Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Siege of Burgos and Wellington’s Retreat, 1812.

This post leads on from previous ones on the Battles of Salamanca and Garcia Hernandez.

Wellington was faced with a dilemma after his army liberated Madrid. Politically he could not fall back to Salamanca, but he faced the risk of being counter-attacked by a larger French forces from more than one direction.

The French had withdrawn their garrisons to Burgos and Valencia. According to Charles Esdaile they could field at least 100,000 men against the 60,000 of Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, which might be increased to 70,000 by the addition of Spanish regulars. The guerrillas were good at harassing the enemy, but they could not resist a French counter-offensive.[1]

In late August General Bertrand Clausel advanced on Valladolid, north of Madrid, intending to relieve the isolated French garrisons of Astorga, Toro and Zamora. Wellington, seeing a chance to defeat part of the French army before it concentrated against him, moved north with 21,000 men.

Wellington had taken what Esdaile describes as ‘a serious risk’[2] by moving with such a small force, but it was politically impossible for him to take more troops from Madrid. He hoped to receive support from General Fransisco Castaños’s Spanish 6th Army, which had just taken Astorgas.

In the event, the Spanish, who were short of supplies and artillery, moved slowly, and Clausel was able to retreat, taking the garrisons of Toro and Zamora with him.

Esdaile argues that Wellington should then have gone back to Madrid. He faced two French armies, and have could looked for an opportunity to win a major victory by concentrating against one of them.[3] Instead, he decided to advance on Burgos.

Click here for a link to map of Burgos in 1812.

The city was being pillaged by guerrillas, but a well supplied French garrison of veterans occupied a strong position in Burgos Castle. Esdaile compares General Jean-Louis Dubreton, its commander, to General Armand Phillipon, who had successfully defended Badajoz in 1811 and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers before being forced to surrender the city in April 1812.[4]

Burgos had nine heavy guns, 11 field guns and six howitzers. The garrison of 2,000 men had no permanent shelter. Frederick Myatt argues that the fortress could resist guerrillas or an army without siege guns but not an army well equipped with a siege train and engineers. [5]

However, Wellington had only three 18 pounder guns, five 24 pounder howitzers, five engineer officers, eight Royal Military Artificers, 10 assistant engineers and 81 tradesmen. His army was short of tools, although it found some French ones in the town.

Burgos was invested by the British 1st and 6th Divisions and two Portuguese brigades on 19 September. The 5th and 7th Divisions were positioned to the north-east to guard against a French attempt to lift the siege.

Wellington’s shortage of artillery meant that he had to concentrate on digging and mining, with his guns being used mainly to support assaults. An outer works, the Hornwork, was captured on the first evening of the siege, but at the cost of heavy casualties; 421 Allied compared with 198 French dead, wounded and captured according to Jac Weller.[6] Seven French field guns were taken as well as 60 prisoners.[7]

An attack on the castle’s outer wall on 22 September failed, and Wellington then concentrated on mining. The miners had to operate under fire from the castle, with little support from their own guns, and it often rained.

By 29 September the miners believed that they had reached the scarp wall and a mine was detonated that evening. The subsequent attack failed after troops became lost and failed to find the breach. In the morning it was revealed that it was not a good one, and that the French were working at shoring up their defences. The mine had been detonated too far forward, as the foundations that the miners had met were ancient ones rather than the those of the wall.

The failure damaged Allied morale; Myatt points out that the French had:

‘the reasonable hope that relief would arrive. The British…[were] feeling (perhaps rightly) that they were attempting a hopeless task with quite inadequate support’[8]

The British worked on a second mine. They also set up a battery 60 yards from the outer wall, which was ready by 1 October. The French moved their guns to deal with this new threat and destroyed the battery the same day. The damaged guns were withdrawn and a new position prepared that night. The French artillery destroyed it before the guns could be moved into it.

It was intended to detonate the second mine on 3 October, but problems with the rocky ground meant that it was not ready until the next day. British guns made a breach 60 feet wide in the wall, which was extended to 100 feet when the mine detonated. The British attack succeeded in taking the breach with relatively light casualties.

Preparations now began for an assault on the second wall, but these were hampered by French sorties and poor weather. The attack was planned for 17 October, but Wellington delayed it for a day as he thought that the breach made in the second wall was inadequate. A third mine was detonated  underneath the church of San Roman.

