Gurkha

Introduction

The Gurkha (also Gorkhas) are soldiers native to the Indian sub-continent residing in Nepal and some areas of Northeast India.  As a combatant, they are a tremendous force.  They are small in stature, but the reader will not discover a body of men possessing more tenacity and esprit de corps or less regard for their safety.  It is such that these small men appear as giants on the battlefield — or, if not that, their ferocity is enough to cause the blood of their enemies to run cold, drop their weapons, and run like hell.  The Gurkha signal to attack has caused heart attacks in twenty-year-old men.

Most military historians rate Gurkhas among the finest combat soldiers in the world.  They believe that the only way to defeat a Gurkha combat is by killing every man in his unit and then shooting them again just to make sure.

Some Background

John Watts and George White were two very enterprising Englishmen who, sometime between 1598-1600, came up with the idea of forming a joint-stock company that would focus on trade with India.  The company came into being on 31st December 1600 as the East India Company (EIC) — but over many years had several names.  Eventually, people began calling it the John Company.  In 1712, Dr. John Arbuthnot created a satirical character named John Bull, which became a national personification of the United Kingdom, generally, and England in particular.

But in 1600, no one imagined that EIC would acquire vast tracts of the Indian subcontinent.  By 1740, the English competed with the French and Spanish for supremacy inside the Indian Ocean area.  The competition was keen — there was no prize for second place.  To gain (and retain) trade advantages, EIC relied heavily on the British Army to pacify the Indian population and the Royal Navy to protect trade routes and valuable cargoes.

Since it was economically impractical to permanently assign English regiments to India, EIC created its own army — one composed of native riflemen led by British officers and NCOs. EIC used this army to subdue uncooperative Indian states and principalities and to protect its economic interests. By 1800, the East India Company employed over 200,000 native soldiers, making it twice as large as the British Army.

In the early years, company management was both efficient and economical — but over time, incompetence, mismanagement, and other circumstances far beyond the company’s control (such as widespread famine in India) led the nearly bankrupt company to request financial aid from the British Parliament.  After much debate, the government reasoned that such a commitment would benefit the nation’s long-term interests and approved EIC’s request — but not without having something to say about the company’s management.  Parliamentary regulation and oversight of EIC began in 1773.  In 1784, Parliament seized control of all Indian political policies through The India Act.

The John Company ceased to exist in 1858 when the Parliament forced it to cede all of its territories and holdings in India to the British Crown, which included massive parts of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and mid-Eastern Gulf colonies.  Before incorporation, however, the EIC managed to recruit Nepalese to serve the company as part of its private army.  They became known as Gurkhas.  It was a relationship that began after the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816).

The Gurkha War

The Malla Dynasty was the ruling dynasty of the Kathmandu Valley (1201 – 1779) and one of the most sophisticated urban civilizations in the Himalayan foothills and a key destination in the India-Tibet trade route. 

In 1766, when the Gurkha King invaded Kathmandu (which at the time belonged to the Malla Confederacy), the Malla appealed to the EIC for help and armaments.  The company responded by sending an ill-equipped, poorly trained force of 2,500 men under a very young Captain, George Kinloch.  By any measure, the expedition was an unmitigated disaster.  Out of his depth as a military commander, Captain Kinloch had the additional misfortune of a malaria pandemic in the ranks.  The Gurkhas quickly overpowered Kinloch’s demoralized troops, and since dead men did not need British-manufactured firearms, the Gurkhas collected the weapons and put them to good use against their other enemies.

Gurkha aggression toward Tibet over long-standing trade eventually involved Imperial Chinese troops between 1789-1792.  It was then that the Gurkha (by then calling themselves Nepalese), in recognizing a common interest in territorial expansion, appealed to the British Governor-General for his assistance against the Chinese.  Governor-General Lord Warren Hastings had no desire to engage Imperial China, but he was never averse to exploiting regional commercial opportunities.[1]  Moreover, the company was at the center of a cash-flow problem — an issue that Hastings could resolve by selling rare wools to English markets.  Tibet was the only place on earth where Kashmir existed, and the only way to obtain it was through the mountain passes in Nepal — and this was only possible through the strategy of “political safety,” or territorial control and military pacification.

The Anglo-Gurkha War (1812-1816) involved two separate British military campaigns with seven major engagements and an extraordinary expenditure of money.  Despite Nepal’s initial interest in involving the British in their dispute with China, which was not forthcoming, certain elements of the Gurkha hierarchy distrusted the British (with good reason), particularly after the British gained control of a neighboring principality.  This event prompted the Nepalese to annex buffer territories of their own, which they were fully prepared to defend.  In preparing for war with the British, the Nepalese suffered no illusions about the stakes of such a confrontation.  One tribal chieftain advised his Nepalese lord, “They will not rest without establishing their own power and will unite with the hill rajas, whom we have dispossessed.  We have hitherto hunted deer; if we engage in this war, we must prepare to fight tigers.”

The Anglo-Gurkha war ended with the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816.  It required Nepal to relinquish all buffer territories west and east of its formal border and accept a permanent British representative in Kathmandu.  Initially, the Nepalese objected to the treaty until General David Ochterlony offered the Nepalese a deal they could not refuse, which was that they could either agree to the treaty or Ochterlony would destroy them.[2]  It was thus that Nepal became a British-protected state.

Incorporating the Gurkhas

General Ochterlony and political agent William Fraser (1784-1835) were the first to recognize the potential of Gurkha soldiers in British service.  During the war, Ochterlony employed Gurkha defectors as irregular forces.  He and Fraser were impressed with these fighters and had no qualms about their devotion to the British cause.  Fraser proposed that Ochterlony form the Gurkhas into a battalion under a British officer and key noncommissioned officers.  This battalion later became the 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles.  About 5,000 Nepalese men entered British service after 1815, most of whom were Himalayans from three ethnic groups: Kumaonis, Garhwalis, and Gorkhalis — all of which quickly assimilated into a unique Gurkha identity.

Over time, the Gurkhas became the backbone of the British Army, forming ten regiments of two battalions each.  The British called them the Brigade of Gurkhas or, more simply, The Gurkha Rifles.  Between 1857-1918, the British employed Gurkha units to address conflicts in Burma, Afghanistan, the Indian frontiers, Malta, Cyprus, Malaya, China, and Tibet — with the Gurkhas serving with great distinction in each of them.

Eventually, the British raised twenty Gurkha battalions and formed them into ten regiments.  During the First World War, the number of Gurkha battalions increased to 33, totaling approximately 100,000 men.  Of these, 20,000 were either killed or wounded.  More than 2,000 Gurkhas received combat decorations for their exceptional courage and gallantry.[3]  So steady were these men that they were among the first to arrive during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign — and they were the last to withdraw.

The Gurkha fought in the Third Afghan War (1919) and numerous campaigns in the Northwest regions, notably in Waziristan. At the end of the world war, the British returned its Gurkha regiments to India, keeping them away from the internal strife of urban areas and placing them instead on the Indian frontier, where fiercely independent tribesmen were a constant source of unrest. The mission of the Gurkha along the frontier was more on the order of a constabulary: keeping the peace by confronting lawlessness among the Pathan tribes.

In 1939, there were ten Gurkha regiments (twenty pre-war battalions).  After the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, the Nepalese government offered to increase the number of Gurkha battalions to 35.  Eventually, that number rose to 43 battalions, adding two battalions to each regiment and a fifth battalion to the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Gurkha Rifles (also, 1 GR, 2 GR, and 9 GR).  To accomplish this expansion, Gurkha training battalions increased to five.  The Nepalese raised two additional battalions for peace-keeping duty in India.  In total, a quarter-million Nepalese men served in 40 Gurkha battalions, 8 Nepalese Army battalions, as well as in parachute, training, garrison, and logistical units against German/Italian forces in Syria, North Africa, Italy, and Greece, and Japanese forces in Burma, northeast India, and Singapore.  Of all Imperial combat forces, Gurkhas earned 2,734 medals for bravery at the cost of 32,000 casualties in all theaters.

The pattern of Gurkha military ranks followed those of the Indian Army.  Three levels included privates, noncommissioned officers, and commissioned officers.  Commissioned officers within the Gurkha regiments held Viceroy’s commissions (while British officers held King’s or Queen’s commissions).  Thus, any Gurkha holding a Viceroy’s commission (VCO) was subordinate to any British officer, regardless of rank.[4]  After Indian Independence in 1947, Gurkha officers reassigned to the British Army received King’s or Queen’s Gurkha Commissions (also known as KGO or QGO).  The Crown abolished KGO/QGO in 2007.  One notable difference between Gurkha officers and British officers is that no Gurkha can achieve a direct commission; Gurkha officers may only receive commissions through the enlisted ranks — they are all “mustangs.”

Today, Gurkhas serve in two separate armies: British and Indian.  There is one Gurkha Regiment in the British Army and 12 battalions (6 regiments) in the Indian Army.

Ferocity in Combat

The Indian Rebellion of 1857

The problem of rebellion began as early as 1772 when Lord Hastings started to recruit for the British East India Company.[5]  Because many Bengalis opposed the BEIC in combat, Hastings avoided them during his recruitment efforts.  He instead recruited higher castes, such as the Rajput and Bhumihar, from outlying regions.[6]  Ostensibly, the Madras and Bombay armies’ recruits were caste-neutral, but high-cast men were avoided below the surface. These caste-centered recruiting limitations continued through 1855.

The domination of higher castes in the Bengal army was one of the problems that led to the rebellion.  For example, to avoid being polluted by the unclean lower caste, high-caste soldiers in the Bengal army dined separately — a situation that works against the concept of military teamwork.  Hindu culture consumed the Bengal army, and higher-caste men were accorded privileges not extended to those of the lower-caste Bengali or the other company armies.  For example, the company exempted Bengal soldiers from any service that took them beyond marching distance from their homes.  The exemption excused Bengali soldiers from overseas service.

