Wednesday, 27 July 2016

"That Day" - The Battle of Maiwand

27 July 1880, 45 miles west of Kandahar during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, an Anglo-Indian army under Brigadier General George Burrows was cut up by Afghan forces under Mohammad Ayub Khan at the Battle of Maiwand.

“Good Luck to you. It’s all up with the Bally Old Berkshires” (a private of the 66th Berkshire Regiment of Foot to the teams of E Battery / B Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery, galloping away)

Richard Caton Woodville (1856 - 1927): "Maiwand: Saving the Guns" (1883)

Graveyard of Empires. Afghanistan had acquired a somewhat colourful reputation over the centuries. However, while a manageable number of empires was actually buried there, the lay of the land and the doughty warriors she bred proved to be a tough nut to crack for conquerors from the days of the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago to this day. And Afghanistan’s geostrategic position on the crossing between the Middle East, Central Asia and India drew them like flies. During the 19th century though, after Afghanistan’s very own attempt at empire building had ended in 1823, the Emirate with its capital in Kabul that succeeded Ahmad Shah Durrani’s kingdom played more or less the role of a buffer state in the Great Game between the Tsars and British India. A first attempt to bring Afghanistan completely under the heel of the Raj and nip Russian incursions into the Hindu Kush in the bud famously failed miserably when Elphinstone’s Army of the Indus was cut to pieces in the passes near Gandamak during the infamous Kabul retreat of 1842. Thirty-five years later, open conflict between Russia and Great Britain was avoided at the Congress of Berlin, but a proxy war broke out in Afghanistan when Sher Ali Khan allowed an embassy of the Tsar in Kabul and turned the ambassadors of the Viceroy back to Calcutta at the border. The next round of Lord Lytton’s representatives at the Khyber Pass were the Generals Frederick Roberts, Donald Stewart and Sam Browne, accompanied by an army 50,000 strong and made up from the creme of the Bengal, Marahti, Baluchi, Punjabi, Sikh and Gurkha troops of British India, bolstered by British Army regiments, arranged in three marching columns, bent on invasion. Sher Ali Khan went to Moscow with a plea for help that fell on deaf ears. He returned to Afghanistan, died in Mazar-i-Sharif in February 1879 to be succeeded by his son Mohammad Yaqub Khan while the British had achieved their military goals in a couple of hard-fought actions and Sir Louis Cavagnari, the envoy of the Queen, met the new emir in Gandamak to settle the casus belli: establishing a British embassy in Kabul. “All is well in the Kabul embassy”, read Cavagnari’s last telegram to Lytton in the September of the year, a few hours before he, his escort and his staff were massacred in an uprising of the locals who didn’t quite accept the emir’s ceding of border territories to the Raj and letting the British into Kabul. The Second Anglo-Afghan War went into its second phase. Kabul was occupied by “Bobs” Roberts after defeating an Afghan army at Charasiab four weeks later and promptly, Bobs had his hands full with getting besieged by the locals at the Sherpur Cantonment. And then, Ayub Khan, Mohammad Yaqub’s younger brother and lord of Herat threatened Kandahar on the border of British India, some 300 miles to the southwest. 

Peter Archer's (1946- ) imagination of the last moments of the 11 survivors of the 66th in the garden outside of Khig, including Bobbie the Dog * 