The French beat off the attack on 18 October. Wellington had, according to Jac Weller, 24,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops and 10,000 Spaniards around Burgos. He was now faced with 53,000 French soldiers commanded by General Joseph Souham, who had replaced Clausel. Another French army was advancing on Madrid from Valencia.

Wellington therefore called off the siege and withdrew on the night of 21 October. The French suffered 623 dead, wounded and captured during the siege, but inflicted 2,059 casualties on the besiegers.[9]

Wellington’s rearguard fought an action against French cavalry at Venta del Pozo on 23 October. He initially hoped to make a stand along the River Carrión forty miles to the north-east of Valladolid and to join up with General Sir Rowland Hill’s corps from Madrid.

A series of engagements took place between 25 and 29 October, known collectively as the Battle of Tordesillas. The French captured the bridge over the Carrión at Palencia on 25 October and the bridge over the Duero at Tordesillas on 29 October. Wellington was therefore forced to retreat and ordered Hill to do the same

Hill had been preparing to fight a battle against the advancing French, commanded by Marshal Nicholas Soult. Instead, his rearguard fought an action against the French at Aranjuez on 30 October and he abandoned Madrid the next day. Wellington and Hill combined near Salamanca on 8 November and took up a strong defensive position. The French arrived six days later.

Soult moved to the west to threaten Wellington’s communications with Ciudad Rodrigo. Marshal Auguste Marmont had tried a similar manoeuvre in June and had been defeated after being caught on the march. Soult avoided this by staying further away from Wellington.

This left Wellington with the options of attacking a force that outnumbered him 95,000 to 70,000 or retreating. He chose to retire to Ciudad Rodrigo; it started to rain heavily just after the withdrawal began.

Esdaile says that ‘the French pursuit was none too vigorous.’[10] However, the Allies still lost 6,000 killed, wounded and missing. They included Sir Edward Paget, Wellington’s newly arrived second-in-command, who was captured on 17 November. Discipline and morale broke down as the troops retreated in bad weather, echoing the retreat to Coruña in 1809.

Wellington had lost much of the ground that he had won earlier in the year. However, the Allies still held the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, known as the keys to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold these, so Wellington had a better starting point for his 1813 offensive than he had possessed in 1812.

[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 409.

[2] Ibid., p. 410.

[3] Ibid., p. 411.

[4] Ibid.

[5] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), p. 134.

[6] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 236.

[7] Myatt, British Sieges, pp. 136-37.

[8] Ibid., p. 142.

[9] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 237-38.

[10] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 418.



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The USS Wasp in the War of 1812

This post follows on from this one on the US loss of Detroit and the capture of HMS Guerriere by the USS Constitution.

The sloop USS Wasp, captained by Master Commandant Jacob Jones, set sail from the Delaware River on 13 October 1812. Three days later Wasp lost two men and suffered damage to her rigging in a heavy storm. The next evening she observed half a dozen large ships and pursued them, although two of them appeared to be large warships.

The followng morning, 18 October, she caught the convoy, consisting of six merchantmen escorted by the brig HMS Frolic, which had also been damaged in the storm. Frolic’s captain, Thomas Whinyates, ordered his charges to sail east under all sail, whilst Frolic dropped back. Whinyates raised Spanish colours in the hope that Jones would think that his convoy was a Spanish one that Whinyates had seen a few days before, but Jones was not fooled.

Both ships carried 16 32 pound carronades, giving them a very strong close range armament for their size. Carronades were shorter and lighter than the standard naval long gun. A ship could therefore carry more or larger calibre carronades than long guns, but the range of a carronade was only a third to a half of that of a long gun. They were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland, hence their name

The Wasp had little long-range firepower, since the rest of her armament consisted of only two 12 pounders. Alfred Mahan writes that Jones claimed that Frolic carried six 12 pounders, but that the British naval historian James said that Frolic had only two 6 pounders in addition to her carronades. Theodore Roosevelt gives Frolic two 6 pounders and a moveable 12 pounder carronade in addition to her 16 32 pound carronades. J. J. Colledge’s Ships of the Royal Navy states that she had 18 guns, but does not give the types.[1] It is likely that the two ships had similar firepower.

Both ships had an armament biased towards close range combat, so they quickly closed the range and did not start firing until they were 60 yards apart.

