Defending the Gates: Vasily Zaitsev

The 2001 Movie Enemy at the Gates brought a Russian sniper into the limelight once again- Vasily Zaitsev. Centered around the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, Zaitsev, played by Jude Law, dukes it out with German sniper Erwin Konig. While the movie is not entirely realistic, the two really did exist. So who was Vasily Zaitsev and why is he so important?

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Vasily Zaitsev

Born in Yeleninka, a small town about an hour away from Magnitogorsk, Vasily Gergorovich Zaitsev was a natural hunter. His peasant origins made him an easy target for the Soviet military, who traditionally drew its forces from the massive peasant population. Zaitsev traveled to Magnitogorsk to study at a technical school. Eventually, he enlisted in the Russian Navy and became a bookkeeper in the Far East Fleet.

Vasily Zaitsev volunteered to join the 284th Rifle Division in the Soviet Army. The Division recruited most of its troops from Siberia and Eastern Russia in order to transfer more experienced troops from the quiet Manchurian Front to the German Invasion. Zaitsev’s sharpshooting ability was quickly noted, and he was trained as a sniper. He relied on a simple 1891 Mosin-Nagant Rifle, a veteran of the First World War. The Russian is most revered for his actions at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, in which he killed 225 soldiers & officers as well as 11 snipers. Zaitsev’s heroics made him a morale boost for the Soviets and a threat to the Germans. When Erwin Konig, a renowned German sniper, was sent to deal with him, Zaitsev managed to kill him on Mamaev Hill. Working with Nikolai Kulikov, the sniper developed his own tactics and sniper school during the battle. Firstly, Zaitsev never fired from the same spot. Movement was key in order to prevent any enemies from locking onto a particular position. “Sixes” was another of Zaitsev’s tactics. Three teams of 2 men would be positioned in order to cover a large area to maximize sight and damage. Zaitsev trained other snipers such as Tania Chernova, who he shared a relationship with.

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Zaitsev’s Mosin-Nagant Rifle

In January 1943, Zaitsev was hit by a mortar round and nearly blinded. He was immediately taken to a hospital where he slowly recovered. On February 22, he was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union. Zaitsev returned to combat later in the war, ending it in 1945 as a captain. Chernova thought Zaitsev was dead until 1969, when she finally learned he was alive and married.

Vasily Zaitsev is immortalized in William Craig’s book, Enemy at the Gates, and in the 2001 film of the same name as well as War of the Rats by David L. Robbins. Zaitsev died in December 1991, and was initially buried in Kiev before being moved to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). He was buried with full military honours.

The Coronation of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably history’s most famed general, is the topic of controversy; movies; and art. The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques Louis David is possibly the most recognizable of paintings about Napoleon. The painting was commissioned in 1804 after Napoleon was crowned as Emperor of France, and was completed two years later. The painting is massive- 20 ft. by 32 ft. It is currently housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Bonaparte holding his wife’s crown

Why was Napoleon even having a coronation? Well, Napoleon wanted to cement his claim to the French Empire. By crowning himself, he felt that he was completely safe from any other dangers from France. The coronation was very peculiar and contradictory. Though Napoleon claimed to be Emperor, he also was acting as a defender of the French Republic. Perhaps the most important event during the coronation came when Pope Pius VII was about to place the crown on Bonaparte’s head. Napoleon took the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself, taking control of the entire situation.

 

Josephine Bonaparte

Jacques Louis David’s painting captures the scene just after, where Napoleon crowns his wife. Bonaparte stands in the centre, holding a crown in his hands. His wife, Josephine kneels before him and looks down toward his feet. Josephine Bonaparte was older than Napoleon and had two children from her late husband. The marriage caused much controversy among Napoleon’s family and the French population. Eventually she was divorced in 1810.

 

 

Napoleon’s brothers

Napoleon’s brothers, Joseph and Jerome, stand at the far left of the painting. Joseph Bonaparte was crowned King of Spain by his brother and was famous for his battles against the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular Wars. Jerome was crowned King of Westphalia. The two brothers were not exiled like Napoleon, and they lived in relative peace until their deaths.

