Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Battle of Vitoria, 21 June 1813.

In 1812 Wellington defeated the French at Salamanca, took Madrid, and then advanced to Burgos. He failed to capture Burgos, and was forced to retreat past Salamanca. Crucially, however, his army retained control of the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and Badajoz in the south.

These two fortresses, known as the keys to Spain, controlled the two invasion routes from Portugal to Spain. In 1812 Wellington had needed to capture them in order to advance further into Spain. In 1813 his task was easier because he already held them.

Additionally, the French forces facing him were weaker because they had been stripped of troops to rebuild the French army in central Europe after the failure of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. Wellington had received reinforcements, and had spent the winter and spring training his troops and improving his army’s supply and medical arrangements.

Napoleon thought that Wellington had only 50,000 men, but he had 80,000. He was therefore more concerned with the Spanish guerrillas than with Wellington. General Bertrand Clausel was sent north with the 40,000 troops of the Army of Portugal to deal with the guerrillas.[1]

Wellington was aware that the French had split their forces because George Scovell, his code breaker, had deciphered a captured despatch from the French army in the north to King Joseph Bonaparte.[2]

Wellington’s plan was to advance as far as he could towards the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. Operations did not begin until 22 May, as the rains had been late, meaning that there was a shortage of suitable forage for the horses until then. He was confident of success, allegedly stating ‘Farewell Portugal. I shall never see you again’ as he crossed the frontier into Spain.[3]

Wellington initially split his army: part moved through Salamanca, with  the rest, commanded by Sir Thomas Graham moving north before heading east towards Valladolid.

The French, commanded by King Joseph and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, were forced to retreat. The Allied army took Salamanca, Zamora, Valladolid and Burgos, advancing 200 miles without a fight. On 13 May the French blew up the defences of Burgos, which they had successfully defended in September and October 1812.

Napoleon defeated the Austro-Prussians at Lützen and Bautzen in May, before agreeing an armistice with them at Pläswitz on 4 June. Wellington later told a friend that his staff argued that:

‘we ought not to risk the army and what we had obtained, and that this armistice would enable Buonaparte [sic] to reinforce his army in Spain, and we therefore should look to a defensive system. I thought differently.’[4]

Buonaparte was a deliberate mis-spelling of Bonaparte often used in Britain to emphasis Napoleon’s Corsican origins.

On 21 June the French made a stand at Vitoria. The Allies were now too close to France for Joseph to continue to retreat.

Joseph had about 60,000 troops after being joined by part of the Army of Portugal. He hoped to be reinforced by Clausel and another three divisions. Wellington had about 75,000 men, having detached the British 6th Division to cover the road to Santander and sent most of the Spanish 6th Army towards Bilbao. Wellington had received intelligence that Clausel could not arrive before 22 June.

Vitoria was in a valley that measured about six miles from north to south and 10 miles east to west. It was protected to the south by hills that were mostly impassable to formed troops and by the River Zadorra to the north. The French thought that Wellington would therefore have to attack from the west, and believed that he would not be able to outflank them.

There were, however, many fords and bridges across the Zadorra. Wellington sent a large force under Graham north to swing round the French right flank. Joseph and Jourdan knew from the reports of cavalry patrols that there were fewer enemy troops to the west than they had expected.

As they apparently thought, wrongly, that the roads through the hills north of Vitoria were unsuitable for large number of men, they assumed that Wellington was heading for Bilbao.  One of the  French division resumed its retreat towards France, escorting the baggage, thus reducing the French army to 57,000 men.

Wellington’s plan involved four different attacks. Graham, with the 25,000 men of  the 1st and 5th British Divisions, Pack and Bradford’s Portuguese Brigades, Longa’s Spanish Division was to cut off the enemy retreat. In the west, the first attack would come in the south from the 20,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill: the British 2nd, Silveira’s Portuguese and Morillo’s Spanish Divisions.

Wellington personally commanded the rest of the army. The British 3rd and 7th Divisions would attack from the north-west and the 4th and Light Divisions from the west, where the French expected the main attack. Each force had a proportion of cavalry and artillery, but the largest contingent of cavalry, four of 10 brigades, was in the force attacking from the west.[5]

Hill attacked first, and his troops were in combat before 8:30 am. Graham’s troops were skirmishing by 9 am, but his orders were to delay a full attack until he was in contact with the other Allied columns: he was starting eight miles away from them.

Hill’s attack went well, but Wellington did not want to launch the attack from the west until the 3rd and 7th Divisions were in combat. Lord Dalhousie’s 7th Division was slow getting into position, and Wellington sent an ADC to find him. The ADC instead encountered Sir Thomas Picton, commanding the 3rd Division. The ADC had orders for Dalhousie to attack a bridge, but no orders for Picton, who declared that his division would attack the bridge.

Wellington, seeing the 3rd Division moving into action, ordered the Light Division forward. A Spanish peasant volunteered to guide one of its brigades across the Zadorra by the unguarded Tres Puentes bridge. He was later killed.

