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”.

 

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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.

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.

Battle of Crécy

Crecy

For many historians the Battle of Crécy heralds the dominance of the English Longbow on the continental battlefield, a superiority subsequently proven at Poitiers and Agincourt.  Crécy was fought on August 26th, 1346.  It was one of the greatest English victories of the 100 years war.

In truth the big winner at Crécy was the weather.  The English had time to choose their ground, deploying in three divisions on a steep hillside with well protected flanks.

The French arrived after the English and there was a great deal of confusion in their deployment.  The French brought thousands (the exact number is disputed) of Genoese mercenary crossbowmen.  There were three major issues with the Crossbowmen.

  1.  It rained just before the battle.  While the English longbow men could unstring their bows and keep the strings dry it was not possible for the Genoese to do the same.  Bowstrings were made of catgut, which slackens when soaked and loses all power to launch arrows or bolts.  This is exactly what happened the Genoese.
  2. The Genoese Pavises were stuck in the baggage train.  These large metal shields were usually placed in the ground in front of crossbowmen and allowed them to reload without having to take fire.  Without their shields the Genoese were naked on the battlefield, taking 10 to 12 longbow shafts for every bolt they could fire.
  3. The French nobility had low regard for the Genoese mercenaries.  They would tolerate no excuses and attributed the complaints about bowstrings and pavises to cowardice.  They insisted the Genoese go on the assault.

The result was a decimation of the Genoese by the English Longbows.  The Genoese then turned and ran, and were cut down by the French cavalry on their own side.  As a result the French cavalry was in total disarray when the charge was sounded.

The pride of french nobility then pounded up a steep wet slope on horseback straight into a hail of cloth yard shafts.  Downed horses presented obstacles to cavalry in the second and third lines.

When they did manage to ascend the slope they were met by well formed and disciplined lines of English infantry.  Time and again the French charged.  Time and again they were repulsed.

The end result was a highly asymmetrical outcome.  The English losses may have numbered as few as 100.  French and Genoese losses may number as high as 4,000.  The practice of the day was to count only noble losses, of which the French lost in the region of 2,000 men.

One of the direct outcomes of the battle was the fall of Calais to the English, an enclave held for over 200 years until its fall during the reign of “Bloody” Mary Tudor, Queen of England, and a small bit of France, for a while.

And now a poem about the longbow.  One small detail Doyle omits though….the best Yew wood came from Italy.  Reading his wording I think he may have known this and opted to omit it as being unpatriotic.  He says the bow was “made” in England, but specifies that the shaft was “cut” in England.

The Song of the Bow; by Arthur Conan Doyle
What of the bow?
The bow was made in England:
Of true wood, of yew-wood,
The wood of English bows;
So men who are free
Love the old yew-tree
And the land where the yew-tree grows.

What of the cord?
The cord was made in England:
A rough cord, a tough cord,
A cord that bowmen love;
And so we will sing
Of the hempen string
And the land where the cord was wove.

What of the shaft?
The shaft was cut in England:
A long shaft, a strong shaft,
Barbed and trim and true;
So we’ll drink all together
To the grey goose-feather
And the land where the grey goose flew.

What of the mark?
Ah, seek it not in England,
A bold mark, our old mark
Is waiting over-sea.
When the strings harp in chorus,
And the lion flag is o’er us,
It is there that our mark will be.

What of the men?
The men were bred in England:
The bowmen—the yeomen,
The lads of dale and fell.
Here’s to you—and to you!
To the hearts that are true
And the land where the true hearts dwell.

Jour Camerone

Legionnaires

Today in Aubagne la Légion étrangère, the French Foreign Legion, celebrates its most important anniversary, the battle of Camerone.

Camerone was the action that defined the spirit of the French Foreign Legion.  A company of only 62 men and three officers fought an army of 3,000 Mexicans to a standstill in a battle lasting ten hours.

When he realised that they were surrounded the French commander, Captain Jean Danjou, asked his men to swear an oath to fight to the death.  They swore their oath on the wooden prosthetic arm of the Captain.  This wooden hand is now the most prized possession of the Legion in Aubagne.  The greatest honour for a legionnaire is to carry the arm in parade.

The legionnaires fought action after action in the course of the day.  Three times the Mexicans begged them to surrender and save their lives.  Three times they refused.  When at last the final five ran out of ammunition, instead of surrendering they mounted a bayonet charge.

Thus was born the legend of the French Foreign Legion.

