On this day in 1862

English: "Portrait of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E...

English: “Portrait of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, officer of the Federal Army”. Negative: glass, wet collodion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ambrose Burnside got the post most thinking generals in the Eastern Theatre of the US Civil War would have sold their grandmothers to avoid – command of the Army of the Potomac.  I never really knew how to take Burnside – in the roll of Union commanders he is often held up as one of the most unsuccessful and incompetent.  A little background reading fleshes out the picture more fairly – the man was a good peacetime commander and administrator but such people don’t always make the transition to field command.  Burnside started the war as a colonel of volunteers (1st Rhode Island) and was bumped up to brigade command in time for 1st Bull Run.  His performance there was what you might expect from an OK colonel given a brigade – OK but nothing more.

From autumn 1861 until summer 1862, Burnside commanded a scratch force of three Maryland brigades dubbed the North Carolina Expeditionary Force.  These troops were used to conduct an amphibious campaign that closed most  the war.of the North Carolina coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war.  That got him a promotion to Major-General and his forces designated as the nucleus of the new 9th Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  If the war started to get on top of Gen. Burnside it was probably at the point he was first offered command of the Army of the Potomac.  Sensibly, he refused and one gets the impression that the man understood and accepted his limitations.  Following Second Bull Run he was offered command again and again refused.

September 1862 brought Lee’s invasion of Maryland and the battle of Antietam.  Burnside’s lacklustre performance at that fight can be partly blamed on McClellan, who had split 9th Corps, putting each of its two divisions at opposite ends of the battlefield.  That said, Burnside himself appeared overborne by the situation.  His failure to utilise the concealed fords over Antietam Creek meant that his troops were committed to attacking across a bridge covered from high ground by Confederate sharpshooters.  This was a major factor in the result of the battle – a tactical stalemate.

McClellan’s less than enthusiastic pursuit of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as they retreated lead to his removal.  Burnside got the job offer from hell for a third time and reluctantly accepted.  He soon understood what political pressure meant as telegram after telegram came from Washington ordering him to attack.  His plan for an advance on Richmond was way too ambitious, since everything depended on an easy capture and consolidation of his crossing over the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg.  The ensuing battle fought there on 13 December was a costly and humiliating Union defeat.  Failure to exploit breakthroughs on the flanks allowed Lee and Longstreet to dig in along Marye’s Heights and repel frontal assault after frontal assault.  It is for these corpse-strewn slopes that Burnside is chiefly and not entirely fairly remembered.


On this day in 1914

British troops suffered an ignominious and unecessary defeat at Tanga in East Africa.  Their nemesis in this case went by the name of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.  Four four years, Lettow-Vorbeck held off at least 200,000 British, French and Portugese soldiers with a force that rarely exceeded 11,000 Askari Africans and 3,000 Germans.  His East African Campaign rates as one of the most successful guerilla campaigns of modern history – quite possibly of all time.

When you do a little bit of digging on the man he emerges as quite a character.  On the surface an old-school Prussian, he challenges that image by his style of command.  Innovative and thoughtful he was clearly a superb tactician and a man who knew how to inspire loyalty – not just from his German subordinates, but also from the Askari soldiers under his command.  Lettow-Vorbeck spoke their language fluently and treated them no differently to his German troops.  Interestingly, he also ensured that those with sufficient potential received commissions – often from the ranks.

After the war, he resigned from the army and played little or no part in the turbulent politics of Weimar Germany.  What really made me smile was his response to being courted by the Nazis.  Hitler reportedly offered him the post of ambassador to Britain – an approach based solely on his war record.  The old general’s response is not explicitly recorded, but there is a story (possibly not apocryphal) that he told Adolf to go fuck himself.  🙂

A salute then to the old general – a soldier of the old school and the closest thing to an honourable enemy one is likely to find in modern conflict.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paston Letters

Paston Letters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Margaret Paston died.  She married into the Paston family, an example of mid-level Norfolk gentry during the Wars of the Roses.  She is chiefly remembered for the detailed correspondence she left behind her.  Totalling around one hundred letters, it provides a superb insight into daily life during the Wars of the Roses.  Most 0f the letters are to her husband Sir William Paston, who was often absent from home on court business.  However, while the Paston Letters are a superb resource, they should not be taken as providing a typical picture of gentry life during this period.  The Pastons were quite closely involved in local and national politics and in that they were by no means typical of the time.  The Paston Letters can usefully be contrasted with the Stonor Papers in this respect.

On this day in 1484

On this day in 1956

2ème RPC paratroopers patrol in Port Said. Oct...

2ème RPC paratroopers patrol in Port Said. October 1956 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British and French troops landed in the Suez Canal Zone as part of Operation Musketeer.  Objective:  recapture the Suez Canal from nasty old Nasser and show that where cheap oil was concerned there was nothing we wouldn’t do.  Cynical? Me?

