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The Assassination of President Kennedy


A Short History of Military Tanks


History and Biography Reading Suggestions (Hundreds of 'Em, by Category)

Fifty Important Battles
Of Modern History

By Bob Frost, 2008

This is Part Three of a five-part article. Each section covers 10 battles; the article is organized chronologically from the 1500s forward.

Part One:
Introduction, Sharur/Tabriz, Tenochtitlan,
Panipat, Cajamarca, Lepanto,
The Spanish Armada, Sekigahara,
Shanhai Pass, Naseby,
Zenta (Senta/Szenta)

Part Two:
Blenheim, Poltava, Culloden, Plassey, Rossbach,
The Saratoga Campaign,
The Yorktown Campaign, Valmy, Trafalgar, Austerlitz

Part Three:
Waterloo, Ayacucho,
The Burning of the Imperial Summer Palace,
Antietam (Sharpsburg), Gettysburg,
The Vicksburg Campaign,
Koniggratz, Sedan, Isandlwana, Mukden

Part Four:
Tannenberg, The First Battle of the Marne,
Verdun, The Somme,
The Battle of the Atlantic (the 1917 Escalation
and the U.S. Reaction),

The German Spring Offensive of 1918 (with the Second Battle of the Marne and the Allied Counteroffensive),
The Manchurian Incident (the Mukden Incident),
The Battle of France, Dunkirk,
The Battle of Britain

Part Five:
The Battle of Moscow, Pearl Harbor,
The Battle of the Atlantic, Midway, Guadalcanal,
The Normandy Campaign,
Israel's War of Independence, Hua-Hai,
Dienbienphu, Tet

On June 18, 1815, in Belgium, in the most famous battle of modern history, a European coalition army led by Britain's Duke of Wellington defeated the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, ending the career of the greatest warrior of modern history and beginning the British Century.

Napoleon's final quest for power began on March 1 of that year when he escaped exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean and marched north to Paris, rallying France behind him once again ("the happiest period in my life"). He raised an army and took to the field.

At Waterloo, near Brussels, Napoleon and his 73,000 soldiers faced Wellington and his 67,000, who took up strong and carefully-chosen defensive positions. Early in the battle, Wellington’s army consisted of one-third British troops along with Belgians, Dutch, and Germans. An additional German contingent (Prussian) arrived late in the day to reinforce Wellington, playing a key role in the outcome.

Napoleon commenced his attack at about 11:30 a.m. The battle raged all day – "a vast melee of men killing or being killed," write historians Will and Ariel Durant, "gaining or losing a strategic post, facing on-rushing horses, dodging a dozen swords, falling and dying in the mud." A British soldier wrote, "I was all day trodden in the mud and ridden over by every scoundrel who had a horse."

Smoke was everywhere from cannons, muskets, and rifles. The odor in the air was distinctive – a mixture of gunpowder and trampled crops. A horse with its legs shot off quietly munched shoots of rye. A dead kitten lay in the muck.

Cannonballs flew. "You could see a round-shot in flight if it was coming straight at you," writes historian David Howarth, "but it was considered cowardly to duck." (What formidable cultural forces and/or pressures must have been at work, to breed men with the capacity to not duck.) Howarth notes that 10,000 of Wellington’s soldiers ran away on this day.

Life magazine in 1965 commemorated
the battle's 150th anniversary.

A climactic moment came at about 7 p.m. when Marshal Ney asked Napoleon for infantry reinforcements to attempt a break-through. The request was denied, partly because the emperor couldn’t see the field clearly through the gunsmoke. "This," writes Howarth, "was the supreme chance that Napoleon missed." Shortly thereafter, the emperor's elite horse-borne Imperial Guard charged, was repulsed, and pulled back.

Howarth writes,

"The Garde is retreating": the news spread almost instantly among the French from Hougoumont to Plancenoit: a French historian wrote that it was the death-knell of the Grand Army. The morale of the army, the frail mass-opinion that holds an army together and makes it fight, broke suddenly and irretrievably....The French, who had been attacking all the afternoon....(changed) in the course of ten minutes from an army to a rabble....