-o0o-

Ils furent ici moins de soixante

Opposés a toute une armée

Sa masse les écrasa

La vie plutot que le courage

Abandonna ces soldats Français

Le 30 Avril 1863

A leur memoire la patrie eleva ce monument

-o0o-

Here it was that less than sixty

Opposed an entire army

Its numbers crushed them

Life rather than courage

Abandoned these soldiers of France

April 30, 1863

In their memory the homerland raised this monument

0

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I have a rendezvous with Death ; by Alan Seeger (American & Legionnaire)

I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air—

I have a rendezvous with Death

When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

0

It may be he shall take my hand

And lead me into his dark land

And close my eyes and quench my breath—

It may be I shall pass him still.

I have a rendezvous with Death

On some scarred slope of battered hill,

When Spring comes round again this year

And the first meadow-flowers appear.

0

God knows ’twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear…

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Armegeddon

Thutmoses

Har Megiddo or Tel Megiddo are names for the Megiddo city mound.  Har Megiddo gave us the word Armageddon, the supposed site of the end of world battle from the book of Revelations in the Bible.

A Tell or Tel, is the usual name for the structure.  What looks like a natural hill is in fact the remains of human occupation.  A town is built on the plain using mud brick.  Over time the bricks crumble and new houses are built on top of the old ones.  After centuries of occupation the town rises above the plain.

Megiddo was the site of the first reliably recorded battle in history on this day in 1457 BCE.  The Egyptians, led by Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated the Canaanite army led by the King of Kadesh.

It is the first battle to record a casualty list.  The first recorded use of the compound bow.  And the first recorded battle in the area that has recorded the greatest density of battles of any place in the world.

The land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and from Antioch in the North to the Sinai and Aqaba in the South.  This narrow corridor is the primary highway for land movements between Africa, Europe and Asia.  Anyone controlling this land can benefit from imports, exports and innovations of three continents.  They can strategically control access from continent to continent.

Amenhotep fought campaigns here.  The Israelites fought the Canaanites.  Ramses the Great fought the Hittites here in the huge chariot battle of Kadesh.  The Egyptians sacked Jerusalem in the reigns of Pharaoh Sheshonk and King Rehoboam.  Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem.  Alexander the Great besieged Tyre.  The Seleucids fought an elephant and phalanx battle against the Ptolomies at Raphia in the modern Gaza strip.  The Maccabees fought the Seleucids.

The Romans fought there, including emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian and Titus.  The Arabs drove out the Byzantines.  The Crusaders drove out the Arabs.  The Mamelukes drove out the Crusaders.  Napoleon fought the Mamelukes here.  Then the Turks drove out the Mamelukes.  The British drove out the Turks in World War 1.  They fought the Vichy French in World War 2.  The Israelis then drove out the British.  The Egyptians, the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Palestinians, the Iranians, the Iraqis and the Lebanese have all tried to drive out the Israelis.  They fought the war of 1948.  Then the British and the French invaded Suez.  This was followed by the six day war, the Yom Kippur war, the South Lebanon war, the Intifada, the second Intifada.

If you Google the name of a town in this area of the world with the words “Battle of” in front of it, Google will ask “Which Battle?”

The battles I have mentioned here are only the really famous ones.  There are many, many more.  Armageddon indeed!

Formigny

Formigny

Every Englishman knows about Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt.   These were the great victories of the English over the French in the 100 years war, where the English longbow made the difference between the sides.  The common Englishman was able to slay mounted French knights and steal the victory on the battlefield.

After the victory of Agincourt Henry V established the high watermark of English rule on the continent.  Edward VI was crowned king of both England and France in 1422 on the death of his father.  Edward was 9 months old.  From that high point it all went downhill.

The battle of Formigny ended the presence of England in Normandy with a resounding defeat.  After a successful and sustained campaign by the French to retake Normandy the complete destruction of the English army at Formigny signalled the end of Normandy as an English possession.  It left Calais as the only English foothold in France, which was held until the reign of Bloody Mary Tudor.

Formigny is interesting from a historical perspective, because it laid out the future pattern of battle up until the invention of the rifled musket in the mid-nineteenth century in the US Civil War.

The English at Formigny, three quarters of whom were archers, established a strong defensive position, protected by ditches and stakes.  The French, who had at last learned the lessons of Crécy and Agincourt, did not get drawn into a cavalry charge.

Instead they mounted only sufficient cavalry skirmishes against the flanks of the English to keep them bunched.  They brought up artillery pieces and began to pound the archers from a safe distance.

