Friday, 23 November 2012

Europe and the Barbary Pirates, Part 2

From the 16th to the early 19th centuries pretty much all the European countries with a coast line suffered slaving raids from vessels of the North African Barbary states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Sale, as well as seizure of their ships. It´s estimated that between 1530 and 1780 1-1.25 million Europeans were taken as slaves to North Africa, as well as many more Africans. Most of the European slaves came from Italy and Spain, but about 20,000 British and Irish suffered the same fate, many were kidnapped sailors. Records are incomplete, but show 466 vessels taken between just 1609 and 1616, whilst 160 British ships were captured by the Algerians alone between 1677 and 1680. In 1641 the John Filmer, was captured just outside Cork, the crew taken to Algiers, whilst in 1656 seven fishing boats and 42 men were kidnapped near Falmouth.

 Initially there was little that could be done, due to the strength of the Barbary powers, but gradually a pattern emerged of individual European navies bombarding the pirate ports until an agreement was reached to exclude that particular country's ships from piracy. Such agreements tended to be temporary, and especially in the Mediterranean slave raids were a constant fear until the power of the Barbary pirates was eventually destroyed.


Various peace treaties made by England with the Barbary states, but most are quickly broken.

1661 and 1663
The Dutch Navy under Michiel de Ruyter forces an agreement with the Barbary states, but it doesn't last long.

The Dutch Navy launches a punitive expedition against the Barbary States.

 The Dutch fleet at Tripoli, 1670

An English squadron under Edward Spagge destroys 10 pirate ships at Bougie Bay near Algiers, the strongest of the Barbary states. Spragge follows this up with a bombardment of the city, sinking several ships, and Algiers signs a peace treaty with England

A Royal Navy squadron under Sir John Narborough forces a treaty with Tunis and, after bombardment of the city, with Tripoli.

Sale signs a peace treaty with England

Algiers,. not unexpectedly, breaks their peace treaty with England, but a series of defeats at the hands of an English squadron under Arthur Herbert forces them to make peace in 1682, which actually lasts until 1816.

French Navy bombards Algiers

 The French attack on Algiers, 1682

French Navy bombards Algiers again

French Navy bombards Tripoli and forces a peace treaty

French Navy bombards Algiers yet again and finally a peace treaty is signed.

1783 and 84
The navy of Spain, long one of the worst sufferers of Barbary piracy, bombards Algiers, with 4x ships of the line, as well as two each from Portugal and Naples and one from Malta, in a rare example of national cooperation. Over 20,000 cannon balls are fired, much of the city and it´s fortifications are destroyed and most of the Algerian fleet sunk. The Spanish threaten to return every year until a peace treaty is signed and the Algerians give in, as do the Tunisians when threatened with similar treatment.

The Venetian Navy blockades Tunis and several neighbouring towns, but isn't strong enough to force an agreement.

1784 - 1802
Algiers, Morocco and Tripoli demand huge amounts from the USA to prevent piracy of American ships.

The USS Enterprise, of the newly formed US Navy, defeated the Tripoli, from, actually, Tripoli.

Tripoli forces capture the USS Philadelphia and take her crew hostage.

American forces under Lt. Decatur board and destroy the Philadelphia. US forces blockade Tripoli and try to capture the city, unsuccessfully. US and allied forces conquer the nearby city of Derma in 1805. Tripoli signs a peace treaty, though gains a large ransom for the captured American crews.

Following renewed piracy against US ships, two squadrons of the US navy are sent to the Mediterranean. The Algerian flagship is captured and under threat of bombardment Algiers returns all prisoners and signs a treaty.

The End of the Barbary States

The Napoleonic Wars ended with Europe united as never before, and England having the most experienced and powerful navy the world had yet seen. England was also acquiring a new mission, the abolition of the slave trade. These factors should have encouraged the Barbary states to "keep their heads down" - it didn´t.

In 1815 a squadron from Tunis sacked Palma on the island of Sardinia and carried off 158 inhabitants to slavery. This caused outrage in Europe, and a number of accusations that Britain´s new found enthusiasm for abolition was more about reducing the competitiveness of their rivals in the Americas than slavery as such. In response Lord Exmouth was sent to the Mediterranean with a Royal Naval squadron to wring concessions from the Barbary powers, not least a pledge to treat Christian captives prisoners of war rather than slaves, as the pretext for the Palma raid was a "war" between Tunis and the Kingdoms of Sardinia and Sicily.

 The bombardment of Algiers, 1816

Exmouth´s diplomacy had appeared to work, with agreement form all parties, only for a group of Sardinian fishermen to be attacked and massacred. Fed up with this, Exmouth returned with an Anglo-Dutch squadron and on August 17th 1816 bombarded Algiers. Following this Algiers and Tunis signed new treaties.

And again slave raiding continued, with another bombardment of Algiers in 1824 by a British fleet under Admiral Sir Harry Neal (it´s amazing there were any buildings still standing by now), but the scourge was only ended for good with the occupation and annexation of Algiers by the French in 1830.

The Tunisian fleet was defeated by the British in 1826 and by the French in 1827, but perhaps because it was technically under Ottoman Turkish protection, the city was not occupied until the French arrived in 1881.

Tripoli had long been, technically, part of the Ottoman empire, but infact was ruled by the descendants of a Janissary rebellion. However in 1835 the Ottomans took back control, and Tripoli was part of the Empire until conquered by the Italians in 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Prussians on the High Seas, 1870-71

The French fleet was generally considered to be completely superior to the Prussian at the start of the Franco-Prussian war. Of course their army was considered by many to be superior too, and that didn´t work out too well. Nonetheless, the French navy was much bigger, with for instance 17 new armoured steam frigates compared to just three Prussian. The problem was what to do with this superiority - a direct attack on the north German coast was ruled out as the French didn´t have enough armoured ships with the shallow draft required for coastal work in the Baltic. Even a blockade was problematic. This might imply that the French fleet was a failure, but it did achieve at least two strategic aims;

a) The seizure of 200 Prussian merchant ships effectively prevented any sea borne imports into Prussia
b) Conversely, French naval dominance allowed unrestricted imports into France. This became especially important when the French capital was moved to Bordeaux after the fall of Paris, and arms imports from America kept the French armies supplied.

And what of the Prussian navy? In fact the three armoured cruisers did venture out on sorties in August and September 1870, only to not find any French to fight! The tiny sloop SMS Meteor (370 tons) fought a dramatic little duel with the slightly-less-tiny French ship, the Bouvet (800 tons) off Spanish Havana, their guns (both had only 3) unable to find a target in the high seas until the Bouvet tried to ram the Meteor. The resulting damage, and point blank gunfire, damaged both ships so much that they both limped back to Havana.
 The SMS Meteor during her battle with the Bouvet, as painted by the German artist Christopher Rave.

The Meteor won fame and glory for Prussia,  but it was left to the steam corvette the SMS Augusta to take the war to the French coast.

The voyage of the Augusta

The Augusta was a steam and sail powered corvette, with a crew of 230 and 8x 24 pdr and 6x 12 pdr guns. She had already had rather an eventful life. She had been built in France, with a Japanese name, the Osakka Yeddo, but actually intended for the Confederate navy, where she was due to be named the Augusta Mississippi. However, her delivery was vetoed by the French government, not wanting to get dragged into the American Civil War, which left a ship for sale. The Kingdom of Prussia, then at war with Denmark in the Baltic, snapped her up, naming her simply the Augusta.

The Augusta in 1864, flying the Prussian seekriegsflagge (naval flag)

The Augusta missed the Danish war, but from 1867-9 was sent to show the Prussian flag in the Caribbean. Well, actually the North German Confederation flag, but that was effectively the same thing. Whilst there her captain nearly caused a diplomatic incident with the US by starting to negotiate with Costa Rica over a possible naval base, although Bismark later claimed  (vigorously, but not completely convincingly) that the captain was acting on his own initiative. Anyway, with war with France looming, she was ordered back to  Wilhelmshaven.

In November 1870 the Augusta, under her captain Johannes Weickhmann, slipped out into North Sea. She steamed down the English Channel with no opposition and by December was at the mouth of the river Gironde, a few miles from the new French capital, Bordeaux. This daring act was rewarded with the capture of two merchant ships, the first captured by the Prussians in the war. Even better, she caused panic in Bordeaux, and Weickhmann toyed with the idea of steaming up the Gironde and bombarding the city, but turned back at the prospect of Fort Pate.

