure, he applied for a position with the Peninsular Army. His application was refused but, determined to serve in Spain and Portugal, he decided to appeal to the Spanish authorities via the offices of Don JoséMaría Queipo de Llano, Conde de Toreno, who, in his position as a Deputy in the semi-autonomous parliament of Asturias, had made his way to London in the wake of the Spanish uprising against the French, hoping to obtain help for his beleaguered country from the British Government. Queipo de Llano was either unable or unwilling to help the aspiring medic, so Milburne turned to the British ambassador to Spain, (either John Hookham Frere or Charles Stuart, both of whom held the post that year) asking him to make an approach to other members of the Asturian delegation in London on his behalf. The ambassador took up Milburne’s case and communicated with Don Juan Ruiz de Apodaca and Don Adrian Jacome. As a result, Milburne’s request was made known to Don Juan de Arejula, then Surgeon to the Army of Andalucia, who seems to have acceded to it, as Milburne was eventually to be provided with passage to Spain aboard one of the Royal Navy’s ships.

Before leaving for Spain in his status as a private citizen, Milburne was provided with some letters of introduction, absolute necessities having given up his army commission. Such documents may have helped him to meet with Sir William Gordon Duff, MP for Worcester and partner in the counting house of his uncle, James Duff, consul at Cadiz. Duff had recently donated the sum of £1,000 in aid of the ‘Spanish Patriots’ and happened to be searching for a surgeon willing to serve with a regiment being raised in Cadiz by his business partner, the Malaga-born ‘Colonel’ Juan Murphy, who, said Duff, had ‘raised, clothed, armed and equipped a legion of 2,000 men at his own private expense’, which went by the name of the Regimiento de Infanteria Voluntarios de España.

On 28 November 1808, Milburne sailed for Spain aboard the sloop HMS Primrose, disembarking at Corunna on 10 December whence he set off for Madrid after obtaining a passport to travel from Galicia, and having the luck to fall in along the way with an officer belonging to the 15th Light Dragoons, Captain Thackwell. On arriving at Astorga on 27 December he heard that Murphy and his entire regiment had been captured by the French at El Escorial, thus depriving him of an important contact and indicating to him that it would be unsafe to continue towards Madrid whilst Sir John Moore’s army was beating a precipitate retreat towards Astorga, with the French in close pursuit.

It did not take the surgeon long to become aware of the large number of Spanish troops then present in Astorga. These were men belonging to Spain’s Army of the Left, which had recently suffered some heavy defeats at the hands of the French, and had fallen back along the roads of northern Spain in appalling weather with the soon to be dismissed General Blake at their head. Many of them were suffering from a form of typhus, and a large number of soldiers bore festering wounds inflicted during the recent fighting in the region of Biscay. This, combined with a lack of rations and their state of near nakedness – many of them unshod – meant that a significant number were in urgent need of medical attention. Milburne felt his chance had come and immediately made an offer of his medical services to the Spanish Army, which was accepted without hesitation.

Read the Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part II here.

The Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part II

By John Marsden

The city of Astorga, with its magnificent cathedral, convents, monasteries and other fine buildings, both civic and private, offered the perfect sanctuary to the Army of the Left, whose erstwhile commander in chief, General Blake, had been recently replaced by the Marqués de la Romana. The new commander in chief had been coordinating his movements with Sir John Moore since the 15th November, as both men sought to evade the converging French armies by reaching Astorga in the foothills of the Galician mountains where the British commander thought he might be able to make a stand, having by then secured his escape route to Corunna. La Romana was to the north of Moore’s two columns as the allies retreated, the British general having asked him to destroy the bridge over the Esla at Mansilla de las Mulas before continuing on his westerly retirement. Unfortunately, the marqués’s exhausted and poorly equipped men were surprised by Soult when he made a dash for Mansilla, scattering the demoralised Spaniards and capturing the bridge intact. Those soldiers of La Romana who were able to regroup then set their faces towards Astorga. 

As mentioned above, the sick and wounded of La Romana’s army had already begun to trickle into Astorga before Milburne arrived, and his first task was to assess the condition of the casualties whilst at the same time making an inventory of the various buildings and medical supplies available, all of which he would need as he began to organise a system of hospitals. In his narrative of the campaign, written after his escape to England, he described how the frostbitten and wounded of the Spanish Army of the Left were crowded together with the rest of the men, without any attempt to separate them from those with contagious conditions, such as the strain of typhus which was sweeping through their ranks. Most of the casualties he discovered lying on the bare floors of the buildings in which they had sought shelter, or under the arches of open piazzas in and around the centre of the city. Some were still lying in the carts which had been used to convey them to Astorga.

Milburne soon came to recognise the lack of surgical care available to those in need of it, readily discernible by the number of unattended and undressed wounds he encountered. His first priority was to attend to these casualties of the fighting, but his main concern was directed towards the isolation of the sick in an effort to contain the outbreak of typhus previously referred to. He sought out Lieutenant General Fraser, commander of the British troops already at Astorga, and impressed upon him the need to take action designed to avoid the contagion taking hold amongst Moore’s troops, who were expected within the city at any moment. He suggested to the general that the Spanish sick be moved and concentrated in marked buildings; any accommodation thus cleared was to be disinfected and made ready for occupation by those of the wounded who were free from disease. In response Fraser wrote to the Junta de Astorga, requesting them to grant special powers to Milburne for removing the sick to places outside the city walls. They responded by investing full authority in him, assigning the city’s comptroller, Don Josef Orm and a local surgeon, Sr. Tardio, to the task of assisting the British surgeon in his work to examine and classify all of the sick and wounded. Once this had been completed the patients were assigned to the appropriate buildings.

To add to Milburne’s work, on 29 December the French prisoners taken by the British during the recent fighting at Benavente began to arrive at Astorga, many of them wounded and requiring the attention of the British surgeon and his Spanish assistants. On the following day Sir John Moore arrived at the city, only to leave on the 31st with the reserve of his army and its rear–guard of cavalry, all en-route to Villafranca del Bierzo. Moore had by then abandoned his plan to stop the French on the frontier of Galicia. La Romana also entered the city on the 30th.

When the British marched away Milburne placed his services, his stock of medicines and his surgical instruments at the disposal of the Spanish, but the French arrived at the gates of Astorga before he was able to organise the care of those left behind. Desperate to avoid capture, the surgeon was forced to make his own escape towards Villafranca, taking as much of his stock with him as he could cram into the saddlebags of a pair of mules procured for him by the Junta de Astorga.

