Nine Valiant Academicals – Edinburgh’s Victoria Cross heroes.

This is a presentation I gave in 2015 on the nine men – the ‘Nine Valiant Academicals’ as they have been termed ( by writer Alisdair Macintyre in his 2007 book of the same name) who from military training at Stockbridge’s own Edinburgh Academy went on to win the Victoria Cross – the world’s highest decoration for bravery in the face of the enemy. As a Stockbridge resident myself, it is amazing to read these stories and just as amazing to present them and I have promised myself for a long time to put this out there to a wider audience.

The Victoria Cross

Prior to the creation of the VC, the armies of Great Britain and the Commonwealth had no real personal order of merit – or distinction of bravery for the common soldier or sailor. Generals and officers – usually over the rank of Major, could be decorated or rewarded, but there was nothing to distinguish the common soldier as an individual – indeed the Waterloo Medal of 1815 was the first medal most common soldiers had received. All this was to change in the Crimean War.

The Crimean War lasted from 1854-1856 with the armies of Britain, France, Sardinia and Turkey against Russia. It was famous for the great battles of Alma, Balavlava and Inkermann – and of course for the terrible siege of Sebastopol…but there was something more. The British Army hadn’t really fought much of a war – outside of India – since Waterloo forty years before. Back then, newspapers would report on great and stunning victories from stories heard second and third hand – and some would even invent the details. All the public had known was great Generals such as Wellington – but the common soldier had remained largely forgotten. Now for the first time, however, the Crimean War saw the arrival of the popular press who followed the army, saw the battles and the suffering, lived with and spoke with the soldiers, and reported back a very different image of war to that which the British public had become accustomed to.

 William Russell

It was William Russell of the Times who changed how warfare was to be perceived for good and, far from tales of glorious cavalry charges led by heroic Generals, the public for the first time saw the lot of the common soldier. And they were horrified. Through bad generalship, a non-existent supply situation, disease and appalling medical care, the British Army was dying in the Crimea. Of 21,000 British soldiers and sailors killed in that war, it is estimated that 16,000 died from disease, malnutrition and bad medical care, and the public read every word of it.

For the first time, the British Generals were accountable, and the public was angry. But what they also saw for the first time were stories, accurate sketches and now even photographs of the true heroes – the common soldiers who despite every inadequacy were fighting for their lives and winning against vast odds. Now the common soldier was the hero and the General – at least the one who did not do his duty, was the villain of the story – it remains so to this day. All this began with William Russell.

Even before the war ended, Queen Victoria and Parliament began to feel the sway of public opinion and answered the call for a medal to be struck – open to all ranks and branches of the service, to honour the heroic deeds of the common soldier. Queen Victoria said the award should be plain – as the men themselves were, of little monetary value so that it could not be sold, that it should come with a financial reward and a lifetime pension and that it should come before all other awards, titles or badges of merit. The military establishment opposed the plan, stating that it might lead soldiers into breaking from their ranks to perform some foolhardy and heroic act, but Queen Victoria had her way. Finally Parliament suggested the medal should bear the motif “For the Brave” – but Victoria was against this. All her soldiers were brave, she said, and so the Victoria Cross was created on January 29th 1856 with the simple motto “For Valour”

The Victoria Cross was backdated to 1854 to take account of the Crimean War, and no less than 111 soldiers and sailors were decorated with the Order in June 1857 in Hyde Park.

So how hard is the Victoria Cross to win? – Officially, the Victoria Cross is the single hardest gallantry order to win in the world…and certainly the rarest. To be eligible, a soldier had to comply with no less than fifteen ‘rules and ordinances’ laid down by Parliament and approved by the army and the War Office. The basic premise for being awarded the VC is; “Most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”

Although it is hard to quanitfy this, there are in fact a number of considerations which have to be satisfied to be eligible, which include;

Some great act of personal bravery in the face of the enemy without regard to life or personal safety – when citations are reviewed, the element  of ‘self preservation’ is considered and, if found, the decoration will not be granted.

The act must be performed pre-eminently – in other words not planned but instinctive.

It must be some act which materially affected the outcome of the battle or action in question. Again, your bravery must have some impact on turning the tide of the action.

It should be an act which saved the life – or lives, of ones comrades and had to be done with what is generally agreed to as a less than 10% chance of survival.

And finally a last key element – someone has to see you do it, ideally a senior officer who can corroborate the facts and who takes it upon themselves to write a citation requesting the award…which means your senior officer has to actually like you!

If the nominee for the VC was wounded in action and carried on doing their duty, then extra ‘Brownie-points’ were awarded. Perform all of this and you might just be eligible for the Victoria Cross!

One final element was added – although not always adhered to – in that it was expected that serving officers should be expected to do more to earn the nomination than a common soldier. More was expected of an officer in terms of leadership, and an officer had more freedom of movement around the battlefield, and so could more easily perform such a gallant act, and so the rules pertaining to officers were stricter. Finally, perhaps the toughest consideration was this; each time the Victoria Cross was awarded, the bar was set higher…it became harder and harder to win, as we shall see.

Since its creation, only 1,355 Victoria Crosses have been awarded. In almost the same time, by contrast, the Congressional Medal of Honor has been won 3,449 times – which makes the VC two and a half times rarer. Here really begins the story of the Victoria Cross – because – as we shall see, the men who won it were all heroes – even those very first recipients who had to go ‘Above and beyond the call of duty’ – but the survivability rate of such a decoration has by now become almost impossible. The tale of these Nine Valiant Academicals from Stockbridge will, I hope, bear that out. Not in the Crimean War, however, but in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858 do we find our first three winners of the Victoria Cross:

Thomas Cadell VC

Thomas Cadell was born in Cockenzie East Lothian in 1835. He attended Edinburgh Academy between 1845-1848 and in 1854 obtained a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd European Bengal Fusiliers. Thomas saw some active service along the frontier in Burma, but really he achieved nothing special – indeed there was no early mark of his being an especially good soldier.

In 1857 however, he was stationed in India, and then the Mutiny broke out. The mutineers had flocked to Delhi and captured it in May of that year, putting the British garrison to the sword, and now a British force was sent to recapture the city. Arriving a month later, the British regiments – including the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers, battled the mutineers back to around the walls of the city. Desperate not be penned in, the mutineer army battled furiously for every outlying fort or outpost, launching wave after wave of attacks against the British lines. One such attack came at the Flagstaff Outpost on June 12th where Thomas Cadell was stationed with his own regiment and the 75th regiment who were alongside.

(Flagstaff Tower, Delhi)

When the Indians attacked, in overwhelming numbers, the British forces were pushed back, but Thomas Cadell not only fought to hold his position as long as possible, but even advanced to save his comrades.

His citation reads; “For having, on the 12th June 1857, at the flagstaff picquet at Delhi, when the whole of the picquet of Her Majesty’s 75th Reginment and 2nd European Bengal Fusiliers were driven in by a large body of the enemy, brought in from amongst the enemy a wounded bugler of his own regiment under a most severe fire, who would otherwise have been cut up by the rebels. Also, the same day, when the Fusiliers were retiring, by order, on Metcalfe’s House, on its being reported that there was a wounded man left behind, Lieutenant cadell went back of his own accord towards the enemy, accompanied by three men, and brought a man in of the 75th Regiment, who was severely wounded, under a most heavy fire from the advancing enemy.”

Suddenly Thomas Cadell was a soldier of renown, and he served throughout the mutiny, and into 1860 mopping up the last bands of resistance along the frontiers in the north of India, being mentioned in dispatches and also receiving the thanks of the Governor General for his services. By 1884 Thomas had risen to the rank of full Colonel. He became Governor General of the Andaman and Nicobar islands between 1879-1892 until he retired aged 57. In retirement, Thomas returned to East Lothian, and there he became renowned as a philanthropist and a great public figure. He promoted education – giving vast endowments for the establishment of schools, became County Councillor, worked tirelessly for the poor, and worked closely to enhance the lot of the fishing community. In 1906 Thomas was made a Companion of the Bath for his tireless services, and he returned to serve on the Court of Directors for Edinburgh Academy from 1907 until his death in 1919. The turn out for his funeral was enormous.

In just this first example, I hope to show that the Victoria Cross in many ways made the men who bore it, but hopefully that such men truly made it mean something by more than a single act of bravery.

James Hills VC

James Hills was born in Neechindipur Bengal in 1833 and came to Edinburgh aged just ten to study at the Academy between 1843-1847 – he was at school with our first VC winner Thomas Cadell. In 1853 aged 20, he took up a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Bengal Artillery and was posted to India. In 1857 James Hills’ path would cross that of Thomas Cadell again, as Hills was sent to retake Delhi, and found himself in the siege lines, facing the same waves of attack as Cadell had. It was whilst on outpost duty on July 9th that Hills and his small detachment were assailed by enemy cavalry, on a day that both Hills and his Colonel were to win the Victoria Cross.

The citation read: “For very gallant conduct on the part of Lieutenant Hills before Delhi, in defending the position assigned to him in case of alarm, and for noble behaviour on the part of Lieutenant-Colonel Tombs in twice coming to his subaltern’s rescue, and on each occasion killing his man.”

Now this sounds a bit obscure, and doubtless many challenged the validity of his recommendation, until it seems, a note was attached to it, which explained Hills’ part more fully: “During the siege of Delhi whilst on picket duty with two guns on a hill near the camp, his force was suddenly atacked by rebel cavalry. Without hesiotation, ho rode straight at the enemy, single-handed, in order to cause a commotion and give the guns time to load. He cut down two rebels before being thrown from his horse by two sowars charging together. Now on foot, he managed to fight off two more assailants and was about to be killed by a third when Tombs came to his assistance.”

He not only charged the enemy single-handed – he rode in front of his own cannon, fully expecting them to fire and probably kill him. This is the real ‘stuff’ of the VC – an act of pre-eminent valour, done without regard to life or safety against the odds, which saved his post and turned the tide of the action, an action in which, by all rights, he should have been killed, if not by the enemy, then by his own side.

Following the winning of the Victoria Cross, Hills was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and served throughout the mutiny at the siege of Lucknow, the Battle of Bareilly and a number of other actions. For his services, Hills was appointed personal Aide to the Viceroy of India – Lord Canning, and in 1868 – now a Brigade Major of some renown, he travelled to Abyssinia to take part in the war there which was to be one of the greatest feats of the British army – being present at the final battle of Arogi and commanding a mortar battery at the siege of the stronghold of Magdala. By 1886 he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant General retiring in 1888.

He returned to his ancestral home of Carmarthenshire where he held various posts, being Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant for Carmarthenshire, and Freeman of the County and Burgh of that place. He was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, made an honorary Colonel of several regiments and was awarded a Honorary degree from the University of Wales. He died in 1919.

John Tytler VC

The third of our Indian Mutiny VC winners is John Tytler. He was born in India in 1825 and attended Edinburgh Academy from 1838-1840 pre-dating both Thomas Cadell and James Hills by a few years. Unlike those two, John was already an experienced soldier by the time the Mutiny came about, having been in the army since 1844 as a Lieutenant in the 66th Gurkha Regiment and served in Peshwar under another of Scotland’s great soldiers, Sir Colin Campbell.

He fought in several of the battles and sieges of that war until by February 1858 the Mutiny was in its death throes, and the rebels had been chased into the northern provinces and mountains around Choorpoorah in what is now Kashmir. Here the rebels entrenched themselves, and John Tytler was sent to storm their positions. Advancing, the Gurkhas stalled under a hail of fire from the Mutineers, and now John dashed forward alone to lead his men on and to divert the fire from them as his citation recalled; “On the attacking parties’ approaching the enemy’s position under a heavy fire of round shot, grape and musketry, on the occasion of the action at Choopoorah on 10th February last, Lieutenant Tytler dashed on horseback ahead of all, and alone, up to the enemy’s guns, where he remained engaged hand to hand, until they were carried by us; and where he was shot rhough the left arm, had a spear wound on his chest and a ball through the right sleeve of his coat.”

John’s actions ensured that his Gurkhas, stirred by his example, won the day, and although wounded and sent to hospital, he recovered quickly and took part in the last actions of the war. He soon rose to be the commander of his regiment – now renamed the 4th Gurkhas, and led them in several campaigns, being again mentioned in despatches for bravery.

Commander of the Bath in 1872 he was promoted to Brigadier General soon after, and now led his Gurkhas as part of a flanking Brigade in the Second Afghan War, and successfully fought several actions, being responsible for a great deal of the success of the campaign until the peace of 1879 when he was forced to resign his command due to ill-health. However, the peace treaty was soon violated, the British embassy at Kabul was massacred, and Tytler now rose from his sick-bed to resume his command, against the orders of his doctors.

By now, he was considered the finest mountain-warfare General in the British Army, and he proved it by rejoining his command and attacking the Afghans in their mountain positions, personally leading a flanking march which turned the enemy out of an impregnable stronghold and winning a battle all his own. However, his illness not being recovered from, the campaign took its toll on him and in the beginning of 1880 he contracted pneumonia and died. He is still remembered by the Gurkhas to this day as the man who recruited and trained them from being raw levies into one of the finest forces in the British Army.

James Dundas VC

Our fourth Edinburgh Academical is James Dundas who was born in 1842 in Abercrombie Place, Edinburgh, and who attended the Edinburgh Academy between 1852-1855. In 1860 James was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Bengal Royal Engineers, which he joined in India after training in 1862.