The final spark of discontent within the armies involved the ammunition used in the Enfield 1853 rifle/musket.  The weapons fired mini-balls, and because the bore was smaller in diameter (tighter) than earlier muskets, pre-greased paper cartridges were needed to facilitate ramming the ball down the bore.  In loading the weapon, sepoys (Indian soldiers serving in the British Army) had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.  Rumors began circulating that the grease on these cartridges came from beef.  Biting into beef grease would be offensive to devout Hindus, and if the lubricant came from pork lard, another rumor, biting into the cartridge would offend Muslims.[7]  Added to these rumors was the claim that British/Company officers intended to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity.  To quell the first rumor, Colonel Richard Birch ordered the manufacture of greaseless cartridges; the sepoys could grease the cartridges themselves using whatever substance they preferred.  Colonel Birch’s common sense solution only caused many simple-minded soldiers to conclude that the rumors were true.

Unhappiness among civilians was more complicated.  Three groups of rebels were feudal nobility, rural landlords, and peasants.  The nobility was unhappy because they had lost titles and domains under company regulations that denied adopted children as legal heirs.  Landlords had lost their lands to peasant farmers due to company land reforms.  At the outset of the rebellion, landlords quickly re-occupied lost lands — without much complaint from the peasants, who oddly enough also joined the rebellion.  There was also the issue of forced indebtedness.  When peasant landowners could not pay their taxes, they borrowed money from loan sharks at high-interest rates.  Peasants lost their land to these money lenders when they could not repay borrowed money.

In the spring and summer of 1857, Indian soldiers refused to obey the orders of company officers, and native officers declined to arrest or discipline them.  Initially, it was more a matter of silent contempt than open mutiny.  However, when all but five 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry soldiers refused to accept cartridges, their British commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, ordered courts-martial.  Most of these men received sentences of ten years imprisonment with hard labor.  Before marching the convicted men to jail, Smythe ordered them publicly stripped of their uniforms and shackled.

The opening of the rebellion occurred the next morning when rebels attacked and ransacked officers’ quarters.  Several British officers were killed, along with four civilian men, eight women, and eight children.  Crowds in the bazaar rebelled by attacking off-duty soldiers, beating to death fifty Indian civilians who served British officers, and attacked the post-jail, releasing the recently court-martialed soldiers.  News of this uprising fostered other rebellions across India at Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, and Lucknow.

Not everyone opposed the British East India Company, and neither were the Gurkhas alone in suppressing the mutiny.  Sikh princes supported the British, along with the princes of Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Kashmir, and Rajputana.[8]  But the mutiny was unexpected and spread rapidly.  When the British began to deploy Gurkha forces, rebels panicked — as well as they should have.

The Gurkhas could not understand such disloyalty, and it angered them.  The last thing any reasonable person wants is an angry Gurkha standing before him.  The Gurkhas were unrelentingly ruthless toward the rebellious.  In one instance, a single Gurkha soldier chased down a dozen or more Wahhabi extremists; when the Gurkha was done with them, the Muslims lay dismantled in the gutter.

But the Gurkhas did not escape the 18-month-long insurrection unscathed.  They suffered terrible casualties.  The difference was, and what set them apart, is that no Gurkha, no matter how badly wounded, would leave his post.  Not even when offered safe conduct for medical attention would they leave the side of their battling comrades.  All other “loyal” units paled in comparison to the Gurkhas.  No one had the “jolly recklessness” of the Gurkha private.

The rebels of Lucknow paled when they learned that the Gurkhas would oppose them.  The fighting lasted for several months, but even from the first day, the rebels knew they were dead men walking.  Again — as always — the Gurkha was both relentless and unmerciful.

The Malayan Emergency

Gurkha battalions operated continuously throughout the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).  During this time, the Gurkha soldier proved again, as he had done in Burma, that the Gurkhas are superb jungle fighters.  The Gurkhas were among 40,000 regular British Commonwealth troops participating in the Malayan Emergency.  250,000 Malayan Home Guard troops augmented these men.

The Malayan Emergency was part of the post-World War II nationalist movements.  These were conflicts initiated by communist insurgents against pre-war colonial powers.  The initiating event in June 1948 was the murder of three Europeans during a communist assault on rubber plantations and the colonial government’s subsequent declaration of an emergency.

As in French Indochina, many of Malaya’s fighters were previously engaged as anti-Japanese nationalists, men trained and supplied by the British government during World War II.  Most communist rebels were ethnic Malayan or Chinese poorly treated by British colonial administrators over several decades.  The insurgents, when organized, began a series of assaults against British colonial police, military installations, tin mines, rubber plantations, and terrorist acts upon small, isolated villages.  At such time as the British had had enough of the murder and mayhem created by communist rebels, they sent in commonwealth forces, including the Gurkhas, to end it.

Organized as the 48th Gurkha Brigade (later, the 17th Gurkha Division), the British sent fighters from all four (then) existing Gurkha regiments (2nd, 6th, 7th, and 10th) and expanded (modernized) Gurkha fighting units by creating such combat support forces as engineers, signals, and transportation regiments. 

The Gurkha’s arrival in Malaya was a seminal event because it marked the beginning of the end of the communist insurgency there.  Unlike the US military in their later engagement in Vietnam, Gurkhas did not waste valuable time or effort trying to win the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.  They weren’t there for that … they were there to locate communists and kill them.  It was a mission-centered enterprise.  If there were going to be a contest for the hearts and minds of civilians, it would have to be won by the government’s civil administration.  Throughout their involvement in Malaya, the Gurkhas had few interactions with the civilian population.  At no time were Gurkhas deployed to protect villages.  They were after the “killer gangs” who behaved less as nationalist patriots than the armed thugs of jungle warlords.[9]

For the Gurkhas, jungle time was slow time.  Long-range patrols typically lasted two or three weeks (a few exceeded 100 days).  Soldiers carried a pack weighing around 90 pounds; it was all he needed for the duration of the patrol.  The Gurkhas dumped these heavy packs in a cache, mounting patrols in light order to sneak and peek.  The basic patrol unit often consisted of three men but sometimes involved as many as twelve.  The largest reconnaissance in force involved company-sized teams.

There was never any micro-management from a higher authority.  Unit commanders simply told their patrol leaders to “get on with it,” which gave these seasoned fighters maximum leeway in deciding how to proceed.  One of the favored Gurkha tactics was the ambuscade; some of these lasted from ten days to two weeks.  Such operations demand an unparalleled degree of self-discipline because an ambush is only successful when there are no unnecessary movements to reveal the ambusher’s position.  In truth, most ambushes yielded nothing at all.  Gurkhas killed most insurgents through chance encounters while patrolling.

Gurkhas relentlessly pursued their enemy for as long as it took until they rounded up or killed the communists.  Psychologically, such tenacity and commitment destroyed the communist’s self-confidence.  He could run, but he could not hide from the Gurkha combat patrol.  This was part of the strategy adopted by the British forces … keep the communists on the run.  Some of these forays lasted for twenty or more days, the limiting factor being the amount of ammunition carried by each soldier (sixty rounds).

What the Gurkhas accomplished in twelve years was extraordinary within the context of the overall strategy.  There was only limited use of artillery, and although the British employed light observation aircraft to support ground movements, there were no overwhelming air bombardment campaigns.  What fighting the Gurkha did, they did with their standard issue firearm, kukri knives, and their fighting spirit.  At the end of the day, Gurkha units didn’t need B-52s, artillery, or tanks.  They were in Malaya for one essential purpose: locate the enemy and kill him — and the way to do that most effectively was to terrorize the terrorists.  This is how the Gurkha won the Malayan Emergency.

Conclusion

Presently, the Gurkha contingent of the British Army includes the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, the King’s Gurkha Signals (five squadrons), King’s Gurkha Engineers (two squadrons), the 10th King’s Own Gurkha Logistics Regiment, the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas, the Gurkha Company, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, a company at the Infantry Battle School, and one company at the Land Warfare Center.

In 1945, Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung was stationed in a trench with only two other men when over 200 Japanese soldiers opened fire. Gurung’s comrades were severely wounded in the opening fusillade.  As hand grenades fell on the Gurkhas, Gurung tried to throw each one back one after another.  He was successful with the first two, but the third exploded in his right hand. His fingers were blown off, and his face, body, and right arm and leg were severely wounded.  As the Japanese stormed the trench, Gurung used his left hand to wield his rifle, defeating 31 enemies and preventing the Japanese from advancing. Gurung survived his wounds and was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In 1949, the British selected former Gurkha soldiers for service in the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force, which replaced the Sikh unit that existed before Japan’s occupation of Singapore.  These police are well-trained and highly disciplined.  They mainly perform as riot police and as an emergency reaction force.  In Brunei, a Gurkha Reserve Unit serves as a special guard and elite shock force of around 500 men.

In 2008, Taliban insurgents ambushed a squad of Gurkhas, hitting Private Yubraj Rai.  Captain Gajendera Angdembe and Riflemen Dhan Gurung and Manju Gurung carried Rai across 325 yards of open ground under heavy fire.  The Gurkha leave no soldier behind – ever.  In 2010, Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun single-handedly fought off thirty Taliban soldiers.  It took him an hour, but all the enemy lay dead in the end.  Pun received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.

The highest and most prestigious decoration in the British honors system is the Victoria Cross.  The qualification for this decoration is exceptionally valorous conduct “in the presence of the enemy,” with posthumous awards authorized when appropriate.  At one time, all member states of the British Empire participated in the British honors system, but since the beginning of the British Commonwealth of Nations, many such countries have devised their own honors system.  The Australians, for example, created The Victoria Cross for Australia —which looks similar to the British Victoria Cross.