There was still fun to be had however. The Augusta sailed up the coast and anchored opposite Rochfort harbour where she picked off another prize. More embarrassingly for the French government her crew actually occupied for a time Fort Boyard. For anyone who has visited this sea-fort, or seen the tv show set there, this would seem impossible, but its 250 man garrison had been evacuated, handing an easy propaganda victory to the Prussians.

By now the Augusta was running out of coal, so she sailed down to the neutral Spanish port of Vigo. There her luck ran out and trapped by two French steam frigates, she stayed there until the war was over, her work done.


From 1874 to 76 the Augusta was back in West Indian waters. From 1877-8 she was even further afield, at Samoa in the Pacific where Imperial Germany (as her flag now proclaimed) had increasing commercial interest. After a respite back in Germany she was again sent to the Pacific in 1885, only to fall foul of a cyclone off the Gulf of Aden in 1885.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Curlew and The Panda

The road to promotion in the 1830s may have been to serve in the ships of the line, where you could be seen by Admirals, but for travel and adventure, the little ships were the place to be.

HMS Curlew was a 10 gun wooden sloop launched in 1830. In May 1833 the Curlew called in at Port Antonio on the Portuguese Ilha do Príncipe, off West Africa. There Capt. Trotter was informed of an attack on an American brig, the Mexican, by a Spanish pirate schooner, the Panda, which had seen the crew of the Mexican abandoned at sea in a burning vessel, which they had only just managed to survive. The Spanish captain, who had been identified as "Don" Pedro Gilbert, had reportedly abandoned the crew to their fate with the words "Dead cats don"t mew".

 HMS Curlew, at Rio de Janeiro

This Panda was believed to be in the nearby River Nazareth on the African mainland, and the Curlew set off in pursuit. On the 3rd June she anchored at the mouth of the river, and early the next morning three boats rowed up the river. After three miles they saw the Panda, but they themselves had been seen. Rowing against the current was heavy going and before they could arrive the crew of the Panda had left, and smoke was coming from their ship. Arriving at the Panda the astonished sailors saw the smoke was coming from a trail of cotton and brimstone leading to the magazine, where lay 16 barrels of gunpowder! Fortunately, they managed to put out the fire in time, and took the Panda in the name of the King, sailing it out of the river.

Captain Trotter now wanted the crew. These were now in the town of Nazareth, under the jurisdiction of King Passall, the local chieftain. Actually, he vigorously claimed that they had run off into the bush, but it was pretty clear this was not the case, so Trotter determined to make his message clear. The Curlew was too big to sail to Nazareth, so he sent the Panda back, with a Royal Naval crew. After an ultimatum had expired with no pirates delivered, the Panda fired a warning shot.

Unfortunately, though the crew was Navy, the ship was not. Firing the cannon set off loose powder still on the deck, probably from when the pirate crew had tried to fire the ship before. This time it succeeded, the magazine exploded, three men were killed, with many wounded, including Captain Trotter. Fortunately the water was so shallow that the ship didn`t sink and the wounded could be saved. However, much of the Curlew`s firearms and cutlasses had been lost, as well as members of the crew, and an attack on King Passall was unpractical. Anyway, Trotter learnt from his prisoners that the pirate crew had dispersed, and so he sailed along the African coast hunting them down.

Fernando Po

Fernando Po

After several false leads Trotter was forced to call at the island of Fernando Po, modern day Bioko, where Britain leased two bases for use in anti-slavery patrols. Fernando Po was techniclly Spanish, but in fact run by local chiefteins, whose slave trade Britain had abolished. The Curlew needed supplies, also some of her crew, including Captain Trotter, had come down with fever and needed R&R. Actually this delay was a stroke of luck. An officer Captain Beecroft, had come across 5 Spanish sailors who claimed to be shipwrecked, and he had brought them to Fernando Po to catch a ship from there. Suspecting they might be part of the crew of the Panda, the Governor of Fernando Po, Colonel Nicholls, confronted them with the prisoners already taken, and they were promptly identified. The youngest Spaniard, Jose Perez, turned Kings Evidence, and later he was murdered in Havana by friends of Gilbert.

Cape Lopez

It appeared that the slaver captain, Don Pedro Gilbert, was still at Nazareth, but it wasn`t clear how to get him as king Passall could either fight, or melt away into the dense forest. Fortunately a trader, Captain Fatio of the Princess Elizabeth offered his services and a plan was hatched. Thirteen men of the Curlew, under the mate, Mr Matson, embarked the Princess Elizabeth and it sailed for Nazareth, with HMS Curlew following far behind. The plan was for the Elizabeth to moor like any other trader and when the King came aboard to inspect her, as was his custom, he would be seized and held until the Curlew appeared.

Something about the Elizabeth struck the locals as wrong, and they inspected her by canoe, but would not come aboard. Matson determined that he would have no choice but to go on land, however risky that turned out to be, so with 4 crew he took a row boat and went to Nazareth, only to be told that the King was now at Cape Lopez, 20 miles upstream. Rowing almost all night, Matson and his crew arrived around dawn.

 Cape Lopez

Unfortunately, almost the first person they met shore was "a gentlemanly looking man with a sword by his side", none other than Don Pedro Gilbert himself, who was immediately very suspicious that Matson was the trader he claimed to be. But unaware of this, Matson continued on to the Kings residence where he announced that he and his crew had come to trade for ivory, and they had many dollars to spend. The meeting went well and Passall was won over, even after a messenger came to inform him of Pedro`s suspicions. Walking back to the beach Matson was accosted by Pedro and a group of Spanish sailors and asked to a nearby house for questioning - he considered bolting for the row boat but held his nerve and somehow managed to appear convincing, or at least enough for Pedro to let him go. Matson and the others returned to the Princess Elizabeth with a pilot to direct the ship to Cape Lopes and one of Passalls younger sons, to find that Captain Fatio had almost given up hope of seeing them again. The two natives were plied with as much drink as they wanted, so when the Curlew appeared in the night they slept through the meeting, and had no clue the next morning that the two ships were connected.

The next morning both ships arrived at Cape Lopez, but separately, the Curlew flying the Brazilian flag. The King was on a Portuguese ship in the harbour, but his son Prince Nazeen and several head men boarded and were promptly seized, though well treated, and assured they would be released as soon as the Spanish were given up.

There now followed a day of haggling, and probably many threats from Don Pedro, but eventually a message was sent, and next morning Don Pedro was send to walk along the beach where, sword in hand, he was met by Captain Trotter and taken into custody. Meanwhile, predictably, Passalls men looted the Spaniard's stores in Cape Lopez. The prisoners were released, with gifts and even a full Naval uniform for Nazeen.

Sao Tome (St Thomas)

It had become clear for some time that the Esperanza was extremely suspicious, and this was confirmed by documents seized with Don Pedro. In fact she had been seen earlier at the Portuguese island of St Thomas, though the Governor there had sworn she was innocent of wrong doing. Trotter now sailed with all speed back to St Thomas, hoping to catch her there, accompanied by the Princess Elizabeth who could sart her normal trade again.

On October 4th 1833 the Curlew was back at St Thomas, anchoring at the port of St Ana de Chaves. The Esperanza had gone, but they were tipped off by an American merchant that some of the Spanish pirates had stayed, and infact had bought a boat from the Governor himself, despite his official claim that they had never been on the island at all! Another American, Captain Pollard of the Henry Hill, told him that the Esperanza was in fact moored on the far side of the island, waiting for the Spaniards to cross the island and join her. Matson was promptly dispatched with a crew in row boats and they captured the Esperanza just after dark, bringing her back to St Ana de Chaves.

The Governor now changed his tune, claiming that he had been hunting for the Spaniards, and had word that they were on a distant part of the island. With no way of forcing the issue Trotter had to be content with seizing the Esperanza, and the ex-ship of the Governor, and sailing for the neighbouring Portuguese island of Principe.

Cape Lopez again

Trotter now had most of the crew of the Panda, including the officers, but in January 1834 he received news that one of the pirates was still at Cape Lopez. The Curlew had been back since, and been recieved well, so they didn't anticipate trouble, but when Matson went ashore with a small party he was seized, as was Lt McNeale and a group of sailors who were searching a Portuguese ship in the harbour.The prisoners were stripped naked, apart from Matson who had a degree of protection from his friend Prince Nashin. They were questioned about how many people remained aboard and Matson invented the huge number of 125, which he later believed was what dissuaded an outright attack on the Curlew.

It was unclear even afterwards what had prompted this sudden hostility by Passall, other that the fact he was extremely drunk at the time. In any event he now demanded 3000 dollars ransom for the hostages. When this was brought down to 100 dollars it was paid, only for Passall to demand another 300 and several more days passed. Fortunately at this point the HMS Fair Rosamund, another sloop, arrived, and Passall send the hostages back.