He had a relatively easy career, being appointed to the Public Works department at Rurki where his abilities soon saw him promoted to the post of Executive Engineer for the region. In 1864 the North Indian state of Bhutan fell into civil war, and the rebel factions ousted the British supported governor and set up a rival government which Britain was determined to depose. It was a one-sided war, with British regulars – amongst them James Dundas of the Engineers, against little more than a rabble – albeit a determined one. At the battle of Dewan-Giri on April 30th 1865 the British routed their opponents apart from some 200 fanatics who holed themselves up in a block-house or fort, and forces – amongst them James Dundas and his fellow officer William Spottiswoode Trevor – were sent to clear them out.

His citation reads; “Major-General Tombs, CB, VC, the officer in command at the time, reports that a party of the enemy, from 180 to 200 in number, had barricaded themselves into the block-house in question, which they continued to defend after the rest of the position had been carried and the main body was in retreat. The block-house, which was loop-holed, was the key of the enemy’s position. Seeing no officer of the storming party near him, and being anxious that the place should be taken immediately, as any protracted resistance might have caused the main body of the Bhooteas to rally, the British force having been fighting in a broiling sun on very steep and difficult ground for upwards of three hours, the general in command ordered  these two officers to show the way into the block-house. They had to climb up a wall which was 14 feet high, and then to enter the house, occupied by some 200 desperate men, head-foremost through an opening not more than two feet wide between the top of the wall and the roof of the block-house. Major-General Tombs states that on speaking to the Skih soldiers around him, and telling them in Hindoostani to swarm up the wall, none of them responded to the call, until these two officers had shown them the way, when they followed with the greatest alacrity. Both of them were wounded.”

Now this sounds like an act of great bravery, but initially the request for the VC was blocked by the commander-in-chief Sir William Mansfeld, who felt that Engineer officers such as Dundas and Trevor had no business becoming involved in what he saw as infantry operations, and that; “In my opinion, Dundas, as Engineer Officer, had acted officiously and altogether out of order in entering at all int0 the struggle. In fact I consider that they were guilty of an irregularity which, if repeated, might prove seriously detrimental to the discipline of the army and which I am determined not to encourage.”

Eventually however, the intervention of the Governor-General proved final, and the commendations for both were sent to Horse Guards for approval. It took three years for the awards to be confirmed, and the matter was personally decided by Queen Victoria. In 1871 James Dundas returned to the Public Works department, where he resumed his duties, becoming personal assistant to General Taylor who ran it. He was hard working and determined to see to everything himself, as one subaltern wrote, he was; “A most anxious fellow…frightfully hard working…he does not give us subs enough to do of the work…always getting up at the most unearthly hours, though not a coolie shows his face until some hours later.” 

Seven years were to pass here until his next heroic exploit, when James was posted to the British outpost at Simla. One day when walking by, he was alerted to a fire which had taken hold of a house. The roof had fallen in and trapped a local Indian man. James Dundas at once dashed into the flames, severely burning his hands but rescuing the man on the second attempt with the help of another officer. The following year, James was promoted to the very height of the Public Works Department, but this time he refused the offer. The popular General Roberts was leading a punitive expedition into Afghanistan, and James determined to take part.

As Roberts advanced and took Kabul, James Dundas and a fellow officer named Charles Nugent were sent to aid in the destruction of a line of enemy forts which overlooked the British encampment. Lacking the right equipment, the two were forced to make their own improvised fuses for the explosives. It was December 23rd 1879 when the explosives detonated prematurely, and James Dundas and Charles Newgent were both killed instantly.

Just a few years ago, the British Army once again invaded Afghanistan, and to connect their outposts, the Royal Engineers built a bridge on a key road between Kabul and Bagram. When it was completed – after just thirteen days, they named it the ‘Dundas Bridge’. It still stands today.

John Cook VC

Our fifth ‘Valiant Academical’ is John Cook who served throughout the second and third Afghan wars already alluded to. He was born in 1843 in Darnaway Street, Edinburgh, and lived in his childhood in North Castle Street. He attended Edinburgh Academy between 1852-1856 and was in the same class as James Dundas, whose career we have just discussed.

In 1860 John Cook joined the Indian Army and left immediately to join his new command, finally settling in the 3rd Sikh Regiment. With these, he soon joined in the Umbeleya campaign and at once showed his bravery, being mentioned in dispatches and receiving the thanks of his Colonel for leading a vital bayonet charge. In 1872 John was promoted to Captain, and the following year transferred to the 5th Gurkhas.

It was December 1878 when he – as had James Dundas – joined General Roberts’ expedition to Afghanistan against the Douranees. The first action of this campaign came on December 2nd at Peiwar Kotal – the first Mountain Pass into Afghanistan, and the 5th Gurkhas – John Cook’s company in the vanguard, were sent to lead a flanking column around the enemy position, ready to attack at first light. As the column got into position, two Afghan guides on the British side suddenly fired their guns to warn their countrymen, and in an instant John Cook and his company were pinned down under an intense fire.

Realising that he had to push his attack, John Cook now led the advance, as his citation recalled; “For a signal act of valour at the action of the Peiwar Kotal on the 2nd December 1878 in having, during a very heavy fire, charged out of the entrenchments with such impetuosity that the enemy broke and fled when, perceiving at the close of the melee, the danger of Major Galbraith, , Assistant Adjutant-General, Kurum Column Field Force, who was in personal conflict with an Afghan soldier, Captain Cook distracted his attention to himself and aiming a sword cut which the Douranee avoided, sprang upon him and, grasping his throat, grappled with him. They both fell to the ground. The Douranee, a most powerful man, still endeavouring to use his rifle, seized Captain Cook’s arm in his teeth until the struggle was ended by the man being shot in the head.”

Following this attack, the Douranees broke and fled, and the vital pass of Peiwar Kotal was won. John was now a popular hero, as was his brother Walter, who had been by his side as an officer in the same regiment throughout the engagement, and who just two months earlier had been proposed for the Victoria Cross himself, although the citation was not upheld due to administrative complications. It was almost a year later – in December 1879 when the two brothers were again fighting side by side, and again, coming under fire they led their company to the charge. This time, however, they were not so lucky.

Walter was shot in the chest whilst John was brought to his knees by a heavy blow to the head, and both, though the charge had succeeded, were dragged to the rear in their wounded state. Walter was kept in hospital, where his wound – a bullet in the lung – was pronounced non-lethal, but John returned to the fighting the next day and this time received a bullet in the leg just below the knee. He was forced to lay exposed in the cold all night, as the stretcher bearers could not get near him until morning. John thought that he would lose his leg, but the doctors procrastinated over the amputation, hoping that he might yet recover. The decision was to prove fatal, and John Cook died of complications on December 19th that year. His death was announced with sorrow in the divisional order.

Edward Brown VC

Our sixth Valiant Academical was Edward Brown who was born in 1861 in Dagshai, India, and who attended Edinburgh Academy between 1870-1871. After a spell in the Irish Militia, Edward was gazetted an officer in the 18th Hussars in 1883 – he was a Captain by 1888 and the following year transferred to the 14th Hussars. By 1894 his skills as a cavalryman were such that he was promoted to be commandant of the School of Instruction for cavalry at Aldershot – a post he held for a year. Promoted Major in January 1899, Edward was sent to fight in South Africa in the Boer War – a war which was to see a great slaughter of British soldiers by well-armed irregulars in prepared positions – a fore-runner if you will, of what was to come in the First World War.

It was at Geluk in 1900 when a British force became trapped beneath a terrible and galling fire and was forced to retreat, losing many casualties. The Boers – all excellent snipers, had a habit of wounding British soldiers and then shooting all who came to save them, but Edward Brown was determined to bring back as many men as possible, as his citation recalled: “On 13th October 1900 at Geluk, when the enemy were within 400 yards, and bringing a heavy fire to bear, Major Brown, seeing that Sergeant Hersey’s horse was shot, stopped behind the last squadron as it was retiring and helped Sergeant Hersey to mount behind him, carrying him for about three-quarters of a mile to a place of safety. He did this under heavy fire. Major Brown afterwards enabled Lieutenant Browne, 14th Hussars, to mount, by holding his horse, which was very restive under heavy fire. Lieutenant Browne could not otherwise have mounted. Subsequently, Major Brown carried Lance Corporal Trumpeter Leigh out of the action.”

Victoria Cross Re-enactment of the bravery of Colonel Edward Douglas Brown (Edward Douglas Browne-Synge-Hutchinson VC) (1861û1940) of the 14th Hussars - who, on 13th October 1900 (during the Second Boer War) aided Sergeant Hersey (whilst under heavy fire), carrying him on his horse for three-quarters of a mile to safety. Colonel Brown then carried Lance-Corporal Trumpeter Leigh out of action.

Later that year, Edward was to distinguish himself again at the Battle of Diamond Hill – being mentioned in dispatches for bravery, and was present throughout the war, being breveted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1902 and commanding the 14th Hussars until the war’s end that year, being again mentioned in dispatches for bravery by both Field Marshal Lord Roberts and Field Marshal Lord Kitchener throughout his time. He was promoted to full Colonel in 1911 and made a Commander of the Bath in 1915, dying in London in 1940 just short of his 79th birthday. He is remembered today as one of Victorian Britain’s finest cavalry commanders.

Walter Brodie VC

Our seventh and eighth Valiant Academicals both won their VC’s in the First World War on the Western Front – a war as terrible, if not more so than any known before or since. The first of these men was Walter Brodie. 

He was born in July 1884 in Belgrave Place, Edinburgh and attended Edinburgh Academy from 1892-1899. Joining the Highland Light Infantry in 1904, Walter Brodie was stationed first in Jersey, then at Edinburgh castle and finally in Invernesshire before being promoted to first Lieutenant in 1908 and being stationed in Ireland at the time of the troubles there from 1909-1913. In 1914 Walter sailed for France with his regiment as Battalion Machine Gun Officer – there being only two machine guns per battalion. He arrived in August and by the next month was promoted Captain.

Just a month later, in October, Walter was thrown into the terrible battle of Ypres which was to rage for a whole month between October and November of 1914. It was a vast battle, with millions of combatants and well over a hundred thousand casualties, and it was towards the end of this battle, when Brodie’s section of trench came under a heavy German counter-attack that he was to win his Victoria Cross, as his citation recalls: “His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant Walter Lorrain Brodie, 2nd battalion, the Highland Light Infantry, for conspicuous bravery whilst serving with the expeditionary force, as set forth below: – For conspicuous gallantry near Becelaere on the 11th November, in clearing the enemy out of a portion of our trenches which they had succeeded in occupying. Heading the charge, he bayoneted several of the enemy, and thereby relieved a dangerous situation. As a result of Lieutenant Brodie’s promptitude, 80 of the enemy were killed and 51 taken prisoners.”

Walter fought on through the war, being involved in the battles of Richebourg, Givenchy and Festubert in 1915 – and in 1916 he was given detached intelligence duty, being up near the front lines in the battles of the Somme and Arras of that year and being awarded the Military Cross for bravery in 1917 – one of the highest decorations for bravery in the British Army. By April 1918, Walter Brodie had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in command of the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry. He was by now a man noted for his exceptional courage and skill, respected by the entire army. He led his Highland Regiment forward at the battle of Albert in August 1918 and was reported killed in action. The entire Highland Division felt his loss immeasurably.

Allan Ebenezer Ker VC

Our Eighth Valiant Academical was Allan Ebenezer Ker who was born in March 1883 at Findhorn Place, Edinburgh and attended the Academy from 1899-1903 after which he attended Edinburgh University, living later in ferry Road and Wardie Road, Edinburgh, and taking up a position as an apprentice solicitor in his father’s law firm. In 1908 Allan Ker joined the Queen’s Edinburgh Mounted Rifles, but towards the end of 1914 he travelled to Aberdeen to settle the affairs of his late cousin who had been killed in the Great War. Allan’s heart was set on joining the Scots Greys, but whilst in Aberdeen, he was persuaded by friends of his late cousin to join their regiment – the famous Gordon Highlanders. Now with the Gordon’s, Allan Ker travelled to France in October 1915 to serve in the Great War, and by the middle of 1916 he had been posted to Salonica in the Mediterranean, where he fought in the battle of Muchovo. Later that year, he contracted Malaria and was evacuated back to the UK.

Following a promotion to First Lieutenant, Allan Ker returned to the Western Front in 1917, where he saw first hand the bloody battles of Passchendale, Arras and Cambrai before finally finding himself in the battle of St Quentin. Here, a massive German attack came directly towards his sector of the line, crumpling the flank of his division and threatening to break through the entire allied sector – only Allan Ker and a select group of soldiers around him stood between the German Army and disaster, as his citation tells us: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty – on the 21st March 1918, near St. Quentin, France, after a heavy bombardment, the enemy penetrated our line and the flank of the 61st Division became exposed. Lieutenant Ker, with one Vickers gun, succeeded in engaging the enemy’s infantry, approaching under cover of dead ground and held up the enemy attack, inflicting many casualties. he then sent back word to his Battalion Headquarters that he had determined to stop with his Sergeant and several other men who had been badly wounded and fight until a counter-attack could be launched to relieve him. Just s ammunition failed, his party were attacked from behind by the enemy with bombs, machine guns and with the bayonet. Several bayonet attacks were delivered, but each time they were repulsed by Lieutenant Ker and his companions with their revolvers, the Vickers machine gun having by this time been destroyed. The wounded were collected into a small shelter, and it was decided to defend them to the last and to hold up the enemy as long as possible. In one of the many hand-to-hand encounters, a German rifle and bayonet and a small supply of ammunition was secured, and subsequently used with good effect against the enemy. Although Lieutenant Ker was very exhausted from want of food and gas poisoning and from the extreme exertions he had made during ten hours of the most severe bombardment, fighting and attending to the wounded, he refused to surrender until all his ammunition was exhausted and his position was rushed by large numbers of the enemy. His behaviour throughout the day was absolutely cool and fearless, and by his determination, he was materially instrumental in engaging and holding up for three hours more than 500 of the enemy.”