“With a drop of my sweetheart's blood, / Shed in defence of the Motherland, / Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead, / Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden”, young Malalai sang. It was her wedding day and both her father and her fiancée had already fallen and when the Afghan colour-bearer was shot and the flag fell, she used her veil to encourage Ayub Khan’s regulars and the thousands of Ghazis to charge into the British lines. The veil became her winding sheet, she was shot and became a national heroine, revered in Afghanistan and beyond to this day. Brigadier George Burrows and his 2,500 infantry, artillery and cavalry were sent to counter Ayub Khan in the beginning of July and they had already suffered a major drawback before the battle even began. 6,000 Kandahari regulars, mobilised by their pro-British Wali to support the defence of the province, had mutinied and went over to join Ayub Khan who had now up to 25,000 or, at the least, 12,000 men at his disposal, most of them irregulars, Ghazis, but combined with his state-of-the-art artillery park more than a match for the heavily outnumbered British. Burrows wouldn’t believe the numbers to the last moment, though, made a mess out of breaking camp and getting his army underway on the morning of the battle to find himself out in the open of a dusty plain, in scorching heat, with Ayub Khan’s army approaching from all sides from the hills. E Battery / B Brigade of the Royal Horse Artillery opened up on the enemy, far too deep out in the open, Burrow’s infantry hurried to cover the guns, the Afghans returned fire and inflicted considerable casualties on the 1st Bombay N.I. Grenadiers on the British left, while the 66th Berkshires in the centre and 30th Bombay N.I., known as Jacob’s Rifles, on the right, found at least some cover on the field. From the Afghan shells. Not from the sun, though, and after an artillery duel of three hours, the Afghans began to close in. The 30th Bombay’s Sniders and the 66th’s Martini-Henrys held them for a moment, forced them even to retreat, Ayub Khan’s artillery advanced while the RHA ran short of shells and then the 1st Bombays broke under a massed cavalry and infantry charge, the battle was lost and the slaughter began. The Bombay Grenadiers on the right ran next and the lines of the 66th dissolved, leaving the Berkshires to defend themselves in small groups retreating in the chaos. The RHA’s guns fired until the charging Afghans were only a couple of yards away, limbered up and ran, four teams even made it away, one was captured and by then, what was left of Burrow’s army was in an all-out rout. The remnants of the left wing fled towards the village of Mundabad, some 100 survivors of the 66th and the Grenadiers ended up a ravine in an orchard on the outskirts of a village called Khig, Malalai’s birthplace. They made a stand there, fired until they ran out of ammunition, the last 11 survivors charged out in the open with their bayonets and were shot down.

The Queen awarding Bobbie the Dog and other survivors of the 66th with the Afghan War campaign medal at Osborne House

Almost half of Burrows' army was killed at Maiwand, the rest made its 45-mile retreat to Kandahar. Ayub Khan’s cavalry was just to busy plundering the British baggage train and refrained from pursuing the broken Anglo-British. The Afghan casualties amounted to 3,000 dead and Ayub Khan contented himself with besieging Kandahar, giving Roberts the time to lead his relief force from Kabul over 320 miles straight through Afghanistan in just four weeks. Ayub Khan was soundly defeated on 1 September and the Second Anglo-Afghan War was over. Maiwand, however, left a sound impression on the Victorian mind. From Bobbie the Dog, the regimental mascot of the 66th, who survived the last stand at Khig and the war and was awarded by the Queen with the Afghan War campaign medal, to the sheer disbelief of another native force trashing the world’s best infantry, just a year after Isandlwana. And there was the 66th’s surgeon, wounded in the shoulder by a Jezail bullet at Maiwand, who left the Army to set up shop at 221B Baker Street, St, Marylebone, London NW1, one Dr John H. Watson. But it was Rudyard Kipling, who summed it up, “That Day”, in his Barrack-Room Ballads:

"There was thirty dead an' wounded on the ground we wouldn't keep -
No, there wasn't more than twenty when the front began to go;
But, Christ! along the line o' flight they cut us up like sheep,
An' that was all we gained by doing so.

I 'eard the knives be'ind me, but I dursn't face my man,
Nor I don't know where I went to, 'cause I didn't 'alt to see,
Till I 'eard a beggar squealin' out for quarter as 'e ran,
An' I thought I knew the voice an' - it was me!

We was 'idin' under bedsteads more than 'arf a march away;
We was lyin' up like rabbits all about the countryside;
An' the major cursed 'is Maker 'cause 'e lived to see that day“
An' the colonel broke 'is sword acrost, an' cried."

And more about the Battle of Maiwand on:

Friday, 22 July 2016

"Bulla Turcorum" - John Hunyadi, the Siege of Belgrade and why the Noon Bells ring in Church

22 July 1456, The Ottoman siege of Belgrade ended with a victory of the Hungarian warlord John Hunyadi and John of Capistrano’s crusaders, commemorated to this day with ringing the noon bells in church.

"... the Pope praised Hunyadi to the stars and called him the most outstanding man the world had seen in 300 years." (Jacob Calcaterra, Milanese ambassador tot he Holy See)

"The Battle of Nándorfehérvár" as Belgrade was known in Hungarian, mid-19th century painting by an unknown Magyar artist, showing John of Capistrano in the centre and John Hunyadi on horseback to the left.