Milburne caught up with Moore’s rear–guard at Manzanal and continued with it to Bembibre, where he was lightly wounded as the French cavalry skirmished with its British counterpart. Soon, as the weather worsened and his animals fell sick, he was forced to abandon his medical equipment and follow in the wake of the army as it entered the mountains of Galicia. As he did so he was to witness many scenes of suffering and despair along the road to Corunna, as the severe conditions took their toll of British soldiers, Spanish muleteers and various camp followers, including the wives and children of British troops.

Finally, on 10 or 11 January, the army arrived at Corunna, but the naval transports required to convey it to England were not yet anchored in the harbour, instead, they were still at Vigo and had to be sent for. This meant that Moore was forced to prepare a defensive perimeter outside the town to protect the embarkation points to be used when the fleet arrived. Inside the town the British Artillery and Engineers began to improve its batteries and fortifications with the willing assistance of Spanish troops and civilians. Looking on, the surgeon was full of praise for the efforts of the Spaniards, at one point witnessing two young women armed with sabres and dressed as soldiers, helping with the work.

On the 14 January the fleet of British warships and transports arrived, allowing the evacuation of the army to commence. On the following day the French began their attack upon Corunna, and during the next few days the surgeon was to become a close observer of the fighting, often placing himself in the British front line. In the early morning of the 17th, the last of the British units still on the battlefield began their withdrawal and most of them were aboard ship before daybreak, the French being somewhat hesitant to follow up after the mauling they had received during the fighting. They had failed achieved the victory they were expecting. With a small rear-guard under the command of Beresford manning the port defences along with a number of their Spanish allies, the French, once they had stirred themselves and attempted to approach the harbour, were halted by the spirited exertions of the mainly Spanish defenders, thus allowing the men of Beresford’s force to embark without molestation, Rear Admiral de Courcy eventually announcing that: ‘… the army has been embarked to the last man’.

Retaining his status as a private citizen attached to the Spanish Army, Milburne was forced to apply for passage to England aboard a ship of the Royal Navy, and in doing so offered his surgical expertise to Dr. Shepter, Inspector of Hospitals, who provided him with a letter of introduction to Staff Surgeon Taggart, the man responsible for the sick and wounded aboard the hospital ship, Alfred, along with his Assistant Surgeon Roe. The Alfred set sail for Plymouth in the early hours of 19 January 1809 and arrived there late on the following day, taking advantage of some apparently highly favourable winds.

In his letter to Castlereagh, which he included in his publication, A Narrative of Circumstances Attending the Retreat of the British Army Under the Command of the Late Lieut. Gen. Sir John Moore, from which much of the information comprising this article was taken, Milburne included a return of the sick and wounded aboard the Alfred as she sailed for home. She was just one of many ships bearing casualties to England, and his detailed list of the sick and injured is included below. It will provide the reader with some idea of the general condition of the army after its gruelling winter retreat across northern Spain, and it may be worth reflecting upon how the Spanish troops, whose experiences were said to have been somewhat worse than those of the British, had suffered during the campaign:

List of Casualties aboard the Alfred

Cases of dysentery:     68

Cases of fever:            56

Wounded:                   36

Trifling complaints:    20

Convalescents:            77

————————————

Total:                            257

 

Little is known of Milburne after his return to England, but in her book, British Liberators in the Age of Napoleon (2013) Graciela Iglesias Rogers makes an interesting note, stating that he was with Whittingham’s division in Mallorca (1810) and Menorca (1811) and eventually attained the rank of Inspector of the Spanish Royal Hospitals in the Balearics. One of the issues Milburne became involved with during his time with Whittingham related to two of the Royal Navy’s ships, HMS Invincible and the famous HMS Temeraire which, on arriving at the islands in August 1811, were required by the authorities to go into quarantine at Mahon in Menorca as a precaution against the possibility of their crews spreading yellow fever amongst the local population. Milburne visited the sick aboard the ships and declared their ailments to be non-contagious, a view he later set forth in an article published in the Diario de Palma, as stated by Rogers in her book. This instigated a public row fought out in the press between Milburne and a local Spanish doctor, who used the Semanario de Menorca to voice his opposition to the British surgeon’s pronouncements. One of the accusations made against him was that he was placing the interests of his compatriots above those of the island’s population, when insisting that the sick from the ships be transferred to hospitals ashore. To which Milburne replied that he was acting ‘not as the friend of a particular society, but of the entire human race’.  Things settled down when the Royal Navy, perhaps realising the delicacy of the situation, afforded partial compliance with the demands of the islands’ governors by leaving. On inspection of the logs belonging to Invincible and Temeraire for the months of August and September 1811, it is possible to find several references to the sick amongst their crew, as well as the recordings of the death of several sailors, the majority belonging to HMS Temeraire

Whether Milburne ever returned to England after the war or decided to live out his days in Mediterranean climes is as yet unknown, but it is difficult to imagine that someone with such a zest for life did not find a suitable outlet for his energies during the ensuing peace. Perhaps he lies buried in a Balearic cemetery just waiting to be discovered – or to be left in peace, far from controversy’s reach.

Read the Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part I here.

Napoleon’s Stolen Army: How the Royal Navy Rescued a Spanish Army in the Baltic is available to buy here.

Hungary 1848: Europe’s Biggest Unknown War

By Chris Pringle

1848 is known as the year of revolution. Yet the Hungarian War of Independence (“the ‘48”), the largest and most violent revolution of that turbulent year, is almost unknown outside its home country. This conflict involved over half a million men and lasted a whole year. It encompassed a dozen major battles, many smaller actions, and some epic sieges, but is largely ignored.

The major focus of my own interest is on European wars of the nineteenth century, and particularly the large battles of the period from the point of view of strategy, generalship and grand tactics. In attempting to learn about the Hungarian battles of 1848­-1849 it became apparent that sources in English were almost non-existent, and those that did exist were limited or flawed. Given the scale of the war, this is a huge and unfortunate gap.