The painting still remains one of the most revered painted by a Frenchman. Though it doesn’t depict a famous battle or engagement, the painting immortalizes one of history’s greatest tacticians and generals.

Uniforms of the Ages: Hungarians in Austrian Service

The heavily multicultural Austrian Empire divided its army into two main nationalities: Germans and Hungarians. While the majority of these units were not actually of those nations, the Hungarian troops were some of the more elaborately dressed.

Throughout Austria’s history, the Hungarians have retained the same core elements of their uniform, changing only when the uniform style did. The first appearance of specific “Hungarian” troops was around the reign of Maria Theresa and the War of Austrian Succession. There were Hungarian troops prior to this war, but the special uniforms were not adopted until then. Hungary had only been part of the Habsburg Empire since 1541. A large partition had separated it from Bohemia and placed it under the influence of Austria.

Gyulay Regiment  in the 7 Years War

The most notable part of the Hungarian uniform was the gold braiding on the front of the pants in a knotted style. This “Hungarian knot” was a braided lace design that was notably used by Confederate officers in the US Civil War. For the Hungarians, this pattern was on both pant legs in a golden lace. Unlike “German” troops, the pants of these soldiers were a light blue while Germans wore white or gray.

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Confederate General Braxton Bragg with a Hungarian knot

The uniforms changed over time with style of warfare. Tricorne hats and long coats were soon replaced by helmets and higher pants during the Napoleonic Wars. The helmets were extremely cumbersome, and provided little protection to a soldier when he wore them. In 1809, Austrian troops swapped their helmets for the shako, which was used by almost all of the major world powers at that time. The Hungarian pattern, however, remained on the uniform. By the Napoleonic Wars, the trousers of Hungarian troops had been added to as well; a black and gold stripe ran down the side of the pants. 

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Hungarian Grenadiers

Post-Napoleon, Hungarian troops played an even larger role in the Austrian Army. The ratio of German units to Hungarian units was almost even as the population increased. By the next reforms, Hungarian troops wore the new shorter shako and their coats were given gold lace around the facings. These uniforms would carry them through the Italian Wars of Independence and the Austro-Prussian War.

The Hungarians achieved a dual monarchy in 1867, establishing the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Uniforms remained the same until 1908 when a new, modern uniform was introduced. The hechtgrau (pike-gray) uniform was more subtle than the white and light blue the Hungarians previously wore, but their knotted pattern still stayed on their pants. By 1918, the Empire fell after their defeat in the First World War, and the Hungarian uniform disappeared with it.

Hungary used a drab coloured uniform after the fall of the Dual Monarchy, and discontinued any of the previous gold lace on their pants or coats. By the Second World War, the old uniform style was completely gone, and just as the Austrian Empire changed with age, the Royal Hungarian Army changed too.

Gebirgsjäger: The Alpine Warriors of the German Army

The Gebirgsjäger were the alpine troops of the German army during the Second World War, serving in many regions throughout the war. Using pack animals, these elite troops of the German army were tasked to defending and attacking mountainous areas where many regular troops would be unable to fight in. After the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, the Gebirgsjäger were formed, inspired by the Tyrolean Jägers of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War.

The Gebirgsjäger wore a patch with an edelweiss depicted.The edelweiss is a flower found normally in alpine conditions and high altitudes. They wore the regular feldgrau uniform, but with hiking boots, and sometimes skis or snowshoes. They also wore a Bergmutze, similar to the cap of Austrian troops in the First World War. The cap could be buttoned under the chin to provide warmth in freezing temperatures. As well as their specific uniform, Gebirgsjäger carried a special carbine called the G33/40, produced in Czechoslovakia. The steel plate at the bottom was used to crunch into ice to give a soldier a stabilizer while scaling rocks and mountains. A small number were produced, but they were perfect for mountain warfare. Many Gebirgsjäger used Russian weapons because they were better designed for cold weather.