So far, British authorities have awarded 1,358 Victoria Crosses to 1,355 men.  The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded for valorous conduct on a single day was 24 for individual actions on 16 November 1857 at Lucknow and Narnoul.  The most medals awarded in a single conflict was 658 during World War I.  There are five living holders of the VC: one RAF (World War II), three British Army (Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, Iraq War, and Afghanistan War), and one Australian Army (Vietnam War).  Of the total awarded, 26 went to men serving with Gurkha regiments, 13 of whom were native Nepalese enlisted men.  Britain’s second highest award “for acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger, not in the presence of the enemy” is the George Cross.  Gurkha enlisted men have earned two such medals.

Sources:

  1. Barber, N.  War of the Running Dogs.  London: Collins Press, 1971.
  2. Barthorp, M.  Afghan Wars, and the North-West Frontier, 1839-1947.  Cassell Publishing, 2002.
  3. Chauhan, S. V.  The Way of Sacrifice: The Rajput.  University of Toronto, 1996.
  4. Cross, J. P. and Buddhiman Gurung.  Gurkhas at War: Eyewitness Accounts from World War II to Iraq.  Greenhill Books, 2002.
  5. Masters, J.  Bugles and a Tiger: Autobiography of the life and times of a British officer serving with the Gurkha Regiment in India in the run-up to World War II.  Handley, 1956.
  6. Parker, J.  The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers.  Headline Books, 2005.
  7. Thompson, R.  Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam.  London, Praeger Publishing, 1966.

Endnotes:

[1] Warren Hastings (1732-1818) served as governor of Bengal, head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, and along with Robert Clive, was responsible for the foundation of the British Empire in India.  Hastings achieved this by siding with one ethnic group against another and then conquering both — which eventually expanded British influence over the entire subcontinent.

[2] Major General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) was a Massachusetts-born EIC officer who eventually served as Ambassador in Residence in Delhi, India.

[3] The number of combat decorations issued to Gurkhas is significant because traditionally, the British military is niggardly in awarding them. 

[4] A VCO lieutenant colonel was subordinate to a KCO second lieutenant. 

[5] The company recruited on behalf of three separate “presidential armies”: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal.

[6] A social stratification characterized by heredity, occupation, ritual status, and customary social interactions and exclusions based on such cultural notions as purity and pollution.  Although not confined to India, most people think of India when they think of caste systems.  Dating back 3,000 years, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories, and this is determined by what they were in their past life.  These beliefs persist to the present day because they are deeply rooted in the Hindu religion. 

[7] More recently, it was claimed that American PsyOps programs floated rumors among Muslims that American soldiers dipped their small-arms ammunition in pork fat before loading their magazines — thus guaranteeing that the shot Muslim would go to hell.

[8] Sikhism is a hybrid between Hindu and Islamic belief systems.

[9] Malayan communists based their strategy on the fanciful assumption that communist victory in China would in some way presage Mao Zedong’s liberation of the much-maligned Chinese ethnics in Southeast Asia.  When the communists understood that a communist China gobbling up huge chunks of Southeast Asia was little more than madcap fantasy, the morale of Malayan killer gangs and jungle fighters collapsed.  This stands in stark contrast to the Vietnam War, where the communists were ethnic Vietnamese whose singular purpose was the reunification of the nation under a communist flag.


No Excuses — Fight or Die

Introduction

Archaeologists and historians will say that maritime history dates back “thousands” of years, citing evidence of sea trade between ancient civilizations and the discovery of pre-historic boats, such as dugout canoes developed somewhat independently by various stone age populations.  Of course, fashioning out a handmade canoe and using it to cross a river may not exactly qualify as “maritime.”  Nor should we conclude that Austronesian explorers qualified as a naval force, per se, but it was a start.

Egyptians had well-developed trade routes over the Red Sea to Arabia.  Navigation was known to the Sumerians between 4,000-3,000 B.C., and it was the search for trade routes that led the world into the Age of Exploration and Discovery.

Minoan traders from Crete were active in the Mediterranean by 2,000 B.C., and the Phoenicians (ancient Lebanese) became a somewhat substantial maritime culture from around 2,500 to 64 B.C.  What the ancient Syrians, Greeks, and Romans knew of sailing vessels, they learned from the Phoenicians.  At least, that’s what we believe.

Ancient Rome

The Romans were an agricultural/land-based culture.  There is evidence of a “warship” that carried a Roman ambassador to Delphi in 394 BC, but history’s first mention of a Roman navy didn’t occur until 311 B.C.  In that year, citizens of Rome elected two men to serve as “naval officers,” charging them with creating and maintaining a fleet of ships.  They were called Duumviri Navales (literally, “two men for dealing with naval matters).  Each officer controlled twenty ships.  There is some confusion, however, whether these officers exercised command over Roman ships or those of Roman allies. The ships were very likely triremes — a type of galley with three banks of oars (one man per oar).

Because Rome was a land-based culture, its primary defense and expansionist element was its land army.  Maritime trade did become an important element of the Roman economy, but this trade involved privately owned ships who assumed the risk of losses at sea due to storms and pirates rather than “Roman flagged” vessels.  When Rome did incorporate naval warships, they always served in a support role and as part of the Roman Army.  Any career soldier today will tell you that’s the way it should be — but then this would be the same kind of soldier who thought it would be a good idea to use camels in the U.S. Cavalry.

Artist’s rendition of a Roman Galley

Ships capable of survival at sea were always an expensive proposition, and comparatively speaking, there were never large numbers of people standing in line to go to sea.  Men of the ancient world were always fearful of the sea (as they should be even now).  To avoid the expense of building and maintaining ships, a Roman legate generally called upon Greeks to provide ships and crews whenever necessary to impose blockades.

It wasn’t until the Romans set their sights on Sicily in 265 BC that they realized that their land-based army needed the support of a fleet of ships to maintain a flow of supplies and communicate with the Roman Senate.  This realization prompted the senate to approve the construction of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes in 261 B.C.[1] [2]  Note also that quinqueremes were referred to as “the fives” because the rowers were arranged in groups of five. The Romans arranged their ships’ company as centuries (100 men per ship).  Contrary to Hollywood films, Roman crews, particularly the rowers, were seldom slaves.  Roman crewmen were free-born citizens or provincials who signed on as rowers, artisans, riggers, or Marinus (Marines).

To the Marines (naval infantry) fell the task of defending their ship or assaulting an enemy vessel.  This was accomplished by archers, followed by boarders armed with the Roman gladii (short sword).  Thus, the primary tactical objective at sea was to board and seize enemy ships.  What a fantastic experience that must have been.  Boarding activities remained prevalent long after the advent of sailing ships, gunpowder, and massive cannon.

Naval Forces in the Middle Ages

Beginning sometime after 1300 rowed A.D. galleys were replaced by sailing ships armed with broadside-mounted cannons. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this innovation because combining the striking power of massed artillery with shipboard Marines firing from the topsail rigging was an enormous leap forward in naval warfare.  Equally significant, naval power became the means by which Europeans created and maintained their overseas empires.

However, early in the Elizabethan era, ships were thought of as little more than transport vehicles for troops. The goal then was to corral an enemy ship, storm it, and capture it.  There was no value to sinking an enemy ship.[3]  A sea captain could sell a captured ship, its cargo, and occasionally, he could ransom passengers and crew or sell them into slavery.[4]

Beginning in medieval times, the design of ships emphasized resistance to boarders.  A ship’s aft and forecastle, for example, closely resembled towering fortresses bristling with archery and gun slits.  Necessity being the mother of invention, maritime tactics evolved further when it became apparent that defeating the enemy would require “other means.”

The Royal Navy’s Articles of War

What the United States Navy knew about operations at sea it learned from the British Royal Navy, and if we are to understand how the Royal Navy became the world’s most formidable sea power, then we must look to the British Navy’s Articles of War.  The Articles of War governed how men in uniform conducted themselves under almost every set of circumstances, including during combat.

To begin with, a British navy commander’s defeat at sea was never acceptable to either the sovereign, the admiralty, or to the Parliament.  The commanding officer of a British warship must engage the enemy and defeat him, or he must die in the attempt — even if the British ship was “outclassed.”  The standard applied to naval warfare in the 1700s and 1800s was that a British naval commander entrusted with the control of a warship should defeat an enemy ship twice as large as his own.  Fighting the vessel was the British commander’s first critical mission; winning the fight was the second.

Article XII, Articles of War, 1749: 

Every person in the Fleet, who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw or keep, or not come into the fight or engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty’s Ships, or those of his allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve, every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof the sentence of a court-martial, shall suffer death.”

Before 1749, British naval officers had demonstrated a tendency to refuse to engage the enemy if there was any possibility that the British ship would be lost.  This behavior was, perhaps, caused in part by common sense and the fact that naval courts refused to inflict severe punishments on such officers.  The Articles of War of 1661 allowed that losses at sea could result from the ill fortunes of nature, but Article XII ruled out all such excuses. 

Nor was there, after 1749, a great deal of “special trust and confidence” in the fidelity and ability of British naval commanders.  We know this because it was the duty of the ship’s First Lieutenant to maintain a log of his captain’s actions — he was the ship’s watchdog.  If the First Lieutenant had formed a too-personal relationship with his captain, other lieutenants were encouraged to watch and record the actions of the First Lieutenant.  The ship’s master also maintained a journal.[5]  The Royal Navy’s intent was clear: there would be no lying or “fudging” journals in His or Her Majesty’s navy.[6]

Nothing was more motivational, however than case law.

