Monday, 30 May 2011

Santo Domingo and out - Spain in 1860s America Part 3

The first flicker of rebellion came in early February 1863 when 50 men stormed the local HQ in Neiba, but this was quelled almost immediately. Much more serious was a revolt planned by Santiago Rodriguez in Sabaneta in late February. This was tipped off to the Spanish authorities who mobilised and drove Rodriguez to sanctuary in Haiti and his followers to organise a guerrilla war in the countryside. Thus was started the pattern of the war, the Spanish controlled the coast and the main towns in the south, the Dominicans held the countryside, especially in the north west, supplied and sheltered in Haiti. Their heartland was protected by mountain passes and desert.

The troops were mainly from the Cuban and Puerto Rican garrisons, at least initially, infantry, cavalry and artillery being shipped over to the island. The Spanish navy had complete command of the sea and used a fleet of paddle wheel steamers to transport troops to, and around, the island. Typical was the Isabella la Catolica, built in 1850 and employed for most of her career in American waters - she was part of the fleet that went to Mexico in 1862. She carried 16 8 inch guns, 14 broadside and 2 pivots, had a top speed of 12 knots and a crew of 160. These steamers had quite a capacity, the Pizzaro, for example, conveying a whole battalion of artillery from Puerto Rico.

The Isabella II, sister ship to Isabella la Catolica

The Spanish had only themselves to blame for Haitian support of the rebels, making territorial claims there had driven the Haitians into the enemy camp, just one of a long stream of misrule that had caused this situation to come to pass. In April 1862 the news was of Spanish troops congregating in Azua on the southern coast, ready to occupy Haitian territories that were formerly Spanish in the old days. And invade they did, thus creating yet another drain on army resources.

The Spanish garrison by October 1863 was as follows.

Primera Brigada
Coronel Don Julián González Cadet
Batallón de Cazadores de La Unión.
Batallón de Tarragona.
Cuarta Compañía de Montaña del Regimiento de Cuba .

Segunda Brigada
Coronel Don Joaquín Suárez
Batallón de Isabel II .
Batallón de Nápoles.
Tercera Compañía de Montaña del Regimiento de Cuba.
Milicias del País, capitán Máximo Gómez (Militia)

Tropas del Cuartel General (Headquarters)
Primera Sección de Cazadores de Africa .
Primera Sección de Lanceros de la Reina (Lancers)

Lancer from the Cuban garrison, 1862

An idea of the to and through of the campaign can be be got from reports in this month. Pedro Santana claimed a great victory in the interior against the rebels....

"This morning at nine o'clock we met the enemy holding the River Guanuma, where they had their headquarters. They were completely beaten and routed by our valiant troops of the army and the reserve force of the country. After having pursued them for about a league we are now encamped this afternoon at 3 P.M. on their late position."

Santana, the former dictator, was by far the best Spanish general, though his hands were frequently tied by Spanish oversight. At that moment he was soon to be reinforced at Cotuy by General Gandara with a strong division containing the regiments Napoles (veterans of the occupation of Vera Cruz), Tarragona, Isabel II. and Union, six pieces of mountain artillery and a squadron of cavalry. The troops are to operate "with vigor" against the rebels of Cibao, which does suggest his victory is not a complete as Santana claimed.

In fact the same reports claim that troops are being shipped from Azua to Santo Domingo "to concentrate the divided forces in a single point so as to operate for the future with more unity and efficiency", which sounds suspiciously like an evacuation.

Soldier of the Cuban garrison 1862

It is hard to reconstruct the war in detail, depending as it does on reports in Spanish and American newspapers which were often diametrically opposed. For example, in the New York Times article quoted above the Spanish report that the Santa Lucia (a new screw corvette) went to the support of Spanish troops holed up in the fort at Puerto Plata and drove of the rebels by firing grapeshot. However the reporter claims it is "well known" that "a Spanish war steamer was terribly crippled at that place by the firing of the insurrectionists, and was obliged to be towed off by another Spanish steamer".

Gradually the Spanish were forced from even the northern coast. In November 1863 the 2,000 garrison of Santiago abandoned the city and marched to Puerto Plata, the main northern port, attacked by Dominicans all the way. There they joined the garrison in the fort, leaving the city to be pillaged by the rebels. Eventually 600 Spanish sallied out and drove off the rebels, with help from the cannon of the fort, but by the then the city had been plundered and burnt almost out of existence. The damage to Santiago and Puerto Plate was estimated at $5,000,000.