We mentioned earlier about how the Victoria Cross was becoming harder and harder to win…perhaps Allan Ker’s example shows this better than any other. Allan was a prisoner until December 1918 when he was finally repatriated and only then learned of his award and his new-found fame. Using his skills as a solicitor, the Army attached him next to the Advocate General’s department before promotion to Captain and attachment to the War Office as a staff officer.

In November 1920 the body of an unknown soldier was dug from the trenches of Flanders and laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. A Guard of Honour was provided for the unknown soldier, made up of a hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross, and Allan Ker was chosen to be one of them – perhaps as high an honour as the decoration which he now bore. Finally he was demobilised in 1922, although donning his old uniform once more in 1926 to unveil the Machine Gun Corps Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. In 1940, however, Allan Ker was recalled for the second World War and served on the Directorate of the Chief of the Imperial Staff at the War Office. He attended the Potsdam Conference and was awarded a Knight of the Order of Military Merit of Brazil for his services. He led an ordinary life in London until September 1958 when he died in a Hospital in Hampstead aged 75.

Anthony Cecil Capel Miers VC

Our ninth and last ‘Valiant Academical’ is this man – Anthony Miers – and in many ways, he is by far the more controversial of the bunch, and for a number of reasons. 

He was born in Inverness in 1906, son of a Captain in the Cameron Highlanders who was something of a decorated war hero himself, serving in Africa and throughout the Transvaal and Boer Wars until he was killed on the Western Front in 1914. Anthony Miers studied at Edinburgh Academy from 1915-1916 before attending Wellington College in Berkshire, but he didn’t follow his father into the infantry; instead he enlisted as a Royal Navy cadet in 1924.

Posted to the battleship HMS Thunderer, he rose to the rank of sub-Lieutenant by 1928 and the following year joined the Submarine Service aboard HMS Dolphin, being promoted Lieutenant in January 1930. He must have impressed, as barely a year later he transferred to HM Submarine M-2 a new experimental weapon in the Royal Navy – Half Submarine and half battleship, fitted with a 12” deck gun. The following year he received another promotion to First Officer, and a posting to join a more conventional submarie – H-28 in Harwich. Already, Anthony Miers was known as a tough, dependable and professional officer, but one who had a very hard, dark streak, and it was said that he would either earn himself a Court Martial or a Victoria Cross. In the end, he was to get both!

He was a keen and overly-competitive sportsman; a player of tennis, squash, football and rugby – his particular game of choice, which he even played professionally, earning caps for London Scottish, the Combined Services Team and for Hampshire, and he was even invited for trials to play for Scotland. It was during a football match in 1933 that Miers – whose level of competitiveness in all things was by now legendary – entered into a brawl with a lower rating. However, being a consummate professional, and once his temper had cooled, he then reported himself for Court Martial and found himself dismissed from his ship. This punishment served, however, his natural abilities saw him posted to a number of ships including the Submarine Rainbow, submarine L-54 and the ships Iron Duke, Nelson, Rodney and Warspite, becoming Lieutenant Commander by 1938.

When the second world war broke out, he was back in command of a Submarine, the newly-built Submarine HMS Torbay which he was ordered to take on patrol to the Mediterranean. His beginning was not auspicious, as pulling out of port, he collided with the British tanker Vancouver, although both vessels remained relatively undamaged. Here, now in full command, Anthony Miers was mentioned in disptches in both 1940 and 1941, receiving a DSO and Bar for sinking over 70,000 tonnes of Axis shipping. In all, the Torbay undertook ten major patrols under Miers’ command, each one sinking a vast amount of enemy shipping to include tankers, supply ships, troop ships and even warships.

It was on the third patrol in 1941 however, where came the darkest blip on Miers’ record, and an incident – indeed two incidents which have since led to accusations of war crimes. On both occasions having torpedoed an enemy vessel, he had moved in close to attempt to take possession of the ship, and the enemy crews had resisted, forcing him to turn the Submarine’s machine gun onto the deck. Once the enemy soldiers were in the water, however, Miers then – and on both occasions, gave orders that the survivors be strafed until none survived. These incidents he reported in his log book, defending himself that the enemy had resisted and that he wished to deny them the ability to regain their ship. The Admiralty frowned upon such acts, mainly as they feared reprisals of the same from the Germans, but he was spared another Court-Martial, being sent instead a strongly worded letter telling him to cease such activities in the future.

His other patrols – too complex and numerous to mention, were great acts of daring. He not only continued to sink a vast amount of Axis shipping, but was responsible for retrieving and rescuing over 140 special forces personnel from the shores of Crete after it had fallen, as well as for landing troops behind enemy lines in North Africa – each mission occasioned with great danger – and with equal if not greater daring by Miers, who was now becoming the most famous – and feared submarine commander in the Mediterranean. On his tenth patrol in 1942, Miers first attacked a German Destroyer before going after an enemy convoy headed for the safety of Corfu Harbour. Miers approached submerged, but was forced to surface for the night and recharge his batteries before entering the Harbour the next morning, which was crawling with enemy vessels, aircraft, submarine nets and was bristling with guns and other defences. Here he was to win his VC, as his citation recorded; “For valour in command of H.M Submarine Torbay in a daring and successful raid on shipping in a defended enemy harbour, planned with full knowledge of the great hazards to be expected during seventeen hours in waters closely patrolled by the enemy. On arriving in the harbour, he had to charge his batteries, lying on the surface in full moonlight, under the guns of the enemy. As he could not see his target, he waited several hours and attacked in full daylight in a glassy calm. When he had fired his torpedoes he was heavily counter-attacked and had to withdraw through a long channel with anti-submarine craft all round and continuous air patrols overhead.”

In those seventeen hours, Anthony Miers and the Torbay caused havoc in the harbour, sinking several enemy vessels, damaging many more, and enduring attacks including over forty depth charges as well as shells, bombs and strafing by aircraft, and brought his ship and his men to safety. His recommendation for the award was seconded by the accounts of his eighth and ninth patrols, which cumulatively led to the decoration being awarded without hesitation.

After this tenth patrol, Miers was to be promoted, but in his time – in just two years in command of the Torbay, he had won no less than The Victoria Cross, Two Distinguished Service Crosses with Two Bars, Thirteen Distinguished Service Medals with Four Bars, eight mentions in dispatches and he had been made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order – in all Thirty-One distinct honours for bravery and outstanding ability in just Twenty-Three Months of service, equivalent to one every three weeks. Indeed, HMS Torbay is recorded as the most successful Submarine in the History of the Royal Navy.

Torbay was to go on to have a good career until she was broken for scrap in 1945 but Anthony Miers had seen the last of the Mediterranean. He was now posted to Pearl Harbor to advise admiral Chester Nimitz, C-in-C US Pacific Fleet on Submarine operations, being awarded the American Legion of Merit award, and served in the Pacific until the war’s end, being promoted Captain in 1946. Post War, Anthony Miers was appointed Captain of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, then of the Aircraft Carrier HMS Theseus and was made Rear Admiral and Flag Officer Middle East in 1956 – a post which he retained until his retirement in 1959 which saw his elevation to Knight of the Bath or KBE. Post-Navy, he went on to be President of various sporting associations, notably Middlesex County Cricket Club, London Scottish Rugby Club and the Royal Highland Society. He lived in London with his wife Patricia – an Australian WREN he had met in the Pacific and was awarded with the Freedom of the cities of London and Inverness. He died in Surrey in 1985 and is buried in his home town of Inverness.

Anthony Cecil Capel Miers Medals

N.B – For more outstanding stories from Military History, why not follow ‘Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author’ on Facebook for news of upcoming publications.

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The First Casualty: An Interview with myself!

Dear readers, no Ricky isn’t going mad and talking to himself (much) but recently I decided to throw open the flood gates to questions all about my upcoming book, “The First Casualty – the untold story of the Falklands War” with a promise I would answer all of them! Well I have had a few, many via posts on line, some emails or private messages too and I thought now might be a good time to sit down and answer them all. If anyone has any more, well, drop a comment on the section below, I guess! Right, what have we got here, let’s see…..I’ll try to put them into some kind of chronological order for you all….

1) How did you get started? What motivated you to get to the bottom of this story?

“The First Casualty” actually began life as a blog post! It began right here. Sometimes when I blog, I just play around with ideas, see how I like them, sometimes I have old book ideas where there just wasn’t a book in it or maybe just not a book that I wanted to write. I think this started off as somewhere between the two. It was a story which, at least to me, just never fitted; I never did believe this ‘token defence’ story which we are led to believe happened, so I did a bit of digging and came up with a format which worked. Looking back now, nearly six months on, it’s awful…truly bad. But even then it is still 200% more (and better) than has been done before…these guys of the Royal Marines just got forgotten. It was a bit of justice for them…then the guys themselves started to come up and say “This is us! Please write this as a book!” – It took me about twenty seconds to say yes…..

2) Why the special interest in the Falklands War?

This is a fair question, especially as it really isn’t my genre. Blogs aside, I haven’t written a stitch after 1813! Conceptually it was something new – a personal challenge, I suppose and a good story. I’d gone from doing a lot of Napoleonic stuff to doing a lot of ancient and classical stuff, so something modern; a sorbet to clean the palate, wasn’t a bad idea. However I actually didn’t have that much interest in it per se. I suppose it’s odd; one of my most vivid early memories was the Hermes sailing up the Solent, the fire ships spraying water in arcs over her, crowds going wild, flags waving, ‘Land of Hope & Glory’ thumping out. It was probably most vivid for me because we had just got a colour TV so it stood out. I was too young to know what was going on exactly, but the sight of my Dad dancing around the front room in a World War 2 tin hat with ‘Falklands Liberation Army’ painted on it (we still have it) told me that this was quite a special day. It was, I suppose, my first full memory that I can recall with absolute clarity. The specific interest came from the guys themselves; the heroes of the Royal Marines Naval Party 8901 – they were just amazing and suddenly I was chatting to these real life heroes…I’d only ever written about people long dead before, so they really captivated me from the off!

3) What were your hopes and fears when starting out?

Fears were probably the same as most authors; ‘I really hope this isn’t crap’ – especially as the guys were all egging me on to do a good job for them! First-person interview-based history is an art-form and – I say it unashamedly – one I didn’t have any experience of. I remember Stephen Ambrose when he wrote Pegasus Bridge fell very hard and made lots of mistakes. He had to re-write the whole book. Luckily he had perfected the art in time for Band of Brothers. Perhaps luckier for me, he left an account of his learning-curve from Pegasus Bridge, so I really had to take my lead from him. I was aware that it could all still go horribly wrong and of course, with the guys telling the story, you don’t even know where it is going! Luckily for me, my other stuff was always ‘narrative based’ – I always worked with quotes and tried to get the reader into the action ‘first-hand’ so it wasn’t too much of a stretch. My hopes? – Originally that we would find a publisher! Later, when I realised what we had, that we would actually change the history for good. It’s a silly ambition, but I really want Wikipedia to change. I know it gets laughed at often but it is still the most accessible information source in the world. The day that changes, as I believe it must and will, I will be doing cartwheels!

4) Was it hard to find a publisher?

This sounds so flippant, but no! He found me! I know it’s one of those old cliches, the story about how many rejections you have to go through and things, but it just wasn’t the case. I was in talks with one company who really liked the idea but wanted another writer on board as well and I didn’t like that. I could smell the proverbial ‘broth’ straight away, plus the guys didn’t know him, I couldn’t vouch for him…and then the Marines all said, “No. You believed us, you’ve taken it on, we want you to do it.” – Luckily Ian, my publisher from Navy Books saw my original blog post and asked if I wanted to sell it to him as an article for his publishing house’s magazine. I mentioned that we were now turning it into a book and he was interested. What did it for me was that he was actually in the Falklands War as a Submarine Commander and seemed really keen…I knew he was the right person to give this the special, personal attention it needed. The story was so good, it sold itself. I’m happy to say he is a pleasure to work with!

5) From your research, what revelations shocked you the most?

This is hard and, if I am going to be slightly evasive, it is only that I don’t want to spoil the surprises….and there are many. I knew the boys had done a good job; much better than ever reported, but I didn’t know they did that good! It’s like Rorke’s Drift happened just 34 years ago and someone didn’t tell us about it! However it was the actual evidence we started to claw up which really did it for me. When you’re stood there looking at something which, for three and a half decades has been denied and it is now undeniable that is really something special. Each page tells a story so different from what we think we know, yet it all checks out. It proves these guys weren’t lying and that they did do their jobs. For me, I think that is probably the biggest revelation of all which is going to shock everyone. For nearly 35 years everyone thought that basically nothing happened there at all!

6) Why should we buy your book? Any long-kept secrets revealed?

I think this book appeals to a really broad spectrum. Anyone who just likes military history will love this. People who read first-hand accounts of military men or ex servicemen and women are going to love it. Royal Marines are going to love it (they even manage one jibe at the Paras in the age-old tradition), people with an interest in the Falklands and in the war there, even (and probably especially) the conspiracy theorists will have a field day with it! It is a great journey with great guys who are always witty – it makes you laugh out loud so often – and a story which nobody else has. I think that’s the real appeal. I love history where every other history just became a bit more redundant. Those with this book will be ‘in the know’ and I think it’s going to change a lot of things we think we know about the whole Falklands War. Any secrets revealed? Hundreds! That’s why they covered it up for so long and went with this ‘token defence’ line which suited the governments of the UK and Argentina perfectly at the time. Every time I show the guys my latest piece of evidence they’re like “Wow!!!!” – I must be doing something right!

7) How well do you and we the reader know – or get to know – the main characters?

The story is told by the main characters, not by me. I sort of ‘tee’ the narrative up and bring it to each man. The story begins with the old detachment reflecting upon going home after their year and the Argentines preparing to launch the invasion. They each get their own chapters, so you really get to travel with all of the main characters on both sides, fear with them, laugh with them and later to hope with and for them. Then these men get smashed together in a battle and it’s like you know them all. I must say, I have got to know a lot of them very well – again on both sides, which really brings it to life.

8) How will this book be received in Argentina?

We plan to release a Spanish version in Argentina in time for the 35th anniversary so they can read it in their own language. I’m a little conscious that things I have translated from Spanish to English will be translated back again and that we might lose something in the translation – a bit like Chinese whispers, but we will do what we can! As to how well it will be received…I am hoping it will be generally good. This war means a lot in Argentina and for obvious reasons, not all of the connotations are very good. However this was ‘their bit’ so to speak; the day they got to win. I’m hoping that showing how well everyone fought and getting rid of this ‘token defence’ myth will not upset people but make them realise what actually happened. The Argentines who were there don’t seem to like the ‘token defence’ line any more than the Royal Marines do; it makes it sound as if their guys just showed up and didn’t fight either. On balance, I accept that it might upset a few people – all new history upsets purists who cling to the established ‘version’ but in truth, it should be welcomed. When their own men are telling the story, I can’t be held to blame for anything! In general I would like people in Argentina to realise what it was that their men were actually up against…remember most of the Argentines who fought on April 2nd had to then sit and watch the whole war from Argentina.

9) In which ways has writing this book changed you?

I had to think hard about this question but I think I have the answer. I think that the biggest change in me was my own perception. Having a two-sided story made me really stop and think about what I was writing and who would be reading it. When I first started, I didn’t know any of the Argentines – it was a ‘British story’ as such. However, in meeting the Argentine veterans I have developed a new perspective which is more balanced. Their own inclusion is, I feel, vital…half a story isn’t a story and it actually explains what was going on; things that one side didn’t see or notice (and there were lots) someone else did and recorded. Together, both sides tell the story that just one side never could and show that this story needs retelling properly. I suppose that the biggest difference is this; five or six months ago if you’d have asked me if I could go there and pitch in, knowing what I know and able to give good intelligence, would I? I’d have said yes. Now I ask the question and realise I would know who I was shooting at! Some of them are friends of mine…I’d say that’s a big change. Anothet thing I would say is the change in me upon meeting the Royal Marines…I’m a sort of ‘oppo’ now (that being Bootneck slang for mate and guy you generally trust) and it’s like I have inherited about fifty uncles. It is a sense of family. I never came from a very big family so it’s actually really nice!

10) When is out? Where? How? 

Publishing date will be second week of November 2016 – we might / should be able to do advanced or reserved copies before that date though. Normally they are a good thing; a fellow history author who is a friend of mine had a huge success with his book on Jutland recently and then they ran out of copies! Nobody could get any! So it is a good idea to reserve your copy as it gives an idea of whether or not we are doing the right amount! Luckily we are with the biggest distributor in the UK, so expect to find it in Waterstone’s, on Amazon and in most if not all UK bookshops. I always encourage people where they can to buy from the smaller, independent bookshops or – even better, directly from the publisher on the Navy Books website. There will be a Kindle version too, however I have to say that’s cheating! This is the kind of book you will want on your bookshelves and it has lots of historical notes referring to certain points, a mountain of photographs provided by the guys on both sides, maps of the action…you don’t get that feeling on Kindle. I admit I am a book purist though, however I would add that we are donating a percentage of profits to Veterans’ charities so the more we make, the better for them and the best way is to get the hardback directly from the publisher’s website.

11) Can I have a signed copy?

I am asked this a lot! When we get the reserved copies, I will see what I can do. It might mean a few days on-site scribbling into several thousand books! However we are looking to do a number of launches and signings from November right up through 2017 and I hope to have it at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2017 as well. In short, I hope to be able to take it on tour a bit and do signings and evenings with the bookstores. Most independents love that kind of thing and the chain stores will doubtless do it too. In short, if I can’t physically sign it before you get it, then I will any time at all and at any opportunity! We are also considering having a few books signed by all of the guys (well, as many as we can get in one room considering they live all over the world now) which will be sold for veterans charities. I think it’s a great idea.

12) What’s next for you after this?

I hate this question! Normally I’m bubbling over with new ideas and projects but I’m not sure how I get to move on. I’m in a sort of little family now and I don’t want to move on in many ways. We have discussed ideas such as screenplay, perhaps a film or three-part drama maybe? I’d love to do that. In 1992 they did a film of it but it only confirmed what people think they know now and the Marines hated it, by and large. However we have a busy 6-12 months ahead of us with this, I think, and I am wondering if my travels might even take me to Argentina or the Falkland Islands too (I am told it will be available to buy in the Falklands!) so we have a lot of road ahead of us yet. After this (sob) I do have some other projects…okay LOTS of projects to finish off. There’s a great new book on Caesar all ready to go and just needing the graphics and battle maps finished off…there’s a new book on Hannibal about 70% done, which I really want to get finished (I shelved it to take this project up), I’ve got an idea for a new one which should really appeal to so many (only at ‘thinking about it’ stage right now) and even a brilliant WW2 Naval Memoir which I am editing and getting out there – so I might well be working with Navy Books again soon. There is, in honesty, so much to get done and finished…but how to move on? I’m still struggling with that right now.

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The best History lesson I ever had…

Dear readers, as my book “The First Casualty – The Untold Story of the Falklands War” moves towards publication, I thought I would share with you a few thoughts on history, how to read, absorb and write it and especially the best history lesson I ever had. Indeed, the only one I ever needed.

I think it must have been in 1990 when I walked into my first secondary school History lesson with my favourite teacher John Wickham who stood there with the following lines written on the board:

ALL HISTORY IS BASED UPON EVIDENCE

ALL EVIDENCE IS OF VALUE

BUT

NOT OF EQUAL VALUE

THIS IS BECAUSE OF BIAS

I think in that one moment, I had learned everything about history. Funny isn’t it? You see, that really is what history is all about. Not what we make it mean, not what we want it to mean, not selection of facts because it is what we want to hear or read or have others believe – that’s bias. It is one of my sayings now, that; “Bias is the enemy of history.”

I give you a few examples here. When writing my new book, I came across a report from a Mr. Carlisle which said that the Argentine soldiers were firing blank ammunition! Crazy as that sounds, I had to take that as ‘evidence’ – however loose. Then it transpired that in 2000 he presented this fact to one of the Royal Marine Officers who was there at the time and he told him absolutely that there was no chance. Imagine my surprise when said gentleman repeated his allegations in 2012 to sell a new book! This was despite the facts. Despite stronger evidence. Despite being told. Still, this could be two opinions, so I asked a few Argentine veterans – absolutely no blanks! – There. Not what you want to believe, but what happened.

One person claimed to me yesterday (an old tale) that HMS Invincible was sunk in the Falklands and covered up; swapped for Illustrious and a secret new carrier built. Now, I could rubbish this instantly – I’ve stood on the deck of HMS Invincible…and Illustrious. And Ark Royal actually, yes all three! However, I thought it best not to be lured into this bias trap of believing what I wanted to be true. I asked for the evidence and studied it. The words of the Argentine pilots, of the British sailors and airmen on Illustrious and of the curious little differences between both ships. The fact that there are photographs of both ships together in late June 1982 kind of seals the deal. Invincible was not attacked, damaged nor sunk. However, I looked at the evidence and weighed it evenly.

I suppose it’s like that old saying; “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” – it depends upon your point of view. But that isn’t objective. I come back to the Falklands again and invite you to ask an Argentine and a Falkland Islander about the history of the islands. They won’t look or sound even remotely like each other. What actually happened has been absorbed by “What they made it mean.”

So this is really the only lesson you need. Treat everything in history evenly. If you find yourself throwing out what you don’t like, skipping over, dismissing, laughing off, instantly rubbishing….then go back and view the evidence. Address your bias.

Everyone is biased. All history is biased.The way you read it does not have to be.

History is, after all, just the truth…

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Book Update – First Draft Complete!

Dear readers, I thought that I should let you know that the first draft of my new book “The First Casualty – The Untold Story of the Falklands War” is finally complete and as of this morning is now with the publishers and the outstanding team at Navy Books. I think that it is, in a way, prophetic. It was my wonderful Mum who told me to follow my dreams and that I should be a writer of military history and it is to her that I owe the amazing hobby that I now call a job. She would have been 59 today.

It has been an incredible experience so far. Working with the amazing guys of Royal Marine Naval Party 8901 – the unsung heroes of the ‘Rorke’s Drift of the South Atlantic’, the battle for Stanley and the defence of the Falkland Islands on April 2nd 1982 – and also, I should say, with their erstwhile enemies, the Argentine veterans of the Commandos Anfibios, BIM2 and Buzos Tacticos. Thirty-four years after their epic fight, they are all now men with a shared history. There are no enemies any more.

This was a book which I was told could not be done. Stephen Ambrose, author of Pegasus Bridge, Band of Brothers and many other epic ‘first-person’ narrative histories was quoted at me often. He had ‘fumbled the ball’ on Pegasus Bridge, his first book, and had to go back to check and re-check everything and write the book again. He was better prepared for Band of Brothers. I was told that this task, covering the action not just from one side but from BOTH was simply impossible. I am happy to say that ‘they’ were wrong.

This is, without a doubt, my favourite book – either that I have written or even read. It is an outstanding story of men, nice guys, funny, witty, the kind of guys we would call our friends or see so much of in ourselves, suddenly hurled into an action in which there was no way out but certain death. Defending not just some old colonial outpost, but friends, family, homes and of course each other, these supermen fought, against all hope, and showed the world what Royal Marines can really do. By a miracle, they survived. They had fought one of the most epic last-stands since Rorke’s Drift 103 years before and they had survived. It was a miracle…a 7.62mm self-loading rifle miracle with guts, bravery and skill to back it up.

When these men came home, they wondered what sort of reception they would have. Would they be heroes? Would people still talk of their outstanding defence centuries from now as they did with Rorke’s Drift and the Alamo? Certainly they deserved it. Yet there was nothing. Their story had been wiped clean and swept away for political convenience. For years after, in books which were written about the Falklands War, they warranted barely a page and two at best – and all telling the same story of a ‘token and nominal defence’. When a film was finally made about them ten years later, it was inaccurate and only played up to the now-accepted story. The men called it ‘rubbish’, ‘crap’, ‘an embarrassment.’ Some people laughed at them. Others thought they had simply either not done their jobs or – and who could blame them? – had been overwhelmed and saved their own skins.

Now, for the first time, their story is being told. It is the story of an epic and gallant defence told not just by the men themselves, but by their opponents and the people of Stanley whom they fought like lions to protect. It is a story which is found nowhere else in the history books or on the internet. A story, backed by painstaking research, which proves for the first time that “The Rorke’s Drift of the South Atlantic” really did happen and that these heroes were sacrificed for political reasons. Their story hushed, perhaps to re-emerge when the secret files were opened in 2072 after they were all long gone.

It is a story of bravery, of heroism, of intrigue and espionage and of a cover-up which is stranger even than fiction, laid bare for the first time which proves ultimately that the first casualty in war is the truth.

NOTE: “The First Casualty – The untold Story of the Falklands War” by Ricky D Phillips will be available by November 2016 published by Navy Books. Stay tuned for updates!

 

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New releases for 2016/2017…

Dear readers, I thought I would update you all on a few of my new releases for the coming 12-18 months and perhaps put some ‘feelers’ out for anything people might like. I’ve got a book or planned book or half-started / half-finished book covering almost everything! The truth is, if I wrote everything just in my current plan, I’d be 150 by the time I finished it all, so any special requests, or new mysteries to debunk, just let me know!

Anyway I thought it would be nice to update you all on what is coming up for this year and next and how we have been so far. Firstly I have to say it has been a fun and unexpected year so far, starting with a meeting with the UK’s top battlefield archaeologist to discuss my (at the time) new book on Hannibal (which went incredibly well) then a trip to the Western Front and a bit of battlefield guiding over Passchendael where I had family fight – how anyone survived is beyond me. Great Uncle Bill fought in three battles there and came home in 1918 unscathed – then a tour over the battlefield of Barnet and a bit of help in digging up the proposed ‘new site’ of the battle a mile down the road, not to mention being privileged enough to work with one of my favourite military fiction authors checking through his historical data and even proposing some great new ideas for his seventh novel – which he is using (I’m so proud!) and then…then the ‘big one’.

As we know, it’s been a long while coming. That famous sobriquet; “The most famous military author without a book” – thanks guys – is coming to an end. Too many years of writing for other people, doing articles, contributing, chipping-in, promoting other authors, often doing the donkey-work and always writing for myself on the side for that ‘one day’ opportunity. Still it’s amazing that my heroes; the names on the spines of over 3,000 books in my collection, are all good friends now. That’s pretty special. We’re a tight community, us war-geeks! We’re a bit of a family in that sense. But due to all of the ribbing from my compadres I’m happy to say we’re about there.

As you doubtless know, this new book (soon to be released in time for Christmas in all good bookstores courtesy of the excellent team at Navy Books!) is “The First Casualty” – The untold story of the Falklands War. A story of heroism, of friendship, of a battle against the odds and a modern ‘Rorke’s Drift’ or ‘Alamo’ which has been conveniently covered up for three and a half decades, now told in ‘first-person’ style by the men – of both sides – who fought there. I have to say it’s excellent. I love every page and I know the guys in it. Again on both sides, and it is being translated and released in Argentine hopefully for late March. This is really going to change so much of what we know and what we accept as the truth about war. Truly a humbling experience!

So what’s next? – Next we are going right back in time, from the Falklands War to Caesar. Due to be released in time for 15th March on the 2,061st anniversary of his death, this is the first book to cover all of Caesar’s battles and campaigns – full of battle maps – all drawn from Caesar’s own unique point of view. It is the story not just of Caesar himself, but of his very own history as the first commanding general to write and record his memoirs on campaign. What follows is the most in-depth look at the man and his career ever produced, as we understand both the man – and the legend that history has made of him. This one will be easy to write…it was written last year. The maps are good too. It is going to be a cornerstone of any serious military history collection.

After that – Hannibal – yes we’re going back even further to a real ‘pet-project’ which began about three years ago. A quest to find Hannibal’s lost battlefield – and I did. This story takes us from the very dawn of military history to the birth of Carthage, the world’s first true global superpower, through her wars with Rome in the First Punic War and on to a war, a campaign and a battle, lost to history, by the man who would become Rome’s worst nightmare. This truly is ‘making history’ and won great applause from the real experts of battlefield archaeology in the UK. To complete the story of the world’s greatest battlefield commander – Hannibal. Release date is scheduled for summer 2017 – it is about 60% complete but is going in all the right directions. Keep ’em peeled, this is really the stuff that history is made of.

To end the year we are going back to WW2 and indeed a little bit before with a previously unpublished war memoir which I have been asked to work with. This is an amazing story of a Royal Navy officer – himself a great military history fanatic – who tours the world showing us the last day of the British Empire, talking us through ancient battles and meeting some of the most colourful, deadly and sometimes unscrupulous characters in history along the way. His style is excellent, his stories fantastic and his description of Naval life, of great ships long gone to include the famous Hood and Barham as well as so many others will delight and inform anyone. This memoir was unputdownable and my own additions are mainly in the notes and appendices as well as pictures and maps which will help the reader on their journey with him and some of the most amazing characters from the last day when Britannia really did rule the waves.

Now…that should do me for 2017 but who knows? I’ve got a new ‘pet-project’ brewing which is actually relatively quick and thoroughly charming and something I really want to write. If I can get it out for the end of 2017 then it will be amazing. I know, those who follow me want the seven-volume history of Napoleon. Well these things take time. It’s basically done in text but the maps, the proof-reading, the checking, some new sources…well it comes when it comes. Consider this the ‘Magnum Opus’. They are all pretty much done. I’d say four are perfect. But at 400-500 pages apiece they are a bit big. We are getting there!

And 2018? – A long holiday probably but in truth, by then I can take my pick. My ‘back catalogue’ of books is extensive. Too much for me to ever manage to write. So it comes down to what is good, what is most important and what will change our understanding of our history for the best. To put it another way, if I’m on schedule and on track, I might even be able to pick and choose a bit. It’s a lovely thought.

Stay tuned…the band is just warming up!

 

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My New Book – Update

Dear readers and fans of all things mad and military – it has been just a wee while since I last wrote and for the entirely plausible reason that I have been hard at work writing. So I thought I would take some time out from writing and…well…write a bit more here! Writers do that.

The new book is going well…amazingly well. Better even than I could have hoped. I used to say that I can picture every book I am writing long before I begin it. I can turn the pages in my mind and know what is on each one. But this new book has just amazed me. I should add to that that it has actually done something even greater than that though. Where to start?

What’s the book?

The new book “The First Casualty” is the untold story of the Falklands War. It is the first book which focuses solely upon the events of April 1st-April 2nd 1982 – the day that Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. It is the story of seventy Royal Marines who had to face an armada and the full and unstoppable juggernaut of a country at war, alone and unsupported. The book is a ‘first-person’ history drawn from interviews and written accounts of the Royal Marines who were there – think ‘Band of Brothers’ or ‘Pegasus Bridge’ and you are more or less ‘on the money’ – however unlike no book (ever, I believe) this is the first book to take this from BOTH sides.

We get to know the men of both sides – British and Argentine Marines. We laugh with them and we fear with them, we worry for them and we take pride in them. Far from glorifying war, we find these men whom we have travelled with and shared their most intimate thoughts now pitched against each other in the maelstrom of war. We find that ‘the enemy’ has a face and a name – and oddly that we like them, regardless of uniform or nationality. This book – in both English and Spanish, will delight readers and it has been a privilege to speak to, meet with and work with so many of the protagonists from both sides.

What’s in the name?

I have often described this action as “D-Day versus Rorke’s Drift” – to me that’s what it was. Imagine a vast armada – and it really was an armada – of ships, aircraft, armour, artillery and men…an avalanche of military power rumbling down onto less than a company of Royal Marines. Now at Rorke’s Drift we all know that the British were vastly outnumbered but at least they had the modern weapons – imagine the Zulus turning up with rifles, machine guns, armoured vehicles and an aircraft carrier (which would be an interesting prospect) – amongst many other weapons of war! Well that’s what happened.

So you would expect a walk-over wouldn’t you? – Let’s be honest. And if you look at the history anywhere on the internet (and I do mean Wikipedia as well) this is exactly what you will find. A ‘token defence’ – a few shots fired in the air and then it was all over. Well what if I told you that it was nothing like that at all? What if someone newly-discovered the battles of Rorke’s Drift or the Alamo about which nothing had previously been known?  What if I told you that the truth had been buried for reasons both ‘official secret’ and political? What if there is a story which is so vastly different from what we know that it will force us to look at a whole war differently? – Well it exists.

Hence the name; for the first casualty in war is always the truth, and nowhere more so than in the story of the defence of the Falklands in 1982 by a band of men who were determined to do their duty to the last bullet.

Why is it important?

This book is the story of men in combat. It is the story of mates facing death and the ultimate challenge, together. Without a hope or a prayer the men whom one of their gracious enemies referred to as “The finest Marines in the world” stood and gave their all against odds and against hope – and they did a bloody good job. Yet history and politics denies them their story. They are ‘ghosted out’ of history with this tired old ‘token defence’ story which everyone believes. They have spent over 34 years knowing what really happened that night and yet still feeling ‘ashamed’ – in their own words, because of what the Falkland Islanders and their mates and families back home must have thought of them when their story was erased and replaced with what we think we know today.

All of that is about to change. These guys – who have taken the spiky-haired Londoner who was not yet four when they fought their epic battle, into their trust – are magnificent men. Yet they are humble. Not one has boasted. Not one has claimed a single thing more than he did. They felt forgotten – an embarrassment (again using their own words) – a footnote in history, not a chapter or even a page. This book is important because it heals that wound. I want people to think. I want people to see…not in my words but in the words of the men themselves and their opponents, exactly what happened when these wonderful men went to war. The truth is so far removed from what we understand and I believe that it is time that these amazing guys had their story.

Is anything far-fetched?

I have been asked many times if this is some ‘conspiracy theory’ or attempt to rewrite established history. To this I say no – absolutely not. There is nothing in this book which I would wish to be true or to insert for my own purposes. It is the words of the men themselves, from both sides, often facing each other and, where two opposing accounts collide irreparably, I have gone through every detail and every finite moment to ensure that it is correct. It is easy, sometimes, to write ‘alternative history’ or to poke holes through the established history but the real test comes when you replace it with your own version and then compare to the original – this is how conspiracy theories come apart. However, the ‘established history’ is in fact the one which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and the truth just seems to reinforce itself at every point. Even if (which would be ridiculous) every single man of the Royal Marines were lying as one man, then the accounts of their opponents, of the hospital staff, of the Falkland islanders and more would be enough to tear holes through what we think we know. The truth is that nobody has ever challenged it. People see what they expect to see and why would anyone question it? Luckily for the Royal Marines, I question everything.

What do the Argentines think of it?

I have to say that the response from the Argentine veterans has been excellent. I have had the pleasure of talking to several of them and in particular two of the most key characters who fought there and saw the most pivotal parts of the action from the planning stage through to the end. They have helped immeasurably with interviews, accounts, contacts, information, maps, diagrams, personal photographs and more. Even these great men (and dare I say great friends too) feel that the ‘token resistance’ story should be rewritten. It does, they say, no credit to the Royal Marines or to the men who fought against them. The Argentine veterans are eager to know the names, thoughts, words and actions of those whom they fought against. They want to know how they did. They want to know who these people were…and who they are now. It is a thing they share and which they are eager to share.

What do the Royal Marines think of it?

To a man, I can say that the guys I have spoken to of the Royal Marines have been wholeheartedly supportive, enthused, helpful and above all, relieved that someone wants to tell their story and can actually see it for what it was, not what it is. Some are acquiescent – they would like the story told as it was and should be. Some others have said that they don’t feel ashamed any more; that they know that the ‘token resistance’ story is about to end. Their honour is being restored. They now know the thoughts of the people of the Falklands – for whom they are supermen. They actually thought they had let these people down because of this rotten falsehood of a story which has lingered for nigh-on thirty-five years too long. They are interested and many quite fascinated to know what the Argentine Marines were thinking, saying and doing. They actively want to know how they did and who those people were…it really is a shared experience.

Anything else?

I could go on all day, really. Anything else? – Yes actually. Something people can do for me and for the heroes of the Royal Marines of Naval Party 8901….firstly but the book! It is priced at £25.00 (subject t change but that’s where we are aiming at) and will not break the bank. It will be out this year – we are still dicing between Christmas or March next year to coincide with the 35th anniversary. I am hoping for Christmas (a nudge to Ian my publisher) It is the words of these men – it is their book. It is a whole new history. That’s got to be worth every penny.

Next I would ask anyone to talk about it. To tell people that there is a different story. None of these guys would say they are heroes at all…it is the one thing I disagree with them on. With this in mind, if you buy it and like it then pass it on. Don’t let the ‘established history’ creep back. Don’t let the ‘token defence’ story linger just through longevity, please.

Next bit – the person who alters Wikipedia for good will be my absolute hero. It is only Wikipedia we know – but it has to have sources and references and it is also the single most accessible history site in the world. I can’t change it and quote my own book (oddly enough) so anyone who is quite nimble on their system (which i am not) and who knows how to use references to back it up and not have it removed straight away…well I will worship you in the street…that is all.

An important point – I have, in my writing, taken two very large swipes at people (and we know the people I mean) who will try to make this ‘mean something’ – the word ‘Falklands’ seems to automatically polarise a lot of opinions and get people jibing at others “We won – you lost” or yelling “Propaganda” or making it ‘all political’. Let’s try to leave that bit. In meeting the men of both sides, there is no politics, no jibing, no propaganda and no ridicule. Let’s try to stick to their example. This is the real story of fighting men in combat, not some political statement.

Finally – Yes this has an end – us writers don’t earn much. Military History is a bit ‘niche’ and so we are not all JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien or EL James (having read that back, I think I need some more initials, there may be something in this!) – so review it when it comes out. Share it from your social media and join me on my own as well. It isn’t hard to find me Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author on Facebook – there is so much new stuff coming up into 2017 and beyond. This is what I do for a living; I look at history and find those questions we don’t know the answers to and then take the reader on a journey if discovery. I never say “I know the answer” – only “Let’s find out together” – this way you know it is good stuff and you can believe it. from Alexander the Great to Hannibal, the Romans, Napoleon, Wellington or the Falklands War, if there is something out there which is not the true or the full story then I tell it. For me, it is about getting the history right. Always the history – the truth, should be what is left to us.

I really hope you enjoy this one…I am loving every word I write.

 

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The Battle of Lutzen 1813 – The greatest account of Napoleon’s toughest battle…

Okay here it is – as requested, the fullest account of the battle of Lutzen 1813 that has ever been produced. Yes, it is produced by me. Every single quote in existence, every word said, every action, account, memoir, figure, you name it – and all woven together with a narrative. Now I’m going to be honest; this hasn’t been entirely checked, so there may be a mistake or a typo here and there as it isn’t in print yet, but here it is. This forms a part – in fact a very small part of my seven-volume history of Napoleon.

This book or series of books may never see the light of day; simply they are too large for any publisher to take a chance on. I will have to do them myself. They won’t be cheap either, but I deal with everything you ever knew or thought you knew in this kind of detail. In short, these are the volumes for the real experts. If you find yourself thinking ‘this is long’ then it isn’t for you. That’s me being very blunt. This is for the experts and the fanatics; the people who want more from their Napoleonic history.