Since 2015 I have been collaborating with Professor Nicholas Murray of the US Naval War College on a series of English editions of previously untranslated military histories by that giant of military theory, Carl von Clausewitz. Consequently, my German translation skills are quite well honed. In addition, for other personal projects over the years, I have learned enough rudimentary Hungarian to use sources in that language as well. In order to learn about the 1848-1849 battles in Hungary, I became very familiar with some of the main Hungarian histories as well as the Austrian ones. Having established myself as a translator by publishing Clausewitz’s history of 1796, it seemed a natural progression to build on that and on my growing knowledge of the ’48 by publishing Hungary 1848: The Winter Campaign – an English edition of the Austrian (semi-)official history of the first half of the war – to fill this void in the English-language literature. Helion was kind enough to oblige.

I was first attracted to the ’48 through a general interest in Eastern Europe and particularly in that period of warfare. I’ve always found it appealing to explore obscure and esoteric corners of history, and this one is certainly well-hidden. Once the quest was begun, it turned out to be incredibly rewarding because the campaigns are so richly complex and varied, there is a colourful cast of characters, and it offers all the fascinating episodes and drama you would expect from a war of this extent and duration. Furthermore, the battles provide some great tabletop challenges for the wargamer.

I was struck by some signal feats of generalship. On the Hungarian side, General Artúr Görgei performed astonishing feats to bamboozle and out-manoeuvre his opponents, both in attack and defence; among the mountains of Transylvania, the veteran Polish revolutionary Józef ‘Papa’ Bem conducted a campaign of lightning manoeuvre and aggressive attacks worthy of the Bonaparte of 1796. For the Austrian monarchy, Field Marshal Windisch-Grätz’s ‘McClellanesque’ caution in the Winter Campaign contrasts strongly with Haynau’s ruthlessly determined and ultimately victorious Summer Campaign.

If the original narrative history of the events of the war is not fascinating enough, I hope my editorial annotations have enhanced it further. I have added a lot of commentary on and analysis of the operations, both tactical and strategic, which I hope will help readers reflect on the commanders’ decisions and reach their own conclusions.

Biographical notes reveal which Hungarian generals then went on to fight for the Ottoman Empire in the Crimean War, or who found the Hungarian crown jewels at the end of the war, or who got beaten up by angry brewery workers when he visited England. Footnotes include little nuggets like the importance of floating ship-mills on the major rivers, or the Hapsburg salt monopoly.

I am particularly proud of the large set of maps I created for the book. Each of these includes a text panel that summarises the action they portray. The idea is that, simply by reading through the maps and following the action, the reader can get a clear picture of the shape of what was a very complex war on several fronts.

Like any major war, the Hungarian War of Independence has other dimensions than the purely military. There is international great power politics in play; there is also the intense factionalism in the Hungarian camp between the radical revolutionaries and their more conservative, constitutionally minded rivals. The tensions and personality clashes in the Hungarian hierarchy are matched among the Austrian commanders by the entertaining sight of Windisch-Grätz trying to control his subordinates, the excessively aggressive Schlik and the erratic Jellacic. At the socio-economic level, there is the friction among the different ethnic groups in the Kingdom of Hungary, showing itself at its most bitter in the Serb and Vlach (Romanian) insurrections in southern Hungary (now northern Serbia) and Transylvania. For modern military professionals, there is contemporary resonance in the asymmetric nature of the campaign as an exercise in counterinsurgency.

I therefore hope that publishing this book will help the Hungarian War of Independence to be recognised as the epic struggle it was.

Miracles in 6mm! The Hungarian army of 1848-1949 in 1/300 scale.

Figures by Baccus (mostly adapted from Baccus’s American Civil War and Risorgimento ranges); flags by Maverick Models; painting by Richard Morrill. Photos by kind permission of Richard Morrill.

Jägers, Polish Legion, scythe-armed militia, grenadiers, German Legion, Tyrolean Jägers
Assorted honvéds, including the famous 9th battalion in their red kepis.
Colourful national guards flanking former imperial line infantry in their old white tunics.
Various hussar regiments escorting the artillery, including a rocket launch stand and crew.
The high command: Görgei, Bem, Klapka, et al.

***

Hungary 1848: The Winter Campaign will soon be followed by its natural sequel, Hungary 1849: The Summer Campaign (also from Helion). Together these will provide a complete history of the war. At the time of writing this blog post, the translation is finished and the editorial annotations almost complete. The maps will be a substantial task, but the work will be delivered to Helion later this year for publication in 2022.

I am also preparing a Bloody Big BATTLES! campaign volume on the Hungarian War of Independence for publication in 2022. This will include 15 wargame scenarios for the most important battles of the war.

***

Chris Pringle’s previous three books are all Clausewitz translations:

Napoleon’s 1796 Italian Campaign

Napoleon Absent, Coalition Ascendant: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, Volume 1

The Coalition Crumbles, Napoleon Returns: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, Volume 2

He is also responsible for a popular wargames ruleset, Bloody Big BATTLES!, for refighting nineteenth-century battles.

He lives in Oxford, UK, and is an academic publisher. His time as a junior officer in the Territorial Army left him with an abiding interest in the challenge of making soldiers do things they don’t particularly want to do. A lifelong wargamer, his focus is on recreating large historical battles. He maintains the Bloody Big BATTLES Blog to report his exploits in that domain.

You may read it in the ruins of this place…

By Richard Israel

In my first book for Helion Cannon Played from the Great Fort’ Sieges in the Severn Valley during the English Civil War 1642-1646, I have examined the towns of Bristol, Gloucester, Worcester, Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury. All of these towns had medieval walls, albeit in a variety of conditions.

However, the focus of this short article is Taunton in Somerset.  Unlike any of our case studies, it began the war with no earthworks surrounding it.[1] Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper noted that any defences were “but pales and hedges and no line about the town”.[2] The town does have a stone castle, of which construction was commenced around 1107 AD by William Gifford[3] near the bank of the River Tone.