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 is seen often enough as the end of the Middle Ages. However, the printing press was already invented and so was gunpowder, rich trade cities and their burghers and merchant princes challenged the nobilities’ privileges just as pikemen and archers had broken their superiority on the battlefields, the Bible was translated in national languages and the interpretational sovereignty of the church questioned by the precursors of the Reformation, but the utterly medieval idea of Crusades and fighting the infidel was efficacious still, somehow. Not quite with the upper echelons of society like 300 years before, though. One was far too occupied with fighting Hundred Years’ Wars, getting to grips with the idea of a national state and what not. But since the Ottomans as the new emerging superpower on the intersection between Europe and Asia began to campaign deep into the Balkans, quixotic Western chivalry, usually from the same mould as the ones who charged into the arrow storms of Crecy and the burghers’ pole arms at Courtrai believing in their own aristocratic invincibility, along with professionals from the still existent chivalric orders and incited hoi polloi crusaded against the Turk. While the states east of Vienna fought for their very survival against an invader with well-led, well-equipped and highly motivated armies that usually wiped the floor with crusaders and locals alike. When the news of Sultan Mehmed’s capture of Constantinople reached the West, however, a few weeks before the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War was fought at Castillon, the Holy Roman Habsburgs were just about to recover from their devastating conflict against the Hussite heretics in Bohemia and the Borgia popes in Rome along with the powerful Italian city states preferred to be at each others’ throats, panic began to spread. The threat was real enough. With his new capital established in Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II, already known as Fatih, the Conqueror, prepared for his big push into Central Europe along the Danube. In his way lay the Hungarian fortress city of Nándorfehérvár, Kriechisch Wyssenburg, Belgrade. With an army of 70,000, an artillery park of 300 pieces and a river fleet of 200 vessels at his command, the Conqueror began the siege on July 4, 1456. 

Belgrade (Kriechisch Wyssenburg, Greek White Castle), from Sebastian Münster's "World Chronicle" (1545)

Fifty years earlier, during a momentary lapse in Ottoman power, the Serbian Prince Stefan Lazarević had led his new capital on the junction of the rivers Sava and Danube into something of a Golden Age and established a New Constantinople in more than an Orthodox Christian sense. By the end of his rule in 1427, the White City housed about 50,000 people and Stefan’s biographer Constantine the Philosopher praised her buildings “as mighty as Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem” shadowing her surroundings like “the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens”, the “most Tsar-like of all cities”, along with the state-of-the-art fortifications of the upper and lower city. However, Stefan’s successor Đurađ Branković had to cede her to the Hungarians and in 1455, the warlord John Hunyadi, anticipating where his old enemy Mehmed’s first major blow would fall, gave the fortress the finishing touches. 50 years old by then, Hunyadi had fought the Ottomans for almost 20 years with varying success, to say the least, but assembled a hard core of professional soldiers, cavalry, infantry and artillery, presaging his son Matthias Corvinus’ Black Army of Hungary, and he knew how to worry the modern Turkish soldiers on the battlefield. On the other hand, he worried the local Hungarian, Croatian and Serbian lords enough with his internal power play that they feared him more than the Turks. And left him, more or less, on his own. The westerners, fearing the advance of the Ottoman Turks on a more insubstantial level, practically followed suit. Already in 1453, Pope Callixtus III had preached a crusade that fell on deaf ears. And even the fire and brimstone hatemonger John of Capistrano couldn’t entice the princes of the Holy Roman Empire to take the cross at the Diet of Frankfurt two years later. He had more success in the southeast, in Bavaria and Austria, and finally in Hungary, where the Ottoman threat was already manifest. Thus, he managed to gather several ten thousands of peasants, bolstered by German knights and led them to Hunyadi as the crusaders of the “Soldier Saint”, as he became known. Pope Calixtus III donated a considerable amount of money from the alms bag for Hunyadi’s war chest and gave ideological support. Allegedly by issuing a papal bull against the foreboding appearance of Halley’s Comet and by ordering the whole of Christendom to ring the church bells at noon time and pray for the crusader’s victory at the Siege of Belgrade. By then, the defenders of the White City under Hunyadi’s brother-in-law Michael Szilágyi already fought for their lives.

