Friday, October 20, 2006

Day of Battles

Today is the anniversary of several battles. Join El Jefe in a glass of whatever adult beverage you prefer, (El Jefe has a glass of Jameson, thank you very much) -- and drink to the memories of all who fell, or were wounded, or taken in these engagements.
Battle of Zama. Today, in 202 B.C. , the great Roman general and consul Publius Cornelius Scipio -- one of the greatest soldiers ever to put on boots (among Romans, only Gaius Julius Caesar or perhaps Gaius Marius were greater) defeated the Carthaginians, led by another great general, Hannibal Barca, at Zama, in what is now Tunisia. The last great battle of the long Second Punic War: too many of Hannibal's veterans were dead, and the superb Roman infantry stood up to Hannibal's war elephants and jumped right back in his face -- fixing Hannibal's own infantry in place until the Roman cavalry worked itself around into the Carthaginian rear, winning the battle. There would be other battles -- another war. But Carthage, and Hannibal, were finished today.
Siege of Yorktown. Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered about 7,000 British soldiers to George Washington (for the US) and the Comte de Rochambeau (for France) today, in 1781, effectively ending the War for American Independence. Cornwallis was the best general the British had, and he commanded the elite of the British Army in America, but he made a serious mistake in first chasing the greatest of the US generals, Nathanael Greene, into North Carolina; and then bypassing him, and moving on into Virginia, in 1781.
Lord Cornwallis had enough troops to hold South Carolina and Georgia for the Crown, and those colonies might have been preserved for Britain in peace negotiations. But he split his forces and moved north, and was trapped by a US/French strategic concentration at Yorktown.
Much of the credit for the victory goes to the French and their navy, in particular Admiral Comte deGrasse, who had the finest strategic brain of any of the French commanders, and appreciated the merit of a concentration of Franco-American forces from all over the Indies and America around Chesapeake Bay. His loan of 3,000 troops to Washington and Rochambeau, and his defeat of the British Admiral Graves at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay (15 September 1781) made the isolation and defeat of Cornwallis possible.
Battle of Leipzig. Today, in 1813, French Emperor Napoléon I lost the Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October). Leipzig, in Saxony, was both the largest and the most decisive battle of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1813). Napoléon I was probably the greatest general that ever lived -- he certainly won more battles than probably anybody else, but two of the three he lost ruined him (Waterloo and Leipzig), and of these two, Leipzig was by far the more important.
Leipzig was a massive battle, probably the largest in history prior to the First World War. Napoléon commanded an army of about 200,000 French, Italians, Poles and Germans, opposed by 320,000 Prussians, Russians, Austrians and Swedes. In four days of fighting, Napoléon suffered about 38,000 dead and wounded -- his enemies about 52,000.
The battle was very complicated, and space prohibits much discussion here, but in essence, Napoléon was unable to defeat the mostly Austrian Army of Bohemia, led by the Prince of Schwartzenberg -- before the Prusso/Russian Army of Silesia, commanded by Napoléon's most redoubtable opponent, Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher -- showed up.
Napoléon had lost many of his best troops in Russia; the troops he brought to Leipzig were mostly raw, half-trained and commanded by war-weary generals looking to preserve their fortunes. (Napoléon, one of the foremost exponents of meritocracy -- the man who made generals out of drummer boys -- now discovered that the downside of employing other self-made risers to the top is their loyalty to themselves only in adversity).
Moreover, Napoléon was now facing enemy commander who, if not geniuses like he was, had learned Napoléon's methods and who commanded troops on fire with nationalism who were eager to fight the French. Finally, the French had serious difficulties due to Napoléon's inability to resolve the clash of priorties between his different jobs: between the political priorties of Emperor Napoléon and the military concerns of General Bonaparte.
Napoléon, when his enemies finally managed to concentrate their forces at Leipzig -- tried to retreat the night of 18/19 October. However, an error by an unknown engineer corporal, whose name has thankfully been lost to history -- destroyed the one available bridge over the Elster River -- trapping much of Napoléon's army on the wrong side. The war had two more years to run. . .but Napoléon, from nobody gunner to Emperor -- and then to ruler of Europe in one lifetime -- was finished. He was 44 years old.
All that's long ago now. Particularly to us. But it was all too real, to all too many people. Remember these people, if you have time. The long dead Romans and Carthaginians; British and American; French, Prussians, Russians and Swedes were our brothers too.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave once, her flowers to love, her way to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evl shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given.
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnd of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Rupert Brooke "The Soldier." (Brooke died in the First World War)

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