Clearly this could not be tolerated and another sloop, HMS Trinculo, was summoned. The water was too shallow to approach Cape Lopez directly but the combined boats for the squadron were loaded with sailors, and also a 12 pounder cannon and some rockets , and sent in. The rockets drove Passalls forces out of the town, but they assembled in large numbers in the forest and a plan to burn the town was abandoned.


The Curlew and the captured Esperanza returned to Ascension island, and then England, the Esperanza being eventually handed over to the Portuguese authorities in Lisbon, and entered the Portuguese navy. The Spanish pirate prisoners were sent to be tried in Massachusetts for their part in the seizure of the Mexican. They were carried on HMS Savage, the first time in 50 years that a British warship had entered Salem harbour, which naturally caused great excitement. By chance the Mexican, with her original captain and mate were in harbour, and of course were called as witnesses. It was a cause celeb, with even the President being involved, but finally most of the prisoners, including Don Pedro, were hanged.

 A contempory print of de Soto and Gilbert. Gilbert was noted for his "gentlemanly aspect" and seemed to be always carrying a sword. The crew of the Panda were noted at the time for having red caps.

Trotter went on to command the Niger Expedition in 1841, and by 1857 he was a Commodaore, commanding the newly established Cape of Good Hope squadron based in Simonstown. 

Matson was to visit Havana again, two and ten years after the trial, and on both occasions he met up with the former Chief Mate of the Panda, Bernardo De Soto, who had been pardoned. Matson was a captain in the Royal Navy, and De Soto a well established and respectable trader

"The world had gone well with him since his trial, and he was now undoubtedly a reformed character. He never looked like a pirate, he had a benevolent expression of countenance, and was particularly mild and gentlemanly in his manners. During ten years he had commanded a large steamer, running between Havana and Matanzas, and latterly had become part owner. He told me he had made a considerable sum of money, but had never been engaged in the slave trade since his liberation. This was strictly true, for I heard it, confirmed from other sources. He was then moving in a very respectable sphere at Havana, and was known generally as "Don Bernardo."

Further Reading

The full story of the Curlew and the Panda can be found in The Nautical Magazine, volumne 20 (1851), in Google books.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Sir L'Estrange Mordaunt

The wonderfully named L'Estrange Mordaunt illustrates in some ways the late Elizabethan Age. He took part in the main military campaigns of the period, emerging with more credit than most, and seized the opportunities becoming available to move up the social scale.

He was born in 1572, the 2nd son of Henry Mordaunt and Anne Poley. No "Sir" then, that came later, but his family were reasonably wealthy and well connected. His name incidentally came from his grandmother, Barbara L'Estrange, an heiress who bought the manors of Massingham Parva (now Little Massingham) in Norfolk and Walton D'Evile (!), near Wellesbourne in Warwickshire, to the family. Henry and Anne lived in Kings Lynn, but Massingham Parva was destined to be L'Estange's family home.

In Lynn young L'Estrange learnt the customary lessons of the day, writing, French and Latin, but also how to use weapons. Lynn, being an international port, bought frequent news of the outside world. France split between Catholics and Protestants, Holland fighting for it's independence against Spain (based in what we now call Belgium), and further afield stories of the New World, and English raids on the Spanish treasure fleet.

 Kings Lynn Guildhall


L'Estrange decided on a military career and for active service joined the English army in Flanders. This was more or less a continuation of the Armada campaign, with English, Dutch and French Portestant troops at one time or another fighting the Spanish or French Catholics.

Late 16th century Guildhouses in Antwerp

L'Estrange had other adventures beyond the war however. Whilst quartered in Antwerp he courted Margaret de Charles, daughter of a "Flemish Gentleman" and exile from the Dutch Republic, Peter de Charles, and he married her and took her back to live in Massingham.


The Mordaunt family had quite an interest in events in Ireland, with a distant cousin, Nicholas Mordaunt, holding a post there. With Ireland being by far the biggest English military commitment, it was natural that L`Estrange would end up there sooner or later.

Since 1595 much of Ireland had been in revolt against English rule, led by the Earl of Tyrone and equipped by the Spanish. The Irish mainly fought with javelin, and increasingly, with musket, and it helped that Tyrone was a much more effective general than most of those he faced, drawing the English troops through boggy ground and into his fire. The English fought with pike and shot, but their strength was their cavalry, semi-armoured and with lances, although Tyrone rarely gave them a chance to charge over open ground. The Irish won battle after battle, culminating in the Battle of Yellow Ford, where 2,000 English troops were killed.

Elizabeth`s response was to raise an army of 16,000 men to crush the rebellion, the largest army England had yet formed, and including young L`Estrange. Unfortunately it was placed under the command of Elizabeth`s favourite, the Earl of Essex. Essex`s strategy of pacifying the south before taking on Tyrone`s forces in the north was not necessarily bad, but was poorly carried out. English troops were split amongst many small garrisons, where many simply died of dysentery, whilst Essex showed no great urgency. When he did attack it was on terrain suited to the Irish forces, such as at the disastrous Battle of Curlew Ridge. Essex was always looking back to court, and in 1599 he deserted Ireland without permission to return to London, and a sticky end.

 Lord Mountjoy in 1594

Fortunately for L`Estrange and the other English troops, Essex was succeeded by Lord Mountjoy, experienced of wars on the continent as well as an expedition to the Azores. Mountjoy in turn appointed two men experienced of Irish warfare, George Carew and Arthur Chichester, as his leutenants. Carew had pacified Munster by 1601, whilst with amphibious landings at Londonderry and Carrickfergus Chichester invaded Ulster. A Spanish force of 4,000 soldiers landed at Cork with the aim of sandwiching the English between them and Tyrone's forces marching south, but in January 1602 Mountjoy managed to catch the Irish forces on open ground. For once fighting on their own terms, the English cavalry destroyed the Irish foot, and the rebellion was effectively over.

L`Estrange returned to England, doubtless with considerable relief. Thousands of English troops had died from hunger or disease, many more than enemy action, and it had not been a glorious war. None the less he had emerged with credit, and enhanced his reputation in high circles.


With the effective end of the war in early 1602 L`Estrange returned home, and in May the death of his uncle Robert left him a wealthy man at 30 years old. Sadly in 1606 his Flemish wife Margaret died and was laid to rest in Little Massingham church. L`Estrange married Frances Sotherton, a widow from Norwich, in 1608.

Little Massingham church

The transition from Elizabeth to James I seems to have made little difference to L`Estrange's fortunes, but the Gunpowder Plot did draw in members of his family. Lord Mordaunt, a relative, was suspected of involvement and fined 10,000 pounds. However,  to balance this Sir Gilbert Pickering was one of those most active investigators of the plot, and Sir Gilbert's son later married L`Estrange's grand daughter, so maybe there was some useful connection at the time.

 L'Estrange propsered and in 1606-7 he was Sheriff of Norfolk. Certainly in 1611 L`Estrange was in favour at court, or rather his money was.

James I needed cash and he came up with the bright idea of selling "Baronetcies", a new form of nobleman. The plan was "offered" to 200 men of good breeding, all they had to do was stump up money equivalent for 3 years pay for 30 soldiers, which came out at £1,095 - a days pay was reckoned to be 8 pence. How much of that money actually went to the army, who were notoriously badly paid, is unknown, but any way on 29th of June 1611, L'Estrange Mordaunt became Baron Mordaunt of Massingham Parva.

Baron Mordaunt lived to see his son Robert knighted by James 1 in 1620, but he died aged 55 in 1627, and was buried next to his first wife in Little Massingham Church.

Further Reading

Much of the above comes from Massingham Parva Past and Present, (1882), by Robert Fisher McLeod available online at

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Onega & Back Part 4 - the War in the Air

By May 1919 the small British expeditionary force operating out of Murmansk had advanced 500 miles down the Murmansk-Petrograd railway to the shores of Lake Onega. After endless dense forest this meant that airplanes could finally be used, not just to see where the Bolsheviks were, but to attack them.

There does not seem to be much available on the operations around the lake in English, but a very thorough study is available online in Russian - The Great River War, 1918-1920 by Alexander B. Shirokorad (2006) at, and most of what follows comes from there. With luck someone might translate the whole book properly in the future.


