Battle of Plassey

Clive

Robert, 1st Baron Clive of Plassey

On this day in the year 1757 Robert Clive led his army of 3,000 soldiers against an Indian and French army of 50,000 at the village of Palashi, north of modern day Kolkata.  On the morning of this day the British position in India was highly uncertain.  The French or the Dutch could easily have ended up as paramount European power in India.

After the battle of Plassey the French were neutralised.  Two years later the British were able to consolidate their position by defeating the Dutch at the battle of Chinsurah.

The Battle of Plassey was won by two secret weapons; bribery and tarpaulins.  Clive negotiated a deal with Mir Jafar and a group of senior Indians.  Jafar commanded the left wing of the Indian forces at Plassey, and defected to the British for a bribe.  There was also an issue of two different sets of treaties that were drawn up to hoodwink certain of the conspirators.  Sadly this type of double dealing is all too common in the history of British diplomatic dealings.  Beware perfidious Albion.

On the military side the victory was not assured.  The early stages of the battle were a stalemate as the French and English artillery pounded at each other with little strategic effect.  Then the rain came down.  The French and Indian artillery saw their powder drenched.  Their fire rates plummeted.

This was the signal for the massive Indian cavalry contingent to sweep the British from the field.  They charged the British guns only to be decimated by a hail of grapeshot.  The British had tarpaulins and they deployed them to keep the powder dry.  This simple expedient turned the course of the battle and gave the day to Robert Clive.  The ennobled Clive built his Estate in County Clare in Ireland and named it Plassey Estate.

Across the Shannon River Thomas Maunsell, scion of another General of the British Army on the day named his Limerick House after the battle, Plassey House.  These lands now house Limerick University.  Students nickname the building “The White House”.

 

Winning the war on terror

Improvised British Armoured Car

Improvised British Armoured Car

You cannot win a “war on terror” by military action.  Anyone who believes otherwise should look a the modern history of Ireland.

The Irish people wanted independence from Great Britain.  They moved between violent and political approaches over time.  Ultimately the Irish developed the dual strategy now nicknamed “the bullet and the ballot box”.  the British Empire was at the peak of its powers in the early 20th Century.  Ireland is not a large nation like India.  Ireland is not a powerful nation like the USA.  Ireland is not located far away from the centre of British power, like New Zealand.  Ireland is a small, weak country sitting right in Britains armpit.

Despite holding all the cards the British could not hold Ireland.  They could win every battle but never win the “war”.  The Irish learned that it was foolish to engage in fair fights against the British, so we fought dirty, the guerilla.

The IRA in the 1920’s made it impossible for the British to administer Ireland.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland moved from a guerilla war to a terrorist war.  They fought it on British soil.  It was even dirtier than the guerilla war of the 1920’s. The British evenually learned that they could not win this war.  Every victory they scored against the terrorists was a recruitment drive for the IRA.

The British learned at last that the way to end a war on terror was to build peace.  Engender understanding and respect for your foe, listen to their grievances, right the wrongs and work together to build a better society.

So I was simply astounded yesterday listening to David Cameron crowing like a cock in parliament over the murder of “Jihadi John”.  Simply calling the man by this jingoistic nickname is an indication that the British Government have forgotten all the hard won lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process.

This morning as David Cameron surveys the wreckage of Paris I wonder how bullish he feels about “taking out” Jihadi John?  The important thing here is to take a deep breath and review the situation.

The “war on terror” is going to kill British and French people, and perhaps also Americans and Russians.  You don’t fight a war in Syria.  You care for the Syrian people.  You give them peace and prosperity.  You defend them from violence.  You stop selling them guns and start buying their melons.  You stabilise their economy and give the Syrian people what they want, a safe and comfortable home.  That’s how you defeat terrorism.

Leipzig

Leipzig

Growing up in Ireland makes us part of a world that has traditionally been dominated by England.  Much of our understanding of history is influenced by the English weltanschauung.  

A clear incidence of this influence is the celebration of the importance of Battle of Waterloo in the defeat of Napoleon and the studious neglect of the Battle of Leipzig.  Waterloo was fought by the Seventh coalition, led by an Englishman, the Duke of Wellington.  Leipzig was the victory of the Sixth coalition, led by the Russians under Alexander.

In truth the battle of Leipzig was a far more important engagement.  The coalition fought Napoleon at the height of his power and he was roundly defeated for the first time on the battlefield.  Bonaparte lost the battle, but also lost his reputation for invincibility.  He left the legend of his military genius on the field of Leipzig.

The battle was the greatest fought on European soil until the Great War.  Casualties numbered in excess of 100,000 (higher than Borodino, but spread over 4 days) .  By comparison Waterloo, with 60,000 casualties was a sideshow, a last gasp by an already defeated and spent force.