By mid November virtually the whole garrisons of Cuba and Puerto Rico were deployed on Santo Domingo and 8,000 troops had been sent from Europe, diverted from deployment in Morocco. At the same time a powerful fleet was assembled to convey the troops to Cuba, and probably to prevent outside interference - two screw frigates, the Concepcion (37 guns) and Villa de Madrid, one screw corvette, the Africa; four steamers, the Colon, Leon, Alava and San Antonio, two store-ships, the Pinta and Marigalante.

Spanish Marines, 1862

By March 1864 General Gandara was Captain General of Santo Domingo, in the place of General Vurgas, who had sent his 2nd in command to Spain to try to persuade them to abandon the island. There were rumours circulating the Spanish troops did not even have tents to sleep in. Huge numbers of Spanish troops were lost to dysentery and malaria, especially the native Spanish. One report claimed up to 1,500 per month lost to disease.

The Spanish had rigged up a telegraph line from Cuba to Santo Domingo by June, only for almost the first news to be the death of Pedro Santana, their best general. Nonetheless the tide had turned yet again, with the Spanish pushing along the Northern coast supplied by steamer and capturing Monte Cristi, close by the Haitian border. This seems to have caused a loss of heart amongst many of the rebels and many deserted.

An example of the warfare at this time can be found from the account from the troops at Monte Crisiti in July.

" In consequence of such a long drought, the ponds which afforded us water were dried up, and we were limited to a ration which was brought in ships from the river Tapion.

In consequence of this scarcity, Gen. Gandara ordered that all the horses and mules should be taken to drink at a small lake about two leagues from the camp, a force of two hundred soldiers going as a guard, and the horses and mules on their return being loaded with barrels, &c., of water. This was done for two days without molestation, but on the third day a small detachment of the enemy harassed their march, a sergeant being killed and several of the animals wounded. The next day a large force was sent to protect the watering party. The detachment was commanded by Count Balmaseda, who sent forward a vanguard under Col. Argenti , and composed of eight hundred infantry of the Cazadores of Isabella the Second, and the First and Fifth of the Marine Artillery, with two pieces. The vanguard, when near the watering-place and about to take up a position so as to protect the watering party, received a discharge from the insurgent force. It was returned, and with a bayonet charge the Spanish troops gained the position they desired. On hearing the firing, Count Balmaseda pressed forward with the Battalion of Spain and two more pieces of artillery, and after a heavy and prolonged fire of musketry, several bayonet charges, twenty-two rounds of artillery and eight charges by the King's Lancers, the insurgents were repulsed. On returning after watering the horses and mules, the Spanish troops attempted to molest the enemy, but were vigorously repulsed. This was, indeed, and in all respects a battle, both on account of the heavy firing on both sides, as well as from the large forces engaged".

During this time the Dominican leadership had changed frequently, only to be deposed in coups for corruption, politics or in the case of Polanco (who lasted 3 months) leading a disastrous direct attack on the Spanish at Monte cristi in December 1864.

Spanish troops routing Dominican rebels at Monte Cristi

Thus by the end of 1864, it could be said the Spanish were winning. But not for the first or last time in history, military victory was trumped by political defeat. The price of war in terms of money and lives had been huge, disease and the hardy, experienced fighters of the island causing many casualties that Spain could ill afford. With the prospect of a revived United States at the very least supplying rebels as they were doing to the Mexicans fighting France, it was no longer worth the candle. On March 1865, Queen Isabella signed a decree annulling the annexation, and by August all Spanish troops had left for Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Santo Domingo - Spain in the Americas Part 2

Spain had been expelled from nearly all Latin America in the early 1820s, but had designs on a return. This might have seemed a pipe dream, but they were about to have an incredible piece of luck - part of the old empire was about to ask to return.

Hispaniola had been Spanish since the days of Christopher Columbus, but the Western third was later taken over bu the French, resulting in two culturally different regions that we now know as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The Haitians, remarkably, threw off french rule, the Dominicans declared independence in 1821, and were almost immediately invaded by Haiti. Haitians were expelled in 1844 and there followed years of chaos, dictatorships and repeated Haitian invasions. Thus by the late 1850s people were looking around for an alternative.

Santana harbour 1870

The US had had designs on Santo Domingo for years, primarily the harbour at Santana, which would give the US a naval base in the centre of the Caribbean. The Spanish, British and French were opposed to any American takeover for exactly the same reason. In the 1850s though interest intensified as the American Secretary of State, Seward attempted to drag the US into a confrontation with Spain to distract the southern States from talk of Independence. Lincoln though refused to be deflected from internal politics.