Alexander von Wagner (1838 - 1919) "Titusz Dugovics Sacrifices Himself" (1859) by grabbing the first janissary over the wall , wresting the regimental colours from him and dragging the wretch down with him over the fortifications of the upper city on 21 July 1456.

ten days, the White City lay under artillery barrage like Constantinople three years earlier. But this time, Mehmed Fatih had three times the ordnance at his disposal and concentrated the fire on an area of about one tenth of the fallen Roman capital. Szilágyi held, though, with the people of Belgrade getting the worst of it. On July 14, Hunyadi’s advance guard finally arrived on the scene. The old warhorse had scraped together a river flotilla from God knows where and managed to strike his first decisive blow against the highly professional Ottoman navy on the Danube. His ragtag vessels manned by Danube boatmen and a contingent of his experienced and well-equipped mercenaries-turned-marines sank three of Mehmed’s war galleys and destroyed or captured the bulk of his guard and supply vessels, cutting the besieger’s communication lines with the capital and allowing Hunyadi to get supplies and reinforcements into the city. A week later, the relief army arrived on the scene, made up from Hunyadi’s hard core of about 5,000 professional soldiers and Capistrano’s crusader rabble of some 50 – to 60,000 men and Mehmed ordered an all-out assault on the fortifications of Belgrade. The under city fell in the night of July 21, but Szilágyi held the upper town against the crème of the Ottoman army in brutal hand-to-hand fighting. The next day started with something of a surprise when Capistrano’s crusaders, probably about to loot the depleted Ottoman camp against Hunyadi’s express orders, were suddenly engaged in melee with Mehmed’s household cavalry. The Kapikulu Sipahis were swamped by the mob before they could properly deploy and charge and Capistrano saw his chance, followed up with several thousand more and pushed the Ottomans back into their camp. Now Hunyadi stepped in and led his professionals against an equal number of Mehmed’s lifeguards who desperately tried to stem the tide and bring something resembling order into the chaos of the battle in the camp. Hunyadi threw them, Mehmed himself was wounded in close combat, the Janissaries, who still fought in the streets of the lower and upper city were cut off, cornered and slaughtered. The battle and the siege were over and John Hunyadi had won against the odds. Mehmed withdrew what was still left of his force back to Constantinople and the Kingdom of Hungary, along with Central Europe, was safe for the next 70 years from Ottoman incursions. The news of the victory at Belgrade reached the Pope on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration. By then, John Hunyadi and John of Capistrano both lay on their death beds with the plague that had broken out in the crusader’s camp. Hunyadi died on August 11, Capistrano followed in October. Pope Callixtus’ order to ring the noon bells to pray for the defenders of Belgrade became a celebration, though, and a commemoration of victory over the Turks carried on to this day, even if the actual reason for ringing the noon bells every day is, by and large, forgotten.

And more about the 1456 Siege of Belgrade on:

Saturday, 16 July 2016

"In Moorish lands a maiden fair" - Mozart's "Il Seraglio"

16 July 1782, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (The Abduction from the Seraglio) premiered at the Vienna Burgtheater with the composer conducting.

“All our endeavour ... to confine ourselves to what is simple and limited was lost when Mozart appeared. Die Entführung aus dem Serail conquered all, and our own carefully written piece has never been so much as mentioned in theater circles.“ (Goethe)

Anton Hickel: "Roxelana and the Sultan" (1780)

not quite without irony that Mozart’s opera about hareem fantasies and lustful Turks premiered on the anniversary of the Tyrkjaránið, the Turkish abductions in Iceland. 155 years before, a flotilla of Atlantic-going Barbary pirate xebecs under the renegade Dutch privateer Murat Reis, née Jan Janszoon of Harlem, raided in the far north and herded together a couple of hundreds of islanders and carried them away to be sold on the slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East. Similar slave catching raids took place in Ireland, Murat Reis’ Sallee Rovers even established a permanent base in the Bristol Channel and the threat of slave catchers from North Africa led by Muslim converts like Simon de Danser, John Ward and Jan Janszoon continued well towards the end of the 17th century when the Royal Navy began to rule Atlantic Waters in earnest. In the Med, however, Barbary pirates continued to raid the Spanish and Italian coastal villages to stoke up the slave markets with white goods until the broadsides of battleships of a combined Anglo-Dutch squadron under the British naval hero Sir Edward Pellew finally put an end to it in 1816. Never the less, the whole subject had inspired an entire genre of “Christian-abducted-by-the-Corsairs” tracts and erotic penny dreadfuls that climaxed in the Orientalism of 19th century high art and the treatment in Voltaire’s “Candide” and Mozart’s “Il Seraglio”. By then, the high-water mark of Ottoman expansion on the Balkans was exceeded since a hundred years with the Siege of Vienna itself, the last wars between the Sublime Porte and the Habsburgs had been fought along the so-called Military Border at the back of beyond in Bosnia two generations before and during the 1770s and ‘80s, a fashion of Turquerie was firmly established in the Austrian part of the Danube Monarchy, à la mode in the whole west of Europe at that time. From Turkish tobacco and coffee, long caftan-like morning coats worn by the upper sets and architectural elements like kiosks to entire mock mosques, the mortal fear of the Ottoman conquerors was replaced by a fascination with the fashionable exotic. And even if Mozart himself stated that Ottoman music was “offensive to the ears”, he had already composed his famous “Alla Turca”, the Turkish March from his Piano Sonata No. 11, and various others pieces of so-called “Janissary Music” and when Emperor Joseph II ordered a national Singspiel to be composed to rival the dominant Italian operas, Mozart pulled the strings of contemporary pop culture together and composed what was to become arguably the first German opera.