Whinyates claimed that his ship produced ‘superior fire’[2], by which he meant that Frolic fired more quickly than the Wasp. The Americans thought that the British fired three broadsides to their two, but the American fire was more accurate.

The Wasp soon lost most of her rigging, but suffered only five men killed and five wounded. Fifteen of Frolic’s crew were killed and 43 wounded. The British ship was left unable to manoeuvre after her masts fell, and the Wasp, which had some control left, boarded. The British, with half the crew, including all the officers, dead or wounded, surrendered.

They were not to remain prisoners for long. The 74 gun third-rate ship of the line HMS Poictiers appeared. The Wasp and Frolic were both too badly damaged to flee and had no chance against Poictiers, so Jones had to surrender.

Whinyates returned to command of Frolic. Wasp was taken into British service, initially as HMS Loup Cervier and then as HMS Peacock. She was lost with all hands in 1814. Jones and his crew were soon exchanged and he was promoted to command the 38 gun frigate USS Macedonian. She had been captured by the USS United States later in October 1812; a forthcoming post on this blog will describe this action.

[1] J. J. Colledge, Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of All Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present (London: Greenhill, 1987), p. 143; A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i, pp. 414-15; T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. 128

[2] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. i, p. 412.

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Napoleon Retreats from Moscow, 18 October 1812

This post leads on from this one on the Battle of Borodino on 7 September 1812.

After Napoleon’s victory at Borodino led to the French capture of Moscow, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov’s Russian army retreated to Tarutino, south and slightly to the west of Moscow. Adam Zamoyski describes this as ‘a good position.’[1] It was a sufficient distance from Moscow to be safe from a major French attack, threatened the French lines of communication and protected the routes to the south.

The French cavalry, commanded by Marshal Joachim Murat, and Marshal Josef Poniatowski’s V Corps were near Tarutino. Some Russian generals, notably Count Levin Bennigsen, wanted to attack them, but Kutuzov realised that his army needed time to rest, recuperate and receive reinforcements.

The rest of the French army was around Moscow. Much of the city was destroyed by a fire that started on 15 September and lasted for three days. City Governor Count Fyodor Rostopchin had made preparations to burn any stores useful to the French and city and had ordered Police Superintendent Voronenko to set fire to not only the stores, but to anything that would burn. Rostopchin had also withdrawn all the fire fighting pumps and their crews from the city.

Zamoyski suggests that the fires started by Voronenko and his men were further spread by local criminals and French soldiers engaged in looting, and by the wind. He contends that the fire left many French troops without shelter. Other historians who believe that the fires were started deliberately by the Russians include David Bell and Charles Esdaile.[2]

David Chandler agrees that Rostopchin ordered the fires, but says that most supplies and enough shelter for the 95,000 French troops remained intact. He argues that a complete destruction of the city would have actually been better for the French, as it would have forced them to retreat earlier. Instead, Napoleon stayed in the hope that he could persuade Tsar Alexander to come to terms.[3]

On the other hand, Leo Tolstoy claims in his novel War and Peace, the most famous book on the 1812 Campaign, that the fire was an inevitable result of an empty and wooden city being occupied by soldiers who were bound to smoke pipes, light camp fires and cook themselves two meals a day.[4]

On 5 October Napoleon sent delegations to attempt to negotiate a temporary armistice with Kutuzov and a permanent peace with Alexander. Kutuzov, who wanted to gain time to strengthen his forces, received the French delegates politely and gave them the impression that Russian soldiers wanted peace.

However, Kutuzov refused to allow the delegation to proceed to St Petersburg to meet the Tsar. He sent their letters on to the Tsar, with a recommendation that Alexander refuse to negotiate, which the Tsar accepted. According to Chandler, Napoleon refused to believe that the Tsar would not negotiate until a second French delegation also failed.[5]

The balance of power was moving against Napoleon as time passed. Chandler says by 4 October Kutuzov had 110,000 men facing 95,000 French at Moscow and another 5,000 at Borodino. The Russians had an even greater advantage on the flanks.[6]

Napoleon had been sure that Alexander would negotiate once Moscow fell and had not planned what to do if the Tsar refused to make peace. According to Zamoyski, Napoleon had studied weather patterns and believed that it would not get really cold until December, but did not realise how quickly the temperature would drop when it changed.[7]