A better alternative, from the viewpoint of the Spanish elite, was a return to Spain itself - strong enough to withstand Haiti, but not so strong as to absorb them completely. Consequently in 1859 a representative of the current dictator, Santana, approached the Spanish court to establish a protectorate over the island, fortifying it against any American incursions. Increasing American official and unofficial pressure caused Sanatan to ask for direct Spanish rule, under certain conditions, especially a guarantee Spain would never reestablish slavery, one of the worries about the United States. Annexation as the Spanish Maritime Province of Santo Domingo was announced in cathedral square on March 18 1861,

Pedro Santana, dictator of the Dominican Republic and 1st Governor of the Spanish colony

It should have gone so well, the easiest conquest in history. If Santo Domingo was not actually enthusiastic for Spanish rule, it was on the whole prepared to accept it. Two small rebellions were crushed and yet another invasion from Haiti ambushed and destroyed by government forces with out the Spanish needing to do anything. Unfortunately the Spanish played their hand badly, very badly.

Flag of the Santo Domingo Maritime Province

Many government officials were removed from office and replaced by Spanish officials from Cuba and Puerto Rico. Santana's cronies they might have been, but at least they understood the country. Even worse, many of the Dominican militia officers who had fought off the Haitians were considered not even worthy to wear Spanish uniforms, alienating many of Spain's natural allies. This was mirrored in society as a whole. Many Dominicans at all levels were mixed race to a degree, and many marriages were made outside the catholic church. Spanish officials, especially those from Spain itself, disdained contact with those not of European blood, who they considered inferior, and a new archbishop declared that all non-Catholic marriages invalid and the children therefore bastards. With these and other measures Spain alienated virtually all classes of society with incredible speed. The Dominicans had been fighting Haiti, and each other, for generations, the result was inevitable.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

España vuelve - Spain's return to the Americas in the 1860s. Part 1

The 1850s saw a remilitarisation of Spain, as Queen Isabella struggled to gain popularity by recapturing past glories. This started well with a victory against Morocco at Tetouan and gains on the Moroccan coast which Spain holds to this day. Encouraged, the Spanish looked further afield, especially to the Americas. The massive loss of their South American colonies still rankled, and it had been clear for a while that the US had eyes on what was left, especially Cuba. As early as 1850, US politicians were making clear their desire for the island, and in 1858 President Buchanan addressed Congress hinting at annexation, or compulsory purchase.

Queen Isabella II

The American civil war presented a welcome breathing space for Spain, and an opportunity to either to intervene directly or to expand their presence in the Americas. They shied away from recognising the Confederacy, not least because Southern politicians had been those most vocal in calling for annexation of Cuba, but a 2nd Reconquista, that was possible.

All this was going to take strength, and allies. The Spanish fleet was built up and modernised until it was judged the 4th most powerful in the world, with modern ships, including the Numancia, an ironclad frigate and not only one of the most powerful ships afloat but also blessed with a huge range. She would go on to be the first ironclad to circumnavigate the globe. There were also several modern steam powered frigates, making a relatively small but potent fleet. Significantly, these were long range, blue water, forces, not designed just for coastal defence. Spain at this time also still held Cuba, the Philippines and Puetro Rico, despite numerous revolts, providing island bases.

The first opportunity to assert herself was Mexico. Following victory in a civil war, largely with United States aid, the new government of Benito Juarez suspended debt interest payments to Britain, France and Spain, the major creditors. Intense negations took place between the French, Spanish, British and the United States, who were also invited to take part. The US declined, but nonetheless, the other three powers, for their own very different reasons, signed the Treaty of London agreeing to impose a solution by blockading the Mexican coast and occupying the main port of Vera Cruz.

The Spanish government had been angry at Mexico for some time, not just for debt default, but also for attacks on Spanish citizens in Mexico, and for ideological reasons, the Spanish Court identifying much more with the opponents of Juarez. There had even been suggestions of a declaration of war but these were defused, in part by General Prim, one of the victors in Morocco who was actually married to a niece of Juarez's treasurer!

General Prim at the battle of Tetuan

The British basically wanted their money back and had some sympathy for the Juarez cause, whilst the Americans were firmly in the Mexican camp, partly as an application of the Monroe doctrine, and the American Secretary of State, Seward, even offered to pay interest on the debt. The French, as was to become clear, had other motives.

The Spanish were first on the scene. Early in November, the Mexican authorities received word of preparations in Havana to send 6,000 troops and 15-16 ships to Vera Cruz, including 6 frigates and 6 "war steamers". Unfortunately for the Mexicans the fortress at San Juan de Ulua was clearly not up to the task of repelling them, so the Mexicans decided to withdrew it's artillery to use elsewhere, though only 50 guns out of about 200 were actually removed.

