Tag Archives: US Army

Deserter – Charles Glass – Edinburgh Book Festival

At last month’s Edinburgh book Festival I attended a presentation by Charles Glass on his latest book, which is called Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War in the UK and The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War in the USA.

He began by apologising for the sub-title of the UK edition of his book, which he blamed on his publisher. He does not think that it is ‘the last untold story of the Second World War’, as his next book is also about that conflict.

His website describes the book as follows:

The extraordinary story of the deserters of the Second World War. What made them run? And what happened after they fled?
During the Second World War, the British lost 100,000 troops to desertion, and the Americans 40,000. Commonwealth forces from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain’s colonial empire also left the ranks in their thousands. The overwhelming majority of deserters from all armies were front-line infantry troops; without them, the war was harder to win. Many of these men were captured and court-martialled, while others were never apprehended. Some remain wanted to this day. Why did these men decide to flee their ranks?

The website says 40,000 US deserters, but Glass stated that there were 50,000 in his talk.

The book concentrates on three of the deserters: two American, Steve Weiss and Alfred Whitehead, and one British, John Bain. As he was in the UK, he talked mainly about Bain.

Most of the deserters were front line combat troops. A policy of just replacing casualties rather than rotating units out of the front line meant that some Allied soldiers fought throughout the war, whilst others did not see combat, causing great resentment amongst the former group.

John Bain was an Englishman who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after he and his brother ran away from their brutal father. His first choice had been the Merchant Navy, but it rejected him. He was a poet and boxer who disliked the army. He deserted, was caught, demoted from corporal to private and transferred to the Gordon Highlanders.

He fought at El Alamein and in Libya and Tunisia. He adopted a persona of a hard drinking boxer, forgetting about literature. He wandered off in a daze after seeing members of his unit looting the corpses of dead Seaforth Highlanders. An officer gave him a life to the rear area, where he had no idea what to do. He was arrested and sentenced to nine months in the British Army’s toughest prison, which was the model for the prison in the Sean Connery film The Hill.

After six months he accepted an offer of an honourable discharge after the war if he volunteered to train for D-Day. He was wounded in Normandy, and sent back to the UK. He deserted on VE Day instead of waiting for his discharge, and became part of an underground of 20,000 deserters in London. He met a Leeds University student, and moved and studied there. He was eventually arrested and court-martialled, but discharged after psychiatric evaluation.

He changed his name to Vernon Scannell, and became a poet and teacher, but still boxed and drank heavily. He deserted three times but never from combat.

Most deserters were brave men who eventually cracked. Their treatment depended on their officers. After the fall of Tobruk 20,000 British troops deserted, but most came back after General Bernard Montgomery took command. Glass claimed that some of those who had been most adept at surviving on the run in the Nile Delta took those skills to the SAS or the LRDG. Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, had asked the War Cabinet to restore the death penalty for desertion. It refused, as doing so would reveal the scale of desertion to the British public and the Germans.

The USA did retain the death penalty for desertion, and sentenced 49 soldiers to death for desertion. Only one, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was supposed to have been shot as an example, but his execution was kept secret at the time, meaning that it could hardly serve as an example.

The German executed about 15,000 of their own men during the war; most of them were summarily executed, with barely a court martial.

American and British treatment of soldiers who have cracked under the strain of combat is now better than in WWII, but more needs to be done to deal with PTSD. There is no possibility of deserting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern deserters are those who refuse to be sent to the operational theatre for political reasons.

A British Normandy veteran in the audience took exception to the numbers quoted by Glass, arguing that desertion on such a scale would have been more visible to him than it actually was. The discussion did not progress beyond Glass saying that he had seen the numbers in archives, and the veteran refusing to accept them because of his personal experiences.

A good presentation. I am not sure that the story was unknown: I certainly knew about the large number of British troops who deserted after Tobruk and returned before El Alamein. However, it is subject that is mentioned briefly in other books and has not, as far as I know, had a work dedicated solely to it before.