Chandler argues that he had six options:

  1. He could remain at Moscow. His staff thought that there were sufficient resources to supply his army for another six months. However, he would be a long way from Paris, in a position that was hard to defend and facing an opponent who was growing stronger. His flank forces would have greater supply problems than the troops in Moscow.
  2. He could withdraw towards the fertile region around Kiev. However, he would have to fight Kutuzov and would move away from the politically most important parts of Russia.
  3. He could retreat to Smolensk by a south-westerly route, thus avoiding the ravaged countryside that he had advanced through. This would also mean a battle with Kutuzov.
  4. He could advance on St Petersburg in the hope of winning victory, but it was late in the year, his army was tired and weakened and he lacked good maps of the region.
  5. He could move north-west to Velikye-Luki, reducing his lines of communication and threatening St Petersburg. This would worsen his supply position.
  6. He could retreat to Smolensk, and if necessary, Poland the way that he had come. This would be admitting defeat and would mean withdrawing through countryside already ravaged by war.

There were major objections to each option, so Napoleon prevaricated, hoping that Alexander would negotiate. On 18 October Napoleon decided on the third option, a retreat to Smolensk via the southerly route, which would entail a battle with Kutuzov. He ordered that the withdrawal should begin two days later.[8]

Also on 18 October, however, Kutuzov decided to attack Murat’s cavalry at Vinkovo. An unofficial truce had been in operation, so the French were taken by surprise. Murat was able to fight his way out, and Kutuzov did not follow-up his limited success.

However, the Battle of Vinkovo, also known as the Battle of Tarutino, persuaded Napoleon to bring the retreat forward a day. Around 95,000 men and 500 cannon left Moscow after 35 days, accompanied by 15-40,000 wagons loaded with loot, supplies, wounded and sick soldiers and camp followers.[9]

In an attempt to distract Kutuzov, Napoleon sent another offer of an armistice and told his men that he intended to attack the Russian left flank, expecting this false intelligence to reach Kutuzov.

[1] A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 333.

[2] D. A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 259; C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 478; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 300-4.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 814-15.

[4] L. Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans., A. Maude, Maude, L. (Chicago IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1952). Book 11, p. 513.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 814.

[6] Ibid., pp. 815-16.

[7] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 351.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 817-19.

[9] Ibid., pp. 819-20; Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 367-68.


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Jonathan Steele – Ghosts of Afghanistan – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is another in my series of posts on author talks that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Jonathan Steele has reported on Afghanistan since the Cold War. His book addresses what he considers to be 13 myths about Afghanistan:

  1. The Taliban has little popular support.
  2. The Soviet invasion was an unprovoked attempt to capture new territory.
  3. It led to a civil war.
  4. The resistance benefitted from Western support.
  5. The USSR suffered a massive military defeat.
  6. The Afghans have always beaten foreign invaders.
  7. The Stinger surface to air missiles supplied by the CIA to the resistance were decisive.
  8. The West walked away after the USSR left.
  9. The Mujaheddin overthrew the Kabul regime and won the civil war in 1992.
  10. The Soviets destroyed Kabul by artillery fire.
  11. The Taliban are the harshest rulers that Afghanistan has had.
  12. The Taliban invited Osama Bin Laden into Afghanistan.
  13. The Taliban are uniquely harsh on women.

He did not have time to discuss all of these in a one hour talk, but made the following comments:

The word Ghosts in the title has a double meaning. It refers to the dead, but was also a Soviet nickname for their opponents, because of their skill at concealment. NATO troops may never knowingly see an insurgent during a six month tour of Afghanistan.

There are many similarities between the Soviet and NATO invasions. The USSR was supremely confident early one and initially gave great access to the Western media, but this was soon restricted. The current media coverage is too loyal. It is impossible to go unless you are embedded with NATO forces, and you will not be embedded again if you are too critical.

In the 1980s Kabul was quiet. Soviet officials had their families with them and local young women went about unveiled. The countryside was different; UN personnel could not leave the capital to supervise their projects. It is possible to control Afghan cities, even the communications between them, but the villages are much harder to control.

Before the Soviet invasion the Afghan government had been criticised by conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists, who disliked its reforms, especially of women’s rights. In March 1979 Soviet Prime Minister Alexey Kosygin told the Afghans that Soviet intervention would make things worse.