The island of Minorca had been a British possession since 1708, captured during the War of Spanish Succession.  In 1748, government cost-cutting measures reduced the Royal Navy to three ships of the line in the Mediterranean Sea.  As the British sought to expand their territory in North America in 1754, hostilities broke out between the British and French (and their Indian allies), quickly spreading to British and French allies in Europe.

In 1755, France began the process of constructing twelve new warships.  British diplomats warned the Home Office that France would soon be in a position to attack Minorca.  Lord High Admiral George Anson, out of his concern of a possible French invasion of England, recalled the Mediterranean squadron and assigned them to patrol duties along England’s long coastline.  The Royal Navy could not afford to lose three ships of the line.

On 11 March 1756, the British Admiralty ordered Admiral John Byng to raise a fleet of ten ships, proceed to Toulon to protect the British garrison at Port Mahon.  However, only six ships were present in Portsmouth, and all of them were in a state of disrepair (not ready for sea).  Moreover, none of those ships were fully manned.  Admiral Byng, realizing that there was no money to repair the vessels or construct four additional ships and because no one in England was willing to enlist in the Royal Navy, struggled to find a solution to the problem.  There were no solutions.  Admiral Byng promptly protested his orders.  What the Admiralty demanded of him was impossible to achieve.

The Admiralty eventually provided funds for ship repairs and instructed Byng to carry out his orders.  When shipwrights informed Byng that repairs would take longer than expected, the Admiralty ordered Byng to outfit channel ships and proceed to Port Mahon in advance of his somewhat diminished fleet.[7]

On 6 April, still short of men, the British army loaned the navy Colonel Robert Bertie’s fusilier regiment, enabling Admiral Byng to set sail from Portsmouth.[8]  While Byng was en route to Toulon, a fleet of French naval vessels escorted 1,000 tartanes and other transports carrying 15,000 French troops to the far western side of Minorca.[9]

Upon his arrival at Gibraltar, Admiral Byng reported to the senior officer, Lieutenant General Thomas Fowke.  In their meeting, Byng presented Fowke with a letter from the British Home Office instructing him to provide Admiral Byng with such troops as he may require toward completing his mission.

When Byng realized that the French had landed a large force of soldiers at Minorca, he requested a regiment of Royal Marines to bolster his forces.  General Fowke refused.  His refusal may have had some justification if, for example, providing the Marines would have reduced Fowke’s ability to defend the British garrison as Gibraltar.  In any case, Admiral Byng’s problem was further complicated because the ship repair facility at Gibraltar was inadequate to the task of repairing his ships.  Frustrated, Byng dispatched a terse note to the Admiralty explaining his situation and then, despite his dire circumstances, sailed toward Minorca to assess the situation first hand.

The Battle of Minorca was fought on 20 May 1756.  Byng had gained the weather gauge[10] and ordered a lasking maneuver[11] but his lead ship, HMS Defiance, rather than steering directly toward the enemy’s front, took a course parallel to that of the French fleet — with HMS Portland, Buckingham, and Lancaster, following in trace.  The delay in getting his ships back into the proper formation allowed the French to make the rest of the battle a running fight.

After a battle of around four hours in duration, the French successfully withdrew from Minorca with 38 dead seamen and 168 wounded.  Admiral Byng suffered extensive damage to one ship and the loss of 43 sailors killed and 173 wounded.  Still, Byng took up station near Minorca for four days.  After holding a council of war with his captains, Admiral Byng decided to return to Gibraltar for repairs, arriving on 19 June.

Before Byng could return to sea, a ship arrived from England with dispatches.  The Admiralty relieved Byng of his command, the Home Office relieved General Fowke of his command, and both men were ordered back to England to face court-martial charges. 

Upon arrival in England, authorities took Byng and Fowke into custody; both men received courts-martial.  The Home Office charged General Fowke with disobeying an order to support Byng with troops.[12]  The Admiralty charged Byng with violating Article XII, failing to do his duty against the enemy.

Admiral Byng’s court-martial resulted in an acquittal on the charge of cowardice, but he was found guilty of failing to exercise command of his fleet and failing to engage the enemy.  He was sentenced to death by firing squad.

Admiral of the Fleet John Forbes, Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, was the officer who defeated the French at the Battle of Toulon in 1744.  It fell upon Forbes to sign Byng’s death warrant.  Forbes refused to sign the warrant because he believed Byng’s sentence was excessive and illegal.  King George II refused to grant clemency to Byng and further declined to approve Prime Minister William Pitt’s recommendation for commutation.  Thus, on 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was escorted to the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch and shot dead by a squad of Royal Marines.

Article XII established the standard for command responsibility, but Byng’s court-martial set the legal precedent: a commanding officer is responsible for the actions of his subordinates.  If a junior officer runs the ship aground, the captain is responsible.  If a ship’s commander fails to maneuver his vessel properly, his senior officer is responsible.  If a captain fails to fight his ship, his admiral is responsible.

The American Navy

The power of Congress to regulate the Army and Navy was first established during the Second Continental Congress, which on 30 June 1775, legislated 69 Articles of War to govern the conduct of the Continental Army (which, at the time, also included the Navy).  The Articles of War, 1775, were not identical to the Articles of War promulgated by Great Britain but quite similar.  Congress retained this power in the U.S. Constitution, promulgated within Article I, section 8, stating, “It shall be the power of the Congress to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”

On 10 April 1806, Congress enacted 101 Articles of War.  These were not significantly revised until 1912 and remained in effect until 31 May 1951, when Congress developed and implemented the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Notably, Article 52 of the Articles of War (1806) stated:

 “Any officer or soldier, who shall misbehave himself before the enemy, run away, or shamefully abandon any fort, post, or guard, which he or they may be commanded to defend, or speak words inducing others to do the like, or shall cast away his arms and ammunition, or who shall quit his post or colours [sic] to plunder and pillage, every such offender, being duly convicted thereof, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall be ordered by the sentence of a general court-martial.”

About navy fighting formations

There were only a few fighting formations of a naval fleet under sail.  Responsibility for selecting which formation (or variation) employed during a sea battle fell to the fleet admiral (or commodore): line ahead,[13] line abreast, and line of bearing.  The admiral also determined sailing order — first ship in line, second, and so forth.  In establishing his combat formation, the fleet admiral would attempt to gain the weather gauge and signal his intent to subordinate commanders through signal flags.

The line ahead formation did not allow for concentration of fire because, for naval guns to be effective on a rolling platform, combatants had to close to 300 — 500 yards of the enemy.  The most devastating assault came from raking fire, initiated either from the bow or stern where cannon shot would do the most damage by traveling the length of the enemy ship.

Admiral Horatio Nelson was the first British officer to break the line in 1797 and again in 1805.  His instruction to his captains was, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of his enemy.”  Breaking the enemy’s line disrupted the enemy’s cohesion and made it possible to overwhelm individual ships and seize them.  Again, the primary aim of the battle formation was to board and capture the enemy’s ships.

Boarding Operations

Boarding Operations may be the world’s oldest example of naval warfare.  The boarding of an enemy vessel, or a friendly one to capture it from pirates and other low vermin, is an example of up close and personal extremism — which more or less defines all close combat.  To achieve cross-ship boarding, the offending vessel needed to sail alongside the enemy vessel and direct an assault onto the enemy vessel.  The individuals performing this operation were sailors and Marines who were (and are) trained for such missions.  In the days of sail, sailors performed the task when the attacking ship was too small for a detachment of Marines.

Armed with swords, cutlasses, pistols, muskets, boarding axes, pikes, and grenades, the boarding party attacked the enemy crew, beginning with the helmsman and officer of the watch, or the ship’s captain if present on the bridge, all gun crews, and any other crewman left alive.  Again, the purpose of boarding operations was to seize the ship, which was always the intent of privateers and pirates — even today.

Captain John Paul Jones conducted a classic example of boarding operations during the American Revolution.  Jones’ Marines assaulted HMS Serapis from the sinking USS Bonhomme Richard in 1779.  Captain Jones’s boarding operation is exemplary because it was the only known fight during the Age of Sail when a ship’s captain captured an enemy ship while losing his own.  In 1813, the British returned the compliment by boarding and seizing USS Chesapeake from HMS Shannon.

Boarding enemy ships was also the purpose of the “cutting out” operations during the Age of Sail.  To “cut out” is to seize and carry off an enemy vessel while at anchor in a harbor or at sea.  The operation would typically target a small warship (a brig, sloop, or a two-masted ship of fewer than 20 guns).  Cutting out operations avoided larger ships because of the crew size (300 or so men).

A cutting-out party would generally include sailors and Marines who began the assault in the dark of night.  For an example of a cutting-out operation, see also At the Heart of the Corps and the capture of the Sandwich during the Quasi-War with France.

Boarding operations are rare in modern times.  U. S. Marines conducted their last boarding operation during the Mayaguez Incident in 1975, which involved a vertical assault from helicopters. Current operations may also involve small submarines and inflatable boats.  The U.S. Coast Guard routinely incorporates boarding operations as part of its maritime drug interdiction operations.

A Final Note

While the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a massive improvement over the articles of war, severe penalties are still prescribed for certain crimes.  The Manual for Courts-martial, Article 99 (Misbehavior Before the Enemy) includes, as offenses: (a) running away from a fight, (b) shamefully abandoning, surrendering, or delivering up any command, unit, place, or military property, which it is a duty to defend, (c) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct, endanger the safety of any command, unit, place, or military property, (d) casting away arms (weapons) or ammunition, (e) displaying cowardly conduct, (f) quitting one’s place of duty to plunder or pillage, (g) causing false alarms, (h) willfully failing to do one’s utmost to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy enemy troops, combatants, vessels, aircraft, or any other thing, which it is a serviceman’s duty to do, and/or (i) failing to afford all practicable relief and assistance to troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces of the United States or their allies when engaged in battle.  Any person found guilty of these offenses shall face a maximum punishment of death.