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Gebirgsjäger in the Russian mountains

With the German Blitzkrieg into Poland and Norway, many Gebirgsjäger were placed in Army Group South. The Blitzkrieg smashed through Poland towards Russia, and by 1941, Operation Barbarossa was in full swing. The Gebirgsjager fought through the mountainous country of Ukraine. The 1st Mountain Division managed to capture the city of Lviv (then Lvov). They crashed through the Stalin Line and into the Caucasus. The Gebirgsjäger lifted a German flag on top of Mount Elbrus. The Gebirgsjäger also fought ferociously in Hungary as well as Northern Greece.

In 1942, Operation Edelweiss was launched in an attempt to capture oil fields in the Caucasus. Spearheaded by Gebirgsjäger units, the Germans swept through Baku and along the Volga River. The Gebirgsjäger assaulted the western slopes of Mt. Elbrus along with Romanian Mountain Troops. They were held by the Soviet rear guard, eventually capturing the mountains with some difficulty. They attempted to reach the coast near Sukhumi in order to outflank Soviet positions, but poor weather and stiff resistance held their advance. Over the operation, the Germans took some 10,000 casualties, but managed to squeeze their way towards Stalingrad.

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Gebirgsjäger cap badge

A recurring theme for mountain troops was heavy casualties with success. The inexhaustible number of Soviet troops managed to hold the alpine troops in battle, but the Gebirgsjäger deserve credit for their abilities and quality throughout the Second World War.

Uniforms of the Ages: Zouaves

The uniform of the zouaves was one of the most flamboyant of the mid to late 19th century, and their influences spread through numerous armies in the world. Zouaves originated in the 1830s after the Zwawa tribe of Algeria helped French soldiers capture Algeria in a war against the Ottoman Empire. The zouaves were originally raised as light infantry regiments because of the Algerians ability to fight in skirmishing warfare, tactics that the French Second Empire was unfamiliar with. Zouave units spread to many parts of the world, including the US, the Papal States, Spain, and even Poland.

This zouave is of the 3rd Zouave Regiment of the French Army. Starting from the head, one notices that the soldier wears a fez. The fez is traditional of North African countries, and offers a flair to the soldier. Some wore turbans wrapped around their fez, and fez tassel colours varied from army to army. Zouaves wore a shirt, varying by regiment, and it was covered by a short, open jacket. The pattern on the jacket is called tombeaux. Zouaves wore sashes under their belts in regimental colours. Their large pantaloons, called sarouel, were a trademark of the zouave units. Zouaves also wore gaiters over their shoes, most commonly white or tan.

The French Zouaves had a standard uniform, just like the one pictured. Pantaloons were red, jackets were dark blue with red piping, sashes were light blue, and fezzes had light blue tassels. The distinctions between French units were the bottom of the tombeaux. This Zouave has yellow colouring, indicating his unit is the 3rd Zouaves. The 1st Zouaves had red colouring, and the 2nd was white.
The United States adopted zouaves in 1861 after a tour of French zouaves introduced the idea to the Americans. The tour was mostly in the North, so most zouave units were part of the US Army rather than the Confederate Army. The US Zouaves had a large variation of uniforms in order to differentiate between units. Two of the many US zouave regiments were the 5th New York, known as Duryee’s Zouaves, and the 155th Pennsylvania. Duryee’s Zouaves wore a uniform very close to that of the French. They had a red fez with a yellow tassel, and a dark blue jacket over a dark blue shirt. The tombeaux were red, as was the piping. Their sash was red but was piped in light blue. The pantaloons and gaiters were of the same colour as the French. The 155th PA wore a more Americanized zouave uniform that resembled the uniforms of the French Turcos. They wore a red fez with a dark blue tassel. The jacket and shirt were a lightish gray-blue, and the jacket had yellow tombeaux and piping. The pantaloons were the same colour of the jacket, and the sash was bright red.

The Papal States raised a regiment of zouaves in 1861 in order to combat the Italian Risorgimento movement led by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. The regiment was made up of many different nationalities including Italian, French, Dutch, Irish, and Belgian. The Papal Zouaves wore a blue kepi with a red band. Their jacket was blue with red piping, as was their shirt. The red sash was worn above blue pants, and the gaiters were white. The zouaves fought in numerous battles until the end of the Italian Wars of Unification in 1870, and even then, the legend of the Papal Zouaves continued as the French soldiers in the unit fought once more in the Franco-Prussian War as the “Volunteers of the West.”

Poland raised a regiment of zouaves, known as the “Zouaves of Death”, during the January Uprising against Russia in 1863. They were raised by François Rochebrune, a French zouave officer who had served in Crimea. The “Zouaves of Death” wore a red fez, a black jacket without tombeaux, and a trademark shirt with a large white emblazoned cross. Their pants were black as were their boots, which were knee-length. This regiment was butchered in the uprising, but Rochebrune survived. He received a “Legion of Honour” for his bravery.

Zouaves were renowned for their bravery and skill in battle, but they are more known for their outlandish uniforms. Their North African style of dress was good for hot weather, as it was designed for fighting in Algeria, and it is evident why other nations raised units.

 

The Mamluk Sultanate: The Islamic Medieval Superpower

The Mamluks were at the height of Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages, but one may not think so because of their origins. Mamluks, meaning “property”, were originally enslaved soldiers of the various Islamic Empires. The Mamluk Sultanate sprung out of the ashes of the Fatimid Caliphate, who controlled Egypt and Syria, around 1250. Al-Salih Ayyub’s Mamluk armies came to power after his death in 1249, and overthrew his empire a year later.

The Mamluks instilled a caliphate in Cairo and began expanding their lands into modern-day Syria, Saudi Arabia, and later Cyprus. Most notably, the Mamluks ruled over the Islamic Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. One of the keys to Mamluk success was their exceptional cavalry. Mamluks wore a much lighter armour than Europeans, and were much more flexible in combat. The Mamluks wore the traditional Islamic turban helmet, chain mail, or in some cases, lamellar armour. They relied heavily on curved swords, spears, lances, and small shields. However, the number of professional Mamluk soldiers were limited, and the majority of their forces were volunteers. These soldiers wore simple robes and turbans, which were a much cheaper form of uniforms. Some Mamluk horses received armour of their own, predominately made of laminated cloth and leather.

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Mamluk Warriors

 

Mamluk forces were commanded by amirs, or officers, who commanded a group of men. Most amirs commanded an army of around 300 to 800 soldiers. Amirs were paid well, and many could afford elaborately decorated homes. Many Mamluk amirs were trained well in military schools, and many were punished as part of a strict disciplinary regime.

The Mamluks were split between two dynasties: the Bahri (1250-1382) and the Burji (1382-1517). Bahri Mamluks invaded Nubia from Egypt in 1265 and showed their fine warriorship in battle. The Mamluks fought numerous engagements against the Crusaders and Knights Hospitaller, most notably in the 1291 Siege of Acre. The Bahri, who were predominantly of Turkish origin, were overthrown by the Burji in 1382. The Burji were mostly Circassians from the Northern Caucasus. The first Burji sultan, Sayf ad-Din Barquq, came to power and not only faced wars from the Bahri, but the Mongols as well. The unstable Bahri were destroyed, but the Mongols still threatened the borders of the Mamluk Sultanate.

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The 1291 Siege of Acre

Tamerlane, leader of the Mongols; raided Persia, the Caucasus, and Anatolia. Tamerlane’s “Golden Horde” slaughtered the occupants of Damascus and Aleppo in Mamluk territory, and war broke out between the two powers, but the worries of the ongoing Crusades pressured both. The Mongol invasions greatly degraded the quality of the Mamluk Sultanate, even with the capture of Cyprus in 1426. The Mamluks were not a naval power at all, and later failed to retain Cyprus after the fall of Egypt and Syria.