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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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The US Invasion of Canada, 1812

The first US move into Canada in 1812 ended on 16 August, when Brigadier General William Hull surrendered Detroit to Major General Isaac Brock. The Americans subsequently defeated an attempt by Britain’s Native American allies to capture Fort Wayne.

Jeremy Black notes that conquering Canada was the USA’s principal strategic aim, but that it is uncertain whether President James Madison wanted to keep it or just to use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the USA’s grievances with Britain’s conduct of its naval blockade of France and its allies; impressment of US sailors into the Royal Navy and British interference with US seaborne trade.[1]

Canada had a population of 4-500,000, compared with 7.25 million in the USA. The frontier was long and the British garrison was small; less than 10,000 troops and only two warships on Lake Erie and three on Lake Ontario. The war with France was far more important to Britain than the defence of Canada. [2]

The state of communications and relations between their commanders made it hard for the Americans to co-ordinate operations. Logistical and political problems prevented them to concentrating their state militias into a single force.

The Americans suffered from the difficulties encountered by any army that grows rapidly. There was also a lack of clarity in the relationship between officers of the regular army and those of the state militias. They had supply problems and some militia units refused to fight outside the USA.

Britain had conquered Canada in 1759-60 by an attack on Montreal through the Lake Champlain corridor. However, this required major logistical planning and resources and came after several years of failure.

Despite the long frontier, the potential invasion routes were limited and a well positioned defending force could stop a larger attacker. Water communications were significant, especially the Great Lakes, but were more useful for east-west than north-south movement, except for the Hudson/Mohawk route.

Black criticises Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America and C-in-C of all British forces in North America, for moving Brock and troops to defend the Niagara front rather than exploiting the victory at Detroit.[3]

In October the Americans crossed the Niagara River. William Eustis, the US Secretary of War, said that:

[T]he march to Detroit by the way of Cleveland is near 300 miles – that to Niagra not much more than 200, the former through a wilderness, the latter principally thrtough a settled country…provision to and at Niagara more plentiful and less expensive by 50 per cent.[4]

There were also fewer Native Americans, who were generally pro-British, in the west.

The senior US regular officer on the Niagara front, Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, refused to cooperate with Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer, a militia officer who was put in command. He had 1,650 regulars and 4,300 militia facing 1,600 regulars and militia and 600 Iroquois.[5]

The Americans crossed the river on October 13, landing at Queenston despite strong currents and British fire. The British attacked and Brock was killed. The Americans held their positions, but were hampered by the reluctance of some militia units to invade Canada and Smyth’s refusal to obey Rensselaer’s orders. Shrapnel fire from British cannon silenced the US guns and sank US boats.

The Iroquois won time for Major General Roger Sheaffe, Brock’s replacement to bring up reinforcements. The Americans had either retreated back over the river or surrendered by the evening. The British took 925 prisoners and claimed to have killed or wounded 500 Americans.[6] According to Andrew Lambert, this victory was very important in creating a Canadian national identity.[7]

Smyth replaced Van Rensselaer after the latter resigned on 16 October. He planned to capture Fort Erie, a vital position according to Black.[8] On 28 November the Americans raided Frenchman’s Creek in preparation for a larger crossing of the Niagara. It was partially successful, but Smyth cancelled the major assault on 1 December because he did not think that he had enough troops to succeed.

Brigadier General Peter Porter accused Smyth of cowardice. The pair fought a duel on 12 December, but neither was injured.

In the Lake Champlain area a US attack on Montreal from New England was abandoned because of logistical and command problems. Major General Henry Dearborn, the US commander, offered his resignation, but Madison rejected it.

Despite these failures Madison was narrowly re-elected as President in November 1812. However, his opponent, DeWitt Clinton, won all the coastal states from New Hampshire to Maryland. Clinton did not oppose the war, but those who did backed him because he was not Madison.

Madison accepted Eustis’s resignation. Secretary of State James Monroe became acting Secretary of War at the end of 1812, with John Armstrong taking up the post on 5 February.

US resources had proved to be inadequate to carry out their planned land operations against Canada. Russell Weigley contends that the US Army failed to recognise the need to concentrate on the enemy’s most important and vulnerable point; the bottleneck on the St Lawrence River at Montreal, which controlled access to the interior of Canada.[9] However, American morale remained high because of their unexpected success at sea.