The Allied base was at the town of Medveja Gora, at the head of the lake. The Allies didn't need an airfield, all they needed was open water - seaplanes had been shipped up to Murmansk on the carriers HMS Nairana and HMS Pegasus and it was easy to fly then down to Onega, which as the 2nd largest lake in Europe made a perfect operating area. Facilities were built rapidly and the first planes arrived on June 6th 1919.
 A Fairey IIIC being unloaded from a seaplane carrier

Two types of seaplane were used. The first to arrive were Fairey IIICs. These were 2 seaters, with a pilot and observer, and could carry up to 500lbs of bombs under their wings. In many cases this meant 2x 230lb bombs, specially developed by the British for destroying fortifications, bridges or railways. They also had a forward facing Vickers machine gun, and a Lewis gun on a flexible mount for the observer.

The Short type 184 was another 2 seater, which as well as carrying 520 lb of bombs could also carry a torpedo. What it didn't have was a forward facing machine gun, just a Lewis gun for the observer.

Apparently the Bolsheviks also had an airforce, at least in Febuary 1919 they are listed as having two Grigorovich M9 seaplanes at their lakeside base at Petrozavodsk. In many ways the M9 was equivalent to the British machines, it could even be modified to carry a 37mm cannon, but they seem to have made no impression in the campaign. Perhaps because the armament wasn't available, the itinerary lists only 5 and 10 lb bombs. In any event the Allies had complete air superiority.

A Grigorovich M9


On June 7th, the day after they arrived, two Fairey IIIcs on patrol found and attacked three gunboats, no.s 4, 6 and 8 with 112 and 20 lb bombs. The gunboats, actually converted paddle steamers, were each armed with two machine guns but failed to hit their attackers. On the other hand, although four bombs were dropped on both gunboats 4 and 8, none hit.

On June 9th the Bolsheviks reported bombing raids over a period of 4 hours on gunboats 2 and 7, with apparently 21 bombs dropped on number 2, and 7 on number 7. The British view of this can be seen from the commendation of Observer Officer Frederick Eades, published in the London Gazette.

"On June 9, 1919, whilst serving with the " Syren " Force in North Russia,  this officer was on night patrol (observer) in heavy rain, investigating the enemy's position off Schunga, on Lake Onega. Their position was attacked  from a height of 300 ft. by machine gun and bombs, the latter being thrown  from the observer's cockpit. Having expended all ammunition, the machine  returned to base, and after refilling, again attacked and drove one gunboat  ashore. A second gunboat was later seen to be in tow, presumably damaged  in the attack."

The seaplane base at Medveja Gora

On June 11th Eades was again in cation, flying as observer to Flying Officer Issac. Three Fairey IIIcs made an attack on a gunboat patrol, but although they approached to within 50m only minor casualties were caused.

It was becoming clear to the Bolsheviks that their anti-aircraft fire was pretty useless, even when supplemented by rifle fire. To justify this to their superiors the crews started to report "armoured" bombers, even though the British had nothing of the kind!

Bridges and trains also made tempting targets, though very difficult ones, and to increase accuracy the pilots started to come in low, at about 30ft. A bombing run on the railway on June 11th blew a 6 meter crater in the track using a 230 lb bomb. On June 29th a patrol found came across a train and attacked it directly, coming in at 70ft, and zigzagging to avoid anti-aircraft fire. They dropped a 230 lb bomb directly in front of the train, which ripped the engine in half.

 A Short 184 seaplane

Attacks on gunboats were common but generally unsuccessful, although on July 1st the tender "Auguste Blanqui" was hit by a bomb which blew up the bridge, though it still managed to limp back to Petrozavodsk. One innovation was the use of shrapnel bombs, which didn't need a direct hit to work. On June 29th the captain of gunboat 2 was severely wounded by a bomb exploding over 10m away.

By July 10th the Bolsheviks were forced to abandon lake patrols, and the British started to attack Petrozavodsk directly. On August 5th a flight of 4 seaplanes bombed the Bolshevik base there, dropping 20 bombs around the base and the docks. There were further raids on August 7th and then on the 18th, when a 230lb bomb made a crater over 4m deep.

In September the British started to prepare for withdrawal, transferring some of their aircraft to White Russian forces and training up pilots. The last patrol was on September 29th, by Captain Park and a Russian observer, Lt. Motorin.

In total British seaplanes on Onega flew a total of 616 hours and dropped 1,014 bombs as well as 25,000 propaganda leaflets, and shot 47,500 rounds of ammunition. Reconnaissance flights photographed and mapped over ​​250 square miles.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Onega & Back Part 3 - Action on the Lake 1919

When you join the navy you probably don't expect to find yourself in the middle of a lake in Russia, but in early 1919 that's exactly where a small Royal Navy flotilla were. Admittedly Lake Onega is enormous, the 2nd largest in Europe, but they had still had to get there by rail, from Murmansk. In fact even then a path had to be cut through the forest to even reach the lake shore. Fortunately, a party of American railroad engineers was available to do the job, and a naval base of two American (40ft)  and 11 British small (55ft) "coastal motor boats" (CMBs) was set upon the lake. Unfortunately, the Americans were withdrawn by their government, handing over one of their boats to the Royal Navy, who promptly christened it the Jolly Roger!

 To understand why Lake Onega was so important you have to appreciate that the only route from St Petersburg (Petrograd) through dense forest to the Allied/White base at Murmansk was the Murmansk Railway, and the only population in this area was in the villages around the lake. Control the lake, and the railway, and you controlled the whole area.

The Royal Navy on Lake Onega

Initially it was far from clear that the British would control anything on the lake. Their flotilla of small launches was drawfed by the Bolshevik fleet, which in February 1919 stood at 4 medium size lake steamers, 4 floating batteries and 2 minelayers, armed with a mixture of 75,mm, 47mm, and 35mm guns and machine guns. They also had 2 Grigorovich M-9 seaplanes, although as we will see later, the British had plans of their own in this regard.
 A view of Lake Onega in 1915, including a view of one of the lake steamers (Library of Congress)

The British flotilla was commanded by Lt Commander Mather, a former Antarctic exploder, who from the start decided the best form of attack was defence, mounting raids all over the lake, and increasing his fleet at the expense of the Bolsheviks.

Early in June, the four armed Bolshevik lake steamers were observed steaming on Lake Onega northwest towards Medvyejya. Mather, in command of a flotilla of CMBs, engaged the enemy and for this action he was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The citation reads:

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, on the 5 June 1919, before Shunski Bor, Lake Onega, when in command of four motor boats he engaged four enemy steamers, carrying many heavy guns, in order to relieve the Russians who were being heavily attacked. Notwithstanding the disparity in armament he caused the enemy vessels to retire south, and so enabled the Russians to counter-attack with success. He showed throughout great courage and devotion to duty and set a fine example to all".

The "Jolly Roger" with it's 3 pdr gun was kept busy bombarding Bolsehvik positions on the shoreline, such as on June 10th when it attacked the village of Fedotova on the Shunga peninsula destroying a bridge and killing 30 Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, on July 8th a fire in the engine room exploded the petrol tank and the ship was lost.
 The "Jolly Roger"

Better news came on August 3rd when three of the four Bolshevik steamers were captured, 'Silny", 'Pajalostny" and "Azod' off Tolvuya, Lake Onega. With a decent troop carrying capacity Mather got even more ambitious.

The Raid on Rimskaya

On August 29th a major raid was launched on Rimskaya, 80 miles from Medveja Gora and the Bolshevik headquarters on the eastern side of Lake Onega. The raiding force would consist of 130 Russians, 25 Serbians, and 60 men of the British naval flotilla, all carried in a small fleet consisting  of the Sileny (a captured Bolshevik steamer), the Axod (a captured Bolshevik tug), the Royal Navy motor boats and various small Russian chasers.
 A view, reportedly, of the jetty at Rimskaya during the action

The Axod was first alongside the landing stage, a British officer leaping of the bows and leading his men to occupy the buildings and wood piles by the jetty. The Bolshevik outpost there was overcome after a short fire fight, and the site secured for the landings. The prisoners taken on the jetty incidentally were found to have been from a White battalion in Archangel that had mutinied and shot their British officers - they were handed over to the White authorities.

One of the first ashore was Boson C.H. Mitchell, who won the Military Cross. His, and other, reports in the London Gazette are given below.....

"This Chief Petty Officer showed great gallantry and devotion to duty during the attack on the village of Rimskaya on 29th August, 1919. He was one of the first to enter the village, personally took twelve of the enemy prisoners and captured one machine gun, which had been delaying the advance. He set a magnificent example of gallantry and coolness."

Eighteen enemy tried to make a stand in woodland around the pier, but were broken up by Able Seaman Logan, an American from New York serving in the Mercantile Marine Reserve.

"On 29th August, 1919, at Rimskaya on Lake Onega, this rating, showed great resource, courage and initiative on the occasion of landing. Together with another man he captured eighteen prisoners who were taking cover in the woods round the pier and who would have held up the advance of the Allied landing party."
 A site on the lake,  probably not Rimskaya, showing the typical buildings and log piles (Library of Congress)

Troops fanned out into the village - one house, unusually, has a horse tied up outside. As the British approached a Red Commissar broke cover and tried to escape, but was captured.

Fire fights broke out all over the village as the Bolsheviks tried to set up machine gun posts. Motorman H. Barker, from Penge, won a Military Cross for overcoming one of these..

"On 29th August, 1919, at Rimskaya, this rating displayed conspicuous zeal and gallantry on the occasion of the storming of the village. Coming under a heavy machinegun cross fire he persevered and then became mainly responsible for the capture of thirty-one prisoners."

The raiders had machine guns of their own, more skilfully handled. Able Seaman J. Buss, from Camberwell, won a bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal he already possessed, for his part in the battle...

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Rimskaya, on 29th August, 1919, when he advanced with his machine gain under (heavy fine, and' by skillful handling of the same was largely responsible for the capture of 30 prisoners by his section.".

Buss in fact was not a sailor at all, but an ex-Sergeant in the London Regiment, who had won his Distinguished Conduct Medal the previous year.

Another 30 prisoners were also captured by Lt. Walter Wood, who won a Military Cross. All in all 150 prisoners were taken and the operation was a huge success. And meanwhile the RAF had also been in action over the lake, but that's another blog.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Onega & Back Part 2 - To War by Rail

 British troops in Russia in 1919. In this case, on the Archangel front

May 1919 found a small British/White Russian force on the northern shores of Lake Onega in Russia. At described in part 1 they had fought their way down from Murmansk in the Arctic, following the line of the Murmansk - St Petersburg railway, and they were now based in Medvyejya Gora on the lake shore. The officer commanding, General Maynard, already knew that the British troops were to be withdrawn before the winter, his task was to train up a decent Russian army to take their place, and damage Bolshevik forces as much as possible in the meantime.

Most of the land around was marsh and forest, very heavy going. So movement was more or less restricted to the railway line, which could transport troops, and even offer artillary support via naval guns mounted on wagons. Advance or retreat was measured by how far down the line you were to St Petersburg.

Maynard's British contingent had originally consisted of just two companies from the Middlesex and Kings Royal Rifle Regiments, but once on the lake he was reinforced by RAF sea planes and a small naval flotilla manned by the Mercantile Marine Reserve. He also had Italian and Serbian contingents, but the bulk of his forces were Russian. Unfortunately their quality and numbers varied wildly, and in the initial stages it was the British who did most of the fighting.

 Allies - Serbian troops defending part of the Murmansk railway, 1919

Some idea of the action that summer can be obtained from the following excerpt.

The Middlesex Special Company

The "Die Hards" arrived in Murmansk in April 1919, just one company, but an elite one. Number 1 "Special" company was formed of volunteers and almost all were long service veterans. It was commanded by Major C. D. Drew.

 A typical view of the Murmansk Railway in 1915

Their first "active" service was when No. 1 platoon acted as escort of a train of "undesirables" being deported to enemy lines, but on 2nd May 1919 they were sent by train down to "n. 19 Siding" near Lake Vigozero - as was described in part 1, everything in this part of the world moved by the Murmansk Railway, or by water, there was no other serious way of getting around. From May 5th to 15th they stayed in camp at number 19 Siding whilst the other British Company from the KRRC steadily forced their way south along the line. By May 14th the KRRC had reached Siding 13, and it was the Middlesex's turn. They continued the advance along the line, reaching Siding 12 on the 16th, but here they had to wait until the line was repaired. On May 19th the KRRC advanced again, but were almost surrounded and cut off until the Middlesex came to their aid.

 Medvyejya Gora

 As the Middlesex company reached Lake Onega they were accompanied by a correspondent of the New York Times, Arthur Copping, whose report was published on June 2nd 1919. His report describes their advance.

As they grew closer to the lake opposition increased, the Die Hards had seen off a Bolshevik train with rifle grenades, and next day, advancing in their own armoured train they had come under rifle fire., which they had driven off with the 3 inch guns of the train. The day after that, a party of American railroad engineers sent ahead to repair a sabotaged bridge were almost captured, but managed to escape under covering fire from one Middlesex patrol whilst another flanked their position.

After three days and nights with very little sleep, progressing down the line through forest and across broken bridges, the Middlesex company, the KRRC and their Serbian and Italian enemies entered Medvyejya Gora on May 21st. Even then they spent the night on outpost duty on the heights above the town.

There was now time for some R&R before the Middlesex were sent off down the line again.On June 12th the Middlesex  launched a night attack against Siding 10, and had taken it by next morning. From July 6th until 26th they the company garrisoned the village of Kapaselga, sending out patrols and digging trenches, before being sent back to Medvyejya Gora, returning to Kapaselga on the 1st of August. On the 13th Bolsheviks attacked Kapaselga,  but were beaten off.

 The Enemy - a modern re-enactment of a Bolshevik attack

 Siding 8

The last action of the Die Hards took place on August 17th, as recorded in their Regimental Diary (

 "Company entrained (at Kapaselga) and left School House at 8 a.m. Detrained at railhead two bridges north of Siding 8. Major Lang, Marines, and one battalion were attached to Company. We attacked along railway line, two platoons on each side. No. 1 Platoon with No. 3 in support on the right, No. 2 with No. 4 in support on the left. Four enemy were seen and fired at in No. 8 Siding and retired on to their main position, where the enemy replied with heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. Firing was more accurate than usual for the ' Bols,' and a good ~ many bullets struck the ground between front and support positions. His position was shelled and Company attacked. His position had been hastily evacuated, and dixies of hot water and burnt pancakes were found; also a large amount of ammunition, several rifles and barbed wire. 

Company advanced again; progress had to coincide with attack of Karelian Company on post road. Patrols were sent to post road to keep touch. Company advanced to Siding 7A, approximately 5 versts south of No. 8 Siding. The enemy blew up bridges as we advanced. On reaching Siding 7A an outpost position was taken up. No. 4 Platoon on right (responsible for railway), No. 3 Platoon on left. No. 2 Platoon returned to No. 8 Siding as escort to guns. No enemy were seen during night. A large fire was observed well in rear of enemy line, which may have been a forest fire. Heavy firing was heard from Vakshozero direction. A patrol was sent to Karelians at junction of post road and track from Siding 7A. Our casualties were nil."

The Company returned to Kapaselga on the 18th, but three hours later left for Medvyejya Gora. On the 20th the Middlesex entrained for Kern where they stayed, away from the front line, before leaving Murmansk for home on the 11th of October.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Onega and Back Pt. 1 - 1919

Why Murmansk?

Why were British troops in Murmansk in the first place? Well, they were partly overtaken by events, partly wildly optimistic.
The British had been supplying their ally, Tsarist Russia, with vast quantities of material aid, much of it via the Artic Ports of Murmansk and Archangel, to avoid the German fleet in the Baltic. Murmansk was basically just a small port, with a railway down to St Petersburg. However, the collapse of Russia in 1917 meant that the advancing Germans could well get all this material for themselves. Even worse, the Bolsheviks could get it!  Another consideration was that Murmansk and Archangel could act as supply bases for White Russian armies, and with Allied help even topple the Reds completely.
Consequently in August 1918 Allied forces took Archangel and Murmansk from the communist forces there, and linking up with White Russians fanned out South West and South East until the Russian winter halted operations in November.

 Murmansk harbour in 1918

By 1919 the situation had changed. Germany had been defeated and there simply wasn't the will to continue another war after the brutal four years of WW1. In 1919 the British commander in Murmansk, General Maynard, was informed unofficially that Allied troops would be withdrawn by the winter of 1919, which was confirmed in July. Murmansk was very much the junior partner to Archangel, which had more fighting, even to the use of British tanks!, and really requires a book in itself. Murmansk though had problems of it´s own, specifically Bolshevik advances up the railway line from St Petersburg (now Petrograd).

Why Lake Onega?

General Maynard, from the front cover of his memoirs, The Murmansk Venture

General Maynard found himself tasked with organising an evacuation in the face of the enemy, never an easy thing to do, as well as training a Russian army to take his place. Rather than patiently waiting for the Bolsheviks to arrive he resolved on a "limited offensive" "to the line Medvyejya Gora- Povyenets at the northern extremity of Lake Onega".
His reasons were as follows;
a) This would block the main route north to Murmansk.
b) It would actually shorten his front line as it would bring him close to the Finnish border, the Finns being anti-Bolshevik
c) (the primary reason given by Maynard) it would open up new areas of recruitment. The Murmansk area was not well populated, and anyway , the people there were "for the most part of a turbulent class, and greatly under the influence of Bolshevik propaganda". In contrast areas to the south were more populous, and "strongly anti- Bolshevik in sentiment".


