“Seemed to arrest fortune with one glance”: The Battle of Monmouth

October 13th marks the birthday of one of America’s most famous folk heroes- Molly Pitcher. Mary Ludwig Hays, as she was really named, is remembered for her alleged actions at the Battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey during the American Revolution. How did Hays get her nickname, and why is Monmouth one of the war’s most important battles?

In June 1778, the British army under General Sir Henry Clinton had been ordered to move its troops to New York after spending the winter camped in Philadelphia. After the defeat at Saratoga, the British wanted to secure a position in the north again. Seeing their opportunity, Generals George Washington and Harry Lee launched an attack on the rear of Clinton’s force in Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28th. The blazing sun beat down on the Continental troops who had been training at Valley Forge to compete as an army on the open field thanks to assistance from Baron von Steuben, a former Prussian officer. Heat was estimated at 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) with high humidity, no weather to fight a battle in.

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Washington ahead of the Continental Line

Lee was ordered to lay in wait along the Middletown Road for the British column to pass by. This would have allowed Washington to assault Clinton’s main force while the reserves were preoccupied. However, Lee’s attack was poorly coordinated and the Americans were smashed back by British forces, outraging Washington. The rest of the Continental troops arrived to support Lee’s broken forces, rallying on the high ridge next to Monmouth Court House. Washington placed Lee’s troops in command of the Marquis de Lafayette. Generals Greene, Wayne, and Sirling’s divisions held the heights while the British forces prepared to attack.

The American artillery stunned the British troops advancing to attack Stirling’s division and they were soon beaten back in a counterattack. An assault on Greene’s troops failed, but Wayne’s division broke. The heat quickly winded many soldiers on both sides as artillery and musketry whizzed back and forth.

As the story goes, William Hays, a member of the 4th Continental Artillery, collapsed of heat exhaustion. His wife, Mary, stepped up and immediately filled his position at the gun, continuing to fire the cannon in his place. Mary was nicknamed “Molly Pitcher” as she and the Continentals kept the battle raging on. A British musket ball zipped through her skirt, missing her body, and she resumed firing. Joseph Plumb Martin, whose diaries survived and recounted the events of an average soldier in the continental army, confirmed the incident. Molly Pitcher went down in history as one of America’s most important and recognizable women.

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Mary Ludwig Hays fighting against the British

By 6PM, the British decided to end the day and fall back. Though a few generals wanted to chase them, George Washington refused and held the heights in case of British attack the next day. The Americans had suffered about 700 casualties and the British, the same number. Washington’s trust in Lee severely deteriorated after the battle, and many called for his sacking. Cries of treason tainted Lee’s reputation.

The question arises who actually won the Battle of Monmouth. While the Americans drove the British from the field, they suffered heavy casualties and their line broke in the centre. The early morning failure of Lee did drag in Washington to fight a different battle that intended, and tainted one of the more important generals in the Continental Army. The British suffered as many casualties, and were forced to march off the field. However, they still made their way towards New York and and also managed to defeat Lee’s initial attack. The battle is certainly up for debate, but most credit the victory to the Americans, as this was their first open battle against the British.

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Indochine: The Kindling for Vietnam (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed the origins of the French presence in Southeast Asia and how their imperial attitude led them to wars with Chinese and Vietnamese troops throughout the 19th century. After the heavy losses, France was determined to hold onto their newly-captured land. With Chinese influence gone, the Vietnamese were on their own in achieving autonomy from their French rulers. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s recent miniseries on the Vietnam War explores the US in its longest war overseas, but the French presence is still very important to understand.

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French troops with an artillery piece.

After the so-called “Pacification of Tonkin,” the French officially established the colony of Indochina on October 17th, 1887. The colony encompassed all of modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia which had already been a French protectorate. By 1893, the French were at war again with Indochina’s neighbours, Siam. Siam, modern day Thailand, had been provoked by the French who had demanded control of Laos. When Frenchmen were thrown out of Siam, the French sent troops into Laos. A Frenchman in charge of a Vietnamese expedition into Laos was killed, and the French became outraged, sending in more troops to the area. The French navy bombarded the Siamese fort at Paknam, opening a route straight to Bangkok. Siam gave Laos to France to avoid destruction and the war quickly finished.

The French managed to capture more regions of Siam in 1904, but were forced to return them in 1907 due to pressure from the British in nearby Burma. As years dragged on, more anti-French sentiment grew in the area, especially in Indochina itself. On February 10, 1930, members of the Vietnamese Workers Party and rebellious members of the tirailleurs indochinois attacked French officers at Yen Bai. Troops quickly repelled the rebels and ended the uprising, but the effects of Vietnamese freedom movements were being felt. The Second World War erupted in 1939 and dragged France into a major conflict in Europe against Germany, one which quickly turned into a nightmare for them.

With pressure on France at home, Indochina was vulnerable. The first attack came from Ho Chi Minh, a Communist born in Vietnam who had recently spent time in China and the USSR. Minh created the Viet Minh, a Vietnamese independence group hich would fight any foreigners that were in Vietnam. Secondly, Laos was attacked by Thailand (Siam had changed its name in 1939) in 1940. Thirdly, Japan began to sweep through Asia claiming more and more land for its empire. France’s government fell and the establishment of Vichy France occurred. France allowed for Japanese access to Tonkin so they could better access China, but threats from the US convinced the Japanese to move to Malaya and leave Indochina relatively alone.

Thailand’s army outnumbered and outgunned the French who had most of their troops back home to hold against Germany. Constant attacks by the Thai Air Force put the French under pressure to react. Laos fell with one massive Thai assault but a rally in Cambodia helped the French establish a counterattack. Though unsuccessful, the counterattack shocked the Thais and eventually the Japanese arrived to bail out the French. When France was later liberated, Japan decided to control all of Indochina until their surrender in 1945. Japan gave all their military supplies to the Viet Minh in hopes they would eventually remove the French from the region.

The First Indochina War began in 1946 at Haiphong when Viet Minh members clashed with French troops. The troops had landed as a part of the campaign to make Indochina part of France officially. The French navy opened fire on the port of Haiphong and many civilians were killed. The two sides declared a cease-fire but war again flared up in Hanoi as French troops captured the city and forced Ho Chi Minh to flee.

The Viet Minh’s General, Vo Nguyen Giap, was originally a history teacher but was appointed their commander. Avoiding a head-on attack on the French, Giap favoured guerilla tactics to outwit and outmanouvre French troops. The war continued this way for years as the French desperately tried to make some kind of breakthrough politically or militarily. In 1950, Ho Chi Minh’s government was recognized by China and the USSR and they pledged their support. The Korean War broke out the same year, pulling the US into the region as they quickly stated their anger with a new communist threat in the area. Dong Khe fell in September, prompting the French to send massive amounts of Foreign Legionnaires to the area. At Vinh Yen, the French got their wish as they massacred the attacking Viet Minh troops in a head on assault- precisely what Giap was trying to avoid. Mao Khe and Day River also ended in disaster for Giap as his troops suffered around 24,000 casualties in 1951.

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Vo Nguyen Giap

The French built up small areas where they could lure Viet Minh troops into attacking them in hopes they could cause havoc akin to that in 1951. The “hedgehog” tactics did not help them much, as Giap captured French positions north of Hanoi. Operation Lorraine was executed in 1952 to recapture these positions but it proved ineffective. The hopes of the French were waning as Laos began to quickly fall into Viet Minh hands. French troops were moved to Dien Bien Phu and by 1954, Giap saw his opportunity to strike.

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French Paratroopers landing in Vietnam

Dien Bien Phu is very mountainous and slopes down into a fertile valley. Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the base with his army and on March 13, the battle began with a bombardment of outpost “Beatrice.” The French commander, Christian de Castries, named the posts after various lovers. His 14,000 French soldiers were outnumbered by Giap’s 65,000 Vietnamese troops. “Beatrice” was captured and French attacks were repulsed. “Gabrielle” was taken the next day as did “Anne-Marie.” The French were pushed closer and closer together, relying on troop reinforcements and supplies from air. “Elaine” and “Dominique” were captured on March 30th after bloody assaults from both sides. A French attack at “Elaine” did not surmount to anything, nor did breakout attempts at “Huguette.” With the situation dire, the French chose to fight to the last instead of surrender, but many, including Castries, chose to flee to Laos. Over 11,000 French troops were captured.

The war finished with the 1954 Geneva Conference, separating Vietnam into the Communist North and Republican South. To learn more on Vietnam, feel free to watch Burns’ excellent series on PBS.

Indochine: The Kindling for Vietnam (Part 1)

Ken Burns and and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” is a new 10 part miniseries on the conflicts between France, the US, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the Viet Minh, and the Viet Cong over a period of about twenty years. The French presence in their colony of Indochine, or Indochina, was regarded as the instigation for the Vietnam War in which the US was flung into a massive conflict across the Pacific. It is important to understand the background of Vietnam’s relationship with the Western Nations before looking at the US involvement.

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Battle of Kep, 1884

The first Franco-Vietnamese relations were based on Catholicism in the 17th century as missionaries arrived to spread their religion across the world. The French East India Company set up trading posts in 1680 as their presence in the region grew stronger. The French were in India, Siam, and now Vietnam in the 17th century. Things soon turned sour as local Vietnamese people resisted the French missionaries. 200 years later, French ships arrived to rescue some captured missionaries and sunk Vietnamese vessels on their way.

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French Admiral de Genouilly

Napoleon III ordered the end of persecution in Vietnam of French Catholics, and sent Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly and Spanish allies on a Punitive Expedition called the Cochinchina Campaign in 1858. They captured Tourane (Modern-day Da Nang) but were eventually besieged themselves. Franco-Spanish troops in Saigon were also under siege and French troops tied up in Italy and China could not help. Francois Page replaced de Grenouilly s commander of the French forces, and reinforcements arrived in 1860 from China. Tourane was given up in favour of keeping Saigon, so the city was reclaimed by Vietnamese troops. At Ky Hoa, the Vietnamese army of 35,000 were pushed back, allowing French and Spanish troops room in Saigon. The French repeatedly offered peace but each time it was refused. With the fall of Vinh Long, the Vietnamese were in no place to win and peace was organized in June 1862. The Treaty of Saigon gave three provinces to the French and three more were added in 1867.

French expeditions into Tonkin soon exploded as resistance from Vietnamese members of the Chinese Black Flag Army and in 1873, French officer Francis Garnier was killed. The Tonkin Campaign began in 1883 as Henri Riviere brought French troops into Hanoi in an attempt to capture the region. The Black Flag Army were victorious at Paper Bridge, and Riviere was killed. The Tonkin Expeditionary Corps was sent to reinforce the French troops already there and was led by General Alexandre-Eugene Bouet. A victory at Nam Dinh pushed Vietnamese forces to the edge and the French troops had an opportunity to achieve a quick victory. French forces captured the Hue River at the Battle of Thuan An and forced four more provinces to be under French ownership.

At Phu Hoai and Palan, the French were pushed back by the Black Flag Army and the French outpost at Hai Douong fell to Vietnamese troops. The French were in trouble and had wasted their opportunity to end the campaign swiftly. In December, the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps met the Black Flag Army at Son Tay and the battle raged from the 11th until the 17th as the French bombarded their enemies and repeatedly attacked a set of redoubts. After a disastrous counterattack by the Black Flag Army, French Foreign Legionnaires and fusiliers-marins stormed Son Tay and claimed victory for the French.

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The Battle of Bac Ninh

In 1884, Chinese support of the Guangxi Army at Bac Ninh failed as 11,000 French troops crushed them under leadership of Charles-Theodore Millot. The sheer numbers of French troops was the most in the entire Tonkin campaign, managing to field two brigades including artillery. The force was made up of line infantry, Algerian tirailleurs, Foreign Legionnaires, marines, and Turcos. A Chinese ambush at Bac Le in 1884 sparked the Sino-French War over Tonkin. The French navy secured a massive victory at Fuzhou and allowed the French to create a blockade of Chinese ports. The French followed and crushed the Guangxi Army at the Battle of Kep and in retaliation to their high casualties, they massacred droves of Chinese wounded and prisoners to the dismay of the Western Powers. By 1885, the French were on the doorstep of Lang Son which was the main supply line for Chinese troops in Vietnam. After a series of engagements, the French managed to claim victory and the Guangxi were forced to retreat yet again. At Hoa Moc, the French were checked hard suffering some 300 casualties but opened the way to relieving a French outpost nearby. The Guangxi were thrown out of Tonkin the Battle of Dong Dang on Feburary 23rd. The French entered Southern China and were repulsed suffering heavy casualties yet again. The French finally were victorious at the Battle of Phu Lam Tao on March 25th 1885.

French troops during the Sino-French War

The French finally had Tonkin and Annam in June 1885 after years of bloody war. However, the locals still were against the French and constant attacks on supply routes along the Red River angered the French. Though Tonkin was French, it was still very much Vietnamese.

Part Two will discuss Indochina, French influences in the area, and how war broke out yet again in the Indochina War including the legendary of Dien Bien Phu.

Emigres in the British Napoleonic Army

Emigre units made up a sizable portion of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Emigres were foreign troops in British service who chose to form regiments of a similar group.

One of the most notable units of emigres was the Kin’s German Legion, or the KGL. Made up of predominately Hanoverians, the KGL was created in 1803 from the remnants of the French controlled areas in Germany. The House of Hanover, who were in control of the British crown, helped to influence many Germans to choose the path of Britain rather than fighting for their new French leaders. The KGL consisted of 8 battalions of line infantry, 5 regiments of cavalry, and 6 batteries of artillery. There were about 14,000 troops in the KGL- the most of any emigre unit by far. They served throughout many campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars, notably in the Peninsula and in the Hundred Days. They fought at Bussaco, Salamanca, Vittoria, and Waterloo. They were most notably involved in the fighting at La Haye Sainte, described in The Longest Afternoon.

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Stamp featuring a member of the KGL

The Royal Corsican Rangers, a unit of riflemen formed on the island of Corsica, began in 1794 with the aid of Corsican revolutionary Pasquale Paoli. By 1798, British General Ralph Abercromby made them an independent unit as they began to fight in Italy against Napoleon’s forces. Most notably, the Corsicans clashed with French troops at Maida in Sicily. The unit was stationed in Corfu later on until they were disbanded in 1817. Another of the Emigres was the Royal Sicilian Regiment founded in 1806 with 1,300 troops. Maj.-Gen. John Stuart created the unit who served on Malta and on their home island of Sicily.

One of the more famous and peculiar units was the Chasseurs Britanniques, made up of deserters from France. Many of them were people who were targeted in the revolution or people who were not allowed back in France. Over 1,700 troops fought in the Chasseurs Britanniques and they served widely around the world. They fought in the Egypt Campaign, in the Peninsula, and in the War of 1812 in the United States. The unit was disbanded in 1814 after Napoleon’s first exile.

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Regiment de Meuron

The King’s Dutch Legion (KDL) was formed in 1799 after King William V left Holland after the French invaded and created the puppet state of the Batavian Republic. William V’s legion consisted of 5000 infantrymen and artillery and the unit served in the 1798 Irish Rebellion before they were disbanded in 1802. Another Dutch-inspired unit was the Regiment de Meuron because they were in Dutch East India Company (VOC) service. The Swiss mercenaries numbered about 900 and were transferred to the British after the formation of the Batavian Republic. They fought both in the Peninsula and in the United States.

 

Rome’s Reserves: The Auxilia

Rome’s powerful military was made up of legions recruited throughout its empire, but the large portion of auxiliary troops is widely overlooked. Auxilia were the reserves for the Roman Army, made up of non-citizens who did not enjoy full legal rights as a regular Roman. After 25 years of service, however, the soldier was granted citizenship and left the army. The auxiliary were formed under the reign of the first emperor, Augustus. The auxilia were formed into cohorts of 480 men and were named by their region of recruitment. There were three types of “regiments” in the auxilia:

  • Alae were made of only cavalry
  • Cohortes peditatae were simply foot soldiers
  • Cohortes equitatae were a mix of infantry and cavalry and numbered 600 troops instead of the regular 480. There would be 480 infantry and around 120 cavalry
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An Auxiliary Cavalryman and Infantryman

Huge amounts of soldiers were recruited for the auxiliary during the reign of Augustus because of the large expansion of the empire. The majority of auxilia came from Gaul, or modern day France. By the reign of Hadrian, the number of auxiliary troops was nearly double that of the regular legionnaires. Hadrian recruited from Germany, England, the Balkans, Switzerland, the Danube, the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa. Troops were not required to speak Latin, and many chose to retain their native languages.

Treatment of the auxilia was much worse than that of the legionaries. A legionnaire was given much better armour than an auxiliary, who mostly received chain mail, lamellar armour, or no protection at all. A regular legionnaire was paid 255 denarii each year while an auxiliary was given only 188. Even a tesserarius (equivalent to a corporal) did not make as much as a regular legionary.

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Roman Auxilia Reenactors

Many of the auxilia were deployed to border provinces or areas in conflict. They were the prime fighting force in the Batavian revolt and the Illyrian revolt. They were also an important part of Trajan’s Dacian Wars in modern-day Romania. Though not as revered as the legions, Rome’s auxiliaries were still a key component of their empire’s success.

The Ross Rifle: Canada’s Nightmare

Canada became involved in the First World War thanks to Great Britain. Canada, being a dominion of the British Empire, was entitled to join in any war that Britain was in. The Dominion of Canada joined the war effort in August 1914 and the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force) soon arrived in Europe in spring of 1915.

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The Ross Rifle’s Firing System

Along with the Canadian troops came one of history’s most infamous weapons: the Ross Mark III Rifle. The Ross originated in 1902 after Canada’s government chose to create its own weapon instead of the British Lee Enfield, which would have cost the nation much more to produce. Charles Ross, a legendary Scottish hunter, Baronet, veteran of the Boer Wars, and businessman; was tasked with the creation of the firearm. Canada’s Mounted Police, the legendary ‘Mounties’, were given the first rifles to see how they would operate in the field. The weapon immediately received negative reviews. In 1913, the Mark III arrived on the scene to equip the Canadian troops heading off to Europe.

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Canadian Recruitment Poster

The Ross had a straight-pull bolt action system which was a strange choice for a firing system. Most rifles of the period were regular bolt action, including the Lee Enfield. The Ross was extremely cumbersome to handle in the trenches. It was long, heavy, and its bayonet commonly fell off while firing. The weapon also became clogged easily in the Flanders mud and rendered the bolt action useless. If a minor jam occurred, it was common for the problem to worsen as a forceful kick to the bolt would damage the firing system. The bolt also could malfunction and slam into the face of the user if put back together improperly. Along with that, British ammunition would not fit in the Ross and made things horrible if ammunition was mixed up. The Ross was notorious among Canadian troops. An officer said that “It is nothing short of murder to send men out against the enemy with such a weapon.” The jamming was a massive problem in the trenches, causing Canadian troops problems at the front. Many Canadian troops quickly threw their Ross rifles away in favour of Enfields or perhaps a Mauser. Strangely, the Ross preformed superbly in the hands of snipers and marksmen, using them to great effect.

The Ross was officially replaced in 1916 with the SMLE along with the infamous leader of Canada’s war effort- Sam Hughes. The rifle was actually found to be successful once a British weapons manufacturer got his hands on it and fixed the few problems in the mechanism which drove Canadians insane at the front. By then, the Ross’ reputation was so tainted that it was too late, and the rifle went down in history as one of the most infamous and notorious weapons of all time.

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.