In the 19th century the speedy victory of the Prussian army over France in 1870 convinced Europeans that rapid mobilisation by railroad and quick-firing artillery would make wars last shorter. In the 1930s, strategists started to believe that in air-power. In 1990-91, America demonstrated during the first Gulf war what “a combination of its precision-guided munitions, new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance methods, space-based communications and stealth technology could achieve.” Then 9/11 took place and wars ‘took a different course’.
Incorporated insurgents methods and tactics into a larger strategy of 21st-century hybrid or asymmetry war, would involve fomenting popular protests, using covert military measures and deploying special operations forces, often under the guise of peacekeeping or crisis management. Such tactics had been used by the United States for decades. As circumstances change, you step back and see how everyone else reacts. You have to be willing to adapt and have a range of backup plans to keep one step ahead of your adversaries. If the military part of an operation runs into a problem, for example, try another approach. If diplomatic efforts don’t bear the fruit you want, look elsewhere. You just have to be willing to use all methods available — and be ruthless to achieve your goals. Fiona Hill
Founded by Central Asian Muslim tribes in 1299, at its height in the late 17th century the Ottoman empire spanned three continents, taking in the Balkans in southern Europe, Arab lands from Mesopotamia to Morocco, and much of Asia Minor. Since the beginning of the 18th century Istanbul found itself almost continually at war with Europe’s imperial powers. Invariably, it came out on the losing end. Egypt and most of North Africa were lost to Britain and France by 1882, while Russia gobbled up one province of eastern Anatolia after another.
Nor were the predations of the Great Powers the only serious problem. The Ottomans were mired in internal conflicts between the dominant Turks and the many other peoples who paid allegiance to the Sultan in Istanbul, including Serbs, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, and Arabs. These groups had begun to absorb Western ideas of nationalism and self-determination—ideas that sparked numerous rebellions and crackdowns on suspected subversives within the Empire. The most notorious of the latter would ultimately fester into the 1915-1916 deportation-mass murder campaign against the Christian Armenians from their Anatolian homelands. As many as a million defenseless Armenians lost their lives.
It was not a foregone conclusion that the Turks would fight in World War I at all. Many leading political figures in Istanbul favored neutrality as the surest road to bringing about long-overdue administrative and economic modernization with the aid of investments from all the European powers. In the end, however, the triumvirate of pashas who ruled the Empire came to believe an alliance with an ascendant Germany, in which Berlin would pay for much of the war effort and military training, would be the surest path to re-conquest of lost provinces, the shoring up its faltering influence in the Middle East, and internal modernization. It was the Ottoman entrance into the war on the side of the Central Powers that transformed a European war into a truly global conflict.
For their part, the Germans gained the use of a large Ottoman army that could take the pressure off their inevitable battle against Russia in the East by launching a campaign in the Caucasus. More important, Germany hoped to exploit the Ottoman sultan’s role as caliph over the entire world community of Muslims. Of course, the British, Russian, and French empires contained millions of Muslims. The Germans wanted the Caliph to declare a jihad against their adversaries, hoping to bring about mass uprisings that would cripple the war efforts of the Triple Entente, and the Caliph was happy to oblige.
The initial Ottoman campaigns did not go well. Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister of war, hoped to duplicate the Germans’ masterful envelopment at Tannenberg against the Russians, prompting the destruction of an entire Russian army. Geography, poor weather, and inadequate logistics, however, led to a crushing Ottoman defeat and the loss of 80,000 troops. Several divisions of Armenian Christians fought on the Russian side in the campaign, and in the wake of the loss, the large Armenian population within the Ottoman Empire found themselves victims of the 20th century’s first genocide. Rogan unpacks the complicated tragedy of the Armenian persecution deftly and sensitively, concluding that “the bitter irony is that the annihilation of the Armenians and other Christian communities in no way improved the security of the Ottoman Empire,” though that was its primary object.
Rogan unpacks the complicated tragedy of the Armenian persecution deftly and sensitively, concluding that “the bitter irony is that the annihilation of the Armenians and other Christian communities in no way improved the security of the Ottoman Empire,” though that was its primary object.
Next, the Ottoman 4th Army attacked the British defending the Suez Canal across the Sinai Desert, but the thrust was detected by aerial scouts and repulsed handily. The first two Ottoman campaigns, observes Rogan, “revealed Ottoman commanders to be unrealistic in their expectations and the average Ottoman soldier to be incredibly tenacious and disciplined even under the most extreme conditions.”