By lunchtime the French were being attacked from three sides. They put up fierce resistance, but had been deployed against a frontal assault, and were forced back. They could have been completely destroyed, but Graham, much older than the other British generals, was slow to move.

He followed the letter of his orders and moved east to cut the Madrid to Bayonne road. Charles Esdaile argues that, had he ‘shown a modicum of initiative’, he could have attacked south towards Vitoria and cut the French line of retreat.[6]

Jac Weller gives the total of dead, wounded and missing as being 8,000 French and 5,000 Allied.[7] However, the French lost all but one of their 152 guns, over 500 artillery caissons. almost all their supplies and Joseph’s state papers and treasury.[8]

The French baggage train offered huge opportunities for loot, which the Allied troops were unable to resist. The citizens of Vitoria also suffered. Wellington deplored such activities, but even he benefitted: the Spanish government allowed him to retain a collection of Old Masters that Joseph had been taking back to France. They can still be seen on the walls of Apsley House, Wellington’s London house, which is now open to the public.

Jourdan’s Marshal’s baton was amongst the trophies. Wellington sent it to the Prince Regent, who in return promoted Wellington to Field Marshal, which meant that he received a British baton.

Graham’s lack of initiative and the army’s loss of discipline once presented with an opportunity to loot meant that most of the French soldiers escaped. However, the capture of the French supplies and artillery meant the destruction of Joseph’s army as an effective fighting force. The Allied army could now advance to the Pyrenees and threaten France.

Vitoria and the preceding campaign showed that Wellington was not just a cautious general, happiest on the defensive. He moved his army quickly across Spain and devised an imaginative plan that ended in the enemy being routed.


[1] Unless otherwise stated, figures for troop numbers are from C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pp. 442-54.

[2] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 189.

[3] Quoted in Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 443; and Snow, Wellington, p. 188. Esdaile is ‘wary’ of the story, but notes that there is ‘little doubt’ that Wellington was optimistic

[4] Quoted in Snow, Wellington, pp. 188-89.

[5] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 256-57.

[6] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 448.

[7] Weller, Peninsula, p. 269.

[8] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 450.

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Living History — Foul Weather Mars Tall Ship Sail Past

Very interesting blog, especially the pictures of sailing ships,

Military History Now

A fleet of five tall ships dropped anchor in the harbour off Hamilton, Canada late this week as part of the city’s ongoing War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations. The collection of three brigantines, one barquentine and a three-master was led by the USS Niagara — a reproduction of the famous vessel Oliver Hazard Perry commanded during the decisive Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. The ships, which will spend the weekend on Hamilton’s waterfront, are open to the pubic for tours. Area residents flocked to the edge of Hamilton Bay on Friday to watch the five vessels take part in a sail past. MilitaryHistoryNow.com was there to take in the sight, but inclement weather kept the ships far out of range of our zoom lens. We did manage to get these following shots (see below), the first of which has been enlarged to within an inch of its life.

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The Iraq War Part 2 – BBC2

Last night the BBC broadcast the second episode in its three part series on the Iraq War. The first episode, shown last week, dealt with the decisions that led to war. The BBC website describes this one, titled After the Fall, as follows:

In After the Fall, part two of this three-part series, key insiders describe the chaotic aftermath of the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Dick Cheney and Colin Powell come to blows over America’s role as occupying power. General David Petraeus recalls the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army. The representative of Grand Ayatollah Sistani – Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric – tells how Sistani forced the Americans into agreeing to elections in Iraq. One of the greatest challenges came from Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. America and the new Iraqi government were able to defeat Sadr militarily, but it set the stage for sectarian war.

Disappointingly Powell and Cheney came to blows verbally, rather than physically.

The original Coalition administrator in Iraq was Jay Garner, a retired US general. He had been involved in the establishment of a safe zone in Kurdistan, so was popular with the Kurds. He regarded himself as a facilitator who would quickly hand over power to Iraqis.

Many Iraqis welcomed the US army into Baghdad, but some, including Sheikh Mahdi Sumaidaie, a Sunni cleric, resisted. Most waited to see if the Coalition would act as liberators or occupiers.

Garner arranged a meeting between Kurdish leaders such as Jalal Talabani, Barham Salih and Massoud Barzani, and some of Saddam opponents who had just returned from exile: Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister who had been in exile for 35 years. Ahmed Chalabi, who returned with a private army, and Dr Mowaffah Rubaie, a Shia. The meeting established a Governing Council.

Garner was concerned about the vacuum at the top, which resulted in a lack of essential services and an inability to stop looting. Some locals formed vigilante groups to defend their neighbourhoods and hospitals from looters. He wanted to form an Iraqi administration as soon as possible.

President George W. Bush, however, was nervous that he had the wrong team in Baghdad even as he declared combat operations to be over on 1 May 2003. Garner had thought that he had three months, but Bush decided to accelerate the change to a civilian administrator: Jerry Bremer.

Bremer told the Governing Council that it was not representative of Iraqis as it included no women, Christians or Turkomans, and that he possessed full executive, legislative and judicial authority. Rubaie said that this meant that Bremer was a Viceroy, and Iraq was under real occupation.

There was a dispute on the US National Security Council when it debated the speed of change. Secretary of State Colin Powell wanted a slow move towards Iraqi rule, arguing that the Coalition did not know who to turn power over to and that any Iraqi administration would need Coalition forces to maintain security. Vice President Dick Cheney wanted a quicker change. Bush leaned towards Powell and Bremer’s preference for a slow move.

Bremer authorised payments of about six months salary to Iraqi civil servants, but nothing was paid to soldiers, who had not been paid since February.

A group of Iraqi general staff officers approached Colonel Paul Hughes of the Coalition staff. They warned him that there would be trouble if the soldiers were not paid. Hughes took their concerns to Walt Slocombe, the US adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence. Slocombe thought that the Iraqi soldiers had a nerve asking the Coalition to pay them money owed by Saddam. He argued that there was a need to get rid of Saddam’s institutions, and that a new army should be build from scratch.

Before the war Bush had approved a plan to use the Iraqi army as a national reconstruction force. It was thought to be too dangerous to demobilise all the soldiers at once, and they had been promised that they would be looked after if they surrendered. According to Frank Miller, his  Special Assistant, Bush now said that he would leave it up to ‘the guy on the ground.’

No Coalition troops were killed by hostile forces in the week before the Iraqi army was disbanded; five were killed the next week. General David Petraeus, then commanding the 101st Airborne Division, said that it was getting worse week by week. He bluntly told Slocombe that his policies were killing Coalition soldiers. Iraqi soldiers had to be given the means of feeding their families.

US troops opened fire on a protest on 18 June after stone throwing by Iraqis. Bremer announced five days later that payments would be made to soldiers, but it was too late. Attacks worsened and showed clear signs of being carried out by professionals.

The USA was not surprised to be opposed by the Sunni minority, which lost the privileges that it had enjoyed under Saddam. It had expected to be welcomed by the Shia majority; a revolt by them would mean serious trouble. Hajaf, their religious centre, was more important than Baghdad in the eyes of many Shias, and Grand Ayatollah Sistani was very influential.

A Brazilian UN diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was sent to Iraq as a mediator. Sistani was unwilling to meet Americans, but did meet de Mello. Sistani’s aide Ahmed Safi said that Sistani insisted that any constitution had to protect Iraqi interests and religious principles. It must be written and approved by elected Iraqis.

Bremer insisted that it was impossible to hold elections because the necessary mechanisms were not in place. Only de Mello appeared to be able to mediate, but he was killed on 19 August, along with 21 other UN employees, when the UN headquarters in Baghdad was destroyed by a suicide bomber. Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility.

On 8 September Bremer published a blueprint for the future without consulting anybody, not even Bush. It proposed a two-year process of writing a constitution, approving it in a referendum and holding elections. He was told that he had to hand over power by 30 June 2004.

Bremer did not have time to organise elections, so came up with a scheme based the US caucus system. Locally appointed councils would select the government. The Governing Council, unfamiliar with the caucus system, rejected the idea. Millions of Shias were alienated. Muqtada al-Sadr, the rising Shia star, insisted that the USA must leave.

In March 20o4 four US contractors were killed in the Sunni city of Fallujah and their bodies desecrated. The US Marines retaliated, resulting in heavy civilian casualties before their attack was stopped. Three weeks later it was revealed that US troops were mistreating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.

Bremer was forced to appoint a government. He initially wanted Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia, to be Defence Minister, but appointed him Prime Minister after meeting him. Allawi’s government took control on 28 June.

On 6 August Sistani flew to London for medical treatment. Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army then took control of Najaf and its holy shrines. Allawi summoned General George Casey, the Coalition military commander in Iraq. This was an opportunity for the new government to show that it was in control. An attack was launched; it included some Iraqi forces, but the main firepower came from the US Marines.

Sunnis joined the Shias. They took heavy casualties, including a hand wound for Al-Sadr, but were outgunned. However, they continued to hold the Golden Mosque. The risk of damage to it led the government to send Rubaie to negotiate. Al-Sadr refused to meet him, but sent a leading cleric to negotiate on his behalf. A ceasefire was agreed, but it required government and Coalition forces to leave Najaf and not return.

This was unacceptable to the rest of the government, which insisted that the Mahdi Army must be disbanded or it would resume the offensive. At this point Sistani returned and it was agreed that the Shia hierarchy would settle the matter.

Al-Sadr formed a political party, and helped the Shias to win an election five months later. The third and final programme next week deals with the war between Shias and Sunnis.

An interesting programme, which showed that the USA (the other Coalition partners played little role in this episode) went to war without a clear plan of what to do after it had won. Those plans that it had were quickly changed. It seemed to be assumed that the Iraqis, at least the Shias, would be so grateful to have been liberated from Saddam that they would be happy to be ruled by the Coalition for a short period. The difficulties of how to organise elections, how to write a constitution and what to do with the army were ignored.