A 17th century imagination of Europeans sold on an Oriental slave market

story of “Il Seraglio” is quickly told. Konstanze, a young girl from Spain, is abducted by Barbary pirates, along with her English maidservant Blonde and her bethroted Belmonte’s servant Pedrillo. They are sold to Bassa (Pasha) Selim and transported to the Turk’s palace by the sea. The girls go straight to Selim’s harem while Pedrillo manages to draw his former master to the set of the plot with a letter. Start of the performance. Pedrillo persuades Bassa Selim to employ the young Spaniard as an architect and Belmonte plans to abduct his beloved Konstanze and her hangers-on from the clutches of the Turk. While Konstanze and Blonde have to fend off the overtures of Bassa Selim and his Man Friday Osmin respectively, Pedrillo introduces said poor Mussulman to the allurements of forbidden alcohol, the Anglo-Iberian quartet manages to flee, they get caught again, and while Osmin is all for slaughtering the lot with stereotypic oriental cruelty, Bassa Selim turns out to be a bit of a surprise. Actually a Spaniard himself, the Pasha was forced into exile by Belmonte’s father, the Governor of Oran, turned renegade quite like the historical corsairs Jan Janszoon or John Ward, and now sees a chance to get even with his old enemy by putting the governor’s junior and his beloved to the sword. The Pasha lets the young couple wriggle for a while until he decides that magnanimity would be a far more delicate revenge and sets them free along with Blonde and Pedrillo. "Nie werd' ich deine Huld verkennen" – "Your noble mercy passes measure“ is the appropriate name of the opera’s final. End of the action and a remarkable parallel to Lessing’s liberal Muslim Sultan Saladin and the sage Jew from “Nathan the Wise”, premiering a year later in Berlin. A message from the Age of Enlightenment in an otherwise witty but somewhat trivial libretto with character stereotypes who are far more than they appear at first glance.

Mozart (the small one in the centre) attending a performance of "Il Seraglio" in Berlin (1789)

“Il Seraglio” was not only among the first German operas but lifts the curtain to Mozart’s mature masterworks. The start of his career’s climax with a Janissary drumbeat was slightly marred by the fact that the Salzburgian genius had simply commandeered one Christoph Bretzner of Berlin’s libretto known as “Belmont und Constanze, oder Die Entführung aus dem Serail“, published during the previous year. He and his librettist Gottlieb Stephanie reworked the whole thing completely, without asking Bretzner’s permission, naturally, and made it into an intricately woven, timeless masterpiece, copyright infringement or not. And intricately woven enough to make its enlightened absolutist commissioner Emperor Joseph II complain “Zu schön für unsere Ohren, und gewaltig viel Noten, lieber Mozart!", too beautiful for our ears and a mighty lot of notes and dear Mozart answered to his sovereign and eternity: “There are just as many notes as there should be.“ His Habsburg Majesty remained an ardent supporter and patron regardless and appointed Mozart as his “chamber composer” a couple of years later. A job that famously didn’t pay very much, just as the salary for writing “Il Seraglio” amounted to a rather manageable amount. The two opening performances in Vienna alone yielded three times of the 100 Imperial Ducats he was paid, about 10,000 Euros in today’s money, and Mozart saw nothing of it, neither did he earn something from the several booked-out performances staged already during his life and times across Europe. 100 Imperial Ducats, however, was about one third of an annual Viennese middle class income and not half bad for an artist in his twenties on the brink of his great breakthrough and most of the good people of Vienna lived from hand to mouth anyway. Meagre, admittedly, from an economic viewpoint for one of the most popular operas of all times.

And more about “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” on:

Sunday, 10 July 2016

“Forget the war as a passing cloud” - The Battle of Svensksund and Sweden's greatest Naval Victory

10 July 1790, During the climax of the Russo-Swedish War, the Battle of Svensksund ended with a nearly complete Swedish victory in one of the largest naval engagements ever fought.

