Friday, February 28, 2014

Battle of Helsingborg, 28th February, 1710

Magnus Stenbock vid Helsingborg by Gustaf Cederstroem
Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to take a moment to remember a significant event in the Great Northern War. As I stated in the post on this Kabinettskriege era war, the Great Northern War is divided into 3 large phases: 1700 to 1709, 1709-1718, and 1718-1722. Today, we are going to look at the Battle of Helsingborg, which occurred on February 28th 1710, according to the Swedish calendar.

This battle was the first major field battle in this war since the Battle of Poltava in 1709. In the Battle of Poltava, the Swedish army was totally defeated by a restructured Russian army under Peter I of Russia. I would recommend everyone read Swedish historian Peter Englund's book, The Battle Which Shook Europe, as he is both a great historian, and a great writer.

This battle occurred not between Sweden and Russia, but between Sweden and Denmark. The Danes had been invaded and knocked out of the war very early on, but with the defeat of Karl XII of Sweden at Poltava, they broke their treaty and resumed the attack. In October of 1709, they reoccupied Helsingborg and other cities in the region. They desperately wanted to reclaim Skåne, the southern portion of Sweden, which they had lost to the Swedes in the 17th century. You may know this area of Sweden, as it is the setting of the famous, "Wallander" series by Swedish author Henning Mankell. (Ystad is just off the map to the right.)  Magnus Stenbock, the leader of the Swedish forces in the king Karll XII's absence, realized that he could not defeat the Danes with the small number of soldiers he had (around 1,500 to the Danes 14,000) and withdrew to raise more forces.

The Attack at Helsingborg

By February, Stenbock had raised enough troops to stand a chance against the Danes. This is one of the battles of the Kabinettskriege period where the number of soldiers on each side was almost exactly equal, around 14,000 men each. The one difference here, is that the Swedish had slightly more cavalry, while the Danes had more infantry. While some military historians might immediately assume that this was to the advantage of the Swedes, (after all, Hannibal used his mounted arm to great effect,) it is equally fair to say that infantry is useful as well- see the Battle of Mollwitz, 1740.

Initial Deployment

Stenbock prepared to attack the Danish forces around Helsingborg, which was one of the larger cities in Skåne. The Danish commander, Jorgen Rantzau, expected the Swedes to attack from the northwest, along the Angelsholms road, but Stenbock, using a heavy fog as cover, shifted north and attacked along the Kulla road. Rantzau, seeing that his left flank was exposed, quickly shifted his army and reinforced this trouble spot.

Battle is joined
The Swedes advanced to the attack, and the cavalry on the Swedish left immediately engaged the Danes. The Karoliner possessed some of the finest cavalry in the world, and as a result, quickly got the better of their Danish opponents.

Danish Collapse

The Swedes also attacked with their infantry in the center, and finally their right wing cavalry. The Danish put up a good fight, better than the Saxons at Fraustadt, but their cavalry was unable to best the Swedes, leading to a collapse on the Danish right, which eventually panicked and routed the Danish army. The Danish lost 1,500 killed,  3,500 wounded, and 2,677 captured, or just over 50% losses. The Swedes on the other hand, lost 897 killed, and 2,098 wounded, or around 20% losses. The unusually large Danish loss (by Kabinettskriege standards) can be attributed to the high ration of Swedish cavalry, which effectively pursued the Danes.
Magnus Stenbock i Mälmo, by Gustaf Cederstroem

This battle revitalized Swedish belief in their cause, and Stenbock would go on to win another victory at Gadebusch in Germany. This would prolong the war, dragging it out to the bitter end in 1722, when having been horribly defeated by Russia, Sweden surrendered. However, when looked at in another sense, Helsingborg gave us the Sweden we have today. As recently as 1658, Skåne had been under the control of Denmark, and if Stenbock had lost at Helsingborg, Denmark would have likely received Skåne in the peace settlement of the Great Northern War. However, because of this victory, Skåne remained part of Sweden, up to the present day.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge

Patriot Militia fire on the oncoming Scots Loyalists

Dear Reader,

Today, February 27th,  is the anniversary of the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, a combat between to militias during the American Revolutionary War. In this battle, around 800 loyalist militiamen, (mostly Scotsmen loyal to the crown) faced around 1,000 patriot militiamen near Wilmington North Carolina.