Many of Maynards British troops had been diverted to Archangel, which left him with;

 Two companies of British Regulars, the 1st Special Company of the Middlesex Regiment formed almost entirely of NCOs and long service veterans, and a company of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps.
An Italian battalion
A Serbian battalion
A Finnish legion - these were Finnish communists who had originally been recruited to fight the Germans. They were not so keen fighting the Bolsheviks
Various Russian units including the Olonetz Regiment.

So in March advance forces were sent out and several villages along the railway line were secured. What held them up was agitation in Murmansk, mainly stirred up by the Red Finns with the aim of staging a revolution and combining with Bolshevik forces to the south. Fortunately this was detected in time, stamped on, and the Bolsheviks to the south driven off after a battle at Urosozero.

The Advance to Lake Onega

The Murmansk Railway bridge over the River Suma 1915 (from an amazing collection at the US Library of Congress)

On May 1st the Allies moved south towards Lake Onega, in three columns - "The right column, consisting of locally enlisted troops under British officers, was directed to clear the western and southern shores of Lake Segozero and protect the right flank of the force. The centre column, composed mainly of British, troops, was ordered to advance rapidly down the railway; whilst the left column, which consisted almost entirely of Russian troops, protected the left flank." (From General Maynard's report in the London Gazette).

The railway was absolutely crucial to the whole campaign. Maynard describes the terrain that spring and summer....
"The Murmansk-Petrograd railway, consisting of a single line, is the main channel of communication through the area. It is extremely vulnerable owing to the large number of wooden bridges which carry it over the waterways, and the wholesale destruction of these by the enemy during his retreat impeded the pursuit of the centre column and added greatly to the difficulties of supplying its advanced posts.The maintenance of the flank columns presented even greater difficulties, however, since all supplies and ammunition had to be conveyed for over 100 miles by tracks wholly unsuited to wheeled transport, and along which every bridge and culvert had been destroyed.

Operations were necessarily confined almost entirely to the attack and defence of localities covering such roads and tracks as were in existence, the enemy usually occupying entrenched positions, the flanks of which rested on a lake or marsh. The difficulty of carrying positions of this nature without undue sacrifice was increased by the impossibility of employing any considerable force of artillery. With the centre column, however, field guns were employed on railway mountings constructed in the local workshops and proved of great assistance.
The absence of aircraft during this advance was felt severely

A typical stretch of the Murmansk Railway, 1915 (Library of Congress)

The first objective was Meselskaya, occupied by the centre column on May 3rd after 48 hours of fighting, the Red forces being driven south, and the left column establishing itself 20 miles to the east, again after heavy fighting. After a few days rest the columns moved off once more, reaching within 5 miles of Medvyejya Gora on May 15th, though only entering the town 6 days later after an attack by all the allies and an outflanking move by the right column to the west. Meanwhile the left column occupied Povyenets on May 18th after several days of fighting.

Lake Onega

The capture of Medvyejya Gora opened up many more options for Maynards forces, not least the establishment of an RAF seaplane (Fairey F III C) base and a small naval flotilla on the lake. The recommence range suddenly increased massively, as did the strike power. Additionally, recruitment to the new Russian forces improved and schools of instruction were formed to train the new troops, as well as the raising of partisans along the eastern shore. Some Russian troops were sent by boat with rifles and ammunition to arm the population of the Sunga peninsula to the west. The allies even made contact, briefly, with Finnish troops on their western flank.

Maynard´s main preoccupation was still with the quality of his Russian troops, especially when they failed to break through to the Shunga peninsula and the job had to be taken by the British. To counter this he determined to move further south, into a more anti-Bolshevik area -this and the small victories required to get there, apparently "had a most salutary effect on the Russian forces, which from now onwards showed a steady improvement in discipline and fighting capacity." By July 5th the Allies held a line Svartnavolotski—Tivdiya—Kyapeselga— Shunga.

July saw worrying events with a revolt of the Russian troops at Archangel and Red reinforcements driving the Finns back, but for the Murmansk forces things were looking good. The Russian forces to the east of the lake and on the Shunga peninsula were doing well, and the small lake flotilla was dominating their much larger Bolshevik opponents, not least by capturing several of their ships. Maynard decided his best policy was to stay where he was, but raid aggressively around Lake Onega to keep the enemy off balance, and that's what he did.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

The last 100 years of the Venetian Army

Venice in 1730, by Caneleto

After a period of relative obscurity Venice entered the eighteenth century on a high. Alliance with Austria in the Great Turkish War of the 1680s had given Venice control of much of the Greek mainland, the Morea, and the small island of Aigina. It wasn´t to last. In 1714 the Ottomans attacked Greece taking advantage of Austria´s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Venetians relied on their fortifications, but it wasn´t enough.

The citadel at Acrocorith, which controlled the Ismuth of Corinth surrendered, only for most of the garrison to be massacred or sold into slavery by the Turkish Janissaries. The Ottoman army then laid siege to the Venetian headquarters at Nafplio, but the garrison of 2,000 only lasted 9 days and the rest of Greece fell shortly after. Following this the Turkish navy rolled up most of the Venetian held islands in the Ionian sea, the only bright spot being the defence of Corfu by 8,000 men under Count Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg, a German mercenary, against 33,000 Ottoman invaders. A further Ottoman army of 40,000 then moved against the Venetin lands on the Dalmatian coast, but this was a mistake. Nervous of Turkish moves in their direction the Austrians declared war, and forced the Turks back, even allowing a Venetian offensive to take Prevesa on the north Greek coast. Nonetheless the resulting Treaty of Passarowitz confirmed the earlier losses in Greece and Crete.

 Venetian infantry in 1717

During the Greek campaign in 1714 the Venetians had relied on 8,000 mercenaries (against reportedly, 72,000 Turks), mainly Germans and three Swiss Regiments, the Reggimentos Salis, Muller, and Stockar (who joined the Spanish army after the war). This had worked well in the 1680s when many Hanoverian and Saxon regiments had been employed, but this time the Germans in particular had suffered from the climate, and had been decimated by disease. And there were simply not enough of them. Actually Venice had hoped to recruit a Greek militia, but Venetian highhandedness and bureaucracy had alienated the locals. Plainly this system was inadequate

In 1729 the Venetian Senate approved a reform of the army proposed by Marshal Count Schulenburg, who was in effect Venice's most successful commander (he later retired to the city and became a noted art collector). Under this reform, the peacetime army was composed of 20,460 men, as follows:

Infantry (18,500 men)
12 Regiments of Italian Infantry (named Veneto Real and II to XII) 9,600 men
4 Regiments "presidiali" Italian Infantry (di Padova, di Verona, di Brescia, di Rovigo)   4,000 men
3 Companies of "Veterani Benemeriti" ("metitorius veterens)  360 men
3 Companies of "Presidio alla piazza" Italian Infantry of the fortress at Palma Nova  240 men
5 companies of " presidiali di fanteria greca per le piazze" of Prevesa, Vonizza & Butrinto  300 men. These were the three towns Venice owned in Epirus, Greece.

Cavalry (1,600 men)
1 Regiment of Cuirassiers  300 men
1 Regiment of Dragoons   300 men
2 regiments of Croatian cavalry 600 men
1 regiment of Cimariotti cavalry 400 men The Stradioti, irregular cavalry hired from Albania, Dalmatia and northern Greece, had a long history in the Venetian army, and were one of the characteristics that separated it from other Italian armies.

Artillery (200 men)
2 companies of artillery

Engineers (160 men)
2 Companies of miners (80 men)
2 Companies of engineers (80 men)

In case of war the militia would be called up, producing, in theory, a total of 48,000 men. In addition there were the eleven Regiments of Marines in the Navy, the Oltremarini (also called Schiavoni) with a further 8,800 men. One problem had traditionally been that the best and brightest had traditionally entered business, or at least the Navy, so that army officers were under educated, or foreign mercenaries. An attempt to address this was made with the formation of  a military college in Verona in 1759. The army itself was strenghtened with the purchase of 32,000 Austrian rifles in 1776, a new Veneto Artillery Regiment in 1780 and two more Regiments of Italian Infantry (XIII, XIV) in 1790.