These early Allied victories lulled the Allies into a “false complacency about the limits of Ottoman effectiveness.” Prompted by a Russian plea to mount a diversionary campaign, Britain and France decided in spring 1915 to go for a knockout punch. They launched an ambitious amphibious attack through the heavily mined Dardanelles straits on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Such an attack would threaten Istanbul itself—if successful. Now it was the ordinary Allied soldiers’ turn, particularly the Australians and New Zealanders, to suffer at the hands of their commanders’ incompetence.
For eight months, the agony in the trenches at Gallipoli continued, with little substantial Allied progress. Here Colonel Mustafa Kemal—later called Ataturk, leader of Turkey in its successful war of independence of 1919-1923—first distinguished himself, as did the entire Ottoman army in their heroic defense of the Peninsula. Suffice it to say that in the years between the two world wars, the Gallipoli campaign was held up as proof by leading military strategists that the amphibious assault against a well-defended beach would never again succeed. The U.S. Marines, however, weren’t buying the message. They conducted an extensive study of Gallipoli, determining that the British and French had made a complete hash of the operation, and that, with proper training, specialized doctrine and equipment, heavily fortified beaches could indeed be taken. (In this they were correct, as World War II proved.)
Impending defeat at Gallipoli prompted London to order a British-Indian army to march on Baghdad to rekindle support for the war at home, and assuage suspected Muslim restiveness within their Empire. Once again, the tough Turks managed to repulse the British drive, capturing 13,000 Indians and Britons at the Siege of Kut.
After Kut, the war generally went quite badly for the Ottomans. A crucial factor in their misfortunes was Istanbul’s failure to win over the Arab tribes, loosely united under Sharif Husayn of Mecca, the great-great grandfather of Jordan’s current head of state, King Abdullah II, to fight for the Empire rather than against it. The Turks were badly outmaneuvered on the diplomatic front by the British, who concluded an alliance with Husayn in March 1916 in which false promises of postwar independence for the Arabs played no small role. The Arab Revolt was born. For the rest of the war, Husayn and his trusted adviser, T.E. Lawrence, effectively tied down Ottoman forces with guerrilla operations against (already thin) supply lines in Palestine, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Sultan’s call to jihad utterly failed to strike a chord among the Muslims within the Allied empires, mainly because their clerics saw cynical German aspirations behind the call. In addition, as scholar Bernard Lewis has written, “The moral significance of an Arab army fighting the Turks, and still more, of the ruler of the holy places [Sharif Husayn] denouncing the Ottoman Sultan and his so-called jihad, was immense, and was of particular value to the British and incidentally to the French empires in maintaining their authority over their Muslim subjects.”
In fall 1917, a bold and very smart British general, Edmund Allenby, assumed command in the Middle East. He broke the main Ottoman defensive line in Palestine, centered on Gaza. The Turks retreated, surrendering Jerusalem without a shot. By this point, as Rogan points out, the Ottomans’ ambitions “had been narrowed from victory to survival.”
Setbacks on the Western front forestalled Allied operations in the Middle East until fall 1918. The Turks, badly in need of reinforcements and resupply that would never come, grimly held on. In a three-day operation in September around Megiddo in Palestine, Allenby used his cavalry to sweep around Ottoman forces, capturing tens of thousands before going on to completing his conquest of demoralized Ottoman forces in Syria.
With the final defeat of the Ottomans and Germany in 1918, European imperialism replaced Turkish rule throughout the Middle East. After four centuries united in a multinational empire under Ottoman Muslim rule, the Arabs found themselves divided into new states under the control of Britain and France. The 200-year retreat of Islamic power before the West had run its course. New boundaries were established to suit the expansionist designs of the conquerors, and, as Rogan points out in his excellent Conclusion:
The borders of the post-war settlement have proven remarkably resilient—as have the conflicts the post-war boundaries have engendered. The Kurdish people, divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, have been embroiled in conflict with each of their host governments over the past century in pursuit of their cultural and political rights. Lebanon, created by France in 1920 as a Christian state, succumbed to a string of civil wars as its political institutions failed to keep pace with its demographic shifts and Muslims came to outnumber Christians. Syria, unreconciled to the creation of Lebanon from what many Syrian nationalists believed to be an integral part of their country, sent in its military to occupy Lebanon in 1976—and remained in occupation of that country for nearly thirty years. Despite its natural and human resources, Iraq has never known enduring peace and stability within its post-war boundaries, experiencing a coup and conflict with Britain in World War II, revolution in 1958, war with Iran between 1980 and 1988, and a seemingly unending cycle of war since Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait and the 2003 American invasion to topple Hussein.