Many of the Scottish loyalists did not have muskets, being armed with the traditional highland broadsword. The Scots attempted to charge a defensive line set up by the patriots, and they were met with a barrage of musket fire, leading to the death and capture of several loyalist officers.

The death of their leaders led to the dispersal of the loyalist forces, securing North Carolina until 1780. This is one of the last instances of the famous "highland charge" which dominated Scottish military tactics in the Kabinettskriege era.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

Monday, February 24, 2014

What is the use of digital history?

Dear Reader,

Today, at the Indiana Wesleyan Social Science lunch table, there was very interesting discussion about the value of digital history, and the digital forum and blogosphere in general. A number of good objections were raised, along the lines of  J.R.R. Tolkien's response to C.S. Lewis being, "every man's theologian." With the invention of the internet, anyone can write their opinion on any subject, and publish it in a digital format.

I am a graduate student in history, and I endeavor to post on my subject field- the transatlantic world in the early modern period. However, some would argue, that through by-passing the peer-review process, my work on Kabinettskriege is not helpful, and might be dangerous.

I have published articles in the standard way, but I am interested in writing Kabinettskriege for different reasons. In the modern academic setting, certain subjects are neglected, for very good reasons. Tactical military history, so long the focus of historians, has been discarded for the New Military History. (Which is not a bad thing, in my opinion.)

However, in the absence of interested peer-reviewed journals, is it truly harmful to use the internet as a medium for this type of history?

Should I reconstruct Kabinettskriege along more formal lines, using footnotes and sources?

If any historians have thoughts, I would love to hear them.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

Monday, February 17, 2014

War Songs in the Kabinettskriege Era

The best known Kriegsleider of the 18th Century: Der Choral von Leuthen

As any soldier will tell you, the portions of soldierly life which get focused on in the movies (battles, hard marches, etc..) make up about 2% of the actual life of a soldier. This was equally true in the Kabinettskriege  era. However, like today, soldiers found things to occupy their time, and calm their nerves in face of impending danger. 

One of the most easily traceable pastimes of soldiers in the eighteenth century are the songs which they sung in camp and on the march. Different cultures sung different types of music at different times, and for different reasons. 

The most famous eighteenth century soldier's song is likely the Der Choral von Leuthen, a religious hymn, sung by the Prussian army as they departed the battlefield of Leuthen, on December 5, 1757.  This song, the Lutheran hymn, Nun Danket Alle Gott, was the subject of a film made during the Nazi period. While most of the film is not worth seeing, the actual scenes depicting the soldiers singing are quite haunting. 

Here are the English lyrics: (note, the English lyrics are not a direct German translation, but the version sung in American Lutheran churches.) 

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

As you can see, this is a perfect hymn to be sung on the march after a victorious battle. It is a hymn of thanksgiving. Many soldiers in the eighteenth century sang religious songs, but they also concentrated on song which discussed their way of life. In Germany, a popular song was Prinz Eugen Der Edle Ritter or, Prince Eugene, the noble knight, which discussed the victory of Prinz Eugen von Savoy over the Ottomans at Belgrade on August 17, 1717. Since the lyrics are in the song, I will not list them. 

This song, popular with the Austrians, celebrates a great victory of one of the greatest Austrian generals of the Kabinettskriege era.  However, not all soldiers songs in this period focused on the protection of God or the skill of a general. Some even seem to protest warfare as harmful. 

These two songs, sung by modern band, are a take on two traditional eighteenth century soldiers songs. The first song, which discusses the somewhat questionable recruiting practices of the day, still emphasizes the benefits of military life: "a scarlet coat, a fine cocked hat, a musket at your shoulder," in addition to pay. 

The second song discusses the difficulties of family and military life. The young man, (mostly likely an officer if he could afford to buy his lady a horse), is called away to fight the king's war in "High Germany." This term describes Germany between the Danube and the Alps. This indicates that the war in question is either the War of Spanish Succession or the War of Austrian Succession, when conflict ranged into that part of Germany.  Both of these songs portrayed warfare in a negative light, as destructive, and harmful, but were still sung by soldiers, often as a way of protesting the hardships of their profession. 