In the wake of his defeat, Napoleon was confined to St. Helena Island, a small, rocky, flea- and rat-infested isle in the Atlantic, 1200 miles west of Africa, "farther away from anywhere than anywhere else in the world," writes author Julia Blackburn.

St. Helena Island is indicated by the arrow.

Napoleon had friends with him in this final exile, and books, servants, horses, a chess set, and a garden, but he inevitably sank into depression: "I vegetate, I no longer live," he said in 1820. He died a year later at 51. His memory would be "a living force in France throughout the century," write the Durants.

As noted, Waterloo set the stage for the British Century, and more generally for Europe's astonishing 99 years of expansion of power, to 1914. European global pre-eminence during this period can be traced to three elements: peace (at least, peace relatively speaking, compared to the titanic wars that preceded and followed the period), the Industrial Revolution, and an iron-clad, untouchable, quite awful sense of superiority. Critic Adam Kirsch writes,

Together, these elements gave Europe, and especially Britain, the power and opportunity to impose its will on the rest of the world....Over the 19th century, the British in particular managed to strongarm their way into positions of dominance around the world, whether as outright colonial sovereigns, as in Africa and India; de facto rulers, as in Egypt; or bullying profiteers, as in China. Attempts to resist were met with concentrated fury: When the Islamic 'Mahdist' movement rebelled against British rule in Egypt, in the 1880s, the British commander Lord Kitchener not only crushed the rebels, he disinterred their leader’s corpse and threw it into the Nile....

(A parenthetical note. The 1966 film "Khartoum" is an interesting depiction of the Mahdist rebellion, with Laurence Olivier brilliant as Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, a figure who, some speculate, may have inspired Osama bin Laden. Time magazine calls Olivier’s performance "a small masterpiece of single-minded religious insanity.")

For more on Waterloo see "Waterloo: A Near Run Thing" by David Howarth (1997 reprint), "1815: The Waterloo Campaign - The German Victory" by Peter Hofschroer (1999), "The Campaigns of Napoleon" by David Chandler (1966), "The Face of Battle" by John Keegan (1976), "Wellington at Waterloo" by Jac Weller (2006), "Napoleon and Wellington" by Andrew Roberts (2001), and Roberts' "Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble" (2005).

For more on Napoleon, including many reading suggestions, see "Austerliz" in Part Two of this article. See here for a literary description of Waterloo by the French author Stendhal.

For speculation on Napoleon's health and possible causes of his death see "Napoleon's Glands: And Other Ventures in Biohistory" by Arno Karlen (1984). For St. Helena see "The Emperor's Last Island: A Journey to St. Helena" by Julia Blackburn (1992).

Was Napoleon short? No.

For the story of a large diorama of Waterloo and how it challenged Wellington's report on the battle see "Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo" by Peter Hofschroer (2004). "This important book," writes journalist and biographer Ian Pindar, "reveals what happens when a loyal subject runs up against an establishment that will stop at nothing to suppress the truth." The book is controversial; that said, Hofschroer's credentials are impeccable - he is a major figure today in Napoleonic Era scholarship.

December 9, 1824, in Peru. A South American revolutionary army led by Marshal Antonio Jose de Sucre defeated a Spanish force led by Viceroy Jose De la Serna, assuring independence for South America from Spain, the continent's colonizer for centuries.

Sucre was a lieutenant of Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) - El Libertador - "one of the towering public figures that our hemisphere has produced," writes historian John J. Johnson, "at once a visionary, soldier, statesman, political prophet and internationalist....a consummate orator, actor and writer." Bolivar, born into an era of revolution and nationalism, inflamed by the Enlightenment, and driven by Napoleonic ambition, led independence wars in the present-day nations of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama (then part of Colombia), Peru, and Venezuela.


"Millions of people owed their freedom to Bolivar," writes scholar Robert M. Adams, but when he died at age 47 he was "penniless, unemployed, and fiercely unpopular." Historian Donald E. Worcester notes, "He failed in statesmanship. Independence (in Spanish America) was followed by a century of murderous wars, bloody coups, and cruel dictatorships. These events cannot be blamed on Bolivar, although a different type of revolutionary – one more systematic, more orthodox, more concerned for structures of government – might have achieved more."