For UK viewers the programme is available on the I-Player until 9:59pm on 19 June, the usual one week after the last episode. There was a lengthy list of co-producers, who will presumably show it in their home markets.

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War of 1812: The Niagara Front to June 1813

In 1813 Britain had three forts on Lake Ontario to defend Upper Canada from American attack: Kingston, the main naval base, York (now Toronto), the provincial capital of Upper Canada, and Fort George on the western bank of the Niagara River, across the river from the American Fort Niagara. The main US naval base was at Sacket’s Harbor.

The Americans wanted to recapture Detroit and invade Canada, with an ultimate goal of taking Montreal. In order to do so they had to control Lake Erie, which in turn depended on conquering Ontario. The British were forced onto the defensive by lack of resources.

See this website for a map of the Lake Ontario theatre of operations.

In February the USA devised a plan to attack first Kingston and then York with 4,000 men from Sacket’s Harbor. These troops and 3,000 from Buffalo would then assault Fort George. There were probably only 2,100 British troops in Ontario, 600 of them at Kingston and 1,200 near the Niagara.

However, John Armstrong, just appointed US Secretary of War, thought that the British had 8-10,000 regulars in the area, more than there actually were in all of Canada. Consequently they abandoned their plan to attack Kingston. Henry Dearborn, the commander of US forces from the Niagara to the New England coast, thought that he faced 6-8,000 enemies troops. The Americans therefore decided not to attack Kingston, which left Sacket’s Harbor vulnerable to a British attack.[1]

The weather meant that the US offensive could not start until late April. York was captured on 27 April. They spent three days loading as many stores and guns that they could carry and destroying what they could not carry. However, bad weather forced them to remain until 7 May. The next day the US squadron took the troops to Fort Niagara, before returning to Sacket’s Harbor.

On May 15 Colonel Winfield Scott was appointed Dearborn’s adjutant general. Scott, aided by Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry of the USN, organised an attack on Fort George. It began on 25 May with a bombardment from Fort Niagara. Commodore Isaac Chauncey’s naval squadron comprised a brig, a sloop and 12 gunboats

On 27 May 4,000 US troops landed in four waves. Brigadier General John Vincent’s defending force was outnumbered by about 3 to 1. He was forced to retreat, withdrawing 16 miles to Beaver Dams, where he ordered the British garrisons of Fort Erie and Chippewa to join him.

The abandonment of Fort Erie allowed Perry to move several US ships that had been trapped at Black Rock to Lake Erie. This took until 12 June because ships had to be dragged by oxen against the current.

On 25 May the British at Kingston learnt that Chauncey’s squadron and Dearborn’s army were at Fort George, so decided to attack Sacket’s Harbor. Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, the Governor-General and C.in-C. of British North America was visiting Kingston, so took command.

The British had just completed HMS Wolfe, a sloop officially rated at 20 guns, but actually carrying one 24 pounder, eight 18 pounders, four 68 pound carronades and 10 32 pound carronades. This made Commodore James Lucas Yeo’s  RN squadron on the Great Lakes slightly stronger than Chauncey’s American one, but the advantage would soon switch to the USN once the USS General Pike, armed with 28 24 pounders was completed.

The loss of Sacket’s Harbor would have deprived Chauncey of the General Pike and of his only shipyard. Most of Chauncey’s squadron was at Fort George, with only two schooners to face the British squadron of three sloops, two brigs and a schooner.  The British invasion force consisted of about 800 men against about 1400-1500 defenders, but most of the British were regulars, whilst two-thirds of the Americans were militia.

As the British prepared to land on 27 May they saw a number of vessels also heading for the port. The invasion was halted because of the risk that it might be Chauncey’s squadron. In fact it was a number of US infantry heading to reinforce the garrison.  Most of them were captured, but the delay allowed the Brigadier General Jacob Brown, a militia officer who commanded the US troops, to organise his defence.

The British landed early on 29 May. They initially forced the Americans back, but lacked the artillery to continue the attack once the Americans retreated into their fortifications. The larger British ships were unable to get close enough inshore to effectively fire on the fortification, so the British infantry was forced to withdraw. Brown’s report on the action stated that:

Had not General Prevost retreated most rapidly under the guns of his vessels, he would have never returned to Kingston.[2]

Brown was given a commission as a Brigadier General in the regular army as reward for his efforts in the battle.

At one point the Americans, fearing defeat, set the General Pike alight. the fires were extinguished before serious damage could be done, but her completion was delayed until July.

At Fort George, Dearborn sent Brigadier General William H. Winder’s brigade, later joined by Brigadier General John Chandler’s brigade in pursuit of Vincent. The 3,400 US troops, commanded by Chandler as he was the senior of the two generals, camped at Stoney Creek on 5 June.

Guided by Billy Green, a local man who knew the terrain well, Vincent’s 700 men launched a night attack on the enemy in the early hours of 6 June. Lieutenant Colonel John Harvey had obtained the US password from a prisoner.

Surprise was lost because some of the British troops were too noisy. The Americans appeared to be in a strong position, but a mistake by Winder allowed the British to capture the guns and both himself and Chandler. The Americans, with their command structure disrupted and their firepower reduced, retreated.

The British established posts at Twelve Mile Creek and Beaver Dams, from which raiding parties were despatched. A US force of just over 500 men from the US 14th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Charles Boerstler was sent to deal with them.

It was tracked by Britain’s First Nation allies. Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, commander of the 50 man garrison of Beaver Dams was warned by Laura Secord, who had learnt of the attack, probably by overhearing US officers billeted at her home talking of their plans. The direct journey from her home to Fitzgibbon’s HQ was 12 miles, but she took a treacherous 20 mile route, which took her 18 hours, in order to avoid US sentries.

On 24 June the Americans were ambushed in woods near Beaver Dams by 100 Mohawks and 300 Caughnawaga and some local militia. Fitzgibbon arrived and approached the Americans under a flag of truce, arguing that they were outnumbered and that he could not protect them from the First Nation warriors unless they surrendered. They did so, but only after more British troops appeared.

After Beaver Dams the US forces were reluctant to leave Fort George, but the British were too weak to retake it. Dearborn was dismissed on 6 July and given an administrative post in New York City.


[1] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, pp. 15-19

[2] Quoted in Ibid. vol. ii, p. 23.

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The Truce of Pläswitz 4 June 1813

Napoleon defeated the Russo-Prussian army at Lützen on 2 May and Bautzen on 20-21 May 1813, but neither battle was decisive. He lacked the cavalry to pursue the defeated enemy and turn a victory into a rout, and mistakes by his subordinates, notably Marshal Michel Ney, allowed the Allies to escape a trap at Bautzen.

On 22 May the pursuing French engaged the Allies at Reichenbach.  General Géraud Duroc, who had been Napoleon’s Grand Marshal of the Palace since he became Emperor, was killed. Napoleon, upset at the loss of Duroc and others close to him, ordered the combat to be broken off.

The French, harassed by Cossacks and losing more men to straggling and sickness, were unable to win a decisive victory. The high commands of both sides were arguing amongst themselves. Ney offered his resignation, which was rejected.

The Allied commander, Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein, unhappy that Tsar Alexander had passed orders over his head, also offered his resignation, which Alexander accepted on 29 May. The new commander was  Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly; he promptly upset the Prussians by proposing to withdraw into Poland.

The Tsar came up with a compromise. The Allies would withdraw to Schweidnitz, which was inside Prussia and allowed them to maintain contact with Austria, which they hoped would join them. However, it meant that they risked being outflanked and trapped against the Austrian border. Schweidnitz had once been strongly fortified, but its defences had not been repaired after being destroyed in 1807.

Napoleon then made what he later described as ‘one of the worst decisions of his life’ when he accepted an Austrian proposal for an armistice.[1] It was signed at Pläswitz on 4 June and would last until 20 July. Peace negotiations would take place during this period.

Napoleon said that he accepted the armistice in order to build up his cavalry and to prepare for a possible Austrian intervention into the war. Additionally his troops were tired and many of them were sick, and he needed to set up fortified supply depots to secure his supplies against enemy action. However, the Allied army was in worse shape. As Dominic Lieven says:

‘In all probability had [Napoleon] continued the spring 1813 campaign for just a few more weeks he  could have secured a very favourable peace…Barclay could not believe his luck.’[2]

David Chandler, whilst noting that the French army was in poor shape , agrees that the Allies were in a worse situation. Napoleon had reached Breslau (now Wroclaw) on 1 June. It was to the north east of Schweidnitz, where the Allies had decided to give battle, so the Emperor was close to a decisive victory when he accepted the armistice. The Allies were even worse off than he realised, and benefitted more than the French did from the armistice.[3]

On 15  June Britain paid Prussia £666,666 and Russia £1,333,334 and offered Austria £500,000 if it would enter the war. On 7 July Sweden agreed to join the Allies. Twelve days later Austria said that it would do the same if Napoleon rejected the proposed terms.

Charles Esdaile notes that Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, wanted to maintain a balance of power in Europe between Russian and France as he believed that a decisive victory for either would be disastrous for Austria.[4]

Metternich wanted to arrange a meeting between Napoleon and Alexander, but had to settle for separate meeting with each. Austria, Prussia and Russia, but not Britain, set out their terms in the  Reichenbach Convention on 27 June. They wanted the Duchy of Warsaw and the Confederation of the Rhine to be dissolved, Austria to regain her Illyrian provinces and Prussia to be restored to her 1805 borders,

Metternich put these to Napoleon at Dresden on 30 June, but the Emperor angrily rejected them. F. Loraine Petre contends that neither side expected the negotiations to lead to peace; their ideas of what would be constitute acceptable terms were too far apart.[5] Chandler agrees, suggesting that the terms relayed by Austria ‘smacked of a peace dictated to a vanquished foe’, not a proposal for peace with an enemy that had won two recent victories.[6]

Esdaile takes issue with those who consider the terms offered to Napoleon to be ‘intolerable’, arguing that ‘they were by no means so bad.’[7] He would have retained control over Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Italy and Naples. Esdaile contends that the big loser from a peace agreement along these lines would have been Britain, which would have achieved none of its war aims.