Hamilton at Gallipoli
During World War I, German General Erich Ludendorff famously observed, “The English fight like lions.” “Yes,” a staff officer famously replied, “but they are led by donkeys.”
British General Sir Ian Hamilton might not have been a full-fledged ass, but he was certainly a bumbling Ferdinand the bull—shy, courteous and overly accommodating. Unfortunately, Lord Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, gave him command of the 1915 invasion of Gallipoli—the amphibious landings by British, French and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops intended to take Turkey, a German ally, out of the war. The campaign demanded an assertive, tactically brilliant, take-charge commander. Instead, the Allies got a kindly uncle who really didn’t want to interfere with his brigadier nephews.
Not that a promising young Winston Churchill had done any better. As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, he proposed that a task force of 18 aging battleships charge through the Dardanelles, the narrow 38-mile-long strait that led toward the Turkish capital at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Forts flanked the high-bluffed Gallipoli Peninsula west of the strait, so Churchill’s strategy was akin to taking a convoy of vintage Cadillacs on a thunder run through central Baghdad. The British lost five battleships, mainly to mines but also to Turkish coast artillery.
This should have been a hint, not that Gallipoli was impregnable, for the Turks really didn’t have a modern army or much in the way of good artillery, but that the commanding terrain made a frontal attack potentially suicidal. Indeed, the Greeks—the Turks’ neighbors and longtime adversaries—had formulated a war plan in case the Gallipoli Peninsula ever needed to be attacked, and it called for 150,000 men. Lord Kitchener scoffed at that estimate. Johnny Turk would cut and run at the first sign of the Allies, he insisted, and half as many troops would do just fine.
Thus, early on the morning of April 25, 1915, Hamilton launched his enormously ambitious amphibious landing. An outline of the beachhead assault might read like a description of the D-Day landings were it not for the absence of any specialized landing craft. Armored assault boats did exist back in England, but they remained a well-guarded secret; heaven forfend invaders would use them and thus spill the British beans. Instead, huge warships towed ponderous strings of cockleshells—essentially lifeboats—toward shore, then split the strings and transferred the towing job to slow, shallow-draft launches. Oarsmen stroked the final few yards onto the beaches.
The action most often memorialized in paintings of the landing was the beaching of the old steamer River Clyde to allow soldiers to emerge from its sally ports (doors along the hull at the waterline) and stroll ashore on gangplanks. Unfortunately, it was equally easy for Turkish machine gunners on the heights to pick off troopers one at a time as they popped from the sally ports like mechanical ducks in a shooting gallery. Of the first 200 soldiers to step from the ships, just 21 made it to the beach alive.
General Hamilton chose the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, the grandest ship available, as his command vessel. While it made sense to oversee the battle from somewhere offshore, an oceangoing capital ship engaged in long-range bombardment wasn’t the ideal platform. Hamilton was too far from the beaches to see what was going on (chaos, for the most part), and his corps commanders were also literally and figuratively adrift during the crucial early hours of the invasion. Communications both ashore between units and from ship to shore ran the gamut from primitive to nonexistent, so junior officers on the beach were largely left to their own devices.
Two thousand Brits had landed at a providentially undefended spot called Y Beach and climbed the cliffs unopposed. Having nothing else to do, no commanders to enact Plan B and no direction from Hamilton, they simply hunkered down and boiled water for cuppas. They heard distant firing but had no idea it signified the slaughter of ANZACs at the beachhead to their north. While the Turkish defenders were relatively few in number, they commanded the high ground with machine guns. A flanking maneuver by 2,000 Tommies could have ended the battle in minutes, but it was not to be.
To this day ANZACs haven’t forgiven the English for “sittin’ on their arses brewing tea and havin’ a smoke” while Aussies and Kiwis who had never before experienced war were dying by the hundreds only hours away.
Due to Hamilton’s haphazard planning, the beachheads ANZAC forces were able to secure were cramped and highly vulnerable. In fact, British corps commander General Sir William Birdwood suggested an immediate evacuation, to which Hamilton replied: “There is nothing for it but to dig yourselves right in and stick it out….You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig until you are safe.” (Australians have since borne the fond nickname “Diggers.”) At one point, the clueless Hamilton wired Kitchener, “Thanks to the weather and the wonderfully fine spirit of our troops, all continues to go well.”
After eight months of pointless trench warfare, Hamilton’s forces evacuated the bloody beaches. Half a million men on both sides had died for nothing in a true standoff— combined British and French losses numbered just 700 men more than Turkish losses. Each year on April 25, the invasion anniversary, Australia and New Zealand celebrate ANZAC Day, marking their painful emergence into true nationhood.
Burnside at Fredericksburg
The Battle of Fredericksburg was a humiliating meat-grinder of a defeat for the Union Army, and the fault lies squarely with General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside admitted as much after the war, while many another general played the blame game. The man would be forgotten today but for the fact that he lent his name to excessive cheek hair. Yes, sideburns were indeed originally called burnsides, and Burnside himself looked like he had a pair of squirrels hammocking between his nose and ears.
President Lincoln gave Burnside command of the Union Army of the Potomac because General George McClellan had turned out to be diffident, slow-moving and cautious. Burnside, also a West Pointer and among McClellan’s best friends, was determined not to make the same mistakes. Unfortunately, he made others.
In December 1862, Robert E. Lee’s rebel forces were precariously divided at Fredericksburg, Va., a rail terminus about 50 miles from Richmond, the crucial Confederate capital. Burnside felt that if he moved rapidly and decisively, he could end the war by eliminating the defenses at Fredericksburg and taking Richmond. Burnside commanded some 118,000 troops—the largest army in U.S. history up to that time.
Some of Lee’s troops were defending Fredericksburg itself; the rest, under the famed T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson (so named for his stubborn resistance at the 1861 First Battle of Bull Run), were about three and a half miles south at Prospect Hill. A good tactician might have assessed the situation and said, “Take Prospect Hill pronto with your superior numbers, turn north and finish off Fredericksburg with a flanking maneuver, then on to Richmond. Game over.”
Instead, Burnside chose to confront the Fredericksburg defenders with his main force and send General George Meade to deal with the rebels at Prospect Hill. Driven back by Jackson, Meade begged for reinforcements, but by that time Burnside was busy head-butting Fredericksburg.
Burnside first tried to traverse the Rappahannock River with pontoon bridges—Lee had burned all the existing spans—but Confederate sharpshooters on the far bank proved too much for the exposed, unarmed Union engineers desperately trying to lay planks across the boats. Burnside ultimately used the pontoons as makeshift assault craft to mount one of the earliest amphibious assaults in U.S. history. It didn’t help that a sudden December thaw and heavy rain had turned the far bank of the Rappahannock into boot-sucking, wheel-clogging mud. The river crossing cost an entire day, exactly what Jackson needed to force-march his troops to Fredericksburg and link up with its defenders.
An infuriated Burnside tried to level Fredericksburg with his artillery, but the Confederates fell back to what would prove to be the finest defensive position Lee would ever hold: Just west of town was a broad cow pasture bordered by a substantial stone wall, built to keep the cattle out of the adjacent sunken road. Confederate soldiers who took up position behind this wall didn’t even have to crouch—just stand and deliver. Behind them was a ridge, beyond which Lee emplaced his artillery, hidden from direct fire.
Inexplicably, Burnside threw 14 brigades at the stone wall, and rebel infantry scythed wave after wave of blue uniforms. Burnside became obsessed with the deadly Southern redoubt, perhaps assuming the Confederates would at some point run out of ammunition or morale. Neither happened, and by nightfall on December 13, 1862, after nine direct assaults, more than 12,000 Union troops lay dead or wounded, a carpet of blue on a meadow where the temperature soon plummeted to 15 degrees. The thaw had ended.
Navarre at Dien Bien Phu
Hubris—exaggerated pride or self-confidence—often afflicts Western military men when they confront Eastern armies, navies and air forces. So it was in 1905 at Tsushima when Japanese ships stunningly sank nearly every trace of the imperial Russian navy. So it was in 1942 when superior Japanese Mitsubishis flown by pilots whose skill stunned the Americans and British shot down Grumman Wildcats, Brewster Buffalos and Gloster Gladiators almost at will. And so it was again in 1954 when a Viet Minh peasant army dismantled haughty French commander Henri Navarre’s 16,000 largely elite troops at Dien Bien Phu.
Navarre’s biggest blunder was to underestimate the courage, capability and skill of General Vo Nguyen Giap and Viet Minh forces. How could rice farmers wearing black pajamas and shower clogs possibly defeat skilled French artillerymen and Legionnaires defending a fortified garrison supplied by aircraft—the latter a technological marvel to which the Viet Minh had no access?