I promised myself I wouldn’t ever do this; release my work before publication, even a small part of it, but this could take a while to get out. So this is a direct ‘cut and paste’ from my own manuscript. Of all of the battles I have ever written of (and there are hundreds if not thousands) this is one which ranks in my top three. The day on which Napoleon stopped playing ‘Emperor’ and reminded the world that he was, first and foremost, the world’s greatest General, though with an army comprised of boys, old men, defective artillery and a wholly deficient cavalry arm.

He had been finished by Russia. The army did not exist and his senior commanders said that it could not be done, yet Napoleon somehow grew an army out of nothing and took it back to war. The finesse was gone; the veterans of Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland had largely gone to be replaced by youngsters – the ‘Marie Louise’ conscripts most too young to grow a moustache in emulation of the veterans. Now they were to face the combined might of Russia and Prussia. It was not to be their – or Napoleon’s greatest battle, but for me it was to be the finest moment in the annals of the Napoleonic wars and of that ‘little corporal’ who was to remind the world, one more time, why he was the greatest commander in the world.

So grab some battle maps, watch the action unfold and, if you like it, tell me and share it! I’m probably going to need every Napoleon fan to move this history to publication!

The battle of Lutzen

Having achieved a concentration of his forces well in advance of the allies’ expectation, Napoleon set out with the army from Mainz on April 25th towards the forward-assembly area at Erfurt. The army of Wittgenstein and Blucher had not expected any movement before June and now found themselves in the path of a rapidly advancing army, of which they had been largely unaware and wholly unprepared for, and which swiftly bowled back their advanced posts. The allied commanders had news of this advance from their mounted patrols and Cossacks, who had long since been scouting the build-up and movement of troops and had been harassing the French advance wherever possible, but the sheer size and speed of the advance was something for which they were in no way ready. Through intelligence received from their cavalry, the allied commanders soon realised that they would be outnumbered, but put in place a plan to advance and attack Napoleon’s army as it crossed the Saale, isolating and destroying the leading corps and evening the odds. Though outnumbered, they already knew that they enjoyed a great superiority in cavalry and veteran infantry, and put their plan to the Tsar and the King of Prussia, who approved it so much that they arrived in person with a fresh corps under general Miloradovitch and the Russian Guard, bringing their army up to a strength of 73,000 men, including 25,000 cavalry and over 500 cannon. Both sides were now poised to strike each other, and the critical factor in deciding whose plan would work was now speed.

Napoleon’s lightning advance, and in such strength, had caught the allies by surprise, and he hurried his units to the front, intent upon striking the first blow. Already, the green but eager conscripts had bested the enemy, forcing back their outposts at Merseburg and Halle in several bloody but successful actions. General Souham’s division of Marshal Ney’s corps – woefully low on veterans and made up mostly of the flower of France’s youthful conscripts had a heavy action at Weissenfels crossing the Saale on the 29th, where they received their first test of fire and passed it like veterans, as Colonel Noel of the artillery recalled; “The infantry of the Main army consisted of young recruits who had never come under fire, but there were excellent soldiers among them and they were very well led. The whole army anxiously awaited the outcome of this first encounter. The enemy cavalry, reputed to be very numerous and well mounted, was especially feared. Marshal Ney’s infantry formed into squares, and calmly withstood several successive charges from this cavalry; charges that are so terrifying for novice soldiers, and are dreadful even when anticipated. Then, forming into columns and taking the offensive, our soldiers attacked the enemy with spirit and determination and put them to flight. We heard of this outcome with something approaching rapture, seeing it as a good omen for the future.” – Ney was elated at his conscripts and their performance. The Russians had ensconced themselves in a ravine, covered by a fog, and had thrown themselves upon Souham’s men. The soldiers had acted calmly, had listened to their orders, performed the movements they had learned at drill, and repulsed the enemy cavalry with squares of muskets and bayonets, moved on, presented square again, repulsed another charge, then cleared the ravine under fire of the Russian guns from Weissenfels and finally charged the guns and the Russian veterans from the field. Ney gathered his conscripts in the town square and congratulated them all, laughing at the way in which they had charged the guns like veterans.

The whole army, including the Emperor, was up and crossing the Saale on May 1st before the startled enemy could concentrate to strike at them. The advance saw the army of the Elbe led by Marshal Macdonald and General Lauriston advancing through Merseburg towards Leipzig, with Marshal Ney’s III corps followed by Marshal Marmont’s VI corps pushing on through Weissenfels towards Lutzen, south west of Leipzig, and Marshal Oudinot and General Bertrand with the XII and IV corps moving up in echelon from Naumburg. At Rippach, just east of Weissenfels, the allied advanced posts made a stand, and Napoleon at once ordered; “Have Souham’s division at once take this position!” Marshal Bessieres, leading the advance guard, moved forward to reconnoitre in advance of Souham. The Marshal and his staff were unmissable in their finery, and soon a battery of guns was trained on them, with the first shot decapitating a young sergeant of the Polish light cavalry of the escort. Bessieres galloped closer, inspected their positions further and then returned, ordering the young man to be buried, when he was struck down by a cannon ball, which hit him full in the chest. He was dead before he hit the ground. This early loss was a blow to the Emperor who counted Bessieres as amongst his closest friends. When Napoleon was notified, he was seen to go motionless and stare blankly for a moment and finally to pronounce; “So…Bessieres lived like Bayard; he died like Turenne. We should all be envious of his fate.” – With that, he turned and walked away, although heard to mutter to himself; “Death is coming nearer to us.” Still the advance continued, and despite warnings that the allied main body was concentrating just to the south around Zwenkau, Napoleon pushed the pace, aiming to pass through Leipzig and arrive in Dresden to sever their retreat before they could catch him on the march.

Napoleon’s plan was coming together. By speed he had crossed the Saale and had three columns advancing, with a refused right flank under Oudinot and Bertrand there to lure the allies in to the trap which was forming around them, Ney and Marmont forming the central pivot with the main army and his left-hand columns under Macdonald and Lauriston almost at the gates of Leipzig, there to close the trap. He sent a message to Ney at 4AM on May 2nd instructing him to send out advanced guards towards Zwenkau and Pegau to give notice of any allied advance, and dictated his orders through the night for a continued push on Leipzig in the morning.

Ney, perhaps with a warrior’s instinct for danger, went against his orders, instead sending fully two of his five divisions to hold a small ring of villages at the foot of some high ground, retaining the other three in Lutzen as support. The allied cavalry, however, was roaming with impunity, and had given notice of this advanced force to Wittgenstein, who now held command over Blucher’s force as well as his own, and the allied commander quickly decided to set his columns marching through the night, ready to pounce on Ney in the morning and crash through the very centre of Napoleon’s army. His plans called for the advance to start at 1AM, with a concentration in the vicinity of the villages within six hours, but in the dark, the columns lost their way, and it was not until 11AM that the allied columns arrived in some disorder at their forward staging area. Wittgenstein immediately saw that his movement, however clumsy, was as yet undetected. There was no French cavalry screen, no patrols on the ridge behind which the allied army assembled, and upon sending some officers to climb the low crest above the village of Gross-Gorschen and spy out the French position, they reported back only 2,000 French soldiers who were busy cooking their midday meals, blissfully unaware of the storm about to break. Wittgenstein, not believing his luck, ordered up Blucher’s cavalry to assemble ready for a charge down the ridge to sweep the paltry French force away. Blucher at once set to ordering his cavalry up into formation, and with a last look to ensure he had remained undetected, the old Prussian war-horse galloped up to Wittgenstein, threw him a salute and begged permission to lead the charge and begin the battle. Wittgenstein at once gave his approval, calling back after Blucher, who at once galloped away; “With God’s help!”

As the French soldiers of Souham’s division lazed around their campsites and enjoyed their meals they suddenly looked up to see a horde of Prussian cavalry descending on them from the ridge. Warning shots were fired, bugles sounded, and the French stood to arms as their comrades poured out of the villages from all sides and began to form square. Blucher, thinking he was attacking two weak battalions was now confronted by a complete division around which his cavalry swirled ineffectively, and quickly called on his men to a retire, sending back for artillery support as the conscripts jeered nervously and fired a few ragged last shots in the direction of the retreating enemy. The second the cavalry had cleared, the Prussian artillery opened up, with roundhsot and shells finding easy targets amongst the packed squares. Souham at once ordered his men into cover and ordered up his two divisional batteries to return the fire. To the west, the second division under General Girard was now roused to arms and threw themselves likewise into the defence of the village of Starsiedel, to where Dolffs’ Prussian and Winzingerode’s Russian cavalry now advanced, but being met by Girard’s men in good positions, soon pulled back themselves and ordered up artillery to bombard the village. Girard, his guns scattered and unlimbered, could do nothing to return the fire and his men hung on grimly, finding cover where they could. By irresolution, the allies had thus thrown away their element of surprise, and now Souham and Girard, after sending back riders to request support, stood ready to contest the ground.

Around Gross-Gorschen, the artillery exchange went on unabated for forty minutes, with Souham’s guns woefully outnumbered and forced to retire, two of them being struck and dismounted before they could get away, and artillery teams being decimated. Then was heard a ‘strange confused noise like a rising tide’; the stomping of thousands of boots mixed with a rising crescendo of “Fatherland! Fatherland!” and the old veteran General Souham instantly knew what was about to follow. As the massed Prussian infantry columns crested and poured down the ridge, he quickly threw his men into the villages of Gross-Gorschen, Klein-Gorschen and Rahna where they barricaded the streets with carts and furniture and loop-holed walls and windows to meet the attack. The Prussians advanced ‘in a black depth’ to assault the villages, led by Klix’s brigade advancing under a barrage of covering fire, and were soon met with a storm of musketry from behind walls and gardens, from windows, barricades and loop-holed walls, but nothing could stop their advance as they crashed into Gross-Gorschen, where the young French soldiers met them with bayonets and clubbed muskets. Gradually, the Prussians fought their way through the village, overrunning Souham’s two crippled guns and sending back scores of prisoners, finally ousting the French from the village. Souham, riding up at the head of his reserves, raced to stem the rout, turned about the fugitives and now led a vigorous counter-attack, pushing Klix’s brigade back inch by inch, street by street and house by house to the outskirts of the village.

Meanwhile, back in Lutzen, Napoleon was with Marshal Ney and his staff, reconnoitring towards Leipzig, where Lauriston’s force had been in action since 10AM. Having found Kleist’s cavalry division of 1,800 men barring the main road from Lutzen to Leipzig at the village of Lindenau, Lauriston had advanced at the head of his escort of a hundred cavalry to reconnoitre, and soon had his corps and divisional artillery dragged forward to pound Kleist’s men out of their position, bringing up his infantry for support and sending Maison’s division around Kleist’s right to envelop his flank. As soon as he saw his plight, and being unable to respond to the barrage erupting around him, Kleist ordered the withdrawal, hastened by the arrival of more French forces who, having forded the Elster, were now approaching his left flank at the rush. Napoleon watched on through his telescope as Kleist evacuated his position and fled back to Leipzig, passing back through the town to the far side and leaving the scanty garrison of a lone Prussian battalion to contest the city walls as long as they could. Lauriston at once followed up and attacked the city walls with his guns, soon compelling the Prussian garrison to prepare to evacuate.

As Lauriston was following Kleist, Napoleon, Ney and their entourage rode over the old Lutzen battlefield where Gustavus Adolphus had fought his famous battle a hundred and seventy-one years before, and the Emperor took the opportunity to describe the action as he rode over the field, pointing out the key features of the battle. Suddenly, as Napoleon was some way through his impromptu tour, the sound of cannon fire reached the small group, and they saw plumes of powder smoke emanating from the ridge above Ney’s advanced posts. Ney at once dashed off to his command, picking up his three reserve divisions around Lutzen and ordering them forward into the fight, galloping off alone to take command of the battle which was now raging along the front of his line. Meanwhile, back on the main front, Souham had been edged once more out of Gross-Gorschen, although Klix’s brigade was now exhausted, and quickly Blucher followed up with Ziethen’s brigade, which rushed down the ridge on the right of Klix covered by a massed barrage of artillery, hastily bowling Souham’s men out of Klein-Gorschen, and together Klix and Ziethen now swept on, pushing Souham’s retiring units out of Rahna and back onto Kaja, which position Souham knew he must hold at all costs or face his force being pushed back onto the open plain, where the massed allied cavalry would make short work of them.

As Ney had dashed off to his command, Napoleon had stayed in Lutzen, where his experienced ears told him the fortunes of the battle, and after a few minutes’ calm deliberation, he dashed off orders to his various commanders, ordering Ney to stand firm at all costs and act as a ‘pinning force’ whilst Marmont with VI corps was ordered to advance to his right, linking Ney’s line with Girard’s isolated force in Starsiedel. General Bertrand with IV corps was to advance rapidly to the right of Marmont to take the enemy on the left flank, and Macdonald with XI corps was to veer off south from the Leipzig road and march across country to encircle the allied right. Meanwhile, Lauriston was ordered to leave a division to oversee the Prussian evacuation of Leipzig and counter-march his other two divisions to Markrandstadt just behind Lutzen as a strategic reserve if needed. Finally, the Imperial Guard was to march with him in person to Kaja where the action was now raging.