The uniform was based on white and blue after 1744, rather than the earlier red, and more and more closely resembled the Austrian.
A Venetian officer in 1785

The Fall

Despite commercial competition from Ancona in the Papal States, and Trieste, established as a Free Port by Austria on it´s newly conquered coastline, Venice managed to stay prosperous, and a major cultural centre. It´s foreign policy was neutrality, avoiding the Wars of the Polish and Austrian Succession, not to mention the Seven Years War, and this was taken as justification for running down the armed forces. In fact it left Venice with a weak army, and no allies.

The next big test came in 1796, when the French Revolutionary War against Austria spilled into northern Italy. Instead of allying with Austria, as had proven successful in the past, Venice remained neutral, even supplying the French forces. It didn´t help. French agents stirred up revolution in the Venetian provinces, to which the Doge first responded too weakly, allowing them to spread, then too harshly, giving an excuse for French Intervention. Fort after fort fell easily to the French forces until Venice itself was threatened. Even then the situation was not untenable, Venice had faced worse in her history. All the approaches to the city were covered by powerful batteries, and the islands of the city itself could not be reached by cannon shot from the shore. There were 8,000 seamen and 14,000 regular troops to man the fortifications, and 8 months of supplies to keep them fed. What was lacking was the political will. For years the Venetian fleet had been allowed to run down, so that now the only ships in a fit state to fight were 4 galleys and 7 galliots (a type of gun boat) so there was no answer to the French fleet, the Doge was weak, and French agents had worked on the morale of the populace, as they had in the countryside. On top of this the commander of the army was of doubtful loyalty, as he was later to propser under French rule. On May 16th 1797 French troops entered Venice.

French troops entering Venice

Presumably feeling little loyalty to Venice after it´s lack of support for them, the Austrians cut a deal with France. Venice itself and the Dalmatian territories became Austrian, much of the Italian territories became French. Venice itself, as a state, no longer existed.

Further reading 

In Italian

Friday, 28 September 2012

Britain and the Corsair Raids

For centuries the bane of the Christian Mediterranean were the Barbary pirates or Corsairs from Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Entire populations and islands were depopulated as Muslim fleets raided year after year to harvest the populations there. The rich would be ransomed, but the poor were destined to live out the rest of their lives as slaves. It´s estimated that between 1530 and 1780 1-1.25 million Europeans were taken as slaves to North Africa, as well as about 20 million Africans up to 1900.

Most of the European slaves came from Italy and Spain, but about 20,000 British and Irish suffered the same fate. Many of these were were kidnapped sailors Records are incomplete, but show 466 vessels taken between just 1609 and 1616, whilst 160 British ships were captured by the Algerians alone between 1677 and 1680. In 1641 the John Filmer, was taken just outside Cork, the crew taken to Algiers, whilst in 1656 seven fishing boats and 42 men were kidnapped near Falmouth.

An English ship fighting off Barbary pirates in 1680

As well as plundering the seas almost at will, during the 17th century the Barbary fleets even landed on both the British and Irish coasts on slaving expeditions.

The Raids

The 17th century was the high point of Barbary piracy in the Atlantic.

In August a Barbary fleet hit Sussex, Plymouth (where 27 ships were taken) and all along the south coast.

In 1627 Lundy Island in the Bristol channel was not only raided but became effectively an Ottoman naval base for the next 5 years. The pirate commander was not a Barbary at all - like many pirates (see below) he was a European renegade, a Dutchman named Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, or Murad Reis.

In 1631, in the biggest single attack on the British isles,  Murad Reis took the entire population of Baltimore, County Cork, into slavery. These were mainly English settlers who had set up a pilchard industry there, as well as Irish villagers. Of the 108 taken only three, at most, returned.

In 1636 the Justices of the Peace sitting in  Bodmin recorded how the fishermen of Looe in Cornwall "through terror of that misery where unto these persons are carried by these cruel infidels" would rather "give over their trade than put their estates and persons into so great peril, there being now 60 vessels and about 200 seamen without employment". "These Turks daily show themselves at St. Keverne, Mount's Bay, and other places, that the poor fishermen are fearful not only to go to the seas, but likewise lest these Turks should come on shore and take them out of their houses".

During the English civil war, with the country in chaos, there are many references to "Turkish" pirates along the Cornish coast. Ships were taken in open view of the coast, even close to big ports like Penzance.

Another cycle of landings took place between 1655 and 1660. striking England and even Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The English Calender of State Papers for June 1656 quotes the captain of a Plymouth barge arriving at St. Keverne in Cornwall
"where he heard it credibly reported, with sorrowful complaint and lamentable tears of women and children, that on the 15th instant three fisherboats belonging to St. Keverne, three others of Helford, and one more of Mollan (Mullion) and about 50 men in them, being on the coast fishing between Falnouth and the Lizard were taken by the Turks who carried both men and boats away."

The Barbary Pirates and their slaves

The traditional ship of the Barbary pirates was the galley, fast and manoeuvrable, and well suited for raiding. Galleys however had two problems. Firstly they were labour intensive, but that was hardly an issue in this case. Secondly they were not well suited to the rough waters of the Atlantic. They could go there, and did, but this was one reason why early attacks were limited to the Mediterranean.

 A Spanish ship and Barbary galleys in the 16th century

This started to change with the influx of a new type of pirate, the Renegade, Christians, or rather sailors from Christian states, who "turned Turk" in search of a fast buck, their ships and local knowledge allowed the Barbary states to raid even up to Iceland.  It's noticeable how religion was both central and irrelevant to the whole business. Muslims were technically not allowed to enslave other Muslims, which is why slaves were were harvested from non_Muslim lands like Europe and Africa. And conversion away from Islam carried the death penalty, as applies even now in more primitive parts of the world. But there was very little pressure to ensure that conversion to Islam had to be sincere. Of course if these renegades were caught by Christian powers, they would be harshly treated, especially by the Spanish Inquisition.

Jack Ward was started his career as a fisherman, probably from Faversham in Kent. He swiftly became a privateer, a sort of licensed pirate, for Elizabeth 1st, but when the James 1st ended privateering Jack started on his own account. Starting small, stealing a 25 ton barque from Portsmouth harbour, Ward soon traded up and was soon in control of a proper 32 gun gun warship, which named The Gift, which he used to make a nuisance of himself in the Mediterranean. Ward was based in Sale on the Moroccan coast, with various other English and Dutch pirates, but in 1606 is entered into a formal agreement with the ruler of Tunis to use Tunis as a safe haven in return for 20% of his catch. It was in Tunis that Ward, turned Muslim, adopting the name Yusif Reis, and rising to command a Tunisian squadron including an ex-Venetian 60 gunner. It is Jack Ward who is credited with introducing square rigged to the Barbary States, heavily armed and better suited to Atlantic operations. He died in 1622.

 Jan Janszoon

Though English, Jack Ward seems to have mainly operated in the Mediterranean. Jan Janszoon van Haarlem was ventured further afield. He began as a Dutch privateer, but the whole point of a privateer was that he restricted his piracy to one enemy, the Spanish. Deciding this was insufficiently profitable, Janszoon sailed foe the Mediterranean, and the life of a pirate. he was successful before being captured by rival Barbary pirates in 1618 and taken to Algiers. This however was a blessing in disguise, he knew one of the Algerian captains, another Dutchman, and promptly "turning Turk" he started another career as an Algerian corsair with the name Murad Reis. This didn't last long, mainly because Algiers had started accepting protection money from various European countries in return for immunity from attack. This hardly suited Janszoon / Murad and, as Ward had done, he sailed for the pirate port of Sale.

 Sale on the Moroccan coast in the 1600s

Sale, was on Morocco's Atlantic coast, far from the capital and only nominally under Moroccan control. It was the Tortuga of Africa, a major pirate centre. In 1619 the 14 most important pirate leaders declared Sale an independent republic, with Janszoon as President, and chief admiral. This obviously enraged the Moroccan sultan, but his attempt to take back the city in 1624 was repulsed. However by 1627 Janszoon seems to decided it was time to move on. He set up a base on Lundy Island in the Bristol channel (so much for the Royal Navy of the time) which he maintained for 5 years, and launched a long voyage to the north Atlantic, capturing slaves from Iceland and Danish ships. When he tried to attack the Danish headquarters on Iceland he was repulsed by cannon fire and a force of lancers organised and waiting on the beach, but he picked up 108 slaves in the raid on Baltimore above.

At the end of 1627 Janszoon moved the centre of his operation back to Algiers, and thereafter concentrated on the more lucrative Mediterranean trade. He is known to have favoured a type of ship called a polacca, which combines a lanteen sail in front with a square rig behind. The point here is that a lanteen sail is more manoeuvrable, whilst the square rig was faster, especially in the Atlantic. So either or both could be used depending on the circumstances. The polaccas of Murad Reis were big enough to carry about 75 men, with 20 cannons.

Not all slaves were treated the same of course. If rich or important they were ransomed, but for the rest a life of slavery awaited. Women were often thrown into a harem, whilst many men became galley slaves, powering ships to capture yet more slaves. During the winter these slaves were put to work on state projects, quarrying stone or constructing new galleys. Food for galley slaves was 2 or 3 small loaves of poor bread per day, and there was one change of clothes per year.

As the European powers grew stronger militarily they began to fight back against the Barbary corsairs, but it was not until the 1830s that the menace was finally ended. That's for another time.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Yucatan & the (British) Empire

The US-Mexican war of 1846-8 and the Franco-Austrian involvement in Mexico in Maximilian's Adventure (1863-67) are fairly well known, but less so is the involvement of the British Empire in Mexican history. Or more specifically, Mexico´s involvement in the Empire.

It all started in the 1840s when General Santa Anna (he that lost the US-Mexican War) invaded the quasi independent Yucatan region to restore Mexican control. The "Napoleon of the West" was no more successful there than against the Americans, but he managed to start a civil war there that continued off and on until 1901. The population of the Yucatan could be grouped into three main classes, the pure bred Spanish in the top jobs, the Mayan Indians, and the Mestizos of mixed Spanish Indian blood in the middle.

 Northern British Honduras and the Yucatan, after A.B. Ellis

As the war became increasing bloody many Mestizos fled across the border to British Honduras (modern Belize) to escape Mayan attacks. Between 1848 and 1856 more than 10,000 crossed the Rio Hondo, the river that now served as the border, and sought refuge in northern Belize. Many settled in the Corozal District where the local magistrate, James Blake, let them develop sugar plantations, others in the Orange Walk District. Before this the interior of British Honduras was sparsely populated, most of the people there in the Mahogany industry, with timber floated down the New River into Corozal Bay, then to Belize City and shipped abroad. The logging industry was in decline however, so the opening up of the interior to sugar plantations came at an opportune time for the British.

The problem was that Belize's rather meagre defences faced the sea, against the French, Spanish or Americans. The interior was poorly defended, there had never been much of a point. But as the "War of the Castes" spread across the border, this was about to change.

The Icaiche

Just across the border from Corozal and Orange Walk were the Icaiche or Chichenha Maya  , it was they who had driven the Mestizos across the border. The Maya to the north, the Chan Santa Cruz Maya or Cruzob, were "de facto" recognised as a separate nation by the British, and there was considerable trade between them, but the Icaiche under Marcos Canul were a different story. Canul raided the Mexicans, the Cruzobs, and increasingly, against the British. The position of the Imperial Mexican Government was somewhat equivocal about this. In general the Yucatan was one of the more loyal parts of the Franco-Mexican empire, and there was even a back up plan to withdraw to the Yucatan if Mexico proved too hot and start again, annexing the small countries of Central America. An edict was issued claiming Belize for the Imperial crown. In this respect, if Canul drove British settlers out of the area he was worth tolerating, and the French army were probably not too upset to see the British Empire humiliated.

In May 1866 Canul attacked Qualm Hill, killing two people and kidnapping 79 more, who were only returned after a ransom of $3,000 was paid. A small detachment of 140 men of the 4th West Indian Regiment under Major MacKay caught up with him in December but it did not go well, as desecribed in Colburn's United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal (Volume 36).

"They proceeded in a fleet of canoes up the tortuous course of the River Belize, a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, and disembarked at a point within sixteen or twenty miles of San Pedro, and yet in a direct line, less than sixty miles from Belize. Here they entered upon what resulted in a terrible and unfortunate march. All night the soldiers toiled manfully through mud and slush, under an almost incessant downpour of rain, and in the morning were met by a force of the enemy and a fight ensued. Volleys were interchanged, resulting in eighteen or twenty casualties on our side, and probably the like on the part of the enemy; for Indians invariably carry off their dead and wounded as they fall. Both sides, however, retreated from the field, leaving the action indecisive, while the unfortunate Commissioner, by some unexplained chance falling into the hands of the enemy, no doubt, added another to the victims of their cold-blooded cruelty."

Next January, Canul raided the village of Indian Church, and left a letter laying claim to the whole of Belize, and demanding 19,000 pesos a year rent. This was too much, a militia was organised and an Expeditionary Force of the 4th West Indians, the militia and a rocket tube were dispatched to the Yucuatan. This made 300 men, but it was the rocket tube that made the most impression on the Maya. Artillery was impossible in the terrain but the rocket tubes were easily portable and could burn villages to the ground from a distance. After raids on the Icaiche capital  at San pedro, and then other centres, it looked like Canul had been taught a lesson. He hadn´t.

Raiding started again almost immediately, and in 1870 Canl occupid Corozal. The 4,500 population were mostly refugees and put up no resistance, though they put in huge claims for compensation to the British government afterwards. The last raid was on Orange Walk in 1872.

The Orange Walk Raid, September 1st 1872

Orange Walk in 1872, after A.B. Ellis (1885)

Unlike Corozol, Orange Walk had a garrison, although it was woefully unprepared for attack, not least because of a rather suspicious reluctance of the Mestizos to have an official British presence in their midst. As early as 1868 the British commander was complaining that the townsfolk were trying to deny fresh water to the garrison.

The garrison were housed in a small complex in the centre of the town, 36 men of the First West India Regiment.The West Indian regiments were composed mainly of black soldiers and British officers, the troops having a distinctive "Zouave" type uniform of red fez with a white turban, red sleeveless jacket over a white shirt and dark blue breeches. In Orange Walk the troops were in a 60 x 20 ft barracks, Lieutenant Graham Smith and Staff Assistant Surgeon Edge in Offiecrs Quarters nearby. The rest of the town of 1,200 was formed from small thatched houses and stores, with a few of the wealthier residents in fortified houses.

 The 1st West India Regiment at the time, A.B. Ellis

On that quiet Sunday morning there was no warning whatsoever of an attack, until Canul's 150 men erupted into the town, one group separating to loot the stores, another two groups attacking the barracks, one to the south east behind log piles by the river, the other sheltering in houses to the southwest. Such was the surprise that Smith and Edge were taking their morning baths at the time and barely had time to bolt through gunfire to the barracks, Dr Edge apparently  "in a state of nudity". Their situation was not not much better there (though presumably Edge found something to wear). There were two problems, a) the thin wood and plaster walls were not bullet proof, b) apart from a few sentrys all the troops were unarmed, ammunition being stored in the guardroom, the key to which Smith had left in his house! Iron bedsteads were used to fortify the walls and Lt Smith and Staff Sergeant Belizario ran back to get the key, somehow running the gauntlet of fire without getting hit.

Lt. Smith took up position at the door on the western side, but within minutes he fell with a serious wound, and private Lynch fell dead at his side. Command now rested with Sergeant Belizario and Dr. Edge, who kept up such a good fire that the Maya decided to burn the barracks rather than storm it. This seemed easy enough, but all they managed to do was burn down the nearby houses, in fact helping the garrison by clearing the cover around, so the Indians had to withdraw back to the log piles.
The next development was unexpected by both sides. About noon two white men appeared behind the Mayan ranks, shooting left and right and then running for the barracks. These were Mr. J.W. Price and Mr. O.E.Boudreaux, not British at all but two ex-Confederates who had settled in the area and decided to lend a hand. This enraged the Indians but there was nothing they could do except keep firing which they did until about 1-30. By 2pm all seemed quiet, and when Sgt. Belizario went out to check the enemy had gone.

The raid had left three dead in the town, two soldiers and a boy at the fortified house of Don Escalente in the town, 31 were wounded, including 14 soldiers. The Icaiche lost about 50 dead and many wounded, including, crucially, Marcus Canul, who died of his wounds.


Sgt. Belizario was awarded a well deserved Distinguished Conduct Medal , whilst Lt. Smith, Dr. Edge, and Lance Corporals Spencer and Stirling were all promoted and several of the Privates were highly commended.

The new chief of the Icaiche"General" Rafael Chan declared that he had never wanted to raid the British in the first place, and promised peace. Taking this with a pinch of salt, the authorities increased the defences of Orange Walk in 1874, and in 1876 built Fort Cairns, a proper bullet proof fort with a moat and draw bridge. Although further immigration from the Yucatan caused problems over the years the era of the Mayan raids was over.

Further reading

A fuller description of the Orange Walk raid can be found at the History of Orange Walk Town site

Histry of the First West India Regiment by AB Ellis (1885). (Project Gutenberg ebook).