Ranged against Napoleon where the forces of Sweden, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Saxony and Wurttemberg.  In particular it was seen as a great victory for the Germans in the Alliance.  The painting above is entitled “Declaration of Allied Victory after the Battle of Leipzig, 19th October, 1813”, painted by Johann Peter Krafft in 1839.  This painting is a classic piece of propaganda.  It was repainted at least 6 times, re-arranging the prominence of the allied leaders to suit particular commissions.

If only the British played some small part in the sixth coalition then the painting could have been repainted a seventh time.  We could have seen the British Commander take pride of place at the center of European events.  Then we would know all about the Battle of Leipzig.  Instead when we hear about European wars we hear of Blenheim and Waterloo.

The great commander of the day, the General who marched in only one direction, Forwards, was Blucher.  He triumphed at both Leipzig and Waterloo!  He even has a pair of shoes named after him, and his design became the template for all modern mens shoes.

Song of the Grenadiers:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.
But of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that can compare.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers.

Those heroes of antiquity ne’er saw a cannon ball,
Or knew the force of powder to slay their foes withal.
But our brave boys do know it, and banish all their fears,
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.

Whene’er we are commanded to storm the palisades,
Our leaders march with fusees, and we with hand grenades.
We throw them from the glacis, about the enemies’ ears.
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.

And when the siege is over, we to the town repair.
The townsmen cry, “Hurrah, boys, here comes a Grenadier!
Here come the Grenadiers, my boys, who know no doubts or fears!
Then sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.

Then let us fill a bumper, and drink a health of those
Who carry caps and pouches, and wear the loupèd clothes.
May they and their commanders live happy all their years.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.

Land Ship

Tank

Today is the anniversary of the appearance of the Tank in battle.  The British used them, in a limited capacity, in the Somme offensive.

The Tanks were not very effective.  Winston Churchill envisaged them as dreadnoughts, great armoured ships of the land which would devastate the German lines.  In reality there were too few, they were too unreliable and nobody knew quite how to use them.

That comes as no surprise.  The British army was all at sea in the early phase of the Somme.  The French were making excellent ground, eating up the miles and chewing up German lines.  They had learned their lessons well at Verdun.  They understood how to fight the industrial war.  Concentrated artillery wins the ground and the troops hold the gains.

The French learned the need to have specialist squads for different duties, who were well trained in the requirements of their role.  Riflemen to take the lines cleared by the artillery, light machine-gun companies to clear out strong-points and grenade companies to “clear-out” dugouts and trenches while the riflemen advanced.

The British had not absorbed these lessons.  They had not fought this type of battle before.  In their arrogance they did not listen to the French advisers.  The generals thought they knew what they were doing and the poor blighters on the front lines died to prove them wrong.

Blighters: by Siegfried Sassoon

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

Matilda

Matilda

Take two bus engines, a two pounder cannon and stick them into a hugely armoured chassis and you have the Matilda MK II, the British Infantry tank of WW2.  Designed very much around the principles of WW1 rather than WW2, she was slow, but very hard to take out.  Her off road speed was 6 MPH, barely faster than walking pace.  She was not  equipped with high-explosive shells, so against infantry her only effective weapon was the machine gun.

Initially when the Matilda appeared in France in 1940 she gave the Germans some concern.  The Panzer III’s had 37mm guns and the up-gunned Panzer IV had a 50mm gun and neither could penetrate the Matilda armour.  The germans then figured out that they could use their 88mm anti-aircraft guns as tank killers and the Matildas were all lost to the British in France.  They may have contributed in their own small way to the escape from Dunkirk.  The encounter with the Matilda convinced the German High Command that they needed to up-gun their tanks further to 75mm and beyond.

It was in December 1940 against the Italians in “Operation Compass” the Matilda earned the nickname “Queen of the Desert”.  The Italians had nothing like the German 88mm and could not stop the relentless march of the Matildas down the coast road from Egypt to Libya.  A British force of only 31,000 men under General Richard O’Connor (good Irish stock of course) took out an Italian army under General Graziani that was five times their size.

O’Connor was then set to drive right across Libya and oust the Axis forces from the continent of Africa.  But Churchill intervened and ordered the British to stop the advance, and divert troops to a failed defence of Greece.

The collapse of the Italians led to Hitler sending General Rommel and the Afrika Corps in March and Rommel quickly demonstrated that he was a very different kind of opponent.  The reign of the “Queen of the Desert” was over.  Rommel was a modern tank commander with fast moving tanks operating as cavalry, not as infantry.

Amazingly the Matilda remained in service all through the war.  I’m sure the infantry appreciated a large armored barricade that could not outrun them.

Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death; by Hilaire Belloc
Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not She
Discovered this Infirmity.
For once, towards the Close of Day,
Matilda, growing tired of play,
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the Telephone
And summoned the Immediate Aid
Of London’s Noble Fire-Brigade.
Within an hour the Gallant Band
Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow.
With Courage high and Hearts a-glow,
They galloped, roaring through the Town,
‘Matilda’s House is Burning Down!’
Inspired by British Cheers and Loud
Proceeding from the Frenzied Crowd,
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the Ball Room Floor;
And took Peculiar Pains to Souse
The Pictures up and down the House,
Until Matilda’s Aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed;
And even then she had to pay
To get the Men to go away,
It happened that a few Weeks later
Her Aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that Interesting Play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her Niece
To hear this Entertaining Piece:
A Deprivation Just and Wise
To Punish her for Telling Lies.
That Night a Fire did break out–
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street–
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidnce) — but all in vain!
For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

Casabianca (not Casablanca)

Battleofthenile

Most readers will have been introduced to this poem through parodies, of which there are many. My favourite is Spike Milligan, who transposed the first two lines and finished off the poem with a single word in the third line…”Twit”.
What fewer people know is that the poem is based on a real life event and a real person.
The event was the 1798 Battle of the Nile, which cemented the fame of Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, who later became Admiral Lord Nelson. As with many battles it has two names. It is also called the Battle of Aboukir Bay. The latter is a more accurate name for the battle, as it occurred in Alexandria, which is some distance from the Nile. But the British public knew nothing of Aboukir Bay, but recognised the Nile. So for propaganda purposes it became the Battle of the Nile.
The battle exhibited the brilliance of Nelson and the shortcomings of Napoleon when it came to matters at sea. Napoleon invaded Egypt as a prelude to carving out a route to India with the intention of depriving Great Britain of that jewel. On land he was invincible. But he had no sense of naval tactics. He insisted that the French fleet station itself nearby in case he required an exit from Egypt.
This was far from ideal. Aboukir bay is open and exposed, impossible to defend. A stronger admiral would have refused Napoleon and taken his fleet to a secure bay in Crete or Cyprus. From the islands a fleet could command approach routes, and sweep down on a weaker enemy at will. More importantly it could defend itself from a stronger foe in a secure harbour.
Instead François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers was compromised into anchoring his fleet off Alexandria. In Aboukir bay he took his ships inshore as close as he dared and chained them in a defensive line. He reasoned that the British, if they found him, would be forced to keep to the open side of his line, and he could fight them on even terms. Chaining the ships together prevented the enemy from getting amongst them.
Nelson arrived, assessed the situation and made a quick decision. He sent his shallow draught ships into the channel between the land and the French. A brave and risky manoevre, and entirely unexpected. His heavier ships sailed in parallel on the open side of the French fleet. The British then unleashed a double broadside on the French. It is certain that the inland guns of the French were unprepared for the engagement.
The result was a devastating blow, taking the French apart. Of 13 ships of the line the French had 2 sunk and 9 captured.
The poem is a celebration of the eponymous young French boy who stood his station as his ship erupted in flame.
Casabianca by Felecia Dorothea Hemans

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm –
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.
The flames rolled on – he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
He called aloud: – ‘say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.
Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair;
And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.
They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.
There came a burst of thunder-sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!–
With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part –
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.

Old Contemptibles

Dease

When they marched into war in 1914 the British regular army was unsure of its credentials on the great European stage.  It was over 60 years since the Crimean war, the last time Britain engaged with European foes.  In the interim years the German and French armies had modernised and traded blows with each other a number of times.

The Germans were respectful of the French army, but saw the British Expeditionary Force as irrelevant to the bigger picture.  On 23rd August 1914 the Germans met the British at Mons.  Though they outnumbered the British 3:1 the Germans were stopped in their tracks for 48 hours.

So rapid and concentrated was the fire from the British rifles that the Germans were sure they faced machine gun batteries.  They came away from the battle with a new found respect for the British army.

At British headquarters the brass concocted a supposed order from the Kaiser to his troops, telling them to “march over the contemptible little British army”.  Although it was pure morale boosting propaganda, the soldiers believed it and the story stuck.  The survivors of the British regular army were proud to bear the nickname “the old contemptibles”.

Not many of them survived the “race to the sea” and the regular British army ceased to exist as a force by the 1st battle of Ypres in November, 3 months after their first encounter with the Germans at Mons.

Mons became legendary for the British.  Practically, it demonstrated that the British regulars were more than a match for the Germans, and gave hope to the raw recruits drafted to replace the regulars.  Psychologically it established a legend for the British in France.  Soldiers spoke of seeing the “Angel of Mons” charging to battle with the British, supported by the spirits of longbowmen from Crecy and Agincourt.

100 years on, we remember the Great War, a war which lasted, to all intents, from 1914 to 1945.  We remember the fallen.  They shall not grow old.

 

For the Fallen; by Robert Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.