Esdaile points out that Austria, Prussia, Russia and even Britain were willing to let Napoleon keep his throne. Only Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, the Crown Prince and Regent of Sweden, wanted to remove the Emperor. His motivation was personal, as he thought that he might replace Napoleon on the French throne. Napoleon fought on because he preferred risking all on a military victory to compromise.[8]

Bernadotte had previously been one of Napoleon’s Marshals, before being adopted as heir to the elderly and heirless King Karl XIII of Sweden in 1810. In 1813 he was properly named Crown Prince Karl Johan, but most histories of the Napoleonic Wars call him Bernadotte.

Certainly, Napoleon rejected terms that would have left him as head of a very powerful state; fighting on left him in exile on Elba less than a year later. However, there was little chance of a man who had come to power because of military successes and had won two recent battles accepting such terms.

The Allies requested that the armistice be extended to 16 August, supposedly to allow negotiations to continue, but actually to permit Austria to complete its mobilisation. Napoleon agreed because the French also needed time to be ready to restart hostilities. Talks continued at Prague, but both sides were just playing for time.


[1] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 327.

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 504.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 160.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 160.

[7] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 507-8.

[8] Ibid., p. 510.

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Spying on Hitler’s Army – Channel 4

Channel 4, the British TV channel, recently broadcast a drama-documentary titled Spying on Hitler’s Army: The Secret Recordings. It showed how the UK obtained intelligence from German PoWs by secretly recording their conversations. The initial interrogations of prisoners decided which ones could be useful sources of intelligence. They were then sent to one of three stately homes, where they lived in comfortable conditions, not knowing that their conversations were being recorded.

The programme focused on Trent Park, just to the north of London, where the inmates (or guests as the British called them) included seven generals; Wilhelm von Thoma, Ludwig Crüwell, Johannes Bruhn, Heinrich Kittel, Paul von Felbert and Dietrich von Choltitz. They were kept in a relaxed atmosphere, even being allowed day trips to London. Their chief captor, who they believed to be Lord Aberfeldy, a distant relative of the Royal Family, acted more like a host to his host guests.

Aberfeldy was actually Ian Monroe, an officer in MI19, the part of British intelligence responsible for obtaining information from enemy prisoners. He asked encouraged his ‘guests’ to speak by asking them leading questions. Even the grounds of Trent Park were bugged; Monroe made certain that he asked his leading questions when near enough to a microphone for it to pick up the reply.

Many of the people who transcribed and translated the prisoners’ comments were German Jewish refugees who had joined the British Army. One of them, Fritz Lustig, was interviewed in the programme. He gave an interview to BBC Radio’s Witness programme late last year; it is available online, apparently without time or geographical restrictions.

At the end of the war the recordings were destroyed and transcripts of the conversations locked away. The transcripts were declassified a few years ago, and are in now available in the UK National Archives. They were discovered there by chance by Prof. Sönke Neitzel, now of the LSE, when he was researching U-boat crewman. He and several other historians appeared in the programme: Helen Fry, author of The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis, Joshua Levine and Col. Kevin Farrell. It also featured Prof. Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist who commented on how an ordinary person could become a genocidal murderer.

The programme showed reconstructions of conversations between the German PoWs, interspersed with archive footage and comments by the historians. The actors spoke English, but the dialogue was an accurate translation of what the prisoners actually said.

Much of the programme dealt with the conflict between von Thoma, a patriot but an anti-Nazi, and Crüwell, a Nazi. The other main focus was on war crimes. The transcripts showed that the German Army, not just the SS, had participated in the Holocaust. General von Felbert, who had been sentenced to death by Hitler because he allegedly surrendered too easily, was disgusted by war crimes. General Kittel, however, complained to the SS about mass executions of Jews, but only because they were being carried out in public and the location of the mass graves might lead to his troops’ drinking water being contaminated.

The transcripts gave useful military intelligence as well as information on atrocities. Von Thoma told Crüwell of the existence of the V2 rocket and the importance of the Peenemunde research facility, which was subsequently bombed by the RAF.

Not only officers had their conversations recorded. A private called Pffanberger talked about the terrible conditions and high death rate in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He had been an inmate there for seven years because he was suspected of being a communist, until manpower shortages led to him being conscripted into the army.

None of the information used was used in war crimes trials. The British decided that they did not want to give away an intelligence technique that had proved to be very useful in the war, so might be needed again

A very well made and interesting programme, although perhaps not as new a story as the makers seemed to believe, given that Prof. Neitzel’s book on the subject, Soldaten, was published in English early last year and in German in 2011. I did laugh at one point when the German generals, in captivity, berated the other German generals who had just surrendered to the Red Army at Stalingrad.

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HMS Shannon Captures the USS Chesapeake, 1 June 1813.