Placing a garrison at remote, jungle-bound Dien Bien Phu in the first place was a decision an ROTC freshman might have questioned. The French depended on air support for everything from beurre to bullets—and, above all, reinforcements—but C-47s couldn’t carry enough to keep the fortress supplied. Complicating matters, Navarre somehow got the artilleryman’s credo backward and took the low ground (Dien Bien Phu was in a valley), which meant Giap’s surprisingly skilled antiaircraft gunners could shoot down at landing planes. The weather between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu was often dicey, and though the base initially had the luxury of two airstrips, the Viet Minh quickly put both out of action, forcing the French to parachute in supplies—about half of them, including stacks of artillery rounds, landed in enemy hands.
When the Viet Minh first attacked Dien Bien Phu in November 1952, it was little more than an outpost, and the tiny French garrison bugged out.
It was a logical move, but one that rankled the French, who had been humiliated in World War II. The all-important honneur de l’armée was at stake, and they were intent on reoccupying and holding Dien Bien Phu at all costs.
“Giap has no logistics,” Navarre’s advisers had repeatedly assured him. Au contraire, mon général. Giap had tens of thousands of worker ants chugging everything from trucks to bicycles over impossible mountain roads and trails to the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu. Giap also understood the vulnerabilities of French logistics. His guerrillas snuck on to French air bases and destroyed countless planes on the ground. On Giap’s orders, they ignored the French Bearcats and B-26s—powerful combat airplanes—and firebombed only the unglamorous cargo craft.
Navarre had imagined Dien Bien Phu as a powerful, ornery hedgehog, a prickly offensive base from which French infantry and armor could range at will. Instead, the garrison played possum, its starving defenders, outnumbered four to one, hunkered down in mudholes under relentless fire from artillery Giap had somehow manhandled to the site. The Viet Minh general had placed his main batteries in secure positions behind the ridges and concealed those guns on the forward slopes in spider holes the French artillery was unable to hit.
In the end, Henri Navarre lost to a smarter, more focused commander whom he had totally underestimated. Hubris? Navarre conducted his war from an air-conditioned office in Hanoi. Giap commanded from a cave.
Baratieri at Adwa
Only one obscure movie—a 1999 Ethiopian docudrama—recounts the 1896 Battle of Adwa, in which the Italian army went up against the Ethiopians. Yet like the 1964 Michael Caine classic Zulu, Adwa had all the elements Hollywood loves. Fought on an epic scale over stunning terrain, the conflict involved more than 150,000 men—and one woman, Ethiopian King Menelik II’s consort, the Empress Taitu, who headed a reserve force that ultimately drove the Italians into their final, pell-mell retreat. Adwa represented the clichéd confrontation between cultured Europeans and benighted Africans, between the forces of enlightened civilization and presumed savages. It also offered the classic David vs. Goliath confrontation, though it could be argued that Goliath was Ethiopian. Props included bronze shields, colorful uniforms and feathered headdresses bright as parrot plumage. Menelik’s troops wore the red, gold and green favored today by Jamaican Rastafarians, the Ethiopians’ ideological descendants.
Adwa also had a villain: Italian General Oreste Baratieri, who so badly underestimated his Ethiopian opponents that he suffered the worst European defeat ever at the hands of Africans. But, as is often the case, the defeat wasn’t entirely Baratieri’s fault.
Italy had come late to the let’s-carve-up-Africa party. England, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Belgium and even Denmark and Sweden had colonized the continent, leaving Italy with impoverished Somalia and Eritrea. If the Italians could finagle a takeover of Ethiopia, the tribal land that sat between the two, they could at least boast a neat arc of captive nations.
In order to befriend King Menelik, Italy grandly presented him with thousands of their most sophisticated rifles and fieldpieces, plus tons of ammunition and artillery rounds. It apparently never occurred to them they might someday be facing this very same weaponry. The Italians first attempted to annex Ethiopia through a mix of politics and guile, but failed. Meanwhile Menelik, realizing he was being gulled, beefed up his arsenal with the best guns he could buy from U.S. and European suppliers and quietly trained an army of superbly equipped riflemen and cannoneers.
Baratieri did score some initial successes against his opponents. Returning briefly to Rome, he boasted that next time he would bring back Menelik “in a cage.”
The remote settlement of Adwa sat amid a lunar landscape—precipitous, rocky, pimpled with bare peaks, confusing and featureless. The Italians had poor maps, scant communication equipment and thin-soled boots ill suited to the terrain. Worse still, Baratieri, trying to save a few lira, gave his troops slow-firing Remington rifles that were less accurate than the Ethiopians’ weapons: He wanted to use up the stocks of obsolete cartridges that fit them.