Bolivar is not well known in North America. Evidence: In December, 2001, on the game show "Jeopardy," during Final Jeopardy, the following clue was given in the category "Historic Heroes": "This man born in 1783 is considered the national hero of 5 different countries." None of the contestants was able to come up with the correct "Who is Bolivar?" They offered three decent guesses though, as might be expected: Lafayette, the Duke of Wellington, and Lincoln (born in 1757, 1769, and 1809, respectively).

See "Simon Bolivar: A Life" by John Lynch (2006), "Simon Bolivar and Spanish American Independence, 1783-1830" by John J. Johnson with the collaboration of Doris M. Ladd (1968), and "Bolivar" by Donald E. Worcester (1977). See also the entry "Bolivar" by Christopher Conway in "Encyclopedia of Nationalism" edited by Alexander Motyl (2000, two volumes). The novel "The General in His Labyrinth" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1989, translated by Edith Grossman) has at its center a depressed Bolivar, disillusioned by the failures he sees on his continent. For additional book titles see "Latin America" in the article "History Reading Suggestions."

The Burning of the Imperial Summer Palace
In October, 1860, at the climax of the Second Opium War, British and French troops marched on Beijing and looted and burned to the ground the Imperial Summer Palace (the Yuan Ming Yuan), some 200 buildings spread over 80 square miles - "the treasure house of China," writes author Jack Beeching.

"By 1860," writes historian Immanuel C.Y. Hsu, "the ancient civilization that was China had been thoroughly defeated and humiliated by the West." Critic Adam Kirsch writes of the Summer Palace destruction,

It was the most dramatic possible demonstration of the accelerating superiority, military and financial, of Europe over the rest of the world. China was far larger in territory and population than either France or England, yet the thought of a Chinese force storming Buckingham Palace was self-evidently absurd. (The burning was a key moment in what historian John Darwin) calls 'the great divergence' between the trajectories of Europe and its New World progeny, on the one hand, and the civilizations of Africa and Asia, on the other. How did a small, fragmented region on the western edge of the Eurasian landmass manage to dominate the rest of the known world? Many historians have dedicated themselves to explaining this mystery, by analyzing the factors that distinguish the West from the rest. Jared Diamond, in "Guns, Germs, and Steel," took a biologist’s approach, focusing on Europe’s advantages in geography and biodiversity. David Landes, in "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations," argued for the importance of culture and values....(John Darwin in his book "After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405") wants to show that Europe’s hegemony, which began in the late 18th century and crumbled after World War II, was the result of a contingent historical process, not the manifestation of some superior essence. Invoking Edward Said, Mr. Darwin attacks the 'orientalist' assumptions behind Western historiography. "The European path to the modern world should no longer be treated as natural or 'normal,' the standard against which historical change in other parts of the world should always be measured," he writes. "Europeans had forged their own kind of modernity, but there were other modernities – indeed, many modernities."

See here for background on China in the 19th century.

See "The Opium War: 1840-1842" by Peter Ward Fay (1975; 1997 edition with a new preface by the author), "The Opium Wars" by W. Travis Hanes III and Frank Sanello (2002), "China: A New History" by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman (2006 revised edition), and "The Chinese Opium Wars" by Jack Beeching (1975). See also "After Tamerlane" by John Darwin (2008) and "The Rise of Modern China" by Immanuel C.Y. Hsu (2000 sixth edition).

Antietam (Sharpsburg)
September 17, 1862, in Maryland. During the American Civil War, the Federal army of Gen. George McClellan defeated the Confederate forces of Gen. Robert E. Lee, turning back an invasion.

Before the battle, fate bestowed upon the Union Army one of the great pieces of luck of military history. McClellan’s soldiers found Lee’s battle plan wrapped around cigars apparently dropped by a Confederate courier. The document was delivered to the powers-that-be and helped the Federals triumph. "Sheer, unadulterated chance took a hand,” writes historian Bruce Catton, "and changed the course of American history."

The Federal victory followed a summer of defeats for the bluecoats. If the South had won this battle too, it’s possible that the world's most powerful nation, Great Britain, would have joined with France to recognize the Confederate States of America as a legitimate sovereign nation. Given the maritime power of Britain, such recognition would have interfered with the Federal blockade of Southern ports, and perhaps ended the war. France was keen to recognize. British momentum for such an action may have been building; William Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer, said in October, 1862 (just days before word arrived about Antietam) that the South had "made a nation" and deserved recognition. (The British public was "absorbed with the American Civil War to a degree that surpassed any other external event," writes historian R.J.M. Blackett, with a large segment of the population fiercely anti-Union from April of '61 to October of '62.) See here for the impact of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" on Britain.

President Lincoln leveraged Antietam, using the political momentum it created in the North as the occasion to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. Among other effects, the proclamation strengthened the Union cause in the eyes of Europe.

See here for reading suggestions about the American Civil War and here for suggestions about Lincoln.

See "Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War" by James M. McPherson (2002). (McPherson makes a filmed appearance as commentator in the documentary "Lincoln and Lee at Antietam: The Cost of Freedom" [2006].) See also two books by Stephen W. Sears: "Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam" (1993 reissue) and "George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon" (1988). Also, see "Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862" by Joseph L. Harsh (1999), "The Gleam of Bayonets: The Battle of Antietam and Robert E. Lee's Maryland Campaign" by James V. Murfin (1982), "Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy" by Eric Foner (1984 reissue), and "Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation: 1861-1865" by William K. Klingaman (2001).

July 1 to 3, 1863, in Pennsylvania. Federal troops commanded by Gen. George G. Meade defeated an army of Confederates led by Gen. Robert E. Lee in a key confrontation of the American Civil War and the most famous battle in the nation’s history.

Lee invaded the North in the late spring of 1863 in pursuit of total victory. He said in June, "I shall....virtually destroy the army (of the Potomac)....(Then) the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence."

At Gettysburg, Lee was encouraged by the results of the first two days of fighting, believing (erroneously) that the Union center had been seriously weakened, and thinking that one more push by his splendid troops would give him the victory he wanted. On the battle’s third day, at about 3 p.m., after conducting an artillery barrage, Lee sent three divisions, perhaps 14,000 men, across a mile of open ground toward the dug-in Federal center. This would become known as Pickett’s Charge, named for Gen. George E. Pickett, who commanded the division that led the assault. The attack failed and the battle was lost.

Lee and his men escaped to fight another day because Gen. George G. Meade refused to give chase after the battle. President Abraham Lincoln, usually the calmest of men, was enraged by Meade’s extreme caution at this crucial moment – "never was Lincoln so disappointed and so furious," writes historian David Herbert Donald.

The historian Shelby Foote offers a magisterial description of Gettysburg in his "The Civil War: A Narrative" (1974). See here for Foote on Pickett's Charge. (Foote is the sage bearded presence in the Ken Burns film "The Civil War." His book, notes historian James M. McPherson, "leans slightly South in its sympathies.")

See here for reading suggestions about the American Civil War and here for suggestions about President Lincoln.

See "Gettysburg" by Stephen W. Sears (2003), "The Colors of Courage" by Margaret Creighton (2005), and "Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863," by George R. Stewart (1959). See also "Pickett's Charge - The Last Attack at Gettysburg" by Earl J. Hess (2001) and "Pickett's Charge in History and Memory" by Carol Reardon (1997). Also see "The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command" by Edwin B. Coddington (1997 reissue) and the historical novel "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara (1993 reissue).

The Vicksburg Campaign
November, 1862 to July, 1863, in the Confederate state of Mississippi. Federal troops defeated the Confederates and seized control of the Mississippi River. "The most brilliant campaign ever fought on American soil," says the 1986 edition of the "U.S. Army Field Manual."