Taunton experienced three sieges during the Civil War. The first siege began September 1644 and was a Royalist plan to retake the town from Parliament. After two failed attempts to storm the town, the Royalists tried to blockade the town with a perimeter of one to two miles (1.60-3.21 kilometres), and established garrisons at Chideock, Cokum, Wellington and Wycraft houses. They were unsuccessful.[4] The siege ended on 15 December 1644.[5]  

On 11 April 1645, Goring under directions from Prince Rupert sent the artillery and foot of Sir Joseph Wagstaff towards Taunton; whilst the horse went east to watch for any Parliamentary reinforcements approaching.[6]

Having around 4,200 foot and 2,000 horse, the Royalists began to increase their attacks. However, the town defences had been improved–illustrating how quickly preparations were made. The first defensive line consisted of two forts; whilst a second line inside the town was of fortified houses, barricades and entrenchments. The Royalists attack had three approach lines, which were covered by artillery. A night assault at 07:00 p.m. on 8 May 1645, captured the two forts.[7]

Inside the defenders’ line, houses were on fire. On 9 May 1645, the town was attacked at 11:00 a.m. By 06:00 p.m., the castle, church and Muyden’s Fort were still held by the besieged; although 20 houses were burnt by grenades and mortar fire. The town did not have enough fodder for horses and people were starving.[8]

A relief force, containing some 6,000 men, under the command of Weldon approached the town and drove off the Royalists.[9] After 94-days, the siege had left 150 garrison soldiers dead, another 200 hundred wounded, two-thirds of the houses destroyed and people starving. Bed cords were used as matches for musketeers, and to keep the horses alive, thatch from the roofs had been taken down to feed them.[10]

The third siege was a brief affair. By July, Fairfax was able to manoeuvre the New Model Army into Somerset, and face the Royalists under the command of Goring at the Battle of Langport on 10 July 1645.[11]

Evidence of the Civil War can be seen in the archaeological record in the form of defensive ditches, with one on Canon Street measuring 1.5m in depth and 5m in width. A siegework with banks of earth 3m in height near the north-east side of the castle has also been examined.[12] Further research, including the role of the castle in the war, is necessary.

“You may read it in the ruins of this place…her heaps of rubbish, her consumed houses, a multitude of which are raked in their own ashes. Here a poor forsaken chimney, and there a little fragment of a wall that have escaped to tell what barbarous and monstrous wretches there have been”.[13]

The words of the Minister of Taunton, George Newton in 1646 illustrates that the town of Taunton was a microcosm of the Civil War. The evidence of despair, destruction–the effects of siege warfare is clearly seen in the historical and archaeological records.  

Preliminary research for my second book for Helion, involving an examination of the castles during the Civil War is underway. Like ‘Cannon Played from the Great Fort’ Sieges in the Severn Valley during the English Civil War 1642-1646 it will involve an examination of the geology, topography, cartographic, historical and archaeological evidence available.

A copy of ‘Cannon Played from the Great Fort’ Sieges in the Severn Valley during the English Civil War 1642-1646 can be purchased here.

Bibliography

Gathercole, Clare, Somerset Extensive Urban Survey – Taunton Archaeological Assessment (Taunton: Somerset County Council, 2002).

Morris, Robert, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645 (Bristol: Stuart Press, 1995).

Prior, Stuart, A few well–positioned castles: The Norman Art of War (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2006)

Underdown, David Somerset in the Civil War and Interregnum (Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Holdings Ltd, 1973).

Turton, Alan, Civil War in Wessex (Salisbury: Wessex Books, 2015).

Wroughton, John, An Unhappy Civil War: The Experiences of Ordinary People in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, 1642-1646 (Bath: The Lansdown Press, 1999).


[1] Robert Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645 (Bristol: Stuart Press, 1995), pp.5-6.

[2] David Underdown, Somerset in the Civil War and Interregnum (Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Holdings Ltd, 1973), p.80.

[3] Stuart Prior, A few well–positioned castles: The Norman Art of War (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2006), p.71.

[4] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.6.

[5] Alan Turton, Civil War in Wessex (Salisbury: Wessex Books, 2015), p.22.

[6] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.7.

[7] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.7.

[8] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, pp.7-8.

[9] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.8.

[10] John Wroughton, An Unhappy Civil War: The Experiences of Ordinary People in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, 1642-1646 (Bath: The Lansdown Press, 1999), p.227.

[11] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.11.

[12] Clare Gathercole, Somerset Extensive Urban Survey – Taunton Archaeological Assessment (Taunton: Somerset County Council, 2002), p.28.

[13] Wroughton, An Unhappy Civil War, p.195.

The Rescue They Called a Raid

‘NOW HE HAS RUINED ME!’[1]

By David Snape

It was with these words Rhodes that the arch-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes reflected on the consequences of the failure of Dr Leander Starr Jameson’s attempt to overthrow the Government of the South African Republic in 1896. Towards the end of the 19th  Century the desire of European Governments to exploit the African Continent had never been stronger, nor the competition to do so fiercer. Cecil Rhodes was  described as the ‘Colossus’ because of this desire and few believed the claim that Jameson’s incursion into President Paul Kruger’s  South African Republic was a ‘Rescue and not a Raid’; hence the title of the book which was derived from a less than memorable poem by the then Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin.

I have always been fascinated with the events surrounding the Boer War and there are many who think that the Jameson Raid was its precursor. Jameson, with Rhodes’ backing, attempted, but failed, to overthrow the Government of Paul Kruger with only 500 men. The political fallout of his  failure  almost caused Salisbury’s Unionist Government to fall. Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, had to fight for his political life and Jameson and his officers together with many of the most influential men in Johannesburg were tried and imprisoned. Britain’s international reputation was sullied and she became a laughingstock in the capitals of Europe.

The origins of the book derived from a dissertation which I submitted for a MA degree at the University of Wolverhampton in 2015. I had recently retired from a career in Education and the spare time which my retirement gave me allowed me to make a serious study of Military History. I used the records of the two Select Committees into the Raid which both the Cape and the British Governments were forced to hold in order to determine responsibility. Both of them pointed the finger at Rhodes but it was Jameson and his officers who were imprisoned.

‘Rhodes must fall’ has been on many people’s lips in recent years, but the Jameson Raid had the effect of bringing him to his political knees. There is no doubt that he believed in the British Empire and its ‘civilising’ qualities. In this belief, he was not very different from the many  missionaries and explorers who went to Africa to bring ‘the advantages‘ of Europe’s culture and laws. Rhodes also had his eye on the main chance of increasing his fortune and that of his shareholders in the British South African Company which, with the Government’s permission, controlled huge swathes of Africa. It is perhaps less known that many of the Chiefs of African tribes in Rhodes’ sphere of influence sent emissaries to meet Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle  to complain at their treatment, and they were well received.

The involvement of Americans, such as John Hays Hammond, in the  promised uprising in  Johannesburg had repercussions in the United States and the efforts made to improve their  conditions in prison and Hammonds rehabilitation back into American Society is less well known. All  this at a time when Anglo-American relations over British Colonies were strained.