Sources

  1. Abbot, W. J.  The Naval History of the United States.  Collier Press, 1896.
  2. Bradford, J. C.  Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two centuries of American Naval Leaders.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1955.
  3. McKee, C.  A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U. S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991
  4. Rak, M. J., Captain, USN.  The Quasi-War and the Origins of the Modern Navy and Marine Corps.  Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2020
  5. The Library of Congress, Military Legal Resources, online.
  6. Warming, R.  An Introduction to Hand-to-Hand Combat at Sea: General Characteristics and Shipborne Tactics from 1210 BCE to 1600 CE.  Academia College, 2019.
  7. Winthorpe, W.  Military Law and Precedents.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920.
  8. United States Constitution, Article I, section 8.

Endnotes:

[1] The quinquereme was the more common Hellenistic-era warship, and the heaviest at that particular time.  The Romans seized a Carthaginian ship, took it back to Rome, reverse-engineered it, and used it as a blueprint for Roman-made ships.  The quinquereme had three to five banks of oars.  The trireme had only three banks of oars but was much lighter and faster. 

[2] Roman commanders of these ships were “Magistrates,” who knew nothing of sailing ships, but they were supported by lower-ranking officers who were seasoned sailors (most likely Greek seamen). 

[3] Sinking ships as a naval strategy didn’t evolve until the mid-1800s when nations began building ironclad ships.

[4] In time, a ship’s captain would share the prize money with his crew as a reward for their victory at sea.

[5] The term “ship’s captain” is the traditional title of the person who serves in overall command of a ship.  The naval rank of that person could be Lieutenant, Commander, or Captain — but no matter what his rank, he is called “Captain.”  A ship’s master is the person who runs the ship (rather than commanding it).  He is the most experienced seaman, and what he doesn’t know about running a ship isn’t worth knowing.    

[6] One could understand this mindset in the British Army, where aristocrats bought and sold commissions.  Under those conditions, there was never a guarantee that a colonel knew what the hell he was doing.  The Royal Navy never sold commissions.  All navy officers were promoted on merit.

[7] Channel ships (or Packet Ships) were medium-sized vessels designed to carry mail, passengers, and cargo.  They were not suitable for sea battles with regular ships of the line. 

[8] A fusil is a flintlock musket; a fusilier is someone who shoots a fusil.  Also, musketeer or in modern parlance, a rifleman.

[9] A tartane was a small coastal trader/fishing vessel.

[10] Position of advantage in sea battles.

[11] A maneuver in which all ships turn into the enemy at once.

[12] King George II dismissed Fowke from the Army.  King George III later reinstated him.

[13] Line-ahead battle formation (also, Ship of the line warfare) was a columnar formation developed in the mid-17th Century whereby each ship followed in the wake of the ship ahead at regular intervals.  This formation maximized the firing power of the broadside and allowed for rapid “melee formation” or, if necessary, disengagement.  Note that a ship of the line was of the largest (most formidable) fighting ship used in the line of battle (formation). 


Edward Marcus Despard

Colonel, British Army, Executed

Edward Despard (1751-1803) was an Anglo-Irish British officer — the brother of General John Despard.  He was an “acquired” gentleman and soldier through his service as a squire in the household of Lord Hertford.  Edward entered the British Army as an Ensign with subsequent service with the 50th Regiment of Foot in Jamaica.  He initially served as an engineer; his construction duties required that he supervise the so-called motley crews, including free blacks and mixed-race “Miskitos.”  He employed these people and worked them hard, but he also sympathized with them.

Colonel Despard

Despard served with distinction in operations against Spanish Guatemala during the American Revolution.  He fought under Admiral Horatio Nelson during the San Juan expedition (1780), and in 1782, while serving as a captain, Despard commanded the British force at the Battle of Black River.  In recognition of Despard’s courage in the heat of battle, the Army promoted him to Colonel. He continued to lead reconnaissance missions, relying on people of color to help him defeat his Spanish foe; it was through this experience that he developed an affinity for those whom, he felt, lived together in “perfect equality.”

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Colonel Despard supervised the British logwood concession in the Bay of Honduras, then known as British Honduras (now as Belize).  Working under the British Foreign Ministry, Colonel Despard sought to accommodate displaced British subjects along the Miskito Coast. Despard’s problem was that in attempting to distribute land equally without regard for color, he ran afoul of British slave traders and landowners. His lottery system afforded people of color equal opportunity for land acquisition, which placed them in competition with white landowners seeking to make their fortune in the harvesting of mahogany timber.

Unfortunately, the British Home Secretary found agreement with white landowners that it was impolitic to afford people of color an equal footing with wealthy businessmen, who also happened to be white. Colonel Despard replied to Lord Sydney[1] that the laws of England made no such distinction.  In 1790, Lord Grenville,[2] who replaced Thomas Townshend, recalled Despard to London to answer questions relative to certain “irregularities” in his governorship.

When Colonel Despard arrived in London, he traveled with his wife Catherine and son James.  Catherine, a black woman, was the daughter of a protestant minister.  Since mixed marriages were almost unheard of in England, the union created a stir, but mainstream society never challenged it.

After Colonel Despard’s arrest, Catherine worked to bring attention to the unfair (malicious) manner of the government’s accusations of alleged irregularities.  Seeking to discredit her, the British government referred to her efforts as the “fair sex” intercession, with no mention of her race.  In the minds of Despard’s enemies, it was enough to suggest that this weak-minded woman was being used to further the goals of political subversives.  As it happened, Despard’s descendants later repudiated Edward and Catherine’s marriage by referring to Catherine as Edward’s black housekeeper and “the poor woman who called herself his wife.”  Despard’s son James was described as the offspring of a previous lover, and both Catherine and James were quietly removed from the family tree.

While the government investigated Colonel Despard’s irregularities, he was confined in debtor’s prison for two years on trumped-up charges.  While confined to his dank cell, Despard read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.  Paine’s argument vindicated Despard’s view of universal equality, which is how he conducted himself as governor of British Honduras.  At the time the British released Despard from prison in 1794, Thomas Paine was living in France and Paine’s writings were popular among people who shared Despard’s view, particularly the Irish.

Between 1792 and 1797, the United Kingdom was a member of a loosely constructed European coalition against the French First Republic — known as the Wars of the First Coalition.  In 1791, European monarchies viewed developments in the French Revolution with considerable concern for the welfare of Louis XVI and his family and other matters.  Although the coalition was uncoordinated, the first act of violence occurred when France declared war on Austria in April 1792, Prussia declared war on France in June 1792, and both Austria and Prussia invaded France in September 1792.  It did not help matters when the French executed Louis XVI on 21 January 1793.  The British kept their distance from the mainland battles but did manage to irritate the French by supporting French loyalists against the Republic.

At the time of its war with France, high-ranking members of Parliament made a connection between Thomas Paine, Edward Despard, other Irish malcontents, and certain seditious efforts to undermine the authority of King George III.  Indeed, some among these men were voicing suggestions of armed rebellion.  Unrelated to this movement, one fellow attempted to assassinate King George.  He was acquitted based on insanity but institutionalized, nevertheless.  Earlier, in 1793, authorities arrested three prominent citizens, members of “corresponding” societies, charged them with sedition and sentenced them to fourteen years of penal transportation.[3]

In the summer of 1795, crowds shouting “No War, No Pitt, Cheap Bread” attacked the residence of British Prime Minister William Pitt (The Younger)[4] and consequently surrounded King George III in procession to Parliament.  There was also a riot at Charing Cross, at which location authorities detained Edward Despard and questioned him about his involvement in those riots if any.  A magistrate later suggested to Despard that he may have brought the matter upon himself by his flippant answers to initial questions.  In October 1795, Parliament passed the Seditious Meetings Act, which made it a crime to attend meetings that were even remotely suggestive of treasonous activity.

Notwithstanding the Gag Act, Colonel Despard joined the London Corresponding Society and was quickly elevated to its central committee.  When the Irish movement turned toward the prospect of a French-assisted insurrection, Despard took the “United Irish” pledge to obtain complete and adequate representation for all the people of Ireland.  In the summer of 1797, a Catholic priest named James Coigly traveled to Manchester where he demanded Englishmen to join Ireland in removing the king, to “…exalt him that is low and abuse him that is high.”  In furtherance of this goal, Coigly met in London with groups calling themselves United Bretons, and with Irish leaders of the London Corresponding Society, which in addition to Alexander Galloway, included Despard, and Benjamin and John Binns, members who “committed themselves” to overthrowing the present government and joining the French as soon as they made a landing in Ireland.  Only poor weather prevented a French landing from taking place.

Historians believe Despard held a liaison position between British republicans and the French Republic at this junction.  In June 1797, a government informer reported that a United Irish delegation intending to travel to France via London applied to the British government for their departure clearance.  In March 1798, while attempting to cross the English Channel to France, British agents arrested Coigly and Arthur O’Connor.  O’Connor, highly placed and vouched for, was acquitted of the charge of sedition.  Coigly, on the other hand, with French documents in his possession, was charged and convicted of treason and then hanged.  There may not have been a mass movement to overthrow King George III, but there was undoubtedly an attempt to invite and encourage a French invasion of Ireland.

Soon after, British authorities arrested Despard and thirty others and confined them to the Clerkenwell prison.  Despard was retained for three years while British agents infiltrated committees of correspondence and began a system of suppression of those and workman’s unions, which the government outlawed.

Although retained for three years behind bars, government prosecutors never charged Despard with an offense.  Despard was set free in 1802, and he returned to Ireland, where he rejoined the anti-British movement in his home county.  Whether Despard realized it or not, British informers riddled the county.  Meanwhile, in England, a large influx of unhappy Irish refugees restarted a republican movement.