On the French right, the corps of Marshal Marmont now entered the fray to support the hard-pressed Girard and quickly threw themselves into the fight, as Marmont recalled; “After crossing the Rippach and having arranged my troops to march in six chessboard squares, I started following the right bank towards Starsiedel. We had barely approached this village when we saw, forming on the heights overlooking us the considerable masses of the enemy cavalry, supported by numerous artillery, and at the same time, we heard the fire in the direction of Kaja and Gross-Gorschen. There, Girard’s division of the third corps…had been surprised by the enemy and had taken up arms in great confusion…this division would have run large risks if I had arrived a few minutes later; but I hastened my advance in order to cover him and gave him time to organise. The forces the enemy had before us were impressive, and seeing their cavalry, they appeared to me formidable enough to prvent me from fulfilling my instructions. Therefore, I decided to approach without losing a single moment…I occuppied the village of Starsiedel in strength, which I intended should serve me well as a fulcrum. I placed in front of the village, and a little to the left, the division of Compans; and in echelon more to the left again the division of Bonnet. The troops, backed by the fire of my numerous artillery, began to walk forward without rushing. This charge was executed vigorously and expeditiously; but the forces of the enemy increasing quickly, I soon saw that a great battle was to be fought, so I halted my movement which, by distancing myself from my point of strength and security, would inevitably have caused me to be lost. However, I maintained my offensive attitude to divide the attention of the enemy and prevent him from crushing the troops of the third corps, which fought on in Kaja and Klein-Gorschen.”

By this time, Ney had arrived at the head of Brennier’s and Ricard’s divisions and soon found that Souham had been forced to evacuate Gross-Gorschen by sustained infantry attacks and concentrated allied artillery fire, and that Klein-Gorschen and Rahna had been lost to a furious attack, with the whole line having fallen back towards Kaja. Ney at once led up his fresh divisions to forestall this retreat, retake the villages and counter-attack the allied infantry who were rapidly advancing. Girard’s division having arrived from Starsiedel to support Souham, he found his colleague falling back under fire on Kaja and massed his division behind the village to forestall the retreat when Ney rode up, with Brennier and Ricard soon deploying in the field to support him. Ney now had four of his five divisions in the front line and at once massed Souham, Brennier and Girard’s forces for a counter-attack, leaving Ricard’s division in close support and deploying his corps and divisional artillery to the south-west of Kaja which now opened a furious barrage on the advancing Prussians, who stalled in their attack. Ney at once ordered the advance and rode forward at the head of his three divisions, smashing into the Prussian line and bowling them back through Rahna and Klein-Gorschen, following up to Gross-Gorschen where his men battled in the streets as the massed Prussian artillery now came again to the rescue with a barrage which halted his further advance. Blucher quickly sent in reserves of his own in the form of Roder’s brigade, which soon joined the attack and edged Ney back again, recovering Klein-Gorschen and Rahna as both sides battled doggedly amongst the villages, which by now were blazing furiously.

Ney now hurled his divisions time and again at the villages, which changed hands over and over. His young conscripts engaged the Prussian veterans with vigour as each side sought to flank the other beyond Klein-Gorschen. The allies brought up fresh reinforcements and hurled them again upon Ney, who furiously battled back, winning and losing each yard of ground by turn, but numbers were telling, and the allied commanders looked now to drive off Marmont and encircle Ney’s corps from both sides as Marmont again recalled; “The enemy felt the importance of exploiting our weakness to envelop the third corps; but he could not succeed after I had caused myself to retire. So he brought his great strength against me, directing the fire of a hundred and fifty pieces of cannon entirely against my forces. My troops endured this terrible fire with great calm and with a remarkable courage. The soldiers of Compans’ division, especially more exposed than others, were worthy of admiration. The ranks thinned at every moment but re-formed again without uncertainty, and no one thought of running away. The brave Navy gunners, accustomed especially to fights at sea where artillery plays the main and almost the only role, appeared to be in their element. Immediately after this terrible fire, the enemy cavalry began a move, and made a great and vigorous charge, directed mainly against the 1st Marine Artillery regiment. This regiment, commanded by Colonel Esmond, showed that it could be as good as infantry, and the enemy ran aground against its bayonets. Other charges were renewed, but in vain and all unsuccessful.” The allies now brought up infantry along with fresh cavalry and artillery to hurl at Marmont, and he now pulled back his men to a better defensive position, throwing Compans’ division into Starsiedel and the rest into better cover, whilst extending his right wing, which the enemy cavalry sought to turn, with his third division along and behind a ravine. Thwarted, the Russians and Prussians hurled themselves against Starsiedel, but the attack was mismanaged, and Compans’ infantry hurled them back with great loss. Though he had not been driven from the field, Marmont had been forced to pull back, and satisfied with their efforts, the allies now redoubled their efforts against Ney, whose dwindling command was being edged slowly backwards from the field, throwing their full weight against his crumbling force. Numbers and experience were now telling, and Ney’s conscripts were about to be swallowed whole, with one Prussian battalion, led by the King of Prussia in person, even breaking into Kaja. The conscripts of Ney’s command, now dying in droves, looked desperately to the rear for a sign of relief, with the veterans calling on them to hold firm just a while longer. To the very rear, a thin line of Guard cavalry was now spread out, not as support, but to catch and turn back anyone who now tried to run from the bitter fight, but the veterans knew what this heralded and took heart, for the Guard cavalry’s appearance meant only one thing; the Emperor was on his way.

Napoleon reached the battlefield around Kaja at 2.30PM to find his army of conscripts and youths disintegrating around him. Against the massed cannon of the Russian and Prussian allies and their tough veterans, the realities of the horrors of war were becoming all too apparent, and they cowered from the cannon fire, the young conscripts tearful, looking back over their shoulders for support or a chance of retreat, and on the verge of collapse. Napoleon rode up at the head of his staff and senior commanders and at once saw the gravity of the situation; “This is like one of our Egyptian battles!” he commented, surveying the ground before him, “We have infantry and artillery, but no cavalry – Gentlemen, we must not spare ourselves here!” with which he set off to prove by example that the Emperor was still the foremost general in the world.

Into the maelstrom of battle rode Napoleon, encouraging the refugees back to the ranks, braving the cannon fire as if it did not exist, rallying and exhorting the men as he rode amongst them and personally leading units back to the front in fresh counter-attacks. Seeing one unit of shaken conscripts falling back, he admonished them; “Conscripts, for shame! It was on you that I was basing my hopes. I expected much from your young courage, and you are running away!” then he was dismounting and leading them back into the fray and joining the new attack alongside them. “In the utmost heat of the action,” recalled General Bertrand, “Napoleon alighted from his horse, and to use his own words, he ‘did not spare himself’. Whole batteries were carried by bayonet charges.” Napoleon’s presence, personality and sheer courage had a magical effect on the conscripts who formed up and went back into the fight. Seeing their Emperor ride into the storm of shot and shell, the men at once straightened and eagerly marched to confront the foe from whom they had cowered in fear just moments before. Napoleon threw himself into the heat of the action, ordering his aide General Mouton to lead Ricard’s division forward to bowl the Prussians out of Kaja as he rode amongst Souham’s, Girard’s and Brennier’s men and sent them to retake Rahna and Klein-Gorschen. Napoleon was now everywhere, leading the men on in desperate charges, cheering them to victory, stemming the routs, plugging the gaps, bringing up his second line to relieve or reinforce the first where needed, driving them on and calling on them to stand firm, and the cry of; “Vive l’Empereur!” erupted across the field as the men took heart and took the fight back to the enemy. As Marshal Marmont was later to recall; “This was probably the day, of his whole career, in which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle. He exposed himself constantly, leading the defeated men of III Corps back to the charge.” Another spectator was to recall that; “Hardly a wounded man passed before Bonaparte without saluting him with the accustomed ‘vivat’. Even those who had lost a limb, who would in a few hours be the prey of death, rendered him this homage.”

With his men thus roused to new endeavours, Napoleon took command of III corps in person after Ney was wounded, and fought to stabilise the situation until his flanking columns could come up. Lacking the experienced troops of his once-great Grande Armee he resorted to the ‘mob tactics’ of his earliest years as a General of the Republic, and gradually pushed the allied line back, although casualties on both sides were becoming monstrous. Kaja, Rahna and Klein-Gorschen fell, the Prussians counter-attacked with a fury and still Napoleon fought back, wearing them down, gaining time and forcing them to commit more men to the fight. The battle was now a savage brawl; a cacophony of noise and smoke, flames and the screams of the wounded of both sides, who carpeted the field in masses, as one Prussian Jager recalled; “The field between Klein and Gross-Gorschen resembled a bivouac where whole battalions had lain down.” Again came the Prussians, their massed artillery dominating the field from the top of the ridge, and the French recoiled. Napoleon again stemmed the rout, ordering a grand battery to be assembled between Kaja and Starsiedel, and then drove his men once more back into the fray. General Dumas, approaching the field from Merseburg and escorting a column of artillery and other stores, here gives his impressions of the action at this time; “I restored order as well as I could, and went to join the Emperor in the field of battle; it was at the moment when a column of the Young Guard, commanded by General Rouget, which was directed by the Emperor himself, marched along the skirts of a wood in which the allies had placed a great number of sharp-shooters. The object of this manoeuvre appeared to me to be to attack the right of the centre of the enemy’s line, in order to facilitate the reiterated attacks of Marshal Ney upon the village, of which the enemy had made themselves masters, and towards which they had advanced the greater part of their forces, in order to cut the line, and penetrate to the causeway. It was a very critical moment. The Emperor having sent for me, asked where the treasure and the equipages were? I replied, “I have executed Your Majesty’s orders; they are at Lutzen.” – “Well! Do not lose an instant to take them back to Merseburg; that is the point of retreat!” – Dumas duly did so, discovering the division of General Reynier already moving up to take possession of the place, as meanwhile, Napoleon turned back to the fight and plunged into the fire once more, to stem the allies’ latest counter-attack. There was news now that Macdonald and Eugene were approaching the field to envelop the allied right, but still no word from Bertrand, whose corps was nowhere to be seen. Soon a rider from Bertrand found Napoleon in the thick of the fighting and gave him the incredible news that Bertrand had halted his march and asked for orders, as Russian forces had been spotted in Zeitz, some ten miles from his position, and he needed clarification whether he was to attack towards Zeitz or continue to assail the allied left. Napoleon quickly sent the man back, barking at him that Bertrand was to continue his march and join the desperate fight, soon sending two more riders in quick succession to reinforce the point. The battle had become a savage pounding match, and Napoleon yet knew that he would have to hold the line a while longer until his plan could be put into execution. All around him, the dead and dying carpeted the floor, but still he sent the terrified young conscrpits back to the front with renewed vigour to gain time. To Napoleon’s right, Marmont was now in difficulty and sent to Napoleon for reinforcements or to send in the Imperial Guard, but Napoleon sent Marmont’s messenger back with the rebuke; “Tell your marshal that he is mistaken. He has nothing against him; the battle turns about Kaja!” In the allied lines too, things were becoming desperate. Marshal Blucher was wounded and his deputy, General Yorck, a much less inspiring leader, had taken command. General Scharnhorst was also gravely wounded, and despite needing reserves for the front, Wittgenstein was denied the use of the Russian Guards and Grenadier divisions by Tsar Alexander, who wished to retain them under his personal command and lead them forward at the end of the battle in the final great push.

Not until 4.00PM did Wittgenstein manage to have all of his reserves on the field, and he now ordered a massed attack towards Klein-Gorschen and Rahna to redeem the situation. The reserves ploughed into the embattled French line, edging the young conscripts back and taking the villages at the point of the bayonet before following on towards Kaja and delivering a powerful attack which drove the French line back to the outskirts of the village. Napoleon again rescued the situation, once more rallying his tearful and shaken conscripts and calling out to them; “Where do you think you are going? Can’t you see that the battle is won? Come on, stand firm!” and pointing to a tree two-hundred paces to their front, ordered them to re-form by it, leading them back personally to the attack and bolstering them with Lanusse’s division of the Young Guard, who charged back through Kaja, carrying the place by storm and ejecting the Prussians. Napoleon was now once more amongst the shattered remnants of Ney’s corps and leading them forward over a field thick with corpses several men deep, driving them again into Klein-Gorschen and Rahna, which fell after a brutal fight, and still he ploughed on, pushing the allied troops back once more to the outskirts of Gross-Gorschen, where Prussian and Russian reserves, under the cover of their massed batteries, resisted all attacks.

Meanwhile, Wittgenstein was increasingly aware of the danger to his flanks as Bertrand’s leading division under Morand was now seen in the distance marching up on his left, and Macdonald’s corps and Eugene’s Army of the Elbe were spotted marching across country to assail his right, both moves forcing him to detach units to check their advance, and seeing that Macdonald and Eugene threatened to cut him off and would arrive first, he hurried General St. Priest to nearby Eisdorf with a brigade to support the two Prussian battalions there as meanwhile Prince Eugene of Wurttemburg advanced, cleared Klein-Gorschen once more and pushed on towards Kaja, with St. Priest swinging around to take Ney’s corps in flank. By now, and inexplicably late, Ney’s fifth division under General Marchand had appeared on the field, and this fresh division enetered the fight, taking post on the right bank of the Flossgraben, north of Klein-Gorschen, and at once opened a galling enfillading fire against Eugene of Wurttemburg’s brigade, advancing by both wings to wrap around his flanks, with Marchand’s left-hand brigade breaking back into Klein-Gorschen. The allied troops at once ran for cover, finding shelter amongst the trees and bushes along the Flossgraben, which bought them some respite, and then re-forming they counter-attacked, checking the movement by Marchand’s right and clearing his left back out of the village as several units of cavalry moved around ready to take him in the flank. By now, however, Macdonald’s corps was fast-approaching the field, and Eugene was ordered to stand firm as Wittgenstein ordered the 2nd Russian Grenadier division to advance and hold Eisdorf to meet the attack.