The fledgeling Ottoman Empire, led by Sultan Selim the Grim, butchered the Mamluks in Syria and later Egypt, and by 1517, the Mamluk Sultanate came to an end. Ottoman technological superiority with artillery and firearms proved too much for the Mamluk cavalry and foot soldiers, and the Mamluk Sultanate came to a close.The Ottoman Empire would dominate the area into the Early 20th Century.

Ireland and the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939, and involved many foreign units fighting for the control Spain and her colonies. The Republicans, supported indirectly by the Soviet Union and Mexico, fought to preserve Republican Spain and contained many Catalans and Basques. The Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, rebelled against the Second Spanish Republic in order to form a fascist government and was supported predominately by Italy and Germany.

Irish troops had served among the Spanish since the 16th century in the 80 Years’ War. Later, the legendary “Flight of the Wild Geese”, the diaspora of Irish Jacobites to France in 1691, brought more Irishmen to Spain. The “Wild Geese” became a name for all Irish troops serving in foreign forces. The Irish who traveled to Spain formed a few regiments in the Spanish Army: the Hibernian Regiment, the Ulster Regiment, and the Irish Regiment. These were disbanded in 1818 at the request of the British.

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Members of the Irish Brigade

By 1936, some 700 Irish Catholics travelled to Spain in order to help Franco’s forces. Ireland and Spain’s similar Catholic heritage joined the two nations together in an indirect bond, as did the “Wild Geese.” Ireland officially did not help the Nationalists, but Eoin O’Duffy, a former member of Irish Parliament and leader of the Irish National Corporate Party, led Irishmen to Spain in order to stop the rise of Communism. O’Duffy allegedly received some 7,000 applications but was only able to bring a small number with him to Spain. The Irish trained in Caceres and were formed as the 15th Battalion of the Spanish Foreign Legion.

The Nationalist Irish were deployed in the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. They were stationed long with British and Balkan volunteers along the San Martin-Morata Road, and soon defended against Republican troops. Heavy fighting ensued, but their involvement delayed the advance of the rest of Franco’s troops. A counter-attack by Republican troops pushed back the Nationalists and eventually ended the battle.

Generalissimo Franco felt he had no need for more foreign troops, as well as having political pressure against his use of foreigners, so the ‘Irish Brigade’ of the Nationalist Army was not used again, nor were any more volunteers drawn from Ireland.

O’Duffy later returned to Ireland after Franco granted his leave, but he and his troops were not received well. O’Duffy held no political power and would never do so again, and the Irish government began removing files of the ‘Irish Brigade’ in the 1940’s.

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Eoin O’Duffy

As well as fighting for the Nationalists, there were some Irishmen who took up arms for the Spanish Republic. The ‘International Brigades’ that supported the Republic began being formed in 1936, and the Communist Party of Ireland organised a movement in the country.

Frank Ryan, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, traveled to Spain with 80 men in 1936 and his socialist Irishmen became known as the ‘Connolly Column.’ They later gained more support for their cause, and the ‘Connolly Column’ fought at Jarama, Brunete, Belchite, Teruel, Gandesa, and the Ebro.

Ryan was captured during the Battle of the Ebro in 1937, and he was later sentenced to hard labour. He died in 1940. The rest of the Irish returned home in 1938, for political reasons, and they were not given any recognition, similar to O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade.

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Frank Ryan

In the 1930’s, the Spanish Civil War was viewed as a war between the Church and Communism. The Irish loyalty to their Catholic beliefs illustrated the willingness of some 700 to serve on the Nationalist side. The Communist support was much more subdued. The war, realistically, was a war between Franco’s fascism and the preservation of a Spanish Republic.

Much of the Irish press in the 1930’s portrayed Franco’s forces as fighting for Catholicism and that the Republican forces were brutally murdering clergymen. In reality, there were plenty of Catholics on either side of the war. After Franco’s victory, some 6,000 members of the clergy were killed in Spain, causing outrage in the Catholic world.

Francoist Spain was dissolved in 1975 after Franco’s death, forming the modern Kingdom of Spain, and their colonies were later granted independence.