On the 14th December 1861 the Spanish fleet arrived at Vera Cruz and took possession without resistance, the commander General Gasset, declaring martial law and that he would hold the city in the name of Queen Isabella until the commissioners of the other powers arrived. Spanish flags were hoisted on public buildings, and the fortress. Gasset did stress however that there were no territorial intentions. Nonetheless, the New York Times of 28th December 1861 was already reporting guellia activity in the countryside and the dispatch of Spanish cavalry to deal with it.

The expeditionary force, again as reported by the New York Times, was

Two battalions of Chasseurs.

First battalion of the Infantry Regiment "Napoles."

First Battalion of the Infantry Regiment of Cuba.

Four companies of the Second battalion "del Rey."

6,000 men with another 5,000 sailors and marines and 300 horses.

General Prim inspecting the Spanish forces in Vera Cruz

The Mexican government responded by dispatching 3,000 men under General Zaragoza, and a further 52,000 were called in from the provinces. They fortified mountain passes leaving Vera Cruz, but made no move to invade the town, whilst Gasset steered clear of regular Mexican troops. Atrocities against Spanish, French and British nationals, one of the complaints of the allies,increased and many were driven from the country. In Vera Cruz, an American correspondent described the Spanish troops as " .... a very fine body of men, and are kept under strict discipline, so that no complaints have been made against them by the inhabitants of the town."

Although there was no clash of regular forces, the guerrilla situation was different. Spanish troops made incursions towards La Antigua, Anton Lizardo and on the Mediillin road in search of supplies and guerrillas. Men lost dead and as prisoners to the jarochos, which amounted to the same thing. By next May only 4,000 of the 6,000 troops were available for active service.

Soldier from the Cuban garrison 1862

Gasset was soon replaced by Prim, the same who ws married into the Mexican government. He had his work cut out dealing with the locals, and his allies. On 27th December the French force arrived, consisting of 1,300 marines, 500 Zouaves, 500 marine fusiliers, 200 marine artillery, 60 marine gunners, 50 engineers to a total of 2,610.

By the next May French intentions were becoming evident, to the dismay of their erstwhile allies. The British marine contingent withdrew, and then the Spanish, now under general prim. Apparently Prim accosted the French general De Lorencez what were his intentions and was astounded to get the answer that the French were going to march on Mexico city. This was not all what they had signed up for and Prim hastily assembled his surprised staff and started to organise a withdraw. The Spanish army was conveyed to Havana on Royal Navy ships, having refused an offer from the french navy, and Prim continued to Madrid. Although not keen on his sympathies for the Juaristas, the Spanish government supported his actions, only too glad not to be dragged into the France's Mexican adventure.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Petropavlovsk 1854 - or how not to conduct amphibious operations


Russia had been eyeing the Pacific, and particularly Britain's role in it for a while. General Nikolai Muraviev, the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia, in particular was preoccupied with this idea, and was pushing a Russo-American alliance against this threat. He transferred 1000 men and artillery to the Pacific coast, and a third of this went to the tiny village of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula.

Formerly a whaling station with a garrison of 50, Petropavlovsk how had over 300, as well as stores for the Russian fleet. The men were immediately put to work fortifying the post against naval attack. Unfortunately, the British did not know this.

Petropavlovsk in 1856

The British commander in the Pacific, Rear Admiral Price, had his own worries. The British were pretty sure they knew what the Russian tactics would be - use their frigates to sink shipping and attack isolated bases, especially Australia. It was highly unlikely that they would stand and fight against the larger and more numerous Royal navy, they didn't need to. It being next to impossible to find a single ship in the vastness of the Pacific that left their bases - either American ports on the West coast, clearly impossible to attack, or new bases being developed on the Siberian coast, such as Petropavlovsk.

Consequently, Price gathered together an Anglo-French task force;
HMS President - a 52 gun frigate, and flagship of the Pacific Station
HMS Pique - a 36 gun frigate
HMS Virago a tiny paddle wheel sloop with 6 guns. The Virago was, crucially, the only steam powered ship in the fleet
Forte - 60 guns, the French flag ship
Eurydice - 22 guns
Obligado - 18 guns

A further three vessels were sent elsewhere, the Tricomalee along the Siberian coast and the Amphritite and Artenise to California when Price received new that American privateers were being prepared to assist the Russians.