“Different Kinds of Arms are required in a Battle by Land, but many more in an Action by Sea, and also Machines and Engines like those used in the Attack or Defence of Places. What can be more terrible than a Sea Fight, in which both Fire and Water both unite for the Destruction of the Combatants” (Flavius Vegetius: “De Re Militari”)

Johan Tietrich Schoultz (1754 - 1807): "Slaget vid Svensksund" (The Battle of Svensksund, 1791)

, the Age of Enlightenment grew somewhat strange blossoms. King Gustav III of Sweden, for example, once decided with scientific zeal to prove to the world how harmful beverages like tea and coffee were. A pair of criminal twins, sentenced to death anyway, were given liberal doses of said hot potables every day, one several cups of tea, the other the same amount of coffee while the monarch and his staff of naturalists and medicos impatiently waited who of the two would peg out first. The twins survived the treatment and both lived to a ripe old age, much to Gustav’s dismay. But the enlightened despot wasn’t one for corporeal punishment, torture and death sentences anyway. He abolished them, by and large, promoted the arts, wrote plays himself and was caught between two stools, that of the party harkening back to the constitution he abolished by coup d’etat, in 1772 and the Hattarna, the “hats”, named after the tricornes worn by nobles and officers who demanded a more aggressive Sweden, ruled by their faction with all the aristo privileges, naturally. To keep them quiet after quelling a mutiny in 1789 and hide some effects of a depression in his otherwise quite successful new national economic policy, the monarch decided to start the 18th century’s last Cabinet War. In contrast to the incredibly savage religious wars of the 17th and the national wars of the 19th century about to bloodily dawn on Europe, Cabinet Wars, named after the war cabinet absolute rulers of the age gathered around them in case of conflict, were waged with limited, manageable military goals usually for minor territorial gains and with minor suffering of non combatants. At least in theory. King Gustav, however, enlightened as he was, looked for a proper casus belli to pick a fight with his neighbour, his cousin Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russians, who was obligingly occupied with fighting the Turks who tried to recapture the Crimea and other former Black Sea possessions lost 30 years before. Dressed up in Russian uniforms made by tailors of the Royal Swedish Opera, founded by Gustav himself, Swedish soldiers staged an attack on their own outpost of Puumala on the Russian border on 27 June 1788 and Sweden went to war.

Swedish warships of the örlogsflottan and the skärgårdsflottan are fitted out in Stockholm on the eve of war, by Louis Jean Desprez (1743 - 1804)

True to the doctrine of the Cabinet Wars, Gustav’s plan was, by and large, to defeat the Russian regiments stationed along the border in Finland, gain the upper hand at sea, land troops near St Petersburg and force Catherine to sign a favourable peace and return Russian territorial gains from wars fought earlier in the century. And while Denmark, Russia’s ally, entered the conflict and brought Sweden into the same dilemma of having to fight a war on two fronts just as Russia, the conflict on land went so-so for Sweden, nine major battles were fought in Finland, some won, some lost without going anywhere, mostly, but worse things happened at sea. Several naval engagements ended indecisive over the course of the war, the Swedish high seas fleet finally found itself bottled up in Vyborg Bay, about a hundred miles northwest of St Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland, cut off and blockaded by a considerably larger Russian squadron under Admiral Chichagov. Trying to run the “Viborgska gatloppet”, the Viborg gauntlet, through the skerries and into the broadsides of the 29 Russian ships of the line, the Swedes suffered a major battering on 4 July 1790. Gustav had lost one fourth of his battle fleet and drew Chichagov’s squadron towards Helsinki in pursuit. And there, the other part of the Swedish Navy lay in wait, the so-called Archipelago Fleet. The coastline of the northern and eastern Baltic shores is famously dotted with small rocky islands, sometimes forming downright archipelagos, geological formations with waterways impossible for large-drafted ships to navigate. Thus, during the course of the 18th century, both the Swedes and the Russians developed fleet arms consisting of shallow draft gunboats, galleys, known as udemas and pojamas, and Baltic oddities, such as broadside-armed, rowable ships the size of a small frigate, inspired by Mediterranean xebecs. These skärgårdsfregatter, "archipelago frigates", turumas and the over 100’ long hemmemas were ideally suited to move oar-powered through the channels of the archipelagos with far too less offing for a large sailing ship and take to the open seas of the Baltic as well. Along with being ideally suited for close inshore work and joined operations with the army. A week after the Swedish disaster of Vyborg, the Russian archipelago fleet closed in towards Helsinki and the Swedish fortress of Sveaborg where the örlogsflottan, the high seas navy, sheltered for repairs. At Svensksund, some 80 miles east of Helsinki, Gustav and his skärgårdsflottan made their stand. At eight o’clock on 9 July 1790, the Russian admiral Nassau-Siegen’s flagship “Sviataia Ekaterina” signalled “general advance” into the Svensksund. One of the greatest naval battles in history had begun.