Despard c. 1803

On 16 November 1802, British agents arrested Colonel Despard for attending and meeting with forty or so workers.  The next day, the Privy Council officially charged him with High Treason.[5]  Admiral Lord Nelson appeared as a defense witness, but the fact that Nelson had not seen Despard for twenty years diminished his glowing report.  In the end, Despard was found guilty of only one overt act — his oath to Ireland republicanism.  Nevertheless, Colonel Despard, Private John Wood, Private John Francis, carpenter Thomas Boughton, shoemaker James Wratten, slater Arthur Graham, and laborer John McNamara were all sentenced to hang and be drawn and quartered.

British executioners carried out Colonel Despard’s sentence on 21 February 1803.  It is entirely possible that Colonel Despard, having great sympathy for the Miskito people and the common man, may have become a useful idiot to Irish and British republicans.  Nevertheless, 20,000 British citizens attended his final farewell, the largest ever gathering in London until the death of Lord Nelson.

Catherine and James Despard vanished into history.  Three months later, the United Kingdom went to war with France, remembered in history as the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).

Sources:

  1. Carroll, D.  The Usual Suspects: Twelve Radical Clergy.  Columbia Press, 1998.
  2. Conner, Clifford D.  Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel.  Combined Publishing, 2000.
  3. Madden, R. R.  The United Irishmen: Their lives and times.  Madden & Company Press, 1846.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney served in British politics from 1754-1783 and as Home Secretary from 1783-1789.  He was a cousin of Charles Townshend, the man responsible for the Townshend Acts, which were one cause of the American War of Independence.

[2] William Grenville later served as British Prime Minister (1806-1807).

[3] The forced relocation of persons convicted of crimes, or judged undesirable, to distant places (penal colonies).  Most of such persons did not have the money to return to their homes once released from confinement.

[4] Pitt The Younger was the son of William Pitt, 1st Earl Chatham, who also served as Prime Minister (1766-1768).  Fort Pitt was named in honor of William the Elder, present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

[5] In the United Kingdom, high treason equates to disloyalty to the Crown, which includes plotting the murder of the sovereign, or sexual dalliances with members of the royal family, levying war against the sovereign, consorting with the sovereign’s enemies, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and attempting to undermine lawful authority.



Operation Al-Fajar

The Enemy

In April 2004, coalition forces in Iraq estimated around 500 hardcore non-state actors living in the city of Fallujah.  Within seven months, however, that number increased to around 3,500 armed insurgents representing just about every extremist group in Iraq, including al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI), the Islamic Army of Iraq (IQI), Ansar al-Sunna, the Army of Mohammed (AOM), the Army of the Mujahedeen, the Secret Army of Iraq, and the National Islamic Army (1920 Revolutionary Brigade). Assisting these committed extremists were an additional 1,000 part-time insurgents.

Within that seven months, the insurgents prepared fortified positions in anticipation of another coalition forces assault.  They dug tunnels, trenches, spider-holes and set into place numerous IEDs. They also set in the so-called Jersey Barriers, creating strong points behind which they could fire on approaching enemy. In some areas, they filled empty homes with bottles of propane gas, drums of gasoline, ordinance, and wired these materials for remote detonation should coalition forces enter those buildings during clearing operations.

Thanks to the liberal proliferation of U.S. manufactured arms, the insurgents were heavily armed with M-14s, M-16s, body armor, western-style uniforms and helmets, and handguns.  The insurgents also booby-trapped vehicles parked alongside roadways, streets, and alleys.  They bricked up stairwells to prevent coalition troops from getting to the roofs of buildings and established avenues of approach to deadly fields of fire.

According to coalition intelligence reports, in addition to the Iraqis, the insurgents included fighters from Chechnya, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria — and perhaps a few from the U.K. and U.S.  As is true in almost every armed conflict, civilian residents began fleeing the city.  By late October, around 80% of the citizenry had vacated their homes and businesses.

The Coalition

In October, the U.S. and Iraqi military forces began establishing checkpoints around the entire city to prevent anyone from entering and to intercept insurgents attempting to flee — many of whom disguised themselves as members of fleeing families.  Mapping specialists began to capture aerial imagery to prepare maps of the city.  Iraqi interpreters joined coalition ground units.  While these tasks were underway, coalition forces began to deliver airstrikes and artillery fire on areas known to contain insurgents.

American, British, and Iraqi forces totaled around 14,000 men.  Of these, 6,500 U.S. Marines, 1,500 U.S. soldiers, and 2,500 U.S. Navy personnel.  Coalitions forces formed two regimental combat teams.  RCT-1 included the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1), 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 4 (NMCB-4), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 23 (NMCB-23), and the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment (2/7CAV).[1]

RCT-7 included 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1/8), 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3), Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines (Charlie 1/12), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 2nd Infantry (2/2INF), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 12th Cavalry (2/12CAV) and the 1st Battalion, U.S. 6th Field Artillery (1/6thFLD).  Around 2,000 Iraqi troops integrated with the RCTs during the assault.  The forward elements received air support from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rdMAW) and other available Navy and Air Force fixed-wing air units.  Additional Army battalions provided artillery support, and the U.S. Special Operations Command provided snipers.

The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment (1/BWR) assisted coalition forces with the encirclement of Fallujah, designated Task Force Black.  D Squadron, SAS prepared to take part in the assault and would have, were it not for British politicians who reneged at the last minute before the assault.

The Fight

Ground operations kicked off during the night of 7 November 2004 when Marine reconnaissance teams and Navy Special Warfare teams (SEALS), moved into the city’s outer perimeter. 

With U.S. Army Special Forces Advisors, the Iraqi 6th Commando Battalion, supported by two platoons of mechanized infantry from the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, breached the city perimeter from the west and south.  Additional support elements included a platoon of Army tanks, Marine light armored vehicles, and elements of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines (1/23).  Initial successes included capturing the general hospital, Blackwater Bridge, and several villages on the western edge of the city next to the Euphrates River.  In the south, Marines from 1/3 entered the western approach securing the Jurf Kas Sukr Bridge.  Coalition commanders intended these early movements as a diversion to confuse the insurgent command element.[2]

Once Seabees disabled electrical power at two sub-stations at the northeast and northwest sections of Fallujah, RCT-1, and RCT-7, each supported by SEAL and Recon teams and augmented by 2/7CAV, 2/2INF, and Joint Tactical Aircraft Control (JTAC) elements assaulted the northern edge of the city.  Four additional infantry battalions followed the assault element as the second wave. Their mission focused on clearing operations and the seizure of significant buildings and intersections.

Augmented by the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion and Alpha Company 1/5, the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team infiltrated the city, searching for and destroying fleeing enemies wherever they could find them.  1/BWR set up patrolling operations in the eastern sector.  Overwatch aircraft included USAF F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, B-52s, and AC-130 gunships.  Air Force assets included MQ-1 Predator aircraft for air surveillance and precision airstrikes.

By the early morning hours of 8 November, six U.S. and Iraqi battalions began a full assault behind massive artillery and aerial bombardments.  The coalition’s initial objectives included the central train station, which was used as a staging point for follow-on assaults.  Marines entered the Hay Nib al-Dubat and al-Naziza city districts by early afternoon.  As the Marines advanced, Seabees bulldozed buildings and cleared streets of battle debris to clear the way for other coalition movements and support mechanisms.  Before dusk, the Marines had reached the city center.

Most of the heavy fighting ended by 13 November, but a series of determined enemy strongholds continued to resist coalition forces.  Marines and special operations had to flush these isolated teams, described as “mopping up” operations, which lasted until the 23rd of December 2004.  Once the city was “mostly” clear of insurgents, coalition forces shifted their efforts toward assisting residents returning to their homes — many of whom could not believe the damage inflicted on their city.

Military historians claim that the Battle of Fallujah was the bloodiest of the Iraq War and the worst battle involving American troops since the Vietnam War.  Coalition forces suffered 99 killed and 570 wounded.  Iraqi units lost eight dead and 43 wounded.  Enemy casualties are only estimates because of the lack of official records.  Coalition and Iraqi forces captured 1,500 prisoners and killed an estimated 2,000 insurgents.[3]  Considering the number of explosives deployed inside the city, a high casualty rate is understandable.  The 1st Marine Division fired 5,685 high explosive artillery rounds.  The 3rdMAW dropped 318 precision bombs, fired 391 rockets and missiles, and unleashed over 93,000 machine gun and cannon rounds.

The damage to Fallujah’s residences, mosques, city services, and businesses was extensive.  Once known as the “City of Mosques,” coalition forces destroyed 66 of 133 mosques — those primarily defended by insurgents and those used to store arms and munitions.  Of the roughly 50,000 buildings in Fallujah, between 7,000 and 10,000 were destroyed in the offensive; half to two-thirds of all remaining buildings had notable damage.  Before the attack, somewhere around 350,000 people lived in Fallujah.  Of those, approximately 200,000 were permanently displaced.

Despite the success of the battle, it proved to be less than a decisive engagement.  Important (non-local) insurgent leaders escaped from the city before the action commenced leaving mostly local militants behind to face the coalition forces.  This was a well-established trend among Islamist leaders: stir the pot and then run for it.  At the beginning of 2005, insurgent attacks gradually increased within and around Fallujah, including IED attacks.  Notable among these was a suicide car bomb attack that killed 6 Marines.  Thirteen other Marines were injured in the attack.  Fourteen months later, insurgents were once more operating in large numbers and in the open. By September 2006, the situation in al-Anbar Province deteriorated to such an extent that only the pacified city of Fallujah remained outside the control of Islamic extremists.

A third push was mounted from September 2006 until mid-January 2007.  After four years of bitter fighting, Fallujah finally came under the control of the Iraqi military — that is until ISIS pushed the Iraqis out in 2014.  This began a new round of fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic militants.  Iraqi military forces reclaimed Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in 2016.