The fleet sailed first to Hawaii, then independent, as a show of force against any American designs in the area, and then sailed for Siberia, where they arrived on 29th August 1854. They did indeed find the remains of the Russian fleet, three ships already having been lost to bad weather. Of these, only one, the Aurora was a proper warship, of 44 guns, the other, the Dvina, was more a transport, though she had crucially supplied 283 soldiers to the garrison. It was in soldiers and guns, not ships, that the Russians trusted.

The town was situated on the shore of Avatcha bay, and protected from the Pacific by a long narrow peninsula on the west, and a sand bank on the east. Vessels passing between these entered the inner harbour, where the Aurora and Dvina were moored, effectively protected from cannon fire below their water line. The main defences were a 5 gun battery at the tip of the peninsula (battery 1), an 11 gun battery on the opposite shore (battery 2) and a 3 gun battery further along the peninsula (battery 3). Including the ships and other batteries, about 52 guns, and 800 men, compared to 190 guns and about 8,000 men in the Anglo-French ships, at first sight, a fairly easy task. Appearances can be deceptive, and there were deep flaws in the allied fleet.

Firstly, Price was deeply unsuited for the task. Although experiences he had already caused several delays and let opportunities to attack Russian shipping slip by, as well as failing to impose his authority on the dual nationality fleet - admittedly a difficult task. On the day after arrival he shot himself.

HMS Virago

Command now passed to the French commander, Fevrier- Despoint. He now attempted to use the guns of the fleet to silence batteries 1,2 and 3 protecting the harbour. It was then that the 2nd weakness of the fleet became apparent - they effectively only had one ship. In the calm windless conditions the only ship that could actually move was the tiny Virago, everything else was just a gun platform. According the Virago placed the President, Forte and Pique in front of the harbour mouth, to bombard batteries 1 and 2, and then moved over to battery 3, where she landed marines and sailors to capture the guns. This they did, only to be driven away by 200 Russian sailors from the Aurora, under the command of two midshipmen, Miknailov and Fesun. The British re-embarked on the Virago, who gave covering fire from her guns. Breezes in the afternoon allowed the President and Forte to edge nearer to battery 2, and destroy it, but then the fleet withdrew and licked their wounds.

The 2nd assault

There followed 3 days of squabbling amongst the allied officers. Fevrier- Despoint was for withdraw, abandoning the attack, and the senior British officer, Nicholson of the Pique, was reluctant to accept the responsibility of command. Finally however Nicholson was forced to point or that withdraw would damage British and French prestige in the whole Pacific, and Fevrier- Despoint agreed to another attack. This one though would be on the flanks.

The plan was to attack on the western flank, English sailors and marines to pass to the left of Nikolski hill using the road there, and clear the way to the town, whilst simultaneously more marines, assisted by French sailors, climbed the hill on the right. Consequently on 4th September a strange raft of ships steamed slowly along the peninsula. In the middle was, yet again, the Virago, with the Forte on her shore side, landing boats for 700 men on the seaward side, and the President in tow. As they neared the shore batteries opened up damaging the rigging of the President and Forte, but batteries 3 and 7 were silenced, allowing troops to storm ashore.

It was a disaster, there had been no special training or practice for this type of mission, and it was terribly organised. Instead of forming up on the beach and following the road into town, the left hand force split, wit some attacking up Nikolski hill, "amongst tangle and thick brushwood, in which it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe. . . . In severe and random firing there is little doubt that many French- men and English met their deaths without Russian interference". Those seamen who did attack down the road ran into battery 6 in the town, firing grapeshot down the gorge, and they were insufficient to carry the position.

On the right the Marines were cut down by Russian troops on the ridge above. Captain Parker of the marines was killed, his subalterns wounded and the men started to fall back, and then rout. The guns of the Forte, Virago and Obligado covered their retreat to the boats, but it was clearly a major defeat. The British had 209 dead or wounded out of 700, the Russians only about 15 out of 300.

Given the casualties, and the approaching winter, the squadron had to withdraw. As they were leaving two sails were sighted on the horizon and the President and virago gave chase, capturing as a token consolation the Anadis, a supply schooner, and the Sitka, a Russian American company bound for Petropavlovsk with army officers and supplies. The fleet sailed for Vancouver.


Next year a far more capable fleet was assembled, including a ship of the line, the Monarch with 84 guns, and two more steam ships, the Encounter and Barracuda were sent down from the China station. The new commander, Rear Admiral Bruce organised supplies in Hawaii and a huge supply, and hospital, depot was organised at Esquimalt in Vancouver for the triumphant return of the fleet. On 30th May 1855 the Anglo-French expeditionary force arrived back at Petropavlovsk in thick fog and took up positions. When they fog cleared two days later they started reconnaissance. There was no one there!

The Russian authorities in distant St Petersburg had decided that Petropavlovsk could not be held against another attack, and so in January the defenders had cut a way through the ice and escaped. Bruce had taken the town without a shot being fired.

Petropavlovsk today

Refighting Petropavlovsk
As a naval game this is probably best played solo, as the Russians cannot manoeuvre. The allies can only manoevre very slowly, or if towed by the Virago. The Aurora and Dvina are broadside on to the harbour entrance, and cannot be holed beneath the waterline due to the intervening ground. The batteries are well dug in.

The 2nd assault has maybe more potential. The Russians are standard infantry like those in the Crimea, the allies British marines and British & French sailors. But there are two points to bear in mind. Firstly, Nikolsky hill is covered in brushwood, severely reducing movement. More importantly, the allies cannot just be allowed to form up and march of the beach, they were not that organised! Maybe divide the left hand force into three parts and for each role a d6, 1-3 attack the town, 4-6 attack Nikolski hill. All over the battlefield the Russians are in good positions and have high moral and leadership, the allies not so much.

I've drawn extensively on the following article,
The Crimean War in the Pacific: British Strategy and Naval Operations by Barry M. Gough. Military Affairs, 37, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 130-136

Monday, 16 May 2011

From Waterloo to Dorking - the military career of Pvt Jame Cutting, Part 3

In the early years of the 19th century  the British army could sit back and bask in the glory of Waterloo, so the mid 1850s and 60s came as a rude shock. The brutal debacle at the Crimea and the shocking victories of the Prussians over Denmark, Austria and France showed that Britain was hopelessly unprepared to fight a modern European war.
After the French army was crushed in 1871 this concern was taken up by the press, especially after the publication of The Battle of Dorking by George Chesney. This was one of the most influential "what if" stories ever written, and narrates the Prussian invasion of southern England, with a final last stand in front of London, and the hills above Dorking. The British forces are destroyed and England falls. What gave the book credibility was not only the apparently invincople successes of the Prussians in Europe, but that the author was a serving officer in the Royal Engineers, and clearly knew what he was talking about.

In real life steps were being taken to redress the balance. By far the most important was the adoption of a breech loading rifle. When James had joined in 1864 he had trained on muzzle loading Enfield rifles, each shot laboriously pushed down the muzzle of the gun. But in December 1866 the regiment started to adopt the Snider Enfield breech loading rifle, in which the cartridge is inserted in a chamber near the rear. Some idea of the difference this makes can be seen from the fact that the rate of fire of trained troops went from 3 shots per minute to 10! The operative word is "trained" - the action is completely different to a musket and took a lot of getting used to, but with war apparently a real possibility,  it must have given a lot of confidence to the troops when they saw the difference it was making.

Even better was the Martini Henry. To remove each cartridge from the Snider Enfield each soldier had to take it out by hand, or even turn the rifle upside down and shake vigourously! The Martini Henry, which started to appear in 1871,  had a partial expulsion mechanism making it easier to discard spent cartridges.

The heavier fire power available on the battlefield encouraged new thinking on tactics. Initially the French concept of Elan was popular, one write claiming that it was "a very ugly thing to attack against breech loaders, but it has to be done, it is moral force which will prevail". And the concept of a thin red line was still ingrained, most troops were expected to fire standing up on the battlefield, in line. But the 1859 Field Exercises and Evaluations manual recommended troops be trained to attack in column or line, and that all troops receive some training as skirmishers. These would form up in three parts in front of the main firing line, screening it, and could use a looser formation, cover and even lie down prone to fire. The initial skirmish line would have supports 200 yds behind, and a reserve 300yds behind this. As the enemy advances the skirmishers fall back, trying to disrupt the enemy formations before decisive contact with the main body of troops.

Lacking (fortunately!) the chance to test these tactics on a battlefield, the British relied on thought experiments and exercises. The Coldstream aren't mentioned directly in the Battle of Dorking, but three battalions of generic "Guards" are. They travel by train down to Guildford and then march with band playing to the front line. A detachment of skirmishers are sent to hold the railway embankment whilst the bulk line up along the hillside with skirmishers in front. With bearskins and red coats and a mounted officer urging them on they beat back the first Prussian wave, and counter attack, advancing slowly "and firing as they went, but as steady as if on parade" but there are too many Prussians, too much artillery, and they are swept away.

More realistically (possibly?), in 1871 large scale manoeuvres were started at Aldershot, lasting 7 weeks and attempting to actually recreate wartime conditions. The 2nd Coldstream took part as part of a Brigade of Guards. This novel idea (for the British army) was so successful that it was repeated next year on Salisbury plain with the the 1st Coldstream, and then in in 1873 with the 2nd Coldstream at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. This last was the most realistic yet, exercising transport and medical services as well, but after this large scale manoeuvres were abandoned, as too expensive. Memories were fading.