A large section of the Confederate States of America was located west of the Mississippi River – the whole of Texas and Arkansas, and most of Louisiana. The Federals sought control of the river in order to split the South, deprive the eastern Confederacy of the resources of the west, gain free movement for their Mississippi River fleet, and position themselves for an assault on Atlanta. To do these things, they needed to conquer the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the "Gibraltar of the West," high on bluffs overlooking the river, bristling with cannons. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered Vicksburg held at all cost.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Tennessee had trouble in their first attempts for the city, but starting in April, 1863, won a series of battles in a campaign "as good as Stonewall Jackson’s best," writes historian Samuel Eliot Morison. These victories set up the seige of the city itself, which began in May. Grant "settled down grimly," writes historian Bruce Catton, "to starve the place into submission." The city held 2,500 civilians and 30,000 soldiers. A Confederate sergeant describes the city's agony:

Dogs howled through the streets at night; cats screamed forth their hideous cries; an army of rats, seeking food, would scamper around your very feet, and across the streets and over the pavements. Lice and filth covered the bodies of the soldiers. Delicate women and little children, with pale, care-worn, and hunger-pinched features, peered at the passerby with wistful eyes from the caves.

The caves were dug into the hillsides near the river by civilians.

Southern troops fought bravely, but as a Vicksburg woman noted, they were being "blindly dashed against this embodiment of modern power" and in the end were forced to capitulate. The Confederate surrender came on July 4, 1863, the day after the Union victory at Gettysburg. "The Fourth of July 1863 was the most memorable Independence Day in American history since that first one four score and seven years earlier," writes James M. McPherson. "....Though the war was destined to continue for almost two more bloody years, Gettysburg and Vicksburg proved to have been its crucial turning points."

Who was this inexorable force, Ulysses Simpson Grant? "The greatest general of the American Civil War" is the flat assertion of journalist and historian John Keegan in "The Mask of Command" (1987). Keegan continues:

He was certainly not a man to impress by either his appearance or his manner. A visitor to his headquarters in 1864 who sat for an hour beside his camp fire after 'a very hasty meal' described him as 'small....with a resolute square thinking face':

He sat silent among his staff, and my first impression was that he was moody, dull and unsocial. I afterwards found him pleasant, genial and agreeable. He keeps his own counsel, padlocks his mouth, while his countenance in battle or repose....indicates nothing – that is gives no expression of his feelings and no evidence of his intentions. He smokes almost constantly and, as I have then and since observed, he has a habit of whittling with a small knife. He cuts a small stick into small chips, making nothing....Among men he is nowise noticeable. There is no glitter or parade about him....

Keegan continues,

Did Grant drink? "The idea that Grant drank prodigiously," writes William McFeely ("Grant," 1981), "is as fixed in American history as the idea that the Pilgrims ate turkey on Thanksgiving." The truth seems to be that he was that horror of prohibitionists, not a steady imbiber but a sporadic and then spectacular drunk. McFeely, with other post-Freudians, believed that the trigger was sexual. Grant certainly drank heavily during his separation from (his wife) Julia in California in 1852-4. In the aftermath of the Vicksburg triumph, which had kept him apart from Julia for two months, he went on a bender so dramatic that only the patriotic self-restraint of the Chicago Times reporter who manhandled him into bed kept it out of the newspapers.

Drinking bouts furnished the only element of the spectacular in Grant’s personality. When the clutch of the demon was not on him – and in 1864-5 he usually had Julia by him in camp – he showed the world that unvaryingly equable and self-contained exterior on which all visitors to his headquarters remarked. He was quiet in speech, though he had an impressively resonant voice, undemonstrative in manner, indiscriminately courteous to all callers, and a listener rather than a talker. He would not tolerate gossip or backbiting, choked whisperers into silence, never swore, though he was surrounded by profanes, was careful not to chide a subordinate in public and in general tried to command by encouragement rather than reproof.