Courage Under Fire

The U.S. government cited the following individuals for bravery above and beyond the call of duty during the operation:

  • Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, U.S. Army — Medal of Honor
  • Sergeant Rafael Peralta, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • First Sergeant Bradley Kasal, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • Staff Sergeant Aubrey McDade, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • Corporal Dominic Esquibel, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross (award declined)[4]

Sources:

  1. Bellavia, D. C.  House to House: An Epic Memoir of War.  Free Press, 2007.
  2. Kasal, B.  My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story.  Meredith Books, 2007.
  3. West, B.  No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah.  Bantam Books, 2005
  4. O’Donnell, P.  We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah.  Da Capo Press, 2006
  5. Livingston, G.  Fallujah With Honor: First Battalion, Eighth Marines Role in Operation Phantom Fury.  Caisson Press, 2006

Endnotes:

[1] NMCB = Seabees

[2] Two Marine engineers died when their bulldozer collapsed into the Euphrates River.  Forty-two insurgents died in fighting along the river.

[3] Some of the dead may have been innocent civilians trapped in the middle of the battle.  The International Red Cross estimated 800 killed civilian deaths. 

[4] Fighting alongside Dominic on the date of the cited action was LCpl David Houck, his closest friend.  Esquibel was cited for carrying two wounded Marines to safety under a hail of gunfire.  On the following day, Houck was killed in action.  Esquibel would not accept the Navy Cross because he felt that those Marines, who lived, would have done the same for him.


Roger’s Lost Glory

Introduction

One significance of Methuen, Massachusetts (settled in 1642) is that it served as one of the first American portals for Scots-Irish immigrants.  Today, approximately nine million Americans claim Scots-Irish descendancy.  One of these American-born Scots-Irishmen was the son of James and Mary Rogers, whom they named Robert, born on 8 November 1731.  Eight years later, in 1739, the Rogers family relocated to the Great Meadows district of New Hampshire.  Robert was fifteen years old when he joined the New Hampshire militia during King George’s War (1744-1748).

Background

What made European wars so very complex during the early modern period (1453-1789) was that (a) they were mired in complex rules of noble succession, (b) several of the major royal houses were related to one another through marriage, and (c) the continual (and often confusing) secret alliances that existed between them.  So, before continuing, let’s sort out the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

The War of the Austrian Succession was a conglomeration of several conflicts, two of which developed after the death of Charles VI, head of the Austrian Hapsburgs and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  Upon his death in 1740, Charles VI had no male heirs.  Since there were proscriptions against a woman becoming heir to specific European thrones (notably, the Holy Roman Empire), Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa was determined to defend her right of inheritance.  A separate issue was that the Hapsburgs had retained the Crown of Holy Roman Emperor since 1437.  This was an elective position, not subject to the right of inheritance.  The European ruling houses decided that it was time to end Hapsburg’s Holy Roman dynasty.

The participants in the War of Austrian Succession included Austria, Bavaria-Saxony, the Dutch Republic, France, Hanover, Prussia, Savoy, Spain, Poland, Italy, Sardinia, and Great Britain.  Its significance was that it reshaped the balance of power in Europe, established a precedent for subsequent wars of succession, and because it obligated the involvement of alliance partners into affairs that ordinarily would be none of their concern.  British involvement came from its alliance with Austria, which opened the door to additional conflicts with France and Spain, who were allied against Austria and needed minimal prompting to war against the British — their North American competitor.

The War of Austrian Succession, as it evolved in British America, became King George’s War (1744-1748), the third of four “French and Indian Wars” fought in North America.  King George’s War was also a continuation of the War of Jenkins’ Ear fought between Britain, Spain, and Spain’s ally, France.

Young Rogers

Following the tradition of the “common burden,” Robert Rogers enlisted as a private in Captain Daniel Ladd’s Scouting Company of the New Hampshire Militia in 1746.[1]  In the following year, he joined the Scouting Company of Captain Ebenezer Eastman.  In both assignments, Robert Rogers joined the effort of the local militia in guarding the New Hampshire frontier against French and Indian raids.  The strategy of these ranging companies was to “hit them before they could hit you.”

Young Washington

In 1753, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, commissioned the half-brother of Lawrence Washington, the Adjutant-General of Virginia, a young man named George, as a Major of the Virginia militia and appointed him to command one of the colony’s four militia districts.  At the time, the British competed with France to control the Ohio Valley.  Initially, the effort involved the construction of British and French fortifications along the Ohio River.  Dinwiddie dispatched Major Washington on a three-mission expedition into the Ohio Valley.  Washington’s orders were to demand the withdrawal of French forces from Virginia land, establish peace with the Iroquois Confederacy, and gather intelligence about the disposition of French military forces.[2]

In November, Major Washington’s force reached the Ohio River but was soon intercepted by a French patrol and escorted to Fort Le Boeuf.  The officer commanding Fort Le Boeuf was Commandeur Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre (1701-1755), who welcomed Major Washington by rendering him every courtesy of his rank and position.  Washington dutifully informed Saint-Pierre that it was his duty to insist that the French vacate Virginia colony land.  A few days later, after providing Washington and his men with food stores and extra winter clothing, Sant-Pierre handed his reply to Gov. Dinwiddie in a sealed envelope and sent George and his men on his way back to Williamsburg.

In February 1754, Dinwiddie advanced Washington to lieutenant colonel and appointed him as second-in-command of the Virginia Regiment of militia, a force of around 300 men.[3]  His new orders were to take half the regiment and confront French forces at the Forks of Ohio (the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers).  Washington’s expedition set off in April, eventually learning that those French forces included around 1,000 men engaged in the construction of Fort Duquesne.  Washington established a defensive position at Great Meadows, seven miles from the French construction site.

With the understanding that the French force involved around 1,000 men, Washington enlisted the aid of Indian allies (presumably Iroquois) and moved to attack the French garrison, which consisted of around fifty men.  The confrontation became known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen, during which Washington’s force killed all French defenders, including its commandant, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville.  When French officials learned what had happened, they accused Washington of making an unprovoked attack, which would only be true if the French were not encamped on British territorial grounds.  The Battle of Jumonville ignited the (fourth) French and Indian War (1754-1763).

The French and Indian War (1754-1763)

War with France engulfed the British colonies in 1755, also spreading to Europe.  Initially, the British suffered several defeats, most notably the massacre of General Braddock’s force at the Battle of Monongahela.  Indians who were not already allies of the French were encouraged by these early French victories and joined with the French against British settlements.  A series of deadly Indian raids soon followed the entire length of British western settlements.

In 1754, Massachusetts governor William Shirley appointed John Winslow as major-general of the colonial militia.[4]  In 1756, General Winslow turned to the 25-year-old Robert Rogers to raise and command soldiers for service to the British Crown.  Recruitment wasn’t difficult because frontier citizens were badly frightened (not to mention angry) by the sudden increase in Indian depredations.[5]

Rogers raised an irregular (militia) company of rangers, one of several New England ranger companies with a tradition dating back to the 1670s.  The model for Roger’s ranging company was Gorham’s Rangers, initially formed in 1744.[6]  During the French and Indian War, Gorham’s Rangers was a contemporary company raised by Robert Rogers. Among Robert’s early recruits were his younger brothers James, Richard, and John.[7]

The only likeness of Rogers known to exist

Roger’s Ranger Company was an independent provisional force trained, equipped, paid, and commanded by Captain Rogers.  The mission of this rapidly deployable light infantry unit was reconnaissance and such special operations as conducting winter and night raids on French towns and military encampments.  The company operated primarily in the area of Lake George and Lake Champlain (New York).  It was particularly adept at moving rapidly but quietly over rugged mountain terrain and rain-swollen rivers.  Rogers’ ranging tactics proved so effective that the ranging company was eventually expanded into a corps of more than a dozen companies (around 1,400 men), which became the chief scouting arm of British land forces in North America.

The usefulness of Rogers’ company during 1756 and 1757 prompted the British to form a second ranger company in 1758.  Eventually, the fourteen companies of rangers would include three all-Indian units (two of Stockbridge Mahicans and one of Mohegan and Pequot composition).  Governor Shirly promoted Robert Rogers to Major and placed him in command of the Ranger Corps.

The Fighting

There were no Queensbury Rules of fighting a guerilla war during the French and Indian War.  As good as Rogers’ Rangers were, they didn’t always win the day.  In January 1757, Rogers led a 74-man company in an ambuscade near Fort Carillon (near the narrows along the southern region of Lake Champlain).[8]  After capturing seven prisoners, a force of around 120 French regulars, militia, and allied Indians attacked Rogers.  The strength of the attack forced Rogers to withdraw.  The French killed fourteen of Rogers’ men, took six as prisoners, and wounded six others.  It was only through his use of snowshoes that Rogers and his men escaped without further casualties.

Later that year, a company of rangers was stationed at Fort William Henry when the French placed the fort under siege.  When the British commander realized that his fight was over and surrendered, the French massacred every British regular and militia soldier, including Noah Johnson’s Ranger Company of sixty men.

In March 1758, another company of rangers attacked a French and Indian column, but once again, the rangers took heavy casualties, losing 125 soldiers killed, eight wounded, and 52 surviving through rapid withdrawal.

In May, four companies of rangers (around 500 men) went ashore at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, during the siege of Louisbourg.  Three companies of Rogers’ Rangers and one company of Gorham’s Rangers.  While conducting search and destroy operations, the rangers encountered over a hundred French and Mi’kmaq warriors.  In the ensuing fight, Rangers killed fifty and took 70 more captives.