If you would like to recreate the Battle of Dorking yousrelf I can recommend the boardgame produced by Draken Games at

James & Emma - the military career of Pvt James Cutting Part 4

James Cutting joined the Coldstream Guards in Bury St Edmunds on the 16th of November 1864. It all seemed to start so well, despite difficult and trying assignments in Dublin and London he was awarded Good Conduct pay for meretricious conduct on 1867, and then again in 1870. Then things started to go wrong. He forfeited his Good conduct pay on 11 th November 1871, and in fact was imprisoned for 3 days on November 18th. He again forfeited pay in 1872. It´s hard to know at this distance in time what went wrong. It wasn´t stress under fire  - although Britain fought several wars in this period, in New Zealand, Canada, and against the Ashanti in Africa, the Coldstream weren't involved. Maybe that was the problem, maybe he wasn't suited to a life of endless drills and parades, and smartly polished uniforms? Maybe he just ran up against the wrong officer, or mixed with the wrong crowd? And why always November? His birthday was in February, but it's quite possible that his initial enlistment perhaps coincided with the end of the harvest period, and a shortage of work on the land, but what was the connection later?

Anyway, on the 16th of November 1874, James left the Guards, with, it has to be said, a "good" character reference from the regiment. Five months later, in March, he married Emma Wilkin who was 6 months pregnant with their daughter Sarah Maud. James was 29, Emma 22. She came from Bardwell, about 8 miles from James´s home village in Suffolk, which is surely no coincidence, but they married in London, both giving a home address as 6 Connaught Square in Paddington. James was now a labourer in a gas works,  By the time Sarah was born in July they were all living back in Bury St Edmunds, at 3 New Street, Ipswich Rd.

Bury St Edmunds gas works

More children followed, in all 5 daughters and one son, Henry. James spent many years as a gas stoker in Bury, then a carpenter and later a brick layer. He died in Culford, Suffolk in 1919 aged 72. Emma lived rather longer, she and her twin sister Sarah recieving a telgram from King George VI in the 1940s congratulating them on being the oldest twins in England.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Trouble & Strife - the military career of Pvt. James Cutting Part 2

The Fenians were what we would now call a terrorist group, founded in the United States in 1858 with the aim of  driving Ireland out of the British Empire. An Irish American organisation, they even staged a few raids into Canada with veterans of the civil war. Opponents of the Fenians in Canada and Ireland were murdered and there was an assassination attempt on Prince Alfred in Sydney in 1868. But agitation in Ireland, and amongst Irish migrants to Britain, was the main aim.

In 1865 Fenians tried to organise a revolt in Ireland, collecting up to 6,000 firearms, but they were hopelessly infiltrated by the British and in September most of the leadership was arrested. Nonetheless, in early 1867 there were a series of failed uprisings in Kerry, Limerick, Cork and Dublin. In the largest engagement at Tallaght south of Dublin, on the 5th of March, several hundred armed Fenians were driven off and dispersed by the local Irish Constabulary.

There were also plans for England using Irish emigrants, including an ambitious attempt to take over the armoury at Chester castle, again foiled by good intelligence. In September 1867 a group attempting to rescue one of their leaders from a prison van attacked it with revolvers, and were later captured and executed for murdering one of the prison guards. In December an attempt to dynamite the wall of Clerkenwell prison in London caused the demolition of several tenement buildings in the street opposite, killing 12 people and injuring over 50. Again the organiser was quickly caught and hanged.

The Coldtream Guards were in the thick of these events. On 20th February 1866 the 1st battalion were rushed to Dublin at 24 hours notice, leaving behind any men unfit for active service, and they remained there until March 1867. It can hardly have been a pleasant tour of duty, not least as they had to police other regiments suspected of infiltration. For example, a party of the 1st battalion and Dublin police raided Pilsworth's public house in James St and arrested three soldiers of the 86th regiment, including a corporal who was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment and 50 lashes. Prisoners from Tallaght were escorted into Dublin by two companies of the Coldstream, and a troop of Scots Greys. The Illustrated London News of the time describes the Fenians as mostly youths or rabble, but with men "of more soldierly aspect and carriage who had served in the late civil war in America".

Illustrated London News March 16 1867.  Coldstream Guards escorting prisoners through Dublin.