The overwhelming mystery about the Raid is how much did Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, know about it and to what extent was he involved. On hearing about Jameson’s impetuosity, whilst Chamberlain was dressing for the New Year’s Eve Servant’s Ball at his Highgrove home, one of his first thoughts was to resign. He quickly changed his mind and fought to save his career even appearing as a witness at the Inquiry which he had set up and was a member of. The Inquiry’s conclusions were the subject of furious debate in the House of Commons which exposed that the procedure for examining the Raid was flawed. and its conclusions were inconclusive.

This is the first full length book I have written and I have learned much about the process of writing through the support of the folks at Helion. My previous experience apart from academic  dissertations has been producing articles for variousMilitary Societies such as The Victorian Military Society, The Indian Military Society, and the Western Front Association. The VMS  was kind enough to award me the Howard Browne Medal in 2019 for a paper on Kitchener’s Indian Army reforms.

I am currently researching the Shangani Patrol and the massacre of Major Allan Wilson’s men during the Matabele War of 1893. This  was another of Rhodes’ and Jameson’s schemes to gain more land for the Empire and improve the share price of the British South Africa Company. Like the Jameson Raid, it is hard to know which motive, wealth or Empire, was their strongest. I hope this book will be published towards the end of 2021.


[1] E.A. Walker W.P. Schreiner: A South African (London: OUP, 1969), p. 91.

Bazaine 1870

A Miscarriage of Justice

By Quintin Barry

My first book, published by Helion in 2007, was a two volume history of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, a subject in which I have always had a profound interest. In volume 2 of that book I was particularly interested to explore the second phase of the war, after the battle of Sedan and the fall of the French Second Empire. That period has been covered much less thoroughly than the campaign that led up to Napoleon III’s surrender at Sedan. As the war began thereafter to spread to the rest of France, there immediately followed the siege of Metz, where the French Army of the Rhine, under Marshal Bazaine, was surrounded by the besieging Prussian army under Prince Frederick Charles.

   I went on to write a number of other books, some on the Franco Prussian war, and some on other subjects, but then came back to the history of the Army of the Rhine and the subsequent trial of its commander. As a lawyer, that trial interested me enormously, and so I began to research the book which has now been published by Helion under the title Bazaine 1870. Working on the book, it was not long before I realised that in my original history I had not done him justice, having in some instances followed the prevalent opinion of a number of other historians; as a result my analysis of him was unpardonably superficial.

   This became very apparent to me when I read Bazaine: Coupable ou Victime? This, written by Generals Edmond Ruby and Jean Regnault, was published in Paris in 1960. It is a hugely impressive demolition of the popularly held view of Bazaine. In now publishing my own account of the course of his career as it progressed towards the events of 1870, I hope that I have made good my previous lapses of judgement. Much of the contemporary literature about Bazaine, and his trial, was ill informed, politically motivated and unremittingly hostile. Some later historians, such as Sir Michael Howard, have produced a more balanced account; but not all, as for instance the American historian Geoffrey Wawro, previously the author of a brilliant history of the Austro Prussian War, who in his history of the war of 1870-1871seems to have swallowed the anti-Bazaine narrative hook line and sinker.

   The only comprehensive account in the English language of the tragic story of François Achille Bazaine was that written by Philip Guedalla in his vivid dual biography of Marshals Bazaine and Petain, published in 1943 under the title The Two Marshals. Guedalla succeeded in bringing to life the career of a man whose motivations remain to this day difficult to discern with any clarity. What was overwhelmingly clear, though, was just how unfairly Bazaine was treated. France needed a scapegoat for her shattering defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and in Bazaine one was found ready to hand. For surrendering Metz he was tried for his life on military charges devised by the first Napoleon, enraged by the surrender by General Dupont at Baylen in 1808 during the Peninsular War. The transcript of the lengthy proceedings, held in the Grand Trianon at Versailles, is of absorbing interest. Looking at Bazaine’s decisions during his command, I have no doubt that his conviction (the death sentence was commuted to one of imprisonment) was monstrously unjust, and I am glad to have had the opportunity of setting the record straight.

‘Bazaine 1870. Scapegoat for a Nation’ is now available to buy here.

https://www.helion.co.uk/military-history-books/bazaine-1870-scapegoat-for-a-nation.php

Henry Wilson – the backstabber’s backstabber – or soldier-diplomat?

By John Spencer

No study of the British Army’s senior command in the Great War is complete without a reference to Sir Henry Hughes Wilson. Like the villain in a Victorian melodrama he usually makes an early appearance, then skulks in the background only to reappear in the final act to stab his friends in the back. There is no doubt that Wilson was, and remains, a Marmite-character, but was he quite so black as his enemies painted him?

Wilson died before he could tell his own war story, and his reputation was shredded by a well-intentioned biography initiated by his widow and written by a friend and colleague, C.E. Callwell. That book was based in large part on Wilson’s detailed and highly entertaining diaries, in which every evening this most political of soldiers recorded his thoughts on his friends, his enemies, and war policy in general. Unfortunately for his reputation, Wilson’s often intemperate late-night scribblings found their way into the biography, much to the irritation of his contemporaries.

For those who disliked or distrusted Wilson (or both), here was proof-positive of his Janus-like character. For his friends and admirers (and there were many), it was disappointing to find themselves criticised behind their backs. Here, surely, was the ‘real’ Henry Wilson. The late Keith Jeffery’s excellent political biography (Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier, 2006) was a much more balanced account of this fascinating man. Notwithstanding Jeffery’s work, Wilson is still too many a one-dimensional character; untrustworthy, flippant, ambitious, admirer of politicians. The antithetical British army officer.

I encountered him first while studying Britain and the Great War for my master’s degree at Birmingham University. When I was considering a doctorate, he seemed like the ideal candidate. But what was there to say that was new? Viewing Wilson’s diaries at the Imperial War Museum it became clear that there was, in fact, quite a lot.

Although Wilson’s first biographer had squeezed the diaries for many a juicy reference, there were plenty more for the picking. Writing in the 1920’s, when many of the main characters were still alive, Callwell had understandably often anonymised his references, and skated over others. Pouring over his less than copperplate jottings, it soon became clear to me that there was far more to Wilson than the glib characterisation which had served as a shorthand for his character for almost a century.

Wilson wrote up his journal each evening after dinner. He usually used a W.H. Smith page-a-day hardback diary and, if what he had to say took more than the supplied page, he continued on any spare page elsewhere in the diary, or in a separate notebook. [A note here for researchers: Wilson’s diaries were microfiched in the dim and distant past and it is impossible to tie the daily diary with the additional notes’ pages in this format; remember to ask to examine the originals!] What became clear early on was that Wilson’s grumblings and criticisms were his way of ‘venting’ his feelings after a busy day – very much like modern fancy for late-night social media rants which, in the cold light of day are often regretted, and rarely acted upon. Wilson was writing for himself, not for public consumption; if he couldn’t grumble in his journal, where could he do it?

The diaries, his official papers, and those of his contemporaries together revealed a much more complex character than I had originally expected. Certainly, Wilson liked politicians (or some of them), and some of them liked him. But he was no fool, and no dupe. Henry Wilson was, unlike many officers of his rank and class, happy to mix with the ‘frocks’ and in so doing hoped to further both his career and his view of how the war might be won.

As if a cheeky ease with politicians wasn’t enough to place him in bad odour with his fellow officers, Wilson was also seen as a ‘Francophile’. This label was appended to Wilson because he spoke the language, and in the pre-War period had make it his business to study the French army and make friendships with French officers. These skills meant that for much of the war his main contribution to the British effort was not strategic command, but inter-allied liaison. Wilson was a friend, and sometimes adversary, of Ferdinand Foch. In the final 18 months of the war both men finally achieved great power and influence over their respective countries’ war policy.

This role as ‘soldier diplomat’ dominates Wilson’s War and will, I hope, add a new dimension to our understanding of a complex, yet fascinating soldier who had a far greater impact on British military policy both during and after the Great War, than many might originally believe.

My research has now returned to that other enigmatic and fascinating Great War general, Sir William Robertson. I have contributed chapters on ‘Wully’ to Spencer Jones’s three collections of writings on the Great War, all published by Helion. I am now working on the fourth, Robertson in 1917, the year in which the bluff Chief of the Imperial General Staff clashed directly with Henry Wilson; two more dissimilar characters can hardly be imagined.

You can now buy ‘Wilson’s War. Sir Henry Wilson’s Influence on British Military Policy in the Great War and its Aftermath’ here.

Kitchener: From Pariah to Hero

By Anne Samson

The name Lord Kitchener might not mean much to many today, however his face as the poster ‘Your country needs you’ is almost internationally recognised. At the turn of the 20th century Henry Horatio Kitchener was the British Empire celebrity of the day, yet for those of us growing up in South Africa, his name was (and for some still is) synonymous with butcher, scorched earth, and concentration camps. In Britain, for many he’s linked with ammunition shortages, and sending young men to be needlessly slaughtered on the battle fields of the Western Front.

With 53 biographies on the man, what more could there be to write about him? Most of them recount the same story in different words or focus on a particular encounter he had with individuals such as his five-year conflict with Viceroy of India Lord Curzon, his reliance on sword-arm Ian Hamilton, disagreements with Lords French and Haig and his failure at the War Office. The most comprehensive, detailed and balanced biography has to be that by John Pollock. So where does Kitchener: The Man not the Myth fit in? Especially as there’s a book similarly entitled, Kitchener: The Man Behind the Legend by Philip Warner. While Warner has tried to understand the personality behind the man known as Kitchener, K of K or simply K, he has kept to the traditional themes covered in previous studies, none of which answered a question I had stumbled upon when completing my thesis between 1998 and 2004: why did Kitchener not want to go to war in East Africa in 1914 and 1915?

Cyprus Survey Staff 1883

Superficially, this question was answered for my thesis using Pollock and a few others: Kitchener owned a coffee farm in, what is today, Kenya and had been involved in Zanzibar Boundary Commission having actually walked the land. A subsequent discovery of correspondence with General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien about his appointment to command the forces in East Africa suggested there was far more to Kitchener’s anti-war position than self-preservation of his farm. Trying to reconcile my perceptions of Kitchener with the man who stood his ground on the East Africa campaign resulted in the discovery of a personality hitherto unexposed and unexplored in the existing biographies.

While most biographers tend to regard Kitchener as a complete man, that is the same at the end of his career as at the start of his career showing a consistency of action and behaviour over time, in Kitchener: The Man not the Myth, I have explored the development of the man, how he learnt from past experiences, the challenges he faced in being a British citizen but not of the establishment or culture. It is only in understanding how much of an outsider Kitchener was in the British Army that one can appreciate his decision-making and actions. As with all human beings, he had faults but it’s how he managed these to achieve what he did that turned him from being a pariah in my books to a hero.

War work

Researching Kitchener, although straightforward in the sense of reading as many of the existing biographies as possible and focusing on the ‘glossed over’ statements alongside some archival investigation to clarify earlier interpretations of statements and views, presented some difficulties in terms of insight. While most biographers infer Kitchener’s dislike of women and insistence on having unmarried men on his staff, the sources presented a different picture. The result is a section on Kitchener’s women to compliment that on Kitchener’s ‘band of boys’. His encounter with Millicent Fawcettt in South Africa over the concentration camps and his relationships with his nieces, one being Fanny Parker, sheds interesting light on his attitude to the suffrage movement and use of women in war. Another challenge was presented by his seeming aloofness and sulking when things did not go his way contrasted with the number of occasions subordinates were surprised by tears running down his cheeks. His foresight in using and embracing technology was an unexpected discovery as was his linguistic ability, and attitude towards religion and the use of indigenous forces. Kitchener’s clear sense of priority and allegiance to his monarch and his views on how an army should be run led to him being misunderstood on many an occasion, sometimes with unfortunate and sad consequences such as the death of Hector MacDonald.

It’s worth saying this book is not a military study. While the Sudan campaigns and the 1899-1902 war in South Africa including Paardeberg are mentioned, they are not discussed in detail as other more qualified authors have done this. Whether Kitchener was right in reforming the India Army and his ensuing conflict with Curzon has also been left to others more qualified. What Kitchener: the man not the myth does is provide alternative interpretations for his actions and extract from these events what Kitchener learnt on his route to being asked to fill the role of Secretary of State for War. His anomalous position as a civilian in authority alongside not relinquishing his military role, in what Prime Minister Herbert Asquith described as an ‘experiment’ provides evidence of the breadth of skill and knowledge Kitchener was seen to have in Britain’s time of need, yet his very strengths led to his fall from grace despite this experiment and his achievements.