In July, Rogers’ Rangers took part in the Battle of Carillon.  Some two-hundred French Canadians and three-hundred Indians attacked a British convoy, killing 116 and capturing 60 men.  A month later, at Crown Point, a French force of 450 men attacked a smaller force of British light infantry and provincials.  Ranger Captain Israel Putnam was one of the men captured.  The British lost 49 killed in this battle but claimed 100 or more dead French and Indian allies.  Putnam was later saved from burning at the stake by the intervention of a French officer.[9]

The St. Francis Raid of 1759 was one of the more infamous engagements of the rangers.  In retribution for what General Amherst thought of as Abenaki treachery, he sent Rogers to destroy the Indian settlement at St. Francis, near the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River outside Quebec.  Major Rogers led a force of 140 men from Crown Point deep into French territory.  The raid was successful, which, according to Rogers, meant that he and his Rangers slaughtered 200 women, children, and elderly people.[10]  News of the attack reached Trois-Rivières around noon that day.  Captain Jean-Daniel Dumas organized a force of experienced fighters to pursue Rogers.

The Rangers, burdened by the weight of their supplies and the inconvenience of marching prisoners, made good progress, covering the 70 miles to Lake Memphremagog in about eight days, but at this point, their rations began to run out.  The wearied condition of his men and dwindling food stores forced Rogers to divide his men up into smaller units, which he sent out independently with orders to proceed to the abandoned Fort Wentworth.  Rogers suffered 21 of his men killed, six wounded, and five missing in action (later determined captured) during this operation.  But as to the number of casualties on both sides, British and French reports reveal significant discrepancies of the same incident.

In the spring of 1760, the Rogers’ Rangers joined the Montreal campaign under General Jeffrey Amherst, which included a raid on Fort Saint Therese, a French supply hub between Fort Saint-Jean and Ile Aux Noix.  After destroying the fort, the French and Indians assaulted the Rangers during their withdrawal but inflicted only minor casualties.

Afterward, Amherst ordered the Rangers to support the column of Brigadier General William Haviland.  General Haviland dispatched Rogers’ four ranger companies (augmented by a detachment of light infantry and Indian allies) with three cannons through the forest and swamps to take up a firing position to the rear of the French position.  It was a difficult task, taking several days, but Rogers did manage to set the artillery along a riverbank facing the French naval force.

Rogers’ order to fire completely surprised the French navy and caused some panic among them to move their ships out of harm’s way.  When one sloop cut her cable, wind and current carried her to shore and fell into the hands of the British.  The other ships managed to escape but went aground in a bend in the river, and these too were eventually captured by Rangers, who swam out to board the vessels.

With their line of communications severed, the French had little choice but to evacuate the island.  General Amherst moved quickly to capitalize on his successes by forcing a French withdrawal to Montreal, which surrendered without a fight in the following month.

After the French and Indian War

After the fall of Montreal, General Amherst assigned Rogers to Brigadier Robert Monckton, who ordered Rogers to capture Fort Detroit.  Once accomplished, there being no further need of Rangers, Amherst disbanded them and sent them home.  Following their standard practices of the day, the British retired Robert Rogers at half-pay.

Rogers’ income proved dire because the British did not reimburse him for the money he had spent out of his pocket paying and equipping his men, which rendered Rogers destitute.  He traveled to London, where, in an attempt to produce an income, he authored a book about his adventures and helped develop a stage play about Pontiac’s War.  Both the book and play were successful enough to earn him an audience with King George III.  The King rewarded Rogers for his service by appointing him as Governor of Mackinaw, a minor posting.

In America, General Thomas Gage replaced Amherst as Commander-in-Chief.  Unfortunately, Gage detested Rogers, and from every account, the feeling was mutual.  In 1767, General Gage charged Rogers with treason for having established a “too comfortable” relationship with French Canadians.  Having arrested Rogers, Gage ordered that he be taken to Detroit in chains to answer the charge.  General Gage’s evidence was insufficient to stand up in court, but despite his acquittal in 1768, Gage ordered Rogers deported to England.  To meet Rogers on the dock were London officials who promptly escorted him to debtor’s prison where he languished for three years.

In 1775, with a war on the horizon between Britain and the American colonies, the disenchanted Rogers returned to America and offered his services to the American military commander, George Washington.  Washington, however, suspected Rogers as a British spy and ordered his arrest.  However, the clever Rogers escaped and promptly offered his services once more to the Crown.

Based on Rogers’ previous success, the British commissioned him to command the Queen’s Rangers as regimental colonel.  As General Gage previously stated on more than one occasion, Colonel Rogers was no gentleman — a fact that Rogers seemed to prove when he appointed, as officers of the Queen’s Regiment, owners of taverns and brothels.

Worse than that, however, beyond the arrest of Nathan Hale (a somewhat naive young captain who was ill-suited for espionage), the Queen’s Rangers had no successes in battle.  In late October 1776, while General Washington withdrew his army toward White Plains, New York, General William Howe landed troops in Westchester intending to cut off Washington’s escape.

General Howe ordered Rogers to cover his eastern flank by seizing the village of Mamaroneck.  During the night of 22 October, patriot Colonel John Haslet attacked the Queen’s Rangers, achieving complete surprise and inflicting many casualties before withdrawing.  Even though the Rangers quickly recovered and attempted to pursue Haslet, General Howe sacked Colonel Rogers (and his officers) and appointed someone more “appropriate” to command the regiment.  Howe may have cited Rogers’ poor health as justification for his relief, but the fact is that Rogers was an alcoholic, and he soon after returned to London.

Rogers returned to America in 1779, again obtained a commission to command the King’s Rangers, but that appointment lasted only a few months before he was again sacked for drunken behavior.  Rogers returned to London, England, in 1780, where he remained until he died in 1793.  He was 63 years of age.

Conclusion

Robert Rogers was not the only military commander to succumb to alcoholism.  Famed patriot George Rogers Clark (the elder brother of William Rogers Clark) also died in the generally held disgraceful condition of alcoholism and self-pity, albeit several years later.

Robert Rogers did not invent unconventional warfare, nor even “ranging,” but he did display an affinity for special operations or “thinking outside the box.”  Benjamin Church of Massachusetts was the first to establish “ranging” units of frontiersmen and friendly Indians in 1675.  Those men would “range” between outposts looking for the sign of hostile Indians and French troublemakers.  Church’s memoirs, published in 1716, became the first de facto American military manual — and there were several ranging units in existence long before Rogers’ Rangers.

But British ranging units never gained the respect of the regular forces, particularly from among the British Army’s aristocratic leaders.  The stigma of commanding unconventional forces also attached itself to Colonel Sir Banastre Tarleton, and some degree to Colonel John Graves Simcoe, a fact carried forward in time to the Civil War when both Union and Confederate generals regarded partisan rangers as bushwhackers and murderers (which, in some cases, they were).

Still, the accomplishments of ranging units speak for themselves.  The Rangers were one of a few non-native forces able to operate in the inhospitable backcountry under harsh winter conditions and rugged mountain terrain.  By every account, the young Robert Rogers was an exceptional leader who mustered, paid, equipped, trained, and commanded his men.  His Twenty-eight Rules for Ranging and Roger’s Standing Orders form part of the U.S. Army’s introduction to training materials on ranging.  It wasn’t until much later in his life that Robert Rogers lost his glory and his honor.

Sources:

  1. Cuneo, J. R.  Robert Rogers of the Rangers.  Oxford University Press, 1959.
  2. Fryer, M. B., and Christopher Dracott.  John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806): A Biography.  Dundurn Press, 1998.
  3. Ross, J. F.  War on the run: the epic story of Robert Rogers and the conquest of America’s first frontier.  Bantam Books, 2009.
  4. Scotti, A. J.  Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton.  Heritage Books, 2002.
  5. Sheftick, G.  Rangers Among First Leaders of America’s Army.  U.S. Army Historical Center, 2016.
  6. Zaboly, G. S.  True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers.  Royal Blockhouse, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] See also: Citizen Soldier and the American Militia.

[2] The name the Iroquois Confederacy gave to Major Washington was “Conotocaurius,” which we are told means the destroyer or devourer of villages. 

[3] In British America, the colonel of the regiment was a secondary assignment of the colonial governor.  Since most colonial governors never left their homes in England, the lieutenant governor served as de facto governor and also as lieutenant colonel of the colonial militia.  Dinwiddie served as lieutenant governor under Governor Willem van Keppel (1751-1756) and was reappointed under Governor John Campbell (1756-1758).  Subsequent to the Battle of Jumonville, Dinwiddie appointed Lieutenant Colonel Washington to command the Virginia Regiment.

[4] John Winslow was the grandson and great-grandson of two Massachusetts governors, the first of which, Edward, was born and raised in Droitwich, England, seven miles from the town of Worcester, where my wife was born. 

[5] While on his recruitment drive in Portsmouth, Robert met his future wife, Elizabeth Browne, the daughter of a local minister.

[6] In 1744, John Gorham raised an auxiliary unit of mixed native American rangers led by Anglo officers for participation in King George’s War.  Gorham was originally charged to reinforce regular British troops under siege at Fort Anne and was later employed in establishing British control over Nova Scotia fighting against Acadian and Mi’kmaq Indians. 

[7] Richard died of smallpox in 1757 at Fort William Henry.  Later, Indian enemies disinterred his body and, in retribution, mutilated it.  Whether these Indians came down with Richard’s disease is unknown, but if they did, they probably spread it around the tribe.

[8] Fort Carillon was later named Fort Ticonderoga.

[9] Native American tribes frequently used ghastly torture techniques to torment their captives, the specific technique dependent upon the folkways of a particular tribe and perhaps on the circumstances of the conflict and capture.  Burning captives at the stake was common among northeastern tribes. 

[10] The French insisted that Rogers “only murdered” 30 innocents.