The two armies faced off and waited. Baratieri had 25,000 dispirited troops, most of whom were native Eritreans and either homesick or green, while Menelik fielded more than 100,000 fanatical soldiers, more than half packing high-powered rifles. Both sides were on short rations in this barren land, each trying to outlast the other. Menelik blinked first. He planned to pull out on March 1, 1896.
To Menelik’s astonishment, however, a mounted scout tore into camp on the eve of the retreat and announced that Baratieri was marching toward them. Menelik welcomed the confrontation.
Baratieri had been stung by a telegram from Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, demanding that he take action or consider his status downgraded from hero to coward. The general had little taste for the fight—he knew he was outnumbered, though he had no idea how thoroughly he was outgunned—but his brigadiers urged him on.
Baratieri’s surprise nighttime assault proved far too complex for the terrain and the mapless Italians. His four brigades stumbled into each other and left miles-wide gaps in the line of advance. Some got thoroughly lost.
The actual battle began at first light on March 1 and was over by early afternoon. The Ethiopians were enraged, pitiless and gave no quarter. More than 10,000 of Baratieri’s troops were killed, wounded or missing, while the Ethiopians lost 17,000 dead and wounded. But in a single morning, Ethiopia had risen from medieval obscurity to claim membership among the modern nations.
Custer at the Little Bighorn
Perhaps no battle in history has been as studied, dissected, analyzed, theorized over and wildly guessed about as the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and 200-plus U.S. officers and cavalrymen were slaughtered to the last man (save one Crow scout who ducked out early). Nobody but the attacking Sioux and their allies actually knew what happened, and the Indians weren’t rushing to admit how brutally they had treated the supposedly crack 7th Cavalry.
Only since the mid-1980s have archaeologists methodically cataloged artifacts in a way that allows a picture of the short but intense battle to emerge. Until that time, what registered on the national consciousness were lurid panoramas commissioned by beer companies for display in saloons, showing the golden-haired, long-locked Custer fighting for the glory of his regiment in the midst of a neat defensive perimeter. That Custer was crew-cut at the time of the battle is the least of the mistakes depicted, for the location of bodies, bullets and cartridges suggests it was more a confused, leaderless rout than a battle.
The spin continues. Custer graduated dead last in his West Point class, by some accounts an arrogant goof-off who learned little more than how to infuriate his superiors. Yet one 7th Cavalry Web site today proudly notes that Custer “graduated 34th in one of the brightest classes that had graduated to date,” neglecting to mention there were only 34 men in the class.
What is known is that with five companies of about 210 men, including packhorse drivers and mercenary Indian scouts, Custer mounted a frontal attack on some 2,000 infuriated Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors. Their reaction has been likened to what might happen if you jab a stick into an anthill and stir hard. It was the biggest battlefield blunder Custer ever made—and, of course, the last.
Why Custer thought he could go hey-diddle-diddle-right-up-the-middle into a swarm of angry Indians remains inexplicable. The Plains Indians were among the finest cavalrymen the world had ever seen, and when the repeating rifle came into their hands, they weaponized that Spanish import the horse. In less than 200 years, they had assimilated two warrior technologies with unprecedented success.
For Custer’s men—many of them immigrants, others inexperienced conscripts—pitting their ponderous warhorses against the Sioux was about like a bunch of pickup-driving carpenters challenging a thousand Italian and Brazilian Formula 1 aspirants to a drag race. Some 7th Cavalry horses bolted, balked, even took their luckless riders straight into the Indian encampment.
The war against the Plains Indians, which stretched from the 1820s until the final clash at Wounded Knee in 1890, was not a simple territorial dispute. The Indians had little concept of land ownership. To them, it seemed as silly as owning the air: There was plenty of it, available for anyone’s use.
Plains tribes were nomadic. Most of their needs were met by vast herds of American bison—a mobile, self-perpetuating crop that provided food, clothing and the raw materials for their tools and tepees. When settlers flooded west, the railroads followed, as did buffalo hunters to supply the work crews. Soon the bison were all but gone, and the Indians fought furiously to preserve their way of life.
So furiously the 7th Cavalry never stood a chance. Notes from the battlefield suggest even Custer was stunned when he first saw the encampment of some 7,000 Indians (including women, children and nonwarrior males), yet he attacked at once with tired troops and horses that had just completed a grueling 30-mile march. He maneuvered to block the Indians’ escape—picture an angry drunk locking a barroom door to “trap” two dozen Hells Angels wielding broken pool cues. The cavalry held the high ground, and Custer wouldn’t have expected the Indians to attack uphill. But they did.