Admiral Sir John Warren took command of Royal Navy forces in North America and the Caribbean in September 1812. By the end of March 1813 he had blockaded the Chesapeake and the Delaware. On 23 March the Admiralty sent him orders to expand the blockade to cover all the American coast.

The British objectives were to defend their trade and to end the war by economic means. Warren would soon have ten 74 gun ships of the line, 30 frigates and 80 smaller ships, which the Admiralty believed would allow him to carry out these tasks, allowing for a third of his ships being under repair and refit at any time. An attack on New Orleans would have made strategic sense, but Warren had only two battalions of Royal Marines, each of 6-700 men. [1]

The British did carry out limited amphibious operations; an attack on the Delaware from 29-31 May resulted in the capture of destruction of over 20 ships.

The US 44 gun frigates were more powerful than any of Warren’s frigates, but would have stood no chance against a British 74. This meant that much of the United States Navy was trapped in harbour. In April the USS President and Congress managed to exit Boston in fog, but had taken only a dozen prizes by September, when they returned to Newport; much of British commerce was sailing in well escorted convoys. In late May the USS United States, Macedonian and Hornet tried and failed to get out of New York

James Lawrence had commanded the USS Hornet when she sailed with the USS Constitution in the cruise that resulted in the capture of HMS Java. On 24 February 1813 the Hornet encountered the brig HMS Peacock. Both ships were armed principally with carronades, which were very powerful but short range guns, so a short range battle ensued.

As with most naval actions in the War of 1812, the more powerful ship won; in this case it was the Hornet, which carried 32 pound carronades; the Peacock had 24 pounders.  Lawrence was promoted from Master Commandant to Captain. He was initially promised command of the 44 gun frigate USS Constitution, then under refit, but this was changed to the 38 gun frigate USS Chesapeake, then at Boston. Lawrence was annoyed at being switched to a smaller ship, but the Chesapeake was ready for sea. Andrew Lambert notes that her crew was ‘a remarkably experienced team of deep-sea mariners.’[2]

Lawrence took command on 20 May, and spent the next 11 days exercising his gun crews. He also replaced some of the weaker officers. He was aware that there was a British frigate off Boston, so the Chesapeake prepared for action on 31 May before sailing the next day.

The British ship was the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon, commanded by Captain Philip Broke. He had carefully studied naval tactics, realising the importance of accurate gunnery and skilful manoeuvre. His gun crews were trained to a high level of efficiency; they could target the masts to immobilise the enemy ship or the decks to kill the crew. He paid for adjustments to the guns with his own money ; the decks were marked to enable every gun to concentrate fire on the same point.

Broke had sent a challenge to Lawrence to a single ship contest. Lawrence had himself challenged HMS Bonne Citoyenne to combat whilst commanding the Hornet, but did not receive Broke’s letter as he had sailed before it arrived.

Shannon had been accompanied by another frigate, HMS Tenedos, but Broke, realising that the Chesapeake would not engage two frigates, had detached her to guard another exit in case Chesapeake tried to slip out under cover of fog.

The two ships were evenly balanced, so the battle would depend on luck and skill.

Shannon had 52 guns, with a broadside of 26: 28 18 pounders, four 9 pounders, one 6 pounder, 16 32 pound carronades and three 12 pound carronades. Her crew was 330, 30 of them raw.

The Chesapeake had 50 guns, with a broadside of 26: 28 18 pounders firing on the broadside and one ahead, two 12 pounders, 18 32 pound carronades and one 12 pound carronade. Her crew was 379.

The US ship had a slight advantage in nominal weight of fire, but was outgunned by a little if Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that US shot was about 7 per cent less than its nominal value is accepted. Either way, the advantage was not decisive.[3]

The Chesapeake left Boston at 1 pm on 1 June, heading towards Shannon; the visibility was excellent, so both ships could see the other clearly.  In previous frigate actions the Americans had fired at long range, not closing until the enemy was badly damaged. However, the Chesapeake did not have the firepower advantage that the 44 gun US frigates enjoyed. Getting in close had worked for Lawrence when the Hornet had defeated HMS Peacock.

Broke did not want to fight close to Boston, where US gunboats might join in, so moved further away, stopping once Shannon was 15 miles away from Boston and out of sight. The Chesapeake was then 4 miles away and closing. At 5:10 Broke spoke to his crew, encouraging them and ordering his gunners to fire into the enemy hull to kill the American gunners and destroy the guns, rather than trying to dismast her.

At 5:30 it appeared that the Chesapeake might try to cross Shannon’s stern, allowing her to rake the British ship, which would result in devastating damage to her hull. Broke reacted quickly to prevent this happening, but Lawrence was probably intending to fight broadside to broadside; he had loaded his guns with ammunition suitable for destroying the Shannon’s rigging rather firing into her hull.

At 5:40 the American crew gave three cheers, but the British remained silent. Broke believed in fighting as quietly as possible, so that orders could be heard clearly. Lawrence, assuming that he intended to use the tactics that had worked against HMS Peacock, would have aimed to destroy Shannon’s lower rigging. The Chesapeake could then have sat on Shannon’s quarter, firing all her broadside against only a few of the immobilised British ship’s guns. Broke moved to forestall this, and brought his ship broadside to broadside with the American, 40-50 yards apart.

