Archive for February, 2008

27
Feb
08

Yorktown 1781 – The World Turned Upside Down

On Thursday 28 June 1781, two officers and their escort of green-coated cavalry rode along a narrow peninsula in eastern Virginia, towards Chesapeake Bay. Their mission was to reconnoitre a small town, which stood on 35-foot-high bluffs at the north-eastern tip of the peninsula, overlooking the York River. The town had a harbour capable of accepting the largest merchant ships; two main roads led from it to Williamsburg and Hampton. 12 and 18 miles distant respectively, and a ferry crossed to Gloucester Point, a mile to the north-east. The surrounding land was gently undulating, with sparse vegetation – a few copses and the occasional plantation building were the only notable features. The soil was light and sandy, difficult to dig and easily eroded by wind and rain. Around the town ran two creeks – one a tidal, marshy cut with steep banks, to the west; the other, wider, to the South-east, with a mill pond at its head.
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27
Feb
08

Salamanca 1812

On 22 July 1808, HMS Crocodile nudged its way into the port of Corunna in northern Spain, with Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Wellesley on hoard. Wellesley had sailed to Spain as commander of a 14,000-strong British force with the intention of supporting the people of both Portugal and Spain who had risen up against the invading French armies. Unfortunately, Wellesley was told in no uncertain terms by the local Spanish Junta that his presence, and that of his army, was not welcome, and he was advised to continue his journey along the coast of Portugal and seek help there. Wellesley departed Corunna on 24 July. Four years later – almost to the day – Sir Arthur, by then Lord Wellington, achieved one of his greatest successes on the field of battle when he defeated the French Army of Portugal under Marshal Marmont at the battle ol Salamanca.
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27
Feb
08

Rorke’s Drift 1879 – Pinned Like Rats in a Hole

The battle of Rorke’s Drift is not only the most famous engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, but arguably one of the best known battles in the history of the British Army. The epic struggle against overwhelming odds, the undeniable valour of both sides, have invested it with a thrilling, Boy’s Own Paper quality, which struck a chord with the British public at the time, and has inspired generations of authors and film-makers ever since. Yet in fact this particularly lough and brutal battle was fought to secure no very great strategic objective; it was little more than a mopping-up operation in the aftermath of a far more serious clash, and its true significance was largely a moral one it rescued British prestige on a day when the army of the greatest imperial power in the world had been dramatically and unexpectedly humbled.
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27
Feb
08

Majuba 1881 – The Hill of Destiny

In 1881 the British Empire embarked on another of the ‘little wars’ that had become commonplace for the Victorian Army in the latter half of the 19th century. However, this time there were to be no glorious battle honours added to the annals of the Army; onlv defeat and humiliation. Depending on your viewpoint at the time, the conflict was known as either the Transvaal Rebellion or the Transvaal War of Independence. Today it is more generally known as the First Anglo-Boer War. Regardless of its name, it was to leave the British Army frustrated and burning with a desire for revenge. The roots of the conflict lay 50 years earlier in the Great Trek, the mass exodus of Dutch-speaking settlers from the Cape Colony. Their purpose was to find a new land for themselves in the interior of Africa, far from the constraints and interference of the British Colonial authorities, where they could continue their traditional pastoral way of life. These people, the Boers, favoured an independent and solitary life, guided by a strict religious code. Their lifestyle had been dramatically affected by the arrival of the British in southern Africa.
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27
Feb
08

Little Big Horn 1876 – Custer’s Last Stand


General Phillip H. Sheridan was the Division of Missouri Commander, and his immediate superior was General of the Army William T. Sherman. Both had fought under General Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War. In 1876, with Grant as President, the three were collectively dictating policy and intent upon a military solution to the Sioux problem. On 8 February 1876, after waiting for the ultimatum deadline to expire, Sheridan ordered his subordinate department commanders, Generals Terry and Crook, to ‘prepare for operations against the hostiles’. Their mission was to converge on and break up the concentration of hostile Sioux and Cheyenne believed to be in the Big Horn Valley and force them back to the reservations.
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27
Feb
08

Lake Peipus 1242 – Battle of The Ice


By the late 12th century the eastern Baltic, from Prussia to Finland, was the last major bastion of European paganism. This was seen as an affront by the Church, but the Balts and Finns of the area were not barbarians. Their homeland’s winters were cold, though not as ferocious as those of neighbouring Russia. Nevertheless, it was a region of forests, lakes, marshes and rivers, with little room for agriculture. A borderline between northern coniferous and Southern deciduous forests ran through what is now Estonia, where the silver birch featured most prominently in folklore. In the east a bleak region of swamp and marsh with thousands of tiny streams and several great rivers, all of which froze in winter, separated the Baltic peoples from Russia.
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27
Feb
08

Fornovo 1495 – France’s Bloody Fighting Retreat

By the late 15th century France was the most powerful state in western Europe. Having defeated England in the Hundred Years War, it was now pushing hard against its eastern neighbours. Furthermore, the French kings had inherited a claim to the kingdom of Naples, the largest state in Italy. This was the essentially medieval and dynastic background to King Charles VIII’s extraordinary invasion of Italy in 1494. But Charles was also a dreamer who saw himself as the crusader who would roll back the ever-spreading tide of Ottoman Turkish conquest — and a military base in southern Italy was a good place to start from. The Italian peninsula was fragmented into several states, though the concept of Italy as a nation did exist. Among these little states Milan was traditionally a friend of France. So was Florence. Venice was preoccupied with the Ottoman threat to its overseas empire, and the Papacy was concerned about the growing power of Naples, as were several other Italian states. Naples itself feared the French claim to its crown and was also on the verge of war with Milan.
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