A relaxing golf

As with all studies, more questions have been raised. For myself, these concern the East Africa campaign of World War One and the role of railways in the African campaigns. For others, I hope this new insight into Kitchener will lead scholars to consider his and other senior military officials of the time’s military actions in new lights.

Kitchener close up – Horse Guards

Dr Anne Samson is a specialist of World War One in Africa, with a particular focus on British East, Central and Southern Africa. She runs the Great War in Africa Association (https://gweaa.com) and has numerous publications to her name on the African campaigns. These, together with talks she’s presented, are listed on her website http://www.thesamsonsedhistorian.wordpress.com

You can buy ‘Kitchener: The Man not the Myth’ here.

Revenge, Honour, and National Identity

Nicholas Kaizer explains why the War of 1812 still has such a resonance in today’s Canada.

‘A six pounder is not an army, no more is 450 men, except in our puny war’ wrote one Upper Canadian in a Halifax newspaper in 1813.[1] Even contemporaries living in the British North American colonies (what is today Eastern Canada) recognized that the scale of the War of 1812 was tiny compared to the titanic campaigns being waged in Europe. By this point in the Napoleonic Wars, field armies could comprise hundreds of thousands of men: over 600,000 men made up Napoleon’s Grand Armée when he invaded Russia (1812), and the colossal Battle of Leipzig (1813) involved 600,000 soldiers in all. The British army that invaded and burned Washington DC (1814), by contrast, fielded just over 4,000 redcoats. The colonials also recognized, that to the wider British Empire, their Anglo-American conflict was a bit of a sideshow.

Still, 19th century Haligonians were engrossed by the campaigns in Canada, just as they were by those of Lord Wellington in Europe. The naval actions of the conflict were not neglected, either. Most shockingly for Halifax, USS Constitution, the famous American heavy frigate, defeated two Royal Navy frigates in single ship actions. A third frigate was captured by her sister ship, USS United States, and by March 1813 three British sloops of war met the same fate. During the 19th century, Halifax was a fiercely British city – proud subjects of the King and proud of the Royal Navy. Haligonians, who had enthusiastically followed the exploits of Admiral Horatio Nelson, were shocked by the losses, and struggled to come to terms with them; how could the Royal Navy be defeated by the upstart Americans?

A large ship in the water

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Not the Little Belt
Illustration by Elizabetha Tsitrin, Image Courtesy of Blue Nautilus Art, https://bluenautilusart.com/

Today, we Canadians cling to our national prowess in hockey and celebrate our athletes. The Toronto Raptor’s Championship win in the summer of 2019 briefly drew the attention and admiration of the country. In the early 19th century, our sports heroes were the officers and men of the Royal Navy’s frigates – figures who held a great degree of star power. They captivated Halifax’s youth and inspired many to seek a career in the navy, including a young Provo Wallis, who won fame during the War of 1812, and would go on to reach the highest rank in the Royal Navy. Beamish Murdoch, a future Nova Scotian historian who was a boy during the conflict, remembered the ‘sad series of disasters’ which, while ‘they are only connected with the history of our province indirectly,’ their impact ‘on the minds of our people was great, stimulating their patriotism and loyalty instead of depressing them.’[2] Faced with the losses of 1812, Halifax’s papers sought to defend the reputation and honour of their naval heroes, clinging to the fact that USS Constitution and her sisters vastly outclassed the RN frigates which they defeated. It was a remarkably similar tune to that sung by the press in England, which too sought to defend the honour of the Royal Navy and its sailors. This is still the understanding of today’s British and Canadian historians. The historiography of the War of 1812, alas, has always been steeped in national biases.

When I set to work on the project that would culminate in Revenge in the Name of Honour, I quickly noticed that not all contemporaries seemed to agree that the American victories could be sufficiently explained by their marked advantage in sire and firepower. None other than James Dacres, the captain of HMS Guerriere during her crushing loss to USS Constitution, declared at his court martial that the disparity in force had little to do with the defeat, and that he wished ‘to be once more opposed to the Constitution, with [his old crew] under my command, in a frigate of similar force to the Guerriere.’[3] The attitudes and actions of the Royal Navy’s captains following the losses suggest that Dacres’ rather bold interpretation was not unique. More than one officer sought revenge and contemplated putting their ships and crew into unnecessary risk to do so. The boldest was Captain Philip Broke of HMS Shannon, whose tiresome and risky efforts to bring about a single ship action with an American frigate paid off on 1 June 1813, when in a brief action Shannon captured USS Chesapeake.

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H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake Into Halifax Harbour. Schletky, J.C., King, R.H., Haghe, L. Library and Archives Canada, R3908-0-0-E W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana, http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=2836439

The victory reinvigorated the British. It was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, and Broke was showered with praise and honours from Halifax and British society. Halifax continued to celebrate the action well into the following century, and it became a staple of cultural memory and local literature. Its centenary in 1913 was marked by major events, and the 150th anniversary was celebrated with a naval spectacle, attended by warships from the Royal Navy, the still-young Royal Canadian Navy, and even from the United States Navy, once a bitter enemy but now united by a camaraderie built over two world wars. Alas, as with most aspects of the War of 1812, it had largely faded from public memory by the bicentenary in 2012, when the Government of Canada again commemorated the war, as part of a wider mission to celebrate a nostalgic vision of Canada’s colonial past.

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Photograph of a 18-pounder on display outside Province House, Halifax (seat of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly), believed to have come from Shannon. One believed to have come from Chesapeake is on display on the opposite side of the building. Halifax Military Heritage Preservation Society, https://hmhps.ca/sites/shannon-vs-chesapeake

While the general public in Halifax has largely forgotten the conflict, the naval-interested public still hold a certain delight in this particular bit of history. It has taken up more than its fair share of curated space in museums and public places in the city, which is hardly surprising; not only was Shannon’s senior surviving lieutenant a Haligonian (Provo Wallis), but Canadians delight in any arena we can claim a victory over our cousins to the south. It was no different in Halifax in 1813, when the small town flocked from Sunday church to the waterfront to cheer on Shannon and the Haligonian officer at her helm.