Ok, perhaps just a little bit.  The Suez Crisis of 1956 isn’t something Britain comes out from smelling of roses.  The problem with secret plots and protocols is that when revealed (and they often are) you look like a lying ****.  You definitely do if you’ve lied to Parliament as well.  The Soviets might have been stamping on the Hungarians, but that didn’t mean they’d taken their eye off the global ball.

US President Eisenhower realised that the combined British/French/Israeli action had seriously destablised the region – Soviet support for Nasser meant a real liklihood of Russian intervention if the situation wasn’t sorted and soon.  Solution?  Simple – remind the Brits that they owed the USA a lot of money and threaten to collapse their currency if they failed to stop pretending they had an Empire.  British PM Eden then compounded matters by arranging a ceasefire without letting his French and Israeli allies know.  OK, he was probably panicking but it made an already bad situation look even worse.

It certainly did to the French – ‘perfide Albion’ didn’t even start to cover it. It didn’t lead to de Gaulle taking France out of NATO but it was certainly a contributory factor in that decision.

On this day in 1485

Cropped image of Henry VII

Cropped image of Henry VII (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HenryTudor , Earl of Richmond was officially crowned King Henry VII of England.  At the time, there were at least twenty other people with a better claim to the throne, one of them being his predecessor Richard III.  His claim to the throne was supported assisduously both before and after the coronation by his mother Margaret Beaufort (immortalised by David Starkey as the mother in law from Hell).  Oops.  Now I’ve gone and done it.  Might just as well get a white rose border for my blog page.  In all honesty though, my Ricardian credentials are modest – they certainly wouldn’t allow me to last long in the Richard III Society.  I certainly don’t keep Sharon Penman‘s ‘Sunne in Splendour‘ with the reverence accorded by some to the Bible, but neither d0 I think Richard was a hunch-backed monster who murdered his nephews to get the crown.  The truth, as with most things, lies somewhere in between.  But I digress.  Henry Tudor got round the minor issue of deposing an annointed king by the simple expedient of dating his reign from the day before the Battle of Bosworth.  Richard and all who followed him thus became traitors automatically, their lands forfeit to the crown.

Henry’s reign began with rebellion and political uncertainty.  He had been a refugee for most of his life before 1485, dependent on the kindness of strangers and ever aware that he could be murdered, imprisioned or used as a pawn in the power plays of others.  He saw Yorkist rebellion under just about every stone (with some justification) until 1499 at least.  The last ten years of his life were marked by increasing tyranny (well documented by Thomas Penn in his book ‘Winter King’) and the death of his eldest son Arthur, the bright new Renaissance prince whose role it had been to cement the fortunes of the new dynasty. That job would now fall to his second son, Prince Henry.

At his death in 1509 he left behind an economically strong and prosperous kingdom and a very full treasury.  The latter would be made full, if not profligate use of by his successor.  In comparison with his predecessors Henry often seems a cold, calculating and colourless man – his weapon of choice being the law rather than the sword.  In fairness though he was the first of the early modern kings and his preference for law, trade and political alliance over war and conquest clearly marks him out as such.


Israeli troops preparing for combat in the Sin...

Israeli troops preparing for combat in the Sinai peninsula during the Suez Crisis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israeli paratroops began their invasion of the Sinai  – the initial moves in what would later become known as the Suez CrisisEgyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal that summer had made Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser public enemy number one in the eyes of Britain and France.  Their secret deal with Israel agreed at Sevres near Paris provided for an initial Israeli invasion of the Sinai, followed by joint Anglo-French landings to capture the Canal Zone.

On this day in 1956

This day in 1962

marked the official end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to the removal of the missiles from Cuba in return for reciprocal American action in Turkey and a guarantee of Cuban territorial sovereignty.   In London, my parents breathed a sigh of relief and stopped whitewashing and taping up the windows….  In short, the world stepped back from the brink, heaved a sigh of relief and got on with life.

Behind the scenes however, things were a little different. In Europe, there was outrage – not at Kennedy’s handling of the Russians, but at having been kept in the dark about the negotiations. In Cuba, Castro fulminated at Soviet weakness and perfidy in abandoning the Cuban revolution to the mercies of the Yankee imperialists. (This actually engendered an interesting postscript to the crisis – one which I’ll deal with in another post). In Moscow, Kremlin hardliners like Brezhnev and Kosygin lambasted Khrushchev’s approach. (Two years later they forced him from power and launched the Soviet Union on a period of significant military expansion).

Most significantly though, it became obvious to thinking people on both sides of the Iron Curtain that some controls and checks on nuclear weapons were essential. The Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 was one of the best results of this, together with the setting up of the Moscow-Washington hotline.