The English infantry knew that if they remained in position they would be slaughtered by cannon fire.  They presented an easy target in their defensive square.

If they broke formation to escape the cavalry would run them down and rout them in open country.

So they bravely launched a frontal attack on the French and captured the guns.

Before they could retreat and reform an organised defensive position a new force of Breton cavalry appeared on the English flank.  They were charged and in their loose formation became easy pickings for the French knights.

This choreography of defensive square, infantry marching column and firing line evolved over the following years to become the tactics of Napoleonic era armies.  Archers were gradually replaced by musketeers.  Static defensive positions protected by stakes were replaced by mobile pike squares.

As artillery became lighter and more manoeuvrable the defensive squares had to become more agile.  The pike was replaced by the bayonet, providing a far greater concentration of firepower in the squares.

All of this was ordained at Formigny.  But what English man would remember such a day?

Formigny, sounds a bit like Fontenoy!

Fontenoy; by Thomas Osborne Davis

Thrice, at the huts of Fontenoy, the English column failed,
And twice the lines of Saint Antoine the Dutch in vain assailed;
For town and slope were filled with fort and flanking battery,
And well they swept the English ranks and Dutch auxiliary.
As vainly, through De Barri’s wood, the British soldiers burst,
The French artillery drove them back, diminished, and dispersed.
The bloody Duke of Cumberland beheld with anxious eye,
And ordered up his last reserve, his latest chance to try,
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, how fast his generals ride!
And mustering come his chosen troops, like clouds at eventide.

II.

Six thousand English veterans in stately column tread;
Their cannon blaze in front and flank, Lord Hay is at their head;
Steady they step a-down the slope–steady they climb the hill;
Steady they load–steady they fire, moving right onward still,
Betwixt the wood and Fontenoy, as through a furnace blast,
Through rampart, trench, and palisade, and bullets showering fast;
And on the open plain above they rose and kept their course,
With ready fire and grim resolve, that mocked at hostile force:
Past Fontenoy, past Fontenoy, while thinner grew their ranks–
They break, as broke the Zuyder Zee through Holland’s ocean banks.

III.

More idly than the summer flies, French tirailleurs rush round;
As stubble to the lava tide, French squadrons strew the ground;
Bomb-shell and grape and round-shot tore, still on they marched
and fired–
Fast from each volley grenadier and voltigeur retired.
‘Push on, my household cavalry!’ King Louis madly cried:
To death they rush, but rude their shock–not unavenged they died.
On through the camp the column trod–King Louis turns his rein:
‘Not yet, my liege,’ Saxe interposed, ‘the Irish troops remain.’
And Fontenoy, famed Fontenoy, had been a Waterloo
Were not these exiles ready then, fresh, vehement, and true.

IV.

‘Lord Clare,’ he says, ‘you have your wish; there are your Saxon foes!’
The Marshal almost smiles to see, so furiously he goes!
How fierce the look these exiles wear, who’re wont to be so gay,
The treasured wrongs of fifty years are in their hearts to-day–
The treaty broken, ere the ink wherewith ’twas writ could dry,
Their plundered homes, their ruined shrines, their women’s parting cry,
Their priesthood hunted down like wolves, their country overthrown–
Each looks as if revenge for all were staked on him alone
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, nor ever yet elsewhere,
Rushed on to fight a nobler band than these proud exiles were.

V.

O’Brien’s voice is hoarse with joy, as, halting, he commands
‘Fix bay’nets!–charge!’ Like mountain storm, rush on these fiery bands!
Thin is the English column now, and faint their volleys grow,
Yet, must’ring all the strength they have, they make a gallant show.
They dress their ranks upon the hill to face that battle-wind–
Their bayonets the breakers’ foam; like rocks, the men behind!
One volley crashes from their line, when, through the surging smoke,
With empty guns clutched in their hands, the headlong Irish broke.
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, hark to that fierce huzza!
‘Revenge, remember Limerick! dash down the Sacsanach!’

VI.

Like lions leaping at a fold when mad with hunger’s pang,
Right up against the English line the Irish exiles sprang:
Bright was their steel, ’tis bloody now, their guns are filled with
gore;
Through shattered ranks and severed files the trampled flags they
tore;
The English strove with desperate strength, paused, rallied, staggered,
fled–
The green hill-side is matted close with dying and with dead.
Across the plain, and far away, passed on that hideous wrack,
While cavalier and fantassin dash in upon their track.
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, like eagles in the sun,
With bloody plumes, the Irish stand–the field is fought and won!