....Modesty pervaded the smallest details of his generalship....His camp furniture consisted of canvas bed, two folding chairs, a wooden table; it was housed in a small tent....Grant bathed in a sawn-off barrel and transported his personal kit in a single trunk....Riding hard and long he often came home mud-spattered and wet, but would do no more to get comfortable than thrust his boots towards the fire. Just as well that his accustomed outfit was a private’s coat, on which he pinned his general’s stars....Grant’s simplicity of speech, style and manners was not affectation. It was an expression of deep-seated character. If Wellington eschewed ceremony, theatre and oratory, Grant actively disliked all three, with rigorous distaste....In only one traditional display of leadership did Grant excel or take any pride. He was a magnificent horseman. He had been the outstanding equestrian in his year at West Point, effortlessly outrode his staff on campaign and was always mounted on horses others could not master....His health on campaign remained generally excellent, all the more remarkable in view of how roughly he camped and dined. He slept, like Wellington, without effort in any circumstances, always getting the eight hours needed, and generally turning in early....He rejoiced in an unaccustomed sense of wellbeing. "I am well, better than I have been for years," he wrote to Julia in March 1863. "Everybody remarks how well I look."....The truth was that war – or, more particularly, the American Civil War – suited Grant. He deplored the suffering it inflicted on his fellow-countrymen. He was deeply pained by every encounter with the wounded and dead and was physically revolted by the sight of blood....But, while the war persisted, he drew the deepest satisfaction from the power he had found in himself to fight it as it ought to be fought. Where others dabbled in remembered classroom theory, aped their European counterparts, even sought to reincarnate Napoleon, he confined himself to practicalities: carrying the war into the enemy’s heartland, making its people bear the real burdens of the conflict they had brought on the republic and meanwhile sustaining the spirits of an army of electors in a struggle for constitutional orthodoxy. The struggle, he knew, would be won not by a strategy of evasion, blockade or manoeuvre, but by fighting.

(A parenthetical note about Grant. The best portrayal of the general in the movies is a one-minute cameo appearance by Harry Morgan in "How the West Was Won" [1962], where, temporarily discouraged during the Battle of Shiloh, he consults with Gen. William T. Sherman, played by John Wayne. Morgan’s appearance is so brief that he isn’t even listed in many movie guides, but he seems to capture Grant precisely.)

"For every book about Vicksburg," writes historian James M. McPherson, "there are ten books about Gettysburg....(but) most Civil War historians would agree....(that) the path of destruction carved by (the Army of the Tennessee) through the South was the main factor in Union victory." (As it happens, however, McPherson himself doesn't agree with the assessment of "most historians." See "The Bloody Partnership," The New York Review of Books, December 15, 2005.)

See here for J. Brent Norlem on traveling to Vicksburg.

See here for reading suggestions about the American Civil War and here for suggestions about Abraham Lincoln.

See "The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant" by U.S. Grant (1885, various editions). See also "Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg" by Timothy B. Smith (2004), "Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi" by Michael B. Ballard (2004), and "Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865" by Brooks D. Simpson (2000). Also, see "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era" by James M. McPherson (1988), "Grant Moves South: 1861-1863" by Bruce Catton (1960), and "Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo" by Paul K. Davis (2003). DVD: "Ulysses S. Grant: Warrior, President" directed by Adriana Bosch (2002; part of the PBS series "American Experience").

On July 3, 1866, in Austria, during the Austro-Prussian War, the Prussians defeated the Austrians.

"In a matter of days," writes historian Geoffrey Wawro of the summer of 1866, "Prussia climbed from the lower rungs of great the top....(and became) industrial and military colossus." The Prussian victory in 1866 opened the way for Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian, to consolidate Germany in 1871. German power, and how to control it, would be at the center of two world wars.

See also "Sedan" (next item).

See "Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947" by Christopher Clark (2006), "German History, 1770-1866" by James J. Sheehan (1990), "The Austro-Prussian War: Austria's War With Prussia and Italy in 1866" by Geoffrey Wawro (1996), and "Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification 1815-1871" by Otto Pflanze (1963). See also "Bismarck: The White Revolutionary" by Lothar Gall (1986 translation) and "Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman" by A.J.P. Taylor (1955).

September 1, 1870, in France. The Prussians defeated the French in a key battle of the Franco-Prussian War. The Prussians would go on to victory in the war.