Prior to the battle, Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry had advised Custer to await the arrival of two columns (one under Terry himself) before engaging the enemy. These reinforcements were approaching at the time of the attack. So why did Custer disregard Terry’s warning? Some historians suggest Custer had lost the element of surprise and was compelled to attack. Author Mari Sandoz suggested it was because he wanted to be president; the Democratic National Convention was to begin in St. Louis in two days, and news of a victory would certainly boost one’s presidential ambitions. Dozens of other theories abound. The truth died with Custer and his troopers in the grass along the Little Bighorn.
By the end of the 19th century, Japan, awakened from a centuries-long slumber, was expanding into Manchuria and Korea. Inevitably, she encountered Tsarist Russia, pushing southward from Vladivostok. Equipped by the British, Japan's navy was probably the best trained and most efficient in the world -- moreso, even, than the Royal Navy of that time. In February 1904, the Japanese -- in a mini-Pearl Harbor -- inflicted a stinging defeat on the Russian fleet, at her key base of Port Arthur, knocking out seven battleships at a cost of two of her own.
Outraged at this humiliation by a tiny country of paper parasols and Madame Butterfly, the Tsar decided to send a fleet round the world to reinforce Vladivostok and avenge Port Arthur. Its commander, an irritable 53-year-old aristocrat, Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhdestvensky, seemed to have reckoned that it was doomed from the start. His ships were "untested or badly built" and he had "not the slightest prospect of success."
It began badly. In the North Sea, the Russians ran into some British fishing trawlers, taking them to be Japanese and sinking one at 100-yard range, killing two British fishermen. Public opinion clamored for war with Russia; in consequence, all British coaling stations along the 5,000 mile route were denied to the Russians. After nearly eight months at sea, his 42 ships had reached 50-mile wide Straits of Tsushima (meaning "Island of the Donkey's Ears" in Japanese) between Japan and Korea. Neither ships nor crews were in any condition to fight.
Early in the afternoon of May 27th, 1905, Admiral Togo was waiting, and in a classic naval maneuver, he twice "crossed the T" of Rozhdestvensky's column. Within minutes, the leading three of Russia's battleships were wrecks; Rozhdestvensky was so wounded that he had to hand over command. At 1130 hours on the following day, the Russians ran up the white flag, to the surprise of the Japanese, steeped in the samurai traditions of no-surrender. Only two Russian destroyers and a light-cruiser limped into Vladivostok. There were 4,830 Russians killed, at a cost of 700 Japanese.
It was the most complete naval victory in history. In Russia, news of the defeat provoked the 1905 Revolution, opening the door to Lenin 12 years later. Japan, filled with a sense of invincible Imperial destiny, became a major power, with dire consequences down the line.
Verdun, 1916. After the Battle of the Marne in 1914, when the Kaiser's armies failed to defeat France, the Germans stood on the defensive in the West while they attacked in the East. Only once, until 1918, did they deviate from this strategy -- at the beginning of 1916. The Chief of the German General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, a withdrawn, unpopular figure with a curious mix of ruthlessness and indecision, came up with a novel concept in the history of warfare.
Instead of trying to defeat the French outright, he would bait it into defending a point in the line it could not afford to abandon. There he would "bleed it white", the very terminology of a war which, more than any other, treated soldiers' lives as little more than corpuscles.
He selected Verdun, rated the world's strongest fortress, with a centuries-long tradition in la défense de France, and only 150 miles east of Paris. The 1914 campaign had left it in a narrow salient, vulnerable on three sides to overwhelming German superiority in heavy artillery.
On the 21st of February, 1,220 German guns opened up on a frontage of barely 8 miles, launching the most savage artillery barrage in history. The French lines sagged but held, at tremendous cost. The immortal slogan "They shall not pass" was coined. In what became an affair of national honor, France rose to the bait. For ten hideous months history's longest battle raged.
The tragic irony was that Verdun also bled the attacking Germans almost equally. What began as a small affair resulted in combined casualties of over 800,000 men -- most of them inflicted in an area not much bigger than New York's Central Park.
Verdun cost Germany her last chance at defeating the Allies in the West, but the impact on France, elevating the defeatist Marshal Pétain as its hero, went far deeper. French losses led to the demoralization that defeated her in 1940. The Pyrrhic victory par excellence, Verdun was a murderous blunder for both sides.