However, in December 1979 Hafizullah Amin became president of Afghanistan after a palace coup. He was Western educated and the Soviets feared that he would adopt pro-Western policies, with Afghanistan perhaps replacing Iran as a US ally in the Middle East. The USSR therefore invaded and assassinated and replaced Amin.

The USSR expected a quick regime change after its invasion, as did the USA after 9/11. General Tommy Franks, who commanded the 2002 invasion, did not want to repeat the USSR’s mistakes, so relied upon air power, special forces and the Northern Alliance. Both invasions led to lengthy wars, but there are some differences between Soviet attempts to end the conflict and the current situation.

In 1985 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev realised that the war was a stalemate. His generals told him that they could win only if the border with Pakistan was closed, which would require 250,000 men. He was unwilling to do so.

President Barack Obama also inherited the war, but was willing to send more troops, tripling the number of US soldiers in Afghanistan. He described Iraq as a war of choice and Afghanistan as a war of necessity.

Another difference is that the Pentagon is trying to delay the NATO withdrawal, whilst the Soviet military supported withdrawal.

A third difference is that the USSR looked for a political solution, whilst NATO is planning to replace its troops with Afghan ones. Steele believes that this will not work because of the ethnic composition of the Afghan Army. Pashtuns make up only 4% of it, but comprise 42% of the population.

The Afghan government has always struggled to control its provinces, but there is no demand by Afghan Uzbeks or Tajiks to break away.

Steele pointed out that the three Anglo-Afghan wars were different from the current conflict, or the Soviet invasion. The British went in, lost some battles, won others, changed the regime and left without attempting to occupy the country in the long-term.

In conclusion Steele believes the war to have been a mistake and to be unwinnable.

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Keith Lowe – Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is the second of a number of rather belated posts on talks by military historians that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Keith Lowe talked about his book, Savage Continent; Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He argued that the British view of the end of the war is fixed and cosy, different from that of the rest of Europe.

The end of the war was not clear-cut. A massive mess was left, which was inevitable after a war of this scale. American and British officials were shocked by what they found, including the level of destruction of German cities by bombing. Warsaw was 90% rubble. Millions of civilians had been killed. British deaths were far lower than those of countries such as the USSR, Poland and Germany.

Many people, such as refugees and former forced labourers, were in the wrong place. There were 18 million refugees of all nationalities in Germany. Huge numbers of starving displaced persons were crossing the continent. Messages to loved ones were left on trees and lamp posts at every crossroads.

Lowe told the story of Andre, a 9-year-old Polish refugee. Andre saw immobile and abandoned German wounded and huge numbers of PoWs with very few guards. Andre and his mother walked for a month and met nobody in any authority until they reached a UN Displaced Persons Camp.

Europe was full of very angry people who wanted revenge. Germans were universally hated. The Red army raped many women and large numbers of Germans were shot in Czechoslovakia. There was some symmetry between actions by the Germans during the war and actions against them after it, but nothing equal to the Holocaust.

Many of the Germans were guilty, but that does not excuse indiscriminate beatings and killings of Germans. The authorities did little to discourage these actions. In some cases they were openly encouraged; the Czech Justice Minister said that there was no such thing as a good German.

The fighting did not end on 8 May 1945. The Germans fought for another week in Yugoslavia and were massacred by the partisans after surrendering. The Greek Civil War started during WWII and continued until 1949. Nationalist partisans in the Baltic continued to fight the Soviets into the 1950s. The last Estonian partisan was caught in 1978.

WWII was more complex than Allies versus Axis. There were wars of liberation, but also ones of national purity, culminating in ethnic cleansing, and class warfare. The defeat of Nazi Germany was only one step in this process.

A former member of SOE asked a question about the escape of Klaus Barbie after the war. Lowe said that one of the reasons why there was so much unofficial punishment after the war was that official punishment of war criminals was ‘rubbish.’

Lowe said that he paid particular attention to statistics as these are often used to feed national sensibilities and views. German refugees from the East became a big voting block in the West. They exaggerated the number of post-war German dead from the actual 0.5 million to 2 million in order to increase their victimhood. The Yugoslavs increased their deaths from 1 million to 1.7 million.

An interesting presentation on a book that shows how the experience of the end of WWII in the UK is not typical of that of the rest of Europe.

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