[1] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 46.

[2] Ibid., pp. 47-48.

[3] Ibid., pp. 66-67.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 67.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 68.

[7] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle location 1272 of 12307

[8] Black, War of 1812, p. 69.

[9] R. F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 48.

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United States Declares War on Britain – in 1812

On 18 June 1812 US President James Madison signed a declaration of war on Britain. Madison had made a speech to Congress on 1 June, listing a series of American objections to British policy. This was followed by votes for war of 79 to 49 in the House of Representatives and 19 to 13 in the Senate.

The Americans had grievances against Britain because of the impact of Britain’s economic warfare against France on American commerce and because the Royal Navy impressed [often shortened to press] US sailors into service. Under British law, the RN was entitle to impress , or conscript, British merchant sailors. These included men who it considered to be British, but who were US citizens in American eyes.

According to N. A. M. Rodger, the problem was that most countries then defined nationality by birth, but the USA allowed it to be earned by residence. He notes that Albert Gallatin, the US Treasury Secretary, estimated that half of the 18,000 seamen serving on the deep sea US merchant fleet were British subjects. The US government did not issue official documents of citizenship. US Consuls issued unofficial ones, but they had to depend on a man’s word that he was a US citizens, and there was scope for corruption. This gave the British, short of seamen, an excuse to ignore these documents. Rodger says that recent research shows that about 6,500 US citizens were pressed into the RN, with around 3,800 of them being released. Older sources give higher numbers.[1]

France had introduced  the Continental System in November 1806, banning its allies and conquests from trading with Britain. The flaw in this strategy was that Britain controlled the seas, so British goods could be smuggled onto the Continent. Britain responded with Orders in Council in 1807, which imposed a blockade on France. Click here for copies of the documents that established these two systems.

Ironically, the British government under Lord Liverpool abolished the Orders in Council on 23 June 1812. Because of the slow speed of communication, it did not know that the USA had declared war on Britain five days earlier. Liverpool had become Prime Minister after the assassination of Spencer Perceval a month previously.

Charles Esdaile says that US exports declined by 40% between 1808 and 1812. This reduced the prices of cotton, tobacco and land. The USA had fought the undeclared Quasi-War at sea with France in 1798-1800 over the actions of French privateers. Problems returned under Napoleon’s rule, but British control of the seas meant that the British Orders in Council had far more impact on the USA than the French Continental System.

In 1807, the Americans attempted to retaliate with a trade embargo on Britain. This was replaced in 1809 with a Non-Intercourse Act that effectively allowed trade with Britain and France via third parties. Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s predecessor as President, had hoped to force British concessions by economic means. The failure of this policy led to the election of many proponents of war to Congress in 1811.

As well as the US grievances with Britain, many wanted to expand into Canada, Florida, which was controlled by Britain’s ally Spain and the Indian territories to the West. Tecumseh, the American Indian leader, was allied to Britain.

The US Army had fallen to 3,000 men in 1807, but 13 new regiments were authorised in January 1812, along with 12 ships of the line and 24 frigates for the USN. In February, State militias of 50,000 men were authorised; the number was increased to 100,000 in April. However, the US Army still had, according to Esdaile, only 7,000 men at the outbreak of war. [2]

Britain was now at war with France and the USA, but the two wars were separate conflicts. The only impact of each on the other was that British soldiers and ships could be in only one place at a time.

Russell Weigley points out that there were just 7,000 British and Canadian regulars guarding a 900 mile frontier. Reinforcements could not be sent because the Peninsular War with Napoleon was more important to Britain. The USN had only 16 ships, excluding gunboats. US defence against seaborne invasion depended on harbour fortifications and gunboats. The RN had over 600 warships, including 120 ships of the line and 100 frigates, in 1812. Around 100 were in the western Atlantic, but only one ship of the line and seven frigates were in US  .[3]


[1] N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 565-66 and note 9 on p. 743.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 480-85.

[3] R. F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 46-49.

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