Singapore, 1942. On Sunday, February 15, 1942, British Lieutenant General A.E. Percival, with moustache and rabbit teeth, surrendered Singapore, reputedly the world's most impregnable bastion, and over 100,000 troops to a motley force of Japanese of little more than half that number (62,200) under General Yamashita. A heavy share of responsibility fell on Churchill, who wrote years later that it was "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history."
Churchill's eyes were riveted on Hitler -- on Europe and North Africa. His policy on the Far East was to rely on the Americans and "hope for the best." But America had her hands more than full after Pearl Harbor. The legendary 15-inch guns of Singapore faced out to sea, not towards the narrow strip of water called the Johore Strait, only a few hundred yards separating Singapore Island from the supposedly impenetrable jungle of Malaya to the north. No effort had been made to form a Malaya defense force.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese landed at Khota Bharu in the north of Malaya, and began working their way down through the jungle. The following day, two of the most powerful ships in Southeast Asia, the Repulse and the almost new Prince of Wales (which had taken part in sinking the mighty Bismarck the previous year), headed north to intercept the landings. But as his escorting aircraft carrier, Indomitable had run aground off of Jamaica, the commander, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, was dependent on local airfields for air cover.
So Phillips decided to head back to Singapore, but not wanting to break radio cover, he failed to request air cover. He was spotted by Japanese planes on December 10, and within minutes, the two great ships were sunk. Phillips and 700 men went down with them.
Abruptly, the balance of the whole campaign shifted. Malaya lay virtually unprotected from the sea. The back door to Singapore was now open, its British, Australian, and Indian defenders demoralized by the loss of its two capital ships. A month later, Yamashita captured Kuala Lumpur, with vast military stores. By the end of January, Percival had withdrawn to Singapore Island, but he still had a force far superior to the attackers, who were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition.
On February 8, Yamashita's men crossed the Straits. A week later, the "impregnable" fortress surrendered, without much fight, and despite Churchill's order for "every inch of ground to be defended." One of Yamashita's senior officers wrote later, "If the British had held out a few more days, they would have defeated us."
At a cost of 3,500 killed, the Japanese had smashed forever the British Empire in the East, and with it the myth of White Superiority. Had the defenders foreseen that three-and-a-half years of captivity in the most atrocious conditions lay ahead -- many of them were among the 12,000 POW's who died on the Burma Railway -- they might well have fought on.
Advance on the Yalu River, 1950. On September 15, 1950, the troops under the command of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, CinC of the UN Command since July 10, landed at Inchon. The landing followed a surprise attack by Kim Il Sung's Communist North on June 25, which had all but defeated the South Koreans, and the handful of Americans rushed from Japan to support them.
One of warfare's most inspired amphibious operations, Inchon caught the North Koreans completely off-balance and changed the course of the Korean War. By the beginning of October, MacArthur's victorious forces were pursuing a broken enemy across the 38th parallel. Brimming over with hubris and determined to smash the Communist forces once and for all, MacArthur convinced President Harry S Truman to allow him to proceed to the Yalu River, the sensitive border with both the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. This despite intelligence from Delhi that China would intervene.
Undetected by Western Intelligence, hundreds of thousands of Chinese "volunteers" began infiltrating by night, with great skill, across the Yalu. As the UN forces moved north from Pyongyang, MacArthur's commander, General Walker, found himself heading with a mixed force of 100,000 men into rugged, wintry country, and covering a front several times wider than the much more defensible 38th parallel.
Inevitably, the force became divided. On November 25, as Walker was preparing his final blow, the Chinese struck with devastating force along the Chongchon Valley, with eight armies of thirty divisions, totalling more than 300,000 men, several times the available strength of the UN forces. It was a great ambush.
Walker's right wing crumpled. Swiftly, the line buckled, and MacArthur's troops, in an unparalleled reversal of fortune, reeled back to the 38th parallel. For the US forces caught up in the "bug-out" in appalling winter conditions, it was one of the worst defeats in American history.
Thirteen thousand casualties were suffered in withdrawal, and the legendary, untouchable, invincible MacArthur was sacked a few months later. But the longer-term consequences were far greater. The Korean War could no longer be won, by either side, and would drag on for another two-and-a-half bitter years, costing 54,000 American lives and many more Koreans and Chinese. The PRC became a major power. As a decisive defeat of the West by the East, it stood in line with Tsushima and Singapore, and led to Vietnam.