The fullness of Prussian success in 1870-71, writes historian Michael Howard, "astounded the world." The power of Prussian militarism as revealed in this war (and at the Battle of Koniggratz in 1866; see "Koniggratz," above) shaped a bold expansion of German territorial dreams; this impulse found full articulation in 1914-18 and 1939-45. Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler writes, "We cannot adequately grasp the history of the Third Reich without recourse to the history of the German Empire of 1871."

France and Germany engaged in conflict repeatedly in the 19th century and first half of the 20th, starting in 1806 with Napoleon’s humiliating defeat of the Prussians at Jena, fostering German nationalistic hatred of the French. Then: 1813-15 (the Prussians avenged Jena as part of the coalition against Napoleon); 1870-71; 1914-18; and in the Second World War. Occupation ensued after most of these conflicts, regarded as brutal by the losing party.

French rage at the nation’s loss in the Franco-Prussian War, and at Prussian occupation, fed a desire for revenge, culminating a half-century later in the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In turn, Versailles contributed in some measure to the rise of Nazism, which fostered history's greatest calamity, World War II, with its 60 million deaths. (To continue along these lines: World War II instigated the creation of nuclear arms, which played a role in the Cold War. The Cold War, in its Afghanistan theater, contributed to the spread of Islamic terrorism, which promulgated the events of September 11, 2001.) The point being, things link. A somewhat overlooked war of the 19th century can seemingly touch us today. Of course, a thousand other factors shaped the sequence of events from the 1870s to 2001. But what if, by some miracle, war had been avoided in 1870? What if Napoleon III had been dissuaded by some bold and honest advisor from what critic David A. Bell describes as a "brainless" decision to fight Prussia? Would subsequent events have unfolded differently? As Winston Churchill said, speaking of 1914, "The terrible Ifs accumulate." Some historians enjoy the game of "what if" history ("counter-factual history") - a good book on the topic is "Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals" edited by Niall Ferguson (1999).

See "The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-71" by Geoffrey Wawro (2003), "The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-71" by Michael Howard (1961; 1985 reprint), "The Decline of Bismarck's European Order" by George F. Kennan (1979), and "The German Empire 1871-1918" by Hans-Ulrich Wehler (1973; a preview is available here via Google Books). See also "The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871" by Stephen Badsey (2003), and "The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71" by Alistair Horne. Also see the novel "The Debacle" by Emile Zola (1973 reprint translated by Leonard Tancock).

On January 22, 1879, in Zululand, South Africa, a Zulu army destroyed a British force.

Isandlwana was a resounding victory of the Zulu people, one of the greatest and most courageous nations of African history. The Zulu empire emerged in the early 19th century under King Shaka Zulu (King Shaka kaSenzangakhona, 1787?-1828), who conquered neighboring chiefdoms and built a formidable kingdom and army. He was an excellent general and a talented diplomat. He was also a ruthless autocrat given to bloody purges of his enemies. He "knew the value of terror as a tool of state-craft," writes historian Ian Knight. Shaka was murdered in a coup.

In 1878, Britain, hoping to consolidate the South African region for its empire, issued an ultimatum to Zulu leadership ordering submission to certain directives; this was, essentially, the Brits picking a fight. When Zulu leader Cetshwayo ignored the dictate, the British launched the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. "The (British) demands were cynical and brutal," writes Ian Knight. "The war was provoked by an unwarranted act of British aggression."

Three columns of British troops and native auxiliaries invaded Zululand in January, 1879. One column, commanded by Gen. Lord Chelmsford, camped near Isandlwana, a large rock outcropping overlooking open land. Chelmsford declined to form the strongest possible defensive position, instead stringing out his encampment. Perhaps he made this decision because the camp was temporary. Perhaps complacency and arrogance played a role as well – Chelmsford and his staff "wholly underrated the fighting ability of the Zulu," writes historian John Laband. (For a similar decision in the 20th century, see "Dienbienphu" in Part Five of this article.)