Ivan Aivazovsky: "Russian Victory at Viborg" (around 1880)

With several hundred vessels involved on both sides, from the Swedish 5 skärgårdsfregatter and 9 Russian rowing frigates to small gunboats, carrying more than 2,000 often considerably large calibre cannon and 25,000 fighting men, the engagement in the sound resembled the Battle of Lepanto of 1571 far more than contemporary naval battles fought on the high seas. There were no fancy manoeuvres involved, no battle lines to speak of, just brutal close combat, boarding and firing into each other at point-blank range. In the afternoon, the Swedes managed to engulf the Russian vessels from all sides, around sunset Nassau-Siegen signalled to break off the engagement, few were able to or wanted to heed the call, fighting continued all through the night and ended when the Swedes had rounded up what was left off the Russian coastal fleet on the following morning. It was an unprecedented disaster for Russia. By and large, their entire coastal fleet was destroyed with hardly any Swedish losses to speak off and there was nothing left to prevent a well-planned Swedish amphibious assault on St Petersburg. That was a bit too much and Catherine of Russia initiated peace negotiations. Gustav was all too ready to comply and four weeks after the Battle of Svensksund, the Treaty of Värälä was signed and the Russo-Swedish War was over. “Forget the war as a passing cloud”, Gustav poetically wrote to his cousin and the status quo ante bellum was re-established while Europe prepared to fight revolutionary France in the War of the First Coalition and a new era in the history of the world was about to begin, as Goethe mentioned after the Battle of Valmy two years later. King Gustav III, a figurehead of the old world order, wouldn’t live to see it, though. He was assassinated in March 1792 during a fancy dress ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, dramatically at midnight by black masked conspirators.

And more about the Battle of Svensksund on:

Friday, 1 July 2016

King Totila's last Battle at Busta Gallorum and the end of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy

1 July 552, after more than twenty years of death struggle between Eastern Rome and the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy during Emperor Justinian’s attempt of reconquering the lost Western Empire, the Byzantine General Narses decisively defeated King Totila’s Goths in the Battle of Taginae in the Apennine Mountains, some 120 mile northeast of Rome.

“…the king exhibited in a narrow space the strength and agility of a warrior. His armour was enchased with gold; his purple banner floated with the wind: he cast his lance into the air; caught it with the right hand; shifted it to the left; threw himself backwards; recovered his seat; and managed a fiery steed in all the paces and evolutions of the equestrian school.” (Edward Gibbon, “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”)

King Totila, as imagined in Luca Signorelli's (1445 - 1523) Renaissance vision of "Benedict Discovers Totila's Deceit" (around 1500)

 very meekest cannot rest in quiet, unless it suits with his ill neighbour's humour, as William Tell once put it in Schiller’s eponymous play. Not that the word “meek” would suggest itself in regards to the Ostrogothic king Theoderic the Great. The Germanic condottiero had led his tribal followers into Italy during the last quarter of the 5th century and managed to carve out a kingdom from the ruins of the Western Empire. A couple of years later, the Eastern Roman emperors in Constantinople recognised Theoderic as de facto successor of their bygone western counterparts and even the ambitious Merovingian Franks were kept at bay with a successful combination of military action, threat and high quality diplomacy while the petulant Roman inhabitants of the peninsula by and large accepted and prospered under the certainty of the law under the benign Gothic overlordship. Not half bad for a ruler who had started out as a bare-arsed, louse-ridden barbarian chieftain as some of the contemporary Roman sources and imperial die-hards described him. His death at the age of 70-something in 526 without a suitably adult male heir left the Gothic kingdom in Italy in something of an impasse, though, especially since in Constantinople a new emperor came into the purple who had a vision of resurrecting the lost western part of the Roman Empire. Justinian. And after having settled his internal affairs and concluded an admittedly fragile peace with the Sassanid Empire, the next-door superpower east of the Euphrates, Justinian had his hands free to put his idea of restauratio imperii into action. The Vandal kingdom in North Africa was in for it first and fell after a lighting campaign led by the rather brilliant General Belisarius. The Gothic Kingdom of Italy was the next in line. Their royal infighting over the past years provided Justinian with the pretence he needed and in 535, Belisarius landed in pro-Roman Sicily with a small but highly professional army, occupied the place, rolled up the south of Italy, sweeping away all Gothic resistance until Naples and finally Rome fell in December 536. And then, things went completely pear-shaped for the conquerors. Even while the Goths changed their leaders more often than their shirts, resistance began to form in earnest, the Roman offensive foundered in the north, the plague broke out in Constantinople and the Sasanians declared war again in the east. Rome herself became a battlefield and while the Eternal City had somehow survived the turmoil of the 5th century and the Visigothic and Vandal sacks, her remaining 100,000 inhabitants of 536 had either fled or were killed when the Gothic king Totila recaptured the city for the last time. Belisarius was recalled from the Italian theatre, Justinian feared intrigue and his general had demanded reinforcements and more supplies once too often anyway. Now Narses was mobilised to give the Goths the coup de grace with an army of 30,000 and almost every imaginable resource Belisarius had clamoured for in vain.