On returning to London the 1st battalion were commended on their discipline, zeal and cheerfulness. They were relieved by the 2nd, who likewise served in Dublin for a year, at the end being commended for their good conduct "during trying times, and when the men were exposed to mischievous temptations".

Whilst the battalion in Dublin certainly had a trying time during these years, it was not a bed of roses for those in London. During 1866 and 67 a Reform Bill was passing through Parliament which, eventually, gave the vote to all male householders. However, this was not the original intention of the bill, and it was only after many public demonstrations, and a "bidding war"between Disraeli and Gladstone that the bill was passed. Towards the end of July 1867 all leave of the 2nd battalion was cancelled and officers were recalled, and magistrates were attached to all the London barracks should the army be required to aid the civil power.

Disturbances continued into 1867, with on several occasions the public guards at Buckingham  and Kensington palaces and other sites being doubled. Things reached a head with the terrorist attack on Clerkenwell in Dec 1867. All leave, drills and exercises were cancelled, and a party of the 1st battalion was immediately sent to Clerkenwell consisting of 3 officers and 100 men with loaded rifles. A piquet of 100 men under  a captain guarded the barracks and guards were posted on Millbank prison and small arm factories throughout London. At the the Tower of London, where the 1st battalion was stationed, patrols were mounted all night around the outer ditches and surrounding wharfs. Leave continued to be suspended over Christmas and things only started to return to normal in January.

So James had a busy couple of years, not with wars but police actions in Ireland and London, as well as having to learn to use the new Snider-Enfield breech loading rifle, introduced following the success of the Prussian version in wars against Denmark and Austria. It should be noted however that James was awarded Good Conduct pay at 1d/ day, on 16th November 1867, a reward for men after "meritorious conduct".

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Suffolk Punch - the military career of Pvt James Cutting. Part 1

We normally think of military history in terms of an event, a battle or campaign, and all the forces associated with it. But there is perhaps another way, chose a soldier and follow his progress through time. This is the story of Private James Cutting of the Coldstream Guards.

James was born on February 27th, 1846, the youngest of 8 children of James and Mary Ann. James Sr was an agricultural labourer and the Cuttings lived in the small hamlet of Timworth, about 2 miles from Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk. 

It's not clear why James enlisted, there was no particular national emergency at the time, with the French invasion scares of the 50s receding and the recent crisis with the United States resolved. Perhaps financial pressure from a poor family with 5 daughters, perhaps just a desire for adventure, but anyway on Saturday 12th of November, 1864, he presented himself at Bury St Edmunds and enlisted in the Coldstream Guards. The Coldstream had a recruiting sergeant in Bury, one of 15 around the country. From James's enlistment papers we can get some idea of the man himself. Eighteen years old, 5ft 9" tall with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair, and a distinctive scar on his face. 

From the memoirs of another Bury St Edmonds recruit to the Coldstream we can get some idea of the procedure. WH Ranson ( enlisted on Saturday 7th January 1860, but then went home, to family recriminations. It was only the following Saturday that he and other recruits went down to the Portman St barracks in London, and then the following Monday again when they had their final medical inspection. Ranson was discharged by mistake and started home via Shoreditch Railway station, but James of course continued at the Guards.

New recruits were taken to a barracks at St Johns Wood where they were technically under a Resident Officer, but as these rotated weekly, in fact they were trained by a Regimental Drill Sergeant. Here James received, amongst other things, gymnastic training, a recent innovation which was part of a raft of measures attempting to modernise the army introduced by the Duke of Cambridge in the late 1850s and early 1860s. If he liked a smoke then he arrived just in time, as it was only in October 1864 that soldiers were allowed to smoke in the barrack room. James was private 1366, and he was to remain so for the next ten years.

The Coldstream Guards had two battalions, and it's unfortunate that we don't know which one he was part of, as they were frequently deployed apart. One duty they both had however was ceremonial - it was a Guards Regiment after all. In July 1866 the contribution of the regiment to this was....

                                      Capt             Subaltan       Sergeant   Corporal            Drums           Privates
Queens Guard                    1                    2                  2               2                     3                    36
Buckingham Palace                                 1                  2              2                      1                    27
Tylt Guard                                                1                  2               2                      1                    18
Kensington Guard                                                      1               1                      0                    15
Magazine Guard                                                          1               1                      0                     9
Total                                    1                    4                 8               8                      5                   105                  
So, doubtless James spent a lot of his military career standing in his red uniform and highly polished boots outside various palaces. One suspects thts might have sometimes been a touch boring, but it was more congenial than his duties were to be elsewhere in 66 and 67.

The Coldstream details are from "A History of the Coldstream Guards" by Lt. Col. Ross of Bradensburg.