3 April 2016

Young Douglas Haig

Most people will have heard of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who is often remembered as the ‘Butcher of the Somme’ due to the horrendously high casualty rate suffered by the British Army during the offensive in 1916. Indeed, Haig has been a controversial figure amongst historians ever since the end of the First World War, some seeing him as being out of his depth as a senior military commander, while others argue he was the man who won the war. The debate goes on to this day, with little sign of it ever coming to an end. All this, of course, is familiar to any First World War enthusiast, but few know of a young Douglas Haig’s early military career, which is the focus of the following article.

Haig was born on 19 January 1861 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the son of John and Rachel Haig, who ran a successful family whisky distillery business called Haig & Haig. He would be educated at Oxford University, where he was a member of Brasenose College and the Bullingdon Club, later playing polo for the university team. Following his education, he would join the British Army in January 1884, attending the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. On 7 February the following year, he was commissioned into the 7th Hussars as a lieutenant.

His first overseas posting came in late 1886, when he went to India with his regiment as adjutant. In this role he gained much respect from his senior officers, showing his considerable organisational skills, while also gaining a reputation for strict discipline. In January 1891, Haig was promoted to captain.

In 1892, Haig left India and returned to England with the intention of sitting his examinations for entry into the Staff College at Camberley. Unfortunately, the young captain failed the mathematics test and was refused a place. The fact that he was colour blind also contributed to his failure to gain a place, when Sir Redvers Buller refused to back him due to his eye sight.

Following this failure, Haig returned to India, but he would soon be back in England acting as aide-de-camp for Sir Keith Fraser, who, at the time, was inspector-general for the cavalry. Fraser, who liked Haig, managed to secure for him a place at the Staff College, and, in 1894, he finally achieved his allusive goal. It was shortly after this time that he became staff officer to Colonel John French, the future commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in 1914.

It would be in Sudan, during Major-General Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s re-conquest of 1896-98, that Haig would experience active service for the first time. He would be appointed as an officer in the Egyptian Army – which was made up of Egyptian, and later Sudanese, troops but commanded largely by British officers – where he would act as staff officer to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert George Broadwood, who commanded a brigade of Egyptian cavalry.

During his time in Sudan, Haig would take part in several skirmishes with the Mahdists and be present at the battles of Atbara and Omdurman. He would later be critical of Kitchener’s tactics at both battles, even going as far as to state that his superior had ‘no plan, or tactical idea, for beating the enemy’. With the Mahdists crushed and the cities of Khartoum and Omdurman back under Anglo-Egyptian control, Haig was promoted to brevet major on 15 November 1898.

In May the following year, Haig returned to England, where he was appointed as brigade-major to the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot. A month later, his rank as major was made substantive, and in September he was made Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General (DAAG). His stay in England, however, would again be short, since he was ordered to go to South Africa as Assistant Adjutant-General to French, who was now in command of a brigade being sent to fight the Boers.

Haig would see much service during the Anglo-Boer War, being present at the Battle of Elandslaagte in October 1899, after which he and French just managed to escape being stuck in Ladysmith before the siege began. When Frederick Roberts arrived to take over as commander-in-chief of British forces in South Africa, he appointed Charles Hay (the Earl of Erroll) as Assistant Adjutant-General of the cavalry division. French had hoped to appoint Haig to this position, but his subsequent protests fell on deaf ears. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Haig later heavily criticised Roberts – in a similar fashion to way in which he derided Kitchener several years earlier – describing the commander-in-chief as a ‘silly old man’ and wasteful of horses.

When Kitchener was later appointed as commander of British forces in South Africa, both French and Haig found themselves commanding a force occupying the area in and around Johannesburg in late 1900. Later, in January 1901, Haig led a column of troops in the hope of catching the Boer commander Pieter Hendrik Kritzinger. It would also be around this time that he took part in the so-called ‘scorched earth’ policy of destroying Boer farms and homesteads, as well as escorting Boer civilians into the concentration camps, which remains an extremely controversial aspect of the war to this day.

Finally, in May 1901, Haig was given command of his own regiment of cavalry, the 17th Lancers. He would also be mentioned in dispatches on four separate occasions for his services in South Africa and promoted to lieutenant-colonel in July. The award of the Companion of the Order of the Bath had already been conferred on him in November the previous year.

In 1903, Haig relinquished his command of the 17th Lancers in order to travel to India to take up the position of inspector-general of cavalry. The following year, he was promoted to major-general, becoming the youngest officer in the British Army to hold the rank at that time, and in 1906 he was appointed director of military training on the General Staff at the War Office. Our story now takes us towards the First World War, and what is the far more familiar Haig remembered by most today.

Douglas Haig in 1885

Douglas Haig in 1885

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13 March 2016

Book Review | Wellington’s Redjackets: The 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot on Campaign in South America and the Peninsula, 1805-14 by Steve Brown (2015)

Title: Wellington’s Redjackets: The 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot on Campaign in South America and the Peninsula, 1805-14
Author: Steve Brown
Publication Date: 2015
Publisher: Frontline Books
ISBN: 978-1-47385-175-7

The Peninsular War of 1808 to 1814 was, perhaps, the principal theatre of war during the wider Napoleonic Wars where Britain was able to make a significant contribution to the fight against Napoleon on land. Anyone with an interest in British history will have heard of the Duke of Wellington and his campaigns against the French in Portugal and Spain. Many will also have heard of the exploits of the legendary 95th Rifles or the almost equally famous 52nd Regiment of Foot, another light infantry unit. Numerous other regiments, of course, fought under the duke’s command during the campaign, many of which also have a rich an interesting history; yet so little is heard about them outside of official regimental histories or brief mentions in other works. Thanks to author Steve Brown, we can now learn much about the 45th Regiment of Foot, which clearly rates amongst some of the best in the Peninsula.

Although this title largely concentrates on the 45th in Portugal and Spain, the book begins with the regiment in South America, a theatre of war that still remains under-studied in the history of the Napoleonic Wars, thus offering the reader something more than just details of the fighting on the Iberian Peninsula. However, the story really begins when the regiment landed in Portugal in late 1808, after which the author chronologically examines the activities of the battalion, which remained in the Peninsula until the end of the war in 1814. (The book itself is separated into parts, each examining a full year of the war while being further subdivided into three to five chapters.) The 45th would take part in – or at least be present at –  the battles or sieges of Rolica, Vimiera, Talavera, Busaco, Fuentes D’Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Orthes and Toulouse; making it one of the most experienced of Wellington’s infantry regiments by the time of Napoleon’s first defeat. One could even argue that the 45th should take pride of place alongside the legendary 95th Rifles and 52nd Foot.

Overall the book is extremely well written and enjoyable to read. It is packed full of detail and, although there are none of the usual illustrations or images, there are many useful maps. This book should appeal to anyone with an interest in the Napoleonic Wars, and especially those with a particular enthusiasm for the Peninsular War. It deserves five out of five stars!

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8 March 2016

New Book | Pathan Rising: Jihad on the North West Frontier of India 1897-1898 by Mark Simner – Now Available for Pre-order

Pathan Rising tells the story of the large-scale tribal unrest that erupted along the North West Frontier of India in the late 1890s; a short but sharp period of violence that was initiated by the Pathan tribesmen against the British. Although the exact causes of the unrest remain unclear, it was likely the result of tribal resentment towards the establishment of the Durand Line and British ‘forward policy’, during the last echoes of the ‘Great Game’, that led the proud tribesmen to take up arms on an unprecedented scale. This resentment was brought to boiling point by a number of fanatical religious leaders, such as the Mad Fakir and the Hadda Mullah, who visited the various Pathan tribes calling for jihad. By the time the risings ended, eleven Victoria Crosses would be awarded to British troops, which hints at the ferocity and level of bitterness of the fighting. Indeed, although not eligible for the VC in 1897, many Indian soldiers would also receive high-level decorations in recognition of their bravery. It would be one of the greatest challenges to British authority in Asia during the Victorian era.

Publication Date: 21 July 2016
Format: Hardback (272 pages)
Published By: Fonthill Media

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25 January 2016

The Sudan Military Railway: A Most Effective Weapon

Few people interested in the wars and campaigns of the late-Victorian period will have failed to come across Kitchener’s re-conquest of Sudan between 1896 and 1898. Indeed, the Battle of Omdurman remains one of the most well-known actions fought during the Queen’s reign, and it made the reputation of one of Britain’s best remembered generals. However, few are aware of the Sudan Military Railway, which was so vital to the winning of the campaign, and even fewer truly understand its significance as being the most effective weapon employed against the Mahdists.

Major-General Kitchener, Sirdar of the Egyptian Army

Major-General Kitchener, Sirdar of the Egyptian Army

Following the death of Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon and the loss of Khartoum, Britain attempted to largely stay out of Sudanese affairs, showing a reluctance to confront the Khalifa and avenge the killing of their beloved general. After all, Sudan was an Egyptian problem and not one worth spilling the blood of British troops, who, inevitably, would be required in large numbers to wrestle control of the country from the fanatical Mahdists in order to restore it to Egyptian control.

A detailed account of how the British finally came to take the decision to re-conquer Sudan over a decade after its loss is beyond the scope of this short article, but needless to say the time eventually arrived when the Egyptian Government in Cairo, with the blessing and backing of the British Government in London, embarked on what would be a gradual and drawn-out operation to destroy the Mahdists and recover the lost territory. The campaign, which involved a number of actions and several major battles, effectively ended in success on 2 September 1898 at the Battle of Omdurman, although the Khalifa would not be killed until the following year. How, however, did the humble railway become key to this success?

As any student of military history will know, the issue of logistics is of paramount importance to winning any war or campaign. It is true that most are predominately drawn to the actual fighting aspect of military history, but there is usually a whole host of support mechanisms in place to supply and service the fighting troops, without which the latter could not realistically hope to operate successfully. The railway, built across Sudan, helped not only move the fighting men to and from the front, but it also kept them supplied with just about everything they needed. Traditionally in this theatre of war, supplies were transported on boats along the Nile or via camels across the desert, but the former was restricted by the numerous – and often impassable – cataracts, while the latter required an incredible number of animals to carry enough supplies to supply the 25,000 men who would eventually make up the Anglo-Egyptian army in Sudan.

The answer to Kitchener’s supply problems was, of course, to build a railway, but that in itself presented a number of huge problems that had to – one way or another – first be overcome. Firstly, many professional railroad builders in Britain believed that constructing a line across the Sudanese desert – terrain which was thought to be mostly sandy or rocky – would be totally unsuitable for the laying of track. Secondly, it was also thought that no sources of water would be found in adequate quantities in order to supply the thousands of workers required for such an ambitious project. Thirdly, no reliable maps were known to exist and so the intended route was an almost unknown. Fourthly, the territory through which the line would run was infested with hostile Mahdists, who were highly unlikely to stand and watch the invader get on with the construction unobstructed. Kitchener, however, had no intentions of letting such minor details stop him from building the line.

Kitchener turned to Édouard Percy Cranwill Girouard, a Canadian officer in the Royal Engineers who had a background as a railway builder with the Canadian Pacific Railways prior to his joining the army, after which he took charge of the Woolwich Arsenal Railway in Britain. Joining Kitchener’s expedition to Dongola in 1896, the engineer immediately set to work extending the existing line to Dongola, following the advancing troops as closely as possible. In this task he encountered a number of obstacles, chief amongst which was the poor quality of the workers at his disposal, most being unenthusiastic criminals. However, he managed to overcome his problems and greatly contributed to the success of the 1896 campaign.

Édouard Percy Cranwill Girouard, Royal Engineers

Édouard Percy Cranwill Girouard, Royal Engineers

Perhaps the real triumph of the railway, however, came in 1897 and 1898, following Kitchener’s extension of the campaign from merely occupying Dongola to the retaking of Khartoum itself, which lay much further south along the Nile. The plan was to build a new line from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamed, which would greatly reduce the line of advance by about 330 miles, since the route would be direct and not follow the winds and bends of the Nile. Girouard even travelled back to Britain in order to find suitable locomotives, carriages and other equipment to build his railway, during which he met with Cecil Rhodes who agreed to loan him several engines for no fee.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Edward Cator of the Royal Engineers had conducted a survey along the intended route, and, to Kitchener’s delight, the terrain was found to be more suitable for the laying of track than had been previously believed. The lieutenant even identified several locations where water could be found in large enough quantities to sustain the workers as they built the line.

Work on the new line commenced on 1 January 1897, the surveyors marking out the route, after which the bankmakers followed, building embankments or otherwise cutting their way along the route. Next came the platelayers, who installed the wooden sleepers upon which the tracks were laid, followed by the spiking gangs, who would spike the tracks into place to ensure they did not move. Finally, the locomotives and the wagons could move along the line carrying their precious cargoes of men, supplies and equipment. The railway even carried a number of gunboats, which were broken down into sections then reassembled further up the Nile. Due to the cataracts and other obstacles, these vessels may not have been able to play the part they did in the campaign, but the railway allowed them to bypass the blockages.

Without the railway, Kitchener would had to have relied solely on the Nile and animal transport in order to move men and supplies from Egypt to the front. Such a reliance, even if realistically possible, would have resulted in a longer campaign and possibly a greater loss of life. It is, however, thanks to Kitchener’s forceful personality and the engineering talents of Girouard that such a seemingly impossible task was completed nonetheless. It truly was the most effective weapon employed against the Mahdists during Kitchener’s re-conquest of Sudan.

Kitchener's intelligence officer, Colonel Sir Francis Wingate (left), in front of several trucks of the Sudan Military Railway

Kitchener’s intelligence officer, Colonel Sir Francis Wingate (left), in front of several trucks of the Sudan Military Railway

It is perhaps fitting to end this article with the words of Winston Spencer Churchill, who was present during the campaign in 1898:

‘In a tale of war the reader’s mind is filled with the fighting. The battle—with its vivid scenes, its moving incidents, its plain and tremendous results—excites imagination and commands attention. The eye is fixed on the fighting brigades as they move amid the smoke ; on the swarming figures of the enemy ; on the General, serene and determined, mounted in the middle of his Staff. The long trailing line of communications is unnoticed. The fierce glory that plays on red, triumphant bayonets dazzles the observer; nor does he care to look behind to where, along a thousand miles of rail, road, and river, the convoys are crawling to the front in uninterrupted succession. “Victory is the beautiful, bright-coloured flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed. Yet even the military student, in his zeal to master the fascinating combinations of the actual conflict, often forgets the far more intricate complications of supply.’

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12 January 2016

Book Review | Death Before Glory by Martin R. Howard (2015)

Title: Death Before Glory: The British Soldier in the West Indies in the French Revolutionary & Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815
Author: Martin R. Howard
Publication Date: 2015
Publisher: Pen and Sword Military
ISBN: 978-1-78159-341-7

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars are amongst some of the most written about events in history. Go into any good bookshop and you will not need long to find a shelf full of books on the subject. Yet despite this fact, you might find it difficult to find a book that focusses on the campaigns fought between the British and French in the West Indies, with most writings on the subject being relegated to a chapter at best in books with a wider focus. Author Martin R. Howard, however, has thankfully produced a work to help fill this glaring gap in the current literature.

As the subtitle suggests, this book specifically examines the experiences of the British soldier fighting in the West Indies from the beginning of Britain’s involvement in the French Revolutionary Wars to the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The book itself is split into three sections, the first of which briefly examines the opposing armies, including: the British Army battalions sent to the region and the professional French soldier along with his locally raised militias and other citizen warriors. The second section considers the actual campaigns themselves in detail, which took place in and around the West Indies almost continuously throughout the wars. Finally, the author concludes his work with a number of chapters that closely examine the personal experiences of those who fought in the campaigns, shedding much light on what it was like for the ordinary men who had to endure the hardships and terrors associated with service on the islands.

At the time of writing this review, Death Before Glory is one of two Napoleonic Wars related books written by Howard, the other being Walcheren 1809: The Scandalous Destruction of a British Army, itself another understudied aspect of the wars. Like his first title, this book is easy to read and packed full of detail, making it appealing to both the general reader and military history enthusiast alike. Due to the scarcity of works on this specific subject, it should be considered a must-read for those with a serious interest in the period. Overall, the book deserves a five out of five star rating.

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15 December 2015

Book Review | Wellington’s Engineers by Mark S. Thompson (2015)

Title: Wellington’s Engineers: Military Engineering in the Peninsular War, 1808-1814
Author: Mark S. Thompson
Publication Date: 2015
Publisher: Pen and Sword Military
ISBN: 978-1-78346-363-3

A number of good titles regarding the Peninsular War of 1808 – 1814 have been published over the years, but few – if any – have examined the role of the military engineers during the conflict. Yet, as any military expert will know, the presence of ‘scientific’ soldiers is essential to a successful campaign, whether it was one fought on the Napoleonic battlefields of over 200 years ago or those of today. With that in mind, this title from Mark S. Thompson is a particularly welcome addition to the current literature.

The author considers the work of the Allied engineers under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, in a chronological order. That is, he begins in 1808 and examines each year in turn until the conflict’s end in 1814. As one might expect, all the British sieges of the Peninsular War are included, as are the issues of bridge building (and demolition) etc., but perhaps the main gem of this work is the chapter examining the Lines of Torres Vedras. The majority of books on the war mention this amazing feat of engineering, but few go into the depth that Thompson’s does. At the end of the title the reader is presented with a number of fascinating appendices that go into greater detail regarding certain aspects of military engineering, including: reconnaissance, surveying, bridging and education, amongst others.

Overall, Thompson has produced an excellent, scholarly piece of work that offers the reader a thorough analysis of Wellington’s engineers throughout the Peninsular War. The book is well-written and, despite its academic nature, easy to read. The only caveat the reviewer would place on this work is to recommend that the potential reader reads a general history of the war before this title, since Thompson focusses on the role of the engineers rather than the campaign itself, and prior knowledge of the conflict is beneficial. For those already familiar with the war, Wellington’s Engineers is a must-read. The book deserves a five out of five star rating.

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26 November 2015

Read my new article ‘Agent Garbo: The Chicken Farmer Spy’ on WW2 Nation

The British Double Cross System, active throughout much of the Second World War, was one of the most successful espionage operations of all time. One of its agents, a chicken farmer from Spain codenamed Agent Garbo, was a most unlikely spy. Yet his actions would have profound effects on the Allied invasion of France in 1944. Read more about his fascinating story on WW2 Nation.

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10 November 2015

FREE EBOOK | A Brief History of the Peninsular War by Mark Simner (2015)


My eBook, A Brief History of the Peninsular War, 1808-14, will be available to download free from the Amazon Kindle store from 11 November 2015 for 48 hours! The title can be found using the following links:

Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B015Q8GSU6?keywords=mark%20simner&qid=1446204054&ref_=sr_1_2&sr=8-2

Amazon US – http://www.amazon.com/Brief-History-Peninsular-War-1808-1814-ebook/dp/B015Q8GSU6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1446204073&sr=8-1&keywords=mark+simner

*For other countries please search your local Amazon site.

This is strictly a limited time offer, so do download your copy quickly before it reverts back to normal price!

“The Peninsular War, fought in Portugal, Spain and southern France between 1808 and 1814, was perhaps Britain’s most significant contribution to the fighting on land during the Napoleonic Wars. The conflict also saw Arthur Wellesley, who Napoleon would later deride as the ‘sepoy general’, make his name as one of Britain’s leading field commanders and become the Duke of Wellington. However, although often seen as largely a British struggle against the French, it should be remembered that both the Portuguese and Spanish played an equally important part in the eventual defeat of the emperor’s troops on the Iberian Peninsula.

“A Brief History of the Peninsular War examines the complex origins of the conflict before considering the key phases of the war, including: Wellesley’s first expedition; Moore’s failed campaign; the return of Wellesley and his campaign in Portugal; the war as it happened in Spain; and the climatic invasion of southern France. Although Napoleon’s first defeat in 1814 was arguably a result of fighting elsewhere in Europe, the Peninsular War, in the form of both major battles and the relentless guerrilla tactics of the Spanish, acted as an immense drain on the French Grande Armée. It truly was Napoleon’s ‘Spanish Ulcer’.”

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