Macdonald now arrived on the field, with his corps leading the way for Eugene’s Army of the Elbe, and threw his full force into the attack, battling the Russian Grenadiers and turning the allied right, and Wittgenstein, seeing his plight, now hurled his full weight at him, as Macdonald recalled in his memoirs; “We went at the double, and it was full time, for the enemy’s cavalry had already slipped in between me and Marshal Ney, who had lost much ground. The enemy, having realised my movement, turned to retreat; but I had had time to point thirty pieces of cannon, and they galloped rapidly through my grapeshot. We continued to advance on their right flank, and forced them into a position covered by a little artificial canal used for floating wood. After crossing—not without loss—a little valley, we crowned the heights; the plain lay outstretched before us, but without cavalry it would have been unsafe to venture there. Suddenly the fire ceased all along the front of the army, and was directed at us; the enemy sent forward their cavalry reserves, composed of the Guards of the sovereigns of Russia and Prussia. Thrice they attempted to break our squares, but in vain; each time they were driven back with loss, and the third time in such confusion as must have given great advantage to our cavalry had we possessed any. Only a few squadrons covered our left, commanded by the Marquis de Latour-Maubourg, who wished nothing better than to charge. I sent to beg him to do so; but the Viceroy, under whose orders he was acting, refused, in spite of my entreaties, as he did not wish to risk the little body of brave men who were our only resource.” Gradually, Macdonald and Eugene battled the Russians back through Eisdorf and nearby Kitzen, easing the pressure on Ney’s left flank and deploying their cannon to bombard the centre of the allied lines.

By 5.30PM Napoleon’s plan was in effect, with Morand’s division of Bertrand’s corps now arriving on the field and joining Marmont’s right wing, and with Macdonald’s force storming through and past the villages of Eisdorf and Kitzen on the allied right flank, placing Wittgenstein’s army in serious jeopardy. In one last bid to break the French line, Wittgenstein ordered a fresh advance with all of his forces, which doggedly forced Napoleon’s centre back and retook two of the villages, but Napoleon was ready for them, ordering Marmont to change front and pivoting on Starsiedel, supported by Bertrand, leading the attack now from the right as the left fell back under cover of the batteries. The allied formations were caught almost in flank by this new onslaught, which tore into them with volleys of musketry and a crash of cannon-fire and bowled them backwards as Napoleon’s own guns wreaked havoc to their front and tore bloody holes in the ranks, which fell back under the two-sided assault. To cover the retreat of his stunned men, Wittgenstein now hurled his cavalry in wave after wave against the corps of Marmont and Morand’s division, but again the young conscripts formed themselves into squares and repulsed charge after bloody charge, sending the allied horsemen reeling back towards their own lines, as Napoleon brought up his left and centre to push the rest of the allied infantry back. It had been a costly last-ditch attempt to redeem the fortunes of the battle, but by perfect timing and a little tactical finesse, Napoleon had seen them off, and now in position, and with the enemy falling back, the Emperor was ready to storm the field.

Having now taken a rising spur on the allied ridge, Napoleon brought forward the fifty-eight guns of the Guard Artillery, joined these with what remained of Ney’s, and now massed eighty heavy cannon under command of his excellent general of artillery, General Drouot, lined wheel to wheel and aiming straight at the centre of the allied line. These cannon unleashed a massed barrage upon the allies, punching twelve-pound balls through their ranks and oblitterating whole formations, the guns being manhandled forward to point blank range as they had been at Friedland and pounding the allied lines into ruin, which twitched and writhed like a great beast in its death throes. Across the field, every French gun was now brought into play, pushed forward at every discharge to bring them closer and closer to the allies whose ranks shredded as canister fire, roundshot and shells gouged a bloody path through them from all three sides. One-hundred-and-ninety-eight cannon, crowned by the great grand battery of the Guard in the centre were soon pulverising the allies and driving them back in confusion, dominating the allied artillery whose exhausted gunners, with depleted reserves and men falling all around, could mount no effective reply.

With the allied lines recoiling and their men worn down by the terriffic battle, Napoleon now played his trump card and ordered his Young Guard forward into four assault columns, each of four battalions, 9,800 men in total and led on by Marshal Mortier supported by four marching squares of the Old Guard, six battalions strong, two divisions of the Guard Cavalry, some 3,335 horsemen in all and the shattered remnants of III corps, and led them in a great counter-attack, ordering Morand, Marmont, Macdonald and Eugene to advance and sweep the field from all sides. From Starsiedel, Bonnet’s division launched themselves forward, Marmont pivoting on him in a great left wheel with his other two divisions, and Morand’s division, leading the way for Bertrand’s corps advanced into the allied flank and rear. This fresh attack surged forward, with the four Young Guard colums advancing at a rush upon Klein-Gorschen with their left, Rahna with their right and the two central columns leading the drive on Gross-Gorschen through the middle, and like an irresistable torrent the Guard advanced, smashing back the Prussian and Russian veterans. To the right of this attack, Bonnet’s and then Compans’ divisions of Marmont’s corps wheeled into the side and rear of Rahna as the Guard carried it by frontal assault, as meanwhile Macdonald likewise wheeled Charpentier’s division in from Eisdorf to assail Klein-Gorschen from the flank and rear as the Guard stormed through the streets, shooting and bayoneting all they found before them.

Across the field, the mighty French batteries crashed out their triumphant roar as the whole French line advanced, battling the Russians and Prussians back yard by bloody yard and finally wresting the blazing ruins of Gross-Gorschen from them. The attack drove forward, unstoppable and ferocious, swarming up the ridge and bowling the allied troops before it. The conscripts, now mixed with the indomitable veterans of the Guard, sought to assert their valour and raced forward with an equal degree of pluck and courage, and the allied line recoiled from the relentless speed of the assault and the barrage of the guns until units started to break and flee to the rear. Though Mortier was down, pinned beneath the body of his horse around Kaja, yet Napoleon in person drove the assault on and into the allied ranks, crashing through their lines and sending them tumbling back. All across the field, the French army rolled inexorably onward and inward; Napoleon, Ney and Marmont in the centre, Bertrand on the right and Macdonald and Eugene on the left, and all the while the French guns pounded at the compressed mass of allied soldiers who fell back grudgingly before the three-sided assault. Wittgenstein and his commanders were now all-in and had nothing with which to meet this fresh onslaught, which was rolling back their lines on all sides, and now ordered the retreat, and the allied army, in the vaguest semblance of order, fled from the field, covered by the remnants of their cavalry.

Had the allies stayed longer, they would have been crushed between the flanking corps of Macdonald, Eugene and Bertrand and torn apart by the unstoppable onslaught of the Guard against their centre, but now they were streaming away, abandoning their wounded comrades who carpeted the field, throwing down thousands of muskets as they fled, and leaving behind them several dismounted guns in their rush to escape the converging wings of the French army. Seeing the enemy break at last, Napoleon was triumphant, roaring out; “I have gained the battle of Lutzen like the general-in-chief of the Army of Italy and of the Army of Egypt!” – giving voice to any concerns that he was no longer the man of his youth. Only his lack of a strong cavalry arm saved the allies from complete destruction, but Napoleon shelled them as they withdrew, and allowed his jubilant conscripts to chase away the recoiling foe and begin the task of looting the dead and the wounded.

Marmont’s forces led the pursuit, such as could be mustered, but in the darkness, nine squadrons of the Prussian cavalry turned about and descended upon his leading units of Bonnet’s division. Hearing the horses, Marmont called the alarm and shut himself within a square of the 37th Light Infantry, but in terror they broke and streamed away into the night, being severely mauled, and Marmont only escaping by tucking his plumed hat under his arm so as not to be recognised, and riding for his life, whilst his chief aide Colonel Jardet was shot by a fleeing French conscript who mistook him for a Prussian cavalryman. The Prussians were eventually halted by the 1st Naval regiment and retired, not knowing what forces were against them in the dark, but Marmont, guessing that they would soon be back with reinforcements, steadied his men, berated their officers and led them out again, forming a closely packed defence of interlocking squares. Barely an hour after the initial attack, the Prussians came again, this time four regiments strong, one of which of the Prussian Guards, and this time Marmont’s men held firm, met the enemy resolutely and shattered them with close volleys until they pulled away leaving five or six hundred killed behind them. So ended the last episode of the battle of Lutzen.

Lutzen had been a blood-bath, although in truth, it had been a well-fought battle in which the Emperor had showed as much if not more of his old energies, and which had turned surprise and near-defeat into victory almost by personal example, determination and sheer will to win. Napoleon had spent the night before the battle at the obelisk to his fallen hero Gustavus Adoplhus, and there, he later admitted, he had “experienced impressions, which…appeared to him a sort of revelation” – and his actions this day were so reminiscent of those of his great hero, that he truly believed the great man was with him, and that victory was assured. He braved cannon fire, shot and shell in the front lines and feared death not at all in the name of victory, which he never doubted to be certain. Had Napoleon had two hours more daylight and a decent cavalry arm, the battle of Lutzen and the ensuing pursuit would have spelled the doom of the allied army, but it was not to be. The allies had been defeated by Napoleon, but he could not follow up his victory and turn the allied retreat into a rout, and knew that he must again fight another day.

In the growing darkness, Napoleon sought out and found Ney, who had fought in the front line all day and had sustained the bulk of the fighting, even returning to the front after his wound had been dressed, to continue the struggle. Ney looked like a blood-stained corpse, with his uniform in tatters and soaked in gore; “My dear cousin!” Napoleon called out, alarmed at the sight of him, “You are covered in blood!” – Ney looked down before smiling and replying; “It isn’t mine Sire…except where that damned bullet passed through my leg!” The two conversed a while about the battle and in particular the performance of the conscripts, to which Ney told him; “Sire, give me a lot of these young fellows. I will lead them wherever I wish. The old sweats know as much as we do; they reason, they have too much sangfroid. These lads, on the other hand, are fearless and do not know the difficulties; they look straight ahead, not to right or left.”

The battle been a slaughter with casualties on both sides far beyond those of the great and bloody battle once fought in the neighbouring fields; the French had lost 20,400 men including 2,700 killed, 16,900 wounded and 800 men and five guns captured and another 22 guns disabled, the allies perhaps 22,000 men all in, though with only two guns lost and doubtless many more damaged or disabled, and although they attempted to paint the battle as a near-success, the fact remained that they had been severely mauled and were on the run. As ever, Napoleon understood the value of the ‘propaganda victory’ and fully utilised the victory to buoy the morale of his battered army, and to impresss upon his Saxon allies, whose commitment to the cause was in serious doubt. The day after the battle he issued a grandiose proclamation to his army; “Soldiers, I am pleased with you! You have fulfilled my expectations! You have achieved everything by your readiness to obey, and by your courage. On the famous 2nd of May you defeated and routed the Russian and Prussian armies, commanded by the Emperor Alexander and the King of Prussia. You have added a new lustre to the glory of my eagles. The battle of Lutzen will rank higher than the battles of Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland and the Moskowa”. Napoleon’s propagannda was hyperbole in the extreme, but it served to rouse the new recruits, who had performed marvels upon the field, into believing themselves immortal gainers of one of the greatest battles in history. By coolness, a collective mind and the strength of his dispositions, Napoleon had turned the tide of what could have been a disaster, but the victory went as much to his young conscripts, who had performed marvels on the day. As Ney recounted to Dumas the day after the battle; “I had only battalions of conscripts, and I have reason to congrtulate myself on it; I doubt whether I could have done the same thing with the Old Grenadiers of the Guard. I had before me the best of the enemy’s troops, the whole of the Prussian Guards; our bravest grenadiers, after having twice failed, would perhaps not have carried the village, but I led these brave children five times to the charge, and their docility, perhaps too their inexperience, served me no better than veteran courage. The French army is never too young!”

For Napoleon, Lutzen was perhaps his toughest personal victory, requiring all the elements of a truly great commander; a cool head, personal courage, leadership, grit, tenacity and the ability to absorb the situation, plan a counter-attack and time it to perfection whilst the cannonballs flew around him. He had beaten tough Russian and Prussian veterans with an army of boys, most scarcely old enough to grow their moustaches in the French fashion, and had boosted their morale and courage by personal example. He had been at once commander of the army, and colonel of every regiment at one time or another as he dashed from point to point to steady the line, but had never once lost sight of the great objective. Later, he was to spell out as one of his maxims; “A general of ordinary talent, occupying a bad position and surprised by a superior force, seeks his safety in retreat; but a great captain supplies all deficiencies by his courage, and marches boldly to meet the attack. By this means he disconcerts his adversary, and if this last shows any irresolution in his movements, a skilful leader, profiting by his indecision, may even hope for victory.” These eloquent words no doubt recall the battle of Lutzen, where his forces were caught napping, posted on bad ground, heavily outnumbered for most of the day, and had been surprised and attacked in force. It was only the Emperor’s personal courage, example and coolness of thought which had won the day. Immediately after the battle, however, he was less eloquent. Commenting on the allied attack and near-victory he was heard to remark acidly; “These animals have learned something.”

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