A Zulu army attacked the British on the morning of January 22, armed primarily with spears and shields, with a few old firearms. The British had up-to-date rifles. By 3:30 in the afternoon, the 20,000-plus Zulus had overwhelmed the British force, killing about 780 whites and 470 blacks. Only a few members of the British camp escaped. The Zulu death toll was at least 1,000. Chelmsford and other British troops survived because they were off skirmishing.

A legend soon cropped up that the British lost the battle because of a shortage of ammunition. This lack, according to various versions of the story, supposedly resulted from a bureaucratic snafu or from an inability to break the metal seals on ammunition boxes. The legend is false, says Knight, citing eyewitness accounts and physical evidence from the battlefield. Knight writes,

It is far easier to believe that a modern, Western, industrialised army could be defeated through some folly of its own, rather than that it could be out-generalled by a part-time civilian army armed primarily with spears – an army, moreover, of men with black skins....(The ammunition legend) denies the tactical skill, discipline, and sheer raw courage of the Zulu people. It is time to stop seeking excuses for the British defeat at Isandlwana, and to start instead to think of it as a Zulu victory.

On the same day as Isandlwana, several thousand Zulu soldiers attacked a British post at Rorke’s Drift that was garrisoned by less than 150 men. The Zulus were repelled after a grueling battle that lasted until the 23rd.

Fresh troops were brought in from around the empire, and on July 4, 1879, Chelmsford won the final battle of the war, at the Zulu capital, Ulundi. (Several years before Isandlwana, in the summer of 1876, a similar encounter occurred in the grasslands of North America – the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in Montana, where an overconfident Gen. George Custer and the U.S. Army met Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fighting to defend their lands. The Indian braves, like the Zulus, won a great victory, but they could not generate the means of long-term resistance to the white invaders.)

See two books by Ian Knight: "Nothing Remains But to Fight" (2005) and "Brave Men’s Blood: The Epic of the Zulu War" (1990). See also "The Illustrated Guide to the Anglo-Zulu War” by John Laband and Paul Thompson (2000) and "Shaka’s Children: A History of the Zulu People" by Stephen Taylor (1994).


DVDs: "Zulu Dawn" (1979, fiction) and "Zulu" (1964, fiction) are strong dramas that hew closely to historical facts, shot on location in Natal, with the scarlet tunics of the Brits photographed against impossibly blue skies. "Zulu Dawn" focuses on Isandlwana; Peter O’Toole gives a good performance as Chelmsford. "Zulu" stars the superb Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. "This," goes the haunting lyric sung in "Zulu," "will ever be your story." Indeed.

February 19 to March 10, 1905, in northern China. Japan defeated Russia in a major battle of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.

Mukden, along with Japanese victories at Port Arthur and Tsushima during this war, astonished the world: the East had defeated the West in battle for the first time in modern history. Russia sued for peace; its disastrous performance in the war contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1905, a foreshadowing of the 1917 Revolution. Japan, meanwhile, became one of the world’s great powers with this war, the dominant power in East Asia, and the East's first modern imperialist state.

Historian J.M. Roberts writes that the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War "marked an epoch in the psychological relations of Europe and Asia." This fact was noted at the time by Mohandas K. Gandhi, living in South Africa, who summarized the fierce new pride of hundreds of millions of people: "The people of the East will never, never again submit to insults from the insolent whites."

(A parenthetical note. The Russo-Japanese War, writes historian J.N. Westwood, "ought to have persuaded [the world’s war ministries] of the primacy of the machine gun and the obsolescence of cavalry but somehow failed to do so.")

See "A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin" by Robert Service (2005), "The Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905" by Geoffrey Jukes (2002), and "The Russo-Japanese War in Cultural Perspective, 1904-05" edited by David Wells and Sandra Wilson (1999). See also "Russia Against Japan, 1904-1905: A New Look at the Russo-Japanese War" by J.N. Westwood (1986), "The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia's Drift to Revolution 1825-1917" by Edward Crankshaw (1976), and "The Short Victorious War: The Russo-Japanese Conflict, 1904-5" by David Walder (1974).

-The End-

This is Part Three of a five-part article. Each section covers 10 battles; the article is organized chronologically from the 1500s forward.

Part One

Part Two


Part Four

Part Five

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