The British opened fire at 5:50; the Americans quickly replied, but many of their gunners were already dead. The Americans scored hits on Shannon, notably on her lower rigging, but were having the worse of the battle. The Chesapeake was sailing faster, with the result that she exposed her stern to the British; her wheel was shot away, and she suffered heavy casualties amongst her officers and petty officers. At one stage it seemed as if the Chesapeake might escape, but she then lost way. A cartridge box exploded on her deck at 5:58.

A boarding action was risky, but Lawrence realised that it was his last option. However, heavy casualties meant that few men answered his call for boarders. He was then mortally wounded, saying ‘Don’t give up the ship’ as he fell.[4]

At 6:00 the ships collided, with one of the British anchors attaching itself to the American port quarter. William Stevens, the British boatswain tied the ships together, losing an arm in the process.

At 6:02 pm Broke led a boarding party onto the Chesapeake; the US Marines tried to resist, but 14 out of 44 had been killed and 20 wounded. Lieutenant George Budd tried to rally the American crew, but was wounded. Broke said that the Americans ‘fought desperately, but in disorder.’[5]

The fighting was apparently over in a couple of minutes. However, three US sailors, perhaps RN deserters who would be executed if taken alive, attacked Broke, inflicting a severe head wound on him. The trio were quickly killed. Broke fell into some quicklime, which had leaked from a barrel hit by a cannon ball. It was used by the Americans as a disinfectant, and this probably saved Broke’s life.

According to Lambert, the dying Captain Lawrence realised that his ship had been taken and exclaimed ‘Then blow her up! Blow the ship up!’[6] The ships had now drifted apart. A small British ensign was raised on the Chesapeake, but was then lowered, before a larger one was raised. This confused one of Shannon’s gun crews, who re-opened fire, killing George Watt, Shannon’s first lieutenant, and killing or wounding five other British sailors.

The British now held the gun deck, but there were only 70 of them, far fewer than the number of Americans below decks. The ships were less than 20 miles off the US coast. Charles Falkiner, Shannon’s fourth lieutenant, told the Americans that there were 300 British on board, and a boat full of Shannon’s marines arrived, making the prize secure.

The ships were of similar size and firepower, with the Chesapeake having the larger crew. Both had brave captains and experienced crews. The main difference was that Lawrence took over his command 12 days before the action whilst Broke had commanded his ship for seven years, bringing it to a high level of efficiency. Lambert argues that:

‘The Americans had nothing to be ashamed of, their gunnery was good, and they fought bravely, but they were beaten by better men, perhaps the best fighting crew that ever went to sea.’[7]

Theodore Roosevelt gives American casualties as 61 killed and 85 wounded and British as 33 killed and 50 wounded.[8] Lambert says that 48 Americans were killed, 99 wounded and 325, including the wounded, captured. Some, probably British deserters, jumped overboard. He gives British casualties as 26 killed and 58 wounded.[9] Shannon hit the Chesapeake 362 times, and was struck 158 times in return.[10]

The two ships, under the command of Provo Wallis, Shannon’s third lieutenant, were repaired before heading for Halifax, Wallis’s home town, arriving on 4 June. Lawrence died just before the ships entered harbour. Delirious, he had exclaimed ‘Don’t give up the ship’ several times during the voyage.[11]

Lawrence and Augustus Ludlow, one of his lieutenants, were buried in Halifax with full military honours, but were soon moved and reburied in first Salem and then New York.[12]

The Chesapeake became HMS Chesapeake, and served in the RN until 1819. Broke was made a Baronet, but did not serve again at sea because of the severity of his wound, which caused him pain for the rest of his life. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on the grounds of seniority in 1830, dying in 1841. Wallis and Falkner were both promoted to Commander.

Wallis, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 12 April 1791, was borne on the books of HMS Oiseau in 1795. The importance of seniority in RN promotion meant influential fathers whose sons intended to join the RN often had them listed on the books of warships years before they went to sea.

Wallis actually went to sea for the first time on HMS Cleopatra in 1805. His last sea going appointment, as C-in-C on the south east coast of South American, ended in 1857. However, he was technically still a serving officer until he died on 13 February 1892, by then Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis. He was on the active list for 96 years, with 52 years of actual service, and was the last surviving British officer to have commanded a warship during the Napoleonic Wars.


[1] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, locations 2455-90

[2] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 2802.

[3] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 220-21.

[4] Quoted in Ibid. vol. i, p. 225.

[5] Quoted in Ibid. vol. i, p. 227.

[6] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, locations 3352-53.

[7] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 3574.

[8] Roosevelt, Naval War, p. 228.

[9] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, location 3419-20.

[10] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 3579.

[11] Ibid. Kindle edition, locations 3435-36

[12] Ibid. Kindle edition, locations 3457-58.

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