Lieutenant Provo Wallis, At the Time of His Victorious Entry Into Halifax Harbour, ca. 1800-1880, Davey Fitzner. Library and Archives Canada/William Kingsford collection/e010966281, http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=FonAndCol&IdNumber=4310540

[1] NSA, Acadian Recorder, Saturday 4 December 1813, 1:47 (online), available at https://novascotia.ca/archives/newspapers/archives.asp?ID=800

[2] Beamish Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia, or Acadie, (Halifax: J. Barnes, 1867), Vol 3, p.334.

[3] TNA, ADM 1/5431, Testimony of Dacres, CM Guerriere.

MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East: Mikoyan I Gurevich MiG-23 in Service in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, 1973-2018

By Tom Cooper

Terminus ‘MiG-23’, perhaps even ‘Flogger’, is likely to appear at least ‘common’ to many of readers. Yes, that’s that arrow-like design from a stable of well-known, Soviet-made fighters, many of which were captivating our minds during the times of the Cold War, back in the 1970s and 1980s. Younger readers are going to recognize it from several recent – indeed: ongoing – conflicts, like those in Libya but especially Syria.

The MiG-23 was never a ‘star’: although once manufactured and rolled out in numbers hard to imagine in these days, and widely exported, it was easily overshadowed by the Mach-3 capable MiG-25, the type the ASCC/NATO code-named the ‘Foxbat’. On the contrary, and although famed not only by the Soviets but even in diverse Western intelligence assessments shortly after its service entry, the MiG-23 was something of an anti-star: the type belittled by many. In the West of nowadays, it is best-known as something like an ‘awful’ aircraft to fly, technically unreliable, problematic – if not outright impossible to control, and then one the reputation of which was definitely ruined by heavy losses the Syrian Arab Air Force is claimed to have suffered during the Lebanon War of 1982, not to talk about the defection of a Syrian pilot with a MiG-23 to Israel, seven years later.

Actually, these were only two episodes in the history of this type – and then two actually minor episodes in a long history.

Far more important is that the MiG-23 was never studied within the context in which it came into being, nor within which it was originally expected to be operated. Not only multiple researchers in the West, but all the Russian-language researchers are usually concentrating on revealing the technology-related secrets of this family only: very little attention is paid to its operational service, and even less so to a comparison

The aim of the book ‘MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East’ is to set that record straight: it is a culmination of 30 years of related research, in the course of which I wanted to find out what do ‘those’ MiG-23s flown by diverse air forces in the Middle East look like, who was flying them, what were their experiences, and how effective they have proven themselves.

The MiG-23 came into being along ideas of the General Staff (‘GenStab’) of the Soviet military: a cast of highly-qualified military minds indoctrinated to think in best traditions of von Clausewitz. Back in the early 1960s, the GenStab envisaged the type as a ‘hands-off’, ‘remotely controlled’ interceptor – a literal ‘missile with a man inside’, carrying a radar and missiles capable of hunting F-104 Starfighters and USAF’s F-105 Thunderchiefs, armed with nuclear bombs and underway at very low altitudes over Central Europe. This type was not expected to ‘waste time’ with searching for its targets, in dogfights or any other discipline of air combat: it was supposed to operate with full support of a well-developed network of ground-based early warning radars and electronic warfare stations, to take-off, catch its target, fire, kill – and return to base. It was supposed to bring the emphasis of air warfare to the point.  For this reason, it carried a bare minimum of necessary avionics.

So much for planning. In reality, even the best plans tend to come apart as soon as they encounter the enemy. In reality, it was so that because the GenStab changed its requirements several times, it took too long to develop the MiG-23. By the time it appeared, it was de-facto obsolete in comparison to its Western competitors.

Nevertheless, by then it was too late: even Moscow could not argument pro a project that meanwhile took billions of Rubles and seven years to develop – without pressing it into service. At least as important was the fact that diverse of Soviet customers in the Middle East were demanding an advanced interceptor, something better than the MiG-21 – droves of which were shot down by Mirages and Phantoms of the Israeli air force, equipped with vastly-superior armament, in early 1970s. Some of customers in question conditioned the state of their relations to the Soviet Union on deliveries of such aircraft. Unsurprisingly, the Soviets rushed to deliver: in a matter of two years, more than 200 MiG-23s have reached Syria, then Egypt, followed by Iraq and Libya. As proud as always, the Soviets famed their new interceptors as at least matching, if not clearly outmatching anything the West was likely to deliver to its local allies. With exception of the Algerians, most of their local customers were more than happy to buy this version.

It turned out that rushing is never a good idea – especially not when it comes to the research and development of an advanced combat aircraft. Early MiG-23 variants were suffering far more from incomplete testing and poor manufacturing quality, than to combat attrition. Eventually, it took them years of additional efforts – including hiring of US test-pilots who then wrote a new flight manual for the type in Libya – to turn the aircraft of this family into combat-effective platforms.

Meanwhile, diverse variants of the MiG-23 saw combat in most diverse conflicts – and nearly always without the kind of support from the ground as originally envisaged. While often not declared into ‘Soviet supported’, even the Syrian military did not receive the equipment necessary to provide proper support for its MiG-23s, and this is not to talk about the Iraqi military, or that of Libya. Egypt meanwhile abandoned the idea of continuing the acquisition, while Algeria de-facto went its own way.

Nevertheless, advanced variants of the MiG-23 did enter service in Iraq and Libya of the mid-1980s, and these then saw more of intensive combat operations in these two countries alone – than in all other air forces around the World, combined.

In the early 1990s, the MiG-23 rapidly fell out of everybody’s favour: no matter what variant, the entire fleet became block-obsolete due to the appearance of such types like MiG-29 or Sukhoi Su-27.  Thus, only air forces out of condition to replace it have continued to keep their MiG-23s in operational condition. But, and once again, exactly such air forces – those of Iraq, Libya, and Syria – were to see more combat action over the last 20 years, than most of other air forces around the Globe.

The story provided in ‘MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East’ remains incomplete: the type is still in operational service with three air forces involved in diverse wars. And plenty of details remain outside my reach. However, thanks to the cooperation of nearly two dozen active- and former-MiG-23-pilots from six different air forces, this book provides a host of exclusive insights, and de-facto re-writing the operational history of this type.

MiG-23 Flogger in the Middle East: Mikoyan I Gurevich MiG-23 in Service in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, 1973-2018 is available to order here.