An imagination of charging Gothic heavy cavalry

Narses, an elderly Armenian eunuch and actually an accountant by trade, had already seen some fighting in Italy earlier in the Gothic War and became Belisarius’ bitter rival, especially since he seemed to enjoy Justinian’s full confidence and that of the bustling Empress Theodora who had significantly contributed to Belisarius’ demise. The Armenian took his time, marched his army through Illyria until a Byzantine fleet managed to bring Totila’s warships to bay and annihilate them off Ancona. With his supplies lines secure, Narses finally pushed into Italy and marched down the old Via Flaminia to meet Totila. The armies clashed at a place known as Busta Gallorum, the burial mounds of the Gauls, once defeated and buried there after Brennus, of vae victis fame, was thrown out of Rome under Camillus some 800 years before. A good omen for a Roman army, though, and Narses proved to be far more than a pen pusher and Imperial favourite. He knew how to fight as well. Totila had rushed the famous Gothic heavy cavalry forward, dragging his infantry levies behind. He chose a narrow valley to offer battle and Narses accepted. He anticipated the cavalry charge, let most of his men dismount, positioned them in a half circle with his experienced archers on the flanks, quite like the English at Agincourt 850 years later. Totila knew that his lancers wouldn’t stand half a chance if they were exposed too long to the withering fire of the Romans and opened the battle with a charge against the archers on one of the wings. The arrows fired from the Byzantine composite bows that already had stopped Sassanid heavily armoured cataphracts in their tracks were still overwhelming. The Gothic charge was pushed away to the Roman centre, lost its momentum, the Roman infantry reserves charged and broke the Goths. Then Narses’ own cataphracts came over both wings and rode what was left of Totila’s disorganized ranks into the ground. The king himself was mortally wounded and died soon after, his coat and bejeweled hat were later presented to Justinian and Narses’ had decisively defeated the Ostrogoths with almost no losses of his own. Their rule in Italy was virtually over. 

Adolf Zick (1845 - 1907): "Die Gotenschlacht am Vesuv" (The Goths' Battle at Mount Vesuvius, around 1900), depicting King Teia's last stand at the Battle of Mons Lactarius near the Vesuvius

They crowned one last king, Teia, and Narses defeated him and the last of the Ostrogoths at a place known as Mons Lactarius in Campania in the November of the same year. Teia died fighting and what was left of his people was allowed to leave and withdraw beyond the Alps and into legend. The dream of an Ostrogothic Italy was over. The Franks sniffed their chance, tried to invade the heap of ruins the peninsula had become over the last twenty years of war and Narses defeated them as well. Italy had found the piece of the grave for a while. Narses remained as exarch, did his best to restore at least something resembling a civil infrastructure until he simply disappears from the records towards the end of the 560s. The next wave of invaders, the Lombards, already sharpened their battle axes and were about to knock at the door. In 568 they migrated into Italy under their King Alboin, tens of thousands of them, along with various other tribes and they would rule most of the place for the next two hundred years, locked in a continuous struggle with Eastern Rome. By then, Theoderic, Totila, Teia and Belisarius had entered the realm of legends just as the tribe of the Ostrogoths did and they lived and fought on in heroic epics well into the 20th century. Narses, arguably the most brilliant commander of them all and certainly the most unheroic figure, was duly forgotten outside of Byzantine historiography, though.

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