Soldiers sang about things that mattered to them- God, victories, and the hardships of their way of life. Soldier's songs formed an important part of the social bonds which held eighteenth century armies together, and are worth listening to every now and again. 

Thanks for Reading! 

Alex Burns 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Siege of Minorca, 1782

St. Philip's Fortress (Castillo de San Felipe)

Dear Reader,

Today we are going to examine the capture of Minorca, one of the substantial victories of the French and Spanish forces in the global war which surrounded the American War of Independence.   France and Spain were soundly defeated in the Seven Years' War, and both began to prepare for the eventual rematch. The opportunity came earlier than expected with the rebellion of Britain's American colonies. The French and Spanish had several goals, including 1). Retaking Gibraltar. 2) Capturing Pensacola and retaking Florida. 3). Retaking Minorca, 4). Assisting the rebel colonists 5). Capturing Jamaica and other British possessions in the west Indies.  

Location of Minorca (Modern spelling of Menorca on Map) 

By late 1779, Spanish and French strategists realized that they were performing poorly in the attempt to capture Gibraltar, and, as a result, began to operate against different British positions. The Duc de Crillon planned a campaign against Minorca, a island and powerful naval base which the British had first taken in 1708, during the War of Spanish Succession. The French captured it in 1756, but it was returned to British control as a result of the numerous other British victories in the Seven Years' War. 

Upon landing on the island with overwhelming numbers in late august of 1781, the French and Spanish began to undertake the long, complicated process of besieging the principle fortress on the island. This required digging trenches and erecting a series of artillery batteries to destroy the fortress' cannons, in preparation for an assault by infantry. In most cases of eighteenth century sieges, assaults did not occur, as the defending general would surrender when the walls were breached. This practice saved the lives of both attacking and defending soldiers. 

The Franco-Spanish Siege Batteries are in Yellow. 
The French and Spanish quickly silenced the outer ring of defenses, and forced the British garrison to withdraw inside the citadel. While the British were able to continue resisting for some time, the French and Spanish mortars destroyed their supply of meat. This also prevented the soldiers from growing vegetables, a vital part of a soldierly diet in the eighteenth century. This lead to the garrison suffering from scurvy, a dental disease, which greatly weakened their ability to defend the fortress. 

By late January 1781, the number of healthy soldiers in the garrison had dropped from 3,000 to around 600. This meant that the British could no longer fully man the defenses, making the fortress vulnerable to a sudden assault. The British surrendered on French surrendered on February 5th, 1781, and the Spanish retained control of the island for the rest of the eighteenth century. 

This action is a splendid example of two aspects of the late eighteenth century strategies of the French and Spanish. First, like the British, they managed to master the art of amphibious operations, that is, the use of naval power and armies in conjunction.  Second, this siege is an example of the French and Spanish strategy of spreading the British thin throughout the world. While the Spanish and French were not able to take Gibraltar, they defeated the British in Florida, Minorca, and greatly aided the fledgling United States. 

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Taking of Saint Eustatius

The British Take Sait. Eustatius, February 3rd, 1781.
Dear Reader,

Today we are going to look at the taking of Caribbean island of Saint Eustatius, by British forces, on February 3rd, 1781. This is part of the global war which surrounded the American War of Independence.
This tiny Caribbean island, which was under nominal Dutch control, was the first power to recognize the independence of the United States.

When a visiting American ship, the Andrew Doria, fired a salute, Dutch commander Johannes de Graaff returned the salute from the cannons of Fort Oranje. This historic salute occurred on the 16th of November, 1776.  This was the first time a European commander recognized the independence of the American colonies. Master historian Barbra Tuchman mentions this event in her book, The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution. 

Johannes de Graaff

In addition to recognition, St. Eustatius also provided the American colonies with Dutch money and weapons. This was one of the major reasons for the Fourth Anglo-Dutch war, part of the global war surrounding the American War of Independence. The anniversary we are remembering today is part of that Anglo-Dutch War. On February 3rd, 1781, an massive English fleet attacked St. Eustatius, and Commander de Graaff surrendered the island and his fortress after a token resistance. St. Eustatius was also home to a Jewish community, which the British, under Admiral George Rodney, forced to leave the colony.

The British did not take St. Eustatius for long, and the French recovered the island, and returned it to its Dutch masters by 1784.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns